For the first time in almost 30 years, the Los Angeles Dodgers are in the World Series, hosting at Dodger Stadium, third-oldest in the majors. A few miles south of the home-to-first baseline is downtown Los Angeles; over the outfield are Elysian Park’s rolling hills and palm trees with mountains further in the background; an aerial view shows multiple highways surrounding the stadium. It’s easy to see why someone would have wanted to build a baseball stadium there, at a place whose name the television and radio broadcasters use interchangeably with that of the stadium itself: Chavez Ravine.
In a sport and country that are increasingly brown, the Dodgers and Los Angeles offer a glimpse of what’s coming. MLB, like every other United States sports league and corporation, recognizes its future economic well-being rest on appealing to the growing Latino audience. The league’s rosters are comprised of nearly 32 percent Latinos while Los Angeles County is 47 percent Latino or Hispanic. And the Dodgers are among the best, if not the best, in attempting to attract this large segment of the population. The team was the first to have Spanish radio broadcast. They are in negotiations to play regular season games in Mexico City next season. Their first baseman, Adrián González, led the Ponle Acento campaign to include accents on Latino player’s names. The team hosts Viva Los Dodgers festivals, advertises through “Esta Es Mi Ciudad” billboards, and even sell “Los Doyers” t-shirts—a play on how native Spanish speakers pronounce the name.
But besides offering a glimpse to the future, the Dodgers, Los Angeles, and the city’s Latino population—specifically Mexican and Mexican-American—also point to the past, and the problems that continue to haunt the present. Few things symbolize this tension better than Chavez Ravine, site of the complicated history between a city, its team, and a population that generations ago rooted for that team reluctantly, if at all.
Historically, Chavez Ravine was among the largest, most important Mexican communities in the Southwest. Its three main barrios were Palo Verde, La Loma, and Bishop. Collectively, they formed a community often described as the poor man’s Shangri-La. Starting with the beginning of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, immigrants from that country swelled the Chavez Ravine population. But not all its residents were immigrants. Many, though of Mexican descent, were born in the United States and traced their history back through generations to the Californios—Mexicans who were living in what became California after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, turned it, along with about half of Mexico, into United States territory. Hence the old saying: “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.”
For the Californios, the transition was fraught with tension. As Mexico became the United States, their new country required proof of what land they owned. With that goal in mind, Congress passed the California Land Act of 1851, requiring that “each and every person claiming lands in California by virtue of any right or title derived from the Spanish or Mexican government, shall present the same ... together with such documentary evidence and testimony of witnesses as the said claimant relies upon in support of such claims.”
Californios owned some claims communally, while others were not entirely clear. The court ruled these, along with many other claims, invalid and open for settlement. Since most Californios were land-rich and cash-poor, the few fortunate enough to get an appeal granted often paid the mounting fees with their property—the very same land they were trying to protect.
By the mid-19th century, wealthy and politically connected Anglos increasingly owned land that had belonged to Californios. From Del Norte County in northernmost California, where the state borders Oregon, all the way south to where today a border fence suddenly drowns into the Pacific Ocean after separating what was Alta from what’s still Baja California, the territory that transferred hands was “between twelve and thirteen million acres of prime coastal and valley land.”
The Gold Rush further encouraged Anglo migration into California, in the process further pushing Californios into what became barrios like those in Chavez Ravine. One of the many Anglos who went west hoping to strike it rich was a New Yorker named Alexander Joy Cartwright. When he arrived in California, he brought the game he’s credited with having fathered: baseball.
Sports spread like culture and disease, all eased by expansion—imperial or otherwise. This is how baseball not only arrived in California but also advanced into Mexico. In fact, in parts of northern Mexico, baseball—introduced by United States citizens working for American companies exploiting their southern neighbor’s natural resources—is more popular than soccer. And as baseball became the United States’s national game, its symbolism and importance grew.
Baseball sold itself as a clean sport, where there was no foul language, loafing, and despite evidence to the contrary, no gambling. But above all else, baseball was democratic, which made it uniquely American. And as the United States military occupied more territories in the late 19th century, they brought baseball. “Wherever Uncle Sam goes there goes with him his favorite and characteristic National game,” proclaimed a 1903 edition of Sporting Life. The newspaper also noted baseball was flourishing in Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines—territories occupied by the United States as per the Treaty of Paris that ended the Spanish-American War.
Baseball became an American institution that, besides being a moral sport, civilized those who played it. Civility has always been a supposed marker of difference between those who expand their empire and the barbarians outside of it, and the American empire was no different. For the supposed barbarians who played the game, baseball taught them “courage, honesty, patience…and due respect for lawful authority.” It also taught them confidence and self-control along with a variety of other traits required for “success in the life of an individual and of a nation.”
Baseball taught the non-white foreigners how to imitate the United States and their citizens. But imitation is not authenticity or acceptance, and though some, like Puerto Ricans, eventually attained United States citizenship, their sovereign never fully embraced them as equals. In this, they were just like the residents of the Chavez Ravine community.
Walter O’Malley, owner of the Dodgers, first saw Chavez Ravine while aboard a plane. For years, O’Malley wanted a new stadium to replace Brooklyn’s outdated and deteriorating Ebbets Field, and when he couldn’t get it in New York, he looked elsewhere, including Kansas City, Baltimore, and Milwaukee. What O’Malley saw in 1957, removed from all context and the decades of tension that revolved around it, was 315 acres of what was, save for a few houses here and there, simply open land.
With Elysian Park close by, O’Malley saw the potential beauty. He probably didn’t know that in the 1930s, authorities used the park as, what the Los Angeles Times labeled as a “Wetbacks’ Detention Camp”—a short stop before deportation. In the middle of the Great Depression, with jobs scarce and a stumbling economy, nativists pointed to these so-called wetbacks and called them the problem. Between 1931 and 1934, Los Angeles’s Mexican population was reduced by almost a third. In total, Mexican repatriation forced a million people of Mexican heritage to Mexico. It mattered little if they were United States citizens who had never even been south of the border.
Overlooking the tranquility and serenity of Chavez Ravine’s relative emptiness, O’Malley likely didn’t know that from there, for several nights during the summer of 1943, sailors attacked Mexican-American youth. In these Zoot Suit Riots, sailors, stationed in the nearby Navy and Marine Corps Reserve Armory, formed “taxicab brigades” in which 20 cabs drove them around to beat anyone who looked suspicious. Journalist and activist Carey McWilliams described the logistics of the beatings, which could pit up to 200 sailors against one Mexican boy: “[S]ailors in the lead-car sighted a Mexican boy in a zoot suit walking along the street. The ‘task force’ immediately stopped and, in a few moments, the boy was lying on the pavement, badly beaten and bleeding. The sailors then piled back into the cabs and the caravan resumed its way until the next zoot-suiter was sighted, whereupon the same procedure was repeated.” A Mexican is a Mexican is a Mexican.
The LAPD, with their long history of attacking Mexican workers and overall anti-Mexican discrimination including the unjust conviction of a dozen Mexican-American young men in the Sleepy Lagoon murder case, stood by and watched. When they finally moved in to make arrests, they jailed those of Mexican heritage. One scholar, Edward J. Escobar, argues the Zoot Suit Riots began the LAPD’s “mystique of being the defender of the white middle and working classes against the depredations of inherently criminal racial groups.”
Less than a decade later, on Christmas, the LAPD took seven young men into custody, five of them Mexican-Americans whose only crime was being “overly enthusiastic holiday celebrants.” Police jailed and beat six of them. They put the seventh , Daniel Rodela, in the back of a cop car, drove him to Elysian Park, and beat the shit out of him. The LAPD attempted to cover up “Bloody Christmas” only to get exposed and tried in courts. It was the first time the courts convicted the LAPD for using excessive force.
This was the history of Chavez Ravine, which by the time O’Malley saw it appeared to him as virgin land, a microcosm of American history at the end of western expansion. The land, of course, was anything but untouched. It only appeared that way after bulldozers razed a community.
