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The Eyes, Ears and Heart of a Community

September 02, 2000|AGUSTIN GURZA

At first, Ronnie Carmona felt like nobody would listen to her pleas for her jailed son--until she spoke to a group of strangers at a Sizzler in Anaheim.

That was long before the newspaper stories, before the high-powered legal appeals, before Arthur Carmona became a cause celebre. Ronnie was just a working mother who couldn't accept her boy's conviction for a robbery she knew he didn't commit.

Yet a lot of mothers think their sons are innocent. Who would believe her?

Los Amigos did. The Anaheim-based advocacy group, known in English as "The Friends," lived up to their name, becoming steadfast Carmona supporters.

Ronnie Carmona and her son received wide media attention last month when a judge ordered the youth released from prison and his conviction expunged. It marked the triumph of a long campaign to convince the courts that Arthur had been found guilty in a faulty trial and was serving an unjust, 12-year sentence.

The young man's case became a crusade for my colleague Dana Parsons, who wrote a series of columns questioning methods used by police to arrest and identify Carmona on a Costa Mesa street in February 1998. His articles later got the attention of a powerful Los Angeles law firm, which ultimately helped set Carmona free.

At a news conference the next day, a relieved mother and son, surrounded by supporters, talked to reporters about the ordeal and its happy ending. The meeting with the media was held inside that Sizzler restaurant on State College Boulevard.

To television viewers, it may have seemed an odd place to call a news conference. But the steakhouse was a logical setting for Ronnie Carmona's victory.

She was back where she started.

Group Began With Mayor's Comment

Before influential allies joined her battle, Carmona first turned to community groups like Los Amigos of Orange County, an informal gathering of advocates who assemble every Wednesday morning at the Sizzler owned by Roberto and Susan Soltero. Over breakfast, they meet in town-hall style and listen to anybody who wants to air an issue or ask for help with a problem.

"The community needs to know this is the link," said Ronnie Carmona, who also gives credit to Nuestro Pueblo, a new spinoff community group that holds regular evening meetings elsewhere in Orange County.

Los Amigos was formed in 1978. It grew out of a committee that met to plan a dinner honoring former Anaheim Mayor W.J. "Bill" Thom for his service to the community.

"You really want to thank me?" members recall Thom telling them. "Keep meeting and take on the issues that need to be taken on."

They took his advice. And Thom still comes to their meetings.

Anybody is welcome to attend Los Amigos, if they get up early enough. Meetings start at 7:30. Those who want to speak simply sign in on an erasable whiteboard. They are not screened or edited. They just wait their turn, stand up and make their pitch.

The result is a weekly parade of do-gooders asking for funds, politicians seeking support, community groups announcing events, advocates recruiting troops, and regulars reporting on relevant happenings at city council or school board meetings.

The multiracial group has a motto: Nos gusta ayudar (We like to help). But it has no bylaws, no membership dues, no officers, no required attendance.

"Those are chains that we don't have," says Amin David, a plumbing parts dealer who has presided with humor and grace over the group from the start. "No tenemos dinero. (We don't have any money.) And that's our biggest blessing."

With no funds to fight over, David says, the group avoids internal conflicts. If someone needs financial assistance, they pass the hat.

The lack of resources also has its limitations; some critics say the group is all talk.

"Well, they don't pretend to be anything else," says Josie Montoya, a veteran Anaheim activist who's been attending Los Amigos for 10 years. "It's an open forum for people to bring their complaints. They never said they were an activist group that was going to take on every cause."

Typically, more than a dozen people and their issues get a spot on the impromptu agenda each week. On Wednesday, they included a private detective promoting a walk against childhood cancer, a young candidate trying to become the first Latino in 20 years to win election to the Westminster school board, and Montoya herself asking for help to transport school supplies to a Tijuana orphanage named El Faro.

Before the meeting was over, she had at least one volunteer who offered to meet her at 6:30 a.m. for today's trip to the border.

Meetings Not Free of Controversy

Not everybody gets a warm welcome, however. Two representatives from the Boy Scouts of America were peppered with pointed questions Wednesday when they tried to defend their organization's controversial stand against gay troop leaders.

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