The sky was clear and the weather was in the low 50s, a typical crisp November night in San Jose, California. But for my mom and dad, that night and early the next morning wouldn’t be typical at all. As they raced north on U.S. Highway 101 in the their two-toned orange and white 1955 Mercury, they wondered how they were going to make ends meet now that another mouth to feed would soon be added to the family.
They both grew up in poor single-mother households. Now that they had their own family, they were just getting by living check to check on my dad’s postal worker salary and mom’s odd jobs cleaning houses and working in the canneries. The little creature in her belly causing her so much pain and discomfort would be their fifth child. Nevertheless, both of my parents were excited and happy as the Mercury pulled into the hospital parking lot.
My dad jumped out of the car to walk her into the emergency room. Wearing a camel colored coat and carrying a small overnight bag, she waddled up the steps to the hospital and breathlessly slumped herself onto the waiting wheelchair. As was the custom in the 1960s, nurses rushed my mom into the maternity room to await the doctor who would deliver the baby and told my dad to wait outside. Hospital volunteers showed him the way to the waiting room to join other nervous, expectant fathers who were smoking up a storm as they paced the floor.
Impatient and restless, my dad didn’t stay for very long. He left the hospital to find a place where he could belly up to the bar and knock down a few whiskey and waters before going back to meet his newest baby. My mom was an old pro, he rationalized to himself, she had been to the delivery room four other times and each time the baby came out without any problems.
Back at the hospital, my mom was going through labor pains as one day ended and another began. The baby would soon arrive as the nurses and doctors prepared for the delivery. Labor for her was not much different than the other four times. Actually, this time seemed to go smoother, the pains weren’t as strong and the actual time in labor was much shorter. Just as my dad predicted, the delivery would be quick and simple.
After finishing his drinks and taking a few more drags of his cigarette, he was back in the maternity ward anxiously waiting for the good news. They had two boys and two girls at home waiting. He was sure this one would be another boy. In the delivery room all was going well. When the baby was finally born, the doctor gently gave the newborn the obligatory slap on the backside and waited for the familiar wails of a new life catching its breath for the first time.
The doctor cut the umbilical cord and the nurses wiped the baby clean before swaddling it and allowing my tired, but happy, mom to cuddle her baby for the first time. As the doctor completed one last check of vital signs, the baby slipped out of his arms and banged its face against the metal railing of the bed. A nurse broke the baby’s fall and prevented a disastrous accident. The baby screamed in pain as the nurses and doctors worked to stop the bleeding that had emerged from the baby’s face. Luckily, that scary incident only resulted in a small scar at the tip of the newborn’s nose.
That baby with the cut on his nose was me, born on November 6, 1963, at 5:25 AM at Sequoia Hospital in Redwood City, California. The third García boy, I was 21 inches long, weighed 7.2 pounds, with dark brown eyes, and lots of thick dark hair. My parents were excited and relieved, especially after the brief scare in the delivery room. That little scar at the tip of my nose would forever find a special place in my mom’s heart.
Exhausted, she suggested a name for me, Michael. My dad wanted to name me Edward. After a few minutes of negotiation, my proud parents settled on a name: Edward Michael García. My dad spent a few more minutes at my mom’s side, slipped out of the hospital, stopped at the watering hole for one more whiskey and water on the rocks. When he finished, he slid onto the front seat of the two-toned Mercury, and headed south for the 45-minute drive to San Jose to tell my siblings that they had a baby brother.
At home, my brothers and sisters, David 12, Barbara 11, Patty 10, and Steve 9, were still asleep unaware of what had happened earlier that morning. When my dad burst through the front door of his modest house on 48 Viewmont Avenue in east San Jose, his four older children suddenly woke up and rushed to meet him to hear the good news. He stood at the counter that separated the kitchen from the dining room, and excitedly told his kids about “Eddie’s” chubby cheeks and thick black hair, and how he slipped, and cut his nose. After a few minutes of taking questions, my dad turned to the heavy black phone sitting on the counter and started dialing to call everyone he knew.
My parents were children of the Great Depression, an era of desperate times for all but the richest Americans. For both my parents, poverty was compounded as they were children of widowed mothers who endured the racism and discrimination faced by Mexican Americans of that time. As children, they had no understanding of the American Dream and no real path to achieving it. As adults, they worked tirelessly to provide that opportunity for their children, and the little house on 48 Viewmont Avenue was the base of operations for their pursuit of the dream.
