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.
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.
In 1986, when I was nine and my brother was ten, my parents moved us to a place I have never claimed; a place that has never claimed me. Rancho Santa Fe, California: former land of the Santa Fe Railroad, whose twisted experiments created 100-foot tall stands of rare eucalyptus across the wealthy community. Lilian Rice’s Spanish fantasy utopia. A golf course and a tennis club. The place I spent the better part of my youth; the place I first saw a ghost; the place my father died. The place where we were aliens, and alienated. And yet: it was home.
In Rancho Santa Fe, houses were full of pastels and light and high, arched entryways; they were pristine and cool as tombs. Dirt trails flanked the two-lane asphalt roads, and there were no sidewalks, mailboxes, or streetlights. The trails were made for people on horseback, an element in the landscape that might have made it feel rural, except that they led to the nearby, members-only golf course. Residents were proud of the rural fiction, though, and liked to refer to the town as “The Ranch.”
In 1986, my mother and her business partners (a trio of Taiwanese immigrants) sold their first biotech company, and there was money to move up in the world. The house we bought was modest for the area: a four-bedroom ranch house built in the 1950s decorated with old linoleum; faded, pastel-striped wallpaper; and mustard-and-brown-colored tiles in the room that would be mine. The only thing I remember from when we went to look at the house is the earthy smell of ground beef frying in a pan, a smell that to me was exotic and slightly nauseating in its plainness – devoid of the sweet pungency of sizzling garlic, ginger, and soy sauce that infused most of the meat cooked in our house.
When our parents-to-be left Taiwan for graduate school in Detroit, Michigan and Madison, Wisconsin – taking the only pathway available to them out of an island under martial law – they severed their future children’s connection to land, to our relatives, to our ancestors; to culture, customs, and language. We were born, my brother and I, as stunted blank slates, both over- and under-determined by the racial and cultural identities we would never be able to fully grasp, while those were all most other people could see.
We lost the daily fish and vegetable and fruit market in Lotung, where my mother’s mother went since she was a child in the 1930s, where everyone knew her and the fishmonger knew exactly which fish she would want; where she could walk and speak with ease.
We lost the cracked land in Pingtung, where my father’s father was an architect, and whose streets my father could traverse without a map even decades later, when he himself was an old man. (Watching him eat slices of sticky honeyed yams with a toothpick in the warm glow of the nightmarket stalls at the age of 60, I saw him become a child again.)
All my brother and I had was what we could see in front of us, every day: the graduate student family apartment at the University of Wisconsin with the red carpet and creaking metal swing set outside where we were each born and took our first steps. The small house with the brick fireplace in the Clairemont neighborhood of San Diego. The slightly larger house in Del Mar, where we became best friends with our neighbors’ friendly freckled children, who ran barefoot with dirty feet. And then the ranch house on the big land in Rancho Santa Fe.
In Rancho Santa Fe, even though by then it was already 1986, we were Orientals. We were Orientals because there were so few of us at first: just ___ ___, in my brother’s grade, whose family was so ridiculously rich they owned a pet monkey, and ___ ___, in my grade, whose father was white and wore a toupee. We were Orientals because my brother’s big white athletic friends decided it would be fun to call him “Yang” (this was not our last name). We were Orientals because I was afraid to invite friends to eat dinner at our house, because they were grossed out and said so about things like squid ink on rice. We were Orientals because our parents never made friends with our friends’ parents, not really, but only other Taiwanese people, who usually lived at least a half-hour drive away. We were Orientals because the local security patrol would slow down and tail my father when he was out walking by himself, and because my grandfather – who did not speak English and whose face was brown – was always assumed to be the gardener.
I didn’t find out until much later that one of the reasons there were so few of “us” was because up until the 1970s, people of color were prohibited from living in Rancho Santa Fe unless they were servants.
As in so many places, the land tells the history. But we couldn’t see – didn’t know – the Native people, the colonizers, the proselytizers, the developers, and workers who had made it so: The Kumeyaay-Ipai, who knew and stewarded every plant, animal, and season. The first exploratory incursions by the Spanish. The brutal mission period, which irrevocably transformed the land and decimated its peoples. The relatively brief Mexican rancho period, before Anglo settlers insinuated themselves into the landholding Californio families and reduced them to relics of a romanticized past. And then the coming of the railroad conglomerates and Anglo developers, who cloaked their proprietary violence with romantic fantasies of “gentleman” farming and the Spanish past. The Santa Fe Land Improvement Company (SFLIC). Developer Ed Fletcher. SFLIC vice president William Hodges. They imprinted their names on the landscape: Rancho Santa Fe (the “town” in which we lived). Fletcher Cove (the beach we went to most often). Lake Hodges (the lake 10 miles inland where we once tried and failed to catch fish; where, as a teenager, I went with friends to try to see shooting stars; and where, in 2010, a 17-year-old female jogger was raped and murdered).
In the early 1900s, the SFLIC found the alien eucalyptus wood they had planted all over the former Osuna ranch too soft for railroad tracks. By the 1920s, they had decided to convert the land into an exclusive housing development; an embodiment of the Spanish fantasy past. They consulted with Ed Fletcher, who would later be instrumental in developing neighboring, racially exclusive Solana Beach, and ended up working with architect Lilian Rice of the firm Requa and Jackson. Rice traveled to Spain and modeled the architecture of Rancho Santa Fe’s “town” after rural villages in Spain. Instead of a village well, though, there was a gas station designed to look like a well. Instead of peasants, Rancho Santa Fe’s developers sought to recruit wealthy, white, “family” and leisure-oriented residents.
Ed Fletcher also leased some of the land to Chinese and Japanese farmers “and directed them to prove the effectiveness of the land for cultivating fruits and vegetables” (a trick that would repeated twenty-some years later by the U.S. government when it strategically incarcerated skilled Japanese American farmers on sparsely populated lands they wished to develop for agriculture). In 1923, the farmers’ leases expired, and California’s recently passed alien land laws made it difficult for them to renew. The citrus groves Asian American farmers were forced to abandon later became a hallmark of Rancho Santa Fe’s brand of luxurious country living. (“Such plans did not include Asian farmers.”) Mexican and Native American workers contributed their expertise, too, and did the heavy lifting. But they – we – couldn’t live there unless they (we) served a white person.
While the house was plain, its grounds were not: the backyard featured a long, rectangular pool accompanied by a floral-tiled fountain that spewed water from the cement mouth of a satyr. In front of the house, along the curved, gravel driveway, was a citrus grove with fifty fruit-bearing trees, a remnant of the SFLIC’s hubristic experiments on the land.
Our parents bought the house because of the orange trees, or at least that’s what they told us. The fifty citrus trees included Valencias, Navels, Tangelos, Satsuma tangerines, Meyer lemons, and limes. (Another benefit, my father said, was that we could not see our neighbors and they could not see us.)
To the roses and palm trees, our parents added pomelo trees, guava trees, night-blooming cereus (smuggled on an airplane from Taiwan by family friends), camellias. Formosan azaleas. In the garden area, they planted yam leaves, garlic chives, and later, kale and chard. Kyoho grapevines wound across the trellis of the front entrance, shading low bushes of Formosa azaleas. When my grandparents came to stay with us, my grandmother spent long hours in the garden while my grandfather tended the orange grove.
