This story is published in collaboration with Picturing Mexican America.
This Cinco de Mayo, let's celebrate France and Joseph "José" Mascarel, French immigrant to California and mayor of Los Angeles from 1865-66. France? Perhaps you know that Cinco de Mayo isn't Mexican Independence Day (that's September 16), but what's France got to do with it? Everything!
José Mascarel's political career sheds light on 19th-century Franco-Mexican relations. It also helps us unpack the prevailing confusion around Cinco de Mayo, which, by the way, isn't really celebrated in Mexico outside the city of Puebla — more on that shortly. First, how did a Frenchman get to be mayor of a U.S. city that used to be part of Mexico?
It's complicated. The short answer is that when Mascarel reached San Pedro in 1844 there was a thriving French community for him to join. His journey had taken him from Marseille, where he was born in 1816, to French naval service from 1837 to 1841, to a career trading off the western coast of South America. As the captain of a merchant vessel, Mascarel was hired by Pierre Vignes to bring him and some cargo to California. After a successful voyage and a profitable round of trading along the Northern California coast, Mascarel settled in Los Angeles in 1845 where he worked as a cooper for a French-owned winery before starting a French bakery.
Mascarel's bakery catered to a French enclave that was, by 1845, well established. Helene Demeestre traces it to 1827 when Louis Bouchet became the first French person to settle permanently in Los Angeles. In 1831, he married into a prominent, Californio (Mexican Californian) family, started a successful wine business, and now Bauchet St. meanders in a loop just north of the 101 and east of the L.A. river. It intersects with Vignes St., named not after Pierre, who brought Mascarel to California, but Pierre's brother Jean-Louis, a vintner also known as Don Luis del Aliso. Jean-Louis named his winery El Aliso after the giant sycamore, revered by the Tongva, that once stood just north of Commercial Street and south of the 101.
Many compatriots soon followed as France experienced political turmoil and California beckoned with democratic promise. Frenchmen — like Mascarel and Maurice Kremer, who served as county supervisor from 1864 to 1868 — assumed positions of political and economic influence, integrating into Californio life even as they establish a French Benevolent Society, publish French newspapers and support a French business district centered around the intersection of Alameda and Aliso, anchored by the winery.
Demeestre calls this period from 1850 to 1880 a "golden age" for L.A.'s French community, during which several pioneering French careers bloomed including those of the artist Henri Penelon and the pharmacist Jules Violé. The French are soon outnumbered, however, and eventually dwarfed by the 1880s boom in Anglo-American settlement. Their history is celebrated, and they did make a significant, positive and lasting impact on Los Angeles. But, the story gets more complicated the deeper we dig into why the French were so interested in California in the first place, and those deeper reasons make Mascarel's rise to political prominence even more interesting.
Demeestre says immigrants like Mascarel were drawn to L.A. in part by its proximity to Mexico, a country with which France enjoyed, as Demeestre puts it, "close diplomatic relations." True, but those relations were rarely positive. Louis Bouchet wasn't the first French person to visit California. In truth, French exploration of California goes back about as far as Spain's and Russia's. Junipero Serra founded Mission San Diego (the first in Alta California) in 1769, and Mission Carmel in 1770. Just a few years after that, in 1786, Jean François Galaup de La Pérouse arrived in Monterey on a scientific expedition, though he had instructions from the king of France to determine exactly how fortified these Spanish settlements were. He was, in other words, engaging in reconnaissance. La Pérouse observed much along the coast, and his visit was recorded by the expedition's artist, Gaspard Duché de Vancy, but he left unimpressed. It was another 40 years before the French bothered to return.
... in order to protect itself against the U.S., California should stop being Mexican and start being French.
In 1827, Auguste Duhaut-Cilly visited the coast, observing in L.A. "the air of cheerfulness, ease, and neatness" of the people. Duhaut-Cilly has much to say about fashion and real estate in the pueblo (he calls the former "extravagant" and criticizes the haphazard laws governing the latter), saves a child during an earthquake and leaves similarly unimpressed as La Pérouse. Cyrille Laplace's 1839 landing in Monterey gets us a little more political intrigue. In secret meetings with Governor Juan Alvarado, Laplace warns of U.S. intentions towards California and offers to help establish backchannel communications with the French government should Alvarado be interested in becoming a French protectorate. Laplace suggests, in other words, that in order to protect itself against the U.S., California should stop being Mexican and start being French.
