AUGUST 20, 2012
We Built This City: A Personal History
AS A THIRD GENERATION Angeleno, I rarely stop to reflect that each of my grandparents met and married in Los Angeles. All four hailed from Mexico (two from the same town in Jalisco), and fled the first great revolution of the twentieth century — a conflict that spanned the better part of a decade. Growing up, the Mexican Revolution seemed like a distant, if colorful backdrop to my family history — a common enough story for a Chicana kid in L.A.
I had no understanding of what a cataclysmic event the revolution was in the history of Mexico, the development of Los Angeles, and burgeoning U.S. imperialism. What I did understand as a child was that my family, and many people like them, literally built the city. My grandfather worked as a laborer on the Coliseum and later on the railroad in South Gate, another grandfather joined the painters’ union after World War II. My Tía Lola worked in a cannery on Terminal Island, Aunt Rachel worked in the Farmer John’s slaughterhouse in Vernon, and my dad worked on the docks.
There has always been something rich, powerful, and deeply meaningful about this inter-generational history of labor. On the one hand, it is about a sense of belonging: this is my place in the world and it is where I fit in — it is where my personal and family stories are written into a larger historical narrative. The landscape — the sprawling visual of L.A. — is familiar and beloved (even if sometimes less than beautiful). But there is a visceral feeling that goes beyond a sense of belonging: simply put, as Mexicans and workers, we built this city. Therefore we are entitled to the fruits of our labor; we deserve credit and recognition for our contributions; we have a stake in the future of Los Angeles and the right to claim “the good life,” however we may define that. These were ideas that I internalized very early on. The activism that gives voice to these notions, on the other hand, wasn’t so easily identified.
My commitment to Los Angeles and to social justice led me to become an activist studying race and class struggles in L.A. It was during the course of one of my research projects (Black, Brown, Yellow and Left: Radical Activism in Los Angeles, UC Press, 2006), that I began collecting actual locations of resistance. One day I stumbled across a reference to the Flores Magón brothers, Ricardo and Enrique. Apparently, they published the revolutionary newspaper, Regneración just east of downtown Los Angeles in a nondescript concrete building (a site I spent considerable time just trying to find). The Regneración offices were part of a transnational network of activists who sought to overthrow the Mexican President, Porfirio Díaz, from outside the country. Their efforts were, in part, responsible for the Mexican Revolution. This “discovery” of the Flores Magón connection had a powerful affect on me. The brothers came ahead of my grandparents — and represent the radical legacy of Mexico in the United States. Not only did it enable me to rethink my connection to the Mexican Revolution, I became convinced that this was an important place that all Angelenos (not to mention visitors) should know about. Los Angeles is where significant Mexican history was made — it’s a place where Mexican activists sought to change the world for the better. It was my friend, Tony Osumi, who finally suggested I should make a guide, and so the idea for A People’s Guide to Los Angeles was born.
As the project developed, we moved beyond activist histories and geographies to focus on power relations more generally. Within this framework, we began gathering stories that showed how power worked in Los Angeles. Some of these sites fall under the category of “everyday life,” but some of them are places where remarkable things have happened, events that lead you to wonder at the evil people are capable of or make you proud to be an Angeleno.
This category of sites constitute what we call “Suppressed Histories” in the People’s Guide — important places that very few people know about, or pay much attention to, because their histories have been actively suppressed by educational institutions, the mainstream media and a landscape that sometimes seems hell bent on erasing all evidence of the past. By including them in A People’s Guide to Los Angeles, our intention is not only to inform the public about specific events, but also to call attention to how and why such important histories get hidden, and to make a case for why they are worth knowing about. As for the previously mentioned Magón brothers and el Partido Liberal Mexicano, beyond anarchist circles, few know about their important role in Los Angeles, which adds a nuanced and challenging wrinkle to our own identity as Americans. It’s a wonderful example of how places produce other places. In this case, Los Angeles helped to create the Mexican Revolution, which in turn helped to create Los Angeles … and so it goes. The following excerpts from a People’s Guide collect a few of these histories, expunged from the conventional narratives of Southern California.
The Downey Block (Downtown)
312 N. Spring St., Los Angeles 90012 (at N. Main St.)
In the mid-nineteenth century, California Indians were auctioned off for slave labor
at the Downey Block in downtown Los Angeles. Drawing courtesy of Los Angeles
Public Library (date unknown).
