Bobcats family and friends reunite at Ruben F. Salazar Park. The youth football team has been barred from the park after a violent incident. ((Denise Quintana) )

High fines keep East L.A.’s youth football program off the field

The East Los Angeles Ruben F. Salazar Park is empty on weekdays now. Hundred of players and cheerleaders have been banned from the park due to a stabbing amongst adults last Otober.

“It’s a sad situation for the kids,” says Sylvia Romero, the president of the East Los Angeles Bobcats, the youth football program that had been using the park for 48 years.

“We need to come up with a solution on how we can keep our program going,” says Romero, who has been asking for a meeting with the Los Angeles County so they can come up with an agreement were the kids can go back to their park.

East Los Angeles is known as a place with gang activity and Ruben F. Salazar Park is located in a center that is surrounded by four different gangs on each corner. This park, surrounded by violence and gangs, has become a location where kids 6 to 14 years of age can come and be kids — playing, being involved in sports and cheering their friends on.

“Gangs are a way of living around here but programs like this are a way out. Many kids in gangs die or are in jail; we don’t want that for our kids, we want [them] out of the streets,” says Alva Diaz, mother of a current Bobcat member.

The program keeps 250 kids off the streets each year by focusing them on academics and sports which helps the children stay away from gangs.

In the past 48 years that the Bobcats have existed, an incident that was gang related involving the organization has never occurred.

On October 6th the Bobcats, family, friends and fans gathered at Shakey’s Pizza in Monterey Park after a game. At the pizza parlor, adult Bobcat fans got into an argument with another group, the Bulldogs, who are a newer youth football league also based in East L.A.

A fight broke out, and someone from the Bulldogs was stabbed and died. The victim and the suspect, both in their early 20s, were affiliated with rival gangs, officials say.

On October 16th the Los Angeles County suspended the Bobcats’ permit to practice at Salazar Park because of a threat of more violence if the youth programs continued playing.

Romero says that the Los Angeles County wants the Bobcats’ equipment out of the park by April 1st.

If the Bobcats want to play in the park again, a list of conditions must be followed such as adding extra protection, changing the youth league’s name and changing their blue and white colors.

The Bobcats have to pay as much as $774 a day for four added sheriffs that will be required to be on site before and after practices and league activities for five days a week if they want to be allowed back in the park.

The league would have to pay about $3,800 weekly, which is an amount the organization can’t afford.

“We are willing to change the name; we might drop the Bobcats and just keep East Los Angeles, but we can’t afford to pay the fee,” says Romero.

Romero says that the organization is willing to compromise on changing the name if Los Angeles County helps them with the fee.

“We will keep fighting until the Bobcats name is cleared and that the organization is not gang related,” says Romero.

Los Angeles County supervisor Gloria Molina covers the East Side district, including Salazar Park, and continues to stand firm on banning the Bobcats from the park.

In a statement Chief Deputy Director Department of Parks and Recreation County of Los Angeles John Wicker said, “The Bobcats permit was cancelled for safety reasons.”

Wicker was asked if they were considering changing their minds and allowing the Bobcats back in the park and he wrote, “We’ve sent the Bobcats team a letter saying what issues they need to address to get their permit reinstated. We hope they do. The safety of the team and all county park visitors is our top priority – and the Sheriff’s Department says there is an active homicide threat against the Bobcats team.”

The Bobcats, their families, friends and community members are unhappy about the situation. In a community where parents work all day, they need a place to keep their children safe and the Bobcats youth program has become a second family for many kids.

Many of these families are single parents or families that don’t make a lot of money and if the organization raises their fees to be able to pay the added security, many of these families won’t be able to keep participating in the league.

The community, friends and families are sticking together for one cause — the Bobcats kids.

A picnic at Ruben F. Salazar park was put together by the organization and people from the community who want the park for the joy and benefit it brings the children of East L.A.

Eliseo Montoya General of Brown Beret National Organization planned the picnic to show the community knows that sports in a neighborhood like East L.A. is a way to keep kids off the wrong path.

“The kids are upset because something was taken away from them” but “we are not gonna end until we win,” says Montoya. Their next step will be to petition and they say they are not going to give up until the Bobcats are back in Salazar Park.

Hank Castro and Niteowl supporting the Bobcats youth program.

Hank Castro and Niteowl supporting the Bobcats youth program. (Photo by Yesica Lopez)

Chicano artist Niteowl was present and said he was “back for the kids” because he started out in the same park.

Former lead singer of Midniters Hank Castro said that he played baseball in South Central back in the day and “if it hadn’t been for baseball I would have been in a gang.”

“The program helps keep kids out of trouble and the streets… these kids need to remain here,” says Bobcat’s Athletic Director Monica Ramos.

“The program pushes kids to do well in school because in order to be eligible to play they need to have a 2.0 GPA and if they have a 3.0 or higher GPA they are part of the scholastic program,” says Ramos.

Many current and former Bobcats are sad about what has happened to their program. Playing flag football or cheering was one of their favorite thing many of these kids looked forward to and now about 250 kids are running out of time to join the upcoming season. Sign-ups started in March and end May 1st but many of these athletes and cheerleaders doubt they will play another season since a decision regarding the Bobcats permit won’t be made until May 15th.

Dominic Pralo has been part of the Bobcats for four years.

Dominic Pralo has been part of the Bobcats for four years. (Photo by Yesica Lopez)

Dominic Pralo, 11 years old, suffers from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

He has been playing flag football with the Bobcats for the past four years and wants to play in Salazar Park again. “I’m sad because I like this park and this is the only place where I would play football,” Pralo says.

Pralo’s mother said that playing football has been great for him because it has helped him stay focused in school in order to be eligible to play.

right to left:  Mathew Bribiesca, Joseph Troncoza and Efrin Vargas all Bobcats members.

Right to left: Mathew Bribiesca 11 years, Joseph Troncoza 11 years and Efrin Vargas 13 years, all Bobcats members. (Photo by Yesica Lopez)

Thirteen-year-old Efrin Vargas has played for the Bobcats for four years. “I like the community because everybody is like a family and I like the coaches but I’m sad because I can’t finish my career playing football here,” says Vargas.

Ruben Hernandez Jr, 14, has been playing for the Bobcats for the past seven years.

“Being involved in the program is keeping me out of trouble and keeping my grades up in school so I can play,” says Hernandez. If the season doesn’t begin, Hernandez won’t play football again because his high school doesn’t offer football.

“I’m kind of mad because (the incident) is not related to us because none of the kids here are involved in gangs,” he says.

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