Salinas V. Chávez
City confronts LUPE’s reign over city rec center.
Thursday, March 8, 2007
Small children sitting at a table raise their hands. They want Cheez-its to go along with their apple wedges. The 25 tykes recently finished their homework and soon they will exercise, says Jennifer Barraza. Barraza varies the activities of the after-school program, shifting the animated bunch from the Firehouse Recreation Center’s computer room to the outdoor play area and the large lunchroom. The petite college student coordinates the four-hour program for La Union del Pueblo Entero, an organization founded by César Chávez.
Just through the lobby doors, LUPE Organizer Laura Caballero stands, wearing a pinstriped blazer over a white blouse. Caballero just returned from King City. When police tried to evict some teenagers because of alleged gang ties, Caballero stepped in. LUPE organizers often serve as bridges between the community and government agencies like police departments.
The LUPE Firehouse is both a place to study and hang out for youth and seniors as well as a nerve center for community organizing. But it may be cut short.
Looking to save money in 2004, the City chose LUPE to run the Firehouse. Officials couldn’t afford to run the center at the time, so they leased the facility to LUPE for $1 a year. In exchange for the cheap rent, LUPE agreed to run the city’s senior and youth programs.
But now that the City’s finances are in good shape, Salinas city staff suggested giving LUPE the boot. On Feb. 14, staff recommended the Recreation-Park Commission return control of the facility to the city. Now, the City and LUPE are discussing a possible partnership. The City’s initial stance, however, frustrates some LUPE staff.
“It doesn’t make sense,” community organizer Nicolasa Alvarez says. Other recreation centers, like those in Closter Park and Central Park, Alvarez says, need more programs. The Firehouse is thriving. “Help the ones that need help. Don’t build what is already built.”
LUPE offers services that go beyond what the City offered when it ran the Firehouse. Last year LUPE opened a PG&E neighborhood payment center, allowing people to pay bills in person and request bilingual information. LUPE also recently received a grant from KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit organization, to build a new playground. Hundreds of volunteers will build the playground behind the Firehouse on March 31, as part of Chávez’s birthday celebration.
Additionally, LUPE taps into grants from the California Endowment and California’s First Five Commission. The City chose LUPE to operate the center largely because of its financial security.
“There are a lot of organizations that are struggling to survive,” Alvarez says. “This organization is not. It’s stable.”
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Senior community organizer Xochitl Pasaye rattles off a list of social justice issues that LUPE worked on in the past two years. LUPE helped install more stop signs in Chualar, established neighborhood watches in Gonzales and rehabilitated a farm labor camp outside of Soledad. Pasaye is one of four community organizers that establish committees, or >>comités, on the Central Coast. She trains residents in leadership and organizing so that they can improve the quality of life in their neighborhoods.
“We try to teach them how to run a meeting,” Pasaye says. Many LUPE members are recent immigrants from Mexico, so organizers work to familiarize them with the legal system. “Sometimes they don’t know their rights.”
Besides getting people involved in civic action, LUPE educates families on how to be better parents and how to access health care. The Nuestros Hijos Project addresses barriers to kid’s health care, daycare and promotes early development and growth activities for kids up to the age of 5. LUPE also offers English, financial literacy and art courses.
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A framed copy of Chávez’s “Prayer of the Farmworker’s Struggle” hangs in the Firehouse hallway. An offshoot of the United Farm Worker’s union, the UFW eagle still flies on the LUPE logo outside the Firehouse, located in a neighborhood heavily populated with low-income Latinos. Chávez founded LUPE, which translates to “The Union of All People,” as the nonprofit organizing branch of UFW in 1989.
LUPE staff take this mission seriously. Program Manager Gabriela Herrera says all people are welcome here, whether they need help with their taxes or want to learn karate. During the day, LUPE serves seniors free meals and offers the elderly bingo and aikido.
“I think our main concern is that we don’t want these services to stop,” Herrera says. “Some of them are the only ones that are offered here in the East Salinas area.”
Recreation services will continue at the Firehouse, but who will offer them has yet to be decided.
Jim Pia, superintendent of the city’s Recreation-Park Department, says his department has money to spend from Measure V, a sales tax passed by voters in 2005. Pia says he wants to make sure the Firehouse is fully utilized. “It’s our job in recreation and government to provide the most services to the community,” he says.
Pia says it’s likely that LUPE and the City can work out a partnership, but Herrera says she needs to see a proposal first. Next week the City and LUPE will talk again about how to share duties and space at the Firehouse before its lease expires in the fall. Pia says staff will likely have a new recommendation for the Recreation-Park Commission in time for its April meeting. And when it comes time for final approval—voted on by the City Council—expect LUPE to fill the Council Chambers with supporters, invoking the activist spirit of the organization’s founder.