At Home with History 

Fruitvale museum works to give youth a sense of place

At Calvin Simmons Middle School in Oakland's Fruitvale district, over half the students speak English as a second language. The school received the lowest possible score on the Academic Performance Index. Teachers complain that their classrooms are overcrowded, that high staff turnover makes their jobs harder, and that the school itself sits on the dividing line between two gangs. But a block away sits a two-story Victorian on a six-acre park that is one of the most important historical sites in Northern California. After years of hard work, the Peralta Hacienda opened as a park last year, and now a new exhibit there aims to encourage a sense of pride in Fruitvale residents. And for students at Simmons, that could be part of the solution. "These kids are so disenfranchised," says David Montes do Oca, a history teacher at Simmons. "They have no one to identify with, but the Peraltas went through a lot of what the kids are going through, trying to stay true to their heritage but then being a part of the place they were living."

The problems of the predominantly Latino Fruitvale district are complex -- and no one's saying that a single historical exhibit can solve them all. "Thirty-eight of our residents have a primary language other than English, and about twenty percent live under the poverty line," says Rosario Flores, youth director at the Spanish Speaking Citizens Foundation. Fruitvale needs a better economic base now that the foundries and canneries that once supported the area are gone, Flores says. But she also points out that learning about the history of the neighborhood can build community and stewardship. "Everybody says Oakland is diverse, but Fruitvale is really diverse. The Latino population is not just Mexican anymore. We've got Cubanos, Puertoriqueños, Colombians, El Salvadorians, and Guatemalans along with Haitians, and a bigger Asian population and Caucasians looking for more affordable housing. With all these different people we need to keep talking to each other and learning about each other's cultures." Flores hopes that the Faces of Fruitvale exhibit -- which will open in the Peralta Hacienda on July 14 with 61 panels showcasing pictures of local residents and their stories -- will do just that.

The history of the hacienda itself resonates for many of today's Fruitvale residents, exhibit organizers say. In the early 1800s, retiring military officer Luis Maria Peralta was given one of the last Spanish land grants in California -- about 45,000 acres. This area covered most of what is now the East Bay, including Albany, Alameda, Piedmont, Oakland, Berkeley, Emeryville, and parts of San Leandro. Peralta divided the land among his four sons, and the part given to Antonio became a huge cattle ranch.

After the gold rush, the Peraltas lost much of the land to squatters, and to the lawyers they subsequently hired to prove the land was theirs. Although two adobe houses had been built on the site, when those were destroyed in the 1868 earthquake, Peralta decided to build the Victorian that still stands today. "The story of the Peralta house is the story of Fruitvale," says fellow Friends of Peralta Hacienda member Claudia Albano. "The Peraltas came here during the native period and lived here through the Mexican and Spanish periods and died in the American period. Their story is about assimilation and community and who's important. It's the same struggles the neighborhood is going through today. I mean, when the house was destroyed they didn't build another adobe; they built a Victorian. To the victor go the spoils -- as well as architectural styles, I guess."

When Albano was growing up in the neighborhood around the house, she and other neighborhood kids were always coming into contact with traces of the Peraltas' life there -- but they had little idea they were touching pieces of history. "One of my neighbors had a swing set and if you dug around you'd always find pieces of china or old spoons or glass, but I never connected it with anything," she explains. "There was this garage with a whole bunch of horse stuff -- a lot of saddles and spurs and things. Mrs. Landucci next door had a well and we knew not to go near it. We didn't find out till I was involved in a project to make a park there that this was the Peralta House."

Albano has spent 25 years working to make sure the Peralta legacy is remembered. In 1997, the land surrounding the house was turned into a park, and since that time the hacienda's caretaker, Grey Callevzon, has started running an after-school program on the site where children get homework help, learn to fix bikes, and grow fruit trees and native plants for creek restoration. Callevzon also leads kids on an ecological walking tour through the park, which includes a tour of the house and a stint at making adobe bricks. "Most of them are really excited to learn that where they live has a past and a geography and layers of people just like them," Callevzon says. "Kids enjoy drama and stories, and when you transform history into real things in front of their eyes they can feel connected and that their lives matter."

Soon there will be even more going on at the site. Last year, musician and filmmaker Holly Alonso worked on a Community Heritage Project with funds from the city of Oakland and the California Council for the Humanities. She set out to interview and photograph residents, and now has sixty hours of tape and two binders full of transcriptions that became the Faces of Fruitvale exhibit. "People think of museums as static, but we had an idea for sort of a symphony of stories," Alonso says. "Instead of having roped-off rooms and period furniture, we wanted to make history relevant to these hungry youths in the neighborhood. We wanted to show that what ordinary people do causes things. I believe that ordinary people make history and we are all history."

Adds Flores, "We're ground zero here. This is the birthplace of Oakland. Knowing this changes attitudes."


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