We put crawfish, captured from the golf course creek, in the fountain. We drove to the beach and caught grunion during their nighttime mating runs, when the beach became alive with wriggling silver life.
Once, my grandfather killed a four-foot-long snake slithering close to the house with a shovel to the head; my brother kept its heavy coiled body, still twitching, in a plastic bag in his room overnight. Coyotes left their scat on the front walkway and in the backyard, and great horned owls hooted and swooped at twilight from the hundred-foot stand of eucalyptus trees that loomed over our backyard. Another time, I found a dead bunny on the driveway, probably hit by a car but looking entirely pristine. Within minutes, though, its luminous black eyes were picked out by crows.
After my brother and I left for college, one after the other, I didn’t come back with any regularity for twenty years to this house, to this land, to my parents (and my brother never really did). For me to come home, it took my father becoming terminally ill, learning how to be present during his slow decline and subsequent death; and then after that, a renewed and transformed relationship with my mother, which grew with strength and beauty and joy through our shared love of my young child. Through him, she took care of me once again; and finally, I began to take care of her, too.
During the long months of the covid-19 pandemic, the house and land brought us peace and renewal. Isolation became safety, room to breathe. The luxury to breathe, when so many could not, and still cannot, amidst this time of immeasurable suffering and murderous neglect.
Now, my mother has decided to sell the house and with it, the land. It is time. It’s all too big for just her, and my brother and I can’t – won’t – move back with our families. We will leave some of my dad here – under the camellias, in the orange grove. The places he loved the most. The trees that nourished us with their fruit and beauty for more than thirty years might be bulldozed by the next owner. The perfume of the lemons, the tart sweetness of the Satsumas – these trees that have borne witness to four generations of our family – gone in an afternoon.
A couple is very interested. They write a letter. The husband owns a business. The wife is an expert equestrian and looks forward to bringing her horse to The Ranch. (I instantly see the orange grove uprooted for a horse stable.) The husband wants to be close to the golf course. They have two young sons. (“I worked so hard to make this house perfect for a family,” my mother says.) They love The Ranch. I know they will fit in instantly, in a way we never did.
What is land when it is property?
We buy it (if we are among the fortunate). We sell it. We leave parts of ourselves in it. We move on and start all over again, until we are gone, too. And yet the land endures.
 In 1946, Carey McWilliams described the “Spanish fantasy heritage” as a key fiction upon which Anglo Americans settlers in California based their claims of rightful succession to a European past (Carey McWilliams, Southern California: An Island on the Land (Kaysville, UT: Gibbs Smith, 1946; 1980).
 Information on the Asian American farmers is from Phoebe Kropp, California Vieja: Culture and Memory in a Modern American Place (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008),p. 162.
Wendy Cheng is an associate professor of American Studies at Scripps College. She is the author of The Changs Next Door to the Díazes: Remapping Race in Suburban California (University of Minnesota Press, 2013) and coauthor of A People’s Guide to Los Angeles (University of California Press, 2012). Her creative nonfiction essays have been published in Tropics of Meta and the Cincinnati Review.
California’s contemporary wine industry has the allure of an exclusive product created by and for privileged populations. Mediterranean-inspired wineries and gentle rolling hills covered with lush vineyards dot landscapes across the state. California boasts varied wine regions extending from Napa and Sonoma, to the Central Coast, to Temecula, and to the Central Valley and beyond. Often portrayed as the purview of Italian-Americans, the state’s twentieth-century wine industry rose to prominence in the post-WWII decades and made some of California’s most storied wine houses, such as Mondavi, Gallo, and Sebastiani, household names. Further, the industry’s focus on its postwar development has built a romantic veneer around California wine that obscures its diverse, working-class roots. By looking backwards to the origins of the California wine industry, historians can claim a space for the racialized groups who built the industry and who have been rendered invisible in its most recent iterations. This history also destabilizes race and class boundaries, ultimately questioning and redefining what it means to belong in the contemporary wine industry.
In the last twenty years, prominent Mexican-American wineries have emerged to challenge stereotypes about who represents the “typical” California winemaker. Media coverage about Robledo, Mi Sueño, Mario Bazan Cellar, Maldonado Vineyards, and Ceja in Napa and Sonoma has celebrated the growth of these wineries, which collaborated to organize the Mexican-American Vintners Association (MAVA) in 2010. Many of the MAVA member wineries were founded and directed by working-class Mexican immigrants and their Mexican-American children. They developed from their respective families’ Mexican immigrant roots as well as from decades of expertise as vineyard workers. As L. Stephen Velasquez has argued, “The transnational migrants’ sense of cultural identity and the traditions they brought from various regions in Mexico helped build Napa-Sonoma wineries and enabled these families to move from vineyard workers to winemakers and vineyard owners. The stories of these families’ migration, hard work, and success illustrate the American dream….” In doing so, Mexican-American winemakers have used their work to achieve “economic and social inclusion.”  Despite this, their histories are relatively limited within the literature on the contemporary wine industry, with the exception of scholars like Velasquez who have begun to explore this work.
Mexican-American winemakers also have been featured in recent cultural productions.The 2019 documentary, “Harvest Season” profiled Mexican-American winemakers and migrant workers within the California wine industry. The Smithsonian National Museum of American History highlighted the contributions of Mexican-Americans to the wine industry in its exhibit, “Food: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000.” The Smithsonian exhibition of “La Familia Robledo” displayed items from the Robledo Family Winery, including family patriarch Reynaldo Robledo’s hat, tools, and a wine label from their 2004 vintage of Los Braceros. This red wine honors the Mexican migrant workers who labored in the Bracero program in the 1950s and 1960s. Significantly, Los Braceros puts vineyard workers—who are usually relegated to the background and rendered invisible to the consumer—prominently on display and implicitly recognizes their contributions in creating the finished product, wine. Los Braceros challenges contemporary stereotypes about California wines by highlighting the reality of who is working behind the scenes to produce the beverage in that bottle. (And yes, I have personally sampled Los Braceros—for research purposes, of course—and it is sublime.)
Despite the success of Mexican-American wineries like Robledo, and their families’ long histories in Napa and Sonoma, they are still portrayed as novelties and atypical wineries. And, wine labels similar to that of Los Braceros thatpresent farmworkers as the public face of the industry remain the exception. The continued success of Robledo and other MAVA wineries challenges dominant, white-only narratives about the wine industry in the twenty-first century. Their visibility within the industry helps assert the right of Mexican immigrants, especially agricultural workers, to be in the United States during a period where these rights are continually violated and challenged.
By ignoring the industry’s history before the twentieth century, we obscure the multiethnic, working-class roots of California’s historic wine industry that reframe the novelty of Mexican-American family wineries as part of a more complex and varied legacy. If we look to the origins of winegrowing in California during the eighteenth-century Spanish colonization of Alta California and move forward into the wine industry’s commercialization in the nineteenth century, it becomes apparent that California’s wine industry was born out of the labor of multiracial, working-class immigrants. These included California Indians and Mexican-Californios, as well as EuroAmerican, Chinese, and German migrants. Between the 1780s and the 1880s, these laborers and winegrowers transformed regional landscapes by importing foreign grape varietals, planting new vineyards, and producing California’s first vintages. Along with Native Californians, these racialized immigrant groups were fundamental in building the nascent wine industry all while they were largely excluded from citizenship in California. As such, the wine industry emerged as part of a larger system of race-making and citizenship formation at play in nineteenth-century California.
