Tagged Mexican American 20th century History in California

Charles and Juanita Roos 1924 Indianist Composer and Pianist

Multi-Cultural Hispanic Music History in Southern California with Classical Music Indianist Composer Charles Roos and Latina Pianist Catalina Ortiz Acosta in 1920s

The early 20th century history of Los Angeles, California has a rich Hispanic and Native American Indian history that has been mostly lost to time because of institutional and cultural discrimination. That larger story lived on in my family history. From my grandmother, Catalina, I saw the life of the artist. For that, I am forever grateful.

My grandmother, Catalina Maria Ortiz (Acosta) was a classical pianist and friend of the Indianist Composer Charles Roos and his wife Juanita Roos. From her effects and the stories she shared during my childhood, I’ve put together this update to the history of Hispanics / Latinos in Los Angeles during the early 1900’s.

Los Angeles during the early 1900’s was not a friendly place for Mexican-Americans and Chicanos. Though originally part of Mexico, California was annexed by Anglos to become part of the United States of America in 1848. With the gold rush of 1842 and other immigration, the existing American Indian and Spanish / Mexican people of California were politically and socially marginalized. By the 1920’s lynchings, racially motivated attacks and “anti-greaser” laws were in place to control and dominate the Mexican American (Chicano)

Catalina Maria Ortiz Acosta 1922_Pianist ©Cristina Acosta
Catalina Maria Ortiz Acosta 1922, Latina Los Angeles, CA Pianist ©Cristina Acosta

population of California. Pressure on Mexican Americans increased and included segregated schools in areas of Southern California where large groups of Chicanos persisted. The famous case, Mendez vs. the Board of Education finally ended Hispanic segregation in the late 1950’s.

Intelligent, cultured and talented Hispanic Americans were not lauded. In fact, with the veil of racism over many Anglo peoples perceptions during that era, there was very limited press coverage of the positive cultural contributions of Chicanos in Los Angeles. History is written by the “winners”, and as a conquered population, Spanish / Mexican Californians have lost many of their historical cultural contributions to a lack of attention.

As a third generation Californian. I have some personal hamily Hispanic / American history that pertains to the larger political climate and the cultural life of elite Angelinos during the early part of the twentieth century. In the early 1920’s my grandmother Catalina Maria Ortiz Acosta and her family, lived in Los Angeles. The last of eighteen children, my grandmother Catalina was the daughter of J. Nestor Ortiz and Maria Salazar Ortiz. J. Nestor was a wealthy man who had owned several businesses  and a sheep ranch in the town of Ortiz, Colorado (near Antonito, on the border with New Mexico). J. Nestor sold his interests in Colorado and re-located in Los

1924 American Indian and California Spanish Music Concert Los Angeles
1924 American Indian and California Spanish Music Concert Los Angeles with Catalina M. Ortiz, Latina pianist. ©Cristina Acosta

Angeles, California in 1903. Catalina was born the next year. Though her ancestors where among the founding families of Santa Fe, New Mexico (and other towns in the region), she would often refer to herself and family members as  “Californios” or “Spanish”.  Either were terms that people (Anglo and Hispanic) in her generation used to refer to the Spanish families that lived in the American Southwest when that region was under the control of Spain/Mexico. Because she was born in California, the term “Californio(a)” is accurate, but not completely reflective of her cultural heritage. The term she used usually depended upon her sense of the listener’s knowledge of these finer points of cultural history.

Though the term Californio/a is dated and not used today, it was very meaningful for Spanish citizens of California who became citizens of the United States because of the Mexican War in 1848. My grandmother would often express herindignation towards prejudice that any family member encountered with the comment, “Those peasants don’t realize that we are Californios.” I smile when I think about that. She disdained the prejudice that she deemed more a result of a lack of a good education than a lack of kindness. (I’m including this information about her cultural ethnic appellation because you will

Chief Yowalche 1924 Indianist Music Movement
Chief Yowalche 1924 Indianist Music Movement publicity portrait shot in Los Angeles, CA ©Cristina Acosta

note that the concert program below refers to her as a “Spanish-American Pisaniste”.)

