By Sheli Ellsworth
The Tortilla Flats district in Ventura may be relegated to the annals of history since the construction of the Highway 101 overpass, but its soul lives on in the memories of former Tortilla Flats residents. To the Tortilla Flats Committee of 8-10 people who meet every other Saturday, the area is still very much a part of their lives.
The Flats economy was dependent on the Las Palmas Chili factory. “Everyone did time peeling chilies,” according to Jim Capito who had relatives in the Flats. “They brought in gunny sacks full of chilies and dumped them on tables. They paid 1½¢ per pound for peeling and removing the stems.” Esther Hanks says the factory was one of first commercial businesses in the area. “After school, children of the workers would drop buy the factory, peel a few chilies and go outside and play. After you handle the chilies you want to be real careful where you put your hands—especially when you go to the bathroom—it’s not the kind of pain you forget!” says Benny Arrellanes.
“Life was simpler then,” says Alicia Valenzuela Tarin. “We bathed in a metal tub in the kitchen. Everyone used the same water. We girls crossed the train tracks and went to the beach for fun.” There was the Mission Theatre on Figueroa St. where Chinatown was located. If you went on Bank Night there was a lottery that awarded money and prizes. It only cost 10-12¢ and the movie always opened with a Porky Pig, Donald Duck or Woody Woodpecker cartoon. “We saw Buck Jones, Tom Mix, and Hoot Gibson. Westerns were popular. I remember seeing The Mummy’s Hand, said Benny Quijada. Unlike modern kids, Flats’ kids were easily satisfied. “We would put coins on the tracks and wait for the Steamer Daylight to turn them into arrowheads. We would get cardboard boxes and ride them down the hill on Poli street,” the members say.
Everyone had a radio. “I remember sitting in front of a Philco Radio waiting for the electric humming to turn into the Inner Sanctum, Sky King or The Shadow,” says Jim Martinez.
“Our underwear was made out of La Piña baking flour sacks. “My mom sewed them on a treadle sewing machine in 1931,” said Alicia Valenzuela Tarin. Chase Brothers delivered milk from the Willoughby Dairy along with eggs and butter. “Helm’s Bakery delivered Wonder bread, éclairs and bear claws even though almost everyone make their own tortillas,” according to Jim Martinez.
In the 1940s Victory Gardens became popular. There were a lot of small gardens where residents grew their own corn, tomatoes and green beans. Cactus pads called nopales were also popular. “Everyone shared what they had,” the members agreed. Many of the residents worked picking citrus, walnuts, apricots and strawberries. The local grocery store, Benny’s, was happy to charge groceries for local residents. No one went hungry.
A stretch of King’s Highway, eventually incorporated into the 101, was particularly slippery. The produce trucks would spill their contents there and the place became a hangout known as Salad Bowl Curve. In the 1930s a cattle truck turned over and cattle were wondering around everywhere. Even the liquor trucks were known to spill.
Everyone rode bicycles on the primitive asphalt and dirt roads. Many of the bikes were assembled from spare parts found at the city dump which was a good place to treasure hunt when residents had to empty their 55-gallon trash cans full of burned garbage. The yards were small and there were no curbs or gutters. Flats’ residents were inclined to use every inch of the properties. Cookouts and outdoor parties were common. Many guests were ranch hands who came to the area on the weekends and longshoremen who were home for a few days. Musicians like George Pacheco, Tony Flores and the Rodriguez Brothers entertained.
Look for more about Tortilla Flats in upcoming Breeze issues.