Shades of L.A.: The Filipino American Experience

Thirty years ago the Los Angeles Public Library embarked on a ground-breaking, collection-building project – reaching out to the diverse communities of the region for family photographs that would provide depth and nuance to an understanding of this region’s multi-cultural history. The project and its results are called Shades of L.A. The support group Photo Friends of the L.A. Public Library was formed to assist in that effort. The group endures.

Los Angeles is a place literally built on the intersection of cultures: from the Tongva and other Native tribes that lived here for centuries to the Spanish, Mexican, and Black pobladores who established the pueblo in 1781, to the Hispanic and White cultures that duked it out for dominance in the early 19th century. As so often happens, the dominant culture, in this case the White American settlers, was quickly able to put their stamp on the historical narrative.

In the 20th century, Los Angeles has seen further waves of immigration, from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, East Africa, and Latin America. Asian immigration has come in distinctive waves, beginning with Chinese in the late 19th century, to Japanese and Filipinos in the first part of the 20th, and, more recently, Southeast Asians, the refugees of the wars that decimated that region.

With major funding from Security Pacific National Bank and California Humanities, LAPL staff and volunteers were able to reach out to many ethnic communities and collect or copy over 7,000 images documenting family businesses, celebrations, religious and cultural traditions, and ordinary life. In addition, volunteers taped a dozen oral histories from participants. These photos and stories go far to balance the collection of the library. For a more detailed overview of the project, see https://www.lapl.org/collections-resources/photo-collection/shades-la.

Filipinos in Los Angeles

Two persons who immigrated to this country from the Philippine Islands provided oral histories for Shades of L.A.: Royal Morales and Helen Brown. This essay is based in part on their stories. All photos are from the Shades of L.A.: Filipino American Community Collection unless otherwise indicated.

Men play cards at the Filipino Community Center in 1977. Herald Examiner Collection, image #00048180, Conrad Mercurio photographer.

The Philippines has a long, complicated history, including a unique melding of cultures and ethnicities and a special, if not always happy, relationship with the United States. For centuries the islands were subjects of the Spanish Empire. In 1898 the country was freed from Spanish rule only to become a far-flung territory of the U.S. Independence finally arrived only 75 years ago.

A benefit of American governance was that Filipinos could immigrate to the states more easily than other Asian peoples (at least until 1934 when immigration quotas were established). They were called “Nationals.” This was not the same as being a citizen; Nationals could not vote and faced similar discrimination as members of other ethnic groups.

In his 1993 interview, Royal “Roy” Morales described a center of Filipino activity in Central Los Angeles that moved about according to the changing demographics of the times, as well as urban development in the Bunker Hill area and freeway development. At the time of the interview, he describes the new Filipino Town as “the Union and Temple area to further down to Alvarado and west.” The area includes both the Filipino Christian Church and the Filipino Community Center (now the Filipino Cultural Center).

 

Royal Morales at his desk at Chapman College, City of Orange, about 1953.  Image #00003825.

Roy was born in Los Angeles in 1932, but moved to the Philippines with his family at the age of two. He returned to the states at the age of 18, alone, and enrolled in college. He earned a master’s degree in social work from USC and went on to a long career in the field, using his talents to help young Filipinos.  He sat for an interview with Amy Kitchener in 1993.

Arriving back in the Los Angeles area at the age of 18 was a bewildering experience for Roy:

I saw the big trees the big ocean. I saw the mountains and snow, very impressive, very clear, beautiful country. Seeing this vast, big country was very impressive. And then going directly to the campus, of course, that was my acculturation, the campus, the school. And right away the other connection was going to the Filipino Christian Church. That became my anchor.

Nativity play at the Filipino Christian Church, 1955. Image #00003678.

 

Helen (second from left) and friends received master’s degrees from UCLA in 1939. Image #00003946.

Helen Brown was born in Manila in 1915 to a Filipino mother and Caucasian American father, one of many mainlanders who went to the Philippines to teach in the early part of the century. Her family immigrated to the Los Angeles area in 1933 when she was a teenager. She graduated from UCLA and went on to receive a master’s in education from the university in 1939. Most of her working life was in schools, both in teaching roles and as an advocate for child welfare.

Although she counted white girls among her friends growing up, she often felt she was treated as a curiosity:

We’d have parties and sometimes we’d have slumber parties, and I remember we would be talking, sharing experiences. And, well, you know: “Where were you born?” I’d say I was from the Philippines and, well, that would start the frowns, you know. “Where was that?…Was it near Hawaii?” “No, a little bit further than that.” [Sometimes] I’d say I was from Hawaii, you know, or Czechoslovakia, or whatever.

