Category Archives: Southern California

My High School Reunion: Claremont

My 40th high school reunion is this Saturday. I’m going.

I’ve been to all my high school reunions. They’re fun. Kind of weird, awkward at times, but fun. I like to think of them as great social experiments. Seeing where people landed who started more or less in the same spot. Not quite like those 7 Up movies from Britain, but something like that.

I grew up in Claremont, a small college town 35 miles east of Los Angeles. It was a great place to grow up, if you overlooked the milk-chocolate smog covering the huge mountains nearby.

As years passed, I noted that I kept in far greater touch with friends from high school than folks whom I met later in life had kept in touch with theirs. John Kennedy, David Fissel, Scott Edwards, Sara Kaviar, Norman Gee, Paul Rohrer, Arthur Cain, Alison Cain, and a few others. I’ll see a few of these folks, though probably not all. They’re all doing well, scattered about.

With John, I went to my first rock concert: Mountain and Canned Heat at the Long Beach Civic Auditorium. 1974. That was a loud show, and Leslie West and the guys from Canned Heat sure were fat. Canned Heat’s singer wore big blue overalls with the word “Boogie” in rhinestones across the chest.

Around that time I was forming fierce, highly convincing arguments that Leslie West was the world’s greatest guitar player. I had a lot of those kinds of arguments back then. I also argued that Kiss would be a “where are they now” story by the time we graduated.

Years later, I spent a lot of time traveling around Europe playing guitar in the streets and plazas for money with Arthur Cain. That was a lot of fun. Good thing to do.

A few of my high school chums have died. Steve Arena and Phil Cornell passed not long after high school. I wish I could see them again.

One guy I haven’t seen almost since before graduation is Robert O’Conner. We were Buddhists together in a group called Nichirenshoshu Sokagakkai of America (NSA), where we chanted Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.

It’s from Japan but was pretty big in the states back in the 1970s when a lot of California suburban kids assumed that any eastern religion was cool and worth checking out. Herbie Hancock and Tina Turner were members.

I started when I had pretty long hair.

For NSA, I cut my hair. For a while I even tried to learn the bagpipes. I was also in a couple pageants – on the outfield of Angel Stadium and once at Dodger Stadium – that looked something like Up With People.

As a Buddhist organization, NSA was wary of appearing too eastern and mystical and weird, so it went the other way, wanting to assimilate into the squarest of American culture. Hence these pageants – dancing to show tunes on the Dodger outfield. For NSA during the USA Bicentennial, I literally marched in a nighttime parade up 6th Avenue in New York City dressed as a Minuteman with a three-corner hat and a suit lined with lights that were battery-powered and lit up in 4/4 time. No lie.

I was a Buddhist from end of my freshman year at CHS to my sophomore year in college, then I quit. I was happy to be in it when I was – helped me weather adolescence — and happy to leave it when I did.

Through Facebook, Robert tells me he’s got a nice husband and career as an artist in Hawaii, all of which makes me feel good. Looks like he’ll be at the reunion, so that’ll be nice.

I played basketball in high school, though not well. I didn’t improve the way I should have. Senior year was a tough one. Had a falling out with the coach, who never could pronounce my last name, but that wasn’t why we had a falling out. He resigned a year or two later, though not because of me. He went on to coach a college team that holds the distinction of being the only team to lose to the Cal Tech basketball team in the last 30 years or so.

Oh well. I still love the smell of wood-floor gyms. I still play basketball and I’m teaching my daughter, who’s 10.

Unlike most folks at the reunion, whom I suspect are close to grandparenthood, I’m just getting started in the fatherhood game. I’m liking it, though.

When I was young, Claremont was a guitar mecca. This was due to the influence of the 1960s/1970s, the five colleges in town, and a local music store: Claremont Folk Music Center, where I took my first guitar lessons (folk music, “Michael Row the Boat Ashore”) from Dorothy Chase, who owned it with her husband, Charles. Ben Harper is their grandson.

(Claremont also had one of the first In-N-Outs, which taught us all what good fast food is.)

Claremont had(s) David Lindley and one of Emmylou Harris’s lead guitar players, whose brother was my guitar teacher later, after I learned to bend notes, which changed my life entirely. After I was taught that bending guitar notes was possible (Jimmy Reed, “Bright Lights Big City”), it seemed to suggest all kinds of things might be bent as well.

It wasn’t long before I was listening to Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality on our family’s old record player over and over. And from there, many years later, to George Jones and Sun Ra. Guitar-note bending will do that.

I think I probably knew 20 people who played guitar. I kept playing, though not well. Three chords, maybe a minor 6th. Enough to play Rolling Stones songs. (Never a major seventh, though. I can’t stand that chord. Ever heard “Color My World” by Chicago? That starts with a major seventh.)

Anyway, the best guitar player in my class was a guy named Pebber Brown. Maybe I’ll see Pebber this reunion. When I want to, I can watch him teaching and  shredding away on Youtube.

