Column: His title was recreation director, however he was extra


On his final day at work after almost 40 years, Jose “Cuate” Lopez was thanked again and again by colleagues and acquaintances for his service. Humbled by the present of appreciation, he walked exterior the gymnasium at Pecan Recreation Middle in Boyle Heights and seemed out on the grounds as if peering into his previous.

He had been a child on the market as soon as, a toddler of the initiatives taking part in ball on the park, again when protected harbors have been scarce on this neighborhood. He would develop as much as grow to be the rec middle director, a job title that hardly begins to clarify the true depth of the work concerned.

He was mentor, coach, social employee, therapist, gang interventionist.

And now he was shifting on.

“It hits you,” Lopez stated Wednesday afternoon, wanting throughout the courts, ball fields and open areas within the course of the downtown skyline. “It’s like leaving your home eternally.”

A group photo outside the gates of Dodger Stadium

Jose Lopez, middle, poses for an image on an outing to Dodger Stadium with a bunch of youngsters.

(Handout)

The person often known as Cuate — his twin brother died at delivery, and the phrase means “twin” in Spanish — will probably be remembered for dealing with his job with humility and an abiding sense of goal.

“Oh man, I’m going to get teary-eyed,” stated Ana Valdez, who labored at Pecan for about 10 years. “He taught me that the job isn’t nearly a paycheck; it’s a private funding. You’re investing in the neighborhood. It takes time and a whole lot of persistence and dedication.”

Father Greg Boyle, who labored on the close by Dolores Mission earlier than shifting on to Homeboy Industries, stated respect for Lopez ranged from moms within the initiatives to gang members on the streets. There was, Boyle stated, “not a soul who didn’t love him.”

A man leans back in his desk chair and laughs while on a videoconference meeting on his computer

Lopez attends a Zoom assembly held in honor of his retirement on his final day of labor after almost 40 years.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Occasions)

Boyle defined why with an instance from his personal life. As a priest within the neighborhood, he recalled, he used to often reply to gunfire by discovering the closest child with a motorbike, confiscating the wheels — even when barely larger than a tricycle — and pedaling as quick as he may towards the sound of the photographs. At some point Lopez referred to as him, breathlessly, about one thing happening at Pecan, and Boyle raced over “anticipating an enormous gang combat.”

However when he arrived, Boyle realized the decision had been a ruse.

“There’s Cuate, with a few park employees, with an enormous ol’ seashore cruiser,” Boyle stated. Cuate had gotten the padre a correct bicycle, and the reward was introduced with an enormous bow on it.

For Lopez, the giving started early. His mom labored within the garment district, and his dad was a painter, and it fell to Lopez, the eldest of 5, to look after the brood when his mother and father have been working.

A man laughs while looking at his computer

Lopez laughs at co-workers’ tales throughout his retirement Zoom chat. Seen in reflection, a parks and recreation employee sits on the door to take visitors’ temperatures.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Occasions)

Years later, he misplaced two of these siblings to violence, one in all them simply two years in the past, and he nonetheless appears shaken by the loss. Cuate and his spouse took within the younger little one of the brother who died in 2019 and are elevating him, which implies Cuate’s plans to journey the world in retirement are off the calendar for now.

He informed me he’s it as a blessing, as a result of it means yet one more likelihood to be there for a kid in want.

And there was a lot of that for Lopez over time.

“A variety of the youngsters have been lacking fathers, so Jose was the large brother, and he was the dad, stated Ruben Rodriguez, who grew up within the neighborhood and attended Roosevelt Excessive with Lopez. “He was an enormous believer in giving all people a good shot … and he understood how necessary it was to have applications for the youngsters.”

A man poses for a portrait, sitting on a concrete bench at a park

Lopez discovered early on that if he saved Pecan Recreation Middle in good form and beefed up its choices, he had a greater likelihood of holding children out of bother.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Occasions)

Rodriguez informed me his personal mom was like that. Somewhat than make judgments about children who’d gone astray, she typically went to juvenile corridor to go to children from the neighborhood. One time he requested her why.

“She stated there are a whole lot of 12-year-old children there who’re crying as a result of nobody goes and sees them,” stated Rodriguez.

Cuate discovered early on that if he saved the park in good form and beefed up the rec middle’s choices, he had a greater likelihood of holding children out of bother. He tried to cowl up gang tagging as quickly as he noticed it. He lobbied for fast repairs when sources have been slim, and he did his personal handiwork if upkeep crews have been backed up.

Pecan’s applications have included day camps, pc labs, arts and crafts lessons, after-school golf equipment and year-round sports activities. The rec middle workplace has dozens of trophies for baseball, soccer, volleyball and basketball championships, awarded for regional competitors.

Gus Mojica, raised within the initiatives by a single mom, performed ball at Pecan till he was 13, at which level, he says, “I went the opposite manner.”

Mojica stated he obtained “jumped in,” joined a gang, and Lopez “tried to teach me out.” However Mojica, now 46, didn’t take heed to his mom again then, and he wasn’t going to take heed to Lopez, both. Besides to honor his request, for probably the most half, that gang members maintain their enterprise out of the park whereas children have been there.

Mojica paid a value for the life he was residing as an adolescent. He stated that in 2000, he obtained shot, was in a coma for 2 weeks and misplaced a leg. Even then, confined to a wheelchair, he saved banging. What lastly turned him round, he informed me, was having two sons who started taking part in ball at Pecan. Mojica, at Cuate’s request, grow to be a volunteer coach on the rec middle.

“If I may maintain a minimum of one child from becoming a member of a gang, it can make my day,” stated Mojica, who now works in safety.

Mojica was one in all many who spoke up for the person who made an influence on numerous lives.

“With all of the violence at the moment, he was like an enormous brother who would handle you and be sure to had a protected place to play,” stated Antonio Gallo, who stated he started going to the park at age 7 or eight. He ultimately went on to school and, desirous to do one thing about neighborhood violence and inequity, grew to become a lawyer.

“He was there for everyone,” stated Jaime Blanco, a pest management specialist who went from Pecan ballplayer as a child to volunteer coach as an grownup. Now his personal children are regulars at Pecan. “Cuate throws them across the similar manner he used to play with me.”

About 10 years in the past, Lopez’s supervisors deliberate to switch him to a different park the place he may mentor youngsters and younger staff. However the individuals residing round Pecan demanded that he be saved proper the place he was, and the switch was derailed.

Lopez, 60, informed me he thought lengthy and exhausting in regards to the execs and cons of retirement. He’s sure he’ll miss Pecan, the place he knew the challenges so most of the children face, and he knew the potential in them, as properly.

“There are a whole lot of good children right here,” he informed me. “There’s an inclination for some individuals to see the unhealthy facet of issues, however I at all times noticed the perfect.”

Lopez’s mom died in November, and his father is sick. That has taken a toll, as has the disruption, attributable to the pandemic, of many applications at Pecan. Lopez, who took care of his youthful siblings, then took care of the neighborhood youngsters, now intends to be there for the younger nephew he and his spouse are elevating.

“What a great soul,” stated Father Boyle. “Speak in regards to the form of God’s coronary heart.”

steve.lopez@latimes.com