My dad was born Federico Olquín García in the dusty hamlet of Las Cruces, New Mexico, on April 15, 1926. The oral history of my family doesn’t provide much about the first 16 years of his life. This much we know: his parents were Juan and Isabela “Chabela” García, also native New Mexicans. My dad had one brother and two sisters. Juan worked in the dangerous and backbreaking copper mines of southern New Mexico and Chabela tended to the home and their four children. They lived in a small adobe structure with a dirt floor built by Juan and a younger brother. When my dad was about twelve years-old, his father died of respiratory problems related to his endless hours working in the mines. With her four kids in tow, Chabela left Las Cruces to join relatives in Phoenix, Arizona.
Family stories contend that my dad had to help drive the long and hot road to Arizona. If this is true, his childhood had disappeared in a flash and his years of responsibility and obligation came upon him overnight. In October 1942, my dad left the small apartment he shared with his mother in south Phoenix to join the U.S Navy. Like many of his generation, my dad shared little about his experience as a sailor during World War II. He told us that he served on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Wasp in the Pacific Ocean, but recounted nothing about battles and dangerous situations. History tells us that the Wasp engaged in several brutal battles with Japanese aircraft from October 1942 through the end of the war, the time my dad served on the carrier. In a personal log he carried, he wrote in detail about the last days of the war and the Wasp’s return to the United States.
My mom was an only child born to a single mother in on January 31, 1930, in Colton, California. Colton, a busy railroad hub and farming town in southern California, was one of many stops on the state’s farm-working circuit where her mother, Joaquina Othon, and her Tía Lipa traveled in search of seasonal work. Like my dad, little is known about my mom’s early life. My grandmother Joaquina was an independent woman trying to eke out a living for herself and her young daughter. Within several years, my mom and her mom were again on the road, this time to Phoenix to help Tía Lipa care for my great-grandmother who arrived from Sonora, Mexico, to live out the last years of her life. My grandmother continued working odd jobs as a housekeeper, babysitter, and seasonal worker to support her daughter, sister, and ailing mother. Due to my grandmother’s tireless work ethic, my mom had a financially poor, but relatively stable life during her teen years. It was during this time that the lonely young woman raised by her mother, an aunt, and an aging grandmother, dreamed of one day having a big family with many children and grandchildren of her own.
My parents met during a late summer day in 1949 when my mom went out to the neighborhood park with a cousin to watch some boys play baseball. My mom caught the eye of my dad as he strut around the diamond with a smile that could be seen across the field. He was calling at my grandmother’s front door the next morning respectfully asking permission to talk to my mom. My dad knew his way around girls from the many ports of call on the trip back to the U.S. after the war and his frequent attendance at south Phoenix nightclubs. But this girl was different: polite, demure, and dignified. Before long, he was stopping to see my mom everyday sitting on one end of the old sofa talking with her as she sat on the other end. Her mom and Tía Lipa sat across the tiny living room knitting a blanket or listening to the radio as the young couple talked, laughed, and sometimes just sat. Their courtship was a whirlwind. After several months dating in my grandmother’s living room, they were allowed to go out to together to the movies or to share a soda, and six months after they met, mom and dad were married in a small Catholic church on April 23, 1950. They had no place to live, no money, and no idea what the future would hold. All they had was each other and my skeptical grandmother watching their every move.
After a few years and the births of my brother David, and my sisters Barbara and Patty, my parents found that there were no opportunities for them in Phoenix. My dad was going from job to job, many times working two at a time, but none was steady. He scraped enough money together to pay rent on a studio apartment, feed the kids, and buy a broken old Ford to take him to and from his various jobs. Later in life, my parents would laugh about the time their car had a dead battery and they couldn’t afford to replace it. My dad would get up early in the morning, open the hood of the jalopy and peer into the motor as if there were a problem. Without fail, a Good Samaritan would ask if he needed help and my dad would explain that the battery wasn’t working that morning, and he would appreciate a jump to get the car started. Once his work day was over, he would begin the same routine until a passerby would lend him jumper cables to start the car for the return trip home. This would last for months. He quickly realized that this was no way to live. He had traveled around the world as a sailor fighting for his country, seen New York City, Boston, and Los Angeles. He knew there were opportunities for those who took risks and sought a better life. So, with a used battery in the rickety car and protests from my grandma Joaquina, he and my mom packed up their three babies, their meager belongings, my abuelita Chabela, and headed for San Jose, California, to join his sister Maria, her family, and relatives on his father’s side of the family. My dad’s goal was to find work in the orchards and canneries of the fertile Santa Clara valley.
