When he was a younger man first getting involved in political movements to further the cause of improving the lives and means of Latinos, Jenaro Ayala took inspiration from a variety of influences.
One of them 1960s icon Malcolm X. In fact, Ayala still writes his name with an “X,” as in “Xenaro.”
“When the spark was lit for the Chicano Movement and there was Malcolm X doing the same with African Americans, I liked that idea of the ‘X,’” said Ayala, 72, who’s been writing his name that way for more than 40 years.
Throughout those four decades, Ayala has centered his energy and efforts on organizing his community, fighting for the rights of Mexican Americans and, later on, Latinos in general. Even at this point in his life, Ayala remains passionate and committed to social justice and changing the wrongs of the past: something his family experienced firsthand in the San Fernando Valley, with several generations of them having lived in this area for more than 100 years.
During that time Ayala, and his parents and grandparents, faced racism and discrimination. That treatment led him to a life of activism, courage and perseverance, all based on Ayala’s main belief.
“Only by being active and organized in your community, you will be respected,” he said.
His struggles, and those of his family, are told in sepia and black-and-white photos where one notes the changing tides in the City of San Fernando and the San Fernando Valley as a whole. The photos range from a time when minorities were considered inferior and discrimination and segregation were readily accepted, to the fight for civil rights of the 1960s, an activism that still keeps the 72-year-old going.
It was his maternal great-grandmother, Maria Lopez Negrete, who first set foot in the Valley at the start of the 1900s. She came from Arizona, and it was here she brought up her kids including daughter Juliana Lopez Negrete, who married Demecio Ayala, a newly arrived Mexican immigrant.
The family settled in what was then known as the “Mexican section” of the City of San Fernando. It stretched for the greater part of the eastern portion of the city. Railroad tracks separated the Anglo and Mexican sections. An open drain ran all along what is now Workman Street, where kids sometimes played in the rainy season. The shopping center, where the Greyhound station is now located? Back then, it was a landfill.
As the family grew, several of them had homes along Hewitt Street.
Santa Rosa de Lima Church was an adobe structure and a store called “La Mexicana” was next to it, attending to the needs of those who lived in that area.
Ayala’s grandfather Demecio had prospered in working for the San Fernando Cannery. He owned two homes, and took his animals to graze at what is now Las Palmas Park. An old photo shows Ayala’s father, David Canchola Ayala, as a teenager along with animals at this location.
But by 1931, anti-Mexican sentiment and rhetoric were growing strong in the country as the Great Depression set in, and people all over scrambled for the few available jobs. Even Mexican Americans, who had lived in the United States for generations, were seen as foreigners and not welcomed.
A lot of people decided to stay, despite everything. But the pressure was too much for Demecio. He decided to take his family back to Mexico. In that trip, his grandparents lost three of their six kids due to hunger, Ayala said.
The family went to live in Mexico City, where they had no other family, job or resources. David Canchola Ayala, then 9-years-old, didn’t even speak Spanish. But the dire situation meant that he had to work at that age to help the family.
Ten years later, as World War II raged on, his father — in “an ironic twist,” Ayala said — was drafted to “fight for his country.”
Demecio, still upset over the treatment he had received in the United States, never returned.
“The closest he got was Tijuana,” Ayala recalled.
David Canchola Ayala served in the Army. By then he had a wife, Rosa Gonzalez, and his young son, Ayala. They remained in Mexico until he returned from the war.
In 1947, Ayala — then 4-years-old — came to what would become his new country, the United States.
The family lived in Los Angeles for a short period of time before moving to a home in San Fernando, on Vaughn Street. The closest school to him was Morningside Elementary; at that time it was the “Anglo” school, and administrators there told David Canchola Ayala he should take his son to Pacoima Elementary School.
“My father refused. He said that he had fought for this country, and that they couldn’t tell him where to send his son,” Ayala recounted.
His father succeeded in the end. “I was the only Mexican in the school,” Ayala said. An old school photo shows him in the middle of white faces, all classmates.
His home along Vaughn Street was one of three in the area. There were no street lights, sidewalks or paved roads.
The Verizon offices now along Herrick Street give no clue to the horse ranch back then where Ayala usually stopped to check out the animals on his way to school. From there, everything changed as one crossed into the Anglo section of the City of San Fernando, with its gardens, lights and beautiful homes.
“It seemed as if even the birds had it better there,” Ayala said.
The Pancake Heaven restaurant was forbidden to Mexicans. James Restaurant was a car-hop joint where Ayala and his friends were often questioned by Anglo teens as to why they were on the “wrong side” of town. There were also three movie theaters in San Fernando: one for Mexicans (San Fernando), a mixed one (El Rio) and the Crest that was exclusively for Anglos.
