My Abuelita was One Talented Mujer

Multi-Cultural Chicano musical history in Southern California with classical music Indianist composer and Chicana pianists in LA

By Cristina Acosta
Published on LatinoLA: December 9, 2008

My Abuelita was One Talented Mujer

Los Angeles during the early 1900's was not a friendly place for Mexican-Americans and Chicanos. Though originally part of Mexico, California was annexed by Anglos to become part of the United States of America in 1848. With the gold rush of 1842 and other immigration, the existing American Indian and Spanish / Mexican people of California were politically and socially marginalized. By the 1920's lynchings, racially motivated attacks and "anti-greaser" laws were in place to control and dominate the Mexican American (Chicano) population of California. Pressure on Mexican Americans increased and included segregated schools in areas of Southern California where large groups of Chicanos persisted. The famous case, Mendez vs. the Board of Education finally ended Hispanic segregation in the late 1950's.

Intelligent, cultured and talented Hispanic Americans were not lauded. In fact, with the veil of racism over many Anglo peoples perceptions during that era, there was very limited press coverage of the positive cultural contributions of Chicanos in Los Angeles. History is written by the "winners", and as a conquered population, Spanish / Mexican Californians have lost many of their historical cultural contributions to a lack of attention.

As a third generation Californian (I now live in Oregon), I found some Chicana history within my family that pertains to the larger political climate and the cultural life of elite Angelinos during the early part of the twentieth century. In the early 1920's my grandmother Catalina Maria Ortiz Acosta and her family, lived in Los Angeles. The last of eighteen children, my grandmother Catalina was the daughter of J. Nestor Ortiz and Maria Salazar Ortiz. J. Nestor was a wealthy man who had owned several businesses and a sheep ranch in the town of Ortiz, Colorado (near Antonito, on the border with New Mexico). J. Nestor sold his interests in Colorado and re-located in Los Angeles, California in 1903. Catalina was born the next year. Though her ancestors where among the founding families of Santa Fe, New Mexico (and other towns in the region), she would often refer to herself and family members as "Californios" or "Spanish". Either were terms that people (Anglo and Hispanic) in her generation used to refer to the Spanish families that lived in the American Southwest when that region was under the control of Spain/Mexico. Because she was born in California, the term "Californio(a)" is accurate, but not completely reflective of her cultural heritage. The term she used usually depended upon her sense of the listener's knowledge of these finer points of cultural history.

Though the term Californio/a is dated and not used today, it was very meaningful for Spanish citizens of California who became citizens of the United States because of the Mexican War in 1848. My grandmother would often express her Ances_Chief-Yowlache-web.jpg indignation towards prejudice that any family member encountered with the comment, "Those peasants don't realize that we are Californios." I smile when I think about that. She disdained the prejudice that she deemed more a result of a lack of a good education than a lack of kindness. (I'm including this information about her cultural ethnic appellation because you will note that the concert program below refers to her as a "Spanish-American Pisaniste".)

The Ortiz family befriended Charles O. Roos and his wife, Jaunita E. Roos. The family connection was certainly enriched by Catalina's friendship and professional relationship with Jaunita. Catalina (1904-1991) was then a twenty year old classical pianist and the featured pianist at concerts the Roos organized. My grandmother spoke with admiration regarding Juanita's musical abilities. Charles, an Easterner, moved to Los Angeles and worked as a newspaper feature writer when not involved with his work as a lyricist. His wife Juanita was a gifted pianist. They collaborated to create a variety of piano compositions. Charles also wrote poems and lyrics for other composers' music. The concert program for the event at the Ramona Convent in Alhambra, California illustrates the typical concert Roos organized. Nordskog Records recorded the concert. Unfortunately, I don't have a copy of that recording or know of it's existence.

Sifting through my Grandmother's photo albums I found several photos of Charles and Juanita. The photos of the people in the Native American outfits are my grandmother Catalina, and Chief Yowlache, dressed in traditional Native American clothing for publicity photos that Roos used in his concert promotions. Chief Yowlache was the "Indian baritone" for the program. Catalina accompanied him and also played solos.

During a time of escalating social injustice, Juanita and Charles Roos were creating musical compositions that celebrated different cultures. Though women had only just received the vote, and women's rights were often negated, Charles Roos publicly acknowledged his wife Juanita's contributions, including her name on compositions they collaborated on. The concert program at the Alhambra Convent School illustrates that the Roos were actively promoting the beauties of the Native American and Hispanic culture to the elite of the dominant Anglo society. Understanding the political climate within which my grandmother was making her musical contributions to culture increases my admiration for her artistry and strength. She steadfastly dedicated herself to excellence in her art form and understood the symbolic importance of her image as a intelligent and accomplished Hispanic woman when many minds were closed to the idea of such a person existing.

I searched the internet for more information about the Roos and found an interesting essay. I've included an excerpt with a link back to the original author. You'll recognize the name "Lieurance" in the Composer/Lyricist column of the concert program. I've also included some links to historical documents that record the political culture of the era. The following excerpt sheds light on Roos connection to like minded Anglo intellectuals during this time.

