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In Search of Buried Histories in El Monte and South El Monte

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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.
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Our pioneers, the Mexican migrant families who made South El Monte and El Monte home, did not write memories, and until very recently did not hold political office. Yet, like today's migrants they constructed the cities' buildings, picked the vegetables and fruits for its residents, and contributed to vibrant youth cultures of the era. Armed with a desire to insert these voices into the official narrative, we set out to construct an archive for and with these two communities. A year ago, in January and February of 2014, the South El Monte Arts Posse (SEMAP) and La Casa de El Hijo del Ahuizote conducted oral histories with the cities' older residents as well as more recent arrivals, hosted writing workshops at zumba studios and schools, took inventory of the trees that line some our streets, digitized family photographs, city documents, and punk fliers. This new material allowed us to write more than twenty essays, many of which are featured on our East of East column. However, our project generated as many questions as it did answers.

This year, for the next few days, we'll be following the archival trails that left us intrigued and more excited than ever to build an archive with our community. Through the History in Action Project Award at Columbia University, Nick Juravich, Daniel Morales (both PhD Candidates in history) and SEMAP will be looking for El Monte and South El Monte residents, former and current, who were involved in the founding of the city of South El Monte, educators from the 1960s to 1980s, and barrio residents and Bracero workers.

Here is what we know, some what we don't know, and how you can help.

In Search of Juan Mejia and South El Monte's Lost Murals

By Romeo Guzman

A year ago, South El Monte city officials provided SEMAP with access to their unclassified and mostly unorganized material for our archive project. In City Hall's basement, we quietly and gently opened boxes, emptied folders, and looked through thousands of photographs. We found black and white photos depicting ordinary but lovely scenes of life around the city -- the dirt stretch of Rush Street in the 1960s, boxing matches and summer days at the swimming pools frozen in action, a beauty contest held at Golfland, young boys playing baseball and football, and to our surprise photographs of murals from an unknown area, of which no trace remains.

Watching a promotional 16mm film of South El Monte at Echo Park Film Center | Photo by City of South El Monte, courtesy of SEMAP
Watching a promotional 16mm film of South El Monte at Echo Park Film Center | Photo by City of South El Monte, courtesy of SEMAP

And then there's Juan Mejia. Juan Mejia on the phone. Juan Mejia lounging, his feet on his desk. Juan Mejia striking a pose.The more we photos we found of Juan the funnier it seemed and the more intrigued we became. Juan was everywhere and yet we had no idea who he was or what he did. Then, finally a clue, Juan Mejia holding a sign that read: "Juan Mejia Human Resources." But this didn't make sense. Juan was never pictured in a tie or suit, he had long hair and fashionable shirts. He was certainly performative for the camera. He didn't seem like the kind of guy responsible for hiring and firing people.

Flash forward to January 2015. We pick up a 16 mm film of South El Monte from 1974, the same year the city won the City of Achievement Award and head to Echo Park Film Center. To our surprise it was a promotional film of South El Monte, which lauded among other things its youth programs: gang prevention, battle of the bands, and the painting of murals in South El Monte! And there with the youth, we found Juan Mejia. We did some research and discovered that during this time period, Human Resources was the name of departments across the nation in charge of doing community outreach and usually consisted of members of the community with ties to local parents and youth. Rather than addressing maternity leaves or reviewing benefits packages, Human Resources was an entity with deep knowledge of and involvment with community.

We know a little bit more about Juan Mejia, but not much and even less about the youth who helped create these murals. Here is where you come in: we are asking the community to help us locate Juan Mejia, youth who were part of the mural project, and residents who lived in South El Monte from 1950 to 1970.

And, for those of you who are just now learning about South El Monte's lost murals: Please join us at this Saturday's event at 2 p.m. at the South El Monte Senior Center to view vintage 16mm film that includes footage of the long-disappeared murals and other aspects of South El Monte life. And of course, Juan Mejia.

Creating murals in South El Monte | Photo by City of South El Monte, courtesy of SEMAP
Creating murals in South El Monte | Photo by City of South El Monte, courtesy of SEMAP

Building El Monte's Immigrant roots.

By Daniel Morales

While today's El Monte and South El Monte are increasingly seen as diverse communities with immigrants from around the world, in many ways, this is a return to the past. In the early twentieth century, as the San Gabriel Valley was being transformed by railroads and farming, immigrants came from around the world. Migrants from the U.S. eastcoast and the south were joined by Okies, Europeans, Japanese, Filipino, and Mexican migrant workers. El Monte developed a ring of ethnic barrios where many of these newcomers lived. Some like Hicks Camp became long lived vibrant communities, while others disappeared relatively quickly.

