Swallowed up by the city of Orange years ago, the old four-square-mile barrio town of El Modena has little left these days that would distinguish it from its surroundings.
But as hundreds of old friends, neighbors and families came together for a reunion at Moreno's restaurant Saturday night, 81-year-old Steve Demara said he remembers his old hometown as if it were yesterday.
"I'm one of the oldest ones left from El Modena," Demara said, displaying a 1924 photo of himself and all the other students in front of the Lincoln school, long ago demolished.
In the background, he pointed out, a new school was being built next door just for white and Japanese children. "They moved into the new school in 1925, and then we were segregated. After that they called this the Mexican school," recalled Demara, now a resident of Orange.
"After the school was segregated it wasn't what it used to be," Demara said. "We were always fighting with the white children, so we couldn't go to recess at the same time."
The division of the community's children spawned deep tensions, Demara said. But it also forged bonds among the Mexican families of El Modena that are still evident today.
"It was like a real close family," recalled Bertha Rios of Santa Ana, who organized the first reunion six years ago. Since then, it has been held every two years at the sprawling Chapman Avenue restaurant owned by her brother, Harvey Rios, and his wife, Eleanor.
This year's celebration--featuring a live band, a DJ and a seven-piece mariachi band--was expected to draw about 500 people. And if the story of the Rios family is any example, the town of El Modena was pretty much like one big family.
Harvey and Bertha Rios' grandfather ran a bakery. Their father had a little grocery store on the property where they were raised, on the corner of Earlham Street and Washington Avenue. In 1959 Harvey married Eleanor, the girl who lived in the house behind the store, and went on to become an engineer at Rockwell.
But when the aerospace industry began slowing down about 30 years ago, Harvey Rios, now 62, opened a bakery like his grandfather's. The bakery grew into a restaurant, and eventually the couple moved their business into the grandiose building that was once a Quaker church at the corner of Chapman Avenue and Earlham Street.
The 500-seat traditional Mexican restaurant is just around the corner from where Harvey and Eleanor grew up and fell in love. Harvey's sister Grace Sanchez still owns La Morenita, the little store that was their father's.
As guests poured into the festive restaurant Saturday night, proud parents introduced their grown children to friends from a time gone by.
Ramino Trujillo, 61, showed off photos of the neighborhood and searched the crowd for members of his old neighborhood baseball team. In 1949, when Trujillo was in eighth grade, the team from El Modena won the county championship.
Trujillo said he misses the close-knit feeling of the old neighborhood, but he credits the area's development with opening a lot of doors for its residents.
"It's progress," he said. "Sometimes it just happens. But it helps people too."
Today, many of the guests lamented, the neighborhood has lost its cozy small-town charm.
"It's growing," Sanchez said. "There's a turnover of people, and a whole lot of outsiders."