Thursday, June 28, 2018

In Memoriam: An Elder's Last Chapter

Daniel Cano  

     Two weeks ago, Fred Machado passed away at the age of 95. I'd been sharing with La Bloga readers some of Fred's stories regarding his family's land, Rancho La Ballona, granted to his ancestors Agustin and Ygnacio Machado back in the early 1800s, when Alta California was transitioning from Spanish to Mexican rule.
     Here, I pass on the conclusion of my interview with Fred and his nephew Ron Mendez.
     I asked Fred and Ron, “What do the two of you think about Playa Vista’s land development, especially since it was once your family’s land?”
     It wasn’t complicated. Fred understood progress. The same way the California rancheros lost their land to Anglo settlers, their Spanish, Mexican ancestors had taken indigenous lands, primarily the land belonging to the Tongva-speaking Chumash, Shoshone in origin and known as Gabrielenos to the Spanish.
     The Tongva inhabited the area of La Ballona for thousands of years before Europeans arrived.
Fred thought more about the cultural aspect of the loss than the economic or financial aspects. He recalled that in the early stages of the Playa Vista development, a representative from the local Los Angeles City Council person's office had approached him and asked if he would join a coalition to assist in the founding of an Indian and Hispanic cultural center to be built on Playa Vista Development Corporation land. Fred said it was a wonderful idea. But it did not last long due to internal bickering and disorganization.
     The plans ended once Dream Works decided against building its film studio on the site. Still, Fred said he made a lot of friends in the initial discussions and was sorry to see the project die.
     "Everything fell apart," he said, astonished by the amount of  “amazing historical information” the Tongva representatives offered regarding early native settlements in the area. He added, "And this was before they discovered a huge Tongva gravesite on the grounds. Fascinating stuff."
     Fred said there were a few Tongva representatives still outraged at losing their land to Spain and Mexico. They were looking to place blame on the early Californios for stealing Indian lands, which according to Fred, "Wasn't altogether wrong."
     Fred also remembered hearing about bad blood between the early Californios and Spanish authorities in Mexico City. Fred surmised that after a certain period in the 1800s, his great-grandfather Jose Agustin Machado did not want to live under Spain's rule, and probably did not want to adhere to Mexican authority, after 1820, when Mexico won its independence from Spain.
     Ron said, "Alta California, to them, was a new frontier. Many Californios saw themselves as neither Spanish nor Mexican."
     Alta California was thousands of miles and worlds away from both Spain and Mexico, and the laws and reforms passed by those two governments had no bearing on the new culture the Californios had created, so it must have been natural for the rancheros to see the land as theirs. In some ways, they were both mentally and physically ready for a new country, and it was fateful when the United States entered and brought new promises and laws to the Californios, and broke both with impunity.
     Ron said, "My gut feeling is that [our ancestors] would have rather been Americans than Mexicans."
     California and Mexican historians have written that, in reality, the Californios had mixed feelings. The more conservative preferred to remain loyal to Spain, Mexico, and the church, while the more progressive, seeing how the Church and the missions controlled so much, preferred a different path, autonomy, or possibly, siding with the Americans.
     Since the Machado’s lands were in California, it would be foolish for them to return to Mexico. That meant losing everything they'd worked so hard to build. Also, as already stated, they had created their own culture in California, not Yankee, not Spanish, and certainly not Mexican. For them, to be American was someplace in between.
     Mexico was a country the Machados no longer knew. To this Fred grew thoughtful, his voice lowered, as he, forever the pragmatist, asked me directly, "You’ve studied this more than I have. Here's the border," he said, drawing an invisible line with his hand on his dining room table. "Here is Mexico. Here is the U.S. Why is it that on the American side it's all developed? And on the south…." He grew pensive, nearly somber, then questioned, "…nothing?"
     Other men and women, of Fred's generation, I'd interviewed, also hinted at the dilemma. After all, they knew that Mexico saw them, their children, their parents, and in some cases, grandparents, as
pochos--bitter fruit, for betraying their motherland by leaving and going north. Yet, “Poor Mexico,” as Mexican president Porfirio Diaz proclaimed at the turn of the 20th century, “So far from god, yet so close to the United States," could not provide for its citizens, not 200 years ago, and not today.
     It was not the people who betrayed Mexico by leaving, many who emigrated, believed. But, as my grandfather believed, it was Mexico that betrayed them. Whether one identifies Mexico as a place, a people, a culture, a government, or a state of mind, it did not better itself or help its people, except for the richest and most influential, who, even today, continue to control the wealth.
