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A Brown Day in L.A. 

Mayor V. faces global immigration issues — and angry farmers

Wednesday, May 24 2006
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THE NATIONAL COUNCIL OF LA RAZA, the big, slick and powerful Latino civil-rights lobbying force based in Washington, D.C., is going to have its national annual conference at the L.A. Convention Center this summer. To celebrate this news, some of the heaviest heavy hitters in the Latino advocacy game showed up at a convention center courtyard last Friday for a press conference.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had just taken the podium when the noise began. A rising, threatening rumble from the sidewalk below. It was impossible to ignore.

Protesters from the South Central Farm were chanting, drumming and screaming. It was a final attempt to force Villaraigosa to address the fate of an urban community garden that is all but lost. The mayor, though, initially took the ruckus as a cue to attempt a joke.

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“Those drums back there are meant to drum up the business that we need in Los Angeles,” he said.

Anxious applause and giggles followed, and without hesitation, an activist who had crashed the event hollered back, “We’re drumming for the South Central Farm!”

Welcome to Los Angeles, NCLR, where nothing says L.A. is the emerging city of the future more than the sight of its brown activist mayor getting heckled by brown environmental and Chicano activists while fielding questions about immigration reform and the appropriate language for the national anthem (obviamente es ingles, the mayor insisted).

Given his business quip, Villaraigosa was forced to address the South Central Farm a bit more substantially. After hearing a question from farm organizer Tezozomoc, the mayor announced that the city and the Trust for Public Land had been unable to raise $16.35 million to purchase the South Central Farm from its owner, developer Ralph Horowitz. The option-to-buy period ended on Monday. Any day now, the farmers will be forcibly evicted. On Wednesday, farm organizers announced plans for celebrity tree-sittings to stave off the bulldozers — featuring Joan Baez and Julia “Butterfly” Hill.

The Monday deadline marked the end of a 13-year saga to defend the farm, where more than 300 mostly Latino immigrant families have cultivated ancient crops and ancient traditions — an oasis right in the middle of the city’s old industrial corridor.

In its struggle for survival, the South Central Farm also became a symbol for the aspirations and failures of the green-space movement in L.A. Nasty infighting and an ideological rigidity within the farm leadership led to the farm’s gradual shedding of friends in high places — mainly, politicians and nonprofit funders.

As of Monday, Trust for Public Land L.A. area director Bob Reid said about $6 million had been raised. At earlier points in the option-to-buy period, officials reported as much as $11 million raised to buy the land. Why the drop?

Deputy Mayor Larry Frank, who headed the city’s fund-raising efforts, declined to explain. Frank said the question should be posed to Tezozomoc, who, with other South Central Farm organizers, was never above publicly berating potential or tentative allies during the fight to save the land. Tezozomoc and others did not return calls for comment.

But all is not entirely lost.

In the city’s 2003 settlement with Horowitz that ended an eminent domain spat over the 14-acre plot, the developer promised to the city a 2.6-acre section of the property, a deal that still holds, Frank said. That land is slated to be converted into soccer fields, a cause supported by other South-Central community members, but not by the farm leadership. In addition, Frank said, the South Central Farmers have been promised plots at other community gardens in the area. “It got very complicated,” Frank said. “The bottom line is, we’re going to be able to relocate all the farmers.”

THE NEWS OF THE UPCOMING NCLR convention was big enough to warrant a Villaraigosa cameo for two reasons. First, the convention is expected to boost economic activity downtown. And second, the NCLR visit will increase the already galactic visibility factor of the city’s mayor, Villaraigosa, who was credited as instrumental in getting NCLR to choose to come to L.A. this year. But the event Friday quickly transformed from a pat-ourselves-on-the-back love fest into a free-for-all on immigration reform.

Janet Murguia, NCLR president, and John Trasviña, interim president and general counsel of MALDEF (the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund), focused on the “English only” amendment to the immigration reform bill being considered in the Senate. The amendment, authored by Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) and approved last week, reiterates that English is the U.S. national language. Murguia and Trasviña argued convincingly that the amendment was a purposefully constructed wedge and an empty gesture. If lawmakers really cared about immigrants grasping English, they should fund English classes, Murguia and Trasviña said.

“It’s like passing a law for somebody who’s hungry and saying, well, you gotta eat,” Trasviña said. “Latinos are hungry for English classes. Look at the long waiting lists. [The amendment] is a false patriotism.”

Murguia’s stop in L.A. presented an opportunity to connect some immigration-related dots that often are overlooked. The NCLR president, who grew up in a barrio in Kansas City, was a deputy assistant to President Bill Clinton. Under Clinton’s watch, the United States adopted the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which made markets, but not workers, borderless.

Clinton also oversaw the birth of the militaristic Operation Gatekeeper along the urban edges of the California border with Mexico, directly resulting in illegal immigration patterns moving out to rural areas in the Arizona desert and elsewhere.

Since then, more than 2,000 migrants have died in their desperate attempts to reach jobs in the U.S. and send money back to their impoverished families. The same type of walls that today divide San Diego/Tijuana and other binational urban centers are being proposed along 370 more miles of U.S. border to Mexico.

Wondering about all this, I asked Murguia to address the consequences of NAFTA and Operation Gatekeeper and the rash of migrant deaths. Murguia sighed for a moment: “As long as we share a border with another country, you’re going to always find members of Congress who feel that one part of the solution is building a fence or building some sort of wall. I don’t believe that that’s the most strategic use of our resources .?.?. Our best argument is to tell these folks that it’s not the only answer.”

Meanwhile, the drumming from the street continued. It kept going even as Villaraigosa helped himself to the brunch buffet while the local news cameras dutifully documented the story: Mayor Eats Chorizo and Eggs, Smiles.

“Oh, yeah,” an NCLR official in a smart business suit was overheard saying as reporters were clamoring around Villaraigosa, “this is the place to be.”

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