“Making Oakland ours and making Oakland mine wasn’t always easy, but it was very important.”YOLANDA RONQUILLO
It’s strange to not be in Oakland right now. I’m sitting on the porch swing at our AirBnb in Portland on maybe the first real spring day. I’ve been in Oakland most of my life, with the exception of three months or so when I was eighteen and I tried to go to college for the first time (spoiler alert: I came home). Aside from getting used to a new neighborhood, finding a new coffee shop to frequent daily, and adjusting to temporarily living with roommates, I’m also sitting with how it feels to not have body memory attached to each corner I pass. In Oakland, I’m the third generation on my dad’s side of the family to be born and raised in Oakland. In Oakland, I live in the house that my dad bought when he was working at the post office; the same house I was brought home to from the hospital when I was born, the house that became mine when my dad died in 2016 from stage four colon cancer.
I spoke with my grandmother, Dr. Yolanda Ronquillo, about our family’s timeline in Oakland and how it feels to move through the same places over the years. I like coming back to the same businesses after all these years and I like picturing my grandmother as a young girl in the same space we’re standing in. How does a city hold so many layers of lives? What happens when evidence of the past is not visible in the present? We practice the act of remembering when we have these conversations.
Some things that may be helpful for context
A brief and consolidated family tree which does not include my cousins:
Maria “Tita” Granados: Mother of Ophelia (my Nana and great grandmother), Alfredo, Ernestina (Big Nina), and Manuel (Tío Manuel)
Ophelia meets and marries my great grandfather, Ramón Ronquillo (my Grompa)
They have Yolanda (my grandmother), Tina (my aunt), and Raymond (my Uncle Ray)
Yolanda marries Herbert Honea (my grandpa) and they have Ramón (my Tío Mon) and Timothy (Tim, my dad)
Tim marries Judy (my mom) and they have Luz (me)
A brief family timeline with some relevant events:
Late 1930s-1940 – my great-great grandmother Maria comes to Oakland with her 4 children from El Paso, TX.
1942 – my grandmother is born in Oakland, CA
1965 – my dad is born in Oakland, CA
1987 – my dad buys a house in the Dimond District of Oakland
1992 – I’m born
2016 – my dad dies of stage four colon cancer and I move into his house
2022 – I relocate to Portland, OR for the PSU MFA in Art & Social Practice
Luz Blumenfeld: I’ve been thinking about the memory of place and how a physical place like Oakland, California or Davenport [Ave], or my house holds memory. How the presence of people who used to be there is really tangible, and we can really feel that in those places.
Yolanda Ronquillo: I think that’s very true. Especially at Davenport— in Spanish, we say, acogedora, te acoge, it takes you in, it holds you, you know, it’s always had that energy of holding, it’s a very, very wonderful place to live.
Luz: Yeah, it is. And I think because I grew up there, and dad grew up there before me, there is so much there, especially at Davenport. But really, I feel like all of Oakland, or at least the places that I think of my dad having spent time in, are places that I still feel him in. When I’m driving from my house to your house, I feel him on that drive a lot. I picture him driving down MacArthur a lot.
Yolanda: Yeah, I had an experience on the plane from New Jersey to Barcelona. It was very cramped and dark; they turned the lights off because it was a red eye. I went deeper and deeper into my sadness of missing your dad, but you know, he’s with me all the time. I felt that when he was afraid, he didn’t turn to me. You know, he resisted anyone coming close when he was trying to deal with what was going on with him. And I felt that there was such a deep feeling of why your dad has come to me so strongly; it’s to say, Mom, stay close to those you love. So I’m really glad we’re having this conversation. Whatever the interview is about, I’m for it. You know, interview me every week, interview me every day. I just really want to be part of your life and in a way, you know, that feels comfortable.
Because that feeling on the plane ride was so miserable and brought me to a kind of desperateness, the light that brought me out of it was that it really does matter—it does matter that we talk to each other, that we keep in touch with each other. Whatever we say is not important. It’s important that we stay with each other.
Luz: I was thinking about how you, Tina, and Uncle Ray chose to stay in Oakland and to raise your kids at the same time and be physically close to each other. I was wondering if you wanted to talk a little bit about that.
Yolanda: It was important and it has been important. It’s almost an unsaid importance because it’s such an intrinsic value that we hold together.
