Category Archives: California history

Why I Celebrate Columbus Day

My boyfriend is obsessed with time travel. He loves “Back to the Future” and never misses any new film with even the slightest time travel twist. We were both history majors in college and do lots of nerdy history-related activities together. However,  I have been very clear with him that if he were somehow able to actually travel in time, I would not be going with him. As I have pointed out to him repeatedly, in practically in any era but our own, ours would be a forbidden love. Not to mention, American history hasn’t been particularly great to women nor Mexican guys. When I watch Mad Men, it doesn’t make me want to jump in a time machine. Ditto for El Norte.

If I’ve learned anything in my study of history, it’s that people are jerks. Even historical figures who we can agree did some really good things often also did some really bad things (poster child: Thomas Jefferson).

Which brings us to Columbus Day. If you aren’t convinced that we are living in an era of rapid change, let me just point out that when I was in first grade, we actually CELEBRATED Columbus Day. By 9th grade, we were assigned to read “Lies My Teacher Told Me” over the summer. By college, we were celebrating MLK Day and Cesar Chavez Day and pretending that whole Columbus Day thing never happened.

In college, one of the first primary sources I ever read in depth was Columbus’ journals, in which he reveals himself to be a mega-jerk, to put it mildly. He writes: “As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts.” The more you read, the more bizarre it seems that very nice first grade teachers across America were urging young children to celebrate this guy just 20 years ago.

If you think I’m conflicted, well, think how Mexico feels (to get quickly up to speed, read this essay and google images for Dia de la Raza).   Yes, that’s right, American people: “Columbus Day” has a different name outside of the U.S.:

  • Mexico: Dia de la Raza
  • Spain: Dia de la Hispanidad
  • Venezuela: Día de la Resistencia Indígena
  • Costa Rica: Día de las Culturas

That pretty well sums it up. When Europeans crossed paths with the indigenous peoples of the Americas, it was not a win-win. However, it was absolutely a world-changing event for everyone involved, a turning point in history that brought all of us to where we are today. I don’t think Mr. Columbus is someone we should celebrate, but I think that what happened in 1492 is something that we should remember and talk about and argue about because this history matters to all of us. And this Oct. 12, I will remember all of the bad things that we humans have done to one another. And then I’ll give my boyfriend a big hug, marvel at the twists and turns of history that brought us both to right here and be grateful to all the humans who stood up and spoke out and fought to create this better world we live in today.

Some more food for thought: A call for replacing Columbus Day with Bartolome Day (featuring a lot more reasons why Columbus really was the worst).



Filed under California history

Best Letter to the Editor EVER

My blog post “Please stop making 4th graders build models of the California missions” recently ran in my hometown newspaper, the Sonoma Index-Tribune. One 4th grader wrote this response and officially became my hero. Thank you to everyone else who also wrote a thoughtful response in the blog comments or elsewhere!

Fourth grader revolts against ‘mission madness’

Jan 31, 2013 – 05:04 PM

Editor, Index-Tribune:

I am a fourth grader and read the article, “End the mission madness” (Index-Tribune Our Schools page, Jan. 29). I loved it because I feel that Native Americans were treated brutally and horribly by the padres.

Right now in my class, we are doing a unit on the missions and I believe that the subject of the Native Americans and their share of the mission period has been completely glossed over. When I brought up the subject to my teacher, she said that people can have different opinions, but I’ve heard her talk and I know she really means the missions are always right.

Thank you editor, and writer Sierra Jenkins, for publishing this article in the newspaper and showing people you don’t have to always believe what people want you to believe in.

Natalie Sandoval

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Filed under California, California history, Sonoma

Prehistoric Weirdness and Footnotes to History

Portland’s unofficial slogan is “Keep Portland Weird.” Yes, Portland can be weird at times, but it is a place that is actively trying to be weird. LA, however, is a place that is better described as bizarre – and it doesn’t even try.

In Portland, you might see someone with crazy face piercings, wearing a clown suit, riding a two-story bike cobbled together by hand and playing a harmonica. And maybe they’re in the middle of transitioning from a man to a woman. Pretty run-of-the-mill weirdness. In LA, you will encounter things that are more profoundly strange.

