By Anna Daniels
The Save Our Heritage Organization (SOHO) announced its People in Preservation Awards this past Thursday, May 21, 2015. San Diego Free Press contributor Maria E. Garcia was one of the ten people tapped for recognition. The majority of award recipients had beautifully and lovingly restored residential or commercial property to their original architectural state.
Maria’s designation was distinctly different. Her cultural heritage designation conveyed the underlying premise of the evening that “The past is not the property of historians; it is public possession.”
Maria’s contribution to our collective cultural heritage is not the restoration of a significant building but rather the collection and preservation of the stories of ordinary people via her weekly column “The History of Neighborhood House in Logan Heights.” This popular series launched on Cinco de Mayo, 2014.
Using interviews with people who are now in their 70s, 80s and 90s and personal photographs, newspaper articles and ephemera, she provides a richly detailed glimpse into life in the predominately Mexican American working class community of Logan Heights, beginning in the early 1900s. Neighborhood House, a progressive era settlement house located at 1809 National Avenue in what is now known as Barrio Logan, is at the heart of the stories in this collection.
Neighborhood House provided a broad array of services to Logan Heights residents that included everything from a communal oven to hot showers; from home health care and child care to tonsillectomies on site (with recovery in the auditorium) and athletic programs and ESL classes. Staff lived on site and assimilated into the community while providing services that enabled the immigrant population to assimilate and become Americanized.
The individual lives of the men and women she has interviewed are presented against a larger backdrop of the forces that framed those lives– the Great Depression and the Mexican Repatriation, World War II and the Korean War, and a Great Society and urban renewal that meant freeway construction through the heart of Logan Heights.
In a quiet nuanced way Maria reveals that San Diego was often unwilling to embrace a community whose residents fought in our wars and provided the labor for agriculture, commerce and business. She was motivated to write this series because she knows that we cannot understand the history of San Diego without acknowledging the history of Logan Heights.
Maria’s SOHO award last Thursday evening is an acknowledgement of that people’s history. Surrounded by friends, family and with one of her interviewees, Tulie Trejo in attendance, Maria accepted her award with the following remarks:
Thank you for this wonderful recognition. I would love to look at all of you and say this award is all mine and take it and run. The reality is this award belongs to more people than I can name. It belongs to all those wonderful men and women that have been so generous in sharing their stories.
I did not grow up in Logan Heights. My interest in the Neighborhood House located at 1809 National Ave. is a result of a paper I wrote many years ago while I was in college. That paper was lost by a local TV station never to be seen again. A year and a half ago when I went to donate the recording from those interviews to the Chicano archives at San Diego State I realized that an explanation about why and who was on the tapes was needed. This explanation was going to be 4 or 5 pages and handed to SDSU.
A few weeks later I am attending a banquet sitting with two strangers discussing what I am doing now that I am retired. In the course of this conversation the tapes and the paper explaining the tapes came up. As it turned out those two strangers were editors for the San Diego Free Press. Anna [Daniels] and Rich [Kacmar] were soon asking questions about why I had selected to write about the Neighborhood House and telling me that if I wrote about it they would print it in the San Diego Free Press. That simple conversation has resulted in a very complicated project. I thank both of you for the opportunity to present the history of Neighborhood House.
A few weeks later I am at another banquet sitting at a table with a lady named Connie Zuniga with whom I shared the information about writing the article and who without hesitation volunteered to proof read them. That has become her “job” and when she is not available my friend Sandy Camarillo has helped. As you can see it has not been a one person project. Just as important are the friends and family members that have encouraged me to keep writing and telling me how important this project is.
As I started researching and working on these stories I realized something very important. We were the lost children of San Diego history. For some reason the history of Logan Heights and the people of Logan Heights have not merited the attention that other groups have received. In San Diego, Mexican Americans have not been seen as contributors to this city.
