- Written by Rosemary Jenkins
19 Nov 2013
THE VIEW FROM HERE-Blacks, for the most part, came to this country as slaves. Mexicans, despite a hierarchy, often arrived as indentured servants (well, slaves) as well. To whom does this land rightfully belong? Is there a “Right of Return” when the people in question were already here? What about the new immigrants from Jamaica or Ecuador? What about the “Blacks, not Hispanic” or the “Hispanics, not Black”?
What about land legacies? Case in point: Apolinaria Lorenzana, a petite woman born in Mexico, is someone who must be given a prominent place in our history books (where presently she is not to be found) as a genuine and significant pioneer in California history.
Living in a foundling home in Mexico City in 1800, she was taken to the Spanish territory of California at the age of seven—her life forever changed. At a time and place when females were valued for their skills (in part because of a shortage of any kind of labor in the region), they could more easily rise on the socio-economic ladder. Apolinaria had been taught to read and later taught herself to write. In the California missions where she resided, she was educated in other skills, such as sewing and nursing--skills she, in turn, taught to other children.
She lived in Monterey, Santa Barbara, and San Diego and earned the unwavering trust of the priests who eventually granted her lands of her own (including three ranches).
She lived under a variety of governments--first Spain, then Mexico, and finally the United
States. America invaded Mexico in 1846 and won that short-lived war, a denouement which forever changed the dynamics between Mexico and America. Though the Treaty of Hidalgo in 1848 guaranteed that the Hispanic land-owners could forever retain title to their lands (or dispose of them as they wished), the subsequent Land Act of 1851 essentially reversed that assurance.
As a consequence, Apolinaria (often referred to as “The Blessed One”) was tricked out of her land through a string of swindlers by the “new” Americans that made California a U. S. state. She died in poverty and if it were not for her memoirs dictated to an “American” writer, we would know nothing of her contributions.
She lived through every epoch of the transition of the Southwest American history that included the U. S. justification for stealing land and abusing rightful landowners under the banner of Manifest Destiny. Her lost Rancho Jamacha, in what is now San Diego County, brought great wealth to its new corporate raiders, but not to her!
To paraphrase people like Apolinaria Lorenzana and all too many people like her, these early California residents “didn’t cross the border. The border crossed them,” or as Ray Suarez said in his recent outstanding book, Latino Americans, these people “never emigrated to a new land. . .a new land came to them.” And they were helpless to right the wrongs perpetrated upon them.
For the sake of history and ethnic pride, it seems important to know who came first, who settled what, where, and when. El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciúncula,
translated into English as The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels of Porciúncula--better known as Los Angeles or The City of the Angels, was officially founded in 1781 by a small band of 44 settlers (22 adults and 22 children) that included Spanish soldiers and two padres. [Porciúncula, by the way, is the name of the church in Italy where Saint Francis of Assisi worshipped. Porciúncula is also the original name of what is today’s Los Angeles River.]
Mexico was not to gain its own independence from Spain until 1821, and soon after hundreds
of Chinese began arriving, later to dig for gold (the 1849-50 Gold Rush) or build the Transcontinental Railroad (completed in 1869).
At a time when Russia controlled what is now Alaska, it also explored northern California. Russian colonization of our territory extended from 1732-1867. Vitus Bering (think of the Bering Strait) explored Alaska to expand Russia’s fur trade. On the frozen tundra back in the homeland, sea otters were much in demand for food to nourish the hungry Siberians and for furs to keep them warm.
Hence, Russians for a number of years explored and plundered along the California coast. [Remember the famous children’s book, Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell, by which we learn of the young woman, Karana, who was stranded and lived on her own for 18 years on San Nicholas Island (now an off-limits U. S. Naval base) until her rescue and removal to Mission Santa Barbara where she lived out her life and was subsequently buried. Her skirt of cormorant feathers is enshrined at the Vatican.]
You know how Sarah Palin can see Russia from Alaska. Maybe Bering could see Alaska from Russia via the Aleutian Islands. He was followed by other Russians who continued expeditions down into California where the Russian Empire established Fort Ross (Russia), later sold in 1842 to John Sutter (a Mexican citizen of Swiss origin who established Sutter’s Mill). Because of place names like the Russian River and Sebastopol, we have numerous reminders of Russia’s occupation of California (including, as many say, our state symbol, the Russian bear). Subsequent divestment of Russian land came in 1867 when Alaska was sold to America under an agreement often referred to as Seward’s Folly.
So California history represents a motley crew of inhabitants, most with good intentions—many, not so much. Nevertheless, whatever our beginnings or initial purposes, we are Angelinos now—alternately rooting for the Lakers or Clippers, the Angels or Dodgers, wanting an NFL team to come back—for heaven’s sake!!
I remember when, as a newly married couple back in the mid-‘70s, my husband and I were looking to buy a home. Can you believe that even then a woman’s income was suspect?! Banks giving out mortgage loans were not wont to accept the wife’s salary as part of the determination of income. After all, she would want to be a stay-at-home wife and, especially after having children, would no longer want to work. Therefore, her salary should not/would not be considered for income eligibility.
