It Wouldn’t Be a Holiday Without Friends of Salazar Park Giving Again

April 20, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

Not a holiday goes by without the Friends of Salazar Park (FSPS) senior volunteers reaching out to local needy families to make their celebration just a little more enjoyable. The nonprofit, all volunteer group, continued the tradition last Saturday, April 13, giving out baskets of food they collected or donated, and hams provided by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Pictured: The Cabrera family (center) receives food and other gifts from volunteers, including: FSPS lead advisor Chris Mojica, FSPS volunteers Sylvia Ortiz, Guadalupe Romero, and Angelina Gonzalez; Deputy Jerry Garcia and Jaime Rodriguez with the LULAC-Greater LA County Council.

Easter Salazar Park


Stay Calm, Immigration Attorneys Advise Eastside Residents

December 8, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Sandra Muñoz has put off getting a green card for decades, always assuming she had plenty of time. But with less than seven weeks until President-elect Donald Trump is sworn-in to office, the East Los Angeles resident is now rushing to learn how to change her status.

Like many others in her position, Muñoz is worried Trump will make good on his campaign promise to deport millions of immigrants in the country without legal status, so last week she attended an information session at Ruben Salazar Park in hopes of getting advise on how to best protect herself.

The first thing to do is stay calm, advised immigrations lawyers brought in to answer questions and to help with the citizenship process.

“People are very scared, there’s a lot of anxiety,” acknowledged Valerie de Gonzalez, one of the attorneys at the event. “As attorneys, though, we know that any change, good or bad, doesn’t happen overnight.”

Trump’s election has cast a cloud of worry, stress and uncertainty over the undocumented immigrant community. They and their loved ones are living in fear of separation if immigration laws and enforcement tightens under the new Republican president.

Nora Phillips, an attorney with Phillips & Urias, LLP in East Los Angeles has been specializing in immigration law for nearly 10 years, but acknowledges that immigration attorneys do not know what will happen once Trump steps into office but believes there is still hope, especially in California where elected officials have sworn to protect the undocumented.

Immigration attorneys were at Salazar Park last week to answer questions about the citizenship process.  (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Immigration attorneys were at Salazar Park last week to answer questions about the citizenship process. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Phillips points out that many people who could qualify for legal residency under current immigration laws haven’t applied and urges they waste no time getting the process started.

A person may be eligible for a Green Card – or permanent residency status – through a family member, their job, asylum or other petitions, it was explained at the forum. Parents of a U.S. citizen 21 and over, the spouse of a U.S. citizen and unmarried children under 21 of a U.S. citizen are given the highest priority for visas. Those who don’t qualify under one of those categories can still apply, but must wait until one of the allocated visas from their home country becomes available, which could take years. Still, even when a person is eligible, the process isn’t always smooth and can drag on.

Just ask Martha Galaviz of East Los Angeles who asked attorneys why the green card petition she submitted on behalf of her brother 10 years ago has still not been approved.

Phillips quickly pointed out that every case is different and the length of the process can vary from a few months to decades.

She advises anyone who wants to fix his or her immigration status to at least set up a consultation with an immigration attorney before the presidential inauguration on Jan. 20.

“We’re lucky we’re in Los Angeles and not Idaho,” Phillips joked. “We have a lot of immigration lawyers to choose from here.”

Muñoz, however, is not as confident. She told EGP finding an attorney she could trust has been a challenge, especially with all the notarios or notaries trying to pass as immigration consultants, but have been known to scam people unfamiliar with the immigration process.

“If you don’t feel comfortable and can’t ask your attorney questions, get a new attorney,” Phillips told attendees, emphasizing, “Some lawyers don’t deserve your confidence or money.”

One of the biggest scams perpetrated by unlicensed notarios is the promise to provide a work permit but then failing to fill out the proper, required documents. In fact, many people have been duped into filling out applications for asylum, only to land up in court facing deportation, Phillips warned.

But it’s not only those without legal status who are worried.

Many of the people who signed up for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) — an executive order issued by President Obama in 2012 that has since granted three-quarters of a million undocumented immigrants relief from deportation — are also feeling uneasy since the election.

As part of the DACA process, applicants were required to provide immigration authorities with information about where they live, work, or go to school, and in some cases, about other relatives who may also be undocumented.

