East L.A. Seniors Work Together to Fight Depression, Loneliness

July 14, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

The setting was casual, from the coffee and Mexican bread on the table, to the prayer recited in both English and Spanish to get the meeting started.

The men and women, most of them elderly, Latino and low-income, had gathered July 7 at the Ruben Salazar Park Senior Center in East Los Angeles to share their life experiences. It was the first official meeting of the “Angels Support Group,” a volunteer effort to help seniors dealing with depression, loneliness and isolation. It’s a form of group therapy among friends, is how one person described the meeting.

Lea este artículo en Español: Personas Mayores del Este de Los Ángeles Luchan Contra la Depresión y la Soledad

Shy at first, one by one, speaking mostly in Spanish, they shared their personal stories of pain.

Participants were told they could talk about anything and for many that meant digging into long time feelings of grief. For others, it was a chance to help someone by sharing ways to cope and move past the pain.

“My daughter died 11 years ago and I still cry over her death,” said Rosa Perez.

For years, I cried over my mother’s death, then one day she appeared to me in a dream and told me not to suffer anymore, shared Manuela Tlatenchi. “Tears don’t allow the dead to rest in peace,” she reflected.

“I felt depressed until I started volunteering and giving back to my community,” said Marcelo Vazquez, a volunteer instructor at the park.

Chris Mojica just celebrated his 85th birthday. He’s a long time senior center volunteer and co-leader of the Angels Support Group and says he personally knows of at least 20 seniors who died at home alone.

“They are elders who have family, but at the same time they [are all alone] because they don’t visit each other,” he said. The seniors “feel really sad and they stay home waiting to die,” he lamented.

According to the California Department of Aging (CDA), California has one of the fastest growing populations in the country. Los Angeles County’s elder population is nearly 1,190,000, according to the CDA. Of those, about 718,000 are minorities and 188,000 live alone.

(EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

(EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

By 2020, it’s estimated that 14% of the country’s seniors (60 and older) will live in California.
Seeking mental health services or grief counseling is rare for elderly Latinos.

The idea for the senior support group came from talking to so many older people at the center who seemed depressed or were very sick, said Mojica.

Depression is a problem that needs to be addressed with love and compassion, adds Ray Guerrero, another long time volunteer and group co-leader. “Laughing out loud is great therapy,” he pointed out.

The group plans to meet Thursday mornings at Salazar Park. About 20 people attended the first gathering last week. As part of the “group therapy,” seniors are encouraged to get out more and take part in recreational activities with other members. It doesn’t matter if they choose to take a knitting class, work in one of the gardens outside the senior center, learn to play guitar or just socialize with their fellow elders, because the goal is just to keep the seniors busy.

An important component of the new group is keeping track of one another when away from the center. They’ve formed a phone tree of sorts, and members are encouraged to call other members regularly to see how they are doing. The group will also visit or send cards to seniors who wind up in the hospital or a convalescent home.

A $5 monthly donation—not required but suggested—will help pay for outings to museums, the zoo and the movies.

Seniors form circle of prayer at first meeting of Angels Support Group at Salazar Park. (EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

Seniors form circle of prayer at first meeting of Angels Support Group at Salazar Park. (EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

Every month the group will celebrate the birthdays taking place that month, said Mojica, adding that they rely on volunteers and donations to make things happen.

As with many new groups, the Angels Support Group must still overcome a number of management issues, such as keeping track of donations and planning field trips.

Our plans are big, but the need is bigger than what we can do on our own, said 71-year-old Guerrero. “We have the ideas, but we don’t have the strength” or know how to carry some of the ideas through, Guerrero said. “We need help from [younger] volunteers and we need donations from people and from our (elected) representatives,” he added.

Participants at the first Angels Support Group meeting said they are excited about the new venture and hope more people will start attending.

“Not everybody feels comfortable with the group and they don’t [yet] feel the need to be part of it,” explained Guerrero. “But it is always good to laugh and talk to other people because we tend to feel alone sometimes,” he noted.

“I could be fishing now, I could be doing something else, but I’d rather be here and help the group,” said Guerrero with a smile. “I like this center.”


Twitter @jackiereporter


East L.A. Park Users Lambast County On Crime, Park Service

March 24, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

It’s been nearly forty-six years since a park on Whittier Boulevard in unincorporated East Los Angeles was thrust into the center of the Chicano movement and the demand for civil rights and equal services long denied. During a community meeting last week organized by the Office of Supervisor Hilda Solis at Ruben Salazar Park, it was clear that for some local residents and park users, anger over too few services and mistrust of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department persists today.

Renamed for the journalist killed by a tear gas canister deployed by a sheriff deputy in the violent aftermath of the 1970 National Chicano Moratorium, Salazar Park is in many ways a symbol of Latino empowerment. It’s the place where memories of injustice run deep and political and cultural activism has a long history. It’s a place where the struggles that come from being working class in an area where gangs go back generations are just as deep, as is the fear and mistrust of the Sheriff’s department.

