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The Bulldozers vs. the barrios : A COMMUNITY UNDER SIEGE: A CHRONICLE OF CHICANOS EAST OF THE LOS ANGELES RIVER 1945-1975 by Rodolfo F. Acuna (Chicano Studies Research Center Publications, UCLA, Monograph No. 11: $21.95; 524 pp.)

January 20, 1985|Louis Sahagun | Sahagun is a Times staff writer. and

During the so-called "Happy Days" of the 1950s, the Belvedere Citizen, a weekly newspaper serving the communities of unincorporated East Los Angeles, was urging the sheriff's department to get tough with vandals and gangs and supported massive redevelopment plans for the area.

At the same time, the Eastside Sun, another weekly catering to the adjacent, mostly blue-collar Latino communities just east of downtown Los Angeles, was printing stories and editorials about police brutality, racism and the devastation of new construction in the area.

Two newspapers, two points of view at a time when East Los Angeles was battered by the building of myriad freeways that bulldozed 3,000 homes, displaced 10,000 people and left behind a legacy of noise and pollution.

For social historian Rodolfo Acuna, the contrasting portrayals of East Los Angeles, when taken together, are insightful histories that tell of "countless forgotten battles." In this analysis of three decades of articles in both papers, he provides a history not available in government records or major daily newspaper coverage of the period.

Collected in this, Acuna's fifth book, is a wealth of statistics and anecdotes about life in the barrios of Los Angeles and the problems facing these communities. In addition, at the back of the book, Acuna provides a list of every headline in both weeklies printed between 1945 and 1975 that dealt with issues of local concern, which should be an important resource guide for other historians.

Like Acuna's earlier work, "Occupied America: A History of Chicanos," "A Community Under Siege" is a left-of-center analysis with a central premise that big business operators and most politicians have been the bad guys.

While some may disagree with Acuna's political perspective, he does a credible job of tracing many of East Los Angeles' problems back to the 1920s when, he says, a network of businessmen, bankers and real estate developers--backed by large, daily newspapers sympathetic to their cause--became entrenched in downtown Los Angeles.

Acuna contends that a close reading of both newspapers shows that "this tidewater occupation of power centers gave this group an advantage that pioneer capitalists have always enjoyed."

"The absence of committed English-language press," Acuna writes, "left working-class Mexicans vulnerable to the schemes of the downtown ruling class."

Acuna, whose confrontational style earned him a reputation for being a one-man battering ram in support of minority issues at Cal State Northridge, where he has taught Chicano Studies for 14 years, bolsters his point of view with statistics and historical evidence.

With an eye toward the future, he suggests that the residents of East Los Angeles are still under attack. They "continue to suffer unemployment, overcrowded schools, inadequate housing and a population boom," writes Acuna. The "influx of undocumented workers, the youth of the residents, and the low-income status add to the communities' political powerlessness."

He also contends that the community's proximity to downtown makes it especially attractive to up-scale developers. He details how, in recent years, Eastside residents were unsuccessful in stopping developments such as Chavez Ravine and Bunker Hill, which wiped out large Latino neighborhoods.

Acuna makes no bones about which newspaper he believes served the communities best.

The Sun, he contends, consistently sought to protect homeowners from bulldozers and preserve their life style. The Citizen, he says, helped create a pervasive stereotype of Eastside barrios as a haven for gang violence, which he believes has made the community more vulnerable to insensitive development and "urban renewal" projects to the present day.

Between the lines of their articles, Acuna gleans an intriguing history of how grass-roots organizations have tried to effect their own changes in the area. The Community Service Organization (CSO), a group of returning World-War-II veterans and community leaders, helped elect Edward R. Roybal to the city council in 1949. Roybal has gone on to become a U.S. representative who led the fight against the Simpson-Mazzoli bill, which attempted to stem the flow of undocumented workers to the United States. Acuna also calls him a "a champion in the fight against urban renewal."

When former Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker told the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on Jan. 26, 1961, that "Some of these people (Mexicans) were here before we were, but some are not far removed from the wild tribes of Mexico," the Mexican American Citizens Committee of Los Angeles publicly demanded that Parker be fired.

In 1968, East Los Angeles students at Wilson, Garfield, Roosevelt and Lincoln high schools staged walkouts that made headlines. Enraged at what they called educational neglect of Mexican-Americans and a lack of Latino educators, the students and some supportive teachers, succeeded in focusing attention on the issue for the first time.

Since the mid-1970s, a growing number of Latino teachers has been hired in Eastside schools. But Acuna criticizes many of them for lacking the "proper political background" because "most have not participated in the movement of the 1960s and did not possess a sense of history."

The otherwise interesting text suffers from occasionally poor editing. In one instance, Acuna refers to "Whittier Street" when he means Whittier Boulevard--for years a major business artery in East Los Angeles.

But overall, "A Community Under Siege" is one of the most comprehensive books ever published about East Los Angeles and its people. It should be an indispensable resource for historians and could provide powerful documentation for community activists.

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