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05/17/2004 07:00:00

The Whitewashed History of Los Angeles

PASADENA, Calif. — Los Angeles's booming rise out of the 1880s, roaring on through the 1920s and the coming of the Great Depression, is a historical marvel, writes Bill Deverell in his new book, Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past. But, as the title suggests, this growth was interwoven with the city's often troubled relationship with Mexicans and Mexican Americans.

That relationship, writes Deverell, an associate professor of history at the California Institute of Technology, was expressed in the ways in which elite city-builders approached Mexicans and variously co-opted, appropriated, and even obliterated the region's connections to Mexican places and Mexican people. Published by the University of California Press and available in bookstores now, Whitewashed Adobe begins by describing the bloody years of the 1850s just after the conclusion of the Mexican-American War, in which ethnic hatred ran high, and hangings and shootings of Mexicans were not uncommon.

Yet within a generation, Deverell writes, the city's business interests, looking for a commercially viable way to establish urban identity in Southern California, borrowed Mexican cultural traditions to put on a carnival called La Fiesta de Los Angeles. Ethnicity came to bear as well on later efforts to corral and fill the tempestuous Los Angeles River with concrete. Proximity to the river had long been one marker of Mexican Los Angeles, says Deverell, just as the river itself had bounded (and continues to do so to this day) neighborhoods separate from the commercial districts of downtown. Concrete and fencing, he says, drove the point home.

City leaders turned to the resident Mexican population for workers to build the modern metropolis. Deverell also examines the ethnic dimensions to the official Los Angeles response to the nation's last major outbreak of bubonic plague, and concludes by considering the Mission Play, a famed drama tied to regional assumptions about history, progress, and ethnicity.

"Among the most important scholarly traditions in coming to terms with the history of this region are studies of urban growth and studies of ethnic relations," says Deverell. "My new book is a modest attempt to put those two concerns together in a scholarly investigation of Los Angeles history."

It was not that powerful Anglos were trying to render Mexicans invisible, writes Deverell. On the contrary, assimilation was specifically not the goal. Instead, he says, the goal was to keep Mexican peoples, newer arrivals as well as long-standing Californians, expressly visible on the landscapes of the burgeoning city but very much isolated within specific "containers"--containers created by discriminatory wage systems, increasing public segregation in schools and social spaces, and political exclusion.

This often grim history of racial exclusion has implications for how the future of Los Angeles will continue to be shaped, he writes. "If the city of the future is to work at all," he says, "we must look closely at how these containers were built, who built them, and how they got filled. Then we have to work together to make sure that we take them apart."

On May 26 at 7:00 p.m., Deverell will give a talk about his book at the Los Angeles Central Library, Fifth and Flower Streets, Los Angeles. Admission is free, although reservations are suggested. Please call (213) 228-7025.