South LA resident makes world class guitars

By Patrick Thelen
Associate Editor

Germán Vázquez Rubio

“The day I die, I´ll be embracing a guitar.”

These are the words of a lucky man. A man that loves his craft in such a powerful way that he believes he’ll probably never retire. For Germán Vázquez Rubio, building guitars is more than a job; it is his passion, his life.

In an interview conducted in Spanish inside Mr. Vázquez’s guitar shop on West Adams Boulevard in South Los Angeles, this luthier said he began working in this trade as a young boy living in Paracho, a small city located in Michoacán, Mexico.

“I started making guitars when I was about 12 years old. My father, a peasant, was not making enough money at his job, so I began working at my uncle’s workshop where he made guitars.” By doing this, Mr. Vázquez was helping his parents support his seven siblings.

Although he started making guitars out of necessity, Germán immediately felt a strong attraction to the craft. “Ever since I started working for my uncle, I knew that I had found something that I would want to do for the rest of my life.”

Less than 20,000 people live in Paracho. In spite of the small population, the city is well known for producing the best sounding guitars in Mexico. The town is full of music shops that sell a variety of handmade stringed instruments such as mandolins and vihuelas. According to Mr. Vázquez, more than 50 percent of the city´s population was involved with making instruments when he was a child.

Arturo, one of Mr. Vázquez’s assistants

“A few decades ago, many of us came from families with 7, 8 or even more members. The majority made guitars because it was the easiest way to make a living” said Mr. Vázquez.

Although younger people in Paracho are now less inclined to follow the field, Germán does not believe that this is a dying art. He says that the craftsmanship has evolved tremendously, and that luthiers in his hometown are presently creating world-class guitars.

In search of a new life in Los Angeles

In the mid ‘70s, Germán arrived in the United States as a 22 year-old young man in search of new opportunities. He quickly met people who worked at his discipline, and had the opportunity to practice his skills for different luthiers that lived in the area.

After many years of gaining experience, in the early ‘90s Germán realized that he didn´t have to work for other people anymore and decided it was time to create his own business.

“As nobody knew me, it wasn´t easy at first. But after a couple of years, things got better and professional guitar players started buying my instruments.”

Although Germán started off working by himself, he currently has two others helping him craft the guitars; his godson Arturo Hernández, and his nephew, Juan Vázquez Álvarez. Both are originally from Paracho.

Mr. Vázquez’s shop in West Adams Boulevard

Having his family around is important for Mr. Vázquez. There have been times when he has thought of moving back to Mexico, but he knows this will probably not happen. Although he still has a house in Paracho, his wife, his three children and his grandchildren live in Los Angeles.

The price of Mr. Vázquez´s guitars range from between $2500 and $9500 depending on the quality of the wood and the time it takes him to build the instrument. His most expensive guitars may take more than two months to be completed.

Although he started building guitars almost fifty years ago, Germán says he is never bored. “Every guitar is different. Although the wood is the same, the textures are never identical. As a result, two guitars will never be exactly the same.”

Watch a short video on German Vazquez Rubio by Michael Cox

South LA resident turns adversity into a business opportunity

Patrick Thelen
Associate Editor

Veronica Hendrix

There are no coincidences in life. Things always happen for a reason. At least, that´s how it seems when we look at Veronica Hendrix, a South LA resident who opened a spice store named Bromont Avenue Foods in 2009.

In 2006, Ms. Hendrix went to the doctor for a routine exam and was diagnosed with high blood pressure. She was told that she needed to change her life style. This meant decreasing her levels of stress, creating exercise routines and changing her food habits.

“I had to give up salt, and like a lot of us I was addicted to salt. It was crushing to find out I had such a high blood pressure,” said Ms. Hendrix. “However, instead of getting mad, I decided to get nifty and told myself that I was going to create my own salt substitute.”

After much experimenting, she created a spice that would blend deliciously with different types of food. “One day, one of my girlfriends tasted my spice, loved it, and said that I should try to sell it. I had never considered that idea before.”

Ms. Hendrix, a journalist who works as a Public Information Officer for a government agency, took her friend´s advice very seriously. As she had no past entrepreneurial experience, she began doing research to find out exactly what had to be done to open her own company. She also did a number of focus groups and invited people over to try her product.

After a lot of hard work, Bromont Avenue Foods opened as an online store. The company is named after the street Ms. Hendrix was brought up on, located in the San Fernando Valley.

