by Christie Reed
photography by Jamie Bigornia
When Gloria Diaz’s mother pressed her infant’s tiny hand in the wet cement of the new patio, the eternal imprint symbolized more than the birth of a child and the construction of a new patio at 1869 First Street.
The now dusty hand print accompanied by the initials G. D. and the date 12-30-45 also marked the beginning of the Hernandez legacy in La Verne – a legacy which continues with David and Virginia Hernandez and their four children.
As a child in the 1950s, David was one of 10 children, who lived in the tiny Barrio house. “At one time there were as many as 16 people living in this house,” says David’s sister Maggie Alexander.
Aside from playing kick the can in the street after school, times were very different according to the Hernandez siblings. “All the neighborhood [children] used to throw oranges with rocks in them,” Maggie recalls. “Oranges were in abundance around here.”
With the endless groves of oranges came the need for grove maintenance, which included giant “smudge pots” that required the Barrio families to stay indoors to escape the air pollution.
Utilizing oil as fuel, the giant pots were lit at night to prevent the valuable La Verne oranges from becoming frostbitten.
“They would shoot off black ashes all night,” Maggie laughs. “One night my brother Ignacio, who had been off to war, walked outside with a starched white shirt and came inside with a black one.” The thought of polluting smudge pots brought back memories of a country at war and the death of a sibling, which Vera Hernandez-Flores still remembers all too well.
Angie Hernandez only lived to be 21. In the prime of her life, her dreams and goals were diminished in a freak accident at the Pomona Fairgrounds. While working as a mechanic on war vehicles, a transmission fell on her chest. “She had been sick for quite a while after that,” Vera recalls. Although the injury itself was not fatal, it led to tuberculosis (TB), and Angie died June 13, 1947.
Aside from the blackouts during World War II, Maggie now recalls an evolution in the role of women in society.
“Angie was working on cars because there were no men,” Maggie boasts. “They had women’s lib back then, and they didn’t even know it.”
During World War II, the nearby fairgrounds, now Fairplex, was an army base and a German/Japanese prisoner of war internment camp.
Even during the war, things were normal for Maggie and David, who were too young to fully understand the death of their sister or the piercing alarms that signaled they must sit in complete silence and darkness.
School time for the Hernandez children meant segregation for some and integration for others. Although they lived north of the railroad tracks, all of the siblings attended Palomares, the completely Latino school, for a portion of their schooling.
Vera graduated from Palomares but she remembers quite vividly when Lincoln and Palomares Schools became integrated. “Parents [in the Barrio] were complaining because the education was so much better over at Lincoln,” she claims.
Although she remained segregated through her elementary school years, Vera does remember attending Lincoln once a week for a cooking and sewing class.
“I saw discrimination in the attitudes of the teachers,” she recalls. “I think they looked down upon us.”
After school, the Hernandez children would walk home more than three miles, to find their mother Isabel hard at work in the kitchen.
“She was a housewife her entire life. You can’t afford to be a housewife any longer,” Maggie says, admitting that she joined the work force as soon as her four boys started grammar school.
Another commodity that sustained the Hernandez family in the 1940s was their home-grown produce, inclusive of beans and potatoes. “Sometimes we would raise chickens, goats and rabbits too,” Maggie recalls.
Later slaughtered for their meat, the animals became delectable meals of birria, barbecued goat, chorizo and rabbit meat. “When I used to bring my white girlfriends over, they came for the cooking,” Maggie says, smiling at the memories of her mother’s spicy cooking. “Sometimes I think they [my friends] didn’t even want to see me.”
Aside from keeping the house in good order and cooking traditional meals, Isabel was also an interpreter.
Pete Flores, Vera’s husband, remembers his mother-in-law well. “She was an interpreter for the Barrio,” he says. “She used to take kids to the doctor for parents who could not speak any English.”
Weekends for the Hernandez family, along with the majority of the families in the Barrio, consisted of either hard work or play.
David recalls picking lemons with his father, a field foreman, every Saturday. “I would pick the bottom ones,” he laughs. “I was young, and they wouldn’t let me climb the ladder.”
Manuel supervised the orange picking for more than 30 years.
A highlight for the Hernandez children was the weekly “movie in the park.” Located where the University of La Verne Wilson Library is now stationed, the greenery to the south of the Library used to serve as a viewing area for young and old, Latino and white alike.
“We’d sit in the grass and watch whatever movie was playing,” Maggie says. “It was free, and everybody was welcome. The only harsh words said were, ‘Shut up! We can’t hear.'”
The invention of television also brought the Barrio together.” We would all meet at one house. They were one of the first families that bought a TV,” Maggie says. “Back then, there were only two or three channels,” Maggie laughs, remembering the excitement surrounding the wrestling and the roller derby broadcasts.
Sunday meant church for the Hernandez family, just like it did for most families in the Barrio. Hosting an average of 200 people per service, Our Lady of Guadalupe Church brought Catholics together from all over the Inland Valley.
“They [especially] used to come from San Dimas,” Maggie says.
Perhaps the most fond and vivid memory in the minds of the Hernandez siblings is their summers in San Jose. “My dad would take the whole family up north to pick prunes, cotton and apricots,” Vera recalls.
