California is not utopia. I don’t think anyplace is.
But still the reason why a lot of what is going on today that passes as a conversation or debate about people living with people who are different doesn’t make any sense to me is probably the fact I’m a fifth generation Californian.
That doesn’t make me special, superior, or anything along those lines. It just molded my perspective, perhaps a bit differently, although I really hope that is not the case given I like to believe that a lot more people get it than don’t.
Coming of age in Lincoln — 85 miles north of Manteca in Placer County — the mayor was Louis DeArcos and the police chief was Robert Jimenez. Both men were World War II veterans and wore the United States uniform. I covered both as a 16-year-old who was paid 15 cents a column inch for stories and $1 per photo working as a stringer for what everyone called the “Weekly Squeak” although my paychecks were imprinted with the words “Lincoln News Messenger.”
Jimenez ended up serving as police chief for nearly 40 years. He got the job by dropping by Gladding, McBean & Co. — a clay products manufacturing company — looking for a job after serving in the war. The foreman who did the hiring told him if he wanted a job go to the city hall. The foreman called ahead and told the city clerk the new police chief was coming in to fill out the necessary paperwork to start the job. Jimenez had no idea he was the new police chief until the city clerk handed him his gun and badge
Years later Jimenez shared the story and mentioned the foreman’s name that I can’t remember but I do recall he was what my mom called a “boisterous Swede.”
Among my circle of friends growing up was Henry Martinez who lived next door to the DeArcos family, Marvin Hata whose grandparents were hauled off to a Japanese internment camp during World War II, Ron Burns whose widowed father later married the widow of a Lincoln Police officer who had been gunned down in cold blood by a trio that robbed a store and laid in wait for him on a sharp country curve, and Mike Brooks who liked to brag that he was an Oakie.
According to census figures back in the 1970s more than a third of Lincoln in Placer County had people with Hispanic surnames.
The only time in high school it hit me that not only were a third of my classmates Hispanic and that I lived in a blue collar town was when Lincoln High would play schools either in what one today might call rough-neck mountain communities or one of the then emerging semi-rural upscale suburbs in the El Dorado Hills. The occasion taunts we’d get going from the bus to the locker room ran the vulgar spectrum from “spic lovers” to “why don’t you go back to Lincoln and get your welfare checks.”
It was likely in the 1970s that things started changing, at least in Northern California. You could argue the influx into California that started accelerating after World War II up ended the southern state first in the 1960s.
The influx wasn’t from south of the border but from east of the state line. Racism without a doubt did exist in California before that. But until World War II ended, the state, even though it had been in a non-stop growth mode since the Gold Rush, had many small towns and small cities like Lincoln where assimilation was a given. That was especially true in the agricultural rich Central Valley. There wasn’t as much a mixture of culture, ethnicities, and social economic levels as there was a blend.
I grew up believing it was normal for business owners, the town’s richest family, welfare recipients, “illegal” immigrants from Mexico, electricians, immigrants from the Azores Islands, dirt-poor working-class families, government workers, and ministers to live on the same block. That’s what it was like in Lincoln before it became infected with its first tract home subdivision in the late 1970s.
I thought Sophia Ruiz having beans simmering all day on her stove for neighborhood kids during the summer that she served with homemade tortillas was as American as apple pie. Summers also meant weekly Saturday night “Mexican” dances at McBean Park attended by a lot of people who weren’t “Mexican”.
Almost every place of employment in Lincoln — except the schools — had a strong mixture of workers and owners whose ancestors came directly to this country from Europe or ended up first in what we today call Latín America that back before 1846 included California. The schools for the most part consisted of “white” educators which I guess makes sense because Lincoln at the time was a true blue collar town. Almost all teachers commuted to Lincoln from Sacramento or Roseville. There were a number of kids that attended high school when I was there that went on to become teachers including those with Hispanic ancestry. When those with Hispanic ancestry were looking for jobs after getting their credential they applied to teach in Western Placer Unified. The pressure was on, though, in more metropolitan school districts to broaden the ethnicity of their facilities and paid significantly better, so Lincoln lost out.
That didn’t change until the children of more recent immigrants to California from Mexico that arrived in the 1960s started moving to Lincoln. While a lion’s share of Lincoln’s Hispanic population before the 1960s had roots stretching back to the late 19th century and early 20th century, the Hispanics that settled in Lincoln the latter part of the last decade were looking for a better life.
Among them was the Ayala family whose father got hired at Gladding, McBean & Co. His oldest son Rafael had to learn English while Ruben I believe was schooled 100 percent in Lincoln schools. They played semi-pro soccer for the Lincoln Aztecs that defined Latin-style play much to the frustration of other teams in the league. They also followed in their father’s footsteps working at the pottery making clay sewer pipe and roof tiles as they worked their way through college.
In high school they played football, basketball, and baseball. When Lincoln finally added soccer Rueben’s senior year, the football coach was beside himself given it was played in the fall and he knew that his star player’s first love was soccer. Rueben ended up playing both.
Rafael was on the varsity basketball team that then coach Dale Pence was able to take all the way to the Northern California Tournament of Champions in Burney. On the team was a player whose family moved to Lincoln from Mexico his sophomore year. Reynaldo Maldonado was an athletic soccer player. Pence saw potential in him as a basketball player even though he had never played the game. He also could not speak English. It was interesting to watch his development on the court during games as he was still trying to grasp English.
Years later Rey and his wife ended up taking the same Jazzercise classes I did.
As for Rafael, he ended up becoming an American citizen and a Lincoln Police officer. In a way he might be considered a DREAMer today based on his circumstances. His brother Rueben become one of Lincoln High’s first, if not the first, teacher with Hispanic heritage as well as a coach.
You’d be amazed at the positive influence the two brothers have had on young people of every color of the rainbow and from every possible cultural and social background one can imagine.
You’ve got to wonder how many other Rafaels and Ruebens there are that are DREAMers caught in limbo or who want to legally immigrant to this country but can’t because of a dysfunctional immigration policy. It’s a policy, quite frankly, that is the result of ineptness on both sides of the aisle and has become impossible to fix because of extreme bellowing and outlandish demands on the left and right.
No one should be saying open the borders, abolish ICE, or round up everyone not here legally to send them back to where ever. I get there are thieves, thugs, and murders among those who are trying to enter the country. But with a sound immigration policy, those concerns can be addressed. We should work on putting in place a solution that doesn’t overwhelm us yet allows a strong enough flow of new blood that has been what has allowed America to go from a colony to a world class economic power in less time than any country in the history of mankind.
Immigrants, by the very nature of what they are doing are — for the most part — bold, industrious, resourceful and hard workers seeking a better life. If that doesn’t embody the spirit of America, I don’t know what does.
We need a functional and realistic immigrant policy as much as we need secure borders. We need more Ruebens and we need more Rafaels.
This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Journal or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at email@example.com or 209.249.3519.