A Christmas tradition went up in smoke Monday night as fire raced through an old wood-frame house in East Los Angeles that for more than two decades served as a home-away-from-home for hundreds of men from the Mexican town of Buenavista, a small community near Guadalajara.
Although no one was injured in the late night fire, about 25 men who were staying at the house and scores more who traditionally converge on it from across the city and the state to celebrate Christmas Eve together will have to forgo this year's reunion.
The three-bedroom house and an attached dwelling unit, located across the street from the factory where most of the men work, provided a home for single men and temporary living quarters for others whose families had returned to Mexico for the holidays.
"A lot of the guys had just come in from Santa Ana, Santa Maria, San Francisco . . . planning on spending Christmas with us," said Rafael Covarrubios, 36, adding that most years more than 100 men gather at the house for Christmas Eve dinner, followed by a visit to a nearby church for midnight Mass.
"More people will be coming in today. . . . Usually this street gets clogged up with parked cars. There's a big fiesta. . . . Everybody knows this is the place where we can get together and remember our town," he said. "This year, it looks like everyone will have to go their separate ways."
For two generations, the men have been coming north to work at the Southern California Drum Co., a small family run firm that employs about 35 workers renovating metal drums and is located in an industrial pocket of the East Los Angeles community of City Terrace. The firm's founder, his son and grandson, who now operate the business, visited their workers' hometown about four years ago, when they were invited to the wedding of one of their oldest worker's son.
"We're family," said Christopher North, the founder's 22-year-old grandson. "I learned to stack drums with these guys. . . . Somehow we'll take care of each other."
The relationship began about 30 years ago, when Christopher's grandfather first hired a man from the Mexican farming town of Buenavista in the state of Jalisco.
He then "invited some of his friends from the town to come up," said Covarrubios, who has worked about 10 years for the company and whose older brother also worked for the firm. "And that's how we started coming."
While some have retired and returned to Mexico, a younger generation is beginning to take their place, said Christopher North's father, Bill, 46.
Bill North maintains that the relationship that has evolved between the company and the townspeople of Buenavista is not all that unusual in Los Angeles, where factories often have entire work forces that originate from a particular Mexican town as workers help their relatives and friends find jobs at the same place.
But at Southern California Drum, a more personal relationship appears to have evolved in the exchange.
"I've stayed at their homes," Bill North said, explaining why the company had provided living quarters, rent-free, for some of the workers at the house across the street from the plant. The house was purchased at a low price several years ago.
"There are a lot of people from Buenavista in Los Angeles," Covarrubios said. "And this was the place where everybody came to first, to ask how to get in touch with relatives or friends in the area. It's kind of a communication center for us. Now the company will have to be our center."
Fire officials estimate that the fire caused about $50,000 in structural damage and about $1,000 in damage to clothes, bedding and other articles.
While officials requested an investigation for possible arson, a company spokesman said he was told by fire investigators that a possible cause of the fire was a faulty water heater.
North said the company plans to rebuild the house, if salvageable, or "build some sort of replacement housing."
Although the American Red Cross offered the workers temporary lodging Monday night, the workers chose instead to sleep in their cars for the few hours that remained before reporting to work Tuesday at 6 a.m.
Tuesday afternoon, several workers milled around in front of the plant, talking about the fire, packing their meager belongings retrieved from the charred buildings into cars and making arrangements with co-workers to spend Christmas at their homes.