Neighbors: Oral History from Madera, California – Volume 3
Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras 1975–77)
Reviewed by Stephen Foehr (Ethiopia 1965–66)
Madera, in California’s San Joaquin Valley, does not seem exceptional at first glance. The city (pop. 65,860) twenty-five miles north of Fresno straddles Rt. 99 on the flat plains of the Central Valley. There are no natural wonders or exceptional architecture. The population is a mix of Anglo-American, African, Native American, Asian, with Hispanic (78.4%) being the largest group.
The median household income is $16,00 below the national average.
But peel back the ordinary, and you find “bravery, loyalty, patience, persistence, what boxers call heart – the sheer will to get back up,” writes Lawrence Lihosit in his three-volume Madera trilogy.
Lihosit, former Peace Corps volunteer (Honduras 1975-77) and travel writer, has lived in Madera since 1995. For the trilogy he conducted oral interviews with neighbors, which have been compared to Studs Terkel’s interviews with “ordinary” working people. The trilogy is a memoir of Madera from the late 1900s to present day told by the people who created the memories.
Madera (Spanish for “wood”) was platted by the California Lumber Company in 1876. Timber from the Sierra Nevada mountains (an hour drive west) floated down a 63-mile-water flume to the mills, where it was processed into lumber and shipped to markets. When the timber industry faded, agriculture, processing food, diary, and almonds — the chief crop, became the economic mainstays. Vineyards and wineries have expanded the economic base.
In the first two volumes, Lihosit concentrated on jobs and how people survived, many by the pull of their bootstraps. In the third volume, he highlights the web of citizen-caring through volunteer associations, a tradition that began in 1892, before the town was incorporated. “While jobs might be the community heartbeat, volunteer activities are our collective soul,” Lihosit writes. “Regardless of color, flavor or size, people yearn to be useful and many feel a duty to share with their community. What and how they choose is driven by passion.”
In the interviews for Volume 3, the people are direct and plain spoken in details that give grounded pictures of the town where the boundaries of urban the rural blurred, where a person in need is an opportunity for others to be neighborly with a helping hand.
Betty Scalise, resident since 1977, remembered “when cattle grazed in the neighborhood and I saw cowboys on horseback . . .. When you walked along the canal, you’d see pheasants, egrets, blue herons, meadowlarks, doves, killdeer, fox and coyotes. Our Saint Joacihm’s Sunday Choir decided to hand out sandwiches to the hungry at Courthouse Square . . .. By the time I retired, the sandwich give-away had already grown into several hundred per day, operating several days a week.”
Ginger Latimer, forty-five years in town, brought Hollywood glamour and theater to Madera. Her grandparents were successful Hollywood actors, who bought a ranch outside of town, which her father and mother operated. She attended The American Academy of Dramatic Arts, then located in Pasadena. “I did a little theater and a few television commercials, not enough to make a living.” She earned a teaching degree and had a career as theater arts director for Madera Unified School District, where she produced over 100 plays. “We were never beaten by more affluent school districts in competition . . .. There are overnight competitions. Many of our kids had never stayed in a hotel before or ever sat in a real restaurant with silverware and cloth napkins. Many of kids have never been out of the Central Valley, never seen the ocean.”
Margarita Lihosit, born in Mexico City into a family of healers, became a dentist, taught at Monroe Elementary School for twenty-five years, and raised two sons in Madera. She learned the Johrei method of healing from Bruno Luconi, after he helped a young girl with a fractured skull make a complete recovery.
Luconi is a member of the Mokichi Okada Association, a worldwide organization that helps people with healing and healthy food. He manages an organic farm at Madera and converted a farm house into an Okada center that offers classes in the art of flower arrangement, Japanese tea ceremony, and healing. That little gem is an unexcepted find in the Central Valley.
Rosemary Rodefer started playing softball in sixth grade, and loved the game as some young girls love horses. A Madera resident since 1965, she coached and managed the Madera Bobby Sox girl softball team. Her teams competed in tournaments in Los Angeles and Hawaii. “. . . you had to pay the national organization,” she said in her interview. “It was a lot of money; Madera is a small town and not an affluent town by any mean . . .. We had chocolate bar sales and asked for sponsors.” The Madera girls team went to the Nationals in 1979. She took the Bobby Sox Prep team to an invitational tournament in Hawaii. “We raised money with homemade tamales, enchiladas and yard sales. Ninety-nine percent of our girls were Hispanic.” Four Hispanic moms and one Hispanic grandmother came to her house to prepare the food. To this day, women from her teams thank her.
“And you are?” she’d ask.
“I was on your team!”
“They don’t forget,” Redefer said.
Lihosit’s trilogy reminds that a small-town heart can bind a community together.
Stephen Foehr (Ethiopia 1965–66) is the author of numerous nonfiction and fiction books (StephenFoehr. com). His latest novel, BIX (Because I eXist), will be released Spring 2022