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Sports

How Beto Calavera Got His Name

Dodger Stadium was built on top of communities that once housed more than a thousand families. This is the story of one of them—the Eliases.
March 30, 2020, 5:02pm

When I met Albert Elias, he was losing his eyesight. He lived in a cozy apartment in Long Beach. He had white hair and a white beard and an Amazon Echo resting on the table beside his recliner that could play him big band music and read him the news. He was in poor health, his body betraying him, his hands folded over each other. The past was beautiful to Albert—you could tell by the way his voice fell into a song when he remembered—but the past was not sacred. When I asked him if he could still describe his childhood home, he paused and gave me a grin as if to say, well, no, it wasn't perfect.

Albert grew up in Palo Verde, one of the three communities whose destruction in the early 1950s led to the later construction of Dodger Stadium. This was the subject of the book I was writing, and the reason I had knocked on his door with a bag of cookies from the Ralph's supermarket bakery by my house. Albert was one of the last remaining Palo Verde old-timers.

Even in declining health, Albert would still get together with his buddies from the old neighborhood. Once a month, they would go eat breakfast at a diner called Mr. Pete's in Downey. They all had nicknames: Sluggo, Catos, Boodie, Dodo. Albert himself was Beto Calavera. Everybody called him Beto. The old friends would remember the good old days, and the not so good ones. The place they all came from had been demolished, house by house, more than 60 years earlier. But they kept it alive with those breakfasts full of gossip and nostalgia. They shared secrets and they shared pain. They shared a beautiful home once, and they also shared the scars of losing it.

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Beto with Pete Urrutia (Catos) at the July, 2018 Los Desterrados reunion picnic in Echo Park. Photo courtesy Patricia Bybee.

The story of Palo Verde, La Loma, and Bishop is the story of Los Angeles. It’s a story that is far too big and messy to fit into a single book. Each family, each street, each community is a world unto itself. As Beto told me his own story, I realized that on some level, he understood this. The tale he told was too real to be published on someone else's terms.

Beto's mother, Refugio, was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, but she crossed into El Paso, Texas when she was a little girl, and that's where she grew up. She came to Texas without her parents, which meant she had to take care of herself. Refugio worked as a nanny and a maid for a powerful white family when she was still not grown up yet herself. The little boy she took care of would grow up to be a general in the U.S. army, but that didn't do Refugio any good.

Beto's father, Albino, had come to Texas not from Mexico, but from New Mexico, where he was the oldest of eight brothers. He encountered Refugio at an El Paso church fair where she was volunteering. He was a few years older than she was. "He had a suit and shiny shoes and I don't know if he had a hat," Beto recalled. "But he was well dressed, he was always well dressed."

Refugio was selling flowers. Albino, who may or may not have had a hat, said Hey—cuanto para los flores? Refugio named her price, whatever it was. (How can you expect anybody to remember that kind of detail anyway?) Plus, it's beside the point. Albino said he would take every single flower she had.

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Albino and Refugio Elias with baby Albert. Photo courtesy Patricia Bybee.

When Beto told me this story, he paused right there. He had a tendency to pause for effect. Let's say, Beto explained, for the sake of the narrative, that Refugio had exactly 22 flowers on the table in front of her, and they cost a penny each. Refugio would have counted them out one by one for Albino. Albino would then have given her a quarter. She would have reached out to Albino from across the table, and tried to hand him his three pennies of change. No. Not would have. Did. She really did reach out with change. But Albino refused. "The change is for you, Albino told her."

And here, Beto interrupted himself again.

"Whooooooah. Whoooooah," he said. "That made points. And then my mom got the money and she handed him the flowers. And my dad says, 'They're yours.' Whoooooah. She melted. She melted on the spot. That was it. That's the end of the story."

In Beto's telling, everything about his life had this fable quality. Every incident carried the weight of myth. And of course this was not the end of the story for Refugio and Albino; it was the beginning. Two days after he met his future wife, Albino Elias took off for Los Angeles for reasons that he didn't want to talk about. But he wrote to Refugio, and wrote and wrote: long romantic love letters, imploring her to come west and marry him. If he could have stayed in El Paso, he told her, he would have stayed. But that was simply not an option.

Finally, Refugio recruited her brother to make the trip to California with her. She reached Los Angeles on a Friday afternoon. On Sunday, Albino and Refugio were married in a church in East LA.

Albino never told Refugio why he had to leave El Paso, at least as far as Beto is aware of. But many years later, he did tell his son: He had had an affair with a married woman there, and her husband was after him. If he wanted to stay alive, and to have any chance of enjoying that life, he had to get out of town as quickly as possible.