Excerpt of an essay by Linda Marsh Helfman,?® 2007

"His (Lieurance's) interest in tribal music began in 1902 with a visit to his brother who was an Indian Agent on the Crow Reservation in Montana. From that time he began a life-long fascination with the music and customs of the Native Americans. He visited over 30 reservations and amassed a collection of several thousand recordings and transcriptions as well as a large number of Indian flutes. He also invited Native Americans to his studio in Lincoln for some of the recording sessions. It was often difficult to coerce the Indians into performing for his recording machine, but his understanding and patience with tribal ways won them over. He had an enormous respect for the people and had learned a great deal from the Native American wives of two of his brothers. Much of his vast collection now resides in the Smithsonian Institution, the New Mexico Museum, and the Archive of Folk Culture at the Library of Congress.

Lieurance drew upon Native American melodies for many of his own compositions which he then clothed in what he called the "harmonizing which our ears demand'. His most famous piece is "By the Waters of Minnetonka". It was first published in 1913, and became the number one sheet music hit of its day, with many subsequent published arrangements. It was performed and recorded by some of the leading musicians of the era and enjoyed world-wide popularity.

In the early 1920s Charles O. Roos, a feature story writer for a Los Angeles newspaper, happened to read about Lieurance and his work with Native American music. In his younger days Roos had been a woodsman and raftsman on the St. Croix River and had written poems based on his experiences with the local tribes there. He realized that Lieurance was the right person to set the poems to music. The two of them met and decided to travel together in the Chippewa forest country of northern Minnesota in order to gather additional material and inspire themselves further. Using thematic material from Chippewa homeland, rain dance, ceremonial, and mourning songs, Lieurance composed music for Roos' poems, and the result was the "Eight Songs From Green Timber" song cycle which appears in this collection." ?® 2007Linda Marsh Helfman

In the United States in 1924, Native Americans were denied many civil rights. They were not allowed to vote, educate their children and live freely. Mexican Americans inexorably lost the civil rights they had enjoyed prior to the Mexican War and been promised in the Treaty of Gudadalupe Hidalgo (1848) and related legislation. Following are facts from the historical time line on the site www.gale.com/free_resources/chh/timeline/1901.htm

* 1902: The Reclamation Act is passed, dispossessing many Hispanic Americans of their land.

* 1912: Brutality against Mexican Americans in the Southwest territories is commonplace. Lynchings and murders of Mexican Americans in California and Texas result in a formal protest in 1912 by the Mexican ambassador of the mistreatment.

The social and political climate damaged the social, political and economic rights for Mexican Americans, setting the stage for continued injustice eventually resulting in segregated schools in Southern California.

This excerpt from Digital History.com quotes and article in the Hutchings' California Magazine, July 1857. See www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/mexican_voices/voices_display.cfm?id=68 for the original document.

"The first California Assembly, meeting in 1849 and 1850, asked Congress to bar all foreigners from the mines, including the Californios, who were naturalized citizens. A rapid influx of Anglo-Americans rendered Mexican Americans politically powerless. The Spanish-speaking population fell from fifteen percent in 1850 to four percent in 1870.

Mexicans and Indians in California were quickly reduced to second-class citizenship. The Foreign Miners' Tax of 1850, a $20 monthly fee for the right to mine, was applied not only to foreign immigrants but also to Mexicans born in California. Early in 1851 the tax was repealed, but it had already had its effect. California's Indenture Act of 1850 established a form of legal slavery for Indians. The state antivagrancy act of 1855, popularly known as the Greaser Law, restricted the movement of Californians of Mexican descent. Other 1855 statutes outlawed bullfights and negated the constitutional requirement that laws be translated into Spanish.

The Californios suffered a massive loss of land. The legislature placed the heaviest tax burden on land, which put great financial pressure on Californio ranchers."

Hutchings' California Magazine, July 1857. See www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/mexican_voices/voices_display.cfm?id=68 to read the entire original document.

You'll also find related articles at both of those links.

Photos are: Indian Woman Standing and also in Canoe -- Catalina costumed in Native American dress for the concert promotional photos. Catalina Ortiz with fur collar, standing. Photo of Charles and Juanita with a dedication to Catalina written on the photo. Photo of Charles with a canoe paddle. Photo of Indian man in canoe -- Chief Yowlache costumed and posed. Woman holding garment-- Anna Roos (possibly a older sister or the mother of Charles Roos)

See photos with the article on my website - Click on the tab "Articles" and scroll down the page till you see the article highlighted. The images are my historical photographs of the Roos, Catalina Ortiz Acosta, Chief Yowlache and Catalina Pico (granddaughter of the last Mexican Govenor of California, Pio Pico).

All images under copyright protection by Cristina Acosta.

About Cristina Acosta:
Born in Los Angeles, raised Catholic and Chicana, she is an artist, author, color & design consultant living in Bend, Oregon.
Author's website
Email the author

   print this


Arts & Entertainment Comunidad Forum People El Editor's Blog

Careers Expresate Hollywood Tecnología RSS Feeds