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¡§When the Okies left Oklahoma and moved to California, it raised the I

Honoring a Fallen Culture                                   Helen Kee


Leonard Pitt, a Jewish immigrant from Poland, first gained interest in Californian history after moving to Los Angles from New York in the early 1950s. During that time, he was a history doctoral student at the University of California, Los Angeles. In the following decades, he published several works, including one he co-wrote with Dale Pitt. Leonard Pitt now works as a professor of history at California State University, Northridge.



A compelling work that illuminates the social and political hardships of Californios before their ultimate fall in 1890, Leonard Pitt¡¦s The Decline of the Californios: A Social History of the Spanish-Speaking Californians, 1846-1890 deserves acclaim for its in-depth analysis of the Californian life. Its wide range of sources provides specifics that detail occurrences dating from the Californios¡¦ festive ¡§halcyon years¡¨ to their defeat ¡§under the lash of an ill-defined puritanism and nativism.¡¨1 Published several times within the last half century, this study of a lost culture has received both praise and censure, and its author¡¦s impartiality has been defended and questioned. Despite debilitating reviews from severe critics, Pitt¡¦s work remains one of the most well-known books that preserve the social history of the native Californians.

Pitt opens the first chapter with the rise of liberalismo, a movement formed by young Spanish Californians who ¡§deliberately rejected Spanish forms of piety¡¨ and generated an ¡§ambivalence toward Mexico and all things Mexican.¡¨2 The youths experienced a spiritual awakening and began to desire education and rebel against the constraints of religion. This generation¡¦s heritage stood strong in the 1820s, conserved by California¡¦s geographical and political isolationism during that time. Pitt then continues to discuss the tension between the native born Californians, or Californios, and the gringos, or Yankees, which soon grew into the Californios¡¦ bitter treatment of newcomers. Interestingly, although the native Californians¡¦ distrust towards foreigners was prominent, their Spanish heritage fostered family ties so strong that ¡§to be Spanish American [was] to belong to a familia.¡¨3 This ideal was especially prevalent on ranchos, where a large extended family is joined together by its reverence towards the elders. However, below this peaceful lifestyle characterized by the smooth, intricate workings of a rancho stirred restlessness between Anglo-American and Latin-American values, which was only intensified in 1846 by the start of the Mexican War discussed in chapter 2. Here, Pitt analyzes the detrimental effects of the war¡¦s outcome. When California was annexed in 1847, several problems arose: the communities lacked authority, the rancheros preferred the old agrarian lifestyle over state unity, and the Californios who did participate in government struggled to settle the issues of boundaries, statehood, and slavery. In 1849, the prospect of gold in California and the subsequent Gold Rush drove easterners moving to the west coast to challenge the Californios¡¦ ownership of the mines and fields. This dilemma, coupled with the Californios¡¦ deep-seated hatred for newcomers, heightened racial tensions between Spanish-speaking natives and Chinese immigrants flooding into the state after the Gold Rush. The Californian government, motivated by prejudice and nativism, placed these immigrants at the bottom of a presumed social hierarchy. In chapter 4, Pitt stresses the problems that resulted from the state¡¦s sudden population boom. Instead of advancing the economy, these new ¡§land settlement[s were] a massive betrayal¡¨ to the Californios.4

In chapters 5 and 6, Pitt begins to show evidence of the Californio¡¦s decline with first the destruction of the ranchos, a key part of the culture, and then the instability of the cattle trade. Social and economic reform was met with resistance from the Californios; attempts to survey land only led to violence from the native Californians. ¡§Fiestros¡¨ or ¡§bad managers¡¨ ignorant of the workings of their business also made for failing enterprises, adding to the state¡¦s economic problems.5 However, Southern Californian towns, such as the slowly blooming Los Angeles, were home to many social changes, such as the increasing numbers of interracial marriages between Anglo-Americans and Latin-Americans. Even then, the halcyon days, filled with extravagant dances and feasts, were still frequent and the characteristics of a Mexican town were easily distinguishable through the sights and sounds. Unfortunately, as Pitt explains in chapters 7 and 8, while the majority of the population was Mexican, the government was controlled mostly by the Yankees, or Americans. One significant reason for this was the Latin-American¡¦s indifference towards politics. Few of them were involved in government until a sudden increase of eager participation from 1850 to 1866 when ¡§the Spanish-speaking Californians¡K sought and obtained practically every imaginable public office.¡¨6 Pitt suggests that this turn of events was a result of a small group of wealthy Californios who demonstrated that power in government benefited native Californians.

