SoCal vs. NorCal: The Mexican History of California’s Existential Crisis

!838 Map of Mexico
Mexico in 1838 including present-day California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona. From Encyclopedia Britannica 7th edition. Image courtesy DigbyDalton under the under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The Bay Area is shallow about keeping it real, and Los Angeles keeps it very real about being shallow.  That’s one way to describe the cultural tensions between Northern and Southern California, but it relies on contemporary stereotypes.  The north and south of the Golden State have always been at odds, and ever since California achieved statehood in 1850 people have been trying to break it up.  North-South antagonism is a key feature of life in California, but did you know that it pre-dates statehood? The arribeños (uppers) and the abajeños (lowers) in the sadly neglected, Mexican territory of Alta California never could seem to play nice, seeding a factionalism that remains to this day.

Map of Old Spanish and Mexican Ranchos of Los Angeles County, 1937
Old Spanish and Mexican Ranchos of Los Angeles County, 1937. Image courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.

Why couldn’t they all just get along?  It’s complicated, but first and foremost, it’s Spain’s fault.  Strange to think now, in the 21st century when we know how awesome California is, but back in the 18th century Spain wasn’t that excited about settling its northern territories.  Foggy, wooded, rocky, difficult to access, full of Indians … California didn’t wow Spanish authorities.  They established missions and presidios reluctantly, only to keep Russia from encroaching further south and to prevent England and France from establishing any kind of Pacific foothold.  Spain couldn’t see the value in developing the region, thus life in California was hard, and settlers felt Spain’s lack of interest keenly.  Californios wondered why people so far away, who had no grasp of issues on the ground, got to make all the rules.  As the territory’s population grew, political resentment turned to infighting.  Los Angeles and Santa Barbara were the most populous towns, and most of the privately held ranchos were also in the south.  So why was the government headquartered in Monterey, along with the revenue-generating customs house?  Good questions, and a lot of people were asking them in the early-1820s.

San Diego in 1840, F.W. Martin, Image Courtesy California State Library

That – 1821 to be exact – is when Mexico gained its independence from Spain.  In 1822 Luis Argüello – California born (1784) and bred – was appointed territorial governor, but conflicts really started heating up in 1825 when Argüello was succeeded by Lt. Col. José María de Echeandía.  Echeandía, an army engineer from Mexico City, really, very much did not want to get stuck out in the then-nowheresville of California.  He was a good soldier, though, and off he went.  He stopped in San Diego, however, and remains, as of this writing in 2020, the only California governor to base themselves so far south.  The arribeños in Monterey took this as an insult, but Echeandía argued, not unreasonably, that as governor of both Baja and Alta California, San Diego marked a strategic midpoint from which to oversee the territory.  Two additional, more personal reasons kept Echeandía in San Diego.  First, he thought the fogs along California’s central and northern coasts would be bad for his health; more importantly, though, Echeandía had fallen in love with Josefa Carrillo, daughter of a prominent, californio family.  He’d never be able to woo her from Monterey!  Alas, Carrillo rejected Echeandía’s suit and wound up eloping with Henry Fitch, a Yankee merchant.  That was a huge scandal in 1826 and a topic for a whole other post.

So, lovelorn Echeandía got off on the wrong foot with California after not even wanting to be there in the first place, and as governor he was stepping into a hot mess of californio resentment, greed, and ambition.  Before getting too far into the very complicated story of the Mexican origins of California’s north-south divide – which, to recap, is largely due to Spanish neglect – here’s a handy roadmap: before 1848, when Mexico ceded California to the US after the Mexican-American War, the region sustained, in close succession, three attempts to divide it.  First, there was the crisis over mission secularization.  Then came Mexico’s 1835 promotion of Los Angeles from pueblo to city and territorial capital, which really pissed off the arribeños in Monterey.  Finally, there was Juan Alvarado’s declaration of Californian independence in 1836, which abajeños saw as an attempt to wrest power from Los Angeles and which, in turn, led to several years of fruitless squabbles without resolution until finally California became part of the United States.  North-South conflicts didn’t end there, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Mission San Gabriel,
stereograph by Carleton Watkins, ca. 1880, photCL_555_03_1036,
The Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.

Back to Echeandía, freshly arrived in California as governor.  Enlightenment ideas about liberty and equality had fueled Mexican independence, driven a very modern debate about native labor which led to the abolition of slavery in Mexico’s 1824 constitution, and exacerbated church-state tensions.  This ideological wave carried Echeandía north and had a substantial impact on his administration.  He had been appointed with a liberal mandate to secularize the missions, free the Indians, and redistribute church property, but he was given no direction, only told to go forth and do it. 

There was no GOOD way to secularize, so Echeandía just found A way, drawing up idealistic plans that had missions transitioning to parish churches, church lands converting to self-governing pueblos with mixed-race populations, and every Indian family granted two plots of land.  All else – fields, vineyards, animals, workshops, tools ­– was to be overseen by a government appointed administrator and profits devoted to municipal needs.  Echeandía was nearing the end of his term as governor, so it didn’t matter much to him if his plans were viable or not.  He sent them off to Mexico City, but Mexico, on the brink of civil war, was too distracted to pay attention to California. So, Echeandía put his unauthorized plans into action, much to the dismay of mission priests who argued that he was flouting Mexican laws stipulating that mission property not be given to non-Indians until the exact needs of the neophytes was determined.  Echeandía, much to the delight of californios, was arbitrarily determining that need himself and making significant grants to private individuals.

