Thursday, June 8, 2017

Remembering the Zoot Suit Riots

Detail, Zoot Suit Riots, from Barbara Carrasco’s mural L.A. History: A Mexican Perspective (1981)
Courtesy California Historical Society / LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes; photo: Sean Meredith

During World War II, a cultural war smoldered on the streets of Los Angeles. The wartime fear that swept across the country, resulting in the forced incarceration of West Coast Japanese Americans, reached other L.A. minority communities. In June 1943, this atmosphere of tension exploded in more than a week of fighting between white servicemen and primarily Chicana/o youth.

“Whites Only,” 1942
Courtesy www.csusmhistory.org

Racial sentiment against Latinos had existed before the war, certainly. But wartime restrictions—including rationing of fabrics used to manufacture clothing popular among Latinos, African Americans, and Filipino/Filipino Americans—appeared to exacerbate it. 

Mexican American teenagers asserted a distinct identity with zoot suits—high-waisted wool trousers ballooning upward from the ground and baggy, long-tailed suit coats, popular originally among African Americans in the 1930s jazz culture. Many critics of minority populations associated zoot suits with juvenile delinquency and crime. Zoot suits, they asserted, flouted a disrespect for the new wartime society and what historian Stuart Cosgrove calls its “fragile harmony.” 

Zoot Suit Wearer, 1930s
Courtesy mortaljourney.com

“As the war furthered the dislocation of family relationships," Cosgrove explains, "the pachucos [migrant youths dressed in zoot suits or in attire influenced by them] gravitated away from the home to the only place where their status was visible, the streets and bars of the towns and cities.” There the pachucos sported zoot suits, pork pie hats, and dangling watch chains—easily identifiable in a city already wary of and hostile to them.

The Progress of Rioting, 1943
Published in Eduardo Pagan, Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon: Zoot Suits, Race, and Riot in Wartime L.A. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003)

In January 2017, Chicano playwright Luis Valdez, founder of El Teatro Campesino—a theater troupe active with Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers, revived his 1978 play Zoot Suit in Los Angeles. Valdez, who incorporated actual court transcripts of prison letters written by Chicana/o youths into his play, recalled the testimony of a police officer who described the youths’ “‘inborn’ tendency for violence inherited from ‘the bloodthirsty Aztecs.’” “I didn’t invent that stuff,” he told a New York Times reporter. “That wasn’t agitprop.”

By 1943, Southern California was teeming was servicemen. PBS has described the region “as a key military location with bases located in and between San Diego and Los Angeles. Consequently, up to 50,000 servicemen could be found in L.A. on any given weekend.” Clashes among servicemen and L.A.’s largest minority group—some 250,000 Mexicans (including Mexican Americans, many of whom had enlisted in the military)—are summarized in the following PBS timeline, enhanced for this blog with primary source images and accounts. 

Uniformed servicemen rioted throughout Los Angeles, targeting young men in zoot suits, 1943
Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries

Spring: Clashes between servicemen and Mexican American youth occur up to two to three times per day.

May: The Venice Riot. High school boys at the Aragon Ballroom complain that “Zoots” have taken over the beachfront. Soldiers appear at the ballroom claiming a sailor has been stabbed. An estimated crowd of 500 sailors and civilians attack Mexican American young people as they exit the dance. The fighting continues until 2:00 a.m. The police arrest Mexican American youth “for their own protection.”

May 31: Twelve sailors and soldiers clash violently with Mexican American boys near downtown. Seaman Second Class Joe Dacy Coleman, U.S.N., is badly wounded.

U.S. armed forces personnel with wood clubs on street during “zoot suit” riot, Los Angeles 1943
Courtesy Library of Congress

Gene Sherman, “Youth Gangs Leading Cause of Delinquency,” Los Angeles Times, June 2, 1943 
Fresh in the memory, of Los Angeles is last year's surge of gang violence that made the "zoot suit" a badge of delinquency. . . . 
Although "zoot suits" became a uniform of delinquency because of their popularity among the gangs, their adoption by some of the city's youth was more a bid for recognition, a way of being "different," in the opinion of Heman G. Stark, County Protection Office chief of delinquency prevention. 
Stark and Superior Judge Robert H. Scott of Juvenile Court concur in the belief that the formation of gangs was an outgrowth of a feeling of inferiority on the part of minority groups.

