October 7, 2008

Steven Renderos: Ticket Out of the Barrio-From Chavez Ravine to Dodger Stadium Part I


It used to be a small tight-knit community nestled inside a large Metropolis. The dirt roads, small houses, children playing in the streets and small gardens resembled a rural pueblo more than a neighborhood in the city of Los Angeles. The community was known as Chavez Ravine, named after Julian Chavez, one of the first Los Angeles county supervisors in the 1800s. The over 300 acre community was split up into three neighborhoods: Palo Verde; Bishop, and La Loma. It was home to generations of Mexican Americans, many driven to this community because housing discrimination made it difficult to find a place to live anywhere else in the city. They were self-sufficient by growing their own food, building their own schools and churches.

By the late 1940s the city of Los Angeles were eyeing Chavez Ravine for potential redevelopment opportunities. The small single family homes, the dirt roads and community gardens were seen as an “eyesore? by people outside of Chavez Ravine, but for those living within; it provided them with property, education, and a place to call home. In 1949, The Los Angeles County Housing Authority received money from the Federal Housing Authority to implement a new redevelopment plan in Chavez Ravine. The initial plan, known as “Elysian Park Heights?, would build over two dozen 13 story buildings, over 160 townhomes, in addition to more playgrounds and new schools. Using the power of imminent domain, the Housing Authority forced most of the families to sell their property over to the government in order to clear out the land and prepare for construction. By 1952 most of the Chavez Ravine property owners had left with little or no compensation, and the remaining residents were labeled as “squatters? placing them at a disadvantage to receive any money at all in exchange for their land.

An architectural drawing of the original plans "Elysian Park Heights"

The main proponent behind the redevelopment plan was Frank Wilkinson, the assistant director of the L.A. County Housing Authority at the time. Supporters of the public project saw an opportunity for the city government to provide for “improved? housing conditions for poor residents of Los Angeles.

However, Cold War politics and in particular the “Red Scare? era of the 1950s placed the Elysian Park Heights project in jeopardy. Politicians within the city of Los Angeles began labeling the public project as a socialist plot. Corporations saw Chavez Ravine as a business opportunity for new for-profit development. A campaign of propaganda supported by local corporate interests and conservative politicians ensued, and by the time Norris Poulson was elected mayor of Los Angeles in 1953, the public project was doomed.

The City of Los Angeles managed to buy the 300 acres back from the Federal Housing Authority at a fraction of the cost with the stipulation that they’d use the land for some public purpose. That purpose came in the form of a new stadium for a professional baseball team. The Brooklyn Dodgers were looking to relocate after failing to get approval for a new stadium. The city laid Chavez Ravine out on a platter for them to take and the Dodgers took advantage.

While many of the residents of Chavez Ravine left quietly and with some compensation, others did not and instead refused to leave the land, sparking a decade long struggle known as the Battle of Chavez Ravine. Aurora Vargas along was among the last few to be forcibly removed by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) in May of 1959. Her father, Manuel Arechiga would hold out a little bit longer, living in a tent next to the ruins of his former home. Eventually, he too would be forcibly removed by LAPD.

Photo of homes being demolished in Chavez Ravine

Chavez Ravine comes to represent a one-way ticket out of the barrio. Some residents left willingly with some hope that eventually they’d be able to move back into the public housing. Unfortunately, this story of the forced removal of Chicanos is not an isolated incident; today the same can be seen happening to the historical Segundo Barrio neighborhood in El Paso, Texas. Across the country, low-income marginalized communities are always victims of corporate and political interests. I’ve seen first-hand what it’s like for people to be forced from their homes to make way for “redevelopment?.

As a community organizer, I once worked in a neighborhood that was being closed down to build some luxury condominiums. We fought using every conceivable law on our side to slow down the process in an effort to keep the neighborhood from closing. We filed lawsuits, conducted rallies, pressured city officials, and contacted the media. In the end, the ultimate authority was money, and we had come up short. One of my last round of door knockings in that neighborhood came shortly after getting word that we had lost our battle. I remember knocking on the door of a Mexican family’s home. The wife answered the door and I then delivered the news that she would be forced to move. She said, “I’m not surprised we lost, the rich always win and the poor always lose, here in Bloomington and in Mexico, it’s all the same.? The neighborhood officially closed in April of 2006, to this day the land sits vacant.

