Felix G. Diaz, a Victorville civic leader and educator going back six decades, has died.
Diaz passed into eternity in the city in which he lived virtually his entire life save his infancy, time in the military and two years in college.
A tuberculosis and polio survivor who made a rare full recovery, he led an existence that was, he insisted, in equal measure physical, intellectual, political and spiritual.
Born in Hesperia in 1934, he was the youngest of four brothers born to Porfirio and Carmen Diaz, undocumented immigrants from Mexico. His family moved to Victorville in 1935, where his father worked in the Southwest Portland Cement Company factory, and the family lived on the north side of Union Pacific Railroad tracks from Old Downtown Victorville in the E Street Barrio. He wore hand-me-down pants from his older brothers and his mother fashioned for him shirts made out of cement bags. He attended segregated classes at Eva Dell Elementary School.
In 1941, when he was seven years old, Diaz observed that one of his father’s coworkers at the cement plant, a man he remembered only as Mr. Riles, smoked cigarettes as he walked to work. The second grader made a habit of collecting as many of Riles’ cigarette butts as he could find each day, re-rolling the tobacco they contained in paper, and smoking the makeshift cigarettes. Unknown at the time, Riles, from working in the cement plant that was rife with limestone dust, had contracted tuberculosis. From smoking the remnants of Riles’ cigarettes, young Felix contracted tuberculosis.
He was placed in a TB ward that was segregated, one reserved for blacks and Hispanics, but at the same tuberculosis asylum where Riles, who ultimately succumbed, was being treated. Diaz assumed, like virtually all of the patients he was with, he would die. The final stage of the disease, he recalled, consisted of blood spraying from the mouths of the tubercular victims. The nurses, he said, would announce that a patient was “hemorrhaging,” and place a screen around the moribund invalid’s bed, at which point death invariably descended to make its claim.
While he was ensconced in the asylum, the seven-year-old was brought his schoolwork, and he made a desultory effort to keep up with his classmates, not sure why he was bothering, since he was convinced he was going to die.
Inexplicably and fortuitously, he recovered, and a year later, in 1942, Diaz was back at Eva Dell elementary school, a third grader, in Miss Appleberry’s class. Diaz did not remember Miss Appleberry’s first name, but he said his impression was she was new to the teaching profession, and had been assigned to a classroom of third and fourth grade students. Despite her having been put into a teaching environment where most of her students, with the exception of a few African-Americans, were Hispanic, she did not speak Spanish. Functioning in that environment, over the course of her first several months in that classroom, Appleberry grew more and more frustrated.
According to Diaz, Appleberry was accustomed to referring to the classroom collective as “you Mexicans,” with an occasional “you stupid Mexicans.” Her outbursts would include “What’s wrong with you Mexicans?” and “I’m sick and tired of you Mexicans” and “You lazy Mexicans won’t even try” or “What is the problem with you people?”
Appleberry armed herself with a paddle, which she at first utilized to redress behavioral problems. The students, for the most part, Diaz said, accepted the employment of the paddle against them when Appleberry’s stated purpose was for disciplinary issues, although, he said, her conception of what constituted misbehavior was somewhat questionable. It was when Appleberry ratcheted things up to employing the paddle as an educational tool that Diaz drew the line, he recollected.
To improve her students spelling performance, Appleberry hit upon a strategy of dissuading her pupils from misspellings through negative reinforcement in the form of one swat for every incorrectly spelled word on spelling tests. After the tests were graded, Appleberry called the students from their desks, taking each into the hallway, where she would administer a single whack of the paddle per orthographic error. After several of his classmates were provided with such lessons, it was Diaz’s turn for a private tutoring session in the hallway. He refused to budge from his desk, however, even when the larger and older Appleberry attempted to make him do so forcefully, inflicting some visually apparent scratches on his arm with her fingernails in doing so. She was unable to get him to take his educational medicine, though the eight-year-old did consent to going with her to the office of the principal, identified by Diaz as a Mr. Mullen, where Miss Appleberry made a case that her student was being intransigent and Felix protested the use of corporal punishment as an instructional methodology. In a 1942 version of the timeout, Diaz, for his transgression, was obliged to be removed from Miss Appleberry’s classroom for the remainder of the day, and instead relegated to a desk in the corner of the school’s sixth grade classroom, where Mr. Mullen was the teacher.
Upon going home, Diaz found himself in the position of having to explain to his parents how it had come about that he had a multitude of bloody scratches on his arm. He explained what had happened to his skeptical father, who sought to verify that version of events with one of Felix’s classmates, identified by Diaz as a kid named Leo.
Porfirio Diaz, unsure of whether his son was telling the truth or perhaps seeking to mislead him about what had actually occurred or minimize his misbehavior, resolved to accompany his youngest son to the school to actually determine what had occurred. Mr. Diaz, like his son, did not think it appropriate that Felix should be physically disciplined by his teacher for academic shortcomings.
Nevertheless, Porfirio was taking a risk, indeed a serious one. He was, after all, in the country illegally. So was his wife. Confronting Mr. Mullen, an authority with the school, could result in scrutiny he did not want, such as the sheriff’s office and ultimately customs officials, which conceivably might lead to deportation. Porfirio marched down to Eva Dell Elementary School. When he arrived, he found that more than a dozen other parents of students in Miss Appleberry’s class had beaten him there, none of whom spoke English. Porfirio translated for Mullen what the other outraged parents were saying, and he added an expression of his disapproval of the way in which Appleberry had treated his son and her students in general.
