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Los Angeles cultural activist claims Salvadoran consul trying to silence his criticsm
A quarrel between a Los Angeles cultural activist and El Salvador’s representative in L.A. is revealing local Salvadoran Americans’ displeasure over the way their native country’s new administration treats its citizens abroad.
This month the tiff between Dagoberto Reyes, who’s run the Casa de Cultura de El Salvador for 16 years and El Salvador Consul General in L.A. Walter Duran seemed to come to a head. As he does every month, Reyes showed up at the Salvadoran consulate on Wilshire Boulevard a few weeks ago to pick up a $1800 check – his monthly salary for running the Casa de Cultura de El Salvador. But this time, Reyes says, consul general Walter Duran – who’s held the job for just one year – handed Reyes a letter from El Salvador’s foreign relations office.
It’s written in bureaucratic prose that’s vague at times and bookended by pro-forma greetings. The gist of it is that because of changes in “service,” the government has initiated Reyes’s transfer. He’ll continue to receive his salary, with a $300 monthly raise, at his new “administrative assistant” post in El Salvador’s embassy in Qatar. Yes, Qatar, next to Saudi Arabia, in the Persian Gulf.
“I thought it was a joke. Because the question is, what am I going to do in Qatar? I’m an artist, a sculptor, a cultural worker. If they had told me, ‘You’re going to go to Qatar because we want you to create a bust of the emir of Qatar.’ That would make sense,” Reyes said, holding the letter from El Salvador’s foreign relations office.
Reyes has never belonged to El Salvador’s diplomatic corps. He immigrated to the U.S. 30 years ago to escape El Salvador’s bloody civil war. He’s 67 years old and a U.S. citizen now. In January he suffered a heart attack. Reyes describes the directive that he move halfway around the world to continue receiving his salary as an effort to silence criticism of the Salvadoran government and pave the way for a pro-administration cultural center in LA.
Some of that criticism surfaces on Radio Pipiles, the internet radio station Reyes operates out of a converted room in the Casa De La Cultura. Carlos Aguilar, the producer of the station’s public affairs talk show, says guests have praised the government’s public education efforts and have criticized the Salvadoran government’s neglect of its citizens beyond its borders.
“They don’t pay the attention, they don’t really concerned, they’re not really concerned about the well being of this segment of the population living in Los Angeles or somewhere else out of the country. Because, it looks like they only are concerned about the money that these people send out of the country,” Aguilar said.
That’s a big deal in Southern California, home to the largest concentration of the one-million Salvadorans who live in the United States. Politics has affected the lives and deaths of Aguilar and expatriate Salvadorans. El Salvador’s right-leaning government 30 years ago let death squads go after students, intellectuals and other perceived leftists. Two years ago, for the first time since the civil war, voters in El Salvador elected a left-leaning government that included former guerrilla leaders.
A spokesman said consul general Walter Duran would not comment on the matter. No one from El Salvador’s foreign relations department was available for comment. Salvadoran American activist Isabel Cardenas is a supporter of Duran.
“The man is wonderful, we really needed a consulate that would make people feel like, when they come there, that they can feel welcome, that they can talk to anyone there, get advice or whatever,” Cardenas said.
The quarrel between Reyes and the consul general has been months in the making. In their first meeting, Reyes said, Duran was cold and aloof. The spat is taking on larger proportions because of Reyes’s high visibility among Southland Salvadorans. The Casa de Cultura is housed in a fifth floor office above the Pollo Campero restaurant in L.A.’s heavily Central American Pico Union neighborhood. A youth theater group and chess fans who gather on Friday nights are the center’s most frequent users. The room’s bookshelves burst with the works of Salvadoran writers. A slightly larger than life sculpture of a female nude stands in front of the books. In 1993 Reyes unveiled in MacArthur Park a 15 foot by 7 foot sculpture dedicated to Salvadorans. It’s titled, “Why We Emigrate.”
