Scent of Orange Blossom
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By Marc Porter Zasada
IN LOS ANGELES, fantasy has always been just as important as reality, and so the Urban Man follows local myth as he might the faint scent of orange blossom along the 110, or the strum of a Spanish guitar somewhere down a block of new stucco haciendas.
Today on my lunch hour I find a copy of Ramona, the romance novel published in 1884 by Helen Hunt Jackson, and I take it downtown to the shabby nostalgia of Olvera Street. There I locate a Mexican caf- with bad food and Mariachis, and I read carefully while sipping an agua de tamarindo.
Perhaps you don-t know Ramona, important as it is to L.A.
The story opens on the idyllic Southern California rancho of the Moreno family, where "between the veranda and the river meadows, all was garden, orange grove, and almond orchard." Hens and turkeys fill the courtyard. The padre of the Santa Barbara Mission pays a visit. It-s sheep-shearing time, and Ramona, a beautiful ward of mixed blood, falls tragically in love with a cheerful native-American laborer.
The novel was instantly popular across the nation, and inspired many to leap on late 19th century trains and pour into L.A., looking to buy into the whole Ramona scene.
Ironically, Jackson-s goal was actually to stop the destruction of her idealized missions, noble rancheros and their -happy- native populations by the American government and...land speculators. Instead, historians say this terrifyingly sentimental novel sparked a boom that paved over many an orange grove.
I take a sip of my Tamarindo and read about daybreak at the Ranchero: "At last came the full red ray across the meadow...In the next second, Father Salvierderra flung up his south window, and leaning out, his cowl thrown off, his thin gray locks streaming back, began in a feeble but not unmelodious voice to sing. - -O beautiful queen,
Princess of Heaven.- Before he had finished the second line, a half-dozen voices had joined in, -- the Se-ora, from her room at the west end of the veranda, beyond the flowers; Ramona from hers, the next; and Margarita and other of the maids already astir in the wings of the house. As the volume of the melody swelled, the canaries waked, along with the finches and the linnets in the veranda roof."
Movies were made, and to this day, a full-blown pageant of the novel plays in the Ramona Bowl out in Hemet. It-s filled with men on horseback, women in black lace, and nostalgia for a Southern California that probably never existed.
In fact, at the caf- today I have also brought along an 8,000-word essay by an angry professor who explains the underlying racist psychology of Ramona, and the true violence of the era. She mentions how conquering hegemonists love to make nostalgic kitsch out of those they conquer. She says the Missions were bad, and the land boom was worse, and I-m sure she-s right...but like I said, illusion has always been just as important as truth here.
Still, I can bear Ramona no longer, and the Urban Man rises to walk among the decorated sombreros, cheap huaraches and painted toy guitars of El Pueblo de Los Angeles, now bordered on all sides by high volume streets and freeway ramps.
This was our first theme park, created in 1930 out of nostalgia for a tiny remaining swatch of ranchero L.A. I visit the neglected, fly-blown museums and sit for a time with old men in cowboy hats outside the historic church. Further along, ruined buildings sit unrestored in full view of City Hall. Despite its busloads of tourists, El Pueblo has become a sleepy and neglected time warp -- a Twilight Zone punctuated by the drums of bored dancers in Aztec costumes and occasional financial scandals. Again this Saturday, the Archbishop will put aside the difficulties of the 21st Century to sprinkle holy water on cows and geese during the annual "Blessing of the Animals," and folks will briefly recall the scent of orange blossom.
Then, like the Urban Man, everyone will get back on the freeway and go home to more up-to-date fantasies.
Copyright - 2005 Marc Porter Zasada. All rights reserved.
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