Saturday, September 29, 2018

Centro de Ninos and the Comisíon Femenil Mexicana Nacional by Antonio SolisGomez

Father Luce and others lead protesters during the National Chicano Moratorium in Laguna Park 

 The disappointment with the Movimiento at the start of the 70’s led me to disentangle myself as much as possible from all the barullo taking place in East Los Angeles. It was not a total withdrawal, as I still had to support my wife and two small children. Coincidently, at that time, Father Luce at The Church of the Epiphany wanted to open a community based bilingual preschool and the possibility of working in such an environment really appealed to me.

I had worked a couple of years with Head Start as a social worker and had spent a lot of time in the Montessori based classrooms, learning from Lucia Pearce our Educational Director and by helping teachers with the children. I also had been involved for a few years with an alternative children’s
program at the International Institute called Operation Adventure started by Maxine Junge. I was therefore full of ideas for implementing a classroom experience for Chicanitos. I applied for the job and was hired.

I was fortunate in having as an assistant Chela Hernandez, a woman who had been schooled in Mexico and knew a lot of children’s songs in Spanish that she taught the kids. Many of those songs were by the Francisco G Soler. We also required parents to volunteer and the great majority of them were from Mexico, so it was truly a bilingual program.
Francisco Gabilondo Soler y Cri Cri

I worked four years with La Escuelita until funding necessitated cutting my employment to half time. I was in a pickle. I loved working with children but I had to support my family. Fortunately during my time with La Escuelita, I had gone back to my Alma Mater, Cal State LA, and taken 18 units in Early Childhood Ed in order to receive State certification as a Director. I was thus officially qualified as a daycare teacher/director and hoped to find afternoon employment, leaving my mornings free to be at La Escuelita.

One day I went to see about an advertised position with a daycare center near Echo Park called Centro de Niños. I walked into the building, down a central corridor with closed doors on either side. I guessed that it had been a medical facility, the closed doors, examining rooms, from whence were emerging the voices of children screaming and yelling. I opened one and the stench of urine greeted me along with the startled look of a woman who had been trying to quiet the children. I don’t recall how many children were in there, but it was packed.

I closed the door but there didn’t seem to be anyone in charge that I could speak with and I had an uneasy feeling. Soon the doors opened and many children rushed down the corridor and through a side door to their play area, an adjacent driveway. The children proceeded to play with a couple of old automobile tires and a few milk crates in which they took turns climbing in to be pushed up and down the asphalt driveway. There were no balls, no toys, just milk crates and tires. I was aghast.

I finally talked to one of the teachers who told me that they had around fifty kids and a handful of teachers, all of them Latinas. I spent an hour there and got in my car and left. While I drove home I knew that daycare center was a threat to children. It had to be shut down. I called the California State Licensing Department and explained the dire need to shut down that facility. A woman calmly explained that she knew that there were problems but there wasn’t anything else in that area for working parents and it would not be closed. I took it as a sign from God that I had to work at Centro de Niños and began going there every afternoon.

I learned that the Centro de Niños was operated by the Comisíon Femenil Mexicana Nacional when they asked me to be the director. It was 1974 and among the board members at that time were Francisca Flores, Yolanda Nava, Gloria Molina, Sandra Sewell and Irene Mendez. I said that I would only accept the job if I could find a better facility. They not only agreed, they also charged me with finding a second facility in East Los Angeles. They told me that they had State funds for two facilities, each one caring for seventy children, including infants.

One afternoon while driving in the neighborhood, on the lookout for a new facility, just below the old Belmont High School, I drove past an interesting old two story mansion that sat on a knoll far away from the street. I parked my car and got out, my only intent, to take a closer look at that beautiful house. It looked vacant and I strolled around the very large yard, to make sure there was nobody living there before I climbed the knoll to take a closer look. A man working in the adjacent property saw me and came over to ask me why I was there. I explained that I was just curious and asked if I could get a closer look. He gave me permission and I began exploring to satisfy my curiosity. The house had a long driveway that ended under a covered portico, a large roofed porch, several heavy French doors leading to the outside. As I looked through the windows admiring the beautiful workmanship, I suddenly began to think that this house would make a beautiful childcare center.

I went to the adjacent property to speak with the man who had given me permission to look and asked him for information about the property. He answered that it belonged to the Cancer Prevention Society and pointed to the adjacent building. I explained my interest in finding a childcare facility and he laughed, telling me that a school had already tried and could not pass the various inspections for a school. I thanked him and decided that I would go next door and speak to whoever was in charge.

