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Latinos Are a Resurgent Political Force in California. What Does Pío Pico’s Legacy Mean to Them Today?

In what is the most celebrated moment in Christendom, it was the Archangel Gabriel, mentioned in both the New and the Old Testaments of the Bible, who appeared before Mary to foretell the coming birth of Jesus that she was to deliver. Never shy to set the bar of self-celebration too high, the Spanish missionaries who dotted the California landscape with their structures of forced conversion and slavery sited one of their missions in a lush valley where the Tongva people lived and named it after the Archangel.

It was in this mission where Pío Pico, the last governor of Mexican Alta California, was born. A Californio, his story marks the beginning of contemporary California history, but also the end of Spanish rule, which once stretched across the North American continent from the San Gabriel Valley to San Augustine, Florida, settled half a century before the hapless English founded Jamestown in 1607.

The war against Mexico, which then-Congressman Abraham Lincoln denounced as unconstitutional, stole the land from the Mexicans, whose Spanish forbears themselves obtained it from the indigenous people through vicious means. It ended with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. Pico’s acquiescence to the treaty makes him the last of a bygone era, but an era that remains foundational to California’s political idenitity today.

 

In Lincoln’s speech to Congress, the future president warned that the U.S. had taken half of Mexico, mostly uninhabited but susceptible to the influence of the other half, “tolerably densely for the nature of the country,” a culture and a people whose influence would inevitably shape the future of the nation. In the almost two centuries since, Californians would elect only one Hispanic governor, Romualdo Pacheco, who served for less than one year in 1875.

Today, Alex Padilla is the highest ranking Latino elected to statewide office in California, the first elected as secretary of state. The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) reports on a growing directory of Latinos now running the government across the American Southwest. Once nearly completely shut out, Latinos are now being elected to office throughout the land Lincoln foretold could not withstand the inevitable influence from the south.

Latino politics in California is founded in struggle. From the complicity of the legal system in seizing the land for the white settlers from the Californios until all that was left were their lofty names, to the Chicanos who reasserted their ties to the land in a rejection of Europeanism, Latino politics continues to be in form and function a struggle of identity.

Mexicans have largely been viewed and treated as a labor source of last resort by the European immigrants, while Mexicans caught behind the border have viewed the plentiful opportunities to the north as a geographic pathway of logical egress to prosperity. No different from their predecessors, Latinos continue to settle California fed by an unseverable connection to their past.

Mission San Gabriel as it appeared in 1828
The San Gabriel Valley in 1828. Painting by Ferdinand Deppe.
sgv_hilton.png
The San Gabriel Valley today. Photo by Cebe Loomis.

Latinos now make up the largest ethnic group in California, having unceremoniously surpassed whites sometime in 2014. Demographers have long awaited this moment, a brown tide rising to somewhere around 15 million of California’s 40 million residents. Its rise will continue into the future despite contemporary efforts to turn back nature.

As a new presidential election draws to a close, it is clearer than ever that politicians will continue to get a rise out of those descendants of Europe who so badly want to claim California as their own, against, as Lincoln said, the nature of the country. But whatever era we are in today, that claim seems more distant than ever.

Pío Pico’s life story, like his landmark structures, will continue to remind California of what we were and what we will continue to be. His complex racial and ethnic history – the product of both a mestizo and mulato heritage – itself foretold the many experiences that are wrapped up into our identity as Californians and as a country. More than two centuries after Pico’s birth there, the valley named for Archangel Gabriel, with its diverse tapestry of people and cultures from around the globe, represents a gateway to California’s future – a future delivered by a complex intermarriage of its many inhabitants and their posterity.

Pio Pico
Pío Pico in 1860. Photo courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.

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