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East Los Angeles

East Los Angeles
History of a Barrio

The story of the largest Mexican-American community in the United States, the city within a city known as "East Los Angeles," and how it came to be.

January 1983
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232 pages | 6 x 9 | 2 maps, 7 tables |

This is the story of the largest Mexican-American community in the United States, the city within a city known as "East Los Angeles." How did this barrio of over one million men and women—occupying an area greater than Manhattan or Washington D.C.—come to be?

Although promoted early in this century as a workers' paradise, Los Angeles fared poorly in attracting European immigrants and American blue-collar workers. Wages were low, and these workers were understandably reluctant to come to a city which was also troubled by labor strife. Mexicans made up the difference, arriving in the city in massive numbers.

Who these Mexicans were and the conditions that caused them to leave their own country are revealed in East Los Angeles. The author examines how they adjusted to life in one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States, how they fared in this country's labor market, and the problems of segregation and prejudice they confronted.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Prelude to the Barrio
  • 3. From Homeland to Barrio
  • 4. Creating the Eastside Barrio
  • 5. The "Brown Scare"
  • 6. Work and Restlessness
  • 7. Reform, Revival, and Socialization
  • 8. Afterword—East Los Angeles since 1930
  • Notes
  • Index

Ricardo Romo is associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.


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This is the story of the barrio of East Los Angeles during its formative years, 1900-1930. The 1981 celebration of the Los Angeles bicentennial underscores the city's long association with Mexican settlers, for it was a group of northern Mexican pioneers who laid the pueblo's foundation in 1781. While Mexicans have been a part of the city's history for two centuries, they have had their greatest influence in the development of East Los Angeles since 1900. The modern immigrant pioneers who moved to the eastside in the early twentieth century could not have envisioned that their barrio would be the nation's largest Mexican barrio and by 1930 rival in size major cities in the United States.

As the east side is a part of the Los Angeles metropolis, much of its history is interwoven with the development of the city as a whole. The pueblo that the original eleven Mexican families founded was but a frontier outpost in its first half-century of existence. Over the next fifty years the town changed dramatically. Sailors from the Yankee Clippers, trappers off the Santa Fe Trail, Forty-niners, Indian fighters, Civil War soldiers, Chinese railroad laborers, Jewish merchants, and Italian fishermen all came to Los Angeles to begin new careers or, in some cases, to live out their retirement years in "sunny paradise." Coincidental with the infusion of new arrivals was the growing concentration of Mexican residents in a section adjacent to the original site of the pueblo's town plaza. Until the turn of the century, both Mexicans and Anglos recognized "Sonoratown," with its Mexican stores and social activities, as the heart of the Spanishspeaking community. Sonoratown remained the Mexican center of Los Angeles until the First World War, when new industrial forces and urbanization changed the face of the old Plaza community.

The arrival of a massive number of Mexicans in Los Angeles during the early twentieth century corresponded with the key period in the city's drive for industrialization. Although promoted as a worker's paradise, the city fared poorly in attracting European immigrants and American blue-collar workers because of the comparatively low wages and a reluctance among most of these workers to work in a city troubled by labor strife.

This book looks at how Mexicans adapted to industrialization and contributed to the creation of an ethnic community in one of America's fastest-growing cities. In southern California, Mexicans filled a labor shortage created by the absence of domestic and immigrant workers in both the years preceding the First World War and the decade after. By 1920, these newcomers from Mexico numbered over i00,000 and, through their labor in hundreds of occupations, played an important role in the city's drive for domination of international trade in the Western Pacific region.

Mexicans, discouraged from settling in other sections of town, crossed the river and built a new barrio in the vast open spaces, the , flat low lands along the Los Angeles River amid old housing tracts belonging to European ethnics of an earlier generation. The east side, with its low rents and inexpensive houses, appealed to the newcomers and grew to be one of the largest ethnic communities in the United States. During the heyday of the interurban railroad and the glorious beginning of the Age of the Automobile, the barrio became a haven for a Mexican population which faced discrimination in housing, employment, and social activities in Anglo parts of the city. On the east side, Mexican residents formed their own organizations, founded several Spanish-language newspapers, and supported businesses and cultural development unique to their needs and experiences. The growth and development of the Mexican barrio, how Mexicans fared in the labor market, problems associated with residential segregation, and educational and social experiences of Mexican immigrants to Los Angeles in the 1920s are discussed in this book.