“DACA is the big unknown,” acknowledges Phillips. Because it’s an executive order rather than a law passed by Congress, “Trump can end DACA on his first day if he wants.”

Deportation is an undocumented immigrants’ worst nightmare and Phillips says those who have been deported before or been arrested even for minor offenses are at greatest risk for deportation under a Trump presidency.

Yet, even with a deportation on their record, some undocumented immigrants may still be eligible for legal residency. As Phillips puts it, immigration laws are tough but complicated, and whether a person can stay in the country legally could come down to when the offense on their record took place.

“Rules are different for everyone,” emphasized Phillips, so “don’t compare your case with others.”

Phillips told EGP that frantic calls from potential clients have increased dramatically since the election and their staff has been busy trying to reassure callers that Homeland Security will not be snatching people off the streets.

“We know it’s going to get worse, but some of the things he promises are impossible.”

Monsignor John Moretta of Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights is a long time community and immigration rights advocate. Resurrection is not far from Salazar Park, and large numbers of Church parishioners are undocumented, leading Moretta to hope the meeting would be packed, but attendance was small.

“This room should be full because, as you know, it affects almost the entire community,” he said in disappointment.

“If it’s not someone in your house, you know of someone who will be affected by this.”


Ruben Salazar Park Keeps Thanksgiving Tradition Alive

November 23, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Hundreds of families received a free traditional Thanksgiving meal with all the trimmings Saturday at the Annual Thanksgiving Dinner and Celebration at Salazar Park in unincorporated East Los Angeles. Organized by members of clubs and the Senior Citizen program at the park, the event was free and open to the public. Sup. Hilda Solis, (pictured center), was among the dozens of volunteers working the event.

(Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation)

(Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation)

Bell Gardens Man Pleads Not Guilty to Murder Charges

July 14, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

A Bell Gardens man accused in the shooting deaths of two brothers at a county park in East Los Angeles last November pleaded not guilty last week to murder charges.

Pedro Vasquez, 23, was charged April 6 with the Nov. 22, 2015, killings of Antonio Aguilar, 33, and Juan Aguilar, 28, at Ruben Salazar Park.

The murder charges include the special circumstance allegation of multiple murders, but prosecutors have yet to decide whether to pursue the death penalty.

Vasquez allegedly approached the two men at the park and opened fire on them, with both suffering multiple gunshot wounds.

Juan Aguilar had once dated Vasquez’s sister, according to authorities, who have not disclosed a motive for the killings.

Vasquez has remained jailed since his April 4 arrest. He is due back at the downtown Los Angeles courthouse Aug. 11, when a date is scheduled to be set for a hearing to determine if there is enough evidence to require him to stand trial.

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

Deputies Need Public’s Help Identifying Man Who Tried to Kidnap Girl From East L.A. Park

March 22, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

A composite sketch of a man suspected of attempting to kidnap a young girl at over the weekend at a park in unincorporated East Los Angeles was released today by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

At approximately 2:47 p.m. on Saturday, deputies assigned to the Parks Bureau received a 9-1-1 call of an attempted kidnapping at Salazar Park, located at 3646 Whittier Blvd.

According to deputies, two juvenile sisters were walking towards the water fountain near the restroom area on the east side of the park when the older sister saw her younger brother talking to the suspect.

The older of the two girls told authorities she confronted her brother, asking why he was talking to a stranger. That’s when the suspect grabbed the younger sister, but the older sister was able to pull her away from him.

The suspect then began pulling the older sister in the direction of the men’s restroom, deputies said. As the older sister screamed at the suspect to let her go, she fought back, punching the suspect several times.

L.A. County Sheriff composite drawing of suspect in attempted kidnapping Saturday at Salazar Park in unincorporated East L.A.

L.A. County Sheriff composite drawing of suspect in attempted kidnapping Saturday at Salazar Park in unincorporated East L.A.

She was able to break away, grabbed her little sister and ran to their mother, telling her what had occurred.

The mother confronted the suspect near the men’s restroom as he was fleeing from the scene. She quickly alerted park staff and followed the suspect north through the park, but he crossed Whittier Boulevard and disappeared, authorities said.

The attempted kidnapping comes just two days following a public meeting at Salazar Park where speaker after speaker told county officials, including the captain of the East L.A. Sheriff’s Station, they fear for their safety due to a large uptick in crime at the park and in the surrounding area.

