With “Postcards,” creative non-fiction stories grounded in place, we aspire to create a new cartography of California. For us, literature and language are as much about marking and representing space, as they are about storytelling.
I can tell, from the start of my walk on the beach promenade in Pacifica if he’s at his post, can spot the top of his faded baseball cap in the distance. The rest of his body is obscured by a cement casement housing a trashcan but as I get closer I see his legs sticking out, crossed at the knee, his tan gams, his flip flops. A few more steps and up pops his face, florid, flushed, eyes at half-staff, smile on full beam. He’s where he is every day, all day, in his spot at the end of a bench, kitty corner to the Chit Chat Café and the Pacifica pier. Where he holds forth, holds court, holds my attention whenever I pass.
His spot. One morning, a few months ago, I mentioned to Crystal, the counter person of the Chit Chat, that the guy sitting on the bench outside told me that the weather was about to change.
“You must have been talking to Tommy Bench,” she says. “That’s what we call him. That’s Tommy out there and that’s his bench.”
She went on to tell me that he was once a checker at Safeway. As soon as she said it I remembered seeing him when my wife and I first moved to this town, standing behind the checkout counter, dressed in the official Safeway uniform; short-sleeved shirt, navy blue apron, blue tie, shiny name badge. Bantering with the customers as he scanned the groceries. Crystal says he lost that job and never found another.
That was years ago. What does he live on now? I’ve noticed his buddies often bring him a can of beer when his supply gets low. “Got to keep hydrated,” he once yelled out, then raised his can in a bag and toasted me as I passed by.
Tommy and I have our own form of chitchat. I’ll say something about the weather or about the local baseball team, what about those Giants? and he’ll have some funny comeback. I laugh, give a short wave and carry on with my walk. I never hang around for a longer chat. My wife says it’s because I’m a solitary but maybe it’s that I just don’t know where the conversation might lead. We’re from such different worlds. I toss out writing lessons to students at the university, a privileged post. Tommy tosses out bon mots to the seagulls, his privileged perch. It is true that I’ve worked lots of blue collar jobs in the past. Truck driver, laborer, swimming pool operator, attic insulation, but that was before I landed a job in the spotless halls of academia. Would he and I have anything in common now, something that would tip the scales and convince me that getting to know him was worth the gamble?
Last week, the scales tipped with a woman in my neighborhood. When my wife and I first moved onto the block I thought, “Now there’s a happy-go-lucky type.” Her front yard was dotted with cutesy lawn ornaments; A plywood dog barking up a tree. A plastic statue of Mickey Mouse. On Valentine’s Day, smiley-faced red hearts hang from her front door. On St. Patrick’s Day, smiley-faced four-leaf clovers. But something was off. She was too cheery, too upbeat. As if all that front yard whimsy was out there to cover up a mess of anxieties. In person she was tense, as tight as a tick. There was that clipped little wave she always gave—quick and noncommittal—and how she quickly turned back to watering her garden as soon as our eyes met.
Whenever I passed by her house with my dog, I just waved and smiled and kept on going. She has a small yappy dog and whenever our dogs saw each other through the slatted fence they’d start barking and cause a big ruckus. Oh, sorry, sorry, I always called out before quickly moving along.
Last Tuesday, as I was walking by the dogs started up again. I apologized, but before I moved on I noticed her garden was in full bloom. “My god, you have such beautiful roses,” I said. And she does. Pink tea roses and long stem reds and orange ones with fluted edges. Floribunda roses, that’s what my wife called them. Abundantly florid.
As soon as I made the comment about her roses she stopped what she was doing and said, “Oh let me pick you some!” And I said, “Oh no, you don’t have to,” but she already had her garden clippers in hand. She snipped a huge blood red rose off of one bush, then a yellow rose off of another, a transformer, one of those roses that change color over time, that continue to deepen as the bloom shifts through the color spectrum.
I walked home with the two roses in hand and over the next few days watched as the transformer rose turned from yellow to pink to orange to red. Something else had turned too. When she clipped those roses, when she reached over the fence and handed them to me, when I reached my hand out to take them, I knew in that moment that things would never be the same between us. Even if we backslid and went back to hand waving pleasantries. Still, we’d both remember the day she offered me roses and I accepted. The day was transformed from an ordinary walk to something extraordinary. The day colored up, as they say.
Tommy has colored up too. It’s obvious he’s a drinker, an alcoholic, or, as my wife once called him, a drunkard. I told her drunkard was such an archaic word. That the word harkened back to Skid Row and Prohibition and songs like “Little Brown Jug How I Love Thee.”
“Well, ‘harken’ isn’t too modern now either, is it?” she replied.
The glassy eyes, the unfocused gaze. The slurred speech. The ever-present brown paper sack at his side, crinkled around a beer can. There are the obvious signs. Tommy sits on his bench, every morning and afternoon, deeply pickled, in a Hawaiian shirt, cargo pants, a baseball cap, dressed as if we’re living in Southern California instead of the cool Northern California coast. Propped up against his bench is the driftwood walking stick he carries with him wherever he goes, more like a staff than a walking stick. Like the staff a drunken apostle would use to lead his flock; that gang who sits next to him on that bench.
There’s Permit Man, who has a running feud with a brake repair shop near his house. Something about the shop not having a permit. He made a plywood cut out of a not so cutesy clown, nailed it to his backyard fence that faces the shop. The cartoon bubble coming out of the clown’s mouth reads, “Got Permit? Call 1-800-Scumbag.” There’s the Chewer who talks out loud to himself as he walks, a running stream of conspiracy theories about the government, (“Jesus Christ, Richard Nixon, Medicare fraud, Medicare fraud”) who chews and spits sunflower seeds, leaving a trail of split seeds in his wake. There’s Happy Day, who always says those two words, and only those two, whenever I see him. I hear he used to be a merchant marine.
Everyday each one finds a spot on the bench to chat with Tommy. To chew the fat, shoot the breeze. Tommy’s always at the head of that welcome wagon. He’s always ready to share a sip and a smoke. He’s rarely alone on that set of bar stools. With a black magic marker he’s inked each person’s name on the bench where they always sit. Like place cards set out for a fancy dinner party.
It’s late afternoon by the time I get down to the shore. I button up my jacket, start my walk, and spy Tommy’s cap in the distance. It would take an arctic blast to keep him from his bench.
When I reach him I stop, say hey, and we start bullshitting about nothing important. How the Giants lost again, how they blew it in the 9th. I compliment him on his fall outfit, plaid flannel shirt, khaki Bermuda shorts, a royal blue baseball cap I haven’t seen him wear before. This one sports the logo of the Golden State Warriors. The cap has a small tear in the brim.
“Like the cap,” I say.
“Got it at Goodwill. As is,” he says, pointing to the tear. “Like me.”
“As is,” I say, “Or is it as you were?” I give him a quick salute and start to move on. Then I stop. I don’t know why. My wife says I always have an exit strategy. Maybe it’s this feeling I have about not wanting to get too close. Or it could be that only when I’m alone do I feel free to think my thoughts. Maybe that’s what my neighbor feels when she’s alone, at peace, in her rose garden.
“Got something I wanna show you,” he says. He’s slurring his speech a little but I catch his drift. He reaches into his shirt pocket and pulls out a small square photograph. His hand is shaking as he holds the photo up to me. “Here. Take a look.”
I take the photo from his hand. Staring back at me: A handsome young guy, in his twenties or early thirties. Full head of hair, big grin. Clear-eyed, confident looking. The look of a guy who can handle whatever life throws at him. It’s Tommy like I’ve never seen him. Like I’ve never known him.
“I used to own a house,” he says. “Up on Milagra Ridge. Beautiful deck and everything. The wife got that. And everything else.”
I try to picture him years ago, in his prime, with his dreams and hopes and plans for the future. With his life still ahead of him.
“You cut quite a figure,” I say and smile.
But Tommy’s not smiling. He looks me straight in the eye, as if to say, look again, dammit. Look again. You’re missing something. He gives a cough, like he’s clearing his throat. Then, in a voice as serious as I’ve ever heard him use, says:
“This is who I used to be.”
Who he used to be. Not just a guy on this bench with a half can of beer, hanging out with the rest of the beach gang. A man who had a life, with a wife, a house, a job, and responsibilities, with cash coming in. A person with a pension plan and health coverage and whatever other benefits a lifetime of indentured servitude to Safeway offers.
As if I need more evidence he lifts his shirtsleeve. There, on his skinny forearm, a tattooed column of blue letters run down to his wrist. I try to decipher the code but the letters don’t combine to make up any word I know.
“One initial for the name of each member of my family. Mia familia,” he says, proudly.
A photo, an arm, a beer, the sea. Who we used to be. Who was The Chewer in a former life? Or Permit Man? Or Happy Day? Or me? I don’t tell Tommy that I once worked all those blue-collar jobs, then went to school, wrote some stories, and now that I teach at a university. That I never wanted to follow the rules; academic or otherwise. That I used to be married, then divorced, then came out and married the love of my life. That, when I was young I wanted to grow up and sit on the sand all day watching the waves roll in. That I was once that person, and that person, and that person. Now, this is who I am, a woman walking alone by the sea. A person who is soon to call it a day on that cush university gig, ready to leave that all behind. All of who I used to be is still in here, tucked inside my shirt pocket, tucked inside this skin.
A grocery checker becomes a drunkard. A truck driver becomes a professor. A merchant marine becomes the minister of happiness. Transformers, every one of us.
I hand his photo back to him, watch as he slips it back in his shirt pocket. He looks up and gives me a grin. There’s nothing here to fear. What if I joined Tommy on the bench, if I sat right down next to him? If I didn’t rush on and instead left behind my monkish ways? If I went to the local liquor store and brought back a bottle of Four Roses to share? What if, like the old timey song, I harkened back to another gentler time and realized, “…there is no separation in that land beyond the sky,” and then went a step further, believed there is no separation right here on earth? If, I had a revelation, like the monk Thomas Merton once had on the streets of Louisville, that “I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.”
Would Tommy accept me, as is? Would the others?
I make my move. I walk over to Tommy and sit down. I sit right next to him. He laughs, a nervous laugh, then scoots over a bit and laughs again. We both fall silent. We sit there, staring out at the sea. Two surfers are trying to catch a few waves. A guy on the pier is pulling up a crab and the other crabbers send up a cheer.
“Hey Tommy. Why here, every day, this spot? Always this same spot?”
“Well, I don’t have anywhere else to be. I don’t have a job,” he says. I don’t mention that I know he once did.
“You know, that’s not quite true,” he adds and gives me a wink. “I’m in the coast guard.”
“Yeah, I guard the coast.”
“Well, don’t let your guard down.” I toss back and he laughs.
After a moment he says, “Hey. What are you sitting on?”
This must be his lead up to a joke so I say, in high English, “My arse, kind sir.”
“Well, always look down before you sit down. You never know what you’ll find.”
Maybe he’s nervous about us sitting so close. Or maybe he’s stuck chewing gum on the bench. I get up, make a big show of looking down where I’m going to sit. That’s when I see sit. New letters inked onto the bench.
My name. With a drawing of a tiny anchor.
There, right there with all the others in the row. With the inked names of the Dude and Lupe and the Chewer and Permit Man. With Kite Man, who died from a heart attack last year, his name beginning to fade. Here it is, the proof, the acknowledgement. What I’ve wanted all along. To be accepted. To be in with this out crowd.
“Jesus, Tom. You have no idea what this means to me. No greater honor…” and I can’t finish, tear up. Tommy turns red, takes a swig from his can. He’s embarrassed, as am I. To lighten it up I offer him a line I learned from the Crab King: “Listen. If I’m lyin’ I’m dyin.”
I sit back down and put my arm around his shoulder. I don’t move on. We sit there together, silently, for the rest of the afternoon and watch the sunset take the sky through the color spectrum, color after color after color.
Toni Mirosevich has spent the last few years lyrically documenting an overlooked community at the edge of the sea in Pacifica, California. “Who I Used to Be,” is from a new manuscript of nonfiction stories that have accrued, malo po malo, Croatian for “little by little.” She is the author of six collections of poetry and prose, including “Pink Harvest,” winner of the First Series in Creative NonFiction Award and a Lambda Literary Award Finalist. She is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Astraea Foundation, among others and work has received multiple nominations for Pushcart Prizes. She is a professor of Creative Writing at San Francisco State University.
With “Postcards,” creative non-fiction stories grounded in place, we aspire to create a new cartography of California. For us, literature and language are as much about marking and representing space, as they are about storytelling.
On a Saturday morning in late October, public workers in downtown Los Angeles block off the stretch of Broadway from Olympic Boulevard to Hill Street. Around 10 am, a crowd gathers, donned in blue and red garments, shirts embroidered with mola, white polleras with bright-colored pom-poms, or Panama flags draped across their backs, to celebrate the Annual Panamanian Independence Day Parade. Distant relatives and former neighbors spot each other and greet with air kisses on each cheek. The crowd travels with the parade down Broadway and ends with a battle of Panamanian bands at Pershing Square. By activating spaces like downtown, a small but significant, interconnected community of Black Panamanians made Los Angeles their home.
The 2018 Senior Queen of the Parade waves at attendees along Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of Ernesto Edwards.
While some have lived in Los Angeles since the 1960s, many Black Panamanian families moved to L.A. from Panama and other states such as New York, to live alongside African-Americans with roots in the American South during the 1970s and 1980s. As they sought housing in areas where other Black Panamanians already lived, a constellation of Black Panamanian families and individuals grew in South Los Angeles, North Long Beach, Watts, and Compton. Decades before they migrated to the United States, their grandparents left countries like Barbados, Jamaica, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and other Caribbean islands for Panama. Like them, they relied on family, friendship, and cultural practices.
Settling into their new city, they moved to affordable homes and several apartment complexes in Compton, including an apartment complex my mother, a canteen cashier at an aerospace company, managed. Known as “The Blvd,”because of its location on Long Beach Boulevard, one of Compton’s major thoroughfares, Black Panamanians came to occupy over half of the complex’s units. Its layout—apartments that faced each other with a communal space in the front and a walkway in the back that led to the next building—encouraged neighbors to interact and kids to play together. On Saturday mornings, music poured from every apartment: Anita Baker, Johnnie Taylor, Ruben Blades or Tabou Combo. The aroma of fried, sweet platanos and collard greens drifted between the apartments. During the summer, one neighbor sold duros, juices frozen in plastic cups, with flavors like tamarindo, ginger-infused jamaica, and, my favorite, coco, made with fresh coconut milk and shredded coconut, sweetened with cinnamon and nutmeg. If someone had a party, we all partied and feasted on delicacies such as saus (pickled pig feet with onions, cucumber, and white vinegar), chicheme (a drink made with sweetened milk, corn, and cinnamon), and Panamanian tamales (a spicy, reddish masa filled with green peas, peppers, a bone-in piece of chicken, and a prune, tripled wrapped, first in a banana leaf, then wax paper, then aluminum foil). For Nochebuena, my mother made pineapple glazed ham for everyone and rang in Navidad with the songs of Ismael Rivera, Oscar D’León, and Ruben Blades. Though the apartment’s location placed us in the cross-hairs of both gang violence and pedestrian-involved car accidents, we created spaces of joy by sharing Black Panamanian and African-American culture and resources.
On weekends, the Black Panamanian community throughout Los Angeles came together. The physical and social proximity of Compton, Watts, North Long Beach, and South Los Angeles, made it easy to gather in each others’ homes or in local, public spaces. On Saturday afternoons, a group of women, which included my mother, gallivanted to local or cross-town casinos, Compton’s Ramada Inn or Inglewood’s Hollywood Park and Casino, to play bingo. On Sundays, they headed east, out of Los Angeles County, to San Bernardino’s San Manuel Casino. If they didn’t want to drive, they got together in someone’s home, but kept the stakes high and brought their plata. The men played straight dominos in the dining room or backyard or joined the women in the living room, where you could hit on two or three in a row, before winning with the traditional five in a row. Their children commandeered the kids’ room to play video games or listen to hip-hop and dancehall music, growing hungrier as time passed before the evening’s host finished cooking rice and peas (red beans), guandú (also called gandules or gungo peas), or lentils, fried, sweet platanos, stewed chicken, and salad – potato or coleslaw. At times, food inspired the gathering, and someone prepared and sold dinners or fritura, fried finger foods such as hojaldas (a fried bread, also known as hojaldres/dras), empanadas, fried yucca, patacones (twice-fried green plantains), or carimañolas (mashed yucca filled with ground meat then fried). Whatever the occasion, we all ate and ate together.
Victor and friends outside the shop. Photo courtesy of Victor
Some Saturdays I accompanied my father to Victor’s Upholstery Shop (known to everyone simply as Victor’s shop); this meant peeking into the shop to say hello then sitting in the car for what felt like hours while my father hung out. Initially located on Washington Boulevard in L.A.’s Arlington Heights, the upholstery shop occupied the corner unit of a large, white brick building, with peeling paint, no windows, and one front metal gate. Named for its proprietor—a slim, brown Panamanian, with a gold tooth and a Caribbean accent (like many Black Panamanians), who often dressed in a natty fit and cap—Victor opened the shop in 1965 and availed his business to the local Panamanian community. For decades, the shop doubled as a communication hub and hang-out spot. If you wanted to confirm information about an event, you called Victor’s shop. If you needed to purchase pre-sale tickets for the upcoming boat cruise or dance, you could buy them at Victor’s shop. When the Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega was ousted in 1989, the local news stations came to Victor’s shop to interview the Panamanian community. The layout of the space itself reflected its many functions. Bolts of fabric lined up like wallpaper on one wall, shelves with binders upon binders of swatches stacked on another wall, and a wide wood work table occupied the center; it sat atop a carpet of wood dust. A dim corner room, across from the work table and behind Victor’s desk, housed a large TV and chairs. The walls were plastered with posters of athletes and bikini-clad women selling alcohol. While the sounds of Victor pounding sofa upsides with a mallet echoed through the shop, the TV room rang with the raucous laughter of men who planted themselves to talk politics and bochinche (gossip) in a mix of Spanish, English, and Patois, drink rum and milk or Cerveza Panama, and watch boxing matches, especially ones that featured Panama’s pride, Roberto “Manos de Piedra” Duran. In exchange, they helped Victor make deliveries. As they aged, they gathered for potlucks and quieter moments.
Across from Victor’s shop was Jucy’s Jamaican restaurant, one of L.A.’s few sit-down Caribbean restaurants, which has operated for over thirty-five years. It serves typical Panamanian cuisine like chicken soup with dumpling, stewed meat dishes, and chicken curry. Sometimes we drove down Crenshaw to indulge in a beef patty from Stone Market. Opened in the 1970s, we first frequented Stone Market because it carried typical food items and brands that local stores did not, such as guandú peas, Malta Hatuey (a sweet, carbonated beverage), and bacalao (salted codfish). Outside, men sat on folding chairs or milk crates, talking and playing dancehall and old school reggae that you could purchase. Over time, it became a staple in the Black Panamanian community. Located next to the market is the star of the operation: a take-out, cash only, food kiosk, where dinners, patties, and, the best carrot juice I’ve ever tasted, are prepared and sold. It is a small structure, with just a kitchen and front counter, a floor fan circulating heat and noise, and a dry-erase board that displays the menu of the day. Upon entering, the smell of coconut, butter, and cinnamon from the loaves of Coco bread and bun welcomed you the way the cashier will not. What was written on the board is what they had in stock; if an item was marked out or erased, they ran out of it for the day. If it wasn’t on the board, one shouldn’t ask for it (these were the unspoken rules). When an abuelita or other keepers of the homemade bun recipe went on a cooking hiatus, families settled for purchasing buns for Easter or Christmas from Stone Market.
During summer holidays like the 4th of July, we celebrated at Scherer Park in Long Beach. Nicknamed “Parque Del Amo,” for its location off Del Amo, between Long Beach Boulevard and Atlantic Avenue, some families arrived as early as six am to claim one of the limited numbers of picnic tables, while others brought folding tables, lawn chairs, or blankets. Each family prepared meals at home and brought them to the park: cole slaw, potato salad, rice and peas or guandú, baked barbecue chicken, and even hotdogs and hamburgers. Occasionally, my father set up a fryer and sold patacones and codfish cakes. Children would go from table to table to meet-up with friends. Asking for or accepting a plate from a table other than your own was a faux paus; my mother insisted that doing so constituted begging and set the trap for a good piece of bochinche. Folks might say that your mother did not care for you properly. The Scherer Park gatherings grew in size; at one point, someone hired an official DJ and a Panamanian ballet folklórico group performed on a portable dance floor. As Panamanians began to move to cities within San Bernardino County, festivities like an annual end of the summer picnic, were held east of Los Angeles at Frank Bonelli Park in San Dimas.
Couples dance close at a Father’s Day Dance at the Shatto Banquet Hall. Photo courtesy of Ernesto Edwards.
Parties worthy of a formal venue took place at Shatto Banquet Hall, a rental hall on Slauson Avenue, which was popular among L.A.’s Louisiana Creole community. We had our own version of formal wear. For men, it consisted of a button-down blouse, silk slacks, and dress shoes with no socks. Women wore glittered or sequined body-hugging dresses, extra-high heels, and a slather of gold – gold bracelets, anklets, earrings, and necklaces with placas (name plates or plates in the shape of the Panama Isthmus) or an Ojo de Venado (a round ball/amulet wrapped in gold letters). No matter the type of jewelry, it had to be gold, as the women deemed anything else chichipatti (cheap). At Shatto Hall, I witnessed my first and only quinceñera, another second-generation Black Panamanian girl, who body rolled down the two lines of Black damas and chambelanes to Raven-Simone’s rap song “That’s What Little Girls are Made of.”
The predominant narrative about the Afro-Latinx community in L.A. claims that we suffers from isolation and are disconnected. However, it is clear that a network of Black Panamanians nurtured and created a strong sense of identity for the next generation, including myself. As an Black Panamanian in Los Angeles, I was not a anomaly. Instead, I was part of a community that held and named me.
Yet, as the places and spaces known to the community changed, so did the community. Panamanians no longer live on “The Blvd.” Encounters with violence and the lack of opportunity due to divestment and the loss of jobs once provided by large industries, pushed African-American and Black Panamanian families out of Los Angeles. Many followed the out-migration of African-Americans east, to cities like Rialto, Upland, Fontana, and Rancho Cucamonga. Folks no longer gather at Scherer Park. After decades of running his upholstery business out of Washington Boulevard, Victor had to move. This was likely a result of rising commercial rent costs and gentrification. The original location of Victor’s shop is now an art gallery. He retired soon after his shop relocated. Jucy’s and Stone Market have managed to weather the changes and will perhaps benefit from the planned Crenshaw light rail running next to Stone Market. 
The entire building has experienced a transformation, with new tenants replacing old ones
While many families moved out of L.A. County, some families, including my own, remained. We moved from Compton to Long Beach, and finally, to Watts. My family arrived to these places without the community that once enriched us and made these places home. I long for that community –my mother does too. Now, as a mother, I desire for my children to experience the affirmation that I did growing up in a Black Panamanian Los Angeles. Yet, in the face of change, we remain resourceful and look to the past for guidance. As the child of migrants, I am able to do things that my parents were not able to: I can take my children to Panama. I can take them to the annual parade, the place where we still gather, and introduce them to our neighbors from “The Blvd” and our friends like Victor. Those of us who grew up nurtured by this community of Black Panamanians, and those who are just discovering it, know that in any place we gather, we are our own multitude.
Jenise Miller is an urban planner and poet. She is the great-granddaughter of Black Panama Canal builders and a native of Compton and Watts. A recent Voices of Our Nations Arts (VONA) fellow, her poems have been featured in The Acentos Review, Dryland Literary Journal, and Cultural Weekly. She received her M.A. in Urban Planning from UCLA and B.A. in Black Studies and Sociology from UC Santa Barbara. She lives in Compton with her family. You can find her on Twitter @jenisepalante and www.plannerpoet.com.
Many Californians who recognize the name “Kettleman City” do so because it is a good place to stop for gas and a snack on the long drive between Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, passing through the Central Valley’s agricultural landscape. But some Californians recognize the name of the tiny town (population 1,439) because it played the David to the Goliath of Waste Management, the country’s largest waste company.
Kettleman City, like so many other poor communities of color, was a prime target for a hazardous waste landfill. The town’s demographics are comparable to many other places that host hazardous waste facilities: 100 percent of the community is Latinx; 57.5 percent of residents over age twenty-five have less than a ninth-grade education; and the average per capita income is $15,656 per year. Kettleman City hosts one of three Class 1 landfills in California (all three are located in or near predominantly Latinx communities), and the community’s opinion was not sought when the landfill was sited. Indeed, residents did not even know about the dump until after it had been permitted and built in 1979. But when a hazardous waste incinerator was proposed on the dump site, the residents made their opposition known, loud and clear. The fight in the late 1980s and early 1990s against the incinerator at the Kettleman City landfill was a paradigmatic early case in the environmental justice movement.
This chapter traces the thirty-plus-year history of environmental justice activism in Kettleman City as a case study within the broader evolution of environmental justice activism. This case study exemplifies the broader trends discussed in chapters 2 and 3 and analyzes how these trends played out on the ground. The Kettleman City story is an early environmental justice success, preventing the construction of a new “locally unwanted land use”—here, an incinerator. These successes added up in town after town; only three of the seventy-five or more new or expanded incinerators proposed since the 1980s were ever built. However, Kettleman City’s example also shows how these successes, as important as they are, could not on their own address existing unwanted land uses or the effect of multiple sources of contamination in one location. And these successes left other problems in their wake: the challenge of sustaining broad levels of local activism after the immediate threat ended made it difficult to address the broader structural conditions of capitalism that disproportionately locate pollution in low-income communities and communities of color and that constrain efforts to change the status quo.
The case of Kettleman City shows the unevenness of the environmental justice movement’s transition from “protest” to “politics.” Many in the environmental justice movement have used the limitations of fighting individual, defensive battles site by site as a reason to scale up into state-wide policy advocacy and collaborative work with state agencies. Others have ventured into efforts to build gardens, parks, and other environmental amenities, some of which pursue a DIY model that eschews state involvement. But in Kettleman City, much environmental justice activism remains true to its roots: focused on local sources of polluting health threats and engaged in continued confrontations with industry and state agencies. Of course, Kettleman City activists are also influenced by the broader trends described in chapters 2 and 3: changing racial politics and industrial public relations efforts, pressure to collaborate with state agencies, the opportunities and challenges of increasingly relying on philanthropically funded nonprofit structures to support activism, and the normalization of risk from the nearby hazardous waste landfill. They also face the challenge of pursuing activism within the context of neoliberal policies under capitalism, which mitigate against increasing environmental enforcement budgets and channel environmental activism toward voluntary and market-based (rather than regulatory) measures to contain industry pollution.
In Kettleman City, we can also see the fissures in the movement caused by the disagreement over tactics. The town hosted the first meeting of the newly formed California Environmental Justice Coalition, which was formed as an alternative to the better-funded, exclusive California Environmental Justice Alliance. Finally, in the face of skepticism about the value of participating on government advisory committees and improving the public’s ability to participate fairly in environmental decision-making, Kettleman City’s difficult history accessing environmental decision-making also shows why activists worked toward these goals in the first place.
The Anti-incinerator Campaign
In the late 1970s, Chemical Waste Management, Inc. (a subsidiary of Waste Management Inc.) built a hazardous waste landfill 3.5 miles away from Kettleman City on land formerly used to store waste mud from nearby oil drilling. As a Class 1 landfill, the facility is authorized to take almost any hazardous substance up to, but excluding, radioactive waste. It is the largest hazardous waste landfill west of the Mississippi. In the 1980s, Chemical Waste began the permitting process to add a hazardous waste incinerator to the existing landfill. The incinerator would burn hazardous waste instead of landfilling it. According to the waste management industry, the push toward incinerators in the 1980s was a response to a national crisis of landfills running out of room for new waste. (However, as David Pellow, Kenneth Gould, and others have written, the “crisis” had other origins, including that the public increasingly did not want to live near them, and industry was blocking or shuttering recycling initiatives.) These incinerators would add dangerous toxins to the air, and the proposed incinerator sites were disproportionately in low-income communities and communities of color, such as Kettleman City.
Many residents of Kettleman City did not even know about the existing hazardous waste landfill just outside of town, where it is not easily visible from the road. Residents did not discover its presence until after it was built—some in 1985, when the dump was fined for operating unauthorized waste ponds, and some not until they learned about the incinerator proposal a few years later. Maricela Mares Alatorre, daughter of activists Mary Lou and Ramon Mares, remembers that her family and neighbors had no idea that the dump existed, or that a hazardous waste incinerator was proposed to be added to it, until Greenpeace organizer Bradley Angel knocked on her door while recruiting residents to attend an upcoming permitting hearing. The hearings, however, were not easy to participate in:
When we started attending these meetings, we noticed that they were never in town, they were usually in the middle of the day, 45 miles away, where they weren’t really accessible to people. And if you could get there, they didn’t translate them into Spanish when most of the town speaks Spanish. And we started finding out that there was a pattern to the way these things happen. We started researching the company. We were informed about the Cerrell Report. It was a 1984 document, which was commissioned by the California Waste Management Board where they said how you should choose a town for these kinds of projects. And we found out that they were going around choosing towns that had a large minority population, where people didn’t speak English, large immigrant populations, low education, and Catholic. That was actually in the report: Catholic. And we were—we were shocked because we really had no idea. I had no idea that environmental racism existed until we were made aware of that document. And it’s like you don’t want to have to go to a meeting. You don’t want to have to, you know, spend all your time in these boring hearings, and sometimes you don’t understand what they’re saying. But it makes you mad when we saw the pattern. And we talked to people from other towns, and we started networking, and we saw how they deliberately chose people like us to do these things to. It makes you mad.