The “Spice Lady” develops her business

Ms. Hendrix, also known as the “Spice Lady” among her friends and customers, opened her online store with only one product: a flavorful mix of over 20 ingredients she calls Red Velvet Gourmet Spice Rub and Seasoning. Although her spice was thoroughly enjoyed by those who consumed it, she was having a hard time getting her product sold in retail stores.

“I began having conversations with representatives of Bristol Farms. These people told me that if I wanted to get my product in a large retailer, I would need to come up with new spices.”

Following their advice, at the end of 2009, Ms. Hendrix created a new product called Velvet Noir Gourmet Spice Rub and Seasoning. “After doing some research, I found out that men wanted something a little more robust in flavor; that´s how I came across the Velvet Noir.”

As soon as the Velvet Noir came out on the market, the “Spice Lady” decided to jump into a new challenge and began writing a recipe book entitled “Red Velvet Gourmet Rub and Seasoning: Heart Healthy recipes.” The book published at the end of 2011 required a lot of dedication.

Ms. Hendrix’s recipe book

“While writing the book I became a cooking maniac. Each recipe I include has a colored picture that shows how it looks. My goal was to have people understand that a spice rub is a versatile product that does not have to be used only for barbecue grilling. My spices can be mixed with chicken, fish, pork chops, roasted vegetables, chili and even desserts,” said Ms. Hendrix.

This year has been very important for the development of Bromont Avenue Foods. The company has stopped selling products exclusively on-line. Both the Red Velvet and the Velvet Noir are being sold at the Santa Monica Seafood Market and Cafe and the Simply Wholesome Health Food Store and Restaurant in Los Angeles.

Ms. Hendrix recently created a new spice named Velvet Calor. As soon as her label is printed she will begin selling the new product. The “Spice Lady” –who also likes to be called the “Spice Maiden” –is currently working on developing two additional blends. One will have a smoky flavor and the other will be only for sea food. “In the long run, my goal is to have seven or eight products,” she says.

Going global

During the last months, Ms. Hendrix has been attending several trade missions and events. Through these experiences she has learned a lot about foreign markets and what needs to be done before she can begin exporting her products.

“Morocco, Dubai, Brazil and India are some of the countries that have shown interest. I predict that at some point in the next 12 months, I will be exporting my products to another country.”

South LA school teacher selected as a California teacher of the year inspires her 4th grade class

By Patrick Thelen
Associate Editor

Ms. Márquez teaching her 4th grade students

“Class, stop working on your assignment. We´re going to go out for recess.”

When Verónica Márquez, a 4th grade teacher at Harmony Elementary School, said these words, there were no outbursts of happiness. Quite the contrary; for about 10 seconds, her students continued working on their task and showed no signs of wanting to stop.

Ms. Márquez, who was recently selected as one of five California Teachers of the Year, had thoughtfully crafted a lesson in which she mixed mathematics, art and history, and the children thoroughly appreciated it. After learning about different geometric shapes that included triangles, quadrilaterals, pentagons and hexagons, the students were told to create a portrait based on these newly learned forms. To help inspire them, Ms. Márquez talked to them about Pablo Picasso and showed them diverse cubist paintings that the Spaniard had created.

Once they finished their final touches, they quickly and quietly put their assignment away and followed their teacher’s instruction.

“To motivate my students, I try to do creative things they don´t usually see at home. Mixing art, music and technology can be very helpful. We also do a lot of reading in the classroom and sharing out loud. This helps my students make connections with what they experience at home,” says Ms. Márquez. “All of those things put together, create an environment in which students want to learn.”

Ms. Márquez, a UCLA graduate in sociology, has been teaching for 14 years. “I can´t remember when I first decided that I wanted to teach,” she said. “My mom says that I wanted to be a teacher ever since I was a child. She always noted that I wanted to play teacher with my dolls and my sister.”

Ms. Márquez, whose parents are Mexican and arrived in California in the 1970s, was born and raised in South LA, and she is strongly attached to her community. “There is so much history and so many good things coming from this community. I want my students to understand and know that.”

Being bilingual has been a huge asset in this teacher´s career. “In the community that I work with, knowing a second language is a huge plus. It allows you to create an automatic connection with the parents,” she says.

Harmony Principal Sylvia Salazar is in complete agreement. “Being bilingual is very important. It will not only allow a teacher to help a Latino student who is learning the English language; it will also allow the teacher to communicate with parents.”

