Claremont Insider: Our Town

Friday, June 8, 2007

Our Town

Standing in El Barrio Park last month listening to the speakers at the City of Claremont's Centennial park plaque dedication, one couldn't help but think of the German movie "The Nasty Girl" (Das Schreckliche M├Ądchen).

The film tells the story of one Sonja Rosenberg, who as a young woman won trip to Paris in an essay contest. A few years later, she decides to write another piece titled "My Hometown During the Third Reich." Sonja's Bavarian hometown has spun its own myth about how it was relatively untouched by Nazism during the war. When she first sets about to research her paper, there's only one person that anyone can point to as a former Nazi.

The town, as it happens, has buried a good deal of its collective complicity. Sonja's digging upsets a lot of people and turns the town against her. The town would rather go on living a fiction than face the truth of their families' actions. "Nasty Girl" was based on the real experiences of Anja Elisabeth Rosmus, a German historian who delved into the wartime history of her own hometown of Passau. Rosmus' resume states she now lives on the Chesepeake Bay, which is a good indication of the seriousness of the threats she received because of her work.

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At the El Barrio Park ceremony in May, there was the usual parade of city officials. All the city councilmembers were there, as were and representatives of such city groups as Claremont Heritage and the League of Women Voters (LWV).

El Barrio Park was built in the Arbol Verde neighborhood, which was for many years an enclave in which the Mexican-Americans of Claremont were segregated. The event's keynote speaker, Matt Garcia, grew up in the area and got his Ph.D in history from the Claremont Graduate University. Garcia currently teaches at Brown University. In 2001 he published a book called A World of Its Own: Race, Labor, and Citrus in the Making of Greater Los Angeles.

Garcia began his comments by quoting the historian Richard White: "History is the enemy of memory." History seeks out the truth, encompasses all of it, good as well as bad. Memory, on the other hand, is fallible and often confounds, erases, cleanses, elides, polishes until fact becomes finely honed myth.

Claremont's history, as told by former Mayor Judy Wright, our town historian, is in fact mostly this sort of mythologizing. Wright's Claremont: A Pictorial History reads like a hagiography, and the author clearly belongs to the Great Man (and Woman) school of history. It's really a book out of its time, written in a newsreel style and filled with misplaced, wide-eyed reverence. It focuses on the great figures of Claremont: Henry Austin Palmer, Charles Burt Sumner, Frank P. Brackett, James Blaisdell, Eleanor Condit, Herman and Bess Garner, Chuck Hungerford, Judy Wright, Diann Ring, and on and on, elevating them all to a sort of local sainthood.

Contemporary historians, unlike Wright, do not neglect to include the sociological and ethnographic forces that shape the histories they examine. In contrast, Wright's tome seems to do little more than gloss over entire swaths of significant local history; for instance, the history of Mexican-Americans, who provided most of the labor force for the local citrus industry and who entertained people at the Garners' Padua Hills Theatre. A glance at the index to the second edition of Wright's book shows a scant five pages under the heading "Mexican-American" out of a total of 518 pages. In contrast, Claremont's Memorial Park warrants 11 pages.

So councilmembers Ellen Taylor and Linda Elderkin, both LWV members, could almost be forgiven for shifting uncomfortably as Garcia continued. He spoke about reading too much into the efforts well-intentioned charity groups composed of the local establishment. He reminded the audience that such groups have always been present doing their good works. In Claremont, one such organization assisted the Mexican-American population for a time, but when the Depression hit and Mexican-Americans were blamed for much of the local unemployment, those same Claremont do-gooders stood silently by as those of Mexican descent, even those born here, were singled out and targeted for repatriation to Mexico. In times of such crises, that sort of conditional charity reveals itself as little more than self-serving, ego-boosting hokum.

Garcia also told of his great-grandfather, who worked for James Blaisdell and the Claremont Colleges as a gardener. Garcia's great-grandfather was working on a ladder one day when a car went by and knocked the ladder over. He was gravely injured and bedridden. The colleges' response? They contacted him and notified him that he would lose his job if he did not return to work soon.

Garcia went on to say that his grandfather, in order to save the job, took the gardening job himself. The great-grandfather died from his injuries, however. So Garcia's grandfather continued on at the college. One day, Garcia's grandfather was operating a machine the colleges hadn't trained him to operate properly when the machine caught him and he lost his hand.

One suspects the stories of a multitude of families have gone untold in the Judy Wright version of Claremont history. The problem with the Great Man approach is that it dehumanizes all those folks like Garcia's grandfather and great-grandfather. It reduces them to childlike stick figures dependent on the wisdom, beneficence, charity and sound judgment of the James Blaisdells, Herman Garners, Eleanor Condits and Judy Wrights whose shared vision guides the town serenely through the ages.

Garcia went on to say that when the Claremont do-gooders abandoned them during the Depression, 75 percent of the Mexican-American population was able to resist deportation because they stood up for themselves and argued for their own rights. One thinks of these things, thinks of Anja Rosmus, the real-life nasty girl, when one sees how attempts at setting the Claremont record straight constantly meet with hostility and prejudgment (it's the last prejudice left for the Claremont 400 to indulge in).

As the El Barrio Park event broke up, most of the council council couldn't leave fast enough. Where, we wonder, is Latino councilmember Sam Pedroza's leadership at moments like these? We wonder if the great and powerful of Claremont will ever acknowledge the history Matt Garcia spoke of, or will they bury it under the smothering weight of selective memory?