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

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This third and final part of a post featuring a circa 1903 stereographic photograph of a tent camp of Latino laborers titled “A Camp of Cholos,” continues its examination of media accounts of strikes involving Mexican workers constructing streetcar lines in downtown Los Angeles for the Los Angeles Railway (LARY)/Pacific Electric Railway (PERY) empire of Henry E. Huntington and his associates, notably banker Isaias W. Hellman.

Over more than a half-century, as American industrialization skyrocketed, immense fortunes were realized by tycoons in steel, transportation, oil and other industries, while many workers saw little or very modest gains in their standards of living. The so-called “Gilded Age” of the end of the 19th century was best known for the dramatic disparities of income and wealth, but the yawning chasms between the very rich and the mass of working class Americans continued well into the 20th century—it has been noted that the gaps in financial conditions today are back to the levels of the Roaring Twenties.

One of the many reactions to the inequities of these eras was the formation of labor unions, though this came with considerable tension and, on occasion, distressing levels of violence as powerful industrialists and capitalists marshaled resources, private and public, to beat back the organizing of workers. Yet, significant gains were made by unions, though it took decades for a larger degree of acceptance among the public and tolerance from employers, so that, by the 1950s, about a third of all American workers were members of unions as income inequality narrowed.

Los Angeles Times, 28 April 1903.

From the 1970s onward, however, as those inequities widened again, membership in unions dropped dramatically and has sunk to about 10% of the nation’s workforce. Recent media attention concerning labor conflict in two very different sectors of the economy—the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists dispute in the entertainment world and the United Auto Workers strike in the automobile industry—are reminders that unionization still has life in it. A Gallup poll from summer 2022 showed that over 70% of Americans support unions, the highest percentage in nearly six decades, but whether this will reflect increases in membership remains to be seen.

In early 20th century Los Angeles, a powerful coalition of media, especially the Los Angeles Times, the Chamber of Commerce, the Merchants’ and Manufacturers’ Association, and other allies, were largely successful in keeping the Angel City in an “open shop,” that is, non-union, environment. There were some exceptions, notably among printers, some railroad workers, and others, but, by and large, anti-union forces were able to hold off large-scale organizing at bay.

In April 1903, after months of planning, organizers (referred invariably by their opponents as “agitators”) attempted to establish a union for Latino line workers employed by the LARY and PERY and the previous parts of this post have summarized some of the media coverage by the Times and its competitor, the Express, regarding these efforts. The latter, while claiming to be a general supporter of unions, was critical of the attempts to organize, insisting that doing so before the annual Fiesta de los Angeles, which was run by the Merchants’ and Manufacturers’ Association to promote the city, and the visit of President Theodore Roosevelt, was inopportune, while also demanding that workers have more direct say in union affairs.

Times, 27 April 1903.

As for the Times, it was blunt and pulled no punches in its all-out assault against unions, their leaders and the “cholos” and “peons” that it flatly called ignorant and gullible to the wily and oily tactics of the labor agitators. Its unequivocal position, which included blanket condemnations of those associated with unions as, variably, socialists, communists or anarchists, under the leadership of the fiery Harrison Gray Otis made the paper a target was categorical and unyielding. Having summarized some of the statements by the Express in part two, we turn to the more virulent expressions of anti-union sentiment in the Times, including some notable illustrations, in its pages from late April.

With the movement to establish a Latino street railroad workers union imperiled by swift action by the LARY and PERY, including a prominent police presence, the paper was quick to rejoice in what it branded a flat-out failure. A lengthy feature in its edition of 27 April carried the headline “Agitators Must Support Idle Peons—Union Broken and Funds Missing.” Blasting the “foolish actions of the peon laborers” who walked off the jobs, the Times crowed that “the men who quit are no longer recognized in any way” by the rail companies and added “they will not be taken back to work.” This meant that “it is up to the gang which induced them to quit good jobs, to see that they are fed.”

