Jess Haro, Rachel Ortiz, Chunky Sanchez
As Alvin Ducheny and I roll through Barrio Logan in his dirty white Mercury Lynx, I ask him. “Why do so many people hate your guts, Al? You’d think you were a Communist or something.” When you're talking to a guy who is probably the most hated person between Golden Hill and National City, a guy who knows it and continually does things to make sure he maintains his reputation, you can get away with questions like that.
Alvin, Denise Ducheny. Somebody airmailed a Molotov cocktail through the window of their office.
Ducheny, chairman of the Harborview Community Council, an organizing group on Logan Avenue formed in 1983, discovered early on that in the barrio when people hate your guts, they don't mess around. In 1981, when Ducheny and his wife Denise, an attorney. were just becoming involved in community politics, somebody airmailed a Molotov cocktail through the window of their office.
Bayfront park site. The latest plan allocates 3.2 acres for a park and 2.2 acres for a “marine- related industrial facility."
The fire department. just a block away, extinguished the blaze before it did much damage, but the message was clear. Last fall three rocks came crashing through the windows, leading Ducheny “to board himself in,” as one barrio leader put it. The boards came off the next day, but Ducheny installed a metal screen over his new windows and obtained a concealed-weapons permit after the incident.
Ducheny's model of a proposed 5.4-acre park
“People don’t like me because they say I’m disruptive,” the Harborview chairman says. “Of course I am. Complacency is the worst thing that can happen to a community like this. Controversy is what gives life to a community.” If this is true. Ducheny (pronounced Due-chain-knee), a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent who was born forty-three years ago, seems dedicated to assuring that Barrio Logan keeps both feet out of the grave.
Ducheny. “He bogarts the issues, man,” says Chunky Sanchez.
His Harborview Community Council, which has about thirty members, is at the center of most controversies in the barrio these days. Ducheny’s files contain dozens of articles in which he (and occasionally Denise) has been quoted on a wide variety of issues.
Many question Ducheny’s right to act as spokesman for the barrio, a community of some 25,000 people, sixty-five percent of whom are Hispanic. “He bogarts the issues, man,” says Ramon “Chunky” Sanchez, a long-time barrio leader who now directs the city-funded Street Youth Program. “He turns the issues around and gets his name in the paper. He’s just making a name for himself, and he’s stifling years of work that people have done in the barrio.”
“When people say that to me, I reply, ‘You’re right, there are a thousand people who are more qualified than I am, but until they stop being so afraid to speak out, I have to do it.’” The world according to Al Ducheny goes something like this: Chicanos and blacks are powerless, disenfranchised people who are walked upon and shamefully manipulated by politicians. Key to the manipulation is co-opting members of the ethnic communities, paying them to operate government agencies, setting them up as leaders, and then using them to gain acceptance of policies directly in conflict with the true interests of those they represent. Anyone who accepts government money accepts strings, in Ducheny’s view, and will inevitably betray the people.
Ducheny, who receives no money for heading his entirely volunteer organization, is most unpopular with those who run the government-funded agencies, people such as Rachel Ortiz, an influential Chicano leader who directs the Barrio Station youth program; Jess Haro, former city councilman and now chairman of the Chicano Federation (he receives no salary); and Chunky Sanchez, who in addition to directing his youth program is chairman of a citizens’ group called the Chicano Park Steering Committee. To them, Ducheny is out of joint, an agitator who has carried the infantile leftism of the 1960s into the 1980s, where it simply doesn’t fit.
Ducheny exists entirely outside the system, they believe, and he criticizes without understanding the nuances of the real world. He is a sharpshooter armed with an ideology instead of workable ideas. In one of his more charitable comments about Ducheny, Jess Haro admitted that the Harborview chairman probably wants reform, that he “sees wrong and wants to correct it. But look and see how constructive he’s been. Has he gotten a single legislator on his side? That’s what he needs. All he’s done so far is make a lot of noise.” We’re driving down Crosby Street toward San Diego Bay, toward a 5.4-acre chunk of tideland upon which Al Ducheny has built his reputation as a barrio rogue. Had it not been for Ducheny, the highly publicized “bay park” controversy, which has gone on since 1974, would have been resolved three years ago, and now the site would be split between a park and a ship-repair facility. Instead, most of it is a dirt lot, and near the water’s edge, it’s a fenced-in dump. We squeeze through an opening of the locked gate and walk past a small utility building down to the water, which is filthy. Strewn about on the beachfront property are a rusted anchor, a busted sail mast, a spindle, a buoy, and other junk the port district picked up around the bay and deposited here. In the water are several derelict boats, including a houseboat called God’s Little Acre that has been cut in two. The site, sandwiched between the Tenth Avenue Terminal and a tuna boat refueling facility, is an eyesore.
