The El Cargadero Social Club

How a Mexican ghost town lives on in Anaheim

Two years later, the climatic pendulum swung the other way, and a massive drought ruined whatever had survived the frost. "People started to realize they couldn't live," she said. "People started to think about going to the United States. My father had to sell the ranch."

In January 1960, the family moved to Hollister. For two years, José Miranda "broke his back" in the fields. The children helped their parents make a living by picking garlic and potatoes. Hearing that the work—or at least the weather—was somewhat easier in Anaheim, the family moved south three years later.

Orange County was then just entering its real-estate boom. Disneyland was almost a decade old, and suburban developments swirled southward. With the boom came signs of great wealth. But while their Anglo counterparts went to school, José Miranda's three children went to work in the fields, picking strawberries seven days a week. The pay rate for field work at that time was $15 per day, plus 25 cents for every box of berries picked. "It was all day long: 6 a.m. to 6 p.m," Alicia recalled. "My hands were throbbing; the skin was cracking and dry. It was horrible! Horrible!"

During rare breaks in field work, the two oldest sisters attended Fremont Junior High at the intersection of Broadway and Olive Streets in Anaheim—the school has since been torn down —and then Anaheim High School. Along with a few other Mexicans who made up a tiny minority at the high school, they were among the first Cargaderenses to attend high school in the United States. It was the high point of their generation's pursuit of the American Dream, but it also made backbreaking field work seem like a vacation. At age 14, Maria was forced to drop out of Fremont to work in the fields full time. Her sister Angela wasn't so lucky.

"I've never been hurt so much in my life as I was hurt in school," Angela recalled. The white students mostly ignored their Mexican counterparts, but teasing—usually about their style of dress, intelligence or manner of speech —often metamorphosed into bullying and violence.

To defend themselves, some young Latinos in Anaheim formed gangs. Angela said she never joined one, though she could have used the help. "They jumped us all the time," she said of her Anglo classmates. "Always! We were very few. . . . During recess, they'd chase my [male] friends into the trees."

Anaheim High School's teachers weren't much better. "In gym class, we would get F's because we didn't want to change our clothes; it wasn't proper in our culture to wear shorts," Angela said. "They advanced us along, even though we didn't speak English. They wouldn't let us use the typewriters or anything. It was so horrible. In homemaking class, our job was to clean the entire school like janitors."

Angela said that one Mexican student was chased into the school swimming pool by a group of whites who chanted, "Get out of here! Go home to Mexico." Angela claimed the victim drowned because he couldn't swim—though no records of the killing exist.

Three decades after Angela's nightmare ended, another generation of Cargaderenses is attending Anaheim High School. While race relations have improved dramatically, antipathy toward Mexican immigrants hasn't disappeared. Arellano Miranda's graduation from Anaheim High School roughly coincided with the most recent peak of anti-immigration hysteria at the high school district. Last year, Harald Martin, then the school board's president, urged the district to sue Mexico for the cost of educating undocumented Mexican-American students. The proposal, which was unconstitutional and therefore never implemented, nonetheless sparked heated controversy. It angered many, but perhaps none more than Arellano Miranda. In a speech to the school board last year, he expressed the frustration many Latinos have with Martin's anti-immigration politics.

"My name is Gustavo Arellano, Anaheim High School class of 1997 and son of a former illegal immigrant," he began. "We are not Mexican or American, legal or illegal—we are humans first and foremost. . . . We should not castigate others simply because of the status of their legality; we should help them and welcome them."

Arellano Miranda's experience at Anaheim High School—and the extremist politics of its school board—radicalized him. He now considers himself a socialist and divides his time at Chapman University between studying Mexican film history and pursuing politics.

But his 19-year-old sister, Elsa, who graduated from Anaheim High School two years ago, says she enjoyed certain aspects of her education.

"Going to school in Anaheim, you bump into people from El Cargadero all the time," Elsa told the Weekly. "First, you narrow it down to Zacatecas, and then you realize the other person's family is from the municipality of Jerez. Then you find out they're actually from El Cargadero, and you have a relative in common. It gives me this love and pride for that land, even though I've never been there. We always want to know more. The fascination with El Cargadero is passed down from generation to generation."

A few weeks before the dance, a group of eight men were sipping coffee inside Jax Donut House in downtown Anaheim. They're either from El Cargadero, married to someone who is, or have visited there. Humberto Saldivar and his brother, Amador, both from El Cargadero, sat next to each other at one table, facing yet another relative, Benjamin García. Their friend Daniel Rodarte was there, as were Angel Saldivar and Jacinto "Chinto" Saldivar, neither of whom is related to Humberto and Amador. So was José "El Jéfe" Ureño, now in his 80s and by far the oldest of the group. Finally, there were Lorenzo Arellano and his son, Gustavo. Lorenzo himself is not from El Cargadero, but another town in Jerez, Jomulquillo. All are members of the El Cargadero Social Club, and their purpose is to plan the upcoming dance.

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