LaVilla: Pedro and Padrica Mendez House

by Tim Gilmore, 9/23/2017

The Gift of Her Father’s Conversation

“My father loved to talk with his children,” Padrica says. “He gave us so much love and he gave us the great gift of his conversation.”

Padrica Mendez, 1977 portrait by a homeless artist known only as Terry

As she sits on her sofa in this grand neoclassical house, the kindness in Padrica’s eyes and smile match her regal presence. Though she lived in Italy for 16 years singing opera, toured Europe with Alvin Ailey for the musical Carmen Jones, and appeared with Josephine Baker on the Italian tv show La Fiera dei Sogni, or Dream Fair, she’s too down-to-earth and gracious to be a diva.

Her father Pedro Mendez, Sr. restored this 16-room and seven-bedroom house in 1946. It was built in 1909 for Solomon Shad, who owned a West Bay Street liquor company, and Padrica’s friends are starting a crowdsourcing campaign to raise the money to restore it once again.

Pedro Mendez

Pedro Mendez was 35 years old when he opened his tailoring business in LaVilla in 1927. He’d started tailoring back home in Santiago, Cuba at age seven and became a master tailor at age 17. In Harlem, he ran a tailoring company and a Cuban club and restaurant.

“Americans,” he used to say, “eat to live, but Cubans live to eat.”

Then his wife died. He later told Padrica that a man’s wife should be five years older than him so she would know how to handle him, make him feel he was winning when really she was.

Masonic Temple, Broad Street

Padrica’s mother Jamie was more than 20 years younger than Pedro, but by the time he met her in the Masonic Temple—Padrica points in the general direction of the 19-teens’ building around the corner at 410 Broad Street—he was twice a widower. If he ever married a third time, he’d vowed to himself, “This wife will bury me, not the other way around.”

“What I want most in the world,” he used to tell Padrica and her two brothers, “is to give you my knowledge and experience. But what value would a man my age have if a child your age could have my experience? And what value would childhood have if you had my experience from the start?”

Space between White and Black

When Padrica was a little girl in the 1940s, the Cuban community in Jacksonville surrounded her and her family with love and a yet larger sense of family. Latin immigrants and their families attended St. Pius Catholic Church and ate at the same restaurants, so Cuban and Puerto Rican and Central American children played together on common ground.

She heard her father speaking Spanish in business and with friends, but though he’d hired Miss Bustamante to come to their house and teach the children Spanish, they never immersed themselves in it. Eventually Padrica would learn Italian and appear in Italian movies. Her mother spoke only English.

Padrica Mendez in the Italian film 7 Donne D’oro Contro Due 07 (1966)

Jamie Crumley worked for the black newspaper The Advocate upstairs in the Masonic Temple Building. She came downstairs to ask Pedro Mendez to buy ad space for his tailoring business sometime in the mid-1930s. He did. They married in 1938.

Cuban men had a remarkable latitude between the bitter and often violent polarities of white and black in Jacksonville. Most Cuban men in Jacksonville had black wives, but some Cubans, besides those who’d arrived married from Cuba, married white.

Cuban men with black wives could live only in segregated black communities, but Cuban men with white wives could live in white neighborhoods. So far, this news is hardly news. Mainstream white society considered any connection to blackness a taint. “Black” could mean being an “octoroon,” or having one black great-grandparent. Though light-skinned or “fair” black people could “pass” as white, they faced the ethical and practical decision of whether or not to do so, to be treated more fairly and give their children better opportunities, or to be “true” to, and not turn their backs on, the race to which legal definitions pinned them and with whom they identified. Since Cubans who migrated to the United States, despite rigid racial lines of prejudice back home, ranged from very “fair” to very dark, and “talked funny,” they seemed more “foreigner” than “Negro.”

“White Americans,” Padrica says, “have so frequently preferred black foreigners to black people from their own country.”

Manuel’s Tap Room, from the NAACP’s The Crisis magazine, 1942

But sometimes darker Cubans married white wives and lived in white communities, while “fairer” Cubans like Manuel Rivera, who owned Manuel’s Tap Room on LaVilla’s most-hopping street, West Ashley, married darker women and stayed in the “black” community.

