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Happy Birthday, El Cajon

The children waited patiently for the recreation leader to announce the next activity. He pulled out two brightly colored, round parachutes. Once untied, each one billowed, revealing colors of red, green, yellow and blue. There were not enough handles on the parachutes for every child, but that didn’t matter. They listened carefully to the leader’s instructions. It was apparent in their faces of anticipation that they all knew exactly what to do.

“One … two … three!” The children raised their hands up and down, all at different speeds at first. Their smiles widened and their parents watched with delight as they worked together to make the parachute smoothly wave.

Consuela Steward

Children circle around the colorful parachute at the City of El Cajon's birthday event.

These children were among the hundreds of families who came together last month to celebrate the City of El Cajon’s birthday. And it was a major one, too—El Cajon turned 100.

It’s hard to believe that just a century ago the city had a population of approximately 200 people. Today, the city’s population tops 100,000. So, it’s no wonder the city’s seal is the “Valley of Opportunity” – which is the theme of the centennial celebration. Early settlers, as well as today’s immigrant populations, have seen El Cajon as a place of abundant possibilities, from its fertile agricultural lands to its quaint community, which boasts a growing population to accommodate all types of businesses.

Like any city, El Cajon has seen an array of change in a short time. But, what’s most fascinating, is the diversity that exists in El Cajon, which is evident in the faces of the children who worked to make the parachute wave. They were all from different backgrounds, serving as a reflection of the city’s population at large.

The diversity of El Cajon – and East County as a whole – is being showcased in a very unique way. A collection of stories, poems, and photographs of East County residents is being captured by The Far East Project, "a people's history of San Diego's East County" as stated on the Project’s website.

Justin Hudnall, project director of The Far East Project, spoke on Midday Edition last week to discuss the Project’s book “The Far East: Everything Just As It Is.” In his interview, he noted something I’ve noticed after moving to El Cajon three years ago; “East County has always been a home for immigrants.”

Hudnall went on to mention the influx of different immigrant communities over time, including the southeast Asian refugees in the 1970s, and, more recently, the Chaldean community – people of Middle Eastern origin who practice Catholicism or Christianity and, because of this, are ostracized in their countries of origin. El Cajon is home to the second largest Chaldean community in the country.

The fact that El Cajon has remained so diverse is extraordinary, and certainly worth celebrating.

Monica Zech, the Public Information Office for the City of El Cajon and part of the planning committee, said preparing for the centennial was a two-year effort – though she joked it’s been a hundred years in the planning. One of the goals for the centennial is to honor the history and culture of El Cajon and build a sense of shared tradition and pride.

Building interest in the history of El Cajon has been rather easy, thanks to the Knox Museum, which is home to the El Cajon Historical Society. Also instrumental to engaging the community on its history is the widely popular Centennial Lecture Series, which will continue in January 2013. The series offers a historical look at different aspects of El Cajon. Lecturers include a Kumeyaay tribe member, a cowboy/cultural anthropologist, and a Pacific Southwest Railroad historian.

Zech noted that the main goal of the centennial is for El Cajon residents, and residents in surrounding regions, to recognize how far El Cajon has come.

“Celebrating who we are, who we were and where we’re going in the future, and celebrating those people who made that possible, and really just showcasing El Cajon,” Zech said, is what the City hopes to accomplish. “We’ve come a long way, we’ve made a lot of changes in the last 10 years, but especially in the last five years, and we want people to be proud of that and to celebrate our region.”

As the year progresses, more events will be posted to the centennial’s website, but the city is encouraging civic engagement and ethnic groups to host celebratory events and highlight the unique people who have helped El Cajon thrive.

Meanwhile, plans are in the works for the next city-wide celebration, on November 12, 2013, which will conclude the centennial festivities, and mark the beginning of the next 100 years of history.

Consuela Steward is the Executive Assistant at KPBS, and a guest blogger for "Hey, Neighbor."