Involving parents and showing them how to support their children´s learning is something that Ms. Márquez takes very seriously. “I always give parents my phone number and tell them to call me if they have any questions.”

Ms. Márquez also visits the homes of her students. “When I see that a student needs extra help or when parents can´t attend parent-teacher conferences, I will go to their homes.” Through the years, she has formed strong bonds with students and their families, and will sometimes visit them at birthday parties and other social events.

Achieving Results

Classroom discussion

Giant Size Butterfly, a song created by Justin Roberts, welcomed the children on their way back from recess. Ms. Márquez, with the help of her Teacher Assistant Jazmin Albarrán –a South LA native who studied at Jefferson High School– used this song to conduct a class that was designed to teach her students how to make inferences and connections.

The level of participation and engagement among her students was huge. They actively participated throughout the entire class and listened to each other’s opinions with interest and respect. Mark, one of her students, said that “Ms. Márquez makes classes interesting. She pressures us to think, and it works.”

Classmate Luis agrees. “I like how she teaches. When we´re covering a difficult subject, she always finds a way to make us solve the problem.”

Last year, ninety percent of her students tested at grade level or above on state standardized tests in reading and math. In addition, four of her students obtained perfect math scores.

Ms. Salazar said that “what makes Ms. Márquez special is that she teaches from the heart. She teaches her students how to analyze and think critically and gives them the opportunity to interact and learn from each other.”


Harmony Elementary School

An important challenge teachers must confront is learning how to interact with students and parents coming from different cultural backgrounds. Ms. Márquez believes that during their university years teachers should receive instruction that will help them to understand different cultures. “Students from Mexico, Guatemala or El Salvador aren´t the same, and it is important that teachers recognize the differences,” she said.

Ms. Salazar, who was a teacher before becoming a principal, added that “we need to make sure we not only know how our students are doing academically, but also how they´re doing emotionally. Students will sometimes come to school with a heavy backpack. This backpack isn´t heavy because of their books, but because of the problems they bring with them. In order for us to be able to teach them, we must unload that backpack and make them feel good about themselves.”

The challenge is big. Nevertheless, both Ms. Márquez and Ms. Salazar are eager to continue confronting it.

Emotional roller-coaster at Community Coalition´s election voting party

By Patrick Thelen
Associate Editor

South LA residents watching the elections at Community Coalition’s headquarters

The long, exhausting and grueling presidential campaign is finally over. Barack Obama has been re-elected and his supporters woke up this morning feeling happy, relieved and at ease.

Last night, emotions weren´t as peaceful among some President Obama supporters. In an electoral viewing party held by Community Coalition, South LA neighbors came together to watch CNN’s coverage of the election.

“How are they doing?” These were the first words asked by a woman arriving to the party with her teenage daughter at 6:50 p.m.

“It´s tight,” was the response she received.

“Oh, that´s not good. I’m worried.”

She wasn´t the only one feeling that way. There was a tense atmosphere among the people watching the coverage at Community Coalition´s headquarters.

“I want Obama to win but it looks like a tight race. We´re at the edge right now. It´s like we´re walking on a tight rope,” said Francisco Pérez. “Whatever happens,” he added, “we´re going to have to deal with it.”

At 7:00 pm, a number of people cheer when they hear that CNN has projected President Obama´s victory in New Hampshire. 15 minutes later, CNN reporters say that Democrats hold onto Senate majority. The mood is beginning to change. People are starting to loosen up and some are even making a couple of jokes. Others decide to stand up and begin eating the food offered by Community Coalition.

It´s 7:20 pm and Rose Davidson is still feeling worried and anxious. “I´m very nervous. It doesn´t look good in some states,” she said. “I´ll feel bad if Obama loses. A lot of things will change. It´ll be hard for us.”

Katy Nixon enjoying the food at the election voting party

Katy Nixon is sitting next to Rose. Both of them were born in Belize, and arrived to the United States in the early ‘70s. They’ve been friends for over 20 years. “If Obama loses it´ll be hard for the 47 percent of us Romney criticized. He doesn´t know much about living from one paycheck to another paycheck,” said Katy. “For my part,” she added, “I´m just praying for Obama to be re-elected. I have my confidence in God. He´ll put Obama back there.”

At 7:44 pm, people begin cheering when CNN projects that President Obama has won Minnesota. 11 minutes later clapping sounds fill the room as they find out that Democrat Elizabeth Warren defeated incumbent Republican Scott Brown in the Massachusetts Senate race.

