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Essential California: Remembering Pepe Arciga, L.A.’s forgotten Latino columnist

A headshot of Pepe Arciga
Pepe Arciga, a freelancer for The Times and its afternoon tabloids in the 1950s and 1960s.
(Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, Jan. 7. I’m Gustavo Arellano, and I’m writing from Orange County.

I belong to a small genus within Southern California English-language journalism: the “Latino columnist.” Members can cover anything but tend to focus on Latino issues, not just because of all the great stories in our community but also to translate Latinos to readers, Latinos and not. Because whether we were just conquered by the United States in 1848 or have to explain why Latinos love to eat tamales during the holidays, we always seem to have to, you know?

Many credit the birth of the Latino-columnist genre to my predecessor, the martyred Rubén Salazar. But Pepe Arciga would have something to say about that.

I’ve encountered his name multiple times over the years on excavations through the L.A. Times’ ever-rich archives. He was an immigrant, a playwright, the public relations head for Radio KALI, the first all-Spanish radio station in Southern California, but Arciga also freelanced as an entertainment writer from the 1950s through the 1970s for The Times and its afternoon newspapers, the Mirror and Mirror-News.

The Mexico City native specialized in the ongoings at the Million Dollar Theater, the legendary downtown L.A. venue that hosted the brightest stars in Latin music for decades. Among the Southern California debuts that Arciga reviewed: ranchera icon Javier Solís (whom Arciga described as a “nervous charro”), salsa legend Celia Cruz (“a singing bomb from turbulent Cuba”), and the recently departed Chente (“surely on his way to heights”).

But as I dug more into Arciga’s clips, I also realized he — not Salazar — was most likely the first English-language Latino columnist for a major newspaper in Southern California, if not the United States.

Twice a week for most of 1957, Arciga wrote the “Latin Holiday” column for the Mirror-News. “In him,” a Feb. 27 story in the tabloid said in now-dated prose, “there’s a happy blend of cultures, the Latin and American, with Pepe cocking an old wise Latin eye on the contemporary Los Angeles scene and writing it in crackling, unique idiom.”

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The story also said Arciga was moving his columna from “another paper.” That would’ve been the rival Herald-Express, where he had been working for a couple of years.

Arciga was a lively writer, more a talk-of-the-town compa than a chingón crusader like Salazar and many of the Latino columnists who followed. His column offers a fascinating snapshot of Latino life in Southern California in the late 1950s, a time when Mexican Americans were moving into the middle class and assimilating — and right before mass migration from Latin America coupled with radicalized youth upended Latino identity in the United States forever.

A typical Arciga dispatch had him hanging out at the Biltmore Hotel with comedic legend Cantinflas (“twitching merrily that microscopic mustache of his”) coupled with a plug for a lecture titled “The Sort of Education I’d Want for my Children and Grandchildren” held in East L.A. He’d write about a chat he had with pioneering Latino civil rights activist Dr. Hector P. García, then shout out some recent graduates from Roosevelt High in Boyle Heights who were doing good.

“Latin Holiday” ridiculed readers who took issue with its frequent use of Spanglish, explained the intricacies of bullfighting or the Virgen de Guadalupe, and decried the depiction of Mexican Americans as criminals on local television stations. And more often than not, Arciga took time to answer questions, polite and not, by readers about Mexican culture — just as I would decades later in my late, not-as-great ¡Ask a Mexican!

You can read some of Arciga’s columns online thanks to Larry Harnisch, an ex-Timesman who runs L.A. Daily Mirror, a site about L.A. history that he first started as a blog for The Times. Harnisch told me he was “thrilled” to republish Arciga, whom he had never heard of until starting his project. He places Arciga in the same league as the Mirror’s more famous columnists of the time: investigative reporter Paul Coates and slice-of-life specialist Matt Weinstock.

“Pepe was an absolute gift, because representation matters,” Harnisch said. “Representation mattered then, and it matters now.”

