Mexicans

Based upon the 2000 census, Mexicans have become the largest population within the multiethnic, multicultural City of Los Angeles. Originally, the City of Los Angeles was founded by 44 settlers from the present-day Mexican northwest states of Sonora and Sinaloa on September 4, 1781. It is also important to note that while Los Angeles was founded under the flag of colonial Spain, of the original 44 settlers or pobladores only two were from Spain. Like most Mexicans today, the majority of the settlers were mestizos, racially mixed people of multiethnic origins, mainly Indian, African and Spanish.

From 1781 to 1821, Los Angeles was under the flag of the Spainish Empire. It was during this period that the pobladores constructed Los Angeles' first streets, adobe buildings and the central Plaza. By the time of Mexican independence from Spain in 1821, Los Angeles was already the largest population center in Alta California. It served as a local and regional economic, political, social, cultural, and religious center for the area between Santa Buenaventura and San Juan Capristrano. From as early as 1818 on, prominent Mexican rancheros such as Francisco Avila, Jose Antonio Carrillo, Juan Bandini and Francisco Sepúlveda maintained second homes next to the Plaza.

Lugo Family in front of their adobe in Bell Gardens (Courtesy of the Seaver Center, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History)Between 1821 and 1848, Los Angeles was part of the Republic of Mexico. Particularly significant during this period was the development of a Californio Mexican regional identity and cultural expression based upon the spread of the ranchos or cattle ranches. It was also during this period that the leading Mexican Angelenos charted out some of the city's future. Names like Olvera, Pico, Carrillo, Sepúlveda and Lugon (See photo on the left) which mark our present-day streets and boulevards serve as daily reminders of the leadership and vision of the early Angelenos. Indeed, the Los Angeles Pueblo, together with its Plaza, was the heart of the Mexican community. It was a place where the community engaged in a dynamic economy based on cattle raising and a place where traditional culture, secular and religious fiestas were characterized by a collective significance unifying the pueblo and rancho, reaffirming traditional loyalties, and defining Los Angeles society as a whole.

In 1846, war broke out between Mexico and the United States. Alta California was invaded by United States forces. The Los Angeles Plaza area became the center of widespread Mexican opposition to the invasion. Following the acquisition of California by the United States in 1848, Los Angeles remained a predominantly Mexican city for the next three decades in terms of population and the use of Spanish as a common language.

By the 1860's, the Mexican ranching community lost their wealth and property to the Americans by various legal and illegal procedures, and also because of the severe drought which killed thousands of head of cattle and caused major economic problems. Thus, by the 1870's and 1880's, all Mexicans in Los Angeles were increasingly segregated by residence in the area around the Plaza where they developed their own institutions, social organizations, newspapers, and cultural life, which included the regular observance of Mexican religious and patriotic holidays.

The last two decades of the 19th Century marked a low point for Mexicans in Los Angeles. With the coming of the railroads, followed by a series of land booms and large scale migration and immigration of Anglo Americans and Europeans, Mexicans were soon outnumbered ten to one. New racial attitudes also came to the city. Consequently, Mexicans were increasingly segregated by residence in the area within, and slightly north of the Plaza.

By 1900, the rapid growth of agriculture, light industry and the transportation infrastructure had fueled large scale immigration into the city, including tens of thousands of Mexican workers and their families. Mexican immigration into Los Angeles was further accelerated by the political and economic turmoil of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1917, which produced a smaller but significant segment of middle and upper class political exiles. The Plaza became the scene of intense political organization and heated contention between Mexican revolutionary and anti-revolutionary groups. Perhaps the most influential of these organizations was the anti-Diaz Partido Liberal Mexicano or PLM, under the leadership of Mexican anarchist Ricardo Flores Magon. The PLM also published a revolutionary newspaper, Regeneración, which maintained its office near the Plaza. The resurgence of the Los Angeles Mexican community therefore enhanced the stature of the Plaza as a powerful symbol for cultural, political, and religious identity. This growth in population also led to the formation of new Mexican communities or barrios within the geographically expanding boundaries of the city. Especially significant was the growth of Mexican barrios in East Los Angeles from 1900 to the 1930's.

The Great Depression of the 1930's had a severe impact on the Mexican community of Los Angeles, which suffered from disproportionately high unemployment. This situation was aggravated by widespread scapegoating of Mexican relief recipients as "aliens" who should be denied assistance. Consequently, L.A. County relief agencies in the early 1930's adopted a policy of forced repatriation of Mexicans to Mexico, and the Plaza and nearby railroad yards became the center of activity for apprehending and deporting Mexicans. Between 1930 and 1935, it is estimated that Los Angeles County alone repatriated between 13,000 and 80,000 persons, including many United States citizens. Despite this, the Los Angeles Mexican community developed new political and labor organizations as a response to Depression era hardships.

Within this climate of the Great Depression Christine Sterling began her campaign to revive the Plaza and create Olvera Street as the center of Mexican romance and tourism. For many Mexicans in Los Angeles, however, the reation of Olvera Street in 1930, revealed as much irony as it did romance, and actually served to symbolize the harsh social and economic conditions under which Mexicans lived and worked. Perhaps no other symbol exemplified these contradictions better than the mural America Tropical, which was painted along Olvera Street by Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros in 1932. With its politically charged theme, the destruction of the Indian world by imperialism, America Tropical became an enduring symbol for Mexican American political and cultural identity in Los Angeles.

World War II initiated major changes in Los Angeles Mexican communities. Mexican youth from Los Angeles served in all branches of the armed forces and, on a national level became the most highly decorated ethnic group of the war. While Mexicans comprised about 10% of the city's population however, they suffered 20% of the city's total war casualties. World War II was also a period of expanded employment opportunities. Mexican workers, including a large number of women, were able to enter in significant numbers, semi-skilled and skilled industrial occupations from which they had been previously excluded by discrimination and Depression era unemployment.

