Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Maria "Pete" Durgan

"Next door is the house I grew up in, and where I live today is the house my grandparents built. I grew up here on this block, went to school in Arlington, then when I was twenty-one, moved to Richmond, got married, came back briefly, got settled, but couldn't afford to live in Arlington.  We moved to Alexandria, rented there and then moved South Alexandria, and lived there for a long time and then moved to Herndon when my ex got transferred there. And then we split up, and I moved back here.

My grandfather was one of thirteen kids in a small town in Mexico. His father was the town doctor and his mother was the town nurse. A tuberculosis epidemic hit the town and both of them died. Their oldest daughter was the town pharmacist and she had to figure out what to do with all these kids. My grandfather had a talent for music and so they said, “all right, you can go to the conservatory in Mexico City,” and they shipped him off there. He roomed with my grandmother's family, got a room there; that's how they met.
He was young and dumb, in school, and playing in a bar, and who walks into the bar, but this up-and-coming political figure named Pancho Villa. Pancho Villa said, "Hey you know, I'm getting ready to go on a stump tour. I need a band to play before I'm doing my speaking to gather people around. I like these guys… Hey y'all wanna be in my band?" They went, "Yeah, sure." I can honestly say my grandfather was in Pancho Villa's band. He was his clarinet player.

They played concert band stuff, popular music of the early 1900s. He immigrated to D.C. in 1925, so I'm a little unclear about when he exactly he came over from Mexico. He left Pancho Villa in the midst of some dispute involving Federales on a train. He threw his hands up in the air and said “I'm outta here!” He then came across the border to Texas and played in pickup circus bands and traveled around a bunch. Apparently he was really, really, good, and somehow he got into the US Army band in Houston. He was good enough in the Army band that he got recruited to play in Pershing’s Own, the main US Army Band, based here at Fort Meyer. At that time it was a cavalry band so you played while you were riding a horse.

So he moved here, bought this little plot of land near the fort, went back to Mexico and got his wife, and built this house. She used to say, "I dug the foundation of this house with a shovel and a level." They built the house using scraps because they didn't have any money. There's some wood downstairs that came from a barn over at the Lee Mansion. They were tearing down Robert E. Lee’s old barn, so he got the good wood, brought it back and used it to build part of their house. There was also an embassy downtown that was being torn down, so he and a bunch of buddies went over there and got some bricks. The house is almost a hundred years old now. This is where he and my grandmother lived. They had one kid, my dad, and he grew up here. When he got married, they bought the lot next door and my father and my grandfather refurbished it. After my mom and dad got married, they moved in, and that's where I grew up.
My mom's originally from DC. They got married in 1953 at Saint Dominic's Church in DC. Because my father was Mexican they couldn't get married in Virginia at the time, because it would have been race mixing. The law against race mixing didn’t apply just to African Americans, but to anybody who wasn't fully white. Saint Dominic's was her church, so that's where they would have been married anyway.

The population in the neighborhood was white, lower class, blue collar. Nobody had a lot of money. Lots of Army people who were stationed at Fort Myer were nearby, and government workers, of course. When I was growing up, this area was mostly tiny little houses. Our house next door was considered a big house, but it's not that big by today's standards. Most of them were built on stilts, so people would dig them out and add the basements. Most of them are gone, the only ones that remain have been spiffed up. My niece bought the house up the street and that one is a nice little odd house.
My mom is very involved with Catholic church. She is one of the main fixtures at Saint Thomas Moore church. I went to Saint Thomas Moore Elementary School and to Bishop O'Connell for high school. Those schools were barely integrated at the time. I think there were two female black kids and one male black kid at Saint Thomas Moore.

