The reporter and photographer from the old Los Angeles Examiner arrived at the Rodriguez home just after Esther gave birth to her 15th child. The cameraman lined up the Rodriguez offspring--3-year-old Elizabeth at one end, 21-year-old Albert Jr. at the other--and tripped the shutter.
The year was 1948. Alberto Rodriguez Sr. and his flock of children were fighting poverty. When the picture appeared in the Examiner the next morning, the caption reported that the Rodriguez clan ate meals in four shifts.
Forty-two years later, the Rodriguez family was reunited once again over the weekend at their annual Christmas party. It was a family reunion like few others. Fourteen of the 15 Rodriguez siblings were there along with nearly 200 grandchildren, great-grandchildren and in-laws.
The story of the brothers and sisters reads like an epic novel about Southern California’s Latino community. It spans three wars--one Rodriguez son served in World War II, two more in Korea, and a fourth was wounded by a sniper’s bullet in Vietnam.
More than any other event, the annual Christmas party has kept the family united through five decades of success and adversity.
Ernestine Garcia, now 59 and the oldest of the Rodriguez daughters, remembers the words of advice her mother shared with her just before she died in 1986 at age 80.
“My mother would tell us, ‘Always stick together,’ ” Ernestine recalls. “ ‘Teach your kids to stick together on that special day. Tell them that once you break (the tradition), it never comes back.’ ”
The lives of the siblings have crisscrossed with most of the major events of recent Mexican-American history--including the 1943 zoot suit riots in Los Angeles and the great migrations of bracero workers in the 1940s and ‘50s.
The 1948 photo captured a rare moment when all 15 children lived together under one roof in a small house in Elysian Valley near downtown. A few months after the youngest child, Richard, was born, the older children began having families of their own.
The party long ago outgrew any single family home. This year it was held at the Friendship Hall in Silver Lake, with the tamales and taquitos catered from a nearby Mexican restaurant.
As in years past, Tony, 60, and the second-oldest of the Rodriguez children, was Santa Claus. Seated in a tall chair, “Santa” passed out presents to each of his 100 nephews, nieces, grandchildren, great-nieces and great-nephews. Then there were more presents for all of his siblings and in-laws. In all, it took more than an hour.
The older Rodriguez children--those who lived through the Great Depression--remember other Christmas celebrations, when there weren’t as many gifts and as much food to go around.
California was gripped in poverty and unemployment. The situation was so critical that Los Angeles Police Chief James (Two Gun) Davis sent officers to staff barricades at the California-Arizona state line, trying to keep out the armies of Midwestern migrants descending on the city in search of jobs. It was hard for everyone--even more so for Alberto Rodriguez, a humble laborer from central Mexico who had a new baby to feed nearly every year.
“Times were tough then, like we’re going through today,” said Albert Jr., 63. “Sometimes, I remember, we didn’t have enough to buy shoes. Today we see the people at the churches picking up (free government) cheese. It reminds me of that time. There’s a lot of people really going through hardships again.”
During the most poverty-stricken Christmases, the family accepted boxes of gifts from Roman Catholic charities. The girls contented themselves with a doll, the boys with a ball or some other simple toy. The brothers and sisters agree: Material things just didn’t seem as important then.
“That was a really poor time,” Albert recalled. “But it was a good time.”
The best Christmas present was just being able to live together under one roof. By the 1940s, the family had grown so large that Alberto and Esther couldn’t afford a home large enough for all the children. For a time, the older sons and daughters lived in a motel while the younger children lived in a series of garages and apartments.
Finally, in 1947, the family found an affordable, two-bedroom clapboard house in Elysian Valley. Somehow, they were able to fit a dozen beds into the home’s five rooms.
“At night it was wall-to-wall mattresses on the floor,” recalled Margaret, 58. “Whoever got home first got a bed.”
Elysian Valley--called “Frogtown” because the little amphibians blanketed the streets when the nearby Los Angeles River flooded--was a community of railroad workers and their families.
Alberto packed ice into boxcars for the Pacfic Fruit Express, supervising a team of braceros, Mexican workers contracted to fill the jobs of GIs.
By all accounts, Alberto was hard-working. He had come to the United States as a young adult and held jobs as a butcher, day laborer and steel-foundry worker. He met his wife, a native of Mazatlan, while both were studying English at Jefferson High School in the 1920s.