June 3: Approximately 50 sailors leave the Naval Reserve Armory with concealed weapons to revenge the attack on Coleman. They target the neighborhoods near the Armory and attack anyone they can find wearing zoot suits—giving birth to the name “Zoot Suit Riots.” 

U.S. military personnel stopping a streetcar while roaming the streets of Los Angeles in search of zoot-suiters, June 1943
AP Images courtesy www.britannica.com 

Policemen, servicemen, and civilians patrolling the streets of Los Angeles, 1943
Courtesy forum.skyscraperpage.com 

Quoted in Selden Menefee, Assignment: USA (New York, 1943): 
. . . zoot-suits smoldered in the ashes of street bonfires where they had been tossed by grimly methodical tank forces of service men. . . . The zooters, who earlier in the day had spread boasts that they were organized to 'kill every cop' they could find, showed no inclination to try to make good their boasts. . . . Searching parties of soldiers, sailors and Marines hunted them out and drove them out into the open like bird dogs flushing quail. Procedure was standard: grab a zooter. Take off his pants and frock coat and tear them up or burn them. Trim the “Argentine Ducktail” haircut that goes with the screwy costume. 
Police stand by as Zoot Suit wearers are beaten and stripped of their clothes, 1943
Courtesy messynessychic.com

June 4: Rioting servicemen conduct "search and destroy" raids on Mexican Americans in the downtown area—whether their victims are wearing zoot suits or not. The servicemen employ twenty taxis to look for zoot suiters.

June 5: The rioting continues with attacks on all “pachuco”-looking males. A group of musicians leaving the Aztec Recording Company on Third and Main Streets are attacked. Attorney Manuel Ruíz and other Mexican American professionals meet with city officials. Carey McWilliams calls California Attorney General Robert Kenny to encourage Governor Earl Warren to appoint an investigatory commission.

“Zoot Suiters” under Arrest in Los Angeles, 1943
Courtesy Library of Congress

Mexican American youths detained for questioning, 1943
Courtesy Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, University of California at Los Angeles. Copyright UC Regents
Carey McWilliams, North from Mexico: The Spanish-speaking People of the United States (1948) 
Marching through the streets of downtown Los Angeles, a mob of several thousand soldiers, sailors, and civilians, proceeded to beat up every zoot suiter they could find. Pushing its way into the important motion picture theaters, the mob ordered the management to turn on the house lights and then ran up and down the aisles dragging Mexicans out of their seats. Streetcars were halted while Mexicans, and some Filipinos and Negroes, were jerked from their seats, pushed into the streets and beaten with a sadistic frenzy.

June 6: The rioting escalates and spreads into East Los Angeles. Kenny meets with McWilliams regarding the investigation and creates the McGucken Committee. Chaired by the Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles, Joseph T. McGucken, the committee blames the press for its irresponsible tone and the police for overreacting to the riot.

June 7: The worst of the rioting violence occurs as soldiers, sailors, and marines from as far away as San Diego travel to Los Angeles to join in the fighting. Taxi drivers offer free rides to servicemen and civilians to the riot areas. Approximately 5,000 civilians and military men gather downtown. The riot spreads into the predominantly African American section of Watts.

Alleged leaders of Zoot Suit groups before the County Grand Jury, 1943
Los Angeles Public Library, Herald-Examiner Collection

June 8: Senior military officials bring the riot under control by declaring Los Angeles off-limits to all sailors, soldiers, and marines. The Shore Patrol is under orders to arrest any disorderly personnel. The Los Angeles City Council passes a resolution banning the wearing of zoot suits in public, punishable by a 50-day jail term.

June 9: Sporadic confrontations continue, but not at nearly the same intensity.