Life as a Californio became more violent in the latter half of the 19th century. In chapters 9 and 10, Pitt introduces the dangers of the Cow County, where the bandidos roamed and the immigrants were preyed upon. While the law enforcement agency had an intricate web of highly respected positions, its power to stop the crimes and injustices was severely limited. In fact, the growing tensions during the past 50 years culminated in a race war from 1850 to 1865 that forced the Mexicans to ¡§seek justice and liberty by their own efforts¡¨ rather than by the law.7 In a society lacking civil order, murders and hangings grew at an alarming rate. Then, in chapters 11 and 12, Pitt determines the years 1855 to 1859 to be the five worst years of confrontation between the Californios and the Yankees. The race wars were an encumbrance to the municipal and state elections, and activists grew more radical, often resorting to violence in order to be heard.

Shifting to religious issues in chapter 13, Pitt concentrates on the struggles of the Catholic Church after the secularization of the missions in California in the 1840s. The young and old began to dispute over previous religious traditions, enlarging the gap between the generations. In chapter 14, Pitt reverts back to his analysis of the Spanish-American¡¦s political and cultural troubles between 1860 and 1864. He sees the rancheros as a group of people suffering from the land boom that followed the completion of Southern California¡¦s first railroad. He also believes that they were unable to cope with the abrupt shift from an agrarian to an industrial society. Other factors contributing to the ranchero¡¦s decline included an unfortunate series of difficulties, including a flood, a drought, and a smallpox epidemic that crippled the Spanish-speaking population in Los Angeles. Then, in the final two chapters, Pitt depicts the fall of the Californios as a gradual dissipation of old Spanish-Californian traditions, discarded by the next generation in exchange for a firmer grip on an ever-changing economy. Today, Pitt views the Spanish-speaking as two entities: one ¡§carefree, unchanging, and enveloped in a religious aura¡¨, the other ¡§disagreeable, mundane, and potentially violent.¡¨8

Pitt wrote this book in the hopes of broadening a reader¡¦s view on the ethnic roots of Latinos in the 20th century. Inspired by a work by Bernard de Voto, who claimed that sympathy for old Californians was but a ¡§nostalgic sympathy¡¨ or ¡§respect for things past,¡¨ Pitt set out to investigate the causes of a culture¡¦s decimation and credit the nameless people whose experiences serve no lesser purpose in history than those of published historians.9 In his book, he argues that the Californios, despite their decline, had a unique culture rooted in preserving traditions and familial ties. His goal, he claims, is simply to retell a chapter in history from a rare point of view; in this book, the Spanish-speaking are the natives, and the Americans are the immigrants. Pitt walks the reader through the history of a culture starkly different than the Anglo-American¡¦s. He believes this culture was ¡§enormously important and enormously misunderstood¡¨, so the basis of his book is ¡§to let the subjects speak for themselves.¡¨10 Through a deep study of materials gathered from a variety of sources, Pitt constructs an image of a group of people that he honors for their rich culture but pities for their unfortunate decline.

There are several ways to view Pitt¡¦s approach toward the subject of the Californios. While his intentions are to provide an accurate account and depiction of the Californios, he was often unable to access the sources he needed to accomplish his purpose. Due to the fact that many Chicanos were illiterate during the 19th century, many of Pitt¡¦s written resources had to come from secondary sources. As a social historian, Pitt also overlooks several other aspects of the Californio life in exchange for a more comprehensive examination of the people¡¦s lifestyles, cultures, and political struggles. The Chicano movement in 1966 also affected Pitt¡¦s book because it brought out Spanish critics who believed that readers needed ¡§Chicano-inspired rendering of the past, written by and for Chicanos.¡¨11 In defense of his work, Pitt edited his preface and republished his book, emphasizing his knowledge on the history of Californios. With the Watt¡¦s Riot in Los Angeles and the growing dilemmas from the Vietnam War, Pitt¡¦s work was often scrutinized because it was one of the first explorations of a culture that was just beginning to revolutionize itself in the 1960s.

