Monrovia’s History of Segregation

    Felix J. Gutierrez. - Courtesy photo

    Art in Public Places to be considered at next Monrovia Council meeting

    By Félix Guitiérrez

    Detailed plans for public art landmarks honoring Monrovians Francisco J. Gutiérrez and Félix J. Gutiérrez,  a father and son who were early 20th century civil rights advocates and role models, may be considered at next Tuesday’s City Council meeting.

    The Monrovia they lived in was racially diverse, but not integrated.  Segregation was enforced.  Advocating integration was a challenge.           

    In 1938 Félix wrote he lived in a “polyglot neighborhood of many paisanos, Negroes, a few Italians, Jews, Spaniards, Americans and a Japanese family” and “encountered the small town segregations imposed upon Mexicans, Negroes and Filipinos.” 

    In Monrovia this meant: “In schools by attending ‘their own,’ they could not feel American.  In the municipal plunge, a day was reserved for ‘Mexicans.’ In the theater the right side was reserved for ‘them.’ Certain restaurants would not cater to ‘Mexicans,’” he wrote in 1942.

    Both challenged prejudice to “show what a Mexican can do.” Francisco was a cement contractor and businessman. Félix was a youth organizer and founder of The Mexican Voice, an “inspirational educational youth magazine.”

    Francisco’s cement work includes the Monroe Memorial, Monrovia plunge and tennis courts, Immaculate Conception Church and School and sidewalks and driveways with his 1920s imprint “F.J. GUTIERREZ CONTRACTOR.”

    While completing municipal plunge work in 1925, Francisco learned swimming would be segregated. So the night before it opened he unlocked the gates with his contractor’s key for his sons and friends to swim before others. 

    In 1938 teenager Félix and the Monrovia Latin-American Club he organized urged the Monrovia City Council to end segregation in the plunge and movie theaters. A year later The Mexican Voice reported no changes.

    Francisco Gutiérrez came to Monrovia in 1905 as a construction foreman for the B.R. Davisson Company. By the 1920s he headed Frank Gutierrez and Son, one of two Spanish-surnamed business owners, doing cement projects across Monrovia and the San Gabriel Valley.

    He built a home on Huntington Drive “south of the tracks,” Monrovia’s segregation line, and was an integration role model across the city: playing baseball for the Monrovia Merchants, active in the Knights of Columbus and joining Immaculate Conception Church.    

    Francisco was born in 1871 to Félix Gutiérrez and Dolores Cruz Gutiérrez in the original San Gabriel Mission. His father lived in Alta California before the 1846 United States war declaration that took land and people in 1848. He opened an El Monte blacksmith shop, repairing covered wagons of Yanqui newcomers, some who treated Californios as “strangers in their own land.” 

    Francisco married Isabelle López in 1905. Their son Frank was born in 1908. After Isabelle’s 1914 death he wed Mercedes García in 1917. Their son Félix was born in 1918 and she died in 1924. Frank worked with his father, then the City of Monrovia into the 1950s: construction workers spanning 50-plus years. Both lived in Monrovia until their death: Francisco in 1952 and Frank in 1973.

    Félix J. Gutiérrez was born in 1918 and became a nationally-recognized artist, journalist, group worker and civil rights leader. 

    A popular Monrovia Arcadia Duarte High School student, Félix lettered in varsity track, published cartoons and stories in the Wildcat newspaper, was Monrovian yearbook art editor and one of two 1937 Spanish-surnamed graduates. He rode public transit to Pasadena City College and picked oranges near Monrovia to pay for college, then earned a UCLA bachelor’s degree and did USC graduate work.

    The Mexican Voice magazine he founded encouraged readers across the Southwest to develop their talents, take pride in their Mexican heritage and organize to advance themselves and their communities. It told stories of overcoming the prejudices in the “Mexican towns” to which many were segregated and reported young women and men advancing in college, sports, good jobs and World War II service.

    In 1942 he co-founded the Mexican-American Movement with the motto “Progress through education” and activities across Southern California. 

    In 1946 he became an art and journalism teacher, continuing youth work and civil rights activism until dying from colon cancer at 37 in 1955. He was survived by his wife Rebecca Muñoz Gutiérrez, a teacher he met after publishing her articles in The Mexican Voice, and three children: Lorraine Margot, Mercedes Gail, and Félix Frank.

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