An appearance by Gov. Jerry Brown Wednesday at the opening of a new Bell Gardens hotel drew loud protests from activists angry that he has yet to speak out on the Exide Technologies pollution scandal.
Carrying a 10-foot tall paper maché effigy of the governor, dozens of protesters rallied outside the Bicycle Casino where Brown was headlining the grand opening celebration for the casino’s new hotel: his second appearance on behalf of the project.
“Governor Brown comes to Bell Gardens to acknowledge the expansion of the Bicycle Casino but has not acknowledged the contamination of Exide Technologies,” said Mark Lopez, director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice.
Lopez was referring to the now shuttered Vernon plant’s illegal emissions of arsenic and lead and other toxic chemicals that have put more than 100,000 east and southeast area residents at a higher risk of cancer and other illnesses.
State toxic control regulators allowed Exide to operate for decades on an interim permit, despite dozens of handling of hazardous waste and emissions violations.
“We are calling on Gov. Brown to meet with community leaders and to commit the necessary funds to clean up the contamination the state allowed Exide to create,” Lopez said.
The governor did not acknowledge the protesters, according to organizers.
The unveiling Wednesday of a much-anticipated luxury hotel in Bell Gardens at one of the region’s most well known venues drew elected officials from throughout the Southeast area as well as a second visit from California’s governor.
Gov. Jerry Brown was at The Bicycle Casino just two years ago to take part in the announcement of plans to build the $50 million, seven-story, 100-room hotel. At the time, local officials called the launch of the project a “momentous occasion” for the city of Bell Gardens.
“Today was one of the most exciting days for all of us here at The Bicycle Hotel & Casino, and for the city of Bell Gardens,” said Managing General Partner & CEO Hashem Minaiy on Wednesday.
“This is truly a dream realized and we look forward to welcoming our first guest in just a few short weeks,” he said.
The hotel is set to open to the public Dec. 1. It will feature a full spa, suites, an elevated outdoor pool, and event and private meeting spaces.
Guests at the Casino will also be able to enjoy luxurious accommodations along with live entertainment, dining and a drink at an on-site brewery and cocktail lounge. The hotel adds 230,000 square-feet to the Casino located near the 710 Freeway.
Bell Gardens Mayor Jennifer Rodriguez was among the handful of local dignitaries on stage saluting the opening of the new hotel during the elegant and festive grand opening ceremony which included lunch and entertainment.
The Bicycle Casino is the biggest economic engine for the city of Bell Gardens, which receives a percentage of the casino’s take from table games and poker tournaments.
Although the city’s reliance has decreased steadily over the years, at $11 million, casino revenues make up over 40 percent of the city’s general fund, according to the city’s 2015-2015 Fiscal Budget.
In addition, the $45 million-privately funded hotel is expected to generate $160,000 in new revenue from Transient Occupancy or bed taxes.
The opening of the hotel is expected to create 160 new permanent jobs in addition to the approximately 300-construction-related jobs while the hotel was built.
“Hashem and I set out to not only build a beautiful hotel for our guests, but a great property that can be shared with and enjoyed by everyone in the community,” said Robert H. Carter, President of Carter Management Group, Inc., a general partner of The Bicycle Hotel & Casino.
“Having the Governor, city officials and all of our guests here to see the hotel for the first time made this a most memorable day,” Carter said.
A 20-foot tall bronze monument of a fallen soldier in the arms of an angel stands on the corner of Loveland Street and Perry Road in Bell Gardens. On a typical day, hundreds of people walk past the statue, oblivious that it stands as a tribute to U.S Hispanic veterans who have received the country’s highest military honor.
Bell Gardens’ Hispanic American Veterans Memorial stands proudly in the city’s appropriately named Veterans Park. It is surrounded by the flags of all five branches of the military – Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard —in honor of the over 3,400 recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor, the U.S.’s highest award for valor above and beyond the call of duty. Etched on the stone are the names of 39 Latinos who have received the prestigious award.
Lea este artículo en Español: Monumento de Veteranos se Alza Orgulloso, Inadvertido
Bell Gardens Assistant City Manager John Oropeza was the director of public works when the monument was installed in the predominately Latino, Spanish-speaking Southeast city with a large number of foreign-born residents. His name is on the monument as are the names of the members of the city council that commissioned the bronze edifice – all of them Latinos.