Mares Alatorre’s story is a common one in communities fighting incinerators and other waste facilities in the 1980s and 1990s. As people across the country learned that toxic industries were being located in politically vulnerable communities, residents faced off with local government officials and industry representatives (who appeared to march in lockstep), resorting to disruptive political tactics when their pleas to government officials fell on deaf ears. In Kettleman City, residents, concerned about the threat to their health, formed a grassroots group to tackle the problem: El Pueblo para el Aire y Agua Limpio (People for Clean Air and Water). Mary Lou and Ramon Mares, and Esperanza and Joe Maya, among others, took leadership roles. Some of El Pueblo’s members brought in prior experience with farmworker organizing in the United Farm Workers of America to El Pueblo, while for others El Pueblo was their first experience with organizing.
Like many other groups nationwide, El Pueblo pursued local, direct action and community organizing strategies. However, it was unique in having early access to a lawyer, Luke Cole at California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), who used the case as a test for the use of civil rights law to address pollution in communities of color. The organization also had the support of organizers from the large environmental group Greenpeace, which (unlike many other large national and international environmental organizations) embraced direct-action tactics and at the time, at least on the West Coast, invested in local antitoxics and environmental justice organizing. In addition to their work with Greenpeace and CRLA, activists also attracted support from the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice, Las Madres del Este de Los Angeles, Citizen Action, Rev. Jesse Jackson, a UC Berkeley student group (Nindakin: People of Color for Environmental Justice), and a wide array of others.
One of the most iconic moments in the campaign occurred at a 1988 public hearing about the toxic waste incinerator proposal. By the time this hearing took place, residents had lost faith in both state and industry officials and came prepared to confront them:
So, before this meeting, I’m at my home, and we said, “Well, whenever we don’t like something, we’re going to have to let them know.” All their same lies. So, I made hundreds of copies of this piece of paper with the word “NO” real bold on it. It’s just that, “NO.” I said, when we don’t like something, we’re going to scream “No!” So, we all had those with us.
The circumstances of the hearing underscored how Kettleman City residents were being excluded from the normal process of government decision-making. Like other hearings, this one was not in Kettleman City but in the county seat in Hanford, thirty miles away. Although it was held in the winter, the hearing was not scheduled for one of the comfortable, well-heated spaces available in town such as the high school auditorium. Rather, the hearing was held in the County Fairground building, a building about the size of a football field that was, as one resident told me, “an exhibit barn for arts and crafts, or your animals or whatever. One of those big galvanized buildings made out of sheet metal or something. It’s cold. Cement floor.” The planning commission sat elevated at the front of the room, with portable heaters at their feet and hot coffee on their table. Open space, microphones, and then about fifty rows of seats lay before them, followed by bleachers. Behind the bleachers, there was empty concrete that stretched until the end of the building.
Luke Cole and Sheila Foster describe provisions made for Spanish- speaking residents as follows:
Kettleman City residents showed up at the meeting in force. About 200 people came by bus and carpool from Kettleman City, and, as one of their leaders made clear, “We’re here, we want to testify on this project, and we brought our own translator.” The chair of the Kings County Planning Commission looked down on the crowd and said, “That request has been denied. The translation is taking place in the back of the room and it won’t happen up here.” Residents looked at where the Planning Commissioner was pointing: they looked from the Planning Commission up on their dais, they looked at the open space and the microphones, they looked at all the rows of chairs, and they looked at the bleachers. And then they looked way back behind the bleachers, nearly at the rear of the room, where there was one forlorn man sitting surrounded by a little circle of about twenty-five empty chairs. The Planning Commission chair said again, “Why don’t you go back there? There are monitors back there. We are all in the same room.”
Kettleman City residents had come prepared to press their cause, and this arrangement did not suit them at all. One activist describes what happened at the meeting as follows:
It was supposed to be open all day for people that wanted to go and say whether they’re for [the incinerator], against it, or have questions for the supervisors. And we had a certain time we were supposed to be there. We were bused over there. Some people took their cars, and some people went on their own, but when we got there, they didn’t let us speak ’til about 9:00 or 10:00 that evening. They let other people speak first that should have spoke during the day. They were getting us to be tired so we would just go home, you know, and leave them alone. Then they didn’t have the translators they were supposed to have had. They had some translators. We asked for the translators and then they said, “Well, the translators are going to be in the back of the building. Go to the back.” They told us to go in the back! Go to the back of the room for the translators. And we all went, “No!” You know, “You bring the translators to us when we’re up there speaking!” So we go, “No!” And then we said, “Adelante!” and we all went forward with our “No! No!” “We’re not going to go to the back of the room!” . . . And they were shocked that we did that. Why would they send us to the back of the room? That’s discrimination there in itself. So, they didn’t have translators, and it was just waiting for somebody to do something wrong, to jump on us, to fight with us. You couldn’t even go to the bathroom, ’cause they were waiting for you in there to do something, the Chem Waste employees. It was just really, really bad.
Negative encounters like these, in which state decision-makers and industry representatives blatantly disrespected residents, drew more people into the fight, as this early incinerator opponent describes:
When the people that needed the translation started understanding what they were trying to do to them and how they were being disrespected, that made them more active. So that’s how we got more people to get into the fight for the incinerator.
Another iconic moment of disruption took place later in the campaign, the day before another hearing, when activists blockaded the entryway to the landfill with an old school bus and chained themselves to its axle. An activist who had been part of a successful campaign to oppose the construction of another incinerator in nearby Alpaugh helped out in Kettleman City. Greenpeace stored the bus on her property until it was needed and used her home as a planning area for the demonstration. She describes the opportunity to have supporters from out of town staying with her as a strange but wonderful experience. A Kettleman City resident who also hosted out-of-town supporters had a similar experience:
One time I housed a lot of people from Greenpeace at my house. They were at my house for almost two weeks, and they camped in my backyard. They came to canvas. I didn’t even know what that word meant. But I remember seeing them coming in with money in the evening. I didn’t even know what was going on. We were so green to all this. So I was asked if I could house them and I said, “Yeah.” Well, they all came over to help us and I don’t even know who they were. And I remember that I used to cook for them. They would not eat meat, so I would cook a big pot of pinto beans every day, and they would eat the whole damn pot—[laughter]—of beans and salsa. I always had that, and I don’t know who furnished the pasta, but they always had big bags of pasta and I would cook the pasta. And they stayed at my house for that long. The posters were made in my backyard. The canvas banners were done there. I housed a lot of people throughout the years in my home—strangers, you know? Strangers because I never seen them before, but they came to help. I didn’t even know what the organization Greenpeace was, or who they were, who Bradley [Angel] was, you know? But I learned throughout the years.
During this period, environmental justice activism felt like it was becoming a national mass movement, with Kettleman City as one of many hot spots. In addition to the student activists and others brought by Greenpeace, residents from other affected communities such as San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point, East Los Angeles, and Alpaugh visited Kettleman City to lend their support. One Kettleman City activist remembers those days fondly:
I think all of it was a high point. I was really amazed that people outside Kettleman City actually cared for us, what happened to us. We started networking and all these people came to our aid. Who were they? Why did they care? We couldn’t understand that. Like Bradley [Angel] and his organizations, and Luke Cole with the lawyers. Why did they care? We’re just a poor Hispanic migrant little town, you know? But they knew more of what Chem Waste was doing. We were not the only site in the United States. We found out later that there were other dumpsites, and that they have the same pattern [of locating dumps in politically disadvantaged communities] throughout.
Kettleman City activists returned the favor, giving their support to people elsewhere and strengthening the emerging network of grassroots environmental justice activists. They went to the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., in 1991, which helped bring together people facing similar problems across the country. They traveled to Los Angeles and other California locations, as well as New York, Alabama, and the town of Playas de Rosarito, ten miles south of the US-Mexico border. These visits were not just to provide moral support, but to share tactics and information about their common corporate opponents. The meetings laid bare the lies that Chemical Waste was telling on each side. For example, the residents of Playas de Rosarito had been told that the people of Kettleman City were supportive of the incinerator proposal—a lie that Kettleman City residents quickly debunked when they met. The Mexican residents had wanted to come see the landfill in Kettleman City as they considered their options but were told no by Chemical Waste; at the same time, Chemical Waste was telling Kettleman City residents that they could come see the landfill anytime, because the company had nothing to hide. The Kettleman City activists therefore planned a visit to the dump without mentioning to Chemical Waste that they would be accompanied by several busloads of Mexican residents from Playas de Rosarito and local press. The Mexican visitors returned home and successfully blocked the building of the incinerator proposed for their town.
As Kettleman City residents met activists from elsewhere, many developed broader political critiques about waste infrastructure writ large, broadening their opposition beyond the early “not in my back- yard” beliefs. Mary Lou Mares shared the following:
We started going to statewide conferences and meeting other people who were fighting other terrible stuff. There was Stormy Williams, she was fighting in the Mojave Desert. Everybody says, “Why can’t you put this incinerator in the desert or somewhere where people don’t . . . ?” And she would get up and say, “Wait a minute, I live in the desert!” [Laughter] At first, you are so ignorant that it’s easy to say, “Put it in the desert,” but you start meeting people and you start understanding that there is no place to put an incinerator because the air belongs to everybody and it has currents and it goes around and comes around. You just cannot put anything into the air.
Despite the efforts by Kettleman City residents and allies, the Kings County Planning Commission nevertheless voted to approve the incinerator construction. Kettleman City is an unincorporated community, which means the people have no local governance structure of their own but rather are governed from a distance by a county board of supervisors, located forty miles away in the whiter and more affluent county seat of Hanford (where the public hearings took place). At that time, Kettleman City had little representation on the Planning Commission, which was mostly made up of people who did not live near the dump. The county stood to increase its revenues through taxing the landfill operators (although, as Kettleman City residents complained, precious few of those resources were reinvested in Kettleman City itself—an example of how racial capitalism functions at the county level).
El Pueblo appealed the decision to the Kings County Board of Supervisors, who upheld the incinerator approval. El Pueblo and its legal supporters at CRLA filed a class-action lawsuit against Kings County in 1991. In 1992, a superior court judge overturned the Kings County approval of the incinerator, ruling that it was based on an inadequate environmental impact report and that the public permitting process had failed to meaningfully involve the local population, since residents in the predominantly Spanish-speaking town had received the relevant documents only in English. Chemical Waste Management filed an appeal, but then withdrew the incinerator application in 1993. One activist describes the immense relief she and her friend felt after winning the protracted campaign:
[My friend] and I just cried and cried the day we got the announcement. The reporter came first to my house, saying, “Tell us what you’re doing, what’s your next this and that, your next strategy,” and then along came the general manager of Chem Waste and he comes up to us and he says, “It’s over. The lawsuit, it’s over. We’re withdrawing the plan to put in the incinerator.” I said, “What?!” He said that they are not doing the incinerator. “Oh, I gotta go see [my friend]!” And I go to [my friend’s house] and we just hugged and cried and cried. It was [many] years of struggle, you know, it was great. It was so good.
Kettleman City’s fight against the incinerator was often framed as an epic David versus Goliath battle between the largest waste management company in the country and a tiny, low-income Latinx community in a largely forgotten part of California. The activists’ victory became a symbol of the movement’s vitality and potential. It also inspired environmental justice activists across the country. The Kettleman City residents’ visits to and from other communities confronting similar problems helped activists see the bigger picture, that this was not a local but a systemic problem. This campaign thus helped nurture the broader environmental justice movement, both in California and the nation.
End of excerpt from chapter four. For the rest of this chapter, see the complete book, available at University of California Press and elsewhere.
 The landfill is managed by Chemical Waste Management, Inc., a subsidiary of Waste Management. Speakers use variations of both names (Chemical Waste, Chem Waste, and Waste Management), usually to refer to the local managers of the landfill.
 US Bureau of the Census, “ACS Demographic and Housing Estimates (Latinx population); US Bureau of the Census, “Educational Attainment” (education); and US Bureau of the Census, “Selected Economic Characteristics” (income).
 Cole and Foster, From the Ground Up; and Bullard, Confronting Environmental Racism.
 Two of these three were still in operation in 2021. Rosengren, “After It First WTE Facility Closes.” These numbers come from personal communications with Mike Ewall, executive director of Energy Justice Network, September 3 2018, and Bradley Angel, executive director of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, March 26, 2021. Although no new commercial municipal waste incinerators have been built in the time indicated, several incinerators have been retrofitted, expanded, or built on the same site as existing incinerators since 1995. In addition, in 2017 a small, noncommercial-scale gasification incinerator was built at Army Garrison Fort Hunter Liggett in Monterey County, California. There are also two medical waste incinerators operating in California, in Paramount and Hesperian. Here I follow the activist convention of calling these modern facilities incinerators, whereas the waste industry calls them waste-to-energy facilities that “superheat” waste rather than burn it. Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice and Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, “Incinerators in Disguise.”
 Pellow, “Environmental Inequality Formation”; and Gould, Schnaiberg, and Weinberg, Local Environmental Struggles.
 Baptista and Perovich, U.S. Municipal Solid Waste Incinerators; Costner and Thornton, Playing with Fire; and White, “Hazardous Waste Incineration and Minority Communities.”
 The Cerrell Report itself does not specify race as a category by which locations for incinerators should be chosen, but many of the proposed locations were nonetheless in communities of color. Powell, “Political Difficulties Facing Waste-to-Energy Conversion Plant Siting.”
Perkins, Tracy. “The Multiple People of Color Origins of the US Environmental Justice Movement: Social Movement Spillover and Regional Racial Projects in California.” Environmental Sociology 7, no. 2 (2021): 147–59. https://doi.org/10.1080/23251042.2020.1848502.
Perkins, Tracy. “Women’s Pathways into Activism: Rethinking the Women’s Environmental Justice Narrative in California’s San Joaquin Valley.” Organization & Environment 25, no. 1 (2012): 76–94. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10 .1177/1086026612445390.
White, Harvey. “Hazardous Waste Incineration and Minority Communities.” In Race and the Incidence of Environmental Hazards: A Time for Discourse, edited by Bunyan Bryant and Paul Mohai, 126–39. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992.
An imaginative form of protest took place on the other side of the world in 2017 as some Australians took to rolling down grassy slopes at the heart of the nation’s capital of Canberra. Although it appeared lighthearted, the motivations of these tumbling citizens were quite serious. They were rolling down Parliament Hill, situated at the heart of Canberra’s constellation of avenues and topographic landmarks. They were rolling to exercise an egalitarian ideal that was originally embedded in the design of the New Parliament House.
When conceptualizing the design in the 1980s, the New Parliament House architect Romaldo Giurgola sought to place the people above the parliament, rather than subservient to it. While this ideal has since been expressed in other parliaments—such as Foster and Partner’s gravity defying ramp that spirals above the Reichstag in Berlin—the design for Australia’s Parliament took the radical approach of burying the parliamentary chambers beneath a publicly accessible grassy knoll. This fusion of parliament and landscape sought to embrace the aspirations of all inhabitants and their interdependence with the timeless landscapes of the Island Continent.
As landscape poetics go, it is a beautiful notion. Yet it is also selective, in the sense that First Australians have never identified with, or felt included in, the narrative of the people’s hill. The Aboriginal Tent Embassy, which for almost half a century has continuously occupied the lawn at the foot of Australia’s Parliament House, embodies this implicit exclusion.
This exclusion remains unresolved, with global events overtaking Giurgola’s egalitarian gesture after little more than a quarter of a century in the ground. The concept of the people’s hill was initially eroded with the tightening of security following the trauma of September 11, 2001. Then, in September 2017, the object of the people’s protest materialized: a nine-foot high welded steel security fence was erected around the hill to finish the job once and for all. By sealing the knoll—and its legislature—off from its citizens, the new fence invokes a fortified medieval hill town that has shut the gate on its hinterland.
And so, the people roll no more. As is also evident in the worldwide barricading of public space to repel vehicular terrorism, fencing off Australia’s Landscape Parliament is deeply symbolic. It reveals a feedback loop, whereby political systems are pushed further and further away, even as the ideal encapsulated in the people’s hill would seem ever more relevant to many political predicaments on other continents, including here in California.
To comprehend why a landscape parliament in the land Down Under was worth rolling for—and why it is relevant to California—entails venturing a thousand years back in time to Iceland. The land of ice and fire is steeped in geysers, glaciers, volcanoes, and Sagas. Amidst this storied landscape lies Iceland’s most hallowed ground, where from the year 930 to 1798, Thingvellir (Þingvellir) served as the dramatic venue for the world’s first parliament. Unlike the climate-controlled buildings that house contemporary political forums, Iceland’s parliament was held out under the open sky. Each year, Icelanders gathered amid the rocky fissures formed by diverging tectonic plates to discuss important matters of concern.
In reference to its topographic setting, the name Þingvellir translates loosely as meeting valley in English. And while the correlation between vellir and valley is evident, understanding the other half of the name is more complicated. Although Þing is etymologically connected to the English word thing, it is unlike anything we know today. In Old Norse, Þings referred to landscape-based forums for discussing important community matters. Indeed, while the dramatic setting and near millennium of constant use make Thingvellir the most celebrated example, Thing parliaments were established in many locations throughout the Viking world. Their names live on in places such as Gulating in Norway, Tingwalla in Sweden, Tinganes in the Faroe Islands, Tingwall in Shetland and Orkney, and Tynwald on the Isle of Man.
The etymology of Þing can also be traced further back to the ancient Germanic proto-parliamentary Ding. Referring to a general assembly or court of law in Old High German, Dings were often sited in topographically prominent locations that typically included megaliths, springs, or distinctive trees. These meanings were also absorbed into English, with traces of Þing and Ding still retained in thing, in the sense that we might say that someone “knows a thing or two” to imply that they comprehend the issues at hand.
But these traces hang by a thread. In today’s industrialized world, we are far more likely to understand things as the many inanimate objects that surround us with our own indifference. Today, things are just the peripheral stuff that we overlook and often can’t be bothered to call by name. We might run an errand to “buy some things” or observe that we “forgot something.” And as the Internet of Things vaporizes our interaction with everyday appliances into the Cloud, our collective ambivalence towards things seems destined to increase.
To understand why the language of things changed so profoundly over the centuries—from the discussion of important matters to the trivialization of dispensable objects—entails travelling again. Even as Thingvellir’s parliament continued to operate within the unique and isolated landscapes of Iceland, things were subject to new forces of transformation in Continental Europe. As Europe modernized and political control centralized, the process of land enclosure began to displace the feudal commons that Thing parliaments had traditionally occupied. With no place left in the landscape, Thing parliaments moved undercover, and in time, into the fully enclosed buildings that inhabitants of the industrialized world take for granted today.
In addition to parliaments, other culturally significant forums such as markets, performance spaces, and religious ceremonies also came in from the cold. Extrapolating this process to the present day, enclosure takes the form of industrially scaled agriculture within endless fields of climate-controlled hydroponic greenhouses.
Whereas Things once referred to landscape-based community assemblies for discussing important issues, the enclosure of these forums led to things becoming understood more as the objects that surround them. With things now conceived more as objects than as issues, this shift also had profound implications for conceptions of landscape. Divested of its thingness, the landscape became more of a passive receptacle of physical things than a political Thing inherently. So much so, that today it is hard to imagine landscape in any other way than as a benign scene or as ‘threatened’ nature in need of human assistance.
In this world, the landscape bears the scars of objects and events, but no longer takes a seat in the parliament that it once cultivated. And despite the promise of a seamless globe in which humans, capital, and wildebeest move without friction, the landscape is riven with more fissures than ever before. These divisions take the form of walls between nation states, infrastructural ruptures within communities, socio-economic inequality, fragmentation of ecological biomes, and so forth.
And yet, many of the most pressing issues that define the present Age of the Anthropocene transcend these barriers with impunity. Walls do not readily circumscribe global warming, nuclear radiation, antibiotic resistance, non-biodegradable plastics, or global human migration. And unlike the everyday things that surround us all, these hyper-things are so vast and enduring that they often defy human scales of comprehension. They reveal a yawning gulf between our hazy awareness of the things that matter and our limited capacity to discuss, let alone address them.
What to do? The issue here is one of horizons. From within houses of legislature or parliament, our shared political horizons are simply too inhibited to accommodate the scale and scope of the Anthropocene. In response, a city, a state, a nation, or even a coalition of nations, may seek to construct more expansive parliaments under which to gather ever-larger political assemblies. And yet, even if these forums were to rival in enormity the largest sporting stadiums on Earth, they would still be buildings. And as buildings, they remain historically bound to the enclosure of political gatherings, and subsequent diminishment of Things into things.
For all their proficiency in keeping the rain out and the politicians in, buildings can never truly become Things. How, then, might the ancient conception of the landscape parliament be re-imagined to stretch our shared political horizons in order to more adequately encompass contemporary matters of concern? That is, how might some of the lost agency of landscape be rediscovered within the political process? How might some of the Thingness of things be recovered?
This is not to imply that Californians begin dissolving Capitol Hills and City Halls and repatriating venues of governance out into the landscape in a futile attempt at refashioning Thingvellir. It is not possible to just go back and recreate Things because the nature of contemporary political processes and assemblies has profoundly changed. To take Things literally in this way would probably just add to the assortment of unused public amphitheaters that unwittingly reify nostalgic yearnings for community congregations of yesteryear.
Nor is cultivating Thingness in landscape akin to invoking some form of animism that imbues inanimate objects with a mystical life force. And to be clear, re-connecting landscape and politics has nothing to do with the “blood and soil” that the Third Reich used to such catastrophic effect by weaponizing the power of place on an industrial scale. What it is about is feeling connected to a process. It is about leveraging the public landscape to embolden the public in politics.
To begin this process, the first instinct may be to take down the fences. De-fencing parliaments and legislatures would be a revolution of sorts. It suggests comparisons with the eighteenth and nineteenth century process of dis-parking, whereby the royal hunting grounds of Europe were gradually opened up to public use. This process was initiated by unlocking the gates, and ultimately—as Californians now take for granted in city parks that remain open 24/7—demolishing the boundary walls altogether.
If we return Down Under for a moment and think through dis-parking Australia’s freshly fortified landscape parliament, the flaw in this venture becomes apparent. To remain functional in the current climate, new, more sophisticated, invisible, and insidious forms of security would almost inevitably emerge to offset a de-fenced the house of the legislature. Albeit at a vaster scale, this phenomenon is demonstrated along the US southern border. From California to Texas, the heavily surveilled and profiled 100-mile-wide thickened zone that shadows the border puts fences and walls in context; material expressions of a more pervasive filtering process that occurs before a traveler even knows they have arrived and persists long after they think they have left.
And as the deplorable scenes from the January 2021 breaching of the US Capitol demonstrate, even the most hallowed ramparts can be scaled with sufficient incitement. As at the border, the walls of the Capitol proved more performative than impervious; something reassuringly concrete to assail as a diversion from thinking though what one hopes to accomplish once inside. Here, as at Australia’s parliament, walls and fences are a symptom not a cause. The parliament’s fence is going to remain somewhere; if not encircling the building in full view, then as a thickened zone on the margins, or, more perniciously, as a wall in the minds of those who feel shut out from the political process.
Instead of deconstructing the walls and roofs of official houses of parliament and legislature of the State (only for other more pervasive barriers to raise in their place), a more constructive path could lay in devolving landscape parliaments as parallel processes. That is, perhaps the role of landscape Things today is not to be reprised as (non)representative parliaments for making laws, but to operate as moral shadow parliaments for discussing the issues that really matter; issues that dithering bricks-and-mortar parliaments and legislatures seem to habitually forfeit under the weight of earmarks and the fog of obfuscation.
With Things no longer satisfactorily represented in conventional parliaments and legislatures, where might these shadow landscape parliaments be situated? Perhaps everywhere and nowhere, in the sense that today a great deal of political assembly occurs in online forums that transcend borders and censors. But being digitally untethered from time and place has the significant downside of conveniently enabling individuals to insulate themselves from divisive issues within polarized online communities.
Yet even as social media spins its wheels, when people really need their voices heard, they still take to the streets on foot. If these issue-driven gatherings are to stick for any longer than an outrage-news-cycle, momentarily occupying the frictionless ground of polished airport foyers and online echo chambers is insufficient. To stop Things from just slipping away into a capsicum haze of unfulfilled aspirations, landscape shadow parliaments would need to somehow lodge into the fissures that permeate everyday Californian environments. The Occupy Wall Street movement in New York and the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Australia’s capital Canberra are recent and continuing precedents for this enduring act of literally digging in on an issue.
Although often overlooked in our individual cognitive maps, California’s cultural landscapes are riven with local borderlands that cleave between neighborhoods, discordant land-uses, maintained and derelict sites, and most insidiously, between planning visions and their lived reality.
In many situations, agencies or communities have valid rationales and useful mechanisms with which to heal rifts in the urban fabric. Consider, for example, the re-stitching of San Francisco’s Hayes Valley neighborhood following the demolition of the earthquake damaged double-tiered Central Freeway. Yet in other circumstances, adjacent locales march to decidedly different tunes. Consider a neighbourhood ‘on the other side of the tracks’ that is vulnerable to runaway change when the tracks are sunken or removed. Richmond’s Iron Triangle, which circumscribes an underprivileged neighborhood in the shadow of the oil refinery, encapsulates this condition.
In certain circumstances, this latter type of linear no-man’s-land could provide fertile sites for snagging shadow landscape parliaments. Dug into these thin borderland situations, landscape Things could be configured to thicken the jump-cut between two conditions with a third space that is neither one, nor the other. Here, ancient Thingvellir is instructive, with the geological fissures of the Icelandic setting cleaving space between local clans, into which the parliament occupied an interstitial every-man’s-land over which no single clan held jurisdiction.
While California’s coastal conurbations are riddled with manmade fissures that suggest potential thickening into landscape Things, one of most potent (and confounding) sites surely lies at the State’s southernmost edge. Friendship Park straddles the US/Mexico border on the last high ground before the border fence spills down into the surf. As one of the few locations where in-person cross-border interaction is condoned for a few hours on weekends, Friendship Park is a place of family reunions, mixed emotions, sit-in protests and coordinated trans-border activities. Twin fences define the site; one on the border, and a second inside US soil. This second fence is furnished with a disproportionately monumental gateway that promises thoroughfare but leads only to no-man’s-land.
Considered in the context of other heavily fortified no-man’s lands in urban areas, one may continue to hope for a future ‘Berlin moment,’ whereby the fortification of California’s southern border is eventually demolished as a relic of history. But in the meantime, working within current geopolitical realities, how might a site such as Friendship Park be thickened into a third space? How might the fledgling aspirations Friendship Park be amplified into a landscape Thing?
At present, the challenges of the site and situation are immense. The fences are too insistent, admission to the controlled no-man’s-land too selective, and the shared horizon glistening out across the Pacific Ocean too bittersweet. Indeed, as the semantic distinction between fences and walls becomes increasingly partisan, the border ‘fence’ at Friendship Park is now so heavily armored with welded mesh—leaving apertures barely wider than a human finger—that it is, in substance, already a ‘wall.’
And although walls ably defended territories for thousands of years, their presence today is decidedly regressive. In the sixteenth century, as medieval fortifications proved increasingly ineffective against advancements in ballistic technology, horizontal defensive earthworks supplanted vertical masonry walls. Reaching its zenith in Europe’s Renaissance star forts, this strategy can still be explored today in the Batteries that were built along the California coast in the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, the advent of long-range ballistics pushed defensive earthworks to new extremes. As threats materialized from over the horizon in every direction, people retreated underground, relying on the thickness and shape of the land as their primary mode of defense.
This brief fortification primer illuminates the superiority of strategically shaped landform over masonry walls and reinforced fences. By shifting this capability from a defensive to a public conception of space, the shaping of landscape thickness becomes an intriguing proposition. Through the medium of land shaping, what form could a shadow landscape forum at Friendship Park—or elsewhere—take?
Mounding the landscape up into a hill would seem the obvious answer. As was (until recently) possible on Australia’s Parliament House hill, Californians from all walks of life may seek to fabricate the moral high ground from which to better foresee and understand the expansive issues at hand. If the concept of a political horizon is conflated with the physical horizon (as formed by the curvature of the earth), climbing a hill would appear to expand one’s horizons, allowing each of us to see more things—to literally see over the wall.
To take things to the next level, those who are so inclined could go a little higher in the basket of a hot air balloon and expand their political horizons a little further. Or, they could liftoff into the low Earth-orbit of the International Space Station and see what satellites see. Or, like the astronauts on Apollo 17, travel halfway to the moon to catch the lonely blue marble within the single frame of a Hasselblad; revealing that the whole Earth is itself a thing, albeit one that no human can see both sides of at the same time. In the sense that this epiphany energized the environmental movement, humanity has been metaphorically trying to get back down to Earth ever since.
The point is that the higher an individual goes, the more likely they are to feel as though they are on top of things. And yet, from up on the hill (or space station) their horizons defer further outwards, circumscribing more and more issues while leaving them no closer to grasping or acting on the issues that matter. But what if this yearning to climb is upended, and instead of seeking landscape Things up on hills, we think of Things as forming down in hollows? Once again, ancient Thingvellir offers guidance here, with the geologically fissured Icelandic landscape providing a range of crevices that drew in gatherings of varied scale and scope within their embrace.
Through the organizational pull of gravity, hollows instinctively collect things. Consider the dunes on the floor of California’s Death Valley, where over the eons each grain of sand made its way to a gathering of like-minded grains at the lowest point in North America. Or in a more general sense, consider how water—access to which is a defining wall-crossing issue of the twenty-first century—converges fluidly into hollowed out landforms.
And like the water that makes up about 60 percent of our bodily mass, hollows can also collect humans. If the people rolling off Australia’s parliament hill were to repeat their mass tumble from the rim of a hollow, they would all end up drawn together at the bottom. What they may find there could be confronting, since hollows have also served historically as dumping grounds; as places where all the things that humans discard end up, out of sight and out of mind. It turns out that many of these things are still there, decaying on a geological timescale. Confronted with these things, the parliamentary hollow impels its occupants to recall; not in the sense of officially ordering someone (such as a Governor) to return, but in the other sense of bringing an event or situation back into one’s mind.
