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Myths and Origins Racial Formation in Los Angeles

Making Black Los Angeles Marne L. Campbell

Published by The University of North Carolina Press

Campbell, Marne L. Making Black Los Angeles: Class, Gender, and Community, 1850-1917. The University of North Carolina Press, 2016. Project MUSE. muse.jhu.edu/book/48234. https://muse.jhu.edu/.


For additional information about this book

[ Access provided at 24 Aug 2021 16:23 GMT from University of California @ Riverside ]



1 Myths and Origins Racial Formation in Los Angeles

California supposedly derived its name from Calafia, a character in a novel about an island of women, written by Garci Rodriguez De Mon- talvo in the 1490s. Set on an island completely maintained by black women, men were only permitted for the express purpose of procreation. It was women who hunted, gathered, and guarded the island. According to the story, “This island was inhabited by black women, and there were no males among them, for their way of life was similar to that of the Amazons.”1 Rodriguez depicted the leader of this society, the black Calafia, as the most power ful female of her time.2

Calafia, in the imagination of Garci Rodriguez, was not only of Afri- can origin, but was sexualized and eroticized. He described her followers as having “energetic bodies and courageous, ardent hearts, and they were strong.”3 The island presented a safe and euphoric space for women within the community to exist almost completely without men. Garci Rodriguez wrote, “On occasion, they kept the peace with their male opponents, and the females and males mixed with each other in complete safety, and they had carnal relations.”4 When any of them gave birth to a male child, they killed him, but they kept and raised the female children.5

This story is only one of the many myths about how California was named. The Calafia story represents the ways in which African Ameri- cans, especially women, were treated by mainstream society in Califor- nia, and Los Angeles in par tic u lar. Unlike that mythical island, the real California was no utopia, especially not for people of African descent. In the first book about the history of African Americans in California, Delilah Beasley wrote in 1919, “The story of Los Angeles is like the gold thread in paper money to ensure that it is genuine currency.”6 Depictions like these piqued mi grants’ curiosity about the city. Yet, African Americans increasingly found themselves trapped on society’s margins.7

Race relations under Spanish and Mexican rule were complex. People of African descent began their experience in Los Angeles, and in Cali- fornia, as a marginalized group. Men of Spanish descent defined race in



Myths and Origins 15

order to divide themselves from every one considered “other.” This is also evidenced by the ways in which whites treated indigenous people. By the time Anglos settled in the region, a unique hierarchy of race relations already existed.8

Racial Hierarchy in Colonial Mexico

The first non- indigenous settlers in Los Angeles included people of diverse backgrounds. The settlers who founded Los Angeles in 1781 com- prised three distinct groups: Native Mexicans, Africans, and Spaniards. 66  percent of Sinaloa, Mexico’s population was of biracial heritage.9 Twelve families, primarily from that region, responded to the Spanish colonial officials’ call for settlers. This founding group consisted of forty- six people, twenty- six of whom were of African descent. Many of these people, and their descendants, rose to state and local prominence.10

Spanish conquests in the sixteenth century and afterward fundamen- tally altered race relations in the indigenous areas they conquered. The Spanish not only intermingled with those already there, they brought with them African slaves who would also put down roots in Mexico. Per- sonal, economic, and po liti cal intermingling became cause for concern among the colonial authorities, solved by imposing a racial hierarchy. Within fifty years of conquest, the Spanish in New Spain began using race as a way of instilling economic and social control, thereby creating a racial hierarchy that placed Spanish (white) at the top, and people of African descent at the bottom. Between these levels were people of ra- cially mixed backgrounds, whose identities were defined and redefined by the sistema de castas. The ruling class quickly began utilizing the system to control those of the lower classes. The system was a way to maintain clear divisions between elite and lower class, no matter how complex the racial mixing. The justification for this was to keep Spanish blood pure (limpieza de sangre).11 This racial ordering had lasting implications through the colonial and postcolonial periods, especially as slaves, for- mer slaves, and their descendants fell squarely at the bottom of the so- cial hierarchy throughout Mexico.12

After the first African slaves arrived in New Spain in 1519, the insti- tution grew very rapidly. While working in a variety of domestic and skilled labor in agriculture, mining, and other positions and while mak- ing a community of their own, Africans became a part of an intricate racial and economic hierarchy in the Spanish colony.13 By the middle



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of the seventeenth century, New Spain was home to a diverse African population that was several generations in the making.

The combination of ladinos (acculturated Africans) and bozales (newly arriving Africans) contributed to the growing black community that would eventually equal that of the Spanish. The majority of black people’s lives centered on the cities, which meant frequent socialization with people of other racial backgrounds. This sometimes led to intermarriage, and the creation of “mixed race” groups of people living in racially di- verse communities. Yet as numerous slaves continued to be imported from Africa through the middle of the seventeenth century, more and more people of African descent chose marriage partners who were also of African descent, making community formation pos si ble in Mexico.14

Since the Spanish population remained low compared to the indige- nous population, the Catholic Church initially supported intermarriage. Spanish men were encouraged to marry their Indian concubines until larger numbers of Spanish women moved into the region in the middle of the sixteenth century. The ofspring of these unions created a mestizo (Spanish and Indian) population. There was also a significant mulatto population throughout the region, and it was not uncommon for people of African descent to marry Indians (pardo/a or lobo/a). Mexico City’s traza (segregated neighborhood) contained numerous multiracial house holds.15 By the middle of the seventeenth century, some mulattos married Indian or Spanish people, which also resulted in new and more complex racial classifications. This does not mean that people were ac- tively trying to improve their social status by changing their race. Rather, they honed a deeper sense of identity by belonging to a par tic u lar group such as pardo/a or mulato/a, which was solidified within the context of one’s family. In fact, the majority of the scholarship about race in Mex- ico during this period indicates that most people married within their social and ethnic groups.16

During the seventeenth and eigh teenth centuries, 87  percent of black people chose spouses of African descent. The indigenous population maintained high levels of endogamous marriage as well, such as in the Toluca region. Some people even engaged in consanguineous marriages, particularly when there was a shortage of pos si ble partners who were not blood relatives. Between 1630 and 1640, the increase in the importation of Africans to Mexico directly increased the likelihood of endogamous marriages. When the Portuguese slave trade ended in 1639, however, endogamous marriage opportunities began to decline for Africans.



