Larry Harnisch reflects on Los Angeles history
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Note: Standards have changed since Paul Coates used "wetback" in this column 50 years ago. Today, words like this are acceptable in The Times only if they appear in a quote and then, only after consultation with top editors. Although such words are sometimes appropriate, if Coates were writing this column for us today, we would ask him to change it.
But Coates, who died in 1968 at the age of 47, wasn't writing for us but for the readers of another generation. And so we're left with the choice of making the changes ourselves or killing the column, both of which are greater offenses. I should also note that I deleted the headline that originally appeared with the column because it struck me as being needlessly inflammatory and wasn't written by Coates but by someone on the copy desk.
Ricardo Sarate Perez's story differs from that of the average wetback in two major regards.
First, in purpose. Ricardo didn't come to the United States in search of the American dollar. He came in quest of something we take for granted here: an education.
Secondly, when Ricardo began his several-hundred-mile journey to Mexico's northern frontier, he was only 11 years old.
One of several children of a railroad worker, Ricardo left his family's three room dwelling in San Luis Potosi at 8 a.m. on a chilly winter morning in 1955. He carried a paper bag with two extra shirts and an extra pair of pants, plus the 25 pesos (two American dollars) which he had secretly saved for the trip.
He had earned the money working with his father on the railroad.
With three years of schooling behind him, his aim was to get more -- to learn English like the tourists spoke it, then return to get a "good" job in a hotel.
This goal has been altered somewhat by the passing of time.
The trip from San Luis Potosi, to Guadalajara, north through Mazatlan and Culiacan, and finally west to Tijuana, took 21 days.
A boy on the highway in Mexico -- even a small one -- generally can keep moving by exchanging his services, loading and unloading trucks, for free transportation and, occasionally, a meal.
In Tijuana, the 11-year-old spent two days learning about the border -- where it was, how to cross it -- and hearing stories about American jails before working up courage to sneak across.
His was an ingenious plan. And it worked. Waiting for the late afternoon influx of Mexican workers to cross from the U.S. side back into their country, he slipped among them. Then, walking backward as they walked forward, he passed unnoticed into the United States.
His success, however, was short lived. Border patrolmen caught him in San Diego and returned him to Tijuana. He tried once more. Again, he was caught and sent back.
For his third attempt, the successful one, he traveled east, all the way to Nogales. He crossed ankle-deep in mud through a storm drain.
And with the kind of luck that sometimes accompanies determination, he began his move northward and westward.
Walking, stowing away on trucks and freight trains, sometimes boldly hitchhiking or going by bus, he kept on the move because he didn't know what else to do. He kept from going hungry by catching a day's work where he could -- generally washing dishes in a Mexican restaurant.
He reached L.A., took one look and decided there were too many policemen. So he caught the next freight north, where -- a week later -- he hit the jackpot. In Sacramento he found a family which took him in, fed him and sent him to school.
Again, luck was his shadow. Although he spoke no English, school authorities accepted the family's claim that Ricardo was born in Texas. The family was poor and Ricardo helped out, spending weekends and summer vacations in the fields or slaughtering poultry.
Two months ago, however, the family told the boy he'd have to leave. Because of illness, they would be forced to go on welfare and they were afraid of what might happen if he were discovered.
Found by Church Worker
He left and came to L.A. Sitting in a pew, praying, at Plaza Methodist Church, he was found by a church worker. The boy told his story, illustrating it with a few tears and a few laughs.
Then some other people heard the story of the little wetback. Dr. Richard Brooks, president of Gardena's Spanish American Institute heard it. He said he'd accept Ricardo in the home-school for boys if immigration problems could be worked out and the $75-a-month minimum tuition could be met.
The Ladies' Plaza Club came up with $10 a month. Arnold Rodriguez, a Plaza playground director, and his wife, a schoolteacher, volunteered another $5 and supplied the necessary affidavit of support.
Dr. Brooks and Rodriguez took the boy's story to immigration officials here. Rodriguez said that if the additional $60 a month for tuition wasn't volunteered, he'd pay it. Then Dr. Brooks took a frightened Ricardo to the U.S. Consulate in Mexicali.
This weekend, passport and student visa in hand, Ricardo Sarate Perez came back to town, a very happy and grateful young man.
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