|History of San Bernardino, California
(In this article I incorrectly wrote that the Zanone family were Sicilians.. their association with the Mafa were only rumors)
| San Bernardino, CA, my home town, is a tough working class city of 181,000 people, 43% of which are of Mexican origin. It is the poorest city in the largest county in California, over a third of its people live off public assistance. It is the 5th most dangerous city in California with 48 murders, 120 rapes, 1,032 robberies and 1,664 aggravated assaults in 2003. It is a city struggling to redefine itself in the aftermath of the closure of Norton Air Force Base, the Santa Fe Railroad Shops and Kaiser Steel in the early 1990s. San Bernardino at one time had the largest Mexican barrio outside of Los Angeles which is just 50 miles to the west.
Most of those who lost their jobs were from the west side, the Mexican barrio located along Route 66, known as Mt. Vernon, or to Chicanos as “La Verde.” Just thirty years earlier these same residents lost their historical source of employment when local citrus groves and vineyards were converted to suburban housing developments.
For sixty years beginning in the early 1930s, Mt. Vernon had been a completely self contained Mexican community with markets restaurants, hotels and motels, theaters, gas stations, cleaners, liquor stores, pool halls, bakeries, meat markets, a drug store, a baseball park and nightclubs and bars catering to every whim. Until 1953 every child went to local elementary and middle schools, after which a few would venture out of the barrio for the first time in their lives to attend High School. This two square mile community bounded by the Santa Fe Railroad tracks on the east, by the rail yards on the south, by the Lytle Creek Wash on the west and the intractable white community to the north was a refuge from an alien and inhospitable world. But the loss of jobs, political chicanery and changing demographics made it impossible for local businesses to survive.
The new 215 freeway, built along the Santa Fe Railroad tracks in 1956, effectively diverted all the traffic from Route 66 and the businesses along Mt. Vernon Avenue. Barrio residents call it the 215 Berlin Wall. The only two off ramps, at 5th St and Baseline, lead to Downtown - away from the barrio.
The expansion of civil rights in the 1960s contributed to the barrio’s decline by making it easier for Mexican Americans to leave the barrio for better jobs and housing elsewhere. By 1995 most of the businesses that served the community were forced to close, and building codes prevented new businesses from taking their place. The barrio became a wasteland of empty lots, ghosts of a past gone forever. But San Bernardino’s present predicament obscures a colorful history.
The San Bernardino Valley was originally inhabited by the Serrano and the Cahuilla Indians who preceded the first Spanish missionaries by around 4000 years. The Serrano inhabited the mountains and high desert to the north, and the Cahuilla inhabited what is now Riverside County; and to a lesser extent, the Shoshone, inhabited the area west of San Bernardino. When Spain claimed California in 1542, they began building a series of missions in what was then called Alta California. The San Gabriel mission, 40 miles east of the San Bernardino Valley, was founded in 1771. The Shoshone, who became associated with the Mission, became known as the Gabrielenos. The San Gabriel Mission claimed the lands in San Bernardino Valley for grazing sheep and cattle.
The Mission Period
The first Spanish mission in the valley was established in 1810 as an outpost of the San Gabriel Mission. The founder, Father Dumetz, was a Franciscan missionary, named the Asistencia Mission "San Bernardino" after Saint Bernardino of Siena. The missionaries were mostly concerned with converting the Indians to Christianity, but they also showed the Indians how to plant and irrigate crops. The mission prospered and so did the lives of its Indian converts. The mission is located on Barton Road in present day Redlands.
In 1832, ten years after Mexico took over California, all the missions were secularized. The purpose of secularization was to convert the Missions to Pueblos and return the lands to the Indians. What followed instead were huge land grants to the rich and those politically connected to the Governor. The grants were called Ranchos which later gave their names to such cities as Chino, Cucamonga and San Bernardino. The owners of these Ranchos built beautiful haciendas which became centers of commerce and culture, very similar to the haciendas in Mexico. Even though many Indians worked as vaqueros on the Ranchos, other Indians made life difficult by stealing horses and cattle, sometimes wiping out entire herds. Many of the rancheros eventually gave up and left the valley. The tenuous situation of the Ranchos remained the same during and immediately after the
Mexican American War.
The War began in 1846 and ended in 1848 with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe. The conflict was driven by the idea of "Manifest Destiny” - the idea that it was America’s destiny to expand the country's borders from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. After Texas won its independence from Mexico in 1836, and statehood in 1846, there were military conflicts between the two countries over border lines. These disputes were used by President Polk, who was eager to seize more land, to justify a war with Mexico. Three years after the war ended California was admitted to the United States.
In 1851, a year after California was admitted to the United States, a company of 500 Mormons arrived from Utah looking for a place to establish a Mormon outpost in southern California. They made camp in Devore at the mouth of a creek that flowed through the San Bernardino Valley on its way to the Santa Ana River. The Mormons were pleased with what they saw below and decided that it was where they would build their settlement. Before they left camp they named the stream “Lytle Creek” after their leader Captain Andrew Lytle. Later that same year, they purchased the San Bernardino Rancho from Don Antonio Lugo, who had tired of the hardships, and built a stockade which would later become San Bernardino’s civic center. Because of the Mormon influence, San Bernardino was strictly a temperance town, with no drinking or gambling allowed. The community thrived and in 1854 the City of San Bernardino was officially incorporated. The population at the time was 1,200 – 900 of them Mormons. In 1855 William F. Holcomb discovered gold in Big Bear and soon miners poured into the mountains through San Bernardino in search of their fortunes.
The Mormon settlement lasted only five years, when in 1857, Brigham Young recalled the colonists to Utah. In those few years at the San Bernardino Rancho, they established schools, stores, a network of roads and a strong government. When the Mormons left, however, San Bernardino was taken over by opportunists of all kinds and it soon earned a reputation as a tough town. During the Civil War in the 1860's, San Bernardino became a hotbed of confederate sympathy. After the war ended, Portuguese and Italian immigrants planted Navel oranges and vineyards in Riverside and San Bernardino. Over the next 30 years, the citrus and winery industry and other farming ventures would dominate the valley.