By Maria E. Garcia
The jitterbug. Catholic school girl uniforms with Oxford shoes. The decade of Cold War peace between the Korean and Vietnam Wars in the country at large was a period of continued social changes in Logan Heights.
During this in-between decade, long time Logan Heights residents were beginning to relocate to Valencia Park and Kearny Mesa, an indication that it was a sign of status to move out of the community. Freeway construction during this period had displaced residents and divided the Greater Logan Heights community and more divisions would occur with the construction of I-5 and the Coronado Bridge. Those changes would culminate in the turmoil of the late 1960s, specifically the Chicano movement.
The Logan Heights of the 1950s and 1960s was a mixed neighborhood. There were many different ethnic groups and it wasn’t unusual for African Americans, Italians, Germans, Irish, Japanese, Pilipinos and Latinos to live next door to each other.
My interviews with Alicia See Salvatierra and Isabela Navarra Whealer provide a glimpse into this in-between decade in Logan Heights.
Alicia See Salvatierra, who is Los Chicanos Howard Hollman’s aunt, remembered that her sister, Catalina, would read letters written in English to her Italian speaking neighbor.
It seems that even though his mother did not read English, her soldier son would write to her in English. However, she was able to understand most of the letter read to her in English. Neighbors helping one another, despite the language barrier was not unusual. Alicia says the minute the postman delivered the letter, the neighbor would yell out that a letter had arrived, knowing that Catalina would go to the neighbor and read the mail.
Alicia shared a very interesting story about Lupita Evers who was an office clerk for Neighborhood House and well known throughout the community. Lupita was a little person, born with the genetic condition of dwarfism. She was bullied and treated less than kindly by many of the boys in the community. Lupita was very capable of telling the boys “CXXXXX tu madre” and flipping them off when being teased.
Lupita’s mother purchased a huge diamond ring for Lupita to wear. The ring was referred to as her engagement ring although she had no boyfriend. At that time, Alicia was not aware of how many carats the ring was but in retrospect she thinks the ring was at least two carets.
Alicia Salvatierra worked at Neighborhood House from the age of sixteen to the age of twenty-one. Her duties were to assist Miss Julie McClure. Miss McClure was in charge of the girls’ programs and lived in upstairs quarters at Neighborhood House. She helped with arts and crafts, the baking class, and in the summer a once-a-month trip to a swimming pool in National City.
The trip to the swimming pool cost a dime; however, if a child could not pay, Neighborhood House would cover the cost. She says that Miss McClure knew the community well and used this knowledge to select families in need of extra help at Christmas or when other items would be available to give away.
Alicia taught dancing at Neighborhood House. Her very honest comment was: “I don’t know how the hell I got into that job.” She was in charge of teaching girls to dance the jitterbug. The jitterbug was the dance of the day and being able to dance it put you ahead of other girls. When practicing the dance alone a door knob was used as a substitute for the hand of a partner. Now 81 and with ten screws in her back, Alicia is unable to dance.
At the age of 21 Alicia got pregnant and had to leave her job at Neighborhood House. The Neighborhood House staff referred her to the Door of Hope, a maternity home for unwed mothers. It was one of ten maternity homes sponsored by the Salvation Army that were located throughout the west. This referral service was provided by Neighborhood House. Alicia choose to keep her baby and continue to live with her dad and her sisters. I wasn’t aware of this service and I am sure it was used by girls throughout various communities.
While her sister Mary babysat her daughter, Alicia worked at a laundry. When Alicia and Paul See started dating, her baby daughter would go with them on their dates. Unlike today, the expectation was that unless you were working, it was your responsibility to take care of your baby. Alicia married Paul, becoming a full-time mother and wife. After their marriage Paul adopted Alicia’s daughter and raised her as his own.
Alicia remember that workers on the train that ran through Logan Heights would throw ice out to the people and one of Alicia’s sister was expected to be there when the workers threw ice down to those waiting. The passing train often also threw fruits and vegetables to those standing near the train track.
Because his mother worked nights, Howard Hollman stayed at his grandfather and aunts house, which was the Salvatierra family home. Alicia says Howard was a spoiled pest who they had to take wherever they went. Howard prefers to describe it as: “I had it made.”
Music was an important part of many of the activities at Neighborhood House. As a child Howard took piano lessons there. As a teenage boy Howard was a member of Los Chicanos, but because he had to work, he was not always able to attend their social events. He worked as a busboy at Jimmy Wongs’ in Hillcrest.
