Our Town: A quiet hero | April 16, 2008 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Notes & Comments - April 16, 2008

Our Town: A quiet hero

by Don Kazak

Marina Latu doesn't like to talk about herself or to take credit for what she has done or the change that it has effected.

That isn't a matter of her just being humble or shy. It's a deeply imbedded Tongan cultural trait.

Latu recently was named a "local hero" by the Midpeninsula Community Media Center in Palo Alto for the February 2007 unity and peace march and rally she organized. The event drew a thousand people to the streets of East Palo Alto after a particularly troubling time when there were many shootings and several young people killed.

Two of them were Pacific Islanders, and that's partly why Latu got involved.

"I just got tired of it, hearing the stories of what was going on in the Islander community," she said.

One incident was particularly tragic for the Islander community: Two young women got into a fight and their respective boyfriends tried to come their rescue. One shot his girlfriend dead, and the other wounded his girlfriend.

All were Pacific Islanders.

"It was like, 'You killed us,'" Latu said.

"It's hard for them to open up and I still don't know what happened," Latu said.

"The people shooting at each other, they were all friends."

The peace march and rally quieted the Islander community.

"I wanted their parents to be involved, to let them know that this is not acceptable," Latu said. "I called them out."

Family is everything in the Tongan culture.

"You are judged by your family," Latu said. "What I do reflects on my family."

Latu is reluctant to talk about herself but others have recognized her contributions to the community where she grew up.

"People saw they weren't alone," Police Chief Ron Davis said of the march and rally. It helped unite people to say, "Violence is not acceptable." Latu "is very committed and a tenacious organizer," he said.

The rally has produced a spillover effect, with young people continuing to organize and work together.

"It has ignited a wonderful kind of fire in the community," Faye McNair-Knox, executive director of One East Palo Alto, said. The nonprofit agency was the financial sponsor of the march and rally.

Now 30, Latu works at Stanford and is also a student at De Anza Community College as a hopeful documentary filmmaker.

Latu was a freshman at Menlo-Atherton High School in 1991, just before a year that everyone in East Palo Alto would sooner forget. There were 42 homicides in East Palo Alto in 1992, mostly drug dealers killing each other.

"There were sirens at night, the sound of police helicopters — that was normal," Latu said. She and her friends would learn to differentiate the sounds of police car sirens from ambulances and fire trucks.

"I know people who were shot, who died," she said. "My high school years were so crazy. Those things affected me."

Things have greatly quieted down in East Palo Alto since then, but there are still shootings.

Latu is part of a group of people who went to high school together. Some have gone off to college and returned.

"We're all hitting 30 this year," she said. Several friends work in East Palo Alto non-profit agencies, and one is preparing to run for the East Palo Alto City Council this fall.

It's a generation of East Palo Alto former kids, from the most troubled of that city's times, who are digging in and trying to make the city better.

"People came back and wanted to make a difference," she said.

It's a hopeful sign for the future of a city that has had far too many tragedies over the years.

Latu hopes to go to film school at UCLA after completing her studies at De Anza, but she knows she will never be far from what's happening in her home town.

"There's a lot of development and new buildings," Latu said. "But the people aren't developing like the landscape is.

"Too many kids are giving up."

Senior Staff Writer Don Kazak can be e-mailed at dkazak@paweekly.com.


Like this comment
Posted by Gerald Wen
a resident of Stanford
on Apr 16, 2008 at 2:33 pm

You go Marina - we're so proud of you here!

Like this comment
Posted by Lorraine
a resident of Stanford
on Apr 16, 2008 at 2:46 pm

Very nice, Marina. More power to you!

Like this comment
Posted by jr
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 16, 2008 at 2:46 pm

<Latu was a freshman at Menlo-Atherton High School in 1991, just before a year that everyone in East Palo Alto would sooner forget. There were 42 homicides in East Palo Alto in 1992, mostly drug dealers killing each other.>

I hope the current violent crime emergency in EPA is not a sign of a return to 1990.

Anyway this young womans efforts are courageous and I congratulate her

Well done!

Like this comment
Posted by Heidi Chen
a resident of Stanford
on Apr 16, 2008 at 5:25 pm

You are awesome, Marina!! Way to go!!!

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