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The Last Mexican of Venice is gone. The flippers got her. Yanked her like a rotten, smelly tooth. Sent L.A. County Sheriff’s deputies to do it.
Jeannine Mendoza grew up in Venice. She and her four siblings waded in the marshes before there was a Marina, built bonfires on the beach before it was illegal, delighted in its unpretentious working-class Little Rascals streets. Her parents bought an unassuming house in what avaricious realtors would one day dub “The Golden Triangle,” but it was just a sidestreet niche in 1957. And Mom and Dad had grown up in West L.A. and Santa Monica.
For that matter, the Last Mexican of Venice was descended from the Marquez family, recipients of an 1839 land grant that included Santa Monica and Pacific Palisades.
You want your “roots?” There are your “roots.”
But Jeannine Mendoza, a great-granddaughter of Old California, has been kicked out, under threat of arrest, from the home she and her late husband, Aaron Hassman, bought back in the ‘70’s. A 500-square-foot matchbox on Superba Avenue near Lincoln where they somehow managed to raise two boys, while Jeannine’s Nana lived in a mother-in-law apartment out back. Typical circumstances of old Venice, long replaced by millennial tekkie royalty, movie royalty, developer royalty.
Royalty. I remember an old bum I met on a pier long ago, declaiming. Everything in his speech somehow came back to the word, “rat.” “Royalty!” he exclaimed, spit hanging off his white stubble. “Roy. Al. Ty. RAT!”
The RATs got the Last Mexican of Venice, which is how Jeannine wryly referred to herself in recent years, just as they have gotten countless others in her heavily white gentrified neighborhood, and flipper-infested neighborhoods everywhere. The RATs smell money, and nothing else matters. Not someone’s hard work or integrity, not suffering, not tragedy. Only money. It’s really just the old Vaudeville play, “The Drunkard,” on a huge scale. The poor widow (Jeannine lost her husband several years ago) being evicted by the rich landlord.
Jeannine Mendoza grew up believing that you should give back to the community, the world, in some way. Most people used to believe this way, before college kids answered “icon” or “rich” when polled as to their career ambition. She went to Cal State Northridge on loans and financial aid for minorities (Educational Opportunity Program) in the early ‘70’s, got a degree in education. Then a Master’s degree. Eventually, an Ed. D. Right. Dr. Mendoza.
And she taught. . .kindergarten. Occasionally first or second grade. She believed this is where she could make the most impact, and that the most impact should be made here, when brains and hearts are so malleable. She was dedicated, she was effervescent, she adored her students. Many came back years later to thank her. Radiant reviews from supervisors. Always.
And so it went. She taught, she raised a family, she paid off her gigantic student loans. Her husband taught grade school, and supplemented income by becoming a boat captain for hire, piloting outings to Catalina, Baja on weekends. The Hassmans got by. They were a happy couple, in love with each other, their kids, their home, their work.
Except. . .
Aaron decided to more than double their living space by adding a second storey. He maxed out credit cards and took on an enormous new mortgage, and the work was done. Finances were tight, but it was all do-able, he said, as long as he and Jeannine kept working.
Except. . .
One day Aaron broke up a fight between a couple of kids on the playground, in the process falling and injuring his back. The pain came, and no amount of therapy helped. As anyone with chronic pain knows, it destroys functionality, life, sometimes sanity. Aaron turned to prescription pain-killers. As anyone who takes prescription pain-killers knows, the addiction is insidious and personality altering. After a few years of valiant effort, he quit teaching, went on disability. Not long after that, he quit his marriage, and went on a spree with other women.
Leaving Jeannine behind to pay the massive new mortgage, which was more massive than she had been led to think. And estranged and drug-deranged hubby continued maxing out credit cards.
It was around that time that Jeannine suddenly began getting complaints from her new principal. Completely unfounded, ridiculous, trumped-up, trivial complaints that could, of course, be justified with administrative double-talk. She was baffled, she was deeply hurt, she was outraged, and then she wasn’t. As it became clear that the complaints were, in fact, concerted harassment, she realized that LAUSD wanted her out because she had maxed out her salary. Get rid of the veteran, selfless teacher who has given so much, because it’s time to bring in a kid and pay next-to-nothing. (Note: a billion-dollar class action suit over this tactic was just filed against LAUSD by a longtime teacher.)
She fought for a solid three years. She consulted her essentially useless union, she talked to attorneys, she countered every tacky charge the principal dreamed up, and she did so with dignity. Something you should know about Jeannine is that she does everything with dignity, courtesy, optimism. She is upbeat, sunny, and never-say-die, always has been. It seems to be innate.
