CELEBRATING CULTURE & COMMUNITY'S HISTORY PROJECT: Vera Shadi
Celebrating Culture & Community is putting together interviews of 25
El Cerrito residents, a project aimed at showing the diverse communities that
have contributed to the city's history.
The interviews have been made possible largely through support from the
California Council for the Humanities, a state affiliate of the National Endowment
for the Humanities.
For more information about Celebrating Culture & Community , contact
Eve Ma at 236-3255 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Following is one of the interviews:
Interview with Vera Shadi, 11/13/99
Interviewer: Robin DeLugan
Vera Shadi was born in El Cerrito in 1944. At the age of 19 she left
to explore other parts of the country, but she returned to El Cerrito
in 1997. She is now a realtor, a musician--a composer of classical music,
and a substitute teacher. She is also working on renewing her teaching
The El Cerrito of Vera's childhood was very different than today. She
notes in particular that everywhere there were unobstructed panoramic
views of Oakland, San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin. There
were few trees, and the trees that did exist 50 years ago were small.
The wind would come off of the Bay and make the air so fresh. There was
an openness to El Cerrito that no longer exists now that non-native trees
have grown so tall as to dwarf houses and block views.
Vera characterizes El Cerrito as always being of three blended economic
classes from middle to upper middle. But today she says that the spread
is much wider, that there is much more diversity now all around.
El Cerrito is a "city of homes" more than it is known for having a business
life. She says that the importance of El Cerrito to the Bay Area is its
proximity to San Francisco. For this reason, the property values will
always be high.
Vera shops in El Cerrito whenever possible. For relaxation she likes
to go to the countryside and to visit valley towns like Tracy. For socializing
Vera spends her time in El Cerrito and in San Francisco.
There is no city, nor any place in El Cerrito where Vera doesn't feel
She jokes "Realtors go everywhere!"
Vera thinks that El Cerrito has an identity of "City of Homes" and that
it is trying to look outside for its future identity, i.e. drawing a major
chain store to the Plaza. Instead Vera suggests that El Cerrito looks
to its own history and unique beauty and expand the city's identity to
"City of Homes, Views, and Flowers". By promoting and turning attention
towards restoring the natural beauty of the area, El Cerrito could forge
a truly unique identity.
What Vera likes best about El Cerrito is the weather, the views of San
Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge, and that it is mostly comprised
of homes, wonderful homes.
What she likes least: Trees blocking the views, especially the non-native
With a magic wand, Vera would knock all of the big trees down and restore
Vera while definitely aware of her Indian cultural history identifies
as an American, "an American with a twist".
Vera's mother was from Los Angeles, California and her father was from
India. Her father, Sundar Shadi, was one of the first non-European immigrants
to the area. He immigrated by boat at the age of 21. He received agricultural
degrees at the University of California: Berkeley. He and Vera's mother
built their house on the Arlington in 1937.
Vera and her two sisters were some of the first ethnically mixed children
in El Cerrito (or as she refers to it: "American with a twist"). She says
that because of discrimination her father found it difficult to secure
work. She also remembers that because of her darker coloring, people treated
her differently and that she sometimes felt like she didn't fit in. Her
father was of the Sikh community in India, but Vera says that there was
only a very small number of Sikhs in the Bay area when she was growing
up. She jokes that sometimes all of them would be in her family's home
at the same time, and that they would all fit into a single room.
The most memorable people in Vera's childhood were her parents. Her father,
in particular, became well known for two of his creative ventures. He
set up an elaborate Christmas display every year to which people came
from all over to visit. When asked how he got started, Vera quips…"My
mother tried to give him something to do, to get him out of the house."
It all started with her mother's suggestion that they put up a large star
visible from San Pablo Avenue, so that people could "follow the star"
(just as the Wise Men did in the biblical story). After that they decided
that they needed Wise Men, sheep, and soon the whole town of Bethlehem!"
Every year, little by little, the Christmas display grew. On Christmas
Eve in 1984, ABC's World News Tonight did a feature about the Christmas
display. At the age of 97 her father finally stopped putting up his annual
display. While the community loved the display, while growing up, Vera
and her sisters felt embarrassed by the elaborate display that her parents
put up every year.
Beginning in 1950, Vera's father began growing a garden of flowers on
his Arlington Street property. Every year it grew larger and more beautiful,
attracting attention and visitors (even tour buses) from all around. I
asked what motivated him. She said that "He was a farmer in India and
was still a farmer at heart. He came from the poorest of countries and
because he was so grateful to be in this country, he wanted to make a
beautiful spot!" Because of his advanced age, he no longer maintains the
flower garden. Vera does have some beautiful photographs of the garden
and of her father in the garden.
Sundar Shadi was also involved in community events. For approximately
22 years in the 1950's - 1970's he was chair and organizer of an annual
United Nation's Day Celebration.
In the programs for this celebration music and dance traditions from
nation's around the world were showcased. Vera showed me a program from
1976 United Nation's Day Celebration which was held at Harding School.
CELEBRATING CULTURE & COMMUNITY (CC&C)
1900 International MarketPlace, San Pablo, CA., 94806
(510) 236-3255; fax (510) 236-3068
Run dates: 2000-01-01 - 2000-02-01