Chapter 5: San Diego's Mexican Community, 1850-1910
3. How did Mexican Americans lose political power?
One of the pervading themes in the political history of San Diego's Mexican Americans has been their inability to develop an effective political voice. This tradition continues to haunt our communities up to the present.
In Los Angeles, right after the end of the Mexican War, the Californios were more successful in remaining prominent in local politics well into the 1870s. The Angeleños had a viable tradition of involvement in local politics before the Americans arrived and they remained a majority of the population into the 1860s.
This was not the case in San Diego where local government had been practically abolished in the 1830s. The Mexican pobladores living in Old Town were immediately outnumbered, both demographically and in terms of a voting population. In 1850 the U.S. Census taker counted a non-Indian population for the San Diego region of 732 but only 311 of these were Californios, 421 were Anglos. Because most of the Californios were women and children there were only 78 Californios eligible to vote. Meanwhile there were more than 267 Anglo voters. Most of these new-comers were single men--soldiers and government employees.
The last Mexican mayor of San Diego was Juan María Marron who was appointed alcalde in 1848. Marron, ironically, had opposed the Americans during the war. Between 1850 and 1856 out of 150 political offices, only eight Californios were elected. The people chose Juan Bandini twice but he refused to serve, probably because he realized how impossible it was to make a difference. Antonio Estudillo also won several elections as a County Assessor. But very few other names emerged in electoral politics, despite the fact that many candidates ran unopposed.
Mario Garcia, who has studied San Diego's political life, believes that the Californio's lack of participation in elections was due to their general pro-American stance. In his words, "
the Californios apparently saw no danger in the political hegemony of the Anglo population." They were content to let them run things.
Apathy, cynicism, or a false sense of security about American domination did not mean that they did not participate in politics. There were also racial and class barriers to the full enfranchisement of the Mexican population. The institution of an eight-dollar poll tax discouraged all but the wealthy from voting. Racism, while subtle, was a factor but mixed with a sense of class. Generally the upper-class Californios sided with the Anglo-Americans in deprecating the lower classes as filthy, lazy, and criminal.
Corruption was also a factor in keeping the Mexican vote insignificant. In the early years, as Hughes reports, election officials rowed out to meet in-coming ships to ask the sailors to vote in local elections. If they could not come ashore, they offered them ballots on board. Another documented practice was that of having the person running for office, almost always an Anglo-American, working as an inspector of the polls. There resulted several charges of irregularities in the counting of votes.
Finally there persisted a language barrier. Despite the provision in the State Constitution that all official business be published in English and Spanish, in San Diego, election notices continued to be published in English, while the tax notices appeared in Spanish. Because of its small population, San Diego did not have a Spanish language newspaper, unlike Los Angeles.
The cumulative effect of these racial, social, economic and cultural obstacles was to restrict the franchise of the American citizens of Mexican descent and to silence their voice.