Recognized for writing the people’s history
By Anna Daniels
Five San Diego County women were inducted into the San Diego County Women’s Hall of Fame on Sunday March 6 at the Joe and Vi Jacobs Center. Maria Garcia, Evonne Seron Schulze, Sally Wong Avery, Elizabeth Lou and Christine Kehoe were recognized for their lifetime work and achievements and hailed as role models.
Each of these dynamic women has left an indelible mark on our civic life, making it more inclusive and vibrant. Each of these dynamic women also exemplifies a unique voice and story. For Maria Garcia, her story is history—she was inducted into the Hall of Fame as Historian.
Maria Garcia is well known in the San Diego Free Press community. For over a year she wrote a weekly installment in the SDFP exclusive series “History of Neighborhood House in Logan Heights” which spanned the early part of the twentieth century and ended in the early 1970s.
Neighborhood House, a progressive era settlement house that provided education, health and recreational services throughout the working class and largely Mexican American community of Logan Heights is the narrative focus—and the unmistakable heart—of the series.
The significance of Neighborhood House to Logan Heights residents and the Mexican American community is conveyed through a series of interviews which Maria began as a class project while she was attending San Diego State University in the early 70s.
Through sheer happenstance, Maria’s extensive notes, photographs and a few of the original tapes were not recently turned over to the archives at San Diego State as she had intended to do.
Maria and I were seated next to each other at an award ceremony that honored our mutual friend and SDFP writer Ernie McCray in April of 2014. We introduced ourselves to each other and struck up a lively conversation about how we were spending our respective retirements.
Maria told me about the Neighborhood House project and despaired that she hadn’t found a way to make that important history about San Diego accessible to a large audience. Who would recognize the value of this work and publish it?
We did! Maria’s unique people’s history was rolled out at the San Diego Free Press on May 5, 2014 and ended on July 4, 2015. It was a labor of love, purpose and fierce commitment from the long time elementary school principal turned historian.
What began as a small number of interviews in the 1970s expanded exponentially as readers contacted Maria to refer her to yet another often elderly person who had memories to share about Neighborhood House. Armed with a tape recorder, note pad and tremendous good will and curiosity, Maria maintained an interview and writing schedule that would drop most people in their tracks.
It is the interviews of “ordinary” men and women that make the Neighborhood House series so distinctive. Maria chronicles the ways that people could make do and find meaning in life with little resources. She conveys the universality of the pastimes and pleasures of kids while also portraying the responsibility so many of them had in the financial and domestic well being of their families. Maria writes about stunning achievements, often against tremendous odds and in the face of racism.
The immense power and ultimate import of these individual stories derives from the way Maria interweaves them with historical events and the spirit of the times. World Wars and the Great Depression are universally recognized forces. But she also provides essential illumination about Mexican Repatriation, the Zoot Suit riots in San Diego, segregation, Urban Renewal in Logan Heights and the Farm Worker and Chicano movements.
The questions of what does it mean to be an American, who is an American and what kind of America do we want to live in are contained in subtle and overt ways in her articles. Those questions are once again at the forefront of consciousness during this presidential election year in which one political party’s electoral appeal is based upon rabid nationalism, racism and misogyny.
The history that Maria provides is not frozen in time like a hapless insect in amber. In an important sense it is presente—filled with as yet unresolved tensions and unrealized possibilities. And while the “History of Neighborhood House in Logan Heights” has ended, Maria has continued her work as a historian.
The new series “Latinos in San Diego” launched last year at SDFP. More far ranging geographically, Maria once again is using the interview and personal narrative form to present the ways that Latinos have continued to shape the history of San Diego. It appears the third Saturday of every month.
Maria was also recently asked to participate on the advisory board of the Mexican American Baseball Project CalState San Bernardino. Her research on the team sports offered at Neighborhood House took her to the new Central Library’s Baseball collection and the San Diego Historical Society but she was disappointed to find that there was little information about San Diego Latinos in baseball.
Over the past months, she has been creating that history that is so sorely lacking. She will have a full chapter in a forthcoming book on Latinos in Baseball.
Maria’s work on the San Diego Free Press has garnered recognition from public officials and has been enthusiastically embraced by an ever growing audience. In March of 2015, she was tapped as Woman of the Year by State Senator Ben Hueso; in May of 2015 she received the SOHO Cultural Heritage award.
A weekly radio show based on the Neighborhood House series is currently under discussion, which means that Maria’s work has an opportunity to receive national coverage. Her story is making history.
The “History of Neighborhood House in Logan Heights” series here.
“Latinos in San Diego” here.
Correction: This article originally stated that six women were inducted into the Hall of Fame. It has been corrected to five women.