An introduction to the SDFP exclusive series The History of Neighborhood House: From Inception to Occupation
By Maria E. Garcia
I was born in Yuma, Arizona and came to San Diego at the age of three. With the exception of one year, when my mother had TB and we returned to Yuma so my aunts could help care for us, my whole life has been in San Diego County. Our first apartment in San Diego was at 33rd and Imperial Avenue. My parents, thinking a Catholic education was of value, sacrificed to send me to Saint Jude School. That’s where I learned that there was something wrong with being Mexican, and my name was changed to Mary Helen Garcia.
St Jude was my first experience with racism, a concept a shy six-year-old girl had not experienced until she met the nuns. In fifth grade we moved to an old house in Encanto. I attended Encanto Elementary, O’Farrell Jr. High and Morse High School. The blessing with all three of those schools is that they were multi-ethnic and we all learned to play together.
Becoming Maria meant I could leave the self-hate I had learned at St. Jude’s and learn about my culture and background.
After graduating from high school I went to work because we did not have the money for me to attend college. Even though I had A and B grades I was not encouraged to consider or made aware of the junior college system. Two years after graduating from Morse a friend of mine found out about the San Diego City College and suggested I go to junior college with her.
That was also my first exposure to the Chicano Movement. I started attending meetings, not only at City College, but in the community around Logan Elementary where I worked as a teachers aide. In 1969 I transferred to San Diego State. What a perfect year to transfer and become more involved in the Chicano movement. That was also the year I dropped the name Mary Helen and became Maria.
Becoming Maria meant I could leave the self-hate I had learned at St. Jude’s and learn about my culture and background. The Chicano Movement was everywhere—plays by the teatro, picket lines, and even a trip to Delano for the dedication of the forty acres—and it all became a regular part of my daily life.
I was also attending the first meeting of the Chicano Federation. In 1969 I was elected to the first elected board of the Chicano Federation as recording secretary. The first board of the Chicano Federation had been appointed. The summer of 1969 or 1970 I also had the opportunity to attend a leadership training class sponsored by Chicano Federation and led by Southwest consultants. For the next 25 to 30 years I would be involved with the Chicano Federation by being on the board or chairing a project or representing them on a committee.
Later, as we tried to sleep in a ditch outside the camp, the sheriff tried to scare us by pretending to let the dogs loose. It was so dark, you could not tell the dogs were still tied and it scared the devil out of us.
That spring Chicano Park was born and even though I had to work I managed to leave work the minute my day was over and head to the park. This year a friend posted a picture of Chicano Park in 1970 and there I am in work clothes and carrying my purse. I had been at Camp Oliver when it was occupied. I left there Saturday night and at some point on Sunday the decision was made to occupy the camp in an attempt to make the Catholic Church more responsive to the needs of the community. A large group of us picketed the camp. Later, as we tried to sleep in a ditch outside the camp, the sheriff tried to scare us by pretending to let the dogs loose. It was so dark, you could not tell the dogs were still tied and it scared the devil out of us.
Neighborhood House was special to the Logan Heights community and yet people did not know the why or what of this relationship.
In 1970 I got lucky. I was accepted into a program called Teacher Corps. Some of my closest friends today are the men and women I met in Teacher Corps. After graduating and getting my teaching credential I went to work at Balboa School and started working on my Masters. I am still very much involved in the Chicano movement. While working on my Masters in bilingual bicultural education I wrote a paper on Neighborhood House.
Neighborhood House had been “taken over” a few years before I wrote my paper. The “take over” of Neighborhood House gave birth to the Chicano Clinic and a return of social services to Barrio Logan. That year I loaned that paper to a local TV station where it was lost. Neighborhood House was special to the Logan Heights community and yet people did not know the why or what of this relationship. About a year and a half ago I decided to rewrite the paper. Forty years later I am writing this paper for so many different reasons.
First off I am not going to receive a grade. I can honestly say this time it is an act of love. I want people to know how special that building at 1809 National Ave is. After the most recent remodeling I drove past and was shocked to see that the building had not been preserved. Did they not know what went on in that building? Did they not care that people had learned to cook, dance, play musical instruments and learned English inside those walls?
At my age now, I see a pride that went completely unnoticed when I first wrote the paper. It also gave me a better understanding of the unity in that community before the freeway split them into two parts.
What about the people that have walked through those doors? Why is their story going untold? I decided to rewrite the story of Neighborhood House. The only thing I had left from the first paper I wrote was some tapes of previous interviews. I had to start all over again. The best thing about writing this paper is the help I have received from everyone. Total strangers have agreed to be interviewed or were willing to share pictures or stories of their days at Neighborhood House.
At my age now, I see a pride that went completely unnoticed when I first wrote the paper. It also gave me a better understanding of the unity in that community before the freeway split them into two parts. My heartfelt thanks go to everyone that felt that the history of Neighborhood House should be preserved and told. I hope that generations to come will understand what a settlement house in the middle of the Barrio did for an immigrant community and why one of the wealthiest families in San Diego supported this settlement house.
This series on Neighborhood House may not answer all of your questions but it will give you an understanding of why Neighborhood House was the heart of the Latino Community.