by Paul R. Spitzzeri
On this Labor Day, we feature, as a highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s holdings, a postcard of the Spanish-American Institute, a Methodist-operated boarding and industrial training school for boys in Gardena. The creation of what was originally the Spanish-American Industrial Training School originated with the Methodist Episcopal Church, including the parish at the Plaza, the historic core of Los Angeles and members from Pasadena. Notably, the use of the word “Spanish” instead of “Mexican” was common for the era and seems to favor a European cast to the ethnic description of Mexicans as more acceptable to the dominant white population.
The school was incorporated in August 1909 with six directors from Los Angeles and three from the Crown City. By spring 1910, a 125-acre site was selected on what was called the Fuqua Ranch, where the Yorba-Slaughter Adobe, a San Bernardino County historic site, stands along Highway 71 in Chino. That May, the Los Angeles Express reported that the institution was to be modeled after a federal government school in Las Cruces, New Mexico and that “the purpose of the institution is the training of at least 300 boys of Mexican and Spanish blood in the arts and occupations of useful citizenship.”
A month later, the Los Angeles Times noted that there were sixty-five acres of alfalfa irrigated by a pumping plant and that a concrete building of two stories was to be built as the school and dormitory. It appears, however, that the deal with the Fuqua property, owned by Julia Slaughter Fuqua, whose parents acquired the adobe house and ranch in 1869, fell through due to a lack of subscribed funds.
By early 1913, however, the project was back on track and at a new site. In a January article titled “Mexican Youths Seek Opportunities to Rise,” the Express noted that the Reverend Vernon McCombs, district superintendent of the Spanish and Portuguese district of the Methodist Episcopal Church, was tasked with soliciting the funds to build the school. The article added that readers would be surprised “to learn that in this state alone there are over 10,000 Spanish speaking boys who can neither read nor write the English language.”
Consequently, these youngsters find that “their struggle for existence is confined to digging ditches, laying railroad ties, working in grading camps or doing other kinds of manual labor in which the factor of education does not enter.” Asserting that many Mexican youth were content to manual labor, “many of them want better things and strive as best they know how for something bigger and higher in life.”
McCombs told the paper that “my personal experience with the Peruvians and Mexicans proves beyond reasonable doubt that these Latin youths will respond quickly to uplifting influences” and related that Methodist missionaries in the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic nation of Mexico presented a “Protestant Spanish bible” to President Francisco Madero, who was quoted as approving of their “generous enterprise . . . in the elevation of my people.”
McCombs continued by arguing that “the false name often given a lowly people that they are of inferior capabilities is damaging and unfair. I believe in the poorest of our Spanish-Americans.” He added that he could not agree with any assessment “that Mexicans and the rest of our 6,000,000 Spanish Americans so near at hand cannot average well with any people on earth when given that same chance” to succeed through education and training.
Stating that he was “besieged with appeals from Mexican parents, charitable institutions and other denominations for a chance for boys to enter this school,” the pastor told the Express that “we now need only $7000 in subscriptions, payable in two years” to get the school opened at its new Gardena location. He concluded by saying “when bright, happy through humble homes have been formed by well-trained and Christian Mexican youths, then California will be well begun in her long-neglected provision for these truly splendid people.” Until then, it would be “a tide of sorrow and crime” for those Mexicans in the country who otherwise could be made into “loyal and useful citizens.”
At the end of that month, board president Frank S. Wallace organized a banquet at the exclusive California Club “to arouse public interest in the work” of the school and the Express stated that the institution :will be modeled on the lines of the Tuskegee institute” now Tuskegee University, the famous historically black university in Alabama. That summer, in an interview with the Long Beach Press, McCombs related that there were some 150,000 Spanish speakers in the county, but asserted “it may surprise some to know that Spanish-speaking people are committing more than half the crimes in Southern California.” He then, however, followed by claiming that “judges and jurors estimate that seventy to eighty-five per cent of the crimes in Southern California are committed by Mexicans.”
