top of page

Big jim espinosa

“Big Jim” Espinosa was 6’3” and between 200 and 300 pounds of mostly muscle, but it was his heart that was really big. Big Jim was a Monrovia community leader of his time.


James William Espinosa was born on Lucky Baldwin’s ranch in Arcadia in 1904. His father, Toribio Espinosa, was then a ranch hand on the Baldwin estate, and his mother, Maria Espinosa, was of the Papago tribe (or Tohono O’odham) and born at the mission in San Luis Obispo. For Toribio’s work on the ranch, Baldwin gave him land on South Magnolia in Monrovia; Baldwin did not like to part with his cash and preferred to distribute land. This land was transferred before Monrovia started to enforce racially restrictive housing covenants that would otherwise have prevented an Hispanic family from owning property in this area outside the “barrio.” Although Monrovia Mexicans lived alongside African Americans and some Asian Americans south of Olive Avenue and east of Canyon Boulevard, there was still a social sense of barrioand ethnic solidarity.



Unfortunately, Maria and Toribio died in 1923 within months of each other. Jim was but 19 and the oldest of 5 siblings which included Margaret, Adela, Frances, and Frank.


At the time of his death, Toribio had been a foreman for C. O. Banks’ packing house on Duarte Road near the train tracks. C. O. Banks gave the job to 19-year old James. James had been making deliveries for Glesby Bros., a grain and feed store on Olive and Ivy. Mary Lou Espinosa Sandoval, James’ daughter said, “Dad took his father’s job and hired a Mexican nanny to help him take care of the younger siblings. Dad took over the responsibility of his siblings.” The Espinosas continued to live on S. Magnolia in a home that started as a two-bedroom with a bathroom outside. In 1941, Big Jim built a three-bedroom, two-bath home at the 911 S. Magnolia address. He got one of the last permits issued before World War II started.  


Big Jim married Lucille “Lucy” Guardado Espinosa. She was born in 1909 off Huntington Drive in Duarte. Lucille’s siblings were Roberta, Jenny, Refugio, Lloyd, and Isadore. The Guardado children lost their father, Victoriano, when he drowned in a reservoir near 1918. Their mother, Inocensia Yanez, then suffered a nervous breakdown and never spoke again. The children were brought up in orphanages, foster homes, and with godparents. Lucy attended Huntington Elementary in Monrovia.


Big Jim and Lucy had two children. Mary Lou was born in 1928 and her brother, James “Jimmy Boy” Victor Espinosa, was born in 1930. As they were living outside the designated area for people of color in Monrovia, they were some of the only Mexican children that attended Monroe School (then Orange Avenue School), while most other Mexican and African Americans went to the segregated Huntington Elementary School. Their father had also attended Orange Avenue School until the fifth grade.


Jimmy Boy’s cousin, Bobby Guardado, the son of Refugio (1910-79), was born at 529 E. Date Street in Monrovia. He said, “I was born at home because in 1940, my parents couldn’t afford the $6 it took to go to Monrovia Hospital.” Bobby continues, “Big Jim was my uncle. He was a big strong football player-sized guy. Whenever he saw us, he would say, ‘Wanna wrestle?’ He would let us hit him as hard as we could. He was a nice guy. He was also intelligent, bilingual, and a natural leader.”


Victor, Bobby’s older brother and current next-door neighbor on Cherry Avenue, said of the 1930-50s, “Most of the Mexicans picked oranges, lots and lots of oranges. That’s the way they lived; that’s the way they made it. That’s what our dad did. They worked for TioJim who would get the orange pickers from Monrovia and Duarte. Everyone knew Uncle Jim and they all liked him. They worked for Banks’ packing house. Banks would have contracts with the ranchers. There were a lot of oranges then. When it was not picking season, Dad would fumigate the oranges, and make sure they didn’t freeze. They would have burners in the orchards… They had flatbed trucks and all the orange crates had to be hauled up and then tied down with chains.  The dollies had iron tires, very very heavy. It was all manual labor. We all picked oranges, grapes, berries. I picked blackberries, boysenberries, raspberries on Royal Oaks and Mountain. I also worked with my cousin, Jimmy Boy. He would climb up the wooden ladder to get the navel oranges on the top. The smaller kids would pick the lower oranges. We had bags and small clippers in our pockets. We were called ratasor rats.” Many children missed school days to help their families during picking season.


