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The Chavira family's train ride west to a new life in L.A.

The Chaviras and thousands of other families came to California during its biggest boom. They arrived during an optimistic age when suburbs were built and freeways carved through the city. And they gave their children a hold on the American dream.

April 08, 2011|Hector Tobar
  • The Chavira family in Los Angeles, circa 1979. Standing, left to right: Jesse, Aurora, Joe, Maggie and Irene. Seated, left to right: Lupe and parents Guadalupe and Luis.
The Chavira family in Los Angeles, circa 1979. Standing, left to right:…

The Chavira family arrived in Los Angeles in style, riding all the way from El Paso in the passenger cars of the Southern Pacific Railroad.

Guadalupe Chavira came with her five kids, including three girls who were dressed up for the occasion in outfits she had made herself, with scissors and a whirring Singer sewing machine.

"We thought we were rich," her daughter Irene Ayala said with an ironic smile, because of course they were not.

Ayala, now 74, was 8 then. It was 1945, America was at war, and L.A. was booming. Luis, Guadalupe's husband, had been hired here as a boilermaker for the Southern Pacific. He had sent Guadalupe free train passes so that the whole family could relocate.

Luis met his wife and children at Union Station and took them to their new home, a tenement apartment on a nearby hill on California Street.

"He opened the door and we saw there was a big bowl of fruit," Aurora Espino, the oldest of the Chavira children at 77, told me. Oranges, apples, grapes, a first taste of the abundance of California — and a first day in a city that has lifted tens of thousands of poor, working families into good lives.

Guadalupe died last month. She was my wife Virginia Espino's grandmother and the subject, with Guadalupe's late husband Luis, of a column I wrote last year about the links between L.A. and the border towns of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez.

With Guadalupe's passing at age 97, I felt an era coming to an end — and an urge to celebrate the generation whose labor created the city we know today.

The Chaviras and thousands of other families came to California during its biggest boom. They arrived from all over — Louisiana, Iowa, Germany, China — during an optimistic age when suburbs were built and freeways carved through the city.

We often celebrate the returning soldiers of that time — the "Greatest Generation." The factory workers and the entrepreneurs get a lot of ink too. But the moms — not so much.

"It's important to remember the contributions they made, as mothers, as neighbors, as comadres," said Vicki Ruiz, a professor of history at UC Irvine who has written a historical encyclopedia of Latinas in America. "People depended on the family and social networks women built."

Both Guadalupe and Luis were born in Mexico to humble circumstances.

In that California Street apartment — later demolished to make way for the Hollywood Freeway — and on Alpine Street in Chinatown, and finally in Lincoln Heights, Guadalupe raised six children to adulthood (including one born in L.A.) while her husband worked long hours at the railroad.

She helped launch an American family, including children who served in the U.S. armed forces and grandchildren with graduate degrees.

"She was always so elegant and proud of where she came from," my wife said at Guadalupe's funeral Mass. "I wanted to be like her."

We said goodbye to Guadalupe in the brick church in Lincoln Heights where her oldest daughter was married and where my children — her great-grandchildren — were all baptized.

Guadalupe Chavira, an excellent seamstress who was self-taught, made Mexican folk dresses for her daughter Irene to wear at school shows and the prom, and a wedding dress for her youngest daughter, Lupe Molina.

"She made all my bridesmaids' dresses too," Lupe told me.

All her children remember her elaborate daily meals. Having once worked for a German family in Juarez, she often made a dish she called "tacos rusos," or Russian tacos, which were really German crepes stuffed with ground beef and raisins.

Maggie Lederer remembered her mother's steadiness. She fed not only her own six children but also assorted neighbors and guests. And in an era when women washed clothes by hand on scrub boards, "she never complained about anything."

Instead, Guadalupe sang songs by Agustin Lara and other Mexican crooners as she worked — though "Canción Mixteca," with its lyrics lamenting "How far I am from the land where I was born," sometimes made her cry.

Talking to her six children gave me a window into family life in central L.A. in the 1950s. None of the Chaviras ever thought of themselves as poor growing up. "We played kick the can in the street until midnight," Irene told me. "It was wonderful. We didn't have a care in the world."

Aurora remembers walking to nearby La Placita church in the Sunday dresses her mother made. Guadalupe's son Jesse shined shoes there. To buy her groceries, Guadalupe took a short trolley ride to Grand Central Market, returning with 10-pound bags of potatoes that cost 10 cents.

Guadalupe and Luis never studied past grade school in Mexico, and their great ambition was that their kids could enjoy childhoods free of work.

What I remember most vividly about my own visits to Guadalupe's home in Lincoln Heights was the wall covered with portraits of her six children, each in a high school cap and gown. "My father's dream was that we would all finish high school," Irene told me.

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