City of Achievement: The Making of the City of South El Monte, 1955-1976 | KCET
City of Achievement: The Making of the City of South El Monte, 1955-1976
In Partnership with the South El Monte Arts Posse
"East of East" are a series of original essays about people, things, and places in South El Monte and El Monte. The material traces the arrival and departures of ethnic groups, the rise and decline of political movements, the creation of youth cultures, and the use and manipulation of the built environment. These essays challenge us to think about the place of SEM/EM in the history of Los Angeles, California, and Mexico.
The official seal of the City of South El Monte bears the words "City of Achievement." Pictured on the seal are a golden trophy, a shield reading "All American City," and the silhouettes of a factory and a 1950s-style ranch house with the legend "incorporated in 1958." At a glance, this seal seems generic.
Thousands of cities and towns, not just in greater Los Angeles but all across the United States, incorporated in the two decades after World War II. Nearly all of them were founded on a combination of industrial and residential development in the suburban areas around major cities, and they all claimed to be "All-American" communities.
The founding of South El Monte took place in the context of these regional and national transformations, but the history of this "City of Achievement" is also a unique story of local organizing. Residents of the area fought to found their city against the expectations of regional planners, and they worked tirelessly to bring the benefits of postwar metropolitan growth to their working-class community. Faced with challenges of racism, inequality, and poverty, the people of this diverse city came together to improve schools, medical care, employment prospects, and recreational opportunities for their neighbors. Their efforts did not go unnoticed: the city received several national awards for civic involvement in the first twenty years of its existence. This entry offers a brief glimpse of some of the many ways that the people of South El Monte achieved their city.
"They practically laughed us right out of that office," remembered Blanche Felix in 1977. She and a local factory owner had gone to meet with representatives of the city of El Monte in the early 1950s to discuss annexation. At the time, South El Monte was an unincorporated area of Los Angeles County. Thousands of residents lived in the colonias in the area, but without an incorporated city government, they did not have adequate police protection, trash pickup, or other services. Felix hoped that El Monte would annex the area, as it had many others, but the reply she received was "that area was only fit for chickens." The regional Zoning Board had designated South El Monte "an agricultural area that actually nobody wanted," including the city to the north.1
Felix was not deterred. After "two years of fighting every inch of the way," she and several other community leaders won an industrial rezoning of the area in 1955. Residential developments began to grow as well, even without county support. Beatriz Perez, whose father supervised some of the drainage of South El Monte for development and sewer construction, remembered that her family and others "weren't allowed to buy property in El Monte ... the way the deeds read, no Mexican people could buy no mas ... not even Japanese." In response, her father bought ten acres of property on Loma Avenue and Fawcett Avenue. "He put up his own streets, his own lighting. He paid for everything," Perez recalled, and then sold lots for houses "just to show them that we could have just as nice houses as anybody else."2 Having been refused by El Monte, they decided to incorporate on their own. In 1958, residents voted to become a city by a two-to-one margin, marking the first of many achievements: the creation of South El Monte.
The San Gabriel Valley, like much of suburban Los Angeles, continued to grow rapidly in the 1960s, thanks to federal subsidies for homeownership, freeway construction, and the decentralization of industry. The Los Angeles Times captured this growth in headlines reading "Valley Preview 1965: Officials See Continuing Growth," "Decade of Growth Ahead for Valley: Bank Economic Study Shows Jobs Increase as Population Grows," and "Quickening Pace Forecast in '67." Development, however, was uneven, part of a process that the historian Robert Self describes as an effort "to monopolize and segregate the assets of postwar prosperity."3 Cities aspiring to middle-class status like El Monte, which resident Frank Lara remembered as "kind of a racial town," annexed newly-built subdivisions that were segregated by racist real estate and lending practices.4
These cities offered financial incentives to lure businesses, but quietly allowed owners to segregate their establishments. When the leaders of suburban development were required to address the needs of their working-class neighbors, as was the case in California's large unified school districts, the results were similarly unequal. Augustine Ramos, who moved to El Monte as a child in the 1930s, recalled that the school he attended was "strictly for Mexican and Japanese children."5 Nearly 30 years later - after the construction of several new schools in the area, the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, and local and national protests demanding desegregation - the California Board of Education found that 13 schools in the El Monte area still "fail[ed] to meet state regulations governing the racial composition of schools."6
The segregation of suburban spaces by race and class did not go unchallenged. Frank Lara remembered "the Second World War did change a lot," as returning soldiers sought the democracy they had fought for abroad in their own communities. Joseph Vargas, who helped incorporate South El Monte, also cited the influence of the Civil Rights Movement. Vargas held up his own life as an example. He had come to South El Monte in 1927, when "discrimination existing in this area was rampant," and had caused a scene in El Monte just after the war by threatening to sue a pool hall for posting a sign that read "No Mexicans Allowed." Years later, he marveled that "from this extreme set-up" he was elected to lead South El Monte in the early 1960s, becoming the city's first mayor of Mexican descent.7 Equally important in these years were the efforts of lesser-known residents. Mothers like Blanche Felix and Beatrice Perez joined PTAs to demand quality education for their children, while teenagers created what scholar Matt Garcia calls "an alternative body of cultural and political expression" when they challenged geographies of exclusion by gathering at integrated rock-and-roll venues like El Monte's American Legion Stadium.8
As they battled inequality around the San Gabriel Valley, people in South El Monte set to work building their city in ways that differed significantly from the exclusionary growth practiced nearby. South El Monte made early efforts to annex some unincorporated areas, but this strategy was limited by both natural geography and the presence of a more aggressively expansionist neighbor to the north. As a working-class community, the city was not in a position to lure commerce in the same ways as wealthier cities, and relied instead on the efforts of local businesses.
