Category: Black Mexico

Black Mexico: An Irrefutable Historical ‘Africanness’ Abounds

A Black-Mexican teenager from the Costa Chica region of the Pacific coast state of Guerrero, Mexico between Acapulco and Oaxaca.

Mexico’s ruling class is learning an enduring lesson that the nation’s African root will not remain buried in obscurity | Black Mexico: Unearthing the Third RootThis multiple-part series will unravel the little-known history of how Mexico’s 15th-century assimilation of Spaniards, indigenous Indians, and African slaves eventually led to the founding of Los Angeles by Black- Mexicans and Mestizos in the 18th century when California was still under the rule of Mexico. Even though the Black imprint in Mexico is unraveling more and more as time moves on, the reality of the truth is still largely mired in a Shadow History because the masses do not frequent libraries and this truth has never been taught as a history lesson in Mexico, much less as historic text in the U.S. To now, this invaluable historic truth has largely been available as scholarly works. The Compton Herald sought out this history, scaled down its volume from multiple scholarly sources, and now present it in nine parts for public consumption — the editor

Part III—“Black Mexico: Unearthing the ‘Third Root.’”

Mexico’s wholesale acceptance of a “Black Root” may be many years into the future. Colin A. Palmer in his essay, “A Legacy of Slavery” notes that ingrained beliefs endure. Palmer writes that the Mexican government is reluctant to acknowledge the historic African imprint. The government and the Mexican population at large ignore the truth, even as the evidence of a shared African history grows. | Colin A. Palmer
Colin A. Palmer earned a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin and has taught at Oakland University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Palmer is the author of numerous books and articles and editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. Photo:

“When I arrived in Mexico about two decades ago to begin research on the early history of Africans and their descendants there, a young student politely told me that I was embarking on a wild goose chase,” Palmer writes. “Mexico had never imported slaves from Africa, he said, fully certain that the nation’s peoples of African descent were relatively recent arrivals.”

Born and reared in Jamaica, Palmer earned a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin and has taught at Oakland University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The university professor and prolific author writes, “This lack of knowledge about Mexico’s African peoples has not changed much over time. A short while ago a Mexican engineer, himself of African descent, told me adamantly that the country’s Blacks were the descendants of escaped slaves from North America and Cuba. These fugitives, he proudly proclaimed, had sought and found sanctuary in free Mexico.”

Palmer is the author of numerous books and articles, including Slaves of the White God: Blacks in Mexico, 1570 – 1650; Human Cargoes: The British Slave Trade to Spanish America, 1700 – 1739; and Passageways: An Interpretive History of Black America. He is also editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. | Black Mexico
Depiction of African slaves working in the Spanish silver mines. Image:

Palmer notes in his essay, “African labor was vital to the Spanish colonists. As indigenous peoples were killed or died from European diseases, Blacks assumed a disproportionate share of the burden of work, particularly in the early colonial period. African slaves labored in the silver mines of Zacatecas, Taxco, Guanajuato, and Pachuca in the northern and central regions; on the sugar plantations of the Valle de Orizaba and Morelos in the south; in the textile factories of Puebla and Oaxaca on the west coast and in Mexico City; and in households everywhere. Others worked in a skilled trade or on cattle ranches.

“Although Black slaves were never more than two percent of the total population,” writes Palmer, “their contributions to colonial Mexico were enormous, especially during acute labor shortages.”

Mixed blood emerges

He continues, “Wherever their numbers permitted, slaves created networks that allowed them to cope with their situation, give expression to their humanity, and maintain a sense of self. These networks flourished in Mexico City, the port city of Veracruz, the major mining centers, and the sugar plantations, allowing Africans to preserve some of their cultural heritage even as they forged new and dynamic relationships.”