This article reveals the importance of these groups, and not just Italian-Americans, in establishing one of California’s most storied agricultural industries. Although popular books about the twentieth-century wine industry predominate in comparison to scholarship about the pre-World War II wine industry, historians have begun to explore the complex roots of winegrowing in California. This article builds on this existing literature by examining the wine industry’s varied immigrant and working-class growers and laborers, and by claiming a place for California Indians, who are often left out of contemporary conversations about the region’s history. Although Italian-Americans certainly were instrumental in shaping the wine industry we know today, they did not actually enter the scene in large numbers until the late nineteenth century, roughly one hundred years after winegrowing was first established in California. More importantly, their successes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries grew out of the foundation built by the laborers and winemakers who preceded them. Thus, while wineries founded by immigrant laborers and their children might seem like a novelty in the twenty-first century wine industry, in actuality, they are far from anomalous when situated within the broader scope of its historic origins. I argue that exploring its nineteenth-century roots reveals a complex wine industry. This hidden history challenges elite, white-only narratives that predominate within the contemporary California wine industry and highlights the historical erasure of Native Californians and other ethnic agricultural workers.
Mission Origins, Immigrant Roots: Historical overview of the California Wine Industry
As with many other agricultural ventures in California, the roots of viticulture and winemaking lie in the mission system. Under the leadership of Junípero Serra, the Franciscans constructed mission outposts up and down the coast of Alta California beginning with San Diego Alcala in 1769. After the construction of mission churches, the Franciscans’ key priority was to establish formal agricultural cultivation. First, instructing Indians in the agricultural arts were part of the process of Hispanicization, which furthered the Spanish conquest and colonization of Alta California. Second, doing so would secure a regular supply of food that could sustain the missions. Still, scarcity plagued the missions throughout the 1770s. In his frequent letters to government officials and church leaders in Mexico City, Junípero Serra frequently pleaded for materials, especially religious and liturgical goods to furnish the new missions and allow for further expansion. Without fundamental religious items—such as candles, crucifixes, and eucharistic hosts—the Franciscans could not carry out their primary objective, to convert and baptize Indian neophytes. These shortages included sacramental wine, which was of paramount importance to the Franciscans. They could not say the mass without access to a regular supply of wine, which had to be shipped from Mexico; this threatened to hamper their evangelization. To remedy these shortages, the Franciscans directed mission Indians to begin planting the region’s first vineyards in the late 1770s at San Juan Capistrano and San Gabriel, with the first mission wines produced in the mid-1780s.
The success of mission vineyards relied on the migration of plants, ideas, and, most significantly, of people. Because native California grape varietals are not suitable for wine, the Franciscans imported vitis vinifera grape vines from the Iberian Peninsula via Mexico. More importantly, the Franciscans relied heavily on the expertise and labor of Indians from Baja California, who migrated north with the Franciscans. These campesinos serve as liaisons between the Franciscans and local Indians, teaching and supervising their labor in constructing mission buildings and in clearing fields, planting, irrigating, and harvesting crops.
At its core, winegrowing was established for the sole purpose of furthering the conquest and colonization of Alta California. Wine was not simply a beverage, but rather was a tool of conquest. The Franciscans used viticulture to Hispanicize California Indians, and they used wine produced from mission grapes to convert them to Christianity. Indian laborers planted vineyards, brought in the harvest, and crushed the grapes. In doing so, mission Indians literally sowed the seeds of viticulture and wine in California. Because the Franciscans used agricultural labor to further conquest, they often eschewed modern farming methods that had the potential to make vineyard labor easier on Indian farmworkers. For example, they implemented recommendations from an antiquated Spanish agricultural manual, which meant that Indians pruned grape vines using the “head-pruning” method, essentially training vines to grow into low bushes instead of along wires, trellises, and posts. This did lessen the labor initially required to plant vineyards, but the bending required to prune and harvest the grapes was especially strenuous. This was in keeping with labor across the missions, which consisted of backbreaking stoop labor and other farm work that was not mechanized until the 1820s, long after mechanized cultivation reached other regions of North America.
During the Franciscans’ fifty-year tenure in Alta California, winegrowing remained a largely non-commercial venture. Although there was limited trade of wine between the missions, presidios, and pueblos of Alta California, and evidence of illicit alcohol sales (particularly to Indians, who were prohibited by law from enjoying the fruits of their labors outside of the mass), Spanish colonial laws restricted the wine trade. Winegrowing took a commercial turn following a series of political events that dramatically altered California. First, Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1822 opened California to foreign traders. Second, the Mexican government passed the Colonization Act of 1824 to entice colonists to its northwestern frontier. Finally, in 1833 the secularization of the missions opened up vast tracts of land originally intended for Indians, but which ended up in the hands of large-scale land owners.
Together, these legal changes directly led to the expansion of viticulture around the southern missions and the Pueblos of Los Angeles. Plentiful lands were available on which newcomers could plant vineyards, as were markets to trade in wines and aguardiente. The vineyardists and vintners driving this commercial turn included Mexican-Californios of the elite ranchero class and immigrants from Europe and the United States. In addition to their work as cattle ranchers, Californios Tomás Yorba and Vicenta Sepúlveda Yorba produced wine and aguardiente from their vineyards at Rancho Cañon de Santa Ana. They traded their ranch goods, including hides, tallow, wine, and aguardiente, with Americans like William Heath Davis. Likewise, French immigrant Jean Louis Vignes arrived in Los Angeles in 1833. He purchased one hundred acres in the center of the Pueblo of Los Angeles near the river, naming his land El Aliso and renaming himself Don Luis Vignes to assimilate into Mexican-Californio culture. While his previous ventures in France and the Sandwich Islands have failed, in California he found success. Vignes planted extensive vineyards and orange orchards and built a winery and brandy distillery. Vignes likely produced his first vintage in 1837; by the early 1840s, he was shipping his wines across California.
One aspect of winegrowing that did not change after secularization was that former mission Indians continued to labor in vineyards and wineries on lands previously belonging to the missions, but that were now owned by Californios and other immigrant landowners. In short, these two groups benefited from the continued racialization and exclusion of Indians outside the parameters of citizenship and landownership in Mexican California. At Rancho Cañon de Santa Ana, Tomás Yorba and Vicenta Sepúlveda Yorba relied on former Mission Indians who had previously lived at San Gabriel and San Juan Capistrano. By mid-1830s, they employed nearly seventy Indians across their ranch. Likewise, Don Luis Vignes hired Gabreliño Indians from the nearby San Gabriel Mission to tend his orchards and vineyards. Although Indians continued to work in a state of servitude on newly expanded vineyards, their lives were not as regimented as they had been in the missions. Landowners did not force Indians to live according to prescribed religious programs, nor did they control every aspect of Indians’ lives. As with Spanish law, Mexican laws ostensibly prohibited Indians from legally purchasing alcohol, but this did not prevent winemakers from selling wine and aguardiente to Indians. Thus, this second generation of Mexican-Californio and immigrant winegrowers was responsible for forging California’s first commercialized wine industry, which continued to be driven by Indian labor. Yet, they found ways to categorize Indians as second-class citizens, including their continued exclusion from the privilege of enjoying wine, the product of their labor.
