July 12, 2015

Photo Essay: The Birthplace of Santa Monica Canyon

Having grown up in the Northeast U.S., I had this perspective of American History as being only about English colonialism and the Boston Tea Party and the Revolutionary War and so on. Most of my fellow classmates in Upstate New York were descendants of Italians or Germans or maybe Polish, Irish, or Scottish.

But that's not the whole story of the United States. In 1776, California wasn't one of the 13 colonies. California had been colonized by the 16th Century Spanish conquistadors as part of their "New Spain" colony (which stretched as far as the Philippines). The Spanish who bred with the indigenous people of Mexico (sometimes referred to as "Mexican Indians," largely under Aztec rule), began to diversify Mexico's the ethnic groups, producing European Mexicans. (Asian-Mexicans, Afro-Mexicans, and Arab-Mexicans would also follow.)

British forces didn't make it this far West.

So it was King Carlos III of Spain who ordered the founding of Los Angeles in 1781.

When Mexico declared a war of independence upon Spain in 1810, that was the beginning of our revolutionary war, which concluded with the signing of the Treaty of Cordoba in 1821. And so Alta California was under Mexican rule then, until it got handed over to the U.S. in 1848 at the end of the Mexican-American War. Alta California then became the State of California – and the 31st state – in 1851.

But they didn't teach us any of this in social studies classes on the East Coast in the 80s and 90s.  I don't remember learning anything about California – or anything west of the Mississippi – back in school.

I figure, it's never too late. I'm learning now because I live here now. And there is so much to learn.

Rancho Boca de Santa Monica (the "Mouth of Santa Monica") was one of the many ranchos of Early California, a Mexican land grant awarded in 1839 (while it was still Mexico) to Ysidro Reyes, a winemaker and tar-hauler, and his friend Francisco Marquez, a soldier in the Spanish army.

You can still visit some parts of the former Rancho Boca de Santa Monica in the current day Santa Monica Canyon.

Francisco Marquez's great-great-grandson Ernest Marquez has tirelessly traced his family lineage, created a significant archive of historical photos, and published books on Santa Monica's history.

Ernest Marquez is now the chief historian for La Señora Research Institute in Pacific Palisades.

Located within the boundary of the former Rancho Boca de Santa Monica, La Señora Research Institute is open to academics, historians, and students interested in research and education of the Rancho Era of Los Angeles.

Although La Señora focuses on the grantees of Rancho Boca de Santa Monica, one of its historic sites is the 1920s hacienda once occupied by local opera star José Mojica...

...with original tile floors, Spanish tile roof...

...and fabulous swimming pool.

Tucked away on a residential street in the Canyon...

...this preserved little piece of the rancho is hidden from view...

...enshrouded by tremendous trees and other plantings...

...within a walled botanic garden.

As you walk among the fountains and statues... can also see a former horse stable and carriage house.... well as a restored chapel...

...whose incredible stained glass windows managed to survive earthquake damage.

But the real draw to Rancho Boca de Santa Monica is the Pascual Marquez Family Cemetery...

...named after the rancho grantee's youngest son (and Ernest's grandfather), Pascual, the last to be buried there.

This small patch of land has been passed down through the generations, and is currently under the care and trust of Ernest Marquez.

It's also the oldest extant private cemetery in Los Angeles.

In the Rancho Era, it would have taken a day to reach the nearest Catholic cemeteries – at La Plaza Church at El Pueblo and Mission San Gabriel –....

...making them too far for all-too-frequent funerals and burials.

So Marquez set aside a plot of land on his private property for a family cemetery. Buried here are members of the Marquez family (including several children who died before reaching adulthood), as well as some of their Native American servants, friends, and a dog.

Because there's no manifest of exactly who or how many are buried at the Marquez Family Cemetery, La Señora Research Institute used ground-penetrating radar and grave-sniffing dogs from the Institute for Canine Forensics to get a better sense of the shape, size, and location of each of the graves – particularly because many of their above-ground markers have been vandalized or stolen over the years.

Fortunately, now the cemetery lies protected behind a locked gate and high adobe walls (by Santa Monica architect John Byers), and research continues so that we may understand our past – where we've been, how we got here, and who we are.

I know I'm technically an outsider in LA. I didn't grow up here. I haven't been here very long. But I'm serious about making this my home. My own history is so different than that of the Californios, but maybe we can get to know each other a little better – and if I stay a little longer, we can create a shared history, together.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: A Pilgrimage to the St. Francis Dam Victims' Final Resting Place (Closed to Public)
Photo Essay: The Unseen Buried at Pioneer Cemetery
Photo Essay: A Day at the Rancho, A Step Back in Time
Photo Essay: Compton's Historic Urban Garden Oasis

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