Neighbors: Oral History from Madera, Part 3
This is an excerpt from a new book titled Neighbors: Oral History from Madera, California by local author Lawrence F. Lihosit. The author offers real-life stories by Maderans as well as maps and a chronology of important local events. It is available on-line at Amazon.com books and at these locations; MailDrop, G.B.S. and the Vineyard.
Tony Meza, Madera resident since 1958
Tony Meza was born in Weslaco, Texas, of Mexican migrant workers on June 13, 1951. His father drove a long-distance truck from Texas to Oklahoma. The first born of seven children, he was reared in a small town just outside of Monterrey, Mexico where he, his siblings and mother lived with his grandparents.
He began school in Mexico. Under the Bracero Program, they moved to California in 1957 and arrived in Madera in 1958 where he entered public school with no knowledge of the English language.
Mr. Meza was a Madera City Policeman from 1971 until 1984. A business owner since the age of 30, he currently is the owner/operator of an automotive repair shop. He and his wife reared four children in Madera.
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My dad and my mom were in Texas with no papers. My dad drove a truck full of beans from Weslaco, Texas, to Oklahoma while my mom stayed at home. I was their first child. Years later, I heard that they got deported to Mexico.
We ended up in my grandparents’ home in Mexico.
The owner of the American company wrote a letter saying that he needed my dad. So, my dad got a permit. It could have been the Bracero Program. He went back and visited us every six months. He sent us money to survive and he finally bought us a little house out in the boonies on a farm. This was in General Bravo, a little bit out of Monterrey.
There were no windows, no doors, no electricity, all lit with candles, but we had beds. We started raising pigs, chickens, cows. We planted corn. We picked the corn husks, stripped them, put the corn on a pan and my mother scooped up the kernels and put them into an iron, crank driven grinder. She ground the corn, then mixed it with water to make masa for tortillas.
I began school in Mexico. The problem was that I was light complected so the other students called me Pocho, which meant that I was from the other side of the border. They didn’t like American people or half and half. At school, they always picked on me. The teacher always punished me.
We came back to the United States in 1957. I must have been six. We traveled directly to Sanger. My dad was waiting for a house in Madera that a farmer was getting ready for us. We were in Sanger for about six months or so before we moved to Madera, around 1958. My mom’s brother had already been in Sanger and his boss arranged the permits by writing a letter. I had started school in Sanger but didn’t last long because we moved to Madera where we lived in the La Vina area. That’s where I went to school.
I didn’t speak a word of English. There were other children who spoke Spanish, but in those days, you were not allowed to speak Spanish in school. I couldn’t communicate with the other kids except on the playground. Mrs. Cunningham helped all the migrant kids by teaching us English. They started me in the first grade. I completed that first year and started the second. I noticed that the children learned to print while I had already learned cursive in Mexico.
The mathematics was basic like one plus two while schools in Mexico had been more advanced. I knew how to write my name. I knew basic mathematics. When the teacher asked me to step up to the board and solve a problem, I did it boom, boom, boom. After a month or two, my second-grade teacher talked to the principal. They tested me and sent me to the fourth grade.
Fourth grade was hard. Since I didn’t know English, it was tougher for me. I struggled and finally, they put me in the third grade. Mrs. Cunningham was working with me and I knew some basic words like yes, no, how. By picking up one or two English words, I could kind of get it into my head what she was trying to tell me. From then on, I became almost a straight A student.
At home, my dad taught me how to work. When I was nine or 10 years old, he hurt his back. There were seven of us, three born in Mexico and four in the United States. Our only income was from my dad. The owner of the farm wanted eighty acres disked before the rains. This was before the dam when the Fresno River flooded everything. It was a small tractor with small disks and you had to make two passes to complete one row.
My dad told me, “I’m going to teach you how to drive a tractor. You’re going to have to help. It’s going to rain tomorrow.” He showed me. Once I was doing good, he said, “Keep on going. Just remember how I showed you to make the turns.” He started on one end and I started on the other end.
The farmer came out. As I drove, he was out there talking to my dad. Once he found out that I was driving the other tractor, he told my dad, “Keep him working. He’s doing good.” I never stopped working.
In the vineyards, you might have to look for little bugs. We sprayed poison on them but you had to spray them when it was nice and calm. Even on a school day, I might be up at three in the morning. I might work for two or three hours, come home, clean up and go to school. After school, I worked until nine o’clock at night. I had to do that so we could use the money to buy what we needed. By the eighth grade I actually weighed two hundred and fifteen pounds. I was a big kid, chubby.
