Despite decades of governmental and grassroots efforts, a drumbeat of gang-related killings over the past several years, some apparently racially motivated, has driven gang violence to epidemic proportions here in Los Angeles. With gang crime rising 15.7% last year even as other types of serious crime fell, Mayor Anthony Villaraigosa has proposed appointing a gang czar to oversee his office’s efforts to target gang reduction zones in hardest hit neighborhoods across the city, including our own Northeast Los Angeles. If approved by the City Council, his plan would direct $168 million to anti-gang enforcement, counseling, job placement, and parenting classes in the coming year, according to an ongoing Los Angeles Times series.
Sandra Figueroa-Villa, the long-time executive director of El Centro del Pueblo (https://elcentrodelpueblo.org), the venerable nonprofit community service agency serving Echo Park and surrounding communities, knows the heartache gang violence has caused her community over the years deep in her bones. “When I started volunteering here in the early 1970s, the killing was out of control—much worse even than today,” she says. “We had five gangs fighting for control in Echo Park, competing for territory and the drug trade, just as they are today.”
“Young men—boys, really—were dying all around us.”
[Monica Rodriquez, El Centro’s boxing, folklorica, and hip hop instructor, whose dance team recently won a title in Las Vegas.]
Serving “at risk” populations
Headquartered a block north of Echo Lake in a three-story building that once housed a beauty supply warehouse, El Centro del Pueblo offers a full array of services designed to improve the lives of youth and families in Echo Park and surrounding communities, with a special emphasis on steering kids away from gang life. Services include job training, family preservation, child abuse and neglect intervention, youth counseling, behavior change outreach, substance abuse prevention, and AIDS prevention. The family preservation services, which works to avoid having children placed in foster care, alone provides services to over 150 families a week.
The main building houses a boxing arena, a weight-lifting room, and a dance studio where dance teams practice hip-hop routines and take folklorica instruction. Outside are several full-sized basketball courts and around the corner are buildings holding the counseling centers and program offices. “We had to fight to get this facility opened,” Figueroa says, pointing proudly to the computer room where neighborhood children can do their homework or play games on its dozen computers.
Besides raising the funds, El Centro also had to win over skeptics in the neighborhood who feared the center would attract more gang activity. Leveraging the political clout she had built up over the years, Sandra opened El Centro’s Community Recreation Center in 1998. “Now, gang violence is down in this neighborhood, not like the rest of the city.”
Operating on a $5 million annual budget mostly derived from city and county grants, the agency has 60 staff members, working out of its headquarters in Echo Park and several satellite facilities. “We’ve been asked to open a new facility in Highland Park,” Figueroa reports. “Unique among agencies like ours, nearly all our staff is bilingual in Spanish and English. Many of them come out this neighborhood.” Others come from masters-level internship programs from Long Beach State, Cal State LA, and USC.
But it almost didn’t work out this way. “When I took over as executive director in 1980, we owed $25,000 in back payroll taxes,” she says. It took everything thing they had to make monthly payments so the IRS wouldn’t padlock the doors. “Then Ed Roybal—our long-time Congressman—intervened to get the interest and penalties waived, once we showed we were serious about paying the debt and cleaning up our house.”
Besides its financial woes, El Centro also faced hostility from the Los Angeles Police Department. “Police abuse was rampant then. There was a complete lack of cultural sensitivity on their part,” she says. “We got involved in police abuse advocacy, standing up for the community against the police who only wanted to play cops and robbers. So we were perceived as anti-police, which made fund-raising difficult.”
To turn around that situation, Figueroa and the community activists on El Centro’s board of directors worked to win over the local political community. As a result, besides Roybal, patron saint of Los Angeles’s many young Latino political leaders, Assemblymen Mike Roos and Richard Alatorre got behind El Centro’s efforts to show that it wanted to work with the police in reducing gang crime, not against them.
“For many years, we were considered Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg’s pet project,” reports Figueroa, who grew up in South Los Angeles before moving to Highland Park. “And even Mayor Riordan put $1 million development into Echo Park, which helped us, too.” Then last year, Sandra was named the Northeast Democrat’s Woman of the Year by Assemblyman Kevin de Leon, cementing those traditional ties to the political community.
How El Centro fits into Villaraigosa’s plan to combat gang violence city-wide remains a question. Figueroa agrees with the recent “Citywide Gang Activity Reduction Strategy” report, written by civil rights attorney Connie Rice for the Advancement Project, that a big part of the problem is a lack of coordination among the many organizations dealing with their individual pieces of the gang crisis and that gang-suppression activities alone won’t solve LA’s mammoth gang problem.
With 700 gangs, 40,000 gang members, and a cost to taxpayers that Rice’s report puts at $2 billion a year in legal and medical costs on top of prevention efforts, Los Angeles has a hard and uncertain road ahead. After calling for a massive response to deal with the crisis, Rice has complained bitterly that the City Council and the Mayor haven’t even called for formal hearings on her report yet.
Figueroa understands the frustration. “The media picks up on one killing here, another killing there—like the 14-year-old girl killed in Harbor Gateway last December,” Figueroa says. “But really the killing goes on all the time, all over the city, and mostly over drugs and territory, not race. Then the media attention goes someplace else, and the police are given other priorities, and we’re left here, still dealing with the problems.”