…and the birth of the Chicano Free Clinic
By Maria E. Garcia
“There comes a time in the lives of each community when they must decide whether they are to remain under the direction and guidance of others who dictate to them their needs and aspirations. There comes a time when each community must realize that they themselves possess the power and potentiality to govern those institutes which decide the direction of their lives and the lives of their offspring…” Chicano Federation Newsletter, October 14, 1970
The occupation of Neighborhood House that began when barrio activist Laura Rodriguez chained herself to the doors on October 4, 1970 occurred a mere six months after the takeover of Chicano Park in April 1970. Both actions involved many of the same people and both actions demanded community control over decisions that affected the lives of residents.
With the takeover of Chicano Park in April 1970, the barrio had said “¡Basta!” to land use decisions that displaced thousands of residents as a result of military use of the bay during World War II followed by the growth of the shipbuilding industry; then by the construction of freeways and the Coronado Bridge; and zoning changes that permitted yonkes (junkyards) to exist side by side with long time residences.
The occupation of Neighborhood House was a demand for community control over this beloved institution that had been in existence for 58 years at that time. Generations of Logan Heights residents had lived in the community when health services, reflecting the original settlement house philosophy, had been in place. Now many of the original services were no longer available and the community pointed the finger at the Neighborhood House administrators. Its progressive era service philosophy had been displaced by Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.
The importance of defining the issues An October 7, 1970 Union Tribune article described the changes that Neighborhood House had undergone which had created the tensions within the community:
Since about 1965, large War on Poverty grants transformed the single National Avenue Neighborhood House serving nearby Mexican Americans to a large multi-cultural agency serving many ethnic groups.
The Chicano Federation, established in 1969 by a group of civil rights advocates, was becoming the voice of the community and without question Neighborhood House leadership was feeling some concerns about the role it would play in Logan Heights. The community was clear on the issues. Many of the services provided were now at Neighborhood House’s Market Street location. The original Neighborhood House on National Avenue, now referred to as the Big Neighbor, experienced diminished services, particularly in the area of health care.
The lack of bilingual personnel and the lack of Chicanos working at Neighborhood House were also issues. The Board of Directors did not include residents of the community. This was seen as lack of concern and commitment to the Latino community on the part of the African American administrators of the agency. These issues had been a festering for years. One of the Chicano Federation flyers states “This center is the oldest Neighborhood House but it has ceased to serve the community ever since Federal Funds came in.”
Ruby Hubert was the African American director of Neighborhood House at the time of the occupation. News articles and a great deal of the general population portrayed the occupation as a Black/Brown issue. The press loved the idea that the two minority communities were fighting with each other.
After researching the many issues the community had about the services at Neighborhood House, I believe that that the issue was the change in services that had been provided for generations at Neighborhood House. If the administrative services and the offices at 1809 National had been run by a pink and blue striped person, the community would still have been as angry.
According to the minutes from a meeting held at the State Service Center on October 7, 1970, someone had attempted to make it a Black/Brown issue. Marta Soto Mayor, a social worker and community activist, responded by saying “do not cloud the issue.”
Rico Bueno, a crucial member of the takeover team, remembered many facts that others have forgotten or maybe are not aware of. Prior to the takeover Rico met with a member of the Black Panthers to inform them ahead of time of what was about to happen. The Black Panther member was a friend of Rico’s from school. Rico felt that out of respect for their friendship and because the director of Neighborhood House was Black, it was the right thing to do.
Every effort was being made to avoid the situation becoming a Black/Brown issue. It was important for Black organizations to know that it was not a racial thing but a political statement. There was support from The Street Journal, the successor to the original San Diego Free Press.
Planning the Occupation Prior to the occupation there had been some picketing and calls to remove those individuals who were unresponsive to the community from their duties at Neighborhood House. Several meetings among the local residents took place before the actual takeover. On October 4, 1970, Laura Rodriquez, and Jose Gomez came to my apartment in Hillcrest to discuss “what could go wrong.” We agreed that I should attend the Monday night meeting of the Community Action Council (CAC) and record their reaction when someone would come in and announce the takeover.
The CAC met at Lowell School, one block from the Neighborhood House. With the naiveté of a college student, I walked into the CAC meeting carrying an 8 -inch long tape deck over my shoulder. Looking back from today, I might as well have carried a sign that said “I am carrying the recorder because I know what’s going on.” The announcement was to take place around 8 o’clock. Jose and Laura were very adamant that because I was studying to be a teacher I had to be careful not to get in trouble with the law. At that time I did not have the appreciation that I should have had for their concern.