Forbidden to Marry

Shortly after graduate school, Helen met Bill Brown, a Caucasian. Although she herself was half Caucasian, the couple were turned away when they went to get a marriage license in 1941. California still had a miscegenation law on the books, dating from statehood in 1850, which outlawed marriage between Caucasians and members of any other race. (Hispanics were considered white in this context.) The couple went to Nevada to marry. It was common at the time for mixed-race couples to marry out of state. Seven years later, the statute was struck down in the state Supreme Court case, Perez v. Sharp.

 

An ethnically mixed group of workers pose for a picture at the San Pedro Naval Supply Depot. Image #00025397, 1945.

Wartime Opportunities

World War II brought opportunities for ethnic minorities and women, groups that often faced discrimination in employment. Helen Brown trained as a welder and found work with CalShip (the California Shipbuilding Corporation) working on the Liberty Ships. CalShip and other yards had a mandate to turn out hundreds of new cargo ships to support, and sometimes carry, armed forces. Much of the work crew were women.

The work was also an opportunity for Helen, and others, to mix with women of other ethnicities.

I had gotten acquainted with the others — the Blacks and the Hispanics — and so I went to work with many of them in the shipyard. And I was assigned to weld the sides of the ships — they were called the bulk heads of the ships, these Liberty Ships — later called the Victory Ships. …  I was so interested because some of them were used to land the troops or the marines in the Philippines, as well as other islands.

There were all kinds of women, there was even one flapper kind of young thing, you know; she’d make us all laugh with all of her adventures, you know! And then also, I know that was the beginning of women’s empowerment, because it was the first time that women of color really had the chance to earn a good living, because the pay was very good. And enjoy themselves, and they learned this skill. First time they were out of their homes, you know.

 

Filipina American Tawa and her friend Ethel sport athletic sweaters at Roosevelt High School in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of L.A., 1944. Image #00025415.

Cultural Identity

The sixties was a turbulent decade in America, as many racial and ethnic groups organized to demand recognition and an end to discrimination in housing, jobs, and education. These movements also served to foster pride in ethnic identity and culture. Filipinos who may have come from quite diverse backgrounds in their home islands now began to see themselves as one group: Filipino Americans. Both Helen Brown and Roy Morales, who became friends and allies, were involved in establishing Filipino American associations.

Helen, who had been quiet and shy in her youth, recalls finding her voice and purpose:

We as a group were hearing the Blacks talk about their experiences. We Asians began to hear about the Chicanos and were saying to ourselves, “Hey, you know, we feel the same way. They’re saying things that we feel that we have never expressed.”

The terms “Pilipino/Pilipina” were adopted by many activists as a way of establishing self-identity, rather than the “Filipino/Filipina” ascribed to them originally by Spanish conquerors. Helen explains:

And then they gave us our name: Filipinos with an F. And we didn’t even have an F in our alphabet, see? And they’re defining who we are and everything.

Today both terms are used.

Cultural pride was a big part of changing times. Helen Brown felt unexpected pride when she first saw a dance troupe from the Philippines perform in Los Angeles:

I saw this for the first time at the Shrine Auditorium in 1954 when a dance troupe called the Bayanihan came to perform. So I went over to see it and I’m telling you, Amy, this was the most beautiful presentation that I’ve ever seen, you know. And it was all this Philippine music with all the dances and costumes and everything. It was just beautiful! And I said, “Hey, you know what, that’s part of me!” And that was really the beginning of my pride in being, you know, who I was.

The Bayanihan Philippine Dance Company perform “Wild Plumes,” balancing bowls on the dancers’ heads, in 1988. Image #00087675, Herald Examiner Collection, James Ruebsamen, photographer.

The group Pisante performs at the Festival of Philippine Arts and Culture, 1994. Image #00005705.

Royal Morales described some of the cultural traditions that received new recognition during the sixties and seventies as young Filipinos discovered their heritage:

Well, the ethnic studies and then empowerment, getting into certain positions of importance, getting further into the roots, heritage, a lot of the games, culture, kite-making, sipa [rattan ball and the game that utilizes it], parol making [a decorative Christmas lantern], poetry that is a combination of Pilipino and English. And artists, writers were coming up. A few books were beginning to be written … Drama, poetry, essays, articles, arts and crafts were all part of the seeking of roots.

A student in Roy Morales’ lantern-making workshop at the Filipino Community Center shows off his ‘parol’ in 1993. Image #00005701.

Acculturation, not Assimilation*

Helen Brown described the change in mindset that came about as a result of the ferment of the sixties and beyond:

So now, what they’re doing is to begin to think in terms of — yes, we are from different regions of the islands, but still we’re from the Philippines. And so, if we’re going to have more of a part of this country here in the United States that we’re making our home, we want to be a part of this, you know; we have to make our part known, too. It’s not assimilation, it’s more of an acculturation. So we keep our differences as Filipino, but we also become a part of the United States. This is the Philippine culture contributing to this society.

*Merriam-Webster defines acculturation as a blending of cultures, as opposed to assimilation which occurs when one culture is absorbed into that of the dominant culture.

