The Land Beneath This Stadium Once Was Theirs. They Want It Back.

by Joe Holman
The Land Beneath This Stadium Once Was Theirs. They Want It Back.

LOS ANGELES — Standing less than a mile from Dodger Stadium on a recent Saturday afternoon, Vincent Montalvo could hear the roar of the crowd inside the ballpark.

It was Jackie Robinson Day, and more than 50,000 fans were nestling into their seats for a matchup against the Chicago Cubs. But Montalvo had no plans to attend.

It has been more than 30 years since he has stepped inside Dodger Stadium. His father took him to the ballpark when he was a child in the 1980s during “Fernandomania,” the craze surrounding the star Mexican pitcher Fernando Valenzuela.

But the seemingly harmless act of attending that game deepened a wound that has festered in the Montalvo family and the city’s Latino community. Reckoning with that hurt has been a challenge for the Dodgers as the team has tried to maintain a balance between acknowledging it and broadening the team’s widely Latino fan base.

Long before the Dodgers won their first World Series at Dodger Stadium in 1963 and Sandy Koufax tossed the team’s first perfect game in 1965, the land the ballpark was built on was home to hundreds of families living in communities called Palo Verde, La Loma and Bishop.

Those neighborhoods and their residents were displaced in the 1950s by the city of Los Angeles, citing plans to build affordable housing. But eventually the land was given to the Dodgers to build a ballpark after the team moved to the city from Brooklyn in the late ’50s. The area is now commonly called Chavez Ravine, a term that has become synonymous with Dodger Stadium.

Montalvo’s grandfather and grandmother were born and raised in Palo Verde. Even though Montalvo’s father didn’t know that before going to that game in the ’80s, Montalvo’s grandfather resented that they visited the ballpark that had replaced his neighborhood.

“We never went back,” Montalvo said.

The story of this displacement has been well documented in books, news articles and videos. But in recent years, descendants of marginalized communities in California have had success seeking reparations for land that was taken from them, in the form of money or the return of land. Spurred by that momentum, the descendants of the three Los Angeles communities see a chance to seek their own justice. The land on which Dodger Stadium was built, they say, should be returned to them.

Montalvo’s grandfather has long been reluctant to talk about his life in Palo Verde. But over time, Montalvo has gathered bits of information about the community, including that many residents sustained themselves by growing their own food.

“It was kind of like their little oasis there,” Montalvo said.

But in the early 1950s, the city of Los Angeles began displacing the residents of Palo Verde, La Loma and Bishop, through voluntary purchases and eminent domain, with plans to build a housing project in the area.

It was never built, and eventually, after the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, the team acquired the deed to the land. A condition was that the team build a stadium with capacity for at least 50,000 people.

The process of displacing 300 families from the area was long and for many residents painful. While many sold their land to the city, others held out.

The last of the families were forcefully evicted by sheriff’s deputies in May 1959. One woman, Aurora Vargas, who was known as Lola, was infamously photographed being carried out of her home by deputies. An article in The Los Angeles Times on May 9, 1959, described the scene as a “long skirmish.” Vargas was kicking and screaming and children were “wailing hysterically,” the newspaper reported.

Several years later, Melissa Arechiga, 48, learned about the eviction from her mother, and that Vargas had been her Aunt Lola. Arechiga found it hard to believe.

“When she told me it just sounded more like something out of a movie,” Arechiga said.

Montalvo and Arechiga met in 2018 and founded Buried Under the Blue, a nonprofit organization that seeks to raise awareness about the history of the displacement of the residents of Palo Verde, La Loma and Bishop.

As so-called land-back movements have gained momentum, Montalvo and Arechiga have been working to define what reparations mean for them and how to get them.

“We know we’re going uphill,” Montalvo said. “But we also know this: There’s a time right now in politics, both up and down the state, about reparations.”

Those seeking reparations in California have been encouraged by the story of Bruce’s Beach, a property that was bought by a Black couple, Charles and Willa Bruce, in 1912 in what would become the city of Manhattan Beach, Calif. The land was taken from the Bruces in 1924 when city officials condemned it through eminent domain, claiming to need it for a public park.

Last year, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to transfer ownership of the land to the great-grandsons and great-great-grandsons of Charles and Willa Bruce. They sold the land back to the county for $20 million.

Buried Under the Blue and the descendants of those who were displaced have political support, including from Eunisses Hernandez, a member of the Los Angeles City Council who said she stands with them.

“Oftentimes we are in these situations because companies, corporations, people with a lot of money, have felt that other communities were disposable,” Hernandez said. “We are still confronted with moments like that even today, and so we have to demand that these corporations, these companies, give back to the communities that they have taken from.”

But Hernandez said that she would like to see a concrete plan from organizers on what reparations would look like before moving forward.

Leaders of Buried Under the Blue have also met with the descendants of Indigenous tribes that once lived in the Los Angeles Basin. In a true land-back effort, they say, land should be returned to the Indigenous groups who were the first occupants.

