Tongva to Zumba: 'East of East' Celebrates Radical History of El Monte

Historians in the News
tags: California, Mexican American, Asian American, Latino/a, Southern California

When Junipero Serra’s Franciscan friars arrived in the San Gabriel Valley and established their mission in 1771, thousands of Tongva people were already living in villages throughout the L.A. basin. The Tongva resisted and rebelled against their Catholic colonizers, led by the medicine woman Toypurina. Her legendary story and golden visage adorn walls, murals and public art around the San Gabriel Valley today. 

Not far from where the San Gabriel Mission stands, there was a lion farm where a couple of European circus performers raised the big cats and rented them out to big Hollywood studios for movies like “The Circus,” starring Charlie Chaplin. Gay's Lion Farm was located in the lush landscapes of the San Gabriel and Rio Hondo river valleys near Whitter Narrows Park. This setting lent itself to Hollywood imaginings of 'exotic' faraway lands, whether an African jungle for “Tarzan” or the deep south in D. W. Griffith’s ode to the Confederacy, “The Birth of a Nation.” The lion farm closed in 1949, and the 60 freeway runs through the land now, but its legacy lives on at El Monte High School, home of the Lions.

A new book, “East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte,” recovers these and other submerged stories in a fresh look at the larger histories of the cities and suburbs of the San Gabriel Valley. This stunning collection of essays presents a new archive of the Indigenous, immigrant and working class. These cultural histories decenter the official whitewashed founding-father and other “pioneer” narratives that cites like El Monte and others in the “majority-minority” San Gabriel Valley continue to memorialize and uphold. 

“East of East” insists that we look to the rebels, anarchists, labor organizers, immigrants, students, artists, radio D.J.s, punk bands and lesbian bars that made greater El Monte and the San Gabriel Valley region significant to the emergence of Los Angeles, California, the “Wild West,” the U.S.-Mexico borderlands and the Pacific Rim.\


The book’s roots are in the “East of East” public history project launched in 2012 by the South El Monte Arts Posse (SEMAP). An arts collective of organizers, educators, writers, historians and community members, SEMAP committed to building a new archive of El Monte and South El Monte, “one that began before the arrival of white pioneers and continued into the present.” 

SEMAP was founded by South El Monte-born journalist, writer and artist Carribean Fragoza and co-directed by Romeo Guzmán, a history professor at Claremont Graduate University. They are joined by Alex Sayf Cummings, author and history professor at Georgia State University, and Ryan Reft, a historian at the Library of Congress, as the book’s editors.

Read entire article at KCET