A number of pieces from Francisco Amate’s repertoire
are preserved on Lummis wax cylinders.
This drawing is by Hernando Villa, a californio descendent
whose own family was also featured in Charles Lummis recording
project. Although Hernando was himself a musician and singer,
there are no Lummis recordings of him.
Historic Culture Preservation
Once upon a time, in a land
not so far away and a time not so long ago, a scattered
population of racially mixed pioneer settlers,
soldiers and ex-convicts — guided
occasionally by the religious council of the Franciscan
padres — sought paradise. Their children declared
themselves to be “hijos del país,” thus
celebrating a positive self-identity in the face
of all outsider opinions to the contrary. They then
proceeded to comport themselves in a manner that
they perceived as representing persons of class,
thereby converting themselves into the otherwise
The land was called Alta California, the time was
the heyday of the California missions and ranchos
from the 1770s through the 1860s (more or less),
and the people called themselves californios.
Travelers to the area were consistently
impressed by the secular music and the social dances,
commenting often on the propensity of the californios
to dance and sing — and particularly at times when the
largely Protestant observers thought they ought not
to. And those same observers were also somewhat perturbed to observe that the dance tunes from
Saturday night were being re-used in Sunday morning mass.
My object is to explore briefly a few aspects
of the preservation of this California musical heritage — a
largely oral tradition played by non-professional
musicians with little or no formal music training.
Although related to both, this California music
is not by and large Mexican and it is not Spanish.
It instead reflects the isolation from both the Spanish
and Mexican mainstream of the settlers that played
it, and their self-identity as a separate society.
Some pieces did come to California with settlers
coming from Mexico, bringing with them their already
diverse heritage from Spanish, indigenous Mexican
and African roots. And there might be the occasional
pureblooded first generation Spaniard who knew pieces
from the latest Italian operas or from popular zarzuelas.
Some pieces came from other southwestern Hispanic
and Native American settlements, such as those in
New Mexico, through circuitous trade routes and marriage.
Other pieces were written here, some came from the
traditions of the local Native American musicians,
and some came with trade from passing ships.
With the coming of the American
period and the sudden immigration of great quantities
of people from other places — particularly in northern California — the
culture and heritage of the californio began fading
away into the new dominant culture and merging into
the growing Mexican immigrant community. In spite
of their protestations that they were “hijos
del país” — somebodies, the cultural
manifestations of the californio culture were devalued
and largely ignored except within the larger Mexican
and Latino communities.
Historic photograph of an event at Olvera Street in Los Angeles
Courtesy Arnold Guerra Los californios® Collection
Although these events have been criticized as
having been mere romantic fantasy, the participants believe they were
expressing pride in their historic California heritage.
Then came the need for the new
American Californians to create for themselves
a self-identity — the
new equivalent to declaring themselves “hijos del
país” — to create a “here” in
California. This in a society that considered racism
natural, and that was still remembering the Alamo.
In such a climate it is not surprising that a movement
to value the California history and heritage of both
californios and of indios took a romantic “fantasy
heritage” turn — describing things to
be valued as “Spanish” rather than Mexican
or Indian, and creating images of an idyllic past
where everyone lived a life of ease, and Franciscan
padres were saints. In fact, it is more surprising
that the Spanish-language and indio cultures became
recognized and valued at all.
It’s easy to criticize
this romantic recasting of California history.
But it is due to this romanticization of the past
that we still have today enough of the remnants
of this music to be able to recreate and preserve
it. And it is due to that romantic image that the
persons who carried those thin threads of memory
with them into the twentieth century were able
to attain sufficient respect for those threads
to be preserved. Continuing resurgences of these
romantic revivals from time to time were able to
preserve direct links to this historic past through
the 1950s, such that those of us who came behind
are still able to tap into those resources.
Take a quick detour in the discussion at this time
to explore some Historic Resources
for the Spanish-Language Social Music of 19th-Century Southern California.
Some of the most influential
preservation efforts were those of one of the most
active promulgators of this romantic myth — Charles
Fletcher Lummis, a transplanted Californian who
became a champion of the Southwest and its Native
American and Hispanic cultures. Seeing value in
the unique heritages found in the Southwest, he
attempted to get a more general American recognition
of that value. He wrote extensively about the Southwest
and Mexico and, to make it accessible to this audience,
described it glowingly and romantically in terms
that were calculated to try to avoid the racist
stereotypes that had prevented Americans at that
time in history from appreciating these cultures.
Antonio Coronel interprets californio heritage in the late 19th century. Los californios® Collection
And lest one think that preserving
California’s nineteenth-century Hispanic heritage consists entirely
of listening to Lummis recordings, I’d like
to highlight briefly some of the other surviving
threads. For instance, Lummis did not record the
Mexican and californio dance music in California,
even though he learned some of the dances, and some
of the informants he recorded knew the tunes. These
informants joined other descendants, like Antonio
Coronel, in efforts to keep their dances alive. For further illustration of this point,
check out these programs from the Casa de Adobe Fiestas.
