Archiving Memories of El Monte in a Transnational Space


[Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the Intersections column of KCET Departures on July 25, 2013. Next week ToM resumes its coverage of SEMAP’s East of East initiative described in the article, for previous articles from this project see here.]

“I’m all alone, feeling so blue. Thinking about you and the love we once knew,” the doo-wop group, the Penguins, crooned in 1963. “And each time I do, it brings back those memories of El Monte.” Written by Frank Zappa, the Penguins’ metasong recalled the days of El Monte’s iconic dancehall Legion Stadium. Legion emerged as one of the first multiracial dancehalls in greater Los Angeles in the 1940s. In 1960, Art Laboe released an oldies compilation consisting of songs by musicians and bands that had frequented Legion Stadium. Three years later Zappa contacted Laboe about recording “Memories of El Monte,” a tribute to the music and culture of the Legion Stadium dancehall. Though the song never charted nationally, it did emerge as a local favorite as it reminisced about the lost musical venue: “Oh, I remember those wonderful dances, in El Monte, in El Monte.”

Though peripheral to Los Angeles, El Monte, through spaces like Legion Stadium, occupied a critical place in the metropolitan region. Swing music drew a wide and diverse audience, as young blacks, Latinos, Filipinos, and working class whites sought it out, contributing to the rise of multiracial zoot culture. The intersection of music and race facilitated the “blending of cultural influences,” which in turn held a broad-based appeal for young people, encouraging tolerance and understanding among the diverse participants. Writers like Matt Garcia and Theresa Gay Johnson maintain that the youth cultures that grew out of such movements birthed low rider culture, rock music, and modern day gang and street sensibilities.1 El Monte and South El Monte’s distance from Los Angeles, its collective existence as a periphery, enabled multiracial leisure in an era of segregation.

Hicks Camp

If one chooses to travel back even further, observers might discover Hicks Camp, where a collection of immigrants escaping the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution settled in tents on 22 acres of a larger 56-acre site along the Rio Hondo River, in what today would be bounded by Valley Boulevard, Lower Azusa Road, and Arden Drive. At the time, El Monte thrived as its strawberry fields and walnut groves gave it the title of “The Garden of Los Angeles County.” Though austere in its layout and accommodations — dirt floors and home foundations built from salvaged lumber from aging boxcars — the camp led to the growth of four barrios in the area: Wiggins, Flores, Granada, and Hayes camps. Conditions could be challenging. Rent did not include garbage pick up, which sometimes led to rat infestation, and water pipes periodically broke, creating cesspools, which then spawned contagious diseases. Predictably, local Anglos prohibited barrio residents from moving to other parts of El Monte.

The residents of Hicks Camp displayed an unwavering courage. During the Depression, when the government forcefully repatriated Mexicans throughout Los Angeles County, Hicks Camp never cowered. Led by Zenaida (Sadie) Castro, a strawberry picker herself, the workers went on strike protesting their inadequate nine cent-an-hour wages. Castro and other leaders fended off union busters as the strike grew to 5,000, when workers in surrounding cities adopted the cause. Within months, wages increased to 20 cents per hour.

When the Zoot Suit Riots broke out in 1943, local roughnecks targeted the community as the camp’s children hid in trees, ready to strike with rocks and other projectiles. Luckily, in this particular case, law enforcement arrived, preventing any bloodshed.

In 2008, El Monte renovated and expanded Rio Vista Park. With help from several partnerships, including Amigos de los Rios, the County of Los Angeles, the San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy, the city of El Monte, and La Historia Museum, workers erected a monument commemorating Hicks Camp.

Hicks Camp monument at Rio Vista Park | Photo: Sean Telles
Hicks Camp monument at Rio Vista Park | Photo: Sean Telles

Arts Posse

Some of L.A.’s most important history lay in the periphery, in towns like El Monte and South El Monte. But how do we excavate and broadcast this history?

