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COVER STORY : Cultural Unity Is a Memory in One Santa Monica Neighborhood, But Some Residents Are Trying to Recapture the Past in . . . : Their Town

March 31, 1994|NANCY HILL-HOLTZMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Minnie Duncan McCauley was a toddler when her folks brought her to a sleepy little country town called Santa Monica.

The year was 1925. Santa Monica was mostly bean fields, lemon groves, and dirt roads, which turned into mudholes when it rained.

The Duncans came to California from Arkansas for the same reason as most: a better life. The difference was their skin color. And, as it turned out, that hardly mattered, they say, as they and their brood of 10 settled down as one of the community's early African American families. They found a town that, although not exactly colorblind, abided by a live-and-let-live philosophy that was unusual in that era.

Tony Juarez arrived a year or so later from Texas, by way of Montebello, to work at a local brickyard that lured many Latinos. He raised a family of five and still lives in Santa Monica with his wife, Beulah.

By that time, Rosemary Romero Miano's family had been there for generations. She is a descendant of the Marquez and Reyes families that settled Santa Monica Canyon in the mid-1800s, living on a 6,000-acre Mexican government land grant called Rancho Boca de Santa Monica. Over the next few decades, more minorities filtered into town and prospered, becoming tradesmen, merchants, teachers, secretaries, lawyers.

Belying the image of the Westside as an all-white enclave, African American and Latino families lived side by side with whites and Asian Americans, mostly in the city's southeast corner: the Pico Neighborhood, an area roughly bounded by Pico Boulevard, Centinela Avenue, Santa Monica Boulevard and Lincoln Boulevard. That's where the land was most affordable.

There were horse-driven hayrides to Malibu by moonlight and Mexican Independence Day festivals on Olympic Boulevard. Minority children went to school, rode the streetcar and attended Saturday matinees side by side with everyone else, practicing multiculturalism decades before the buzzword was coined. Pico residents didn't call it that, though. To them it was simply the good life.

"I've never sat in the back of nothing," McCauley, 73, said emphatically. "I didn't know prejudice, growing up."

But like many good things, the spirit of the Pico Neighborhood that McCauley and others recall so fondly didn't last. Though still a polyglot neighborhood with neatly kept bungalows, it has taken a battering since she romped through the fields.

The construction of the Santa Monica Freeway in the late '50s to the mid-60s drove a stake through the heart of the neighborhood. Today, the sound of children's laughter has given way to gunshots as drug-dealing youth loiter in alleys. Many younger African Americans and Latinos now distrust each other, unaware of past alliances.

On streets where they once learned each other's language and customs, they now eye each other suspiciously and keep to themselves.

Yet a growing movement is afoot to rejuvenate the only area in town where minorities outnumber whites 2 to 1, according to census figures. The idea, as exemplified in a city-sponsored cultural festival that will run over the next week, is to solidify the future by honoring the past.

THE EARLY YEARS: "No one cared what color you had living next to you."

Though they grew up at opposite ends of town, the 1930s were wonderful, carefree years for Miano and McCauley, and they both remember them as filled with love, respect and food, but not much money.

Why did they come to Santa Monica?

The Depression was in full swing, but land was cheap. California offered a new start and, best of all, a more relaxed racial climate.

Its cool ocean air appealed to those used to the humidity of the South and Midwest. And as early migrants settled in, they told their friends and relatives about it. Some of them came West too.

Miano, now 71, grew up on part of the family land on Entrada Drive, where she still lives on one of the two remaining lots from the land grant. Her mother, a young widow, taught her English before she started school at Canyon Elementary. There were family picnics on the beach and in the shade of the sycamore groves.

"My mother made the biggest tortillas," she said. "We didn't have a lot of money, but we had a lot of food."

McCauley walked through fields to junior high and to the library at night, picking guava off trees along the way. She helped her Mexican playmates with their English; her brothers learned Spanish in the street.

Both women said they played with children of all ethnic backgrounds. They credit their parents for teaching them respect for others and the Santa Monica public schools for downplaying different economic backgrounds by requiring uniforms.

"Our teachers treated us all the same," Miano said. "We respected each other."

In contrast to segregated school systems elsewhere, Santa Monica had one high school for everyone, a key factor in promoting tolerance, people agree.

So in the mid-1930s, when Beulah Juarez married her husband, Tony, a bricklayer, and came to town, they found comfort and acceptance.

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