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Latinos Bemoan the Ethnic Shift in Moorpark : Population: With the increase in Anglos, most recognition of Mexican heritage in the farming community has disappeared.

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There was a time when women in black rebozos would line Charles Street in Moorpark in a procession for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The tiny farming community used to regularly hold fiestas, its streets coming alive on Mexican Independence Day and Cinco de Mayo. But that was all a generation ago.

Moorpark is now one of the few California cities where Latino residents make up a shrinking portion of the overall population.

As the debate heightens over immigrants and their impact on California, old-timers in Moorpark provide a different spin on the issue: It is Anglos from the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles who are invading this city. And it’s people with names like Castro, Sepulveda, Lopez and Bravo who are lamenting how the newcomers have changed their hometown.

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The Mexican American gatherings of the past have all but vanished in a cultural shift that now reflects the complexion of Moorpark’s new hillside neighborhoods.

The city stopped funding a Cinco de Mayo fiesta last year. And now the only real citywide celebration, says lifelong Moorpark resident Ruben Castro, is a Western theme parade complete with mock gunfights and line dancing.

“Now we have Moorpark Country Days,” said the 65-year-old Castro. “They play a little country and western music and sell hot dogs.”

Castro and his contemporaries remember Moorpark as a small town that was as much Latino as it was Anglo: Latinos made up at least half the city’s population.

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When the city’s statistics were first broken down in the 1980 census, they showed that Latinos accounted for about 45% of the population. Ten years later, the figure had dropped to about 20%. Planners say that percentage has fallen even lower, and is likely to continue its slide as more upper middle class families flock to the upscale tract homes planned for hills that surround the town.

“I cannot think of any other city in Southern California where this is happening,” said Leo Estrada, a UCLA professor of urban planning.

Estrada said the only other California cities he was aware of with a drop in the percentage of Latino residents are San Francisco, Redding and a small town in Sierra County.

“It’s quite interesting because it provides a flip side to what we’re experiencing here in Los Angeles,” he said.

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What some of the locals in Moorpark lament most is what they remember as a tightly knit and proud community. Some worry that the influx of newcomers will roll over their history and erase it from the town’s memory.

Moorpark Historical Society President Connie Lawrason, whose husband is Mayor Paul Lawrason, said she does not know of any local tradition of Mexican American celebrations.

“I’ve looked through all of the old photographs and haven’t been able to find any of Mexican fiestas,” said Lawrason, who has lived in Moorpark for 10 years. “I’ve asked a lot of the old-timers and nobody seems to remember any of those festivals.”

Castro shrugs off such suggestions. “Ask anyone that grew up here,” he said. “They don’t remember, either because they weren’t here or because they’re white.”

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A farm town before World War II, Moorpark was largely segregated. Latinos lived on the east side of the railroad tracks that dissect the town and shopped mostly at their own stores, such as Castro’s father’s store La Mas Barata .

The town’s Latino population had separate celebrations from the town’s Anglos, Castro said. He and his neighbors attended a segregated elementary school on Charles Street up until the fourth grade. When they went to the movies they were allowed to sit only on the right side of the theater.

“Yeah it was a racist place, but no different from the rest of California,” said Moorpark resident Henry Bravo, 68.

World War II broke down many barriers. While on leave from the Army, Bravo remembers seeing Latinos protesting the segregated seating at the local theater. “They figured if we were good enough to get shot up in the war and die over there we were good enough to sit anywhere we wanted to,” he said.

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Bravo, like other young Latino men, returned from the war in uniform and demanded equal treatment. He was the first Latino to move his family across the railroad tracks to a housing development called Sunshine Acres.

Now Latino residents are concentrated on both sides of the tracks in that part of the city, around High Street. Many of the modest single-story homes in that area have become run-down. Bravo says newly arrived Mexican immigrants crowd as many as three or four families into a home, looking to save money.

The neighborhood’s character contrasts sharply with the bigger tract homes in the hills. Homes with sloping porches and dirt yards have chickens and roosters strutting about inside a fence.

Sitting under a carob tree he planted behind his well-kept home nearly 40 years ago, Bravo reels off the Spanish surnames of the families from his youth.

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“That’s old-time Moorpark,” he said. “Some of them are still around, but a lot of them are dead or gone.”

