Inside LA - The Los Angeles Lowdown

Los Angeles’ Hispanic Heritage

Los Angeles Hispanic Heritage
Olvera Street, oldest street in Los Angeles

People from the Spanish-speaking countries of Spain, 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. In fact Los Angeles County’s five million people of Hispanic descent works out to be almost ten per cent of the entire country’s total. So for Hispanic Heritage Month I’m going to take a look at two Mexicans, whom we often talk about on our tours, and the impact that they had on Los Angeles.

PIO PICO

Pio Pico
Pio Pico in 1868, Bowers Museum

The name “Pico” is one you see around L.A. a lot. There’s Pico Boulevard, the fifteen-mile street running through Los Angeles from downtown to the Pacific Ocean, Pico House, the old hotel at the Los Angeles Plaza, and Pio Pico State Historic Park, near Whittier. But who, or what, is Pico? Well, Pio Pico was a hugely important figure in the early history of Los Angeles. He was the last Mexican Governor of California, who remained here after the state became part of the U.S. and found wealth as a cattle rancher and hotelier, before dying in comparative poverty in 1894. 

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, Native American, African and Spanish – a common mixture in this part of the world in those days. At his birth, in 1801, the Mission was in 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 colonised. Pico, therefore, was a first generation Californio. 

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. Eventually, in 1832, he would become interim governor of Alta California (as California was known then). Later, in 1845, he would become Governor again, 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 House
Pico House, first three stores building in Los Angeles

Pico was ordered back to Mexico for the duration of the war, but returned upon its conclusion to find California now part of the U.S. I guess he had experience in these sudden territorial changes and so he knuckled down again and made another fortune from selling cattle to hungry prospectors, brought to California by the Gold Rush of 1849-50 (prices went from $2 to $70 a head almost overnight). 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 a time 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!

Unfortunately this was his peak though, as his legendary generosity, propensity for gambling and a serious illness all combined to bring him down. He finally lost his ranch at Whittier (which is now a State Historic Park) when he unknowingly signed away the deed in return for a loan. He died, penniless, at his daughter-in-law’s house in downtown Los Angeles in 1894, the tiny town of barely three-hundred inhabitants of his youth having grown to being a city of around seventy thousand.

DOLORES DEL RIO

Dolores Del Rio mural, Hollywood
Dolores Del Rio mural in Hollywood

Once upon a time Dolores Del Rio was a name that everyone would have known. She was renowned for her beauty, her acting talent and even her mellifluous voice. Orson Welles described her as, “the most exciting woman (he’d) ever met”. Celebrated playwright George Bernard Shaw pronounced that, “the two most beautiful things in the world are the Taj Mahal and Dolores Del Rio”.  And she, too, has left her mark on her adopted country and the world.

Del Rio was born in Mexico to a wealthy family and originally wanted to be a dancer, but in 1925 was discovered by a film director at a party in Mexico City. He persuaded her to move to Los Angeles to pursue work in the then still relatively new film industry there. Within a couple of years she had become a huge star, due to hits such as RamonaWhat Price Glory? and No Other Woman. She even survived, and thrived, through the transition to sound movies, a change that killed the careers of many of her contemporaries. By the 1930’s she was a huge international star, one of the biggest in Hollywood.

Dolores Del Rio
Dolores Del Rio in late 1920’s.

One of the most interesting things that one notes when reading reviews and interviews from this period is how differently Mexican stars were viewed at that time. Nowadays Latino actresses and singers are often described as being “hot”, “spicy” – maybe even a “mamacita”. Del Rio however was more often said to be “aristocratic”, “elegant”, “sophisticated” and “refined”. She acted, danced and sang in her movies, proving herself to be a hugely talented triple-threat.

As work began to dry up for Del Rio in the 1940’s she moved back to Mexico to work in movies there. This coincided with the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema and she had more success in movies such as Maria Candelaria (the first Latin American film to win the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival) and La Otra. After that she began alternating projects between Mexico and Los Angeles, appearing in 1960 in Flaming Star as Elvis Presley’s mother (Presley himself had insisted on casting her). In many ways Dolores Del Rio was the prototype for many later crossover stars and Hispanic actresses, such as Rita Moreno, Jennifer Lopez and Penelope Cruz. 

There’s a beautiful mural with 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 Hispanic people, such as her and Pio Pico, have given to the U.S. and indeed the world.

We visit Pico House on our LA: Food + History + Design Tour and see the Dolores Del Rio mural on our Real Hollywood Tour.

If you have any feedback on Los Angeles’ Hispanic Heritage please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.

– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

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