¡Viva Barrio Hollywood!
I’m often asked about my background – where I grew up, etc. So I decided to take a break from the day’s “heavy” political topics and instead hit some highlights about Barrio Hollywood, where I grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s to respond to some of the questions posited to me – space limitations prohibit a full treatment of this dynamic barrio. I’m sure those of you who grew up in a Chicano barrio have your own barrio memories.
I negotiated the streets of Hollywood with a bunch of smart and talented folks. From the motley crew of Hollywooders of my time emerged skilled tradesmen, teachers, unionists, a Pulitzer-prize winning newspaper editor, entrepreneurs, a TV anchor and executive, university professors, police officers, a professional MLB baseball player, and many more such distinguished citizens.
Two of these, Frank Cruz and Frank Sotomayor, each recently published a book – more on the two tocayos (people who share the same first name) and their books below.
And our little barrio –six blocks by about seven blocks – came to have a powerful political history. This had much to do with the fact that the Tucson manifestation of the Chicano Movement that swept the country in the late 1960s and the 1970s was based in Barrio Hollywood, which became a beacon of hope, a dynamic role model, for the Tucson Mexican American / Chicano community.
About its name…
Theories abound regarding Hollywood’s name. The most plausible one is the following: Circa 1939 a realistic western movie set, known as “Old Tucson,” was built on Tucson’s outskirts. Many western movies were filmed there, earning it the nickname of “Hollywood of the West.” The western movies required many Extras who looked like Mexicans and/or Indians. A regular source of these Extras was the area known today as Barrio Hollywood (known back then as “El Rio Park”). These movie extras used to jokingly brag that they were movie stars from Hollywood, and the name stuck.
Charcos, sweeping “sidewalks,” outhouses…
With the exception of a couple of “main” streets, the streets in Hollywood were unpaved. This made for some rough bike riding. Messy too – when it rained the streets flooded and Hollywood became the land of 1,000 charcos (puddles). Hollywood didn’t have sidewalks either. The “sidewalk” was defined by the jagged line of mailboxes. People swept the “sidewalk” in front of their houses. The dirt was packed solid underneath the dust and looked slick after a sweeping.
A sewer system was installed in Hollywood sometime in the 1950s. Before the sewers came to Hollywood, houses had septic tanks or outhouses. El Rio Country Club, which bordered barrios Hollywood and El Rio, hosted many national tournaments. A local radio personality was quoted in the newspaper as saying that during a national golf tournament at El Rio Country Club, a professional golfer commented that El Rio was the only golf course in the country surrounded by outhouses.
And they gave us “fiado”…
For being a relatively small barrio, there were plenty of businesses in Hollywood, all locally-owned, Mom-and-Pop operations. These included a two service stations, a drugstore (with a fountain), an ice cream store, a watch and jewelry repair shop, four barbershops, three small grocery stores (one of these was a “meat market”), an auto repair garage, three restaurants, a tortilla factory and molino (i.e., it ground corn for tortillas and tamales), a shoe repair shop, and a cimmarona (snow cone) stand. There were two bars in Hollywood: El Pitchelito (Little Pitcher), which became “Chubby’s,” and El Sombrero.
There were 10 corner stores in Hollywood. Eight (8) of these were Chinese-owned. The Chinese families lived behind their stores, spoke Spanish fluently, and their kids went to school with us. A great feature of these stores was that they gave us fiado, that is, credit. We would just tell whoever was tending that day to put it on our tab—we didn’t even have to sign anything. We would pay our tabs on payday.
Another great feature of barrio life back then was that sometimes you didn’t have to go to the store—the store came to you. The Shamrock and Borden dairy trucks would go up and down the streets delivering milk, cottage cheese and other products and taking orders for future deliveries. A bread truck also delivered bread, rolls, and doughnuts. A gentleman who owned a dry-cleaning shop picked up and delivered people’s laundry. An old Jewish man would go up and down the streets in an old beat-up GMC green truck, selling fresh fruits and vegetables.
And speaking of vegetables: for the family dinner children would be dispatched to harvest quelites (wild spinach), nopales (cactus pads), and verdolagas (purslane) that grew in the empty lots (los lotes) and alleys (callejones).
Since there was no park in the area, the empty lots and the streets were our playgrounds. Someone said that using the streets like this made the barrios safer because people did not speed for fear of running over the children. Maybe so—I can’t remember anyone being run over by a car in the barrio.
Fast forwarding to the late 1960s…
As mentioned above, Hollywood became a powerful political force. In 1967, políticos made a promise to build a park that would serve Hollywood but then reneged on their promise. A barrio movement demanding the políticos keep their word developed. Over a period of several months in 1970, there were marches, pickets, confrontations, and several arrests (I was arrested twice during this struggle). Eventually, we won – a park and neighborhood center were built in Hollywood.
This barrio movement – El Rio for the People – was a defining moment in the political evolution of the Mexican American-west side community. It empowered westsiders to stand up to City Hall and demand respect. We established the principle that neighborhoods have rights and should be in charge of their own destiny, the foundation of today’s neighborhood empowerment movement.
About the Hollywood tocayos’ books…
The books by Hollywooders Frank Cruz and Frank Sotomayor address issues that are of great importance to our community and merit your attention.
Frank H. Cruz’s memoirs “Straight Out of Barrio Hollywood” (Out Skirts Press, 2019) not only tells a good story, it inspires.
Cruz details the challenges and struggles he faced in his life and how he overcame them. After serving in the U.S. Air Force, Cruz earned three college degrees and taught at California State University Long Beach and Sonoma State University. He was a TV anchor in Los Angeles, earning an Emmy and a Golden Mike award for his coverage of Latin American issues and the U.S.-Latino community. He co-founded the Spanish-language network Telemundo and is a former Chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which oversees and funds the nation’s more than l,000 public radio (NPR) and television (PBS) stations.
Cruz roots his memoirs in his upbringing in Barrio Hollywood and his mother’s inspiration and guidance. It’s a good read.
You can purchase “Straight Out of Barrio Hollywood” through Amazon or Barnes and Noble.
Frank Sotomayor’s book, “The Dawning of Diversity: How Chicanos Helped Change Stanford University” (West by Southwest Press, 2022), details the “browning” of Stanford University, i.e., how Stanford was pressured to admit more Mexican Americans / Chicanos(as), many of them the sons and daughters of janitors, farmworkers, and factory workers. Sotomayor relies on meticulous research (by Barbara Sotomayor) and students’ testimonies.