What was life like in California’s Rancho period? Some have portrayed it as an idyllic time. They imagine young señores and señoritas lounging around on the porches of their tile-roofed haciendas. But first-hand accounts often tell a rougher story.
José Jesús López grew up in the 1850s, in Rancho Era Los Angeles. His neighborhood was known as El Paredón Blanco (today’s Boyle Heights).
José’s grandparents came to California in the early days of the Portolá expedition. As a young man, he was sheep herder in the San Joaquín Valley and later a vaquero. He eventually rose to become the mayordomo (foreman) of the Tejón Ranchos in Kern County. Throughout much of his life, he kept a diary, recording information about times now long past.
In 1916, "Don José", as many knew him, sat down to tell the story of his life growing up during the final years of the rancho era.
Don José mentions several interesting details about life in old Los Angeles. On thing that stands out is his description of Californio homes. Most were made of adobe, and their roofs were covered with asphaltum or brea (think of the La Brea Tar Pits).
My grandfather, Esteban López, hauled the most of the brea…It was dipped up in those wooden buckets and placed in wooden barrels on the old wheeled carretas or ox carts. It was a messy job and my father always avoided it when he could.
And the tar roofs could be messy.
Most of the time the brea was stringing down somewhere. Often it would find a small hole or a crack in the dirt and come stringing down. Then a bucket was hung under it until someone climbed on the roof, dug a hole and plugged the leak.
Everyone had a roof, but doors were a luxury:
At first none of the houses, not even those of the wealthy people, had wooden doors. A dry cowhide was hung over the door opening like a curtain. That was when the weather was bad. Most doorways were open all of the time. An Angeleno always spoke of "la puerta," meaning the door opening, not the door, as there was no door.
If doors were considered a luxury, so were windows:
Windows either were entirely open or were curtained. To guard against livestock coming in the windows, wooden bars were placed in the openings. A few of the more fortunate home owners had iron bars in their windows — until the blacksmith ran short of iron. Then they were taken out and wooden bars put in.
But of course, necessity is the mother of invention, and Californios could be inventive:
My father once told of several houses that had window openings covered with whale intestines, scraped thin and dried. They let in some light and no air.
So the next time you are in downtown Los Angeles, imagine a neighborhood made up of houses with tar roofs, cowhide doors and whale intestine windows. It is good to remember where we have come from.