Resting on the brick foundation of San Juan Brady Community Center is a mural of a muscled man in a headdress, raising his hands in the shape of the letter Y, accompanied by text that reads “San Juan Center,” and directly below, “Peace in the Barrio.”
I’ve walked and driven past this mural thousands of times. It wasn’t until last year that I stopped to admire the message: “Peace in the Barrio.” That’s what the center creates — peace. That’s what it’s created for me.
San Juan was established in 1977, well before my time. It has provided resources for children on the West Side for as long I can remember — affordable seasonal camps, organized sports, arts and crafts, assistance with homework. That’s ordinary community center stuff, but the execution of it never feels ordinary to people like me who spend a big chunk of their lives at the center.
“If I hear that you were anywhere else but the gym, vas a ver,” my mother constantly told me — “you’ll see” — when dropping me off at San Juan in the mid-2000s. “I’ll pick you up at 8:30. Mucho cuidado, mijo.”
My mother started taking me to San Juan in 2001, when I was six. The center became a second home. She saw it as an extension of our house and knew how nourishing and caring the staff was. More: San Juan guaranteed that I’d be shielded from the West Side’s gangs and drugs.
The San Juan and Brady Courts neighbor the community center. The courts were originally built in 1951 and added more units in 1967. They are housing apartments made of brick with concrete floors and a steel security door. My closest friends lived here. Syringes and beer bottles decorated the lawns. Gang members posted up, leaning on the youngins. Young mothers watched their toddlers run around in diapers.
None of this worried me much at the time. It was just my normal hood. But now, at 22, I can see just how vulnerable I was in the mid-2000s. I was one bad decision away from a harsh path.
My 78207 zip code meant I was at a disadvantage. According to City-Data.com, the adjusted gross income in 2004 was $18,819 while the state average was $47,881. My family, like many others, used Lone Star cards — a magnetic-stripe card used to obtain Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) food benefits.
In the last 10 years, the barrio has made positive strides — including in and around San Juan. Gang violence and crime have simmered down. Yet many other issues remain: 52.7 percent of people 25 years or older obtain a high school diploma, according to American Community Survey’s five-year estimates. Census Bureau numbers show that 4.4 percent of people who live in 78207 have a college degree and 40.7 percent live below the poverty level.
“The location of this center is probably the most under-stressed area in town . . . as far as financials are concerned,” said Ralph Rivera, 63, the San Juan supervisor. “You have one parent working and you have a lot of people on supplement programs, whether it be Medicare and food stamps … It’s hard here. It’s hard for parents to come up with money.”
Rivera and Vanessa Vallejo, 24, are the only full-time employees at San Juan. They have four part-time employees under them. Together, this team shepherds hundreds of kids.
Vallejo recently hit her one-year mark as an employee at San Juan, and says it took her a while to figure her role as an employee and mentor. She was a former camp director at the YMCA at O.P. Schnabel Park.
“My last job, I dealt with a lot of privileged kids whose parents would pay $300 a week,” Vallejo said. “Coming here to San Juan, the culture was different. The dynamic is different. The families are different.”
But those differences also mean she draws closer to the kids. “Here, I get to know the kids personally. I get to know their families and understand their perspective a little more,” she said. “More importantly, I learn how to communicate better with the kids.”
That’s been my experience, too.
Why do kids come here?
The kids gravitate to San Juan for many reasons, but most of all has to do with fighting boredom at home. I ask about a dozen kids what they would be doing if San Juan didn’t exist?
“I’d be bored at home watching TV,” says Bobby, 8, while dribbling a basketball. Bobby enjoys playing sports, but says his favorite place to be is in the arts and crafts room, where he likes to make things for his mom.
“I’d be all bored on my phone,” Oliya, 11, says while eating a raspa. She often has her face glued to an open book.
Other kids use the center as a place to complete homework and perform arts and crafts. They also hang out in the computer room that includes a two tall bookshelves, dozens of board games, and foosball and ping-pong tables.
Then there’s the gym — the center’s hook. Rivera says they use sports to bring the kids in so they can be exposed them to the other activities and programs.
Everyone’s welcome here
A loud doorbell rings. A kid walks inside San Juan. It rings again. More walk in. Soon the bell is screaming nonstop as students from Storm Elementary charge through doors.
Participants write their names on the sign-in sheet and dash to the office. Rivera greets each of them with a handshake, a hug or by their nicknames — ones given by him.
“What is up, Chucky?” Rivera asks Raymond. “Uh-oh, here comes Mia,” he says to Leah.
I have a nickname, too: Pepe.
“What is up, Pepe?” We shake hands, then hug.
We met in 2009 when I was a freshman at Burbank High School. He mentored and challenged me through basketball.
Rivera’s gunmetal grey mustache and medium-length curly hair held into a ponytail are indications of his experience. He’s spent over 40 years working with West Side youth. He’s made the rounds — he worked at both the Alazan Courts and John Tobin Center before coming to San Juan.
