By Maria E. Garcia
Norma Hernandez’ road to becoming a Chicana activist is different than that of the other Latinos and Latinas I have written about. Norma was born in Tijuana in 1938 and lived there until she was fifteen years old. She is an only child born to Mr. and Mrs. Arce. Fortunately, there were a large number of cousin, aunts and uncles that provided an extended family experience.
Her great- grandmother Valeria was an Otomi Indian who lived in San Luis Potosí Mexico on a little ranchito. Norma’s mother was born in Johnson, Arizona, a small mining town near Bisbee Arizona which no longer exists today.
When her mother was a year old, Norma’s grandparents moved to Mexico. The United states was experiencing a chicken pox epidemic. Fearing for the health of his family her grandfather moved them to Tijuana where he would own a barber shop and later a movie theater.
When it came time for Norma to begin first grade her parents disagreed on the type of school she would attend. Her father wanted her to receive a good education and her mother, a devout Catholic, wanted her in a Catholic School in the United States. They finally agreed Norma would attend San Ysidro Academy which today is known as Mount Carmel Academy.
A woman named Chofie was hired to drive Norma and several other students from Tijuana to San Ysidro. Norma remembered Chofie as a nice woman who would drive them across the border in the morning and return at the end of the school day to pick them up for the return trip to Tijuana.
Norma said that in those day there were only a few lanes but the daily border crossing was not difficult. She said the custom inspectors would ask: “What do you have in your lunch bag?” They would show their sack lunch and cross the border. You did not face the scrutiny you would face today.
Most student at the San Ysidro Academy were from Tijuana and many were her friends. Classes were taught by nuns who in those days still wore a habit. The nuns had a very strict rule about not speaking Spanish on the playground. Norma remembers that one time she and three of her friends were caught speaking Spanish there. The nun took all four of them and made them stand in trash cans that were located at various parts of the playground.
She remembers standing in the trash cans crying after recess was over. She said they were probably in the trash can for a short period of time, but to a six year old child it was a frightening experience. In spite of that experience, she refers to the nuns as very nice.
San Ysidro Academy only had one teacher per grade level. One of the nuns gave piano lessons after school. Norma took piano lessons as did another friend. Chofie would patiently wait until after the piano lesson to bring her charges home. These years were very comfortable experiences for Norma.
After eighth grade at San Ysidro Academy, Norma attended Cathedral Girls High School. It was at this time that her mother decided to separate from her husband. Norma maintained a great relationship with her dad in spite of the fact that he lived in Tijuana and she lived in San Diego.
When she and her mother first moved to San Diego, they lived someplace in Logan Heights and then moved to 4625 Florida Street in University Heights. This move had a tremendous effect on Norma and her mom. Her mother had never worked outside the home and Norma was used to a rather comfortable life in Tijuana.
Norma saw her friends from Tijuana at school but at the end of the school day, they returned to Tijuana and she stayed in her new land. She describes this experience as her “first experience outside her comfort zone.” Not only was she living the immigrant experience, but making this transition as a teenager was especially difficult.
A positive aspect of being enrolled at Cathedral High School was the ethnic mixture of the girls enrolled there. One interesting fact is that some of the girls were Chinese Mexican and Japanese Mexican. The girls were particularly impressed by Gloria Tanaka,who was Japanese Mexican, lived in Tijuana and OWNED a car. During this period of time Norma’s father continued to support both her and her mother.
Norma considers her mom and her great grandmother as two of her mentors. She says as she got older she had more appreciation for what they accomplished. After a couple of years of living in San Diego a friend of Norma’s mom, Grace, called Mrs. Arce and said Marston’s Department Store, a high-end department store in downtown San Diego, needed someone who spoke Spanish for their large clientele from Mexico. Wanting to be more independent, Mrs. Arce took the job.
Mrs. Arce speaks very fondly of working at Marstons. One of her regular clients was the wife of the President of Mexico at the time. Mrs. Arce was on call when the President’s wife or any of his entourage showed up.
Norma also sees the nuns as role models. She says their students were taught leadership as well as an appreciation for art and music. They also learned shorthand and typing, which was seen as preparing the girls for employment until they got married. Norma said the nuns encouraged her to attend college.
After graduating from high school she enrolled in San Diego State (SDS). Norma said she felt completely lost, that there was no one like her at San Diego State. Registration took place in a huge room where you ran from table to table with a card trying to figure out which classes were open.
Norma had no idea what classes she should take; she was even more lost. Having come from a small school to the confusion of registration at SDS was confusing and stressful. A young man finally helped her to figure out how to go through the process of registration.
A friend of the family informed Norma that she needed to be a member of a sorority. Norm had no idea what that meant. The family friend advised her that she needed to go through rush week in order to be accepted into a sorority. Again Norma was lost as to what that involved.
She did rush for Pi Beta Phi. She said the sorority gave her a niche she needed. She found it similar to being at an all-girl school. There was another young woman who also went through rush week at that time whose name was Raquel Tejada. She is better known as Raquel Welch.
