By Claire Harlin
Gang activity. Public safety. Drug use. These are only a few of the concerns that brought some 150 Solana Beach residents and community leaders to the La Colonia Park Community Room for a community forum on April 30.
“And the elephant in the room is that people feel there is unfair treatment of kids, bias and prejudice against Latino members of the community,” said Manny Aguilar of the La Colonia de Eden Gardens Foundation, which sponsored the event. As an example, he named several derogatory terms often used in schools to describe members of the Hispanic community.
The structure of the forum, the first of its kind, was open-ended, with attendees able to ask questions, share concerns and receive input from a number of officials and leaders — from law enforcement to schools to civic government. Among those in attendance were Solana Beach Mayor Joe Kellejian, City Manager David Ott, Solana Beach school superintendent Nancy Lynch, Casa de Amistad director Nicole Mione, and Melissa Diaz, a deputy district attorney in the gangs unit. The moderator for the forum was Beatriz Villarreal, director of the Mano a Mano Foundation, which provides support and education to the Latino community.
The event started with an introduction by nearly every person in attendance, each stating his or her name and goal of coming to the event. Generations of locals were represented at the forum, with some having lived in the Eden Gardens community since the 1920s.
One woman said she came to the forum seeking help and information because her son is imprisoned and she fears he won’t be able to find a job upon his release from prison, and another wanted to know what to do when approached by the police and asked for citizenship documents.
San Diego County Sheriff’s Captain Sherri Sarro said the Sherriff Department’s purpose is not to enforce immigration.
“I don’t care where you were born and what documents you have,” she said. “I am here to enforce crime.”
Another community member said she was concerned and scared that people are often behind the Solana Heritage Museum, located in La Colonia Park, smoking marijuana. Sarro said to report any suspicious activity to Crime Stoppers by calling (888) 580-8477 and a local neighborhood watch program can be reached at (858) 565-5200.
“We can’t be everywhere at once,” Sarro said. “You are our eyes and ears. Without you, we can’t keep this community safe.”
Laura Sentaro, a mother of three, has lived in the community for 25 years and worked at the local CVS Pharmacy for 15 years. She said in that time, she has not only become familiar with the problems in the community, but also the solutions. A true community vigilante, she said she walks the streets at night, sometimes as late as 4 a.m., and she’s often on the scene observing what’s going on when she sees police lights. She also said she holds a Bible study in her home to help local youth stay off the streets.
“Get involved with your kids or the streets will take care of them,” Sentaro said, adding that more members of the Latino community need to report incidents in their area.
“It’s our people who are concerned but they’re too afraid to speak up,” she said. “Meanwhile, there are white people running through our streets exercising and I’ve asked them, ‘Are you afraid?’ and they say, ‘No, I feel comfortable in this community.’”
Francisco Rodriguez, president of MiraCosta Community College, garnered a round of applause when he told the crowd that he’s taken in a lot of “wanna-be gang members” at MiraCosta, and “at one point, they want a fresh start.”
“In addition to the help of family, law enforcement and community organizations, they need to see a different life for themselves,” he said. “Sometimes just walking onto a college campus can do that.”
He continued, “Do not lose that tremendous sense of urgency. Something is wrong. Let’s not wait for the next person to die or get raped.”
He also said “more brown and black people are incarcerated than in college,” and pointed out that it costs more tax dollars to keep someone in prison than in school.
“We are part of the solution,” he said. “We accept the top 100 percent of the graduating class.”
Solana Beach Deputy Mayor Dave Roberts said he was proud of the event turnout and representation from so many sectors of the community.
“These people came together because they want to make our community better,” said Roberts. “Last night showed that there is interest, and how you channel that interest is with positive solutions.”
For informations or to get involved in the community, contact Aguilar and the La Colonia de Eden Gardens Foundation at (619)672-5872 or firstname.lastname@example.org.