Time and the encrusting layers of civilization bury historical memory. This is why I love science fiction. More than any genre (with the exception of mythic fantasy) it whets my appetite for lost knowledge.
The blockbuster sci fic pic, Battle: Los Angeles awakened within me a desire to delve with renewed energy into the history of the Mexican American war in California and Los Angeles, which does play in LOM’s storyline and characterization . . .
Six hundred strong by land and by ship U.S. forces returned in early January of 1847 to recapture Ciudad Los Angeles.
At the Battle of Rio San Gabriel near today’s Bluff Road near the border of Whittier and Montebello, two L.A. suburbs today, a much smaller Mexican Californio force attempted to halt the contingent of U.S. Marines and sailors. Using their superior numbers the Americans overtook the Californio’s position, destroying their two light cannons. Casualties according to some sources were two dead and eight wounded on each side.
The following day the American forces’ pursuit of the Californio militia led to a ravine near the city of Vernon, located five miles from downtown Los Angeles. Vernon, an industrial armpit of corruption that Laura Molina, L.A. County Supervisor once kindly called “an undemocratic empire.”
Thus before the blessings of modern American urbanization befell that virgin piece of land, five hundred and sixty American infantry and Marines, mostly on foot, but armed with rifles—fought the outnumbered Californio militia. This was the real Battle: Los Angeles for although it is called the Battle of Mesa it is also known as the Battle of Los Angeles.
The Californios were considered by some to be the best horsemen in the world at the time. They had been using their equestrian skills to their advantage throughout the conflict. In this fateful battle they used their superior horsemanship to outflank the Americans and charge with their lances. Pure courage fueled this incredible martial action. But after suffering 15 dead and 25 wounded, the Lancers were forced to retreat and camp in Pasadena thus ceding Los Angeles to the American advance. This battle was the last of the Californios’ decisive armed resistance.
Today four bronze plaques on three boulders in front of the Vernon City Hall commemorate the Battle of Los Angeles that came to be known as the Battle of La Mesa. Well, whatever may be said about their otherwise dubious sense of civic duty and integrity, Vernon’s civic fathers at least had some sense of historical consciousness.
In 1871 there is a gun battle in what in Los Angeles is now called Olvera Street between two Chinese factions. It results in the accidental killing of a white rancher caught in the crossfire. This sets off a mob of five hundred mostly white men rampaging through “Nigger Alley,” what Los Angeles Street was called because it was frequented by the darker skinned denizens of the model urban oasis of the time L.A. had become. Property was stolen, defaced and destroyed. Between 20 and 23 Chinese were massacred. Many were injured.
In the twentieth century the pattern of white men rioting in a Los Angeles minority community continued. Hey, I’m not attacking white manhood here. Just stating the facts, maam. And of course whites were building civilization throughout California, building schools and hospitals (albeit segregated) not just rioting in minority communities. But we’re talking about the other real battles of Los Angeles here, not do gooding. L.A.’s infamous Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 were described by the L.A. Times as “open street warfare,” and it was street warfare brought to East Los Angeles courtesy of drunken white servicemen, mostly Navy, street warfare abetted by a racist LAPD.
A remnant of the memory of the Zoot Suit Riots persisted into the sixties in an almost closeted way until Luis Valdez resurrected the bloody historical event as a bona fide play on the Big Stage. That is how, like most Chicanos, I first became aware of Edward James Olmos when in 1978 he played the lead role of El Pachuco on the Mark Taper Forum stage. Like for many Chicanos at the time, it was inspiring to see some aspect of our experience validated on a real stage through the medium of calo, Spanglish and English language.
The next battle in Los Angeles was actually more of a revolt—the so-called Watts Riot of 1965. You have to realize that the Civil and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 had been just been enacted. American white supremacy and apartheid still had people of color and especially African Americans in a vise grip of political and economic repression. In Los Angele’s inner city things finally imploded into an inchoate revolt of black folks who just couldn’t take any more of LAPD’s brutality and racism. Thirty-four people were killed with 1,032 injured, 3,438 arrested.
The Watts Riot/Rebellion was a prelude to the L.A. Rebellion of 1992, which I blogged on recently noting how it provided a historical start off point for the storyline in LOM. A Facebook friend commented on how the image of Edwards James Olmos sweeping the debris off L.A.’s riot-torn streets, aired on national TV had a calming effect, first on L.A. Latinos and then on the rest of the city. Another Facebook friend challenged Eddie Olmos’ motives behind his taking on that role in the aftermath of that other battle of Los Angeles.
In Part Three I will share the answer to that challenge and my final take on Eddie Olmo’s seminal role in the expanding circle of Latino writers, directors, actors, producers breaching that tear in the veil of mundane reality and delving into the wilds of science fiction.