Sunday, December 12, 2004

Free Speech , a Radical Church, and Community Farms Need Saving

December 11, 2004, I attended “Tour L.A.: Past Forward,” organized by the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research, a 40-year old private library located in South Los Angeles that documents social justice movements in this city. Twenty of us tour participants met at 8:45 a.m. by the kiosk in the Plaza south of Olvera Street where people were decorating for the festival for the Virgin of Guadalupe to be held that evening at Our Lady Queen of the Angels Church next door: yellow, rose, and blue paper cut-outs were hung between the trees; vendors were setting up food and craft tables; stage hands were building a stage for music.

First we went to the brown brick Hellman/Quon building to hear historian William Estrada talk about the hidden free speech history of the Plaza. Estrada told us that from 1781 when Los Angeles was founded to 1881 the Plaza was the town’s center: Our Lady Queen of the Angeles Church, located here, was the first and leading church; adobes and then brick residences for the town’s elites stood here; the city’s main shops circled the Plaza. The Spanish officials and pobaldores (colonists) built a zanja madre, mother ditch, from the Los Angeles River down to the pueblo to water their fields. After the Anglo elite shifted the city’s center a few blocks southeast after 1880, the Plaza became the center of the immigrant working people: Mexicans and Italian immigrants lived right west and north in neighborhood called Sonoratown; Chinese immigrants lived directly east in Old Chinatown.

Estrada said that the Plaza and its nearby streets were the center of rallies, meetings, and speechmaking: Sun yat-sen, future leader of China, spoke to 700 Chinese at a nearby restaurant to gain support for the future Chinese Revolution; the Flores-Magon brothers, leaders of the anarchist Partido Liberal Mexicano, held many rallies at the Plaza for a Mexican revolution; the I.W.W., radical trade unionists who led L.A. trade union movement, had their office at 420 Los Angeles Street; anarchist Emma Goldman, Job Harriman who ran for Socialist mayor of Los Angeles, and famed Socialist author Upton Sinclair, all spoke here.

A few minutes later as we walked again through the Plaza I could hear the ghostly voices from 1912 of radical Mexican and Italian immigrants discussing the latest strikes in L.A. A few minutes later at Our Lady Queen of the Angels Church (La Placita) by the mural on the northside we listened to Father Steve Niskanen. During the 1980s Father Oliveres led La Placita into declaring itself the first Catholic Church to be a sanctuary for refugees from the civil wars in Central America; defying the I.N.S.; and making this a church for the poor and homeless.

The Claretian order, which runs the church, transferred Father Oliveres to Bolivia in 1990, ending La Placita’s radicalism, but the Claretians changed their minds by 2002. Two new priests, Father Steve Niskanen and Arnold Abelardo, who arrived in 2002, revived this radical heritage. The two priests redeclared the church as a sanctuary for immigrants; denounced the government’s raids on immigrants; started within the church Centro San Juan Diego del Immigrante (San Juan Diego Immigrant Center) to give legal and medical aid to immigrants; and again are feeding and helping the homeless. Father Niskanen, who is a tall, gangly Anglo, said he came from a conservative background but is changing while being pastor at La Placita.

Leaving Father Niskanen, we boarded the bus to get off at Spring Street, walk a block to Biddy Mason Park just south of the Bradbury Building at 304 South Broadway. If you walk through the Bradbury Building to the gallery at the back on the 1st floor and then go right, you see a pocket park with leafy green camphor and jacaranda trees, benches, and then a wall dedicated to Biddy Mason. Mason, who was a black slave in 1851, walked to Los Angeles with her master’s wagon train.

There, she sued in 1856 for her freedom in court, and was helped by blacks in the tiny black community. She won! Inscriptions on the wall tall the story of this pioneering African-American Angelo: she was a talented midwife, helping to birth hundreds of children. She bought land and had a house right on this spot. At her house she and other blacks held meetings for Los Angeles’s first black church, the African-American Methodist Episcopal Church, which was built a few blocks down, on land she owned and donated to the church.

From Biddy Mason’s Park we walked a few blocks down Spring Street, the old Wall Street of Los Angeles with its stock exchange and leading banks before they moved to Bunker Hill; we arrived at Gallery 727 at 727 South Spring Street to see the photography show “South Central Farmers: Photographs by Don Normark and Don Rogers” (” At 41st Street and Alameda Avenue in South Los Angeles South Central Farmers for 12 years have created small garden plots in a community gardens. The city of Los Angeles originally condemned this land by eminent domain for the “good the community” to build a huge incinerator opposed by concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles, then let 360 farmers create garden plots. After promising that the land would be used for the good of the community, City Hall in a “sweetheart deal” decided gave the land back to its previous owner Ralph Horowitz to build a warehouse, so in December 31, 2003, the South Central Farmers have received their first eviction notice.

