Thursday, May 31, 2018

Ysidro Reyes: "I tell you, boy, it's all politics." Part 2

Daniel Cano

Isolated home standing alone on an entire block
    My interviews with Chicanos and Chicanas of the WWII generation, though some weren't even comfortable with the term to designate their ethnicity, wasn’t meant to be academic or scholarly, but more of a talk, a charla, to hear their memories of life in the U.S. during some tumultuous years. Here, I continue my discussion with Ysidro Reyes, descendent of the Reyes and Marquez families, founders of the rancho Boca de Santa Monica, and a businessman, who once was director of the first Gates Kinglsey Gates mortuary in Santa Monica, along with other business ventures.

    At 89, Ysidro Reyes talked like a professor delivering an engaging lecture, his pronunciation distinct, though his voice was low and raspy. He smiled, and occasionally, he pointed in different directions to make a point. He switched from topic to topic, going wherever his memory took him. I had a list of questions, which I hardly used. I decided to follow Ysidro wherever he wanted to take me. Ever the business man, he spoke as if he had little time to waste.
    He began reminiscing about Westwood, which he called the “Old Tomato Patch” and UCLA’s move from its original campus on Vermont Boulevard (L.A. City College today).
    Once in Westwood, UCLA, a teacher's college in the 1920s, sent its student-teachers to train at, what Ysidro called, “Harding High”, University High School today. I always wondered why a high school would be named University.
    I found the answer in an L.A. Times article that explained the district decided to change the school’s name from Warren Harding High to University High. “Los Angeles school administrators thought it best to remove the former president’s name from…Warren G. Harding University High School because Harding’s administration had begun…to collapse over illegal dealings in land, oil, and loans.” 60 years after the name change, Ysidro kept calling the school Harding High.
    He said he remembered meeting kids who came to Harding by bus all the way from Palms because Palms had no high school. There was a barrio on a hillside above Jefferson Blvd. and for years, Chicano families living there worked the farms at El Rodeo, Culver City, and Mar Vista. Once the Los Angeles School District built Hamilton High School, the kids from Palms no longer needed to travel to Harding.
    Ysidro said that throughout Sawtelle in those days, it was all farms. You could see isolated wood-framed houses surrounded by acres of land, mostly bean fields. It was common to see one house often standing alone on an entire block.
    He recalled when he was a boy and his family lived near a large, in-door nursery, Armacost-Royston in Sawtelle. In the 1930s, it was a major employer of people from the Westside. Due to West L.A.’s idea weather, Armacost was one of the first nurseries to specialize in orchids, and it shipped its plants across the country.
Armacost workers enjoying after work party, circa 1940s
    In the 1940s, Armacost hired so many workers that Ysidro's mother opened a restaurant in her home, where workers could buy lunch for about seventy-five cents a meal. "A big deal in those days," he laughed. Ysoila Reyes had enough room in her kitchen to feed "five or six workers at a time."
Ysidro leaned forward on his desk, pointed to me, and asked, as if I were a student, "What year did your family come to Santa Monica?"
    I told him between 1918 and 1920, but my grandfather had already been coming back and forth to the States before that, working in Kansas and Nebraska, but always returning to the family ranch in Jalisco.
    "See there," he said. "Those are the families that made this community. The Tapias, the Guerras, and such."
    He talked about the strength of those early Mexican families arriving in Santa Monica, most escaping the revolution and famine, how they helped develop the area then later "blended in," a part of the community, their children finishing school, entering various professional careers, and many going off to war when called.
    He said, "I remember the kids from Santa Monica all went to St. Anne's School when there was nothing--but one church out there started by Father Hall. Then later Father Woods turned it into a real parish, and all the families sent their kids to school there.
    "The kids came from around 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue (now Olympic Boulevard), where the little circus used to come, El Circo, right on the corner of 20th and Pennsylvania. The big Barnum and Bailey Circus used to be over where the City Hall is today, on 4th Street. The smaller circus was on 14th and Colorado, but then the street got too busy, so the circus moved to 20th and Pennsylvania." It was funny how Ysidro interchanged the old street names with today’s street names, like Pennsylvania for Olympic, Oregon for Santa Monica Boulevard.