South El Monte's diversity also influenced the path the city chose. Scholar Wendy Cheng interviewed Latino/a and Asian-American residents of the western San Gabriel Valley and found that their experiences navigating the racial hierarchies of the housing and job markets in the 1950s "did not usually translate into a commitment to the exclusionary mandates" but instead led them to "articulat[e] relationships to property based on distinctly antiracist, non-white identifications."9 South El Monte was, from its inception, a "majority-minority" city, and many of its people had experienced exclusion firsthand. They did not want to reproduce these inequalities in their new hometown.
Alliances between the diverse residents of South El Monte did not simply exist, however, but had to be built. As Mark Brilliant writes in The Color of America Has Changed: How Racial Diversity Shaped Civil Rights Reform in California, 1941-1978, people in South El Monte, like those across the state, faced discrimination along many "axes of discrimination," which included race, class, language, and citizenship status.10These axes could divide as well unite. In 1963, Joseph Vargas, then vice-mayor of South El Monte, appeared at a seminar on merit employment to argue that Mexican-Americans should not join an integration drive being led by Black Angelenos. "I have a deep sympathy and understanding for the Negro situation," Vargas said, "but the fact is, the Mexican-American people do not have a common problem and cannot be helped - but only retarded - by linking their situation to the Negro."11 However, Vargas's experience in South El Monte over the following decades convinced him to publically change his mind. Interviewed in 1977, he said, "We are tremendously indebted to the Black minority, for what has developed in the civil rights field." Vargas's change of heart is a reminder of the fact that, as the Southern Californian scholar Robin D.G. Kelley writes in remembering his own youth, people are not born as unified activists, but are "constantly inventing new ways to rebel, ways rooted in our own peculiar circumstances."12
As the people of South El Monte turned to civic involvement and community organizing to address their own peculiar circumstances, they began to win awards for their work, which helped to cement the value of this organizing in the minds of many residents and local leaders. In 1965, the city government organized a city beautification and clean-up project that involved one out of every eight residents, including many local youth. The impressive turnout earned them a grand prize in the National Cleanest Cities Achievement Award Contest. First Lady of the United States Lady Bird Johnson presented the award to the mayor and city councilors, calling South El Monte "a small city with a big heart."13
City leaders embraced the Mexican heritage of many residents, hosting annual fiestas to celebrate the city's birthday at Joseph Vargas's ranch in the early 1960s. The South El Monte Industrial Lions Club hosted the leader of Mexico's Lions Clubs in 1965 at a joint celebration of community education efforts. A few years later, city leaders returned to Washington to collect another award, this time from the Town Affiliation Association. South El Monte had initiated a friendship with the city of Gomez Palacio in the Mexican state of Durango that persists to this day. In 1968, they won "the most outstanding sister city project of 1968" for "obtaining a fire engine" for their sister city. Reporting the achievement, the Los Angeles Times noted that it was the sixth national recognition for the city that no planner had expected.14
Unlike its wealthier neighbors, South El Monte did not have the resources to lure businesses with material incentives, but the city's commitment to community involvement attracted many successful people. Dentist Pete Nuñez was born in Calexico and spent his youth migrating to Fresno and Merced in the summers with his farmworking parents. After returning to school to earn a degree in dentistry at USC in 1973, he decided to practice in South El Monte, where "there was no dentist." As he explained in 1977, "my goal is eventually to set up the whole corner [where his office was located] as a dental center for this community." After choosing South El Monte, Nunez "got involved in school activities," giving free dental exams to local children.15