Padrica remembers many dinner parties at the Rivera home in Sugar Hill, the wealthy black district northwest of LaVilla, where physicians’ and attorneys’ and insurance moguls’ homes once stood along “the 8th Street Strip.” Though the University of Florida Health Jacksonville, formerly Shands Hospital, has replaced much of the line, the Rivera home, built in the late 1940s, where Sugar Hill extended into Durkeeville, stands still at the corner of West 8th and Eaverson Streets.

Manuel Rivera’s house on 8th Street

“We asked my daddy, we said, ‘Is Mr. Rivera a white man?’” Padrica and her siblings and friends didn’t know Manuel Rivera was Puerto Rican, and he certainly didn’t look black. So her father opened a whole new constellation in her childhood mind. “No,” he said, “He’s Chinese.”

Though Chinese immigrants did live in LaVilla, Padrica’s not sure why her father called Rivera “Chinese.”

MaVynee Betsch, courtesy Russ Rymer

Padrica always loved Pedro’s stories of New York. He introduced her to opera at an early age. He spoke to his children about philosophy and Spanish literature. She decided she wanted to sing opera when she first heard MaVynee Betsch, the “Beach Lady” of American Beach. MaVynee was descended from Abraham Lincoln Lewis, one of Jacksonville’s wealthiest black businessmen. She studied and sang opera, then donated her fortune for environmental causes.

Pedro Mendez told his daughter about hearing Enrico Caruso sing in New York in the 19-teens. He told her of seeing Bert Williams, the Bahamian comedian so light-skinned he performed blackface in minstrel numbers like “The Phrenologist Coon.”

Caruso, with a bust of Caruso, courtesy Library of Congress

Though her father was dark, he “talked funny,” as he was told, and thus received tailoring commissions from whites. Padrica says her father had a “Castilian accent,” that her grandmother, her mother’s mother Estelle, told her never to say it, but that her father came from Cuban aristocracy.

After an early life of adventure and turmoil, surviving false starts in New York, losing two wives, Pedro came to Jacksonville determined that this was where his life would take form and take place.

My Darling Daughter

She’s somewhat embarrassed about the state of disrepair into which the house has fallen, and I hope dearly that in this chapter of her magical life, Padrica will see her childhood house, this house in which she lives now, restored to its previous splendor.

Before she opens the tall wooden pocket doors to the parlor, she points to the difference between the radiant burnished brass doorknob on one side and the muddied and tarnished one on the other. The faded and peeling yet elegant wallpaper in this sitting room once was resplendent.

Still, the mahogany wainscoting around and up the staircase climbs magisterial in the shadows. Filigreed wooden tracery runs the front rooms beneath the ceiling. A sitting niche recesses into a bay window.

Out front, tall Corinthian columns rise the full height of the house’s two wide sweeping stories of porches. Decades ago, a rooftop balustrade spanned the width of the house before its attic dormer.

Sometime in the 1950s, that outsider historian Virginia King, author of an incomprehensible 8,448 page book about Jacksonville, wandered this LaVilla sidewalk and snapped a blurred and crooked photo. The balustrade runs the roofline. A fashionable old Chevy with tail fins is parked out front. The palms that now mask the Corinthian capitals from the road are only as tall as the front porch.

photo by Virginia King, from The Mad Atlas of Virginia King

When Solomon Shad had this house built in 1909, he moved into the most diverse neighborhood in Jacksonville. Today, LaVilla is remembered as “historically” black, but it was also Cuban and Syrian and Lebanese and Chinese. Here, segregated black homesteads and businesses throve alongside brothels and liquor stores that white citizens didn’t want in their neighborhoods, even if they came to LaVilla for vice services they couldn’t own or frequent elsewhere.

In 1914, the Florida Department of Agriculture’s Division of Chemistry, which analyzed samples of agricultural products throughout the state, found Solomon Shad in violation of state alcohol laws. It listed “Dixie Gin,” “Dixie Whiskey” and “Dixie” moonshine, or “corn” liquor, as “illegal” for insufficient labeling information. Beer and shot glasses from the time called Solomon Shad “The Whiskey Man.”

