When Jamie Rocha and his family first visited the strip of undeveloped land in the Monterey Hills late last year, the grass was dead and the ground muddy.
But on a recent Thursday, after torrential rains in Los Angeles, the grass was a deep green and purple lupines lined the road. Coyotes roamed nearby, sniffing the ground before disappearing below the steep edge of the hillside.
The calm of the afternoon belied the excitement of the family. That day, they were walking on what would one day be their land, 12 acres that had been purchased by the region’s only Indian charter school and returned to the Gabrielino Shoshone Tribal Nation of Southern California, the area’s original inhabitants.
“It’s awesome to have a dedicated space (for) indigenous customs and education,” said Rocha, a member of the tribe, who has long struggled to find a place to practice his ceremonies in congested Los Angeles County. “I wish my grandmother was here to see it.”
In August, the Anahuacalmecac International Preparatory University of North America purchased the land for $800,000 with the help of grants and nonprofit funds. The K-12 charter school in El Sereno intends to act as steward of the land and establish the Chief Ya’anna Learning Village.
The compound is named for Ya’anna Vera Rocha, late chief of the Gabrielino Shoshone Tribal Nation and Rocha’s grandmother.
Having a space like this “always seemed a bit impossible,” Rocha said, “because you know, our territory is prime real estate.”
Across the street from the now hallowed ground is a looming condominium complex. The land is bordered on one side by a complex of terraced houses; there is a low income senior apartment complex on the other. It overlooks Elephant Hill Open Space, a 15-acre area free of development but marked by ATVs.
Still, it feels a world away from the hubbub of downtown and the car horns that make up the cacophony in the heart of Los Angeles.
The land was once a valley in the Monterey Hills before it was filled with land from the neighboring development, said Marcos Aguilar, who co-founded the school with his wife, Minnie Ferguson. At one point it was owned by the now-defunct Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency and was later sold to a developer.
The acreage is home to various types of birds, rabbits, and black walnut trees, an endangered species which is found in select parts of the county and is used by indigenous people for tea, food and dye. The land also serves as a corridor for coyotes, and Aguilar said they intend to preserve it in its natural state as much as possible.
The acreage was purchased by the Tzicatl Community Development Corp., the nonprofit organization that manages the Anahuacalmecac school, with funding from the NDN Collective Landback Fund, Metabolic Studio, and TomKat Ranch Educational Foundation.
Nick Tilsen is president and CEO of the NDN Collective, an indigenous-led nonprofit that launched a land return campaign in 2020. The movement, which has been around for decades, promotes the restoration of land ownership to indigenous communities.
In California, back-to-land movements have been successful. Eureka returned 202 acres of land on the renamed Tuluwat Island in Humboldt Bay to the Wiyot people, who had campaigned for it since the 1970s.
In this case, Tilsen said the coalition moved quickly to finance Anahuacalmecac’s land return effort.
“When we saw what was happening in Los Angeles with the school…and what their vision was with the land, in a place with such a limited amount of land, we thought, ‘Let’s find a way to support this.’ Tilson said. “This is coming from indigenous students, indigenous teachers and indigenous administrators who are trying to build that radical characteristic.”
Tilsen, a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, said there is another Indian school in Rapid City, SD, that he purchased 66 acres that he will use to expand the school and community living space.
Rocha said she wishes her grandmother was around to see what the school and the tribal nation had accomplished.
Today the band has between 150 and 200 members and Rocha is on the tribal council. Over the years, he said, he watched his grandmother’s work fade from Los Angeles County and state history. But the school has helped keep his grandmother’s legacy alive.
The late chief was part of a vocal group that protested when organizers of the Pasadena Rose Parade wanted to name a descendant of Christopher Columbus grand marshal. She and her husband, Manuel Rocha, also led the Spirit of the Sage Council, which fought to protect endangered species and habitats. And her worked to save the Ballona wetlands in the 1990s.
“My dad said that he really wishes my grandmother was here to see this just because, especially in Los Angeles County, there are no spaces dedicated to us,” Rocha said. “We always had to make our own spaces, whether it was our homes or community centers.
“People think the land belongs to us,” he said. “It is the complete opposite. We belong to the land and we want to return to the land.”
When Anahuacalmecac opened in 2002 in El Sereno, it was with the blessing of Ya’anna Rocha, who was a tribal chief at the time, Aguilar said. Since then, the school has grown modestly and now has 260 students on three campuses.
The school teaches a curriculum with a Nahuatl focus. Lessons are taught in English, Spanish, and Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs before the Spanish conquest of Mexico.
The school offers an “indigenous” curriculum with courses such as Global Indigenous Voices, Writing for Social Justice, and Leadership and Liberation.
Anahuacalmecac school leaders see the role of the institution as decolonizing education by teaching indigenous students to embrace their heritage. Doing that means centering indigenous voices and history, which have historically been left out of the origin stories of the Americas.
The Rochas are Gabrielino Shoshone, also known as Tongva people and native Californians, but Ya’anna Rocha also embraced indigenous immigrants from Mexico and Central America.
By naming the proposed center the Chief Ya’anna Learning Village, Aguilar said they would pay tribute to the indigenous leader who treated indigenous immigrants from Latin America like family. The grounds are also an extension of the school: students can connect directly with the environment by taking classes on the grounds.
The school plans to launch a fundraiser later this year to cover the costs of creating the learning village, including designing a cultural center and classrooms in the space.
“The way we think about it is, this is for the next 500 years, so the return to earth is all that comes back,” Aguilar said. “What we want to do first is to know what that land is like, how it feels, how life is lived there. …
“It’s completely different today than it looked like 100 years ago,” Aguilar said. “And so we want to understand that first.”
Axayacatzi Kuauhtzin, a 16-year-old junior at the school, said the space opens her imagination about what students can create for the indigenous people of Los Angeles. In October, an Altadena resident transferred a one-acre parcel to the Tongva people, the first land transfer for the indigenous community.
“I am so grateful to be able to have all these opportunities open to me, especially in Los Angeles, in such an urban area,” Axayacatzi said.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, the school was forced to teach remotely. Now, Aguilar said, school leaders feel they must help students reconnect with the land around them after returning from being home for so long.
“We felt that bringing the teachings down to earth and connecting our students to the land around us and around the county would be extremely important,” Aguilar said.
They expanded their partnership with the city’s Recreation and Parks Department to help maintain their Native American Terrace Garden and then led a reforestation effort with students, staff and the community, planting 300 plants and 500 trees.
Marye Chairez, a junior, said she is excited about using the land for future younger indigenous students, including her sister, who is in fourth grade.
“It’s about this connection and relationship with the language, the land,” said the 16-year-old. “And the town of Ya’anna will be a legacy of us, the young students, the young activists, who have been here in this school.”
Times staff researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.