Students enrolled in an ethnic studies course are out to prove diversity used to exist within the San Luis Obispo community. The Tour de SLO: A Path Through Our Multiethnic History will explore significant historical locations to highlight the past ethnic population of the town on Saturday, Dec. 4.
Tour de SLO is a free and public tour which includes two synchronized routes that start at either Mission Plaza or the San Luis Obispo Railroad Station. The tour is a result of research that was done by the students at the Special Collections at Robert E. Kennedy Library and The History Center of San Luis Obispo County
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the San Luis Obispo County had a 90.7 percent population of white people in 2009.
The overly white population of San Luis Obispo has been criticized for lacking a diverse population, and students enrolled in the class Ethnic Studies 212: Global Origins of the United States, are out to prove this was not always the case.
Ethnic studies professor Grace Yeh, who came up with the idea of Tour de SLO, said it is very frustrating to find information about the local history because people hide it with a fake perspective.
“When I tried to find out local history, it is all very glowing,” Yeh said. “(People said), ‘We got along great in SLO, there were no problems. We’re very welcoming.’ The fact of the matter is predominantly (SLO) is one of the whitest towns in California.”
Part of the reason the project is being done is to understand why San Luis Obispo came to look the way it does ethnically. Additionally, the city is a great case study to understand how communities are formed and how they are constructed around racial life, Yeh said.
One of the main goals of the tour is to see history through another set of lenses. Ethnic studies professor Denise Isom wants history to be explored and analyzed rather than judged based on what was readily apparent on the surface.
“It is one thing to see history on paper and to have history be a collection of stories, date and individuals,” Isom said. “It’s a whole other thing to re-explore the space you think you’re familiar with. (I want) to see other stories that existed out there. Other narratives that we’ve missed or have become lost.”
Stops on the tour include: Mission San Luis Obispo, Murray Adobe, Chinatown, the Sinsheimer building, Brook Street, the Dallidet Adobe and the Railroad District.
The Railroad District, established in May 1894, is the face of San Luis Obispo. Business administration junior and Tour de SLO presenter Alexis Beverly never realized the importance of the historical transportation landmark and discovered its great significance to the community.
“I learned about how difficult it was traveling to SLO before the help of the railroad,” Beverly said. “It was really hard and really dangerous. Before that, the only safe method of travel was to come in by boat through Avila.”
The project opened Beverly’s eyes to San Luis Obispo’s rich history, she said.
“There’s so much more history out there that (people) don’t even recognize,” Beverly said. “That’s something that we need to change. With Tour de SLO, we’re hoping we can accomplish that.”
Isom also hopes those who attend the event walk away with a different sense of what San Luis Obispo is as well as how the town came to be like today, she said.
She illustrates this using Japantown as an example of ethnicity that has disappeared.
“(There were) a number of business and areas that had a significant number of Japanese farmers,” Isom said. “What we lost was the Japantown community that used to be here.”
Communication studies sophomore Heather Parks will present the Japantown portion of the tour. It will be held at the intersection of South Street and Higuera Street where a strip of Japanese businesses used to be.
“There were internments of the Japanese, which is almost as devastating as the internment of the Jews,” Parks said. “But we don’t really talk about it that much in our history textbooks, which is really interesting. You never hear about the Japanese internment, but it’s just as bad.”
The tour will provide historical background to Japantown as well as other various people of San Luis Obispo, including all the people who made a difference in the county: the Chumash Indians, the Spanish missionaries, the Germans, Jewish and Chinese immigrants, the African-American settlers and the mixed Mexican-European families.
Isom said she hopes those who attend will leave the tour seeing the city a bit differently.
“We sort of joke around the campus and the city about how ‘white’ we are,” Isom said. “And yet, we have this crazy, rich ethnic history. It’d be wonderful to completely illuminate that.”
The event is from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.