Erasmo Aguilar (center) is pictured with members of the San Fernando City Council on February 21, when he received a certificate of recognition in honor of his 100th birthday on March 5. (SFVS Staff)

During a recent San Fernando City Council meeting, the mayor, vice mayor and council members honored one of the area’s oldest residents celebrating a rare milestone birthday this week.

Amid applause and with a celebratory fist pump in the air, Erasmo Aguilar — who turns 100 years old on March 5 — happily accepted a certificate of recognition.

When asked by council members if he had any words to share, without missing a beat Aguilar replied, “I have many words.” And indeed, he does — words brimming with vivid details recounting a long life filled with hard work, his devotion to family, as well as the challenges, unforgettable injustice and resilience to keep going, a story that began in the City of San Fernando.

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Aguilar shared snippets of his life experiences during the council meeting, and also spoke at length with the San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol in the Sylmar home of his daughter Rosie Schlueter, where he resides. He eagerly became immersed in recounting his array of experiences, vacillating between smiles and sadness, occasionally tearing up and openly sobbing over recollections from his youth — some nearly a century old, yet still indelibly embedded in his memory and very painful for him to discuss to this day.

A True San Fernando Native

“We were born right here in San Fernando,” he proudly said referring to himself and most of his seven siblings. His parents had settled in the valley’s first city after making the journey from Michoacán, Mexico to seek steady work and a better life. 

Aguilar’s father was a foreman at a local citrus packing house and the growing family lived in a modest house on Kewen Street near Workman Street, and attended Sunday Mass at Santa Rosa de Lima Catholic Church.

Telling the story from his beginning, Aguilar shared that he entered the world in dramatic fashion. His parents were waiting to board a train that would take them to a Los Angeles hospital for his birth, but his mother unexpectedly went into active labor and Erasmo Aguilar ended up being born outside the San Fernando train station, with the help of a midwife who was summoned from her nearby home. 

Recounting his childhood in the late 1920s, Aguilar described a rural San Fernando, with ranches, dirt roads and many fellow Mexican families as his closest neighbors. His father had steady work, there was food on the dinner table and schooling for the children.

But it was far from idyllic.

“There was a lot of discrimination,” he explained. Ethnic slurs like “wetback” and “mojado” targeting Mexicans (both immigrants and US-born) were commonplace, especially if they dared venture from their side of the railroad tracks to the Anglo side.

“If we crossed the railroad tracks to the other side, they would chase us away and throw rocks at us,” recalled Aguilar.

And discrimination was ever present at school as well. He attended San Fernando Elementary on O’Melveny Avenue near San Fernando Mission Boulevard, and he clearly remembers that the Mexican students were forced to sit in the back of the classrooms.

“In those days in school, they didn’t allow us to speak Spanish — not one word,” he said. Their language was closely monitored the entire school day, even during recess. Any transgression was reported and immediately met with cruel and humiliating punishment.

“They had a long table, and they would make you lay face down with your hands behind you and they would hit you three times with a long switch for speaking Spanish, so we wouldn’t do it again” — all while the rest of the students watched, described Aguilar.

While dealing with prejudice and cruelty was a fact of life, he would find that his world one day to the next would become much worse for Aguilar, his family and other Mexican Americans across the US, in ways they never could have imagined.

“There was a very bad president who ran off all of us Mexicans,” he said.

Exiled American Citizens

The president he refers to was Herbert Hoover. Under the Hoover administration, local governments and officials deported as many as 1.8 million people to Mexico during the Great Depression via a series of informal raids called “repatriation drives”  to conserve jobs and resources for “white Americans.” It’s estimated that about 60 percent of those deported were  American citizens — people like Aguilar and his siblings, who were born in the United States to first-generation immigrants. The government even removed sick patients from hospitals and deported them, even though they were citizens but were Mexican American.

“Repatriation,” they would find, meant they were forced out and exiled from the United States, even though it was their birthplace. “They ran us out, and they told us we couldn’t take suitcases, only backpacks,” he said.

People were given one-way train tickets to the border and told they had to leave because there were no jobs left. His family, who had been in the process of buying their house, was forced to leave behind their home, their car and most of their belongings.

“The train took us from San Fernando to El Paso, Texas. … All the women on the train were crying and wailing, and I asked my mother, ‘Why are they crying?’ She said, ‘Because we never get to come back here again; they ran us out.’ I was 8 years old.”

After arriving in Texas, they were shuttled across the border into Mexico, where they boarded another train — an older steam locomotive that darkened the skies with thick black smoke. He shared a graphic description of the passengers who surrounded him, with many coughing and vomiting from the toxic exhaust fumes filling their lungs.

