The House On The Hill: Digging Into My Palo Verde Roots
It was the summer of 1992, a few months after the Los Angeles uprising. While most of my teenage friends were cooling off with an Orange Bang at the Montebello Town Center, my older brother and I were taking my grandma to her doctor's appointment at Kaiser. She never drove and my grandpa, who had drunk himself into diabetes by age 50, had weathered two amputations. He had lost a foot on one leg and everything below the knee on the other. I missed piling into his green Chevy truck and watching as he put on his sunglasses, slipped on brown leather gloves and turned on KFWB News 98.
That hot, summer afternoon, when my brother, Jordan, and I walked up the driveway, we saw grandpa wearing a white T-shirt and madras shorts. He was sitting in his usual spot on the front porch in a plastic folding chair. His walker was nearby and his prostheses were covered with tan bandages. He was ready to roll. I gave him a kiss on his head, which he lowered when anyone greeted him. Jordan asked how he was feeling. Grandpa gave his standard reply, "With my fingers."
Suddenly, he started mumbling like he was drunk. My heart pounded as I watched him change from a jokester into a disoriented stranger. I knew his blood sugar levels were dipping. When his diabetes acted up, I used to hide in the bathroom and pray my grandpa didn't die but I was 13 now and my big brother was there.
"Take me to the house on the hill," grandpa said. "I want my piano."
"We can't, grandpa," said Jordan as a look of sadness fell across his 16-year-old face. "It's not there anymore."
The scent of grandpa's Old Spice cologne hit me as I walked inside and filled a glass with Donald Duck orange juice. The sugar snapped him out of his delirium. In a few minutes, he was back to his usual wisecracking self, asking why my grandma was taking so long. "Is she trying to look good for the doctor, or what?" he joked.
This was the first time I remember hearing my grandpa talk about what is now known as Chavez Ravine. Back then, no one called it that. Residents referred to La Loma, Bishop or Palo Verde. These three neighborhoods, spanning 315 acres, were destroyed — initially to make way for a housing development but eventually for Dodger Stadium. For 40 or so years before then, they had been safe spaces for Mexican Americans who were restricted from buying property in certain parts of town because of racist laws.
At 13, I didn't know any of that history and I didn't know what my grandpa was muttering about when he mentioned "the house on the hill." It wasn't until seven years later, when my mom gave me Don Normark's photo book, Chavez Ravine, 1949: A Los Angeles Story, that I started to understand.
Inside the cover, my mom wrote, "Grandpa always had a special place for you in his heart. This book is just a small memory of his hometown."
Just before they were destroyed, these hidden communities in the serene hills north of downtown Los Angeles were home to approximately 1,100 households. They had their own stores, churches, bars and a school. People gathered to build altars for La Virgen, transforming humble streets into sacred ground. Families grew food. Long before urban farming became a trend, they raised pigs, goats and turkeys, foreshadowing the egg-laying chickens we would later keep in our East L.A. backyard.
I was riveted by the black-and-white images in Normark's book. Kids playing on dirt roads. Girls trying on white confirmation dresses. An old woman handing a bowl of squash blossoms to three boys. The area's only Black family, the Johnsons, rehearsing gospel songs. There was something eerily familiar about their faces. I felt like I was looking at a long-forgotten family album. The people who lived on this land were brown and proud, like me. Their homes were often described as "blighted" but to me, they looked more like cozy cottages.
"We could actually buy property there and we could thrive quietly in the hills," says Carol Jacques, who was nine when she and her family were displaced from Palo Verde. "We were not slums. We were a community on an upward trajectory."
Normark was a young photographer, only 19 years old, when he stumbled upon the hillside community in 1948. Five years later, it would all be gone.
After almost half a century, Normark returned to the subject. In 1997, he began trying to track down the former residents who he had photographed. He spent months spreading a stack of approximately 100 photographs across tables around L.A. and listening as people recounted stories of shining shoes, shopping for groceries two miles away at Grand Central Market and cramming into cars to caravan up north so they could pick crops. Catalina Ortiz Provencio reminisced about her mother, a local curandera, who healed the community with herbs she kept tightly sealed in jars that filled her home. These experiences became the basis for his Chavez Ravine book, which wasn't published until 1999.
My brother Jordan, now 45, regrets not hopping into his pale yellow Volkswagen Squareback that teenage afternoon and taking grandpa for a ride to his old neighborhood, now buried beneath the Dodger Stadium parking lot.
Grandpa was born and raised in Palo Verde, the most populated of the three neighborhoods. My great-grandfather, Francisco Hernandez Blancarte, had come to the U.S. as a land surveyor and purchased two plots of land here in 1914. He and my great-grandmother, Clara Hernandez Blancarte, were both from Mexico but met on Olvera Street. Clara was sitting on a bench outside a church, frustrated with her low-paying job as a nanny and housekeeper for a German family, when she saw my great-grandfather. According to family lore, she said, "I'm going to marry that man." A year later, she did.