Esther is remembered by her children for her sense of humor--it helped her keep things under control as 15 children scurried about the house. She enlisted her older daughters in the nearly round-the-clock task of cooking meals, making dozens of tortillas and burritos, some of which Alberto sold to the braceros for a little extra money.
When they weren’t helping with the chores, the older girls earned 50 cents an hour at a laundry. Eventually, they all dropped out of school to work full time.
“We’ve always worked,” said Ernestine, who still works at a laundry. “I started my first job when I was 9 or 10 and could pass for 15. Kids today have everything laid out for them on a platter. Back then, we were satisfied with anything they gave us.”
Tony joined his father working at the rail yard. And like many Mexican-American teen-agers of the 1940s, he was swept away by the zoot suit craze. He proudly sported the oversized pants, dovetail haircut and long watch-chain of the pachuco .
“In those days, it was the style,” he said, somewhat defensively.
Although Tony was not involved in the 1943 zoot suit riots, he and his brothers remember the street-fighting between Anglo servicemen and Latino youths.
“It was terrible,” Albert Jr. recalled. “The soldiers attacked the streetcars and cut (the pachucos ') pants with knives.”
At home, meanwhile, the babies kept coming. Esther was a heavy-set woman and even her teen-age daughters couldn’t tell when she was pregnant. Margaret said they had a clue that a baby was coming only when her mother began scrubbing the floor of her bedroom with disinfectant--most of the children were born at home with the help of a midwife.
When she went into labor, Esther sent her children to the movies for the evening “as a treat.”
Upon returning home, they would be greeted by the cries of a new baby brother or sister.
“Each baby was like it was the first one,” Margaret said, recalling her father’s reaction to a birth. “He was so excited and so happy. I remember when Richard (the 15th child) was born--you would think that was his first son.”
Two weeks after Richard was born, the Examiner crew arrived. Even then, in the days before birth control and family planning, 15 was a lot of kids. The Rodriguez family portrait would make a nice feature photograph in the next day’s paper.
As the older Rodriguez children remember it, the cameraman was in a hurry: He had a deadline.
Tony and Albert had just arrived home from work and were rushed into the shot. Margaret scrambled to look for her little brother Joe’s shoes, until the photographer barked out: “That’s all right, that’s all right! Come on!”
And so 4-year-old Joe, who was to become a Vietnam vet, posed in his bare feet.
By 10 p.m. Saturday, with all the gift-giving over, the Friendship Hall looked like any family’s living room on Christmas Day.
Discarded wrapping paper piled up around the Christmas tree, while the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Esther and Alberto Rodriguez tossed new footballs and rolled toy cars on the linoleum floor.
Mike Wiemann, son of Mary Wiemann (the seventh of the Rodriguez children), waxed nostalgic as he watched his three children thank Santa Claus. Wiemann, 35, said he too had sat on the lap of the same “Santa” without realizing it was really his Uncle Tony.
“We used to wait and wait because we didn’t open (the presents) until after midnight,” Wiemann said. “We sat in the living room and he’d pass out each gift, one at a time.”
The Christmas parties were then held at the family home in Glendale--the Rodriguezes moved there just before the Glendale Freeway came through Elysian Valley, obliterating their old clapboard house.
The younger children--Raymond, Carmen, Joe, Elizabeth and Richard--grew up in an English-speaking world different from the Spanish-speaking world of their parents and older siblings.
Margaret recalls that her father once remarked: “The first five kids speak Spanish. The second five speak a little Spanish. And the last five, I don’t know what they speak.”
Alberto, who had never failed to provide for his sons and daughters when they were small children, found life difficult as he became older. With the advent of refrigerated boxcars, he lost his job at the railroad icehouse.
“Times were changing real fast,” Margaret remembered. “Under all the stress, everything just kind of caved in. He wasn’t able to get work like before. He began to drink. It was downhill for him.”
Alberto died in 1967 in a car accident on Riverside Drive, only a few blocks from the site of his former Elysian Valley home. It was only one of a series of tragedies to befall the family--Albert’s youngest son, Damon, 18, died just after Christmas in 1968.
Albert recalls the weeks before his son’s death, from complications related to Down’s syndrome: “It was December, he would get up in the morning and would ask his mother, ‘Mama, is today, Christmas?’ “He was just looking forward to that party,” Albert continued. “Well, Christmas came by and he went to the party. Early in January he died.
“But that was his driving force, to go to the Christmas party.”