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Walking in the Footsteps of L.A.'s Founders

About 1,000 people brave the heat to trek from San Gabriel Mission to El Pueblo Historical Monument.

September 05, 2006|Jennifer Oldham | Times Staff Writer

While many Angelenos took advantage of the Labor Day holiday to sleep in, Irene Sepulveda Hastings was meeting relatives she didn't know existed.

Wearing a white lace mantilla that cascaded over her head and onto a gauzy, floor-length white dress, the Corona grandmother joined about 1,000 people on a nearly nine-mile journey from San Gabriel Mission to El Pueblo Historical Monument -- birthplace of the city -- in downtown Los Angeles.

The walk was a reenactment of a trip that was undertaken 225 years ago, following the footsteps of 44 Mexican nationals (four soldiers and 11 families), known as Los Pobladores -- or town settlers. Those settlers trekked from San Gabriel Mission to Los Angeles in September 1781 and founded a tiny community near the Los Angeles River that today is one of the world's largest cities.

Hastings' ancestors were part of a group that Felipe de Neve, the first governor of the Californias, sent from Mexico to help cement Spain's claim to the region.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 07, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Early settlers: An article in the Sept. 5 California section about a walk commemorating the 1781 settlement of Los Angeles described the settlers as Mexican nationals. The colonists from Mexico were Spanish subjects.

"All the old families are on my tree," said Hastings, 76, who has participated in the historic walk for 15 years. "I'm always meeting more Sepulvedas."

Several other descendants of the city's founders joined Hastings for the reenactment, along with many immigrants interested in creating a history of their own. Some wanted their children to know where they came from. Others came to see parts of the city that they hadn't visited before.

Like Los Pobladores, Monday's participants mirrored the diversity of the city. The original founding families were mostly poor farmers and soldiers and included Spaniards, Indians and blacks.

The event's founder, whose ancestors weren't from Los Angeles but came to America on the Mayflower, was enthused that the 25-year-old walk has broadened its appeal. In the beginning, T. Willard Hunter, an educator, author and clergyman, traversed the historic route alone.

"I was always concerned people would stay away if they thought it was a family reunion," Hunter said. "If we don't know where we came from, we won't know where we're going."

Monday's journey began as the sun rose to illuminate the 235-year-old San Gabriel Mission. The route followed an old Indian trail down Mission Road to Alhambra Avenue, onto Valley Boulevard and back onto Mission Road to Cesar Chavez Avenue and downtown. Instead of ox carts, open-roofed firetrucks awaited participants who were unable to walk.

"Happy Birthday!" Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa shouted to a small crowd gathered at the mission to hear remarks from event organizers and politicians before making its way onto the asphalt, which was already warm.

"The city's first ancestors were Mexican American, make no mistake about that," added Los Angeles' first Latino mayor in more than 125 years.

Villaraigosa and other dignitaries participated in an ancient blessing by the Gabrielino-Tongva San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians, whose ancestors were among Los Pobladores. The ceremony required those on stage to turn to face a life-size picture of Mickey Mouse on a banner commemorating the event's sponsors -- Disney among them -- before turning again to face those participating in the trek.

Bells clanged as the walk began, with police officers on bikes and in cruisers escorting the procession as it wound through largely deserted industrial parts of town, past rail yards, junkyards and vaguely curious guard dogs.

Several miles later, walkers' enthusiasm about the event and what it symbolized hadn't dulled, even as they drank water and wiped sweat from their brows in an unsuccessful attempt to ward off the rising temperatures. "We remind them that our family had to do this with no shoes," Robin Rocha, who was wearing sneakers, a long, black satin skirt and a white peasant blouse, said at a rest stop near mile No. 3.

Rocha's young daughter and nephews, all dressed in costume, joined her and her mother, Sherry Killion, who after years of research traced her ancestry to the Cota and Verdugo families, who made the original journey. Killion, in a black shawl and a long green skirt, pulled a large chart out of her purse. It turned out to be a family tree, and after unfolding it several times, she flipped it over, pointing to her family's origins in Spain in 1500 and then their move to California in the late 1700s.

"I've been working on it for decades," said the 62-year-old Bakersfield nurse who came across her family's connection to Los Pobladores four years ago.

As he pushed his son in a jogging stroller, ninth-generation Angeleno Tony Leon recounted his connection to Los Pobladores, saying that he can directly trace his heritage to Luis Quintero, a tailor.

"It's great to feel a part of something," Leon said, adding that he's developed a website to celebrate his genealogy.

The walk gave others a chance to commemorate their far-flung heritage in a diverse city where it often seems as if everyone is from somewhere else.

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