Thursday, May 09, 2024

On the Road with the Calexico Kid, More than a Game, A Pilgrimage


          Note: This is a revision of a Bloga essay I wrote two years ago. More a mission than an essay, I hope readers are moved by Primo Villanueva's story as I was, especially when I learned UCLA Athletics had never inducted him into its athletic Hall of Fame. Maybe it's about time.                                                                                                                                                                  

Making sure everyone who sees knows

  I recently came across faded photos of my dad, his cousin Rufino "Peanuts" Escarcega behind the camera, and his friends posing at the side of a 1952 or ’53 light colored Chevy. It could be my dad’s car. Our family owned a 1953 light green Chevy. On the driver’s door, someone painted the words: “CALEXICO, Comet ‘Primo’ V,’” and underneath, in large caps, “UCLA.” On second thought, I don't think my mom would have allowed anyone to paint words on our car, not even for Primo.

     I wish my dad was here to tell me the story behind the photos. My best guess is it’s 1954. The photos document a trip my dad, his cousin, and his friends took to Berkeley to watch the Bruin football team battle Cal's tough Bears. Other grainy photos show Cal’s Memorial Stadium, the game inside, and my dad’s friends on the Berkeley streets. I don’t think they would have made the trip if it wasn’t for Primo.


Awaiting the long trip north

     The newspapers dubbed Villanueva, the “Calexico Kid.” A graduate of Calexico High School, a small farming town in the Imperial Valley bordering Mexicali, Primo led UCLA to its first, and only, National Football title in 1954. He racked up more total yards than any other Bruin on the team. Following their young Mexican hero, my dad and his friends weren’t just going to a college football game. They were on a pilgrimage.

     It’s a small photo, and I think I see Dario Sanchez kneeling by the driver’s door. Beside Dario, standing to the rear, it looks like my dad. Next to him in the foreground is George Saenz, and behind George is Richard Sanchez, Dario’s brother. They pose proudly next to Primo’s name. Primo, short for Primitivo, his father’s name.

      Okay, understand, a road trip to Berkeley from West Los Angeles, in the early 1950s, without freeways or major highways, was one hell of a drive. I don’t doubt they had a few “handy sixes” to help them tick off the miles. Why? Because in another photo, Freddie Santana has his arm around my dad’s neck, my dad’s head on his friend’s shoulder. Men, especially Chicanos, don’t usually pose that way in public unless they’ve already knocked back a few. Luckily, "Peanuts," their trusty non-drinking driver, always took the steering wheel.

      Think of it, to reach the San Fernando Valley from West L.A., they had to twist their way around the old Sepulveda Pass, up and over the Santa Monica Mountains, in a car with no power anything. To cross the Valley was a grind, all the way on Sepulveda Blvd, stopping at red lights through every little settlement in San Fernando, Sherman Oaks, Encino, Van Nuys, Reseda, Pacoima, Sylmar, etc. etc. and onto the Saugus, Newhall, and the Grapevine, up Highway 99, then cut across somewhere, maybe outside Modesto, and head west towards the Bay Area. There were few hotels, gas stations, restaurants, or facilities for travelers, and if you were a dark-skin Mexican, forget about it. I can just see them pulling into a Pixley gas station and say, "Fill-er-up, "Primo V" on the side door.


On the streets of Berkeley

     Now, they might have taken the coastal route, old, slow Highway 101, also no easy feat, meandering through farming towns from Oxnard to Santa Barbara, Arroyo Grande, San Luis Obispo, Atascadero to Salinas, then west to San Jose and into Berkeley, what, maybe a 12-to-14-hour drive, pilgrims on the way to a holy site, Cal the Mecca of early college football on the West Coast.

     As I study the photograph, I think, man, UCLA football must have been a powerful draw to get them to make that journey, a self-anointed "Calexico Comet" PR machine. Then I remember, it wasn’t just UCLA football they followed as kids, hoofing it to Westwood from their homes in Sawtelle to watch the Bruins practice. No, it wasn’t just that. It was Primo Villanueva, and the pride these Chicanos, now grown men, must have felt as the kid from Calexico wowed L.A. fans each weekend under the bright lights.


