Maria Rita Valdez, the Afro-Latina and granddaughter of slaves whose land is now Beverly Hills
Her ranch was called Rodeo de las Aguas, and where the boutiques and homes of multimillionaires now sprawl, there were cattle. Why not rename Rodeo Drive to Maria Rita Valdez Street?
At least a decade ago, only 5.7% of the inhabitants of Beverly Hills, one of the most expensive residential areas in the United States, were Latino. Even today, if someone tries to trace the influence of this community in the buoyant city of Los Angeles, they are immediately redirected to Downey, in southeast L.A., known as the "Mexican Beverly Hills."
In the city of boutiques and the mansions of billionaires and Hollywood celebrities, surrounded by the big city of L.A., it is difficult to keep track of Latinos with few exceptions.
Ironically, before Beverly Hills was Beverly Hills, its more than 1,800 hectares of fertile, unpaved land belonged for more than half a century to a Black, Mexican-American woman of slave descent named Maria Rita Valdez.
Her story is the story of California itself and her home, was the first to be built in Beverly Hills.
Maria Rita was born on May 21, 1791 in what was then Nueva España — now California — just 10 years after the founding of the Pueblo of Los Angeles. Her great-grandfather was an African slave; her grandfather, Quintero Valdez, was one of L.A.'s fathers.
"She is the granddaughter of Luis Quintero Valdez, who was one of 11 families recruited by the government of Spain to found the city of Los Angeles," University of California history professor David Torres-Rouff told BBC.
At the time, Spain recruited families living in today's northern Mexico — mostly poor laborers — and promised them land and a golden future if they crossed the dangerous Sonoran desert and founded the city. Their name was "pobladores."
María Rita married Spanish soldier Vicente Ferrer Villa in 1808 at the age of 17, and they had three children. Ferrer died two decades later, when Mexico had already claimed its independence and Los Angeles was a Mexican colony.
Valdez had to fight for her land again when Los Angeles was occupied by the US army after the Mexican War.
The young widow managed to keep her land with her family and is believed to have built her house on what is now Alpine Drive and Sunset Boulevard.
Since the property title to land at time was granted based on the productivity, Valdez found it necessary to make her ranch profitable, and became an entrepreneur with paid workers and staff, mostly natives.
Her business centered on raising and selling cattle, and was so prosperous that Maria Rita finally succeeded in getting the Mexican government to give her the title of ownership.
Ten years later, in 1848, she had to fight for her land again when Los Angeles was occupied by the U.S. army after the Mexican War.
"She must have witnessed a great upheaval in the lives of the indigenous peoples of the area, who suffered a demographic decline due to diseases brought by the Europeans and an American period that brought much more violence," said historian William Deverell of the University of Southern California.
According to Torres-Rouff, the land on which Valdez and her family settled was a sacred place for the native Tongva communities — the Spanish called them "gabrielinos" — so Maria Rita is herself a symbol of an identity, historical and political irony: a person who went from being a descendant of African slaves and a poor family from Mexico to a colonizing Californian.
Finally, in 1854, the so-called Rancho Rodeo de las Aguas and its fertile acres were sold to the then-Mayor of Los Angeles, Benjamin Davis Wilson, who had been a fur trader and was popularly known by Native Americans as "Don Benito" for his supposed honesty.
Today on the site of Valdez's house stands the expensive Beverly Hills Hotel and there is also a plaque in honour of the landowner and her ranch. But can you imagine what it would be like if Sunset Boulevard were Valdez Boulevard?
Dreaming is free, even in Beverly Hills.