Through the Viewfinder With “A Camp of Cholos,” Los Angeles, ca. 1903, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Current and recent labor disputes involving the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) are continuing reminders of the often-contentious nature of relations between employers and workers, even as these examples have very important and clear differences. What has changed dramatically in recent decades for a variety of business and political reasons is the significant decline among those Americans who are members of a union.

As the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes, about a fifth of workers were part of a union forty years ago, though there was a notable gender difference with men comprising 25% and women about 15% of the 20.1% of unionized Americans. Ever since, steep declines have continued and halved the number to 10.1% in 2022, the lowest figure ever recorded in the country.

Significantly, a Pew Research Center survey taken six months ago revealed that about 60% of those questioned felt this was bad for workers and the nation, though the gap between Republicans and those who lean toward that party and their counterparts among Democrats was, unsurprisingly, gaping at about 76% for the latter to between 40-45% for the former.

Los Angeles Record, 6 April 1903.

Important to note is that the range by age, education and income was much wider for those on the right—in other words, older and wealthier Republicans with higher levels of education felt the decline in unions was good by majorities of between 20-25%. With ethnicity, it is also notable that close to 60% of white Republicans though this way, as well.

By contrast, 86% of those who identify as liberal lament the decline in union membership, a twenty percentage point variance from the moderate/conservative elements among Democrats. That same general gap exists for those who feel the change has bene good, with about a third of the latter feeling this way, while only 13% of the former agreed with that assessment, as reported by the Center.

Historically, Los Angeles has been more averse to unions than other larger metropolitan centers, especially in the Midwest and Northeast, and the benign term “open shop” was coined in the early 20th century to positivize, for employers, the prevailing philosophy of keeping unions out of the city when possible. There were, however, some local laborers who belonged to unions, including in the railroad and printing industries, while the film industry became unionized fairly early on, as well.

Los Angeles Express, 6 April 1903.

Still, the “open shop” generally reigned supreme and there was no entity as devoted to preserving the status quo as the Los Angeles Times and its hard-charging, bluntly spoken publisher Harrison Gray Otis. This post provides another example of the paper’s views with our latest “Through the Viewfinder” entry focused on an early 1900s stereoscopic photograph of “A Camp of Cholos” in the Angel City. While there is no way to know the date or the employment situation of these Latino laborers, who were presumably Mexicans, we’ll look at a particularly remarkable period in late April 1903.

This is because the Times and others railed against an attempted strike among Latinos seeking better pay for their work for another incredibly powerful entity in greater Los Angeles during the period, the Pacific Electric Railway (PERY) streetcar system, and its formidable chief executive, Henry E. Huntington. Long before he burnished his reputation and legacy as a philanthropist and founder of the library, art gallery and botanical garden that bears his name, Huntington worked for roughly three decades in the railroad industry—one filled with frequent and often-violent conflicts involving laborers and corporations, including the Southern Pacific (SP), co-founded by Huntington’s notoriously aggressive uncle, Collis, but which cut the younger Huntington loose when the company was taken over by E.H. Harriman in 1901.

Before we delve into the specifics of the labor dispute, it is important to note that, generally speaking during 1903, there were several examples of sensationalized and racialized reports of “cholos” engaging in violent behavior, consistently with reference to “dago red” wine and other coded references. The Los Angeles Record, which was more left-leaning than the other dailies of the period and generally supportive of unions, but which also tended to be more sensational in its reporting, wrote about a Monrovia incident in early July with the blaring headline “BLOOD OF VICTIM SPATTERED TABLE.” It added that the shooting victim’s blood seeped through the floor and dripped to the lower level of the dwelling, shocking a family sitting to supper.

Record, 6 July 1903.

The accused was “José Subio,” said to be a “cholo,” a word the meaning of which has changed a great deal in recent decades, but which, at the time, generally referred to migrant laborers, usually from México. While “Subio” was being sought, it was assumed that he and the deceased had a quarrel and “it is supposed that [this was] with brains fired by liquor.” The paper then casually concluded with the observation that the incident ended “with the result that there was but one peon when there were two before.” The use of “peon” was also basically interchangeable with “cholo” in these press accounts.