Lea este artículo en Español: Comunidad Arremete Contra el Condado debido al Crimen y Servicios del Parque

Over the years, the park has undergone many changes for the better, from programming to infrastructure improvements. Enrollment in recreational activities was up and gang violence was down. Hundreds of children, teens, adults and seniors participate in organized activities at the park daily.

According to some, that’s changing.

The meeting on March 17 was one in a series of meetings Solis is holding across the first district to bring county government closer to residents and visa versa. Representatives from the departments of public works, transportation, graffiti abatement, probation, parks and recreation and the sheriff’s department were on hand to explain what they do and how to get services if needed. What they got instead was an earful from frustrated residents with only two things on their mind: the uptick in gang violence in and around the park and the need for more affordable recreational programs.

Solis’ eastside field deputy, Joseph Martinez, acting as moderator, tried to keep the meeting moving and give all the panelists a chance to speak and take questions, but the audience repeatedly turned the discussion back to crime, park operations and the “high cost” of classes for families with more than one child in a program.

Speaker after speaker complained that park officials and the county are no longer listening to them, or paying attention to their needs.

Before the meeting, senior Chris Mojica, a longtime active volunteer and member of the Friends of Salazar Park, told EGP he was disappointed Solis has not personally come to meet with park seniors and see what’s going on. “She’s been in office for almost two years and she still hasn’t found time to come herself, that’s wrong,” he said. “What’s it going to take?”
Several speakers said gangs are taking over the park and they feel unsafe.

East Los Angeles residents complain to county staff and sheriff officers during a meeting at Salazar Park. (EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

East Los Angeles residents complain to county staff and sheriff officers during a meeting at Salazar Park. (EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

Late last year, two brothers were killed in broad daylight while playing basketball. Last Saturday, just two days following the meeting, a male Hispanic allegedly tried to kidnap a young girl at the park, but was chased off by the girl’s mother. The suspect is still at large.

“Why isn’t the sheriff patrolling the area [around the park] more often?” asked Maria Ruiz in Spanish. “Some of us are afraid to come here,” another resident said.

Lt. John P. Anderson is assigned to the East Los Angeles Sheriff’s Station, which patrols the park and surrounding area. He said he is sorry residents feel unsafe and urged them to call 911 when they see something suspicious.

“We need you to call us, even if you call 911 they will [redirect the call] to the East LA station,” he explained.
In response to the uptick in gang violence, Anderson said the department has deployed more patrols to the area.

But while many spoke of the need for greater law enforcement, long-held feelings of distrust were also evident, with some in the audience wanting assurances that responding deputies would not “just shoot their neighbors.”

Someone might want to call about a domestic abuse situation, but they are afraid to call because they don’t know if you’ll just come and shoot their spouse, a woman in the audience told Capt. Steven Biagini, head of the East L.A. Sheriff’s Station,

“Why [do] you shoot people on and on? We are afraid to call the police because we may get killed,” said Victor Alcocer.
Officers are trained for the job and they don’t shoot unless they feel threatened or feel the lives of others are in danger, responded Biagini.

“I can guarantee you that I don’t come to work thinking I’m going to shoot somebody,” he told the audience. “We are here to help you, not to harm you.”

Biagini said in 2015 there were 12 murders in the eastside community, and three so far this year; figures one woman disputed as too low.  “I counted more than 12 in 2015,” she said.

To date, the majority of shootings have been gang on gang, not random, the captain said.

Property thefts, mainly of Honda vehicles, are up, he noted.

14-year-old Cecilia Cruz takes karate at Salazar Park and said she has seen people having sex, and found used needles in park restrooms,

“I’m seeing things I shouldn’t be seeing,” she said. “How are we supposed to reach our goals if the park is not helping us?” she asked.

Cruz told EGP she and her mother have made several police reports but haven’t seen any action from the authorities.
Armando Garcia, a dance instructor at the park since 1993, said in years past he had as many as 150 young people in his classes, but now only about seven girls attend.

“People were very involved in Salazar Park, but now people are afraid to come here,” he said. “I’m very disappointed with [the process of] the programs here,” he said.

Unfortunately, Biagini said, the “cycle of violence and gang activity” is generational and is not going to be fixed by just be putting gang members in jail. Education starts at home, he said, adding things could change if youth are given access to alternative programs.

You have to have money to be in those programs, countered several people in the audience, including Priscilla Acuna who grew up near the park and now wants to involve her children in park programs. But Acuna said it’s getting too expensive for low-income families who rely on the low- or no-cost park programs, noting that discounts for families with more than one child in a program have been cut.

“We are representing you [the park], but you are not helping us,” Acuna said.

