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Baker-Warrior's New Enemy: Drugs

February 09, 1989|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | Times Staff Writer

The battles of Daniel Fajardo, the baker-warrior of Lennox Boulevard, span four decades.

He fought in Fidel Castro's guerrilla army during the Cuban revolution, then found himself in Castro's prisons.

As a refugee, he fought to build his Gran Via Bakery in Lennox, where he owns a small commercial strip that serves a melange of Latino cultures.

And he has fought drugs, defying death threats to help police and other merchants against street drug dealers.

"If drugs destroy youth, they will destroy the country," said Fajardo, speaking a rapid-fire Spanish. "I love this country more than my homeland. I don't want it to go down."

Said Capt. Walter Lanier of the Lennox sheriff's station: "I wish there were a thousand more like him."

Products from Fajardo's bakery carry the anti-drug message of the Sheriff's Department's Substance Abuse Narcotics Education program. He was honored for that effort by County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn and Sheriff Sherman Block. Sheriff's officials said they do not know of other merchants whose products carry the SANE message.

Fajardo is a simple man, friends said. A man who divides the world into heroes (Ronald Reagan, Oliver North, Hahn) and villains (drug dealers and communists). A tough, conservative workaholic.

Lennox school board member Hector Carrio, a fellow Cuban, said: "He's the kind of person who, if you ask him for something, will say, 'Why don't you ask me how I can earn the money from you?' "

But for the last year, Fajardo has been the godfather of Felton Elementary School, sponsoring a citizen of the month program and showering students with gifts.

He is reluctant to be honored for his efforts, according to Carrio.

"He's most comfortable in his bakery, working like a beast, as he has for all these years," Carrio said.

Cubans are a visible part of Lennox, an unincorporated community of 18,000 bordered by Inglewood, Hawthorne and Los Angeles International Airport. It is at least 60% Latino. The predominantly Chicano population also includes Guatemalans, Salvadorans and other immigrants from Central and South America.

Fajardo's La Gran Via Bakery provides bread and pastries for varied tastes, birthday and wedding cakes and Cuban coffee.

"I started working as a baker when I was 9," said Fajardo, 57, during an interview in a busy back room of the bakery.

Fajardo grew up in Santiago, Cuba. As a young man, he belonged to the baker's union and to the Ortodoxia, a key working-class party in the revolution.

In 1956, moved by the charisma of leaders such as Castro and Che Guevara, Fajardo went to the mountains of the Sierra Maestra to join the guerrilla movement against President Fulgencio Batista. He describes a young man's adventure of tolerable hardships.

"We had to bathe in rivers; it was cold; we were hungry," he said. "But the peasants were on our side. It wasn't that bad. We would be playing ball in a field, and the peasants would come and say, 'Hey, there's a convoy of Guardia (soldiers) coming.' So we would prepare an ambush, shoot at them, and then go back to playing when it was over."

When Batista fell, Fajardo said, he took part in the rebels' triumphant entry into Santiago in January, 1959. The name "Fidel" was on every Cuban's lips; Fajardo said he saw Castro once and was impressed by the young leader's magnetism.

But Fajardo grew disenchanted, following the lead of Huber Matos, a commandante from Santiago who broke with Castro and was imprisoned for 20 years.

Fajardo soon became a political prisoner as well. He said he was falsely accused of smuggling refugees to Miami.

"You could hear the firing squads every night. The guards would come to us and say, 'Tonight it's your turn.' "

Fajardo was released after about two years. He went to Havana and managed to obtain a 30-day travel visa to Spain. Upon arriving in Madrid, he went to the U.S. Embassy and was granted political asylum.

In 1967, Fajardo came to Torrance, where he had a cousin. He worked 18 hours a day in three bakeries while arranging to have his wife, Ofelia, and other family members come to the United States via Spain.

By 1971, he had the $1,000 down payment for the Gran Via bakery. He made part of the monthly payments in bread.

"I slept here on the floor," Fajardo said.

The growth of the bakery paralleled the surge in the Latino population. Fajardo purchased surrounding businesses and rented them out. But a new challenge soon emerged: a wave of drug activity by brazen dealers.

"They sold drugs right there on the corner, day and night," Fajardo said.

Fajardo led a group of businessmen who helped police combat the dealers. His defiance earned him bomb and death threats. Vandals attacked the bakery at night.

"He is a man without fear," Carrio said. "He kept working. He would go out on the street and confront the dealers."

Fajardo said he remains on guard. He pulled open drawers to display several loaded pistols.

Drug activity on Lennox Boulevard has been reduced although not eliminated, Capt. Lanier said.

Fajardo has not slowed down. He still gets up at 5 a.m. and works until 8 p.m. He remains energetically anti-Castro.

"I don't miss Cuba," he said. "I wouldn't go back. It would be like a desert for me now."

There is one chink in Fajardo's conservative armor. He said the recent immigration reform law has caused hardship. He suggested that undocumented immigrants be given one more opportunity to become residents.

"Most people in Lennox are hard-working. They work in hotels, in restaurants. Nobody lives off the government here. They will make progress if they get a chance."

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