“Zoot-Suiters Again on the Prowl as Navy Holds Back Sailor,” Washington Post, Wednesday, June 9, 1943:
Disgusted with being robbed and beaten with tire irons, weighted ropes, belts and fists employed by overwhelming numbers of the youthful hoodlums, the uniformed men passed the word quietly among themselves and opened their campaign in force on Friday night. 
At central jail, where spectators jammed the sidewalks and police made no efforts to halt auto loads of servicemen openly cruising in search of zoot-suiters, the youths streamed gladly into the sanctity of the cells after being snatched from bar rooms, pool halls and theaters and stripped of their attire.
Zoot suit rioters celebrate after they are acquitted, October 26, 1944
kcet.org; photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

In a 1943 report, a citizens’ committee formed by Governor Earl Warren charged racism as being a primary cause of the riots. Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Brown, however, dismissed these findings, and attributed the riots to juvenile delinquents and white Southerners. And on June 20 in Mexico, where the riots were front-page news, a Mexico City newspaper charged Foreign Minister Ezequiel Padilla as being responsible “for perpetuating anti-Mexican acts in the United States by his failure to take a harder line towards the government of that country.” 

In today’s environment of fear in the face of nationalism and terrorism, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s reaction to the Zoot Suit Riots is well heeded: “The question goes deeper than just [zoot] suits. It is a racial protest. I have been worried for a long time about the Mexican racial situation. It is a problem with roots going a long way back, and we do not always face these problems as we should.”

Shelly Kale
Publications and Strategic Projects Manager
skale@calhist.org

Sources

Saturday, May 20, 2017

This Day in History - May 20, 1942: “S.F. Clear of All But 6 Sick Japs”


Clem Albers (Photographer), Evidence of the Forthcoming Evacuation of Residents of Japanese Ancestry, San Francisco, March 29, 1942
Courtesy The Bancroft Library 
From May 1942 to January 1945, in the name of national security, nearly 120,000 West Coast residents of Japanese ancestry occupied ten permanent camps in isolated inland areas for the duration of World War II. Their forced evacuations and relocations following the bombing of Pearl Harbor were not secret: there was much controversy over the government’s action, and a number of photographers officially documented the event.

Nevertheless, it was not until the 1970s that individuals and institutions—within and outside Japanese American communities, where they were a source of shame—began to open a wider window into this egregious chapter of American history.

On this day seventy-five years ago, as the San Francisco Chronicle recorded, “for the first time in 81 years, not a single Japanese is walking the streets of San Francisco.” Today, we remember the incarceration of Japanese Americans through the work of one press photographer whose “professional eye,” scholar Arielle Emmett notes, “captured contradicting realities between the government and public perceptions of the Japanese and the people themselves.”

Clem Albers (1903–1990)
 
Courtesy http://www.sfmuseum.org/hist/lange.html

Under contract by the War Relocation Authority’s Information Division, San Francisco Chronicle press photographer Clem Albers photographed the incarceration of Japanese Americans, primarily in northern to southern California. From March to late April/early May 1942, with his 4-by-5-inch Speed Graphic press camera, he documented relocations to and arrivals at Manzanar, Tule Lake, and Poston camps. After his brief assignment, he was a warrant officer at the U.S. Maritime Service, returning to his job with the San Francisco Chronicle after the war.

Clem Albers, Impounded Japanese American automobiles,
Manzanar Relocation Center, April 1942
Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration
Clem Albers, A truck packed with Japanese American residents of San Pedro, California, leaves for a temporary detention center, April 5, 1942
Courtesy extranewsfeed.com
Clem Albers, While military police stand guard, this detachment watches arrival of evacuees at Manzanar War Relocation Authority center, April 2, 1942
Courtesy The Bancroft Library
One of Albers’ photographs contrasts a young girl wearing simple clothes and a kerchief around her head with a sign that calls her barracks “Manzanar Mansion.” As Arielle Emmett writes in a study of internee portraiture, he “depicted the emotional extremes of evacuees in a full range of facial expressions, including frowns, grimaces, and even the ‘beguiling’ smile that he may have encouraged in his quick, ‘get it done’ newspaper style.”




Clem Albers, “Manzanar, Calif.—In the doorway of her barrack apartment at this War Relocation Authority center for evacuees of Japanese ancestry,” 1942
Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration



As we now know, the U.S. government impounded not only cars of Japanese families, but also
photographs taken of the incarcerations, such as the military’s oversight of camps and residents. As the New York Times has observed, “Photographs of barbed wire, machine gun-wielding guards or dissent within the camps were forbidden . . . photographs of resiliency and civic engagement in the camps were encouraged.” And as Karen J. Leong notes, “particularly those depicting the reality of armed guards supervising the evacuees” were censored.

