As an undergraduate anthropology major in the 1960s, Frank P. Lobo made a startling discovery: according to his textbook, his existence was an impossibility.[i] A member of the Indigenous Acjachemen community of San Juan Capistrano, California, Lobo found himself reading about how, according to a well-respected anthropologist of the time, “the Acjachemem were extinct.” [ii] “This gentleman stated unequivocally that we no longer existed,” Lobo recalled several decades later. “This meant that well more than two dozen of my relatives, with whom I interacted every day, ceased to exist as Acjachemem…Extinction had been conferred on all of us.”[iii]
Upon reading the passage to his relatives and other tribal community members at a birthday party later that night, Lobo “was met with shocked silence and then with shouts and shrieks….Shouted comments of outrage soon degenerated into raucous laughter.”[iv] “The Acjachemem present,” continued Lobo with wry humor, “concurred that the statement made by the learned professor about our alleged extinction was somewhat premature,” and carried on the party.[v] But the unsettling text and his family’s reactions to it would fuel Frank Lobo’s subsequent quest to promote recognition of the Acjachemen tribe—also known as the “Juaneños” in reference to their historic ties to Mission San Juan Capistrano. As a graduate student at the University of Arizona in the early 1970s, Lobo acquired funding to conduct oral histories with Acjachemen tribal members which remain invaluable resources for scholars of Indigenous California.[vi] And throughout the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, he joined other Indigenous activists from Orange County in submitting multiple petitions for formal recognition of the Acjachemen by the U.S. federal government.[vii]
Yet today, the ongoing efforts of Acjachemen activists to alter their tribe’s official status have so far proven unsuccessful, despite several thousand self-identified Acjachemen individuals organizing in support of federal recognition over the last four decades.[viii] And from the outset of this campaign, the Acjachemen have struggled with the awkward task of proving to outsiders their own authenticity as Indigenous people. In a 1980 Los Angeles Times article profiling the “Juaneños’” bid for recognition, journalist Leslie Berkman highlighted the Acjachemen’s general failure to “fit the traditional image of Indians.”[ix] “Those 18th-Century Juanenos [sic]… were raven-haired, brown-eyed and olive-complexioned,” Berkman explained in the now-dated and deeply problematic language of racialism, whereas “Repeated infusions of European blood have lightened their faces and tinted their hair various shades of brown, even blond. “[x] In short, the Acjachemen did not phenotypically fulfill Anglo-American expectations of “Indianness.”[xi] And indeed, Acjachemen activists had long taken appearances into account as they sought to convince officials of the legitimacy of their heritage. In striking photographs taken during the tribe’s 1950s push to secure compensation for stolen lands, for example, Chief Clarence Lobo can be seen dressed in recognizably “Native American” regalia—but which, notably, was not traditional Acjachemen regalia. Posing stoically in what he later identified as a “Sioux Indian chief’s headdress,” Lobo explained that he did so in order “to meet the white man’s expectations of how an Indian leader should appear.”[xii] Ironically, Clarence Lobo and other Acjachemen activists found themselves demonstrating to white onlookers their “Indian” authenticity by dressing inauthentically.[xiii]
Officially, however, the federal government’s present-day denial of Acjachemen recognition rests upon a set of unfulfilled criteria seemingly more objective than appearance and dress. According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ most recent statements rejecting the Acjachemen petitions in 2011, “The totality of the evidence does not demonstrate that the petitioner’s mid-19th century ancestors formed a distinct SJC [San Juan Capistrano] Indian community within a larger Spanish-speaking, Catholic, Old Mexican/Californio community after 1862.”[xiv] Rather, the BIA report continued, the Acjachemen petitioners’ ancestors largely “appear to have been Indian individuals who became absorbed into the general, ethnically-mixed population of Old Mexican/Californio families.”[xv] Moreover, the BIA determined that a significant number of the individuals cited as Acjachemen petitioners’ ancestors “did not descend from California Indians at all, but were members of the general population…in the town of SJC during the Mexican period.” [xvi] In essence, the BIA determined that since 1862, the Acjachemen of San Juan Capistrano were legally and culturally indistinguishable from the town’s non-Acjachemen ethnic Mexican community. With their claims to both cultural continuity and genealogical authenticity deemed unverifiable within the historical record, the Acjachemen failed to satisfy Criterion 83.7(b) of the Code of Federal Regulations’ title 25, thereby barring them from a government-to-government relationship with the United States.[xvii]
But how reliable are the official documents that led to this conclusion—from mission baptismal records to the U.S. Census—as gauges of an individual’s cultural identity and heritage? Do the BIA’s findings about the “true” Mexican heritage of self-identified Acjachemen individuals necessarily undermine their claims to California Indigenous authenticity? Perhaps in the shifting racial landscapes of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Southern California, such public records hid just as much as they revealed.