Myths and Origins 17

Between 1646 and 1746, 52  percent of the black population married Indi- ans in Mexico and Veracruz. Still, the larger black population who resided in the urban areas overwhelmingly entered into endogamous marriages.17

Racial mixing was extremely impor tant for social climbers, who made up a small but significant minority. Colonial governments and local elites maintained this system socially and legally. Through the concept of pu- rity of the blood, Spanish men married Indian women. Since Indians were considered “weak” by way of their bloodline, it was believed Spanish blood would “wash” and overpower the weaker blood. This, in turn, served as a purification of mestizo blood. By placing people with black blood squarely at the bottom of the colonial racial hierarchy, however, the hierarchy did not ofer African Americans any opportunity to move up the social ladder. There is no evidence that black people used misce- genation as a way to improve their social status.18

The presence of those who tried to leverage the sistema de castas to their own advantage only served to fortify Spanish ideas about white- ness and superiority.19 Nonwhites who used exogamy to improve their status were denigrated as social climbers. “But since most castas opted for endogamous marriages,” according to Herman L. Bennett, “the con- cerns expressed in the Pragmatic were white racial fantasies with little basis in social real ity.”20 In other words, those who were racialized by the system were far less concerned about its implications than the elite who benefitted from maintaining it.21 A series of casta paintings cap- tured Eu ro pean imaginations about interracial sexual unions and the ofspring they produced, but emphasized notions of racial diference in colonial Mexico.22

Meanwhile, the extremely wealthy castas took advantage of the sys- tem. While the majority of people of color strug gled at the bottom, those few elite castas reaped the benefits of whiteness, while helping deny those of color basic freedom and rights. After the Mexican War of In de pen- dence, these few would play an impor tant role in the racialization pro- cess in California (figure 1.1) once it became part of the United States.23

A racial hierarchy that mimicked that of colonial Mexico was firmly in place in California by the time the United States annexed it. Wealthy Mexican landowners were considered “white” and they used the legal system to maintain strict racial bound aries so Indians, Africans, or anyone with one- fourth Indian blood was considered non- white by 1851. Afromestizos and other people of African descent were subjected to the same laws that governed free black Americans in other states.



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Anthropologist Martha Menchaca notes, “ These laws remained in opera- tion into the 20th century and were often used during the 1800s to deny people of color citizenship.”24 This paved the way for white settlers from Mexico and the United States alike to benefit from the physical and racial landscape in California.

Race relations under Spanish colonial rule difered greatly in Mexico than in the British mainland colonies. In the colonies, slaveholders rarely acknowledged ethnic diferences among enslaved Africans. Their prin- cipal goal was to prevent racial mixing of any kind, quickly establishing miscegenation laws to that end. Latin Americans, on the other hand, rec- ognized many more racial categories that included interracial unions, and their ofspring. As a result, new racial classifications emerged in Spanish Amer i ca, of which California was initially a part.25 By the end of the eigh teenth century, as California became the home of many set- tlers in addition to an established indigenous population, Los Angeles

Figure 1.1 California as an island, 1660. According to a novel by Garcí Rodriguez de Mantalvo, California was an island inhabited by black women. Library of Congress.



Myths and Origins 19

developed into a diverse urban arena marked by people of vari ous racial and ethnic backgrounds, creating a unique class and caste system.26

First Families in Los Angeles: The Case of the Pico Family

The original group of settlers in Los Angeles arrived in 1781. Chosen for their multiracial heritage, the majority of the families who first moved to Los Angeles were racially “mixed,” lending diversity to the city from its foundation. Most settlers came from Sinaloa, where two- thirds of the population was mulatto.27 This group, therefore, constituted much of the racial composition of Los Angeles during its early years.28

The majority of the first families of Los Angeles included parents of diverse racial origins. Historian William Marvin Mason noted they had, “far more Indian and negro blood than white, though all were part Span- ish.”29 It was not uncommon, therefore, for a mestizo to marry a mulato, but far fewer people mixed solely with Spanish and Indian blood. Historian and anthropologist Jack D. Forbes also made note of this fluidity, stating that “a small but significant portion of the population included people of mixed Indian- Spanish ancestry, constituting 20% of the population.”30 Racial classifications soon became much more concrete, and most people, especially those of multiracial heritage, had to make a decision about their identity, often choosing to utilize their whiteness.31

A de cade after the original settlers arrived in Los Angeles, as the over- all population grew to 141 residents, new racial identities were created. Over half of the families who initially identified themselves as mulato or Indian, were now designated as coyote, (only 75  percent Indian), or mes- tizo. They became less Indian and black or African, and more white. Indeed, some of them were now recognized as white, and received the greater social status that came along with whiteness.32

Much of the history of Los Angeles centers on these founding families and their ancestors, and though historians have paid attention to their racial and ethnic origins, they have tended to ignore the impact of the decisions these families made in altering their racial status. These people never fully divorced themselves from their racial and ethnic backgrounds, yet they did just enough to take full advantage of new opportunities. Subsequently, many succeeded in the civil and economic sectors of their communities. Some even became prominent figures throughout the city.33



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The Pico family, most notably, quickly rose in stature in Los Ange- les. Like many early families, the Picos consisted of a hybrid of racial and ethnic backgrounds. Santiago de la Cruz Pico, a mestizo from Sinaloa, married a mulata from Sonora, Jacinta de la Bastida. Some of their children and grandchildren were able to become white by marry- ing other “mixed race” people. Menchaca notes, “Thus, the Pico family was racially mixed, and their Black blood quantum difered.”34 Their “whiteness” allowed them to take on vari ous forms of leadership roles. For example, their son, Jose María Pico, overcame many social obstacles. He served as the corporal for the San Luis Obispo Mission, managing its soldiers in 1798.35 On 10 May 1789 he married María Estaquia Gutiér- rez. They had eleven children. Between 1805 and 1818, Jose Maria was sergeant.

