Rebecca Zapanta opens the door to the Mediterranean mansion high on a hill in Whittier. To the left, just past a staircase, a terra cotta font glistens with blessed water from the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.
“This is the Purple Room,” the 54-year-old says, waving toward an eggplant-colored room featuring paintings by Mexican masters -- Siqueiros, Orozco, Tamayo and Diego Rivera -- all purchased by Zapanta and her husband, Richard, an orthopedic surgeon.
Decades before the couple bought the 12,500-square-foot home, back when it was still the old Reilly estate, Whittier’s most famous resident, Richard Nixon, attended social events in some of these rooms. When it was built in 1927, the mansion represented everything Whittier aspired to. John B. Reilly was a powerful local Republican, an oilman who years later helped Nixon make his first run for political office. When he became president, Nixon provided one of Reilly’s daughters with a Cabinet position.
Now the Reilly estate has become the Zapanta estate, and it stands as a monument to a new set of aspirations.
The Zapantas are fourth-generation Mexican Americans from East Los Angeles, part of a wave of doctors and lawyers, small-business owners and school administrators who are remaking Whittier into a center of upper-middle- class and upper-class Latino life in Southern California.
Like Reilly years before, the Zapantas host political events at the spacious mansion. But their preferred candidates are Latino Democrats. They have held two fundraisers for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and one for former presidential candidate Bill Richardson, governor of New Mexico. Once a year, they offer tours of their vast collection of Mexican art.
The last U.S. census counted Whittier’s population at 83,838. Latinos constituted 23% of Whittier residents in 1980; they were 56% as of 2000 and that number is presumed to be more than 60% by now.
The city’s neighborhoods reflect a range of economic levels, with working-class and middle-class residents tending to live in the flatlands and the affluent higher in the hills.
And parts of Whittier have their social problems, including gangs and homelessness. But unlike nearby Huntington Park, Maywood and South Gate, which became much poorer as illegal immigrants surged in, Whittier “is where the heart of the Latino bourgeoisie wants to be,” said Daniel Duran, an associate professor of business at Whittier College.
The college, where Nixon got his bachelor’s degree, now has a student body that is nearly one-third Latino, the highest proportion of Latino students at any private liberal arts college in the United States.
On a recent day, Rebecca Zapanta drove her silver Mercedes along Whittier’s leafy streets, pointing out the signs of a changing town.
“The people who live in this house are Hispanics. . . . These are white. . . . These are old Quakers. . . . These are Mexicans here. . . .”
A smile broke under her prescription Versace shades.
“What did you expect?” she said. “Did you think it was going to be run-down because Mexicans moved here?”
Whittier, founded by Quakers in 1887, was a quiet town in its early years. There were no liquor stores, let alone bars, said Hubert Perry, 94, a lifelong Whittier resident and Quaker whose father helped Nixon get elected to Congress.
“It was years before I knew what a bar was,” the former banker said.
Perry has seen three major demographic changes sweep over his city. The first occurred after oil was discovered in the Whittier hills and nearby Santa Fe Springs in the early 1900s.
“We had some interesting people move into Whittier in those days,” Perry said, noting that the oilmen tended to be brash and aggressive. “There was quite an influx of the Rockefellers in here for a while. I bought Nelson Rockefeller’s car.”
Reilly, an oil company machinist, was not welcomed when he first tried to move into Whittier in 1921. Two separate landlords told him, “We’re not going to have your kind of people in town!” Reilly recalled in a 1972 interview with the Whittier Daily News. “They were trying to control the influx into their little Quaker town.”
Two years later, he invented a drill pipe cutter that was soon in great demand in the industry, giving him the money to build his mansion. Other sprawling homes sprouted in the hills as well, many built by those in the oil industry.
The town remained white. In the late 1920s and early ‘30s, when Perry and his friend Richard Nixon went to Whittier High School, “there was only one Mexican family in the school,” Perry said.
But, as he notes, it’s a straight shot of about 11 miles from Boyle Heights to Whittier.
“They moved east from Boyle Heights, then from Boyle Heights to Montebello, then from Montebello to Pico Rivera,” Perry said. “Then people with incomes, relatively speaking, moved to Whittier . They came up Whittier Boulevard. It was kind of an easy trip.”
Leo Anguiano, a 47-year-old grocery store owner, moved from El Sereno to Whittier in 1988.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, he stepped into the clubhouse of the Friendly Hills Country Club. But not before removing his baseball cap.
“You have to dress appropriately, not with your shirt hanging out. You can’t wear jeans,” Anguiano said.
Young Latino waiters took his order. Anguiano chatted warmly with them. “You’re not supposed to socialize with them,” he said later. “They’re there to cater to you.”
“I can’t help it,” he added. “I can relate to them, just working hard to pay your monthly bills.”
As a boy, Anguiano sold fruit on the streets of Boyle Heights. Then he opened a produce stand in an East L.A. grocery store.
He eventually opened his own chain of stores, the Whittier Farms Ranch Market, first in northeast Los Angeles and later in Monterey Park and Whittier.
“When I was growing up, they called Monterey Park the Beverly Hills of East L.A.,” Anguiano, who was nicknamed “King of Carne Asada” by Eastside customers, said with a chuckle. “Then it kept going more over here.”
