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AFTER THE RIOTS: REBUILDING THE COMMUNITY : In Pico-Union, Refugees Land in a New War Zone : Victims: They escaped Central America's brutalities. But riots here took away homes, dreams and loved ones.

May 11, 1992|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ten years ago, Carmen Martinez and her husband, Ricardo, sold their belongings in El Salvador, left the civil war behind and joined the exodus northward. They built a new life in the Los Angeles neighborhood known as Pico-Union, crowding with four children into a one-room apartment, gradually purchasing furniture on credit and saving money to one day buy a home.

In the hours that turned Los Angeles into a combat zone not unlike the one they had abandoned, the Martinez family lost almost everything in an arson fire that also left them homeless.

"We were just beginning to get to where we wanted to be," Carmen Martinez said as her year-old daughter cried for milk.

"And then this happened."

Salvadorans and other Central Americans--many of whom escaped civil unrest and political upheaval to rebuild in the United States--face starting over yet again after riots destroyed much of Pico-Union and the adjacent MacArthur Park area, heart of this city's huge, thriving Central American community. The damage struck body and soul at one of the city's fastest growing ethnic groups, a group that had already borne the brunt of man-made tragedy.

The pupuseria at 9th Street and Vermont Avenue; the Atlacatl Restaurant, a symbol of the community; La Barata ("The Cheap One") a discount appliance store frequented by Central Americans; the family clinic that treated up to 60 low-income patients a day--all were destroyed and looted in rioting that followed the verdicts in the trial of officers accused in the beating of Rodney G. King.

La Curacao, a furniture store on Olympic Boulevard so popular among Salvadorans that it has a branch in El Salvador, is now a jumble of ruins. Until the store was burned to the ground at the height of the riots, you could put money down at the Curacao on Olympic, and your mother in El Salvador could pick up a sofa.

To make matters worse, in the days following the riots, after many Central American immigrants lost their homes and businesses, they were pursued by federal immigration agents looking for looters. Some were deported.

And the only person killed by the National Guard was a Salvadoran, a former soldier in the U.S.-financed Salvadoran army.

"The Central American community in Pico-Union is probably the hardest hit because it's so concentrated, and there was so much damage in a concentrated area," said Larry Hatler, legislative aide to City Councilman Mike Hernandez, who represents the neighborhood.

"No one in the Central America community was not affected."

Emelina Montoya's story is tragic not just for its sadness, but because it has become so common.

She left her 11 brothers and sisters in the Salvadoran village of Santa Teresa in 1984. Five cousins had been murdered after the army accused them of collaborating with leftist guerrillas; relatives were so scared they didn't attend the funeral. Then the government threatened to seize her family's corn and yucca farm.

Following three brothers who left before her, Montoya--20 at the time--paid a "coyote" hundreds of dollars and was smuggled into Pico-Union. For several years, she worked in sweatshops packaging cookies until she could put together $500 to buy a cart. The cart was for peddling tamales and fruit.

For the last two years, Montoya has earned her living, about $125 a week, as a street vendor.

On the second day of the riots, fire swept through Montoya's apartment building in the shadow of the Harbor Freeway at Olympic Boulevard and Blaine Street. She lost the one-room apartment she shared with her husband and two brothers and all her possessions.

The vending cart was also destroyed.

"In a matter of minutes, my work of eight years is over," said Montoya, seated on the floor outside a Red Cross emergency assistance office. She is eight months' pregnant, and her husband does not have steady work.

About 200 people lost their homes when Montoya's building burned down.

Yet like much of the rest of Los Angeles, Montoya is determined to go on. Riding around in an old yellow Datsun, she and her husband spent hours looking for a new apartment last week. Most were too expensive. Finally they found one for $420, $100 more than their previous rent, and planned to move this weekend.

On the day her apartment building burned, Montoya had watched crowds loot, then set fire to, a furniture store next door. When smoke started to fill her room, she grabbed her purse and fled. The chaos in the streets, along with the curfew and armed troops patrolling urban neighborhoods, were a jarring reminder of the turmoil she had witnessed at home in El Salvador.

"There, you saw a lot of killing," she said. "You saw the bodies of students alongside the roads. Sometimes they'd cut off their hands or their heads. The difference is that here, (the violence) is only for a short time. There, it is permanent."

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