Thursday, December 27, 2018

An American Journey, from El Puerto de San Juan to LA's Westside

      Mike Sapien’s grandfather arrived in the United States in 1900, ten years earlier than those who migrated north to flee the violence and famine of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917). I spoke to Mike in his Playa del Rey home, where he told me, other than his family, no one had ever asked him about his life in the U.S.
     Mike’s grandfather left Puerta de San Juan, Guanajuato in the late 1800s and arrived in LA's Westside with his friend Pascual Escobar, who would found one of the most important sewer construction companies in Los Angeles, and whose family would later open Casa Escobar, the first upscale Mexican restaurant on LA's westside, both families living testaments to the contributions Mexican migrants have made to the U.S. economy and culture.
     As young men, Sapien and Escobar arrived in Sherman (West Hollywood), a railroad town, where they worked in the switching yard. The two friends hired on to do the backbreaking work that extended the rail lines through all areas of Los Angeles, into Santa Monica and the beach areas.
     Experienced Mexican railroad workers were paramount to the development of the railroads throughout the Mid and Southwest, and neither the Southern Pacific nor the Santa Fe questioned one's legal status.
     Mike’s maternal grandfather, Senor Barozo, came to U.S. in 1906, first settled in Santa Monica, where he sent Mike's mother to St. Anne’s School. Coincidentally, Mike’s father, Roberto, also attended St. Anne’s.
     Born on the Westside, Roberto Sapien, Mike’s father, graduated from Fairfax H.S. in 1915, the closest high school accessible to the children who lived on the rural West Los Angeles. University High School did not open until the 1920s, and Santa Monica High School only accepted students who resided in Santa Monica. Of the many Mexican men his age living on the Westside, Roberto was one of the few educated in the United States.
     As the metropolitan Los Angeles spread west, giving rise to places with names like Westwood, Brentwood, and Bel-Air, Mike's grandfather found work in the newly burgeoning landscape industry, alongside other Mexican and Japanese men. Since the skilled trades unions accepted only white workers at the time, Mexican and Japanese men carved a niche in the landscape trade.
     Most were superb ranchers and farmers, and they understood agriculture and ranching better than most Anglo migrants from the east. However, turning mountainsides into beautifully landscaped grounds was brutal work and paid little. Roberto, Mike’s father, always looking for an opportunity, used the knowledge his education gave him to open one of the first nurseries in Sawtelle, on the rented land around their family home, just off Santa Monica Boulevard.
     While Mike’s grandfather worked to make the nursery a success, Roberto found a way to bring in extra income. He landed a job on the 450-acre estate of Edward Doheny, located in the hills that would one day become Bel-Air. Roberto worked for the Doheny family for many years. When business was slow at the nursery, Roberto’s salary supplemented the family income.
     After a day’s work on the Doheny estate, Roberto would return home to work in the family nursery. In addition, Roberto took outside work landscaping and maintaining gardens in homes throughout the growing westside.
     Mike recalled, as a child, watching his grandfather and his father work hard and long, sometimes not eating dinner until well after dark, six to seven days a week. Eventually Mike's grandfather and father recognized the futility in renting land, especially in an area where acres lay fallow all the way to the ocean. Why not sacrifice just a little more, work even harder, and buy land they could call their own?
     Roberto and his father saved, tucking away even pennies, until one day, they bought an acre of land right in the neighborhood near the corner of Cotner and Missouri Avenue, just off Santa Monica Boulevard, where the 405 freeway passes today.
     Mike’s grandfather built his home on the front of the lot, and Roberto built his home at the back, using the remaining land for the family nursery. Mike recalled, “This was in Sawtelle. It was where I was raised, along with all the families that lived on Cotner Avenue. I remember, let’s see, the Patton, the Carranza, the Vasquez, and the De Anda families. I think all the Chicano families lived on Cotner at one time or another.”
     He described the racially mixed neighbors living on Cotner Avenue, near Santa Monica Boulevard, as mostly Okies escaping the 1930s Dust Bowl, Mexicans, Japanese, and even a black family or two. But Cotner Avenue, between Olympic and Pico Blvd, La Gara was mostly Mexicans. They owned the few stores and businesses, like the Villas and Escamillas, who opened neighborhood co-ops.
     “On Cotner Avenue,” Mike estimated, “there were at least sixty families, mostly recently arrived Anglos, about thirty Mexican families, ten or so were Asian families, mostly Japanese.”
     For Mike, like all his friends, Santa Monica Boulevard provided most of the entertainment, the Saturday serials at the Tivoli and Nu Art theaters, the bus to the beach, the restaurants, library, fire station, and grocery stores.
     He described the boulevard as nearly cosmopolitan; though clearly, Sawtelle still catered to farm related businesses more than any other business at the time. He said, “Even with all the newer stores, I still remember Hawkins’ Feed Store at one end of the Cotner Avenue.”