Capt. Steven Biagini told the audience the department has stepped up patrols in the area.

Detectives are seeking the public’s help in identifying and locating the man in the sketch. He’s described as a male Hispanic male, between 30 and 40 years old, with brown eyes, black hair, a small mustache and goatee. He is 5’7” to 5’9” tall and weights160-180 lbs. He was wearing a white T-shirt and faded black pants a the time of the attack, and has a tattoo of a dragon wrapped around his right arm with the head of a creature on the back of his hand.

Anyone with information about this incident is encouraged to contact the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Parks Bureau, Sergeant Kemp, at (909) 394-9705.  If you prefer to provide information anonymously, you may call “Crime Stoppers” by dialing (800) 222-TIPS (8477), or texting the letters TIPLA plus your tip to CRIMES (274637), or by using the website

Dos Hermanos Muertos a Tiros en el Parque Rubén Salazar

November 25, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

Dos hermanos fueron asesinados durante un tiroteo el domingo por la mañana en el Parque Rubén Salazar en el Este de Los Ángeles, según la oficina del alguacil del Condado de Los Ángeles.

Oficiales respondieron a una llamada de “disparos” en el parque alrededor de las 11:10 de la mañana, según las autoridades.

Testigos dirigieron a los oficiales a las canchas de baloncesto donde los dos hombres estaban tirados en el suelo cerca de una mesa al lado de la cancha con heridas de bala en el pecho y uno de ellos con un tiro en la cabeza.

El lunes, las autoridades dieron a conocer el nombre de uno de los dos hermanos; Antonio Aguilar, de 33 años, de Palmdale murió en el lugar del tiroteo, dijo el subjefe forense Ed Winter.

Testigos le dijeron a EGP que “Tony” como lo conocían en el área tenía un tiro en la cabeza que lo mató instantáneamente y su cuerpo estuvo en el mismo lugar “casi todo el día”.

Un altar en honor a los hermanos muertos en el parque Rubén Salazar se encuentra en el lugar donde perecieron. (EGP foto por Jacqueline García)

Un altar en honor a los hermanos muertos en el parque Rubén Salazar se encuentra en el lugar donde perecieron. (EGP foto por Jacqueline García)

El otro hombre, de unos 20 años, murió en un hospital, dijo Winter. Su nombre no fue revelado, a la espera de la notificación de la familia. Pero la hermana de los hombres lo identificó como Juan Aguilar, de 28 años de edad, comúnmente conocido como Johnny.

Ella le dijo a la prensa que sus dos hermanos eran padres de niños menores de 5.

Los testigos dijeron a los oficiales que tres personas participaron en el tiroteo: “un hombre hispano corpulento, una mujer hispana corpulenta y un joven hispano”, dijo la oficial del alguacil Juanita Navarro-Suárez.

Según los testigos, los sospechosos se acercaron a las víctimas y comenzaron una conversación. Entonces el hombre sacó una pistola y disparó varias veces, dijo Navarro-Suárez, y los tres sospechosos luego corrieron hacia el este hacia la avenida Ditman.

Se desconocen los motivos del tiroteo y también se desconoce si el tiroteo estaba relacionado con pandillas, según Navarro-Suárez.

Cualquier persona con información sobre el crimen puede llamar al Departamento de Homicidios del Alguacil al (323) 890 a 5500.

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

Stepping In When Tragedy Strikes

March 26, 2015 by · 3 Comments 

Maria Leandra Reyes fought to hold back tears as she recalled the tragic death of her good friend Jesus Valderrama and her recent search for his relatives.

Valderrama, a 62-year-old native of Chihuahua Mexico, was killed at around 10:20 a.m., Mar. 10 when a 2003 Honda Accord traveling west on Whittier Boulevard near South Ditman Avenue jumped the curb and struck him as he slept under a tree outside the Ruben Salazar Senior Center in unincorporated East Los Angeles.

Authorities have identified the driver of the vehicle as Angel Lujano, 18, of Montebello. Two female passengers were in the car at the time of the accident and Lujano was arrested at the scene, according to California Highway Patrol Officer Doris Peniche. “[Lujano] may have been under the influence” of drugs or alcohol, she said. “The case is under investigation.”

Reyes was not at the park at the time of the accident and says she was shocked when she heard the news. It had been just a few hours since they last saw each other, she recalled.