Ever since Chicano Park was born on April 22, 1970 — the day barrio residents began a nine-day sit-in and declared as their own seven acres of land around the stanchions supporting the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge — the dream of extending the park “all the way to the bay” has existed. The community, after all, has had no access to the bay since the early 1940s, when wartime shipbuilding was a priority and the last piece of recreation tidelands was converted to industrial use. In the mid-1970s, Chicano residents made numerous proposals for a bay park, some demanding more than twenty acres of land at the end of Crosby street just north of the Coronado Bridge. In 1978 a proposal for 5.4 acres, to be connected by a quarter-mile path to Chicano Park, was rejected by the San Diego Unified Port District, which instead gave preliminary approval for a lease of all 5.4 acres to Mauricio & Sons, a ship-repair company. In January of 1979, Chicano activists marked a significant victory; they persuaded the coastal commission, which must approve port district decisions on land use, to reject the shipyard lease.
This proved to be only round one of an administrative, political, and cultural struggle that has taken on proportions far greater than the significance of the land itself. In the late Seventies, State Assemblyman Pete Chacon began negotiating with the port district, his goal being to obtain all 5.4 acres for a park. The port wouldn’t hear of it, and in December of 1980, it once again rejected the plan. During this same period, the coastal commission twice rejected port district proposals to split the land between recreational and industrial uses. In 1982, after nearly a decade of disputing the land, the 5.4 acres were still vacant, and both sides firmly guarded their mutually exclusive positions.
But in early 1983, the deadlock broke when mainstream Chicano leadership rallied in favor of the port district’s proposal to designate 2.7 acres for a park and 2.7 acres for an industrial shipyard. By the terms of this agreement, which became known as “the compromise,” the port district was to build the park for approximately $850,000, and it would also contribute an additional $200,000 for development of recreational facilities elsewhere in the community. Pragmatism had seized the barrio. Jess Haro favored the compromise, as did Laura Rodriguez, a perennial Chicano activist who had helped negotiate with the port district. Also in favor were Rachel Ortiz, Chunky Sanchez, and the late Joe Gomez, then chairman of the Chicano Park Steering Committee. A powerful coalition of Chicano leadership stood behind the compromise, whose spirit was succinctly expressed by Chacon when he told the coastal commission that “half a loaf is better than none.”
But along came Al Ducheny, the spoiler who wanted nothing to do with half-a-loaf pragmatism. He and several other barrio residents met with the Chicano leaders who had expressed support for the compromise and told them they shouldn’t accept a dirty, noisy shipyard next to a park. At a meeting on April 28, 1983, it was decided that the barrio should at least request more time to discuss the issue. When Haro appeared before the port district a few days later and asked for a continuance, he was, in the words of Ducheny, “reamed” by port commissioner Lou Wolfsheimer, who expressed freely his disgust at this new snag in negotiations. The port district denied the continuance and ruled in favor of the original plan to split the 5.4 acres. Rather than continue the fight and perhaps delay the park indefinitely, Haro, Rodriguez, Ortiz, Sanchez, and most other Chicano leaders agreed to accept the compromise.
Ducheny would not. Along with a handful of other dissidents, he organized the Harborview Community Council and began his crusade to obtain the entire 5.4 acres. He publicly accused Chicano leaders of “selling out.” He made it clear that he thought they’d been co-opted by politicians, that with Assemblyman Chacon leading the way, they’d helped push through a raw deal for the barrio. He suggested that Ortiz, Sanchez, and Haro had accepted the compromise only because of the $200,000 the port district had promised for recreation facilities. Some of this money would have ended up in the hands of the city-funded agencies headed by these Chicano leaders, Ducheny charged. The port district had thrown in the $200,000 to “sweeten the pot,” he said, and the Chicano leaders had eaten it up. Haro denies this and insists the money was to go toward building a soccer field.
One long-time Southeast San Diego activist all but gasped in horror at the thought of Ducheny so blatantly insulting Chicano leaders such as Rachel Ortiz. Ortiz grew up in Barrio Logan. She became a drug addict there and went to jail. When she got out, she volunteered for three years with the United Farm Workers in San Francisco, where, she says, “Fighting for social justice made me forget about drugs.” In 1970 she came back to the barrio, started the Barrio Station youth program, and fought for numerous reforms. She worked hard on the community plan passed by the coastal commission in 1978, which, among other things, gained approval for bay access and helped eliminate almost all of the forty-three barrio junkyards. Since Barrio Station was created in 1970, Ortiz has built herself a powerful political base within and outside the barrio, and today she is one of the most influential Chicano leaders.