“El Monte is like every city, but also unique; it has a larger place in the L.A. narrative,” explains Romeo Guzman, co-director of the South El Monte Arts Posse (SEMAP). “Legion Stadium and the agricultural strikes, it’s all a large part of L.A. history. But the city itself never gets described in that way.” SEMAP should know: the organization has been an active presence in El Monte and South El Monte for the past several years. This past January, SEMAP completed their provocative public art project, “Activate Vacant,” in which artists, landscape architects, and others took over vacant lots around South El Monte and transformed them into public art and points of community discussion. In May, SEMAP combined a book launch, picnic, and writing workshops into one outing at Whittier Narrows in Legg Lake Park. Dubbed “Birthday Party for Our Books,” activities included book readings, a poetry piñata — where attendees typed up short poems and placed them inside the piñata — and monster sculpting. “Monster sculpting” you ask? SEMAP collaborator Adrian Rivas dressed up as the Mexican artist Benjamin Dominguez, the man responsible for Whittier Narrows’ famous sea monster play equipment, handing out Dominguez business cards and conducting a workshop sculpting figures that would have been comfortable in “Where the Wild Things Are” or “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.”

Constructed during the 1960s, Dominguez’s sculptures were, as one local newspaper noted, “designed to delight and flabbergast.” Trained in Mexico City, Dominguez plied his artistic wares in Las Vegas and Southern California, bringing an ocean of imagination to the expansive greenery of Legg Lake and South El Monte. Dominguez went on to create similar vistas of childlike wonder and imagination to Garden Grove at its Atlantis Park, and the Laguna of San Gabriel at Vincent Lugo Park, commonly referred to as “dinosaur” or “monster park.”

Guzman reiterated the importance of these kind of public events. “The exercise was really cool because it reflects some of our goals with the ‘imaginary’ component of our upcoming project ‘East of East: Mapping Community Narratives in South El Monte and El Monte’,” he reflected later. “How can history be an embodied and lived experience, for all ages, across the landscape of the city?”

Adrian Rivas dressed up as the Mexican artist Benjamin Dominguez, leading a monster sculpting workshop at ”Birthday Party for Our Books” at Legg Lake in South El Monte | Photo: Courtesy of SEMAP
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Book reading at ”Birthday Party for Our Books” | Photo: Courtesdy of SEMAP

El Monte to Mexico City

More recently, SEMAP’s hard work paid off when the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs named the organization a recipient of its international exchange grant. In conjunction with La Casa de El Hijo del Ahuizote in Mexico City, SEMAP plans on creating a digital archive of El Monte and South El Monte, accessible to anyone with an internet connection.

As evidenced above, from Hicks Camp to Legion Stadium to Benjamin Dominguez, El Monte and South El Monte’s connection to Mexico and Mexico City remains vital, despite its peripheral location. As Ruben Martinez recently noted in an article for Boom magazine, for Mexican migrants and Chicanos, it is these borderland or peripheries that have come to define their identity, as much as metropoles like Los Angeles or Mexico City. Martinez recounted the travails of the revolutionary Flores Magon brothers, Ricardo and Enrique, who after being exiled from Mexico City by the dictator Porfiorio Diaz, settled in Los Angeles. A hotbed of radical activism in the early 1900s, L.A. provided the Magon Brothers the support and means to broadcast their political beliefs and revolutionary fervor in their publication Regeneración, which floated back and forth between L.A. and Mexico City and the borderlands in between.

The art exhibit ¿Neomexicanismos? at the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City further confirmed Martinez’s assertions. “The exhibit underscored that Mexican identity increasingly has been shaped not in the center, but on the periphery — that is, not in Mexico City, but on the border that Mexico shares with the United States and beyond it,” Martinez concluded. “‘México de afuera’ (as Douglas Monroy and other scholars call it), ‘Mexico outside,’ a vertiginous dialectic of movement and constant hybridizing.” That Ricardo Flores Magon gave an impassioned political speech to El Monte residents in 1917 seems to reassert the importance of the borderlands in identity creation while adding yet another layer of relevancy to the SEMAP project.

But how will SEMAP and La Casa create this archive? During a six week residency spanning early January to early February in 2014, SEMAP and La Casa will construct the archive in three phases: cultural production, digitization, and exhibition. During perhaps the most critical phase — cultural production — SEMAP plans to utilize a range of historical and artistic practices in which community members document their own narratives.