Hollows foreground these things by compressing space and time by retraining the horizons of those who enter them. When going down into a hollow, everyone’s personal horizon temporarily retracts to the rim of the concave landform. A kind of horizonal hand-over occurs, whereby instead of retreating unceasingly into the distance (and off into the future) as each individual moves around, the horizon stays tethered to the landform. As a result, everyone in the hollow sees the same horizon. That is, they share a collective horizon with the many other things—human, non-human, and inanimate—that are gathered in the present moment.
The other thing about hollows is that they leak. Through either infiltration or evaporation, hollow landforms leak water (otherwise they would become lakes), and unfortunately hollows often leak toxins when associated with dumping grounds. Yet in a positive sense, hollows also potentially leak people and ideas. In contrast to the illusion of a hermetically sealed leak-proof house of parliament, the landscape parliament shaped as a hollow makes no claims to being watertight. Unlike a wall or fence, the rim that encircles the hollow landform remains permeable. Freed of the limitations that architectural containment places on access and participation, humans, along with many other things, can cross over this topographic threshold and gather to discuss matters of concern. And when the time for discussion has passed and the time for action is present, they can move back over the collective threshold and leave.
Outside of the hollow, the Earth’s horizon comes back into focus and the wider world, with its myriad issues, comes back into play. Out here individuals are potentially primed to extend issues of concern beyond a preoccupation with their own and immediate futures, which from ecological crises to genetic design, encompass vast and miniscule scales and temporalities.
However, potential does not necessarily translate into actuality. While this can be true in any situation, it is doubly so in the landscape. Whereas the programmatic capacity of buildings is reasonably predictable, predetermining the usefulness of a landscape in advance remains an imprecise art. Buildings have doors and roofs with which to encapsulate and regulate the activities of their occupants. Landscape, on the other hand, is less obliging; think of landscape in terms of the vagaries of the weather upon which it is beholden, or in terms of the indeterminate flow of the rivers that run through it.
The landscape’s inherent uncertainty can be extended to humans, who often do not adopt landscapes in the way in which planners intended. Part of this is undoubtedly down to the preponderance of poorly designed public spaces (in California and elsewhere) that fail both functionally and expressively. Yet even with the best intentions, landscapes can fall flat. In this context, expecting landscape parliaments to routinely perform as places for actual discussion could backfire. The weight of expectation could create intimidating spaces that people completely avoid, unwittingly adding to the existing trove of empty amphitheaters.
Instead of pressuring landscape things to be routinely parliamentary from the outset, perhaps their role needs to be initiated in more down to earth terms. Positioned more humbly, landscape Things would principally seek to simply collect people in situ, essentially drawing each of us out of our internet of things and into the shared world of Things. Once drawn—like moths to a lamp—into the public realm, we are more likely to participate in, and engage with, the issues (or things) that concern us all.
From this unassuming basis, in certain situations where particularly potent matters of concern converge on the ground, contemporary landscape Things might emerge. While there is a great deal of indeterminacy involved, we can assume that these Things are unlikely to leaven on Capitol hills. Just as legislatures and issues are not progressing, forums and gatherings are not aligning. The forums that govern Californians are fixed at the center, on the hill, while the gatherings that matter dig in at the edges, in the fissures. It is here that shadow landscape parliaments are at most likely to be at home.
Given that they are not tied to the conventional apparatuses of federal, state, or local governance, to which other scales might landscape shadow parliaments extend? And, in addition to Friendship Park, where else in California might these reimagined landscape shadow parliaments (Things) be dispersed? As nature and politics increasingly converge, perhaps Things might draw within their horizons each of the world’s 867 bioregions, ten of which intersect with California. Or, across the Sierras, perhaps Landscape Parliaments might grip onto the salty banks of the overdrawn Mono Lake, stripped of inflows that are gravity-fed southbound along the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Or, as traditional zoological gardens become less and less defensible, Things might colonize the naturalistic habitats of decommissioned animal exhibits in San Francisco zoo.
Or, perhaps the position of Landscape Parliaments might be calibrated to sea level rise projections: not safely on higher ground, but at the waterline near vulnerable communities such as East Palo Alto, to be intentionally inundated as a wet-feet reality check on rising tides. Or, find niches amidst the fragmented ruins of the aptly named Sunken City near Long Beach, where buildings and streets slumped into the Pacific Ocean. Or, ride the precipice of vanishing ground, by convening Things on the concrete pads of recently demolished buildings atop Pacifica’s rapidly receding cliff line. Or, inhabit the new ground that results when landfill is decommissioned, such as that of the Albany Bulb wasteland that protrudes into the tidelands of San Francisco Bay’s eastern shore.
By gathering Californians together within the contours of these settings, Landscape Things might help us to recall the gravity of the things that matter, nearer to where they matter.
 Agust Gudmundsson, ‘Tectonics of the Thingvellir Fissure Swarm, SW Iceland’, Journal of Structural Geology 9/1 (1987): 61–69. Richard Beck, ‘Iceland’s Thousand Year Old Parliament’, Scandinavian Studies and Notes 10/5 (1929): 149–153.
 See Kenneth R. Olwig, ‘Liminality, Seasonality and Landscape’, Landscape Research 30/2 (2005): 259–271.
 Here I draw on Martin Heidegger, ‘The Thing’, in: Albert Hofstadter (trans.), Poetry Language Thought (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 161–180, at 173.
 See Álvaro Sevilla-Buitrago, ‘Urbs in Rure: Historical Enclosure and the Extended Urbanization of the Countryside’, in: Neil Brenner (ed.), Implosions / Explosions (Berlin: Jovis Verlag, 2014), 236–259.
 See Kenneth R. Olwig, ‘Heidegger, Latour and the Reification of Things: The Inversion and Spatial Enclosure of the Substantive Landscape of Things–The Lake District Case’, Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography 95/3 (2013): 251–273, at 256.
 See Karl Kullmann, ‘Route Fittko: Tracing Walter Benjamin’s Path of No Return”, Ground Up (Delineations) 5 (2016): 70–75.
 In the current epoch that Paul Crutzen famously labelled the Anthropocene, human activity is permanently recorded in the geological record. Paul J. Crutzen, ‘The “Anthropocene”’, in Eckart Ehlers and Thomas Krafft (eds.), Earth System Science in the Anthropocene (Berlin & Heidelberg: Springer 2006), 13–18.
 Here I draw on Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).
 Here I draw on Bruno Latour, ‘From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik or How to Make Things Public’, in Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), 4–31. Bruno Latour, ‘A Cautious Prometheus?’ Keynote lecture for the Networks of Design meeting of the Design History Society, Falmouth, Cornwall, 3 September 2008.
 The public landscape is not limited to the bucolic countryside or the protected wilderness. Today it also includes the burgeoning urban landscape: the streets, the parks, the appropriated interstitial spaces, the postindustrial wastelands, the cultural precincts, and even the external surfaces of buildings.
 The archaic verb dispark means to ‘divest a park of its private use’ by ‘throw[ing] parkland open.’ Charles Talbut Onions (ed.), The Shorter English Dictionary on Historical Principals (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), 530.
 This is a reference to the Mauer im Kopf (the wall in the head), that persists in the psycho-geographies of Berliners long after the fall of the concrete Berlin Wall.
 This is a reference to the spontaneous airport demonstrations that followed the Trump administration’s January 2017 Muslim travel ban.
 See Karl Kullmann, ‘Thin Parks / Thick Edges: Towards a Linear Park Typology for (Post)infrastructural Sites’, Journal of Landscape Architecture 6/2 (2011): 70–81.
 For in depth explorations of the Mexico/US borderlands, see Michael Dear, ‘Imagining a Third Nation: US-Mexico Border’, Ground Up (Delineations) 5 (2016): 46–55.
 For a distinctly theological perspective on the California border in relationship to California citizenship, see Jason S. Sexton, ‘Borders and Barriers: Citizenship in California’, in Kirsteen Kim and Alexia Salvatierra (eds.), Los Angeles as a Global Crossroads: Migration, Transnationalism, and Faith (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2022), 131–150.
 The return of border walls has revived some decidedly medieval devices for their circumvention in the form of ladders, catapults and tunnels.
 On the cultural impact of the whole earth image, see Denis Cosgrove, Geography and Vision: Seeing, Imagining and Representing the World (London: I.B. Taurus, 2008), chapter 1.
 As defined by The Oxford English Dictionary: Second Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).
 See James J. Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (Hillsdale NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1986).
 See Karl Kullmann, ‘The Usefulness of Uselessness: Towards a Landscape Framework for Un-activated Urban Public Space’, Architectural Theory Review 19/2 (2015): 154–173.
 As classified by the World Wide Fund for Nature, bioregions are ecologically and geographically distinct areas.
Karl Kullmann is a landscape architect, urban designer, and Associate Professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture & Environmental Planning, University of California, Berkeley.
Drivers passing through the Salinas Valley from the San Francisco Bay Area to San Louis Obispo, Santa Barbara and points further south see a visually beautiful landscape. Strawberries, lettuce or artichokes stretch in neat rows to the base of steep hills blanketed with grasses that, depending on season, are colored alternately emerald green or golden. If the drivers notice workers in the fields, they will likely be small, distant figures who are quickly passed. In the place of actual workers, however, drivers may see one of the many attractive, larger-than-life cutout billboard murals of farmers and farmworkers.
The farm fields that form the paintings’ backdrops make up the “salad bowl of the world,” so-named for the region’s export-intensive cool weather crops. The people depicted look happy with their work. They are painted in bright, sunny colors, and stand alone or in groups of two or three. Press coverage of the billboard art describes it as celebrating the region’s agricultural economy and its people (Pogash 2005; Roth 2013). But there is more to these images, and to California agricultural history, than first meets the eye. By alternately obscuring the existence of farmworkers or suggesting to the broader population that farmworkers are happy and well-treated, this art draws on long-standing agricultural ideologies to sustain racial capitalism and inhibit organizing, ultimately rendering agriculture’s reform more difficult.
Most of the cut-out billboard murals are painted by Salinas based artists John Cerney and Dong Sun Kim. Their murals often depict specific people, either current or past owners or workers at the farms where the billboards are displayed. Cerney grew up in the Salinas Valley, where he worked in the post-harvest lettuce industry before getting a college degree in art. He has been painting giant cutout billboard people since the 1990s, and estimates that he has completed about 300 in his career, 30-40 of which are scattered around Monterey County, where the Salinas Valley is located (Chatfield 2018; Roth 2013). Most of his work is commissioned by business owners, organizations and sometimes individuals, but as his career has matured he has also begun creating murals of his own design that he donates to towns around the country (Chatfield 2018).
There is little information available in the public sphere about Kim. He is a self-taught artist who emigrated to the Salinas Valley from Seol, Korea. His youthful art depicted nature scenes, but as he got older, he developed an interest in “all things American.” (Indeed, much of Cerney and Kim’s work fits into the larger category of Americana). Kim fed this interest by reading US history books and watching cowboy movies (Robinson 2012). After his emigration, he collaborated with Cerney for a time on Cerney’s cut-out billboard murals, and now paints these and other murals on his own.
The Salinas Valley billboard people draw on familiar visual themes. For example, Image 2 shows two happy, friendly older white men. One has one arm casually around the other man, while his other hand, wedding ring visible, rests on the sign behind which they are placed. The other man holds three plump artichokes. Both wear old-fashioned glasses and coveralls with the “Ocean Mist” logo sewn onto the breasts. The billboard is painted in an Americana style reminiscent of the 1950s that evoke values of honesty, hard work, and thrift. The men’s weathered, smiling faces tap into agrarian tropes that suggest pride in work done well and according to the season’s changing patterns, and life in tight-knit rural communities in which people are both independent and yet also supportive of their neighbors when trouble strikes.
As a single image, this mural could be simply a historical representation of the two men in question. But images never stand alone. This mural is in the company of other such agricultural imagery in the Salinas Valley, across the nation, and indeed in food products at grocery stores seemingly everywhere. The regularity with which such happy, white, old-timey farmers appear in agricultural imagery is what signals that something larger than individual artistry is at work. In this case, that “something larger” is ideology (Althusser 1971). More specifically, it is the ideology of Jeffersonian agrarianism combined with a more recent and overlapping form of white nostalgia.
Ideologies are systems of ideas that either support or contest the way the world works. Dominant, or ruling ideologies combine with what Althusser calls repressive state apparatuses (i.e. the police, courts, prisons) to support existing economic structures (capitalism) and the multiple forms of exploitation that uphold it (1971). The ideology of Jeffersonian agrarianism is foundational to the widespread tendency in the US to associate farmers with positive moral values. Thomas Jefferson saw small-scale farmers as particularly virtuous members of society. He promoted an economy based on small-scale farming combined with a weak federal government as the best foundation for a healthy democracy (Jefferson 1982). However, Jefferson’s vision was meant for free white farmers who labored on land that they owned. It excluded enslaved Africans and those who worked land owned by others. These exclusions from the category of virtuousness and democracy, were necessary to support Jefferson’s own lifestyle. Jefferson owned 13,700 acres of land and at least 187 enslaved people at the time of the US Revolutionary War (Isenberg 2016). As a “founding father” of the nation, Jefferson’s agricultural ideology also had larger significance beyond his own household, directing attention away from the enslaved Africans and African Americans whose labor provided the foundation of much US agriculture and wealth (Baptist 2014; Carney 2002; Johnson 2013). Jeffersonian agrarianism thus upheld white supremacy.
Jefferson’s agrarian vision persists (Buttel and Flinn 1975; Wald 2011). Now, it is most explicitly called on by white advocates of small-scale, family farming (Rampell 2017). But even though Jefferson attributed unique worth to the small-scale, pre-industrial, white, land-owning farmer who supplies most labor needs with family members, his vision has also been bent to the purposes of large scale, industrialized agribusinesses owned by whites who employ vast numbers of largely non-white, non-family labor.
The idealization of white rural life embedded in Jeffersonian agrarianism strengthened after the Civil War ended legal slavery; as the US population changed from predominantly rural to predominantly urban in the 20th century; and again in the post-Civil Rights era. In each of these moments white nostalgia informed agrarian ideologies, and racial ideologies in general. White nostalgia functions, for whites, to cast in a warm glow of memory all-white spaces of the past, or racially mixed spaces in which whites were unquestioningly at the top of racial hierarchies. As Maly, Dalmage and Michaels write, “Nostalgia is a special type of memory, one that elevates pleasurable experiences… while scrubbing away stories that are unpleasant and even shameful” (2013:758–59), such as the horrific treatment of enslaved Africans, Black sharecroppers, and, more recently, Mexican farmworkers. As a result, the valorization of white farmers and erasure of workers of color has persisted across time in art, advertising, literature and politics (Alkon and McCullen 2011; Mitchell 1996; Sackman 2005; Wald 2011, 2016). When they are not simply erased, slaves and workers of color are typically portrayed as servile, simple, happy and/or exotic in ways that serve dominant economic interests (Adamkiewicz 2016; Besky 2014; Klein 2020).
Many of these nostalgic visions now paint dreamy visions of white life in the 1950s which, not coincidentally, was the last decade before the bulk of the legal victories of the civil rights movement took place in the 1960s. Indeed, many of the Salinas Valley’s agricultural billboards depict aesthetics and agricultural technologies from the 1950s and earlier. These revered pasts took place before the disruption of (limited) racial integration in the 1960s, and, for the white lower middle classes, the economic erosion of the 1970s and beyond.
Romanticized depictions of white rural life and agriculture hide the foundational role of Latinx farmworkers in California; 90 percent of today’s crop-workers in California are foreign born, with only 3% self-reporting as neither Hispanic nor Latino (U.S. Department of Labor n.d.). For example, Image 3 shows a presumably white man holding a head of lettuce while kneeling next to a packed lettuce box and his trusty dog. The box of lettuce is labeled with the Dole logo. This depiction intimately associates the man in question with the packing of the lettuce. However, the man depicted was the real-life owner of an agribusiness that farmed 10,700 acres of vegetable crops in California’s Salinas and San Joaquin Valleys as well as Arizona; one of his customers was the multinational corporation Dole Food Company (Caprara 2010; Preston 2016). It is highly unlikely that business owners who are responsible for farming on this scale spend much time packing produce. And even if they did, the vast majority of the labor would still be done by the Latinx who overwhelmingly make up the California agricultural labor force.
Ocean Mist Farms, as depicted in Image 2, is also a large enterprise: they are the largest single grower of artichokes in the US, and grow in Arizona, Mexico, and four other regions of California in addition to the Salinas Valley (Anon n.d.-b). As such, they surely rely on Latinx farmworkers, despite the two kindly-looking white men featured on their billboard, and despite whatever their labor force may have looked like in the company’s early history.
Large scale, industrial farms are not the only agricultural enterprises that regularly depict white farmers while relying substantially on Latinx labor. Smaller farms, and especially organic ones, are often associated with white family farmers and/or fair labor conditions for workers. Image 4, painted by Dong Sun Kim, shows two white people surrounded by bountiful produce (Ha 2007). The billboard depicts a man and a woman standing closely together, the man pointing the way to the farm, and the woman leaning into the man. The image suggests a couple, and therefore a family farm. At their feet, the name of a farm is printed on the side of a box full of diverse produce. A quick internet search confirms that the people depicted are indeed a couple and the real-life owners of the farm in question. They are the third generation of their family to live on the property, they farm organically, and have farmed a relatively small 50-100 acres (Anon n.d.-a).
Like this couple, whites in the Salinas Valley billboards are usually painted in ways suggestive of a status as farmers or farm owners by being positioned standing, with farm branding, and/or without hand-tools – see also Images 2 and 3. Latinx are typically depicted actively laboring on the land, and are less likely to appear with farm branding unless they are painted doing the work of packing branded boxes – see Images 5, 6 and 7. This representation of farmers/farm owners as white and farm workers as Latinx fairly accurately represents reality. Although there are important exceptions to this trend (Jett 2020; Mihesuah and Hoover 2019; Minkoff-Zern 2019; White 2018), across the US farm owners are largely and disproportionately white and farmworkers are largely and disproportionately Latinx. This racialized distinction between farmers and farmworkers depends in part on systems put in place across history to use people racialized as “other” than white as the foundation of agricultural labor. But it also depends on other systems that prevented people of color from owning land themselves, or that disappropriated or discriminated against those who did (Daniel 2007; Jett 2020; Matsumoto 1993; Minkoff-Zern and Sloat 2017; Ng 2002).
Still, the billboard depicted in Image 4 constructs a white understanding of farming that belies the state’s largely Latinx labor force on not just conventional but also most organic farms. In addition to the makeup of the workforce, there are also the working conditions to consider. Although consumers often assume organic farms treat their workers better, organic farms cannot be assumed to have better labor practices than conventional farms; some do, but plenty of others do not (Getz, Brown, and Shreck 2008; Guthman 2014).
In obscuring the labor of Latinx workers, much of the Salinas Valley roadside agricultural art also does something more: it hides the larger economic context of racial capitalism. This concept draws attention to racism’s important role in American capitalism, which both produces and profits from racism as it has been enacted in wages, working conditions, immigration policy and labor protections, or the lack thereof (Baptist 2014; Du Bois 1999; Robinson 2005).
A vast array of different racialized groups provided the labor on which the agricultural economy depended across California history. Indigenous peoples formed the primary agricultural labor force from colonization until the mid 1850s; first those brought from what is now the Mexican state of Baja California, and after too many of them died en route, later from what is now California. Catholic missionaries were a leading edge of colonialism, and indigenous people were not allowed to leave the missions without permission. Those who fled were often tracked down and returned by soldiers, and sometimes whipped and jailed. They were neither paid for their work, nor could they typically own personal property, marry of their own accord, move about at night, or raise their own children. The status of Indigenous farmworkers changed little after Mexican Independence, when modern day California changed hands from Spain to Mexico in 1821, nor after it changed hands again to the United States in 1846 (Street 2004). Disease and genocide decimated Indigenous populations, and survivors fled farm work.
The Salinas Valley’s roadside agricultural art evokes the feel of small, mom-and-pop farm businesses. But the size of California agricultural enterprises was enormous almost from the start, set into place by Spanish and Mexican land policies that granted huge tracts of land to favored colonial elites (Daniel 1981). Farmworkers, not family members, provided the labor on the majority of California’s vast farms – California was one of the few places outside of the slave south in which farming was not largely a family effort (Street 2004). California agriculture was also firmly capitalist by the time it joined the United States, with few of the subsistence or semi-subsistence farms more prevalent elsewhere.
Workers from many other groups assumed the positions of the early indigenous farmworkers over time, including those from Asia (China, Japan, Korea, India, and the Philippines), Europe (Ireland, Germany, Britain, Italy, Portugal) and Latin America (Chile, Mexico, Central America), as well as Black workers from the US South and other American-born people (Daniel 1981; Street 2004; Walker 2004). To counter the organizing of existing workers, foreign born workers were brought in whenever possible in order to create an oversupply of labor that helped maintain low wages. Many were recruited from parts of the world suffering economic and social upheavals, and were often misled about the nature of the opportunities that would be available to them in California. Conditions of travel and life upon arrival were often harsh. Chinese workers were subject to mob violence and individual assaults by whites, some of whom were organized in parallel to the Ku Klux Klan through the Order of Caucasians (Street 2004).
Widespread Depression-era labor unrest ultimately extracted new labor protections from the federal government, but key reforms that created a national minimum wage and protected the right to unionize were denied to agricultural workers. This national carve-out was a result of a political deal made to appease Southern Democrats intent on preserving Jim Crow by blocking any possibility of improving the circumstances of the region’s mostly Black agricultural workers (Farhang and Katznelson 2005). Then, from 1942 to 1964, the Bracero program formalized the pattern of supplying plentiful foreign-born laborers at low wages – this time from Mexico. Close to five million people were issued short-term worker permits during the lifetime of the program, and others came without official paperwork (Mitchell 2012). The industrialization of agriculture also intensified during this period – poisons were increasingly applied to crops to control pests, and workers suffered the consequences (Walker 2004).
Ever since the Bracero era, California agricultural workers have remained predominantly Mexican. The latest wave of workers to occupy the bottom rungs of the agricultural work force are indigenous Mexicans whose numbers began to grow in the 1990s. Some speak neither Spanish nor English and are thus particularly vulnerable to abuse. Indigenous farmers are especially concentrated in Coastal California, of which the Salinas Valley is part (Mines, Nichols, and Runsten 2010).
Across all of this time, whites racialized agricultural workers to justify their exploitation, arguing that people of color were less susceptible to disease, and that particular racialized groups, which changed over time, were “naturally suited” to backbreaking agricultural work (Holmes 2013; Maldonado 2009; Omi and Winant 2015; Street 2004). White farm owners and politicians also racialized agricultural workers to build up social barriers between groups in order to make cross-racial organizing more difficult (Valdés 2011). As a result, since colonization farmworkers have worked under changing legal circumstances that have had them work without wages or have kept those wages low. These systems have been extraordinarily effective. In 2019, the state earned over $50 billion in cash receipts from agriculture, making it the leading agricultural state in the nation (USDA Economic Research Service n.d.). The devaluation of agricultural workers of color that many white farmers both benefited from and helped create enabled white agricultural capitalists to pay lower wages and provide worse working conditions than they might have otherwise, thus generating more profits. In other words, racial capitalism provided a foundation for California agriculture from its origins to the present day, even though at certain moments of history poor whites also formed significant parts of the exploited class of farmworkers.
The tendency for white farmers to be valorized and for people of color farmers and farmworkers to be obscured is deep and long-standing. But while most of the agriculturally themed Salinas Valley cut-out billboard murals depict white-presenting people, what makes the collection more interesting are the murals that call attention to Latinx farmworkers. The paintings of them are dignified and show them as contributors not only to the local economy, but also the global food supply. For example, in Image 5, a Latino worker carries a long length of irrigation pipe on one shoulder in front of text that reads, “Salinas Valley: Feeding Our Nation.” The mural connects Latinx agricultural labor to masculinity, pride of place and pride in farmworker contributions to the global food supply. These images uniquely stretch the Jeffersonian valorization of white farmers to include Latinx farmworkers as well. This is significant in light of the systemic erasure of farmworkers from the public imagination of agriculture (Alkon and McCullen 2011).
Returning to Althusser’s theory of ideology is useful here. In his accounts, ruling ideologies that support the status quo coexist with challenger ideologies that contest the status quo. But, ruling ideologies often incorporate parts of these challenger ideologies in ways that blunt their impact. As a result, ruling ideologies change over time, responding to changing political conditions in ways that sustain capitalism. Indeed, dominant agricultural ideologies in the US have changed over time in ways that parallel broader ideological change: from Jeffersonian agrarianism (Jefferson 1982), to white nostalgia (Adamkiewicz 2016; Maly et al. 2013; Mann 2008), to, most recently, symbolic multiculturalism (Gunderson 2021).[i]
Multiculturalism potentially functions as a challenger ideology, but, when reduced largely to symbolism, becomes another facet of ruling ideologies. The Latinx workers depicted in the Salinas Valley billboard art can be read as examples of symbolic multiculturalism, which showcases people of color without fundamentally challenging their (collectively) subordinate place in the economy. Symbolic multiculturalism can do more than simply fail to make things better – in depicting people of color as happy and empowered, it can actively undercut efforts to reduce racism by promoting the idea that racism no longer exists.[ii]
These outcomes can occur even when they are not the intention of the artist nor of the person commissioning the art. The first billboard cut-out people that artist Cerney created were commissioned by the owner of a local produce company to honor his workers, many of whom are Latinx, and to draw attention to their contributions to the food supply (Pogash 2005). As the farm owner says, “I was tired of people bad-mouthing agriculture… thinking everything comes out of a bag or carton. I was trying to show the community it takes a lot of people to grow food, that farming is a good occupation and that people work in the fields to produce good food for us” (Paris 1999). The figures were modeled on employees, and one was even painted to honor a specific worker who had been with the company for over fifty years on the occasion of his 80th birthday (see Image 1) (Cerney n.d.). The website of the company that commissioned and displays the 18-foot-tall murals describes the labor that each of the billboard people are conducting: thinning, harvesting, packing, and weighing boxes of harvested lettuce, as well as overseeing the irrigation and the farm as a whole. The billboards and website together educate the public about the specific, diverse skills need to accomplish the tasks required of farmworkers and farm managers (Anon n.d.-c).
Commentators quoted in press coverage of the billboard murals respond with enthusiastic endorsements, from the president of Salinas Valley Chamber of Commerce to a dean at nearby Hartnell College to a spokesperson for Salinas’s National Steinbeck Center (Garcia 2017; Paris 1999; Pogash 2005; Roth 2013). The latter says that the billboard murals “do what public art is supposed to do, it enriches the landscape visually and emotionally” (Pogash 2005). Journalists call the work empowering and heroic (Garcia 2017; Pogash 2005), or comment on the likeness between Cerney’s work and that of famed local author John Steinbeck, writing, “In a certain light, Cerney’s plywood figures are an extension of Steinbeck’s lifelong passion for giving voice to the voiceless” (Roth 2013). The only slightly sour note is sounded by the chair of the Visual and Public Arts Department at nearby California State University Monterey Bay, who notes that the murals do not show, “poor working conditions, illnesses from pesticides and bad housing,” which is “a whole other story that’s never told” (Pogash 2005). However, she is quoted as saying that this is because the farmer who commissioned the farmworker billboards is “positive and fair with his workers.”
Herein lies the crux of interpreting the Salinas Valley agricultural billboard art, and other images like it. The intent of the artist and the person who commissions the art matters, as do the labor practices of the farm owners who commission the work and the experiences of the workers depicted. But what is more significant is, first, the way the art will be read by the general public, who know little to nothing of these individual level details, and second, the structural conditions that continue to leave most farmworkers vulnerable to violence and abuse. Even if the farm owners who commission images of farmworkers are all fair-minded employers who go above and beyond existing labor law, the structurally vulnerable position of most farmworkers remains. This vulnerability is not accidental. It has been reproduced at great cost to farmworkers over and over across California history, via, in part, racial capitalism and the ideologies that support it. In sustaining exploitative agricultural economies, these ideologies work in tandem with Althusser’s repressive state apparatuses (1971): the Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcements, and the courts.
And, despite the above assertion that the farmworker murals give “voice to the voiceless,” this is not actually true. While the murals draw attention to the often-unacknowledged labor of farmworkers, they are painted by artists at the request of farm owners, not farm workers. The results depict a uniformly positive experience of farmwork, despite many farmworkers’ actual claims of difficult working conditions, low pay and abuse, and efforts to have their children enter occupations other than farmwork. None of the press coverage I found included any quotes from farmworkers. Rather, press coverage “gives voice” to the artists, the commissioning farm owners, and at times an array of other local business, cultural and educational leaders. In only one case were the opinions of farmworkers even tangentially referenced. Below, artist Cerney describes a conversation with the farmowner who first commissioned billboards depicting workers, showing how Cerney came to use real farmworkers as the models:
On his first commission, [the farmowner] said, “use your own people [as models].” I said “well, it’ll be more intimate, and you’ll get more of a kick out of it, if you use your own people.” So he relented and I used some of his farmworkers, and now, boy I hear stories of one of these guys who comes out here and cleans it off every couple of weeks, and they’re all proud of it, and it turns out to be a good thing. (Anon 2006)
Of all the existing coverage of the art that I found, this story told by the artist, as told to him by, presumably, the farmowner, is the closest thing to providing insight into farmworker reception of the art. Although the story could have been distorted as it was passed along from farmowner, to artist, to audience, there likely are indeed farmworkers who are pleased to be commemorated in art, or pleased to see images of other farmworkers so commemorated. But such a reception does not affect the billboards’ broader ideological impacts. Despite showcasing the role of Latinx farmworkers in the regional economy and the global food supply, the Salinas Valley agricultural murals also obscure the actual conditions in which much of this labor takes place.
