More than 3 centuries in the making, Arte América to open exhibit on Latino history in the San Joaquín Valley

The newest exhibit to open at Arte Américas was more than three centuries in the making.

And, the undertaking was so great that organizers pushed back the opening of ‘Caminos’ (paths, or roads) to March 3.

“Stop and think about it,” said Dr. Alex Saragoza, professor emeritus at UC Berkeley. “The incredible diversity of 300 years of history, and we’re just talking about the late 1700s. If we include the mexicanos from México coming up here, we’d have to add 250 years.”

The exhibit – which led Arte Américas to close its doors in December to prepare for the massive undertaking – takes up every square inch of the Latino cultural arts center at the corner of Van Ness and Calaveras.

The time periods are broken into eight stages, starting in 1772 with the arrival of the first Spanish explorers to the present where NancLatinos have defined the Valley through their traditions, cultures and values.

“This is a peoples’ history exhibit,” said Saragoza, the son of Mexican farmworkers in Madera and a leading historian who led the campaign to collect information for the exhibit.

‘Caminos,’ he said, is about people’s resilience and resistance.

“We are willing to go to the mat, whether it’s in small ways or large ways,” he said. “Whether it’s picketing at 5 o’clock in the morning on Blackstone and Shaw, or whether the fight to have Danzantes de Aztlán at Fresno State.”

Nancy Márquez, one of the founders of Arte Américas more than three decades ago, saw the need to preserve the history of Latinos in the heart of California. She has interviewed dozens and dozens of individuals, including the late Judge Armando Rodríguez, and called on others to contribute stories, photographs, books and other items for the exhibit.Camino

“Caminos follows the paths that brought people to the Valley, primarily from México, and their diverse experiences over time and generations,” said Márquez.

The migration of Mexicans into the Valley, said Márquez, was shaped by international and national events.

“For example, the exhibit underscores the ways in which anti-immigrant legislation against the Chinese, Japanese and southern and eastern Europeans contributed greatly toward the recruitment of Mexican farm labor as agricultural production increased at the turn of the twentieth century.

An estimated 12,000 people gathered at San Antonio Claret Church in south Fresno to begin their 2006 march Fresno City Hall to protest anti-immigrant legislation in Washington, D.C. The ‘Caminos’ exhibit at Arte Américas focuses on the history of Latinos in the Valley. Vida en el Valle file photo

The dynamics during World War I and the boom that followed through most of the 1920s fueled the arrival of Mexicans into the region, who in turn facilitated further migration from their former homeland, said Márquez.

Saragoza emphasizes the importance of ‘Caminos.’

“As a professional historian who has done all kinds of (research), there is very little attention to the San Joaquín Valley,” he said. “And, when you look at national histories, they talk about California and you would think there is only a coastline in California and then it joins Nevada.

“The significance of this particular exhibit is not only because there is no history museum in Fresno, but also because there is no Latino history museum at all in the United States,” he added.

Saragoza noted the Smithsonian Institute “finally at least” began projects for Native Americans and African Americans.

“But we are still waiting, and we’re not going to wait any longer,” he said. “This exhibit will represent an important step in that direction.”

The exhibit takes viewers from the first Spanish explorers to the Mexican (1821-48) and Early American (1848-1900) periods which transformed the Valley through migration from Asia, Europe and México.

“The narrative highlights the development of a community bound by language and culture whose integration -- however fitful and uneven -- has enriched Valley life,” said Márquez.

“The story is one of change, resilience and resistance, from the struggles of the Great Depression years and the civil rights era to the achievements of Latina entrepreneurs and the brave services of Latino soldiers.”

Among the stories included in the exhibit is the 1920s “Fiesta” organized by the KKK at the Fresno fairgrounds at the same time the Mexican community celebrated its own patriotic festival; and, the 1960 graduation at Fresno State College that included about a dozen Mexican origin grads.

Today, more than 1,000 Latinos graduate from Fresno State. The Latino graduation ceremony, the largest in the country, draws more than 12,000 to the Save Mart Center.

“That resilience on the one hand, and that resistance on the other hand is what this exhibit intends to show in all of its warts and all of its glories,” said Saragoza. “This is not just rags to riches. I wish it could be just be one successful story, but it’s not.

“I don’t need to tell you poverty is still a problem for us. I don’t need to tell you that racial profiling can be problem for us.”