Although I’m a Dodgers fan, knowing the real history of Chavez Ravine makes you think about the vicious cycle of racism that was rampant then and still very prevalent today.

Photo by Don Norwood

September 4, 2008

Steven Renderos: Support Our Community Organizers

The job and responsibility of a community organizer is to build leadership and build power. It's no surprise that wherever there's poverty and communities of disenfranchised individuals you'll find a community organizer nearby trying to change that. Last night I heard Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin mock the profession of community organizing by saying that being a mayor of a small town was "sort of like" community organizing only with more responsibilities. Public officials do in fact have more responsibilities because they have more power.

Organizers view power through two lenses, the world as it is and the world as it should be. We understand that power in the world that we're living in today is believed to be in the hands of few people. In the world that we want to live in, power is relational and therefore if you have power and I have power, then together we have more power.

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June 5, 2008

Steven Renderos: Are we really surprised?

A couple of days ago, a young girl in Maplewood ran frantically to a neighbor's door and proclaimed that someone was trying to abduct her. Police responded and immediately tried to get a description of the suspect. The young girl described him as a male "hispanic" driving a red minivan, with a "shadowy figure" in the backseat.

Police went out searching, allocating all the resources and their disposal to ensure public safety. But some of the details of this young girl's story weren't adding up. Investigators decided to conduct an interview with the victim and were able to find out that the whole abduction was fabricated. There was no male "hispanic" driving a red minivan or a "shadowy figure" in the backseat.

In extreme moments such as the abduction of a young child, there would seem to be no reason to question their credibility. But this case, as isolated, or as unique as it may be, leaves us asking some tough questions. (To read Pioneer Press Article on this story click here)

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May 29, 2008

Eden Torres: Politics of Friendship

The way that political candidates have suddenly become the Hispanic voter’s best friend while also decrying the lack of controls over undocumented immigration reminds me of the irony and earnestness contained in the US Good Neighbor Policy of 1933-1945. While politicians embarked on a public relations campaign to promote an official government policy of friendliness and partnership with our neighbors in Latin America, anti-immigrant hostility toward Mexicans was at a fever pitch in large cities around the nation. It became especially violent in Los Angeles during the WWII and culminated in what would become known in the popular press as the “Zoot Suit Riots.? Many scholars, however, have come to characterize these incidents as the wholesale beating of Mexican American youth by white military personnel coupled with the spectacular denial of equal protection and due process under the justice system. But the fact that these two things–an official policy of friendship and violent anti-immigrant hostility–existed simultaneously in our history is important to note. Surely there are lessons to be gleaned from looking at such patterns.

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May 28, 2008

Steven Renderos: Response to Star Tribune Article

Dear Nancy & Jean,

My name is Steven Renderos, I work in the Department of Chicano Studies at University of Minnesota with the Minnesotano Media Empowerment Project. The mission of the project is to improve the quality and quantity of media coverage on Latinos in Minnesota.

I am writing in regards to an immigration article the Star Tribune ran on May 25 titled "On Immigration, bluster but little action." written by Jean Hopfensperger.

As a media consumer, I'm concerned with the continued usage of the term "illegal immigrant". Media is grounded on the principal that people have a right to fair and neutral information regarding issues of importance to their everyday life. Immigration, has consistently been a hot-button issue for over a decade and encompassed within that debate has been the media's, and in this case the Star Tribune's, usage of the term "illegal immigrant".
In 1994, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Asian American Journalists Association, Native American Journalists Association and National Association of Black Journalists issued a joint statement calling for media outlets to change its internal editorial policy regarding this term.

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March 27, 2008

Steven Renderos: Living in the Shadows

Choices. A lot of us believe choices are made between what’s right and what’s wrong. Others between what’s legal and illegal. As I reflect on my life, and on the series of choices that I’ve made I realize that my decisions weren’t so black and white. My choices often times conflicted with what I knew to be right and wrong. They were largely driven by what was necessary for survival.

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