This is not going to be a story about gangs and violence in La Colonia, perhaps Oxnard’s most beleaguered neighborhood.
“All you ever hear about Colonia is gangs, gang injunctions, violence, that it’s little Tijuana, but you never hear about the people or the community coming out of here,” said Mario Quintana, 30, community leader and organizer.
Since 2004, the Oxnard Police Department has been throwing gang injunctions at the Colonia neighborhood, figuring that would be the best way to remedy the ailments and gritty image that taints Colonia.
Lost in the battle has been the community itself. Residents say it feels like the neighborhood has been severed from the populace of Oxnard, only of interest during election seasons. Some in this Latino barrio do not speak a lick of English, as a number of residents come from rural parts of Mexico. Despite Oxnard consisting of more than 80 percent Hispanic residents, the City Council is still refusing to implement a Spanish simulcast for the council meetings. As a result, the majority of the Colonia community has distanced itself from civic engagement. The streets that were once a hotbed of activism, blazing with hope as Cesar Chavez marched the streets in past decades, now host blighted parcels littered with garbage.
“It’s about taking pride in your neighborhood and that isn’t what’s happening here,” explained Rudy Salvino, 36, a community organizer. Salvino proudly boasts of the days he and his father marched with Chavez through La Colonia, and he now spends his extra time trying to spark Colonia residents’ interest in city politics. Scanning the overgrown, littered landscape on the corner of First Street and Hayes Avenue, where 24 low-income townhomes were supposed to be built, Salvino shook his head.
“To get to this point is ridiculous,” he vented. “It’s unfortunate to see this in your backyard. But this is what we get with no leadership or representation.”
On Saturday, April 30, Salvino helped orchestrate a neighborhood cleanup, concentrating on the detritus of garbage strewn throughout the potholed alleys and vacant lots. The outcome was encouraging as men, women and children rallied through the neighborhood in pickup trucks collecting debris, filling dumpsters’ with trash. Councilman Tim Flynn also helped, and at his insistence, City Corps arrived in the afternoon and contributed to the hauling.
“We’re trying to wake the city up about this,” said Harold Ceja, 76, a regular attendee at City Council meetings who has lived in Colonia for 51 years. “The Colonia people need to wake up, too, and attend the council meetings to let them know.”
But community organizers Salvino and Quintana say that therein lies the problem: There is no Spanish simulcast for the council meetings, and their attempts to attract Colonia residents have been futile since most can’t interpret council discussions.
“They (councilmembers) want to stay as far away as possible from this,” Quintana said.
“We’re talking about getting people civically engaged,” said Flynn. By investing in a Spanish simulcast, “you’re enabling people to not learn the language, and that can lead to people being stuck in minimum-wage jobs. If somebody is that interested in city government, then they’ll have the incentive to learn the language. To me that goes hand in hand.”
For several years now, advocacy groups like LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens) and Inter-Neighborhood Council Forum (INCF) have been urging the council to provide a Spanish simulcast. The council has repeatedly rejected the notion, citing budgetary constraints, but has yet to specify how much a simulcast would cost.
The city’s midyear review showed that the city is staying within its budget. The city’s total budget is $361 million
“And they spent how much on possibly changing the name of our city?” said Salvino, about the $125,000 the city spent on flirting with a name change last July.
Councilwoman Carmen Ramirez, who has worked throughout Colonia for 20 years, is advocating for the simulcast.
“I am with the idea, but not the rest of council,” said Ramirez. “It’s a wise investment for our community that is non-English speaking. A lot of people will say, ‘Hey, they can’t vote so we shouldn’t do this.’ I’ll tell you, a lot of our citizens don’t speak the best English, but want to know what is going on in their city. They still pay taxes, their kids are in our schools, they own property, and so we need some more light on these issues to see more people engaged.”
Both sides in the argument agree that the lack of civic engagement from Colonia residents may simply be indifference. Salvino said he believes that attitude comes from years of empty promises made by the city to do simple repairs, like paving potholes or restriping crosswalks, or the council rescinding plans to rebuild Colonia’s 260 public housing units, known as The Courts, because of economic strains.
“Historically, the redevelopment fees are used in the area where the property taxes come from, so there is not much coming from Colonia,” explained Ramirez.
In the next few weeks, the council expects to make a plan for allocating the remaining $8 million collected from the voter-approved Measure O, a half-cent sales tax increase to improve parks, roads and public safety, among other things.
“I agree that La Colonia is not looking great,” Ramirez said. “I want to make sure we are spending our city resources and expenditures fairly. I want to see Colonia look better. I don’t think its bad image is deserved.”