            Gunther Barth of University of California, Berkeley critiques the book from an unbiased point of view. He has both admiration and criticism for Pitt¡¦s work. After reviewing the content of the book, Barth commends Pitt for ¡§underlin[ing] the role of the culture conflict in his assessment of the causes of the decline¡¨ but finds fault in his facts and limitations to his knowledge, stating that Pitt¡¦s quotes ¡§only indirectly shed light on all Californios.¡¨12 That is, Pitt focuses on the social history of one class without giving much analysis about the others. Another reviewer also mentions Pitt¡¦s constraints in the matter of gathering the proper materials. Moses Rischin believes that this handicap ¡§forced [Pitt] to confine his research to southern California.¡¨13 However, he did emphasize the fact that Pitt¡¦s book was an original work that explored the society of a people often overlooked or ignored by historians that came before Pitt. In both reviews, the critics believe that Pitt¡¦s book offers insight on Californio life, but that it is not without its flaws. Lacking an extensive and personal view of Californio life and values, Pitt has to limit his book to certain subjects while utilizing the resources he has to their fullest advantage.

Pitt¡¦s book is a gripping historical work that paints a rather colorful picture of Spanish-American life. His choice of content brings to light traditions distinctive to this culture. He retells events vividly to give his reader a closer view of a society that was otherwise cast off as unimportant in past historical works. In addition to his distinctive choice of content, Pitt also succeeds in laying out a clear picture of the Spanish-American race and how their old traditions were swept away through several combining factors that forced the younger generation to change along with society. However, Pitt portrays the old Californios and rancheros in a manner that makes them seem inferior to Americans. He agrees with De Voto in that the Californios were ¡§numerically too small and culturally too backward to contribute to mankind much that was new or original.¡¨14 This biased view questions the accuracy of Pitt¡¦s work. At the end of the book, he claims that no event for certain caused the decline of the Californios and that in fact, their naivety about economic issues, such as their inability to change with the society around them, forced them to decline along with the ranchos and the struggling cattle trade.

            Additional questions about the quality of Pitt¡¦s work concern his ¡§romanticism about Mexican California¡¨ and his account of the ¡§utter demise of the Californios under American rule.¡¨15 Other historians believe that they were a direct consequence of the sources he had access to. Because he had a limited amount of resources and few opportunities to speak to Mexican Americans during the course of his research, his work reflects those limitations. This is where most of the criticisms originate; critics doubt the accuracy of Pitt¡¦s work because of the tone that he conveys throughout the book. For instance, in Pitt¡¦s final chapter, he mentions the California missions and identifies them as remnants of the Spanish-Californian culture, evoking a sense of nostalgia rather than remaining objective. In spite of these faults, Pitt¡¦s work cannot be discredited for he is conscious of the fact that there are two ways people today view the old Spanish-American culture. He acknowledges that there are myths that Yankees have formed about Californios and works to deflate their mistaken notions. For these reasons, Pitt¡¦s study on Spanish-Americans remains an accredited written work with rich information on a culture that goes unnoticed by other historians.

            During the decline of the Californios, the Mexican War and the Civil War took place in the United States. Although Pitt touches upon the issue of racism lightly, he does address the fact that the California state delegates did debate about the ¡§admission of free Negroes into the province¡¨ after annexation.16 The concept of Manifest Destiny was one of the biggest influences from the Eastern United States. At the time of the Gold Rush and for years afterwards, native born Californians were forced to watch foreigners encroach upon their land. Squatters and settlers moved in without regarding the Spanish-speaking Californians already there. With the sudden increase of westward expansion, California became a bustling state. The rancheros, who preferred a simpler and slower lifestyle couldn¡¦t keep up with the new businesses and industries, especially after the railroad connected the west coast with the east coast. In spite of this, the people and its government distinguished California from other parts of the country. The majority of the population spoke Spanish during that time, making the Yankees the foreigners instead of the natives. Their geographic connection with Mexico also influenced their culture. Due to California¡¦s isolated location in relation to other states, the Californios lived in a society mostly shaped by Spanish and Mexican ideals, such as the importance of family.

