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Post-election concern on 23rd Street

on November 18, 2010

Times are tough for Latino merchants along 23rd Street. With the economy seemingly forever stuck in first gear, there just aren’t enough people out-and-about exchanging dollar bills while buying used cars, renting old movies or taking their wrinkled laundry to the cleaners.

The November election was supposed to change all that by addressing the issue of creating jobs to stimulate the local economy. But three local businessmen aren’t sure.

Norberto Rich, owner of Discolandia, has seen a lot during his 21 years of selling records and tapes on 23rd Street, and thinks the recent loss of council members María Viramontes and Ludmyrna Lopez won’t help small Latino business owners either.

“Viramontes and Lopez supported the 23rd Street Merchants Association, the Cinco de Mayo celebration and helped with police relationships,” said Rich. “They helped make the city prettier.”

Rich said he has seen Mayor McLaughlin enter his store, but has never witnessed newly elected council member Jovanka Beckles walk down 23rd Street. And although Beckles is Panamanian, Rich has concerns about her support for Latinos.

Jovanka Beckles says the instant gratification of winning casino money does not outweigh potential social ills. "Latino families are working hard," said Beckles. "They are teaching their children how to work hard, and the value of an education. When you work hard and get an education there is a reward."

“We feel sad because now there is no one on the commission that represents the Latino,” said Rich. “We hope the Panamanian will show us what she is talking about. We’ll have to see how things are in a year.”

The influence Latinos have on the local economy cannot be denied. After a three-year survey completed in 2008 by the U.S. Census Bureau, Richmond’s estimated Latino population is 34,627 and only trails the white population by 1.3 percent.

“We need more work,” said used car salesman Rigo Mendoza. “There is so much unemployment, and now companies are either closing or leaving Richmond. It seems like the newly elected officials don’t want people to invest in Richmond.”

Mendoza says the next four years will be difficult, and fears that people will leave Richmond to look for work elsewhere. Having big businesses like Costco or a casino would provide a lot of employment, said Mendoza.

Newly elected council member Beckles says Richmond has not lost a Latino voice on the city council.

“I am African-American and Latina,” said Beckles. “We actually gained a Latino voice, and that voice is me.”

Beckles says it has long been understood that many merchants along 23rd Street support big business and when the city introduces measures against Chevron, the 23rd Street merchants think it is an attack on their small business.

“Measure T wasn’t about small businesses,” said Beckles. “And the utility tax ballot was about Chevron paying 10% like everyone else.”

The defeat of Measure U drew a clear line between Beckles and the 23rd Street Merchants. To many, the casino would have provided needed jobs and a boost to the local economy.

“I’m a big supporter of this project,” said Sergio Rios, of Bob’s Dry Cleaners on 23rd Street. “I care about the community getting hired, the union jobs with benefits, the salaries.

Beckles says casino developers provided erroneous employment calculations and made empty promises.

“Nowhere in the contract do the casino developers say they would provide living-wage jobs,” said Beckles. “When you’re working a job you can’t even live on, you’re basically living day to day—barely surviving.”

Beckles also says the promises of building a mall and theater would only happen if the casino made a profit, and with today’s poor economy that would be hard to do.

“People have little disposable income,” said Beckles. “With something like a casino, all businesses would be affected because people would spend their money at the casino and not at other small businesses.”

Beckles understands the merchants on 23rd Street represent a portion of the Latino community, but they do not speak for all Latinos. Beckles said she does not remember running into one Latino that thought the casino was a good idea.

Andrés Soto, co-founder of the Richmond Progressive Alliance, says Beckles is a great Latino leader, but because of her skin color and English-sounding last name, many Latinos of Mexican descent do not see her in that leadership role. One of the first things Beckles should do is better acquaint herself with the folks on 23rd Street, said Soto.

“Viramontes, Lopez and Marquez all tried to frame themselves as the Latino representative on the council as part of the traditional politics of racial division,” said Soto. “In reality, there is little they can point to, outside of converting driver’s license checkpoints into DUI checkpoints that really benefitted the Latino community.”

Meanwhile back on the corner of Garvin and 23rd, Rich sits alone behind the counter at Discolandia surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of colorful music and movie titles from Latin America. Every now and then a customer will walk in and enquire about a song or movie.

“Latinos only want what is best for Richmond,” said Rich. “The merchants on 23rd want to help the entire community, not just Latinos. Our children are now entering university—hopefully they will come back to help Richmond.”

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