There seem to be fewer and fewer corner stores like the one by El Salvador Park in Santa Ana, where cash wasn’t currency as much as conversation – where families would come for groceries and leave with life advice, or items they otherwise couldn’t afford.
It’s why former gang members cried and vigils formed outside when the store’s longtime owner and second father to a number of locals, Armando “Mando” Aguinaga, died at 86 years old this past August, just a day before the birth of his grandson.
With the family poised to move on, there’s likely a different future for the property on the corner of Raitt Street and Civic Center Drive, and the store’s subsequent closure has some appreciating what they’ve lost in the Artesia-Pilar neighborhood:
A literal mom-and-pop market which kept that part of town intact since the 1950s, and in a number of ways.
One being the fact that you would find more than cash behind the counter.
You would also find names, handwritten on paper notes.
If yours was among them, that meant that at one time or another, you walked blocks from your home for diapers or food but fell short on change for your items at Aguinaga’s register.
In such cases, Aguinaga would take a slip, write on it, and tell you from the other side of the counter, “We’ll take care of it next time.”
It was his common practice to let people leave with their items anyway, as a store credit system, said friends and family – enough so that over the years, one could quilt those jotted names into a mosaic of neighborhood needs.
But Aguinaga didn’t press people on owed amounts, as ending up short on change happened “to many of us,” said Jorge Sanchez, a local church deacon who lived six houses away from the store as a kid.
“Families had credit at Mando’s store,” he said at a September memorial service following Aguinaga’s death. “I’m sure there were a lot of little receipts with our names written all over them.”
Family members and city leaders now ask: How best to honor his memory? There are a few ideas, like commissioning a mural, or hosting a community center or senior breakfast program in the building the family still owns.
But the loss of the store puts that part of town in a new chapter.
And in a place like Artesia-Pilar, honoring Mando’s memory may mean following in his footsteps.
He’s often described as a humble man – the last to ask for attention, or complain about difficulties.
Ask Mando how the store was doing: “Running it like a Rolex,” friends and family recall him replying. Ask him what he had for lunch: “Steak and lobster.”
“He never complained whenever he was sick,” said his wife, Cecilia, at the memorial service.
He was born in Arizona in 1936, to a mother who immigrated from Aguascalientes, Mexico.
Mando opened the store in the 1950s, and there he met Cecilia, who was born in Jalisco. They married in 1981 and had three children, one of whom – a Santa Ana police officer named Ramses – died battling cancer in 2018. The children also had a half sister named Joanne, who died in 2015 and whose mother, Frances, died in 1979.
Next to the market was El Salvador Park, where figures like Cesar Chavez and Ted Kennedy made speeches over the years, and where in 1992, roughly 200 gang members gathered to call for a peace treaty that proved short-lived.
In an area which thus flowed with gang life, the corner market became protected territory, and attempts to tag it, for instance, met a swift response from the streets.
“There was a lot of respect for him as a man, but also, in terms of gangs in the community, they didn’t tag his store. And if someone tagged his store, the other guys would say, ‘Mando, don’t worry about it, we’re going to take care of it. We’re going to go find who it is, they’re not going to do it again,’” said Sanchez.
Aguinaga never solicited such things – “He didn’t ask for that,” Sanchez said.
But for the regulars, it was about more than disrespect.
For them, the store was a safe haven.
Whenever a kid got featured in the newspaper, Mando would cut out their photo, circle it, and put it on display at the store, said friends.
Sanchez, among others, recalled the rush of excitement one would feel to look for their picture. And Aguinaga “wouldn’t take it down, as an act of love,” he said at the service. Not only did the man “respect you as a person – he lifted you up.”
Aguinaga’s adult daughter, Sylvia, worked the store after college and said she would take notes on who entered and what they said in chats at the counter. Seeing the regulars come in – the daily reassurance of a conversation – left an impact Sylvia couldn’t shake, at least until 2017, when she started writing a children’s book about the store.