“To suggest that Rachel would ‘sell out’ on her own community was just... well, it was unthinkable,” observed the local activist. “It was an insult that may have no equivalent in the history of the barrio.” But Ducheny did the unthinkable. And what’s worse, his revolt successfully undermined the entrenched Chicano leadership. In July of 1983 and again in March of 1984, Denise Ducheny spoke before the California Coastal Commission and persuaded it to reject the port district’s compromise plan. According to former coastal commissioner George Shipp of Chief Travel Agency in Clairemont, the commission was strongly influenced by testimony from medical experts, who described the health risks, such as inhalation of asbestos dust, that park users might suffer from a nearby ship-repair facility. Surprisingly, the local media were sympathetic to Ducheny’s cause. Though a San Diego Union editorial blasted the coastal commission’s July 1983 ruling as “arrogant,” the Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Tribune supported the decision. “Port Commissioners should do the right thing — let the barrio have the whole site for a park,” wrote the Tribune. Channels 39 and 10 both supported it. Channel 10’s Michael Tuck read a “Perspective” on the bay park issue, pointing out how unfair it is that other communities have beaches and waterfront parks, but the barrio gets stuck with shipyards and factories.
Those favoring the compromise believe that the media missed the point altogether. All Chicanos want the entire 5.4 acres, they argued, but given the complex politics involved, it made sense to go for the 2.7. “I don’t disagree with Ducheny, but I disagree with holding the thing up,” says Haro. “I’m a pragmatist. I know, after having been involved in the park issue for ten years, that we could get the fifty percent, that we could get our foot in the door that way, then go after the rest later.” “We should have had bay access in 1983,” says Chunky Sanchez, sitting in his small office at the Street Youth Program on Forty-third Street. “That park would be developed now. But we have zilch thanks to Ducheny.” Although Jess Haro admits that “if Ducheny gets all 5.4 acres. I’ll be the first to send a letter of congratulations,” others are less indulgent. One barrio resident, who asked not to be named, said, “I’d take only one inch of land for the park, rather than align myself with Al Ducheny.”
A quarter-mile from Denise Ducheny’s law office, which serves as Harborview’s headquarters, is Chicano Park. Ducheny pulls his Mercury Lynx off to the side of the road next to the handball courts just opposite the words “All the way to the bay” written in huge letters on a Coronado Bridge stanchion. Ducheny describes some of the murals — there’s the female Aztec deity Coatlicue, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and Cesar Chavez. Ducheny knows the names of the muralists, and he says he helped build scaffoldings for some of them. This is an extraordinary little park. Standing in the middle of it, you can barely make out the sky between the freeways and off-ramps. Instead of trees, you have the stanchions of the Coronado Bridge. Instead of quiet, you have the drone of speeding rubber on concrete. Chicano Park is a monument to inner-city life (the only kind barrio denizens know), and they are intensely proud of it — particularly its murals, which tell stories about the historical struggles of the Chicano people and give the park a warm, human character that challenges the harsh environment. The park itself is the result of a great historical struggle, and Al Ducheny was not part of it, a fact his opponents remind him of frequently.
In October of 1983, six months after Al and Denise Ducheny sabotaged the “compromise” in the bay park issue, an anti-Ducheny pamphlet was published by the Chicano Park Steering Committee. According to current chairman Chunky Sanchez, he and several other members of the committee wrote the pamphlet, which was called El Chingazo or “The Blow.” The Duchenys took some heavy punches in the eleven-page document, which was subtitled “The Truth about Chicano Park Bay-Access.” Essentially, it depicted the Duchenys as opportunists who had seized upon the bay park issue as a means of gaining self-serving media attention. It called them “outsiders,” “political leeches,” and “carpetbaggers” who were “pimping” on barrio issues.