A week prior, the Record wrote of an incident with the headline “CHOLO WITH KNIFE GOES AFTER BOY,” this apparently involving “a vicious looking cholo” identified only as “M. Barroso” threatening a 17-year old “American” at a “Spanish-American dance” in what was then long-known as Sonoratown, north of the Plaza, the historic core of Mexican and Spanish-era Los Angeles, and, since the 1930s, denoted as Chinatown. An officer named Leon, almost certainly a Latino, stopped Barroso from taking the unidentified youth’s chair, but the former returned later with a 10-inch long butcher knife, although he was stopped by Leon before he could attack, according to the account.

There were a couple of note in proximity to the strike, with the Record of 6 April sporting the sensational headline of “BLOODY WORK OF CHOLO” and which concerned the mortal stabbing of “Arcadia” Gonzales, with the paper declaring “the dying man is paying the penalty of unlimited ‘dago red’ and petty gambling.” It was reported that “an imported cholo was the assailant” in an incident that took place in Verdugo Canyon north of Glendale (now part of the expansive city) in “a camp of Mexicans, who live in tents and shacks.”

Record, 29 June 1903. Note the partial image of President Theodore Roosevelt, who visited greater Los Angeles in early May.

The attack occurred on a Sunday when “they celebrated” their sole day off from labor “in the usual manner with quantities of cheap red wine, aguardiente [brandy] and cards.” After midnight, the unidentified attacker accused Gonzales of cheating in a game, stabbed him near his heart, with the thrust “splashing the tent walls with blood.” When a man known only as Felix tried to intervene, managed to elude the knife before grabbing an old shotgun and firing at the fleeing assailant who was soon captured and jailed at Burbank, though an identification was not made.

Another piece from the Pomona Review of 22 April bore the headline “A CIRCUS AMONG THE CHOLOES [sic].” The report was that, as a Southern Pacific train pulled into Pomona on its way to Los Angeles, an “old Mexican Indian woman accompanied by a young Senorita” boarded a car. Shortly afterward, “a young man of the same nationality” found them and demanded the young woman leave the train, using physical force which was countered by the elderly woman “in a not too graceful manner.”

The paper went on to state that the older female was taking the younger one to “some Cholo camp where some Mexicans awaited their coming” with the idea “to take the girl to Old Mexico where she would be better and more safely cared for.” The young woman’s mother, the piece continued, resided the station of the recently completed San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad, east of the Los Angeles River in the flats of Boyle Heights “and makes a home for the young Mexican who rescued the girl.” The latter said that he was to marry the mother and “give the protection of a father to the girl.”

Pomona Review, 22 April 1903.

With respect to the strike, the Times of 25 April referred to it as the “PEON’S FOOL STRIKE” and identified three white “agitators” as fomenting the dispute in order to embarrass Huntington, “mar the visit” of President Theodore Roosevelt, and to disrupt the annual spring La Fiesta de Los Angeles, which began in 1894 and continued for nearly a quarter century as a promotional event by the powerful Merchants’ and Manufacturers’ Association. These “agitators” purportedly included Walter F.X. Parker, a political operative of the SP, which was engaged in a transportation power struggle with Huntington and the PERY, and Council of Labor/American Federation of Labor (AFL) figures Jim Gray and Lemuel Biddle.

Gray and Biddle were thorns in the sides of the Times and its “open shop” allies for at least a couple of years and as it lambasted the “union damphoolishness”, the paper castigated the trio of “agitators” claiming

They deluded the poor, ignorant peons employed in tracklaying on the local Huntington roads into forming a “union”—stupid fellows, these peons, who don’t know what a “union” is—and then got up a strike.

The whole thing is a farce. The new union is breaking up, and the peons are cursing the plotters who got them into the scrape. if they don’t “sabe” what a “union” is, they realize fully that they have been swindled.

