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From Pío Pico to #Calexit: California’s Tortured Road from Diversity to Equality

In the wake of Donald Trump’s electoral victory, a number of news outlets have highlighted California’s outlier status: as the country seemingly veers to the right, the Golden State appears to have moved to the left. Some residents have even demanded secession, an idea with its own hashtag: #Calexit.

The state’s diversity no doubt played into its rejection of Donald Trump, but it is important to note that California’s racial politics, dating back to Spanish colonization, have long been complicated. Under Spanish control, Mexican rule, and later U.S. statehood, California remained one of the more diverse regions of the Americas. At the same time, though, California’s diversity did not necessarily imply racial and ethnic equality. Few individuals encapsulate the complex racial dynamics that laid the foundation for modern California like the family of California’s last Mexican governor, Pío Pico.

Pío Pico’s grandfather, Santiago de La Cruz Pico came to California as a soldier in 1775. His son and Pío’s father, José María Pico served as a sergeant for the Spanish crown in San Diego.[1] At the time, the territory drew a “wide variety of people, mostly poor pobladores or townspeople, … a racially diverse group who … saw California as an economic opportunity,” writes historian Carlos Manuel Salomon.[2]

Like many borderlands far removed from bureaucratic centers, Alta California (as it was known under Spain and Mexico) shook off arbitrary caste distinctions and instead embraced a more fluid conception of race. Mestizos and mulatos, racial classifications to which many Californios like the Picos belonged, could attain land grants and even hold public office. Far from Mexico City, Californios developed a sense of independence and self-government.

Multiracial heritage, however, did not necessarily ensure solidarity with other marginalized groups. The Pico family, like many others in Alta California, emerged from the unique culture of New Spain, tracing its ancestry back to a mix of Spanish, Indian, and African roots. Despite his own racially mixed status, Santiago de la Cruz Pico as a soldier helped spread Spanish imperialism across Mexico, often at the expense of indigenous populations. Jose’s work for the crown accomplished similar ends.[3]

Due in part to New Spain’s colonial caste system, many Californios wanted to identify as Spanish or European; the newly forged Californio identity did not fully erase racial and class distinctions.  For example, perhaps due to his lengthy service for the crown, Jose Maria Pico was listed as a Spaniard in the 1790 census even as his father and brothers were recorded as mulatos. Moreover, Californios benefitted mightily from the mission system established under Spanish rule and later secularized by the Mexican government, which gained independence in 1821. Needless to say, under both regimes indigenous peoples suffered. Throughout, the Picos acquired land grants and exploited native labor.

Pio Pico in 1858
Portrait of Pío Pico in 1856. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.

With the Treaty of Guadalupe (1848), which formally ended the Mexican-American War, the U.S. promised to honor Mexican and Spanish land grants, and Mexican-born Californians were given the choice to move south or stay and become U.S. citizens. Unfortunately, Mexican land grants lacked the kind of specificity found in American property law; Mexico had not employed a Jeffersonian grid system that rigidly defined land ownership, so Anglo-American newcomers found ways to challenge land claims in court.

The Land Act of 1851 required Mexican landholders to prove the legitimacy of their holdings to a three-person Board of Land Commissioners in San Francisco. The process of defending these claims and fending off squatters took years and often depleted the coffers of Californio families. Even in victory, they would often pay their legal fees in land.[4] Having authored numerous land grants himself as governor in the waning days of Mexican California, Pío Pico provided endless testimony before the board from 1851-56, defending the property transfers.[5]

American statehood also brought with it much more rigid conceptions of race. The new state constitution barred persons with African ancestry from court testimony against whites, jury service, public education, and voting, and generally discouraged black migration to the state. Pico endured disparaging remarks from whites that demonstrate the new racial logic; San Francisco land claim attorney Isaac Hartmann described Pico as a “a corrupt, non-English, speaking negroid, dwarfist.”[6]

Hangman's Tree
More than 300 Mexicans were lynched during California's Gold Rush era. This hanging tree in Second Garrotte, California, advertises that it was the site of "many executions" in the 1850s. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.

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Racial violence erupted as well. More than 300 Mexicans were lynched during the Gold Rush era. Los Angeles became the most violent city in the state as lynch mobs accosted poorer Mexicans and richer Californios alike. All Mexicans, including Californios, found themselves more subject to arrest and violence than their white counterparts.  Systematic legal discrimination also meant that Californios and other Mexicans were more likely to be hanged for crimes than Anglos guilty of the same infraction.[7]

Amazingly, Pico managed to thrive despite this climate of hostility. During the 1850s, Pico and other southern Californios capitalized on the demands of booming Northern California for cattle and consumer goods, making enormous profits from cattle ranching. Pico also discovered a way to secure his profits through litigation, frequently challenging business and land decisions in court. Though he lost many cases, he won plenty of others. Ultimately, however, a combination of changing demographics, racism, and poor business decisions undermined Pico’s success. He ended his life in poverty and retired to a “pauper’s grave.”[8]

Long after Pico’s demise, Southern California retained its diversity but did so under the veil of widespread discrimination. Alta California, with its own history of exploitation and racial cruelties, had never been a purely egalitarian, colorblind culture. The imposition of American statehood amidst sectionalism and attempts to expand slavery to the West did little to liberalize racial logic. Even the abolition of slavery after the Civil War failed to significantly improve circumstances.

Still, one can view this narrative with the “universe bends toward moral justice” ideal in mind. The left-leaning, multicultural California of 2016 was born out of this tortured and complex history.

Andres Pico on his Rancho Ex-Mission de San Fernando in 1865
Andres Pico on his Rancho Ex-Mission de San Fernando in 1865. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.

[1] Henry D. Barrows, “Pio Pico: A Biographical and Character Sketch of the Last Mexican Governor of Alta California”, Annual Publication of the Historical Society of Southern California, Los Angeles, Vol. 3. No. 2 (1894), 55.

[2] Carlos Manuel Salomon, Pio Pico: The Last Governor of Mexican California, (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press,) 12.

[3] Gloria E. Miranda, “Racial and Cultural Dimensions of Gente de Razon Status in Spanish and Mexican California”, Southern California Quarterly, Vol. 70 No. 3, (Fall 1988): 265 – 278; Salomon, Pio Pico.

[4] Starr, California: A History, 103-105; Salomon, Pio Pico, 118.

[5] Salomon, Pio Pico, 112.

[6] Salomon, Pio Pico, 115.

[7] Rosaura Sanchez and Beatrice Pita, “The literature of the Californios”, in The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Los Angeles, Ed. Kevin R. McNamara, (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 18; Salomon, Pio Pico, 121;

[8] Salomon, Pio Pico, 126; Davis, City of Quartz, 27

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