Some blamed park Supervisor Lizette Andrade for making changes they claim make it too expensive to rent space at Salazar Park or raise the money they need for their programs, such as operating a snack bar.

Cruz’s mother, Wendy Rivas, said the karate program used to cost $100 per month for a family of four, but now every student 12 and older has to pay $50 per month, and those under 12 pay $40. Classes have been reduced from 40 students to about 15, she said.

(EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

(EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

What many people do not realize, however, is that many of the instructors at county run parks are not county employees, but independent contractors or volunteers who set their own fees. Parks and recreation policy requires independent instructors to sign a 70/30 contract, which essentially means 30 percent of fees collected or money raised must be paid to the park to cover things like security, restroom maintenance, staffing, etc. They do not pay rental fees on top of the split, and it’s up to the individual instructor to decide if they will offer scholarships or discounts for siblings, Alba Ibarra with parks and recreation told EGP in an email.

Some fees can be waived, but groups must apply for them in writing, Andrade said, reminding one of the groups complaining that she has repeatedly asked them to write a letter outlining their request.

Ray Guerrero is an active senior volunteer with Friends of Salazar Park and defended Andrade’s work, saying she has done a good job, but suggested an Ad hoc committee of representatives of the various clubs and groups at the park could help iron out park issues.

“… [You] have to help us continue with our activities because we are the poorest here and nobody helps us,” said Adolfo Arriaga, a 25-year volunteer Aztec dance instructor who also pointed out that traditional Aztec dance costumes can costs in the hundreds of dollars. “We are not here to make ourselves rich, but to enrich our community.”

Martinez, with Solis’ office, started to tell the audience they could start working on new youth programs for the center, but was quickly interrupted by Acuna who felt he had missed their point.

“We don’t need more programs, we need more affordable programs.”


Twitter @egpnews@jackiereporter

These Eastside Seniors Have Decades of Giving Experience

November 25, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

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.

Lea este artículo en Español: Personas de la Tercera Edad con Décadas de Experiencia en Ayudar

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.

Salazar Park volunteers feed hundreds of people from the community during the Friends of Salazar Park annual Thanksgiving dinner Saturday. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Salazar Park volunteers feed hundreds of people from the community during the Friends of Salazar Park annual Thanksgiving dinner Saturday. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

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.

Martha Fuentes, left, and Angelica Rodriguez, right, hold a framed newspaper clipping where Salazar Park seniors were recognized. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Martha Fuentes, left, and Angelica Rodriguez, right, hold a framed newspaper clipping where Salazar Park seniors were recognized. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

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.”


Twitter @nancyreporting


Car Crashes at Salazar Park – Kills Man as He Naps

March 12, 2015 by · 1 Comment 

A man was hit and killed Tuesday when a car involved in a crash with another vehicle jumped the curb and struck him as he napped outside the Ruben Salazar Senior Center in unincorporated East Los Angeles.

According to witnesses, at about 12 p.m. Tuesday, a car speeding west on Whittier Boulevard near South Ditman Avenue crashed into another car, hitting it so hard it flew across traffic lanes and into the park where it hit the victim.

The Coroner’s office confirmed the man died but declined to release the man’s identity, pending notification of his next of kin who are believed to be living in Mexico.

Several people who frequent Salazar Senior Center, however, identified the victim as Jesus Valderrama, a regular visitor to the park. They were unsure of his age.

A small memorial was placed by a tree in Salazar Park in East L.A. where ‘Chuy’ was killed Monday. (EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

A small memorial was placed by a tree in Salazar Park in East L.A. where ‘Chuy’ was killed Monday. (EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

Chuy, as he was known, would nap on the grass nearly every afternoon before going into the Center to play pool and socialize with other seniors, they told EGP.

Javier Solis said he and Valderrama were close friends. He said he was inside the Salazar Senior Center when he heard a loud noise and ran outside to see what had happened.

“He was crushed between the car and a tree,” said Solis, who was passing out copies of a farewell letter he had written in Spanish to his friend to people visiting the growing memorial next to the tree where Chuy was killed.

A photo of the victim of the fatal car accident at Salazar Park was placed in a shrine on Wednesday. (EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

A photo of the victim of the fatal car accident at Salazar Park was placed in a shrine on Wednesday. (EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

Solis said he and several people taking a Zumba class rushed over to help Chuy. We tried to lift the car off him, but he looked in “really bad condition,” Solis said Wednesday.

“He was still alive when we removed the car,” said Luis Mejia, another regular at the eastside center. He told EGP a woman tried to perform CPR on the man who was crunched, but did not appear to be bleeding. “Then the paramedics arrived, very quickly,” he said.

According to witnesses, three people were in the car that struck Valderrama.

EGP was unable to verify the name of the victim or whether any arrests were made in connection with the crash. Calls to the East L.A. sheriff detective handling the case were not returned as of press time. 

Twitter @jackieguzman

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