The following story was written by Mary Mendoza with the help of her brother William Mendoza.
William and Mary Mendoza were born and raised in Nestor, California. Their father, Teofilo Mendoza, was born in the town of Penjamo in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico on January 8, 1904. He was the youngest of six children. He was one of the first Mexican-Americans to farm in the South Bay.
The story of Teofilo Mendoza’s early childhood is heart wrenching. His father, Librado Mendoza, worked for a man who owned a cattle and horse ranch in Penjamo. One of Librado’s responsibilities was to check that the fencing surrounding the ranch was secure and that the gate was locked in the evening. One evening, instead of going home through the gate, he took a short cut and went in between the fence boards. The weapon he wore accidentally fired. A bullet hit him in the leg. Librado limped home. He was very poor and couldn’t afford a doctor. His wife, Esiquia, used home remedies on his wound. The leg, however, became infected. He was taken to a hospital where he died within days. At the time, Teofilo was an infant.
When Librado, Pomposo Martines, Teofilo’s maternal grandfather, took over Librado’s job. They lived in a one room house with an adobe dirt floor. They had no furniture, beds, dishes or eating utensils. For meals, Teofilo’s mother Esiquia would spread a cloth on the floor. The family would sit on the floor around the cloth. Esiquia would give each member of the family a tortilla rolled up with food inside. The only person who sat during meal times was Pomposo. His seat was a large stone which was rolled out from thecorner of the room at mealtimes. At bedtime each person had a large blanket to wrap around their body. They would sleep on the adobe dirt floor. If there was an emergency during the night, Esiquia would light a lamp to help her solve the problem. In 1908, Esiquia and her mother became ill with pneumonia. They both died within a week of each other. Pomposo was left as sole guardian of Teofilo, age 4, Guadalupe (6), Damiana (8), and Martina (16). The family continued living in the one room house that was provided them rent free by the ranch owner.
In 1908 there were signs that a revolution might happen in Mexico. Teofilo had two older brothers, Sotero (born 1888) and Rosalio (born 1891). Both brothers crossed into the United States into El Paso, Texas in 1909. They found work in Texas on the railroads. In 1910 the Mexican Revolution broke out. People were getting killed. Pomposo sent an urgent letter to Sotero asking him to travel to Mexico and bring the children to America. Sotero and Rosalio could not go back to Mexico. It was too dangerous for them because of their age. They would have been forced to take sides in the war or be killed immediately. In 1911, Sotero sent a friend, Julia Moreno, with special papers and free railroad tickets for her and the Mendoza children.
Julia and the four children crossed into the United States through El Paso, Texas. The date was October 4, 1911. Julia signed their names in a special book and paid fifty cents for each child. If it had not been for Julia, Teofilo and his sisters would not have come to live forever in America. Julia stayed with the Mendoza family and helped to raise the children. The family never heard from Pomposo again.
From Texas, Julia brought the children by railroad to Cucamonga, California. Sotero and Rosalio were there working in the vineyards. They stayed there for a few years. From there, they traveled by car to Long Beach, CA. In 1913 they traveled by steamer to San Diego. Sotero rented a house in Little Italy. Teofilo went to school for a few years in San Diego.
Sotero and Rosalio found work in Balboa Park pouring cement for the buildings that would house the 1915 California Exposition. In the summer months of 1916-1919, Sotero and Rosalio picked vegetables for Mr. Tsu, a Chinese-American farmer. The farm was located below the El Cortez Hotel. Later in the year, they picked lemons.
In the fall of 1920 at the age of sixteen, Teofilo began picking lemons alongside Sotero and Rosalio in the Chula Vista orchards. The family moved to Spooner’s Mesa in the Tijuana River Valley in 1921. Sotero rented a house made out of stone.
Sotero and Rosalio found work at the North Island Naval Base pouring cement at the airstrips. By 1923 Sotero and Rosalio were living in Imperial Beach. They grew barley and harvested it with horses. They sold the hay.
In 1925, Teofilo was twenty-one. He leased a half acre of land next to Palm Avenue on Sixteenth street and Imperial Beach. He was living with his sister Damiana. He planted and harvested tomatoes. He would sell the tomatoes at the market in San Diego.