“He must have had a feeling something was going on because he gave me his cell phone and he said that he loved me very much,” she said in Spanish, still visibly shaken.

Maria Leandra Reyes holds an old photo of her long time friend Jesus Valderrama, who was fatally hit by a car at Ruben Salazar Park Mar. 10. (EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

Maria Leandra Reyes holds an old photo of her long time friend Jesus Valderrama, who was fatally hit by a car at Ruben Salazar Park Mar. 10. (EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

Chuy—as friends called him—was like a father to me, she told EGP.

Feeling an obligation to notify Chuy’s family in Mexico of his death and to arrange for his burial, Reyes said she had little time to mourn the passing of her friend.

But where to start?

Chuy’s only family in Los Angeles was a brother living in a convalescent hospital and when Reyes attempted to notify him about the death the hospital advised against it: “The nurse said the news could kill him,” Reyes said.

The only emergency contact information the hospital had on record was a disconnected, out of state phone number, she said.

Not knowing where else to go, she headed to the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles for help, where she encountered more obstacles because she is not a relative.

The Consulate offers a variety of services to Mexican nationals living in the U.S., including notifying next of kin of a death or in some cases, transporting the deceased back to Mexico.

“We try to contact family members in Mexico and we look for options” to assist them when these tragedies occur, explains Consulate spokesperson Sergio Juarez.

It was ultimately Reyes, however, who located a brother of Chuy’s in Mexico and delivered the tragic news to his family.

Last Friday, Ramon Valderrama flew to Los Angeles and on Monday he went to the Mexican Consulate to seek help arranging his brother’s funeral.

“We will receive $1,700 [to help] with the funeral services,” Ramon told EGP by telephone Tuesday.

The Mexican Consulate’s “Traslado de Restos” (Shipping of Mortal Remains) program contracts with mortuaries in Mexico – including embalming, casket — and shipping to Mexico, which can cost over $2,000.

The process can take several days, said Juarez, who also explained the deceased is flown to either Mexico City or Guadalajara and from there driven to his or her final destination.

Cremation, without a burial, is less expensive, costing about $1,000.

Chuy’s story illustrates the importance of making sure someone local knows how to contact your family in case of an emergency or your death, since only an immediate family member — spouse, child or parents—can solicit help from the Mexican Consulate, which requires proof family members and the deceased are Mexican nationals, Juarez said. Valid documents accepted are a birth certificate, Mexican passport or draft card.

As previously reported by EGP, the Mexican Consulate can also assist family members obtain a humanitarian visa to travel to the U.S. in the event of an emergency, such as a grave illness or death.

“[Family members] just need their Mexican passport and the official letter on letterhead from the mortuary with specific information” about the deceased person in the U.S., said Juarez.

A small alter was placed near skid marks from the March 10 car crash at Salazar Park that claimed the life of Jesus Valderama.  (EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

A small alter was placed near skid marks from the March 10 car crash at Salazar Park that claimed the life of Jesus Valderama. (EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

In the meantime, Reyes and some of Chuy’s other friends — many frequent visitors to  Salazar Park Senior Center — are collecting donations to help defray burial costs. Donation boxes have been placed in nearby businesses, Reyes said.

Many regular park goers were there at the time of the accident and some are still very shaken up by the tragedy, according to park officials.

Andre Herndon, public information officer for the county’s parks and recreation department, told EGP they immediately notified the Dept. of Mental Health to provide crisis counseling to seniors and others affected by the accident.

Staff reached out to the people who saw the accident and so far two people have requested counseling, Herndon said.

Because it can take weeks for flashbacks and other stresses related to the incident to occur, counseling will be available indefinitely, Herndon said. Those who need help can call (800) 854-7771, 24 hours, seven days a week.

According to Reyes, Salazar Senior Center was Valderrama’s favorite place to hang out. He’d go play pool and he liked to relax on the grass outside of the center, she said.

“I never thought Chuy would be killed this way,” she said sadly.

She would tell Chuy, “don’t sleep on the grass” or to go home because he could be shot—with so much gang activity around, Reyes said.

I guess, “It was God’s plan that he die there.”

If you or someone you know needs help in a similar case, call the Mexican Consulate’s Department of Protection at (213) 351-6800 ext. 2405 or visit 2401 West 6th Street, LA 90057.

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