Then, after 18 months of separation, Aaron returned, apologized, asked to have his home and life back. He missed wife and teenaged sons, he tearfully confessed; he missed himself. Jeannine tentatively welcomed him, provided he got help kicking drugs, left him to sleep in the living room and went to bed. The next morning she found him dead. Didn’t bother with an autopsy.
There is a Grateful Dead song lyric apt to this story: “Can’t close the door when the walls cave in.” Jeannine was now a widow, with two teenaged sons at home, aiming for college. She was being driven out of her beloved career after nearly 35 years by what she saw as administrative bully instructed to cut costs. One of her sons was horribly scalded in a home accident, and spent weeks in hospitals getting skin grafts, his mom frequently by his side. (The principal exploited this incident, claiming Jeannine was taking excessive time off.)
Somehow, Jeannine found ways to cover expenses, to cope, plugging ever-springing leaks in the dam with a finger, a thumb, an elbow, an idea.
To meet her mortgage, though, she would have needed Batman.
Menacing letters on legal letterhead came like junk mail. Threat after threat of foreclosure and eviction. It was in this atmosphere that she retired from LAUSD, unable to tolerate the harassment, figuring she could substitute teach and still bring in enough money to maybe hang on to her home.
One problem: she was barred from substitute teaching in LAUSD because of all the complaints from her principal. And you wonder why the school district is so broken.
That’s correct: a wonderful teacher with a doctorate in education who taught in city schools for 35 years was blackballed by the district. Not exactly a gold watch. So she asked for help from her siblings and her sons, and they rose to the occasion. It was a small version of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” really, such was the rallying spirit of the Mendoza clan, cousins and nieces and nephews included.
And she managed to make payments, or withhold them if her attorney advised it during times when her mortgage was bought and sold again and again, passed from one “private equity” firm (read: foreclosure vultures) to another like a mad football play. There were periods when she didn’t actually know who to pay. Something called the California Ethical Real Estate Funding, LLC (CEREF), whose guiding principle is the “preservation of homeownership in California accomplished through ethical and fair dealing with homeowners and our investors,” refused to modify her loan. So much for “fair dealing.”
At one point, she declared bankruptcy—something she felt deeply ashamed about— essentially to stall foreclosure and hang on. She wrote to Los Angeles Timescolumnist Steve Lopez for help, knowing full well that she was hardly alone in her circumstances. Lopez, who sets himself up as a champion of the “little guy,” wrote back a terse note saying that he didn’t see what gentrification had to do with her problem. Never mind that most of Venice has been gentrified, and the working class folk long driven out. So much, apparently, for the columnist championing the “little guy.”
Yet her plan worked. Substitute teaching in private schools and tutoring brought in nearly as much as her old salary, never mind that she was driving (when the car was running) or taking buses all over the city, regularly putting in fourteen-hour days while in her early ‘60’s. Renting a room to college students helped. In the end, it was really a sort of miracle: she had just managed to put enough money together to buy her house back, when the flipper got her. One can only wonder if someone got wind of her impending bid, and moved in for the kill. She’ll never know.
“Alex Middleton III bid $1.4 million dollars on my house in June,” she said. “At the time I had secured funding from a different source to buy my house from the investment group that held the mortgage. It took a day longer than I planned to get out of bankruptcy, and in the interim my house was auctioned off. I tried to stall the inevitable but last Thursday (Oct. 8)while I was subbing, the sheriff came and evicted us. We were allowed to come back and get some stuff and today I was there today from 7 a.m. until 8 at night. This Middleton wants to fix up the house and flip it before El Nino starts up and his profit margin slips, that’s my guess.”
So as The Last Mexican of Venice sinks slowly in the west, and someone with the caricaturish rich-white-guy name of Alex Middleton III prepares to gut and flip a home for a crass profit, Jeannine Mendoza has moved in with a brother, temporarily. She gets $400,000 out of the deal (the “overage”), which sounds pretty good, until you think about what $400,000 will buy you in L.A. these days, and you think about losing not a house, but a home where your kids grew up, and you spent your happiest times.
On top of losing a career of 35 years. On top of growing up in a neighborhood that has all but disappeared under a hurricane of flipping, exploitation, greed, gentry. After your ancestors essentially settled the region in the first place.
Full disclosure: Dr. Mendoza is a longtime friend of the writer.