Tell Me Who Your Friends Are and I’ll Tell You Who You Are
An Interview with Joe DiGregorio and Florencio Aragon
Part 1 of 2
By Bob Rosebrough
Childhood friends Joe DiGregorio and Florencio Aragon met in first grade at Washington Elementary School on the north side and then took very different paths in adulthood. Joe stayed in Gallup and managed the family business and Florencio ended up as a weapons engineer at Sandia Laboratories in Albuquerque where he still works part-time as a consultant.
Florencio: “I didn’t know why they were calling me Yazzie.” When Florencio left Gallup he carried a nickname with him that he didn’t understand until decades later. He says, “When I was growing up, everyone called me Sonny. My relatives and some of the kids I grew up with still call me Sonny. When I was in the seventh grade the Navajos were bringing their kids from the Manuelito Hall dormitories to the Gallup Public Schools and they started calling me ‘Yazzie.’ I didn’t know why they were calling me Yazzie, but before long, everyone was calling me that.”
He continues, “And that stuck. They still call me that. It got shortened to ‘Yaz’ when I went to work at Sandia Laboratories.”
“When I would give talks on the East Coast for the labs I would start by saying, ‘For those of you who know me, my name is Florencio.’ Many of my colleagues only knew me as Yaz. Then I would say, ‘For those of you who don’t know me it’s pronounced Yaz. Y-A-Z.’ And people would come to me and say, ‘How do you get Yaz from Florencio?’ And I would laugh and say, ‘It’s phonetic pronunciation.’ Before long, everybody would remember me because of that. They didn’t remember anyone else, but they remembered me.”
“And for years, I never knew why they were calling me Yazzie until maybe ten years ago. I was at Pete Leyba’s place here and he introduced me to one of his silversmiths who asked me ‘You are not a real Yazzie are you?’ I said, ‘No. That’s just a nickname that I’ve had for years and years and years.’”
“We sat there and were talking and all of a sudden he (the Navajo silversmith) said, ‘Sonny.’ I responded, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘No. No. No.’ He said, ‘What I mean is they were calling you Sonny.’”
“I found out Yazzie means Sonny in Navajo – or some derivative thereof. And I never knew this,” he says incredulously. “And all the Navajo friends that I knew, Ray Christensen, Richard Emerson and Tommy Arviso and all those guys that I grew up with never told me that.” Joe and Florencio break into a laugh.
Pete Leyba came along and they started calling them Sluggers. Florencio says, “The period of time that we grew up was just fantastically beautiful.”
Joe adds, “On the north side we were very cliquish and clannish, but we were proud of our little neighborhood. If you were from Washington, you were proud to be from Washington. We played ball against the guys from Sky City and from Sunnyside and from the south side. We didn’t like the south-siders. He (motioning toward Florencio who eventually moved to Chihuahuita) had family on both sides. We had nicknames for everyone. I was ‘Joe Boy.’ To this day when I run into people who grew up in the Washington Elementary School neighborhood they still call me Joe Boy. When I call my friends Jim and Beverly Conner, they say, ‘Joe Boy is on the phone.’”
Florencio lists the neighborhoods of that time, Washington, Sky City, Sunnyside, El Rancho area, First Ward area (where Roosevelt Elementary is now), and Chihuahuita or Central School. He says, “We used to form sandlot teams. We didn’t have parents involved. We threw a bat, we picked sides and we went for it. Everybody played. You know, we made our own rules. We put a rock here, a rock there and then we played and it didn’t matter.”
“Later on, around 1946, the recreation league started a Dipsy Doodle league and man, let me tell you what, that was a real good program. You had the Sky City Cardinals, the Princeton Bulldogs, the Sunnyside Sluggers . . . “
“They called them the Prairie Dogs,” Joe interjects.
“Prairie Dogs, before. Then Pete Leyba came and they started calling them Sluggers,” Florencio replies and they both laugh.
“Those two bars were kind of like Cheers.” Joe starts talking about his memories of growing up on Gallup’s north side, “Even though my dad had the store, we had a bakery we used to go to. It was called Cornejo’s Bakery – that’s LeAnn Mora’s grandparents. And they made Italian bread with a hard crust. We would go there and we would go to Plese’s Market for things even though we had a grocery store.”
Joe’s father Basilio came to Gallup to work in the coal mines, but in 1938 Joe says, “He bought the little store where Jerry’s Café is now. That was his first store. He spoke very little English and he went to California to get the wine grapes and salami and cheeses. So he called it The California Market. And then in 1950 he opened his first supermarket on the corner of Fourth and Coal.”
Speaking again about growing up on the north side, Joe says, “The other thing that was important to us was our church over there. We were all tied into St. Francis Church. It was a big thing for us. We used to have carnivals.
“And another thing that really brought the community together was that we had two great bars on the north side, Kauzlaric’s Bar and Petranovich Bar. They were neighborhood bars. They were taverns. When we were kids we would go in there and they had a great big jar. God, it was this high. They had pickled pig’s feet and pickled eggs. We couldn’t drink but your dad or someone else would take you and buy you a pickled egg or pickled pig foot. God, they were good.” Joe and Florencio laugh.
Joe says, “Those two bars, Kauzlaric’s and Petranovich, they were kind of like Cheers.”
“Grandpa was in a movie.” Joe says, “They made a couple of movies while we were growing up and I remember one was called Ace in the Hole. All those actors would come over to the north side and they’d go into the bar and drink.”
Florencio searches his memory trying to remember the names of the actors. He says, “Well the best known of them has been on TV lately. Kirk Douglas. Yeah, Kirk Douglas.”
Joe resumes, “They were asking for people to participate in the cast so my grandmother took me and my cousin Lily. I really wasn’t aware of what was going on. I knew there was a carnival going on and that was good enough for me. Everyone was put on the train and taken to Lupton and back. We were told, ‘When the train stops, we want you to jump off the train and run across the highway to the carnival.’ I say this to my grandkids now, ‘Grandpa was in a movie.’ I have the movie at home. I play the movie and say, ‘I think that’s me in the white shirt there.’” Joe and Florencio just laugh.
Florencio: “I never saw the money. I guess my older cousins got it.” Joe and Florencio grew up during the World War II years. Florencio says, “Troop trains loaded with soldiers came through town and would stop at the railroad station.”
“And sailors,” adds Joe.
“Often the soldiers were not allowed to leave the trains. They would give us money and ask us to buy things. We would buy the candies or whatever they wanted. Then we would take them back and they would tip us,” says Florencio.
“I hadn’t started school yet, so I must have been four or five years old. I used to go there with my cousins. Since I was the youngest one of them the soldiers always tipped me more. My cousins would lift me up and I would give the soldiers their goods. I never saw the money, but my older cousins . . . I guess they got it.” Thinking back Florencio says, “If the soldiers ever had long stays here in Gallup, they would march along the streets and we would just chase them and follow them as they were marching.”
COMING IN DECEMBER: WHIP WILSON AND LASH LARUE LIVE AT THE NAVAJO THEATRE, BASILIO TSAYBETSAYE, BLOWING UP THE BRICK PLANT, MAYOR PENA ISSUES PARDONS & “YOU STEP ASIDE. THIS IS OUR FIGHT.”