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Latinos Bemoan the Ethnic Shift in Moorpark : Population: With the increase in Anglos, most recognition of Mexican heritage in the farming community has disappeared.

August 28, 1994|SCOTT HADLY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There was a time when women in black rebozos would line Charles Street in Moorpark in a procession for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The tiny farming community used to regularly hold fiestas, its streets coming alive on Mexican Independence Day and Cinco de Mayo. But that was all a generation ago.

Moorpark is now one of the few California cities where Latino residents make up a shrinking portion of the overall population.

As the debate heightens over immigrants and their impact on California, old-timers in Moorpark provide a different spin on the issue: It is Anglos from the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles who are invading this city. And it's people with names like Castro, Sepulveda, Lopez and Bravo who are lamenting how the newcomers have changed their hometown.

The Mexican American gatherings of the past have all but vanished in a cultural shift that now reflects the complexion of Moorpark's new hillside neighborhoods.

The city stopped funding a Cinco de Mayo fiesta last year. And now the only real citywide celebration, says lifelong Moorpark resident Ruben Castro, is a Western theme parade complete with mock gunfights and line dancing.

"Now we have Moorpark Country Days," said the 65-year-old Castro. "They play a little country and western music and sell hot dogs."

Castro and his contemporaries remember Moorpark as a small town that was as much Latino as it was Anglo: Latinos made up at least half the city's population.

When the city's statistics were first broken down in the 1980 census, they showed that Latinos accounted for about 45% of the population. Ten years later, the figure had dropped to about 20%. Planners say that percentage has fallen even lower, and is likely to continue its slide as more upper middle class families flock to the upscale tract homes planned for hills that surround the town.

"I cannot think of any other city in Southern California where this is happening," said Leo Estrada, a UCLA professor of urban planning.

Estrada said the only other California cities he was aware of with a drop in the percentage of Latino residents are San Francisco, Redding and a small town in Sierra County.

"It's quite interesting because it provides a flip side to what we're experiencing here in Los Angeles," he said.

What some of the locals in Moorpark lament most is what they remember as a tightly knit and proud community. Some worry that the influx of newcomers will roll over their history and erase it from the town's memory.

Moorpark Historical Society President Connie Lawrason, whose husband is Mayor Paul Lawrason, said she does not know of any local tradition of Mexican American celebrations.

"I've looked through all of the old photographs and haven't been able to find any of Mexican fiestas," said Lawrason, who has lived in Moorpark for 10 years. "I've asked a lot of the old-timers and nobody seems to remember any of those festivals."

Castro shrugs off such suggestions. "Ask anyone that grew up here," he said. "They don't remember, either because they weren't here or because they're white."

A farm town before World War II, Moorpark was largely segregated. Latinos lived on the east side of the railroad tracks that dissect the town and shopped mostly at their own stores, such as Castro's father's store La Mas Barata .

The town's Latino population had separate celebrations from the town's Anglos, Castro said. He and his neighbors attended a segregated elementary school on Charles Street up until the fourth grade. When they went to the movies they were allowed to sit only on the right side of the theater.

"Yeah it was a racist place, but no different from the rest of California," said Moorpark resident Henry Bravo, 68.

World War II broke down many barriers. While on leave from the Army, Bravo remembers seeing Latinos protesting the segregated seating at the local theater. "They figured if we were good enough to get shot up in the war and die over there we were good enough to sit anywhere we wanted to," he said.

Bravo, like other young Latino men, returned from the war in uniform and demanded equal treatment. He was the first Latino to move his family across the railroad tracks to a housing development called Sunshine Acres.

Now Latino residents are concentrated on both sides of the tracks in that part of the city, around High Street. Many of the modest single-story homes in that area have become run-down. Bravo says newly arrived Mexican immigrants crowd as many as three or four families into a home, looking to save money.

The neighborhood's character contrasts sharply with the bigger tract homes in the hills. Homes with sloping porches and dirt yards have chickens and roosters strutting about inside a fence.

Sitting under a carob tree he planted behind his well-kept home nearly 40 years ago, Bravo reels off the Spanish surnames of the families from his youth.

"That's old-time Moorpark," he said. "Some of them are still around, but a lot of them are dead or gone."

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