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Don Hata: Historian Helped Reveal the Multicultural Origins of Los Angeles Settler



Photo by Joanie Harmon

Don Hata: Historian Helped Reveal the Multicultural Origins of Los Angeles Settlers

It’s an early Sunday morning and Olvera Street is already teeming with tourists and locals. As they stroll past shopkeepers busily displaying their wares and drink fruit-laden agua fresca from one of the many sidewalk vendors, Don Hata is searching for a bronze plaque that was installed in the plaza for the 1981 bicentennial of the founding of Los Angeles. The plaque can be found near a bandstand across from the Pico House, a historic hotel that was owned by Pío Pico, the last Mexican governor of California.

On the plaque are the names of the 11 original families of multiracial bloodlines who helped settle El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles.The California State University, Dominguez Hills emeritus professor of history had a hand in getting that plaque erected, when as an assistant professor at CSUDH, he chaired a subcommittee that was part of the citywide effort to commemorate Los Angeles’ 200th anniversary. The 226th anniversary of that trek was Sept. 4 this year.

Telling the history of the original families, known as Los Pobladores (the settlers), turned out to be “a political hot potato,” according to Doyce Nunis, the USC professor of history who asked his former student Hata to chair the subcommittee.

“The descendants of Los Pobladores were very sensitive to the prospect of being revealed as having African roots,” Nunis says. “But history is history, you can’t change it. And the subcommittee found the evidence.”

Also serving with Hata on the subcommittee was Miriam Matthews, the first African American to earn a degree in library science at USC, and who went on to have an illustrious career as a librarian and archivist of African American history in Los Angeles. The group also included David Almada, a Los Angeles Unified School District administrator serving at a time when few Latinos served in such positions, and Leonard Pitt, an emeritus professor of history at California State University, Northridge and author of Decline of the Californios: A Social History of the Spanish-Speaking Californians, 1846-1890.

“We decided that the only way to satisfy all sides while satisfying none was to be historians and good scholars and go for the facts,” Hata remembers. “So we hoped and prayed that on the day the people arrived to establish the city, that there was some bureaucrat taking notes. Thank God, there was.”

The multiracial ethnicity of Los Pobladores had been rejected as rumors by the scholarly establishment, according to Hata, and never accepted until explicit census information was found in an archive in Seville. Documents confirmed that 11 families recruited by Felipe de Neve, the first Spanish governor of California, arrived from the Mexican provinces of Sinaloa and Sonora.

Among the records of the Spanish colony of Mexico was a list of 44 individuals who ranged in age from 1 to 67. Apart from the painstaking detail that described the mother, father and sex of each child in the families, was a noteworthy feature: the exact ethnicity of each parent was designated, revealing the members of Los Pobladores to be a mosaic of intermarriage, including African, Spanish, indigenous, mulato (African and European) and mestizo (indigenous and European) origins.

“With this, we were able to show that L.A., from its very beginnings, was virtually identical to the culturally pluralistic mix we have today,” Hata says. “In terms of ethnicity, our distant past and our future are connected by this pervasive and continuous thread, in spite of what political propogandists might have said. The reality is that we have always been a culturally diverse population.”

In addition, Hata says, an “informed” rumor persists that a 12th family, described as “Chino” (literally "Chinese" but generic for Asian people), was recruited but failed to complete the trek with the other pobladores, possibly due to a family member’s illness. He points out that Chinese, Japanese and Filipinos were present in Mexico beginning in the 16th century, arriving aboard the fabled “Manila Galleons” that sailed between the Spanish colonies in the Philippines and Mexico.

“It is very possible that a researcher will confirm the story of a 12th family of Asian pobladores some day,” Hata observed. “That would underscore the multicultural similarities of Los Angeles at its birth and now.”

Nunis, who edited the 2005 book, The Founding Documents of Los Angeles: A Bilingual Edition, echoes that statement, saying that, “There’s no question that more than half of the 44 pobladores were of African descent. As a matter of fact, they represented three continents, through Spain, Africa and indigenous peoples of North America via Mexico. So you have a blending of three ethnic groups which was very cosmopolitan.”

According to Hata, the main bicentennial committee and the Los Angeles city council under Mayor Tom Bradley approved the subcommittee’s findings and the plans for a commemorative plaque to be erected on the Olvera Street plaza, near the site of the original settlement.

“There was some opposition because some of the council members represented some of the racist groups that didn’t want this kind of diversity revealed,” says Hata, “so they did not attach any funding. When the city council approved it, but said they didn’t have any money, Miriam Matthews whipped out her checkbook and said, ‘I’ll pay for it.’”

“Instead of having the typical plaque that would say it was commemorating the bicentennial with the names of the mayor and the city council, we said, ‘Leave off the politicians and put on it the names of the people we are honoring.’”

El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles Sobre El Rio de la Porciúncula was founded on September 4, 1781 by the following families:

Manuel Camero, 30, mulato
María Tomasa Camero, 24, mulata

José Fernando Lara, 50, Español
María Antonia Lara, 23, India
María Juana Lara, 6
José Julian Lara, 4
María Faustina Lara, 2

Antonio Mesa, 38, Negro
María Ana Mesa, 27, mulata
María Paula Mesa, 10
Antonio María, 8

José Moreno, 22, mulato
María Guadalupe, 19, mulata

José Antonio Navarro, 42, mestizo
María Regina Navarro, 47, mulata
José Eduardo Navarro, 10
José Clemente Navarro, 9
Maríana Navarro, 4

Luis Quintero, 55, Negro
María Petra Quintero, 40, mulata
María Gertrudis Quintero, 16
María Concepción Quintero, 9
María Tomasa Quintero, 7
María Rafaela Quintero, 6
José Clemente Quintero, 3

Pablo Rodríguez, 25, Indio
María Rosalia Rodríguez, 26, India
María Antonia Rodríguez, 1

Basilio Rosas, 67, Indio
María Manuela Rosas, 43, mulata
José Maximo Rosas, 15
José Carlos Rosas, 12
María Josefa Rosas, 8
Antonio Rosalino Rosas, 7
José Marcelino Rosas, 4
José Esteban Rosas, 2

Alejandro Rosas, 19, Indio
Juana Maria Rosas, 20, India

José Vanegas, 28, Indio
María Bonifacia Vanegas, 20, India
Cosme Damien Vanegas, 1

Antonio Clemente Villavicencio, 30, Español
María Seferina Villavicencio, 26, India
María Antonia Villavicencio, 8

- Joanie Harmon

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Last updated Thursday, September 27, 2007, 12:18 p.m., by Joanie Harmon