At least Shad, a white man, built his home residence in the minority district from which most white businessmen would only extract profit. For a while anyway. When he died from a heart attack at 36 years old in 1923—“a true Christian,” according to his obituary—he lived at 430 Donald Street in Riverside.

Pedro Mendez died of double pneumonia in 1957, 11 years after he’d bought and restored the old Shad house. Padrica soon left for Columbia University, where she earned a master’s degree, then earned a Fulbright Scholarship to study opera in Italy. She studied voice under Mariano Stabile at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome and at the Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena.

One night as she left the opera in Rome, a photographer snapped her picture, wrote, “in omaggio alla sua bellezza,” or “in homage of your beauty,” on the back of the photograph, and gave it to her.

Padrica Mendez exiting the opera in Rome

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, she starred in three Italian films—7 Donne D’oro Contro Due 07, or Seven Golden Women against Two (1966), Missione Apocalisse (1966), and Il Sergent Rompilgioni (1975).

Padrica came back to Jacksonville in 1977 to take care of her dying mother. As the only daughter of three children, unmarried and without kids, Padrica felt a great sense of responsibility toward her mother. Her father was two decades older than her mother, and her mother was dying 20 years after her father.

LaVilla had fallen on hard times. Post-World War Two suburbanism and years of urban racial frustration, increased poverty, and exceeding desperation had acted brutally on the district. The sense of community was gone, and though the City of Jacksonville was still 15 years shy of launching its greatest assault on LaVilla, Padrica knew she would hold onto her childhood house, the home of her father and her mother.

She points to her father’s Victrola in the corner of the living room. “He loved his Cuban music,” she says, “and he taught me all the dances. He taught me the Samba, the Rumba, the Conga. My father knew how to love life wisely.”

Padrica opens a cigar box full of letters, unfurls papers typed in the mid-1950s when she’d first attended Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona. Her father begins each letter, “My Darling Daughter.”

This gentleman and community leader who never smoked or drank, but who restored the grand home of a turn-of-the-century LaVilla liquor merchant, joked with his daughter that he’d enclosed five dollars “for you to buy liquors, and cigarettes with.” All these decades later, her father still makes her laugh. The only alcohol he imbibed was a little eggnog on Christmas Eve and liqueur icing on a cake.

We All Disappear

Padrica remembers Yay-Yay, who ran the Havana Night Club out north on Avenue B, and Charlie Craddock’s club The Two-Spot at 45th and Moncrief.

The Two Spot, courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com

“We heard people perform there, people like Count Basie, Dinah Washington,” she says. “We knew they were popular, but we didn’t know they were what they would be, historically. Just like how I traveled for six months in the 1970s with Alvin Ailey in Austria, Switzerland, Germany. He was better known in places like New York than he was in Vienna, so even as I got to know him and knew he was so gifted, I didn’t know he’d become this historic figure.”

When Padrica came back to this house in 1977, LaVilla was a different place. So, of course, was Jacksonville. She felt more out of place now at home than she ever had in Rome.

Padrica Mendez with Alvin Ailey, mid-1970s

In Italy, she’d become good friends with artists and maestros and people like Victor Banjo, a young Nigerian colonel from a royal Yoruba family. Padrica taps a photograph of her and Banjo in Rome and calls him “a very special man.”

In September 1967, after fighting for Biafra, the failed Nigerian secessionist state, Banjo was falsely accused of planning a coup against the Biafran president, tied to a pole, and executed by firing squad.

Padrica Mendez with Victor Banjo in Rome, mid-1960s

Back home in the late 1970s, Padrica saw that the Cuban community in LaVilla had disbanded. Likewise, LaVilla’s Middle Easterners. So had most of the prominent black community, other than a few old people who’d stayed stubbornly on. The district had emptied out.

