Surrounded by several generations of family members and serenaded by the Mariachi song, “100 Años,” Pacoima resident David Aguilar celebrated his 100th birthday on Saturday, August 7.
Aguilar was born in the City of San Fernando — not in a hospital but, according to family members, “under a pepper tree next to the railroad tracks.” The family then lived near the intersection of O’Melveny Avenue and Workman Street.
He attended San Fernando Elementary School, and can still remember that the principal had her office on the second floor and the kids who misbehaved were reprimanded with a stick or ruler.
He also remembers the JC Penney store at what would become the San Fernando Mall.
And he’s never forgotten when he and his family were unfairly deported.
Aguilar’s father Serapio, and his mother and older sister came to the United States to work for the railroad. They were employed there until the Great Depression in the 1930s.
But to reduce high unemployment levels and the surplus of labor caused by the Depression, President Herbert Hoover began repatriating and deporting foreigners, including Mexican Americans.
Local government officials sent some 1.8 million people back to Mexico, according to research conducted by former state Sen. Joseph Dunn. Almost 60% of those deported were actual US citizens, many of them born to first-generation immigrants.
“President Hoover was a racist. He didn’t like Mexicans. He would pay you to go back (and provide funds) for the food on the train,” said Aguilar, who was a US citizen when forced to leave his country.
He was 13-years-old when his father received the money to pay for train tickets and other necessities, and the family returned to Michoacan, Mexico.
But the situation worsened.
“My grandfather was an alcoholic. He took the money and drank away all the money. He died and left his wife with all the kids and no money,” said Rosie Aguilar Lowey, one of Aguilar’s eight children.
During that time Aguilar was stricken with polio and remained sick for many years. The disease left him unable to bend his right leg.
Returns to the USA
He lived in Mexico for 20 years until returning to the US in 1951, along with five of his brothers.
Despite being an American citizen, Aguilar said he re-entered the country as a “wetback” because his father did not get a birth certificate for him.
“He only baptized us because he didn’t want us to be taken to the war,” he explained. “My brother brought me (illegally) in his car. But we didn’t have any problems because they didn’t ask a lot of questions.”
Back in San Fernando, Aguilar had to secure his school and church documents as well as provide four witnesses who knew his mother when he was born, to prove his citizenship.
Despite his physical challenges he kept working, earning $1 per hour at that time. He eventually became a gardener, a job he did until retiring in his 70s. Aguilar was also a Mariachi musician, playing the trumpet for nearly 10 years during a time when, he said, people in San Fernando didn’t like Mariachi music.
Aguilar has been in a wheelchair for nearly 30 years. But he still enjoys taking care of his garden at his home on Pinney Street, where he has lived for the past 50 years.
“He’s not about to [just] watch TV, and lay in bed,” Lowey said. “He wakes up early and goes out to water the garden.”
Aguilar stressed that he needs at least eight hours of sleep. If he wakes up early, he goes back to sleep. For a long time, he would also drink hot water in the morning.
Lowey said her father is also “very punctual” about what time he eats.
But he’s not a healthy eater.
“He loves candy and junk food,” Lowey said. And Aguilar enjoyed a huge ice cream cone at the party.
Lowey credits the “Aguilar genes” for her father’s longevity. She said one of his sisters lived to be 99-years-old. And at the party, Aguilar was accompanied by his younger brother — who is 98.
Perhaps more importantly, his daughter said, is the fact that Aguilar’s not a worrier.
“I guess once you suffered so much, maybe the rest is not a big worry,” Lowey said.
Of course, once you hit the century mark, there’s not much worth worrying about.