SDFP exclusive series The History of Neighborhood House: From 1918 to the occupation in 1972
By Maria Garcia
Armando and Bea Rodriguez welcomed me into their home to look at old newspapers clippings about Neighborhood House that I had brought. Those clippings set off a conversation filled with memories and untold stories from the 1930’s and 1940’s. One of the pictures that received the most attention was taken at a party at the Marston House. The Marston family played a seminal role in providing both financial support to Neighborhood House and direction. Their garden parties were particularly memorable.
A group of dancers in traditional Mexican dress are all lined up together in one of the clippings. I had no idea who the dancers were other than boys and girls from the Neighborhood House. Much to my surprise, Bea states “Oh my God, that’s my sister and me.” Taking a closer look, the boy with a zarape over his shoulder and a fake mustache was indeed a girl. Bea and her sister Consuelo were the dance partners.
These dancers were in many of the pictures and even danced at the performance for Jane Addam’s visit. Bea learned many skills through Neighborhood House, but her dancing made her stand out from the others. She remembers one Christmas performance at the Marston House at which the dancers were given many presents. This young child thought that the presents were a gift to the dancers, only to return to Neighborhood House and have to share them with many of the children that were there.
As a child, Armando lived near Neighborhood House. He did not come to the United States until he was old enough to start school, and of course, did not speak English. As a child growing up in the Barrio, Armando took some classes, went to the movies and the dances held at Neighborhood House. Neighborhood House provided many of the entertainment activities that the poor immigrant families needed.
Wrestling became Armando’s passion and like many of the boys in the neighborhood, he learned both wrestling and boxing at Neighborhood House. We did not spend much time discussing his boxing ability but he proudly stated that he had only lost one boxing match.
His childhood memories include the dances and the movies at Neighborhood House. Later when he “courted” Bea, he would try to impress her with his dance moves. Bea was such a good dancer that he returned to Neighborhood House to take dance lessons. This was after WW II but the tie with Neighborhood House remained strong as well as helpful.
While attending San Diego State College (it was not yet San Diego State University) he landed a job at Neighborhood House as a recreation supervisor. His duties were to supervise the various kid’s programs at the playground and dances. In his book From the Barrio to Washington, he has nothing but praise for Anita Jones, the director and Gertrude Pfeiffer who not only hired him but endeared herself to the whole community.
Armando remembers that the late Frank Peñuelos, the late Leonard Fierro and himself, all worked at Neighborhood House while attending college. His job as recreation supervisor meant he worked closely with Miss Pfeiffer. This job paid $90.00 per month, which was a considerable amount of money for that period.
In 1941 the Neighborhood House wrestling team went to a tournament in Los Angeles. When they went to the Los Angeles Athletic Club, they were told they could not enter through the front door and would have to use the service entrance.
He coached wrestling and there are still men that remembered being coached by Armando. At a recent dance attended by the “old timers” the impact Armando had on those men, when they were young, was evident by their name for him– “Coach.” He was not seen as the former President of East LA college, nor as an Equal Opportunity Commissioner but as Coach–the man who had taught them a variety of sports, the man who had taught them boxing and wrestling, the man who had shaped their value system.
Like others who have been interviewed he remembered the discrimination he faced. In 1941 the Neighborhood House wrestling team went to a tournament in Los Angeles. When they went to the Los Angeles Athletic Club, they were told they could not enter through the front door and would have to use the service entrance.
Unlike the others I have interviewed who had spoken of discrimination, Armando had the opportunity to return years later to that organization. He returned to the Los Angeles Athletic Club this time as as a commissioner of the Equal Opportunity Commission. This time he walked through the front door and there was not the slightest suggestion that the service entrance was to be used.
Many years later Armando became Assistant Commissioner of Education. He was a supporter of Bilingual Education and provided leadership on many boards and commissions. He worked in the presidential administrations of Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Armando is proud that a portion of his roots were firmly planted at Neighborhood House.
In the Heart of San Diego interview below from May 2013, Dr. Rodriguez talks about growing up in San Diego, the circumstances under which he became an American citizen, his career path and his thoughts on education.
Armando Miguel Rodriguez discusses his book From the Barrio to Washington: An Educator’s Journey on this January 17, 2008 C-SPAN video. His great-grandson Armando Simon Rodriguez reads a selection from the book, set in 1966 Albuquerque New Mexico. Dr. Rodriguez describes Albuquerque as ground zero for the regional struggles of Hispanic- Americans who were demanding recognition from the federal government and full and representative participation in the democratic process.
The complete History of Neighborhood House in Logan Heights series is available here.