Rebecca Zapanta opens the door to the Mediterranean mansion high on a hill in Whittier. To the left, just past a staircase, a terra cotta font glistens with blessed water from the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.
“This is the Purple Room,” the 54-year-old says, waving toward an eggplant-colored room featuring paintings by Mexican masters—Siqueiros, Orozco, Tamayo and Diego Rivera—all purchased by Zapanta and her husband, Richard, an orthopedic surgeon.
Decades before the couple bought the 12,500-square-foot home, back when it was still the old Reilly estate, Whittier’s most famous resident, Richard Nixon, attended social events in some of these rooms. When it was built in 1927, the mansion represented everything Whittier aspired to. John B. Reilly was a powerful local Republican, an oilman who years later helped Nixon make his first run for political office. When he became president, Nixon provided one of Reilly’s daughters with a Cabinet position.
Now the Reilly estate has become the Zapanta estate, and it stands as a monument to a new set of aspirations.
The Zapantas are fourth-generation Mexican Americans from East Los Angeles, part of a wave of doctors and lawyers, small-business owners and school administrators who are remaking Whittier into a center of upper-middle- class and upper-class Latino life in Southern California.
Like Reilly years before, the Zapantas host political events at the spacious mansion. But their preferred candidates are Latino Democrats. They have held two fundraisers for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and one for former presidential candidate Bill Richardson, governor of New Mexico. Once a year, they offer tours of their vast collection of Mexican art.
The last U.S. census counted Whittier’s population at 83,838. Latinos constituted 23% of Whittier residents in 1980; they were 56% as of 2000 and that number is presumed to be more than 60% by now.
The city’s neighborhoods reflect a range of economic levels, with working-class and middle-class residents tending to live in the flatlands and the affluent higher in the hills.
And parts of Whittier have their social problems, including gangs and homelessness. But unlike nearby Huntington Park, Maywood and South Gate, which became much poorer as illegal immigrants surged in, Whittier “is where the heart of the Latino bourgeoisie wants to be,” said Daniel Duran, an associate professor of business at Whittier College.
The college, where Nixon got his bachelor’s degree, now has a student body that is nearly one-third Latino, the highest proportion of Latino students at any private liberal arts college in the United States.
Whittier, founded by Quakers in 1887, was a quiet town in its early years. There were no liquor stores, let alone bars, said Hubert Perry, 94, a lifelong Whittier resident and Quaker whose father helped Nixon get elected to Congress.
Reilly, an oil company machinist, was not welcomed when he first tried to move into Whittier in 1921. Two separate landlords told him, “We’re not going to have your kind of people in town!” Reilly recalled in a 1972 interview with the Whittier Daily News. “They were trying to control the influx into their little Quaker town.”
Two years later, he invented a drill pipe cutter that was soon in great demand in the industry, giving him the money to build his mansion. Other sprawling homes sprouted in the hills as well, many built by those in the oil industry.
The town remained white. In the late 1920s and early ‘30s, when Perry and his friend Richard Nixon went to Whittier High School, “there was only one Mexican family in the school,” Perry said.
But, as he notes, it’s a straight shot of about 11 miles from Boyle Heights to Whittier.
“They moved east from Boyle Heights, then from Boyle Heights to Montebello, then from Montebello to Pico Rivera,” Perry said. “Then people with incomes, relatively speaking, moved to Whittier . They came up Whittier Boulevard. It was kind of an easy trip.”
In 1978, a popular Whittier High School teacher and football coach, Victor Lopez, was elected to the City Council, getting the most votes of any candidate. Lopez, who served until 1990, was the first Whittier councilman with a Spanish surname.
He and his wife were very plugged in to the community, with the teacher even doing construction work during the summer, such as adding rooms to houses in Whittier—including work on Perry’s home.
A few years ago, Alex Moisa, 43, a Latino lawyer who moved to Whittier from Montebello, ran for City Council. He said that despite living in Whittier for 12 years, he still felt like an outsider.