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The Mythmakers’ Fandango: H. H. Jackson, Antonio Coronel, and Ramona Memories

Ramona Memories (header)
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Helen Hunt Jackson (Small Portrait)
Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-1885). She was a journalist, poet, novelist, and social activist whose most lasting achievement, entirely unintended, was the creation of “Ramonaland” – an ecology of sentiments about a Southern California that never was. Used under a Creative Commons License

Helen Hunt Jackson – misunderstood romantic, misremembered advocate of Native American rights – lingered some weeks in Los Angeles between December 1881 and the end of January 1882, on assignment for The Century Magazine to write about Southern California as a destination for adventurous tourists. She apparently came with a larger purpose than a series of travel sketches, although her purpose was never fully realized.

The seductive power of an invented past, created by rival mythmakers seeking to preserve their place in newly American Los Angeles, made her plan a failure and Helen Hunt Jackson famous.

Jackson was already known for “A Century of Dishonor,” an account of the crimes committed in the name of Manifest Destiny against Native Americans (published earlier in 1881). Jackson knew a Californian variation of this bleak story. It implicated Spanish and Mexican colonial practices, the mission system under Junípero Serra, and the hostility of California’s new possessors toward the state’s indigenous communities.

Jackson traveled what would soon become a well-worn tourist route from Santa Barbara to San Diego, encountering Native Americans, Latino Californians, and Anglo newcomers as she researched four pieces for The Century Magazine. The first was an uncritical account of the life of Serra (published in May 1883), followed by her observations on the so-called Mission Indians (August), and a boosterish account of the riches of Southern California agriculture (October).

The series ended with a poetic, intimate evocation of Los Angeles as a place suspended between a languid Spanish past and its inevitable American future (published in November).

Jackson the travel writer was also Jackson the activist. Even as she researched Serra’s life in Santa Barbara and visited tourist destinations around Los Angeles, she was arranging to be appointed a special agent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to investigate the condition of native communities in Southern California. Since she did not know the country or the language, her appointment from Commissioner of Indian Affairs Hiram Price in January 1883 included the services of Abbot Kinney, whose many interests included Native American ethnography. (Jackson had met Kinney while in Los Angeles and had corresponded with him about their joint project during the first weeks of 1882.)

Basket Maker
Old Basket Weaver. Jackson wrote about the indigenous communities of Southern California and co-authored a blistering report in 1883 to the Bureau of Indian Affairs pleading for federal action to improve their condition. Illustrations by Henry Sandham accompanied Jackson’s account of her findings in The Century Magazine. Used under a Creative Commons License

With Kinney’s help as guide and translator, Jackson visited native rancherias and smaller native settlements in San Diego and Los Angeles counties and in the desert valleys around Riverside and San Bernardino. Conditions there appalled her.

Jackson’s time in Southern California united three aspects of her life: as journalist, social critic, and romantic. Her outrage at the treatment of native communities fires the “Report on the Condition and Needs of the Mission Indians” that Jackson and Kinney submitted to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in July 1883. Her melodramatic recasting of these issues dooms the native and mestizo characters in “Ramona,” the novel of Southern California life she completed in early 1884.

Jackson hoped her report to the Bureau of Indian Affairs would change federal policy. She intended her novel to change the hearts of sentimental, middle-class readers, first through the serialization of “Ramona” in the pages of The Christian Union, a progressive Protestant weekly, and then through the republication of “Ramona” that immediately followed.

But instead of inciting protest, “Ramona” enthralled generations of Anglo readers, furnishing a theater of sentiment in which they learned to identify a place with a sensibility. This “affective landscape” – elegiac, picturesque, and contemplative – was under construction before “Ramona,” but Jackson brought her empathy for Native Americans, Mexican laborers, and old Californio families[1] to an emerging sense of place in Southern California and gave it a piercing, melancholy sweetness.

Jackson did not create the image of an idyllic land of abundance and hospitality under a vaguely Spanish sun, but Jackson’s name, as the instigator of “Ramona” memories, is most often recalled when Southern Californians think nostalgically of their home.

