CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship - Summer 2008
CRM Journal

Book Review


California Vieja: Culture and Memory in a Modern American Place

By Phoebe S. Kropp. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006; 384 pp.; b&w photographs, illustrations; cloth, $39.95.

In this important study, Phoebe S. Kropp examines the construction of historical memory and regional identity in southern California between 1880 and 1940. She aims to explain the origins and development of what she calls “the Spanish past”—the romanticized view of regional history that took shape in the early 20th century, as many white Americans relocated in droves to southern California. She examines different views and appreciations of the regional past and explores the role of historical memory in the development of tourism, commercial boosterism, and urban and suburban development in this historically complex and, at the time, rapidly growing region. The result of her efforts is an engaging study that addresses important questions about popular uses of the past and offers insight into the iconic image that has long been identified with southern California.

According to Kropp, the publication of Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel, Ramona, was a seminal event in the creation of the Spanish past. When this melodramatic tale of forbidden romance and tragic loss appeared in 1884, it introduced countless readers to a seemingly bygone era in California history. Although Jackson intended the book to expose the injustices suffered by mission Indians, readers instead focused on its “intoxicating descriptions of the past” and vivid depictions of California’s lush landscape. In the years that followed, tourists flocked to see the sights and scenery described in the novel. Kropp notes that several people sought to capitalize on the novel’s popularity while striving to show that “the region contained modern amenities and civilized society.” In most cases, this meant separating the region’s Mexican past from the present. Racial stereotypes excluded Mexicans from an emergent vision of “a graciously civilized and definitively Anglo future.”

Between 1900 and 1920, Ramona morphed into a fully developed narrative of regional history. Boosters drew upon “Spanish memories” to craft slogans that would attract tourists and promote the region’s commercial potential. In time, the Spanish past became synonymous with growth and a symbol of Anglo conquest. This transformation could be seen in a number of ways, but nowhere was it more apparent and paradoxical than in the growing popularity of Spanish Colonial-style architecture. According to Kropp, many white Americans saw—of all things—stucco-clad houses as symbols of affluence and leisure—southern California’s version of the good life.

The heart of the book is four case studies, each of which examines the making of a different “venue”—a physical place and space that Kropp argues “gave form and meaning to Southern California’s regional memory.” They are, in order of analysis: El Camino Real, the highway that linked California’s 21 Spanish missions; the Panama-California Exposition of 1915; Rancho Santa Fe, a planned suburb outside of San Diego; and Olvera Street, a public market in Los Angeles. Kropp argues that the making of these venues had a crucial role in the construction of the Spanish past. The campaign to build El Camino Real, for example, was an important episode in the commercialization of the past. When supporters encountered concern about the missions’ foreignness, they responded by portraying the missions as vestiges of a distant past and incorporating them into a narrative of national progress. These efforts helped secure state funding for construction of the road and promoted the missions as tourist attractions.

The Panama-California Exposition of 1915 marked a new and monumental stage in boosters’ use of the past. Its elaborate displays of Spanish and Indian heritage highlighted the advancement of Anglo American civilization and cast progress in high relief. Rancho Santa Fe and Olvera Street, Kropp contends, illustrated the expanding public and private roles of the Spanish past. The former linked Spanish Colonial-style houses to an affluent suburban lifestyle, while Olvera Street made the Spanish past a central presence in the heart of a major city. Olvera Street became “a key site for negotiating” who would share in southern California’s version of the good life.

In its mature form, the Spanish past paid homage to Spain, ignored certain aspects of the region’s rich, varied, and sometimes brutal history, and overlooked contemporary social realities. Kropp argues that it placed “Anglos at the center of Southern California’s future while exiling all others to its past,” thereby defining citizenship in these same terms. Yet, the cultural power of the Spanish past began to unravel at the height of its popularity. In the 1930s and 1940s, critics called attention to its frivolities and contradictions, which Kropp concludes is to account for that past’s “ambiguous legacy.” Although it endures as part of the region’s cultural fabric, it “saved and created a built environment for future generations to see, interpret, and [significantly] reclaim.” Many Hispanics and other minorities now look to that past to forge more inclusive memories.

By concentrating on debates that shaped the form and meaning of the Spanish past, Kropp makes important contributions to the study of historical memory. Her analysis of the built environment calls attention to the role of architecture and landscape in shaping and sustaining collective memories and the significance of architectural style and place. Her emphasis on the boosters’ roles in creating the Spanish past and using it as an instrument of progress advances debate about the “modern” and “anti-modern” impulses of historical memory. Although she overstates the degree to which other scholars have portrayed memory as a retreat from a troubled present, her book will undoubtedly be cited for its interpretive stance, which sees nostalgia working in concert with, and in the service of, progress.

The major shortcoming with Kropp’s book is its shifting and occasional lack of focus. Although Kropp shows that the Spanish past had important consequences for tourism, commercial development, architecture and landscape, public culture, race relations, and white American ideas about progress, she engages such a broad range of topics that readers are sometimes left wondering what is ultimately at stake. This problem is compounded by a lack of social and political context. In the book’s best moments, the struggles to define southern California’s past are clearly positioned in relation to formal politics and a changing social and economic landscape; in others, they seem to play out independent of economic, social, or political developments.

Kropp has written an important book. California Vieja brings new insight to the American fascination with images and metaphors of Spain and contributes to broader discussions about the construction of historical memory and regional identity. It will become required reading for specialists in these fields and students of Southwestern history. It should also appeal to anyone interested in the powerful influence the past has exerted in American life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Daniel Vivian
Johns Hopkins University