No other activist group rallies OC 's raza like Chicanos Unidos. For the past ten years, they've dared to tackle gentrification, killer cops, barrio violence and gang injunctions where few would. The grassroots group feuds with the Orange County District Attorney's (OCDA) office regularly, and organizes with victims' families against deadly police shootings, a decade-long legacy worth celebrating.
Chicanos Unidos began in 2006, when a group of activists gathered for dinner at the Fullerton home of Susan Luevano, a longtime OC Chicana activist and academic librarian at Cal State Long Beach. The fellow travelers had drifted apart in movement circles before feeling the need to get back together and start something new. Luevano, Veronica Garza-Garcia, Gilbert Garcia, Albert Martinez, and brothers Albert and Frank Castillo decided to call themselves "Chicanos Unidos" as they drew their roots from the Chicano Movement of the late 1960's and 70's.
Albert Martinez, an activist previously involved with Westminster's Manos Unidas, became the first chair of Chicanos Unidos and helped set the tone alongside Albert Castillo. "We're around today because we've had such strong leadership from the get go," Luevano tells the Weekly. "We wanted to be a grassroots organization," she adds. "We did not want to become a nonprofit organization because we wanted to have the freedom to be independent, and militant if we felt we needed to be."
Not long after forming, Chicanos Unidos got straight to work in Santa Ana's Logan and Lacy neighborhoods during the Renaissance Plan days. Residents became concerned about redevelopment and displacement around the city's train station. Chicanos Unidos came at their invitation to help organize. Meetings took place at Chepa's Park and the SACReD Coalition grew out of out the five-year fight.
But the biggest battle Chicanos Unidos would wage came in 2009 when District Attorney Tony Rackaukas filed an injunction against the OVC street gang in Orange. Chicanos Unidos worked with the community while the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) locked horns with OCDA in court. In the course of the fight, T-Rack dismissed 62 people, including juveniles, from the injunction list only to serve them after it became permanent in court that same year. The "dismiss-and-serve" scheme proved to be costly for OCDA with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in 2013 that it had violated due-process rights. "That was a major victory for us and a total grassroots effort led by Yvonne Elizondo," Luevano recalls.
During the protracted OVC gang injunction fight, Chicanos Unidos gained two new important members in Carolyn Torres and later Gaby Hernandez. "They're real stars," Luevano says. "They both started out kind of quiet but they've evolved into the next generation leadership of our organization acting as spokespersons." From the start, Chicanos Unidos stressed the importance of women playing key roles in the organization, something Torres and Hernandez are continuing with their work.
Hernandez moved to OC from Santa Barbara in 2003, but didn't get involved with Chicanos Unidos until much later. She met co-founder Martinez at a big pro-immigration march in Santa Ana in 2006 and stayed in the loop through Chicanos Unidos' email list while going to school at USC for a Master's degree in social work. "After grad school, I wanted to get involved and started attending meetings," Hernandez says. "Since joining, I feel so liberated in my life. I was able to use my voice and my experiences to be involved in the community."
When the OCDA filed a gang injunction against Townsend Street in Santa Ana and later in two historic barrios in Placentia, Hernandez was ready to take what Chicanos Unidos had learned from OVC in slowing down the legal gear shifts. "With the injunctions, the OCDA has gone into the courtroom and gotten whatever they wanted for years," Hernandez says. "We're creating more of an equal fight and holding them accountable." With the help of Chicanos Unidos and attorneys, young men named in T-Rack's more recent gang injunction lists have been able to mount legal challenges and not be enjoined in "active participation" hearings.
The OCDA didn't return the Weekly's request for comment on this story.
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Looking back at ten years of activism, Chicanos Unidos has been able to make a big impact on OC without ever having more than a few dozens members. The group is shaking up its organizational structure and is now offering internships to keep its important work going. "We're paying interns to work with us to do research on local issues that we're involved with," Luevano says. "We're seeing this as a pipeline for new membership."
But before dispatching to any new organizing fronts, Chicanos Unidos is going to relax and celebrate its 10th anniversary in Santa Ana while raising much-needed funds for its internship program. The event will feature music, dancing, delicious Mexican food, and art. Chicanos Unidos is also taking the time to honor the late Amin David of Los Amigos, Townsend gang injunction activist Vanessa Cerda and its very own 2016 internship class.
"A lot of people don't realize all the work that goes into what we do; they just think we go out and protest, Hernandez says. "On our anniversary, we're going to reflect on a lot of our accomplishments that we're very proud of."
Chicanos Unidos 10 Year Anniversary Celebration, 415 N. Sycamore St., Santa Ana. TONIGHT, 7 p.m. - 11 p.m. $20 donation. All ages.