Book Review: Whitewashed Adobe

The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past

By William Deverell

As usual I am reading books that my wife buys for her sociology classes, but I really liked this one.  I generally enjoy reading any California history, but this book really touches on something I find immensely interesting- the California Myth.

The California Myth means different things to different people, but it’s always been fascinating to me how people view my state.  And not really so much how people outside of California view my state- Californians are notorious for being indifferent to that, and I am completely typical in that regard.  But how Californians see California.  What makes certain people so enthralled with living here?

One of my favorite examples is The Woodie.  I attend the Ocean Beach Christmas parade most years and there’s always a contingent of woodie drivers that drive the parade.  Why?  What is it about wood panels that makes these cars so amazing?  People my mom’s age (my mom included) go NUTS when they see these cars.

“Oh look a woodie!  A WOODIE!”

This book covers the period between when LA started to grow – did you know that LA had a population of less than 10,000 as late as the mid 19th century?- to the Great Depression.  So sadly he doesn’t explain the wood-paneled car obsession.  But he does talk at length about one of the other HUGE pieces of California mythology- The Mission.

If I’d never actually seen I might have an idea of a grand cathedral ala Notre Dame.  Or a mighty castle.  Not the puny adobe and wood chapels that they actually are.  There’s one in San Diego off Friars road that, if I hadn’t by chance read the sign out front, I would have never attached any significance to at all.

Which isn’t to say that a historical site has to be gigantic or imposing to be important, but it helps.  At any rate, what are we celebrating?

Spanish conquerors who enslaved the native peoples.  HOORAY!

The Mission Myth of a peaceful, pastoral California is why every other business in California is called Mission _____.  That’s why Taco Bells built in the 70s look the way they do.  It’s why my baseball team is called the Padres (something which is dangerously close to having a team called the Montgomery Overseers, or something like that).

Deverell’s central point is that early California boosters used Mission imagery to promote California tourism- California had a white, in this case Spanish, history, that was uncomplicated by anyone from that historical period choosing to rudely stick around.

Of course, the Spanish weren’t gone at that point, they had just become known as Mexican.  Which is where it gets interesting.

The 20th Century in California featured a series of ugly battles between people trying to segregate our cities.  But it really started in the 19th century- for Los Angeles to become the tourism mecca, it had to hide all those Mexicans, or at least make them wear Spanish style outfits and dance for tourists.

I’m not really doing this book justice.  I loved Deverell’s witty and ironic style, and I LOVE reading direct quotes from irrationally optimistic 19th century boosters and promoters.  Some people might find it a bit too polemical in places.   Or if you don’t care about California you might not give a crap.  Anyway, I enjoyed it.

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2 comments

  1. You may be indifferent to outside people’s view of Cali, but I’ve always thought of Cali as bit like sydney. The surfers and beach bunnies are similar to ours in sydney and San Fran is definitely a second cousin to our city in terms of feel. LA, however? Forget about it! 🙂

    1. Heh heh, LA is a hard city to love. Every time I visit there and then come home to San Diego I’m like, “boy are we spoiled here! No traffic!” But if I were serious about being somebody in the world I know I’d have to move to LA though, because there’s a lot you can do in LA that you can’t do anywhere else. And there are some great parts of town if you know where to look. San Francisco is a gem of a city, so Sydney must be pretty cool as well. The one thing everyone can agree on is that Orange County is embarrassingly awful. Except for people who live there.

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