Then he lists some of the men who served in WWII, Korea and Vietnam memorialized on a plaque on the corner of Moorpark and Los Angeles avenues. “I’d say 60% of those boys names are Hispanic,” he said. “We had a town with pride. We don’t have that anymore; it will never come back. That’s history.”

Bravo fondly recalls the Mexican bands that used to perform at the T.B.S. Dance Hall on Charles and Bard streets. His wife was a ticket taker there in her youth.

The dance hall is gone, he said, as are the dances. “All they do now is this parade,” he said. “There is no dancing. And the only band they have is the Moorpark High School Band. You see group after group of white kids on these floats. You very seldom see a Chicano kid.”

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Moorpark was a town of about 1,200 in the 1930s and 1940s. It grew to about 7,000 people by 1980. That’s when things changed the most. The apricot, walnut and citrus orchards gave way to housing developments. Between 1983, when the town incorporated, and today, the town has grown almost four-fold with a population of about 28,000 people.

“I don’t mind the growth,” Bravo said. “What I mind is that they seem to ignore us. Everything in this town is done for them. They forget we’re still around.”

A local Republican group last month invited Bernardo Perez, the city’s only Latino city councilman, to spend an evening in one of the hillside neighborhood’s centers. He was asked to join in a debate on the Save Our State initiative on the November ballot. His argument that Mexican immigrants help the California economy did not seem to sway any of the hillside residents.

Perez said it struck him as ironic that the debate was held in hills overlooking the historic center of town.

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He came to Moorpark in 1970 because of the even ethnic mix and the small-town atmosphere. He said his challenge during his six years in office has been to bridge the gap between the Latinos who live downtown and the Anglos in the hills.

“I think what people miss is that a community can thrive by accepting change,” he said. “These sorts of shifts--going either way--are nothing new under the sun for California. It’s ironic that people, especially here, don’t realize that. But the negative light cast on the immigration issue makes it that much more difficult for people to accept someone who’s different.”

Susano Lopez, 93, brought his family to California from Mexico in the late 1920s. They settled in Moorpark in 1936. For decades he worked on the local ranches and in the orchards. His son, Benny, 67, followed in his father’s footsteps, working his way up to crew foreman for a citrus grower.

They live in one of the oldest Latino neighborhoods in town called the Virginia Colony or La Colonia. It was only four years ago that their streets were paved. The homes they built with their own hands sit in the shadow of a freeway overpass next to the Arroyo Simi.

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“We built something here,” said Benny Lopez. “I mean look at it. It’s beautiful.”

The younger Lopez doesn’t begrudge the newcomers. He welcomes them, but he misses the celebrations of his youth--the Mexican dances, and the festivals when the workers finished a harvest.

“I take a walk every morning and I see those big houses up there,” he said. “They’re really nice. I wonder though if they know what it was like here.”

A group of local women who call themselves the Guadalupanas formed about 10 years ago to try to keep some of the local Mexican American traditions alive.

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Martha Ruiz, 59, said the group’s activities center around the church and the annual feast day for Our Lady of Guadalupe, in honor of an apparition of the Virgin Mary in Mexico in 1531. But since a new chapel was built outside downtown, she said, participation has begun to falter.

“It goes on and off,” she said. “We try to keep it alive and we still have special masses, but doing something like the Cinco de Mayo just takes so many permits and things.”

Jesse Silos, another member of the Guadalupanas, said part of the responsibility for keeping the traditions alive falls on the younger generation of Latinos. Her father, a ranch hand, sponsored the local Mexican Independence Day celebration into the 1950s. She remembers fondly the traditional dancing, music and food that made up the festivities.

“I guess the younger generation doesn’t want to participate,” she said. “It’s all about remembering your history and where you come from. You have to want to celebrate that.”

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Eloise Brown, a former city councilwoman who came to Moorpark in 1980, said she doesn’t believe the Latino culture is being subverted.

“You have to remember culture can’t be maintained by government fiat but by the people that appreciate it,” Brown said. “It might be that the new people coming in want to have an Oktoberfest, who knows, but you can’t depend on someone else to protect your culture.”

For Ruben Castro, the responsibility falls on the whole community not to forget. He admits that he has little contact with the “people in the hills,” but wishes that they could work to bring the community together. He wishes the hillside dwellers would venture into town and embrace Moorpark’s history.

“We don’t talk to each other,” he said. “But our issues are the same. We want good schools, a secure neighborhood that’s crime-free, and an economy with good jobs. We worked hard to get that here, and we want them to remember that.”

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