“Back then, the council asked how the city could build something that would honor Hispanic veterans,” Oropeza told EGP.
“But because we are all Americans, we paid tribute to all the Congressional Medal of Honor recipients,” he explained about the monument’s dual purpose.
Until 2001, Veterans Park was known as Bell Gardens City Park. In May of that year, a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the renamed park coincided with the Memorial Day weekend, a time to honor members of the Armed Forces who lost their lives in the line of duty.
“Little did we know, later that year, with the attacks of 9/11, we would [soon] join a new war,” Oropeza recalled.
According to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, today there are 3,495 Medal of Honor recipients, 68 more than when the Bell Gardens memorial was built.
Bell Gardens is just one of the many local cities and communities that have public monuments paying tribute to U.S. veterans, including several that single out the contributions of Latinos, such as the Mexican-American All Wars Memorial in East Los Angeles and the Wall of Honor at the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument in downtown Los Angeles. A major freeway interchange – where the I-5, I-10, SR-60 and US-101 meet, has been named the “Medal of Honor Recipient Eugene A. Obregon, USMC Memorial Interchange.”
Candice Gutierrez, 33, was sitting on the steps of the Bell Gardens monument Monday, talking on her cell phone. She told EGP after her call that she regularly visits the park to take in the view of the memorial. It reminds her of growing up in Georgia, she said.
“Most of my family are veterans, so I come sit here to have a minute of peace,” she said. “I was surprised to find something like this when I moved to Bell Gardens.”
Gutierrez keeps photos of the monument on her phone and told EGP she made it a point to read the inscription on the monument to learn about its significance to her community. Unlike her, Gutierrez, who identified herself as “Caucasian,” says most of the city’s residents are Latino and immigrants. And while she believes the building of a monument dedicated to Hispanic veterans was intended to inspire pride in the city’s young people, Gutierrez laments that most of the Latino teenagers she sees, just walk past the monument without giving it a second thought.
Bell Gardens High School student Jorge Chavez, 16, is one of those teens. He walks by the monument almost every day on his way to and from and school, but told EGP he doesn’t give it much thought. It’s just a memorial, he said, adding he doesn’t relate to it because he doesn’t know anyone in the military.
On the other hand, sixteen-year-old Ashley Rico says when she walks past the monument she always thinks about the impact war has had on the military families back at home, especially when a loved one is killed in action. The Bell Gardens High student told EGP she knows other residents also care about the tribute to veterans and keep a vigilant eye out for any sign of disrespect.
“Drivers will honk whenever they see couples or skaters near the monument because this is supposed to be a place of respect,” she said.
Rico wishes there were more events, like those in years past, honoring veterans.
In recent years, the city has scaled back its observances to placing a wreath on the steps of the memorial to commemorate Veterans Day on November 11 and Memorial Day, observed annually on the last Monday in May. Oropeza says budget constraints have kept Bell Gardens from doing much more.
“We don’t have many historic monuments in Bell Gardens,” Rico points out. So, “This is something special in our city.”
Students at Bell Gardens High School who have a doctor’s appointment may no longer need to miss a day of class now that a new health clinic has opened its doors on the campus.
From the outside, the new clinic looks like any regular classroom bungalow, but instead of desks, white boards and books, the blue bungalow houses a 16-seat waiting area, clinical lab, six examination rooms and a medical professional seeing patients.
The school-based clinic is operated by the nonprofit Family Health Care Centers of Greater Los Angeles (FHCCGLA), which operates community health clinics in the surrounding area.
“We have the ability to serve the young, students, their parents, teachers and the community at large,” said Yeryca Ramos, FHCCGLA’s chief financial officer.
Regular checkups, sports physicals or doctor’s visits for the common cold or flu could no longer require a working parent to take the day off from work since students can now be seen on campus. And if a student gets sick or hurt on campus, they can be treated for minor injuries instead of waiting for a parent to pick them up, explained Helen Van, a nurse practitioner at the site.
Research conducted in 2005 showed that high school based health centers decrease the number of absentee students. Since then, there has been a growing trend to open school-based centers on campus, Ramos said.
