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This town won't let hate win

As violence tears at the heart of the diverse San Gabriel Valley city of Duarte, residents turn to the community's core values for strength.

July 14, 2009|HECTOR TOBAR

The small city of Duarte, tucked in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, has long been a slice of suburban bliss for many different kinds of people.

The great American playwright Sam Shepard grew up there in the 1950s and once described it as "a weird accumulation of things, a strange kind of melting pot -- Spanish, Okie, black, Midwestern elements all mixed together."

Shepard's 1976 play "Curse of the Starving Class" is set in a San Gabriel Valley community like Duarte. Coyotes howl, the scent of avocado blossoms fills the air and a freeway roars in the distance. It's not a rich place, but the people stay put, even when things go bad.

"This is where I settled down!" the father screams in the play's final act. "I migrated to this spot! I got nowhere to go! This is it!"

Duarte is still filled with stubborn and proud people who won't pack up and leave when the going gets tough. I met some on Saturday. They're fighting to keep their community united, despite several crimes that have shattered the peace of its tree-lined streets and threatened to pit ethnic groups against each other.

"Diversity was always the thing in Duarte -- that's why I moved here," said Lois Gaston, a native of Arkansas who bought a home there in 1969 after being turned down elsewhere because she was black. "But there's always been some folks who don't get it."

In May, a black family was forced out of an otherwise pleasant neighborhood by suspected Latino gang members who broke into their home and covered the walls with racial slurs.

This, I learned from the locals, was the climax of a series of killings in Duarte, Monrovia and neighboring communities born of conflict between black and Latino youths.

On Saturday, blacks, whites, Latinos and other residents joined in a "Peace and Unity Concert." John Fasana, the mayor of Duarte, invited me and asked that I say a few words. He had read two of my recent columns on black history and the Latino community.

I arrived early, which gave me a chance to mingle. What I learned is there is much grief in these places now -- and it's shared by people of all colors. I met women wearing images of their departed children on buttons and T-shirts, and heard stories of courage in the face of intolerance.

And I learned that when you want to heal a community, one of the best things you can do is simply tap into its tranquil, un-violent rhythms and let neighbors enjoy the beauty of a summer evening together under a mountain range where there's still an avocado grove or two scenting the air.

I watched Lisa Magno, the daughter of Italian immigrants and owner of a popular local deli and meeting place, barbecue burgers and hot dogs for the crowd. And I walked around to a little impromptu car show in the parking lot nearby, where people gathered to talk about V-8 engines and the state of the city.

"Yes, there's been violence," Ben Ambriz told me as he stood next to his 1952 Chevy. He's 45 and was born and raised in Duarte. Twenty years ago he was shot by a black man -- but that was in Compton, he said, when he intervened in a domestic dispute. In Duarte, he said, "getting along is the normal thing."

In September, Ambriz will parade his Chevy down the stretch of Route 66 that runs through town, alongside the vintage cars of other local residents, in an event that brings all of the town together, be they owners of Fords, Buicks or Chevrolets.

Not far from the vintage cars, I met Jeanette Chavez, one of those San Gabriel Valley residents fighting to keep things normal, even though her own "normal" recently was taken from her forever.

Chavez is the mother of Sammantha Salas, a 16-year-old killed just outside the Duarte city limits last year. The suspects in Sammantha's shooting are black. Days after Sammantha was killed, Brandon Lee was shot, in an apparent retaliation killing carried out by Latino gang members.

Brandon was a young black man, a graduate of the class of 2007 at Duarte High and a captain of the football team. His killing hit the black community especially hard.

But less than 48 hours after Brandon was killed, Chavez visited the site of his shooting with his father, Willie Lee. The two mourning parents embraced each other and wept.

"This has nothing to do with us," Chavez told me of the hate and the killings. "That's not part of us. That's not what we're about."

Ever since that horrible time, Chavez has appeared at events in Duarte, Monrovia and nearby communities, promoting victims' rights and black-Latino unity.

When Channise Davy, the single mom whose home was defaced in May, attended a news conference to denounce the crime, Chavez was there too.

"Whenever they call me, I come," Chavez said. "In the beginning, it was a struggle. I knew if I stayed home, depressed, I would just sink deeper."

You can't help but feel small before the courage of people who persevere in the face of such loss and hurt.

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