Matt Welch

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© 1986-2004

tunity: kids naturally love history. Give 'em epic tales, and romances, and wild characters to animate lands they've already heard of (or even live on), and their imaginations and thirst for knowledge will run wild. If Father Junipero Serra sounds great, and the Mark Twain story about the jumping frogs makes you laugh and wish you were in a Sierra Nevada mining town, imagine what it would have been like if they'd told you about Miguel Leonis.

Who? Well, most people knew of him as the terrifying "El Basquo Grande," or "The King of Calabassas." He was a 6'4" smuggler from the French Pyrenees who ended up in the lawless west end of the San Fernando Valley in the 1840s, married a Chumash Indian princess named Espiritu Chijulla, and built a beautiful adobe headquarters near a 600-year-old oak tree on her 1,100 acres of land. He spent much of his career above any law, Mexican or American, harassing would-be settlers and competitors with armed Latino-Indian gangs and well-timed bribes to local judges, until 1889, when his wagon was toppled by assassins while crossing the Cahuenga Pass near what is now Universal Studios. Any L.A. kid can take a brief field trip into the Valley and see Leonis' restored home, which is said to still be haunted by his restless ghost, who whispers "Chiquita, Chiquita!" to the spooked museum staff.

What kid wouldn't eat that up? And, in the process, learn much about the otherwise educationally neglected "rancho" system, which straddled both sides of the Mexican-American war and had huge direct impact on the shaping of Los Angeles (and its historical emphasis on real estate). You might learn that Spanish was the dominant language in California until 1900 -- a useful tidbit for the many Okies who still complain that the Mexicans oughtta "go back where they came from." And you'd probably learn about characters like Pio Pico -- whose name is still splashed everywhere around L.A., without anyone telling you he was a remarkable 19th century figure, the last Mexican governor, a successful politician and businessman in American California, all the while without ever learning proper English.

All of the inspiring and enchanting things I've learned about California came without the help of any education system. I only heard about the Free Speech Movement, Haight-Ashbury and New Journalism through doing a high school report on Robert Heinlein's prophetic hippy-sex-religion odyssey Stranger in a Strange Land -- over the strenuous objections of my English teacher, I should add. I learned about how my post-war suburb was built (by Jews, who were excluded) from a Joan Didion piece in the New Yorker about my high school. Beat poets, water wars, L.A's famous downtown Broadway -- forget about it. Half or more of what I know about the city where I live and was raised near came from writing a freaking chapter in a guidebook about the place, forcing me to acquaint myself with the literally dozens of beautiful and significant historical buildings, for example, within a five mile radius of my apartment ... that neither I nor most of my not-dumb friends had ever heard about.

Why do kids read The Lord of the Rings 23 consecutive times (OK, I did, and it was because I was weird....), or love going to the Renaissance Fair, or seeing movies about Robin Hood? Because it's romantic, and filled with crazy and heroic tales, and descriptions of exotic places. Little do we know, growing up here, that for much of the rest of the world California itself is the stuff of fairy tales.

When I first came to San Francisco as a kid, I rode the cable cars, went to Ghiradelli Square (street musicians!), Pier 39 and the Golden Gate Bridge, like millions of Southern Californians before me. It was spellbinding enough, I'm sure. But today, walking near my hotel on Market St., I happened to walk by the Hearst building, and because I had a copy of Citizen Heart under my arm, I knew this was the place (or the successor of the place) that introduced the world to comic strips, "sob sisters," newspaper photography and dozens of other innovations in the profession I hold dear. As kids we're taught that William Randolph Hearst built a huge castle (cool!), and collected lots of art. Any kind of education would be better than this.

© 1986-2004; All rights reserved.