Villaraigosa Brings L.A.'s Latino Heritage Full Circle

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa takes office in Los Angeles Friday. He's the city's first Latino mayor since 1872. William Deverell, author of Whitewashed Adobe, tells Renee Montagne about the historical significance of Villaraigosa's rise to power.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Here in Los Angeles this morning, Antonio Villaraigosa takes office as mayor. With his inauguration, he becomes the first Latino mayor here in over 130 years. Antonio Villaraigosa doesn't especially like the label. He prefers to be thought of as the every-man mayor. Still, for an area that was once part of Mexico, it says a lot about the city's history, that the last mayor with Mexican roots was in office in 1872, a time when LA is just a small dusty town.

Mr. WILLIAM DEVERELL (Director, Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West): It's a place in flux, in transition, just on the verge of the demographic explosion. It's hovering somewhere in the neighborhood of less than 10,000 people. But word is getting out that Los Angeles is a place that considers itself on the make.

MONTAGNE: William Deverell is director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. He's also the author if a history of LA called "Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past."

Mr. DEVERELL: The latter third of so of the 19th century here in Southern California can be expressly grim in terms of the racial conflicts and violence that ensues between the white population, for instance, and the Mexican population, the Native American population, the Chinese population. So there is a very strong impulse on the part of the white population to push ethnic and racial minorities to the outskirts.

MONTAGNE: What was it then, the philosophy of the time among Anglos coming into Los Angeles? Their approach to the Mexicans who actually lived here was: assimilate or die?

Mr. DEVERELL: In some respects, expressing that grimly does reach back into some reality. The violence that ensues on the landscape in the 19th century, particularly right after the Mexican-American War, is really galling. There's a great deal of social violence expressed towards Mexicans in part because very recently during the war their race, their ethnicity and their nationality had been the definition of an enemy. The assimilation piece of the puzzle is equally complex because the prescription is, generally, that they cannot assimilate, that they are so different that assimilation is impossible. So it's a very, very difficult terrain for Mexican-Americans to navigate in the 19th century.

MONTAGNE: Yet, you have descriptions in your history and also photographs of this big fiesta--and I mean fiesta, not festival--that began in the 1890s and celebrated being Mexican.

Mr. DEVERELL: Yeah, it celebrates it to a point. The fiesta was this weeklong celebration of processions, floats, marchers, who moved through the streets of downtown Los Angeles in the spring for a number of years, a kind of Rose Parade phenomenon, really. But the fiesta is a complicated, wonderfully evocative, weeklong history lesson for the people of Los Angeles. The parades moved through time in very, very scripted and choreographed ways. The past belongs to the darker peoples, the, quote, unquote, "primitive peoples." And as you move towards the present, which for Angelenos of the period is the Mexican-American War, the Gold Rush, the arrival of California as a state, the history, the present and the future, whiten themselves up.

MONTAGNE: Well, things did begin to change in the 1960s with Chicano power, la raza, the people, and the Martin Luther King of this coast, Cesar Chavez.

Mr. DEVERELL: No question. There's no question that there are a number of sea change moments relatively recently. Many of those have to do with, as you point out, the rise of the civil rights movement. But they also have to do with the Mexican-American experience and the second World War. Like African-American servicemen, Mexican-American servicemen go abroad, ostensively to keep the world safe for democracy, come home and demand it at home.

MONTAGNE: So why did it take so long for Los Angeles to elect a mayor, as it now has, who is of Mexican descent?

Mr. DEVERELL: In some ways, I don't think we really know. Some of it's demographic and has to do with the rise of a significant voting block of Latinos who are willing to cast their votes for Mr. Villaraigosa. Some of it has to do, I think, with these long historical patterns of exclusion. What we might be seeing now, though, is the beginnings of a more than century-old hope in Southern California. And that is that after the Mexican-American War, there are hopeful people on the landscape here with hopeful visions about different races, different classes and ethnicities building something new out here on the Pacific Coast that worked because of that diversity.

MONTAGNE: Thank you for joining us.

Mr. DEVERELL: Thank you very much for having me.

MONTAGNE: William Deverell is the author of "Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past."

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