The wine industry evolved yet again between the 1850s and 1880s following the American conquest of California. Scholars have demonstrated how American legal and economic systems, the racial exclusion of former Mexican citizens, and violence all functioned to reorganize the power and wealth in California, ultimately dispossessing Mexican-Californios of their land and property rights. A new influx of EuroAmerican immigrant vineyardists and winemakers were part of this group of new landowners that emerged in the decades following the Mexican-American War. They further commercialized and professionalized the industry by organizing trade groups and lobbying for government assistance. As they did so, these American newcomers helped to redefine the boundaries whiteness and citizenship away from their previous understandings in Spanish and Mexican California. Beginning in the 1860s, German immigrants emerged as a group of influential winegrowers in the Los Angeles area, which continued as the state’s hub of winegrowing. In 1854, German musicians John Frohling and Charles Kohler left San Francisco to become winegrowers in Los Angeles. There, they purchased a vineyard and founded Kohler & Frohling Winery. By 1858, their wines were earning prizes at state agricultural fairs. The winery was so successful that the firm collaborated with George Hansen, a Los Angeles surveyor, to establish a vineyard colony, which could sell grapes to their winery and allow for increased production. Incorporated in 1857, the Los Angeles Vineyard Society was formed as a joint-stock company by a group of German immigrants from San Francisco. The company purchased land along the Santa Ana River, planted vineyards, and built a town, Anaheim. Within ten years, Anaheim’s winegrowers claimed that their vineyards were producing six hundred thousand gallons of wine annually; although this was likely an overestimation, Anaheim’s growers were recognized among the most productive in the state. Likewise, German immigrant Leonard J. Rose arrived in Los Angeles in the early 1860s. He settled in the San Gabriel Valley on a ranch he called Sunny Slope and soon established himself as a vineyardist and horse breeder. By the 1880s, his winery was producing four hundred thousand gallons of wine and one hundred thousand gallons of brandy annually.
This period also witnessed the continued influence of other European immigrants. Mathew Keller, an Irish immigrant, established a productive vineyard in Los Angeles. Pierre and Jean-Louis Sansevain (nephews of Jean Louis Vignes) had purchased their uncle’s vineyard and winery, El Aliso, in the early 1850s. They expanded production, built new wine cellars, and were known for their award-winning, unadulterated wines. A Hungarian immigrant with a colorful past, Agoston Haraszthy was a well-known winegrower in Sonoma. Haraszthy emerged as a vocal leader within agricultural trade groups, even traveling to Europe on behalf of the California State Agricultural Society to gather grape varietals and learn about best practices from the continent’s best wine regions.
At the same these time new immigrants replaced Mexican-Californio winegrowers and landowners, the decline of California Indians in the 1860s brought different groups of racialized workers to the state’s vineyards and wineries—groups whose race and class status continued to render them ineligible for citizenship in American California.Many growers hired working-class Mexicans and Indians from other parts of the southwest. For a period, Anaheim’s vineyardists employed Yaqui Indians from Arizona and northern Mexico who had fled the Sonoran borderlands to escape war with the Mexican government. Leonard J. Rose regularly hired crews of “Mexican peons” from the nearby rancheria to work in his vineyards at Sunny Slope. Chinese immigrants also worked in vineyards, particularly as they came off working on the transcontinental railroad in the 1870s. Even in the wake of growing anti-Chinese sentiment in California during the 1870s, and with the rise of federal Chinese exclusion in 1882, winegrowers sought out crews of Chinese vineyard workers. Between the 1850s and 1870s, the colonists at Anaheim sent for Chinese workers from San Francisco several times and eventually established a segregated Chinatown in town.  For Anaheim’s growers, the Chinese “proved to be good farmers, were industrious, sober, clean, peaceful and in every way a welcome contrast to the Indians.” At Sunny Slope, Leonard J. Rose employed Chinese workers because they were “absolutely dependable and honest, rarely losing a day and seldom quitting their jobs.” Agoston Haraszthy hired crews of Chinese workers to clear land and plant over seventy thousand vines at Buena Vista Vineyard. Using their experience with dynamite from the railroads, they dug hundred feet of tunnels to construct wine cellars at Buena Vista. Leland Stanford also relied on Chinese laborers to tend his vineyards at Vina Ranch in the Sierra Nevada foothills and faced angry pushback from anti-Chinese nativists in the surrounding areas.Growers favored the Chinese because they stereotyped them as being more docile than other populations, and because they could pay them lower wages. Indeed, these presumed characteristics which excluded the Chinese from access to landownership and citizenship rights made them ideal workers from the perspective of vineyard owners.
At its core, these first iterations of the California wine industry emerged from the labor of diverse groups. This historic wine industry drew from the various populations of immigrants—Chinese, German, and Irish, among others—pouring into nineteenth-century California, and put them side-by-side with California Indians and Mexican-Californios. From landowners to vineyard workers, vineyards and wineries were unique spaces where diverse groups interacted and worked together. Most importantly, racialized vineyard and winery workers built the industry.They cleared land for vineyards, planted grape vines, harvested the grapes, and crushed them with their feet. At the same time they engaged in this important work, racialized Indian, Mexican, and Chinese laborers were largely excluded from the boundaries of citizenship in nineteenth-century California. As such, their contributions to building the wine industry have been largely forgotten and ignored.
In the late nineteenth century, a series of environmental and economic catastrophes nearly crippled the California wine industry, marking another pivot in the business. At this juncture, a group of enterprising Italian-Americans based in San Francisco reorganized and modernized the wine industry, helping to save it from demise. Within the complex racial hierarchies of California, immigrant winemakers and entrepreneurs from northern Italy were able to capitalize on their ambiguous racial status in ways that Chinese and working-class Mexicans in California, and even southern Italian immigrants working in the eastern industries were not. As Simone Cinotto has argued, these immigrant winemakers had access to “rights from which Asian immigrants were legally deprived, such as naturalization and landowning, and that were de facto denied to Mexicans by virtue of their colonized status,” which, in in turn, allowed Italian immigrants to “envision a path of mobility to independent occupations as farmers and winemakers—a social condition so deeply entrenched with the notions of freedom and whiteness in the United States.” Ultimately, these northern Italian immigrants occupied a racial “middle-ground” that provided access to the privileges associated with whiteness in California, such as landownership and capital, that enabled them to pursue wine cultivation not as wage workers, but as vineyardists and wine entrepreneurs.
The Italian-Swiss Colony was founded by prominent Italian-American merchants in San Francisco under the leadership of Andrea Sbarboro, who spearheaded the purchase of their land, Asti, in Sonoma County. Although the company struggled in its early years, it took off in the late 1880s when Pietro Carlo Rossi took over management of the company. Rossi implemented modern winemaking techniques that enabled the Italian-Swiss Colony to standardize bulk production of wine and ship its product to national and international markets. In 1894, Sbarboro and Rossi also helped found the California Wine-Makers’ Corporation, a syndicate of winemakers who organized to compete with the California Wine Association monopoly of the wine markets. The CWA and the CWMC subsequently engaged in a “wine war” over market control. Eventually, the CWA absorbed the CWMC, with Rossi becoming a director within the CWA.