Palmer continues, “Although males outnumbered females, many slaves found spouses from their own or other African ethnic groups. Other slaves married or had amorous liaisons with the indigenous peoples and to a lesser extent the Spaniards. In time, a population of mixed blood emerged, gaining demographic ascendancy by the mid-eighteenth century. Known as‘mulattos,’ ‘pardos,’ or ‘zambanos,’ many of them were either born free or in time acquired their liberty

“As in the rest of the Americas, slavery in Mexico exacted a severe physical and psychological price from its victims. Abuse was a constant part of a slave’s existence; resisting oppression often meant torture, mutilation, whipping, or being put in confinement. Death rates were high, especially for slaves in the silver mines and on the sugar plantations. Yet, for the most part, their spirits were never broken and many fled to establish settlements in remote areas of the country.

Palmer continues, “Other slaves rebelled or conspired to. The first conspiracy on record took place in 1537, and these assaults on the system grew more frequent as the black population increased. Regardless of the form it took—escape or rebellion—resistance demonstrated an angry defiance of the status quo and the slaves’ desire to reclaim their own lives. As such, Black resistance occupies a special place in Mexico’s revolutionary tradition, a tradition that is a source of pride for many Mexicans.”

Beyond that, Palmer notes Africans in Mexico left their cultural and genetic imprint everywhere they lived. In states such as Veracruz, Guerrero, and Oaxaca, the descendants of Africa’s children still bear the evidence of their ancestry.

African traditions survive

“No longer do they see themselves as Mandinga, Wolof, Ibo, Bakongo, or members of other African ethnic groups,” Palmer notes in his prose, “their self-identity is Mexican and they share much with other members of their nation-state. Yet their cultural heritage has not entirely disappeared. Some African traditions survive in song, music, dance, and other ways. But much has changed since slavery ended, and it is difficult for a small minority to maintain its traditions in a constantly changing society.”

As their ancestors did, the few remaining persons who are visibly of African descent continue to be productive members of society. But history has not been kind to the achievements of African peoples in Mexico.

Palmer and Miriam Jiménez Román agree that only in recent times have Black or Afro-Mexicans been studied and their contributions to Mexican society illuminated. Black Mexicans can claim this proud legacy and draw strength from it, even as the full strength of their African origins become a shrinking part of their country, blending into the legacy of mestizaje. | Luz María Martínez Montiel
“…many African contributions to advancing the technologies of fishing, agriculture, ranching, and textile-making in Mexico remain unappreciated”— Luz María Martínez Montiel. Photo: Carina Garcia Perez

Author and scholar on Mexican culture, Luz María Martínez Montiel, writes in her essay — “Mexico’s Third Root,” that, “Wherever people gather in the poor fishing villages of Costa Chica on Mexico’s southwest coast — in their homes, on the streets, in the town squares during festivals — someone is likely to step forward and start singing. These impromptu performers regale their audience with songs of romance, tragedy, comedy, and social protest, all inspired by local events and characters. At the heart of the songs, called ‘corridos,’ is a sense of human dignity and a desire for freedom rooted in the lives and history of the people of Costa Chica, many of whom are descendants of escaped slaves.”

“The corridos reflect oral traditions inherited from Africa. The words are improvised, and a corrido that brings applause is apt to be committed to memory, to be sung again and again as an oral chronicle of local life,” notes Montiel, author of Afroamérica II. Africanos y Afrodescendientes, and scholarly papers — Our Third Root On African Presence in American Populations, and Integration Patterns and the Assimilation Process of Negro Slaves in Mexico.

Montiel also writes, “The lyrics are also rich in symbols, a tradition that may have started when singers among the first slaves invented “code words” to protest the cruelty of their masters.

“The African imprint in Costa Chica is not confined to music. For the “Dance of the Devil,” performed during Holy Week in the streets of Collantes, Oaxaca, dancers wear masks that show the clear influence of Africa. And down on the docks, fishermen employ methods of work that may have been brought centuries ago from the coast of West Africa,” she writes. | Dance of the Devil
Men in devil masks parade through the Zocalo and past the cathedral during the Guelaguetza celebrations in Oaxaca City, Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo: Ethan Welty,

Montiel documents that, “The Spanish colonists took full advantage of technology that Africans had developed for work in the tropics and adapted and improved” in the New World. “Yet today, many African contributions to advancing the technologies of fishing, agriculture, ranching, and textile-making in Mexico remain unappreciated.”