After they got married, Albino and Refugio rented a small room in Palo Verde. That's where they were living when they found the house where Beto would grow up. When Albino discovered the house, it was abandoned and run down. Kids used to play in it. Homeless people wandering through used to use it for a toilet. But it held more potential than the small room they were renting. Albino tracked down the owner of the house, a local attorney and landlord named Marshall Stimson. Stimson owned most of Palo Verde at the time—he considered himself a friend to the working man, and a sort of Santa Claus for Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans in LA. Albino and Stimson worked out a deal: if Albino fixed up the house, he could rent it for a reasonable price. So he did. And two months later, Albino and Refugio moved into 1801 Gabriel Avenue. The house had two bedrooms and the pipes were outside the walls. There was an old water well in the yard and an avocado tree. It would always be a work in progress.

Albino was a quirky man, and one of his quirks was that he didn't trust the U.S. Postal Service. Every month he would take the rent downtown to pay Stimson in person. Sometimes he didn't have enough to cover the full amount—Albino wasn't much for steady jobs, and this was the middle of the Depression—but Stimson was generally understanding. Finally, in the mid-’30s, Stimson, got sick of seeing his tenant. At least that's how Beto put it.

One day, when Albino was there to pay his rent, Stimson called him into his office. "Hey," he said. "Why don't you buy my house?"

Albino thought this was ridiculous. He could barely make the rent. He had no savings for a down payment.

"I can't even afford to rent your house," Albino said. "You want me to buy it?"

The answer was yes. Albino could buy the house with no money down, and pay whatever he wanted per month. When that became clear, Albino ran straight out of the office, down the stairs, and out to the front of the building where Refugio was waiting in the car with the kids. And here's Beto again:

"'So my mom says, 'How much you pay for the house?' And he remembered, 'I forgot to ask him!'"

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Beto and Brownie, 1946. Photo courtesy Patricia Bybee.

With that Albino ran all the way back inside, up the stairs, and into Stimson's office, where he asked how much he had just agreed to buy the house for. Stimson turned to his secretary.

"He bought the house for 475 bucks. That was in 1935."

It was no small thing for a family like Beto's to own a home, even once that had formerly been abandoned. For one, they were poor. For another, they were not white. In the Los Angeles of the 1930s, there were limited options for people who fit this description. The city's housing market was very much restricted by racist real estate covenants. Redlining in Los Angeles was an active thing, an ongoing joint effort between the government and private industries to keep white neighborhoods white.

That home ownership had come to the Elias family in such a strange and unexpected way made it that much more miraculous. And Palo Verde, despite being given the lowest grade for desirability on a federally sponsored map of the city in 1939, was a pretty great place for a family like theirs. It was a close knit community with a vibrant cultural life and a real sense of pride. "Everybody got along in Palo Verde," Beto said. "When there was a party, nobody called the police because everybody was in the party."

There was a high rate of home ownership. There was not too much crime. And the best part was the location: Palo Verde was like its own small town nestled in the hills beside Elysian Park. There were spectacular views, and trails, and trees. It was, by all accounts, a great place to be a kid.

When Beto was a kid, he used to watch the bus come up every morning from the city jail in Lincoln Heights. It was filled with inmates who were being used as laborers to build the new LAPD police academy at the end of Malvina Avenue, one block over from where the Elias family lived on Gabriel. One day, when Beto was just a little boy, he asked his father who those men were on the bus.

"Esos son calaveras," Albino told him.

The implication was clear even to young Beto. Calavera is the Spanish word for skull. These men were in prison. They were alive, but not really. They were skulls now. But he was still just a little kid, and Beto didn't feel a lot of sympathy for their plight. So in the mornings, when the bus came, he would stand on the street and yell at it as it passed by.

"Calaaaaveeeeeras."

The inmates came to recognize him, he said. They would make threatening gestures at the taunting little boy through the bus windows. But he kept yelling. Then one day as Beto was walking off with a couple friends, a neighbor yelled out. "There goes Beto Calavera."

"So I was baptized," Beto said of the nickname that would last a lifetime.

Albino and Refugio had two more children: a boy named Guillermo, whom they called Willie, and a girl named Francis, whom they called Panchie. Albino and Refugio kept a warm, loving home, by Beto's telling. They had a dog named Brownie. The family went out to the fields in the summer to pick fruits and vegetables and drove around LA in a Model T that Albino had picked up along the way. Once a month, they would haul out to La Puente in the San Gabriel Valley where Beto's uncle owned a couple acres.