One of José María’s brothers, José Dolores Pico, also took on an impor- tant leadership role.36 Initially José Delores married a mulatto woman, María Gertrudis Amezquita, on 17 June 1791. Her father, Juan Antonio Amezquita, was a soldier at the Presidio in San Francisco. He also worked as regidor, or counselor at San Jose in 1806. After Gertrudis died, José Dolores married another woman of high social status on 5 May 1801, María Isabel Acencion Cota, an española from an influential family. Her mother was from Sinaloa and her father was born in Sonora. Isabel’s father served in the military, was a trailblazer for Gaspar de Portolá and Father Junípero Serra, and was sergeant of escolta (escort) at San Bue- naventura between 1782 and 1787. By 1811, Jose Dolores had become ser- geant. Not only were Santiago and Jacinta’s children successful, their grandchildren enjoyed many accomplishments of their own, utilizing their complex racial backgrounds to their advantage.37

Two of the most successful Pico grandchildren included Andrés and Pío Pico. Pío, one of eleven children, was born 5 May 1801 at the San Gabriel Mission.38 While one sister died in infancy, two of his brothers, José Antonio and Andrés, both became high- ranking military and po- liti cal officials, while his other sisters, Concepción, Tomasa, Casamira, Isidora, Estefana, Jacinta, and Feliciana, married well. Both Estefana and Jacinta Pico were married to Josef Antonio Ezquiel Carrillo, before he married one of the Sepulvéda daughters. On 24  June 1823, he married Estefana, and on 1  February 1842, he married Jacinta. Their sister, María Concepción, married Domingo Antonio Ignacio Carillo on 14  October 1810. He was Josef Antonio’s brother. These marriage pat- terns indicate that the Picos were very much interested in safeguarding



Myths and Origins 21

their family’s wealth and influence. All of the Pico grandchildren lived amongst society’s upper echelon, which was almost exclusively white.39

In addition to his military ser vice, Pío had a distinguished po liti cal career. In 1826, he worked as “clerk in trial” for San Diego. He joined the Assembly in 1832, and became po liti cal chief that same year. Although this appointment was short- lived, Pío served as an elector in 1836. In 1845, he became the last governor of California under Mexican rule, and served until 1846, when the United States took control of the region. During the Mexican- American War, Pío escaped to Mexico until he acquired enough money to sustain himself once again in California. This time, he settled in Los Angeles, where he became a successful businessman.40 Pío married Maria Ignacio Alvarado in Los Angeles on 24 February 1834. Her father was sargento encargado (in charge of) the Pueblo de Los Angeles in 1800, and also served as comisionado of Los Angeles in 1805. Eventually, he would retire as sergeant in Los Angeles.41

Pío Pico’s return to California guaranteed him a strong social posi- tion. He opened a hotel near the Plaza, the “Pico House,” hosting people from around the country, and even some international guests. An exami- nation of the Pico House register indicates that the hotel was one of the most popu lar in the city. From 1870 to 1872, the register listed guests from local cities such as Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Anaheim, San Diego, and San Gabriel. In addition, several visitors came from San Francisco and Santa Clara. Out- of- state guests included people from as close as Arizona and as far as Ohio. International guests, such as Henry Sneersolm and his son, traveled from Jerusalem to the Pico House. Other guests in- cluded prominent members of Pico’s family, such as Charles Sepúlveda and Francisco Pico who stayed at the hotel on 26 April 1872.42 Since the Pico House was located at the town’s Plaza, Pío Pico interacted with many of the locale’s wealthiest people of vari ous racial and ethnic backgrounds.

His brother, Andrés, also obtained a degree of success.43 Andrés Pico served as military commander of the militia for Mexican California dur- ing the battle of San Pasqual. In 1847, he attended the signing of the Treaty of Cahuenga, which concluded the war with Mexico in that re- gion. Andres’s most prominent role was in the po liti cal arena. He joined the California state legislature during the middle of the nineteenth century.44

Considering the family’s rising status, it is clear why the Picos, and other families like theirs, may have wanted to remove themselves from any African, and in many cases indigenous, heritage. Pío and Andrés Pico’s



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grandparents were multiracial, allowing them to categorize themselves, as well as interact in mainstream society, as “more white” and “less Afri- can.” Since in their case a mestizo married a mulata, according to the casta system, a new racial classification emerged to define their ofspring. The Pico children were one- quarter African, one- quarter indigenous, and one- half Spanish, signifying they were mostly white. Using the Pico family as an example, table 1.1 indicates the ways in which one moved between racial categories.

Whether the Pico children actually considered themselves white remains unclear. What is clear, however, is that they took advantage of opportunities not aforded to their black and indigenous counter parts, acquiring large amounts of property, serving in prominent military roles, and obtaining po liti cal power. This generation of Picos also intermarried, further complicating their collective racial classifications and the main- stream social hierarchy. Both of Jose Dolores Pico’s marriages exemplify the ways in which a person changed their social status via marriage and denotes how the casta system worked within his family. If either of these unions produced ofspring, their racial classification, according to the sistema de castas, resulted in designations seen in tables 1.2 and 1.3.

