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The Spanish Language in Los Angeles

A Mexican food business at Grand Central Market in Downtown Los Angeles. Los Angeles Almanac Photo.

Los Angeles County has, by far, the largest Spanish-speaking population of any county in the United States. Spanish is the second most spoken language at home in Los Angeles County where 39 percent of residents, age 5 and older (3,582,992 persons), speak Spanish at home. Many more may not speak Spanish at home, but speak it well at work or in the marketplace. English-only speakers make up 44 percent of Los Angeles County residents, age 5 and older.

Spanish was the first non-Native American language regularly spoken in Los Angeles and, in fact, was the first such language spoken in almost all of what would become the southwestern United States. Spanish has been regularly spoken in Los Angeles County since 1771 when Spanish missionaries established the Mission San Gabriel. Los Angeles did not get its first permanent English-speaker until 1818 when American merchant sailor Joseph Chapman was captured by Spanish authorities while raiding the California coast from an Argentine privateer. Chapman decided to stay in California and settle in Los Angeles.

When California issued its first state constitution in 1849, Article XI decreed that all laws must be published in Spanish and English. Most California residents then spoke only Spanish. For California’s first 30 years, the state was bilingual.

California Constitution, 1849, in Spahish

The Spanish-language version of the California Constitution, 1849. Courtesy of the California State Archives.

To be clear, the United States, at the Federal level, has never established an official language (although 31 states have done so). English is considered the de facto official language simply because it has been the language used by the vast majority. There is no established official language in California. Historically, the only language ever actually required of California residents was Spanish, when California was a province of the Republic of Mexico. The ability to speak Spanish was then required of immigrants to California who wanted to settle here and be granted Mexican citizenship (along with being required to become a Roman Catholic).

In 1850, Agustin Olvera was elected to be the first County Judge of the newly formed County of Los Angeles. Along with his legal duties, Olvera was also responsible, with his two associate justices, to administer county business (a Board of Supervisors would not be established until two years later). Olvera could speak only Spanish and at least one of his two associate justices could speak only English. Los Angeles County's first Sheriff, however, G. Thompson Burrill, could speak both English and Spanish. He was hired to serve as interpreter.

Agustin Olvera

The honorable Agustin Olvera, first Los Angeles County Judge (and, at least initially, a Spanish-only speaker).

The first newspaper published in Los Angeles was The Los Angeles Star or La Estrella de Los Angeles. It was first published in 1851 and continued in publication until 1879. It was published in both English and Spanish.

El Estrella de Los Angeles, 1853

Spanish language page from the Los Angeles Star or La Estrella de Los Angeles, January 1853. Courtesy of USC Digital Library


A Few Spanish Place and Street Names in Los Angeles County

Los Angeles
Sepulveda Boulevard
Santa Monica
San Fernando
San Gabriel
Alvarado Street
Santa Clarita
Rancho Dominguez
Topanga
Marina del Rey
Palos Verdes
Pico Boulevard
Pico Rivera
Cerritos
San Marino
La Cienega Boulevard
La Mirada
Sierra Madre
La Cañada
Los Feliz
Santa Catalina
Alameda Street
Calabasas
El Segundo
San Pedro
Las Tunas