At 8:00 pm, a large cheer is heard as the community learns that Obama has won California, the biggest and most populous prize of the night, which carries with it a whopping 55 electoral votes. Only five minutes later, the loud joviality turns into silence when CNN projects that Mitt Romney has won North Carolina.

Mirna Márquez and her daughter Jocelyn

Mirna Márquez is not as nervous and excited as some of the other community members. “I voted for Obama,” she says in Spanish, “but I am sad because he has not done what he promised in 2008. I have not seen changes. Everything is the same.”

Jocelyn, Mirna’s 11-year-old daughter who studies at the Ambassador School of Global Leadership, doesn´t care who wins. “Why is everyone so nervous about this?” she asked.

As these words came out of her mouth the room was filled with cheering, yelling and cries of happiness. It was 8:15 and CNN informed that President Obama had won the elections. “Everybody´s going crazy,” Jocelyn said, as she observed the members of her community. “You have to write that down in your article,” she added.

Post-victory comments

María Muñiz, a young member of the Latino community said “I am super excited right now. I support Obama’s views on birth control, and I am glad that I will have the freedom to choose what to do with my body.”

JoeAnna Fulton was also glad about President Obama’s victory. “I am happy that Romney didn´t win because he got on my nerves.”

Katy Nixon, the senior citizen that Intersections had previously talked to, was delighted. “I´m feeling happy. Things are going to be progressing now. President Obama will have four more years to make things better for whites, blacks, rich, poor, everybody. You know what, I´m going to have a good night’s sleep.”

Abrazando the Spanish language

By Patrick Thelen
Associate Editor

Photo Credit: Angela Daves Haley

Over 52 million people of Hispanic origin are currently living in the United States. By 2050, the number is expected to reach 132.8 million. This demographic transformation is clearly visible for those living in LA. According to the 2010 US Census, there are 4.7 million people of Hispanic origin residing in Los Angeles County. In other words, this group makes up 48.1% of the County´s population.

What exactly do these numbers mean? For Carlene Davis, an experienced policy and management professional in the public and non-profit sectors, they represent an opportunity to embrace a new reality, and confront change in a positive and enriching manner.

In 2003, as a volunteer effort in response to rising tensions from the changing racial and ethnic landscapes of Los Angeles’s schools, neighborhoods and communities, Ms. Davis founded Abrazar. Created on the premise of the unifying power of language, Abrazar –which means embrace in Spanish –is focused on utilizing Spanish-language learning as a vehicle to facilitate positive inter-group relations between African-American and Latino youth, particularly in South Los Angeles.

Although the project has been dormant during the last five years, Abrazar has just announced a community host partnership with Frederick Douglass Academy Middle School. This alliance will allow Ms. Davis’ venture to relaunch in January, 2013, the ¡Listos! After-school Program and the ¿Cómo Se Dice? Weekend Academy –the latter will be open to the general public.

The ¡Listos! After-school Program is both a Spanish-language learning and cultural awareness program for elementary school children. In Spanish, listos means both “smart” and “ready.”

The ¿Cómo se Dice? Weekend Academy is a Foreign Language Experience (FLEX) Spanish program for children between six and eleven years old. The goal is to teach Spanish in a fun way that will prepare students to acquire a second language over time.

Bridging the gap between two communities

“In the 2000’s, as the demographics of South LA were continuing to switch from African American to Latino, we started to witness an increase in black-brown tension,” says Ms. Davis. As a native of Los Angeles, she did not like what she was seeing and decided to build a bridge between both communities. She created an educational advocacy campaign, and told neighbors that their children should learn the new language.

Carlene Davis, founder and director of Abrazar.

“My goal is to change the hearts of the community. Both African Americans and Latinos need to learn from each other,” says Ms. Davis. “Language is a powerful social and cultural tool that establishes bonds between diverse communities.”

“I think a program like Abrazar affects relationships between the two groups by breaking down barriers,” says Susan Plann, Professor of Chicano/a Studies at UCLA and an Advisory Board Member of Abrazar. “One of my students wrote an honors thesis on the program, and part of her research involved interviewing kids from the classes. Many said that they wanted to learn more Spanish and practiced it with their Spanish speaking neighbors. They were really into it. Programs like these demystify ‘the other’ and we need more of them.”