Salvador Sanabria, who heads the immigrants’ rights non-profit El Rescate, says that work and Reyes’s constant promotion of Salvadoran art and literature makes him an icon among Salvadorans in L.A. Sanabria is also unhappy with consul Duran and, as he puts it, the current administration’s failure to help Salvadorans in the U.S. The quarrel with Reyes, he said, stands to inflict more damage to the consul general’s reputation.
“By trying to silence critical but constructive voices what this government is doing is forcing the diaspora to disconnect from the country of origin,” Sanabria said.
For now Dagoberto Reyes says he’s not quitting his job, and he plans to call the Salvadoran government’s bluff. He has a wife, two kids, a dog and a cat. He’s told the government of El Salvador to send plane tickets to Qatar for the entire household.
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Nice article regarding Foshay Learning Center. When it was Foshay Junior High School (1980s) many lives were destroyed and shattered. It was a nightmare to attend that school and that story was never truly told – especially from the point of view of recent immigrant students who were forced to attend and stay at Foshay. Students were never allowed to transfer – they were forced to live a daily nightmare.
Foshay Learning Center: A model for success
Nearly 40 years ago, the L.A. Unified school was more like a battle zone. But now, it is a model of success.
|Foshay Learning Center music teacher Vince Womack was named the recipient of the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation Award in 2010. The honor recognizes music teachers who instill a love of music in their students with their dedication, passion and leadership skills. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)|
It’s not pleasant to return to a place where, as a child, you were almost always afraid. So, a few years ago, when I stepped onto the campus of the James A. Foshay Learning Center, its familiar grim, Depression-era facade made my heart pound.
I spent some of the unhappiest days of my life at Foshay, back when it was Foshay Junior High. And when I graduated 38 years ago, I hoped I would never return. In the 1970s, the school was at the bottom of the education barrel. At 13, I felt I must have committed crimes I didn’t understand to have ended up there, because I was certainly being punished.
There were fights everywhere. Teachers were beaten and chased out of classrooms by angry students. Once, a food fight became a full-scale riot that ended only when the rest of the school day was cancelled and kids were ordered to leave campus. Sometimes we’d see rival gang members charging the school perimeter and hopping the fence. We assumed they were armed, so we fled like wildebeests.
It would have been impossible for me to explain to my parents how bad things were at Foshay, so I didn’t try. I worried that if I did, they would just move me to another school, and I assumed all schools were just as bad as Foshay, and all neighborhoods just as dangerous. I hunkered down and endured.
This is what I remembered of Foshay, and it was nothing I wanted to return to.
But then, four years ago, I happened to be flipping through Newsweek’s issue on the best high schools in the country, and I was startled to see Foshay Learning Center included on the list.
I had taught at Locke High School for five years, and I believe in public education. But I am a cynic by nature, having seen firsthand how education “reform” is often just smoke and mirrors. Before I could believe in the momentous changes at Foshay, I needed to see them with my own eyes.
I received an invitation to visit and tour the campus from Roger Estrada, then Foshay’s vice principal. Estrada had been at Foshay for all of its 13-year transition from atrocious — one of the 31 schools in the state facing receivership — to an education success story. He spoke movingly of Howard Lappin, the principal who had started the charge.
The first thing I noticed on entering Foshay’s familiar halls was how quiet they were compared with my time. I turned to a security aide sitting at a table signing folks in and out and asked: Was it always so quiet? He nodded.
Estrada pointed out a biology class where students were sitting at rapt attention as the teacher discussed fish habitat. He proudly showed me the newly renovated library. What caught my attention there was the charming section dedicated to the youngest students of Foshay, the 180 elementary kids. One of the biggest changes in the school since I was there, and there are many, is that it’s no longer a junior high. Foshay now educates children from kindergarten through 12th grade, currently the only K-12 school in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Foshay may have 3,300 students, but somehow it feels more like a little red schoolhouse.
