The riots that rocked Los Angeles two decades ago were nearly ignored in Alhambra's local media. The now-defunct Alhambra Post Advocate's first mention was nine days after the riots erupted and focused on the impacts on public coffers. Barely any other mentions followed.
But was Alhambra really so immune to the impact of the civil unrest within miles of city borders? In retrospect, it seems no.
We asked San Gabriel Valley residents about their experiences with the crisis and found a range of profound impacts. One police officer told us of harrowing experiences patrolling the streets. Another Alhambra resident, a mother, told us about trying to protect her children from a world with ugly violence. Indeed, each Alhambran we talked to had a different story to tell from the riots and how it impacted his or her life in the years to come.
From the front linesWhen the riots broke out, surrounding police units were called in to supplement patrols and enforce curfew. Among the officers sent to patrol the Los Angeles streets was Alhambra High class of 1972 graduate Tom Montague, then of the Azusa Police Department.
“L.A. during the riots was very eerie. It reminded me of when I was a kid right after the Rose Parade before they cleaned up the streets. Everywhere, there was trash and debris. And it was on fire in the streets, including the trees and many of the buildings. Smoke was everywhere and when the winds shifted it went dark. I could hear gunfire but didn't know where."
"I remember seeing police cars loaded with officers on the 10 Freeway either going to or coming back from L.A. after working 24 hours.”
"When I was back [in Azusa] on patrol with my partner, Ray Zamora, we were assigned to walk foot patrol at the shopping centers… Several people that were in the center thanked us and shook our hands… Some even hugged us.”
It’s all America to themAlhambra newcomer Sunny Kim met her former husband when he was in the navy in her native Korea. She followed him in 1976 to Rochester, New York. Sixteen years later she watched images flash across her television screen of Los Angeles Korean stores being looted.
“I didn't really understand why the riots were happening. But I did start to have this fear that blacks didn't like Koreans because that's the impression I got from the news. I felt bad seeing Korean people's businesses destroyed when they worked so hard to build them. I was angry hearing about how white police were not helping or stopping the riots and felt that if it were white people's businesses it wouldn't have gone that far.”
Kim was then working in a suit factory making high-end suits (including the one Richard Gere wore in Pretty Woman.) “I had a really nice, good friend who was black. A funny thing is we really didn’t talk much about that subject. She didn’t say it, but I could see that she felt really bad.”
These racial and geographic nuances were lost on her family, who worried for her safety. “I talked to my family and they didn’t know where LA was; they only knew it’s in America. So the first thing my sister said was to come back home. She didn't understand I was on the other side of the country. 'No, I’m far from LA,' I told her. 'It’s nice here.'”
Three years ago, Kim moved to Los Angeles to be closer to her daughter. On her first ventures into Koreatown she was nervous, but her anxiety was quickly alleviated. “I feel proud that Korean people made it through that and rebuilt a stronger Koreatown. I feel thankful that Koreatown is there and thriving today.
Shielding children from life's uglinessKerrie Gutierrez, a mother of five and grandmother of three, was at her home in East Los Angeles when she saw coverage of the riots break out on her television. The next days were spent protecting her children from the unavoidable.
"When I think of the L.A. riots, I think of the gut wrenching feeling I felt as I watched the trucker, Reginald Denny, get pulled from his truck and beaten senseless by strangers, simply because he was there at that dreadful intersection…I had so many questions, and as repulsed as I was by what I was watching, the scene kept getting worse.”
"My kids were playing in the front yard because it was a warm evening. I wanted to bring them in because suddenly the world seemed like a big and scary place. But if I brought them in, they'd see what was unfolding. I wanted to protect their innocence, shield them from some of life's ugliness, so I let them stay outside."
"At the time, we were living in East L.A., not here in Alhambra. Our house was set high on a hill, with downtown skyscrapers visible to the west. On clear days, we could even see the glint of the Pacific and the hills by San Pedro. But on that day we'd see billows of smoke as the area of rioting grew and the fires started. At night, we could smell the smoke. I thought we'd be safe since that whole scene seemed so far removed from where we were, up on the hilltop. But the fires, rioting, and looting kept spreading. I kept the kids inside."
"When I drove down the hill to go to the market and saw that it was closed and there were National Guard troops in full gear there in the parking lot, I felt so very sad."
"My kids eventually learned of what was happening. It was hard to explain because there was so much to discuss, but I brought it down to their level and tried anyway. I hoped I wouldn't feel that awful feeling again, but I did, the morning I turned on the TV and saw the Twin Towers in flames."
It’s happening over there
Debora Blais, who has taught math at Alhambra High for 32 years, recalls that an open house for parents was scheduled on the first evening of the riots. Even though Alhambra was calm, the riots could not be ignored.
“We had big discussion about holding the open house. We worried if the riots were a contagious thing: if it happened there, could it happen anywhere else? A lot of the staff were concerned with the black population in Pasadena. Finally, administration decided, ‘Let’s have the open house.’"
“The next day, the principal typed out a memo outlining what we should discuss…All the government teachers, the social studies teachers, they had to stop and discuss it. History teachers were loving it. [The riots] were a part of a discussion on the effects of slavery, on the haves and have-nots — it was a great starting point. For us math teachers — not so much.”
Violence in downtown provided both a unique learning opportunity and a challenge for Alhambra students. "San Gabriel Valley kids — Alhambra kids — are very sheltered," Blais said. "They don’t see it as happening in their city; ‘it’s happening over there.’ If it’s 10 miles away, it might as well be Georgia to them.”
This was not Blais’ first riot: “There was the ’65 Watts riots and I was living in South Central at the time…And even then, we still went to school the next day.”
Soldiers on the steps of City HallJoe Soong was working in City Hall in downtown Los Angeles when the civil unrest began, monitoring office radios and the television for the latest information on the rioting.
“With my co-workers, I looked out the windows and saw a plume of smoke rising from the south and west. The plumes grew and we were getting increasingly anxious as the day. Finally, we were told to go home. As I was entering the Alhambra city limits, I wondered whether the Alhambra police would be able to protect us if the rioters and looters tried to enter the city from adjacent Los Angeles: If the LAPD couldn't stop them, APD probably couldn't stop them. We'd be on our own. Fortunately, it never came to that."
"When I returned to work, I was shocked to see soldiers carrying assault rifles patrolling the streets where I worked every day. Glass doors and windows were shattered and much of the debris hadn't been cleaned up yet. I saw a burned out shell of a car that I had seen on fire on TV; Army Humvees with machine guns mounted on their roofs. Those scenes reminded me of a trip to the former East Germany, a totalitarian Communist state which had an intimidating quasi-military security force in the streets. I never thought I'd see a similar military presence in our own streets, for whatever reason."
"I'd like to think that race relations have improved in the 20 years that have passed. But from the 1943 Zoot Suit riots to the 1965 Watts Riots to the LA Riots in 1992, percolating animosities, whether ethnic, social, or economic, seem to bubble up to the top every generation or so. If history is a guide, we may be due for another one in the next few years."
Interviews were edited and condensed.
Do you have memories of the riots? Did they change you? Do you feel they changed Alhambra? How do you feel race relations have changed? Please share below.