Manuel has lived in Koreatown since the 1970s. He used to run a bus service that brought visitors from Koreatown to the Nevada state line casinos. After he was audited by the IRS, Manuel came to KYCC’s Low Income Taxpayer Clinic (LITC), a service that provides free legal tax representation to low-income taxpayers residing in Los Angeles County. Here, he talks about how KYCC helped him through that financial tough time, and some of his reminiscences of Koreatown past. 

Where is your hometown?

I am an only child from an immigrant family from Cuba. I’m from Havana and my parents are from the countryside. In 1975, we left the island. We left our citizenship behind and went to Madrid, Spain, where we spent a year.

I grew up Catholic and under Castro, you couldn’t practice religion. But people who were devout Catholics would still sneak into the church. That feeling of sneaking into the church—it’s like my parents instilling in me the love of God. I was baptized and had my First Communion. When I was in Madrid, my aunt went to the Archdiocese of New York and said, “Look at this young man—even though he came from a Communist country, he practiced religion.” I got a refugee visa. I was 11.

When I landed in New York, I left my parents across the pond. So then we went and got my parents. Within seven days, we were all expedited—look at this compared to our policy today. My parents would have died then if we had the politics of today. What happens affects me a lot—I watch a lot of news. Sometimes I have to stop because it makes me angry and frustrated. This is wrong. I feel it strongly because I went through that situation.

So when we first came to the States, we lived uptown [in Manhattan].  A year later when I was 13, my family moved to Los Angeles, right here in Koreatown. I grew up here. I went to Berendo Junior High and L.A. High.

Do you live or work in Koreatown?

I still live in Koreatown! It’s “north” Koreatown, near Beverly and Vermont.

What are your thoughts on Koreatown?

Koreans have been a blessing that fell onto this area, because this area was going really bad. When we first moved here in 1977, it was okay. I felt safe as a child, but when I went to Berendo Junior High—that’s what it was called back then—there were gang problems, like the Korean Killers, 18th Street, all over the place. By the ‘80s, there was an infestation of gangs and crime. It kept getting worse and worse and I didn’t feel safe. You could hear the gunshots in the middle of the night.

One time, I thought I was going to end up in a fight with some Latinos, but when I told them I was Cubaño and spoke Spanish, that deflated the situation.

Now, this place is beautiful and peaceful. The culture, cleanliness, civility, and safety is all beautiful. I attribute this to the Korean culture and upbringing. Koreans are very smart and warm people. There’s something about the sense of respect for oneself, and knowing where you come from and where you’re going. There’s also a level of openness with Korean people. And the food is amazing—they feed the heck out of you.

How did KYCC help you?

In the ’90s, I was a school bus driver. My mom was one of those ladies that loved to go to casinos with a large group of friends. She pushed me to get a bus to go to Vegas. Eventually, around 2000, we got a real bus and we started doing trips to the state line. Right where you cross into Nevada from California, you can see the line of lights—the casinos. But I was not smart about the IRS. My father used to own a store that sold religious articles and he would report whatever he wanted to at the end of the year. I didn’t realize that the casinos were reporting my 1099s.

In 2004, the IRS caught up with me and said I needed to look at what I was doing. I was filing, but I was misreporting. It’s completely obvious—it’s almost embarrassing to talk about—but I didn’t have a business mind. I was sitting on $30,000 of debt, and life took a hard turn. The 2008 recession affected me and my family—during this time, my parents passed away and I sunk into a depression. The mortgage fell behind and in Christmas 2012, I was evicted from the house. I went homeless for awhile, living out of my car.

A good friend let me stay with him. I got my footing and I did all the paperwork for subsidized housing in Koreatown. The day they gave me the key was bittersweet. The house I lost was in the same neighborhood and from the room I live in now, I can see the building where my mom was hospitalized. It makes me emotional.

I started researching legal help and I got referred to KYCC’s LITC program, where I met Joanne. (Joanne Kim is KYCC’s Managing Attorney.) She brought my debt down to $300. Three weeks later, the IRS told me my case was closed. I cannot be more joyous, more grateful, more blessed. The KYCC staff here was so friendly and professional, and I felt taken care of. Joanne is amazing—her professionalism is just incredible. The stack of paperwork was so thick and it made it easy for the IRS to approve it. It was beautiful work!

Where is your favorite place in Koreatown?

On the southeast corner of Olympic and Western, there used to be a Ralphs. I remember walking there from Kingsley sometime in ’78-‘79 and seeing an actual shooting. It was an 18th Street killing. We basically saw him die; we were right there; he was young. It was traumatizing to see the blood spurting from his chest. I felt like we didn’t belong here anymore.

Now when I go through that area, I see how beautiful it is and I just reminisce. It’s a corner that reminds me that hope exists and things can change for the better—every time I pass that corner I think about that.

My second favorite place is 7th Street, because that was the first time I saw a movie star—Redd Foxx. He pulled over in a limo and said hi to us. Now it’s a beautiful area. Every time I go to that area I have the memory of seeing him.