I know that several of you are thinking “What about the history of Old Town?” I am not taking away from the settlers of Old Town. It was easy to include Los Españoles, Los Californios, and the Anglos that shaped it. But where are the Mexican Americans? Not in San Diego history books.
Neighborhood House was the heart of the community and anything and everything that happened in Logan Heights was in some way tied to it. We were in Logan Heights building railroads, working in the canneries, working in air craft plants, fighting in WWI, WWII, Korea, Viet Nam. And in every war since then.
They was a group of young boys 5 to 16 years old that decided the Barrio had to be protected from a Japanese invasion. In order to protect their neighborhood they dug a trench around Lowell school. These boys were known as Tortilla’s Army. There were various groups of dancer that performed at the the Marston Garden parties, at Balboa Park, at various expos, and at Presidio Park. They all contributed to the life and history of San Diego.
The men from Logan Heights went to WWII seeing themselves as Americans and returned to SD to be seen as second class citizens. They returned to be told by the San Diego Police Department to keep their brown behind south of Market St. As young boys they shined shoes on Broadway, sold flowers to the sailors outside movie theaters, sold newspaper on various corners of SD. They took pride in their yards and in their homes located in Logan Height. This is before the freeway and the bridge dissected the community into several pieces.
They played baseball and took great pride that some of them won games against a young fellow named Ted Williams. Who by the way was Mexican American. Go to the Baseball Hall of Fame and search for Mexican American baseball players. I spent several hours there looking for any Mexican American baseball player other than Ted Williams, only to come home empty handed.
Petco Park has recognized Nay Hernandez as the only Padre killed in WWII. He played baseball at Neighborhood House as did his sister Tina Hernandez who at 91 can still share stories about her life and playing softball in the late 1930’s. But somehow we are the forgotten ones in the history books.
At Neighborhood House there was a community oven that was used by the women in the community to bake bread every Saturday. This horno, constructed during the Depression was used for many years after that. The well-known tennis champs the Carriedo brothers started their tennis career at Neighborhood House. Later they played for Morley Field but their start was at Neighborhood House.
The first preschool and kindergarten found in the Barrio was at Neighborhood House. Neighborhood House had a well-baby clinic which not only provided children their immunization but supplied milk to many of the children of Logan Heights. In later years that clinic would immunize soldiers going to fight in WWII.
People took sewing classes, cooking classes, citizenship classes and they went to work to support their families. One of those ladies who started her baking career at Neighborhood House is with us tonight. At the age of 10 she won her first blue ribbon for a cake she baked at Neighborhood House. In the 1960s she went on to win the Pillsbury bake off not once but six times. It is with great pleasure I am asking Tulie Trejo, 91 years young to stand up and be recognized as a person that made a difference in the history of the Latino in San Diego.
In the 1950s and 60s social clubs met and held activities at Neighborhood House. In 1956 four boys from Neighborhood House went to Sacramento to participate in a workshop on how to prevent delinquency. Those four boys Richard Romio, Salvador Torres, Tati Pina and Gilbert Aguinaga spoke about the positive things they were doing in the community. Union meetings and political meeting were held at Neighborhood House. Many of the changes in the daily life of Mexican Americans took place at Neighborhood House.
All these stories are part of our history, the history of San Diego, the history of Neighborhood House is a large part of the history of Logan Heights. Mexican Americans continue to make history and it is our responsibility to assure that these stories do not die. I thank you for this recognition but most of all I thank all of those people who have been so willing to share their stories. I am proud that SOHO has reached out to the forgotten and often overlooked community and for that alone I sincerely thank you.
Maria’s deep respect and affection for the people whom she has interviewed shines through in her articles. History, writ large and small, always wears a human face. Her stories are accessible, thought-provoking and entertaining.
The San Diego Free Press is pleased and proud to present “The History of Neighborhood House in Logan Heights” to our readers. Our congratulations to Maria Garcia for her much deserved honor.
The complete series is available here.