While we know a good deal about Hicks and Medina Court in El Monte, we know almost nothing about the barrios of South El Monte: La Mission and Canta Ranas, both once located in what is now the Whittier Narrows Parks. La Mision was probably a barrio named for its proximity to the original San Gabriel Mission by the Rio Hondo river, while Canta Ranas earned its name from the frogs and other animal life that sang long the local bodies of water. We also don't know a great deal of how these barrios interacted with each other. Did they all attend similar parties, for example? We do not know how migration into and out of the camps worked, or how circular migration to fields in Northern California operated. During an oral history with Joe Bautista, we learned that his family hired Braceros and invited them to share a song, a dance, and a plate of food at barrio gaterthings.

We would love to learn more about how the Bracero Program, the U.S.-Mexico temporary program from 1941 to 1965, and more contemporary migration have impacted these two communities. Did you grow up in one of the barrios? Was your father or grandfather a worker in the U.S-Mexico Bracero Program? Do you have photos or other material you would be willing to share? Your story is part of history, make it known!

Map of Canta Ranas, with two of its residents | Photo courtesy of La Historia Society

More Fist-Pumps: Educators, Parents, and Students.

By Nick Juravich

Research can be tough, but there are wonderful moments in every project that make it all worthwhile (the old jock in me calls them "fist-pump" moments). Finding Fernando Ledesma's testimony in the oral history collection "Personal Stories from the El Monte Communities" from Rio Hondo College was a fist-pump moment. The USC track star and Marine Corps veteran came to El Monte to "work with some Mexican-American people that need models" as an educator and never left. In 1973, as economic crises wreaked havoc on working-class school districts, his wife pushed him to become principal at Mountain View High School, telling him "you went into [education] to help people in the community when they needed you." Ledesma tackled challenges of poverty, racism, and violence by harnessing "unbelievable" community support and building programs that "provided more jobs for people in the community, teachers as well as aides and kids." Today, the continuation high school in El Monte where he worked many nights and weekends in addition to his daily labor bears his name.

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In reading how Ledesma combined institutional and community resources across generations, races, and classes, I began to see a pattern of collaborative community development and civic participation in my other sources. It became the frame for my essay on South El Monte.

One year later, I've finally made it the San Gabriel Valley, and the fist-pumps keep coming. On Wednesday, I met Patsy Sutley, a parent, aide, CSEA president, and Mountain View District Board Member over the course of 50 years in El Monte. She invited her fellow campaigner Ida Werrett to join us, and we talked for over three hours about their many struggles as parents and educators, including a long battle over the school board in the late 1980s and 1990s. As they spoke of this fight, they flipped through their "war books," massive binders in which they had collected everything from newspaper clippings to board meeting minutes to election fliers to poems they had written. These "war books," which we hope to collect and digitize, offer a one-of-a-kind insider's view into the history of school politics and activism in the city.

Patsy Sutley and Ida Werret and their 'war books' | Photo by City of South El Monte, courtesy of SEMAP
Patsy Sutley and Ida Werret and their 'war books' | Photo by City of South El Monte, courtesy of SEMAP

Thursday yielded moving memories from Olga Gutierrez at El Monte's La Historia Society. Growing up in East L.A., teachers taped her mouth shut if she spoke Spanish, but she survived these traumas to attend college and become a teacher herself. After working with Cesar Chavez and the UFW, and with Sal Castro to coordinate the L.A. walkouts, Gutierrez came to teach in El Monte, helping students found a chapter of MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Atzlan) at Mountain View while Ledesma was principal.

Every interview and every document adds a layer of complexity to this history. Sometimes there are moments of convergence, as when Gutierrez remembered how important it was that Ledesma hired locally to bring role models into schools. Other times, complications arise; a parent organization I wrote enthusiastically about in the 1970s became a major opponent of the CSEA in the 1980s.

While there will never be one simple story about the complexities of education, activism, and community, these new materials open up new possibilities. We would love to hear from students who attended Mountain View when Ledesma and Gutierrez worked there, from other school board campaigners from the 1990s, parents and members of PICA, CSEA, and MEChA. The more we can collect, the better the chance that someone can use these materials to have a fist-pump moment of their own.

Join the South El Monte Arts Posse, The City of South El Monte, and KCET Departures and share with us your stories this Saturday, January 10 at 10 a.m. at South El Monte Senior Center; and this Sunday, January 11 at 10 a.m. La Historia Society Museum in El Monte. Details here and here.