Shortly after Padrica returned, a homeless artist named Terry painted a portrait of her that still hangs, 40 years later, on her living room wall. It’s a stunningly lovely and realistic treatment. She doesn’t know what happened to Terry. “He was a little ‘touched’ in the head, as they say. I let him stay here for a while and several other people gave him a place to stay.”

the 1977 portrait of Padrica by the homeless artist she knew only as Terry

In the early 1990s, Jacksonville Mayor Ed Austin implemented his “River City Renaissance,” including the demolition of nearly 50 square blocks of LaVilla. The district’s destruction by “urban renewal” came just 20 years after Interstate-95 plowed through the neighborhood, cutting off its westernmost streets.

“That was a hard time,” Padrica says, referring to the Austin years. “They wanted to take this house too.” But for “a dear gentleman,” she might have lost her lifelong home. “And I was not going to lay down and play dead,” she says.

“Now, Mr. Joel McEachin was such a gracious man. I have to say that. He didn’t know me from Adam’s housecat.”

When McEachin, head of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, advised her to get the house “designated,” she said she thought it already was. He explained that her home was historically “recognized,” but not “designated.” Taking his advice saved Padrica’s childhood home while the City of Jacksonville demolished thousands of beautiful old houses throughout LaVilla.

“I’m nothing,” she says. “There are these billions of people on the planet earth, and all these LaVilla houses and histories got bulldozed. We all disappear. Unless I offer myself up to God and what he might do with me through art, I’m nothing in all these numbers.”

Geometries, Arsons and Angels

As her singing career soared, so too did Padrica’s attention to fashion. While singing in Rome and Toscano, in West Berlin and Vienna, she began to pay more attention to the things her father had taught her and her brothers about tailoring in their earliest days.

When she came home to Jacksonville, she took over, from her brothers, the tailoring business her father had started a half century before. “P. Mendez, Cuban Tailor” lived on at 408 Broad Street into the early 2000s. Now the P. stood not for Pedro, but for Padrica, and a sign in the window said, “Fashion Designer.”

Padrica sees other designers’ clothing “made like that,” but wants hers “born like that.” She learned the different “contours, the varied pivots, the different musculature and posture” between white, black, and different Latin body types. “I wanted,” she says, “to create fashion that honored the design of our bodies.”

from The Florida Times-Union, February 12, 1992

She says, “It’s rare that even skinny black women can cross their legs in outfits the same way white women can.” She points to my dreadlocked white friend, fellow artist, and colleague Jennifer Chase, who sits beside her on this old sofa, to say how “different geometries, the cut, the line” demand different sartorial needs from the front of a white woman to the back of a black woman.

Rather than design clothing to which each different woman should accommodate her particular physicality, Padrica loves to make designs to fit individual people she loves. She unfolds a handful of photos of designs she created in the 1970s, one-piece wraps, seamless, just as Jesus and St. Francis of Assisi wore, that shape themselves to Spanish, Italian, and African body types. She shows me a photo of Florida Times-Union writer Tonyaa Weathersbee in a Queen of Sheba costume she designed.

Tonyaa Weathersbee, wearing Padrica’s Queen of Sheba costume

Every day, though her knees now often defy her, Padrica walks through the rooms of the house in which she grew up, the house to which she returned 20 years after her father’s death to care for her dying mother, the house she’s called home once again the 40 years since her mother’s death.

She talks about her father and laughs. “Can you imagine an older father, this gentleman, tickling his children so mercilessly? Oh, the way he joked with us! He would kick us off the bed, and we’d laugh and laugh!”

Pedro Mendez, with the parlor opposite his portrait reflected

We stand before a portrait of her father taken in the late 1940s. This parlor has long been closed. A dim golden lamp and soft sofa glow back to us from the portrait.

One night in the early 1990s, Padrica returned home after a singing engagement in Daytona. These were Mayor Austin’s urban renewal years. Exhausted, she fell asleep in an armchair where we now sit across from each other on sofas. Late in the night, she woke to the sound of breaking glass.

“I looked up, hearing this glass, all this glass shattering, and all I saw was red. I thought the house was on fire.”

As she regained consciousness, a stranger pounded on the front door. She could hardly see him when she answered.

