Francisco P. Ramírez
Californio editor and Yanqui conquest
Less than a decade after los Angeles residents had seen the border between the United States and Mexico redrawn to leave them inside the United States, Californios had become strangers in their own land. Left between two nations and two cultures, they found themselves living in an Anglo system they did not understand and that, in turn, showed little desire to understand them or their Latino ways.
The efforts to find ways to combine Anglo and Hispanic cultures go on today, as Hispanics continue to grow in the U.S. population and are projected to be the nation’s largest racial or ethnic minority group within four years.
Like other Latinos left north of the border in 1848, Californios were among the first to face the realities of being Latino in an Anglo world. They looked for guidance. Some found it in the words of Francisco P. Ramírez, teen-age editor of the first Spanish-language newspaper of Los Angeles, El Clamor Público (The Public Outcry). In his May 10, 1856, edition, he wrote, “California has fallen into the hands of the ambitious sons of North America, who will not stop until they have satisfied their passions, by driving the first occupants of the land out of the country, vilifying their religion and disfiguring their customs.”
Like many educated Californios, Ramírez first welcomed the ideals of equality, democracy and civil liberties espoused in the U.S. Constitution. But he was disappointed when his people and their rights were trampled upon by the Yanquis espousing those ideals. Nevertheless he tried to take the best from both worlds, finding his own democratic thinking was best reflected in the Republican Party ideals of the day.
“The North Americans pretend to give us lessons in humanity and to bring to our people the doctrine of salvation so we can govern ourselves, to respect the laws and conserve order. Are these the ones who treat us worse than slaves?” he wrote in a September 1855 article condemning lynchings of Mexicanos.
The lynchings, squatters and imposition of a new language, culture and legal system made the years following the United States-Mexico War of 1846 to 1848 violent and unpleasant for Spanish-speaking residents in the lands stretching from Arkansas and Louisiana west to the Pacific Ocean and as far north as Wyoming. In the name of Manifest Destiny, the United States had waged a war of conquest to acquire these territories and the prized San Francisco Bay as its Pacific outpost. A new international boundary was drawn, extending more than 2,000 miles from near San Diego eastward to the Rio Grande and thence to the Gulf of Mexico. The lands north of this line eventually became all or part of the states of California, Texas, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Kansas, Oklahoma and Wyoming.
But along with the mountains, prairies and deserts came thousands of Tejanos in Texas, Hispanos in New Mexico and Californios in California who found themselves on the Yanqui side of a changed border. They had not come to the United States. The United States had come to them. And it had arrived in the form of battleships and invading armies. U.S. treaty negotiators promised their Mexican counterparts that the rights of former Mexican citizens would be respected. But the U.S. Senate canceled provisions in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo enumerating those rights. The result: a victorious minority was in power over a vanquished majority.
This United States military conquest, which followed earlier economic penetration of the Mexican territories, was itself followed by efforts to dominate the majority native populations politically, socially and culturally. The signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo signaled the end of military action but the beginning of domestic cycles of conquest.
Many anglos came west by ship or covered wagon infused with a desire to exploit natural resources that had been held by people who they felt did not deserve them. Richard Henry Dana’s 1840 book, Two Years Before the Mast, portrayed the Californios as too lazy to develop their own lands and, noting the good climate and harbor, said that “nothing but the character of the people prevents Monterey from becoming a great town.” Four years later Illinois lawyer and travel writer Thomas Jefferson Farnham observed in a book on his California travels, “The Californios are an imbecile, pusillanimous race of men, and unfit to control the destinies of that beautiful country.” The words of U.S. journalists were just as harsh.
“What has miserable, inefficient Mexico, with her superstition, her burlesque upon freedom, her actual tyranny by the few over the many—what has she to do with the great mission of peopling the new world with a noble race? Be it ours, to achieve that mission!” Walt Whitman wrote in the Brooklyn Eagle during the war.
After the war some parts of the former Mexican department of Alta California changed more quickly than others. Following the 1848 discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada foothills east of present-day Sacramento, thousands of gold seekers converged from around the world to quickly build up the city of San Francisco and establish mining camps in the gold fields. Californios and Native Americans were the targets of vigilantes, lynchings and violence as Anglos took their homes, lands and possessions.
But in pastoral southern California, ranching and agricultural pursuits dominated. There the Californios predominated numerically for a longer time as a slower stream of Anglo settlers entered the newly acquired territories with their own institutions, including the press. Change came more slowly than in the north, but ultimately with no less impact.
