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East L.A. Bobcats Ask County to Lift Park-Use Suspension

Elementary school football players and cheerleaders begged the Board of Supervisors Tuesday to let them play in an East Los Angeles park, while county officials expressed concern about keeping those kids safe.

The East L.A. Bobcats have been hosting football games for kids 6 to 14 years old for 48 years, according to the group’s president, Sylvia Romero.

The future of the East L.A. Bobcats is uncertain after a man was killed at a restaurant where numerous members of the team and their families were dining after a game. Pictured here the East L.A. Bobcats during a past game. (Photo courtesy of Erik Sarni)

Parents say the team — which plays in Ruben F. Salazar Park – keeps kids off the streets, out of gangs and focused on good grades, which are required for participation.

Bobcats are required to maintain a 2.0 grade point average to stay on the team and can earn $500 to $1,000 of scholarship money if their average is 3.2 or higher.

“We do this for our children, we want them to be something,” Socorro Mata, whose daughter Aaliyah cheers for the Bobcats, told the board.

It would seem like the kind of effort that Supervisor Gloria Molina would champion in her district, but a stabbing death in October put the county and the Bobcats at odds.

A 25-year-old man identified as Patrick Ortega was fatally stabbed at a Monterey Park Shakey’s pizza, where 20-30 members of the team and their family were eating. Jose De Jesus Ruiz, of Bakersfield, was arrested and charged with Ortega’s murder.

Neither man — both of whom were believed to have gang ties — had any connection to the Bobcats, according to the team’s supporters. But authorities raised concerns about at least one team volunteer and the threat of gang retaliation led county officials to suspend the team’s permit to use the park.

“Public safety is her top priority,” said Molina spokeswoman Roxane Marquez, adding that “zero tolerance for gang activity” has cut the number of homicides in East Los Angeles from 52 in 1995, the height of local violence, to just five last year.

Romero said two volunteers left the Bobcats to satisfy concerns raised by the Sheriff’s Department, but she said they were not gang members and she believes neither has ever been questioned by authorities. Romero and many parents said they weren’t worried about violence at Salazar Park.

“We would not have our children in this program if we did not think it was safe,” said Bobcat mother Patricia Jauregui.

To get the suspension lifted, the team needs to change its name and team colors, submit an approved code of conduct and pay for either sheriff’s deputies or a private security patrol to protect the kids, according to Marquez.

The team is willing to change their name and colors, but can’t afford to pay for security, Romero said. Sheriff’s patrols would be billed at $774 per day and a private security firm would cost $430 per day, she explained. The team practices five days a week during the summer months and three days when the season overlaps the school year.

Marquez said the team’s preliminary suggestions — to change the name to Wildcats and add dark blue to the team’s baby blue and white colors – are “not in the spirit” of the agreement. Romero says the team is willing to go further but also mentions that parents have already paid for expensive baby blue helmets.

Kids made the most emotional appeals to the board.

“I think Gloria Molina shouldn’t be taking this park away from the East L.A. Bobcats program,” cheerleader Aaliyah Mata said, beginning to cry. “I really love the East L.A. Bobcats and I don’t want to leave them.”

Molina did not respond to the comments during the board’s meeting and was in a closed door session immediately following, but field deputy Ed Cisneros, who covers East Los Angeles, said this wasn’t the first time a sports league had been asked to pay for extra security detail. As to the cost, Cisneros said the demand for extra security patrols could be lifted after a probationary period.

Kids turned cartwheels and led cheers outside the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration following the meeting as Romero offered one last comment.

“They can take back our name, our colors, they can take back our parks, but they can never take what we’ve built there,” she said. “We have a legacy that will live on.”

Marquez countered that whether the suspension is lifted is up to the Bobcats.

“The future of the team is in their hands,” Marquez said.

The team’s season is set to begin on July 22.