Sunday, January 5, 2014

My Students Teach Me Local History

For their final essays, my English students at Fullerton College and Cal State Fullerton wrote research papers about specific aspects of local (Southern California) history.  They could write about whatever aspect they wanted, and I ended up with a rich cornucopia of local history (around 100 essays on topics ranging from Disneyland to the conquests of Gaspar de Portola).  While I consider myself somewhat knowledgeable about this subject, reading these essays is deepening my knowledge.  I was so inspired by my students' research that I've decided to organize and synthesize all of the essay topics into a larger narrative about the history of this region (mostly encompassing Orange County and Los Angeles), a region whose real history is often shrouded in myth and plain old ignorance.  So, in my attempt to further deepen my knowledge of where I live, and to share what I learn, I present a brief history of Southern California, based on my students' essays.  I have capitalized and bolded the specific essay topics, which you can click on for further reading.  Enjoy!

Of Mastodons and Giant Sloths: Prehistoric Southern California

Nothing puts things in perspective like the realization that the place where you live has existed for millions (billions, in fact) of years before you were born.  In geologic time, the entirety of human existence is a small blip on the screen of a grand epic drama.  The LA BREA TAR PITS in Los Angeles, and the accompanying Page Museum, display some of the creatures who inhabited southern California many, many years before humans arrived: mastodons, saber-toothed cats, camels, giant sloths, and more!

The extinct North American ground sloth

Southern California's First Human Inhabitants

Some of the first humans to inhabit southern California were the KIZH (sometimes erroneously called Tongva) people and the ACJACHEMEN people.  The Kizh lived in the areas of modern-day Los Angeles and north Orange County.  The Acjachemen lived in the southern area of Orange County, around modern-day San Juan Capistrano.  These native tribes had fully-realized societies with unique languages, religions, dwellings, social structures, trade, dance, and artwork.  Native Americans have inhabited Southern California for thousands of years.  Unfortunately, the arrival of European colonizers would prove disastrous for them.

Toypurina was a Kizh woman who led an attempted revolt against her Spanish oppressors.

Conquest for God and King: The Spanish Colonial Era

GASPAR DE PORTOLA was a Spanish soldier who was sent to Alta California in 1769 by the king of Spain to establish settlements.  Portola was accompanied by a Franciscan priest named FATHER JUNIPERO SERRA, who was the main organizer of the CALIFORNIA MISSIONS.  Despite romantic portrayals of the Missions in modern-day California, their real history is much darker.  The Mission system effectively decimated the native American populations of California.  Our two local missions are MISSION SAN GABRIEL and MISSION SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO.  Portola was the first Spanish governor of Alta California.  PEDRO FAGES, another soldier, was the second governor.  Fages and Serra often quarreled over policy in California.

Some of the soldiers who accompanied Portola on his expeditions of conquest were given large land grants in southern California.  One of these Spanish landowners was MANUEL NIETO, whose Rancho Los Nietos encompassed much of present-day Orange County.  Another Spanish landowner was JOSE ANTONIO YORBA, whose Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana encompassed the southern portions of Orange County.

Pedro Fages

Alta California (or, California Used to be Mexico)

In 1821, Mexico won its independence from Spain, and thus began the Mexican era of California's history.  After the Mexican War for Independence, there were some changes in land ownership.  One major local landowner in the Mexican era was JUAN PACIFICO ONTIVEROS, whose holdings encompassed the present-day city of Anaheim.

Some of the old Spanish landowners were able to retain some of their lands after the Mexican war for Independence.  One of these was BERNARDO YORBA, son of Jose Antonio Yorba, whose holdings contained the present day city of Yorba Linda, which is named after Bernardo.

The Spanish-speaking  families who settled and lived in California are often called CALIFORNIOS.  A prominent Californio family were the Lugos.  JOSE DEL CARMEN LUGO was a major landowner in Los Angeles, and the first mayor of Los Angeles.

The last Mexican/Californio governor of California was PIO PICO, who was half black.

