Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of its Mexican Past.
In Whitewashed Adobe, William Deverell details the ways in which city leaders and city builders "whitewashed" Los Angeles's early history and created a new regional identity that all but erased Mexican history and peoples from the landscape. Unlike Carey McWilliams's critique of southern California's fascination with a Spanish 'fantasy heritage,' Deverell reveals that the manipulation of Los Angeles's Mexican past was far reaching, extending to "arenas of work, landscape and environment, cultural production, city building, and public health emergency" (251). As Deverell demonstrates, the whitewashing of Los Angeles's cultural and ethnic history had been completed by World War Two.
Whitewashed Adobe is a cultural and ethnic history of Los Angeles but is not necessarily about Mexicans, as Deverell admits. Rather, it is about the politically, economically, and culturally powerful "Anglo" men who transformed Los Angeles from a largely Spanish-speaking, agrarian pueblo to an industrialized, "modern" city with white, middle class, Protestant sensibilities. Whitewashed Adobe's six chapters are largely dedicated to tracing how these men "appropriated, absorbed, and occasionally obliterated" (7) Mexican history and spaces in carrying out their vision for Los Angeles. The first chapter examines the unrelenting ethnic and racial violence that took place in the wake of the American conquest. Within thirty years or so, ethnic relations had calmed and Mexicans had been quickly outnumbered (as well as politically disenfranchised and economically marginalized), as the second chapter reveals. These conditions, Deverell argues, allowed for the development of La Fiesta de Los Angeles, a carnival-like parade developed by local entrepreneurs to attract white tourists, investors, and settlers. Rather than celebrating the city's multi-racial and multi-ethnic origins, the parade appropriated and recast the region's ethnic history. The third chapter turns its attention to the transformation of the Los Angeles River from stream to flood control channel. In containing and controlling the waterway, which threatened to disrupt urban planning, city leaders erased its link to the Mexican past. This chapter shows that the river not only sustained Spanish-speaking inhabitants and agricultural pursuits but also segregated those peoples along racial and class lines.
Through the use of oral histories and Alejandro Morales's The Brick People (Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1988), chapter four recounts in rich detail labor relations at the Simons brickyard and the modern building of Los Angeles. This chapter shows how ideas about race and labor segmentation relegated Mexican men to work in the poorly paid, backbreaking industry of brick making and confined them and their families to the "ethnic borders" of the company town. Brick, a symbol of Anglo progress and the future of Los Angeles, quickly replaced adobe (brick made of mud and straw), a relic of the Mexican era. The next chapter, five, shifts the narrative to the gripping tale of death and disease in a largely Mexican neighborhood. This chapter analyzes the outbreak of the plague and the city's "ferocious" campaign to contain it. A primary method used to do so was to quarantine afflicted peoples and to obliterate Mexican spaces. In the end, city volunteers left few structures standing when they razed the neighborhood. The city's response to the public health crisis, Deverell argues, reveals the ways in which the plague was "Mexicanized" (199).
Unlike the previous two chapters' focus on ethnic history, chapter six deals with cultural history and Anglo manipulations of regional history. In one of the longest chapters of the book, Deverell discusses the negotiations and conflicts in the realization of John Steven McGroarty's The Mission Play, "the single most successful American theatrical performance of the age" (209). As Deverell shows, the play fused drama with history, articulating a vision and heritage "that audiences, largely white and Protestant, could nonetheless claim as their own" (217). The book ends with a brief conclusion, tracing the processes of cultural and ethnic whitewashing of Los Angeles.
Whitewashed Adobe's painstaking research and vivid recreation of events make this work admirable and appealing to all readers. The book's prose is aimed for a popular and scholarly audience interested in urban history as well as cultural and ethnic history. This reviewer found the chapters on the plague and the Simons brickyard particularly moving, for they captured how ethnic erasure and ethnic bordering (the process through which Mexicans were controlled and contained) impacted the lives and deaths of ordinary Mexicans. Students of cultural and American studies will also be interested in this book for its analysis of cultural symbols and events such as La Fiesta de Los Angeles and The Mission Play.
The book's mix of ethnic and cultural history, though an innovative and refreshing approach, might disappoint those interested in "straight" ethnic history, such as Chicano and Latino Studies scholars who seek to recover the historical agency of marginalized peoples. This reviewer walked away wanting more on the role of Mexicans in, for instance, The Mission Play. How did Spanish-speaking peoples respond to the play? Deverell tells us that Lucretia del Valle, a member of a once powerful Californio family, played the lead role of Josepha Yorba and embellished it by wearing "family heirlooms as part of her costume" (222). Yet we know little about her thoughts in dramatizing a story that confused fact with fiction. How did she and other Californios benefit, if at all, from the 'fantasy heritage' McWilliams first described and Deverell has fleshed out? In fairness, Deverell did not set out to write a book about people like the del Valle or working class Mexicans, for that matter. Rather, his focus is on the white men who recast the region's history and identity, a process he describes with skill.
University of California, Davis
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2006|
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