Having “followed blindly the advice of [Lemuel] Biddle, [Jim] Gray and their gang of unionist agitators,” the Latinos left without work were dependent on them for support, but the paper went to assert that “Biddle and his followers did not know that in placing themselves in the same class as the cholos they would by their very victims be held responsible for their board.” As if the Times had such an understanding, it was further averred that union leaders “do not know the cholo, and now that the ignorant Mexicans have lost their strike, it would not be at all surprising if they turned upon Biddle and his kind and made it unpleasant for them.”

Times, 27 April 1903.

The paper reported that the only “untoward incident” that took place had nothing to do with the Latino workers (who, however, were routinely identified in press accounts of the time for alleged or real violence generally attributed to a fondness for gambling and an indulgence in “Dago red” wine and brandy), but with a dustup between PERY general manager Epes Randolph and Orange County farmer “and well-known local character,” John K. Tuffree.

As noted in part two, the latter was stated to have become involved in an unstated way in the union issue, but the Times reported that Tuffree was rebuffed by Huntington on a $5,000 loan request and so was “more than sympathetic with those Mexicans” who walked off the job. It was added that Tuffree sought to direct some of the work being done on Main Street in front of the Van Nuys Hotel which provoked the ire of Randolph who told his adversary to shove off and then literally pushed him out of the way, leading Tuffree to take a whack at Randolph with his cane.

The Times then turned its attention to a “generally circulated” report that

the new cholo union, which was organized by Biddle and several others of his ilk, has lost all of its funds through the dishonesty of one of its officers . . . the money [$600 in dues] was placed in the keeping of one of the newly-elected officers of the union, and yesterday this man could not be found . . . the report was confirmed by several members of the union, none of whom was positive who had decamped with the money.

This vague confirmation led the paper to proclaim that “the new union is already a tottering organization, for the reason that its senseless strike was such a signal failure” that many members were clamoring to return to their jobs, if possible. Despite earlier observing that the laborers were peaceful (though it previously pointed out that one man was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon), the Times noted “police precautions against trouble were renewed” with more than 20 officers patrolling the work sites.

Times, 27 April 1903.

Beyond this, the paper claimed that there were more than a dozen Latino union spies who infiltrated the laborers who stayed on the line, but these were “taken by the collars,” presumably by police officers and taken to the sidewalk. Employing its frequent use of mocking mangled Spanish, the Times added that the purported spies “‘sabed’ [knew] all right” and “didn’t have to be told what was wanted of them,” so they “‘vamosed’ down into Sonoratown,” the area north of the Plaza that had long become a barrio largely comprised of Latinos living in general states of poverty.

Not satisfied with these pejoratives and forms of degradation, the paper went on to insist that,

They had to tell a story of failure there at the “Union Federal Mexicana” headquarters on San Fernando street. “Caramba!” they would curse, when those “Japs” and negroes and other Mexicans, so busy making pesos on the Main-street construction work, were mentioned.

Union leaders, however, rejoined that there were 900 members, but, whether this was true or not, railway officials were resolute in refusing the return on those who struck. The Times commented that there were some of the laborers on the line who went in to spy on the union (naturally nothing was said at whose behest), while “peons of the organization” continued “to proselytize among the busy workers.”

Times, 27 April 1903.

Accounts of some of these latter were included, apparently in an attempt to seem humorous, but it was stated that they gave up their efforts “and contented themselves with loafing around the Plaza and union headquarters smoking cigarettes.” While some might have responded to a reporter’s request to offer some commentary, “the rest are like dumb cattle being driven.” As for support from the union and others in the city and region, “this is a very happy prospect to the peon—the prospect to get his grub and cigarettes without exerting himself,” this being the prototypical picture of the “lazy cholo.”

The construction superintendent, meanwhile, confidently told the Times that the Main Street project would soon be finished and that there was no shortage of workers as “we know where we can get all that we want without taking back any of the strikers,” including those who wished to return to work, and it was added that, the following day, “there were will be seventy-five more “Japs” here, and we know that these can be depended upon.” The idea of pitting one ethnic group against another is another time-worn tactic in breaking up labor disputes, especially when the “scabs” were being paid above what the strikes were demanding.

