Jean Baptiste Batz and Catalina Hagui
The Welcoming Couple of Rancho Rosa de Castilla
In 1852, Catalina Hegui and husband Jean Baptiste Batz bought a piece of land in Rancho Rosa de Castilla. They took up residence in the adobe house that stood in the center, which was one of California’s 36 original adobe houses. It was originally built by native Tongva people in the San Gabriel Mission in 1776.i Its Spanish name, Rancho Rosa de Castilla, was inspired in the California wild rose (Rosa Californica) that grew in the surrounding hills, although the Tongvas already knew the area as Otsunga-rose garden.- The adobe house stood in what is now the intersection of Hellman Avenue and the Long Beach Freeway, where California State University (CSULA) stands today.
Jean Baptiste Batz (Bidart, Lapurdi, 1815 – Los Angeles, 1859) and Catalina Hegui (?, 1816 – Los Angeles, 1882), each from the French Basque Country, met and married in Argentina. As soon as they heard of the discovery of gold in California in 1849, Jean Baptiste moved north, followed by his wife Catalina in 1851. Catalina sailed on the same ship that transported Bernardo Altube, Domingo Amestoy, Pedro Larronde and many other Basques. She spent six months at sea, and although her name is not on the passport-log, we know her months-old daughter boarded the ship with her. The Gold Rush was at its heyday in 1851, but the Hatz couple decided to stay away from the questionable lifestyle of the mine camps, and established instead at Rosa de Castilla, where they entered the sheep business.
In fact, many Basques migrated to this region, five miles from Los Angeles because of the farming and ranching opportunities in the area. Basque family names abound among the landowners in this region: including Jauregui, Uharte, Oxarart, and Arostegui. Close ties were formed among the Basques at Rancho Rosa de Castilla, as can be seen by the multiple marriages between the families: Maria, the eldest of Jean Baptiste and Catalina’s seven children, married Francisco Uharte; Rafael, their fourth child, married Navarrese Catalina Cilveti; Jose Domingo, their fifth child, married Josefa Lifur; and Francisca, their sixth child, married Francisco Echeveste.
Rancho Rosa de Castilla was run by the Batz-Hegui family, likely, following the traditional methods of the Basque farmhouse, which aimed towards self-sufficiency. Their main income was sheep, but they also raised horses, pigs, poultry and other farm animals, and grew a garden. They cured meat and made bread, and grapes were brought in to make wine. Over time, afflicted by droughts and other issues, the family put ranching aside to dedicate themselves to farming, replacing pastures with hay and barley fields.
Rancho Rosa de Castilla was well-known in Southern California for its owners’ hospitality. The door was always open to travelers, merchants and foreigners. Everyone was given shelter and a meal. The couple’s generosity earned the ranch the name “Casa de Descanso” (Rest House).ii
In one of their frequent visits to Los Angeles, in 1859, the family suffered a terrible loss. A still vigorous Jean Baptiste was fatally trampled by a horse that had broken away from its carriage. His wife was left with five children under the age of 10 and twin babies, who were born after his death. Despite the terrible circumstances, Catalina was able to pull through and keep the business in operation. Obtaining the deed to the ranch became her greatest concern in the following decade.
Catalina Hegui was so well acquainted with the Anglo American’s real estate practices that her illiteracy never posed a problem — her signature consisted of an “X.” In 1876, under the Homestead Act, Mrs. Hegui was granted ownership of the adobe house and its surrounding 160 acres. She understood that the arrival of the railroad in this area would lead to an increased population, as well as in land prices. Not satisfied with her newly-acquired deed, Catalina further expanded her estate by acquiring adjacent lots — and she even negotiated with Southern Pacific Railroad. Researcher Dr. John R. Chávez argues that Catalina Hegui’s case is proof that “the relevance of women in the history of the region extends beyond the scope of cultural contribution; they were active participants in its economy.”iii
At the time of her death in 1882, Catalina owned Rosa de Castilla, at 3,283 acres, and two plots of land north of Aliso Street, between Alameda and Old Aliso Streets. The ranch spread vastly: to the east, where today’s Atlantic Boulevard is in Monterey Park; to the south near Monterey’s Pass Road; to the west to El Sereno’s Eastern Avenue; and to the north near the South Pasadena city limits.
