By Ted Godshalk
National City’s history is a rich story of accomplishments. The establishment of transcontinental train depot, for instance, represents the efforts of the Kimball brothers to bring commerce to this fledgling town. The tracks still lie there in the ground, groaning their aged complaints, but only when a load of new cars or lumber is moved from the port to San Diego destinations. It is no longer the glorious destination of travelers.
Very few historic homes still stand in National City, certainly a sad comment on the notion of progress. Most have been replaced with apartment complexes or shopping malls, some lost to freeways. The historic homes that do remain in place, with their Victorian Era architecture so unfamiliar to contemporary eyes, could probably tell some wondrous whoppers if only they could speak.
But history is more about people than places or things and the people who have had a role in National City’s history represent our true wealth. We are a rich community because of people like Ruben Rubio.
Mr. Rubio lives west of Interstate 5, in the area that was once the heart of National City. He was born in 1914 in San Antonio, Texas. Rubio married Connie Ramirez in 1938 and moved in with her family in order to care for her ailing mother. Now almost 70 years later, he is still there, caring for his property with the touch of an artist and the natural bent of a master gardener. When I see him with paintbrush in his hand, with the bright orange paint starting to reveal his house’s interesting angles, I see Picasso. The straw hat helps this vision along.
Together with Connie, Ruben has worked hard to protect his community for many decades. More than once I have sat at his kitchen table and heard about the struggles to protect Old Town, and about the recall campaign of three earlier Council members, and about the march to City Hall to protest the police killing of a young man. It is all of these players who make up our town’s history, and Ruben Rubio is essential to the story.
The Rubios started selling tacos after World War II and opened Rubio’s Little Mexico in 1951 to sell tacos and tamales to the local residents and workers. When the property next door became available, they spent their savings to expand the restaurant. With the new seating area in place, the busy cantina became a meeting place for the community.
As the City Hall was moved from Harding Avenue, site of the current Casa de Salud, to its present location, the community continued to meet at Rubio’s restaurant to discuss the politics of the day. More than once, Ruben insisted that he would provide the tacos for free. The meetings continued and very often they led to some significant action.
When the city council at the time began to consider the earliest redevelopment scheme of the City Manager, a woman named Doris Sullivan, the Old Town residents sat around the tables at Little Mexico and put a recall campaign together. As the campaign to oust them lost by just 300 votes, Council members Thelma Hollingsworth, John Heck, and Walter Hodge narrowly avoided the recall. Rubio tells that the “ battle was lost but the war was won,” when they were all voted out of office in the very next election and Doris Sullivan was indicted for having “itchy fingers” (Rubio’s words) or more succinctly, for using the city government’s power for her personal gain.
Later, in 1965, Mayor Kyle Morgan tried to drive residents out of Old Town once more, and a recall was threatened again. Morgan backed off, but by then the neighborhood’s slow conversion to industrial was already set in motion.
Little Mexico was the scene of Ted Kennedy’s visit to National City on a presidential campaign swing through California for his brother Jack. The Rubios graciously hosted Teddy and several years later expected Robert Kennedy to stop by during his own presidential campaign. Robert was gunned down in Los Angeles just days before his planned visit.
It was in October of 1975, that Little Mexico was again the focal point for community action. When National City police officer Craig Short shot Tato Rivera in the back as he fled the scene of a misdemeanor, the Committee on Chicano Rights led by Herman Baca held meetings to determine their response. These meetings, with younger Luis Natividad and many other activists in attendance, pulled together over 2000 Chicanos and Mexican- Americans who marched on City Hall in protest. Baca recalls that the restaurant was a meeting place for people from all over California and the Southwestern United States. The magnetic pull of the place was strong and constant for many years.
Little Mexico is still Ruben’s home today; the ceramic statues and clay pots still decorate the once busy dining area. Amid the industry of the neighborhood, Ruben goes on with his yard work and house renovation. I am sure he sleeps well at night, knowing that he has stood up to people who made plans to drive him and his people out. I know I sleep better, knowing that my family is secure thanks to Ruben’s work. Many thanks to you Ruben.
Rubio notes that the younger generation moved out when the industrial users came in but the businesses did not hire many people from the community. The bad feelings have lingered ever since and must be repaired. Homes replaced with block buildings, and long-time families supplanted by employees from other areas haven’t helped. Good planning and responsive leaders might.
Through it all, Ruben Rubio still says, “I have had a lot of fun over here.” This is testament to his attitude about life. His philosophy about political activism is summed up in: “People who want changes must work cooperatively to be effective.” Rubio now rests, enjoying his house and family, as someone of 91 years should. He has worked hard and deserves credit for not only helping to preserve the Old Town National City he loves, but for encouraging younger people to continue to work hard for it. We all sleep better with a Ruben Rubio around the corner.
Ted Godshalk can be reached at email@example.com