For three days in May of 1935, El Monte’s white residents worked tirelessly to cement their place in history by performing the past on its streets and in its auditorium. To set the scene, men, women, and children wore their grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ old clothes: overalls for the men, dresses and sunbonnets for the women. Working from T.H. Cooney’s scholarship on western expansion, El Monte High School staged an ambitious 500-cast performance of “The End of the Santa Fe Trail.” In the ensuing years, the celebration stretched into a 5-mile street parade of canvas-covered wagons and horse-drawn buggies and included a rifle and pistol tournament, rodeo, quilt and antiquity showcase and barbeque. Collectively, the various activities and performances for the first annual “El Monte Pioneer Homecoming” sought not only to articulate a history for its residents, but to situate El Monte within the larger history of Southern California and the United States’ western expansion following the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848.
Throughout the twentieth century, El Monte writers, residents, politicians, and educators promoted the “pioneer narrative” through publications, performances and celebrations, school curriculums, and the erecting of monuments. In 1935, as mentioned above, El Monte launched its inaugural three-day “pioneer homecoming.” It grew in surprising ways. In the festival’s second year, it attracted 60,000 Southern California residents. Then, just three years after the first homecoming, the El Monte Historical Society and museum was founded and began to house material related to its “pioneer” history established at the El Monte High School (at the time on Valley Blvd).
The pioneer narrative’s greatest achievement is its endurance and power. It is embedded in the city’s official logo, proudly memorialized at Pioneer Park, and narrated in the city’s museum. Its most egregious offense is placing white pioneers at the center of El Monte’s history, excluding some of the region’s most important ethnic groups and events. Most importantly, this narrative designates pioneers as the single most important actors in El Monte’s past.
For the South El Monte Arts Posse (SEMAP)—an arts collective made up of writers, scholars, urban planners, and educators based in El Monte and South El Monte—these silences are personal, they are experienced and felt. As children of migrants and grandchildren of Braceros, we found that the omission of Mexicans as well as our Asian classmates and neighbors stood in stark contrast to our experiences growing up in a multi-ethnic neighborhood, to watching generations of people of color do the back-breaking labor to build these towns. It stood in contrast to the art, culture, and affirmation that emanated from places like East Los Angeles as well as from the stories we read in countless books that we devoured as high school students and eventually as undergraduates. Where, we wondered, were all the brown faces?
In 2012, SEMAP used the city’s centennial as an opportunity to encourage new approaches to understanding and conveying the reality of Greater El Monte’s past and present. We launched what would become a multi-year public history and place-making project titled “East of East: Mapping Community Narratives in South El Monte and El Monte” to uncover, organize, and publicize Greater El Monte’s multi-ethnic history. This was an ambitious and collaborative project (see our note on collaborators) and has resulted in the book East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte and a mostly digitally-born archive of approximately 3,000 plus items. The archive will be housed at The Claremont Colleges Library, with a small sample of the archive housed on this Omeka website.
We will begin to publish the archive as items, in collections, and in highly curated "exhibits" in the fall of 2021 and spring of 2022.