By Maria E. Garcia
Last week’s article about Laura Rodriguez ended with the fearless, sixty-one year old grandmother turned barrio activist chained to the front door of Neighborhood House. Earlier that October 1970 evening, the case had been made at the Barrio Logan Community Action Committee (CAC) meeting that Neighborhood House, which had been converted to administrative offices, must once again provide services to the community as it had for so many decades in the past. Laura Rodriguez had been advocating for its use as a badly needed community health clinic.
The show down happened that very evening. Laura, who did not attend the CAC meeting, had requested the keys to Neighborhood House under the pretense of holding a meeting there. It was not an unusual request–the community continued to hold meetings there even after Neighborhood House had become administrative offices. After leaving the CAC meeting I joined Laura there.
Joe “Kiki” Ortega, José Gomez, Tommie Camarillo, and David Ricco had already entered the building, where they would continue the occupation on the inside. Then Laura chained herself to the door, informing me that she was going to spend the night there. I agreed to stay with her.
The steps were cold and hard and I am embarrassed to say I went home around two in the morning. Laura stayed there to make sure that the police did not storm the building and remove those who were inside. What cop was going to rush a building with this little grandmother wearing her trademark bandana chained to the door? Cops did circle the building and there were several cops parked on the corner but no one even tried to make an arrest.
If the security alarm went off at two a.m., she would put her coat on over her pajamas and walk to the clinic to see exactly what was going on, her trusted partner Bianco walking at her side.
There will be an entire article on the take over Of Neighborhood House and those activists who worked so diligently to develop a clinic. Although Laura obviously played a significant role in the take over, her unique story of barrio activism spans the decades afterward until her death in 1994 at the age of eighty-five.
After the occupation, the old Neighborhood House actually did become the Centro de Salud, the health clinic that the community so desperately needed. The building was badly in need of repairs and medical equipment. Laura considered the security of the building her personal responsibility.
She lived directly behind the building, on Newtown Street and could hear the security alarm. If the security alarm went off at two a.m., she would put her coat on over her pajamas and walk to the clinic to see exactly what was going on, her trusted partner Bianco walking at her side.
Bianco was a large white German shepherd. Laura would assure me and her family that Bianco would never let anyone hurt her. Together they would walk to the clinic where Laura would unlock the door and they would enter the building, Bianco walking in front and Laura close behind.
I never saw Bianco as a guard dog, probably because I always felt free to walk into Laura’s house through the unlocked back door whether she was home or not. The great watch dog never as much as barked. To bug Laura I would tell her “your great watch dog let me leave with half of the house.” She would get very angry at my disparaging remarks about her security dog.
Laura and Bianco did their security walk more times than I can count. Her daughter Norma and I expressed our mutual concern for her safety, but that fell on deaf ears. Her comment was “who wants an old bag?” At times when the alarm would go off and the police were slow to respond, Laura would sit and wait for them to arrive and then would proceed to yell at them for taking so long.
Laura was willing to assist with any clinic task. She mopped floors and cleaned toilets countless times to assure that the clinic would be as germ free as any other doctor’s office. I remember the smell of chlorox and pinesol in the kitchen, bathrooms and hallways. Marian Anne Rodriguez collected stories about her grandmother, revealing in one that Laura’s cleanliness was carried out at home with equal enthusiasm– she washed money and groceries.
Her love and work for the clinic continued in many ways. Along with several other women, she would make what seemed like millions of tamales to be served at the fundraising luncheons held in support of the clinic. These monthly Spirit of the Barrio luncheons that extended into the 1990’s attracted a who’s who of San Diego’s political and social world at the time. One luncheon accommodated seven hundred guests!
It could be said that Laura worked her behind off for the clinic but that would not be accurate. What Laura did was an act of love, love for the clinica of her childhood and love for Neighborhood House itself. In October 1991, Laura was awarded the Point of Light by President George H.W.Bush. She had been designated as the 595th Daily Point of Light.
President Bush visited the clinic in 1992 to kick off a national childhood immunization campaign and to meet Laura, the clinic’s founder. She greeted the President wearing her bandana. This was one of countless awards Laura received for her work in the barrio.
Laura fought the presence of the junk yards in Logan Heights and her war against child pornography was every bit as passionate as her commitment to the clinic. After a march from the clinic to an X-rated store downtown, she broke from the picket line and went inside the bookstore. Fearing that she would be arrested I went in to literally drag her out.
She was knocking books off the shelf and calling the owner everything from a pervert to words we cannot print. A TV station reporter had followed her in and was filming her as her arms flew back and forth throwing books on the floor and making the owner very upset.
He started yelling at me to get her out or he would have her arrested. She yelled right back that she was ready to be arrested but that he was the one that belonged in jail. I was able to pull her out of the bookstore but she assured me that next time it would take the SWAT team to get her out. I firmly believed her.
Miss Mary Marston, Laura’s benefactor and mentor died in 1987. I received a card from Laura at that time which congratulated me on becoming a principal and conveyed her deep sorrow at the death of Mary.
Laura passed away on September 17, 1994. Twenty years have gone by since her death. Laura Rodriguez hasn’t been forgotten and can’t be forgotten. Her face gazes out at her beloved barrio in a mural by Mario Torero in Chicano Park. A corrido, a musical ballad, by Pepe Villarino immortalizes her in song. Laura was inducted into the San Diego Women’s Museum in 2010.
But it is Laura’s love for the children of Logan Heights, a devotion to her community and faith that things could be better that remain her lasting legacy. That legacy lives on in the Logan Heights Family Health Center and the Laura Rodriguez Elementary School. On October 11, 2007 the San Diego Unified School District held a ribbon cutting ceremony there. Laura would be very proud to know that a school had been named in her honor.
The complete History of Neighborhood House in Logan Heights is available here.