Searching for the Brown Messiah

The search for the Brown Messiah in South-Central Los Angeles is in full swing.

It's a quest Latino leaders say is necessary to help the growing--yet largely immigrant and powerless--Latino population there. Without home-grown talent, the mainstream leaders of Latino L.A. fear this part of their community may never come of age. Since Latinos are half of the population and 70% of the enrollment in public schools in South-Central, it's a reasonable concern.

With identifying such leaders as a priority, I dub any promising Latino I meet from south of the Santa Monica Freeway as a messiah--a person capable of leading Latinos to the promised land.

I don't know when the Brown Messiah--or the next Gloria Molina or Cesar Chavez--will appear, but I met a lot of likely candidates last Friday at Edwin Markham Middle School in Watts.

Their names are Magdalena Buenrostro, Gregoria Marcial, Maria Uc, Paula Amaral, Soledad Andrade, Martha E. Obregon, Raquel Alama, Leticia F. Verduzco, Rosa and Alfredo Mendoza, Carolina Colmenares, Angela Pacheco, Josefina Beatriz, Maria Aguilar, Angela Mendoza, Maria Gaciola and Sonia Morningstar.

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They are some of about 50 Latino parents in Watts who have graduated from a unique leadership program sponsored by the nation's leading Latino civil rights organization, the Los Angeles-based Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

The program, at the start of a five-year run in South-Central, is aimed at nurturing future leaders. It is designed not only to teach parents how to help their children cope in school; it's also aimed at teaching the parents about political power, how to build community-based groups to help themselves and how to relate to African Americans, who have a long history in South-Central.

It's a strategy MALDEF has tried elsewhere, in places like Detroit and El Paso, Tex., with some success. In four months' worth of classes, the South-Central parents were taught about power and how to use it--whether the concern was the quality of schools or drinking water.

MALDEF president and general counsel Antonia Hernandez laid out the challenge for these prospective messiahs when she spoke to them in Spanish at Markham:

"I'm not going to tell you it's going to be easy. It's not, but it is possible. I'm a daughter of immigrants. I know how difficult life is here. . . . You have a responsibility to your children and to your community. If you don't have your papers (legalizing U.S. residency), get them. If you are legal, become a U.S. citizen. If you are a citizen, vote."

That's a tall order, because others have tried to tap into the area's growing Latino population. Many have failed, but a few, like the Coro Foundation, have turned out future leaders.

One future messiah may be Arturo Ybarra, who is with the Watts/Century Latino Organization. Trained by Coro at San Miguel Roman Catholic Church in Watts, Ybarra has helped organize activities that involve Latinos and their black neighbors. One such event is the annual Cinco de Mayo parade.

"Arturo doesn't spout the nationalistic 'Chicano Power' line," says East L.A. activist Lydia Lopez. "He builds coalitions. He understands the new-world leadership in this patch of geography called South-Central L.A."

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Dressed in their Sunday best, the future messiahs I met at Markham had a lot in common. Nearly all of them were from Mexico. They spoke virtually no English despite having spent an average of 12 years in this country. Many of them don't have their own transportation. At one time, they felt powerless, unable to speak out about what concerned them in South-Central. They were afraid to ask for little things, like interpreters at school meetings.

Not anymore.

They say they're ready to take on City Hall.

"These are parents who are willing to fight for this community," says Sonia Morningstar, looking at her fellow messiahs. "I am a grandmother, and I want to fight too."

Many were afraid to go out at night. They were naturally fearful of area street gangs, but they also were scared of the police. "I don't know them," one of them admitted.

Though still a bit tentative about speaking in public, they say they're ready now to speak to Police Chief Willie Williams himself.

They also say they're ready for the next two steps in the training--learning English and becoming U.S. citizens.

I knew the search was over when one of the women, who asked for my business card, said she was about to have some of her own printed up. "I'll send you one soon," she promised.

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