Home & Garden Columns

Richmond Museum Highlights City’s Hispanic History

Marta Yamamoto, Special to the Planet
Friday June 16, 2006

Siempre Aqui. Always here. Two words that simply convey a tome-like history. Aqui referring to California and more specifically the area around greater Richmond. From the early 19th century days of California’s Rancheros to 20th century jobs in mining and railroads up through today, the Hispanic presence has been an integral part of California. This saga is well showcased in the current exhibit at the Richmond Museum of History. 

The small Seaver Gallery, brightly lit and paneled in green and red, artfully displays artifacts, photographs and text chronicling Hispanic contributions both culturally and environmentally. Following the room’s perimeter, I enjoyed a concise history course of interpretive panels and accompanying illustrations. Collected from both old time residents and new comers to the community, the visuals tell the story of an age-old quest for a better life and a safe haven for raising a family. 

The story begins in the early 1800s on the Rancheros when huge tracts of land provided grazing for cattle, sheep and horses. A large, illustrated family tree traces the descendants of Joaquin Ysidro Castro (born 1730) and Maria Martina Botiller (born 1733) through five generations during the days of Rancho San Pablo, a land grant of 18,000 acres. Artifacts from this period—a full-size cow hide, a branding iron and a glass-encased adobe brick from the 1843 Castro home—provide a glimpse of everyday life, as does a 1830 sketch map of Rancho San Pablo. 

The next chapter leaps to the early 1900s when jobs in agriculture, mining and railroads created the next influx of immigrants. New immigration laws restricted Asian and European workers and World War I had designs on American men. Meanwhile, Mexican land reform policies, depriving 98 percent of the population of their land, and revolution catalyzed men to head north for work. Many ended up in Richmond at the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, others at Standard Oil. A page from a 1914 Santa Fe Magazine attests to their presence. In three full-page columns an English-Spanish glossary translates a thorough list of work-related terms, including “pay day” to “dia de pago” and even provides a pronunciation guide. 

Mexican family roles, men, women, boys and girls, and social life are explored photographically. La Hispano-Americana Mercado from 1931 is represented in a classic black and white shot as well as with a brightly illustrated calendar from 1939 displaying the Golden Gate Bridge. A group of smiling gaily dressed young ladies at a Mexican Independence Day Celebration and another at a Sunday afternoon tardeada at Sweet’s Ballroom shine a light on the lighter side of life. The role of dance is displayed through Mexican dance costumes vibrant in their colors, seemingly poised to whirl into action. A black skirt sequined with images of the Mexican eagle and a traditional dress festooned with flowers in every spectral color would be highlights at any celebration. 

The time line progresses as World War II draws Mexican Americans from other areas to work in the Kaiser shipyard, where women and their daughters also joined the workforce. One photo shows the nine Gonzalez siblings, originally from Arizona, here to work at the Kaiser Shipyard. By this point in time, a second generation of Mexican Americans is looking higher both politically and socially. I love the family portrait of mother Martinez, face a little smug with pride, surrounded by her five adult children. 

By the time I reached the turbulent 1950s and ’60s, I was joined by Executive Director, Donald Bastin. Having collected most of the images from the community, Donald spoke of the interest this generated at the exhibit opening. Guests crowded before portraits looking for relatives and friends, some even running into acquaintances they hadn’t realized lived in the area. As much cultural as historical, exhibits such as this one recognize personal and ethnic contributions to society as a whole. I listened in on a conversation between a Hispanic mother and her son, at the exhibit for a school assignment, passing the baton from the past to his role in the present and the future. 

Striving to improve the quality of their lives, Mexican-Americans supported Cesar Chavez and joined La Raza. Locally many worked with the Richmond United Council of Spanish Speaking Organizations and more became active politically. 

The Hispanic presence has grown in Richmond. Aside from Native Americans, it is the group with the greatest longevity in the area. Today a young population, Latinos make up more than 60 percent of West Contra County school populations. Representing this young group are several students from Richmond High School, along with their own artistic statements. The rear wall of the gallery displays wonderful color portraits of today’s Mexican-Americans. A young boy with large, warm brown eyes, an older boy holding the sign “My parents are not criminals,” the represented artists from Richmond High and two family portraits bring this exhibit full circle to the people we see everyday. 

A collaboration by Richmond High School staff and students, Home Altar is a striking exhibit. A combination of shrine, a place for worship and prayer and somewhere to remember loved ones, the photos and artifacts represent religious and personal icons while photos and mementos pay homage to students who have passed away. 

Donald Bastin and the museum staff see this exhibit as a work in progress, as is the story of all mankind. Like so many immigrant groups, Mexicans came to California to fill a need, supplying their labor and seeking opportunities for themselves and their families. The culture they brought with them not only enriched their lives put also added to the complex tapestry of what is now the Bay Area. The value of the exhibit, in my opinion, is threefold. Siempre Aqui, always here, serves as affirmation to those whose ancestors paid their dues. It also serves as a bridge to recent immigrants helping them find familiarity and their footing in a new land. Lastly, Siempre Aqui reminds non Mexican-Americans of the long time presence of a vital segment of our society. Two simple words far weightier than the eleven letters of which they are composed.