By LEONEL MARTINEZ
On any weekend night at my east Bakersfield home, you might hear Mexican banda music blaring from a neighbor’s house, see a Latino teen swagger by wearing baggy shorts that hang down to his ankles, or watch the “elotero (corn-on-the-cob peddler)” push his cart down the sidewalk.
Some people think those are signs of a bad neighborhood, but to me, it’s just home.
Working-class predominantly Latino neighborhoods like the one where I’ve lived for about 25 years are often stereotyped as places of hopelessness: Drugs, gangs, violence.
But the people who say that are wrong, and I’ve been saying it as a columnist for years.
That’s why I was glad to hear that the local nonprofit, Children First, recently launched the “Love Letters to East Bakersfield” campaign. The project was created to collect poems, essays, letters, photographs and other artworks that celebrate the part of town many people avoid. And just in time for Valentine’s Day.
“In east Bakersfield, we often hear about the problems, teen pregnancy, crime,” said Andrae Gonzales, a Children First board member and Bakersfield City School District trustee who came up with the idea.
“We know that’s not the complete picture. There are wonderful things going on in the community as well … How can you really experience Bakersfield never going east of the 99?”
Gonzales is not naïve.
Data gathered by the 4-year-old Children First, which has initiated several projects to revitalize east Bakersfield, indicates that some depressing problems plague the almost 6,000 residents who live in the area of town roughly bordered by Mt. Vernon and Beale avenues and Flower and Sumner streets.
• The poverty rate in this area, which Children First calls the “East Bakersfield Children’s Zone,” is 55 percent compared to 22 percent in Kern County as a whole.
• Almost one of four families in the zone is headed by a female single parent compared to slightly more than 16 percent for the rest of Bakersfield.
• At $21,211, the median family income is less than half that of the entire county.
Yet the eastside also boasts some of the city’s shiniest pearls for those who can see them.
People who posted to the Love Letters to East Bakersfield Facebook page -https://www.facebook.com/events/1575843555986208 – mentioned La Colonia Restaurant, St. Joseph Church, and Woolgrower’s Restaurant.
Sure to be on the list is Bakersfield College, a 153-acre institution that serves about 15,000 students at Mount Vernon Avenue and Panorama Drive. You can quibble about whether that’s east or northeast Bakersfield, but no one will argue that it’s unimportant.
However, some of my favorite features of the eastside are less celebrated:
• Drive east along tumbleweed-lined Edison Highway until you hit Chamberlain Street and you’ll run into the Mercado Latino Tianguis/Plaza del Pueblo. Call it a smaller mall without the pretentiousness. It’s essentially an outdoor food court and indoor swap meet where you can find anything from Mexican wrestling masks to kitchenware, shoes and clothing. There’s music on weekends, but the crowds are thick, so good luck finding a parking spot.
• East Bakersfield’s parks – from Potomac to Heritage to Pioneer – come alive on weekends, with families grilling, children swinging on the monkey bars, and a heated soccer or basketball game probably happening nearby. Friends have claimed you can’t set foot in one of those places without taking your life in your hands, but I often took my children to Pioneer Park while they were growing up. The most serious problem we had is that they didn’t want to go home.
• The eastside has too many restaurants to count, but where else would you find good Mexican food? Just drive east on Niles Street until you smell the carne asada, and pull over.
“Love Letters to East Bakersfield” is sure to come up with other bright spots from the area, and although the deadline was Feb. 6, submissions are still being accepted, according to board member Gonzales. They can be mailed to PO Box 1374, Bakersfield, CA 93302.
From 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Feb. 14 the artworks will be displayed at a celebration in a “pocket park”, or an empty lot near Monterey and Niles streets that Children First plans to convert into a small recreation area. Afterward, they will be shown in the foyer outside the Kern County Board of Supervisors chambers, 1115 Truxtun Avenue in Bakersfield.
Leonel Martínez is a regular contributor to the South Kern Sol and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.