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Diversity gave birth to L.A.

More than half the city's founders were of African ancestry. Some of their descendants celebrate that. Others deny it.

August 22, 2007|John L. Mitchell | Times Staff Writer

Even as a child, Robert Earle Lopez knew his family tree was deeply rooted in the soil of Los Angeles. He'd heard stories:

In 1826, when the City of Angels was a mere struggling pueblo, Lopez's great-great-great grandfather, Claudio Lopez, was the mayor. Claudio's son, Esteban Lopez, owned much of the land that is now Boyle Heights. Esteban's son, Francisco "Chico" Lopez, made a fortune as a cattle rancher; and Chico's son Frank -- Robert Earle Lopez's grandfather-- became one of the city's first auditors.

In 1838, Marie Rita Valdez, another ancestor, was granted the deed for what is now Beverly Hills. Francisco Lopez, a distant cousin, discovered gold while digging for wild onions at the foot of an oak tree in Placerita Canyon, six years before the 1848 find at Sutter's Mill sparked the California gold rush.

Robert Earle Lopez grew up believing that his Spanish pedigree was strictly upper crust, grounded in Castilian nobility, as his aunt used to say. But a clearer picture emerged years later, after Los Angeles' bicentennial celebrations in 1981.

That's when Lopez, digging deeper into his family's history, discovered that one of his great-great-great-great grandfathers was Luis Manuel Quintero, one of the original settlers -- or pobladores -- who founded El Pueblo de La Reina de Los Angeles on Sept. 4, 1781.

Quintero was the son of a black slave. Indeed, Lopez learned, more than half of the city's original settlers traced all or part of their heritage to Africa.

The fact that his forebear was not a Spanish blueblood came as a surprise. But Lopez quickly embraced the lineage that connects him to the original 11 families whose 44 members -- a group of poor farmers of African, European and Indian extraction -- laid the foundation for the second largest city in the United States.

"I come from one of the colored guys," the 86-year-old boasts. "I guess by the time it got to me, there wasn't much color anymore. Still, I'm proud to say I come from that ragtag group that founded Los Angeles."

Not everyone connected to the original 44 shares his view.

Robert Lopez likes to say that his mother missed the chance to cast a ballot in the first presidential election in which women had the right to vote. She was in the hospital giving birth to him on Nov. 2, 1920.

By then, the Lopez family's vast holdings were gone and he was raised speaking English, rather than Spanish. His mother's ancestry was German. Still, the family name carried a strong sense of the past, something that, growing up in Boyle Heights and later in a Mid-City neighborhood, he was never allowed to forget.

Spanish soldiers from the Lopez clan could be traced back to the 18th century, he was told. He heard the family stories of Chico Lopez's long cattle drive to feed gold miners in Northern California. He was still a boy when the local civic club invited the family to an event honoring the Placerita Canyon site where gold was first discovered. And his aunt insisted they all came from Northern Spain.

Today Lopez knows better. "The only way I could come from Spain would be on a 747," he jokes.

Lopez's childhood was cut short by hardships: the Great Depression and the death of his father. He did a stint in the Army Air Corps, became part owner of an electrical instrument company and got married. He sold the business in the early 1960s and retired at 43. "I took the money and ran," he said. He took up sailing and made three trips to Hawaii before setting his sights on investigating his family's past.

At the time, the city was in the midst of its bicentennial celebrations. Some 200 descendants of the pueblo founders marched from the San Gabriel Mission to Olvera Street, where the names of the original families and their ethnicities were inscribed on a plaque in El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument plaza.

The march is now an annual event. The fact that Los Angeles, one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world, stemmed from a multiethnic pueblo is often touted as evidence that the city has remained true to its roots.

"Its cosmopolitan population has been one of the hallmarks of Los Angeles since its founding," said Doyce B. Nunis Jr., a professor emeritus of history at USC who headed a bicentennial committee and wrote a book in 2005 on the founding of Los Angeles.

The late Marie E. Northrop, a genealogist who wrote three volumes on Spanish Mexican families of early California, was credited with pulling together the descendants to complete the march and later, she and her husband Joe Northrop, who was a descendant, became the driving force behind Los Pobladores 200, an organization of original descendants of the first settlers of Los Angeles.

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