“My family came here in 1842 to protect this land, and here we are 176 years later still fighting to protect it!” –Sharon Trujillo-Kasner, former resident of La Placita and descendant of Lorenzo Trujillo 2018 (used by permission).
The pounding of excavators, dozers, motor graders, and backhoe loaders–Caterpillars they might be but it is the landscape that is undergoing metamorphosis. The rumbling of dump trucks and water tankers kick up a near constant dust storm, a perpetual, artificial Santa Ana wind. And when those notorious devil winds return, the air churns thick with yellows and browns from the roiling dust. This unnoticed landscape just north of the 60 Freeway on the border between Riverside and San Bernardino Counties is being graded for construction, maybe for warehouses, or parking lots, or those solar arrays that increasingly invade the open-spaces of inland Southern California’s drive-over country. Sure, the land hasn’t been wild for decades, but at least it was once open.
One of these new schemes is a 16-acre industrial complex, the Center Street Commerce Center Project, a 300,000-square foot tilt-wall Neo-Brutalist distribution facility, complete with parking for at least 600 cars and trailers enclosed by 8-foot concrete walls. These gargantuan industrial parks–one of the great examples of newspeak–checker the landscape like shiny white scabs across inland Southern California, grounds that not long ago were covered with dairies, pastures, citrus and nut groves. Or, in places, gravely plains, grassy slopes, and vacant lots filled with miniature forests of Sahara mustard or wild oats.
Like the eastern cities of Atlanta, Philadelphia, and New Jersey, warehousification is transforming western cities: Chicago, Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth. And in Southern California’s Inland Empire, more “industrial real estate” is emerging than anywhere else in the country–something like twenty million square feet of land a year for several years running. These dry ports enable the entire distribution chain funneling merchandise from Asia through the twin ports at Long Beach and San Pedro, through distribution hubs and into homes and businesses across the country. More distribution centers mean more idling diesel trucks, more traffic, and more fumes, contributing to the some of the worst air pollution on the continent, all for the sake of ever-deepening e-commerce dependence. For some longtime locals, it is just another western land grab. Another slow erasure of place, people, and memory in the long history of speculative development in California.
Watching over this sacrifice zone in Riverside’s Northside, just south of La Loma Hills, stand the last remnants of one of the oldest surviving adobe structures in the state: the Trujillo Adobe (Riverside City Historic Landmark #130, Riverside County Landmark #009, State of California Point of Interest). The heart of the Trujillo Family Homestead has suffered neglect and abuse since Riverside County Parks Department acquired it fifty years ago. All that remains are two deteriorating walls. The shed built around the crumbling dwelling protects the exposed mud bricks from rain and vandals, but it cannot defend those fragile brick walls from the rattling of nearby construction, nor the incessant vibrations of a non-stop parade of trucks if the Center Street Project goes as planned. Also nearby, just north of Columbia Avenue, sit dozens of 19th century houses–long rectangular buildings with low-pitched gabled roofs built of wood, adobe, and fired brick. Some descendants of the original owners still make their homes here.
It is in the threatened Trujillo Adobe that we can see glimmers of California’s past, present, and future in this overlooked place.
The land where the Trujillo Adobe rests is impossibly ancient, and its rivers are some of its oldest actors. The Santa Ana and its tributaries long carved their routes down the foothills of the cragged San Bernardino and eastern San Gabriel Mountains, once spidering out across the plains, filling ephemeral lagoons and seasonal arroyos, and meandering through coastal wetlands on the way to the Pacific. Cahuilla, Tongva, Serrano, Luiseño and other Indigenous peoples have the longest relationships there, the rivers life sources and places of contact, commerce, and conflict for generations. In a time long ago, the San Bernardino Valley and its ranges and streams were alive with mule deer and grizzlies and steelhead. The Spanish monarchy and its Franciscans partners saw potential in the lands east of the royal road–pasturage for Mission San Gabriel’s livestock, and fertile grounds for pueblos filled with assimilated California Indians and migrants from New Spain, united as pious servants to church and crown. Bourbon reformists expanded their vision of a commercial cattle empire that survived Mexico’s War for Independence. No longer beholden to the Franciscan plan, the lands would not go to the native neophytes, but were instead subdivided into massive estates–a Mexican cousin to the 1862 Homestead Act–designed to entice settler-colonists to the region. Mexican government officials hoped rapid settlement of Alta California would keep it within the new republic’s sphere and away from encroaching European and U.S. interests and indigenous groups keen on reclaiming their homelands, as the Quchen had at Yuma. So over the first few decades of the nineteenth century, Mexico’s Alta California governors partitioned mission lands into ranch lands and granted and sold them to well-connected men, like Juan Pablo Grijalva, who in 1801 obtained the 60,000 acre Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana along the lower part of the river of the same name. By the 1830s and 1840s a network of powerful families–the Lugos, Yorbas, Picos, Sepulvedas–claimed the bulk of the land, water, and labor in the region surrounding the Trujillo Adobe.
