Mitla founder’s story to be featured in Route 66 oral history project

Photo/Anthony Victoria: Mitla Cafe employees Patti Oquendo, Lucy Reyes, and Irene Montano.

Lucy Reyes sat quietly in front of approximately 40 residents during a historical presentation at the Mitla Cafe Restaurant in San Bernardino last Friday.

After much discussion from the audience, Reyes eventually took part–giving accounts of the Westside’s past vibrant and booming business district along Mt. Vernon Avenue (San Bernardino’s strip of Route 66).

Her former boss, Mitla Cafe founder Lucia Rodriguez and her family were great contributors in restoring community pride to an area that historically has been neglected by city leaders.

“I love this family like it’s my family,” Reyes said of Rodriguez and her descendants, Patti Oquendo and Irene Montano. “And I love my family.”

Rodriguez’s story is among dozens of narratives being collected by historians for the oral history project–The Women of the Mother Road. The project intends to highlight the stories of women that worked alongside Route 66 and their stories of hardship and resilience. Themes of growing up, traveling, challenging gender stereotypes, confronting prejudice and pushing boundaries in a man’s world run-through the new oral histories, according to Parks.

“I was struck at the underrepresentation of women,” explained Katrina Parks, director, producer, and writer of the project. “Historians assumed that women were consumed by their responsibilities of being a homemaker. If one digs further, women’s experiences have been much deeper than they have us believe.”

Rodriguez’s story will be closely covered in the oral history project. Along with her husband, Rodriguez used $50 to startup Mitla’s in 1933. According to Historian Mark Ocegueda, it was around this time Mexican entrepreneurs began forming a strong merchant class on the westside.

Mitla’s became a popular destination for motorists coming south from the Cajon Pass, Ocegueda explained.

“It was a place where people could feel at home,” said Ocegueda. “This space has been instrumental in understanding the history of Route 66.”

Rocket Rios, a longtime community advocate on the westside, believes the importance of Route 66 cannot be overlooked.

“Believe it or not, if you go to Europe and ask people if they’ve heard of Route 66, they’ll know where it’s at. Ninety percent of locals here don’t even know where Amboy is. We have to teach our future generations that this road has been important to the development of our community.”

Nonetheless, Rios is delighted women are finally being recognized for their contributions in American History.

“I’m very happy they’re recognizing women along Route 66. They’ve been the backbone of our community.