In San Jose, my parents moved into a relative’s garage until they were able to earn enough money to find a place for their growing family. They found a small apartment not too far away from the town’s bustling canning industry. My abuelita Chabela took care of the kids at night while my mom worked at the canneries. It’s a cliché, but my dad worked day and night to earn just enough money to keep a roof over their head and dinner on the table. There was enough work for my parents to rent a small house in San Jose’s east side. My brother Steve was born shortly after they moved into the rented house on the east side, and with another baby to clothe and feed, my parents found extra hours working for slave wages in the apricot orchards of the east valley picking the fruit and cutting it for the lucrative dried apricot market. Every bit helped, but they needed steady income to provide stability for their growing family.
During that time, San Jose was rapidly growing and the postal service was looking for reliable veterans to meet the demands of its burgeoning workforce. Soon, my dad’s status as a World War II veteran would pay off when he got a job working at the downtown post office. Although the pay wasn’t nearly enough to meet the needs of their family, the stability gave them a chance to achieve the American Dream and buy a house. They found a house just a couple of blocks away from their rented house. My parents borrowed money from relatives to put a modest down payment on the outlandish $11,000 mortgage they took to buy the house on 48 Viewmont Avenue. For the next several years, my dad would dutifully drive downtown to the post office to earn a living and my mom would supplement their income taking jobs cleaning houses and working part-time in the cafeteria at the new IBM headquarters in the south side of town. My dad would take every opportunity to work overtime to help pay the bills. Lucky for them, my abuelita was available to take care of the kids while my parents struggled to stay afloat.
This steady way of life continued for nine years and it looked like my parents were starting to slowly build a solid foundation for their family’s future when I arrived. The first 27 years of my life were marked and influenced by events in and around my parents’ modest house on 48 Viewmont Avenue in east San Jose. The neighborhood was a typical working-class community of small houses on small lots with neatly mowed lawns and little flower gardens. The development of houses was on the edge of the east side of town that once thrived with orchards. Just a short walk a few blocks away, was the Alum Rock Village, a row of mom and pop markets, a liquor store, bakery, hair salon, barbershop, and assorted small businesses that included a feed and fuel that served the remnants of a bygone agricultural community.
The area included a county branch library, a couple of elementary schools, a middle school, a high school, and of course, a Catholic church. Next to the high school was a small fire station. Viewmont Avenue itself was a short block of about forty houses. On one end sat an elementary school and on the other the two-lane Alum Rock Avenue that led to downtown San Jose to the west and several miles up the east foothills to large expensive houses and Alum Rock Park which sunk grandly into a deep canyon. Viewmont Avenue was narrow with rounded curbs, no sidewalks, and wooden telephone poles carrying heavy electrical and telephone wires placed about 50 yards apart running down one side of the street. The poles and wires played an important role during two-hand touch football games – the poles marked the end zones and the wires could be an extra defensive player if the quarterback threw a pass too high.
Our neighbors were working-class families like ours in pursuit of the American Dream. Across the street from our house lived the Ornelas family. My godfather Tony was a sheet metal worker and his wife Marty worked in the canneries. Next door on each side of our house lived widows, Mrs. Wood on one side and Mildred on the other. Viewmont Avenue was ethnically diverse well before the term became popular in our society. A few houses away were the Moreno, Romero, Dutra, Marino, Olague, Vasquez, and Zigenhart families. Mr. Helgeson, a retired widower, could always be seen outside wearing neatly pressed work clothes to care for his meticulous yard and garden. On national holidays, I watched in admiration as he carefully hung the American flag over the porch to show pride for his adopted country. The breadwinners provided for their families working as electricians, landscapers, construction workers, and machine shop operators. The women worked mostly at the canneries and supplemented the family’s income by cleaning houses, providing child care, or caring for seniors. The neighborhood around Viewmont Avenue was like a small town on the fringes of a growing city. For me, it had everything I needed and wanted. I felt happy, safe, and comfortable there. It was home.
