Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Bulldozer, Progress, and Gentrification

Daniel Cano

Epifanio Holquin, Brentwood, CA 1920s
                            "We all knew he was somebody famous, but, in those days, no one made much of it."
                                                                             Alfonso Holquin

     A walkway with tropical plants growing on either side led to Alfonso Holquin’s front door, a touch of Puerto Vallarta in Mar Vista, California, once a simple working-class neighborhood.
     Alfonso purchased his home in the 1950s for $13,000. Today, no property in his neighborhood will sell for less than $1.3 million, many closer to $1.5 or above. Runaway inflation, modernization, or gentrification, take your pick.
     Born in 1929, a tall, handsome man, olive skin, a full head of white hair, Alfonso greeted me at the front door. We sat in his living room and talked. He was a close family friend, and I knew he'd been born and raised in Brentwood. I asked him how he remembered Brentwood before the building “boom.”
     He described his neighborhood as mostly wood frame homes on large plots of land, ranches, and a few isolated estates near the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains. To the east, along Wilshire boulevard a half-mile, was the National Soldiers Home, Santa Monica two miles farther west, and the settlement of Sawtelle a mile down the hill on Barrington Avenue.
     Alfonso showed me some old, wrinkled photographs taken in 1923. “That’s our house,” he said, pointing to a square wood home, surrounded by vacant land and dirt roads cutting across empty fields. Today, only L.A.'s most affluent can afford to buy homes in Brentwood, north of Wilshire Boulevard.
     Alfonso said most of his neighbors were Anglos, Mexicans, and Japanese. “In those days, people considered Brentwood out in the sticks. Nobody wanted to live out there, so land was pretty cheap.”
     Alfonso’s father, Epifanio Holquin, was born in 1877, in Chihuahua. Alfonso said, “My dad never talked about Mexico--or about anything much, for that matter,” he smiled. “When I was born, my dad was fifty-two years old. So most of what I know about the family, my oldest brother Modesto told me."
     Like many Mexicans fleeing Mexico during the 1910 Revolution, Epifanio Holquin crossed the U.S. border and settled in El Paso, Texas, where he worked a few years before moving to Clifton, Arizona to work in the copper mines.
     In the early 1900s, United States’ mining companies canvassed Mexican villages contracting experienced miners from Sonora and Chihuahua, promising them good housing and fair wages, only to find upon their arrival, the pay was less than promised and the housing worse.
     The companies paid inexperienced American workers higher pay than experienced Mexicans workers, often for the same work, or sometimes, more dangerous work. In some cases, Mexican miners were forced to train newly hired American workers, who earned more than the Mexicans. Frustrated by the injustice of this “dual wage” system, as well as the dangerous working conditions, Mexican miners began to organize and fight for equal treatment and pay, facing violence from thugs and lawmen hired by the mining companies.
     In one case, the mining companies, supported by the local authorities, loaded Mexican miners and their families onto cattle cars, took them in to the desert, and dropped them off. In other cases, the miners and their families were deported, taking some American citizens, in the process.
     As depicted in the documentary, Los Mineros, the Phelps-Dodge Corporation operated a "company town" in Clifton-Morenci. Mexican miners paid high prices for goods in the company store than Americans paid. By that time, Epifanio had left and joined the thousands of jobless men riding the rails searching for better opportunities, leaving their families behind.
     “My dad was a hobo,” said Alfonso. "And my brother Modesto, who was born in 1909, and only eleven or twelve, went with my dad on his railroad trips."
     Modesto had told Alfonso how his father taught him to jump on and off of moving trains, to make friends with other hoboes, as well as the men who worked on the railroads. After all, a kind word might result in friendship, or work because workers often found jobs near the railroad lines, where employers hired them to work in warehouses and on the docks, loading and unloading trains.
     In the 1920s, Alfonso’s aunt--his father’s older sister--had already moved to Bunker Hill, in Los Angeles. She sent word to her brother, who was still in Arizona, telling him about Los Angeles and the work opportunities available. That's all Epifanio needed to hear. He packed up his family and moved to California.
     Epifanio’s first job in Los Angeles was near La Placita (Olvera Street), in the rail yards. This was before LAX, or the shipping ports at Long Beach and San Pedro. The railroads were an important hub for travel, but, the primary carrier for shipping cargo across the country. Always keeping his ear open for better work and pay, and a chance to buy land, his real dream, Epifanio moved his family west. Alfonso wasn’t sure why his dad settled in Brentwood, but, he speculated, there was a lot of open land in Brentwood, and it was fairly easy to buy land, even for Mexicans.
     Once settled on L.A.’s Westside, Epifanio found work in construction and gardening. He was not a man to waste time. He often worked two or three jobs, arriving home after dark.
Hard Work Pays Off

