Part I: From Douglas Arizona, to the Pala Indian Reservation to Chula Vista
I interviewed Paula Casillas in November 2017. The first thing you notice is how well dressed she is. Her hat matches her clothes and she certainly does not look like a woman who was born in 1923. Gloria Casillas and Mary Salas, two of her three daughters, are with us.
The Casillas family has deep roots in Chula Vista, California. Before moving to Chula Vista, Paula grew up on the Pala reservation. Her father, Jose Rafael Silva, was born in San Pedro, Sonora, and moved to Douglas, Arizona around 1914. Jose served in World War I and has his draft card to prove it. Paula’s mother, Rosa Limon Silva, was born in Hermosillo, Sonora. There were seven children in the family, three brothers and four sisters, and they survived as poor land farmers.
Paula’s father also worked at the Copper Queen Smelting Company in Douglas, which produced 25 percent of all the world’s copper at that time. Mexicans worked in the worst conditions and held the most dangerous jobs in the mine. There had been a strike at the mines and the Mexican workers were basically used as strike breakers, but became so valuable for the dangerous jobs that they were kept as laborers.
A smallpox epidemic hit the small town, and newspaper records show two different accounts of the reactions to it. The first, a newspaper owned by the copper mine itself, downplayed not only the seriousness of the epidemic, but also minimized the difficult working conditions the miners were facing. This newspaper actually blamed the Mexican miners for failing to take a vaccine. The second, another local newspaper, disputed the number of miners affected by smallpox and also downplayed how serious the epidemic truly was.
Jose became ill with smallpox and didn’t work for a period of time, and there is no doubt that the working conditions he experienced contributed to his illness. The family got behind on their bills and were forced to leave Douglas by the dark of night, ahead of the bill collectors. (Sadly, two of Rosa and Jose’s children died from smallpox prior to coming to California.) The family went to live on the Pala reservation. Why they ended up on the reservation is unknown, however, one of their aunts remembers riding in a freight train on their journey to California. It’s possible that living on the Pala reservation was because the farmland provided job opportunities.
Early life on the Pala Indian Reservation
Paula was delivered by a midwife named Casenda on the Pala Indian Reservation in 1923. When she was 5 years old, a friend, Doña Zenobia, died. Doña Zenobia had paid a lot of attention to Paula and would laugh at her ability to do somersaults and cartwheels. Paula remembers her these many years later.
Paula did not learn to read until the sixth grade when a teacher named Mr. Berry taught her how. Her favorite book was Robinson Crusoe. From the day she learned to read, Paula has been a fan of books and today she still enjoys reading. When her daughters were little, she took them to the library. She encouraged all three of her girls to read, and they became members of the summer reading program. Her rule at home was “you were not allowed to watch TV during the day.” She wanted them to play or read. Today on Facebook you can see pictures of her reading to her great-grandchildren. How very special to be able to give your great grandchildren the love of books that you yourself have.
As a little girl, one of Paula’s favorite games was Las Comadres. She describes it as their own version of playing house with the comadres being a group of girls that shared a friendship and pretended to be grown women. They also made dolls out of sticks and twigs. She also remembers playing baseball, not on an organized team, but in the neighborhood with the other kids. If you think about the era and “a girl playing a boy’s game,” Paula was ahead of her time. Her memories also include visits from a male cousin who worked in the talkies who would apply makeup to them.
Paula’s mother, Rosa, was a seamstress and made her clothes. She would also walk her daughter to school on a daily basis. Education was important to the family and, even when they moved to Chula Vista, her dad insisted that she finish high school.
Paula learned to drive on the reservation long before she was sixteen and would drive her little friends along the old roads there. Once she learned to how to drive she would drive her father to Oceanside for any business he had there.
The well known Mexican American Cacho family also lived on the reservation. They too moved to Chula Vista about the same time Paula’s family did. Their friendship continued beyond the move. Later, Paula would become godmother to Delia Cacho Talamantez, the Chicana activist whose family provided a bulldozer at the battle for Chicano Park.
