Magazine article California History

Empowerment, Expansion, and Engagement: Las Juntas Patrioticas in California, 1848-1869

Magazine article California History

Empowerment, Expansion, and Engagement: Las Juntas Patrioticas in California, 1848-1869

Article excerpt

The traditional view of Latinos (1) in California from statehood in 1850 to the early twentieth century is captured in the title of one the most widely known histories of the period: The Decline of the Californios. In his foundational text, Leonard Pitt points to the negation of Mexican land grants in the early statehood period and a concomitant loss of economic power and political office as causes of Latino diminishment. Although Pitt focuses narrowly on the Latino landed gentry, his framework generally has been assumed by other scholars to apply to the entire Latino population. (2) In this generalized version of Latino history, the state's once-thriving Latino communities--foundations of civil life in dozens of towns and settlements--suffered an irreversible political and economic decline in the latter half of the nineteenth century and have returned to public notice only through recent immigration.

According to this scenario, decline in the mid-nineteenth century was followed by displacement. The Foreign Miners' Tax (1850) and Atlantic-American (3) vigilantism during the 1850s drove Latino miners out of the gold fields. In urbanizing areas, such as Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, Latinos gradually were displaced into small, shrinking barrios. Disappearance followed decline and displacement. Latinos left California, some returning to Mexico and others drifting to other states. As the number of marriages and baptisms plummeted and as elite Latinos were absorbed culturally through intermarriage with Atlantic-Americans, (4) the Latino population dwindled to near oblivion. Through such mechanisms of decline, displacement, and disappearance, Pitt's account implies, Latinos virtually vanished from California just at the time the modern state was being shaped, and they apparently had little to do with its development.

Events publicized in the Spanish-language press during the early statehood era, however, tell a different story. At least twenty newspapers were published by and for California's Spanish-speaking population, both immigrants and Californios. (5) Beginning with La Estrella, the Spanish-language half of the Los Angeles Star (1851-55), and El Eco del Pacifico, the Spanish-language section of the French-language L'Echo du Pacifique in San Francisco (1852-65), a number of newspapers kept California's far-flung Latino communities informed about local, state, and international events. Los Angeles subsequently had two Spanish-language newspapers, El Clamor Publico (1855-59) and El Amigo dei Pueblo (1860-62). La Gaceta was begun in Santa Barbara in 1855 as the Spanish-language pages of the Santa Barbara Gazette. As San Francisco rocketed into prominence as a result of the Gold Rush, Spanish-language publications exploded there, too: La Cronica (1854-56); El Sud-Americano (1855); La Voz de Mejico (1862-66); La Bandera Mexicana and El Semanario Mejicano (1863); El Nuevo Mundo (1864-68); El Correo de San Francisco (1865); La Voz de Chile and El Observador (1866); the combined paper La Voz de Chile y el Nuevo Mundo (1867-68, continuing afterwards until 1884 as El Voz del Nuevo Mundo); El Bien Social, La Prensa Mexicana, and El Republicano (1868); and El Tiempo (1869). (6)

These newspapers documented the activities of a lively, engaged Latino population throughout this period of presumed decline, displacement, and disappearance. Latinos responded to events that affected them, from mob vigilantism in California to the French invasion of Mexico, by creating and adapting the juntas patrioticas (patriotic assemblies), organizations that managed and channeled their political and economic resources in ways that changed events around them. Because they tracked the activities of these juntas, Spanish-language newspapers provide a detailed view of how Latino communities remained active in the issues of the day, including civil rights, political participation, community services, and international affairs.

Furthermore, an analysis of the growth and membership of the juntas during this time suggests a considerable numeric and geographic expansion of Latinos throughout California in its first twenty years as part of the United States. …

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