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California Cultures

Hispanic Americans: Cultural Traditions and the People (1930s-1960s)

Questions to Consider

How were the real lives of Hispanic Californians in the 20th century different from the romantic image of portrayed in tourist attractions like Olvera Street and the stereotypical roles of Hispanic actors?

What do the images of cultural celebrations say about Mexican cultural identity during the mid-20th century?


With the migrant labor surge of the 1930s and 1940s, Mexicans soon made up the bulk of the labor force in many unskilled and semi-skilled industries, including agriculture, railroads, manufacturing, and domestic service. They soon began to forge identities as Mexican Americans, transforming traditions to create something new.

Some traditions were carried in music, and a flier from around 1935 promotes a Mexican American Dance at San Jose Municipal Auditorium with a singing sister act. A photograph from around the same time (perhaps an ad for a car dealer) shows two women sitting on a car and being serenaded by a Mexican singer with a guitar. By the 1940s, the Mexican holiday Cinco de Mayo was being celebrated in Mexican American communities, as shown in the photograph of one such celebration in Los Angeles.

In a photograph from 1948, actress Anita Aros (center) poses with other costumed actors as they prepare for a fiesta on Olvera Street, a tourist-oriented street in downtown Los Angeles that was also the site for the photograph of the "blessing of the animals." Olvera Street romanticized Mexican American life, but was also the site of historic buildings, such as the Avila Adobe.

"Traditional" outfits like those worn by Mexican cowboys from the Fiesta des Rosas in Santa Clara, and the souvenirs sold on Olvera Street, eventually became cliché. But Mexican American life continued to evolve. In many ways, their lives were a reflection of American life. Oxnard's Dolores Tejeda won the title "La Reina del Churubusco IX," Queen of Beauty of the Southland's Latin-American colony, in 1948. The same year, carrying on strong religious traditions in the Mexican American community, a little girl named Rose Veyna celebrated her first communion, in Anaheim. On a more somber note, a group of young women are identified in a 1942 photograph as a "Mexican American female gang."

Although many migrant workers came to California during World War II, some Mexican Americans — like George Valdez (shown with his wife) — joined the armed services. And In 1946, Ed Roybal, shown here, was sworn in as the first Mexican American LA city councilman, representing the multiethnic (Mexican, African American, Jewish, and Japanese American) neighborhood of Boyle Heights.

Dolores del Rio, a famous Mexican actress, moved to Hollywood during the silent film era. Actor Leo Carillo, who became famous playing the stereotypical Pancho, sidekick to Duncan Reynaldo's Cisco Kid, was descended from an old Californio family. He later became a respected preservationist and conservationist, and Leo Carillo State Park near Malibu was named for him. Cartoonist Gus Arriola created the beautifully drawn comic strip Gordo, an award-winning series that presenting Mexicans, and their folklore and history, with respect.

California Content Standards

English-Language Arts

Grade 4:

1.0 Writing Strategies: Research and Technology

2.0 Writing Applications
2.3 Write information reports.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.2 Make informational presentations.

Grade 11:

1.0 Writing Strategies: Research and Technology

2.0 Writing Applications
2.4 Write historical investigation reports.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.2 Deliver oral reports on historical investigations.
2.4 Delivery multimedia presentations.

History-Social Science

Grade 4:

4.4 Students explain how California became an agricultural and industrial power, tracing the transformation of the California economy and its political and cultural development since the 1850s.

Grade 11:

11.8 Students analyze the economic boom and social transformation of post-World War II America. (11.8.2, 11.8.8)

11.9 Students analyze U.S. foreign policy since World War II. (11.9.7)

Visual Arts

3.0 Historical and Cultural Context Understanding the Historical Contributions and Cultural Dimensions of the Visual Arts. Students analyze the role and development of the visual arts in past and present cultures throughout the world, noting human diversity as it relates to the visual arts and artists.

Fiesta de las Rosas cowboys [ca. 1930] Mexican-American Dance at San Jose Municipal Auditorium flier [ca. 1935] Two women sitting on the front of an automobile while being serenaded by a Mexican singer, ca. 1935
Mexican American dancer and musicians on Cinco de Mayo, May 12, 1941 Mexican American female gang, ca. 1942 Beatrice & George Valdez at Camp Beale, ca. 1945
Edward Roybal is sworn in as the first Mexican American councilman for the City of Los Angeles, 1946 Film Poster for Doña Perfecta featuring Dolores Del Rio, 1946 Anita Aros (center) poses with other costumed actors as they prepare for a fiesta on Olvera Street in Los Angeles, California, ca. 1948
Rose Veyna's First Communion, 1948 Blessing of the animals on Olvera Street, Los Angeles (Calif.), March 28, 1948 Dolores Tejeda, queen of beauty of the Southland's Latin-American colony, 1948
Gus Arriola, Los Angeles artist and creator of the 'Gordo' comic series, poses with some of his young admirers, ca. 1949 Leo Carrillo unveils portrait of Antonio Carrillo, 1955 Olvera Street scene, Los Angeles (Calif.), 1960

Note about picture captions

The original captions on some of the historical photographs may include racial terms that were commonplace at the time, but considered to be derogatory today.

Analysis Tools

6C's of Primary Source Analysis (PDF) (Source: UCI History Project)
Photographs (PDF) (Source: Library of Congress)
Posters/Visuals (PDF) (Source: Bringing History Home)
Primary Source Activity (PDF) (Source: Library of Congress)