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5 interesting Latino-inspired stops on a tour of Orange County

Orange County has several Latino neighborhoods with rich histories and roots that run deep. Their stories, their art, their commerce are part of what make Orange County a destination and vibrant and immensely interesting place to live. Here are just five suggestions of places to visit.



1. Lemon Park murals

Where: The eight intricate panels that make up the Lemon Park murals line a pedestrian bridge in the Fullerton community; use 701 S Lemon St., to find them.

Why it’s interesting: In the late 1970s, Fullerton Union High students painted the first six of the eight Lemon Park murals; the last two were added in the 1990s by famed Chicano artist Emigdio Vasquez. Together, they tell the story of a tight-knit Mexican American community.

The murals “were always a big deal,” said Fullerton-based tattoo artist Andrew Stirdivant, who has lived near Lemon Park all his life. 

This fall, Stirdivant will restore two of the park’s beloved murals, “The Town I Live In” and “The Brown Car,” in consultation with his cousin and visual artist Higgy Vasquez, Emigdio Vasquez’s son. 

Stirdivant said he knows the murals well and has tattooed them on several clients. Still, he plans to reference old pictures and his family’s lowrider, like the one in “The Brown Car,” to stay as close to the originals as possible. 

All of Stirdivant’s uncles had lowrider cars, and he said the Lemon Park murals pay homage to that subculture. As he’s passed by them daily for decades, Stirdivant said the murals have helped him appreciate his Mexican American identity.

“They made lowriding culture and my Chicano background normal, like it’s not a bad thing because it’s painted on a wall.” 

Food stop

Before you head out from Fullerton, maybe swing by Tacos Los Cholos for some fortification for the rest of your day. Beef ribs, arrachera and ribeye roast on large mesquite grills for a variety of taco offerings on the menu. The Register’s Brad Johnson included Tacos Los Cholos in his 75 Best Places to Eat in Orange County for 2022.



2. La Calle Cuatro

Where: This vibrant commercial district in the historic downtown of Santa Ana, is home to Cinderella-style quinceañera dresses and the county’s premiere Mexican-fusion delicacies. Use any of the public parking structures around and the wander Fourth Street and the rest of the area.

Why it’s interesting: By the 1980s, after downtown Santa Ana’s early department stores and large retailers moved to the county’s burgeoning malls, it was becoming the commercial and cultural hub of the area’s Latino working class, which still hums with activity today and would be a great afternoon stop for shopping and snacking. 

As businesses catering to millennials and hipsters flooded Santa Ana in recent years, the city’s immigrant merchants feared they were being pushed out by a wave of gentrification. However, the mom and pop shops have stood their ground – faithfully serving their regular and newcomer clients, said Madeleine Spencer, a consultant for the Santa Ana Business Council.

“This is still a Latino corridor. Those Mexican people with the small businesses in the ’80s are now property owners downtown,” she said. “It’s that American dream story kind of thing.” 

The business council seeks to empower the city’s Spanish-speaking population through what they call a lens of “Latino Revival” – wherein development projects prioritize the needs of locals but use marketing tactics to bring in profits from commuters and visitors. Renaming the area from Plaza Santa Ana to La Calle Cuatro was part of this effort. 

So are newer operations such as Gente Market, where local entrepreneurs, artists and culinary creatives share their skills, and Vibes Boutique, a Latina-owned, size-inclusive store refreshing traditional styles.

“The burgeoning feeling of pride for Santa Ana in people’s products that they’re creating in styles of clothing and other areas is popping off right now,” Spencer said. 



3. Mission San Juan Capistrano

Where: The freeway drive south is worth the visit to this historic Spanish mission in San Juan Capistrano’s downtown district, where ivy-covered adobe walls protect centuries-old art and artifacts. It is at 26801 Ortega Highway.

Why it’s interesting: The seventh of 21 missions dotting the California coast, Mission San Juan Capistrano welcomes 300,000 visitors each year.

The mission has a rich cultural and spiritual legacy; many visit to worship La Virgen de Guadalupe at Serra Chapel, where Junipero Serra once celebrated Mass. 