One day on his way to market, Teofilo’s Model T Ford vehicle was hit by a drunk driver. The crash happened at the corner of Palm Avenue and Highway 101 where the Brown’s Market used to be located. The Brown’s Market owner saw the accident. He said to Teofilo, “You leave it to me. I’ll make things good for you right now.” He obliged the man to pay Teofilo on the spot for the load of tomatoes, plus the damages to the vehicle. All his life, Teofilo was very close to his brothers and sisters. He thought of Sotero as a father figure.
Maria Elena Vigil was born on October 16, 1908 in Guadalajara, in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. Her mother died in childbirth. Her father could not take care of a newborn baby, so he took Maria Elena to a school teacher by the name of Petra. She had adopted a dozen other children who had been orphaned over the years. Petra was getting on in years, but she was willing to take on one more child because one of the girls that she had adopted said she would be responsible for Maria Elena. When Maria Elena was eight, Petra died. Maria Elena was heartbroken. Her life would be so difficult without a “mother figure” to protect her.
At age 18, Maria Elena got work in Mexico at a doctor’s office as a receptionist. He helped her get the papers needed for immigration. On Julyl 16, 1930 Maria Elena entered America through Nogales, Arizona with a special immigration document that gave her permanent residency. She started out in San Pedro, California. After a month, she came to Palm City. She didn’t know any English. She found a place to stay with a young lady who had also been adopted by Petra. In August of 1930 the friend helped Maria Elena get a job at the Golden West Packing House in Palm City (South Bay, San Diego) owned by Mike Iguchi.
Mike had a farm in the Tijuana River Valley. Teofilo had worked for Mike for about five years. One of Teofilo’s jobs was to bring the boxes filled with produce from the farm to the Golden West Packing House. He would pick up the empty boxes and bring them back to Mike’s farm. The packing house is where Teofilo and Maria Elena met. They began dating. They were married on December 5, 1930. Teofilo was twenty-six and Maria Elena was twenty-two.
The newlyweds stayed a month in the Mexican community of Malva Rosa by the Salt Works in the South Bay. From there, they moved to Nestor and rented a house on Leon Street. It had more than an acre of land. They raised chickens and rabbits. Teofilo planted some vegetables. Joseph and William were born in that house. The doctor who delivered William was named Dr. William McCausland. Maria Elena was having serious complications with the birth of her second child. The doctor saved the baby’s life, so when it came time to name him, the doctor said, “What are you going to call him?” Teofilo and Maria Elena hesitated. The doctor said, “Why don’t you name him after me?” This was just minutes after William was born and this is how he got his name. Dr. McCauland was in charge of the McCauland Clinic in Chula Vista.
In 1934, Teofilo was in a serious motorcycle accident. He sustained a bad concussion. He suffered from epileptic seizures and couldn’t work for months. The family had to move because Teofilo could not pay the rent. The family moved to 25th Street in Nestor near Coronado Avenue. The rent was $8 per month for a small house. Teofilo Jr. and Mary were born in that house.
Teofilo needed to rent a bigger house for his growing family. He would work in the lemon orchards when it was time to pick the fruit. In 1937, Maria Elena went to the Nestor Post Office where, as luck would have it, she met her comadre who said she was moving out of a large house she had been renting on Coronado Avenue. She said the house was on twelve acres and cost $9 a month to rent. Teofilo leased the property. On it, he raised cattle and sold the cows to the nearby dairies.
The next four Mendoza children were born at the San Diego County hospital. These are Carmen, Ralph, Robert and Salvador. All eight children are bilingual.
In 1938, a person from the fire department came to the lemon orchard in Chula Vista. Teofilo and the other lemon pickers were told to fight fires in the nearby area. Maria Elena found out two days later what had happened when Teofilo came home hungry, tired and covered with dust and ashes.
In 1939, Teofilo found work at the Fenton Gravel Plant in Palm City. His job was to help break up large rocks that would eventually become gravel. He got this job because the lemons would not be ready for picking for about another nine months. He had to keep working in order to feed his family. Maria Elena would raise hens for eggs and meat.
In the 1940’s land was very inexpensive to lease in the Tijuana River Valley. Because the lemon picking season was so short, Teofilo decided to lease 21 acres from 1940-1946 in four locations of the Tijuana River Valley. He raised cattle and grew alfalfa on five acres between Sunset Street and the Tijuana River. He also raised cattle on 5 acres along 19th Street and on an additional five acres on Hollister street he planted watermelons. He had one more acre on 19th Street where he planted cucumbers.
During WWII, tractors were not being made, so Teofilo made the Mendoza Tractor using the frame, motor, undercarriage and tires of a 1933 Chevrolet car. Teofilo used this homemade tractor to pull a machine that cut the alfalfa he had planted. Once the alfalfa had grown and was dry, Teofilo used a special machine called a rake to windrow it. He fed the alfalfa to his cattle. On another five acres, he grew tomato and summer squash. This was near the gate going into Mexico. (Gate #2 or Puerta Blanca) Altogether he leased 21 acres. Teofilo sold some of the produce, but the family ate the rest for about six months.
Sotero Mendoza married Angela Escalante in 1938. They had seven children. Two sons and three daughters are still living. Angela is also living at age 97. In 1938, Sotero and Angela leased a house with five acres next to the border of the Tijuana River Valley. He planted carrots. At harvest time he took them to market in San Diego. After two years, the family moved to higher ground because it was safer. Persons from Mexico would cross over their farmland.
Sotero then leased another house with five acres next to the land that Teofilo was leasing, but at the same time Sotero leased five more acres next to the Puerta Blanco and five more acres next to Dairy Mart Road. He grew tomatoes, celery, carrots and corn. As Sotero grew older, he suffered greatly from asthma. During the summer months when Sotero was too ill to work, Teofilo would take ten-year-old William to Sotero’s farm. William’s main job was to cultivate the fields with a horse named Johnny. William enjoyed the farmwork. At that young age, William thought it would be great to be a farmer when he grew up. He also drove Sotero’s 1940 “Case” tractor model V.
In 1947, Teofilo got word from the owner of the 12 acres that he needed the land. Fortunately, ten acres were for sale across the street. Teofilo and Maria Elena purchased ten acres at 2050 Coronado Avenue. They raised the $500 down payment. Teofilo sold cattle for $200. Maria Elena sold some items for $200. Joseph had a $100 war bond, which he sold. Teofil kept one cow for milk for the family.
In order to pay the mortgage, Teofilo would take the whole family to Northern California in the summer months to pick fruits. Teofilo bought a large Dodge Truck, a huge tent, army cots and a kerosene stove, etc. From 1947-1952 Teofilo took the family to the apricot orchard of Ben & Kathleen Uhmen in Berryessa. They would set up the tent next to a running creek. William’s main job was to drive a 1 ton Model T truck and bring the boxes of apricots to a shed. He would then take the empty boxes back to the orchard.
The next month, they moved to Modesto to pick peaches in the orchard owned by Vernan Goldsberry. Later, also in Modesto, they picked Thompson Seedless Grapes in the vineyard of Dick and Garrad Kanningburg. In Modesto, William’s job was to drive a tractor pulling a trailer into the vineyard. Workers would load the boxes of grapes on the trailer as William moved the tractor slowly through the rows of grapevines. In one day, William would take about 20 loads of boxes full of grapes to a huge dryer where the grapes were made into raisins.
The third month they traveled to Ukiah and picked pears in the orchard of Sterling Norguard. The family camped near the Russian River. The two girls helped Maria Elena and looked after their three younger brothers who in 1947 were ages 7, 5 and 3.
In 1948, Teofilo built the brick farm house with the help of his friend Mr. Jesus Diaz.
The eight Mendoza children went to Emory Elementary on Coronado Avenue and Southwest Junior High in Nestor. All except Joseph went to Mar Vista High School in Imperial Beach.
On July 1, 1953 Teofilo, William and some farm workers planted the first crop on the Mendoza farm. Thousands of four-inch tomato plants were placed in the ground in the following manner: with water running in the furrow to soften the soil, the person planting would wait until the soil was the right texture so as not to injure the delicate stem of the plant. With the index finger extended on the root portion and the rest of the plant cupped in the palm of the hand, the root portion was gently pressed into the soft earth. Each plant was placed 18-inches from the next to give it room to grow.
A one-inch, five feet tall redwood pole was pounded about six inches into the ground between two plants. Also, a two-inch wide and six feet tall redwood stake was pounded a foot into the ground between every two plants. The stakes at the beginning and end of each pole were braced up by a supporting stake, leaning at about a 45 degree angle. The stake was pounded into place and a large nail at the top kept it from slipping off. When the plants were about a foot high, the spreading branches were supported on both sides with “zigal cord” and attached to the poles and stakes. Strong shoulder high wire was used to keep the stakes in alignment. Large staples were shot into the stakes with a special gun to keep the wire secured to the wood. The plants were watered from a well that was installed in early 1953. It was powered by electricity.
It took about 3 months for the tomatoes to be ready for harvesting. In the meantime, the plants were watered once a week. There were about 50 rows of plants and it took that long to water all of them. As the tomato plants grew, so did the weeds. These weeds were removed by using a small narrow Allis Chalmer Model G cultivating tractor. It was driven by Teofilo or William in between the rows of tomato plants.
In mid-October of 1953 the farmer workers began picking the first tomatoes from the Mendoza farm. There were 3 companies in Los Angeles that could handle the sale of Teofilo’s tomatoes. These were Cal. Vita Produce Co., Union Produce Co, and Eagle Market. William would stamp the boxes with the size of the tomatoes as well as the company that would receive and sell them once they got to Los Angeles. Teofilo chose the Cal Vita Produce Co.
Daily, a truck from Y & Y Trucking Company came to the Mendoza farm. They picked up hundreds of boxes filled with tomatoes, which they took to a receiving depot in Chula Vista. From there, Teofilo’s tomatoes as well as produce from other farmers were transported to Los Angeles in a semi-trailer truck, also owned by the Y & Y Trucking Company.
The truck traveled all night. In the early morning, the truck arrived at the dock of Cal. Vita Produce Co. Teofilo’s boxes of tomatoes would be unloaded. Buyers would be waiting, ready to purchase the boxes of fresh tomatoes and other produce that they needed for their supermarkets, restaurants and other businesses. Teofilo also sold some tomatoes at the produce stand at the farm.
William helped Teofilo with the farming from 1953-1966, except for the two years he was in the Army.
In 1957, Mary entered the Convent of the Sisters of Mercy in San Francisco, CA. She was a teacher for 38 years. She would spend summer vacation on the farm helping Maria Elena. She retired from the convent in January 2001.
Teofilo and Maria Elena became United States citizens.
After Julia Morena died, Teofilo told his daughter Mary, “Julia did so much for my sisters and I, but I never thanked her and now it’s too late.”
In 1967, Teofilo turned the farming operations over to William who began by planting cucumbers. William purchased 5 acres attached to Teofilo’s 10 acres. He wanted to expand the business, so he leased 50 acres on Otay Mesa and 28 acres in the Nestor area. From 1967-1990, Teofilo helped William by selling produce at the stand. Teofilo met hundreds of people.
By 1980, tomatoes coming into the United States from Mexico made prices here plunge. William had to give up leasing lands in 1981 because the packing houses could no longer sell his produce at a profit. From 1982-1996 William by himself planted and harvested produce only on the Mendoza property. William would harvest in the early morning and sell from 1pm until all the produce was sold, especially the corn.
The state, through eminent domain, purchased the 15 acre farm because they needed a large elementary school in Nestor. Teofilo died April 1, 1998 just as they broke ground on the school. In the Fall, the school board trustees asked the public to submit names for the new school. Teofilo’s name was submitted by our family. On the day the name of the school was to be selected, it was explained that the Mendoza’s had been at this property for 50 years (1947-1997). Also, it had been the Mendoza farm for 43 years. It should be named after them. The board of trustees agreed.
On July 1, 1999 the school was dedicated as Teofilo Mendoza. It was opened in September 1999.
Maria Elena as well as Teofilo’s 100-year-old sister, Damiana, attended the dedication. Maria Elena died November 17, 2005. Teofilo and Maria Elena are buried in Nestor at Mt. Olivet Cemetery on Iris Avenue. The cemetery is 8 blocks from the Teofilo Mendoza School.
(Written by Mary Mendoza in July 2017 with William providing the finer details.)