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Column: People came by to pay final respects to this East L.A. tree that went Hollywood. Too soon?

People take selfies with their cellphones in front of a large pine tree
Claudia Alva and her boyfriend Daniel Lopez traveled from Santa Fe, N.M., to take a selfie Thursday in front of the tree in East Los Angeles known as “El Pino,” after rumors it would be removed.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

There are April Fools’ pranks, and then there’s the whopper unwittingly unleashed this week by Mexico City resident Gibran Duarte on the most famous tree in East Los Angeles.

He and his friend run a Facebook and Instagram account devoted to “Blood In, Blood Out,” a 1993 film about three childhood friends from the neighborhood who grow up to be a prison boss, an artist and a police officer.

A disappointment at the box office when first released, the film has gained cult status in the ensuing decades for its themes of honor and family. But its breakout star didn’t turn out to be Benjamin Bratt or Danny “Machete” Trejo, or even Billy Bob Thornton.

Instead, it was a towering bunya tree on the corner of Folsom and Indiana streets nicknamed “El Pino” — the Pine. A leitmotif that symbolized stability for the film’s protagonists, it now lives a second life as an international ambassador for East Los.

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A woman holds a girl so she can look through a chain link fence
Maria Paola Hernandez lifts her niece Marissa Rojas, 5, to peek through a hole in a fence to see the tree in East Los Angeles known as “El Pino,” which was featured in Taylor Hackford’s 1993 film “Blood In, Blood Out.”
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

People from around the world come to bask in its fame. They take photos and crane their necks up to stare at El Pino’s unique canopy of branches whose thorny leaves flare out like fireworks and taper off at the top in the shape of a rocket ship.

Duarte wanted to be one of those tourists this year, but COVID-19 travel restrictions stopped that dream. Instead, he concentrated on his Facebook page’s regular stream of “Blood In, Blood Out” memories and memes.

And that’s where the prank comes in.

On Monday, Duarte posted a photo of El Pino and a caption that claimed a developer had bought the fenced-off lot on which the tree stood and planned to chop it down within weeks. The 26-year-old figured that people would get it was a joke, because Monday was the Día de los Inocentes (Feast of the Holy Innocents), a Catholic holiday that’s the equivalent of April 1 across Latin America.

People didn’t get the joke. (Because, honestly, how many people outside Latin America know there’s a day called the Feast of the Holy Innocents that’s the equivalent of April Fools’ Day?)

“We said in the comments that it was a joke,” an apologetic Duarte said, “but there were so many comments, and people didn’t read what we wrote.”

Instead, his 1.3 million followers spread the fake news across the world.

Angry calls and emails flooded the office of L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis and anyone with any political weight in the Eastside. People signed a petition addressed to Eric Garcetti asking the L.A. mayor to save El Pino, even though he has no jurisdiction over it.

Finally, the lot’s owner emerged to let the world know: El Pino isn’t being torn down.

“I never want anything to happen to that tree,” said Art Gastelum, the politically connected owner of a Pasadena construction firm who grew up two blocks away. “If you Google ‘landmarks in East L.A.,’ the Pino comes up. It’s almost like a little treasure for us.”

I visited El Pino on two days this week — Tuesday afternoon, after Duarte’s post went viral, and Thursday morning, after Gastelum announced the news on KABC-TV Channel 7’s Facebook Live stream. If you want a metaphor for the gloom that infected 2020 versus the promise of 2021, it’s in the bristly shade of this legendary tree.

My first time around, people moped around El Pino as if they were at a wake.

A man stands in a street holding the flag of Mexico, with a tall pine in the background
Carlos Mier, 26, of North Hollywood has his picture taken in front of the East Los Angeles tree known as “El Pino.”
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

“This is like Mecca here,” said Miguel Paredes as he walked his bulldog, Rosie. He lives downslope from the tree. “Everyone feels a sense of ownership to it.”

Just then, a chipster — a Chicano hipster — approached the fence and extended his arms toward El Pino in an air-hug.

“Can you believe this beautiful tree is going to get cut down?” he shouted to no one in particular.

“We need a white woman to climb it — then it’ll never come down!” Paredes cracked.

Jesse Madera came from West L.A. with his son and a professional camera. “It’s a representation of who we are as a gente,” said the 26-year-old. “It’s messed up that developers don’t appreciate it.”

A rental Porsche Cayenne then parked nearby. Hector Flores and his family were vacationing in San Diego from Greensboro, N.C. When the El Pino news hit Facebook, they immediately drove up to catch a glimpse.

“It’s sad what they want to do,” said the 52-year-old, after he posed in front of El Pino with his son. “This is history.”

As more people poured in over the next couple of days, and Gastelum’s phone began to light up, he felt the need to address “all this desmadre.”

“Growing up, El Pino was always this wonderful mystery to us,” said the 71-year-old. “Why does this tree look so different, and how did it get to us?”

So Gastelum bought the lot that hosts the tree as soon as it went up for sale five years ago. “I didn’t know what was going to happen to El Pino,” he said. “I didn’t even negotiate the price. I never do that, but I didn’t want anyone else to get it.”

He wants to build a duplex around the tree, with ensured public access and a plaque telling its story. Gastelum didn’t want to reveal his plans until the project was ready to break ground, but Duarte’s Facebook post forced his hand.

“That upsets me,” he said. “Those are the kind of pranks that create problems. It’s dangerous.”

But now that word is spreading that El Pino will survive, Gastelum has the goodwill of a community behind him.

“Good,” said 36-year-old Davis Sedano of West Covina, when I told him the news. “This tree means a lot to people.”

It was a party scene at El Pino on New Year’s Eve, the day after Gastelum went public. Those who knew it wasn’t coming down spread the good news to anyone who came with a frown.

People double- and triple-parked and posed and flew drones and looked through the tarped fence that surrounded El Pino’s lot to look at the trunk. Cars with license plates from New Mexico and Arizona cruised by and filmed the scene. Lowriders blasted dueling soundtracks of oldies-but-goodies, Dr. Dre and La Sonora Dinamita.

Diana Tellez held up her 1-month-old daughter up like baby Simba in the opening for “The Lion King” as her boyfriend took a portrait of them.

“I’m glad it’s staying,” said the 26-year-old, who lives down the street but was admiring the tree up close for the first time. “People know us for El Pino. If there’s no Pino, then we don’t have anything here.”

Salvador Chavez and Jennifer Orellana of Huntington Park stared silently upward as they held each other. “It’s a sense of hope and home,” said Chavez, 36. “It’s our safe place as minorities. As much as police [mess] with us, we’ll always have its safety.”

“Everything we grew up with gets torn down,” added Orellana, who attended Garfield High School. “At least with this staying, we have something to look forward to.”

Brothers Andrew and Anthony Arenas of El Sereno took turns taking photos of each other with El Pino while holding a Dodgers flag. “It’s like the Sears building,” said Anthony, 29, referring to the Art Deco landmark on Olympic Boulevard. “You can’t take either out of East L.A.”

“Everyone’s all mad and sad, but that’s good,” said Andrew, 21. “I think this all made people appreciate El Pino just a little bit more.”

By the afternoon, a banner hung on the fence. “Spread The Word!!! El Pino Will Not be Chopped Down.”

So there you have it. All’s well that doesn’t end with a famous East L.A. tree becoming Ikea furniture.


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