by Alexandra Rasic
A few years ago, the Homestead Museum’s staff adopted a purpose statement that helps guide our work. It reads that we aim to create advocates for history through the stories of greater Los Angeles. What does that mean? We want people to think of history, not as something you read in a textbook, bogged down with names and dates, but as an unfolding story we are very much connected to. I love when kids visiting the museum ask, “Why are the Workman and Temple families so important?” My answer is always something along the lines of, “Because they help show us that all of our individual lives have meaning and impact.” All people make choices: some good, some bad, and some they never anticipated having to make in their wildest dreams. In fact, we’re all living through a historic event right now as we navigate the coronavirus pandemic.
Last month, something amazing showed up in our social media feed: a picture of a piece of handmade embroidery art by Mimi Le-Detelich showing the boundaries of Rancho La Puente (a Mexican-era land grant co-owned by the Workman and Rowland families) surrounded by our modern freeways. Yes, you are reading this correctly. Just look at the photo!
By day, Mimi manages a university research lab in Georgia, but on the side, she makes fun embroidery hoops and tees for friends and family and takes commission work off of her Etsy page. She was asked to replicate this map as it appears on our website and brochures that shows the size of Rancho La Puente in the context of our modern freeway system.
So naturally, the next question was who commissioned this piece of art? The answer is Bianca Caraza. And why? As Bianca explained, “I am legit obsessed with the Homestead.” It turns out that Bianca had family members who worked for the Temple family in the 1920s and she feels a deep connection to the site and the history of the region.
We love learning about the ways that people connect with history. During the pandemic, many museums have reported seeing a surge in online engagement from virtual programs to exploring online archive databases (here is a link to ours) and reading blogs. We really enjoy interacting with visitors at the Museum, but having the opportunity to continue making connections online during the shutdown has been inspiring. Many of our programs have been recorded and placed on our YouTube channel so that they can be enjoyed for a long time to come, and we plan to keep recording as many programs as we can post-pandemic. We’ve been happy to have many “regulars” join us, and we’ve also been excited to see that some of our virtual programs have attracted people from further afar including Illinois, New York, and Scotland.
So back to Mimi and Bianca….I asked both of them to tell me a bit more about themselves and their passions for history and art. Here is what we learned.
Mimi shared, “Embroidery has been something that has kept me feeling connected to my grandmother and my mom. We didn’t have much money growing up so most of my clothes were homemade. I am an immigrant from Vietnam and came to the US when I was very young. Embroidery is a big part of Vietnamese culture and I’m glad that I have this chance to practice this artistic medium and bring a smile to people’s faces when they receive the finished product.” As far as the history of the Rancho goes, she said that, “The fact that there exists so much detail regarding the land and its acquisition is astounding. I think it’s important to keep documents and artifacts that link us to our past and the history of families that play a role in communities and societies because it provides insight into how we have progressed throughout time as generations come and go. Also, I like that they named it [the Rancho] after a historic bridge in the area.” We couldn’t agree more, Mimi!
Through her Etsy page, Mimi is helping to create keepsakes for people documenting their passions, important milestones and events, and much more. You might even be inspired to commission your own one-of-a-kind piece of art. (I purchased my own Rancho La Puente hoop!)
Not surprisingly, the art of embroidery is represented in numerous ways in the Homestead’s collection; from napkins, towels, and tablecloths, to lampshades, clothing, and photographs. Here are just two examples.
As noted earlier, Bianca’s story is directly connected to the Homestead. I asked her a few questions about her recollections and motivations.
Alex: I loved that when I asked you why you had the embroidery commissioned, your answer was, “Because I am legit obsessed with the Homestead.” You went on to share that you are from La Puente, and that you had family that worked for the Temples in the 1920s and ’30s. What kinds of stories did you hear as a child, and from who?
Bianca: Oh my gosh there are so many stories circulated in my family. My grandmother’s mother, Carmen Higuera, grew up living in the little houses in that lot where the K-Mart used to be on Hacienda and Valley. My grandmother used to call them the “cracker box houses.” She said that when my great-grandmother was a little girl, Mr. Temple offered her and her siblings (she was the youngest of a bunch of kids) one penny for every gopher head they brought him. But I guess Mr. Temple never kept the gopher heads, so the kids would bring the same gopher a few days in a row (which is not only dishonest, but disgusting). She would tell me about how they would swim in the swimming pool with the Temple kids, which I suspect might’ve been an irrigation water supply and not a pool at all. [You are correct.] There’s also a family legend that when my great-grandmother grew up, Mr. Temple’s son proposed to her. This story is always told with a marked tone of wistfulness. The sort of big myth is that when my family lived on the Homestead in that little house, my teenaged Tia Victoria had a baby. According to the story, she put her baby in its bassinet on the porch, went to go get something in the house, and when she came back the baby was gone. My Tia was a teenager in what was probably the late 1920s, so no one alive remembers anything other than that. I’ve tried looking for a similar story in old newspapers, but I don’t have any proof that it happened, or even know what the baby’s name was.” [Very interesting…we never heard this story.]
