Connecting Family Stories: A Latina Angeleña Explores Her Deep California Roots
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By Terri de la Peña
In October 2019 — eons ago, it seems — I watched John Leguizamo's "Latin History for Morons" unfold at the Ahmanson Theater.
Despite roaring with laughter at Leguizamo's pointed truths, I noticed that not every audience member seemed amused. Some squirmed in their seats, looking uncomfortable, and I thought, Well, here's another instance of existing in parallel universes in one of the country's most diverse cities.
A year later, reflecting on that audience's contrasting reactions, it becomes more apparent to me that regardless of our national origins, all of us — except for the First Nations — have an immigrant past.
Many families have lost track of how and why their ancestors came here.
Since some have not stayed in touch with relatives, they have not heard their family sagas. Because of that, they often find it difficult to understand or see themselves in those who have more recently arrived in this vast country.
Perhaps because of my physical appearance and surname, I have occasionally encountered inquisitive types, wondering how long I have lived in this country, or why I do not have an accent. Recently, a new neighbor even mistook me for a gardener.
While such encounters can be annoying and intrusive, I happen to have relatives native to this land, whose ancestors were here before anyone else. I also have Californio ancestors who began arriving centuries ago, as well as many others who immigrated from Mexico in the years since.
Those family origins no doubt are written on my face. Sometimes, it is challenging to connect both sides of my family, yet they are intrinsic to my personal history.
Between November 11 and 21 this year, three of my respected elders died — two of them revered family members, the third a groundbreaking professor.
Regretfully, I wish I had known my older relatives better. Only from researching family history, and recalling my maternal grandmother's stories, have the connections become especially clear — as have the depth of our roots here.
Here are their stories, which are interwoven with the story of L.A.
CALIFORNIA ROOTS: THE TONGVA ELDER
On November 19, Barbara Scott Drake died suddenly. Born in 1940, she was the daughter of Dolores Lassos and Charles Milton Scott. She was an educator and a Tongva elder.
Barbara and I shared a common ancestor, Mission-era soldier Jose Manuel Valenzuela, a native of Villa de Sinaloa, Mexico, who was recruited there in 1781 to join the military escort that guided the founding settlers of El Pueblo de Los Angeles.
Barbara descended from Valenzuela's first marriage, to Maria Concepcion Higuera Armenta. Most of their children were born near missions where he served: San Gabriel, Santa Barbara, San Buenaventura and La Purisima.
I am descended from Jose Manuel Valenzuela's second marriage to Maria Josefa Alvina Alvarez, herself the daughter of another Mission soldier: Pedro Alvarez, a Yaqui, and his wife Maria Teresa Graciano of Baja California.
The children of the second Valenzuela marriage — the trunk of my family tree — were born in Los Angeles, and baptized at Mission San Gabriel.
I believe my Native appearance originated from my Yaqui ancestor. When I have attended powwows, inevitably, Apaches have asked me about my "people." On mention of my Yaqui fourth great grandfather, they have nodded, reminding me that the Yaqui and Apache people were allies.
Since our Valenzuela ancestor had a total of 17 children, his extended family has deep roots in Southern California. Some Valenzuela sons married women of Native ancestry, mainly connected to Mission San Gabriel.
In 1843, one of Barbara Drake's forebears, Jose Antonio Valenzuela, was the grantee of Rancho Potrero Chico, near present-day Montebello.
Barbara strongly identified with the Gabrielino-Tongva side of the family. She had a love of the land and expertise in native plants. An obituary posted by Claremont's Pitzer College, with which she had a longstanding relationship, described how she "worked tirelessly for the revival of reciprocal relations with the land and played a key role in Tongva cultural revitalization."
Her maternal grandmother, Pastora Rosa Valenzuela Lassos, is mentioned in "O, My Ancestor: Recognition and Renewal for the Gabrielino-Tongva People of the Los Angeles Area," by Claudia Jurmain and William McCawley (Heyday Books, Berkeley, 2009); and in "First Families: A Photographic History of California Indians," by L. Frank and Kim Hogeland (Heyday Books, 2017).
Pastora's sister, Modesta Valenzuela, was the grandmother of current Gabrielino-Tongva chief Anthony Morales. Combining family research from those books with conversations at family reunions, I was astonished to realize Chief Morales is one of my Valenzuela cousins.
Prior to meeting Barbara Drake at a reunion, I had known a single branch of Valenzuelas — also descended from Jose Manuel Valenzuela, the 18th-century Mission soldier.
