When Robert Gonzales was growing up in Redlands, Calif., Interstate 10 had become a fixture in the landscape. Completed in 1964, the year Gonzales was born, the freeway, which many refer to as the Dime, had sliced through the town, leaving poor working-class areas on the north side and more affluent neighborhoods on the south. It was on the north side, only a block from the freeway, where Gonzales grew up and where he still lives.
As a kid, Gonzales was bused across the freeway to school. Although he visited the homes of his southside school friends, they never felt comfortable coming to his neighborhood. “They didn’t think the area was safe,” Gonzales says.
In reality, North Redlands was rundown, but it was a quiet, family neighborhood where people know one another. “I rode my bike at all hours of the day without fear,” Gonzales remembers. “But there was a perception out there that the neighborhood was crime-ridden, and this idea became ingrained in people.”
Gonzales went on to earn a master’s degree in history from UC Riverside. It was only at the continual urging of a professor Larry Burgess, that he became involved in the Mexican heritage work that now occupies a large part of his life.
“In graduate school, my academic interest was in social-engineering projects like dams and freeways, and when Burgess wanted to involve me in an oral history project with a community of Mexican citrus laborers, it didn’t appeal to me at all. In fact, I thought that the project would only perpetuate the stereotype of Mexicans as orange pickers.”
But Burgess kept badgering him, trying to persuade him to change his mind. Finally, he suggested that Gonzales go the Smiley Public Library, the only public library in Redlands, and do some research. “The library,” says Gonzales, “had everything you could possibly want to know about the history of the area, but there was nothing there about the contributions of Mexicans whose labor helped build the city, even though they made up the bulk of the population.” Deepley angered and frustrated by this omission, Gonzales changed his mind about the project and dove into the work.
Gonzales spend the next several years chronicling the Mexican citrus workers community in East San Bernardino Valley and ended up with a 36-volume oral history and a collection of photographs and artifacts. Along the way, he established the Redlands Oral History Project. “The work,” says Gonzales, “shows what it was like to be Mexican at a certain time and place, in a very conservative community.”
Gonzales was the only person capturing and preserving the stories of the Mexican population in the area, and he realized how important the work was. “The need was enormous because nothing like this had been done before. And I realized how vital it was to capture the stories from the people who made the history themselves. For me it was a question of writing our own history or it would be written for us.”
Gonzales also saw how powerful and affirming the act of storytelling could be. “One of the questions I asked people was, Why haven’t you told people these stories before? And their response was always the same: ‘We thought no one cared.
Gonzales’ current project, Living on the Dime, one of nine Communities Speak projects CCH has funded under its California Stories initiative, is an outgrowth of his work in East San Bernardino Valley. “In my research with Mexican settler families, I found that one theme kept repeating itself: the way artificial barriers railroads, roads and then the freeway came to separate towns and people. I became interested i what the construction of freeways did to communities. I noticed a recurring pattern, that freeways always seem to go through ethnically diverse, heavily populated areas where people are least able to speak out on issues. It happened in Redlands where I grew up, and it happened in almost every town on the I-10. This project will give those people a voice.”
The Living on the Dime project will gather the stories of people along the I-10 in San Bernardino and Riverside counties (called the Inland Empire) whose lives have been affected by the freeway. The project will include people from a variety of backgrounds and cover an area that runs from San Bernardino Valley on the west to the Colorado River on the east, a distance of approximately 200 miles.
To implement Living on the Dime, Gonzales, now director of the community-based Inland Mexican Heritage, has enlisted support from several dozen organizations in the region. Among them are Habitat for Humanity, the Redlands Police Department, the Boys and Girls Club of Redlands, Haili Wailele Film Foundation, the public libraries in Beaumont, San Bernardino and Colton, and the Riverside Press Enterprise newspaper. Among the individuals contributing the project are Alfredo Figueroa, a longtime community leader in Blythe who has written a 13-volume history of Aztlan, the mythical place or origin of the Aztec people, and the indigenous people of the Southwest, and Leslie Rios, a prominent activist in Beaumont who had done extensive research on the pioneer Mexican families who worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad in the Gorgonio Pass area.
The project is also attracting a number of volunteers and even interest from some Ivy League schools. Gonzales reports that a student from Harvard will serve as a volunteer with the project next summer and that a professor at Brown involved in establishing the first ethnic studies program at an Ivy League school is eager to find out what Gonzales is doing. “We’re getting a good response from people, but money is still a problem,” he says. “For some activities, we only have startup funds, so we’re continually looking for new sources of money.”
Story-collecting activities for Living on the Dime will take place over the next two years, city by city, and include special story-sharing days during which participants will have opportunities to tell their stories and share photos and documents. Among the programs planned are a theater piece developed from the collected stories, a multimedia exhibit focusing on the environmental impact of development in the area, and a series of community forums to enable residents to discuss community concerns that the stories uncover. The project also includes plans to establish a series of nonprofit educational and social research centers along the I-10 corridor.
When asked about the challenges of managing a project the size and scope of Living on the Dime, Gonzales appears unfazed. “I like to envision things and then make them happen,” he says. “And there are so many people involved in the project who are both capable and passionate about the work that it makes my job much easier.
Gonzales goes on to talk about what he hopes the Dime project will accomplish. “The Inland Empire is a very large geographical and political unit,” he says, “and the I-10, the largest man-made structure in the world, ties the area together. The people who live along the freeway are connected by the freeway, too, and they have stories to tell about how the I-10 has affected them. I think many of these stories will bring up issues that touch almost everyone. Ultimately, the project will give people a chance to speak out and then, hopefully, encourage them to take action.”
To find out more about the Living on the Dime project, visit the Inland Mexican Heritage website at www.mexicanheritage.org. Robert Gonzales can be reached at rgonzales@ mexicanheritage.org.
(Reprinted from the California Council for the Humanities, Summer 2003).