Welcome to East LA Weekly

In this issue, we introduce you to a kid from East LA who studied with Jaime Escalante at Garfield High and now leads a team that works on NASA’s Mars rover. Learn the latest on the Nuevo Amanecer fire. And a first look at East LA election results.

We welcome your feedback. Please contact me with ideas and suggestions at antonio@theeastsiderla.com.

Antonio Mejías-Rentas, Editor | East LA Weekly

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Engineer leading important Mars rover team is the proud product of a Garfield High education

Sergio Valdez with Jaime Escalante

Sergio Valdez (left) and mentor Jaime Escalante pictured in 2005.

When the Perseverance Rover lands on Mars next February, it will release a small helicopter that will provide scientists a new perspective on the red planet’s geology. Among those monitoring the Ingenuity Helicopter, and several other instruments on the rover, will be an engineer born, raised and educated in East LA.

“This is going to be the first time we try to demonstrate powered flight on another planet,” says Sergio Valdez, an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena.

There’s noticeable pride in the voice of Valdez, section manager in the Payload and Small Spacecraft Mechanical Engineering Department at JPL. NASA says the Ingenuity is expected to allow scientists to “peer into areas that are too steep or slippery” for the larger rover.

Leading a team working on a helicopter that would hover over Mars is something that Valdez couldn’t possibly imagine as a child in East LA.

“I never thought I would end up in a place like JPL,” says the 47-year-old, who grew up on McDonnell Avenue and studied at Ford Boulevard Elementary, Griffith Middle School and Garfield High.

Valdez attributes a great deal of his success to his years at Garfield and his long relationship with legendary math teacher Jaime Escalante.

“He was key. He was instrumental,” recalls Valdez, who took three years of math with the teacher right after he was portrayed by Edward James Olmos in the 1988 film "Stand and Deliver."

“I had always been a very good student, but the fame was fresh when I entered his classroom, and all of that just helped motivate you to do well and carry that torch going forward," he said.

At 15, Valdez had been working at a liquor store. But during his first summer at Garfield, Escalante asked him to leave that job, offering him a gig as a math tutor. He continued tutoring throughout his remaining summers. As a senior, the promising scholar was one of several Garfield students interviewed for a first-ever summer internship at JPL.

“The interview itself was super awkward,” he remembers. “I was clueless. I had to say that I actually didn't know where I wanted to be. I had never been exposed to engineers in my life." 

“So the lady kind of looked down and was scribbling and then thanked me and dismissed me. And I thought, all right, I blew that one. But no, afterwards they did come back and offered me a position.”

Once the summer was over, he went off to study mechanical engineering at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo before launching his successful career.

Throughout the years he stayed in touch with his mentor, sometimes travelling to speaking engagements with Escalante, who left Garfield in 1991 –- the same year that Valdez graduated -– and moved to Northern California.

Sometime around 2009, Valdez accompanied Escalante on what turned out to be the famed teacher's last visit to Garfield.

Valdez feels that a solid education at Garfield set him on the right path.

“It's been a long time, a lot has happened since,” Valdez said. “But, yeah, I do feel like I was given certain opportunities and luckily I went after them.”

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COVID deaths and cases continue to rise

While a seven-day average of new daily cases in East Los Angeles showed a drop last week – 23, compared with 33 the week before -- the average for the first three days of this week has jumped back up to 38.

Here are the latest East LA numbers:

  • Forty-four new cases were reported on Tuesday.
  • As of Tuesday, a total of 7,265 cases have been reported in the community.
  • In the last seven days, three new deaths were reported. Total number of deaths is now 116.

East LA restaurants may add pandemic surcharge

Customers of East Los Angeles restaurants may soon be paying a special “COVID-19 Recovery Charge” if a proposal by County Supervisor Hilda Solís passes. A motion approved by the Board of Supervisors asked the county’s Department of Consumer Affairs to look into the practicality and legality of allowing restaurants, breweries and wineries in unincorporated county sections to collect a pandemic surcharge. The fee would not apply to take-out orders. An ordinance is expected by November 24.


40th District Election Update

C. Antonio Delgado, the Republican candidate challenging incumbent Lucille Roybal-Allard in the 40th District race, was doing poorly in early election returns on Tuesday night. Delgado had garnered only 26.51% of the vote compared to Roybal-Allard, with 73.49%.

Coronavirus dead memorialized at Calvary

People who died from COVID-19 were remembered during a virtual Día de los Muertos celebration broadcast Sunday from the courtyard of the Mausoleum at Calvary Cemetery and Mortuary, the Whittier Daily News reported. “This year we celebrate this beautiful feast of hope in a time of heavy sorrow,” said Archbishop José Gómez, who led the prayer service in English and Spanish. “Tonight, we remember all those whose lives have been lost in these long, dark months of the coronavirus pandemic.” A replay is available here

New details on Nuevo Amanecer fire

A suspect in the Sept. 16 fire that destroyed the Nuevo Amanecer affordable housing development at First and Rowan has been identified as a 17-year-old male who remains detained, The Eastsider reported. Some hearings have already been held, but no details are available because the case is being handled in juvenile court.

A detective from the Sheriff’s arson division said damages from the fire go well beyond the original estimate of $7 million, considering that seven surrounding buildings were reached by flames and smoke. A section of Rowan Street between First and Michigan remains closed to traffic, to allow for ongoing cleanup efforts.


Crowds turn ‘unruly’ during Dodgers celebrations

At least 10 people were arrested in East LA last week during Dodgers World Series celebrations, the Los Angeles Times reported. A Sheriff’s department spokesperson said the arrests came after “unruly crowds began to flood every major intersection” along Whittier – which was closed off to vehicular traffic – and Olympic boulevards. When deputies gave a dispersal order, people at Whittier and Amalia began throwing rocks and deputies responded with “less lethal” projectile weapons. Two persons were arrested on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon and eight on suspicion of failing to disperse.

Thanks for reading the East LA Weekly!

Don't forget to contact me with ideas and suggestions at antonio@theeastsiderla.com.

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See you next week!

Antonio Mejías-Rentas

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