“There can’t be true land-back without the Indigenous people first,” Arechiga said.

Even if the land were returned to the descendants of the Indigenous tribes, Montalvo said, homeowners and renters who were displaced would still deserve financial reparations for investing in the community.

Buried Under the Blue has yet to determine what it would do with the land if it were ever returned, and it’s unclear if that will ever happen or how long it would take.

Chavez Ravine is home to one of the most iconic ballparks in baseball, tucked between the San Gabriel Mountains and downtown Los Angeles. Dodger Stadium hosts dozens of games a year as well as concerts and other events. One of the wealthiest teams in Major League Baseball plays there.

For the Dodgers to be effectively forced out may seem unimaginable to some.

“It’s going to take a lot,” Hernandez said. “They’re not going against just a small company. This is a brand and a company that’s known throughout the country and the world, and so I just think folks need to organize and get as much people, power and support to support the demands that they have.”

Walking into Dodger Stadium these days, fans are almost instantly met with the sound of Spanish in several forms.

There are fans speaking Spanish, others Spanglish. Julio Urías, a Dodgers pitcher from Mexico, takes the field to “Soy Sinaloense” — I’m Sinaloan — by Gerardo Ortiz. Throughout Dodger Stadium, fans sport “Los Dodgers” jerseys and shirts, and restrooms and other parts of the ballpark are labeled in English and Spanish.

The Dodgers built their Latino fan base, one of the largest in Major League Baseball, partly through their long history of fielding Latino players, including Valenzuela and Adrián González.

Creating that Latino support, however, took time after the displacement of so many Mexican American families in the late 1950s. Adrian Burgos, a University of Illinois professor who teaches about race, sports and society, said pushing out local residents “set up a very bad relationship between the Mexican American community and the Dodgers.”

“It really doesn’t change much till Fernando,” Burgos said, referring to Valenzuela. “He began to make it OK for Mexicanos to root for the Dodgers.”

Margaret Salazar-Porzio, a National Museum of American History curator who has worked on initiatives such as “Latinos and Baseball: In the Barrios and the Big Leagues,” said that Valenzuela’s arrival with the Dodgers was a sort of “symbolic reconciliation with many Latinos in L.A. at that time.”

“He kind of looks like your uncle or your brother,” Salazar-Porzio said. “Fernando Valenzuela gave Mexican Angelenos a reason to celebrate and to show up to the games.”

The Dodgers also brought in the first full-time Spanish-language broadcast in M.L.B. under announcer René Cárdenas, who was joined by Jaime Jarrín.

“He became really quickly one of the most recognizable voices in L.A. Latino households,” Salazar-Porzio said of Jarrín. “He brought the Dodgers into our homes.”

Since the 1980s, the Dodgers have continued to grow their Latino fan base with help from players like Urías, who was on the mound for the final out of the team’s 2020 World Series win.

But the team, which did not comment for this article, has still wrestled with how to make amends with displaced residents and their descendants.

In 2000, team officials, including former President Bob Graziano, joined former residents and their families for a ceremony at a church. The Los Angeles Times reported that one former resident even hugged Graziano at the ceremony, and they took communion together.

The history of the displacement of residents in Palo Verde, La Loma and Bishop comes as news to some Dodgers fans, especially younger ones. It’s hard for some to believe that a team that has built such a large Latino fan base plays on land that once belonged to so many Latino families.

Some fans, like Manny Trujio, 23, say they “know the basics of it.” Others like Louie Montes, 29, say they know none of the history.

“It’s easier to forgive if it wasn’t members of your family that were being forcibly removed,” Burgos said. “The reality is most of the Dodger fans we see at the ballpark today are much younger, and it might have been something that their grandparents had heard about and knew about.”

Salazar-Porzio, for example, said she didn’t know the story of Palo Verde, La Loma and Bishop until she was in college. That history prompted her to learn more about the layers of the displacement, starting with the city’s plan to build affordable housing.

“Some people understand that distinction,” Salazar-Porzio said. “The Dodgers did have a role to play, but it wasn’t like the Dodgers kicked out the Chavez Ravine residents.”

Learning that history also prompted Salazar-Porzio to wrestle with how she viewed the team, having grown up going to Dodgers games, she said.

“It’s very complicated,” she said. “All of this happened, but also all this other stuff happened, too. I’m really proud of the memories that I have with my dad, with Fernando Valenzuela. That kind of personal connection is my layer of history that I choose to identify with.”

Most of the former residents of Palo Verde, La Loma and Bishop are now in their 90s. As they get older, Arechiga and Montalvo said their grandparents are still often reluctant to talk about that time of their lives.

Correcting their “painful histories,” Montalvo said, serves as a motivation to work for reparations.

To reclaim the land and effectively push out the Dodgers could be next to impossible. But Arechiga said her family was hopeful.

“They also wonder, Is it possible? Is it obtainable?” Arechiga said. “We believe it is.”

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