When the Depression put a temporary halt to economic prosperity, the flood of Mexican migration fell to a trickle. Yet collectively, if not individually, those who had come over the years 1900- 1939 had contributed to creating a new barrio. The legacy of those who moved "east of the river" in the early twentieth century lives with us today in East Los Angeles, home to more than a million Mexican Americans and a center of thriving Mexican cultural traditions.

The majority of the emigrants from Mexico who settled in Los Angeles during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries referred to themselves as Mexicanos. Southern California English-language newspapers and journals used the term Mexican in referring to this population, whether the person was born in Mexico or in the United States of Mexican parents. Scholars did not begin to use the term Mexican American to describe this group until the postDepression years. It is for these reasons that I have chosen to employ the terms Mexicanos and Mexicans interchangeably in this study to refer to those people who settled in this region and who for the most part eventually became U.S. citizens.

The Great Depression that began in 1929 ended an extraordinary generation of industrial and demographic growth in Los Angeles. During the three previous decades, the city had attained national prominence in manufacturing, distribution capabilities, and marketing techniques. Its soaring population growth placed it fifth in metropolitan size, and first among cities in the West and South, by 1929. At the same time the East Los Angeles barrio had gained fame as the largest Mexican community in the United States. In 1930 this barrio with more than ninety thousand residents surpassed in population the capital cities of three of the largest states in the Union: Albany, New York; Sacramento, California; and Austin, Texas. In size and character, the Eastside Barrio was a city within a city. Although this Mexican community and others like it continue to be prominent in the Southwest and parts of the Midwest, little is known of their formative years. The origins and development of the barrio in Los Angeles during the early twentieth century—its social and economic structure, its inner dynamics, and the day-to-day experiences of its residents—are the focus of this study.

Prior to the publication of Stephan Thernstrom's influential study Poverty and Progress, most of the urban studies recorded the activities of political and business elites. Thernstrom contributed to the writing of history "from the bottom up" by emphasizing quantitative analysis of working-class people in his historical research. Still, most of the studies that followed Thernstrom's methodology focused on midwestern and eastern cities. An explanation for why immigrant groups such as the Irish experienced limited mobility in Boston while New York Jews rose faster and higher up the occupational ladder than Italians in that city did not really speak to the experience of racial minorities elsewhere in the country. The recent publication of studies dealing with Mexican Americans in Santa Barbara, El Paso, and nineteenth-century Los Angeles, in addition to this study, may enable us to make some suggestions regarding social mobility and residential dispersion in the Spanish-speaking communities of the West.

Certainly one of the most dramatic aspects of the emergence of the twentieth-century West was its urban growth. While San Francisco and Denver, as a result of mineral wealth, registered stunning development during the nineteenth century, only a few cities west of the Rockies claimed populated areas of over fifty thousand. At the turn of the century, one decade after the United States Census Office's proclamation that the continuous western frontier had come to a close, Los Angeles made its bid as the West's premier city.

A direct consequence of this urbanization in the West and Southwest was the evolution of Mexican barrios. These enclaves housed one of the newest, yet oldest immigrant groups. Southwestern barrios gaining large numbers of new residents during the early twentieth century included Los Angeles, San Antonio, and El Paso. Other than these three cities, all other cities in the nation counted fewer than six thousand Mexicans within their boundaries as late as 1920. Ten years later, five cities, all in the Southwest with the exception of Chicago, claimed more than ten thousand Mexican residents. Any study of the urbanization of the West cannot be fully told without considering barrios like Los Angeles' Mexican community.

