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

By Vincent Brook | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 8
bLAcks

To fill the multicultural gap Hector Tobar finds at the new Plaza museum, more than only Europeans and Asians need to be included. Blacks deserve a place at the table as well, if not at the very head. Not just a few but a majority of the pueblo’s original forty-four pobladores (ten of the twenty-two adults; sixteen of the twenty-two children) were either of full or part African descent. One of the pueblo’s first alcaldes (Spanish equivalent of mayor), Francisco Reyes, appointed in 1793, was a mulatto.1 Yet at the city’s first major public celebration of its origins, the La Fiesta de Los Angeles of 1894, blacks were allowed to participate (along with “Caucasians, Mongolians, red men,” and representatives of the “Spanish American” population).2 But their preeminent role went unacknowledged—as it would remain for close to a century.

The special fiesta of 1931, celebrating the city’s sesquicentennial, seemed an apt time for atonement. Instead, the historical whitewashing expanded, engulfing even the “Spanish Americans.” The city’s founders now “were thought of as Europeans,” William Estrada notes; “Los Angeles had become the new Jamestown.”3 At least one contemporary observer of the festival, John D. Weaver, “wondered about the complexion” of the white adults and children masquerading in the procession as “the 44 black and brown pobladores.”4 The city’s Anglo elite “understood the need to recast local history” as part of their increasingly tenuous campaign to uphold Los Angeles, in Mayor John Porter’s words, as the “last stand of nativeborn Protestant America.”5 For a change, however, a non-WASP “talked back.” Loren Miller, feature writer for one of L.A.’s major black newspapers, the California Eagle (founded in 1879), derided the fiesta’s self-serving revisionism for blatantly ignoring the citizens “from whose ranks [Los Angeles] drew more than fifty percent of its founders and [for attempting] … to change the color of its founders’ skins one hundred and fifty years after their death.”6

The racial politics of historical exclusion continued to rankle an African American community long subjected to second-class citizenship (and worse). The conflict over the role of blacks in the city’s founding eventually extended beyond

-170-

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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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