Forgotten Hero : Whittier Bash to Honor Man Who Headed Mexican State

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They're throwing a birthday bash Saturday in Whittier for a forgotten local hero.

The event, which runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., commemorates Pio de Jesus Pico, a prominent landowner and the last governor of Mexican California.

There will be Mexican folklorico dancers, a mariachi band, a children's talent show, lasso tricks and Mexican food. Local historical societies will serve up a healthy dose of information about Pico. Admission is free.

Pico, who was born May 5, 1801, amassed thousands of acres of ranchland in Southern California for his cattle business. The remains of his large adobe residence constitute the centerpiece of the Pio Pico State Historic Park, site of the celebration, at Whittier and Pioneer boulevards.

Organizers plan to use the occasion to launch a drive to raise money to fix up the mansion, which was damaged in the 1987 Whittier earthquake.

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State officials say about $1.2 million is needed to restore the residence. Adobe walls must be anchored to the ceiling to withstand future quakes; the veranda needs repairs, and the entire house could use a fresh coat of whitewash. Security alarm and climate control systems must be installed before state officials will return Pico-era furnishings now in storage.

Some officials also want to begin a drive to encourage elementary schoolteachers to give Pico more recognition in history lessons. He is not included in the fourth-grade California history curriculum in public schools.

State park officials say Pico's rags-to-riches life story and his ancestry--Latino, African, Native American and European--make him an ideal role model for an ethnically diverse California.

"He's a California original," said Sylvia Sun Minnick, a deputy assistant director of the state Department of Parks and Recreation.

She is seeking $40,000 in donations to pay for posters and study kits that would be sent to fourth-grade public schoolteachers in an effort to give Pio the recognition accorded such early settlers as John A. Sutter and John Charles Fremont.

Pico, the fourth of 10 children, was born near the San Gabriel Mission. He became a wealthy landowner and political leader. After the Mexican War, he remained a political force, serving on the Los Angeles City Council.

Pico built his adobe hacienda overlooking the San Gabriel River in 1852. The home in its heyday was twice as large as the existing structure, and his 9,000-acre ranch covered territory that became part of the cities of Whittier, Montebello, Pico Rivera and Santa Fe Springs. The four cities are joining with the state parks agency to sponsor Saturday's celebration.

Pico lost the mansion in 1891. He claimed that he had been the victim of a real estate scam, but he lost a lawsuit to regain ownership and was evicted. He died a poor man three years later.

The house has undergone two restorations over the years, but was closed after the 1987 earthquake left many of the brick walls unstable. Pico-era furnishings were put in storage, and a chain-link fence went up around the house.

Federal earthquake rebuilding money paid for some stabilization work, allowing the residence to open on a limited basis in 1989. Visitors could walk through parts of the interior, but only when guided by the park's resident interpreter.

The fence was not removed until last week.

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