Joseph Vargas: SEM's First Mexican Mayor

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Elected South El Monte officials in Washington, D.C.

By: Zoe Scott-Goss

Directly below the city of El Monte sits a small town that boasts a population of a little over 20,00 residents. This town is not unlike any other small town in America, yet, to those who live there, they find honor and pride in a place that has dubbed itself as “the city of achievement.” One of the men who played a significant role throughout the beginning of South El Monte’s history was Joseph Vargas. Vargas lived in South El Monte when it was still just an unincorporated area, and through his political pursuits he was eventually able to become the city’s first mayor of Mexican descent. Vargas was more than just a politician; he was also an activist navigating how best to intertwine his Mexican American identity with his political career during a time of great societal change. While Vargas may have been crass and controversial at times, one thing remains clear— his political trajectory offers us an opportunity to explore how one Mexican American understood the Civil Rights Movement. Like most people of color at the time, Vargas constantly had to figure out how best to reconcile his Mexican American identity with whiteness while simultaneously fighting for change.

The road to becoming an incorporated city for South El Monte was not easy. El Monte refused to annex the area, dubbing the land as a place that was “only fit for chickens.”[1] Residents of the area, however, were determined to incorporate so they could receive access to adequate municipal services. More importantly, nonwhite residents saw South El Monte as an opportunity to buy and develop their land and businesses. The belief that the color of one’s skin denotes an inherent inferiority placed upon people of color in the 1950s prevented them from owning property in standard cities like El Monte. Thus, with the creation of a new city came a sense of renewed hope from nonwhite residents that they could buy and own land free from discrimination. It is important to note, however, that those who did own land (like Vargas) also wanted to turn South El Monte into a suburb for property investment. Writer Nick Juravich notes in his work on South El Monte that these desires went against antiracist goals and instead were more in alignment with “a white supremacist politics” guided by a system of suburban property ownership and management.[2] By wanting to use the value of land as real estate, a tension, strengthened by Vargas’ support of the 1964 Proposition 14 which allowed sellers and landlords to openly discriminate on ethnic grounds when it came to housing needs, was created that constrained elite racism by Vargas in the following decade.[3] In the summer of 1958, the vote to incorporate the area passed 454-257, and Vargas was elected to serve on the first city council after gathering the fourth most votes.[4] Through its highs (winners of several national awards) and its lows (multiple political recalls and legal battles with El Monte over land), there is no doubt that South El Monte has solidified itself as a valid and flourishing city. At the center of it all was a car salesman named Joseph Vargas.

Not a whole lot of biographical information could be found on Joseph Vargas. He identified himself as a naturalized American who was a “Mestizo” (someone who has Indian and Spanish blood).[5] Vargas came to El Monte in 1927 and took a job as a Ford car salesman. He gained popularity through his various endeavors— he set up dance halls and picnics for those who felt discriminated against in El Monte and he infamously threatened to sue a pool hall that had a sign saying, “No Mexicans Allowed.”[6] Vargas and his wife Marie also owned a ranch in South El Monte where they held numerous parties celebrating the town’s anniversary, Mexican Independence Day, and Cinco de Mayo.[7] Politically, Vargas identified himself as a liberal Goldwater Republican. Barry Goldwater was a Republican senator (with libertarian undertones) who ran for President in 1964. His beliefs included low taxes and small-government philosophies. More importantly, Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Based on Vargas’ self-identification, it appears that he had a liberal mindset on some ideals while simultaneously supporting some of Goldwater’s beliefs. It is important to note that early Latino political movements were very disjointed since different Latino fractions held their own political viewpoints contingent upon either where they lived or the beliefs their ancestors held from their respective homelands.[8] Things began to change, however, through the mobilizations of the Democratic “Viva Kennedy” movement in the 1960 presidential election. Thus, by supporting Goldwater and his “Latinos con Goldwater” movement, Vargas was in the minority within Latino communities (ninety percent of the Mexican American vote and eighty-six percent of the Puerto Rico vote went to opponent Lyndon Johnson).[9] Vargas’ own political career began when he was elected to serve on South El Monte’s first city council. From there, he served as vice mayor, and in 1964 he was elected as the city’s first mayor of Mexican descent. Under Vargas’ leadership, South El Monte won the grand prize in the National Cleanest Cities Achievement Award Contest and was given a golden trophy, a recognition that is still reflected on the city’s seal today. After fourteen years of political service, Vargas lost his re-election bid to the city council in 1972 at the age of seventy-two. In his final address to the city as a council member, Vargas regarded that “I’ll still be here in South El Monte…I’ll still be doing my duty as I understand it— with God’s guidance and my conscience.”[10]

