Why locals are banding together about the pronunciation of their beloved community. Just call it San PEE-dro, not San Pay-dro.
Places in Los Angeles have a tendency to suffer from mispronunciation.
There are at least half a dozen ways to say Los Feliz, tourists have been known to leave LAX via See-pull-vee-duh Boulevard and tony Cheviot Hills has sometimes been called “Chevoit” Hills by local TV reporters. Even one-time L.A. Mayor Sam Yorty, a Nebraska native, called the city “a sort of nasalized Law SANG-lus” according to Los Angeles Times columnist Jack Smith. The pronunciation of San Pedro however is uniquely divided. If you’re from elsewhere in the L.A. area you likely use the traditional Spanish San PAY-dro, while if you live in the harbor community you know it’s pronounced San PEE-dro.
Unfortunately, there’s no clear answer as to how the Peedro pronunciation was born, but it’s known to date back over a century and a half ago, according to Doug Hansford of the San Pedro Bay Historical Society. Although the exact origin of the oceanside region’s pronunciation remains unclear.
“It could be the growth of anti-Spanish feelings after the Civil War or the way the local Portuguese fisherman pronounced it. Lots of views and no single answer,” Hansford says.
Regardless of origin, the pronunciation stuck and became a key part of the San Pedran identity. In 1982, Steve Marconi wrote a semi-satirical list for the San PedroNew-Pilot “Roving Reporter” column outlining the San Pedran identity. One of the most important qualifications of a real San Pedran? “A real San Pedran never says ‘San Paydro‘ and gets mad when people do.”
“My grandmother had a very thick Spanish accent, though she was born in this country. She lived here for over 20 years and she knew to call it ‘San Peedro.’ She would pronounce Palos Verdes in Spanish, but always said ‘San Peedro.’”
Ednita Kelly, a librarian at the San Pedro Regional Branch Library.
Sadly, San Pedro’s independent attitude can also breed a dark strain of isolationism. When the a.m. news radio station KNX tried to answer the pronunciation question in 2013, one older woman interviewed said, “No matter what foreign element has come in here and changed it, it still goes back to San Peedro,” with a definitive long E sound. “Foreign elements” is a pretty dog whistle way to describe people using the actual language San Pedro was named in. However, most San Pedro residents will admit that while they know Paydro is the proper pronunciation, the Peedro identity carries a sense of community pride.
“I’ve been here all my life and always heard it that way. You just know and that’s how you know someone’s from Pedro,” says Nate G., a bartender at the Crusty Crab restaurant in the harborside Ports O’ Call Village.
San Pedro originally hails from the Spanish invasion of the 16th century. In 1542, Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo became the first European to set foot in California when he landed in what is now the harbor community. While the area was already home to an active, millennia-old Tongva fishing village, Cabrillo claimed the land for Spain on November 24, the feast day of St. Peter of Alexandria. Thus, in tribute to the saint, Cabrillo dubbed the land San Pedro.
“I’ve been here all my life and always heard it that way. You just know and that’s how you know someone’s from Pedro.”
Nate G., a bartender at the Crusty Crab restaurant in the harborside Ports O’ Call Village.
Over the centuries that followed, the area moved from Spanish to Mexican and then to American rule, transforming from sprawling Rancho San Pedro to the independent township of San Pedro. While the Los Angeles & San Pedro Railroad had connected San Pedro with its neighbor to the north since 1868, it wasn’t until 1909 that the city of San Pedro voted to join the larger city of Los Angeles, giving Los Angeles a port and San Pedro access to the city school and police systems. Even though it’s been part of Los Angeles for more than a century, and was only an independent city from 1888 to 1909, San Pedro’s distance from the central city, as well as its own history separate to that of Los Angeles have long made it feel more like an independent working-class city than just another L.A. neighborhood.
Even native Spanish speakers have adopted the Anglicized pronunciation.
“My grandmother had a very thick Spanish accent, though she was born in this country. She lived here for over 20 years and she knew to call it ‘San Peedro,’” says Ednita Kelly, a librarian at the San Pedro Regional Branch Library. “She would pronounce Palos Verdes in Spanish, but always said ‘San Peedro.’”
One reason for the Peedro pronunciation persistence may be the neighborhood’s small-town feel. It’s not uncommon for someone to live their entire life in San Pedro — like their parents did and their parents before them. That’s something that sets it apart from the transplant image of the rest of Los Angeles.
“It’s very family oriented. People who grow up here stay here, so the pronunciation carries down,” says Chelsea Nakao, a manager at longtime neighborhood hangout Pappy’s. “When people introduce themselves at public meetings, they introduce themselves and say ‘I’m the fourth or fifth generation of my family to live here.’”
“There’s a lot of pride that happens with San Pedrans,” says Branimir Kvartuc, communications director for Councilman Joe Buscaino, the councilman whose 15th district seat includes San Pedro. Kvartuc, like his boss, grew up in San Pedro with immigrant parents.
According to Kvartuc, San Pedro is on the verge of major changes with the San Pedro Public Market shopping and entertainment complex expected to open in 2021, and new oceanic “blue tech” industry coming to town led by the ocean science incubator AltaSea and underwater archaeologist Robert Ballard.
Will the Peedro pronunciation survive this new influx of tourists and tech?
It will if people like Kvartuc have their way. As he says, “It’s against the law in our office to say ‘San Paydro.’”