Post-World War II United States is often mischaracterized as a time of optimism, largely due to economic prosperity and a new-found belief that social problems could be solved. Housing was one problem the federal government aimed to fix when it passed the Housing Act of 1949. “This far-reaching measure is of great significance to the welfare of the American people,” said President Truman upon signing the act. “It opens up the prospect of decent homes in wholesome surroundings for low-income families now living in the squalor of the slums.” He further added, “These policies are thoroughly consistent with American ideals and traditions.”
The Housing Act granted money to cities for them to build public housing projects. Chavez Ravine, described by city officials as a blighted area, became an area for redevelopment.
The Los Angeles City Housing Authority sent letters to residents, who’d lived there for decades and “ran their own schools and churches and grew their own food on the land.” These letters told them they’d have to sell their homes and land. In exchange, though only for those that qualified, they’d get first choice of new homes that would include new playgrounds and schools.
Residents who sold what they owned received half of their property’s real value. Those who refused to sell and stayed put, became classified as squatters. By August of 1952, the once thriving Mexican community resembled a ghost town. Not everyone left, though; the Arechiga family were among those who remained.
Aurora Vargas was the daughter of Manuel and Abrana Arechiga. On May 9, 1959, authorities arrested her. A picture that’s become almost synonymous with the Battle of Chavez Ravine captures her detainment. Four sheriff deputies, each grabbing a limb, carried Aurora Vargas down the stairs and into the back of their police car. Claiming eminent domain, city authorities physically removed her from what remained of the Chavez Ravine community. By then, the land slated for developing into housing projects belonged to the Dodgers.
Rather than optimism, tension filled post-World War II society. The Cold War brought the Red Scare, which made so-called patriots into paranoids on the lookout for who or what was un-American, the catch-all descriptor that never quite dies. Baseball and democracy? That was American. Urban renewal meant to bring cities back to life as part of 1949 Housing Act? Also, American. Building housing projects in low-income areas as part of that same Housing Act? That was socialism. And clearly un-American.
Soon after the Los Angeles Housing Authority announced their housing project plans, a group led by the Los Angeles Times, the Chamber of Commerce, and private home builders formed and named themselves CASH. The acronym stood for Citizens Against Socialist Housing. The powerful group, along with Norris Poulson, who was elected mayor in 1953 on a platform involving an end to un-American spending, put an end to the public housing plan.
With Poulson then heading the city, Los Angeles used that land to lure the Dodgers away from Brooklyn. In exchange for Chavez Ravine and paying millions of dollars to essentially level a mountain to build on top of, O’Malley gave the city nine acres of land he owned in another part of Los Angeles.
Roz Wyman, a councilwoman who also played a pivotal role in bringing the Dodgers to Los Angeles, said of the team’s arrival, “It was the first time in Los Angeles that this town pulled together for something … The Dodgers brought the city together.” The displaced, about 1,200 families, would strongly disagree.
Some of those forced from their Chavez Ravine community never bought a ticket to any Dodger games. They called themselves Los Desterrados. The term has different translations: the landless, the uprooted, the exiled. Whatever the translation, with everything they lost, some of the families “needed three generations to get back to a comparable economic level.”
Fifty-five years ago, on April 10, 1962, Dodger Stadium opened. Some of the displaced eventually became Dodger fans while other did not. Of those who held out and justifiably held a grudge, a few threw tomatoes on the field during games—one the few acts of peaceful protest left for those pushed to society’s margins where there’s minimal political power.
Most intended to never become fans. Then it happened. He arrived, and he looked just like us—or, at least, not like them.
In 1980, a year after Walter O’Malley died, Los Angeles had over two million residents of Spanish origin. (This is the term the 1980 census used.) They accounted for more than a quarter of the city’s total population. For a variety of reasons, including the history of the city and team, the Dodgers didn’t draw attendance from this demographic.
Walter O’Malley would half-jokingly mention that to tap into city’s Latino community, he needed a “Mexican Sandy Koufax.” He mostly said it in jest, understanding that finding any Sandy Koufax was difficult enough. Finding a Mexican Koufax seemed impossible, like discovering a boxing Mexican heavyweight. And yet, as improbable as it was, the Dodgers came close when they found Fernando Valenzuela.