The Ortiz family befriended Charles O. Roos and his wife, Jaunita E. Roos. The family connection was certainly enriched by Catalina’s friendship and professional relationship with Jaunita. Catalina (1904-1991) was then a twenty year old classical pianist and the featured pianist at concerts the Roos organized. My grandmother spoke with admiration regarding Juanita’s musical abilities. Charles, an Easterner, moved to Los Angeles and worked as a newspaper feature writer when not involved with his work as a lyricist. His wife Juanita was a gifted pianist. They collaborated to create a variety of  piano compositions. Charles also wrote poems and lyrics for other composers’ music. The concert program for the event at the Ramona Convent in Alhambra, California illustrates the typical concert Roos organized. Nordskog Records recorded the concert. Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of that recording or know of it’s existence.

Sifting through my Grandmother’s photo albums I found several photos of Charles and Juanita. The photos of the people in the Native American outfits are my grandmother Catalina, and Chief Yowlache,  dressed in traditional Native American clothing for publicity photos that Roos used in his concert promotions. Chief Yowlache was the “Indian baritone” for the program. Catalina accompanied him and also played solos.

During a time of escalating social injustice, Juanita and Charles Roos were creating musical compositions that celebrated different cultures. Though women had only just received the vote, and womens rights were often negated, Charles Roos publicly acknowledged his wife Juanita’s contributions, including her name on compositions they collaborated on. The concert program at the Alhambra Convent School illustrates that the Roos were actively promoting the beauties of the Native American and Hispanic culture to the elite of the dominant Anglo society. Understanding the political climate within which my grandmother was making her musical contributions to culture increases my admiration for her artistry and strength. She steadfastly dedicated herself to excellence in her art form and understood the symbolic importance of her image as a intelligent and accomplished Hispanic woman when many minds were closed to the idea of such a person existing.

I searched the internet for more information about the Roos and found an interesting essay.  I’ve included an excerpt  with a link back to the original author. You’ll recognize the name “Lieurance” in the Composer/Lyricist column of the concert program. I’ve also included some links to historical documents that record the political culture of the era. The following excerpt sheds light on Roos connection to like minded Anglo intellectuals during this time.

Excerpt of an essay by Linda Marsh Helfman,© 2007 (The Photos are mine) http://www.lincolnlibraries.org/depts/polley/front.htm

    “His (Lieurance’s) interest in tribal music began in 1902 with a visit to his brother who was an Indian Agent on the Crow Reservation in Montana.  From that time he began a life-long fascination with the music and customs of the Native Americans.  He visited over 30 reservations and amassed a collection of several thousand recordings and transcriptions as well as a large number of Indian flutes.  He also invited Native Americans to his studio in Lincoln for some of the recording sessions. It was often difficult to coerce the Indians into performing for his recording machine, but his understanding and patience with tribal ways won them over.  He had an enormous respect for the people and had learned a great deal from the Native American wives of two of his brothers.  Much of his vast collection now resides in the Smithsonian Institution, the New Mexico Museum, and the Archive of Folk Culture at the Library of Congress.

Lieurance drew upon Native American melodies for many of his own compositions which he then clothed in what he called the “harmonizing which our ears demand’.  His most famous piece is “By the Waters of Minnetonka”.  It was first published in 1913, and became the number one sheet music hit of its day, with many subsequent published arrangements.  It was performed and recorded by some of the leading musicians of the era and enjoyed world-wide popularity.

