SOUTH GATE — Alvaro Cristales is a symbol and an inspiration to many in this community, recently named an All-America City.
He is Latino. He came to this country illegally. He has temporary resident status, and he expects to become a citizen through the amnesty program. And through hard work, he has become a successful businessman.
Last week, Cristales traveled to Phoenix with 18 other South Gate residents, officials and civic leaders to accept the All-America City Award from the National Civic League.
South Gate received the award after it climbed out of a local depression with a series of economic development projects, reduced gang violence and developed programs to bring Anglo and Latino cultures together.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 1, 1990 Home Edition Long Beach Part J Page 3 Column 1 Zones Desk 2 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Development Company: A June 14 story on South Gate's All-America City Award incorrectly identified the developer of a 90-acre industrial park. The developer is South Gate Business and Industrial Park Developers, a partnership formed by two firms, Goldrich & Kest and Sheldon Appel Co.
The 45-year-old Cristales, who with his wife, Marta, runs a janitorial service, gave an emotional speech during the city's presentation.
Cristales was born and raised in Guatemala. He said he came to this country in 1979 with his wife and three sons with "no job, no money, but with two hands to grow with the spirit of America."
"I faced language problems. I faced cultural problems and some prejudices. But I coped," Cristales said.
He took English classes and joined the South Gate Chamber of Commerce.
Cristales said he chose South Gate because of its many Latino immigrants. More than 70% of the city's nearly 80,000 residents are Latino.
In the last decade, the population of the city has shifted from a white majority to Latino. White residents started to leave in the late 1970s and early '80s when the city suffered an economic depression.
The city lost more than 7,000 jobs when two of its major employers, General Motors and Firestone Tire and Rubber Co., along with other smaller companies, closed.
The blue-collar town went through a period of economic depression, gang problems and a lack of community participation, officials said.
The National Civic League honored South Gate and nine other cities in the nation for their efforts in trying to solve such community problems. Bakersfield was the only other California city to receive an award.
Each year, the league honors communities that have brought government, business and residents together to attack "critical issues through collaboration and effort," Betsey Horsley said. Horsley is program assistant and coordinator of the All-America City Award for the nonprofit organization based in Denver.
"We don't judge on population or the attention the city might get from the media. We look at the grass-root effort," Horsley said.
As part of its recovery, the city Redevelopment Agency vigorously sought ways to create business development and new jobs, according to city officials. The agency was able to acquire more than $10 million in federal grants to help with economic development.
The agency purchased the General Motors property in 1985 for $12 million. The 90-acre parcel is currently being developed by Goldrich & Kess & Shelton & Apel into a $60-million industrial park. When the park is completed in 1993, it is expected to create more than 3,000 jobs.
Hon Industries was given a $2.2-million grant to help convert the old Firestone complex into a plant to manufacture office furniture.
Park/Abrams Development Co. of Irvine received a $2.1-million grant to help in developing a $10-million Tweedy Market Place shopping complex on Tweedy Boulevard.
The Redevelopment Agency also has given $5,000 grants to low-income homeowners to help upgrade their homes. Small businesses have been awarded $20,000 grants to upgrade their buildings.
The city has been able to reduce gang problems through anti-gang and anti-drug programs, officials said.
A Youth Commission started more than three years ago provides activities for youths. Anti-gang and anti-drug instructions were placed in the nine elementary schools and the one junior high school. The city has held several "Proud to Be Me, Gang and Drug Free" rallies with more than 5,000 students marching in protest against drugs and gangs.
These programs, coupled with a vigorous police crackdown, have reduced the number of gangs in South Gate from 17 to 8 and membership from 1,700 to 200, Police Chief Ronald George said.
Arrests of gang members have declined from a high of 350 in the early 1980s to less than 70 last year, George said. "Part of this is due to education and the other part is to police action," George said.
As far as bridging the gap between the two cultures, more than two-thirds of the city's 30 churches hold services in both Spanish and English in an attempt to reach immigrants.
"Half of my congregation is Hispanic and the other half is Anglo. We have Spanish and English services," said the Rev. George Jameson, pastor of Parkview Foursquare Church and vice president of the South Gate Ministerial Alliance.
Jameson said his church also provides space for amnesty classes for adults conducted by the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Last month, the South Gate Chamber of Commerce sponsored a street fair along Tweedy Boulevard, the city's main business district. The purpose was to stimulate business while getting all segments of the community to participate, chamber President Jerry Turner said.
About 25 of the 40 merchants on the boulevard participated, Turner said. He predicted more participation by merchants and the public in the future.
"We won the award. Now we must live up to our All-American designation," Turner said.