Part I of a two part article
By Maria E. Garcia
Norma and Roger Cazares together and individually have helped change San Diego. They usually share the same political views although there have been a few exceptions. Norma supported Hillary, Roger supported Obama. Once again they are split with Norma once again supporting Hillary and Roger supporting Bernie.
Roger says that he is totally amused with the Republican party. They’re destroying the Republican party similarly to what Pete Wilson did in California. He is concerned that we will not have a two party system. Roger believes this is dangerous. Both agree there needs to be a two party system in order to hold each other accountable. Roger says both Trump and Cruz have helped bring the closet racist out of the closet.
Norma believes this is a good thing because it makes us realize that there is still a lot of work to do. It has served as a wake-up call. She says there is a need to understand that there are various factions across the United States and this is what has scared some people. Latinos are part of the change in population across the United States and this is frightening to mainstream citizens. We are part of the browning of America.
Norma points out that Latinos are a young group of people and the country will have to accept the fact that we are here and “get used to it”. We continue to add to the population but are having smaller families. Roger says “I am getting too old to wait for change. If Trump gets elected president we will have an opportunity for a political revolution”. Roger believes Bernie will bring change faster than Hillary who he believes will bring change, just at a much slower pace. Norma adds our biggest triumphs have been through revolution. She says “our kids haven’t experienced political revolution like we did in the 60s.”
Roger admired Robert Kennedy and was a precinct captain for the Robert Kennedy campaign. He was part of a group that met with Kennedy at the El Cortez Hotel in San Diego the night before he was assassinated. Less than thirty hours later, the dream of change with Robert Kennedy was also dead. Work on other campaigns would follow when both Norma and Roger campaigned together on Pete Chacon’s successful bid for the State Assembly.
Norma and Roger knew each other from San Diego State, although Norma considers a picket line their first official meeting. They were both picketing the Safeway on Highland Avenue during the grape boycott of the early 70s. That particular Safeway was located next to the Elbow Rest Bar where several of Roger’s buddies were known to have a few beers.
While they were on the picket line, several of his National City “veteranos,” came out to yell “Communists!” at them. While they were on the picket line, a black limousine drove up and out came Archie Moore, the legendary boxer, wearing his trade mark cap. Roger said “Archie– pick up a picket sign and join us.” Which is exactly what Archie Moore did.
Roger has no problem admitting he was drawn to Norma because “she had great legs.” Norma explains it this way: “We had a common interest, common values and I have always been attracted to older men.” She says in high school she never had a boyfriend because she felt they were too immature. She also says that even though Roger is eleven years older than her, there have been many times that “I am still more mature than he is.” Roger insists he chased Norma until she caught him. She jokingly adds he was not easy to “train” — a process she says is still going on today after forty-two years of marriage. They have three grown children, all of whom are doing very well.
Norma is one of seven brothers and sisters all born in San Diego. Her grandfather was a copper miner in Miami, Arizona. Her aunts and uncles were all born in the United States. It seems that in addition to owning the mining company, the owners also owned the Miami sheriff. After a dispute the Sheriff showed up at her grandfather’s door and demanded that he leave town or he was going to kick them out.
This was common in many jobs as a method not to pay earned wages or when there were other disputes between the employer and employee. Her grandfather picked up the family and moved to Juarez, Mexico. Norma’s grandfather wanted his children to attend school in the United States so he chose Juarez so they could cross over to El Paso and attend school.
Roger is one of ten brothers and sisters. In 1940, Roger was born in San Francisco de Oro, Mexico. Prior to moving to San Diego, his family lived in Tijuana. Roger’s father worked in the copper mines in Mexico. His father along with several other men formed a union and demanded that the mining company provide a doctor. The Dutch company that owned the mine complied with this demand. They then requested higher wages which were also granted. After a period of time they demanded that the mine be nationalized. Once it was nationalized there was less support for the workers or for union activities. It was decided it would be too dangerous for the family to remain in that town so they moved to Tijuana.
Roger’s political activities started when he was in fourth grade at Balboa Elementary School. A teacher, Mrs. Cline, told him he would make a good student body president but that since you couldn’t be ASB President until you were in sixth grade he should run for secretary in the fourth grade, vice president in the fifth grade and finally ASB President in the sixth grade. Roger became a political strategist at a very young age.
In order not to have to admit that the reason they were returning to school two weeks after the start of the school year was that they had been picking prunes, Roger would tell his classmates that they had been on an extended camping trip.
Much to Roger’s chagrin, in December of his sixth grade year his family moved from Shelltown to National City. Roger told his dad he did not want to transfer schools until the school year was over. His dad said “fine– walk to your old school”. In order to finish his sixth grade year Roger walked through the fields and empty lots to get to Balboa school.