Another guy, Martin Maudal, played some wicked drums in a band with Pebber, but now he makes guitars: Maudal Musical Machines. I think I’ll see Martin. Also, a guy from my class named Robert Elhai is a composer and writes soundtracks, last I heard anyway. Jim Earl and Barry Lank once had a pretty hip comedy duo. They were in my class – that’s Claremont High School, 1977.

Sid Robinson is a city councilman in Upland. We’re about that age now where some of us are city councilmen, or supervisors, or principals, or something in charge.

All in all, not a bad production for one high school class – and I’m leaving out a lot of folks.

I’ll be interested to see whether any of the girls I had crushes on show up. I remember, though, that that was a tormentingly large group, so probably some of them won’t. Not sure if my old girlfriend will or won’t.

Actually, I don’t know who’ll show up. Of course no one wants to go to a high school reunion on parole or something. A guy from the CHS year before mine aimed high and ripped off a Brinks Armored Car of $1 million. Very successful at his chosen trade, he was never seen again. So reunions tend to be kind of self-selecting. But then the really successful folks often have moved far away, so there’s that balancing it all out. Karen Huffman, our homecoming queen, ended up, last I saw her many years ago, as a curator at the Getty Museum. How many schools’ homecoming queens that you know ended up curating exhibits at major museums?

My grandfather, an illegitimate kid abandoned by his mother and thus an outcast in his Spanish village, always wanted to go home to show all the folks who’d treated him poorly that he’d made it in America, all by himself.

But the Depression, World War II, and the distance from Pennsylvania to Spain kept him from doing it. He (on the right in the photo) died in the 1950s, never having gone back.

I know that family reunions are huge business in Appalachia. That’s because so many have left the region, gone in search of work, yet don’t lose the connections to back home. Many go home every year, sometimes for months. West Virginia’s family-reunion business is massive, I was reading someplace. Same with Kentucky’s. Literally people do not lose touch with the place they left 50-60 years before.

So I have something in common with them.

Same with Mexican immigrants.

Years after high school, I lived in Mexico for a long time where I learned that they have their own version of these reunions – realizing yearly what my grandfather wanted to do just once but never could. They would return to their home villages for the annual fiesta, and throw huge parties, come dressed in fancy clothes. Usually it was the migrants who could afford to spend a lot of money who would go home. You didn’t want to go home poor-mouthing it. I remember they didn’t tell too many people back home about how hard they had to work to earn that money. (Mexican cops got used to shaking these folks down as they drove home. Highway 15 along Mexico’s Pacific Coast was a treasure-trove for cops.)

All that makes me think that the urge to go home and see everyone you grew up with is pretty universal – particularly if life’s been good.

ONE FINAL NOTE: That urge is a big reason why poor guys in Mexico get into drug trafficking. The kind of money you can make and the rep you develop are great ways of showing others back at the local fiesta how really well you’ve done, and of having other guys envy you, and of getting all the girls to want to talk to you. Especially if you’re buying beer for everyone in the plaza.

So maybe a high school reunion is really just like some get-together of local Mexican drug traffickers or an Appalachian family reunion.

I kind of like that way of thinking about it.

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Filed under California, Southern California

Community and CEOs

Folks who have heard me speak know that that community-building behavior by CEOs is something I admire and long for more of, nowadays particularly. Jack Brown, CEO of Stater Bros. Markets, is now my
hero.

A story in today’s LA Times reports the death of Mr. Brown, though folks in Southern California will recognize his comstater-brospany as a household brand name. We lived near a Stater Bros. Market when we were growing up and shopped there all the time.

Sadly, before his death, I was unaware of Brown’s story, of his philanthropy and decision to not move the company HQ from its base in San Bernardino, a tough town that didn’t need any more companies leaving. He founded the Boys and Girls club of San Bernardino and the Children’s Fund of San Bernardino.

Too often CEOs have their own wealth lining in mind. I’m reminded of the behavior of the CEO of Wells Fargo, who oversaw a lot of unethical stuff, then fired the mid-level folks who were allegedly ordered to perpetrate it, then retired with a $124 million paycheck.

The story of U.S. capitalism over the last generation or two is replete with guys behaving in this way. Shredded communities are the result. So is, if you ask me, our national opiate epidemic.

Communities, seems to me, are built by many people. But an important part of that are the decisions made by company owners and managers. Those decisions can crush, or enliven, a community. Too often, in the recent history of our country, it’s the former.

Sounds like Jack Brown retired fairly wealthy for doing the right thing. That’s the way it should be.

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Filed under Southern California, The Heroin Heartland

L.A. Murder – Not The Real Story Any More

It would have been easy to miss some stunning news a few days ago.

It came buried in the back pages of a December 30 LA Times article on how crime was rising. Rising across the board! First IMG_7311time since 2003! Yikes!

The real stunning story, though, was this:

The city will register only 280 homicides for all of 2015. That would seem sad, and for 280 victims and their families and friends, it most certainly is – I can say this as a reporter who has covered hundreds of murders in his career. I know how murder can destroy not just one life, but the lives of the surviving family as well.