FHCCGLA collaborated with the Montebello Unified School District to transform two portable bungalows at Bell Gardens High School into a clinic and health resource center. The clinic operator will oversee the operation and has agreed to put up $500,000 to purchase medical equipment. They have also received a $333,000 New Access Point Grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which is expected to renew annually as long as the Affordable Care Act continues to be funded, explained Ramos.
The city of Bell Gardens’ high teen pregnancy rate played a role in the opening the clinic opened a few feet from the school’s infant toddler center and teen parent program classrooms.
“There was a growing population of pregnant teens in the community of Bell Gardens, that’s how the need was addressed for this clinic,” said Van.
Montebello Unified already provides free childcare, parenting classes, counseling and encourages minors to graduate from high school though the California School Age Families (CAL-SAFE) program.
Dr. Albert Pacheco – FHCCGLA’s former chief executive officer – previously told EGP the campus location would bring a clinic to an area of high need.
“In this particular area of Los Angeles County there’s a big uninsured, low-income population so there’s a big need,” he said when the center first received the grant in January 2013. There are also a large number of immigrants in the predominately Latino working-class community.
The clinic’s close proximity gives students greater access to preventative measures such as condoms, and testing for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and pregnancy without a parent being present.
If a student is pregnant, they will be referred to FHCCGLA’s Bell Gardens Family Medical Center for follow up care.
So far, many of the student visits to the clinic have been for the physicals required to play sports, Van told EGP.
She said the clinic is seeing a good mix of students and people from the area for everything from well-child visits to treatment for chronic and acute conditions such as diabetes and hypertension.
The obesity rate in Bell Gardens is on the rise, Van pointed out.
That corresponds with the findings of a 2015 UCLA Center for Health Policy Research study that found more than 32 percent of Latino adults in California are obese and 40 percent of Latino adolescents are either overweight or obese.
A separate study found that sugar-sweetened beverages are the largest source of added sugar and are associated with increased rates of obesity and other chronic health conditions, such as type 2 diabetes.
To combat the problem, FHCCGLA in the past partnered with Bell Gardens High School and MUSD to encourage residents to eat healthier through the creation of school-based gardens, farmer’s markets and other projects as part of the Campaign for a Healthier Bell Gardens.
“The unique value of BGHS’s school-based health center illustrated the creative collaboration of educators and health care professionals working together to address the multifaceted needs of our children, youth, and families,” said MUSD Board Clerk Lani Cupchoy during the clinic’s ribbon-cutting ceremony Sept. 15.
Services offered at the clinic are provided on a sliding fee scale based on the patient’s income and does not require any form of insurance. Fees start at $30.
“We try to accommodate every patient,” said Ramos, explaining that FHCCGLA staff work with patients to determine which programs they may qualify for to reduce costs. Some patients may not be required to pay anything if they qualify for the county’s My Health LA program, which provides primary health care at no to cost to eligible Los Angeles County residents who are uninsured or un-insurable based on income or immigration status.
A person’s immigration status is never disclosed, said Ramos.
Nearly all students at Bell Gardens High School qualify for free or reduced lunch, a federal standard that is often used as an indicator of poverty. As a result, Ramos told EGP most students and patients qualify for some type of aid.
The clinic is currently open Monday through Friday, 1p.m. to 5p.m. The wait time “is not bad at all” and walk-ins are welcome, said Van. Ramos told EGP the goal is to eventually open the clinic from 8a.m. to 5 p.m.
Since opening, the clinic has averaged about 6 patients a day, but has the capacity to see up to three patients an hour. Ramos told EGP the non-profit hopes in the near future to offer immunizations at the clinic.
“Having a clinic on campus provides easy access to the community,” she said. “We bring health care services to our patients.”
Updated 10-16-15: To clarify Dr. Albert Pacheco is the former executive director of FHCCGLA. Raquel Villa is the new CEO.
In June 2007, an anonymous blogger started a thread on the Bell Gardens Topix board titled “Daniel Crespo.” What began as an opportunity for the author to vent about his mistrust of the city official, quickly turned into allegations of adultery and abuse, charges that years later would grip local and national headlines in the wake of the mayor’s untimely and violent death.
Shot Heard Around The World
It’s been nearly a year since the small working class city of Bell Gardens was invaded by swarms of news trucks and reporters covering the shooting death of the city’s mayor at the hands of the woman he called his “high school sweetheart.”
