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Browning the Green Movement

The Alianza de los Pueblos del Rio formed after [Robert] Garcia and others decided that development of a new L.A. River was a symbolic and literal convergence of a myriad of issues confronting L.A.’s Latino population. To be left out of the discussion, they realized, was to be left high and dry, as the river shifts directions into the future. Instead, the alliance . . . spearheaded river meetings and community outreach that have ballooned into a comprehensive new platform of urban Latino environmentalism. Part legal strategy, part organizing principle, this green movement en español has put people — immigrants and poor people, mostly — at the center of an issue traditionally focused on flora and fauna, and which has pitted some environmentalists against immigrants.

Starved for parks and urban recreation, the Latino community has seized on the greening of the L.A. River as more than a new take on urban environmentalism — it’s a metaphor for rising Latino power.

by Evan George, Los Angeles Alternative

How do you play soccer in a river?

It’s not a riddle; it’s a question-one I kept coming back to during a recent round of community meetings on the future of the Los Angeles River and the River Revitalization Master Plan that will guide it. Soccer fields, it seemed, had little do with fixing a river, though you wouldn’t know it from how often they kept coming up in comments.

The city of Los Angeles is halfway through an 18-month process to green 32 miles of L.A.’s forgotten river, a process that will take it from a cement puddle to a restored corridor of wetlands, parks and trails. And if the Master Plan is a blueprint for greening the river, the community workshops have provided the opportunity for all Angelenos to become the architects-at least in theory.

The early planning meetings saw a lot of empty chairs. City officials showed up late for their Power Point presentations and for hasty discussions held entirely in legalese, using ambiguous rating systems. In some cases, promotion of the public events went no further than the miniscule font of the city’s online event calendar. Many Latino community leaders, concerned that the families who live on and around the river would be left out of the process, formed the Alianza de los Peublos del Rio to organize their own workshops around the city.

One year later, the difference is shocking.

On the night of Tuesday, Aug. 29, expecting a snooze-fest of surveys, I arrived at the River Center in Glassell Park to find it transformed into a raucous campaign of Aztec drumming, burning sage, an endless family potluck and a lively town hall discussion of what Latinos want most to be included in the Master Plan.

That night I stood in line to receive a translation headset — those ubiquitous tools of L.A. city meetings — because for once the translation of the meeting would be from Spanish into English, not the other way around. And the headset had no setting for translating legalese.

More trees, many said. More open space near our children’s schools, others added. Not new concerns, of course, but ones being voiced more strongly in the wake of startling reports on the disproportionate affect of pollution on the urban Latino population with little or no access to parks.

When one speaker opened the floor to questions, a broad-shouldered young man approached the microphone holding a gym bag the shape of 100 twisted shin guards. Every field he takes kids to for soccer practice, he said, a sign goes up within weeks saying No Soccer Allowed, whether it’s a dusty baseball diamond or a scrap of grass next to a parking lot. It was a concern that clearly resonated, and loudly.

In the explosion of applause, soccer translated into many things: Here it was code for political involvement, respect, family, community, equal access and public health. The speaker fielding the man’s question that night, Robert Garcia of [The City Project] put it this way: “Soccer, like the parks, is important in and of itself. But just as important, they are organizing tools for bringing people together to create the kind of community where they want to live and raise children. And that’s really what’s going on.”

The Alianza de los Pueblos del Rio formed after Garcia and others decided that development of a new L.A. River was a symbolic and literal convergence of a myriad of issues confronting L.A.’s Latino population. To be left out of the discussion, they realized, was to be left high and dry, as the river shifts directions into the future.

Instead, the alliance, which includes [The City Project], the Anahuak Youth Soccer Association, Re-mapping L.A., Mujeres de la Tierra, and the William C. Velasquez Institute, spearheaded river meetings and community outreach that have ballooned into a comprehensive new platform of urban Latino environmentalism. Part legal strategy, part organizing principle, this green movement en español has put people — immigrants and poor people, mostly — at the center of an issue traditionally focused on flora and fauna, and which has pitted some environmentalists against immigrants.

And last week, when the four-day Latino Congreso came to downtown Los Angeles, that platform went national.

