“El Barrio” Residents Share Neighborhood Memories, Stories

Julia Gomez Salazar still remembers a time in Claremont when Mexican and white children were segregated, the colleges were all dry campuses, and Claremont Blvd was just a long stretch of brush.

Born in Claremont in 1923, Salazar has lived all her life in “El Barrio”officially know as the Arbol Verde neighborhoodthe Mexican-American community that has traditionally resided in Claremont and its neighboring cities of Montclair and Upland. Her family history in the area spans over seven generations, when her parents, grandparents, and great-grandmother moved from Mexico to work. Their family was one of many who provided the area labor by working in the citrus industry or at the Claremont Colleges.

Now 88 years old and living on the border of Montclair and Claremont, Salazar recounts the various events of her life in El Barrio with other elders from the community. As they talk, weaving seamlessly between English and Spanish, the history of the community comes alive.

According to Al Villanueva, chair of the Arbol Verde Preservation Committee, El Barrio formed as a community in the 1910s and 1920s, during a time when Claremont openly practiced “de facto segregation.” Mexican Americans could only buy property in the “least desirable areas,” since realtors would not sell property in certain areas to Mexican Americans. This caused the formation of two Mexican-American neighborhoods, referred to by residents as the East and West Barrio.

As a child, Salazar recalled, she and other Mexican children were prohibited to speak Spanish on the school grounds. If the teachers caught them, or if their peers turned them in for doing so, they would receive some kind of punishment, such as a spanking.

“If they heard us talking Spanish, they would call the principal, and he would come into the line where we were and say, ‘we want to see you in the office,’” she said. “The other kids would come and put finger on us, that we were talking Spanish!”

In addition, Salazar said, they attended school separately from white children. This policy, continued until as late as 1955, also divided their lives outside of school.

“They wouldn’t hang out with us,” Salazar said of the white children at her grammar school. “I mean, I think it just happened slowly.”

Such exclusionary practices led the El Barrio community to grow and thrive as its own social enclave. Salazar remembers the close ties she had with the other children from the neighborhood, many of which have lasted through the generations into today. Despite the segregation around her, Salazar recalls her youth as a time of freedom, open space, and carefree play with the other neighborhood kids.

“We used to get together, play for a while, get into each other’s hairwe all got along,” she said.

One of her favorite childhood memories was when she and her friends had to chase after her father’s roosters.

“My dad had a big backyard, and he had some fighting roosters,” she said. “Sometimes we used to let them out without him knowing, and we got in trouble because we had to go all over chasing the damn roosters and they wouldn’t come in!”

Rafaela (“Ralfie”) Medina, an 80-year-old El Barrio resident who still lives in the same house her father bought for “$100 and a cow” when she was four, expressed a similar sentiment about the neighborhood she grew up in. She explained that community members would freely drop by each other’s houses for coffee and conversation.

“Everyone trusted everybody,” she said. “We never knew what it was like to own a key for our house.”

Both Medina and Salazar explained that many of their family members and friends worked in the citrus industry during the early 20th century, either picking various fruits or working in the packing houses. Others, such as Medina’s father and grandfather, worked at the nearby Kaiser steel mill. Many of El Barrio’s residents, including some of Villanueva’s relatives, were also employed by the Claremont Colleges as they developed and expanded over the years. Medina herself has worked at the college dining halls for the past 34 years. She started at Pomona’s dining halls and later moved to Scripps’s dining hall, working there up until this past December, when she entered into semi-retirement for medical reasons.

Labor, however, was not the only thing connecting El Barrio’s residents to the colleges. Villanueva, 60, recalled how often he and other boys played baseball and other sports in the colleges’ open spaces.

There was also a time in the 1920s and 1930s when El Barrio was an alcohol supplier for college students. Medina’s father was one of a number of residents who brewed beer and supplied it to college students during the prohibition period in the 20s and 30s.

“My father used to brew in the cellar,” Medina said. “Whenever [my brother and I] would hear a big 'pop,' we knew that one of the bottles had been opened, and we would run down to the cellar to retrieve what we could as kids.”

El Barrio has had a long history of spirits tracing back to 1920, when a pool hall was constructed to permit alcohol during the time Claremont was still a dry town. According to Al Villanueva, the Sacred Heart of Jesus Chapel was built in 1938 as a “response to all the evil stuff going on at the pool hall.”

The church soon grew to be the most important institution of the community, a place where people gathered not just on Sundays for mass but most days of the week. One of the Fathers at the church, Salazar recalled, even helped get jobs for the young men in the community. And both she and Nellie Villanueva, Al’s 78-year-old mother and a schoolmate of Medina, fondly remembered the festivities that took place at the church.

“They used to have fiestas, like for Cinco de Mayo,” Nellie said. “They would hire musicians and everybody would have a good time. They would sell food like tacos and tamales…to raise money for the church.”

To the chagrin of many living in El Barrio, the city knocked down the chapel when Claremont Blvd was constructed in 1968. According to Nellie, though the community had been informed and were understanding, many could not help but cry when the chapel was destroyed.

“When they knocked it down, some of the elders were saddened by the idea, like 'why did they knock down our church?' And they didn’t like it at all,” Nellie said.

While El Barrio residents found spiritual replacement in nearby churches such as Our Lady of the Assumption, they found a new community center in the consecration of El Barrio Park in 1971.

“The church is where they used to pray,” Al Villanueva said. “Now the park is where all can come to play.”

Salazar, whose youngest great-grandson is now three, also observed how each generation of El Barrio has taken after the last.

“The El Barrio has been here since I was growing up as a little girl,” she said. “Now they’re still trying to imitate us when we were little, like [my daughter’s] kids do… I don’t see that many changes in the kids.”

And so, despite the changed surroundings and community centers, the small neighborhoods that make up the El Barrio community continue to thrive, solidifying their place not only in Claremont's history, but also its future.

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