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Barrio Life Going From Bad to Worse : La Colonia: Oxnard elections offer hope for improvements. But residents say the city treats the violent and impoverished area like an unwanted stepchild.


On the other side of the tracks--steel rails dividing brown from white, poor from not so poor--the barrio unfolds in a collection of bodegas and barrooms, old homes and old problems.

Here in Oxnard's La Colonia district, mothers guide children home from school through a maze of drunks and dope pushers.

The city champion Colonia Cougars practice flag football in the park, a stone's throw from a regular gathering of domino players.

Two blocks one way, families of 15 or more pay $500 a month to cram into one-room cottages with outhouses and outdoor showers. Two blocks the other direction, public housing tenants make extra cash by selling candy to children from garages long ago converted into snack bars.

And up and down the streets, an old man sells corn-on-the-stick, spiced with red chili, from a two-wheeled pushcart.

The flag football champions and the old man on his pushcart are slices of La Colonia--the poorest, most crowded and most violent section of Oxnard and the most notorious barrio in Ventura County. It is home to slightly more than 8,000 residents, many from families who have lived in the cramped, working-class community for generations.

More than 95% of the population is Latino. Per capita income is $5,482 a year. Only one of every eight adult residents is a high school graduate. And almost four out of every 10 children live below the poverty line.

These are the classic measurements of poverty. But the continuing decline of La Colonia can also be measured by what it has lost.

It used to have a community wading pool, but it is only a sandbox now. It used to have two public elementary schools, now it has one. It used to have a swimming pool, but it was closed and now collects leaves and wayward toads.

There was a public health clinic once, but it is closed too. And there was a strong agricultural base that provided work for nearly half of the population. But even the farmland around La Colonia has begun to vanish, leaving the barrio's field laborers with fewer jobs.

Since its birth in the late 1800s as a dormitory community for Mexican laborers, La Colonia has been Oxnard's unwanted stepchild, residents and others charge. It has been a forgotten neighborhood, they contend, only serviced when their complaints reached a fever pitch and could no longer be ignored.

"The Colonia is like an abused child that has shied away and has no confidence," said Carlos Aguilera, president of the area's neighborhood council.

"And we're losing ground out here. It's not that the people don't care, it's that they have lost faith in the system."

Surrounded by new industrial development--and plagued by worsening problems of poverty, crime and overcrowding--the barrio finds itself in a period of potential change.

With the city election at hand, coupled with a renewed neighborhood activism that has spurred a city effort to at least identify long-standing problems if not fix them, the opportunity exists like never before for community improvement.

But those who live in La Colonia, parents who have watched their children grow up with few places to play and children who have watched their parents grow old in crumbling slums, wonder whether the barrio will slowly disappear.

The cash-strapped city is looking to cut services and not to provide new ones, they know, and city officials have long eyed the area for redevelopment.

"I see the Colonia with two hands around its neck, the grip all the time getting tighter and tighter," said Sancho, a lifelong resident who directs a team of drug dealers in Colonia Park, the community's oldest playground. "It's going to be like it is in prison: the strong survive and the weak perish."

City officials often speak of La Colonia as a larger area of about 14,000 people. When they do so, they are including the Rose Park area, a newer subdivision of some 5,500 people that has sprouted to the east of the older barrio.

But, while the two areas have some things in common, Rose Park is more affluent. Houses are more expensive, residents earn more money and most people own their homes.

The traditional La Colonia boundaries stretch from Oxnard Boulevard on the west to Rose Avenue on the east. It is bounded by Colonia Road on the north and 5th Street on the south.

The original Colonia was meant to be a self-contained town, a city within the city.

At the entrance to Colonia Road, there is a large Sunkist packing plant. On the other side of the barrio, in the shadow of the 3rd Street bridge, La Colonia's largest employer, Nabisco, specializes in tomato sauce and salsa.

There are about 75 other businesses in the barrio.

There is an old-fashioned hardware store and a couple of two-seat barber shops. There is a small branch of the Bank of A. Levy and a string of one-room cafes, one of which makes the best snow cones in town.

There is a radio repair shop and a mechanic specializing in Japanese cars.

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