From the founding of the city by Spanish settlers in 1781 to the American conquest in 1848, slow economic growth and relatively little social change characterized Los Angeles. Wealthy Mexicans owned expansive ranchos in the Los Angeles basin and maintained second homes in town. In the pueblo these rancheros lived close to the main plaza while the poor classes, especially the Mestizos and Indians, lived along both sides of the Los Angeles River. The Mexican merchant class who owned businesses in the plaza frequently lived close to their work, occasionally in the same buildings. Numbering less than fifty families in Los Angeles in 1848, Anglo Americans and Europeans lived alongside the Mexican residents. Since the pueblo was small, the various classes interacted to some extent. Kinship linked many of the residents, while others established close bonds through intermarriage and the compadre tradition.

A migration of Anglos, Chinese, Jews, Germans, and Blacks to California followed the Gold Rush of 1849 and statehood in 1850. Even as early as the 1820s, American settlers evidenced strong prejudice toward the Spanish-speaking; after the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) and the gold rush, this intensified. In a short time most Anglo settlers had established residences and businesses beyond the old plaza community. They clustered together and attempted to restrict Mexican voting rights and to prohibit cultural practices native to the Mexican community. The Mexican population did not grow at the same rate as the Anglo population and remained near the center of town. The old plaza offered a Catholic church, bilingual schools, and stores and cafés operated by Spanish-speaking owners. Even though the main Los Angeles business district shifted from the plaza to southwest Los Angeles, the plaza area provided Mexican residents inexpensive housing, boarding opportunities, and close promixity to many jobs.

Unlike the situation in California's northern communities, which Anglo Americans dominated politically and economically, up to the 1870s Mexicans managed to maintain some social and politi cal influence in Los Angeles. The city's urban landscape, social makeup, and political structure, however, changed dramatically following the arrival of the railroads in the early 1880s. Once the town was connected to the eastern markets, its population doubled within a decade. For Mexican residents these changes meant a loss in numerical supremacy and political power in Los Angeles.

Almost daily new businesses and professional offices sprang up in the town. Land prices went up as investors bought up the old ranchos and subdivided them into small lots and new town sites. The resulting economic boom encouraged further promotion by the railroads and other speculators. The Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroads engaged in a rate war for passenger trade between the Midwest and Los Angeles. For a few days in the mid 1880s, midwesterners could travel to Los Angeles for as little as a dollar. Boosters proudly extolled the many attributes of the city: its excellent climate, warm beaches, and close promixity to scenic mountains. Individuals from all economic classes came in search of new wealth and opportunities.

Anglos and other European settlers who had moved away from the original core area began to refer to the plaza section as "Sonoratown" or "Little Mexico." Sonoratown remained small in compari son to the new Anglo residential communities and business district. Later the interurban railroad and the Santa Fe built depots near the heart of the old Mexican plaza community, attracting new industries and warehouses to the area. Increasing industrial construction finally forced Mexican migrants to spread out from the plaza neighborhood.

Between 1900 and 1930, Los Angeles grew from a town of 100,000 people to a metropolis of over a million. The city attained this spectacular growth by solving energy, water, harbor, and labor problems for a time. The Los Angeles area had an abundant natural supply of oil deposits; the drilling for this oil coincided with the discovery that oil could replace coal as fuel for railroads, ships, and industrial machinery. In the 1920s the construction of dams on the Colorado River 100 miles to the east cheapened the cost of electricity, a factor which appealed to manufacturing interests and provided lights for the whole city. Although the Colorado River supplied the city with fresh water, its resources could not provide sufficient water for an urban area whose hinterland also led the nation in citrus and vegetable output; other water sources were essential. City engineers and municipal leaders turned to the Owens Valley in northern California, trapping water and directing its flow to Los Angeles by means of a 230-mile canal. The dream of a deep water harbor became a reality in the early 1900s when the federal government agreed to provide a share of the construction cost. Once completed, ships from all over the world docked at San Pedro. By the 1920s the Los Angeles harbor handled more tonnage than any other American port except New York. With a first-class harbor, Los Angeles could handle new traffic generated by the completion of the Panama Canal. In essence, with improved industries and communication networks, Los Angeles emerged as an exporter of manufactured goods, processor of agricultural products, importer of machinery and technology, supplier of labor, and distributor of financial capital. In the wake of this spectacular economic transformation, industries in search of skilled and unskilled workers turned to Mexico, a source that railroad builders and fruit growers had already tapped for several decades. Reliable and cheap, Mexican labor became the basis for industrial development.

