Sanchez’s Legacy Honored At Eastside Fire Station
He was credited with transforming LA’s Fire Department, but event also celebrated his life of service.
By Gloria Angelina Castillo, EGP Staff Writer
An eastside businessman and activist who helped save countless lives by demanding staffing and policy changes at the Los Angeles Fire Department was honored with a recently unveiled bronze plaque at Fire Station No.1 in Lincoln Heights.
LAFD’s first Latino Fire Commissioner in modern times, Joe Sanchez, 77, listened intently to speeches delivered during the Aug. 5 ceremony held in his honor from a wheelchair in the front row of the audience, surrounded by family members, friends and admirers.
“I’m very grateful, … and I’m glad to see so many of the Hispanic community getting involved,” said Sanchez, whose spirit-filled voice belied his somewhat fragile appearance.
“We’ve done well, but we can do better and the battle is not over yet,” he said following the ceremony.
Sanchez was appointed by Mayor Tom Bradley to the Fire Commission in 1973 and served as President Pro Tem from 1973 to 1976 and Vice President from 1977 to 1978. During his term, he pushed the LA Fire Department to hire more Latinos, African Americans and Asians.
Councilmember Ed Reyes (CD-1), speaking to the crowd of more than a hundred said he hoped the plaque on the front of the firehouse, adjacent to a public walkway, would inspire people passing by.
“My hope really is that a young person who may not be feeling good that day, might be wondering about their future, …will read about Joe and be inspired because… ‘that one person, Mr. Joe Sanchez made a difference,’” and maybe I can do the same, said Reyes, who spearheaded the recognition with a resolution presented to the city council.
The plaque states that as a commissioner, Sanchez distinguished himself through his commitment to the goals of the Consent Decree, a 1974 court-ordered mandate that required the department to hire minorities, “thus reinforcing the principles of social and equal justice through the employment of all people regardless of race, color, creed or national origin.”
Under his leadership, the number of Spanish surnamed firefighters, paramedics and civilian employees in the LAFD increased from 67 to 300 and bilingual positions went from 12 to 119. The department also implemented a bilingual Emergency Training Program to teach firefighters emergency phrases in Spanish; conducted a citywide study to assure equal services to all areas of Los Angeles and published LAFD Fire Prevention brochures in Spanish for the first time.
“It is so appropriate that we take this moment to honor him not only for what he has done for our community but what he has done for the city of Los Angeles, said Reyes.
While much of the formal program focused on Sanchez’s accomplishments as fire commissioner, it was clear that the event was also a tribute to years of activism and service beyond the fire department.
Councilmember Jose Huizar (CD-14) reflected on how Sanchez’s struggles impacted his own opportunities in life.
“Joe, I was only… a little boy, running around the streets of Boyle Heights as an immigrant who came to this country from Mexico,” Huizar said. “But it was people like you who made it possible for families like mine to have a future in this country—muchisimas gracias Joe.”
Sanchez asked the difficult and controversial questions and now all Angelenos are reaping the benefit of his work, Huizar said.
Pointing to former Sen. Richard Polanco, Congressman Esteban Torres, Assemblyman and City Councilman Richard Alatorre and other former elected and appointed officials, Huizar said, “If they hadn’t lead that charge, we’d be a very different city today. We’d still be raising those issues,” Huizar said. “We have a lot more work to do.”
Councilmember Tom LaBonge (CD-4), who represents Los Feliz where Sanchez lives, said Sanchez fought for what is right and opened the doors for many people.
“Joe, think of how many promotions you made for people because you fought,” LaBonge said.
Current LA Fire Commission President Genethia Hudley-Hayes praised Sanchez, saying she, an African-American woman, would not be on the commission if it had not been for his leadership.
First District County Supervisor Gloria Molina, bearing a commendation signed by all five members of the Board of Supervisors, called Sanchez “an unbelievable mentor.”
Molina said that Sanchez was a successful businessman who did not let the business pull him away from “his own passion in liberal causes” that included making sure that Chicanos and Chicanas and all minorities were part of the system. “He has been a champion for every single one of them, and he has been a bold and aggressive fighter on our part all his life,” Molina said. “… This city would not have paramedics if Joe Sanchez hadn’t stood up that day and challenged them to do it. We have some of the best and brightest paramedics today,” she said.