As a novel, “Ramona” was wildly successful. As social criticism, it was a failure. Igniting support for native communities was Jackson’s goal, but her strategy – placing fictional memories in a real landscape – sabotaged her intentions. Readers sighed over the sad fates of Ramona and her husband Alessandro, but they longed to be in the places where they felt Jackson’s characters still lived. Jackson died in mid-1885, probably knowing that “Ramona” had not achieved the political effect she had sought.

"Ramona" failed to be another “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Chelsea Leah Pearson argues (in her Master’s thesis “‘Call me a Californio’ - Translating Hemispheric Legacies in Helen Hunt Jackson, Don Antonio Coronel, and José Martí”), because Jackson was unable to manage the multiple, competing, and intersecting historical substitutions that were underway in Southern California in the 1880s. Among those substitutions was a fixed notion of race in place of the fluid racial categories of pre-American California. Anglo readers of “Ramona” grouped Jackson’s non-Anglo performers – mestizo, Mexicano, and Californio – in a single category. Along with Native Americans, they were the former Californians, soon to be succeeded by a progressive Anglo civilization, a view that Jackson shared.

The Coronels’ Fandango

Jackson’s unfamiliarity with Southern California, except through the travel literature of the day, led her to sources who could provide the “local color” that readers expected in her magazine pieces. Bishop Mora, head of the Diocese of Monterey-Los Angeles, urged her to meet Antonio Coronel.

In the western suburbs of Los Angeles, Jackson later told readers of The Century Magazine, there is “a low adobe house, built after the ancient style, on three sides of a square, surrounded by orchards, vineyards, and orange groves, and looking out on an old-fashioned garden … Here may often be seen a beautiful young Mexican woman … Her clear olive akin, soft brown eyes, delicate nostrils, and broad smiling mouth, are all of the Spanish madonna type, and when her low brow is bound, as is often her wont, by turban folds of soft brown or green gauze, her face becomes a picture indeed. She is the young wife of a gray-headed Mexican senor, of whom – by his own most gracious permission – I shall speak by his familiar name, Don Antonio. Whoever has the fortune to pass as a friend across the threshold of this house finds himself transported, as by a miracle, into the life of a half-century ago.”

“I went,” Jackson added, “for but a few moments call. I stayed three hours, and left carrying with me bewildering treasures of pictures of the olden time.”

“Bewildered” by her charming hosts, who performed for her a superbly curated evocation of Californio culture, Jackson joined the Coronels in the fabrication of a sense of place whose power she and the Coronels did not fully realize. When Jackson’s merging of place and sensibility reappeared in “Ramona,” Jackson’s novel of protest was overtaken by a substitute narrative, one that subverted Jackson’s intentions.

Antonio Franco Coronel
Antonio Franco Coronel. Helen Hunt Jackson considered him a nostalgic survival of the past. He was actually a major figure in the on-going Americanization of Los Angeles with a historicizing agenda that Jackson adopted as her own. Image courtesy of the Photo Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.
Mariana Coronel
Mariana Coronel. Mariana, writing many years after her husband’s death, emphasized her contribution to Ramona and enlarged her relationship with Helen Hunt Jackson, making herself the principal source of the novel’s “local color” as well as for its true-to-life locations and incidents. Used under a Creative Commons License

Antonio F. Coronel was a vigorous 65 when Jackson met him and his much younger wife Mariana. But Mariana, who so captivated Jackson as a Mexican “type,” wasn’t Mexican. Her ethnic and cultural identity was mixed in a characteristically borderlands way. Mariana had been born in San Antonio, Texas, in 1851, the eldest daughter of Nels (or Nelson) Williamson of Augusta, Maine, and Gertrudes Romana, a Tejana born (some sources say) in Mexico. In 1859, the Williamsons came to Los Angeles, where Mariana was educated in the newly formed public school system. She married Coronel in 1873 when she was 22.

Mariana arrived too late to have experienced the pastoral, pre-American Los Angeles in which Jackson imaginatively situated the Coronel adobe, although when dressed as a doña of an indeterminate hispano-mexicano past, Mariana was Jackson’s model of Californio womanhood just as her husband was Jackson’s embodiment of the Californio ethos.