The Butler Homes neighborhood near us was a black neighborhood. And of course Green Valley was black. South Rolfe Street and all the streets down by Lady Queen of Peace were a black neighborhood. People really didn't mix back then. My brothers had a friend who was black and he'd ride his bike over, and he was asked not come down the street. People weren't real kind about some things.
It took a long time though for things to change. There were no Latinos around here. It's funny. I was raised like a white kid and I felt like I was a white kid, but looking back on it when I got older, I realized some of the things that I didn't understand might have been related to the fact that I was a dark-skinned kid. I was just kind of ignored in school and that kind of stuff, and caught a little more flack from the teachers than some of the other people. Not terrible flack but it was there. Not with my schoolmates, they never were a problem. It was the older generation.

My grandparents had a piano, it sat right in the living room and my grandfather used to play hymns on it all the time. He used to write hymns, he was mega-religious. He and my grandmother were fixtures at Fort Myer Chapel. They were Mama and Papa Flores, everybody knew them, and as each of them died, they gave them this wonderful Army Band send off. It was really sweet. When my grandfather died they had a cello and a string quartet playing. It was beautiful.

My grandfather played music until he lost some teeth and he couldn't play anymore, and then he retired. After that, he worked for a while at the airport and fixed airplanes; he was very mechanical. I remember my grandmother working in the laundry over at Fort Myer. She was a very dark woman and worked in the laundry. She spoke English but it was not great, it was very heavily-accented English. I realize now it was a step down for her because she had been a teacher in Mexico. She came up here and couldn't get work except at the laundry because of her language skills.

I came to music through the family I guess. Because of my grandfather, and my dad played clarinet and sax, too. He was very proud of his years in the marching band at Texas A&M University. I learned piano when I was a kid, but eventually lost interest in it. I picked up bass in my thirties because my ex played guitar, and my brother Joe played guitar. We had this family band and used to practice over at my house. At the time there weren't many women bass players. I'm not saying it was terrible, but there were some awkward things. I always was treated well in my groups, but if you were working with a sound guy, you were automatically dismissed. I used to have to take men with me into the music stores because nobody would wait on me. I am not kidding. Roll's Music in Falls Church was dreadful. I’d go and wander around and try to find somebody to help me with something.

Our family has also been doing a big Memorial Day picnic for years. Fifty-three years ago my mother got to be friends with some nuns at Saint Thomas Moore Cathedral and decided she wanted to throw a picnic for them. It was really nice, and next year, they did it again. This time she invited her family and her family is huge, so it just kind of grew as time went on. As we kids started playing music, we'd bring our bands and play at the picnic and that was fun. I guess what happened is when you get older you get more friends, and your friends come and then your friends have kids, and then your friends’ kids come and then your relatives, too. I have thirty-two first cousins and they all got married and have kids, and then they all come every year. My mother's church friends come and of course the priest at Saint Thomas Moore would come and it just got bigger and bigger. On perfect weather days, we have something like two hundred and fifty people. People think of it as a family reunion but it's more than just the Flores and Gambino folks. It's a community tradition.

My mother's maiden name is Gambino. My grandfather who is Italian came here in around the turn of the last century. He was from a town east of Naples. The Irish side, my grandmother's side, probably came over about the same time. They were from Donegal, Ireland. My Italian grandfather married a person who is of Scotch-English descent in West Virginia. I had an aunt Francis Gambino, who did a genealogy search of that side of the family and traced us back to Jamestown or Yorktown. She joined the Daughters of the American Revolution.
What's interesting, is they said, "Don't trace your Irish relatives," because they didn't want us to know why they came over. It was probably because of the potato famine. They were probably potato pickers, which is fine, everybody does what they have to do to better for themselves. But this cousin of my mother’s did a further genealogy search and found that the people who came over from England were likely kids picked off the street, thrown on a ship, and sent out of England just to get them off the streets. Apparently they just picked people up off the street back then if you were a vagrant, threw you on a ship, and there you go. The Brits were not very kind people.

