Riverside Tamale Festival Honors Californio Roots for Trujillo Adobe

From left to right: Apolonia Trujillo, sister of Antonino; Randolph "Dutch" Trujillo; kids looking for artifacts; Antonino Trujillo; Antonino Trujillo at La Placita in the early 1900s; leveling the earth in the early 1900s. | Photos: Courtesy Helen Mora Trujillo and the Trujillo Family

To bear the name Trujillo, in this part of Southern California, is to be descended from a family that arrived here in 1842 from New Mexico, to be related to some of the earliest Californios. and to know that the pioneer adobe home in which those first ancestors lived is hidden away, the adobe bricks in danger of disintegrating because of the elements. For Darlene Trujillo-Elliot and other family members, this is part of their history, and California's, which cannot melt into the ground and be lost. So they came up with an idea to honor the past - and their relatives' love for food and celebration: Tamales.

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The city of Riverside will host its first Tamale Festival on Saturday, April 20, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. in White Park, on Market Street in downtown Riverside. There are a few other tamale festivals in California, but this one has a unique purpose. "What better way to raise money for the old place than tamales? We used to make them for holidays, and for special occasions," Darlene Trujillo-Elliot said. She is Assistant to the Mayor for the city, and a descendant of the historic family. She, as well as Nancy Melendez and other descendants, decided to hold an inaugural Tamale Festival as a way to form the Trujillo Adobe Foundation, which would rescue the historic home and develop the grounds into an educational and cultural resource. (The site was named County Landmark and State Place of Historic Interest in 1968, according to Keith Herron, Riverside County's Historic Preservation Officer, and a member of the planning committee.)

"It's so sad to drive there with family and not even be able to see the house, to not even be able to show the kids where their people came from," Trujillo-Elliot said at a planning meeting. "These were some of the area's first residents!"

Though the adobe home was occupied until the 1970s, it now belongs to Riverside County. Today, the Trujillo Adobe is invisible, a secret unless you know where it is -- on Orange Street, at the base of the rocky foothills which divide North Riverside from Colton, and the Santa Ana River winding between. This adobe home is just as important to California history as any other -- there are homes like this preserved in countless cities including Monterey, El Monte, Los Angeles, and San Diego. This home is the last remnant of a vital community begun by one man -- Lorenzo Trujillo.

Orange Street at Center Street was the heart of La Placita de Los Trujillos, which meant simply that it was their place in the world. Lorenzo Trujillo arrived in the area in 1842 -- his history and the neighboring community of Agua Mansa are featured in a previous post -- and by 1862, he had established this village in the style of his native New Mexico. He built a small plaza, a school, and church, but the devastating 1862 flood wiped out almost everything. When he rebuilt La Placita, with his adobe home higher on a gentle rise above the Santa Ana River, the Trujillo community stayed together for decades. By the 1880s, it was known as Trujillo Town by many Riversiders, and Orange Street in the northern reaches was often called Spanish Town Road.

I used to see this house all the time, first when I was a kid riding bikes with my brothers, and even twelve years ago, when my brother Jeff used to take me there when we bought fertilizer for his citrus grove. Last week, I drove there. It is an incongruous sight -- the Fruit Growers Supply Company on one side, and a massive yard full of trucks and cranes and heavy equipment, and between them, on the gentle slope of golden-dried foxtails, guarded by a massive pepper tree, is a tin-roofed structure painted dark as Hershey's chocolate. This building is surrounded by wire mesh, and the whole parcel is inside a chainlink outer fence. Even the bronze plaque is gone -- stolen years ago.

The home would face the Santa Ana River, and the foothills where wheat still grew even fifteen years ago, where Trujillo horses pulled heavy sleds to level out the land for vineyards and wheat and citrus. A short distance away are the Ab Brown Soccer Complex and Reid Park. Trujillo-Elliot and others think that schoolchildren, Trujillo descendants, and tourists should be able to do more than imagine -- they should be able to see the adobe bricks, the rooms inside, and photos, and artifacts from early Southern California. They should be able to remember that many pioneers of this place came from Native American and Mexican American roots -- in the same way other adobes celebrate settlers from the eastern states or from Europe.

Two remarkable women might have made and enjoyed tamales long ago right here. In 1875, La Placita built a one-room adobe school just east of the Trujillo home. In 1888, Alice Rowan was sent to teach there. She was the daughter of freed slaves who had migrated from Salt Lake City with Mormon pioneers, and she had just graduated from the State Normal School in Los Angeles, which is now UCLA. Rowan became the first black teacher in Riverside-San Bernardino counties, and after two years of teaching at Trujillo School, she became the first certificated black teacher in California.

Trujillo family at Adobe. | Photo: Courtesy Helen Mora Trujillo and the Trujillo FamilyOlive Trujillo was born at the adobe in 1906, went to the Trujillo School, and later became a successful businesswoman in Riverside with her husband, George Vlahovich. After he died in 1973, she moved north to Arroyo Grande. But in 1996, 50 Trujillo descendants gathered for Olive's 90th birthday. She died the following year.

How many tamales were wrapped in corn husks here, in this place? How many will be made and eaten Saturday to honor these women and men? Trujillo-Elliot and the rest of Tamale Festival planning committee have big hopes. The festival features Best Tamale Contest, Tamale Juggling Contests, and a kids zone for arts and crafts, and loteria games (with candy prizes!) for children. Live music is offered by DJ Fernando Sol, The Conga Lovers, and The Latin Society. On Saturday, I imagine we will see the tamales glistening, formed by hands used to such delicate work, exactly the same deft movements made 150 years ago near the river, under the pepper trees.

About the Author

Susan Straight was born in Riverside, where she still lives. Her latest novel is "Between Heaven and Here." She teaches at UCRiverside and works with photographer Douglas McCulloh to document the Inland Empire.

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