And when we had that bad earthquake, you know, when part of the bridge fell down—
Luz: In ‘89?
Yolanda: Yeah, I was at home at Davenport and stepped out onto the deck and the deck was dancing. So I drove down to your Nana and Grompa’s house and guess who was there? Tina was there, my brother was there, and Ramón was there and everyone suddenly started showing up at Nana and Grompa’s; but your dad wasn’t there. And then on the TV, they were talking about a truck driver named Tim—
Luz: Oh my God.
Yolanda: —who was stuck on the bridge and something had fallen on his truck— and of course your dad showed up and it wasn’t him. But that homing instinct to just go and be with [one another] was manifest in that earthquake. We all just did it.
Luz: And that was before cell phones, so the fact that you guys all just showed up at Nana and Grompa’s in particular is so interesting to me.
Yolanda: Yeah, and that it wasn’t a surprise to any of us that it happened.
You know, when I was little, Luz, and we moved to Short Street, I was five and Tina was three. And your Uncle Ray wasn’t even around. He wasn’t born until I was eight, but, on Short Street, we were the only Mexicans. There was one Black family down where Short Street goes around over to Allendale. The family’s name was King. We were the only people of color and it was obvious that for some people, that wasn’t a good thing that we were there. I had a little girlfriend who lived around the corner on Penniman and her father was a raging racist. So making Oakland mine, and making Oakland ours wasn’t always easy, but it was very important to your Nana and Grompa.
Your Grompa came from the Mexican Revolution and I think it’s hard to imagine what that was like for someone to be born into. It was a terribly violent time. He was born in 1909 when the revolution was in full force and he and his family had to flee with just the clothes on their back. It was a really, really hard time. They lost everything. So for him, carving out a place that was ours was super important.
And your Nana didn’t have much of a happier childhood; she was born in 1914 and her dad left when she was 6 months old and sometimes they didn’t have food. Nana and her siblings were at the effect of some very mean relatives. So when she and your Grompa got together, they were determined to have their own place. They were really good savers and they had already bought a house when I was born.
They were living on Eagle Street in Alameda, California. I think it’s pretty impressive on its own that they were already able to buy a house.
Luz: Right, and I mean, I think of Alameda now at least as more white and racist than Oakland is, so I really can’t imagine how it was back then.
Yolanda: When I was born, I think that I was born cesarean because your Nana was terrified of the whole situation. She had gone from a Mexican doctor to an American, English speaking doctor who didn’t have a bedside manner. He didn’t stay with her or talk to her, he just kind of left her on her own. And when she couldn’t birth me, they took me cesarean. But what that meant for my dad was that he had to pay for everything upfront. They had already paid for my birth, but now there were surgery costs. Well, guess how much the surgery was? 75 dollars. But they didn’t have it. So a guy came to the house with a clipboard and started writing down everything they owned that could possibly be of any value. And your Grompa was so upset. He was just horrified at this idea that people could come and take your possessions for what you owed them. He never, ever, ever wanted to borrow money again. I’m not sure I would call them far thinkers, I think they were just very determined to have a place, to put a root down. You know, in that house they had on Eagle Street, they had chickens, rabbits, and a vegetable garden in the back.
Luz: Oh wow, I didn’t know they were so planted there. Is that the place where they had to move because the freeway was being built?
Yolanda: No, no, this was before that. That was the place they had to move because Eagle Street was a very damp part of Alameda. When Tina was born and she contracted pneumonia, the doctor said, you’ve got to get her out of this damp, she can’t tolerate this damp. So they moved to Jingletown, over on Dennison Street. It was an old Victorian two-story house.
Luz: It would be so cool if our family still had that Victorian.
Yolanda: That’s the one the freeway took—on Dennison Street. You can go into Alameda and get off on that exit, where the 29th Street bridge is, and see Dennison Street. I was baptized over there in the Mary Help of Christians church, which is a Catholic mission that’s still there in Jingletown.
Luz: But the freeway took a lot of houses, right? Were many people displaced by that?
Yolanda: Well yeah, it’s the Nimitz freeway. You can drive down the Nimitz and see those houses that are left on one side of the freeway. It’s the side of the freeway where that big loft building is.