To understand, however, why that number could actually be encouraging news, a remarkable event, you need the context. Here’s some:

Pitched as a 10 percent increase, 280 homicides is actually the city’s third lowest homicide figure since 2000 and part of a drop in crime that has been going on since roughly 2007. In fact, apart from 2013-2014, the city hasn’t had that few homicides since 1967, when L.A.’s population was a third smaller than it is today (roughly 2.4 million people then compared with 3.8 million today).

You’ll remember, perhaps, that in August there was a collective freak-out at the increase in homicides that month. I thought folks should have maintained some calm and context, and dealt with it seriously and professionally, which is what it appears LAPD proceeded to do. The rest of the year saw monthly homicide numbers fall again.

My guess is that in a heavily armed culture, and a very large city, we won’t see homicides dropping to, say, 200 a year. So it’s possible that we’re at about the lowest crime levels a city the size of L.A. can reasonably produce. I’d love to be proved wrong, but barring a deep change in our permissive gun culture or a massive tax increase doubling the size of the LAPD, I’d bet against it.

If those numbers crept up consistently year after year, that would be cause for great concern. But at this point, if crime figures rise 10 percent, or drop by that much, from one year to the next, it’s worth understanding and addressing with calm and context — but not frothing over.

I say this after, again, years as a crime reporter, and fully aware that some areas of the city, and of the region, still have serious problems and that these need attention.

Nor am I saying murder is okay if it’s below a certain number. Just that there are stories we ought also to pay attention to.

The real story is not that crime or homicide rose 10 percent.

The real story is that, while we witness blooms of intercultural savagery around the world, in our region of races, languages, and religions from every corner of the globe, crime has become negligible – a minor part of life and not just for wealthy folks, but, importantly and especially, for working people.

Some notorious headlines notwithstanding – yes, Rodney King, we can all get along and, by and large, in Southern California, we are. In the end, the 2015 homicide figures, as painful as they are for some families, did reflect that.

(Hate crime, btw, is almost nonexistent, certainly compared to the volume and the sheer violence of those crimes in the early and mid-2000s, most of them committed by Latino street gangs against blacks, which you can read more about in a chapter essay that I wrote for this anthology.)

The real story is that this drop in crime began during the country’s Great Recession, and is taking place in a region where poorly paid service jobs have replaced so many good-paying union jobs with solid benefits; where dense apartment complexes have replaced so many single-family homes.

The real story is how many working-class neighborhoods, where murder once stunted life and commerce, are now mercifully at peace, and property values are reflecting that.

And, above all, the real story  is that gang violence has dropped so precipitously. (Remember: L.A. used to have way more than 280 gang-related homicides, in years when total homicides topped a thousand.) And so has gangs’ public behavior that did so much to blight those working-class neighborhoods that could least afford their crap. Gangs no longer have the run of the region.

This morning I was out on a street that was notorious for its gang in the 1990s. I found it quiet, pleasant, unscarred by graffiti. On the contrary, the houses seemed improved, freshly painted – one of many such neighborhoods all across Southern California.

Later, I was in Lincoln Park, talking with Braulio Garcia, a Mexican immigrant who has owned La Guadalupana Market (pictured above) since 1988. Up to about decade ago, he said, gangs were everywhere in Lincoln Park. A few blocks away is a gang mural, apparently from the 1990s, that lists the members of the neighborhood crew, and giving an RIP to a few friends who didn’t make it. Now, Mr. Garcia told me,  he doesn’t see gangs or their graffiti at all.

Certainly lifted my spirits.

So on that note I’ll leave you, while daring to suggest that things are looking up, and hoping, meanwhile, that we have a Happy New Year, one and all.

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Filed under California, Drugs, Gangs, Los Angeles, Southern California

The Good, the Bad and the #100Days100Nights

Twitter is abuzz with word from South Central Los Angeles that either 1) a gang, angered at the shooting of a member is planning on killing a hundred people in a hundred days or 2) that two gangs have a bet to see which can kill the most people first.

I don’t know if either story is right. I suspect no one else does, either.

There certainly have been serious spates of shootings in areas in which these gangs operate.

But to me, this seems the downside to an otherwise very positive development in our SoCal gang world. Street gangs have moved off the street. This is a radical development, for our street gangs grew from the streets, took their names from streets, developed reputations based on how well they “defended” street they deemed “theirs.”IMG_9366

Now, in neighborhood after neighborhood, corner after corner, they are absent. Cudahy, Hawaiian Gardens, Highland Park, Compton – ancient gang towns or neighborhoods. Not any more, it seems from traveling their streets. To be sure, the phenomenon is less well felt in the black neighborhoods of South Central. But even there it’s nothing like it ever was at its worst, or even a few years after its worst.

