Side Trail Story
Jose Aguinaldo Yazzi
Steve Levi

Side Trail Story

Sometimes a gift of God is also one of the devil. Everyone prays to be the beneficiary of the upside of synchronicity, to be in the right place at the right time. If only you could save someone from certain death and discover that the man was J. P. Morgan! Or find a poke of gold nuggets next to the skeleton of a 49er. Better yet, why not a canvas bag of cash that just happened to fall out of a bank delivery van?

But there is a downside to synchronicity and it is epitomized by the old expression that “when it rains it pours.” When things start to go wrong they go downhill fast. You get trampled by a runaway horse. After two days in the hospital you find you’ve been replaced at work. You can’t pay your rent so you are out on the street and the only people who can find you are bill collectors. Then you discover you have smallpox.

For most people, synchronicity is a gift, or curse, of the moment. Opportunity only knocks once and bad times linger, but as stated in Matthew 24:68, all things will pass. These moments, so to speak, are all part of life and you must live through the bad times and rejoice in the good. This advice is all well and good if you live on the upside of society. That is, if you are good Christian you struggle with the bad times and, if possible, make something of a bad situation. It may not be possible to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear but cow manure will make the vegetables grow fuller.

If there was a master at using the downside of life for a profit it was the patriarch of the Yazzi clan, Jose Aguinaldo Yazzi. He was named Jose after his maternal grandfather, a Mexican from Guadalajara who had come north to work in the sugar beet fields of Oxnard before the turn of the century. His paternal grandfather was Yuki Yazzi, one of the hordes of Japanese farm workers who came to California because poverty in the Land of Opportunity was preferable to the binding poverty of the Orient. The Chinese Exclusion Act had cut off the importation of Chinese labor and just as one door closes another opens; the California growers substituted with Japanese and Philippine labor. The Yazzi family was in the first wave of Japanese immigrants and the Aguinaldos with the first wave of Philippine laborers fleeing their Spanish landlords. California being the melting pot it was, Japanese married Mexican married Filipino and a whole new race of mankind was birthed. Jose’s father, Yuki Yazzi, did well in the sense that he could feed his family. But that was all he able to do. At the end of his life his children were healthy but still living in shacks along the San Joaquin River in the off season and wherever there was work from Spring to Fall.

Jose’s middle name, Aguinaldo was in honor of Emilio Aguinaldo, the first President of the Philippines who had fought, in sequence, the Spanish during the Spanish-American War and then the Americans in the War of Philippine Independence. By the time there was Philippine Independence in 1902, Jose’s mother, Maria, had emigrated to California. She, like her husband, came to work in the beet fields of Oxnard. She arrived just in time to for two memorable occurrences: the birth of her first son and the Oxnard Strike of 1903.

The origins of the Oxnard Strike were as American as apple pie. In the closing years of the century the Dingley Tariff Bill imposed a heavy tax on incoming sugar. Ever the entrepreneurs, the Oxnard family of Brooklyn, large importers of sugar, decided that they could make more money by developing a domestic source of sugar. So they formed the American Beet Sugar Company and relocated their operation, quite literally, to the middle of nowhere. They named their new town-plant-fields-operation, modestly, Oxnard. They arrived at a propitious time. California was replete with seasonal workers, mostly Chinese and Mexican. But the Chinese workers were in decline because of the Chinese Exclusion Act. The American Beet Sugar Company solved the problem by replacing one Oriental with another; they imported Japanese worker.

The big mistake the American Beet Sugar Company made was the same as most other large companies of that era and, to a certain extent, any era. The mistake was assuming that workers, union or seasonal, Occidental or Oriental, Irish or Italian, Negro or white, were stupid. God, in his infinite wisdom – or, as Harriett Doucette would have said, God in her infinite wisdom – distributed intelligence and common sense individually with no rhyme or reason. He, or She, did not distribute wealth in the same fashion and, as the old saying goes, if you want to know what God thinks of money look at the people he gave it to.

While the Chinese, Japanese and Mexican workers may have been beneath the heel of a warlord or hacienda owner in the old country, in California it was a free-for-all. In 1900 President William McKinley became the fourth casualty of the Zero Year Presidential Curse and Theodore Roosevelt, “that damn cowboy,” became President of the United States. America was on a reforming binge, unions were being formed across the continent, the seeds of the Mexican Revolution were finding root in fertile soil, the door to immigrants was wide open and the Gilded Age was drawing to a close. So why shouldn’t farm workers organize?

So they began to form a union.