     The Rivera Country Club was not only a golf course but an equestrian center with stables and show grounds, holding international competitions. One year, in the 1930s, Mexico’s famed equestrian team arrived in Los Angeles to compete at the Rivera Country Club. Mike said it was a great honor for his father who had been asked to welcome the team to Los Angeles and serve as a host during their stay. Then, as an afterthought, Mike remembered that his father had often been asked to organize and participate in social events involving the Mexican community.
     Of his own childhood, Mike didn’t say much, probably because he spent so much time working, helping his father and grandfather. He didn’t remember having time to hang out with friends. At University High School, he joined the ROTC and ran track, but when I pressed him, he immediately came back to the work—the hours at the nursery and at the Doheny estate with his father and grandfather, honing his skills, disciplining himself, and learning to sacrifice, the qualities he believed would catapult him into the higher levels of society.
     When asked about racism, Mike could only recall a time in the Army, during the war, as a soldier stationed in Texas, he saw an Army captain, a Black man, sitting on a sidewalk, angry, and frustrated. Mike told me, “Because of his color, the captain could only use the ‘Black's Only’ bathroom. The man had already been to the war. I guess he hoped segregation was finished."
     Mike added, “Man, I remember thinking to myself, hey, since I’m not black, I can’t use the bathroom for blacks, and since I’m not white I can’t use the bathrooms for whites, so which bathroom can a Mexican use?” He said, “No, I don’t remember any other racism.”
     He figured, in school, among students or teachers…maybe because there were people of so many races on the Westside, not too many people thought about it.
     “At Emerson Junior High and at University High School, we went to classes with kids not just from our own neighborhood but kids from Beverly Hills and Westwood. I just never thought of myself as inferior to any one else.”
     Mike said that since his grandfather and his father were both so strong and enterprising, Mike absorbed those same qualities. He said whites didn’t intimidate him.
     As I considered this, I thought, perhaps, for blacks in the Southern states and Mexicans in the Southwest, to defend themselves against racist whites, either verbally or physically, meant swift and sometimes brutal retaliation from the dominant white community.
     But on the Westside of Los Angeles, Mexicans and whites were neighbors, became friends, played on the same sports teams, and sometimes even dated interracially. A Mexican kid didn’t hesitate to stand up to a white kid who insulted or humiliated him. Maybe that’s why the Zoot Suit riots of the 1940s were so violent, because many of the white servicemen who streamed into Los Angeles came from the South and Midwest, where Blacks had no choice but to fear violent reprisals.
     In Los Angeles, Mexicans didn’t retreat from physical threats simply because it came from a white sailor or soldier. Mexicans stood and fought, especially in the 1940s when white servicemen from other states came into Los Angeles thinking they could take any girl on the streets. It must have confounded these white servicemen when they saw white pachucos among the zoot suiters.
     In the Okies who ended up on the Westside, Mexican youth saw families even poorer, less educated, and more destitute than themselves. As my father had once told me, “We were all in the same boat. What was there to be racist about? We saw they weren’t any better than us.”
     To dispel the Hollywood stereotype of the lazy, un-ambitious, and thieving Mexican, Mike described how his grandfather, when he purchased his first property, would walk to the seller’s house each day to pay the note on the mortgage. When the seller told him he only needed to pay once a month, Mike’s grandfather thanked him but continued to pay on a daily basis. Who knew on which day the money might run out? Either way, he never waited an entire month between payments.
     Mike said it was the same with all of his grandfather’s debts. “The minute he received his utilities’ bill, my grandfather would walk across town to the utilities’ office and pay what he owed, even though the payment wasn’t yet due. That’s how he was,” Mike said, as if there is nothing more humiliating than to be in debt and not make your payments. Or as Shakespeare said, years earlier, "Neither a borrower nor a lender be."
     Even today, in this time of complex immigration status and unstable employment, banks and businesses eagerly extend loans to Mexicans/Latinos, who have excellent reputations for repaying loans, values Hollywood has ignored when characterizing Mexicans in film. Mike said he did not only learn this example from his grandfather but also from his aunts, who saved their money, “Sometimes just pennies,” for a number of years so they could buy a house.
     He recalled when they finally found the house they wanted, at $15,000, “My aunts walked into the bank and placed $14,000 in cash on the loan officer's desk,” Mike said, smiling. “They asked if the bank would carry a $1,000 mortgage.”
     The loan officer told them they didn’t need to give such as large down payment. His aunts insisted that he take their money. “See, they knew the bank made its money on their interest, so they wanted to pay it off a fast as they could.”
     December, 1941, Mike remembered sitting in the Nu Art Theater, on Santa Monica Boulevard, with his girlfriend. The projectionist stopped the movie and the house lights came on. The theater manager walked to the front of stage. He announced that Pearl Harbor had been attacked.
     “That’s how I found out about it,” Mike said.
     Not long after that day, perhaps feeling pangs of patriotism, along with the fact that he didn’t feel he had learned much in high school, Mike quit school and joined the Army Air Corps to become a pilot. The military, he maintained, provided the bulk of his education. Training in aviation, he studied for hours, developing his reading, writing, and analytical skills. The military’s no-nonsense method of learning gave Mike the education his formal schooling could not, one where everything he read or thought about pertained to a real-life situation.