In 1980 interviews, Acjachemen leaders Clarence Lobo and Raymond Belardes offered an intriguing, alternative explanation for their tribe’s perceived cultural extinction during the first half of the twentieth century. According to Belardes, a significant number of Acjachemen tribal members had been deliberately “raised as Mexicans.”[xviii] On paper and in public, Lobo further explained, many Acjachemen families had “denied their Indian blood and called themselves Mexicans”—a logic that, significantly, framed the labels “Indian” and “Mexican” as more or less mutually exclusive.[xix] But privately, these San Juan residents “had known they [were] Indian.”[xx] Beginning during the second half of the nineteenth century, they simply “went underground” in order to escape anti-Indian discrimination.[xxi]
What exactly was to be gained through this strategic embrace of a primarily “Mexican” identity over Native American identity—what some scholars have even labeled a form of racial passing?[xxii] After all, the systemic disadvantages faced by the region’s ethnic Mexican population in the wake of the U.S.-Mexican War have been well documented, from the dispossession of Californio lands to targeted anti-Mexican violence.[xxiii] Yet crucially, the Mexican “Californios” who remained in California after the U.S.-Mexican War had received U.S. citizenship through the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, a fact that also implicitly defined them as legally “white” despite many having mixed-race heritage. The disconnect between the Californios’ legal “whiteness” and Anglo newcomers’ perceptions of Californios as non-white set the stage for the Californios’ gradual decline in political, economic, and social power during the second half of the nineteenth century. Though legally guaranteed “the enjoyment of all the rights of citizens of the United States,” Californios found their influence in the region undermined by Anglo-Americans’ discriminatory policies and practices.[xxiv] But for some mission-affiliated California Indigenous families, this same legal disconnect associated with “Mexican” identity may have actually presented an opportunity for limited social and racial redefinition.
Because of the Acjachemen’s history of forced Hispanicization under the Spanish colonial mission system of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, by the 1850s, many Acjachemen community members possessed Spanish surnames and spoke Spanish in their homes. Even more than a century later in the 1970s, anthropologists Frank Lobo and Susan Lobo found that their own ability to speak “the particular Californio Spanish that is spoken in San Juan Capistrano” still proved essential to their research with the Acjachemen community, since “many of the older people felt most comfortable and expressive using Spanish.”[xxv] Moreover, many nineteenth-century Acjachemen individuals had maintained close cultural and social ties with the town’s ethnic Mexican Californios claiming “Spanish” ancestry, most notably through marriage and through affiliation with the Catholic Church.[xxvi] And perhaps most importantly, the Acjachemen and other Indigenous Californians had legally been made citizens of the Republic of Mexico under the Mexican Constitution of 1824.[xxvii] Thus, although the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and later California constitutional conventions drew sharp lines between California’s “Indians” and the former Mexican nationals who adopted U.S. citizenship, indigeneity and Mexican citizenship overlapped significantly prior to the U.S.-Mexican War.
It appears, then, that in the aftermath of the war, members of the Acjachemen community may have discovered benefits to downplaying their “Indianness” while playing up the cultural traits they shared with the region’s non-Acjachemen ethnic Mexicans. Despite the many challenges Californios faced during the second half of the nineteenth century, they could also claim a certain level of protection derived from their legal status as white U.S. citizens, no matter how tenuous. Indigenous Californians, on the other hand, found themselves increasingly targeted by the U.S. settler colonial state without the limited protections afforded by U.S. citizenship. As the historian Benjamin Madley has powerfully shown in his award-winning An American Genocide (2016), the U.S. conquest of California inaugurated a de facto policy of Indian “extermination” through both state-sanctioned and extralegal violence. Meanwhile, as Damon B. Akins and William J. Bauer, Jr. have outlined in We Are the Land (2021), the newly formed state government denied Indigenous Californians the right to vote in 1849, and during the 1850s, “passed laws that prevented California Indians from testifying against Whites, serving on juries, or working as lawyers.”[xxviii] Given this multi-pronged assault on the rights and very existence of California’s Indigenous population, Clarence Lobo’s assertion that Acjachemen families had strategically “denied their Indian blood and called themselves Mexicans” begins to make sense.