However, that legacy is intertwined with tragedy; as the Spanish missionaries evangelized, the tribes of the Acjachemen Nation were pushed from their lands.

Acjachemen educator and storyteller Jacque Tahuka-Nunez has partnered with the mission for 20 years to present a recurring, hour-long program, Journeys to the Past, that teaches children the customs of California’s earliest people, including basket-weaving and traditional dance. 

“Even though things happened to us… we’re still here,” Tahuka-Nunez said. “(The mission) is a landmark showing our strength.” 

Food stop

For a quiet refreshment after an active afternoon at the mission, hop a mile over to The Tea House on Los Rios to enjoy its signature organic loose leaf tea and the nearby butterfly garden in one of the oldest neighborhoods in Orange County. A bit more ravenous? Turn right out the front gates of the mission and walk just down the block and tear into a plate from Heritage Barbecue, which topped Register restaurant critic Brad Johnson’s Top 75 Restaurants of 2022. Chef/owner Daniel Castillo’s Texas-style barbecue will fuel you for the rest of your journey.



4. Mendez Freedom Trail

Where: This one is going to require a little patience, but soon, a bronze sculpture and scenic trail celebrating the story behind the landmark court case Mendez v. Westminster will be ready at the intersection of Westminster Boulevard and Olive Street in Westminster.

Why’s it interesting: The monument sculpted by “Chicano icon” Ignacio Gomez will depict Sylvia Mendez, Presidential Medal of Freedom awardee, and her two brothers on a fall day in 1944 – when they walked into their hometown’s 17th Street School only to be turned away because they weren’t White. 

Fighting this injustice, the Mendez family sued the Westminster school district in a 1947 case that declared school segregation unconstitutional seven years prior to Brown v. Board of Education. 

“It’s a profound moment in Orange County history,” said Jeff Hittenberger, a professor in Vanguard University’s Graduate Education Program. “Sylvia Mendez is an extraordinary model of what America means at its best: people working together to create communities that are inclusive to everyone.”

Though the spot may not seem robust right now, Hittenberger said the memorial park will open this fall after a long five years of anticipation, and the one-mile trail along Hoover Boulevard will be done by next year.

Hittenberger formerly served as chief academic officer of the Orange County Department of Education and helped create a series of panels detailing the Mendez story for the memorial park. 

“They wanted it not just to be a park or a trail, but actually an educational experience,” Hittenberger said, adding that he’ll be taking Vanguard’s teachers-in-training on a field trip to the site this fall. 



5. St. Isidore Historical Plaza

Where: In Los Alamitos, stop by this repurposed church at 10961 Reagan St., with grand stained-glass windows and a picturesque courtyard where those of all faith denominations gather and lovers often say “I do.” 

Why it’s interesting: Throughout the 20th century, the St. Isidore chapel and surrounding plaza were part of the Catholic Church. When the Diocese of Orange ordered the church’s closure in 1999, parishioners came to its defense. 

“We were devastated,” said Maria Teresa Diaz, a founding member of the St. Isidore Historical Plaza board of directors, or Comite del Amor. She had been a parishioner since 1975. “We went into the conference room and said, ‘We have to do something about it.’”

Diaz wrote a letter to Pope Francis asking him to intervene when the diocese declined to sell St. Isidore to Comite del Amor.

“He sent an emissary, and then things changed,” Diaz said. “I don’t have any proof of it, but I feel in my heart he said, ‘Give it to them.’”

Since it bought the property in 2014, Comite del Amor has been working to restore the chapel to its former beauty. 

“A lot of love goes into that little church,” said Tanya Barraza, vice president of Comite del Amor. 

St. Isidore’s chapel became the only federally recognized historical site in Los Alamitos in February, and is now eligible for grant funding to sustain its community programs – including interdenominational church services and Dia de los Muertos celebrations.

“For the Latino community going forward, for us, it’s a matter of making ourselves known and making sure people are aware of the events that we have,” Barraza said. “We don’t want to see St. Isidore lost.”

Editor’s note: This tour guide was a special project by The Orange County Register’s two wonderful summer 2022 interns.

Source: Orange County Register

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