The house I grew up in was a cozy three bedroom, one bathroom tract home built in the late 1940s. The indoor living space measured about 900 square feet and sat on a 1,800 square foot lot that included a front yard and backyard. In the front yard, was a patch of grass and a magnolia tree surrounded by the plants and flowers that flourished under the tender care of my mom’s green thumb. Above the wooden one-car garage door hung a basketball hoop and a backboard made from a piece of scrap plywood. From the kitchen window, one could see the entire scene. Inside, the house was a standard mid-20th century tract home with low ceilings and distinct living spaces. It seemed as though key family events always occurred at the kitchen table or at the narrow linoleum countertop, dotted with several cigarette burns, which separated the kitchen from a snug dining room. On the kitchen side of the counter sat my dad’s signature restaurant booth tightly curved around a round table and on the dining room side of the counter stood three barstools.
My oldest sister Barbara would say later in life that “we had an idyllic upbringing on Viewmont Avenue. Mom and dad created a cocoon that protected us from all of the bad things in the world.” My parents made sure that school was a priority and provided me and my siblings with the opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities; girl scouts, cheerleading, and color guard for the girls and little league, boy scouts, and Pop Warner football for the boys. It was the life of the 1950s and 1960s television genre that dad yearned for after listening to the stories about growing up “American” from his friends in the navy. At mom’s funeral in 2003, one cousin reminisced that “Tía Mary was like the Mexican Donna Reed.”
The protective shell my parents built kept the bad influences out by keeping us away from people or situations that could be harmful. At home, when my parents hosted family parties, a long night of hard-drinking would inevitably lead to tense conditions that could end up in a fight, and my mom would quietly usher us away from the party to our bedrooms. When I was in elementary school, on my walk home, I would see some of the cool kids hanging out under the trees at the back fence of campus, and they would sometimes wave me over. I told my parents and they warned that under no circumstance should I ever venture out to the fence. As I got older, I realized that the boys were sniffing glue and paint to get high. Many of those kids didn’t get through high school, joined gangs, and either died violently or found a permanent home in prison. Not only did 48 Viewmont provide a cocoon for us, it served as a safe haven for relatives down on their luck or just hiding away from the miseries of the world. It would not be unusual for me to sleep on the couch in the living room so my bed could be used by a cousin, uncle, or aunt who needed a place to stay for a few days while they worked out whatever brought them to our house.
In true American fashion, my dad taught us to be independent, to think for ourselves, and to control our own destinies. We should be good people, he would say, and be there for others in need, but don’t count on others to be there for you, he counseled. Most of all, we should know that they, my parents, would always be there for us. They worked tirelessly to paste together a family budget, and we always had a hot breakfast in the morning, bag lunch to take to school, and dinner on the table when my dad came home from work. The meals weren’t very healthy, but they filled our stomachs: any combination of chorizo or bacon, potatoes, and eggs for breakfast. Bologna sandwiches slathered with mayonnaise on white bread, cookies, and an occasional piece of fruit was a typical lunch. For dinner, we ate tortillas, beans, and something fried with the bacon drippings or chorizo grease from the morning. On payday Fridays, we could count on a piece of chuck steak, fried chicken, or something exotic like spaghetti with hamburger meat sauce. We could also count on our parents being at school and extracurricular activities. I can’t think of one back-to-school night or athletic event that wouldn’t include my parents’ attendance. Even when there were competing activities. I clearly remember the 1972 World Series between Oakland A’s and Cincinnati Reds when my dad, during the school’s open house, found his way to the school office to watch the game with the principal and other dads.
My brothers and sisters all recount similar stories even though we were part of two families from the same parents. My four older siblings were born in the early 1950s, and my little sister and I came a decade later; I was born in 1963 and my sister five years after me in 1968. David, the oldest, was the patriarch of the kids. He is well-read, studious, intellectual, and like our father, pragmatic and sensible. He played Pop Warner football as a kid and earned an Eagle Scout from his Boy Scout troop, excelled in the classroom, and attended Stanford University during the turbulent student anti-Vietnam War movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. After college graduation, he married, divorced, remarried, taught elementary school, became a teacher’s union president, earned his master’s degree in labor relations, and started his own management consulting business.
My sister Barbara turned 12 years old a couple of months after I was born. She was like my second mother as she took care of me for the first seven years of my life when my mom worked her odd jobs or went out for an evening with my dad. She is a bookworm with maternal instincts without equal. She takes care of everyone, at the expense of her own well-being. She was married right after high school and started her own family while traveling the country as the wife of a career Air Force enlisted man. She went back to college in her mid-20s, had four children, and forged a career in the credit union industry.
