Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter

On the outskirts of the sprawling bus depot in Cypress Park, dozens of drivers have walked the picket line for more than two weeks. Sometimes, commuters honk back in support. The drivers, some with children and spouses, cheer back.

But not all commuters are so approving. As veteran driver Roberto Del Castillo holds up a picket sign, a man in a black sports-utility vehicle slows down and yells, “Get back to work!”

Anti-driver sentiment is common wherever Metropolitan Transportation Authority drivers have gathered to picket. But it is most fierce in predominantly Latino areas, where the strike has hit hardest and where undercurrents of friction between passengers and bus drivers go back years. At least one driver has been attacked while picketing. With a black eye, driver Daniel Martinez told KWHY-TV Noticias 22 reporter Emma Mota that he had been assaulted by four men in South Central after a verbal exchange.

Some Latino drivers tend to see recent Latino immigrants as less inclined to observe bus rules, while the passengers believe that the drivers act condescendingly toward them because they lack English skills. “The community is reacting to the bus drivers’ premeditated acts,” said Carlos Ardon, head of the Association for Salvadorans in Los Angeles, a Westlake grassroots organization. “The community is treating the drivers in the same way they have been treated.”

Tensions go deeper than frustrations over passengers not following rules or drivers missing bus stops, Ardon said. It is just one more rip in the complex social fabric; this one separates more assimilated Latinos from recent immigrants. Ardon likens the conflicting views on the bus strike to the way the Latino community has reacted to the LAPD’s Rampart corruption probe, in which more assimilated and well-off Latino leaders hardly protested police abuses in the predominantly immigrant Pico-Union area. Despite the passenger backlash, Ardon noted, Latino leaders offered their support to the bus drivers union last week.

The strike has affected mostly minorities and especially the Latino community, which makes up 51 percent of the MTA passengers. Latino politicians should support the bus drivers and the unions, Ardon said, but they should also pressure them into negotiating a faster agreement.

“To them [Latino leaders] it’s a political thing. The elected officials have to support the unions because they give them money for their campaigns,” Ardon said. “But why don’t these elected officials support the community?”

Councilman Mike Hernandez, whose district includes Pico Union, shrugged off any conflict and said that what matters is to end the strike as soon as possible.

Aggravating the tension are the social and economic differences. Latino drivers tend to be either U.S.-born or assimilated immigrants and earn an average of $50,000 a year. Nearly 68 percent of the riders make less than $15,000 a year.

Del Castillo, a 10-year veteran bus driver, believes that misconceptions regarding drivers’ pay scales have increased frictions between drivers and passengers. He added that some recent Latino immigrants tend to unjustly label more assimilated and upwardly mobile Latinos as sellouts.

“I have been told by passengers that I am haughty just because I ‘make a lot of money and because I drive a bus.’” Del Castillo said. “They say these things because they don’t know the rules or what I go through every day.”

Bus drivers have to deal with unruly passengers and keep up with stringent schedules even in the middle of rush hour, Del Castillo said. Often drivers don’t have time to go to the restroom or are forced to close the entry doors to waiting passengers due to overcrowding.

“Some [passengers] don’t understand that we can’t let them break laws like not standing beyond the marked yellow lines or validating their transfer tickets when they are expired,” Del Castillo said. He and other bus drivers blamed MTA administrators for ignoring the issue and for trying to create class envy between them and their low-income riders during the strike. They insist that the MTA has portrayed drivers as earning more than they really do. “The media has not informed the public on the real wages that we earn. If we sometimes manage to make $50,000 a year it is because of overtime,” Del Castillo said. “We are forced to work overtime.”

For Rafael Vazquez, a former parking attendant now going on three years with the MTA, his job is a dream fulfilled after years of preparation. Though he and his family are proud of his position, Vazquez says it is nevertheless difficult to maintain bus rules while keeping passengers happy.

“You’re doing a job where you are supposed to follow the rules of the MTA,” Vazquez said. “If you can please the passengers, it’s great. But you can only do so much.”

On the first week of the strike during the Spanish-language Pepe Barreto 107.5 KLVE-FM morning radio program — one of Los Angeles’ top shows for almost 10 years — disgruntled passengers voiced their frustration over the strike. Some drivers, riders said, were rude with passengers; they failed to stop for them at bus stops and coldly refused to give information when asked for directions to other bus lines.

The next day the bus drivers countered on KLVE and told Barreto that most passengers do not understand what the drivers go through.

What’s really going on here is more than annoyances over a missed transfer or frazzled nerves over an abrupt stop during rush hour. Bus riders like Edmundo Hernandez, a 35-year-old shopkeeper, believe that the root of the friction is cultural and ethnic. “Whenever you ask them a question and they notice that your English is not that good or that you have an accent, some bus drivers will not give you an answer,” said Hernandez, who has been an MTA rider since he arrived from Mexico 15 years ago. “They will rudely tell you that they don’t know or simply will not acknowledge you.” The daily clashes between bus riders and drivers is one of the main reasons — besides the obvious inconvenience of lack of transportation the strike created — that support for the strike in the Latino community has been low, Hernandez said. Though most bus drivers do an exemplary job, the small band of rude drivers has ruined it for others.

Gladis Andrade, 40, a Salvadoran immigrant, said that in her 12-year career as an MTA bus driver she has been beaten, insulted and been the target of sexual remarks. The problems have all been with Latino passengers. “I was once hit so hard by a woman passenger that my shoulder was injured and I was forced to work light-duty work for a year,” Andrade said. “In another incident, a gang member socked me in the face.”

Women drivers usually have it harder than male drivers because of cultural Latino machismo, Andrade said. Many Latino passengers try to make a pass or a crude remark to her. “Most of the problems I’ve had have been with Latino men: They say sexual remarks to you or stare at your legs,” Andrade said.

While not condoning such behavior, Ardon said that cultural traits among male Latino immigrants, like flirting, are hard to drop. This can create tensions for drivers like Andrade. “Also, recent immigrants are not used to seeing women as bus drivers,” Ardon said. “I think both sides need sensitivity training.”

Tensions between passengers and some drivers have been going on for years, Bus Riders Union spokesman Martín Hernández said. The union backs the drivers in their strike, but does not condone the actions of some “bad apple” drivers. Dan Ibarra, MTA executive officer for transit operations, said by and large MTA bus operators perform their duties in stellar fashion under highly stressful conditions. Complaints have been going down and now amount to three for every 100,000 passengers, he said, agreeing with drivers that more programs for passengers on rules and driver responsibilities are needed.

Andrade suggested that the MTA offer riders educational programs on the rules and responsibilities of drivers. She blamed MTA administrators for living in a world detached from the reality of bus riding. “But I don’t think that the problems will go away,” Andrade said. “I think they will go on.”

LA Weekly