I guess we married at just the right time. Nevertheless, I recall having to remind one realtor who was showing us a home in San Dimas that a recent law had just changed procedures and that banks were required to consider my income as well. He seemed surprised (we lost confidence in him).
Nevertheless, we decided we wanted to live in the San Fernando Valley, a dream long held by both of us. We knew about steering and red-lining (my husband being Black and I, white) but, despite that, were ultimately able to overcome that hurdle—I took over the initial paperwork so that it was not until the final papers needed to be signed that my husband appeared in person.
Subsequently, I began hearing stories little known to most people living in the San Fernando Valley at the time, let alone to those in Los Angeles or California or the United States. The U. S. Housing Authority created programs that not only mandated segregated housing but typically placed low-income public housing in less-desirable areas, such as along railroad tracks and highways, by commercial waterfronts, and within industrial sites--largely why we see the same or similar housing configurations today.
“Mexicans and Negroes” were ranked at the bottom of realtor ranking lists established by the American Institute of Real Estate Appraisers, the various lending institutions, and the Federal government—all of which were complicit in making sure that housing loans kept neighborhoods segregated. Realtors drew circles on maps to designate which groups would live where—thus the policies of the above-mentioned red-lining and steering [you don’t want to live here (because you will never get approved anyway)—there is better for you].
There were restrictive covenants supported by New Deal governmental practices. They detailed how properties could be used and developed; how they could be sold and to whom. Deeds could only be held by those of the Caucasian race (whatever that is) and thus could not be held by Blacks or Latinos or Asians (Japanese and Chinese). In the San Fernando Valley, for instance, if lands were held for decades or even centuries by those of Latino or Indian descent, such people could not pass the land on to their own descendants and had to sell the properties only to those of the white race.
Fast forward to today, we see the vestiges of such programs in our overall segregated communities. Sometimes one minority moves out to see another minority move in (take Compton’s once Black community emerging as what is essentially an Hispanic one). If Blacks moved to outlying areas to provide safer neighborhoods for their families, they very soon found themselves in a newly segregated community as whites moved out (consider Apple Valley). [This reminds me of the times when my mother would tell me of housing patterns in the mid-20th century in Detroit. She said when whites abandoned their neighborhoods, Jews moved in, and when Jews moved elsewhere, what was left behind was only good for the Negroes.]
And what are we witnessing as a result? Turf wars! This is my community! Get out! No, I used to live here. You pushed us out. You’re trying to take over. This is my neighborhood! Gangs echo this mantra over and over again.
Yet, it is also said by many: My roots are here. My home is here. Tia runs a boutique in Pacoima. Mayma started a soul food restaurant in Boyle Heights. What about Canter’s in Fairfax, once a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, now home to Nigerian/Kenyan/Ethiopian-American populations? Good golly, Miss Molly! We Angelinos speak more than 100 different distinct languages. At one time, Russians, Jews, Japanese, and Mexicans lived together peacefully in East Los Angeles. Everyone today still loves Manuel’s El Tepeyac Cafe and Bertha’s Soul Food in East L.A.
We are going to continue to lose more generations to racial strife, poverty, poor education, low-paying and insecure jobs, homelessness, high crime, disproportionate minority jail populations—unless we understand our true history and at the same time recognize the depth of anger and resentment on the one side and the fear and the sense of entitlement on the other.
Though laws have changed, socio-economic patterns have not. People are often entrenched in outmoded beliefs and Hatfield/McCoy-type feuds (Bloods and Crips, or Pacas 13 and PP Street Locos, for instance). Though there are more ethnic electeds, though there are more sensitive and compassionate politicians who represent a broad spectrum of minorities, resolving societal issues is still slow.
We cannot allow the disillusioned and dispossessed to continue as they are—for them, the thought of prison may be a welcome change to lives that have been lived without love and guidance. For such people, their horizons forecast an existence of unremitting pain, frustration, and emptiness. We cannot allow the damage that is being suffered by all too many to fester “like a raison in the sun,” or surely that dried- up, shriveled piece of discarded fruit will someday explode!
I was born in Detroit, but I am an Angelino! My friend was born in El Salvador, but he is an Angelino! My colleague was born in the Philippines, but she is an Angelino! My neighbors were born in Iran, but they are Angelinos!
I think you would be surprised by the racial/ethnic composition of the 22 original adults who founded Los Angeles—facts not generally found in any of our student history books! There were nine American Indians, eight Mulattos (mixed Spanish and Black), two Negroes (of African ancestry), one Mestizo (Spanish and Indian), one Creole (born in New Spain), and one Spaniard.
So perhaps it doesn’t matter, after all, from where we or our ancestors came. What matters is how we live with each other now. It’s not “we” or “they.” Collectively, there should no longer be the concept of “the other.”
Yes, it would be a real plus if we passed on our native languages to our children, but others must try to learn at least one additional language as well. We must continue to take pride in our own personal heritage but must also learn other cultures. Becoming part of all that is “American” can bring a remarkable richness to our lives.
We are we and that is how it should and must be—if we are ever to flourish “in peace and harmony.”
(Rosemary Jenkins is a Democratic activist and chair of the Northeast Valley Green Coalition. She also writes for CityWatch.)
Vol 11 Issue 93
Pub: Nov 19, 2013