By Barbara Zaragoza
Maria Elena Garcia, author of “La Neighbor: A Settlement House in Logan Heights,” recently became one of four finalists for the 20th International Latino Book Awards. Her book features 56 residents describing their life in Logan Heights from 1914 to 1970. The very first chapter, titled “Becoming Maria,” describes the author’s own history, including her involvement in many significant moments during the civil rights movements of the 1970s.
Maria was born in Yuma, Arizona on October 8, 1946. Her father descended from a family that was one of the original settlers of San Antonio, coming from the Canary Islands and receiving a land grant when the Southwest belonged to Mexico from 1821-1848. Over time, the family lost their land, but not their heritage. Maria grew up speaking Spanish and English in the home.
Like so many Latinos during the first half of the 1900s, Maria’s father worked for the railroads in Texas and Arizona as a young man. He migrated to San Diego in the early 1950s where he landed a construction job. The family eventually moved to Encanto where Maria remembers spending most of her youth.
After high school, Maria attended San Diego State University where she became captivated by the Chicano movement that was particularly active on campus. During the early 1970s Maria picketed Safeway during the Cesar Chavez boycott of grapes and she took a bus to Delano to participate in the dedication of Forty Acres where she met Cesar Chavez for the first time. She also participated in the takeover of Chicano Park in 1978, an experience she described as having had an energizing impact upon the community.
At the age of 20, she became secretary on the board of the Chicano Federation—an organization originally established in 1968 to act as an umbrella body for about 32 Mexican-American groups. Eventually, Maria helped finance the organization’s first property located on 22nd and Market Street. She also helped build their first senior housing project.
Maria explains that the Chicano Federation would discuss problems such as education, discrimination and the lack of government employment throughout San Diego. “You could count on your fingers the number of Latinos that were working at the county,” she explained.
Maria graduated from SDSU with her teaching credential and began her first job at Balboa Elementary School. During that time, the principal created a bilingual program and asked her to teach the kindergarten class. She accepted the position. By the late 1980s and 1990s she herself became the principal at several schools, including Baker Elementary, Audubon and Emerson Bandini Elementary. Throughout her career, she served on many boards, including the California Association for Bilingual Education and the Curriculum Adaption Network for Bilingual Bicultural Education.
When she retired, Maria began to chronicle the Latino history of San Diego, which turned into her first book. She has received many awards, including being inducted as a historian into the San Diego County Women’s Hall of Fame. She became a talk show host for wsRadio.com where she interviewed ever more members of the Latino community.
In addition, the San Diego History Center selected Maria to participate in their Telling Untold Stories, a feet-on-the-street community engagement project that seeks to diversify the voices of local residents who tell San Diego’s history. The project was made possible with support from California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. (You can visit www.calhum.org for more information.) Maria’s unique life story will feature in the archives of the history center and this article is based on her interview.
She is currently working on a second book.