Nikan Tochan - Reclaiming Our Community
Indigenous consultation, community and collaboratives
Otsuugna - “El Sereno”
Nikan Tochan - Reclaiming Our Community is a proposal for a locally controlled, community-centered and Indigenous Peoples-led vision to regenerate a healthy socio-ecosystem in what is now the Caltrans Corridor section of Los Angeles. Health, housing and habitat restoration in the Corridor involve reinvesting in the community by restoring hundreds of houses, vacant properties and blighted lots (over 10 acres) which currently scar the neighborhoods in El Sereno from Elephant Hill to the University Hills. From the Doctrine of Discovery to the department of transportation, the impacts on these lands of colonization by settler societies have never been acknowledged, addressed or adequately considered in the long-term visions of the City of Los Angeles. Now facing rampant disparities in housing, income and health, El Sereno can become a model for Indigenous-led, community-based and environmentally conscious socio-ecosystem revitalization. Rooted by a village to house homeless American Indians/Indigenous Peoples, a community hub and an educational center, currently vacant Caltrans owned properties ought to be transformed into affordable housing to benefit the neediest Angelinos. Open spaces should be reclaimed to protect urban wildlife corridors and ecosystems including the protection and restoration of a living arroyo to include access to larger-scale urban farming. Land currently held in trust by Tzicatl on Huntington Drive can be repurposed to allow for denser construction to serve homeless and housing insecure families and persons without impacting the single-family homes patterns of the surrounding neighborhoods. Through cooperative and community-controlled strategic planning, the Caltrans Corridor can be restored through practices that build community self-reliance and resilience. In collaboration and partnership with the El Sereno Land Trust, a community land trust model can re-envision the future of urban life towards a healthier, just and balanced socio-ecosystem.
Our community is under siege on many fronts. Global crises in health, housing and homelessness have been exacerbated by the immediate concerns for the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the current emergency is symptomatic of the underlying conflicts caused by the globalization of exploitation of nature, humanity and our ecosystems. Long-term transition and recovery from the COVID-19 Pandemic include addressing the underlying inequities which existed before the pandemic now with greater urgency and in the benefit of the communities and not corporate interests. Our organization has responded to the COVID-19 Pandemic by helping to provide free meals to low-income school children and their families, supporting distance learning for Indigenous students and defending the rights of homeless residents locally who have occupied vacant state-owned properties to take shelter from the streets and find safe quarters. Nikan Tochan responds to the work and demands of the frontline housing for homeless families advocacy led by the movement known as The Reclaimers. In Nahuatl, the language of the Nahua Nations of Mexico, El Salvador and Nicaragua, Nikan Tochan means “This is our community”. Nikan Tochan - Reclaiming our Community expands upon the initial and central demands for affordable and habitable housing to be made immediately available to houseless persons and families by addressing the needs for consultation with local Indigenous tribes and tribal leaders as well as by proposing a reclamation of the entire community inclusive of Indigenous and American Indian homeless families and persons. Indigenous consultation, community engagement and collaborative transformation of our relationship with the land are important to raise attention to the demands for redress and reparations for the traumas caused by development, dislocation and disenfranchisement at the hands of the agencies of the State of California. Decolonizing the process of community reclamation requires a prior and earnest inclusion of the needs and visions of the tribes and communities indigenous to and resident in the greater Los Angeles area. This proposal aims to advance the mechanisms capable of centering a redefinition of tenancy from a legal condition of occupancy in relation to a landowner to the natural relation of residency within a community to each other as an affirmation of life and the fundamental right to live.
WHO WE ARE
Our work has for twenty years been embodied by two nonprofit organizations, Semillas Sociedad Civil ("Semillas") and Tzicatl Community Development Corporation ("Tzicatl").
Semillas Sociedad Civil is an indigenous community-based nonprofit organization that organizes youth, parents and educators to advance self-determination, sovereignty and human rights as Indigenous Peoples through autonomous education and advocacy.
The mission of Tzicatl Community Development Corporation is to advance the rights of Indigenous Peoples and the regeneration of healthy relations with spaces, places and lands of origin in both the urban inner-city and migrant transnational contexts through the advocacy of positive social ecosystems which promote and protect their cultural, social and ceremonial practices.
