This year, the Lincoln Heights Senior Center turns 40 years old.
The one story, brick-and-cement building opens its doors at 8 a.m. every weekday, welcoming a largely Mexican community from throughout East LA. From El Monte to Highland Park, the Lincoln Heights Senior Center has the reputation of being one of the most lively places in the neighborhood.
Only one of its original founders is still alive: Doña Estela Alfaro. Back in 1976, there weren’t any local resources for people over 60, and the population was mostly Italian. At the time, she wasn’t old enough to be considered a senior, but Doña Estela saw the need among her fellow Mexican neighbors.
“I came together with a group of women —most of them older than me— and we came together regularly for club meetings,” she says. Their “club” was informal and itinerant, traveling from home to home. Once a week, the ladies would knit together, listen to music, and cook food for the group.
Today, Doña Alfaro still shows up at the Lincoln Heights Senior Center occasionally. She sits on her walker, in a corner of the main hall. Hours go by as she watches people come and go.
“Back when we started the center, everyone volunteered their time,” she reminisces.
Now there is a cost for most things offered inside the building: a subsidized lunch costs $2.50 and a weekend trip to Las Vegas costs about $50 a day. Seniors can load up on classes, too, learning everything from guitar to English to computer literacy. There is also a monthly food bank that feeds around 300 families in need.
There are 28 senior centers run by the City of Los Angeles, in wealthy and working-class neighborhoods alike.
“This is their social network,” explains Theion Perkins, the mental health clinical program manager for the LA County Department of Mental Health. “Seniors don’t necessarily want to hang around with a bunch of young people. They like being with people their own age, so they can relate.” Furthermore, the Lincoln Heights Senior Center is a place where Spanish is dominant, and so is Latino culture.
And then there’s the Thursday baile. For $5 a pop, men and women over 60 spend three straight hours dancing to bachata, cumbia and norteño music. Some come as part of a couple; others come alone eager to meet strangers. A live band plays on stage while the center’s kitchen serves nachos with cheese. By 4 p.m. the baile is over and an hour later, the center closes its doors for the day.