by Steven Dugan
One of the rewards we receive in working with volunteers is getting to know them. We get to learn where they are from, a little about their families, and their interests and passions. This month, we’d like you to meet Diana Ybarra, a volunteer staff member since 2016. Like many of our volunteers, Diana brings unique interests and expertise to the Homestead. Diana grew up in Boyle Heights, a suburb of Los Angeles with a rich history. She nurtured her interest in the people and places of the area by attending conferences, visiting historic sites, and studying books and maps. She became so interested that she found herself “diving into old records such as telephone directories from the late 1800s and early 1900s” just to satisfy her thirst for knowledge. We think you’ll agree that Diana’s passion for history fits this quote from American Novelist James Baldwin when he said: “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” We asked her to share more about how she got “trapped in history,” her experiences in working with historic organizations, and how she got involved with the Homestead Museum.
Where does your love of history come from?
What I love about history is connecting people to their heritage. Many people across the United States may not realize that their relatives were out here in California at one time or another for various reasons. Those relatives played a role in history, too, and had stories to tell.
A few years ago I enjoyed visiting Boston, Massachusetts. One of the historical places I toured was the home of Paul Revere. I thought about his grandson (Lt. Joseph Warren Revere, U.S.N.) who had been involved in the Battle of La Mesa (the final battle of the California Campaign in the Mexican-American War) against the Mexican military forces here in Los Angeles. I wondered if Revere or his grandson had ever imagined being involved in a battle on the West Coast. My guess is probably not. I recommend everyone visit the monument of this battle located in front of the Vernon City Hall. The Battle of La Mesa was fought on January 9, 1847 and the Treaty of Cahuenga, was signed four days later.
How did you learn about the Homestead Museum?
I had never heard of the Homestead Museum before. However, once discovered, I found it to be a true oasis and historic treasure of local history.
I found out about the museum in 2002 when I participated in a project at the Japanese American National Museum called “Boyle Heights Power of Place.” That’s where I met Paul Spitzzeri, then collections manager of the Homestead Museum. He had provided materials about Andrew Boyle, William H. Workman, and Boyle Workman; all of whom are connected to the history of Boyle Heights. Paul has also advised the Boyle Heights Historical Society in many ways; as the Homestead Museum has been a great partner in promoting the Society.
What influenced your decision to volunteer at the Homestead Museum?
Volunteering at the Homestead Museum gives me an opportunity to share California history through conversations with visitors and meet other like-minded individuals who love history.
The lectures and workshops held at the museum help educate thousands of visitors, including children, about early California history as well. I enjoy interacting with the museum’s knowledgeable staff and I continue to learn something new whenever I am at the museum.
Are there any other museums or historic sites that you’ve really enjoyed visiting? What are they and what did you enjoy about them?
One of my favorites is the Heritage Square Museum located along the Los Angeles River in northeast Los Angeles. On their site are some of the early homes of Los Angeles, including the William H. Perry Mansion that was originally in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Boyle Heights. Much like the Homestead, it hosts events that will involve period games, period fashion shows, programs about architectural history, and vintage car shows. It has a beautiful rose garden that volunteers help maintain.
My favorite event is the annual Lamplight event during the Christmas season. Heritage Square Museum is a jewel in the midst of Los Angeles.
Another favorite site I enjoy visiting is the San Gabriel Mission. I enjoy seeing the old grapevine that started the vineyards, meditating in the garden where the padres are interned, and reflecting upon the natives of this land who worked hard and prayed on these grounds. Each year, in celebration of the birthday of the City of Los Angeles, the Mission re-enacts the “Walk of Los Pobladores,” a nine-mile walk from the Mission to Los Angeles. I participated in one celebration and walked with Catherine Lopez Kurland, a descendant of Claudio Lopez, who had been the mayordomo (manager) of the Mission. His descendants resided in El Paredon Blanco before it became Boyle Heights. The Lopez descendants have been part of the early history of Los Angeles and the surrounding valleys.
I would also encourage everyone to visit Rancho Los Encinos, in the city of Encino. There is a beautiful state park that includes the old structures and adobe of the early days of the ranch. The grounds are amazing and have a beautiful man-made lake that is in the shape of a guitar. Simon Gless was the nephew of Gaston Oxarart, a Basque man who had been in the sheep raising business who owned the Rancho. Upon his death, he left the ranch to his nephew, who lived in Boyle Heights, and sold the ranch to his father-in-law Domingo Amestoy. Eventually the lands would be subdivided, creating the city of Encino.
You’ve been very involved with the Boyle Heights Historical Society. What have been some of the more rewarding experiences you’ve had with that group?
I would say, overall, I have learned so much about the many people who lived in Boyle Heights. I had an opportunity to hear many stories about their life experiences. The interaction with them was my reward.
Another truly rewarding experience was being involved in the landmark process to designate two significant structures as historical landmarks in Boyle Heights: The Boyle Hotel-Cummings Block and the Simon Francois Gless Farmhouse. It was very rewarding working alongside the descendants of the families connected to both of these landmarks.
I was very pleased to see community board members and volunteers grow into community historians. They blossomed into curators and preservationists of Boyle Heights, which has led to new groups and many young people becoming involved with documenting their own history.
Being so involved with the Boyle Heights Historical Society has introduced me to some wonderful people throughout the years. Three of those people were Lucy Delgado; her daughter-in-law, Rebecca Delgado; and founding member Daniel Muñoz. Lucy and Rebecca were both enthusiastic supporters of, and active in, their particular community of Boyle Heights. And finally, Daniel Muñoz, the founding member of the Society, was a mentor to all who became involved with the group. His interest in the history of Los Angeles and California influenced many of us to become more involved with the Boyle Heights Society in particular, and the larger network of historical organizations in general. All three are gone now and greatly missed, but their passion, dedication, and love of history will stay with us a long, long time.