From the Toltec Club to the election of Pete Chacon and la lucha to get there
By Maria Garcia
Last week’s article introduced readers to Leonard Fierro, who grew up in Logan Heights, attended Neighborhood House in the 1930’s and upon returning from World War II began shaping and chronicling the history of Mexican Americans in San Diego. It is Leonard who wrote “We had just fought the war for liberty and justice and when we came home we found we didn’t have it in our city.”
The problems and frustrations of the Latino community had been constantly there, as noted in so many of the prior interviews, but it wasn’t until the establishment of the Toltec Club that political involvement was seen as the remedy to discrimination. The Toltec Club was initially envisioned as a social club with dances. The resistance members faced transformed it into a forerunner of the Chicano movement and laid the foundation for the political activism of the 1960’s.
According to Leonard, it was Frank Peñuelas who originated the idea of the Toltec Club. Frank established a proto-type at Neighborhood House in the late 30’s, where the club used athletics as a way to provide counseling and guidance for the young people there. Frank also unsuccessfully attempted to establish a Toltec fraternity for Mexican students at San Diego State University who were denied participation in the existing fraternities and sororities on the campus.
After the war, Leonard Fierro, Frank Peñuelas, Mike Negrete and Armando Rodriguez were reunited and Frank was ready to start a new Toltec Club. Leonard noted that Frank wanted to apply the term “Toltec” to every endeavor of the Mexican-American community as a way of conveying cultural identity. The term “Aztlán” would eventually replace it although used much the same way in the 60’s.
When the Toltec Club met resistance in holding dances in anglo venues, Frank Peñuelas who had been schooled in the political process, was prepared to use this knowledge. He contacted City Councilman Charles Dail and explained that he was being told that no venues were available to hold their dances.
When the Toltec Club was first established in the late 40’s, the focus was social dances, baseball games and picnics. At first the Toltecas held all of their dances at Neighborhood House. Later their dances were held at various locations throughout the city of San Diego. The attempt to move the dances to popular “Anglo” venues like the El Cortez and the Grant Hotel was met with resistance in the form of a variety of excuses.
This resistance from the anglo community was occurring at the same time that Fred Ross was organizing Mexican Americans in California. He established the Community Service Organization (CSO) in 1948, which provided the early organizing training to Cesar Chávez and Dolores Huerta. Ross was in contact with Frank Peñuelas. The topic of their conversations was how to organize Mexican Americans in San Diego. Leonard, Frank, Mike and Dr. Armando Rodriguez drove to Los Angeles to meet with the CSO members.
The CSO is described as the first broad-based organization within the Mexican-American community, representing veterans, businessmen, and workers. The primary goal of the CSO was to register Mexican Americans to vote. For this purpose, the organization recruited 1,000 members and registered 15,000 new voters in the Latino sections of Boyle Heights, Belvedere, and East Los Angeles. The CSO had recently been very effective in electing Mr. Ed Roybal to the Los Angeles City Council where he became the first Mexican American since 1887 to win a seat on that Council.
The four San Diego leaders had been thoroughly politicized. They saw the need for the Toltecas to register Mexican American voters and to have a role in local political races. When the Toltec Club met resistance in holding dances in anglo venues, Frank Peñuelas who had been schooled in the political process, was prepared to use this knowledge. He contacted City Councilman Charles Dail and explained that he was being told that no venues were available to hold their dances.
Councilman Dail told Frank to call him back in a couple of hours. When Frank called back, he was instructed to call the establishment that had initially denied access to the Toltec Club and was told this time that it was available. Though a very subtle step in the long road towards equality, having dances in establishments open to the majority community was significant. The Toltec Club was using the political process to begin chipping away at social barriers. And Councilman Dail would go on to become San Diego Mayor Charles Dail.
Not surprisingly, the Toltecas met with resistance within the political process itself. The Toltec Club hoped to register voters but the San Diego Registrar of Voters had denied several members of the Toltec Club the right to become deputy registrars. Pressure had to be applied yet again, but this time it was not to break down social barriers but to address the barriers to the most basic right and responsibility of citizens–full participation in the democratic process.
The tensions between the Mexican American community and San Diego Police Department had been long simmering. The Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, while occurring in Los Angeles, had a spill-over effect in San Diego that resulted in ugly racial incidents.
When I interviewed Dickie Negrete, relative of Toltec Club co-founder Mike Negrete, he told me that if a dance was held at election time, proof of voting would provide free admittance to the dance. The Toltecas were very aware of the importance of voting and the power of the ballot box long before we heard the slogan “get out the vote”.
The tensions between the Mexican American community and San Diego Police Department had been long simmering. The Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, while occurring in Los Angeles, had a spill-over effect in San Diego that resulted in ugly racial incidents. Jacobo & Griswold Del Castillo note that it was City Councilman Charles Dail who expressed his concern to Rear Admiral David Bagley in San Diego that the “harassment by the sailors and marines against the so-called zoot-suiters was actually aimed at civilians in general.” This harassment was carried out by city and military police.
The police would not believe that a Mexican and a black man were working there and were certain they had stolen the keys.
A San Diego Union article from June 10, 1943 reported that the San Diego Police were ordered to search suspicious individuals who “appeared to be members of a Pachuco gang…” Racial profiling had become a serious issue that Frank Peñuelas would experience first hand.
