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In Search of Unified Voice for Latinos


Sitting at school desks arranged in a circle, 40 people who had gathered to form a Latino Federation hashed out whether to conduct their meeting in Spanish or English.

The dispute, which they solved by allowing people to speak in the language of their choice, illustrates the complex and painstaking process of forming what organizers hope will become a leading force for the Latino community.

The effort was launched as a result of what many federation organizers call a vacuum of leadership among Latino elected officials during the Los Angeles riots.

The federation seeks to provide a united voice for a diverse Latino community, which includes long-established Mexican-Americans, newly arrived Central American immigrants and many others.

"We are the largest population (in the city), but I think we're ignored," said federation organizer Geraldine Zapata, executive director of the Plaza Community Center, a social services agency in East Los Angeles. "The main purpose is to bring us together so that we can have a more proactive voice."

In addition to the federation, a number of Latino store owners have joined to rebuild their burned and looted businesses. Other groups are looking at long-term goals to improve health services, education and political participation by the Latino community.

Some Latino community leaders applaud the proliferation of groups. Others warn that the organization's effectiveness will be diminished if there are too many competing interests.

Without a united advocacy group, said Dr. David Jimenez, a psychologist who is among the federation's founders, Latinos will be left out of the competition for federal money and other funding.

Individuals who have attended Latino Federation meetings represent a wide variety of interests and a number of groups, including Mothers of East L.A., the Mexican American Political Assn. and the Central American Refugee Center.

Michael Cazares, who works for Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project, decided to move back to his native Los Angeles from San Francisco after hearing the not guilty verdicts in the Rodney G. King beating case. He joined the Latino effort in support of City Charter Amendment F, the police reform measure that passed overwhelmingly in June.

After the election, Cazares became involved in the steering committee of a Latino unity forum held June 27 to promote the concept of a federation. "What I'm hearing in the Latino community is . . . not relying on elected leaders to take care of the community," he said.

Some elected leaders have become involved in their own efforts to heal the community from the riots and deal with the causes that led to the unrest. Supervisor Gloria Molina has joined forces with MALDEF President Antonia Hernandez, Monica Lozano-Centanino, editor of La Opinion, and several other organizations to meet with residents throughout her district under the banner of the Unity Coalition.

The coalition has conducted about 15 focus groups of residents from Boyle Heights, Pico-Union, San Fernando and other areas to determine various needs. Residents are being asked how they view law enforcement, how they see other ethnic communities and the role of government in solving their problems, said Juanita Gutierrez, an intern working on Molina's staff.

Their views will be reported to Peter V. Ueberroth, chairman of Rebuild L.A.

The Latino Coalition for a New L.A. is another new group. It focuses on community and urban development and is backed by the Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, TELACU, the Mexican American Opportunities Foundation and the Latin Business Assn.

"We should be consulted on how our communities should be rebuilt, where we will live, the housing that should be built with more amenities and space and areas for children to play," said Bert Corona, director of Hermandad Mexicana. "We're interested in the human impact."

Another effort has been made to unite Latinos whose businesses were destroyed in the riots. The Union de Comerciantes Latinos y Afiliados represents 300 swap meet vendors and other small business owners who lost their livelihoods when their buildings burned.

There is also the San Fernando Valley Unity Coalition, headed by several community-based organizations, such as El Proyecto del Barrio, New Directions for Youth and the Boys and Girls Clubs of the San Fernando Valley. It aims to address the mental health and other emotional needs of the community and to build bridges among ethnic groups, said Richard Alarcon, the San Fernando Valley area coordinator for Mayor Tom Bradley.

"Clearly, rebuilding L.A. is not just rebuilding the structures, but rebuilding our spirit," Alarcon said.

Corona sees a role for all the groups that have sprung up. "I welcome them," Corona said. "Like the phrase in Spanish says: 'There is no evil that does not bring some good.' They all have important missions to accomplish and important contributions to make. If they came out of the civil unrest, so be it."

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