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American Dream Lives in the Barrio

July 27, 1983|George Ramos | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • In an image taken from the archived story, reporter George Ramos is pictured with his parents, Miguel and Maria Ramos, outside his childhood home. Inside his grandmother Felicitas Ramos makes quesadillas.
In an image taken from the archived story, reporter George Ramos is pictured… (Los Angeles Times )

The following story from The Times' archive was part of a series that won the 1984 Pulitzer gold medal for public service for an in-depth examination of Southern California's growing Latino community.

It is a ritual observed every nearly every day. The mail carrier approaches the small cluster of hillside barrio homes in East Los Angeles, armed with spray repellent in case one of his antagonists gets too close.

The neighborhood dogs, sensing the moment, spring to the ready.

Just as he approaches one mailbox a pack of dogs, separated from the mail carrier by a chain-link fence, lets go a chorus of howls that alters all other canines in the area.

The mail carrier quickly deposits his cargo and steps back to his Jeep. No matter, the dogs keep up the yelping. The roosters and chickens in coops on the hills overlooking this noisy scene crow their presence.

Music drowned out

As the mail carrier wheels his vehicle for a getaway, one dog scales the fence and gives chase. The howling now seems to drown out the musica Mexicana drifting from the windows of the small homes.

Moments later, the mail carrier is gone. The dog that gave chase nonchalantly returns to his resting place. Mission accomplished; ritual observed.

Welcome to the world of 812 N. Record Ave.


After 18 years, I went back to 812 N. Record Ave., to the house where I once lived, at the Belvedere Gardens barrio where I grew up.

My barrio is unique in this megalopolis that is Los Angeles, an obscure corner of an affluent society, a place seldom visited by progress. For example. sidewalks and curbs were installed only recently. English is heard only occasionally.

Downtown Los Angeles is only 4 1/2 miles away, but there is no hint that shiny skyscrapers are just over the horizon. Some neighborhood businesses on Hammel Street, near Record, have deteriorated beyond hope. Dogs, chickens. cars under constant repair, graffiti, homes valued under $35,000 and neighborhood tortillerias are fixtures in the landscape.

Nestled in a rural-like setting, yet ringed by three urban freeways (San Bernardino, Pomona and Santa Ana) Record is a quiet, out-of-the-way street north of Brooklyn Avenue that trails off in the surrounding hills of another East Los Angeles barrio, City Terrace.

The inhabitants of Record are poor but proud people, comfortable in the knowledge that they own their homes and owe little to an Anglo-dominated society. To them, life on Record is as American as that in Kansas, and hopes are as resilient as tall wheat in the summer breeze.

No one really knows what to expect when he goes back to the old neighborhood.

I remember rampaging on the surrounding hills, building cabins out of abandoned furniture, auto doors and bamboo, and killing imaginary enemies with a crudely constructed gun made of clothespins. In an ongoing scenario, one close friend, David Angulo, was Tarzan and his brother Stephen was Cheetah the chimp. I was a hunter -- I can't remember if I ever used the term "Great White Hunter" -- always seeking Tarzan's help.

Fences Tame the Jungle

Now the property owners look after their investments with fences, forcing local jungle warriors to play elsewhere.

There were organized activities for the area's Chicano youngsters. After-hours softball games at Hammel Street School (Panthers vs. Dragonflies) routinely attracted 40 to 50 youngsters, prompting teachers to let them play all at once. Trying to get a ground ball past two shortstops and three third basemen was hard.

As a Dragonfly I remember one game, 6 to 5, on a disputed call at third base. No amount of intervention by the teachers avoided the game's real outcome later -- two bloody noses for the Panthers and one scraped knee for us.

But Hammel, where actor Anthony Quinn went to school as a boy, is a far different place today. In my time, the early 1950s, boys and girls were segregated on the playground during recess. Baseball cards, tops and yo-yos were confiscated as unauthorized items.

The school's tough rules extended even to the after-hour softball games. I was once called out simply because I had entered the batter's box before I was told to do so by a teacher.

Youngsters at Hammel were prohibited from speaking Spanish, a common restriction at the time.

Once a classmate whispered something about a movie on television that night. I told him in Spanish that I would see it at a cousin's house. Hearing the chatter , the teacher approached me.

"Not only do I not like talking in class," he said, "but I especially don't like it in Spanish."

I stood in the corner, back turned to the class for an hour. The same offense later earned me a shaking -- the teacher shook you until he thought all the knowledge of Spanish had fallen-out-of-your-head.

Bilingualism Prevails

These days, all office workers at Hammel are bilingual. All the school signs are bilingual.

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