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Marching Band Sets Off a Crescendo of Pride

Music: Amid skepticism, a few determined East L.A. College students resurrect an ensemble that died years ago. Effort has raised spirits at the commuter school.

November 28, 1999|JILL LEOVY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

East Los Angeles College students have come up with their own cure for the community college blues--a marching band.

The school's new Husky Pride and Spirit Marching Band had long been a dream of a small group of students and an English professor.

The group was determined to raise the low spirits of this workaday junior college, a place so notably without pride that its vaguely medicinal-sounding nickname, ELAC (pronounced ee-lack), tends to produce blank looks outside its Eastside locale.

A quarter of a century ago, the college had a band, and a football team, and a lively school spirit. But with funding cuts, the trappings of ELAC loyalty gradually fell away.

The band fell victim first. Then the football team was eliminated. Even the giant steam-engine bell with its mighty ring--traditionally wheeled out on a cart during games--was stashed away, its very existence forgotten.

"There was no spirit in the school," said Gonzalo Iflas, a trumpet-playing sophomore and one of the band's four founding members. "People would say, 'Yeah, I'm going to ELAC,' and put their head down--that kind of thing, kind of embarrassed."

ELAC, like most community colleges, is a commuter school. Its students often attend at night, juggling classes with jobs and kids. It offers education without the frills. As for pride, many students are just as likely to express chagrin at not attending more prestigious universities.

But Iflas wasn't embarrassed. Neither was the small cadre of brass-playing students and pep club members who posted fliers advertising the band and set up recruitment tables in the quad.

At first, they had to play recorded music because there were too few players to get their point across. Most students walked right by. But a few, such as Deysi Maravilla, a freshman not much taller than the bass drum she plays, signed right up.

"I was like, 'Oh, my God! A marching band!' " she said.

From four, the band grew to nine, then 12. They salvaged the school's old instruments--dented and rusty now--and practiced dutifully, three hours at a stretch. If they drew stares marching around campus, they didn't notice; in true marching-band form, they gazed straight ahead.

The marchers knew ELAC was just a community college and not as posh as rivals such as Pasadena City College. They knew that alumni tended to remember only the universities they transferred to. They knew the very name "East L.A." conjured up certain prejudices. They didn't care.

"We wanted to put pride back in East L.A.," said Ysenia Guerra, 19, a flutist. "When people think of East L.A., they think of gangsters and teenagers getting pregnant. Well, we aren't any of that."

English professor and ELAC alumnus Dennis Sanchez, who began the school's small Eastside Pride and Spirit Club years before, lobbied for the band, wearing down opposition.

Administrators "didn't want to hear any more about the band," he said. "The teachers thought I was nerdy. My department thought I should be more academic. But I thought--a band. That is something that could really transcend. . . . If the students feel better about themselves, they could learn better."

Although budgets are tight at the school, President Ernest Moreno agreed to set aside funds for a band director. The school had recently restarted its football program; the band would be a good complement, he thought.

By June, there were just enough band members to toot out "Pomp and Circumstance" at graduation ceremonies, although there still weren't any saxophones or clarinets.

This fall, ELAC hired a former USC assistant band director and East L.A. native, Jesus "Chuy" Martinez, who aggressively recruited ELAC-bound high schoolers and veteran musicians.

Under his leadership, the band grew to 45. There was Jorge Montiel, a sax player from Mexico; Chris Estrada, who learned the sousaphone this semester because somebody had to; and Walter Pearce, at 36, the oldest member, who marched in a wheelchair.

They bought matching green golf shirts because they couldn't afford uniforms. The old steam-engine bell was located in a storage area under the stadium. The band started holding pep rallies in the quad, making a deafening racket. Members would chant in three strong beats: "East! . . . L.! . . . A.!"

Bit by bit, the notoriously apathetic student body rallied, and cheered along. They couldn't help themselves. "Everyone gravitates toward a band," said Sanchez.

As the band lurched toward reality, the football team was struggling through a losing season. The fans managed to fill only a small swatch of ELAC's vast stadium. Games were "just silent, with a few cheers," said Moreno.

One night, the team arrived at the field for practice to find that there had been a scheduling mix-up: The would-be band was there, practicing on the track.

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