What’s in a name? A family’s history

Jack Sanchez is a descendant of the old Californios, the people who lived in Los Angeles when it was a frontier outpost of Mexico.

Labor union: Hector Tobar’s column in Monday’s Section A referred to a labor union as the International Workers of the World. The correct name is the Industrial Workers of the World. —

In their day the Californios were wealthy and respected. Even after the United States conquered California and made it the 31st state in the union, most of the new English speakers here addressed them by the honorific Spanish title “don.”

Eventually they lost nearly everything they had. Sanchez called me to get a small bit of their glory back.

He doesn’t want the Baldwin Hills returned, even though his ancestors once owned them. Nor is he seeking the lost 13,000-acre Mexican land grant in present-day Ventura that once belonged to his great-great-grandfather.

All Sanchez wants is for the city of Los Angeles to reinstall the sign that indicates the official name of Sanchez Street, a narrow alley in the old plaza in downtown L.A.

“Sanchez Street is named for my great-great-uncle,” he told me. “Years ago, they had a sign. It disappeared. And they never put it back.”

It’s a humble request from a 90-year-old man, a retired Hollywood studio employee whose current fiefdom is a small home in West Los Angeles.

Sanchez called me last month after reading my column on the history of the Los Angeles plaza, that rectangular piece of real estate that’s the oldest inhabited place in the city.

The plaza was the social center of Los Angeles in the 19th century and the spot where our Chinatown and Latino barrios were born. In the early 20th century it was a hotbed of radicalism that hosted, among others, anarchist Emma Goldman.

Sanchez Street juts south from the plaza, opposite its more famous twin, Olvera Street, on the north side. It’s just a block long, but it’s seen a lot of history.

In the 1880s and ‘90s, it was the scene of several crimes reported in The Times. Most involved the local saloons and Chinese gangs of the day, including the 1889 shooting death of the “Peruvian Princess,” a woman whose tortured life took her from Lima to China to San Francisco and finally to her death in a Sanchez Street boarding house.

In 1914 police fought protesters on Sanchez Street during the Christmas Riot. A member of the International Workers of the World, or Wobblies, was shot and killed.

The plaza went into a slow decline until Olvera Street was revived as the home of a Mexican-themed marketplace in the 1930s. But Sanchez Street languished and stood empty of tenants for decades.

To Jack Sanchez, that narrow alley with its brick buildings was something akin to a family heirloom.

“I’d take my family and show them the sign,” he said.

The northern end of Sanchez Street was the location of L.A.'s first two-story edifice, an adobe home built by Vicente Sanchez, an alcalde, or mayor, of Los Angeles during its Mexican period.

Vicente Sanchez was the brother of Jack’s great-great-grandfather, Juan Sanchez.

The city condemned the old building and opened Sanchez Street in 1861. It still bears the name to this day, though you won’t find it in your Thomas Bros. Guide or on most other L.A. maps.

“On all our records, and on all our maps, it’s still Sanchez Street,” said Robert Andrade, general manager of El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument.

No one had ever asked Andrade about the Sanchez Street sign before, and he said he didn’t know when it had disappeared.

He promised to look into it, though I don’t expect him to get back to me soon. These days being the overseer of the oldest place in L.A. is a very busy job.

Several groups and business interests are fighting over the plaza’s future. The Pico House, built in 1871 as the most elegant hotel in the city, is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit that’s kept it empty for years.

Preservationists are suing over the use of one corner of the plaza for a veterans memorial. And several Olvera Street merchants have hired lawyers over the steep rent increases that went into effect Thursday.

Andrade is trying to keep the historic site financially solvent -- and to avoid laying off its 16 employees -- but this has earned him only a slew of insults. Some of the MexicanAmerican merchants have called him a vendido, or sellout.

I promise not to call Andrade any names, or to hire a lawyer on behalf of Sanchez Street.

All I ask for is a simple sign, in recognition of the Sanchez family’s role in California history.

Juan Sanchez was born in 1791 at the San Gabriel Mission, the son of a Spanish soldier. He died in Ventura County in 1873 and thus had the rare distinction of living in California while it was part of three countries -- Spain, Mexico and the U.S.

Like many Californios, the Sanchezes grew rich after the American conquest and the arrival of thousands of prospectors and migrants in the Gold Rush. Their Ventura County land grant became a ranch known for its breadth as Sunrise to Sunset.

“They were living like kings,” Sanchez told me. “They had hundreds of thousands of horses and cattle.”

Then drought hit in 1863 and the livestock began dying in droves. “Whenever they ran out of money, they sold a piece of land,” Sanchez said. Eventually, thousands of acres dwindled to just 133.

Fred Sanchez, Jack’s father, was born on the old land grant in 1886 but eventually headed to Portland, Ore., to work in the shipyards there.

Jack was born in Oregon. “In 1942, my wife and I got married and we came to L.A. for our honeymoon,” he said. They liked it so much, they moved here permanently in 1944. It felt like home.

If L.A. puts the Sanchez name back on that little alley, Jack Sanchez will be a happy man. He’ll have reached back across the eons and returned something priceless to his hard-luck ancestors.