The run for “Latin Holiday” was short — the last edition was Nov. 6, 1957, with no hint that the column was ending other than a plug for Arciga’s show on Radio KALI. He wouldn’t appear in the Mirror-News for two months, when he reviewed Amalia Mendoza at the Million Dollar. There was no mention of his previous column whatsoever.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

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L.A. STORIES

At-home COVID testing just got harder: L.A. County pauses program amid backlog. Thank God my wife made me buy a few in mid-December. Los Angeles Times

Cal State Long Beach joins growing number of colleges to delay in-person classes. Back to PowerPoint presentations we all go... Los Angeles Times

How the pandemic made hotel housekeeping more difficult — and disgusting. Don’t forget to tip an extra $50 next time you stay at the Holiday Inn Express in McKinleyville. Los Angeles Times

Historic lamps are being stolen off an L.A. bridge. The city is removing the rest for safekeeping. This is why L.A. can’t have nice things. Los Angeles Times

Our daily news podcast

If you’re a fan of this newsletter, you’ll love our daily podcast “The Times,” hosted every weekday by columnist Gustavo Arellano, along with reporters from across our newsroom. Go beyond the headlines. Download and listen on our App, subscribe on Apple Podcasts and follow on Spotify.

POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

Locked in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. L.A. Times congressional reporter Sarah D. Wire appears on The Times, our daily podcast that I host, to talk about her front-row experience on that dark day. (Click here to read all of our stories on the matter.) The Times podcast

Democrats propose California universal healthcare, funded by new income, business taxes. Don’t hold your breath — the plan will face some major hurdles in the coming months. Los Angeles Times

A simple paperwork error can get asylum seekers deported. Rosa Díaz got lucky on a lunch break. Exhibit No. 1,238,397 in how our nation’s immigration policies are weak salsa. KQED

CRIME, COURTS AND POLICING

Does it matter if Dad is unvaccinated? Family courts have started to weigh in. Pandejos always gotta make it about themselves... Los Angeles Times

LAPD captain whose home was raided is latest to sue city over gun store scandal. Because Keystone Kop hijinks shouldn’t be the exclusive domain of Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva! Los Angeles Times

Is U.S.-Israel alliance blocking justice in murder case of Palestinian American activist? Israel’s leading liberal newspaper takes a deep dive into the 1985 assassination of Alex Odeh in Santa Ana, which my colleague Gabriel San Román has covered extensively and for which he’s interviewed in this story. Haaretz

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HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

Kelly Ernby stood against vaccine mandates. Her death from COVID made her a symbol. The Orange County Republican and deputy district attorney was unvaccinated, friends said. Los Angeles Times

An airline broke an activist’s wheelchair. Her death months later amplified calls for change. After finding her custom motorized wheelchair broken, Engracia Figueroa waited five hours at LAX in a manual chair that didn’t fit, opening up an old sore, her attorney said. Los Angeles Times

How Susan Sorrells transformed a Death Valley mining village into a model of ecologically conscious tourism. Note to the New York Times: This is how you do an out-of-towner what-does-California-mean parachute dispatch right. New Yorker

Measuring greenhouse gases in Los Angeles County. The Rand Corp., Milhouse Van Houten’s least favorite think tank, installs sensors on the rooftop of its Santa Monica headquarters (no word if reverse vampires helped). Rand Review

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

MVC Insider, Ep. 3, (Season 3): Lucy Hicks Anderson. The Museum of Ventura County continues its great Facebook Live dives into its region with a profile on the legendary trans activist TODAY at 10 a.m. Didn’t catch it in time? It’ll pop up on their Facebook page soon enough! Museum of Ventura County

Daughter of farmworkers is now a Fresno County Superior Court judge. #respect to newly sworn-in Irene A. Luna. Fresno Bee

San Francisco’s oldest restaurant, Tadich Grill, proudly anoints Jan. 6 as Dave Portnoy Day. The owners have no problems with the politics of the Barstool Sports founder and his many controversies — the place was a beneficiary of his COVID-19 relief fund on Jan. 6, 2021. No word from them about the other thing that happened on that date. SFGate

The bug that saved California. Take a bow, cottony cushion scale! Smithsonian Magazine

Free online games

Get our free daily crossword puzzle, sudoku, word search and arcade games in our new game center at latimes.com/games.

CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: 63, partly cloudy San Diego: 62 San Francisco: 55, morning rain San Jose: 58, morning showers Fresno: 56, cloudy Sacramento: 54, morning showers

AND FINALLY

Today’s California memory is from Alain Jourdier:

My wife and I were driving up Highway 1 on my way to Vietnam, in November 1967, when we stopped in Cambria. So unhurried, welcoming and peaceful that I vowed to visit again if I returned from the war. I’ve tried to visit several times per year since. A tri-tip sandwich and cold beer with unique village shops always greet us. On Moonstone Beach, the waves soothe my spirit. My ashes will be scattered there and will be my affordable “forever” beachfront home. Then we hike Fiscalini Ranch to let the power of nature and the wind set us free.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments to essentialcalifornia@latimes.com.


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