Abrazar started off as a vocational side job for Ms. Davis. Her full-time job was very time consuming and did not allow her to dedicate the time and energy needed to maintain a sustainable project. “I was just doing what I could to bring this to the community. I wasn´t thinking of developing a long term program.”

Ms. Davis is currently working as a consultant with the Coalition for Educational Partnerships. This job has provided her the required time and liberty to relaunch Abrazar and confront future challenges and opportunities.

In addition to her partnership with Frederick Douglass Academy Middle School, Ms. Davis will continue her previous affiliations with LA Commons and The Foundation for Second Chances. She is also affiliated with the International Society of Black Latinos, an organization dedicated to educating the community about the cultural and historical richness of the African Diaspora in Latin America and the presence of vibrant Afro-Latino communities in the U.S.

Photo Credit: Angela Daves Haley

The relationship with the International Society of Black Latinos is highly relevant in Abrazar’s educational program. “At first we would only focus in teaching Spanish. Over time we added the cultural content and gave it an Afro-Latino focus. Although Mexico is an important part of our curriculum, we also spend a lot of time teaching the culture and music of Spanish speaking countries with a strong African presence.”

The economy

Although Ms. Davis’ mission is to develop a cultural experience that will unite both communities, she is also aware that teaching children a second language will benefit them the day they start looking for jobs. “In a city like Los Angeles, in which Spanish is the unofficial second language, a person that knows both languages will be preferred in any profession that involves human interaction. However, Abrazar´s vision is to prepare a future generation of global citizens.”

South LA teen on a mission to help the homeless

By Patrick Thelen
Associate Editor

Shauniece contributing in her community

“Helping others get back on their feet and put a smile on their faces is my goal in life.”

This noble and inspirational life mission belongs to Shauniece Frazier, a young 17-year-old who is holding her first campaign for donations in an effort to meet the needs of those struggling in Los Angeles. By the end of 2013, Ms. Frazier intends to raise $250,000 to provide clothes, shoes, food, school supplies, and toiletries for the homeless in L.A.

According to the 2011 Greater Los Angeles homeless count, coordinated by the Los Angeles Homeless Service Authority (LAHSA), there were approximately 51,340 homeless people in the County of Los Angeles in January 2011. Although these numbers represent a 3% decrease from the previous count, the issue remains highly relevant.

Shauniece, who lives in Baldwin Heights, is well aware of the problem. “It breaks my heart to see that my neighbors are not able to provide toiletries and shoes for their children, diapers for their babies and food for their homes. I just really want to help,” she says.

Ms. Frazier has assisted the homeless for approximately two years. During this journey, she has been helping at the Alexandria house, a shelter for homeless women and children in downtown L.A. “I adopted this shelter because struggling women and children are very near to my heart. I know what it´s like to be in that predicament and I felt compelled to give back to that home.”

When Ms. Frazier was only nine years old, her mother, Claudia Woods, was in a near-fatal car accident which severely damaged her legs and arms. After months in the hospital, it took her a year to be able to walk again. This difficult situation had a profound effect on Ms. Frazier.

“My mom´s car accident was a wake up call. At a young age I was able to assist my mom and help around the house. While she was recovering, she wasn´t able to cook, so I had to take over from there.”

Cooking has become one of Ms. Frazier’s greatest passions. She is an expert in the kitchen and has been perfecting her culinary skills for nearly eight years. She routinely blogs about new and exotic dishes, shares fun snippets from the kitchen and even offers recipes for a happy, healthy life at

Claudia Woods assisting the homeless in South Central L.A.

“I started my blog to share my love for cooking with the world and encourage youngsters to get in their kitchens and cook healthy meals. Once I started doing this I realized that many people can´t afford this type of diet. This led me to start searching for ways in which I could help others so that they could afford to make healthier food,” said Ms. Frazier.

“My mom is my inspiration”

Growing up, Ms. Frazier would always see her mother feed and shelter the homeless. “My mother is my inspiration. I´ve always thought that my mom is a wonderful woman. Watching her help those in need and still have energy to come back home and help both my brother and myself has been amazing.”

Ms. Frazier, who is currently receiving an online homeschooled education, is in the 12th grade. She plans to attend a junior college and then transfer to a culinary school. One of her dreams is to attend Le Cordon Blue, a culinary academy located in the heart of Paris. Her other aspiration, is to turn her charity work into a major non-profit organization.