In fact, in late November, the Express reported that “Mexicans have taken the places of the Japanese laborers formerly employed by the Pacific Electric company” after the firm reduced the latter’s pay by 25 cents per day. It was added that “the little brown men” walked off the job and “the cholos are willing to work for $1 a day, and the company figures the cholos were [a] better value.” Small wonder that it was concluded that “the company has no trouble in getting all the rough [unskilled] laborers needed in tracklaying.”

Los Angeles Express, 24 November 1903.

It was reiterated that Biddle and his associates “who induced the credulous and ignorant peons to quit their jobs” had turned to “making reckless promises” and “painting beautiful pictures” of victory if the strikes held firm. The article ended with the prognostication that “the delusion will last for a short time only, and that when the strikers find themselves in a strange country, broke, without jobs and friendless, they will be inclined to turn and rend their deceivers.”

In its edition of the 28th, the Times issued the provocative headline of “This Smacks of Treason” as it railed against a reported plan that might well relate directly to the photograph featured in part one of this post, namely:

Alarm may be felt by the order-loving, law-abiding citizens of Los Angeles over the vicious measures which the reckless labor agitators have planned in attempting to carry on their foolish and futile peon mutiny against Huntington and his railway interests. According to inside information, these conscienceless leaders threaten to establish within city limits a camp for the strikers—a camp for their herding [see the cattle reference above], and maintenance, a camp where they may eat and sleep and drink Dago red and foster their grievances, a camp from which they may go forth to do deeds of violence and work destruction to life and property, incited by vicious Americans.

This hysteria, masked as journalism, was also couched as an official viewpoint as it was averred that “the authorities are all agreed that a more dangerous element could not be injected into the present situation than such a camp and all its attendant evils.” This was because, the Times insisted with authority, “the average peon laborer is inoffensive when sober, but when under the influence of booze stirred up disturbers and incendiaries” like Biddle and his associates, “he is a reckless dare devil and utterly irresponsible.”

Times, 28 April 1903.

Without offering details or supporting evidence, the paper then stated that “several murders have been committed by these fellows [specifically, the railroad workers or “cholos” and Latinos in general?] . . . to say nothing of a dozen riotous outbreaks due to overindulgence in booze.” To place up to 1,000 persons in a camp where they would do nothing but listen to the “insidious promptings of walking delegates” as well as to “indulge in limitless libations of red wine” was a recipe for disaster, howled the Times.

Sententiously intoning that “idleness is the worst element of the agitators’ plot” and that “the malice of it is devilish,” the paper rose to even higher levels of righteous indignation by avowing that allowing “the irresponsible cholo band in Los Angeles” to be placed in a camp showed that the union organizers had “little regard . . . for the welfare of the people” of the Angel City. It thundered that “recklessness of this kind is criminal” and darkly warned, sounding like the Los Angeles Star of a half-century ago, that “the people will yet punish labor agitators for thus playing with fire under ‘tinder’ circumstances.”

The article reported that the Union Federal Mexicana was to receive official recognition from a county labor council and a charter from the State Federation of Labor, after which a formal letter was to be presented to Huntington “for recognition of the union principles in his business activities.” It was then asserted that, were this to fail (as expected), the American Federation of Labor (AFL) would “take up the fight, and money will be advanced to establish a huge camp and barracks in Los Angeles to feed and care for the cholos, supply them with booze and maintain them in idleness as a menace to the city.”

Times, 28 April 1903.

Yet, it was also claimed that

When the cholos awake to the folly of their course, when they realize how they have been buncoed, when they get it through their heads that the Biddle gang has merely used them as tools for the furtherance of their own selfish ends, not caring how much their victims (the peons) may suffer—then the wrath of the poor misled Mexicans will turn against the incendiaries and traitors; then these scoundrelly agitators’ skins may be in danger.

With the subheading of “Isn’t It Treasonable?” the commentary continued that the “ignorant cholos” were “lazy fellows [who] are great lovers of loyalty that touches the stomach.” Moreover, the agitators were sure to make “a direct appeal to all their prejudices” including having, at the union hall, emphasized as being in Sonoratown, the display of a Mexican flag—not, it was added, an American one—as well as members forced to swear allegiance to it “and go through the formality of kissing it.”