“No one wants to say it, but we’ve started a revolution — a salsa verde revolución” says Irma Muñoz, president of Mujeres de la Tierra.

Twenty years ago, the act of imagining the Los Angeles River as a restored parkway was so far-fetched it was performance art — literally.

In 1986, poet and essayist Lewis Macadams founded Friends of the Los Angeles River with the idea of using performances, language and imagery to ignite a rebirth of the sick river. He set upon the chain link fence that surrounded the channel north of downtown with a pair of wire cutters and imagined using the urban blight for staged events that would awaken the rest of the city to the fact that a once-great waterway, and the founding site of the city, had been utterly ignored for nearly a century.

After the completion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913, the river lost its role as sole water source for the growing city. A succession of moderate to severe floods over the next 25 years brought public demand that the city prevent future emergencies by channelizing the river. In 1938, the Army Corps of Engineers began the process that, in effect, would turn the L.A. River into the world’s largest storm drain. It’s no wonder that today many Angelenos are unaware they have a river at all.

Intent on changing this, FOLAR quickly grew from a group of Macadams’ friends into an organization with a mailing list of several thousand members. Early successes focused on river stewardship, a water-quality monitoring program and raising both funds and awareness for river issues. This year the group led its 17th annual La Gran Limpezia, a clean up that brought 3,000 volunteers out to 14 river sites. And according to FOLAR, the organization’s donor base is higher than ever, with close to 5,000 stakeholders and corporations contributing.

FOLAR calls itself “the original voice of the river,” and for a decade the group was the leading voice in the movement to green the L.A. River — a voice spoken in Sierra Club — style conservation terms, with a white, middle-class dialect. But by the late ’90s, some in the Latino community felt left out of the discussion entirely. Latino leaders, like Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, found FOLAR’s river advocacy alienating and ineffective: more about nature than about people. What is the good of preserving a watershed habitat with fish and birds, they said, if the people who actually reside on the River can’t enjoy the revitalization?

“FOLAR and these groups were very marginal — a voice in the wilderness,” says Gonzalez, as he rubs his temples and turns down the volume of the evening news.

It’s the Friday before Labor Day, less than five days before the kick-off of the National Latino Congreso that Gonzalez’s organization has put together, and it’s hard not to hear excitement mingled with fatigue in his voice. The event will gather youth, stakeholders and rising political stars of the Latino community in the largest numbers since the 1970s. And to think, Gonzalez says, it all grew from a Latino summit on turning the Cornfields into a park.

As executive president of the William C. Velasqeuz Institute, Gonzalez was named one of the 25 most influential Hispanic leaders by Time magazine two years ago. Tonight he’s using that influence to score the extra 600 hotel rooms he just found out they’ll need for the conference.

The WCVI — the policy arm of the Southwestern Voter Registration Project, the nation’s oldest and largest non-partisan Latino voter organization in the U.S. — was founded to conduct research aimed at improving Latino participation in public policy. So, when the river revitalization battles started making waves in L.A. politics, Gonzalez saw a chance to toss a new, comprehensive, community-centered take on environmentalism into the water.

“It sort of crystallized in our minds that this whole notion of the Los Angeles River, and its greening, revitalization, redevelopment — pick your words — could be the test tube for creating a new narrative, one in which it’s not separate environmental themes and causes, and working-class community themes and causes, but one seamless narrative in which these interests are mutually interrelated and beneficial.”

To the groups who have helped foster this under-the-radar greening of Latino politics, the buzz words are different, some of the goals are different, even the reasons for cleaning the river are different from L.A.’s traditional greens. In this new vocabulary “public health” and “civil rights” have replaced “environmentalism,” a word many Latino politicians shy away from.

“Take [County] Supervisor Gloria Molina . . . and you go look at what she’s done since 1991,” says Gonzalez, “and there’s a ton of environmental, habitat projects and river greening projects and open space projects . . . She doesn’t like the greens; she doesn’t like the environmentalists; she doesn’t use it in her discourse; she doesn’t consider it conservation. She just thinks it the right thing to do. There’s a lot more folks like that than we think.”

Whether they see eye-to-eye on the river’s future or not, long-time advocates of greening the river (FOLAR, The River Project and others) and Latino organizers found common ground in early battles of what’s now being called the Urban Parks Movement. The alliances have proven testy, the victories undeniable.

