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Members Play Vital Roles in Norwalk Politics : Dual Chapters of Latino Group Carve Out Own Niches

February 26, 1987|CARMEN VALENCIA | Times Staff Writer

NORWALK — When the City Council decided recently to proclaim "LULAC Week," it had to hand out two proclamations.

After all, Norwalk is the only city in Southeast Los Angeles County that has two chapters of the League of United Latin American Citizens, a 58-year-old nationwide Latino organization. Six other area cities have single chapters.

Despite the dual chapters in Norwalk and a relatively small membership--18 in one chapter and 43 in the other--both have a strong influence on local politics. For instance, four of the City Council's five members are LULAC members and the fifth is a former member.

"If you're a Hispanic and you want the support of a viable group, LULAC is the place," said Councilwoman Grace Napolitano, a former president of Council 2859 and still a member. Napolitano said the chapters are "beginning to show the community and political parties that they are knowledgeable groups and the representatives of a large Hispanic voter bloc."

Even non-Latinos seem to believe that membership in LULAC helps their cause with Latino voters. In fact, the only announced candidate for the 1988 council race, Randell Economy, is a member.

Napolitano notes that in a community that is 40% Latino, "it couldn't hurt" to be a member of a group that supports Latino causes. "The inference (of support) is there," she said.

Ralph Pacheco, the director of the Southeast area district, said it's "significant" that a number of LULAC members have become community leaders. He cited Napolitano's successful council campaign in 1986 as an example.

"As charter president, a lot of significant things were accomplished which bred a community spirit and enthusiasm that saw her eventually move into politics," Pacheco said.

"It has doubled the opportunities for individuals in the community to gain that experience. More people can get involved in the process," he said.

Among those jockeying for a bid at political office is Sal Ambriz, president of LULAC Council 2859. Ambriz said this week that he is running for a board seat in the Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District. Three board members, Lucille Colln, Nancy Jenkins and Marge Beckman, are up for reelection in November.

However, Norwalk Councilman Marcial (Rod) Rodriguez said he does not see LULAC as a prerequisite to politics any more than belonging to the Elks Lodge or the Lion's Club.

"I think it's helpful to be active in Norwalk. Being active in LULAC itself is not a steppingstone," said Rodriguez, a member of Council 2043.

LULAC leaders say the two separate chapters in Norwalk do not hurt the organization or signal any divisiveness. But both groups have their own separate fund-raisers, activities and supporters.

"We have different philosophies with the same goals in mind," Napolitano said.

And members are always careful to say which council they belong to. With 43 members, Council 2043 is the larger of the two and celebrating its 15th anniversary this year. Council 2859 was chartered six years ago.

Including the two Norwalk chapters, there are eight LULAC councils in the Southeast-Long Beach area, with one each in Huntington Park, Bell, Bellflower, Whittier, Artesia and Long Beach. The main goal of the 110,000-member organization is to further the education of Latinos, but it is also involved in civil rights issues, housing, job training, voter registration and leadership training, said Alfredo Lugo, state executive director.

Free to Pursue Goals

However, like most service organizations, the individual LULAC councils have the freedom to pursue the goals in the way members see fit.

"Each council works on different projects in the community," said Lugo, who noted that major regional fund-raisers or dances are supported by all the councils. There are about 45 councils in California, members said, with a handful of cities having more than one council.

One LULAC state official said that when two councils are in the same city, one chapter usually has younger members and becomes involved with newer projects. The other group is usually older and more established.

"The goals are the same but the ideas of doing certain things are different. I think it's healthy because it gives a person a choice," said Mario Rodriguez, LULAC's state director of publicity.

"I can't see anything wrong with another one here. Even now, I feel there is room for more," said Ramona Roman, president and founder of Norwalk Council 2043.

Councilman Cecil N. Green, who along with Councilwoman Margaret (Peg) Nelson belongs to Council 2043, said the two councils compete against each other but he thinks it's good.

"I think it's healthy competition. You reach more people that way," said Green, who has been a member for 13 years. "When you have two people competing, you try to do more. If you're the only game in town, sometimes you can get dormant." Mayor Robert White said he used to belong to Council 2043 but dropped out in the early 1970s because he "didn't have time to serve."

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