“I felt so much comfort in listening to their stories and they would give me advice, kind of mini therapy sessions,” she recalled in a Dec. 17 phone interview. “A lot of times, homies would come in and say, ‘Your dad helped me out when I was younger … I want to turn my life around.’”
Ask Nati Alvarado to describe growing up by El Salvador Park, and he’ll describe a world with “a five-block radius.”
He was just 13 years old the first time he got arrested – and right in front of Mando’s store. He was 15 when he became a father. Alvarado met Mando as another one of the neighborhood boys, describing himself at the memorial service as “really tangled up back in the day.”
He spent part of his young life in and out of juvenile and adult detention centers – and doing time meant spending much of it with rival gang members. “Violence is birthed from you dehumanizing somebody,” Alvarado recalled in a December phone interview. “And so these guys, we dehumanized them. We didn’t see them as nothing, but when I did time with them, I found out they could draw, they were funny, they liked sports like I did, they had a dog. They ended up becoming my friends.”
Alvarado got his GED while incarcerated and following his release in the early 1990s, he entered a religious rehabilitation program in Ontario. “When I was there, something turned on in me that let me dream.”
Now a pastor and founder of the gang violence prevention group called Neutral Ground, Alvarado can recall times when younger in which Mando steered his friends straight or dragged him out of fights outside the store.
There was something “more to him,” Alvarado said. “Mando had a love that could only come from the Lord, for kids with holes in our tennis shoes.”
Another man who showed up that day, Carlos Lozano, had ‘El Salvador Park’ tattooed on his head.
Lozano said he was incarcerated for some years – “the only time I was away from the neighborhood.”
“When I came back, Mando remembered me. And it felt good.”
The mom-and-pop corner store as a whole is dying, if you ask Sanchez, “now that we go to these big stores or shop online, and never even touch a human being.”
The idea of a corner store is to be a resource one can walk to from home. But that would require it being located close to homes, which in most parts of the U.S. today would require residential zoning changes. Still, Santaneros have found other ways. Take the reliable neighborhood produce trucks, for instance, a proven essential during the Coronavirus pandemic.
Yet Mando’s store was the type of place “you just can’t find anymore,” Sanchez said at the September service.
What does that mean for the neighborhood?
“Moments of small talk – also really profound moments of conversation – those are really hard to have with strangers unless there’s a space for it where both people feel comfortable sharing,” said Sylvia.
There was respect at the shop for the manual trades, the simple way of living and people who lived paycheck to paycheck. “I saw it from the counter, kindness and compassion … not just me but other guys who worked at the store who were there long enough to change their character,” Sanchez said.
Aguinaga “didn’t make more profit than he needed,” he added. “He was sensitive about his prices too.”
Aguinaga and his family, however, lived in a wealthier part of town called Floral Park.
“He was proud to be able to buy a home,” said Sylvia. “But he once told me straight up, ‘I have light skin,’ and that’s how things were back then.”
And Artesia-Pilar has indeed changed over the course of Aguinaga’s life. So the store, in turn, became a benchmark for it.
It “used to only be Mexicanos” around the area, Sanchez recalled at the memorial service. “Now we have all kinds of Central Americans and immigrants moving into the neighborhood, and he (Mando) said, ‘I gotta make some changes in some of the stuff I have here on the shelf … different foods.’”
Aguinaga would open the door for “all of us,” Sanchez said. “I don’t ever remember him turning somebody away, except when they were out of bounds … (someone who) already had too much to drink.”
The place advertised itself as a liquor store on its walls, but Sanchez said the liquor “didn’t sell.”
“He was there, open for us, because we needed milk. We needed diapers. We needed tortillas. We needed something. We needed food.”
It was one thing to be reprimanded by parents as a kid. But seeing Aguinaga’s stern side helped the youth around him cement their own values, said Sanchez, who started working for Aguinaga growing up, with his parents’ permission – and subject to school performance.
