Exploring California's mythical memories

California Viejo

The red-tile roofs of Southern California are ubiquitous. They top everything from gas stations to apartment buildings, restaurants to shopping malls. Penn History Professor Phoebe Kropp became fascinated by that “sea of red tiles”—and what they might signify—while pursuing her Ph.D. at the University of California, San Diego, in the 1990s.

Kropp (at right), a native Californian and cultural historian, has just published a book about Southern California and its affinity for all things Spanish. In “California Vieja: Culture and Memory in a Modern American Place,” (University of California Press, 2006), Kropp notes that the early 20th-century Anglos who sought to recreate the Spanish past through evocative architectural references were making a calculated investment in cultural memory.

Nostalgia played a part in this attempt to “recast the eras of Spanish mission colonies and Mexican rancho settlements as an idyllic golden age,” says Kropp, complete with “pious padres and placid Indians … dashing caballeros and sultry senoritas—their very own myth of moonlight and mantillas.”

Penn History Professor Phoebe Kropp

Penn History Professor Phoebe Kropp

But for the ambitious Anglos, the Spanish past also served their plans for the future, helping to make Southern California a popular tourist draw and, as Kropp puts it, “a premier American place to live, work and play.”

The Spanish past the Anglos were so intent on recreating was romanticized and carefully interpreted, says Kropp, “smoothing out genocide, war, race, class and religious conflict.” It was also unaccompanied by “any willingness to embrace Mexican and indigenous Californians as fellow citizens in the present.” Nevertheless, Kropp says, while the promoters of this romantic myth were out to make healthy profits, they also “genuinely believed in an alluring past”—a past, of course, that the Anglos had played a lead role in dismantling.

The contradictions inherent in the Anglo response to the Spanish past aren’t unique to California. “From black minstrelsy to a passion for Navajo blankets,” writes Kropp, “white Americans’ ability to disdain and yet desire, to reject and yet possess was a familiar and consistent strategy for dealing with non-white people and cultures in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.”

In “California Vieja,” Kropp explores ideas of cultural memory through four case studies—El Camino Real, the Panama-California Exposition, the suburb of Rancho Santa Fe and Los Angeles’ Olvera Street. “I wanted to see how memory is built into the landscape,” she says. “How memory can leave traces.”

For her research, she tapped the usual sources—historical societies, newspaper archives, court records—as well as what she calls “yesterday’s junk mail.” That includes postcards, promotional flyers, advertisements and other remnants from “the milieu of everyday life.” Several items she bought on eBay.

Next up for Kropp is a project on the history of American family camping from the mid-19th to the mid 20th-century. Though she concedes it’s something of a departure, she says it’s still about “the history of culture, the history of leisure.”

Originally published on June 8, 2006