Beyond the Acjachemen leaders’ own explanations for their community’s perceived “Mexican” identity, tracing specific individuals across the historical record reveals fascinating further instances of slippage between the “Mexican” and “Indian” labels in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century San Juan Capistrano. Gregorio Humiliano Rios, for example, was recorded in Mission San Juan Capistrano’s 1829 baptismal register as the illegitimate “Yndio” son of the Juaneña “Yndia” Magdalena Canienseguinaim and the Californio Silverio Rios. Yet following the U.S.-Mexican War, Rios was listed in all U.S. Census documents as “white,” along with the rest of his family.[xxix] A photograph of San Juan residents taken in the mid-1880s by G.W. James (above) was accompanied by the description, “A Mexican family lounging under a ramada at (or near?) Mission San Juan Capistrano, Orange County, ca. 1885.” But several decades later, San Juan resident and founder of the local “Club Hispano Californio” Alfonso Yorba identified the three individuals in the center of the group as “Leona – San Juanena Mission Indian,” “Fuliz – San Juanena Mission Indian,” and “Benuta – San Juanena Mission Indian.”[xxx]
Moving into the early decades of the twentieth century, the public records related to Chief Clarence Lobo himself provide an excellent demonstration of how one California Indigenous family may have navigated the state’s system of racial categorization. Born in 1912 in San Juan Capistrano, Lobo first appeared in the 1920 U.S. Federal Census listed as the “white” son of “white” parents John and Hope (Esperanza) Lobo. In 1930—the only year in which the U.S. Census included “Mexican” as a category in the “Race” column—the teenage Clarence Lobo and the rest of his household were recorded as “Mexican.” But on his WWII Draft Registration Card from 1940, the 28-year-old Lobo self-identified as “Indian.”[xxxi] Despite previous public records indicating that Lobo was either “white” or “Mexican,” Lobo later reflected, “Society didn’t let me forget I was an Indian…. It was dumped in my face.”[xxxii] While on paper, Lobo’s Indigenous identity had remained obscured, this fact evidently had only a narrow impact on how others treated him and on his personal sense of cultural identity. With the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act in effect and new state measures providing California Indian individuals with limited monetary compensation for stolen lands, the incentives of embracing a primarily “Mexican” or “Californio” identity seem to have faded. After decades spent “underground,” as tribal leader David Belardes later put it, the Acjachemen community finally “cautiously came out” during the mid-twentieth century.[xxxiii]
Unfortunately, however, the community’s close association with Mexican identity in the town of San Juan has posed a problem for tribal recognition ever since. Within the legal and cultural landscape of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the submersion of Indigenous identity beneath a publicly Mexican one represented a creative strategy of survival. In the face of oppressive and violent anti-Indian policies, individuals’ choices to hide their California Indigenous ancestry can hardly be seen as voluntary. And yet this same strategy of survival now continues to prop up the myth of Acjachemen cultural extinction. Despite recent surges in Indigenous visibility in the town of San Juan Capistrano and across Orange County, the quest for federal recognition has progressed little since Frank Lobo first laughed at the textbook version of his tribe’s history all those decades ago.
Whether or not the Acjachemen community will eventually be able to gain federal recognition under the current BIA guidelines remains uncertain. Although tracing individuals through available records clearly proves that slippage between “Mexican” and “Indian” identity was commonplace in San Juan, it is impossible to use these same records as a guage of now-deceased individuals’ personal senses of identity and cultural authenticity. Did Acjachemen individuals truly become absorbed into a larger ethnic Mexican population, or did they maintain their sense of Indigenous identity in the privacy of their homes? Public records alone cannot answer this question. Oral histories and the memories of present-day community members, on the other hand, likely provide the best evidence of the continuity of Acjachemen identity in San Juan since the nineteenth century. But as long as the federal recognition process privileges the racial and ethnic labels recorded in official documents like the Census, it will be diffficult for the tribe to change its formal status. Moreover, the question remains as to whether or not cultural continuity should even factor into the federal recognition process at all, given the state’s historical role in systematically suppressing Indigenous languages and cultural practices well into the twentieth century.
It is clear, however, that the multiple layers of colonialism that have shaped California’s history continue to generate a unique set of challenges to California Indigenous recognition in the present day, especially among mission-affiliated populations who had the greatest extended contact with the Spanish and Mexican systems. Having survived the Spanish, Mexican, and U.S. brands of colonialism in the region, the Acjachemen of San Juan Capistrano now face an uphill battle to prove that their cultural authenticity also survived intact. And as long as the BIA grounds its determination of authenticity in public records, the entanglement of California Indigenous and ethnic Mexican identity in San Juan will form yet another roadblock in the long quest for tribal recognition.
Tahireh Hicks is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at USC. Born and raised in Southern California, she earned an A.B. in History from Princeton University in 2017 before returning to Los Angeles for graduate school. Her research examines the intersecting racialization processes of California Indigenous and ethnic Mexican families in Southern California during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, focusing on themes of identity, racial passing, and cultural persistence.
[i] Frank P. Lobo, Susan Lobo, and Kelina N.T. Lobo, “Oral Histories with the Acjachemem of San Juan Capistrano,” Journal of the Southwest (Tucson: Vol. 47, 1), 2005; “Indian Life Study to Be Described,” Los Angeles Times, June 30, 1964, E8.
