August 8, 2008

California Conservation Corps, still a great option for Latinos

By Pablo Jaime Sáinz

When David Naranjo was a teenager in Logan Heights in the 1930s, there were many opportunities for Mexican-Americans.

The only options he had were to work at the nearby fish canneries like his family or further south in the fields, where he would work during the summers.

“We were very poor,” said Naranjo, who is now 87. “We had very little to eat.”

But when President Franklin Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps 75 years ago in 1933 as part of his New Deal, the program opened the doors to thousands of Mexican-Americans to a better future.

Naranjo joined the program in 1936 and was there until 1939. During those three years, a young Naranjo learned many skills that later proved useful when looking for a career, he said.

"The CCC Boys": Lauro Vega, 85, Ernie Esparza, 88, of San Diego; Leo Leyba, 85, of San Diego; John Rubalcava, 85 of Chula Vista, and Eugene Mendoza, 84, of National City, some of them pictured here, were recognized for their work as California Conservation Corps in the 1930s.

“It helped me to get a better job than in the fields, where I used to work at the time,” he said.

Naranjo was part of a group of nine members of the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s who served at Camp Vista and other CCC camps in San Diego County. They were recognized in a ceremony on Friday, August 1, hosted by today’s California Conservation Corps in the program’s San Diego center in National City.

The ceremony was attended by dozens of today’s CCC members, who cheered on the original “CCC Boys” who shared their lives’ stories and experiences as corps members.

Seven of the nine members recognized at the event are Mexican-Americans, said Benny Garcia, CCC San Diego Center Director.

“They set a legacy for the next generation of Latinos that is joining the California Conservation Corps,” said Garcia, whose uncle Ernie Esparza, 88, was one of the original CCC Boys at the event. “They are a real connection to the past for our current corps members.”

Garcia said that 40 to 50 percent of CCC members in San Diego County are Latinos, although there are significant numbers of African refugees.

Lauro Vega, 85, of Chula Vista, gave a testimony of his life, since many of these men were drafted to World War II right after the left the CCC. He joined the CCC at 17 in 1939 and was assigned to Camp Vista, working on erosion control efforts and road maintenance in San Diego County. Joining the Army in World War II, he was among those landing at Omaha Beach on D-Day in 1944.

Other CCC Boys who were at the ceremony are Leo Leyba, 85, of San Diego; John Rubalcava, 85 of Chula Vista, and Eugene Mendoza, 84, of National City.

For Augie Bareño, president of the Logan Heights Historical Society, these men represent a living document of Mexican-American history in San Diego, since they are some of the few World War II veterans still alive.

“If the PBS documentary about the war excluded their stories, this type of recognition puts their legacies in the public. This is the type of recognition these men deserve for serving their country,” Bareño said.

Felipe Rivera, a 19 year old from Chula Vista who is a current CCC member, said that the California Conservation Corps has helped him learn more about his own culture as well as others’.

“I’ve learned many skills, but most of all, it has taught me to be a better member of my society,” Rivera said.

The California Conservation Corps is a workforce development program that offers young men and women the chance to serve their state and become employable citizens through life skills training and hard work in environmental conservation, fire protection, and emergency response.

If you would like to learn more about the program, visit

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