Paula started her senior year in high school the year that her family moved off the reservation. She transferred to Sweetwater High School. Her previous high school, Fallbrook High, had just finished a new wing that housed the home economics classes and the agriculture classes. Unfortunately, because of the move, Paula did not have the opportunity to take classes in the new buildings.
The family moved to Chula Vista and lived where Costco is located today. Paula says that at Pala they had grown chiles and now they planted celery. She’s very matter-of-fact about the changes. Paula worked in the fields before and after school, sometimes working very early prior to going to school. This was not an easy life, but, once again, Mrs. Casillas handles it with a matter-of-fact attitude.
One of Paula’s home duties was to make tortillas, and she will tell you that she’s an excellent tortilla maker. As a young girl, she would make tortillas every day. Later, as a married woman, she continued to make tortillas. She says her mother-in-law made small tortillas and, in comparison, hers were large, though not as large as the Sonora tortillas. Gloria, Paula’s daughter, remembers that by age 11 she herself had learned how to make tortillas.
Marriage and World War II
Paula’s husband, Nicolaz — a.k.a. Nick — had deep roots in the Chula Vista Community. Nick came from a family of nine children and attended Otay Elementary School, Chula Vista Junior High, and Sweetwater High School. When they started dating, Paula was dating a young man who was overseas. Nick and Paula went to a few dances together and were soon engaged. They married at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Otay. She does not remember the name of the store in downtown San Diego where she bought her wedding dress, but she does remember it was on sale. They had a small house party to celebrate their wedding. After the wedding, she moved into her mother-in- law’s house. Gloria Casillas, Paula’s daughter, remembers it as a shack.
In 1942, Paula worked at Rohr Aircraft as a spot welder, which was a highly skilled job that required working with a large machine. Paula emphasizes the fact that she did not work as a riveter because a spot welder earned more money and was a specific skill.
The men in both Paula’s and Nick’s family proudly served in the military. Paula’s brother, Joseph Casillas, was in the Army Air Corps and has a Chula Vista Elementary School named in his honor. He was an activist in the community and earned the Silver and Bronze Stars as well as a Purple Heart. Joseph is credited with saving his entire squad while serving in Germany. He was shot both in the head and the arm and was captured for a day. Ruben served in the South Pacific, Joseph in Europe, Nick served in the Army Air Corps, Armando and Charles in the Korean War, and Felix in the early stages of the Vietnam War. When you walk into Chula Vista Mayor Mary Salas’ office you can see a picture of seven handsome men in military uniform. One is her father Nick and the remainder are her uncles. Each of these men served our country with distinction.
Paula and Nick had three little girls — Gloria followed by Mary and then Alice. They were active kids and one of Nick’s brothers gave them the nickname of “Jackhammer”. Paula says it was not easy raising three rambunctious little girls.
Nick was skilled in many areas. These skills would be put to the test when he remodeled the house that they lived in on Coronado Avenue. The house had been originally located on Third Avenue and was moved to the Coronado location. Nick took the responsibility for plastering, electrical work and anything else that was needed to make the house livable. Both Mary and Gloria said their “Dad could do anything.”
Nick made them a dollhouse in the backyard. It was called a “dollhouse” but in reality, it was a large room with a door, three windows, and plastered walls. The girls found a can of tar in the garage and decided to “paint” their dollhouse. Gloria says she can still see the black tar on the walls of their beautiful dollhouse. In later years, a friend or family member would make the dollhouse their temporary home.
Nick’s father had died in 1945 and left the ranch in Rosarito to his sons. On weekends the family would go to Rosarito and Nick would work on the ranch. He did everything he could to keep the ranch in shape. They had a Caterpillar to work the land and the girls remember climbing up on it. They also remember that it would break down on a regular basis and their dad would have to repair it.
After World War II, Nick got a job at North Island. He became an airplane machinist, something he had learned while stationed in Yuma, Arizona. In my 2017 radio interview with his daughter, Mary Salas, she spoke of him coming home upset because he had been told a Mexican could not be a foreman because the other workers would not listen to a Mexican. Years later, though, Nick would retire as Product Control Engineer.
Paula and Nick’s three daughters went on to become educated and successful.
The stories of Gloria, Mary and Alice will appear tomorrow in Part II of the story of Matriarch Paula Casillas.