Wartime pressures also stimulated racial tensions in Los Angeles, initially manifested in the imprisonment of Japanese Americans in "relocation" or concentration camps. Racial scapegoating in Los Angeles then shifted to Mexicans. This culminated in the Sleepy Lagoon trial of 1942, when a group of Mexican youths were accused of murder. The case was characterized by a malicious campaign by the local press who labeled all Mexican youth as criminal elements of the city. The Sleepy Lagoon trial was soon followed by the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, an episode in which mobs of servicemen and civilians assaulted Mexican neighborhoods in the eastside barrios and in the downtown area near the Plaza, and brutally attacked Mexican youths.

The postwar era saw returning Mexican American servicemen and other members of the community challenging barriers of second class citizenship. New political and community organizations, such as the American G.I. Forum, Unity League, Community Service Organization (CSO), and the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA) were formed. This new surge of community and political activity was perhaps best demonstrated in the 1949 election of Edward R. Roybal to the Los Angeles City Council, becoming the first Mexican American Council member of the 20th Century. He and other public figures expressed a continuing interest in the wellfare of the Plaza area.

The 1940's also witnessed the demographic and geographic expansion of Los Angeles Mexican communities within the expanding city. The rush to the suburbs also transformed the old Plaza area. In the mid 1940's a significant portion of its southern end was removed to make way for the Hollywood Freeway. During the 1950's the old Mexican community in nearby Chavez Ravine was uprooted to make way for Dodger Stadium. Finally, in 1953, in recognition of El Pueblo's significance as the birthplace of Los Angeles, the State of California designated El Pueblo as a State Historic Park, thus preventing further destruction of the site.

The 1950's was also a period of economic gain for Mexican Americans in Los Angeles. Cold War military spending stimulated high employment levels and consumer demand. This was reflected in a relative increase in educational evels and in improved housing for many members of the community. The middle and late 1950's was also the period of McCarthyism, and was marked by organizational and political setbacks for the Mexican American community. By the end of the 1950's, however, a reawakening of social consciousness stirred by the Civil Rights movement created a new climate of liberalism. For many in the Mexican American community, this new sense of optimism was symbolized by the 1960 election of John F. Kennedy as President of the United States.

By 1960, Mexican Americans in Los Angeles had become the city's largest minority group, a fact noted by the Kennedy campaign which made a concerted effort to gain their votes. In fact, while on the campaign trail Kennedy made a special visit to the Plaza/Olvera Street where he was greeted by hundreds of Mexican American supporters. In addition to greater involvement in mainstream politics, the late 1960's marked the emergence of Mexican American youth in Los Angeles and in the southwest with a new social consciousness, which became known as the Chicano and Chicana Movement. For these students and community members, the 1960's and 1970's was a period of intense discussion of how to address the problems of the Mexican American people. For many members of the Los Angeles Mexican community, the Plaza/Olvera Street area was rediscovered as a symbolic focal point to meet and plan the next stages of the Chicano Movement.

In March of 1968, the Los Angeles Unified School District was shaken by the "Blowouts" or walkouts of thousands of Mexican American high school students who were protesting the inferior educational conditions prevalent in the school system. Following the Blowouts, a series of demonstrations in Los Angeles and other Mexican American communities throughout the United States culminated in the August 29th, 1970 National Chicano Moratorium where an estimated 30,000 people converged in East Los Angeles and marched in opposition to the war in Vietnam. Marchers were especially motivated by the disproportionately high casualty rate among Chicano soldiers. Law enforcement agencies overreacted to the demonstration with a violent attack on the crowd in which several persons were killed, including Los Angeles Times reporter, Ruben Salazar, who wrote extensively on the Mexican American community.

Performers in the Historic Plaza.As the Chicano/a Movement gradually diffused in the late 1970's and 1980's, Mexicans in Los Angeles faced more complex social and political changes. Beginning in the early 1970's, this growing complexity was based primarily on the transformation of Mexican communities as a result of large scale immigration from Mexico and Central America. During the 1980's, Father Luis Olivares became a major spokesman for the Mexican and central American communities. He attended to the spiritual and social needs of Spanish speaking immigrants at "La Placita" parish in the heart of the old Plaza area and reminded residents that Los Angeles has once again become a predominantly Latino city. Factors for change in the 1990s were the increasing numbers of elected Latino officials, the development of diverse political constituencies, and an emerging political process increasingly influenced by a growing Mexican American/Chicano and Chicana middle class, which has arisen in large measure as the result of new opportunities created by the Chicano and Chicana Movement. This dramatic change in demographic and political power was perhaps best demonstrated in the 2005 election of Antonio Villaraigosa as the first Mexican American mayor of Los Angeles since 1872.

Today, with the impact of large scale immigration from Mexico, as well as natural-local population growth, Mexican Los Angeles in the early 21st Century is more than a single community; rather, it is the aggregate of many Mexican sub-communities. Some date from the ranchos of the Spanish and Mexican periods, others grew from the colonias or labor camps of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, while others are the product of the most recent waves of immigration. Each community is linked by a vibrant economic, social and cultural network which is Mexican Los Angeles. A striking manifestation of these linkages is the vital Mexican presence in downtown Los Angeles. This fact is perhaps best reflected in the continued significance of the old Plaza/Olvera Street area, now known as El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, which is not only an important historic and cultural symbol, it is also a vital area of recreation and religious life for the Los Angeles Mexican community. Above all, however, the Plaza/Olvera Street serves as a unique prism through which Mexicans in Los Angeles can look back on their past as well as chart new courses for the future.


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