Luz: Yeah, it does always seem like a strange divide between the neighborhood, like it shouldn’t be quite right where it is because it’s so close to the buildings. It’s wild to me that you were around at a time before there was this major freeway in Oakland.
Yolanda: That’s right. You know, mija, your Aqui’s gonna be 80 this year.
Luz: Yeah, I mean, that’s part of something that I love and have so much pride in personally, is being third generation from Oakland and having our entire—that three generations of history. I’m also thinking of what you were saying about homemaking, of making Oakland your home and your place. I think that I felt very much when I was growing up there was that already, that precedent that you had established, that you specifically had established in so many communities in Oakland.
Yolanda: Yeah, I feel that it was intentional and that there’s something in the story of your Grompa bidding on that property across the street and getting that house. There was a little two bedroom, brown shingled house on the corner of Penniman and Short Street. He got the house and the lot for, I think $1,500, and he decided to build us a house, he decided to build us the house of our dreams.
So it was like that kind of optimism and that kind of pulling together. He took a swing shift so he could work on building the house in the morning, then clean up and go to work.
Yolanda: Yeah. You know, no one said, “you can build a house because you want to.” There was a guy who lived behind us at 2928 Short Street who had studied architecture, but had never gotten his degree. So he would help your Grompa make up plans for the house.
And I remember sitting at our little kitchenette table in the kitchen and I told my dad, “I want an upstairs daddy, I want to come down the stairs in the morning just like Ricky Nelson does. I want to come down and say—” you know, whatever Ricky Nelson was saying in those days. I don’t remember anymore, but I knew I had to say that when I walked down the stairs.
Luz: What did he say?
Yolanda: He said yes, and he made us a second story.
Luz: Wow, so there was already a house on the corner, like where the apartment building is? That was a house?
Yolanda: Yeah where the duplex is, there was an old shingled house.
Luz: And then, so Nana’s house is the house that he built?
Yolanda: Yes, that’s the house he built.
Luz: Oh, wow that’s so interesting. I have so many memories of being a kid at family dinner night. And for some reason I had this habit of hanging out on those carpeted stairs and leaning my head back so that I was looking at everything upside down. Just kid things, you know, but I love knowing that Grompa’s hand built that. I think that’s very special and rare. Especially as Oakland has been more and more gentrified. As the housing crisis has gotten deeper and deeper in the Bay Area, I feel totally lucky and grateful all the time that our family has property that my ancestors purposefully and intentionally set up for me, and really, for all of us.
Yolanda: That’s right.
Luz: So I think our family’s determination to stay in Oakland is really powerful to me, especially now as so many people have been displaced by the housing crisis and gentrification. I wonder about the future because I think my generation of cousins and family is less planted in Oakland. I mean, I’m somewhere else right now.
Yolanda: Yeah. I think about the trajectory of what brought us to the Bay Area. It was in the thirties that your Nana’s older brother found a job up here. And, your Grompa had been traveling, riding the rails and he lived in Sacramento for a while around that time. But it wasn’t until ‘41 that my Tío Manuel, your Nana’s older brother, took over a business called The Virginian. It was a bar on 9th and Broadway.
Luz: Oh, wow, Broadway like Chinatown?
Yolanda: Yeah, and you know, your Great Uncle Manuel was a womanizer. He was very handsome. So one day, your Great Aunt Doreen said to your Nana, “Come and stay with Manuel because the kids are sick and I have to stay home.” So your Nana went to the bar— and in those days they used to make sandwiches as part of the deal— you know, have a beer, have a sandwich. So your Nana was making sandwiches and your Grompa walked in with a date and sat at the bar, and their eyes met in the mirror and that was it.
Luz: Wow. Yeah. I feel like I’ve heard that story so many times, but I never remember the details of where it was and it’s so different there now. I mean, downtown Oakland was so different when I was growing up too.
Yolanda: Yeah. They’ve kind of fancied it up, you know, it’s part of the gentrification thing, right?
So as they talked and as they got to know each other, they realized that they knew a lot of the same people, they were from the same area. They were both from the border, El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, and they knew a lot of common people, but they had never met before.
Luz: Oh, I didn’t realize that part. That’s wild.
Yolanda: Their first date was on Treasure Island for the World’s Fair.
Luz: Oh wow, that’s a grand first date.
