By Maria E. Garcia
Social clubs have been a noteworthy part of Logan Height’s history. After WWII, Leonard Fierro, Frank Peñuelas, Mike Negrete and Armando Rodriguez were reunited and started a new Toltec Club based on Frank’s 1930s prototype at Neighborhood House. Girls participated in the Lucky 13 Club. The 1950s brought a revived interest in social clubs for the young people in Logan Heights. Los Gallos was one of the first of these clubs.
Horace “Tati” Pina was one of the founding members of Los Gallos, one of the first youth social “jacket” clubs in Logan Heights. Tati had a long history at Neighborhood House where he attended pre-school and kindergarten. Tati developed polio as a young boy and this limited some of his participation in other activities there.
He did take a few piano lessons and loved learning the violin. Later, he became a member of the band. Once again the showers at Neighborhood House become a subject of the interview. Tati said being allowed to stay in the shower as long as you wanted was a special treat, even though you were required to bring your own towel. He said that Neighborhood House director Miss Peifer, kept the place in “tip top” shape.
In later years Tati would go to the same Miss Peifer to ask permission to use the Neighborhood House for the Los Gallos meetings. Permission was not immediately granted. Tati believes that Miss Peifer had to check with the Neighborhood House board in order to allow them to use it as their meeting place.
Mr. Al “Pelón” Johnson was their adviser and mentor. Mr. Johnson was a Logan Height’s businessman, the owner of “El Carrito” restaurant on Logan Avenue and a highly-skilled professional musician. He played the bass in the Ray Vasquez orchestra and the guitar with various mariachi groups. Mr. Johnson was well respected in the community.
Tati personally asked Mr. Johnson to write the Gallos constitution and bylaws. Tati would go over to Pelón’s house and together they would develop the meeting agenda. Los Gallos had several laws. One of the more interesting rules, considering the age of the boys, was that you could not wear your club jacket into a bar. If you were caught in a bar with your club jacket you were fined.
Richard Romio was also a member of Los Gallos. He designed the Gallos logo as well as most of the posters used to advertise the various functions they sponsored, especially the dance posters. In my interview with Rich he referred to the dances as “poster dances.” Club dues were 25 cents and were used for such things as paying for the band that performed for one of their dances. Dances were also another source of revenue.
Money from these events was used to hold cartoon programs at the Coronet Theatre for the children of the community. When a dance was held it became Tati’s responsibility to pay the band. Another one of the activities they sponsored was a Christmas program. It was for the children from the neighborhood and had scenes from the bible depicting the Nativity.
I recently returned to interview Tati. After our initial interview, I had some additional questions to ask him. He had so much information to share that I was thrilled to meet again. In 1956, Los Gallos were invited to Sacramento to speak about juvenile delinquency at the Governor’s Conference on Children and Youth. Los Gallos had become known for “what they were doing in the community.” Their club had by laws and a constitution, they planned community activities and sponsored movies and parties for the little ones in the community.
There was also the added assumption that by keeping busy you would not have time to “get in trouble.” Richard Romio explained that one of the reasons the social clubs were formed was to give “the guys” a positive image, emphasizing that the social clubs were not gangs. Richard said the formation of social clubs was a conscious decision to change the negative media image. Los Gallos had a card that read: “You have received assistance through the courtesy of the Los Gallos Club.”
This card was used when they provided assistance to someone. It could be helping someone that had broken down on the freeway or carrying groceries for an elderly lady. Whatever the task they made a big effort to portray the club in a positive manner. Members of the club were expected to follow the bylaws and failure to do so could result in getting swatted with a rather large paddle. The paddling was done at the meeting by the Sergeant-at-Arms, Sir Gallager.
The impact of the prevalent media images of the community should not be downplayed. The negative Zoot Suit stories of the 1940s were replaced by similarly negative stories of the pachucos of the 1950s. Several of those interviewed stated that across the street from Doria’s Drug store was where the pachucos hung out. In the media pachucos were portrayed as gang members.
The working class community of Logan Heights was also struggling with real social issues. The 1950s had brought another problem to the area around Neighborhood House, the blatant use of drugs. The use of marijuana that carried over from the 40s was now joined by the new drug of choice, heroin. Heroin had come to Logan Heights.
Roger Talamantes said that as a kid he saw a lot of the youth using drugs when he was running around the neighborhood. He also said that in those days it was easier to buy heroin than a beer. Drug addiction was a police matter and some parents believed that jail time would teach their son or daughter a necessary lesson.
It is against this backdrop of negative media portrayals and racial and social inequities that four members of Los Gallos were selected to make the trip to Sacramento. The guys were Clarence Vasquez, Gilbert “Becko” Aguinaga, Sal “Queso” Torres and “Tati” Pina. As a young boy Clarence Vasquez had been a member of Tortilla’s Army. Tati said the trip was funded by Los Gallos. I am sure that their sponsor Al Johnson furnished some of the needed funds for this wonderful adventure.
