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The San Fernando Valley’s Multiethnic Past: Unexpected Communities of Color in “America’s Suburb”

In the article below historian Jean-Paul R. deGuzman briefly introduces the multiethnic history of Southern California’s San Fernando Valley, a popular region that one local chronicler calls nothing less than “America’s Suburb.”  The narrative that follows, part of deGuzman doctoral research at the University of California, Los Angeles, is a selective snapshot of a far more complex history.

Southern California’s San Fernando Valley is arguably one of the most recognizable suburbs in the post-World War II United States.  Although the popular images of the Valley as the playground of white middle-class families staking their claim in the suburban American Dream or the land “Valley Girls” and their malls have their own important histories, here I focus on the region’s often overlooked multiethnic past.  

Long before there was anything labeled “the San Fernando Valley,” the indigenous Tongva and Chumash peoples called the region home.  Following their dislocation and land dispossessions during the Spanish and subsequent Californio regimes, the Valley became a destination for European American homesteaders after California became a state in 1850.  

By the 1880s railroads reached the east Valley town of Pacoima, formally established in 1887, and it became the home of railroad workers, laborers, and farmers.  Small populations of African Americans, Mexican Americans, Japanese Americans, and to a lesser extent, Filipino Americans, slowly grew, crafting a unique community that interacted in markets, on farms, and in schools.  As real estate developers built suburban homes across the Valley during the early 20th century, restrictive selling practices and zoning reified racial segregation as a daily fact of life.  Areas such as Pacoima became the only neighborhoods to accept people of color.  

World War II served as a watershed moment for the San Fernando Valley.  In addition to the mass incarceration of local Japanese Americans, the physical geography of the Valley rapidly changed.  As defense industries located to

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