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Bittersweet Memories

El Monte museum will tell local Mexican American community's story--the good times and the bad.

November 22, 2000

An old property deed enumerates land-use restrictions for purchasing a lot. Some conditions are not unusual: Buildings must be constructed from cement, brick or stucco and must be set back 30 feet from the front property line.

And then there's condition No. 5, revealing a restriction all too prevalent in El Monte and in some other parts of Los Angeles in the 1930s: "No portion of said lot shall ever be occupied by any person of any Asiatic race, African race, nor by any person not of the Caucasian race, nor by any person of the Mexican race."

Today, the document doesn't anger members of El Monte's La Historia Society--a fledgling organization composed of a few dozen Mexican American residents and history enthusiasts and their families. They treasure it.

The document is among hundreds of historical items--mostly pictures--that people with deep roots in El Monte have sent to the historical society during the last two years.

The items are being held in a city-owned building that is due to reopen soon as a museum documenting the history of Mexican Americans who lived in the city's eight barrios beginning in the early part of the 20th century. The museum will use photos and personal mementos such as aging deeds to tell the story of a generation of farm workers who harvested walnuts and other crops on land that is now filled with houses and businesses.

The 1930s deed came with a note from an El Monte resident who had heard La Historia was seeking such contributions: ". . . I told you I had a deed to my parents' home. . . . It is interesting to see the feelings of the time in El Monte."

Most members of La Historia are at least 60 years old and lived their childhood years in the barrios now covered by new development. For Monrovia resident Sergio Jimenez--who at age 40 is the youngest member of La Historia--the museum will afford a chance to keep a promise he made to his grandmother Frances Ortiz, who died in 1996 when she was 90 years old. "She told me . . . 'Don't let the story die with me. If you don't do something with these pictures it will be as if we had not lived,' " said Jimenez, whose grandfather Tony Ortiz owned nightclubs and a walnut packing company.

The museum, on Tyler Avenue, had scheduled its grand opening for last week, but the El Monte City Council is withholding approval until the organization receives federal nonprofit status.

One goal of the museum will be to highlight veterans from the barrios who died in World War II and more recent conflicts.

"There are letters from the sergeants and the privates saying how much [the soldiers who were killed] meant to them," said Ernie Gutierrez, president of La Historia. "Those are very touching."

Other pictures collected by leaders of the historical organization tell a story of dirt roads and wooden homes. In some snapshots from the early 1940s, entire school classes were composed of Mexican American and Japanese American children. In images from 1942 on, there were no more Japanese American children, because their families had been whisked away to detention camps, Gutierrez said.

The Mexican American families who lived in the barrios, many of whom had fled the Mexican Revolution, were prohibited from buying homes in other parts of El Monte and were segregated at school.

But another goal of the museum will be to document positive changes in the community and people who helped improve the conditions of the city's Mexican American community, says Gutierrez, an ex-City Council member whose family lived in the barrio known as Hicks Camp. "To me, the significant things that occurred in our neighborhood were segregation and the efforts that were given by the people to desegregate."

One person who was a strong force for positive change was Father John Coffield, who La Historia leaders say helped desegregate the schools. In the early 1950s, he also began referring youths from the barrios to an East Los Angeles College counselor who took them under her wing.

One of them was Ben Campos, now 66, who grew up in Hicks Camp and went on to receive a doctorate in education from USC and retired recently from a lifetime of working in El Monte's school system.

Members of La Historia say the fruits of those early efforts to bring Mexican Americans into the mainstream are evident today. "My dad was not able to purchase property in the city of El Monte and 50 years later I'm the mayor," says Rachel Montes, whose family traces back to the Medina Court neighborhood.

Montes is one of the three council members who did not allow the museum to open last week pending its nonprofit status approval.

Two other council members had wanted the museum to open while the required paperwork was being processed. "I feel it's part of our history and we should support it," said Councilman Jack Thurston, who is also the president of the El Monte Historical Society.

Jeff Seymour, superintendent of the El Monte City School District, says the museum will serve as a unique tool to help teach elementary school children the history of their town. "There's nothing better than for them to walk to La Historia museum to look at how the town evolved," he said, "what forces were there that formed it and how they fit into it."

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