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After 55 Years, He's Become One of San Juan Capistrano's Historic Sights

September 02, 2003|H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writer

It would be easy to mistake David Corona for a living-history exhibit.

He usually sits on a bench by a 19th century jail in San Juan Capistrano's historic Los Rios District. Wearing a cowboy hat, the 83-year-old Corona blends in with the weathered wooden houses that are now tony shops and restaurants favored by tourists.

"He so fits in with the old San Juan Capistrano theme. We thought he was the sheriff," said Ann Archibald, visiting with friends from Virginia on a recent weekday.

Corona chuckled when he heard that he was supposed to be on display. Though not a historical curiosity, he has been a familiar figure in old San Juan Capistrano for more than half a century. He even lives in an adobe built in the waning days of Mexican rule in the state.

The native of the Mexican state of Michoacan arrived in town as an illegal immigrant in 1948. In those days, San Juan Capistrano had ranches and farms surrounding its mission, which even then was the only attraction for most outsiders.

But for Corona, who had spent five years working in the fields of the Imperial Valley, San Juan Capistrano offered a cool respite from the desert heat and refuge from the U.S. Border Patrol.

"I was deported 17 times before I got my papers," he said. "I don't think I would've been able to become a legal resident if I hadn't come to San Juan Capistrano."

Since arriving in town, Corona has lived either behind the train depot, which is across the street from the mission, or down the street in the Manuel Garcia Adobe, where he and his wife, Maria Felix, have lived in a second-floor apartment for 43 years.

The adobe, built on Camino Capistrano in the 1840s, is the only surviving Monterey-style adobe in Orange County. A plaque outside says it has been owned by the family of Carmen Oyharzabal since its construction.

By the time he retired in 1991, Corona had worked for Clarence Brown, who used to own hundreds of acres of farmland around San Juan Capistrano; Atsuo James Ito, who built a nursery on the edge of Los Rios District; and Oyharzabal, whom Corona still calls "mi patrona."

He credits all of them for helping him ("a man who can't read or write") make a better life for himself and his family in the United States. His brood includes two daughters, two sons and scores of grandchildren.

Older residents such as Oyharzabal and Ito's son, Douglas, who has known Corona for 33 years, use the Spanish pronunciation of David (Da-VEED) when talking about him. Douglas Ito became the owner of Ito Nursery when his father died.

"David is one of the genuine people in town," Ito said. "I've only known him to be honest and hard-working. He would give you his heart if you needed it. If you talk to any of the old-timers in town, they all have the highest respect for him. I know I do."

Oyharzabal, one of the town's prominent residents, said Corona "has been my lifesaver more times than I can count."

"Over the years, he's always been there whenever I needed something done," she said. "Even now, when he's supposed to be retired. I've never known David to walk away from someone in need."

Corona's charity and loyalty have been repaid by his friends and employers over the years. For instance, his rent has changed little in the four decades he has lived in the Manuel Garcia Adobe.

Brown, who died in the 1960s, grew strawberries and bell peppers near Camino Capistrano and Del Obispo Street, on land now occupied by strip malls and parking lots. Corona worked for him for more than 20 years.

"It was Mr. Brown who took me to the American consulate in Tijuana to arrange my immigration papers," Corona said. "He died the day before he was going to drive me to Santa Ana, where I was going to apply for my citizenship. I never became a citizen."

Although retired, Corona is not idle. He goes to bed at 7:30 p.m. and wakes at 3 a.m., part of a ritual he has followed most of his working life.

"I take a shot of cognac when I get up and thank God for giving me another day of life," he said.

After breakfast, Corona sweeps the sidewalk and curb outside and tends the flowers and plants around the building.

Around midmorning, he and his dog, Rocky, who is usually dressed in a black Harley-Davidson T-shirt, head for the bench on Los Rios Street, around the corner from the train station where he socializes with friends for a couple of hours.

Then he is off to tend the vegetable patch behind the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society building, where Corona also harvests nopales, an edible cactus, from one he planted in 1970, when his daughter lived in the adjacent and now empty adobe. The Ito Nursery is next door.

"Look at Douglas. He was a very young boy when I went to work for his father. Douglas has eaten at my house," Corona said. "He and one or two others are the only ties I have to the old days. Life has been hard at times. But there were also some kind people who have made it a little easier for me."

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