Veterans, community activists protest roundabout, fear changes to Mexican American monument

Cinco Puntos Memorial Protest
Teresa Lopez and other dancers with the Ketzaliztli Cultural Dance Group take part in honoring Mexican and Mexican American soldiers at the Cinco Puntos Raul Morin Memorial Square Plaza. They were invited by the East Los Angeles Boyle Heights Coalition, which simultaneously held a protest against the change of the monument.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

There were renditions of taps and the national anthem. Military veterans and their families protested on one side of the street, and then moved to a city commemoration event at the opposite end of the busy East Los Angeles-Boyle Heights Cinco Puntos intersection on Memorial Day.

At the heart of the protest is the controversial plan to move an iconic memorial dedicated to men and women of Mexican descent who gave their lives in service to their country. Community members, veterans and politicians gathered Monday for a 75th anniversary celebration near the 30-foot-high marble monolith, which was dedicated on May 30, 1947.

But the relocation plan isn’t the only controversy around the monument. Even its name has long been in dispute.

Vietnam War veteran Eddie Morin, 79, says the monument, inscribed with a dedication to veterans of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars, is known as the Americans of Mexican Descent Memorial. Morin’s father Raul Morin, a World War II veteran and author, is honored with a plaque, which is located on a separate small triangular plaza, directly south of the monument, across East Cesar E. Chavez Avenue, named “Morin Memorial Square.”

“It’s always been about venerating the efforts of Mexican Americans since World War II,” Morin said of the monolith and Morin Square. “But it’s not just attached to the war, but also to our segregation during the war years and our efforts. It’s a rebuttal to all the racist stereotypes against us.”


Mexican American War memorial protest
Marine Cpl. Jessie Gonzalez takes part in the 75th annual Memorial Day celebration at Cinco Puntos Mexican American War Memorial on Monday. He served 22 years in the Marine Corps.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Tony Zapata, 77, another Vietnam veteran and organizer of the city memorial, disagrees with the name and said he and other veterans and friends have called the monument the Mexican American All Wars Memorial for as long as he can remember.

“We’re both saying it’s a monument to honor Mexican Americans,” Zapata said. “I just don’t understand why there’s a dispute with the official name.”

Preliminary plans for the relocation released by Council Member Kevin de León’s office identify the structure as the Mexican American All Wars Memorial. Under the plan, the monument would be moved about 50 feet from its current position into a newly created roundabout at the intersection of Cesar Chavez Avenue and Lorena and Indiana streets.

Because the memorial would sit at the middle of the roundabout, pedestrian access currently available would be nonexistent. Some properties along Cesar Chavez Avenue, including a La Gloria Foods Tortilleria, were purchased through eminent domain and will be demolished to make way for the roundabout.

Morin Memorial Square, which includes a stone slab with a bronze plaque honoring Raul Morin along with a pair of rotting wood benches, a flagpole and a stone circular patio, would be relocated across the street to the southwest, according to the plans. It would be placed near other plaques honoring congressional Medal of Honor winners along with Vietnam War and World War II veterans.

While controversy continues to swirl around what the square should be called, many of those who turned out Monday agreed that the relocation proposal only would add to the community’s problems.

“All of this was done behind our backs,” said Sofia Quinones, an organizer with the East Los Angeles Boyle Heights Coalition. “Property was taken by eminent domain and plans were drawn up without community input.”

A family-run tortilla factory in Boyle Heights is in danger of closing amid an eminent domain dispute with the city over relocation fees for its tortilla machines.

Quinones said she gathered 6,000 signatures against the plans and has been trying to get the attention of local officials.

However, information on project funding and a construction timeline were not available, according to De León’s office, which is still reviewing the matter. There was also no information from the office as to whether Evergreen Cemetery or the famed Los Cinco Puntos carniceria would be affected.

De León said much of the work and planning regarding the roundabout was done by his predecessor, José Huizar, who is awaiting trial on extortion charges that he denies.

“This was a project authorized decades ago and I’m aware of the controversy, but I haven’t had time to really look into it and to finalize this,” De León said.

Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority dedicated $8 million of 710 Freeway funds to the project, while the Los Angeles Department of Public Works previously said another $10.9 million has been set aside from Proposition C funding.

De León’s staff, however, said the roundabout was needed to improve traffic flow and safety, as there had been 27 accidents at the Cinco Puntos intersection within the last five years.

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Quinones countered that since all three streets didn’t have an unequal flow of traffic, a roundabout made little sense.

“This is going to bring more congestion,” she said.

Robert Castillo, 91, a Korean War veteran and former Army paratrooper, was angered at the idea that the memorial would be touched at all.

“I’m against it,” said Castillo, who grew up in East Los Angeles and lives in Whittier. “If the monument is moved into the middle of the roundabout, how are people like me going to be able to walk to it and lay a wreath?”

Vietnam War veteran Al Lims, 75, said there was too much confusion to move forward with the project.

“You have some people saying the monument is going to be destroyed and others that it’s going to be moved and there are no straight answers,” said Lims, an Army veteran who lives in Pico Rivera. “All I know is that the Morin family is against this and so am I.”

The protest began around 10:20 a.m. and included speeches from several veterans and community members against the project. It wrapped up around 11:15, about 15 minutes after the annual commemoration ceremony near the marble monument began.

Protesters took signs that read “No Roundabout” and “Save the Cinco Puntos Corridors” over from Morin Memorial Square to the commemoration event. At one point, a trio of protesters, led by Quinones, crossed the front of the memorial stage with a large banner as Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo (D-Los Angeles) was speaking.

“It’s important that the politicians know how we feel,” Morin said. “We don’t want any changes.”