 

Royal Morales and granddaughter are joined by Jennifer Paz, a star of the musical Miss Saigon at the 1996 Festival of Philippine Arts and Culture. Miss Paz is more recently heard in the cartoon series Steven Universe as the voice of Lapis Lazuli. Image #00005707.

 

Featured image: Tawa and George, a sailor, in Long Beach, about 1947. Image #00025404.

Shades of L.A.: Strong roots – the photos and story of Alice Ito

Aiko Alice with her cousin Niki and brothers Hitoshi and Ise (Isamu) playing at the family’s flower farm in the Los Feliz neighborhood, about 1930. Image #00004245.

 

Thirty years ago the Los Angeles Public Library embarked on a ground-breaking, collection-building project – reaching out to the diverse communities of the region for family photographs that would provide depth and nuance to an understanding of this region’s multi-cultural history. The project and its results are called Shades of L.A. The support group Photo Friends of the L.A. Public Library was formed to assist in that effort. The group endures.

Los Angeles is a place literally built on the intersection of cultures: from the Tongva and other Native tribes that lived here for centuries to the Spanish, Mexican, and Black pobladores who established the pueblo in 1781, to the Hispanic and White cultures that duked it out for dominance in the early 19th century. As so often happens, the dominant culture, in this case the White American settlers, was quickly able to put their stamp on the historical narrative.

In the 20th century, Los Angeles has seen further waves of immigration, from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, East Africa, and Latin America. Asian immigration has come in distinctive waves, beginning with Chinese in the late 19th century, to Japanese and Filipinos in the first part of the 20th, and, finally, Southeast Asians, the refugees of the wars that decimated that region.

With major funding from Security Pacific National Bank and California Humanities, LAPL staff and volunteers were able to reach out to many ethnic communities and collect/copy over 7,000 images documenting family businesses, celebrations, religious and cultural traditions, and ordinary life. In addition, volunteers collected a dozen oral histories from donors. These photos and stories go far to balance the collection of the library. For a more detailed overview of the project, see https://www.lapl.org/collections-resources/photo-collection/shades-la.

A Tradition of Flowers

This essay looks at the life of Aiko Alice Ito, a Japanese American woman whose family established an enduring flower growing business in the Loz Feliz area south of Griffith Park. Ito’s story parallels that of many Nisei – the first generation of Japanese Americans born in this country. After establishing their business, the family lost it precipitously when they were “evacuated” to a concentration camp during World War II. Unlike many, the family was able to return and reestablish the business which lasted until 1961. Alice and her husband continued in the floral profession by building and running a successful retail shop on Western Avenue. They were active in both flower industry associations and Japanese American organizations.

In addition to donating use of many family photos, Alice Ito sat for an oral history interview with project director Amy Kitchener in 1993. All the quotations below are her own words. All images are from the Shades of L.A.: Japanese American Community, unless otherwise indicated.

Kiyo Kuromi, Alice’s mother, circa 1915. Shades of L.A. image #00004921.

Between two homes

Alice’s mother, Kiyo Kuromi, arrived from Japan in 1906 as a child – “in the year of the San Francisco earthquake.”

“My grandfather used to come and go [from and to Japan]. An when he found that there were much better chances for his children, he brought all three of them and then mother stayed here and the others he took back again…She remained with her uncle and he grew flowers for quite some time and then he retired and went back [to Japan] and then she was on her own here.”

Alice’s mother married a man named Harue, but it appears that the couple chose to keep Kiyo’s maiden name, Kuromi, as their surname, a relatively common practice among Japanese when a family name was at risk of dying out. Together they opened a floral nursery in the Los Feliz area of the city, in the shadow of the Griffith Observatory. Here they grew sweet peas, chrysanthemums, ranunculus, and other popular varieties, taking the cut flowers to sell at the flower market on Wall Street in downtown L.A. Alice and her two younger brothers grew up roaming and playing on the flower farm.

Sailing day  in 1931. A crowd gathers to bid farewell to relatives returning to Japan. The Nippon Yusen Kaisha line also carried tourists to exotic locations before hostilities put an end to the trade. Image #00004246.

Alice’s grandfather continued to keep a foot in both countries. He embarked upon business ventures in Los Angeles, but returned to Japan every year or so. She recalled day-long excursions to see him off at San Pedro.

“If grandpa was going to Japan, it was by boat. We would see him off. We would take a picnic lunch. It was an all-day affair.”

Advertisement for N.Y.K. Japanese liners. Image # Travel_Poster-00118, Travel Poster Collection.

In 1939, when Alice was about 20, the entire family traveled to Japan to visit the ailing grandfather. Alice elected to remain in that country and attend college. In addition to beefing up her scanty Japanese language skills, she had the opportunity to study traditional arts which stood her in good stead later as a florist:

“It was a wonderful challenge. In addition to books, over the weekends I decided to fill in with flower arranging classes, the Japanese tea ceremony, silk painting, and calligraphy. There was lot there to learn! Silk painting was wonderfully relaxing. Flower arranging has been a wonderful influence because, as we went into business, I found that the basic lines were important to follow, even with the [fuller] arrangements that we have here. They do like the vines, but homes in America need a little more than the few flowers we use over there.”

