Hometown Picnics: How Newcomers Kept Memory of Home Alive in Los Angeles | KCET
Hometown Picnics: How Newcomers Kept Memory of Home Alive in Los Angeles
Fifty-thousand former Iowans descended upon Long Beach’s Bixby Park on Aug. 11, 1934, for their state society's annual summer picnic. California Gov. Frank Merriam, a fixture of the Iowa picnics and a former Hawkeye, spoke, as did two Los Angeles County judges. Ninety couples competed for “best Virginia Reel dancer” as part of the Iowa Association's Golden Wedding Club for couples celebrating 50 years of marriage. Musicians accompanied the picnickers as they sang the “Iowa Corn Song.” Sandwiches, potato salad, deviled eggs, cucumber rings, fried chicken, homemade cookies, cakes, and pies were on the menu as erstwhile Hawkeyes discussed the news from back home.
Iowa picnic attendees wore differently colored ribbons to differentiate their relationship to Iowa. Red ribbons were for Iowa natives while Iowa pioneers (Iowa residents for over 50 years) wore white. Guests of Iowans wore yellow ribbons to represent “the jaundice of envy of those who were not Hawkeyes.” Despite these ribbon colors, all were now residents of Southern California. And like all previous and future Iowa picnics, speakers at the 1934 event touted the symbiotic relationship between California and Iowa, often joking that Long Beach was Pacific Coast capital of Iowa. As Carey McWilliams once wrote, "for years all roads in Southern California on Iowa Day, led to picnic grounds.”
McWilliams described “the state society” as a unique Southern California institution. Pennsylvanians started Los Angeles’ first state society in 1886, and by the 1920s every state in the union was represented with a total of 500,000 members. The concept became so popular that the Federation of State Societies was established to manage all the different groups. C. H. Parsons, leader of California’s Federation of State Societies, told the Los Angeles Times in 1937 that “the prime purpose of the organization, the only one of its kind in the United States, is to promote sociability to keep alive the friendships formed in ‘the old home town.’”
While Parsons may not have known that Washington, DC, also had a tradition of state societies dating to the 1850s, he also failed to acknowledge that many immigrant communities in Los Angeles were also reunited with kin from their own hometowns, states, prefectures, and provinces. Immigrant mutual aid societies have long been a part of Los Angeles since the Hebrew Benevolent Society opened the city’s first charity in 1854. Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, Mexican families in Los Angeles could turn to mutualistas (mutual aid societies) such as La Confederacion De Sociedades Mexicanas and La Liga Protectora Mexicana for legal support. Mutualistas have a long history in Southern California and currently include the formalized Mexican and Central American Hometown Associations (HTA) such as the Federation of Zacatecan Clubs of Southern California and the Organization Regional de Oaxaca.
One of the earliest examples of a mutual aid society based on regional origin was the Chinese huiguan (hometown/native place associations), which started in China as a way to aid travel across the empire. “The overseas Chinese huiguan has centuries-old antecedents in China. Similar organizations already existed in the imperial capital of Peking as early as the 15th century," according to historian Him Mark Lai. The Chinese who crossed the Pacific brought this tradition to California. By the 1860s, Los Angeles’ first Chinese immigrants had joined the See Yup (Sze Yup) Company, a huiguan for immigrants from the Guangdong Province. As one of the oldest in Los Angeles, Chinatown’s Kong Chow Benevolent Association grew out of the See Yup Company. The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (established in 1889) is the umbrella organization for these hometown groups. And as Eugene Moy of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California confirmed, reunions and picnics were part of the social functions of these groups.
Filipino-Angelenos adopted a similar tradition as they immigrated to Los Angeles. “Filipinos recreate a bit of ‘home’ [in Los Angeles] by setting up town or provincial associations,” wrote Bangele Deguzman Alsaybar in a dissertation about the youth culture in Los Angeles. These provincial associations started as early as 1930 and, like the state societies, often organized an annual picnic. In a phone interview, KCET contributor Elson Trinidad shared memories of attending events from different provincial associations as his parents were from different parts of the Philippines. He remembered fondly the picnics of the Boholanos of Southern California (established in 1955) and Christmas parties for the Pagsanjan Association (a hometown group). The picnics were often held at Veterans Park in Redondo Beach and the Santa Fe Dam Recreational Area. At every picnic, there was “roast pig (lechon), different varieties of pancit, various forms of adobo, lumpia, always a fruit salad, and different types of American food like fried chicken,” Trinidad recounted.
Jewish-Angelenos new to the city created their own mutual aid societies based on the tradition called landsmanshaftn, or Jewish mutual aid societies made up of migrants from the same towns. These organizations existed before World War II, but “by 1950, several dozen social clubs organized around city of origin flourished in Los Angeles,” wrote Deborah Dash Moore in “To the Golden Cities: Pursuing the American Jewish Dream in Miami and L.A." Jewish-Angelenos joined groups like the Chicago-Detroit Club of Los Angeles, the Omaha Friendship Club, the Boston Club, the New York Friendship Club. According to Moore, “almost all hosted annual picnics that usually drew hundreds of participants to Hollywood, Westlake, or Griffith Park."
The Japanese prefectural associations, called kenjinkais, are some of the oldest hometown groups in Los Angeles. The Japanese Prefectural Association of Southern California notes that there are 41 active Kenjinkais in Southern California and over 20 have already celebrated their centennial. The book published for the Nanka Yamaguchi Kenjinkai centennial explains how the kenjinkai “provided social opportunities for young immigrants who shared the same dialect and sentiments.” The annual picnic has long been a long tradition in each kenjinkia as Arlene Nakamura, the organization’s former president, fondly remembered in her article for “Discover Nikkei”:
When historians look at 20th-century Los Angeles, they often cite the state society and its annual picnic as one of the strategies Anglo-American migrants used to adjust to life in the sprawling region. Yet not enough attention is drawn to the fact that this concept was a coping mechanism for all those new to Los Angeles. Granted, Anglo-American state societies differed from the immigrant mutual aid societies in that immigrants often needed economic support and help adjusting to American culture. Yet it was ironic, historian George Sanchez explained in “Becoming Mexican American,” that “because of the burgeoning character of migration into Los Angeles, these efforts [of Americanization] often amounted to one newcomer trying to change another while neither was particularly familiar with the local conditions or customs.”
Regardless of whether one was an American migrant or an immigrant, to quote Carey McWilliams, “the newcomer is generally able to find, somewhere in the vast recesses of Los Angeles, others of his kind. Association with them enable him to keep alive his memory of home.” And often it was the hometown picnic which kept that memory of home alive. As Nakamura wrote, “the picnic was the common thread to connect one generation to the next."
Arlene Nakamura, “My Involvement in the Kenjinkai.” in Discover Nikkei, March 18, 2009.
David Fitzgerald. “Colonies of the Little Motherland: Membership, Space and Time in Mexican Migrant Hometown Associations." Comparative Studies in Society and History (2008): 145-169.
“Past, Present, and Future.” Discover Nikkei & Japanese American National Museum.