by Christie Reed
photography by Summer Herndon
As the shiny red street car rounded First Street, Robert Rodriguez looked up from his friends and fished through the candy in his pocket for the quarter he saved.
Every week at the same time, the noisy car chugged through the La Verne Barrio, and each time Rodriguez jumped on board for only 5 cents.
“I used to get a quarter, ride the street car to and from Pomona, get a bag of popcorn and watch a movie,” he recalls. “Some times, I would walk home three and a half miles just to save a nickel. A nickel was a lot of money back then,” he laughs, remembering the La Verne Barrio of the 1930s with adoration in his heart.
Cabesas! the street vendor shouted as he traveled the sidewalks of the Barrio. Only a few feet behind, a second vendor offered his goods, Verduras! Verduras! The housewives took off their aprons and tracked the distant ringing, prepared to pay for the fresh delicacies.
“None of us kids would touch them,” says Rodriguez, grimacing at the memory of the sheep or cow head that would sit on his mother’s plate.
However, chasing street cars and making faces at his mother’s dinner are not the only fond memories Rodriguez holds of his Mexican heritage and his childhood in La Verne. Besides the vendors that paced the Barrio streets, the rattle of the trains passing through the city kept a young Rodriguez intrigued.
“We would watch the man break ice and fill up the ice section of the box cars. He would load box cars with oranges, and trains would typically come in and out and haul the oranges,” he recalls.
“The train would occasionally stop for a passenger at the train station. The big thrill would happen when we would watch the train come by and hook the mail bags with some sort of metal arm that would pick up the mail going to L.A.”
Shaking his head, still visualizing the orange groves that filled the city, Rodriguez remembers life as a young Latino in a city that was virtually agrarian. “A man would disk the empty fields every week with a team of mules,” he laughs. “He had false teeth, and whenever he saw us, he would push his teeth out about two inches, and we would go running.”
He was born on Dec. 2, 1929, as the first of five children, and, since then, Rodriguez’s life has been literally rooted in La Verne.
“My parents planted an oak tree in front of our house on the day I was born,” boasts Rodriguez. “That tree is still standing, and it’s as old as me.”
Reared in one of two houses on First Street, he recalls staring through the window of his 20 by 20 foot yellow house at the large orange packing house across the street. This packing house, like the four others in the then rural city, employed the majority of the Barrio, according to Rodriguez.
“In the summertime, most of the Mexican people were orange pickers, and the wives were the orange packers,” he says. “About 5 o’ clock in the morning, the Barrio was alive with the scents of breakfast cooking, while the tiny community prepared to go to work.”
Aside from what he remembers about the Barrio itself, Robert also recalls the story of his parents’ courtship, which began with his mother Concha coming to La Verne to fulfill the position of “housemate” for a lonely old woman. At 18 years of age, she moved to La Verne from Douglas, Ariz., and Eliseo, Robert’s father, followed her all the way from Texas. “My dad came here because of her, courted her and married her,” Rodriguez says.
He remembers his father as both an expert cook and dancer. “He would make dulces or-Mexican candy out of pumpkin, quince and cactus,” says Rodriguez. “He was also a Mexican dancer. He taught the girls how to do the Mexican hat dance.”
Everything, though, was not fun and games in the Rodriguez household. During the day, Eliseo was as “tough as a nail,” says Robert, boasting that when Eliseo migrated to La Verne, he didn’t pick oranges like the rest of the Barrio. Instead, he began his own trade. “He was a plasterer, and that is where I learned some of that trade,” recalls Rodriguez. “He would tell stories of going to work, and the Anglos would chase him off the job. They would tell him to go home and called him names. But he just persisted and kept at it.”
Although his parents were not always treated as equals in the primarily Anglo-Saxon city, Rodriguez says he never experienced the segregation or the racism that was said to exist in La Verne. “I had command of the English language,” he says. “I am dark, but I’m not as dark as other Mexicans.”
As a youngster, Rodriguez attended Lincoln School, as the one of only four or five Latinos in the school. At the height of segregation, Palomares School housed the majority of the Mexicans.
“My mother couldn’t speak English very well, but she managed to tell Mr. Cullen, the principal at the time, that we were north of the railroad tracks, and that meant we were going to Lincoln,” Rodriguez remembers.
Pointing out a dusty softball covered with the faded signatures of Rodriguez and his buddies, he says it reminds him of his eighth grade year and his one encounter with racism that scarred his predominantly happy childhood.
The 12-inch softball has documented on its soft horsehide cover the 1944 baseball season schedule inclusive of all of Lincoln’s games, even their bittersweet win against Pasadena. “We were invited to play a tournament in Pasadena, and we won,” he says, still picturing in his mind the dirty looks from Pasadena team members. “The next year, they didn’t want us back because four of us were Mexican. I think they were intimidated.”