Mexico City, after a period of violent, political instability, finally managed to send Manuel Victoria north as California’s newly appointed governor in January 1831.  He put Echeandía’s plans on hold until the central government had a chance to weigh in and then told Echeandía to return to his army unit in Mexico.  Echeandía’s political fortunes had shifted with the changes in Mexico’s government; he returned not to Mexico but to San Diego where he set up a rebel cell in opposition to Victoria in Monterey and thus California’s first, serious North-South conflict was on.  Both sides claimed to be defending Indians, but really this was a battle about land.  Liberals in the south wanted it for themselves; conservative loyalists in the north felt that a mutually beneficial church-state arrangement could be reached.

Cahuenga Pass, ca. 1888, photCL_555,
The Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.

Victoria’s and Echeandía’s forces clashed on December 5, 1831 at the Battle of Cahuenga (where Hwy 101 now moves through the Cahuenga Pass).  Victoria was badly wounded, later captured at Mission San Gabriel, and coerced into returning to Mexico.  Into that leadership vacuum stepped his secretary, Agustín Zamorano, supported by priests and traders, who declared himself provisional governor.  In response, Echeandía convened a legislature of southern californios who declared HIM governor.  Rather than get into another bloody battle, Zamorano and Echeandía reached a gentleperson’s agreement: Echeandía ruled as far north as Mission San Gabriel; Zamorano ruled as far south as Mission San Fernando.

Manifesto to the Mexican Republic, presented by Brigadier General José Figueroa, Commandant and Political Chief of Upper California, on his Conduct and on that of José María De Híjar and José María Padrés as Directors of Colonization in 1834 And 1835; Image courtesy Marissa López, original – the first book printed in California – available in the California History Room of the California State Library in Sacramento (Vault 979.4 F47m)

This uneasy peace lasted until January of 1833 when José Figueroa arrived as the newly appointed governor of California.  He unified the state and began secularization afresh.  The californios were delighted, but not for long.  Word soon came that a boatload of colonists was on its way as part of the government-sanctioned Híjar-Padres colony to take that sweet, mission land for themselves.  The balance of power shifted in Mexico before the colonists arrived and Figueroa was able to thwart their plans.  Southern californios were placated, but they continued strategizing ways to wrest power from Monterey. 

An opportunity presented itself in 1835 when José Antonio Carrillo, California’s (non-voting) representative in the Mexican congress, managed to get Los Angeles promoted to “city” and named capital of the territory. While the arribeños had been obsessing over Híjar-Padres, Carrillo had been scheming in Mexico City to effect this massive shift, which led Angelenos to demand that the governor decamp to the new capital and that the archives be moved from Monterey to LA.  Politicians in Monterey agreed as long as they could find a suitable palacio for the governor in the city.  A committee looked and looked, but they couldn’t find anything nice enough.  The city was just woefully lacking, apparently, and the committee from Monterey taunted Angelenos for their poverty and provincialism.  Needless to say, this did nothing to ease political tensions.  Sounds oddly familiar, though, doesn’t it?  The Bay Area is so brainy and cultured, and LA is an endless string of trash cinema and waxing salons, right?  Funny to think these stereotypes emerged from centuries old Mexican snobbery that bubbled to the surface only when Los Angeles became an official city.

Juan Alvarado, ca 1860, image courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.

From this incident a couple of enduring and fatal truths emerged.  Always on the brink of civil war throughout the early-19th century, rapid shifts in power meant Mexico couldn’t effectively govern California.  Californios, for their part, consistently undermined and pushed back against central authority and the leaders Mexico sent to enforce it.  These macro conflicts, finally, always played out against a backdrop of micro conflicts between arribeños and abajeños.  Thus, when Juan Alvarado and his cousin José Castro declared California free and independent of Mexico in 1836 and drove out Mexican-born Governor Nicolás Gutiérrez, Los Angeles saw it as an attempt to disempower them.  A few years later, Governor Manuel Micheltorena’s inability to control his army of bedraggled ex-convicts (whose arrival californios had seen as the height of insult) evolved into a plan by politicians in Los Angeles, led by Pio Pico, to make Los Angeles the dominant city in California.

Manuel Micheltorena, by Ebregon Necko (1872) Image courtesy of the California State Library.

By the time Micheltorena was forced out in 1845 two things were clear: Mexico couldn’t control California, and the influx of Anglo-American settlers from the US was increasing at an alarming rate.  The political plans of californios were eventually swept away by the tidal wave of the Mexican-American War and California was lost for good.  The North-South conflict didn’t end there, however.

The same sectional conflicts arose during the constitutional convention in slightly different form as delegates struggled with whether California should be admitted as a slave state or free.  Just to be clear: California has always been a free state, but for nearly ten years after statehood pro-slavery politicians worked diligently to divide California.  Finally, in 1859, the CA legislature approved a plan to split the state, but the federal government ignored their vote as the South was preparing to secede from the Union and the government didn’t have time to worry about sparsely-populated California.  The question popped up again in 1881 when lawyers declared the 1859 act still valid.  California might have actually divided itself then had it not been for Los Angeles so energetically pushing to be the capital of “Southern California.”  Other counties failed to see any benefit in dividing the state so the plan was dropped.

Jessica Ko
The Daily Nexus

There have been 220 attempts to divide California since it became a state in 1850.  220?!? Read about them all on the California State Library’s excellent timeline, and as you read, try to remember that while these debates are about the universal question of whether the rich will get richer and the poor stay poor, they have their origins in Mexican political conflict.  It behooves us all to remember that, like so many quintessentially Californian things, the state’s north-south divide is puro mexicano.


Attempts to Divide California: A Timeline – California State Library. Accessed 16 Apr. 2020.

Guinn, J. M. “HOW CALIFORNIA ESCAPED STATE DIVISION.” Annual Publication of the Historical Society of Southern California, vol. 6, no. 3, [U of California Press, Historical Society of Southern California], 1905, pp. 223–32. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/41168593.

Lavender, David. California: Land of New Beginnings, Harper & Row, 1972.