South Central Avenue: On its way to renovation

The Dunbar Hotel

“Are you taking pictures of the Dunbar Hotel? Let me tell you a story. My grandfather used to come here all the time in the thirties. He knew all of the greats. My friend, this place is historic.”

The author of these words is Tony, a 61 year-old African American Central Avenue resident, who radiates pride and respect as he remembers the past.

Ninth District Councilwoman Jan Perry, a candidate for mayor in the spring’s Los Angeles elections, shares Tony´s views on the historic importance of both this building and the surrounding neighborhood. Acting as a tour guide in the 2nd annual Found L.A: Festival of Neighborhoods, hosted by the non-profit L.A. Commons, Perry began her South Central Avenue tour in one of the most important landmarks of the area: the Dunbar Hotel.

Built in 1928, the Dunbar became a magnet for traveling African Americans. Originally known as the Hotel Somerville, “it was the focal point of the Central Avenue community during the 1930s and 1940s,” said Perry. “It hosted the first national convention of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) to be held in the western United States.” Among many other noteworthy people, the Dunbar received Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, W.E.B. Du Bois and Thurgood Marshall.

Aware that the neighborhood’s vibrant past has gone astray, Perry is leading a rebirth for this block. The reason she picked the Dunbar Hotel as the starting point of the tour was to show the advancement of the Dunbar Village project.

This development will refurbish the Dunbar Hotel and renovate the existing Sommerville I and II apartments. All three properties will be connected to create the Village, an intergenerational community for seniors and families. The project, developed by Thomas Safran and Associates (TSA) and the local non-profit, Coalition for Responsible Community Development (CRCD) is scheduled to be completed by February, 2013.

Perry said that a similar project was tried in the 1990s but that it didn’t work because it was mismanaged.

Central Avenue Constituent Services Center

The rooftop plaza of the Central Avenue Constituent Services Center

Just a block away from the Dunbar Village, at Central and East 43rd Street, is Jan Perry’s district office: the Central Avenue Constituent Services Center. The two-year-old $14.7 million building was the tour’s second stop.

With a rooftop plaza –the first municipal green roof for the city of Los Angeles –the building was architecturally created to stimulate and bring joy to its historic neighborhood. The roof garden is planted with over 40 plant species native to Southern California, has wooden benches and is open to the public.

“I want the Service Center to be an extension of people´s homes,” said Perry while showing the group the rooftop. The Center sponsors a farmers market every Thursday between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., and provides several educational activities aimed at helping community neighbors.

Bowers and Sons Cleaners

From left to right: Vivian Bowers, Councilwoman Jan Perry, Greg Cowan

The tour´s third stop was at Bowers and Sons Cleaners, a dry-cleaning business run by Vivian Bowers. With the help of her husband, Greg Cowan, this entrepreneurial woman manages a successful business.

Ms. Bowers is also president of the Central Avenue Business Association (CABA), which works to revitalize and revamp the business landscape of Central Avenue. The Bowers are interested in helping improve the community, and they serve on numerous advisory boards such as the Central Avenue Collaborative, the Council District Nine Community Advisory Committee, and the Central Avenue Historic Corridor Streetscape Project.

Final stop: The YMCA

The 28th Street YMCA building

The tour´s fourth and final destination was the 28th Street YMCA building that was designed by architect Paul Williams and constructed in 1926. Mr. Williams was the first African American member of the American Institute of Architects and known for designing homes for many Hollywood stars. The center is being rehabilitated to provide 49 units of permanent supportive housing for low-income individuals, community space designed to promote economic and workforce development, and supportive services.

L.A. County D.A. candidate details views on drugs, Proposition 36, redemption and fair trials

Jackie Lacey answering questions from one of the panelists.

What was planned to be an ideal occasion for voters to further comprehend the differences in both character and position between the two candidates for Los Angeles County district attorney, ended up being a question and answer session between the panelists, the audience and Jackie Lacey, the current Chief Deputy District Attorney and the only candidate that showed up at the forum held at the Bethel A.M.E. Church of Los Angeles.

Hector Villagra, co-host of the event and Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California (ACLU-SC), said that Alan Jackson, the other candidate, did not respond to the invitation. “Nevertheless,” he added, “we have set up an empty chair for him.” Although people laughed at Villagra’s remark, it was evident that they were upset. One of the audience members said that he considered Jackson´s behavior “a lack of respect to the community.”