In Black enclaves like Costa Chica, the African presence pervades Mexican culture, Montiel writes, and “in story and legend, music and dance, proverb and song, the legacy of Africa touches the life of every Mexican. Today, after five hundred years of blending with the traditions of Indians and Europeans, it has become nearly impossible to trace the specific contributions of any of these groups.”

Montiel continues, “Compounding the difficulty is the fact that the African elements in Mexico’s culture are not acknowledged as they are in other countries of the Americas. In fact, [the] mestizaje, the official ideology that defines Mexico’s culture as a blend of European and indigenous influences, completely ignores the contributions of the nation’s ‘Third Root.’”

“Africans and their descendants, nearly invisible in the Spanish chronicles of the colonial period, continue to receive little attention in the official history of Mexico,” writes Montiel. “So it is no surprise that Blacks, who live primarily in poor, rural areas where the level of education is very low, lack a clear consciousness of their African heritage.

Geography helped preserve African heritage

“To an extent, geography has shaped the heritage of Mexico’s Black communities. The isolation of the west coast and the mountains, which offered sanctuary to escaped slaves, also preserved many elements of African tradition, Montiel continues. “On the other hand, the Gulf Coast region, especially the port of Veracruz, was a crossroads where Mexico’s indigenous culture blended with myriad influences from Africa, Europe, South America, and especially the Caribbean. In this variegated mixture, it is sometimes difficult to isolate the African presence.”

“As in the past, Blacks on the Gulf Coast are more likely to trace the origins of their lineage to the Caribbean,” notes Montiel. “The people on the west coast and in the mountains, however, have lately begun to acknowledge their links to Africa and to their slave | Black Mexico

“In part, this is in response to recent ethnographic, folkloric, and historical studies as well as to frequent visits by scholars to these regions. It may be as well that the stress of increasing contact with other peoples — and with immigrants who now come to exploit their land and labor — has fostered a need among these groups for a self-identity defining them as “the Blacks from the coast,” she writes.

Accordingly, writes Montiel, “It is a fact that economic stresses compel ethnic groups in sudden contact with outsiders to either reinforce their traditions or capitulate to the attractions that cultural homogenization has to offer. This is how cultural groups are depersonalized and their traditional values lost. Hopefully, the Blacks of Costa Chica and elsewhere in Mexico will come to find new meaning in the traditions that have sustained them for centuries. Mexico will be much the richer for it.”

Research into Black Mexico continues

Influenced by the increasing interest in Africans and their descendants in other parts of the world, the work of a small but significant group of Mexican intellectuals, along with the contributions of researchers in the U.S. like Tony Gleaton, Roman, Palmer and Montiel, have expanded the focus on Black Mexicans and the body of knowledge and historical evidence about them.

Newly documented truth abounds. It is now established fact that the state of Veracruz — especially the port city of the same name — is generally recognized as having Black people. In fact, there is a widespread tendency to identify all Mexicans who have distinctively Black features as originating from Veracruz. In addition to its relatively well-known history as a major slave port, Veracruz received significant numbers of descendants of Africa from Haiti and Cuba between the 19th and early 20th centuries.

As far as the precise figures on the numbers of enslaved Africans who integrated Spanish America, there is no way to quantify the total. Some scholars believe 200,000 slaves were brought to Mexico for manual labor purposes while others believe the true number totaled more than 500,000. The source of these figures is the census of 1646 of Mexico City, as reported by Gonzalo Aguirre Beltran in “La Poblacion Negra de Mexico.”

The mingling of blood that occurred between the Spanish and indigenous natives of Mexico also occurred with African slaves. Historians differ on the actual number of slaves brought to Mexico during the colonial expansion. | Vicente Ramon Guerrero Saldana
Slavery was abolished in Mexico by President Vicente Ramón Guerrero Saldaña, 34 years before the American Emancipation Proclamation. Image by Anacleto Escutia / Wikipedia

The mulattos in Mexico race are a people seldom acknowledged. Traditionally, the mestizo race is a mixture of Spanish and indigenous blood. Mulattosare a blend of African and Spanish blood, which was absorbed into the fabric of the Mexican culture over the years, as racial co-mingling occurred throughout Mexico without boundary.

