Saturday, August 25, 2018

The Rivas Boys, Cultural Emissaries, by Antonio SolisGomez

Hollowwood Stars playing in shorts circa 1950
My family arrived in Los Angeles in September of 1950, when i was nine. We lived on Bunker Hill for a couple of months, then a family friend of a friend, rented us two rooms in back of her home by the University of Southern California. A few months later in the summer of 1951, my stepfather did some carpentry work for an Italian man that collected and sold junk for a living. Tom, the Italian, always looking for opportunities, had stumbled on an inexpensive duplex and had it moved to his lot. It needed a lot of carpentry work and he hired my stepfather, compensating him with eight months free rent in one half of the duplex. Tom and his wife Helen and their 6 year old son Gary, occupied the other half.

Tom owned an old battered stake truck that he used to cruise the streets in the early mornings on trash days collecting whatever he found of value. His truck had plywood sides allowing him to pile it high and it was always full as he never sold everything that he found. When he returned from his morning hunt, he parked it in front of the duplex and the rest of the day he would spend at Lincoln Park, playing cards with his drinking buddies, much to the annoyance of Helen who was resentful because she was working eight hours in a glass factory. Often we would hear her cussing him out like a sailor once he returned home, soused as usual. This was astonishing, as we had never known a woman to cuss like that, especially at her husband.

The duplex sat on a hilly lot on Lincoln Park Avenue and was reached on a steep dirt driveway. We didn’t think much of the fact that unlike other neighboring houses, it had no stairs to the sidewalk but that winter when it started raining, there was no way to get from the house to the street without slipping and sliding. Many a fall later, my stepfather laid some long wide boards in order to walk over to a neighbor’s house and use their stairs.

Four SquareArchitectural Style
The neighbor’s lived in a large two story house that at one time must have been quite beautiful, attesting to the fact that Lincoln Heights at the turn of the century had been a neighborhood of the upper class. It was a square structure with several rooflines, a feature resulting from dormers at each of the sides, and it had architectural wood trim adorning the windows and the large front porch. But now it was in ill repair, needing paint and TLC. It was rented by the Rivas family, a large clan that became cultural emissaries for my older brother and me, teaching us the ropes of living in an English speaking community that for us, coming from El Paso, was a totally different world.

The Rivas home sat even higher from the street than the duplex that we occupied, the large terraced lot ending above the sidewalk on a four foot tall concrete wall. The concrete stairs meandered down from the house to the sidewalk, passing not far from where we could reach it from our yard.

Getting use of their stairs was easy as all summer we had become close friends with the Rivas boys, who introduced us to baseball with a real ball, unlike the old socks that my mother would roll up and stitch for our games in El Paso. Rudy was the eldest at thirteen, Max his younger brother was eleven. And there was Ray, who had been taken in by the family. He was fourteen.

Several of the homes on Lincoln Park Avenue, including ours and the Rivas', sat on the lower part of a hill that continued up for several hundred feet. Directly behind the duplex at the top of the hill, someone had removed dirt from a large section of the hill, leaving it flat, possibly intending to use it as a home site. But it was abandoned and only an old long open trailer on its side remained, it’s tires worn and deteriorating.
typical hill in Los Angeles

That area, measuring roughly hundred feet by fifty, became our baseball field, playing regular baseball games as well a the game called over the line. We would play from early morning until the ball could no longer be seen in the fading light of day.

The neighbor boys all took names of minor league baseball players currently playing for the Hollywood Stars or the Los Angeles Angels that played in Wrigley Field in South Central Los Angeles. My brother Ruly and I didn’t know those players so they helped us select a name.

Earlier, I called the Rivas’ a clan because it was indeed a large family. In addition to the three boys, Mr. Rivas, a widower, accommodated three teenage daughters, Frances, Belen and Olga, two granddaughters, Genevieve and Gloria, a friend Eustolia, her daughters Renie and Evelyn and two sons Frankie and Bobby, Eustolia’s 2nd husband Louie and their four young children.

It was a very busy household and yet on many occasions when we weren’t playing baseball we would be inside the home, playing a version of war. Our weapons were thin pieces of rubber from old tire tubes folded in half with a series of spaced knots. With our index finger inside the loop made by the last knot and stretching the opposite end of the rubber with our opposing hand, we aimed and shot at an opponent.

Frances, whom everyone called Pancha, often joined the game as did Genevieve and Gloria. We used the entire two floors of the house to hide and ambush the opposing team, often resorting to subterfuge to get an advantage. Pancha once made the telephone ring, answered it and said it was for me. Coming out of my hiding place, she shot me in the chest and laughed.

If the Rivas boys were cultural interpreters from my brother Ruly and me, for my mother it was Eustolia, a heavy woman with a robust voice and a hearty laugh. She was divorced from her first husband, who was a drug addict and father of her four older children, when she met and married Louie, a quiet, small slender man who adored her and their four young children. One day Eustolia convinced my mother to accompany her to apply for work at a costume jewelry factory in Santa Monica. They had to take the streetcar to downtown and transfer to the Red Line that took them to Santa Monica. As it turned out, they both found work and my mother never again was a stay at home wife/mother.

We continued playing baseball the rest of the year, the hill changing color as the rains turned the yellow grass of summer to a bright green where we often had to wade to find a ball hit for a homerun.

On weekends, the Rivas boys and we would walk to the local Starland Theater to watch whatever was playing. Max, a natural comic, was passionate about Jerry Lewis and often would imitate his voice and gestures. I was more of a music man and my idol was Donald O’Connor. Weeks later, we would sit around and try to recall what film we had seen on a particular weekend, which often, we couldn’t remember.

The tallest roof belongs to the Starland Theater now a retail shop
Sometime before the following summer, the boys cousins, Genevieve and Gloria moved to Boyle Heights. My brother, who was head over heels over Genevieve, was heartbroken and when 1952 summer vacation started, he was excited by Rudy’s suggestion that we visit them on our bicycles. We took off early one morning and to me it seemed that our destination was really far away. The visit was a highlight of that summer, visiting two pretty girls and listening to music, we were definitely being Americanized.

Sometime in early 1953, my family moved from the duplex to a single family home that we rented on Workman near Main Street. Leaving the Rivas circle was wrenching at the time, as we had spent so much time together and I couldn’t imagine having different friends. I was a 6th grader at Gates Street School at the time of our move and Max had already moved to Lincoln which was a 7th to 12th grade school. My brother was also at Lincoln, as was Rudy, but Rudy was older than my brother and Max younger and although they saw one another they had a different circle of friends. The break with the Rivas boys for me was a total separation.
Red Line

Although Max and I were closer in age, he was a year older, it was Rudy that I most admired. He was slender, of medium height, moreno with black tight curly hair. He was Mr. Cool, somewhat stoic and he wore the customary barrio attire for the time, Khaki pants and a brown leather jacket. He was an average student, pursuing an industrial arts program. When I started the 7th grade at Lincoln in January of 1954, I saw him in a car cruising down Lincoln Park Avenue. We greeted one another and it was the last time I saw him as a few months later he died unexpectedly from a brain aneurism.

Rudy’s death shocked everyone. We went to his memorial service at the local mortuary and said our goodbyes. What was equal in sadness to his death, was how quickly we had grown apart from the Rivas family after such intimacy during those two years that we were neighbors. It was a sadness that I would always carry.

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