And then came the really nasty stuff. The Duchenys were referred to as “this lowly gavacho [white) couple.” They were red-baited, called “failed leftists” with ties to the Communist Party. The Chingazo denounced Denise Ducheny as a gringa (in fact, she is part Mexican and speaks fluent Spanish) and alluded to her “hole in the wall legal practice.” And Al Ducheny, “who claims to have Puerto Rican blood ... punctuates and rolls his r’s and tries to speak Spanish ever since he appointed himself the chairman of the so-called Harborview Council.” The Chingazo, which was widely distributed in the barrio community, didn’t challenge the Duchenys’ opposition to the bay park compromise so much as it challenged their right to “bogart” the issue, to come out of nowhere and speak for an alleged constituency. The pamphlet affirmed the legitimacy of the Chicano Park Steering Committee as the authentic voice of the community and listed numerous accomplishments that had earned it such a right. The committee was formed in 1970 by the very people who occupied the land that became Chicano Park. It built the temple-like kiosco in the center of the park; the rest room, the water fountain, the basketball courts, the handball courts, and other park accouterments. Each year it put on Chicano Park Day in April to commemorate the birth of the historic park. The committee coordinated many of the muralists who transformed the park into a work of urban art. It struggled to rid the community of the junkyards. Most importantly, its members were among those who gave birth to the concept of “all the way to the bay" back in the early Seventies. “Where was Al Ducheny when we built Chicano Park and when we fought for a park on the bay?” asks Rachel Ortiz. “There’s history there, and he doesn't respect that. Since the day Ducheny came around, he’s bad-mouthed everybody. He only cares about media and himself, and making Chicanos look bad. He doesn’t have the heart of a Chicano.”
“I'm very happy being Puerto Rican,” says Ducheny, who admits he has trodden heavily upon others' turf. “Those people feel threatened by someone else coming into the community and speaking on issues. They feel very much usurped. I don't object to them taking a stand on issues, I just don't understand why they don’t give me the right to disagree with them.” Ducheny brushed off the Chingazo. “It did me a favor by putting me on the map,” he says. “They're publicizing me by making all these outrageous attacks. They don't know what they're doing. They're easily manipulated. If I can manipulate them — and I'm just a novice — can you imagine what the pros can do?” Ducheny turns the Mercury back down Crosby Street toward the bay, explaining the paths that might be used to connect Chicano Park and the bay park. Down at the bay, he points to a large white building just south of the bay park land. It is the defunct tuna cannery where he worked from 1976 to 1979, cleaning fish, returning home every day with fish oil packed so deeply in his pores that he smelled like a tuna even after a hot shower. As the shop steward in his department, Ducheny was the union representative responsible for reporting grievances to Sun Harbor Industries, the owner of the cannery. Though a spokeswoman for the United Cannery and Industrial Workers of the Pacific denies it, Ducheny insists that the union did not have a policy of filing written grievances with the cannery. “Do you believe it? Written grievances are the basis of union activity!” exclaims Ducheny, who wrote several grievances while at the cannery. He pushed successfully for elections, “to break up the old-boy network in the union.” During the bay park negotiations, the cannery workers union filed a petition saying it didn’t want the 5.4 acres next door to be converted into a park. Union leaders were afraid that the presence of a park might threaten the existence of the cannery. Ducheny thought such reasoning was specious and filed a counter-petition, a blatant challenge to his union colleagues, w ho refused Pete Chacon's request that the union reverse its position and support the bay park. When Sun Harbor sold the cannery to Bumblebee in late 1979, about 200 Sun Harbor union workers were not re-hired by Bumblebee. Ducheny, of course, was one of them. To the company, Ducheny was an agitator w ho merely stirred up trouble. To the union, he was little better. “The cannery union was happy I wasn't rehired, too,” Ducheny says. “I was a thorn in their side.”
Ducheny's critics often bring up his days at the cannery as evidence that he can't get along with anyone. “Wherever he goes, he sows discord, anger, and hate,” says one barrio leader who requested anonymity. “Every grassroots effort he’s tried to get into has fallen apart.” In the early 1980s, Ducheny helped run a youth group called Sherman Unidos, holding meetings at Our Lady of Angels Church on Twenty-fourth Street, organizing activities, trying to give the young people an alternative to drugs and violence,, But rumors began circulating that Ducheny was a Communist, that he had too strong a hold on the kids’ minds. Eventually church pastor Father Ned Brockhaus told Ducheny he could no longer hold meetings at Our Lady of Angels. Losing the church as a meeting place led to a drop in morale, and the group eventually disbanded. Before the breakup, however, Sherman Unidos joined in a coalition with members of several other Chicano groups to put on the Barrio Unity Conference, created to combat gang violence. Ducheny worked for six months organizing the event, but when it was over, he was not asked to continue working with the coalition.