This was unacceptable to the Oxnard family so they did exactly what management did in those days; established an organization that brought in cheaper labor, the Western Agricultural Contracting Company.

In February of 1903, 500 Japanese and 200 Mexicans and, in spite of the obvious language barrier, formed the JMLA, the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association. Then they stopped working and invited other workers to join with them. Within a month they were 1,200 strong and represented about 90% of the labor force for the beet industry.

This was labor power.

This was organizational power.

But it was 1903.

When the American Federation of Labor refused to charter the Association because it had a large Japanese membership, the JMLA ceased to exist.

Jose Aguinaldo Yazzi got the message loud and clear. Regardless of what anyone was saying in the labor circles, race meant more than money.

If you weren’t white, they didn’t want your money.

Then things got worse for the Japanese and Mexicans over the next decade.

The best way to describe Mexico from 1900 to 1920 would be Pandemonium. It was like three circuses fighting with the spectators in the same big tent, the lions free, the elephants stampeding, the bearded ladies ganging up on the strongmen and the acrobats trading fisticuffs as they sailed through the air with the greatest of ease. No one was in charge and the best that Washington D. C. could hope for was that one person would come out of the melee strong enough to hold the country together.

Just when things could not get worse, they did. In March of 1916, one of the contenders for power, Pancho Villa, invaded the United States. He didn’t invade very far, only about three miles, but the raid killed ten civilians and eight soldiers of the 13th Cavalry Regiment. Villa’s men, most of whom would be better described as boys, burned a good portion of the town of Columbus, New Mexico, took a few horses and mules and then seized some machine guns and ammunition before they returned to Mexico – less about 67 dead that the Americans could find. Rumor had it that Villa had crossed into the United States because he had been buying weapons from an American gun merchant who took Villa’s money and then stopped supplying him with weapons.

It only takes one idiot to start a war but it takes an army to end it. The United States could not turn a blind eye to the raid so President Woodrow Wilson ordered Major General John J. “Blackjack” Pershing to invade Mexico to find and punish Pancho Villa. Known as the “Pancho Villa Expedition” because America did not want to create any more chaos in the ongoing Mexican Revolution than absolutely necessary, the invasion was an absolute waste of money and manpower.

The reason was simple.

Pancho Villa was a Mexican national hero.

The Americans were gringos.

From March 14, of 1916 to February 7, of 1917, the American army chased the ghost of Pancho Villa across Northern Mexico. Everywhere the Americans went, Pancho Villa was somewhere else. So said the Mexican peasants. So the Americans went from pillar to post while Pancho Villa laughed and laughed and entertained every American journalist who wanted to ride with him. The best included John Reed. At the end of the day, American troops came home empty-handed.

Then things got worse for the Americans.

Quite a few had gone to Mexico as expatriates. Some were Mormons who wanted to continue the practice of polygamy, others were interested in good land deals. Mexico was an inexpensive place to live, a lot warmer during the winter than Philadelphia or Boston and had millions of acres of open rangeland for cattle. It also had hundreds of miles of sparkling beaches, cheap tequila, friendly people and some of the most exotic food on the planet.

It was paradise.

Until February 5, 1917, two days before Blackjack Pershing threw in the towel. That was the date that the Political Constitution of the United Mexican States was approved by the Constitutional Congress.

And on that day Americans lost their land in Mexico. There was no compensation. They were just told to leave. No kiss goodbye, no waving flags. Just an adios from the Mexican government in Mexico City. So hundreds of Americans did and not a single one of them was happy.

When it rains it pours.

Then the Japanese got involved.

America officially entered the Great War on April 6, 1917. We had been careering toward war for well over two years but it only became official on April 6. Which was a little more than 60 days after Blackjack Pershing left Mexico. And was probably the reason Blackjack left Mexico.

It was also little over 60 days after British Intelligence intercepted and decoded what became known as the Zimmerman Telegram. On January 16, 1917, the Foreign Secretary of the German Empire sent a telegram to the German Ambassador in Mexico City ordering him to approach the Mexican government to suggest a military alliance with Germany that would include Japan. Should America go to war with Mexico, Germany wanted Mexico to invade the American Southwest. Mexico was promised Texas, New Mexico and Arizona in the anticipated German victory over the United States and its allies in Europe.

Suffice it to say that the Mexicans and Japanese did not have a lot of friends in the United States. The Zimmerman Telegram did not help matters.