Norma’s first year of college resulted in academic probation. Although she felt she had received a balanced education at Cathedral School, Norma was floundering. She said that culturally there was nothing there for her. Looking back now she realizes that they did not have a support system which would have made a tremendous difference in her life. She left SDS after two years and went to work for the phone company.
A friend of Norma’s introduced her to Jaime Kendall. Jaime’s family was from Ensenada. They married in 1961 and had two sons, Jaime and Ricky. Norma and Jaime lived in a house on Felton street in North Park. The marriage floundered and Norma and Jaime separated when Ricky was about a year old.
Her new concern was what was she going to do now. Her neighbor Mike Lopez told her “You have to go back to school.” Her next stop was evening classes at City College.
Prior to working and while being a stay-at-home mom she heard a knock at the door one day. A young man named Pete Chacon stood at her door step. He explained that he was running for the State Assembly and asked for her support. Norma became a volunteer working from home and making phone calls on behalf of Pete. Pete Chacon won that election and Norma had a taste of supporting a Latino candidate. She said Pete inspired her.
Being a stay-at- home mom enabled her to volunteer at Brooklyn School where her son was enrolled. The principal spoke to her about becoming an aide and working with the limited English speaking population. In those days the class was referred to as English as a Second Language (ESL).
This is when I first met Norma. It was around 1968 and we were both ESL aides covering several schools. Norma’s assignment was five different schools. She would wake up every morning hoping the car would start so she could complete her assignment.
Working at the schools opened Norma’s eyes to the problems that some of the students were facing. She saw teachers who didn’t know the students’ culture and also saw limited English speaking students placed in Special Education Classes solely because they did not speak English.
She remembers that at one of the schools there was a teacher who would check the children’s finger nails daily. If the finger nails were not clean the child’s name would be placed on the chalk board. She did approach the teacher about this practice but to no avail. She then went to the principal and explained what was going on in that classroom.
This was the start of her advocacy for children. She wanted the students to feel proud of who they were. She also saw a need for more teachers who reflected the population they served.
When she was assigned to work at Roosevelt Jr. High School she realized that she liked working with older kids. Shortly thereafter she went to work at Lincoln High School as a community aide. She arrived at Lincoln shortly after the Lincoln High walkouts in the late 60s. Students were feeling the success of having a few staff members that looked like them added to the Lincoln staff.
Norma remembers that the talk of the school was a young Chicana teacher from Texas who had just been hired. That teacher was Rosalia Salinas, another well-known advocate and educator in our community. This is also where Norma met a student named Norma Cazares and her sister Pat.
At Lincoln she realized there “wasn’t much” for the Chicano students. They worked on forming a MEChA Club and held a Cinco de Mayo celebration.
Norma also took a sociology class at Mesa College. The teacher said that if they attended a presentation in Hillcrest they would receive extra credit. The presentation was at the Unitarian Church and focused on race relations in San Diego. The program was sponsored by Citizens Interracial Committee (CIC).
The director of the CIC was Dr. Carrol Waymon, a well-respected African American man who had been invited to San Diego by the City of San Diego to assess the racial problems. Dr. Waymon said the the big problem was “invisibility. “The city didn’t know what they were looking at or even understand that invisibility was the problem. If you don’t see a problem how can you fix it?”
Norma remembered that the panel members at the presentation were Arturo Serrano, a Brown Beret, Chicano activist Frank Saiz, social justice activist Walter Kudumo, and black activist Vernon Sukumu. The panel was passionate and articulate as they spoke about changes and the need to get involved in community issues. After the presentation she went up to Arturo and told him she was interested in what he was doing and asked how she could become involved. She said she was having trouble understanding why the kids did not feel proud of who they were. Arturo invited her check out the Boys and Girls Club.
In 1970 MEChA, following the Plan de Santa Barbara, decided to sponsor a youth group at a store front located in the Barrio. Arturo Casares, was hired to be the executive director. The location for this program was in a building director across from Memorial Junior High School. This new program was called the Barrio Station.
A recurrent problem at that time was the fighting between black and brown kids that would occur after school. Each group threatened to beat up the other and most likely hoped that they would be stopped and not have to fight at all. Community activists from both ethnic groups would meet in front of Memorial right before the dismissal bell.
We would lock arms and push the kids to “their side” of the 28th Street. The Chicano kids were pushed west towards Barrio Logan and the African American kids east towards 30th street. The cops were always in the middle forming a line between the two groups. They had their billy clubs out and were more than ready to use them on these young kids.
The kids would throw things at each other or at the police officers. I was hit in the chest with a sock full of rocks meant for a police officer. At one point, in order to send the message to the students that we were one community, the community activists made the decision to mix our lines. The two lines were integrated with the Latino and African American activists locking arms and pushing kids in the direction of their homes.
This is the atmosphere and volunteerism that a young Norma Hernandez walked into. Her story will be continued on Saturday May 21.
The complete series Latinos in San Diego here.