What the images show is as important as what they do not show: sexual violence, hunger, injury, exposure to poisons, wage theft, labor regimes that profit from racial hierarchies which leave farmworkers vulnerable by design, and the threat of deportation imposed by a nation that cannot stomach their presence and yet cannot do without their labor. In Fresno County, the most agriculturally productive county in the country with $3.7 billion dollars of annual farm sales, nearly half of farmworkers go hungry (Brown and Getz 2011; Wirth, Strochlic, and Getz 2007). Farmworkers also suffer from multiple, layered health problems that evolve over time in response to pesticide exposure, stoop labor, injuries, violence, and inadequate health care (Holmes 2013; Saxton 2015). Many are part of binational families and remain separated from loved ones for long stretches of time; their opportunities to visit home involve dangerous crossings of the US border that risk their lives (Holmes 2013; De León 2015; Lopez 2007). Women, who make up 29% of California farmworkers (U.S. Department of Labor n.d.), are particularly at risk of sexual violence at work (Waugh 2010; Yeng and Rubenstein 2013). One Salinas Valley field is known among workers as the “field de calzón,” or “field of panties,” because of how many rapes take place there (Tamayo 2000). But the Salinas Valley billboards do not show these grim realities. Instead, the billboard workers often look happy, as in the smiling lettuce worker in Image 6 who is bent over in the form of stoop labor that has long debilitated farmworkers. Crucially, what also is not shown is farmworkers’ long history of collective organizing against these abuses. Rather, the billboard murals depict individual farmworkers contentedly going about their daily labor in the fields in ones, twos and threes, as in Image 7.
Though you would not know it from looking at the roadside agricultural imagery of the Salinas Valley, farmworkers consistently found ways to organize for improved working and living conditions across Spanish, Mexican and US rule. In the first 13 years of the 1900s alone, Japanese farmworkers created successful labor associations, Japanese and Mexican sugar beet workers struck in Oxnard, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or Wobblies) organized farmworkers known as bindlemen, and hop pickers staged the largest strike of farmworkers in California history at that time (it became known as known as “Bloody Sunday” or the Wheatland hop riot) (Street 2004). The Communist Party, Congress of Industrial Organizations, and the American Federation of Labor also all organized agricultural workers through the 1930s. California was a hot-spot: half of the more than 275 agricultural strikes of the 1930s took place there (Valdés 2011:6).
Although Braceros were brought to the US under conditions designed to limit their ability to organize for improved working conditions, they too undertook such efforts (Loza 2016). Mexican workers organized strikes starting in the very first year of the Bracero Program, 1942. Farmworkers kept striking through, among others, the DiGiorgio farm strike of 1947-1950, the Imperial Valley lettuce strike 1961, and the Delano grape strike of 1965. The latter led to the creation of the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), launching the farmworkers movement (Mitchell 2012; Valdés 2011). During the 1960s and 1970s, farmworkers increased their wages, improved working conditions, signed union contracts with employers that banned the use of highly toxic pesticides, strengthened pesticides regulation and helped legalize collective bargaining (Pulido 1996; Wells and Villarejo 2004). Other victories included banning the use of the short handled hoe, called el cortito, which required its users to damage their bodies by staying bent over as they used it, hour after hour, day in and day out (Jourdane 2004). However, many of these gains were later eroded as growers fought against their victories, as Republicans newly voted into public office in 1982 undermined their legislative victories, and as the UFW moved away from its early strategy of on-the-ground organizing (Wells and Villarejo 2004). Knowing this history is vital to developing the ability to see the ‘work’ that ideology does to deflect attention away from the long history of racial capitalism in agriculture, and the long history of resistance to it.
Although all ideology has a relationship to the economic order of the day, the Salinas Valley agricultural billboards have a particularly close relationship to the local economy. While the billboard murals are regularly described in the press as public art, they are also commercial. Many of the images advertise the businesses in question. In some cases this is explicit, as in Image 8, which uses nostalgic, old-timey imagery featuring a 1940’s era tractor and oversized artichokes, a regional specialty, to draw people into a roadside store. Indeed, several of the agricultural billboard murals, such as Image 4, have run into problems with the government resulting from conflicting opinions about whether the images were advertisements, which have size and location restrictions, or art (Anon 2006, Ha 2007; Chatfield 2018). In other cases, the billboards themselves are objects of interest. For example, Images 1, 6 and 7 are listed as attractions at the demonstration farm and visitor center where they are located. Indeed, several of the farms that display the murals run agritourism projects on their properties (corn mazes, pumpkin patches, etc.), and thus need to find ways to encourage visitors (see Image 4). Many of the murals sell an image of agriculture that benefits the farms in question by tapping into nostalgia for purportedly better, simpler times to generate visitors and sales.
Although Cerney says money is not that important to him and that he leads a simple lifestyle (Anon 2006), the practicalities of making a living as an artist still require finding a way to financially support the art. Cerney says, ruefully, “When I can do exactly what I want to do without anyone telling me, that’s what I really love to do. I wish money wasn’t a factor. I would do nothing but my own work, place it in the field, and if my bills were paid I would do nothing but that” (Anon 2017). Instead, as he says elsewhere, “I do a lot of farm stuff because I live here and people ask me to do that” (Paris 1999). Roth makes the connection between Cerney’s art and the regional economy more explicit: “Farm life holds no special appeal for [Cerney], but given that his plywood people are placed in fields and he’s based in one of California’s most profitable farming regions, farm paintings are the ones that bring him the most attention” (2013). Cerney speaks further to the impact of the commission process on subjects of his art, saying that early murals he did on the side of barns,
led to, eventually, people seeing your work and calling you, commercial businesses, “What can you do for me.” Because my work was realism. It was easy for the average person to take in and understand. My thought process, my way of working, was a little Norman Rockwellish, with a little sense of humor. Which everybody got, and everybody understood. So it was easy to sell to make a living doing that. So I got on that treadmill and started doing that. (Anon 2017)
Cerney’s explanations of the financial constraints on his art, and the commercial interests that have led to the creation of much of his agriculturally themed work, underscores the relationship between ruling ideologies and the economic systems in which they are enmeshed. Indeed, the murals are commissioned by people who can both afford the fee and either own or rent property on which to display the billboards, both of which tilt the art away from representing the ideas of poor people such as farmworkers. And given the long-established hostility of many farm owners to organized labor in the region (Flores 2016; Frank Bardacke 2011; Neubeurger 2013), depictions of farmworker organizing would not only not be commissioned by most farm owners, but to many would be unwelcome additions to the regional landscape.
Imagine, for example, artist Ester Hernández’s 1982 redesign of the famous “Sun Maid” raisin advertisement. The original advertisement features a young white woman wearing a red bonnet and holding a basket of grapes, referencing an Edenic agricultural environment, abundance, purity, and femininity. However, Hernández’s version features the harm experienced by grape workers. She replaces the fresh-faced girl with a skeleton that wears the same red bonnet and holds the same basket of grapes. Hernández’s text tells viewers that “Sun Mad” raisins are “unnaturally grown” with insecticides, miticides, herbicides and fungicides (Hutchison 2013). A subsequent image made in 2008, titled “Sun Raid,” recasts the original advertisement again, this time to critique workplace raids and the deportation of Mexican workers.
Or, consider Octavio Ocampo’s work, “Cesar Chavez: Portrait of La Causa,” which superimposes UFW leader Chavez over a landscape that could well be the Salinas Valley. An airplane sprays pesticides over skulls on one side of the valley, and crosses float above the mountains at the top of the image. The skulls and crosses represent harm and death to farmworkers, while on the other side of the valley, and showing through Chavez’s translucent face and body, are masses of farmworkers holding banners and signs, representing the farmworker movement. Such artistic representations underscore how far removed the Salinas Valley billboard art is from any critique of the agricultural industry. It is no accident that Hernandez and Ocampo’s paintings are displayed in museums rather than on the properties of commercial farming enterprises.
The Salinas Valley’s roadside agricultural imagery offers lessons bigger than their local impact. Some of them show that Jeffersonian agrarianism and white nostalgia continue to frame much of the public view of agriculture. Others show that even when these narratives are pierced with depictions of the nation’s Latinx agricultural workforce, just inserting into the public consciousness people whose contributions to society have been systematically minimized is not enough. American history is full of examples of workers who, when they are not erased, are depicted as happy in their circumstances or romanticized in other ways (think, for example, of the “happy slave” tropes present in so many depictions of plantation agriculture (2020)). Such depictions contribute to the continuation of exploitative labor regimes by associating the status quo with warm, happy feelings. As one admirer writes, “Every time I cruise by one of Cerney’s pieces, I think of the thousands of drivers and passengers locked in their cars. Suddenly, a purple and orange cow appears on a roadside field. Moods improve. Life seems simpler and easier. Even if it’s just for a moment. That, to my way of thinking, is the highest form of public art in public places” (Nordstrand 2014). This writer references a quirky mural of a multicolored cow as an example, but their comments also apply to the murals depicting the human components of agriculture – the farmers and farmworkers that make it all happen. But what is needed is not public art that reassures, but art that unsettles. Art that reifies old, romantic tropes of agricultural labor serves the ideological and commercial interests that have exploited farmworkers for centuries. What is needed is art that challenges ruling ideologies by centering workers’ interests rather than those of their employers.
Christopher Gunderson’s generous suggestions provided much of the theoretical framework of this paper. The author would also like to thank for their comments Ruben Espinoza, Rodney Green, Vernon Morris, Manuel Vallée, Lauren Richter, Christie McCullen, and participants in the fall 2019 “Currents: Humanities Work Now” series at the University of Maryland Baltimore County’s Dresher Center for the Humanities, at which an early version of this work was presented.
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[i] Christopher Gunderson provided this term as I have used it here. I have since found that there is also limited, overlapping use of the term in the published literature, used primarily to describe Canadian politics (Roberts and Clifton 1990).
[ii] Symbolic multiculturalism thus overlaps significantly with what other scholars have called color-blind racism, racism without racists, and multiracial white supremacy (Bonilla-Silva 2014; Omi and Winant 2015). All of these respond to claims of racism with surface-level improvements that allow some few people of color to rise to elevated social and economic positions without fundamentally challenging racism at its roots, thus sustaining overall racial inequality.
Tracy Perkins is an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University. She specializes in social inequality, social movements, the environment, agriculture and the politics of knowledge, and produces traditional written academic output as well as photography and digital humanities websites. Her book Evolution of a Movement: Four Decades of California Environmental Justice Activism (University of California Press, 2022) examines the political evolution of the California environmental justice movement from the 1980s to the mid 2010s. Dr. Perkins has degrees from UC Berkeley, UC Davis, and UC Santa Cruz, and previously worked as an Assistant Professor at Howard University. See more of her work at tracyperkins.org.
The following article references the exhibition and programming series Boom Oaxaca. Presented by Arte Américas and the Centro Binacional para el Desarollo Indígena Oaxaqueño, “Boom Oaxaca: Conversaciones de Campo a Campo” is an invitation to participate in local and transnational conversations around food sovereignty and Indigenous sovereignty as issues that uniquely converge in the Central Valley’s Oaxaqueño community. Boom Oaxaca is guided by the work of Narsiso Martinez and Tlacolulokos, who use self-representation and visibility as an act of political rebellion, and as an autonomous approach to an ownership of culture. Grounded in the context of both Oaxaca and California, these artists create images of often invisibilized spaces, and in turn demand attention and humanize the experiences of their community.The exhibit is open until August 14th, 2022 at Arte Américas, Fresno California. For more information visit: https://boomoaxaca.com/
To talk about Latinidad, migration, or invisibility, requires us to examine Indigenous migration from Abiayala (Latin America). When we consider Indigenous diasporas from Abiayala and across the Pacific, in addition to American Indians in the United States, California is one of three states with the largest Indigenous population. In the San Joaquín Valley, Ñuu Savi (Mixtecos) from Oaxaca and Triquis make up most of the Indigenous Mexican diaspora. Their migration and settlement patterns are due to Mexico opening to US foreign markets (1960s–1980s) that instituted agricultural reforms to seize communally owned lands throughout Oaxaca, largely ending self-sufficient farming. The restructuring of the market caused pricing of corn and other main crops to drastically fall, which then prevented small farmers and families in rural Mexico to compete with large-scale companies. As Indigenous Oaxacans were forced to migrate, large-scale farmers subsequently benefitted from agricultural reforms and sought cheap and skilled labor from those fleeing the Mixteca region, including Triquis and Zapotecs mostly from the Sierra Norte, to be hired in Veracruz, northern Mexico, such as Sinaloa, San Quintin, and other Baja California areas, and eventually the United States. With NAFTA, however, US contract recruiters sought Oaxacans as new immigrant cheap labor to supplant traditional migrant-sending rural communities from states like Michoacán, Jalisco, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosí, and Zacatecas who are largely non-Indigenous mestizos.
As the “Boom Oaxaca” exhibition seeks to make visible, Oaxacan migrants are predominantly Indigenous peoples who have settled in San Diego, Los Angeles County, Oxnard, Santa María, Bakersfield, Fresno, Madera, Watsonville, and Hollister. The US racialization process towards migrants from south of the border, unfortunately obscures their unique identity and culture. We are Indigenous peoples, not Latina/o or Hispanics. As Native peoples to the “Americas” relationship to land is tied to Indigenous world views, practices, and mutual existence that shapes how Indigenous Oaxacan diasporas make meaning to the lands we are guests/visitors on. Therefore, to talk about Indigenous Oaxacans in the United States requires us to rethink how we have historically been racialized in this country, how our racialization affects us, and how it benefits colonial structures who force us out of our Native land, while extracting natural “resources” that give life to all beings. Ñuu Savi, Triqui, Zapotec, Chinantecs, and other Indigenous Oaxacan generations throughout California, continue to organize across the US and Mexico border.
From grassroots efforts built in response to racial violence (“bullying”), labor injustices in the fields, living conditions in the US, to state repression in Oaxaca—particularly the horrific tortures, murders, and disappearances of teachers and allies during the 2006 uprising, and other unlivable conditions perpetrated and allowed under settler colonial governments—Oaxacans throughout California and in Mexico have never stopped organizing nor demanding justice. Grassroots cross-border organizations like the Frente Indígena de Organizaciones Binacionales (FIOB) have left their footprints for newer generations, and nonprofits like the Centro Binacional Para el Desarrollo Indígena Oaxaqueño (CBDIO), and the Mixtec Indígena Community Organizing Project (MICOP) have also enabled our visibility and our voice as Indigenous peoples by speaking against racial, cultural, and linguistic homogenization that affects both our self-determination and rights to existence as Indigenous peoples. Children of migrants who were brought as children or who were born in the United States are maintaining and constructing new ways in which as Indigenous Oaxacans we say, “still here,” “we do exist” and we continue to be Indigenous despite thousands of miles away from our ancestral homelands. From the FIOB youth to the Oaxacan Youth Encuentro (OYE), the Tequio Youth Group in Oxnard, Los Autónomos in the Central Valley, the OaxaCal student group at UC Berkeley, other youth-led Oaxacan collectives, cooperatives, including Oaxacans with a large social media presence, demonstrate how Indigeneity is neither static nor is it detached from homeland or collective existence. Being Ñuu Savi, Triqui, Zapotec is a complex interplay between land, memory, survival, and relational being.
This space (not a place) that Oaxacans refer to as Oaxacalifornia, a term coined by anthropologist Michael Kearney, takes many shapes and reflects both the violent and nonviolent experiences Oaxacans generations have confronted. As younger generations come of age, however, they increasingly reflect how their unique position as Indigenous guests on Native land informs their interactions with the Native people whose lands they are guest on. In her work with relocated American Indians and Indigenous Oaxacans in Silicon Valley, Renya K. Ramírez (Winnebago/Ojibwe), refers to this coexistence as “Native Hub.” For Ramírez “Native Hub” is a collective network of support relocated American Indians and Indigenous Oaxacan migrants create using their knowledge, cultural, social, and political processes to build intracommunity belonging away from home. As a growing field of study, Critical Latinx Indigeneities (CLI) privileges Indigenous diasporas from “Latin America” in scholarly work by considering social, political, cultural, religious, and other forms of collective Indigenous practices in the US. Since its formation in 2013, Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars—long dedicated with Indigenous migrants—take on a critical analysis that considers Indigenous diasporas’ unique position as guests on Native land and settler colonial interventions across Abiayala. In doing so, CLI scholars have added to the complexities of Latinidad, Chicanidad, and mestizaje.
The art presented by Zapotec artists Narsiso Martínez and the Tlacolulokos bring together diverse Indigenous Oaxacan experiences in the San Joaquín Valley of California. Based on self and community representation, they portray a plurality of Oaxacan migrant experiences spanning the Central Valley and Los Angeles County. Martínez, who was born in Oaxaca and migrated to California at the age of twenty, represents the hard labor of Oaxacan migrants working in the fields. Unique to his style is the use of produce boxes, rather than canvas, which he gathers himself from local grocery stores. With the use of these recycled boxes, he gives greater meaning not only to those who help produce what they hold, but to everyday consumers who seldom think of the people exposed more than eight hours a day to scorching heat waves and pesticides. As a former farmworker himself, Martínez began working in the fields as a young kid. During college, he returned to work in the fields to pay for his tuition. His story, however, is not his alone—many Oaxacan children raised in the Central Valley have had similar experiences, including some of the organizers and contributors to this exhibition and those they grew up with, such as members of the CBDIO and FIOB Fresno.
Young Oaxacans in the fields and at school face endless anti-Indigenous discrimination by the larger non-Indigenous Mexican community they grew up alongside. This discrimination, at times being physical violence, frequently targets Oaxacans who speak their Native language in public, have darker skin and other bodily stereotypical features, and simply for “looking Indigenous.” For example, take the 2012 campaign, “No Me Llames Oaxaquita” (“Don’t Call Me Little Oaxacan”), where Indigenous Oaxacans organized to demand the Ventura County School District ban the derogatory term “Oaxaquita” and “Indito” (little Indian) from their schools after incessant ridicule and bullying. Yet this case, which received international news, is not new—it has been happening since the first wave of Oaxacan children, many of whom are now in their late forties and fifties in Los Angeles. Through his art, Martínez demonstrates his own experience as a former field worker, which is often the experience of many other Oaxacan youth in the US.
Similarly, Dario Canul and Cosijoesa Cernas, two Zapotec men from the Tlacolula-based art collective known as the Tlacolulokos, show a multitude of Oaxacan urban experiences in their murals. Particularly, they capture the experiences and emotions between different urban landscapes that Oaxacan migrants cross (Los Angeles and now Fresno) and those they leave behind (mostly the Central Valleys of Oaxaca and more recently the Sierra Juárez). Like Martínez, the portraits they draw have names, are living, and not made up. They express sadness, longing, happiness, rebellion, thoughtfulness, firmness, and seriousness. More than a simple mixture in art, they bring the nostalgia and impact on traditions that migration has had on Oaxacans by displaying the portraits with tattoos, piercings, baggy jeans, blue LA Dodger baseball caps, white T-shirts, and Nike Cortes, while merging them with the traditional clothes and hairdos of the pueblos, alongside a wind instrument like a trumpet.
Although Cernas and Canul have never migrated to California, through conversations they record on both sides of the border, they are able to understand the difficulty migrants express of living and working hard in the US to barely get by, while attempting to send remittances to their loved ones. Meanwhile, those who stay in the pueblos feel the everyday pain of having their child, husband, parent, or sibling del otro lado (on the other side) wondering when, and if at all, they will see each other due to their immigration status. One of their mural panel displays from their 2017 exhibition, “Visualizing Language: Oaxaca in Los Angeles,” states, “Donde quiera que vayas” (wherever you may go), which makes homage of all generations in diaspora that we have not forgotten where we come from, even if we were not born there. Their identity and love for their pueblos is ours too—we continue to be communally invested in and with our pueblos and relatives back in the hometown. In other words, we live, embody, and in multiple ways continue our traditional practices with our pueblos.
These multiple forms of practices are rooted in Indigenous ways of being described as comunalidad, according to Ayuujk intellectual, Floriberto Díaz Gómez (1951–1995) from Tlahuitoltepec Mixe, and Zapotec intellectual, Jaime Martínez Luna (b. 1951) from Guelatao in the Sierra Juárez. Comunalidad are practices rooted in the community’s collective wellbeing. They are run by, for, and with the community. These communal practices happen through dances, playing in the Oaxacan brass bands, harvesting, and taking on a cargo (position) in our usos y costumbres (Indigenous customary law)municipalities and its agencies, especially for pueblos of the Sierra and Mixteca region that still practice multiple communal ways of life, and do not have electoral politics or political parties.
As Indigenous peoples in the United States, our comunalidad practices and beliefs of “doing for the good of the people” have also been used in demanding that our rights be respected. Most recently, the killing of Zapotec youth, Gerardo Martínez Chávez, by the Salinas (Monterey County) police has sparked outrage among the community. The ongoing murders and brutality by the police against Brown and Black unarmed men for crimes they did not commit. However, Indigenous men, mostly from Latin America, like that of Mr. Martínez Chávez and Maya Ki’che’ day laborer Manuel Jamines Xum, shot and killed by the LAPD in 2012, have made it all too clear that Indigenous peoples continue to be invisible beyond the countries they came from. Both men’s language was their Native Zapotec and Maya, respectively, and therefore community organizers and other human rights advocates argue that they did not understand the English or Spanish commands of the officers nor were they offered a translator. Under federal law, any public agency receiving federal money, like a hospital, clinic, or police station, is required to have a translator available for the person in question, regardless of legal status. Organizations throughout California, like that of the Centro Binacional Para el Desarrollo Indígena Oaxaqueño, the Frente Indígena de Organizaciones Binacionales, the Mixteco Indígena Community Organizing Project, and the Comunidades Indígenas en Liderazgo have begun to provide interpreting services for Indigenous Oaxacan migrants, and others as well, throughout the country.
As a space in which multiple Indigenous Oaxacan voices come together with allies, “Boom Oaxaca” attempts to make visible distinctive and common ground experiences as Ñuu Savi, Triqui, Zapotec, and other Indigenous Oaxacans. Like the artists themselves, the portraits, Indigenous organizations and sponsors of the exhibition, and academics who are Zapotec, we say invisible no more! We continue to exist and be Indigenous! To intentionally map ourselves in these spaces is to resist settler colonial erasure inside and outside Latinidad, Chicanidad and mestizaje. Like Indigeneity, Oaxacans are diverse, have held fluid identities to survive elimination, and have complex realities that cannot be singly defined, but do require the creation of “comfortable spaces to have uncomfortable conversations” about Indigeneity, nationalism, racial violence, even if others may not want to listen or brings up critiques of Indigenous appropriation. As Indigenous peoples, responsibility and respect are a comunalidad process among each other as pueblos originarios (original pueblos/peoples). Many Oaxacan generations in diaspora are still closely related to our respective pueblos. These same Indigenous communal values of respect for the land and its peoples are now part of our relationship building with the Native peoples on whose land we are guests throughout California. To our Indigenous Oaxacan communities and relations, we give thanks—Yoshxleno!
~ A Zapoteca mother & scholar, Brenda Nicolas (Sierra Norte).
Dr. Brenda Nicolas (Bene Xhiin, Zapotec) is Assistant Professor in Global Studies at UC Irvine where her work looks at the transborder communal experiences of Zapotec diasporas in Los Angeles. Dr. Nicolas received her PhD in Chicana/o and Central American Studies (UCLA). She has an M.A. in Chicana/o Studies (UCLA) and an M.A. in Latin American Studies from UC San Diego. She holds a B.A in Sociology and Latin American Studies from UC Riverside. She lives in LA and enjoys spending time outdoors with her son and husband.
La Dra. Brenda Nicolás (Bene xhiin, zapoteca) es Profesora Asistente en la facultad de Estudios de Globalidad en UC Irvine donde su trabajo analiza las experiencias comunitarias transfronterizas de las diásporas zapotecas en Los Ángeles. La Dra. Nicolás recibió su doctorado en Chicana/o y Estudios Centroamericanos (UCLA) donde también completó una Maestría. Tiene una Maestría en Estudios Latinoamericanos de UC San Diego y recibió una licenciatura en Sociología y Estudios Latinoamericanos de UC Riverside. Vive en Los Ángeles y le gusta pasar tiempo en las afueras con su hijo y esposo.
One day in fall of 2019, my family and I made one of our frequent trips along the winding pastoral roads of West Marin to spend a day hiking to the beach. The early morning air was cool, the California Buckeye had lost their leaves and the Big Leaf maple were turning shades of orange, red, and yellow. We passed several pelotons of bicyclists, cohorts of motorcycles enjoying the curves, and then a string of fifteen bright-colored Lamborghinis raced by. When we arrived in Point Reyes Station, the town bustled with people drifting from the bookstore to the bakery to the specialty food stores. As on most weekends, groups of cyclists in Lycra and bikers in leather collected on the sidewalk to enjoy a fresh scone and a coffee, and Porsches outnumbered pickups.
West Marin—the northwestern corner of Marin County—is only an hour from San Francisco and East Bay cities. Despite its proximity to the urban metropolis, it feels remote, and two-lane coastal or country roads are the only access routes. It is rural in appearance—mostly ranchlands and small towns whose physical landscape gives few clues of a gentrified population—but it is no longer the relatively isolated agricultural area it once was. West Marin is experiencing profound socioeconomic changes that are reflective of the landscape of growing wealth and expanding poverty across the Bay Area.
Rising global inequality, the global housing crisis, and the epidemic of foreclosures put the spotlight on gentrification in cities around the world. Gentrification is often thought of as an urban phenomenon, yet in Northern California, what’s happening in rural Marin County—where there is gaping income inequality and a severe housing squeeze—is an essential part of the bigger picture of gentrification in the San Francisco Bay Area as a whole. It illuminates the complex interrelationships between urban and rural areas—and how they give rise to and are intertwined with each other.
Over several decades, as the technology industry has transformed the Bay Area, the influx of people and capital into urban areas has played an important role in shaping rural West Marin: recreation and agricultural tourism, both in part initiated and cultivated by urbanites, draw tourists from surrounding areas; second-home owners and short-term rentals have driven housing prices up and removed rental units from the housing market. But while stories about gentrification often disproportionately focus on the in-migration of wealth and the displacement of working class communities, in doing so, they overlook another critical aspect of gentrification: dual migration, or the in-migration of workers who come to meet the needs of the service economy. Several streams of in-migrants have made West Marin what it is today, but the Mexican immigrants and their Mexican American families who began to arrive in the 1960s are those who sustain the agricultural and tourist economies of gentrifying West Marin.
Migration to West Marin
Before European explorers and Mexican settlers arrived in West Marin, Coast Miwok people lived in the area for thousands of years. Shellmounds date the history of Coast Miwok people in Marin to 5,000 years ago, while oral histories date the lineage as twice as long. More than 100 villages, some with several hundred inhabitants, dotted the point’s sloping mesas, the shores of Drakes Estero, and the hills across Tomales Bay.
The earliest non indigenous settlers in Marin County were known as Californios, families who had received land grants from Spain and Mexico in the late 1700s and early 1800s. In the mid-1800s, immigrants from all over the world flooded to California during the Gold Rush; many who came to make their fortune from gold discovered that ranching would be more profitable than mining, as demand for local products grew with the great influx of forty-niners to San Francisco. Irish, Swiss-Italian, and Portuguese immigrants found their way to West Marin, where they ran dairy ranches. Chinese laborers also ended up in West Marin, building the narrow-gauge railroad that would run between Sausalito and Sonoma County, up the east shore of Tomales Bay; many Chinese settled and worked on potato and dairy ranches and as cowboys or fishermen. Later, in the early 1900s, Japanese families started farms on the peninsula, until they were interned in prison camps in the 1940s.
In the nineteenth century, West Marin’s year-round grasses and cool maritime temperatures made it the most productive dairy land in California. By the late 1800s, it was a center of agricultural production for San Francisco, which, as a result of the Gold Rush, had become a financial hub of the state. Wealthy families from the city retreated to summer residences in West Marin, beginning a tradition of second homes in the small coastal towns. In the 1920s, some urbanites began to commute from West Marin to jobs in the city. By the 1950s, some summer people had retired to their vacation homes and lived there year-round. West Marin towns also appealed to artists, who were drawn by the scenery as well as the quiet lifestyle and still relatively cheap land. Socially and politically, West Marin was a conservative area, comprised mostly of ranchers and others involved in agriculture, along with a smattering of artists, retirees, and summer residents.
In 1962, Point Reyes National Seashore was established and began to attract visitors from the nearby urban centers of the Bay Area. Over time, a small tourist industry around outdoor recreation took hold. Also beginning in the 1960s, back-to-the-land hippies began to arrive, fundamentally changing West Marin and bringing the social and political flavor associated with West Marin today. “It was the people who came in the 1960s and ‘70s who made it liberal,” one long-time resident told me. The members of the 1960s counterculture did more than bring different politics and professions; they also founded some of the essential community institutions, including the community center, the health clinic, and the radio station.
Another stream of migrants began to arrive around the same time as the counterculture, with as significant an influence, though less visible: Mexican immigrants who first came to work on the dairy ranches. In the decade after the seashore was protected, surrounding agricultural land was also protected, through a county zoning mandate and—a few years later—a successful agricultural land trust. As a result, unlike in many rural gentrifying areas, agriculture maintained its hold in West Marin. In order to compete with industrial agriculture in the rest of California, Marin’s small family ranches found ways to connect to the growing foodie culture of the Bay Area. Beginning in the early 2000s, an agricultural-based tourist economy flourished; West Marin increasingly became a destination for tourists and second-home owners, not only because of its natural beauty and protected seashore, but also because of its local food economy and agricultural attractions.
