SEPTEMBER 1, 2020
IN THE 1860 CENSUS, the town of “Elmonte” was the second largest in Los Angeles County. Some 1,004 people lived in the community, which was founded on land blessed with lush trees and abundant groundwater, located between the San Gabriel River and the Rio Hondo. Los Angeles itself was barely a city: 4,385 people lived there.
El Monte, as it’s now known, was then home to a large community of transplanted Southerners. A de facto segregation reigned: not a single black person was counted in the 1860 census. (Los Angeles had a “free colored” population of 66.) At the outbreak of the Civil War the following year, El Monte became known as a hotbed of Confederate sympathizers. The town’s white supremacists paraded through the San Gabriel Valley waving the Bear Flag, a symbol of secession, and they formed a band of vigilantes and ruffians known as “The El Monte Boys.”
A lot changed in El Monte in the century and a half that followed. The old ranchos of the San Gabriel Valley’s Spanish-speaking Californios went under, and the valley experienced an agricultural boom, followed by a suburban boom. Rivers were dammed and freeways built. And, as we learn in the new anthology East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte, a varied cast of entrepreneurs, reactionaries, revolutionaries, artists, laborers, and immigrants passed through: from Frank Zappa and D. W. Griffith, to Japanese farmers and the Mexican anarchist Ricardo Flores Magón, to finally, in the late 20th century, Thai garment-worker slaves and punk rockers with fluid ethnic identities.
To the uninformed, El Monte and its younger sibling, South El Monte, are just another pair of Los Angeles County suburbs, and probably among its least glamorous. Their idiosyncratic history has been lost amid the patchwork of communities that grew up around them, the equally uncelebrated Temple City, Baldwin Park, Rosemead, and others. The outside world thinks of these places, when it thinks of them at all, as the gritty locales where car chases end, and where the local laboring classes go to sleep in unremarkable subdivisions, with vans and pickup trucks parked in the driveways.
The editors of East of East see deeper truths. Greater El Monte, it turns out, is the setting for a story as rich and tangled as the flora that still covers the Whittier Narrows Recreation Area, a patch of parkland that lies, relatively unspoiled, in the watershed the El Montes call home. East of East is a crowd-sourced history of the community, with essays by 31 contributors, many of whom draw from the archive of oral histories, photographs, and documents assembled by the activists of the South El Monte Arts Posse.
“What if El Monte served as a central geographic node in the reimagining of lesbian and gay social history in the last quarter of the twentieth century?” Cal State Long Beach professor Stacy I. Macías asks in the opening sentence to her contribution, entitled “A Gay Bar, Some Familia, and Latina Butch-Femme: Rounding Out the Eastside Circle at El Monte’s Sugar Shack.” As with many writers in the anthology, Macías’s work is part intimate history, part social theory. Her short essay on a now-defunct lesbian bar serves as a reflection of the vibrancy of a Latinx gay culture largely ignored in mainstream gay and lesbian histories of Southern California. But more than that, her piece, like all the others, is a celebration of El Monte itself, and its endurance as a place where willful people reinvented themselves, in a community beyond the eastern fringe of Greater Los Angeles’s traditional “Eastside.”
In the pages of East of East, the common folk of Greater El Monte are hungry for change, power, a sense of belonging, and a reason to fight. Very often, they find these things in the private spaces of their homes and apartments.
“Punk music gave meaning to the things that were out of our control in our lives,” writes Apolonio Morales in his essay “Punk and the Seamstress,” describing his teenage years in El Monte. He was raised by a single mom, an undocumented Mexican immigrant who worked at El Monte sewing factories. Punk gave voice to the anger he felt at seeing, firsthand, how she was exploited. “No one knew how to talk things out except through aggression,” he writes. Punk rock became “like a last stand against invisible forces penetrating every aspect of our lives. […] I suddenly found that there was something of value to be discovered within every band and every song, and it also helped explain why the cycle of oppression repeated itself in our lives.”
In East of East, two California literary trends of the late 20th and early 21st centuries converge: the great explosion of works by US Latino historians, and the publication of several seminal books that use place as a narrative device to reveal how large social forces shaped life in small corners of Southern California.
Several pieces in the anthology reverberate with the lyricism and the sense of humility and wonder of D. J. Waldie’s 1996 book on growing up in Lakewood, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir. As with Waldie, the subdivisions and cul-de-sacs depicted in East of East are filled with marvels and shadows. Alex Espinoza writes a moving tale of his father’s death on the railroad tracks after a night of drinking at an El Monte bar; Michael Jaime-Becerra recalls the joys of sneaking away on his bicycle to the arcade at Golfland; and Salvador Plascencia offers a meditation on memory and the El Monte landscape in his essay “Durfee Avenue.”
“In the discourse of El Monte,” Plascencia writes, “a common rhetorical move […] is to invoke the crime writer James Ellroy’s bleak description of the city — a smoggy void with evil looking pachucos hosing down cars on the lawns — and then counter it with resident tenderness to disprove Ellroy’s characterization of our hometown.” Plascencia chooses not to answer Ellroy with “tenderness,” but rather with an unadorned description of the Mexicano resourcefulness of the locals, with their “newsprint trimmed into toilet paper squares, soles discreetly taped and glued back into shoe form, sad TV sets rescued from curbsides.”