Big Jim’s daughter Mary Lou expanded, “In those days, boys would begin working early. The only jobs for Mexicans were the orange groves or strawberry picking. Orange groves were all over the foothills:  Duarte, Azusa, Glendora – all the way to Ontario. When the orange season was over, my dad would seek other jobs and then take his orange pickers north to get other work. They went as far as San Jose or wherever there was work. He would take all the orange pickers in his Chevrolet truck, about ten people. He found jobs for his Mexican men who were mostly from the barrioof Monrovia.” 


Mary Lou also said, “My dad ended up with a Peterbilt, the ultimate in trucks at that time. You can haul a lot more. After Dad bought the Peterbilt, he got a job driving for Hamm’s Beer. He drove their semi and tractor. So he would look for jobs and hire someone else to drive his Peterbilt. He had income from both. He had a lot of fringe benefits from Hamm’s. Dad wasn’t home a lot. He traveled to Arizona and elsewhere. Dad retired from driving at age 65 as that was the Teamsters union rule. I still have his Teamsters’ pin.”


“When Dad had his orange pickers, he would pay them on Saturday night. On Saturday night, they would take their wives to Slick Market, a little grocery store on Myrtle and Olive. Then the guys would go a little pool house near the market. They would often get intoxicated. Monrovia had a police department under Judge Sturgeon. On Saturday night, Judge Sturgeon would call my dad, ‘Jim, we have one of your men here.’ Dad would pick them up every Saturday night and take them home to sleep it off. Dad also liked his beer but I don’t ever remember him drunk. I even remember Dad made beer at home in these big cement barrels. We knew Julian Fisher very well. Mr. Fisher was in the police department and he and Dad got to know each other well – probably from those Judge Sturgeon Saturday nights.” Judge John A. Sturgeon graduated from Monrovia High in 1916 and served the City from 1925 to 1966.


Big Jim cared about Monrovia’s Mexican American community and its future. Mary Lou said, “When I was around fifth grade in Monroe School, I had an Anglo girlfriend who lived near Walnut Avenue. She invited me to go to the Monrovia pool with her. My mom let me go so I must have been in the fourth or fifth grade. But when we got there, the pool manager told me I couldn’t enter because I was Mexican. I started crying. That made such an impact on me. My girlfriend was real mad at the pool man. Do you know what my parents did? They both went to a City Council meeting to object to that segregation. I was so proud of Mom. That was part of the beginning of desegregation.” Mary Lou said her mother also joined the PTA, the Girl Scouts, and the Boy Scouts to support her children.


“During World War 2, my dad was a neighborhood captain. When we had black outs, it was so dark… Our house was surrounded by Japanese strawberry fields that ran north from Huntington Drive. The Uyeda family also planted watermelon and cantaloupes. They used to have a little house and a fruit stand facing Huntington Drive. When the war started, they were sent to concentration camp. I didn’t quite understand. I remember thinking, ‘I’m so glad Mexico didn’t get into a war with the United States because they would have then sent us back to Mexico.’ My parents thought it was just terrible; my dad was angry. They didn’t approve of the evacuation of our Japanese neighbors. My father said, ‘What do they have to do with the war? They live over here.’ The Japanese neighbors left their homes and lost everything. They were very very nice.”


Mary Lou said of the Big Jim’s retirement in the 1970s, “My dad was very active in Monrovia sports activities with my children. My dad had not wanted to retire; he had to retire and he was not happy with that. My children were at Immaculate Conception (IC) School and Dad volunteered to supervise the children at sports activities. The kids at school all called him ‘Grandpa Jim’. Dad would go every day and get involved with their games. He went with them to their games. When my oldest son, Steven, graduated from Immaculate Conception, he got involved in the Junior All-American football and Dad eventually became a board member there. Dad was always doing something with the Junior All-American. My sons, David and Jimmy, followed. My daughter, Diana, became a cheerleader and my dad was a sponsor. He would take Diana all-over. One of the IC students wrote an appreciative article about Grandpa Jim in the school newspaper, and I still have that.” Big Jim was also active with the Guadalupe Society and in the Parent Advisory Group for Monrovia Unified School District.


Mary Lou also said, “A while ago, I went to a funeral and fell into conversation with a lady I met for the first time. She remembered my father! She used to live in Duarte and there was a flood there in the southern barriowhen she was just a tiny girl [perhaps in 1938]. But she remembers that my dad got his truck and brought all the flood-affected residents back to Monrovia. He did that all day long. He took them to the homes of their family members and friends where they would have shelter. When he came home, he was so tired and wet. My mother started crying. My father said, ‘I couldn’t come home and leave those people there.’ He was a special and caring man. He was an outgoing guy. He talked to everyone; he knew everyone.”

Written by Susie Ling

bottom of page