An East L.A. Football Rivalry, Unchanged For 79 Years

An East Los Angeles rivalry has become the largest high school football game west of the Mississippi. The football teams of Garfield High School and Roosevelt High School will meet on the gridiron Friday night for the 79th year. The game is expected to draw 20,000 fans.

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When it comes to high school football, rivalries between schools can be as drama-filled as the games themselves. In a few hours, two teams in East Los Angeles will go head-to-head in one of the country's biggest showdowns. NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji introduces us to this decades-old rivalry.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: Tonight's game is the biggest of the season for the Roosevelt Rough Riders...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Riders right on three. Riders right on three. One, two, three.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: Rough Riders.

MERAJI: ...and Garfield Bulldogs...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: Garfield Bulldogs, yay, team.

MERAJI: ...drawing more than 20,000 fans to the East LA City College's football stadium.

FRANKLIN RIVAS: When I was growing up, they used to call it the Chili Bowl, the Menudo Bowl, the Bean Bowl. They called it a lot of different things.

MERAJI: Franklin Rivas, Garfield class of '73 and former Garfield football coach. He says the game got those not-so-nice nicknames because it's set in a working-class Hispanic neighborhood. The players, the cheerleaders, the fans - almost all Latino.

JAVIER CID: Oh, 99.9 percent.

MERAJI: That's Javier Cid, Roosevelt class of '84 and current coach of the Roosevelt Rough Riders. He said calling it the Chili Bowl just wasn't right. So...

Roosevelt and Garfield got together and they said, hey, you know, we have got something special here. Why don't we give it a name? And it just became known as the East LA Classic.

Everything that happens on the field tonight is a competition. Football...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: One, two, three.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #3: Move.

MERAJI: ...cheerleading...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #4: Let's go.

MERAJI: ...and band.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Are you ready for the classic?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #5: Yes, sir.

MERAJI: Competition is so fierce couples won't sit together tonight if one went to Roosevelt and the other to Garfield. Families split up for the game. Roosevelt cheerleader Jeanette Gomez comes from a Garfield family.

JEANETTE GOMEZ: For the most part, they all go to the Garfield side. My mom, my dad and my very close family, they stay toward the Roosevelt side, even though deep down I know they're rooting for Garfield.

MERAJI: How many tickets are you buying?

JOB GUTIERREZ: I'm buying four right now, and I'll be back for some more. But I want to make sure that I have mine.

MERAJI: Job Chico Gutierrez came to buy tickets at his alma mater for tonight's game. His grown children are coming, too.

GUTIERREZ: Some of them are in Yakima in the state of Washington, and the others are in Bakersfield. But they'll be here tonight.

MERAJI: Gutierrez graduated from Garfield in 1952.

GUTIERREZ: I'm a bulldog.

(LAUGHTER)

GUTIERREZ: Once a Bulldog, you're always a Bulldog.

MERAJI: And once a Rough Rider, always a Rough Rider.

ELIZABETH GINSBURG: I was a student at Roosevelt High School from 1939 to 1942.

MERAJI: That's Elizabeth Ginsburg. She went to Roosevelt when East Los Angeles was home to LA's Jewish and Japanese-American communities. Cesar Chavez Avenue used to be Brooklyn Avenue. Today's taquerias were yesteryear's Jewish delis. But Ginsburg says one thing hasn't changed, that Garfield-Roosevelt rivalry. And to make her point, she reads a passage from a book about LA's Jewish history.

GINSBURG: One season, Garfield covered Roosevelt's school buildings with Garfield colors. This totally incensed all the students at Roosevelt and we wanted retribution. Soon, the biggest rumble was planned. And it's in an article by Lenny D. Davis entitled "East L.A."

MERAJI: No one really knows how the rivalry started. The two high schools were built within a couple years and miles of each other in the '20s, and they both served a working-class, heavily immigrant part of LA.

GINSBURG: Life was really hard. To earn a living was difficult. So, if you can find an area where you are on top, you are victorious, it is very heartwarming.

MERAJI: Victory tonight means bragging rights in the neighborhood and at every single sporting event Roosevelt and Garfield play against each other until they do it all over again next year.

Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News.

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