Santa Monica girls, 22nd Street, circa 1930s
    He rattled off the names of other Santa Monica families who lived near 20th Street and Olympic, the heart of the barrio, like "the Aguilars, the Robles, the Romos, the Guarjardos, and the Enriquezes." He said, thinking back, "The Aguilars, they're all dead now, but the house is still there, over by the railroad tracks, near Colorado Avenue." He described the area as mostly Mexican and told how some of the houses were separated by long stretches of land.
    At one point, he sat back in his chair. I slid the recorder closer to him, afraid I might miss something. As he thought about his childhood on L.A.’s Westside, he remembered two churches in the Santa Monica barrio, on 19th and Michigan, between Pico and Olympic boulevards. One was a Protestant church for the few Methodist Mexican families, an oddity in the heavily Catholic Mexican-American community, and the second church he called the "colored church,” using the term he found respectful for his generation.
     The mention of 19th street triggered another memory of a man named “Tom Malloy or Mallory;” who used to live on 19th Street and "putt-putt" around in an old jalopy, going door-to-door selling mentholated home-remedies and other miracle cures. The Mexican families always on the hunt for folk-holistic cures kept Tom Malloy in business, and the Mexican women, especially, grew excited whenever they heard his car coming up the dirt streets.
    Sounding like an archivist of obscure Mexican data, he affirmed that Santa Monica near 20th Street and Olympic was more of a barrio, in the traditional sense, “…mostly Mexicans living there. In Sawtelle, the Mexicans, Anglos and Japanese lived next door to each other in the same neighborhoods,” mixed ethnicity, so not truly what one would consider a barrio, though many of the families living there could be considered poor, even if everybody worked.
    “The community out in Sawtelle,” he said, his low voice, crisp, “started out around Purdue and Pontius Avenues, south of Olympic, out near Sepulveda, at a railroad stop, close to Cotner Avenue. That was where all of the paisanos lived, the Hernandezes and the others." I'd heard other Mejicanos refer to their countrymen as paisanos, as well.
    He said that a friend of his Charley Lugo, who had just died a few years back, was related to the original Californio families that owned all the land from Lake Arrowhead to San Pedro and south to about Westchester. "His wife, Louise is still alive. She's about 96 now," he said, smiling, as though to say, he was a youngster by comparison.
    Recalling his teen years, Ysidro described how he and his friends would go to the Criterion or Majestic Theaters on Third Street, today the popular, trendy Third Street Promenade, to see movies for a dime. Afterwards they'd walk to the corner of Wilshire and 4th Street and buy hamburgers and a Cokes. Santa Monica was not free of racism because Ysidro said at the Majestic Theater, the management forced African-Americans to sit in the balcony. They could not mix with the rest of the white theater-goers in the main floor. He said nothing about Mexicans, so I assumed he could sit wherever he wanted.
    "You heard of Bay City Buses?" he asked, as if giving me an exam, or my teacher's brain was just working overtime.
    I said I knew it as the original bus line that became the Santa Monica Municipal Bus, or the Blue Bus, as it’s known today.
    “Well, Jess Anderson started Bay City Buses at a depot on 4th Street in Santa Monica, across from the high school.” Ysidro said that for years Jess' drivers parked the buses there, just four blocks from the ocean.
    Years later, Bay City Buses moved to a different location. “So, the city built a new police station where the buses used to park, get repaired, and serviced. Right down there where City Hall is today.” I chimed in, “Near the Civic Auditorium.”
    “That right. In that area.”
    He told me when the workers prepared to lay the foundation, they found oil seeping from the earth, a gusher, black gold, everybody thought, gold in Santa Monica. So, they got the oil diggers out, and they dug deeper. It dried up. They didn’t find anything. He smiled, with a slight chuckle, “Nobody could figure out where the oil had come from,” he said, as if hiding a secret. "I knew. Jess Anderson changed the oil in his buses there for twenty-five years. That's where the oil came from."
    “Do you know about Mrs. Rindge?” Ysidro asked.
    His cousin Forrest Marquez Freed had also talked about Mrs. Rindge when I interviewed him. I said, “A little. Wasn’t her husband really rich, and she inherited a lot of land in Malibu?” Ysidro said not only did she own acres and acres of land, but Mrs. Rindge was one of the few people even living in Malibu in the 1930s and '40s. In his mind, Malibu was considered the wilderness, where everyone went hunting. Sometimes, during high tide, the Coast Highway would get flooded and people couldn’t reach Malibu, Zuma Beach, Point Dume or any of those outlying regions.
