A Cultural History of Eastern Santa Barbara and Milpas

A Cultural History of Eastern Santa Barbara and Milpas

A local historian gives a brief overview of the seven eras of Main Street

By Michael Montenegro | April 14, 2022

Credit: Michael Montenegro

So what does “Milpas” mean? Milpas is basically the equivalent of saying “cornfields”. It is a Nahuatl word referring to a legend of the “three sisters” of corn, beans and squash. Milpas are the fields of corn, bio-engineered by indigenous Mesoamericans as a way to maintain a bountiful harvest and a way of life. Raza refers to the “corn people”, and if you’ve heard the saying “rice is life”, it can be said for the raza corn is life. As early as the 1860s, an effort was made to turn the Eastside wetlands, buzzing with mosquitoes, into fertile acres for farming and ranching from which Calle Milpas takes its name.

Growing up on the Eastside of Santa Barbara, I know every corner and many locals; I came to study its history and the people who made it. Here I have provided a brief 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 over 20,000 years this land has been taken care of by the Chumash people. They still practice thousand-year-old traditions, such as rowing tomols (canoes) to Limu (Santa Cruz); honoring their ancestors with songs, arts and ceremonies; and protect their land, as 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 through what are now the Channel Islands on the feast day of Saint Barbara in 1542, although he had no technically never set foot on local land.

Spanish period (1769-1821)

Settlement in this region began with the Spanish Empire – whose influence stretched so far that the sun never set. The first Spaniards, under Governor Gaspar de Portola, set foot on the lands of Chumash in the summer of 1769. Portola reported a salt marsh and lagoon on what is the modern Eastside near Ortega Park, which prompted him and the Europeans to baptize the Chumash. village of Syxutun (Santa Barbara) as “La Laguna de la Concepción”. Thirteen years later, the Spanish 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 plains of the Eastside were berry farms, vegetables, and corn.

Mexican era (1821-1848)

Yes, like the rest of California and the southwestern states, this land was once Mexico. Although it was only Mexican territory for two decades, the generational waves of Mexican influence never stopped. The Eastside neighborhood still holds the highest concentration of Santa Barbara Latinos in the city. In Mexican times, our pueblo was essentially the ‘boondocks’, nearly 1,900 miles from the capital.

“Yankee” era (1851-1880)

The American Industrial Revolution (1820-1870) and National Expansion and Reform (1815-1880) led to massive westward expansion and a new era for our local Eastside. With this industrialization, the railroads that linked Chicago to San Francisco expanded into Southern California using a predominantly Chinese workforce. Due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, an influx of new Mexican workers flooded the area, from which many of the city’s historic families can trace their origins. On August 19, 1887, the first train arrived in Santa Barbara. The lagoon has become a swamp – and the city’s dumping ground – rendering the surrounding real estate undesirable. This created a boundary between the affluent Pueblo Viejo, where the Barberino-Californios lived, and the segregated working-class “barrio” of the Eastside—also known as Pueblo Nuevo or Mexican Pueblo—where the Mexican laborers lived.

The industrial era (1890-1960)

The lagoon discharge remained a public health hazard until the 1920s, when after a public scandal, the bog was converted into Ortega Park, Santa Barbara High School, and historic Eastside homes. It was during this time that Santa Barbara, and in particular the Eastside, became a commercial and agricultural force. The town became known for its rich soil and organic produce, and the area near Milpas became home to dairy and vegetable farms. The workers built their houses nearby and created the modern neighborhoods. Around this time, 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 first footage of a Chicano neighborhood in the 1920s. At that time, the Eastside of Santa Barbara had many notable residents who served in three major wars. Santa Barbara High School has become a beacon of education and sport with athletes like Eddie Mathews – the Major League home run king who graced the first ever Sports Illustrated cover in 1954. Mathews attributed his power swing to all the Mexican food he grew up on here in Eastside Santa Barbara.

Modern era (1970s-1990s)

Milpas and the Eastside experienced a cultural explosion in the 70s and 80s, with the Cultural Revolution era, anti-war brown berets and the United Farm Workers all pushing for a wave of Chicano-influenced consciousness. The Casa de la Raza was created in 1971, eventually becoming a historical monument. Lowrider culture caught fire, with Santa Barbara’s Milpas cruising clubs featured in the first volume of Low Rider magazine. Internationally acclaimed 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–present)

Santa Barbara had its own “Lords of Dogtown” in the 90s, which led to a “Skatesipuedes”, a local skatepark and a popular place for young people to congregate despite differences in cultural and economic class. In the early 2000s, it was demolished by the city and spawned Skater’s Point. Notable leaders hail from the area, such as City Councilwoman Alejandra Gutierrez and Environmental Protection Agency Deputy Administrator Jeffrey M. Prieto. In 2014, a 2014 gang injunction proposal was the first in the state to be stopped by community activists. Redevelopment began in the late 1990s, with some areas experiencing significant displacement due to rent increases. Today, Milpas is a commercial hub for a predominantly Latin-Eastern neighborhood, with many local businesses still thriving.

Edward K. Thompson