Thursday, April 29, 2021

My Father's Song

Father and son, circa 1947


     There were no barrios in the westside of Los Angeles, not in the traditional sense, like the ones in East L.A., San Fernando, San Bernardino, Colton, Tucson, Denver, Albuquerque, San Antonio, or El Paso, places where everyone in the neighborhood was Mexican and spoke Spanish. The closest was probably Santa Monica, where many Mexicans made the long trek from Jalisco to work in three brickyards in town. My mother, born in Santa Monica in 1925, once told me, her neighbors were mostly Mexican, but there were Anglos, Japanese, and a few African-American families, just like the two other Westside towns, Venice and Sawtelle (mispronounced Sotel by the old-timers). 
     My uncle, Rufino Hernandez, married to my dad's sister, told me his family lived in a small Santa Monica Mexican neighborhood in 1920s, a few blocks from the ocean. It burned down about 1930, and the new City Hall replaced it. None of this can be found in history books. It was passed down to the next generation by those who lived it.
     I hear my Culver City friends calling out, "Hey, how about us?" 
     Up until the 1950s, Culver City was mostly movie lots, farms, ranches, and subdivisions spread throughout the city. When the 405 freeway destroyed the heart of the Sawtelle, about '64, many Chicanos bought homes in Culver City, or moved to the Projects for cheaper rent. That’s why, back in the gang days, Culver City and Sawtelle didn’t fight much. A lot of the kids were related, and didn’t even know it.
     The thing about working-class neighborhoods, whether barrios or not, history denies them a place in the country' story. I can't go to the library and check-out a book on any of these neighborhoods. Maybe an ethnic studies professor at a local college or university might mention them, but even then, most professors, wary of tenure committees, tend to research the larger, more important cities, like San Francisco, L.A., maybe even San Diego, but Sotel? Santa Monica? Venice? Or even Culver City? 
     If one is lucky enough to find a book on the neighborhoods, it's usually a book of photos with stories about the founders, the business people, the chambers of commerce, but rarely about the neighborhood families, those who built the towns. 
     So, what happens to the stories of neighborhoods? If the stories are not passed down from one generation to the next, along with a lot of old photos, they simply die. I think it was Native American novelist and scholar Scott N. Momaday’s who said about the indigenous oral tradition, it is “…one generation away from extinction.” 

     I didn’t want to be the generation that let the stories go extinct. So, when my father and his friends were still living, I’d get them together to hear about their early years and hope to keep their stories alive. I'd make it a point of plundering my dad's memory regularly. Born in 1923, in his late eighties he  still had an incredible memory. 
     Me: "How did the Anglos and Mexicans get along in West L.A. when you were a kid?" 
     Him: "When we hung around with the Anglos, it was mostly those on our same [social] class. The ones who lived over in Westwood were a little 'uppity', but they were nice. They may have had a chip on their shoulders, but I never heard any racial slurs." 
     "Westwood was a couple of miles from Sawtelle, where you lived. Were there many homes in Westwood back then?" 
On Sawtelle Boulevard, demolishing the barrio