At that time he and his mother lived in an apartment above the restaurant which was close to his mother’s job at Mercy Hospital. When he was very young, Howard was offered a job washing dishes and busing tables. He then worked at Bradshaw’s Grocery store. By working he was able to purchase a car, a 1951 Chevy. While rushing to a Los Chicanos dance at Neighborhood House, he received his first ticket on the 94 freeway.
As an adult Howard was very successful and worked for the Federal Government at North Island. Howard and Johnny Lopez both play in a band. Nightclubs such as Clancy’s, a neighborhood bar, had live music. Interestingly, many musical groups were born in the Logan Heights neighborhood. A future article will focus on the bands and music that started there.
Isabela Navarra Whealer grew up in an Italian family whose roots were in Logan Heights. She attended Neighborhood House in the late 1950s and early 1960s. She grew up listening to stories from her father James Navarra about how he had attended Neighborhood House and about his life in Logan Heights. His closest friend was Johnny Rubalcava and together they explored the barrio and enjoyed the many activities at Neighborhood House.
James would tell Isabela about the boxing matches held on the playground behind the Neighborhood House and about the jewelry -making classes he participated in as a youth.
Like Alicia, Isabela remembers Greeks, Germans, Italians and Mexicans in the Logan Heights of her youth. Her grandfather owned Navarra’s Italian Grocery located on National Ave. Navarra’s was located where Panchita’s Bakery is situated today. The Lucky Strike ad above hung in the grocery store for many years and today hangs in Isabela’s kitchen. The picture of the ad is courtesy of her brother Pete, a Catholic priest.
Her grandfather, Giuiseppe Navarra, a rather colorful and bright businessman, came to Logan Heights in the early 1920s. In Sicily her grandfather had been involved in the olive oil business until a vendetta forced the family to flee. Several years after her grandmother Catarina came to this country her grandfather followed.
In this 1922 picture, Isabela’ grandmother is holding her baby at the Neighborhood House Clinic. That child would die leaving Giuiseppe and Catarina to shower all their attention on James.
Giuiseppe purchased property in Logan Heights and Lincoln acres. Giuiseppe and Catarina lived in a house across from what was then Lowell (Perkins) School. The Lincoln Acres property, referred to as the ranch by Isabela, was located where freeway 54 is now.
Isabela’s parents, James and Maria, met at Pete’s bar located where Chicano Park is today. Her mother came to San Diego illegally from Sonora, Mexico. She had divorced her first husband and came looking for a better life for the two sons whom she had left with her sister in Mexico.
In order to support her two sons, Maria worked at a restaurant as well as the cannery. Isabela’s father James also worked at the cannery and tended bar at Pete’s Place.
In her effort to earn more money, Isabela’s mother also made the caps worn by the women at the cannery. In 1950 Maria and James married and had two children—Isabela and Pete. Her brother Pete grew up and was ordained a Catholic priest here in San Diego.
Isabela’s memories of her parents are very loving, though she does remember that as a child she was embarrassed because of their expectations that she should speak Italian to her father and Spanish to her mother. This was OK at home but embarrassing when she was around her Anglo friends.
While her parents worked at the cannery, Isabela was cared for by her paternal grandparents, Giuseppe and Catarina. It was expected that she would not “hang out” at Neighborhood House, a sentiment that was shared by many parents of girls there at the time.
She said Neighborhood House then was the place to be and the perfect place to go after school– it represented boys and dancing. Unknown to her parents, Isabela and her girlfriends would find excuses to run to Neighborhood House.
A favorite pastime was boy watching. The girls would leave St. Jude’s School and rush to Neighborhood House. They did not want to look like Catholic school girls. A lengthy ritual was involved to achieve the desired transformation. This was not an easy task, since they were wearing their uniforms.
The first step was to remove their socks. They still had the ugly Oxford shoes, but she felt it was better than wearing both the socks and the shoes. The next step was to roll down the straps of the uniform. Once the straps were tucked in to the waist band the skirt would be rolled up and shortened. Makeup was applied in the restroom at the Neighborhood House.
Neighborhood House wasn’t all about boys for Isabela, however. She remembers there was a library which enabled her to obtain books. She also took classes in baking and sewing. Isabela has very fond memories of Neighborhood House and Barrio Logan. Unlike many of the girls that attended Neighborhood House, she did not join the girls’ social clubs.
Today Isabela lives less than 100 feet from Chicano Park.
The complete History of Neighborhood House in Logan Heights here.