“We Were All Here” is a collaborative art video produced by Dan Kwong and Paulina Sahagun that tells the story of La Veinte, the Casillas family, and the Pico neighborhood of Santa Monica. COURTESY Daniel Alonzo

New film captures history of Santa Monica’s Pico neighborhood and Casillas family

By Bridgette M. Redman

It is easy for a neighborhood’s history to disappear, to be bulldozed under newer stories that are unaware of their connections to earlier times. There is a price that is paid when that happens.

It is why 18th Street Arts Center commissioned two artists, Dan Kwong and Paulina Sahagun, to tell the stories of the Pico Neighborhood, home to 18th Street Arts Center. The two started collecting an in-depth oral history of the area, only to be interrupted by the pandemic.

Their plans for a live theatrical production transformed to that of a multi-media video project, the first of two parts which will be released on June 24. The first part of the film focuses on the La Veinte neighborhood up to the construction of the 10 Freeway in 1966.

A live online launch event, “The Art of Family in La Veinte,” will follow on June 26. The project zeroes in on the Casillas family, the largest family ever to immigrate from Mexico to Santa Monica.

“History gets literally buried,” Sahagun said. “First it is destroyed in terms of buildings and people moving away and people dying. It is really important to uncover the history that was there before. When 18th Street started doing this cultural mapping, you start to realize how important this is, because when you’re from a certain place, it is so common for you to kind of forget.”

The Pico neighborhood is bound by Pico on the south, Colorado on the north, Stewart Street on the east and 14th Street on the west. 18th Street Arts Center executive director Jan Williamson said she is very excited about this project because it is an opportunity to reflect back to the community its own story through film.

“The story that Dan and Paulina are going to be telling is one a lot of people know a piece of, because they are a part of it, but to have it created and put into a film and reflected back to them in this artistic format — it’s like getting to see yourself in a mirror for the first time,” Williamson said.

Personal histories drew artists to this project

Both artists have deep roots to the Pico neighborhood. Sahagun was born there and lived there until her family had to move because of the freeway being built that split the neighborhood. While they moved to Venice, they continued returning to the Pico neighborhood because their friends were there and they wanted to shop at the Casillas’ market.

The store was important to Sahagun’s family because it was often the only place they could go to get real Mexican ingredients to make the food they were used to.

“I remember my mother complaining about not being able to get corn husks to make tamales because those weren’t sold anywhere,” Sahagun said.

Kwong’s connection to the neighborhood began in 1989 with the founding of 18th Street Arts Center. He has been a resident artist since the beginning and has lived in the neighborhood for the past 29 years.

“I have seen in three decades a lot of change,” Kwong said. “I’m a performance artist and a storyteller and I’ve always been telling stories that include historical elements, using those stories to critique, comment and think about the larger society we live in.”

Williamson said Kwong and Sahagun were the perfect fit for this project because of their geographic backgrounds and their skills as artists.

“They just know the Westside deeply and they are incredible artists,” Williamson said. “They have worked together before. We didn’t require them to work together, they chose to, in part because they have collaborated many times before.”

Neighborhood rich with history dating back a century

This project is part of a cultural mapping program that 18th Street Arts Center started in 2015. They have collected histories from many neighborhoods, but it was important for them to do something on the Pico neighborhood because it is their home.

“We’re right in the middle of it,” Williamson said. “As artists, we’re really curious about our neighborhood and what is going on in it. We’ve been here for over 30 years and we’ve seen the neighborhood change a lot.”

The Pico neighborhood was a primary home base for Latinx, Black and Asian families in Santa Monica for many decades because of the historical discriminatory housing policies. In 1966, the Santa Monica Freeway was completed that split the neighborhood in half and displaced 3,000 families.

The extended Casillas family settled in the neighborhood beginning in 1918. Their story became one that reflects the 20th-century immigrant experience not just in Santa Monica, but in the country as a whole. Genna Casillas is one of the descendants who was interviewed for the film.

“Being a citizen, to me, means that you care about your community – not just what you will get from it but what you put into it,” Casillas said. “My dad’s family came to this country and were so grateful for what they found that they gave back.”

Story is local and universal

When the artists were trying to figure out how to organize the vast amount of information they were collecting about the neighborhood, Kwong struck upon the idea of focusing on the Casillas family because their story reflected that of the entire community and was emblematic of the formation of other communities.
Sahagun said that as they worked, a cycle emerged – a cycle that was not just applicable to this neighborhood, but to other communities as well.

“(It starts with) the external forces that have made people leave their country and establish somewhere else,” Sahagun said. “How do they create methods, resources and ways of supporting each other? Then they externally create a business that supports them. The humanity of this group will extend to the roots of where they came from and what happens during that time in history — political and social events — and how does that affect this community?”

She said that as they sat with the interviews, photographs and a timeline that Kwong created, they were really able to see the cycle of what was going on.
Kwong said that working on this project has given him a greater appreciation for the neighborhood where he lives. There are buildings that he has passed 50,000 times before and never thought about how they have a history.

“It has opened my eyes to the old things in the neighborhood and made me value them,” Kwong said. “I value them as a piece of history not just for nostalgia’s sake, but for the sense of continuity and connection. I think in LA especially, we tend to bulldoze our past — wipe it out and put up something new. I’ve been affected by that attitude, looking past things, and so this project has really opened my eyes to appreciating more of what is here now.”

Artists pour their talent into the film

The film will include narration, oral history, lyrical and poetic interludes, and visual images such as historical photos of the area and music that accentuates moments in history.
“It’s been hard to get some of the photos we need,” Kwong said. “We have been scouring the Internet and haranguing relatives in Florida saying, ‘Can you please find me photographs of your dad’s hot dog stand? Can you please go through that box again?’”

They are also working with two historians, asking them to review the script and ensure that what they do is accurate. Kwong assures people that the film will not, however, be a history lecture. It is designed to be entertaining with plenty of humorous scenes. Both hope that their film will encourage people to reflect on their own histories and to consider what they can take from a previous time to improve their quality of life now.

18th Street Arts Center deputy director Sue Yank warned that if people don’t actively work to think about cultural heritage and histories of place, it can just get erased. It requires a really proactive role to keep it from disappearing. At 18th Street Arts Center, they do it through a lens of arts and culture and storytelling.
“The histories of the neighborhood and who they are affect the way we live today with one another,” Yank said. “The pandemic has made that even more present in people’s minds — knowing who your neighbors are and who you can count on. I think this project is a really great example of how we can begin to pass on that knowledge and that heritage.”