The first Africans to arrive Mexico, as well as their descendants, have greatly influenced Mexican culture. Throughout the centuries, Black Mexicans have made enormous contributions to the country and deserve recognition for their many accomplishments. Black Mexicans share a rich history and count heroes and presidents among their ancestors.

The historical record, of course, tells another story. In the 16th century, New Spain probably had more enslaved Africans than any other colony in the Western Hemisphere. Blacks were present as slaves of the Spaniards as early as the 1520s. Over the approximately three hundred years Spanish slavery lasted, the slave trade brought hundreds of thousands of Africans to the colony. Many Blacks were born in Mexico and followed their parents into slavery.

It wasn’t until 1829 that the institution of slavery was abolished by  second Mexican president, Vicente Guerrero (a mulatto), 34 years before President Abraham Lincoln would declare the Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery in America.

Part IV of “Black Mexico: Unearthing the ‘Third Root,’” continues HERE

Jarrette Fellows, Jr., attended junior and senior high school in Compton, and founded the Compton Herald several years after his tenure as executive editor at Wave Community Newspapers in Los Angeles.

Black Mexico: the Legacy of Pío Pico

An amazing Afro-Mexican’s imprint on Los Angeles; Pío de Jesus Pico was the most influential Black-Mexican with roots to the original pobladores

This multiple-part series “Black Mexico: Unearthing the ‘Third Root’” will unravel the little-known history of how Mexico’s 15th-century assimilation of Spaniards, indigenous Indians, and African slaves eventually led to the founding of Los Angeles by Black- Mexicans and Mestizos in the 18th century when California was still under the rule of Mexico. Even though the Black imprint in Mexico is unraveling more and more as time moves on, the reality of the truth is still largely mired in a Shadow History because the masses do not frequent libraries and this truth has never been taught as a history lesson in Mexico, much less as historic text in the U.S. To now, this invaluable historic truth has largely been available as scholarly works. The Compton Herald sought out this history, scaled down its volume from multiple scholarly sources, and now present it in nine parts for public consumption. — the editor

Part VII — “Black Mexico: Unearthing the ‘Third Root’”

Pío de Jesus Pico, the son of a Spanish artillery sergeant, lived 93 years under the flags of Spain, Mexico, and the United States. By the 1850s, Pio Pico was one of the richest men in Alta California.

The imprint by the original pobladores in Los Angeles history is indelible. The African contribution, which was initially omitted by historians, was amended 200 years later by the time of the arrival of the City’s Bicentennial celebration in 1981, as was presented in Part VI of this series.

While the ongoing contributions of the sons, daughters, and cousins of the original settlers remain sketchy, one individual, Pío de Jesus Pico, the son of a Spanish artillery sergeant, offers an amazing story. The name Pico is a familiar Southern California name, from busy Pico Boulevard, the City of Pico Rivera, the Pico House, and Pio Pico State Historic Park. His name adorns several businesses, from corner grocery stores, fast food establishments, shopping malls, and dry cleaners. Despite all of this, much of what the general public knows about Pico ventures little beyond the persona.

In a lifetime that spanned 93 years under the flags of Spain, Mexico and the United States, his rise from humble beginnings to the highest office in the state places him among the most remarkable figures in California history.

Pico was born on May 5, 1801, at the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel to José Maria Pico, a mulatto; and María Eustaquia Gutiérrez, a mulatta. His life shines brightest after the death of his father, Jose in 1819, and mother, Maria — the last surviving member of the original pobladores — in 1860 at age 97.

Pío Pico lived 93 years. His life spanned several distinct periods of Southern California history — from Spanish colonialism to Mexican rule and from American conquest to L.A.’s prodigious growth in the late-nineteenth-century.