Laplace's offer seems demure given France's behavior in Veracruz earlier that year. He visited Monterey shortly after the "Pastry War" between France and Mexico, during which France blocked ports along Mexico's eastern coast. That was, supposedly, in retaliation for crimes against French-owned businesses (including a bakery, hence the conflict's name) resulting from political unrest in Mexico City. Historians agree, though, that the Pastry War was motivated by France's imperial designs in the Americas; it's seen largely as a prelude to France's second Mexican intervention in 1862 (that's where Cinco de Mayo comes in). Subsequent French behavior — including Laplace's conversations with Alvarado — bear this out. Things get really interesting once Eugene Duflot Mofras comes on the California scene in 1841 and Californio leaders begin connecting the dots.
Duflot Mofras was a French diplomat sent to evaluate the western coast of Mexico for French commercial interests, but most historians agree that he was, like La Pérouse, on a reconnaissance mission. He remains a controversial figure in California history. Alvarado liked him well enough but suspected his visit was connected to Laplace's and thought both were part of a French plan to acquire California. Mariano Vallejo, Alvarado's uncle and Mexican military commander of Alta California, detested the French adventurer and writes in his memoir that Duflot Mofras was sent to California expressly to prepare "the inhabitants for the project of the annexation of this department to the crown of France.".
Was Duflot Mofras a secret agent? Probably, but the historical record is inconclusive. We can say for sure that France was as interested in the California coast as England, Spain and Russia. Their exploration began in the 18th century and ramped up significantly in the 1830s as their activity in Mexico increased. From 1846 to 1848 Mexico fought the Mexican-American War against the U.S., which ended with California's cession to the U.S. After that, France focused on Mexico City, leaving off the lost territories.
After 1848, Mexico was in severe debt, from which followed decades of internal conflict and near civil war. In 1861, President Benito Juárez imposed a moratorium on European debt repayment in an effort to stabilize the country. Seizing the opportunity, Napoleon III invaded Mexico under the pretext of loan default, but having read this far, you know enough about Franco-Mexican relations to figure out what was really happening. On May 5, 1862 (three years before Mascarel became mayor) Mexico held off the French at the Battle of Puebla. That's what Cinco de Mayo commemorates. It's not widely celebrated in Mexico because a year later, in 1863, the French came back and won. President Juárez fled, Maximilian Von Habsburg was installed as emperor in 1864, and the conflict lasted until 1867 when Napoleon withdrew, Von Habsburg was executed and Juárez returned to power.
Meanwhile, Mascarel, the French mayor of L.A., managed to keep it together in a region still raw from the ravages of war where more business was conducted in Spanish than English. He was seen as a prudent manager who conducted city affairs with the same careful attention he paid to his personal businesses. His success, and that of the French in L.A. more broadly, tells us a little something about California's relationship to Mexico in that period. France may have had imperial designs on Mexico, but California saw itself as "Mexican" only in the most abstract terms and was happy to at least entertain the idea of sleeping with Mexico's enemies.
Mascarel's career also reminds us, politics aside, history is made by people. The deeper we dig, the messier and more human it gets. So, this Cinco de Mayo, let's permanently retire "drinko de mayo" and "cinco de drinko," do our part to make sure everyone knows this is NOT Mexican Independence Day, and honor California's "it's complicated" relationship with France by enjoying a nice Cabernet or Sauvingon Blanc, two of the first cuttings imported and planted by Jean-Louis Vignes.
Barrows, H. D. "José Mascarel." Annual Publication of the Historical Society of Southern California and Pioneer Register, Los Angeles, vol. 4, no. 3, 1899, pp. 282–285. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41167750. Accessed 28 Apr. 2021.
Demeestre, Helene. Pioneers & Entrepreneurs: French Immigrants in the Making of Los Angeles, 1827-1927. Dec 3, 2007 - Jan 13, 2008 At Pico House, Historical Downtown, Los Angeles
Carter, Charles Franklin, and Duhaut-Cilly. "Duhaut-Cilly's Account of California in the Years 1827-28 (Continued)." California Historical Society Quarterly, vol. 8, no. 3, 1929, pp. 214–250. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25178017. Accessed 28 Apr. 2021.
Willys, Rufus Kay. "French Imperialists in California." California Historical Society Quarterly, vol. 8, no. 2, 1929, pp. 116–129. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25178003. Accessed 28 Apr. 2021.