Mary Casillas Salas

Mayor Mary Casillas Salas was born in 1948 in Chula Vista. She attended Harborside Elementary School for kindergarten when the school first opened in 1953. The very next year, she switched to St. Charles Elementary School and went on to Marian Catholic High School, which was located on 19th Street in Imperial Beach. From 1996 to 2004, Mary served on the Chula Vista City Council. Her political life continued as California Assembly member for the 79th Assembly District from 2006 to 2010. She was elected Mayor of Chula Vista in 2014, the first woman of Spanish-speaking descent to hold that position in the city.

Life by the Salt Works and World War II Veteran

Her father was Nicolaz Casillas (b. 1923 in Otay). He attended Otay Grammar School, Chula Vista Junior High and Sweetwater High School. He joined the Army/Air Corp as a airplane mechanic during World War II. He was stationed in Yuma, Arizona (1941-1945) and upon his return, he worked at North Island as an airplane mechanic. Mary recalls her father coming home extremely distressed one day because he had competed for a foreman’s job, but he didn’t get the position. The supervisor told him that the other employees would not want to be led by a ‘Mexican.’ Eventually, Nicolaz would retire as a Production Control Engineer.

His father was Felix Casillas (b. 1890, San Miguel, Yahualica, Jalisco) who first came to the United States in 1914 and was a mule skinner, which meant he drove the wagons and helped clear out the land at Balboa Park. He returned to Jalisco to marry Urbana Antón (b. 1892 in San Miguel, Yahualica, Jalisco). Together they crossed to the United States through El Paso, Texas in 1919. Felix found work at the Westvaco chemical company next to the Salt Works and he first lived in the La Punta adobe. He then built his own adobe home at 828 Dorothy Street in the 1920s. However, the home was demolished for the coming of the Interstate 5 freeway in the 1950s.

Mary Casillas Salas’ grandparents, Felix and Urbana Casillas, had nine children: Nicolaz, AY, Joe, Dolores, David, Charlie, Felix, Becky and Reuben. Seven of their sons served in wars. In particular, Joseph Casillas, born in 1920, received a Silver Star during WWII. He was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge and became a German Prisoner of War. Joseph Casillas Elementary School in Rancho Del Ray was named after him. AY (or Armando Ysidro) served in the Korean War and by the late 1960s he became the first Latino school board member ever elected.

From the Pala Indian Reservation to Otay: Paula Silva

Mary’s mother was Paula Silva (b. 1923 on the Pala Indian Reservation). She attended Fallbrook High School, but in her senior year, her parents moved to Otay (now Chula Vista) and she finished her last year at Sweetwater Union High School. Thereafter, she became a spot welder for Rohr aircraft during WWII.

Paula’s father was Jose Rafael Silva (b. 1894 in San Pedro, Sonora, Mexico). It appears that he first crossed the border in 1907. His World War I registration card shows he worked as a laborer in a copper mine of Douglas, Arizona. Research found that he lived right next to the Arizona-Mexico border on the U.S. side.

While working in the copper mine a terrible small pox epidemic swept through the town. Rafael caught small pox and survived, although he had pockmarks on his face for the rest of his life. More tragically, his twin sons died of the disease.

According to Mary, Rafael worked at the Copper Queen Smelting Company during a time of great labor unrest. Mexicans who worked at the mines were paid half of what white miners made, and they were also put in the most dangerous jobs. To break strikes, miners would be taken out of Douglas and simply left in the desert. As one family story goes, while Rafael was ill with small pox he was still running up expenses in the company town, so when he got well, he packed up one night and fled. The family moved from Douglas, Arizona to the Pala Indian Reservation. They traveled in the freight car of a train where they could only see sunlight out of the slats. Mary recalls that as a child she would visit friends one or twice a year at the Pala Indian Reservation.

Paula’s mother was Rosa Limón Silva (b. 1900 in Hermosillo, Sonora). She married Jose Rafael at the age of seventeen. Very little else is known about Rosa, except that she was an orphan raised by her grandmother.

(Interview: March 3, 2016)