Margaret Ann Mendez Puhn (b. 1943 in National City) grew up at 1523 Wilson Avenue, National City. She has twenty brothers and sisters.
Wilson Avenue is currently a parking lot in an industrial area. According to Margaret, Mayor Kyle Morgan wanted the west side of National City to become an industrial area and through city ordinances, eventually the west side neighborhood was destroyed. Margaret remembers when Wilson Avenue was close to a beach where she could go and play.
Margaret went to Kimball Elementary, National City Junior High, and then Sweetwater High School. Just out of high school, Margaret’s mother had a friend — Martha Smith — who took Margaret to work for Republican Headquarters. There, she cut huge maps into precincts and mounted them. She also worked for Lyle Pennets on Hancock Street making silkscreens, flags and T-shirts. (The shop no longer exists.)
During her twenties, Margaret became a professional Hawaiian dancer. A woman whose husband was in the Navy and had transferred to National City and she set up a Hawaiian dance school in her home; Margaret became one of her students. Then a musician “discovered” Margaret and the other Hawaiian dancing girls, getting them gigs at different venues. Margaret did that for eight years and later taught Hula in her own home.
Margaret never learned Spanish and her parents would speak Spanish with each other when they didn’t want the kids to understand. She lived with 8 siblings at the Wilson Avenue house and she describes her life as having been sheltered. She and her siblings were never allowed to leave home and simply roam the streets. They were poor, but they never starved. Margaret says, “Every year we used to walk up to the Stanley Shoe Place and we all got our same black-and-white Oxfords.” Her father also grew food in their backyard.
Margaret remembers how in the 1950s there was a slaughterhouse nearby. The railroad, by the 24th trolley station, had a train stop and one day a freight train halted that had cows inside ready to be slaughtered. A gate broke loose and the cows ran loose, going all up and down Wilson Avenue. Everybody was chasing these cows to get them back to the slaughterhouse and Margaret recalls the incident vividly.
Margaret got married in 1966, at the age of 23. She was a stay at home mom and her husband was an engineer. She spent most of her married life in National City and still lives there today. She is also related to Rosie Hamlin, the singer who in 1962 came out with a famous song “Angel Baby.”
Evangeline Olque Munoz Garcia Mendez (Margaret’s Mother)
As family legend has it, Aniceto Olque (Evangeline’s father) was a Pancho Villa rider during the Revolution. He kidnapped Soledad Munoz (Evangeline’s mother) and thereafter, if she left him, she would have become a loose woman, so they stayed together. As a Pancho Villa rider, however, Aniceto was a wanted man and he escaped Mexico with Soledad, fleeing to the United States.
Evangelina wrote her own one-page biography, which describes how she came from Mexico through El Paso, Texas in 1916. She was three months old at the time. Her parents crossed with Evangeline’s sister Matiana, her grandfather Cleofos and her grandmother Josefa. Her grandparents’ children also crossed at this time: Juanita, Josephine, Susie, Antonio and Petra Luisa. Her grandfather’s brother also came with his wife and their five children. Each person paid two cents to enter the United States.
Aniceto was first offered a job working for a railroad company in Missouri. The family lived in a railroad box car where Evangeline’s brother was born in Missouri in 1919. In 1925 Aniceto moved the family to Bakersfield, California. This is where Evangeline got most of her schooling while many of her family members worked at a sugar beet company. They were considered one of the pioneer Mexican-American families of Kern County.
Then, in 1932 Aniceto wanted to move back to Mexico. Evangeline refused and stayed behind with her Aunt Susie. In 1935, she moved to National City where she found work at a tuna cannery. The very next year, she married Adolph Garcia. They lived in National City and the Garcia’s were a very large family. Due to World War II, Adolph changed his name to Joe and together Evangeline & Joe had two daughters. Joe, however, passed away due to a road work accident on the job.
Evangeline went to immigration school where she received her citizenship at Sweetwater High School. While in classes, she met John Mendez. In 1942 Evangeline and John married. She then gave birth to six more children: Margaret, Martha, Emily, Manuel, Jenny and Dolores. She remained a stay-at-home-mom and became very active in the PTA.
Meanwhile, Aniceto had settled in Tijuana after he left Bakersfield. He used to work in construction in Mexico and helped build houses. He also built many wells for people because back in those days big trucks came and filled up your well, which you then used for washing and drinking.
Aniceto owned a house in Tijuana’s ‘Colonia Libertad’ neighborhood during the late 1940’s when Margaret was about three years old. Although there was no running water or electricity, the house was made of adobe with only two bedrooms and the bathroom outside. Evangeline would take her children (including Margaret) across the border and bring him food or clothing. She would then also provide clothes for the other families in the Tijuana neighborhood.
John P. Mendez (Margaret’s father)
John was born in 1902 and didn’t know his biological father. In 1910 John’s mother remarried and moved in with a man who had a farm near Nestor. However, John’s stepfather was shot as he walked into a gambling establishment in downtown San Diego during a brawl. Therefore, as a young boy, John had to work for Japanese gardeners and in the potato fields to help support the family. He made 50 cents per day.
When there was a call to enlist for the war, Mendez lied about his age and joined. However, when his mother found out, that was the end of his army enlistment plans, but not the registration card. His age, listed on the card, enabled him to work at the Hercules Power Plant, located at what is now called Gunpowder Point. Built in 1916, the factory took kelp and extracted chemical acetone, an explosive used by the British.
When the Western Salt factory opened up in 1918, John was one of its first employees. Margaret recalls that her dad would stay on top of the building sometimes overnight.
John married for the first time at 17 and he had 8 children before divorcing after 22 years. He met Evangeline in citizenship classes and they married in 1942. They had another 8 children. Then when Evangeline’s sister died, the couple adopted her four children also. That’s how Margaret came to have 20 siblings.
In the late 1940s John also opened his own restaurant El Barrilito Cafe. It was located at the overpass of 18th Street. Their restaurant sold Atlas Beer, made in San Diego and the only beer one could get during WWII. El Barrilito Cafe may have been bought through eminent domain to make way for Interstate 5.
After he sold the cafe in the 1950’s, John found work at Rohr Aircraft as a machinist. He worked there until his retirement.
(Interview: April 22, 2016)