The Castro Sisters, Frank Peñuelas, Leonard Fierro and the beginnings of the Toltec Club
By Maria Garcia
One of the goals of the settlement house movement, which was established in urban centers at the beginning of the twentieth century, was to “Americanize” the immigrant populations that had settled in those cities. When Neighborhood House was established in 1914 as the only United States settlement house on the Mexican border, its role was to “uplift” Mexican immigrants in the Logan Heights community and Americanize them in doing so.
The Americanization process included everything from introducing Mexican families to white flour and white bread to the provision of the first English as a Second Language (ESL) classes in the city to support for cultural, social and recreational activities in which athletics programs for the boys were particularly prominent.
When I recently spoke to Rose Castro, she provided a particularly illuminating comment about Neighborhood House–“They taught us leadership!” Each Neighborhood House club elected a president and secretary and established procedure was expected at every meeting. Where else would Logan Heights kids learn parliamentary procedure if not at Neighborhood House?
The Neighborhood House experience seemingly had all the elements to support our national narrative of a melting pot that provides equal opportunity for all to achieve the American Dream. The lived experience of Logan Heights residents often presented a conflicting narrative. It is that tension between promise, expectation and reality that will shape the ongoing history of Neighborhood House through the late 40’s up to the early years of the 1970’s.
While Frank was at San Diego State in the late 30’s he hoped to start a fraternity, which he also wanted to call the Toltecs, for Mexican students. These students as well as African-Americans were denied membership to the various fraternities and sororities.
It was Frank Peñuelas who originated the idea of the Toltec Club, in the mid 1930’s. His vision was to use athletics as a method of counseling and guiding youth toward positive attitudes and behavior. He established the Toltec Club at Neighborhood House while he was working there.
While Frank was at San Diego State in the late 30’s he hoped to start a fraternity, which he also wanted to call the Toltecs, for Mexican students. These students as well as African-Americans were denied membership to the various fraternities and sororities. Frank gave up on that idea because of all the rules and regulations required in an environment which clearly did not support fraternities and sororities made up of Latinos or African Americans.
“We had just fought the war for liberty and justice and when we came home we found we didn’t have it in our own city.”
It wasn’t until after World War II that a Toltec Club, envisioned along more comprehensive, radically different lines, would be established by Frank Peñuelas, Mike Negrete, Leonard Fierro and Armando Rodriguez.
Leonard Fierro: Living, Creating and Writing about the History of Mexican Americans in San Diego
Leonard Fierro was born in 1918 and lived in what was known as the “valley” near 33rd and Imperial. He took music lessons as a young boy at Neighborhood House. He also participated in wrestling there and would go on not only to teach wrestling as a high school teacher but as a coach at Neighborhood House.
Leonard was awarded the Purple Heart for wounds he received in action while serving with the famed Timberwolves 104th Infantry Division during World War II. After the war had ended and back in San Diego he soon realized that “We had just fought the war for liberty and justice and when we came home we found we didn’t have it in our own city.”
It wasn’t as if there hadn’t been indications of discrimination and unequal treatment before this time–previous articles reveal the Mexican community’s limited access to the Mission Beach Plunge, boys on the Neighborhood House athletic teams were forced to use back and side doors when competing out of town or denied accommodations in motels.
Several of the men I interviewed spoke about how they would work their way downtown carrying a shoe box in the hope of earning a few dollars by shining shoes when they were kids. Oscar Torres recalled during my interview with him that he remembered having his shoe box taken by the San Diego police (SDPD). His big crime was trying to earn a few cents by shining shoes in downtown San Diego.
Rose Castro and her sisters Mary Castro Juarez and Carmen Castro Waasted fondly remembered the Logan Heights of their youth as meeting all of their community needs with its large grocery store (Safeway), a bank, a clinic at Neighborhood House to take care of their medical needs, several beauty shops and the Coronet and Metro movie theaters. All three sisters spoke about how the neighborhood was a place of pride.
But Dr. Armando Rodriguez recalls that there was also an expectation that Mexicans, particularly Mexican boys and men, should stay in their own community. During his video interview, Dr. Rodriguez recalls his boyhood in the 1930’s when he would take the trolley out of Logan Heights and routinely be asked why he was in Mission Hills or North Park.
While Frank Peñuelas was overseas during the war he received letters from Miss Gertrude Peifer, the director of Neighborhood House, expressing her concern over the way the police were treating the boys from Neighborhood House.
Before World War II, they were Mexicans. After World War II, they thought of themselves as Mexican Americans.
When the Neighborhood House boys resumed their post war lives in San Diego as grown men, they brought a new awareness of the ways that discrimination and segregation had become sobering obstacles to their full participation in American life. They began to envision what was needed to remove those obstacles and to define what full participation meant.
Before World War II, they were Mexicans. After World War II, they thought of themselves as Mexican Americans. The Toltec Club would become the vehicle for exploring a new political consciousness and heightened sense of justice and for determining the forms that consciousness would take.
Leonard Fierro would become the “memory” of this political consciousness, collecting information, providing leadership and writing about it all. Leonard died in 1995, without completing his History of Mexican Americans in San Diego. I had the good fortune of knowing Leonard. I interviewed him in the early 70’s and have spent time since then going through boxes and boxes of his notes which are now part of the Chicano Archives at San Diego State.
In next week’s article, Part II, I will draw extensively upon those notes for an in-depth look at the Toltec Club, its activities and the men and women who were willing to fight a different battle at home.
Special thanks to Richard Juarez, son of Mary Castro, for providing a taped interview of the Castro sisters and to Carrie Fierro for providing pictures of her grandfather Leonard Fierro.
The complete series of the History of Neighborhood House is available here.
Updated 8/29/14 to correct the name of the Coronet Theatre