Black Mexico: Colonial Los Angeles
The original settlers of Los Angeles were racially mixed persons of indigenous Indian, African, and European descent
Dating from the era of the Pueblo de Los Angeles, The Plaza and “Old Plaza Church” (Mission Nuestra Señora Reina de los Angeles) in 1869. Photo: Wikipedia/public domain
Black ‘Third Root’ dismissed as folly by some descendants of original pobladores; special research committee uncovered the truth about the seeding, nurture of colonial Los Angeles
This multiple-part series unravels the little-known history of how Mexico’s 15th-century assimilation of Spaniards, indigenous Indians, and African slaves eventually led to the founding of Los Angeles by Black-Mexicans and Mestizos in the 18th century when California was still under the rule of Mexico. Even though the Black imprint in Mexico is unraveling more and more as time moves on, the reality of the truth is still largely mired in a Shadow History because the masses do not frequent libraries and this truth has never been taught as a history lesson in Mexico, much less as historic text in the U.S. To now, this invaluable historic truth has largely been available as scholarly works. The Compton Herald sought out this history, scaled down its volume from multiple scholarly sources, and now presents it in nine parts for public consumption — the editor
Part V — “Black Mexico: Unearthing the ‘Third Root’”
THE STORY OF THE TRANSATLANTIC slave trade largely has been told from the perspective of Africans and African-Americans, whose forebears were the unwilling servants wrested from the shores of African, shackled ankle to wrist in chains aboard converted English cargo ships in their dank, darkened putrid holds.
They were “tightly-packed” in vessels to include as many slaves as possible, fed slop like swine, left helplessly to wallow in their own excrement and vomit, to endure arduous, debilitating voyages across the Atlantic’s Middle Passage to America.
The journey to America for hundreds of thousands of these wretched souls destined for Jamestown, Va., was only one part of the story. Perhaps as many as a half million more, according to historians, were destined elsewhere in the Americas, to colonial Mexico aboard ships captained by seafaring Spaniards. The hellish voyages in the bowels of these ships with slaves chained suffocatingly squashed together were identical to the conditions in the American vessels — indescribably dehumanizing.
After arrival to New Spain, their stories of centuries of bondage and travail, revolt, subsequent emancipation, and their post-slavery evolvement have never been illustrated as vividly as the indentured experience in America. Most Black-Mexicans in contemporary society have little to no understanding of their unique Africanness — of their connection to the African continent by a “Third Root,” to a people whose blood courses through their veins and whose genetic code clearly defines them as a special people.
Along with their centuries-long ethnic blending with Spaniards and the indigenous population of the region, many evolved to a mixed-blood culture called mulattos and zambos. The homogeneous gene eventually dissolved into the ethnic soup, according to historians, but lives on in the unique expression of millions of Mexicans in 2017, and with Latin, and South Americans, as well.
The enduring story of the African lived on in Mexico as it did in America, and made an indelible imprint in America on the Pacific Coast in previously-owned Mexican territory called Alta California, with the seeding of a city that would become one of the world’s most sprawling megalopolises — Los Angeles.
The late historian William M. Mason of the Los Angeles City Historical Society, researched and documented the 52 original pobladores who founded Los Angeles. As indicated in Part IV, of the 44 original founding pobladores of Los Angeles, only two were white from Spain.
Of the other 42 — 26 had some degree of African ancestry, 11 were indigenous, and 5 were mestizos (Spanish and indigenous). According to Mason’s findings, Los Angeles had been multi-ethnic since its genesis.
This was backed-up by author and historian, Dr. Antonio Ríos-Bustamante, who wrote that the original settlers of all of California were almost exclusively from the Mexican states of Sinaloa and Sonora, and that “the original settlers of Los Angeles were racially mixed persons of indigenous Indian, African, and European descent.