The school operated on thirty acres on the east side of Figueroa Street north of Alondra Boulevard in a couple of Mission Revival buildings comprising classrooms and a dormitory and initially offered grammar school educations along with industrial and vocational training to about two-dozen youths aged 12 to 18. By 1915, the name was changed to the Spanish-American Institute, by which it was known for over a half-century.
Tuition was $10 per month and the students worked on the campus’ gardens and farm to grow and raise agricultural products for the school’s needs. From the early days, the school operated the Spanish American Institute Press (the Homestead’s collection includes a copy of the 1928 book, Lily, Iris and Orchid of Southern California, printed there) and trained students in that profession and also had woodworking and carpentry programs. By the 1920s, the school fielded baseball, football and basketball teams and there were occasional sports reports in local papers involving the SAI.
Students frequently traveled to give orations and sing and play music, often doing so at other Methodist churches in the region and it held, starting in 1914, an annual event for the birthday of President Abraham Lincoln that became more elaborate as the years passed. In March 1917, the Redondo Reflex covered an annual campus meeting, at which there was a groundbreaking ceremony for a new dormitory for thirty students as well as a gymnasium and workshop.
This was the fourth building, following the Service Carson Hall, used as dormitory and classroom space, the Westlake Cottage for the superintendent’s residence, and the Farm Cottage containing a dining room, kitchen, and staff housing. It was intended to have nine structures with a capacity of 200 students. The article noted that a comprehensive industrial training program was in the works and a new course in shoe repair was offered.
By the early 1920s, there was a marked change in the school’s mission, as an October 1921 article in the Long Beach Press noted that Frank Wallace’s report to a regional conference included the statement that the school’s work comprised “training men of Spanish blood for work in the Christian ministry,” with industrial and vocational training not mentioned. Wallace told the assemblage that “there had been a substantial advance made in the last two years and the school is now fairly well equipped,” including a new water system, though there was still a $14,500 debt. Attendance was at seventy-five students, considerably fewer than the anticipated maximum of 200, though Wallace called for another dormitory to get the number to half that.
The postcard highlighted here is postmarked 7 September 1922, though it could well have been produced well before that. Its pre-printed message, however, purportedly from a student named Emilio, falls in line with what Wallace stated to the conference than a year earlier. Addressing “Dear American Brothers,” the message said that the young man’s father came to the United States from “Old Mexico” when Emilio was a baby and that, because he liked the United States, he expected “to become an American citizen” and that “when I grow up, my children will be real Americans just like you..”
Continuing that Los Angeles was truly a “City of the Angels” for him, Emilio said that he learned of the school from the Methodist church’s Plaza Community Center and added “this school was started by a little boy, Pedro, who gave all he had—seven cents—toward it.” He went on to say that “when I came I didn’t know much of any English” but he’d learned to speak and write the language. “Best of all,” he continued, “I have come to love Jesus Christ” and that he thought he would be a minister “to help the thousands of my own people who are now living in all of our southwestern states.”
It was clear from the message that Emilio intended to stay in the U.S., but an extensive article in the Los Angeles Times from August 1923 told of a different perspective as the headline made clear: “Making Agricultural and Business Leaders for Mexico.” While the article indicated that, for the last decade, the school had “the broad vision of creating capable young leaders for the southern republic,” that had not been expressed before nor was it in the postcard’s message.
The Mexican Revolution of 1910 and other factors led to a significant increase in immigration to the United States and an increasingly nationalistic attitude, including the country’s first immigration quotas coming in 1924, led the Republican-oriented paper and others to raise alarms about rising Mexican migration. Several years later, as the Great Depression ensued, large-scale deportations of Mexican nationals and American citizens of Mexican descent took place.
This article put a positive spin on the situation, asserting that “the welfare and financial independence of Mexico depend upon the development there of a sound banking system and the adaptation to special conditions of sounds methods in business and agriculture.” The institute, it was avowed, “is lighting the future of Mexican prosperity” by developing “producers, managers and skilled workers” and it was again averred that “that some of the boys may eventually become leaders of their people is a hope and a goal that is ever kept in mind.”
