The Kanini-Neighborhood House Tragedy

Fiction based on factual chisme of Barrio Logan History

By Augie Areno
Published on LatinoLA: July 5, 2013

The Kanini-Neighborhood House Tragedy

Originally published at La Prensa San Diego. Republished by permission.

San Diego of the early 1900's was an explosion of risks and opportunities. Important things were happening in San Diego: overnight fortunes were made and lost. George Marston and his wife Anna Gunn Marston had succeeded in business way beyond their wildest dreams. Their mercantile stores and land development efforts were the symbols of San Diego prosperity.

Helen D Marston their daughter, a child of privilege, had by 1916 graduated from Wellesley, one of the most progressive universities in the country. She had developed an interest in social work, from her influences at school and what she was observing in San Diego. To the shock of her family and friends, Helen Marston was deeply moved by the poor Mexican families living in area called "El Pueblito." It was a concentration of shacks, starting at lower 5th Avenue and extending east to the Japanese fishermen camp, on Harbor and Crosby.

The Mexican immigrants started to populate the "Pueblito" from 1910 to 1916, followed by a massive influx in 1925. San Diego's polite society, believed the poor Mexican immigrants to be ignorant, unskilled and given to vices because of the proximity and connections to Tijuana. They made themselves further unwelcomed, by their Catholic faith, in a Protestant-dominated city. The local Protestant clergy wanted nothing to do with this population. They worked out a deal with Cletus and Winifred Van Wagner, retired Methodist Missionaries, living on Irving Street, who had worked in Mexico, to serve these people, as God will requires, however the means and method were never clear.

The Los Angeles-San Diego Catholic Diocese through its only church in San Diego, Our Lady of Angels, founded in 1906, on 24th and Market had been aware for a long time of the influx of Mexican Catholics to San Diego. The Sisters of St Joseph of Carondelet who served Our Lady of Angels did what they could for the "Pueblito" residents, but their needs were too great. The problem continued until the Diocese Los Angeles-San Diego in 1917 created "La Pur?¡sima" Mission on 19th and Sigsbee Street, a small chapel, where they could worship in Spanish.

The first priest were on loan to "La Pur?¡sima, were not Spanish speakers, but they made arrangements with the Diocese of Tijuana, to have their priest say mass at La Pur?¡sima. In 1921, a Spanish priest Father Juan Coma was appointed Rector of La Pur?¡sima, with the direction to create a more permanent parish addressing the spiritual needs of the Mexican Catholics. Father Coma would go on in 1922 to found the first Our Lady of Guadalupe Church at 1704 Kearney Avenue, and then in 1931 a larger church was built at 1770 Kearny Avenue.

Helen Marston knew in her heart that she wanted to help the poor Mexican families of the "Pueblito," but how could she do it. It made little sense to only help the father and send the mother and children elsewhere for help. The family, she had observed on her visits to the "Pueblito," played a strong role in their lives and it extended to all the families, creating a sense of community. You got the feeling, that everybody is welcomed and you share what little you have, out of kindness. There were however a few exceptions, one having to do with coming from the same state in Mexico and the other a "Compadrismo."

She was moved by the extent of their problems, yet, at the same time encouraged by the resilience and perseverance, they had for, the life America offered. They all seemed to share a profound sense of responsibility to each other.

It was because of what she witnessed observing the Mexican families that her vision for what had to be done began to take shape. She reasoned that treating the family as a unit, in one place and then building on the assistance given combined with a bit of Americanization could work. This would show her friends and supporters, that her faith in the Mexican families was justified. Helen Marston had seen Settlement Houses in Boston and New York and her impression, was that despite the good works, they did, they didn't feel welcoming to everybody in need. She vowed to create a Settlement House, that was not only helpful and healing, but it had be a place where everybody felt welcomed.

Thus in 1916, by the hands of Helen Marston, her friends and family, the Neighborhood House was born to serve the poor Mexican families of the "Pueblito."

In the early years of the Neighborhood House, no one could have imagined that the integrated service model, developed by Helen Marston and her friends would years later become the standard in social work. To Helen Marston amazement, the "Pueblito area," continued to grow, by 1925 it had become the community of Logan Heights. The Neighborhood House became the heart and soul of the community, not only did it provide support, it also was a way to interact with the world outside of Logan Heights. It was essential, Helen Marston believed to teach Americanization and civic responsibly to the Neighborhood House children, so that that they would be comfortable with it as adults. To strengthen her belief, she would have San Diego police officers Manuelito Jones and Vito Buenafortuno, come in a teach kids about safety and good behavior. Maneulito Jones was especially important since he came from one of the original "Pueblito families" and was now a policeman.

By the Depression years, the families relied on the neighborhood house, for everything. It was especially important to people, who had family members with special needs.