After their mother’s passing, Catalina’s children drew toothpicks to distribute the family property. Even after that division, the siblings continued to use the land jointly. The 700 acres that constituted the south section of Rosa de Castilla were allocated to Jose Domingo Batz, which included the old adobe house. Jose Domingo hired a German architect to expand the building.
Jose Domingo Batz was a skilled artisan, as well as the ranch blacksmith and carpenter. He also handcrafted award-winning canes. Five or six Batz canes exist today, and one of them was showcased in the 2013 Rapid City episode of Antiques Roadshow.
The Batz family resided in the remodeled adobe house for another two decades. In 1894, Jose Domingo Batz’s brother-in-law, Navarese Martin Lifur, purchased 310 acres from the ranch in the Sierra Park area, including an old adobe house built by Antonio Jauregui, a native of Elizondo, Nafarroa. The house is now long gone, but the street names of this neighborhood still bear witness to Mr. Lifur’s contribution to the early development of El Sereno: Navarro Street, Martin Street, and Lifur Avenue.
In 1906, Los Angeles suburbs reached the ranch limits. Jose Domingo and Josefa Lifur sold the entire ranch, except 100 acres, for $90,000. That real estate value was evidence of increased land prices at the time. The Lifurs moved to an elegant 12-room house with their four children: Augustine, Marguerite, Esperanza and John Baptiste. The house was located on a hill, on what is now Endicott Street, in El Sereno, near Alhambra.
As for the Rosa de Castilla’s old adobe house, a fire destroyed it in 1908, shortly after it was sold, during one of the first silent movie shoots. The town of El Sereno continued to grow around the ranch, and by 1915, most of the original ranch land became Los Angeles city property.
When Jose Domingo passed away in 1930, the Batz family sold their remaining parcels. Later, sisters Esperanza and Marguerite Batz, the two sisters that never married or had children, left the family home on Endicott Street for a smaller, more manageable property on 2261 Lafler Road. That house was built on a hill with a clear view of their birthplace. Toward the end of their lives, the sisters moved to the Alhambra Lutheran Retirement Home on South Fremont Avenue in Alhambra. It was once a portion of Rancho Rosa de Castilla, just like all their previous residences.
During that time, their brothers frequently asked Esperanza and Marguerite why they didn’t move closer to them in West Los Angeles. “I don’t know, somehow we just don’t want to leave the ranch.”iv considered Esperanza in 1976.
Marguerite died in March of 1981 and Esperanza in 1986.
Much of the information included in this article was gathered from interviews with Esperanza Batz, who always maintained she grew up speaking Basque, Spanish and English. Fortunately, Esperanza lived long enough to “wield a shovel for the ground-breaking ceremony at Cal State Los Angeles, where a rose garden was dedicated to her family.” in the rose garden was christened in 1982 as the “Batz Rose Garden.” Cal State University campus is encircled by Paseo Rancho Castilla, named in honor of Jean Baptiste Batz and Catalina Hegui’s ranch, long after their adobe house and sheep pastures gave way to urban development.
i “Diseño del Rancho Rosa de Castilla” Los Angeles County, Calif., 1852? Land Case Map B-1357B http://content.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/hb5489n955/
ii “La Rosa Castilla, relic of early days.” Los Angeles Herald Article 1906-2-18
iii Chávez, John R. (1998) “Rancho Rosa De Castilla: Hispanic Continuity in Greater East Los Angeles,”History Faculty Publications, Paper 1, 418.
iv Folkart, Burt A., “Southland Pioneer Esperanza Batz Dies,” Los Angeles Times, December 12, 1986 http://articles.latimes.com/1986-12-12/local/me-2619_1_east-los-angeles