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The Trust Factor

50 years ago, their families were forced together by war. Today, the sons remain allies in building a community.

November 15, 1996|KEVIN BAXTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ignacio Carmona has spent most of his life working with his hands, from picking tomatoes for 10 cents an hour to tuning carburetors at the garage he once owned.

Nao Takasugi's hands have rarely been dirty. High school valedictorian, graduate of the prestigious Wharton School of Business and Finance, a successful businessman and a state assemblyman recently elected to a third term, Takasugi is as comfortable in a suit and tie as Carmona is in overalls.

The only thing the men have in common, it would seem, are homes in Oxnard--albeit on opposite ends of the city. Clearly these were two ships destined to pass in the night.

Instead, however, the ships collided. Forced together more than 50 years ago, at a time when many immigrants were subject to severe repression in their adopted homeland, Carmona, 79--who was born in Jalisco, Mexico--and Takasugi, 74--the American-born son of Japanese storekeepers--have grown to become unlikely allies in community leadership.

And theirs is the kind of alliance that may soon become common in local government. In less than three years, California is expected to become the third state with a nonwhite majority (the first two being New Mexico and Hawaii); when that happens, the ability of minority groups to work together could become vital in keeping government functioning.

"These are two good examples for all of us to have confidence in the future," says state Sen. Jack O'Connell (D-San Luis Obispo), who has worked with both men. "They are both hard-working, dedicated. . . . They have a long list of success stories."

A phone rings in the kitchen of Ignacio Carmona's warm home in Oxnard's La Colonia district, one of Ventura County's poorest neighborhoods. From the living room sofa, where he sits surrounded by family pictures and dozens of neatly displayed civic awards, Carmona calls out to Emma, his wife of 52 years.

"See if it's Nao," he shouts. "I've got a call in to him."

It's election season and Carmona has an issue to discuss with Nao Takasugi, who represents the state's 37th Assembly District, a heavily Republican area that includes parts of Thousand Oaks, Moorpark, Camarillo and Port Hueneme in addition to Oxnard. But Carmona considers Takasugi more than just a politician.

"We've been friends for so many years, he knows I wouldn't call him and take up his time unless I felt it was important," says Carmona, the man everyone calls Nacho. "And once in a while he calls me, too, with things that he has going."

During the past 20 years, Takasugi has risen from City Council member to mayor to the state Assembly while Carmona has served with dozens of community groups, ranging from the grass-roots neighborhood council to the Ventura County Parks and Harbor Commission, which oversees a multimillion-dollar budget. None of it came easy for Carmona, who began by taking copious notes at board meetings, then seeking out a dictionary to look up the words he didn't understand.

"I got involved little by little, little by little . . . until I was too involved," he says. "I was never at home. I was never there with the family."

Maybe that's because he fears crowds: With seven children, 26 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren, Carmona family reunions carry enough votes to swing a close election.

La Colonia, which boasts one of Ventura County's highest concentrations of Latinos, has long been on the other side of the tracks from Oxnard's city leaders--literally. Rails laid by the Southern Pacific Railroad separate the gritty, working-class neighborhood from the rest of the city and that physical isolation was long compounded by a political one: In Oxnard's first 87 years as an incorporated city, only three Latinos were elected to its City Council.

This was the legacy Takasugi inherited when he was elected mayor in 1982, and it's one he's worked to change. Not everyone agrees he's succeeded; some believe Takasugi has been friendlier to developers than to La Colonia residents. Many of the same critics have said that Carmona, who has lived in the neighborhood for five decades, is equally out of touch with the needs of an area sagging under the weight of crime, drug use and gang activity.

Gangs and drugs are a problem, Carmona concedes, but that hardly makes the neighborhood unique. And there have been improvements. Among the ones Takasugi takes credit for are the paving of the neighborhood's dirt streets, the installation of street lights and the establishment of a nearby police substation.

"Because he was a minority and he felt that the Colonia area had been neglected for many years, things that were needed here, he helped them become a reality," Carmona says. "He always made it a point to represent more the Mexican community.

"[And] he speaks good Spanish. If he didn't, I think people would be more reluctant to trust [him]."

*

Trust. Carmona earned that much from the Takasugi family long before they shared a common language.

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