I will say here that my newly found spiritual life was playing a big part in my effort to find a new facility. Before starting off on that afternoon quest I had asked for guidance from Spirit and now at this point I was not easily going to be deterred, especially by the Director of The Cancer Prevention Society who was to tell me that under no conditions would she ever allow a bunch of welfare children next door. 

I told the Director, an older unsmiling woman, that not withstanding her objections I still wanted to speak to her board and to place me on the agenda for the next board meeting. Therefore the following week I went before the board and got provisional approval for the Centro de Niños, if the building could pass the fire and health inspections. The Chairman of the Board said that they would charge one dollar for rent for the house whose address was 379 Loma Drive.

The fire Department requirements were the most rigorous. They wanted panic bars on all doors that led outside, fire sprinklers installed on the first floor, a fire resistant door from the basement and children could not occupy the second floor. The State Licensing people wanted the entire two acres fenced and a telephone installed. It was a daunting list of changes but I was now certain that this property was destined for the intended purpose and nothing would deter me.
My brother in law John Diaz on the right with me at Sabiño Canyon in Tucson 1975

Clearly I would need help but the State funds had no allowances for remodeling. I did have Mr. Angelo, the janitor, a genial wiry man from the Philippines and I could hire another janitor for the second site that was yet to be secured. My brother in-law John, a jack of all trades, agreed to hire on to help me with the project.

Getting the sprinkler system was the first step and it meant digging a hundred foot long trench four feet deep to install a two inch water line. We had to dig it by hand “a pico y pala”. 

Mr. Angelo, who it turned out was also a skilled carpenter took charge of replacing the three French doors by building new four foot wide doors and installing them with a panic bar. John and I next worked on building a five foot high wood fence around the property. It was five hundred linear feet.

We also had to install new lighting in the rooms designated for classrooms, build changing tables for infants and low classroom tables. Long story short we obtained all the permits necessary within two months and opened the center with seventy children. The kids went crazy in their new play yard. Around a very large Morton Fig Tree, Mr. Angelo had built a platform with a ramp that children could use with their trikes or run around the large yard until they tired. It was great.
The old MaravillaHousing Projects showing David Lopez' mural of La Virgen de Guadalupe -foto by Oscar Castillo

But we were only half way there. We needed another site. I don’t remember how I found out about the Maravilla Housing Projects being torn down and new ones being built across the street. The local gang had been given free rein to salvage and dispose of everything in the old site and I went and met with them, proposing that they give us one of the old buildings for a childcare center. They said ok, pick one. I chose a one story building that had four apartments near the street and with John and Mr. Angelo, began tearing walls between the four dwellings, installing lights, painting, building a fence etc. We opened with seventy more children.

We had two centers open from six in the morning to six at night, a staff of thirty five to handle one hundred and forty children including infants, preschoolers and latchkey kids. I was working long hours and I felt strong and positive, as if I was riding on a wave. But unbeknownst to me, my time there was coming to a close.

It came suddenly, the announcement that Sandra Sewell, one of the board members, had been given the position of Executive Director and therefore in charge of the entire operation. I was to remain as Director of the educational component. It was disheartening to create something and have it snatched away. And it didn’t take place until after I had obtained and remodeled two childcare centers with the proper permits to operate. At the time I didn't see the bigger picture, that life placed me there to do what I had done and to move on. There organization didn't need a man in that position.

I stayed on for a few months before quitting and I began subbing with daycare programs at LA Unified. One day, a month or two after leaving the Centro de Niños, while checking out teaching opportunities at the Cal State LA Early Childhood Education Office, I happened to see a posting about a Masters in Library Science program for Spanish Speakers at the University of Arizona, I applied and very soon after, life whisked me out of Los Angeles.

Post Script:

I did some research for this article and learned that the Comisíon Femenil Mexicana Nacional spun off a women’s economic development organization called New Economics for Women (NEW) in 1984. In 1986 NEW bought the 379 Loma Drive property from the Cancer Prevention Society and in the early 90’s constructed a four story building (Casa Loma) to house single women and their families. They continued providing childcare and have become quite a large and innovative organization, building housing and providing a diverse array of services focused on women. I’m happy I played a small role when Spirit led me to the original property.

Centro de Niños in Maravilla is still functioning with Sandra Sewell as the Executive Director. She apparently has no role with NEW or Casa Loma but she seems to have done a marvelous job of maintaining and expanding what was in place when i left. I think they even have a new building.

1 comment:

Daniel Cano said...

They say perseverance outweighs everything else. Inspirational. A good read. How time flies.