They emerged from nowhere three years ago, 100 mothers with two things in common: a white scarf tied around their heads and a deep-seated concern for the health and safety of their East Los Angeles neighborhoods.
Galvanized by Father John Moretta of Resurrection Church to battle construction of a proposed $100-million state prison in East Los Angeles, the group of Latinas helped stall the project and have gone on to tackle issues ranging from environmental pollution to overcrowded classrooms.
In the process, they have transformed themselves and their neighborhoods, say community leaders and activists, who have come to regard the grass-roots organization called Mothers of East Los Angeles as a leader in local environmental issues.
"In other times, similar groups tackled issues such as the Vietnam War, police brutality and media representation of minorities," said Rodolfo Acuna, professor of Chicano Studies at Cal State Northridge. "Right now, the Mothers are one of the few grass-roots groups in our community dealing with land use and quality of life issues."
Los Angeles City Councilwoman Gloria Molina, a leading opponent of the Eastside prison, said of the group: "These are not losers who say, 'Well, that's the way the system treats us.' They've learned not to be frightened or intimidated by people in power."
Most of the Mothers were born and reared in East Los Angeles at a time when its low-income residents were afraid to fight government officials who railroaded disruptive projects--including freeways, prisons and dumps--through their community.
So too, many of the early members described themselves as shy housewives, easily unnerved by television cameras or government officials who berated their efforts to derail ostensibly economically beneficial projects. Today, the Mothers of East Los Angeles are guest speakers at seminars and community meetings from Los Angeles to Sacramento.
In a visual sign of their transformation, the membership last year replaced the white mantillas-- worn at marches and demonstrations as a symbol of their adherence to nonviolent principles--with spiffy T-shirts and buttons emblazoned with a scarlet logo of a woman embracing an infant.
This month, the group, which has 400 members and is supported by donations from relatives, friends and sympathetic merchants, is incorporating. The move will make it easier for them to raise money for demonstrations, candlelight vigils and letter-writing campaigns--tactics they use to pressure developers, politicians and bureaucrats.
"In the old days, if the government said, 'Move on,' people moved on," said Lucy Ramos, a 40-year-old mother of five children and a spokeswoman for the group. She was a child when state officials ordered her family to leave their home to make way for one of several freeways that sliced through East Los Angeles in the 1950s, displacing 10,000 people and leaving behind a legacy of noise and pollution.
Reached the Limit
"It's not that way any more," she said. "There is a limit to how much junk they can dump on people, and this community has reached it."
There are many other grass-roots organizations in East Los Angeles, some of which also have links to the Roman Catholic Church. The United Neighborhoods Organization, for example, claims a membership of 90,000 families from Catholic churches throughout East Los Angeles.
Unlike the tightly organized UNO, which has a paid staff and admittedly takes on only battles in which it has a reasonable chance of victory, the Mothers of East Los Angeles depends solely on volunteers and has chosen to focus on complex environmental and land-use issues.
"If you witness their persistence, their doggedness, you would see something very natural, something wholesome," Moretta said. "They are mothers who have coalesced around something of immediate importance to them, the safety of their families and children."
Over the last four years, the group has participated in efforts to block proposals to build a state prison in the middle of an area with 32 schools, a $29-million hazardous waste incinerator in the city of Vernon that would burn 225,000 tons of toxic waste a year and an above-ground pipeline that would carry oil from Santa Barbara to Long Beach through the heart of Boyle Heights.
The proposed pipeline was stopped two years ago when the Los Angeles City Council turned down permits requested by four oil companies.
In the case of the state prison proposal, intense grass-roots opposition prompted state officials to request additional study of the potentially adverse effects it would have on traffic, property values and character of neighborhoods in the area, state Department of Corrections officials said.
The proposed prison site is near the intersection of Washington Boulevard and Santa Fe Avenue, just west of the Los Angeles River.