The strike was broken by the time-honored tactic of bringing in “scabs” as “crews were rushed in from adjoining towns last night” and “some 400 fool peons lost their jobs.” Biddle and the forepersons of the “peon gang” of workers presented formal demands stating they wanted 20 cents an hour for a ten-hour day, instead of 15, with 1 1/2 times regular pay for overtime and double pay for Sundays (earlier in April, it was reported that Huntington/PE crews of “cholos” were sent to San Pedro on the Sabbath to claim an area purportedly contested by the SP). Epes Randolph, general manager for the PE, asserted he was paying workers 17 1/2 cents per hour for work done on Main Street in downtown Los Angeles.

Record, 14 April 1903.

The paper claimed that an “agitator” sprinted down the thoroughfare “ordering the peons to stop work,” which hundreds did in dropping their picks and shovels, though it was claimed that not more than 25% of the laborers knew why. From there, it was asserted, the workers were “ordered to meet in a hall down in the depths [notice the word choice] of Sonoratown, where they were harangued by the agitators.” Notably, the Times printed the address of union secretary A.M. Nieto, but didn’t do so for Randolph (who was said to have considered the 20 cents per hour demand until he learned who was allegedly behind it) or John A. Muir, general manager of PE city subsidiary, the Los Angeles Railway—as is well known, publishing addresses remains an intimidation tactic.

Also of note was that, of the hundreds of laborers on the line, just sixty or so continued to work and these were “Irishmen, negroes and whites,” with those from Ireland clearly considered not like other Caucasians. What Randolph and Muir resorted to was the importation of Mexicans from Alhambra, Long Beach and Monrovia and others “wherever they could be found” to replace those who walked off the job. Moreover, these replacements, with one source observing that many were Black and Japanese, were paid 22 1/2 cents per hour.

Los Angeles Times, 25 April 1903.

An angry Randolph was quoted by the Times as saying,

Why, Mr. Huntington proposes to run his own affairs and can in no matter accept union dictation. While he is disposed to pay good wages, these peons would never have struck if it had not been for Biddle and the agitators . . . But when the professional jawsmith stepped in to be their spokesman, having organized them for strike purposes, we just could not stand for it.

It was averred that most of the Latino workers came to Los Angeles after working for the Southern Pacific at just 10 cents per hour and it was claimed that “until the walking delegates got after them, they thought Huntington’s $1.50 a good-sized chunk of heaven.”

Times, 25 April 1903.

After recording that many of the workers were residing in “cars provided them by the company,” it was said that 60 of them, shocked at losing their jobs after being told that unionizing would provide them the leverage to get the sought-after pay increases, ripped up their newly minted union cards and returned to work at the 15 cents per hour they made before.

It was claimed that, through interpreters (as it was recoded that not 10% of the workers could speak English), those who returned to the line “stated last night that they had been lied to by the union agitators” and told they could get 30 cents per hour if they struck. The paper then opined that “it is certain that as soon as the other members” of the new union “begin to feel the pangs of empty stomachs, they, too, will desert.”

The paper felt compelled to add that one of the alleged strikers, “H. Perez” was found to have a gun on him and was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon—whether this was yet another way of not just denigrating potential union members, but “cholos” and Latinos generally is certainly worth considering. In fact it was mentioned that “the entire night force” of the Los Angeles Police Department “was stationed along Main street” just in case of trouble “but there was practically no need for their services.” Chief Charles Elton sent officers out the following morning “to make it impossible for strikers to intimidate those who want to work.”

A rendering of union “agitator” Lemuel W. Biddle, Times, 4 September 1901.