In 1998, FOLAR combined forces with Chinatown activist Chi Mui to hold a conference called A River Through Downtown, which pioneered the idea that river advocacy should be tied to initiatives that take into account other community needs. The collaboration merged Mui’s focus primarily on open, recreational space for Chinatown residents with FOLAR’s then-one-dimensional interest in environmental restoration.

The conference also brought to the attention of many city leaders the significance and opportunity that lay in the 32-acre site of abandoned railroad blight on the edge of Chinatown (nicknamed the Cornfields because of its past use) which had recently been put up for sale. The community-wide planning process initiated by the 1998 conference began a debate about housing and recreational possibilities for the Cornfields. Many were unaware that developers tied to then-Mayor Richard Riordan had already bid on the site, with the intention of building warehouses and industrial facilities. Mui and FOLAR helped form the Chinatown Yards Alliance to organize against the planned warehouses. The coalition soon involved minority groups beyond the Chinatown contingent, including the Latino Urban Forum and the Concerned Citizens of South Central.

In the fall of 1999, as the Cornfields site sat in the last 90 days of escrow, Robert Garcia got a call from a colleague who was irate about the $12 million subsidy the developer, Majestic Reality, was seeking with the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He told Garcia that Majestic had not even bothered to complete the proper environmental impact reports. Garcia decided to pursue a complaint against the city that used a civil rights strategy — nearly unheard of in land use cases. It was a strategy that [The City Project] had stumbled upon a few years before in an even more unheard of way.

“Mayor Riordan called me and said ‘Robert, there are so many unfair disparities in access to parks in L.A. that you need to bring a lawsuit,'” says Garcia. “And I said, ‘Mayor, you’re the mayor, why don’t you do something about it?’ And he said. ‘I need the hammer of a lawsuit to make something happen.’ So I went back and studied the issue and he was right.”

Riordan’s unusual suggestion to Garcia in 1996 helped crystallize a new legal strategy that blended civil rights and environmental protection in revolutionary ways. Land use issues could be opposed not only on the traditional grounds of environmental impact but as a matter of social justice. But before [The City Project] could use this legal theory for the case Riordan had had in mind — Ascot Hills in East L.A. — the Cornfields site went on the market and Garcia decided to file a lawsuit Riordan was much less pleased about.

Suing the city and Majestic Reality, Garcia developed a complaint that proposed a park alternative to the development and argued that Majestic had skipped steps to a proper environmental report. As a result, HUD withheld every penny of funding and the developers agreed to pull out if [The City Project and its allies] could find the money to buy the land.

Last June, the site was named the Los Angeles State Historic Park. Now, the sprinklers are working overtime and most of the landscaping is done, but the park will be more than open space: It will celebrate the cultural history it represented as an entry point to the city for centuries, at the behest of the Latino community. However, the victory did not come without in-fighting over what the park should look like, and whether the Annenberg Foundation-funded art project by Lauren Bon should be allowed without community input. The dispute — and Latinos’ concern that growing corn did not represent the needs of the community — became the direct catalyst for forming the Alianza de los Pueblos del Rio. Now, with the corn harvested, the community is more than ready to see it become a state park.

“When we won the Cornfields people were impressed,” says Garcia. “The L.A. Times said it was a ‘heroic monument’ and a ‘symbol of hope’ [that others] dismissed as a flash in the pan — you know, ‘You were lucky.’ Then we won Baldwin Hills and people sat up and took notice because we were building momentum. Then we won Taylor Yard and with three victories in a row, it became a full-blown movement.”

Like the Cornfields, Taylor Yard had long symbolized a prize for river activists. In 2000, the 200-acre parcel of land was up for commercial development. Also like the Cornfields, the staff at [The City Project] thought they had a better idea of how to use the land, so they sued the city a second time. This time the complaint was, well, more soccer.

Raul Macias, president of the Anahuak Youth Soccer Association, heard about [The City Project’s] victory in the battle of the Cornfields and came to Garcia for help because they needed more playing fields than the limited space available in the nearly park-less Cypress Park and Glassell Park neighborhoods.