Patty, another bookworm born eighteen months after Barbara, was fiercely independent, blunt, and practical. She whizzed through high school, earned a bachelor’s degree at Santa Clara University, a prestigious Jesuit college, and earned a master’s degree in library science from UCLA. She moved to Bakersfield with her husband, worked as a college librarian and had a son. She unexpectedly died in 2003 of a viral heart infection just two months shy her fiftieth birthday.
Steve, the youngest of my four older siblings and the baby of my parents “first” family, was born a year after Patty, and is nine years older than I. As a kid, Stevie was smart, rambunctious, and charming. It wouldn’t be unusual for him to approach an uncle or older family friend, put him into a headlock, and mess up his hair, which would invariably make my dad furious. Although dad encouraged independence, he would stifle Stevie at every turn. This had long term consequences as Steve grew into an insular and self-protective man who has battled alcohol and drugs throughout his life. He has been married for 35 years and has five children, including a step-daughter.
My little sister Sisi and I make up my parents’ “second” family. According to our older siblings, she and I had it easy, even though we’re still not sure what that means. Sisi is smart, funny, and outgoing. As a little girl, she was fun to play with, and as teenager, she was shy and introverted, probably due to her internal struggles to understand her own sexuality. She left San Jose to go to college at San Diego State University where she became a teacher and eventually an elementary school principal in the San Diego area where she lives with her wife.
At 48 Viewmont Avenue, we had a clear code of conduct and value system from which we were expected to manage our lives. My dad was no nonsense and no frills. He taught us, through counsel and by way of example, to work hard, play by the rules, and have respect for ourselves and others. There was no variation from this formula. Any lack of respect and decorum, especially in public, would immediately lead to a non-verbal response, a stern look with a furrowed brow followed by pursed lips, closed eyes, and a slow shake of the head in disapproval. He also gave us the lifelong love of reading, learning, and music. The tight shelf space in my parents’ bedroom was stacked with paperbacks and periodicals, every edition of National Geographic Magazine published since the mid-1950s was displayed on a homemade shelf for all to see. My dad would get home from work every day shortly after 5:00 o’clock with the evening edition of the San Jose Mercury News tucked under his arm. We had to be prepared at dinner to be peppered with questions about the day’s world and local events. Even as adults, when we gathered around the same kitchen table for the holidays, he would sit at the counter looking into the kitchen with his whiskey and water and make a controversial philosophical or political statement and watch his educated kids flare up in heated debate. In the dining room, he had the record player and later cassette player in a place of prominence surrounded by albums that included Tex-Mex, mariachi, other genres of Mexican music, and the standards – Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Nat King Cole.
My mom, on the other hand, was the epitome of the warm and loving maternal parent. She taught us unconditional love, faith, compassion, and perseverance. Even during the last days before in her death in 2003, she remained strong in her convictions and her belief that everyday alive is a good day. While any indiscretion on our part would be met with my dad’s scowls and rebukes, my mom would react with gentle counsel and loving support urging us to do better the next time. She was our biggest cheerleader encouraging us to be the best we could be. After all those years of watching me play sports, I’m not sure if mom really understood the complexities of the games, but I did know that she cheered every time it looked like I did something good. Every morning she would remind us that the day would be a good one because the sun came up and God gave us another day, and after each meal, she insisted that we say “thank you God,” and of course she encouraged us to pray the “Our Father” before bedtime.
Although my mom never had much herself, she would share what she had with others to make their lives just a bit better. One evening, right after Thanksgiving, when I was about eight or nine years old, I remember a family calling at our front door. A young couple in their 20s, with a young girl sitting in a rickety stroller and a baby boy sleeping in his father’s arms, stood at the porch. The man, in a whispered southern accent with his eyes looking toward the ground, explained to my mom that they were hungry and looking for something to eat. It looked like they had been walking around for some time as the man was unshaven wearing dirty pants and shirt. The woman looked tired with hollow eyes and wore a dress she may have made herself. My mom invited them into the kitchen and shared the few leftovers from our turkey dinner from the night before. I’m sure had planned to use the turkey to make some fried concoction for dinner. The couple gratefully ate at the kitchen table like they were having a gourmet meal in a fancy restaurant. After they finished eating, my mom packed a few more leftovers in a paper bag and wished them luck on their journey. How they came to our door and why they chose our house I’ll never know. I just know that my mom’s actions that night left an indelible imprint in me about the importance of caring for others, a value that would chart the path to my future.