“When you went (to the Crest), they would put the Mexicans and the African Americans in the balcony. All the good seats were for the ‘gringos,’” Ayala recalled.
The discrimination extended to the pool at San Fernando Recreation Park. Minorities were only allowed to swim there on Thursdays, because they would wash the pool on Friday to “get rid of the minority germs” before it opened to the general public the rest of the week, Ayala said.
After Morningside Elementary, Ayala attended San Fernando Junior High and San Fernando High School, graduating in 1962. One of his photos shows him among the athletes of the track-and-field team. As he was ready to leave high school, his counselor told Ayala he should opt for a “trade” because his grades would not allow him to attend college, even though that was his desire.
After working at different places for short periods of time, he got a good paying job at the GM plant on Van Nuys Boulevard in 1963. Many thought he had it made there. But Ayala worked the graveyard shift and felt unsatisfied.
In 1965 he got his draft notice and served as a medical corpsman at an Army clinic in Germany. Fortunately he was never sent to Vietnam, a war Ayala vehemently opposed.
Activism and the Chicano Movement
Upon his discharge in 1967, Ayala returned to a country undergoing a social revolution.
He enrolled at Los Angeles Valley College in 1968, and then San Fernando Valley State (now California State University, Northridge) where he majored in Art, History and Spanish, obtaining teaching credentials in all three subjects.
It was the zenith of the ‘60s Civil Rights Movement, and Chicanos were fighting for theirs.
“I came at the right moment,” said Ayala, who jumped into the Chicano Movement with full force.
He was part of the Chicano Moratorium in East Los Angeles in 1970, when journalist Ruben Salazar was killed.
In 1971 he helped establish the San Fernando Valley chapter of La Raza Unida, an organization founded in 1970 that also had chapters in San Francisco, Texas and Colorado. The group was of the same caliber as the United Farm Workers in its time; César Chavez often encouraged Mexican Americans to join that organization.
Ayala also belonged to the MEChA chapter at Los Angeles Valley College. MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano@ de Aztlán) was also founded in 1970, “a very important year,” Ayala notes as he shows a photo of him holding a group banner during a parade in San Fernando.
“It was a time of great dynamism, when we were very successful organizing and taking ‘the system’ by surprise. And sometimes ‘the system’ reacted violently,” Ayala said.
The activism by Ayala and his brother Jimmy generated great interest from law enforcement agencies.
Three undercover police agents infiltrated the La Raza Unida chapter to report on its activities. Two of them were later identified as Aggie Moreno and Joe Ramirez, after La Raza Unida and other Chicano organizations filed a lawsuit against the government.
Ayala was pained by discovering Ramirez was a Los Angeles Police officer. Ramirez was a good friend of Jimmy. He often came to the family house, and even went to his sister’s wedding.
“He ate menudo with us, and then we found out he was a policeman. That hurt,” he admitted.
But the police never had anything on the brothers nor made any arrests, “because all we did was organize the people,” Ayala said.
Ayala ran for the San Fernando City Council twice, in the late 70s and early 80s, but lost both times.
“I knew I had no chance but I had to try,” Ayala said, pointing out that the councils at that time were made up “entirely of Anglos.”
Life And Work
Today Ayala lives not far from where he grew up. He married Martha Martinez, a woman he met on the annual trips he made with his mother to Mexico City. But even that relationship is a story.
They met while they were 14, but didn’t marry until they were 35. For nearly 20 years they wrote to each other and went out when he went to Mexico to visit, but were never boyfriend and girlfriend per se. Once married, they had two children and remain together in wedded bliss.
After college, Ayala worked at Pacoima Junior High for 20 years and later at San Fernando High School. He retired from teaching in 2003. But his community involvement never stopped.
He’s still a member of La Raza Unida. For the past couple of years he has organized a march in Pacoima commemorating the Chicano Moratorium.
Recently, the group joined other causes — defending street vendors from police abuse, and helping to establish Communities Against Displacement, a coalition against the High-Speed Rail that would run along (and through) many communities in the northeast valley and the City of San Fernando. The project is seen by many as a threat to the community, as it would mean displacement for many families.
Ayala said that his desire for the community be organized has never diminished.
“There’s still much to do. Things have changed, but they are not so great that you should stop fighting,” he said. “But we need new leaders that forge new paths to get to the final goal: dignity and respect.”
Mexican Americans, and Latinos in general, still lag behind in jobs, education and other social issues, he said.
That’s why Ayala is still active.