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John Arroyo: Four Generations in East L.A., Plus Urban Planning and The Tomato King

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KCET Departures asks, "What's your or your family's Los Angeles arrival story?"

Today we hear from urban planner, John Arroyo:


"John Viramontes, my grandpa, was nine years old when he left El Cargadero in Zacatecas, Mexico for Los Angeles in 1919.

"The oldest of nine children, he helped his family settle in East Los Angeles, near the intersection of First Street and Humphreys Avenue and the Slavic cemeteries that pre-dated construction of the 710 (Long Beach) Freeway.

"Over time, this neighborhood became home base for multiple generations of my American and Mexican born family members.

"My grandpa attended middle school at Hammel Street School in City Terrace only up to the sixth grade, at which point he left to work at a foundry and financially support his family.

"This experience led him to a lifelong career in construction. He worked on many of the buildings that dot the campus of California State University, Los Angeles as well as factories along the L.A. River. In fact, he was once featured on the cover of the Los Angeles Times for saving a friend and co-worker who was buried alive after construction site accident.

"His construction skill and interest in the development of Los Angeles also inspired his proud and lifelong allegiance to the Laborers International Union of North America Local 300 AFL-CIO.

"In his spare time he played the banjo and guitar at family gatherings, sang tenor, and liked to cook (he loved tamales and Thanksgiving Dinner). He was dedicated to his family and recognized the importance of education and cultural heritage, so much that mom and Tia Belén learned English and Spanish as dual native languages.

"Maria Petra Viramontes, my grandmother, arrived to Los Angeles in 1948. Like my Grandpa John, she realized her family's financial difficulties and persuaded her sister (my Tia Cuca) to accompany her on the journey to the U.S.

"Beginning in Zacatecas, they met their sister Bonifacia at the Arizona/Mexico border and continued on to Los Angeles via train, where my grandpa John's family offered them place to stay in exchange for housekeeping services. Within a short period of time my Tia Cuca grew homesick and moved back to El Cargadero. My Abuelita Petra stayed and eventually found work on the laundry and janitorial staff of the former The Queen of Angels Hospital in Echo Park.

"My Grandpa John and Abuelita Petra had three daughters: my Tia Socorro, my Tia Belén, and my mom Refugia (Ruth), all of whom were born in Los Angeles. However, immigration challenges forced my Abuelita Petra to return back to Mexico (first to El Cargadero, then to Tijuana). There my Grandpa John and Abuelita Petra married in a civil ceremony.

"My mom vividly recalls my family's challenging life in Tijuana. My Grandpa John continued working construction jobs back in Los Angeles while my Abuelita Petra raised the children in one of Tijuana's hillside slum settlements, near the Tijuana River. Shortly thereafter my Tia Socorro fell ill with an infantile pneumonia and died.

"A defining moment during my family's time in Tijuana came after their home was burglarized. While my family had few possessions, one of the most important was a blue, metallic trunk that contained important legal documents (including my mom and Tia Belén's American birth certificates) and formal clothing reserved for the day that family would cross the border and return to Los Angeles.

"Fortunately the trunk was found. It held sentimental value because it had traveled from El Cargadero to Arizona to Los Angeles to Tijuana, and eventually back to Los Angeles. In short, the trunk's travels represented my family's own transnational history and immigration struggles. It has resided with my family in East L.A. for nearly 100 years.

"Upon returning to Los Angeles my Abuelita Petra found a job with Barth & Dreyfuss, a large textile company that had a towel factory on Santa Fe Avenue, in downtown's industrial district. For 30 years she folded towels and assembled gift sets sold at major department stores across the United States.

"Along with her counterparts, she made roughly $150 a week, a sum that would have to support her family (both in Los Angeles and in Mexico). She often worked overtime and helped friends and family members get jobs at the factory or made them clothes with extra material found in trash bins.

"Apart from her work at Barth & Dreyfuss, my Abuelita Petra's strong independence and entrepreneurial spirit led to several side jobs. She was an authorized seller for the Smiley Catalogue (a local vendor that specialized in nylons and underwear) as well as for L & S Sales (a precursor to Avon and Mary Kay Cosmetics). Her success in sales was evident in large customer base she served in the East L.A. area.


"In 1968 my family bought a $13,000 home in Belvedere district of East L.A., not far from the original house near First Street and Humphreys*, on the same block of the former location of the C.Y.O. and Self-Help Graphics & Art. My mom and Tia Belén remember accompanying my grandparents to sign the loan documents at Glendale Federal Bank on First Street and Indiana, near El Mercadito.

