Across the street and a little to the left stands a stuffed burro, one of Olvera Street’s more kitschy photo ops. Across the street and to the right, a film crew sets up lighting as they prepare to shoot a scene outside the historic Pico House. To the immediate left, under the colorful auspices of a mural of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a hodgepodge band of disabled veterans and elderly women hawk armfuls of plastic religious paraphernalia. To the immediate right, large tracts of upturned earth mark the site of a planned cultural center –and a long forgotten cemetery.
Looking west over the central plaza, the nearly 200-year-old Old Plaza Church on North Main Street can easily blend into its boisterous surroundings. Built with the aim of providing for Los Angeles’ first settlers’ spiritual needs, the Church today operates under the auspices of the Claretian Missionary Fathers, and works to attend to the needs of Downtown residents in matters beyond the spiritual.
Immigration services, basic health care, family counseling, community theater, and food services are among the regular programs offered through the Church.
Follow the jump to hear in-take worker, Aidee Angel, talk about why volunteerism is at the heart of her work, how target demographics are shifting, and why the Church has taken such a firm stance in support of immigrants’ rights.
**Note: My interview with Aidee was conducted in Spanish. Click on the soundbites to hear her in her own words, or continue to read through for my translation.
Q. With what goal are these services being offered?
A. (translation) Basically, the goal is to help the community that we know can’t count on money to go and pay for these services; people that now, in the economy that the whole world finds itself in, people come to ask for these services. Now we see a bit more, approximately over the past two years, we see more people coming with the need to ask. Before, it was a little less. But now, we see the need more, and ultimately more families coming in as well.
Q. What sort of people come in asking for these services?
A. (translation) Here, we attend to every type of person, people that come in looking very normal, like you or like me. But there are people who come in sick, with problems with alcohol or drugs, depending on the situation. But here, no one is denied service. It doesn’t matter what color they are. Here, everyone is welcome. It doesn’t matter where they’re from. Everyone is welcome.
Nowadays, every type of person comes in. One example I’ll give you is about the people who are given food on Fridays. Before, we would mostly see Latin people, Hispanic people. Now, we basically see –in the program that is specifically for giving food– we see more Asian people than Latin people, and they come in higher percentages, you know? People that are Chinese, Asian rather than people who are Latin. Before, it used to be the opposite. The majority -a good 80% of the people- were Latinos. Now, not anymore. Before, we would maybe see one, two, three Chinese people. Now, more than 50% of the people are Chinese.
(Me: Why is that? Do you know?) I don’t know. There are several versions. In reality, I don’t know if it’s the necessity , or just different versions of the same story we all hear. I don’t really know what the motive could be. But one of the motives must obviously be that need that still exists.
Q: Is it elderly Chinese people that come? Or families with small children?
The majority are elderly people, people in that ‘third stage’ of life. The majority of them, because they speak Cantonese, it is usually difficult even for us to be able to communicate with them because they don’t speak English. Or their English is so limited that we can’t understand. But I’ll tell you, during these last three months, a person came to us -he’s Asian himself- who speaks their language –Cantonese, and another language I don’t know. He came to do his community service -because here, we have people who do community service- but he came and he liked what was being done here. Now, he’s volunteering just for himself. He’s finished with whatever hours he may have been given by court order, but now he comes just as a volunteer of the Church. I think the people really identify with him. Why? Because they speak the same language. And that was one of the problems that we’d keep coming across with that community. What we do is to try and make people feel comfortable. Spanish, of course, is our language, our first language, no? People feel comfortable because they identify with you by way of language, and secondly because of customs. But with the Asian people, it was very difficult for us and very frustrating because we wanted to give them the service they deserved, but because of language, we weren’t able to. Now people come with more confidence because there is someone who understands their language. But that’s what we try to do. If a person comes here speaking English, we try to have someone who understands English. If a person speaks Cantonese, we want someone here [who speaks Cantonese]. But it’s difficult. There’s no way to have a person here for every language. Why? Because this isn’t as big a place as a hospital, for example. But at the very least, there are certain days when we do have someone here, and they know that and they come. They know there’s someone who can answer them, and here he is.
Q. The Catholic Church, especially in Los Angeles, has been one of the most vocal supporters of immigrants’ rights. Why do you think that is?
God can present himself in any person. He can present himself in a person in a fine suit just as easily as he could present himself in a person who is dirty, or so the saying goes, no? What we do by way of the Church –because God discriminates against no one– as a Church, we must also give our welcome to everyone.
We have to make them feel comfortable. At the same time, we have this program for them. We have people coming from many countries, not necessarily just Mexico. They can come from any other country, and we have to help orient them. There are people who take the risk to come here without having anyone here. We give them our welcome we do the best we can to find them a shelter, so they won’t have to stay on the streets. That’s just one of the things we do. We just try to orient them about how things are here. One of the things this Church is best known for is not necessarily tourism. The tourism, that’s Olvera Street, that’s the Plaza. But we go by the same name because people know them as these two things that go together. But actually, people know about us because they’ve heard from people, “Oh, in the Church, you’ll find people who can help you.” You know, by word of mouth. People know us for the help we offer immigrants, and for the help we offer to people who are just in very low places in their lives. People come here when they have no where else to go.
Q. So do you feel a sense of pride in helping the people that you feel need it most?
Oh, 100%. I have no doubt in that. I like my work. I enjoy what I do as much as I possibly can. There are a lot of things here with which I can identify. I really enjoy my work. I know that there might be some people who don’t agree with the choices I’ve made as a part of my work, or my way of being or my way of thinking. I don’t know. But sometimes, people have to make their own choices in their work, not because there are rules telling them to do so, but because you need to feel it out and use your common sense.
After turning my voice recorder off and packing up my things, Aidee walked me to the door where she said (very eloquently and inconveniently, while there was nothing recording her), “The work of the Church is like this great pillar that everyone sees, but it would be nothing without our volunteers. They are the arms and legs and heart of everything that is done here.