Spanish-Language Social Music of 19th-Century Southern California

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Franciso Amate

Francisco Amate

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 absent aristocracy.

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 - Los Californios® Collection

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.

This section on Charles Lummis has become so large as to warrant its own discussion in more detail. So if you would like more detail about Charles Lummis’ Spanish-Language Music Recordings, take this link. (Please don’t forget to come back!)

Antonio Coronel interprets californio heritage in the late 19th century.

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

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

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. Los Californios® Collection

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

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 of researchers.

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 as Californians.

Vykki Mende Gray and Benjamin Curtiss 
                           Historic Photograph from Los Californios® Collection

Where to find this Music

Music books and two recorded CDs of this music, Flowers of Our Lost Romance and ¡Qué viva la ronda!, are available from Los californios®.

About the Author

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.

Vykki also teaches Mariachi violin classes at Sherman Heights Community Center.

To contact her, email her at info@loscalifornios.com

Groups Actively Involved Preserving This Heritage

Los californios®
Yesteryears Dancers
Southwest Museum, now part of The Autry Center
Elisabeth Waldo
Elizabeth Erro Hvolboll and Luis Moreno
The Alta California Dance Company
El museo de las Californias, Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico
McClintock Saddle Works
San Diego Friends of Old-Time Music
The José Arias Troubadours
California Mission Studies Association
The Lively Arts History Association
The New World Baroque Orchestra
Janet Ashford of Mendocino
Los Bailadores of Old Town San Diego
Serebella.com
John Summers — California Mission Music
The Calicanto Associates
John Koegel

Los californios® is a registered trademark belonging to San Diego Friends of Old-Time Music, Inc., a California non-profit corporation.

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© Vykki Mende Gray, 2015
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Web design: Ellen Wallace and Vykki Mende Gray
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