Tireless Crusader Is Making Inroads : Community: Sylvia Castillo is determined to revive her South-Central neighborhood from blight. And her efforts are being recognized.


It’s 9 a.m. in Room 561-A at Los Angeles City Hall, and Sylvia Castillo is bustling, conferring, offering advice, checking names off lists in her armload of manila envelopes and keeping an eye on the door for newcomers.

The purpose of the tense hearing last week before Associate Zoning Administrator John J. Parker was to ask for a crackdown on four motels along the Figueroa Corridor that neighbors believe are centers for prostitution and drug dealing.

Parker hears not only from City Councilwoman Rita Walters, who requested the hearing, and Los Angeles Police Department vice division detectives, but also from residents of the South-Central Los Angeles neighborhood who are tired of crime and blight, fed up with the dirty needles and discarded condoms that litter their sidewalks.


Some don’t speak English and few have been to City Hall before, but they are there thanks to Castillo and her team.

As associate director of the Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment, Castillo laid the groundwork for the hearing, knocking on doors, meeting with residents to discuss their plight, and setting up transportation and directions right up to the door of Room 561-A.

It’s the kind of organizational work that Castillo does well--so well that she has been named one of three outstanding grass-roots community leaders in the state by the California Wellness Foundation. Each of the winners--Castillo, David Lewis of East Palo Alto and Gayle Zepeda of Redwood Valley--will receive a California Violence Prevention Award of $25,000 today at a reception at the Claremont Hotel in Oakland.

“As community leaders they represent the cutting edge of a community’s conscience,” says the award certificate. “Their goal is to create fundamental changes in the moral fiber of society.”

Castillo, 42, believes the Community Coalition at 8500 Broadway is doing exactly that. Since its formation in 1990, the federally funded group--whose members include churches, anti-drug organizations, schools and community groups--has been working to reverse what members see as a drug and alcohol epidemic in South-Central Los Angeles.

“They have been extremely effective in reach-out activities as we try to rid the 9th council district of some of this blight,” Walters says. “I’m delighted she has won. It’s not easy to knock on doors in South-Central where people are very cautious. Sylvia has a very engaging personality--she comes across as very credible and non-threatening.”


“Our mission is to address the environment that fosters drug and alcohol addiction,” says Castillo, who lives in an apartment in the area she serves. “That takes many forms.”

Such as the motel hearing, for which she organizes community representatives and translates for some of them. After vice detectives describe the area as “blighted by the problems of prostitution and drug sales,” Castillo is the lead-off speaker for the coalition.

“When you rent a room for $8 an hour and sell condoms for $1, you are aware of what kind of client you are attracting,” she tells Parker. “This is not the way business should be conducted in our community--this is not the Wild, Wild West. This would not be condoned in Beverly Hills and should not be condoned here.”

Parker’s decision on tougher regulation of the motels will come by early January. The coalition is hopeful for victory because similar hearings in the San Fernando Valley last spring resulted in much tighter conditions being imposed on the motels there.


Castillo looks at South-Central and sees a “once-thriving, working community with employers like B.F. Goodrich and U.S. Steel” that is now a vacuum.

“We have so many smart youngsters, teen-agers, out there, and they are outraged for very valid reasons, whether it is school bathrooms so filthy they can’t be used or liquor stores with couches in the back alleys where alcoholics can congregate.”


On the wall of her office is a huge map of South-Central and its liquor stores that is “really a big strategy chart,” she says.

Dividing her time between desk work and neighborhoods, she has clocked 100,000 city miles in her Honda Accord, equipped with cellular phone, pager and a laptop computer.

“You begin with folks who have a whole lot of commitment to protect their children,” says Castillo, who is single. She rattles off her many activities with typical exuberance: the Rebuild South-Central Without Liquor Stores Campaign, HOPE (Helping Our Peers Evolve, a program for teen-agers), a youth-run graffiti removal business, Youth Empowered Through Action and others.

“She is just fabulous,” says Thelma Dimancheff, a retired teacher who is involved with the Manual Arts High School Parents Patrol. “Without a blueprint, a ship goes round and round the ocean. Sylvia and the coalition have come out and helped us put together a plan to fight drugs and alcohol. They offered resources the parents didn’t have. She has helped us set a direction.”


Setting direction comes almost naturally to Castillo, who grew up in Los Angeles. “My grandfather was a railroad organizer for the Southern Pacific, and there was a tradition of discussing politics at the dinner table.”

Her father, Luis Castillo, was an aircraft worker and her mother, Minerva Castillo, “was just a mom”--until the family moved to all-white Lakewood because of its good schools and experienced immediate prejudice.


Petitions were passed in the neighborhood, Castillo heard the word wetback for the first time, and she and her younger sisters were ostracized.

“All of a sudden my mother got politicized--we were going to hold our ground. My sisters and I got dragged along to fair housing meetings at night, and eventually we got introduced to the United Farm Workers organizing committee.”

After graduation from Lakewood High School, Castillo helped develop the Chicana studies department at Cal State Long Beach and the Chicana Service Action Center in Downtown Los Angeles, which started one of the first programs in the country to serve battered Latinas.

Eventually she got training as a licensed vocational nurse, because “community activism doesn’t pay.”

While working as a pediatric nurse in the late ‘80s, “patching together newborn babies who were crack exposed,” she realized the impact of the drug epidemic. With longtime friend Karen Bass, she began to concentrate on full-time community organizing. She receives a salary from the Community Coalition.

Bass, executive director of the coalition, says she is particularly excited about Castillo’s award because “when people come to South-Central, they are always looking for racial conflicts. Our group is African American and Latino. We’re working together, and race relations get taken care of in the process.”


Castillo and Bass see positive change taking place on many levels. “Los Angeles has 150 fewer liquor stores now,” Bass says. “More than 200 were burned out and about 50 came back. In some places there are office buildings or Laundromats where liquor stores were. We believe this is a direct result of the work we’ve done.


“And a lot is due to Sylvia--she is dedicated, committed and will not give up.”

Castillo didn’t know she had been nominated for the California Wellness Foundation’s award when she got the telephone call from Crystal Hayling of the foundation. “I just wept,” she says. “It was like getting a big hug. And then on top of that was the $25,000. Oh man, it was too much. I just couldn’t speak!”

Castillo views the money as a double reward. “It acknowledges our work,” she says, “and it will allow me to qualitatively improve my life. I’d like to have my own home, my own stable place to be from.”

The money has no strings attached. “It’s just pure recognition,” Hayling says. “We’re just saying, ‘Good work, and keep it up.’ ”

Castillo will certainly keep up her work. “I’m passionate about it,” she says. “It almost sounds corny, but looking into the faces of people we serve keeps me inspired. I know we are going to turn this around.”