“This mixed racial composition was typical of both the settlers of Alta California and of the majority of the population of the northwest coast provinces of Mexico from which they were recruited,” Ríos-Bustamante said, adding, that in the century preceding the founding expedition of 1781, many Indians in this region of Mexico had been “culturally assimilated and ethnically intermixed into the Spanish-speaking, mestizo society.”
It was because of the scholarly work by Mason and fellow historians, Paul de Falla, and Dr. Atilio Parisi, coupled with research by Ríos-Bustamante, that Mason recognized the need for an organization devoted to the preservation of the history of the original City of Los Angeles and established and incorporated the Historical Society with the State of California on Oct. 25, 1976.
The author of six books and several articles regarding the early history and cultures around Southern California, Mason, and his peers would go on to uncover the ethnic richness of the Pueblo de la Reina de los Angeles through extensive research. Mason is chiefly credited with helping to uncover the ethnic facts about the original families of Los Angeles and their bloodlines.
One of the Historical Society’s first projects was to mark the four corners of the original Pueblo in a permanent and conspicuous manner. Through the Society’s efforts, plaques now commemorate these historic points located in contemporary settings: In Ernest S. Debs Park; near Sunset Boulevard at Fountain Avenue; near Olympic Boulevard at Indiana Street; and in Exposition Park — the Pueblo’s northeast, northwest, southeast, and southwest corners, respectively.
Mason died in 2000, but before his demise established one concrete fact; that the reach from Africa through the “Third Root,” deeply embedded in Mexico, also extended to California to a tiny Mexican encampment that would spawn the “City of the Angels.”
The official foundation date of Los Angeles is Sept. 4, 1781. Tradition has it that on this date 50 pobladores gathered at San Gabriel Mission along with two local priests and set out with a four-soldier escort for the site that Father Juan Crespi had selected more than a decade earlier. El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora Reina de los Angeles sobre el Rio Porciuncula (Spanish for The Town of Our Lady Queen of the Angels on the Porciuncula River) is the original, official long version of the name of the colony founded by the pobladores.
Mexico’s northernmost frontier
Alta California, as the province was known in the 18th century, marked the northern frontier of the Spanish empire in the New World. The story of California’s African heritage began in 1781 when the settlers founded El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles, and more than half of these original pobladores had African ancestors, as was typical in the northern provinces of New Spain. The descendants of these early settlers eventually developed their own culture and sense of place and became the Californios. Some became owners of large land estates granted to them by the Mexican government, others became government leaders.
The descendants of the settlers and soldiers naturally played a prominent role in developing the Los Angeles area. As colonial soldiers retired, the government granted them vast “ranchos” as partial or full payment in gratitude for their services. Other settlers also acquired ranches. Compared to the size of the pueblo, these land grants were massive in size and rivaled the land holdings of the missions. They were instrumental in developing a local economy based on cattle ranching and their owners, later referred to as “rancho dons,” became the predominant figures in Southern California society.
Power players of colonial Los Angeles
In spite of the emphasis on race clearly established by the historical mestizaje, Black-Mexicans, or mulattos, established themselves at the top of the social order in colonial Los Angeles due to their dominance among the pobladores. Among those exercising considerable political and economic power in the 18th century were Luis Quintero, Tiburcio Tapia, Pío de Jesús Pico, and Maria Rita Valdez.
The following are time capsules of their exploits.
Luís Quintero was a Black-Mexican tailor from Guadalajara, Jalisco, who later became one of the original pobladores, along with his wife Maria Quintero, a mulatta born around 1741 in Álamos, Sonora. They bore five children María Gertrudis, María Concepcíon, María Tomasa, María Rafaela, and José Clemente.
Luís and María Quintero traveled from Sonora to Alta California to become one of the founding families of the new Spanish pueblo in 1781, escorted along with other settlers by Capt. Fernando Rivera y Moncada and a small detail. When the settlers and soldiers were in Álamos in January 1781, Quintero’s destiny was already tied to the historic expedition to Alta California.