Similarly, Secondo Guasti founded the Italian Vineyard Company in 1900, planting vineyards on a former Mexican ranch in Cucamonga. His proximity to the new Southern Pacific Railroad afforded Guasti easy access to distant markets. At the turn of the twentieth century, Italian-American winemakers helped to inaugurate a modern wine industry—more corporate and funded by investors, like the Bank of Italy—built on the foundation established by the diverse growers who preceded them. Unlike their predecessors, these growers preferred to hire Italian-American workers, and not racialized vineyard laborers, as had their predecessors. Guasti occasionally hired temporary Japanese workers, but Sbarboro went so far as to ban Asians. Guasti and Sbarboro’s antipathy towards Asian workers was not unique given the context of the period. They were operating in the decades after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 amid growing public outrage against Asian farmers that would, ultimately, lead to California Alien Land Law of 1913 targeting Japanese immigrants. However, their exclusion of non-Italian-American farmworkers was uncommon. Consequently, over time the wine industry became less diverse. These winegrowers flourished for the next twenty years, but Prohibition coupled with the Great Depression ultimately weakened California’s wine industry until its renaissance in the post-war period
The Contemporary California Wine Industry
Moving forward to the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, winegrowing has expanded to occupy an outsized role in California agriculture. Currently, wine grapes and wine occupy an important role in the state and national agricultural economies. Wine grape acreage in California grew steadily from just over 100,000 acres in 1960 to nearly 600,000 acres in the most recent statistics, with considerable spikes in production during the 1970s and 1990s. More recently, the number of bearing acres of wine grapes increased by 70,000 acres between 2008 and 2017. Casual observers across the state can note these changes in land use as orchards along Interstate-5 in the Central Valley have been replaced with vineyards. Within the state agricultural economy, over 590,000 acres of vineyards were harvested in 2018, producing over 4,285,000 tons of grapes with a total value of over $4.3 billion. In 2018, California wine was a top export commodity for the United States, ranking fourth among all agricultural products. Nationally, California wines made up over 91% of US exports of wine, with a value of nearly $1.5 billion in 2018. California wines ship all over the world, with top-receiving countries in the European Union, Canada, Japan, and China. Wine drives trade, and it serves as a cultural ambassador for California, drawing tourism dollars in wine regions across the state.
Clearly, the wine industry occupies an important place in contemporary American society and for California itself. The story California wine does not conform to the mythology of Thomas Jefferson’s yeoman farmer, nor is it solely Italian-American. It is a uniquely American story in that the industry was built on the model of commercial, large-scale growers who relied on racialized wageworkers. But, why should we care about the historic origins of the wine industry, particularly since there is not a linear history between its birth in the missions and contemporary industry?
By historicizing the wine industry’s deep immigrant roots and racial diversity, we can challenge contemporary narratives about the wine industry as an exclusive and predominately white space. First, wine cultivation in California grew from the labor of mission Indians, California’s first farm workers. This history claims a space for California Indians within this lauded industry. Second, this history also challenges contemporary arguments about immigration, belonging, and citizenship by unveiling the California wine industry’s deep immigrant roots. These hidden histories contests the erasure of racialized groups from the wine industry. In doing so, this article underscores the longevity and historical significance of immigrant agricultural laborers, who are largely ostracized outside of the body politic as outsiders or temporary sojourners across the United States. There is no linear line connecting nineteenth-century winemakers and vineyard laborers to contemporary Mexican-American vintners and agricultural workers. However, by putting these groups in conversation with each other and framing them within the historical trajectory of the wine industry, we begin to challenge and disrupt exclusionary racial and class stereotypes about the contemporary California wine industry.This hidden history challenges the erasure of these groups from contemporary narratives about California wine, and about the immigrants who built the wine industry. In the twenty-first century, immigrants and their descendants continue their legacy, reshaping this industry and challenging what it means to belong in the contemporary United States at a moment when immigrants are facing historic levels of nativism, exclusion, and detainment across the country. Exploring the roots of the wine industry makes a space for Mexican-American winemakers and vineyard workers to claim their stake in the rich valleys of Napa, Sonoma, and beyond.
 L. Stephen Velasquez, “Doing it with ‘Ganas’: Mexicans and Mexican Americans Shaping the California Wine Industry,” Southern California Quarterly 100: 2 (Summer 2018): 217-218.
 For example, see Frances Mollno, Deep Roots and Immigrant Dreams: A Social History of Viticulture in Southern California, 1769-1960 (PhD Diss., Claremont Graduate University, 2008) and L. Stephen Velasquez, “Doing it with ‘Ganas’: Mexicans and Mexican Americans Shaping the California Wine Industry.”
 For discussion of the wine industry’s early history, see Erica Hannickel’s Empire of Vines: Wine Culture in America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), which demonstrates how nineteenth-century viticulturists across the United States shaped continental expansion, empire, as well as ideas about race and miscegenation. Similarly, Linda Frances Mollno, Deep Roots and Immigrant Dreams: A Social History of Viticulture in Southern California, 1769-1960 (PhD Diss., Claremont Graduate University, 2008), Thomas Pinney’s History of Wine in America Volume I: From Beginnings to Prohibition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007),Victor W. Geraci’s “Fermenting a Twenty-First-Century California Wine Industry,” Agricultural History 78, no. 4 (October 1, 2004), 438–65, and Vincent P. Carosso’s The California Wine Industry: A Study of the Formative Years (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951) have documented the evolution of California’s historic wine industry.
 For further discussion of the Hispanicizing goals of the Franciscan missionaries, see Steven W Hackel, Children of Coyote, Missionaries of Saint Francis: Indian-Spanish Relations in Colonial California, 1769-1850 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 280-287; David Sweet, “The Ibero-Aerican Frontier Mission in Native American History,” in The New Latin American Mission History, ed. Erick Langer and Robert H. Jackson (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), 4; Robert H. Jackson, “The Formation of Frontier Indigenous Communities: Missions in California and Texas,” in New Views of Borderlands History, ed. Robert H. Jackson (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998), 134.
 Junípero Serra, Writings of Junipero Serra, Volume I, ed. Antoinin Tiber, O.F.M. (Washington, D.C.: Academy of American Franciscan History, 1955), 62-63, 221.
 Junípero Serra to Father Francisco Palou, written at Monterey, June 21, 1771, Writings of Juniper Serra, Volume I, ed. Antonine Tiber, O.F.M. (Washington, D.C.: Academy of American Franciscan History, 1955), 243.
 Some scholars date the first Mission vintage between 1781 and 1784 at San Juan Capistrano, but likely the first wines were produced a few years later. Thomas Pinney, History of Wine in America, 238.
 Later generations of growers named this the Mission grape. See Thomas Pinney, “The Early Days in Southern California,” in The University of California/Sotheby Book of California Wine, ed. Doris Muscatine, et al. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 4.
 Richard Steven Street, Beasts of the Field: A Narrative History of California Farmworkers, 1769-1913 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 19.
 Alonso de Herrera, Agricultura General (Madrid: Don Antonio de Sancha), 1777. Originally published in the 16th century, this treatise underwent multiple revisions by various authors well into the 19th century. Several missions, including Santa Bárbara and Santa Clara, owned copies of the reference book. See Mission Santa Clara (Mission Santa Clara Archives, R.G. 1, Series V: Secularization and the Formation of California’s First Diocese, 1833-1851, Box 17, Folder 14: Mission Santa Clara Inventory of 1851 (Reproduction, Transcription, and Translation), 1851; Thomas Pinney, “The Early Days in Southern California,” in The University of California/Sotheby Book of California Wine, 2.
