L.A.TACO: CALIFORNIA’S LOST HISTORY OF LYNCHING LATINOS IN L.A.

MORE THAN 100 YEARS AGO

by

Victoria Valenzuela

Dec. 21, 2022

Excerpt:

Not far from Union Station in downtown Los Angeles, a crowded line of cars take turns crossing.

In front of the Metropolitan Detention Center, many sit in their cars, oblivious that Francisco Cota, a 15-year-old Latino accused of murdering a local shopkeeper, was dragged up the street, repeatedly stabbed, and lynched above the intersection over 160 years ago in the heart of El Pueblo de Los Angeles.

A few blocks away at Temple and N Spring Street, at least eight more men were lynched from 1855 to 1863 in broad daylight among a large armed crowd. These lynchings took place where L.A.’s first courthouse and jail used to stand, now replaced with City Hall. Further down Temple at its intersection with Broadway, Miguel Lachenal was lynched by a violent mob in 1870—and historians believe over a dozen more lynchings occurred at this site. Not far is the Fort More Pioneer Memorial, which doesn’t mention the murders that happened at that exact place, with all but one of them lynchings of Latinos. There were also many other lynchings sites across Southern California in El Monte, Santa Ana, San Gabriel, San Pedro, Ventura, and San Luis Obispo, as well as in Northern California.

Cota was one of the 547 Latinos lynched in the United States and of 143 Latinos lynched in California from 1849 to 1928. Latinos, primarily Mexican nationals and Mexican Americans, are the largest group to be lynched in Los Angeles and throughout California and the second largest group to be lynched in the nation.

Ken Gonzales-Day, The Wonder Gaze (St. James Park), "Erased Lynching" series, 2006
Ken Gonzales-Day, The Wonder Gaze (St. James Park), “Erased Lynching” series, 2006.

As conversations about lynchings in the United States have rightfully been widely focused on killings of African Americans in the South, California’s history of lynching hundreds of people—including at least 41 Native Americans, eight African Americans, 29 Chinese, over 100 Mexican nationals and 6 Chileans—remains largely unknown.

“We never hear about Francisco Cota. We never hear about the atrocities against Mexican Americans. That history is virtually erased,” said Irma Beserra Núñez, who was appointed to be a member of El Pueblo de Los Angeles earlier this year.

The intersection of Alameda and Aliso, where 15-year-old Francisco Cota was lynched after being repeatedly stabbed in 1870 (Photo Courtesy of Ken Gonzales-Day).
The intersection of Alameda and Aliso, where 15-year-old Francisco Cota was lynched after being repeatedly stabbed in 1870 (Photo Courtesy of Ken Gonzales-Day).

After a lifetime of passion for understanding her cultural heritage and over 260 years of her family tree intricately tied with California history, Beserra Núñez is now leading an ad hoc committee at El Pueblo to advocate for a Mexican American-Latino historical monument in Los Angeles to recognize the erased history of these lynchings and memorialize those who were sacrificed.

“This is an effort to document the history of Mexican Americans and Latinos and what has happened to us, and how we can begin to heal our city and our nation,” Beserra Núñez said.

HISTORY OF LYNCHINGS IN THE WEST

The Spanish and Mexican periods of Los Angeles lasted between 1769-1850, and the land was originally inhabited by the Tongva tribe, or Gabrielinos, for a millennia. During the latter years of the combined Spanish and Mexican period, streets like Sepulveda, Pico, Lugo, del Valle, Ybarra, and more were lined with adobe homes and the families who built them.

Mob violence against Mexican people began after the Mexican American War and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which agreed that the US-Mexico border would begin at the Río Grande river — anything north became US territory. Mexico gave up its claim to Texas, and the US annexed California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and parts of Colorado, Kansas, and Utah.

Among annexation agreements, the US also agreed in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo to protect the property and civil rights of Mexican nationals who now found themselves living in the US. Mexicans and Anglo-Americans were now cohabitating after being at war for three years.

According to William Carrigan, professor of history at Rowan University and author of Forgotten Dead: Mob Violence Against Mexicans in the United States, 1848-1928, one of the main factors that led to the lynching of Latinos in the west was economical and land competition involved with mining jobs and freight running during the Gold Rush, as well as cattle, horse and land theft. Often Latinos were accused of theft or murder, used as a justification for lynching by violent mobs, but they weren’t granted any due process to prove their innocence. Some of the victims had been dragged out of their jail cells by an angry mob.

Another factor that led to this violence was racial and ethnic prejudice against Mexican nationals and Mexican Americans as many in the US developed prejudicial ideas about catholicism, Mexico, Spanish speakers, and Indigenous culture, said Carrigan. Many in the US saw Mexicans as a “mestizo” or “mixed” population between Indigenous peoples and Spaniards. The third factor, Carrigan said, was fluctuating tensions at the Mexican border — when these tensions would increase because of new arrivals or livestock, so would mob violence. This was at a time when the term “lynching” was not too common and sometimes would be referred to as “an execution by a vigilance committee.” …

 

THE FIGHT FOR RECOGNITION

Gonzales-Day and Beserra Núñez are part of an ongoing conversation about placing a Mexican American-Latino historical monument in Los Angeles to educate people of the history. The initiative started when Beserra Núñez first learned about L.A.’s legacy of lynching Mexican Americans through Gonzales-Day’s “Erased Lynching” exhibit. Moved by the history, Beserra Núñez invited Gonzales-Day to give a lecture at El Pueblo, and soon after, an ad hoc committee was created to advocate for a monument.

The El Pueblo commission has voted unanimously to support the creation of a Mexican American-Latino historical monument. They also have various letters of support from various activist groups and political leaders, including one from Garcetti himself, who also appointed Beserra Núñez to the group.

Now, with Beserra Núñez leading the ad hoc committee, they are meeting with various political and community leaders, meeting with potential funders, and developing a plan of action. They plan to present this idea to Mayor-elect Karen Bass and gain her support.

Beserra Núñez said that El Pueblo is working closely with the Chinese American community, who are giving them a lot of support for a Mexican American-Latino monument. According to Beserra Núñez, El Pueblo takes its inspiration to gather collectively and advocate from the Chinese American community, who recently lobbied for the new memorial to the victims of the 1871 Chinese Massacre in Los Angeles.

“Too often, we only gather and talk with people that we know, but we’re talking past people from other cultures,” Beserra Núñez said. “And so I think it’s very important for us to have dialogue with people who are different from ourselves, to share our stories, and be able to support one another. Community support is really critical.”

In addition to the memorial, Beserra Núñez hopes for more recognition of these lynchings through having it incorporated into education. The state has required ethnic studies to be taught in the school, but not all of the schools have the curriculum and trained teachers to provide that information. She also hopes people will explore the history of Mexican Americans and Latinos on their own.

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