Camilo Hermosillo is said to have been the first Mexican immigrant to settle in West Marin. He came to the United States with the Bracero program in 1952, but later returned to Mexico. In 1964, he made his way to the Marin/Sonoma border, where he found work on a dairy ranch. Hermosillo was from Jalostotitlán (Jalos), a town in the Mexican state of Jalisco. Others from Jalos soon followed him and found work on the dairy ranches as milkers. Point Reyes became the primary destination for the Mexican immigrants from Jalostotitlán, and an extended network of migrants from Jalos and surrounding villages began to settle in West Marin.
The local newspaper estimated that in the early 1970s, the Spanish-speaking population in West Marin was 300 and that by the early 1980s, it had tripled. One immigrant who arrived in the 1980s told me that when she came, “only the people who worked on the farms were Latino. So it was very hard to see any Latinos working at the Palace Market [local grocery store] or at hotels.” Over time, two things changed: the young men who immigrated from Mexico began to bring their wives and girlfriends and start families in West Marin; and the need for more service workers grew as visitors to the area increased and the tourist economy expanded.
Over the next few decades, immigrants from Mexico continued to come for jobs on the dairies. Others found work on oyster farms in Tomales Bay. Family members found work in West Marin towns—in restaurants, lodging, stores, housekeeping, and landscaping. As the children of Mexican immigrants have grown up in West Marin, fluent in English and with the opportunity to go to school and continue with higher education, second- and third-generation Mexican Americans have gone on to find jobs with the National Park Service, in schools and banks, pharmacies, and other professions. “Now you will see Latinos working in every corner of this area.”
Mexicans and their Mexican American families have been critical to sustaining the agricultural and tourist economies. They have also transformed West Marin—in workforce, school population, and community presence—yet they face difficulties that are accentuated by gentrification, including lack of housing, food insecurity, invisibility in the workplace and misunderstanding on the part of the Anglo community.
In West Marin, gentrification—in-migration of upper-income residents, displacement of workers, and the increasing gap between housing prices and wages—has gone hand-in-hand with the preservation of agriculture, and agriculture itself has become gentrified. The productive landscape and its products are principal amenities, drawing visitors and amenity migrants who romanticize and consume them as much as the scenic vistas, beaches, kayaking, and hiking opportunities in the national seashore.
But agricultural labor, mostly done by Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans, is largely invisible to the tourists who come for ranch and farm tours, and to others who consume the specialty cheeses and grass-fed meats produced in West Marin. Publicity for ranches and farms, local foodie tours, and websites about local farming and culinary attractions all praise the hard work of ranching families and farmer-owners, but wage laborers are rarely, if ever, mentioned. One website written by a self-described “passionate advocate for sustainable agriculture, artisan food producers, and craft beverage makers” posts recipes, articles about heirloom vegetables and local farmers markets, and stories about local ranchers and artisan cheese- and cidermakers. She describes the people she writes about as: “…farmers [who] are passionate and committed in everything they do. Many come from families that have worked the land for generations; others have left traditional careers in search of a simpler, more authentic existence. All of them feel a connection to the earth that threads to their core.”
Similarly, publicity for a local food and farm tour company quotes a rancher and cheesemaker as describing her favorite part of her “job” as “working in the cheese room, especially in the early morning while the [animals] are being milked next door in the parlor.” When I spoke with the rancher, I asked her to tell me about her employees who do the milking and cheesemaking. She described to me her first employee, a Mexican immigrant who lives in a manufactured home on the ranch with his wife and two adult sons—both of whom work in restaurants. “We learned [our animals] together,” she told me, indicating how important this worker is to her operation. She later hired another full-time employee, a Mexican man who lived in a low-rent apartment in Petaluma with other day laborers. She described him as an “awesome worker”—he worked six days a week for four years, never missed a day and never arrived a minute late. He drove 30 minutes each way and sometimes worked a split shift. Employees like these, and their work, are not mentioned in the glossy spreads that idealize the work of the family rancher.
Workers are also often left out of community conversations about local agriculture. I spoke with one resident who described to me a series of conversations, over the course of a year, about agricultural sustainability. He recounted his attempts to convince the steering committee that workers should be included in the conversation, and the committee’s response that it would be too controversial. “It was very frustrating. We all say Marin is the most progressive place in the world, but sustainability is on the back of the workers.”
Similarly, in 2009 a local bookstore made “farming and the rural life” the focus of the “Geography of Hope” conference, an annual event that “gathers leading writers and activists together for a feast of readings, discussions, and activities to inspire and deepen an understanding of the relationships between people and place.” Though the theme was agriculture, labor was not one of the topics. Before the symposium, someone anonymously put posters all over the town of Point Reyes Station calling into question the sustainability of West Marin farms and ranches. The posters were titled, “Whose Geography of Hope” and asked, “what about farm labor?” It publicized that some agricultural laborers “live in broken down trailers with moldy walls, old wiring, and cesspools,” and that “nearly half the families coming to the Point Reyes Food Pantry are Latinos who work and live on local organic farms and dairies.” The poster went on to say:
“Know the Hands That Feed You” the advertising goes… Those hands are brown. They are the hands of campesinos …who dig the soil; birth, feed, and milk the cows; …make the local artisan cheeses; and seed, harvest, shuck, and pack the shellfish for your gourmet feasts. These men, women, and children are not on the promotional posters. They are nowhere to be seen on the farm tours…
A good deal of recent literature exposes the dark side of local and organic agriculture, including food insecurity among agricultural workers and the exploitation of workers who produce supposedly safer and healthier food. It makes clear the link between worker exploitation and their existence “in the shadows.”
A social worker in West Marin said to me, “When workers are invisible, you can do anything you want with them.” Removing workers from the public face of gentrified agriculture makes hiding working conditions easier: housing, long commutes, complicated worker-employer relations, and difficult access to food are all “invisible” parts of the of the idyllic pastoral scenes and delicious local food that draw tourists and second-home owners to West Marin.
Affordable housing in West Marin (a detour)
Resistance to development is ubiquitous in affluent suburbs throughout the Bay Area and across the nation, but Marin County residents are particularly fierce in their opposition, especially to multi-unit and affordable housing. Every seven years, the state of California calculates a Regional Housing Need Allocation (RHNA) based on projected population growth. For the 2007 to 2014 cycle, the Bay Area issued permits for only 57 percent of the 214,500 units the state mandated. Marin County issued permits for only 32 percent of the units required by the RHNA, lower than all other Bay Area counties. In recent years, Marin residents have rejected several proposals for projects that would have provided low-income housing in the county, citing concerns about traffic, water supply, impacts on schools, loss of open space, and “community character.” While developing more housing units is complicated by institutional and infrastructure factors, for the most part, these concerns are smokescreens for simple racism and classism.
All of these things come into play in unincorporated West Marin, where the housing crisis is felt even more acutely than in the rest of the county. Institutional factors (zoning, Coastal Commission regulations, costs imposed by the county) and geographic and infrastructure factors (septic systems, water availability, and transportation limitations) create obstacles that are real limitations to development. In addition, land conservation has not only reduced available acreage, but even more importantly, has made West Marin a desirable place to visit and to live, which both raises prices and directs supply toward short-term rentals. It has also given rise to a community with a strong vision of what the physical and demographic landscape should look like, a community that aims to influence development in both formal (e.g., county development regulations) and informal (e.g., community pressure) ways.
The large low-wage workforce necessary to maintain the economy in West Marin accentuates the need for affordable housing, and second-home owners and short-term rentals dominate the housing rental market and capture the supply. Adding to the lack of housing is the imbalance in wages and housing costs. Earnings in the agricultural and service sectors are not sufficient to pay for housing in West Marin. Within Marin County (which is a notoriously high earning county), West Marin has some of the lowest median personal earnings. The census tract that encompasses Point Reyes Station, Nicasio, Tomales, and Dillon Beach has a median income of $32,280. Nearby Bolinas and Stinson Beach were slightly lower, at $31,766, and Olema and Inverness slightly higher, at $33,037. The median personal income in all of West Marin in 2012 was $32,000. Other Marin County towns are at the other end of the spectrum: the median personal income in Tiburon is $80,595; in Mill Valley it is $75,808, Ross is $64,378. When broken down by race, Latino earnings countywide average just under $23,800, whereas the median personal income for whites countywide is $51,000.
One woman who works in social services in West Marin told me that even though workers generally earn more than minimum wage, it’s not enough. “I don’t think anyone pays minimum wage in the area… , I have to be honest. They pay above. But people are making $12 an hour.” An income of about $3000 a month or less is normal for a Latino family of two wage earners in West Marin, but for a family of four, rents are about $3000. “No one can afford the rents compared to the incomes—it’s a huge gap.”
Housing for agricultural workers
For agricultural workers, housing has been precarious for several decades. In the 1980s, Mark Dowie, West Marin resident and investigative journalist, wrote an exposé for the San Francisco Examiner Magazine on the miserable conditions of ranch worker housing in West Marin. “On many, although not all the ranches, housing quality was pretty terrible…trailers mostly, some hooked up to water via a garden hose and with inadequate sewage disposal.” It was common to see raw sewage around the houses. At that time, unlike on the dairy ranches today, workers were charged rent for their housing, although they were paid minimum wage—about $3 per hour at that time. In addition, workers had little recourse to improve conditions; ranchers had agreed among themselves not to hire workers away from each other, making workers essentially indentured laborers.
Since then, many ranches have made improvements. However, over three decades later, housing for ranch workers continues to be difficult to obtain, is often in poor conditions, and puts workers in a vulnerable position. The problem is multifaceted—related to the high cost of housing in West Marin and the lack of availability, and inadequate housing conditions, and compounded by the fact that many workers are undocumented—making them more vulnerable.
Most dairies provide on-site housing because ranches tend to be far from other housing options and milking hours are demanding: milkers usually have two shifts, one beginning at three or four a.m. and another beginning midday. Many ranch workers prefer to live on the ranches where they work rather than commute long distances to work. But too often, despite the improvements, ranch housing means overcrowded, unpermitted units, and substandard conditions. Many units are “under the radar”—in garages, barns, commercial spaces, or recreational vehicles. In addition, ranch housing is important not just for the workers who are essential to the agricultural economy of West Marin, but also for family members who are indispensable to other sectors of the economy, as they may work in restaurants, markets, bakeries, landscaping companies, and other jobs in towns throughout West Marin. Often families squeeze into on-ranch housing so as not to separate the family, or because rents are so high for other units. Despite its problems, ranch housing is one of the few affordable options in West Marin.[xxxii]
Ranches that are on national seashore land add another element to the housing crunch for workers in West Marin. When Point Reyes National Seashore was created, it became the first national park to allow agriculture within its boundaries—still a controversial decision. Ranching families continued operations under a special permit called “Reservation of Use and Occupancy” (RUO). Many RUOs have now expired and have become “lease permits,” which still allow ranching, but do not allow ranchers to provide housing to people who are not working for their ranch. From the community’s perspective, it’s a “slap in the face” when the park cracks down on ranches that provide housing.
Many people feel that the housing crisis in West Marin has been aggravated by the loss of housing on NPS land in recent years. Dairy rancher Albert Straus (his ranch is in Marshall, not on NPS land), has been active in speaking out about the lack of housing for ranch and other local workers, and the repercussions for the community. With the help of local historian Dewey Livingston, Straus documented the housing units lost on NPS and state park properties in the last 50 years—far beyond loss of housing on ranches due to permit changes. They tallied about 135 structures that had served as homes that the park service either removed or abandoned beyond repair. Because creating new housing in West Marin is so difficult, making better use of existing housing is often the best chance for increasing the housing stock, but by doing away with park housing, the NPS is removing existing housing. The loss of housing on ranches affects not just ranch workers, but also often other local workers, and often means displacement for a whole family.
With housing so difficult to find, many residents don’t complain about substandard conditions or report them to the authorities, for fear of finding themselves with no housing at all. Agricultural workers, many of whose housing is tied to their work, and who may be undocumented, can be even more reticent to complain, as they could find themselves without housing or work. People often end up feeling grateful that they have housing, a social worker told me, since they aren’t paying out-of-pocket—even though it may be in terrible condition. But the housing isn’t “free,” she points out. The cost of housing is reflected in the reduced salary of the workers.
Workplace housing can generate not only a sense of unwarranted gratefulness, but also tangible worker vulnerability: if ranch workers lose their job, they lose their whole community. Several interviewees described having to leave West Marin because of a disagreement or dispute with a boss or co-worker in an on-site housing situation. Undocumented workers are especially vulnerable, and many agricultural workers in West Marin are undocumented immigrants or have family members who are undocumented. Even families who have been here many years are sometimes undocumented. One person told me: “I can tell you that there are families who have been living here twenty years and don’t have their papers, and I think that ranches take advantage of those employees. Not all ranches. There are a few that are better, provide a decent place to live.”
Low-income workers in West Marin not only struggle with housing more than others in the community, but also with access to healthy and affordable food. In 2015 the Marin Food Policy Council explored equitable access to food in the county and identified West Marin as a top priority for where to focus their food security efforts. The size of West Marin (over 50 percent of the county in land mass) and the sparseness of the population make getting to the grocery store difficult because of travel time and the cost of gas. Low-income families have to shop less frequently (once a month), which means that they have to purchase mostly packaged food. But offerings in West Marin are limited. Local markets (including a small supermarket in Point Reyes Station, and several small markets in Inverness, Inverness Park, and other nearby towns) stock food that is not well matched to the needs or incomes of families in West Marin: they carry few staples—and those that they do stock are expensive, because of the stores’ own costs. The council also found that the food sold in Point Reyes Station, Marshall, Inverness, and other West Marin towns, rather than serving locals, caters to a bifurcated tourist market: either people who are recreating in the area, usually camping or traveling along the coast in an RV, and looking for lower-priced, easy-to-prepare meals; or travelers or second-home owners who are looking for high-end foodie-type foods, like locally produced artisan cheeses, specialty crackers, cured meats, and fruit preserves. The council also found an overabundance of alcohol, tobacco, and junk food in West Marin stores.
Another barrier to eating well for low-income families in West Marin is that many stores do not accept (or are not even aware of) food assistance programs. The council found that not all grocery stores in West Marin accept CalFresh (California’s version of SNAP, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). At the time of the study, no stores in West Marin accepted WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) (though several thought they did). Many low-income families rely on WIC and not being able to use it at any West Marin grocery stores also means longer drives to buy food.
The barriers to access to healthy food in West Marin mean that ranch and farm workers are not able to eat or feed to their families the food that they produce. It is particularly striking—though not unusual—in an area celebrated for quality ingredients, boutique artisanal production, and sustainable agriculture that the workers not only can’t afford to eat what they produce, but also have difficultly accessing healthy and affordable food. While this difference between low-income and high-income residents reflects the particulars of gentrification in West Marin, it is a widespread phenomenon among agricultural workers in locations all over the United States.
Tensions in the community
Several people I talked to in West Marin described the community as made up of three primary segments: ranchers, newer arrivals (hippies, ex-hippies, second-home owners, and others), and Latinos. A Mexican immigrant who has worked with the community since the 1980s told me: “I see three groups here: the ranchers, who are fairly conservative; the newcomers—hippies, and those who bought property after; and the Latinos. Among the Latinos, there are two groups: one that works on the ranches and another that works in the hotels and food services.” She described her sense of the relations between ranchers and Latinos and newcomers and Latinos: “The ranchers, normally, don’t participate in any event—or haven’t until now participated in any of the community events that I’ve coordinated or that I’ve seen. Not one rancher.” She described their sense of power as the boss, the employer, as pervading relationships and impeding social interactions and went on to say that “with the community of newcomers and the hippie community, they accept more the [Latino] community” and support attempts to bring together Anglos and Latinos. “And then there are others who have been here for a long time…in Inverness or Point Reyes and they are the ones who support the most the Latino movement. Definitely, they are the most involved, or at least they are working so that there is more friendliness.” Other community members commented on how segregated the community is. One non-Latino who moved from California’s Central Valley, where there is a large Latino population and agricultural sector, observed that compared to her experience there, “this place is surprisingly segregated in its white and Latino life.”
Tensions over class and ethnic background are not explicitly stated, but often pervade interactions among community members. A recent criticism from the Anglo establishment demonstrated the gulf between the communities. Ostensibly with the intention of being inclusive, many began to complain that Latinos do not participate as members of the Board of Directors for the numerous non-profits in West Marin. To the Latinos I spoke with, this demonstrates a myopic view of what integrating Latinos into the community might mean and is an unrealistic starting point for doing so. Many Latinos are commuting long distances or are working more than one job to afford a rental in West Marin. Many have children. Many, because of their level of education and facility with English, are not comfortable with the idea of being on a board with highly educated Anglos. Even Latinos who were born and grew up here, one interviewee told me, are often reticent to participate in the community. “They’ve gone to school here… And you wouldn’t believe it, but there’s an idea that ‘I don’t speak well.’” The sense of insecurity, she believes, is rooted in cultural and linguistic differences. “It’s not that they don’t speak well… Our Latino community uses a lot of Spanglish, our Anglo community doesn’t. So that’s the difference.”
Another Latino resident from Puerto Rico, who has been active in the Anglo and Latino communities and has served on many boards, told me that his experience has been different from most Mexican immigrants in part because he hasn’t had the difficulties of citizenship and documentation. Apart from most Latinos having other more immediate concerns, he told me, if people cared about Latinos, they would not want to put them in situations in which they wouldn’t be comfortable.
Prejudices emerge in other ways as well. One woman I spoke with told me that she is surprised how patronizing toward the Latino community the board members of an affordable housing group have been. Their comments reveal at best unfamiliarity with the Latino community, and in many cases, deeper discrimination and often defensiveness. In interviews, several non-Latinos expressed ignorance about the Latino community and little idea of how to overcome what they see as a cultural gulf. One non-Latino told me that it’s difficult to know who to approach within the Latino community and how to approach them. She said that it wasn’t for lack of trying that the two communities remain separate, “but there is a gulf there and people are unsure of how to reach across cultures.” For her, the Latino community is hard to reach, especially since she doesn’t speak Spanish. “The Latino community can be opaque,” she said. “I feel pretty unprepared. I often feel like it’s not even my place to try to reach across [the gulf] and work with an entire community who has a different background.” She went on to say, “A weeklong bootcamp on how to talk to people in other cultures would be good,” as a precursor to making an overture to the Latino community. Another non-Latino I interviewed noted that “Hispanics are such a tight community,” organized around “nuts and bolts issues” like food and medical care. “They feel like they already have community and don’t need ours.” Anglos are seeking community, he said, but don’t have the same cohesion as the Latino community in West Marin.
A Mexican woman who has worked in West Marin for over 30 years told me that she feels that the white community has little understanding of the Latino community and is quick to criticize cultural differences. On holidays like Mexican Independence Day (September 16), or other celebrations, she says, “I’ve heard complaints about ‘a lot of noise.’ And that is true… But they are cultural differences.” And while she says that a lack of understanding about Mexican history and Mexican culture is at the root of their complaints, she also wonders why they can’t, in the meantime, enjoy the celebration or even simply say, “OK, it’s one day, and I’m going to cover my ears—tolerance.”
The housing crisis is another situation pervaded by underlying prejudices. One non-Latino resident, a renter who has had to move numerous times, expressed a deep-seated feeling of difference between herself and Latinos who also struggle to find and maintain affordable housing. She commented that Latino workers are most affected by high housing costs, but tried to justify the differential access to housing. She told me about three Latino men she works with who commute to their jobs in Point Reyes Station. Two come from San Rafael (about 40 minutes each way) and one from Tomales (about 30 minutes each way). They work hard and they need to feed their families, she said, but still, to her they seem different: “They’re just in a different realm. It’s just evident that there is a hierarchy,” she said.
She linked belonging in the community, and perhaps also right to housing, to “rootedness.” Her grandparents bought a house in Inverness and retired there in 1962, and she spent her childhood summers there. She explained that she considers being rooted in place essential. When I asked her what that means for workers, who need to live in a place for practical reasons—like a reasonable commute to their job—but may or may not have generational ties, she responded vaguely that housing for workers is “complex because it has to do with race and class,” and that that most people in West Marin don’t want to have a conversation about race and class.
Discussions and community meetings about housing are largely segregated as well, presented as either ranchworker housing for Latino families or housing for seniors or for long-time residents who can’t afford to stay. One housing activist told me, “It’s rare out here to have a meeting where you feel like you’re in it together.” A member of a group that addresses the problem of short-term rentals acknowledged to me that the group has not interacted with the Latino community. She was defensive about my inquiry, adding that the group was “not designed to solve the cultural problems of West Marin.”
The discourse among non-Latinos suggests that they view the housing issue for Latinos as different from that for “locals.” Locals is a vague term but is mostly used to mean non-Latino residents who have lived in West Marin for many years. People make false distinctions when they talk about housing for those “who grew up here” who have been displaced and for Latino families—often most affected by the housing crisis—as though they could not be the same. Yet, as one woman emphasized to me, many of the Latino families who are displaced grew up in West Marin too, the second- or third-generation families of Mexicans who immigrated in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, and they are as much locals as anyone else. The assumption that the “locals” and “the kids who grew up here who can’t afford to stay” are only white, are mistaken. The local kids who can’t afford to stay are as likely to be second or third generation families of Mexicans, “but in terms of the way people talk, you will hear that distinction.”
The conversations about housing may be separate for other reasons as well. Evening meetings are difficult to attend for Latino families who may have long commutes (to Petaluma or Santa Rosa), or who work two jobs or a job that doesn’t have a nine-to-five schedule, or who have young children who need care. Language may also be a barrier, as well as the separation that permeates the community in general. As one housing activist told me, the problem of housing for the two communities is often treated separately, “because we’re already thinking in a bifurcated way.”
Displacement and exclusionary displacement
We rely so much for everything now on the Hispanic population. All the people who work in the stores are Hispanics and all the people who we rely on for services, and yet there’s a commute into West Marin on Petaluma-Point Reyes Road every morning.
In many cases, working-class migrations in gentrified places become daily in- and out-migrations of workers who can’t afford to live near their jobs. If a worker loses existing housing, the chances of finding something affordable in West Marin are slim. Loss of housing can occur because of a lease change on a ranch within the national seashore, as I describe above, or because a ranch downsized operations when it shifted to organic production and reduced the number of workers as well as the herd size. Other families have been evicted from ranches because of substandard housing conditions. Not just agricultural workers are affected when ranch housing is lost. When a popular oyster farm went out of business, for example, five or six housing units were removed, but the closure affected many more people than just their workers. Family members had jobs in nearby towns and their children went to the local schools. Sometimes a worker or family may lose housing because their rental unit is sold to new owners who want to keep the home as a weekend retreat for themselves or turn it into a short-term rental.
As rents increase, “what I have seen is more people having to move out of the area.” In neighboring Sonoma County, in 2015 a two-bedroom apartment went for about $1,800 to $2,100 per month, but there was nothing available in that price range in the Point Reyes area. One Latina testified at a Marin County Board of Supervisors meeting about the housing crisis: “You find housing but they are $3,500 or $4,000 a month and we cannot afford them.” Another spoke to say that she has lived in Point Reyes Station for nineteen years, “but I live with the stress that one month I can pay the rent, but I never know if I will make it for the next month.”
Some workers who came several decades ago for jobs on the dairy ranches eventually sought better housing opportunities or retired outside of West Marin. “Most [Latinos] who were here in the ‘80s and ‘90s have moved,” one immigrant told me. Families have dispersed to towns in Sonoma County—Rohnert Park, Petaluma, and Santa Rosa—and as far as Modesto in order to find affordable housing, but in many cases, they commute back—30 minutes, one hour, or more—to West Marin, for jobs, school, church, or simply to be with their community at events or gatherings.
In places like West Marin, displacement, which is central to process of gentrification, exists alongside what is called exclusionary displacement—when workers who are the foundation of the economy, both in the agricultural and service sectors, haven’t been able to move to West Marin because of housing costs. There are more jobs in West Marin than there are homes, and incomes are far below what one would need to afford West Marin rents. These workers commute long distances to work in West Marin, as the tourist economy expands.
Recreation- and agriculture-based tourism and a housing market dominated by second-home owners have not only changed West Marin’s economy, but also its communities. As tourists and amenity-seekers move to West Marin, so too do low-wage service workers, especially Mexicans and Mexican Americans, whose labor has been critical to sustaining the agricultural and tourist economies. Worker migrations are not always residential migrations—rather, they may mean daily in- and out-migrations, because wages for service workers are far below those necessary to afford the rents and home prices in West Marin. Workers either are displaced as the tourist economy creates possibilities for higher rents or can’t move to West Marin from elsewhere to be close to their job.
Dual migration and exclusionary displacement are another manifestation of the ripple effect of wealth and people from urban core to hinterlands that gentrification causes. These migrations highlight that gentrification, while its visible effects may be local, is a regional phenomenon, produced through regional processes like housing and job-market shifts and community displacement. Gentrification in West Marin is also a product of regional relationships that have developed over decades: from land conservation and land-use regulations, to tech wealth, to the market for locally sourced and organic food that urban gentrification, West Marin is itself a largely a product of the urban core.
[i] The research area was a portion of West Marin that includes Point Reyes National Seashore, and the towns surrounding Tomales Bay— Inverness, Olema, Point Reyes Station, Marshall, and Tomales.
[ii] The Countywide Plan and the Local Coastal Program only allow road improvement projects that will enhance safety, but not increase the capacity of the roads.
[iii] Lees, L., T. Slater, and E. Wyly. 2008. Gentrification. New York: Routledge.
[xviii] Gray, M. 2014. Labor and the locavore: The making of a comprehensive food ethic. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
[xix] Anonymous. Interview with author. February 2, 2016.
[xx] An employee of the planning department described to me community response to development as “vitriolic” (Anonymous. Interview with author. October 25, 2015).
[xxi] The numbers are not in for the current cycle, 2015-2023. Interestingly, for the 2007-2014 cycle, Marin was not ranked last in the Bay Area for permits issued for “very low” and “low” income housing. In fact, it far surpassed most other Bay Area counties in those areas, but other counties came closer to meeting goals for “moderate” and “above-moderate” housing. ABAG (Association of Bay Area Governments) 2014. San Francisco Bay Area progress in meeting 2007-2014 Regional housing need allocation (RHNA). https://abag.ca.gov/files/RHNAProgress2007_2014_082815.pdf
[xxii] The Housing Element does not explore why this concern, though widespread, does not hold weight; the bulk of the traffic in Marin is due to commuters, who, if they were able to live closer to their jobs, would not take up so much space on the roadways.
[xxvii] Anonymous. Interview with author. September 25, 2015.
[xxviii] Mark Dowie emphasizes that “then and now there were and are exemplary ranchers who provide good housing and pay decent wages to their workers.” Email message to author. May 4, 2016.
[xxix] Dowie, Mark. Email message to author. May 4, 2016.
[xxx] California Human Development Corporation. 2008. Evaluation of the need for ranch worker housing in Marin County, California. Prepared for the Marin County Community Development Agency. July 2008: 6; Community Development Agency. 2015. Marin County Housing Element 2015-2023. www.marincounty.org/HousingElement.
[xxxi] California Human Development Corporation. 2008. Evaluation of the need for ranch worker housing in Marin County, California. Prepared for the Marin County Community Development Agency. July 2008: 10.
[xxxii] In some cases, mobile homes on a ranch are rented to directly non-ranch workers, because the lack of housing is so severe for those in the Latino community.
[xxxiii] Lease permits have a more complicated history than I go into here. Laura Watt details it in her 2017 book, The paradox of preservation: Wilderness and working landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.)
[xxxiv] Anonymous. Interview with author. June 14, 2016.
[xxxv] Relationships between individual ranches and the park vary, and many ranchers describe a good relationship with the park.
[xli] Brown, S. and C. Getz. 2011. Farmworker food insecurity and the production of hunger in California. In A.H. Alkon and J. Aygeman (eds.). Cultivating food justice: Race, class, and sustainability. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
[xlii] Anonymous. Interview with author. September 25, 2015.
I was worried about Kim Stanley Robinson’s new book The High Sierra: A Love Story.
At 560 pages it felt like a mountain to be climbed. It also seemed to be structured like his latest science fiction novel, The Ministry for the Future, which can be a bit of a slog, though an often riveting and sometimes terrifying one. That book mixes narrative sections with expository chapters that read like scientific and bureaucratic reports, intentionally on Robinson’s part, drawing attention to how even gray literature has become dystopian in the age of climate change.
Plus, I have heard Robinson speak a few times in recent years in defense of John Muir and wilderness in ways that made me think he was wandering into terrain that could be trouble.
But Robinson has been hailed as “our last great utopian visionary” (the Los Angeles Times Book Review) and “one of the most important political writers working in America today” (The New Yorker). And I happen to more or less agree with both of those assessments. He’s a utopian at heart, but he calls what he writes about “optopia,” for the optimal or best possible world given the circumstances. That means his sci-fi novels are deeply entangled with realistic politics, even when set in outer space. The Ministry for the Future takes on the climate crisis on Earth and is, at once, the most dire and most hopeful thing I’ve read about climate change.
So if Robinson is going to write a book about the High Sierra, one of my favorite landscapes, too, I’m ready to tag along, even if it turns out to be a challenge.
Besides, I like Robinson. When I was editor of Boom, we published a long interview with him entitled “Planet of the Future.” And we’ve invited him to give talks at UCLA several times. Robinson is smart, nimble, insightful, generous, and critical, all qualities one appreciates in an interlocutor, whether on stage, in a seminar, or, I now imagine, sitting around a barebones camp high in the mountains: Robinson is an ardent advocate of ultra-light backpacking.
