When my husband and his brothers share childhood memories of visiting their grandmother in San Gabriel, they often mention “Monster Park,” which was within walking distance of her house. This affectionate nickname refers to La Laguna de San Gabriel (the San Gabriel Lagoon), located in Vincent Lugo Park, where the so-called monsters are large play sculptures of an octopus called Ozzie, a whale known as Minnie, and a starfish named Stella, among other smiling sea creatures.
Vincent Lugo, whose family papers are at The Huntington, helped build the park in 1965, when he was the park supervisor of San Gabriel. The area was originally a landfill, housing the concrete and rubble from the construction of the San Bernardino Freeway. In an effort to transform the landfill into a park that would serve the community, Lugo worked tirelessly to plant trees and shrubs, add a baseball field and picnic area, and create a space for children—the beloved La Laguna playground.
Lugo was instrumental in the playground’s design, including the monsters, which were created by Benjamin Dominguez, a Mexican artist who did not read or speak English. Lugo helped Dominguez present his ideas to the city, which wanted to “create an unusual atmosphere not found in most parks.” The playground was designed to be an open space where the play structures—made of steel and colored concrete—would encourage children to explore and use their imagination.
Vincent Lugo’s family has a long history with San Gabriel. Lugo’s great-great-grandfather, Francisco Lugo, was a Spanish soldier who helped Father Junipero Serra found the San Gabriel Mission in the 1700s. Vincent dedicated his life to the city, where he worked for nearly 30 years. Lugo started his career as a groundskeeper in 1952, the only staff member in San Gabriel’s parks and recreation department. He steadily rose up to become the lead man, then foreman, and finally park supervisor. “It’s been an inspiring job and a great city to work for,” Lugo said when he retired in 1978. “When you’re working for the city, you’re working for the general public. It’s been demanding work, but it’s also been pleasant.” Even after he retired, Lugo continued to be active in the community, receiving San Gabriel’s Outstanding Older American Award in 1987.
When Lugo died in 1988, his wife, Rosita, started a petition to rename San Gabriel Municipal Park after her husband. Residents also wrote letters to the city council, describing Lugo’s “devotion” and “care and concern” for San Gabriel. In one letter, a resident wrote: “Because of Vince’s constant work for, and interest in, the young people of our community, we have such valuable assets as the Laguna park.” Later that year, the city council voted unanimously to rename the park after him. Bob Harris, San Gabriel’s then-assistant director of parks and recreation, remembered Lugo’s work to transform the city’s landfill into a park: “He was the one who made it something we could use.”
In 2006, however, part of Lugo’s legacy was at risk: The monsters of La Laguna were slated for demolition because the play structures didn’t meet current safety standards, and it was too expensive to retrofit them. In response, the community rallied to save the iconic playground, forming the nonprofit Friends of La Laguna. The rallies and petition drive paid off: The city of San Gabriel entered a memorandum of understanding with the organization to preserve and protect the playground.
In 2017, La Laguna de San Gabriel was added to the National Register of Historic Places, which is part of a nationwide program to identify, evaluate, and protect places that are worthy of preservation. The register describes the park as a “testament to the broad and continuing pattern of immigrant and minority communities and the contributions they make to the broader community.”
When Lugo was honored in 1987 for his civic service, Janis Cohen, the then-mayor of San Gabriel, told the audience: “Vince always said, ‘Yes, I’ll help,’ whenever anyone has needed him.” Just as Lugo always worked to help the city that he loved, the community of San Gabriel, in turn, came together to help save La Laguna, preserving his legacy and Dominguez’s monsters.