In order to gain entrance to the building Laura Rodriquez had asked to borrow the key to hold a meeting in the Neighborhood House auditorium. Laura, with her grandmotherly looks and a known community member, was given the key. There was a short meeting that took place prior to declaring an impasse about the community concerns.
The infamous story of Laura chaining herself to the front door to keep the police from rushing the building is true. After the announcement was made at the CAC meeting, people left the meeting and walked over to Neighborhood House to see what was going on. The atmosphere was almost party -like, people talking, and watching as cop cars circled the block over and over again. There would be many vigils for nights to come, but the excitement of that first night would not be duplicated.
On October 5, 1970, a group took over the Neighborhood House as planned. The group was made up of residents, Brown Berets, and MEChA students. The Brown Berets assignment was to have a constant presence in the Neighborhood House. The five individuals assigned this duty were David Rico, Jose Gomez, Rico Bueno and Manuel Savin, and Joe “Kiki Ortega who grew up at 1812 National Ave. Kiki was also attending City College and had been active in various political actions. These individuals barricaded themselves inside the building and waited to see if they would be evicted.
Throughout the days of the occupation other people came and went. MEChA set up a rotation system where members took turns being inside the building. It is probable that any Chicano activist from that time period was in the building at one time or another.
A flyer distributed the day after the take over stated: “It has been a symbol to the Chicano Community for the ones that remember it like it once was. The Neighborhood House used to also be a place where people in the community could go for free dental, medical and other services. Chicano[s] had taken over the structure to demand that the Neighborhood House return to its original services.”
The October 14, 1970 Chicano Federation newsletters had the following summary of the information that had been discussed at a meeting of the residents of Logan Heights. The Chicano Federation, with Jesse Ramirez as director, was in support of the residents and understood the need for a change at Neighborhood House.
“There comes a time in the lives of each community when they must decide whether they are to remain under the direction and guidance of others who dictate to them their needs and aspirations. There comes a time when each community must realize that they themselves possess the power and potentiality to govern those institutes which decide the direction of their lives and the lives of their offspring. The colonia of Southeast San Diego has made the decision.
- (1) Ruby Hubert is hereby released from her duties at the Neighborhood House and urged to seek employment in some other field.
- (2) Mr. Hueso is hereby released from his duties at the Neighborhood House and is urged to seek employment in some other field.
- (3) Anna Brown is hereby released of her duties and urged to seek employment in some other field.
- (4) Eddie Oriole is hereby released of his duties at the Neighborhood and urged to seek employment in some other field.
- (5) Those programs which are desperately needed by the community, such as the child care center, classes for English for the Spanish-speaking, food commodity distribution program, must be immediately implemented and governed by the new board of directors made up strictly of local residents.
- (6) That the outgoing administration make a public accountability of all sources of funds and their distributions under: a. percentage to staff b. rents and services, contracts and consultant fees to be paid out.”
The following morning the San Diego Union did not cover the occupation of Neighborhood House. The first article about the occupation did not appear in the SD Union until Wednesday, Oct.7, 1970. There could be two reasons for the lack of interest by the press. The 0ccupation took place late Monday and thus did not make the Tuesday morning newspaper. Probably the real reason was that news that was assumed as more important to the majority community took precedence.
That same week the Mayor and four councilmen had been indicted in a bribery case, NASCCO was in the process of going on strike and the World Series was beginning in a few days. When the story did appear on Wednesday, the lede was very simple. “Neighborhood House Blocked By Protesters.” Jose Gomez acted as spokesperson with the press.
Jose had been one of the leaders in the struggle to create Chicano Park. He was a resident of the area and respected by both young and old barrio residents. His leadership skills were once again on the front lines at Neighborhood House.
The Chicano newspaper La Verdad, published by Richard Sainz, gave a great deal of coverage to the occupation. La Verdad printed a cartoon that showed Ruby Hubert being kicked out of the Neighborhood House and landing on the street in front of the building. In my 1974/75 interview with Ellsworth Pryor, he said that that cartoon had infuriated the African American community and that the Black Panthers were very angry.
I honestly don’t remember any animosity from the Black community with the exception of the Neighborhood House staff. On the contrary, young people from both races seemed to believe that the occupation was necessary in order to make a change.
To Ruby Hubert’s credit, she did not insist that the police remove those who were inside the building. If the police had rushed the building, the outcome would have probably been a blood bath.
The community defines a new direction for services in the barrio Many flyers and bulletins were sent out within the next few weeks stating both short and long terms goals. The following is an excerpt from one of the flyers: Immediate Goals with the help of MEChA Central.
- A free dental clinic
- Day care center
- Recreational events –handball, tennis, basketball and movies
- A library is to be started with Mary Garcia as the head of the committee (AKA as Maria E. Garcia)
- Coach Pinkerton will be asked to return and aid us with these programs.
