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A 'Mexican Window' Into the City's Past

Los Angeles' first Spanish-language newspaper, El Clamor Publico, was founded 150 years ago by an 18-year-old printer.

June 23, 2005|Veronica Torrejon | Times Staff Writer

A procession of admirers filed past Antonio Ruiz's deathbed to bid him a tearful farewell. Deputy Marshal William Jenkins had shot Ruiz after the two scuffled over a guitar Jenkins tried to repossess.

After Ruiz died, Mexicans in Los Angeles rioted for more than three days, storming the jail where Jenkins was being housed in a failed attempt to have him lynched. A trial followed, and an all-white jury acquitted Jenkins in 15 minutes. The year was 1856.

The city's English-language newspaper gave the shooting and trial an obligatory nod, while its Spanish-language counterpart, led by an enterprising young printer, Francisco P. Ramirez, chronicled the uprising in meticulous detail.

That's one of the findings of Paul Bryan Gray, a Claremont attorney writing a biography of Ramirez. This week marks the 150th anniversary of the founding of Ramirez's scrappy publication, the city's first Spanish-language newspaper.

El Clamor Publico, or the Public Outcry, debuted June 19, 1855, when Ramirez was just 18. The four-page weekly tabloid went bankrupt after four years, but it continues to provide a "Mexican window" into 19th century Los Angeles, Gray said.

The paper noted, for example, that the guitar Jenkins tried to repossess belonged to Ruiz's common-law wife and was a cherished family heirloom.

In 1855, seven years after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the U.S.-Mexican War, California's former Mexican occupants, known as californios, struggled to define themselves as new citizens of the United States. They found a voice with the dawning of the Spanish-language press, said Jose Luis Benavides, a journalism professor at Cal State Northridge.

"The interesting thing about El Clamor Publico was that there was nothing in the English-language newspapers about the life of Latinos at the time," said Benavides, who features the tabloid in his class on Spanish-language news.

The paper initially campaigned for cooperation between whites and Mexicans, Benavides said. Ramirez, who was born in Los Angeles in 1837, was "a real Angeleno in the truest sense."

"He wanted [Mexicans] to participate in his democratic process. He was advocating for them to become enfranchised," said Benavides, while hovering a respectful distance above the newspaper's leather-bound first issue preserved at the Huntington Library in San Marino.

El Clamor Publico also chronicled everyday news, including land transactions, bullfights and noteworthy trials. Ramirez also translated articles from English-language newspapers into Spanish, Gray said.

Before founding El Clamor Publico, Ramirez was a printer and an editor of the Spanish section of the local newspaper, the Los Angeles Star. He struck out on his own after the Star decided to scrap its Spanish section, Gray said.

Ramirez would later complain that the Star insulted Mexicans by unfairly characterizing the "tendencies of our Mexican population toward armed riot, scuffling and robbery."

El Clamor Publico relied on $5 annual subscription rates and advertisements, which sold for $2 for 10 lines. In addition, the paper received state subsidies for publishing local ordinances in Spanish. Ramirez took advantage of the opportunity to educate californios on U.S. history and politics. One Fourth of July, he translated the entire Declaration of Independence, Gray said.

The Jenkins trial provided Ramirez an opportunity to explain the purpose of juries and the U.S. legal system to his readers. He wrote in one editorial, "It is necessary that there be union in this city in order to have security. Let us all work together in the same spirit to carry out the laws."

With virtually no formal education, Ramirez adopted a surprisingly literary flair to his writing, quoting Latin poets and philosophers along with abolitionists of the day, Gray said.

"All the issues relevant to African Americans at the time, he empathized with," said Benavides. Those issues included lynchings and exclusionary laws. "He empathized with their struggle."

In an 1859 editorial titled "The crime of being born black," Ramirez rallied against a local legislator who called for a law prohibiting freed slaves from immigrating to California.

"This is more than shameful, it's dishonorable. How could blacks avoid being born under the limits of the great Republic, a model of excellence?" Ramirez wrote. "Is it fair that they are punished for committing the crime of not being born white? Is this civilization? Is this Christianity?"

In 1856 he wrote about a series of lynchings of Mexicans by white mobs:

"Oh, fatalidad! Only Mexicans are the victims of the people's insane fury! Mexicans alone have been sacrificed on gallows, raised to launch their poor souls into eternity.... Is this the liberty and equality of the country we have adopted?"

In all, about 80 Mexicans, Chileans, Peruvians, native Americans and blacks were lynched in California during the years the paper was in print, said Rodolfo F. Acuna, founder of the Chicano studies department at Cal State Northridge.

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