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FIRST PERSON / GREG HERNANDEZ

Barrio Reunion Becomes Lesson in Own Heritage

May 30, 1993|GREG HERNANDEZ

Growing up in a middle-class housing tract in Orange County, inhabited by white families, I had steadfastly avoided learning about my Latino heritage.

I thought of myself as a typical Southern California kid, spending long summer days at the beach or the mall. My five siblings and I didn't want to seem different from the other families in our cul-de-sac.

Our denial was so deep that when my parents occasionally tried to speak to us in Spanish, we refused to respond until they addressed us in English.

As a result, I knew little about what life had been like for my parents and how they grew up in their Santa Ana barrios. I never asked.

That changed this spring when I was sent on a reporting assignment that became an unexpected lesson in personal history.

I was assigned to cover a reunion of people who lived in a barrio in west Santa Ana from the 1940s through the '60s.

It wasn't until I arrived at the Garden Grove Community Center and glanced at a map outlining the neighborhood that I realized this had been my father's barrio.

"I think my father is from your neighborhood," I said to organizer Manuel Esqueda.

"Well, who is your father?" he asked.

"His name is Ray Hernandez," I replied.

A look of recognition appeared on Esqueda's face. Suddenly, I felt transformed from reporter to family friend.

"I knew your father!" he said, looking hard into my eyes. "And your uncles and your aunts. It is very nice to meet you. Please sit down."

Esqueda, a 70-year-old retired banker, explained how he had wanted to hold a high-profile event to let everyone know about the successful business people, lawyers, artists, musicians and religious leaders who came from his old neighborhood.

"Latino youngsters need to see that positive things have happened in the past--that we have opened doors," Esqueda explained.

In talking to this man, who has dedicated himself to sending young Latinos to college through a scholarship program, I began to feel like someone in dire need of a few history lessons.

And this reunion was filled with history--hundreds of people who were happy to share with me their knowledge and their experiences. I found myself not only taking notes for my story, but for myself.

Some of them talked fondly about the closeness they all had shared and how their neighbors were really more like family. You didn't need to lock your door in those days, they said, and if you needed a baby-sitter, you hollered to the person next door.

But the memories were not all good.

They also talked about the racial discrimination they faced during those years--how they were forced to attend segregated schools where they were forbidden to speak Spanish and how they were relegated to the back rows of movie theaters regardless of how many empty seats remained in front.

Tears welled in the eyes of some as they recalled particularly painful episodes of racial bias. But I was struck by the remarkable lack of bitterness.

Most said the situation simply made them more determined to succeed. My father always displayed that work ethic and now it was clear where this came from.

Although my father didn't know about the reunion, I felt his presence as I wandered through the crowd of about 400 people. I met dozens of people who knew him, and they shared anecdotes and memories.

One of my father's friends was Al Hernandez, who is now an executive with Coca-Cola. He told me a story about how he, my father and my uncle spent a summer picking oranges. He laughed as he remembered how they once came upon a beehive and had to run for their lives.

"We were orange pickers as kids--that was our summer activity," he said. "We would also go to Fresno to pick grapes. It's good to see that there are other opportunities now."

I also ran into Angie Iniguez, with whom both my parents had worked at a shoe plant in Garden Grove in the 1960s.

Unaware of the connection, I introduced myself and her eyes instantly filled with tears.

"The last time I saw you, you were 7 years old!" she said as she took my hand. "Your father and my husband were great friends."

With deadline looming, I was forced to leave this reunion much sooner than I wanted to. I could have talked to these people all night.

After returning to the newsroom and writing the story, I thought a lot about the people I met at the reunion and the stories I heard. It was impossible not to be deeply affected in a personal way and not to feel a natural connection.

The entire experience greatly enhanced my sense of identity and made me feel much closer to the roots I had been so determined to ignore.

I really didn't know what I had been missing.

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