After the U.S. takeover of Alta California in 1848, the decline of the indigenous population accelerated, evidenced by a decrease in population; greater political, economic, and social marginalization; and the practice of Indian slavery. During the 1850s and 1860s, L.A.’s indigenous people were routinely incarcerated for loitering, drunkenness, and begging. Then, on most Mondays, a local administrator auctioned off Indians who had been imprisoned for one week of servitude. The ironically named California Act for the Government and Protection of Indians of 1850 allowed any white person to post bail for convicted Indians, whom he could then require to pay off the fine by working for him — a new form of slave labor. According to George Harwood Phillips, in 1850 the Los Angeles Common Council declared, “When the city has no work in which to employ the chain gang, the Recorder shall, by means of notices conspicuously posted, notify the public that such a number of prisoners will be auctioned off to the highest bidder for private service.” Most Indians were sold to local ranchers who used them to perform agricultural labor. Indians were sold for anywhere from one to three dollars, one-third of which was to be given to the worker at the end of the week, if he or she had performed satisfactorily. This “wage” was usually paid in the form of liquor, often leading to a repeated cycle of arrest and forced servitude. The rear of the Downey Block served as L.A.’s slave mart and is now a federal courthouse.
The former site of the Downey Block is now the site of a federal courthouse. Photo
by Wendy Cheng, 2010.
To Learn More
George Harwood Phillips, “Indians in Los Angeles, 1781–1875,” in The American Indian Past
and Present, ed. Roger Nichols (Alfred Knopf, 1986), p. 189
Robert Heizer, The Destruction of the California Indians (Bison Books, 1993)
The Exiles, a film directed by Kent MacKenzie, 1961
Robert Sundance Family Wellness Center, 1125 W. 6th St., Suite 103, Los Angeles 90017
(213) 202-3970 (uaii.org). A community wellness center providing culturally appropriate services to American Indians and Alaska Natives. Named for Robert Sundance, an American Indian from the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota, whose “Sundance Court Case” reformed how the criminal justice system addresses alcoholism and public drunkenness.
The Partido Liberal Mexicano (Chinatown)
809 Yale St., Los Angeles 90012 (at Alpine St.)
519 ½ E. 4th St., Los Angeles 90013 (at Towne Ave.)
Ricardo and Enrique Flores Magón were brothers and anarchists who played an instrumental role in the Mexican Revolution. Born in Oaxaca in 1874, Ricardo dedicated his life to overthrowing dictator Porfirio Díaz and replacing Díaz’s regime with an anarchist politics based on worker control and collective ownership. Although Mexico has always suffered from severe economic and political inequalities, things came to a head with Díaz. Under his leadership the national estate was largely sold off to foreigners, with scant consideration for the millions of displaced and impoverished Mexicans.
In response, revolutionaries throughout Mexico fought for a radically democratic reconstruction of the country (embodied in the slogan “Tierra y Libertad,” meaning “Land and Liberty.”). Among their efforts was the formation of the Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM). Ricardo Magón established the newspaper Regeneración in 1900, with the assistance of his brother, Enrique, and was promptly imprisoned. Upon his release, the two brothers then sought refuge in Texas, but were persecuted by both Mexican and U.S. officials and forced to flee from city to city. In 1910, the Díaz dictatorship was overthrown and the Magón brothers settled in Los Angeles. They continued producing Regeneración at the Fourth Street address, but eventually the PLM headquarters moved to Yale Street, where it also operated La Casa del Obrero Internacional (the International Workers House), which offered lodging and cultural activities. According to historian Emma Pérez, the house was divided into 13 small apartments and also housed La Escuela Racionalista. The Magón brothers were imprisoned under the Espionage Act in 1918 and sent to Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas. Ricardo died in his cell in 1922. Although the Mexican Revolution was the first major revolution of the twentieth century, its significance — and in particular its transnational dimensions — is often underappreciated.
Farewell, O comrades, I scorn life as a slave!
I begged no tyrant for my life, though sweet it was;
Though chained, I go unconquered to my grave,
Dying for my own birth-right—and the world’s. (Ricardo Flores Magón)
Nearby Sites of Interest
Studio for Southern California History
977 N. Hill St., Los Angeles 90012 (213) 229-8890 (socalstudio.org)
Near Yale Street, this is a museum and media lab specializing in social history.
Azusa Revival Commemorative Plaque
200 S. San Pedro St., Los Angeles
Near 4th Street, the Azusa Revival, a multiyear event that played a key role in the development of U.S. Pentecostalism, was centered on 312 Azusa Street. The event is marked by a commemorative plaque around the corner at 200 S. San Pedro.
Favorite Neighborhood Restaurant
Hop Li Seafood Restaurant
526 Alpine St., Los Angeles 90012 (213) 680-3939 (hoplirestaurant.com)
Customers’ favorites include shrimp with honey-glazed walnuts and squid with spicy salt.
To Learn More
Ward S. Albro, Always a Rebel: Ricardo Flores Magón and the Mexican Revolution (Texas Christian University Press, 1992)
Chaz Bufe and Mitchell Cowen Verter, eds., Dreams of Freedom: A Ricardo Flores Magón Reader (AK Press, 2005)
On the Magónist assault on Tijuana, see Richard Griswold del Castillo, “The Discredited
Revolution: The Magonista Capture of Tijuana in 1911,” Journal of San Diego History 26,
no. 4 (Fall 1980), www.sandiegohistory.org/journal/80fall/revolution.htm.
For the Mexican government’s Magón archive, see www.archivomagon.net. For Regeneración articles in English, click here.