It might be a stretch to include a Politician/Businessman as one of the greatest dead Angelenos, but the story and tumultuous political life of Pío Pico, last Mexican Governor of California, is an interesting and informative narrative that still has some relevance today.
Born of African, Indian, and European descent in 1801 at the San Gabriel Mission, this Mestizo was 100% Californio. When his father José María Pico (he was on the De Anza expedition to Alta California) died in 1819, Pío started his business ventures “by opening a small store in San Diego where he sold liquor, provisions, furniture, and shoes” in San Diego. By the 1850’s and “in only two generations the family amassed terrific wealth in land.” (Monroy)
In 1821, Mexico gained Independence from Spain and by 1832 Pico was doing his first term as Governor of Mexican Alta California. Yeah, a businessman gets into politics, yawn. But here’s where his story gets interesting and parallels much of what’s going on in Los Angeles and the rest of the nation today. By the time of his second term in 1845, the migratory habits of human beings had started shifting the landscape anew and Pico was worried:
“We find ourselves threatened by hordes of Yankee immigrants who have already begun to flock into our country and whose progress we cannot arrest.” (Monroy)
Change one word in that sentence and we are updated to 2007! Here’s another Pico quote that could be pulled out of modern headlines:
“They are cultivating farms, establishing vineyards, erecting mills, sawing up lumber, building workshops, and doing a thousand other things which seem natural to them, but which Californians neglect or despise. What then are we to do? Shall we remain supine, while those daring strangers are overrunning our fertile plains, and gradually outnumbering and displacing us? Shall these incursions go on unchecked, until we shall become strangers in our own land?” (Weaver)
I think we know how the rest of the story turned out. The hordes took over and Pico went into exile in Baja California for a year and a half, hoping to eventually return with the resources to take back California. His letter to the people of California of August 10, 1846 still retained some hope:
“The Supreme Being that guards over the future destiny of nations, will provide us the glorious day in which we shall again see our dear Fatherland free and happy.” (Weber)
Pico came to terms with the fact that “California will undoubtedly cease to belong to the Mexican family” and returned to Los Angeles after the war, living out his days under “the starry flag”. Pío Pico resumed his boring money making ventures, and for awhile was filthy rich, building the luxury Pico House hotel in Olvera Plaza and a Ranchito in Whittier (now the Pío Pico State Historic Park) where he would entertain other wealthy guests. But the unscrupulous practices of moneylenders, loan shark debts, and gambling ate away at his fortune and Pío Pico died poor in 1894. He is buried at El Campo Santo in City of Industry, at the Homestead Museum, along with the Workman and Temple families. It’s right off the 60 fwy and worth a short visit.
A Southern Californian by birth, and despite the changing political regimes that claimed the land, Angeleno by choice. Un brindis para mi paisano, el muertito Pío Pico!
Thrown Among Strangers: The Making of Mexican Culture in Frontier California by Douglas Monroy
L.A.: El Pueblo Grande by John D. Weaver
Foreigners in Their Native Land by David J. Weber
The Decline of the Californios by Leonard Pitt
Los Angeles Almanac
Ay, que chulos!