El Monte's Hicks Camp: A Mexican Barrio | KCET
El Monte's Hicks Camp: A Mexican Barrio
In Partnership with the South El Monte Arts Posse
"East of East" is 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.
From the 1910s until its demolition in 1972, Hicks Camp was one of the most vibrant barrios, or neighborhoods, of El Monte. Named after the family who owned the land, Hicks Camp (later renamed Hicksville) grew from several dozen people in 1915 to over a thousand in 1930. Never recognized as an official part of El Monte, the 22-acre barrio was bounded by the Rio Hondo River, Valley Boulevard, Lower Azusa Road, and Arden Drive. Half a mile away was Hayes Camp (later Medina Court), another unplanned migrant camp that grew into a large settlement.  For six decades Hicks Camp and its sister, Hayes Camp, were home to hundreds of families, as generations of Mexican migrants arrived and made their lives there.
Mexicans first came to the San Gabriel Valley in the late eighteenth century, when settlers from New Spain colonized the area as the San Gabriel Mission. In the nineteenth century, many more ranchers and small landowners came as the Mexican government encouraged migration to its northern frontier. In 1848 the area, along with the rest of what is today the western United States became part of the country following the Mexican-American War. However, it was not until the establishment of railroads across Mexico and the United States that large numbers of migrants started to arrive in Southern California. Mexicans came in the tens of thousands per year in this era, following railroads and job opportunities.
The Mexican population of Los Angeles county tripled in size by 1920. They came to work on a new form of large-scale industrial agriculture that relied on irrigation systems, close connections to associated manufacturing, refrigerated railroads to take produce to far-away markets, and most of all, large numbers of seasonal wage laborers. This is what the founders of El Monte meant when they described the area as a bountiful winter garden in promotional literature throughout California. Indeed, by the mid-twentieth century the valley was covered in large farms that produced oranges, lemons, walnuts, apricots, strawberries, and tomatoes, as well as dairy farms, horse ranches, and one lion ranch.
For the migrants who came to Hicks Camp, the place was part of a much longer journey. Most came from the central Mexican states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, and Jalisco, in addition to the northern state of Chihuahua, and had worked and lived elsewhere in the United States prior to coming to El Monte.  Most workers labored in agriculture, and for many this meant a migratory existence up and down California. "We would migrate back and forth to Fresno, Merced, and so forth in the summers," Pete Kunez recalled of his childhood in the 1950s. "And then we'd come back sometime between September and November, and go back to school."
Lupe Ruiz was born in Mexico, and when she was little she moved to Texas, where her parents picked cotton. She then lived in Arizona until 1925, "when my grandmother decided to come to California... I was her favorite grandchild, she brought me with her. We landed in Hicks Camp. A year later my parents came to El Monte to pick me up and go back to Mexico, but they like[d] it here so they--my father decided to stay." 
Lucy Florence, who grew up outside the camp, told college student Pat Aroz, "Every summer, by August, you'd go into Hicks Camp, and there wouldn't be fifty people in it. Everybody would take off, and go up north, and pick cotton, or pick grapes, and come back. So if you went there in August or September, or whenever the seasons were, it was a ghost town. By October everybody would be back." 
By the 1940s, the decline of walnuts and other year-round crops meant that more camp residents had to migrate for work, or leave the fields entirely for other types of work.
Robert Hicks, a labor contractor, recruited Mexicans with fliers in the 1910s, and originally seemed to envision the camp as a source of contract labor for the farms of the area. By the 1920s, however, most Mexican migrants came to Hicks Camp on their own and paid rent to Hicks rather than take his contracts. Rent paid for the leveling of dirt streets and the annual spreading of gravel, but not much else. Even more prosperous Mexicans had to live in the camps, as they were barred by El Monte's racial housing covenants. Homes were built by the families living in them, mostly from repurposed box-cars that were torn up for their wood and frames. "There were holes in the streets, dirt roads, outhouses," Maria Avila remembered. Yet, like in many barrios throughout Southern California, migrants found creative ways to adorn their rented spaces. "You found the prettiest plants in all kinds of coffee cans, lard cans, all kinds of things. Really, but it was poor." 
The City of El Monte refused to provide basic police and fire service for Hicks Camp for several decades, and instead relied on Los Angeles County services from Temple City, which increased response times. This delay proved particularly disastrous in times of crisis. "There was a flood here and wiped out half of Hicks Camp and then, God, you could see pigs floating down the street and cows," recalled Beatriz Pérez. "You name it. Everything, their houses, their shacks."
