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Newsletter: A Central Valley man’s lifelong quest to build his own Chicano library

Richard Soto
Richard Soto holding a book about Ruben Salazar at the Chicano Research Center in Stockton.
(Julia Wick / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Thursday, Aug. 22, and I’m writing from Stockton.

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History usually belongs to the conquerors, or the esteemed academics. But sometimes it also gets told by whoever most carefully corrals all the pieces and wrestles them into place.

The Chicano Research Center, a storefront library on a rundown stretch of Stockton’s east side, is the product of one Central Valley man’s obsessive, expansive quest.

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Richard Soto, a 75-year-old, semi-retired educator, has spent the lion’s share of his life quietly building his collection of Chicano literature and history — first as a young man hungry to learn more about his own identity, and later with the dream of someday sharing it with the public like this.

He opened the Chicano Research Center as a nonprofit in 2016. All are welcome to come in, and Soto will probably offer you coffee at the door. He estimates that he has about 20,000 books, journals and ephemera (along with cases of corrido-filled CDs and LPs) housed in this former panaderia.

He built the bookshelves lining every inch of the room himself, with $3,000 worth of pine wood (including his 10% U.S. veteran discount) from Home Depot.

The library is organized according to the self-described “Soto” method, starting with indigenous history in the front corner of the room furthest from his desk, and wrapping all the way around to the present day, with labeled sections based on historical periods and events, individuals and other topics. (The library’s focus includes Mexican history as well as Mexican American history: “One of the things that I learned is that you can’t read Chicano literature, and appreciate and understand it if you don’t know Chicano Mexican history,” Soto explained.)

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[See also: “Chicano Research Center is freeze-frame into the past” in the Stockton Record]

The walls are brightly punctuated with art, flags, and framed awards and accolades from Soto’s career as an educator, as well as a certificate honoring him for his bravery as a Brown Beret medic during the Chicano Moratorium.

chicano research center
A section of books at the Chicano Research Center in Stockton.
(Julia Wick / Los Angeles)

Soto’s collecting quest began when he was a young man, just back from Vietnam and participating in the Chicano Movement. He went looking for the books that would speak to his story — as a Mexican American born in the United States — but the books he wanted didn’t seem to exist.

“I wanted to know what contributions had we made and what had we done,” Soto said. “And for me, I always wanted to know why people hated me. You know, I pretty much let people alone, but for some reason they had this, I don’t know, hereditary hatred for me.”

During his two years at San Joaquin Delta College, he “found all of maybe five books.” He went to Sacramento State and “found 10 more.” It was only when he left Sacramento for San Francisco that he started to really find what he was looking for, at a now-shuttered progressive bookstore called Modern Times in the Mission District.

After getting his master’s in counseling from San Francisco State, Soto returned to his Central Valley hometown of Tracy, where he worked as a high school counselor for nearly 40 years. He’d loan his students books to learn their history and build their self esteem, parceling out poetry or history or biography depending on what they seemed to need.

“There’s so much beautiful Mexican history. There are so many dynamic Mexican men and women, social political activists that have done something that is just not out there,” he said. “So, I started buying all this stuff.”

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Time marched forward and all the while he quietly built his collection, bit by bit. He bought what he could, when he could and stored it where he could. “Everywhere I went, I created a room for all the books.”

When he officially retired, he took another full-time job teaching at an adult school. Suddenly, he had an income and a pension.

“I had a lot of extra money. So I thought man, I’m gonna really hit this,” he recalled. He would turn to the bibliographies in history books and mark off everything he already had, to see what was still missing. Then he would spend a few hours every morning on eBay, looking for discarded library books.

Richard Soto
Richard Soto holds an item from his collection — a laminated program from a 1949 event featuring a young Dolores Huerta (then known as Dolores Fernandez) — at his Chicano Research Center in Stockton, Calif.
(Julia Wick / Los Angeles Times)

And finally, he found this space and carefully renovated it to house and share his glorious, sprawling collection.

“Most people, when they come here, they’re overwhelmed,” he said. “They can’t believe that something like this exists.”

