A legacy integrating Mexican-Americans
Tucked away at the far end of the West Village is Rosa Torrez Park, named after one of Claremont’s most important leading ladies.
The park bookends a part of town populated with high-end townhomes and the rejuvenated Claremont Packing House. But the area was once known as the West Barrio, where many Mexican-American families who worked at the former citrus packing house lived and worked.
Ms. Torrez was born Rosa Garcia in Beaumont, California in 1912, the daughter of Jose Garcia who came to the United States from Jalisco, Mexico to work on the Southern Pacific Railroad, and Maria Colunga. Her family moved to Claremont in 1918 when her father got a job working as a gardener for Pomona College.
Her history as a nearly lifelong Claremonter offers a vital and eye-opening perspective on life in the City of Trees throughout the 20th century.
Back in those days, Claremont was in many ways a segregated town. The Garcias were one of the many Mexican families who lived in the “East Barrio,” now known as Arbol Verde.
In a 1990 interview with Claremont Heritage’s Carolyn Beatty and Ginger Elliott, Ms. Torrez recalls reading about how real estate agents at the time wouldn’t sell to Mexican or Chinese people. Only one, Frank Wheeler, sold to them in the East Barrio.
“He was the one,” she said. “[He was] instrumental in having Mexicans have property.”
The Garcias moved to an area west of Indian Hill and south of Bonita Avenue known then as the “West Barrio,” according to a 2007 COURIER article by former Claremont mayor and local historian Judy Wright.
Rosa attended Claremont Grammar School, now known as Sycamore Elementary School. She said when she started going to school there, she was “scared stiff,” noting the white children there would be cruel.
The Mexican children were kept in the auditorium, she said, and white kids would pull her braided hair and make fun of the tacos and burritos she and her siblings would bring to school for lunch.
“Now who likes our food? The Anglos,” Ms. Torrez said in the 1990 interview.
Like many Mexican Americans in the early 20th century, Ms. Torrez was caught between two worlds while growing up—her mother refused to speak English in the home, and she was punished at school for speaking Spanish.
Ms. Torrez left school in ninth grade and got a job at the Padua Hills Theater as a waitress. When she was 18, she married Joe Torrez, who worked at the College Heights citrus packing plant, now known as the Claremont Packing House.
Rosa and Joe Torrez were married for 56 years until Mr. Torrez died in 1986.
They moved into a two-bedroom house in the West Barrio near the Packing House, where Mr. Torrez worked as a majordomo for the citrus business. There she raised nine children, who all went to Claremont schools.
Ms. Torrez and her husband made the decision not to speak Spanish around their children, a decision that was informed by their experiences growing up.
“I said what for? They would be segregated and they would be punished like we would be punished, you know? So why should they go through that?” Ms. Torrez said in 1990.
While her kids were in school, Ms. Torrez was inspired by a desire to improve the lives of Mexican Americans in Claremont. As Ms. Wright states in her book, Claremont Women 1887-1950, Ms. Torrez saw that her older children were being kept in “The Mexican School,” which was a converted stable, as opposed to the auditorium.
Ms. Torrez worked with principal Eleanor Condit to remove the Mexican school and integrate Claremont Grammar School in 1941.
She was instrumental in creating the Club de Damas, which was created to promote community relations between white and Mexican American Claremonters, Ms. Wright wrote.
The Club de Damas met every month at the former American Legion building on Oberlin Avenue and held regular fundraising events for children’s activities and scholarships.
Ms. Torrez said the club featured a good mixture of white and Mexican women. In her words, the club “brought the Anglos and the Mexicans together more.”
But over time, the club began to fade away. In her 1990 interview, Ms. Torrez noted that many of the women involved in the Club de Damas went on to get jobs, leaving little free time for volunteer work.
She also became known for her taco stands, which raised money for various groups and nonprofits in the area. Rosa’s Tacos was known for having long lines at the annual Village Venture and Fourth of July celebrations, and her family members continued the tradition well after her death in 1997.
She served as an honorary grand marshal at the Fourth of July parade and received the Paul Harris Fellowship Award from Claremont Rotary in 1992, among many other accolades.
But the park which bears her name serves as the most poignant piece of her legacy—here, children of all races and backgrounds can play together in the neighborhood she once called home.