The Other Side of Cinco De Mayo: The Wild Life of California’s Last Mexican Governor Pío Pico

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Cinco De Mayo, for better or worse, is an unofficial holiday that revolves around the Battle of Puebla and, yes, large amounts of alcohol. What May 5th also is, however, is the birthday of forgotten historical figure Pío de Jesús Pico. It’s a huge shame that no one remembers him, not only because his name adorns sections of L.A., but also because of his unique place in the history of California while under the rule of Spain, Mexico and the United States of America.

Pío de Jesús Pico was born on May 5th, 1801 of mixed descent (Spanish, Native American, African) at La Misión del Santo Príncipe El Arcángel, San Gabriel de Los Temblores, now known simply as the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel or the San Gabriel Mission.

Jeopardy info: the area was then known as Alta California (Upper California) as part of the Virreinato de Nueva España (Viceroyalty of New Spain).

His paternal grandfather, Santiago de la Cruz Pico, accompanied Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza Bezerra Nieto on his expedition out of Tubac, AZ that led to the colonization of California. He moved to San Diego in 1819 following the death of his father the year prior and became a citizen of Mexico following the new nation’s independence from (New) Spain. Pico made a living as a businessman, credited with introducing the use of an ox-horn-as- liquor-receptacle-with-false-wooden-bottom, and gambler until 1826 when he decided to enter (what else?) politics.

He became Governor Pro Tem of Alta California in 1832 after the deposition of Manuel Victoria but ceded power after 20 days. He ran for office in 1834 as the first alcalde of San Diego but lost and spent the next few years hounding governor Juan Bautista Alvarado. Alvarado responded by tossing him in the slammer a couple of times. Pico also hounded Alvarado’s successor, Manuel Micheltorena (there’s a street that runs through Echo Park named after him), while a voting member of the California Assembly. Micheltorena was an unpopular figure appointed by the heads of state in Mexico City. Pico and a bunch of Californios weren’t having any of that undemocratic noise, so they gathered their forces and met with Micheltorena at Rancho La Providencia (now the area near Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank) in February 1845. A bloodless battle, known as the Battle of La Providencia or the Second Battle of Cahuenga Pass, ensued over two days and ended after Micheltorena surrendered and left California.

Pico was named civil governor at Los Angeles and made the city the capital of the province. Pico served as governor until 1846 when US forces arrived and occupied Los Angeles and San Diego. He fled to Baja California and argued before Mexican Congress for more troops to defend Alta California. He returned after the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and became a US citizen under its provisions after reluctantly accepting the loss of California to the USA.

Pico managed to do well afterwards, however, thanks to his many land holdings and was one of the biggest ballers in the region during the 1850s. He owned Mission San Fernando Rey de España as well as Rancho Santa Margarita Y Las Flores (modern-day Camp Pendleton). He also owned Rancho Paso de Bartolo, which now consists of parts of the cities of Montebello, Whittier, and Pico Rivera (named after him). He built a small ranch on the property, El Ranchito, where he lived at until 1892 that still exists today as the Pio Pico State Historic Park.

He then built and opened Pio Pico House in 1868, a three-story hotel that catered to other ballers like himself. Pico House also still stands today and is part of the Los Angeles Plaza Historic District, which includes Olvera Street, Plaza Olvera, and La Plaza De Cultura Y Artes. Sadly, he eventually lost everything over the years through a number of debts, bad business practices, being swindled, and natural disasters (a flood wiped out a ton of his crops). In 1893, a group of history buffs invited him to appear at Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition. He refused the invitation saying, “If those gringos imagine for a moment they can take me back there and show me in a side tent at two bits a head they are very mistaken.” He passed away on Sept. 11th, 1894 at the home of one of his daugthers.

So, while you’re out getting tipsy this Sunday for Cinco de Mayo, take a moment to raise your glass in memory of California’s first governor, Pío Pico. Who knows? You may even find yourself getting a drink or two on Pico Boulevard or at a seedy dive in Pico- Union.