“All of us that worked at that store were taught to recognize people,” Sanchez said. “I had my dad, he was a great man. But what was cool was, I could hear Mando telling me the same thing my dad was telling me. That kind of helped, kind of solidified, ‘Hey, this is the truth.’”
Sanchez learned some handiwork as a store employee, and eventually became one of Aguinaga’s primary helpers – “an adopted son,” as Sanchez describes it – for as many as 20 years.
Mostly to let Aguinaga spend more time with his own family.
At the memorial service, Aguinaga’s son Allan recalled an evening where his father came home with a black eye. It was obvious to him, he said of the time, that Dad got mugged. But he came home at the same time every night.
“No matter what, 8:30, I knew he was coming home. That was the epitome of being a great father – working his ass off, doing everything for his family,” his son said in September.
What Allan didn’t know, as a kid, was that his father “was doing everything for everyone else’s family as well.”
The night after Mando died, Sylvia went into labor.
She had a baby boy named Felix, who was with her during the service as she called in her remarks virtually, due to her state.
At the service, both she and her brother spoke of how they’d process the loss. Sylvia lamented her father not meeting her son, but in the end, she said she was certain of what it would be like. She could almost picture the look on his face, had he been here for another day. In the end, Sylvia and Allan said they’d honor Aguinaga’s memory by being the same parent their father was.
And with her father’s death came a realization.
Sylvia had all but forgotten the children’s book she’d been writing, at least until she had to write a speech for the memorial service, where by then she had the old manuscript on hand to read aloud a passage:
“I grew up in the place that faces the Civic Center and Raitt, eating ice cream, cleaning shelves, stocking candy, and counting coins. I watched ‘I Love Lucy’ and ate little weenies wrapped in white bread. I sat on a stool and watched people come through the door. Every day is different. Everyone is getting by. There’s comfort in coming back.”
“Our regulars wander in.”
Like Alvarado, City Councilmember Johnathan Ryan Hernandez became a father in high school.
He also grew up in Artesia-Pilar, born around the time Alvarado formed Neutral Ground. On the city website you’ll find Hernandez’s life story: “Born in the summer of ‘92, he lived houses away from El Salvador Park and was a witness to numerous tragedies. Like many multi-generational Chicano families, he saw his family members and friends fall through the cracks and end up in the prison system.”
And last year, Hernandez watched Anaheim police shoot and kill his cousin, Brandon Lopez, after a standoff and police pursuit. Hernandez’s family said Lopez had a mental health crisis.
There was a time in your life, if you grew up in Artesia-Pilar, where you saw Mando every day, according to Hernandez.
The store owner knew Hernandez’s great grandparents. “And he knew my grandparents, my parents and of course myself and he knew my daughter, who’s now growing up in the same neighborhood I grew up in,” he said. Mando essentially “knew five generations of my family in Artesia Pilar.”
Hernandez said he now envisions a tribute to Aguinaga in the area in some form:
“I personally would be interested in seeing the City of Santa Ana lease the corner market in providing nutrition, fruits and vegetables in our community. I would like to see this become a senior breakfast program.”
But, he added, “loss is always a tough time and with that comes grief, so we’ve just been respecting the family transition.”
Sylvia Aguinaga said her family plans to renovate the property in its “in-between state” and perhaps eventually lease it, though she said she would like to see it become a community center “where I could take my son to volunteer.”
“I would love to see it turned into a group center, a place for restoring lives for the youngsters,”Alvarado said over the phone. “That’s just the dream, you know.”
A few months before Aguinaga’s death, burglars picked the corner store for a hit, smashing windows and clearing shelves.
When Sanchez saw photos of the aftermath online, one thing stuck out to him:
“The cash register is open, there’s no money in it, some coins,” he said of one picture, in his remarks at the September service.
But there it was, one of the few things not taken, sitting where the dollar bills should:
“A slip of paper where Mando had given credit to someone.”
Julie Leopo contributed reporting to this story.
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