Thursday, February 08, 2018

Old Photos, Role Models, and Memories of the Calexico Kid

      Daniel Cano
Dario Sanchez, Ray Cano, George Saenz, Richard Sanchez

     I came across this old photo as I was rummaging through my parents' pictures. Since both my parents have gone to the "other side," my siblings and I are preparing to sell the house, the home we all grew up in, about 65 years of memories and possessions. My mom filled every nook and cranny of our house with "stuff" she purchased from years of searching for treasures at garage sales, so imagine?

     In 1954, my dad, his cousin, Rufino "Peanuts" Escarcega, and some friends took a road trip to Berkeley. All Westside boys, they were avid UCLA fans. But driving to the Bay Area to watch a college football game was no easy feat in the early 50s. I mean, there were no freeways, and if you drove along Highway 101 or 99, you were in it for the long haul, a twelve to fourteen hour drive--one way. I'd have to guess that the above picture was taken before they left, or maybe at a hotel after they arrived. Either way, they look like the celebration has begun.

     They were all in their early 30s, still fresh from the military, young husbands and fathers, their entire lives ahead of them, though, by this time, the bottle had already taken control of some, like my dad, a lifelong struggle he finally won in his 60s.

     As I studied the picture, I remembered my dad owned a 1953 light-green Chevy. The car in the photo is a '52 or '53, but I'm not sure if it's his. Of course, what got my attention were the words painted on the side, "Calexico, Comet, 'Primo" V. UCLA". Now, none of them was from Calexico, California, but one of them, or all of them, decided to play P.R. man and advertise  their expedition into Northern California. 

     I'm pretty sure it was 1954 because that was the year UCLA won the national football championship, going 9-0, the top team in the nation, with a star-studded roster. But for my dad, and for a lot of Chicanos in L.A., this team was special. It was led by a Chicano kid, number 19, from Calexico, Primo Villanueva, whom the media, and his UCLA teammates, had dubbed the "Calexico Kid".

     Primo was a star tailback, racking up 886 total yards that year, 486 rushing and 400 passing, more yards than any other Bruin. He also played first-string defensive back, going both ways, as they used to say, and named second-team All-American. After a critical game against Stanford, L.A. Times sportswriter Dick Hyland wrote: "The Calexico Kid stopped the opening Stanford grabbing a John Brodie pass and engineering a 46-yard march to the first Bruin touchdown in just over four minutes of play."

     Imagine the pressure on a kid, after playing in front of a couple of hundred high school fans in a border farming town to playing in front of 101,000 screaming fans in an iconic stadium in one of America's most celebrated cities, the glitter of Hollywood and Beverly Hills just a few miles away?

                                         UCLA 1954 National Champions, Primo Villanueva #19

     In the 1950s, Chicano role models were desperately needed. If any Mexican characters appeared in movies, they were usually murderers, rapists, bad hombres, or, possibly, a few good people, like Sal Mineo, who played a "good" Mexican, docile, humble, and well-mannered, in the movie "Giant".  We'd come out of the 30s and 40s where the media portrayed Mexicans as General Kelly recently suggested "lazy" with the need to "get off their asses," this about an ethnic group that received more Medals of Honor than any other ethnic group in WWII. 

     These images created by the media were everywhere. Yet, the reality in our community and culture was much different. Most of the men and women I looked up to, including my parents, relatives, and friends, were hardworking, honest, strong, and fiercely patriotic. Unlike the thesis of the book Mexifornia, these men and women had no problem acculturating naturally into the U.S. system, even if the system didn't always make it easy for them.

     Few Chicanos of my parents' generation got off without having to serve in the military, unlike our current president, his sons, or even his father, or many of our legislators and their kids. They have no problem letting others go to war for them. So, when a kid like Primo Villanueva came along, an excellent student, eleven brothers and sisters, the son of a Protestant minister from a small town bordering Mexicali, where Mexicans carried the bulk of heavy-lifting, working in the fields in temperatures that averaged 110 degrees, we rejoiced, going so far as jumping in a car with automatic-nothing and trekking across the state to witness an "adopted" hometown son in action.

   Larry Baez, Rufino "Peanuts" Escarcega, Richard and Dario Sanchez

     As a kid, I remember Primo's name being synonymous for role model. Everybody talked about him. My dad and his friends would take me to see Primo play at the Coliseum. I was all of seven years old. In those days, at the end of the game, we could rush on to the field and talk to the players. My dad made sure we congratulated Primo after each game before he trotted off into the locker room. If that wasn't enough, we'd wait until after the players had showered and dressed, and as they emerged from the depths of the Coliseum, and headed toward the waiting buses, we'd all call, Primo! Primo! Primo! Of course, he'd wave and smile.

     Coincidentally, my wife is from Calexico. Her brothers played football at Calexico High School, one played quarterback and received an academic scholarship to Dartmouth, where he played football. They both knew about Primo's legacy. My brother-in-law told me the coach gave him Primo's helmet, mainly because they both had large heads. My father-in-law, who crossed the border from Mexicali to attend school in Calexico before anyone cared about walls or barriers, also played football for Calexico High School. He told me, as adults, he and his friends would drive from the Imperial Valley to watch Primo play in the Coliseum. During one trip, they got into a nasty car accident. They were badly cut and bruised. People on the scene advised they go to the hospital. And miss watching Primo play? He said they sat through the entire game covered in bandages.

