Latino Heritage in Redwood City

Redwood City’s Latino population, which today makes up nearly 40 percent of the community’s population, has played an integral role in our city’s growth even before it was founded. 

Originally an Ohlone region, Spanish and Mexican explorers arrived to Redwood City in the 1700s as colonialism and the Mission period forged a new Latino presence. The Spanish first arrived in the Bay Area Peninsula during a 1769 expedition led by Captain Gaspar de Portola. Others explorers followed, including Captain Fernando Rivera in 1774, and Lieutenant Colonel Juan Bautista de Anza in 1776. The de Anza families crossed San Francisquito Creek and continued into present-day Redwood City, where their presence can still be seen in street signs and facility names here and throughout the Bay Area.

Following the Mexican Revolution of 1810, California became an official territory of Mexico called Alta California. The secularization of California’s missions led to the Rancho Period in 1833. As more Ohlone land was overtaken, Latinos developed a strong foothold on the Bay Area Peninsula. Don Luis Arguello, who later on became the first governor of Mexican California, was eventually granted 35,000 acres of land. These 10 miles of terrain became a Rancho known as Alameda de Las Pulgas.

Through marriages to Mexican citizens, settlers were able to obtain land grants from the Mexican government. However, in 1846 tensions between Mexico and the United States let to war. President Polk’s “Manifest Destiny” policy spurred fighting that ended in the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. The treaty ceded several western states, including California, to the U.S. Many parts of the treaty were never honored but the people remained in the area. 

Once California joined the union, life for Latinos in California changed drastically as many fought to maintain land grants threatened by western settlers. Many of the new settlers began to stake claims on lands belonging to Arguello’s Rancho de las Pulgas. Soledad Arguello, widow of Luis Arguello, employed the legal services of Simon Monserrate Mezes in her case against the settlers. Arguello was victorious, and the title was confirmed in 1856. As payment, Mr. Mezes received 15 percent of the grant lands, including a major portion of the areas known today as Belmont and Redwood City. Mezes later donated three blocks to Redwood City, which became land for the courthouse and two parks, one being California Plaza, site of today’s County offices and Mezes Park in Redwood City. A bust of Soledad, sculpted by Ray Lorenzato, stands at the Redwood City Caltrain Station to honor her contributions.

1888 census numbers reveal that natives with Spanish surnames also increased in population. Their occupations are listed as laborers, farmers and rancheros. The Schellen’s Family Names volumes continue to document the Latino presence in Redwood City during the early 1900s; however, when the City incorporated in 1867, it was named Redwood City rather than Mezesville. The new name spoke little of the rancho era past, and as the new government formed, Latinos were not appointed or elected despite their historical presence in the area.

Fernando Vega was the first Latino to serve on the Redwood City Elementary School District Board and first to serve on the City Council in the early 1970s. Priscilla Marquez Mosher followed Fernando, joining the school board in 1977. Ruben Barrales became the first Latino elected to a countywide position as a member of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors in 1992. In 2001 Maria Diaz-Slocum joined Alicia Aguirre on the school board, making it the first time two Latinas served together in the City. Aguirre subsequently served on City Council and was elected Mayor of Redwood City in 2011, the first Latina to serve in this vital role.

In the last century Redwood City, like California as a whole, has experienced an increase in the Latino population. Currently, Redwood City’s largest segment of the Latino population is of Mexican descent. Of this population, a large majority have migrated from the town of Aguililla, in the state of Michoacán, Mexico. Since the 1940s, economic conditions and family ties have drawn over 10,000 people from Aguililla to Redwood City and North Fair Oaks. However, the Latino population has now broadened to include those from Central and South America as well.

Economic shifts in the 1990s prompted some Latinos to leave the area; however, parts of Redwood City have remained predominantly Latino, such as North Fair Oaks, where 73 percent of residents are Latino.

With a presence stretching back to the 1700s, and a population near 40 percent, Latinos continue to play an important part in Redwood City’s future.