- Before L.A.: Race, Space, and Municipal Power in Los Angeles, 1781–1894 by David Samuel Torres-Rouff
Torres-Rouff breathes new life into the history of nineteenth-century Los Angeles by examining how competing notions of race, place, and identity transformed a region inhabited by Gabrielino-Tongva Indians into a Spanish/Mexican pueblo and, finally, to a city dominated by European American commercial and political interests. The decline in the position of the native and Spanish-speaking populations was neither swift nor complete, as many scholars in the fields of the American West have contended. Rather, it was a prolonged progression, best described as a site of intercultural borderlands where kinship and commercial links kept people bound in community across social, economic, and political interests, leading to what the author calls ‘spatial mestizaje.’ [End Page 160] The book does not take categories of race, space, place, and power for granted, or treat them as “natural.” Instead, the work denaturalizes or deconstructs their meaning and demonstrates that those categories were mutually constitutive and interdependent, and that ultimately they were used to wrest power and conquer inhabitants and succeeding residents.
The book opens by showing how impoverished mestizo pobladores (settlers) marginalized local Indians and transformed themselves into wealthy rancheros (californios) and self-sufficient residents (vecinos). To claim legitimacy, the settlers rewrote their histories, built a new town, and developed their own ways for defining race and identity based on “ancestry, actions, and achievement” (p. 33). At the same time, they ignored the role of Indians as the original inhabitants and denied them equal possibility for social mobility. As Mexican Californians carved a new racial and cultural identity, they forged social, economic, and cultural relationships with immigrants through intermarriage with californianas, allowing the newcomers to integrate at all levels of californio society. These relationships were not necessarily all about profit, Torres-Rouff argues. Instead, they reflected the formation of new families and personal and business relationships, resulting in what he calls an “intercultural society” (p. 19). The newcomers also became key members of the community who served to mediate relations after the U.S.-Mexico War of 1846.
Yet, as competition over identity, space, and municipal power became increasingly complex, fissures over race and civic ideals began to emerge. Those fissures came to a head, the author argues, in the mid 1850s. Until then, Mexican Californians had coexisted with European Americans, sharing views on extralegal justice, land use, water laws, and the press. After 1855, Torres-Rouff contends, those areas of mutuality and coexistence dissolved, leading to injuries and eventually to an unbridgeable gulf between the communities. Ultimately, as the author hints and many scholars have suggested, demographic changes and land loss among Mexican Californians, in particular, accelerated the ideological shift of the emerging European American city leaders, eventually undermining long-standing policies and practices.
The book then examines how Angelenos negotiated the growing rift among the communities and dealt with its impact on family, commerce, and social relations. Despite attempts to maintain the intercultural borderlands, relations began to splinter, especially with the arrival of newcomers from Mexico and the United States in the 1860s and 1870s. Rather than occupy the city center, they settled further away, expanding the city’s spatial dimensions and fracturing remaining links across town. The European American-dominated Common Council added to the splintering by intervening in private commerce and profit-making in ways that disadvantaged even more the most disenfranchised in the city. The result was increasing landlessness and dispossession of Spanish-speaking and other non-white residents, who also lost out over access to municipal services. To further protect what they saw as rightfully theirs, the author reminds us that European Americans engaged in raw and unadulterated violence against the Chinese, ending with the murder of over thirty persons—ten percent of Los [End Page 161] Angeles’s Chinese population—some of them children. The election of a new...