But by 1917 the Yazzi family was in Santa Zanni. They had learned the hard lesson in Oxnard. The writing on the wall was in both Spanish and Japanese: the land of opportunity was not in sugar beets. So they went with Plan B. There was a new railroad being constructed and maybe, just maybe, there were opportunities up the rail line – IF, and it was a big IF, you got wherever you wanted to be before the railroad got there. The family took one look at the map – and it was a family decision – and they decided on Santa Zanni for three reasons. First, it was small. Second, it was not San Francisco and, third, it was not Salinas. It was comfortably between two established cities. That made it perfect for what they planned: services that were needed but were eye-winkingly legal.

In their planning the Yazzi family was perfect. They ended up in the right place at the right time with the right service for the right people. They settled on the proverbial other side of the tracks and kept their establishment safe and clean. They had an understanding with the police force, all one of them in 1910 and up to six by 1916. They only provided what a customer wanted that was within the realm of acceptability for the town: women, gambling and liquor. The women were not white, the gambling was penny ante compared to the houses across the tracks and the blind pig served a low-quality brew. Thus they were not in competition to the higher-class brothel, gambling den and blind pig on the far side of the tracks. All establishments had their select customers, the police chief was blissful in his ignorance because the working men were getting what they wanted and the good girls were being left alone and everyone was spending money in-town. It was a wonderful world in Santa Zanni in 1916.

Jose Aguinaldo Yazzi, now the patriarch of the family with the demise of his parents, was no one’s fool. He understood exactly what he was doing and what he could do. No one had to tell him of the outer edge of what he could do. He established the family as a force on the far side of the tracks and he kept his businesses clean. He did not succumb to the siren’s song of great wealth from the San Francisco syndicates and the only connection he had with Salinas was a loose trade arrangement with the family that ran the three brothels there. As long as none of the women crossed a state line, all was well and good.

There is an old rule in the oldest profession and that is that change is good. Either the clients have to change or the girls do. In a frontier town where the men were flooding through, there was no reason to change the girls. But in a town like Santa Zanni – or, for that matter, Salinas, Oxnard or San Jose – the men had stable jobs. They wanted fresh and new. So the women, girls most of them, changed frequently.

Another rule in the brothel business was that there was a solid line between respectability and the line. What everyone did in Santa Zanni was everyone else’s business and only the deaf-dumb-blind did not know the line girls and often their specialty. Everyone attended the same church or churches depending on the year and shopped at the same stores. But that was about it. Respectable women never crossed the tracks for any reason and avoided the soiled doves when they came to the good side of the rails.

Yazzi himself never crossed the tracks. It wasn’t that he could not or dared not. It was just that he had a special relationship with the police. They did not bother his side of town and he kept trouble from crossing the tracks. Yazzi did not shop in town for any reason. He spent his money in town across the tracks but he never crossed the twin steel lines. The money went over with some member of his family and then goods were transported back across the rail lines. When Yazzi had to blow steam, he went to Salinas. There was no sense in upsetting the applecart in Santa Zanni.

There was good reason for Yazzi to stay away from downtown Santa Zanni – what downtown there was. In actuality, Santa Zanni was two cities. Two very different cities. There was the city of middle class and rich where there was law and order and the sidewalks were cement and clean. Then there was the other side of the tracks where police rarely ventured, crime was controlled with brick bats and everyone followed the unwritten rules. This is not to say that there were gangs of thugs operating on the other side of the tracks. Yes, there was a gang but it was run by Yazzi and created to keep some semblance to order. But there was no law. You did it Yazzi’s way or you didn’t cross the tracks. It was all very civilized and acceptable. Yazzi ran the other side of the tracks like a frontier town. As long as you didn’t create major problems you were free to be as uncivilized as you wanted. But if you pushed your celebrating, Yazzi would be sure to let you know in a way you would remember.

There was a reason Yazzi ran what in a larger city would be called Niggertown. It wasn’t called that in Santa Zanni because most Negroes lived out of town and those that lived on the other side of the tracks had clean homes. The people who lived on the other side of the tracks were primarily poor with a high preponderance of Mexican, Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Irish, Italian and crossbreeds of every mixture thereof. There were a large number of Filipino men because federal law after the Great War allowed Filipino men into the United States as common laborers but would not allow Filipino women in because it was feared they would become prostitutes. The Federal government was half right. The Filipino men did become laborers and those Filipino women who were in the United States did become prostitutes. But that was because that was the only job available for the women and as soon as the women – many of them girls – could hook up with a Filipino man, they were out of the business. They became wives, kept their Catholic religion, raised large families and contributed to their respective community.

