By Maria E. Garcia
Editor Note: This is part I of Maria’s 4 part series about Brother Martin.
While I was collecting material for the book La Neighbor: A Settlement House in Logan Heights, my friend Emma Lopez recommended that I get in touch with a monk named Brother Martin, who grew up in Logan Heights. I wasn’t sure how much he would have to share, or, for that matter, how much he would remember, since he had been at an abbey for over 60 years. But I followed Emma’s advice and contacted Brother Martin via regular mail.
He supplied pictures and a great deal of information about his military experiences and about growing up in Logan Heights. We became pen pals and would talk on the phone from time to time. He always asked about his old friends in San Diego – the Gonzaleses, who owned a grocery store and construction business or educator Dr. Armando Rodriguez.
On one particular day, he asked when I was coming up to visit him. I promised I would go “next summer.” As “next summer” came to an end, I began preparations to meet Brother Martin. My friend José Goytia volunteered to accompany me on what I thought would be an uneventful trip. On Tuesday, September 29, we started our journey to the Trappist Abbey of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
After driving a little more than an hour we reached Carlton, Oregon. For those of you who have not been in this area, I can only tell you that it is beautiful, with the tallest green trees. As we drove outside of town towards the abbey, I tried to imagine what lie ahead. I called the abbey from the road and asked that they tell Brother Martin that we were about ten minutes away. The woman who answered the phone informed me that Brother Martin was outside waiting for us.
As I parked the car, I saw an elderly man sitting on the porch. I ran up to introduce myself and we hugged like two old friends. One of the first things I noticed was that he was not dressed like a monk, but instead wore jeans and a turquoise shirt. He certainly looked much younger than his ninety-two years.
José pulled the tape recorder from the car and we set it up to have a conversation about Martin’s youth, his life in the abbey, and his military war record. Agustín Gonzales, Jr. (Brother Martin’s full name) was born on February 22, 1925, to Agustín and Carmen Gonzales in San Diego, California. He started his life in La Mesa, where his father worked for the railroad.
His father rode the rail push trolley/ handcar inspecting the railroad tracks between La Mesa and Santee. As a result of pumping the trolley up and down the tracks his father had tremendous upper body strength. (In Spanish they referred to the push trolley as el burro.) Brother Martin spoke with great pride about his father’s routine.
He remembers that his father would arrive at work at least a half hour early. Although the family was poor, his father he was known to pay his bills early. He had a strong work ethic and a strong sense of responsibility. Brother Martin said they were so poor that he never lived in a house with an indoor bathroom. He also remembers spending most of the time running around barefoot. Shoes were kept for going out.
In 1935, his father was transferred to the round house in Logan Heights and they lived near 29th and Commercial Streets. In those days Commercial Street was a dirt road. The trains that were at the round house went to Tijuana, carrying passengers from Logan Heights to San Ysidro and Tijuana. He says that both of his parents, despite their poverty, extended a helping hand to hundreds of people in the community.
When they left La Mesa, they sold their one cow, and thus their regular milk supplier, when they moved to Logan Heights. Putting food on the table was a challenge. Brother Martin and his brother did their part. They would go to the produce distribution place downtown, fill their gunny sacks with the vegetables and fruit that were being thrown out. They also hunted rabbits that lived next to the train tracks.
In 1936, a group of nuns came to Our Lady of Guadalupe Church from Mexico. Brother Martin had seen many Anglo nuns but was shocked that Mexican women could also be nuns. He was active at Our Lady, serving as an altar boy. He spoke of going to confession: “Some of the guys were doing serious sins and I figured my sins were peanuts compared to them.” At times he would think of going into the religious life.
He didn’t have enough money for a bus or a streetcar, so he walked to school every morning and walked home every evening, which was about an hour each way.
Brother Martin recalls that Memorial Junior High School was a cultural shock and his first experience with multi-ethnic kids. There were African American kids from around 30th Street and Imperial Avenue, Mexican kids from Logan Heights, Italians from mid-city, Greek kids from an area they referred to as “Garlic City,” which was located in the Stockton area.
He earned a scholarship to Saint Augustine High School, which is still located between South Park and North Park. He didn’t have enough money for a bus or a streetcar, so he walked to school every morning and walked home every evening, which was about an hour each way. He was a very good athlete and lettered in every sport except football. He was especially good at track and field. He says he believes he was especially good at pole vaulting and attributes it to his small size.
In later years, he remembers that the police would confiscate the liquor they had purchased and break the bottles.
In 1942, at the age of seventeen, Brother Martin graduated from Saint Augustine. He then went to work at the Rohr aircraft plant during WWII. His social life was hanging out with the boys, drinking and chasing women. He did say he always had tremendous respect for women, but also found them enchanting. Even today he believes that priests should be allowed to marry.
Though he was not old enough to drink alcohol, he and his friend would chip in a quarter each to purchase a pint of booze. In later years, he remembers that the police would confiscate the liquor they had purchased and break the bottles. By that time the boys were of age, but that did not change the fact that the cops were more than willing to destroy their bottles.
Shortly after his eighteenth birthday, Brother Martin received his draft call and he went to Los Angeles for his physical. He then went to Fort MacArthur where he was assigned to the Army infantry at Fort Roberts. Fort Roberts had officially become an infantry replacement center in March of 1941, and was near Salinas, California.
He was assigned to the 87th Training Battalion and spent the next seventeen weeks receiving training on wire communications. He remembers at this point that they were not only drafting eighteen and nineteen-year olds, but also family men in their thirties and forties.
On one occasion, he and a buddy had run out of money and only reached Del Mar. They only had one quarter left and either had to walk the remaining distance to Logan Heights or find a way to get home.
This was Brother Martin’s first time away from home, and he says it was emotionally difficult for him and he found himself very homesick. Fort Roberts was very hot, adding to the feeling that he was far from home. Towards the end of his basic training he was able to go home two or three times.
A weekend pass meant he would leave Fort Roberts Saturday morning, hitchhike, and not arrive in San Diego until late Saturday afternoon or early evening. On one occasion, he and a buddy had run out of money and only reached Del Mar. They only had one quarter left and either had to walk the remaining distance to Logan Heights or find a way to get home.
He called a friend, Ernie Cañedo, to come pick them up. Ernie agreed to help, borrowed his father’s car, and they were soon in San Diego proper. Brother Martin would then use Saturday nights to go out with his buddies and party. In order to assure that he was back at Fort Roberts by midnight Sunday, he would have to leave San Diego by noon. He remembers those trips as very difficult but worth it, even if it meant you were only home for twenty hours.
After basic training he was sent to Ford Ord in Monterey, California. He describes Fort Ord as the nicest camp in which he served. Prior to being sent overseas, he was allowed to go home for one entire week. Upon his return, he spent two or three weeks at Ford Ord. He was then sent to Fort Stoneman in Pittsburg, California to be shipped overseas.
In November, he traveled under the Golden Gate Bridge on a Victory Ship headed to the Pacific. He vividly remembers women standing on the Golden Gate Bridge waving goodbye to them. He estimates that about half the ship got seasick and recalls it as “really messy.” On their way to Australia, they zigzagged a lot in order to avoid Japanese submarines, making the trip a bit longer. By December of 1943 they had arrived in Brisbane, Australia.
Editor Note: Tomorrow, Part 2 of Brother Martin’s Journey: World War II in the Pacific Theater