Antonio Coronel had been born in Mexico City in 1817, had trained as a physician, and immigrated with his family to California in the early 1830s. He had seen the end of the mission system and the erasure of native communities in Los Angeles. He had participated in the Californio defense of the city during the Mexican War. Although he was not one of them, he felt the ruin of the class of Californio landowners who were displaced by American developers and entrepreneurs after 1860.

Coronel was a key figure in the political transition from Mexican to American Los Angeles through the 1850s and 1860s. He was the first Los Angeles County Tax Assessor in 1850, was elected mayor of the city of Los Angeles in 1853, was elected to the Los Angeles City Council and served nine terms between 1854 and 1867, was elected to the County Board of Supervisors in 1863, and served as California State Treasurer from 1867 to 1871. Coronel also was an appointed member of city and county committees in the 1870s and was vice president at the founding of the Historical Society of Southern California in 1883.

Courtly, amusing, gracious – the best waltzer in Los Angeles, Jackson said (although she doesn’t say how she knew) – Coronel also had years of experience in harmonizing the American and Hispanic dualism of Southern California. And Coronel had persisted in this difficult program through the 1850s and 1860s, a time when racial violence by Anglos peaked in Los Angeles.

But when Jackson came, at Bishop Mora’s urging, to call on Coronel, it wasn’t the adept negotiator between American and Californian interests she met. It was quaint, antique Don Antonio who, in the midst of his reminiscences of “the olden time,” “would take up his guitar, and in a voice still sympathetic and full of melody, sing an old Spanish love-song, brought to his mind by … living over the events of his youth.”

Don Antonio, full of stories of Old Los Angeles, “speaks little English,” Jackson explained to her readers in The Century Magazine. Fortunately, Doña Mariana “knows just enough of the language to make her use of it delicious, as she translates for her husband.” And yet Don Antonio corrects his wife’s choice of English expressions to convey his Californio sensibility, “watching his wife intently, hearkening to each word she uses, sometimes interrupting her urgently with, ‘No, no; that is not it’ – for he well understands the tongue he cannot or will not use for himself.”

“Cannot use” English seems unlikely (although his obituary in 1894 will mention his limited ability). “Will not use” might have been a gesture of cultural protest, except for the elaborateness of the Coronels’ linguistic performance[2] that convinced Jackson of the authenticity of their sentiments and, crucially for the Coronels’ role in the creation of a sense of place in Southern California, the validity of their memories of a golden Californio culture before the Americans came.

The Coronels’ curio-laden home was intended to project a past unmoored from California’s colonial history, even displaced from Antonio Coronel’s own biography as a local official under the Mexican Republic, a Californio patriot in the Mexican War, a civic leader under the American power, a widely respected Los Angeles businessman and landowner, and a significant figure in the state’s Democratic Party.

Coronel and his wife – sophisticated negotiators of the cultural borderland of Los Angeles – sang and danced, told stories of the comic revolutions of the 1830s, brought out a jumble of relics of “olden times” for Jackson’s inspection, and steeped her in the rhythms of a pre-American California to preserve the social status and cultural distinctiveness of Californio society at a time when most Anglos would have seen the Coronels (and other remnants of that society) merely as other Mexicans.

As part of their project, the Coronels set Jackson on a journey through an “affective landscape” made up of the places – the del Valles’ Rancho Camulos, the Bandini-Couts’ Rancho Guajome – where Jackson could see that Californio culture persisted and might still be preserved.

Coronel Home
Coronel Home. A view of the acres of orchards, vineyards, and residence of Antonio Franco Coronel, located on Alameda and 7th streets. Image courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

Jackson turned to Antonio and Mariana Coronel through 1882 and 1883 for more details of Californio society and its relationship to indigenous communities, eventually writing them in November 1883 that she now intended to begin a novel about Native Americans “in a way to move people’s hearts,” with “enough of Mexicans and Americans to give it variety.” Would the Coronels please send any “romantic incidents, either Mexican or Indian, that might work well into a story of Southern California life,” Jackson pleaded, regretting that she had not taken notes of the stories the Coronels had shared with her the year before.