Roger and his brothers and sisters picked prunes up north during the summer. In order not to have to admit that the reason they were returning to school two weeks after the start of the school year was that they had been picking prunes, Roger would tell his classmates that they had been on an extended camping trip. He says that his classmates were impressed.
He also fondly remembers that through the Boy’s Club he got to participate in a parade that went down Logan Avenue. Roger and his friend Tommy Logan were on a flatbed truck having a boxing match. The referee was none other than Archie Moore, the legendary boxer. This event was on a Thursday, two days before Archie Moore fought Rocky Marciano for the championship. In addition to being a championship boxer Archie Moore has always been a home town hero.
In National City their neighbor was Rosie Hamlin of the “Rosie and The Originals” singing group. As a young girl Rosie took classical piano lessons. Her mother would invite several high school boys from the neighborhood to hear Rosie play classical music on the piano. The boys went willingly because Rosie’s mother would provide them with a beer as they listened to her daughter play. Later, while in the army, Roger heard “Angel Baby,” Rosie’s hit song, and he says it made him very homesick. Many years would pass and he would be asked to introduce Rosie at a Barrio Station dinner. He told her the story and said “Rosie you gave me the blues.”
Norma was born in 1951 at Balboa Hospital. Her parents took her home to an apartment directly above the La Bamba night club in Logan Heights. Anyone who knows Norma knows how much she loves to dance. Norma’s mom would say that Norma’s sense of rhythm is from living above La Bamba and hearing the music at all hours.
The family moved to Julian Avenue and by the third grade her family had moved to 42nd and Market where she attended Chollas Elementary School. She attended Gompers Junior High where Armando Rodriguez was her vice principal. One of her neighbors was George “Chaka” Stevens. He was registering people to vote and asked her mom if Norma, who was only 15, could be his interpreter.
Norma and George were soon knocking on doors. She and Chaka also walked the neighborhood with a petition asking for street improvements. When they took the petition to the City Council, she said she realized the power in numbers and in uniting. She says George was her first political and social mentor, adding that she loves the guy.
Non-English speaking students were being placed in Emotionally Mentally Retarded (EMR) classes.
Norma’s second successful political activity came when she was a student at Lincoln High School. She was one of the student leaders that lead the walk outs. Lincoln, like most of the schools in San Diego, had very few teachers who reflected the color and ethnicity of the students. Non-English speaking students were being placed in Emotionally Mentally Retarded (EMR) classes. The walk-outs at Lincoln were started by the Black students out of concerns for the lack of teachers of color, relevant curriculum and the overall conditions of the school.
The Chicano students soon joined their African American counter parts. Missing in this mix were the Mexican students, most of whom were monolingual Spanish speaking students. Once again Norma’s bilingual skills were called upon when she became the liaison between the English speaking students and the Spanish speaking students. She says it was very exciting and people like Carlos LeGerrette and Chaka came to the school to offer their support.
The students made a list of demands. Norma’s role was to explain what the issues were and then to bring the students into the fold. The walkout was considered a success. Things did get better but as the student leadership moved on, the activism was gone. Norma adds, “I think that we certainly saw that at that point in our life that action mattered.”
As a result, they hired aides to help with limited English speaking students. Norma Hernandez, currently a Southwestern College Board member and former president, was an aide at Lincoln when Norma Casarez was in high school.
“Your family is too poor for you to attend college. You need to enlist for the draft.”
In the late 1950s Roger was one of only a few Mexican Americans students at Sweetwater High School. He was taking college prep classes. Though a larger group of Mexican Americans students had started their high school education at Sweetwater in the 1960 graduating class, Roger believes there was less than a dozen Mexican American students when he attended.
All through high school Roger took college prep classes. When it came time to graduate, his counselor “Major,” advised him to enlist in to the service. Today, 56 years later Roger remembers the counselor’s name as well as his words. “Your family is too poor for you to attend college. You need to enlist for the draft.”
This process was known as the all-volunteer draft. If you enlisted voluntarily, you served two years, unlike the regular draft which required you to serve four years. Roger and a group of friends of OTN (Old Town National City) all went to downtown San Diego to enlist. The group included Roger’s brother Roy, Jimmy Nieto, Benny Deffenbaugh and Gilbert Portillo. Many promises were made to these young men but very few were kept. The boys had been lead to believe they would stay together; however, they were sent to different areas. Roger started his Army life at Fort Ord, California.
While in the army, Roger was one of three men who were offered the opportunity to attend officers candidate school. This would, however, extend his time in the army. They told all three that going to OCS was like receiving a college education. They sweetened the pot, adding that because Roger spoke Spanish, they would send him to Monterrey Language School. Roger had a girlfriend in San Diego at the time and was anxious to return home. Without consulting with his parents, Roger said no to OCS and went off to Germany.