They have been fighting for a year including getting a court injunction to keep their farms ( We see photos of a few of the 350 families who are fighting City Hall and a millionaire real-estate dealer. The photos were stunning, showing these adults and children’s pride in their corn, chayote, cactucs they’ve grown as well as how they pass on food traditions--including building wonderful scacrecrows-- to the next generation. Looking at these photos, I thought of original small farming village of El Pueblo where farmers also laboriously built a long irrigation ditch, the madre zanja, to water their crops and then took pride in their vegetables they grew. Yes, the South Central Farmers who are carrying on this same food and farming two-hundred year old traditions deserve our support. You can fill out their petition at www. html.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Michael Rochin captures old L.A.

I have read an amazing novel by Michael Jacob Rochin called Cascaron about Californios (Mexicans) in Southern California in the 1850s. Cascaron is the best fictional story I've ever read to recreate the life on the Mexican ranchos of the 1840s and and 1850s which dominated California's coastline. Don Diego Antonio Arboleda owns a huge rancho near Santa Barbara in 1857 in the last years of the ranchos before the whole way of life was destroyed. He sends his nephew Dario, the novel's hero and a foreman on the ranch, on a long journey to L.A. to arrange a deal for Arboleda's cows to help save the rancho. Dario is a wonderful horseman and an even better dancer--the one who gives the girls their first dance at their coming out party.

The whole intricate way of life on the rancho is wonderfully created: the life is full of strong families who lived together on the rancho, who had love of the land, who had a rich dance and music culture. When Dario rides with two retairners to the mission, Rochlin has created a lovely evocation of the beauty of the land of Southern California, the mission where they stop for a meal, and the dangers along the road. The novel for its first 90% creates this amazingly rich life of the ranchos including Dario's love for a daughter of a neibhoring rancho and the festivals at the ranchos which included a bear-and-bull fight. Arriving in L.A. the trio face more dangers in a wild western town of 1857 to finally make the deal to sell the beef and keep the rancho from financial troubles.

This is a tagic novel, as the Southern California ranchos' brief prosperity of 1857-8 which came from selling beef to the miners in Northern California was their last prosperity. By 1864 the Arbeleda family lost a good part of their land to the Anglos and Don Antonio, the patriach, had died. The novel describes how by 1864 with disease and a terrible drought destroying the cattle, most of the large ranchos were were lost by "legal technicalities, tax sales, and foreclosures."

Dario does survive in Santa Barbara until 1908, when Anglo children call him Don Dario but he knows he was never a don like his uncle Don Antonio. The Anglos get Dario, now an eighty-two-year old, to participate in "full folk regalia" and to dance in the festivities celebrating the "Spanish" heritage of Santa Barbara. The novel says, "So what if costumes like this had never bee worn and music like that had never been played ...Don Dari smiled and stared out but he could no longer see.... A woman demanded that Don Dari stomp like the flamencos and a man whooped a war dance like he'd seen ina motion picutre." In the end the wonderful dancer Dario becomes a tragic participant in the Anglos caricaturing the Mexican culture they neither understand nor appreciate.

Michael Rocholin is an archicture and historian of Los Angeles who has written a wonderful series of books about history and architure of this city. In his novel Cascaron he includes maps of 1850s Los Angeles with zanga madre, the mother ditch from the Los Angeles River, as well as other irrigation ditches and vineyards near oldtown. Rochlin has also written Ancient LA, is a spendid essay how the Indian villages are the sites of towns all over Southern California: he digs up a lost past and shows how the influence of this past on the present.

In Rochlin's Arcadian L.A. talks about three powerful women who owned large estates and who were devoted to the natural beauty of the land and the arts--the opposite of the macho land developers who destroyed vast areas of Southern California. Arcadia is the name of a rural paradise in ancient Greece.

The first woman, Anita Baldwin, owned her beautiful estate Anoakia at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains where she bred horses and commissioned prominent California painter Maynard Dixon to do the "Jinks room" murals which are now in the Fisher Gallery at USC. Baldwin's estae was unfortunatley destroyed by developers in 2000. May Rindge and her husband bought all of the Malibu rancho, one of the last Mexican land grants, so they owned all of Malibu; after her husband's death Rindge fought to keep out homesteaders, developers, and the state of California. In order to provide tiles for the her and her daughter's homes, May Rindge brought in the finest craftsmen and established the Malibu Tile Works, one of Southern California's best tile works. Part of the old Rindge estate survies as Malibu Lagoon State Park which includes a musuem showcase of Malibu history including the internationlly famous hand-made Mediterranean-style tiles used in buildings throughout Southern California.

Aline Barnsdall had her estate in the heart of Hollywood where she had Frank Lloyd Wright build her the splendid Hollyhock house and had a short-lived arts colony; Barnsdall donated to the city of Los Angeles this estate which became Barndall Park with a Los Angeles municipal art musuem and arts programs so Barsndall's support of art, architecture, and open space continues in the park named after her. Rochlin shows how three women were all good stewards of the land as well as promoted the arts and how their influence is still with us today. In these books Rochlin tells of the almost lost Los Angeles--of vaqueros and three-day Mexican fiestas, of females who created natural paradises along with arts and theater. Rochlin has proven to be one of the most lyrical and orginal writers in California.

Rochlin's book are published by a small press and are available from them:
Unreinforced Masonry Studio
P.O. Box 33671
Los Angeles Ca 90033

ISBN 0-9648304-5-0

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