That summer I went to work. I not only drove a tractor but a Caterpillar. The farmer decided to plant cotton and we had to dig a lot of ditches with a shovel, by hand. I was out there from sun up to sun down. I don’t know how, but by the time I went back to school I weighed one sixty-five. I was built. I had not only lost weight but had built my muscles up.
The first day I went to high school, my friends all looked at me and asked, “What happened to you?”
I took mechanics at school. Mr. Fifield just gave you orders of what to do. He must have seen something in me. I had helped my dad break down tractors, which is where I started learning about mechanics. My dad was an old tradesman. He could fix anything. I remember people in the area even bringing him sewing machines. From big trucks and tractors to sewing machines, washing machines, dryers; he could fix anything.
Mr. Fifield had an old Jaguar from the fifties and he asked me to do the whole engine for him. He watched me. I did it for him and he was really surprised.
He asked me, “Do you think you can do the body work?”
So, I told him, “I don’t know nothing about body work but if you give me some instructions, I’ll see if I can do it.” He did. I set down to work taking the dents out, heating the body, stretching the metal, getting it nice and straight, sanded everything. I didn’t paint it. He had somebody else paint it but he was really proud of that.
I needed more money and wanted to work more hours. My senior year, I applied for a work permit through the school so I could get out of school at 12. I went to a local Shell station to see if they were hiring any mechanics.
The owner looked at me and said, “I don’t hire wetbacks.”
So, I applied for a job at Dean’s Tires. Mr. Fifield went and talked to someone there because he wanted me to do mechanical work like brakes. They hired me. Somewhere I still have a newspaper article with a photo of me doing brakes. I worked one until five. When I got out of school, I worked at Dean’s Tires full time. My goal was to have my own business by the time I turned 30.
Soon, people came in the shop and wanted to talk to me instead of my foreman. My boss was getting a little bit upset with me. One day a gentleman came in and said, “Tony, I want to talk to you. I need some work done on my pickup. I want this done, I want that done, shocks, brakes, suspension, tune-up.” He wanted everything done. I was talking to him just outside of the shop and my boss got upset with me. He went down and talked to the owner of the company. He told him that I was just talking to my friends and not doing the work.
The owner came out of the office, waved and yelled at me, “Tony! Get back to work!” I went back to work. I felt something that I had never felt before.
The gentleman I was talking to went to the office and told him, “I wanted Tony to give me a price on this and that and that. If you don’t want him to do it, I’ll take my business somewhere else.”
At the end of the day, Mr. Dean, the owner, called me in. He asked me to explain. I did. He said, “I want to apologize. Somebody came around and told me that you were just talking to him as a friend. I’m going to give you a raise but I don’t want you to tell anybody, not even your foreman.” I think I was making $5 an hour, and he raised it to $9, which was more than his foreman made.
When Christmas came, a big old Sears truck backed up to the shop. There was this big box. Mr. Dean came around. “Come on. Let’s open up this box.” It was a big toolbox. All the drawers were filled with wrenches and ratchets. Mr. Dean told me, “Tony, Merry Christmas.”
I started dating my future wife but I really didn’t know much about her background until one day my mom asked, “Son, don’t you remember your girlfriend, Oralia? That is the same little girl that you used to play with in Monterrey, Mexico, when you were four or five.” Then, I remembered: My grandmother and her grandmother used to get together at our house in Monterrey and while they made quilts, Oralia and I played. We went to California and her family went to Texas first. We never saw each other again until our junior year in high school.
We married after high school in December of seventy-one. I was working for Mr. Dean. After the birth of my first son, he sent a set of swings to the house. I wanted to buy a house so I got another part-time job from six at night until nine, sometimes 10. I started working there as a stock boy. The owner liked me and promoted me to night manager.
In those days the police used to walk the streets, come into the stores, talk to the manager. We got friendly. One of the captains came in and asked me, “How come you didn’t join the police department?”
“I never thought about that. I don’t know if I could do that kind of job.”
He said, “We can train you.” He came out to my parents’ house to talk to all of us. Because of my age, they couldn’t hire me until I was 21. “Come down to the department,” he told me. “Get to know everyone and see what they do. Read some books.”
In May of seventy-two, Captain Fletcher asked again if I might join the police department. I wanted to help out the community. It would help me out too — to see how the town is, who lives here.
You put on that uniform and you become a different person. It was tan, cotton. In those days you had to wear a helmet all the time. So, I worked from seven at night until three the next morning. I was on patrol at night. At night the attitudes of people are different. At night there was a lot of crime out there, especially on weekends. If you have a full moon, it’s even worse.