     "Oh, yeah. Those homes go back to the early 1900s and the twenties, those Mediterranean and Spanish-style homes. The ones who lived up there [in Westwood], they were the ones who had steady jobs, like bankers, CPAs, teachers, a few worked for UCLA. Well, UCLA was pretty new then, but they had a few professors, and professional people who lived there. A lot of the doctors and lawyers who lived in Westwood worked in downtown L.A. That was the center of business. It was like Century City is now. They weren't rich, but they lived comfortable lives." 
     "Did you consider anyone really rich back then?" 
     "Well, yeah. One man owned half of West L.A., Mr. Barnard. You know where that market is over there on Pico, near Bundy. He owned that…a gas station, a rest home, a flower shop…he owned all that. He owned half of La Gara [my dad’s westside neighborhood], and he owned a big orange orchard north of Bundy, near Sunset. He lived right there on the ranch. We knew the Barnard boys, Chuck and Jack. Nice guys. They were my brother's Nick's age. They used to let us go up there and pick oranges. Sometimes we'd go for hikes up on Tiger Tail. That's way before there were any homes up there." 
     "Was Santa Monica Boulevard busy back then, where you lived?" 
     "Well, Santa Monica Boulevard changed names from Oregon Avenue somewhere in the 1930s. Most of the big stores were in downtown Santa Monica. Then later on, along Santa Monica Boulevard, in W.L.A., we got the Boulevard Store, and Bear’s department store, close to Sawtelle boulevard. They had clothing and shoes. There were restaurants, and a couple of hotels on top of the businesses. They're closed now. The library was there, the Tivoli Theater (the Royal Theater today) at Colby Avenue. It was built in '29 and the Nu-Art was built in '31. And we went to the movies a lot, if we could scrape up a dime. A dime was hard to come by in those days. That's what started the gangs, all the gangster movies. The guys couldn't afford suits, so they would get their dad's old suits or get them from the secondhand store." 
     “What kind of work did my grandfather do?” 
     “…Mostly he worked in nurseries and gardening. He had a Greek boss, Paul. He worked with Paul from about 1934 to--oh, let's see, about '39. They used to grow flowers at the north end of where the Veterans Cemetery is today, before they extended it. They would sell the flowers to people going to downtown L.A. or to people visiting the veterans' cemetery. My dad just went up to him one day and asked him for a job, and Paul said, 'Yeah, I can use you,' and he liked my dad…. Then Paul moved the business to El Segundo. In those days, it was too far to take a bus, back and forth, so my dad stayed out there all week and came home on weekends. Sometimes he walked, what, ten miles? We missed him quite a bit, and it got to be too hard on my mom, so my dad had to quit and come back." 
     “How did he get into massaging people? 
     "I don't know how my dad learned to massage people. I guess in Mexico. And he never charged anybody. People always paid him whatever they could. We had people over our house all the time. He set broken bones and took care of cuts and scrapes. People gave him whatever money they could. You know, quite a few single men lived and worked on the Westside in those days. They came alone from Mexico and Japan, some left behind wives and families. They couldn’t afford to pay a doctor, so my dad took care of them when he could.” 
     “Where did these single men live?” 
     "In La Gara—Cotner Avenue, near Pico Boulevard, there was a boarding house where Japanese men stayed, single men, mostly gardeners, close to Nino Villa's dad’s store. I think the store was like a co-op, a partnership between four Chicano families. It was the first store in the neighborhood. Anyway, as kids, on Thursday nights, we used to sneak out of the house at night and go sit on the curb and watch the prostitutes come and go into the boarding house. I think a Japanese man owned the place." 
     "Why Thursday nights?" 
     "Because from Friday to Sunday, the Japanese men gambled, some of them all weekend. They were real gamblers. So, Sundays were always busy days for my dad. On Saturday nights, you know workers would go to bars and drink too much, get into brawls or accidents and return home with all sorts of injuries. Or during the week, they'd get hurt on the job." 
Raymond Cano, the neighborhood raconteur