Semillas/Tzicatl have been engaged by the campaign organizers of the El Sereno Land Trust as a part of a local community coalition to support the creation of a transformative pathway to resolve this long-standing crisis and help overcome state incompetence in response to community demands for decades. Our role as the only local community development nonprofit corporation and respected community-based Indigenous Peoples’ k-12 school is a part of a long-term vision for community stabilization. Our organizational assets, capacity, location, staff and community of families is respected and valued by the movement organizers. We initially engaged with the campaign in direct advocacy with the Office of the Governor beginning on the day the Reclaimers took action. The goal was to ensure high-level recognition of the urgency and moral validity of the actions taken by homeless families in occupying vacant habitable Caltrans properties in our neighborhood. Additionally, our organization is engaged in strategic planning and advocacy towards a solution to the crisis involving immediate steps, bridge partnerships and long-term land trust reorganization. Lastly, we have been asked to approach the development and inclusion of an "indigenous village" as a part of the overall vision of the community reclamation movement and as a part of a consultative process with local Indigenous tribes and communities. Significantly, our organization is raising the importance of addressing the need for community redress and reparations for the decades of trauma and negative impact caused by the State of California on our community. We are also calling attention to the need to harmonize all future development plans with the realities of climate crisis by pursuing opportunities for ecosystem restoration, especially by recognizing the rights of natural waterways as well as communities for healthy environments.
Community-based resistance to the 710 freeway expansion by CALTRANS in El Sereno and other neighboring communities has been sustained for over 50 years. Both property owners and subsequent tenants of Caltrans properties in the corridor have been persistently defending our community from state agencies - most recently winning a lawsuit against Caltrans one year ago. This is remarkable because this same issue has been reported on for decades. According to state policy and law, the Caltrans properties should have been adequately maintained and made available for affordable housing. Although this was public knowledge, the bureaucracy shirked its obligations in a blind pursuit of completion of the 710 Freeway extension until the entire project was stopped in 2018. Actions organized by the Reclaimers and their supporters have reignited a local demand for housing homeless families and persons, especially poignant in El Sereno as LA's Council District 14 has recently become a concentration hot point of homeless encampments with at least five murders recorded among homeless people recently in the District. National attention for local homelessness has not been met by adequate local responses on the part of city and state authorities. Attention from city authorities to the reclamation of the houses occupied by the Reclaimers has focused upon their removal. Reclaimers and supporters have insisted upon a guarantee of formal tenancy as a central demand. The El Sereno Land Trust is proposed as a part of a redress to the decades-long trauma caused by the State of California through the CALTRANS 710 Freeway Expansion project.
INDIGENOUS PEOPLES, INDIGENOUS ECOSYSTEMS
As an initial step, Semillas/Tzicatl has raised the necessity to consider the importance of tribal consultation and Indigenous Peoples rights to Free, Prior and Informed Consent. The draft Community Reclamation Proposal of the El Sereno Land Trust includes the following text as a result of our partnership: “Entrusting the Community Reclamation Coalition (CRC) with the stewardship of these properties is essential because it brings together a broad base of history, perspectives, technical skills, and capacity to implement this plan. CRC will also work towards reaffirming the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Article 19) and California Senate Bill 18 (Chapter 905). Both Article 19 and SB 18 guarantee Indigenous communities the right to free, prior, and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may directly affect Indigenous Peoples to protect and mitigate impacts to cultural places.”
Importantly, in 2019, the Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian Commission was engaged by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to research and address the issues of homelessness among American Indians. A report was finalized in early 2020 and plans are underway to address the unique findings of this study and the inappropriate and chaotic methods public housing authorities use to address homelessness among American Indians. Our communities are facing urgent needs handled (or ignored) chaotically by government authorities without community-based leadership, strategies and priorities in mind.
Recent discussions with representatives of the Los Angeles Housing Authority (HACLA) are both promising and concerning. Based upon the history of our community, local city and state authorities must be managed carefully, however well-intentioned, without the leverage of direct action and/or the resources to defend a more community-based solution, privatized bureaucracy usually wins out. While the case of the Caltrans corridor proceeds on the eastern and southern section of El Sereno, on the western side, the HACLA managed Rose Hills Housing Project is also under redevelopment. The Related Companies of California, LLC (Related) has been engaged to manage the Rose Hill Courts Redevelopment and would demolish all the existing buildings and construct a total of 185 housing units (183 of which are affordable and two of which are manager’s units) along with a community-building onsite, in two phases. This was just approved in January 2020. This is a direct example of how local community interests have been excluded with preference given to national for-profit development firms, thereby privatizing community assets under the guise of addressing community demands for affordable and habitable housing.