Valenzuela was an almost-mythic figure, discovered by accident as a 17-year-old playing in an obscure Mexican league while a Dodger scout evaluated another player. Valenzuela was the youngest of 12 children from a humble ranching family in Etchohuaquila, a small town of 150 residents in the northern Mexican state of Sonora. His build was more like Babe Ruth, with one writer describing his physique as an “overstuffed taco,” than what one would expect from a professional athlete. And, most importantly, the Mexican pitcher didn’t speak English.
In 1981, Valenzuela was 20 years old when he began his first full season with the Dodgers. In his first eight starts—all wins—he threw seven complete games, while still making it into the ninth inning in the only game he didn’t finish. With every start, which his small Sonoran hometown played over loudspeakers, his popularity grew. And whether he pitched at home or on the road, game attendance increased when Valenzuela took the mound. This was Fernandomania, the name given to the phenomenon which even inspired a Mexican corrido—folk song—and another in English by Lalo Guerrero, hailed as the father of Chicano music. When the 1981 season ended, Valenzuela was a World Series champion along with the National League’s Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Award winner.
But as Valenzuela was the rare, non-English speaking star, media often portrayed him in a stereotypical manner, seeming to assume that because he didn’t speak English, he somehow lacked intelligence. (Descriptions of Valenzuela as a natural undermined his hard work.) These portrayals of Valenzuela included saying he knew just enough English to order beer or that not knowing the language didn’t keep him from eating—ordering at restaurants, he would randomly point to menu items, always surprised by what arrived. His weight was seemingly always a topic of conversation. One reporter said his nickname, instead of “El Toro”—the Bull—should be “Pauncho.” Another jokingly worried Valenzuela would “overdose on burritos and beer.”
At times, presumably to keep him from realizing the magnitude of his accomplishments and to keep his nerves calm, people told Valenzuela he was pitching in exhibition games, as if he couldn’t tell the difference. His agent and translator said Valenzuela obviously knew, but went along with it to be part of the fun. “He’s very grateful of the media,” his translator noted, “even when they make fun of him.”
All of this made Valenzuela much more relatable to Latinos. Many of us knew the frustration of not being understood, even if we spoke the language. And we knew that for all his talents, he wasn’t immune to the everyday bullshit of being a minority: Being perceived as less intelligent by someone who only speaks one language, only because we may struggle to communicate in our second, or laughing along at the jokes while walking away and muttering, “Pinche gabacho,” which Valenzuela must have said on several occasions. We connected with Valenzuela and after him, the audience at Dodger games—which was always among the highest in the league—slowly turned brown.
“Fernando turned so many people from Mexico, Central America, South America into fans,” said Jaime Jarrín, the team’s Spanish broadcaster. “Fernando created interest in baseball among people who didn’t care about baseball.”
And among those who suddenly cared about baseball were some who vowed to never attend a Dodger game.
Today, the Dodgers have the largest Latino fan base of any sports team in the United States. Two years ago, according to a research firm, 52 percent of all Dodger fans were Latino. Since then, that percentage has likely increased. It differs vastly from who attended Dodger games in 1980, before Valenzuela.
Time heals wounds, but ignoring or altogether altering the past—like changing the neighborhood around the stadium to “Dodgertown”—also makes it easier to forget. And as Mexicans become Mexican-Americans and all other Latinos embrace a hyphenated identity, the Spanish names that haven’t yet changed are increasingly pronounced with an Anglo tongue. Chávez becomes Chavez; rolling the r’s so that it sounds like Ferrrnando makes one sound as if they’re the one saying it wrong. Of course, the opposite is true for Los Doyers, the team whose stadium sits on a piece of land that’s inspired poems, music, and plays, and shaped the psyche of a large part of a great city.
New York’s version of the Dodgers’ flight is romantic, the sort of thing Frank Sinatra would sing about; the other side isn’t. That ballpark that left arrived at Chavez Ravine and destroyed a Mexican community. Authorities carried and dragged away the last of Los Desterrados literally kicking and screaming. And though they are increasingly fewer, some of them still refuse to enter the stadium that fell their home.
Roberto José Andrade Franco is a fronterizo from the El Paso/Juárez borderlands. You can follow him at @R_AndradeFranco or contact him at RobertoJoséandradefranco@gmail.com.