 Richard Steven Street, Beasts of the Fields, 28.
 Doyce B. Nunis, Jr. “Alta California’s Trojan Horse: Foreign Immigration,” in Contested Eden: California before the Gold Rush, ed. Ramón A. Gutiérrez, and Richard J. Orsi (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 305; Douglas Monroy, “The Creation and Re-creation of Californio Society,” in Contested Eden, 180-181.
 After 1833, large land grants were redistributed to Californios at a rapid pace. Relatively few Indians received title to land, and those who did got small plots of land. See Steven W. Hackel, 388-389; Miroslava Chávez-García, Negotiating Conquest: Gender and Power in California, 1770s to 1880s (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2004), 62.
 Los Angeles was the winegrowing hub of California until the 1880s.
 Aguardiente was distilled grape brandy. It was the most common distilled alcohol in California before the Gold Rush. Pinney, A History of Wine in America, 238.
 William Heath Davis, Seventy-five Years in California (San Francisco: J. Howell, 1929), 222.
 Scott Macconnell, “Jean-Louis Vignes: California’s Forgotten Winemaker,” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture 11, no. 1 (April 2011): 90-91; Vincent P. Carosso, 8.
 Wayne Dell Gibson, Tomas Yorba’s Santa Ana Viejo, 1769-1847 (Santa Ana, CA: Santa Ana College Foundation Press and Rancho Santiago Community College District, 1976), 79; Testimony of Jose Dolores Sepulveda, The Anaheim Water Company, et. Al., Plaintiffs and Respondents vs. The Semi-Tropic Water Company, et al., Defendants and Appellants, Transcript on Appeal in the Superior Court of Los Angeles, State of California, Quoted in George Harwood Phillips, Vineyards & Vaqueros: Indian Labor and the Economic Expansion of Southern California, 1771-1877 (Norman: Arthur H. Clark Co., 2010), 162.
 Terry E. Stephenson, Don Bernardo Yorba (Los Angeles: G. Dawson, 1941), 32-33.
 For further discussion of American conquest in California, see Linda Heidenreich, “This Land Was Mexican Once:” Histories of Resistance from Northern California, (University of Texas Press, 2007); John Mack Faragher, Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015); Tomás Almaguer, Racial Fault Lines: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994); Lisbeth Haas, Conquests and Historical Identities in California, 1769–1936 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995); Chávez-García, Miroslava, Negotiating Conquest Gender and Power in California, 1770s to
1800s (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2004.
 Between the 1850s and 1870s, newly organized trade groups lobbied the state legislature to support research, education, and the distribution of plants and materials among viticulturists throughout the region. For example, see M.G. Gillette, Report of Special Committee on the Culture of the Grape-Vine in California: Introduced by Mr. Morrison Under Resolution of Mr. Gillette, to Examine into, and Report Upon, the Growth, Culture, and Improvement, of the Grape-Vine in California (Sacramento: Charles T. Botts, State Printer, 1861), 3-10.
 “An Account of the Wine Business in California, from Materials Furnished by Charles Kohler,” MSS C-D 111, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.
 “Native Wines,” Los Angeles Star, October 23, 1858.
 Leo J. Friis, Campo Aleman: The First Ten Years of Anaheim (Santa Ana: Friis-Pioneer Press, 1983), 15.
 Dorothea Jean Paule, “The German Settlement at Anaheim” (Master’s Thesis, University of Southern California, 1952), 10, 175; Leo J. Friis, 15-17
 Anaheim Wine Growers’ Association, Anaheim: its People and Products, 1869, 3.
 L. J Rose, Jr., L. J. Rose of Sunny Slope, 1827-1899: California Pioneer, fruit Grower, Wine Maker, Horse Breeder (San Marino: Huntington Library Press, 1959).
 California State Agricultural Society, Third Annual Fair, Cattle Show, and Industrial Exhibition, Held at San Jose, October 7th to 10th, 1856 (San Francisco, California Farmer Office, 1856), 21.
 “Report of the Visiting Committee,” in Transactions of the California Agricultural Society During the Year 1858 (Sacramento:C.T. Botts, State Printer, 1859), 286.
 AHungarian who claimed a dubious noble heritage, Haraszthy had already left his mark on Wisconsin, San Diego, and San Francisco where he was charged with fraud in his management of the U.S. mint. Possibly to rebuild his reputation, Haraszthy abandoned his business and moved to Sonoma to take up winegrowing in 1857. For further discussion see Thomas Pinney, A History of Wine in America, 273.
 Agoston Haraszthy, “Report on Grapes and Wine of California,” in Transactions of the California State Agricultural Society During the Year 1858, 313; “California Commission on the Culture of the Grape-Vine” in Report of Commissioners on the Culture of the Grape-Vine in California, (Sacramento: Benj. P. Avery State Printer, 1861), 7.
 Nicole Marie Guidotti-Hernández discusses the violence against Yaqui Indians along the US-Mexico border in Unspeakable Violence: Remapping U.S. and Mexican National Imaginaries (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).
 Leonard John Rose Papers, MSSHM 70724: Box 1, 25, Huntington Library, San Marino.
 For discussion of anti-Chinese public discourse and laws, see Sucheng Chan, This Bittersweet Soil: The Chinese in California Agriculture, 1860-1910 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 370 and Natalia Molina, Fit to be Citizens? Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879-1939, (University of California Press, 2006), 12.
 Minutes of the Los Angeles Vineyard Society, September 20, 1857, Los Angeles Vineyard Society Vertical File, Anaheim Public Library; Mildred Yorba MacArthur, Anaheim: The Mother Colony (Los Angeles: The Ward Ritchie Press, 1959), 30.
 Lucile Dickson, “The Founding and Early History of Anaheim, California,” Annual Publications, Historical Society of Southern California (XI, 1919), 30-31.
L. J Rose, Jr., L. J. Rose of Sunny Slope, 1827-1899: California Pioneer, Fruit Grower, Wine Maker, Horse Breeder (San Marino: Huntington Library, 1959), 81-82.
 Agoston Haraszthy, The Father of California Wine (Santa Barbara: Capra Press, 1979),28.
 “Chinese Argonauts,” Bulletin of the Chinese Historical Society of America, VII, No. 4 (April 1972), 7.
 For example, see comparison of wages paid to L.J. Rose’s workers according to their race. Leonard J. Rose, Jr., L. J. Rose of Sunny Slope, 1827-1899: California Pioneer, fruit Grower, Wine Maker, Horse Breeder (San Marino: Huntington Library, 1959), 107.
 The phylloxera epidemic of the 1880s and the overproduction of grapes in California destabilized the grape and wine markets. For further discussion, see Erica Hannickel, 161-167; Thomas Pinney, A History of Wine in America, 343-355.
 Simone Cinotto, Soft Soil, Black Grapes: The Birth of Italian Winemaking in California, (New York: NYU Press, 2012), 23.
 The CWA would control the California wine market until Prohibition. For further discussion see Ernest P. Peninou and Gail G. Unzelman, The California Wine Association and its Member Wineries, 1894-1920, (Santa Rosa, CA: Nomis Press, 2000), 72-80; Thomas Pinney, A History of Wine in America, 358-363.