Pio Pico

We Take Nothing by Conquest, Thank God: The American Takeover

From 1846-1848, the United States fought a war with Mexico over land.  This was known as the MEXICAN-AMERICAN WAR.  By war's end, Mexico would lose half its country to the United States.  We don't tend to think of Southern California as a place where military battles happened, but some important battles of the Mexican-American War were fought locally, like THE BATTLE OF CHINO, THE BATTLE OF SAN PASQUAL, and the BATTLE OF SAN GABRIEL.

Plaque commemorating the Battle of San Gabriel (located in Montebello)

New American Landowners

A transitional figure between the Mexican Era and the American Era of California was JOHN "DON JUAN" FORSTER, an Englishman who became a Mexican citizen and married the sister of Pio Pico, which allowed him to get some large land grants.  Forster ultimately betrayed his brother-in-law by assisting the Americans during the Mexican-American War, and was thus able to retain his lands.  

Other Californios would not fare so well.  Despite promises that Mexican and Spanish land grants would be honored, many prominent landowners had large swaths taken away by U.S. courts.  And thus began, in the second half of the 19th century, a Southern California real estate boom, which would make the fortunes (and legacies) of many American businessmen.  Here are some of the shrewd American businessmen who cashed in on this real estate boom (and the cities with which they are now associated):







RICHARD GIRD (Chino Hills)

These American businessmen also managed to convince THE RAILROADS TO COME TO SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA, which would bring them more business!  

Another thing the Americans brought with them to California was vicious racism.  In 1906, the city of SANTA ANA AUTHORIZED ITS CHINATOWN TO BE BURNED to the ground.  Racism would continue to play a significant role in shaping Southern California in the 20th century.

Charles C. Chapman

Oil, Oranges, and the Ku Klux Klan: The Early 20th Century 

The two major industries that would dominate southern California in the first half of the 20th century were oil and oranges.  The city of BREA (a name which means "tar") was once a major oil-producing city.

Perhaps the most famous tycoon of the CITRUS INDUSTRY was  CHARLES C. CHAPMAN, who was so wealthy he became the first mayor of Fullerton.  Also, Chapman University in Orange is named after him.  In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the main workers in Chapman's vast orange groves were Asian.  However, following the CHINESE EXCLUSION ACT and the ALIEN LAND LAWS, two of the most discriminatory laws in U.S. history, Chapman and other citrus magnates had to look elsewhere for cheap labor.  They looked toward Mexico.  

From the 1910s to the 1940s, the main workers in Southern California citrus groves were of Mexican descent.  The system that Charles Chapman and other uber-wealthy tycoons instituted with their workers would shape social relations between whites and Mexicans for decades to come.  It was the system of SOCIAL/ETHNIC SEGREGATION which still dominates the region today.

Southern California is not a region that should be able to support massive populations.  There just isn't the water for it.  As the population of Los Angeles and Orange Counties began to climb rapidly, the underground water was nearly depleted.  The man responsible for bringing water to this desert is William Mulholland, who designed and oversaw the building of the LOS ANGELES AQUEDUCT, which basically stole water from Owens Valley, and destroyed the livelihoods of farmers there.  But LA would continue to grow!

In the 1920s, Orange County was home to a vibrant KU KLUX KLAN, whose members numbered n the thousands.  One member of the Fullerton Klan was LOUIS PLUMMER, who helped found Fullerton College.

Also in the 1920s, C.Stanley Chapman (son of Charles C.Chapman) would build THE FOX THEATER (originally called the Alician Theater).  The theater was designed by the same firm that designed the famous Chinese and Egyptian Theaters in Hollywood.

During the Great Depression, when lots of local people were out of work, Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal provided jobs for many people, doing public works.  The city of Fullerton benefitted tremendously from the WORKS PROGRESS ADMINISTRATION, which was basically socialism.  The Fullerton Police Station, the first buildings of Fullerton College, The Post Office on Commonwealth, the stone structures and paths of Hillcrest Park, and murals like "Pastoral California" on the side of Plummer Auditorium were all the result of FDR's socialist policies.

One group of people who did not fare well during the Great Depression were Mexican-Americans, who were already segregated, and basically lived as second-class citizens.  ONE OF THE GREATEST MASS DEPORTATIONS OF AMERICAN HISTORY took place during the Great Depression.  Between 1-2 million Mexican-Americans (many of whom were citizens, many of whom were children) were illegally deported back to Mexico during the Great Depression, because white people wanted their jobs.