     When my cousins and I were kids, my grandfather, Maximiano Cano, who migrated to the States when he was 17 from San Diego Alejandria, Jalisco, would massage our sore arms after we played baseball or a pulled something horsing around. He was an expert at healing different types of injuries. 
     My dad said, "Sometimes, my dad earned $6.00 a week, more money from massaging people than he did at his regular job. In those days $6.00 was a lot of money. Most men made $2.00 a day." 
     In his older years, my grandfather moved in with us for a spell. People would come to our house asking for Don Maximiano to look at a child's injured arm or leg. My grandfather would take out this little brown bottle with an orange label (name and directions in Spanish), a fearful smelling potion. He’d rub and rub, feeling for knotted muscles, broken bones, or just tension. It always hurt, at first, something awful, but the more he rubbed and kneaded the muscles, warming the injured limb, the pain would begin to ease. The smell of the ointment sweetened. He'd wrap the limb in a white cloth, slap on a splint or sling if needed, make the sign of the cross over the forehead, and tell the patient to come back the next day. Usually, in a few days all was as good as new. 
     Ironically, my dad, somehow, picked up the skill. He used the familiar ointment to massage family and friends who would come to the house for treatment. When I asked him how he learned, he shrugged, as if he wasn't sure. Some of his friends told me that he knows what he is doing. "He can feel the lumps in the muscles and massages until they're gone," one man told me. 
     In 1939, my dad recalled, many people on the Westside still had chickens and ducks, though few owned horses or cows. "But Grandpa had two cows," my dad said. "He kept them in a vacant lot close to our house on Sawtelle Blvd., right near the Nu-Art [theater]. Me and kids from the neighborhood would try to ride the cows for fun." 
     “Wasn’t my grandfather afraid someone would steal the cows?” I asked. 
     My dad said, smiling, "There weren't too many cattle rustlers left in Sawtelle in those days…nobody really worried about the cows disappearing. I guess my dad was the last cattle baron in West L.A." 
     “Do you remember much about the Depression or how it affected families in town?” 
     "I was too young to realize what the Depression was. I know we went barefoot a lot, and we didn't have great food, but we ate, you know…everybody was poor then, but you didn't know you were poor." He thought a moment. "Here there were ranches, and you could go pick verdolagas and lima beans, or bring string beans home to cook." 
     He was lost in thought, then said, "A lot of the Mexican women didn't like some of the modern appliances, like the washing machine, sinks, or bathtubs. They didn't like that after washing clothes or dishes, or showering, the water disappeared into pipes. When they washed by hand, they could throw the water into the gardens or wash off the porches, or throw it on the dirt to keep the dust down." 
     He smiled and said, "Families couldn't afford electricity, so ice was really important. There was a large ice company on Barrington Avenue, right off of Olympic Boulevard. People respected the iceman, as much as the doctor. Ice was a big business in those days. My mom had a calendar on kitchen wall, right next to the icebox. When the iceman came to deliver ice, he would check off the delivery date, and come back right on schedule." 
     As he spoke, he remembered, "Iceboxes didn't keep the food cold for very long, so my mom had to plan meals carefully, so we wouldn't have too many leftovers or spoiled food. That's why they sent us to the grocery store, sometimes, every day. Spoiled food caused bacteria, and you could get sick. With the three boys in the house, we didn't have many leftovers."
     The way he explained it, no one wasted food or water. In 1914, when Mulholland's brought water from the Owens Valley into the Los Angeles, few families had showers or bathtubs. When families bathed, it was in metal tubs, tinas, in Spanish. The first kid in got the cleanest water. If you had the bad luck to bathe last, and you had a big family, to find clear water, you had to kick aside the muck floating on the surface. 
     My grandfather was one of the first in La Gara to rent a house with running water and a bathtub. 
     My dad said, "Everybody, all our relatives, came over to take baths. Our house was crowded all the time." 
     If families needed gas for cooking, they had to go outside to the meter and put in a coin. Before the meters, people used too much gas. He laughed, "The Villas were still using a wood burning stove in the 1950s." 
      "They liked it, I guess. You know, people just get used to doing things a certain way." 
     His westside neighborhood was racially mixed, Mexicans and Japanese, old families and new, but in the 30s Anglos from Oklahoma and Arkansas started arriving, migrants from the Dustbowl, and African-Americans from Texas and Louisiana, like the Wilsons and the Chases, the only two black families in the neighborhood, but the most educated and sophisticated. 
     Mrs. Wilson belonged to NAACP. She was strict and would not let her son go out to play until her son finished his homework. He played piano, earned A grades in school, and was one of the few kids in the neighborhood would attend college. He was track star, the same with the Chase boy. When they weren’t studying, the two boys would hang out with the Mexicans. 
     When I asked him about racial tension, he grew a little pensive, and answered, "What was there to be racial about? We were all poor. Oh, we had our little fights, but it was never racial. We made up the next day." He cracked a smile, "You know the first words out of an Okie baby's mouth?" 
     I shook my head. 
     "Mama, Papa, and Bakersfield!" he said and then chuckled. "Heavy told me that one." 
     Heavy came to La Gara from Oklahoma with his family in the 30s and became a hometown mainstay, hanging out mostly with Mexican. It seems, to Oklahomans, getting to Bakersfield was making it to the promise land, where many Oklahoma families settled, including Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.
     "How did people from Oklahoma end up in Sotel?" 
The original theater on SM boulevard, where kids learned about gangs

