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Legendary Los Angeles Latinos

Legendary Los Angeles Latinos
Olvera Street, oldest street in Los Angeles and spiritual heart of the Latino community in LA

People from the Spanish-speaking countries of Central and South America have had an enormous impact on Los Angeles. Which isn’t at all surprising when you consider nearly fifty per cent of the population of Los Angeles today has a Hispanic background and that, therefore Los Angeles Latinos form the largest ethnic share of the population. That’s largely due to significant immigration into LA over the past century from Central and South America. Nevertheless, going back much further, California was part of both the Spanish Empire and, after its independence, Mexico. The roots of Latino culture in Los Angeles run very deep. As you’ll notice when you see many of our street and place names.

Here in the U.S. people can get confused with the different terms – Hispanic, Latino and Spanish are often conflated, although they all mean different things. Hispanic means Spanish-speaking, which includes Spain, but not Brazil (Brazilians speak Portuguese). Latino generally means people from the countries of Latin America, so that doesn’t include Spain. And if you’re Spanish – well, that means you’re from Spain, and not from ANY other country. If you’re from Mexico you’re Mexican, in the same way as if you’re from the U.S. you’re American, not English (and, for God’s sake, not Irish!).

The five million people of Hispanic descent in Los Angeles County works out to be almost ten per cent of the entire U.S. total, so for Hispanic Heritage Month I’m going to take a look at two legendary Latinos, whom we often talk about on our tours, and the impact that they had on Los Angeles.

Pio Pico

The name ‘Pico’ is one you see around LA a lot. There’s Pico Boulevard, the fifteen-mile street running through the Westside from downtown to the Pacific Ocean, Pico House, the old hotel in the Los Angeles Plaza, and Pio Pico State Historic Park, near Whittier in the San Gabriel Valley. But who, or what, is Pico?

Well, Don Pio Pico was a hugely important figure in the early history of Los Angeles. He was the last Mexican Governor of California and he remained here after the state joined the U.S., finding wealth as a cattle rancher and hotelier, before dying in comparative poverty at the end of the nineteenth century. 

Pio Pico was born at the San Gabriel Mission, near where I live, just east of the city of Los Angeles. His ancestry was Mexican, First American, African and Spanish – a common mixture in this part of the world in those days. At the time he would have been referred to as a Mestizo by the Spanish, but today he would be considered a Latino.

At his birth, in 1801, the Mission was in Alta California, a province of New Spain, the Spanish colony that encompassed almost all of Central America and the western third of what’s now the United States, although California itself had only recently been colonized. Pico, therefore, was a first generation Californio, as Californians were called at the time. 

While still a young man, in 1821, Spain lost its New World colonies (or most of them) and so California became part of Mexico. These years were kind to Pico and from an early investment in a general store in San Diego his wealth grew, as he became owner of several enormous ranches in Southern California. This era is often known as the Age of the Dons, so named for the rich rancheros, like Pico, who dominated political and economic life in California at the time.

Eventually, in 1832, Pio Pico would become interim governor of Alta California (as California was known then), after the First Battle of the Cahuenga Pass. Later, in 1845, he would become Governor again (after another stand-off at the Cahuenga Pass between rebellious Californios and the Mexican Government), just as the U.S. and Mexico were squaring up to each other in the run-up to the Mexican-American War of 1846-8.

Pico’s brother, Andres, was also a wealthy and important figure in the early history of the state, instrumental in signing a peace treaty with the U.S. military commander in California, in 1847. You could argue that of these Los Angeles Latinos, his story had been the one most ignored by historians, when you consider that the agreement he negotiated was central to the entire 1848 peace settlement with Mexico (the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo).

Pio Pico had been ordered back to Mexico for the duration of the war, but returned at its conclusion to find California now part of the U.S. I guess he had experience in these sudden territorial changes, so he knuckled down again and made another fortune from selling beef to hungry prospectors, brought to California by the Gold Rush of 1849-50 (prices went from $2 to $70 per head of cattle almost overnight). He rapidly became one of the wealthiest people in California, with over 500,000 acres of land under his ownership, spread between several ranches.

Spying another opportunity in 1869, he sold his enormous ranch in the San Fernando Valley to James Boon Lankershim and Isaac Newton Van Nuys, using the money to construct the three-storey, thirty-three room Pico House. For several years it was the largest building in Los Angeles and its finest hotel. Every luxury was available there, including gas lighting and no less than two bathrooms on every floor!

This was was Pico’s financial peak though, as his legendary generosity, propensity for gambling and a serious illness all combined to bring him down over the following years.

The final blow was when he lost his ranch at Whittier by unknowingly signing away the deed in return for a loan (incredibly, and unfortunately, he’d never learned to read English). Unwittingly, he’d sold the ranch, instead of taking out a mortgage on it, as he thought he was doing. The case went all the way to the California Supreme Court but, this time, he lost (he famously took more than twenty cases to the court during his life).