I am talking about the La Brea Tar pits, of course. There you are, on the excessively hip westside of LA. You hit up the pastrami at the famous Canter’s deli and top it off with dessert at that one really hip bakery that has amazing gluten-free cakes that cost about one-month’s salary. Then you mosey down past LACMA, which is featuring a really fantastic exhibit about a designer whose name you don’t want to say because you’re not actually sure how to pronounce it. And there you will find a bubbling pit of prehistoric tar.


“La Brea Tar Pit” literally means “The Tar Tar Pit.” Also, it is not actually tar – it is an “asphalt seepage.” But whatever it is, it is definitively there, smack dab in the middle of LA’s urban center, filled with fossils of prehistoric critters, the teeth of saber-toothed cats and mastodon bones. One point for nature.

LA is assertively man-made. It’s fashion and film and music and point-of-view are completely freed from the tethers of reality. Nature and history are not notable influences – they are largely forgotten in so many ways. But what keeps LA bizarre is the way nature and history aggressively pop up in the middle of all of this city’s fancy-pants fantasy.

I remember visiting Descanso Gardens up towards Pasadena. The gardens are a lovely place, as you might imagine, built by newspaper baron Elias Manchester Brody. They have a famed camellia forest that is just huge with tons of massive bushes with beautiful blooms in pink and red and white. Wandering around the gardens, I found a sign in the main house with a little history on the property. It described the rise of self-made man who went from rags to riches through hard work and a knack for tapping into business opportunities. For instance:

“In 1942, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Boddy found himself with a business opportunity that was surely ambivalent at best. All along the west coast Japanese-Americans were being sent to internment camps to wait out the war, leaving businesses behind. Boddy acquired thousands of camellias from Francis Uyematsu, a successful local nurseryman, buying his entire stock. “

Just a footnote in one man’s life and in the history of a pretty place – but clearly a life-defining event for another man.

LA likes to forget that it was once a desert where wild animals roamed, a Native America village, a Spanish/Mexican colonial settlement, so many things it now no longer remotely resembles. But you’ll find that past in the footnotes. You just have to look.

P.S. The story of Francis Uyematsu is even more extraordinary than I could have imagined on my own – check out this LA Times article for more. 

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Filed under California, California history, Los Angeles, Weirdness

Please stop making 4th graders build models of the California missions

If you attended fourth grade in the state of California, chances are good that you built a model of one of the 21 Spanish missions stretching from San Diego to Sonoma. Chances are also good that you remember almost nothing important about the missions’ critical role in California history nor the painful and fascinating story they tell.

San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo
Model of San Carlos Borromeo, posted by dlofink on Flickr – See the full gallery of his students’ models. Please note that even if this post calls for eliminating the mission model project, these models are still pretty awesome.

Knowing how the missions were built is, indeed, the least interesting thing about them – who build them and why is the story that is really worth learning. For example, when I was a docent at the San Francisco de Solano Mission in my hometown, Sonoma, I could have casually mentioned that the original chapel stood on western side of the four-sided complex. The more interesting tidbit that it was burned down by Native Americans revolting against Father Altimira’s tyrannical rule (yes, the man for whom one of Sonoma’s middle schools is named). My favorite thing about history is that it’s surprising – shocking even. You would think that historians would really have this pinned down by now, that we would know definitively everything that every happened and why. The reality is that the past is as expansive as the future. If you ask the question: “What really happened?” you can spend a lifetime chasing the answer.

I love California history because it is practically a telenovela – full of unexpected twists and turns and lots of crazy characters. To that end, I’d like to take all of you back to fourth grade and share some of the things you should have learned when you were instead gluing together sugar cubes and spray-painting macaroni. (If you were wondering what you were supposed to learn, please refer to History and Social Science Standard 4.2 on Page 13. Note that “Students must be able to build a scale model of a mission” is not indeed a standard. If anyone has insight into the origins of this tradition, please let me know!)

California was not empty.
It’s hard to say exactly, but there it has been estimated there were more than 200,000 Native Americans speaking more than 100 languages living in California when colonizers started showing up. You think our state is diverse today?!
Back then, everyone wanted a piece of California. The first explorers to land in California hailed from various world powers – England, Spain, Russia…Those countries’ rulers were doing anything they could to get a foothold and get control of California’s abundant resources. Spain’s approach was to found missions, with military outposts alongside them, which were supposed to become fully functioning towns.