Patience, like all pilgrims

     Primo played for one of the greatest football coaches to ever walk the sidelines, Red Sanders. What must it have been like for Primo, a minister’s son, a kid from the poor side of town, in a farming town that was poor anyway, to know a football icon wanted him to move to Los Angeles and play for his team, at the time, one of the best in the country, and a university in Westwood, filled with mostly wealthy "White" kids, who have had the best of everything, including education?


"Halftime," another tradition in the ritual 

     To many of us Chicanos in Los Angeles, even non-UCLA fans, Primo was a god. He’d dominated high school football, basketball, and other sports in Calexico, the Imperial Valley, and San Diego County. At UCLA, he became an idol to thousands of kids across Los Angeles and California, and at a time when Chicano kids needed someone to look up to.

     When Hollywood and the media flooded us in the ‘50s with images of Mexicans as lazy, dirty, thieves, and slackers, Primo showed the true side of our community, where the majority were law-abiding, hardworking people contributing to the development of this country, striving to educate their kids, and give them a good life, or like my dad and his friends, WWII vets, who had been prepared to sacrifice everything.

    Primo, as a running back, led UCLA’s offensive with 886 yards. He helped UCLA to an undefeated year, 9-0. If that wasn’t enough, he also played defensive back, helped win the PCC League and take the Bruins to a national championship, where they beat Maryland, the defending champs.


One of the college greats

     This kid, he was a kid, barely 19, when he arrived in Westwood, came in on the heels of the finest UCLA quarterbacks, of the day, Paul Cameron, yet, some say, Primo had a better arm than Cameron. When Primo took the helm his senior year, he shone brightly among UCLA’s superstars, powerhouse athletes like All Americans Jack Elena, Jim Salisbury, and Bob Davenport. We aren’t talking about good athletes here. We are talking about the best in the nation, playing for one of the toughest coaches. Open the L.A. Times after any UCLA game, and Primo’s name would be plastered on the sports page.

     As a kid, I remember my dad, his relatives, and friends couldn’t stop talking about Primo. Sometimes, my cousin Rufino Jr. and I would be the only kids scrunched in the car, "Peanuts," as always, drove each Friday night to the Coliseum. We had to get there early to see the players step down from the bus and walk into the Coliseum tunnel, fans calling out to their favorite players. My dad called Primo’s name. He’d always wave. After the game, the fans rushed on to the field to touch or shake hands with the players. One time, my dad pushed his way through the crowd, so I could gawk up at the towering Chicano in a UCLA football uniform, number 19.

     After the field had emptied, we still weren’t done. My dad and his friends waited for the players to walk up the ramp, in coats and ties, out of the Coliseum, and into the adoring fans, shaking hands and giving autographs. I can still hear my dad and his friends yelling, as if they were kids, “Primo! Primo! Primo!” A few times he'd stop by to chat. They weren't embarrassed to wrangle him to one side.

     Primo did exactly what he promised his mom, in a letter printed in the Calexico Chronicle, “I’ll make every effort to achieve success in my future schooling and will always feel I share my athletic honors or victories with the people of Calexico.” (Eric Preven, City Watch)

     Coincidentally, my wife hails from Calexico, California. Her brothers played high school football, and, of course, I had to ask them if they knew Primo. Her oldest brother, who received a football and athletic scholarship to Dartmouth, told me when he played for Calexico High School, the coach gave him Primo’s helmet, mainly because it was the largest and the only one that fit.

     My father-in-law, Fernando, who also played high school football in Calexico, told me fans would caravan from Calexico and across the Imperial Valley, each season, to watch Primo play. He said on one trip, he and his friends got into a bad car accident, but even that didn’t stop them from attending the game. After stopping to get patched up, they made it to the Coliseum, wrapped in bandages, watching Primo pull out another victory.

     In December 1954, returning home, a National Title for UCLA under his belt, Primo received the keys to the cities of Calexico and Mexicali and rode in a parade through town. The big city hadn’t changed him. Coaches and teachers said he was still the same person he was when he left.

