"It's kind of sad," Carmela Lacayo was saying, "but at Christmastime folks are more interested in toys for kids" than in the plight of low-income senior citizens.
As president/executive director of the Asociacion Nacional Pro Personas Mayores (National Assn. for Hispanic Elderly), Lacayo is very much interested in senior citizens. She understands that they are apt to feel lonely, cast off and hungry--emotions that are easily exacerbated at holiday time.
Few Hours of Fun
That's why, each Christmastime, the association gathers its clients together--350 of them this year--for a Christmas party. It's a once-a-year day when the seniors, granted a long lunch hour by employers participating in the association's older worker program, come to eat turkey and to take home trinkets. And, most important, to have a few hours of fun.
Last week's event, scheduled for noon to 2 p.m. at the Breakfast Club in Los Feliz, stretched on for close to four hours. And, if an occasional guest was seen nodding off, it must have been fatigue, not boredom. Consider the entertainment: senior citizen volunteer Sadie Winter, a contemporary Santa Claus in her red tights and fringed white cowboy boots, reappearing as a dancer in fringed flapper gown, sequined garter and yards of pearls; Lacayo, responding to the beat of a mariachi band, leaping from her chair to grab octogenarian Marcos Contreras for a spirited zapatiero ; a troupe of a dozen over-70 dancers, in aloha prints, flexed their hips in a lively hula.
They came wearing sombreros and baseball caps and Sunday-best dresses. They left with shiny red shopping bags into which had been tucked Christmas treasures such as packages of saltines and packs of note paper. More than one guest was seen stowing away the turkey leftovers.
Most of Lacayo's clients are Latinos, members of what she calls the "hidden" poor who scratch out a living in the city. Most have no Social Security benefits and many still have children at home to support on the $3.35 an hour they earn at 20-hour-a-week jobs with nonprofit agencies.
Federal guidelines specify that, for eligibility in this worker program, they may not earn more than $4,000 each annually. "According to technological society," Lacayo observed, "they should be the most depressed, the most down and under."
Yet there was joy in their faces as they tapped their toes to the mariachi rhythms played by senior citizens from the Mexican American Opportunity Foundation, and as they sang along to "Las Mananitas," the traditional Latino birthday song--"How beautiful is the morning when I come to greet you. . . ."
Last year, Lacayo was saying, "We had a belly dancer. I thought we were going to have some cardiac arrests."
She was complaining that her dance partner, Contreras, who admits to 89 but whose wife claims he is 91, had worn her out. It must be diet, she figured. The diminutive Contreras, always gallant, demurred, insisting, "All the women dance well." (He also expressed his fondness for blonde Americans.) And he laughed and said, "People admire me that I can still move around."
Not only does he move around, he works four hours a day as a maintenance man in Santa Ana. Once a farmer in Jalisco, as well as a mariachi musician, Contreras followed his four children to the United States 12 years ago. Since 1978 he has been in the association's senior work program. It keeps him feeling youthful, he explained.
And he never misses the Christmas party. He is touched that "all these people are willing to be with an old man." More pragmatically, he simply likes "to be in the wave of things."
This is probably the largest federally funded manpower program left in the country, founder Lacayo said of the association's senior community service employment program for those 55 or older who, because they speak little or no English and have no skills, "for all intents and purposes had no access to the job market whatsoever."
The association places them in part-time minimum-wage jobs with 125 nonprofit agencies in Los Angeles and Orange counties, among these Goodwill Industries and a number of day-care centers. Last year the association placed an ad in the Spanish-language newspaper La Opinion to fill 35 jobs and, Lacayo said, "In one two-day period we had 300 applicants."
About 60% of these older workers are female (coming out of the garment industry, or displaced homemakers) but more of the senior men are monolingual and unskilled. "Our men end up doing maintenance work," Lacayo said, while the women become kitchen helpers, teachers' aides and sometimes clerical workers. A retraining program enables about 15% of the seniors to phase into full-time jobs out of the nonprofit sector.