Thriving Arbol Verde community recognizes rich heritage

Hundreds gathered under the shade of trees at Claremont’s El Barrio Park Saturday for a reunion celebration 100 years in the making.

Former friends and neighbors of the city’s historical Arbol Verde community joined to honor the neighborhood’s centennial anniversary, recognizing the rich Mexican-American culture that thrives in Claremont today. A significant part of Claremont’s roots, Arbol Verde has been a prominent Mexican-American enclave in Claremont, Montclair and Upland since the early 1900s.  

In addition to the centennial, the event also celebrated the 40th anniversary of the neighborhood’s El Barrio Park, a fitting symbol of the neighborhood’s steadfastness and dedication to creating community despite adversity.

“It’s so nice to see that 40 years later people are still enjoying the park. For a while we didn’t think the park would happen,” said Ray Mendoza, one of the Arbol Verde residents who helped build El Barrio Park. “It was part of a real community effort.”

The park is a true symbol of the spirit of the people of Arbol Verde, added Mr. Mendoza’s wife, Ernestine Mendoza.

“There was a real sense of community,” said Ms. Mendoza. “There wasn’t a man that wouldn’t take the shirt off his back for you.”

That sense of togetherness was rekindled during the weekend celebration. Arbol Verde residents both past and present were given the chance to reunite, some for the first time in decades. Veronica Felix of Montclair, who grew up in Arbol Verde and remained for 30 years, was happy for the chance to see some familiar faces.

“This is an important part of my heritage,” said Ms. Felix. She reflected on fond memories like visiting the neighborhood El Chisme Market, or “The Gossip,” for household needs like milk and eggs. “This is part of who I am today.”

Some of the neighborhood’s first inhabitants gathered to tell stories of the area’s beginnings, while others doted over young children, and marveling at how life has changed for the youngsters of Arbol Verde. Ninety-eight-year-old Mary Palos, one of the original Arbol Verde residents, can hardly believe the changes that have taken place since she first came to Claremont in 1919. She moved to the United States from Michoacán, Mexico, where she was born 5 years earlier.

“There was nothing but groves,” she recalled.

Helping to establish the Catholic community with the construction of the former Sacred Heart Chapel is among the highlights of her youth in Claremont.

“On their free weekends, [Arbol Verde residents] would volunteer to pour cement, build pews, walls, windows and anything else to finish the church,” Ms. Palos said. “Everyone came out to take help.”

Honoring the event’s intended purpose, its cultural significance and the role of the Catholic community in the Arbol Verde neighborhood, Saturday’s celebration began with an outdoor Catholic mass presided over by Father Charles Ramirez, pastor of Claremont’s Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church. In his homily, Fr. Ramirez recognized the persecution of the first Mexican-Americans as they worked to establish themselves and their faith in the Claremont community.

“They weren’t wanted here initially, but they stood strong in their faith,” Fr. Ramirez said.

After coming together in communion, participants enjoyed classic folklorico dancing and traditional Mexican fare provided by the local Knights of Columbus chapter, a Catholic fraternal community service organization. It was a celebration reminiscent of the jamaica celebrations once held at the old chapel.

“I used to make chicken and mole and sell it for 75 cents a plate while people were dancing in the dirt nearby,” Ms. Palos said. “It was a lot of fun.”

Indigenous Aztec song and dance pulled in the crowds, eager to learn and take part regardless of cultural heritage.

“People of all different backgrounds engaged in the ceremony and the significance of the dance,” said Al Villanueva, chairperson for the Arbol Verde Preservation Committee that hosted Saturday’s event. “It was a true cultural engagement with the public.”

The day’s event was a telling tribute to the rich heritage of the Arbol Verde community, according to Mr. Villanueva.  

“Contento, content,” said Mr. Villanueva, summing up his satisfaction. “It was a success.”

—Beth Hartnett


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