Doesn’t mean gangs don’t feud. Doesn’t mean they’re not up to no good. It just means they aren’t as public, aren’t as much out on the street, in the parks, on the street corners – which is good, for  it allows those neighborhoods some room to breathe. That’s why property values in many of these neighborhoods are rising. Northeast LA is one very good example of that.

IMG_1780On the flipside, those who remain bonafide members, or maybe more likely those who aren’t, spend time prattling on, threatening others and boasting on social media – Facebook is full of them; so is Twitter. But going on social media requires a whole lot less dedication to the gang cause than staking out territory at a park or liquor store where your rivals know where to find you.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that gangs on social media is a benign thing.

Take the #100days100nights hashtag. Could be there’s truth to this hashtag. Could be there isn’t. Could be that people believe there is and act accordingly, by staying away from the areas where these gangs operate (Imperial to Florence, around Western). But it grows from the new space that gangs here have occupied, which is the virtual space. From there, the supposition is, it has spilled out onto the streets.

Whatever the truths, it bears mention that myths and misunderstandings have long fueled gang life in L.A. The Mexican Mafia, in an attempt to stop drive-by shootings, which it viewed as harmful to its drug business, said a member’s child had been killed in a drive-by. Latino gangs took that seriously.

IMG_0569Among the Florencia 13 gang (one of the largest Latino gangs in SoCal) rumor circulated that blacks had hijacked a load of dope that belonged to the Mexican Mafia member from Florencia.

True? Who knows?

But Florencia then went on a multi-year campaign (2004-07 more or less) to shoot black men – crimes well documented in a federal trial a few years later.

So this hashtag is part of a tradition, just amplified by the power of, and lack of accountability inherent in, social media.

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South Gate Rising – my N.Y. Times column

I came to South Gate for the first time in 1997 and 1998 to write about Chalino Sanchez, the slain narcocorrido singer whose career began at El Parral, a narco-music club in the town.

In 2000, I returned as South Gate was pioneering the outrageous and crummy PRI-style politics that stained the newly Latino cities southeast of L.A. for the following decade. I left the town a few weeks later gravely concerned that the implications of the emergence of a Latino majority would mean the same kind of insane, mutant politics would spread to all of Southern California.

So I’m very happy to be able to write the column that appears in today’s New York Times about South Gate and the changes that I perceive in the southeast cities – some more than others, but all connected to a general acceptance by Mexican immigrants of their future and place in this country.

The Saga of South Gate, btw, became a chapter in my second book, Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream. The political culture that emerged there over four municipal election cycles was based, as I say in my NYT column, on preposterous, looney campaign fliers that were nonetheless believed by many voters in that town.

I’ve included below a slideshow of some of those fliers for the historical record and to give an idea of how wacky things got. These are mostly from the 2001 municipal election in which Albert Robles and his cronies won a council majority. For the full story, check out the chapter in my book.

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As a legend passes, a Walmart in Compton?

A legendary Compton indoor swap meet is closing this week, and vendors say they believe it will be replaced by a Walmart.

Snapseed Compton Fashion Center Dresses BWThe Compton Fashion Center, 2100 N. Long Beach Blvd., closes Thursday after 32 years, during which time it revolutionized immigrant business formation in Southern California.

In a tersely worded December 1 letter to vendors, some of whom had been in the CFC since it opened, the owner, Soo Lee, told them they had 30 days to get out.  That deadline was later extended another two weeks – leaving this Thursday as the day when the lights go out.

Shortly before Christmas, the center put up large signs announcing a “Close Out Sale” – and thanking customers for years of patronage – that vendors had not agreed to. Vendors say this left them with little time or opportunity reduce inventory and find a new location.

Of several CFC merchants I spoke with, all said they believe the space will be occupied by a Walmart, though the owner, Soo Lee, has said nothing about his plans for the enormous space. So this may be rumor as much as anything.

Walmart did not confirm a new store at the Compton swap meet. But the company didn’t quite deny one in the future, either. Here’s the statement a spokeswoman emailed me:

“While we are always looking for ways to better serve our Compton customers, we don’t have any new projects to announce.”

Okay. Still leaves the question of what will go into the center that was making the owner push the vendors out so abruptly after so many years in business.

Walmart last summer put a store in the new azalea Shopping Center in South Gate, four milIMG_1919es away, and traffic was so heavy the store wasn’t able to keep its shelves stocked for the first few weeks, according to a shopping center spokeswoman.

Of course, Walmart has also had problems locating inner-city stores in Southern California. Inglewood famously turned away the giant retailer, fearing it would lay waste to numerous mom-and-pop merchants.

“If Walmart comes, all the merchants on Long Beach Boulevard and around here will be wiped out,” said Kirk Kim, owner of Cycadelic Records, which has rented space near a swap meet entrance since CFC opened.

Compton Fashion Center opened in the space of what had been a Sears in 1983. It was the first large Korean-owned indoor swap meet in Southern California.

With that, in a region then becoming a magnet for immigrants from across the world, the indoor swap meet idea took off. Swap meets became a safe place for immigrants, speaking little English and without much capital, to wedge into a cranny of the American Dream.

