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State's Prison Plan Insults the Whole Latino Community

August 21, 1986|VERONICA GUTIERREZ and ANTONIO H. RODRIGUEZ | Veronica Gutierrez is a recent graduate of the UC Berkeley School of Law. Antonio H. Rodriguez is the director of the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice. Both are longtime residents of East Los Angeles.

Last week several hundred angry men, women and children from East Los Angeles, including senior citizens and disabled persons in wheelchairs, arrived in Sacramento to lobby against the plan to build a state prison in East Los Angeles. Before they left, they had won a rejection of the plan on the Senate floor. It was a temporary but significant victory for the grass-roots East Los Angeles Coalition Against Prisons.

The militancy and strength of the East Los Angeles Latino community's mobilization against the prison has baffled most observers. It has caused unprecedented strain between the community and the Latino elected officials who--with one honorable exception, Assemblywoman Gloria Molina--have either remained silent or given it token or very late support. It has even resulted in the previously unthinkable talk of recalling a Latino elected official, Assemblyman Richard Polanco, who cast the key committee vote to get the prison bill to the Assembly floor, where it was predictably and overwhelmingly approved.

For our community it is a simple proposition: There are now five jails or prisons in and around East Los Angeles. The Legislature's decision to build another in the area is a blow to our aspirations for equality and justice, and is a racist signal that we are not worthy of the same treatment that other communities received when they rejected the prison site.

We deserve equal respect and treatment.

Ever since the 19th-Century annexation of the Southwest, Latinos--particularly the Mexican people--have significantly contributed to the making of the United States into the most developed industrial society in the world. We helped build the railroads and the agriculture, mining, steel and automotive industries, among others, as well as their unions. We now provide much of the labor force for the industries of the Southwest and especially Los Angeles, the new financial and manufacturing backbone of the country.

However, racism and discrimination continue to deprive us of our share of the benefits of that development. We still suffer disproportionate unemployment. Our children attend inferior and overcrowded schools. Most Latinos still live in segregated, low-income communities. We have been forced to suffer the dislocation and environmental pollution brought on by freeway construction for the benefit of wealthier communities. The heart of East Los Angeles, already carved up by at least five freeways, is now threatened with the extension of the Long Beach Freeway through the El Sereno area.

Moreover, we are severely underrepresented at all levels of government.

We want the best for our community, and have constantly struggled against poverty and racism to obtain it. We want a good education for our children; two years ago we even took on the Roman Catholic Church to prevent the sale of Cathedral High School.

We want a clean and safe community. In 1984 we won a major victory in securing the closure and cleanup of the Capri toxic-waste dump in Boyle Heights. We simultaneously fought to stop the unprecedented spraying of malathion, a dangerous insecticide, in Latino neighborhoods throughout the Los Angeles area.

We want our families to be free of persecution. For many years East Los Angeles has been a major center of activism against restrictive immigration legislation, raids, deportations and other attacks against immigrants and refugees.

We want fair and just representation. After decades of struggle, in the last few years we have won elected and appointed positions in government. Now we are fighting for reapportionment of Los Angeles City Council districts to increase long-overdue representation in City Hall.

There are many other examples of community mobilization around basic issues that demonstrate our resolve to obtain justice and a decent quality of life. We have fought long and hard for equality; we have even removed some of the chains of second-class status from our backs. Building a prison in East Los Angeles when no other community will allow it would place a chain on the backs of our children.

We won't allow this. We won't have a state prison in our community while our children are still waiting for decent schools.

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