They had five sons, including my grandpa, Alejandro Blancarte, and three daughters, one of whom committed suicide at age 27 after getting pregnant by a married man. The opportunity to buy land while brown attracted many Mexicans to this tight-knit community, which had sprouted up in the early 1900s. At its peak, in the 1940s, it was a thriving community of families who had pulled themselves up by their bootstraps were starting to build generational wealth. My family had a special skill.
"They were known in the neighborhood as the chorizeros [chorizo makers]," says my grandpa's niece, Gloria Blancarte. She's a 69-year-old artist who lives in Commerce and works at a credit union. "They would let neighbors sample a thumb-size piece of fresh chorizo before setting up a cart on weekends. My dad [my grandpa's youngest brother Charlie] tried to make the chorizo at home once, but couldn't get it right and said, 'I should've paid more attention instead of being out there in the streets.'"
Our family mastered chorizo-making after a neighbor revealed a crucial element of the process. You had to wrap tripas around the links before curing them in the sun. My great-grandparents ran a store that sold candy, pan dulce and their popular chorizo. My great-grandfather drank wine and played his violin outside the store while customers came in and took what they wanted. He was either too drunk or too engrossed in his music to care, infuriating my great-grandmother who did her best to keep her family in check.
"During Prohibition, they would go up to the hills where the bootleggers kept barrels of wine," says my aunt, Sylvia Tanner, 72, who also works at a credit union. "When the cops came, they broke down the barrels and the wine would flow down the hills. The kids would drink it. Your grandpa used to brag that he started drinking at eight."
On July 24, 1950, residents of Palo Verde, La Loma and Bishop received letters from L.A.'s Housing Authority informing them that a low-income public housing development was being built where they lived. They were promised first dibs on one of the 10,000 units that would be Elysian Park Heights. They were told they had to be out of their homes in a matter of months.
Developers tried to tempt residents with immediate cash payments. The offers were usually low but residents worried that if they held out, they'd get even less. Some homeowners took the buyouts. In 1952, my grandpa's family received $6,450 for the two single-family homes they had built themselves on the land they owned, the equivalent of $63,398 in 2021 dollars. Their homes would now be worth at least $1 million each.
Still, many homeowners resisted. City officials relied on eminent domain, which allows the government to take private property and convert it for public use. It's a tactic often used to exploit communities of color (Bruce's Beach, anyone?). What happened in Palo Verde, La Loma and Bishop was a textbook example.
The Arechigas were among the most badass of the Palo Verde holdouts. On May 9, 1959, a day that became known as Black Friday, police officers broke down the door of their home, dragged them out kicking and screaming, then bulldozed their residence. Roughly 10 family members spent months camping by the rubble of their former home.
"I was in class at UC Berkeley when I saw a picture of my family on the screen," says Melissa Arechiga, whose great aunt, Aurora Vargas, was photographed in 1959 being carried out of her home by police. "After class I went up to the teacher and was like, 'Hey, that's my family.'"
Arechiga still has the shotgun her great-grandfather, Manuel Arechiga, kept in the tent where he and her great-grandmother, Abrana Arechiga, lived after they were evicted. She hopes to one day exhibit it in a center she would like to see built at the site of Dodger Stadium, when the land is returned to its original caretakers, the Kizh Nation.
On September 15 — the eve of Mexican Independence Day, the start of Latinx Heritage Month and Fernando Valenzuela Bobblehead Night — the Dodgers were on their way to beating the Arizona Diamondbacks. At the top of the 7th inning, three people ran onto the field at Dodger Stadium holding banners reading "La Loma," "Bishop" and "Palo Verde." Another banner, reading "#NotChavezRavine," dropped from the top deck of right field. At first, spectators cheered, thinking they were fans. Then, when people realized these were protestors airing the Dodgers' dirty laundry, they started booing. As security guards tackled Edin Enamorado, Wendy Lujan and Panchebe Manahuiatlaka and led them off the field, the crowd, many of whom were Latinx, laughed.
While baseball fans may not want to be reminded of the Dodgers' dark history, I was overcome with emotion thinking of my grandpa. He was my biggest fan. As a child, we would watch the evening news together while I waited for my mom to pick me up after work. He would point to the newscasters and say, "That's going to be you one day." He planted the storytelling seed in my mind and inspired me to major in journalism at San Francisco State. Seeing those activists run onto left field inspired me to dig deeper into our Palo Verde roots.
Born in 1920, my grandpa Alejandro Blancarte was the second youngest of eight siblings, all of whom grew up at 1732 Gabriel Ave. in Palo Verde. Every year as a child, my grandpa and his family traveled north to the Salinas area to pick beets for the Spreckels Sugar Company. His parents dressed him in a big hat and coat to make him look like he was old enough to be in the fields. At age 20, he started working as a presser in the garment district. In 1940, he was drafted to fight in World War II. After receiving a shrapnel wound to his head, grandpa was discharged and returned to Palo Verde around 1945.
