L.A.'s blacks, Latinos see answers in alliance

National activists hope it's the beginning of a new era in black-Latino unity.

Some city officials see merely a promising - but yet unproven - possibility in ways for the two groups to find common ground over a host of issues that have found them directly at odds in recent years: jobs, housing, education, healthcare, and gangs.

Either way, say observers, the formation here of a new Latino & African American Leadership Alliance is a development more and more US cities are likely to see with the rise of Hispanic politicians like Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Mr. Villaraigosa, the first Hispanic mayor here in 125 years, took the reins last month buoyed by the overwhelming support of the black community.

With the increase of the US Hispanic population, surpassing blacks in 2000 as the nation's largest minority, the alliance is a logical next step in the marriage of minority interests in gaining economic, social and political clout from inner city neighborhoods to Congress, analysts say.

"These are two American ethnic and racial communities who have a long history of fighting social injustice and racial oppression in this country," says Najee Ali, a Los Angeles and Chicago-based cleric and activist. "Blacks have felt threatened and marginalized with the growth of the Latino vote, and Latinos know what it is like to be stuck outside the corridors of power. We want to create a model of how these two groups can work together from South Central [L.A.] to Washington D.C."

Well-known locally, Mr. Ali once brokered a historic truce between two of this city's most notorious gangs, the Bloods and the Crips. Working with him as cochairs in the alliance are the Rev. Al Sharpton - head of the New York City-based National Action Network - and Christine Chavez, political director of United Farm Workers.

The leaders hope the alliance will help stop the two groups from undermining one another in competition for public dollars and programs.

They see the May 17 election of Villaraigosa, in which black leaders withdrew support for former Mayor James Hahn and threw their backing behind Villaraigosa, as a key turning point.

"Four years ago we were just talking about ways to coalesce political power, and that's what happened in the mayor's race here," says Mr. Sharpton."Now we're ready to go to the next level and make a historic coalition and tackle other hurdles at city hall, corporate barriers, in schools and in the culture of greed that has pitted us against each other."

Besides bringing together leaders of both groups regularly, the coalition plans to sponsor community forums as well as partner with local rap singers, artists and other performers. One idea is to reignite passion from earlier social struggles - from Martin Luther King Jr.'s civil rights fight to Cesar Chavez's creation of United Farm Workers in California.

"Many Hispanic youth today don't know that my grandfather modeled himself and his nonviolent strategies after Martin Luther King," says Ms. Chavez, granddaughter of the UFW founder. "We want to show them how blacks supported us in that struggle, and we want to show blacks how Hispanics helped them in the civil rights struggles of the sixties."

Organized by the new coalition, two dozen local Latino and black leaders join hands today to lead residents in a cross-town march from the site of the Watts riots 40 years ago, to the spot where an 18-month-old Latino toddler was shot just weeks ago. The event aims to spur dialogue at venues that have become symbols of racial injustice.

Although Hispanics have supplanted blacks as the primary residents in Watts, the community remains poor, and suffers from lack of job opportunity, affordable housing, adequate healthcare, and good schools.

Organizers also hope the alliance can spur both groups to reconsider stereotypes.

"One thing we want to address is par- ents and the signals they send to their children that are biased and lead to confrontation," says Sharpton. "We're not messiahs waving magic wands ... but if we set a different climate, the solutions will come and they will complement what the mayor is doing in trying to set a different tone for this city."

An early focus of the alliance is youth, organizers say. Three weeks of outbreaks of fighting between black and Latino students at Jefferson High School here led to a school shutdown by the LAPD and the intervention of Mayor Villaraigosa himself. With schools reopening shortly, Chavez and others want to quickly provide tangible results through meetings and possible work programs that can engage both sides.

"This new alliance shows the promise of being more than just talk, talk, talk," says African-American city councilwoman Jan Perry. "They seem bent on creating deeper and more complete relationships between various communities that have not happened in the past."

Collaboration between blacks and Latinos has already paid dividends in Los Angeles. The two groups united in a bus riders union over a decade ago, pushing for more service in poorer communities. The effort resulted in hundreds of new buses, new routes and reduced fares for the 80 percent of Los Angeles riders who reside in primarily poorer ethnic neighborhoods.

"Often the problem for poorer populations - Hispanic, black, and Asian alike - is that they don't think of organizing in an institutional way ... they tend to think it is just one person alone against the system," says Manuel Criollo, spokesman for the bus rider's union. "Our struggle shows that the system cannot ignore a unified front."

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