Photos by Mathew Scott


A Tree Grows in Elysian Valley Pt. 2

After Ruben Molina and his family moved into Elysian Valley in 1958, Ruben, aged 5, soon found himself in what he calls “paradise.”

At the time, the ongoing construction of the 5 Freeway left behind sandlots in Elysian Valley — the remnants of the homes that were destroyed to make way for this huge infrastructure project. To Ruben and his friends, these sandlots provided the perfect space for them to play. Beyond these lots, just down the street from many of the homes in Elysian Valley, was another playground waiting for them: the LA River. 

While the sandlots were controlled by the younger kids, the river was the territory of the “older guys,” where the teenage brothers and cousins of many of Ruben’s friends and neighbors would run the show.

“It was always supervised by the older guys who were only a year older than us. So, they controlled it, and if [we] wanted to play in the river, then we had to go through whatever they did to us, we just had to take it. They were mean to us, but it was all [about] seniority. The kids younger than us, they wanted their place. They might make their little spot and then you would attack them with firecrackers, but never really intentionally hurt each other. Just saying, “Hey, this is mine and you guys are gonna have to be tougher to take it away.”

It was a boy’s world, as “the girls were not allowed to be around us or even go to the river.” Ruben had to defend his little section of paradise from the other kids. 

Growing up in this environment, Ruben and his friends developed a very tight friendship based on responsibility and loyalty. As they entered junior high abiding by rules and expectations proved challenging.

“Leaving all of that kind of behind was really hard. It just kind of felt like coming out of the jungle and into a city. By the time we went to junior high school, most of us, but not all of us, were adventurers. We were the hunters, and they sent us to the school where you just had to sit there, and most of us couldn’t do it.

By the first year in high school, most of us had dropped out. It was just hard. What we learned here at that time kind of set the pace for what our lives are gonna be like. We were learning responsibility amongst each other and also loyalty to each other, and that gave us the tools we needed in the world — not necessarily in school, but in the world. It was a brotherhood, and it continues to this day.”

Ruben Molina is a prominent independent scholar and soul music collector. His family moved from El Paso, Texas to Los Angeles in 1953 and in 1958 they moved into Elysian Valley. He holds fond memories of his childhood and maintains many of his childhood friendships to this day. As a teenager in 1960’s Los Angeles, he developed an interest in Mexican-American and soul music. In 2000, Ruben penned his first book, The Old Barrio Guide to Low Rider Music and in 2008 he wrote Chicano Soul: Recordings and History of an American Culture which further documented the recordings and history of Mexican American soul groups and garage bands throughout the Southwest. In 2011 he became co-founder of the Southern California record collective called the Southern Soul Spinners.