My grandma, Guadalupe Covarrubias Blancarte, was a classy woman from Juarez. Grandpa liked to flirt with her whenever he visited the Puerto Santander market in downtown, where she worked. One night, he walked down the hill from Palo Verde to Spring Street and spotted my grandma at a dance hall. In his words, "She was crazy over me." (He loved pissing off my grandma). They married in 1949 and had four children: Priscilla (my mom), Sylvia, Jerome and Alejandro Jr.
My grandpa was a carpenter for most of his married life and helped construct the Music Center and the Department of Water and Power. When my mom was little, he drove her and her siblings to his old elementary school, Palo Verde School, before it was filled with dirt and buried.
"He lifted us up to see through the windows," says my mom, Priscilla Curiel, 69, who works at Trader Joe's headquarters. "I remember seeing a staircase and a chalkboard." My uncle Jerry recalls seeing a heap of wooden ice box refrigerators salvaged from bulldozed houses.
After getting married, my grandparents briefly lived in East L.A. before buying their first home, in Commerce, in 1950. Fifteen years later, they moved to Montebello.
My great-grandparents stayed put in Palo Verde. In 1949, my great-grandmother died at age 61. Within a year, my great-grandfather received the eviction notice. Five months later, on December 20, 1950, he died of a heart attack at age 66. Their dog sat beside his body outside his home, not letting anyone come too close.
The two properties my great-grandparents owned went into probate. We think my grandpa's oldest brother got everything but we don't know for sure. All my grandpa had from his childhood home was his mom's sewing machine, which sits inside my aunt's garage in South San Gabriel. My cousin Gloria has their chorizo grinder, a lava stone molcajete and the stainless steel ice shaver they used to make raspados.
Unlike so many Angelenos, my grandpa never went to a Dodgers game, never cheered for the team, never even talked about them. After that hot afternoon when the ghosts of the past rose up to haunt him, my brother and I were too scared to ask questions. We didn't want to further wound a man who was so independent he once flew to Hawaii without telling anyone and now struggled to accept the loss of his legs. Watching his health deteriorate was painful enough. Grandpa had worked hard all his life to afford the house in Montebello and now he couldn't walk. My grandma got up every day to work as a checker at Fine's Market on Olympic Boulevard in Boyle Heights. They had a mortgage to pay. She used to tell my mom it was like sleeping next to a skeleton when my grandpa started losing weight.
"You're dealing with people who have trauma," says Vincent Montalvo, a descendant of Palo Verde residents. "[Every] family I've talked to, as soon as they speak about it, it ends in tears. That is how hurt they are. That's probably why your grandpa didn't talk about it."
I'm not a huge Dodgers fan but I've been to games and gorged on overpriced hot dogs and sung "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the seventh-inning stretch. The more I learn about my family's history and about how much the Dodgers corporation profits from stolen land, the more torn I feel. I don't know if I'll ever go to another game. Billionaire real estate mogul and former Dodgers owner Frank McCourt still owns 50% of the parking lots at the stadium and reportedly rakes in $14 million a year from them. The residents who were forcibly removed from that land received a pittance.
In 2017, Arechiga and Montalvo founded Buried Under the Blue, an organization that educates people about the three barrios that were erased from the map. Their T-shirts, which activists wore on the September night they ran onto the field, are printed in Dodger blue and say "Displacers" in the team's cursive font. They want reparations as well as a public apology from the city of Los Angeles and the Dodgers.
"We want our people to come out of this oppressive state. How do we do that when they're all right there in Dodger stadium?" Arechiga says. "We have to be civically engaged. As much as we don't like it, and say 'f$#k the system, f&%k the police,' we need to be on neighborhood councils, at meetings, in the public comment, writing the agenda and understanding ground rules."
Intergenerational trauma is real. It runs through the veins of my family as it runs through the veins of the other families who were forcibly removed from their land. My mother and aunt still recall my grandpa's rages. He was forced to fight in a war he didn't sign up for only to come home and watch his family displaced from their home. No wonder he numbed the pain with alcohol.
It has taken me 29 years to unearth our painful past. My brother, who works in commercial real estate, helped me track down deeds and dates of land acquisition. If my grandpa were alive today, I'd ask him about the place he once called home. Who was Mary Moya, the next door neighbor listed as the contact on his and his brother's draft cards? What was daily life like in Palo Verde? Did the mystery piano that haunted him ever exist? Did he play it? How did they get it up those hills?
All of grandpa's siblings have passed. So have most of the people who lived at Palo Verde, La Loma and Bishop. But the past is always present, no matter how much we try to hide it. Piecing together these fragments of the past is crucial to understanding our history and remembering a time when our people thrived. Maybe I can jog the memories of one of the 15 or so former residents who are still alive. Perhaps if I show them the only remaining photo of our house on the hill, they'll recall grandpa and his family. Maybe they'll say, "Oh, yeah! I remember that store and the beautiful violin music your great grandfather played." I like to imagine him sitting outside on a wooden chair, serenading customers and creating a soulful soundtrack for a community now buried but never forgotten.