By Maria E. Garcia
Last week’s article “The Korean War Years” highlighted the differences between the Korean War and World War II in terms of their impacts on life in Logan Heights. Readers were introduced to Johnny Leyva, a Korean War vet who grew up in Logan Heights. Johnny’s story continues this week, offering a glimpse into 1950s life.
Prior to leaving for boot camp, Johnny Leyva had gone to a classmate’s house and asked her if she would be responsible for the money he had saved while working at the zoo. At the zoo he earned $220 monthly. Every month he would give his mother a $100, save $100 dollars a month and keep $20 a month for his personal use.
He had saved a considerable amount of money and did not trust his mother enough to put her in charge of his savings. His fear was that she would give it to his stepfather and they would spend all of his hard earned money. He withdrew his money and took it in the form of check to his friend Louise Drew.
Louise was a friend that he dated but had never spent time alone with—Johnny always took his little brother on their dates. Louise asked her mother’s permission to add Johnny’s check money to her savings account. Mrs. Drew granted permission. Together they went to the Bank of America located on Logan Avenue and deposited the check. At that point Johnny refers to their friendship as being like “brother and sister.”
On one occasion Johnny had been visiting with Mrs. Drew, waiting around for Louise to come home from a date. Louise’s date brought her home at midnight. Louise’s curfew was ten o’clock and her mother grounded her for failure to obey the rules. Johnny was so incensed that her date broke the curfew that he went outside and had a “few words” with him.
Johnny enlisted for service in the Korean War as a Marine. He was nineteen years old. In an odd turn of fate, when he was leaving boot camp, a fellow Marine offered him a ride home. The Marine told him his father would be glad to give him a ride. When Johnny was about to get in the car, he noticed that the driver looked familiar.
As it turns out the young man’s father was one of the men that had beaten him up that day in Coronado during the time when Johnny had taken a job delivering telegrams. These men had noticed him knocking on doors in the community and determined that he didn’t belong there. The incident ended badly– the men also stole his bike, took the little money he had and scattered the undelivered telegrams on the ground. Johnny turned away from that face, which he had never forgotten, and did not get in the car.
When he returned from boot camp he went to Jessops Jewelry store and purchased an engagement ring. He went directly to Louise’s house and asked her to marry him. Her mother’s reaction was “The way you two fight?” Louise accepted his proposal.
Johnny came home on leave at one point and decided that he and Louise should marry. At that time you could not marry at nineteen without your parent’s consent. His mother quickly agreed to accompany them to Yuma where they were married. Louise had worked at Ratners, a downtown sewing factory where employees were paid by the piecemeal for sewing since her high school days. Louise and Johnny had been able to save money for their future. The last part of his military service was spent in Barstow driving an ambulance. While in Barstow Louise became pregnant with their first child, followed by a second child within the next year and a half.
After the war Johnny returned to work at the zoo. He credits his father-in-law and his stepfather, both of whom were World War II veterans, with assisting him with dealing with the trauma of war. Johnny says he also found solace in talking to the men at the VFW in his old neighborhood of Logan Heights.
Any excuse not to sell a house Around 1957, Louise and Johnny attempted to purchase a home in the Skyline area of the city. He was told he did not earn enough money to make the payments. He had savings and made various offers that should have qualified him to purchase a home. He was told “no” over and over again. At that time the area was basically Anglo. Covenants and restrictions governing the sales of homes concentrated blacks, Latinos and Jews into certain areas of the city. Looking back, Johnny says he understood that they were looking for an excuse not to sell him the house. They eventually purchased a home in Casa de Oro.
Louise passed away in 1991. Johnny enjoys humerously saying “I married my brother’s sister.” After seeing the shock on your face, he explains that when he remarried, it was to his half-brother’s half-sister. Let me clarify. There is not a familial relationship between Johnny and Gracela Calles, his second wife. Johnny and Louise were friends of Gracelas’s family. When she was only weeks old, Gracela was held in the arms of Louise. There was a strong bond between the Calles family and the Leyva family.
Johnny had several jobs throughout his life. He started his own janitorial service and worked as a heavy equipment operator for the County of San Diego. He once worked for a company owned by a Korean family. Something was said about the owner’s grandfather coming from Korea and would never have the opportunity to return to his homeland. Johnny remembered he had some photos that he had taken in Korea and gave the gentlemen the pictures. Through a translator the gentleman was able to express his gratitude for the simple gift of photos from Korea.
Post War Boom Times With the tremendous population growth came a boom in the construction industry. Growth and lack of water to support these new homes became a common topic of articles in San Diego newspapers. The aircraft industry had brought people from all over the United States. There was a need for additional housing to accommodate the new population. The construction industry took off with little consideration given to the resources needed to sustain the new developments. The “critical unemployment” described by Richard F. Pourade in his book “The City of Dreams” had shifted.
The 1950s brought a new piece of furniture–television– and a new form of entertainment came to homes across the United States. Many households around Neighborhood House did not have a TV set. Once again, Neighborhood House provided for the community. A TV was set up for use by community members.
Those interviewed refer to it as being “in the TV room.” Today the TV room would be referred to as a multi-purpose room; however, in those days it was the auditorium. A few generations earlier, that same auditorium had also been used as a minor surgery clinic.
Having a TV available to watch Roy Rogers, the Cisco Kid, cartoons and news programs from other places had now come to Neighborhood House and thus to those families living near Neighborhood House. Ruben Camacho remembered the weekend movies such as Our Gang being shown there. He says that they may have gotten into mischief outside of Neighborhood House, but they had tremendous respect for what took place inside the Neighborhood House.
At Neighborhood House there was a new phenomenon—social clubs. Clubs such as Los Chicanos, Los Lobos and Los Gallos were starting. In the early years these social clubs were male domains. Later, girls’ social clubs such as the Shebas, and the Blue Velvets, would be formed. These social clubs became supportive of youth programs at Neighborhood House.
They held food drives for needy families on both sides of the border. Gilbert Reyes, whose father worked at one of the produce companies, said he talked his dad into donating a huge bag of potatoes for one of their food drives.
The Shebas collected food, toys and clothing for two orphanages, one located in Tijuana and the other in Rosarito. They also provided a degree of social consciousness, though most of their activities were for their own entertainment. In the early years, Mrs. McClure taught the girls parliamentary procedure which would now prove useful as they formed the various clubs.
Next week’s article will provide an in-depth look at those clubs.
The complete History of Neighborhood House in Logan Heights series is available here.