Despite their annoyance, both panelists and the audience took advantage of the opportunity to better understand Ms. Lacey’s position on issues important to the community. Lacey responded to questions on fair drug enforcement, juvenile justice, conditions in county jails, charging, plea bargaining and sentence reform, as well as alternatives to incarceration for nearly two hours.

One of the first points Lacey made was that she is against the legalization of drugs. “For me, it is personal. I have raised a nephew due to drugs making his parents unavailable,” she said.

Her stance on medical marijuana sales is firm. Lacey says that she will prosecute dispensaries. “Dispensaries attract people that are well. Citizens going to dispensaries are on average under 30 years old. Legalizing them will not cure our drug problems.” On this issue, both Lacey and Alan Jackson stand together.

Crime prevention was another important topic raised by Lacey. “Adults have to get involved in the lives of our children. I want to stop kids from getting in crimes before they have committed them.” For the last four years, Lacey has volunteered one lunch hour a week to teach fifth-graders at Lorena Street Elementary School in Boyle Heights about the criminal justice system.

Lacey, second in command to current District Attorney Steve Cooley, also pointed out that unlike her opponent, she supports Proposition 36. Under the current Three Strikes Law, a person convicted of a felony who has two or more prior convictions for serious or violent felonies is sentenced to 25 years to life, regardless of the nature of the latest crime. To trigger the 25-years-to-life term, Proposition 36 would require that the third strike be serious or violent as well. Jackson opposes Prop 36.

Lacey: “I believe in redemption”

Almost half way through the forum Lacey described herself to the audience in one sentence: “I’m all about going after the bad guy but doing it in a fair and square manner.”

Lacey later went on to say that she believes that people have the ability and the right to reform in life. “I believe in redemption and I think that people can reform. You won´t hear that from the other candidate. I can´t give jobs, but if you sincerely want to change, I can create policies to help you leave that way of life.”

Audience member asking the candidate a question.

Once the forum concluded, Intersections asked Lacey to list the most important differences she had with Jackson. This was her response:

“Unlike my opponent, I have knowledge and experience in running the district attorney’s office. I have experience in implementing alternative sentencing courts. I also have experience with implementing training for lawyers, especially with regard to high tech crime. Finally, I am an accomplished litigator. My opponent minimizes that, but the truth is I have been kicking butt just as much as he has in the sense of keeping our community safe.”

If elected, Lacey will be the first woman, the first African American, and the first person who grew up in South L.A. to becomes District Attorney in Los Angeles County.

Who is Alan Jackson?

Born in 1965, Jackson was raised by a single mother in Texas and served as a jet engine mechanic in the United States Air Force. He left his childhood home after earning his B.A. at the University of Texas, Austin, to pursue his J.D. at Pepperdine Law School in California.

He is a seventeen-year veteran prosecutor in the Los Angeles County District Attorney´s Office, and twice named Prosecutor of the Year. As Assistant Head Deputy of the Major Crimes Division, Jackson manages the office’s elite trial teams while prosecuting his own docket of marquee cases.

Many remember him for a high-profile celebrity case he handled which brought him international attention: the successful murder prosecution in 2009, on retrial, of record-producer Phil Spector.

Although Lacey out-polled Jackson by a slender margin in the June primary election, she did not garner the 51 percent of the votes necessary to automatically win the elections. The run off will be held on November 6.

Las Cafeteras: From community organizers to musical leaders

From left to right: Annette Torres, Denise Carlos and Daniel French.

What is music and what is its purpose? Although it has different definitions for different people, I believe it is safe to say that music should be interesting, pleasurable and above all, inspiring.

Listening to Las Cafeteras, an L.A. band composed of seven community organizers and nonprofit workers of Mexican descent, perform at the California African American Museum´s courtyard, was certainly a moving and inspirational experience.

The band mixes traditional Son Jarocho – a centuries-old form of Mexican music from the eastern state of Veracruz, that combines indigenous, Spanish and African musical elements – with diverse rhythms, and creates music that touches the soul.

While on stage, these musicians radiate pride, love, anger, happiness, but above all, hope. Their energy and verses transmit and infuse among the audience, a feeling that justice and equality is attainable if you fight for it.

Once the concert concluded, I had the chance to interview David and Hector Flores, two of the members of Las Cafeteras.

Last month you released “It´s Time, your first studio recorded album. How was this experience?

Hector: It was an incredible amount of work. When we started off as a band, we saw ourselves as students of the music. It was not until very recently that we began considering ourselves as artists. When we saw what we were doing with the music, we felt that we had to leave a mark and inspire people to tell their stories. If we don´t tell our stories, other people are going to tell them for us. Creating the album required hard work and a lot of fund raising, but we made it happen and it has been a wonderful story ever since.

