California’s Mexican legacy far transcends taco trucks and tequila bars—after all, California was once part of Mexico. But why isn’t the influence of Mexicans, from farming to food to vineyards, more widely-known?
“Hispanics were in California before America even existed,” says the waitress, Elana. “We lived here when no-one cared about it. When a border had no meaning.”
I’m in a café opposite the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California. Elana happened to study English Literature at university, and we’ve been chatting about Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s seminal novel about migration from Oklahoma to California in the 1930s.
The novel shone a light on the experience of migrants to California, and won Steinbeck the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. But it echoes awkwardly in modern-day America.
“Steinbeck showed that people always fear immigrants,” continues Elana. “So Trump and his rhetoric is nothing new, but he’s fed anti-Latino resentment, which is ironic seeing as my family have been in California since the 1700s.”
It all started in the 18th century, when the Spanish set up a chain of 21 religious outposts, known as ‘missions’, along the Californian coast. They ran from San Diego in the south to San Francisco in the north and were linked by the Camino Real, the Royal Road. From these missions, the Spanish began converting indigenous Californians to Christianity, and settlers and soldiers used the outposts as a base for colonization.
While some missionaries were protective of their new subjects, disease and massacres devastated the indigenous population, something that worsened once the United States annexed California. Settlers intermarried with Christianized locals and the resulting population became known as ‘Californios’, who set up vast cattle farms called ‘ranchos’ across the state.
“This place runs on Latinos … Agriculture, construction, hospitality, healthcare, everything. If the Mexicans ‘went home’ tomorrow, California would grind to a halt.”
Today, California Highway 1 is the modern-day version of the Camino Real, and I’m driving it on a mission of my own: To gain an insight into the changing demographics of California, and the human history of what is arguably America’s most lusted-over state.
The United States annexed California in 1847, and the ranchos were broken up soon after. Then, with the discovery of gold, hundreds of thousands of migrants flocked west in search of their fortune. Within a year, the Hispanic population had become a minority.
But driving along the Salinas Valley today, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Spanish rule never ceased: People speak Spanish in gas stations; taco trucks serve burritos in lay-bys; and TVs in roadside diners blast out Mexican soap-operas. The region is also one of the most important agricultural areas in California.
“This place runs on Latinos,” says Elana, “Agriculture, construction, hospitality, healthcare, everything. If the Mexicans ‘went home’ tomorrow, California would grind to a halt.”
From Salinas, I head south to Los Angeles, and make straight for downtown Hollywood. I find a food truck serving slow-cooked pork tacos, and order a portion before walking to the office of LA Hood Life Tours. I get chatting to the guide, Steven K. Barbee, about Mexican food and tortillas, which leads onto another Steinbeck book, Tortilla Flat.
“Tortilla Flats?” says Steve. “Man, they were one of the worst gangs back in the day. We used to rumble on the regular.”
Given his area of expertise, I’m not surprised that Steve drew a different connection with the name. Steve is a former member of the Crips, one of South Central LA’s largest gangs.
He’s been shot and stabbed more times than he cares to remember, but after spending 30 of his 47 years in prison, Steve chose to swap violence for voyeurism: He now runs tours of the city’s most notorious neighborhoods. For three hours, we drive down streets that I know from gangster rap’s biggest hits, passing the childhood homes of hip-hop icons like Dr Dre, Ice Cube and Kendrick Lamar.
“You know,” says Steve, “Compton was once so white that the [future-President] Bush family lived here.” By the 1970s, he tells me, the whole area was black. And it wasn’t until the 1990s, and the LA Riots, that things started to change.
“I grew up next to a Mexican family, and there were a few Hispanic gangs like the Tortilla Flats. But they were a minority until the ‘90s. Then Hispanics started moving into South Central like it was going out of fashion.”
In fact, by 2014, the historically black city of Compton became majority Hispanic for the first time. This is not an isolated statistic: In the same year, Hispanic-Latino became California’s largest ethnic population category. Some 150 years after they were first displaced, the progeny of the Spanish Empire is once again in the ascendancy. For some, this is nothing more than a return to a natural state of affairs.
Onwards to San Diego, often called the ‘birthplace of California’ and part of a newly independent Mexico back in 1821. It’s right on the border with modern-day Mexico, where I meet a man who bridges both worlds. “I was born in the States, in San Diego,” Angel Miron tells me. “and I grew up in Tijuana, because my mom couldn’t afford to live here. But, because I was an American citizen, I’d get the bus to San Diego every day for school.”
“This land we are standing on used to be part of Mexico. And, in a way, it still is. It’s still the same land, the same people, even. It’s just the rulers who have changed. Even though they put up walls, you can feel that there are connections across the border.”
Angel runs Let’s Go Clandestino, a company specializing in food and wine tours around his home town of San Diego, but also in Tijuana and Baja California, Mexico.
We’re in the district of Barrio Logan in San Diego’s south side. From the freeway, I can see the hills of Mexico, and the now-infamous border wall. “This has always been the Mexican neighborhood of San Diego,” says Angel. “Many Mexicans stay with relatives when they cross the border for work. It’s a little bit of home.”
In the Sunday sunshine, families sit on the grass of Chicano Park, beneath the huge Coronado Bridge. The roar of traffic sounds distant, and people are quietly studying the intricate murals that decorate the bridge’s concrete supports.
I look at a stylized painting of a purple, half-man, half-bird creature, holding the sun in one hand and the Earth in the other. “That’s Coatlicue,” says Angel, “the Mayan Earth Goddess. From Mexico.”
Next, he points to a mural of an indigenous woman sitting by a lake, which tells the myth of Mexico City’s founding, then one of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, above the slogan, ‘I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.’
“This land we are standing on used to be part of Mexico,” Angel says, “And, in a way, it still is. It’s still the same land, the same people, even. It’s just the rulers who have changed. Even though they put up walls, you can feel that there are connections across the border.”
Those connections are subtly changing San Diego, beyond its demographics. For decades, American chefs have been crossing the border to Mexican California for gastronomic inspiration. Now, taco restaurants fuse Mexican recipes with haute cuisine, and bars stock tequila selections as large as any wine cellar.
It may be over 150 years since California was wrenched from Mexico, but history seems to have a sense of irony. The state’s Hispanic pedigree can’t help but shine through.
The writer traveled with Hertz on this road trip through California, using their Hertz USA Road Trip Planner that includes over 30 routes, insider guides and interesting pit-stops.