Tiburcio Tapia was among the original Los Angeles pobladores who would earn a lifetime of triumph — soldier, politician, cattle rancher, wealthy Los Angeles businessman, husband, and father (married to Juana Tomasa). On March 3, 1839, Gov. Juan Bautista Alvarado rewarded Tapia’s loyalty by issuing a 13,045-acre Mexican land grant.
The land grant encompassed present-day Rancho Cucamonga in San Bernardino County, which was established by Mission San Gabriel as a region for cattle grazing. The area extended east from San Antonio Creek to what is now Turner Avenue (Hermosa), and from what is now Eighth Street, to the San Gabriel Mountains. Tapia transferred his cattle to Rancho de Cucamonga and built a fort-like adobe house on Red Hill.
Tapia also established the Cucamonga Rancho Winery on the ranch. This was once the oldest winery in California and the second oldest in the U.S.
Fortunately for Tapia, the cession of California to the U.S. by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, guaranteed that land grants would be honored.
The ranch was inherited by his daughter, Maria Merced Tapia de Prudhomme, and her husband Leon Victor Prudhomme, who later sold Rancho de Cucamonga to John Rains in 1858.
Pío de Jesus Pico was one of the richest individuals in Alta California. In 1850, he purchased the 8,894-acre Rancho Paso de Bartolo, which included half of present day Whittier. Two years later, he built a home on the ranch and lived there until 1892. It is preserved today as Pio Pico State Historic Park. Pico also owned the former Mission San Fernando Rey de España, Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores (now part of Camp Pendleton), and several other ranchos for a total of more than 500,000 acres.
In 1868, he constructed the three-story, 33-room hotel, Pico House (Casa de Pico) on the old plaza of Los Angeles, opposite today’s Olvera Street. At the time of its opening in 1869, it was the most lavish hotel in Southern California. By the turn of the century in1900, it was deteriorating slowly along with the adjoining neighborhood, as the business center moved further south. After decades of serving as a shabby flop house, it was deeded to the State of California in 1953 and is now a part of El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historic Monument. It is used on occasion for exhibits and special events.
In politics, Pico served two terms as governor of Alta California, taking office the first time from Manuel Victoria in 1832, when Victoria was deposed for refusing to comply with orders to secularize the mission properties. As governor pro tem and “vocal” member of the Departmental Assembly, Pico began secularization. After 20 days in office, he abdicated in favor of Zamorano and Echeandía, who governed the north and south, respectively, until José Figueroa reunified the governorship in 1833.
In 1844, Pico was chosen as a leader of the California Assembly. In 1845, he was again appointed governor, succeeding the unpopular Manuel Micheltorena. Pico made Los Angeles the province’s capital. In the year leading up to the Mexican–American War, Pico was outspoken in favor of California becoming a British Protectorate rather than an American territory.
When U.S. troops occupied Los Angeles and San Diego in 1846 during the Mexican-American War, Pico fled to Baja California, Mexico, to argue before the Mexican Congress to deploy troops to defend Alta California. Pico did not return to Los Angeles until after the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and he reluctantly accepted the transfer of sovereignty.
Pico was automatically granted U.S. citizenship, and was elected to the Los Angeles Common Council in 1853, but neglected to assume office.
Maria Rita Valdez was another prominent and affluent Black-Mexican in Los Angeles during the first half of the 19th century. According to the Beverly Hills Historical Society, in 1838, Valdez, the widow of a mulatto soldier was deeded 4,500 acres, in what is known today as the core of Beverly Hills. Her ranch was called El Rancho Rodeo de las Aguas (“the gathering of the waters”), with the main house situated at today’s intersection of Alpine Drive and Sunset Boulevard.
According to historians, Valdez was constantly harassed by Native Americans and seriously assaulted in 1852. Two years later in 1854, she sold the ranch to Benjamin Davis Wilson (1811-1878) and Henry Hancock (1822-1883). By the 1880s, the ranch had been subdivided into 75-acre parcels that were rapidly bought up by White-Americans from Los Angeles and the East coast.