     I have visited Calexico over the years disappointed, today, there is little recognition of Primo, or his younger brother Danny, a punter and field goal kicker for UCLA, the Los Angeles Rams, and the Dallas Cowboys. I would have thought for sure the high school might be named after Primo, or if not, at least the football field, gym, locker room, maybe even a swimming pool, to keep his name alive, a role model for the newest generations of Calexico Bulldogs.

     But I was also disappointed to learn Primo wasn’t even in the UCLA Football Hall of Fame. How could that be? From his tailback position, which in 1954 was more like a quarterback, he ran, passed, caught passes, and blocked clearing the way for others to score. He returned punts and kickoffs. He not only played offense but defense, intercepting a key pass from Stanford’s great quarterback, John Brodie, as sportswriter Dick Hyland wrote it, "If Villanueva was the hero, Stanford was the victim.... The Calexico kid stopped the Stanford picking off John Brodie's pass and engineering a 46-yard march to the first Bruin touchdown."

     Primo was an All-American football star. But no, nothing, no mention of the man, not at UCLA or in Calexico, at a time when heroes are so desperately needed. In his hometown, most public facilities are named after…who knows, ex principals, superintendents, parents of city council or school board members? When books, films, and plays need powerful characters in stories, why not a Primo Villanueva?

     Here was a kid, who one day was playing football in front of a few hundred fans in high school, and in the next years was playing in front of 101,000 fans in the heart of Los Angeles, at a time when college football was more popular than the pros, and each Friday night all eyes were on the Coliseum.

     Doesn’t it only seem right that his own university should induct him into its Hall of Fame. Maybe it’s about time. How about a few emails to UCLA’s new athletic director, Martin Jarmond: My guess is even he might not have heard of one of UCLA’s greats, the Calexico Kid. A simple, "Please induct Primo Villanueva into UCLA's Football Hall of Fame," would do.


Anonymous said...

My dad peanut’s was the designated driver which back then was never even thought of till more recently as you know my dad didn’t drink and he was the one who took the photos and yes they loved primo and their bruins, and you and I got to witness some great bruin wins and football players

Juan Yniguez said...

Daniel, Your bloga resonates with me for numerous reasons. I was born in 1953, too young to know of Primo’s exploits. However, my dad Tony, was a “Mexican American” pioneer, a Berkeley grad (Class of ‘49). He was a rabid Berkeley fan, even though they were at best mediocre throughout my childhood. When I was a youngster, about twice a year, my dad and mom would pack us three kids into our ‘58 Chevy station wagon and we would head from Sacramento to Berkeley to watch the Bears. It was only an hour and a half trek but what an adventure. We’d arrive early to march with the band and the cheerleaders from the Campanile to the Stadium. On the way, we’d pass the huge frat house with bare chested young men and beautiful young women drinking beer and having a great time. Then we would get the only seats my parents could afford in the end zone. At some point my mom would break out the sandwiches or tacos and soft drinks. And, of course we reveled in watching the game and the big-time college atmosphere.

Here’s the kicker. My mom had two years of college at Sac State. My dad earned two BA’s, a Teaching Credential, and a Master’s
degree, with one BA and the Credential from Cal. They never preached about the need to go to college but they were sneaky. After these wonderful fall treks to Berkeley - cheerleaders and beautiful girls included - there was never any doubt in my mind that I was going to college! In my dad’s honor, I thought I would go to Cal for grad school, but UCLA was the better choice. Of course, I never told him that I was a secret UCLA fan. Kids can be sneaky too!

You bet, I’ll send my note to UCLA supporting Primo’s induction into the Hall of Fame!

Daniel Cano said...

Thanks for the comments, and the information. I wondered who was behind the camera, and why Rufino "Peanuts" Escarcega wasn't in the photos. I will make some changes.

jmu said...

Well, if you want to nominate Primo, then you have to fill this form and send it in (note that you will then be forever in their data base and you will be hit for money!):