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Latinos Complain of Insulting Treatment by Bus Drivers : Transportation: Passengers who don't speak English are belittled and sometimes not picked up, group says. Transit authority spokesman said agency is investigating.


Nine Latino bus riders have united to fight what they say is racial discrimination by bus drivers in Echo Park and other inner-city neighborhoods.

The passengers, who call themselves Grupo Latino de Echo Park, say they, their family members and friends have been subjected to rude and insulting treatment because of their race and limited English skills.

The group met with Metropolitan Transit Authority officials last month to air their complaints, and agency spokesman Greg Davy said the complaints are being investigated.

But founding member Barbara Gonzalez said group members will continue to make noise until the agency acts on their suggestions to increase sensitivity training. "We don't want just a letter (from transit officials) saying, 'Thank you very much for informing us of the problem.' We want to see change in the bus drivers' behavior," Gonzalez said.

Group members assert that bus drivers have made insulting comments about the English skills of Latinos, have had loud and abusive arguments with passengers and have failed to stop for Latinos. Gonzales said she has heard bus drivers make comments such as: "How long have you been living here, and you still haven't learned English?"

Even some English-speaking Latinos say bus drivers are rude when the Latinos intervene on behalf of the Spanish speakers.

Guadalupe Mercado, a 19-year-old Los Angeles City College student, says she was handcuffed by transit police and ticketed in December after she argued with a bus driver who, Mercado charged, treated another Latino woman badly. But when Mercado identified herself as a college student, the transit officers' attitude suddenly changed from aggressive to respectful, Mercado said. She is still fighting the ticket for loud and unruly behavior on a bus, which she said carries a fine of about $500.

One teen-ager also claims a bus failed to stop after knocking him to the ground. Arturo Orozco, 14, said he was hurt April 26 when the bus rounded a corner and struck the shopping cart he was pushing. The youth said he has been in therapy for back injuries suffered in the incident and his family has filed a claim against the MTA.

Davy said transit officials have encouraged group members to provide specific details, including the bus route, the four-digit bus identification number above the driver's seat, the time of day the incident occurred and the driver's name or identification number, which is part of a sleeve patch. Some of the members said they provided all this information at the July 9 meeting.

The incidents described indicate "clearly unacceptable behavior by our bus drivers," but disciplinary action against the drivers cannot be taken until the matters are fully investigated, Davy said.

Transit Authority bus drivers are not required to be bilingual, "but they are certainly required to be courteous and helpful at all times," Davy said. Drivers are instructed to ask for translation assistance from another passenger if there are communication problems, Davy said.

Davy said the agency is unsure how many of its 4,353 drivers are bilingual. But 1,441 of the drivers are Latino, and at least half of them are believed to be fluent in Spanish, he said.

The bus riders want drivers to undergo cultural sensitivity and language training, but Davy said the agency has no plans to do so.

Since this is the first reported instance of "a persistent problem of cultural barriers," the agency has no plans at this point for a "systemwide revamping" of its training, Davy said.

Although Grupo Latino originated in Echo Park, it now also represents unhappy bus passengers in the East Los Angeles and Temple-Beaudry communities, said Gonzalez.

Gonzalez started the group about three months ago, after hearing such stories from friends, neighbors and relatives. "I said, 'Why don't we have a group to say, 'Hey, we are here and we want someone to listen to us?' "

The group complained to Councilman Mike Hernandez, who arranged the meeting with MTA officials in early July.

Some Latinos said they have noticed a slight improvement in bus drivers' behavior since the meeting. Another meeting with transit officials is scheduled Aug. 19.

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