The first place Francisco Rivera headed to after fleeing war in his native El Salvador in 1980 was the MacArthur Park area of Los Angeles. There, churches and community volunteers had created a haven of shelter, support and sustenance for war refugees like himself, then a 28-year-old poet and writer whose literary group had been targeted by right-wing death squads.
Within a year, Rivera helped found El Rescate, or the Rescue, a community organization on Union Avenue and 8th Street that aids Central American refugees.
Another nonprofit, Clinica Msgr. Oscar A. Romero, named after the Roman Catholic archbishop assassinated by Salvadoran death squads, was established a few blocks away to provide free medical care. Other organizations offering legal aid, low-cost housing and other services have sprung up to serve the hundreds of thousands of Central Americans who have made Los Angeles their refuge.
Today, the area bustles with merchants hawking Central American music CDs, restaurants serving Salvadoran pupusas and bakeries offering Guatemalan pastries. A monument in MacArthur Park depicts the harrowing journeys of the war refugees; a mural nearby salutes the Central American diaspora with colors of blue and white, which are shared by the national flags of El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras.
Rivera and others are seeking formal recognition of the area’s crucial role in giving new life to the war-weary refugees. They plan to submit a petition Tuesday asking the city to designate as “Historical Central America Town” an area bounded by the 110 Freeway, 3rd Street, Washington Boulevard and Hoover Street.
“This has been our dream for years,” Rivera said. “We want to change our invisible community into a positive, visible one.”
The petition, with 500 signatures of area residents and business owners, marks the first step in a recently adopted city process for naming districts. It was established last year to bring greater structure to addressing the profusion of requests for both ethnic monikers, such as Little Armenia, Little Ethiopia and Historic Filipinotown, and neighborhood names, such as Hancock Park and Larchmont.
The old policy rested primarily on the approval of the City Council member representing the area. The new one requires petition signatures, public hearings and review by transportation, planning and redevelopment officials; it also sets up a formal complaint process, said Avak Keotahian of the city’s legislative analyst’s office.
Rivera and others said that securing the Central American designation would help protect the area’s distinct identity amid rapid gentrification and the arrival of residents and businesses with no particular connection to their heritage.
A few years ago, they said, a shopping center opened, featuring a Starbucks, Food 4 Less and Home Depot. It was a development they welcomed but feared could contribute to a fading of their community’s history in the area, they said.
Celso Hernandez, an El Salvador native, opened Playa Las Tunas Restaurant in a strip mall on 11th and Alvarado nine years ago when the shopping center was nearly deserted because drug-dealing gang members in the area scared off vendors.
As better policing and gentrification have improved the neighborhood, Hernandez said, he has been approached by several non-Central Americans to buy him out. He has turned them all down, determined to keep his colorfully decorated restaurant a center for Salvadoran food and entertainment.
“The community has known me for years, and I want to stay here for them,” he said.
Not everyone supports the Central America Town moniker. Restaurant owner Norm Langer said he was “100% opposed,” noting that the area was largely Jewish when his grandfather opened his family’s popular deli restaurant, Langer’s, on 7th and Alvarado six decades ago. He said the area should remain known as the namesake of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
“It would offend me to see signs calling this area Central America Town because it’s not,” he said. “It’s Los Angeles. It’s Westlake-MacArthur Park.”
Rivera and others said the designation would not change any neighborhood names. It would, they say, simply give a historical nod to their community with signs on area streets; the advocates also seek to put markers on the 110 and 101 freeways.
During a recent tour of the area, representatives from El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala -- including Tomas Zuniga, a member of Central America’s black ethnic group known as the Garinagu -- shared their dreams and frustrations.
In the last 25 years, they say, the community has burgeoned to more than 600,000 Salvadorans, 100,000 Nicaraguans and about 30,000 Guatemalans and Hondurans each. Yet, they say, it is still too often associated with such violent gangs as the MS-13 and perennially overshadowed by the city’s far larger Mexican American population.
They say that not one Central American has yet been appointed to any city boards or commissions, let alone elected to political office, in Los Angeles. And they said that they do not receive a fair share of the city’s budget resources relative to the tax revenue they produce.
“Central Americans are the least represented community in California,” said Rafael Nadal, chairman of the National Central American Roundtable, an L.A.-based group that promotes the community’s civil rights and economic development.
City Councilman Ed Reyes, whose district includes the area in question, said he has worked hard to represent Central Americans. In the last six years, he said, the district has received three new libraries, two police stations, three schools and thousands of housing units.
Reyes said that it would take time for the relatively new Central American population to begin electing representatives of its own ethnic heritage but that he would “stand on my record” of producing benefits and an open-door policy for its people.
Reyes said he would withhold judgment on the petition pending the outcome of public hearings and completion of the required city process. But he said he generally supports ethnic district monikers as a way to celebrate the region’s rich cultural history.
“The designations are markers of history, and there’s no reason you can’t have them,” Reyes said. “It behooves us to acknowledge and revere all of the diversity in our great international city.”