Compton Fashion Center, in particular, drew people from all over with, in its heyday, 300 vendors selling jewelry, Photo Jan 12, 1 18 21 PMmakeup, music, cellphones, groceries and clothe.

“The holy grail of the hood,” one Yelp customer called it.

At Cycadelic Records in the 1980s, Kirk Kim’s father, the late Wan Joon Kim, and mother, Boo Ja  — Korean immigrants who spoke little English – became the first to sell and promote the gangster rap then emerging from Compton garages. The couple, known as Pops and Mama, sold the first records by NWA frontman Eazy E, and dozens of other rappers that grew to chronicle the city’s crack-and-gang nightmare, as West Coast gangster rap became an international phenomenon. His shop and the center have been in numerous rap music videos.

But a lot has changed since then. National retailers have discovered the hood. Whether the indoor swap meet is slowly fading away is an open question.

Kirk Kirk believe the CFC owners have been keeping vendors out with an eye to attracting to a big-box retailer. Whatever the case, he said, foot traffic has dropped along with the number of vendors.

Last week, the center was slowly emptying. Stalls sat abandoned. Owners were boxing product and sweeping the floors.

“It’s sad. These folks are like my family,” he said. “I see these people more than I see my sister.”

Photos: Kirk Kim; t-shirts and dresses in booths at Compton Fashion Center.

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Filed under Business, California, Los Angeles, Migrants, Southern California

Is This How Gangs End?

I’m very proud of my cover story in the January’s edition of Pacific Standard Magazine about the decline of gang violence and gang presence in Southern California.gangs-illo

I’ve been watching this phenomenon quietly unfold for several years. It amounts to a revolution in criminal behavior in the region that essentially invented the modern street gang, then exported it to much of America.

It’s not necessarily to say that, literally, all gangs have stopped existing, though some have. Rather, it’s to say that their behavior is so much more underground, low-profile, so quiet, that it amounts to about the same thing for many working-class neighborhoods that were besieged by these guys for so long. Some are still active but none is as active as gangs were a decade or two ago.

These were truly street gangs, meaning they took their power, identity and reputation from their streets and how well they “defended” them.

Areas like Drew Street, mentioned in the piece, are now seeing a resurgence that was denied them for many years due to the stifling presence of their local gangs.

Anyway, I hope you like the piece. Daily Beast selected it as one of the Best Longreads of the Week – so that was nice….Let me know what you think, please.

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Todo Se Olvida – Everything Gets Forgotten

Riverside Casa Blanca 4Out in Riverside the other day, I took a trip with police through Casa Blanca, just off the 91 Freeway.

Casa Blanca is one of the classic Mexican-American barrios of Southern California, named for a large white mansion on a hill a half-mile east of it and a brand of oranges. The area is still bordered by some orange groves.

It has fascinated me for many years, ever since the great Calvin Trillin wrote a masterful piece about it for the New Yorker, which he later included in his book, Killings. This is probably the best volume of crime reporting in American journalism. I’ve read Killings four times, I think.

Anyway, “Todo Se Paga” – Everything Gets Paid – told the story of the feud between the Ahumada and Lozano families in the insulated barrio that was itself like a small town, quite apart from the rest of Riverside. Police, in particular, were unwelcome. Only a few years ago, officers who went there still risked being hit with rocks, and neighbors would at times start bonfires in the middle of the streets.

Madison Street is the barrio’s dividing line – east of that was the Lozano family and west of that lived the Ahumadas.

Casa Blanca’s story was very un-Southern Californian – a rooted place, where houses were not only inherited but lived in by generations. Unlike most of the region, history mattered and people remembered and things lingered.

In 1992, after a police officer killed a notorious member of the Ahumadas – Georgie – the police chief of Riverside told the LA Times that the department had no vendetta against any of the families out in Casa Blanca.

“We’re not killing them–they’re killing each other,” he said. “If we really (sought) revenge, and wanted to carry it to its extreme, the best thing we could do is sit back and do nothing because they’ll eventually kill each other.”

Over the years, it all got very complicated, with people intermarrying but at the same time feuding, and having to choose sides. Eventually it devolved into two gangs – Fern Street (Ahumada) and Evans Street (Lozano) gangs. For years the gangs that grew from this feud were known for their violence.Riverside Casa blanca 6

Then about three years ago, it all stopped. Graffiti, feuding just ended. There hasn’t been a major crime incident in Casa Blanca for a while now, I’m told.

One cop I toured with said he thought it had to do with an order from drug-trafficking groups that the violence was attracting police attention and getting in the way of business.

That seems a likely possibility, something that’s happened elsewhere in Southern California as well.

But it also seems to me that the world finally came to Casa Blanca, too. A lot of the old families have died, or moved away, or are doing time. Many new residents are from other countries, including Mexico and Central America, and aren’t invested in, or care about, the barrio history.