Pico’s paternal grandmother, María Jacinta de la Bastida, was listed in the 1790 census as mulatta. His paternal grandfather, Santiago de la Cruz Pico, was described as a mestizo in the same census. There was no question of Pico’s link to an African ancestry.

Pío Pico, himself, would succumb 34 years after his mother in 1894. He represented the clearest picture of the extended reach of the original settlers into the building of Los Angeles’ infrastructure in the early days. Before his expiration, he would go on to tremendous conquest in both business and politics.

The rise of Pío Pico

By the 1850s, Pío Pico was one of the richest men in Alta California. In 1850 he purchased the 8,894-acre Rancho Paso de Bartolo, which included half of present day Whittier. He bought the acreage from the heirs of Juan Crispin Perez. Two years later, he built a home on the ranch and lived at “El Ranchito” from 1852 to 1892. According to some accounts, the house at one time included 33 rooms, and served as a respite for neighbors, and business acquaintances traveling great distances between settlements.

The Pío Pico Adobe Ranch House built on “El Ranchito,” near the San Gabriel River around 1853. The home was later swindled away from Pico and fell into disrepair. In 1907 the Pío Pico Adobe Ranch House was restored and deeded to the State of California in 1917. Pío Pico State Historic Park re-opened in September 2003 after a three-year major renovation project. Photo:

The land was also a working ranch. After gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, the demand for beef surged with the Gold Rush, and vaquerostended to Pico’s large herds of cattle and horses. He eventually became one of the wealthiest cattlemen in California controlling more than a quarter million acres of prime grazing land. Most of the ranch has since been subdivided into the cities of Whittier, Montebello, and Pico Rivera,

In 1883 inclement weather gave rise to a devastating flood that wiped out most of the mansion, leaving only the foundation and a few walls. It is preserved today as Pio Pico State Historic Park.

Pico and his brother Andres, another leading figure of Mexican California, also owned Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores, an immense tract in northern San Diego County, which today is the sprawling U.S. Marine Corps base, Camp Pendleton. Pico also individually owned more than 500,000 acres comprised of large estates (ranchos) near Whittier and in the San Fernando Valley.

Pío Pico, governor of Alta California

Looking back nearly five decades before Pico became fabulously wealthy, he served twice as governor of Alta California, and the last governor of the territory under the rule of Mexico. Pico was a mover and a shaker, to say the least, in the annals of early California. His rise to the governorship did not come by conventional means.

Upheaval marked both of his terms, and in each case, Pico succeeded an ousted governor.

In 1831, a dispute over California’s mission lands escalated into an open revolt against the rule of Gov. Manuel Victoria, who refused to secularize the missions, to transfer their vast property holdings from ecclesiastical control to civil possession and use.

Victoria and the rebels, led by wealthy landowners, converged on Cahuenga Pass on Dec. 5, 1831, launching the Battle of Cahuenga Pass, where Victoria was seriously injured, forcing him to flee vacating the office of governor. As the senior member of the territorial legislature, Pico became governor by default, but his tenure was disputed by Victoria’s hand-picked successor and lasted less than three weeks. Following his brief stint as governor, Pico remained busy politically and became administrator of Mission San Luis Rey. Pico had established himself as a leading political figure in California and within 18 months, led the secularization of the missions. | Andrés Pico
Don Andrés Pico was the younger brother of Pío Pico. General Andrés Pico was one of the signatories of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Andrés Pico never married, but adopted several children. Andrés Pico died in Los Angeles in 1876. Photo: “Andres Pico c1850” by unattributed – Seaver Center for Western History Research, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, California. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

As the story goes, Pico joined the Mexican army for a brief time in 1828. The following year, he received his first land grant of 8,922 acres near San Diego, named Rancho Jamul. Years later in 1841, Pico and his younger brother, Andrés, were awarded the 133,441-acre Rancho Santa Margarita.

Pico steered the missions under civil control in 1831. The secularization paid great dividends, as the awarding of such vast land grants would not have been possible under mission ecclesiastical control.

