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An Anaheim woman demands respect for her neighborhood

Yesenia Rojas, vibrant in her purple shawl, sang with a voice so powerful it rose above the rest of the procession as they shuffled down the damp Anaheim sidewalk.

"Era mexicana. Era mexicana," they sang with a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe hoisted high, candlelight and street lamps illuminating their way. "Madrecita de los mexicanos."

The singsong serenade lauds the patroness, the mother of all Mexicans.

On this drizzly evening, Rojas led the group down Anna Drive, where she and her family have made their home.

In a city often defined by Disneyland and elegant sports venues, this street of working-class Latino immigrants has become an avatar of a lesser-known, voiceless Anaheim, one riddled with poverty and gangs.

When police shot and killed a 25-year-old alleged gang member who lived on Anna Drive, it stoked what had been a growing fire in the city. It was the latest in a spate of police shootings last year, which inflamed anger with law enforcement into a larger sense of resentment over ethnic and class fissures that divide Orange County's largest city.

Unrest — amplified by Occupy-connected protesters from outside the city — gripped Anaheim for days after the July shooting, followed by weeks of heated City Council meetings.

The wave of protesters demanding change has washed away, but Rojas has emerged in its wake. The 35-year-old mother of six, with short, wavy dark hair and a small frame that belies her force of will, has taken it upon herself to become the voice of Anna Drive.

Her family lives in a one-bedroom apartment just yards from where Manuel Diaz was shot that summer day. Rojas' 14-year-old daughter saw Diaz's body and has been traumatized since. Her mother can't let that go.

"I thought about leaving, and so did my husband, because of the children," she said. "But I said no. Because, first of all, we don't need to fear anyone, not even the police. The biggest thing right now is to stay on our feet and make things happen as a community. If we all leave, things won't change. They'll keep trampling us and humiliating us."

Rojas has a vision for her community that would seem bold if her wishes weren't so simple: She imagines playgrounds and community centers and political representation. But most of all, she sees respect for Anna Drive.

She balances two jobs, but she makes time for her community. She bends the ears of politicians. She organizes rallies encouraging her neighbors to register to vote and head to the polls. She plans events that she hopes will draw together a community that has grown accustomed to seeing itself as the backdrop of news cameras trying to highlight the city's ills.

And on this night, dozens gathered to pray a rosario in the tight courtyard outside her apartment, where the statue of the Virgin rested on an altar of roses and carnations.

As sirens echoed in the distance, the crowd stayed late into the night. They sang, they danced, they sipped cinnamon-spiced coffee.

And they prayed, petitioning the Virgin Mother for peace and for guidance.

"This is the community," Rojas said. "These are the people of Anna Drive."

::

Anna Drive, a collection of squat, modest apartment buildings, horseshoes off of a busy thoroughfare. On any given day, it pulses with life: children whipping down the sidewalk on scooters and skateboards, older boys tussling with one another and nanas and tatas watching it all unfold from chairs in their frontyards.

The street is clogged with cars and the vending truck that always seems to be parked along the same slice of curb, hawking snacks, produce and spices to the families who live on this stretch of tidy apartments and small, fenced-in lawns.

Rojas came to Anna Drive about a year ago, moving her family into the tight but comfortable apartment, its walls lined with family photographs. She was born in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, but she has lived much of her life in the flatlands of Anaheim. Her mother has lived in the same apartment, just a few blocks away, for decades.

A homegrown memorial to Diaz — candles, bandannas, a portrait of him in his Anaheim High varsity football days — still clings to the metal fence outside his family's apartment. It's one of the few tangible reminders of the summer's ugliness.

When Rojas and others spoke up in defense of their neighborhood after the shooting, critics derided them as apologists for gang members. She dismisses that, offended by such a charge. "I'm not defending a gang member," she said. "I'm defending my community."

Yes, gangs — the deeply rooted Eastside gang in particular — have long been a fact of life in the community. But she wants to fight for working families like hers. The men and women who put in long days at exhausting jobs, and their children. They deserve better.

"My kids are my motivation," she said, "watching them grow up in a place that's safe and a place that inspires them to get a good career."

::

Anaheim police said they have made a concerted effort to ingratiate themselves with the people of Anna Drive. Police say a high-profile raid in which SWAT teams swarmed the neighborhood in August has reduced violent crime, allowing for a renewed focus on more mundane issues: parking, code enforcement, quality of life.

Officers are encouraged to get out of their patrol cars, hit the pavement and meet residents.

Roberto Rodriguez has lived in the area for 16 years. He remembers a time when the community was "hot" with gang activity. "So many cholos everywhere," Rodriguez, 33, recalled.

An increased police presence, he said, has driven away some of the street's sketchier characters. Now the road is empty and quiet many nights.

Sgt. Bob Dunn, a department spokesman, conceded that it has been a slow-going process to build up trust with the community. "The toughest part," he said, "is breaking through that level of discomfort."

Some say they see a police presence not as a comfort but as a threat. But they're timid about speaking up.

Rojas doesn't share their reticence. She welcomes the spotlight. She's quick to point out the "Star Student" signs in windows and the children who have gone on to college. She wants to show off the hardworking families raising children and trying to improve their lives.

"I want people to come and look."

::

Rojas peeked over at the crowd that had once again amassed outside her apartment and sighed.

"Honestly," she confessed, "I'm really tired."

Investing so much of herself in the future has taken a toll. She has more to do, yet her other responsibilities have not ebbed.

She cleans an office building in La Palma and cares for an elderly woman. Her children demand much of her time. Her husband, a construction worker, has struggled to find more than two or three days of work each week.

Her days have become marathons. She rises before dawn for a day of tiring work, followed by events that sometimes go as late as midnight.

"There have always been a lot of responsibilities," Rojas said, "but now there's a more constant pressure."

The group had come to pray, sing and share a meal, just as they had every day for weeks. Rojas had organized 40 days of rosario events at various homes in the neighborhood in veneration of the Holy Mother close to the anniversary of the apparition in Mexico centuries ago.

"She's a healing force in her own way," said former Assemblyman Jose Solorio, who until recently represented the area and has known Rojas for several years. The two were introduced through her involvement in a janitors union, and she invited him to the event.

"She's a very charismatic woman with a lot of drive," Solorio said. "What also drives her is her commitment to family and her commitment to community."

The gathering, in many ways, was a joyous symbol of progress. "I can feel a change," Rojas said. "Everybody's more united."

Voter drives, rallies and political action may lead to change, but the resolve to endure may require divine intervention.

"I ask the Virgin for help," she said. "I ask her to help strengthen me, to help me keep moving ahead with my children and my family."

Rojas doesn't doubt the Virgin Mother's healing power: At one of the rosarios, she caught a glimpse of two sisters who had been embroiled in a long-standing feud.

But on this night, they sat hip to hip and spoke for the first time in months, their rift mended. It's her prayer that, with some guidance from above, she can do the same for her city.

rick.rojas@latimes.com

marisa.gerber@latimes.com

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