None of the people I interviewed spoke about Al Johnson or any girls as being in attendance at the event. The archived papers of Sal “Queso” Torres note however that “Members of Los Gallos, and their female auxiliary The Blue Velvets traveled to Sacramento with Al Johnson to represent the youth of San Diego.”
Tati said being allowed to go on this trip was not a problem for him, since the boys in his family did more or less what they wanted. They took a bus to Sacramento and spent the night in a motel. Imagine the excitement these four boys felt sightseeing on the trip to the State Capitol. The first day of the conference, a general session was held. They were then divided into groups. The groups partnered with youth from all over California. In breakout sessions the topic of delinquency was discussed. Los Gallos provided the slogan, “The cure for juvenile delinquency is adult decency.”
The following chatty Berkeley Daily Gazette write-up of the event focuses on the “four Mexican boys who came by bus from an area called Logan Heights in San Diego.”
… I’ve been in Sacramento, rubbing shoulders with some mighty important and interesting people … The reason for my being there was to tell of the Berkeley Recreation program to those in attendance at the Governor’s Conference on Children and Youth … Far and away the most interesting, and in my opinion most important, were four Mexican boys who came by bus from an area called Logan Heights in San Diego … Logan Heights, I was told, is an industrial area where residential living is anything but easy …
“I met these kids in a room at the Senator Hotel where a group of us congregated after dinner … First let me tell you that if I had encountered these kids walking down an alley I’d have quickly crossed the street and given them a wide berth … They wore their long black hair brushed into the ‘ducktail’ deal in the back, sideburns, and being teen-agers, there was much to be desired where their complexions were concerned … They wore great jackets with a red and black rooster on the back … Hence they were known as ‘Los Gatos’ [sic] … Their English was poor, with a generous sprinkling of ‘ain’t gots’ and ‘he don’ts’ … During the evening they groped for words to express to us their hopes, their dreams, and their aspirations, from everday living to jobs and girls and marriage …
“These kids were sharp, though, and didn’t miss a trick … When the first adult entered the room after these boys had arrived not one of them rose to his feet, but I noticed an awakening look on the face of one young don … Not 10 minutes later when someone else walked in these lads were on their feet in a flash …
“Seems there is a chap named Al Johnston [sic] in San Diego who feels that kids like these boys are worth saving—and during the evening it came out—how over the long haul this Al, bit by bit, taught those boys by word and deed that it is a better world for all when you learn to live with and for the rest of mankind …
“This group of 25 or so—young roosters—have had no advantages such as our kids know them … Yet each boy has a small group of three or four little boys, maybe age 8 or 9, just the age when the little kids are beginning to imitate the older boy they admire … It is to this group that they direct what they have learned–that knives are no good except for eating—that fighting leads to expulsion—that dope leads to worse … Service is taught these little ones, and when they in turn help someone in distress they hand them a card with a picture of a rooster on it … It says, ‘You have received assistance through the courtesy of the Los Gallos Club’ …
“I asked one of the boys if I might have one of the cards, and I have it now … I feel these young roosters did me a great service because, in all the conference—from the Governor to great authorities in the field of juveniles—I learned more from Torres, Aguinaga, Pina and Vasquez than from all the rest” …
Later San Diego would have a Southeast Youth Council that met at Neighborhood House. Queso’s papers note that “The Los Gallos club was rare for its time because its members rejected the type of youth mentalities depicted in films like Rebel without a Cause and The Wild One. In contrast, Los Gallos were committed to eliminating club competition and gang warfare. They helped unify all youth clubs in San Diego by organizing the Southeast Youth Council, a forum for jacket clubs comprised of African American, Asian American, Mexican American, Italian American, and Anglo American youth.”
Like many of the other members of the social clubs Tati lost interest in the activities of Los Gallos when he married his wife Ginger in 1964. Together they raised a family. Tati may have lost interest in the social club but his interest in music continued. He played the guitar or the keyboard with several bands. They played all over San Diego and would also have jam sessions at different band member’s homes. In 1959 he played with the Rhythmaires, at Club 21 with Poly Chavez and the Coronas.
He performed with the Mission Bay orchestra that performed at the Windjammers Yacht Club. In the late 1990s Los Gallos held a reunion at Chuey’s restaurant located on Main Street. Several of the men wore their Los Gallos jacket. Tati had his three sons each borrow a jacket and the four of them proudly had their picture taken.
Richard Romio’s talents as an artist did not stop when he left the Neighborhood House. For a period of time he had a booth at Spanish Village in Balboa Park. At this location he would sell his art work and visit with the locals as well as the tourists that visited Spanish Village. Richard is still working with Los Gallos making posters for reunions or for any special activities they may have.
Today Richard is the owner of Romio Graphics. He lives with his wife Mary in Lakeside. Some of his paintings hang in the homes of his fellow Los Gallos members. The ultimate compliment to him is knowing that some of the members of Los Gallos admire his work enough to display it in their homes.
Next week, more about 1950s social clubs with Los Lobos.
The complete History of Neighborhood House in Logan Heights series is available here.