Things aren’t perfect. Although they have improved dramatically, the school’s test scores are still well below the state average. But in 2008-09, Foshay’s graduation rate was an impressive 88%.
Moreover, in the years since I attended Foshay, it has become an integral part of its community. The school involves local residents in its governance and demands that parents support its efforts with time and energy. Estrada pointed out the well-appointed computer room with new laptops, where a lesson in computer literacy for adults was going on. “The parents wanted this,” he said, and “we provided it for them.” A campus medical clinic is open not just to students but to the neighborhood.
After my tour of Foshay, I knew that I wanted to be involved with its continuing transformation. And not too long after I had a fortuitous meeting with Kim Thomas-Barrios, executive director of the USC Neighborhood Academic Initiative, a university outreach program that aims to provide the kind of academically rigorous support that students, teachers and the community need to realize the dream of higher education. Many program participants are from Foshay, and almost every child who stays with it until graduation goes on to college. About 35% of them go to USC, with full financial aid, and of the students who have gone on to USC, 92% have graduated, a higher rate than USC students as a whole.
At Thomas-Barrios’ invitation, I became involved with NAI’s Foshay students. We started the Literature for Life program and hosted the first USC Young Writers Conference in April. We are now planning a range of literary resources on the Web for educators. It has all been immensely satisfying to see that the dark days at Foshay are over.
Not every L.A. Unified school has the leadership or the talented teachers that Foshay has, nor the support offered by USC’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative. But Foshay’s achievements nevertheless stand as a model of educational transformation. Are other schools, and more importantly is LAUSD, paying attention?
Jervey Tervalon is the director and founder of the Literature for Life project. His new novel is “Serving Monster.”
Join me on Saturday, June 11, 2011 at 2:00 p.m. at BORDERS bookstore in Arcadia
Address: 400 S. Baldwin Avenue, Suite 920-L, Arcadia, CA 91007
El Salvador Quits the Market Model
The country’s debt has been repeatedly downgraded as President Mauricio Funes has increased government spending.
- By MARY ANASTASIA O’GRADY
The same Brazilian advertising hotshot who worked his magic to get a left-winger elected president of El Salvador in 2009 is running the presidential campaign of national socialist Ollanta Humala in Peru. If João Santana’s expertise translates into a Humala victory, Peruvians had better hope that the similarities end there.
Mr. Santana’s successful Salvadoran client, Mauricio Funes of the FMLN party, has been a disaster for the once-thriving Salvadoran economy. One example: The United Nations’ Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean reported earlier this month that while “the region’s FDI inflows were 40% higher than in 2009,” El Salvador didn’t benefit. “In Central America, foreign investment flows to all countries grew, except in the case of El Salvador.” It experienced a 79% decline.
Not so long ago the prospect of El Salvador at the back of the competitiveness pack in the region would have seemed impossible. Even before the 1992 peace accords were signed, the country began a modernization that lasted more than a decade. The free market reforms were unique in Central America and nearly unequaled in the wider region. Only Chile’s economic liberalization of the 1970s and 1980s was comparable.
The results were impressive, particularly for a country with a largely uneducated work force. From 1989 to 2008 El Salvador had the highest export growth in the region (an increase of some 800%), and per capita growth in gross domestic product was among the fastest in the region. This was led for the first time by strong performance in the industrial sector instead of in more traditional agriculture. By 2006, the poverty rate had fallen to 31% of the population from 60% in 1991.
Then the wheels came off. The Arena Party, which had led reform, managed to get its fourth consecutive president, Tony Saca, elected in 2004. Unhappily he showed much less interest in leading on the development front than his predecessors.
A good example was his refusal to grant operating permits to Pacific Rim Mining Corporation for its El Dorado gold mine in one of the poorest parts of the country. The mine was blocked without an official explanation, though Mr. Saca’s team never disputed the company’s claim that it had met or exceeded all of Salvador’s environmental benchmarks. Thousands of jobs were forfeited, investors lost millions of dollars and El Salvador’s investment reputation got a black eye.