The growth of industries in peripheral areas stimulated by the new harbor trade and the introduction of an interurban railway system made it easier for Mexicans to take up residence away from the central core of the city. Los Angeles' position as a major financial center and supplier of manufacturing goods to local and foreign markets contributed to a new boom which brought warehouses, banks, and transportation depots to the central core. The central area and the old barrio of Sonoratown, which had been abandoned by the business elites twenty years earlier, became the hub of new manufacturers and financial interests. Thus, by World War 1, Los Angeles faced a critical shortage of urban commercial space. Undoubtedly, improved urban transportation hastened the decentralization of the city, as Anglos and European ethnics began moving to the suburbs. This movement freed housing in old ethnic communities on the east side. As White ethnics moved outward, Mexicans bought or rented homes in the old Italian, Jewish, and Russian neighborhoods. From 1910 to 1920 Los Angeles attracted thousands of new immigrants, principally Mexican, while the influx of immigrant labor slowed in other American cities. More so than in earlier decades, Americans appeared terrified by the spectre of "racial degeneration." The press readily accepted the nativist characterization of Mexicans as lazy, treacherous half-breeds prone to violence. Nationally, restrictionists won an important victory with the passage of the Literacy Act of 1917. The act, introduced as a measure to limit non-Nordic immigration from southeastern Europe, encouraged California nativists to hope that the law would also severely limit the influx of Mexican immigrants. However, it proved impossible to halt Mexican migration because of the open border. Also Congress, pressured by railroad companies, farmers, and ranchers, exempted Mexicans from the Literacy Act less than six months after it was passed as labor shortages threatened to curtail the harvest of crops and maintenance of railroads.

By 1920 Los Angeles' industries had formed a close association, perhaps even a dependent relationship, with the local Mexican labor force. Although some companies in the city openly publicized their reluctance to hire Mexicans, most Spanish-speaking immigrants easily found jobs in unskilled and semiskilled positions. Mexicans, generally desperate for work, accepted low wages, irregular working hours, seasonal employment, and poor working conditions. These factors made them ideal employees for the construction and transportation industries. By accepting these jobs, however, Mexican workers found themselves subjected to violent criticism, and many even risked personal injury from union members as well as nonunion Anglo and Black workers. In the few Los Angeles industries where organized labor had power, unions refused to admit Mexicans and supported the American Federation of Labor campaign to restrict Mexican immigration.

While barrios, like western cities, changed dramatically during the years of rapid urban industrialization, historians concerned with the West have neglected to examine the impact of the urban process on ethnic communities. Robert Fogelson, for example, assumed that Mexicans desired to stay in Los Angeles only long enough to earn some money rapidly and return to the homeland. He concluded that they "had little inclination to improve the town economically or socially." Mexican migrants swept across the southwestern landscape in record proportions between 1910 and 1930, and this northward flow was responsible for the emergence of many of the barrios in this region today. Here we examine their impact on one urban community. Moreover, while it is important to understand the nature of barrio life, it is also crucial to consider how the external forces of industrialization and urbanization affected the economy, physical boundaries, and social outlook of the Mexican communities.

One of the problems associated with explaining the early-twentieth-century origin of Mexican barrios is that most works treat the movements of Mexican Americans to urban areas as a post World War II phenomenon despite the fact that as early as 1930 more than 50 percent of the Mexican population in the United States lived in urban communities. This historical distortion occurred largely because early studies of Mexicans in this country focused primarily on their rural migration and settlement. Moreover, because Mexicans, at least the vast majority, had arrived in the 1900-1930 migration wave at a time when the West was still economically and politically marginal to the eastern seaboard region, census takers, government officials, and scholars assumed that they were relatively few in number and therefore insignificant. It might be fair to say that Americans knew more about Mexicans in Mexico than Mexicans in the United States.