News of the shocking shooting death of a beloved city official would quickly give way to a story alleging scandal, infidelity and spousal abuse by Mayor Daniel Crespo.
Initial reports out of the city on the afternoon of Sept. 30, 2014, said the mayor was shot at his home. But a shocking detail soon emerged — the person who pulled the trigger was none other than the mayor’s wife, Lyvette Crespo.
According to police, Lyvette admitted to shooting her husband in self-defense: The couple’s teen-aged son Daniel told police his mother was defending him against his father who had hurt him. Later, it was revealed Lyvette alleged she had suffered years of abuse at the hands of Crespo.
For some, the allegations seemed to come out of left field. The image of Crespo as a wife beater did not match their view of him as a man dedicated to helping the city’s working class, mostly immigrant residents. They saw him as a noble man dedicated to ensuring Bell Gardens thrived and did not end up like other southeast cities riddled with corruption.
Others, however, were not surprised that the man who seemed dedicated to keeping city hall transparent, may have actually kept his biggest secrets at home.
Foreshadow of Tales to Come
Back in 2007, bloggers angrily blamed Crespo for the city’s volatile political climate, which at the time included threats of recalls and voter fraud. Some accused then Councilman Crespo of personal indiscretions.
“Daniel Crespo is a womanizer,” wrote Concerned Resident. “I know there was talk about him having an affair… I hear he is very friendly with his commissioners.”
Another blogger brought up a sexual harassment lawsuit that accused Crespo of harassing a city employee. The city was later forced to settle the suit brought by a former employee for $70,000.
“He always denies it, but the truth is it happened,” wrote Refreshed Memory.
The blogger acknowledged Crespo’s longstanding claim that the whole incident was a misunderstanding and political set up.
“I feel sorry for his wife,” another blogger posted.
Within months, the thread had a dozen posts. Many of the comments attacked Crespo and other political figures in the city.
That same year, a blogger referenced an incident where Crespo was said to have exhibited a gun during a homeowners association meeting at the complex where he lived.
“This is yet more proof on how he abuses his power to threaten people and feels superior,” wrote Case 990831.
His fans came to his support on the blog, calling him a “good church-going” man.
“You guys talk nonsense about him and his family,” wrote I support Crespo. “I heard he is working undercover to clean up city hall.”
Years later, the blog comments seemed to foreshadow what was to come — accusations mirrored in testimony in the Grand Jury indictment of Lynette on a charge of voluntary manslaughter for the death of her husband.
She pleaded not guilty and is currently out on bail.
In 2007, one blogger wrote he had witnessed Crespo and his wife arguing in front of their children outside St. Gertrude’s Church. According to media reports, Crespo’s daughter Crystal told the Grand Jury her father once punched her mother on their way home from church.
Another blogger also claimed to have witnessed evidence of Crespo’s abuse of his wife: “I have seen marks on her arms,” wrote Say No to Abuse. “He abuses his power and his wife too.”
Lyvette’s lawyer has released photos of injuries his client years earlier allegedly sustained at the hands of her husband. The images show Lyvette with a black eye and cuts around her lips.
Then, for nearly three years, the blog went cold, no comments or posts or accusations until 2010 when BGFeatherwood wrote: “Daniel Crespo is human and yet is very compassionate and caring not greedy and corrupt like the rest of the city council …Anyone who says otherwise doesn’t know what they are talking about.”
Four years later, bloggers started to post again: Crespo had been killed.
“RIP Daniel Crespo … guess a lot of what [was] said on here might have been true … one thing for sure though … you died by your own gun,” wrote Life Long BG Resident on Sept. 30, the day of the shooting.
Crespo, a parole officer licensed to carry a handgun, was shot with his own weapon.
“You did all you could to help Bell Gardens and your family,” wrote Legal Resident the next day. “Good bless your wife and kids as they try to live without you. It will be hard for all.”
“He got what he deserved,” wrote a less sympathetic blogger.
In the weeks following the shooting, media outlets across the country dissected the mayor’s life, interviewing family, friends, neighbors, acquaintance and fellow elected officials.