Education also brought Marine Corps veteran and USC track star Fernando Ledesma to El Monte and South El Monte. His college coach, who helped him land his first job, told him "I'm going to send you where you can work with some Mexican-American people that need models" and got him an interview in the El Monte Unified School District. His first job was coaching track and teaching Spanish at Arroyo High School, but as he remembered, "soon I found myself in the continuation school [Valle Lindo High School] as a counselor, and working the night school [for adults] as a counselor." Parents and administrators recognized Ledesma as a leader, and when "local gangs" became a problem at Mountain View High School in the early 1970s, they approached him to take over as principal. As Ledesma recalled, he planned to sidestep the challenge, but when he went home and told his wife about it, she rebuked him. "You went into [education] to help people in the community when they needed you" she told him, "And here you are, your people are wanting you over there." Ledesma took the job in 1974, pouring his passion for education into the challenges the students faced. "These are my people, my kids" he told an interviewer in 1977, "and I'll fight for them, and they know it, and I'll go to court for any one of these kids and I do." Gang violence did not disappear overnight, but conditions at the high school improved. Ledesma credited "unbelievable" support from the community, particularly in building a bilingual education program that "provided more jobs for people in the community, teachers as well as aides and kids."16
As Ledesma's story demonstrates, South El Monte and El Monte both faced new challenges in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The headlines of the Los Angeles Times' annual forecasts charted this change, as cheery prognostications of continued growth gave way to predictions like "Valley's Way of Life to Be Altered in 1969: Freeway Jobs Top List; Drug Use, Blight, Segregation, VD Are Targets for Eradication."17 At the local level, suburban growth slowed as the San Gabriel Valley matured. Cities that had once expanded their tax bases through constant new construction and annexation now faced the prospect of either raising taxes or cutting services, while the workers who had built these freeways, factories, and houses faced layoffs and prolonged unemployment. These local challenges were compounded by the stagnation of the national economy during the 1970s, which led to cuts in federal funding for cities, and particularly funding for social services. While South El Monte's working-class population was particularly hard hit by rising unemployment, local residents continued to organize, and the people of El Monte who now faced similar challenges, joined with them in greater numbers than ever before.
South El Monte and El Monte share a school district, and many residents concentrated their efforts on improving local education. Valle Lindo High School, where Ledesma was a counselor, was one focal point of these efforts (the school was later renamed for Ledesma). A high school for students who "have become disciplinary problems in their regular classrooms or have to work part time to support their families," the school also served adults in the community with night classes, and people from all walks of life worked to support it. The Rotary Club of South El Monte created a "business buddy" system to generate jobs for students at the school.18 In an acknowledgement of his community work, the principal of the school, Martin C. Montano, was hired as the consultant for Mexican Affairs by the Pomona Unified School District after La Raza Unida de Pomona threatened a student strike on account of the district's lack of Mexican staff (La Raza described Montano as "the best pick").19 After he departed, the school continued to innovate, offering pre- and post-natal care to young mothers in 1971, and adding a day-care center for students with children, staffed by community members, in 1976.20
At other schools, parents organized. In the Valle Lindo District, which served elementary schools in both South El Monte and El Monte, mothers calling themselves PICA (Parents Involved in Community Action) called meetings to demand that the Superintendent keep them informed about the performance of their children and the districts plans for the use of federal monies, as required by law.21 Maria Ávila, a local mother who went back to college at the age of 42, got her start organizing within the PTAs at her children's schools. In the 1970s, she went on to found the Mexican Youth Council and work with the El Monte Boys Club, both of which worked with local gang members to reduce violence and provide job opportunities. She also took a position with a local health network doing family education. Throughout her activism, she emphasized a direct message: "Vote. Educate. Participate at all levels."22
Students organized as well, chartering a chapter of MECHA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Atzlan) at Mountain View High School, in 1973, the year before Fernando Ledesma arrived as principal. At the time, Mountain View served over half of South El Monte's high school students (South El Monte High School was not yet built), and 53% of students were of Mexican descent. Student David Flores explained that organizing with MECHA "would help us in trying to get out and become something ... the club would be basically helping ourselves in education."23 PICA supported their efforts, even if many people in the older generation preferred to identify as Mexican or Mexican-American (as opposed to Chicano). Still, after the club encountered resistance from administrators and white students, these adults supported the rights of their students to organize. Maria Ávila, a generation older, embraced the term, describing herself as "a Chicano militant in a different way."