I went by Ahumada’s Market. An Indian man has owned it for 10 years. There’s a Korean church on Madison, along with a library branch. A Korean man owns a market nearby as well.

Maybe in the rapid-fire change of economics, real estate and culture in Southern California, in contrast to other other parts of the world I could name, it’s more accurate to say that “Todo Se Olvida” – Everything Gets Forgotten.

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Fashion District drug money laundering

L.A., and the Fashion District in particular, is the “epicenter” of narcodollar money laundering, mostly by Mexican drug cartels, said authorities at a press conference today.

They came together from the FBI, DEA, IRS and US Attorney’s office to announce a bunch of arrests in the Fashion District early Wednesday and describe a scheme through which dollars are laundered into pesos.download

In one location, they came upon boxes of cash that they expected would total $35 million when they were done counting, which they weren’t by midday. They seized another $19 million in bank accounts and $10 million at a house in Bel-Air – $65 million in all.

Among all that’s interesting in this topic is the fact that virtually all of this takes place within the immigrant economic ecosystem in L.A., which has long fascinated me as it basically involves almost no native-born Americans. In this case, mostly Chinese sewing-company owners were doing business with Mexican drug traffickers.

Apparently these exchanges with Fashion District businesses on behalf of drug traffickers has become a popular way of laundering money ever since 2010 when Mexico put strict controls on the quantities of dollars that could be deposited in its banking system without being reported.

Used to be traffickers would just pack stack of dollars into a car and drive home. Now putting that money somewhere isn’t as easy. Hence this new Black Market Peso Exchange scheme.

Basically, it works thus: traffickers in the US with ill-gotten bucks find a peso broker – someone whose job it is to search out companies already selling goods into Mexico. A trafficker delivers large quantities of these dollars to Fashion District companies to pay for massive deliveries of clothes down to Mexican clothing importers who are in the scam.

“The cash never crosses the border, but the goods do,” said Robert Dugdale, chief of the U.S. Attorney’s criminal division in L.A. The Fashion District firm sends the clothes to a clothing importer in Mexico. The clothes are sold for pesos and the pesos are given to the cartel traffickers, after the broker takes a cut for himself.

A lot of this appears to depend on Fashion District clothing companies with owners who are willing to say nothing when some guy shows up with a duffel bag of cash, using only a nickname as ID.

Homeland Security had previously sent out notices to 160 companies in the district, telling them of U.S. legal reporting requirements for cash. The selection of which companies were notified “was not random,” said Claude Arnold, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations here.

Apparently this scheme has sent floods of cash through the Fashion District. Be interesting to see after all this what happens to some of these companies.

One Fashion District company – Q.T. Fashions on 12th Street – allegedly laundered $140,000 in ransom money for the kidnapping of a cartel courier, a U.S. citizen, whose load of cocaine was confiscated by law enforcement. To get repaid, members of the Sinaloa Cartel kidnapped him, took him down to Mexico, tortured him and got the family to take the ransom money to QT Fashions, which allegedly got the cash down to Mexico. The hostage was eventually freed.

Photos: Stashes of cash; Source: US Attorney’s office

 

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Filed under Border, Business, Drugs, Global Economy, Los Angeles, Mexico, Southern California

The Corner of the Virgin: 41st and Broadway

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No corner of the city appears better protected than 41st and Broadway in South Central LA.

There are five virgin murals on three buildings at one corner, and another two on a mini-market a block away.

“We’ve put up flowers and kind of modern rock n roll paintings,” said a woman named Dolores, from Guatemala, who was behind the plexiglass at the mini-market.

“But the cholos come and spray-paint them. So we had the Virgins painted. They’re not cheap – one cost $800 and the other $500. But the cholos respect them.”

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Faustino Diaz: Trombone master from Oaxaca in L.A.

Faustino Diaz, the Oaxacan trombone master, returns to Los Angeles this weekend for a concert at the Ukrainian Hall, 4315 Melrose Ave., this Sunday at 2 p.m.

Diaz thrilled Mexico last year when he won the International Trombone Competition in South Korea.1511733_908562385837387_4934257276349175473_n

A few days later he visited the Pico-Union District and the music school run by director Estanislao Maqueos, who has used his school to organize Oaxacan youth orchestras.

There, I had the chance to sit down and talk with him about his life, and having to venture out into the world to find his music like a migrant finds a future.

The interview is above and in Spanish.

Check out the concert. Should be good.

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Filed under California, Culture, Mexico, Migrants, Southern California

Barefoot Triqui Indian BB players in town

 

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The barefoot Triqui Indian basketball team, from the mountains of Oaxaca, is in Los Angeles for a couple weeks.

The team of 10 and 11-year-olds from the village of Rio Venado, Oaxaca was welcomed with a brass band and a press conference at Casa Oaxaca in Mid-City.

A full schedule awaits. A tournament next two Saturdays. Visits to UCLA, USC, Disneyland, and the Lakers. As well as meals at several of the many Oaxacan restaurants that have proliferated in Pico-Union and West LA in the last 10 years.