In my interview with Frank he remembered applying for a position at Neighborhood House and not getting it. He simply said politics had been involved but now I wish I could ask him exactly what happened. Instead he went to work for the San Diego Park and Recreation Department. His assignment was Stockton (Martin Luther King) Park and Rec and then Memorial Park and Rec.
One night in the late 40’s or early 50’s, Frank was closing for the night at Memorial Park and Rec when he was stopped by the police. His assistant was Mr. Ermer Robinson, an African American who later went on to play basketball with the Harlem Globe Trotters. The police would not believe that a Mexican and a black man were working there and were certain they had stolen the keys.
Frank began questioning the cops as to the reason why they were questioning Ermer Robinson. Frank was taken downtown to the police station. A worse fate would have been a trip to the notorious lumber yard where the cops would have beaten him up. The police were so sure that they had a case against these two men that they by-passed the lumber yard, but I cannot say for sure that they took Mr. Robinson to the police station too.
A night captain at the police station recognized Frank and asked the officers why he had brought this guy in. When he heard the cops’ reason he simply told them “Let him go.” Frank did not get a ride back to Memorial Park and Rec center and he did not go to jail for some drummed up charges.
When the cops found nothing they told the young men to “get their brown ass that side of Market” and not to be seen in this area again.
David Aguirre, who owns a barber shop on 30th Street in North Park remembers an incident in the late 1950’s that reflected how Latino boys were treated by SDPD. David had a date for a dance being held at Neighborhood House. His date was a young Italian girl from North Park who lived on Kansas Street. David, along with another friend, drove to North Park to pick up his date.
They were stopped by the police, made to get out of the car and their arms were checked for signs of drug use. When the cops found nothing they told the young men to “get their brown ass that side of Market” and not to be seen in this area again. Market Street was the boundary between communities that resulted from racially restrictive covenants. In the same Voice of San Diego article Cristin McVey, a lecturer in sociology at the University of California, San Diego notes:
In the early to mid-20th century, white residents and developers believed that the arrival of black, Mexican, or Jewish families to their neighborhoods could drive down property values, an attitude driven partly by personal prejudices and partly by larger societal ones…
They drove toward Market Street and located a phone booth. David called the girl and arranged for her to meet him near Fir Street. In order to escort the girl home they had to drive via Park Boulevard, keeping an eye out for the police.
David remembers the presence of the KKK in North Park, where they maintained a store front. In the 1920’s the KKK was located at 28th and University in a building rented to them by the Plymouth Church. One night there was a fire and the building mysteriously burned. The office was relocated to a building near Illinois and University. In the article San Diego’s Ku Klux Klan 1920-1980, the author writes “The Klan used the Bible and the old concept of manifest destiny to see themselves as superior and Mexicans as inferior and in need of control.” David Aguirre continues to believe that many police officers were members of the KKK.
The judicial system was not any better in its treatment of Mexican Americans during the same time period. Mexican kids would be picked up for the smallest infractions and were given the choice of jail or enlisting in the military. This police behavior may have been superficially tolerated in the 20’s and 30’s, but by the 40’s and 50’s Mexican Americans were no longer willing to ignore the negative treatment they received at the hands of SDPD. Without a doubt, every negative experience contributed to the ¡Ya Basta! attitude that was the rallying cry of the Chicano movement.
At some point the Toltecas asked for meetings with the police chief to discuss the interactions of his department with the Mexican community. I do not know the name of the police chief, only that he did not show up for the packed meeting. Police officers were stationed outside the building however. As any 1960’s activist knows, that presence was meant to intimidate those attending the meeting.
The Toltec Club became a powerful vehicle for identifying and addressing discrimination and segregation. These were the Club’s goals and objectives that I found in Leonard’s own handwriting in the Leonard Fierro Chicano Archives (Box 18, file 17):
- Counseling and guiding
- Unite the Mexican community by social functions
- Involve the Mexican community in the process of voting and participation
- Recover individual pride in our Mexican culture and heritage
- Make the Mexican community aware of the right and privileges in the American Constitution
- Awake the majority community to the fact that we are no longer the second class citizens as had existed since the early 1870’s
- Prepare them [ Mexican community] for community involvement
- Develop leadership among the youth in the community
The Toltec Club members would go on to forge alliances with the African American community which was facing its own civil rights struggle. It was through this alliance that Leon Williams became the first African American elected to the City Council and Rev. George Walker Smith became the first African American on the San Diego Unified School Board.
The Latino community would have to wait until 1970, when educator Pete Chacon became the first Chicano from San Diego elected to the State Assembly. His legislative efforts there garnered him recognition as “the father of bi-lingual education” in California.
Mexican American educators from San Diego took the lead on much of the organizing and activism. Dr. Armando Rodriguez became an Assistant Commissioner of Education and worked in four presidential administrations. Dr John Bareño became a college professor. Leonard Fierro was one of the founders of the Chicano Federation. A great portion of his political involvement was spent in championing education for Latino students.
I vividly remember Leonard and Gracia de Pick on a panel speaking against the placement of Mexican students in special education classes because of their limited English speaking skills. He was a supporter of bilingual education and the goal of making all kids in the community bilingual.
Leonard Fierro deserves special recognition for his diligence in preserving the history that I have been able to present in this article and last week’s. Without him, so much of this history, of our history would be lost.
The complete series of the History of Neighborhood House is available here.