Following the end of the Mexican-American War with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Pico reclaimed his title to the land he had previously acquired and re-invested in still more real estate becoming a wealthy and influential private citizen.

Further secularization of the Missions

Trade and commerce further increased with the complete secularization of the California missions by the Mexican Congress in 1833. Extensive mission lands suddenly became available to government officials, ranchers, and land speculators. The governor made more than 800 land grants during this period, including a grant of over 33,000-acres in 1839 to Francisco Sepulveda which was later developed as the Westside of Los Angeles. Sepulveda Boulevard remains one of the area’s major thoroughfares.

Much of this progress, however, bypassed the indigenous Indians of the traditional villages who were not assimilated into the mestizo culture. They were regarded as minors who could not think for themselves and were increasingly marginalized. Due to increasing debt and rampant alcoholism the indigenous people increasingly found themselves relieved of their land titles and the properties repossessed.

Pío Pico weds María Ignacia Alvarado

Pico found time to take a brief respite, settle in San Diego and marry María Ignacia Alvarado on Feb. 24, 1834, in the Plaza church. It was attended by the entire population of the pueblo — 800 people, plus hundreds from elsewhere in Alta California.

While in San Diego, Pico ran for office in 1834 as the first alcalde (magistrate) of San Diego after the secularization of the missions but was defeated. He challenged Gov. Juan Bautista Alvarado on various political issues and found himself in trouble with the government, imprisoned on several occasions.

A year later In 1835, the Mexican Congress declared Los Angeles a city, making it the official capital of Alta California. It was now the region’s leading city.

Ten years later in 1845, Pico — having already been chosen in 1844 as a leader of the California Assembly — was strategically positioned to succeed another deposed governor, Manuel Micheltorena, who had been appointed by the Mexican government, who was staring down a rebellion by Californios who wanted a native-born resident to hold the office.

The influential Pío Pico led a popular coup against the unfavorable Micheltorena near the Cahuenga Pass in the Battle of La Providencia, after which Pico became acting governor. One year later in April 1846, he was appointed as Micheltorena’s permanent successor. Pico didn’t waste any time exercising his authority to make Los Angeles the capital of Alta California.

Conquest of California

By then the very real possibility of war hung over Alta California as the United States had designs on the Mexican province and other northern territories of Mexico. Pico’s governorship would crumble soon thereafter upon the arrival of invading American forces later that year. Pico fled to Mexico to prevent the conquering Americans from capturing him and taking him prisoner.

The U.S. declared war against Mexico on May 13, 1846 with U.S. forces quickly overcoming Mexican forces, occupying Santa Fe de Nuevo México and Alta California Territory, then invading parts of Northeastern Mexico and Northwest Mexico; meanwhile, the Pacific Squadron conducted a blockade, and took control of several garrisons on the Pacific coast farther south in Baja California Territory.

U.S. army General Winfield Scott captured the capital Mexico City, marching from the port of Veracruz, virtually unopposed. The war lasted one year until the fall of 1847 and ended in Mexico’s defeat, resulting in the loss of approximately half of its national territory in the north. When news of the war reached California, the fall of Mexican California was swift. The U.S. captured Monterey on July 15, 1846, prompting Gov. Pico to issue the following proclamation:

“Pío Pico, Constitutional Governor of the Department of California, hereby makes known to its inhabitants that the country is threatened by the United States by land and by sea, that it now occupies Monterey, Sonoma, San Francisco, and other frontier points to the north of this department, where the Stars and Stripes now wave with further threatenings to occupy more ports and towns and to subdue them to its laws; therefore, this government, having stood firmly resolved to do its utmost to oppose the most unjust aggression committed during late centuries, caused by a nation possessed with extraordinary ambitions, purposely authorizing a cleverly disguised robbery, exercising power over us during a period of political weakness.”

It was one of Pío Pico’s final acts as governor. As American forces advanced on Southern California, Pico fled to Baja California in a futile attempt to raise a resistance force. In the end, Los Angeles fell to the invading troops, and the American capture of Mexico City in September 1847 sealed California’s fate: it became a permanent American possession.