These tables illustrate the complexity of racial classifications within this society. The Pico family alone is in ter est ing because of the unique and complicated structure that defined their racial background. Some historians note that eventually the Pico family became “white,” and in doing so, they explored opportunities and advantages available only for whites. Eventually, these people, and others of similar backgrounds, iden- tified with whites rather than blacks or other people of color.45

Some scholars, however, maintain that people of color did not so easily escape the category of “black.” People whose racial heritage included black, Spanish, and indigenous, for example, were considered mulato,

Table 1.1 Racial classifications: Pico family

Jasinta de la Bastida

Santiago de la Cruz Jose Maria Pico

Black 1/2 0 1/4 Indigenous 0 1/2 1/4 White 1/2 1/2 1/2

Racial Classification Mulatto Mestizo White

Source: Historic Notes from Pío Pico Mansion



Myths and Origins 23

disallowing their native heritage. A person who was half mulato and half indigenous was considered mulato; and the child of a person who was half mestizo and half mulato was also designated as mulato. Understanding racial classifications in this way, therefore, obscures one’s exact racial heritage.

Some scholars have relied on the one- drop rule, often used to determine race in the United States after emancipation. From these viewpoints, José Dolores Pico’s ofspring fall into a dif er ent racial classification, seen in tables 1.4 and 1.5.46

From both the casta and one- drop models, it becomes clear how one’s mestizo or even indigenous heritage can dis appear. In the first set of

Table 1.2 Racial classifications: Pico family

Jose Delores Pico Jose’s Wife (1) Child

Black 1/4 1/2 3/8 Indigenous 1/4 0 1/8 White 1/2 1/2 1/2

Racial Classification White Mulatto White

Source: Historic Notes from Pío Pico Mansion

Table 1.3 Racial classifications: Pico family

Jose Delores Pico Jose’s Wife (2) Child

Black 1/4 0 1/8 Indigenous 1/4 0 1/8 White 1/2 1 3/4

Racial Classification White White White

Source: Historic Notes from Pío Pico Mansion

Table 1.4 Racial classifications: Pico family

Jose Delores Pico Jose’s Wife (1) Child

Black 1/4 1/2 3/8 Indigenous 1/4 0 1/8 White 1/2 1/2 1/2

Racial Classification Mulatto Mulatto Mulatto

Source: Historic Notes from Pío Pico Mansion



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examples, the Pico descendants’ racial classification became white, rather than bi- or multiracial. The second model, the one- drop rule, neglects racial heritage in another way, by proposing that they were black, regard- less of the level of African or Spanish (thereby white) heritage traced through their bloodline.47

The third conclusion one draws from considering these models in- volves the local social hierarchy. Classifications of black or mulatto gen- erally included some form of stigma. Both in the American colonies and colonial Latin Amer i ca, people of African descent often found them- selves at the bottom of the social order. Although people classified as mulatto maintained a higher status than people who were black, they faced similar difficulties within their respective communities. Regard- less of which model one chooses to follow in tracing “race,” it is impor- tant to note the positive results one may glean, particularly the fluidity of the system.48

These conflicting understandings underscore the complexity of race in Los Angeles as well as other cities with large populations of racially mixed people such as New Orleans.49 Since many settlers included bira- cial and even multiracial heritages, the first families created a space for racial tolerance and for social mobility, at least partially, based on merit, rather than solely on phenotype. Not surprisingly, Pío Pico’s own narra- tive neglected any discussion of race. Pico discussed instead his military accomplishments, his travels, and his relationship with his family. He also seemed to have deliberately overlooked race when discussing the many people with whom he interacted.50

While Pío and Andres Pico used their “whiteness” to establish eco- nomic and po liti cal status, Pío Pico was never fully apart from the African American community or other communities of color. A fire insurance map of his hotel, The Pico House, shows that its location was

Table 1.5 Racial classifications: Pico family

Jose Delores Pico Jose’s Wife (2) Child

Black 1/4 0 1/8 Indigenous 1/4 0 1/8 White 1/2 1 3/4

Racial Classification Mulatto White Mulatto

Source: Historic Notes from Pío Pico Mansion



Myths and Origins 25

perpendicular to the area known as “Nigger Alley” and the Chinese block. If one were to consider the physical characteristics of the Pico family, one would quickly identify the family’s African heritage. Pío Pico was of dark complexion. Judging by his skin color alone, one might con- clude that he was black, overlooking both his Spanish and indigenous heritages. The Pico family served as a model of opportunity for all who came to Los Angeles as immigrants for the next several de cades. It was, however, easier for someone like Pío Pico to ascend the socio- political ranks while Los Angeles was under Mexican rule, than after California became a part of the United States and American racial ideologies super- seded those left over from the Spanish and Mexican periods.51

Both Pío and Andrés Pico, along with the wider Pico family, exem- plify the accomplishments and contributions people of color made to the foundation of Los Angeles and to California as a whole. They joined other prominent figures that shared similar racial and ethnic origins and social and po liti cal accomplishments. Francisco Reyes, for example, served as mayor of Los Angeles from 1793 until 1795. Migrating from Pueblo of Zapotlán in central Mexico, Reyes was a mulato who married María del Carmen Domínguez, a woman of both Spanish and Indian heritage. The couple had three children.52

In addition to po liti cal achievements, many of the early bi- and mul- tiracial settlers in Los Angeles acquired a significant amount of land, which contributed to their social as well as economic success. Manuel Nieto, whose parents were African and Spanish, for example, became a wealthy landowner after 1821, acquiring over 167,000 acres of land in the areas surrounding southeast and eastern Los Angeles. José Bartolomé Tapia, an octoroon, owned a stretch of land along the Pacific Coast in Malibu. Although this group represents a select few, they realized these accomplishments in spite of the old world racial and ethnic hierarchy.53

