Part II of the Not-so-great Depression and WWII
By Maria E. Garcia
Part I of this series presented a glimpse of life in Logan Heights during the the Great Depression. The Mexican Repatriation Act resulted in a massive, largely forced return of residents of Mexican descent in the US back to Mexico in the 1930’s. It is estimated that sixty percent of these individuals who returned to Mexico were American citizens. Last week’s article talks about one Logan Heights family that stayed– the Kennistons– and one family that left– the Leybas.
The months leading up to WWII and the declaration of war had a tremendous impact on life in Logan Heights. The radio and the newspaper were constantly focusing not only on the war, but on what could happen in San Diego should the war come to the shores of the United States. San Diego was definitely a Navy town with added patrols on the bay and Quonset huts springing up around various locations, some right in the middle of the barrio.
Several of those interviewed spoke of their mothers crying, knowing that their sons would soon be drafted and be off to fight in foreign places. The older boys seemed to have two different reactions. Some wanted to go and fight for our country, others sat and talked about the war, seriously wondering what would happen and if they would return to their much loved Logan Heights. After December 7, 1941 the talk of San Diego being bombed, or at the very least invaded by the Japanese, was uppermost in everyone’s mind.
Bunkers were built off the coast of Point Loma, the military stepped up its presence in San Diego Bay. My mischievous friends tell of a bunker located at what is now Cesar Chavez Parkway and Main St. They would sneak in there to play. Tony “Tono” Núñez remembers sand bags stacked against the walls to keep the water from the bay from coming in. Classrooms had closets where food was stored in case of an attack and in the event that students were forced to remain at school.
Connie Zuniga’s father had the title of Neighborhood Warden on Commercial Street. This duty required that he walk up and down the block to ascertain that lights could not be seen coming from the houses.
The talk about a Japanese invasion and black outs had become a way of life. Black out shades were in every house, and aircraft plants had camouflage nets on their buildings. Car lights were taped, allowing only a small slit where light could slip out. This small slit has been described as a small smiley face with light peeking through.
Houses were required to have black out shades and had to be dark by 9:00 p.m. Even street cars were required to operate without lights. The dark street cars allowed my mischievous friends to board a street car and horse around without the driver seeing what they were doing.
Connie Zuniga’s father had the title of Neighborhood Warden on Commercial Street. This duty required that he walk up and down the block to ascertain that lights could not be seen coming from the houses. This was a responsibility he took very seriously. As he walked he made mental notes of the houses that were in violation.
The neighborhood kids in Logan Heights formed their own Tortilla’s Army to defend the barrio from a Japanese invasion.
The war and the demands of a war time economy brought unanticipated social changes to Logan Heights in the 1930’s and 40’s. Many of the fathers and husbands had gone to war and women were employed at a higher rate than ever before. Many of the women from Logan Heights worked in the canneries. Emma Lopez, the subject of an earlier interview in this series, was one of those women. Some were also employed in the aircraft industry and became known as Rosie the Riveters. As a result, many of the kids were left unsupervised when not in school.
Once again the double standard becomes very evident. The girls were expected to stay home and take care of their siblings and the house. Boys went to Neighborhood House to play sports or entertained themselves by getting into mischief. Tono describes this period by saying “The bay was our playground” and he has a lot of stories about how they entertained themselves.
In those days there was sand around the area called Caquita Beach, the sewage outfall at the foot of 28th street. People would leave their row boats beached on the sand. The boys would “borrow” the boats and row across the bay to Coronado. They would pick fruit from the various trees in the yards in Coronado then return back to Caquita Beach and put the boat back on the sand where they had “borrowed “it from.
Some of the boys would sneak into the Coronet or Metro movie theaters by pretending to walk out and in reality were walking backwards in order to enter the theater. At times they would go to Porvenir (a tortilla shop across from Mike Amadors’ store) and purchase a small amount of “masa” (tortilla dough). They would then sneak into the theater and throw the sticky masa at the movie screens. This was a great source of entertainment for the young boys. Tono refers to these episodes by saying “We were traviesos ” (mischievous). The truth is these boys were lucky their behavior did not become an incident with the law.
Like some of the other boy interviewed, Tono sold newspapers downtown, standing next to the Spreckels building located on Broadway. He was quite the business man, purchasing the newspaper for two cents each and selling them for five cents each. His friend Freddie Zuniga tried to sell newspapers at MCRD but was told he needed to write a letter to the commanding officer asking permission to sell his newspapers on base. It is possible this was just some Marines giving the sixth grade boy some guff. This young man did write a letter, explaining that he was a student at Our Lady of Angels School and requesting permission to sell newspapers on base. He was ultimately granted that permission.
The residents of Logan Heights adjusted as best they could to life in what was clearly not ordinary times. Money was scarce and diversions were few. Women became the primary breadwinners of their households in the absence of husbands and fathers. And kids were kids.
The complete History of Neighborhood House in Logan Heights series is available here.