As she began to write “Ramona,” quickly turning out whole chapters based on “romantic incidents” that propel the story, the Coronels’ golden Californio culture began to displace the urgency of Jackson’s political agenda. “Local color” of the sort she had put in her magazine pieces took on the coherency and insistence of a substitute narrative.

The Californio characters in that narrative are simultaneously representatives of the heroic age of the Spanish conquistadors, the era of the pious and humble mission padres, and the pastoral days, now passing, of Californios like the Coronels. The conflation of these mythic periods into a general timelessness served Jackson’s novelistic ends, as well as Jackson’s own need to identify her account of Californio culture as being worthy of her fond, though melancholy, embrace.

Jackson was generous (in print and in her correspondence) about the debt she owed the Coronels, although she gives few details of their contributions and none of her methods in evaluating them. It’s as if the sentiments Jackson wished to evoke emanate from everywhere, as much from the qualities of the landscape and architecture in Southern California as in the memories and personalities of those she interviewed.

The imposition of a Californio ethos on Jackson’s critique of Anglo hostility toward indigenous Californians also served the Coronels’ purposes. As Phoebe Kropp points out in “California Vieja: Culture and Memory in a Modern American Place,” “Faced with the danger of erasure, Californios chose to tell their stories, even if they could not control the way Anglos would read their stories.”

In the 70 years that followed Jackson’s meeting with the Coronels, immigrants to California would read those stories and long to experience the charm and simplicity the Coronels presented as the authentic image of Californio culture.

Jackson’s sketch of her stay in Los Angeles – “Echo in the City of the Angels” – presents a tableau of bygone Southern California animated by the beguiling presence of the Coronels, who sing the old songs and dance the old steps of the fandango at the margin of an American present and a Californio past the Coronels were actively inventing even as Californio society faded. Entranced by the performance, Jackson enlisted in a program of place making, well underway before “Ramona.” When it ended, it had molded the landscape of Southern California into a stage on which sentiments are evoked that provide its Anglo possessors with an unearned nostalgia for a past in which they had no part.

The Mythmakers’ Fandango

For the Coronels, their meeting with Jackson helped fabricate a durable Californio identity for a sympathetic Anglo audience. They (and other Californios) hoped this separate identity would resist the Mexicanidad of new immigrants from the south and the crassness of new American immigrants from the East. For Jackson, the “local color” she found at the Coronel adobe became a substitute narrative within the tragic romance of “Ramona” and (in a loss to her intentions) a way out of Jackson’s critique of bigoted Anglo attitudes. For Jackson’s uncritical readers, “Ramona” itself substituted for the complicated, unfinished history of an unfamiliar Southern California borderland with its hybrid identities, cultures, and ethnicities.

“Ramona” was later mocked for having metastasized a host of themed tourist spots around the region and a number of once-popular post-“Ramona” memoirs, guides, and real-life accounts with titles like “The True Story of ‘Ramona’ Its Facts and Fictions, Inspiration and Purpose; Through Ramona's Country”; “The House of Don Antonio Coronel” and “‘Ramona’ and the Old Coronel House.” The result was, Carey McWilliams claimed, a faux-Spanish Revival in art, design, advertising, architecture, landscaping, and even urban planning that Anglos adopted in the early 20th century as the true expression of a sense of place in Southern California.

McWilliams’ critique of the “fantasy heritage” of “Spanishness” fails to describe fully what the Coronels achieved in their performance and what Jackson made of it in “Ramona”. The Coronels performed an act of resistance against the attitudes that would erase the presence of Californio society and conflate its cultural distinctiveness with the mass of newly arrived Mexicans. Jackson, however, saw romance and not resistance in the Coronels’ fandango. Uncritically accepting of the Coronels’ invented Californio past – and supported by the conventions of Californian historiography[3] – Jackson projected the story of “Ramona” onto an “affective landscape” where character and place fused.

Invented History
Invented History. Helen Hunt Jackson elaborated a fantasy history of the founding of Los Angeles in “Echo in the City of the Angels” in The Century Magazine (November 1883). Henry Sandham’s impressionistic illustration shows a procession of friars, acolytes, and native musicians that never happened. Used under a Creative Commons License

Jackson did not need the Coronels’ “affective landscape” to write a novel of protest about the treatment of Native Americans; other stories in many other settings were available to her. She entered that landscape willingly and absorbed there the identification of place and culture which the Coronels seemed to embody, never examining their motive for leading her to that identification or her desire to embrace it.

