The East LA Classic Returns — And With It, A Sense Of Hope For Two Communities Devastated By The Pandemic
The football rivalry between Boyle Heights’ Roosevelt High School and East L.A.’s Garfield High School is the stuff of legend. The first annual game took place almost a century ago, in 1925.
Year after year, what became known as the East L.A. Classic went on rain or shine, in recent decades drawing upwards of 20,000 fans to the stadium at East Los Angeles College.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit. Last year’s Classic was canceled, as was an attempt to play it this past spring. The last time the game was canceled? World War II.
Now the Classic is back, set for this Friday.
[Update: Roosevelt ended Garfield's decade-long winning streak, beating their rivals 22-19]
As both schools prepare for the game, they’re acutely aware of the pandemic’s cost. COVID-19 tore through the working-class neighborhoods around Garfield and Roosevelt. It took the lives of parents and alumni, including former players, and even a beloved coach.
There’s also a strong sense of what students, parents and school staff hope to get back.
‘A Moment Of Silence’
On a recent Friday night at Garfield High, the crowd in the stands cheered as the home team moved toward a win.
It could almost pass for a pre-pandemic Friday night: There were food vendors, proud families wearing school colors and cheering on their kids, teenagers hanging out with friends.
But earlier in the evening, just after the marching band had played the national anthem, the public address announcer spoke to the crowd:
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, “we would like to observe a moment of silence as a sign of respect to all of those which we have lost, last year and during the past months.”
The announcer went on to call for 40 seconds of silence for an alumnus and former player, Danny “Tank” Vargas, a 2011 graduate who died from COVID-19 in January at age 28. (Vargas' jersey number was 40.)
Vargas was one of many in the Garfield community lost to the virus.
“Our community of East Los Angeles, it was just decimated, decimated,” said Lorenzo Hernandez, Garfield’s head coach. “It was horrible. It just became phone call after phone call, having to deal with people suffering.”
Some of his current players got sick, Hernandez said, along with their families. So did other families at the school.
The Garfield band was hit hard, said senior drum major Ernesto Barragan. The band shrank from about 60 students to its current number of around 30.
“Before COVID, we were like a big group, a very big group,” he said. “And slowly people started going away — but that was because of COVID.”
Jason Espinoza, a junior and a tuba player, lost his mom to the virus about a year ago.
“She ended up coming to almost all my performances. I’m really glad that she was able to see me doing what I love,” Espinoza said, wistfully, during a break from rehearsal one morning. “She was my number one supporter, along with my dad.”
Espinoza said being in the band has helped him cope with his loss. And this is where the return of the Classic comes in.
This Friday, his mom would have been in the stands, likely videotaping his performance, like she often did. His dad and his sister will be there, along with his aunts, maybe a cousin. They, his peers, the community — they all need this game, and Espinoza is looking forward to it.
“It helps us remember what we had in 2019, with all the communities coming together, all the fans surrounding us,” he said. “It was a big community. I really loved the spirit.”
Remembering a Beloved Coach
About three miles away at Roosevelt High, the football players practiced one recent afternoon, taking turns hitting big foam tackle wheels. Again, the appearance of normalcy was deceiving.
The team is still reeling from the loss of former assistant coach Richard “Dickie” Guillen, who succumbed to COVID-19 in January. Guillen, who had also coached at Garfield in the past, was a longtime presence at Roosevelt and a mentor to many kids in the football program.
“I think he made me who I am to this day,” said Jared Andrade, a Roosevelt junior running back and linebacker. “He would help me a lot when it came to football. He would teach me a lot of things. Because of the pandemic, we lost a great person.”
The players wear small red stickers on their helmets with the words “All Work, No Glory.” It was a favorite saying of Guillen’s, and the words resonate with kids raised in one of L.A.’s oldest immigrant communities.
Technically, Guillen was retired — but he continued to show up as a volunteer. Even after becoming ill, he still attended Zoom meetings with the team, said head coach Aldo Parral.
“He was kind of like our Yoda,” said Parral, who also looked up to Guillen. “A lot of these young men don’t have their grandparents around … so he was kind of like a surrogate. And he was everyone’s friend. He was just a good, good man.”
These days, the team plays in his honor: “Every time we play a game, we say it’s for Dickie, you know?” said Benjamin Salinas, a senior who plays tight end.
The Classic will be no different. But it will be weird not having her dad there, said Guillen’s daughter, Denise Jaramillo, who works in the school office. She’ll be at the game Friday selling tickets.
“He’s still with us, he’s still there,” Jaramillo said. “I know in spirit, he is looking down and he is cheering our kids on.”
‘We Are Resilient’
In spite of all the loss, there’s a buzz of excitement surrounding the return of the Classic, which is homecoming for both schools. Students are holding spirit weeks and planning homecoming dances, although the pandemic still hangs over everything: The dances will be outdoors and Classic fans will have to be vaccinated, or show proof of a negative COVID-19 test.
And some fans wonder who might be missing in the stands this year.
“We are going to miss a lot of people that aren’t going to be there,” said Lydia Silva, a 1982 Garfield graduate, who said some of her alumni friends have died from COVID-19. On top of that, “there are still people who are afraid to come out because of the pandemic,” she said.
But just that the Classic is happening is enough. At the recent Garfield game, parents reveled in being able to see their kids play and perform again.
“We’re just happy they are here, we are happy we’re watching a game out in the open,” said Monica Ramos, the mother of two Garfield players. “And we’re looking forward to the Classic. Just the camaraderie, you know, just being together with other parents.”
Because this year, for both school communities, the Classic represents much more than a game.
“It’s going to say that we are back,” said Kimberly Flores-Zavaleta, a senior and wide receiver on the Garfield team who had COVID-19 last year. “Our community was impacted really hard — both communities — and it just shows that we are resilient. That we are, you know, fighting through it.”
That sense of unity carries over to Roosevelt, too.
“I genuinely want to see the Garfield fans out there,” said Parral, Roosevelt’s head coach. “And as much as I hate to say it, we need each other.”
This year, for the first time in as long as anyone can remember, the two schools’ bands will perform together: They’ll play the national anthem and “Amazing Grace,” in honor of those who were lost.
Roosevelt drum major and alto saxophone player Ashley Lopez said that she, for one, has had enough of the pandemic and the darkness it’s brought. She’s lost extended family members and, like the rest of her peers, a year of being on campus.
Lopez said she’s more than ready for the Classic.
“I feel like COVID has taken enough from me, and it is time to start getting back to normal life,” said Lopez, a junior. “And I think the classic will actually be a good opportunity for all of us to come back together once again and feel normal.”