- We are determined to stay and follow through on these programs. We shall not settle for less than our due.
All of the above programs had been part of the Neighborhood House of days gone by. These demands tell you the value the community placed on those programs. Informational tables were set up outside the Neighborhood House. This was a good way to keep the community updated and maintain support for the on-going effort. In my 1974/75 interview with Frank Peñuelas, I specifically asked him what his first reaction was when he heard the building had been occupied. His reply was: “I was glad. If I had been younger, I may have been right there.”
Members of the negotiating committee that I remember were Leonard Fierro, chairperson, David Rico, Tommie Camarillo, Laura Rodriquez, Angie Avila and myself. Negotiations on the building went on for weeks. At one of the earliest meeting shortly after the occupation, the Neighborhood House asked for payroll records. This information was needed in order to pay their employees. The committee agreed to release the records to them. In other instances, records were thrown out the window to the sidewalk below. I am sorry to say that some of those boxes contained old records and newspaper articles about the history of Neighborhood House and were lost forever.
Rico Bueno, inside the building with the other Brown Berets, recalls that they had access to the accounting books and that they firmly believed that some money had been spent improperly. When they threatened to make the books public and ask for an investigation, the Neighborhood House board was more willing to negotiate and not as quick to have the occupation members arrested.
When negotiating with the Neighborhood House staff the group always asked that a member of the Chicano community be included. This was usually Jesse Ramirez, director of the Chicano Federation.
Several freezers full of food were found and the members of the takeover team questioned what had been the plan for using the food. They believed that the food was intended for needy families but were concerned that Neighborhood House employees were planning to give it to friends and family.
David Rico came up with the idea of giving the food to needy families. The word was put out that if you needed food because you had none or very little, come to Neighborhood House and receive free food. David Rico was so moved by the plight of these kids that the Logan Heights Breakfast Program was formed. This was long before the free breakfast found in schools today was developed.
The two month stand-off ends with arrests On December 6, 1970, the police broke down the back door and arrested those who were inside the building. Two months and one day after the take-over, the building was empty. There had been an incident at El Zarape restaurant and the person involved ran through the Neighborhood House building. This gave the police “probable cause” to enter the building.
Rico Bueno, Jose Gomez, David Rico, Manuel Sabin and Kiki Ortega were all arrested and put in jail. Kiki thinks they were in jail between two to seven days before they were released on OR (own recognizance). Rico remembered that there was a great deal of picketing in front of the jail. He believed this contributed to them being released. Each of the men from this group remember the number of days they spent in jail differently. When they went to court, the DA refused to prosecute and all charges were dropped. There is no question that the decision not to prosecute was a political one.
The birth of the Chicano Free Clinic After the occupation ended, the Neighborhood House agency, which continues to exist today, separated legally and financially from the National Avenue location of the original Neighborhood House. Laura Rodriguez would turn her focus to founding–and funding– what is known today as the Logan Heights Family Health Center at that location.
In 1970 health services returned to 1809 National Avenue when the original Neighborhood House building became the Chicano Free Clinic. Fund raising activities were critical to maintaining the services. There were Mariachi Festivals, Evenings with the Stars and monthly Spirit of the Barrio luncheons. Doctors donated their services and UCSD donated medical equipment. The Navy painted the rooms.
Laura Rodriguez, who lived behind the clinic, took on the security detail with her large white German shepherd Bianco at her side. She mopped floors, cleaned toilets and helped with clinic tasks as needed. She made tamales for the monthly luncheons. In October 1991, Laura was awarded the Point of Light by President George H.W. Bush.
Three years after its founding the Chicano Free Clinic was incorporated into the Family Health Centers of San Diego.
The Open Letter From Big Neighbor lists the author as unknown. Based on some of the expressions, I believe it was written by Jose Gomez. The sentiments expressed in this letter are a fitting end to this article and this series.
The complete History of Neighborhood House in Logan Heights here.
Author Note: After 51 articles, this is the final article in the series “Neighborhood House from 1918 to the Occupation of 1970.” I am very grateful to those people who permitted me to share their story. I am also grateful to those of you who have shared the articles. My goal has been and remains the same to have everyone know that Latinos contributed to the history of San Diego. I also want to recognize Anna Daniels and Rich Kacmar from the San Diego Free Press for suggesting I write these articles and their willingness to print them.
A huge Thank You to everyone who has encouraged me to keep writing. There were days I felt I could not do one more minute of research and your positive comments kept me going.
From today forward I will write one story per month about a piece of Latino history in San Diego. Un gran abrazo para todos. Maria