After reading a couple of chapters of The High Sierra, I wondered how on Earth he could sustain interest and a narrative through-line with all the rapid, seemingly random switches between categories he entitles “My Sierra Life,” “Geology” and “Psychogeology,” “Sierra People,” “Snow Camping,” “Moments of Being,” “Routes,” “The Swiss Alps,” and “An Annotated Sierra Bibliography.” Several of these categories have more than a dozen numbered chapters with subtitles. There are seventy chapters in all, along with copious photographs, maps, and illustrations.
But I forged on and soon settled into a pleasing rhythm. By the end of the book, I felt like I could keep going. And it made me want nothing more than to ditch everything and head to the High Sierra to ramble and scramble around like Robinson.
Robinson’s book is a kind of “dérive,” a method of drifting through urban landscapes randomly as a means of discovery that was invented by French Situationists in the mid-twentieth century. It is said to have given form to “psychogeography,” too, the study of how different, usually urban, landscapes affect observers psychologically, or how certain landscapes might have their own affect, their own emotional states. Robinson is a fan of psychogeography, which he stretches to psychogeology.
So, The High Sierra: A Love Story, it turns out, is in some ways an urban form applied to the wilderness. And, oddly, it works. His dérives in the Sierra, and through Sierra geology, history, and literature, undertaken from the time when he was an undergraduate at U.C. San Diego in the early 1970s, to today from his home in Davis, create a pleasing personal thread upon which to hang all kinds of interesting observations, critiques, and analyses.
Robinson is a magpie — of theory, science, story, scene, and anecdote. A smart bird, like the magpie, he picks up objects and turns them into tools for thinking. This book will appeal to aficionados of California, lovers of the Sierra Nevada, scholars who enjoy seeing big ideas brought down to Earth, and readers of Robinson’s science fiction, who may enjoy seeing the writer work through on his own planet ideas he has tested on other worlds.
When Robinson gets to John Muir and wilderness, I did want to quarrel with him, but in a friendly way. Robinson thinks that Muir has gotten a bad rap for racist comments in his writings. He has read everything Muir has written — published and unpublished in the archives — and argues that there are only a few passages portraying Indigenous people negatively. And Muir grew to respect Native Americans, so remarks in his early texts should not stand in for a long writing career.
I interviewed Robinson recently for High Country News. In that conversation, Robinson characterized Muir as a literary character. He exists on paper now. He is someone we read about, review, and argue about. I think that gets it just about right. Muir as problematic text is much better than Muir as patron saint.
Robinson likes theory. But he packs it lightly – like everything in this big book. He uses actor network theory, for example, to argue that the mountain range was an actor in saving itself from development, along with Muir and many others. Scholars may find his casual use of complex ideas frustrating at times. But if you keep in mind that this is all something like a conversation around camp after a day off-trail, it seems apropos.
Take wilderness, for example. Robinson goes on a bit of a tirade against critics of the wilderness idea, like historian Bill Cronon, who once wrote an influential essay entitled “The Trouble with Wilderness” in the 1990s. Robinson seems to think that thinking critically about the history of wilderness, as a concept and an administrative designation for some public land, actually threatens those public lands. But there doesn’t seem to be much, if any, evidence of that in the twenty-six years since Cronon’s essay was published.
Where Robinson really throws down in a way that could be consequential is on the subject of names in the High Sierra. There are many peaks named for racists, eugenicists, and assorted ne’er-do-wells. Robinson would like to change that, and he has good ideas about how it should be done, de facto if not de jure. He and a group of friends already organized an expedition to name one numbered but unnamed peak after Henry David Thoreau.
Robinson demonstrates in these ways how nature and culture are scrambled in the Sierra. Part of him doesn’t seem to like that. He seems to want the High Sierra as pure wilderness, in a way. At the same time, he recognizes the muddle. And like many of the characters in his science fiction novels, he relishes a good argument without end.
Robinson isn’t the last word. And I don’t think he wants to be. Like his renaming project, which he says should be a kind of never-ending game, he just wants to keep playing in the High Sierra. It’s a pleasure to play along. The High Sierra, it turns out, is a user-friendly wilderness, both figuratively and literally.
California is largely terraformed. That is, human beings have transformed it with massive Earth-shaping works like the California State Water Project. At the same time, the least terraformed part of California, the High Sierra, is humanized in Robinson’s book. It’s made for rambling and scrambling and thinking with. It is a good place to contemplate, from a high angle, being alive on a planet spinning in space.
In turn, the High Sierra serves, for Robinson, as a model for terraforming other off-worlds. Quite a dérive, after all. And well worth the trip.
Jon Christensen is an adjunct assistant professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and Luskin Center for Innovation and a founder of the Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies at UCLA.
abducted / displaced / then / misplaced / your body an object / lost /it learns to
breathe / differently / because you can’t / let them know you / are still alive // you learn
histories / that were never true / nor did it belong / to you / you learn to / shape your
tongue / into lies / until even you / begin to / believe // but pretty sounds / from your
lips / after you tamed your howls / never were enough / for them to / love you / and the
coldness / of the window / in an unexpected april / reminds you / how you will fight /
now / to never belong / to them // you are born / with two things / all yours— / your
body / of connected / imperfections / and your death / to come // they convinced you /
one is broken / and you have failed / by loving it // the other / your greatest fear / to
run from / everyday / for the rest of / your mortgaged life // snow / touches /
bewildered bodies / today / the wind / sideways / like a question /forbidden: // what is
it / that your dying / has held / so valuable / that they have / worked so hard / to steal /
from your heart
daughter, it’s been months since i spoke to you / these days are covered in snow, places
melted / hiding the cold pools of water in skies reflected / i woke up with my arms
curled tight / clutching something i can no longer remember // yesterday we laughed on
our walk / at the tiny footprints left on the steps of / a house around the corner / we
wondered who lives there / what small lives // daughter, how does time work where
you have gone / i want to say that i picture you in light / in a place more picturesque
than this / but i only see your face surrounded by endless black air / how old are you
now, daughter / because it’s getting harder to remember / harder to forget // are you a
child / are you older than me / or are you still unborn / as you were when you left // it’s
winter now / isn’t it always so? / and we are all dying // will you return then / and claim
the life / you were meant to own // walk through this world / touch the resentful
texture / of a leaf still green / and cry just to feel / warmth on your face // daughter,
each day i am afraid / of learning to let you go
in the shower / i scraped dirt off my skin / with an old razor / and wondered if death / is
different under hot water // but only small cuts / opened up on / my shoulder / my hip /
my thighs / and the blood came / and then dried eventually / as day turned / into gone /
into leaving / into promises brought / in the dark // i feel it stinging / even in places /
unharmed / i keep reaching / for my eye / checking to see if my lid / is bleeding // i woke
up / missing people / i woke up / loving them / but what can such / sentiment mean / in
a snow covered forest // i hear / her voice / calling me / wolf / the outline / of my body /
made by / her lips // little sparks / of pain / explode on the surface / of me / and there is
/ so much more / left / to carry
Chiwan Choi is the author of 3 books of poetry, The Flood (Tía Chucha Press, 2010), Abductions (Writ Large Press, 2012), and The Yellow House (CCM, 2017). He wrote, presented, and destroyed the novel Ghostmaker throughout the course of 2015. His poems and essays have appeared in numerous journals and magazines, including The New York Times Magazine, ONTHEBUS, Esquire.com, and The Nervous Breakdown. He is currently at work on My Name Is Wolf, the follow up to The Yellow House. Chiwan is a partner at Writ Large Press, a Los Angeles based indie publisher, focused on using literary arts to resist, disrupt, and transgress, and a member of The Accomplices. Chiwan was born in Seoul, Korea, spent his early childhood in Asunción, Paraguay, and now splits his time between Pittsburgh and Los Angeles.
A fishwife sits across from a writer and asks, “Do you know the difference between a fairy tale and a sea story?” When the writer says she doesn’t, the fishwife continues, “One begins, ‘Once upon a time.’ The other begins, ‘This is no shit.’” So begins Spell Heaven, Toni Mirosevich’s linked collection of stories and impressions and Borges-evoking philosophical meditations. Even the title evokes a question (verb? noun? adjective? all of these at once?) in a quest to connect in what has become an era of disconnection—politically, and especially in the isolation of COVID-19. Though there are only a couple of sparse references to the global pandemic that made landfall in Northern California (the collection’s setting) at the end of January 2020, Spell Heaven is the encapsulation of the forced separation that shook (it’s no stretch to say) all of humanity in a way that people under 102 years old had never experienced.
Living through a global pandemic provides its own kind of “fish story,” but it’s the real thing that occupies Mirosevich, herself (like her narrator) the daughter of a fisherman and a cannery worker, bound inextricably to the sea, body and soul. Not ineffably, though—Mirosevich’s personal language and cadence is of the sea and is a known language to everyone who has descended from seafaring or sea-sifting people.
In relating the fishwife’s own memory in the collection’s first story, “The Devil Wind,” our narrator places herself and the reader in the middle of the Thanksgiving Day storm of 1960: “She was holding on to the baby. She grabbed hold of the pole. The boat dipped over on its side. Over she went, she was over, they were over the side, in the sea, she was holding on, she and the baby, they were in, now out, now in, dunked into the sea, again and again. The pole bent like a tree branch. Like a branch in the wind. The pole bent but did not break. Tell me again, about this life on the sea. How a back bends and bends and does not break.” The sentences are tossed by uneven swells and surges, of waves crashing and hulls listing catastrophically. Even in quieter moments, landlocked moments, the lines move at times at a twelve-knot clip over rolling swells, at other times at anchor, letting light ripples nudge the lines in trochaic pulses (Mirosevich is also a poet).
It’s the landlocked isolation from the sea, from the life she wished for herself, following in her father’s footsteps to be captain of her own vessel, that informs our narrator’s reflections. Our narrator, who shares more than a little biography with the author, is a self-proclaimed loner, though despite locking herself away at home or in a motel or her office at work, she is always reaching out, crossing the street to say hello to a new person on the pier, or on the routes between local dives and the sketchy parking lots between them, populated by the “out crowd,” the clique of outsiders and misfits, crabbers with day jobs or who live in their vans, who are holding on from one day to the next, waiting for a little luck or maybe just a little grace.
“There’s big luck—” Mirosevich writes, “being born with your choice of which silver spoon you want your nanny to use—and there’s small luck, the kind everyone gets a shot at.”
Our narrator’s wife, Stevie, is the ballast to the loner tendencies—upon moving to a new neighborhood, the couple are hyper-aware of the perceptions of their relationship (loving lesbian neighbors—gasp!), though it’s not the vapors but acts of violence that make our narrator and Stevie wary. Our narrator’s reaction is to withdraw into the house and set up watch, while Stevie’s approach is of the “keep your enemies closer” variety.
In “Murderer’s Bread,” we learn, “Stevie’s reaction to our emissary from the neighborhood’s welcome wagon is to plant with even greater fervor. […] My reaction is to be extra vigilant. To keep watch. There is:
The guy who stands in the open doorway of his house…who gives us the evil eye every time we walk by.
The boy I catch in the act of writing bitch on our fence in green felt pen…
The man who mock-whispers “AC/DC” loud enough for us to hear when we go to put out our garbage cans for pickup. When he’s sure he’s got out attention, he pulls out his Johnny-jump-up and pees in the street.
The family that launches bottle rockets toward our yard on July 4…”
Stevie works overtime making bread for the neighborhood. Ice may or may not thaw, fog rolls in with a little less chill, and neighbors who are no less dangerous might become less dangerous to our narrator and her wife. Our narrator is no stranger to triangulating perceptions, both as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community and as the daughter of Croatian immigrants with the bluest of collars who lived a neighborhood with a slightly higher income bracket. In the end, though, a revelation: a knock on the door, our narrator spies through the peephole, the narrowest of views, most myopic of views, a potential threat. The door opens, it’s the man across the street, a man she’s been watching, a man who’s been watching her—he holds up her wallet, “I think you dropped this,” he says.
There’s no instant redemption, but there is a recognition, a connection finally (despite one of them going to San Quentin for twenty-five to life for murder). Our narrator and Stevie are seen as of the neighborhood, people to be protected.
Seeing and being seen is the recurring theme throughout Spell Heaven, the tide that surges and recedes, through familiarity, memory, Alzheimer’s, death, gentrification—surging, receding. “Memory is not so firmly fixed,” Mirosevich writes, and in fact, it moves and changes shape and reorders itself. Memory in this collection comes at once, swift as the tide or a taste of a madeleine, but in this case, the madeleine is an in-class presentation by one of the narrator’s students, or it’s a knock on a motel door, or a stranger’s tug on their facemask. “Does the smell of the center’s noontime meal—clam spaghetti and green beans, a steal for only two bucks—trigger a memory of the taste of salty bakalar, your favorite childhood dish, an image of your mother standing watch over a pot on a woodstove?”
The route through the stories, is circular, themes reappearing in the spin of a lighthouse light. Reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, where a story ends on one theme or character, and the next chapter picks up in that new character’s point of view and so on, Mirosevich’s stories pick up the subject illuminated by the beam of a lighthouse light, following them for a time, then onto the new subject until that light swings around again. In “Our Lady at the Derby,” our narrator waits for a stroke of luck, falls into a memory at the knock of the door, a memory of violence and intrusion, but instead of the current knock replicating that threat, there is offered the briefest moment of connection, a man just doing his job, upon which the narrator reflects: “the fact that our lives are going round and round, round and round, that we don’t know where we’re headed, that what we do know about each other is not enough it’s not enough. He doesn’t stop to stare at me or my home-brought objects: my lucky mouse pad, the Derby glass. He just turns away and the curtain closes and the sweeping stops.” The loss, the confusion isn’t resolved, we’re still waiting on our luck to come in; the next story, “Spell Heaven,” picks up that theme, follows that lighthouse’s beam of our narrator’s gaze, “When you’re lost and looking for a sign, an omen. A clue. When the wishbone pull doesn’t yield the lucky stem. When you no longer believe in heaven or hell, past lives or future, yet still hope for a hint…”
Memory and understanding both are “sneaking around the edges of the frame,” nearly within grasp, in each of these stories: Stevie recalls a memory of watching her father take a “remedy” that would turn out to kill him. Meanwhile, her doctors are “watching” her cancer. Our narrator gazes at the out crowd on the pier, the collection she wants to be a part of. “Every day, while Billy is coming across found objects I come across found people, those who others deem marginal on the margins of the sea. I want to be part of this gang, yet I know I’m an outsider. I have a white collar job in an academic world where the clothes are clean but the politics are dirty. And I have one of those Italian coffee makers on the stove at home.”
The eye (so often spying in these stories) makes judgments upon a woman obviously on meth, who lives in a car with her young daughter. Our narrator contemplates the call to social services, until she sees the love, protection, and tenderness the woman has for her daughter and the other out crowders have for them both. Thus, our narrator sends her own beam of watchful light out to them, until the woman starts to wave her over as a friend, saying hello, urging her closer.
The lighthouse scans the seas, its open eye, its glare a warning, watch out, watch out, watch out, but it also is a plea: See me, see me, see me.
The most acute instance of reciprocal gazing and recognition is in “Members Only,” where our narrator begins surveilling a new woman, Joan, who turns out to be an FBI agent near retirement, who in turn has been habitually surveilling the other cast of characters in this swiftly gentrifying south-of-San Francisco exclave. When the narrator and Joan discuss a man who leaves candy bars in the hollow of a tree, Joan admits to collecting them, recording the date and brand of each bar, then keeping them secure. When our narrator asks why Joan thinks he does this, Joan replies that it’s not her job to guess, not to find meaning in the actions, only to report.
However, that’s not the writer’s job.
Our narrator wonders: Are answers the same as meaning? Is understanding the same as knowing? Is recognition enough to make a connection?
It’s no accident that our narrator, in a flash of rage, is ready to claw the eyes out of a gentrifier in a million dollar condo who calls animal control on the feral cats in the care of a local man/a member of the out crowd with Alzheimer’s, the cats being the one thing he never forgets, his devastation over their removal an ominous peephole into rapid cognitive descent. It’s cat scratch vengeance, but it also says you don’t deserve to see.
Also, the man with Alzheimer’s was once a teacher of photography, who found the magic in a student’s accident, who said, “Look again…I can see what your disappointment won’t allow you to see.” The tenderness of recognition.
Of finally being “in with the out crowd.” It’s once the loners welcome her in that finally allows our narrator to feel at home, among her people. The ones who pass on are still remembered, in reupholstered furniture or in names scrawled in Sharpie on a bench.
Memory as lighthouse beacon is itself an act of resilience—I’m still here, my wife and I are still in this neighborhood of misfits, who now even look out for us, in this crew of outsiders huddling together in this changing community, against battering storms, of remaining visible even in wariness, in danger, watching out for others in need, our gaze reaching out even as we stare at each other from our windows, across streets, from behind medical masks. But isn’t that a beautiful place to be, inside that glow.
Jennifer Carr frequently explores how our jobs reflect or inform our identities, and what happens when the jobs are threatened by time, automation, and politics. Her work has recently appeared in Baltimore Review, Origins Journal, and Panorama Journal, among others. Though she sometimes regrets not getting her union card, she loves teaching creative writing at Chapman University and spends the rest of her time as a ghostwriter. In the gaps, she is completing her novel set on the Los Angeles waterfront.
What happens to society when its members worship work? Silicon Valley offers us an answer. The tech industry has created what I call Techtopia, one of its most disruptive innovations yet. Techtopia is Silicon Valley’s upgraded social “operating system”—an engineered society where people find their highest fulfillment in the utopian workplace. It promises high-skilled Americans a new kind of “wholeness.” Professionally managed, data-driven, meritocratic, and designed to scale, Techtopia gives tech workers what their families, religions, neighborhoods, unions, and civic organizations have failed to deliver in the last forty years: meaning, purpose, recognition, spirituality, and community. It is the twenty-first century American Dream.
Techtopia’s promise of fulfillment may feel distant, or even comical to most Americans. But in fact, it addresses a silent and growing absence in the American soul: an absence of belonging. Social institutions that once nurtured belonging and fulfillment no longer serve Americans well. In the last forty years, Americans have withdrawn not only from religion, but from marriage and civic associations that at once offered “wholeness.” Rates of marriage and civic participation are at an all-time low. Few Americans are members of unions any longer. Many people don’t even have a sense of attachment to the companies they work for because they are subcontracted labor, including many of the people who make the tech companies thrive. Even a sense of national belonging is in crisis. In 2018, a record low number of Americans reported being “extremely proud to be American.” What institutions do we turn to now for belonging and purpose in life? Where do we go for “wholeness?”
The media pathologizes people who worship work, calling them “workaholics.” But what is the alternative? In American society today, there is no single institution that so faithfully aspires to meet the material, social, and spiritual needs of its members as work does for its highly skilled workers. Tech workers are worshipping work because work has become worthy of worship.
Techtopia is a cautionary tale for the rest of America. It may be making an elite group of tech workers “whole,” but it is leaving the rest of society broken. What kind of society do we become when human fulfillment is centered in the workplace? What happens to our families, religions, communities, and civil society when work satisfies too many of our needs? Silicon Valley is a bellwether of what happens when we worship work—when we surrender our time, our identities, our resources, and even our cherished traditions in service to work. It is what will happen if we don’t invest in building and sustaining social institutions and traditions that nurture community, identity, and purpose outside of work.
Techtopia and the Monopolization of Human Energy
Techtopia seeks to monopolize the collective energies of communities, channeling them away from religions, families, neighborhoods, and civic associations, and into the tech workplace. To illustrate tech’s relationship to the community, imagine social institutions represented as a variety of magnets spaced out on a tabletop. And let’s say we have a bucket of metal filings that symbolize the energy (time, effort, attention) of people in the community. If we scattered the bucket of metal filings onto the table, the filings would cluster around the most powerful magnets. And even if we tried to distribute the filings evenly across the table, they would naturally migrate toward the most powerful magnets. The piles of filings show us where the energy of the community gravitates.
The metaphor of magnets and metal filings illustrates the relationship between work and human energy in Silicon Valley. Workplaces are like big and powerful magnets that attract the energy of individuals away from weaker magnets such as families, religious congregations, neighborhoods, and civic associations—institutions that we typically associate with “life” in the “work-life” binary. The magnets don’t “rob” or “extract”—words that we use to describe labor exploitation. Instead they attractthe filings, monopolizing human energy by exerting an attractive rather than extractive force. By creating workplaces that meet all of life’s needs, tech companies attract the energy and devotion people would otherwise devote to other social institutions, ones that, traditionally and historically, have been sources of life fulfillment.
Consider how the “life” provisions of the workplace attracted the devotion of Sheba Nair, a tech worker and single mother. She chose to take a more senior position at a new firm even though it would mean longer hours, leaving her less time to spend with her seven-year-old daughter. Despite the longer hours, the new job had perks that made her life easier as a single mother. The company had an after-school child-care facility and a big playground that stayed open late. In the past, Sheba had struggled to pick up her daughter by six from her school’s aftercare program. Now, Sheba can work late knowing that her daughter is safe and well cared for. On top of that, the new company’s cafeteria serves dinner. Now, instead of hastily heating up a microwaved frozen dinner, Sheba and her daughter have stress-free healthy dinners at work, where she enjoys “quality time” with her daughter.
If Sheba lived in a different time or place, she would have called on other institutions and individuals to care for her daughter: the watchful eyes of neighborhood adults, a neighborhood youth center, or extended kin. But all the other families in her neighborhood are like hers. They, too, work long hours in tech and send their kids to after-school programs away from the neighborhood. Moreover, as a “tech migrant” who moved to Silicon Valley from India, Sheba has no extended kin nearby to rely on.
In Techtopia, companies replace all other potential providers of social support—families, local businesses, neighborhoods, and public services. Indeed, the company’s professional, managed care is so efficient that the services of other social institutions pale in comparison. One woman marveled at the perks of her daughter’s tech job—the meals, laundry service, wellness benefits. “I could never give her all that,” she admitted.
Companies are also stepping in where religions have failed. “I was talking to a guy at work the other day about mindfulness,” Jim Ward, the mindfulness director at one firm, recalls. “And he said, ‘I want to do more of this. Are there groups where you can get together and do this?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, it’s called church.’ [laughing] And he says, ‘Oh yeah, but I don’t want church.’” Jim delivers the all-too-serious punch line with a grin: the company’s mindfulness program is “having church at work without having church.”
People are hungry for spirituality, Jim says, but they “are turned off by religion.” Although he is an active member of a faith community outside of his company, Jim doesn’t see religious institutions meeting people’s spiritual needs in Silicon Valley. The workplace, in his view, is the answer: “I think we can create that place at work, where they can be spiritual without even knowing they are being spiritual. … They can feed that part of themselves that wants to be fed in a way that’s completely secular.”
Carrie Hawthorne, a former human resources director at a large tech firm, also sees the depth of people’s unmet needs and the company willingness to take the place of religion: “People don’t really go to church the way they used to. They’re not really rooted in their communities the way they used to be. There is this deep need for being a part of something larger than themselves, so feeling connected to the other people in the company, to the mission of the organization … it’s taking the place of some of these other institutions that we used to have.”
Most of us can agree that eating well, being physically fit, experiencing spiritual growth, and having a purpose in life are all good things. Why should we care if people fulfill these needs through their workplaces, especially if work provides them more efficiently than families, neighborhoods, and faith communities?
The problem is that tech companies increasingly operate like the most extreme of religious organizations—cults. They channel the energy of their employees inward and cut them off from things outside. As I’ve discussed, tech companies do this by hoarding so much of their employees’ time, energy, and passions that they have nothing left for anything else. And they provide for so many of their employees’ needs that tech workers can do without the public. As a result, Techtopia is corroding the collective capacity to build and sustain a common good.
Peter Kim, a tech entrepreneur in his late forties, has witnessed the breakdown of community and civic participation as tech workers took over his Silicon Valley suburb. Fifteen years ago, Peter had neighbors with diverse occupations—one neighbor was in real estate, one in finance, another a plumber, and another a small business owner. Peter would see them walking their dogs and mowing their lawns, and their children playing in the yards. The neighborhood felt to him like a community, he says. There was a sense of mutual concern for each other and the neighborhood as a whole. They belonged to the neighborhood. The previous owner of Peter’s house used to run a day-care centerfrom the home, drawing in many of the children and families from the neighborhood. When issues arose, they’d organize community meetings and post flyers around the neighborhood. Peter, who is now running for elected office in his city, credits his start in city politics to the activism of this earlier neighborhood. If it weren’t for those neighbors, he believes, he wouldn’t be running for political office today.
Today, he says, “a lot of those people are gone.” Many moved because of the rising cost of living. Others sold their homes at unthinkable profits and retired early somewhere else. What do his neighbors do for a living now? Peter goes down the list: “software engineer, software engineer, software engineer.” None of them, in his view, care about the neighborhood. They live there, but there’s no sense of belonging. The town was closing small neighborhood parks to cut costs, he complained. That was something his old neighbors would have fought. But now, his neighbors don’t do anything. I asked him why engineers are different. “They’re busy,” he answered. Peter rarely sees his neighbors anymore. They’re not around enough to see the town notices about the impending shut-down of their neighborhood park. And even if they see the notices, they don’t seem to care. “They don’t go to the park, so it just disappears,” Peter explained.
Peter’s story made me think of Sheba. What if Sheba had lived in Peter’s old neighborhood when it was rich with social relations? Sheba and her daughter’s life might have been different. Her daughter might have attended a child-care center run out of a neighbor’s house, instead of the company program. The child would have been able to walk to the neighborhood park instead of relying on her mother to drive her to the company playground. Between the neighbors, whose work schedules were different from Sheba’s, there would usually have been some adult to keep an eye on the kids at the park. Her daughter’s playmates would have been neighborhood children with parents from different walks of life—as realtors, small business owners, and plumbers—and not just the children of other tech workers. The swing set and the monkey bars in the neighborhood park wouldn’t be as new and flashy as the ones at Sheba’s company, but one could imagine such a community fighting the city tooth and nail if it tried to take the park away from them.
Richard Grant, a longtime Protestant minister in Silicon Valley, notices that church participation has declined as tech has grown. People, he says, now live at “a breathless pace.” Thirty years ago, the typical member of his church attended both Sunday service and Sunday school most weeks. Today, the average member of his church attends only Sunday service once a month. This has caused a “volunteer challenge” in his church. Time and energy that people used to devote to church is now going to work.
In Techtopia, people don’t belong to neighborhoods, churches, or cities. They belong to work. Instead of building friendships, trust, and goodwill within their communities, they develop the social capital of their companies.
Silicon Valley shows what happens when we worship work—when we surrender our time, our identities, our resources, and even our cherished traditions in service to work. How, then, can we not worship work? How do we break the theocracy of work?
“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life,” the late writer David Foster Wallace observed, “there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” We stop worshipping work, Wallace suggests, by choosing to worship something else. But we cannot do it alone, in the private sanctuary of our personal prayers and devotions. Since worshipping work is a social enterprise, choosing not to worship work must also be a collective endeavor. We can do this by intentionally building shared places of worship, fulfillment, and belonging that attract our time, energy, and devotion. These are our families, neighborhoods, clubs, and civic associations, as well as our faith communities. We need to recharge these “magnets” that have grown weak. Contrary to what time management pundits tell us, we do this by letting these magnets attract more and not less of our time, energy, and passion. This is not a call to end work; it’s a call to energize non-workplaces. It’s an invitation to reflect on how we as a society expend our collective energy. It’s an appeal to redistribute our devotion into the institutions that we want to shape our desires and fulfill us. And it’s a proposition to invest in institutions that share resources equitably across society.
Among our civic institutions, religions are especially well positioned to respond to the challenges of our time. Religion is one of the last spheres of social life to offer cohesive and communal traditions that resist marketized forms of logic and exchange. Unfortunately, most organized religions in the United States today seem to regard the worship of work not as a problem to change, but rather as something to accommodate. In places like Silicon Valley, religion has become a therapeutic salve to heal the inner self in a work-obsessed world. Religions as varied as Buddhism and evangelical Christianity offer “personal freedom” and “personal salvation” but leave the worship of work intact.
Religions can do much more, of course. Their liturgies, practices, and teachings reorient the human heart, mind, and body away from the world of work and markets. Religious traditions can offer a powerful and distinct set of ethics, communities, and rituals to counter the morally bereft religion of work. They can teach virtues such as justice, stewardship, kinship, and compassion, qualities that help us determine how, why, and when to work; how and what to produce; and what to do with the profits of our work. Religion can show us that values such as efficiency, productivity, and growth are means and not ends in themselves. Now more than ever, we need the prophetic voices of our religious traditions and communities to help us restore a collective wholeness.
As we enter the third year of the pandemic, the future of work is uncertain for Silicon Valley and the rest of the world. Most tech workers in Silicon Valley work from home. They no longer live their lives at work. Instead, work now lives with them at home. It’s become the newest family member and has settled in, like a newborn, requiring constant attention and devotion.
There’s no telling how work will change for Silicon Valley tech workers and other high-skilled professionals after the pandemic. Some companies, such as Twitter, claim that they are going completely remote for good. Others are so invested in their infrastructures and cultures that they’ll want to return to the way things were. But once we reopen our workplaces, neighborhoods, churches, temples, and gyms, we will have to learn to be with one another again. We will have to re-create our communities. What will we do? The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre writes that our actions and ethics emerge from our sense of belonging: “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’” To whom and to what will we choose to belong? What will we choose to worship?
*All photographs by Matt Gush, mattgush.com.
 Although voter participation in the 2020 presidential election was at an all-time high, general rates of civic participation have trended downward for the past fifty years. See Theda Skocpol, Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003); Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000); Robert D. Putnam with Shaylyn Romney Garrett, The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2020). For marriage rates, see Sally C. Curtin and Paul D. Sutton, “Marriage Rates in the United States, 1900–2018,” National Center for Health Statistics E-Stat, April 29, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hestat/marriage_rate_2018/marriage_rate_2018.htm.
