Founding of Los Angeles: Truth in Black and Brown
The 44 pobladores arriving in Los Angeles in 1781 were 11 mulatto and mestizo families — including children. The majority were mulatto. The truth of the founding of Los Angeles and a shameful omission was not
The 44 pobladores arriving in Los Angeles in 1781 were 11 mulatto and mestizo families — including children. The majority were mulatto.
The truth of the founding of Los Angeles and a shameful omission was not uncovered until the city’s 1982 Bicentennial Commemoration
Los Angeles is a remarkable megalopolis with a population topping 4 million in 2019 with a vibrant tapestry of cultures and ethnicities from around the globe. The city had a humble beginning with the arrival of a contingent of dusty travelers from Sinaloa, Mexico on Sept. 4, 1781 — the 44 Original Pobladores or settlers, whom local historians would not accurately identify for another 200 years. It was part of the city’s Shadow History Angelinos never knew — that the bloodline of Africa contributed significantly to the emergence of Los Angeles.
The racial backlash against Africans — who had no say in their forced removal from Africa — persisted all the way to the seeding and germination of the “City of the Angels.” The original plaque at Olvera Street commemorating “Los Pobladores” or settlers, for many years, harbored a shameful omission — never referencing the African heritage of the original settlers. The historic “Los Pobladores Walk to Los Angeles” a tradition that commemorates the final nine miles of the great trek to California by the settlers, occurs each year over the Labor Day weekend, which coincides with the Sept. 4 anniversary of the city’s founding.
The commemoration was organized in 1981 by the Los Pobladores 200, an association comprised of the descendants of the 44 Original Pobladores and six-soldier detail that ushered them to California, then a territory of Mexico known as Alta, California. Los Angeles and the City of San Gabriel join together to celebrate the pobladores’ final miles to the city center.
Los Pobladores 200 proudly embraced their forebears until they were confronted by a cloistered secret that a fringe minority of Mexicans down through the years never discussed beyond a whisper — that “black blood” or African DNA was infused in Mexican society. The contention did not sit well with Los Pobladores 200 whose members considered themselves traditionally Mexican with indigenous roots and/or a blend of Indigenous and Spanish. For decades historians of Mexican culture had rejected the notion of an African angle.
Eventually, scholars from the Los Angeles area, including professors from the University of Southern California, and California State University, Dominguez Hills, part of a sub-committee formed during a citywide effort to commemorate L.A.’s Bicentennial anniversary in 198l, became concerned and endeavored to set the record straight. Unfortunately, divulging the true 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.
Nunis said, “The descendants of Los Pobladores were very sensitive to the prospect of being revealed as having African roots. But history is history — you cannot change it. And the subcommittee found the evidence.”
The highly qualified team had been assembled by Nunis 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 was considered a fallacy 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.
Los Pobladores 200 is reticent to this day to discuss the subcommittee’s groundbreaking findings.
Nunis asked a former student, Donald T. Hata, in 1978 to chair the Pobladores Subcommittee for the City of Los Angeles and to research and draft a commemorative plaque to honor the pobladores for the City’s Bicentennial celebration in 1981. They helped to replace the old plaque on display at Olvera Street with the current one which accurately depicts the multiracial make up of the founders, and the inclusion of the Third Root from Africa in Mexican history, and by extension, Los Angeles.
Olvera Street was a favorite destination for elementary school “field trips” prior to 1981 for children from throughout L.A. 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. This writer was one of those students who traveled to Olvera Street for field trips on several occasions during my years attending Clara Barton Hill Elementary in San Pedro, Calif.
It should be noted, the African connection occurred when more than 200,000 slaves from Africa were exported to colonial Mexico by Spain in the 15th century to labor in the sugar cane fields and silver mines. The region was colonized in 1519. Over time, the African slaves revolted against their Spanish enslavers, gained freedom, but never returned to Africa.
Inter-marriage with both Spaniards and indigenous resulted in mulatto and Zambo cultures, respectively. The inter-mix of indigenous people and Spaniards birth the mestizo culture. The 44 pobladores arriving in Los Angeles in 1781 were 11 mulatto and mestizo families — including children. The majority were mulatto.
Serving with Hata on the subcommittee was an A-team of scholars, 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.
Hata would go on to earn a doctorate in history and stellar achievement on the way to earning the distinction as an emeritus professor of history at California State University, Dominguez Hills.
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 images depicting the founding of the city, African American stagecoach drivers and overland guides to California, and the multiracial Californio family of Pio Pico, the wealthy Black-Mexican landowner for whom the City of Pico Rivera and Pico Boulevard are named.
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 truth of the city’s founding was a milestone set in stone, one of Nunis’ signature achievements. The esteemed historian died on Jan. 22, 2011 at age 86.
The voice of history resounded. While the First and Second Roots of Indigenous and Spaniard, respectively formed colonial Mexico initially, with the “Third Root” from Africa infusing into the culture later in the 15th century, indeed the Third Root would find its way to California by way of Mexico and plow historically into the fertile ground that spawned the great City of Los Angeles.
That sealed the truth forever.