Times Past

Longtime SLO County humanitarian had legacy of empowering others

Dedication of the Santos Arrona Jr. Head Start Center in Atascadero in 2016.
Dedication of the Santos Arrona Jr. Head Start Center in Atascadero in 2016.

We got to visit Santos Arrona Jr. as he was dying at a care facility last August. The multitude of visitors — friends, family and people he’d encouraged to finish school — were seemingly laughing him into heaven.

Arrona Jr., for whom the new Head Start center in Atascadero was named, smiled. He had made a difference.

He learned a lot about family, education, community and empowerment from parents who didn’t want him to work in the fields as they had.

Arrona Jr. and his family were honored Saturday at La Mesa de Los Padres as one of the greeters and ushers who carry on the tradition of hospitality at Mission San Luis Obispo.

The La Mesa de los Padres event raises funds for historic preservation.

Born in New Mexico, Arrona Jr.’s mother, Anita, left school in the second grade after her father’s death. She needed to work in the fields. After the family moved to Visalia, where she eventually married Santos Arrona Sr., she picked walnuts, oranges and grapes. Sometimes she worked in packing sheds to make more money. Virtually illiterate, her children often accompanied her to the grocery store or on errands.

Arrona Sr. was born in Leon, Guanajuato, Mexico, migrating to Farmersville with his family when he was about 3 years old. His parents, Selso and Sotera Arrona, could buy property with three or four houses on it.

When the United States entered World War II, Arrona Sr. left field work and high school, enlisting in the Army. Stationed in England, he served as a medic. When he returned, he finished high school and became a U.S. citizen. He worked for J.C. Penney delivering furniture.

Wanting more for his children, Arrona Sr. was adamant: No more field work! Finish high school! Go to college!

Arrona Jr.’s brother, Frank, eventually retired as a police officer in Long Beach. Arrona Jr.’s younger sister, Velia, remembers a time when the family did some field work around the Fresno area and slept outside.

To help his parents, Arrona Jr. sold newspapers on a street corner until he was old enough to have a paper route. But his mother wanted him to save his earnings for college. He got an award for reading the most books in his age group one summer at the library. In high school, he did yard work and joined the chess, tennis and football teams.

There were school buses to drive while attending College of the Sequoias. Then on to Cal Poly, leaving the scorching sun of the valley behind. Driving more school buses and taking out student loans, because his parents could only mail him $10 a week. Santos knew he had his parents’ moral support.

For 34 years, Arrona Jr. was a principal personnel analyst for San Luis Obispo County.

He sometimes found the politics oppressive, but he never complained. He had his beloved wife, Karen, and sons to think of.

Arrona Jr. found joy in volunteering (23 years on the board and leading bilingual workshops,) with Community Action Partnership (CAPSLO in our county), especially with Head Start and Migrant and Seasonal Head Start. He sought to involve the parents in the decision-making process and being good parents — like his own parents.

His wife said: “A group of Head Start parents always accompanied staffers to annual conferences, where many workshops were bilingual. Sometimes there were special outings around Washington, D.C.”

This led to some unforeseen consequences for Arrona Jr.

“One of the activities the parents participated in was ice skating at the Washington Mall,” she said. “Most of them had never ice skated before. One of the parents, who was doing very well skating, sprained his ankle. Santos, who learned to skate at an ice-skating rink in Visalia, ended up pushing the parent around in a wheelchair for the rest of the conference.”

But for Arrona Jr. that was just part of the process of empowering families, teaching them we are all in this together.

Next week: Arrona Jr.’s legacy of enduring family and community values.

Liz Krieger is a retired SLO County children’s librarian. Dan Krieger is professor of history, emeritus at Cal Poly. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.