Read this book.

The Military-Industrial Complex, Racial Riots, and Chicken Dinners: Southern California During the 1940s and 1950s

While deporting Mexican-Americans did not succeed in pulling the United States out of the Great Depression, World War II sure helped!  World War II saw the birth of a lot of AEROSPACE INDUSTRY IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA, which was mainly tied to military defense.  This collusion of big business and the military became known as the "military-industrial complex."

In 1942, a massive Marine Corps base was built in Southern California.  It was called CAMP PENDLETON, and it still stretches all the way from San Diego to Orange County.  It's really massive.

In 1943, one of the largest racial riots in LA history took place.  It became known as the ZOOT SUIT RIOTS, and it involved mainly fights between Mexican-American hipsters known as Pachucos and U.S. Navymen.  The reasons for the riots were varied, but it had to do with segregation, racism, and baggy pants.

Also in the 1940s, a berry farmer named WALTER KNOTT began constructing an artificial "ghost town" to entertain people waiting in line at his wife's Chicken Dinner Restaurant.  This would eventually become Knott's Berry Farm, and Walter Knott would become a wealthy bankroller of Republican candidates like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.  In his spare time, he would host anti-communist schools.

Speaking of RICHARD NIXON, he is Orange County's main contribution to presidential politics.  Born in Yorba Linda, he attended Fullerton High School, and then Whittier College.  Nixon entered congress in 1946, and rose to prominence as an anti-communist crusader (Just like Walter Knott!).  Richard Nixon became infamous for the Watergate Scandal, which led him to resign in disgrace.

On a "happier" note, 1955 saw the birth of another Orange County claim to fame: DISNEYLAND!

In the 1950s, the population of Southern California really ballooned, as did real estate prices!

Walter Knott and Ronald Reagan shake hands.  Ronnie says, "Thanks for the money!"

Guitars, Brown Berets, and the Struggle for Fair Housing: Southern California in the 1960s

The 1960s were a time of major social change around the world, and Southern California saw its share of radicalism and youth culture.  Fullerton's LEO FENDER made electric guitars played by rock bands like The Doors and The Beach Boys, who provided the soundtrack to the 1960s.

The 1960s was the era of civil rights movements.  Most people know about the civil rights struggles in the South, but fewer people know about civi rights struggles in California.  CESAR CHAVEZ was an important figure in the Mexican-American (or Chicano) civil rights movement.  Another important group in the movement were the BROWN BERETS, who fought and marched against discrimination against Mexican-Americans in the areas of education, housing, and employment.

The 1960s saw some epic battles over the issue of FAIR HOUSING IN CALIFORNIA, which was perhaps best represented by the infamous proposition 14 in 1964, which sought to overturn the recent Rumford Fair Housing Act.

In the 1960s, the Southern California aerospace industry wasn't ALL about blowing things up.  The city of Downey became a center of SPACE ENGINEERING.  Many of the Apollo craft and Space shuttles would be built in Downey, California.

In 1970, a radical group known as THE YIPPIES OCCUPIED DISNEYLAND.

Riot Police in front of Sleeping Beauty's Castle.

Mega-Churches, Ethnic Enclaves, and Riots:The Late 20th Century to the Present Day

Beginning in the 1970s, many Vietnamese immigrants began settling in Westminster, California, some fleeing from the Vietnam War.  Today, LITTLE SAIGON  is the largest Vietnamese community in the world, outside of Vietnam of course.

The 1970s and 1980s saw the beginnings of several evangelical Christian movements in Orange County, some of which would coagulate into "mega-churches": Harvest Christian Fellowship (who put on the HARVEST CRUSADE), Calvary Chapel, and Rick Warren's own (Purpose-Driven) Saddleback Church, which is in Lake Forest.

The 1990s saw the infamous LA RIOTS. Like the Zoot Suit Riots, the causes were varied, but mainly had to do with racism, segregation, and police brutality.

Which brings us to the 2000s.  I don't know what the future will hold for Southern California, but understanding its past is a good first step toward making a better future.

Christians should really think twice about describing their activities as "Crusades"

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