In its edition of the 26th, the Times editorialized about “The Silliest Strike” and took credit for having “exposed the plot of the desperate conspirators” to interrupt the Fiesta and Roosevelt’s visit “by means of strikes and all sorts of mischief.” Ridiculing Biddle and others for the “peon uprising” that was “stupidly conceived,” the paper mocked the project by crowing,

The proposition of unionizing or organizing a mob of ignorant foreigners who don’t know a union form a crowbar, and can no more be held together than a rope of alkali—what a preposterous idea it was! And what a silly, cruel and vicious deception it was for the white cholos to make los otros believe that the Mexican government would support them in their strike and guarantee a victory for the strikers!

This experiment betrays a lack of brains as well as an absence of scruples on the part of the conspirators, who would like nothing better than to infuriate a gang of knife-thrusting cholos, some of whom have already committed crimes, and turn them loose on the business community . . .

the police are doing wisely in keeping a sharp watch on the idle cholos. Yet they are not the most vicious of the disturbers. Their white leaders are worse. Some of these cholos are liable to make serious trouble, and human life may pay the forfeit: but what care the professional trouble-breeders for the cost? Talk about a “soulless corporation!” There is nothing in the world so destitute of heart or feeling as one of these strike-organizers [bein paid] at $5 per day.

As blunt as the Times was, its contemporary, the Express, owned by Edwin T. Earl, Otis’ next-door neighbor on tony Wilshire Boulevard who made his fortune from developing refrigerated box cars for rail shipment of such valuable regional produce as the orange which became a symbol for greater Los Angeles and managed by Samuel T. Clover, also had choice words for the strike attempt.

Times, 26 April 1903.

The paper reported that Huntington was present at the corner of Main and Fourth with Randolph to oversee the work of the PE crew after the defeat of the union. In contrast to the Times, however, the paper reported that “the old men [laborers], having left without cause, it is declared, they are not wanted back again.” Moreover, it was stated that “a wiry Mexican remarked to a reporter in broken English” that the 22 1/2 cents offered was double what he’d been making and, having a family, he was beginning to “regard the United States as a great country for a laborer.”

It was also expressed that staff at the Mexican consulate denied having any interest in the strike and no knowledge of any promises that their government would support those who walked off the job, even as it was reported that several laborers went to inquire about whether “orders had been issued officially from the president of the Mexican republic,” this being Porfirio Díaz, dictator for most of the previous thirty-five years, but who was overthrown in 1911 during the Mexican Revolution.

The Express referred to the PE as “the Huntington-Hellman interests,” as banker Isaias W. Hellman, one of the early prominent Jewish figures in the Angel City and a former banking partner of William Workman and F.P.F. Temple, played a critical if less public role in the development of the company. It was added that not all laborers for the firm were Latinos, but “the company gives to Americans the preference,” while labor shortages compelled it to hire men from other nationalities, such as Slovenians, some of whom walked off the job, but hastened to return, it was reported, when told the reason was a strike.

Express, 25 April 1903.

As to the police presence, the paper recorded that “there is a quiet contest between union agents and police officers” as the former “quietly mingle” among the laborers to “join the movement for higher wages,” while officers were present to squelch “agitation” and order the union officials to “move along.” One reportedly was arrested, but it was added “peaceful methods only were used by the union agents.”

Biddle was interviewed and told the Express that 800 men were out and part of what was called the Mexican Federal Labor Union “and will stand together during the struggle.” It was mentioned that “the lower [again, the word is notable] part of town was dotted with cholos wearing their gala attire” including “the brilliant silk neck kerchief” and “the broad brimmed hat,” as well as their “Sunday clothes.” It was added that “the men walked about, rolling and puffing cigarettes and seemed to enjoy their voluntary holiday.” Biddle, moreover, asserted that,

While it is true that the railway companies have men at work, they cannot keep the enormous amount of construction on hand going without the union laborers now out . . . The union laborers have preferred a reasonable request . . . Many of these men have families and the welfare of the wives and children appeals to them as strongly as the matter of bread and butter appeals to Americans We are simply asking justice for these humble working men. I will add that we will win this strike. The men will hold out until they starve, if necessary.

Express, 25 April 1903.

There is more to this story, so we will return very soon with part two—be sure to check back with us for that!

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