[ii] While Acjachemem is linguistically the correct pluralization of the root Acjacheme for describing tribal members as a collective, Acjachemen is generally the favored autonym among community members themselves. Juaneño, the name the Spanish gave to the community of Indigenous people associated with Mission San Juan Capistrano and converted to Catholicism, is still currently used by a significant number of tribal members but has increasingly fallen out of favor, whereas Acjachemen is most widely accepted. For this reason, I use Acjachemen unless quoting another source. For a detailed explanation of terminology describing the Acjachemen people, see Lisa Louise Woodward, “The Acjachemen of San Juan Capistrano: The History, Language, and Politics of an Indigenous California Community” (PhD diss., University of California Davis, 2007), 6-8.
[iii] Lobo, et. al., “Oral Histories.”
[vii] Bureau of Indian Affairs, Proposed Finding Against Acknowledgement of The Juaneño Band of Mission Indians Acjachemen Nation (Petitioner #84A), Carl J. Artman, November 23, 2007; Bureau of Indian Affairs, Juaneño Band of Mission Indians (Petitioner #84B) Final Determination, Larry Echo Hawk, 15 March 2011.
[viii] It should be noted that the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation has been officially recognized by the state of California since 1993, although the struggle for federal recognition continues.
[ix] Leslie Berkman, “The Cry of the Juaneno Indians: ‘We Exist!,’” Los Angeles Times, June 8, 1980, OCA1.
[xiii] For representations of traditional Acjachemen regalia and dress, see Acjachemen storyteller and educator Jacque Tahuka Nuñez’s excellent website, Journeys to the Past, http://journeystothepast.com.
[xiv] U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs, “Final Determination Against Acknowledgment of the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation,” Federal Register 76, no. 54 (March 21, 2011): 15337, https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2011/03/21/2011-6470/final-determination-against-acknowledgment-of-the-juaneo-band-of-mission-indians-acjachemen-nation.
[xvi] Larry Echo Hawk, Juaneño Band of Mission Indians (Petitioner #84B) Final Determination, Bureau of Indian Affairs, 15 March 2011, 103.
[xvii] U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs, “Final Determination,” 15337.
[xviii] Berkman, “Cry of the Juaneno Indians,” 9.
[xix] Ibid., 7.
[xx] Ibid., 9.
[xxi] Julie Fate Sullivan, “Juaneno Indians Sing Chief’s Praises,” Los Angeles Times, April 19 1996, 2.
[xxii] See, for example, Lisa Louise Woodward, “The Acjachemen of San Juan Capistrano: The History, Language, and Politics of an Indigenous California Community” (PhD diss., UC Davis, 2007), 134-135. I am hesitant to fully adopt the language of racial passing to describe the Acjachemen’s history given the layered meanings of passing within African American history. Most notably, as Allyson Hobbs highlights in A Chosen Exile (2014), African American passing generally involved a “social death,” as Black individuals who “passed” for white generally were cut off completely from family members, friends, and community. There is little evidence that Acjachemen individuals “raised as Mexicans” experienced a similar loss of social connection, though the phenomenon certainly resulted in devastating losses of cultural knowledge.
[xxiii] Leonard Pitt, The Decline of the Californios: A Social History of the Spanish-Speaking Californians, 1846-1890 (Berkeley: University of California Press,  1998); Miroslava Chavez Garcia, Negotiating Conquest: Gender and Power in California, 1770s-1880s (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2004); David Torres-Rouff, Before L.A.: Race, Space, and Municipal Power in Los Angeles, 1771-1894 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).
[xxiv] Article IX, The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, 1848; Pitt, Decline of the Californios, 282-283.
[xxv] Lobo, et. al., “Oral Histories.”
[xxvi] Lisbeth Haas, Conquests and Historical Identities in Southern California, 1769-1936 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 210.
[xxvii] Maria Josefina Saldaña-Portillo, Indian Given: Racial Geographies across Mexico and the United States (Duke University Press, 2016), 133-135; Damon B. Akins and William J. Bauer, Jr.. We Are the Land: A History of Native California (Oakland: University of California Press, 2021), 110-11.
[xxviii] Akins and Bauer, Jr., We Are the Land, 138.
[xxix] Records accessible via Early California Population Project (Huntington Library) and Ancestry.com.
[xxx] “Mexican family lounging under a ramada at (or near?) Mission San Juan Capistrano, Orange County, ca. 1885,” C.C. Pierce Photography Collection 1860-1960, USC Digital Library.
[xxxi] 1920 U.S. Federal Census, 1930 U.S. Federal Census, and WWII Draft Registration Card accessible via Ancestry.com.
[xxxii] Berkman, “The Cry of the Juaneno Indians,” 7.
[xxxiii] Sullivan, “Juaneno Indians Sing Chief’s Praises,” 2.