OCEANSIDE — As the city spends a month honoring the Hispanic heritage of many of its residents, some leaders look back on how far the city has come in celebrating its diversity and recognizing its Latinx community.
Earlier in September, the mayor formally recognized National Hispanic Heritage Month from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. The time is split between two months because it covers the anniversary of independence for Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico and Chile, all Latin American countries, and includes Columbus Day, also known as “Día de la Raza.”
Mexico’s anniversary of its independence is on Sept. 16 each year, but the celebration begins the night before with “El Grito de Dolores.” On the night of Sept. 15, Mexico’s president rings a bell at the National Palace in Mexico City then shouts the “cry of patriotism,” which is based on the call for independence from Spain that Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla made in the early morning hours of Sept. 16, 1810, in Dolores, Mexico.
For the last 15 years, Oceanside has kicked off Hispanic Heritage Month with Noche Mexicana, an event Councilwoman Esther Sanchez started in her early days as a city leader.
Prior to starting Noche Mexicana, Sanchez had wondered why Oceanside didn’t have its own Mexican independence celebration despite a third of its population identifying as Hispanic or Latinx. One year, she arranged what she thought would be a 50- to 75-person event at the Oceanside Public Library, preparing to pay for the food and mariachi music out of her own pocket.
When she got to the library, there were about 200 people — more than three times the amount of people she anticipated.
With the help of Reggie Gaeta, who owns La Perla Tapatia in Oceanside, Sanchez was able to get the crowd food. Gaeta still caters for Noche Mexicana and plays an integral part in the event’s organization each year.
Also involved in organizing Noche Mexicana is Luis Oceguera, who runs the Grupo Folklorico Tapatio de Oceanside, a dance group that promotes Mexican history and culture through traditional dances. The group performs each year at Noche Mexicana.
“It’s always geared toward kids,” Sanchez said about Noche Mexicana. “We need to ensure our kids understand our history and have pride.”
Sanchez said the library has also been most helpful in organizing the event each year.
During that first event, Sanchez recalled seeing tears in the eyes of some elder attendees when the Mexican national anthem played.
“They never thought that they’d be able to celebrate this day on this side of the border, and they never went back,” she said. “It really touched me.”
Since that first Noche Mexicana, the event has grown and changed a bit over the years. It’s now held in daylight hours as opposed to the evening and spills out onto the street around the Civic Center and in front of St. Mary, Star of the Sea Catholic Parish.
Sanchez has kept the event from becoming too commercialized and has maintained its ties to the city as a way to help community members feel comfortable approaching city government.
“I always used my office because I wanted the city to be involved,” she said. “I want our residents to not be afraid of going to the city.”
Though this year’s Noche Mexicana has passed, another upcoming event rooted in Oceanside’s Latinx community is the rededication of Joe Balderrama Park, which received $1.12 million in grant funds for renovations in 2017, on Nov. 2. Though the event falls outside of Hispanic Heritage Month (and coincidentally falls on Día de los Muertos), the park’s rededication is significant for Oceanside’s Eastside neighborhood.
Eastside is a largely Latinx community and had a reputation for gang violence in the past, though crime rates have declined in recent years as community members and law enforcement have worked to improve things.
According to local historian Kristi Hawthorne, Oceanside’s Eastside community was often referred to as “Mexican Town,” but by the 1950s it became more diverse as African American families settled in the neighborhood, as well as families from the Philippines and Samoa who came in the 1960s.
The park was renamed in 1967, according to Hawthorne, in memory of John “Joe” Balderrama who was killed in action during World War II on Oct. 13, 1944. His family lived across from the park. Sanchez said Balderrama family members will be at the park’s rededication ceremony.
Eastside is also where Sanchez grew up, and also where she watched her father become involved in community efforts.
“He’s one of the old guys,” she said, adding that he helped with some of the park restoration efforts.
Though she took his involvement for granted when she was younger, she attributes his action back then for inspiring her own sense of community activism.
Sanchez has been on City Council for nearly two decades. Back when she first started, she felt as though the Latinx community — albeit big in Oceanside — was largely invisible. In fact, much of the diversity she had experienced growing up didn’t feel as present in city government and economic development groups like the Chamber of Commerce.
Though there is still work to be done in terms of recognizing the various people and cultures that live here, Sanchez feels the city is heading in the right direction as the city grows and new business develops here.
This is an exciting time for planning for our future,” Sanchez said. “Oceanside is really truly embracing its diversity again as a resource but also in terms of creating these new markets and new workforce training.”
As Oceanside reflects on its Hispanic heritage, Sanchez believes understanding its history will help the city’s future.
“In learning about the past like the Latino community is is like using a key to unlock our future,” Sanchez said. “For me, the new leadership has to be about embracing our future and who we are.”
Samantha Taylor covers Oceanside, Camp Pendleton and the decommissioning San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. She earned her journalism degree from the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, and has previously reported for The Athens Messenger in Athens, Ohio, and USA Today in McLean, Virginia. Follow her on Twitter: @samm1son