By José R. Flores
Los Angeles, considered a “city of the future,” continues to expand and reinvent itself by adding to its iconic downtown skyline. If your daily commute takes you in or around the city, you may notice that the LA landscape, like a palimpsest, not only showcases the new but also preserves vestiges of the city’s Hispanic heritage.
In 1781, near the Río Porciúncula (present-day LA River), an ethnically diverse group of 44 pobladores, or settlers, founded El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Ángeles. The settlement is one of the most important sites in Los Angeles history today and a steadfast reminder of the Spanish and Mexican heritage.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places (1972), El Pueblo de Los Ángeles includes some of the city’s oldest buildings and structures. El Pueblo, more commonly known as La Placita Olvera in reference to the Olvera Street name and market place, is home to the oldest city residence, the Avila Adobe.
The Avila Adobe, built in 1818 by Francisco José Avila, is the oldest standing residence in Los Angeles and a California Historical Landmark. In use until the 1920s, the Avila Adobe had undergone considerable deterioration and was condemned by the City Health Department in 1926. However, through the timely efforts of Christine Sterling, a campaign to restore the adobe was sparked and many interested parties, like the descendants of the Sepulveda family, contributed to its preservation. Presently, the Avila Adobe is open to the public as a museum and faces the Olvera Street market place.
Another iconic building of the historical plaza is La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora Reina de Los Ángeles. Founded in 1814 and completed in 1822, the Catholic parish served as the main place of worship for the pobladores. Prior to its founding, the pobladores briefly relied on the missionaries of the nearby Misión de San Gabriel Árcangel for religious services. In 1861, the chapel was rebuilt from the original material. Today, La Placita Church belongs to the Archdioses of Los Angeles and officiates masses in both Spanish and English.
Lesser known is how the Misión de San Gabriel Árcangel, approximately 10 miles east, played a pivotal role in the establishment of El Pueblo de Los Ángeles. The San Gabriel Mission, founded in 1771 and relocated to its present site in 1776, hosted the pobladores in the months leading to the founding of El Pueblo de Los Ángeles in 1781. The founding of the Mission San Gabriel was decided as a midway point between the Carmel-by-the-Sea and San Diego missions.
The Misión San Gabriel Árcangel is one of the best preserved of the California missions and remains a vibrant spiritual center for many Hispanic communities living in the San Gabriel Valley. The mission parish houses an over 300-year-old painting of “Our Lady of Sorrows” and its main altar was handcrafted and delivered from Mexico City in the 1790s. Within the mission walls, one may find the mission museum building with artifacts that date back to the 1600s. Also, the mission Campo Santo Cemetery was consecrated in 1778 and is the oldest cemetery in Los Angeles County.
Perhaps one of the more fascinating stories about the cemetery courtyard is the burial site of the non-clergy Californio woman, Eulalia Pérez de Guillén Mariné. Eulalia, who lived until the age of 112, was well regarded within the mission and served as the mayor doma, or the “keeper of the keys.” Eulalia was buried in an area that was designated exclusively for mission priests—an unusual honor, particularly for a woman at the time, but a testament to the importance of her role in the functioning of the mission. Eulalia’s burial site is marked by a marble bench inscribed with her name.
Although there are multiple historical sites around the Los Angeles county area that remind us of the deep-rooted Hispanic heritage, El Pueblo de Los Ángeles, like the Misión San Gabriel Árcangel, are undoubtedly at the heart and origin of the global metropolis we see today.
José R. Flores, Ph.D. is an educator and scholar of Spanish language as well as Chicana/o and U.S. Latina/o literature and culture. He has lived, studied, and taught in Arizona, California, and Texas. He received his doctorate from Arizona State University. He also received a double B.A. in Chicano/Latino Studies and Spanish from the University of California, Irvine, a Graduate Certificate in Mexican American Studies, and an M.A. in Spanish from the University of Texas-Pan American.
Flores was born in Mexicali, México and raised in Pomona, California. Currently, he resides in Los Angeles and is a visiting assistant professor of Spanish and Latinx Studies at Whittier College