David Lizarraga runs a non-profit organization with annual revenues of $120 million. He began his career as an activist in the Chicano movement of the 1960s and worked with labor organizer Esteban Torres to try to incorporate East Los Angeles as a Latino city. When that failed, the pair turned their attention to economic development. In 1970, Torres started the East Los Angeles Community Union. Two years later, Lizarraga assumed leadership of the organization when Torres decided to run for Congress. By leveraging federal grant money, TELACU turned a decaying former Goodrich Tire plant into a 55-acre industrial park. Ever since, TELACU has functioned as a self-sufficient redevelopment and social service institution.


Today, "TELACU focuses its more than $500 million in assets on empowering small- to medium-size businesses as well as improving the lives of individuals and families in the communities it serves," according to the organization. The organization has generated its share of controversy. It has a history of launching the careers of politicians who later steered contracts its way. Lizarraga currently serves as chairman of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C. A lifetime Democrat, he joined other Latino leaders last week in endorsing Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger for governor. The interview took place in Lizarraga's office at TELACU Center in East Los Angeles.

Question: How did you first get involved in community development of the East side?


Answer: During the mid-1960s, I started a community center in East Los Angeles called Casa Maravilla: It was in the projects, one of the toughest projects. At that time the movimiento was really engaged. We had 22 members of our staff working with 11 different gangs. And we rehabilitated those projects, which were really dilapidated Quonset huts from World War II.

Q: What was the agenda?


A: At that time I was leading marches because I was more of a militant than an activist. I was angry at the system and how it treated our community. We felt pretty impotent. Politically we had very little presence in the system. The educational system was faltering for us and the police weren't our friends at that time; our young people were not being treated in a manner conducive to changing lives. So I was angry. I led marches to City Hall and the Board of Supervisors, protesting the concerns we had.

Q: Was TELACU on the map yet?


A: Right after the Watts Riots, two gentlemen from the United Auto Workers came to Los Angeles. One was Esteban Torres. The question for him was, "Does the concept of labor organizing fit with community organizing?" He formed the East Los Angeles Community Union while I was leading marches and organizing gang kids.

Prev

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.