March 25, 2013

Women in Preservation: M. Rosalind Sagara and the California Riverside Chinatown Community

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Before 2008, M. Rosalind Sagara didn't know many details about the history of the Chinese community in Riverside, Calif. Now, you could say she is one of the most engaged experts on the story of the area’s early immigrants, as she leads her community’s efforts to preserve the very beginnings of their Chinese American history.

The first Chinese pioneers arrived in Riverside around 1870. By 1885, the Chinatown area was flourishing with 450 permanent residents and as many as 2,500 migrant workers, who were providing skilled labor to a growing citrus industry.

But over the years, the town’s population fell dramatically, and by 1943 only one resident remained. Then, in the mid-1970s, fire destroyed several buildings and the rest were demolished to make way for commercial development. Today, all that remains of this once-vibrant culture are remnants of buried buildings and other artifacts that lie underground.

With the help of Sagara’s passionate work, people everywhere are coming together to protect this important part of the community’s heritage, working towards a goal of establishing Chinatown Memorial Park. She co-founded and currently serves as chair of the Save Our Chinatown Committee. She has also created a strong network of local advocates and organizations, students, and a whole new generation of preservationists.

Their efforts are paying off: In the spring of 2012, a California court invalidated the City of Riverside’s approval of a development that would have destroyed Chinatown’s archaeology.

I had the chance to ask Sagara a few questions about how she first got involved preserving Riverside’s history and what this means for the community.

Editor's Note: The National Trust for Historic Preservation presented Sagara with the American Express Aspire Award Recognizing Emerging Leaders in Historic Preservation at our National Preservation Conference in Spokane, Washington, in November 2012.

When did you start working to save Riverside? What first inspired you to get involved?

I've been involved in preserving Riverside’s Chinatown since 2008. Curiosity got me to my first meeting. I wanted to learn more about the early Chinese community in Riverside. It was also a chance to connect with a part of my cultural heritage and the local community.

I soon learned the site was threatened by commercial development and if the community didn't mobilize to protect the site, we'd lose it. In those early weeks, I think the threat of losing something I had yet to fully discover really inspired me to get involved.

“The passion, dedication, and creative leadership that M. Rosalind Sagara brings to the preservation of Riverside’s Chinatown is truly an inspiration. We are fortunate to have this dynamic young advocate in the field of preservation.”

Stephanie K. Meeks, Past President, National Trust for Historic Preservation

What has been your most rewarding accomplishment while working to preserve Riverside’s Chinatown?

Growing and sustaining our preservation network has been the most rewarding accomplishment in my view. It’s not easy to keep interest alive for long periods, but we've been successful in maintaining a solid base of support throughout the years.

What do you think is the most important way to connect with the local community and a younger generation of preservationists, and get them passionate about saving history?

Learn what they think is interesting about a place and tell them why you care. Ask them to help you connect their interests, knowledge, or resources with your work.

Local community members stand in front of the original Chinatown site in Riverside, California.

Local community members stand in front of the original Chinatown site in Riverside, California.

Sagara (center) on the George Wong History Walk in Riverside, Calif. George Wong was the last resident of Riverside’s Chinatown, and the walk takes guests on a tour of his life.

How do you think your work and the work of the Save Our Chinatown Committee will influence future generations of Riverside residents?

I hope our preservation work will inspire future generations to be curious about Riverside’s diverse heritage and to become active caretakers of where they live.

What advice would you give to younger preservation advocates looking to save a place or community meaningful to them?

Lead. Don’t wait for someone to ask you to take leadership and don’t assume others will take the lead. Bring your unique strengths and knowledge to your cause. Ask for help. You can do it!

Catching Up with M. Rosalind Sagara in 2021

In May of 2021, as part of our campaign for Where Women Made History we checked in with Sagara to find out how the work to preserve Riverside's Chinatown is going, and to learn more about her career since receiving the Aspire Award. The responses to those questions are below.

It’s been nearly ten years since you received the American Express Aspire Award. Could you tell us a little bit about your work since then?

Since 2012, I completed my graduate degree in heritage conservation at University of Southern California and worked a few years as an independent historic preservation consultant, which included writing three Asian American historic context statements for cities. I’ve been with the Los Angeles Conservancy since 2017.

As the Neighborhood Outreach Manager, I oversee outreach efforts in Greater Los Angeles, with a focus on developing local preservation leaders. One way we do this is through our Community Leadership Boot Camp.

Image of a woman in a black shirt.

photo by: M. Rosalind Sagara

The program focuses on deepening participants’ understanding of preservation as a planning tool, developing persuasive speaking skills, and team building. We are also helping to build capacity for individuals and community groups to submit local landmark nominations, particularly those that highlight underrepresented histories, or are located in neighborhoods that are not well represented in the local landmarks program. Additionally, I've served on the Board of Asian & Pacific Islander Americans in Heritage Conservation (APIAHiP) since 2019.

Can you give us an update on some of the work you are still doing in Riverside with Save Our Chinatown?

The Save Our Chinatown Committee has continued our advocacy work to ensure the Chinatown archaeological site in Riverside is preserved for current and future generations. This work includes educating the broader public about the history of Chinese Americans and more broadly Asian Americans in Riverside and Inland Southern California. We have partnered with local organizations on a walking tour program exploring important places and stories associated with Riverside’s Asian American history such as the Dosan Ahn Chang-Ho Memorial and the Harada House, a National Historic Landmark and one of the National Trust's 2021 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

Unfortunately, we have had to halt this program and other in-person group gatherings, including our annual Ching Ming Festival (grave sweeping/remembrance ceremony), due to COVID-19. As it becomes safer for larger groups to gather, we look forward to resuming our in-person programs. Another project we’ve been working on is the Chinese Exclusion Act Case Files Digitization Project, a partnership with National Archives (Riverside branch) and the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California to digitize the facility’s Chinese Exclusion Act Case Files Collection. This project aims to increase public accessibility to important government records associated with Chinese immigrant experiences in Southern California.

In the ten years since you received the award, is there anything you’ve learned about preservation and what you see as critical for the future of the field?

With respect to racial equity in historic preservation, I have seen greater commitments to building a more inclusive preservation profession, especially in the last year. There are many social and economic factors driving this increased attention, including Black Lives Matter and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color.

I’m especially encouraged by the willingness of more preservation leaders and groups to look inward and to acknowledge implicit biases and missed opportunities to break down barriers for underrepresented communities to participate and more fully benefit from historic preservation.

At the same time, however, I’ve seen many BIPOC colleagues leave historic preservation due to lack of professional opportunities, or because they’ve decided other careers may more closely align with their values and provide a greater sense of belonging. My hope is that preservation professionals continue to prioritize and measure success with respect to racial equity in historic preservation. This work is not easy and there are no quick fixes, but I believe it is critical for the future of our field.

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Every place has a woman's story to tell. Through Where Women Made History, we are identifying, honoring, and elevating places across the country where women have changed their communities and the world.

Learn More