James Becerra: 'Ants Build Anthills, People Build Cities'

Mrs. Ruiz' Christmas, including a young James Becerra. Image courtesy James Becerra
Mrs. Ruiz' Christmas, including James Becerra's father, uncle, and others from the neighborhood, taken around 1933. Image courtesy James Becerra

Each week, Jeremy Rosenberg (@losjeremy) asks, "How did you -- or your family before you -- wind up living in Los Angeles?"

Today we hear from Cal Poly Pomona Landscape Architecture faculty member James Becerra:


"My mother's side of the family came from Las Cruces, New Mexico during the early 1930s. This was during the Depression, and my grandfather couldn't find work. He came to Los Angeles and his first job was in a nursery.

"There were still big nurseries in West L.A. then -- Ecke, Armacost & Royston, Paul J Howard and Cinema Nursery where my grandfather worked. That nursery supplied a lot of plant material to the studios. It was owned by an Issei Family and, of course, they lost it at the beginning of World War II.

"Even during the Depression, and certainly after the War, it was possible to raise a family, buy a home, send your kids to college -- my uncle went to law school. I'm not saying this was exceptional, I'm just saying that at the time, this was within the realm of the possible.

Story continues below

"On my father's side, we're an old family from Santa Monica. My great great grandfather Eustaquio Casillas,migrated from El Valle de Guadalupe, Jalisco, Mexico. He lived to be 105-years-old and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.

"I'm the fifth generation to be born in Santa Monica. My mother met my dad for the first time when they were kids -- they were probably ten or eleven years old. My dad's family had been in Santa Monica longer; my mom's family moved in next door to them.

"My mother is 85-years-old and still going strong. She went to Saint Ann [Grammar] School. She still sees her friends from, literally, 80-years ago. She's active at St. Monica'snow but still goes to the annual Novena at St. Anne and sees old friends, although there are less and less of them now.

"What's really wonderful -- probably the best lesson they gave to me -- is how that whole generation stayed friends.

"They married each other, they had nicknames for each other, they knew the same dances, they went to the beach together. My grandmother even used to organize parades on part of Olympic Blvd in Santa Monica. It used to be called Pennsylvania Avenue before the freeway came through.

"This was probably the last generation where you had that sort of insulated neighborhood bond. That was also one of the last of the old communities in L.A. County. Boyle Heights had that bond. Watts had it. Manhattan Beach. These little enclaves.

"I live in Whittier now. I still have tons of friends on the Westside. I'm a Westside guy at heart, but with the traffic -- it's just so congested! And you get older -- I have kids, I'm not really going to those clubs and restaurants that much any more.

Eustaquio Casillas, the great great grandfather of James Becerra. Image courtesy James Becerra
Eustaquio Casillas, the great great grandfather of James Becerra. Image courtesy James Becerra

"A couple of days ago, though, I was having lunch with my mom, my niece and my niece's grandparents. We were near Third Street at Buca di Beppo.

"Walking there, I saw that they are tearing down the old Mayfair Theater. I tell my aunt -- she's 80-years-old -- and she says, 'No, that was the Majestic Theater.'

"We are both right -- it just depends on what era you're from. The theater had different names. We're talking about this at lunch and my brother's mother-in-law says, 'I used to be an usher there.'

"Then the table goes down memory lane and talks about all the different shows over the years. It's really interesting to hear stories connected to a place. People think there are no roots to L.A. but there really are.

"I've traveled and lived all over the world. Mexico. East Africa. Austria. Italy. Just to name a few. But L.A. is my home. Santa Monica is my home. I'm really proud of the place and I'll always do what I can to make it a good city.

"I just did a project at the Weingart Center. We looked at the homeless vets on skid row -- that population is going through the roof. I also just completed a project with Homeboy Industries. I'm fortunate to be able to show my students the many elements of the urban landscape and have them consider various solutions to these seemingly endemic conditions.

"I really believe in -- I really love -- this city. In one of the classes that I teach, I tell my students, 'The city is mankind's greatest creation.' Ants build anthills. People build cities.

"I'm really fortunate that I can teach students how to look at the city and envision a better environment wherever it is that they want to live. Better meaning, a more enriching habitat for the human condition."

-James Becerra
(as told to Jeremy Rosenberg)

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading