"Let me tell you a story," says the silver-haired man.
There are these two fishermen fishing for crabs. In the boat they have two large barrels. One barrel has a top, the other does not. One fisherman says to the other , "The crabs we're putting in the barrel without the top, they're going to climb out." Says his friend , "Don't worry. These are Mexican crabs." The other guy asks, "What does that mean?" And the fisherman explains: "Well, as one starts climbing to the top, the others will pull him down."
The storyteller leans forward. He uncrosses his legs, puts his hands on his knees, clears his throat.
"I tell this story to show how ignorance blocks progress," he says. "Sometimes we don't want to see others succeed. But if we help each other out, then there will be three or four of us who can make it--Hispanics who can climb the ladder of success. But we have to work together."
His eyes twinkle.
His friends say that when his eyes twinkle he's thinking about his love for his people.
Then he shares his motto for living: "Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success."
The Elder of East L.A. has spoken.
For nearly all his life, 83-year-old Frank R. Duarte has been an adviser, counselor, peacemaker, networker, innovator, father image and friend to the people of his community.
He is affectionately regarded by leaders and residents of East Los Angeles as the Godfather of East L.A., Mr. East L.A. and the Statesman of East L.A.
At fiestas, he is swarmed by women. At parades, children beckon "Senor Duarte!" At rallies, politicians vie for his attention. And at community meetings, many seek contacts--from employment centers to health services to Social Security office branches--from the man who is a virtual walking Rolodex. His name, people say, opens doors because he never bad-mouths anyone, even those who take credit for his work.
As the senior community relations liaison for the county's Department of Health Services, Duarte--the oldest county employee--has been one of the Latino community's biggest advocates for affirmative action and health services to Latinos.
His full-time job includes helping many secure work--as custodians, doctors, nurses and administrators--at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, the largest public hospital in the nation. The center employed only 732 Latinos in a work force of 9,000 in 1973, when Duarte began his work there. Today, its 10,000 employees include more than 2,400 Latinos, many of whom got their jobs with Duarte's help.
From AIDS brochures printed in Spanish to educational projects about alcoholism and Latinos, and services for disabled Spanish-speaking youth, Duarte has created many health projects for his community.
His resume includes two pages listing memberships on various commissions, committees and boards, including the Los Angeles Police Commission, American Red Cross, AIDS Planning Council and the East Los Angeles Health District.
He helped found the Los Angeles County Chicano Employees Assn., the Department of Health Services Latino Managers, the Los Angeles Hispanic Managers Assn. and the Medical Center's Hispanic Festivities Committee, which named a scholarship after him six years ago.
This attention, Duarte says, left him grateful but embarrassed.
He prefers to stay in the background, going about the business of hooking people and groups together to solve problems in the community.
"When you get to where you want to be in your job, career and life, please turn around and help someone else," he says. "Give back."
Many of Duarte's proteges have.
"He has taken his bumps along the way but Frank Duarte has been a vigilant warrior on all issues important to the people in our community," says County Supervisor Gloria Molina. "When I was a young Chicana feminist, Frank provided guidance in an empowering way. He shares his skills. He welcomes the energy of young people. He imparts information, education. . . . One of the admirable qualities about him is that he is there--a wise man in our community."
Richard Amador, president of CHARO, a nonprofit East Los Angeles community service organization, says Duarte's role in the Latino community is invaluable.
"He has been helpful in making sure that we in the Latino community look at all perspectives and not just our own, especially when it affects the community," Amador says. "If he hadn't been there for us mediating, a lot of relationships would not exist today and a lot of programs for the community would have been killed."
Adds Adelaide De La Cerda, County-USC's public information officer and a friend for more than 20 years: "He is a mentor and a great elder in East L.A. Mr. Duarte turned my life around. He made me see that as a Latina I could get ahead. He showed me many avenues that would not have opened if he had not stepped in. And the only thing that he has wanted in return is for us to help another Latino or Latina achieve and succeed."