I’ve seen changes in the neighborhood over the years. There’s more affluence. It’s much more diverse. When I was growing up, there was only one other family in our church who was of Latino descent. It was a Mexican family called the Garcia's; they're still around. Mike Garcia, the insurance guy who has a business on the Pike, Mike on the Pike. There was no Latino community when we were growing up. In the 1960’s it was considered un-American for your children to speak any language other than English, and so we grew up not knowing Spanish, purposely not knowing Spanish. It was real typical child rearing practice, where parents wanted their kids to speak English and not the mother tongue. But we’d eat the food. Oh my God yes. I grew up eating tortillas and tamales and my grandmother had such a knack for spices. Oh man, she was good. Her mole, chicken mole. I became a vegetarian but I still think about her chicken mole. My dad used to take my grandparents to Manual Pena's Spanish store in DC. That was the only place around where you could get masa. You needed masa if you wanted to make your tortillas or tamales, because you couldn't buy tortillas anywhere, there weren’t even Doritos back in the day.
I really can't put a time on when I noticed more people coming into the area. I have to admit, I just loved it. Before I went to Richmond for college, after high school, I had some friends who were Ecuadorian. We used to hang out at parties and stuff. And so I got kind of into a circle of Latino friends.
I think the first big wave of immigration happened in the mid ‘70’s while I was in Richmond in school, but it must have begun before, because one of the reasons I realized it was time to leave Richmond was when I heard a Spanish accent on the bus and got this huge wave of nostalgia and knew it was time to leave. They had no Latinos in Richmond, you were either white or black, and here you already had more diversity. Honestly I might have been blind to it because it was just happening, and it was cool. You know how you sort of stuff happens and you don't even think about it?
I was here when the Vietnamese wave came through. I used to go to Clarendon all the time. MyAn Fabrics was one of my favorite hangs. The nice ladies helping you with your fabrics and then the guys in the back playing pool.

I fully retired in April. I worked in health care. I worked at MCV in Richmond for a couple of years. Later I went to work for G.W. Hospital, and worked there for fourteen years as Director of the Medical Staff office. I did that for a long time, then freelanced for a little while and then I got offered a job at MMG in Rockville, Maryland. I commuted to Rockville for 15 years. Right now I'm with a six piece band called The Curbfeelers that plays soul and blues. It’s lots of fun. We play at the Celtic House on the Pike about once a month. I also play in this band called NovaZanz, which is a mix of everything from country to standards.
I am currently the Penrose Neighborhood Association president. Mostly that involves keeping up with Arlington County government stuff, keeping the neighbors informed. Trying to make sure people get issues resolved..

Right now we have a bike path we’re working on. That's how I got involved, because I wanted to see the plans for the bike path. After much back and forth, they finally started building it and it should be open soon. There were also some issues related to a group house where the residents were not behaving properly, and it turns out that the people who were running the group house were not screening their people really well. They were sending people with behavior issues and it was scaring the neighbors. That got resolved. I was also on the Career Center working group which was put together to come up with some guidelines and vision to manage what we do with the site. We have the Career Center which has bunches of different programs in it. There's also the community high school, the Fenwick building, and Patrick Henry Elementary School, which is going to be superseded by Fleet School when it opens. A Montessori program is going to move into the Patrick Henry building. There's lots of concern about parking, because there are people in Arlington who think nobody should ever own a car. I don't think that's too much of an exaggeration. They don't want any parking onsite there, they think people should just not drive cars there, even if it's an option school where people from North Arlington would send their kids over. At the same time they're talking about removing residential parking restrictions. I'm trying to keep abreast of all that.
The main thing is in the short term, they told us we cannot remove any buildings, but in the long term they said, if you want to really build a full-service high school, you have to get rid of Patrick Henry, consider getting rid of Fenwick, and then consider what you want to put on the site. It was a very interesting and very frustrating process. On the one hand, you had a lot of meetings and a lot of back and forth and a lot of consensus building, but you were doing it in a vacuum of information. I think that really goes back to the School Board not really thinking things through in a long term way. I went into it with an open mind, thinking I'm not going to be biased in all this, I'm going to represent Penrose, I'm not going to represent myself. We have a PhD person in our association, Christine Brittle, who works in with surveys and focus groups professionally. She helped us survey the community. We got a fairly decent response, so I had some guidelines to use. I represented what we learned.