Ducheny denies that he imposed left-wing ideas on the youngsters. However, he does admit that he was a bit too demanding with them. He admits, reluctantly, that he used to be involved with Communist organizations. He says he no longer associates with such groups but has nonetheless maintained “socialist leanings.” Ducheny prefers to associate himself with the politics of his grandmother, a Puerto Rican nationalist who advocated independence from the United States. Ducheny, born in New York, grew up with his grandmother and spoke Spanish exclusively until he entered school at age five, where he became assimilated in the English-speaking world. He attended a segregated high school in Florida, where they called him “nigger” because he was the darkest kid at the school. Ducheny came to San Diego in 1973, after having lived in Everett, Washington, and San Francisco, where he did volunteer work for the United Farm Workers. In 1976 he got the job at the tuna cannery, which put him in contact with Mexican-American workers and helped him regain his command of Spanish. In May of 1980, he married Denise, who had finished law school at Southwestern College in Los Angeles the year before. Chunky Sanchez, of all people, played guitar and sang at their wedding. Soon thereafter, Denise Ducheny set up her law practice on Logan Avenue, handling mostly immigration and divorce cases.
Ducheny works as his wife’s secretary in the law office, always seated so he’s directly facing the door. “I do think about someone trying to hurt me,” he admits. “But I don’t go around looking over my shoulder.” The Duchenys are a curious pair — she a product of the white middle class, he a Puerto Rican who never finished high school. “We’re an excellent team,” Ducheny says. “I have the motivation and drive, she has the technical skills, like writing and organizing presentations. Denise usually talks at the hearings. She’s a lawyer, and people tend to respect lawyers, whereas they don’t respect a cannery worker. What I'm doing would be impossible without her.”
As we’re heading down Twenty-fifth Street, Ducheny spots someone he knows standing on the sidewalk. “Georgina,” he shouts, pulling the car as close to the curb as possible, but not far enough to keep from blocking traffic. Georgina, a young, dark-haired woman in her mid-twenties, walks over to the car and sees it’s Al Ducheny. We exchange greetings, but there is a truck behind us trying to squeeze through traffic, and Ducheny is blocking the way. “I'll move forward. Come on, Georgina, I want to talk to you.” He pulls fifteen feet ahead and stops again. “Georgina, tell us what Rachel Ortiz said you did.”
“She said I’d threatened to kill her,” says Georgina, smiling broadly. “I didn’t even know her. All I did was distribute a pamphlet.” Ducheny is still blocking traffic, so he reluctantly bids Georgina good-bye and drives off. “Georgina” is Georgina Lavandera, against whom Rachel Ortiz attempted to obtain a restraining order in 1981. Ortiz was upset over a pamphlet called "Por Que," which accused her of failing to support educational reform for Chicanos in the city school system and called her a vendida, a sellout. The pamphlet contained a photo of a wood-cut that depicted an apparently wealthy woman riding in a sedan chair in the background and a dead peasant lying in the foreground. Ortiz believed the image was a veiled threat to do her violence, and she requested a restraining order against Lavendera. Denise Ducheny acted as Lavendera’s lawyer and blocked the restraining order. The judge dismissed the case, which proved to be only the first of many battles between the Duchenys and Rachel Ortiz. “We felt Rachel was trying to use a sledgehammer on an ant,” says Denise Ducheny, who received $2Q0 in legal fees from Ortiz by order of the court.
“Tell me, how does it feel to have so many people hate you?” I ask Al Ducheny as he pulls onto Ocean View Boulevard from Twenty-fifth Street, heading toward Memorial Park just five blocks ahead. “It bothers me a lot that people don’t like me. I’m really a very sensitive person." He pauses for a moment. “But someone has to do the shit work.” We drive down Ocean View to Thirtieth past Memorial Park, with its numerous athletic fields and recreation center. Ducheny tells me about his campaign last summer to clean up inner-city parks. He took photographs of various parks in Southeast San Diego, which were poorly maintained, then he went to Kate Sessions Park in Pacific Beach and took pictures there. The slide show he presented to the parks and recreation department was very effective. The cleanliness of Sessions Park, in contrast with the squalor of barrio parks such as Memorial, Chicano, and Sherman, made a powerful statement concerning the city’s priorities. Ducheny pointed out that both Memorial and Sessions parks had the same annual budget of $17,000 for maintenance — in Memorial’s case an inadequate amount, since it had many times more facilities and users. The city immediately cleaned up the parks.
For several years, the Chicano Park Steering Committee had arranged for Budweiser to sponsor Chicano Park Day. The beer company paid the committee $900 for the right to install two gigantic inflatable Budweiser cans in the park. Al Ducheny didn’t like that. He complained to numerous other Chicano groups, many of which agreed it wasn’t right to have Budweiser “take over this great historical event in Chicano history,” as Ducheny puts it. At the past two celebrations, the Budweiser cans were gone.
