My Neighborhood: Change and history at the San Gabriel Mission

Reporter Corps, the Alhambra Source program that trains 18-to-24 year-olds to report on their own communities, has partnered with KPCC's Take Two to create the series Neighborhoods. In this installment, 23-year-old Elisa Perez takes us on a tour of her city, San Gabriel, which is home to the fourth of 21 missions Spaniards built in an attempt to spread Christianity among Native Americans. For Perez, the mission is more than a place of worship, it is an opportunity to step into history. Scroll through her photos above and listen to her audio piece and read her story below.

I grew up in San Gabriel, Calif., which is probably best known as the home of the San Gabriel Mission.  Walking into the mission is like stepping into a different time.  The church was built in 1771 and has been well preserved. The artwork, the statues, and the marble detailing are done in a style I’ve never seen anywhere else. 

Three generations of my family have lived near the San Gabriel Mission. My grandpa left his job as an elementary school principal in a small town in Mexico in the 1950s in search of a better life.  Although he was an educator, he found work as a gardener and he continued to do that for the rest of his life.  He and my grandmother made San Gabriel their home and we’ve been here ever since.

I think that what deters most people from visiting places of worship is the idea that the space is only open to those who practice a certain faith. But I think that is what makes the San Gabriel Mission different: It’s more than just a place of worship; it’s a historical landmark.

I spoke with parishioner and liturgy director Terri Valadez about how the mission community has changed over the years. “I’ve lived here all my life and there have been many changes here,” Valadez told me. “People from different countries are living here now in the San Gabriel Valley. A big change, but I welcome them.  I love all the different cultures that are here.”  

During a recent Sunday Mass, Arcelia Catalan cooked on the patio grill outside of the church, anticipating the hungry parishioners that would soon exit the service.  “Right now I’m making breakfast sandwiches for the breakfast sale. We’re selling menudo [a tripe soup made with a red chili pepper base], we have birria [a meat stew], and later on we’re going to be making egg rolls,” said Catalan.

When I asked her how she would describe the mission community, Catalan did not hold back. “Oh my God, I love it,” she told me. “You know we’re a big family. We have a lot of Vietnamese parishioners, Hispanic parishioners, and Anglos, so we try to [be] multicultural and offer a little bit of everything.”

San Gabriel has changed so much over the years. It’s true the population has become much more diverse. And most of the buildings I see weren’t even around when I was growing up.

Since there’s always something new in the area, I think it’s cool that the San Gabriel Mission is very much the same.  So if you ever decide to venture to San Gabriel, you should stop by the mission and see the history for yourself.  You don’t have to be Catholic to enjoy the calmness of the church’s walls or ring the big bell. 

2 thoughts on “My Neighborhood: Change and history at the San Gabriel Mission”

  1. Umm, isn’t that first photo in the slideshow a photo of the Mission Playhouse, not the Mission?

    1. Thank you for bringing that to our attention! We've changed the picture to better represent the story.

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