We had a ten o’clock curfew for youngsters. A lot of times we found youngsters and had to call their parents to come and pick them up. There were a lot more bars in Madera then. There were fights, knifings, bottles. There was prostitution too. The department did not allow them in Madera but they still had some inside the bars. We could not allow them to walk the street.
A lot of the migrant workers got robbed. On weekends after getting paid, they would go to the bars. Mexican people went to the bars and knew what they were looking for. They would buy them drinks then take them out in the alley, beat the hell out of them and steal their money.
Me and another officer walked the alleys, up and back. We checked the doors on businesses downtown. One officer would check the front doors while the other checked back doors. You’d be surprised how many owners or employees would leave the back door open. If we found an open door, we called dispatch who called the owner. Once he or she got there, we checked inside with them to make sure everything was all right and the place secured. Then, we’d lock it up.
I reported to Dean Tires at eight in the morning and worked until five. I did this for years. I worked and my wife and I saved money. I had quite a bit of money saved because I always worked, helped my family and put money in my savings account.
Madera started getting burglaries. They were roof jobs. They removed the water cooler on the roof and came in through there. In the winter, we had heavy fog and that’s when they really hit us bad. They put me in undercover.
I didn’t have to wear my uniform, just display the badge somewhere. I staked out places. The theater was the tallest building. I would be there all night just watching. That’s how we were catching them, one by one. They build a new shopping center on Olive Avenue. There was a clothing store there, a grocery store and some little shops. One night I’d be one place. The next night I’d be in another place.
They were local people armed with tools to break in.
One man broke into Bruno’s and Western Auto on a real foggy night. I was on top of the Madera Theater and happened to see them. I put my radio on low and called it in that I wanted back up in the front and back of Bruno’s and Western Auto. “I have one who just went in through the roof.” By the time the other officers arrived, the guy got out and ran out the back door. Because it was foggy, it was hard to see which way he went. We cordoned off the whole block. I told the officers, “He’s got to be here. He couldn’t have gone too far.”
Everybody had spotlights but we couldn’t find him. I’m sitting there with the sergeant in the patrol car. All of a sudden, I heard some black birds flying. They took off from a tree. We went up to the tree and shined a spotlight. Two men were in the tree. They must have moved and scared the birds.
Dean’s Tires closed. A local butcher hired me for a time. One day he told me, “Tony, I’m going to talk to the owner of that Shell station. He wants you to work for him.” I decided to take a little time off from the second job. The owner of the Shell station kept calling. I finally went out there to check out the building and it was a mess. The mechanics were not mechanics. They knew how to change oil or change spark plugs. So, I went to work and he liked me. I learned how to keep inventory on the gas, how the paperwork was done, how to charge, what percentage you made. I learned everything.
The other Shell station, owned by the same man who told me that he didn’t hire “wetbacks” was having problems. In those days, it was just a lease with Shell. So, I took over the lease. I went hard at it, hired two or three employees, we painted and cleaned. We had an inspector come out and we won the cleanest service station in the valley and some prizes.
I found another little station that had been closed. Big oil companies had a shortage. They only let you pump so many gallons in the morning and so many in the afternoon. They went by license number, odd and even. The gasoline was supposed to bring in enough money to pay for the lease but it didn’t. The little station did not belong to Shell. I talked to the owner of the property and he was happy that someone wanted to come in there. So, I opened it up and sold Shell gasoline but had no lease with them. This was before I had turned 30.
A few years later, I closed up the Shell lease station because nobody wanted it with that lease. The other one, the small one, made money. We sold gas, we did mechanical work and no lease with Shell. For one year, I worked seven days a week at that station plus the police work. Later, I opened another Shell station farther north in town.
Madera had problems with drugs. In those days, it was mostly marijuana brought in from other places. Angel dust started coming in from Oakland and Los Angeles. That was real bad stuff. There were two of us doing undercover detective work, trying to find out where they were coming from, where they were going and who was involved. It just so happened that we traced one guy.
He was followed from Oakland. I was one of the buyers and I made arrangements for a buy. Our people were waiting. I was supposed to make the buy, come out and scratch my right knee as a signal. Then, our people would make the raid. That Friday night, I did not give the sign but went around the corner and was picked up.
“What happened?” I told him that the person who sold me the drugs was the daughter of an important person in the courthouse. The person who packed the drugs was an important local businessman.
“Meza, let it go. We’ll handle this.” Apparently, they had a meeting with big officials and I never heard about it again. The drugs stopped coming in.
That’s when I started realizing how some higher ranked people were involved in all of this. By that time, I was doing good and even though they offered me higher rank, I just stayed where I was. My businesses were doing well and soon, I left the police force. I’m still in business.