This story is published in collaboration with Picturing Mexican America.
During Arcadia Bandini Stearns de Baker's time, everyone knew her name. Rich, beautiful and connected, she threw the best parties, associated with the most important people in early California and helped make Santa Monica and the west side of Los Angeles what it is today.
But most people don't know much about the woman who donated land in Santa Monica including the area around Palisades Park. Even Oscar de la Torre, who has walked by the bronze sculpture of de Baker in his hometown park's rose garden many times. He's one of only a handful of Latinx to have ever served on the Santa Monica City Council. Not only did he not know her history, "I never knew she was Mexican."
In a city known as much for its whiteness as it is for its beautiful beaches, Santa Monica wasn't always that way. Before the Santa Monica Freeway ripped the city in half and sent large numbers of Latinx and Black families to other parts of Los Angeles, there was a bustling, diverse community with Latinx accounting for 20 to 25% of the population in Santa Monica, according to the Los Angeles Times. Long before that, the area and the rest of California was part of Mexico. And going back even further, it belonged to Indigenous Californians.
Uncovering More Diverse West L.A. Histories
When de Baker arrived in Santa Monica, there wasn't a lot there. Her story begins decades before California became part of the United States after the Mexican-American War ended in 1848.
She was born in 1827 into one of the most powerful families in elite Mexican California. Her mother María Dolores Estudillo's father served as Commandant of the Presidio of San Diego and two of her brothers served as alcalde (mayor) of San Diego and the other as alcalde of San Francisco. De Baker's father, Juan Bandini, came to California after his own father José Bandini, a Spanish naval captain, switched allegiances and fought with Mexico in the Mexican War of Independence from Spain. Juan became a well-connected landowner and politician who switched his allegiances away from Mexico to the United States when the U.S. declared war with Mexico.
De Baker's wealth, status and her much-talked about beauty made her very popular. She married at 14, which was young even for the time, to 43-year-old Abel Stearns, a political ally of Juan Bandini and one of the richest men in California, according to the Santa Monica History Museum.
They lived in the Stearns House — El Palacio — in Downtown Los Angeles at North Main and Arcadia, which was named after de Baker. The couple hosted extravagant parties and political meetings making it the place to be for the city's elite.
Stearns died in 1871, when de Baker was 46, leaving everything to her. Three years later, she married another wealthy man, Col. Robert S. Baker, who had gone west from Rhode Island during the gold rush.
The couple built the Baker Block, the biggest, most expensive building at the time in Los Angeles that housed luxury apartments on the top floors and offices for doctors, lawyers and businessmen on lower floors. The Baker Block came down in 1942, "A relic of the glamorous days of early Los Angeles, when beautiful Señora Arcadia Bandini de Baker was the queen of Los Angeles society," according to a Los Angeles Times quote from the Pacific Coast Architectural Digest.
Although "the queen" has been written into many historical accounts as the wife of Stearns or Baker, she was a savvy businesswoman in her own right and a force to be reckoned with, said Ricardo Bandini Johnson, de Baker's great nephew who helped curate the Santa Monica History Museum's John P. Jones and Bandini Collections and is also part of the Bandini Foundation.
"I think the history is forgotten that in 1879 she bought him (Col. Baker) out from all of his properties that he owned," he said.
Part of that property was Rancho San Vicente y Santa Monica which includes Santa Monica and parts of West Los Angeles. Col. Baker's business partner John P. Jones — a wealthy businessman and Nevada Senator — had bought Rancho Boca de Santa Monica that is now Pacific Palisades, Brentwood and parts of Topanga. Both ranchos had been owned by prominent Mexican families.
She continued partnering with Jones after she bought out her husband and the pair donated land that is now Palisades Park to the city of Santa Monica. They also donated land to the state to be used for the Old Santa Monica Forestry Station Eucalyptus Grove in Rustic Canyon, which was the first experimental forestry station and where Abbott Kinney introduced the first eucalyptus tree to Southern California. Their most significant donation was the incredibly valuable 388 acres of land for a National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, which houses the VA Campus in Westwood, to the Federal Government.
After a while, de Baker's brother Juan Bandini, Jr. came to help her manage her empire. He did not like that people were trying to buy up de Baker's land.
It wasn't that long after California had become part of the United States and Juan preferred dealing with Mexicans much more than Americans and wanted to keep all of their real estate in the family, Bandini Johnson said.
"He wasn't overly fond of the Americans that were associated with her," he said.
Even though many mid-westerners and southerners were migrating to Los Angeles and Santa Monica at that time, de Baker insisted on speaking only Spanish even though she could speak English.
"I don't think she was overly concerned about what anyone thought about her language or culture at all. She was a very controlling and powerful woman at the time," Bandini Johnson said.
She died on September 16, 1912 — Mexican Independence Day — as "one of the oldest residents of Southern California and probably the wealthiest woman in this section of the state," according to the San Diego Union Tribune. She had no children and left no will. Her family, and descendants of Abel Stearns, fought over her fortune up until the 1980s.
That a Mexican-born, Spanish-speaking woman was one of the most important people in the city may be surprising considering what has happened to the city's Latinx community over the years.
From the 1920s to the 1950s, Santa Monica had a bustling Latinx community that lived in the Pico District alongside Black and Asian families. Housing discrimination kept many of them from living in other parts of the city. When the Santa Monica Freeway tore through the center of the working-class neighborhood as construction began in the late 1950s, between 600 and 1,500 Black and Latinx families were displaced "many of whom had lived in their homes for nearly two decades," according to the city of Santa Monica's Historic Context Statement.
The freeway construction didn't just push people out. It damaged years of goodwill among those that were able to stay and "instilled negative feelings between minorities, particularly the younger generation of African Americans and Latinos who became "unaware of past alliances," according to the historic statement.
Santa Monica City Council Member Oscar de la Torre grew up in Santa Monica's Pico neighborhood and remembers a great childhood, riding his bike with friends all over town. As he got older, things changed. He realized that there were places he could not go outside of his neighborhood.
"We grew up knowing our place," said de la Torre who went on to found the Pico Youth & Family Center and served on the school board.
The Pico neighborhood still has the highest population of Latinx in the city and it's at the center of a lawsuit currently in front of the California Supreme Court. De la Torre's wife, Maria Loya, sued Santa Monica along with the Pico Neighborhood Association and Malibu Public Schools in 2016 challenging the city's at-large election system asserting it violated the California Voting Rights Act by underrepresenting Latinos. Loya had run for city council and school board and lost. A Los Angeles County judge ruled in favor of Loya and the other plaintiffs pointing out that at the time of the lawsuit, the city had only had one Latinx city council member in more than 70 years (de la Torre and Christine Parra, another Pico resident, were elected to Santa Monica City Council in 2020). The decision was overturned in July 2020.
De la Torre said Latinx have played an important role in Santa Monica's history like Nick Galbadon who is often talked about as the nation's first Black surfer and Southern California legend. But there's something else about him that sometimes gets left out of his biography. Galbadon was also half Mexican-American and from the Pico Neighborhood, de la Torre said.
"Don't erase us out of the history," he said.