The worn-out American flag that stretched forlornly across a cyclone fence behind La Cresta Produce Market on East Main Street was a disgrace, thought one woman who complained to local veterans organizations and a newspaper reporter about the flags condition and how it was displayed. She didnt know the whole story of Ricko Alvarez.
Alvarez was born and raised in Mexicali, a small town on the California-Mexico border. As a young man, hed enlisted in the United States Army at the time of the Vietnam War. After he completed his service, he returned to Mexicali to work and raise a family.
In 1975, the Mexican currency underwent a sharp devaluation, and although Alvarez continued to work hard at an aerospace plant, it became increasingly difficult to support his family. Two years later, he came to the United States in search of a better life.
He moved to El Cajon, Calif., (pop. 92,615) and got a job at La Cresta Produce Market. When hed saved enough money to rent an apartment, he sent for his wife, Leticia, and their four daughters to join him.
Then came the flag incident.
The newspaper reporter who received the complaint went to visit Alvarez at the produce market last summer, asking where the flag came from and why it was there.
We came here for a purpose, he explained to the reporter. To give a better life to our family.
They treated us so well (here), he went on, quietly. Thats why were displaying the flag. We put it over therenot to be disturbed. He pointed toward the corner of the lot, away from the people moving their carts around the market.
Every day wed been looking for a flag, he continued. Sometime in June, someone came in and put a flag in the refuse bin during the night. He smiled. God brought it to us, he said. We put it up on the Fourth of July.
His voice turned quiet again. Its not whether its old or new. Its what it represents.
The reporter printed this story in the local paper. It was read by Phil Raney, president of the El Cajon Elks Lodge 1812, and Bob Lowe, Americanism chairman for the lodge. Two weeks later, the pair got together with Alvarez to hold a small ceremony at the La Cresta Produce Market. On behalf of the Elks, Raney and Lowe presented Alvarez and his brother-in-law, Hector Almeda, with a plaque honoring them as good citizens for their rescue of the flag from the trash bin.
Then they presented them with a new American flagone that was certified to have flown over the Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Alvarez spoke so quietly that most of those present didnt hear his words. I never dreamed that such a thing would happen to me. He shook his head in disbelief as he accepted the flag.
Its been more than 20 years since Alvarez moved to the United States from Mexico and found a job at the produce market. Today, he and Almeda own that market, and three of the four Alvarez daughters have either graduated, are currently attending, or plan to attend college. Their youngest is still in elementary school.
The cyclone fence behind La Cresta Produce looks a bit more barren these days, with the worn and faded flagthe gift from Godfinally retired. The new flag has yet to make its inaugural appearance, but soon will.
On this Fourth of July, Alvarez will raise the new American flag to fly proudly over the market. Meanwhile, he has studied procedures for the proper display and care of the American flag, with help from El Cajon Elks Lodge 1812.
I want to do it right this time, he says.
Of course, some would say hes been doing it right all along.