by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Sunday’s Curious Cases presentation on lawyers in greater Los Angeles during the period 1850-1875 covered many attorneys practicing in the town as it gradually grew from a remote frontier community to a nascent city. During that quarter century, virtually all the practicing barristers in the area were Americans, though there were some notable exceptions in the form of Latino lawyers.
The earliest and best-known was Agustín Olvera, whose name is most recognizable for the street that bears his name and is a major tourist destination off the historic Plaza in Los Angeles. Born in Mexico in 1818, Olvera migrated to Los Angeles with his uncle Ignacio Coronel as part of a migrant group known as the Hijar-Padres Colony.
He served in several official capacities in the waning years of the Mexican era in the region. He was administrator of Mission San Juan Capistrano in its post-secularization state. After serving to defend the area during the American invasion and having a role in the Treaty of Cahuenga that ended the conflict locally, military governor Bennett Riley appointed Olvera to be a Judge of the First Instance, a civil law holdover from the Mexican and Spanish civil law system.
After a constitution was created in late 1849, followed by the establishment of administrative and legal systems the next spring, Olvera was elected the first county judge. As the head of the Court of Sessions, renamed the County Court in 1864, Olvera presided with two associates drawn as justices of the peace from the outlying townships in the county. Not only this, but for two years, the Court of Sessions was the administrative entity for the county, until the 1852 creation by the state of boards of supervisors. He became a supervisor and served in 1855 and 1856.
Olvera, after completing his term as county judge in 1853, went into a private law practice. Twice married and father of several children, Olvera was a federal land office receiver in 1860, but was listed as an attorney in the census a decade later. He died at age 58 in 1876 and, the following year, the Los Angeles City Council paid tribute to him by renaming Wine Street after the longtime legal luminary.
Another notable figure in early Los Angeles legal circles was Manuel Clemente Rojo. Born in Lima, Peru in 1823 and a law student at the university in the capital, Rojo was among many South Americans (where mining was a common enterprise) who came to Gold Rush California. His purpose, however, was commercial as he and a partner brought goods by ship in 1848. Unfortunately, the vessel foundered near modern Rosarito Beach off the coast of Baja California and the material was lost. Rojo spent some time in San Diego before moving to Los Angeles by the end of the year. He began his legal practice quickly and was a partner of I.S.K. Ogier in an unusual example of a business enterprise by an American and a Latino.
Rojo was also editor of the Spanish language page of the first newspaper in Los Angeles, the Star and contributed many elements to that section. Interestingly, he participated in a couple of the early extra-legal popular tribunals formed to try suspects in dramatic murder cases outside the established courts. His role as secretary in one of these seems to indicate that he was there as a representative of the Spanish-speaking community.
In 1854, Rojo left Los Angeles and participated in a revolution that overthrew Mexican president Santa Anna. The new leader, Ignacio Comonfort (who also leased the country’s mint to Jonathan Temple, because Temple’s son-in-law was a major supporter), appointed Rojo as a judge in the southern portion of Baja California. After a decade, he became a judge in the northern region.
He became a well-known figure there, serving in political positions, founding a newspaper, establishing early schools, and writing histories of the region. Rojo died in 1900 and is remembered through a public school and a library in Tijuana named in recognition of his vital role in education.
A third major Latino lawyer in this period was Ygnacio Sepulveda, whose family name is commemorated in the major Los Angeles boulevard and the pass through which Interstate 405 runs. Born in 1842, Sepulveda, whose father owned the San Joaquin ranch in modern Irvine and nearby areas and whose mother was an Avila (the family adobe is a historic site on Olvera Street), was sent back east to attend preparatory school in Boston.
Sepulveda returned to Los Angeles after his time in Massachusetts and was admitted to the bar in 1863. He secured election to the state assembly the same year and served a two-year term. After practicing law for several years, he became county judge and had a major role in the early stages of proceedings of the Grand Jury after the horrific Chinese Massacre of October 1871. Sepulveda issued a passionate and stirring plea to the jury exhorting it to do its duty to justice as it went about its work issuing indictments.
Sepulveda later became District Court judge for the Los Angeles area and, when a new constitution in 1879 led to a revamping of the court into a Superior Court system, he, along with Volney E. Howard, was elected as judge.
In March 1884, Sepulveda resigned his judgeship to take a position as an agent for Wells Fargo in Mexico City. For thirty years he remained in the federal district and also practiced law, was a representative in the American consulate, and was administrator of jurisprudence and legislation for President Porfirio Diaz, who ruled in Mexico for most of thirty-five years.
In 1914, a few years after the revolution which toppled Diaz, Sepulveda returned to a transformed Los Angeles and professed to shock at the changes he saw. He died in December 1916 at age 74.
There is considerable debate about how the law in the early American period of Los Angeles affected Latinos. Some historians believe the system worked against Spanish speakers and others feel that, while broader issues were very problematic for them, the legal system was more equitable than other areas of Los Angeles society. Olvera, Rojo and Sepulveda did not have uniform experiences, but they deserve remembrance as among the very few Latinos in positions of responsibility, especially for the latter, who was a judge during the 1870s and 1880s when Spanish speakers had almost no role in politics and law.