A devoted group of 80-somethings served plates of turkey, slices of pie and cups of coffee to hundreds of Eastside families during a Thanksgiving luncheon Saturday at Ruben F. Salazar Park in East Los Angeles.
For decades, members of the Friends of Salazar Park – a volunteer group made up almost exclusively of senior citizens – have donated their time to put on special events at the park like their annual Thanksgiving luncheon and Christmas toy-giveaway.
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They can’t recall how many free meals they’ve served, or toys they have handed out, but both are in the thousands. But these volunteers don’t just come out once or twice a year, in fact, most volunteer year-round, Monday through Friday and can claim credit for many, if not most, of the activities offered at the county park. Months of planning go into the big events, from finding food donors like Steve Munoz at Dolores Canning to setting up the decorations and getting the word out to the community.
But the recent passing of one of the club’s original members, Gabriela Salazar (no relation to journalist Ruben Salazar for whom the park is named), has some seniors feeling it may be time for them to take it easy and let others do their part to keep park programs going.
Gabby, as her friends called her, and described by some as the soul of the club, helped set the groundwork, as did 84-year-old Chris Mojica.
But now “It’s time to pass the baton,” Mojica says.
“We used to have over 50 members, now we’re down to about 20 and half of them are sick,” he lamented.
When Mojica first visited Salazar Senior Center over 30 years ago he couldn’t help but compare the loteria games and coffee served at the eastside facility to the nicer aerobics classes and field trips offered at centers in the Westside.
“I thought ‘why don’t we have more, we pay taxes too,’” he said Saturday as he and the club’s band of elderly volunteers busily kept the Thanksgiving feast on track.
Today Salazar Park offers more activities than any other county park, he said proudly. They offer computer and English classes, tennis, Zumba, weekly dances and trips to the movies and other entertainment venues.
The variety of activities is the main reason more than 500 people visit the park located at the 3800 block of Whittier Boulevard almost daily.
When some of the club members first visited the park, it was to attend a fitness class or to eat one of the prepackaged meals offered at the senior center, or as in the case of 69-year-old Jesus Gonzalez, because he’d never been married and “was bored at home.”
“I came to eat one day and just never left,” he said in Spanish.
Gonzalez now volunteers about five hours a day, doing various tasks like collecting Zumba fees from participants.
Richard Mata, 62, says he feels like he spends more time at the park than with his family.
That’s why the deaths of so many club members in the last couple of years has been so hard on those still remaining, he said.
“You feel their absence,” echoed Maria Garcia, 74, tearfully. “Today, at our first Thanksgiving event since her death, [Gabby] was noticeably missing,” she said in Spanish.
Many members of the Salazar Park Friend’s group told EGP that volunteering at their age helps keep them busy and social, when they would otherwise not have much interaction with the outside world.
“I come to talk, participate in activities just so I’m not at home thinking negative thoughts,” said Angelica Rodriguez, 81, who has volunteered at the center for over 15 years.
“At our age, we have nothing to do at home so we spend time here in between doctors’ appointments,” said Garcia frankly.
In Ray Guerrero’s view, the park still has a lot of potential.
“We just need more help from the community,” the 70-year-old explained.
According to Mirna Valdez, 51, Mojica “handpicked” her and other instructors at the LA Fitness in Montebello to lead exercise classes at Salazar Park.
“That was 20 years ago,” she said, almost surprised by how much has gone by. “I understood it was important to give back to my community, especially one that suffers from high blood pressure and diabetes.”
Gloria Vazquez, 60, says she gravitated toward helping the park’s seniors because they remind her of her 89-year old dad back home.
“I just like being around them,” she said. “Some seniors don’t have kids so even a hug goes a long way,” she noted.
Vazquez told EGP it’s now up to the next generation to start giving back, explaining that many of the center’s seniors are just too tired and don’t have the energy they use to.
“If it wasn’t for the volunteers this park would not have what it does today,” she pointed out. “We need to remember this is our community, we are East Los Angeles!”
Mojica told EGP that the park in and of itself is a significant part of the East Los Angeles community’s history, He recalled that in years past it was the epicenter of community activism and volunteerism. The park – previously named Laguna Park – was renamed in honor of noted journalist Ruben Salazar who was killed by a Sheriff’s tear gas canister during the historic 1970 National Chicano Moratorium, when nearly 30,000 people marched against the disproportionate number of Chicanos dying in the Vietnam War.
It is also home to the 2001 mural “The Wall That Speaks, Sings, and Shouts” by well-known Chicano muralist Paul Botello. The mural includes images of key historical figures in Chicano history and illustrations that symbolize immigration, family life and resistance.
Hoping to keep the memory of important Latinos and events alive for new generations to see, the seniors have even put together a mini-museum that includes portraits of eastside “celebrities,” newspaper clippings, photographs depicting Los Angeles and shelves of vintage items and relics of the past.
Guerrero says he hopes that one day the room will also showcase the portraits of all the seniors who helped make the park what it is today, and those who will continue their legacy.
“We are all paying back something that was given to us by this community,” Guerrero said. “A lot of us are still here after many years, but we can always use more volunteers.”