You ever wish you could just jump into a photo? Just so you could be in that time and place, and be able to witness the story behind the picture?
When Rita Cecaci opened her photo album and showed me a black-and-white image of the first-ever squad of cheerleaders for the Oakland Raiders, and then pointed to the young woman in the middle of the bunch, and said, "that's me," I was intrigued.
When she told me she was still in high school when the photo of the Raiderettes was taken, 56 years ago, I was really intrigued.
Most of the 20 cheerleaders in the photo—if not all of them—were high schoolers, posing at Frank Youell Field, which we now call Laney College. It was the 1962 season, the franchise's third full season and the first year the Oakland Raiders actually played in Oakland. (The two years previous, they played in San Francisco at Kezar Stadium and Candlestick Park.)
Along with other photos of the squad, Cecaci also had a 1962 season program. Passing by the ads for local car lots and beer companies, she showed me a blurb introducing the Raiderettes: "Our halftime production will be better than in 1961, with the addition of the Oakland Raiderettes, a precision team modeled after the world-famous Rockettes of Radio City fame in New York City."
The Raiderettes worked under the guidance of well-known musician and actor Del Courtney, who directed the Raider band and orchestrated the halftime show. Of course, the cheerleaders weren't paid. And again, of course, they did more than just perform at halftime shows, appearing out in the community, including an All-Girl Revue at Oakland Tech.
As she turned the pages in her photo album, she walked me through the world that was mid-20th century Oakland. I quickly realized that her story isn't just about her time spent cheering on a well-known pro sports team, although that's what piqued my interest; her story is that of a woman who's spent a lifetime committed to family, community, culture and history.
Her commitments were here before the Raiders were founded in 1960, and will be here long after they leave; and that's what makes Oakland Oakland. It's not about a sports team, although a sports team does amplify the identity of the Town. It's about the people who make the place. And she's one of the many who gained from, and gave her all to, this town.
Cecaci grew up not too far from there, in the Jingletown neighborhood. She'd heard the same legend I had: that the name of the neighborhood came from the sound of coins jingling around in people's pockets as they walked home from work. We laughed when neither of us could confirm the rumor.
She was raised by her grandparents. Her grandmother, a first generation Mexican-American woman, worked the majority of her life at the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T); Cecaci still keeps one of her switchboard plugs on her keyring. Her grandfather, who was born in Mexico, worked at a foundry not too far from their house, and was a skilled carpenter and gardener. Together, they bought four parcels of land and built three houses on the property, that's where Cecaci spent her childhood.
Sometimes big trucks full of tomatoes from the valley would park near their house, waiting to unload at the Del Monte cannery, near where Fruitvale BART now stands. "Some kids would jump up, take the tomatoes, and throw them and make a mess," said Cecaci. "But they were the best tasting tomatoes, big beefsteak tomatoes. Big as your face, almost!”
As a precursor to cheerleading, Cecaci learned dancing at a studio in her neighborhood in East Oakland, "tap dancing and ballet, when I was eight or nine years old, in a studio in the Fruitvale on East 14th.”
She turned the page in her book again, pointing at young images of herself, standing next to the family's 1930s truck. There was an image of her all dolled up, celebrating the Queen of the Holy Ghost, a Portuguese Tradition. And of course, her graduation portrait: Class of 1964, Fremont High School.
Cecaci only cheered for two years. A few years after graduating, Cecaci got married, had three children of her own, and eventually moved near Mills College. A career in education followed, including stints at Holy Names, Urban Promise Academy, and helping shape Northern California's first Charter School, Oakland Charter Academy (OCA), originally called Jingletown Charter School. She retired earlier this year.
But in the early 1990s, her family sold the parcels of land where she grew up, and she cringes when talking about how much they got versus how much the recently built live-in-work lofts on that land are now selling for now.
The story of housing, culture and history especially hits home for Rita's middle daughter, Elisa Cecaci, who just settled a long back-and-forth with a former landlord.
Elisa told me that after the landlord blatantly attempted to force her and her family out, she wisened up and went through the City Of Oakland's Mortgage Assistance Program to purchase a home. While staying with her mother, she worked hard, saved money, raised her credit score, and then "our escrow closed on the same day the settlement ended," she said.
The success of finding housing is bittersweet, added Elisa, who volunteers with the East Oakland Collective to bring food and resources to un-housed people.
"My story is the other side of displacement," she said of the crisis in Oakland. "Yes, we were technically displaced, but we were intentional about not leaving."
Both Elisa and Rita agree that the issues in Oakland are manyfold: lack of housing, the broken school system, illegal dumping. And yes, even pro sports teams ditching Oakland for what they seem to think are brighter pastures.
“I think it's a slap in the face," said Elisa. "The Warriors and the Raiders are going to other places—I'm not super big on sports, and definitely have issues with the NFL, but in Oakland, we go hard for our teams.”
And intertwined with the identity of the sports teams is the political and cultural identity of the Town.
Elisa gets that. She said she works for "gentrifiers" as a nanny, and is clear about her efforts to bridge the gap between the new community and the people who've been here. She laughed as she told me that she often wears political shirts to work, ones that say "Oakland Against Gentrification" and "Condos and Tent Cities Everywhere I Look."
One day while leaving the house where she works, she saw a pile of things that had been discarded, evidently from someone moving out abruptly. From that pile stood out a leather bound book that read "Brooklyn" on the cover. She didn't have to turn through the tattered pages of the book for long before she realized it was a City Assessors book from the 1890s; back when East Oakland was called Brooklyn.
“You should give it to the City of Oakland," one friend told Elisa.
She replied, "I am the city of Oakland.”
When she sent me some images from that book, and as I stared at the photos on my phone, my mind wandered into what it'd be like to jump into those pictures.
Pendarvis Harshaw is the author of 'OG Told Me,' a memoir about growing up in Oakland. Find him on Twitter here.
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