Roberta Martínez

Roberta Martínez

Photo by Teri Lyn Fisher

Living history

Roberta Martínez sheds new light on the city’s past with ‘Latinos in Pasadena’

By Brenda Duran , Joe Piasecki 05/21/2009

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Before Roberta Martínez ever considered writing a book about the integral role Latinos have played in making Pasadena the place it is today, the East LA native spent a long time under the impression that there wasn’t much to learn.

“There is no memorial, no acknowledgment that Latinos have been a part of the city since even before it existed,” said Martínez, a 26-year resident who 11 years ago organized the city’s annual Latino History Parade and Jamaica celebration. “I’d lived here 15 years before I realized there was a significant historical Latino population.”

But after listening to countless engaging stories from longtime residents who spoke of a thriving Latino community — many of them members of the Pasadena Mexican-American History Association, a social group that in 1996 formed a nonprofit with a mission of preserving community history — Martínez was quickly inspired to dig even deeper and help bring Pasadena’s underappreciated Latino legacy into public view.

Nearly a decade of academic and informal research has culminated with Martínez’s recently published book, “Latinos in Pasadena,” a compilation of photos and documents that outlines the stories of pivotal movers and shakers in the Latino community dating back to its days as a Spanish settlement.

On Tuesday, Martínez will discuss the book and a number of her interesting finds during a special event at the Pasadena Museum of History, which is currently hosting an exhibit that traces the city’s history through the sagas of six prominent families.

“Family Stories: Sharing a Community’s Legacy” follows the lives of the Duncan, Gertmenian, Kawai, Lowe, Stevenson and Mejia families. The Mejia family — owners of El Ranchero Restaurant — includes Sandy Mejia, current chair of the Pasadena Mexican-American History Association, and her uncle, Roger Mejia, who is featured in Martínez’s book.

“Latinos in Pasadena,” a 127-page English-language addition to Arcadia Publishing’s “Images of America” series, traces how the first white Indiana Colony settlers in the area were influenced by their Latino neighbors and how Pasadena was shaped in large part by those interactions. 

“We don’t think about Latinos being a part of Pasadena before it was known as Pasadena,” said Martínez, a mother of two grown children whose husband, James Grimes, works at Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

But the true heart of her book explores the early 20th century — a time when names of locations were being Anglicized, speaking Spanish was frowned upon, deportation was common and many Latinos faced segregated schools, writes Martínez. But it was also a time when Latinos and their handiwork helped build the city we know today.

In the 1920s and ’30s, she explained, Latinos were highly active residents of three Pasadena neighborhoods that few would recognize today. Over that time, and into the next three decades, the landscape would continue to be significantly altered by commercialization and development, including construction of the Foothill (210) Freeway.

Martínez describes a well-integrated working-class neighborhood on the north side of the city, a south-side barrio neighborhood bound by common language and heritage and, to the east, the Chihuahuita — a heavily Latino area north of Foothill Boulevard and west of Sierra Madre Villa Avenue.

It is back to this time that Kathleen Maria Rodarte, now an assistant dean at Pasadena City College, traces her roots. Both her maternal and paternal grandparents traveled here from Zacatecas during the Mexican revolution, her father’s family settling in the Chihuahuita and her mother’s to the northwest.

Both of Rodarte’s parents attended local schools and served in the military during World War II but also faced discrimination and adversity, including the threat of deportation during the late 1920s and early ’30s, and restrictions on home sales to minorities in the 1950s, which led the couple to buy a home in La Puente instead. The grandparents remained in Pasadena, which kept the family’s roots firmly planted in town, so Rodarte (now a member of the city’s Human Services Commission) began college at PCC.

“There were times when it was very difficult for my parents and grandparents. What kept them going is they wanted better lives for their children, and what they communicated to us were all the positive things about the city. They enjoyed the community of Latinos who had settled in the different areas of Pasadena,” said Rodarte.

Martínez said that even before utilizing institutional archives, she had a smorgasbord of information at her fingertips from the family stories and photo albums of such people as Daniel “Danny” Castro and his wife Connie Rey Castro, a member of the Pasadena City College Board of Trustees.

Danny Castro, a retired college administrator best known until 2000 as the radio personality “Sancho” on KPCC-FM 89.3, grew up spending many evenings listening to the jukebox at Danny’s Café, a popular 1950s working-class hangout operated by his father (who worked on construction of the Pasadena [110] Freeway) at the intersection of Fair Oaks Avenue and Colorado Boulevard. Later, the family would also own the popular Danzon nightclub, located on Union Street between Fair Oaks and Raymond avenues.

“There was always a Latino community here, but no one had ever written or really talked about it. That’s one of the great things about Roberta’s book: It reintroduces this history. I really appreciate having something I can hand to the next generation that says ‘this is who we were,’ to at least get the discussion going about who we are, what contributions we have made,” said Castro. “It’s a way of validating who we are, of keeping history alive.”

And this is a history that is very much alive. In addition to profiling great historical figures, including blind professional boxing champion and local athletic trainer Canto Robledo, the book closes with a look at Latinos making history today — three-term Pasadena City Councilman Victor Gordo, who immigrated to Pasadena as a child and became Pasadena’s first Latino council member, Pasadena Unified School District Superintendant Edwin Diaz and PCC President Paulette Perfumo, to name just a few.

Even Robledo’s story continues — his son, Joe, is currently working with the city’s Department of Public Works to erect a statue of Canto at Villa Park. Later this summer, a small exhibit about Canto Robledo’s life will be on display with the “Family Stories” exhibit at the Pasadena Museum of History.

“It made me feel proud that Roberta was able to bring to light some of Pasadena’s Mexican-American history and how it’s shaped our future,” said Joe Robledo.

Martínez hopes her book will not only shed light on a forgotten history, but also enable Pasadena residents to better relate to each other through a shared understanding of our collective past.

“There are all of these stories and all of this connectedness that we were not used to knowing because we didn’t care,” she said. “The more you know about someone and about their history or heritage, the easier it is to interact with them, to have appreciation for each others’ experiences.

“This is just the beginning,” she added. “There are lots and lots of stories that still need to be told.”

Roberta Martínez discusses “Latinos in Pasadena” at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Pasadena Museum of History, 470 W. Walnut St., Pasadena. Admission is $5. For more information, call (626) 577-1660, ext. 10, or visit pasadenahistory.org. For more about the book, visit arcadiapublishing.com.

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