    Forrest knew Mrs. Rindge as a curmudgeon, who chased everybody off her property. For Ysidro, Mrs. Rindge was a strong, fierce woman who only wanted to protect her property. She was tough. "If you got a flat tire, you just kept on going. You got out of there. She fought the state of California and lost everything she had, her land, everything."
    So, the story goes, the State needed her land to build the new coast highway. She refused, probably fearing if the State took a little they’d come back and take more. She ended up in court, for years, and as Ysidro rightly claimed. She lost all her money and land fighting the State, which probably delighted the many speculators waiting to develop the land.
    I asked, "What if your family still owned all of the original land grant?" He looked at me, cracked a smile, "Oh, man!" he exclaimed.
    Ysidro admitted the family name opened doors for him. During WWII, after returning from twenty-six months duty in the Pacific, the Navy stationed Ysidro in San Diego. Gene Biscailuz, who would later be elected Sheriff of L.A. County, commanded the 11th Naval District, to which Ysidro had been assigned.
    The Biscailuz, Reyes, Marquez, and Carrillo families had close ties. Gene Biscailuz was a good friend of Mexican-America actor Leo Carrillo, Reyes' relative.
    Biscailuz learned Ysidro had been assigned to the 11th District Naval Hospital. He summoned Ysidro to his office. When officers approached to say the commander wanted him in the executive office, Ysidro remembered thinking, "What did I do now?"
    Surrounded by officers, Ysidro recognized Biscailuz and shook his outstretched hand.
"How are they treating you, my boy?" said Biscailuz.
    "Oh, fine, fine, sir."
    "How do you like the Navy?"
    "I don't think it's worth a damn, sir," he said, and Biscailuz laughed.
    Biscailuz told Ysidro he was going to Santa Monica and had planned to visit his friend Leo Carrillo and would visit the Reyes family to let them know their son was okay. Ysidro told the commander how much he appreciated the gesture. After a few more minutes of discussion, Ysidro turned to leave but not before the officers in the room shook his hand, also.
    Some weeks later, while Ysidro stood in formation for inspection, the officer in charge looked him up and down, then said, "Have you seen the commander lately?"
    "No, sir, not in about three or four weeks."
    The officer turned to his assistant and said, "Give this man a seventy two-hour pass to Santa Monica."
    Ysidro smiled at the memory, "Boy, I went back to the barracks, got my bags, and jumped on the next train home."
    About three months later, Ysidro again stood in formation, and the officer came by and asked, "When was your last promotion."
    "About six-months ago, sir."
    The officer turned to his assistant and said, "Make sure this man tests for the next rank," which Ysidro did and, soon after, received a promotion.
    Ysidro said, as he finished the story, looking me straight in the eye, "I tell you, boy, it's all politics."
    When the Navy discharged him in 1945, Ysidro returned to Sawtelle. His father gave him six plots of land, three, just off Santa Monica Blvd., on Stoner Avenue and three on Barrington Avenue. The land would help him start a family and allow him to buy a home. He sold the three lots on Stoner Avenue for $9,500 and kept the other three.
    In 1964, or thereabouts, a church nearby needed a larger building for its growing congregation. The board approached Ysidro and told him if he could change the zoning on his property, they would be interested in buying his land, hinting at a nice profit.
    "No, that's not my job to change the zoning; it's yours," he remembered telling them.
They came back to him some months later, along with a change in the zoning law. He sold them the land for nearly $200,000.
    "And that's the difference," he told me. "People say we [the early rancheros] lost our lands and so-and-so. No. We sold for what it was worth at the time. My family sold Pacific Palisades for $55,000 in 1885.
    "Nobody was cheated out of anything. That's just--dijeron…" he said, as he changed to the Spanish word for "hearsay."
    He admitted that some historians portrayed his family as being duped by gringo speculators, but his voice grew strong when he stated, "You know how people are…saying that everything was stolen and poor people [the Mexican rancheros], you know, they don't have anything. No, it was their fault, nobody else's. You wouldn't be anything if you sat there and just let the world go by. You've got to make things [happen] yourself."

1 comment:

Antonio SolisGomez said...

again a fine article that uncovers a forgotten but very interesting history. thanks for putting it together.