Considered a relatively "new" city when compared with New York and Chicago, Los Angeles has attracted the attention of few historians. Indeed, the brief mentions that Los Angeles has received have varied widely. In two of the more recent studies of the city, one scholar viewed it as fragmented, while another, commenting on the fact that California during the early twentieth century was the recipient of some two million newcomers, "most of them from rural background," concluded that "it was no accident that Los Angeles resembled a huge village." Ethnic communities, which have been an intrinsic part of Los Angeles history, have received even less attention. Only rare events such as the 1965 Watts riots have compelled social scientists to inquire into life in these communities. As a result, the experience of Mexicans and other ethnic groups has been obscured.

In The Fragmented Metropolis, a major contribution to the historiography of Los Angeles, Robert Fogelson referred only briefly to ethnic communities. Although his study concerns the crucial years—1850 to 1930—when Los Angeles developed from a Mexican pueblo into a sprawling metropolis, Fogelson ignored the Mexican barrio completely and characterized Mexicans as "transient," "maladjusted," and "unadjusted." In another passage he describes them as "unassimilated, unwelcomed, and unprotected" and "so thoroughly isolated that the American majority was able to maintain its untainted vision of an integrated community."

Since historians know little about the urbanization of early-twentieth-century Mexicans, some have assumed that Mexican barrios fit a "ghetto model." This ghetto model, according to one researcher, "supports the generalization that, with the exception of occasional pockets elsewhere, the rate of deviance increases the closer one approaches the city center." In the 1910s, Progressive reformers singled out the Mexican barrio of Los Angeles as a blemish on the city's fine reputation. Contemporary writers maligned the colonia by focusing on pathological experiences of Mexicans. journalists linked vices as well as the spread of contagious diseases with the barrio. Health officials, school administrators, and social scientists joined together to condemn barrio life.

Mexican anthropologist Manuel Gamio, who visited the large barrios of Los Angeles, San Antonio, and Chicago during the 1920s, concluded that urbanization weakened the character and spirit of the immigrants. According to Gamio, as the Mexican moves into the American city "there arises in him the impulse to get help from [some] outside mysterious agency, and therefore he pursues confused digressions, so that the result does not represent all the working of his brain nor the total effort put forth." Thus, for Gamio and other scholars, urbanization had a negative impact on the immigrant. Twenty years later, historian Carey McWilliams followed the same line of thought when he wrote that because Mexican immigrants came from rural areas, they were "not prepared for a rapid transition to a society which, at nearly every point, negates the values of their folk culture." McWilliams echoed Gamio's observation when he wrote that "the Mexican peon faltered and became confused and often demoralized when he came in close contact with a highly industrialized, urban society."

Indeed, even more recent social scientists have considered the barrio of Los Angeles static and at best marginal to the larger Los Angeles community. Distinctions among various ethnic commu nities have been obscured by the emergence of a general ghetto image that had pejorative racial meaning. This image in turn grew into a pseudo-scientific "ghetto model." According to this interpretation, the ghetto represents an urban area where people, because of their circumstances and characteristics, are forced to live. David R. Hunter, who considered ghettos "bad from every point of view," portrayed residents of these communities as unskilled, poor, non-White, ill-educated, and ignorant about the means of getting ahead in American society." Both image and model have been carelessly applied to the Mexican barrio.

This study proposes that the distorted ghetto image of barrios ignored the fact that the majority of Mexican immigrants, for reasons of language, kinship, and folk customs, chose to live together in barrios. These barrios provided a sense of identity with the homeland and a transition into American society. Thus modern ghettos or barrios are not necessarily homes for losers and sinners. Sam Bass Warner, Jr., and Colin B. Burke expressed the idea that ghettos have acted as an "agent of localized acculturation," which has served not only as a home for the first generation of immigrants, but also as a place "to which the children of immigrants returned for special foods, or for the foreign-language theatre, or the national church." It is also true, however, that while some Mexicans in barrios such as the one in East Los Angeles had options for spatial mobility to satellite barrio communities, most were prevented from moving to White neighborhoods by restrictive real estate covenants and prejudices.