Mullen relieved Appleberry of her position as an instructor, and when Felix next showed up for school, she was gone, never to return. Diaz said he shed no tears over her departure.
What occurred was for Diaz a crucial life lesson. Despite the disadvantage he was at, a kid at odds with an adult, a student going up against the authority of a teacher in a society or community where Hispanics had to play on a tilted playing field with their goal line at a level above their heads while behind and below them the privileged white population’s goal line was situated, he learned that you could still stand up, or as was literally his case sit down, for yourself and fight the injustice you perceived, and it was possible to win, even with the odds against you.
While yet in his childhood, Diaz was afflicted with polio. He weathered that storm, however, and it did not impact the use of his legs or limbs, though it seemed to have stunted his growth, and manifested later in life, he believed, by compromising his immune system, leaving him vulnerable to colds and other routine maladies. At five foot six inches, he was somewhat smaller than his brothers. Nevertheless, he was athletic, and at Victorville High School, he was a running back on the football team, and he lettered in basketball and excelled at track. He graduated from Victorville High School in 1953.
He attended Antelope Valley College in Lancaster, driving out treacherous and undulating Palmdale Road regularly from Victorville to attend classes. In 1957, he was drafted into the Army, something he was not enthusiastic about at the time, but which he later described as an important formative experience in his life. He served two years at various bases around the country.
He was discharged in 1959.
Diaz graduated with an associate’s degree from Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria in 1961.
He immediately went to work as a teacher with the Adelanto Elementary School District in the fall of 1961, using an emergency teaching credential. He remained a student himself, attending night courses at California State University Los Angeles, earning a bachelor of arts degree in 1967. Subsequently, he received a masters degree from Chapman College in Orange in 1971.
In total, he taught for 46 years, 23 of those in the Victor Union School District, the Victor Union School District and the Adelanto Elementary School District from kindergarten to grade school, junior high including an extended period at Victor Valley Junior High School and high school, as well as another 23 years teaching at Victor Valley College.
He was a football and track coach at Victor Valley High School for eight years and a basketball coach at Victor Valley College for eight years.
As important as the subject matter he taught, Diaz said, were some basic approaches to life he sought to instill in his students. “I would tell them, ‘Shut up and keep your eyes and ears open, and you will probably learn something.’ I told them to be proud of who they were, and that they should respect themselves and others,” he said.
He was an appointee to the San Bernardino County Fair Board and a member of the Victor Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
As an Army veteran, he was a volunteer with the California Cadet Corps, a youth organization aimed at providing elementary school through college age students with a glimpse of and options relating to military service. Diaz was the founder of the Old Town Victorville Veterans Memorial, located at the corner of Seventh Street and Forrest Avenue, which since 1996 has celebrated the military service of local servicemen. He was active in the American G.I. Forum, a veterans organization.
Diaz was a prime mover with the Lord’s Table, a program that provided food to impoverished families, senior citizens and shut-ins.
From 1981 until 1985 he was on the Victor Valley Union High School District Board of Trustees. In 1992 he was elected to the Victorville City Council. He served a single four-year term in that capacity.
Diaz was raised as a Catholic, attending St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Victorville. As a child, when he was afflicted with polio, Diaz said he feared he would be rendered crippled. He prayed, telling God he would not take his physical faculties for granted and he would remain virtuous if the use of his legs could somehow be preserved. When he came through his bout with polio in the same way he had shaken off tuberculosis, Diaz lived up to his commitment to be as physically active as possible, and he participated in sports as much as he could, in junior high, at the high school level as a Victor Valley High Jackrabbit and as an Antelope Valley College Marauder. For a time during his adulthood, Diaz freely acknowledged, he lost his faith and had become an apostate Catholic. “I fell away,” he said, “but in time, I found myself inspired by the Virgin of Guadalupe, who reunited me with my lord, Jesus Christ. I will never lose faith again.” He was active in the church through the Diocese of San Bernardino, and successfully importuned the diocese to initiate a mass celebrated in Spanish at St. Joan of Arc on Sundays.
A raconteur of the first order, he was prevailed upon to reproduce in writing the stories he was constantly telling, whereupon he buckled down, setting pen to paper to produce the book Footprints from the Barrio, his account of life in Victorville in the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s, told from the perspective of a kid and very young man running the streets of the E Street Barrio.
Diaz proudly proclaimed himself an “outspoken Democrat,” stating that if he had ever voted for a Republican it was “out of ignorance or by mistake.”
In 2015, he put on the first annual Felix G. Diaz Mariachi Music Festival, held at the San Bernardino County Fairgrounds & High Desert Event Center, dedicated, he said, to what he called “Mexican soul” music.
Victor Valley College Board Member Joe Brady said of Diaz, “He was a true leader of our community, who fought for everything he believed in. He never backed down.”
Diaz left this life on October 15. He was 87.
His passing represents a loss to members of the community interested in the history of Victorville, in particular newspaper reporters, who will no longer be able to rely upon his encyclopedic recall of events, personages, locations, relationships and the lay of the land in Victorville from the late 1930s, 1940s, most of the 1950s, the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and the first two decades of the Third Millennium. Gone from this firmament is his irrepressible spirit.
Diaz is survived by his wife, Margaret, the founder and retired executive director of A Better Way Domestic Violence Shelter & Outreach program, and his children Angie Hamm, Michael Diaz, Tony Diaz, Monique Diaz, 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Diaz is to be interred at Victor Valley Memorial Park, from which there is a view of the old E Street Barrio.
Felix G. Diaz, a Victorville civic leader and educator going back six decades, has died.