Adios, Pio Pico: Doors Close on California Historic Park

When I pull up in front of Pi­o Pico State Historic Park — the eponymous home of the famed Californio and two-time governor of Mexican California — a tan, wooden gate yawns open, practically begging me to enter. It's not a standing invitation. If all goes as planned per Governor Schwarzenegger's proposed budget for next year, this park will be closed, along with Topanga State Park, Los Encinos State Historical Park in Encino, Will Rogers' estate and — in a move certain to alienate the governor's psychotic-drifter constituency — the former site of the Spahn Ranch, Santa Susana Pass. I'm told these are necessary sacrifices to help stave off a $14 billion deficit. Knowing this might be my last chance for a while, I pass through the gate.

As I walk toward "el Ranchito," as the governor's home was known, I see a short, stout dama rushing to the house in full period costume: black fringed dress, aqua-blue blouse and a velvet choker. I wonder if today is some holiday I don't know about.

Alfonzo, the park ranger, welcomes me into the comfortable sterility of the hacienda's restored interior. A seasonal, his time is almost up anyway, so he offers a smile and a shrug when I ask about the park's potential omega-moment.

The dama hears our conversation and descends upon us. She flicks on a boom box and traditional mariachi music floods the building. Her name tag says "Kathy" — but I soon learn she's DoctorKathleen Rabago of the Friends of Pio Pico, the volunteer docents in charge of showing off this place. She explains to me how the "enchantment" of this park so captivated her as a teen that she could hardly wait to volunteer. She tells me that when the parks department closed the hacienda for two months last year prior to hiring a full-time employee per state ordinances, she cried for three days straight.

Dr. Rabago clutches my arm. With Alfonzo mutely trailing behind her, she whisks me off into the eastern yard, breathlessly reciting the park's history: Here's where the orange groves were planted. This is where the 1883 flood took out a good chunk of the house. Walking toward a squaturnobuilt on the property in 1968, she says, "This is where I bake bread on our history-day special occasions. And whenever we have fiestas or history days, I try to make jams with fruits and stuff that come from our garden, too. We make quince jam. I make lemon jam, and I've made pomegranate jelly. When we have our history days, huh, Alfonzo? We're always baking!"

Alfonzo grunts an affirmation.

As the tour continues, Dr. Rabago points out many of the park's features. The sepia-tinged mural wall and the children's sand pit are recent additions bequeathed by the state, part of a $5 million grant, and were just finished four years ago. Rabago recognizes the irony.

"About 10 years ago, we passed a green bond to fix the parks. So $5 million out of that billion-dollar green fund was taken out to fix this [park]," she says. "And then they did Will Rogers after that, and then they did Los Encinos, which are also on the hit list. So it's, like, crazy. You spend $5 million to fix the park and then close it."

We move into the garden, where the doctor tells me about the park's reenactment days, on which docents and hired actors dress up as Pio Pico and Juan Alvarado. Rabago makes her own costumes for these events, having cut her teeth as a Ren-Faire devotee years ago. Her dream, she reveals to me, is to turn this park into a "Williamsburg of the West," where impeccably uniformed and informed docents invoke the spirits of prestatehood California. (She tells me I'd make a good John C. Fremont.)

A few days before my visit, the California State Parks Reserve, an environmental lobbying group in Sacramento, held a conference call with docents representing many of the 48 state parks on the guv's hit list to discuss strategies to avert the closures. Dr. Rabago has been through the drill before and sounds a bit resigned when saying, "These docents have never been politically active. What do we do — stand in front of Los Encinos with a sign saying 'Homeless Docents'"

Rabago is more overtly frustrated with the Whittier community. "There's no leadership here in this community about this place. They [either] don't know about it or [feel] this is a park they came to when they were in the fourth grade."

Rabago sees me out like a guest, solemnly acknowledging the ongoing need to defend this homestead. "A lot of other adobes, like Dominguez Rancho, Cerritos or Los Alamitos are either city adobes or privately owned," she says. "But this one was given to the state, so it becomes a victim of state politics." And with that, she rushes back into the house, to Tio Pio's warm embrace.


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