The “Californios” Historic Culture Preservation

Historic Culture Preservation

Once upon a time, in a land not so far away and a time not so long ago, a scattered population of racially mixed pioneer settlers, soldiers and ex-convicts — guided occasionally by the religious council of the Franciscan padres — sought paradise. Their children declared themselves to be “hijos del país,” thus celebrating a positive self-identity in the face of all outsider opinions to the contrary. They then proceeded to comport themselves in a manner that they perceived as representing persons of class, thereby converting themselves into the otherwise absent aristocracy.

The land was called Alta California, the time was the heyday of the California missions and ranchos from the 1770s through the 1860s (more or less), and the people called themselves californios.

Travelers to the area were consistently impressed by the secular music and the social dances, commenting often on the propensity of the californios to dance and sing — and particularly at times when the largely Protestant observers thought they ought not to. My object is to explore briefly a few aspects of the preservation of this California musical heritage — a largely oral tradition played by non-professional musicians with little or no formal music training.

Although related to both, this California music is not by and large Mexican and it is not Spanish. It instead reflects the isolation from both the Spanish and Mexican mainstream of the settlers that played it, and their self-identity as a separate society. Some pieces did come to California with settlers coming from Mexico, bringing with them their already diverse heritage from Spanish, indigenous Mexican and African roots. And there might be the occasional pureblooded first generation Spaniard who knew pieces from the latest Italian operas or from popular zarzuelas. Some pieces came from other southwestern Hispanic and Native American settlements, such as those in New Mexico, through circuitous trade routes and marriage. Other pieces were written here, some came from the traditions of the local Native American musicians, and some came with trade from passing ships.

With the coming of the American period and the sudden immigration of great quantities of people from other places — particularly in northern California — the culture and heritage of the californio began fading away into the new dominant culture and merging into the growing Mexican immigrant community. In spite of their protestations that they were “hijos del país” — somebodies, the cultural manifestations of the californio culture were devalued and largely ignored except within the larger Mexican and Latino communities.

Then came the need for the new American Californians to create for themselves a self-identity — the new equivalent to declaring themselves “hijos del país” — to create a “here” in California. This in a society that considered racism natural, and that was still remembering the Alamo. In such a climate it is not surprising that a movement to value the California history and heritage of both californios and of indios took a romantic “fantasy heritage” turn — describing things to be valued as “Spanish” rather than Mexican or Indian, and creating images of an idyllic past where everyone lived a life of ease, and Franciscan padres were saints. In fact, it is more surprising that the Spanish-language and indio cultures became recognized and valued at all.

It’s easy to criticize this romantic recasting of California history. But it is due to this romanticization of the past that we still have today enough of the remnants of this music to be able to recreate and preserve it. And it is due to that romantic image that the persons who carried those thin threads of memory with them into the twentieth century were able to attain sufficient respect for those threads to be preserved. Continuing resurgences of these romantic revivals from time to time were able to preserve direct links to this historic past through the 1950s, such that those of us who came behind are still able to tap into those resources.

Take a quick detour in the discussion at this time to explore some Historic Resources for the Spanish-Language Social Music of 19th-Century Southern California.

Some of the most influential preservation efforts were those of one of the most active promulgators of this romantic myth — Charles Fletcher Lummis, a transplanted Californian who became a champion of the Southwest and its Native American and Hispanic cultures. Seeing value in the unique heritages found in the Southwest, he attempted to get a more general American recognition of that value. He wrote extensively about the Southwest and Mexico and, to make it accessible to this audience, described it glowingly and romantically in terms that were calculated to try to avoid the racist stereotypes that had prevented Americans at that time in history from appreciating these cultures.


This section on Charles Lummis has become so large as to warrant its own discussion in more detail. So if you would like more detail about Charles Lummis’ Spanish-Language Music Recordings, take this link. (Please don’t forget to come back!)


And lest one think that preserving California’s nineteenth-century Hispanic heritage consists entirely of listening to Lummis recordings, I’d like to highlight briefly some of the other surviving threads. For instance, Lummis did not record the Mexican and californio dance music in California, even though he learned some of the dances, and some of the informants he recorded knew the tunes. These informants joined other descendants, like Antonio Coronel, in efforts to keep their dances alive.

This thread in turn was picked up by The Mexican Players and the Padua Hills Theatre — along with the accompanying Padua Hills Orchestra. The Claremont Community Players was founded in 1928, and in 1932 developed the Spanish-language program that would preserve the Mexican and californio dance, song, and theater traditions for another two generations. Performing Spanish-language programs for a largely English-speaking audience, they at the same time spoke to pride in cultural identity of those generations of Latinos in California. Find more information about The Mexican Players at our Padua Hills Theatre Web Site.
José Arias and his Troubadours were a family-based group of Mexican musicians in the Los Angeles area. Although José Arias did not come to California until about 1910, he connected up with some of the same people that Lummis had recorded. His son and grandson, also both called José Arias, still recall humorous and entertaining visits with those informants, and the band still performs pieces learned from those informants at the Ramona Pageant in Hemet.

Another link in the chain was californio descendent Gabriel Eulogius Ruiz. In the same A la California Club fiestas where Luisa Villa was performing, representing a previous generation, young Gabriel Ruiz and his dance troupe, Ruiz California Dancers (formed in 1925), were performing californio dances and music, learning them from the previous generation and ensuring their survival. In his later years Gabriel Ruiz undertook a project with California Alegre to document and preserve the nineteenth-century Spanish-language music of California, especially pieces from his family, recording an LP record called Danzas de Alta California.

Many people who today know the 19th-century californio dances and dance music can credit Al Pill, who dedicated much of his life to keeping californio and Mexican traditional dance alive. Late in his life, he was acutely aware of the need to make sure that these did not die with him, reaching out to younger persons able to carry on the traditions.

Another source for preservation of this music is in the traditions of southern California’s Native American population, particularly descendants of missionized population. The Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation, in particular has preserved recordings of the music of their heritage, including performance of Spanish-language based music on European instruments. This largely untapped resource is the next great area of study for persons preserving this historic California heritage.

I’d like to close with a caution. The surviving link with the musical heritage of Mexican California is fragile. Today many Californians of Mexican, californio or Native California descent remember their parents, or more often grandparents, singing or dancing to the Spanish-language nineteenth century secular music of Mexican California. But few of them actually ever learned it. In fact, they grew up thinking it was somehow shameful to know these songs and dances. This heritage is now entirely a revival tradition and an academic pursuit, with a continuing but often tenuous direct link to the original sources through just a handful of researchers.

It’s important not to weaken this link further. Just because the music and its performance is colorful and appeals to tourists, just because the purveyors of the “Fantasy Heritage” helped preserve it for over a hundred years, doesn’t mean it should be dismissed as not being worthy of serious attention. If we lose this heritage, we lose part of the self-identity of a large part of our future population, as well as a piece of who we all are as Californians.

Vykki Mende Gray

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