Yolanda: Well, they couldn’t actually say they were dating, but your Nana said if he wanted to see her, he could meet her at the coffee pavilion at the world’s fair.
Luz: Why couldn’t they say they were dating?
Yolanda: Well, I think your Nana’s mom was freaked out about her daughters; your Big Nina [Nana’s older sister] was kind of wild and so she had her on a very short leash. And then her brother Manuel, the one we were talking about, because he was a womanizer, he was really hard on his sisters, so they couldn’t do hardly anything.
Luz: Oh, I see. And at that time, Grompa was in Sacramento?
Yolanda: Yeah, he had followed the railroad and he had worked in Sacramento for a year, I think. And then he found a job with the railroad down here in Oakland. He was working for the Southern Pacific.
Luz: And you were saying Nana was here with her family—when did Nana’s family move to Oakland?
Yolanda: In 1940, her brother, Alfredo, was killed in a car accident. A Greyhound bus hit the car. They were in a car that had a window dividing the passengers from the driver and with the impact of the car, the glass came down and pierced his legs. And because he was Mexican —they were in Fresno—they wouldn’t treat him at the hospital. So he actually bled to death.
Greyhound gave your great-great grandmother, my grandmother, Tita—we called her—a $5,000 settlement for the death of her son. And with that money, your great-great grandmother bought a house in West Oakland on Adeline.
Luz: I wonder if the house is still there.
Yolanda: I tried to find it once but I didn’t have any luck, but I think I have it written down someplace.
The way her son died was so unfair, unjust, and so tragic, but she was able to then have a piece of property. So she rented rooms and, right before Tina was born, a man broke into her house robbing her and she woke up and screamed, and he beat her up. So she didn’t want to live in that house anymore. She came and lived with your Nana and Grompa at Eagle Street in Alameda.
Luz: That makes sense.
Yolanda: Yeah, so she lived with us from when Tina was born until she died.
Luz: And Tío Alfredo is also buried at St. Mary’s in Oakland, right?
Yolanda: With his mother, Maria, yeah.
Luz: Yeah. It’s so strange that there are these places that we can physically visit that our family once lived in. Something about it feels very touching to me, it just hits me in a certain way. Something about walking around a place and just living in places that have that much history that’s in your DNA.
Yolanda: It is, it definitely is the sense of place. In my PhD work, I used the methodology of phenomenology, which talks about the sense of place, and it became very apparent to me when I was doing my dissertation that when I worked in Hawaii, I found that people who live on the islands have a different sense of belonging to the land. After several years, I began to understand what that was. It was a very different sense of being connected. I think it’s very important to me, as someone growing up in Oakland, to situate myself from different landmarks. I can look up and I can see where I am. If I can see the Hills and I can see the bay and Mount Tam, you know, I know where I am.
Luz: I wonder how your sense of place in Oakland has shifted over time; like what things were landmarks to you when you were a child, when you were raising Tío Mon and my dad, and now.
Yolanda: There are some places where the actual physical place is still there, but it’s changed. On MacArthur Boulevard, there’s now a Dialysis center where we used to have a theater. That was a really important part of my childhood so just walking across there and seeing all the things that are the same and that are totally different.
When your dad and your Tío Mon were little, I used to take them to a childcare center at a church on MacArthur. It was a course where they were teaching us how to observe children. So They would have the kids in a playroom or have them do projects and we were taught to observe them and write down observations of our children. It was a very interesting kind of modern thinking. I pass that church sometimes and think about when the boys were little.
Another example of that is Studio One, right? We used to go there and they would have playtime for the kids on the bottom, and then they would have classes on the second floor. So I’d be throwing a pot upstairs while the boys were making puppets or doing something else downstairs.
When I was a little girl, Tina and I would walk to school. We would walk all the way down Penniman to High street, and then all the way up High Street to above MacArthur to our school. Part of our journey was just fantasizing about who lived in the houses we passed and imagining how they lived because we were Mexican and we lived very differently and spoke very differently than they did.
Luz: Are there neighbors around Short Street who are still there, who have been there as long as our family has, or did everyone else kind of move on?
Yolanda: There are people’s houses that were part of our original neighborhood that have now been either bought or inherited by other people, but the house itself has a history.
There was an Italian family that had a separate building outside their house for cooking spaghetti or ravioli or whatever. So there’s a history of the house itself and the people who lived there that I remember. I remember the neighborhood families that were there when I was growing up and either passed on or left their house to someone else.
