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Group Seeks to Name Park After a Mexican President

Times Staff Writer

When Oaxacan immigrants came to Los Angeles in the early 1970s, they settled in what’s now known as Pico-Union and Koreatown.

One of the few things they brought with them was a love of basketball that borders on obsession.

This is especially true among Zapotec Indians from the Oaxacan mountain range known as the Sierra Juarez in southern Mexico.

“Our fever,” Otomi Dominguez, a highland Zapotec, calls the sport.

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Immigrant life took shape around the basketball court in Normandie Park, at Venice Boulevard and Normandie Avenue. Teams evolved into hometown associations. Today, the village clubs hold tournaments across Southern California to raise money for public works projects back home.

Inspired by their strong ties to the park, a coalition of Oaxacan immigrant groups has begun a campaign to rename it in honor of former Mexican President Benito Juarez, a Zapotec Indian from Oaxaca popularly regarded as the Abraham Lincoln of Mexico.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Juarez’s birth.

“By the end of the bicentennial year, we’d like to have the park renamed,” said Martha Ugarte, spokeswoman for the Federation of Communities and Indian Organizations in California.

So far, the group has collected more than 2,000 signatures and met with City Councilman Ed Reyes, whose 1st District includes the park. Reyes said he likes the idea but wants to gauge support in the community, once predominantly African American but now made up largely of Mexican, Guatemalan, Salvadoran and Korean immigrants.

“With history and time, identities change,” he said.

The Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Commission has final say on a name change. But community input, officials said, is a major consideration.

Still, naming a public park for a foreign president is an unusual proposal, especially at a time of heated debate over illegal immigration and American identity. Park officials say there is no local precedent.

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Father John Bakas, dean of St. Sophia Cathedral, a Greek Orthodox church that stands across from Normandie Park, urged the Oaxacans to reconsider. His church, built in 1952, is a reminder that Greeks also were once a dominant presence in the community.

“In neighborhoods where coexistence is important, we have to respect each other’s cultures, traditions and history,” Bakas said. Greeks “inherited Normandie Avenue. We didn’t change it to Papadopoulos.” (George Papadopoulos was a military strongman who ruled Greece from 1967 until he was overthrown in 1973.)

Successful or not, the campaign to rename Normandie Park highlights the emergence in Los Angeles of Oaxacan immigrants, whose numbers have surged over the last 30 years. Their leaders estimate the Oaxacan population in Southern California at near 150,000 -- most of them Zapotec Indians.

Short and dark-skinned -- speaking Spanish only as a second language -- Oaxacans have long been the target of discrimination in their homeland. As a result, they have largely avoided Mexican-immigrant enclaves here, such as East Los Angeles, and made their homes in Arcadia, Mar Vista and Venice, among other places.

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But Pico-Union and Koreatown remain a center of Oaxacan life.

“We call it Oaxacatown,” said Arturo Aguilar, owner of the Oaxacan Valley Bakery and president of the Organization of Oaxacan Businessmen. “This area is saturated with Oaxacans.”

The diverse neighborhood’s bustling streets are a crowded mix of aging apartment buildings, rambling houses and strip malls, which include Cambodian doughnut shops, Mexican taquerias, Salvadoran pupuserias and Korean-owned computer tech shops and clothing stores.

Normandie Park is a rare patch of open space that also serves as a community gathering spot. It is where new arrivals from Oaxaca found work, housing and a network of people who spoke their language.

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It also was where they came to play basketball -- a passion since the 1930s, when the Mexican government built courts in mountain areas around Oaxaca because they were cheap and took up little space. Tournaments at Normandie Park have grown to include 40 teams, with players hailing from villages with names like Macuiltianguis and Xochixtepec. Contests are now held throughout the state between February and November.

Meanwhile, the Oaxacan influence on the neighborhood continues to grow. Numerous Oaxacan-owned businesses -- bakeries, restaurants, record stores and butcher shops -- have sprouted in the last five years along the southern border of Koreatown on Pico Boulevard, where rents are cheaper.

In February, a Oaxacan-owned music school -- Marey Musical Academy -- opened on Washington Boulevard, west of Koreatown, aimed at continuing the Oaxacan tradition of brass bands -- known as bandas -- in the United States.

As Oaxacan immigrants have struggled to build their community, they’ve also fostered an uncharacteristic self-confidence. They’ve become leaders among Mexican immigrant-club federations, started their own businesses and purchased homes.

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Their campaign to rename Normandie Park reflects that newfound confidence, as well as a strong desire to put down roots.

In Mexico, Oaxacans have always been wary of asserting themselves, said Socorro Lopez, owner of Socorro’s Beauty Barber Salon on Pico.

“Here it’s different,” she said. The Oaxacan “has stopped being timid. He’s lost his fear and shown he can do things.”


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