Hidden City: Looking for Hugo

HUGO REID MUST BE HERE SOMEWHERE, BUT I'M HAVING TROUBLE FINDING him. He died December 12, 1852, in Arcadia, California, at the age of 41, and was buried two days later in downtown Los Angeles -- "in the Pueblo's old Catholic cemetery," according to Susanna Bryant Dakin's A Scotch Paisano: Hugo Reid's Life in California. But when I arrive at the Pueblo's Old Plaza Church, where Reid's funeral service was held, I find that the cemetery that once adjoined the church is now a vacant lot of tule-like grasses enclosed by a fence. A sign proclaims that the site will soon be a center for artworks and performances celebrating Mexican culture and history. That's all very nice, but where is Hugo? What did they do with his body? And why, you may ask, should anyone care?

I'm on the hunt for great drama -- source material that might make a good play -- and in the process I've developed a serious Hugo obsession.

Hugo Reid, the son of a shopkeeper, grew up in Cardross, Scotland, and was known as an animated storyteller and singer, fluent in English, Spanish, French and probably Latin. One year into his studies at Cambridge, evidently upset after being jilted by a girlfriend named Victoria, he impulsively boarded a ship for South America at age 18, never to see Britain again. In 1832, after a few years teaching schoolchildren and managing a mercantile shop in Hermosillo, Sonora, Reid boarded a northbound brig in Mexico for a trading excursion and ended up traveling from the beachhead at San Pedro to the lazy, flat-topped adobe-and-brea Pueblo of Los Angeles. He eventually made his home in the San Gabriel Valley.

Among Reid's many controversial exploits, which include being charged with and acquitted of incitement to revolution (against Mexico), and being charged with and fined for smuggling (glorified tax evasion), his most famous is marrying an aristocratic Gabrieleno Indian, coincidentally named Victoria. A beautiful widowed Catholic convert several years older than Reid, and the daughter of a Comicrabit chief, Victoria held an esteemed position with the San Gabriel missionaries. Before marrying her, Reid had to convert to Catholicism and obtain a hard-earned blessing from Governor Juan Alvarado. Their wedding was among San Gabriel's wildest and most scandalous parties of 1837, with aguardiente (brandy) flowing all night and dancing till dawn.

Thirteen years later, Reid had abandoned his family for adventures at sea, run three different trading enterprises into the ground and succumbed to tuberculosis, leaving Victoria distraught, impoverished and insane. Even so, he earned a prominent place in Los Angeles society during the final days of Mexican jurisdiction and was an elected delegate to the California Constitutional Convention in Monterey, when the state government was being conceived.

On a Web site I learn that for commercial purposes, near the turn of the last century, the inhabitants of the Old Plaza Church cemetery were relocated to a "new" Pueblo cemetery on North Broadway. But that was paved over in the '30s, again for commercial purposes. The inhabitants of the "new" cemetery were evidently relocated to L.A.'s largest Catholic cemetery, New Calvary, on Whittier Boulevard in East L.A.

I call New Calvary and am told that there is no Hugo Reid on the property. Which leads me back to the rectory of the Old Plaza Church. Archivist Mercy Erazo has no idea who Hugo Reid was, but generously looks up the church's death records, which run through the calendar year of 1852. No entry of Reid's funeral exists.

I find Hugo's seeming evaporation from history strange and disconcerting, given the man's fame in his own era (a "pillar of society," says Dakin). If Reid had lived in, say, Boston or Philadelphia -- cities that clutch their past -- he certainly would be easier to find. Is this yet another indication of how L.A. disregards its own history? True, there's the Hugo Reid School in Arcadia, and the Hugo Reid Adobe (one of his houses), reconstructed but still standing on its original site in what's now the L.A. County Arboretum in Arcadia. But that's about it.

"Oh, sure, Hugo Reid," says Monsignor Francis Weber of the San Fernando Mission rectory when I call on the phone. "He married an Indian girl, you know. They're both out in San Gabriel, buried in the mission. Why don't you check there?"

