A group of parents from Ramona Gardens who call themselves the “Promotoras” is helping improve the lives of people who live in the housing project located on the north side of Boyle Heights.
Their work — organizing community events and passing on information about resources available to Ramona Gardens residents — has become so valuable that many residents see them as the backbone of the Lancaster Avenue neighborhood.
“They are real leaders in their community. It’s humbling for me to work with these remarkable moms,” says Damaris Arriola, a community organizer at the Clinica Oscar R. Romero, a health clinic in Boyle Heights.
The Promotoras’ mission is to create a healthier Ramona Gardens. They also work to help young kids in the community finish high school and graduate from college.
The group includes five mothers, plus a father who runs a food bank. It does community outreach in the housing complex and, once a month, holds a meeting that 30 to 40 residents attend.
Before 2007, the five female promotoras were regular housewives dedicated to their families. But after the February death in police custody of Mauricio Cornejo, a Ramona Gardens resident, , some local mothers felt the need to organize and make a difference to keep local children off the streets.
Cornejo’s death led to riots and confrontations with the police. According to media reports at the time, the unrest involved 50 gang members and 100 police officers.
The incident led Martha González, 43, a mother of three, to get involved with Legacy LA, a non-profit organization focused on youth development, which provides the Promotoras with support.
González, a tall woman with broad shoulders and straight black hair, describes in perfect Spanish how the Promotoras began. “I wanted to make sure that the community of Ramona Gardens had resources and had a voice,” she says.
Need for adult leaders
Legacy LA Director Maria Lou Calanche explains that before the promotoras formed, there was a need for adult leaders in Ramona Gardens.
“In order for a community really to transform, we also needed to develop leadership for adults,” says Calanche.
The promotoras realized that a lot of work had to be done to improve conditions in Ramona Gardens because of its many challenges.
According to a recent survey, only 10 percent of Ramona Gardens residents earn more than $20,000 a year. About 51 percent make less than $10,000 a year. Only a quarter of residents have paid work.
The Ramona Gardens Health and Housing Survey was carried out as a project between Violence Intervention Program (VIP), Legacy LA and The Legal Aid Foundation Los Angeles (LAFLA), with financing from The California Endowment.
The promotoras helped conduct the 2012 study, interviewing more than 200 residents. More than 30 percent of Ramona Gardens households participated.
Besides González, the Promotoras include Alma Ortega, Graciela Llanes, Liliana Martínez, Isabel Márquez and Gabriel Aguila, the sole male promotora, who joined recently. They specialize in getting information out to residents about health care, education and resources. They also try to get health care for the undocumented.
The Promotoras started as volunteers, but now their activities are financed by a grant through Legacy LA, and each receives a small stipend. “My role is to meet with them strategize and plan with them their projects and what needs to be done” Calanche says.
Since some of her children were involved in Legacy LA’s youth programs, Ortega helped as a volunteer before she was asked to join the Promotoras. Born in Guadalajara, México, Ortega, 38, wanted to become a promotora to help improve the lives of local youths.
Dressed in a black shirt and pants, Ortega speaks sharp and straight to the point about her goals with the community. “I want young people to finish school, college and give them the information they need to succeed,” she says.
Graciela Llanes, 39, is lively, with an outgoing personality and a constant bright smile. Born in Jalisco, she turned to the promotoras when her son started to hang out with the wrong crowd and his excellent grades began to decline dramatically.
She had to face reality when her neighbors told her that they had seen him with kids that hardly attended school and were also getting high.
Llanes followed the promotoras’ advice and enrolled her son in one of Legacy LA’s youth programs. The situation changed dramatically.
“He’s doing well. Thank God! Now he’s already a senior and is applying for college scholarships,” she says.
She says she became a promotora to do for others what the promotoras did for her.