LONG BEACH — A struggling Latino neighborhood center for most of its 16 years, the Centro de la Raza has a new name, a new home and a budget nearly free of public money.
"We've reached the point we've been trying to reach for years, and it feels damned good," said Centro's executive director, Armando Vazquez-Ramos, last week. "We are not dependent on any public money."
Born of the anti-poverty campaigns of the late 1960s, the Centro's fortunes rose and fell with the flow of government dollars.
Social Programs Died
In 1979, it was a $2-million business dealing in jobs, food, education, counseling, legal aid and voter registration. But by 1983, after federal and state grants were cut sharply, most of the social programs were gone and its future appeared bleak.
Now, after two years of retrenchment and reevaluation, a successful legal battle to occupy a landmark Long Beach church and a tripling of its dues-paying members, Long Beach's only Latino community center has survived.
Its annual budget is less than $200,000 and it mainly provides legal aid to poor Latinos. But the signing of a large contract with a major department store to train Latino job hunters appears close.
And on July 23, after a three-year legal battle, the Centro took possession of the 61-year-old, domed Christian Science Church building at 7th Street and Cedar Avenue and four adjacent dwellings, including three turn-of-the-century homes. The center prevailed in an eviction dispute with the Academia Quinto Sol, a now-defunct educational arm of the Centro that also claims title to the property.
Income From Rentals
The buildings, valued at $2 million, will net about $20,000 a year in rental fees. And, more importantly, they give the Centro a permanent home with room to grow, said Vazquez-Ramos, 36, whose office adjoins a handsome church lobby of rich mahogany.
Beginning next month, the church's large basement will house 160 preschool students enrolled in a federal Headstart program during the day. Centro is only the landlord for Headstart, but it hopes to inaugurate its own after-school child-care program.
The Centro after-school program, using the church's large auditorium, would provide instruction in the performing arts. "It would be something similar to a 'Fame' school, open evenings and weekends," said Vazquez-Ramos. "Our long-term goal is to turn that building into a performing arts center. That's the concept, that's the dream."
As for the lots on which the four adjacent dwellings sit, he said, "We'll eventually build a high-rise on that land, housing all of our programs."
The reality, while encouraging, is decidedly less grand than the dream.
"They have been crippled financially" by loss of grants, said Donald Pekich, a Long Beach lawyer and longtime volunteer in Centro's legal aid program. "It's served the community the best it can. I've been there many afternoons when the waiting rooms were just packed with people and their children wanting help with their problems."
Vazquez-Ramos, who said he makes about $30,000 a year, conceded that "we're still very much strapped for money. We make ends meet, but we have to be constantly an a fund-generating frame of mind."
That means that most activities embraced by the Centro must pay their own way. It also means that the programs must have as broad an appeal as possible.
With that in mind, Centro directors changed the name of the Centro last month from East Long Beach Neighborhood Center/Centro de la Raza to Pan-American Community Center Inc./Centro de la Raza.
The new name symbolizes a wider mission, said Vazquez-Ramos. The center will still serve the poor, but its clients will be the poor of all racial and ethnic groups, not just Latinos, he said.
An Imposing Edifice
The Aug. 1 name change came a week after Centro staffers had moved from a tattered old storefront at Anaheim Street and Junipero Avenue into the 32,500-square-foot Corinthian-style church with its 80-foot-high dome and pillared entry.
The Centro will officially open at its new location the weekend of Oct. 11 with a public open house and three-day festival.
Although Centro officials say they are reaching out to a larger community, they acknowledge that most of their clients probably will still be Latino.
"We could not be in a more ideal location," said Vazquez-Ramos. "We're right in the middle of the only concentration of Latinos in Long Beach that could be considered a Chicano barrio."
'Role of Advocacy'
The barrio lies in the southwestern part of downtown, north of Broadway, west of Magnolia Avenue and south of Anaheim Street. It borders the city's downtown redevelopment zone.
"We hope to take a role of advocacy here," said Vazquez-Ramos. "It's a dilapidated, blighted area that the city has let go to bring in additional redevelopment, rather than committing resources to serve that population. There's a human removal process going on."