After 1821, Los Angeles underwent a significant population increase as new generations of people were both born in, and migrated to, the city. The Mexican victory over Spain heightened opportunity for black people. New po liti cal ideologies, including republicanism, contributed to the breakdown of the old mission system in California, creating op- portunities for people of African descent to secure land grants and sub- sequent wealth, and play significant roles in the military.54 This meant that all people, including those of African descent, adopted newer ide- ologies that had emerged during the Revolutionary era, and brought them west in the nineteenth century. Yet, that alone does not explain why



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people of African descent opted to shed their racial and ethnic heritage. Those who did shed their “blackness” retained many of their ethnic and cultural heritages.55

Racial Formation in Early Los Angeles

The California mission system ofers another view of race relations. When California became part of the United States in 1850, the racial im- plications for people of color again changed. This time, they were altered to comply with American racial divisions. The largest group of people afected by settlement in California, and Los Angeles in par tic u lar, was Indians, whom the Jesuits and Franciscans sought to “civilize” and Chris- tianize using the mission system. This system created another space for intermingling with whites, and therefore, another rung in the racial hier- archical ladder in the region.56

Indians lived in a precarious position in the community. Initially tar- geted by Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries, they were placed on mission lands, where an attempt to indoctrinate them occurred. In return, Indi- ans performed heavy labor. Unlike enslaved African Americans, Indians could negotiate their own labor contracts with whites as well as choose with whom they worked. Indians, however, received very little protec- tion from the californios who secularized the mission system; taking all of the best mission lands for themselves and leaving the Indians with very little, if any, land.57

Although the founding families of African descent eventually amal- gamated with whites and indigenous people, they fostered certain eth- nic and cultural traits, both new and old, that upheld racial divisions. The Pico family assimilated to California and Los Angeles society. They even became part of a unique group of people known as californios, who, on the surface, appeared progressive in their politics and ideologies.58 Some of the grandchildren of these families, such as Pío and Andrés Pico, adopted a more progressive attitude about race, but only to the extent that it did not infringe upon their own status. This par tic u lar generation is often credited for “freeing” Native Americans from the stronghold of the missions and wanted to purge society of the “sacred” system. Thus, they created opportunity for property own ership, and in turn, a better socioeconomic status for Indians, and in the pro cess, for themselves. A close examination of the Mexican and Spanish land grants, for example, shows that many indigenous people both purchased and sold parcels of



Myths and Origins 27

land in the areas surrounding the San Gabriel Mission. Some Indians named in these land grants included Joaquin Emilio, a man known to the historical rec ord only as Felipe, and Francisco Sales. Others were identified only as “Indian” or “Indians.” Mexican officials gave land to their friends and families, and high- ranking officials got the best and largest allocations. Pío Pico, for example, extended land grants to his friends and family, along with white immigrants coming to the Ameri- can West. He sold much of the mission land to his friends, most of whom were white.59

California’s admission to the United States created great changes that afected Los Angeles, both in landscape and in population. The constant flow of new people into the region from other parts of the country, and from other areas around the world, influenced race relations. These groups of people included Mexican, Chinese, Japa nese, African Ameri- can, Eu ro pean, and white Americans who heard about the Gold Rush in the northern portion of the state, and came in hopes of finding gold and returning home with tremendous amounts of wealth. At this time Cali- fornia, and Los Angeles specifically, harbored many temporary residents, all of whom brought their own beliefs and attitudes about race relations and cultural diferences to the West.

Prior to the state issuing any formal doctrine about African Ameri- can slavery, community leaders raised concern about Indian slavery. On 15 September 1846, Commodore John Montgomery issued “A Proclama- tion to the Inhabitants of California.” The document noted that people held Native Americans in ser vice against their will. Montgomery stated, “The Indian population must not be regarded in the light of slaves. But it is deemed necessary that the Indians within the settlement shall have employment with the right of choosing their own master and employ- ment.”60 Montgomery’s proclamation was a far cry from a demand for freedom. Indians were obliged to their chosen employers and some were required to obtain written permission to terminate this relationship. All were “required to obtain ser vice to work and were not permitted to wan- der about the country in idleness in a dissolute manner.” Those who did so “ were liable to arrest and punishment by labor on the public works at the direction of the magistrate.”61

Two years later, lawmakers began considering black slavery.62 The public was willing to act very conservatively, finding new ways to fur- ther explore and exploit slave labor. In addition to the earlier 1846 proc- lamation by Montgomery, the legislature of 1852 adopted a law permitting



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the enslavement of Indians. It stipulated that while Native Americans could not be treated cruelly, “Indians could be arrested as vagrants and sold to the highest bidder within twenty- four hours after arrest, and the buyer had the privilege of their labor for a period not exceeding four months.”63 Their condition was still better than that of black people. Cali- fornia law and lawmakers made little or no efort to protect African American slaves. The law allowed Indians to demand a trial with a jury, although it prohibited them from testifying; yet African Americans could not. Just as in other parts of the country, African Americans in California lived in constant fear of being victimized by the Fugitive Slave Law and being returned to, or in some cases illegally sold into, slavery.64