Roger said “I had second thoughts about it because my girlfriend dumped me and I would think maybe I should have taken that offer.” In Germany his barracks roommate was Joe, a Nazi from the Texas panhandle. Joe had a full Nazi uniform hanging in the barracks and would give German speeches. The CID told Joe that they would put him in prison if he continued to give these speeches.
Joe told Roger “you’re not Mexican, you’re not a pachuco, you must be Italian.” When Roger left, Joe cried. He eventually ended up moving to East LA. He had gone through a total conversion. Roger said “It is a lucky thing that I came home because my outfit was sent to Vietnam.”
But when Roger came home he couldn’t find a job, so he applied for unemployment. He heard of a college that held classes at Chula Vista High School after the high school students went home. This was called Southwestern College. The college offered regular college classes so Roger took the placement exam. The classes were three hours long and ideal for anyone wanting to advance their education. After taking the test, he went to the counselor who turned out to be “Major,” the same counselor that had advised him to join the army. Roger remembered he told him “you have been gone too long, you need to take remediation classes in math, reading and history.”
The first course he took was remedial English. The teacher gave him an assignment in which he wrote about the cycle of life. When the paper was returned, it had an “F” on it along with the comment “Who did you plagiarize?” The next day in class, the teacher assigned another writing assignment. Roger remembered his topic was “Why Cassius Clay had changed his name to Mohamed Ali.” After receiving that “F” he thought about not returning to class.
He did return and the teacher called him to her desk and asked “Do you still have that paper?” Roger replied he did, adding she had given him an F. Roger handed her the paper and she added another leg to the F and made it an A and then scratched out her comment. The teacher then told Roger “you don’t belong in this class. You belong in the college credit course.” In addition, the math teacher and history teacher both told him the same thing. At that point Roger says that he dumped Major and went to San Diego State, got a catalog and started thinking ahead. Roger was a member of the first graduating class at Southwestern college.
Roger arrived at San Diego State before there was a MAYA or a MEChA. He says the only group he could identify with was SDS (Students for a Democratic Society). A guy name Harris came to state with his then girlfriend Joan Baez. They were working on the grape boycott. Roger was also working on the grape boycott. This cemented his relationship with SDS. While at San Diego State Roger continued to work with SDS.
When he was at Southwestern College EDD threatened to take his unemployment away because he wasn’t looking for a job. He went to Chula Vista High School were they had the jobs posted. He asked about work and the women told him that there was something available at a bank, but you had to be an accounting major. Roger asked her to hold the job and ran to the college and changed his major.
Roger was working nights at San Diego Trust and Savings and even though it was supposed to be three hours a night he often worked seven or eight hours. His job was in reconciliations. He says there were times he didn’t sleep from Tuesday night until Thursday afternoon, when he got out of class at San Diego State. Roger said he really liked what he did. One night he recovered a twenty-thousand-dollar error they had over paid to one of their clients. He was very good in this field and they ended up making him a supervisor.
He had an Anglo friend named Joe from San Diego State that he had helped get a job at San Diego Trust and Savings. Joe wanted Roger to join his fraternity and invited him to a meeting. Roger realized they were all Reagan supporters. He said to himself “there ain’t no way I am going to get involved with you guys.” Roger continued his involvement with SDS.
In 1969 he took a leave of absence from San Diego Trust and Savings and went to work as a job developer at MAAC. At that time Victor Nieto had just taken over as director of MAAC. Prior to Victor the director was Joe Tafoya. Larry Montoya was the first director of MAAC followed by Ricardo de la Barco. Roger’s job titles changed over the next few years until he became director. Roger saw this move to MAAC as temporary and had every intention of returning to San Diego Trust and Savings.
While Roger was working at MAAC, Norma was at Lincoln High School. One day Norma was called to the counselor’s office. In the office were two recruiters from San Diego State, Jimmy Estrada and Gus Chavez. Today, both men are known as activist in the Chicano Movement. Their first question was “why didn’t you apply for San Diego State?”
Norma explained she had applied there. A well-meaning counselor had pulled her application, thinking that she would benefit from attending an out-of-town college. Norma says there was no way her mom would have agreed to her going out of town to college. The counselor, not understanding the Mexican American culture, was not aware of this.
Norma says that if it wasn’t for her two mentors or the support from EOP she’s not sure she would have furthered her education or would have been able to survive San Diego State. At San Diego State she became involved with Chicano Studies. Two of her instructors were Carlos Velez and Jose Villarino, both well known teachers and Chicano activists. Norma’s writing skills were exceptional and she basically became a Reader for Carlos Velez.
Norma and Roger would continue their political activities throughout their married life. Their unique story of politicization– and romance– will be continued in Part II.
The complete series Latinos in San Diego here.