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Trees planted in Westlake for mothers rooted in their communities

Ahead of Mother's Day, sweetshades and bronze loquats are placed along 8th Street to honor women from the neighborhood whose volunteer work has made a difference — in the classroom and on the streets.

May 13, 2012|By Esmeralda Bermudez, Los Angeles Times
  • Kareen Sandoval, a mother of six who started a neighborhood watch, takes a photograph of herself in front of the tree planted in her honor.
Kareen Sandoval, a mother of six who started a neighborhood watch, takes… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

Kareen Sandoval was among the first to spot her tree, a skinny little thing about 9 feet tall with dark shimmering leaves.

"Look how beautiful you are," she said, reaching for the trunk. "I want you to grow big and strong and never get knocked down."

Along 8th Street in Westlake on Saturday, volunteers planted 62 trees, but this was about more than mere beautification. Every tree honored a mother from the neighborhood, each one a woman whose volunteer work has made a difference in Westlake and Pico-Union, just west of downtown Los Angeles.

The women recognized are as diverse as the neighborhood, hailing from El Salvador, Belize, Honduras, Mexico and Guatemala. Many are single moms, immigrants with little education, little time and little money. Some are documented, some not. Few speak English.

But within their neighborhood, in ways big and small, they're known as powerhouses. They run large neighborhood watch groups, raise awareness about health issues and domestic violence, campaign for low-income housing and feed the jobless in the streets. At city and school board meetings, they're the ones at the microphone, speaking up, challenging elected officials.

"They're the energy, what keeps things positive in the community," said Councilman Ed Reyes, whose office coordinated the planting and selected the honorees after they were nominated by neighborhood organizations, schools and churches. "They'll work two jobs, work the graveyard shift and have the courage to walk into a nest of gangsters and appeal to them."

Reyes said he plans to declare a strip of 8th Street between Garland and Union avenues Paseo de las Madres, or Avenue of the Mothers, with a decorative sign installed sometime in the future.

On Saturday, the moms stood by smiling as their names were called out one by one: Carmen Rocha, Cecilia Rodriguez, Delmi Ruiz, Irene Sanchez, Isabel Beltran, to name a few. They were given certificates and directed to their trees, either a sweetshade with fragrant yellow flowers or a bronze loquat.

Sandoval, 50, got the latter, planted right in front of Francisco Morazan Central American Square, a new plaza recognizing Central Americans in Los Angeles.

The Guatemalan mother of six came to Pico-Union 27 years ago. Much of that time, she kept to herself, but when her 15-year-old daughter began to sneak out of the house and get in trouble, she sought help from the Police Department. She began to volunteer and offered to start a neighborhood watch.

It was a tricky task because most of her Latino neighbors distrusted police, and officers were skeptical that Sandoval, with no prior training, could lead the group.

But seven years later, the Westmoreland Neighborhood Watch boasts more than 80 members. They meet once a month to learn survival skills in case of earthquakes, windstorms and other disasters. They report anything suspicious or illegal — graffiti, drug sales, stolen bikes — to Sandoval. A week ago, they got matching T-shirts.

Sandoval's older daughter eventually graduated from high school; her younger daughter is a police cadet.

"Before, police officers were seen like the bad guys in the movies," Sandoval said. "But now we are their eyes, on every block, in every other house."

Just down the sidewalk another tree was dedicated to Adaly Ugalde, a single mother of four who formed a group to fight for low-income housing.

Action Westlake works out of a small office space paid for by a dozen mothers. They are housekeepers, teacher assistants and waitresses who, in their spare time, organize neighborhood clean-ups and health fairs. To make money for their volunteer work, they hold garage sales.

Ugalde, 50, hopes the trees will inspire other mothers to put aside their shyness and participate more often.

"We're proof that when you want something, you can do it," she said.

For many women, the tree and the thank-you were the best Mother's Day gift they could have gotten. They strolled down 8th as if on a scavenger hunt — past discount markets, party supply stores and banquet halls — looking for their trees.

"Here's mine!" yelled Carmen Rocha, a mother of four, as she stopped in front of an apartment building.

She and half a dozen women who volunteer weekly at Evelyn Thurman Gratts Elementary School each got a tree, all within a few feet of one another.

"Can you imagine?" said Alejandra Ayala, a mother of two. "One of these could never fit in our tiny apartments, but now, look — a whole street full of our very own trees."

As their children hopped and skipped around, the women made plans to come by each week to water the soil, maybe adding some fertilizer.

They hoped the youth who walked by would take pride in their neighborhood and think twice before misbehaving or spraying a wall with graffiti.

"Now we've got one more thing we have to take care of, ladies," Ayala said. "Years from now, our grandchildren will come here and say, 'Look what our grandmas left for us.' "

esmeralda.bermudez@latimes.com

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