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The Region

Once-Forgotten Barrio's Profile Suddenly Rising

Community: Services for residents in Orange County's La Colonia, home for generations of Latinos, proliferate after years of neglect.

June 07, 2001|JERRY HICKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They came to work the orange groves before the first world war and stayed to raise their families. Viva La Colonia Riva--VLCR--became the code of Latino pride for generations in the five-street unincorporated neighborhood bordered by Anaheim, Garden Grove and Stanton.

But it was the forgotten barrio. As late as the 1970s, La Colonia Independencia still had dirt streets, no sidewalks, not even sewers. And young people eventually were drawn to its gang--VLCR became its identification too, the initials splattered everywhere.

"We were stigmatized," said Christine Villegas, a USC graduate student and a third-generation resident. "Even by some of our teachers. They'd tell us, 'Enjoy your high school years,' meaning that for us, that's as far as we'd ever get. Because we were La Colonia."

But changes are coming in bunches to La Colonia these days.

Its Anaheim Independencia Community Center on Garza Avenue is humming with computer training, a modern weight room, parenting classes, dancing, programs for seniors, job planning, home improvement assistance, and after-school mentoring. A support group for the county probation office puts on a weekly reading hour--where the young people then get to take the book home.

"For many of them, seeing the probation officer is never a pleasant experience," said Tom Hinkle, who is in charge of county probation's work in such unincorporated islands as La Colonia. "We're trying to change that negative image."

La Colonia's transformation has occurred mostly the past 18 months, its driving force Supervisor Cynthia P. Coad. She vowed when she won her seat in 1998 to help unincorporated islands receive improved services.

Coad has a special meaning for La Colonia. For nearly 30 years, she was a volunteer at its community center.

"I first worked with preschoolers; I wanted to improve my Spanish, and I didn't think youngsters that age would mind my mistakes," Coad said. "But the people had such a strong influence on me, showed so much love for their community, that I just stayed on."

Natural Boundaries

Residents appreciate what Coad has done, and embrace improvements. But keep in mind, they caution those arriving to lead programs, La Colonia pride was here long before you.

"When they're here to assist, that's great," Villegas said. "But don't come in to change us; we know who we are."

Natural boundaries helped La Colonia become its own community. It is bordered on the south by Katella Avenue, and on the north by railroad tracks with no through streets. Gilbert Street forms the eastern boundary, and Berry Street on the west is tied to the rest by a connecting buffer stretch of road just off Katella.

In its early days, families would bring in relatives as word of mouth spread about work in the citrus groves. Family bonds kept future generations from leaving.

The work from the orange groves was steady enough that many of them bought inexpensive homes. Residents say home ownership--more than 60% now--has helped contribute to neighborhood pride.

Residents' Close Ties

"Everybody in La Colonia is either a cousin, an uncle or a best friend," said Harpo Castillo, who is trying to get his life together back in La Colonia after a stint in prison for drug sales.

His mother, Jovita Castillo, 84, was just 1 1/2 years old when she moved to La Colonia with her family, which worked as orange pickers.

"One night awhile back, when I couldn't sleep, I started going over how many I was related to in La Colonia," she said. "I counted 22 families."

Before World War II, La Colonia had its own elementary school, and in the 1960s residents managed to create their own community center, rare for a low-income neighborhood.

But the school closed in 1954, and its grounds eventually became a bus warehouse for the Anaheim City School District.

It says something about the community's lack of political punch, contends Villegas, that it couldn't stop the bus station, which seems so out of place in the residential neighborhood.

For decades, the community center operated on a meager budget, staffed mostly with volunteers. Faced with losing United Way support over management problems, the community sought help three years ago from the nonprofit Community Development Council, which took over the center and opened it to surrounding neighborhoods too.

But it kept a working relationship with the leaders from La Colonia who had run it before them, and kept a community group together.

It wasn't long after that that Coad's lobbying efforts began bearing fruit. Now more than a dozen county agencies and nonprofits conduct programs there.

Coad, by the way, isn't just watching from a distance. She also provided dozens of scholarships for students there and she and her husband, Tom, have put up $150,000 of their own money to match $150,000 from United Way for additional benefits to three of the county's low-economic neighborhoods. One of them is La Colonia.

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