He died, penniless, at his daughter-in-law’s house in downtown Los Angeles in 1894. The tiny town that had numbered barely three-hundred inhabitants when he was born, having swelled to a city of around seventy thousand people by that time.

The Avila Adobe and Olvera Street, heart of the Mexican community in Los Angeles

Dolores del Rio

Another legendary Los Angeles Latino, or Latina, that has largely been forgotten in her adopted home is Dolores del Rio. Once upon a time one of the most famous people on the planet, she was renowned for her beauty, her acting talent and even her mellifluous voice.

She’s the most exciting woman I’ve ever met.

Orson Welles

Now that’s a statement. But then Welles had been fascinated by her since he was a teenager.

Dolores del Río was the most beautiful woman who ever set foot in Hollywood. Ah, this is the real beauty. We blondes have to work at it.

Marlene Dietrich

Dietrich herself was a huge movie star and renowned beauty, so she knew what she was talking about!

The two most beautiful things in the world are the Taj Mahal and Dolores del Rio.

George Bernard Shaw

The great playwright was in his seventies when pronouncing that, so she was clearly quite something. But who was this lady that so seduced these successful actors, writers and directors?

Del Rio was born in 1904, in Mexico City, to a wealthy family and originally trained to be a dancer, for which she displayed great talent. That talent was later put to great use in her film roles.

However, in 1925, she was discovered by Hollywood film director Edwin Carewe, at a party. He persuaded her to move to Los Angeles to pursue work in the then still relatively new moving picture industry there (he was the first of many men to become obsessed by her). It seemed like an especially good idea since her first husband had just lost most of their fortune on a bad investment in growing cotton.

Even though del Rio arrived in LA only thirty years after Pico had died, it was a totally different city that greeted her, one that the old don would have barely recognized. Nevertheless, within a couple of years she had climbed the Hollywood ladder to the top and become a big star, due to huge hits such as RamonaWhat Price Glory? and No Other Woman. Welles, commenting on her role in Bird of Paradise, said that “del Río represented the highest erotic ideal with her performance”. With reviews like that it’s not surprising that she was so popular.

Del Rio survived, and even thrived, into the era of sound movies, a change that killed the careers of many of her contemporaries. By the early 1930’s she was a huge international star, one of the biggest in Hollywood, married to Cedric Gibbons, a hugely influential art director and working with musical stars like Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Busby Berkeley.

Check out these photos of the elegant Santa Monica home she shared with Gibbons, it’s an Art Deco masterpiece, and what I picture when I think of a stars’ house.

Then, in 1940, she met Welles at a party in Hollywood. They soon began a passionate affair, ending del Rio’s marriage to Gibbons. Welles was in the middle of making Citizen Kane at the time and del Rio was by his side throughout filming, helping the auteur make his famous masterpiece. By all accounts, including his children’s, she was in fact the love of his life (he was later married to Rita Hayworth too).

One of the most interesting things that one notes when reading del Rio’s reviews and interviews from that period is how differently she was seen, and written about, than Latina stars today. Nowadays Latina actresses and singers are often described as being “hot”, “spicy” – maybe even a “mamacita”. Del Rio, however, was typically referred to as “aristocratic”, “elegant”, “sophisticated” and “refined”. She acted, danced and sang in her movies, proving herself to be a hugely talented triple-threat.

As roles began to dry up for del Rio in Hollywood during the 1940’s, and dealing with the break-up of her relationship with Welles, she moved back to Mexico to work in the movie industry there.

This coincided with the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema and she had more success in films such as Maria Candelaria (the first Latin American film to win the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival) and La Otra (in which del Rio played dual roles as identical twins, one good and one bad).

After that she began alternating projects between Mexico and Los Angeles, appearing in Flaming Star in 1960, as Elvis Presley’s mother (the heartthrob himself had insisted on her casting). In many ways del Rio was the prototype for many later crossover stars and Hispanic actresses, such as Rita Moreno, Jennifer Lopez and Penelope Cruz.

Dolores del Rio died at home in Newport Beach, California, on April 11, 1983. Her ashes now rest at the Panteón de Dolores, in Mexico City, where they lie in the Rotunda of Illustrious Persons.

Learn More About These Los Angeles Latinos

There’s a beautiful mural dedicated to del Rio in Hollywood, just off the Walk of Fame, with a list of all her movies, Mexican and American. I enjoy standing before it, paying homage to this amazing woman and offering silent thanks for the contribution that Latinos, such as Dolores del Rio and Don Pio Pico, have given to Los Angeles, the U.S., and indeed the world.

We visit Pico House on the LA: Food + History + Design Tour, as well as taking a walk through the Los Angeles Plaza to get tacos, and we pay our respects at the Dolores del Rio mural on the Real Hollywood Tour.

Los Angeles' Hispanic Heritage
Dolores del Rio mural in Hollywood

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– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

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