Late in 1941, Alice’s sojourn in Japan was cut short when all American citizens were urged to return home. With war clouds looming, she had to scramble to find transportation back to Los Angeles.

“In my second year they asked that we return. When I was finally able to get a boat to give me passage, that ship was one of the last to unload its passengers here in San Pedro. The one right after that ship had to turn around and go back. So I was just lucky. Those friends of mine that were on that ship had to spend their lives in Japan during the war.”

Happier Times

Although the family worked long and hard at the flower farm, there were occasional outings. In addition to seeing her grandfather off at San Pedro, Alice recalls picnics small and large.

“Every so often we’d pack a picnic lunch and go either to the beach or to the park. What’s now Marina Del Rey used to be Del Rey Beach and many of the Japanese families would go down there and have their little picnics. They had a little canal* there and that’s where we used to find other Japanese American families. Another place was San Pedro — they called it White Point. We’d walk down the rocky craggy cliffs and find a spot, do a little fishing and abalone hunting. They used to have many of the prefecture [families with roots in a specific Japanese region] picnics there.”

*See our blogpost Grand Design: The Canals of Venice for a description of the canal.

Ready. Set. Go! Children line up for a foot race at a picnic sponsored by their after-school Japanese language program. Image #00004248.

“Evacuation”

The terms “evacuation” and “relocation” are euphemisms still often used to describe the forced upheaval of Japanese and Japanese Americans from the West Coast states during World War II. We described the process in our 2017 blogpost There and Back: Los Angeles Japanese and Executive Order 9066. In the spring of 1942, Alice and her family were sent first to the Santa Anita Assembly Center, a horse race track, and then to Gila River Internment Camp in Arizona.

“Well, as you know everyone had to be evacuated. And here we had this acreage and all our equipment. And so we put it into a barn, locked it up. But of course during the course of the war there wasn’t a thing left. Not one item was in there when we came back after the war. And so we started from scratch and were able to take over little bits of land which grew into forty-four acres again. And we were able to grow flowers until 1961 when the property was finally sold.”

Alice with her family at Gila River War Relocation Center, about 1942: Mother Kyo and Alice standing; father Harue kneeling center; Isamu at left; Hitoshi at right. Image #00004265.

Life in the camps was a series of indignities, including the requirement to bring one’s own eating utensils.

“They had a list of items [you could take with you]. For instance, for the mess hall they asked that we buy a tin plate and a cup so that we could get our food and line up and then — just the bare essentials. We just tried to take whatever we felt was necessary, mostly in clothing. And of course any items like knives or scissors or things of that nature were confiscated.”

In 1943 Alice was given permission to leave the camp to marry her fiancé, Arthur Ito, who was in the service. She was allowed to remain with him in Minnesota (far from the “exclusion zone”) and while he served overseas, while she taught Japanese to GIs.

Alice and Arthur Ito married on Valentine’s Day, 1943, in the base chapel, Camp Grant, Illinois. Image #00004253.

At war’s end, Alice’s family was allowed to return to Los Angeles where they managed to reclaim a portion of their land. Sadly, the family patriarch, Harue, took ill and passed away shortly after the return. Alice and Arthur took on the running of the business. When they sold the nursery in 1961, they opened a full-service floral shop, Flower View Gardens, on Western Avenue in Hollywood which was still open at the time of Alice’s 1993 interview.

The Itos became prominent in the flower industry and in the Japanese American community. Arthur rose to become vice president of FTD (Florist Transworld Delivery, as well as president of the Hollywood chapter of the JACL (Japanese American Citizens League). Alice became active in the Executive Women’s International, a women’s professional organization. Family papers make up 52 boxes in the Huntington Library archives.

Culture Clash

Toward the end of the interview, Alice is asked what she thinks of the many changes in Los Angeles. She describes the many waves of new immigrants and, while acknowledging the challenges population diversity brings, she sees hope for growing understanding and tolerance.

“I think we, too, as citizens have to learn [about] the cultures of all these other people that are here. However, it’s very hard to do that because it’s so completely different. For instance, the Asian community: we have the Thailand group, the Cambodians, the Vietnamese, of course mainland China; there’s a few in our area Taiwanese. And then, on the other hand, we have the Latino group and then from the Middle East we have many Armenians and I can’t even begin to tell you what nationalities are all in there. But I’m sure as citizens, it’s up to us to learn. As as business people we have to do that. We’re confronted with many of these problems because we don’t know, but I think in time, I hope, we’ll be able to understand each other a little better.”

The featured image at top shows an unidentified family in Japan, c. 1900, probably Alice’s mother’s family. Image #00004293.