Even while attending Bonita High School, Rodriguez was so caught up in his activities, which included serving as president of the junior class and captain of the football team, that he says he didn’t have time to worry about his race.
In the spring, Sunday afternoons were filled with sports and celebration. Rodriguez describes watching and even participating in La Verne’s semi-professional baseball team, the Merchants. With top athletes such as Yule Blackwell, H.P. Waters and Glenn and Ralph Peters, teams would come all the way from Los Angeles to play against the community baseball team.
Fresh out of high school in 1948, Rodriguez went to Mount San Antonio College in Walnut, where he played football and baseball and took an interest in teaching. In March 1951, his education was interrupted by the Korean War. After joining the army, he spent 11 months teaching cadets how to use an M-1 rifle, while his final eight months were spent on the battlefield in Korea. As a member of the 23rd regiment, Rodriguez credits the war for forcing him and other Latinos to grow up.
“Hispanics have probably won more medals of honor than any other ethnicity,” he says. “Right after World War II, when they got out of the service, they took advantage of the G.I. Bill and government housing and the Barrio kind of disintegrated. With the knowledge they gained from the service and the help they received from the government, the Barrio melted away.”
With a recommendation from a friend in the field, Rodriguez was hired to the Pomona Police Department in 1953 as a lieutenant in charge of training and community relations.
“There were only about 15 policemen, and when I worked the graveyard shift, we only got about one or two calls a night,” he says. “It was a quiet, little quaint town.”
In the meantime, Rodriguez was working toward his ultimate goal of becoming a teacher. He graduated from La Verne College in 1963 with a degree in education and quickly realized that the classroom was not the place for him.
“I realized as a student teacher that I couldn’t be in a classroom everyday. When the kids misbehaved, I felt they were taking advantage of the teacher,” he says.
Being accustomed to telling others what to do and having them respond with a curt “Yes, sir!” he returned to the Pomona Police Department and remained in the force through 1980. His 27-year career in law enforcement ended when he became “disenchanted” with the haughty attitudes of his colleagues. “Times were changing, and so were the attitudes of policemen,” he admits.
Having grown fond of the field of law enforcement, he jumped at the opportunity to become a security guard at the University of La Verne. “I went back to La Verne to get my master’s degree in public administration, and I heard about a security job,” he recalls. “I got the job and stuck with it until I retired.”
Emergency open-heart surgery in January 1996 left him exhausted, which is why he decided to retire from his position as head of security. “I had four major operations, and I am still recuperating,” he admits, claiming that he works out three days a week at the hospital and spends his off days walking. Rodriguez also takes charge of the household, while his wife Fran works as student accounts director at ULV.
“I’m the housewife,” he confesses, pointing to his neatly-trimmed and nicely-decorated backyard. “I have done all the brick work, fixed the fountain and put in planters.” Rodriguez learned the masonry trade from his father. He has also supervised contracting jobs such as the waste disposal project outside of the Brandt Residence Hall, added concrete curbs at the University and supervised the facelift of the Corni’s Corner snackbar at ULV, which included tiling and painting.
Now, with supervising jobs few and far between, Rodriguez has been able to spend more time focusing on the city where he was born and reared.
Serving as a city of La Verne councilman since 1982, Rodriguez feels that La Verne is extremely efficient in its expenditures and hopes that he will help keep the Council moving in the right direction. “It is something that I have secretly prepared for my whole life,” he admits. “I was always involved in La Verne politics.”
Rodriguez’s brother-in-law, Mike Morales was the first elected mayor in La Verne, a feat of which Rodriguez remains very proud. “As a favor to my family, I waited until he stopped running to enter the race,” he says.
During his time in office, Rodriguez has helped build new community buildings, shopping centers and ensured that the 30 Freeway was put below grade level. “We [the Council] have maintained a reserve and kept the quality of life of the citizens high,” he claims. “Other cities spend a lot of money on travel and conferences, but La Verne is very frugal.”
When Rodriguez is not managing La Verne’s finances and attending meetings, he is visiting with his four successful children, three of whom graduated from ULV. His oldest, Jennifer Laposa, graduated from ULV with a degree in business and has since moved to Long Beach. Jeff Peterson, a captain for the La Verne Fire Department, received his degree in Public Administration from ULV and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in business. Linda Knowles, Rodriguez’s third child, received a degree in education from ULV and is teaching across the country in Wasilla, Ala. Lisa Mainiero, whose father-in-law is the late Skip Mainiero, former ULV vice president of administration and finance, is teaching in Montrose, Colo.
“I would have to say that I have had a great life,” Rodriguez admits, still reflecting on the days of orange groves, street cars and penny candy.