Salvadorans were already disillusioned when candidate Funes came on the scene to offer an alternative. He ran as a moderate leftist who pledged to put a stop to the endemic corruption that had blossomed under Mr. Saca, and to make all Salvadorans better off. So much for campaign promises. Since Mr. Funes came into office, Salvador’s debt position has been deteriorating rapidly. In December 2008, the debt-to-GDP ratio was just under 36%. By December 2010 it was more than 51%.
The way that borrowing is being spent is even more worrisome. According to the government’s first quarter 2011 fiscal report, there has been a 17.5% year-over-year increase in current expenses. This includes a 15.5% jump in the public-sector wage bill, 21% growth in government expenditures of goods and services, and a 48% increase in transfer payments—mostly subsidies. Investment is down 3.6%, while the fiscal deficit has expanded 28.6%.
The rating agencies don’t like what they see. During the Funes presidency, Moody’s has twice downgraded the country’s debt, and Standard & Poor’s has issued one downgrade.
The Americas in the News
When Fitch Ratings warned El Salvador last fall to improve its investment climate or risk a downgrade, Mr. Funes was cavalier. El Salvador’s newspaper Diario de Hoy quoted him saying that if the World Bank, the IMF and the Inter-American Development Bank didn’t have confidence in the country, they wouldn’t keep extending credit. He obviously never has heard of Greece.
The U.S. Agency for International Development is also plowing ahead in El Salvador with what U.S. AID administrator Rajiv Shah has called President Obama’s “new partnership for growth.”
The problem is not only reckless spending but also hostility toward business. The Heritage Foundation/Wall Street Journal Index of Economic Freedom, which once ranked El Salvador as the ninth freest economy in the world (2000), now places it at 39. A good part of the decline occurred under Mr. Saca (losing 17 places in three years) but it has continued under Mr. Funes, who also refuses to allow the Pacific Rim mine to operate.
El Salvador now has no active mining concessions. But that loss of investment and jobs has not satisfied the party base of the FMLN. They complain loudly that Mr. Funes has yet to completely quash Salvadoran capitalism.
The only one who came out well in all this seems to be Mr. Santana, whose firm now has a monopoly on government advertising in Salvador. Perhaps that’s what he has to look forward to if his candidate wins in Peru. The future for Peruvians may not be as rosy.
Write to O’Grady@wsj.com
Maywood strives to bring order to financial chaos
An audit of the small city finds records missing, failure to adequately account for some loans and other problems. The city manager hired after the scandal in next-door Bell is hopeful but says finances are still ‘extremely fragile.’
|Angela Spaccia became a central figure in the Bell scandal because she was the top deputy under Robert Rizzo. (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles Times / August 2, 2010)|
The small town of Maywood drew national attention last year when it disbanded the Police Department, laid off virtually all its workers and outsourced City Hall operations to neighboring Bell.
But nearly a year later, an experiment hailed by some as an act of municipal genius is considered by many residents to be a huge blunder.
Just weeks after Bell took over government operations, the city was embroiled in a salary scandal. Corruption charges were filed against Angela Spaccia, the Bell assistant city administrator brought in to run Maywood, along with several other officials. Maywood has lumbered for nine months without a formal budget, and residents have complained about a decline in some basic city services.
An audit released this week found that some city records were missing, meeting minutes had not been adopted for nearly a year and the city had not adequately accounted for some loans and city properties. In some instances, auditors said, the city also went against its own policies and gave contracts without competitive bidding.
The city is also at the center of a broad FBI probe into allegations that an engineering firm paid bribes to city officials to get business in Maywood. The FBI was also investigating hundreds of thousands of dollars the city paid from redevelopment funds to a community activist group for a lead abatement program. The group, Union de Vecinos, is closely aligned with Councilman Felipe Aguirre.