Maria Abundis and Rogelio Alfaro pictured at
Padua Hills Theater in Claremont California. In background: José
Guadalupe Rubio and Celia García
From the Fages Collection.
Now in Los californios® Collection
This thread in turn was picked
up by The Mexican Players and the Padua Hills Theatre — along
with the accompanying Padua Hills Orchestra. The
Claremont Community Players was founded in 1928,
and in 1932 developed the Spanish-language program
that would preserve the Mexican and californio dance,
song, and theater traditions for another two generations.
Performing Spanish-language programs for a largely
English-speaking audience, they at the same time
spoke to pride in cultural identity of those generations
of Latinos in California. Find more information about
The Mexican Players
at our Padua Hills Theatre Web Site.
The José Arias Troubadours with Mexican dancer
(José Sr. is on the right with the big smile) Los californios® Collection
José Arias and his Troubadours were a family-based group of
Mexican musicians in the Los Angeles area. Although
José Arias did not come to California until
about 1910, he connected up with some of the same
people that Lummis had recorded. His son and grandson, also both
called José Arias, still recall humorous and entertaining visits with those
informants, and the band still performs pieces learned from
those informants at the Ramona Pageant in Hemet.
The Ruiz California Dancers in 1937 at Avila Adobe in Los Angeles:
Chonita De Soto, Gabriel Ruiz, José De Soto and Eva
De Soto. Chonita and José are Palomares descendents.
From the Fages Collection, courtesy of Brian C. Hogan.
Now in Los californios® Collection.
Another link in the chain was californio descendent
Gabriel Eulogius Ruiz. In the same A la California Club fiestas where Luisa
Villa was performing, representing a previous generation, young Gabriel Ruiz and his dance troupe,
Ruiz California Dancers (formed in 1925), were performing californio dances and
music, learning them from the previous generation and ensuring their survival. In his later years
Gabriel Ruiz undertook a project with California Alegre to document and preserve the
nineteenth-century Spanish-language music of California, especially pieces from his family, recording
an LP record called Danzas de Alta California.
Photo by Peter DuBois
From left: Vykki Mende Gray, Albert S. Pill, David Swarens
At Pío Pico home — Whittier, California
Many people who today know the 19th-century californio
dances and dance music can credit Al Pill, who dedicated
much of his life to keeping californio and Mexican
traditional dance alive. Late in his life, he was
acutely aware of the need to make sure that these
did not die with him, reaching out to younger persons
able to carry on the traditions.
One of those dancers who learned from Al Pill was Luis Goena of Santa Barbara (1928-2014), with his
group of early California dancers, Los parientes. Sadly this link with the past has now also passed on.
Another source for preservation of
this music is in the traditions of southern California’s
Native American population, particularly descendants
of missionized population. The Juaneño Band
of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation, in particular
has preserved recordings of the music of their heritage,
including performance of Spanish-language based music
on European instruments. This largely untapped resource
is the next great area of study for persons preserving
this historic California heritage.
I’d like to close with
a caution. The surviving link with the musical
heritage of Mexican California is fragile. Today
many Californians of Mexican, californio or Native
California descent remember their parents, or more
often grandparents, singing or dancing to the Spanish-language
nineteenth century secular music of Mexican California.
But few of them actually ever learned it. In fact,
they grew up thinking it was somehow shameful to
know these songs and dances. This heritage is now
entirely a revival tradition and an academic pursuit,
with a continuing but often tenuous direct link
to the original sources through just a handful
It’s important not to weaken this link further.
Just because the music and its performance is colorful
and appeals to tourists, just because the purveyors
of the “Fantasy Heritage” helped preserve
it for over a hundred years, doesn’t mean it
should be dismissed as not being worthy of serious
attention. If we lose this heritage, we lose part
of the self-identity of a large part of our future
population, as well as a piece of who we all are
Vykki Mende Gray is
a fourth generation San Diegan, her family having
come here in 1894. One of her previous projects in
documenting traditional California music was writing
Kenny Hall’s Music Book, published by Mel Bay
Publications — a collection of California old-time
music and reminiscences from Kenny Hall, acclaimed
fiddler, mandolin player, and California living treasure.
Vykki is the artistic director of Los californios®,
a project of San Diego Friends of Old-Time Music.
This musical ensemble interprets the secular songs
and dance music of nineteenth-century (and occasionally
eighteenth-century) Spanish and Mexican California.
Vykki researches, transcribes, and arranges pieces
from original material for this group’s repertoire.
Vykki is incorporating this work into her next book,
which will be on music from Mexican California. These
efforts have resulted in interest in the genre, on
both sides of the Mexico/California border.