Last summer Ducheny got himself into another controversy over alcohol, this time with a group formed to organize the first annual Fiestas Patrias (Mexican Independence Day) celebration in Memorial Park. The battleground was the Memorial Recreation Council, a citizens’ group with members from both the Chicano Park Steering Committee and the Harborview Community Council. In August of 1985, the Fiestas Patrias Committee, of which Harborview critic Rachel Ortiz was a member, proposed to the Memorial Recreation Council that Coors be allowed to sell beer at the September 16 event. A few days before the meeting, Ducheny had penned a letter to council chairman Raul Portillo, a member of the Chicano Park Steering Committee, saying that since drugs and alcohol abuse were the worst problems in the community, alcohol shouldn’t be sold in public parks. At the August meeting, Delores Magdeleno, a Harborview member who had been on the Memorial Recreation Council for years, objected to the proposal to sell beer and recommended the council ban beer consumption at all park events. Her motion passed by a vote of nine to one. As a result, Fiestas Patrias never took place.
The incident might merely have caused a few grunts of contempt for Ducheny — who, it seemed to his opponents, had now assumed the role of holier-than-thou barrio moralist — had not the Chicano newspaper La Prensa begun writing articles criticizing the Fiestas Patrias organizers. La Prensa reported that Raul Portillo had been the only person voting against the motion to ban alcohol. In fact, Portillo, as chairman, is not allowed to vote unless there is a tie. A flood of letters and phone calls followed, most of them blaming Al Ducheny for the La Prensa articles (it is common knowledge that Ducheny is a key La Prensa source). Two local priests wrote letters to Fiestas Patrias Committee chairman Jorge Marroquin expressing their support for his efforts and suggesting that Ducheny’s actions should not deter them. An angry Raul Portillo demanded a retraction from La Prensa but didn’t get one.
Ducheny wrote to acting city manager John Lockwood, complaining that Harborview members were being harassed by Rachel Ortiz and the Chicano Park Steering Committee. Ortiz, he claimed, called the wife of Harborview member Arthur Venzor several times and attempted to persuade her that the Venzors should break ties with the Harborview group. Ducheny explained that Delores Magdeleno had been mailed anti-Ducheny literature, including the 1983 Chingazo written by the Chicano Park Steering Committee, and that she had received anonymous phone calls defaming Ducheny.
And, finally, Marroquin wrote to Ducheny, accusing him of having conducted a “smear campaign” against him and Fiestas Patrias and of having “conspired with your blood brothers at La Prensa” to make Marroquin and others appear as “dupes” of Coors. Marroquin concluded: “While I should be insulted and upset, I actually feel very proud of the fact that I am another in a growing list of hard-working community people who will be attacked by you and your organization Under the circumstances there could only be great shame in being your friend!”
Ducheny was surprised by the attacks. “All I did was write a letter,” he says. “Why can’t I say I don’t want beer in public parks? Does that make me evil? The city agrees with me! Why does that letter make them so defensive?”
We’ve just driven past the apartment on L Street near Twenty-fifth, where Ducheny lived when he worked at the cannery. We turn left onto Twenty-fifth and drive one block to Imperial Avenue. On the southeast corner of the intersection is a building that looks like a supermarket, but everyone knows there are no supermarkets in Southeast San Diego. “It used to be a Safeway,” Ducheny says. “Now it’s the welfare office [Department of Social Services]. Does that tell you something about this area?” The sidewalks are full of people standing around smoking cigarettes, filing in and out of a liquor store and a video arcade, leaning idly against walls. Ducheny tells me this is the worst drug-dealing comer in the barrio. “This area is a shithole,” he says. “We don’t just want a 5.4-acre bay park. We want to get rid of the gangs and the drugs. We want to have good businesses on this street, not just bars. We want La Jolla.” Scanning the intersection at Twenty-fifth and Imperial, a slum if ever there was one, I can’t help but think this place is a French Revolution away from being La Jolla. And Ducheny knows it. “You have to ask for a lot to 'in a little,” he adds.
The conversation turns to the infamous gangs that roam the barrio. There are several city-funded youth programs in Southeast San Diego that try to reform gang members, but Ducheny doesn’t think they work. So last fall, following a one-week period that included a gang-related double murder in Memorial Park and seven violent incidents in Chicano Park, he decided to do something about it. He wrote to the district attorney and requested that a grand jury investigate the effectiveness of Chunky Sanchez’s Street Youth Program and Rachel Ortiz’s Barrio Station. Soon thereafter, a Harborview member appeared before a state senate task force and demanded that the government cut off funds allocated to the Street Youth Program. If his Fiestas Patrias coup amounted to Ducheny slapping his opponents’ wrists for being naughty, this was a full-blown kick in the groin. He was going after their livelihoods in an overt declaration of war. “The youth programs have failed miserably,” Ducheny says. “Youth violence has continued to soar. Drugs, too. The police department says the programs are great and that they’re effective. Yet the people are living in a state of siege. They’re afraid to use their own parks because gangs have taken them over.”
