Field of Uprooted Dreams
How, in the billow of a picnic blanket, do you tell the children about the old country, about the villages buried under that mighty hill?
On Saturday, Los Desterrados--The Uprooted--will return to Chavez Ravine, where bulldozers knocked down the last of their homes to make way for Dodger Stadium 40 years ago. Their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will gather for an anniversary picnic in the old neighborhood park. Together, they will face the lonesome hills and imagine:
This was a place for the generations, they thought, for families who fled the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s--and loved both the jitterbug and Zapotecan dance. Look, mira, Lou Santillan was born at third base, at his old family home. His umbilical cord was buried there, a Mexican tradition, long before the Brooklyn Dodgers moved west.
In the ‘30s and ‘40s, on those hills of 1,000 residents, mothers whispered the folk tale of La Llorona, a roaming ghost who wept for her dead baby. Still, the boys would sneak out under the starlight, in the days before the city lights and smog stole its beauty. They might gather a handful of wildflowers--wild onion, daisies and lupine--and grab a guitar to serenade the girls.
“I just wish my sons and daughters would have experienced it,” says Alfred Zepeda, 61, of Cypress Park. “I tell them about it, but there’s just no way to really feel a neighborhood like that. I’ve traveled all over the country, and I have not found it.”
They worry, the over-60 crowd, how history will treat them. Does anyone remember the chain of events that began 50 years ago and led to the destruction of their barrio? Will Dodger Stadium--with its swaying palm trees and perpetual light--seduce a new generation of fans who will never know what stood on that ground first?
Will their children forget the story of their chaotic final days, when the neighbors raced to beat the bulldozers to the parish church? There, they swaddled el santo nino--the Christ child statue--in soft cloth, and organized a pilgrimage to the local mission, San Conrado. The statue is still there.
The old-timers are hurrying again now, to leave behind one more bit of history. Twenty years ago, they hit on an idea to commission a statue of their parish priest. In their minds, Father Thomas Matin worked miracles in Chavez Ravine that Sandy Koufax could never equal.
Maybe they could talk the Dodgers into erecting the statue near the stadium. Maybe a sculptor could donate some time, and with the $10,000 raised so far, they would live to see this happen.
Every picnic, they pass the hat for Father Matin. The occasional reunions started more than 20 years ago, after Santillan decided the ex-neighbors should reunite for more than just weddings, baptisms and funerals.
And every picnic, the neighbors of the late Chavez Ravine look at the sparkling ballpark and tell the next generation, this is where you come from. Remember, outsiders sneered at the place as a slum, expendable, without understanding that a lack of riches was no barrier to joy.
Aurora Fernandez understood what she had in those hills. Her family, the Arechigas, ignored the eviction notices, and on May 9, 1959, sheriff’s deputies arrived to force them out.
She was a 38-year-old widow when the deputies dragged her from her childhood home, in front of news photographers and TV cameras. She screamed and struggled but maintains that she never kicked the deputies, who had grabbed her arms and legs. She spent 30 days in jail and paid a $500 fine for battery.
Look, Fernandez will tell the kids at the picnic, and they will listen because the Pico Rivera resident speaks with the authority of a 78-year-old great-grandmother. From a bag, she will pull out a short-sleeve shirt and white capri pants. This is what I wore when I was hauled out of my house.
You can still see the blood.
Walter O’Malley’s Deal
In the mid-1950s, one story goes, Walter O’Malley took a helicopter ride with a courting Los Angeles County supervisor, spotted what looked like a bunch of goat farms on a hill and a geographic gold mine--all major highways seemed to converge at the spot. He asked: “Can I have that?” Of course, ambitious Los Angeles officials said.
In another story, O’Malley stopped at a map store so a taxi driver could find his way to a place called Chavez Ravine. O’Malley later described the place as a collection of “old dirt roads . . . old tin cans and junk.”
In any case, the city cut a deal with O’Malley. He would give them a decrepit 9-acre ball field that he owned in South-Central Los Angeles. (The city razed it in 1964.) The city would clear the 315-acre Chavez Ravine and turn it over to O’Malley.
By April 1962, the Brooklyn Dodgers had a new home.
The next season, the Los Angeles Dodgers won the World Series, and residents exploded with major league pride. Los Angeles acted like a city for the first time, one reporter wrote of the celebration. The victory had no room for the late Chavez Ravine.
The place was doomed, even before O’Malley saw it.
In 1949, residents got word that they would be evicted for a federal housing project. Hundreds of families moved away. But the proposal fell through, the city bought the land back and cinched the deal with O’Malley.
Twenty families in Chavez Ravine refused to accept the city’s buyout offer, and angry city officials started calling the place a slum. Even now, one local public library files pictures of the clapboard homes under the heading: L.A. Slums--Chavez Ravine.
The old neighbors called part of it Palo Verde, or Green Tree, and the other two neighborhoods were La Loma and Bishop. The three villages had paved roads and street lights, and three little grocery stores.
Once, Palo Verde wanted to take over Bishop, and two men decided to settle the thing in the old-fashioned way. The fight was clean--fists and feet only--and Manazar Gamboa was 8 when he saw his neighborhood, Bishop, keep its independence.
Now Gamboa is 65, and the author of an epic poem, “Memories Around a Bulldozed Barrio.” The fight turned into a piece of performance art for him. He has told the story on stage in Los Angeles, with a swirling flamenco dancer, beautiful and fierce, like his barrio.
Pachuco, he tells the Chicano gang kids who join his writing workshops, it was no slum.
It was no yellow brick road, either.
