by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as America’s ascendance towards economic might and dominance rapidly continued, fueling an immense need for cheap labor was an extraordinary influx of immigrants, including Asians, Europeans and Latinos. While blue-collar workers were badly desired by the business community, many elements of society expressed concern and, in many cases, disdain over the ethnicity and class of many of the incoming migrants.
By the 1920s, amid a rising tide of conservatism and anti-communism, the nation’s first laws were passed to stem the tide of immigration through highly restrictive quotas, though the long and open border from Mexico posed another problem that remains a highly contentious issue a century later.
Many large American cities had “ghettos” that included often-defined sections inhabited largely by working-class ethnic groups, including southern and eastern Europeans, while, on the west coast primarily, “Chinatowns” were also prominent features. Late in the 19th century, some efforts were made by people like Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr to assist immigrants and working-class people in a field that became known as “social work.”
Adams and Starr created Hull House in Chicago in 1889 and, within a few years, other “settlement houses” arose in metropolises throughout the country to assist with the “settlement” of immigrants in these communities. Much of this work involved “Americanization” efforts that tied into the growing sense of exceptionalism that many Americans felt.
Classes, instruction, clubs, sports teams, musical ensembles and other elements were involved, with the providers being largely white middle and upper class women and the clientele almost exclusively working-class women from an often wide variety of ethnic backgrounds.
By modern standards, the attitude and methods utilized by settlement houses are overly paternalistic and problematic in the strict emphasis on clients becoming “American” and encouraged to forego or downplay cultural and social behaviors and traditions of their home countries.
Yet, it is true that the intentions of a great many social workers in these institutions were well-intended, especially at a time when the attitudes and behaviors of many in society broadly was openly hostile and contemptuous of recent immigrants and people of color.
In Los Angeles, the early settlement houses were usually organized under the auspices of religious organizations, principally Methodist and Roman Catholic. One example is Brownson House, organized in 1901 with Mary Julia Workman, a grand-niece of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman, as a principal figure.
A few years prior, in 1897, the first settlement house in the City of Angels, El Hogar Feliz (The Happy Home) was opened by Catholic women in the Sonoratown area, predominantly occupied by Latinos. The institution existed for over twenty years providing the kinds of services mentioned above before it was decided to replace it with another facility, overseen by the Bureau of Catholic Charities, run by Reverend William Corr under the general oversight of the ambitious and powerful Bishop John J. Cantwell.
The new facility was dubbed The Santa Rita Settlement and a $15,000 building was constructed on the site of the El Hogar Feliz and opened on this date in 1920. Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the museum’s collection is a pamphlet for the new institution, dates from about early the following year.
In his short foreword, Rev. Corr stated that by “joining Religious, Educational, Social and Charitable Activities, Santa Rita has assumed a very important place in this community.” He added that “the poor of the City, seeking help, education, recreation, advice and protection, flock to it by hundreds.” With Santa Rita considered a model settlement house, Corr hoped that the publication would “influence those interested in true Americanization work to visit the Settlement and study more intimately its work.”
At the 22 February 1920 opening, Bishop Cantwell blessed the building with Mayor Meredith P. Snyder in attendance along “with others prominent in civic affairs.” Five days prior, the Los Angeles Times quoted Thomas D. Ferguson, who oversaw construction of the new structure, as stating, “this is probably the largest building of its kind in Los Angeles to have been made of plaster-board” before he went on to note that “it is to be a real home for the young men and women and children of this community, especially for Mexicans and those of foreign birth or education.”
An auditorium with a capacity of 500 could be expanded for 40% more people with the opening of adjacent wings and it included a stage and motion picture projector. Ferguson added that Corr hoped to build several more like Santa Rita, including on the East Side in Boyle Heights. Ferguson observed that “immigrant welfare work in Los Angeles is yearly becoming a stupendous problem, particularly in regard to adolescents.”
The pamphlet added that “according to a recent survey of the district in which the Center is located, about 89 per cent of the families are Mexicans, and only 2 per cent Americans. The majority of the remaining 9 per cent are Italians,” while other ethnic groups included other Europeans as well as Cubans, Armenians (the genocide conducted by Turkey took place just before this period), and Arabians.
It noted that “the housing conditions of the immediate neighborhood are very poor. While here and there are neat cottages, the houses in many cases are mere shacks, or the remains of what were once good dwellings.” Many residences were overcrowded with “whole families of as many as eight members sometimes living in one or two rooms, most of them sleeping on the floor.” The publication asked, “is it any wonder that there are serious problems of sickness and delinquency in a community when such conditions as these exist?”
In a description of the structure, it was particularly pointed out that a life-sized statue of St. Rita (Margherita Rotti, an Italian widow and nun who died in 1457 and was canonized in 1900) was placed in front “to show the Mexican or Italian . . . there here he will find a welcome and a helping hand extended to him from members of his own faith.” The redwood structure included, in addition to the auditorium, offices, meeting rooms, a medical clinic, bathrooms with showers and a resident caretakers quarters. The El Hogar Feliz building was retained for the medical facility.
The clinic was described as being available for “the sick and needy from all over Los Angeles . . . regardless of race or creed,” not just from the immediate vicinity. Referrals came from city nursing staff, county officials, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, and others. When children were sent to orphanages and others facilities through the Bureau of Catholic Charities, they were examined, physically and mentally, at the clinic.
Mondays and Tuesdays were set aside for the main work of the medical staff and it was reported that the sixty-person waiting room was often overflowing with many waiting outside when the doors opened at 9 a.m. An example was given of “a young Mexican woman with a baby in her arms and another child, just able to walk, hanging to her skirts” and how she was spoken to in Spanish by staff as she explained she suffered from dolor de cabeza, or a strong headache.
