Visiting California? There is plenty to see and visit in the Golden State!
Besides Disneyland, Universal Studios and Hollywood stars’ mansions, there is a rich Hispanic history in California that most Latinos don’t know but it has a strong presence and will make all of us very proud of our heritage.
Lets keep in mind that California, as well as other states —Texas, Florida, Colorado, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico were part of Spain first and of Mexico later.
Spaniards visited California as early as 1542 when sailor Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo navigated along the coast north of the current city of San Francisco. However, they started to settle in the area at the beginning of the 1700s. Father Junipero Serra was in charge of establishing a serie of missions around the state, united by a road called Camino Real.
The Spanish influence in California is so strong that the four main cities are named Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and Sacramento. Several other cities also carry Spanish names, like Fresno, Madera, Modesto, San Bruno, San Bernardino, Manteca, etc.
Here are places with strong Spanish cultural influence Hispanics should know or visit:
There are 21 missions along the state. They were built as part of the conquest of Alta California, basically along the coast or barely inland. The first one, San Diego de Alcalá, was founded in 1769.
The missions were a mix of spiritual and administrative centers for Spaniards. They built them using native people’s labor. Thousands of them died during this period of time because of intensive work, malnutrition or diseases.
Most of the missions are well preserved, attracting thousands of visitors and in many of them there are cultural activities. This is the case of San Juan Bautista Mission, located in the picturesque town of the same name, about 90 miles south of San Francisco, and built in 1797.
The Mission is in front of a Spanish plaza, a common “templete” for building cities, which has a plaza as the center of a town, with the main buildings around it, including the administrative center, police or military post, the church, etc.
Around the area, several old buildings complete a beautiful scenario that transport visitors to the past. The Mission is open to the public and the church is also active.
Here is where historical Teatro Campesino —founded as part of the movement surrounding Cesar Chavez’s struggle to organize farm workers in the 1960s— presents each year La Pastorela, a traditional Nativity story in which shepherds are the main characters. La Pastorela is a very common play in countries like Mexico and is represented in different ways in different cities.
Teatro Campesino presents La Pastorela every year in December in a recognized theatrical production.
For locations of the Missions around California, visit the official site which include a map and the history of each Mission.
The Mission also established the Spanish architecture in the West Coast.
Olvera Street, Los Angeles
It is considered the original birthplace of the city La Reina de los Angeles, around 1781 when Spaniards colonized this area, and where the indigenous people of the Tongva Nation originally lived.
Today, Olvera Street is considered the heart of the Mexican culture of Los Angeles and comprise an area with monuments, restaurants, galleries, and more.
Each year several cultural activities take place here, including Dia de los Muertos, Mexican Revolution anniversary, Virgen de Guadalupe celebration, Los Tres Reyes, and more. Olvera Street is a short street, connected to a plaza and surrounded by murals, colorful stores and a permanent fiesta atmosphere.
This magnificent 1,200-acre park is a must-see attraction in Southern California. It was built following several architectural styles. Contains the famous San Diego Zoo, several theaters, museums, large green areas and paths, gift shops, restaurants, and more.
In 1835 the authorities of San Diego set aside the area for “common use” by local residents. However, no construction took place until 1868, when California was already part of USA after the 1848 Mexican-American War.
Main construction started in 1914 thanks to the Panama-California Exposition. Then another big event, the 1936 California Pacific International Exposition, helped the park to complete its appearance.
Balboa Park frequently holds events throughout its museums, venues, and plazas. These events include weekly concerts at the Spreckles Organ Pavilion, guest speakers, and annual parades and fairs.
National Chavez Center, Keene.
The Center, dedicated to preserve the memory of farmworker leader Cesar Chavez, includes a large exhibit gallery —with Cesar’s carefully preserved office and library— and the Memorial Gardens around his grave site.
The Center is located within the main campground of the United Farm Workers (UFW), the union co-founded by Cesar Chavez in the mid 60s, called La Paz. Keene is the small community where La Paz is.
