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Upon entering Cal State Fullerton’s Pollak Library from its west entrance, visitors might notice a sign for a new exhibition titled “We Were There” Communities of Color in the Greater Los Angeles Area at the Salz-Pollak Atrium Gallery. Created and curated by Andrea Abang as part of her master’s thesis project, this exhibit explores the history of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities in the Greater Los Angeles Area through photographs, cultural items, and clothing. While a version of this exhibit was previously on display in the Teaching Museum on the 4th floor of McCarthy Hall on the CSUF campus, the current iteration of “We Were There” opened in July inside the university’s library and will remain open until the end of September.
Andrea Abang, a Cultural Anthropology Graduate Student at CSUF, is a student assistant for the Exhibits Program in the Paulina June and George Pollak Library. Before the fall semester started, I had a chance to interview Abang and take a tour of her thesis show.
“What we’re covering in this exhibition is the Greater Los Angeles Area, which encompasses five counties: Riverside, Ventura, San Bernardino, Orange, and Los Angeles,” said Abang. “We’re focused on the early people who moved here.”
The first section of “We Were There” starts with some of the earliest indigenous communities and a map of the areas where they lived. Reading exhibit wall text, I learned that the first human beings arrived in California approximately 20,000 years ago. The largest indigenous groups to settle the modern-day Greater Los Angeles area were the Tongva (Gabrielino), the Chumash, the Tataviam (Fernandeno), the Acjachemen (Juaneno), and the Payomkawichum (Luiseno).
“They were here, pretty much uninterrupted until the 18th century,” she said. “California coast was claimed by Spain in the 1500s, but really in the 1700s, once the Spanish started building missions, they started to impact indigenous life ways.”
The timeline then moves on to cover the Los Pobladores. Abang explained that they were a group of 44 travelers from Mexico, made up of a combination of Spanish, Black, Indigenous, and mixed-ethnicity individuals. The town founded by the pabladores, El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de los Angeles, would cover what is today L.A. and Orange Counties. Jumping forward in time, the exhibit includes selections of events from the 1800s.
“In the 1800s, we start to see a lot of change,” explained Abang. “We have railroad construction, which brings in a lot of Chinese immigrant workers. We have the Civil War, which obviously didn’t super center here, but Southern California was really split whether they would be Union or Confederate. There were large groups of both. We actually had and still have today the Drum Barracks in Wilmington, where there was a Union outpost. Because it was so mixed here, there were fears that people might run off and join the Confederacy.”
“We Were There” then goes in-depth into laws passed in the 1800s.
“So California became an American state in 1850,” she said. “We start to get anti-miscegenation laws, laws restricting the actions of indigenous peoples, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and a Chinese massacre that occurred here in Los Angeles in Chinatown in 1871. The massacre made national news, but there was virtually no effect on anti-Chinese sentiments, and no one was held accountable. Then mission schools were established. This was a federal project forcing Indigenous communities to bus children off-reservation in an attempt to eradicate Indigenous culture and ‘integrate’ them into lower-class United States life. By the late 1800s, Chinese and Jewish immigrants had established communities in Los Angeles.”
Two glass display cases line the center area of the exhibit’s first room. One focuses on All Souls Day and ancestor worship, while the other concentrates on Dia de Los Muertos. Abang explained that all the items in the display cases are either borrowed from individuals who live in the community or are inspired by cultural events. Walking around a small divider into a wider area of the Salz-Pollak Atrium Gallery, I found myself looking at items and photographs from the 20th century positioned behind an elongated display that stretched across one side of the space.
“All of this covers a considerable period of time, so again, these are just selections we talk about,” said Abang. “We talk about the KKK here in Orange County; we talk about the Immigration Act; we talk about the establishment of new Chinatown after old Chinatown was destroyed, Olvera Street and Central Avenue in Los Angeles; we talk about World War II and people of color in service; we talk about Japanese American internment. Then, we move on to the Zoot Suit riots. Again, we feature a lot of legal info, so we discuss discriminatory housing, the overruling of anti-miscegenation laws, and then we address segregated schools and the ending of that here in California. We cover the Watts Riots, Brown Berets, Asian American Rights, and sort of end with the Rodney King L.A. Riots. Obviously, there’s a lot that we’re missing, and that’s largely due to space.”
On an adjacent gallery wall, Abang covers topics that exist across time. She first emphasizes politics and the judicial system, featuring people like Biddy Mason, Drs. John and Vada Somerville, Ramon Reyes Lala, Poon Chew Ng, Robert Stewart, and Charlotta Bass all influenced changes in Southern California’s laws.
“They became involved in the judicial and political process early on,” she said. “Sometimes, this entailed fighting for the right to participate in the governing bodies of California.”
Another “We Were There” section is dedicated to food and culture. The exhibit wall text is accompanied by a square display table, which includes a Filipino cookbook written in 1965, placemats decorated with Chinese imagery, Molinillo (a whisk used to make drinks like champurrado, a masa or corn flour-based chocolate drink), a bamboo steamer, a Chinese teapot for personal use and a sake bottle and cups set. Abang also included a section on early Hollywood that looks at actors from different places early on.
“One of the more interesting people I learned about was a Japanese-American actor named Sessue Hayakawa, a heartthrob in silent films,” said Abang. “Hollywood’s history has always been very complicated.”
Next to the brief section on Hollywood, Abang talks about the Chinese New Year. I learned that 1857 was the year the first recorded Chinese New Year was observed in the Greater Los Angeles area. The first photographs of Chinese New Year in Los Angeles were published around 1900. Chinese items are prominently on display opposite the wall with photos. Abang also devoted a display case to Nisei Week, unique to Little Tokyo.
Lastly, she pointed me to an interactive world map.
“We have a map where people are encouraged to mark their cultural roots as far back as they know and can,” said Abang. “Also, since we’re in a library, I wanted to take advantage of that, so we have a selection of books on topics covered here or things that we could not cover due to space. These are all available to check out from the library.”
“We Were There” Communities of Color in the Greater Los Angeles Area at the Salz-Pollak Atrium Gallery is free, handicap accessible, and open to the public during library hours. Regular CSUF campus parking rules apply; remember that the university has now switched to contactless pay parking. For further information, please visit the “Exhibits in the Library” page on the CSUF Pollak Library website.