By Maria E. Garcia
About month ago I sat down to interview Tina Real. Tina has memories of San Diego that span her eight decades here. What began as an interview of Tina herself quickly expanded to encompass her heritage of strong independent women–her grandmother Mercedes Morales and her mother Priscilla Yanez, who would become a spy for the United States during World War II.
Tina’s mother, Priscilla Morales was born on Feb. 3, 1915 in San Bernardino, California. Her family had a strong ties with Mexico. Priscilla’s father Justo Cervantes Morales had fought in the Mexican Army. Mr. Morales came north to work for the railroad, laying brick in the Southern California area. Family folklore says he crossed the border posing as a Chinese man. He worked around Southern California and became a foreman for the Southern Pacific Railroad.
Mercedes Murgia Morales met Justo in Los Angeles where Mercedes had moved from Texas. As a young girl, she worked in a barber shop in Los Angeles, where her job was to bring the hot towels to the barber. Mercedes was 17 and Justo was 37 when they were married in 1904. They would have one child—Priscilla Morales, Tina Real’s mother.
When Justo retired the family settled in Logan Heights, where he became pastor of the El Redentor Church, which was located on Harrison Avenue. El Redentor Church was Presbyterian and Mr. Morales preached in Spanish. Tina remembers that the non-Catholic Community was very close and it seemed like they all knew each other well.
Priscilla attended San Diego High School where she had taken secretarial training and was qualified to work in an office. While at San Diego High School, Priscilla had been told, like most Mexican and Mexican American girls her age, that she was better qualified to take home economic classes than to take secretarial classes. Her father, Pastor Justo Morales, went to the school and insisted that Priscilla be allowed to take secretarial classes.
Today it is difficult to understand what an important career factor this was. In those days, it not only showed the courage of Pastor Morales, but it would also help his daughters to qualify for better paying employment for the rest of their lives. I have interviewed several women from that era and none were encouraged to take classes in any form of business but instead were urged to take home economic classes.
In 1935 Priscilla married Antonio Yanez who was born in Mazatlán Mexico and grew up in Hollywood California. Tina tells stories of her parents living in the Watt building in downtown San Diego between 5th and 6th Avenue on E Street. When Tina was born she spent her early infancy in a dresser drawer line with pillows.
Antonio was managing the Watt Building at the time but did not want to manage it for the rest of his life. He and Priscilla opened a grocery store at 26th and Imperial Avenue and lived adjacent to the store. Both Priscilla and Antonio worked at the store and Tina was cared for by an African American neighbor named Louise.
Priscilla wanted to work outside the home and not at the store. Antonio was completely against her desires. In 1942 Priscilla bravely walked out of the marriage taking her daughter Tina and the clothes on her back. They went to live with her grandmother Mercedes at 2129 Irving Street. At first Priscilla went to work at the office at Neighborhood House. This job paid a fairly good salary for the 1940s and especially for a woman.
During World War II Priscilla found employment as a Telephone Monitor for the Bureau of Information Control. The surprise is that this job was actually in intelligence. The office was located at the San Diego Trust and Savings building at 6th and Broadway.
What most San Diegans were not aware of was that in the basement of the Trust and Savings Bank was a group of women who were monitoring phone calls between Mexico and California. All of the women were bilingual and were responsible for writing a report about what was said between the two callers.
To understand her job description, you have to understand the war atmosphere in San Diego. Being a Navy town, San Diego was constantly considered a desirable target for Japanese bombing. Black out drills were common and bunkers could be seen on the coast of Point Loma.
Like most San Diego residents, Priscilla had family members serving in the military. Others had family members working at aircraft plants, so, in most of their eyes, their work was focused on winning the war. Mexican Americans played a major role in World War II and this was true of many of those living in San Diego.
The women working in the basement of the Trust and Savings Bank used codes to report on the phone calls between the United States and Mexico. Today we consider these women spies. Its formal designation as a civil service job however precluded these women from a number of benefits associated with their real work. My curiosity was piqued when I realized these women had not received recognition for their work until recently. These women deserve recognition in books about World War II and about the role of Latinas in the history of the United States.
Priscilla never spoke about her job responsibilities although from time to time she did let little tidbits of gossip out, such as a story of a famous male actor that was having an affair with a German actress in Mexico City. These women maintained the secrets they learned while monitoring these phone calls. They became friends and would socialize from time to time. Tina remembers some things about the women, for example, Mrs. Carmen Apra had her hair parted down the middle and her husband was a prisoner of war in the Philippines. There are several pictures of the women on a trip to El Centro. What is unknown is if this group of women had been sent to El Centro or if they went on their own as a social trip.
It was at this time that Priscilla met and married Isaac Calderon. Isaac, whose father was a minister, was four years younger than Priscilla. Tina refers to Isaac as “Daddy Ike.”
Isaac had come to San Diego during World War II to work and had seen Priscilla singing in church. Grandma Mercedes rented rooms in their house, and Isaac took one. World War II had created a shortage of houses in San Diego and renting a room in your home was considered a common practice.
One evening, Isaac, Tina, and Uncle Joe, one of Priscilla’s brothers, were going out. Isaac came in with a gecko in his shirt pocket. This was a live gecko that he allowed to move from one side of his shirt collar to the other. The gecko must have done the trick because he was soon romancing Priscilla, and they got married. The wedding pictures do not show Daddy Ike. It seems he had to return to work and so did not have time to pose for pictures on his own wedding day. The couple moved to 3038 Logan Avenue. This marriage gave Tina two siblings, Dolly and David.
By the late 1940s Priscilla worked at Logan Elementary School then moved to work at Memorial Junior High. Priscilla was hired to do research for the Harbor Day Exposition. The Latina American spy Priscilla Yanez finished her working career at North Island Naval station.