The UFW Foundation wants the National Chavez Center to be a place “to learn and be inspired” on Chavez’s legacy.
Keene is located a few minutes East of Bakersfield on Hwy 58 and surrounded by the Tehachapi hills.
Chavez developed his social and political work in Delano —located about 60 miles North, on Hwy 99— during the mid-60s, but later he and his supporters moved to La Paz. For those interested on this segment of modern history, Delano is another important place to visit.
The name means Forty Acres and here is where the young United Farm Workers Union (UFW) took its first steeps as a labor organization during the 1960s.
The place, located on the outskirts of Delano, still preserves the offices and meeting halls where Chavez and his followers held meetings and organized the famous picket lines against agricultural companies paying very low salaries to their workers.
Around the city of Delano visitors can find other evidences of this important part of Latino modern history. The UFW played a crucial role in the formation of current Hispanic leaders in the Southwest.
While the city isn’t touristic, visitors can take the opportunity to visit the grandiose Yosemite National Park and/or the Sequoias National Park, both located close to Delano.
Mission District, San Francisco
It is called just “The Mission,” it is the Latino neighborhood of San Francisco. Here you can find dozens of Taquerias as well as many other restaurants and stores with goodies from Central and South American countries. However, since this is San Francisco, you’ll also find other types of food.
Besides food, book stores, murals and historical buildings give this area a unique style and atmosphere. Talking about buildings, the name of the area comes from the Mission San Francis of Asis, one of the oldest buildings of the city.
The Dolores Park is a must-visit one. Here, hundreds of neighbors and visitors play, rest, read or just talk when mild and sunny weather allow such things. Across the Park stands the beautiful Mission High School, built in the 1920s.
The Mission has an incredible cultural and night life. Here are located several cultural organizations, such as Galeria de la Raza. In May people dance on the streets during the local Carnival and those music lovers can’t have enough on the many places attracting bands and artists from everywhere. Just name your music and you’ll find it around The Mission.
This area is becoming more cosmopolitan throughout a process called “gentrification,” meaning the demographics and culture is shifting —less Latino, in other words. New housing projects are luring white middle class people as the technological industry of the Silicon Valley is growing fast.
Still, nobody expects The Mission to change its style anytime soon.
And while in San Francisco, there are other interesting places with Latino accent.
Presidio of San Francisco
Located on the spectacular Golden Gate Park, in San Francisco, Presidio was originally a Spanish military base built in 1776.
In 1989 the Presidio fortress ceased to be an active duty military base and is now part of a developing program, which include commercial and public use.
The Golden Gate Park comprise woods and hills marking the entrance to the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the most famous touristic landmarks of the city.
The military transferred the land to the National Park Services in 1994, which transformed old troop dormitories in apartments, boosting the touristic attraction of the area. These building have a very picturesque look —many of them with red bricks— and style.
This former military base, used by three nations, Spain, Mexico and USA, is a very significant and beautiful place to visit, as well as the park itself.
Alcatraz, “The Rock,” of San Francisco
While in San Francisco you can’t pass the opportunity to visit the famous former federal prison of Alcatraz, or “The Rock.”
This little island housed the first lighthouse in US Pacific Coast and a famous federal prison.
Alcatraz is a small rocky island located 1.5 miles offshore from San Francisco and it is visible from the city. The name was given by Spanish navigator Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775, who charted the Bay of San Francisco and called the island “La Isla de los Alcatraces,” meaning the Island of the Pelicans.
California was still part of Mexico when Governor Pio Pico asked Julia Workman to build a lighthouse on Alcatraz in 1846.
In 1853 it became part of the US military. In 1867 the construction of the prison started. Several additional constructions transformed it in the fortified prison-fortress people know today. In 1933 ended its military prison status and was transferred to the Bureau of Prisons.