Romeo Guzmán and Mexican journalist and Doctoral Candidate Froylan Enciso will facilitate and conduct bilingual oral histories with Asian, White, and Latino residents of South El Monte and El Monte (SEM/EM). Employing themes of migration, settlement, popular culture and practices, youth, family, interethnic relations, transnational ties, and relationship to both SEM/EM and greater Los Angeles, residents will recount their life histories, which will be placed in chronological order. In addition, writer and SEMAP co-director Carribean Fragoza, and Mexico City-based journalist and editor of Vice Mexico, Daniel Hernandez, will lead poetry, journalistic fiction, and creative non-fiction workshops with youth, adults, and the elderly. As the final step of phase one, designer Jennifer Renteria, currently working at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, will direct visual art workshops prompting participants with questions and exercises that essentially ask them to create their spatial maps of the city, which ultimately will narrate their experiences with the area.

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Former headquarters of Flores Magon Brothers in Mexico City, now home to La Casa de El Hijo del Ahuizote | Photo courtesy of La Casa de El Hijo del Ahuizote

“I want it to be an insider’s understanding of South El Monte that highlights the cities’ sacred spaces, such as parks or the local El Monte Starlite Swapmeet,” she noted in a recent interview. Much like Guzman and Fragoza, Renteria has her own experiences and ideas about SEM/EM. Having worked at her parents’ long-standing bike shop at the swap meet, Renteria hopes to broaden her own conceptions of the two cities and those of its residents. “My understanding of South El Monte and El Monte, in some ways, stops at the wall of the swap meet,” she noted. While Renteria interacted with a diverse array of venders and individuals, venturing out into the community occurred far less often and subsequently shaped her understanding of the communities.

Historians love archives, notes Guzman, but the average person probably doesn’t want to wade into piles of documents or have to travel to far flung locations. Instead, an online map embedded digitally with oral histories, ephemera, posters, pictures, poems, and other means of narration would collapse time and space while providing overlapping sources. “So if you’re looking at this city, you can be in the 1940s and 1990s at the same time and you can look at one thing in different ways,” Guzman pointed out. “Not only that, you can look at the oral history, posters, old photographs or a map exercise Jennifer does with them, or a writing exercise Carribean does with them.”

The last two phases, digitization and exhibition, will employ the talents of archivists at La Casa de El Hijo del Ahuizote, whose primary mission is to restore and digitize the archive of materials that belonged to Enrique Flore Magon, and the organization’s director Diego Flores Magon, whose experience in the latter will help SEMAP “push the limits of ‘primary sources,’ by helping us to conceptualize how an archive can exist within the landscape of the city as public art and that is accessible to its settled residents and migratory transients,” noted Guzman. Magon and La Casa’s connection to the aforementioned Magon brothers only furthers the connection between SEM/EM, Los Angeles, and Mexico City. Diego, a descendant of Ricardo and Enrique Flores Magon, recently brought La Casa into the former headquarters of the two brothers in the Mexican capital. In this way, the archive promises to not only encourage community members to articulate their own understanding of themselves, but will also broadcast to those in Mexico City and elsewhere visual and textual narratives of a Mexican working class community in the United States. For La Casa, they will gain their first substantial collection of cultural production about and by Mexicans in the U.S. while, during the residency, providing its members with the opportunity to live in a working class Mexican American community.

“If only they had, those dances again, I’d know where to find you,” The Penguins reminisced in 1963. With SEMAP and La Casa working in conjunction, the melancholy of “Memories of El Monte” might be used to deepen the understanding of a critical, but forgotten facet of Los Angles metropolitan history. Internet visitors might click on the song while passing through decades of El Monte and South El Monte history, thereby interacting and absorbing the two communities’ past and the identities residents created and inhabited. From interracial zoots to militant migratory workers to the fantastical sea monsters of Benjamin Dominguez’s imagination, the in-between spaces have played a critical role in the life of Los Angeles and the people who orbit its boundaries. Here’s to hoping SEMAP’s newest initiative realigns them and brings to prominence what’s long been ignored.