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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