Greater El Monte today retains a strong Latino identity — together, El Monte and South El Monte were about three-quarters “Hispanic” in the 2010 Census. It was not always so. During the first half of the 20th century, El Monte was a majority white town. White supremacists were fixtures in the city well into the century, as revealed in East of East by the historian Dan Cady: the Klan formed an El Monte chapter in the 1920s, and a family of neo-Nazis covered their property with swastikas in the 1960s. The schools were segregated (with Mexicans and Mexican Americans relegated to poorer schools), until activists successfully integrated them in the 1970s.
In a sense, then, the story of modern El Monte is the story of the rise of a successful, and increasingly assertive, suburban Latino barrio. Several contributions in East of East describe this Latino renaissance, drawing on the recent advances in Chicano/Latino history. Juan Herrera’s “¡La Lucha Continúa!: Gloria Arellanes and the Women of the Chicano Movement,” echoes the groundbreaking work on Chicana feminism by Dionne Espinoza and many others, while Daniel Morales’s piece on Hicks Camp, a community of El Monte farmworkers that endured for six decades, reflects the seminal work done by Dartmouth historian Matt Garcia on the evolution of other such “colonias” across Greater Los Angeles.
Morales’s history of “Hicks Camp” is just seven pages long, but it contains the multiple story lines and themes of a novel. The labor contractor Robert Hicks purchased 22 acres of land in the 1910s and rented them to farmworkers from the Mexican states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, and Jalisco to build their homes. In Morales’s reconstruction of the camp, the streets are unpaved at first, and then gravel is poured; the men go off to fight in World War II; and the Rio Hondo floods again and again, sending pigs and cows floating down the street. A Hollywood film is shot there in 1954 — Carmen Jones, starring Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte, with Hicks Camp standing in for an impoverished Southern town. (The nearby Whittier Narrows also doubled for a Southern landscape, in Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.)
Reading East of East, and encountering the seemingly inexhaustible variety of its personalities (even Albert Einstein and Marilyn Monroe make cameos, while visiting El Monte’s “lion farm”), I was reminded of one of the great recent works of California history: William Estrada’s The Los Angeles Plaza (2008), a five-century epic about the city square where Los Angeles was founded. Estrada shows how the plaza was a stage for imperial ambitions, racial prejudice, and class struggle; his work allows us to not only understand this history as a social phenomenon but also to feel it as a series of human experiences. Perhaps there’s no better way to capture in totality what Southern California is than in this type of close-focus work. The reader comes to know the Plaza for the layers of hurt and ambition buried there, from the European conquest, to the Japanese internment, to the Central American refugee crisis of the 1980s and ’90s. The diversity and the conflict in this history is lost in the kitschy Olvera Street market and tourist-trap the Plaza has become.
In the 1930s, at about the time the Olvera Street market was established, El Monte’s city fathers attempted to reshape their own community’s image by reaching into its white past: they staged an annual “Pioneer Parade” that celebrated El Monte’s role as the “End of the Santa Fe Trail.” That phrase remains the city motto to this day. But in East of East, we see an infinitely more textured El Monte, a place where many cultures mix again and again. Filipino, Japanese. and Mexican workers strike together in the berry fields in 1933; and in the 1950s, black, white, and Latino kids fill El Monte’s Legion Stadium for the dances staged by the rock ’n’ roll DJ Art Laboe.
In El Monte, as elsewhere, the physical remains of this history have been largely erased. The berry fields became tract homes; Legion Stadium was demolished in 1974. Forgetting is, of course, one of the dominant themes of Southern California history. Remembering is a habit we Angelenos have begun to master only recently. In her 1995 book The Power of Place, Dolores Hayden describes attempts in Los Angeles and elsewhere to recognize and preserve the spaces where people of color have made history. Remembrance can give an entire community a sense of identity and purpose in the present. Hayden recounts the effort to build a memorial to Biddy Mason, the midwife and former slave who became an early leader of Los Angeles’s African American community. That memorial, which occupies a courtyard in the shadow of the famous Bradbury Building, is one of my favorite places to stand in Los Angeles.
Not long after I’d finished reading East of East, I drove to El Monte, hoping to visit the places where so much history had been made. With the help of A People’s Guide to Los Angeles, I found the apartment complex where 72 Thai women were enslaved in the 1990s. There is no marker commemorating the site, just bars on the windows and a dead front lawn. But at the site of the former Hicks Camp, I discovered a wonderful new memorial to the farm worker community that once stood there. A group of historians and activists have etched a map of Hicks Camp into the concrete floor of a park playground; nearby, there is a display of photographs, black-and-whites from the last century, showing grocery stores and gatherings.
The Rio Hondo flows at the park’s edge, and I used it and the map to orient myself. All traces of the camp have been obliterated by a new industrial park and a subdivision of late-20th-century homes. I thought of the stories I’d read in East of East, and in the quiet and the breeze that blew toward the river on a sultry afternoon, I felt the presence of the old camp. I imagined children visiting the memorial, absorbing its message: this place where you are standing, Greater El Monte, has a history. People lived and worked here. And you are part of this history, too.