In the early 1920s Charles O. Roos, a feature story writer for a Los Angeles newspaper, happened to read about Lieurance and his work with Native American music.  In his younger days Roos had been a woodsman and raftsman on the St. Croix River and had written poems based on his experiences with the local tribes there.  He realized that Lieurance was the right person to set the poems to music.  The two of them met and decided to travel together in the Chippewa forest country of northern Minnesota in order to gather additional material and inspire themselves further.  Using thematic material from Chippewa homeland, rain dance, ceremonial, and mourning songs, Lieurance composed music for Roos’ poems, and the result was the “Eight Songs From Green Timber” song cycle which appears in this collection.”  © 2007Linda Marsh Helfman


References and History:

In the United States in 1924, Native Americans were denied many civil rights. They were not allowed to vote, educate their children and live freely. Mexican Americans inexorably lost the civil rights they had enjoyed prior to  the Mexican War and been promised in the Treaty of Gudadalupe Hidalgo (1848) and related legislation. Following are facts from the historical time line on the site http://www.cengage.com/search/showresults.do?N=197

  • 1902:  The Reclamation Act is passed, dispossessing many Hispanic Americans of their land.
  • 1912:  Brutality against Mexican Americans in the Southwest territories is commonplace. Lynchings and murders of Mexican Americans in California and Texas result in a formal protest in 1912 by the Mexican ambassador of the mistreatment.

The social and political climate damaged the social, political and economic rights for Mexican Americans, setting the stage for continued injustice eventually resulting in segregated schools in Southern California.
This excerpt from Digital History.com  quotes and article in the Hutchings’ California Magazine, July 1857. Seewww.digitalhistory.uh.edu/mexican_voices/voices_display.cfm?id=68 for the original document.

“The first California Assembly, meeting in 1849 and 1850, asked Congress to bar all foreigners from the mines, including the Californios, who were naturalized citizens. A rapid influx of Anglo-Americans rendered Mexican Americans politically powerless. The Spanish-speaking population fell from fifteen percent in 1850 to four percent in 1870.
    Mexicans and Indians in California were quickly reduced to second-class citizenship. The Foreign Miners’ Tax of 1850, a $20 monthly fee for the right to mine, was applied not only to foreign immigrants but also to Mexicans born in California. Early in 1851 the tax was repealed, but it had already had its effect. California’s Indenture Act of 1850 established a form of legal slavery for Indians. The state antivagrancy act of 1855, popularly known as the Greaser Law, restricted the movement of Californians of Mexican descent. Other 1855 statutes outlawed bullfights and negated the constitutional requirement that laws be translated into Spanish.
    The Californios suffered a massive loss of land. The legislature placed the heaviest tax burden on land, which put great financial pressure on Californio ranchers.”

Hutchings’ California Magazine, July 1857. See http://www.yosemite.ca.us/library/hutchings_california_magazine/ to read the entire original document.

Photos are: Catalina Maria Ortiz (Acosta) age 18 in 1922.  Photo of Charles and Juanita with a dedication to Catalina written on the photo.  Photo of Indian man in canoe — Chief Yowlache costumed and posed.

ALL PHOTOS ©Cristina Acosta. Reproduction with written permission ONLY.

California State Bear Flag paintings by Cristina Acosta

See the Mexican: The Moment I Knew the Mexican American was Me.

There was a time when California’s population was mostly Mexicans and Indians (before the mid-1800s). And then a time when amped up by gold discoveries, and manifest destiny, Anglos became the dominant population in California. That time is when I grew up.

I was born in Los Angeles. During the 1960’s, when I was five years old my parents moved to Palos Verdes, a Southern California suburb. Unlike the beach community of Playa del Rey where I’d lived my entire life until then, Palos Verdes was an exotic place where most everyone was white. We settled in quickly, my Anglo mother raising her growing group of children and having coffee klatches with the neighbor ladies, and my Mexican American father teaching Spanish at Rolling Hills High School.

Neighborhood kids freely played in the streets and along the sidewalks after school and the milkman and bread-man still made home deliveries. It was a beautiful place filled with beautiful people who made beauty a priority. Cultivating their tans, something the neighbor ladies called, “laying-out”, was part of most every woman’s weekly summer schedule.

Mrs. Nordquist two doors up would put solid plastic eye shields over her lids before she settled into her half hour sunbath. Mrs. Rick shared her “secret” recipe of iodine and baby oil with a few drops of olive oil (“like they use on the French Riviera,” she’d say) to those who gushed admiringly over her tanned limbs.

