"Jobs? Where? When? But am I qualified?" Such inquiries, spoken in Spanish, were typical last week as small groups of Lennox residents gathered outside the Lennox Park recreation center, waiting for a town meeting to begin.
Inside, county and state officials huddled on strategies for introducing a job-skills training program to Lennox--a community dominated by immigrants and first-generation Americans born to parents from Mexico, Asia, Cuba and the Philippines.
Thousands of immigrants have flocked to Lennox during the past decade in search of jobs and a better way of life. In their homelands, people heard that Lennox was a community of hope for Los Angeles' immigrant population, said Hector Carrio, president of the Lennox School District Board of Trustees and probably the closest thing to a mayor this unincorporated area has.
But even though Lennox is surrounded by a wealth of aerospace companies and is just a stone's throw from ritzy beach communities, many of these new arrivals have found that jobs are just as scarce in their new home as in the old one, Carrio said. Los Angeles County estimates unemployment in the area at 20%, compared to 7.1% last month in the county as a whole.
So when an English-speaking resident ventured into the building and overheard an official say that hope, determination and commitment to hard work were qualifications enough to receive vocational training through the program, he rushed outside to tell his neighbors.
Once the middle-aged man translated the news, word spread from group to group faster than church gossip. The excited reactions rose to a frenzied crescendo in Spanish resembling the rat-tat-tat of machine gun fire.
Parents sent their children to beckon others to the meeting. "If they think we don't care they might take their jobs program somewhere else," a small woman said. On a basketball court within earshot of the excitement, young men embroiled in a heated basketball game stopped to attend.
County and state officials had called the meeting to gauge community interest in a vocational-training program that Chavez & Associates Institute is to open in the Lennox community under a contract with the county. They were "overwhelmed," said Ed Cano, senior deputy to county Supervisor Kenneth Hahn.
Every seat in the center's reception room was filled. Dozens stood in the back of the room. Altogether nearly 200 residents showed up to ask questions about the program and to suggest what kind of training is needed.
Residents asked predictable questions: "What kind of classes would be offered? How much would the program cost?" and the most frequent query: "When will the program start?"
Officials were unable to answer this question and urged residents to be patient while Chavez & Associates searched for a site to house the program. The institute, based in the City of Commerce, will offer classes in business finance, private investigation, word processing and data entry.
"If there was any question of need, it has been completely erased," Cano said, speaking first to the crowd in Spanish, then to officials and the media in English. It appeared that English was spoken only for the benefit of outsiders.
The numerous questions and translations stretched the meeting, originally scheduled for 45 minutes, to more than two hours. Some officials tried to shout over the jetliners rumbling overhead on their way to Los Angeles International Airport, but Lennox speakers, more accustomed to the recurrent roar, just paused momentarily.
Hahn arrived halfway through the meeting, interrupting the proceedings as the audience gave him a hearty round of applause. Though he stayed barely 20 minutes, Hahn had time to mingle with the audience, shaking hands and teasing young children who, embarrassed by his attention, pressed their chins against their chests and giggled. Before leaving, he promised to make Lennox "a great place to live, work and play."
County officials said the meeting was like a civics lesson for the residents, who have no local government or police force. But residents say it also was a lesson for county officials who are too far removed from the tiny community to realize its needs. The community's closest elected official is Hahn, whose district stretches from Beverly Hills to Long Beach.
County officials have sponsored various community cleanup and neighborhood crime watch programs, but residents believe that jobs are the key to solving the community's problems. The county's commitment to open a vocational center shows a new sensitivity to the community's needs, said Harry Lancyz, president of the Lennox Coordinating Council, a citizens group.
The job-training program shows residents that government officials are interested in revitalizing the community, but more than that, Carrio said, it already has revived the dream of opportunity for people who "have been living on hope instead of dreams."