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Parish Mirrors Burbank's New Ethnic Makeup


When Mass is celebrated in English, the pews of St. Finbar are never full. Although a dwindling flock faithfully attends, the church is never even half full--until it is time for the Spanish Mass.

Then the drought ends and the flood begins.

Every Sunday, hundreds of Latinos make their way to the Catholic community of St. Finbar in Burbank, filling every seat, using every hymnbook.

So striking is the difference in attendance that the pastoral committee this year decided to replace one of the prime-time English language Masses with one in Spanish. The move left some Anglos feeling "as though they were being outnumbered," said Msg. Robert Howard, church pastor.

St. Finbar is in many ways a microcosm of Burbank--its experience with a changing congregation, as well as its reaction, mirroring demographic changes citywide.

Once known mainly as the butt of Johnny Carson jokes, Burbank is changing from an overwhelmingly Anglo suburbia to an increasingly multiethnic city that is beginning to confront issues experienced by its larger urban neighbors.

"It was a long time in coming, and it was painful because we knew that we would hurt some of the good, solid families that have been here," Howard said of the Mass change. "Some, I'm sad to say, will leave the parish. But the archbishop once said, 'It's amazing, if we're going to be together in heaven, why can't we live together here on earth?' "

Latinos, the city's largest minority, grew from 16% of Burbank's population in 1980 to nearly 23% in 1990, according to census figures.

"When people talk about the Latino community, they think it's all Elmwood Street," said resident Marsha Ramos, referring to a city barrio. "But it's much bigger than that."

And much more diverse.

The Latino community is a mosaic. There are Latino families that have lived in the city for decades, as well as recent arrivals from Mexico, El Salvador and Nicaragua. There are older residents who are holding on to traditions, and a younger generation that does not speak Spanish.

What unites Latinos to each other--and to the rest of the city--are their reasons for coming to Burbank and their motives for staying: good schools, less crime and prospects for a better life.

"It's a beautiful place to raise your children," said Viviano Garcia, 63. "I've lived here all my life."

Some, such as Garcia, remember when Burbank, like other parts of the country, was ethnically segregated. Latinos could not use the swimming pool at the Pickwick Recreation Center on Riverside Drive, and some barbers refused to cut their hair, Garcia recalled. Movie theaters had separate seating for whites and Latinos.

Garcia's family moved to Burbank from Arizona in 1933, hoping to find work during the Depression. His mother, a schoolteacher, took a job as a grocery store checker after the city school system refused to hire her.

"She was a graduate of the University of Arizona," Garcia said of his mother, who is now 87. "She had all these degrees and it didn't do her a bit of good. . . . At the time she applied, they said, 'We're not hiring Mexicans.' "

Back then, racism was an everyday part of Burbank life. "You kind of took it in stride," Garcia said. "It was just part of society. . . . We never complained because we just didn't know any better."

Latinos were also restricted from buying homes in many neighborhoods.

"They used to be very strict," recalled Frank Lucero, 67, sitting in his home near St. Francis Xavier Church. He moved to Burbank with his family in 1927. "They wouldn't let them go above Glenoaks Boulevard to live. We were one of the first families to buy up here. They wouldn't let you live here years ago."

As a result, Latinos ended up in city neighborhoods with names such as Barrio Del Chiro, Barrio de la Bandera and Front Street.

But two incidents changed life for Latinos in Burbank, longtime residents say. One was World War II, the other, a freeway.

The war "showed them that we're just like them," said Lucero, who helped liberate Paris as a soldier.

And when the Golden State Freeway was built through the heart of the city's barrio, "everybody started moving into different areas," Garcia said.

As a result, the generation that followed Lucero and Garcia's era had experiences markedly different from their parents. Some, such as Marsha Ramos, 35, grew up scarcely different from her Anglo friends.

In the neighborhood where Ramos lived, there were few Latino families, and she recalls little discrimination. Her father was an engineering geologist, her mother a community volunteer.

Ramos, who serves on the city's park and recreation board, did not learn Spanish until she was an adult. As a volunteer at St. Finbar, Ramos comes in contact with many native Spanish speakers who are sometimes surprised when they hear her speak.

"My Spanish is really not very good," she said. "The people who speak Spanish can't understand why my Spanish is the way it is."

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