A speaking tube connecting the office to the clinic allowed for the calling of patients back to the latter and “the little Mexican mother breathes a sigh of relief as she is told that she may go and see the good doctor.” Other examples given are a pair of twins from an “Orphan Asylum,” probably the county facility in Boyle Heights, and a teenage girl from Juvenile Hall.
A friendly freckle-faced boy named Jimmy, who may have had a cold, was quoted as saying that he wasn’t afraid, even as his father had recently died and his mother toiled at a laundry to provide for her children. It turned out that Jimmy needed his tonsils removed and was instructed to tell his mother he needed to return on a Wednesday for the procedure.
Fees were 25 cents for the first visit and 10 cents for each one afterward and a good deal of statistical information was provided in the pamphlet about the clinic’s services during the last half of 1920. There were over 5,400 examinations and just about 4,000 treatments, including almost 60 operations.
In the dental division, there were almost 600 exams and nearly 350 treatments, including 260 extractions. Most of the lab work involved “throat cultures”, with x-rays, diphtheria immunizations, urinalysis, smears and other work also conducted.
Nurses made over 2,500 visits to residences, institutions, health department offices, and agencies and provided well over 100,000 treatments such as medication, tonics, dressings, skin and scalp treatments, and more, with almost 2,300 instances of “general work” including diet advice, instruction in hygienic practice, pre-natal recommendations, and “correction of sanitary conditions” among the items. A list of doctors, nurses, volunteers and others involved was also printed.
As for the settlement portion, information was provided on the goal of providing
the foreign population of the neighborhood opportunities for the better appreciation and practice of their religion, to help them fulfill their desires for self-improvement, to furnish them with the means for wholesome recreation, to hold up to them the best American standards of living, [and] to be truly their friend in time of trial and sorrow.
Adults and youth baseball teams, a proposed basketball team, a “Santa Rita Social Club,” mainly “composed of young Mexican men;” plans for a Holy Name Society, and an orchestra were listed for males. For females, there was a choir, a home nursing class, a Young Girls’ Senior Club, a dressmaking class, and a children’s sewing class.
More generally, a layette program for baby garments, a thrift shop, movie showings, religious services and instruction with these provided by the Plaza Church using Santa Rita as a mission, a Sunday School, and a weekly catechism classes for children were highlighted.
A section also concerned the activities of a District Visitor, in which “it is her privilege to assist in the reconciliation of estranged families—to bring those who have been indifferent or careless back to the performance of their religious duties—to give advice and counsel to many a troubled soul.” Here, another testimonial was given concerning Jose ————, who was laid off from his job due to a workplace injury (something obviously illegal now) and who was unable to find work. The story went on:
His rent became due, but there was no money with which to pay it. The meager supply of beans and flour became lower every day. A week passed, and the landlord threatened that unless a payment was made by the next day, he would evict the family, consisting of Jose, his wife, three children, and mother-in-law, from the one room which they called home. He had just spent his last dime for a loaf of bread. An interested neighbor advised him to seek the Settlement.
The District Visitor arrived quickly and “loaned him a few dollars out of her own pocket, reported the case to the County Charities and provided some needed articles of clothing for the children from the Settlement’s stock.” A temporary job was also secured and “Jose was so grateful for her help, and so honest, that he tried to return to her the money she had loaned him, when he had been working only a few days.”
Another story concerned a woman and three children searching for her husband, alleged to be in Los Angeles under an assumed name. With help from the District Visitor, the negligent husband and father was found working at an ice company. The District Visitor spoke to him in his native tongue, which was not stated, and prevailed on him to agree to provide support to his abandoned family at $25.00 per week and “is now hoping to effect a reconciliation between the husband and wife.”
A summary statement asserted that “Santa Rita is indeed a real ‘Center’ to the people of the neighborhood [a census indicated some 3,300 people were involved in its activities]” and that, while it served all in need “without regard to race or religion,” the demographics of the area was “almost entirely Catholic” and the Church demonstrated it was “interested in their physical, as well as their spiritual, well being.” Through its many programs, Santa Rita, the document concluded, helped “make better Catholics and better citizens of the people reached.”
At the rear of the publication is a listing of workers and volunteers associated with Santa Rita. Among the former was the “District Worker,” presumably the “District Visitor” mentioned in detail in the text and shown in photographs as she made her rounds in the neighborhood.
This was Delia Davoust Hutchinson (1875-1973), whose mother was María Antonia Dominguez, of the prominent Californio family, and whose father was French emigrant Adrien Davoust. Hutchinson, whose sister Anita was married to John H. Temple, owner of the Homestead from 1888 to 1899, lost her husband in 1915 and became a social worker, including at Santa Rita. In 1926, she remarried and, presumably, left Santa Rita.
This pamphlet is an important document concerning the settlement house movement in Los Angeles during the first decades of the 20th century, a time when growing immigration had reached a point of political turbulence leading to our first immigration laws, as anti-communism pushed patriotism and Americanization every further to the forefront, and as the growing income and wealth gap heightened the problems faced in communities like the one Santa Rita, which existed through at least the early 1950s and is now the site of a public housing complex, served.
A century later, some of these issues are still very much with us, accounting for somewhat different circumstances and conditions. The wealth and income divide is at its worst since the 1920s, anti-immigrant sentiment is palpable and politically charged, cries of socialism and communism are ramping up this election year, and the needs of the poor, as well as the burgeoning homeless population, grow demonstrably in seriousness and need. The lessons of history can still very much apply.