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Conversation With Gorgonio Sanchez and Marcine Shaw : Compton: ‘Outsiders Are Coming Here, Making Accusations’

Compton has undergone some rapid demographic changes in the last few decades, from mainly white to mainly African American to about evenly split between Latino and African American. Recent events, particularly the beating of a young Latino suspect by an African American police officer and the indictment of a former mayor on bribery charges, have made the region aware of the strains caused by these changes.

GORGONIO SANCHEZ is a member of the Compton Unified School Board and is the only current Latino citywide elected official. MARCINE SHAW is a member of the Compton City Council. They talked separately with Trin Yarborough for Voices about a city where the population is changing faster than city government.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Sep. 05, 1994 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday September 5, 1994 Home Edition Metro Part B Page 5 Column 3 Op Ed Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Kenneth Hahn: An interview quote in the Aug. 22 Voices mistakenly indicated that former L.A. County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn had died. We regret the error.

Q: How is Compton responding to the Latino population that in the past 10 years has come to number more than half the city’s residents?

Shaw: Compton is going through major growing pains. I moved to Compton in 1973 and lived in the same house until four months ago, when we moved two blocks away and turned that first house over to our son and daughter to set up a group home for teen boys on probation. In 1973 my neighborhood was 60% black and 40% white; by 1978 it was 90% black; by 1985 half black, half Latino; and since 1989, 90% Latino. It eventually became a place for transients and gangbangers. People said, “Why don’t you move?” But it didn’t bother me because I was still the baddest one on the street! And I don’t believe people should run, especially if it leaves neighborhood kids with no one to set an example.

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Now with the major explosion of people newly arrived in America, about 30% of Compton Latinos could be undocumented. When you look at the voter rolls you see the only way a Latino can be elected is with the support of blacks. Yet some people are trying to use this population they know has so many undocumented to claim it’s so large that it should be in charge of the city. The group that’s hollering about discrimination knows it’s not true. Their hidden agenda is they want to take over.

I was a deputy for (the late) County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn for 17 years, and after I retired I was elected to the Compton City Council in June 1993. Under our civil service merit system you pass tests to get hired, so the city can only do so much with its hiring. I worked on an affirmative action plan adopted by Compton in 1982, not just for blacks and Latinos but also for Samoans, Asians, Anglos, everyone. For the past three years you can hardly even apply for a job in this county unless you’re bilingual. Then too, Latinos and Asians are seldom hiring blacks. Also, Compton has had a hiring freeze for two years but soon will hire seven to 10 firefighters, at least half Latinos.

Sanchez: When I came to Compton in 1955 it was mostly white. We were the second Latino family on our block, with no African Americans. Then the whites moved out and African Americans moved in, and now Latinos have moved in. Like with everything else, after you have been head of something and run it a certain way for years, and then a lot of new people come in who don’t understand the system--especially when that happens so rapidly--it’s very difficult for both sides. The problem is lack of communication, lack of understanding of one another’s customs, and lack of respect. To get respect you have to give respect. Less than a year ago, on Nov. 2, I became the second Latino ever elected to office in Compton, though less than 8% of the voters were Latino. I anticipate that more Latinos will be elected in the future, but a lot of hard work must be done first. Right now we don’t have many Latinos eligible to vote. We don’t deny that many of them are undocumented. But I think the majority are legal residents since the (1986) amnesty (under which undocumented immigrants became eligible to apply for legal residency), and many will become citizens by 1995. Even if people are not legal residents this doesn’t mean they should have no services. Government is of and for the people--all the people.

Q: What do you hear people in your own community say about the present situation?

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Sanchez: The Latinos are saying they are not being treated equally. They say the police and schools discipline Latino youths more severely than the blacks. And when they see one of two groups doing things for their own group, and not for yours, it’s disturbing. For example, Compton celebrates one Mexican holiday, May 5, but has a whole Black History Month, and then claims there is not enough money left to celebrate more Mexican holidays.

Shaw: People feel bad about the accusations of discrimination because they feel they’re not true. They’re concerned that Compton is getting a black eye when it’s been doing so much to improve its image. Latinos and blacks who have lived in Compton a long time are holding each other’s hands saying: “What the heck’s going on?” All of a sudden a lot of outsiders are coming here making accusations and demands when before, you couldn’t even pay them to come to Compton.

Q: What should each side do to be sure the various government agencies deal with the changing situation in the best way possible?

Shaw: We need a system to help Latinos learn how to take and pass the civil service exams. We need to teach Spanish as a Second Language, not just English as a Second Language (ESL). We could give cultural awareness training to the Compton police and fire departments and to our city employees. And we should work with our youth because adults get die-hard in their thinking, but all the kids could grow up as true brothers and sisters.

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Latinos should be friendly, should make a big effort to learn about and understand any new community they move into. Those of us already here have to understand that new people are going through major changes, feeling afraid, not knowing how they’ll be accepted, worrying about their kids in school. I remember how I felt just coming to California from Texas when I was 14.

When you look around and find yourself in a situation that’s changed so much so fast, you’re probably doing more reacting than planning. When all this recent clamor dies down there are many people in Compton who are truly concerned about the citizens--no, I should say the residents--of Compton. Whether they were born here or just got here, they’re here in Compton now. We’ll all talk together and work this out.

Sanchez: Latinos need to understand that they must fight for what they need. If you want to be successful, you must do what is required, no matter if it is hard. Those who can vote should vote. Those who can register should register. In addition there is a group, Union of Parents and Students United, through which Latinos--citizens or not--can express their feelings. I am a fourth-generation U.S. citizen, born in Eagle Pass, Texas, and when I was growing up Latino kids there were segregated in school. Now right here today in California, Latino kids feel they don’t have total respect and don’t have equal chances.

Latino parents not only have to get involved in their childrens’ schools, they need to try to get their kids into the mainstream. My four children all went to school in Compton. I would never let them be in a bilingual program. Kids need to know English as soon as possible. When you look for a job you are seldom given an application in two languages.

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Also, the people in power should be more understanding. In America you are not elected to serve only some of the people. When you take your oath of office you are swearing to represent everyone.


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