Beto remembered once sitting in the backseat with Willie, while baby Panchie sat on her mother's lap up front. This particular Sunday, Refugio was giving Albino a hard time about his shirt. This was rare: first of all, Albino was a sharp dresser generally. Second of all, Albino and Refugio hardly ever fought. But here she was, looking over at him, shaking her head, "Viejo, no te cambiaste la camisa." Look at your collar. It's ruined. And Albino didn't say a word, he just kept driving straight down Valley Boulevard, and Refugio just kept scolding and scolding. Finally, silently, Albino slowly began to remove his shirt while driving: one hand on the wheel, changing gears when he needed to shift the manual transition. Finally, still driving, he tossed the shirt out the window. He never said a word. The shirt flapped in the wind and flew away. Beto and his brother laughed the rest of the way to their uncle's house.

When he was a kid, Beto sold newspapers. He was working his corner hawking copies of the Daily News and Herald Express at Sunset and Broadway. He used to work in the safety zone where passengers would wait for the streetcar, and sell papers to riders already on board as they waited for their fellow passengers to load and unload. It was a nickel for a paper.

When Beto said the word nickel, the Amazon Echo on his table awoke from its slumber, thinking it heard its own name. Suddenly, we were getting the weather report. Finally, Beto got it shut off. He continued with his story.

He said that sometimes, if a customer gave him a quarter or a dime, he would fumble with the change intentionally, waiting, waiting for the train to take off again so that by the time he had the proper change gathered, the customer was half a block down Broadway. Once, a passenger who Beto swindled this way came back the following day. "I want my paper and my change," the man said. "And I couldn't argue with him," Beto recalled, "because he was bigger than me." Beto was there selling papers on the Sunday morning in 1941 when Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor. He couldn't sell them fast enough. He was 10 years old.

There is a tendency among people from Palo Verde to only talk about the good parts: the quaint small-town feel and the independence and solidarity. The pastoral childhoods and the sunny skies. But there was poverty too, and there was violence, and kids growing up in Palo Verde faced all the structural racism that kids in other mostly poor Mexican neighborhoods faced. They faced all the same temptations.

"It was rough," said Beto. "Rough. A lot of drugs and winos."

He said he had a cousin named Nino who moved to the rival neighborhood Alpine when he was a kid. "There were mean fights,” he said. “My cousin died a hundred times, and he's still alive."

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Graduation. Photo courtesy Patricia Bybee.

Beto started smoking cigarettes before he turned 10 years old. He gave himself a tattoo of his own initials when he was 12. When his older friends and cousins hit 15, 16 years old, they started getting into heroin and pills. Blue Angels. Benzedrine. Beto couldn't handle the hard stuff; he had a weak stomach, and even tequila would make him sick. He remembered driving out to a house party in some other neighborhood when he was about 16. He was with two cousins and a couple of guys he didn't know.

"We were drinking beer, going to a dance, and these guys were dropping pills in the backseat. He says 'Beto, tome esta, you'll feel great. And I believed him.'"

When they got to the dance, Beto got out of the car and tried to open the front door. But his hands wouldn't listen to his brain. He stood there, trying to tell his hands to move, to turn the knob and pull the door open. But they wouldn't listen to him. He was frozen. He could hear the music from inside the house but he couldn't enter the house. Finally one of his cousins asked him what was wrong.

"I'm telling my arm to open the door," he said in Spanish. "But it's not listening."

Finally, his cousins led him back to the car, where he lay in the backseat until the dance was over, and they drove him back to Palo Verde.

But by the time Beto was a teenager, the clock was running out on Palo Verde. For years, the city had neglected the community—it failed to provide bus service, and did not take care of the roads or other infrastructure. The only reliable government services in the Palo Verde were the elementary school and the mailman who Albino Elias distrusted. Meanwhile, city planners and architects came through every once in a while scribbling notes and taking photos. It was no secret that they had their eyes on Palo Verde, La Loma, and Bishop as a possible site for redevelopment.

Finally the word came in the summer of 1950, when Beto was 19. Ironically, it came via the postal service. One day the residents opened their mailboxes to find letters from the Housing Authority informing them that soon their homes would be purchased by the government and then demolished to make way for a brand new public housing project. None of the residents—not even those who resisted selling their land—could have known yet what a dramatic story was about to unfold. They could not have known that the housing project, Elysian Park Heights, would never exist beyond the blueprints and renderings drawn up by architects Richard Neutra and Robert Alexander. The Elias family certainly had no idea.

"They came knocking on the door and offering ridiculous prices. My dad sold the first offer. Which was 9,650 dollars. And my dad signed the papers without talking to me or my mom or to Willie. I got mad at my dad. So he got mad at me for getting mad at him. So I kept quiet."

