Candlelight vigil for man killed by gang stray fire

imageIt’s a birthday Vilma Rivera will never forget. On March 23rd, at about 6 p.m., the 46-year-old was returning home with her husband Mario, 51, after buying food for her birthday dinner. As they reached the sidewalk on Crenshaw Boulevard and 29th Street, Mario was hit in the back by two stray bullets from a shootout between two alleged gang members. He was taken to the hospital, but died soon after.

On Thursday evening, the sidewalk between a strip mall and a parking lot turned into a makeshift altar for Mario. About two dozen of his family and community members gathered with candles and a bouquet of white roses for a candlelight vigil in his memory.

“We were walking down the street, and were not expecting this violence,” said Vilma. “We were going back home to have dinner with the family, but we could not get that. We got a tragedy.”

imageMario’s friend Jandy Cisneros said she would always remember him as a loving and caring person who was always with his family. “He was a musician. He had an internet radio talk show, he was a member of a band, and played the keyboard, piano and guitar. He loved music, and that’s how we’re going to remember him,” she said.

The Riveras moved to the U.S. from Guatemala three years ago. They initially settled in the San Fernando Valley, but moved to the Crenshaw neighborhood three months back. The couple did not like life in the U.S and were planning to move back to their country next month, said Cisneros.

Mario is survived by his daughters Grisel, 27, Vivian, 25, son Diego, 18, and two grandchildren. His nephew, Mynor Mancella, 24, said the family was devastated by the sudden loss. “Vilma wishes it had happened to her instead of her husband,” said Mancella. “He was everything to her. They were high school sweethearts and have been through everything together.”

Mancella said though he had lived here for three years, he did not feel safe. Three months ago, his aunt got mugged at a gas station where she worked on Crenshaw and Adams, and two years earlier, a security guard was killed at a Bank of America nearby. “When a man leaves home in the morning, there’s no knowing if he will come back to his family at night,” said Mancella.

imageLEFT: Mario’s wife Vilma and Eddie Jones, president of the Los Angeles Civil Rights Association

Eddie Jones, president of Los Angeles Civil Rights Association, who organized the vigil, said the aim was to show the community that “we are not going to tolerate this anymore.” “This is about blood. The community is extremely upset and we want to come together to do everything to keep crime rates down,” he said.

On Saturday Jones plans to organize a drive to trim the bushes and grass on the sidewalk behind which the shooter was hiding. “We are going to work along with the LAPD and with the community to get these shooters off the streets,” he said. No arrests have yet been made in the case.


Family members stand beside a portrait of Mario Rivera who was killed in a possible gang-related shootout in Crenshaw Tuesday.


Vilma Rivera cries holding a picture of her husband.


Family members stand at the makeshift altar for Mario Rivera.

California Shake-Out in South L.A.


People all across the state took shelter under desks and other sturdy furniture as part of the great California shake-out. In Los Angeles, children at the California Science Center learned how to respond during a quake. Newly Paul of Annenberg Radio News has an audio report.

Art in Leimert Park hit by recession

"The recession has taken a toll on everybody in this area. People don’t come here the way they used to. At times I make just $10 the whole week. I might soon have to close this shop down if I can’t make the rent," said owner Kwame Sarpong.

Leimert Park Village, once known as the best place to pick up authentic African objets d’ art, is reeling under recession. A few years back, rising rents forced many local artists to move their studios elsewhere, and now the bad economy promises to change a little more of the character of this art hub. With fewer buyers willing to invest in artworks, memorabilia stores are resorting to discounts and other creative means to lure customers. Similarly, artists in the area are looking to diversify their trade to keep the orders from drying up. 

When Sarpong set up shop here six years ago, people would come in droves to buy clothes, jewelry and home décor items. "Now, they come, they see, they like it but they don’t have the money to buy," he said. Many of his customers have lost their jobs and art is the last thing they want to buy, said Sarpong, who started the sale as a desperate effort to reduce his inventory. "I want to get rid of these things. I was doing this because I loved it. But now there is no hope in this. I don’t think I will get into retail again. People just don’t have the money to spend," he said.

That probably explains why shoppers are scarce, even on a Saturday afternoon. A few steps away from Kumasi, a group of elderly men enjoy a leisurely smoke under a tree. Among them is Bilal, manager at the store, Sika, which sells African sculptures, handcrafted jewelry and clothes. "Sales have fallen by 75 percent over the past year," he said, adding, "If we get 10 buyers a day, we’re almost doing well."