Campo de Cahuenga: Overlooked Landmark

This undated postcard in the Security Pacific National Bank Collection, labelled “Fremont house, Hollywood, Cal.”, purports to show the original adobe on the grounds of Campo de Cahuenga in North Hollywood, with Cahuenga Peak behind it. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, #00070855. Photographer, M. Rieder Studio.

Nestled at the juncture of North Hollywood, Studio City, and Universal City, at the north end of the Cahuenga Pass, sits a small fenced-in heritage park.  Campo de Cahuenga is in the care of Los Angeles Recreation and Parks in partnership with the Campo de Cahuenga Memorial Association. It is believed to be the location of the signing of the Treaty of Cahuenga (otherwise known as the Capitulation of Cahuenga), a landmark event in the history of California. The treaty, which ended hostilities between American armed forces and the resident “Californios,” was signed 172 years ago, January 13, 1847, long enough past to make memories hazy. It effectively made the Mexican state of Alta California a military-ruled territory of the United States and, three years later, a state.

The Significance of the Treaty

Folks like to refer to the Campo as “The Birthplace of California.” However, there is much more to the tumultuous history of the Golden State. Prior to the treaty signing, the territory that is now the state of California had endured decades of shifting claims of authority: Spain until 1822, Mexico from 1822 to 1847. Russia established a short-lived colony at Fort Ross in northern California. Of even shorter duration was the California Republic in northern California, the dream of a ragtag band of American settlers with support from John C. Frémont and his soldiers. This “Bear Flag Republic” lasted 25 days in the summer of 1846. And let us not forget — for six days in 1818, the town of Monterey sat under an Argentine flag! All of these authorities ran rough-shod over the rights of the indigenous populations.

The story of the Bear Flag Republic speaks to the character of Frémont , one of the most famous men in both the history and mythology of the American West. By all accounts, Frémont was an ambitious man who saw himself as a major player in the future of California and perhaps the nation. He had burnished a reputation as an explorer, surveyor, Indian fighter, and man of destiny, specifically manifest destiny. In 1846 he was asked to bring his motley crew of mountain men, freebooters, and Native Americans into the fight for control of California.

Frémont is pictured here late in life standing next to a giant redwood tree, the so-called Frémont Tree. A legend that Frémont encouraged has it that he and a group of his men took shelter in the burned-out roots of this tree during a driving rain storm in 1846. The tree still stands in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in Santa Cruz County. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, #00043846, undated.

The second man in our story is Andrés Pico, the brother of Pío Pico, the last governor of Mexican-controlled Alta California. Andrés Pico led the last stand of the Californios in Los Angeles. As Frémont and his California Battalion closed in from the north, and the American military commanders Stockton and Kearny approached from the south, Pico made the decision to surrender to Frémont , expecting greater leniency from that quarter than what had been rumored to be in store for him and his men from Stockton and Kearny. Through fast-riding intermediaries the outlines of a peace plan were sketched out and an appointment made to meet at “a deserted rancho at the foot of Couenga [sic] plain.” (Edwin Bryant journal) The rancho in question was a property connected to, though some distance away from, the Mission San Fernando Rey, where Frémont and his men were encamped.

A studio portrait of Andrés Pico. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, #00043874, undated, likely 1870s.

A Woman’s Touch?

Much has been made of the story of Bernarda Ruiz de Rodriguez, a widow living in Santa Barbara when Frémont and his men trudged into that town at the very end of 1846 on their way to Los Angeles. In Frémont’s memoirs, written forty years after the fact, he mentions that a woman “of some age” (she was 42) came to him and advised him to be lenient in his dealings with the Californios he was sure to conquer.

“In the interview I found that her object was to use her influence to put an end to the war, and to do so upon such just and friendly terms of compromise as would make the peace acceptable and enduring.”

Frémont gives the lady some credit in persuading him to act graciously toward the soon-to-be vanquished. He goes on to write, “Here began the Capitulation of Couenga [sic].”

Historians and journalists have latched onto this anecdote, adding much detail both possible and decidedly unlikely: Bernarda has been credited with everything from swaying Frémont from leveling the town of Santa Barbara to personally dictating the terms of the Treaty of Cahuenga. Many versions of the story have Bernarda traveling with Frémont and his men to Los Angeles and witnessing the signing of the treaty. This writer has yet to find evidence to back up this assertion in the primary sources.

 

An early hand-drawn map of Campo de Cahuenga, showing the as yet unchannelized Los Angeles River, the Camino Real running diagonally from top to bottom, meadows (llanos), and a field of chamisa plants, sometimes called rabbitbush, a yellowish flowering plant which may have provided fodder for cattle. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, #00031280.

Whether or not Bernarda was present in body at the signing of the treaty document, she was there in spirit. The terms agreed upon by both sides that rainy Wednesday were quite generous to the vanquished. They were to be allowed life, liberty, and property, as well as the right to remove themselves from the territory should they wish to. They would, of course, have to forfeit their weapons and swear off further violence.

