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Social Activism Is a Family Affair for the Gonzalez Clan : Grupo Latino Echo Park Helps Neighbors Solve Problems

TIMES STAFF WRITER

From a small Echo Park apartment, the Gonzalez family carefully plots ways to help their neighbors watch their backs and build better lives.

A hunger strike was their answer to a proposed bus fare hike. A food and gift drive helped some families meet their holiday needs. And now it looks as though a merchant suspected of unscrupulous tactics will be confronted one way or another.

Barbara Gonzalez, 35, a homemaker, mother of two daughters and founder of Grupo Latino Echo Park, is the most vocal family member in her role as president of the nearly 2-year-old community group.

“People need help surviving in this country,” she said in Spanish. “The pride of Grupo Latino is that it works hard for its members.”

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Backing her up is husband Eloy Gonzalez, 42, an electrician who serves as the group’s vice president, and daughters Barbara, 14, and Brenda, 10.

The Gonzalez family is the spark plug for Grupo Latino Echo Park, which has a 13-member board and claims about 300 member families.

Barbara Gonzalez said the issues facing the neighborhood’s poor are many, so the group tries to help address big and small problems while offering an understanding ear. The concerns faced by residents almost always are multilevel, she said.

Is affordable housing being phased out? Are residents savvy enough to keep up with public policy? What job or educational opportunities are available?

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The questions come from residents who are newcomers, from places like Mexico or Central America. Often, there is a language barrier to take into consideration if the residents are strong only in Spanish.

“We bring information. We bring leaflets and pass them out to residents,” Barbara Gonzalez said. “We have all the potential to succeed.”

Eloy Gonzalez said that even educated people from other countries find themselves struggling--working as busboys or cleaning bathrooms--if their English is weak. Many newcomers struggle and cannot find time to study or become politically astute, so organizations like Grupo Latino provide basic orientation, he said.

“There are many people who need help,” Eloy Gonzalez said, admitting that his own family faces a daily struggle to make ends meet. “There are some ignorant people, yes, but how are we going to convert them as long as they have to work two or three shifts? How are they going to improve themselves?”

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Trying to answer those concerns led Barbara and Eloy Gonzalez to become active in community affairs shortly after they moved to Los Angeles from Mexico about 10 years ago. They eventually decided Echo Park needed its own group focusing on Latinos, and now they have their hands full doing what they can for neighbors.

They said their daughters are helpful in reaching younger members of neighborhood families. Barbara, their 14-year-old, heads the group’s youth component, which emphasizes staying in school and learning culture.

“I want youths to be known for things other than gangs and graffiti,” the teen-ager said.

One way Grupo Latino tries to provide members with a sense of belonging is with photo identification cards. The cards are good for discounts at some local shops.

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One of the group’s goals for the new year is to become incorporated as a nonprofit organization so that it can do more to help improve the lives of residents. The incorporation is expected to open more doors of assistance from corporations and others who donate goods and services only to groups with nonprofit status.

As a relatively new organization, Grupo Latino is still building a track record for effective community involvement. The hunger strike by some members last year in opposition to the proposed 25-cent fare hike by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority attracted media attention. More than a year ago, the group sponsored a fund-raiser to help fulfill the wish of a man from El Salvador who was dying of cancer and wanted to spend his last days in his homeland. Usually, the group uses a more low-key approach.

Fred Nakamura, a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, said Barbara Gonzalez and other group members were instrumental in helping him explain housing regulations to local residents. Some residents did not know what to do about rats, leaky ceilings, bad plumbing or apartments without heat, he said.

“I think they’re important because they help educate the community,” Nakamura said.

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Nakamura said one case in which Barbara Gonzalez was especially helpful involved a landlord who wanted to demolish about 15 housing units, but was reluctant to provide the tenant relocation benefits required by the city. Tenants are often intimidated and give up, he said.

“She was very instrumental in keeping all the tenants together,” said Nakamura, who described the issue as ongoing. “I don’t think it would have happened without her.”

So for Barbara Gonzalez, who was born in Mexico, and Eloy Gonzalez, a Texas native, the watchdog responsibilities are expected to remain intense.

A local resident recently complained to them about a merchant who she said was paid to deliver about $300 worth of personal items to El Salvador but apparently never made the delivery.

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“We’re going to look into it,” Barbara Gonzalez said. “We’re community people who like to help.”


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