Several newspapers had been published in Texas and New Mexico before the war with the United States. But while California printer Augustín Zamorano had set up a print shop in Monterey in 1834, apparently no Californio took up his offer to provide “equitable prices with gentlemen who may wish to establish any periodical.” In the years following the war, journalism flourished in both Spanish and English in the territories taken from Mexico. One directory lists 132 Spanish-language or bilingual newspapers published between 1848 and 1900 in what had become the southwestern United States.
Many were financed by political parties or business interests that linked them to the new power structure. In fact, in keeping with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, some newspapers received government subsidies for printing laws and public notices bilingually or in Spanish.
Los Angeles’ first newspaper, the Los Angeles Star, began in 1851 as a bilingual newspaper receiving a state subsidy to print laws in Spanish. The four-page paper devoted its back section to La Estrella de Los Angeles: Spanish-language news, advertising and public notices.
Out of that section evolved El Clamor Público in June 1855, edited by teen-ager Ramírez, who had been a compositor and one in a string of editors of La Estrella. The value of Ramírez’s work had been noted in February 1855 by San Francisco’s English-language daily the Alta California, which observed, “Those versed in the Castilian language say that La Estrella is a model for purity of style.”
Born in Los Angeles in 1837 and with no formal education except for a year studying in San José, Ramírez left the Star to begin El Clamor Público “because he had to handle copy tinged with a seemingly repellent gringo chauvinism,” wrote Leonard Pitt in The Decline of the Californios. So he began Los Angeles’ third newspaper and the first one to be printed mainly in Spanish. The weekly went to press on Thursday and sold at $5 a year.
By the end of May 1855, “the Star had given up all its Spanish-language news and advertisements. The paper transferred them to El Clamor Público, a journal which was to be ‘devoted exclusively to the service and interests of Native Californians,’” wrote William B. Rice in his book, The Los Angeles Star. Ramírez, described by Rice as “a precocious Angeleno and multilinguist,” announced the birth of the new paper in the Star, noting that 100 subscribers would be needed to begin publication.
“Today we respectfully greet the public,” Ramírez wrote in an opening editorial that noted Anglo interest in his newspaper. “We ask our patrons for the liberal subscriptions they have favored us with. Even though it is difficult to say, the foreigners have demonstrated much more fervor in subscribing to the paper than the Californios themselves.”
El Clamor Público started out with a moderate, businesslike tone. It was a five-column paper, smaller than its two competitors, and with few advertisements at first. That number later grew. Advertising and subscription rates were the same as for the Star, $2 and $5 respectively. Publishing many poems, it said in its masthead that it was a “Periódico Independiente y Literaria.” Like the Star, El Clamor Público benefited from printing contracts with local and state officials, sometimes printing a law in Spanish for the city and publishing ordinances and official notices for the state.
Along with some leading
Californios, Ramírez embraced the liberal ideas discussed in other Western nations of his time. In June 1855, he wrote that the paper was dedicated to “political independence,” “moral and material progress” and a “regime of law and order.” He supported the “magnanimous and grandiose ideals” of the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence and the nation’s dedication to popular government, economic progress, civil rights and the “arts of peace.”
Taking the founding fathers at their word and then experiencing the offenses committed against his people, however, Ramírez soon struck a more courageous editorial tone.
“El Clamor nicely captured the distressed mood of the Latin Americans of southern California; it gave them remarkably good news coverage and a public forum for their ideals,” wrote Pitt. “If Manuel Reytes felt outraged by the Yankee’s selfish use of the word ‘American,’ he could write a dissertation urging that the ‘sacrosanct’ term should embrace all people of the Western Hemisphere—Latin Americans as well as Anglo Americans. If the anonymous writer signing himself ‘Consistencia’ wished to dilate on the gringo legal profession and publicly swear off ever voting for a lawyer again, or if ‘Uno Mexicano’ wished simply to unburden himself generally about the assorted miseries of his people in California, the columns of El Clamor Público were open and waiting.”
Ramírez, Pitt wrote, “for four years from 1855 to 1859 was the new self-styled champion of the Spanish Americans in California. A good deal of his fervor, bombast, and eloquence stemmed from his youth and his awareness of the difficulties of the younger generation. A baby when his elders were fighting rebellions, a boy during the gold rush, a youth who had neither land or cattle, nor stature in the better classes, Ramírez, nevertheless, somehow managed to articulate the views of most Californios in the 1850s.”
Ramírez’s commitment to civil liberties often irritated the Star. The Star even accused him of exaggerating the Californio’s plight and stirring up racial hatreds.