The Treaty, or Capitulation, of Cahuenga was remarkable in that it had no official sanction from the superiors of either side, yet it was generally accepted and even became the model upon which the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the  pact that officially ended the wider Mexican-American War in 1848, was based.

The Significance of the Campo

Campo de Cahuenga is one of the lesser-known landmarks in the Los Angeles basin. Nonetheless the site offers a wealth of historical and archaeological significance. What was an abandoned structure at the time of the treaty signing continued to weather away until it was completely demolished in the 19-teens to make way for Universal City. It has been the site of a number of archaeological excavations, beginning with the efforts of a group of high school students in 1931 who uncovered a portion of foundations and some floor and roof tiles, enough to establish a rough approximation of the forgotten adobe and to qualify it for landmark designation by the State of California in 1935. A few years later the City of Los Angeles built a replica structure on what they believed was the footprint of the adobe. This structure and surrounding gardens were made available for use by the community.

This photo from 1928 shows the city-built walls surrounding a small memorial park. The original adobe structure of the Campo was long gone at this time, but a new structure was built about 1950 to serve in its stead. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, #00032431.

Sixty years later progress on a Los Angeles Metro project was halted when digging uncovered additional flooring materials under the street and sidewalk outside the new Campo gates along Lankershim Boulevard. Professional preservation practices were called into play resulting in the excavation of the original footprint of the adobe running crosswise to the re-imagined structure. These efforts uncovered artifacts of both Native American and Mexican/Californio origin.

Today, while the original foundations have been re-buried, one may see the outlines of the adobe walls adjacent to the reconstructed building and extending out onto the boulevard! An iconic bell-shaped markers identifies the spot as a location on El Camino Real, the original dusty road that connected the California missions and their growing communities.

Mrs. A.S.C. Forbes, the “Mother of the Campo.” Mrs. Forbes was a well-known advocate of preservation of California mission-era structures. She is credited with tracing the route of El Camino Real, the road that linked the California missions. She is sometimes known as the “Bell Lady” for designing and installing antique-looking bells along the route of the Camino, including at the Campo de Cahuenga. Her influence is credited for preservation and interpretation of the Campo site. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, #00043839, undated.

 One of the famous El Camino Real bells, designed by Mrs. Forbes, marks the site of Campo de Cahuenga. Herman J. Schultheis Collection, #00010012, c. 1937.

A Place for All

Although not well known to the general public, Campo de Cahuenga has been popular with a number of civic and heritage-minded groups in the San Fernando Valley area. A sampling of photos from the Los Angeles Public Library gives us a peek at the many happenings that have taken place at the Campo over the decades.

 

For many decades, the Campo de Cahuenga Memorial Association has held an annual re-enactment of the treaty signing at the adobe. Here James M. Sutton, left, of the Los Angeles Parks Department, and Geoge E. Shipley of the Memorial Association dust off the plaque on the in preparation for the event in 1963. Valley Times Collection, #00114275. Photographer, Bob Martin.

 

The Pan-American Friendship Club, North Hollywood chapter, celebrates Mexican Independence Day in 1957. The man standing at left is a representative of a Mexican airline, probably Mexicana. Valley Times Collection, #00124747.

 

A meeting of the San Fernando Valley Historical Society takes place at Campo de Cahuenga in 1959 with musical entertainment by Rudolph M. Garza. A plaque commemorating the treaty signing can be seen on the wall. Valley Times Collection, #00133101. Photographer, William H. Wilde.

 

The Daughters of the American Revolution, Peyton Randolph chapter, learn to duck and cover from Major William Koons, an Armed Forces Information Officer. The news article accompanying the photo was entitled “Learns atomic test lore.” Valley Times Collection, #00141406, 1957.

 

Ingrid Goude, a 19-year old starlet from Sweden, demonstrates how to re-set your sundial for the end of daylight savings time, September 29, 1956. Ms. Goude went on to find fame, of a sort, as the star of “The Killer Shrews” in 1959. Valley Times Collection, #00143191.

 

The Kappa Delta Sorority Alumnae Association, San Fernando Valley chapter, held Easter egg hunts at the Campo during the 1950s. This photo appears to be staged for publicity of the event which was to be the next day. Valley Times Collection, #00142142, 1955. Photographer, Dave Siddon.

 

Sculptor Henry Van Wolf presents a scale model of a proposed sculpture commemorating the Cahuenga Treaty signing to women representing the San Fernando Valley Historical Society and the North Hollywood Women’s Club. Van Wolf offered to create a full-scale monument for display at the Campo at his cost. It does not appear that the work was ever carried out. Efforts to interest the federal government in a national park at the site foundered. Valley Times Collection, #00133104, April 3, 1965. Photographer, Gordon Dean.