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

TOP STORIES

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The Trump administration is moving to dismantle decades-old protections for immigrant youth, rolling out new regulations that would give the government the ability to indefinitely detain minors and families with children. President Trump and his aides have long railed against the so-called Flores agreement, the seminal 1997 court settlement that said the government must provide a minimum standard of care for migrant children in U.S. custody. The new regulations, expected to be formally published Friday, will take effect in 60 days, absent legal challenges. Los Angeles Times

San Francisco’s top officials met Wednesday afternoon to respond to a recent series of violent altercations along the city’s northern waterfront. The group included Mayor London Breed and the heads of the police, health and homelessness departments. They plan to indefinitely beef up foot patrols and social services outreach in the Embarcadero after two more people were attacked this week. (Despite the recent attacks, violent crime remains down in San Francisco.) San Francisco Chronicle

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who made climate change his key issue, is ending his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Los Angeles Times

(See also: 2020 campaign reporter Matt Pearce’s June 2019 profile of Inslee: “Jay Inslee’s 2020 plan: Become president, save the planet”)

L.A. STORIES

For the first time, the Los Angeles Police Commission will have a woman leading the oversight panel of one of the nation’s largest police forces. Los Angeles Times

The L.A. County D.A. has dropped charges against the man who allegedly stole Frances McDormand’s Best Actress Oscar statuette in 2018. It remains unclear why the criminal case was suddenly dropped. Deadline Hollywood

History forgot these female composers. An L.A. music writer is helping us remember. Los Angeles Times

As summertime wanes, our City Beat columnist delivers a personal ode to the lasting benefits of taking a vacation and fully unplugging from the city and gadgets. Los Angeles Times

Your support helps us deliver the news that matters most. Subscribe to the Los Angeles Times.

POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

Assemblyman Todd Gloria has taken control of San Diego’s mayoral race after winning the Democratic Party’s endorsement. Per the Voice of San Diego, the “party’s endorsement is potentially pivotal because the race so far includes only Democrats, and registered Democrats in the city outnumber registered Republicans by nearly two to one.” Voice of San Diego

An anti-vaccine activist was cited for assault by the Sacramento Police Department on Wednesday after he livestreamed a physical confrontation with state Sen. Richard Pan, author of legislation to restrict vaccine exemptions. Los Angeles Times

Richard Pan
State Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) speaks on behalf of his vaccine bill at the state Capitol in April.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

A California lawmaker asked Twitter: What does “Republican” mean to you? Chad Mayes, a Republican state lawmaker who represents the Coachella Valley in the California Assembly, got more than 10,000 replies. The Desert Sun

CRIME AND COURTS

Police in Long Beach thwarted a possible mass shooting this week when they arrested a disgruntled hotel cook they say threatened to carry out violence at his workplace. Los Angeles Times

The owner of a popular San Francisco truffle shop was attacked by a stranger outside his store. The store proprietor was rescued by his 13-year-old son, who heard his father yelling for help and came out with a bat to scare the attacker off. SFGATE

HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

As megafires become the new normal, the tools and techniques capable of stopping them remain elusive. But prescribed burns could help prevent those megafires. So why aren’t we doing more of them? New Yorker

Is California too rich to get help from FEMA during the next deadly disaster? New guidelines that tighten eligibility for federal disaster recovery programs worry emergency planners. Sacramento Bee

The ShakeAlert early warning system will be expanding to Lake Tahoe with new federal earthquake funds. Sacramento Bee

Federal officials suppressed a lengthy environmental document that details how one of California’s unique salmon runs would be imperiled by Trump administration plans to deliver more water to Central Valley farms. Los Angeles Times

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

Red light cameras will soon be reactivated in Sacramento County. Sacramento Bee

San Mateo cops have been sleeping in their cars to avoid an hours-long commute at the end of a 12-hour shift. The city plans to convert a portion of an old fire station into a sleeping barracks for far-flung officers who can’t afford the extremely expensive housing in the area. San Francisco Chronicle

A proposal to build an affordable housing complex in San Jose for low-income and formerly homeless elderly residents is facing backlash from neighbors who worry it will bring more crime and traffic to south San Jose. Mercury News

There will be free admission to Joshua Tree and Yosemite national parks this Sunday as the National Park Service celebrates its 103rd birthday with free entrance to sites nationwide that typically charge a fee. The Desert Sun

The ultimate mapo tofu recipe has a California twist on the classic Sichuan dish. Los Angeles Times

The 100-foot neon swirl sign at the Montclair Plaza mall in San Bernardino County has come down. San Bernardino Sun

CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: sunny, 84. San Diego: sunny, 72. San Francisco: partly sunny, 72. San Jose: sunny, 86. Sacramento: partly sunny, 99. More weather is here.

AND FINALLY

Today’s California memory comes from Frank Tobe:

“I remember a TV newscaster saying that there were only 29 smog-free days in L.A. and they came the day after it rained; that the rain washed away the smog and other particles in the air. He was right. I could see from the roof of my home the Santa Monica mountains and all the way to the San Bernardino mountains. I could see the snow. And the air smelled fresh and clean. As a Santa Barbara resident today, when I come to L.A. I’m impressed by how clean the air has become, how great the views, and how much I appreciate all the regulations that made it happen…. I was one of those kids that was particularly susceptible to coughing and itching and had to go indoors often — except those 29 days I got to play outside.”

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.


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