Paula and Nicolaz Casillas raised three daughters in the post World War II boom. The previous article “Matriarch Paula Casillas and Her Daughters” details Paula’s life journey from the Pala Indian Reservation to Chula Vista where she and Nick raised their family.
Gloria Casillas, teacher by day, activist at night
Gloria Casillas, their first born daughter, is a retired bilingual teacher and a community activist. Her favorite role today is that of grandmother. She is happy to babysit her grandchildren and often plans their activities with her as learning experiences.
Gloria received a scholarship to the University of San Diego. The scholarship did not cover books and it was necessary for Gloria to work while attending college. Her father Nick had spoken to a friend in the Knights of Columbus who was able to help Gloria get a part-time job at the Evening Tribune. Gloria describes this as the worst job she ever had. She describes her boss as a “good ol’ Texas boy.” She was constantly harassed about the size of her breasts and referred to as a “beaner.”
Feeling very humiliated, Gloria tried to talk about the working conditions to her parents, but it fell on deaf ears. I am sure, having experienced racism all of their life, they saw it as normal. This went on for three-and-a-half years until Gloria decided she could no longer handle the conditions and she informed her parents she was going to quit her job. Her dad freaked out, asking her what could he possibly say to his friend in the Knights of Columbus. He was concerned how his friends would react at her giving up a good job. His reaction shocked and hurt Gloria. She quit her Evening Tribune job and went on to work at Sears and teaching a Head Start class for the National School District.
She says her University of San Diego experience was also negative. Her college experience also caused her to question the hierarchy of the church. In those days, USD was known as a school for women. She couldn’t help but notice that girls whose parents were heavy financial donors received preferential treatment. She had a classmate, whose parents owned several Mexican restaurants in the Los Angeles area, who bragged to Gloria that she was not required to attend Mass. (It was expected that all students would attend Mass.) This young woman was planning to change religions, and her father arranged for her not to be required to attend Mass by making a substantial donation to the school.
Gloria transferred to San Diego State, and in order to meet the requirements for her teaching credential she took Chicano Studies classes from both Carlos Velez and Alberto Urista (a.k.a. Alurista) This was the beginning of her interest in the Chicano Movement. By day she was a preschool teacher, and once her workday came to an end she became an activist. Gloria’s fight for social justice continues today.
Her early involvement was through the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA). It was through MAPA that she met and married her first husband, Frank Portillo. Gloria says the best thing that came from that union was the birth of her son Nicolaz (Nico). Gloria describes Frank as a good man, but their first marriage failed when Frank’s addiction took over his life. He moved out when Nico was a little over a year old.
Within a short time of receiving her teaching credential, Gloria interviewed for a job at St. Rosa of Lima Catholic School. When she arrived home from her job interview her father announced that he had pulled some strings and she would be teaching second grade and that she was to go to the school and speak to the principal. She spoke with the principal and signed a contract to teach second grade. But, prior to the opening of the new school year, the school hired a different principal who informed her that she would be teaching sixth grade.
Gloria’s protest fell on deaf ears. Thee principal was adamant that she would teach sixth grade and as part of her obligations, she and her class would attend Mass on a daily basis. In addition to that assignment (which involved teaching a class of forty-two sixth graders), she wasrequired to teach Spanish to a group of seventh graders. She felt she was barely treading water at this point of her new career and she vowed she would never have a child of hers attend parochial school.
Soon after, Gloria became a preschool teacher, which allowed her to spend time with Nico. Her class consisted of fifteen students and she had a full-time classroom aide. Gloria taught preschool for seven years and described this job as “heaven.” Bilingual education was coming to the National City School District and Gloria was recruited to teach in their new bilingual program. Gloria is a fluent Spanish speaker and had minored in Spanish. Her new position was a good fit with her skills. She says she also was very naive about how much she did not know. Fortunately, she was sent to training at Nestor School in the South Bay. Those of us who have been involved in bilingual education know the high quality of the pioneers in bilingual education such as Gloria Fibres and Adel Nadeau.
Gloria married her second husband, Antonio Saragosa, in 1977. When her daughter Sara was born, she made the decision to work less and spend more time taking care of Sara. She got a half-day position at Palmer Way School as an Oral Language Development Specialist. She enjoyed this assignment because the focus was on oral language using props, puppets, and poetry. This is also the period of time when her third child, Antonio Saragosa III was born. Her career flourished and she became a bilingual language and language arts specialist. As her career advanced, however, her personal life was in shambles. Her husband left after becoming involved with someone else. Gloria now had three kids to care for and had to forge ahead, despite her personal struggles.
The last twelve years of her career were spent working for the California Literature Program with a program known as RESULTS. Many of her career moves were based on how it would affect her children. She transferred to Lincoln Acres Elementary in order to be on the same schedule as her younger children. During most of Gloria’s teaching career she was a single mom. Gloria is very honest about not wanting to be a school administrator because of the longer hours it would demand and the time she would have to spend away from her children.
