I don’t know if you’ve ever been inside a B-17 bomber but it’s an experience for sure. It was called a “Flying Fortress” for a reason. Bristling with .50 caliber machine guns on the outside, it was a formidable aircraft that could hold its own against most anything that flew. Being in one, however, feels as claustrophobic as being trapped inside a Coors Light tallboy can set on its side and I can’t imagine it would be any less nerve-wracking with enemy fighter planes and anti-aircraft guns blowing lots of holes in the paper-thin aluminum fuselage (and possibly your crewmates). That’s where Johnny Lara spent the greater part of his time during World War Two, flying missions over the Pacific for the US Army Air Corp prior to the creation of what we now know as the US Air Force in 1947.
Noe Spidola went off to fight as well, making his first combat parachute jump with the 11th Airborne into the fierce battle of Aparri, Luzon, essentially sealing off the Japanese retreat from one of their last strongholds in the Pacific. It was a death knell for the Japanese, with a stunning 200,000 of their soldiers killed. Noe went on to train in the Philippines for what was thought to be the inevitable invasion of Japan itself, which never materialized. But he did make it there to be on board the USS Missouri when the Japanese signed their unconditional surrender in Tokyo Bay. Johnny, Noe and his fellow servicemen from The Logan Barrio did their duty as citizens to proudly serve a nation that was sometimes neither inclusive nor friendly. Perhaps true patriotism is loving a country that may or may not love you back.
But proud they were, although that might be the wrong word, for sometimes pride implies bluff, bluster, militaristic braggadocio and drunken rednecks singing the Star Spangled Banner at a NASCAR race. In this case it’s more like quiet resolve, simple wisdom and a knowing look that tells you the spirit behind those eyes knows more about patriotism than most of our generation could possibly grasp. It’s not about where they went and what they did; it’s about where they came from and what they went back to.
The Logan Barrio is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Santa Ana. Originally called “Santa Ana East,” it was settled around the turn of the century by people fleeing the civil strife in Northern Mexico and migrating from various Southwestern states looking for work. The residents labored in the local packinghouses, citrus groves and for the city of Santa Ana, several rising to prominence as judges, cops and civic leaders. The neighborhood cause was championed by Josephine “Chepa” Andrade. She (among others) helped save it from isolation via the closure of Washington Boulevard and from being rezoned as an industrial area, which could have led to the destruction of Logan. The actual park there was renamed Chepa Park after her passing in 2006. The neighborhood has been under assault from freeway expansions, internal strife and external city forces but has stood firm through all its ups and downs. Now it’s a quiet community with many homes still occupied by third and fourth generation Logan families.
Fast forward almost seventy years after the end of WWII and Carlos Aguilar is perched on a rickety scaffold above Washington Ave, looking more local carpenter than artist but his appearance belies a genuine passion for the arts and fire for what he does. After coming to the states from Michocan in 1990, he settled in Mission Viejo where he was initially exposed to the fine arts by his first mentor/teacher at Saddleback College. Later moving to Logan, he mimicked the art drawn on jailhouse letters and colorful bandanas by locals. He has painted several pieces in Santa Ana at local markets and such but the scope of the La Chiquita mural is a challenge. The nearly 100-year-old wall is cracked, a bit unstable in parts and the rough texture of the plaster eats paintbrushes alive. He has to make do with what paint he can scrape together and, being on a shoestring budget, he’s considerably less well-equipped than the weekend warriors painting that same, stale view from the gazebo next to Las Brisas in Laguna. Carlos told me he “wanted to do something for the neighborhood, something that says we’re proud” but has to pass on painting when he gets a chance to work doing construction. He painted the top portion first, sort of announcing his intentions to Logan. Many people approved. Neighbors showed up with old photos and some of the vets themselves have dropped by to wish him well. Carlos started on Memorial Day and hopes to finish soon.
La Chiquita itself is an amazing throwback to a bygone era, the second oldest Mexican restaurant in Santa Ana and a close facsimile to one of my favorite spots as a little kid, the long-gone El Poce Cafe on Mission Blvd in San Gabriel. The original structure was built in the early 1900’s as a small grocery store. In subsequent years it was gradually expanded and the space in between the store and a home next door turned into a tortilleria. Joe Jimenez started selling tacos from the location and the small house next to it was absorbed and turned into a restaurant. It’s a quiet, non-taqueria/non-mariscos/Cal-Mex kind of joint, filled with stuffy Gabachos from the courts and offices downtown during lunch and a mix of locals and folks willing to make the drive from South County during dinner. The albondigas is to die for, broth-y and tomato-y with just a hint of cumin and mint in the meatballs, good stuff. Sammy Montoya has owned it for 20 years or so; a consortium of regulars got together and helped him purchase it when the heirs of Joe Salcido, the previous owner, were no longer interested in the operation. He is partnering with Carlos, providing some financial and logistical support for the mural.
Five days a week, 88 year-old Paul Durón commutes to the neighborhood from Corona del Mar to work, although he probably doesn’t have to. In the house he grew up in, located directly across the street from La Chiquita, he sits quietly at his desk drafting. As a kid in the 1930’s he worked at La Chiquita in the market. After volunteering for the U.S. Army he landed at Utah beach on D-Day and was attached to the US 7th armored division as it drove across Europe. Stationed north of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944 he was part of the allied counter-offensive that thwarted Germany’s last-ditch effort to change the tide of battle on the Western Front. His victories continued after his return. He attended college on the GI bill, earning an engineering degree. He then founded his own company, designing and producing cryogenic systems and rocket engines at his own factories, including one in France where he fought. He quite literally went from local Logan kid to rocket scientist over the course of his lifetime and has come out of retirement three times since the 1970’s. When pressed for the reasoning why so many of his friends volunteered to serve their country, he simply stated, “It was quite the thing to do. It was patriotism and this was our neighborhood.” He added “and this was a real barrio, don’t forget that. You know what that is, right?”
Indeed I do Mr. Durón, indeed I do.
It’s a sad, poignant reality that all of our narratives, both collective and individual, will someday fade into the mists of history. It’s no different for the men depicted on this wall. But that’s not going to happen today. Not here. Not now. Certainly not on this proud, tucked away corner of Santa Ana. This otherwise innocuous street, named after an American hero, has good company, but I don’t mean Jackson, Harrison, Monroe or Franklin. The heroes here are Gomez, Alcaron, Arazata, Chavez. All the blood spilled onto the banks of the Rhine River or sands of Tarawa was the same color, as were all the tears shed in the humble homes of the Logan Barrio. The brave men from there didn’t fight, struggle, live and die as anything but Americans.