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National City – a Mayor Daley-type political machine, backed by Wallace-type Democrats

"The least sophisticated community I’ve ever seen"

"The Chicanos are accepted by the white community that has lived here a long time."
  • "The Chicanos are accepted by the white community that has lived here a long time."
  • Image by Joe Lucci

To the south of San Diego, within range of the shadows cast by the Coronado Bridge, lies National City. Frequently described as the “backlot" of San Diego, at first glance NC lives down to its nickname; and few people, cruising to and from Tijuana, feel any incentive to stop there.

Aztec Printing Shop. "The city is trying to cover itself with a blanket of secrecy. They didn’t want to release the officer's name."

Aztec Printing Shop. "The city is trying to cover itself with a blanket of secrecy. They didn’t want to release the officer's name."

A bright welcoming sign beside Interstate 5 advertises NC’s chief attractions: “The Mile of Cars & Hotels and Restaurants." Not exactly prime tourist fare.

On either side of the freeway the view is scrubby. Uncultivated land, weathered housing, small manufacturing plants, and unadorned stucco apartments give way to a modest city whose billboards and neon announce “Palms Read," “The Westerner, Dancing," “Mexican Food," and “Pawnbroker."

Eating and drinking are the most active retail sales, followed by auto and auto parts.

Eating and drinking are the most active retail sales, followed by auto and auto parts.

The freeways, cars, and buildings- everything on land-is diminished by the imposing shapes of the naval ships in the nearby bay.

Back in 1868 the Kimball brothers paid $30,000 for a former Spanish land grant, El Rancho de la Nacion, that comprised 26,632 10/100 acres of “good waterfront with deep water, thousands of acres of fine sloping land, and fertile table lands." Frank Kimball envisioned that “someday the land would be covered with fine residences surrounded with orange and lemon groves."

And for a time the Rancho prospered. Sheep were raised on a large scale, and citrus groves covered the slopes. An advertisement in the National City Record, January 31, 1885, offered for sale “Rancho Janal, 4,441 acres, with special inducements to colonies. A splendid location for all kinds of fruit, including the RAISIN GRAPE."

Kimball donated land to the Atcheson, Topeka & Santa Fe railway company & NC thrived on the promise of becoming host to an important railway terminus. A wharf, hotels, and other structures were constructed as businessmen prepared for the influx of people. Finally, in 1885 the first AT&S train puffed in from the north. A temporary station was built, and at one time twenty-seven tracks led into town. But by 1895 San Bernadino had superseded NC as AT&S’s Southern California center and NC slipped into economic decline. Mercifully, the Kimballs didn't live to see modern NC, which occupies the northwest corner of their original purchase.

Traces of the happier era remain. The old train station has been revitalized as a restaurant, and Victorian homes, with their air of musty gentility, are’ scattered throughout the residential sections.

From a burg in the boondocks, NC has grown to a small city of just over 40,000. According to the SD Chamber of Commerce, NC’s economic wellbeing is directly linked to conditions at the SD Naval Station, which overlaps the two cities. The 1970 census showed 10,661 military personnel residing in NC. The median family income is approximately $8,000, or $2,000 below county median; 64.9% of the families reported annual incomes of under $10,000, compared with 49.1 county wide. Residential construction is oriented toward multiple units, which is explained by the large number of Navy people, and a young median age of 23.6 years.

Eating and drinking are the most active retail sales, followed by auto and auto parts. The major industries are wood products, aerospace parts, food, metal fabrication, and meat packing. The city government and Chamber of Commerce are trying to attract more industry, citing the harbor and rail service as inducements.

National Avenue is the center of that part of the city catering to the Navy crowd. Scattered along the way are a tattoo parlor, a pizza joint, a servicemen's center, bars and cafes. Several streets east is Highland Avenue, another major commercial thoroughfare. A stroll down this street is like thumbing through the fast-food section of the yellow pages. MacDonalds and Jack-in-the-Boxes compete with the more exotic Make-Your-Own-Burger, Yesteryear's ice cream, and Philadelphia-style sandwiches for the automobile trade. You seldom see a pedestrian. The major activity seems to be jumping in and out of cars.

Aztec printers nestles among a row of shops in back of a Der Wienerschnitzel. It doubles as headquarters for the Ad Hoc Committee on Chicano Rights. The AHC, formed in 1971, captured the media's attention in the aftermath of the October 12, 1975 killing of Luis Rivera by Craig Short, a NC policeman. At the behest of the Rivera family, the AHC, which has been involved in civil rights matters, protested the acquittal of Short after Grand Jury and D.A. investigations. These protests grew into a movement to recall Mayor Kile Morgan and city councilmen, Michael Dalla and Luther Reid.

Herman Baca, Chairman of the AHC, has emerged as an articulate spokesman and forceful leader in the fight against city hall. His face has been seen frequently on the news.

I interviewed Baca on a weekday morning at Aztec Printers. There were two big presses in the back; in the front, a typewriter, some old desks and chairs, and a bulletin board covered with pertinent clippings and announcements. Baca's wife and several co-workers, including one Anglo, bustled around answering phone calls and attending to visitors. Baca is of medium height with shortish, dark hair and a thin mustache. Dressed in jeans and jacket, he is a warm, approachable man, using his intelligence, not to dazzle, but to communicate. He is concerned with the practical measures needed to achieve a better life for the residents of NC and is not much given to philosophizing. His quietly resolute air is reminiscent of Cesar Chavez minus the element of Indio mystique.