Repeating that educational achievement among Latinos was low, the article stated that, since 1921, students received an eighth-grade education, which seems very low for developing “leaders” of Mexico’s future. Noting that there was a capacity of 100 students, still just half of the oft-stated goal, the paper reported that a third dormitory was in construction and a radio relaying station was being installed. Twelve acres, about 40% of the campus, was being used for agriculture (though elsewhere it was reported that twenty acres were leased for oil development and bringing in revenue).
Reiterating the importance of the agricultural and printing programs, it was noted that the press issued a monthly school magazine called The Mexican Boy (though why not The Spanish Boy?) and it quoted from an essay by student Epifanio Gómez (hardly any mention of the names of students could be found in the press, aside from last names in occasional sports reports) about the agricultural productivity of the school. Epifanio wrote of the poultry and dairy elements, as well as vegetable and fruit-raising, writing “we have about an acre of rhubarb. We are putting in six acres of alfalfa. The barley is looking fine. The chickens are putting out about 60 per cent production, and the cows are doing fine. This shows that the Agricultural Department can take care of itself.”
With this, the article ended by concluding, “by such means, small as they appear, the Republic of Mexico will some day rise by its own people to a scale of production comparable to the vastness and richness of its agricultural resources.” The superintendent of the Institute, Charles A. Robinson, stated that “calls are being received for competent individuals to further that nation’s home interests” and that “the answer . . . lies with the Mexican youths of trained ability.”
In April 1926, the Times reported that two new structures were added to the campus the previous year with a cost of $60,000, but, by the end of 1929, a piece in that paper called “The Right Start” indicated that not much had changed over the years. For example, the student population was 78, still just about a third of the long-stated goal for capacity. Of those, about 20% were from Mexico and the rest from the American Southwest (the institute’s papers, now at the Huntington Library, show that there were occasionally students from other ethnicities than Latino.)
Moreover, of the twenty acres in use (the rest, presumably, still being used for oil leases), “this land has been rather neglected” and the superintendent, Alexander Stevens, “is hoping to bring it up to a higher degree of fertility” so that it could raise enough to cover consumption by students and staff. He added that there were only 400 hens, but hoped they could raise that number to 5,000, while there were just two cows, though the goal was to quadruple that number.
It was stated that study was split between schoolwork and vocational training, with farming being considered the most important, though nothing was said about the printing department. Tellingly, Stevens told the reporter, Belle C. Ewing, “in the past boys were often made to work on the farm as a punishment.” He went on to aver that he was “doing away with that system, and am trying to teach them that it is a privilege to work in the soil.” One wonders if the photo on the postcard showing a young man, perhaps Emilio and wearing a doleful expression, while a staff member watches carefully, represents the form of punishment referred to by Dr. Stevens!
Ewing’s piece ends with another interesting exposition of how “one of the problems of every nation is to make its aliens and the children of people of other races into useful citizens.” She noted that “no work is more important and many institutions are now engaged in the patriotic task of turning lads of a birth not American into agricultural channels, teaching them to be self-respecting and efficient farmers.”
Nearly twenty years after its founding, however, the Spanish-American Institute, despite all of the publicity and goal-setting, seemed to be falling far short of its objectives. Moreover, its paternalistic, at least by modern standards, approach to molding young Mexican boys into farmers and other workers was couched in changing notions of, first, turning them into contributing members of American society and, later, into models for Mexico’s future leaders of agriculture and business.
The Institute, though, managed to continue operations, including managing some farms owned by Japanese-Americans who were forcibly removed to internment camps during World War II, and there was expansion in its work, including dairying, which was a major industry in the South Bay and surrounding areas. The school closed in 1971 and the site is now filled with industrial buildings, while the SAI continues to provide scholarships to Latino students for college and vocational education, with over $1 million given to recipients in recent decades.