Santa Ana Register , December 1, 1923

Santa Ana Register, December 1, 1923

Early Orange County Colonias

The Mexican Revolution of the 1910s had a significant impact on the history of Mexican-Americans in Southern California, with more and more Mexican families moving north to the United States to escape the violence and economic turmoil south of the border. This trend continued in the 1920s, when Orange County’s Mexican-American population more than doubled, reaching about 14% of the county’s total population.

In his landmark 1994 citrus worker study, Labor and Community, Professor Gilbert González of UC Irvine identifies three different types of Mexican-American communities which grew up during this period – neighborhoods on outskirts of existing towns, citrus worker camps, built and operated by the local packing houses, and colonias. Each had their own distinctive characteristics.

The colonia tracts represented a curious mix of restrictions and opportunities. In an era when many real estate subdivisions restricted sales to whites only, the colonias were specifically laid out for and marketed to the county’s growing Mexican-American population. Most were located some distance away from existing towns, surrounded by orange groves and vegetable farms which provided a source a local employment. By chance, or by design, most of these local colonias were laid out around 1923.

Colonia Independencia is perhaps the best known. It was laid out in 1923 at the northwest corner of Katella Avenue and Gilbert Street, between Anaheim and Stanton, and remains a recognized community to this day.

Colonia Juarez, just south of Mile Square Regional Park in Fountain Valley, was also laid out in 1923. Santa Ana real estate agent Ashby Turner did the subdivision and hired well-known Santa Ana businessman Sol Gonzales as sales manager.

Colonia La Paz, northeast of Westminster Avenue and Euclid Street near Garden Grove, was laid out a year later, but it soon became connected with nearby Colonia Manzanillo.

Colonia Manzanillo was laid out around 1925 southeast of Westminster and Euclid. In later years, the community was also sometimes known as Colonia Díecisiete (Westminster Avenue was originally known as Seventeenth Street).

Another 1923 subdivision in La Habra was officially known as the McFadden Tract, but was also specifically marketed to Mexican immigrants. Charles Corona served as sales agent, and before long it was locally known as Campo Corona. It was located near the La Habra Citrus Association’s worker housing, dubbed Campo Colorado.

La Jolla, south of Placentia, was subdivided in 1924 and grew into a substantial community. La Paloma, south of El Modena along on the east side of Hewes Street, while also dating from 1923, differed from these other tracts in that the developers did not sell lots but only rented out little houses there.

In the initial publicity for Colonia Juarez, developer Ashby Turner displayed the mixed racial attitudes of the time. While stressing that “in ‘Colonia Juarez’ every Mexican will have an opportunity to own a home of his own,” he also made no effort to hide the fact that he hoped to lure residents from Santa Ana’s barrios out to the new townsite. He pointed out “that under his sales plan a down payment of $50 is all that is required to secure a lot, with the balance being paid in easy monthly payments. He stated that where a Mexican has money sufficient to erect a cottage he will advance half of the money needed for the building.”

“[Sol] Gonzales,” Turner told the Santa Ana Register, “already has taken several reservations from Mexicans to whom he has explained the plan and if he continues to sell at the rate he has this week, in advance of the formal opening of the tract, the fifty-acre subdivision will be sold out in a short time. Gonzales has made arrangements to establish a general store on the new townsite, and in connection with the store will maintain a free employment agency.” (Register, October 4, 1923)

Along with grading streets and donating land for a church, Turner also put down a well and in 1930 formed a mutual water company (with Gonzales on the board) to provide water for the community.

Gilbert González gives a good description of life in these various communities in the opening chapters of his book. Most of the colonias were laid out in large lots, providing space for small farm plots; many families had chickens, a goat or even a cow as well. Most of the colonias had several small businesses – grocery stores, barber shops, billiard halls, and perhaps a cafe in later years. Women might find extra work sewing, or providing child care. There was also “some small-scale bootlegging” in the 1920s, González admits.

By the 1930s, most of the colonias had a little church – usually Catholic, but the Baptists and the Methodists also sponsored Protestant missions in Colonia Juarez and El Modena. La Jolla and Colonia Independencia could also boast their own schools. The La Jolla School opened in 1927 and was a major force in the community in the early years. Independencia was within the Magnolia School District, forcing local children to walk two miles to school in Stanton. The local parents (I am told) lobbied hard for their own school in Independencia, and in 1928 district voters approved a $14,000 bond act to build “Magnolia #2” in the heart of the colonia

The early colonias offered a chance at home ownership and an opportunity to preserve community and religious traditions for Orange County’s Mexican immigrants. Though born out of the racial restrictions of the time, they were a first step toward integration into the wider community.

Colonia Juarez, 1956 (courtesy the Orange County Archives).

Colonia Juarez, 1956 (courtesy the Orange County Archives).