Not long ago I was invited to attend a gathering at a trendy Mexican restaurant in downtown San José, California. As I walked inside, I noticed an eclectic group of professionals, from teachers to engineers, journalists to professors. The bond that united everyone present was a passion for the history of a very influential corner of California.
Who were these people that cared so much about history? They were members of La Raza Historical Society of Santa Clara County (LHRS), a new and vital organization based in San José. According to its own charter, the vision of LHRS is “To promote and preserve the history of La Raza in the Santa Clara Valley and to be the advocates of its legacy.”
The Cosmic Race
What is La Raza? Fernando Zazueta, the president of LHRS explained in a recent article, “We call ourselves La Raza because in Spanish the term Raza incorporates all those identified in English as Hispanics. It includes Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans and the many others from Latin and South America, regardless of race, who have long worked hard to build the wealth of our Valley. We will tell their stories of struggle and triumph.”
Although the term La Raza can be clumsily translated into English as “the race,” it is really much more interesting. It is derived from a landmark 1925 essay by Mexican philosopher and presidential candidate José Vasconcelos. Vasconcelos, who titled his essay “La raza cósmica” (The Cosmic Race), envisioned the future of his country as one in which the qualities and contributions of European, indigenous, African and Asian people would all blend together to form a new, “cosmic” race.
250 Years of History
As Fernando and the other members of the Society know, the struggles and triumphs of La Raza in the Santa Clara Valley date back almost 250 years. As the 13 colonies on the East Coast were preparing to secede from England, about 200 men, women and children made a 1,000 mile journey on foot from what is today northern Mexico. Led by frontier soldier Juan Bautista de Anza, these families were made up of European, indigenous and African ancestries. Establishing themselves in and around the Presidio of San Francisco, some moved south to found the first civil settlement on the West Coast: the Pueblo of San José de Guadalupe. Since then, people from Mexico and all over the Spanish-speaking world have continued to enrich the culture of what millions now know as “Silicon Valley.”
One of the members of LRHS honored that night was Dr. Albert Camarillo, a Stanford professor — and UCLA graduate, I was happy to discover — instrumental in the effort to preserve the legacy of Alta California pioneer Juana Briones. Dr. Camarillo campaigned to preserve Juana’s legacy and to save her adobe home from demolition. Much to the anguish of historians and preservationists, a court ruled that Juana’s home could be destroyed. Yet thanks to people like Albert Camarillo, Juana’s cultural and spiritual impact is greater today than ever.
Continuity with the Present
And yet, preserving history is not just a matter of the past. One of the things that makes LRHS so special is its sense of continuity with the present. From José Joaquín Moraga to César Chávez, the society aims to shine a light on the ongoing role that La Raza is playing in our culture. Another one of he honorees was Dr. Francisco Jiménez, the award-winning author whose novels document his childhood as a migrant farmworker in the 1950s and 60s. As a professor at Columbia University, and later at Santa Clara University, Francisco told the stories of those like himself who suffered and toiled to make a home for themselves in the beautiful but harsh land of California.
A New Home
Finding a home is always a cause for celebration. In partnership with History San José, the society will now be housed in a beautiful 19th-century home in San José’s History Park. There, it will be surrounded by other museums dedicated to Santa Clara Valley’s fascinating and diverse history.
The house has a rich history of its own. Originally built in 1876, the lovely Victorian was acquired by Italian immigrant Michele Chiechi in 1913. In the 1970s, the Chiechi heirs donated the house to the City of San José, who moved from its original location in the Willow Glen neighborhood to the city’s History Park. The house will now serve as an archival center for the society. Photos, articles, interviews and other items that embody the heritage of the Santa Clara Valley’s Latino residents will be available to researchers and others, both in person and digitally.
Support Your Local Society
The LRHS is just one of the many societies who care for the past and make it relevant to the present. They are invaluable to researchers and to the public at large, for the treasures they preserve and for the local sense of place that we all need. They often work behind the scenes to make sure that our common patrimony is not forgotten. Their members are sources of encyclopedic knowledge and civic-mindedness.
People who care deeply about something get together and build community. As one attendee told me, “I want my children and grandchildren to care about their history as much as I do.” So consider supporting your local historical society. You will be helping build community — something that we all need more of.
To Learn More
For more information on LRHS, visit their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/LaRazaHistoricalSocietySCV. You can also find a video with some outtakes from the event on YouTube https://youtu.be/VcIrslkJ7tk.