Ramírez also kept an eye on the Star, complaining when that newspaper reported the “tendencies of our Mexican population toward armed riot, scuffling and robbery.” Ramírez commented that it was unfair to insult all Mexicans via the “depraved imagination” of the Star and thanked the better classes of Norteamericanos for being more fair-minded.
El Clamor Público’s coverage, Pitt has written, went far beyond the news of the day. Its editorials condemned lynching, embraced a wide range of reforms, denounced filibusterers and squatters, and encouraged Californios to better their lives by emigrating to the Sonora region of northern Mexico. It also published poetry in Spanish and reviews.
Ramírez did not stand apart from the debates over slavery that increasingly gripped politics in the United States. In fact, his hostility to slavery propelled him into the Republican Party when it emerged in the 1850s with a platform of opposition to the spread of human bondage to the west.
“His outlook, his journalistic techniques were very American,” says Claremont, California, attorney Paul Gray, who is preparing a history journal article on Ramírez. “He was a courageous person. From 1855 to 1859 he was an anti-slavery Republican governed by the principles of Mexican liberalism. He believed in racial equality for Indians, Chinese and Negroes.”
El Clamor Público reflected and disseminated the open-minded views of liberal thinkers of the times. Ramírez advocated public education for all, including girls, so they would not be infantile or ignorant playthings of their husbands.
In a region dominated by southern Chivalry Democrats, who brought the prevailing racial attitudes of the Cotton Kingdom with them when they migrated to California, El Clamor Público became one of the few Republican newspapers. Its advocacy on behalf of African Americans caused the San Francisco Herald to label it the most violent of all the “Free Nigger organs” in the state during the 1856 elections. Ramírez opposed extension of slavery to new territories, such as California, and slavery itself. He also fought proposed laws limiting the rights of free Negroes in the state.
Debates over slavery and the rights of African Americans compounded arguments about the place of Mexicans in the new California. Some Californios, especially the gente de razón, who considered themselves Spanish and identified with the upper classes, favored adoption of the Anglo traditions and culture. But the lower-class cholos and mestizos often preferred defiance or, at least, retention of their Hispanic traditions and cultures. Ramírez was sometimes caught in the middle.
“Elite Mexicans couldn’t accept him because he was too radical,” Gray says. “The Mexican working class didn’t accept him because he was literate and exhorted them to vote and to stand up for their rights. He was the perennial outsider.”
As Rodolfo Acuña observed in Occupied America, with the passage of time Ramírez became more outspoken in criticizing the newcomers. An August 1855 editorial observed, “World history tells us that the Anglo-Saxons were in the beginning thieves and pirates the same as other nations in their infancy … [but] the pirate instinct of old Anglo-Saxons is still active.”
Especially prized were California land titles, which took on a major importance in the gold rush of 1849 and its aftermath. Spanish and Mexican authorities had made 813 land grants in California. Unlike grantees in other parts of the newly acquired territories, Californios were required to defend their titles before a special federal land commission appointed in 1851 and, sometimes, federal district courts and the U.S. Supreme Court. Squatters, land swindlers and crafty lawyers steadily whittled away at Californios’ land holdings during the prolonged and expensive proceedings. When titles were confirmed, successful grantees often had to give up their land to pay the attorneys or to reimburse squatters for improvements made on their property. “When they receive patent, if they are not already ruined, they will be very close to it,” El Clamor Público complained on August 15, 1857.
From the beginning Ramírez advised those unhappy with the new conditions to cross the new border and help colonize northern Mexico. After one reader criticized the “Back to Mexico” stance and implied that Mexicans were better off than before, Ramírez asked, “Are the Californios as happy today as when they belonged to the Republic of Mexico, in spite of all of its revolutions and changes in government?”
His frustrations grew as injustices increased. “Oh! Fatalidad!” protested an August 1856 El Clamor Público editorial: “Mexicans alone have been the victims of the peoples’ insane fury! Mexicans alone have been sacrificed on the gibbet and launched into eternity ...! This is the liberty and equality of our adopted land! Examine the state’s history since the discovery of gold and one must conclude that ‘California is lost to all Spanish-Americans.’”
Such editorial crusading irritated at least one Anglo who considered himself a friend of the Californios. In 1857, Los Angeles Assemblyman Joseph Lancaster Brent said
El Clamor Público was “disseminating sentiments of treason and antipathy among the native population.” Ramírez struck back
editorially, asking if it was treason to describe the “tremors of ‘a thousand hearts … a thousand eyes filled with tears … a thousand hands’ of the Californios who see their fathers and brothers tortured in the presence of innocent children?”
