Bobcat team members past and present, along with Bobcat cheerleaders,… (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles…)
At East Los Angeles' Salazar Park on a sunny February afternoon, a teenage couple stood on the grass next to the tennis courts, deep in conversation. A man walked a small, white dog. Parents gathered on the bleachers to watch their children play baseball.
The tranquillity was a testament to how far the neighborhood has come in the last two decades. In the early 1990s, the unincorporated county area of East Los Angeles averaged more than 40 homicides a year, most of them gang-related. Last year, the number was down to five.
"You had to be more cautious," said John Sanchez, 46, a baseball coach for Animo Oscar de la Hoya Charter High School, as he watched his team arrive for practice at the park. Sanchez grew up in East Los Angeles when gang violence was at a high. "Times have changed."
Residents credit sports programs and other activities for youngsters, along with law enforcement, for the reduction in violence.
But now the fallout from a gang-related stabbing death is threatening the future of the community's two youth football leagues. Los Angeles County and school officials have, for the first time that anyone can recall, blocked them from playing, forcing hundreds of 6- to 14-year-old athletes and cheerleaders onto the sidelines.
"I feel for the kids, because we had our time, and now it's their turn," said Joseph Ramos, 17, an alum of one of the banned leagues, the Bobcats, who returned to coach its youngest members, including his own little brother, at flag football. "To have this be taken away from them, it's not right, because what's going to happen to those kids — are they going to go out on the streets?"
On Oct. 6, an East L.A. Bobcats team of 9- to 11-years-olds was at Shakey's Pizza Parlor in Monterey Park after a game in Bell Gardens, where they had suffered a crushing 28-0 defeat. At the pizza parlor, adult Bobcats fans got into an argument with another group of restaurant patrons, according to officials with the L.A. County Sheriff's Department.
"Gang affiliations were mentioned, football affiliations were mentioned, and a fight broke out," said Lt. Holly Francisco with the sheriff's homicide bureau. Alcohol was also involved, she said.
Jose De Jesus Ruiz, 23, of Bakersfield is now accused of stabbing to death a Los Angeles man, Patrick Raymond Ortega, 25.
Officials said the victim and suspect were affiliated with rival gangs. Ruiz was at the restaurant with the Bobcats team, while Ortega had family members who were part of the Bulldogs, a newer youth football league also based in East L.A. The Bobcats and Bulldogs do not play against each other.
Then on Oct. 16, Los Angeles County took the highly unusual step of suspending the Bobcats' permit to practice at Salazar Park, where the league had played for decades. A few days before, the Los Angeles Unified School District had booted the Bulldogs from their practice spot at nearby Garfield High School and also taken away the Bobcats' permit to play their games there.
The Bobcats managed to finish their season by playing their games on the fields of other teams in the conference. Board members of the Bobcats kept talking with county and school district officials in the hope that their permits would be reinstated, but without success so far as the March sign-up period for this season draws near. The season typically starts in July.
Bobcats President Sylvia Romero appealed again for the county to soften its position. She said Ruiz knew people from the league but was not a parent or volunteer. She also said that the league's former president and a coach who were at Shakey's the night of the stabbing have since stepped down from the organization. Yet, the Bobcats acknowledged that, despite mandatory background checks for volunteers, some current or former gang members had made their way into the organization.
"There are some that were gang members and not many. Not many at all," said Sally Aguero, 41, a parent and volunteer board member. "We're not all gang members. It really hurts that we're being punished for a crime we didn't commit."
Aguero's two sons began playing with the Bobcats at age 6. Her older son, Jose, now 17, has gone on to play for Schurr High School in Montebello and is seeking a college football scholarship. Miguel, now 12, an honor student at La Merced Intermediate School, has one more year of youth football before he, too, goes on to high school sports. But now it's unclear if he will be able to spend it with his old friends.
"I wanted to finish my last year here instead of going anywhere else, because this is like home, this is like family," Miguel said. "If I can't play here with this team, it's going to feel weird."
But L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina, whose Eastside district includes Salazar Park, continues to stand firm on the ban. Molina said the leagues have been barred from county parks because there is a chance of more trouble stemming from the stabbing.