The first Whittier home he and his wife bought was in the flatlands and cost $157,000. As business got better, they moved higher up into the hills. Finally, 12 years ago, they moved into the gated Friendly Hills Estates. They were only the second Latino family beyond the gates at the time.
“Whittier’s like Santa Barbara in a way. It’s so peaceful and old,” he said. “When we bought the house, my wife and I would just lie in bed and say, ‘I can’t believe it!’ ”
Two years ago, he joined the country club and became a member of its social committee.
“Lots of events go down there. Cooking classes, dance classes. I learned salsa,” he said. “Tuesday nights we have ‘Dancing Like the Stars.’ They did that because of the TV show.”
He used to visit the club as a guest years ago. Back then there weren’t a lot of faces like his, he said. These days, he said, it’s not unusual for him to be sitting in the clubhouse with Latino doctors, lawyers and business owners.
Anguiano’s locker is not too far from the one East L.A. boxer Oscar De La Hoya had when he was a member, having made headlines by buying a home in Whittier in the mid-1990s.
When Anguiano first hit the links, he had a lot to learn.
“There’s 10 things you have to know before you even swing at the ball,” he said recently as he lined up a shot on the sixth tee. “Five years ago, I didn’t even know what golf was!”
At work, he keeps a framed picture of himself as a 14-year-old, ankle deep in tangerines on the back of a beat-up flatbed truck in Boyle Heights. With him are his father, a Mexican immigrant, and his brother.
“It reminds me of where I came from,” he said. “And sometimes I like to look at it because it makes me laugh.”
If Whittier’s population has changed, its political hierarchy remains largely entrenched. Political power still rests among a largely white establishment -- mostly Republican with an all-white City Council.
“We’re one-sided in leadership,” said Ruth B. Shannon, who with her husband, Ed, is one of Whittier’s biggest philanthropists. “We’re not trying to shut anybody out. We should have a Latino council member. I think it just takes time for someone to step forward and do something.”
In 1978, a popular Whittier High School teacher and football coach, Victor Lopez, was elected to the City Council, getting the most votes of any candidate. Lopez, who served until 1990, was the first Whittier councilman with a Spanish surname.
He and his wife were very plugged in to the community, with the teacher even doing construction work during the summer, such as adding rooms to houses in Whittier -- including work on Perry’s home.
“His family was quite prominent in town,” Perry said. “He was a high-class individual.”
But it wasn’t necessarily a sign of things to come.
A few years ago, Alex Moisa, 43, a Latino lawyer who moved to Whittier from Montebello, ran for City Council. He said that despite living in Whittier for 12 years, he still felt like an outsider.
“I was almost considered a carpetbagger,” he said. “Nobody cared about the fact I was a Berkeley-educated lawyer. It’s still very parochial.”
If that’s a commonly shared sentiment, it’s not one commonly aired. Many Latinos agree their adopted city is a politically insular place, but one that tends to reward long ties to the town.
When the Zapantas moved into the old Reilly estate, Ruth Shannon was quick to knock on their door. She bonded with Rebecca -- recognizing quickly that the tall, fit woman was a kindred spirit in her willingness to raise money for charitable causes.
At Shannon’s request, the Zapantas let the public tour their home as a fundraiser for the local historical museum.
The Zapantas introduced Shannon, whose name is on Whittier College’s performing arts center, and her husband to Mexican artists like Raul Anguiano.
The Shannons in turn saw the Zapantas as the kind of Latino residents the city needed in positions of influence.
“Rebecca’s a big promoter, getting people involved in things,” Shannon said. “We were so hoping to get them on some boards.”
The Shannons asked them to join the Whittier College Board of Trustees. The Zapantas declined. They would get involved in some Whittier events -- but, as the Shannons would find out, the Zapantas represented a new kind of Whittier elite.
Their first commitment was to causes affecting the Mexican American community -- and to another school, USC. Richard and his late brother Edward, a neurosurgeon, were among the founders of USC’s Mexican American Alumni Assn. Richard’s father was a mechanic; his mother went back to college when she was middle-aged and eventually graduated from Pepperdine University. Rebecca also grew up working-class in East L.A. and recalled playing with chickens in the backyard.
They moved from East L.A. to Hacienda Heights, but 16 years ago they decided they wanted a bigger house. They first thought about Pasadena. A friend who was a Realtor told them he had found a place in Whittier. The Zapantas knew little about the town, but seeing the mansion on the hill convinced them, even if Rebecca Zapanta said the sheer size of the home was intimidating.
The mansion was beautifully imposing. They moved in with their five children, Richard’s elderly father and two housekeepers.
In the years since, Rebecca has taken up a new cause: electing a Latino to the council. She has supported Latino candidates before but said they always lose.
Recently, she stopped at the Uptown boutique of a friend, Suzie Cruz. Talk turned to politics. “We need that voice. I just think we haven’t done that yet,” Cruz said.
“Do you think they’re trying keep us out, Suzie?” Zapanta asked in an incredulous tone.
That wasn’t it, Cruz said. On election day, just take a look at who votes and who volunteers to work the polls, she said. Latinos in Whittier need to get involved and vote.
A few days later, a Mexican American Realtor told Zapanta she was running for City Council.
The news gave a jolt of energy to Zapanta’s quest and got her thinking about ways she could help, now and in the future; maybe putting together a list of friends in Whittier, sending out a mailing and having a fundraiser.
And for that, Rebecca Zapanta could think of no better setting than her old mansion.