Prior to the inception of the local print media, whites used other forms of journalism to aggressively portray Indians as uncivilized. Major Hor- ace Bell, for example, published a diatribe about the status of Indians in 1852. He asserted that the actions of the Indians in the region were un- acceptable, if not disgusting. He believed that Indian emancipation from the mission system was perhaps the least beneficial event in their his- tory. Bell claimed that since the change from free Indian labor to wage labor, Indians in some ways lost control of themselves, spending all of their wages on gambling, drinking, and other forms of “sin.” These types of activity, people believed, occurred largely in the neighborhood known as Nigger Alley. Bell described the neighborhood as “crowded with a mass of drunken Indians, yelling and fighting. Men and women, boys and girls, tooth and toe nail, sometimes, and frequently with knives, but always in a manner that would strike the beholder with awe and horror.”65 Bell argued that they would have to keep Indians in order to maintain their sobriety. Once tempered, whites auctioned them for ap- proximately one week of labor. Bell conjectured that Indians were sold out for a week, paid on Saturdays, engaged in drinking, gambling, and fighting during the weekend, and resold the following Sunday.66

Bell firmly believed that the status of Indians depended on whites. He expressed that white people carried the responsibility for “civilizing” them. He stated that the Indians experienced a much better condition while being Christianized by the mission system. He felt that emanci- pation created a space for them to engage in violent activity that they would have other wise denied.67 California was quickly changing from a Mexican state to an American state, especially where racial politics were concerned.



Myths and Origins 29

From Mexico to the American West: Whites and Mexicans in Early Los Angeles

Race relations shifted almost immediately once California became part of the United States. In Los Angeles, this meant that black people, par- ticularly black Americans, had to negotiate their place in this frontier community; but so did Mexicans, Indians, and other people of color, over the next several de cades. Mexican rancheros fighting to keep their land often felt the impact of the mid- century vio lence and increased racial tension. In 1856 a Mexican man known only to the historical rec ord as Ruiz fought with a white city deputy over a guitar. The officer murdered Ruiz, causing the Spanish- speaking members of the city to or ga nize a protest at the city jail, demanding justice for Ruiz’s violent death. The following year, someone murdered three officers as they tried to capture a Mexican fugitive outside of Los Angeles. Soon, a mob caught and hanged the alleged perpetrator. Los Angeles showed great prejudice dur- ing this early period, especially toward Mexicans and Indians. Whites considered African Americans less of a threat since there were so few of them in the community. Angelenos went even further in trying to main- tain an upstanding community while degrading people of color by attack- ing certain cultural aspects.68

On 2 February 1848 the United States and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending the Mexican- American War. The agreement gave the United States 520,000 square miles in several western territories including Texas, California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming. In exchange, the United States paid Mexico $15 million. The Treaty promised “white” Mexican landholders citizenship rights, as opposed to those who did not own land, such as Mexican Indians. In essence, the treaty created racialized class diferences while ofering no racial protections. Property own ership, therefore, had racial consequences, since wealthy Mexicans essentially “became white,” while non- propertied men were considered “other.” Similarly, when the California state constitution was adopted, only white males were guaran- teed certain rights like voting. California also limited testifying in courts and homestead rights to whites. It took little time to firmly draw strict racial and ethnic bound aries that mirrored those of other urbanized locales around the country.69

By the 1860s, white Angelenos sharpened their brand of racial poli- tics by further marginalizing vari ous groups of people of color. The city



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outlawed bullfighting and bear fighting, two popu lar Mexican sports. Baseball emerged as the popu lar white sport for the city. Angelenos also took a strong position on the slavery issue and the Civil War. California refused to take a firm stance on the status of slaves, leaving the subject for the courts to determine, but Angelenos chose between the Confed- erate and Union Armies. In 1861, the city avoided a violent standof be- tween local secessionists and union supporters by moving troops in from Fort Tejon to the north of the city, Fort Mojave to the east, and Fort San Diego to the south. Several Demo crats dominated the city’s po liti cal dis- cussion, and gathered at places like the Bella Union hotel to denounce President Lincoln’s actions. In 1863, the city ceased to support In de pen- dence Day cele brations, showing increased support for the Confederacy. This protest lasted for two consecutive years. Several army officers in Los Angeles abandoned their duties in order to support the Confederacy. One of the city’s judges traveled to Richmond, Virginia to ofer an army from Los Angeles. This army, however, never or ga nized, thus Angelenos re- mained absent from participation in the Civil War.70

By the end of the Civil War, white Angelenos succeeded in further marginalizing most people of color. Yet as they continued to assert their superiority over Mexicans, the status of African Americans remained am- biguous. Although a few people of African descent made great strides, others faced tough challenges. White Angelenos feared the spread of an African American community in the city, and attempted to exclude them, along with other people of color. Whites designated specific areas for African Americans to work and to live, such as Nigger Alley. They con- trolled Mexican residents by constricting their activity, taking their land, and meeting them with vio lence and brutality. Meanwhile, many Indians succumbed to a smallpox epidemic in 1864.71

African Americans in Transitional Stages

Before 1850, Los Angeles existed only as a frontier, with open space for both settlement and for race relations. California initially treated race quite diferently than it did under Mexican rule with a racial hierarchy, closely linked to Spanish and Mexican mores. People of bi- or multiracial heritage climbed the social ladder much faster and easier than persons of “pure” African or Indian ancestry. Those of African and Spanish descent, like the Picos, moved to the forefront of society’s social status, regard- less of racial background. After 1850, increased migration caused a new



Myths and Origins 31

shift in racial attitudes. The formation of Los Angeles as part of the United States ended this flexibility. Indians and Mexicans soon became victims of white racism. Meanwhile, in the context of national debates about slavery, Angelenos were forced to confront an emergent African American community.72

In 1850, the size of the African American community in Los Angeles was quite small. When the first census was taken in 1850, only 12 Afri- can Americans resided in Los Angeles County compared to 3,456 whites, and 62 Indians as indicated in table 1.6. Of a total state population of 92,597 people that year, only 962 of them were of African descent. The largest black communities were located in Sacramento (212), El Dorado (149), and Mariposa (195).73 Together, these communities made up 58% of the state’s total black population. In 1850, the very small black Ange- leno community within the city limits consisted of eight females and four males, and an additional five people categorized as black lived outside of the township of Los Angeles in what was considered non- stated portions of the city by the census.74

