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The Pride of Aliso Village : Dina Gonzalez knows public housing. She lives in it. And now she's trying to help the mayor improve it.

January 24, 1994|MICHAEL QUINTANILLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Commissioner! Commissioner!" shouts John Garcia as he darts through a crowd at Estrada Courts in Boyle Heights and squeezes into Dina Gonzalez's circle of fans.

"Can we get together tomorrow and talk, commissioner?" asks Garcia, a gang intervention coordinator.

"You know me, John, whatever it takes to help our community," she responds.

But just one thing, Gonzalez says quietly to a friend after Garcia leaves, " Please don't call me commissioner."

She knows people call her that out of respect, after her appointment four months ago to the city's Affordable Housing Commission by Mayor Richard Riordan, but she adds: "That's a title I want to be worthy of, a title I want to earn."

Since then, Gonzalez--a 36-year-old naturalized citizen from El Salvador, a high school dropout, former cafeteria worker, public housing resident and mother of five children--has been working full time at earning the title.

Daily she pores over endless stacks of reports pertaining to the commission, established two years ago to advise the mayor and City Council on the city's housing needs. She acknowledges that she has barely begun to get a handle on the task, which includes coordinating the city's housing programs with the other six commissioners, reviewing the housing plans and budgets of city agencies and departments, and evaluating proposed housing policy and legislation.

She has met with the mayor to talk about her unpaid role on the commission and attended numerous community events and meetings with civic leaders, women's groups and business people.

But it is the 30,116 residents of public housing from the San Fernando Valley to South-Central to East Los Angeles she will advocate at the commission's biweekly meetings, she says during a stroll through the grounds of nearby Aliso Village. Gonzalez has lived at this Eastside city housing project for 15 years with her children, ages 5 to 18, including a son with spina bifida.

Banda music blares from a nearby apartment, several women hang their laundry on clotheslines, and residents come and go as Gonzalez stops to take it all in: her neighborhood of friends, family and fighters.

" Comisionaria ," a woman holding a grocery bag says while approaching Gonzalez. "Thank you for your help with that problem," she says in Spanish.

Gonzalez, a small, thin woman, reaches for the woman's hand and tells her that she was only too happy to write a letter to the Salvadoran consul general. Across the street, two men working under the hood of a dented Chrysler wave to Gonzalez and give the thumbs-up sign. Later, a milkman goes out of his way to greet her and offer his support.

She draws a crowd everywhere she walks because "she has always helped people with their problems," says David Ochoa, a good friend and a reporter with the Resident's Voice, a federally funded newspaper published for the people of public housing.

"Food, rent, health, legal aid. She knows what to do. She loves people," Ochoa says. "She is a commissioner with compassion."

Gonzalez is the pride of public housing tenants not only because of her ground-breaking appointment, but "because I understand the people here. I am poor like them," she says.

"If you just think about the name of the commission--Affordable Housing Commission--the word affordable alone implies 'for poor people,' right? There are many people out there who will never understand my class of people, the poor, or will never come to this level of living. But I am in this level, in this standard of living and I do understand the problems that we have in public housing.

"I can bring ideas for solutions to the commission. We need the streets to be repaired. We need more employees in public housing. We need repairs in our apartments. We may be poor but we still pay our way, based on our income. I may not be a woman with a lot of education, but I am a woman with a lot of passion to learn and with a lot of passion to help others."

*

Those who know her agree that if anyone can turn tremendous obstacles into personal triumph, it's Dina Gonzalez.

Anita Moore, Aliso Village's council president, recalls quizzing Gonzalez for the naturalization exam two years ago. Now they talk about Gonzalez's desire to earn her high school equivalency diploma--that is, when Gonzalez isn't solving a resident's welfare problem, investigating a possible Medi-Cal fraud or working on Aliso's youth jobs program.

Gonzalez, a volunteer secretary-treasurer and translator for the Resident Advisory Council at Aliso Village, works three hours a day as the council's resident-management assistant coordinator, for which she is paid.

"But she's a 24-hour person here," Moore says. "She already has made a difference as commissioner. She is bringing a mentor program to help the young people and she is working to bring an ESL (English as a second language) class to mothers in the morning while their kids are at school."

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