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To the hundreds of cars that speed through downtown Santa Ana daily, the fenced-off dirt lot at 526 E. Fourth St. is just that—a fenced-off dirt lot—or maybe less than that, but it's actually a battlefield—with the hatred, without the weapons and IEDs—in the class war raging in the youngest, most Latino, most Spanish-speaking, most crowded big city in the United States.
This time, the combatants aren't the entrenched rich sallying forth from the ranch-style mansions north of 17th Street against the city's mestizo super-majority. This time it's—what's the Spanish word for interpersonal?—neighbor against neighbor, poor against poor, Mexican against Mexican.
The first skirmish erupted as the sun set on Jan. 27. That chilly evening, the nonprofit Latino Health Access (LHA) rallied about 50 followers, mostly women and their children, at the dirt lot. Lamps powered by portable generators bathed the half-acre in an amber glow. Volunteers handed out pamphlets and steaming Mexican hot chocolate to fight the cold. Children raised dust clouds as they played. Some girls collected rocks and broken concrete for a pyramid.
This isn't easy to say, and it's certainly not nice, but many of Santa Ana's Latinos are chubby, including some of the people at the dirt lot rally. Really: Santa Ana is not only the densest big city in the United States, it's also the fattest, with the highest percentage of obese children amongst California's 10 biggest cities—35 percent of Santa Ana kids under 15 are fat. Then there's this interesting and probably salient factor: your average California city has about five acres of park for every 1,000 residents; according to the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, Santa Ana has just 1.2 acres per.
LHA, which promotes healthy living habits among Latinos, suspects there's a relationship between parks and fat. Hence the rally at the DL.
LHA executive director America Bracho approached the parents, who hushed their kids. She explained that LHA had signed a contract with Santa Ana's redevelopment agency three years ago to develop a park on the site. But the Santa Ana City Council recently reneged on the deal, saying they would bring in a high-priced consulting firm to figure out the best use for the DL.
Most of the people at the lot already know the best use and figure the consulting-firm gambit is a ruse. Bracho produced blueprints and artists' renditions for a park; they show walking trails, grass and a small community center. Latino Health Access would own the park, but anyone could use it.
Bracho finished in 15 minutes. The huddled masses yearning to be lean let out murmurs of agreement.
Then a group of five people raised their hands and identified themselves as homeowners who lived across the street.
"I've been in this neighborhood for 20 years, and I know how these things go," a tall, goateed man said in Spanish. "People talk a big talk, but when it comes down to it, no one does a thing. You'll never build this park."
He spoke of a previous battle in the neighborhood, the battle to remove a methadone clinic. "I passed fliers around—and where were any of you? Nowhere!" he said to the crowd in a raspy, accusatory voice.
The man turned to Bracho. "Where is the budget? How will you maintain the park? How will you keep away gang members?"
Bracho calmly tried to answer his questions—the budget and funds were already secured, volunteers would handle the maintenance, and a fence and security would stave off the cholos. But the man wouldn't hear it. "Don't give me that same shit," he kept repeating. "Don't give me that same shit."
Mother after mother jumped to Bracho's defense. They noted there was no park within walking distance of their neighborhood. That their children stayed in their apartments and grew like veal calves because the streets were too dangerous. That they would volunteer tirelessly.
The goateed man scoffed. "Les lavarón el coco," he told a friend, a woman in a cheap baby-blue sweat suit. They brainwashed them.
"All of you are renters," he responded, sweeping his hand across the crowd, then pointing to the nearby apartments. "None of you care about your neighborhood. You throw things on the sidewalks. You graffiti walls. You live five families to an apartment."
Silence suffocated the crowd for a moment. And then the Battle of the DL started in earnest.
"I've lived here for years, and you never came to my apartment!" a woman said.
"That's your fault!" he sneered.
Bracho tried to restore order, but the few homeowners kept insulting the renters. The goateed man's wife, a squat woman in a Cal State Fullerton sweatshirt, mocked everything any mother said. "You're just doing this to get a check, aren't you?" she screeched to a woman at one point.
Finally, the renters had enough. "¡La unión es la fuerza!" a man shouted. Unity is strength! Then, predictably, it built like the climax in every Mex-Am historical moment, everyone chanting, "¡Sí se puede! ¡Sí se puede!" Yes, we can! Yes, we can!
And then they put a wrap on it. LHA volunteers turned off the lamps, packed up their tables and trudged through the darkness. The homeowners remained. They surrounded a short mother who wanted the park built, both sides stubbornly clinging to the DL.