A Family Affair: Mothers, Daughters, and Prostitution in Early San Luis Obispo

By Jonathan Cordero

Several years ago I began researching my genealogy and family history. I reached an impasse of sorts when I reached my paternal great grandmother, Frances Cordero. When I began asking about her, I came to realize that both my parents and grandparents’ generations did not know much about her because a family taboo inhibited them from spreading not much more than half-baked rumors. All anyone seemed to know for certain was that Frances Cordero was a “party girl,” that she was shot and killed in San Luis Obispo in 1928, and that my family had returned to Santa Barbara as a result. Wanting to know the truth of the matter, I began to investigate.

In order to understand the shooting, I completed the genealogies of my great grandmother and of the woman who “accidentally” shot and killed her, Irene “Dolly” Terrill. I soon discovered that my great grandmother, Frances Cordero, and her mother, Arcadia Chaboya, worked as prostitutes in the Red Light District of San Luis Obispo. I found that Irene Terrill and her mother, Barbara Perry, worked as prostitutes as well. That’s what eventually led me to write an article on how the profession of prostitution is passed from mother to daughter. In examining the details of their family histories, I came to understand that particular circumstances, like losing a father or husband, in combination with limited economic opportunities for women, influenced the decision of the mothers to turn to prostitution. Daughters faced similar circumstances, confronted similar obstacles, and made similar decisions. For most of these women, however, the decision was a temporary solution born out of economic necessity until an alternative, like re-marriage, liberated them from the throes of prostitution.

Many have written about prostitution in early California history, but few have produced in-depth case studies of the women in order to understand the factors that influenced the decision in the first place. While this pattern does not explain why all women become prostitutes, I have found this pattern in several other genealogies as well, including my wife’s maternal ancestry, to the surprise of my mother-in-law.  As most genealogists and amateur historians fully realize, you just never know what you will find once you start digging.

* * * * *

I gave a presentation on this topic at the 28th Annual Conference for the California Council for the Promotion of History at the Embassy Suites San Luis Obispo on Saturday October 25, 2008 at 3:45pm. My presentation was entitled, “The Legacy of Prostitution: Mothers and Daughters in San Luis Obispo’s Red Light District, 1880-1930.”  Jonathan Cordero can be reached at jcordero@callutheran.edu.

Barbara Perry and Arcadia Chaboya
Barbara Perry
Arcadia Chaboya