 

Sources consulted for this essay include Memoirs of My Life and Times by John C. Frémont (1887); What I saw in California, the journal of Edwin Bryant (1848); The Private Journal of Louis McLane, U.S.N., 1844-48; Bear Flag Rising by Dale L. Walker (1999); Old Spanish Santa Barbara, From Cabrillo to Frémont by Walker A. Tompkins (1967); “Doña Bernarda Ruiz de Rodriguez, Santa Barbara’s Forgotten Heroine” by William G. Lockwood, in Ancestors West: Santa Barbara County Genealogical Society, Fall 2009/Winter 2019; “San Juan to Cahuenga: The Experiences of Frémont’s Battalion” by William H. Ellison in the Pacific Historical Review, August 1958; “When the System Works, The Campo de Cahuenga,” by Roberta S. Greenwood, in the Pacific Coast Archaeological Society Quarterly, Spring and Summer 2002; the website CampodeCahuenga.com;

Far and Near: Images of Chávez Ravine

Housing Authority Collection, Image #00031398, 1952. Leonard Nadel, photographer.

Once upon a time there was a Los Angeles area called Chávez Ravine, a tightly knit group of three small neighborhoods made up largely of Mexican-Americans families and a few Caucasian bachelors. They farmed garden plots, raised chickens and goats, shopped at a local bodega, and attended mass at at Santo Niño Church.  There was a tortilleria and a woman who sold nopalitos. The children attended nearby Palo Verde Elementary School.

Goats grazed on the hillsides.

We raised chickens, rabbits, goats. We used to take the goats up the hill when the mama goat had little babies, so they could run around. We’d take formula in a bottle with a nipple and we fed them in the hills. We had a lot of good times. (Sally Anchondo)

Housing Authority Collection, Image #00033673, 1950. Leonard Nadel, photographer.

Weddings were celebrated.

When I got married I walked all that street of La Loma in my bridal gown and veil. I was an outsider, but it was like a family. Everybody came to the wedding. Everybody ate. They all knew each other. That night I was so tired I went into the home of one of his aunts. The women helped me with my dress and put me to bed so I could rest for the dance. And when they were looking for me, “Where’s the bride?” She was asleep in the house of someone she didn’t even know! That’s how people were. (Delia Aguilar)

Bridesmaids and best man at a wedding party in Chávez Ravine, Shade of L.A.: Mexican American Community, Image #00002754, 1929.

Children played in the dirt streets.

Housing Authority Collection, Image #00033695, 1950. Leonard Nadel, photographer.

It shows the way we used to live. Kids nowadays, they wouldn’t let them play like that. People were rougher then, even the kids. (Reyes Guerra)

Housing Authority Collection, Image #00033702, 1949. Don Normark, photographer.

The neighborhood overlooked, and was overlooked by, downtown Los Angeles, one mile to the south.

Housing Authority Collection, Image #00008229, 1949. Don Normark, photographer.

View Finders

Chávez Ravine found itself in the eye of the photographer several times for a variety of reasons.

Gilbert Rosales and his grandmother, Doña Martina Ayala, head to the family store where she sold chickens, home-made Mexican cheese, beans, and household essentials. Housing Authority Collection, Image #00033701, 1949. Don Normark, photographer.

Don Normark (1928-2014) stumbled onto the communities of Chávez Ravine in 1949 as a young photography student:

I was looking for  a high point to get a postcard view of Los Angeles. I didn’t find that view, but when I looked over the other side of the hill I was standing on, I saw a village I never knew was there. Hiking down into it, I began to think I had a found a poor man’s Shangri-la. It was mostly Mexican and certainly poor, but I sensed a unity to the place, and it was peacefully remote. The people seemed like refugees — people superior to the circumstances they were living in. I liked them and stayed to photograph. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was in Chávez Ravine. (Don Normark)

Of Normark’s hundreds of photos, five were displayed in a1950 exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of  Art. A few made their way into the files of the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA). The rest were largely forgotten for many decades

In the mid-1990s, Normark returned to Los Angeles, this time seeing out the desterrados (the uprooted) from Chávez Ravine and collecting memories spurred by his photographs. The result was a 1999 book and a 2004 documentary narrated by Cheech Marin, both titled Chávez Ravine: A Los Angeles Story. In 2013 his photographs were included in an exhibit at the J. Paul Getty Museum titled “Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940-1990.”

The Navarro family, Housing Authority Collection, Image #00033696, 1951. Leonard Nadel, photographer.

Leonard Nadel (1916-1990), a freelance photographer and journalist, was hired by HACLA in the late 1940s to document neighborhoods under consideration for housing projects. In the years 1950 to 1952, just on the heels of Normark, his work brought him to the neighborhoods that made up Chávez Ravine where he photographed both the structures and the people. Nadel went on to some fame documenting the Bracero Program for the Ford Foundation. His photos were featured in a 2009-2010 exhibit at the National Museum of American History titled ” Bittersweet Harvest.”

