East L.A.'s loss is personal

Times Staff Writer

For all of Doris Robles’ 70 years, James A. Garfield High School has stood as the center of her life: the place where she graduated 52 years ago, where her mother was PTA president, where eight children and three grandchildren were educated and where she still spends much of her time as a volunteer.

For Robles and others in her East Los Angeles community, the destruction of the school’s historic 1,500-seat auditorium in a suspicious weekend fire is like the loss of their own property or even an appendage.

The school has been “like a second home to me, somewhere where I always felt safe,” Robles said Monday, standing in front of the building as Los Angeles County Fire Department officials sorted through the debris.


Many in the community felt a reverential attachment to the ornate auditorium, built in 1925. It was a symbol of promise for many East L.A. residents.

It was also most students’ introduction to the school. They remember the paneled ceiling, the green-hued chandeliers made of Depression-era glass and the elaborate plastered molding. They recall the feel of the rounded handcrafted wooden seats and of sitting through graduations, plays and awards ceremonies.

Robles was at home Sunday morning when she received a call from her brother in Sylmar, who was watching the fire on television. “Doris, your Garfield is burning,” he said. She thought he was joking until she looked out of her window and saw black smoke and flames rising from the school a few blocks away.

School officials said that many of the historic architectural features lost in the blaze are irreplaceable and that it is unlikely the auditorium can be rebuilt to its original splendor. But even as ruins smoldered, the school community was vowing to move forward.

The school was shuttered Monday, but classes were to resume today for about 3,500 students. State standardized testing that was to have begun today will be postponed, Principal Omar Mario Del Cueto said.

Fire investigators were trying to determine the cause of the three-alarm blaze and have said it is suspicious. The inside of the auditorium was gutted, its roof caved in and walls charred. Some chandeliers were blackened; the wooden seats burned. The stage and the scene loft were destroyed.

Several classrooms in the main building were damaged. Losses are estimated at $30 million: -- $20 million to the structure and $10 million to contents, said Ed Lozano, an inspector with the county Fire Department.

Outside of East L.A., Garfield High is perhaps most famous for the exploits of former math teacher Jaime Escalante and his group of award-winning inner-city students chronicled in the 1988 movie “Stand and Deliver.” Escalante now lives in Bolivia but was on a road trip from Sacramento to Los Angeles on Monday when he heard about the fire.

“I feel very bad to hear that, after being at Garfield for many years,” he said. “Garfield became one of the best schools in the nation, so it’s very sad news to hear.”

Escalante, 76, left the school 15 years ago but said he would be glad to participate in fundraising efforts to rebuild the auditorium and said he would invite friends, including “Stand and Deliver” actors Edward James Olmos and Lou Diamond Phillips, to help.

He recalled that his classroom, MH1, or Music Hall 1, was in front of the auditorium. He said he took advantage of the auditorium for “political use,” mounting special programs for Cinco de Mayo and Folklorico in which the entire community participated, selling candy to passersby to raise money for advanced placement tests. “I have a lot of good memories,” he said.

Librarian teacher Jeffrey Garcia recalled that during the filming of the movie, the school was used for only one scene because it bucked the stereotype of the typical run-down inner-city school.

“They filmed at other locations because it was too clean, too well-kept,” said Garcia, the school archivist.

Garcia said that the last event held in the auditorium was a May 11 student assembly with a “Pirates of the Caribbean” theme to motivate students about upcoming state standardized tests. The last play was “Suessical the Musical,” held earlier this month. The school’s grand piano, usually kept in the music room, was moved to the auditorium for the play and lost in the fire, Garcia said.

The nucleus of the band Los Lobos was made up of Garfield graduates, and band member Cesar Rosas recalled the auditorium as a focal point for student musicians.

“It was a meeting place for us kids involved in music and where we tried to get our band up and running,” Rosas said. “On top of that, it’s a shame because it’s one of those old schools that’s got that vibe, with the architecture and lot of great memories.”

The auditorium was visited by such dignitaries as then-Vice President George H.W. Bush and then-Sen. John Glenn of Ohio. Its alumni include an array of politicians, actors, comedians, musicians, artists and sports figures, including comic Carlos Mencia and boxer Oscar De La Hoya.

The school has loyal alumni. Thousands return every year for the Bulldogs football game against archrival Roosevelt High in Boyle Heights.

Ellen Chapa, class of ’72 and a board member of the alumni association, said former students have been calling, concerned about the school and ready to offer support.

“There is so much love for the school, and hopefully their hearts are still here,” Chapa said.

The school has nurtured the dreams of generations of students in a community often beset by hardship.

“For many of our students, we were the most stable place in their lives, an island of certainty in a sea of violence,” Del Cueto said. “My job is to bring that stability and predictability back as quickly as possible.”

That is also important for Manuel Alcon, 15, a 10th-grader who had been expecting to attend an awards ceremony for his Junior ROTC program in the auditorium; he is disappointed that he won’t get to see the space again as it once was.

“When I first stepped into the school, the auditorium was the first building I went into with my mom and family,” Manuel said.

“I looked at the inside and at the chandeliers, and it wasn’t like nothing I had ever seen before. It had a lot of memories for me.”