There were many reasons for Jackson’s desire: the psychological trauma that remained after the end of the Civil War, the increasing harshness of Gilded Age America, the unsettling diversity of a growing nation, and the difficulties in imaginatively integrating the West into the American experience. Perhaps there was simply nothing else about unfamiliar, tropical, mestizo Southern California for Jackson to embrace other than an identification of its alien landscape with an easeful, unhurried, hospitable, and modest Californio past which the Coronels made so unthreatening and so welcoming of Anglo admiration and, ultimately, Anglo longing.

Ramona Memories
Ramona Memories. The San Fernando Heights Lemon Association turned to Helen Hunt Jackson’s “Ramona” to project an image of romantic, exotic, sexualized Southern California. Fruit box labels like this one helped to fabricate a sense of place for Anglo immigrants to Los Angeles. Used under a Creative Commons License.

The Coronels hoped that Jackson and other Anglo narrators of their lives and values would support the preservation of Californio culture. Instead, “Ramona” led to a final substitution. Readers of “Ramona” and travelers in the tourism it inspired did not require the inconvenient presence of Californios in the Southern California landscape because the landscape of Southern California was now imagined to embody everything that was distinctive about the Californio way of life. Landscape had become history, which Anglo Californians could possess as they did the land, repopulating it with their “Days of the Dons” festivals, mission-style housing projects, and “Ramona” pageants.

Jackson’s Don Antonio died in 1894. His obituary, written by a fellow member of the Historical Society of Southern California, included the hope that “Mr. Coronel … as he recedes gradually into the distance of the past, … will … like many others of his predecessors of Spanish ancestry in the Californias of whom Anglo-Californians of today have but partial knowledge, become more and more a striking figure in the annals of the times in which he lived.”

Instead, Coronel is nearly forgotten. The intricate steps of the mythmakers’ fandango led away from the historical and political ends that Coronel and Jackson sought for their stories and toward a sense of place from which Southern Californians still take meaning. Useless to insist that it’s an inauthentic sense of place, if it serves an anxious, restless people to make a home here.

Ruins of the Coronel Home
Ruins of the Coronel Home. The ruins of the former Coronel adobe were photographed by George Washington Hazard. He traveled throughout Southern California at the turn of the 20th century to find images to match the Ramonaland mythology that Antonio and Mariana Coronel had helped Helen Hunt Jackson create. Photograph courtesy of The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens Photo Archives.


[1] Jackson never uses this term for Californians with a real or presumed Spanish heritage and seems not to have known it, although Coronel would have been intimately familiar with the cause of Californio identity, since the term had been used to rally opposition to government interference from Mexico in the 1830s, when Coronel came to Los Angeles. Jackson alternates between using the terms Mexican and Spanish to identify the ethnic category of sources who are neither Anglo nor Native American.

[2] Harris Newmark, who had a novelist’s skill in describing his Angeleño neighbors and business associates, failed to mention Coronel’s missing English. Some later accounts of his life have him checking the proof pages of Ramona before publication; other sources say Mariana did the proofing. Mariana was surely bi-lingual in conversation, so much so that her profile in “An Illustrated History of Los Angeles County, California” (1889) highlighted the benefit of her mixed heritage since “she speaks both the English and Spanish languages with equal facility.” Harris Newmark notes in his memoir than Mariana was “educated (in Los Angeles) at the public and the Sisters' (Catholic) schools” and “was a recognized leader in local society,” not limiting it to the members of the old Californio families. Mariana also was a graceful writer in English, as her letters to Jackson show and even more in her reminiscences of Jackson and her husband (published shortly before her death in 1917).

[3] In “Echo in the City of the Angels,” Jackson describes the founding of Los Angeles in 1781 with all the poetic embellishments – none of them correct – that populated the accounts of the historians and travel writers that she consulted.

This article was originally published on Dec. 12, 2016.

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