Even though some European immigrants had difficulties assimilating to predominantly Anglo-Saxon culture, scholars concerned with urban residential patterns have sought to explain the evolution and demise of immigrant enclaves as primarily related to nativism, economic differences, and period of arrival. In The Urban Wilderness, for instance, Sam Bass Warner, Jr., says that over the period from 1870 to 1920, urban neighborhoods in general "ceased to be [a] jumble of rich and poor, immigrants and native, black and white" as they had been in the former area of the big city. Instead, Warner suggests, the neighborhood of the industrial metropolis "came to be arranged in a systematic pattern of socio-economic segration." From the perspective of Black and White residents or old and new immigrant groups, Warner's analysis may hold together neatly. However, Mexican immigrants arrived in Los Angeles in the early twentieth century at a time when racial prejudice strongly limited their housing choices. From 1910 to 1930 the principal Mexican enclaves of Los Angeles, located in the inner city and formerly inhabited by poor natives, European newcomers, and Asian immigrants, lost their heterogeneous characteristics and instead of becoming segregated by socioeconomic criteria became segregated racially.

The evolution of a large ethnic community in a metropolis such as Los Angeles which by 1900 had gained fame for its homogeneity in itself merits examination. J. Lilly's 1931 statement in the North American Review that "Los Angeles is to my mind the most American city" in the United States expressed what many other contemporary writers said or believed about this city. Indeed, of the major cities of the United States, Los Angeles ranked among the top three for its proportion of native-born White population. Between 1900 and 1930 the city's foreign-born population never surpassed 20 percent. In comparison, New York averaged 35 percent foreign-born population during the same period, with a high of 40 percent in 1910. Los Angeles' Mexican population ranged from 5 percent in 1900 to nearly 20 percent in 1930. City boosters, however, seldom mentioned the Mexicans' presence. It is no wonder that at a later period Mexicans were referred to as the "nation's best kept secret" or the "invisible minority." Ignored by the rest of society for much of the early part of this century, the barrios of Los Angeles provided immigrants with an environment conducive to family life and the maintenance of many customs and values of the homeland and provided the city with workers that encouraged and supported its rapid growth and prosperity.

One myth, recently popularized by social scientists Leo Grebler, Joan W Moore, and Ralph C. Guzman in their encyclopedic study The Mexican American People, contends that the residents of California had a more tolerant attitude toward Mexicans than did other Americans. Grebler, Moore, and Guzman suggested that Mexicans found greater occupational success in Los Angeles than in Texas, for example, because of the absence of strong historical sentiments against them in Los Angeles. They concluded that a key factor in understanding this tolerance is the fact that the native-born population of Los Angeles has always been largely midwestern in origin. "Unlike the Texas native who was the typical inhabitant of San Antonio, Americans from the midwest probably held few strong preconceptions about Mexicans. This might have been some advantage to the Mexicans in Los Angeles." These authors were obviously unaware of the anti-alien and anti-radical campaign against the Mexican beginning in 1915 and lasting until 1919.

For the study of migration and assimilation, the twenties are crucial. Congressional hearings concerning quota laws and the popularity of the Americanization movement confirm the preoccupa tion of Americans with ethnicity and migration. The Quota Acts of 1921 and 1924 contributed significantly to the assimilation of European immigrants through increasing the rate of naturalization." Mexicans were not affected by the Quota Acts, and despite some intermarriage, most first-generation and even second- and thirdgeneration Mexican Americans continued to express strong attachment to Mexico. Since the border lay only a few hours away by train or automobile, many Mexicans maintained old country customs and ties considerably longer than Europeans. Some Americans believed that the low level of naturalization rates among Mexican arrivals indicated that the group wished only to exploit America for its economic benefits. Still, the absence of social interaction among Anglos and Mexicans, as well as segregation policies imposed by educators, employers, and real estate developers, badly hindered the assimilation process.

