by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Olvera Street, the short lane running north from the Plaza, the historic center of Los Angeles, is a remarkable phenomenon of contested history. While created (as distinct from “restored”) as a purported monument to pre-American California and also positioned as a major tourist attraction with a variety of shops and restaurants with Mexican themes, the former Wine Street was also home to other ethnic groups, including Italians, whose contributions have, as of late, been more recognized and highlighted.
Yet, the idea of a “Mexican” identity is one that can be challenged, given that so many of the residents of early Los Angeles identified as Californio, a distinct conception from Mexican, largely because of the isolation and neglect of what has been called “the Siberia of Mexico.” Alta California was, in its far northwestern hinterlands of the Republic of Mexico, underfunded, sparsely populated, and understaffed militarily. The Spanish-speaking Californios far more often than not had to shift and fend for themselves.
Moreover, as efforts were launched in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to preserve and restore relics of pre-American greater Los Angeles, it was quite often common to find references to the “Spanish” residents of early California. It seems clear that this gave a European cast to the Californios, quite different and distinct from that of “Mexican.”
When it came to work with the missions, it has to be reiterated, the focus was on the “Spanish” missionaries and the heroic work they conducted to spread Christianity and civilization to the “heathen” native peoples, who were usually presented as two-dimensional caricatures and their side of the story almost never touched upon in any more than the most shallow portrayals.
As for the Californios, the stories that were told were almost as exclusively about the upper-class gente de razón (literally, “people of reason”), who were increasingly represented as the aristocracy of pre-American California. Never mind that almost none of these people were actually from Spain and that most were from the farming and laboring classes of the poor, rural states of northern Mexico like Sonora and Sinaloa. Los Angeles’ forty-four founding pobladores were among these and there was quite a mix of “castes” in the first families, including those with Indian and black ancestry.
A great number of them were soldiers who joined the Spanish and Mexican armies to seek opportunities for betterment, especially if they could retire and then receive a land grant for a rancho on which to raise cattle. One problem there was that the missions, designed to exist for just ten years (during which they would completely Christianize and civilize the indigenous people and turn them into Mexican farmers and artisans), lasted for over sixty and controlled most of the usable land in the narrow settled coastal strip of California.
After secularization took place in the 1830s, however, many Californios did, in fact, get land grants, just in time for the acceleration and expansion of the hide-and-tallow trade that made the raw products of cattle hides and fat more valuable and, consequently, provided some significant economic opportunity for the newly minted rancheros.
But, for every Sepulveda, Dominguez, Lopez, Pico, Machado or Avila that experienced a rise in prosperity in status in Spanish and, especially, Mexican California, there were dozens or hundreds of laborers and artisans, many of whom were more recent migrants from Mexico to greater Los Angeles, who did not share in the prosperity of the new aristocracy.
Class differences among the Spanish-speaking residents of the region, whether Californio or Mexican (“Sonoran” was a term generally used for the working-class Mexicans of the area), were generally overlooked or downplayed by those who were remaking the pre-American history of California in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Additionally, those engaged in this work were almost completely Americans or Europeans who were in the upper classes of their broad ethnic group. A good many of these did not come to Los Angeles with wealth or an exalted class status, as quite a few were artisans, laborers and farmers who, if hard work and circumstance were favorable, rose to be the new aristocracy of Los Angeles and the replacements by whatever means, in some ways, of the Californio aristocrats.
The preceding doesn’t attempt to be comprehensive in its analysis of the transition from pre-American to American California, but points out some of the prominent features of the transition. It, hopefully, provides some illumination for tonight’s featured artifact, the August 1929 edition of the magazine Southern California Business, and, in particular, an article titled “Bringing Back Our Yesterdays,” focusing on the “restoration” of Olvera Street.
The intended audience for the publication seems obvious–business owners and leaders and representatives of Los Angeles’ new aristocracy. It seems equally clear that the promotion of the remaking of Olvera Street was a way for the business community to congratulate itself on its philanthropy and its attention to history, however that might be manifested in the project.
It was “through the financial support of a small group of public spirited citizens [note the differentiation from “powerful business leaders”]” that the Avila Adobe was being restored. Tellingly, the significance of the building was not in its builders and owners, part of that Mexican-era aristocracy. Rather, the importance resided (!) in the fact that it was commandeered by the conquering American military and the adobe is where “Commodore R.F. Stockton made his headquarters after the seizure of the city.”
That, incidentally, took place on 9 January 1847, several days after William Workman met with Stockton at Mission San Juan Capistrano to arrange an amnesty for Californios defending the pueblo against the invaders. The following morning, Workman and two others brought out a white flag of truce as Stockton and his forces entered the city and the Commodore, apparently, selected the Avila as his headquarters.
The article did also mention that near the Avila Adobe was “the first brick building erected in the city which once housed the Pelanconi winery” and it too was being restored. Actually, there were earlier brick buildings in Los Angeles, though the Pelanconi (discussed in a recent post here about the 1924 journal entries of Thomas W. Temple II) is among the oldest.