The mission fathers were benevolent AND cruel.
It’s hard to make a broad generalization about an entire group of people. First and foremost, remember that these priests were political operatives, tasked with turning Native Americans into Spanish-speaking, Catholic citizens of the crown. They grew so powerful that the Spanish crown eventually expelled all the Jesuits from the new world, secularizing the church’s assets.
That said, they were on the front lines and anyone well knows that things look different from the frontier than they do from headquarters. I won’t discount the good works that individual priests did in their mission communities or the advocacy of those like Spanish priest Bartolome de las Casas, who was one of the few people at the time who chronicled and protested the mistreatment of Native Americans. But the priests were also spreading and perpetuating a system that did tremendous harm to California native peoples and that, too, cannot be discounted.

The Native Americans got the raw end of pretty much every deal.
If you think that slaves in the south liked having a master, then maybe you also like to imagine that the missions were happy-go-lucky places and the Native Americans were always thrilled to be there. The treatment of Native Americans is one element of mission history that is probably most disputed and I would encourage you to read different perspectives, but if the only one you’ve heard is “Spanish priests were doing God’s work to save the souls of the Natives and give them food and shelter,” please dig deeper.
Yes, many Native Americans signed up at the missions by choice. However, once baptized, they did not have the choice of leaving and were forcefully kept there and even hunted down if they ran away.
There were a lot of different factors at play – this was a period of huge change. One factor that drove Native Americans into the mission system was that the Spanish introduced livestock to California, which had a huge impact on the environment that Native Americans relied upon for their traditional hunting and gathering. There was also the devastating impact of disease, made worse by the concentration of the population at the missions, which helped disease spread more quickly. The Native American population dropped by an estimated 90 percent during this period. Please try to imagine 90 percent of the people you know dying.
Apart from life under the mission system, the period that followed was possibly worse (refer to the novel, Ramona, which is California’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin). Once most Native Americans were fully dependent on the mission economies they had build up through their labor, the Mexican government decided to secularize the missions. There was talk of splitting the land among the neophytes, but ultimately most of it went to powerful and wealthy men and the Native Americans were thrown out with nothing and ended up having to work on the new ranchos.

If you thought the Spanish and Mexicans were bad…
The Americans soon proved to be just as bad, if not worse, in their treatment of the Native Americans. Spain at least had the stated goal of preparing Native Americans to be citizens with full rights. The United States had no such intention. With the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending the Mexican-American War, the United States took over many of the former mission properties, generally didn’t recognize the land titles held by Native Americans and put the reservation system in place.

This is far from a definitive account of the history of the California missions, but I hope it spurs you to visit a mission near you and find out more. And when your child’s fourth grade teacher demands you spend your weekend building a model of a mission, I suggest you take your cue from the mission Indians and revolt.


Filed under California history, I heart Cali, Los Angeles, Mexico

A Gringo’s Guide to Mexican-American Murals

Here in East Los Angeles, around every corner there are beautiful murals depicting the history of Mexico and the history of Mexicans here in the United States. While anyone can appreciate their beauty, the California public school curriculum is notably light on Latin American history so the events, people and symbols they reference may not be readily familiar to the casual observer.
The ultimate place to view murals is Chicano Park, located under the I-5 overpass in San Diego.
Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo
The park itself has a rich history and every mural tells a story. After visiting last year, I created this slideshow to give an intro to interpreting the images so everyone can enjoy these murals more deeply. I hope they will pique your curiosity to learn even more about the history of the Americas.

A couple of ways to view:

Go here and click on the photos one by one to see the captions.
Click here to see a slideshow – Click Show Info in the top right-hand corner to see the captions.

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Filed under California history, Los Angeles, Mexico, politics

What you didn’t learn in school: My visit to the Japanese American National Museum

My introduction to the study of history was a little bit schizophrenic.

For five years of elementary school, I was led to believe the Christopher Columbus was a stand-up guy who came to help the Indians find God, that everyone came to America on a ship from Europe to till the unclaimed land was just waiting for them and that America is the best country on earth.

Then I turned 14 and our summer reading assignment was “Lies my Teacher Told Me.” Suddenly, my teachers were saying this Columbus guy was actually a greedy jerk and a bit of a nutcase who came and stole the Native Americans’ land, not to mention enslave them and beat them up.

Fortunately, I had an incredible professor in my first semester of college who led me to love history’s complexities and to delve into them first-hand, not relying on other academics’ telling of the past, but to drive down to the primary sources.

My favorite primary sources are people. This past week, I was very fortunate to hear history first-hand from Roy Kakuda, our incredibly capable docent at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo, near downtown LA.