Not all natural disasters produced such memories, though; Pérez fondly remembers her family's introduction to earthquakes. She was jumping rope with her friend when the earthquake started, and "you could see the sidewalk open up like little waves. My mother had just gotten out of hospital and she kept yelling at us and said, 'Stop jumping, you're going to break the house down.' She thought we were making all this noise and it was the earthquake." 
In addition to frequent flooding and poor housing conditions, residents of Hicks Camp also had to survive hard economic times. The Great Depression began in 1929 and continued until the United States entered World War II in 1941. Throughout this time the residents of Hicks Camp struggled to make ends meet, stay in the country, and organize for better conditions. Most families relied on a mixture of seasonal jobs, local mutual aid societies, and their own backyard gardens and chicken coops to avoid the worst effects of the Depression. The economic downturn, however, increased competition for jobs and the hostility between residents of Hicks Camp and the newly arrived white "okies."
In the early 1930s, 400,000 Mexicans and Mexican-Americans left the United States for Mexico as repatriation campaigns ravaged communities across the country, particularly in Southern California. In El Monte, Robert Hicks began demolishing the homes of those who had left, in an effort to prevent new residents from moving into the camp.  Hicks action's may have been spurred by the momentum union organizers had gained in the camp during the 1930s, especially after the participation of many residents in the 1933 Berry Strike.
In order to understand the conditions that led to the strike, we have to place the residents of Hicks Camp within the larger world of California Agriculture and the U.S. economy. Southern California agriculture in the early twentieth century was an international affair. Owners, tenants, and workers were all migrants. Most owners were white, but few were from California, and many came from the Midwest or were European immigrants. Due to property ownership laws, most Japanese could not own their own farms; instead they made up the largest share of tenant-managers in Southern California, renting the land and overseeing operations. The agricultural labor force was made up of Mexicans (from both sides of the border), Filipinos, Japanese, white "okies," and various European migrants. While farms were mostly owned by proprietors, they tended to grow produce under contract to large national companies with little flexibility over the price of their crops. There were some exceptions to this, such as citrus fruit that was marketed under the Southern California grower-owned Sunkist brand.
In the late 1920s farm workers made numerous attempts to unionize, and these efforts finally found success with the formation of a broad coalition under the Cannery and Agricultural Workers' International Union. Unionization efforts were driven by the poor conditions in the field. "Our working days were from sunrise to sundown," Richard Pérez remembered. "We would take a half hour break in the middle of the day to eat. Everyday was a working day. Weekends and holidays were unheard of." Workers were paid by the cart and could make as little as 9 cents an hour. When the strike began, in the spring of 1933, the union demanded 25 cents an hour and the Japanese tenant farmers, who employed the workers, refused. Over 7,000 people went on strike across the San Gabriel Valley, with the Mexican government and many local organizations supporting the strikers.
As the strike dragged on, the town of El Monte became increasingly divided, as most whites sided with the Japanese farmers and used red-baiting, police brutality, and the media to attack the mostly Mexican strikers. There was no such divide in Hicks Camp, where many of the workers lived. Even the Funeraria Society, which normally arranged funerals for the dead, supported the strike by providing food to workers and their families. The strike had both men and women on the front lines, such as strawberry picker Zenaida (Saidie) Castro, whose son, Augustine Ramos, remembers his father's participation:
In the late summer of 1933, with both sides exhausted and the berries unpicked, the strike was settled for a raise to $1.50 for a 9 hour day or 20 cents an hour minimum. This represented a half-victory -- more than they had started with, but less than what they had fought for. However, there were also long term costs. After the strike the union was prosecuted under the California Criminal Syndicalism Act, leading to its demise in 1934.
In the 1940s the struggle for better conditions shifted to desegregation of El Monte's public accommodations. Before the mid-1950s, schools in El Monte were segregated, with different schools for Whites, Mexicans, and Japanese. Officials in El Monte were suspicious of educating people of color and often steered them towards dropping out or technical vocations. When Pérez began to show promise as a student and went to high school, the superintendent, none other than Robert Hicks, told her father, "Well, I think it's no use, Jose, because she's not going to learn anything in school." 
