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Learning From a Community's Hard Work

Pico-Union: Sharon Davis spends a day with Central American immigrants, hearing of their successes and the ongoing struggle for economic security.

October 02, 1999|ANTONIO OLIVO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

California First Lady Sharon Davis toured the Pico-Union neighborhood Friday, bringing the attention of the governor's office to the geographic core of one of the state's most downtrodden immigrant communities: Central Americans.

But these days, Davis learned, many of them are not doing so bad.

Using the occasion of Davis' visit, leaders of this community--mostly immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and their children--hope to spread the message that Central Americans are in transition from a mostly refugee population reeling from the effects of civil war during the 1980s to members of Southern California's burgeoning Latino middle class.

For the most part, the region's roughly 1.2 million Central Americans have not achieved a comfortable economic status. But many are well on their way, including the business leaders, young professionals and university scholarship recipients who met Davis on Friday.

Davis listened to community grievances throughout the day. Residents are most concerned about immigration rights and the recently publicized abuses in the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart Division.

Her tour lasted until evening, when she spoke at a banquet honoring local scholarship recipients.

Among the groups emerging from growing prosperity is the Salvadoran American Leadership and Education Fund, which arranged Davis' visit and sponsors the scholarship program. Through a political training program, the fund hopes to develop the community's own leaders, distinct from Southern California's largest Latino group, Mexican Americans.

"We have our own issues," said the fund's executive director, Carlos Vaquerano. "In the next few years, I see more Central American people running for office and getting involved."

Davis' visit, he said, is a good first step. "We want to form a good relationship with the first lady because we know she has some influence on the governor."

That influence was mentioned several times during Davis' visit, which started with her reading to kindergarten students at the Magnolia Elementary School.

The students, mostly children of Central Americans, flocked to Davis while she walked the playground, asking her for autographs and striking up conversations.

As she read to a group of kindergartners, Davis encouraged them to consider college.

"Wouldn't that be fun?" she asked. "Then, you can be anything you want to be."

She later learned of the barriers blocking many of their older brothers and sisters.

Take Eric Duran, 18, who graduated with honors from Roosevelt High School.

His family arrived in the United States from El Salvador when Duran was 5, but he has not yet completed his citizenship process. As a result, he cannot afford to pay the out-of-state fees charged by the University of California, roughly $23,000 a year. He was accepted by UC Riverside, but enrolled this fall at Santa Monica Community College.

"It's unfair that someone who has spent their entire life here is denied the right to a better education," Duran said. "They're telling me and others like me that being educated in the U.S. means nothing. Getting good grades all your life means nothing."

Vaquerano hopes his group's new friendship with the governor's wife might improve circumstances for students like Duran.

Davis showed sympathy, but she said such predicaments are a matter for federal lawmakers, not her husband.

"I understand how tough it is," she said. "I worked my way through college because my parents couldn't afford to pay my tuition."

College Fees Among Concerns

Her audience was not satisfied. Many supported a bill introduced this year by Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh (D-Huntington Park) that would have allowed students who have citizenship applications pending to be charged California resident fees. The bill died in the state Senate after Gov. Gray Davis said he would not support it.

"It's a tough conversation to have," the first lady said, adding she hoped her husband's plans to reduce state college fees could help Duran and others like him.

"It's our eagerness to participate in the state's economy that is driving our concerns," said Roland Palencia, director of a local health clinic. "We want to contribute and make a difference."

A 1996 study conducted by the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute in Claremont shows that the community is on its way, but far from completing its journey into the middle class. Nearly 80% of Central Americans in Southern California have annual household incomes of more than $35,000, it showed.

Many successes have been in small business, which according to Hugo Merida, director of the Central American Chamber of Commerce, "is growing like crazy." In Southern California, he said, there are about 2,000 businesses owned by Central Americans.

Aided by state Sen. Liz Figueroa, (D-Fremont), whose parents emigrated from El Salvador and who is the highest-ranking Central American official in California, the fund coordinates panels on political and business strategies attended by state and federal legislators. The nonprofit group, formed in 1995, secured such corporate sponsors as Arco, Bank of America and AT&T to fund its scholarship program.

Vaquerano said he understands that despite the recent gains, progress may be slow.

"We're not naive," Vaquerano said. "Mexican Americans took a long time to get where they are. We just want to start building now and keep doing what we're doing so it will pay off down the line."

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