Luz: And I remember you have told me before how different 38th Avenue was when you were growing up. Can you talk about that again?
Yolanda: Yeah. If you walked down from the Short Street corner on Penniman down to 38th, there was a hardware store on the right, and across the street was a grocery store with a meat market that would give you a free hot dog every time you bought anything from them. And then across the street from them was a pharmacy, and across the street from that, at the four corners, there was a Five and Dime that fascinated me as a child. I loved that store. You know, they had buttons and zippers, all kinds of stuff, everything.
Down the street from that corner was a library and then across the street from the library was a store that just sold eggs and chickens. And on the far corner down by where that Vientian Cafe restaurant is—well across from the restaurant was called Faye’s Fountain. It had
a long bar and she sold ice cream. It was really cool. And next to her, on Penniman, was a dancing school that I couldn’t go to because your Nana would not pay for tap dancing. We had to take piano and violin, but not tap dancing.
They talk about the Laurel district, but we had the Allendale district, you know, we were our own little district.
Luz: That’s so interesting. I can really imagine that street with all those things happening. It always seemed to me when I was a kid that those two or three blocks of 38th had that kind of look to the buildings that felt like a kind of abandoned Main Street like that.
I’m thinking about how there are so many stories that our family tells over and over again, and I think it could be interesting to record them in some way, I think especially as Oakland continues to change and people continue to be displaced, the stories of people who have been able to stay are pretty rare and I think should be shared.
Yolanda: Yeah. It’s the human side of it, isn’t it? It’s so interesting how people say that their lives don’t make a difference, but they really do. They absolutely do.
Luz: I always wonder how Oakland feels for people who moved there as adults, like it must feel so different to them, what each space means to them. Maybe their relationship ended on that corner or it has some significance to them since they’ve lived in Oakland. But for me, it’s those things, plus all of the stories and memories from my dad’s generation, plus yours, and Nana and Grompa’s, and it just keeps going. I feel that those layers exist in real time for me. When I’m in places with that history, I can feel it all at the same time.
Yolanda: It’s very true. Even as you say that I can see the layers, you know, like Piedmont Avenue going up to the cemetery or all those different ways that we move around and we go towards and away from.
Luz: The longer I live in Oakland, the more of those I have, but the more I feel, the more present I am in certain places. And as much as neighborhoods have changed since I was growing up, I think about how different things feel and how there’s kind of this disconnect where I think about knowing the mapping and the whole layout of how a place used to be. And having that body memory of where things are and looking around and having it be completely different. And then I multiply that by how many years it has been like that for you, and how it has changed over and over and over again. And how weird that must feel to have all those layers.
Yolanda: I think sometimes of the creeks, the creeks that run down High Street, the Hills, and they’re all covered now. I remember when I was a little girl, there would be some culverts that ran parallel to High Street and I would ride my bike through them. They were big culverts, big stone tubes. So where does the water go? We’ve hidden the water but it’s still there.
When your dad was growing up, one of our big treats was to go up to Leona Heights and go up the creek. We’d go with bags to carry out garbage and clean it up. We had our dogs and we would walk up there. I remember walking. The layers of experience and people and energies that live and are stimulated when we come into them because of our relationship to them, I think is the same with the water, that there’s water that’s trying to continue its natural path.
Luz Blumenfeld (they/them) is third generation from Oakland and the only grandchild of Yolanda Ronquillo. They are a gay, transdisciplinary artist currently living and working in Portland, OR. Luz is in their first year of the Art & Social Practice MFA at PSU.
Dr. Yolanda Ronquillo (she/her) was born in 1942 by caesarian section to Mexican immigrant parents at Herrick Memorial Hospital in Berkeley, CA. She was raised in East Oakland in a working class neighborhood, where her family and the King family down the street were the only POC. As the first born, she learned the importance of “bridging” the world of her home and that of the world outside. She internalized racial bias against Mexicans, and now sees that unlearning this negative self-image has been a great teacher.
By the age of 22, Yolanda had two sons. Raising her sons offered an impetus to right the wrongs of injustice by working in community agencies. After her sons were grown, she went on to higher education and got her PhD in Transformative Learning and Change at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, CA.
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