Led by Fr. John V Coffield of San Juan Bosco Church, residents in Hicks Camp successfully organized to improve the neighborhood and end housing and educational segregation. A lot of residents who bought their own property in Hicks Camp and other unincorporated areas did so because they were not allowed to buy property in El Monte or other Southern California cities. Beatriz Pérez's father could not buy property in the city proper, "because the way the deeds read, no Mexican people could buy no mas. Just what they called the white race. I guess they didn't consider us white. So we couldn't buy any property. Not even Japanese."  Felix Ramos and other residents who grew up in that era remembered Fr. Coffield for a different reason:
Coffield exposed the kids to scouting, the outdoors, pools, and other places Mexicans normally would not be allowed because of city ordinances that segregated local parks and pools. Ramos credits Coffield with helping to fight segregation and keeping students in school, which allowed many of them to finish high school and attend college. Several teachers, a principal, and even a PhD in education came out of the neighborhood. As Ramos put it, "even though we were poor and we were a minority a lot of them progressed because of Fr. Coffield." He was eventually sent to New York, many suspect because of his sympathies for the Brown Berets and the Chicano Movement. 
During World War II many young men from Hicks Camp served in the armed forces, earning many distinctions, but these accomplishments did not save them from discrimination on the home front. In 1943, when the Zoot Suit Riots exploded in neighboring Los Angeles, residents of El Monte's barrios braced for the arrival of violence. Lupe Ruiz said that rumors were prevalent in those chaotic first days. "One night they came to Hicks Camp, a whole bunch of cars, full of sailors, all Anglos," Ruiz remembered. "They was, oh, maybe fifteen, twenty cars challenging the fellows from Hicks Camp to come out and fight with them. Well, they weren't going to come out you know, they didn't know whether they had guns or what." 
After the war many returning men and women found that their service had not qualified them for full citizenship in the eyes of whites. In one case, a young man was taking girls to a dance in El Monte when "he was turned away and told Mexicans were not admitted. The veteran produced his citizenship papers and then was told he wasn't an American just because he had citizenship papers, he was still Mexican." 
Throughout the post war years, Hicks Camp and its residents became more integrated into the area, with events in nearby Medina Court, Legion Stadium, and short drives to the racetrack at Irwindale or the big city lights of Los Angeles. It was these years that most people interviewed remember of Hicks Camp, many reflecting that it was a poor but vibrant community. Growing up in Hicks Camp after WWII, Felix Ramos was raised by his godparents, who owned a small store in Hicks Camp. His godmother had a metate and used it to sell masa and tortillas, which grew into a grocery store. "I was raised in that store," Felix recalls. "I would take care of it in the weekends taking care of the business, whatever had to be done." In the the neighborhood, "the streets were all dirt, we didn't have no pavement, our houses were all wooden and everyone built their own home according to how they wanted to build their home. We owned the home but not the land." 
By 1950 Hicksville (as it had been renamed), had become smaller but more established, with about 200 families, four churches, and a thriving social and civic life. Zagarazo Hall, a former walnut factory, served as everything from a theatre to a church. In 1954 the Barrio was chosen as the backdrop for the film Carmen Jones thanks to its similarity to poor southern towns.  Felix Ramos remembers the era as more prosperous than the 1940s; his godparents' store thrived on serving the Braceros who came every year from Mexico to pick in the fields, and he himself often worked in the fields of grapes, corn, cotton and prunes. Ramos left Hicksville to join the army and spent several years in Europe; when he returned, he used the G.I. Bill to buy a house in the city proper and the skills he learned in the army to get a series of decent jobs, a progression that many Mexican-Americans used to enter the middle class in those years.  The generation that had grown up during the Depression and then served in the armed forces came back with different expectations; they pressed for changes in the 1950s, and a generation later many of their children joined the Chicano Movement.
Hicksville's days, however, were numbered. While the original Hicks Camp encompassed a large area, sales to large scale re-developers and private home owners made the Camp much smaller by the 1960s. One area became a factory, while Rio Vista School replaced another section. After the land's value increased the City of El Monte sought to redevelop and incorporate it into the formal city, and after many attempts the Hicks Family was able to sell the last plots to the City. Slowly at first, and then with increasing speed, the neighborhood was torn down, and in 1973 the last 57 households in Hicks Camp were forced to move out. Most families received compensation for their houses and the option to buy into the new residential redevelopments that replaced them, but most never returned. Most of this last area was redeveloped into modern suburban houses, sold to families that were part of the first generation of the Mexican-American middle class. Many families who left, however, stayed in the area, if not within El Monte or South El Monte, then within the San Gabriel Valley.
