Honoring the Past

Director of Real Estate Development for South County Housing,

Cannery’s former employees gather to share memories and see
plans for the site
Gilroy – The conveyor belts at the old cannery on Lewis Street are gone, and much of the site has already been razed to make way for a modern housing project, lauded as the linchpin of a revitalized downtown. But the longtime residents who spent summers plucking tomatoes off the belts or stuffing apricots in cans have not lost their memories of a place that served as the community’s lifeblood in times past.

A dozen of the cannery’s former employees gathered Wednesday evening in a warehouse north of Alexander Street to share their work experiences and see plans for the site’s future. The event, hosted by nonprofit South County Housing, included a slide show and models of a project that blends 200 apartments, townhouses and live-work lofts with 40,000 square feet of retail space.

Theresa Navarrete, 101, and her daughter, Eva, attended the event.

Eva Navarrete said her mother speaks only Spanish but spent 22 seasons at the cannery “working on spinach, apricots, tomatoes – pitting peaches.”

Eva Navarrete moved to Gilroy with her parents and brother in the early 1940s, after the Depression drove them from Los Angeles to her birthplace in Montana. Her father moved there to find work picking sugarbeets.

A few years after returning to Gilroy in 1943, a line boss stopped by the Navarrete home at the corner of Martin and Railroad streets.

“The man that used to do hiring at the cannery came to the house and asked her if she wanted to work,” Navarrete recalled. “She said, ‘No, I can’t work at the cannery because I don’t speak English.’ He said, ‘You don’t need to speak English, as long as you’re willing to work.’ ”

Theresa Navarrete was among the many immigrant workers at the cannery over the years. The cannery, founded by the Filice and Perelli families, immigrants from Italy, gave new meaning to the notion of family business.

“Everybody worked in that cannery,” said Ernie Filice, grandson of Gennaro Filice, one of the cannery founders. “My father worked there. My brothers. My former partner … Most people growing up in town worked in that factory. That was really the big industry in Gilroy.”

The cannery’s heyday came during World War II, when the company received a number of government contracts to can apricots, peaches, plumbs, and other fruit and vegetables, according to Filice. He said the plant narrowed its operations to tomatoes starting in 1958, when a state food cooperative took over. The operation changed hands numerous times before it closed in the late ’90s.

Eva Velasco, 79, worked at the cannery for more than 20 years beginning in 1941. She recalled the cannery in its prime.

“I was on the line filling up the jars as they went by,” she said. “They were behind you. You’d pick them up, fill them up, and put them on the counter. You had to do so many. It was awful hard and we were very young. I was only 16. There were no men to work in the cannery because of the war.”

Velasco was enthusiastic about South County’s plans for the area. The nonprofit housing developer hopes to have the first residents move in by 2008.

Theresa Navarrete and her daughter Eva also are excited about the cannery project.

“Any progress that they make here to better the community, I’m all for it,” Eva Navarrete said. “I think that’s going to help a lot of people. From the plans they were showing us, it’s going to be a beautiful place. I think it will be good for Gilroy.”

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