Jesse Gonzales has lived more than 50 of his 65 years in Southwest Detroit. The community that nurtured him into adulthood is also where he raised his own children, who today include a property investor and a police sergeant. A Ford Motor Company retiree, Gonzales spends much of his time serving as a community liaison with the Detroit Police Department’s Fourth Precinct and working part-time for Commissioner Ilona Varga. Here he reflects on his community and its significance to the city that became his home.
Arrival in Southwest
I got here in 1964 when my dad got out of the service. We lived in a little town outside San Antonio and my uncle came up here, following his girlfriend. He told my mom, “Hey, there are a lot of good jobs here.” The first place I lived was Del Ray. To me it was a big city. The only time we saw a big city or a medium-sized city was when the bus took us to school and then it took us back to our little ranch town. We only had two stores. San Antonio was big, but it was 20 miles away. When we first came up here there were dime stores, party stores, two bars on every corner, banks and hardware stores.
Life in Southwest Detroit
Our house was on Verdino. It was a very narrow street and it was in a mixed neighborhood – Hungarians, Mexicans, Spaniards, and down the street were people from Kentucky.
After that we moved to a street called Thaddeus. There was a bakery there and I became friends with the bakery owner. The lady always liked me and talked to me. She always gave me a donut before I’d go to school at Morley. People would ask me, “How come you don’t have to pay for your donut?” I started saying the lady was my aunt.
The first school I went to was Morley. The students were all mixed – Mexicans, blacks and white. I never knew (racial) hatred, being in Southwest.
They tore down the school when they made room for the sewer company. Then the first Mexican store, La Frontera, opened around 1965 or 1967. I was about 15. I got a job there and learned how to make sausage. It was on West Jefferson and Dearborn. We sold all kinds of meats, and the best thing we sold was chorizo. I worked at La Frontera until I was 18 years old, then I put in my application for Ford.
A place of faith
The first church I was real involved with was St. Gabriel. The priest used to come to our house every other Sunday. I don’t know if he visited everybody, but he sure visited us a lot. Sometimes he’d have something to eat or some pop. He used to talk to us all the time. He was a good man.
Back then it was 50 percent white and 50 percent black. Now it’s about 90 percent Hispanic.
Vernor was dying. All the stores were closing in the early ‘70s. You could go rent a storefront. I remember one of my old bosses went and rented one and they were only charging him $50 a month or something close to that. I would go help him after work or when I got laid off.
Then in the ‘80s I started seeing more Mexican people come in. They started buying more property. Now we’ve got a whole bunch of big stores like E&L and Honeybee, which was one of the first Mexican stores on this side of Fort Street. They were the main stores back then.
I moved to Cahalan near Vernor in 1998. I love my place. I go to the bakery. I go to restaurants. I walk to the Dairy Queen. If I want to go to the drug store, it’s only three blocks away.
I think the opportunities are still around. One of my friends just opened a restaurant, El Salpicon, on Lawndale Street and Vernor. It’s a fish and shrimp place.
If I’m walking by and people are having a barbecue, they say, “Come in, have something to eat.” It’s a friendly place. If you’re a stranger here, I’ll tell you, you’d be amazed.
I’m looking out my window right now at two Mexican kids, a black kid and a white kid playing together, like it’s nothing. Down here it doesn’t matter who you are.