     After the military, Mike began working at Douglas Aircraft, a steady job, with a regular salary but very little personal challenge and not much room for promotion or a big salary. Where other men saw working at Douglas as a stable, professional career, Mike realized his future there looked bleak. So, he resigned and started his own gardening, landscape business, returning to a profession he knew well. Yet, he had no idea whether he could earn enough money to support himself and, now, a family.
     Soon, Mike’s discipline, attention to detail, and social skills paid off. His business increased. He took on bigger and more important clients, not only landscaping but concrete work as well. He hired Frank Holquin, a childhood friend, a Brentwood boy, and brother of his friend Alfonso Holquin.
     “Frank,” he said, “was one of the best concrete men around. He drank quite a bit, though. I think it finally killed him. I heard that during the war he had seen terrible action in combat.”
     Shell shock (PTSD today) among Chicano WWII veterans wasn’t something folks talked about. There was no medication or therapy for them back then, only booze. Even those who did not see combat, shared in the pain when they returned home from military posts around the country to learn many of their childhood friend had been killed in Europe and the Pacific.
     Mike built his business through the 1950s, but in the 1960s, it boomed. Mike’s father opened a nursery in Malibu, where at the time there were few homes but plenty of land. Roberto purchased one acre of prime Malibu real estate for $16,000, a large sum for a vacant lot 25 miles up the coast.
     Eventually, the drive from West L.A. to Malibu took its toll on Roberto. It was difficult running a long-distance business. He decided to sell. He doubled his investment. Mike told him he could have gotten five times that much. Roberto said he was satisfied with the profit.
     Roberto took his money and invested commercial properties at the corner of Pico Blvd. and Barrington Avenues, in a booming Westside real estate market. He leased the buildings for a number of years, until he finally sold them at a very comfortable profit.
     Mike’s name in the commercial landscaping industry became widespread to contractors around the state. He signed major contracts with large firms and government agencies. To keep up on the latest changes in landscaping and business, he attended extension classes at UCLA.
     “The only thing I still regret, to this day,” said Mike, “was that I didn’t have a better education. With a college degree, life would have been so much easier.”
     Perhaps this is one of the reasons he never doubted his own children would go to college, one son graduating from Loyola Marymount and receiving a graduate degree from Columbia University.
     “I learned everything I could. I attended business seminars. I joined business clubs like the Latino Businessmen’s Association, the Executive Club, the Los Angeles, Santa Monica, and Culver City Chambers of Commerce. I learned a lot from all of those people.”
     Mike said involvement in community affairs was not only satisfying but provided important business contacts. He landed a lucrative contract laying the irrigation systems for the two islands situated in Long Beach, near the Queen Mary. Mike said--now that he looks back on it--his grandfather and father were business visionaries. They bought when everyone else rented. They worked hard. They took risks.
     “Not a lot of people back then were willing to invest money in their own businesses,” he said, suggesting that his family saw opportunities where other families saw disaster. Though, there was a belief among many Mexican families in the 1930s, that one day the government would deport them, so why put their money into property they might lose?
     Mike told me he had an innate drive to better himself, whether through work or personal activity. He has traveled to Africa, Europe, and Asia. He learned to sail and has sailed to Hawaii, learned to pilot his own plane. Yet, through it all, he fondly remembered those early days in WLA, like Olympian Sonia Heany’s ice skating rink in Westwood, where and his friends would gather sometimes just to feel the coolness of the ice during the hot summer days.
     He said he and all the Westside families would forever be grateful to Marion Davies for building a center where children received immunizations and medical care during a time when no other care was available for poor or working-class families.
     Mike told me he savored his partial retirement, meeting with his Chicano childhood friends once a month at local Westside restaurants. He continued to travel, and took time to enjoy his family. He sold his business to a corporate buyer, but he maintained a three-year contract as a consultant to the company.
     From the large patio of his Playa Del Rey home overlooking the Marina Del Rey, we looked out at Point Fermin to the south and Point Dume to the north. What seemed like an arm’s stretch, sailboats entered and exited the main channel of the Marina below us. Mike thought maybe it was time to retire completely.
     On the day I spoke to him, a bit of haze filled the sky and Catalina was not visible. “You should see it on a clear day,” he said. “I guess I’ve come a long way from the days in Sawtelle when we Chicano kids used to shine shoes up at the Western Front, outside of the Soldiers Home.”
     As I shook hands to leave, I asked Mike what he thought about the bitter controversy surrounding the development of the Ballona Wetlands, taking place just below the hill from his home. He said, “I’m excited about the development, the theaters, stores and shops. More business is good, responsible development is what I support.”
     Thinking more about it, he said, “If I was against development, I guess I’d be saying we should have kept Cortner and La Gara like they were when we were kids.”
     That part of town was once considered the “other side of the tracks,” a neighborhood of ramshackle homes, broken down cars, and families barely making a living.
     “What? Don’t allow anyone else to move in,” he laughed, suggesting people will always need progress, if it’s for the better.

Readers can find Daniel Cano's award winning novel Death and the American Dream on

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