     "I asked Heavy about that one time," my dad answered. "Heavy said, 'Hell, Ray, Route 66 came right up Santa Monica Boulevard. We drove any farther we'd end up in the damn ocean. So, we just put 'er in reverse, backed up a few miles and here we are.' "A lot of Okies and Arkies lived in Sawtelle. We all grew up together. I remember, one morning, maybe in the early '30s, my brother Nick walked from the house to the front yard. He came back inside and told my dad there was an old jalopy parked out front. My dad went outside and saw a family sitting around a wood fire, trying to heat water. They were poor. My dad told my mom to make some food for them. She scrambled eggs and potatoes and made them burritos. My dad took the food outside. They just kept staring at the burritos. They'd never seen them before. But they ate them." 
     Unlike the families in Santa Monica who had a long history in the area, going back to the 1790s, the West L.A. Mexican families came to Sherman (West Hollywood) from Mexico, by way of El Paso and San Bernardino, experienced railroad workers. Sherman was a railroad town, with a true barrio, and home to an important switching station where Huntington sent his trains across the Southland.
     When they finished their work in Sherman, the Mexican families looked west and heard about work in the brickyards, nurseries, gardens, and construction sites. Looking for the cheapest housing, they moved to La Gara, Cotner Avenue, near the railroad tracks on Sepulveda boulevard, between Santa Monica and Pico boulevards, the cheapest housing in town. 
     "It was really those families who brought Mexicans to Sawtelle," my dad said, "like the Villas, Escobars (owners of the Casa Escobar restaurants), Escamillas, Sapiens, Saenz, the families who came from Sherman." 
     The Mexican families who first settled in Cotner, even before the Japanese, in the 1920's, and before, were related, like the Redondos, the Arujos, and the Pinos, or his own family, the Canos and the Escarcegas. Many of the families who settled in Sawtelle came from the same towns in Mexico, mostly from Guanajuato, Jalisco, Michoacan, and Chihuhua. 
Out of La Gara and into the suburbs

     When one family found work, their Anglo bosses encouraged them to send for their relatives, which they did. They sent word to Mexico, and in no time others followed. Employers quickly understood that men worked better when they worked with relatives because if one didn't work hard enough, the others would make sure he did. 
     Like my father, many of the men who told me their family stories, said employers were always asking for more workers.  At the Port of Entry in El Paso, most Mexicans paid a small fee and crossed into the U.S., often coming to jobs already promised them. My dad said sometimes houses were packed with relatives because so many were arriving from Mexico, and there wasn't enough housing. 
     As he talked, my father said, as if suddenly remembering, his father and his friends' fathers always demanded that their children respect people in positions of authority, "…especially their elders, teachers and the police." 
     In rural Mexico, the church and parents represented the authority. They demanded their children's respect, and they expected their children to extend the same respect to adults outside the home. Men, like my grandfather, saw themselves as coming to a new country, and since they themselves could not speak English and communicate their gratitude, they expected their children, by their behavior, to do it for them.


tisha said...

Daniel, Thank you for bringing this history to light. I taught students from the Pico neighborhood in Santa Monica for 17 years. I can't wait to share it with them.

Daniel Cano said...

That would be great. I do have other posts on la bloga specifically about Santa Monica and what is today called the Pico Neighborhood. Let me know how I can help, if needed.

Unknown said...

Oh what a lovely story. At 76 now,I remember "taking the Sunday ride with my Tata in his buick, me little in the back seat and him telling stories of "how it used to be" Did not mean much at the time but I do remember the most is there was so much farmland! Most important I think is that he taught me that all people are the same in the struggle to survive. He was a self made man of property..and believe me no one in our family needed for anything. Cruz Duran your rocked. Now I want to cry. Glad I read your story today Daniel. Peace

Sylvia Villasenor Campbell said...

My given name is Sylvia Villasenor, I am the granddaughter of Maria Arujo Redondo who lived on Cotner right next door to the Light plant, actually many of my relatives lived on that street. My grandfather Yesdro Redondo and my grandmother migrated to California from Casa Grande, Arizona around 1924 in a 1920 model T, along with their 4 children, my mother was one of them. My mothers name was Hortensia Redondo I'm sure being one of the Cano's you would have known of her. I must say this article or blog brings so many memories to me, the house that you show in this blog I remember well,and I remember who lived there, Dickie and his sister and their mother of course. Thanks for the wonderful insight into the bygone days!

Daniel Cano said...

Sylvia, if you are from the West L.A., Mar Vista, Culver City Villasenors, or related to Pepper, your history goes way back. My dad always talked about the Villasenors, who in the 1920s-30s, lived in Brentwood when it was still ranch land. My dad's good friend was Joe Redondo, and used to hang out with Lily Redondo's (Gomez) son, Raymond. My dad also told me the Redondos were one of the early Westside family. Glad the story connected with you, and with UNKNOWN in the text above.

Daniel Cano said...

Sylvia, then you must also be related to Manuel and Calix Arujo. The last time I saw Dickie I was going to the Nuart, must have been, at least, twenty years ago.

Elias said...

Another classic set of Westside stories. You capture your dad's voice very well. Write on, essay.