“There’s less than a three-mile radius between the three. It’s like I never left the neighborhood,” Rivera said. “I call it the Bermuda Triangle. They are different neighborhoods, but they all have the same struggles and the same obstacles, just to a different degree.”
A welcoming culture is the foundation of Rivera’s thinking. The door is open for everyone in the barrio. He developed this philosophy when he was turned away from John Tobin Center in the early ’70s as a child. Rivera was raised on the West Side in a two- parent household, but grew up around at-risk children.
“When I was a kid, I wasn’t welcomed at John Tobin Center. Not because I was bad kid or cause I broke the rules. It was the fact that I was related to somebody they didn’t like,” Rivera said. “Since then, I told myself I would never close the door on any kid. I don’t want a kid to ever feel the pain that I did.”
Like Rivera, I made a promise to myself. I’d devote two days out of the week to spend time with the children at San Juan.
“You have to give back to the community, mijo,” my mother once said. “We don’t have much, but there are people out there that have it worse than us.”
When I visit San Juan my Canon Rebel T6i DSLR and 35mm lens are attached to me like body parts.
“Hey camera guy, what do you take pictures of? ” a random kid asked me before Marie and Isabel answer for me: “His name is Jose and he is a journalist.”
As a journalist I’ve earned opportunities to travel, interview NBA and NFL players and other high-profile figures. But when I’m at San Juan, I’m not this experienced reporter — I’m just a kid from the barrio.
“Jose, can you help me with my homework?” The question comes simultaneously from Marie, Laniyah and Bobby. The homework consisted of math, reading and Spanish subjects.
My homework strategy is simple: sit as many kids onto one silver table as I can, and do it all at once. If I can.
“Yo, how is this a 5th grader’s homework?” I ask.
Oliya laughs at me with her Taki-stained fingers. “Omg, Jose. This is easy, look.”
After 45 minutes of homework, I head to the green gym where I hear the therapeutic sounds of basketballs kissing the backboard, clanking off the rim and swishing through the net. Whoomp whoomp whoomp, thump, swish.
Arguments echo from the silver bleachers.
“AJ Styles is a better wrestler than John Cena!”
“No. John Cena is the 16-time world champion!”
Soccer balls soar across the gym, jump ropes whip the ground, volleyballs crash into the ceiling. Bobby, 8, demands that I play him in a game of Horse.
“You don’t want none of this Bobby,” I warn him. “I’ve been running these courts since you were in diapers.”
Joelee, 10, grips her cherry raspa and warns Bobby and I about her lethal jump-shot.
“I can shoot from the redline now,” she says, adjusting her glasses.
So many kids craving attention poses a challenge. Rivera admits he struggles with the same: “There are so many kids that come in here, Pepe.” It’s difficult to maintain everyday relations with the kids because of the ratio of children to staff members.
Very few parents actually volunteer at San Juan. They only show up to pick up their children or to speak to an employee about an upcoming sport or program.
San Juan’s impact
Jessica Ramirez, 35, mother of four, was introduced to San Juan by her children 10 years ago. This was before the courts became the newer San Juan Square Apartments. Abel, 18, is the oldest of three siblings, including Ashley, 16, Anaya, 15 and Anthony, 14.
Abel had the most pressure of the four growing up, says Ramirez. And she’s especially grateful San Juan was there for him
“It kept him from the influences out in the streets,” Ramirez said. “I think it did Abel real good … I mean all of my kids it did them good, but because he is the oldest, he faced a lot of peer pressure during that time. This gym kept him at peace.”
Abel — who just graduated from Burbank High School — was one of the children I watched over when I was a teenage volunteer. He doesn’t talk like a child anymore. Listen: “The West Side has always been more economically disadvantaged than the Northside. This is particularly seen when it comes to the accessibility of technology for the youth, or being able to afford up-to-date resources. Considering all these setbacks, the West Side does have one thing that comes up on top and that’s the San Juan gym.
“The gym is a part of my people’s culture. It keeps us together and has kept me off the streets.”
A picture of Abel’s late father — who I had the privilege of knowing— sits in a glass display at San Juan. Abel credits San Juan’s staff for being there when his family faced personal turmoil.
“I owe the gym and its workers so much. They were there for me and stood with me during my family’s toughest times and during the passing of my father,” Abel said. “The San Juan staff took care of my family and I. And because of that I am forever grateful.”
His story reminds me of my own, and my mother’s unexpected death in 2010. Ray Infante, a former San Juan employee, was there when I shed tears in the office. Rivera and Henry Arredondo, another former San Juan employee, both attended my mother’s funeral.
Every visit to San Juan is like staring into a mirror. Oliya’s passion for reading, Bobby’s love for his mother. Joelee’s admiration for sports. Abel’s ability to overcome obstacles. These are reminders of who I am.
“Don’t you ever forget where you come from,” my mom once told me. “I don’t care how successful or big you are. Remember where you started.”