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Was El Monte Really Founded by White Pioneers?

A new book explores the history of the people who have been written out of the L.A. suburb's longtime origin story.

Like the rest of the San Gabriel Valley, El Monte, and South El Monte are now home mostly to people of color.

And like the rest of greater Los Angeles, they used to be racially segregated. For a long time, the telling of their history was too.

One narrative about El Monte’s past tells of white pioneers who came out on the Santa Fe Trail before the Civil War and settled a wild frontier; but there’s also the less-celebrated story of the laborers of color who fled dangerous situations to work in its fields and factories.

In 2012, the city honored the former narrative in its hundredth anniversary celebration using a lot of the imagery of the covered wagon,” says journalist and South El Monte native, Carribean Fragoza. “And that history as we know excludes people of color.” As of the 2010 census, the two El Monte’s were mostly people of color.

With her partner, public history professor Romeo Guzman, and historians Ryan Reft and Alex Cummings, they created a local history project called East of East.

The project is an attempt to fill in El Monte’s narrative with more relevant, but lesser-known aspects of local history: indigenous rebels, interracial rock n’ roll concerts, the Asian-American working class, and muralists. None of them left as celebrated a mark on the cityscape as the pioneers and their descendants did. The point isn’t just to challenge the pioneer narrative, Guzman says, is “to be historically accurate.”

“In the 1930s we started seeing these quote unquote ‘pioneer parades,’” says Guzman. These festivals could be several days long, he says, and told the story of a southern wagon train that included the area’s original settlers. “And what happens is after a couple years of doing this in the 1930s, they eventually create the El Monte Historical Society.”

The descendants of the pioneers were the town’s earliest leaders. In 1958, they established the El Monte Historical Museum in the old city library on Tyler Avenue. It’s an award-winning collection, rich with late 19th and early 20th century antiquities.

The museum also holds a historical manuscript written in 1936 by the Works Progress Administration under the New Deal which asserts, “El Monte has no Spanish, Mexican or even Indian background... It bears the outstanding distinction of being the first purely and strictly American settlement in Southern California.”

Groups from Texas and Oklahoma established successful farms here between the Rio Hondo and San Gabriel Rivers, instead of seeking fortunes panning gold in Northern California in the 1850s.