"Many of my cousins worked as farm hands tolling in the fruit fields of Orange County (Anaheim and Santa Ana) central California (Fresno and Bakersfield), and the Sacramento area (Winters and Porterville). They came every year for the "temporadas" - the pre-summer fruit-picking season that began in early May. Eventually our house in East L.A. became an unofficial rest stop for my migrant family members, whether on their way up or down central the California coast.

"My uncle, Andrés Bermudez Viramontes, was one of the many migrant workers who traveled from Zacatecas to California during the harvest season. With only a high school education, he worked in the fields of Orange County before settled in Winters, California.

"There he devised a harvesting machine that multiplied tomatoes and increased profits across California's tomatoes plantations. This was extraordinary for a migrant. The invention made him to one of California's strongest agricultural entrepreneurs and earned him the title "El Rey del Tomate" ("the Tomato King") here in U.S. and back home in Mexico.

"Andrés leveraged his position to organize other migrant workers, beginning with his service as a founding member and president of the Club de Zacatecanos in San Jose, California. Apart from San Jose, Zacatecano clubs formed across the U.S, including the Federacion de Clubes Zacatecanos del Sur de California (which not surprisingly, has its home base in East L.A.) or the Club Social El Cargadero in Santa Ana (one of the largest in the U.S.).

"Members of these clubs and hometown associations were so devoted to Zacatecas that they would raise funds to pay for civic improvement projects. In time Andrés would become the first bi-national American citizen of Mexican descent to win a popular election in Mexico, which he served until his death in 2009.

"His political candidacy provided a basis from which to consider opening the Mexican political system to the electoral participation of migrants, including voting rights for dual citizens and absentee voters.

"I was born in Monterey Park in 1980. I attended elementary school in East L.A., followed by high school at Loyola High School and an undergraduate degree in journalism/communications from USC.**

"My love for Los Angeles inspired me to work on interesting arts, culture, and heritage urban planning projects for various public, private, and non-profit community development organizations and large-scale nationally recognized foundations, as well as proactive local and regional public agencies. During this time I lived in East L.A., Long Beach, and Highland Park.

"In 2001, my sister Melissa gave birth to a wonderful new addition to our family: Avery Alyssa Arroyo, making way for a fourth generation of my family living under the same roof in East L.A., including my three siblings (Melissa, Shawn, and Justin), my mom, my Tia Belén, my uncle Isauro, and Shaleen. And just as education was important for my Abuelita Petra and Grandpa John, so to was it for my mom, Tia Belén, and uncle (my mom and uncle are both teachers in East L.A. and my aunt is a school psychologist).

"In 2008 I left Los Angeles to pursue graduate studies in urban planning and urban design at MIT. While at MIT, I worked on planning, design, and cultural development research and applied projects.

"My work led me to various cities including New Orleans, Washington, D.C., Boston, and Buffalo and was recognized through fellowships/scholarships from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, American Planning Association, and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. My master's thesis, Culture in Concrete: Art and the Re-imagination of the Los Angeles River as Civic Space, focused on the role of art, culture, and landscape as a tool for civic engagement and public space planning along the Los Angeles River. Writing my thesis and its accompanying MIT CoLab Radio research blog (also adapted by Departures) was a uniquely personal project that allowed me to reflect on family's Eastside experiences and perspective.

"And while I missed Los Angeles, both my family's transnational experience and my experiences outside of L.A. taught me look at cities in a whole new way. They also inspired me to seek more international experience and projects overseas (Barcelona and Berlin) with the support of the MIT International Science and Technology Initiative. I also spent a month hiking over 700 miles across southern France and northern Spain along El Camino de Santiago.

"The other day I drove past my family's original house on First Street and Humphrey's. It looked just as it did, complete with the mosaic of the Virgin de Guadalupe on the façade.

"Just like our metallic blue legendary trunk, it's amazing to consider that my family's arrival story will soon celebrate nearly a century (since my Grandpa John's arrival in 1919) leading to four generations of life in East L.A. and across Southern California."

--John Arroyo
(as emailed to Jeremy Rosenberg)


**Jeremy Rosenberg works there.

Top Photo Illustration: (Clockwise from top left) -- The U.S. Social Security Card for Mexican immigrants for John Arroyo's Abuelita Petra; John Arroyo's Abuelita Petra (left) and Tia Cuca (right), taken shortly after arriving in Los Angeles in the late 1940s; a pay stub from Abuelita Petra's work at the Barth & Dreyfuss factory on Sante Fe Avenue; and the Alien Registration Receipt Card for John Arroyo's Grandpa John. All images courtesy John Arroyo

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