Among the many surprises along the journey, exiled Mexicans were met by crowds of angry Mexican nationals at various train stops, throwing rocks at the arriving “Americanos” and yelling at them in Spanish, “Get out — we don’t want you here!”

Eventually, they made it to his parents’ small and desolate “ranchito,” completing the final leg of the trek by foot.

Erasmo Aguilar (center), who is celebrating his 100th birthday on March 5, is pictured with two of his eight children: Gloria Aguilar (right) and Rosie Schlueter. (Photo/ Maria Luisa Torres)

“There was no electricity, there was no running water — not even roads to get there. The closest town was a two-hour walk away,” said Aguilar. Tragically, his father died just two years later, worsening his family’s already desperate situation.

“After my father died, I had to be like the man of the house,” he said. “After he was gone, it was a hard, bitter life — bad, horrible; we were not worth anything.”

Before being forced to leave San Fernando, Aguilar had only finished second grade, but he never had the chance to go back to school again because he had to start working.

Jobs were incredibly scarce, and whatever work they could find paid a literal pittance. Aguilar mostly tended livestock or helped harvest crops for local ranchers, while the girls and their mother worked for the few families who could afford to pay for domestic labor.

With such a large family to clothe and so many mouths to feed, Aguilar recalls often having to be barefoot — even while working — and feeling hungry all the time.

“I would go outside and cry out to God, ‘Why did you bring us here?’” recalled an emotional Aguilar, choking back his tears. “We would cry from hunger; I thought we were going to die from hunger.”

Despite such struggles, they painstakingly survived and the family eventually relocated to Baja California, where there were more jobs. Aguilar even worked as a musician, as one-third of a musical trio. At the age of 14, he decided to try to return to San Fernando to look for better-paying work to continue supporting his mother and youngest siblings.

Erasmo Aguilar (right) in a photo with his first wife, Natalia Castro, in the 1940s.

Unfortunately, Aguilar didn’t have a birth certificate to prove his American citizenship because he hadn’t been born in a hospital. The only documents he had — school and church paperwork with official seals that bore his name — were immediately confiscated and torn up by a border patrol agent when he attempted to cross the border into the US.

So, Aguilar reentered his native country with the aid of a paid “coyote,” who guided him all the way to the city of his birth. He was 15 – seven years after he had been forcibly expelled.

Returning Home

Upon arriving he reunited with one of his brothers, who had returned to San Fernando some time earlier. Aguilar arrived on a weekend and was at work picking olives by Monday morning. He later switched to construction work with the Pacific Pipeline System, where he worked for decades, and he regularly went back and forth to Mexico to care for his family.

During one of his visits to Baja California, Aguilar met and later married his first wife, Natalia, but they had to live apart, awaiting US residency papers. Sadly, she died after giving birth to their fourth child. His second wife, Oralia, raised his first four children as her own, and she and Aguilar had four more children together.

Aguilar continued to live and work in San Fernando during the week for several more years, traveling twice a month to visit his family in Mexicali, where he had a home built for them. In 1966, he was finally able to bring his entire family to the United States — all except his mother, who had vowed to never again set foot on US soil because of the maltreatment and injustice they endured, and she never did. She died in Mexicali at 86.

According to his daughter Gloria Aguilar, while growing up her father was a strict disciplinarian with all of his children, especially his daughters, likely to try to protect them from many of the dangers and suffering he had experienced, she believes.

“My father was very strong and strict, but also caring, kind and generous,” she added.

He also instilled a strong work ethic in them, both through example and experience. Weekends were rarely for friends and parties, she explained. Gloria and her siblings helped with housework, yardwork or accompanied their dad on gardening side jobs he did to earn extra money to buy them a house — which he did, on Astoria Street in Sylmar.

As his children grew up and left the nest, Aguilar continued to live in the family home with his wife until her death from ovarian cancer in 2012. They were married for 57 years.

Longevity Secrets

He said at times, he found himself questioning God during the bleakest and most difficult periods of his life. Aguilar said he believes that “without faith, you’re lost.” “And it’s important to be humble,” he said, “and to remain true to yourself.”

His life has been a testimony to never giving up. 

When asked his secret to living such a long life, Aguilar quipped, “I have no idea.”

Genetics could be a factor to Aguilar’s longevity, given that he isn’t the only person in his family to have lived for so many years. His older brother, David, celebrated his 100th birthday in August 2021 and one of his sisters lived to be 99 years old.

“I’m surprised I’m still here,” he said with a bemused laugh. “I never believed I could ever reach such an advanced age, because of all the hardships we endured.”

After giving it more thought, he added, “I believe you get out of life what you put into it.”