Mapping Community Narratives in El Monte and South El Monte


Dear Internet:

Those of us who have been working on East of East have had a long two weeks. With a whirlwind of events and interviews we have not always had enough time to step back and think about the work before us. In this concluding entry on the 2015 SEMAP I would like to offer a few thoughts on East of East and those that have made the project possible.

  • History and activism go together. On our last day of SEMAP, we did a collaborative event with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA). At this event we collected oral histories, including with Lilian Rey whose EM/SEM Emergency Recourses Association has provided relief for the poor for decades. Local activism allowed her organization to grow, but recent federal policies were making it harder to help families. Later Apolonio Morales gave a talk to undocumented migrants on the provisions and implementations of DACA & DAPA as well as California’s new program for driver’s licenses for the undocumented. In the talk Apolonio and audience engaged in a back and forth that brought forth many politics that frame the issues they face in their daily lives.
  • What is local is national. Throughout the events and interviews of the last several weeks it became clear how important EM/SEM have been in various histories. In South El Monte, local schools experimented in the 1970s with new forms of community participation and activism that became models for other schools and even went national. In the 1933 the radical unions of El Monte organized a massive labor strike among Mexican workers decades before anyone else tried to do the same—showing that the possibility of unionization in the fields, across race lines, and outside of legal protection, and along radical lines, was indeed possible.


  • The writing of social history needs to keep in mind the motivations and individual agency of the people participating in events as they happen. In interview after interview, people were aware of the larger structural forces, and yet made choices and actions in contradiction to expectations. Again and again we spoke with people who beat the odds, who pushed back against racism, and took it upon themselves to change circumstances and in many cases succeeded.
  • History needs the active participation of those it writes about. If academic history is to remain relevant it needs to tie to the daily lives of people and reach to meet them where they are. That means events in various public spaces, but also archives whose material is not just for the rich and powerful, archives that are part of their cities and spaces that take their responsibility to their communities seriously.


  • There remains a lot to be done. A week of archival work, interviews, and events left us and all participants with more questions than answers. We have a lot of work to do on Asians in the city, as well as Nick’s work on education. In my own research, I came away with the feeling that El Monte/South El Monte have a lot to show us about labor, immigration, Chicano, civil rights, and urban histories, all of which remain unwritten. The SEMAP archive itself is unfinished and needs a lot of work before it can be the digital public source that we envision.