By Maria E. Garcia
Families in Logan Heights faced grim financial hardship during the 1930’s and early 1940’s. Childhood entertainment and opportunities were limited. Neighborhood House provided classes, programs and outings that are remembered sixty and even seventy years later by the many people that I have interviewed.
While hard economic times affected everyone, there were different societal expectations about what were considered appropriate activities for boys and girls during this time period. Boys participated in the popular sports programs at Neighborhood House. Team members played in other parts of the city and even other parts of the country. Boys were also given a much greater freedom to explore their environs singly or with other boys.
Girls were raised in a socially conservative environment that emphasized marriage and raising a family. Their activities were often restricted or required a chaperone. I had the opportunity recently to meet with a group of women who are now in their eighties and nineties who came to share some of their experiences at Neighborhood House and to help everyone understand that Neighborhood House was the heart of the community.
This is an invitation to join the intimate conversation of Amparo “Tuti” Zumaya, Consuelo Zumaya Lopez, Noralund Cook Zumaya, Rosa Zatarian Ramirez, Armida Piña, and Bertha Castro Zumaya. Today they live in Alpine, Shelltown, Chula Vista and La Mesa.
Rosa remembered making her first chocolate cake at Neighborhood House. In order to make the cake each student had to bring two eggs and sugar. This was during the war and sugar was rationed, thus they had to bring their own sugar. Rosa also learned to bake cookies and cream puffs. Her brother would ride his bike to pick her up and she remembers that her mother’s all-time favorite was the baked biscuits. Harry Cunningham and Bobby Riverall were known for taking baked goods away from any girl walking home alone.
The girls also leaned to knit. A group of girls would make a bunch of squares that were then sewn together in order to make a blanket. The blanket was then donated to service men. Often the donation went to men that were returning from war, wounded and in need of a blanket.
They were able to go on field trips to Mission Beach. The girls considered this a special treat. They had to bring a swimsuit, a towel, and a dime. They went by truck and rode in the back. The dime was used to pay for gas for the truck. Gas was also rationed and thus the need for the dime.
Consuelo ditched school one day and went to the beach. When she came home completely sunburned she made up a story explaining to her mother that they had been made to play two baseball games in the hot sun at Memorial Junior High.
Armida says they were lots of services and opportunities available at or around Neighborhood House. Her mother had fourteen children of which twelve survived. (There will be more about Armida’s sister Tulie and her brother Tuti in future articles.) Armida’s family was very poor and relied upon the services at Neighborhood House for a great deal of assistance.
Armida says camp was special because it gave the girls a freedom they did not have at home.
One summer two of the other girls had canceled out on the Neighborhood House camping trip to Camp Dehesa. Mrs. Brackett who worked as an assistant nurse, translator and social worker at Neighborhood House called Armida’s mother and asked if two of her girls could go. They were very excited about the opportunity to go to camp because they had never been away from the barrio.
They started scrambling around looking for the clothes they could take on their camping trip. That evening Mrs. Brackett dropped off two boxes full of clothes. The clothes were left on the porch for them to choose what clothes they could use. The next day the girls were off to camp and ready to enjoy the clothes that they had selected. Armida says camp was special because it gave the girls a freedom they did not have at home. They slept outside on old cots and during the day they learned about birds and nature. She remembers enjoying everything they learned.
In addition to enjoying the outdoors there were boxes of toys to play with at camp. There was some conflict with the “rich girls.” Armida felt that the rich girls who came from around the Hoover area in what was called East San Diego at the time looked down on the girls from Logan Heights. One evening there was a variety show and Armida and her sister decided they would sing “La cucaracha.” This was to show the rich girls that they were proud of speaking Spanish. One of the women describes this incident as “in your face.”
Whenever Armida’s mother was about to give birth they would run to Mrs. Brackett’s house,two doors down from Neighborhood House, and ask her to come to their house and help her mother deliver another baby.
Armida stresses that they were able to “make do” in part because of the support they received throughout the neighborhood. At that time her uncle owned La Central Market and he would set aside meat that was still good but could not be sold for customers to eat. Milk came from Neighborhood House. One of Armida’s family would take a wagon with a large milk bucket and fill it there.
The old wagon was also used when they went to the Weber Bread company and picked up bread. At times they were given bread, or purchased day old bread. At other times they would steal bread which had been left outside on the racks. Bertha also remembers stealing bread from the same location. As Bertha looks back now she is sure the employees were aware that these kids were helping themselves to the bread and simply overlooked it.
The fruit trucks also supplied such things as watermelons and peaches. At times the watermelon truck would pull up to Neighborhood House and the boys in the neighborhood would rush over to help unload it. They would also drop some of the better watermelons in order to eat it them themselves. Once they had eaten the best parts they would have watermelon fights. There would be one group of kids on one side of the street and the other group of kids on the other side of the street flinging pieces of watermelon back and forth at each other.
Vegetables and fruit were provided with the help of Armida’s brothers. Her brothers would go early in the morning to work at the warehouses near what is now Petco Park. It was their job to separate the good fruit and vegetables from the spoiled or blemished ones. The ones that were considered too ripe to sell would make their way to their house to be used for the family’s dinner.
Neighborhood House would spread the word when the cannery needed extra workers. No one can remember how this was done since telephones were not found at every house. Somehow, and probably by word of mouth, the word would spread that the cannery needed extra help. The cannery itself would use a whistle that could be heard throughout the community announcing that workers were needed. Once the word was out that the cannery needed extra workers Armida’s brothers would rush to the cannery.
The judge ordered Armida’s mother to stay home and take care of her children.
Mrs. Piña, Armida’s mother, had to quit her cannery job and stay home to supervise her sons. Both Armida and Tulie remember her mother crying and crying over having to leave her job at the cannery.
When Armida’s mother was hired at the cannery, their life changed. Her mom was eventually able to buy a stove, ice box and new beds for their family. Their life was improving until the night her brothers broke into the Pepsi Cola Company located on National Ave. This was probably a boy’s idea of a prank. The police, however, did not see it as a boys’ prank. They arrested the boys and they had to appear in court. The judge ordered Armida’s mother to stay home and take care of her children.
Mrs. Piña, Armida’s mother, had to quit her cannery job and stay home to supervise her sons. Both Armida and Tulie remember her mother crying and crying over having to leave her job at the cannery. Once again their lives changed since public assistance was not anywhere near the money she had earned at the cannery.
Some of the women remembered the girls working as housemaids and babysitters. Neighborhood House would give them bus fare to get to their jobs. Sometime the girls were given a ride to their work assignment. This is part of the settlement house’s profile, helping the community members to help themselves. When the girls attended the USO dances in the building behind Neighborhood House, they were provided cab fare to assure the girls were able to get home safely.
The USO was considered an important part of the neighborhood activities. It was also understood that the girls had to be kept safe. The girls were allowed to attend these dances because they were so well chaperoned. The general consensus was that allowing the girls to attend the USO dance was the patriotic thing to do.
The second part of The Lives of Girls will continue in next week’s column.
The complete History of Neighborhood House in Logan Heights series is available here.