Peter Mendoza was getting ready for work one morning two years ago when he thought he heard the rumble of long-awaited change in his Wilmington neighborhood.
"I heard the noise behind my yard and I looked out my back window and saw construction equipment. People were digging trenches. I thought maybe they were putting up a block-wall fence to buffer our homes from the storage yard behind us. With our zoning problems here, I thought that would be great."
Mendoza's hopes were far from the mark. Indeed, the Swift Transportation Co. storage yard, located just 10 feet behind his newly remodeled house, was expanding its cotton-storage operation with a 50,000-square-foot warehouse.
"We had been told they couldn't expand," said Mendoza, who had been a laser engineer for Northrop Corp. for 11 years. "I felt frustrated as hell about it. This image kept coming to my mind of all the neighborhood people who had attended the hearings to get that property zoning changed. The hearings reflected a lot of bus trips to downtown Los Angeles by senior citizens and time off work by working people."
"I felt like the people here had been cheated. I felt like the neighborhood people--the people who don't understand the complexities of City Hall and who really had thought they won something at those hearings--had been taken advantage of for not knowing how the system works."
In Pursuit of Answers
At the time, Mendoza himself was no master of government machinery. It took him four weeks, more than 30 phone calls and nine trips to city offices in San Pedro and downtown Los Angeles to find out why the industrial expansion was permitted.
But if the answer was disappointing--the city of Los Angeles had granted a construction permit as part of a legal settlement after Swift filed a lawsuit--Mendoza said its result has been positive: At age 43, the longtime Wilmington resident vowed to start fighting the community's problems.
"I said to myself, 'Now I am going to stand up and protest.' You have people living here 30 and 40 years, and they have no real say-so about what goes on in their backyards. The issue with Swift made me realize that the people's ability to implement change in Wilmington was very limited. It angered me a lot, so much that I became involved in trying to change things."
Now 45, he quit his $40,000-a-year job at Northrop a year ago to help launch and manage the business of a Wilmington medical clinic, where a typical visit costs $20 to $25, and to manage the credit union run by Holy Family Roman Catholic Church, which provides loans to many of Wilmington's low-income residents. He earns $1,200 a month at each job.
'It's an Ego Trip'
"I feel there's a lot of meaning to life in community involvement," he said. "Basic science and engineering wasn't doing it for me; it's an ego trip, but it doesn't have the depth or the good feeling you get when you've affected someone's life.
"My background has helped, too. Professionally, I am used to tough technical problems and political difficulties; I am used to trying to figure out ways to get something done and be resourceful. . . . I also have the energy and compassion to do that kind of work."
Part of Mendoza's interest in helping the less fortunate comes from his own humble beginnings, he said. Born in Wilmington, Mendoza was 3 when his father left his mother and three children. The family lived hand-to-mouth for many years. Mendoza never dreamed of attending college. When he passed the federal postal exam at 19 and was hired, "It was the happiest day of my mother's life. Her son had become a mailman. That exceeded her expectations."
But it only began to fuel Mendoza's. He enrolled in a home-study electronics class, then went to junior college and eventually, to California State University, Long Beach, where he earned a bachelor's degree in physics at age 29. Ten years later, he received a master's degree in business administration from Loyola Marymount University.
He Has No Regrets
Mendoza said he has no regrets about his change of careers, which he attributes to "financial, social and spiritual" considerations. He also sees parallels between himself and Wilmington: Both have slowly realized that they could achieve more than initially thought possible.
"I always felt like, 'Gee, we're the underdog in Wilmington. We deserve better.' But my response was the same as it was with school: I didn't try because I didn't know we could do better. It wasn't until this Swift issue that I realized that if people became involved, we probably could do better in Wilmington."
Mendoza's struggle with the city over Swift resulted in his appointment to a 20-member citizens planning committee, which is advising the City Council on the revision of Wilmington's community plan. The changes eventually could help straighten out the community's haphazard land-use patterns.