Many people said “they never knew” about the “darker side” of the mayor’s private life. City officials and staff noted his wife and children rarely accompanied him to city events. During funeral services, many spoke of mended relationships and his happiness to after years of being passed over, finally being voted in as mayor by his council colleagues: a title he will now hold in perpetuity.
Things have quieted down in Bell Gardens in the ensuing months. The city has even cancelled the city council election that was supposed to take place in November since no one but the two sitting longtime councilmembers in those seats filed to run.
But that could change early next year as national attention is again focused on the small southeast city during Lyvette’s murder trial, scheduled to begin Jan. 4. A separate wrongful death civil lawsuit filed against Lyvette by Crespo’s mother, is also awaiting trial.
A crime show is filming an expose on the sordid story detailed in 1,500 plus pages of Grand Jury testimony, which includes statements from responding officers, Crespo’s two children, the mayor’s alleged girlfriends and others.
On the day of the killing, the couple got into a heated argument over the mayor’s alleged affairs, exchanging threatening and profanity laced text messages in the hours before the fatal confrontation at the couple’s home.
If convicted, Lyvette could face 21 years in state prison.
“[Crespo] was a womanizer who abused his power,” reads the last post on the blog.
“He paid the ultimate price.”
A 27-year-old male passenger was killed when the car he was riding in, driven by an allegedly drunken driver, rear-ended an SUV on the Long Beach (710) Freeway in Bell Gardens, police said Sunday.
At about 4:15 a.m., a 26-year-old man from South Gate was driving a 2012 Honda Civic south of Florence Avenue and the Clara Street overpass, said California Highway Patrol Officer Gomez.
While driving at an unsafe speed, the driver abruptly slowed down due to another collision ahead and collided with the rear of a 1999 Ford Expedition, Gomez said.
The passenger in the Civic, an unidentified man also from South Gate, suffered fatal injuries and died at Saint Francis Hospital, he said.
The driver was arrested for allegedly drunken driving, Gomez said.
He suffered moderate injuries and was also taken to Saint Francis Hospital.
The driver of the Expedition was not hurt.
“La dama (the lady) … el corazon (the heart) … la bandera (the flag): Loteria!
Coffee in hand and coin purses at the ready, a small group of abuelas meet weekday mornings at the Bell Gardens Senior Center for a lively game of loteria, the Mexican version of Bingo.
Regulars at the Monday through Friday game collect donations to buy the coffee; some bring pastries or cookies to share.
At ten cents a card they aren’t going to get rich, after all the pot rarely reaches more than a dollar. But for most of the senior-aged grandmothers, the three-year-long ritual has less to do with the game and more to do with the chance to spend time away from home talking and laughing with neighbors.
Between games, they talk about the latest news, movies they hope to see and trips they are looking forward to taking, but mostly they talk about family – their grandchildren to be exact.
“I’m going to go see that animated movie about the rooster with my grandson,” Irma Huerta, 65, informs the group in Spanish.
This Sunday, Sept. 13 is National Grandparent’s Day. It’s a day intended to honor grandparents, and perhaps lavish a little extra attention and cariño on them.
With 25 grandchildren and 8 great-grandchildren, Huerta is glad she became a grandmother while still young because she still has the energy to keep up with her grandkids and still has the strength to visit those living in Mexico.
Ironically, she points out, her in Southern California she’s abuela, but her progeny in Mexico call her grandma.
At 94, Maria Colmenares isn’t sure how many grandchildren she has, but laughs about the potentially large number when she explains that each of her 12 children have at least seven children of their own.
They all call me tita, short for abuelita, she says about the term of endearment.
“Being a grandmother means being there for the grandchildren when the parents cannot,” the senior says with conviction. She says she’s done her share of diaper changes, feeding and babysitting, but these days the grandchildren “take care of me.”
“One cooks for me every day, another makes sure I take my medication,” she said, reflecting on how life has changed over the years.
Being a grandmother is different from being a mother, but the feelings are just as strong, Andrea Arenteria, 67, told EGP.
“It’s a grand feeling, to reach a point in your life to be able to see your children become parents,” she said proudly.
“It was more beautiful a feeling than becoming a mother,” chimes in sixty-eight-year-old Maria Guzman.
Huerta says she cherishes her time with her grandkids. She makes the most of their time together by playing marbles, flying kites and, of course, playing loteria.