Alex: What drives your interest in history? Do you have other favorite time periods, places, or areas of interest aside from things connected to your family history?
Bianca: Well, I’m an English teacher now, but an art history major initially. I literally can’t remember a time when I wasn’t reading a historical fiction book about the Civil War or the American Revolution. I love the sense of connectedness that studying history gives—no matter how far you go back in time, people are always the same. That brings me great comfort and endless fascination. When the pandemic broke out and we were dismissed home from school, the first thing I thought about was the 1918 pandemic (as I’m sure many did). Probably three days into lockdown this journalist I love called Hadley Meares wrote an article about exactly that for LAist and I was completely enthralled. [We love Hadley, too, Bianca!] I must have read it ten times over the past six months (I made my students read it). It was incredible to see that people responded to that pandemic almost the exact same way as they did now—for good and for ill. Teachers had to help their students with homework over the phone and the district published the homework in the paper. I love those kinds of details. But I digress. I’m really interested in California history, especially the Rancho period, of course. But I love anything to do with old Hollywood even though it’s so cliché, and I love to read about New York City’s history as well—everything from Stuyvesant to Boss Tweed to the pneumatic subway. I also love to read about French history, especially the court of Louis XIV and the creation of Versailles, and of course the Revolution; Ancient Greece and Rome (though my Latin is really bad); and I’m getting more into Mexican history. It was a subject I felt was neglected in my schooling.
Alex: You mentioned that you are currently in grad school working towards an MFA and that you are writing a book that takes place on a ranch in California around that time period. How’s the book coming along? Are you basing any characters on your family?
Bianca: The book is coming along very slowly. I have been researching on and off since 2014, but I really wanted to make it my thesis, so I’ll be actively working on it next semester. As for basing characters off of my family—absolutely not. That would be so awkward as it’s in the horror genre. However, I did name a character after my grandmother, though they have very little in common.
Alex: It’s fun to talk about local history with people who have lived in your community for a long time. You mentioned that your great-great-grandfather, Emmanuel Higuera, lived in a little house where the K-Mart used to be. For years, locals referred to the Homestead as, “the museum behind K-Mart”! The store is long gone, but after learning that he lived on that property, I think about him now when I drive through the intersection of Valley and Hacienda. What do you think about? Are there other places in and around La Puente that bring up special memories for you?
Bianca: I love that, “the museum behind K-Mart.” I would be remiss as a former citizen of La Puente if I didn’t talk about the remains of the Star Theater. I never got to go in there (I think it was already…a bit disreputable by the time I was born), but it was such an iconic building and it’s across from my favorite restaurant ever, La Indiana. When I introduce myself to my students every year, I include a map of La Puente in relation to LA (because none of them have ever been there) and a picture of the Donut Hole. My kids are absolutely tickled by the idea of a donut you can drive through, as was I as a kid. My mom used to stop there for coffee every morning before we went to school and I would always get a pink twist.
Alex: How did you find Mimi’s Etsy page? Did you go to Etsy looking for a custom embroiderer?
Bianca: Actually, Mimi and I are friends. We attend the same virtual book club, so when she started showing us her gorgeous embroidery, the first thing I asked was if she could make a map.
Alex: Not only did you have a map of Rancho La Puente embroidered, but you had Mimi include the local freeways! Was there a reason you asked her to do that?
Bianca: Well, the initial map I wanted was a little too complicated for an embroidery design. So I ended up finding a map that was a little simpler and it had the freeways on it. I really love to see how enormous the original property was (about 49,000 acres) especially set against the freeways as a reference point. It’s wild to think that two families could own that much land.
Alex: We can’t resist asking if you’ve had other works of art created with a nod to history. Is there anything else in your collection, or something you’d love to have created or make for yourself some day?
Bianca: My dream is to quilt a replica of the Unicorn Tapestry [a renowned work of art depicting nobleman and hunters pursuing a unicorn], but that’s a project for like… 2030.
Our thanks to Mimi and Bianca for sharing their passions and personal connections to history with us. We encourage everyone reading this to think about their own connections to history: share your favorite stories, connections, and observations with friends and family. Hop online and see what else you can learn about things you’re curious about. And please, above all else, recognize that your individual experiences are part of this thing we call history. It belongs to all of us. We’re thinking about making this an ongoing series, so if you know someone with a special connection with the history of greater LA, let me know. We’d love to share more stories.