These were descendants of his son, Jose Luis Valenzuela. In my childhood, they had lived up the block from me in Santa Monica, where my family has a long history. Like me, they identified as Mexican-American, though I later found out that Jose Luis also had wed a Native woman.
My great-great grandmother was Maria Roque Valenzuela, the sister of Jose Luis. Both were children from Jose Manuel Valenzuela's second marriage. Unlike her brothers, Maria Roque married someone from Mexico, Jalisco-born Francisco Marquez in 1834.
Five years later, the Mexican government granted Rancho Boca de Santa Monica to Marquez and his partner, Ysidro Reyes. It encompassed much of what is now Santa Monica, along with Brentwood, Pacific Palisades and parts of Topanga.
My ancestors are buried on that land in the Pascual Marquez Family Cemetery in Santa Monica Canyon.
Needless to say, the Rancho period has been glorified in California history. Though most land grant families would rather forget, those large ranchos had been Mission properties, "secularized" after Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821.
And of course, prior to the Mission era, all of California was home to many tens of thousands of indigenous people, as many as 300,000 by some estimates.
Cousin Barbara Drake reveled in that knowledge of her native heritage, and I treasure memories of her sharing that pride.
I only wish I had known her better and learned more from her.
MEXICAN AND AMERICAN: THE IMMIGRANTS
On the other side of my family, my mother's first cousin Marcos Escobedo was born in Watts, California in 1920. He died November 21 at age 100.
Marcos' parents, Romulo Escobedo and Adelaide Leyba, had immigrated to the U.S. from Zacatecas, Mexico in 1918, during the time of the Mexican Revolution.
Romulo was the younger half-brother of my maternal grandfather, Toribio Escobedo. (Toribio's father, Juan Escobedo, had remarried and had Romulo after Toribio's mother died.)
My grandfather Toribio married by maternal grandmother, Higinia Alarcon, on September 19, 1908 in El Sagrario Cathedral in Ciudad Chihuahua, Chihuahua, Mexico.
The following year, their daughter Juanita — my mother — was born in Gomez-Palacios, Durango, where Toribio, a railroad worker, had moved with his bride.
A couple of years later, with the Mexican Revolution underway, Toribio abandoned his family.
Broken-hearted, grandmother Higinia took Juanita and returned to Chihuahua to be with her mother and brothers.
Her father-in-law, Juan Escobedo, remained in constant contact, lamenting his son Toribio's waywardness. Understandably, my grandmother always stayed in touch with her father-in-law and his second family.
In 1919, grandmother Higinia and 10-year-old Juanita departed Chihuahua for El Paso, Texas, to join her brothers. Eventually, they headed west to California with my grandmother's youngest brother, Jesus Alarcon, and his wife Librada.
In California, Higinia and Juanita lived in various towns from Barstow to East Los Angeles, and finally settled in Santa Monica. There, Juanita met Joaquin de la Pena, the grandson of Maria Ramona Marquez — a descendant of the Marquez rancho family.
My parents married on October 27, 1934. And, as always, grandmother Higinia and Juanita remained in touch with the Escobedo in-laws, in Mexico and in the U.S.
By then Romulo Escobedo, my grandfather's half-brother, had long since been settled here. But during the Great Depression, Romulo and his family found themselves among the thousands of Mexican citizens, and Americans of Mexican descent, "repatriated" to Mexico as mass deportations were carried out.
No matter that their younger children, including Marcos, were U.S. citizens. The whole Escobedo family — Romulo, wife Adelaida, children Maria Luisa, Tecla, Marcos, Marianita, Romulo Jr., and Micaela — wound up on Terminal Island before being deported to Mexico.
That disastrous history parallels what has occurred again within the past few years.
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From Zacatecas, where they returned to, Romulo and Adelaida continued to communicate with Higinia, my grandmother. They entreated Higinia to take in their youngest child, Micaela, in the event of their deaths.
Perhaps they were prescient, for the hardships endured by the Escobedo family undoubtedly contributed to their early demise — Romulo died in 1936, and Adelaida in 1938.
My grandmother was Romulo's sister-in-law and not a blood relative, and she could have refused their urgent request. Yet Higinia, one of the most compassionate people I've ever known, acted accordingly.
Micaela Escobedo, affectionately known as "Mickey," returned to the U.S. after her parents' deaths, under the guardianship of her Tía Higinia.
The 1940 census showed Mickey living with my grandmother, my parents and my older siblings in Santa Monica.
Eventually, her siblings Marcos, Marianita and Romulo Jr. returned to the U.S. as well. Maria Luisa stayed in Mexico; Tecla, with her husband and large family, came back to the U.S. in the late 1950s, shortly before my grandmother's death in 1958.
