SDFP exclusive series The History of Neighborhood House: From 1918 to the occupation in 1972
By Maria Garcia
Emma Lopez is a spunky lady who will turn eighty-eight in November. She was born at 821 Beardsley in Logan Heights and started attending Neighborhood House when she was around nine years old, in the early 1930’s. Her parents owned the Neighborhood Café which they had purchased in 1935. The Neighborhood Café was next door to Neighborhood House. Like the others interviewed Emma has very fond memories not only of Neighborhood House but of the Logan Heights community.
It has been very difficult finding women who attended Neighborhood House. Unlike the boys, who spent most of their day at Neighborhood House, the girls took a specific class and then went home. Emma’s participation in Neighborhood House activities reflected that social expectation. While she was allowed to attend activities at a young age as she got into her mid-teens her participation was more limited. Emma’s independent streak, however, exposed her to a few more adventures than other girls of that time.
Emma participated in three classes: dancing, cooking and sewing. At the age of nine she began making all her own clothes. She had observed her mother sewing, who until this point had made all of Emma’s clothes. This gave her a little advantage about what it takes to be able to make a dress or skirt. Her sewing class was taught by Mrs. Gibson who insisted the girls learn to thoroughly read a pattern. Actually, as Emma put it “we were expected to digest the pattern.” Worse yet was her mothers’ expectation that each seam would be perfect. Between Mrs. Gibson and her mother’s watchful eye Emma became a very good seamstress.
The first project was learning how to use the pedal on the sewing machine. (Remember in those days, sewing machines were operated by pedal.) In order to learn to apply the correct pressure to the sewing machine pedal they were teamed with another girl to practice this skill. If they were able to prove to Mrs. Gibson’s satisfaction that they knew how to use the pedal, they were allowed to learn how to baste a hem.
Today Emma believes that learning to baste is a waste of time, however in those days that was the process that was expected to be followed. All through high schools she made all her clothes. In sewing class Emma also made a bag to store her castanets.
Her dance classes were taught by Mrs. Villagrana. In addition to teaching the girls to dance, Mrs. Villagrana played the piano that accompanied the dancers. The girls were taught flamenco. If students failed to follow the correct dance step Mrs. Villagrana would let her dissatisfaction be known by stomping her foot.
Mrs. Villagrana also taught flamenco at Fremont School, which was located in Old Town. Emma and two other girls would go with Mrs. Villagrana to demonstrate how to do the dances as well as to partner with the other girls to support their learning. It was quite the honor to be selected to go to Fremont Elementary and help with the dance class.
Emma’s dance classes stopped around the age of sixteen, when her mother suggested that a young lady of that age should not be “showing her legs on stage.” Her mother went so far as to lower the hem of Emma’s dance dress. It seems that many of the moms felt very strongly that their girls should not hang out at Neighborhood House. As a young girl it was “safe” for her to attend classes, as a mid-teen it was not proper for her to be there with “all those boys.”
Emma may have not been allowed to dance on stage but her love for dancing continued. She remembers in the war years going to the Pacific Square Theater located near Hawthorn and Essex to dance with the various service men. The girls would take the street car to the dance. Often Laura Rodriguez’s mother- in- law would be the chaperone. This freedom for the girls was permitted because they were accompanied by a chaperone. Emma thought it was wonderful to dance with men who came from other parts of the country and to learn new dance moves from them.
Like others discussing life in Logan Heights in that era she stresses how nice the neighborhood was and how she felt perfectly safe getting off the street car and walking down the alley to her house. No doubt one reason she felt so safe was that as she got off the street car, a group of zoot suiters would greet her and walk her as far as the alley. They were neighborhood boys that Emma had known for years. She would walk down the alley alone and as she as she reached her house would yell back to them “I am home.”
In addition to the dance classes, David Rodriguez, Laura’s husband, taught Emma how to play the tenor sax. She remembers a closet full of instruments. It is unclear if the closet was in the Rodriguez home or at the Neighborhood House. Considering the relationship the Rodriguez’s had with the Neighborhood House it is very possible that he taught the classes there. As a result of her sax lesson, and her interest in music, she was in the Memorial Junior High Marching band.
Cooking Class /Arts and Crafts
Lemon pies were a regular feature of the cooking class. Emma is not sure if the lemons were donated or not, however she believes they were donated since there always seemed to be an abundance of lemons at Neighborhood House. She remembers being asked to bring two eggs to use in cooking class. This requirement has been mentioned by some of those previously interviewed. Most of the ingredients, however, were provided by Neighborhood House.
Emma once entered a pie eating contest which was held near Harbor drive. The grand prize was 50 cents, which Emma proudly won. In order to participate you had to put your hands behind you and put your face in the pie. Upon returning home her mother was rather upset about her stain-filled blouse, announcing that the stain would never come of the blouse.
In the craft class, among other things, students learned soap carving. They also learned to work with copper. One tool was used to poke small holes in the copper, and a spoon-like tool was used to flatten the design. Emma made a set of book ends out of copper. They also learned to make a belt and she remembers painting blocks for the design on the belt. It seems they would paint the blocks and then use them to stamp the design onto the belt. This class not only was entertaining to the students but provided them with items they may not have had otherwise.
Memories of Neighborhood House Health Services
Emma still can recall Mrs. Brackett walking around the neighborhood carrying a large satchel. Mrs. Brackett was a rather large Eleanor Roosevelt type woman and was well liked in the neighborhood. She walked all over with that satchel. Emma’s take on the satchel is “no matter what was wrong with you the cure was in that bag.” Mrs. Brackett lived right next door to the Neighborhood House and provided community access to her services whenever needed.
Emma can be added to the list of those who had their tonsils removed at Neighborhood House. She was told she would be given ice cream after the operation but the ether made her so sick she could not even hold down a glass of water. For that reason she was not given her promised ice cream. Emma is adamant that even today, when she walks past the old health department which was located downtown next to what today is now Hooters, she can still smell the ether.
Emma assured me that everybody learned to swim at caquita beach, thus many of her experiences are the same as her male counterparts even with the restrictions she faced as a girl.
In contrast to the men interviewed, Emma does not remember experiencing discrimination. There are several possible explanations for this. The most obvious may be that she simply does not remember or did not recognize how she was discriminated against at the time.
Another explanation may be that because her parents owned a restaurant and were financially better off than some of the others, she was not subjected to the same issues as some of the poorer kids. Yet another theory could be that as a girl she did not venture out as much as the boys and was not put into those situations that would have brought her to be faced with discrimination.
Previous articles in the History of Neighborhood House series here.