The task of bringing order to Maywood has fallen to City Manager Lilian Myers, who was hired last summer by the City Council in the wake of the Bell scandal.
Myers arrived to a City Hall in shambles. Basic financial records were missing, making it difficult to determine whether Maywood was even solvent. She was forced to pay bills with incoming tax revenues because she had no operating budget to guide her.
The Bell officials hired to run the city departed in mid-October, leaving Myers with no one to handle day-to-day operations.
To keep City Hall open, she turned to temp agencies. She then began the task of figuring out whether the city was operating in the red and determining whether its contracts with various vendors were valid. “It created some problems,” Myers said in an interview. “There was a lot of chaos.”
Myers also got an earful from residents. Some said police response had suffered since the Police Department was replaced by the county Sheriff’s Department.
Others said the grass at one park had grown knee-high, making it impossible for kids to play sports. There were also complaints that the city was slow to fix broken sidewalks. Until recently, Maywood had no code enforcement officers or city engineer to oversee projects. At least two projects were put on hold, including the expansion of the library.
“We’ve had too many changes of hands, and that’s why things are disorganized,” said Sandra Orozco, a longtime Maywood resident and activist. “Anybody who comes to [a city] that’s so dysfunctional is going to find it a challenge and will be in for a surprise.”
Myers said the audit was the first of two she had commissioned. The second will focus more closely on finances. Despite the problems, she said she’s optimistic the city can weather the turmoil and put itself on a better financial footing.
But “Maywood’s financial position is still extremely fragile,” she said.
The city continues to operate using a budget that expired last June, the last one available. But Myers hopes to have a new budget in the next few months.
Turning over all municipal operations to another city, a course Maywood chose last June, had apparently never been done before in California. Maywood officials said they had no choice. At the time, the city faced a deficit, and officials said Maywood was unable to obtain insurance because of a history of lawsuits, many involving its Police Department.
There has been much debate about how the Maywood-Bell union came about. Some, including former City Manager Paul Philips, said Maywood officials seemed determined to build close ties with Bell even before the city lost its insurance. He said the hiring of Spaccia seemed a foregone conclusion. Before leaving his post, Philips said, he told the council that Spaccia should get a background check like other employees hired. “They waived the requirement for her,” he said. “They waived it because they said Bell had already done that.”
Even weeks after the Bell scandal erupted, Maywood officials defended Spaccia, crediting her with helping their city.
“She’s gotten us out of so many jams. She’s such a technical wizard,” Councilman Aguirre said at the time. “We were in such a bad way that she saved our skin.”
Spaccia, however, became a central figure in the Bell scandal because she was the top deputy under Robert Rizzo, the former city administrator whose nearly $800,000 annual salary unleashed the scandal.
Earlier this year, The Times asked Maywood for public records, including those related to Spaccia’s hiring. The city said it could not find the documents. Prosecutors in the Los Angeles County district attorney’s public integrity unit said they received complaints about Spaccia’s hiring but deferred to the FBI’s ongoing investigation.
Myers said she did not know why many of the records, including those related to Spaccia’s hiring, could not be found. Aguirre said he thought the city’s record keeping had been poor for a while.
Still, some angry Maywood residents won’t let the city forget about the partnership with Bell. At a protest this week, several unfurled a banner with photos of Spaccia in a jail jumpsuit and Rizzo being arrested.
Even if Maywood can get its budget worked out, it faces some potentially costly lawsuits. Former Maywood police officers have filed suit against the city, claiming breach of contract when the department was closed. And Maywood is locked in an ongoing legal dispute with the L.A. Unified School District over a high school construction project in the city.
This week, Myers said the lessons of the Bell scandal wouldn’t be lost on Maywood. The auditing firm accused of “rubber stamping” Bell’s audits has also done Maywood’s. But this time, she said, the review has found legitimate problems.
It’s “the most extensive audit I have ever seen,” she said. “It’s a good starting point for Maywood.”