According to the Draft Environmental Impact Report conducted for the Rose Hills redevelopment project and completed in 2019,
“The downtown Los Angeles area, situated among a foothill transition zone and the Los Angeles River traversing the middle, was an ideal location for Native settlements (McCawley, 1996:57). The village of Yaanga was situated near the old Plaza of Los Angeles approximately one and a half miles southwest of the project site at the edge of the plain, and a village named Geverobit was apparently also very near this same location by the river. The Tongva community of Maawnga was set on the west edge of the Cahuenga Hills to the west (McCawley, 1996:55). In the Rose Hills, “on the road from San Gabriel to Los Angeles” according to mission priest José Zalvidea was the village of ‘Ochuunga, a name derived from ‘ochuur, “wild rose” in Tongva. This ancient trail through the hills connected the two valleys was eventually transformed into Mission Road and Huntington Drive, passing approximately 800 feet east of Rose Hill Courts. Also referred to as Otsunga, this nearby Tongva village was located near the present-day community of El Sereno.”
Additionally noted in the report is the history of anti-Mexican discrimination in El Sereno.
“El Sereno's population rose markedly as the country prepared for World War II. Due to the rationing of gas and rubber, communities along the Pacific Electric routes received the majority of new residents who came to work at the aircraft and munitions factories in Los Angeles. El Sereno experienced major industrial growth during these years. Many of the families who moved here during these years were Italian-American. The rise in population lead to the construction of the El Sereno theatre, the third such establishment in the community. Restrictive covenants had prevented Mexican-American families who lived in the adjacent communities of Lincoln Heights and Boyle Heights from purchasing homes in El Sereno. After restrictions were lifted by a 1948 Supreme Court decision (Shelly v. Kraemer), many Mexican-American families moved to El Sereno. The demand for housing after World War II was satisfied by the construction of new neighborhoods in the southern end of El Sereno.”
Consultants hired by the Rose Hills Project developers also conducted tribal outreach in consultation with the California Native American Heritage Commission.
“On April 26, 2018 Mr. O’Neil mailed letters with accompanying maps to all nine tribal contacts describing the project and showing the project's location, requesting a reply if they have knowledge of cultural resources in the area that they wished to share, and asking if they had any questions or concerns regarding the project. On the same day the eight tribal contacts that provided an email address were sent the contact letter and map by this method as well. Mr. Andrew Salas, Chairman of the Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians – Kizh Nation, replied by email May 1, 2018 stating that the project area has the potential for discoveries of cultural resources, and requested that Native American monitors be present during ground disturbing activities. Mr. Jairo Avila, THPO for the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians responded by email on May 10, 2018, stating that the project location is outside the Tataviam Band’s area of concern and consultation, and that they would defer to members of the Gabrielino tribe who should be contacted instead. Following up on the initial letter and email contacts, telephone calls were conducted by Archaeological Technician Megan Black on May 29, 2018 to the five tribal organizations who had not previously responded by email. There were three telephone calls placed with no answer, at which messages were left -- Ms. Linda Candelaria, Co-chairperson of the Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe; Ms. Sandonne Goad, Co-Chairperson of the Gabrielino/Tongva Nation; and Mr. Charles Alvarez with the Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe. When Chairperson Donna Yocum with the San Fernandeño Band of Mission Indians was reached, she deferred to more local tribal entities.
During the call to Mr. Anthony Morales, Chairperson of the Gabrielino/Tongva San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians, he stated that the project area is culturally sensitive to the Band and requested that both a Native American and an archaeological monitor be present during ground disturbing activities. Mr. Robert F. Dorame, Chairperson of the Gabrielino Tongva Indians of California Tribal Council, stated during the UltraSystems’ telephone call that he would like to have the contact letter and map resent to him via email, and to give them a week to respond, and that if we received no further response from them in that time then they have no comment; the letter and map were resent to him the same day, however, there has been no further reply to date.”
It is important to note that consultation with local tribes as a part of the Rose HIlls project was focused upon discovery of “knowledge of cultural resources in the area that they wished to share, and asking if they had any questions or concerns regarding the project.” This is not a process designed to engage tribal leaders, members or organizations as a part of the process of the redevelopment and its ultimate outcomes. It is also important to consider the impact of over fifty years of negative impacts by the built environment at the hands of the State of California. In response to a 2016 draft State of California “Sustainable Community Strategy” Environmental Impact Report, “5-City Alliance” composed of the cities of Glendale, La Cañada Flintridge, Pasadena, Sierra Madre and South Pasadena submitted a legal statement opposing 710 Freeway expansion and calling for its termination as a viable alternative for transportation. Instead, the 5-City Alliance submitted a commissioned report on alternative viable solutions for the region’s development (2016-2040 REGIONAL TRANSPORTATION PLAN/SUSTAINABLE COMMUNITIES STRATEGY Southern California Association of Governments - Comments on the Draft 2016 RTP/SCS Program Environmental Impact Report, pp 58-87). Included in this report is a vision “for the restoration of Arroyo Rosa de Castilla, the year-round creek that runs alongside and under the 710, and the creation of over 30 acres of new parklands, three regular soccer fields, and a 2.5 mile bike path connecting Alhambra, El Sereno, and South Pasadena” (Comments on the Draft Program Environmental Impact Report, pp103). Whereas, these reports support the concept of “rewilding” urban ecosystems, we promote the concept of re-indigenizing and regenerating the social and biophysical ecosystems in harmony.