It was in this context - facing great challenges and meeting them through community organizing - that South El Monte won yet another award in 1975. As the Los Angeles Times reported, "Involvement of residents in efforts to cope with such problems as juvenile crime and a lack of health and childcare facilities has earned South El Monte an All-America City Award" from the National Municipal League. One of 12 cities selected across the nation, and the only one from California, South El Monte was honored for several programs, including Pete Nunez's free dental clinics, and particularly for "the involvement of residents and the volunteer leadership." The photo that accompanied the article pictured members of the local Flores gang painting over graffiti. South El Monte was not without many problems - as the article noted, it had the highest school dropout rate, the fewest doctors, and the highest crime rate in the area - but the city's diverse, community-oriented response to these problems continued to win national awards.24
The work of building and maintaining their "city of achievement" was not done in 1975, but the residents of South El Monte remained committed to the task, and to one another. The shield of the "All America City" award was added to the Seal of South El Monte, as a reminder of the city's success and an inspiration to future generations. As Pete Nuñez put it in 1977, "To the next generation, I would like to say don't underestimate yourself. The key to success is persistence."
Author's Note: I wrote this piece in November, just as East of East was preparing to launch, using two primary sources: reports from the Los Angeles Times and transcripts from a community-based oral history project, "Personal Stories of the El Monte Communities," conducted by Rio Hondo College in the 1970s. The limits of these sources, and my own perspective on them - as well as the more prosaic demands of deadlines and word counts - ensured that this story would be incomplete, only one of many "makings" of the city. The partial, unfinished nature of this history is all the more obvious after six remarkable weeks of East of East in South El Monte and El Monte, which has brought together an astounding array of voices, images, documents, conversations, performances, and memories. This new and growing archive illuminates much that is missing in this essay, from events like the building of the 60 freeway to encounters with repression and resistance that arose amid official efforts to project an "All American" image of the city. What's more, the continuing efforts of East of East are already generating new collaborations and creations to share and record these stories, and to inspire new narratives of the city. Academics - and grad students in particular - are often told to limit and control the circulation of "unfinished" work, but for this author, the dynamism of incomplete and evolving history done collectively is one of the most exciting parts of East of East. The making of South El Monte continues thanks to their efforts.
1 Blanche Felix interviewed by Jane Perry and David Rocha, Personal Stories from the El Monte Communities Susan Sellman Obler, ed. (Whittier, CA: Rio Hondo College, 1978).
2 Beatriz Perez interviewed by Irma Hernandez and Javier Valencia, Personal Stories from the El Monte Communities
3 Robert Self, American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).
4 Frank Lara interviewed by Bev Sahagian and Ed Reyes, Personal Stories from the El Monte Communities
5 Augustine Ramos interviewed by Diane Conover and Anthony Estrada, Personal Stories from the El Monte Communities
6 Mike Castro, "Thirteen Schools in El Monte Cited as Imbalanced" Los Angeles Times, Nov. 28, 1971.
7 Joseph Vargas interviewed by Ed Reyes and Bev Sahagian, Personal Stories from the El Monte Communities
8 Matt Garcia, A World of Its Own: Race, Labor, and Citrus in the Making of Greater Los Angeles, 1900-1970 (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2001).
9 Wendy Cheng, "The Changs Next Door to the Diazes: Suburban Racial Formation in Los Angeles's San Gabriel Valley," Journal of Urban History 39:15 (November, 2012)
10 Mark Brilliant, The Color of America Has Changed: How Racial Diversity Shaped Civil Rights Reform in California, 1941-1978 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010)
11 "Mexican-Americans May Shun Integration Drive" Los Angeles Times, August 9, 1963.
12 Robin D. G. Kelley, Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class (New York, The Free Press, 1994)
13 Lorraine Barnes, "Mrs. LBJ Makes Awards" The Washington Post, February 16, 1966.
14 "Racial and Youth Problems Shared 1969 Headlines With School Bonds" Los Angeles Times, December 28, 1969
15 Pete Nunez interviewed by Greg Hoard, Personal Stories from the El Monte Communities
16 Fernando Ledesma interviewed by Tony Estrada and Greg Hoard, Personal Stories from the El Monte Communities (Whittier, CA: Rio Hondo College, 1977).
17 John Grover, "Valley's Way of Life to Be Altered in 1969." Los Angeles Times, December 29, 1968.
18 Peyton Canary, "Rotary Project to Help Continuation Graduates." Los Angeles Times, June 13, 1969.
19 "Valle Lindo Principal Named Mexican-American Consultant." Los Angeles Times, June 25, 1970.
20 "Pregnant Girls Get Special Aid" Los Angeles Times, April 2, 1971; "School Nursery Helps Mothers - Fathers, Too" Los Angeles Times, February 12, 1976.
21 "PICA" is short for "picar," meaning "to poke" in Spanish.
22 Maria Ávila interviewed by Margie Saucedo and Helen Phillips, Personal Stories from the El Monte Communities
23 Mike Castro, "STUDENT POLARIZATION FEARED." Los Angeles Times, June 1, 1973.
24 Mayerene Barker, "South El Monte Wins Award as All-America City." Los Angeles Times, April 17, 1975.
This piece was originally published on Tropics of Meta in December '2013.