The majority of families in the Barrio went to San Jose to earn extra money working for the Christopher Bros., a produce company, according to Vera. “There were about six or seven families who went together,” she says. “It was an eight or nine hour trip pulling the trailer.”
The Hernandez children, along with their father, would begin picking at dawn and stop only after it was too dark to see. “My mom would stay indoors and bring us lunch consisting of gorditas,” the siblings recall.
After work, David and his brothers would sit beside the only major highway that passed the camp and count the cars that would zoomed by.
As September approached, the family often got so carried away in the fields that they lost track of time. “The truant officer would come out and tell us that it was time to go back to school,” Maggie says. “We usually went to school up there until the season was over.”
Although the prunes no longer grow in San Jose, the memories of their summers in the fields are still alive. “Those were the best times of our lives,” Maggie admits. “It didn’t seem so at the time, but it does now.”
Although Maggie, David and Vera are the third generation of the Hernandez family in La Verne, fond memories of their grandparents remind them of a much different and simpler time. “My grandfather lived to be 104,” Maggie boasts. “Everybody used to call him ‘abuelito’ [grandpa].”
An Arizona native, Aracario made a career selling produce. “He used to plant chilies, tomatoes and onions,” says Maggie.
While he sold some of his produce at the local general store, where the University Book Shoppe is now located, he also had his own produce lot on Walnut Street. “He even had a section over at the Fairgrounds,” Maggie adds. “He used to plant everything, and everything always grew.”
Their grandmother played the role of a housewife, remaining in the kitchen every day. “She made tortillas from scratch every day,” Hernandez recalls, picturing her rolling the dough.
Although the days of handmade tortillas and playing kick the can in the street disappeared with the orange groves, the fourth generation of Hernandez children still remember life in La Verne with no regrets.
David’s oldest son, Steve, remembers the steady evolution from agrarian to urban. “Around the time I was graduating, they were really tearing the city up,” says the 37-year-old line splicer for Edison.
Born in 1959, Steve remembers the sanctity of the Barrio. “Everybody came here to hang out because their parents and grandparents grew up over here,” he says. “We would ride our bikes all over the place.”
“They [the boys] would ride their skateboards from here to San Dimas,” Maggie chimes in. “We didn’t have to worry back then.”
Steve remembers that his household was very different from that of his friends in the 1960s. After school, Steve would come home with his brothers Woody and Vincent, to find his dad ready with a list of chores. “He’d always be home when I got home,” Steve recalls. “He would always come up with something for us to do each day to keep us out of trouble.”
Whether it was raking the leaves, mowing the lawn or pulling weeds, David, who worked from 4 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. each day as a heavy equipment operator for Mount San Antonio College, would not let his boys go out before their chores were completed.
Steve’s mom was just as busy as her husband, working all day long at Cutter Laboratory sterilizing pharmaceutical equipment.
Virginia has been with the Laboratory for 25 years, although it is now called Mebsap Pharmaceutical.
“We would see her in the morning before we went to school and on the weekends,” says Steve.
In high school, the popular activity was cruising around town, according to Steve. “We would fix up our cars and cruise around,” he says, listing off his “cruising cars” as the family Jeep, his 1956 Ford pickup and the family’s 1978 Chevy four wheel drive truck.
Weekends were family time for the Hernandez family. Whether it was camping in Big Bear, visiting relatives in San Jose or fishing at Lake Puddingstone, the family spent as much time together as possible. “We’d take a lot of the kids from the neighborhood with us,” says Steve. “We [the Barrio] all ended up growing up like one family.”
One of Steve’s most memorable projects took place during his senior year of high school. The room where the Hernandezes’ friends and relatives gather was once the backyard. “There was a big tree in the center,” Steve says, pointing to the oak coffee table that now resides in the center of the room. “My uncle Nacho and I built this room,” he says. “The wall was a family project.”
Appearing to be an average brick wall, the masterpiece contains bricks of various shapes and sizes which were donated by family members so that they would literally contribute a symbolic masonry piece to the Barrio home. “We didn’t buy any bricks at the hardware store,” Steve recalls. “Some are from a packing house in Corona, and others are from the beach.”
This spot is now the popular meeting place for the Hernandez family. Steve says that he built the room years ago in hopes of keeping the same unity he experienced as a child. “We built this room because everybody comes here,” he says.
According to Steve and his brother Vincent, 1869 First Street has always been a sanctuary for family and friends. “This house, since it’s my dad’s house, if there is a meeting or family party, we will meet here,” claims Vincent.
Steve agrees. “If there’s one truck in the driveway, then pretty soon there’s a party.”
Both Steve and Vincent have moved from La Verne. Steve and his family live in Riverside, but return to La Verne whenever possible.
“I might come back. I love it here, and you’re a lot closer to the babysitter,” he says, nodding at David, who is retired. “Whenever the kids don’t have school, I bring them to my father.”
Vincent, a maintenance worker for the Los Angeles County Sanitation District, has a home in Alta Loma with his wife and two daughters. But his heart is not far from his childhood home either.
“I’m thinking of coming back to La Verne,” he says. “It’s a nice place to live.”
Steve looks at his brother and smiles. “People have come, and people have moved out, but they always know that somebody is here,” he says, looking at his children playing in the yard and remembering the days of his own youth when he used to frolic in the orange groves.