Even Mrs. Wright, an over-worked mother of five managed to get in a few afternoons each week napping on her day lounge by the patio, slathered in Bain de Soleil (for the exotic “European” San Tropez tan). Dedicated, disciplined laying-out could successfully result in a tan between your fingers.

Though I had never thought about the color of my skin before, I quickly realized that I had something the neighbor ladies all wanted, a natural California tan. Comparing myself to them, I observed that my skin was a lovely golden tan color despite my lack of tanning effort. All of the neighbor ladies spent hours of time each week trying to get the same brown color to their skin that I naturally had. The evidence was irrefutable, I was lucky.

I did wonder about my good fortune. My mother’s skin was the color of the neighbor ladies’ skin, though she never seemed interested in tanning. My father had rich dark, brown colored skin that needed little attention. I don’t think I ever saw him do much more than splash on aftershave.

My mother would slather herself in white lotion to ward off the dryness her skin was predisposed towards. In the kids bathroom she put a bottle of the same brand of lotion with a difference. To keep us kids from using her lotion, she bought us “almond” lotion, infused with the scent of almonds and slightly colored to match the golden tan plastic dispenser. With a child’s logic I concluded that my skin must be darker than my mother’s and lighter than my father’s because of the color of the lotion I used.

My parents weren’t trying to keep any secrets about skin color. I watched I Love Lucy re-runs on television and knew that it was entirely normal for a man who spoke Spanish and English to marry a woman who only spoke English. Though Ricky Ricardo wasn’t very tan (at least not that I could tell on our black and white TV), he was a dark contrast to Lucy’s pale coloring. My father spoke Spanish, but like Ricky Ricardo, he didn’t speak much at home.

Despite  the various shades of brown skin among family members, I never felt like our family was markedly different from our neighbors. We did eat some things the neighbors didn’t regularly eat, like enchiladas and salsa (it was the 1960’s and Mexican food wasn’t yet mainstream) but that didn’t seem like a big deal. The Nordquist’s ate pickled herring and the Goldberg’s ate matzo crackers. Like the rest of our neighbors, my mother made Jello pudding and joined the ladies in heated discussions comparing the merits of Cool Whip versus Reddi-Whip aerosol whip cream. I thought we were all pretty much the same. Until the day I looked for the Mexican.

It happened when I was eleven years old. Ridgecrest Intermediate School in Palos Verdes, California, had a split level campus. Walking up the double flight of stairs from the lower field to the main buildings I saw a boy at the top of the stairs yelling. I wasn’t into boys when I was eleven, so I didn’t pay much attention to him. I kept walking up the stairs, and he kept yelling, “Hey Mexican, Hey Mexican”.

By the time I was halfway up the stairs I wondered who it he was yelling at. I turned around, fully expecting to see some version of the Cisco kid (one of the TV shows I watched on Saturday mornings) in a serape walking across the lower grass field.

The field was empty green without any other color to be seen. There was nobody there.

At that moment, all of the little things I’d felt and heard over the years fell into place: The confused expressions that I’d see when I responded to questions about my skin color with a recommendation for almond lotion (I was raised to be helpful).

The frustration my father would express at the dinner table when talking about not being allowed to join a Los Angeles businessman’s club. My embarrassment over watching my father being patted down by the police while standing on the sidewalk on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, in full view of the restaurant we were headed towards, dressed in our Sunday church clothes.

At that moment I realized that I was “the Mexican.”

Until that moment, the things I knew were simple. I knew what type of dress was perfect for a piano recital. I knew that a man had to know how to tie a Windsor knot, because only little boys like my brothers wore clip-on ties. I knew about charity balls. I knew that a sandwich on white Wonder Bread was worth two Ding Dong cupcakes on the school lunch trade table. And I knew that the color of my skin was perfect because I had a tan, even in the winter.

What I didn’t know was that the perfect color of my skin, my long wavy dark hair and the melodious sound of my Spanish name would influence how some people treated me. Awakening to this realization began the day I turned to see the Mexican.

©Cristina Acosta