“It’s one of the ways I teach them Spanish and sayings from Mexico,” she confides.
It’s through these old-time games that don’t require technology that Huerta says she has taught her grandchildren the concepts of respect and the importance of spending time with family.
“Abuela no speak English,” she says she teases her grandkids, explaining it’s not that she doesn’t understand English but a way to force them to practice their Spanish.
It’s a trick also used by Arenteria, who says her children don’t speak Spanish to their offspring at home but know her rule: No English at grandma’s house.
“Here we speak Spanish,” she tells them so they don’t forget the language.
They’ll have more opportunities if they are bilingual, she says firmly, noting it gave her own children a leg up in their careers.
Most of Colmerares’ grandchildren have moved farther away, but she vividly recalls details about them, having raised nearly all of them.
“It’s been a joy being a grandmother,” she reminisces, a broad smile crossing her face aged with time.
Now, she cherishes the little things they do for her, signs of their affection. Every Mother’s Day and on her saint’s day they greet her with las mañanitas (a traditional Mexican birthday song) and a mariachi, making her feel so special, she told EGP.
Throughout the morning, after one by one moving the decorative stones used as placeholders onto their colorful loteria cards, someone yells out “buenas,” the Spanish version of saying “bingo” to indicate a winning card.
After all the winnings are dispersed and the coffee is finished, the women say goodbye to their other family at the Bell Gardens Senior Center, before making their way to see the grandchildren they have proudly been boasting about all morning.
“I think the happiness brought on from being a grandmother is what keeps me alive,” reflects Colmenares tearfully. “It’s really the greatest gift.”
Three people were shot Sunday in Bell Gardens, a Los Angeles County Fire Department official said.
The shooting was reported at 7:40 p.m. at Florence Avenue and Jaboneria Road, said Los Angeles County Fire Department Dispatch Supervisor Kyle Sanford.
All three were taken to hospitals, Sanford said. He did not have specific information about their conditions or genders.
For the first time in decades, a city known for its tough political rivalries may cancel its upcoming city council election because no one has filed to run against the two incumbents up for reelection.
On Monday, the city clerk’s office announced Mayor Jennifer Rodriguez and Mayor Pro Tem Pedro Aceituno were the only two candidates to turn in paperwork before the nomination period closed Friday, Aug. 7.
It’s a surprising turn of events considering Rodriguez, and Aceituno to a lesser extent, have in recent years been involved in some of the city’s most volatile elections. The difference this year could be the absence of former Mayor Daniel Crespo, who until shortly before his shooting death last year, was a vocal and often aggressive opponent of the two incumbents.
“In past elections there are usually no shortage of challengers, but I can only assume that residents are pleased with the job their representatives are doing on the city council,” said City Manager Phil Wagner.
Under the city’s election code, if there are no more candidates than offices to be elected, in this case two city council seats, the city council at its discretion can appoint those who turned in their required paperwork before the deadline and cancel the election. The city council also has available to it the option to appoint an eligible voter in the city to the seat, or still hold an election.
“Given that we have two qualified nominations the city council will most likely choose option one and not hold an election,” said new City Clerk Kristina Santana.
Canceling the election will save Bell Gardens $90,000, the amount it would have paid the County for election services, Santana said.
As long time members of the council, Rodriguez and Aceituno are expected to be appointed to new four-year terms when the council meets to consider the issue at City Hall, Wednesday, Aug. 19 at 5 p.m.
Rodriguez and Aceituno will serve exactly as if elected during an election, according to the City Clerk’s office.
Rodriguez has served on the council since 2003. She works as a social worker and director of admissions at a local healthcare facility. Aceituno was first elected in 1999 and was one of the youngest elected officials to serve as Mayor in Los Angeles County.
Across the country this week, baseball fans were focused on Major League Baseball’s All Star Game played Tuesday and the L.A. (of Anaheim) Angel’s Mike Trout’s second consecutive game MVP, but in working class and mostly immigrant Bell Gardens, passion for the national pastime is focused on a preteen girls’ softball team on the cusp of making local history.
Lea este artículo en Español: All Stars de Bell Gardens: Son Niñas
The Bell Gardens All-Stars will head to San Diego this weekend to compete in a regional softball tournament, marking the first time a city-based fast pitch traveling team competes at this level of competition, according to the team’s founder and coach, Alberto Lucero.