In an effort to stay afloat, Sika introduced a small corner for hair braiding about a year back. It also added Obama memorabilia to its wares, exactly like the neighboring store, Gallery Plus. Laura Hendrix, co-owner of Gallery Plus, said Obama memorabilia did well during election, but that could not help boost sales at the store, which fell by 40 percent in the last two years. These days Hendrix brings in just one or two high-priced items if at all, and offers more discounts. "I sometimes get stuck with the more expensive items and have to reduce prices to sell them," she said. Besides actively emailing her customers about the best deals in her store, she plans to generate interest by having speakers come in and talk about collecting art. "We used to have these talks earlier and then we stopped. But now I would like to start again, to get more people inside the door," she said.

Like art stores in Leimert, artists in the area are innovating to keep the bills from piling up. Aziz Diagne, an artist from West Africa, who once owned a studio in Leimert Park Village and still has many of his paintings displayed at restaurants in the area, said his income has dropped by more than 70 percent. A professional painter for the past 20 years, Diagne occasionally dabbles with carpentry. In the past, he also made a business out of buying used items like computers, shoes, clothes and furniture from garage sales, and selling them for a profit in Africa. "That’s the business I may have to depend on now. I did it for pleasure back then, but now the need is desperate," he said.

Diagne also planned to start a career as an art teacher in Leimert Park, but the steep rents in the area were a deterrent. "Before you make a commitment of paying $2,400 as rent, you need 40 students, but even that is difficult these days," he said. The economy has taken a toll on his art shows too and he finds it difficult to gather money for advance payments for exhibitions. "If artwork was selling, I could make more money than a drug dealer. But now people have other priorities," he said.

Like Diagne, Crenshaw-based painter Kenneth Gatewood has cut down on travelling to art shows outside California. "It’s too big a risk to incur travelling and shipping expenses and not make any money. I don’t do shows at new places these days. Only if I’ve had success at a place before, do I consider going there again," he said. Though he specializes in watercolors, Gatewood has diversified into ceramic painting to generate more sales.

The recession has hit not just artists like Diagne and Gatewood, but musicians as well. Leimert-Park based jazz musician Cornell Fauler, who used to play at restaurants in Beverly Hills and Manhattan Beach, is now facing a foreclosure on his home. Even the freelance work that occasionally came his way has dried up. Some of his musician friends have taken to teaching music in schools and others are doing business in real estate. But Fauler does not want to give up yet. "I am thinking of starting a band. That will increase my chances of finding work," he said.

Passionate artists like him are keeping the faith even in these tough times. Bilal sums up the mood well. "This (Leimert Park) is the center of black art–painting, music, design, philosophy–it’s a very vibrant neighborhood for the arts, and if it dies, we’ll lose something very valuable. We’d hate to see this go away," he said.

Post Obama, Black History Month takes on a greater significance

"Black is in now, black is in vogue and that hasn’t happened since the 1960s when there was enormous interest in African history. I am hopeful that Obama’s presence will flow over, particularly to young people, and that they will take pride in their magnificent history," said historian Kwaku Person-Lynn, who teaches a course in Afrikan World Civilizations at Kaos Network, a cultural center in Leimert Park.

What started as "Negro Week" in the late 1920s became Black History Month in the 1970s, and included lectures, exhibitions, banquets, cultural events and television and radio programs celebrating the achievements of African-Americans. February was chosen because it marks the birthdays of two of the most important people who shaped the future of blacks in America–Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

This year, there is even more cause for celebration. Besides Obama holding the highest office in the country, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), one of the oldest and most influential civil rights organizations in the United States, is celebrating its centennial year.

"It’s unfortunate, but I think we’ve lost interest in our history and that’s due to parents not making an effort. I am very disappointed in the youth these days–wearing sagging pants, showing underwear–it’s foolishness, for which I give no credence whatsoever," said Jabari Jamani, founder of the AFIBA cultural center in Crenshaw.

He sees Obama’s election as a very positive and timely act and said it was high time that white Americans saw someone other than a white man or woman in a seat of leadership. "It’s been proven now that we can accept something other than an image of white male domination and I think that’s good for the youth," he said. Can a child be in a seat of leadership?

Like some people who have protested through the years, both Lynn and Jamani are against the idea of having a particular month dedicated to black history. "This month, the enthusiasm will be up for sure, but it remains to be seen whether or not it is genuine. I’m not sure yet whether this (Obama) will be a springboard for renewed interest in black history and culture," said Jamani, adding that cultural events for the community should be held through the year, regardless of the flavor of the season.

Teachers at the Crenshaw High School are doing just that. Post Inauguration Day, they have tailored lesson plans to include more discussions on black history. "Obama has spurred a deep interest in black historical figures and black freedom struggles. He has inspired a surge among our students in knowing about current issues in the black community," said Alex Caputo-Pearl, lead teacher of the Social Justice and Law Academy at the school.