Such images by Albers and other internment photographers, notably Dorothea Lange, were reviewed by military commanders and branded “Impounded.” Housed at the National Archives, where they were rediscovered only in the last decade, they have lost their restricted status.



Clem Albers, Military police officers checking their weapons at
Manzanar Relocation Center, c. 1942
Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration

Clem Albers, Dressed in uniform marking service in the First World War, 
this veteran enters Santa Anita assembly center for persons of Japanese ancestry 
evacuated from the West Coast, 1942
Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration
Today, internment photography continues to have wide-ranging impact: from connections made between the internment and the current administration’s call for Muslim bans and registries, to studies about prison photography, to representations by contemporary artists of minority populations and their roles in the histories of communities, cities, and nations.

One example is Albers’ haunting and perhaps most iconic image depicting the mass relocations of Japanese Americans in Southern California. His 1942 photograph of two-year-old Yukiko Okinaga Hayakawa awaiting evacuation at Union Station in Los Angeles found relevance nearly forty years later in L.A. History: A Mexican Perspective (1981), a mural by Chicana artist Barbara Carrasco.

Clem Albers, A young evacuee of Japanese ancestry waits with the family baggage before
leaving by bus for an assembly center, April 1942
Courtesy National Archives
Ironically, Carrasco’s mural, featuring scenes of the marginalization of Los Angeles’s minorities among more celebratory historic events, itself was censored. Objections to less laudable depictions of the city’s history were, perhaps, unwelcomed during Los Angeles’s bicentennial (1981) and Summer Olympic (1984) festivities.




Detail, Barbara Carrasco, L.A. History: A Mexican Perspective, 1981 (Censored 1981)
California Historical Society/LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes; photograph by Sean Meredith
Even how we speak about the internment era is undergoing change. Organizations such as Densho suggests internment terminology conforming to the Resolution on Terminology put forth by the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund, which has recognized the limitations of the wartime-era terminologies in today’s world. For example, “relocation” is suggested as “imprisonment, incarceration, internment, detention, confinement.” “Relocation camps” are better described as “internment camps, detention camps, prison camps, or concentration camps.”

At a press conference on October 20, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called relocation centers “concentration camps,” despite the War Relocation Authority’s denial of the term’s accuracy. Seventy-five years later, we have come full circle.

Shelly Kale
Publications and Strategic Projects Manager
skale@calhist.org

Sources
Tim Chambers, “Dorothea Lange’s Censored Photographs of FDR’s Concentration Camps,” https://anchoreditions.com/blog/dorothea-lange-censored-photographs

Chronology of WWII Incarceration; http://www.janm.org/projects/clasc/chronology.htm


James Estrin, “A Lesson from the 1940s: ‘America Is Capable of Being Un-American,’”

Karen J. Leong, “Envisioning a Usable Past,” in Todd Stewart, Placing Memory: A Photographic Exploration of Japanese American Internment (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008)

Resolution on Terminology, “Civil Liberties Public Education Fund; http://www.momomedia.com/CLPEF/backgrnd.html

“S.F. Clear of All but 6 Sick Japs,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 21, 1942

Patricia Wakida, “Clem Albers,” Densho Encyclopedia; http://encyclopedia.densho.org/Clem%20Albers/

WWII Japanese American Internment and Relocation Records in the National Archives: Introduction; https://www.archives.gov/research/japanese-americans/internment-intro


Read more about Japanese internment on the CHS blog:

Barbara Carrasco’s mural is part of CHS’s forthcoming exhibition and publication ¡Murales Rebeldes!: L.A. Chicana/o Art under Siege. Read more on the CHS blog:
http://californiahistoricalsociety.blogspot.com/2016/10/murales-rebeldes-contested-chicanao.html

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

New Digital Collections Highlight Historic Photographs of California

Today the California Historical Society published in its digital library four collections comprising nearly 300 historic photographs showcasing stunning photos of Los Angeles at the turn of the century; Rancho Santa Anita; massive engineering projects throughout California; and volunteers mustering for the Spanish-American War in San Francisco.

