Monday, August 22, 2011

Pio Pico: a Different Tribute on September 11th

On September 11, 2011, the country will reflect on the 10th anniversary of the tragedy of 9/11.

Another anniversary stems from September 11, 1894, the day when the last governor of Mexican California, Pio de Jesus Pico, passed away in Los Angeles.  His birthday (May 5, 1801) falls on a day of significance (Cinco de Mayo) and his day of death now does also.

Within the span of time, Pico's long life offers much symbolism today as we confront age-old struggles with race, class, imperialism and power.  Pico was born at the San Gabriel Mission when California was governed by Spain, and his father served as a mission soldier.  He was a young man when Mexico gained independence from Spain (1821).  He subjugated over Indian peoples; he was deemed deceitful and unfair; and in his later life the tables turned on him.  He lived more than four decades after he fought against the Americans culminating in a U.S. victory in 1848. 

California's Native Son

A copy of the new biography borrowed from the Whittier Public Library

Pico built wealth, power and influence as a native son of California under three nations.  According to Carlos Manuel Salomon's book Pio Pico, the Last Governor of Mexican California, Pico was appointed mission administrator in San Diego County at Mission San Luis Rey from 1835 until 1840.  This was during the difficult transition period when the mission system was slowly being dismantled, yet control of the Indian labor force was still maintained.  The Indians protested against Pico for many reasons, one being his manuevers to take control of certain Indian pueblos, such as Temecula, according to Salomon's book.

By the time the U.S. annexed California, Pico was a land-rich, wealthy rancher.  Eventually, due to careless attention to business and bad luck on his part, but by collusion and legal victories on the part of a long-time jurist adversary, Pico was gradually stripped of all his land by the twilight of his life.

There are reminders of Pico in many Southern California places:

Early Street Name Tribute

Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles started out as Pico Street sometime before the 1870s, along with other early L.A. streets being named after Mexican governors of California:  Micheltorena, Alvarado, Figueroa, and Echandia (Echeandia).

"Pico Street" was a very early naming tribute that occurred in American Los Angeles.
The politically-influential Pico had his detractors, but he also had respectful allies.
Final Resting Place

Entrance to the museum that includes a private cemetery, El Campo Santo.
Courtesy of the Homestead Museum, City of Industry, Cal.

Pico outlived his wife Maria Ygnacia by about forty years.  In 1894 he was laid to rest at the Catholic Church burial grounds in Los Angeles where Cathedral High School is today.  But it would not final.  The old Cavalry Cemetery was by then in neglect.  Within a couple of years a new Cavalry Cemetery was opened in East Los Angeles, and the relatives who afforded were moving their loved ones' remains to the new cemetery.  In 1921 the threat of closure of the old burial grounds prompted the disinterment of Pico's and his wife's remains to a final, private burial place at the original homestead of his friend William Workman in the former Rancho La Puente.
The Walter P. Temple Memorial Mausoleum.
Temple was responsible for having Pico's remains moved here.
Image courtesy of the Homestead Museum, City of Industry, Cal.
A photo taken inside the mausoleum. Courtesy of the Homestead Museum, City of Industry, Cal.

El Ranchito in Whittier, Cal.

Pico acquired Rancho Paso de Bartolo by the late 1840s as his country estate which he referred to as El Ranchito.  In 1907 Harriet Strong and others rallied to save the structures from destruction, and the property was given to the state in 1917.  In the following years, the neighborhood around the house was seedy, tough and run down.  A newspaper reported that the area was known as "Guadalupe Hidalgo," a biting and stinging reference, since the downfall of Mexican California was sealed by the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in Mexico between U.S. and Mexican officials on February 2, 1848.

Note that the date range ends at '1892' because two years before his death, Pico lost this land after a long property battle.

Pico's "country" home named El Ranchito was built on land that was prone to severe flooding.
Today, his legacy is threatened again:  the woes of the California State budget regularly target state parks like the Pio Pico State Historic Park to add to its expenditure chopping board.

Pico House

Lastly, an architectural legacy of Pico's life is embodied by the Pico House, located at the historic center of Los Angeles and today encompasses a part of El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historic Park.  The structure was an elegant hotel, completed in 1870 and the first three-story building in Los Angeles.  It was designed with eighty rooms and an interior court.   The future of the Pico House appears secure since it is a state and national historic landmark.  Long after being dormant as a storage facility, renovations have progressed to enable use of the ground floor for special events.

A contemporary view of the Pico House looking south on Main Street