Jaime Piña: Honoring the Legacy

At 80, 'Mr. El Centro' has piled up a lifetime of accolades.

By Gloria Alvarez, EGP Managing Editor

Turning 80 is in itself a milestone, but in the case of Jaime Piña, rock formation might be a better description.

It’s a truer reflection of the rock hard strength many say they’ve counted on from Piña through the years, and a legacy that has already endured the test of time.

On Saturday, family, friends, past and present co-workers, elected officials and other dignitaries will pay tribute to Piña during a grand birthday celebration.

They will celebrate the many milestones along his journey from the Chinatown neighborhood where he grew up, to ex-felon pardoned by California’s first Gov. Brown, Edmund P, to community activist, international entrepreneur and businessman.


No stranger to hard times and seemingly overwhelming challenges, Jimmy, as many of his friends call him, has spent a lifetime helping others overcome adversity. Many credit him with being the prime architect of the movement to create programs to help ex- convicts and drug addicts on Los Angeles’ eastside turn their lives around, to re-engage with their families and community in a positive way.

Known for years as “Mr. El Centro,” Piña’s understanding of the complex nature of drugs and it’s harmful impact not just on the individual but the community as a whole led him to adopt innovative, some would say unorthodox, methods for reaching out to addicts and ex-cons.

“Jaime did it at a time when most people only saw the rough and tough edges, and jail or the morgue as where these guys should wind up,” recalls Jonathan Sanchez, Associate Publisher of Eastern Group Publications, parent company of this newspaper, which reported on Piña’s work.

“He would bring in these scary looking guys, fresh out of prison, and push them to be accountable for their sobriety and actions, and then get them to do the same with the guys coming out after them. It was amazing what he did,” Sanchez said.

Piña’s imprint can still be found in some of the Eastside’s longest running social service programs in Boyle Heights, including El Centro de Ayuda and the Hollenbeck Youth Center, both dedicated to improving outcomes for local youth.

Mr. E Centro, Jaime Piña (first row center) and members of the eastside 'Old Timers.'

Mr. E Centro, Jaime Piña (first row center) and members of the eastside ‘Old Timers.’

His work in the drug abuse and prevention area is legendary, and includes a decade long stint (1967-1976) with the Narcotics Prevention Program in L.A, followed by work with Raza Ayudate in East L.A., the Venice Drug Coalition and as the program director and force behind El Centro’s Substance Abuse Program in Boyle Heights and what would later become El Centro de Ayuda.

“Usually people will not be involved until drugs enter their lives. Then they become concerned and that’s one of the problems,” said Piña during an interview with the Eastside Sun in 1980 when he was program director for El Centro’s Substance Abuse Program. Later, as president of the Boyle Heights Kiwanis Club, he pushed for strong support and funding for programs to keep young people from getting involved in drugs and gangs in the first place.

“Jaime’s approach was un-traditional,” recalls Raul Estrada, who took over as executive director of El Centro de Ayuda following Piña’s departure to the private sector.

“He would recruit these guys right out of prison to come in and get trained to work as case managers,” said Estrada, telling EGP, “Jaime was my mentor, is my life long mentor” still to this day.

Estrada said Piña saw the potential in people they did not see in themselves. He recognized that though they might not have “school smarts, they were street smart, and who better to reach out to other ex-felons and addicts than ex-felons and former drug addicts.”

They became the Old Timers Group, “guys with names like ‘Robert the Crow,’ throwbacks whose word was as good as gold, just like Jaime’s,” Estrada said, calling his mentor a “gentleman’s gentleman.”

“The thing about Jaime is he would listen, to every side, and let you try different things to see what worked. He was extremely patient.”

Some of the college-educated case workers and program bureaucrats didn’t get it and were put off, but his strategy produced results, say people who worked with him.

“Jimmy was a visionary, he did a lot of things that were non-traditional,” recalls Danny Trejo, former caseworker turned film actor and restaurateur.

“If it weren’t for Jimmy, a lot of the programs wouldn’t have survived,” said Trejo, noting that he was the first person Piña hired from the San Fernando Valley to work as a narcotics prevention counselor.

“You have to understand there weren’t a lot of programs like El Centro, “ said Trejo, describing Piña’s work as a “trial pilot program” in the drug abuse prevention world.

He said El Centro survived when many other programs were being cut because Piña was well respected on the street and in City Hall.

26th Annual Old Timer's Breakfast.

26th Annual Old Timer’s Breakfast.

“He was credible and knew how to act on the street, but was political enough to move in the circles with local politicians, senators, and even go to the court and stand up and say, ‘Judge, this man deserves another chance,’ and the judge would listen,” Trejo told EGP.

“He was an honorable man, respected on both sides.”

When Jaime left El Centro to start a telecommunications company with his wife Sandy Piña, he didn’t forget about his community, says Danny Hernandez, executive director of the Hollenbeck Youth Center. To this day, the couple still supports the center, helping to fund its Annual Inner City Games.

Hernandez recalls that Piña, like him, was a product of the Chicano Movement, and they lived by the mantra that “you take the mission and you carry it on your back, making sure you follow through – the job’s not done until it’s done,” he said.

Like Estrada, Hernandez says Piña is an incredible listener, who will make decisions based on what he hears from all sides.

“Jaime was very loyal and his handshake meant something. Sometimes he would just give ‘the nod, or ‘the eye,’ and it was understood” that there was agreement.

The 1970s and ‘80s were challenging times in Boyle Heights, says Hernandez. The problems with drugs and gangs were big and the funding for programs would die out, Hernandez recalled. But Jaime, and the small mom and pop nonprofits, they would get knocked down and get right back up, Hernandez said.

“Jaime understood the importance of working together as a community, to bring together service organizations and the chambers [of commerce] to expand the base,” Hernandez added.

Jaime and Sandy’s support has helped keep us going, he says appreciatively, calling the couple “good friends.”

Jaime and Sandy have been married for 40 years, but theirs is more than just a marriage, it’s a partnership in everything they do, including starting a paging company in Tijuana, Mexico at the start of NAFTA that earned high praise from the Clinton Administration. Their success would eventually cause them to fall prey to the drug cartels and force them to start over again in the U.S., but it would in no way be their defeat.

“It was hard starting over, but I have a lot of energy and I’m not afraid to try new things,” Sandy told EGP.

“Six-months later I was given the opportunity to try something new,” and with Jaime at my side, counseling me, putting his keen eye on the details, we’ve gone from a startup in a garage to becoming RCR Companies, a $70 million a year human resource and payroll company doing business in 17 states with over 10,000 employees, Sandy said.

“I see things Jaime doesn’t see, and he sees things I might miss, we’re perfect together that way,” she said.

Sandy, who is RCR’s chairman of the board, says the couple is a team. Jaime is head of safety compliance and despite having undergone major health challenges and surgeries over the last 4 years, he still shows up to work every day.

“I’m the pilot and he’s my co-pilot,” she said, pointing out that he’s extremely resilient, a role model and mentor to many.

Nephew Mike Vasquez also works at RCR and says what he admires most about his uncle is his tremendous patience and wisdom, especially considering the strong personalities of clients he deals with: “He never loses his cool,” says Vasquez in awe.

To the Piñas’ grandson, Jake Rodriguez, Jaime is “a man of wisdom.”

“My grandpa has a way with people … he’s masterful at what he does,” says Jake, who also works at RCR.

“He’s made a difference in so many people’s lives, in my life, everyone loves my grandpa.”

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November 3, 2016  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.


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