In Plain Sight: La Jolla Historical Society exhibit touts tales of Mexicano heroism


Five captivating stories that reveal important contributions of local Mexicans and Mexican-Americans are told in a new exhibit from the La Jolla Historical Society opening to the public Feb. 10 at Wisteria Cottage, 780 Prospect St. The stories have been “overlooked, repeatedly forgotten or never known at all,” said Natasha Eckholm, co-curator of “In Plain Sight: Mexicano|Chicano Stories in San Diego,” who worked on the exhibit with Rebecca Morales, Ph.D.

It runs through May 20 and features text, photos, artifacts and commissioned art pieces that bring these stories to life. Along with the circumstances presented, are mini biographies of the people behind them.

“This is a very important exhibit, especially right now, given the national debate about immigration and the dysfunctionality of policy on the national level,” said Heath Fox, executive director of the La Jolla Historical Society. “This is a show that speaks to the importance of (the Mexican and Chicano) communities in town throughout the 20th century. I want to think this exhibit could contribute to the dialogue the nation is trying to have now about the issues of our immigrant communities.”

Morales added: “We used these stories as touchstones for understanding the contributions of these communities — some stories have ties to La Jolla, some to San Diego — and it’s important to bring them in to give context to our story.”

1) The Lemon Grove Incident and Roberto Alvarez: 20 years before the 1954 lawsuit Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka Kansas, which declared that racial segregation of schools was unconstitutional, the Lemon Grove Incident featured parents who fought to integrate the Lemon Grove grammar school in southeast San Diego. Student Roberto Alvarez was named as a plaintiff in a subsequent lawsuit.

“It was resolved rather easily,” Fox said, “but it set the precedent for Brown vs. The Board of Education, which set it for the nation. There was a film made about The Lemon Grove Incident in 1985, but it is not widely known.”

2) Pottery Canyon and Cornelio Rodriguez: Although the historic buildings that housed the Rodriguez brothers’ pottery company in La Jolla’s Pottery Canyon were demolished, a portion of a kiln the brothers used remains — and remains a source of controversy.

“It was on the basis of Cornelio Rodriguez’s craft that led to Pottery Canyon being designated a historic site. But there were problems for the family. As the property became increasingly valuable, it became a product of gentrification. The buildings were demolished, even though they were historic. Ultimately, the Pottery Canyon works were lost when all the buildings were lost,” Morales said. “Whether the kiln can be preserved is questionable.”

3) Office of Censorship and Priscilla Yañez: In a secret operation sanctioned by the government during World War II, a group of Mexican women, including Priscilla Yañez, reviewed newspaper and magazine stories, listened to radio, watched films and eavesdropped on phone conversations. “Priscilla worked as a telephone monitor to translate conversations between the U.S. and Mexico,” Morales explained. “These women engaged in intelligence jobs but were never recognized. There is no evidence that they learned anything of value, but it’s important to know that these patriotic Latinas contributed to the war effort.”

Fox added: “These are stories that no one would know unless they heard them from a family member and passed them on.”

4) National Humanities Medal and Ramón Ruiz: Founding member of the UC San Diego History Department and contributor to the development Hispanic Studies program, Ramón Ruiz was born in Pacific Beach and grew up in La Jolla. He authored more than a dozen books in his lifetime. In 1998, he was presented with the prestigious National Humanities Medal, which “honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens’ engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy and other humanities subjects.”

5) Chicano Park and Josephine Talamantez: Known for its colorful murals, car shows and as a Mexican art mecca under the Coronado Bridge, Chicano Park was designated on the National Register of Historic Places in 2015. But in the late 1960s, plans were introduced to develop the park into a California Highway Patrol substation, and in 1970, residents occupied the site in protest. Josephine Talamantez was on the steering committee to establish and preserve the park.

“A fair number of San Diegans are familiar with Chicano Park as the place that is over there, under a bridge,” Ekholm said. “I think it’s a story that is important for San Diegans to remember as part of their identity. It represents the power of resistance.”

Among the handful of “sidebar” stories in the exhibit are the mini biographies of the young people who were brought to La Jolla to play tennis and who went on to win championships.

Related art works

As part of the exhibition, the La Jolla Historical Society commissioned three artists to “respond” to the stories, and partnered with Outside The Lens to get the youth perspective.

Performance artist Claudio Cano brings her character, Rosa Hernandez, to the exhibit. She created a photograph that represents the maid stereotype, and which joins the other pieces on the walls.

Noé Olivas used extensive effort to create a portrait of the “lazy Mexican.” Fox said Olivas etched the image into a block of concrete, dusted terra cotta pigment into it, and flipped it over onto a sheet of paper. “It’s a commentary on stereotype as well as a reflection on the Mexican working class,” Fox said.

Omar Lopez staged and filmed a practice associated with Priscilla Yañez and the Office of Censorship. Fox explained: “In the summer, it was really hot down in that basement and the women would strip to their underwear to stay cool. They had someone up top standing watch, so if someone was coming, they would be warned and get dressed really quickly. Omar created a video about this.”

Outside the Lens, a photo education nonprofit, worked with students from San Pasqual Academy and Hoover High School to contribute to the show, Fox said. “They watched the film about The Lemon Grove Incident as part of a study on school integration and then Outside The Lens led them through a photographic project to respond to that. We have the results. There is also a commentary from each student included.”

In looking at the exhibition in its planning stage on Jan. 31, Ekholm reflected: “When we think about our community, we are all enriched when we stand and remember the contributions that all our citizens make to the life we enjoy here. We live in this beautiful place, but sometimes what happens here isn’t always as beautiful as we’d like it to be. Rather than pretend that doesn’t exist, we are enriched by remembering how people overcome those situations, confront them, and find new ways to affirm who they are, and collectively, who we all are.”

IF YOU GO: “In Plain Sight: Mexicano|Chicano Stories in San Diego” is on view noon to 4 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday, Feb. 10 to May 20 at La Jolla Historical Society’s Wisteria Cottage, 780 Prospect St. Free admission. (858) 459-5335.