It should be noted that HACLA used the photos of both Nadel and Normark to promote its agenda — captioning them with buzzwords such as “slum,” “derelict,” “country-like,” “run-down,” and “ramshackle.”

Veteran William Nickolas with three of his six children in a home he and his wife share with her parents. Housing Authority Collection, Image #00062033, n.d. Leonard Nadel, photographer.

Residents of several low-income communities meet with L.A. Mayor Norris Paulson (at left) urging him to reverse the plans of the housing authority to raze their homes. In fact, Mayor Paulson worked to scale back the plans for housing projects, but too late to save Chávez Ravine. Herald-Examiner Collection, Image #00055873, July 20, 1953.

Remove and Replace

The post-war urban planning models called for slums to be cleared and replaced with planned communities of towers and garden apartments. The well-intentioned proposals of the urban planners often faced off against established, if indeed ramshackle, communities. The fight between social reformers and advocates of the status quo is one that continues today.

In July 1950 HACLA announced plans to build several housing projects in neighborhoods throughout the city, including Chávez Ravine. The 300-plus families inhabiting the hillsides were mailed notices, in English, informing them that they would need to sell their properties to the city or they would be taken by eminent domain. They were told they would be first in line for the new units once built.

Most families chose to comply after some initial protests proved ineffectual. People packed up and moved out; bulldozers moved in. By 1953 only a couple of dozen families remained on the dusty hillsides.

A man identified as “Julian” bids farewell to his friends in Chávez Ravine. Herald-Examiner Collection, Image #00041360, May 14, 1951.

The Hold-outs

But things were not so simple. Over the next several years plans for model subsidized housing faced a backlash from social conservatives, who, in the McCarthy Era, saw “creeping socialism” in them. Ultimately, housing projects across the city were scaled back and the plans for Chávez Ravine scrapped.

But the city still owned the bulk of the land. The death-knell for the dying community came in 1959 when the city handed the area over to the Brooklyn Dodgers for a new baseball stadium in a complicated business deal which brought the team to Los Angeles. The last few families in Chávez Ravine were sent eviction notices. Even then, a few tried to hold out. Led by the Arechiga family, they vowed to fight to the bitter end, leading to a field day for area reporters and photographers who sensed a cause célèbre.

On Friday, May 8, (“Ocho de Mayo“),  residents, along with their pets and belongings, were roughly removed from their dwellings as TV cameras rolled and cameras snapped. Even as bulldozers arrived to level the remaining homes, a number of neighbors camped out in makeshift tents from where they had to be evicted a second time. The story was picked up by the A.P. wire service under the headline “Dodger Victims.”

L.A. County Sheriff personnel carry Aurora Vargas-Arechiga from her home, May 8, 1959. Herald-Examiner Collection, Image #00041424.

 

News crews thronged the hill to document the eviction. Note the doghouse from where the Arechiga’s chihuahua was evicted. Herald-Examiner Collection, Image #00041423, May 8, 1959.

 

Members of the extended Arechiga family and supporters camped out on the property for a number of days following eviction. Herald-Examiner Collection, Image #00050956, May 8, 1959.

After leaving, it was sad going back to visit. There were fewer and fewer places. Bulldozers working and trucks hauling stuff away. Weeds growing, streets going to hell. Abrana Arechiga, still holding out, would yell at us out her window, “What are you doing here? You abandoned us.” (Lou Santillan)

Herald-Examiner Collection, Image #00081495, 1959.

Fade-out

Today the tale of Chávez Ravine is seen as a classic case of “urban removal,” albeit one with a twist. Four months following the final evictions, a groundbreaking was held, not for new housing but for a 23-million dollar stadium. As the hillsides were leveled for the stadium, nothing was left of the communities that had once occupied the land; even the street names were erased, the school building buried under tons of fill. Only the name, Chávez Ravine, survives as an access road to the stadium and in an occasional dateline about baseball.

 

Dodgers owner Walt O’Malley displays a ceremonial groundbreaking shovel with the words “Dodgers: Chávez Ravine.” Herald-Examiner Collection, #00055863, 1959.

 

Housing Authority Collection, Image #00017632, 1952. Leonard Nadel, photographer.

Selected sources

All quotations taken from Dan Normark, Chávez Ravine, 1949: A Los Angeles Story (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1999).

“Chávez Ravine: A Los Angeles Story,” video produced by Jordan Mechner, Bullfrog Films, 2004.

Elaine Woo, “Don Normark, who photographed Chávez Ravine residents, dies at 86,” Los Angeles Times, June 11, 2014.

Nathan Masters, “Chávez Ravine: Community to Controversial Real Estate,” KCET.org, L.A. as Subject, September 13, 2012.

AP Wire Service, “Dodger Victims: Homeless Huddle at Campfires,” May 9, 1959.

The Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection.