Rigoberto Reyes was born 1957 in San Diego. Although born in the States, he lived in Colonia Cacho, Tijuana until he was seven years old.
Rigo’s father was Ramon Reyes Solis (b. 1921 in Los Angeles) and Ramon’s parents were Modesto Reyes (b. 1890’s in Jalisco, Mexico) and Carmen Solis (b. 1900 in Sonora, Mexico).
Modesto came to Central California to work in the mines during World War I and the Mexican Revolution. (Much of Rigo’s family still resides in Los Banos.) Nobody knows how the family came to Los Angeles, but this is where Ramon was born and lived until about the age of eight.
The Repatriations in Los Angeles during the 1930s
When the Depression hit, the Spanish speaking population, particularly in Los Angeles, was targeted. Although Ramon did not speak much about it, he and his family were forced to go back to Mexico during the repatriations, which occurred as early as 1929. Thereafter, the family lived in Tijuana until after WWII.
(Historians estimate about 1 million people of Spanish speaking descent, including U.S. citizens, the disabled and children, were deported to Mexico from throughout the United States during the 1930s. A National City newspaper article shows that community representatives also had a plan to “relocate” people of Spanish speaking descent to somewhere around Tecate. Unfortunately, because Ramon was so young, he didn’t remember much. In addition, many families avoided the humiliation of deportation by “voluntarily” moving to Mexico.)
Rigo said of his father, “My recollection is that although he was born in Los Angeles, he wasn’t too proud of that. He always claimed he was born in Jalisco.” Rigo explained that his grandfather (Modesto) would travel to Jalisco every year to his hometown and often he would take Ramon with him. As a consequence, Ramon became more connected to Jalisco and even continued to visit after Modesto’s death.
During the Depression years of the 1930s, Modesto worked for a wealthy family in Tijuana and his wife (Rigo’s paternal grandmother Carmen) worked for a family, the Tamayo’s. Because the Tamayo’s could not pay in money and because the families became friends, they paid Modesto & Carmen in land. This is how the family became landowners during the early days of Tijuana in the neighborhood known as Colonia Cacho.
When Ramon grew up, he found employment in the warehouse of a local furniture store in Tijuana, called La Malinche. His job often entailed delivering items to the U.S. side of the border. When he realized he could cross the border on a regular basis, Ramon decided to seek his fortune in the U.S.
Ramon Emigrated to the U.S., then was Drafted
However, Ramon was soon drafted into WWII. He talked very little about his experiences, but he was a POW captured by the Germans. The only thing Rigo recalled Ramon saying was that he had respect for the Germans (not the Nazis) because during his time in captivity they would train him to fix watches. That’s how they kept him busy. Ramon was in captivity for about year.
Upon his return to San Diego, Ramon began working in the aircraft industry. He worked for Rohr in the beginning and then worked with airplane parts and aircraft for Solar Industries.
(As historian Kevin Starr notes, during the war years the federal government spent more than $35 billion on war-industry related businesses in the state of California. pg. 237)
Ramon married Eustolia in 1949. Together, they had four children Juan Ramon, Maria del Carmen, Jorge Luis and Rigoberto. Ramon had a strong written and verbal command of both English and Spanish, so they lived in Tijuana and Ramon worked in the United States. Ramon retired from Solar Industries after more than 20 years of working there. Although he lived for a time in Otay Mesa and Lemon Grove, Ramon always wanted to live in Mexico. Upon his retirement he moved to in Tijuana. He passed away in 2005. Rigo’s mother is Eustolia Jimenez de Reyes (b. 1930, Mascota, Jalisco, Mexico) Her interview can be found here.
Rigo Growing Up in the South Bay
Rigo moved with his mother and siblings to Imperial Beach in 1965. He lived off 13th Street and went to Central Elementary School, but only for a period of several months. That same year, they moved to San Ysidro at 128 East Seaward Avenue, Apt. C. “Some categorized where we lived as the projects,” Rigo said.
However, like many other minority communities (including Old Town National City), the freeways were coming and minority neighborhoods were in the way. Rigo recalls that he and his family were very reluctant to leave. Their childhood had been spent at Seaward and everybody knew each other. Nevertheless, in 1970 they moved to a brand new neighborhood in Otay Mesa called Del Sol.
Rigo graduated from Beyer Elementary, he was the first class of Montgomery Junior High and then he graduated in 1975 from Montgomery High School.
Chicano Activism of the 1970s
Rigo grew up in the era of César Chávez and the United Farm Worker’s movement. The San Ysidro Chapter of the Brown Berets practiced behind Rigo’s apartment complex. In addition, Rigo witnessed the takeover of Chicano Park. By 1975, inspired by so many neighborhood Chicanos, he joined the San Diego Chapter of the Brown Berets.
Rigo recalled that the Brown Berets organized in order to fight the KKK who were becoming active at the border. Their motto was to serve and protect the community. He explained that this was ironic because protecting the community was supposed to be the job of SDPD, but instead the Brown Berets emphasized that they had to protect the community from the SDPD.
He became a lowrider in 1975 when he bought his first car from his brothers — a 1957 Chevy. He joined his first car club in San Ysidro, which was known as the “Casinos Car Club.” Rigo explained, “Very few people are aware that lowriders played a very important historical role in many of the movements, particularly at Chicano Park.” Rigo was the co-founder of Amigos Car Club in 1977 and also was the co-founder of the San Diego Lowrider Council in 1979.
The lowriders were heavily involved in the takeover of Chicano Park and they became targets of the National City Police Department, experiencing ‘sweeps.’ The Chicanos fought back with 300 protestors addressing the abuse with the National City Council in 1979. Rigo, in particular, asked Chicano activist Herman Baca for help. Rigo became a member of the CCR as well as a member of the Chicano Park Steering Committee.
Culturally, Rigo says he is a Chicano. For him, the identity has been shaped by the era in which he grew up.
Diversity of identity among residents of Spanish speaking descent, of course, exists. Not everyone defines themselves as a Chicano. Instead, Rigo — like many other South Bay interviewees — noted the generational difference. Rigo grew up during the Civil Rights era. He embraced his identity as a ‘Chicano.’ However, the generation before him — his parents, for example — did not identify with the term. Instead, they would consider themselves Mexican (if from Mexico) or Latino.
“In my particular opinion, all those terms have labels. It makes it easy to bunch people as a whole. When you talk about Latinos, you’re talking about pretty much anyone from America, Portugal, Italy. Then I ask myself: What do I have in common with somebody from Portugal or Italy? Yet we’re still being labeled Latinos.”
In 1984 Rigo began working for an organization called Los Niños, Inc, who in 2009 changed the name to Via International. At that time, the non-profit organization worked across the border and their approach was more paternalistic as far as giving food and clothing. Volunteers, however, began noticing that they were creating more issues and problems for the communities rather than providing services.
As continues to happen today, the communities in Baja California were being bombarded, in many cases by churches and people who wanted to do good, but didn’t live in those communities and didn’t realize the harm their donations caused. They would come every month as a “hit and run,” but didn’t know that they were leaving behind conflicts within the community. Rigo gave an example of a family with three children who would get more than a family with ten children. Thereafter, the families would resent one another.
Fortunately, Rigo’s organization identified this problem and started to change their approach. Via International hired him to help make the transition. After an internal evaluation, the non-profit organization switched from direct aid to community development. Thanks to Rigo’s community organizing expertise during the 1970s, he was able to train people within the Tijuana colonias to take over their neighborhoods and become self-sufficient.
Rigo explained, “You have to teach people to ask for or demand basic services.”
Rigo has worked with Via International for well over 33 years. The offices of Los Niños started at Brown Field, moved to Otay Mesa closer to the border crossing, and then once again moved to Chula Vista. They currently have an office in Logan Heights, but Rigo crosses the border often for his work.