YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Family Life

Amid Many Johnnys Come Lately Are Folks With Deep County Roots

July 23, 1988|JAN HOFMANN | Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Where are you from?

That's a fair enough question here in a place where nearly everybody is from somewhere else, where those who have lived here for several years can brag about being "almost natives."

So maybe it's understandable that when Loretta Lewis answers "Orange County," some people get a bit confused.

"Yeah, but where are you really from?" they often ask.

"Orange County."

"No, before that," they say.

"Orange County."

"But where's your family from?"

"Orange County."

At this point, Lewis usually cuts through the frustration by explaining that she's not only a native Californian, but a "Native American" (referring to the American Indian members of her ancestry), whose family roots in what is now Orange County go back "to the beginning of time."

Alexander (Sandy) Nalle's family ties here are much more recent, but he, too, gets looks of disbelief when he explains that he isn't from somewhere else. His great-grandfather came here just before the county was formed nearly a hundred years ago. And so does Joe Akiyama of Westminster, whose father settled here in 1907.

"People are always saying, 'You speak English so well,' " says Akiyama's wife, Sumie.

What does it mean to know that your family's history is intertwined with that of the place where you live? For Lewis and her mother, Eleanor Carrisosa Chavez of Corona del Mar, the most important feeling is a sense of pride.

"It's exciting. It makes you feel like a part of history," Lewis says.

And that pride can be a good defense against the hurt and frustration that come as part of the package.

"Our family participated in the founding of the city of Los Angeles," Chavez says. "But when I moved my family into a tract home here in Orange County, the other kids' parents used to chase my kids home because they said they were dirty Mexicans."

"My mother had stones thrown at her when she was a child," Lewis says.

That feeling of rejection was what led Chavez to explore the history her family had always taken for granted. "I wanted to know where I really came from. I felt I belonged here. And those kids that were throwing rocks at me, they were the Johnny-come-latelys, you know?

"I would go to the Anaheim cemetery with my dad and see all the old markers (of my relatives), but I didn't really comprehend," she says.

Chavez was 12 years old when she came across a tattered brown book that had belonged to her grandmother. Inside were the records not only of her great-grandfather's pre-1900 Silverado Canyon store but of her lineage. Many years later, with the help of a professional historian, she was able to understand the incredible story told in those fragile, yellowed pages.

Her great-great grandmother, Maria Sacramento Lucero, was the granddaughter of Don Santiago Arguello, the Spanish don who ruled San Diego. Maria's parents' wedding had united the Arguello and Lucero families, who together owned the land where the cities of Tijuana and Ensenada, Mexico, now stand.

Another ancestor, Conception Flores Williams, was a Shoshone Indian whose ancestors had long ago settled in Orange County. And yet another arm of the family, the Carrisosas, could be traced back 11 generations to the founding of Los Angeles.

Richard Henry Dana Jr., author of "Two Years Before the Mast" and the man for whom Dana Point was named, once did business with Chavez's great-great-grandfather, John Russell Bleeker, who owned a store in San Diego.

"A lot of people don't believe it," Lewis says. "When I say, my family once owned all of Tijuana and Ensenada, people think you're making up stories.

"People look at you and say, well, what are you? And if you say Spanish or Indian, people don't know how to react. They don't think that people like us exist."

Over the years, Chavez says, the family has become defensive about the remarks some people make about California, "because so many people have the wrong idea about it. They say, Southern Californians don't know how to dress, or they have bad attitudes. Well, when I was little, we always wore dresses, hats and gloves to town. It was the other people who brought all that loose culture. They got away from all their relatives and they could do as they pleased. That's one of the reasons people would leave other places and come here, you know, because things had gone awry. Families who are from here can't do that, because everyone in the family knows what you're doing.

"We see people who say, oh, the relatives are coming from back East, and we've got to take them all to Disneyland," Chavez says. "We never had to do that because everybody was right here."

Chavez, an only child, had five children, all grown now. But Lewis, she says, is the one who is most interested in family history.

"I remember when I was growing up, I didn't really understand why the Chinese-Americans or the Japanese-Americans were trying to have their history taught in school. But now that I'm finding out about mine, I can appreciate why they wanted to know.

Los Angeles Times Articles