PLANADA -- In the Spring of 2005 Martin Lopez Diaz spent much of his time knocking on doors in Planada and Le Grand. He went to churches, hospitals, and even campsites to find farmworkers. He wasn't selling vacuums or life insurance, he was selling something much less concrete.
"I was not selling something tangible," said Lopez. "It was an idea, an idea of change."
As the program manager of Golden Valley Health Center's Poder Popular program, Diaz's job was to help organize farmworkers in the area and teach them how to become civically active and fight for social justice.
With the aid of a $400,000 grant from the California Endowment, Poder Popular taught locals everything from their civil rights to the ins an outs of local government.
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Eventually a nucleus of about 10 women and a handful of youth calling themselves Las Monarcas Unidas (the united monarchs) formed. They are named after the butterflies of their native Michoacán. Now much of the organizing Diaz used to do is in their hands. On Saturday, three years after Diaz started canvassing the area, the first and most tangible result of his and Las Monarcas Unidas' efforts bore fruit.
El Centro, a community center that will be open most days, unlike the existing community center, will act as gathering place, a classroom and a resource center.
While El Centro, located in the old senior annex of the community center in Houlihan Park, is a concrete result of Poder Popular's efforts, it is perhaps the least of what has been achieved in Planada. Poder Popular's aim was to create civic participation, and now with a strong group of women running their own organization, and a former member on the local community board, Diaz may soon be able to walk away and leave the work to Las Monarcas Unidas.
But it was an up hill battle, said Diaz who was a farmworker himself. At first he found it hard to get people involved even though Golden Valley has a good reputation in the community.
He would get only one or two people to meet with him, he said. Many in Planada knew little about how local government worked and did not understand how coming to a meeting or becoming active could get anything done.
"They knew there was a government out there but they weren't involved," he said. This, he added, was because of a number of factors. The language barrier was one. But their bad experiences with government was another. These factors perpetuated negative myths about how government works and who it works for, said Diaz.
After months of talking to people, a core group of a about 10 women were willing to work with Diaz. Eventually they graduated from a 10-week leadership class and Las Monarcas Unidas was formed.
Vicki Ramirez, the group's president, said before she got involved she knew little about her rights or how government works. "Now we know," she said. And now they can affect change without waiting for some one else, she said. "I believe in change."
Despite the forming of the group, said Diaz, it took a car accident in 2007 that tore the limb off a toddler to connect with the community.
A month after the accident Poder Popular organized a community meeting on the issue after it looked like no local authorities would be stepping up to solve the problem of unsafe streets.
A hundred people showed up, said Diaz. But it was obvious that there were other issues besides the lack of sidewalks which contributed to the accident. And the people wanted to talk about those issues as well. People at the gathering said the town was generally underserved by the county. It had few street lights or sidewalks and little law enforcement presence. In addition there was nowhere for kids to go after school, said Diaz. What followed were more meetings which introduced Poder Popular and Las Monarcas Unidas to the community.
Soon after Supervisor John Pedrozo appointed a Las Monarcas Unidas member to Planada's community board and most recently El Centro has opened its doors.
Anna Moreno, a Planada resident, says Las Monarcas Unidas has become "a small group with a big impact."
Maria Bautista, another Planada resident, agrees. Before Las Monarcas Unidas and Poder Popular came along few people in Planada knew who to turn to when they had a problem, said Bautista. "We needed this so badly," she said. Las Monarcas Unidas, she added, act as an intermediary between elected officials and the people in Planada. "Everyone knows who they are."
Reporter Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at (209) 385 2484 or firstname.lastname@example.org.