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In El Monte, Two Sides to the Past -- Close Yet Far

Museums a block apart chronicle the city's history through different perspectives -- one Anglo, the other Mexican American.

August 30, 2004|Zeke Minaya | Times Staff Writer

A block apart in El Monte sit two museums with the same mission -- to chronicle the history of the city -- and basically the same name.

Other than that, they're nothing alike.

Housed in a ranchero-style building with a tiled courtyard, the El Monte Historical Society facility focuses on pioneers who pushed west on the Santa Fe Trail during the Gold Rush of the mid-19th century. About 40 families abandoned the trail when they came to the lush valley fed by the Rio Hondo and founded the community that would become El Monte.

They were Anglo Americans.

A hundred and fifty paces down Tyler Avenue, near a freeway overpass, La Historia Society of El Monte devotes its cramped two rooms to the history of the men and women who worked the land in the sleepy farm town and lived in shanties.

They were Mexican Americans.

For years, city officials have said the two museums belong under the same roof. And, at least in theory, museum officials agree. But they offer dozens of opinions on why it will never happen.

The Historical Society doesn't care about the immigrant culture, La Historia representatives say.

The other museum is segregating itself, Historical Society members respond.

And so the museums remain apart, commemorating two worlds -- differentiated by ethnicity and income -- that, like the museums, were side by side but entirely apart.

Councilman Art Barrios, who grew up in an all-Latino neighborhood of El Monte, said the museums were holding on to antiquated attitudes and old wounds.

"It's hard to let go," said Barrios, who hopes to see a unified museum one day. "I know it's hard to let go. It's asking a lot of either side to forgive and forget. But both sides should work together."

The official record of El Monte's past, as presented by the Historical Society, is contained in a 143-page book researched by the Works Progress Administration in 1933.

The book scarcely mentions Mexican Americans, asserting that they had little role in the founding and building of the city.

"Unlike Los Angeles, San Gabriel and [many] other California cities, El Monte has no Spanish, Mexican or even Indian background," the manuscript states. "It bears the outstanding distinction of being the first purely and strictly American settlement in Southern California."

Inside the Historical Society museum, the motif is Old West, with displays depicting a schoolhouse, a general store and the typical parlor of a pioneer's home.

Curator Donna Crippen, 74, knows El Monte history. The widow of a former mayor is a lifelong resident who grew up in the center of town.

There's not a nook or cranny of the city she is not familiar with -- except for Hick's Camp.

By 1915, a few families fleeing the Mexican Revolution had set up tents on 56 acres along the Rio Hondo. By the 1920s, the trickle had become a flood.

"You knew they were there, and you didn't think anything about it," Crippen said. "It was very dangerous, very poor area. And they resented outsiders; that was their territory."

There are eight pictures of Hick's Camp tucked into a corner of the museum. One shows rows of wooden shacks, another a small child smiling in front of a white fence. The shantytown was leveled in 1973.

If she had the space, Crippen said, she would be more than willing to enlarge the display, and even accommodate the other museum.

"I would love to have them here," she said. "As far as the museums being separate, it's not our fault; it's just we don't have room.

"I don't know if they would even be interested if we did have the room," she said. "That's my feeling."

Crippen is right. Ernie Gutierrez, the second elected Latino mayor of El Monte and the founder of La Historia, is not interested in a merger.

"The other ethnic group can have a museum -- why shouldn't we? We also want to be able to say we were here and we made a difference," he said.

For Gutierrez, the city's early history is best explained in a 40-page master's thesis written by his wife, Olga, titled "Analyzing Segregation in El Monte."

The paper asserts that pioneer families arriving in the area "found a small number of Mexican families living here in 'El Monte,' but they simply proceeded to take over." The Anglo Americans created a segregated society, Olga Gutierrez wrote, with separate schools and housing.

La Historia's museum is dedicated entirely to documenting that segregation and its slow erosion. The walls are filled with the sepia-toned photographs of young men from the barrios who fought in World War II and returned to El Monte eager to marry, buy land and, most of all, Gutierrez said, be treated as equals.

School pictures dominate another wall, showing rows and rows of Mexican American children in schools less well-funded than those across town, Gutierrez said.

He was one of those children, and he is still bothered by the exclusion.

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