The team formed out of an academy set up three years ago in Rio Venado, with a focus on bringing education to the isolated Triquis in the mountains of Oaxaca.

Since then, the boys, playing barefoot, have become something of international stars. They won a tournament in Argentina. They’ve toured Orlando and played the San Antonio Spurs barefoot in Mexico City, winning 10-4.

IMG_5957The Triquis (Tree-Kees) are considered among the poorest indigenous ethnic groups in Mexico. (Los Angeles has few Triquis, but they form a large part of the Central Valley agricultural labor force.) For years, the Triqui region has seemed stuck “in the 18th Century,” said Sergio Zuniga, the coach. “Their dream before was to finish elementary school and go the U.S.”

The academy formed to change that, with Triqui teachers. It adopted the attitude of making do with what it had available, which in Rio Venado doesn’t include tennis shoes. One thing that was available was basketball, which is a huge sport across the mountains of Oaxaca.

“In Mexico, we don’t teach the culture of competitiveness,” Zuniga said. “What we’re doing with these kids is teaching them competitiveness — that they learn to win and lose.”

Since then, the image of shoeless four-foot Indian basketball players has captured the imagination and sympathy of people across the continent.

The team amounts to a public-relations strategy to call attention to the long-forgotten Triqui region, where average education is four years. The Indian-taught academy spent its first 18 months without any help at all. But as the team garnered attention in the Washington Post and CNN, the Mexican government has supported it, promised to build houses for the players’ parents and pay for the kids’ education, including college.

“The idea for the school wasn’t to place blame [for the Triqui situation], but simply to act,” Zuniga said. “With Indians, we’re forming winners. This has astonished people [across the Americas] — how Indians are changing their history.”

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El Super workers are demanding…now that illegal immigration has slowed

Workers at the Southern California supermarket chain, El Super, are protesting conditions there — in what could be the beginning of an upheaval in the Southern California grocery industry.

Up to now, nonunion immigrant supermarkets have been a low-cost place to shop for food — with prices based at least partly, I’ve always suspected, on an especially compliant workforce.

I shop often at El Super, Northgate Gonzalez, El Tapatio, and many others — far more than I go to Ralph’s. I find the produce especially good quality and cheap.

All are owned by immigrants (or folks in Mexico, in El Super’s case). They are staffed by Latino immigrants and target the Latino immigrant consumer. They see cactus leaves (nopales), tortillas, dried black beans, chorizo and often feel just like supermarkets in Mexico.

Many are in spaces once occupied by Ralph’s, Von’s, Alpha Beta and other non-immigrant supermarket chains — buildings many of them moved into after the other businesses were burned out during the 1992 Rodney King riots.

For consumers who’ve known where to go and what to buy, these markets I’ve long thought were a benefit of living in Southern California — same as cheap flooring installation.

I’ve never heard of any of them being struck. But that was then — during years of seemingly unending flow of illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America into the region.

I suspect the El Super protests have something to do with the dramatic slowing in the flow of illegal Mexican immigrants into the US in the last few years. Not to mention, the record numbers of  deportations in the last few years.

A smaller supply of workers means those who have jobs gain confidence in their ability to demand better treatment.

The gravest threat to an illegal immigrant without much education or English is a lot of immigrants with the same limited skill set.

That’s why so many Latino immigrants have left L.A. over the years for places like Kentucky, Tennessee, Minnesota, etc etc. They weren’t escaping the migra. They were escaping others just like themselves, who bid down wages and forced up rents.

Now there are fewer of them.

So … might we see immigrant workers at more companies objecting to their treatment by their immigrant owners? Perhaps in other industries — home improvement, for example?

I’d say chances are good.

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Compton Latino gang members and race

IMG_9401Two Latino gang members from Compton pleaded guilty (Thursday, Oct. 16, 2013) to federal hate crimes in attacks on black youths in a case that showed how much the town had changed.

Jeffrey Aguilar and Efren Marquez, Jr., admitted to violating the federal Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

They each face a maximum of 10 years in prison, said Reema El-Amamy, the federal prosecutor in the case.

Aguilar and Marquez are reputed members of Compton Varrio 155, a small street gang that has feuded for years with a black street gang a couple blocks north. They were arrested in January. Sheriff’s officials said at the time that the family they allegedly targeted had no gang association and had only lived on the street for a few months.

I went out to the neighborhood one rainy day after these arrests were announced. The street is working class, with stucco two-bedrooms crowded next to each other.

What struck me was that the gang seemed especially energetic. Their graffiti was everywhere. This is something you don’t see so much in Southern California any more. Most gangs don’t have the same public presence — largely because of federal indictments and gang injunctions. Graffiti, certainly, is far less common.

