Connecting Visitors to Family History through Homestead Artifacts

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Today was another one of those fulfilling days when we at the Homestead were able to help visitors make a direct connection to their family history through an artifact in the museum’s collection.

In 2014, the institution acquired a set of photographs that included many cabinet card portraits of members of the Temple family, specifically that of Homestead owner John H. Temple, his wife Anita Davoust, members of her family and friends.

One of the photos in the group was of a teenage girl, taken about the mid-1870s by prominent early Los Angeles photographer Valentine Wolfenstein.  The reverse of the card had the names Elena Mancera and Elena Pellon and an inscription in Spanish was dedicated to her friend, Concepción Orfila, whose family was connected through the Temples by marriage into the Davoust family.


A little poking around on the internet at the time found a book written about Latino theater in the southwestern United States up to 1940, including a reference that young Elena, in her mid-teens, was a dancer for a theatrical troupe led by José Pérez García that performed in northern Mexico, southern Arizona and, in 1876, in Los Angeles at the Merced Theater, which building still stands next to the Pico House hotel.

Checking census records, it was noted that, by 1880, Elena had married one of her co-stars in the troupe, Pedro Pellon, and settled in Tucson, where she raised a large family and lived until her death in 1928.  This was duly noted on the catalog record for the photograph in our artifact database.

Then, last year, I was contacted by Ruth Ann Grace, a Tucson native and Phoenix relative, who expressed astonishment that, after she had conducted a great deal of research on Elena, who was the great-grandmother of Ruth Ann’s huband, John, for an article and other writings about her, a photograph of her that she and John had not seen before was in the Homestead’s collection.

The reverse of the Mancera portrait contains the printed identification of photographer Valentine Wolfenstein, who had his studio in the Temple Block, owned by F.P.F. Temple, and inscriptions of her maiden and married names.  A short dedication reads “To Miss Concepcion Orfila / on the night of her benefit [a laudatory event–perhaps for Orfila’s own theatrical performance] / Sincerely Yours  / Elena Mancera.”

Ruth Ann noted that the Garcia theatrical troupe not only included Elena and future husband Pedro, but featured Elena’s mother Jesús Teran and half-sister Dolores Rodriguez.  Elena received particular attention in newspaper articles for the elegance and quality of her dancing, though her public career was short-lived because of her marriage and commitment to raising a family.

After sending me some of that additional information, including her very interesting article, Ruth Ann and John came out to the museum today, took a tour with me, and then saw and took photos of the image.  It was really gratifying to see how excited the couple was about the photo, as well as their interest in the Homestead, its historic houses, and the history of the Workman and Temple families.

As I explained to Ruth Ann and John, this kind of connection people find through Homestead artifacts to their family history is something we’ve experienced a number of times, including a couple of examples recently.  One of these was covered here in this blog a couple of months back concerning Daniel Espeseth’s research into his Lugo family history.  Just a week or so ago, I sent a scan of a circa 1910 portrait of Raymond Serrano to his grand-nephew, who lives on the East Coast.

These kinds of particularly deep and meaningful personal connections that are made through museum objects are easily among the most gratifying aspects of what we do at the Homestead.  It makes the past more tangible to the present and, in Elena Mancera’s case, takes in an element of Latino theatrical history that adds to the story.

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