Homestead Book Club Discussion on “Whitewashed Adobe” and Ethnicity and Race in Late 19th and Early 20th Century Los Angeles

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The Homestead Book Club wraps up its 2018 calendar this fall with a trio of books related to Los Angeles history.  Today’s discussion concerned William Deverell’s remarkable Whitewashed Adobe, which examined several ways in which ethnic groups and the past were manipulated by the dominant power blocs in the city and region.

The book looked at such elements as the 1850s and ethnic tensions that continued after the Mexican-American War of the prior decade; the creation of La Fiesta de Los Angeles by business leaders who used the pre-American past in superficial ways to promote the area; the use of Mexican labor through enterprises like the Simon brick yards; quarantines of ethnic communities during viral outbreaks; and the romanticizing of the Mexican and Spanish past through the popular Mission Play offered at San Gabriel from the early 1910s through the early 1930s.

This and the other examples here are from the Homestead’s collection, with this circa 1880s cabinet card titled “Mud House or ‘Dobe, Los Angeles,” and showing a deteriorating adobe residence, perhaps as documentation of a pre-American “relic.”

Rather than rehash the themes so interestingly and compellingly analyzed by Bill, I brought a handful of artifacts from the Homestead’s collection and talked about how they represented aspects of race and ethnicity over the period of 1830-1930 that the museum interprets.  As with prior discussions like this, the idea is to use the books discussed as a springboard for how the Homestead uses objects to interpret related topics.

For instance, I showed and discussed a cabinet card photograph, probably from the 1880s or perhaps the 1890s, titled “Mud House or ‘Dobe, Los Angeles.”  The term “mud house” might connote something primitive and unsophisticated, which much of pre-American Los Angeles was often described as being, and the term “Dobe” is almost a deliberate way of denigrating the word “adobe.”  Adobe houses were, naturally, fewer and farther between as the century came to a close than they were earlier and most of them were in various advanced stages of decay.  I wondered if the photo was taken as a documentary piece of evidence of a vanishing element of the city’s pre-American history.

An 1899 image taken by Frank L. Park shows a Chinese paper dragon paraded through the Chinatown, now the Union Station area, in Los Angeles.

Another example, there is an excellent 1899 photograph by Frank L. Park showing a Chinese paper dragon being paraded through the streets of Los Angeles’ Chinatown, which was then located in and near today’s Union Station.  The paper dragon was a regular feature of the parades of La Fiesta de Los Angeles, though that event happened in the business section of downtown, for obvious reasons, not in Chinatown.  Still, the image reflects the exotic nature of Chinatown with the photograph possibly produced and sold for the tourist trade, especially those visitors who came from other parts of the country where the Chinese did not live.

Latino labor has been a continual feature of the regional economy, with waves of migration generally being welcomed by businesses for low-wage work, while often being condemned by others for a variety of reasons, including competition for labor; perceived or real unsanitary conditions in barrios and other residential areas; claims of a lack of assimilation with “American culture,” whatever that means at a given time; and others.

A stereoscopic photograph in the museum’s holdings, which looks to have been taken as a snapshot, was labeled “Camp of ‘Cholos'” indicating these were itinerant or traveling  laborers, who set up tents on a hillside in which to live while engaged in work.  The term “cholo” has historically varied in meaning, sometimes meaning a mestizo, or someone with a mixture of Spanish and native indigenous (Indian) blood and, in urban areas, denoting a working-class Latino in the eyes of Anglos.  It seems almost certain the photo was taken and the labeling made by an Anglo describing working-class Mexicans.

A stereoscopic photograph from the early 20th century labeled “Camp of ‘Cholos'” and showing a grouping of tents on a hillside somewhere in Los Angeles.

The population of blacks in Los Angeles was, in comparison to Latino and Asian communities, quite small until after about 1915, but early arrivals included Lewis G. Green, profiled in this blog before, Robert Owens, Biddy Mason and the Embers and Pepper families.  Perhaps because of their small numbers, the early black community largely seems to have avoided the kinds of rampant and overt racism found elsewhere, though this is not to suggest that there was an absence of racial enmity.  In later years, however, as the Anglo population became larger, blacks were more frequently treated with more overt racism.

This included numerous reflections of stereotyping, caricatures through jokes and stories using “negro dialect” and cartoonish imagery, and, along with other ethnic and racial communities, the limiting of where they could live through “restrictive covenants.”  An image I brought this morning was a beautiful portrait, in a large format cabinet card portfolio that would have cost a significant sum, of a woman seated in a photo studio.  There is no identification, so there is no way to research who she was, but there is a dignity to the image that belies the stereotypes and caricatures that were commonly used in public settings (and examples of which we also have in the Homestead’s collection.)

A large-format cabinet card portfolio portrait of an unidentified woman, taken at the Adair Studio, Los Angeles, ca. 1920s.

Speaking of restrictive covenants, I also shared an example of a deed executed by Frank Woodley and A. Judson Sayre to Pearl Ten Eyck for a lot in the Silver Lake neighborhood in Los Angeles.  Dated Christmas Eve 1924, the document clearly stipulated:

no part of the real property hereby conveyed shall be sold or conveyed to, or used, or occupied by any person other than those of the Caucasian race.

This was standard language utilized on deeds throughout the region until such covenants were struck down nearly a quarter century later (though more covert ways of discrimination continued).  I pointed out that we have a highlighted artifact in the living room of La Casa Nueva, a house filled with romantic references to the Temple family and region’s Spanish and Mexican past, that echoes the sentiments in the deed.

A portion of a 24 December 1924 deed for property in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles with restrictive covenant wording that the property could only be sold, used or occupied by persons “of the Caucasian race.”

A circa 1928 brochure for Temple City, founded by Walter P. Temple earlier in the decade, clearly states that “only white people live here, white people of a desirable class.”  To juxtapose the pamphlet with stained glass windows at the other end of the room that depict Temple’s eldest surviving children, Thomas and Agnes, dressed in Mexican costume for the Mission San Gabriel fiesta held each September, commemorating the founding of the mission, is one way we discuss the Temple family’s shifting racial and ethnic identities.

Which leads to the last of the artifacts discussed this morning— a circa 1872 portrait by Valentine Wolfenstein of Los Angeles showing Walter’s older siblings, Francis and Lucinda.  What I talked about was that, although the children of Antonia Margarita Workman and F.P.F. Temple and their son Walter and his wife Laura Gonzalez were given names that reflected their American and English heritage like Thomas, Francis, William, John, David, Lucinda, Edgar and Agnes, they also were well steeped in their Latino heritage, as well.

A circa 1872 cabinet card portrait by Valentine Wolfenstein of siblings Lucinda Temple (1860-1928) and Francis W. Temple (1848-1888).

All the Temple children, in both generations, were fluent in Spanish and some of them were referred to with nicknames or variations like Pancho, Inez, or Tomás.  Many traveled or lived in Mexico and married Latinos.  Yet, almost all of them were educated in private schools in California and Massachusetts (one, William W. Temple, studied law at the Inns of Court in London) and some of them traveled to Temple and Workman home areas in Massachusetts and England, as well.

One way to describe them was that the Temples straddled two worlds, sometimes standing more in one than the other and, on occasion, moving between them as the occasion suited.  A walk through La Casa Nueva, with its many references to England, Massachusetts, Spain and Mexico and its exuberant celebration of a romantic pre-American California, is a striking visual and three-dimensional way to see how fluid ethnic identity can be in a private space contrasted to public roles.


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