The treason would further consist in the claim that “the Bible and the crucifix are used to appeal to” the union members, while it was insisted that, because “it is as natural for a Mexican to fight as it is for a bird to fly,” loyalty to the Mexican flag was promoted when “a mighty crisis is at hand.” Randolph purportedly stated that, if pushed by the union, “he can give the Biddle cholo-feeding concern about 10,000 hungry Mexicans a month to board.

Times, 28 April 1903.

Having disgorged itself with its hyperventilated choleric commentary, the Times turned to rumors of a general strike in sympathy with the Latino laborers, repeating some of the reporting made by the Express and mentioned in part two of this post. It was added that “about 250 of the striking peons are going to work for the Southern Pacific,” long embroiled in a fight with Huntington, who was forced out of the company his uncle co-founded, and which would later take possession of the LARY/PERY system, while another 50 were said to have been employed by William Andrews Clark’s new San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad east of Ontario as that line headed towards Las Vegas and Utah.

Randolph told the paper that “the strike of the peon is over, as far as we are concerned” with plenty of replacement laborers rushing to complete the Main Street work. As for Huntington’s initial agreement to Biddle’s demand for a 20 cents per hour wage, instead of 15 (which is what the Southern Pacific was paying), “there would have been a strike just the same.” This was, he averred,

If we had granted a rise to 20 cents, the leaders would have asked 50 cents. They were not interested one iota in the peon; they were looking for trouble. The peon was chosen as a basis for a general uprising in all directions to make Mr. Huntington knuckle. But Mr. Huntington will never knuckle.

On the 29th, the Times addressed the prospect of a general strike, which, again, was covered in much detail by the Express, but it added its patented virulent form of venom in repeating that “the peon strike was just a deceitful beginning” and that the terrible inconvenience to the public would be solely attributable to “the disturbing meddlesomeness of ‘Lem’ Biddle and his gang of vicious victimizers of ignorant peons.”

Arthur Hay, not otherwise mentioned in connection with the railway strike, was a leader of the International Typographers Union local in Los Angeles and, therefore, a perennial thorn in the side of the Times and Otis, Times, 27 April 1903.

It asserted that there were daily reports of those who succumbed to the “Biddle buncombe” and gave up their good jobs and became “silly dupes” while the agitators “never blush in consigning the public to the everlasting fires of hades [sic].” As for poor Henry E. Huntington, the paper lamented that he was being targeted by “venomous efforts” despite the tycoon’ “many beneficial enterprises in this heaven-kissed Southland”—of course, he profited to the degree that his personal wealth burgeoned from roughly $1 million when he arrived in Los Angeles at the turn of the century to $55 million when he officially retired from business just a decade later.

The LARY’s general manager John A. Muir pledged (grimly, intoned the paper) that the railway entities would contest the matter down to its last dollar, and the Times returned to its trope of the “ignorant peon” enjoying “a jolly, boozeful [sic] time” and allegedly committing “acts of recklessness and spreeful [sic] deviltry, to menace the safety of the city.” It reiterated the waving of the Mexican flag at secret meetings as a pernicious pronouncement of “peon patriotism.” It also referred to Teresa Urrea, or Santa Teresa de Caborca, the subject of an presentation offered for the Homestead at the end of this month, in mocking terms:

Santa Theresa, whom many of the ignorant cholos deem clothed with some sort of a mysterious divinity, is also lending her assistance in urging the cholos to keep sober and be good “for victory’s sake.”

While this strike did not succeed—check out this link on referring to an important 2012 book on the traqueros who comprised most of the labor force for so much of the railroads built in large swaths of the Midwest and West—it has an important place in the complex and compelling history of organized labor in early 20th century Los Angeles.

Times, 29 April 1903.

Whether the photo featured here is tied to the 1903 dispute, it is a rare visual representation of the kinds of labor camps found throughout the region, whether for railroad construction, agriculture or in other industries. The denigration of Latinos as “cholos” for undertaking the work that built much of our region is as baldly and flatly stated as could be by the accounts of the Times (which was the target of a domestic terror bombing by radical unions in October 1910) and, to a lesser degree, the Express and are stark reminders of the power struggles at play then and are evocative of some of the rhetoric employed regarding labor issues that continue to this day.

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