Of course: San Gabriel, Reid's old stomping grounds, and the center of the Gabrielenos' torturous life in the 19th century. Reid was a passionate defender of Indian rights and a student of their traditions. He not only learned their Tongva language but wrote a landmark treatise about indigenous tongues and customs, The Indians of Los Angeles County, the starting point for what little history we have of them, as they wrote down almost nothing about themselves.

So why has Hugo's legacy become as sketchy as the Indians'? Through his marriage, he obtained thousands of acres of Victoria's land (enabling him to become a rancher), most of which he squandered in those disastrous business investments. If he hadn't died in poverty, if he'd only been as lucky as Lucky Baldwin, who purchased Reid's Arcadia estate, he might have a city and a hillside named after him as well.

"Who?" snaps cemetery director Imelda Bermejo, a large, imposing woman standing in the lobby of the San Gabriel Mission rectory.

"Hugo Reid," I answer. Then I try out the monsignor's line: "He married an Indian girl, you know."

Bermejo clicks her tongue and rolls her eyes: "When did he die?"

"1852."

"Oh, no. Our records don't start until 1910."

"But people have received Catholic burials here since 1781. Somebody must have a record."

Bermejo thinks long and hard. "I don't know."

A young girl and her grandmother sit on a lobby couch, the girl holding a wooden statue in a brown paper bag. An elderly priest creeps into the lobby, blesses the statue in the name of St. Thomas the Apostle, makes some sweet compliment to the girl and returns to the rectory's inner sanctum.

Bermejo then leads me back to her office. It's now past 4:30 in the afternoon, and the mission is closed.

"Let's take a look," she says kindly. "To tell the truth, I've got nothing else to do."

Inside the mission grounds, late-afternoon shadows slip across cracked brick soap vats, broken stones, cacti and a looming sculpture of Christ on a wooden cross, a monument to the 6,000 Gabrielenos -- the engine of California's first slave economy -- who lost their lives mostly to smallpox and alcoholism. Now we're in the cemetery. Every clearly marked stone is for laity. Some died recently. Bermejo seems to be taking inventory. A couple of small, unmarked crosses wobble to one side, but there's no definitive sign of Hugo or Victoria.

"They're probably in the cemetery outside," Bermejo remarks. "But you'll have to come back for that tomorrow."

I do. As limousines arrive for another wedding in San Gabriel -- another century, another party -- I scan row after row of tombstones, dodging the spray of a sprinkler. Some of the markers are streaked with water stains. Some are crumbled and broken, some buried in ivy, but almost all are from the 20th century, and almost all the names are of Spanish origin. There's an entire section for children who were born and died the same year; in some cases, the same day.

Outside the cemetery walls, I hear a scream of laughter as the wedding party assembles.

A few of the markers are indecipherable -- any of them could be Hugo's or Victoria's. The following week, I call Monsignor Weber and explain the dilemma: There's just no way of knowing where they are.

"Yes, that does pose a certain metaphysical ambiguity," he says.

Very nicely put, I think to myself.

"Maybe they paved him over -- up on Broadway," he adds.

"But what about Victoria?" I ask. "She was buried at the mission for sure, but she also can't be found."

"Oh, of course not," Monsignor Weber shoots back. "The Indians never marked their graves. Never wanted to. That stuff wasn't important to them. There are hundreds of 'em out there. You'll never find her."

Suddenly, I feel a kind of click, like a bolt that, when released, opens a large door: Among the legends of the Gabrielenos that Hugo documented is one called "Tradition," the story of seven sisters, who, upon learning of their respective husbands' deceits, climb into the heavens and each attach themselves to one of the seven Pleiades, where they remain to this day.

I had been looking for Hugo and Victoria in the ground, just like a European, when I might better have been looking to the sky.