A walk through the Los Angeles barrio in the early twentieth century revealed not only influences of Old Mexico but diversity and adaptation. While outsiders persisted in referring to the barrio as "Sonoratown" or "Little Mexico," it was evident that the community was far from a replica of the homeland. The immigrants accepted the fact that they could not transplant all homeland traditions and values and instead created a new urban culture. By patronizing Mexican restaurants, belonging to community associations, attending Sunday religious services at the old Mexican Plaza church, and maintaining the Spanish language, Mexicans lived a little of the old culture in Los Angeles. In addition, the religious festivals and observation of Mexican holidays in the city brought residents together, providing favorable circumstances to maintain kinship and hometown networks. A variety of community institutions gave new arrivals an occasion to adopt some things and not others from Anglo American society. Still, adaptation occurred at many different levels. Mexican immigrants, for instance, adopted some American sports, such as baseball and basketball, but cared little for football and golf. The barrio of Los Angeles, like many other ethnic communities, essentially acted as an acculturation way station where the recently arrived immigrants could work out their own social and economic adjustment to American life at a pace that suited them rather than that favored by Americanization programs and "cultural custodians."

In exploring differences among ghetto communities, historians have focused on Europeans and Blacks. While Mexican barrios and the European and Black ghettos share many characteristics, several factors distinguish Mexican settlements. With a few exceptions, most of the principal Mexican communities are located within a two-hundred-mile range of the Mexican border. Distance and immigration restriction, especially after 1921, kept most European ghettos from reaching significant population growth. At the same time, the Spanish language and Mexican customs flourished in Mexican barrios. In Los Angeles and other barrios of the border area, Mexicans not only developed and maintained their own Spanish language radio stations, but also continued to listen to radio transmitted from across the border. Newspapers from the homeland survive to this day. Thus proximity to the home country and continuous migration have strongly influenced the character of the Mexican barrios throughout the present century.

Our investigation of selected communities such as Los Angeles' Mexican barrio should contribute to a better understanding of the urban experiences of Mexicans in this country. One unique feature of the Los Angeles barrio was its function as a labor distribution center for Mexican unskilled workers. In Los Angeles, labor agents arranged for Mexican workers to board ships headed to Alaska, railroads bound for the Midwest, and trucks destined for the rich agricultural fields of the San Joaquin Valley. In the years immediately after World War I, this barrio also achieved fame as the nation's principal hub for Mexican cultural and artistic activities, a status which it has maintained to the present day. Mexicans living in the other barrios of the state looked to Los Angeles for its Spanish-language newspapers. In terms of theatre and music, it was considered a pacemaker. In addition, the barrio's location gave residents a unique perspective on how other ethnic groups, including Blacks, Chinese, Russians, and Italians, handled the complexities of acculturation and assimilation.

Yet, like most other barrios of the period 1900-1930, the one in Los Angeles was strongly affected by urban growth and industrialization. Moreover, the heavy migration, residential dispersion, racial disorder, and intensification of segregation policies were probably evident in most barrios of the first three decades of the twentieth century. What is unique and what is common to Mexican barrios, however, may not be determined until there are more Mexican community studies. I hope that this work is a contribution toward that end as well as an examination of a major barrio which lends greater understanding to the urban experiences of Mexicans in the United States during the formative years of the twentieth century.


“Successfully debunks a number of misconceptions about the Mexicano experience in the United States. . . . The story of the East Los Angeles barrio is not a pleasant one, although it does contain glimpses of a stubborn and resilient people determined to fight for their way of life.”
Social Science Quarterly

“Ricardo Romo has written a study of urban history from the bottom up.... Romo has told well the story of Mexicans in Los Angeles and their great contributions to southern California's cultural and economic development in the early twentieth century. ”
American Historical Review

“. . . incisive and original . . . a major contribution to urban history and the history of the Mexican-American people.”
Rodolfo Acuna