Sanchez dismisses Ducheny’s attacks on the barrio youth programs. “He turned it into a game where you have to validate youself,” Sanchez says. “I’ve been at this four years. I’ve been involved with Chicano Park since 1970, and I’ve worked in the barrio for years. You can’t tell me I got no business here.”
In addition to his complaint about the youth programs, Ducheny requested that the grand jury investigate the adequacy of police protection in the barrio area. Ducheny said that right in front of his office, in broad daylight, dealers were selling heroin. The grand jury cleared both the police and the youth programs, but as a result of Ducheny's demand, the police department made several sweeps of the area and, at least temporarily, cleaned out the drug dealers. It was shortly after one of the sweeps that the rocks came crashing through the Duchenys’ Logan Avenue office. The couple believe drug dealers may have thrown the rocks. “I was infringing on their livelihoods,” says Ducheny.
For his efforts, Ducheny earned himself another attack of poison penmanship. An anonymous flyer entitled ‘Attention, People of Barrio Logan” was circulated in the barrio, condemning Ducheny for initiating the grand jury investigation. ‘‘Evidently [the Duchenys] want the police to ‘swoop’ on anybody who appears to be ‘suspicious.’ That could be any Mexicano who is trying to enjoy the park.... How many of your relatives, friends, and children would be affected by ‘police harassment’ because of these snakes?” On the flyers were pictures of the Duchenys with the word ratas (“rats,” as in “snitches”) written just beneath them. “The grand jury has been accused of being racist!” the flyer said. “We will be treated like prisoners in our own community because of the Duchenys!”
We’ve made a complete tour of the barrio and end up back at Memorial Park, but this time on the opposite side, next to the Memorial Recreation Center near Twenty-eighth and Logan. Ducheny pulls into a parking lot and points to a classroom at Memorial Junior High, adjacent to the recreation center. “Last fall some kid pistol-whipped another student and opened fire in the classroom,” says Ducheny. “He put some holes in the ceiling, but no one was shot.” Ducheny spins the car around, and we’re facing the recreation center now. “See that wall,” he says, pointing to a twelve-foot-high brick wall painted beige. “Right behind it is where two execution-style murders took place about a week before the kid shot up the classroom. Gang members. Between the two of them, they took over twenty bullets.”
A few weeks after these incidents, Harborview members Delores Magdeleno and Al Johnston, a fifty-year resident of the barrio, met with Memorial Junior High principal Antonio Alfaro and proposed that the school conduct an anti-violence conference open to the community. Alfaro agreed and set a meeting to plan the event. The meeting was attended by Johnston, Magdeleno, Alfaro, sergeants Ernie Salgado and Harold Cox of the San Diego Police Department, Frank Till of the San Diego Unified School District, and Jim Lantry, a former aide to city councilman William Jones. Everyone favored holding the conference, which was to be called “Parents and Community Working Together for Improvement” Till and
Alfaro recommended Memorial Junior High as a locale. Cox offered to send Chunky Sanchez to speak about gang violence. The police sergeant assured those present that Sanchez, as a city employee, would agree to come despite his differences with A1 Ducheny, whose group was organizing the conference. Lantry said Councilman Jones would attend and deliver a talk.
The January 25 conference, attended by school superintendent Thomas Pay-zant, was a great success. About 300 residents attended seminars on gang violence, drug abuse, and crime prevention. However, neither Councilman Jones nor Sanchez was there. The latter, whose name, ironically, appeared right next to Ducheny’s on the agenda, did not attend because, he says, “I wasn't notified by anyone from Harborview.” However, twelve days before the conference, Sanchez received a letter from Antonio Alfaro that included the conference agenda with his name on it. Furthermore, he reportedly met with Alfaro and told him he wouldn't attend because he didn’t get along with Alvin Ducheny.
Evidence suggests that Ducheny's involvement with the conference kept Councilman Jones away as well. The day after the Saturday event, Alfaro told the Union that Jones’s aide (Rich Juarez) had called him Friday afternoon to say that the councilman would not attend because Al Ducheny was involved. Juarez now tells a different story. He claims that his predecessor, Lantry, who had left Jones's office before the conference took place, forgot to put the event on the calendar.