Commenting on the city’s handling of the Rivera shooting and the recall petitions, Baca declared that the city is “trying to cover itself with a blanket of secrecy. They didn’t want to release the officer's name... nor to suspend him. They would not even give the media their gun policy. They try to justify their secrecy by saying it’s in the public's interest. It borders on a mini-Watergate."

Baca has been a resident of NC since 1955. At 32, he has several years of political experience behind him. In 1969 he helped organize MAPA, the Mexican-American Political Association. In 1971 he was campaign manager for Peter Chacon, State Assemblyman. From 1971 to 1973 he served as director of the Raza Unida Party’s San Diego chapter and at the same time aided in the founding of CASA Justicia, which is mainly concerned with immigration issues and the undocumented worker.

Before the Ad Hoc Committee, he explains, “there wasn't any one committee powerful enough to get into the political arena and take on the whole ball of wax of gut issues that face the Chicano community-police brutality, immigration, education, justice. In 1971, it was felt by a lot of the Chicano community organizations that an independent non-funded, non-controlled, community-based type organization was needed. The Ad Hoc is a coalition of twelve major Chicano organizations from throughout San Diego County.” The non-funded aspect is crucial, since organizations that depend on the government for financial support are prohibited from getting involved politically. "You don’t kick someone in the shins and then expect them to give you money."

Baca describes NC as "being run by a Mayor Daley-type political machine, backed by Wallace-type Democrats and supported by Chamber of Commerce Republicans." The current mayor, Kile Morgan has been in office ten years. Before that he was a city councilman.

NC is over 40% Chicano, 12% Filipino, and the remainder Anglo and others. Recently the number of blacks has increased, as residents of a new, federally-subsidized housing project.

"If you look at the situation that exists here in NC, as far as the representation in the government, the so-called minority is the majority in fact. But if you look at the statistics in City Hall, in the police department you have two Chicanos, out of 55, one black, and one Oriental. That’s kind of symbolic of the type of government being run here."

The AHC is financed solely by community contributions and views its role as one of organizing, politicizing, and educating the people. Of his own role, Baca states. "You can't play Crusader Rabbit, you can't play Santa Claus to a group of people. If there are going to be solutions to social ills, the people are going to have to stand up and take action themselves."

Last year the AHC collected signatures and went before the city council, and finally to court, to contest the city's controversial rezoning of the predominately Chicano west side from residential to commercial. This year it has organized a voter registration drive, in conjunction with the gathering of recall signatures, in an effort to increase the enfranchisement of the Chicano community.

The AHC is supporting a Chicano slate in the March 2 local elections. Jesse Ramirez and Dr. Oscar Canedo, currently NC schools trustees, are running for city council; Luis Natividad is up for a School District trustee seat.

Meanwhile, the recall drive that stemmed from the Rivera shooting has run into difficulties. City Clerk, lone Campbell has declared about two-thirds of the signatures on each of the three petitions to be invalid. She cites incorrect precinct numbers as one of the reasons. The AHC answers that the mistakes were due primarily to a precinct map furnished by Campbell that indicated 18 consolidated precincts in the city. "NC officials denied us the democratic process of recall by placing every possible obstacle in our way." The AHC alleges illegal behavior on the part of the Assistant City Attorney and City Clerk in their monitoring of the recall petitions and intends to take the matter to court. Campbell has intimated that her office is being bugged by the city, and Baca contends that if she is being intimidated, her decision concerning the petitions is invalid.

Because Baca, during the interview, specifically accused the Chamber of Commerce of collusion with city officials in working against the interests of NC residents, I contacted the manager of the Chamber, T. Victor DeForest, to get his views. Unfortunately, DeForest, who is gray-haired and tanned, had arrived in NC only four months before. Initially, he hesitated to express any opinions but later warmed to my neutral countenance and ventured some comments. He pointed out that 90% of NC businessmen, who are primarily Anglo, live outside the city and “therefore don’t elect city officials and don’t contribute to officials’ campaigns.'’ He asserted that he “was opposed to recall because it divides the community in negative ways.” When I asked if he didn’t think the community was already divided, he replied that he hadn’t noticed it. “NC is the least sophisticated community I’ve ever seen. It’s a small town. The Chicanos are accepted by the white community that has lived here a long time. There is a large transient population, however.” DeForest added, “I looked for discrimination and prejudice but haven’t seen it. I was surprised because Caucasians are in the minority here.” He feels that there is a communications gap rather than a struggle going on. “People don't sit down and talk to one another.”

DeForest's opinions reflect the general attitude of those not directly involved in the recall drive to minimize or deny the problem. While approving of the Ad Hoc Committee’s efforts to work through the system by campaigning to elect councilmen sympathetic to the social problems in NC, DeForest thinks the AHC exhibits signs of paranoia by “feeling that all government officials are against them.” He concluded that “one side has been heard too often. After all, there were even two sides to Watergate.”

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