“Lady,” he said, “Get out of here! Your house is gonna catch fire and burn down!”

“I hardly saw him,” Padrica says, “but I’m sure this man was the arsonist.”

Urban Jacksonville had suffered several arsons in recent years. As city government sought LaVilla houses, churches, synagogues, bars, restaurants, theatres, and nonprofit headquarters for permission for demolition, several fires caught in historic structures.

Certain snide city-core residents sneered about Frank Nero, head of the Downtown Development Authority, and referred to the 1992 rash of LaVilla arsons that followed his program of urban elimination and demolition, in historical pun, as “Nero’s Urban Renewal Plan.”

The fire that consumed the great two-story house next door jumped sparks at Padrica’s house. The fire began to catch on eaves and timbers of the western side of her front porch and roofline.

“The fire blew out the windows. We replaced them. It blew holes in the stained glass at the head of the stairs between floors, and after all these years, I still can’t afford to repair them.”

But somehow the fire reminds her of when she lived in the “International House,” studying voice in Rome, where residents were expected to proffer representations of their homelands to the central group.

The night that changed her, she experienced the Ethiopian presentation of a Coptic Mass. It gave Padrica a new understanding of the convergences of ancient stories and song.

photo by Panayiotis Tzamaros

She spoke to the priests of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria in Egypt, of which Ethiopia, central land of the former African empire, comprises a most important archdiocese.

She heard a newly, to her, ancient Christianity, not European, the gospel of a North African Jesus Christ more akin to that original martyred prophet of Palestine. The Biblical Queen of Sheba came to Jerusalem from Ethiopia, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church claims to hold the Ark of the Covenant, guarded armed at each corner at the Church of our Lady Mary of Zion in the city of Axum.

Still what most struck Padrica were the cadences she heard in the Orthodox music of ancient Ethiopia that reminded her dearly, tearfully, of rhymes and end-lines from old “Negro spirituals.”

I sit transfixed. She sings before me in her childhood house a line, then another, of “Amazing Grace.” What did I ever do to be honored thus? Then she demonstrates, closing her eyes, intoning low, how the end of each line gives way to “common metre” or “common measure.”

She’s long heard, but can’t quite believe it, though she’s tried it, that every old black spiritual can be played exclusively on the black keys of the piano.

When Padrica spoke to the musicians and priests of the Ethiopian Orthodox church in Rome in the 1970s, she told them she knew these vocal cadences and chords ending in upward intonations as residuals of slave songs of which she’d studied so many.

“What I’d heard as ascendance at the ends of sung lines, a note that reached up without other meaning than stubborn hope, I now heard as Ethiopian vowels that rose the ends of the same lines.”

Padrica Mendez at the Passion Play she designed and sponsored for eight years on West Monroe Street outside her home in the 1990s and 2000s

Alvin Ailey studied the connections, she says, but she suspects academic comparisons still wait in the wings. Strange components of early blues, of “Negro spirituals,” linked directly to Ethiopian rite song, already making new music of old—2,000 years ago—connect new listeners, willing to understand, to the right sensitivities for what comes next.

Artists usually precede academics, though certain misplaced people attuned through the crossroads of old ways will always know how to point the way the way forward.

“Oh,” she says, unfolding handwritten sheet music. She asks me if I know of the Madonna di Loreto—not, she says, the famous painting by Caravaggio, but the statue of the Black Madonna.

This libretto was written for Padrica herself. She sang it at the pilgrimage site of the Basilica della Santa Casa. It was one of the most magical moments of her long, wondrous and magical life.

Padrica Mendez in the Italian film 7 Donne D’oro Contro Due 07 (1966)

She acknowledges she’s lived a “fairy tale life,” says she’s met so many people who believed themselves the “fairy tale characters” depicted by brief passages of their lives, states, in place of the inexplicable, “God is good,” and says she’s always kept her “feet on the ground.”

Life, she says, is “always the unexpected” and “wondrous”—“everyone’s life”—so long as we’re willing “to step out into it,” and then it can “always be everything.”