Land of Smoke and Mirrors: A Cultural History of Los Angeles

By Vincent Brook | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
The Ramona Myth

Los Angeles didn’t have to wait for Hollywood’s Houdinis to cast its own magic spell. The earliest Christian conversion of the Tongva Indians in the late 1700s was realized not only by military means but also through the arts and sciences of signs. Friar Francisco Palou, an aide to Father Junipero Serra, chief overseer of the California missions, reported the miraculous effect of sacred images in the Spaniards’ first encounters with the Indians. As Serra’s contingent prepared to break ground in 1771 on Mission San Gabriel, the first mission in the Los Angeles area, Palou wrote:

A great multitude of gentiles [pagan Indians] came up, all armed and under
the direction of two captains [chiefs] who, with blood-curdling yells, tried
to hinder the proceedings. As the Fathers feared that a battle was imminent
which would surely result in the death of not a few, one of them produced a
canvas on which was painted the image of Our Lady of Sorrows and held it up
in view of the barbarians. He had scarcely done this when they all, subdued by
the vision of this beautiful image, threw down their bows and arrows and came
running hastily forward…. The sight of the image of Our Lady produced a
wonderful change upon the gentiles surrounding the Mission of San Gabriel,
and [consequently] … there was no opposition to the gentle yoke of the Evan-
gelical Law.1

With however many drops of holy water this description must be taken, it is more than counterbalanced by other firsthand accounts of a far less “gentle” conversion process—one of which Palou himself provided. Later in his otherwise sanguine chronicle, he describes a violent incident that erupted at the mission, an incident that was defused not by sacred iconography but by force of arms. When a Spanish soldier “committed a sin” against the chief’s wife, and the enraged chief, together with a band of warriors, attacked the offending soldier, Palou writes, “The latter immediately aimed his gun at the Indian … and discharging his piece,

-25-

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Land of Smoke and Mirrors: A Cultural History of Los Angeles
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iv
  • Contents viii
  • Acknowledgments x
  • Prologue 1
  • Introduction 5
  • Part One - Original Si(G)N 23
  • Chapter 1 - The Ramona Myth 25
  • Chapter 2 - Ramona Revisited 43
  • Part Two - Si(G)N City 65
  • Chapter 3 - "City with Two Heads" 67
  • Chapter 4 - What Price Hollywood? 83
  • Part Three - L.a. Noir 103
  • Chapter 5 - Bright and Guilty Place 105
  • Chapter 6 - Neo-Noir 126
  • Part Four - Multicultural L.a 151
  • Chapter 7 - Latinos 153
  • Chapter 8 - Blacks 170
  • Chapter 9 - Lasians 189
  • Chapter 10 - Langlos and Lagbts 209
  • Conclusion 233
  • Notes 243
  • Index 281
  • About the Author 303
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