The aggression heaped upon Mexico by the U.S. also established a long-held belief by Mexicans, and Mexican-Americans to this day, that the U.S. stole California.

Pío Pico’s focus on business

Pico returned to Southern California after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo established peace between the United States and Mexico. Although Pico would never learn English, relying instead on an interpreter, he remained one of Southern California’s leading citizens through much of the 19th century. He was a brilliant businessman and dealmaker as evident by his great wealth. But little is known as to the genesis of earnings. It can be assumed that Pico’s initial investment came from military service in Mexico, as the Mexican government was known to repay military service with the awarding of land grants.

RELATED: Historical Timeline for the Pio Pico State Historic Park

In 1868, Pío Pico sold his vast landholdings in the San Fernando Valley to provide capital for the construction of the 33-room Pico House (Casa de Pico) on the old plaza of Los Angeles, opposite today’s Olvera Street. At the time of its opening in 1869, it was the most lavish hotel in Southern California and the city’s first three-story highrise. | Pico House
The 33-room Pico House (Casa de Pico) on the old plaza of Los Angeles, opposite today’s Olvera Street. The Pico House was the first lavish hotel in Los Angeles. The first highrise in the city extending three stories, the hotel opened in 1869. The building was deeded to the State of California in 1953 and is now a part of El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historic Monument. Photo: cropped from Flickr/jen

By the advent of the early 1900s, however, the Pico House had lost its splendor and was in decline along with the neighborhood, as L.A.’s business center moved further south. After decades of serving as a shabby flop house, it was deeded to the State of California in 1953 and is now a part of El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historic Monument. It is used today occasionally for exhibits and special events.

The fall of Pío Pico

Unfortunately, Pico’s wealth and affluence would fade 10 years later. He lost the hotel and other properties to foreclosure. The narrative that branded Pico was that extravagant living, heavy gambling, fraud, and bad business practices conspired to rob him of nearly everything he had accumulated. He was forced to liquidate his real estate holdings and his final years were spent in near poverty.

It is believed that Pico was later swindled out of his home and rancho in present-day Whittier. And even though he defended his position and fortune in more than 100 legal cases, including 20 that were argued before the California Supreme Court, he never regained his previous standing and died a poor man.

In 1893, a committee of local boosters and history enthusiasts asked him to appear at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition as “the last of the California dons.” Pico refused, considering it an affront to his dignity.

Pío Pico died in 1894 at the home of his daughter Joaquina Pico Moreno in Los Angeles. He was buried in the old Calvary Cemetery on North Broadway in Downtown Los Angeles, but his remains, as well as those of his wife, Maria, were disinterred and relocated in 1921 to a modest tomb in El Campo Santo Cemetery, now in the Homestead Museum in the City of Industry.

A daguerreotype c. 1852 shows Pio Pico at age 51. He drapes his arm around his wife with two nieces flanking the couple. This image and demonstrates signs of apparent acromegaly. The enlarged inset emphasizes his dysconjugate gaze but with normal lateral eyebrows. Photo: Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History Foundation. Caption: US National Library of Medicine/National Institutes of Health.

Besides Pío Pico’s gradual fall from grace, he also suffered a physical malady called acromegaly, the excessive hormonal production of the pituitary gland resulting in abnormal growths on the face, hands, and chest. The disorder was also accompanied by occasional symptoms of a headache, double vision, loss, fatigue, chest pain, shortness of breath, frequent urination, extreme thirst, severe snoring, muscle weakness, and impotence.

The legacy of Mexican California’s final governor is permanently enshrined in street names, schools, parks, and businesses across Southern California. Los Angeles can be proud of its history owing to its greatness, in part, to an enduring personality — an amazing Angelino named Pío de Jesus Pico.

Part VIII of IX parts, “Black Mexico: “Unearthing the Third Root,’” continues.

Uncharted: Teach About Black Mexico in Schools

“History is history” – the suppressed truth of Latino- and Black-American historical assimilation

Before the truth of the birth of Los Angeles was revealed in 1981 prior to the Los Angeles Bicentennial celebration, historians had relegated the seeding of what has become one of the world’s great megalopolises to a pioneering group of Spaniards and mestizos. That’s the way the original history was written.