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Beto in the service. Photo courtesy Patricia Bybee.

Beto was 18 years old. He was grown. And Palo Verde was over. His parents bought a lot with two homes on it in Lincoln Heights for $15,000. This was near Refugio's church, and it was near the Catholic school downtown where Beto's siblings still went.

The house that Beto grew up in was soon demolished by the city. Then, soon afterward, Beto went off to Korea. "I was in the middle of it. I got frozen from my knees down because I didn't have the proper equipment. It was a terrible war. We fought the elements. The bullets. We got shot at." Later he learned that while he was away, his mother refused to make tortillas. If Beto was not home to eat them, nobody in the family could eat them.

He and his best friend Catos were drafted on the same day.

By the time Beto returned to Los Angeles in 1953, Palo Verde should have been totally erased. But as it turned out, the eviction notices were not an ending. They were, like that moment when Beto's parents met in Texas, a beginning. During the early 1950s, Palo Verde, La Loma, and Bishop would go from a neglected little corner of the city to perhaps the most controversial real estate in Southern California. Even as the city made plans to develop Elysian Park Heights, opponents of public housing were organizing a campaign to stop it from getting built. Soon, accusations of communism were ringing around the housing authority. The LA Times led a full-throated campaign against Elysian Park Heights and other housing projects.

It was the era of the Red Scare and McCarthyism. Public housing, and accusations that it was a Communist plot, became the principle issue of the 1953 mayoral campaign that saw longtime incumbent Fletcher Bowron defeated by anti-housing candidate Norris Poulson. Soon, Elysian Park Heights was scratched. Soon it became clear that while Albino might have been happy with the deal he got—happy to turn his $475 dollar house into a the duplex in Lincoln Heights—the pretext for the city's demand that he and his neighbors sell their home had become a retroactive lie.

If you've read this far, you likely know that the hills that once held Palo Verde, La Loma, and Bishop became the canvas for Walter O'Malley to build Dodger Stadium, and that the construction of Dodger Stadium is what led me to this story and to Beto Calavera's door in the first place.

How do you tell the story of a place that stopped existing? How do you fill the empty space left behind by what would have and should have been? So much had to happen for Beto Elias to be able to tell his stories. The Mexican Revolution had to lead a young Refugio Baquera to El Paso. A not-as-young Albino Elias had to approach her at exactly the right moment, in exactly the right way; Albino had to be reckless enough to have the affair that sent him to Los Angeles, and charming enough to convince Refugio to take a chance and follow him there. They had to find Palo Verde, and find that house, and somehow fluke into owning it.

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Beto at the radiator shop. Photo courtesy Patricia Bybee.

Then they had to have the fortune, or misfortune, of living in a place that was destined to disappear. For many residents of Palo Verde, La Loma, and Bishop, the evictions were a tragedy. For Albino Elias, the opportunity to turn a home that cost him less than $500 into nearly $10,000 was a miracle. For many residents, the construction of Dodger Stadium was an insult—and still is. For Beto Elias it was just the way things were. "I don't blame the Dodgers," he told me. "They had to play wherever."

Beto did not speak for everyone. There is no singular, official perspective held by the people who lived in Palo Verde, La Loma, and Bishop on the events that led to the destruction of their homes. There was no right or wrong way to process the eventual construction of Dodger Stadium where those homes once stood. These were complicated communities, full of complicated people with their own ideas about what was right and what was wrong, and just how wrong those things were. For this reason, it would be foolish to believe that any one person could tell the entire story of vanished places like Palo Verde, La Loma, and Bishop. There are simply too many stories like Beto's. It is important that we not only record these stories, but that we also listen to them, linger with them. The book I wrote is comprised of such stories. I spent years digging for them. But I know that it only scratches the surface, just like this essay only scratches the surface of Beto Elias.

It took all these events, beautiful and tragic and seemingly impossible, to bring Beto to this earth, and to make him into the man he became; to make him into Beto Calavera. He lived a good, long life. He owned a radiator shop in Bellflower. He had children and grandchildren. Beto Elias would probably have lived his whole life in Palo Verde if history gave him the chance. And maybe things would have been different. Better. Worse. It's impossible to say. Beto Elias was born in Palo Verde, a place that no longer exists. I was lucky to get the chance to hear him talk about it at the end of his life and lucky to get the chance to write about it. He passed away in Anaheim last year. He was 87 years old.

Eric Nusbaum is a former editor at VICE and the author of Stealing Home: Los Angeles, the Dodgers, and the Lives Caught in Between.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.