     When I first visited Calexico, I couldn't understand why the town had no tributes to Primo, or his younger brother Danny, who punted and kicked extra-points for UCLA, the Rams, and the Cowboys and was one of the main movers, modernizing Spanish language television in L.A. Yet, Primo was the star, but no buildings, gymnasiums, or football fields bore his name, not even recently, when the city honored its past athletes. How could that be? Primo was recognized his senior year of high school as the number one athlete in the entire Imperial Valley. Here was a native son who placed the name of his town in the national spotlight. Before Primo, I'd never heard of Calexico. The city council and school board still choose to name buildings and athletic facilities after administrators, or their own family members, not for any important contributions they made to the community but for their longevity in the town. At least, the library was named after Enrique "Kiki" Camarena, another native-son, a DEA agent, who met his death in the drug wars. 

     Racism is subtle. It comes about in the least expected ways, a glance, a word, or a snicker. Though today's leaders have no problem being obvious. That's why, I believe, what our children learn or don't learn in school is crucial to their education. When one constantly hears voices demonizing a race, an ethnic group, or a gender, it takes its toll. I don't think a child raised in Calexico should go through school without learning the name Primo Villanueva. Perhaps that's why my father and his friends drove from Los Angeles, across the Central Coast to Berkeley, not just to watch a Chicano kid from faraway town play a football game but to let him know that they were there for him, offering support, and honoring him and his accomplishments, and maybe, just maybe, in acknowledging him, they were acknowledging themselves and their own communities.
                                         Richard and Dario Sanchez, Freddie Santana, Larry Baez        


Anonymous said...

Excellent Danny. The mention of the subtle parts of discrimination really came home to roost. Felt that a lot in school, but it was hard to explain to others. Good job on the article. In a way your a person like Primo, a stand out. By the way my role model was Buzz Hernandez.

Antonio SolisGomez said...

nice -very informative

Daniel Cano said...

Thanks, anonymous. Buzz could have been another Primo, a star in many sports, but grades matter. Men and women like these folks are cut from another cloth all together.

Susan Downs said...

As a young child, my parents took me to watch Primo play in Calexico. My grandparents were pioneers to Calexico in the early 1900’s, and my grandad played on the Calexico High football team in 1917 which was called the California Wonder Team and won a state championship. My mom graduated from Calexico in 1943. They were Anglo. They were friends of the Villanueva family. If students today don’t know of Primo, I don’t think it’s racism, since Calexico today is primarily Hispanic. The Imperial Valley Football Hall of Fame certainly knows of him and Danny.

Susan Downs said...

As a young child, my parents took me to watch Primo play in Calexico. My grandparents were pioneers to Calexico in the early 1900’s, and my grandad played on the Calexico High football team in 1917 which was called the California Wonder Team and won a state championship. My mom graduated from Calexico in 1943. They were Anglo. They were friends of the Villanueva family. If students today don’t know of Primo, I don’t think it’s racism, since Calexico today is primarily Hispanic. The Imperial Valley Football Hall of Fame certainly knows of him and Danny.

Unknown said...

omg, how I remember the Villanueva Family. My uncle went to school with many of them. I especially remember Danny because I was young. When I moved from Calexico I'd proudly mention his & Primo's name. Bragging really that I a small town, brown girl lived among the likes of them. I followed Danny's career from Calexico, LA to Canada. Until I read your article, I, as Anonymous, was reminded of subtle and not so subtle reality of discrimination. How sad that over 60+ years it hasn't really changed that much if not gotten worst.

As for military service, for a community as small as the Imperial Valley, there were so many men such as my Dad and Uncles who proudly served our Country. While some gave their lives.

Your article has me with many thoughts on why Primo never got the recognition he greatly deserved and earned as being the Calexico Kid. I would like to think that if I'd stayed in the IV and had the influence, Primo/Danny's name would be acknowledged somewhere.

Thank you for your article. I'm feeling like that small town, brown little girl who at 70 can proudly say, I grew up in Calexico.

Laidina Barros

Unknown said...

I recognize one person from one of the photos.
Saludos to Dario Espinoza. I met Dario back in 1976
when I was 9 years old. He was my coach for one year
for Western Auto (little league baseball)
Saludos to everyone from Calexico in your photos.

Rufino Escarcega jr said...

yes cuz those were the great times for all bruins ,especially for all the chicano's who showed great pride and support for Primo and ucla football.and as kid i remember the great times we had ourselves at the games when our fathers took us and waiting in the tunnel for the players to came out .in 2000 i took my dad to El Paso,Texas to see his beloved bruins in the sun bowl and that would be his last game as the bruins lost 21-20 and in april 2001 he lost his bout to cancer ,but bruin pride continues on with all his family