Julia Ornelas-Higdon is an Assistant Professor of History at California State University, Channel Islands. Her research and teaching focuses on the intersections of race, agriculture, and labor histories. She received a Faculty Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities for the 2018-2019 academic year. Her forthcoming book, The Grapes of Conquest: Race, Labor, and the Industrialization of California Wine, 1769-1920, explores California’s 19th century wine industry as a site of conquest and racialization.
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.
Kenji C. Liu
A fig fruit is composed of hundreds, sometimes thousands of tiny flowers, florets, hidden inside a fleshy covering.
This inside-out world is why we never see fig flowers.
Some might think of oranges when quizzed about Southern California fruit, but oranges originate in China.
In science fiction, a Dyson sphere is a massive shell built to completely enclose a star in order to capture its total energy output. By containing the star, the sphere completely blocks all outgoing visible light, altering the way it appears to outside observers.
This hidden, inside-out world is why we might never be able to see advanced extraterrestrial civilizations.
Without the knowledge and experience of immigrant Chinese agricultural workers, California’s orange industry would have died quickly.
Los Ángeles has been the site of many science fiction stories, most notably Blade Runner. It is notable for how thoroughly it enacts an orientalist fantasy of a 2019 where “Asian-ness” has saturated society, but without any actual Asian people. We are an implied threat, but without us there is no future.
There’s an orchid (ophrys apifera) that looks like a certain female bee in order to attract certain male bees. But the bee is extinct. The orchid continues to testify to a bee that no longer exists. The bee is implied.
Some fig trees require a special female wasp to pollinate its flowers and grow fruit. In return, the fig offers the wasp a place to lay its eggs and reproduce.
Spanish missionaries introduced figs to California. But the fig wasp hadn’t been brought to the colonization, and the fig kept waiting for her. The Mission fig (ficus caricia) was bred to produce fruit without the wasp. The wasp is missing in our Blade Runner future.
The fig is the third tree to be mentioned in the Bible. Adam and Eve used its leaves to cover their nakedness after Eve supposedly messed things up for them.
It’s just like a colonizer to think he should cut female fig wasps out of the picture.
The self-pollinating fig is the ghost of conquest. It’s a memory of colonization. Does it remember the wasp? It might not, colonization is like that.
But when we eat a Mission fig, we eat the fruit of conquest.
In the fig community, there are different family arrangements. Some types of fig trees are monoecious which means they grow both “male” and “female” flowers. Others are dioecious in which some trees offer “male” and “female” flowers and other trees only have “female” flowers. All need special “female” wasps to facilitate pollination. Nature is naturally queer.
There’s a giant Moreton Bay fig tree (ficus macrophylla) in the heart of Little Tokyo, planted around 1920 by Reverend Shutai Aoyama of the Koyasan Buddhist congregation in front of its temple many years ago. The temple has moved, but the tree remains, watching over the block.
In some Buddhist traditions, contemplating the impermanence of the body is a way to develop equanimity and compassion for self and others. A person is basically a fig, thousands of flowers inside a fleshy covering, growing, opening, closing, passing away.
Close the eyes, turn inward. Notice the weight of our bodies on the earth. Watch the breath enter and leave the body. Watch feelings, thoughts, and sensations flower and pass.
It is hard to see what’s happening inside a person, just as it is with a fig or a Dyson sphere.
The Japanese word for fig tree, 無花果, is composed of the kanji for “no” (無)―a particle of negation—“flower” (花), and “fruit” (果). This refers to a tree that bears fruit without flowering. The ancient pictogram for 無 was a person holding something in both hands, but since then it has come to denote not having.
無 can be read as “mu,” which means nothingness, or a response to a Zen koan that has neither a yes or no answer. Rather than divide into a binary, “mu” refutes the question.
The problem with a Dyson sphere is it has a huge surface area, which makes it vulnerable to comets and meteorites. A meteor impact could throw the whole thing off-center, or burst through to the interior. An alternate vision is a tight network of stations weaving around the sun.
The ancient root of the word “wasp” is possibly related to “weave.” Weave can refer to interlacing a material together, but also to devising.
A strangler fig grows and envelops a host tree. Once the host tree dies and decomposes, it leaves a long hollow inside the fig tree.
Early Spanish missionary colonization established itself near Native American towns and villages, tried to envelop and strangle them.
The Aoyama fig tree is located in a parking lot, it grows straight up from asphalt and concrete. It is one of the only direct connections to the actual dirt below. It is also a strangler fig. What lives in its center? An entrance and exit for ghosts.
The fig’s response: 無 (mu).
If the star inside a Dyson sphere was to die and vanish, what would be left?
The Buddha was enlightened after sitting in meditation under a fig tree (ficus religiosa) for many days in Bodh Gaya, India. Though the original tree was destroyed and replaced, a branch from the original was rooted elsewhere, in Sri Lanka.
The problem with people is that we are vulnerable to everything. Almost anything can throw us off center.
The Buddhist insight of anatta or no-self reminds us that although we may have an experience of the self as continuous, when you get down to it, we are constantly changing, without a solid center. Empty of a true self.
The adjective “empty” evolved from the Old English word for “leisure.” The modern Greek word for “empty” evolved from a word meaning “freedom from fear.”
In Shinto, giant trees are often sites for local gods. Properly embued with sacred ropes and paper streamers, they become indistinguishable from gods.
There is an infamous black and white photo of the corner of First and Central, a block south of the Aoyama fig tree. It shows MPs forcing Japanese Americans onto buses headed to horse stalls at Santa Anita racetrack, then concentration camps.
Only a few more blocks away, next to the historic founding site of Los Ángeles, is where an 1871 race riot took place in which dozens of Chinese people were shot and hanged by a mob of hundreds.
Los Ángeles without Asians seems speculative, but they already tried to make it happen.
Gods, too, are implied by the empty spaces present in the everyday, leaving us wondering what or who could possibly have created this world.
The adjective “hollow” is said to originate in an ancient Proto-Indo-European root word meaning, “to cover, conceal, save.”
A Dyson sphere would only be possible because of extremely advanced technologies, which for us would probably be indistinguishable from magic or deities.
Next to the site of the 1871 massacre of dozens of Chinese is a park dedicated to Father Junipero Serra, who oversaw the system of California missions. Under the missions, Native Americans were decimated by disease, torture, forced labor, and starvation.
In the Bible, Jesus curses a fig tree for having no fruit for him. He goes on to Jerusalem where he drives out capitalists from the temple. The next day, they pass the same fig tree, which has withered. Some scholars say this symbolizes his fight against a lack of righteousness. Others say this is an example of a miracle wasted in service to a bad temper.
The fig’s response: 無 (mu).
Freeman Dyson, who came up with what’s now called a Dyson sphere, was a climate change skeptic who served on an advisory board for a conservative climate change think tank.
Figs and wasps have been helping each other out for about 65 million years, since dinosaurs were thumping around Los Angeles.
In Los Ángeles 2020, indigenous activists toppled the statue of Junipero Serra. In the social media video, someone can be heard yelling, “this is for our ancestors!”
Some fig wasps live up to two months, others only live one to two days. Research indicates that an increase of 3 degrees in global temperatures would dramatically decrease the lifespan of fig wasps.
Climate change skepticism rings hollow in the face of actual weather.
Things a female fig wasp probably hates:
Burrowing into a fig and finding another wasp already there.
Male wasps not acknowledging the immense amount of labor involved in pollinating and laying eggs.
When another wasp comes calling in the middle of the night and overstays their welcome in the morning.
