Lola Nava Guerra: 1925-2015

The preservation of Ellwood Mesa’s creek, fields, bluffs, coastline, and, of course, monarch butterflies roused community forces during the 1990s, and Lola Nava Guerra threw her heart, soul, and sewing machine into the effort, wowing Solstice Parade crowds and elevating the visibility of mere insects. Lola committed herself to ethical undertakings throughout her life, from avoiding lettuce and grapes during the United Farm Workers struggle to teaching immigrant Goleta schoolchildren the importance of bilingual skills.

Lola Nava Guerra: 1925-2015
Courtesy Photo

She lived and practiced the values she spoke of, an integrity she learned growing up in a Boyle Heights neighborhood filled with Mexican, Italian, Russian, Armenian, and Japanese families all trying to live the American Dream. Born February 20, 1925, to Mexican immigrants, Julian and Refugio Nava, from the state of Zacatecas, Lola was the fourth of eight children. She was active in athletics and student government at Roosevelt High School, which she likened to the United Nations, proud to help shape that environment.

It was at Roosevelt High that she noticed Jesus “Jess” Guerra, whom she would later marry and enjoy 60 years and six children with. They weren’t friends in high school, but they took stock of each other — she saw a quiet boy, always wearing a tie and carrying a black case, and he remembers Lola, very often the last one to algebra class. She would be with a group of students laughing, and he could always hear Lola’s happy, loud voice over all others.

The Divine Savior Presbyterian Church played an enormous part in Nava family life, and it was there that Lola’s beautiful singing voice was nurtured. By the 5th or 6th grade, she was singing in public. Her all-girl quartet debuted before a large interdenominational convention. The Gospel Recordings label came calling, and by age 19 Lola was a paid artist, singing duets and solos. Her brother-in-law, Antonio Hernandez, recalls recognizing her voice spilling onto a street in South Korea, where he was stationed as an army chaplain. He felt such joy to hear a voice from home. Lola would solo in the annual Spanish-language Messiah at the L.A. Music Center, and years later in Santa Barbara, she sang with the Master Chorale from the 1990s-2001.

In the early ’80s, her brother, Julian Nava, who had served 12 years on the L.A. Board of Education, ran for state superintendent of public instruction. By then, Jess and Lola had moved to Goleta’s Ellwood neighborhood. Lola was placed in charge of Nava’s Santa Barbara campaign, working out of an office on lower State Street.

This was a heady political time. By Lola’s involvement, her children learned the power of peaceful demonstration. They remember being taken to the burned-out bank in Isla Vista and being told this was not the way to cause change; it was better to support your beliefs by peaceful means — educating and voting. She stressed turning to the League of Women Voters slate when unsure of candidates.

Lola would make it very clear why the family was not eating lettuce, grapes, and certain products produced by certain farmers and sold at certain stores that did not support the United Farm Workers union. One of her daughters remembers going to a friend’s house for dinner, apologizing for not being able to eat the salad and then explaining the plight of the farmworkers.

A new phase came when her children were grown. Lola became a bilingual aide and school liaison for itinerant families, troubleshooting issues at schools. She also taught her students the importance of education, learning English — while keeping their home language — advocating for themselves, and being proactive. And then she learned Ellwood Mesa was being sold to developers.

Lola and Jess’s home is near the Sperling Preserve, known far and wide as the Ellwood butterfly grove. It was a wonderful place to play and tramp around and, of course, observe the monarch butterflies. When the neighborhood found out that tract homes were slated for the land, Save Ellwood Shores was born. The first meeting was held at the Guerra’s.

Chris Lange, who headed the group, recalled, “When Save Ellwood Shores looked to engage the larger community, it was Lola whose artistry at the sewing machine created our first adult-sized pair of monarch wings in ripstop nylon — orange, black, and white.” Lola’s father had taught her how to sew, fashion, and tailor clothes, and her portable Singer sewing machine was her prized possession. “I wore them myself time and again,” Lange said of Lola’s wings. “They made a sensation twice in the annual Santa Barbara Summer Solstice Parade.

“Lola made an imposing presence at hearings,” Lange remembered. “When so many of us had to work up courage to testify as to the science, history, and public use of the beloved Ellwood Mesa, Lola trod that path like a queen. In fact, I hear her voice in my mind now as one evening in the early 1990s she took up the issue of walking across the Mesa grassland. She stood magnificently, no thin person herself, demanding the path design be properly safe and wide for ‘real people’ to pass one another. And with her lovely choral voice: ‘… and what Lola wants, Lola gets!'”

Lola once appeared at a City Council meeting carrying a surfboard, fishing pole, bird-watching glasses, and butterfly net. Her visual statement made it clear how many different people would be affected by the loss of the open mesa. She made her last trip to see the butterflies in 2014, unsure if she could physically make it again after a serious fall.

With her vibrant spirit, Lola Nava Guerra contributed to her family, friends, and community in simple but meaningful ways. From preserving Ellwood to beginning a family tradition of baby quilts made of fabric from family members, Lola’s passionate essence produced positive changes that go on today.

Lola and Jess Guerra


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