For 100 Years, El Monte Has Celebrated A Blatant Historical Falsehood. Why?Roundup
tags: racism, California, public history, western history
Romeo Guzmán is an assistant professor in U.S. history at Claremont Graduate University. He is the co-editor of Boom California and co-editor of East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte.
If we all agree that a lie is a lie, is that enough to replace it with the truth? If the people who started this lie are no longer here, why does it linger? Where does it get its strength? What do we need to defeat it?
This particular lie is at least 97 years old. Its exact origins are hard to trace, but its trajectory and path are rather easy to follow. The lie involves the Southern California city of El Monte, and you can find it in the title and subject of a small book published by the El Monte Lodge in 1923 called A History of El Monte: The End of the Santa Fe Trail.
That famous 19th-century trail, which turns 200 next year, begins in Franklin, Missouri, and ends in Santa Fe, New Mexico, nearly 850 miles east of El Monte. But by the 1930s, officials of that San Gabriel Valley city were holding public celebrations, putting up monuments to the Santa Fe Trail, and even staging a play called The End of the Santa Fe Trail at El Monte High School’s auditorium. This lie needed to be cared for, preserved, and displayed, so the city created the El Monte Historical Society in 1938. Throughout the 20th century, this lie has continued to endure, receiving support from mayors, councilmembers, and community leaders. It currently can be found in the city’s official logo and official museum.
Why this lie? It connects El Monte to Westward Expansion after the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, firmly lodging the city within the U.S. nation-state and cutting off anything or anyone that came before the first American families in El Monte in the 19th century.
“The pioneers of any new country are deserving of a big niche in our histories and we cannot love and respect their memory too much,” wrote the author of the 1923 book. How exactly one could love and respect someone’s memory too much is not clear. But in 1973, Lillian Wiggins, director of the El Monte Historical Museum from 1961 to the 1990s, affirmed the city’s exclusive devotion.
Speaking to the L.A. Times, Wiggins, a descendant of El Monte’s first American families, said that the museum’s collections were “strictly ‘wagon trail.’” By which she meant that the museum’s focus was devoted to the end of Santa Fe Trail, the so-called pioneers, and the wagons that brought them. This narrative stands in stark contrast against the demographic reality of El Monte, which has been home to significant Mexican American and Japanese American communities since the early 20th century, and in the last decades, has become a majority-minority city.
Rather than the “End of the Santa Fe Trail,” El Monte and South El Monte have been the sites of conflict and contests, often driven by racial hierarchies, for the past 300 years. The area’s real stories are not about wagon-riding white pioneers but about rebellious leaders such as Toypurina, the Gabrielino medicine women who led a rebellion against Spanish colonial rule in 1785; the transnational Mexican anarchist and intellectual Ricardo Flores Magón, who agitated against the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz in the 1900s and briefly resided in El Monte; and El Monte native Gloria Arellanes, who held a leadership position in the Brown Berets during the Chicano Movement.
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