by Judy Polanco
Trumpet-shaped white lilies and marigold chrysanthemums encased the front yards as far as the eye could see. Slowly and patiently the vine of a sweet pea found a friend in a metal link of a fence while its delicate flowers bathed in the afternoon sun. Jubilant laughter from frolicking girls and boys echoed throughout the block while the watchful eyes of the neighborhood mothers looked on. This was the Barrio of La Verne during the 1940s, a place where a neighborhood became a community. The Barrio runs along Walnut Avenue, stretching from B Street to D Street. The modest homes, constructed by its early 1900s inhabitants, are representative of an era past.
Chickens, rabbits and goats once inhabited the backyards of the homes. On the side-yards grew numerous types of vegetables, but no fruits. There was no need for fruit trees since the majority of Barrio residents worked in the orange and lemon groves. Sons knew that on Saturdays and Sundays they would be helping their fathers with the picking of the citrus fruits in the fields. Those families that resided in the Barrio did so because of the communal stability. “It was a happy place,” remembers Emanuel Soteros.
Betty Castellano recalls the migrations of her late husband Jesse, and his family throughout the years. “Jesse’s family would go up north to follow the crops of the season, and they considered that to be a vacation,” says his wife.
By all respects, the Barrio was self-contained and self-sufficient. Our Lady of Guadalupe was erected by the hands of crop pickers, the first Barrio residents, during the early 1900s. It stood at the corner of Palomares (now Arrow Highway) and A Street and was “built by poor people,” according to Mary Escandon. Every day, the retired women of the community would attend mass in the morning and pray the rosary at night. Flowers from the gardens of the Barrio residents decorated the inside of the church.
During Holy Week, the Church would be adorned with Easter and china lilies so fresh that a slight hint of dirt would mix with the lilies’ heavenly fragrances.
“On Easter Sunday, that Church was so beautiful…nothing bought; everything was grown,” reminisces Escandon. “And in May, the little girls offered flowers to the Mother of Mary all dressed in white, with white veils.”
Our Lady of Guadalupe was not just a religious sanctuary, it was representative of the values within the Barrio: togetherness, harmony, dedication and strength.
“Within the Barrio community, home, church and school were all very important,” says Castellano.
Palomares was the school for the majority of Barrio children. It was necessary for some families to have their children work in the fields instead of attending school. But those who worked were not looked down upon by other children of the Barrio. All the residents of the Barrio knew that the Barrio was a stepping stone to something more in life, not the final plateau.
In order to reach this plateau, sacrifices had to be made. Castellano remembers when Jesse’s brothers and sisters would work his picking shifts so that he would have the opportunity to concentrate on his education. The Castellano family wanted Jesse to strive for something more. So without complaints, his siblings would add on three extra hours of work, picking and packing citrus fruits. “Even though there were 10 children in Jesse’s family, they knew how to remain very close knit, and no one asked for anything in return,” says Castellano.
Under the canvas of a luminous midnight blue sky, a screeching town siren would sound to enforce the city curfew at 9 p.m. Those children who stayed out past the curfew were taken to City Hall, reprimanded, and were released only after their parents claimed them. By curfew time, mouths were fed, dishes were cleaned, children were bathed, and families retired for the night. There would be two to three children to a bedroom that was barely capable of adequately housing one. And, yet, numerous families successfully put the old adage, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” to the test.
Every Saturday morning, starting at 10 o’clock, a distant whistling and thundering could be heard growing closer and closer to the Barrio; its final destination: the depot. The Barrio was sandwiched between railroad tracks that passed alongside the backyards. Nevertheless, what appeared to be a nuisance actually allowed for increased self-sufficiency. Residents would utilize the Pacific Railroad as a means to travel into Pomona where they would purchase clothing and other apparel. “Life in the Barrio was simple; they didn’t have a lot of extras,” says Castellano.
Extras were not a necessity. The values of church, education and home were paramount to the strengthening of family and community – values that continue to span generations.