     Neither did Epifanio give in to frivolous entertainment. Determined to buy land, he saved his money. When his children reached working age, they all found jobs and contributed to the family income. In 1922, Epifanio purchased his first lot on Dorothy Avenue, a few blocks north of Wilshire Boulevard, surrounded by vacant land. There, he put his construction skills to use. He and his sons built their first home.
Holquin Family Home, Brentwood
     I’d once asked my father about Brentwood and the Mexican families who lived there. He told me that nobody wanted to live out there, so far from downtown Sawtelle. He recalled that along with the Holquins were the Villasenors, Rivases, and other Mexican families, each settling there years before the Great Depression.
     “Art and Robert Villasenor still live there,” my dad said. “One of the Villasenors lived to be over a hundred-years old. I think he just died not too long back. They just sold two homes they still owned in Brentwood. Frank Machado, from the Culver City Machados, married one of the Brentwood Rivas sisters. She went to school with your aunt Ramona,” he thought for a moment. “Three of the Rivas girls graduated from UCLA. One girl, Kathy Rivas, ice-skated in the 1947 Olympics. Yeah, the Villasenors and Rivas are two of the old Westside families.”
     Alfonso remembered a famous movie producer who lived in Brentwood, though he couldn’t remember the man’s name. "He had more of a ranch near where Gorham and Barrington Avenues crossed. We all knew he was somebody famous, but…no one made much of it. He was friendly and always stopped say 'hi'."
    Like many of the men of his generation, Alfonso did not appear impressed with celebrity. He and most of his friends on the Westside had, at one time or another, gone to school or worked for celebrities.
     I asked him, “If Brentwood was so isolated back in those days how did you meet the  kids who lived in Sawtelle?”
     He told me it wasn’t really that far, just a mile down the hill. But kids didn't wander too far from their neighborhoods, back then, and walking, or a trek down and back up the hill, was tiresome.
     “I first met the kids from Sawtelle when I went to catechism classes at St. Sebastian's Church,” Adolfo said.
The Holquin Family, Brentwood, CA
     St. Sebastian was the nearest Catholic Church, halfway between Brentwood and Sawtelle, on Federal Avenue.
     My father remembered meeting the kids from Brentwood, “There wasn’t anything out there. We called the Holquins, the Villasenors, and the Rivases the Brentwood gang, but we didn’t mean gang like gangs today. It was more like guys who just hung out together.”
     La Paloma Market, a neighborhood store for Mexicans in Brentwood, became the Brentwood kids’ hangout. As Brentwood developed, over the years, La Paloma became the Burns’ Market then, about the 1990s, the Barrington Market, a trendy little store specializing in wines, no signs of its Mexican past.
     Alfonso said, “I think the Placencia family originally opened La Paloma.” He didn't remember exactly when. "It just always seemed to be there," he said. “La Paloma had the basics, a torilleria, meats, soap, canned foods, and candy, stuff like that.”
Bobby Medrano and author, Good Times, Kings Canyon
     This brought back memories even for me. In the 1970s, many Westside kids would hang out at Burns’ Market when the Medrano family, from Junior (Guadalupe), sister Lucia, on down to Ruben, Bobby, and the youngest, Rene, managed the store, stocking the shelves, and working the counter. If we were short on cash, the family would cover us until the next time we shopped there.
     In its last years, the Barrington Market catered to the wealthy who lived in the high-rent apartment and condominium complexes, nearby, few 1920-style wood houses still stood in the neighborhood. Finally, in the early 2000s, the La Paloma's ghost fell to the bulldozer, progress and gentrification. Alfonso said, "It was a big deal when a Safeway opened at the corner of San Vicente and Barrington in the 1930s."
     I asked, "Do you remember the Western Front?"
     "Sure, every Saturday my dad would take me to the Western Front for my weekly haircuts."
     Alfonso described the rickety wood porches and the smell of the floors inside, mostly bars, cafes, a barber shop, and small businesses along San Vicente Boulevard. “It was like an old West town, veterans drinking,” he said. “Oh, man, but were those veterans generous. They tipped big.”
     Alfonso remembered how his friends and he, after giving his dad the family cut, made enough money from shining the veterans’ shoes to see him through weeks of movies, popcorn, sodas, and candy. “That was when we could see a movie and buy candy and a soda for a quarter.”
     Then Epifanio struck gold, symbolically speaking. He found permanent employment working for Alphonzo Bell, whose 600-acre property became Bel-Air Estates, golf course, country club, horse stables, trails, lush gardens, and mansions. Whatever needed attention on Bell’s property, Epifanio and the other workers complied.
     “My dad did everything from clearing brush from the horse trails to laying down the foundation for tennis courts.”
     For the Holquin family, work on Alphonso Bell’s land brought security during the worst times of the Depression. “I still remember going to work with my dad on the Bell estate. I was only ten or eleven years old. I spent summers, every day, chopping weeds and clearing branches and leaves from the miles horse trails across the mountains, from Sepulveda to Beverly Glenn.”


Antonio SolisGomez said...

another good story-keep'em coming

Daniel Cano said...

Antonio, Keep history alive.