By Maria E. Garcia
Los Chicanos, like the other social clubs, focused on providing a positive image of the guys from Logan Heights. According to a brochure from their Golden Anniversary Dance in 2005, Los Chicanos got their name from a suggestion that was made by Albert Usquiano. The general consensus was that other social clubs had been named after animals but that they should be daring and go with the term Chicano.
Even though some of the boys used the term Chicano among themselves, in 1955 it was not an everyday term used in the majority community. The first group of boys were very young when they formed the club. Bobby Becerra said they were between the seventh and ninth grade. Bobby, himself, joined the summer he was about to go into the ninth grade.
The first meeting was held in Al “Pelón” Johnson’s garage, but was soon moved to Neighborhood House. Mr. Johnson was a Logan Height’s businessman, the owner of “El Carrito” restaurant on Logan Avenue and a highly-skilled professional musician. He was also an adviser and mentor for Los Gallos social club.
The first President of Los Chicanos was George Vasquez. Emile Wright, who was African American, was also a member of Los Chicanos. Emile played football at San Diego High. The other non-Latinos were Rex Davis and Jimmy Hurst, both of whom were Anglo. Tony Gamboa, a Pilipino, was also a members of Los Chicanos. It seems like Los Chicanos was much more multicultural than the other clubs.
Los Chicanos sponsored a Mothers’ Day breakfast. Howard Hollman does not remember who cooked but he assures me, it was not the moms themselves. Other social clubs, such as Los Gallos, sponsored a Fathers’ Day breakfast. These events were an opportunity to show appreciation to men and women who were not always told that they were valued.
In order to sponsor a trip to Disneyland, Los Chicanos held a dance. George Vasquez has a very fond memory of the Disneyland trip. He thinks at least 12- 16 guys went on the trip. Some went in a van and others in cars and they all remember the trip. George recalled that most of the boys had never stayed in a hotel.
A trip to Disneyland may seem insignificant to the majority community, but for the guys from Logan Heights, it opened up a whole new experience. George said some of the guys “picked up” on girls they met on the Disneyland trip. The experience of traveling out of San Diego, staying in a hotel, and seeing Disneyland for the first time is still talked about today.
As with the other social clubs, many of their efforts were to keep the boys out of trouble and provide a positive image of Mexican American boys. They saw themselves as being charitable in time of crisis. Another member of Los Chicanos was David Aguirre. David, now 74 years old, has a barber shop located on 30th street in North Park. He remembered that the San Diego Union carried a story about their charitable work. The story pertained to Los Chicanos donating money to help with a funeral expenses for someone who had been killed in a car accident.
Los Chicanos were known for the successful dances that raised funds for their treasury. They held dances at Neighborhood House and various other locations in the city. Because they had such a good reputation, they usually did not have to put down a large deposit when renting a hall. There was an Anglos social club and they made a mutual agreement to sell tickets to events sponsored by each other’s club.
David believes Los Chicanos were more clean cut than some of the other clubs because they screened their members very carefully. A problem did arise when they tried to rent the Mission Beach Ballroom. David Aguirre, Johnny Lopez, Albert Usquiano and Henry “Leaky” Diaz went to rent the ballroom.
The first reaction of the person in charge of renting the ballroom was, “Do you know how much it costs?” They said yes, that they were aware it was around 400 dollars. The person tried another approach to discourage their use of this facility. The manager wasn’t thrilled at the idea of renting the ballroom to a bunch of boys from Logan Heights and turned down their request.
The boys went to St Jude’s and asked Father William “Bill” Erstad to help facilitate the rental. Father Bill, who served as their adviser, went with the boys to arrange the rental for the Battle of the Bands. Father Bill’s effort was successful. The boys placed posters all over San Diego advertising the event. They offered an orchid corsage to the first 100 girls who attended it. David said that a lot of sailors attended the dance. They cleared an amazing $1000.00 for the event.
Another event they took great pride in sponsoring was the Christmas activities. Sponsoring cartoons at the Coronet Theater was a big deal. It is very possible that the Christmas Cartoon shows were a joint event with other social clubs, since most of the men interviewed remember this event. The also had a Santa Claus; however, he was called Pancho Claus. Some believe that Pancho Claus was played by Leaky Diaz. Bobby Becerra however, personally asked Leaky and was told it wasn’t him.
Pancho Claus arrived on a donkey. In later years the late Mayor Frank Curran played Santa Claus. As of now, I have been unable to find a picture of Mayor Curran dressed as Santa. Irma Castro’s father and Mayor Curran were friends from years past, and he himself told Irma how much he had enjoyed playing Santa.
Camping trips are considered special at any age but when a group of fifteen year old boys from Logan Heights goes camping, who knows what will happen. Some of the guys remember that a case of beer was part of this camping trip, though how the underage boys obtained the beer is unknown.
Los Chicanos went camping at Camp Cuyamaca. When evening came, they gathered in a field to tell scary stories. Of course they were all pretending that they were not afraid as each story got a little more outrageous and scarier than the previous one.
Suddenly, one of the boys thought he saw a ghost, or at the very least, a lighted figure standing in the field. At this point the boys started running back to camp and yelling in fear. However, because it was so dark they started tripping over each other and falling into the bushes that were full of stickers. The more they ran, the more they fell and the more they yelled.
The ghost turned out be to be a cow. It could be that “city boys” were not prepared to meet up with a cow, or it could be the stories got the best of their imagination and resulted in a lot of imagined ghosts being seen that night. Today, the men all in their 70’s will tell you they were not the one that was afraid–it was the other guys who were.
There are many more social clubs that may be written about in future articles. The girls’ social clubs will be written about before the end of this series. The many values of social clubs have not been thoroughly examined, but there is no question that they were valuable. The social clubs opened doors and roadways that had been closed to Mexican Americans in the past.
As much as those of us who were activists from the 1960s would like to believe that we were the leaders in the civil rights and social rights movement, we have to admit that these clubs played a vital role in establishing that movement.
The expectation at the time was that you would stay “south of Market” and if you ventured out to the War Memorial in Balboa Park, or the Mission Beach Ballroom, it not only took guts, but a lot of tenacity. Forming the clubs and learning parliamentary procedures was a learning lesson for the kids and gave them an understanding of the political process. It also showed others that they could run organized meetings. As they grew up some of these boys worked on political campaigns.
The trip Los Gallos made to Sacramento to participate in the Governor’s Conference on Children and Youth not only brought a positive focus to the purpose of social clubs but helped break down the stereotypes of Mexican America youth as hoodlums. Los Lobos’ pride in their dress code showed pride in their club, as well as helped the boys understand the importance of their appearance.
They learned and taught us the about the power of being inclusive. Latino, African American and Anglo social clubs supported each other. At first, it was as simple as selling tickets to each other’s dances, which also opened doors to friendship and broke the dividing line. Later, they would unite with other groups to elect officials or support a common goal.
Where are they now? The young men from the social clubs went on to become good citizens of our community. There whose paths led to drugs and prison, but the majority worked in a cross-section of jobs and professions. Some, such as Albert Bañuelos, gave their life for our country fighting in Vietnam. A large group worked in construction or owned small construction companies.
Others worked as longshoremen or in the aircraft industry. They became supervisors in various businesses. Howard Hollman had a job with the Federal Government. The late Armando Villegas became a businessman, and along with his wife, Connie, owned a paint and body shop in Lemon Grove. David Aguirre owns a barber shop. Social clubs gave these boys lessons in life and prepared them for being a participating member of society.
The complete History of Neighborhood House in Logan Heights here.