When Helen Marston started the Neighborhood House, she wanted it to be a welcome place for everybody. She believed that every one of God's creatures had good in them and it was important to help them, in the state and ability level, that you encounter them. The Mexican families who had kids, with these needs, could only ascribe a religious connotation to their condition "Es Ni??o De Dios", and integrate them into family life, as best their reality allowed.

The Neighborhood House kids were a force of nature with all the hustle and bustle, noise and laughter. Many of them would go on to be prominent lawyers, educators, doctors and they would credit their experience at the Neighborhood House.

The other Neighborhood House kids, the "Ni??os de Dios," or as they were called by the staff "Worker Bees," were cast of characters, which could delight and terrorize, at the same time. There was Luis "El Loco," Chino "El Mocho," Shorty "Pushemup", Maria "La Bonita," Ojos "El Siego," Pepe "El Hijo de El Griefo," and Gustavo "Kanini" Petrochelli. They all provided drama and pain for the Neighborhood House and their families, the punishment they most feared was being sent home by Miss Marston and not allowed to return to the Neighborhood House.

The Van Wagner's, during their missionary work in Mexico, had come across many families in need, they tried as best they could to help. In one of their journeys, to Jalapa, VeraCruz, outside their missionary tent, somebody left a child, with a note saying please, help my son, as I cannot carry such a burden. The note said his father was a sailor from Italy, whose name is Petrochelli and my name is not important, please love him. From that point, Gustavo, which is what the Van Wagner named him, would be the only child of the Van Wagners. They knew immediately, he would be a "Ni??o de Dios," but that did not diminish their love for him. They tried to teach him how to say his full name Gustavo Petrochelli, but he could only say "Kanini," and point to himself, thus Kanini became his name.

By 1935, Kanini had grown to be a very big man with massive arms, if you didn't know he had a mind of a child, he could easily scare you.

Kanini loved the music and dances at the Neighborhood House, especially the ones where the pretty ladies would dance the "Jarabe Tapatio." He liked to peek in the windows of all the rooms in the Neighborhood House and since everybody knew him, they would wave at him and say hello Mr. Kanini and then he would run away, happy child giggling to himself.

He especially liked to watch Lupita Taylor's dance class because she was the prettiest teacher and she was always nice to him. At the end day, on his way home from the Neighborhood House to the Van Wagner's on Irving Street, Kanini would stop at all the houses on National Avenue, which were on the same side of the street as the Neighborhood House, knock on the windows and wave bye, bye, then run away, everybody would yell back at him, bye Kanini see you tomorrow. He would repeat this routine everyday.

Three doors down from the Neighborhood House were the Logan Cottages. The larger units were in the back; they fronted on the alley, behind the Neighborhood House. In unit 20, is where Lupita Taylor and her husband Wiliford "Red" Taylor lived. Their front windows faced the alley and every night on his way home Kanini would make sure to start his peeking ritual at Lupita Taylor's House. Red Taylor, who was a trucker, would usually be gone at night or if he was home, he would be dead drunk and couldn't hear or see anything. He was oblivious to Kanini and everything else, his wife was doing at the Neighborhood House. In fact, Red Taylor was quite jealous of all the attention his wife Lupita would get from all the neighbors and her friends at the Neighborhood House. The more Red Taylor failed in life, the more his jealously towards his wife grew. He was convinced that every time she spoke Spanish to anyone that they were laughing at him. He couldn't take it anymore, he had to do something.

On September 26, 1935, Red Taylor was fired from yet another hauling job, for drunkenness. He began drinking heavy all day, by nightfall he was out of his mind, he couldn't face any more defeats and surely, this time, he would lose Lupita. He always carried a Truckers equalizer, a forty-five revolver, always loaded, ready.

Kanini not knowing that Lupita was not home, knocked on her window and waited for her to wave back to him; just then, Red Taylor heard a noise and glanced towards the front window, he sees a giant of man, waving his hand and yelling Lupita, Lupita. That son of bitch has come to take my wife, he thought, so in his anger and drunkenness, he grabs the forty five and moves forward towards the window, just then Kanini decides to knock, one more time, he leans his face real close to window, as he lifts his arms to knock. Red Taylor answered him, with a shot to the face, Kanini falls back and is dead. Red Taylor is confused, yet angry, he knows he has killed his wife lover, but the very thought that Lupita, doesn't love him, is something he can't bear. He lifts the revolver to his head, sighing he says: please forgive me Lupita, he pulls the trigger and boom, his anguish is over.

Sadly, Helen Marston Beardsley, whose vision and compassion created the Neighborhood House that helped so many families and did so much for San Diego, stands forgotten. Her greatness was reduced to a street named Beardsley.

Kanini no doubt is playing with the other "Ni??os de Dios' and Worker Bees in that eternal Neighborhood House.

About Augie Areno:
Featured writer for La Prensa de San Diego
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