Alcatraz was considered the most secure of all US prisons. It housed notorious prisoners, like Al Capone, Puerto Rican nationalist Rafael Cancel Miranda, and others. It is little known that during the Civil War (1860-1865), Alcatraz housed confederated sympathizers and, during World War I (1914-1918) the first well known conscientious objector, Philip Grosser.
Alcatraz proudly claimed no prisoner successfully escaped —even though there were several attempts to escape. However, in 1962, three prisoners participated in what is considered the only successful “possible” escape. The escapees were never found and Alcatraz’s authorities said the trio most likely drowned in the iced and tricky waters surrounding the island.
This story elevated the dark legend of the prison, which in turn was closed in 1963.
Currently is a very popular touristic attraction, and some visitors can spend the night in one of the cells, just like regular prisoner.
Mexican Heritage Plaza, San Jose
If you visit San Francisco, you could drive 50 miles South to visit the city of San Jose.
This industrious and populated city, with almost one million people —more than a third of Latino origin— was originally called El Pueblo de San Jose de Guadalupe by the Spaniards who established it in 1777.
This Pueblo was basically a farming area dedicated to provide food to the more populated centers of Monterey and San Francisco. When California obtained the statehood, San Jose was it’s first capital, privilege that lasted a short period of time.
The expansion of the city began after World War II when many war veterans settle in the area. Then, at the beginning of the 1960s, the growth of the electronic industry and currently with the explosion of the Silicon Valley —right between San Jose and San Francisco— converted this city into a big metropolis.
The significance of the Latino presence materialized in 1999 with the opening of the Mexican Heritage Plaza, considered a unique community and cultural arts facility located in the heart of the area where Mexican settled in the mid-19th century.
The site formerly housed a grocery store that was the target of one of the boycotts organized by the United Farm Workers (UFW), the union co-founded by Cesar Chavez.
The Plaza features a theater, pavilion, art gallery, classroom space, and an outdoor square and gardens built in the architectural style of a traditional Mexican plaza. The Plaza hosts plays and other performances, art exhibits, community events, corporate meetings, weddings and quinceañeras, etc.
The City of San Jose has control of the Mexican Heritage Plaza and recently appointed the School of Arts and Culture —a non profit cultural organization— to run it permanently.
While the city of Sacramento, the capital city of the Golden State, has less presence of Latinos on it’s history, you can feel their presence and influence.
The city took its name from the Sacramento River, an important river which flows for more than 400 miles, finally reaching Suisin Bay, an arm of the San Francisco Bay. Spanish explorer Gabriel Moraga name it “Río de los Sacramentos.”
The city was built mainly by europeans and by 1849, during the so called “Gold Rush,” it became an important commercial point, distribution center and a crossroads for gold seekers and adventurers.
The Gold Rush brought thousands of immigrants from all over to California with the illusion to strike rich, including hundreds of Chileans and Peruvians. The gold fever gave California the nickname of Golden State.
For Spain and then Mexico, Monterey was the capital of California. But in 1853 —five years after California became part of USA— Sacramento became the capital, after San Jose, which hold that status for a short period of time.
The city is located in the Northern area of the state and the Central Valley’s. Currently is considered one of the most diverse cities of the state, with a very busy cultural and commercial life.
Chinese immigrants populated the city before 1882 —the year USA banned people from that country to enter— and currently China Town is one of the several touristic attractions of Sacramento.
The Central Valley, called the breadbasket of the country, is formally divided in two: The Sacramento Valley to the North and the San Joaquin Valley to the South. Being part of the agriculture world means to have a large Latino immigrant population. With 466,000 inhabitants, according to the 2010 US Census, third of them are of Latino origin. This information does not include the surrounding rural areas.
Sacramento’s downtown is clean and very attractive. More recently, the Old Town was revitalized becoming an instant touristic boom, with buildings resembling the Gold Rush era and with friendly atmosphere.
Originally published on VOXXI as Top 10 Hispanic places people must know in California