While Hicks Camp no longer exists, its influence is still felt in El Monte and beyond. Hundreds of people who grew up in and around it now live in the city, South El Monte, and the San Gabriel Valley, and for them, Hicks Camp in the 1950s and 1960s defined their youth: a world of crops, Mexican music and culture, and a struggle against adversity.
The area that was Hicks Camp has been redeveloped into housing and industrial zones, but in the center of the nondescript neighborhood lies Rio Vista Park. Built several years ago to commemorate the history of the area, the park features historical pictures with plaques that tell the story of Hicks Camp. Inscribed on the sidewalk are the names of former residents. 
On Tyler Avenue stands La Historia Society, a museum and archive to remember the time when Mexicans lived literally on the wrong side of the river. In addition to preserving countless photographs, the museum sells photo calendars and a small collection of books written by former barrio residents. And, of course, remnants of the barrio can be found not just in the stories of former residents, but in their photo albums, homes, and even garages. While it has been more than 50 years since Felix Ramos's family ran the grocery store, he still carefully stores many of the items the store sold for decades to Mexican families. There is the old metate, still able to earn its living after 80 years, countless postcards of actors from Mexico's golden age of cinema, and bottles of old soda pop.The presence of Hicks Camp remains alive in the built environment and collective memory.
Obler, Susan Sellman. Personal Stories from the El Monte Communities: A Project of the Exploratory College. Rio Hondo College Whittier California, 1978.
Rasmussen, Cecilia. "The Heyday and decline of a Lively Barrio." Los Angeles Times, November 27, 1995.
Reft, Ryan. "Archiving Memories of El Monte in a Transnational Space." KCET Intersections, July 25, 2013.
Garcia, Matt. A World of Its Own: Race, Labor, and Citrus in the Making of Greater Los Angeles, 1900-1970. University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
Stoll, Steven. The Fruits of Natural Advantage: Making the Industrial Countryside in California. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
Wollenberg, Charles. "Race and Class in Rural California: The El Monte Berry Strike of 1933." California Historical Quarterly 51:2 (1972): 155.
Hoffman, Abraham. "The El Monte Berry Picker's Strike, 1933." Journal of the West 12:1 9(973): 71-84.
Lopez, Ronald W. "The El Monte Berry Strike of 1933." Aztlán 1 (1970): 101-115.
For more about Hicks Camp and los barrios of El Monte, be sure to visit the La Historia Society in El Monte. http://www.lahistoriasociety.org/
1Cecilia Rasmussen, "The Heyday and Decline of a Lively Barrio," Los Angeles Times, November 27, 1995
3"Hicks Camp Study: Outline of Camp Study" in the Papers of Ralph Leon Beals, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.
4Susan Sellman Obler, Director, Personal Stories from the El Monte Communities: A Project of the Exploratory College, (Rio Hondo College Whittier California): Pg 98 at Whittier Historical Society, Whittier Museum, California
6Susan Sellman Obler, Director, Personal Stories from the El Monte Communities: A Project of the Exploratory College, (Rio Hondo College Whittier California) at Whittier Historical Society, Whittier Museum, California
8Cohern report, 1939-40 in "American You" in the Papers of Ralph Leon Beals, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C
9Susan Sellman Obler, Director, Personal Stories from the El Monte Communities: A Project of the Exploratory College, (Rio Hondo College Whittier California) Pg: 91, at Whittier Historical Society, Whittier Museum, California
12Daniel Morales and Romeo Guzman, Interview with Felix Ramos, January 14, 2014, East of East: Mapping Community Narratives in South El Monte and El Monte, SEMAP
1525 Family Sample Interviews in "American You" in the Papers of Ralph Leon Beals, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C
17 Cecilia Rasmussen, "The Heyday and Decline of a Lively Barrio," Los Angeles Times, November 27, 1995
18Interview with Felix Ramos, Daniel Morales and Romeo Guzman, January 14, 2014, East of East: Mapping Community Narratives in South El Monte and El Monte, SEMAP
19Ryan Reft, "Archiving Memories of El Monte in a Transnational Space," KCET Intersections, July 25, 2013
This piece was originally published on Tropics of Meta in May 2014.
Mexican food has been getting a lot of attention in the United States, which has Mexican chefs trying their luck at opening restaurants across the border. But they soon find out it's not as easy to find success north of the border.
- 1 of 328
- next ›