The Pico Youth and Family Center is one of the longest lasting, locally grown youth centers, bringing together diverse groups for community awareness and social justice. It is widely recognized as a unique social justice program, and is a product of the local civil rights movement. The PYFC should receive public city dollars, just like PAL, the Boys and Girls Club, and the Virginia Avenue Park youth center.

Artists like KRS-One, Robin Williams and Aztlan Underground have visited the center. UCLA professors, students and the Ethnic Studies Now movement to diversify state curriculums held meetings and conferences at the center. Tom Haden, Blasé Bonpane and Black Lives Matter activist Melina Abdullah have been honored there. More recently, Cindy Crawford and America Unites honored PYFC director Oscar de la Torre for his advocacy and leadership, and Bernie Sanders chose Oscar to introduce him at a huge rally at Samohi last month. Hundreds of less famous artists and talented people have passed through our doors to serve our youth.

Notably, American Indian Movement activist and poet-musician John Trudell spoke there in 2012, and upon his death late last year family members, some from out of state, chose the PYFC to hold a dynamic memorial to him this last January.

This last month Pico Youth and Family Center members helped organize the return of the historic Venice Cinco de Mayo Parade, bringing together West Side families for a day of celebration of Mexico’s defeat of a militarily superior French Army. For the first time since the 1970’s, lowrider cars, Aztec dancers, cars representing MEChA clubs and the Association of Mexican American Educators paraded down Lincoln Boulevard, as a diverse crowd of bystanders cheered.

Several hundred people gathered at Pen-Mar Park as local youth danced ballet folclorico, UCLA students registered voters, and local organizations set up vendor and information tables. Local bands Horny Toad, Mayaztec and local dance groups entertained the audience. UCLA professor Dr. David Hayes-Bautista explained that Californians supported both Abraham Lincoln and Benito Juarez’ fight against French imperialism and slavery, and sent funds and soldiers to fight on both fronts. He interspersed his lecture with 19th century music and folkloric dancers to color the history of Cinco de Mayo’s origins in California.

The lowrider cars drew many onlookers. Former gang-members from West L.A., Santa Monica, Culver City and Venice, “veteranos,” and many adults from the “four corners” of the West Side worked security and interacted peaceably. I saw many old friends I hadn’t seen since my childhood.

This unprecedented peace, I strongly believe, resonates within neighborhoods, instills cultural purpose, pride, and helps prevent youth violence. This is something other youth centers don’t do, and is something that should be cherished.

One of the key organizers, Laura Ceballos grew up in Venice and Santa Monica. Our mothers were “comadres,” pals from working in the factories behind St. Anne’s School. Like many others, we have familial and friendly ties to neighborhoods surrounding Santa Monica. Some may complain that our wealthy city shouldn’t serve groups outside our boundaries, but I believe in symbiotic relationships. Generosity, exchange, and good gestures are key to the cooperative ways our children and grandchildren must learn. The city itself serves millions of international tourists and visitors through public transportation and tax breaks to big companies and hotels.

Connecting to local neighborhoods should also be a priority.

The complete defunding of PYFC last summer by the city council, in spite of vocal protest, was a terrible mistake. Dozens of Pico Neighborhood youth, Samohi students, formerly suicidal youth and Pico residents spoke that day, some expressing how the PYFC literally “saved their lives.” The city seemed to say, the police department has the right to run a youth center in a community, but the people of that community do not.

The PYFC managed to keep the doors open this last year by cutting staff and through dedicated fundraising, support from local business and Peggy Bergman’s philanthropy. But this has been difficult and curtails services and programs for youth. Even so, the PYFC continues being a powerful cultural presence on the Westside and advocating for social justice.

I strongly believe that the Santa Monica city council can avoid future strife with the Pico Neighborhood, and reconcile these differences. It will certainly take reflection, dialogue and authentic caring and effort from both sides. In a country where we spend increasing amounts of money policing and incarcerating than we do educating, voting to support this underdog youth center with public dollars is also an investment in sustainable societies and our collective futures.

I urge readers to contact city council members individually to express support for the Pico Youth and Family Center. This is also a way to respect the local Chicano/Latino community and its history in Santa Monica. We can right a wrong this summer and tell our youth we care about them and their spaces.

Elias Serna

PYFC Board Member