Several attendees recalled Sanchez’s hosting of political fundraisers at his home and his generous support of a myriad of Chicano causes.
Gloria Alvarez, Sanchez’s eldest daughter and EGP’s managing editor, speaking on behalf of her family, recalled that when Bradley appointed her father to the commission, “it was pretty well known that his job was to go in there and raise hell.”
“When they told him a firefighter must be six-foot one-inch tall, and a firefighter must have all of these characteristics—that were really meant to exclude Mexicans… and Asians and everyone else who on average is not six-foot-one—he said ‘prove to me, show me why,’” Alvarez said.
She said people told her father that forcing the LAFD to hire more minorities would destroy the “world-class fire department” admired around the world. “…If you require that we take in minorities… we are not going to be that anymore.
“I would challenge these firefighters who are here today, don’t you think you’re still that world class fire department?” Alvarez said, turning to the firefighters from the Lincoln Heights station.
Alvarez said there were a few brave people in the LAFD who gave her father information and guidance to help him in his endeavor to transform the department.
“It was understood that things were not going to stay the same, that the city of Los Angeles… was going to have firefighters that knew if someone was getting ready to jump off a roof during a fire, that they knew how to tell them in Spanish to stay there, to stop, to tell them what they needed to do to save their lives, rather than just standing there helpless and watching these people’s lives be taken needlessly,” she said.
Alvarez also recalled that when her parents moved their family from El Sereno to Los Feliz, they were probably the only Mexican Americans in the neighborhood. She said one of the first things her parents did 40 years ago was hold a fundraiser for the Brown Berets, as they prepared for the Chicano Moratorium, “soon there after we had legions of farm workers walking up and down the street because Cesar Chavez was in town to stay with our family,” Alvarez said.
She said her father believed that you had to take people out of their neighborhood and expose them to different things so they would aspire to more. He would say, “…People can’t want what they don’t know.”
“And so Dad, everyone here is very proud of you,” she said fighting her emotions.
Alvarez said her father wanted the audience to ask themselves, “What are you doing to create change? What are you doing to help the next generation?”
Sanchez was involved in many other areas, beyond his work with the Fire Commission. His eldest son Joe Sanchez, III told EGP that his father took him to the Chicano Moratorium under the guise of going out to lunch and checking their stores as they did every Sunday after church. Sanchez recognized many of his father’s friends at the event and jokingly said he felt like they’d be pulling out picket signs at some point because that’s how he remembers them.
Joe said his father’s activism resulted in some unique memories. “I didn’t even know what a grape was for I don’t know how long, I found them in a fruit salad one time… He was close to Cesar Chavez” and supported the UFW’s grape boycott. He also recalled visits from Chavez and coming home to police cars in his front yard. “[I] had to show ID to get in, and we had these two dogs ‘boycott’ and ‘huelga’ running back and forth…”
Michael Sanchez, another of Sanchez’s sons, told EGP his father was an excellent role model. “He instilled a lot of pride and self-esteem for us to do better for ourselves and the community,” he said, adding it is a lesson that should be followed by others.
Sarah Ramos, Sanchez’s daughter, fought back tears of joy when the plaque was unveiled.
“[I’m] just [happy] that he’s getting the recognition for his work and struggles,” she said. “What they described is the life I led, that I remember growing up,” she said.
Sanchez’s youngest daughter Erica Hinthorne told EGP she is grateful her father was recognized during his lifetime.
“I’m glad my kids got to see the Joe Sanchez that the world knows,” Hinthorne said, noting that her boys had never seen him under the spotlight of all his achievements.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told EGP in a written statement: “At a time when the Latino community was under-represented in the Los Angeles Fire Department, Joe Sanchez was the man who boldly stood up and cultivated a culture within the LAFD that represented and understood the community it served. The plaque in his honor is a fitting tribute to this true pioneer.”Print This Post
August 12, 2010 Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.