Mary Salas, the late bloomer who became San Diego’s first Latina mayor
I had the pleasure of being at the City Council meeting when Mary Salas was sworn in as the first Latina mayor in 2014. Mary has the proud and sad distinction of being the only Latina ever elected in San Diego County. Instead of watching Mary, I focused on her uncle and her mother. Paula Casillas beamed with pride as she attended the swearing in.
Mary was a late bloomer in both her education and her political life. She was part of the first kindergarten class at Harborside Elementary School. She attended Harborside for one year and then her parents made the sacrifice to send their children to parochial school. She graduated from Marian High School. Mary says she remembers that they never had a new car and that she was embarrassed being seen driving around in the family’s old used car.
She married Sal Salas and they had two daughters, Michelle and Sara. After seventeen years of marriage they divorced, and Mary is very open about being devastated by it. She was well aware that she would have to find a job that would help her provide for her daughters and herself.
Mary was thirty-seven when she enrolled in college. She refers to her decision to attend college as “the best decision I made in my life.” She saw herself becoming a teacher or a social worker, and she decided to become the latter. While working on her social work practicum, she was shocked and horrified at the number of abused and neglected children. This was an eye-opener to Mary, who had grown up in a loving and caring family.
She knew young girls needed role models and a support system from an early age. Along with twenty-one other women, she started the Hermanitas Youth Leadership Mentor Program with MANA de San Diego. Today, MANA de San Diego consists of over five hundred women and has a mentorship program for young girls throughout the county.
After graduating from college, Mary could not find a job. She went to a job fair conference and ended up getting a job as an employment representative for EDD. Between her job and her MANA activism, she became politically involved. According to Mary, it was MANA de San Diego that led her down the political road. MANA focused on preparing and encouraging women to run for political office. She attended a workshop that spoke of the importance of serving on boards and commissions. This workshop led her to apply and serve on the Civil Service Commission and a planning commission. In 1993, she was appointed to the Chula Vista Planning Commission.
In 1996, she was elected to the Chula Vista City Council. Prior to this election, she had been approached about being appointed to the council with the condition that when the two-year term was over she would not run for that office. Her reply was a resounding “NO.” In 2000, she was elected for a second term with 66% of the vote. She attributes her success to coalition building with different groups and organizations. In 2006, she was elected to the California Assembly. In the Assembly, she served on various committees and chaired the Committee on Veterans Affairs, a rather fitting committee for a woman whose family had given so much to the military service of our country.
There were some defeats in her political career. She ran for the California Senate and lost. In 2002, she ran for Mayor of Chula Vista and lost. Mary says it is not the failure that is important but what you learn and do with those failures that is important. She took these failures as an opportunity to evaluate herself and see what she could do with her future.
As the first Latina Mayor in the County of San Diego Mary considers it one of her duties to groom, mentor, and show others the way to be politically successful. She hopes that when young people see her they will say, “I can do that.” Chula Vista is 58% Latino. It is my belief that as a woman and as a Latina Mary faces daily obstacles and challenges in her work. At times, she is the only woman in a meeting. My question would be: Does she receive the respect given to her male colleagues? I am aware of a recent meeting where a mayor from a neighboring city continued to constantly interrupt her when she was giving her opinions. Would he have done this if she was male? Probably not, but she certainly can handle these situations with professionalism.
Alice Casillas, a contented life away from the limelight
Alice, the youngest sister, worked as an administrative secretary for the Chula Vista Public Works Director. Alice would refer to the public work guys as her “cherubs.” As a single mom, she raised three successful children who all have advanced degrees in science.
When Alice was born, Paula contracted valley fever and the girls were cared for by their grandmother Nana Rose and an aunt by the last name of Silva. While at their grandmother’s, the girls found a nest of newborn mice. Anxious to show their appreciation to their grandmother for all she was doing for them, they brought the nest to her as a gift. Needless to say, their grandmother was not as appreciative of the gift as they expected. One of their common memories was that Nana had a had a lot of canaries that she raised in the backroom.
As children, Alice and Mary were very close since they were close in age and shared a room. Alice is also seen as the family comedian. Since her retirement, Alice has traveled the world. Unlike her older sisters, she is not political and prefers to stay out of the limelight.
Paula Casillas, living life to the utmost
From the time she was a little girl, Paula loved to draw. Later on, as the mother of the teacher, she would help the students in Gloria’s classroom with their drawings. Today, Paula is known for her beautiful paintings of the Virgin de Guadalupe. I asked her why she decided to paint the Virgin de Guadalupe. Her response was quick and clear: “She’s my girl.” After Nick died in 1987, she painted more than before as if it was therapy for her grief.
This spunky lady, who knows how to live life to the upmost, did date after Nick’s death. The man she dated was a friend of Nick’s and a widower. He had been a very good friend of her husband. The two traveled together and enjoyed sharing a life until his death.
Paula has continued to live life to the fullest with great pride and dignity. She is fortunate enough to be present for her family and knows that her family values the lessons she taught them. She taught them the beauty of family, and they in turn value her role as the matriarch of the family.
Her youngest daughter Alice wrote the following poem to her mother. It reflects so well those lessons learned.