Although I did not know Marcos and his family well, I certainly was aware of the Escobedo story, having heard it firsthand from my beloved Grandma and my parents.
Some years ago, I mentioned their repatriation to one of Mickey's sons and learned he had no knowledge of that dismal fact. Sadly, Mickey — now in her 90s — can no longer offer memories of her and her siblings' disruptive childhood years.
Francisco E. Balderrama and Raymond Rodriguez wrote in "Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s" (University of New Mexico Press, 2006): "Repatriates who returned to the United States were so busy assimilating, working, and raising families, that they did not have time, or cared to dwell on the fate that had befallen them in their youth.
"Few of them ever discussed the ordeal with their children. Bits and pieces of conversations were overheard from time to time," they wrote, "but most of their offspring had to wait until the advent of Chicano Studies classes before becoming fully aware of the extent of the deportation and repatriation terror unleashed against the Mexican community during the Great Depression."
THE PROFESSOR AND MENTOR
That mention of Chicano Studies leads to the recent passing of another elder — not a relative, but the founding father of Chicano Studies at UCLA. Professor Juan Gómez-Quiñones, born in Parral, Chihuahua in 1940, died at age 80 on November 11.
Ironically, I had a longer association with Juan than I had with my recently deceased relatives. We met in the early 1970s, while I worked as the staff secretary of Aztlan Publications on the UCLA campus. In that capacity, I typed the manuscripts to be published in the Aztlan journal. As a result, Juan trusted me with his own book manuscripts, even after I had moved on to another campus job.
During my time in the Aztlan office, I shared with Juan that my mother and three of my grandparents had come here from Mexico — my mother from Durango, my maternal grandmother from Chihuahua, my maternal grandfather from Zacatecas, and my paternal grandfather from Coahuila.
I also told him of my California-born paternal grandmother, Amelia Enriquez de la Peña, the granddaughter of the 1830s land grantee Francisco Marquez. As Juan was a budding assistant professor in the history department, sharing my family background with him felt particularly gratifying.
After a few years, I left UCLA employment but returned to the campus in 1982. Before long, I landed an academic personnel position in the College of Letters and Science Dean's Office. I reviewed academic personnel actions in detail for the Social Science Dean, and consequently witnessed Juan's prodigious research output whenever he came up for a merit review or promotion.
Of course, I was impressed with the expansion of his scholarly work. Occasionally I would run into Juan on campus, and he would always greet me as a long-lost prima.
In 2013, after 31 years as UCLA staff, I retired. Since then I have continued my interest in Chicano history, plowing through many books — including Juan's.
In early November 2019, Juan tracked me down, asking if I would speak to his Chicano History class. Amazingly, he had remembered my connection to a California land grant, and suggested that I share that family history with his students.
Honored by his request, I agreed, and thoroughly enjoyed interacting with Juan and his students.
LOOK DEEPER, ASK QUESTIONS, AND LISTEN
These three people — Barbara Drake, Marcos Escobedo, and Juan Gómez-Quiñones — have touched my life, some glancingly, others more profoundly.
Each of them, whether directly or through my own delving into family history, opened my eyes to experiences different from my own.
Every family contains untold stories, immigrant sagas, tales of struggle and accomplishment.
However, these days, how many of us are curious enough to ask penetrating questions of our elders?
I wish I had asked more questions. With Barbara Drake, I wish I had asked her more — about her Tongva traditions and oral histories, about her Native ancestors. I wish I would have known Marcos Escobedo better, and heard firsthand how he and his American siblings were "repatriated" to a country they didn't know. And I'm grateful for all I learned from Juan Gómez-Quiñones.
So I encourage anyone reading this to be snoopy. If you ruffle feathers, so be it.
Ask your relatives about their childhoods. What led their families here? And what were those experiences like?
These days, the U.S. seems characterized by its divisions. Don't be uneasy, like the wary audience at Leguizamo's show.
Learn your family stories, share them, write them down. They will teach all of us that we truly are more alike than we ever could have imagined.
And maybe then, in time, we will be one people, one country.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Terri de la Peña likes to say she has a foot on either side of the border, being the daughter of a Mexican immigrant mother and a Californio-descendant father. Other than that, she is a UCLA retiree and the author of three novels, "Margins" (Seal Press, 1992), "Latin Satins" (Seal Press, 1994) and "Faults" (Alyson Publications, 1999). She is Santa Monica born and bred — and still lives there.