Lasting friendships, family ties and community
By Maria E. Garcia
Tortilla’s Army was the spontaneous outgrowth of the ways World War II altered life in Logan Heights and its intersection with the charisma and leadership of young Manuel “Tortilla” Ojeda. A favorite game during wartime in Logan Heights was playing army.
By 1942 Tortilla had assembled his troop of kids as young as five and as old as fourteen. He had pressed into service his younger cousins, neighborhood friends and his younger brother Nando. General Tortilla marched his growing ranks around the neighborhood to protect it and to be prepared to fight.
After the summer of 1942, the participation in Tortilla’s Army slowly died. One explanation is that with all the newspaper publicity Tortilla got a bit of a swollen head and became too bossy for the boys. Another explanation is that the Zoot Suit riots created an inner conflict between their patriotic portrayal of the military and their awareness of sailors beating up on Latinos in Logan Heights. The luster of being a military man would be destroyed by the negative manner that Latinos in general and Zoot Suiters in particular were portrayed in the press.
The glory days of Tortilla’s Army were over, but the friendships and community connections remained. Neighborhood House continued its long standing role of providing social outlets and generating pride in a shared heritage.
The Ojeda family was very active in the many activities at Neighborhood House. Connie Najera and Nando Ojeda met at a dance held at Neighborhood House, as did Bill Lopez and Aida Cazares. Aida says they would refer to the dances at Neighborhood House as “going to the club.”
From the time Aida met Bill she liked him because he was so smart and quiet. Tono describes Bill as not the “Logan type.” It was also Bill’s chemistry set that was used to make stink bombs for Tortilla’s Army and he would later write about his memories of that time.
Connie’s grandmother took classes there, Connie received immunizations in la escuelita, her mother, also named Connie, was a member of the Lucky Thirteen. The Lucky Thirteen was a girls club that held dances and helped plan parties and other activities that took place at Neighborhood House.
Nando was known for his athletic ability and played pitcher for the Neighborhood House team that was sponsored by Fenton’s Lumber yard. Of special significance is that Connie still has her father’s baseball uniform. Once again, how very important these things were to Nando is evident by the fact that he saved this treasured shirt. Nando was an accomplished trumpet player and played with an orchestra called The Típica. Another member of that Orchestra was Joe Legerrette, Carlos’s father.
Nando did not continue his musical career because as a married man with a son to support he needed a regular paying job. He became a lather and worked construction for many years. Later he would work as a case worker for Neighborhood House. Connie also remembers both her uncle and her father talking about making some money by polishing shoes downtown. Another source of income was to buy fish at the pier and resell it in the neighborhood. Connie says none of them liked fish and that the sale of fish was strictly a way of earning money.
Like the Ojeda family the Lopez family had an active role at Neighborhood House and in the surrounding community. Bill’s father, Luis G. Lopez, taught dancing at Neighborhood House. Not only children from the Logan Heights community but some of the children of the friends and family of the Marston’s were taught to dance by Luis Lopez. He was a very talented dancer and is remembered by several people as their dance teacher. Bill danced at various performances until the age of about twelve when he told his dad he no longer wanted to perform.
Bill’s sister Maggie thinks the boys were teasing him about being a dancer and thus he decided to end his dancing career. His mother Elena learned to cook “American” food at Neighborhood House. Elena made most of the traditional dresses used by the dancers. Maggie remembers seeing a trunk full of costumes made by her mother. Elena had taken English classes at Neighborhood House though her preferred language was Spanish.
When they first came to San Diego they lived behind Cuatro Milpas. In those days it was a tortillería and not a restaurant. The Lopez family of six lived in a one bedroom apartment. Today the lunch line at Cuatro Milpas winds down the block as men and women from downtown and surrounding businesses wait for the opportunity to eat lunch.
Bill, from the time he was a little boy, showed an interest in science. As a young boy Bill had two very close friends, Harvey and Allen Cunningham. Mr. Cunningham had worked in the mines in Mexico. Bill would say he loved talking with Mr. Cunningham because he was so smart.
Joe Ojeda,brother to Nando and Manuel, sent his mom money on a regular basis while he was overseas. This money was used to purchase the Ojeda home at 1750 National Avenue. Mrs. Wilfreda Brackett was employed by Neighborhood House as a nursing assistant and interpreter at the time. Her son Tommy was a very good friend of Joe Ojeda. Tommy was killed in the war and Joe Ojeda named his son after Tommy.
There was a feeling of closeness in the community. The interaction between Latinos, Anglos, Philipinos and African Americans produced a multi-ethnic multi-language community. Several of those interviewed mentioned the cultural shock they experienced when they attended San Diego High School. San Diego High, though only a few short miles from Logan Heights, was not a “safety zone.”
Logan Heights was where these young people had a feeling of being protected and safe. Logan Heights was their community, their home.
A very special thanks to Connie Ojeda Hernandez, Aida Cazares Lopez Lugo, and Maggie Padilla for sharing so many stories about their family and about their Neighborhood House experiences. Bill Lopez’ essay on Tortillas Army was invaluable in understanding what this group of young kids had contributed to San Diego History and to Logan Heights in particular. Thank you to the late Bill Lopez for valuing your Tortilla’s Army experience enough to leave such a detailed essay.
The complete History of Neighborhood House in Logan Heights series is available here.