            Even though Pitt¡¦s book concentrates on the Spanish-American culture, he ties it to more significant themes in history. First of all, Pitt believes that the Californio¡¦s ¡§desperate effort¡K to maintain their birthright¡K seemed to explain the central meaning of Manifest Destiny.¡¨17 Although on a smaller scale, the Californio¡¦s belief that it was his birthright as a native-born Californian to keep out foreigners mirrors the American¡¦s belief that he had the right to settle on either coast of the United States. California was also a political hotspot in the late 1800s in that it called attention to the issues of immigration and nativism. With the flood of Asian immigration to California and the rapid population growth during the Gold Rush, California experienced a social change that no other part of the country did. Despite its isolated location, the state was able to prosper through westward settlements and industrial advancements.

            Pitt¡¦s analysis of Californios in the late 1800s delves deep into their culture and values while stretching beyond the scope of these people to study their role in the United States during that time. Recounting their decline, Pitt considers the effect national issues had on the failings of ranchos or the violent clashes between the Yankees and the Californios. Pitt preserves the historical accuracy of his work without depriving it of its magnetism with descriptive accounts of events he studied. Through the eyes of the native born Californians, he addresses the issues that plagued California after its birth as a state and its growth as an enticing location for settlers. He also intertwines the culture of the Californios with that of the Mexicans, distinguishing it from American culture. His reasoning for the eventual fall of these people refutes the ignorant beliefs of Yankees who voiced that ¡§progress has its price¡¨ or that ¡§[the Californians] brought it on themselves.¡¨18 Instead, Pitt offers a more complex view that analyzes the various influences surrounding the decline of this culture. Whether or not he believes that the Californios were suited for an advanced society, Pitt refuses to succumb to common explanations and takes into considerations the social, economic, and political plights of the Californios.


1. Pitt, Leonard. The Decline of the Californios: A Social History of the Spanish-Speaking Californians, 1846-1890. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. 128, 197.

2. Pitt, Leonard. 4, 6. 

3. Pitt, Leonard. 11.

4. Pitt, Leonard. 103.

5. Pitt, Leonard. 109.

6. Pitt, Leonard. 147.

7. Pitt, Leonard. 166.

8. Pitt, Leonard. 291.

9. Pitt, Leonard. Preface. The Decline of the Californios: A Social History of the Spanish-Speaking Californians, 1846-1890. By Pitt. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. xiii.

10. Pitt, Leonard. Preface. The Decline of the Californios: A Social History of the Spanish-Speaking Californians, 1846-1890. By Pitt. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. xiv.

11. Gutiérrez, Ramón A. Foreword. The Decline of the Californios: A Social History of the Spanish-Speaking Californians, 1846-1890. By Leonard Pitt. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. ix.

12. Barth, Gunther. Rev. of The Decline of the Californios: A Social History of the Spanish-Speaking Californians, 1846-1890, by Leonard Pitt. The Journal of American History 53.4 (1967). 1 June 2008 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1894032>.

13. Rischin, Moses. Rev. of The Decline of the Californios: A Social History of the Spanish-Speaking Californians, 1846-1890, by Leonard Pitt. The American Historical Review 72.3 (1967). 1 June 2008 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1846846>.

14. Pitt, Leonard. Preface. The Decline of the Californios: A Social History of the Spanish-Speaking Californians, 1846-1890. By Pitt. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. xiii.

15. Gutiérrez, Ramón A. Foreword. The Decline of the Californios: A Social History of the Spanish-Speaking Californians, 1846-1890. By Leonard Pitt. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. x.

16. Pitt, Leonard. 45.

17. Pitt, Leonard. Preface. The Decline of the Californios: A Social History of the Spanish-Speaking Californians, 1846-1890. By Pitt. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. xiii.

18. Leonard, Pitt. 284.