“I always knew that knowledge could not be taken away.”
Over the course of one extraordinary week Maria Garcia was recognized for her work in historical preservation and documentation in Sacramento and as a Latino Champion and as Citizen of the Year here in San Diego. Maria is well known to San Diego Free Press readers for her award winning weekly series “The History of Neighborhood House in San Diego.”
Maria turned that series of stories about the lives of a forgotten and overlooked community into the book “La Neighbor: A Settlement House in Logan Heights.” By showing how residents lived their lives — worked, voted, raised their families — she firmly established them, Neighborhood House and Logan Heights in the history of San Diego.
Maria’s contributions have not gone unnoticed. The San Diego Union-Tribune selected the retired school-principal and longtime Chicana activist as a Latino Champion. She received a prestigious Governor’s Historic Preservation Award for “La Neighbor” on November 2. On the same day that she received the Governor’s Award in Sacramento, she flew back to San Diego just in time to receive the Citizen of the Year Award from the San Diego Chapter of Phi Delta Kappa, the professional educational honor association.
“I believed that we would change the world.” When The San Diego Union Tribune selected Maria as their Latino Champion for Education they published an in-depth interview with her. She was asked, “What has inspired you the most?”
Attending San Diego State and the Chicano Movement. I believed that we would change the world. I honestly thought by being educated and teaching future generations not to be racist, we would have a different world by the year 2000. I was so naïve. I thought by fighting for equality and teaching the history of our accomplishments in this country we would be respected.
The movement taught me so much about working together. I loved the unity experienced in a picket line. I loved learning about people and historical events which came via the Chicano Studies classes I took at SDSU. The second influential part of my live was going into a program called Teacher Corps. This program emphasized the importance of being involved in the community you worked in. Another strength of that program was the lifelong friendships we formed.
Maria’s trajectory from educator to historian is based on her belief that “education was more than what is found in the text books. I always knew that knowledge could not be taken away.” The Neighborhood House series and her book “La Neighbor” are an assurance that a community’s history cannot be taken away either.
The San Diego Free Press editorial board submitted the following recommendation to the Governor’s Office of Historic Preservation on Maria’s behalf. It emphasizes the importance of the people’s history and the role Maria has played in providing an essential part of it. We believe that Maria changed the world as a result.
On May 3, 2014, Maria Garcia introduced herself to San Diego Free Press readers in her article entitled “A History of Logan Heights’ Neighborhood House: Becoming Maria.” In this particular article, Ms. Garcia presents the different threads that she would weave together over the course of the next fifty four weeks in what would become an award winning history of San Diego and ultimately the book “La Neighbor.”
In “Becoming Maria” she utilizes her personal experience as the lens for understanding the economic circumstances that shaped the migration of both Mexican Americans and Mexican nationals to the San Diego region; assimilation practices that attempted to expunge Mexican cultural influences and even individual identity; the deep Latino commitment to education; and the cultural pride and spirit of resistance against the marginalization of San Diego’s Latino community that would become the Chicano Movement.
And then the author “disappears.” “The History of Neighborhood House in Logan Heights” uses 56 personal interviews in which individuals remember their associations with Neighborhood House, a Progressive Era settlement house, in the working class and predominately Mexican American community of Logan Heights. The series spans the time period from World War I to the early 1970s.
These richly detailed interviews provide insight into a specific San Diego community whose geographical boundaries shift over the course of the series. They also reflect the impact of national events — times of war and peace, economic deprivation and post-war booms, changing social mores and the shift from Progressive Era policies and philosophy to those of the Great Society and Urban Renewal upon the residents of Logan Heights.
Equally important, those interviews can also be seen as authentic, accessible reflections of how the too often ignored issues of race and class affected individual lives. Both of those issues intersected in the community of Logan Heights. Prejudice, stereotypes and fear within the larger San Diego community are palpable. In these interviews, they become unjust limiters on where Logan Heights residents could go within the city without generating suspicion, where they could buy homes, how they were educated and perceived outside of the Latino community.
William Falkner noted “[t]he past is never dead. It’s not even past.” “The History of Neighborhood House in Logan Heights” is an essential contribution on multiple levels to our understanding of history, not the least of which is its relevancy to our current national discussion about who is an American, who “belongs” here.
It is impossible not to draw parallels between Ms. Garcia’s description of the Mexican Repatriation that occurred during the Great Depression and the strain of populist, nationalist sentiment being articulated today. The broken promises by the American and Mexican government, the elimination of employment opportunities and social service support in San Diego, and the sheer cruelty and ignorance underlying policy decisions during the 1930s are a reminder of how the past has become precedent for the current onslaught against our democratic principles. Ms. Garcia notes that an estimated 60% of the people repatriated to Mexico were American citizens.
Ms. Garcia’s series of articles that focused on the return of Logan Heights World War II veterans are also salient today. Latino World War II vets were shocked to find that while they were considered American enough to fight in the war, they returned to an entrenched segregated society in which their service was minimized and they were often denied access to G.I. benefits.
Residents of Logan Heights participated in voter registration efforts and successfully ran political candidates from the Latino community. Social barriers were chipped away. And the seeds of the Farmworkers and Chicano movements were clearly appearing in post-World War II Logan Heights.
Howard Zinn published his groundbreaking work “The People’s History of the United States” in 1980. It has been left to “us,” ordinary people, journalists, and historians to continue filling in this history and its emphasis upon how ordinary citizens have lived, worked and died in our often fraught national effort to provide liberty and justice for all.
The San Diego Free Press editorial board recognized the significance of publishing Ms. Garcia’s interviews and extensive research that included photographs, newspaper clippings and other ephemera from the different time periods and topics presented. Her work provided an opportunity to utilize the mission of this site—the provision of grass roots news and progressive views — to examine San Diego’s history in a unique, in-depth manner.
This series evolved into something much broader and richer than Ms. Garcia or the editorial board initially anticipated. The intimate and detailed accounts are a primary source gold mine for researchers and students and a much deserved recognition of the contributions made by the Logan Heights community to our San Diego history. The series was immensely popular with readers, many of whom reached out to Ms. Garcia with additional information and referrals to other people to interview.
The importance of Ms. Garcia’s historical preservation cannot be understated — it provides insight into some of the most pressing issues in our current historical moment.
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”