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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 38 percent of residents, age 5 and older (3,546,775 persons), speak Spanish at home. Many more may not speak Spanish at home, but speak it at work or in the marketplace. English-only speakers make up only 45 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, the first such language spoken in all of what would become the southwestern United States. Spanish has been regularly spoken in the Los Angeles area since 1771, when Spanish missionaries established the Mission San Gabriel. Los Angeles did not have a 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 chose to remain in California and settle in Los Angeles and learned Spanish.

When California, under the United States, issued its first state constitution in 1849, Article XI decreed that all state laws must be published in both Spanish and English. Most California residents at the time only spoke Spanish. For California’s first 30 years as a U.S. state, the state was officially 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, never established an official language (although 31 states have done so). English is considered the de facto national language, simply because it has been the language used by the vast majority of Americans. English is established as the official language of California, but only since the passage of Proposition 83 in 1986. Historically, prior to 1986, the only language that had ever actually been made official for California residents was Spanish, when California was a province of the Republic of Mexico. Then, the ability to speak Spanish was required of immigrants seeking to settle in the province and be approved for Mexican citizenship (and they were required to be Roman Catholic).

In 1850, after California became a U.S. state, Agustín Olvera was elected to be the first county judge of the newly formed County of Los Angeles. In addition to his legal duties, Olvera was also responsible, with his two associate justices, to administer county business (a county 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, George T. Burrill, however, was bilingual. In addition to enforcing the law, he was also hired to serve as courtroom interpreter for the county judges.

Agustin Olvera

The honorable Agustín 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
Marina del Rey
Palos Verdes
Pico Boulevard
Pico Rivera
San Marino
La Cienega Boulevard
La Mirada
Sierra Madre
La Cañada
Los Feliz
Santa Catalina
Alameda Street
El Segundo
San Pedro
Las Tunas

For a fun translation of Spanish place names into English, see our Map of Los Angeles County in English.

Map of Los Angeles County in English Language