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Casa Blanca: 104 Years of Cinco De Mayo in a Riverside Barrio

Dancers rush to make a costume change.
Dancers rush to make a costume change.

Within Riverside, 60 miles east of Los Angeles, the prominently Latino neighborhood Casa Blanca held its 104th Cinco De Mayo celebration last week.

Circling into the wind, grand marshals and honored locals rode in convertibles donated from a local dealership, following a procession of low riders and units from local police and fire departments. In between, youth groups halted the parade, this year using a sports theme, to demonstrate cheerleading, drumming, martial arts, and boxing skills.

The grand marshals, former Los Angeles Rams kicker Frank Corral and boxer Mauricio "El Maestro" Herrera, patiently wait for pre-teen cheerleaders to show off their kicks to judges before circling back to Villegas Park for an afternoon of tacos and music.

It was a cultural memorandum that the one-square-mile neighborhood is one of the oldest Mexican-American districts, or barrio, in Southern California.

Family patriarchs, who migrated to the region in the late 1800s to work the railroads and citrus groves, began the festival to create community.

Selma Valero, a lifelong resident of Casa Blanca.
Selma Valero, a lifelong resident of Casa Blanca.

"When my dad came in 1911, they were already celebrating Cinco De Mayo," beams
Selma Valero, 89, a lifelong resident of Casa Blanca whose father came to pick oranges in the local groves.

"The women swept the dirt streets and watered it down for the parade," she says, recalling the early days when a multi-piece band of musicians made of local residents marched down unpaved streets. "Something beautiful about that time. At 5 a.m., the band would play while the American flag was raised, first of course. Then we raised the Mexican flag."

Others who gathered to watch the parade, or later in the park, caught up with friends and talked about years of community projects; like raising money in the 1960s and 70s to replace the early 1920s building that housed St. Anthony's Catholic Church.

The former Casa Blanca School is now used by the Catholic Church.
The former Casa Blanca School is now used by the Catholic Church.

Some talked about the former Casa Blanca Elementary School, along the parade route, at Madison and Fern. For many, it exemplified segregated education in the school district, until children from the neighborhood were bussed to other schools in 1965, the first such busing program for a city the size of Riverside.

Some feel Casa Blanca lost an identity when the school was closed.

"That's a thing I feel is a negative. We were forced to integrate," says neighborhood activist Morris Mendoza. "It wasn't a choice of having two way busing. We no longer had our history. We no longer had our identity. We no longer had a centralized place where parents and community could gather."

The school acted as a social center for the neighborhood that grew in cultural isolation. First surrounded by orange groves, while separated by segregation, it was then flanked by post-World War II housing. Then during the 1970s, the area was isolated by a reputation when conflicts between neighborhood families, rivals in the city's Eastside, and police, festered into violence that received national attention.

That is a stigma it is still burdened with, even as work between community groups and police improved relationships through the decades.

"In some ways, the crime is lower here," says Riverside Councilmember Paul Davis, who adds the neighborhood is sometimes shorted resources, and not always credited for its history. "Even before Casa Blanca was really established, [Hispanic] families were already here."

History Beyond Cinco De Mayo

That lineage dates back to land grants dispersed by then Mexican Governor Pio Pico. Later, ranches were purchased by American developers seeking entrance into the citrus agricultural industry.

In 1878, the Lockwood Brothers purchased a tract for ranching and built a prominent homestead. It was painted white and became a marker for those traveling on railroad lines that began operating in 1888. The white house became the namesake for the new train depot, and then the townsite plotted as "Village of Casa Blanca," according to a 2010 report by the City of Riverside.

By the turn of the century, Casa Blanca was known as a region where workers could live within walking distance to citrus groves and packinghouses. Landowners preferred to sell parcels to families, reasoning if property was sold to single males, there was a risk of labor turnover.

Riverside does not shy away from preserving its place in the commercial citrus industry, yet, there has been no consideration to survey Casa Blanca as a cultural resource of major significance.

"I think a lot can be learned about developing community from Casa Blanca," explains Mendoza, who adds any city would be missing a big part of its local history if it did not include places like his neighborhood. "If they exclude places like this out, a city's history is not fully told."

Says Mendoza: "It might be small, but it is about continuity."

The neighborhood of Casa Blanca has murals dating back to 1971.
The neighborhood of Casa Blanca has murals dating back to 1971.
Mary Gutierrez
Mary Gutierrez
Horseshoe competition at the sports-themed Cinco De Mayo celebration held in Casa Blanca.
Horseshoe competition at the sports-themed Cinco De Mayo celebration held in Casa Blanca.
At the end of the parade route, the Hernandez family says "adios."
At the end of the parade route, the Hernandez family says "adios."

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