Alfred Aguirre, a sturdy man of 80, stood at the glass case and studied the old pictures displayed in public for the first time as part of a new historical exhibit. With the roughened fingers of a lifelong laborer, he proudly pointed to a black-and-white image that documents the history of Mexican Americans in Orange County.
"I went to all these segregated schools," said Aguirre, who raised seven children in the Placentia barrio where he was born. "See, I'm right in the middle here."
The photo shows a strapping teenager at Chapman School, one of several so-called Mexican schools common throughout the county in those days. The year was 1934; Aguirre was 14.
Across the exhibit room on another wall, the World War II veteran is pictured as a young man in the the company of fellow vets who had attended those same schools. After serving their country, the men felt they had earned the right to fight for integrated schools for their children.
And they won, uniting with working folks from several neighborhoods, or colonias, to end school segregation in Orange County. Aguirre--a stonemason who still lives in the Placentia home he built in 1948--now has a lot to show for his efforts. His grown children include two attorneys, an architect, a schoolteacher and a psychologist.
Such are the stories gleaned through the 100 old photographs of this exhibit, which opened this week and runs through spring 2001 at Santa Ana's Old County Courthouse. They are stories virtually ignored by official histories and library archives, as if early Mexican Americans and their network of neighborhoods never existed until now.
"This says we're not recent immigrants," said Roy Aguirre, 42, a Newport Beach architect who accompanied his father and brother, Santa Ana lawyer Rick Aguirre, to Tuesday's opening-night reception. "We've been here. We have a foundation here. This is definitely home, and it's been home for quite some time."
The Aguirres were among several old-time families who mined their private photo collections for this unique display. It's the brainchild of photographer and artist Yolanda Morelos Alvarez, a mother of two and graphic designer at Chapman University. The Santa Ana native spent months going house-to-house, collecting photographs and memories from residents of the county's old colonias, the nuclei of our modern barrios.
Through images of daily life, Alvarez has created a collage of the community. She called it "Fire In The Morning," inspired by a passage written by one of her sources, Dan Gomez, 61, a lifelong resident of El Modena near Orange.
In it, Gomez remembers the rural sights, sounds and smells of his neighborhood at dawn. The heartwarming aroma of hand-formed flour tortillas cooking on a hot comal. The rumbling sound of trucks making their rounds as they picked up men for another workday in the citrus groves.
And especially the sight of hard-working wives and grandmothers venturing into the damp morning fog to rake eucalyptus leaves, leaving them in tall, tepee-shaped piles along the edge of the road. The women would ignite the piles, filling the crisp morning air with the sweet smell of slowly burning leaves mixed with the aroma of wet dirt.
"As if signifying the breaking away from the night's darkness into the light of a new day--or a chance to renew one's spiritual energy--each one of these burning mounds would create smoke that slowly swirled up to the sky with shafts of morning sunlight piercing through it, as if to demonstrate one's need to give thanks to God for a new day and a new start," wrote Gomez. "By the time the fire was going well and a ring of warmth surrounded it, neighbors would start to walk over to each other's frontyards to share their stories, life's challenges and dreams for the future."
Those stories--and those dreams--are the essence of this exhibit.
Alvarez, the curator, started her research in Logan, a small Santa Ana barrio where her maternal grandparents settled after moving from Mexico. She laments the large gaps in her own family history, a history which, ironically, was rarely discussed at home.
"My mom didn't ask questions (about the family roots) because it was considered rude," Alvarez told me after the well-attended opening. "It was like you're prying."
Alvarez discovered, however, that eliciting stories from other families was relatively easy. All she had to do was ask. People would retrieve photo albums from boxes in their closets and garages. As the pictures tumbled out, so did the memories.
In her research, Alvarez traced the close personal ties that connected the county's 40 to 50 colonias, with names like La Conga, Artesia and Delhi. Though small and dispersed amid orchards and fields, the barrios were linked by a network of social relationships, which often led to marriage. Residents met each other through dances, churches, schools, festivals and car clubs, like the Classics, Penguins, Aces and Night Owls.