Ramírez aligned himself with liberal political figures in Latin America, such as Mexico’s President Ignacio Comonfort, whose political attitudes he thought would offer Mexicans on the U.S. side of the border renewed inspiration to cope with their own lives. El Clamor Público carried much news from Mexico and covered festivities such as the 1855 Mexican Independence Day in Los Angeles.
He also tried to bridge the two worlds that collided in the lives of his readers, reflecting both the language, culture and interests of the Latin Americans who had dominated California until 1848 and also the history and principles of the Anglo-American minority that came into power after the war. When there were clashes, he reported them and editorialized on behalf of those he felt were right, be they Anglo or Californio. And when there was something helpful to be learned from the newcomers, he passed that along also.
“In many ways Ramírez’s evolution reflected that of many Californios and Mexicans,” Acuña wrote. “Once the annexation of California became a reality, they sincerely sought to become good citizens; however, when it became evident that they were not considered or treated like first-class citizens, they turned to separatism. Atrocities committed against the Mexican population intimidated and alienated them.”
But, as Acuña noted elsewhere, Ramírez did not place all blame on the Anglos. He called upon his own people to learn to deal with the newcomers on their own terms and demand their rights. And, as time went on, he exhorted those who stayed to learn the ways of the conqueror and use the new system for their own benefit.
“And you, imbecile Californios! You are to blame for the lamentations that we are witnessing. We are tired of saying: open your eyes, and it is time that we demand our rights and interests. It is with shame that we say, and difficult to confess it: you are the sarcasm of humanity!” Ramírez chastised his readers for not voting and for putting up with indignities. Until they cared, they would never cast off the “yoke of slavery,” he warned in December 1858.
Ramírez struck an even more strident tone in a June 18, 1859, editorial in English that said “we are Native California Americans born on the soil and we can exclaim with the Poet, this is ‘our own, our native land.’” Noting that they were now under the American flag “and there is every probability that we shall remain so for all time to come ... let us divest ourselves of all bygone traditions, and become Americanized all over—in language, in manners, in customs and in habits.” To fail to do so would continue the oppression and victimization the Californios had suffered. For lack of understanding the Anglo ways, “[W]e have seen our countrymen ... fleeced out of their flocks and herds, ranches and money by cunning ‘sharpers’ who have taken advantage of their simplicity and their verdancy.” The best way to learn, the entrepreneurial Ramírez advised, was to subscribe to El Clamor Público and read its renewed English-language page. Noting that a free press was the best guarantee of liberty, Ramírez promised that his paper would “uphold the Constitution of the United States, [being] convinced that only through it will we obtain liberty.”
Along with his editorial advocacy, Ramírez pursued his own political agenda. In the 1859 election, the newspaper publicized Republican candidates such as Leland Stanford for governor. Ramírez himself ran a losing second race for the assembly on the Republican ticket. He said he was requested by the “People” to be a candidate for assemblyman in the September 1859 election and used the paper to advocate his candidacy. Several months after his defeat he advertised his printing equipment for sale.
The last issue of El Clamor Público appeared on December 31, 1859. Although Ramírez had worked in both the editorial and printing departments to decrease expenses, the Star said its end was due entirely to lack of financial resources. Ramírez had tried to forestall its financial demise by appealing for support based on its services to the Republican Party, asking Republican friends throughout the state to collect and send in subscriptions. The Star said its competitor was a well-conducted journal, whose indiscretions were linked to Ramírez’s youth to which “may be attributed the heated and injudicious attacks on the American government and people which from time to time have appeared in the paper.”
After closing the paper, Ramírez took his own editorial advice and moved south to Ures, Sonora, Mexico, where he was editor of La Estrella de Occidente and director of public printing for the state. In 1862 he returned to California as editor of San Francisco’s La Voz del Nuevo Mundo. He returned to Los Angeles to run unsuccessfully for the state senate in 1863. He served as Los Angeles postmaster in 1864 and became state translator of California in 1865, both Republican patronage positions. Later he was connected with La Crónica, a Los Angeles newspaper launched in 1872, and practiced law in Los Angeles before settling in Ensenada, Baja California, in 1885. He was a successful lawyer and leading citizen there until his death in 1908.
Like many courageous journalists before and after him, Ramírez used the press to inform his readers of their rights, expose injustices and inspire action. His reports and editorials had a special ring of truth because he also was experiencing the same conditions he was reporting in his newspaper. He was not apart from what he was reporting, but was a part of what he was reporting.
is senior vice president and executive director of The Freedom Forum Pacific Coast Center
in San Francisco. His family settled in Alta California in the early 1800s when it was claimed by Spain.