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Head of Chicano Federation Quits to Assist City's Poor

January 23, 1991|PATRICK McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Irma Castro, who has been at the forefront of Latino issues in San Diego for more than a decade, says it is time for her to take on new challenges.

"At some point you want to do something that's more hands-on, more tangible," Castro said Tuesday during an interview at the offices of the Chicano Federation of San Diego County, the influential social service agency where she has served as executive director for the past 11 1/2 years. "This will be an opportunity to create something new that will benefit people."

As of March 1, Castro announced Tuesday that she will leave her position at the Chicano Federation to become coordinator for New Beginnings, a novel, school-based program aimed at assisting inner-city families' access to medical care, food, education and other social services. Jointly sponsoring the new initiative are the city and county of San Diego, the San Diego Community College District, the San Diego City Schools and the city Housing Commission.

Castro, 49, an opinionated, energetic single mother of two teen-agers, says higher pay was not a factor in her decision, although school officials say she stands to increase her current salary of about $32,000 by perhaps half. Rather, Castro, a San Diego native, says she felt her more than a decade of labor at the federation had left the organization on sound footing, and it was now time for her to move on to other undertakings.

"This organization was never built on one person," Castro said of the federation, which operates dozens of social programs, from legal counseling to job placement to providing emergency food and shelter, on a budget of slightly more than $525,000, mostly from county and federal funds, United Way contributions, donations and grants.

"I tend to do things because I want to do them," Castro continued, switching from Spanish to English as journalists from San Diego and Tijuana questioned her on Tuesday at the federation headquarters in Southeast San Diego. "All my life I've tried to work in areas where I can make a difference. It may not be a huge difference, but it's a difference."

Federation officials said they were sad to lose Castro, but stressed that the organization would continue its work. Two housing developments for senior citizens are targeted for construction during 1991.

"It's not going to be easy to fill her shoes, but the organization will keep on doing what it has been doing," said Gloria L. Medina, chairwoman of the federation's board of directors.

Medina will head a search committee seeking a replacement. An acting executive director will temporarily assume Castro's duties.

Castro was appointed executive director of the federation in July, 1979, at a time when the organization's future appeared cloudy. A county grand jury had recently published a highly critical report; there were allegations of mismanagement. The county was mulling a funding cutoff.

Supporters credit Castro with having revived the federation's image, transforming it from a peripheral group to perhaps the city's best-known Latino organization. Fund raising has also improved, as Castro is comfortable alternating between corporate boardrooms and barrio streets. During her tenure, the federation, seeking to improve chances for electing a Latino council member, successfully challenged the distribution of Latinos in San Diego City Council districts.

Castro is a native of Barrio Logan, one of three children of Mexican immigrants. Her mother was a cannery worker and her father a mechanic and occasional field hand. She still resides with her children in San Diego's so-called Shelltown barrio, near National City.

"Our parents always wanted us to have careers, to better ourselves," Castro recalled, noting that unions and community involvement were stressed in her household, easing her transition to activist. She has bachelor and master's degrees, earned a research fellowship at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and has taught Mexican-American studies at San Diego State University and elsewhere.

Within the Chicano movement, she acknowledges that she has sometimes been criticized as not being sufficiently radical, as someone who was too comfortable working within the system. But, she says has decided that "building bridges" was her preferred approach to improving the lot of her people. Nonetheless, she is not hesitant to voice strong opinions.

"There's a stigma in this country against being poor; a stigma against people of color; a stigma if you don't have an education," Castro said. "We've gotten into some false values, equating trust and equality and respect with material kinds of possessions."

She is against what she views as U.S. aggression in the current Persian Gulf War, well aware that a disproportionate number of casualties will be Latinos and other people of color. "Why do our children have to be cannon-fodder?" Castro asked.

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