 To be sure, Silicon Valley was never as community oriented as its longtime residents remember it. It promoted land-intensive, spread-out tract housing long before Google showed up, and it relentlessly segregated Black and Latinx residents away from the park-rich neighborhoods people like Peter rightly cherished. But the tech companies’ appetite for human energy has played a crucial role in the unravelling of civil society, whose consequences are only just beginning to be felt. For the history of suburbanization and racial segregation in Northern California, see Robert O. Self, American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).
 Economist Paul Collier makes a similar argument to explain the rise of nationalism and the polarization between the working class and the highly skilled in Western democracies. In the last fifty years, the highly skilled have switched their identity from nation to work because work best “maximizes their esteem,” he claims. The working class that got left behind in the new economy, on the other hand, turned to nationalism. Paul Collier, The Future of Capitalism: Facing the New Anxieties (Great Britain: Penguin Random House UK, 2018), 52.
 David Foster Wallace, This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life (New York: Little, Brown, 2009), 7.
 Alasdair C. MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1984), 250.
Carolyn Chen (www.carolynchen.org) is a sociologist and associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Getting Saved in America (Princeton), coeditor with Russell Jeung of Sustaining Faith Traditions and the author of the new book, Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley (Princeton), from which the above article is excerpted.
Matt Gush (www.mattgush.com) is a photographic journalist based in Southern California, whose work has been collected by National Geographic, featured by The New York Times, and is represented by Getty Images.
One afternoon about two years into my research at Mar Vista, I joined a group of men sitting at picnic tables by the soccer field. Most of them had just finished playing soccer in the midday games. As I walked over, Mi Chavo hopped in Moncho’s truck. As I suspected, he was off to buy beer, which Polo revealed by accusing me of timing my arrival to avoid contributing money. I smiled and responded that he could count on “mis dos pesitos” (my two dollars) for the next beer run. Polo shook his head and replied, “Otro güey que no trabaja.” (Another guy who doesn’t work.)
Even two years after the economic recession of 2008, good employment opportunities remained scarce for many of the men. That afternoon, Polo was complaining about an overbearing supervisor and claimed he was prepared to quit if he persisted with his “mamadas” (bullshit). When someone questioned his seriousness, Polo replied that he could find work at another restaurant “en dos toques” (in the blink of an eye). Araña told Polo he should be thankful he had a job, as it had been over a month since he himself had laid tile. Valderrama, a general handyman, commented that there was plenty of work in construction so long as you were willing to work “por pesos” (for cheap). Barba challenged these familiar gripes: “Hay jale [there is work], but Araña doesn’t want to work. He prefers to drink for free in the park.” Araña fired back by pointing out the precariousness of Barba’s own situation, who—despite working full-time at a supermarket— was sleeping in his “pinche combi” (fucking van).
As the men talked, Titi remained unusually silent and morose. I knew from previous conversations that he had been struggling to find steady work as a painter. He was trying to set out on his own, rather than work for his brother or other contractors. However, going solo was proving more difficult than he had imagined, despite his years of experience. His expression warmed with the buzzing of his cell phone resting expectantly on the concrete table. He seemed even more pleased when he recognized the number of the incoming call.
Titi stood up and answered the phone in English: “Hello.” With one hand on the picnic table, he listened to the voice on the other line and replied: “No problem! Yes, yes. Okay, goodbye.” As soon as he hung up, he motioned to Mi Chavo and spoke in his native Spanish: “Let’s go, I’ve got to see un cliente.” Polo interjected: “Don’t go, Mi Chavo! He was just talking to his vieja [old lady],” implying that his exaggerated talk in English was a ruse to impress the men. Titi ignored Polo’s jab, but when Araña asked him where he was headed, he told him to mind his own business. Titi added that he didn’t want any “drunks” on his crew, which everyone understood to be a clear crack at Araña, who was always looking for work as a hired hand. As the two men walked toward Titi’s van stocked ready with painting supplies, Araña yelled out: “Cuidado [careful], Mi Chavo”—a face-saving and not-so-subtle warning for the “ayudante” (helper). Polo interjected with his own jibe at the departing duo: “Come back with beer!” On cue, Titi shot back: “Busquen trabajo, culeros.” (Look for work, assholes.)
The world of work was never far removed from the park. Even though many men claimed to come there to escape their workaday lives, intersections between work and play abounded. Work was a frequent topic of conversation, during which the men often complained about problems with bosses or clients and about a general lack of opportunities. Yet as they socialized, they also talked shop and vaunted their achievements and adventures at work. The steady flow of people to and from jobs and phone calls from employers made work feel ever present, especially since cell phones allowed the men to remain “on call” while at the park. Men arriving in clothing stained with dirt and paint as well as vehicles stocked with tools and supplies identified them as workers, as did nicknames like Carwash, Locksmith, Mata Rata (exterminator), and Pisa Muerto (morgue attendant) and iconic park insults like “go heat up the soup” or “go paint toilets.” In any case, most of the men were familiar with their peers’ employment schedules that kept them on the move. Fixing cars or equipment in the parking lot and planning projects at the picnic tables were other ways the workplace flowed into the park. Moreover, as many of the men worked nearby, the park provided a convenient pit stop or respectable waiting post between jobs. But long stretches in the park could signal a lack of employment—a humiliation exacerbated by the recurring taunt to “look for work.”
However, these indicators of employment (or lack thereof) only dimly reflect the close interconnections between park life and the men’s work lives. What the men created and sustained in the park facilitated the development of relationships and reputations that spilled over into the men’s labor. They came to play and unwind, but found that the park provided a vital space to network and generate employment opportunities. Many of the men who met in the park worked together, referred each other for jobs, and exchanged work-related information and resources. Most of these concerned low-paying jobs in restaurants, construction, gardening, and cleaning—positions filled with fellow Latino immigrants. The park also became a place for many of the men to combat the isolation and drudgery of their work, giving them a unique space to construct and revel in meaningful interactions and rewarding relationships.
This chapter explores the men’s work lives and their connections to the park and beyond. I focus primarily on labor in private homes, in which I was able to participate and observe projects firsthand, in contrast to other employment sectors (such as restaurant work) that tended to be off-limits and knowable only through interviews. By shadowing the men at work, I saw how social relationships and informal arrangements organized their labor. I also grew to appreciate how an increasingly vital sector of the contemporary economy was filled by immigrant labor in private homes, where—in contrast to the park—the men and other workers like them were welcomed and depended upon.
In Los Angeles and many other parts of the country, certain tasks historically carried out by middle-class and some wealthier homeowners—tasks such as painting, housecleaning, gardening, and childcare—are increasingly done by hired help. Immigrants commonly do this work and are often employed “off the books.” Today private homes, rather than factories, serve as major economic points of entry for new immigrants.
This shift in hiring practices is well documented in the research on domestic workers. Less well understood are the types of paid services provided by the men from the park, such as small-scale construction, painting, and gardening jobs. Yet, as with nannies, their work is critical in keeping the culture and economy of Los Angeles afloat. Indeed, in many communities, immigrant labor has become indispensable to the maintenance of smoothly running households and affluent lifestyles. Today’s “hourglass economy” generates—and depends on—low-paying jobs, including in restaurants, another major source of employment at the park.
Despite the ubiquity of immigrant labor in Los Angeles, prospective workers and their clients face many challenges in this informal economy. Like any client, homeowners seek to maximize quality and minimize costs, both economic and social. Whereas companies in the formal economy— like painting firms, for example—are publicly accessible and provide institutionalized credibility and legal recourse, they are often much more expensive than off-the-record workers due to greater overhead, licensing fees, insurance costs, and mandated wages and benefits. These requirements also make them less flexible and less adaptable to shifting economic conditions and to the evolving needs of clients.
Anonymous day laborers present different challenges. While usually cheaper, they offer few safeguards to clients if the work goes badly. Moreover, the prospect of selecting workers at a formal or informal hiring center and bringing them in and around one’s home can prove daunting for even the most adventurous homeowner. Like day laborers themselves, clients face fears and uncertainties interacting with strangers in an unregulated labor market, be it over theft, negligence, or other forms of abuse. In fact, studies of day-labor sites show how workers and employers try to transcend the competition and anonymity of these sites by establishing more familiar and permanent employment relationships.
While formal companies and day laborers can and do meet homeowner needs, the men served a more intermediary position in the labor market: workers who neither work in the formal economy nor deal with clients as complete strangers. They avoided the heavy costs of regulated companies, as well as the risks of anonymity. However, these work arrangements did not develop automatically or without effort. For in contrast to friendships formed in the park, the relationships between these workers and employers involved people separated by considerable social distance played out within the physical proximity and private spaces of clients’ homes. The site of production was also the place of consumption, raising the stakes and providing leverage for both parties.
During the final three years of my primary fieldwork, I observed fourteen men from the park at work. On roughly half of these jobs, “ayudantes” (paid helpers) from the park assisted. In total, I observed thirty-four jobs over a three-year period. In twenty-five of these projects, a range of new tasks or “extras” were added to the original labor agreement as the work progressed. Several of these expanded jobs lasted over a month, although most projects were completed in under two weeks.
The work primarily involved maintenance and home-improvement jobs, including construction, painting, cleaning, gardening, and renovation projects. The size and format ranged from small-scale or repeat tasks (such as fixing a fence or repainting a bedroom) to long-term arrangements (such as weekly gardening or pool maintenance) to large-scale projects (like remodeling a kitchen or repainting an entire home). In many cases, the men had worked for clients for several years, even decades, although I observed initial and onetime encounters as well. Work relationships often began with small, short-term tasks, but then developed over time into more substantial, long-term arrangements.
I primarily shadowed the men at work in West Los Angeles. Occasionally, they serviced multimillion-dollar homes in the most exclusive sections, such as Beverly Hills, Brentwood, and Malibu. But more typically they worked for middle- and upper-middle-class white homeowners in and around Santa Monica, Venice, Pacific Palisades, and Culver City. As I drove around with the men, this area became a monument of sorts to their professional careers as they pointed out various homes they had worked in over the years—some within a few blocks of the park.
In addition to location, the jobs shared several other characteristics, notably the fact that the men generally worked directly for the homeowner, rather than for a third party, such as a contractor or property manager. The men described this job arrangement as “por mi cuenta” (on my own). Many of the men had experience working for compañías or as ayudantes but preferred working independently. Although this work could be sporadic and uncertain, they found it more lucrative and enjoyed the freedom and flexibility that came with being self-employed. However, working on their own did require them to constantly look for new jobs—what sociologist Mary Romero referred to as “finding casas” in her study of domestic workers. Unlike their friends employed in restaurants, they did not work for a salary on a regular schedule.
Chango’s career arc followed a familiar path from apprentice to entrepreneur. He started painting with his father, who taught Chango the trade over weekends and summers. Seeking greater independence and new experiences after finishing high school, Chango began working for other contractors and spent over a year with a commercial painting firm. But by his late twenties and with a growing family at home, he was anxious to set out on his own. Feeling confident in his skills and start-up funds, he embarked on this new chapter in his professional life. By the time I met him in his early thirties, Chango was well established as an independent painter, moving from one casa to the next.
Like other independent contractors, Chango sometimes needed to hire additional workers. These ayudantes were almost always people he knew, rather than anonymous workers encountered on the street. The contractors I met at the park often employed the same helpers, most of whom they knew from Mar Vista. Seven ayudantes from the park accompanied the men on jobs I observed, and two helpers not associated with the park were hired as well. Like Chango, most men had begun their careers as ayudantes, working as apprentices under a more seasoned professional. Occasionally, men who typically worked on their own would work as helpers. The vast majority of these shifting arrangements and relationships were tied to the park.
The work was generally “informal” in that it was not regulated by or reported to the government. Usually the parties relied on verbal agreements and cash payments, although contracts were sometimes produced and services paid with personal checks. Although federal and state regulations do apply to this type of work, I never sensed that either party was aware of or concerned with these guidelines. Neither party secured permits for any of the projects I observed, although the men acknowledged that some jobs did require formal approval. In some cases, they took special efforts to avoid inspection; in other cases, they claimed to have lost out on jobs because they were unable to secure a permit or to meet other licensing or insurance requirements. I never observed any clients openly inquiring about the men’s legal status when negotiating the fee or scope of work.
How the men secured work varied, but these jobs almost always involved some sort of referral or recommendation either from a client or a fellow worker. Few of the men actively solicited work from strangers through business cards, advertisements, or employment agencies. The helpers generally worked for someone they knew as well, rather than seeking work at day-laborer centers. Clients, in turn, typically hired someone they knew or recommended either by friends, neighbors, or colleagues or by people they had employed for other jobs.
Friends and Family
Taking Titi as a paradigmatic case, we see how a variety of personal ties could generate work opportunities. It was his mother-in-law’s recommendation that led to the phone call he received in the opening vignette. She recommended Titi to paint the inside of a condominium apartment she had cleaned for over twenty years. Another referral came to Titi through a former soccer teammate, who recommended him for a job painting two bedrooms in a home where he was installing new windows. And Motor— another friend from the park—urged his client to hire Titi to paint a kitchen he was in the process of remodeling. In all three cases, the recommendations led to Titi securing the job.
Titi’s work history reveals the value of ties to people who work in private homes. Indeed, the more people the men knew with such clients, the greater the potential for referrals. As working-class Latino immigrants, their social circle tended to include people who did similar “brown-collar” work, although not all networks were of equal value. Although the men drew referrals from other parts of their lives, the park became a key networking site, especially because it brought together men who did similar work.
Chances for referrals were also high because of the various jobs that unfold in the life of a home, as well as the need for regular maintenance. Along with shifting cultural expectations, the pressures of a competitive real-estate market produce a steady supply of work as well. Upper-class clients regularly asked their working-class hires for recommendations for maintaining their homes. As the clients suspected, the men almost always knew someone who could do the work, if they did not offer themselves as candidates for the job. Moreover, they could usually count on the work being done well at low cost, which is what drew them to this intermediary sector of the labor market in the first place.
For example, as Titi was painting a wall above a fireplace, his client asked him if he knew someone who could install a new gas fixture, adding that she was tired of not having a working fireplace. Titi replied that he did, although he admitted to me that at the time he wasn’t sure who could do the job. But the following week, he returned with Raul, a plumber he knew from the park, and the two men installed a new unit, splitting the earnings in half. The client later explained that she asked Titi about the fireplace because she was worried that a “company” would be too expensive. She added that she didn’t want to deal with “all the hassle” of finding someone and negotiating the terms by herself. In fact, she told Titi to “take care of it” and did not ask him how much it would cost. To her relief, Titi knew someone who could do the job at an affordable rate.
Referrals were usually made in response to client requests, but were also offered in anticipation of their service needs. Workers often made suggestions—and subsequent referrals—for work that might be less notice- able to the client. For example, Valderrama mentioned that his brother- in-law, a gardener, frequently brought issues (such as a rotting fence or a cracked wall) to the attention of his clients. Similarly, when Titi noticed that a client’s gutter was leaking, he told him he knew someone who could repair it. Talking with me later, the homeowner expressed gratitude for having had the problem identified and fixed. When I asked him what he would have done without the recommendation, he explained: “I’m sure I would have found someone to take care of it, but it would have been a pain and taken a while.” He later joked: “I probably wouldn’t even have noticed it, like a lot of things around this house.” Indeed, I often saw men working on a job recommend a friend or relative to fix problems the homeowner had put off handling or hadn’t even noticed.
However, a referral did not guarantee employment. I observed several men who missed out on jobs, despite having received a strong recommendation, usually due to scheduling conflicts or disagreements over fees. The referral merely opened up the possibility of work by bringing the two parties together. Yet hiring through word of mouth offered the advantage of lessening the uncertainty that came with anonymity and the men’s unregulated status. Not only do people tend to trust people they know—which is why they ask for recommendations in the first place—they also recognize that the recommender’s reputation is on the line, which is especially important if future work is at stake. The stakes of the referral became apparent when clients talked fondly of the recommender when negotiating a new hire. For example, meeting Titi for the first time, his client gushed about how much she loved his mother-in-law, Gladys, who cleaned for her, and how happy she was to help out her family. The client later told me in confidence that she trusted Gladys’s judgment, but also knew she would “keep an eye on” her son-in-law. After the job was completed to her satisfaction, she presumably expected Titi—who by then had earned her trust—to serve the same role in supervising Raul on the fireplace project. As in other workplaces, the referral was leveraged as a source both of information and control.15
Referrals were rarely made strictly for benevolent reasons. The men making the referral expected to be compensated, although the form of compensation varied. In some cases, a cash payment was offered. For example, Locksmith usually gave around ten dollars to doormen he knew at several Santa Monica high-rises when they referred him to residents locked out of their apartments. In another case, Pow Wow gave Barba fifty dollars for a job he helped him win. When I asked Barba what would have happened if Pow Wow had not paid him, he replied: “Nothing, I just wouldn’t have recommended him anymore.” As Barba was a sociable man who mingled in different social circles, Pow Wow would have lost a valuable contact. In this way, Barba underlined the importance of maintaining relationships with well-connected people.
Reciprocity was more typically achieved through subsequent referrals rather than through cash payments. The prospect of future employment was what most motivated the men to recommend others: “Hoy por ti, mañana por mí.” (Today for you, tomorrow for me.) Valderrama explained his decision to refer fellow workers in these terms: “If I help someone [get jobs], they’ll help me out later with work.” This form of exchange was most common among those whose work lent itself to helping others. For example, Beto (a carpenter), Chicas (an electrician), and Caballo (a plumber)—all friends from the park—frequently referred each other to clients, either in the course of doing a job or when contacted by a client. Like the exchanges and associated obligations built around beer drinking at the park, the trading of job referrals indebted the men to each other and deepened their relationships. Generally, there was a double bonus in these exchanges since the referral benefited their friends and employers, thereby increasing their status and future prospects with both parties. Understandably, the men were excited when their friends obtained work as it could lead to opportunities for them. For example, when I told Martín that Titi had been contacted for a new painting project, he replied: “Ojalá [hopefully] he gets it,” knowing this could mean work for him as a helper.
Referrals did not go smoothly every time. There was always a delicate balance between helping out a friend and making sure that person would do a good job; indeed, even a skilled worker could behave inappropriately, showing up late or offending the homeowner in other ways. A bad referral could have disastrous consequences for everyone involved, as illustrated by a falling out between Titi and Motor over a job gone sour:
As Titi was repainting a home, the client asked him if he knew someone who could install new kitchen cabinets. Titi recommended Motor, having worked with him before on a similar job. Recently, the two men had been socializing more often after Titi had begun playing for the soccer team Motor coached. Motor agreed to take on the job, happy to have found work after a brief stretch of inactivity.
The client purchased the cabinets, and Motor went to work installing them. The two men rarely interacted because instructions were passed through Titi. When Motor finished, the client said his wife was unhappy with how they looked. She wanted them positioned differently. He claimed that Motor had not followed his instructions and that he would not pay him until the cabinets were moved. Titi relayed the news to Motor, who was already growing anxious about being paid for three days of work. Motor pushed back, arguing that he did exactly what Titi said the client had requested. He refused to move the cabinets until he was paid for the work he had already done. In the meantime, unbeknownst to Titi, the client found someone else to do the job, and Motor was never paid.
Despite making this “bad” referral, Titi was nevertheless fortunate to avoid the worst-case scenario in which both workers were fired. Instead, as more typically happened in these cases, the client continued to hire the first one for work—as he had already proven himself—but no longer asked for his suggestions.
Consequently, with fewer opportunities to recommend people, Titi’s own chances of receiving referrals declined. As the men depended on the exchange of referrals, it was therefore in their best interest to offer reliable recommendations to their clients, at least to those with whom they wished to remain in good standing. Similarly, those referred were under pressure to perform well if they hoped to be recommended again for jobs in the future. Like their clients, the men used the prospect of future referrals as a means to motivate their protégés and to keep them in line. For example, Titi told Motor that there would likely be much more work with the client to whom he was recommending him “si termina bien” (if it ends well). Yet the job, as we learned, did not go well, after which Titi chided Motor: “You lost a lot of work with that guy!”
At the same time, there was sometimes trepidation about introducing a potential competitor to a client. Indeed, many of the men were adept at different home-improvement tasks or at least professed to be. For example, Titi (a painter) preferred to recommend Motor for carpentry jobs, rather than Valderrama, because the latter was also a skilled painter. By contrast, Titi claimed that Chango no longer employed him on his painting crew because he was worried Titi would “steal his clients.” Chango laughed when I asked him if this was really the case, but he did not dispute Titi’s allegation. While these two men remained friends, I knew of several relationships that soured due to pilfered work. So it was hardly surprising that the men were very careful in choosing whom they recommended to their clients.
Building Reputations at the Park
The park represented a key social setting for the men to sort out many of these concerns. As the opening vignette shows, the men often talked about their work as they socialized. Through these stories, the men learned about each other as workers—information they later used to make decisions about whom to hire or recommend. As expected, tales of referrals or hiring arrangements gone bad garnered special attention. For example, it took several years for Coloccini to restore his reputation after Barba told everyone at the park he bungled a job he had helped him secure. Barba later told me he was angry with Coloccini because the client—who owned several apartment buildings—no longer asked him to recommend workers, thereby depriving him of fees for referrals and also reducing opportunities for recommendations for himself from those he might otherwise have recommended. Similarly, after Secada was caught by a client taking a shower in her home, Araña, who had hired him, was immediately fired. Subsequently, many men refused to employ Secada as a helper. But culpability was not always clear or uncontested. For example, Secada claimed that Araña made up the shower story to avoid paying him. Similarly, following the kitchen cabinet debacle, outsiders disagreed over who was at fault; some felt that Titi was responsible for the miscommunications with the client and therefore should have paid Motor out of pocket for his work.
As these cases suggest, workers’ reputations were an important and guarded source of currency at the park. In lieu of firsthand knowledge, the men’s performance and behavior on the job were the grounds on which referrals or hires were based. It is therefore hardly surprising that the men aggressively promoted and protected their standing as workers. This meant making sure others knew they were working, which was always in doubt when they were at the park. The men communicated this verbally, but also by arriving in vehicles stocked with supplies and in clothing stained with dirt or paint. When possible, the men also took their breaks at the park. Phone calls with clients, especially when conducted in English, were another way to signal active work lives. Although these moves were not necessarily deliberate, their implication was brought into focus when others joked that these phone calls were only simulations of the real thing, as Polo did when mocking Titi’s phone conversation recounted at the opening of the chapter.
Work histories took on a more forceful and strategic tone in the men’s storytelling. As they socialized, they were quick to publicize successful jobs and wealthy clients—a strategy evident in the following exchange:
It was late afternoon on a Tuesday when Valderrama pulled into the parking lot. Manuel, his regular helper, was sitting in the passenger’s seat. Valderrama hopped out of his truck and walked straight over to the group of men I was sitting with by the picnic tables. He was wearing jeans, boots, and a flannel shirt, all of which looked dusty from a hard day’s work. Valderrama said hello and exchanged handshakes with most of the men. He then sat down and exhaled deeply as he stretched out his arms and legs. He seemed relieved to be sitting down.
After surveying the scene, Valderrama blurted out to no one in particular: “What a day!” Filling the silence, he reached out to Martín, a fellow construction worker: “Hey, Martín, remember that job in Brentwood by the school? I’m working over there. We’re fixing a stone wall by the entrance.” Sensing he had Martín’s attention, he continued: “Puros millonarios [nothing but millionaires] over there. They have a pool, security guard, de todo [everything]! But the owner wants it exact. He’s European.” Gaining momentum, he turned to another colleague in the business: “Motor, you should see the wall, pura calidad [top quality].” Martín and Motor nodded their heads in approval, but the latter then cautioned: “Don’t forget to finish it,” alluding to a well-known situation from a few years earlier when Valderrama failed to complete a job he was working on with Motor. Valderrama laughed and responded: “We’re almost done. We could have finished today, but there’s no rush. Hopefully there’s more work.”
As with Valderrama, the stories the men shared about their work tended to involve bigger jobs and more affluent clients. Like their friends who worked in restaurants, the men felt better about serving important people, so they had a personal interest in elevating the status of the people for whom they worked. They tried to gain status by association, not only to boost their self-worth, but also as a way to promote their skills. In borrowing prestige from their clients, they built themselves up as prestigious workers and therefore as worthy of being recommended by their peers.
But like much that was said at the park, these statements tended to be met with scrutiny and suspicion. For example, several men questioned Titi’s claims about the new job mentioned in the opening section and joked that he had actually been hired to have sex with the elderly client. Workers relied on their powers of persuasion, but also called on companions to corroborate their statements. With most of the men working alone or in pairs in isolated homes, stories were a key way to publicize their work experience in order to increase their chance of being hired or recommended for other jobs. As Valderrama did with Manuel, the men often engaged me in conversation about their work when socializing with the other men, asking me to tell the others about the fanciness of the home or the particularities of a client. I suspect that one of the reasons the men were willing to take me along to their jobs was in order to use me as a more neutral source of corroboration.
In addition to stories about the men’s work, park life—as we’ve learned— provided ample opportunity to evaluate their character in ways that affected the men’s hiring practices and referrals. For example, Beavis felt that he was denied work as an ayudante because “I get into too many fights.” Several men told me that they did not hire or recommend one man for jobs because they had seen or heard about him stealing at the park. Several men were excluded from employment deals because of their heavy drinking, for fears that they would show up drunk or not at all. Others were shunned because of their failure to adequately reciprocate in dealings with their peers. For example, when I asked Pachanga why he refused to work for a notorious freeloader at the park, he replied: “How am I going to work for him? He never puts in money for beer!” Sensing that I did not understand the connection, he clarified: “If he doesn’t pay here, he’s not going to pay there!” Park interactions also put pressure on workers to behave on the job, as Robert explained when questioning rumors claiming that a park regular failed to pay his assistants: “How are you not going to pay someone you see at the park every day?”
By contrast, men who handled themselves well at the park—whether on the soccer field or drinking beer together—were more likely to be considered for jobs. For although they came to have fun, they recognized the opportunities that could arise from interactions with a large group of men in similar lines of work. Most men also preferred to work with friends since this helped pass the time, despite the occasional complications. Like an invitation to drink a beer together, hiring or recommending someone for a job solidified and deepened relationships at the park. For example, when I commented to Roberto during a return visit to L.A. that Polo and Motor seemed to be spending a lot more time together at the park, he responded: “It’s because Polo’s working with Motor now,” the former having decided to take a break from decades in the restaurant industry. As in this case and many others, bonds built at the park and on the job became mutually reinforcing and facilitated a range of employment opportunities.
Referrals from Clients and Their Circle of Friends and Neighbors
Referrals also came from the men’s existing clients, who represented another key means of networking. Often these recommendations were requested by clients’ friends or neighbors who needed people to service their home, but had yet to find qualified and trustworthy workers to do the job. For example, several clients explained to me that their friends were always looking for “good help.” In the crowded and largely unregulated informal labor market, finding “good help” could be difficult, which is what made recommendations so valuable. A referral based on firsthand experience offered them assurances that the job would be done well. It also provided information about cost, another source of uncertainty. Moreover, in contrast to recommendations for restaurants or movies, the stakes were high, as one client emphasized as she negotiated with a prospective hire: “This is my home. I live here and need the work to be done correctly.” A referral from a trusted adviser helped allay these concerns.
All fourteen of the men I followed said they received work through client referrals. For example, the painting job Titi secured through his mother-in-law resulted in the client referring him to three of her friends, two of whom ended up hiring him. She even invited friends to her home to meet Titi and to see his work. Months later, one of these new clients told me that she was “so happy” to have met Titi because “he’s done such a good job” painting her apartment. I observed a similar development with Chango. A client invited two of his friends to meet him and to inspect the finished job. Chango ended up painting their homes, which expanded his clientele and earnings.
Several of the men pointed to a particular client who had been especially helpful in introducing them to new clients. For example, Chango attributed his heavy workload to referrals from a longtime client who owned a paint store and who recommended him to many of her customers. Similarly, Motor secured a series of jobs in an apartment complex after doing work for someone he met playing soccer at the park who recommended him to his neighbors. A particularly striking example of networking through clients concerns Araña, who obtained a number of jobs through members of an extended family he had worked for over the previous two decades. The depth of his connections to that family became clear when I observed him installing kitchen tiles in the home of a man Araña had known as a child when he was working for his parents.
The men’s affluent, primarily White clients dwelt in very different social circles from them and consequently had access to a wider range of people outside the men’s networks. By putting the men in contact with other homeowners, these “weak ties” expanded the men’s opportunities. This was especially true of the better-connected and more motivated clients. These links were crucial, given that these clients had only so much work to do and money to invest in their own homes.
The men also told me stories about clients trying to poach them when they were working as ayudantes, just as their colleagues suspected. For example, Pasmado told me about a client who surreptitiously asked for his phone number as he discussed a future job. The men believed clients did this because they assumed that so-called helpers would be less expensive than their bosses. They also had the comfort of having seen the men at work in their home. Notwithstanding the potential for greater earnings and autonomy, the men said they were careful about sharing their contact information because allegations of job poaching could tarnish their relationships and reputation, as previously explained. Despite these risks, several men told me that they developed more independent relationships with clients after initially meeting them as hired hands. Like Valderrama, most of the men got their start as ayudantes, and this was one way to strike out on their own. Clients’ underhanded moves also show the lengths to which they would go to secure cheap and dependable labor for themselves and their friends. Yet at the same time, they expanded the men’s reach into untapped networks.
The visibility of the men and their work proved to be another valuable source of referrals. The fact that the homeowners’ friends and neighbors saw the men on the job gave prospective clients an opportunity to observe and interact with them. As with referrals from employees and friends, these interactions lessened some of the costs and uncertainties involved in the hiring process. Instead of choosing a stranger through advertisements or at a day-laborer center, the chance to talk with the men and observe them at work gave a prospective client confidence that the job would be done well for a reasonable price.
