My journey southward has begun, and throughout California’s coast are constant reminders of the connections between Latin America and the United States. Besides the obvious low-hanging fruit of Spanish place names, a few things have caught my attention.
At Linnaea’s coffee shop on my last morning in San Luis Obispo, I was thumbing through a book of Joe Schwartz photography and came across an image from the 1960’s of a row of men sitting on the curb waiting for a job, their gaunt faces expressing both expectancy and resigned determination. They reminded me of the men that can be seen lined up today along Cesar Chavez Street in San Francisco.
There is a major difference between the two, though. All the men in the photograph from the 60’s appear to be white, and all the day laborers I’ve seen in 21st century San Francisco are brown-skinned Hispanics and Latinos. The Public Policy Institute of California published a study in 2007 on the day laborer population in California and found that 68% were Mexican-born and 29% were born in other parts of Latin America. That leaves the 3% who were born in the U.S.A.
I’d like to note that the Public Policy Institute of California’s report (which you can read on their website) was published before the recession. A well-done piece by Martina Castro of the Bay Area’s KALW News tells the story of the struggles faced by day laborers after credit default swaps tanked the economy.
Joe Schwartz’ photograph is a striking visual reminder of how things have changed over the last half-century. A recent study by the USC Price School of Public Policy here in L.A. shows that the raw statistics are striking, too. The study is about children, and give us a glimpse into the demographics of the future: 51.2% of California’s children are Hispanic or Latino.
Of course, the presence of Hispanics in California is much older than, well, the State of California. I didn’t really expect to learn a piece of that history when I visited the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, but the Page Museum surprised me with a thorough description of the land’s past.
The main point of interest for me was the transition from Mexican to U.S. governance after the United States took over a huge area of Mexican territory at the end of its military invasion from 1846-1848. The practice of Mexican land grants had put large amounts of land into private ownership, and after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo the U.S. agreed to honor those property rights. Attempts to claim those rights, however, were often very difficult. (In fact, they’re still causing problems.)
The La Rocha family submitted a claim to the land including La Brea where the tar pits are, and the ensuing legal battle was so costly that they had to sell the 4,440 acres to Henry Hancock, a man who had helped them file the claim. Hancock’s son, George Allan Hancock, developed the oil reserves there and became wealthy. He played a key role in ensuring that the fossils discovered in the pits in the early 20th century were researched and publicly displayed.
After a bit more exploration in Los Angeles I’ll head to San Diego and then across the border. Recommendations are always welcome, feel free to leave them a comment.