Running a brothel was never easy. You were dealing with young women who did not want to be prostitutes. They were prostitutes because they had no choice. That was their lot in life. It was a miserable lot and many died young. At least young by the standards of the day. Or they died from botched abortions, drug overdoses, violence in the brothel or they simply ran away and died in some far-off train station. Suicide was common and marriages were very few and very far between. There was no way to save money because the women rarely got actual cash; room and board, so to speak, yes, but no cash.

The world of the Yazzi prostitutes was a crib, a room a foot longer and wider then a bed. Or what passed for a bed. It had no sheets, simply a blanket on a ratty mattress. There was a chamber pot on a small table at the back and some nails in the wall for hangers. The door was a bottom only and when a man came through, the girls would lift their smocks to show their breasts. Then they would say things to entice man inside – and not said with much enthusiasm. The cost of a woman was about $2, the cost of a bowl of chili at the Santa Zanni restaurant. When a man said he was getting a bowl of chili that meant he was going to get a woman at Yazzi’s. On the other side of the tracks, the women at Savannah’s were a lot more expensive. They didn’t have a price per se; they charged by the evening. No one compared the women at Savannah’s to a bowl of chili.

Every profession has its own brand of myopia, a conscious blindness to the consequences of their enterprise. Stockbrokers sell stocks they know nothing about with no thought to the consequences of their clients who could go broke buying those stocks. Legislators pass laws to help businesses with no thought to the impact on labor unions. Blind pigs sell liquor they know to be dangerous and patent oil salesmen sell medications they know have no value. Jose Aguinaldo Yazzi only cared about his girls until they reached about 20; then they were on their own. He was immune to their suffering while they were in his cribs and cared not what happened to them after he gave them a one-way ticket to San Francisco. He was providing a service. If he didn’t provide that service, someone else would. Then someone else would be getting rich, not Jose Aguinaldo Yazzi.

Yazzi’s brothel was his life. It was his income. It was his future. And just like every other businessman, he fought to protect his investment. Santa Zanni was not large enough to have another brothel so he had no worries about competition. He was also careful not to dabble in the black market. He knew he was in the gray market and clearly understood that if he included opium, murder for hire or started a protection rack he would invoke the wrath – and scrutiny – of out-of-town law enforcement. There was no reason for Yazzi to stray; he was making enough money that he did not have to expand his operation.

But from time to time he had to draw close to the line and it was on these occasions that his understanding with Police Chief Foley was critical. Police Chief Foley let what happened on the other side of the tracks fall within the purview of Yazzi and asked no questions. That was because Foley did not want to hear the answers. A good example of why this understanding was critical to the welfare of Santa Zanni was how Yazzi and Foley dealt with the Hobart family.

Billybob Hobart and his litter of sons were the curse of the county. Escapees rather than refugees of the Deep South, the Hobarts carried with them the prejudices of their former home and did not let the fresh air of the Far West intrude upon their parochial view. Blacks were niggers, moonshine was income and fighting on Saturday night was sacred. While this may have been all well and good for whites in Georgia, it was not so in Santa Zanni. Blacks had jobs that paid more than Hobarts could ever dream of making, no one wanted rotgut moonshine and neither Foley nor Yazzi wanted any fighting on either side of the tracks on any night of the week. It took Billybob a long time to get the message, as the saying goes. After being booted across the tracks by Foley, Billybob became Yazzi’s problem. That was fine with Foley. Yazzi took it in stride. He told Billybob that as long as he had money, he was welcome at the brothel. If he wanted to fight, he was to take it to Salinas.

Billybob didn’t take that well. He told Yazzi that no slant-eyed, Chink flippo was going to tell a white man what he had to do. Yazzi could have cared less what Billybob said because Yazzi was making money and Billybob was spending it. But he did care when Billybob’s boys beat a young Chinese girl badly. Yazzi returned the favor and took what he figured was doctor’s costs from the Hobarts he could find in town at the time. Billybob was not in town at the time but when he found out what had happened he swore vengeance.

“I’m comin’ to town,” he passed the word. “I’m coming with my family and we’re going to teach that gook not to mess with a white man.”