While Vargas was serving as vice mayor and mayor for the city of South El Monte, major societal changes were beginning to occur. The 1960s saw the rise of multiple civil rights movements by people of color who wanted the blatant racism and discrimination by their white counterparts to officially end. As evidenced by his desire to sue the pool hall, Vargas was an activist who always kept an active awareness of the state of affairs for the Mexican American race. As an activist, one of Vargas’ most significant caveats that shaped the mindset of his activism was the linkage between Black and Mexican movements. While speaking to a LA Times reporter, Vargas noted that “I have deep sympathy and understanding for the Negro situation…but the fact is, the Mexican-American people do not have a common problem and cannot be helped—but only retarded—by linking their situation to the Negro situation.”[11] Vargas’ viewpoint on this issue is especially noteworthy considering that the 1960s Chicano movements often modeled and sought out support from their Black counterparts. Why did Vargas want to separate Black and Mexican activism? Juravich argues in his work that Vargas’ viewpoint reflects a change in mindset from challenging exclusion head-on to consolidating power and managing the needs of Mexican Americans through suburban investment and civic voluntarism.[12] Conversely, historian Max Felker-Kantor discusses how some Mexican Americans like Vargas may have believed that the route to equality required adopting white middle-class notions of property ownership and color blindness.[13] No matter what the reasoning may have been, an interview conducted with Vargas more than a decade later acknowledged that Vargas had changed his mind and now believed that Mexican Americans were indebted to the Black civil rights movements.[14]

No politician is immune from controversy, and Vargas’ political career was far from perfect. Just three years into his city council term, Vargas and two other councilmembers had to face a recall vote in 1961 for their involvements in three city projects— the widening of Rush Street, the alleged securing of an option of a new city hall site, and the employment of a Los Angeles public relations firm.[15] Vargas defeated the recall attempt (223 in favor versus 314 opposed) in a vote that set an interesting precedent for South El Monte as the city would go on to have five more recall elections within the next twenty years. Eight years later, Vargas was accused by then-Mayor Francis G. Stiles of violating a city ordinance by going to the city’s public relations agent (George Voigt) and asking him to resign.[16] Voigt would eventually go on to accuse Vargas and three other city officials of slander and seek $900,000 in damages (he ultimately decided to drop the charges against Vargas). Even after he retired from politics, Vargas continually addressed the city council much to their dismay. For example, the LA Times reported on a time when Vargas, who was described as someone who “routinely lectures the council and discusses issues since his loss of office last spring,” told the city council that the city would receive $205,000 in federal funding.[17] The problem—Vargas was the only person who knew the amount, making the city council look incompetent. His antics even led to an angry audience member questioning why he did not let city council members know beforehand. It is clear from Vargas’ demeanor and actions that he was not too worried about whether you liked him or not. He was always going to speak his mind and stand up for what he believed was right.

Vargas started his interview with Rio Hondo College in 1978 by using a quote from Harvard Today— “You serve your cause only if you are prepared. Dedication without skill is only frustrated sentimentality. Skill with dedication is educated irresponsibility.”[18] From the moment he threatened to sue the pool hall, Vargas demonstrated his dedication and value to residents of South El Monte. Throughout his fourteen years of political service, Vargas contributed to the development of South El Monte as a city. More importantly, as the first mayor of Mexican descent, Vargas found a way to intertwine his Latino heritage with his political identity to promote change. Vargas was by no means perfect and often had controversial opinions and directives. Yet, through his convictions and beliefs, he intertwined his political career with his Mexican American identity to help navigate through both South El Monte and Californian politics.

[1] Nick Juravich, “City of Achievement’: The Making of the City of South El Monte, 1955-1976,” in East of East: The Making of Greater Monte, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2020), 89-101.

[2] Juravich, “City of Achievement,” 91.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “South El Monte Joins Ranks of New Cities,” Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, CA), June 25, 1958.

[5] Ed Reyes and Bev Sahagian, “Interview with Joseph Vargas,” in Personal Stories from the El Monte Communities, ed. Susan Sellman Obler (Whittier, CA: Rio Hondo College, 1978), 110.

[6] Ibid., 113.

[7] Nick, Juravich, “Dana Law Oral History Interview,” East of East, accessed April 20, 2022,

[8] Benjamin Francis-Fallon, The Rise of the Latino Vote: A History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019) 15.

[9] Ibid., 99.

[10] Mike Castro, “74 and Still Going Strong,” Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, CA), April 15, 1972.

[11] “Mexican-Americans May Shun Integration Drive.” Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, CA), August 9, 1963.

[12] Juravich, “City of Achievement,” 92.

[13] Max Felker-Kantor “Fighting the Segregation Amendment: Black and Mexican American Responses to Proposition 14 in Los Angeles,” in Black and Brown in Los Angeles: Beyond Conflict and Coalition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014), 143-175.

[14] Ed Reyes and Bev Sahagian, “Interview with Joseph Vargas,” 112.

[15] “Move to Recall South El Monte Officials Fails,” Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, CA), September 27, 1961.

[16] “Officials Drop Slander Suit,” Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, CA), April 28, 1973.

[17] “S. El Monte to Get $205,000 in Federal Funds,” Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, CA), October 2, 1972.

[18] Ed Reyes and Bev Sahagian, “Interview with Joseph Vargas,” 110.

Joseph Vargas: SEM's First Mexican Mayor