With the expansion of the rancho economy on the land where the Trujillo Adobe now stands, livestock raiding grew more lucrative. In one infamous 1840 raid, Wakara and Los Chaguanosos pushed down Cajon Pass, captured some 3,000 horses, many belonging to Lugo and his sons–and escaped back to the Great Basin. Five years later, Wakara returned, taking hundreds more. Easy pickings. The rancheros of inland Southern California sought protection. The Lugo sons and Juan Bandini—owners of the San Bernardino and Jurupa ranchos, respectively, began looking to establish buffer settlements along the trails to the north and east. Some, like Miguel Blanco’s outpost at Muscupiabe at the entrance of Cajon Pass and the Mojave Trail near Cable Canyon, were short lived—Blanco maybe lasted nine months—frightened off by persistent attacks. The Trujillos came to Southern California to take his place. Santiago Martinez, Hipolito Espinosa, and Lorenzo Trujillo had been coming to Southern California at least as early as the 1830s, guiding and guarding the great trains of California horses and mules that flowed east to the markets of Santa Fe along networks of native footpaths that came to be known as the Old Spanish Trail and returned to Los Angeles by way of southern Utah, Nevada, and the Mojave Desert with manufactured goods and emigrants. The journey was unforgiving, twelve hundred miles or more across mountains and deserts, with vast swings in temperature and elevation, and almost always vulnerable to attack. They were “New Mexicans” to the Californios, but they were also Indigenous–Genízaros from Abiquiú.
The families, including the Trujillos, made a deal with the government that they could have land and build homes if they settled to defend it and the rest of the valley. They divided the land into individual plots on opposite sides of the river. One half of town—Agua Mansa—rested on the north bank, while on the south bank sat La Placita de los Trujillos, or simply, La Placita. Combined the towns were known as San Salvador, because of the parish church that also united the two communities. The families built houses, gardens, a dancehall, and irrigation ditches for orchards, vineyards, and grain fields fenced in by a lattice of live willows. Their sheep, cattle, and horses ranged along the river bottom for miles in each direction. They held bull and bear fights and horse races, drawing gamblers from all over. Thousands of dollars were won and lost. And then lost and won again.
Trujillo and his sons lived up to their end of the bargain—to defend the valley and their homes—many times. Once famously, the Trujillos escorted then Indian agent Benjamin Wilson and roughly 80 men into the high desert in search of a Joaquin, a former San Gabriel neophyte and worker at Rancho Chino. He wore the scars of the missions it was said, a branded lip and one ear missing. Trujillo, two of his sons, and Wilson scouted ahead, and stumbled upon Joaquin and three other men. There was a brief standoff, then gunfire. Joaquin and his companions flew off across the plain before hunkering down and fighting the 80-man force. They wounded several of Wilson’s men and horses before Wilson’s force overwhelmed them. Joaquin laid dying, shot through the chest, cursing in Spanish. Ben Wilson lay there too, a poisoned arrow shaft protruding from his swelling arm and shoulder. Lorenzo, Wilson’s “faithful Comanche,” doctored him and saved his life.
The Trujillo family built the adobe now threatened by encroaching warehouses in a period of growth and reconstruction. By 1860, with more than six hundred residents in the twin villages of Agua Mansa and La Placita, the towns represented one of the largest settlements between Los Angeles and Santa Fe, and served as an integral point of arrival and departure for trade caravans connecting the Pacific to the rest of the continent. However, the near mythic winter of 1861-1862 spread destruction and death across the Pacific West. The flooded Santa Ana River devoured both the towns of Agua Mansa and La Placita. Many of the towns’ families stayed and rebuilt. The Trujillos were among them. Adobe was one of the first structures built following that devastating winter. And it became one of the centerpieces of a renewed community. In the 1870s, knowing nothing of the history of San Salvador nor its people, Riverside’s founders began calling it Spanish Town.
Today the county line separating San Bernardino from Riverside cuts alongside the Trujillo Adobe and right through this pivotal and historic multiethnic community. Likely no coincidence. This historic neighborhood has endured war, floods, droughts, successive waves of industries, migrations, and a revisioning of the landscape and its waterways–disasters both sudden and slow. And yet many families and the old adobe home remain.
Warehousification might be the disaster they cannot survive. The construction of the Center Street Project threatens to surround the adobe with industrial complexes. The Springfield Heritage Alliance has appealed to the City of Riverside to await a complete Environmental Impact Report before they decide to approve the project.
Descendants of the families that founded La Placita, San Salvador, Agua Mansa, and Spanish Town have a different vision for the landscape—a museum and cultural center that remembers, honors, and protects the space as historically and culturally valuable, with a restored Trujillo Adobe at its heart. The Center Street Project precludes these dreams. This is the latest round of defending home for those of San Salvador, though this time they stand on guard not against horse thieves, or cattle rustlers, or grizzly bears, or even from biblical floods and droughts, but the conquest of industrial parks and the bulldozing of the past.
The appeal hearing is Tuesday, December 11th at 7pm at the Riverside City Council Chambers (10th & Main in Downtown Riverside, CA). For more information of if you want to support the struggle to preserve the Trujillo Adobe, please contact Karen Renfro, co-founder and chair of Springbrook Heritage Alliance or Nancy Melendez, president of Spanish Town Heritage Foundation. Both groups also raise funds through gofundme and the annual Riverside Tamale Festival.
William Cowan studies history at the University of Southern California. His dissertation on the Pacific Slope Superstorms of 1861-62 delves into the lost histories of one of the most devastating environmental catastrophes in the Pacific West’s past. His work blends environmental history, Indigenous studies, and the history of science in the 19th century North American West. Will’s work wrestles with questions of modernity as invisibility, of memory and history, and of the hauntings of disasters past. He claims a Bachelor of Arts in History from the University of California, Riverside. Will was the 2014-15 John R. Hubbard Fellow, a USC-Dornsife Research Enhancement Fellow, and the 2017-18 Gunther Barth Fellow. His writing has appeared in Environmental History, Past Tense, Zócalo Public Square, and The San Diego Union-Tribune.