Of the 31 kids from Palo Verde in Esther Rodarte’s grammar school class, only four--including herself--graduated from high school. Yes, the families got low-balled for their houses, she says, but in the long run, the evictions pushed their kids onto a new track.
“Now I think it possibly was the best thing that could have happened,” says Rodarte, 76, of Lincoln Heights. “A lot of the young people wouldn’t have had a chance to get educated or get out of the neighborhood. We were very sheltered.”
Back then, a kid who stole a car radio might get by with only the wrath of Father Matin, a stern but kind man, bald and wiry with round glasses. He baptized most of them and gave last rites to their loved ones. Matin was German but spoke Spanish so well that no one noticed. The kids knew that if they got hauled to the local police station, he would get wind before their parents and show up, saying, thank you, officers, I will handle this.
The kids woke the priest up at 4 a.m. on his birthday every year with “Las Mananitas.” He would be ready, with sweet breads, hot chocolate, and maybe a sip of blessed wine for the older ones. Santillan, 64, still tips his hat when he drives by San Gabriel Mission, where Matin is buried.
Santillan grew up with boys who hung out at the nearby Los Angeles Police Academy and, from the shooting range, filched slugs for their slingshots. No one watched for snakes or scorpions when shooting down the hills on cardboard slides or 2-by-4s, jimmied up with wheels taken from bread carts. Grandmothers stuck wads of spider’s web on their cuts, a stinging Mexican folk remedy that worked better than medicine.
Neighbors kept goats that mowed the grassy hills, and sheep in their backyards. On weekends, Santillan’s father barbecued cabeza de borrego, lamb heads.
“I didn’t know I was in the U.S. until junior high school,” Santillan jokes.
At Saturday’s picnic, he and his compadre, Tony Montez, will play the Mexican folk music that their fathers once played at neighborhood parties, where the men moved the furniture to back rooms and kept a front room clear for dancing and a keg of homemade brew.
Montez, a retired truck driver, stands across the street from Dodger Stadium on a recent afternoon but does not see the ballpark. This is what he sees:
His house was there, just past the chain-link fence, with cactus in the front yard. He lived next door to his first cousin, who almost became a nun. On the other side was a man who used to sell ice off of a horse and buggy in El Paso. One neighbor was old, a grandmother, who stayed inside and prayed all day until her grandson, a boxer, made it home.
Another neighbor, a baker, walked the streets with boxes of homemade bread for 3 cents a piece. Montez is 69 now, and he can still hear the man’s cry: “Pan Mexicano!” He will never look at the stadium without the sounds of his barrio coming back, the smell of the sweet, warm bread in his head. He is not angry anymore but cannot sit in the place, either, without squirming, even though he’s a baseball fan.
Some of his ex-neighbors will not spend a dime in the place, even though there’s a new owner, media magnate Rupert Murdoch.
Juan Santillan, Lou’s brother, and now a priest, won’t go to the ballpark. In 1987, the city’s priests were invited to Pope John Paul II’s address at Dodger Stadium. Father Santillan had to say no.
They Threw Tomatoes
Thirty-seven years ago, the grand opening of Dodger Stadium was a triumphant affair, except perhaps for the splat of tomatoes in the outfield.
At age 15, Virginia Pinedo-Bye did not want the day to go unsullied, not after she had watched the last of her neighbors pulled from Chavez Ravine. She and a girlfriend plucked the ripest tomatoes from her father’s garden and carried them down the street to the stadium. They pitched the tomatoes over a fence and yelled, and then there was nothing left to do but walk back to the disquiet of Solano Canyon. The neighborhood, northeast of the stadium, was far enough to survive the bulldozers but close enough to hear them when they came for Los Desterrados.
Pinedo-Bye still lives in Solano. Through the Solano Community Assn., she’s organizing an effort to document the history of the area and record the oral histories of the Chavez Ravine families. Solano’s kids grow up hearing about the missing hunk of neighborhood.
“Our community is still there. The houses are just buried under a stadium,” says Pinedo-Bye, who will embrace old friends at Saturday’s picnic. “The [ties] didn’t die.”
She put her tomato-throwing days behind her and now tries to work with the Dodgers. Each year, the Dodgers contribute tens of thousands of dollars to local community causes and work with leaders in neighborhoods, including Solano, on summer reading programs, ticket giveaways, school visits and other events, says Monique R. Brandon, the Dodgers’ public affairs director.
In 1981, former Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley dropped by a meeting organized by the Chavez Ravine families to talk about the proposed statue for Father Matin. But nobody wanted to ask the son of Walter O’Malley for anything.
“We were too proud to go and ask someone who had nothing to do with the taking of our parents’ land,” Lou Santillan says.
Instead, the families will pull together, the way they did in the old days of Chavez Ravine.
“I wish I could live there now,” says Dolores Klimenko, 52. “I wish my kids could feel the way I felt then, to play around the way I played around.”
The other day, she and her family watched a TV news clip of the former Chavez Ravine. The clip showed sheriff’s deputies carrying away her mother, Aurora Fernandez, from the family home.
Klimenko burst into tears and could not stop. Her grandchildren looked at her in amazement. They did not understand.
Her kids have come to other picnics, but maybe not this time. They think it’s boring.
Lou Santillan and other picnic organizers expect a big turnout, with Saturday’s event marking the anniversary of the first evictions for the proposed housing project and the final ones for the building of Dodger Stadium.
On Friday night, some of the former residents will meet in the park and straighten the place up for the picnic. They will sweep away the dead eucalyptus trees and wait for the next day.
* Renee Tawa can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.