Over the course of my research, I observed sixteen neighbors approach the men about potential jobs in their homes. Clients usually spoke directly about the work, but sometimes began with small talk, without making specific reference to a job. The men quickly realized that the neighbors were “feeling them out,” which explains why they never ignored or dismissed these onlookers, no matter how distracting or strange these encounters may have seemed. Here’s an example of one such encounter:
As Güero—a gardener—was packing up his equipment, a white man in his mid-forties walked by with his dog. The man stopped and stared at Güero for a bit and then blurted out: “Muy caliente” (very hot) in accented Spanish. Güero smiled and replied, “Sí,” as he returned to his work under the scorching sun. The man then asked Güero in English if he had just worked at the home in front of which he was parked. Güero answered yes and set down the hedge trimmer he was in the process of repairing. The man took this opening to explain that he was looking for someone to do his yardwork. Güero nodded and responded, “Okay.” Güero went into his truck for a piece of paper to write down his given name (Francisco) and phone number. He handed it over to the man, who was being pulled away by his dog. As he departed, he shouted out: “We’ll talk later.”
While prospective clients usually approached the men on the edges of the work site, it was not uncommon for people to enter their neighbor’s home to observe the work firsthand and speak with the men, even when the homeowner was not around. As with encounters on the street, the men did not appear startled or at all bothered by these intrusions, perhaps be- cause the intruders were generally White and appeared to live in the area.
All the men I followed said that they had independently secured work with a client’s neighbor or with someone simply passing by the client’s home. They admitted that not all conversations led to work; but, well aware of the rewards their visibility could bring, they appreciated the potential of these interactions. As Güero explained, “My work is my best advertisement.” It was therefore not surprising that the men seemed to spend considerable time and energy perfecting sections of their work visible to passersby, especially in walkable neighborhoods. For example, when I asked Motor why he was redoing a part of a fence the client would not be able to see, he replied with a wink: “Para los vecinos” (for the neighbors), which he later confirmed was in the hope of attracting new business. For the same reason, the men rarely changed out of work clothes stained with paint or dirt, as they recognized this as another way of advertising their skills. Thus, rather than lower the visibility associated with their status as immigrant workers, the men tried to heighten it by lingering near the job site and calling attention to the quality of their work.
Not all jobs provided the same visibility or opportunities. Those whose work kept them more hidden from public view engaged in other strategic forms of self-promotion in the hope of publicizing their work. For example, Enrique made a point of leaving supplies and equipment in and around his truck to identify himself as a pool cleaner, which was harder to see since he worked in backyards. This became apparent when I noticed him speaking with a client’s neighbor. When I asked Enrique how the neighbor knew he cleaned pools, he responded, “You see that net? I always leave one sticking out the back window.” In this case, the neighbor explained that he had just moved into the neighborhood and was looking for someone to clean his pool. Enrique gave the man his phone number and, several weeks later—having “caught” the client with his net—added the home to his route.
When I asked Enrique why he did not post a sign and phone number on his truck—which seemed a more straightforward way to share his information—he replied: “Porque no vale la pena.” (Because it’s not worth it.) Like Enrique, few of the other men had business cards or any identifying information on their trucks or their work clothes. Some claimed to have advertised this way in the past, but had not found that it attracted much business. In any case, these more formal signs of organization might have made them appear more expensive and regulated. There was a certain benefit for their business to appear informal, small scale, and presumably undocumented in the eyes of their clients, as when Titi’s client asked for help from one of his “friends” to fix her fireplace. Publicizing a company name and phone number on one’s truck or work clothes would have disrupted this image. Moreover, clients and workers alike appreciated the value of referrals—rather than more indirect methods—to initiate work arrangements. In fact, some clients later confided to me that they had not seriously considered initiating a project until they saw the men at work, which suggests that the prospect of finding someone to do a competent job represented a barrier overcome by the visibility of the men.
That these men secured work through referrals should be of little surprise, especially to migration scholars who repeatedly show the significance of social networks in employment outcomes. Indeed, a common theme in migration studies is the mobilization of interpersonal ties by immigrants to further their material interests. The men secured work through multiple sources, which together formed a dynamic web of relations that expanded with every successful project. However, as we shall see, the most noteworthy and illuminating aspect of the men’s work proved to be the consequences of networking on the job.
Networking on the Job
Referrals figured prominently in workplace dynamics, both in terms of how the men viewed and carried out their work and how clients attempted to motivate and control their labor. For example, the men claimed to take on projects and even lower their fee in the hope of securing future work. For reasons that often escaped my attention, they looked beyond the require- ments of any one task when deciding which projects to pursue, how much to charge, and how to conduct themselves on the job.
The prospect of further employment and greater earnings was always on the men’s minds as they negotiated with clients and completed a given project. For example, as Titi painted the interior of the condominium apartment referred to in the opening vignette, he repeatedly told me that he expected to paint the exterior of the building, which he pointed out needed a fresh coat. In fact, it became a running joke between us every time we went outside for him to tell me: “I’m going to paint this build- ing.” He later told me that he was motivated to take the inside job in the hope of securing the more lucrative outside job. Although it turned out that the residents were not ready to repaint the exterior, Titi eventually won a job painting several rooms in another unit, thanks to the client’s recommendation.
For a different client, Titi agreed to do a small-scale painting job in the expectation of getting hired for additional work he felt was necessary, given the condition of the home. As he anticipated, the initial $500 job to paint the front porch led to the much larger $9,000 contract to paint the entire home’s interior. Like Titi, the men were eager to secure employ- ment in homes that appeared to require substantial work, even if meant beginning with smaller, less profitable projects. The wealth and aspirations of clients were also taken into account. For example, when pursuing the initial porch project, Titi told me with a big smile that the client “tiene mucha plata” (has a lot of money). Similarly, Valderrama explained his interest in a potential job because he had heard that the client bought and sold houses. By contrast, some clients were found to be stingy or short on funds and thus not worth cultivating.
The prospect of more lucrative jobs affected not only the men’s choice of projects, but also the quality of their work. For example, when I asked Titi why he was being especially diligent repainting a closet, he replied: “She’ll see me doing a good job and recommend me to her friends.” As mentioned earlier, Motor explained that he took extra care installing the fence around a multi-unit condominium, knowing that both the client and other residents would be watching. Based on his past experiences, he believed that once the client’s neighbors saw the quality of his work, they would consider him for their own projects. Sure enough, a second resident hired him to fix a bedroom door, and a third hired him to install a shelving unit. The last time we spoke, he had completed three more jobs in the same twelve-unit complex as he further established himself as a skillful and dependable handyman.
The quality of the men’s work, however, was not always clear to the client. Often they were not able to perceive or appreciate the effort and skill involved. Consequently, the men took pains to draw the client’s attention to less conspicuous aspects of their labor in order to highlight their diligence and expertise. They made the quality of their work more visible to earn approval for the job at hand, but also with an eye toward the future. For example, when painting the condo, Titi regularly called the client over to show her various problems he was fixing or challenges he was facing in executing the job. In one instance, he asked her to stand on his ladder to inspect a small crack in the ceiling that he was in the process of filling. “A lot of painters come and just paint without looking,” he explained to her. “I take my time and do it right.” This interaction served not only to highlight the quality of his work, but also to assuage the client’s growing concerns over how long the job was taking.
Like Titi, the men often asked clients to inspect their work and compared themselves favorably to less skilled or less careful workers in order to tout their services and justify what they charged. And, like Titi, they also employed a range of other tactics to showcase their talents, including more indirect strategies, such as making elaborate gestures to cover and protect furniture or leaving expensive materials in full view for clients to see, even if they didn’t actually use them on the job. Similarly, several painters told clients they bought materials from an upscale shop in Santa Monica, when they really bought cheaper alternatives from Home Depot. Above all, they were always careful to maintain clean and tidy job sites. At times, the men employed more duplicitous strategies to impress their clients, such as taking shortcuts without informing them, concealing problems, or taking longer on tasks to make the work seem more involved in order to increase their fee. For example, Motor surreptitiously removed part of a railing to maintain a level fence, and Pow Wow concealed a scratch on a floor using a colored marker and putty. In one of the more extreme cases, a man I shadowed filled a garbage bag with dirt from outside, which he then claimed to the homeowner to have cleaned off the window frames and blinds. As Güero explained, it was important to “mantener” (care for and cultivate) the client, and there were a variety of ways to do this, some more underhanded than others.
The men also explained that they adjusted their pricing in relation to what the job might bring. For example, Titi claimed that he could have charged $7,000 for the condo painting job. But hoping a lower fee would lead to additional jobs in the building and worried about being outpriced by someone else, he decided to charge only $5,000. By contrast, Titi confided to me that he inflated his price on a different job because he did not expect it to lead to subsequent work. Similarly, Motor offered a relatively low price on the fence job because it was his first project at the site, correctly anticipating that it would lead to other work, provided he did a good job.
The men also considered the long-term prospects of a particular client. For example, Valderrama agreed to charge one client a low rate because, as the owner of several apartment buildings, he had provided a steady supply of work for him over the previous fifteen years. These jobs became especially important as Valderrama struggled to find work with other clients during the economic downturn that began in 2008. In fact, whenever we discussed his work history and prospects, Valderrama quipped, but only half-jokingly, that this key employer “better not die!” When dealing with their regular clients, the men offered special treatment in addition to inexpensive rates. For example, Chango served regularly as a handyman for one family, and Motor did frequent work for the owner of a dozen rental homes. In both cases, the work was not always lucrative and could interfere with other projects, but the men always gave them priority. At first, I was perplexed to see them leave a job or the park to attend to their clients’ needs—sometimes for something as small as a blown fuse or burned-out lightbulb. However, I grew to appreciate how important these clients were to the men because of the steady work they had provided over the years. In cases such as these, seemingly trivial tasks were understood as part of larger endeavors.
For the most part, the men’s approach to their work coincided with clients’ interests. Clients wanted quality work at a reasonable price, which explains why they initially hired the men and subsequently rehired or referred them to others. That many of the men were skilled in a variety of trades—or usually knew someone who could do the work they could not—was crucial for securing the various jobs that unfolded in the life of a home. Chango’s work for a key client over twelve months illustrated this diversity and consistency of ventures: at this client’s home, he repainted two bedrooms, rewired a bathroom, delivered and installed a large bookcase, and removed a small tree from the backyard.
The alignment between the men’s skill and affordability, on the one hand, and the clients’ needs, on the other, was hardly surprising. More surprising were the ways clients deliberately exploited the possibility of future work as a source of leverage and control. For example, when negotiating costs with Titi, the client repeatedly mentioned: “I know people with money.” When installing the fence, the client tried to lower the price by suggesting to Motor that the other condominium residents would want his services, especially with his recommendation. One of Güero’s prospective clients made a similar point as they were negotiating a bimonthly gardening contract: “Everyone knows me here. I’ll help you out.”
Clients also used the prospect of future jobs to motivate the men to do their best work. They understood that the workers had longer-term interests and tried to leverage their best performance by tapping into their ambitions. It was a game of persuasion played by both parties, but with different goals and resources. For example, as one of Titi’s clients was inspecting his work, she reiterated that if he did a good job, she would be sure to refer him to her “rich friends.” She then added: “Trust me, they know I’m picky,” implying that her recommendation carried weight. Similarly, after a decorator helped Chango secure a painting job with one of her wealthy clients, she told him in front of the homeowners: “This is good for you. Make sure you do a good job.” We see a similar approach used by the client who hired Motor for the fence project discussed earlier. After inspecting Motor’s handiwork, the client joked that he would soon be working all over the neighborhood—a prediction he then fulfilled by introducing Motor to a neighbor who needed a broken window frame fixed. This, as we saw, led to several other projects in the same building. In the case of longtime clients, the prospect of future work could go unspoken, but nevertheless motivated the men to do their best. For example, when I asked Valderrama why he was redoing a section of a wall for one of his main clients, he replied, “He would eventually see [the problem], and then I’d be in trouble.” Valderrama and the others knew the risks of losing a valued client.
While referrals opened up the possibility for future work, “extras” were often a sure way for the men to increase their earnings. By “extras”—a term used by the men—I refer to work added to the initial job agreement. In most cases, the men were financially compensated for this additional work, although clients were adept at extracting free labor as well.
Given the nature of the home and workplace, the possibilities for supplemental work were ever present. Most homeowners had a long list of home-improvement needs apart from what they actually hired the men to do. Some predated the men’s arrival; others emerged over the course of a project. Motivated by the men’s presence and know-how, clients regularly asked them to take on additional tasks. These tasks were generally small and seemingly minor. For example, one of Titi’s clients asked him to do a variety of chores as he painted her condominium, a job that took approximately three weeks to complete. Over the course of two consecutive days, she asked him to change a lightbulb, hang a picture frame, water a plant, empty the trash, watch her dog, retrieve boxes from storage, and help her unload groceries from her car. The client prefaced each request with some version of “since you’re here.” Some of these tasks she certainly could have done herself, but others—like changing a hard-to-reach light bulb and hanging a heavy picture frame—would have been too difficult for her to do. But for Titi, these were relatively simple undertakings, especially with the help of a tall ladder and a strong coworker. Hiring someone for these menial jobs, however, would have seemed outlandish.
As I observed with Titi and several other of the men, clients often asked workers to do unpaid jobs around the home unrelated to the project for which they were hired. For example, as Motor was removing an old fence around an apartment complex, one of the residents asked him if he could remove a dozen wood planks from her back porch. This request was more substantial than most, taking us around twenty minutes to remove and dispose of the rotting wood. The client’s visible relief suggested that she felt unable to remove the rotting wood herself. Yet for Motor and his helper, moving the wood was relatively easy; moreover, he had his truck to haul it away. In this case, as in many others, the men possessed the strength, skill, and equipment to take on tasks their clients could not. Motor agreed to the work without any mention of pay, but after we finished, he told the resident that she should call him if she needed any additional assistance. Later that day, she asked Motor if he could fix an uneven door. In this case, she paid him $100 for two hours of work.
I was repeatedly struck by how frequently and nonchalantly clients asked the men to do work beyond what they were initially hired to do. They seemed to believe that hiring workers for one job entitled them to complimentary assistance on other household tasks, some of which they could have done themselves. The men’s informal status was key, in contrast to formal companies, where everything had a contractual rate and protocol. Differences in race, class, and citizenship might also have emboldened clients to make these requests, as did dangling the prospect of future work and recommendations to other potential clients.
The men generally attended to their clients’ wishes, although in private they sometimes expressed frustration over these intrusions. For example, after a series of interruptions, Titi’s helper exclaimed: “I wish she’d leave us alone.” He found her frequent requests invasive and sometimes draining; but most of all, they interrupted the work they had been paid to do and kept them from moving onto other paid projects. But Titi told his helper not to worry because “it keeps her happy” and because he was counting on her recommendation to her “rich friends.” Like Titi, most of the men were willing to take on minor—often easy—unpaid tasks in order to ingratiate themselves with their clients in the hope of gaining additional paid work.
While clients were more likely to initiate side jobs, the men themselves sometimes volunteered to take care of tasks separate from what they were hired to do. This work was usually minor as well, as when Valderrama asked a client if he needed help moving garbage bags to the alley or when Titi offered to repair the latch on a door. In cases like these, the men capitalized on their superior knowledge and capability, as well as cultural expectations about their subservient position, in order to curry favor with their clients. Most of the men’s clients took for granted free labor of this kind. Yet always with their eyes fixed on the future, the men viewed these unpaid tasks and their subordinate position within a broader and potentially more lucrative frame of exchanges. Like their clients, they exploited their informal status, which gave them the flexibility to execute their work and fees on a case-by-case basis. By doing these favors, they transformed the relationship, creating an expectation of reciprocity in the future.
Taking on extra work was not simply a way to keep clients happy. Extras also regularly surfaced as a key source of additional revenue. But in contrast to unpaid labor, most of these paid projects were anticipated and initiated by the workers. They also grew out of the work the men were hired to do, in contrast to the more disparate tasks described above. By altering the home, whether in small or substantial ways, new possibilities for payment often emerged. Some men even lowered their bids or agreed to smaller projects in expectation of expanding the scope of work and making more money as the job progressed.
The mutability of the scope of work was evident in many jobs I observed or heard about from the men. For example, Chango was hired to paint adjoining living and dining rooms. He encouraged the client to add crown molding, but she declined. She felt it was unnecessary and was worried about the added costs and complications. However, after the client saw the bare walls and rooms emptied of furniture—a requirement agreed upon for the job—she agreed that crown molding would look better and consented to the higher price. Chango later explained that he had not initially pushed for the more expensive project because he was confident she would agree to it once he emptied the room. I asked him if this often happened, and he responded with a sigh: “¡Siempre es lo mismo!” (It’s always the same!)
On some projects, unexpected complications emerged that also increased the costs. For example, Chicas was hired to install a new light and heat- ing fixture in a bathroom. The job seemed relatively straightforward, and Chicas negotiated a price of $100 plus materials. However, in the course of removing the old unit, Chicas identified a problem that required fixing. He explained to the client that the wires needed to be replaced and recommended installation of a separate breaker for the unit. The client agreed to the expanded work, which increased the cost to $300.
As with Chicas, clients sometimes had to take workers at their word when agreeing to additional work and pay. In such cases, the men depended on their reputation and powers of persuasion to convince the client, who at first might have been hesitant and distressed at the thought of increased costs. The average client’s ignorance and lack of skills also worked to the men’s advantage, since skilled homeowners might choose to do the work themselves. Regarding the bathroom job mentioned earlier, Chicas told the client that he had installed a similar breaker and wiring system in his own home. Similarly, to convince a hesitant homeowner to add crown molding in her living and dining rooms, Chango claimed that this was a standard feature in the homes of many of his clients. More typically, the problem was more or less self-evident, especially when pointed out and explained by the workers. For example, when Chino Julio removed the carpeting in a client’s house in order to refinish the wood floor underneath, he discov- ered damaged floorboards throughout the small home. When he called to explain the problem, the client asked him if he could simply repair the wood or fill in the gaps with putty. Chino Julio replied that this was not feasible and urged the client to come see for himself. After seeing all the damage, the client consented to the additional work. As he left to return to work, he yelled out: “Just let me know how much more it’s going to cost!”
New tasks often emerged due to the very nature of home-improvement projects. Once work began, clients tended to see their homes in a new light, which sometimes convinced them to agree to additional work they had initially declined or not even contemplated. As we have seen, empty rooms and torn-out carpeting presented new possibilities. The intrusive quality of renovation projects encouraged additional work, particularly those that required significant construction. Once clients saw holes in the wall and their furniture displaced, they often consented to expanded projects. They realized that doing additional work separately would have been much more expensive and disruptive. I frequently heard clients utter a version of the comment “since you’ve started” to explain their decision to consent to additional work and increased costs. Comments like these seemed to echo the logic behind that other common refrain “since you’re here” that motivated clients to request uncompensated side jobs.
As these different examples show, most of the men anticipated the possibility of extras, which motivated them to take on jobs that may initially have appeared small scale and low paying. In some cases, they doubled or tripled their earnings through additional work. Expanded projects also solidified their reputations as capable workers and led to future work and referrals. They were investing in their future, since the job they had in hand was not the one they needed to worry about.
Extras were the only way some workers could substantially increase their pay. Unlike their bigger competitors, independent contractors in this informal economy could not take advantage of economies of scale, relying instead on more intermittent gains. For example, Güero and Enrique supplemented their regular work for companies with side jobs. Güero charged around $200 a month for weekly gardening jobs, Enrique a bit less for cleaning and servicing pools. Yet both men supplemented these monthly paychecks thanks to the occasional extras that emerged. For example, Güero added annual and biannual upgrades to his weekly assignments (such as cleaning gutters, planting flowers, or trimming trees) that earned him additional money. Similarly, Enrique augmented his earnings through more periodic tasks, such as emptying pools for deeper cleanings, repairing broken tiles, or fixing filtration systems. However, in order to obtain these extras, the two men needed to hold on to the weekly jobs, which they claimed were not very lucrative on their own. Not surprisingly, they were frustrated by the clients who never went beyond the primary agreement.
Although additional tasks often increased the overall costs of projects, clients did not hesitate to exploit workplace conditions to advance their interests. In addition to receiving free labor for relatively minor tasks, they expected and generally received a discounted rate for more substantial extras—an arrangement that lowered the cost in comparison to what they would have paid to hire someone separately. A case in point is when Titi identified a leak in the kitchen ceiling of a client who asked him to check all the accessible pipes. With the kitchen walls and ceiling already opened up, this was a relatively simple task, so Titi agreed to check the pipes at no charge. To the client’s great relief, Titi’s brother found and fixed the source of the leak in another section of the house. Thanks to him, the client received a free inspection of his pipes—and peace of mind. Hiring a plumber to do this job from scratch would have meant much higher costs, not to mention all the inconvenience. Had Titi and his brother found additional leaks, they presumably would have earned additional money to fix the problems.
As in Titi’s case, I frequently observed the clients taking advantage of work in progress to attend to issues not included in the original scope of the project. Some requests were related to the task at hand; others were less connected but made possible by the work. For example, as Valderrama was digging holes to build a backyard wall, the client asked him to lay plastic tubes for a sprinkler system he eventually planned to set up. Valderrama agreed to do the work free of charge, even though it required digging several additional holes. On a different job, Motor was asked to run wiring along a fence he was installing. Like Valderrama, Motor did the work at no additional cost, hoping to impress his new clients. Attaching the wire was not difficult, and the clients were pleased to have outdoor lighting without having to find someone else to install it and pay for their services. As Valderrama, Motor, and the others knew well, work in private homes was an evolving and negotiated endeavor, and they were adept at dealing with clients’ changing needs.
On balance, this chapter presents an optimistic account of the men’s world of work. It highlights their autonomy and capacity for negotiation, as well as the freedom with which they made themselves and their work visible in public. The men had something to offer that their customers lacked: namely, know-how that might not require formal schooling but that generally entailed a certain level of competence and certainly more skill than their clients possessed or were prepared to acquire.
The more I learned about the men’s work, the more I came to appreciate the significance of the phone call described at the beginning of the chapter. For Titi and other men at the park—especially those involved in home-maintenance and home-improvement work—employment opportunities were structured by their social relations. In a world that prioritized personal connections and referrals, Titi’s excitement over the incoming call was understandable. This could be his big break, which is why his mother-in-law—despite their differences—had recommended him for the job. With these high stakes in play, Titi’s face brightened at the voice on the other line, and he agreed to meet with the client right away to discuss the project. His enthusiasm proved prescient. After establishing himself as a capable and trustworthy painter, the client recommended him to several of her friends and neighbors, some of whom hired him for their own painting projects. And, as we have seen, Titi ended up doing a range of additional jobs in their homes as well—some paid for, others done for free.
The work experiences recounted in this chapter stand in sharp contrast to other, more common depictions of low-wage immigrant workers. For example, immigrants working as babysitters, housekeepers, or for cleaning services are usually more or less interchangeable with parents, relatives, or non-immigrant caretakers. By contrast, because the upper-middle-class lifestyles or aspirations of the men’s clients have often committed them to investments requiring long-term maintenance, their relationship to the men tends to be ongoing and not one-off as it would be had they hired a day laborer. This mutual interdependence helps explain why the economic recession of 2008 was not totally disastrous for the men.
Despite their ingenuity and hard work, the men confronted challenges and setbacks working in the home-improvement sector of the economy. They faced stiff competition from other workers, which tended to drive down wages.The pressure to find work and maintain equipment proved burdensome as well—a main reason why some men preferred working for companies or in restaurants. An unregulated work environment and social differences with their clients could also be marginalizing and lead to the men’s exploitation. They were hired for their willingness to work, which sometimes forced them to accept unfair working conditions, including from clients who believed they were purchasing the right to have the men perform whatever tasks they stipulated. The men also found themselves barred from more lucrative projects because they lacked the necessary permits, licenses, and insurance policies, which confined them to smaller-scale work where these qualifications and credentials were not required. In this way, their marginal status was a double-edged sword that both facilitated and constrained their opportunities. Imperfect English also ruled them out from jobs that required more prolonged or complex communication. Thus, while pleased to be working on their own—and no longer as ayudantes—the men faced numerous roadblocks in their efforts to climb the socioeconomic ladder.
Perhaps most importantly, not all networks were created equal, nor were they permanent. Just as social connections could expand and in- crease opportunities, networks could also be unreliable and transitory.For example, while Motor boasted that “people call me now” to explain his heavy workload, Martín lamented that his contacts had retired, died, or moved away. And, as Titi’s case revealed, it takes time, perseverance, and lucky breaks to start out on one’s own. Despite these challenges, the men adapted in creative ways to create greater demand for their services. Most notably, they negotiated referrals and extras on the job to survive in a competitive, often precarious labor market.
Workers as People
When following the men at work, my thoughts inevitably returned to the park. This was due in part to the men themselves, as they often talked about goings-on at the park as we worked together or as we strategized ways to return in time for the midday soccer games or post-match beer drinking. I was constantly reminded how these worlds of work and play were intertwined. In ways I heard about but later confirmed firsthand, the park served as a place to build the relationships and reputations that helped many of the men secure employment. Others relied on the park as an arena to find hired hands they could count on, often on short notice. While this chapter focuses on work in private homes, I learned of similar network-based hiring practices in restaurants, another primary source of employment at the park. With many of the workers limited by their credentials and immigration status—as well as by a competitive labor market and isolated work environment—the park emerged as a key networking site and source of stability in the men’s lives.So, in contrast, to the men’s oft-repeated lament “el parque no paga” (the park doesn’t pay), time there could indeed pay off.
As we have seen, few of the men held traditional nine-to-five jobs. Their employment situations tended to be precarious, requiring them to be “on call” for phone calls that might or might not come. The park solved the problem of what to do while they waited by allowing them to pass the time in a meaningful way. Like other precariously employed individuals who seek refuge in coffee shops or libraries, playing soccer and socializing at the park helped fill the time between jobs, while also providing connections that helped the men find work.
But for the Mar Vista soccer cohort, the park represented much more than simply a convenient pit stop and useful networking site for immigrant workers. More importantly, it became a place for the men to enrich their lives. Here they could be someone in ways they couldn’t necessarily be at work. At the park, they participated in a social world where they were viewed as people valued for their history and for achievements beyond their abilities to wash dishes, lay tile, or mow lawns. My visits with the men on the job gave them an opportunity to share this world with their employers, who seemed to wonder how I knew them. Polo revealed the significance of these exchanges when I ate at the restaurant where he worked. He came over to my table with several waitresses and encouraged me to tell them about his soccer-playing exploits. In return, he touted my prowess on the field and my studies at UCLA. Like Polo, many of the men I accompanied on the job made a point of explaining to their employers that we knew each other from playing soccer together at the park. I sensed the employers’ curiosity and the men’s satisfaction as they relayed this information in ways suggesting that this was the first time they had communicated an identity beyond work to them.
Not surprisingly, the relationship between the men’s work and what they had created at the park was entirely absent from debates about the soccer field recounted in the concluding chapter. While some local residents were sympathetic to the men’s need for recreation, many others felt that their presence was bringing disorder and disrepute to the park and surround- ing area. But neither side in the debate seemed to appreciate how park life enriched the men’s work opportunities, in ways comparable to White men networking on the golf course, over drinks at a bar, or at a professional luncheon. Even the men’s family members failed to appreciate the importance of socializing at the park, including Valderrama’s brother, who refused to hire “los borrachos del parque” (the park drunks), as well as several spouses who urged me to avoid the park and spoke disparagingly of it to my wife.
Yet I always suspected there was a deeper, more sinister reason for outsiders’ aversion to the men’s presence and activities at the park. To put it bluntly, the working-class Latino immigrant men were seen as “out of place” at the park during “normal” working hours because they were expected to be working. It was not only the men’s foreignness that provoked this backlash, but what was perceived as their idleness. In fact, I often heard field critics question why the men were not working, as when one local resident wrote over email: “Don’t these guys have jobs?”Police officers posed similar questions when interrogating the men at the park.
The hostility the men faced for “playing” in the park contrasted sharply with the warm welcome they received as workers in people’s homes— including by homeowners living only a few miles from the park. As workers in people’s homes, their presence and activities were not only embraced, but actively sought after and relied on for all the reasons explained in this chapter. In fact, most homeowners seemed to have a marked preference for foreign-born Latino workers, which my presence appeared to disrupt—and hence their apparent relief when they learned I was not a “real” worker. Yet despite the substantial social and cultural differences separating the men from their clients, these relationships depended on trust and involved close interactions behind closed doors. Workers saw their clients at their most vulnerable and in their most private domestic spaces. Clients, for their part, spoke fondly of the men, even in familial terms, and occasionally offered them “gifts,” usually household items and clothing they no longer had use for. And even if colored by their social differences and the constraints of employer-employee relations, over time these relationships often developed a degree of comfort and familiarity, as conversations about work led to questions about the worker’s family and country of birth.
The men did not receive the same welcome at the park, where their foreignness and working-class status were perceived as threatening, rather than as reassuring and appealing. There, they became “bad hombres.” At the park, the men interacted with local residents from a distance, becoming visible and menacing in ways they were not when they were working in people’s homes. In fact, the stigma associated with “brown-collar occupations” seemed to accentuate differences that made them unwelcome in the park but approachable on the job. By contrast, I never sensed that Latina immigrant nannies faced resentment of this kind when they came to the park with their charges from the neighborhood; parkgoers and neighbors seemed to understand that they were there simply doing their job.31 This disjuncture between the worlds of work and leisure points to the enduring dilemma faced by immigrant workers. As Swiss playwright Max Frisch famously noted in an essay about foreign workers’ feelings of alienation, “We asked for workers, but people came.” Immigrants are desired for their labor, not for their social presence, and the men I studied broke that bargain by socializing as people in the park.