Placing second in the LA/South Bay district and fifth in the State qualified Bell Gardens’ 10 and under softball team to compete in the California State Games tournament, a competition that draws highly competitive teams from as far away as Nevada.
According to Lucero, he started the league three years ago to give young Bell Gardens softball players like his daughters, twins Samantha and Tabatha, the chance to represent their city in a more competitive atmosphere.
“We’re trying to keep the talent here in Bell Gardens,” explained Lucero. The team practices at Veterans and Ford parks.
“There has never been a team from the city that has won State or placed in the district, we’ve done both.”
At practice Monday, the girls were focused on the tough competition they will face on and off the field in San Diego.
We’re the “underdogs,” remarked some of the parents, noting the team will face players from more affluent communities who not only don’t look like them, but also will have top-of-the-line equipment and be decked out head-to-toe in the latest sports gear.
The Bell Gardens girls on the other hand like to personalize their gray and burgundy uniforms – a homage to Bell Gardens High School – with different shoes, bags and helmets.
And when it comes down to it, the team says they’ll let their skills on the field do their talking.
“Other teams see us as the underdogs but after the first inning, they wake up,” Sonia Guerra, the mother of one of the players proudly told EGP.
“It’s been game after game, practice after practice, but we’re really excited and proud of our girls,” said Angie Lucero, the mother of two players on the team.
Ten-year old Gianna Gachupin plays second base told EGP she will step up her play this weekend.
“I’ve always been good at softball,” she said beaming with confidence.
“Our team is good! I like our spirit and we always cheer each other on,” echoed 11-year-old teammate Araceli Trout.
There are 14 players on the All-Stars team, which is part of the Bell Gardens Softball League, an amateur softball association separate from the city’s parks and recreation program. League rules dictate that players must be 10 or under when the season starts; some of the players have since had birthdays and are now eleven-years-old.
Competitive sports can be expensive, particularly in the world of traveling teams, which tend to have the most talent, and often train and play year-round.
It’s especially true for new teams like the Bell Gardens All Stars, which has yet to attract sponsors in spite of their winning streak.
“It’s Bell Gardens, unfortunately our parents don’t have that kind of money,” explained Lucero.
Most parents aren’t even sure how much they spend each season to pay for bats, bags, helmets, uniforms, socks, and cleats, but they know expenses can reach into the thousands of dollars when tournament entry fees, gas, food and hotels are calculated into the cost.
“What’s helped is the fundraising we do,” said Guerra. “If it weren’t for that it would be tough for all the parents.”
Parents said they are constantly in fundraising mode. They’ve raised money through casino trips, raffles, car washes and by selling candy. Otherwise, they said, the cost would be a deal breaker for most parents in the city.
They told EGP they are vigilant about looking for deals, which may mean their players use second-hand gear rather than the latest and most expensive equipment.
Bats, for example, can range from $200 to $450, said Anabel Mendez, who explained she can only afford to buy her daughter one item at a time.
“We just bought her a bat, next time we’ll buy her something else.”
So far, the team has each season raised enough money to pay the $500 it costs to compete in each tournament they play. The All-Star’s winning record has qualified the team for more tournaments and while that’s a good thing, the longer season has lead to more expenses than parents anticipated.
Still they push on, motivated by the determination and the love the girls have for the sport. “I’ve always wanted to play softball and I hope I one day get to play for UCLA,” said ten-year old outfielder Natalie Carbajal.
Priscilla Escalera, 11, dreams of making it big and one day playing softball at the Olympics.
“Sometimes practicing 6 days a week is hard, but … I want to be like [U.S. Olympian and world record-holder pitcher] Monica Abbott,” Escalera said excitedly.
It takes sacrifice, said one of the player’s mother, explaining how players have skipped out on their own parties to make it to a game.
Players say they are like a family.
“… I love knowing I have 13 other sisters,” said Natalie Bracken.
The three-day tournament in San Diego begins Friday. Money is tight and the team is hoping for more donations from the community to help offset the cost. Either way, they’re ready to play.
“We clawed our way up,” Lucero said. “Getting this far speaks to their dedication and the work they’ve put in.”