There were only two black house holds listed in the census in Los An- geles, while the rest of the black residents lived in other people’s homes. Only one person, a 6- year- old girl named Lucy, was listed as “mulatto.”75 The county recorded no slaves in the region, nor was there a slave sched- ule for the entire state. The only black head of house hold was a 35- year- old barber from Virginia, Peter Biggs. The other black men, William Roldan (24, from New York), William Davis (27 from Mississippi), Ignacio Fer- nandez (30, from Guatemala) worked as laborers. Most black individuals lived either in hotels, or in someone else’s house holds, and came from Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Kentucky (see table 1.7). All of the women lived in someone else’s home, but it is unclear whether they were domestics, slaves, or merely boarders, as their occupations, if any, were not recorded.76

Table 1.6 Race in Los Angeles, 1850


Black 12 White 3,456 Indian 62

Total Population 3,530

Source: Historical Census Browser 1850



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Cla ris sa Holman (27) and Maria Ruddle (17) both lived in a hotel. Forty- five- year- old Julia Douglass was the only woman in an all male, most likely white, home. Timothy Foster (41, head of house hold), John F. Simmons (30), and David Douglass (30) were all from New York, while she was born in Georgia. Simmons was a farmer while Douglass was listed as a trader. Malvina Conway (20) also lived in a white house hold headed by a surveyor named John  R. Conway (48) from Tennessee. Malvina was born in Kentucky. Becky (16) and Susan (14) also lived in a white house hold that was headed by a 30- year- old teamster from Alabama, Joseph Hardige. Both shared his last name. Becky was born in Arkansas, while Susan was from Alabama. Josefa  U. Chosofo was one of two people listed as black who was also from California. The 18- year- old was living in Cornelio Lopez’s house hold; Lopez was a laborer whose real estate was valued at $500.77

While the 1850 census only counted twelve black people in Los Angeles, there were a few others living in “non stated” portions of the county who were not included in that count. There was one black family, and one black woman from Mexico living just outside of the city. Forty- eight year old Manuel and his wife Tomasa Aguaqua (35) were born in Mexico. They had two sons, Julian (18) and Felipe (15) who, like their father, worked as laborers. Both Manuel and Tomasa were listed as black while their sons were not. Margarita Balenzuela was the only black person in her house hold. She was 35- years- old in 1850, and was born in California.78

In 1850 and  1860, the Federal Census recognized only three racial categories— “negro,” white, and mulatto. Yet, several non- black people

Table 1.7 African American places of birth by gender, 1850

Place of Birth Women Place of Birth Men

Alabama 1 Mississippi 1 Arkansas 1 New York 1 California 1 Guatemala 1 Florida 1 Georgia 1 Virginia 1 Kentucky 1 Montana 1 Tennessee 1

Total 8 Total 4

Source: 1850 US Federal Census



Myths and Origins 33

were counted and tallied as “colored people” at the bottom of the cen- sus indexes. Out of eleven Chinese people in Los Angeles County, four of them were living within the city’s bound aries. Two of them were listed as mulatto, but there was an additional eighty- five people in Los Angeles County, who were counted as part of the black community, out of a total population of 11,333. Of that population, this census listed twenty- seven people as mulattoes— seventeen males and ten females. The census also reported 9,221 white people residing in the county, and 2,014 Native Americans (see table 1.8). Five foreign- born men of African de- scent from Peru, the Island of Helena, Haiti, Jamaica, and the West In- dies were recorded.79

In 1860, first- generation, California- born people of African descent made up a third of the black Angeleno community, as table 1.9 shows. The majority of Los Angeles black mi grants had been born in southern states including North and South Carolina, Mary land, Mississippi, Virginia and Arkansas, Tennessee, Georgia, and Kentucky. Others came from Midwestern states such as Ohio and Illinois.80

There were eigh teen house hold heads, and all of them were male. The largest house hold in 1860 was that of Manuel Pepper (age 30), who had seven people in his home including his wife, Ann (25), their three daughters Caroline (4), Mary (7), and Alice (6 months), along with Ann’s young brothers Charles (12) and Nathaniel Embers (11). Richard Jackson (28), John Ballard (29), William Smart (33), and Daniel Jeferson (44) all had five people living in their house holds. Charles Owens (21) lived with James Davis (40) who also had a large house hold consist- ing of Charles’s wife Ellen (21), their son Robert (1), and Ellen’s mother, Bridget “Biddy” Mason (40). There was also one other man living with the family named Houston Henderson (23). While there are no occupations listed for the women, most black men in 1860 Los

Table 1.8 Race in Los Angeles, 1860

Number Percentage

Black 87 0.80% White 9,221 81.30% Indian 2,014 17.80% Chinese 11 0.10%

Total 11,333

Source: Historical Census Browser 1860



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Angeles worked as barbers, cooks, and laborers. There was also one porter, one cattle dealer, one teamster, one ship caulker, one mari ner, and one servant.81

Racial or color classifications became more inclusive in 1870, when it recognized Chinese and Indian separately. By 1910, the census consid- ered classifications other than Chinese, Indian, black, white, or mulatto as “other” without recognizing their specific racial backgrounds.82 One example of this includes Mexican and Mexican American, a crucial ra- cial classification for the California Census especially during this early period, who were not separated from the white population.83

Table 1.9 African American places of birth by gender, 1860

Place of Birth Women Men Total

Arkansas 2 1 3 California 15 15 30 Delaware   1 1 District of Columbia   2 2 Florida 1   1 Georgia 1   1 Haiti   1 1 Illinois   2 2 Island of Helena   1 1 Jamaica   1 1 Kentucky 1 2 3 Mary land   3 3 Mexico   1 1 Mississippi 5 3 8 New York   2 2 North Carolina   1 1 Ohio   2 2 Peru   1 1 South Carolina 1 2 3 Tennessee 2 2 4 Texas 1 1 2 Utah   1 1 Virginia   10 10 West Indies   1 1

