Ethnic enclaves have long staked out the area immediately north of Los Angeles' historic plaza, one of the oldest settled areas in the city. Now known as Chinatown, the district has attracted successive waves of immigrants, many of them excluded from newer neighborhoods by overt racial hostility and discriminatory housing policies. A Little Italy once took root there. But among the area's first immigrant residents were new arrivals from the north of Mexico. From the 1850s until the early twentieth century, the area now known as Chinatown was home to L.A.'s first barrio: Sonoratown.
The neighborhood acquired its name during the years of California's gold rush, when a wave of miners and other migrants from the Mexican province of Sonora settled there.
Drawn originally to Northern California's Gold Country, the Sonoran 49ers introduced several innovations, including the panning method, and quickly established themselves as some of the state's most successful prospectors. Beginning in 1848, when a ban on immigration from northern Mexico was lifted, thousands of Sonorans passed through Los Angeles every year on their way to the Gold Country. Others came to work on Southern California's vast cattle ranches, which supplied the state's booming northern counties with meat. In 1851 alone, approximately 8,000 Sonorans passed through Los Angeles, then a town of only 1,600.
But with the wounds of the recent Mexican War still fresh, a peaceful coexistence between the Mexican miners and their American counterparts was unlikely; by 1850, most Sonorans had been evicted from their mining claims. Many returned to Mexico, but a significant minority lingered in Southern California, where the footprint of Anglo culture was still faint. Sonoratowns quickly sprang up across the region, from Santa Barbara to San Diego. (Despite the name, Sonorans were not the only denizens of the region's Sonoratowns; Anglo-Americans then used the terms "Sonoran" and "Mexican" interchangeably, and immigrants from East Asia, South America, and Europe also called the Sonoratowns home.)
In Los Angeles, the erstwhile miners settled in the area north of the city's old plaza, where native, Spanish-speaking Angeleños still occupied aging adobes dating from the city's Spanish and Mexican periods. Many of the migrants moved into the adobes; others built one-story shacks in adobes' backyards.
Sonoratown became a vibrant if destitute Mexican community. Life in the house courts and crumbling adobes may not have been comfortable, but residents there preserved remnants of the city's original Latin American culture. Among white Angeleños, meanwhile, the neighborhood developed a reputation as a rough part of town, where "every evening there was much indulgence in drinking, smoking and gambling," as Harris Newmark put it. Cockfights were common, according to Newmark, and many saloons doubled as brothels.
In the late nineteenth century, even as white Angeleños scorned Sonoratown as a slum, tourists discovered it as a place to commune with Southern California's Spanish past. The publication of Helen Hunt Jackson's 1884 pastoral novel "Ramona" introduced Americans to a romantic reimagining of Southern California's history. In the ensuing years, many of Jackson's readers came to Sonoratown in search that Spanish fantasy past – never mind that most Sonoratown residents arrived after the American conquest.
J. Torrey Connor was among the pilgrims. In her 1902 travelogue, "Saunterings in Summerland," Connor wrote: "Among the households of Sonoratown may still be found those who remember the days when the flag of the Mexican republic floated over the pueblo. La Senora [de la Reina de Los Angeles] is bowed beneath the weight of years, but she has not forgotten how she danced in the moonlight under the golden-fruited orange trees, to the trilling of mandolins, and well she recalls how, with a glance from her bright eyes, she brought the gay caballero to her feet."
By the time Connor sauntered down the streets of Sonoratown in the early twentieth century, market forces were already pushing the barrio to disintegration. The Southern Pacific had built its depot and railyard (now the Los Angeles State Historic Park, or "Cornfield") on the outskirts of the neighborhood, transforming Sonoratown into valuable industrial real estate. As property values rose, the district's adobes and shacks gave way to warehouses and factories. Tourists searching for the region's mythical past could still find it on Olvera Street – invented in 1930 by socialite Christine Sterling and Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler – but the city's actual Latino quarter, Sonoratown, had largely been erased from the landscape.
Sonoratown's residents found new homes. Street railways opened up the land across the river for housing, and many moved to (the original) East Los Angeles and, later, to the new subdivisions of Belvedere and City Terrace. When the district north of the plaza was rechristened New Chinatown in June 1938, its previous role as Sonoratown had already faded from the city's collective memory.
Estrada, William. The Los Angeles Plaza: Sacred and Contested Space. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2008.
Griswold del Castillo, Richard. The Los Angeles Barrio, 1850-1890: A Social History. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1979.