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ELECTIONS '92 : Latinos Show Political Maturity in Slapping Down Prison Plan


After seven years of controversy, political leaders of the Mexican-American community recently celebrated the defeat of a state plan to build a prison near the Eastside.

The politicians, although divided in two camps, agreed that the end of the battle heralds a new era for achieving the Latino community's goals.

"This victory," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, "leaves the community with the confidence that there is power . . . and now it can just translate for every other issue: More schools, more jobs and a safer community."

Meanwhile, architect Frank Villalobos, founder of the Coalition Against the Prison in East Los Angeles, said: "We'll meet again when the Legislature meets, because we want to let them know that we are still here."

In announcing the news last month, state Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) said: "Through the years, there have been people who have tried to use our community, not to give us the best that society has to offer, but to give us the leftovers. And this time we weren't going to take leftovers."

The celebration was prompted by Gov. Pete Wilson's signature on a Torres measure killing a 1987 plan, which had required that a prison on the Eastside be built before a Lancaster prison could open. In its place, this year's measure gives the Lancaster prison the $17 million that had been earmarked for the prison near East Los Angeles.

The struggle galvanized Eastside community activists, who demonstrated a new political maturity by remaining solidly united against the prison throughout the seven years.

By the summer of 1985, when Gov. George Deukmejian proposed the prison to alleviate overcrowding in the California penal system, that neighborhood already had three of the four detention facilities in Los Angeles County.

Residents of Boyle Heights complained that their community was already traversed by what may be the world's busiest freeway interchange. They also said their neighborhoods had more than their share of landfills, and officials seemed to think that the area was the ideal place to bring projects that other localities rejected.

Among the first to oppose the prison plan were Molina, then an Assembly member who was starting her political career by opposing Deukmejian's plan; Father John Moretta, pastor of the Church of the Resurrection, and a group of women who gathered in that church. Moretta dubbed that group "the Mothers of East Los Angeles." Among the women who stood out were Juana Gutierrez, Aurora Castillo and Lucy Ramos.

In the mid-'80s, Villalobos, who had established the Barrio Planners firm, joined the battle. With officials from 47 civic organizations, he founded the Coalition Against the Prison in East Los Angeles.

With more determination than resources, they filled buses every week with supporters. They would march back and forth over the bridge on Santa Fe Avenue and Olympic Boulevard, near the proposed prison site, chanting the slogan: "No prison in East L. A., No prison in East L. A."

The battle entailed lawsuits, environmental reports, appeals, countermands and closed-door negotiations, all of which kept the Eastside community tense and wary.

In July, 1986, the prison project was practically dead, but on the very day he was first sworn in as an assemblyman, Richard Polanco cast a crucial vote in the Assembly's Public Safety Committee that revived it, thus prolonging the battle for six more years.

Even though Polanco helped negotiate the terms of the measure signed by Wilson, the lawmaker alienated part of the Latino community with that initial vote and contributed to a rift that had already started polarizing the two most important Latino political groups--the Molina and Torres blocs--in Southern California.

S o much so that on the day of the final victory, Sept. 14, the Latino leadership appeared so fragmented that only one side took part in the official festivity in the Church of the Resurrection. Torres and Polanco were present, as were state Sen. Charles Calderon and Councilman Richard Alatorre.

Absent from the celebration were Molina; Assemblywoman Lucille Roybal-Allard, who carried on for five years in Sacramento the legislative battle that Molina had started against the prison, and Assemblyman Xavier Becerra, who also played a part in the final negotiations with Wilson.

Among the community leaders were Moretta, who is a monsignor; Villalobos, Castillo and Ramos. Missing was Gutierrez, who presides over the Mothers of East Los Angeles of Santa Isabel Parish, which has split from the original Mothers of East L. A. group.

At the celebration Sept. 14, Torres proclaimed that "this is a celebration of unity," and expressed gratitude toward Wilson for having forever eliminated the prison threat. He said that Wilson, by signing the measure, had taken "a most important and historical step and he could not have given us a better gift for Mexico's Independence Day."

But Becerra disagreed with Torres. "The governor did not sign the measure into law out of the goodness of his heart, but because it was convenient, since in doing so he got funding to build two more prisons," Becerra said. "The victory doesn't so much belong to any of us (politicians), as it belongs to the Mothers of East Los Angeles."

Molina went even further, saying she felt "disappointed at Art Torres . . . it wasn't a gift from the governor; it was a gift to ourselves. We did it. We are the ones that made it happen.

"I want to be as united as everyone else, but we should be united in respect to the community," Molina said. "This community said, 'We don't want it' (and) they should have respected the community, but they didn't."

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