I don’t say this lightly: the museum will change your view of American and Californian history. Roy was full of thought-provoking details – just a few of them:

  • Preparations to send Japanese-Americans to relocation camps were underway before the Pearl Harbor attack. (Reference: “Manzanar” by John Armor and Peter Wright)
  • The U.S. government orchestrated the deportation of over 2,000 people of Japanese descent from various countries in Latin America who were used to trade for American prisoners of war. As a result, 1,700 Japanese Peruvians were sent to Japan, a country many of them had never visited.
  • The 442nd Infantry, an almost entirely Japanese-American unit that fought in WWII, was one of the most highly decorated units in the history of the armed forces, with 21 Medals of Honor and more than 9,000 Purple Hearts. They also sustained a casualty rate of 280% – that is NOT a typo. Japanese-American soldiers were some of the first to come across the Jewish concentration camps at Dachau.
  • The U.S. government not only rounded up Japanese-American families; they tracked down orphans and children in the foster care system that were of Japanese descent and sent them to the relocation camps.
  • “When the U.S. Congress voted to pay reparations to those who were sent to the camps, Ronald Reagan, then the President, refused to sign the document. You will see that the original carries the signature of his successor, George Bush.” CORRECTION: I didn’t get this one entirely correct- see the comment below for clarification!

Of course, the detail he shared that our group will never forget is that he was one of the people who was forced to go to the relocation camps. He told us about his father’s success in America and showed us a photo of their beautiful new car. Then he showed us photos of his mother in a tailoring class in the camp, told us about the wood houses in which they lived. His family dug out an area under theirs and, as a little boy, he would nap there to escape the desert temperatures of over 100 degrees. He showed us his reparations check for $20,000.

At the end of his tour, he repeated his question from the beginning of the tour: Do you think this could happen to you?

As a little girl, I was taught that in America, everything is possible. After meeting Roy Kakuda, hearing of both his family’s incredible success and everything they went through in WWII, I believe that even more deeply. Incredible success is possible here – so is incredible injustice.

The Japanese American National Museum is definitely worth a visit – leave yourself plenty of time. There is a ton to see!


Filed under California history, Los Angeles

I voted today

Unlike a certain California gubernatorial candidate, I am proud to say that I haven’t missed an opportunity to vote since I turned 18, despite having moved multiple times. I even voted absentee from Mexico. Today, I mailed in my ballot here in LA county (I would like to repeat my complaint from last year which is that it is confusing to fill out an absentee ballot here.)
My 18th birthday was just a couple of days before the 2000 presidential election – I cast my first vote ever for Al Gore. Here’s a quick refresher how well that went:

I quickly got schooled in just how much (or how little) my vote counts. The experience prompted my exploration of the electoral college system, which I concluded was set up for two reasons: 1) We aren’t technically capable of a perfect vote count and 2) We don’t trust the masses.
Being a Californian, you could make a solid argument that my vote for a Democrat in the presidential contest doesn’t really count for much anyway, considering that California reliably goes for the Dem. I’ve heard other young people use this excuse. First of all, it doesn’t apply to state and local issues, where your vote certainly makes a difference. Secondly, I vote for more reasons than the pure outcome:
1) Civic duty: I really do feel that it is my duty as a citizen to stay informed and to exercise my right to vote. We’re in an era without a draft, rations, victory gardens or other civic sacrifices – I think I can take the time to vote!
2) Guilt: Given what women went through to get the right to vote, not to mention what people around the world continue to suffer to fight for this right, I would be ashamed not to vote.
3) The right to complain: In my eyes, if you didn’t cast a vote, you lost your right to complain about the outcome of the election. People don’t elect themselves and your vote counts for more than you running your mouth about how you’re boycotting the elections.
4) It’s fun! I love watching the debates, I’m always amused by the crazy mailers that show up in the mail and I like discussing the merits of the various propositions with my friends and family. When I was in school in Oregon, I was still registered to vote absentee. In 2003, I got my ballot to vote for the post-recall governor, which included 200 candidates, among them a sumo wrestler, an adult entertainer, not to mention our current Governator.

This pretty much cemented my out-of-state friends’ conclusion that Californians are completely whacky.
And we are! Today, I got to vote on whether to legalize marijuana. So, my fellow citizens and fellow Californians, I urge you to vote on Nov. 2. You might even enjoy it.


Filed under California history, Los Angeles, politics, Sacramento