The School Board went back and forth regarding the Career Center site about whether they wanted a neighborhood school there or whether they want an option school. It's not big enough for a neighborhood school because you don't have room for all the field space that you would require. At one point they were talking about it being a neighborhood school but it wasn't going to have quite a few of the facilities that at Wakefield, Yorktown and Washington and Lee have. No soccer field, football field, football stadium, pool. So back and forth, back and forth. As it stands now, the School Board still doesn't know what kind of curriculum they're going to put in there. We told them they can't put a neighborhood school there without appropriate facilities. In the far future, they need to raze the Patrick Henry building so that they have enough space for fields and the stuff that you need to have an equitable kind of high school experience. Even if it's a STEAM school, Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math, you can't short those kids on basic high school things. Those programs save kids in school, because if you're just doing academics all the time, sometimes people just burn out. You have to be equitable. There was a lot of north versus South Arlington kinds of feelings raised about why would you consider building a neighborhood school in South Arlington that has vastly inferior facilities.

I meet and work with the other civic associations along the Pike. We have a monthly meeting called Pike Presidents Group and we meet at the CPRO (Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization) and keep each other up to speed on what's going on. It’s one of the best perks I get out of being president, is I get to go to that meeting. Adam Henderson from Douglas Park chairs it and he's an awesome leader.
We look at things like transportation up and down the Pike. There's always been concern on the Pike about transportation. Because the streetcar got nixed, we were promised a rapid bus transit, which never materialized. There's a lot of frustration with some construction that's going on and contractors who aren't following regulations and working all night and not being done by the time they're supposed to be done, causing traffic jams and that kind of thing. We learn about the developments, making sure we're all up to speed on the Harris Teeter building. They call it The Centro now.  It’s going to be a beautiful Harris Teeter with apartments up above and residential and it's going to have this cool little park in the front.  I made sure, as best I could, that people knew what the plans were.

CPRO is doing some interesting things all on the Pike, like the banner program on the western Pike, and the Farmers Market up at Arlington Mill. They keep us up to speed on stuff that they're doing. They're supposed to be an economic development assessment done of the western Pike to try to make it more vital. It's really odd because on the one hand, I love the diversity and the people who are there. I call them the Little Brown People on the Pike. I'm one of the little brown people on the Pike, and I love them and I want them to stay. But on the other hand, economic development means they're probably all going to be priced out. So I'm in the middle. I can see the need to spiff things up, but on the other hand, really? Do we really want to do that?
I did a booth at the County Fair for Penrose and Arlington Heights, we try to boost membership and sell our lovely “Proud To Be From South Arlington” T-shirts. It was fun, but we heard that realtors steer people away from South Arlington by telling them that the schools in South Arlington are inferior, which pissed us off. Some people seem to think that being around kids that have English as a second language is going to drag their kids down. Your kids will be fine. And they'll help the kids learn. We know people who are coming here and going “that's the best kind of education for my kids.” Schools are really good here. Our local schools would be high-end schools in probably 95% of the country. But when you talk to people from North Arlington, there's this perception that they're inferior and realtors steer people away. Of course you know if you buy in North Arlington, you're going to pay 100,000 dollars or more than you would if you bought the same house in South Arlington. So the realtors make more money that way. We have our 1.5 million dollar mini-mansions here in Penrose too, they happen. People have a right to do what they want to do with their property that they buy. The people I've met who live in those places are great people who made choices related to the neighborhood and they like it here.

People who move to South Arlington know what they're getting. I've heard from people who've moved around here who have kids. They want their kids to have the experience of all the ethnicities in their schools. They like the fact that you're in this kind of big ole melting pot of all kinds of people and it's cool that we all get together and hang out the way that we do. You can be in an apartment building and you can have an Ethiopian family next to a family from Honduras next to people from Thailand, et cetera, et cetera. And that's unique and cool and so people who move here, they like it, they want it."

Photography and interview by Lloyd Wolf.

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