Thanks to the ethical due diligence of the late University of Southern California historian Doyce Nunis, Jr., and a special Los Angeles Bicentennial research sub-committee organized by him, the truth was unearthed that a major African presence was also involved in the seeding of Los Angeles. In fact, the research revealed that more than half of the original pobladores, or settlers, that arrived in seed and nurture colonial Los Angeles were infused with African blood.But it was flawed.

They were the Black-Mexicans biased historians tried to suppress.

But truth hushed to a whisper will cry loud!

To put it bluntly, certain members of Los Pobladores 200, an association of about 250 people who trace their lineage to Los Angeles’ original settlers, were disturbed to learn that information attained from census archives in Seville, Spain by the Nunis sub-committee found that the majority of the pioneering settlers to Los Angeles were not pure blooded Spaniards and mestizos — but rather, mulattos and mestizos. The mulattos were an assimilation of African and Spanish blood.

In other words given the universally accepted “One Drop-Black Blood,” postulation, the mulatto pobladores were unquestionably Black.

The original plaque at Olvera Street commemorating “Los Pobladores,” had for many years omitted any reference to the African heritage of the Black pobladores. But all that changed after the Nunis fact-finding mission, which led to the replacement of the old plaque with the current one which accurately depicts the multiracial makeup of the founders.

Doyce Nunis Jr. was professor emeritus of history at USC College and editor of Southern California Quarterly. Photo: Historical Society of Southern California.

Olvera Street was a favorite destination for elementary school “field trips” prior to 1981 for children throughout Los Angeles County. This writer remembers it well. Prior to 1981, the county’s students were not privileged to the truth that Black-Mexicans were not only involved in the colonizing of Los Angeles but were the dominant settlers in the city’s founding.

Unfortunately, divulging the history of the original pobladores was a racially political hot potato. Some of the descendants of the mestizos settlers were very sensitive — even angered — to the prospect of being revealed as having African blood. The truth that Black- and Latino-Americans share a lineage of colonial assimilation that binds many of them at the hip, was an unspoken taboo for many Latino families in, and before, 1981 — and for all intents and purposes, still largely remains in the shadow of ignorance. For Black-Americans, the revelation has hardly been broached.

Nunis’ team had been assembled to establish the indisputable truth about the contributions of Black-Mexicans to the seeding and nurturing of colonial Los Angeles. The multiracial ethnicity of the pobladores had been rejected as rumor by the scholarly establishment and never accepted until explicit census information was found in an archive in Seville, Spain. Documents there confirmed that 12 families recruited by Gov. Felipe de Neve, the first Spanish governor of California, arrived from the Mexican provinces of Sinaloa and Sonora.

The voice of history resounded. The “third colonial root” from Africa revealing assimilation with Spanish and indigenous roots in colonial Mexico to produce the multi-ethnic blend of Mexico in 2015, also found its way to California and plowed its way into the fertile ground that spawned the City of Los Angeles

Nunis, who died on Jan. 22, 2011 at age 86, said at the time of the revelation — “history is history; you can’t change it. And the sub-committee found the evidence.” He will be forever remembered for leading the fact-finding research that set the historical record straight.

Had the truth been known and highlighted in American history curriculum in schools across the U.S. and Mexico from the beginning — certainly in California where, today fractious relationships between Black- and Latino-Americans erupt into random violence in shared neighborhoods, and high schools, a bond of peace and understanding might have served to prevent the mayhem that seethes — not to mention the turmoil in penal institutions between Black and Brown gang factions.

It’s not too late. The truth of a shared history between Latinos and Blacks in Mexico, and indeed all of the Americas, can be infused into the history curriculum of all grade levels in schools across America.

After all, as Dr. Doyce Nunis, Jr., once famously said: “History is history; you can’t change it.”

Ignorance languishes in darkness. But the truth is light. And the light vanquishes the darkness.