A Cultural History of Santa Barbara’s Eastside and Milpas
Local Historian Provides Brief Overview of the Main Street’s Seven Eras
By Michael Montenegro | April 14, 2022
So what does “Milpas” mean? Milpas is essentially the equivalent to saying “cornfields.” It’s a Nahuatl word referring to a legend of the “three sisters” of maize, beans, and squash. Milpas are the fields of corn, bioengineered by Native Mesoamericans as a means of maintaining a bountiful harvest and a way of life. Raza refers to the “people of the maize,” and if you’ve heard the saying “rice is life,” it can be said for la raza that maize is life. As early as the 1860s, an effort was made to change the wetlands of the Eastside, buzzing with mosquitoes, into fertile acres for agriculture and livestock from which Calle Milpas gets its name.
Growing up on Santa Barbara’s Eastside, I’m familiar with every street corner and many of the locals; I’ve come to study its history and the people who made it. Here I’ve provided a short historical overview, from a local perspective, of the seven eras of Santa Barbara’s Milpas Street — or as locals know it, Calle Milpas. To learn more about local history, visit @ChicanoCultureSB on Instagram.
Chumash Era (20,000 BCE-late 18th century)
This is Chumash land, and for more than 20,000 years, this land has been taken care of by the Chumash people. They still practice traditions that are thousands of years old, such as rowing tomols (canoes) to Limu (Santa Cruz); honoring their ancestors with songs, arts, and ceremonies; and protecting their land, like in 2021 with the Save the San Marcos Hills movement. Prior to any settlement, legend has it that Juan Cabrillo, a Portuguese explorer working in the Spanish service, sailed by what are now the Channel Islands on the feast day of Saint Barbara in 1542, though he technically never set foot on local land.
Spanish Era (1769-1821)
Colonization in this area started with the Spanish Empire — whose influence stretched so far the sun never set. The first Spaniards, under Gov. Gaspar de Portola, stepped foot on Chumash land in the summer of 1769. Portola reported a salt marsh and lagoon on what is the modern-day Eastside near Ortega Park, prompting him and the Europeans to christen the Chumash village of Syxutun (Santa Barbara) as “La Laguna de la Concepción.” Thirteen years later, the Spaniards returned to found a presidio and the Old Mission Santa Barbara, crowned “The queen of the California missions” and completed on December 16, 1786. During this period, the flatlands of the Eastside were farms of berries, vegetables, and maize.
Mexican Era (1821-1848)
Yes, like the rest of California and the Southwestern states, this land was once Mexico. Though it was only Mexican territory for two decades, the generational waves of Mexican influence have never stopped. The Eastside district still holds Santa Barbara’s highest concentration of Latinos in the city. In the Mexican era, our pueblo was essentially the “boondocks,” nearly 1,900 miles away from the capitol.
‘Yankee’ Era (1851-1880s)
The American Industrial Revolution (1820-1870) and National Expansion and Reform (1815-1880) led to a massive westward expansion and a new era for our local Eastside. With this industrialization, railroads that connected Chicago with San Francisco expanded into Southern California using a majority Chinese labor force. Due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, an influx of new Mexican labor flooded the area, from which many of the historic families in the city can trace their origins. By August 19, 1887, the first train arrived in Santa Barbara. The lagoon became a swamp — and the city’s dump — causing surrounding real estate to be undesirable. This created a border between the wealthy Pueblo Viejo, where Barberino-Californios lived, and the segregated working-class Eastside “barrio” — also known as Pueblo Nuevo or Mexican Pueblo — where the Mexican laborers lived.
Industrial Era (1890s-1960s)
The lagoon-dump remained a public health hazard until the 1920s, when after a public scandal the bog was converted to Ortega Park, Santa Barbara Junior High School, and historic Eastside homes. This era is when Santa Barbara, and particularly the Eastside, became a commercial and agricultural force. The city became known for its rich soil and organic produce, and the area near Milpas became home to dairy and vegetable farms. Workers built their homes nearby and created the modern-day neighborhoods. During this age, the Santa Barbara Bowl (1936), Live Oak Dairy (1937), and, later, McConnell’s world headquarters (1962) opened. Flying A Studios, one of the first commercial movie studios, filmed some of the earliest footage of a Chicano neighborhood in the 1920s. During this era, Santa Barbara’s Eastside had many notable residents who served in three major wars. Santa Barbara High School became a beacon of education and sports with athletes like Eddie Mathews — the Major League’s Home Run King who graced the first-ever Sports Illustrated cover in 1954. Mathews famously credited his powerful swing to all the Mexican food he grew up with here in Eastside Santa Barbara.
Modern Era (1970s-1990s)
Milpas and the Eastside saw a cultural explosion in the ’70s and ’80s, with the Age of Cultural Revolution, the anti-war Brown Berets, and United Farm Workers all pushing for a wave of Chicano-influenced consciousness. La Casa de la Raza was established in 1971, eventually becoming a historical landmark. Lowrider culture caught fire, with Santa Barbara’s Milpas-cruising clubs featured in the first volume of Lowrider Magazine. Internationally known entertainment company Goldenvoice was founded by Gary Tovar in the early ’80s, with many of the first shows at La Casa de la Raza.
New Age (1990s-today)
Santa Barbara had its own “Lords of Dogtown” in the ’90s, which led to a “Skatesipuedes,” a local skate park and popular location for youth to congregate despite cultural and economic class differences. By the early 2000s, it was taken down by the city and gave rise to Skater’s Point. Notable leaders rise from the area, like City Councilmember Alejandra Gutierrez and Assistant Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency Jeffrey M. Prieto. In 2014, a proposed gang injunction was the first in the state to be stopped by community activists. Redevelopment started in the late ’90s, with some areas seeing major displacement due to raises in rent. Today, Milpas is a commercial center for a majority-Latino Eastside district, with many locally owned businesses still flourishing.
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