The newspaper reports following the conference reveal what everyone involved knew all along — that the school district had innocently taken what seemed like a positive step toward combating a community problem and ended up in the middle of a bitter political struggle between warring factions. Ducheny was quoted in the Union as saying that the conference responded to “frustrations of lacking power or organization. People are finally saying there is something we can do. The sense of helplessness is gone.’’ His opponents saw things differently. Rachel Ortir^ called Ducheny a “Barrio messiah getting on the soapbox with instant cures.” Chunky Sanchez said Ducheny had “prostituted the issue of crime and safety.” Alfaro reportedly received numerous telephone calls from people telling him not to hold the conference because Ducheny was a Communist and a disreputable character. In a letter written to the Union on February 16, Carlos Casteheda, head of a group called Barrio Caucus and a former employee of Ortiz, lambasted Alfaro for holding the conference and suggested that Al Ducheny was Alfaro’s “spokesman.”
Shortly after the January 25 event, Rachel Ortiz met with school officials, including superintendent Thomas Payzant, and allegedly told them that there could be “community unrest” if the school system allowed the Ducheny group to hold additional conferences. Though the school district cannot legally deny access to a community organization, a spokesman explained that schools are under no obligation to do so for free and that Memorial Junior High decided that if Harborview wanted to put on additional conferences, they would have to pay for them. Ducheny. who paid seventy-seven dollars to hold a second conference at Logan Elementary School in April, believes the school administrators buckled under pressure. “Rachel Ortiz intimidated the school district.” he says.
One observer of barrio politics sees the anti-violence campaign as “Al Ducheny starving for credibility. He is trying desperately to establish a base in the community.” Ducheny doesn’t have one today. Efforts to gain a base, such as his Sherman Unidos youth group and his work in coalition on the Barrio Unity Conference, both failed. The anti-violence conference was successful, but Ducheny’s opponents made it quite clear they would challenge Harborview's attempts to gain legitimacy. “The reason Jones and Sanchez didn't show up is that they didn't want to give me credibility; it’s as simple as that,” Ducheny says. If this was their intention, the strategy worked. The second anti-violence conference, held April 26, attracted only about fifty people, and Ducheny considered it a failure.
Chicano Federation chairman Jess Haro also points to Ducheny’s current lack of credibility, emphasizing that to date the controversial organizer has no support whatsoever from mainstream San Diego leadership. “The articles on the anti-violence conference came out in the papers, and you got the impression Ducheny is some important leader in the barrio, but he’s not. You have to be able to do it again and again. You’ve got to build a community consensus, and it takes more than rhetoric. Ducheny has got a long way to go before you can call him a constructive member of the community.”
Ducheny is hitching his wagon to the bay park issue. It has been two years since the coastal commission rejected the previous port district plan, but the issue is alive again, and Al Ducheny is right in the middle of it, armed with 1700 signatures of barrio residents favoring a 5.4-acre park. Six months ago, the port published an environmental impact report evaluating the proposed land use for the Crosby Street tideland: the latest plan allocates 3.2 acres for a park and 2.2 acres for a “marine- related industrial facility." On April 21, the Harborview Community Council invited the news media out to the bay park site, where Ducheny unveiled a model of a proposed 5.4-acre park. (Ducheny had arranged for an environmental design class at San Diego State University to make the model free of charge.) Yesterday, however, Ducheney suffered a setback when the Public Facilities and Recreation Committee, a subcommittee of the city council consisting of Abbe Wolfsheimer, Mike Gotch, and Judy McCarty (Ed Struiksma and Bill Cleator were absent) voted down a request that the 5.4-acre park proposal go to the city council for full discussion. Gotch. whose advocacy for the proposal gained McCarty’s support but was not enough to sway Wolfsheimer, suggested that the Duchenys take the issue directly to the city council themselves. The council’s recommendation could aid the Duchenys’s cause, given that it appoints three port commissioners.
Ducheny is standing in the back room of his office gazing down at the park model, complete with a soccer field, a center for environmental and public art, basketball and volleyball courts, and a kiosco. “We’re going to get the 5.4 acre park — absolutely,” says Ducheny with an optimism not shared by other barrio leaders, who are convinced that the port district will never be budged by Ducheny. “The port district has gotten so much of its money from tax revenues in this district from the shipyards and the canneries,” Ducheny argues, “then they take that money out and build parks and other facilities in Coronado and Harbor Island. They build things like the convention center for $125 million. But they can’t give the barrio — which is right in the middle of all the shipyards — a little 5.4-acre park with 500 feet of waterfront. They can’t give a little park to the people who have had to live with the noise and the pollution of these industries. It’s such a rip-off.”