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The Migrants' Story: Barstow or Bust

* The city's new Route 66 museum will devote a special section to Latinos' journey west from New Mexico more than 50 years ago.


BARSTOW — When John Yslas lost his job in 1943, he headed west from New Mexico, settling with his wife in this desert town where the Santa Fe railroad was offering work.

They came the way so many families came from small towns in Arizona and New Mexico: the legendary Route 66.

Yslas, now 81, can see that history whenever he surveys the congregation at his largely Latino Catholic church. Most of the families came from the New Mexican town of Belen--so many that Barstow's new Route 66 museum is about to open a special section dedicated to their journey.

It's a pattern not lost on Barstow's first elected Latino mayor, Katy Yslas-Yent, who happens to be John Yslas' daughter. "I hadn't thought about the connection between Route 66 and Hispanics" from New Mexico and Arizona, says Yslas-Yent, 57, who like many New Mexico-bred Latinos call themselves Hispanic because of a closer identification with Spanish colonists. "As soon as I heard the idea, I said, 'That story hasn't been told, and it should be.' "

Barstow's Mother Road Museum, one of seven along the old route in eight states, opened in July. Its tribute to the early Latino arrivals will document how they worked primarily on the railroad and as civilian laborers at the Marines Corps Logistics Base. Some in the following generations became professionals, business owners and elected officials.

The migration to California along Route 66 has been vividly documented. But Yslas-Yent points out that popular literature such as John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" has focused on the migration of Anglos.

While a widely known Route 66 museum, documenting the general history of the route, lies only 35 miles away in Victorville, the new museum savors the opportunity to tell the story Barstow-style. There's a growing inclination in Route 66 historical circles to explore the route's role in the migration of minorities, said David Knudson, executive director of the National Historic Route 66 Federation based in Tujunga. But none of the other museums had done something this specific.

Chick Kirk, president of the California Route 66 Museum board in Victorville, said her 5-year-old museum has not designated a room but has covered Latinos' contributions to the area in its highlights of Old Town Victorville, which dates to the late 1800s.

Latinos make up about 30% of Barstow's 25,000 residents. The idea for a special exhibit in the museum grew out of the local joke that almost every Latino here knows someone whose ancestors came from Belen--whether it's the teacher at Barstow College or one of Barstow High School's most famous graduates: U.S. Rep. Joe Baca (D-Rialto).

There are so many people here from Belen, located about 40 miles south of Albuquerque, that when it came time a decade ago to distribute proceeds from an old Spanish land grant to families from the area, officials in Belen found that 2,000 of the recipients were living in Barstow, according to former Mayor Pro Tem Manuel Gurule. Gurule, 52, was among them. His parents, Joe and Lola, came here in 1942 and 1944.

The migration from New Mexico began in the late 1920s because the state had already been afflicted by a long drought before the Depression, says Margaret Espinosa-McDonald, president of the New Mexico Historical Society. Route 66 now runs closer to Albuquerque. But in its early years, it ran closer to Los Lunas, about 20 miles south of Albuquerque, and made it easier for residents of Valencia County--which encompasses Belen--to head out.

In the 1940s, Belen was a town of about 5,000 residents, half of what it is today.

The lure west to the Barstow area was primarily railroad jobs, Espinosa-McDonald said. To this day, there remains an informal sister-city relationship between the two towns nurtured by relatives who go back and forth.

"If someone dies in Barstow, it's reported in Belen," says Espinosa-McDonald. "You ask them where they are going for the weekend, they are going to Barstow," says Ronnie Torres, Belen's mayor, describing his conversations with customers at his beauty salon.

When John Yslas came to Barstow, there was discrimination against work-searching migrants of all backgrounds, but perhaps it was a little tougher for Latinos, he said inside the museum on a recent toasty day.

"We had a chance to buy a house, but they didn't want to sell it to us," he says.

His daughter, the mayor, says these are the stories that the museum aims to preserve.

Barstow's museum comes just in time for next year's celebrations of the 75th anniversary of the route. The Latino section is a room freshly painted. Shortly there will be a newspaper announcement asking Barstow's Latino families to bring photographs or historical mementos of work and family life.

The museum is toying with the idea of dedicating a wall that would name all the families from New Mexico and Arizona and the dates they arrived here, Yslas-Yent said.

The official opening of the section will be sometime next month, pending the availability of Rep. Baca and other local politicians with roots in--yes--Belen.

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