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50 years after riots tore up Watts, the now mostly Latino area still dealing with racial issues

Regina Walters, 52, likes to go shopping at Toto’s Discount Store, a small “mercado” in the Watts neighborhood of South Los Angeles stocked with piñatas and other typically Mexican party supplies.

But on this occasion Walters, an African-American, is not really in a party mood; she reaches for cleaning detergents and other household goods also available at the store.

The colorful shop is one of many lively Latino businesses established in the once African-American enclave over the past few decades, where taquerias and storefronts with signs in Spanish have taken over the landscape. 

“Latinos and African-Americans, we are the same here, we get along,” she says. “People discriminate against both of us; they put us in the same boat and say that we are different from other cultures.”

But not everyone agrees with Walters. The Watts neighborhood, an epitome of racial tensions between blacks and whites during the 1960s, has an ethnic conflict of its own between the politically dominant African-Americans and the ever growing Latino population that feels underserved.

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On August 11, 1965, the DUI investigation of a 22-year-old black man sparked an uprising in Watts, the 50th anniversary of which is being marked this month.

Violence spread across South Los Angeles. For six days the police and National Guard were not able to contain the popular unrest. Thirty-four people were killed, more than 1,000 were injured, and 200 buildings were destroyed.

Back then, Watts was a segregated, underserved, predominantly black neighborhood with some of the poorest people in Los Angeles.

But over the last five decades, the area has since been transformed. Latinos now make up more than 70 percent of the population and what was once an impoverished African-American territory is now a segregated, underserved, impoverished Hispanic community.

Nearly 40 percent of residents in the area live below the poverty line. Unemployment stands at nearly 13 percent, and household median income, $28,700, is nearly half that of L.A. County, according to the city-run Watts Community Studio project.

Run-down housing, low wage employment, and under-performing public schools affect the neighborhood where Latinos have poor access to essential health and human services.

Some say that programs aimed at improving the resident’s living conditions do not reach needy Latinos and that black leaders are reluctant to share control of Watt.

“Latinos in the area continue to be ignored,” said Arturo Ibarra, who founded the Watts Century Latino Organization in 1990 to help Latinos become more involved with the community leadership.

 “We are sick and tired of this situation,” he added.

The McCone Commission, appointed by Governor Pat Brown in 1965 to investigate the uprising, recommended better schooling, job training, more low-income housing, public transportation, health services and better relations between the police and the community.

It also warned that the needs of Latinos should not be overlooked. The commission’s report concluded that the Hispanic population suffered "from similar and in some cases more severe handicaps" than blacks.

 “Nobody has raised a finger to say let’s include them,” said Ibarra. “Most of the resources from foundations, corporations and public money have come to nurture only African-American traditions”.

Although he acknowledges that that Latinos in the neighborhood have received support from agencies like the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC) – the biggest social services organization formed after the riots.

But, Ybarra insisted, that support has been inconsistent.

The WLCAC, which operates on a $15-million budget, offers a mix of services like tax preparation, child care, after-school programs, and prisoner reintegration.

But Tina Watkins Quaye, General Manager of Development at WLCAC, said everyone in the city is suffering – not just one particular group.

“Disadvantages do not discriminate by race in Watts, which has been systemically neglected and underrepresented not only since 1965, but for nearly the past 100 years,” she added.

Watkins Quaye said that “the real question is why, within the second largest city within the richest nation in the world, there are alarming inequities between its neighborhoods.”

Ibarra believes the problem lies with a lack of Latino leadership in the area.

“When we are talking of leadership, we are talking about civic involvement of Latinos in mainstream America, participation in electoral processes to become part of civic bodies and elected officials in government,” he said

Of the four elected officials who represent the area at the city, state and federal level, two are white and two are black. The four housing developments are primarily run by all-African American boards.

Ybarra’s organization has teamed up with the Urban Peace Institute in an effort to implement a Latino leadership program in Watts.

Angelica Castro, owner of Toto’s Discount Store, said that racism in Watts is what divides blacks and Latinos.

“There is no unity in the neighborhood as it should be and many are still resentful of past centuries,” she added.

“The Latinos here are like a ghost community because African-Americans, they fight a lot for their rights and we Latinos feel small in front of their cries for help,” said Castro.

She said more families just need to work together rather than work against each other.

“What is needed is less racism,” she said, “instead of leadership.”

Marcia Facundo is a freelance journalist who currently reports from Los Angeles, California. She has worked for El Nuevo Herald and as Hispanic Affairs Correspondent for the BBC World Service.

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