     I told Fred, regarding my understanding of border politics, that the U.S. took half of Mexico’s finest land, the Sierra Nevadas, for example, its mineral resources and water, its gold, timber, and animal life, and the San Joaquin and Imperial Valleys, not to mention the Rockies; the ore, copper, bronze, uranium, and coal in New Mexico, Arizona, Oregon, Washington, Utah, and—the oil in Texas. It was Latin America's indigenous people who developed the early mining techniques, passed on to Mexican miners, which caused American mining companies to scour Mexico's villages in the 1920s, and again in the 1940s, seeking experienced Mexican miners, which helped in the U.S. war effort, as well as line the pockets of robber barons and captains of industry.
     Mexico fought two wars of independence, first from Spain, then from France, when the U.S. attacked in 1848. Finally, a civil war, much of it financed by American banking and mining corporations, while the U.S. government turned a blind eye. To justify its policy of Manifest Destiny, the U.S. congress debated the idea that Mexicans were lower on the human chain than Europeans. Men with names like Hearst, Guggenheim, Doheny, Carnegie, and their business interests manipulated the so-called “Good Neighbor Policy” at will.
     Mexico is still lucky to own Baja California, though U.S. assaults on that strip of real estate heat up from time to time. And we hadn't even begun to discuss Spain’s conquest and destruction of the indigenous population.
     Today, Mexican, Honduran, and Guatemalan farmers cannot compete with heavily subsidized U.S. corn, cotton, and bean farmers. So, what happens to the thousands of Mexican and Central American farmers and workers who lose their lands and jobs in Mexico and Central America? It is they who make the daily trek to our borders. It isn’t simply that one side is incompetent and the other competent. It is more about the corruption on both sides of the border.
     In her book, "Drug War Capitalism", Dawn Paley describes how Latin American officials confiscate resource-rich lands from Latin America's Indians, sell them to European, Canadian, Asian, and American investors, only to tell the public, after a military slaughter, the Indians were really drug dealers, posing as villagers. Historically, political cabals and machinations in Mexico’s affairs have stirred the water as sure as a rock dropped into a pond causes ripples and waves.
     We grew silent, for a moment. Then Fred confessed, he had been far removed from his Mexican self. It wasn't until he began immersing himself in family history and sharing the information with his family that certain Spanish words jolted his memory, reminding him how, as a child, “My parents always spoke English whenever we kids were around. Then as I began studying my family's history, I started hearing familiar Spanish words. Oh, I remember that word, I’d say to myself."
     Growing up with light skin, he and his cousins didn't feel the discrimination the darker kids felt. "For them, it was bad,” he remembered.
     Fred lived his life as an Anglo, and his Machado name but an anomaly. In certain ways, his research into his family history resurrected his dormant Mexican spirit.
     “Yes, back then, in my mind, I was an Anglo,” he said. “All of the older folks always spoke Spanish, except when we kids were around, they’d switch to English.” He thought, adding, "My grandfather, Ricardo, who everyone called ‘the Old Man’ was very wealthy at one time. He was a typical don and lived on the ranch in what we called the 'Big House' surrounded by acres and acres of land."
     Fred described how, as children, neither he nor his cousins could go alone to visit their grandfather. Their fathers would take the children to the Big House, out near Jefferson and Sepulveda. The kids would stand outside and wait while their fathers entered first, to greet the old man and talk family business. After some time, the fathers returned to escort the children, one at a time, into the house.
     Fred said, “The Old Man would be sitting in a large chair and take us, one at a time, on his lap, pat us on the head, and give us each a dime. Then we would leave.”
     Fred remembered one time when his grandfather and the grandchildren, thirty-two in all, gathered for a photo in front of the Big House. Fred said, "Today you might visualize that this was what it was like to belong to one of the big Italian Mafia families."
     Fred's grandfather died in 1934, as the Great Depression raged. By this time, most of the land known as Rancho La Ballona had been sold and Ricardo’s money nearly depleted. To survive those difficult years, Fred's father farmed the remaining land. His mother found a job.
     I asked, “How much land did your father farm?”
     Fred said his grandfather, Ricardo, gave his heirs twelve portions of La Ballona. But by that time,
prior inheritances had carved the land into tiny parcels. Fred's father, Federico, received a two hundred-foot slither of land near the beach. He bought another lot from his sister. But as the country slipped deeper into the Depression, Federico sold much of the land, as did other family members.
     Today, most Westside residents don't even remember the land as Rancho La Ballona, or even the Machado Land, but as the Lopez Ranch, after the lands' most recent owner, a family, Fred told me, that once worked for the Machados.
     Fred remembered his parents moving off the ranch but returning to live a few times in the 1930s. But by all accounts, that was the end of the Machado relationship to a land that once covered much of L.A.'s westside. Though Fred understood his ties to the land had been physically severed, he knew, on a deeper level, a spiritual level, his life, and his family's ties to the land could never be severed.
     Rest in Peace my dear friend, and, like all good elders, thanks for keeping our heritage alive.

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