--Steven Leigh Morris

RITUALS: Citizenship Test

IN TWO RECENT MASSIVE CEREmonies at the L.A. County Fairplex in Pomona, 7,000 people became American citizens. The Fairplex's vast cement wasteland -- which could represent everything awful about Southern California and, by extension, the whole country -- was a fitting venue for the naturalization ceremonies, a kind of final test. Behold the Fairplex, citizens-to-be. If you can stomach this, you must belong here.

Booths in the Fairplex's generically named Building Four had been set up to help new citizens obtain everything necessary to begin life as an American: passports, voter-registration cards, and leatherette covers for holding and protecting naturalization certificates. Ten bucks a pop. The guys selling the covers were all thickly accented Latinos. Perhaps they themselves had been naturalized. If so, was this the American Dream they'd imagined? Standing for hours in a broiling cement hell hawking crap to their incoming brethren?

On the other hand, one citizen-to-be standing near the entrance to Building Four mentioned that he was Nigerian. Nigeria: where a woman was recently sentenced to death by stoning for the crime of adultery. Given a choice between that and vending certificate covers, wouldn't you choose certificate covers?

Certainly no one in Building Four would have trouble with that question. Every single person in the place was smiling: bureaucrats handing out forms, security guards, even the hundreds of standing-room-only guests forced to watch the ceremony from the back of the hangar-size space. There's just no downside to hanging out with thousands of ecstatic individuals who've labored for years to earn the right to call themselves your fellow citizens.

The ceremony itself was brief and played out like a movie run backwards, with the tearjerker climax right at the beginning -- Judge Gary L. Taylor leading the assembled in the official Oath of Allegiance and Renunciation. The allegiance bits packed little emotional punch -- American school kids pledge allegiance to stuff every weekday, after all. But the concept of Renunciation? Consider the enormity of it. "I renounce all allegiance to any state or sovereignty except the United States of America." Thirty-five hundred people severing ties to the lands of their birth, to their families back home, to friends and lovers.

"So help me God," they all recited, with such stirring conviction I forgot to grimace at the ever-present specter of the church in state proceedings. Then INS field-office director Robert Hodgson stepped to the podium to remind everyone that the United States admits more than a million legal immigrants per year -- more than the rest of the world's countries combined -- and I got this weird burning sensation in my chest. Took me a minute to identify it as pride.

The feeling lasted until the end of Hodgson's speech.

That's when he directed the audience's attention toward a big video screen. "We would like to present a film to you now," he said, "that depicts the greatness of this nation, coupled with the singing of Lee Greenwood with his rendition of 'God Bless the USA.'"

"God Bless the USA." A sickly-sweet country-pop anthem that distills every patriotic cliché to its brainless essence. No wonder it's been unabashedly co-opted by the American right wing since it first hit the airwaves in 1984. Ronald Reagan chose it as the theme song of his second presidential campaign. In the wake of September 11, George W. resurrected it as the unofficial soundtrack for the war on terrorism. And now, at a supposedly nonpartisan court proceeding, 3,500 new citizens were forced to endure this song while giant images of waterfalls and wheat threshers were burned into their retinas. Many movies feature brainwashing sequences like this. A Clockwork Orange. The Parallax View. Scary movies about corruption.

The song ended, and the ceremony continued with a lovely rendition of the national anthem. On the way to the parking lot, a group of partisan activists urged new citizens to register to vote. The Republican was yelling the loudest. The Green Party guy wasn't yelling at all.

--Rico Gagliano

Das Iliad

"Wolfgang Petersen has signed on to direct and produce the epic Troy for Warner Bros. Pictures and Village Roadshow Pictures. Production is slated to begin in spring 2003 . . .

'Of [the] two projects I have developed at Warner Bros., I had hoped to make Troy first and am pleased that the scheduling worked out that way,' Petersen said. 'I'm looking forward to directing Batman vs. Superman in the future.'

Troy is an adaptation of classic The Iliad, a story set against the Trojan War and the rivalry between Achilles and Hector. The studio will likely focus first on casting Achilles."

--Daily Variety, August 13, 2002

Tobey or Vin? Tobey or Vin . . .


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