The case seemed to me emblematic of many that have taken place over the years and have gone largely unnoticed. They involve Latino street gangs targeting blacks who live in their area.IMG_9395

Beginning in about the mid-1990s, Latino gangs emerged as the leading perpetrators of hate crimes, especially violent hate crimes. This happened all over: San Bernardino, Pacoima, Azusa, Canoga Park, Highland Park, Harbor Gateway, Hawaiian Gardens, Pomona, and so on.

Compton, long a black enclave that gave birth to gangsta rap, has transformed into a majority Latino city in the last 15 years. Nothing showed that more than this case, unless it’s the school fields on Sundays that are filled with people playing soccer.

ADDENDUM: By the way, if you go back further — into the 1980s — you find that black gangs preyed mightily on Mexican immigrant kids in much the same way. this coincided with the influx of Mexican immigrants into black areas like South Central, Inglewood and Compton during that decade, which in Mexico was an economic catastrophe.

I’ve heard this from many people. But here’s what one blogreader just wrote, remembering those times:

“…back when I lived in Compton, specially when I went to Compton high school between 89-93, things were tense between the black gangs and the mostly Mexican students at Compton, there were a lot of instances where I witnessed Latino students not gang members being jumped brutally for no reason…there were even riots on my senior year where these black gangs that were around Compton high school would start hitting random Latino students and these students would fight back with their cowboy belt buckles, this was the time of quebradita and chalino Sanchez….so a lot of us would go semi cowboy to school….”

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The Dead Presidents Case…Finally the End

On the night of July 9, 2000 on the West Side of the city of San Bernardino, several armed gang members went into the driveway of a duplex and opened fire.

Johnny AgudoFour people were killed that night. They included two brothers, Johnny and Gilbert Agudo. The Agudos were presidents of their respective west side gang cliques — 7th Street Locos and the Little Counts.

The incident became known as the Dead Presidents case and involved betrayal and greed and murder worthy of Shakespeare’s best tragedies.

The Agudo brothers’ murders changed gang life in the West Side Verdugo area, the flatland barrio separated by the 215 freeway from the rest of San Bernardino and made up of families whose ancestors first settled the area in the 1920s and found work at the Santa Fe Railroad.

What made it more amazing was that it was the Agudos’ own homeboys doing the killing.

The case came to a long-awaited end last week, when the last of four defendants to be convicted for the crime, Froylan Chiprez, now 36, was sentenced to four life terms without parole, and 31 years for the attempted murder of two others at the scene that night.

Chiprez, a gunman that night, was arrested in December, 2011 in Tijuana, where he’d been living for a decade.18-e1381189731659

The case fractured West Side Verdugo, the largest Latino gang, then comprising four cliques, in San Bernardino, said Denise Yoakum, the prosecutor in the Chiprez case.

“Gang officers have told me that many gang members weren’t sure who to trust after that,” she said. “They refer to it as their 9-11. A lot of the old gangsters, you ask them a question [about some event], and they’ll say `Was this before the Dead Presidents case or after?'”

The  murders took place supposedly at the behest of Sal “Toro” Hernandez, the Mexican Mafia prison gang member who controls San Bernardino Latino gangs.

One member of the 7th Street gang, Luis Mendoza — aka Maldito — was Johnny Agudo’s best friend. Together they started the 7th Street clique.

Mendoza organized the shooting that night, believing he could be made president of the gang, and possibly a Mexican Mafia member himself, if he followed Hernandez’s orders and killed Johnny Agudo, who was believed to have been talking to police.

Gilbert Agudo was killed because it was believed he would always avenge his brother’s death if he lived.

Mendoza and another shooter, Lorenzo Arias, were sentenced to death in 2008. John Ramirez, another long-time 7th Street homeboy, spent 12 years in prison for his part in the shooting that night, his sentenced shortened due to his cooperation with prosecutors.

These guys all went to school together. Their mothers babysat for each other, and they knew everything there was to know about each other’s families.

I always took the case as a sign of how Southern California barrio life, once so tight-knit, almost cloistered, began to shred under the influence of the Mexican Mafia.The Virgin of Mount Vernon

In the early 1990s, the Mafia came out to the streets and put Latino gangs under its control, forcing gang members to tax drug dealers and kick Eme members a percentage. In time, Eme members began ordering gang members to kill their own.

On the streets of Southern California, this undermined the long-standing, deep loyalty that many Latino gang members felt for their own homeboys. This case, and others, showed that that loyalty pretty much doesn’t exist any more.

A lot has changed on San Bernardino’s West Side since then. Mexican immigrants have replaced many of the Mexican-American families who once lived there.

The Agudos’ parents moved away from the west side long ago.

“Some of the victims moved completely out of state,” said Yoakum.

The physical presence of the gangs in the area has diminished notably. There’s far less graffiti and no gang members hanging out at markets or at a large park on the West Side. That doesn’t mean the gangs have disappeared, Yoakum said.

In fact, more than 13 years after that night, only the influence of the Mexican Mafia remains constant in the barrio where the presidents died.

Photos: Johnny Agudo, Gilberto Agudo, Mount Vernon Virgin of Guadalupe

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