Racial divide opens
The stellar achievements of Black-Mexicans could not eradicate racial politics, rooted in a colonial caste system which still exerts considerable control in contemporary Mexico in terms of how people are perceived. Black or Afro-Mexicans, for the majority of their history, have been ignored by the government as a separate ethnic group. Historically, “Mexican,” was the favored ethnic distinction.
Upward mobility there is orchestrated by the ruling class Spaniards, or those of “unmixed blood” reigning at the top of government and the social hierarchy, followed by criollos, or the descendants of Spaniards born in New Spain; mestizos, and mulattos at the bottom of the rung.
In contemporary Los Angeles, those unknowing of the history could never have imagined that persons of African ancestry were the original stakeholders, that Blacks were the original landowners in such ritzy places as Beverly Hills and the Pico District, which includes Century City.
Race politics according to a number of historians is the primary reason the Mexican government has been reticent for so long to recognize Black-Mexicans as a valuable ethnic component of Mexican society accepting of their African Third Root.
Patricia Ann Talley, African-American by birth, who picked uproot and moved to Mexico’s Guerrero State nearly 20 years ago, confirms the racial animus in Mexico lives on into the New Millennium.
“There is a movement calling for the constitutional recognition of Africans as the ‘Third Root’ so that they can receive resources and government assistance, currently given only to the “indigenous [population],” said Talley, who headed a collaborative research project in 2011 about the African presence in Guerrero State titled “Pathways to Freedom in the Americas,” an exhibit now on display in Michigan.
The project was made possible with a grant from the Michigan Humanities Council and the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Task Force.
Talley is active at ground-zero of a social movement in Mexico to affirm Black-Mexican identity.
“Now, I am consulting with the founders of Mexico Negro, A.C., [which is like] the NAACP of the USA,” she said, adding that a recent seminar at the University of Mexico instructed people how to identify themselves as ‘Afro-Mexican.’
“It is fascinating to be witnessing this history,” Talley said. “We will have the annual ‘Encuentro de los Pueblos Negros’ in my adopted town of Cuajinicuilapa in November,” Talley added. In September, the group honored and celebrated Vicente Guerrero in the Zihuatanejo town square.
The persistent grassroots activism in Mexico through the years did not return void. In January 2016 in a move that was unprecedented, the Mexican government recognized its 1.38 million citizens of African descent in a national survey. The survey served as a preliminary count before the official 2020 national census, where “Black” will debut as an official ethnic classification.
That was a giant leap for Mexicans of African descent, who can now attempt to extend their embrace of the Mexican mainstream. Most also will have to gain a sharper focus on where they stand in the grand scheme and how to negotiate the playing field.
That is why the work by Talley and others is so vitally important. The social activism as indicated by Talley gives a clear picture of the cultural distinction in Mexico. Some historians and people, in general, have emphasized a difference between a “Spaniard” and a “Mexican” in terms of race. For example, “colonial Mexicans” are described as “persons of mixed blood.” The implication is, of course, that Spaniards are European persons of “unmixed blood” or racially “pure” types.
But a fact that cannot be denied is the overwhelming influence of Africa. At one time in the history of Mexico, as historians in this series have observed, there were more African slaves in bondage in Mexico than in colonial America.
Moreover, mestizos born in wedlock, at least during the 16th century, were accepted as criollos. In short, the definition of “Mexican” often confuses race with nationality in the modern period and with caste in the colonial period. In addition, by this definition of “Mexican,” neither an indigenous, criollo, or African would be Mexican because they are, by social definition of “unmixed blood.”
Like the original settlers of other parts of California and the American Southwest in general, the pobladores reflected varied backgrounds: Peninsular (born in Spain), criollo, indigenous, mulatto, mestizo, and zambo.
