Refugio Leon’s family moved to Costa Mesa’s west side in 1922 when he was just a toddler. He lived in the city for 87 years before passing away in 2009.
His father had been a farmer in Arizona. At first, he worked as a gardener for Fanny Bixby and Carl Spencer. Later, he farmed the mesa, too.
Life wasn’t easy for the Leons, especially during the depression. The large extended family had no indoor plumbing, gas, or electricity. A wood stove provided heat, and they lit their house with coal oil lamps. With no ice box, the only thing that kept the food from spoiling was eating it first.
Leon attended Main School until it was damaged by an earthquake in 1933. He finished his schooling at grade 8.
“You’ve got enough education as long as you can handle a pick and a shovel,” his father said. “You can make a life. You’ve got to quit school and go to work.”
He went to work for Japanese farmers on the west side, including Bob Omori and George Inokuchi, eventually earning enough money to buy a ’26 Chrysler, which he drove to the movie theater in Santa Ana in his scant free time.
In 1936, he met the love of his life, Mary Saragosa. The two married in 1940. Only death could separate them 69 years later.
When the US entered WWII, Leon was working at Harvey Bear’s farm. Leon was the kind of hard worker Bear didn’t want to lose. So, he managed to secure Leon two deferments. But when the third call came, there no postponing any longer. Leon joined the army and immediately found himself under the command of General Patton. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge, suffering a grave injury to his leg in the process. He returned a war hero, honored with a purple heart.
Leon convalesced in Long Beach, then returned to Costa Mesa where he began building a family. Life was still hard, but bit by bit things changed. They bought a TV around which neighbors gathered to watch the Sunday Night Movie. In 1952, he built a new house with all the modern conveniences – including, for the first time, indoor plumbing. Even so, his daughter still collected bottles for enough cash to buy movie tickets.
Leon worked with Bear until the farmer moved away. Then he worked at a farm in Huntington Beach, and eventually he got a job at Cla-Val, where he stayed on for 35 years. That was where he earned his nickname, “Ralph.”
“Haven’t you got a different name besides [Refugio]?” someone asked. “It’s pretty hard for me to pronounce, calling you Refugio.”
And it was Ralph after that.
In his retirement, “Ralph” was often seen in Lions Park, making friends with everyone he met. And, it’s said, he put his farming skills to good use in his home garden.
His early years might have been hard, but he looked back on them fondly.
“The life nowadays is hurry, hurry, hurry, hurry, hurry and run here and run there and all that,” he said. “Before, when we had hard times as kids, we just took it as it came. That’s it.”
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Thanks for highlighting Refugio. I’ve been looking for histories of Westside neighbors and am grateful for this resource and others. Keep ’em coming!