When the San Clemente High Tritons trounced Long Beach Cabrillo in Thursday’s freshman football opener, it was no ordinary victory for residents of one San Clemente neighborhood.
Rather, it was the latest in a string of civic triumphs reshaping this heavily Hispanic district in central San Clemente. After years of feeling disconnected from the rest of the city, Las Palmas is slowly coming out of its shell, guided by a small band of outsiders.
“It feels good,” said freshman Francisco Romero, sweaty and keyed up after Thursday's game.
“I got pumped up, with everyone pumping me up,” said his teammate Ernesto Carrasco.
The boys were talking about football, but they could just as easily have been discussing the neighborhood itself.
Aided by a grant from St. Joseph Health System, a cadre of organizers is working to transform this underdog enclave, helping residents lobby for sidewalk repairs, pedestrian safety and other improvements.
The experience of Romero, Carrasco and two other freshman football players—Gerardo Gomez and Mauro Gutierrez—is emblematic of the larger Las Palmas effort.
A year ago, the boys laughed in their youth group leader’s face when she told them to try out for the team. In their minds, football and other extracurricular activities were for "real" American kids, not Mexicans, said youth group leader Rose Velasquez, a San Clemente resident.
Today, three of the boys are starters and "we're working with Gutierrez, he's one of the fastest ones on the team," said freshman football coach, Oscar Montecinos.
“They’re great kids—a great sense of humor, their attitudes are great ... they're good students,” Montecinos said. “And these kids can play.”
The boys seem to like the limelight.
“It’s a good feeling,” Carrasco said about being on the team. “I thought I was just going to sit around and watch 'Sponge Bob' all day.”
His enthusiasm is contagious. Neighbors shout congratulations from passing cars. And the boys' younger siblings and friends are also thinking about playing ball in high school, according to Velasquez, who works for OC Human Relations.
OC Human Relations, a nonprofit agency that strives "to foster mutual understanding among residents and eliminate prejudice, intolerance and discrimination,” is a driving force behind Las Palmas' transformation.
Agency staffers started walking the Las Palmas neighborhood four years ago, asking residents what they were concerned about and what they felt their community needed, said Alison Edwards, the group's deputy director.
According to demographic research by St. Joseph Health System, the neighborhood around and is among the poorest in San Clemente. After a showed district residents lacked everything from transportation to health insurance, the hospital company granted roughly $60,000 to OC Human Relations help bring Las Palmas into the fold.
Most of the several dozen families in the neighborhood come from El Bajio de Donillas in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato. Many are first-generation Mexican Americans or Mexican immigrants, Velasquez said. But unlike other immigrant communities, a lot of the families in Las Palmas have lived in the neighborhood for nearly 40 years, she said.
However, the longtime roots didn't necessarily translate into a sense of belonging. Many Las Palmas residents felt isolated from the rest of the city, she said.
In 2008, the Orange County District Attorney persuaded a judge to slap a gang injunction on parts of San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente, including Las Palmas, meaning certain people identified as gang members couldn’t be seen together or wear certain colors without facing police sanction.
Some civil rights advocates had problems with the rules at the time, but in a larger, emotional sense, the injunction was official confirmation of the isolation Las Palmas felt, surrounded by the wealth and privilege of so many in San Clemente, Velasquez said.
At school, kids segregated themselves. Las Palmas middle schoolers who attended or told Velasquez they faced ridicule from other students. They lacked the snazzy clothes and iPods of other kids. Each of the half dozen sixth- and seventh-graders who joined Velasquez’s youth group two years ago—called La Esperanza, meaning “hope”—was failing at least two classes.
“Every single one of them in the group said they did not feel like they were an American,” Velasquez said.
As such attitudes began shifting, involvement increased, at school and beyond.
Residents in the neighborhood have since successfully lobbied the City Council for cash to fix sidewalks and add pedestrian traffic improvements to make the route to Las Palmas Elementary safer.
They also formed a Las Palmas leadership council, exercise groups and tutoring programs. And they managed to get neighborhood kids access to the for $1 swimming lessons.
Maybe most importantly, many residents have started calling police when they need help, instead of being intimidated into silence by the small number of gang members in the area, Edwards said.
Neighborhood volunteers also joined the San Clemente Collaborative, a citywide group of officials and residents organized in part to institutionalize positive changes in the Las Palmas neighborhood.
The Esperanza youth group has doubled in size and the sidewalk engineering plans are headed for a vote by the city’s Planning Commission, Velasquez said.
In the meantime, Las Palmas residents are sizing up the competition for when their football boys play the second game of the season against Fountain Valley on Thursday.