Tongva to Zumba: 'East of East' Celebrates Radical History of El Monte

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When Junipero Serra’s Franciscan friars arrived in the San Gabriel Valley and established their mission in 1771, thousands of Tongva people were already living in villages throughout the L.A. basin. The Tongva resisted and rebelled against their Catholic colonizers, led by the medicine woman Toypurina. Her legendary story and golden visage adorn walls, murals and public art around the San Gabriel Valley today. 

Not far from where the San Gabriel Mission stands, there was a lion farm where a couple of European circus performers raised the big cats and rented them out to big Hollywood studios for movies like “The Circus,” starring Charlie Chaplin. Gay's Lion Farm was located in the lush landscapes of the San Gabriel and Rio Hondo river valleys near Whitter Narrows Park. This setting lent itself to Hollywood imaginings of 'exotic' faraway lands, whether an African jungle for “Tarzan” or the deep south in D. W. Griffith’s ode to the Confederacy, “The Birth of a Nation.” The lion farm closed in 1949, and the 60 freeway runs through the land now, but its legacy lives on at El Monte High School, home of the Lions.

A new book, “East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte,” recovers these and other submerged stories in a fresh look at the larger histories of the cities and suburbs of the San Gabriel Valley. This stunning collection of essays presents a new archive of the Indigenous, immigrant and working class. These cultural histories decenter the official whitewashed founding-father and other “pioneer” narratives that cites like El Monte and others in the “majority-minority” San Gabriel Valley continue to memorialize and uphold. 

“East of East” insists that we look to the rebels, anarchists, labor organizers, immigrants, students, artists, radio D.J.s, punk bands and lesbian bars that made greater El Monte and the San Gabriel Valley region significant to the emergence of Los Angeles, California, the “Wild West,” the U.S.-Mexico borderlands and the Pacific Rim.

Mapping East of East

"East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte" cover
"East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte" cover

The book contains well-written cultural criticism, archival work, oral histories and creative storytelling about greater El Monte, including cities like South El Monte, Whittier, Pico Rivera and La Puente. It is organized thematically and spans over 500 years of history, from Tongva settlement in the Los Angeles basin to the Zumba Latin-dance exercise phenomenon in South El Monte. 

As an academic press imprint, “East of East” draws on scholarship in disciplines such as history, cultural studies and urban geography. However, its strength lies in its ability to amplify the voices and expressions of those generally excluded from official archival histories to provide a “new archive” of the region’s historical and contemporary significance.Readers will be pulled into a storybook of alternate histories that feature personalities like Art Laboe, the iconic Armenian-American radio D.J. and dance-party host who made dances at the Legion Hall and call-in song dedications famous among generations of working-class Mexican American youth around El Monte and greater East L.A.

Chapters about labor strikes in the 1930s, vigilantes on horseback, Japanese farmers during WWII internment, the Chicano Movement, and the punk music scene fill out this rich collection that radicalizes histories of California and the Western U.S.

Public History for the People Who Live(d) It

“East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte” is a book about what happens when an arts collective pulls together over eight years’ worth of research towards addressing this question about their region’s official histories:

The book’s roots are in the “East of East” public history project launched in 2012 by the South El Monte Arts Posse (SEMAP). An arts collective of organizers, educators, writers, historians and community members, SEMAP committed to building a new archive of El Monte and South El Monte, “one that began before the arrival of white pioneers and continued into the present.” 

SEMAP was founded by South El Monte-born journalist, writer and artist Carribean Fragoza and co-directed by Romeo Guzmán, a history professor at Claremont Graduate University. They are joined by Alex Sayf Cummings, author and history professor at Georgia State University, and Ryan Reft, a historian at the Library of Congress, as the book’s editors.

Birthday party in El Monte's Hicks Camp. | Courtesy of South El Monte Arts Posse and Vincent Rojas Jr.
Birthday party in El Monte's Hicks Camp. | Courtesy of South El Monte Arts Posse and Vincent Rojas Jr.

The contributors' essays are well-written and engaging. Each contributor writes from their connections to the "greater El Monte" area, providing insights and analyses that only locals with roots there can do. The creative stories about Rush Street, Epiphany Church and others that conclude the volume, for example, illustrate this point beautifully.  

The readability and narrative progression of “East of East” belies its scholarly rigor. Sure, the book is laced with academic discourse and other multisyllabic terms that may leave some readers reaching for a dictionary, but not to the point of alienation or to the detriment of enjoyment.  

Enrique and Ricardo Flores Magón were both part of Southern California's anarchist movement. | Courtesy of La Casa de El Hijo del Ahuizote
Enrique and Ricardo Flores Magón were both part of Southern California's anarchist movement. | Courtesy of La Casa de El Hijo del Ahuizote

On the contrary, where else can someone read about how a lion park, a labor strike, a Legion Stadium DJ, a lesbian bar and a La Puente punk rock hero are all connected and matter to the greater history of a region? Such topics are familiar and accessible to general readers looking for local histories they can discuss with their parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents and school mates who remember back when the “Red Cars” operated or who spent lazy summer days at Marrano Beach.

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As a living archive of oral histories, collective memories and solid library research, “East of East” represents the best kind of public-facing, accessible scholarship for, by and about local communities.

Like Toppling a Statue

Young woman sits on the ground eating an orange, as a large lion watches her at Gay's Lion Farm. | Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library
Young woman sits on the ground eating an orange, as a large lion watches her at Gay's Lion Farm. | Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

On May 6, over 300 people logged into the Vroman’s Bookstore website to watch a reading and panel discussion of “East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte.” 

In the middle of a pandemic, deep recession and a Black Lives Matter movement that has the nation reckoning with racism, it is hard to read, write or care about anything else. 

But “East of East” is no ordinary book. The 300+ people who showed up for the virtual panel suggest its relevance and timeliness for readers interested in radical perspectives of our local histories. Such a response demonstrates the urgency of our collective need and desire for new perspectives and solutions for solving age-old problems such as systemic racism and capitalist exploitation.  

In her 2002 essay, “An Irrevocable Promise,” the San Gabriel born Chicana poet and artist Cherríe Moraga writes about theater as a way to “dig up the dirt” and “uncover what we don’t remember” and “find something of what it left of us.”

When we decenter whiteness and re-center silenced and marginalized voices, bodies and experiences; when we write over the erasures and excavate what was buried; when we fill in gaps that whole academic disciplines and fields work to widen; when we look to our own families, communities and friends for long-lost answers, then we begin the work of “digging up the dirt.”

Nazi headquarters in El Monte, 1970. | Courtesy of Michael Sedano
Nazi headquarters in El Monte, 1970. | Courtesy of Michael Sedano

“East of East” digs up the dirt of greater El Monte to find what is left of “us” — for the authors and contributors born and raised there, and for the Indigenous, immigrant, multiracial, multicultural and transnational communities brought to vivid life in these pages. It writes “us” back into the narratives that erased us and writes new ones to remind us that white pioneer settlers are just part of the story, not the center of it. 

Reading this book is the intellectual equivalent of toppling a statue of Serra or Sutter, or renaming a school or street after someone other than a white settler, slaveholder, colonizer, or other “heroic” agent of systemic U.S. American racism. 

During these times, “East of East” is a guide to our collective past struggles and fights for justice. You might want to add it to your radical reading lists.

Top Image: Ron Reeder and Joseph Janusz, "Godzilla Visiting El Monte." | Courtesy of South El Monte Arts Posse and Ron Reeder

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