These collections are now available for browsing and searching via CHS’s digital library, available at digitallibrary.californiahistoricalsociety.org. Previous collections published in the digital library include photographs of Los Angeles taken by the urban geographer Anton Wagner and a set of rare or unique maps of California.

Fremont Gate, Elysian Park, Los Angeles, Views of Los Angeles, California, PC-GS-Photographers-Los Angeles-Putnam & Valentine, California Historical Society

John R. Putnam and Carlton Valentine (Putnam & Valentine) documented the growth and development of Southern California over a fifty-year period with John R. Putnam primarily handling the photography and C. O. Valentine the business end of the company. These photographs depict landmarks such as Mission Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles, Casa de Rosas, and Elysian Park.

Parkside Transit Co., San Francisco, Chadwick & Sykes photograph albums of contract engineering projects, PC 013, California Historical Society

Chadwick & Sykes (George C. Chadwick and Frank C. Sykes) was a contracting and engineering firm located in San Francisco, circa 1906-1920s. The photographs in this collection document engineering projects such as railroad and highways. Of particular interest are photographs of the Parkside neighborhood of San Francisco.

Group portrait of men under a tree, Rancho Santa Anita, Photographs of Rancho Santa Anita, PC 008, California Historical Society

The unattributed photographs of Rancho Santa Anita (Hollister Ranch) in the San Gabriel Valley depict ranching activities, including men riding horses, roping cattle, and posing for portraits in the Ranchos environs. Also included are photographs of the painting studio of Charles Rollo Peters.

Spanish-American War, California and Oregon volunteer infantries departing to Manila, Burr-Allyne Family Papers and Photographs, MSP 717, California Historical Society.

Alice Burr (1883-1968) was just 15 years old at the start of the Spanish-American War. Her photographs show volunteers mustering at Camp Merritt in San Francisco, men departing San Francisco on troopships, and a Decoration Day parade.


CHS’s digital library and digitization projects are supported by the Hearst Foundations, California State Library, Henry Mayo Newhall Foundation, the Califa Group, Luna Imaging, Steve Silberstein, and David Rumsey. Institutional support is provided by San Francisco Grants for the Arts, Sherwin Williams, and Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

The Chinese Exclusion Act Revisited

“The Magic Washer . . . The Chinese Must Go,” c. 1886
Courtesy Library of Congress
“The Chinese Must Go,” asserted this late-19th-century ad for laundry detergent shortly after passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act. “We have no use for them since we got this WONDERFUL WASHER,” the advertisers explained, relying on widespread anti-Chinese sentiment to target a traditionally Chinese laundry business—one of many reasons why Uncle Sam should kick the Chinese out of the United States.
On May 1 this year, Assemblyman Phil Ting (Democrat, District 19, San Francisco) proposed Assembly Joint Resolution 14 marking May 6, 2017, as the 135th anniversary of the enactment of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. As the AJR 14 summary explains, the resolution would “recognize the harm caused by racially discriminatory immigration measures, and to honor the contributions of all immigrants and refugees who have enriched our communities.” 
Passed in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was the first significant law restricting immigration into the Unites States. Renewed in 1892, amended in 1902, and made permanent in 1904, it prevented Chinese laborers from entering the United States and denied a pathway to citizenship to Chinese immigrants for more than sixty years, until 1943, when Congress repealed the nation's exclusion acts.
First page of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882
Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration
Today, we remember the passage and impact of the Chinese Exclusion Act with this summary by noted historian Charles Wollenberg, an account with chilling relevance to the anti-immigrant sentiment our nation faces today.
—Shelly Kale

J. D. Borthwick (artist), Chinese Camp in the Mines, c. 1850s
California Historical Society

The Gold Rush began the heritage of Asian-Pacific Islander migration to the United States. By 1849, gold seekers were arriving from Hawaii and Australia, and Chinese began coming in large numbers in 1851–52. Before the end of the 1850s, they were the largest nonwhite group in the mining districts and already a major target of resentment and discrimination. As a result, Chinese often sought out occupations that served rather than competed against the white majority. In a largely male society, those occupations sometimes included what the nineteenth century defined as “women’s work,” including laundry, cooking and domestic service. Chinese also became low-wage manual laborers, and in that role served as the major workforce for construction of the western portion of the transcontinental railroad.