Until now, music has been a side job and a recreational activity for you. Have you considered transforming it into full-time work?

David: To put everything else aside is scary and a bit nerve-wracking. It’s something we feel we are going to have to consider.

So your answer is yes. You may become a full-time band?

Hector: Yeah. This is a conversation we just had. By the end of the year, we will have decided if we´re going to go one hundred percent.

Do you have enough time to rehearse during the week?

Hector: Right now we’re rehearsing six hours a week. It´s not enough time considering the musical projects we have in mind.

From left to right: David Flores, Hector Flores, Leah Rose Gallegos and Jose Cano.

How do people react to the way you mix traditional Son Jarocho with different rhythms and musical styles?

Hector: We just finished a national tour, and folks have received us with love and admiration. They are excited about the fact that people are remixing traditional music to make it relevant with what´s going on today.

Your lyrics include many community-focused political messages. Tell me how this idea originated.

Hector: Son Jarocho is a music genre that comes from slavery and is rooted in resistance. To play Son Jarocho music, and not talk about the conditions that created this music, would be disrespectful. We´re not a political band, we’re a real band talking about real issues.

You mention in your web page that your mission is to learn, share, and practice the beauty, culture and energy of Son Jarocho music for the purpose of building autonomous communities. What is your definition of an autonomous community?

David: To define autonomy everyone would have to autonomously do it. That´s exactly what we encourage people to do. People have to figure it out for themselves. What is their community? What do they need? What do their families need?

You mention in your songs that you are against wars. Do you think the world would be a better place if military programs ceased to exist?

David: Is the Pope Catholic? We´re most definitely against war and aggressive behavior.

Hector: We´re anti-war, but that doesn´t necessarily mean we´re against military programs. What we are against is the fact that the United States spends more money in military operations and domestic protection programs than the rest of the world combined.

During August, a group of housekeepers, laborers, students and immigration activists traveled around the country in a caravan chanting “no papers, no fear” and declaring “I´m undocumented in public gatherings.” This bus tour, dubbed the “indocubus,” was carried out to challenge their anti-immigrant foes in the ongoing national debate on immigration. Was the bus tour a good idea?

Hector: I think the “indocubus” was an incredible tour of people wanting to voice their stance for dignity and a fair immigration policy in the United States. It was a beautiful thing.

The audience enjoying the show.

The presidential elections are a month away. Why do you think there still hasn´t been a women president in the United States?

Hector: We still haven´t had a president that really serves the needs of the people in this country. In order to move forward, we need a president that supports everybody. It´s less about whether we have a female president, and it´s more about whether we have a president that serves our needs.

What´s your stance on the deferred action policy under which certain young immigrants in the country without documents can get a two-year work permit and a reprieve from deportation?

Hector: Although deferred action was by no means a solution to the movement´s demands, it was a response that showed us that the government is listening. It’s an opportunity for the immigrant rights movement to push even harder.

What do you think of the U.S. pilot program designed to deport illegal immigrants by flying them to Mexico City instead of deporting them to violent border regions?

Hector: It’s ridiculous. It’s like expecting to cure a man that has been shot with Tylenol. If this country really cared about the safety of its immigrant folks, it wouldn´t support racial profiling and anti-immigrant laws.

CicLAvia bike event draws 100,000 enthusiasts

Cyclists having a good time at the CicLAvia.

Approximately 100,000 bicycles, skates, rollerblades, walkers and dogs took to the streets on Sunday for L.A.’s fifth installment of the biannual CicLAvia bike festival.

With an expanded route, that added new spurs to Boyle Heights, Chinatown and Expo Park, more than nine miles of city streets were shut down to motor traffic from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

At a news conference in front of City Hall to mark the beginning of the event that promotes clean air and encourages people to get out of their cars and explore downtown, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said “I hope everyone discovers at least one new thing about L.A.”

Anthony, a Los Angeles teenager riding his bike with two other friends, believes that this type of event should be held more often. “I love it,” he said. “It keeps us out of trouble.”

L.A. held its first CicLAvia in October 2010. Ciclovías originated over thirty years ago in Bogotá, Colombia, as a response to city congestion and pollution as well as to provide an opportunity for young and old to have a place for safe, healthy and enjoyable recreation.