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California parks on the rocks: Pio Pico State Park's history resonates despite low attendance

Kathy Rabago and Leo Fernandez in period costume.
Kathy Rabago and Leo Fernandez in period costume.
Krissy Clark, The California Report

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If a state park that hardly anyone goes to closes, does it matter? Pio Pico is one of the state's least-visited parks. But the history that reverberates inside the park walls still resonates with issues shaping California today, reports The California Report's Krissy Clark.

Once upon a time in California, when the state was still a dusty backwater, the Fandango was the latest dance craze, and the official language was Spanish, there lived a man named Pio de Jesus Pico, the last governor of the state under Mexican rule.

Now and then Pico still makes appearances at the state park named in his honor, wearing his signature top hat and a white bushy beard. "Thank you for coming to my house,” he told a recent group of history buffs and families who were passing by: "Mi casa es su casa.”

The bearded visage doesn't really belong to Pio Pico of course -- he died in 1894. But Roberto Garza, a local educator, impersonates Pico for events like the park's annual fiesta.

Pico, Garza explains to the crowd, was born in 1801, just down the road at Mission San Gabriel. His parents had walked there from Sonora, Mexico, with the Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza. Pico bought this land, what he called "El Ranchito” or "the little ranch," in the 1840s.

Now it's a few acres of grass and gardens surrounding his old adobe mansion, wedged in among a freeway, a working-class Latino neighborhood and various strip malls. But back then it was part of an 8,000-acre cattle ranch on land that was, in the course of Pico's life, part of Spain, then Mexico and finally the U.S.

"California was not born in the year 1850, when the Americans took over,” Garza says after he steps off the stage and goes back to being himself. He points to the restored adobe for which he's become ambassador and reflects, "California has a history, and it's extremely important that we preserve buildings like this.”

"They are proof of that history," he says. "We can touch it and feel it and smell it.”

Well, almost. Today, visitors have to imagine the smells, which is probably for the best. As a volunteer docent explains during tours, there was no indoor plumbing in California in the mid-1800s, so the ranch probably smelled like a combination of livestock and sewer. But the sights and sounds of life during the rancho era persist here, to the delight of a teacher's aid named Rosario Rivas, who came to the park with her family.

Here, she says, "You can enter in to a house in which they don't have a television or things like that,” a good reminder, she tells her son, that back then, "You didn't need an iPod.” And yet maybe more important than those differences are the things about Pico's day that haven't changed -- the complexities of national identity, for instance.

Pico was at various times in his life considered a Spanish, a Mexican and an American citizen. But first and always, he saw himself as a Californian. That struck a chord with Rivas's eight-year-old son Kenneth, who was also born in California to Mexican parents. Like Pico, "I'm part Mexican and part Californian,” Kenneth said.

"The lessons that Pio Pico has to teach children and the next generation, I think, are huge,” says Carolyn Schoff, an anthropologist and president of Friends of Pio Pico State Park, a group of volunteers trying to save it from closure. Pico was "sort of the tapestry of what we have in California today,” she says, explaining that many of California's current hot-button issues have precedents in Pio Pico's time.

A prime example: debates around immigration. Except back then, it was California-born Hispanics like Pico who felt threatened by growing numbers of Anglos flooding the border. Pico had many Yankee friends, in-laws and business associates, but he also feared the impact the new immigrants were having on the California he knew. As he wrote in a speech in 1846, in the tense days before the U.S. invaded California, "Already have the wagons of that perfidious people scaled the almost inaccessible summits of the Sierra Nevada, crossed the entire continent and penetrated the fruitful valley of the Sacramento.” Not exactly the welcome wagon.

California's famous entrepreneurial spirit is another theme embodied in Pico's story, according to Schoff. He was born the son of a poor, uneducated solider, but by middle age was one of the largest landowners in California. That's an important story to be told, especially "in the backyard of people that are somewhat disadvantaged economically,” Schoff says, referring to the community surrounding the park. "To come here and see the story of someone who was so successful but started out with such humble means is, I think, a great lesson.”

Pico lived the California Dream before it was called that, but he also knew its dark side. He was buried in a pauper's grave after losing his last valuable asset, El Ranchito, in a land swindle. Some argue that history is poised to repeat itself, now that the land could be lost to all of us this July.

"If you look at traditional park users in the California state park system, it's white, middle-to-upper-middle class," Woods says. "And we really want to provide the California state park experience to all Californians, to be relevant and reflect the changing demographic of the state."

And yet, being in a low-income urban neighborhood is part of what's made the park so vulnerable to budget cuts, according to Friends of Pio Pico's Schoff. While some state parks are avoiding closure by raising funds from wealthy donors or charging admission fees, she says the community around Pio Pico doesn't have that many resources to spare.

Meanwhile, back at the ranchito, volunteers are hoping the annual fiesta will bring in at least some money for the park. Garza is still dressed as Pio Pico in his top hat, when an older man comes up and gives him a big hug. "Tata abuelo!” he jokes. "Great, great grandfather!"

The man is John Albitri, a retired heavy-equipment driver, and he actually is Pico's great, great grandson. After the family lost el Ranchito, their descendants remained in the area. When asked how he feels about the prospect of this place being locked up come July, Albitri lets out a long sigh, holding back tears, "Terrible. Sad. What can I say."

He suggests that if all else fails, maybe the park could turn it over to the family to take care of it. "There's enough of us," he says half-jokingly.

Plan B? Volunteers are collecting cans and organizing bike-a-thons to try to raise $80,000 by July 1st, to keep the park open -- at least for now.

Visit the California Report page for more about their series, California State Parks On The Rocks.