Crenshaw, populated by a majority of African Americans, is an important place to generate enthusiasm in black history and culture, said Jamani. "The Korean community on Olympic Boulevard is a fraction of the black community in Crenshaw, yet they have displayed signs in their language everywhere. Even though the rest of the world can’t read their language, they are not afraid to express themselves. Crenshaw Boulevard should be like that for Afro Americans," he said.

Starting this week, like all the years before, Los Angeles will feature dances, films and poetry readings. One of the biggest events to look out for is the Pan African Film and Arts Festival, beginning later this week. And then there are organizations like the Kaos Network, a community arts center in Leimert Park that celebrate Black History Month all through the year.

But this year, most people agree that the dancers will leap a little higher, the music will linger a little longer and the lectures will be a little more passionate.

“Obama Day” at Savoy Center

The Savoy Entertainment Center in Inglewood was packed with Perry and others like her who wanted to celebrate the historic moment unfolding at the National Mall in Washington with their larger community.

Inauguration Day held a special significance in South Los Angeles, which has a higher concentration of African Americans and Latinos than the rest of the county. Racial tensions against blacks and between blacks and Latinos have played an important role in shaping the politics and culture of this area. That the event was being held a day after the Martin Luther King Day celebrations only added to its historical significance.

"For African Americans it’s an important day…it’s a once in a lifetime thing and it’s ironic that this day has arrived after King’s Day and 45 years after his ‘I have a dream’ speech," said Jonathan De Veaux, owner of Savoy.

An Obama loyalist, DeVeaux had held a similar watch party at his restaurant to celebrate Obama’s election win. That, according to DeVeaux, drew 1,200 people. He expected a huge turnout Tuesday, though not as much as he had on Election Day. As a bonus he offered complimentary breakfast to the audience–buttered toast, hash browns and fried chicken.

"This is not really a money-maker…we’re trying to be here for the community. And as a business owner, I hope the community will be there for me. Also, I didn’t want to just watch it (the swearing-in ceremony) at my house," said De Veaux.

No sooner did the doors open at 8 a.m., than people eager to get good seats began lining up outside Savoy. Most wore Obama t-shirts, caps and badges and some carried flags. Inside, De Veaux had lined up chairs on the sprawling dance floor and put up a huge projector screen to showcase the oath-taking ceremony. "I thought we would get about 100 to 125 people, but guests have been walking in continuously," said De Veaux, who had planned another party for the evening.

Among the guests was local resident David Johnson, 62, who was watching the ceremony with his brother-in-law and his friend, Inglewood Parks and Recreation Commissioner Willie Agee. "I came to Savoy because it’s an indoor venue and I wanted to be around like-minded people for this historic event…I wanted to feel the excitement around me," said Johnson.

As a descendent of former slaves, Johnson said he was ecstatic to see a black man as president. "There have been other black men before him, but the difference is that Obama is a qualified black man. He’s worked his way upwards. That tugs at my heart because I experienced a lot of racial discrimination in my lifetime. There was a time when we paid taxes in order to vote and used water from separate water pumps. As a child I attended segregated schools. I’ve seen a lot in my life and this is really fantastic, so I wanted to share this event with people of my age who had gone through similar experiences," he said.

Like Johnson, Agee said he had a lot of confidence in the new president. "Obama will be a strong president.  He has the people behind him. He will change a lot of the rhetoric that he used during campaigning, but I’m sure he will do good work," he said.

This confidence was reflected in several faces across the room. Obama’s appearance on television was greeted with applause and during the oath-taking ceremony, many could be seen wiping their tears. "Are you watching it, and are you in tears, like I am?" said a lady on the phone. Johnson broke into an impromptu jig. At another table, Darnell Charlton, who had come to view the ceremony with his wife and two children, hugged his family. Cameras flashed continuously and cheers drowned out the television commentary.

Obama’s speech was punctuated with the crowd’s applause. His reference to racial barriers breaking, everyone getting a chance to pursue their happiness, and his assertion that though challenges will not be met easily or in a short span of time, but will definitely be met, drew loud cheers. Anti-Bush sentiments were visible in the audience, especially when Obama, referring to the previous president, said, "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works." His comments about America being ready to lead once again and his oath to begin the work of remaking America drew hearty applause.

"I don’t expect him to be God and repair everything…but I expect him to accomplish a lot of the things he spoke about in his election addresses," said Johnson.

Others like Andre Knox, a resident of neighboring Leimert Park, chose to revel in the moment. "Right now I am only celebrating that he got the job. Though I am only 36, I never expected a black man to reach the White House in my lifetime. It’s really inspiring. I will criticize him later, if need be. It’s not that he can’t do any wrong," he said.

Once the inaugural address was over, the audience took to the dance floor. The music pumped up, the lights shone down and everybody danced together. Outside, a man selling Obama memorabilia did brisk business. As the day wore on, the crowds left, almost reluctantly, wishing each other a "Happy Obama Day"!