A Local Centenarian’s Memories of the 1918 Flu Pandemic Help Color Our View of Today

107-year-old Alicia Sosa shared her story with the Natural History Museum’s Your Story Matters archive

Alicia Sosa has a memory from her childhood in Mexico of seeing other children lying down. “I asked my mother, ‘Can I go and play?'” she recalls. That’s when her mother explained that the children had died. Sosa was four years old and the 1918 Flu Pandemic was raging.

More than a century later, Sosa, who lives in Eagle Rock, would recall this memory as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the globe. Last year, she participated in Your Story Matters, a community archive organized by Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

NHMLAC launched the project in spring of 2020 to document both the pandemic and the related economic downturn. “It’s just a huge event, so that was the impetus for us,” says Brent Riggs, collections manager in the museum’s history department. As the tumultuous year proceeded, the archivists expanded the submission requests to include items pertaining to the Black Lives Matter protests and the 2020 election. Like the museum’s Community Science program, it’s a way for locals to help shape NHMLAC’s collections. “We wanted to have a better attachment to the community that we’re situated in,” says Riggs of the project, “and to give people a voice in their museum.”

The museum is still accepting submissions for the Your Story Matters archive, which can include a wide variety of materials related to the current moment, from videos to ephemera. Current submissions include pieces like journal entries, essays, short animations, and protest signs. Sosa contributed a video interview. Riggs says that the museum is “so lucky” to be able to include someone who has a memory of the 1918 pandemic.

“It’s something very similar, like today,” says Sosa, “but today is worse.”

Sosa was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, in 1914, in the midst of the Mexican Revolution. Both of her parents died when she was a child and Sosa was raised by relatives. Her family moved to Los Angeles in 1921, and then later in the decade, Sosa moved to Berkeley to stay with one of her aunts. She recalls the vast orange groves of Southern California—”It was beautiful,” she says—and visiting San Francisco when the Golden Gate Bridge had just been completed. She laughs when she mentions that she and a friend bought a car together during the Depression for $10. “We thought we were rich,” she says.

Alicia Sosa in 1934

Courtesy Alicia Sosa and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

At 17, Sosa became a hairdresser and opened her first salon near UC Berkeley. In 1960, a couple years after she permanently settled in Los Angeles with her husband and children, she opened Vogue Beauty Salon. Sosa owned the salon for 30 years.

Sosa was 90 when she retired, but, even then, she continued to do hair part time. It was a job that she enjoyed. “They became my friends,” she says of her clients, adding that she still keeps in touch with some of them.

“I still like to do it,” she says.

“She’s cut my hair for 56 years,” says Sosa’s grandson Frederic Salgado, on the video call. “Since he was born,” Sosa adds.

Sosa today with her bounty of birthday cards

Courtesy Alicia Sosa

On January 12, Sosa turned 107. To mark the occasion, her granddaughter, a United States Postal Service employee, reached out to other postal workers to send cards to Sosa. In all, she received 89 birthday cards from across across the U.S.

She doesn’t have any special secrets for longevity, but says, “I think if you’re happy and you enjoy your husband and your family, I think that brings a lot of satisfaction to your body.” Sosa adds, “You have to like yourself also.”

Sosa likes to entertain (she recommends drinking tequila with ginger ale and ice) and shop for presents for friends. The pandemic has put a damper on that. “You know what I don’t like is to be cooped up,” she says. Salgado takes her on drives when possible, sometimes venturing into the old neighborhoods where she lived and worked.

On the day of our interview, Sosa was able to get her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. She had heard that the shot would be painful. “I told the man, if this hurts, I don’t want it,” she says of her appointment. In the end, she says, “You know, I didn’t feel it at all.”

RELATED: The Public Library Is Creating an Archive to Chronicle This Strange Moment in L.A. History

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