The goal of this movement is to advance the rights of Indigenous Peoples and the regeneration of healthy relations with spaces, places and lands of origin in both the urban inner-city and migrant transnational contexts through the advocacy of positive social ecosystems which promote and protect their cultural, social and ceremonial practices. Specifically, the objective of this campaign is to ensure that through a process of consultation with local and resident Indigenous Peoples which seeks to obtain their Free, Prior and Informed Consent, negative and traumatic impacts of the management and imminent development of the Caltrans corridor in El Sereno and surrounding communities can be stopped, reversed and replaced with healthy and sustainable solutions. Humanity does not exist in the absence of nature. Recognizing the rights of all forms of life and the balance needed to sustain a healthy ecosystem is the right and obligation of every community member. Through the organization of a community land trust and a workers’/residents’ cooperative direct community development, for community by community.
LAND - Transform our relationships with the earth, water and the biophysical ecosystems through the cultivation of lived environments that are community regenerative, culturally supportive, and ecologically sustainable.
LIFE - Establish consciously transformative practices of stewardship, reciprocity and regeneration which restore, protect and balance human community with the biophysical ecosystems we depend upon.
LIBERATION - Practice community-based autonomy guided by the implementation of the rights of Indigenous Peoples that advance the sustainability and survivance of all persons and families through healthier sustainable social ecosystems which engage all residents in the cultivation of human community.
We seek to redefine and renegotiate our community’s relationship with the lands we live in beginning with Indigenous tribal acknowledgment and extending into a sustained practice of community autonomy, otherwise also known as “local control”. Specific mechanisms which advance the outcomes intended ought to center a redefinition of tenancy from a legal condition of occupancy in relation to a landowner to the natural relation of residency within a community to each other as an affirmation of life and the fundamental right to live. Publicly held property that is owned by the state will instead be held in perpetuity by a human community with rights and obligations to each other and the land they live on. Organizing the stewardship of land and the built environment through the El Sereno Land Trust accomplishes basic goals of community control, autonomy and agency as a fundamental antidote to the decades of trauma inflicted at the hands of succeeding state agencies and administrations. Functionalizing the way Indigenous Peoples and persons, especially those who suffer from or are at risk of becoming houseless will continue to strengthen the potential for harmony among humanity. Tzicatl’s role in advocating for, catalyzing and supporting the on-going leadership and agency of Indigenous families and communities will continue to bridge a vital need and persistent contradiction in the current projects and campaigns.
TOWARDS CONTINUITY NOT CONCLUSION: EXERCISING AGENCY
Semillas/Tzicatl have joined in the development of an engaged and sustainable community in Otsuugna/El Sereno. Where we need resources and capacity-building, we stand ready to respond. Negotiations with city and state agencies are tenuous, direct intervention by both the Governor and the Mayor will be necessary to overcome the intransigence of the bureaucratic state agencies. Consultation with local Indigenous Peoples has been initiated and will be formalized over the course of the next few weeks. Tzicatl CDC will engage in the advocacy for the rights of Indigenous families, communities and tribes as a precedent to the affirmation of the rights of all human beings to health, housing and human dignity. Tzicatl will also advocate for the restoration and regeneration of the biophysical ecosystem and urban wildlife zones centered around the rights of the water and open spaces. Tzicatl will also seek to center tribal consultation around both cultural resources and community needs of Indigenous Peoples, particularly homeless American Indians, and basic rights to culturally supportive housing. Lastly, driven by the affirmation of rights of Indigenous Peoples, Semillas will build upon models of tenant/resident rights promotion (promotoras de salud) to organize self-directed agency and advocacy towards the regeneration of transformative relationships with land, community life and the practice of liberation.
The stark crisis faced by our communities and community residents today is only equal to the tremendous opportunity to prioritize the needs of the most disadvantaged members of our community. Elected officials should note the decades long record of disparate treatment and negligence of the community’s needs as well as the ongoing exclusion of community voice and leadership at the hands of state agencies and administrations over the years. We call upon our elected officials to openly, urgently and inclusively uplift the voices, visions and proposals of community residents, organizations and stakeholders, beginning with and inclusive of Indigenous Peoples. Effective models for community transformation will require attention to resolution of the crisis caused by the absence of socio-ecological justice in the past, as well as community-led pathways towards self-reliance and local control.