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L.A. Scene / The City Then and Now

The Heyday and Decline of a Lively Barrio

November 27, 1995|Cecilia Rasmussen

There are two kinds of history: One is written; the other is lived.

And while scholars only recently have begun to set down the long and complex story of Southern California's Latino people, one fascinating chapter of that tale was lived out in a now-forgotten El Monte barrio called Hicks Camp.

For almost a century, El Monte basked in the bucolic prosperity created by thriving walnut groves, strawberry fields and dairy farms. It was renowned as "The Garden of Los Angeles County."

But gardens need tending. By 1915 a few desperate Mexican families fleeing revolutionary turmoil and poverty began to trickle north, looking for job opportunities in the lush oasis of the San Gabriel Valley. They set up tents on 22 acres of a tree-shaded, 56-acre site that stretched along the Rio Hondo River, bound by what are now Valley Boulevard, Lower Azusa Road and Arden Drive.

They named their camp after its German owner, Robert Hicks, and his son Stanley, who for the next three decades would profit by recruiting contract crews of Mexican farm laborers from the camp.

By the 1920s, the trickle of immigrants had become a flood, spilling over into four nearby barrios: Wiggins, Flores, Granada and Hayes camps.

In many ways, life at Hicks Camp replicated what residents had left behind in Mexico. The small houses had dirt floors and were built without foundations out of used lumber salvaged from old boxcars. Paths worn through crabgrass created the dirt roads. While the able-bodied toiled in nearby fields, old men slept in the sun and old women tended vegetable gardens. There were no street lights or sewers. Residents swam and picnicked at the nearby river. There were regular dances behind San Juan Bosco, the camp's Roman Catholic church.

During the Depression, the U.S. government undertook the forced repatriation of thousands of Mexican immigrants. But the people of Hicks Camp refused to be cowed. They went on strike, protesting the nine-cent-an-hour wage they were paid for their labor in the surrounding fields. Their leader was Zenaida (Sadie) Castro, a feisty Mexican strawberry picker.

When she wasn't holding off the union busters, she was cooking rice and beans for strikers. As news of the strike spread, more than 5,000 Mexican workers in surrounding cities demanded higher wages. Within a few months, pickers' wages were increased to 20 cents an hour.

When the anti-Latino "Zoot Suit Riots" broke out in Los Angeles in 1943, local toughs also threatened Hicks Camp. The barrio's children hid in trees, clenching rocks, ready to throw. But law enforcement officers clad in riot gear responded by heading off the would-be attackers.

At the time, many of the El Monte barrios' sons were serving in the U.S. armed forces. But after World War II, many of those veterans and their families were evicted from nearby Wiggins Camp, south of the railroad tracks, to make way for industrial expansion. Prohibited from moving into more affluent Anglo parts of town, some of those evicted found shelter with families from Hicks.

Their landlord charged $9.50 a month for rent, which included leveling the dirt streets after heavy rains. But the rent didn't include trash pickup. More than 600 tenants were forced to dump garbage near the riverbed, which caused rats to infest the camp. Periodically, water pipes--which had been installed some years before--broke and cesspools overflowed, causing outbreaks of contagious diseases.

In the late 1940s, led by San Juan Bosco's Spanish-speaking pastor, Father John V. Coffield, the residents decided their community needed a few improvements, including a name change to Hicksville. A civic committee composed of seven elected officers and three advisers set out to strengthen the community ties with the city and improve living conditions. The priest, affectionately known by many as Juanote (Big John), helped the barrio residents raise funds to buy the land their homes sat on. But the $40,000 price tag ultimately proved too high.

But Hicksville residents, who always attended Sunday Mass at San Juan Bosco--a former walnut factory, theater and hall that the locals referred to as "Zagarazo Hall"--continued to heed the call of the activist priest. At Coffield's urging, they demanded that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors give them better schools, housing, parks and garbage collection.

In 1954, some camp residents welcomed Hollywood's selection of Hicksville--with its miserable, dilapidated homes and weed-choked yards--to portray a poor, backward Southern town in the all-black musical "Carmen Jones."

As signs of drugs and gang activity increased at Hicksville, talk of "redevelopment" began. Finally, in 1973, 57 tiny ramshackle wood-frame homes were leveled, forcing the final exodus of about 200 close-knit Hicksville residents.

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