Commemoration and shameful omission
The historic “Los Pobladores Walk to Los Angeles” is a tradition that keeps alive the final nine miles of the great trek to California. It occurs each year over the Labor Day weekend, which coincides with the Sept. 4 anniversary of the city’s founding. It was organized in 1981 by the Los Pobladores 200, an association comprised of the descendants of the original 44 settlers and six-soldier detail that accompanied them to California. The cities of San Gabriel and Los Angeles join together to celebrate the pobladores’ final miles to the city center.
The racial backlash against Africans — who had no say in their forced removal from Africa — persisted all the way to Los Angeles. The original plaque at Olvera Street commemorating “Los Pobladores,” had for many years harbored a shameful omission — not one reference to the African heritage of the Black pobladores.
Eventually, scholars from the Los Angeles area, including professors from the University of Southern California and California State University, Dominguez Hills, were part of a sub-committee formed during a citywide effort to commemorate Los Angeles’ Bicentennial anniversary in 198l. They helped to replace the old plaque with the current one which accurately depicts the multiracial makeup of the founders, and inclusion of the Third Root.
Olvera Street was a favorite destination for elementary school “field trips” prior to 1981 for children from throughout Los Angeles County. Prior to 1981, Black pupils from the city’s urban core were not privileged to the truth that Black-Mexicans were not only involved in the colonizing of Los Angeles but were the dominant settlers in the city’s founding.
The writer of this series was one of those students having traveled to Olvera Street for field trips on several occasions during six years of schooling at Clara Barton Hill Elementary in San Pedro, Calif.
Unfortunately, divulging the history of the original pobladores was “a political hot potato,” according to the late Dr. Doyce Nunis, Jr. professor emeritus of California history at the time at the University of Southern California.
According to Nunis, “The descendants of the pobladores were very sensitive to the prospect of being revealed as having African roots. But history is history; you can’t change it. And the subcommittee found the evidence.”
Nunis had asked a former student, Donald T. Hata, in 1978 to chair the Pobladores Subcommittee for the City of Los Angeles. Hata was asked to research and draft a commemorative plaque to honor the pobladores for the City’s Bicentennial celebration in 1981. The truth of the city’s founding was a milestone set in stone, one of Nunis’ signature achievements.
Hata would go on to earn a doctorate in history and amass stellar achievement on the way to earning the distinction as professor emeritus of history at California State University, Dominguez Hills. The esteemed historian died on Jan. 22, 2011 at age 86.
Serving with Hata on the subcommittee was an A-team of scholarly achievers, that included Miriam Matthews, the first African-American to earn a degree in library science at USC, who went on to have an illustrious career as a librarian and archivist of African-American history in Los Angeles. Matthews helped to document the city’s multiracial origins, listing all of the pobladores by name, race, sex, and age.
Matthews, who died in 2003 at age 98, also amassed a collection of approximately 4,600 black-and-white photographs documenting the African-American experience in Los Angeles and California, including scenes depicting the founding of the city, African-American stagecoach drivers and overland guides to California, and the multiracial Californio family of Pio Pico.
The team also included David Almada, a Los Angeles Unified School District administrator serving at a time when few Latinos served in such positions; and historian Leonard Pitt, an emeritus professor of history at California State University, Northridge and author of Decline of the Californios: A Social History of the Spanish-Speaking Californians, 1846-1890. Pitt died in July 2015 at 85.
The highly qualified team had been assembled to establish the indisputable truth about the contributions of Black-Mexicans to the seeding and nurturing of colonial Los Angeles. The multiracial ethnicity of the pobladores had been rejected as rumor by the scholarly establishment and never accepted until explicit census information was found in an archive in Seville, Spain. Documents there confirmed that 11 families recruited by Felipe de Neve, the first Spanish governor of Alta California, arrived from the Mexican provinces of Sinaloa and Sonora.
The voice of history resounded. The “Third Root” from African indeed had found its way to California by way of Mexico and plowed its way into the fertile ground that spawned the great City of Los Angeles.
That sealed the truth forever.