Everyone on both sides of the track knew Billybob with kith and kin was coming to town. Everyone knew there was going to be trouble. So everyone did exactly what small town folk did upon such occasion. The wealthier you were, the further out of town you went for that weekend. Rodney Snodgrass and Police Chief Foley were in San Francisco. The Santa Zanni and San Francisco Railroad management men went to Salinas, Reverend Lamb was ministering in Sacramento, Terry Hennessy was at a Central California Chamber of Commerce retreat in Georgetown and Barnstorming Billy Macalister along with Vernon Tillmon and his family were in Santa Cruz. When the sun went down, the streets were dead and everyone wondered just what was going to happen when Billybob and as many as 20 of his family came to town looking for Yazzi.

What happened that night became part of the lore of Santa Zanni but never made the Santa Zanni Gazette because the editor, Bartholomew “Horace Greeley” Russel, was at a newspaper conference in Denver. Legitimately. Had he been in Santa Zanni that night he would have covered the confrontation because he was of the old school of editing, the John Reed and Ambrose Bierce School, where you went into the thickest action. Why send a reporter for the best story of decade?

But Russel was out of town. Legitimately.

Billybob Hobart’s greatest flaw was that he saw the world as immutable. He had no concept of time and space. Time did not advance and geography was just an extension of someplace else. He had come from the Deep South and he simply anticipated that Santa Zanni was the Deep South implanted in the Far West. In the rural Deep South from which he had come being white meant something. It meant that you were on the top of the social order and when you told a nigger to leave town, he did. With his family.

But Santa Zanni was not the rural Deep South.

There might have been a Niggertown in the mind of Billybob Hobart and his family but no one else thought of it that way. It was just the other side of the tracks. The people on the other side of the tracks were the Mexicans, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Irish, German, Italian and, yes, some coloreds who had come from someplace else precisely because from where they had come was peopled with people like Billybob Hobart. They understood exactly what was going on. They didn’t need to be told what was about to happen. Many of them came from small towns each of which had a bully. Just as every village has an idiot, it has a bully as well. The idiot you deal with because they are God’s children; the bully takes community action.

Billybob undoubtedly believed that he and his family were going to ride into Santa Zanni like the Ku Klux Klan in THE BIRTH OF A NATION. There is no doubt that he fervently believed that no Chink, Nigger, Mex, Guinea, Jap, Flip was going to stop him in his rampage. He was going to go to town, so to speak, and show everyone what’s what. After all, who was going to stop him? Yazzi? Not a chance.

What he did not expect was to find an army waiting for him. It was not a mob; it was an army. But it was not an army that needed a general or lieutenants or sergeants. It was orderly and gathered spontaneously. Billybob and his 20 family members were loaded in three wagons and as they approached the tracks. They saw no one. This undoubtedly energized them. They were white and doing what whites have the right to do. But a block on the other side of the tracks they learned that geography does matter.

They were not in Georgia anymore.

They were in the Far West and the rules in the Far West were very different than in Georgia. An army of black, brown, yellow and white men closed in on the Hobarts and plucked individuals out of the wagons like low-hanging fruit on peach trees. Then, individually, they were beaten with pick handles and brick bats. After a certain amount of pummeling, the now black-and-blue white men were tossed back into the wagons. Billybob was stripped naked, lathered in molasses and rolled in chicken feathers. Then he too was tossed into one of the wagons. Thereafter the wagons were escorted to the edge of Santa Zanni – on the other side of the tracks – and Billybob was told that he and his family were never to return to Santa Zanni – on either side of the tracks. It would take a decade before Billybob Hobart came through town again; that time he was in chains on his way to San Quentin after a trial in Salinas.

Police Chief Gerald Foley was, of course, surprised to learn what had transpired while he was gone. Why, he told anyone who asked, if he had known that there was trouble brewing he would have stayed in town. Done his duty.

Billybob Hobart probably never knew how lucky he was that Foley had been out of town. Several years earlier there had been a bully on the good side of the tracks. Foley never actually caught up with him. While he was alive anyway. One day he just died. He was on his way into the blind pig on the good side of the tracks where he liked to fight when someone shot him.

No one knew who shot him.

But whoever it was had not been much of a marksman. He had been hit with slugs and buckshot from five or six different kinds of guns. There were usually about a dozen men in the blind pig at that time on a Saturday night. But, oddly, that night at that time everyone who was usually in the blind pig was in the outhouse.

All of them.

Including the bartender.

Clearly the bully was shot by person or persons unknown on the steps of an empty blind pig.

No witnesses meant no case.

No case meant no trial.

The City of Santa Zanni buried the man in a pauper’s grave and the Santa Zanni Gazette attributed his demise to a transient, probably from San Francisco, and readers were advised to be wary of strangers armed with “shotguns, rifles and revolvers of varying calibers.”