His was a soccer league started by accident. In 1994, Macias was approached to help coach a family friend’s team. “They kept losing, so I came by one of their practices and there was the coach, drinking a beer.” He took over the team of eight boys — reluctantly at first — in part because of a favorite childhood memory.

“Like most in Mexico, my family was very poor with a lot of sons, and we had no money for soccer shoes,” says Macias. “I would borrow friends’ shoes — they would let you if you scored a goal.”

One day, a man came up to a shoe-less Macias and asked him why he wasn’t playing with soccer cleats. When he said he couldn’t afford them, the man returned with a pair of shoes and said that rather than pay him back he should return the favor to other kids if he ever had the chance.

The losing team of eight was that chance, and since then the league has grown exponentially. Today the Anahuak Youth Soccer Association consists of 1,500 players and their families, and the group’s influence extends far beyond the soccer field. Its players are expected to participate in community service — the most important of which became cleaning up the L.A. River that runs through Cypress Park, past the Anahuak offices on San Fernando Road, just across from Taylor Yard.

When the soccer association came to Garcia it was another chance to exercise the equal access argument that [The City Project] had developed in the battle for the Cornfields. When they won it was a victory for more than the sport.

“Anahuak has grown in the community directly as a result of their victory in the Taylor Yard battle,” said Garcia, “because Raul recognizes as well as anybody that it’s not about creating soccer players, it’s about building good citizens.”

Anahuak gives Latino kids an alternative to the easier paths of gang crime, drug abuse and inner city couch-potato syndrome, but it extends into their education as well. At one river meeting the players even gave a presentation on the history of “their” river and the importance of the Master Plan.

“One of the biggest debates in the development of the Los Angeles River,” says Irma Muñoz, “is [the assumption] that Latinos only want soccer fields, they don’t value or appreciate habitat restoration, wetlands . . . If you give them a soccer field, they’ll be content at the expense of everything else. I could give countless examples of how that’s not the case.”

Muñoz may know better than anyone what these families want for their kids, because she hears it everyday from the mothers themselves.

Two years ago, she founded Mujeres de la Tierra (Mothers of the Earth) for Latina women, because she was frustrated when a news story on environmental issues in Latino neighborhoods failed to interview any Latinos. She said they have been painted as a single-issue community.

“The only time we get quoted is when it comes to immigration, and that’s very bothersome to me because what happens is you get stereotyped as only caring about a single issue, and that’s furthest from the truth.”

“I consider Latinos the original environmentalists. Many of us have indigenous roots.”

Although Mujeres de la Tierra still awaits non-profit status, Muñoz said they already have six chapters throughout the city and have contributed much to the recent political organizing by the Alianza de los Pueblos del Rio. The family feel of the alliance’s community meetings is no accident. Everything from the time of the meetings to they way they are promoted is meant to encourage family involvement by appealing to their matriarchs.

“Our meetings were done in Spanish with English translation. We went door-to-door, we went to apartments, we went to churches, we talked to people,” she says. “It’s very time consuming. Many of our conversations with people would last 15 or 20 minutes, rather than just passing out a flyer.”

Muñoz says she doesn’t blame the city for failing to engage the Latino community; they did everything they could with the resources they had. But once the alliance received some funding to promote their own meetings and spread a green message in a way they saw fit, the community came in droves. And it’s a preview of organizing to come.

“For so long we wanted to have a place at the table in the environmental movement,” said Muñoz. “We knew that wasn’t happening, so we built our own table.”

That table turned out to be an entire national Latino convention of 1,500 delegates who came from all over the United States to participate in panel discussions, to pass resolutions, and to envision future leadership and the complex, political problem solving that goes along with that power. State Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez was there, so were countless future office holders — as if to say, like Gonzalez does, that the Latino platform better be ready to go national, because it’s only a matter of years before the Latino minority becomes a new majority of sorts.

“We can’t say we don’t have power, we can’t say we’re the victims — we are, but we’re not, we’re this intermediate phase: we’re excluded, but we’re not,” Gonzalez says. “If we’re going to be this even bigger, even more important sector of American society, what are we doing to prepare for that?”

The answer, of course, is not play soccer. It’s play political hardball. LAA