29 56 85

Source: 1860 US Federal Census



Myths and Origins 35

The total population of Los Angeles in 1870 amounted to 15,309 people, of whom 8,849 were males and  6,460 were females. Whites equaled 14,720, or 96%. African Americans, Chinese, and Indians made up the remaining portion. The number of African Americans amounted to 134 people, or just under 1  percent. There were 236 Chinese, which was approximately 2  percent. The Native American population was al- most equivalent to the Chinese population, totaling 219 people, about 1 ½ percent. (The large drop in Indians from 1860 reflects a devastating smallpox epidemic that killed many Native Americans in Southern Cal- ifornia.) The 1870 census reported only two Japa nese people. There was also a significant population of native- born people—72% of the total. 4,325 people or 28% were foreign born as shown in table 1.10.84

Table 1.11 exemplifies the racial make-up in 1880. Los Angeles had 33,381 residents that year, but black people made up less than 1  percent. Chinese people made up the largest group of people of color, totaling 1,170 or 4  percent, and the Native American total was 316, almost double that of African Americans. By 1890, the black community had grown to 2 ½ percent of the total population, with 1,258 people. The Chinese popula- tion grew slightly to 1,871, making up 3  percent, and there were only twenty- six Japa nese people and thirty- five Indians living in Los Angeles. White people made up 94  percent of the city’s population as indicated in table 1.12. Although the numbers of these communities were small, people of color in Los Angeles often lived near, and interacted with one another, which allowed for a unique opportunity that was non ex is tent in other regions such as the northwest, Midwest, and southern United States.85

The numbers of people of color, however, do not reflect the number of Mexican and Mexican American residents. Earlier in the century,

Table 1.10 Race in Los Angeles, 1870

Number Percentage

Black 134 1% White 14,720 96% Indian 219 1.5% Chinese 236 2% Japa nese 2 0%

Total Population 15,309

Source: Historical Census Browser 1870



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people of Mexican descent were predominant, but the census did not consider them as a racial category until 1930. As more people settled in Los Angeles, and as the city became increasingly metropolitan, the de- mographics changed and evolved. The population grew to 170,298 people in 1900, but unlike earlier de cades, less than 1  percent had been born in Mexico. By 1900, 3  percent of the city’s residents had been born in China.86

In 1900, there were 1,817 African Americans living in the county. People of color made up less than 4  percent of the total population. The Los Angeles African American population was the second largest in the state, slightly higher than Sacramento, but falling well below the black population in San Francisco. Los Angeles County in the first de cade of the twentieth century was overwhelmingly white— about 95  percent as indicated in tables 1.13 and 1.14.87

One thing that stands out in the census reports over the years is the ways in which people were classified. Early on, African Americans of biracial parentage were allowed to choose either black, white, or mulatto, which some indeed did do. Most of the time, however, the census taker

Table 1.11 Race in Los Angeles, 1880

Number Percentage

Black 188 .5% White 31,707 95% Indian 316 1% Chinese 1,170 3.5% Japa nese 0 0%

Total Population 33,381

Source: Historical Census Browser 1880

Table 1.12 Race in Los Angeles, 1890

Number Percentage

Black 1,258 2% White 47,205 94% Indian 35 <1% Chinese 1,871 4% Japa nese 26 <1%

Total Population 50,395

Source: United States Census, 11th Census, 1890



Myths and Origins 37

deci ded a person’s race based on how they understood skin color. A person who was light- skinned may have been labeled mulatto even if they were not. This resulted in shifts of one’s racial classification from one census year to another. Another pattern one finds is that by 1910, a large number of people from Texas were listed in the census as mulatto. There are several reasons for this given the similar racial make-up as California, including that there were many people of mixed- race heri- tage in Texas. Many black residents in Los Angeles by the turn of the century not only lived in a predominantly African American commu- nity, but whites considered them black, regardless of their classification of mulatto or black.88

The first two de cades after the Civil War were increasingly difficult for African Americans, as the early promise of the Reconstruction fal- tered. Some black people emigrated to the West, enduring vari ous hard- ships, many of which were very similar to their experiences in the South. Those who arrived in Los Angeles found that whites treated people of

Table 1.13 Race in Los Angeles, 1900

Number Percentage

Black 1,817 2% White 95,068 94% Indian 144 <1% Chinese 4,424 4% Japa nese 1 <1%

Total Population 101,454

Source: Historical Census Browser 1900

Table 1.14 Race in Los Angeles, 1910

Number Percentage

Black 9,424 2% White 483,478 96% Indian Chinese Japa nese Other 11,229 2%

Total Population 504,131

Source: Historical Census Browser 1910



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color poorly, and that race relations were much more complex than in the South. This, however, did not keep many African Americans from creating a close- knit society within this new territory.89

Historian Darlene Clark Hine defines how a community is made as “the pro cess of creating religious, educational, health- care, philanthropic, po liti cal, and familial institutions and professional organ izations.”90 Even while the black population in Los Angeles was small between 1850 and 1900, black people opened businesses, established churches, fought racial oppression and restrictions, and tended to the physical, emotional, and economic needs of other black mi grants. While negotiating their own place in their city, often they engaged in state and national po liti cal issues including ending discrimination in housing, education, and em- ployment. When African Americans first came to California from the eastern United States, they confronted the institution of slavery. After the Civil War, they turned their attention to issues such as voting rights, testimony rights, and access to education. In order to succeed, these African Americans had to show solidarity, and many did.

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