Also highlighted in the piece was the fact that
In the rush that has marked the growth and development of Los Angeles during the past twenty-five years, business men and the city generally, have forgotten the preservation or the restoration of many things which deal with our background. True, the interest of a few small groups has brought to light an invaluable collection of mementoes [sic] preserved in our two museums [the Southwest Museum and the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art—now the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County] and small monuments and bronze plaques have been placed on historically consecrated ground. But much has yet to be done. All of the historic spots have not been marked nor all the mementoes collected.
It could be said that the process referred to in this interesting paragraph goes back far earlier than 1904 and, at least, to the Boom of late 1880s, if not another fifteen or twenty years beyond that. For that matter, the relentless push of “progress” later, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, caused more wholesale destruction of historic areas of greater Los Angeles and a preservation movement taking hold by the late Sixties and maturing and developing since has done much to save what has been left. Even in the remarkable transformation of downtown Los Angeles in recent years, more attention is paid to historic structures and elements even as some of these have been lost.
There is also reference in the piece to “many writers who . . . have decried our lack of background and ‘culture of the kind that comes from old associations.'” There is something to this as many new settlers of the region came from the Midwest, East Coast or South where history, especially that linked to England, became a national obsession and point of pride, as well as an answer to Europeans who “decried [an American] lack of background.”
So, it seems obvious that the efforts mounted to preserve and restore pre-American Los Angeles area history were intended to blunt those critiques. It was often observed that the earliest California missions were founded before the American revolution erupted or that Los Angeles was founded the year the upstart Americans defeated the British at Yorktown. The unaccredited writer added “the fault is ours, in that too few, to date, have paid attention to the romance and glamour which surrounds the city’s beginnings.”
There, too, are some key words: “romance” and “glamour.” Repeatedly, Anglos wrote and talked of the “romance” of Spanish and Mexican California and focused on beautiful señoritas, dashing caballeros, fiestas with music and dancing and like. It is hard to know where the glamour came in, as Los Angeles was a remote outpost with few resources and little growth for decades after its founding.
Notably, many early American visitors and settlers made a blunt, brusque point of denigrating the Californios and the “dusty, sleepy” pueblo that seemed to be devoid of industry, enterprise and innovation. Yet, once the conquest of Los Angeles was complete, meaning the remaking of the city into a modern American metropolis, it became permissible to look back to that “romantic” and “glamorous” past, which after all, did not exist as advertised.
It was also notable that reference was made to how the current Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce president, Shannon Crandall, likened the work at the Plaza and Olvera Street to “the work done by the Virginia Historical Society,” in restoring old homes and structures to make the state “a world famed attraction to students and travelers.”
Discussion in the article included how Christine Sterling, a native of Northern California and a lover of the state’s history, leased the Avila Adobe in January 1929 on hearing that it faced demolition from an oil company considering buying the decaying structure. With the help of powerful figures like Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler, Pacific Electric Railway president D.W. Pontius and organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and others, Sterling quickly built a movement and the Plaza de Los Angeles corporation was launched.
City and county officials also joined the project “with the result that the City Council has now pledged its support.” Los Angeles Police Department Chief James Davis utilized labor “from the ranks of misdemeanor criminals serving sentence” to work on improving Olvera Street, which was recently closed to the public and which “will shortly be completed with pavement composed of padre tile.” The Park Department was working on “appropriate landscaping,” as well.
Owners of the buildings along the street were encouraged to improve their properties “to harmonize with the general setting and to assist in creating a street that will become a world famous spot and an attraction to both residents and visitors alike.”
On 4 September, a fiesta was to be held in commemoration of what was accepted as the city’s birthday. In 1931, for the fiesta held to mark the sesquicentennial of the founding of Los Angeles, Thomas W. Temple II did considerable research in early documents to substantiate this claim of the 4th as the city’s date of birth, though others have since questioned the accuracy of that assertion. It was anticipated that Olvera Street and the Plaza generally would host such events for years to come.
The author believed that the work at Olvera Street would still “the jibes of the hacks who have reviled our fair Lady of the Angels.” Working up quite a lather, the writer claimed
the shades of those rugged dragoons of General Kearny who bled from the wounds of Andre[s] Pico’s lancers, have arisen in righteous wrath over the pen workings of these writers who appear not to know that these colorful soldiers even existed. The spirit of Doña Incarnacion [Encarnación] Abila beckons them to the old home with its hand-beaded beams . . . those unbelievers who say we are “lacking in historical background.”
The article ended with the assertion that future visitors would go to Olvera Street and see “bronze-skinned descendants of the first settlers of one hundred sixty years ago, gay with Spanish music and dancing, and fragrant of an atmosphere rich in history, romance and the glamour which still brings thousands flocking to our gates each year.”
Olvera Street opened in its reimagined state eight months later, on 20 April 1930. Just two months or so after the article appeared, the crash of the stock market in New York ushered in the Great Depression, so the presumed success of the project was tempered by the economic malaise that followed.
Still, Olvera Street has survived and still draws many to its narrow “padre tile” corridor, packed with market stalls, lined with restaurants and shops and, in recent years, new features like the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles and the restored mural, America Tropical, painted by Mexican artist David Alfaro Siquieros for the 1932 Olympics and soon whitewashed by city leaders because of its passionate critique of American imperialism. As the project approached its centennial, it will be interesting to see how it evolves and develops.