“A Chinese Laundry in San Francisco, California—The Coming Man Washing, Drying, Sprinkling, and Ironing Clothes”
Published in Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, May 14, 1870

Alfred A. Hart (Photographer), Heading of East Portal, Tunnel No. 8, from Donner Lake Railroad, Western Summit, c. 1867
Courtesy of Alfred A. Hart Photograph Collection, Stanford University

In the 1870s, Chinese labor also became central to the expansion of California agriculture and important in several urban industries.  But the seventies was a depression decade, and the hard times strengthened white fear of Chinese economic competition. The anti-Chinese movement became increasingly violent and politically powerful.  In 1882 Congress responded with passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, banning almost all further Chinese immigration to the U.S.

Chinese Picking Grapes, Fair Oaks Ranch
Courtesy, The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, Photo Archives

The law was the first significant immigration restriction in American history, the first reversal of the principle of the Open Door. Ironically, the Statue of Liberty, the greatest symbol of America’s Open Door to immigrants, was under construction in 1882, just as the nation was turning away from that very principle. Chinese Exclusion began a forty-year process of increasing immigration restriction, which eventually applied to European migration as well. But it is important that the first target of restriction was the only significant nonwhite immigrant group coming to the United States at that time. And the major political and social pressure for Chinese exclusion came from California.

Thomas Nast, Pacific Chivalry, 1869
Published in Harper's Weekly, vol. 13, August 7, 1869

Chinese exclusion lasted for more than sixty years and produced a shortage of immigrant labor in California. In the 1890s, many California employers formerly dependent on Chinese labor turned to Japan as a new source of workers. Not surprisingly, by the early twentieth century, California’s well-established anti-Asian movement increasingly made Japanese immigration its primary target. Unlike 19th-century China, early-20th-century Japan was an emerging world power, and Japan’s new status produced political and diplomatic conflicts with the United States. Interethnic relations in California both reflected and reinforced these international tensions. Some influential Californians warned of a “Yellow Peril,” in which Japanese immigrants supposedly served as shock troops in a conspiracy threatening “white civilization” throughout the Pacific Basin.

—Charles Wollenberg


Immigration Officer D. D. Beatty used his 1894 journal to track Chinese immigrants
in Sierra County 
California Historical Society 
Activating historical memory recounted above, the ARJ 14 summary further notes that the measure would “declare the opposition of the Legislature to recent executive orders signed by President Trump relating to immigration, call upon the President to rescind those orders, condemn the expansion of deportations planned under the current administration, and reaffirm that the Legislature is open and welcoming to immigrants and refugees who are integral to life in our state.” 
As Erika Lee, Director of Immigration History Research Center, University of Minnesota, has written, “At a time when new government policies are deporting and banning new immigrants, remembering the consequences of this dark chapter in our history is more important than ever.”

Charles Wollenberg teaches history at Berkeley City College and is an Affiliated Scholar at the UCB Center for California Studies. He is a Fellow of the California Historical Society.

Shelly Kale is Publications and Strategic Projects Manager at the California Historical Society.

____________________________________________________________________________

Learn more about the Chinese Exclusion Act on the CHS blog:

Friday, May 5, 2017

Cinco de Mayo: Two Wars, Two Nations, and a Holiday with California Origins

Sergio O’Cadiz Moctezuma, Fountain Valley Mural (1974–76)  
Detail, Battle of Puebla, May 5, 1862 
Copyright © O’Cadiz Family Private Collection

155 years ago years today, on May 5, 1862, an assault was waged by French soldiers against Mexico. Its outcome was decided when Mexican troops victoriously defended their country. The Battle of Pueblo, an early battle of the 6-year-long French-Mexican War, helped transform a country divided by regional interests into one united against foreign intervention.

It was a David-and-Goliath story: 2,000 Mexican soldiers prevailing against 6,000 well-provisioned troops of the world’s most powerful and largest army. The battle began at daybreak, and when it concluded with the French in retreat, only 100 Mexican soldiers had been killed, compared to nearly 500 enemy forces.

Battle of May 5, 1862
Museo Nacional de la Intervenciones, Ex Convento de Churubusco, INAH

Across the border in the United States, where Latinos of Mexican heritage anxiously followed the conflict, Spanish-language newspapers in California reported the victory. As David Hayes-Bautista writes in his groundbreaking book El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition: “In town after town, camp after camp, mine after mine, ranch after ranch, Latinos eagerly absorbed the news. Those who could read shared the glorious details with their illiterate fellows, and up and down the state, Latinos savored the blow-by-blow reporting from the front lines of the conflict that had so riveted their attention.”

However, these celebrations were not just for the Mexican homeland. The United States itself was engaged in Civil War, and Latinos sought to preserve California’s status as a “free state,” particularly as Confederate soldiers advanced into New Mexico and Arizona. “When Latinos here got the news that French were stopped at Puebla, it electrified the population, and propelled them to a new level of civic participation. Latinos joined the Union army and navy and some went back to Mexico to fight the French,” Hayes-Bautista explained in an interview.

In parades throughout the state, Latinos proclaimed their support against French imperialism in Mexico and against the Confederacy in the United States, carrying U.S. and Mexican flags and singing their anthems. As Bautista-Hayes writes, “Cinco de Mayo was made in America, by Latinos who proudly bore the U.S. and Mexican flags to show their support for both the Union and its values and for the Mexican victory over the French, who sought to undermine those values.”

Daniel Greene, Romualdo Pacheco, 2005
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives

Many Mexican Americans in California (called Native Californians during that era) joined volunteer units of the Union Army. In 1863, Governor Leland Stanford commissioned Romualdo Pacheco—who later became California’s twelfth governor, the only Hispanic to serve in that position to date—as a brigadier general in the California state militia. Pacheco commanded Hispanic troops in the First Brigade of the Native Cavalry of the California Volunteers. As cavalry recruits, these Californios from the state’s vast ranchos were expert horsemen, skilled as lancers, and experienced in the field.

California Lancers, 1846
Published in Tom Prezelski, Californio Lancers: The 1st Battalion of Native Cavalry in the Far West, 
1863–1866 (Norman: Arthur H. Clark Co./University of Oklahoma Press, 2015)


Captain Antonio Maria de la Guerra
Company C, First Battalion, Native California Cavalry
Courtesy www.findagrave.com



The Native California Cavalry in California, 1863–1865
Courtesy www.militarymuseum.org

With its origins in 1860s California, Cinco de Mayo was rediscovered 100 years later. During the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Mexican Americans across the nation—primarily in the Southwest—protested inequalities for U.S. Latinos. Chicana/Chicano muralists also took to the streets, embedding their expressions of cultural pride, their heritage, and their challenges to the status quo on the walls of city buildings, housing projects, and other community structures. Though many are no longer visible, to this day Chicana/o murals remain an integral part of self-expression, Chicana/Chicano culture and heritage, and a significant contribution to the historical record.

(Detail) Cinco de Mayo, May 5, 1976 
Sergio O’Cadiz Moctezuma, Fountain Valley Mural, 1974–76
Copyright © O’Cadiz Family Private Collection

An example is the sequence of 25 scenes that comprise Sergio O’Cadiz Moctezuma’s Fountain Valley Mural, painted in the Colonia Juarez neighborhood from 1974 to 1976 but destroyed in 2009. Beginning with the arrival of Mexican peasants in California when Orange County was still farmland, the mural’s narrative jumps into the future to the Chicano Movement, and then goes back in time to tell the history of modern Mexico. With the mural’s replacement by a bland block wall, a significant part of Colonia Juarez’s unique and colorful history was lost.

Shelly Kale
Publications and Strategic Projects Manager
skale@calhist.org

Sources


_____________________________________________________________________________

Learn more about Chicana/o murals in September 2017



The stories of Southern California murals whose messages were almost lost forever

A PUBLICATION of the California Historical Society and LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes in association with Angel City Press, Los Angeles

AN EXHIBITION at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, Los Angeles, September 20, 2017–February 27, 2018



Part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, a far-reaching and ambitious exploration of Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles, taking place from September 2017 through January 2018 at more than 70 cultural institutions across Southern California. Pacific Standard Time is an initiative of the Getty. The presenting sponsor is Bank of America.