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Mourning the Loss of a Longtime Fighter for Farm Workers

June 24, 1993|VICKI TORRES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MONTEREY PARK — A red-and-black United Farm Workers flag draped a coffin Tuesday night in an East Los Angeles mortuary as mourners, many of them union activists, wept over the death of Artemisa Guerrero.

A longtime volunteer and friend of the late UFW founder Cesar Chavez, Guerrero, 68, who also used the last name Maldonado, was slain last week in her apartment in Monterey Park.

"Artie," as she was called by friends, was a tireless fund-raiser for her beloved " campesinos ."

She could charm homeowners into lending their premises for union events and grocers into donating boxes of food.

Other times, her stern tongue lashed those she perceived as politically wayward.

But her skills of persuasion were useless last week against an as-yet unknown assailant who stabbed her repeatedly and left her bloody body on her bedroom floor.

Los Angeles County sheriff's investigators say Guerrero's attacker broke in through a back window and sexually assaulted the 5-foot-3 woman before stabbing her to death. Her body was found at noon June 17.

While her killer remains at large, family members and friends struggled this week to cope with her death at funeral services that drew hundreds.

"There's a lot of anger," said Andrew Apodaca, Guerrero's son-in-law. "It's sad enough to lose a loved one, but to lose a loved one in this manner is incomprehensible."

Police in Monterey Park, a city that last year logged only eight rapes and two murders, say they are baffled by the homicide.

Sheriff's detectives investigating the murder say the low-income neighborhood and large apartment complex in the 600 block of West Pomona Boulevard is largely peaceful, with elderly women, like Guerrero, and families with small children living there undisturbed.

Investigators are seeking help from anyone who might have seen a suspicious-looking person, possibly with bloodstained clothing, walking in the area last Wednesday evening or early Thursday, the estimated time of the murder.

"This is one of a kind and it sticks out like a sore thumb," Monterey Park Detective Ruben Echeverria said.

Guerrero's wide circle of friends poses even more difficulties for investigators, who are methodically talking to all who may have seen the woman recently, Sheriff's Homicide Detective Bob Tauson said.

"She was such a giving person, she allowed a lot of people to come into her apartment," Tauson said. The killer "could have been a total stranger, to somebody she allowed to stay there, to a neighbor. We're looking at everybody."

That Guerrero knew so many people bears testimony to her more than two decades of volunteer union work, Apodaca said.

A divorced woman who raised three daughters from her earnings as a retail clerk, Guerrero was active in the retail clerks union and in the election campaigns of local politicians, such as Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina and state Sen. Art Torres.

But the farm workers' fight ignited her passion, said friends and family members. Guerrero marched in UFW parades, and television cameras often videotaped her walking next to Chavez.

A farm workers' flag hung on the walls of her apartment. Her drawers were stuffed with videotaped documentaries on farm worker issues, as well as UFW flyers, buttons, posters and pins.

Young men and women, UFW activists, regularly flowed through her home, giving her rides to yet another union meeting or catching up on their sleep on her couch or on the floor.

Nearby storekeepers knew Guerrero well, giving her piles of tortillas and bags of chips, onions and beans. A special card entitled her to loads of produce from the Los Angeles produce market downtown.

The odor of simmering beans drifted from her apartment constantly as Artie cooked big pots of " frijoles charros " for UFW meetings.

Often, she commanded other volunteers in church kitchens, overseeing preparation of food for boycotts, planning meetings or fund-raisers, family members said. So renowned were Guerrero's cooking skills that she was planning to write a UFW cookbook, they said.

"She was able to materialize food out of nowhere," said Juan Zamarripa, grape boycott director for the UFW in Los Angeles. "I believe she worked miracles."

Chavez often stopped by Guerrero's modest apartment for a meal when he was in the Southland, knowing he would be fed and fed well, Apodaca said. When the union leader died last month, Guerrero was inconsolable, draping her door in black as she wept, the son-in-law added.

"She was a soldier," Apodaca said. "She was the one that when someone needed something done, they'd call Artie."

But Guerrero's generosity extended beyond the UFW. Any food that the farm workers couldn't use, she left on her back porch, free for her neighbors.

She planted chiles, tomatoes, carrots and squash in small garden plots carved out of green spots next to her apartment. Plant cuttings were shared with neighbors.

The week before she died, she gathered six elementary school-age neighbor children with plans to plant a vegetable garden, a summer project to keep them busy while school was out.

"We were going to do it and then this thing happened," said 10-year-old Silvia Savedra last week, as she and two other neighbor children sadly pointed to the weed-choked plot, already staked out with string.

Beset by grief, family members say they are angry that the neighbors whom Guerrero helped for so many years failed to come to her rescue when she needed them. But the neighbors say they heard no screams or shouts, nothing to signal the struggle inside the apartment.

"The police said the people are afraid to talk, but we don't know anything," said one elderly neighbor, who asked that her name be withheld.

"I'm afraid to think what happened," she added. "I live alone here."

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