José Cristóbal Aguilar was one of only three mayors of the American City of Los Angeles of Hispanic heritage.* He served for three terms (1866-1867, 1867-1868, and 1871-1872). One of his legacies is that he signed an ordinance in 1866 to set aside five acres of land as "a Public Square or Plaza, for the use and benefit of the Citizens in common…" The public square, then called "La Plaza Abaja," is now known as Pershing Square.
During his administration, Los Angeles was a small town of less than 6,000 residents. Perhaps, Aguilar's most important legacy is that he is credited with making a key decision that had great significance for the town's future. In 1868, the Common Council (forerunner of the City Council) passed an ordinance to sell off the city's water rights to a private buyer to bring in much needed revenue. Aguilar, however, who later served as the town's Zanjero (Water Manager), had sufficient vision to see past the short-term gains from the sale. He vetoed the proposal. Had he not done so, Los Angeles would have lost control of its water rights and, thereby, its ability to expand from a small town.
One dark event that occurred while Aguilar was in office was the infamous 1871 Chinese Massacre, considered to be among the most horrific incidents of racial violence in American history.
Aguilar spoke Spanish and only limited English. He was, however, an experienced public servant with good relationships with L.A.'s townspeople (many of whom were also Spanish-speakers). Despite his limited English skills, he seemed to manage his municipal duties quite ably. Nevertheless, that did not stop political opponent, James R. Toberman, from using Aguilar's limited English as an issue, to unseat Aguilar in a dirty campaign in 1872.