By Maria E. Garcia
The interview with Mrs. Barrios came about because her granddaughter Val had read some of the articles about Neighborhood House. Val contacted me saying that her grandmother was always talking about her Neighborhood House experience. With Val as the go between we made arrangements to meet. On January 15th we met for our interview.
Mrs. Barrios was born in 1925. Her mother was very strict, and young Mary was not allowed to play with the neighborhood children. She says her only outings were to Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. Mary’s family was a blended family.
Her father and her mother were both widows and came to the marriage with children. They also had children together and at one point a woman that worked at the cannery gave her mother a baby boy. This woman felt she could not return to Mexico with a child born out of wedlock. This very big family lived at 1870 Newton Ave.
At the age of 10 or 11 Mary was finally allowed to go to Neighborhood House. Her half bothers were allowed to go at a much earlier age. We have seen this double standard over and over again. Her older sister, to quote Mary, “brought English to the house.” She went to school and learned English and her young siblings learned English from her. In order to learn English her mother took night classes.
Mary, like many others, attended preschool and kindergarten at Neighborhood House. She remembers that her teacher was Mrs. Bacon. She says Mrs. Bacon was “real old.” The unknown factor is if real old is through the eyes of a 4 to 5 year old or was Mrs. Bacon really elderly. She does remember being given milk and at times there would be a milk give away which her mother took advantage of. The family was very poor and being given milk at school or for the family was a special treat.
Mary’s mom was one of the Singing Mothers from Neighborhood House. Mary was not aware of this until she showed me a picture of her mom. The picture was a small cutout of her mom with Lupita Evers standing in front of her. Lupita was born with the genetic condition of dwarfism. She worked at Neighborhood House and was a familiar presence in Logan Heights.
I was able to tell Mary where I had seen that picture and about the Singing Mothers. In the mural of the women at César Chávez Park, her mother can be seen standing directly behind Lupita. Mary’s mom is the woman with very long braids.
Her mother told Mary a story about Lupita’s mother. It seems one of the times that the Mexican circus came to town, they offered to purchase Lupita to perform with the circus. Lupita’s mother refused the offer. Mary says Lupita would interpret for her mom when one of her own children was not available to do so. She used to think of Lupita as a bitter person.
After Mary was married, she ran into Lupita on a city bus. She says they talked about the Neighborhood House and that it was a nice conversation. The community was very close-knit and ties across generations were not unusual. There was that Logan Heights- Neighborhood House connection that could not be broken.
Mary remembers when the adobe structure behind Neighborhood House was built. She recalls seeing the men mixing mud and hay and setting the adobe brick out back to dry. She says in those days no one touched them. The adobe brick would sit on the playground under the warm sun and would not be bothered.
She does make a contrast between those days when “no one would mess with them” to today when they would not be safe sitting out overnight unguarded. Later Johnny Rubacalva would write on those very bricks, now part of the wall of the clinic behind Neighborhood House “Johnny loves Mary.”
Mary did have the opportunity to go to camp with the children from Neighborhood House. She remembers a man that served as a lifeguard sitting on a large boulder in the middle of the creek, supervising the girls. She felt safe knowing he was there to protect them. Mary needed a swim suit but because of the lack of financial resources her family could not purchase one. Her mother decided she would make her one.
The top was a halter top with the bottom being a panty-like garment. The problem with the panty part is that when she was in the water, the suit would fill with water. This made a large water ball on her little butt. Her sister and she were mortified with the water balloon-like panty, and would stand in the water until they could push all the water out of the swimsuit. The girls would change into their swimsuits by hiding in the bushes. Mary caught poison ivy on her bottom for changing her clothes among the bushes and trees.
While attending Neighborhood House she took a sewing class taught by Mrs. Gibson. She says Mrs. Gibson was Spanish, not Mexican. In this class she made a dress by hand. Even today she remembers the dress was a gold dress with flowers on the collar. She proudly wore this dress to school.
Mary says her mother used the sewing machines at Neighborhood House. She remembers seeing all those sewing machines lined up behind the auditorium doors. She is not sure why they had to make their dress by hand and did not use the sewing machines instead.
Mary still has the cookbook they assembled at Neighborhood House. They learned to bake desserts and used this talent to fund-raise for their various projects. Baking was done from scratch. For those of you that are not familiar with this term, you did not buy a box of ingredients and simply add milk or water and bake them. You measured all the ingredients yourself and mixed them according to the recipe.
The students would place a table on the sidewalk in front of Neighborhood House and sell cream puffs and doughnuts. The teacher on occasion would take the kids to her house. She believes the house was in La Mesa and that there were many fruit trees. At the teachers house they would play and have a snack before returning to Neighborhood House.
Mary Barrios’ life was altered by the months and days leading up to World War II. Her story will continue here next week.
Editor note: Mary Barrios’ date of birth is 1925. It was originally posted as 1929.
The complete History of Neighborhood House in Logan Heights series is available here.