Under a shroud of associations with sweatshops and slavery, the people of El Monte are struggling to reclaim their community identity.
Lost in the controversy over the garment factory where 72 Thai workers were held in virtual slavery for three years, El Monte residents say, is a working-class community of 110,000 people that at its best functions more like a family than a city.
When wagon train pioneers from the Midwest came looking for gold in the 1850s, El Monte was their oasis. The early settlement, bordered by Rio Hondo and the San Gabriel River, was lush with a plentiful water supply and vegetation. It became known as "El Monte, the end of the Santa Fe Trail."
Today's generation of leaders worries that the sweatshop incident will become a blot on the city's image.
"We need a helicopter to pour holy water over us and chase the bad spirits away," says Emily Ishigaki, a member of the El Monte school board who has lived in the city for 20 years. "This is a town which really really cares about its people. It has done so much for its children, its seniors, and has so many people who just give and give. I just feel so bad about this whole thing."
This is the kind of city where--like Ishigaki--you attend El Monte High School, marry your sweetheart and settle down to lead a long, simple life.
From its roots as a community of Midwestern farmers, El Monte's demographics shifted in the 1980s, giving Latinos the majority. Recently, Chinese, Filipinos, Koreans and Vietnamese have moved in, increasing the city's Asian population 456% between 1980 and 1990. *
Outside El Monte's Civic Center on Valley Mall Boulevard stands a mini-version of New York City's Statue of Liberty, a subtle testament to the city's diversity that might stun former residents such as entertainers Barbara Mandrell and Country Joe McDonald. Today's mix, densely clustered in 10 square miles, is 60% Latino, 25% Asian and 15% Anglo and African American.
The discovery of the sweatshop was only the latest high-profile news to tarnish El Monte's reputation this year. In February, Dahlia Gardens Guest Home for the mentally ill came under fire after one resident beat another to death with a rock. The state ordered the home, which had a history of violations, to close. In April five people, including an infant and a 5-year-old girl, were shot to death execution-style in their El Monte home. In August came the discovery of the sweatshop in an apartment complex.
John Leung, chairman and chief executive officer of the Titan Group, a minority-owned development organization, says it's important for people to understand the sweatshop could have been found anywhere.
"There is nothing in El Monte that contributed to this happening here," said Leung, who set up shop in El Monte in 1982.
Clayton Hollopeter, director of the Boy's and Girl's Club of San Gabriel Valley and also a longtime resident, believes the key to El Monte lies within the city's networks. With help from participating neighborhood restaurants and grocery stores, Hollopeter hosts a free nightly dinner for the city's low-income and homeless families.
Yet the very cohesiveness of the community makes it harder to comprehend how the sweatshop went unnoticed for so long. Outraged City Council members expressed anger with state and federal officials, and could not understand why they had never been informed. Police Chief Wayne Clayton defended his 131-member force, saying officers lack the authority to go door to door to inspect every business.
State Sen. Hilda Solis (D-El Monte) says there is a reluctance on the part of residents to get involved, stemming partially from differences in language and culture.
But, it also has to do with a failed effort to forge new ties. "No one in El Monte will go out of their way to inflict harm, but some Latinos are suspicious of the newer groups entering the city," Solis said. "We need to communicate more and make people aware of the role that they can play, neighbor to neighbor. People who lived across the street never approached the house. They never took that risk."
The magnet that draws many to El Monte is the city's affordable housing market.
Solis defines El Monte as "the second step" for immigrant families. These newcomers move from the inner city to El Monte and save up for a more prosperous future in Arcadia or Diamond Bar.
Solis credits the influx of Asian business with revitalizing the city's economic base. But Asian businesses fear the negative publicity from the sweatshop will deter other Asian immigrants from coming to the city.
"It has nothing to do with being Asian," said Trisha Murakawa, a public relations consultant for Lang Murakawa & Long in El Monte. "This could have happened to any ethnic group. We like it here."