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Say adios to Pio Pico park

The last governor of Mexican California was the quintessential Californian, but his story will get further buried with the impending closure of the southeast L.A. County homestead where he once lived.

April 03, 2012|Gale Holland, Los Angeles Times
  • Carolyn Schoff, president of Friends of Pio Pico, walks near the adobe at the state historic park in Whittier.
Carolyn Schoff, president of Friends of Pio Pico, walks near the adobe at… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

"I'm going to tell you something I probably shouldn't talk about," Leo Fernandez said, glancing nervously at the ranger at Pio Pico State Historic Park. "I saw a ghost here."

The park, the final homestead of Alta California's last Mexican governor, is on the state's hit list of public land closures because of our budget follies — which is why I dropped by one afternoon and ended up chatting with Fernandez.

Fernandez says he spotted a woman in gingham at the top of the stairs after the park was renovated in 2003. Seated in a rocker knitting, she silently waved him up to the attic.

A park ranger later dismissed the apparition as a figment of the imagination, but Fernandez said, "I saw what I saw. Maybe she was very happy with what they'd done, like I was."

If she's still around, the lady in homespun can't be happy now. In Northern California, communities are rallying against state park closures. But in this urban corner of southeast Los Angeles County, the Friends of Pio Pico have been reduced to collecting bottles and holding an Easter egg hunt, my colleague Tony Barboza reported Monday.

Granted, Pío de Jesus Pico's former getaway "El Ranchito" doesn't have the mystique of the redwood groves and seaside parks on the state's hatchet list of 60 or so projects due to close July 1. C'mon, we're giving up beaches? Don't give an inch, I say.

But while people fly to Boston to walk the Freedom Trail, our founding Mexican fathers are largely unknown and unlamented. OK, history is written by the victors. But based on what I saw at the park, Pio Pico was the quintessential Californian.

Of Hispanic, African and Indian descent, Pico was born a Spaniard, lived as a Mexican and died an American. From a house made out of sticks at the San Gabriel Mission he went on to own much of Los Angeles and Orange counties, but ended up in a pauper's grave.

"When I started writing, I was looking for a heroic figure," Carlos Manuel Salomon, author of the biography "Pio Pico: The Last Governor of Mexican California," said in a phone conversation. "But he was a calculating businessperson definitely willing to step on people's feet to get ahead."

The son of a poor soldier, Pico got his start with a tanning hut and dramshop (saloon). I am L.A. enough to have briefly considered whether the hut was the state's first tanning salon, but no, it was for leather. Still, what a prescient precursor of California's business mix!

Most California land barons were Mexican elites, but Pico wormed his way into the upper echelon, apparently without money, looks or excessive charm. A contemporary said he had the face of a moose, and his management style apparently was no better.

He was governor twice, the first time after leading an armed rebellion to throw out a viceroy sent from Mexico. But even this was not purely heroic.

"The battles of that time consisted largely of staring at each other with guns," Salomon explained.

As governor, he dismantled the shameful mission system. But instead of it going to the Indians as promised, the land ended up with Mexican rancheros, including Pico's brother, who got a 121,000-acre piece of Mission San Fernando, Salomon said.

Perhaps the most biting critique of Pico is that he turned tail and ran to Mexico when the U.S. invaded California.

"He cowarded out," said Genesis Jimenez, a college history student who persuaded her family to brave sheeting rain at the park the day of my visit.

Well, maybe, Salomon said. Unlike businessmen who went over to the Americans' side to protect their positions, Pico was a passionate opponent of the U.S. takeover. The Mexican government, fighting for its life, wouldn't pay to raise an army, and other Californios wanted Pico out of the way so he couldn't be seized and forced to surrender, Salomon said.

Mexico ended up losing California, but Pico returned and thrived — for a while.

Pico made a fortune selling cattle to gold miners but was ultimately swindled of his vast landholdings.

With imperfect English, Pico thought he was taking out loans to buy horses and gamble but instead signed over title to the properties, Salomon said. After epic legal battles, one ranch went to his brother-in-law, another to his attorney.

A neighbor recalled that each day, Pico would give her daughter a handkerchief full of sweet limes and lemons, saying, "Tell Mama to send me back my handkerchief, I am very poor now."

On the other hand, Pico's hospitality was renowned, he fought racism against Mexicans and he was generous to his friends. The park adobe shows off his gracious living: his wife's kid gloves with lavender silk ties, a buggy whip with a carved-ivory dog's head and an inlaid wooden guitar case.

"Pico was a character," Salomon said. "Everywhere he went, he stirred emotions. People loved him or hated him.

"The covered wagons, the Wild West, it's part of the folklore of American culture. We get a lot about the missionaries, but almost nothing about this group of Mexicans who were here, creating these incredible towns and culture."

And now we're going to entomb his final home in a Mission-style version of "The Secret Garden."

The real irony, however, is that the state spent $5.5 million to rebuild the adobe and park less than 10 years ago. Actually, it's an irony inside a metaphor turned inside out and wrapped in a veneer of stupidity. When the good times are back, it will cost the state more to reopen the park than it will save by shutting it down, says Carolyn Schoff of Friends of Pio Pico.

Add another ignominious chapter to L.A.'s let-it-rot-and-mow-it-down history.

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