Figs who act superior because they don’t need a pollinator.
Dying inside the wrong fig.
Some female figs can pretend to be male figs in order to seduce the female wasp. The wasp enters and pollinates, but cannot lay her eggs. She dies, and the fig digests her. Her ghost gives life to the fig.
Wasps and trees don’t actually give a fig about gender.
In Los Ángeles, there are a lot of fig trees, though you have to know what they look like. Usually, they aren’t just out in the open, waving their figs around. But they haunt the city’s corners, occasionally you meet one.
I hadn’t tasted a fresh fig before moving to California. I did really like Fig Newtons.
When eating a fig, we are also eating the ghost of a female wasp.
If fig wasps went extinct, could the remaining fig trees testify to the memory of its insect partner?
The old saying, I don’t give a fig, implies that figs are of low value.
The fig’s response: 無 (mu).
*A zuihitsu is a Japanese contemplative literary form characterized by loosely associated fragments of text.
Kenji C. Liu is author of Monsters I Have Been (Alice James Books, 2019), finalist for the California and Maine book awards, and Map of an Onion, national winner of the 2015 Hillary Gravendyk Poetry Prize (Inlandia Institute). His poetry is in numerous journals, anthologies, magazines, and two chapbooks, Craters: A Field Guide (2017) and You Left Without Your Shoes (2009). An alumnus of Kundiman, the Djerassi Resident Artist Program, and the Community of Writers, he lives in Los Ángeles.
In May of 1928, Congress passed an enabling act to allow the “Indians of California” to sue the federal government for the land lost because of the eighteen unratified treaties signed in 1851 and 1852. To limit the scope of the action and consolidate lawsuits, the act provided the first legal definition of the Indians of California: “all Indians who were residing in the State of California on June 1, 1852, and their descendants now living in said state.” Lawmakers hoped this would prevent a flood of lawsuits parcel by parcel, rancheria by rancheria, village by village, tribe by tribe. The act authorized the lawsuit, which became known as the California Indian Claims Case, often referred to by its docket number: K-344. The case wound its way through the courts until a 1944 decision.
There have always been Indians in California, and despite their distinctiveness, the conditions they faced often shared important characteristics. But the idea of a category, much less a legal category encompassing all of the state’s far-flung and various Indigenous Peoples, was a new and contested notion. The “Indians of California” resulted from decades of activism and various networks of education and mutual support in response to attacks on their existence and livelihood in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Indians of California increasingly pressed their collective issues through the courts, laws, at state fairs, and the state capital, and in defense of the land itself. The category did not subsume individual, village, rancheria, reservation, or tribal identities. Instead, the name provided yet another aggregate conceptual category to organize and strengthen local activism.
In the middle of the twentieth century, the various people that the federal government subsumed under the moniker “Indians of California” responded to and shaped the ebbs and flows of federal Indian policy. Across the state, officials clamored to dam rivers and flood reservation lands in the name of urban development. During the Great Depression, the federal government initiated what it considered a new phase of federal Indian policy—the Indian Reorganization Act. The government promised the new act ensured the independence of California Indians and other Indigenous People in North America. In Southern California, Indigenous People questioned those beliefs. Finally, in the 1950s, policies swung back toward those of the 1920s, attempting to absorb Indigenous lands and sovereignty through the ominously titled “termination” policies. Throughout the era, California Indians charted their own path to secure land and sovereignty.
Indigenous People were bound up in California’s image of itself, which was one of the state’s most valuable export commodities in the 1920s and 1930s. The region’s Mediterranean climate, landscape, and architecture, as well as its increasing prominence in the global economy, contributed to the production of the “Spanish fantasy past.” Business, culture, and political leaders highlighted California’s imaginary Spanish past to promote their vision of nostalgia for a vaguely European heritage and the tourism it supported. That story also helped to erase the diverse present by relocating people of color to the past. The gauzy stories of happy and orderly early California featured prominently at inter- national expositions held around the region. These expositions announced California’s promising future, yoked to an imaginary past. The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 in San Francisco and the Panama-California Exposition of 1915–16 in San Diego celebrated California’s growth, especially because of the increased maritime trade brought about by the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914. Both expositions presented to the world a highly idealized version of California as paradise, with its Indians an important part of that past, not the present. Later expositions and fairs, such as the Long Beach Pacific Southwest Exposition of 1928 and San Diego’s California-Pacific International Exposition of 1935–36, continued this theme.
Indians from around the state and region found work at the fairs and expositions, building the Painted Desert exhibit in San Diego in 1914–15 and performing as “show Indians” in the pageants recounting California’s history. They also produced items for display and sale. In the 1910s and 1920s, the market for California Indian baskets changed. As the collector’s craze for baskets declined, Wiyot-Hupa Louise Hickox and Washoe Lena Dick led the way to finding retail outlets to sell their baskets and to promote their work at fairs and expositions. Hickox learned weaving from her mother, Elizabeth, and her grandmother, Polly Conrad Steve, who survived the notorious Indian Island massacre in 1860, when she was twelve years old.
Pomo-Patwin Mabel McKay appeared at the California State Fair and at various times at the California State Indian Museum, where she displayed her exquisite work. At the state fair in 1929, fair officials forced her to wear a skimpy beaded and fringed buckskin dress. After McKay reluctantly put it on, she asked wryly, “Do I look like an Indian yet?” In 1934, she appeared in the Sacramento Union, again dressed in a stereotypical Indian costume that bore no resemblance to Pomo culture. McKay displayed some of her well-known laconic wit when asked, what, besides basket weaving, the Pomos do. “Just live,” she answered.
In McKay’s case, tensions between “traditional” and “market” considerations revealed themselves. McKay was a Dreamer and a sucking doctor in the Bole Maru religion. Her great uncle, Richard Taylor, led the revivalist religious movement that became Bole Maru in the nineteenth century. While McKay grew up around very accomplished basket makers, including her aunt Laura Somersal, she learned weaving in her dreams. Baskets served a critical function in her healing practice, and McKay steadfastly refused to sell those baskets. At the same time, she often took commissions at demonstrations such as the 1929 State Fair.
Indians saw attending the fair as work—perhaps unsavory at times but work that had value. Margaret Harrie, a Karuk basket maker, single mother, and pikváhaan (storyteller), wrote to Grace Nicholson:
I send you this little red basket just for [a] present. . . . My little girl made it. . . . I sell my baskets to you very cheap. [T]hat black basket cost very high [b]ut I send it to you very cheap [b]ecause I think you are my friend. . . . We do not get our straw to fix the basket with up here. We get our straw down the Klamath River they do not grow up here so we have a hard work in get- ting them I have a hard living Because I have childrens to take care of all by myself. P.S. I forgot to tell you that my baskets were all $28.75 worth.
Harrie established a trade relationship with Nicholson for very practical economic reasons and pointed out the importance of site-specific har- vesting. She pursued a similar strategy later when the anthropologists began to show interest. Around 1930, Harrie worked with Hans Uldall, a Danish linguist, reciting the story of “Coyote and Old Woman Bull- head.” Whether it was baskets or stories, Harrie recognized the value of her culture, to herself and to others.
California Indian baskets are ecologically sensitive and site specific. While weavers have adapted new plants and forbs into their baskets, the sedge, redbud, willow, and other materials that formed the core of the craft were susceptible to environmental change. Urbanization pushed increasingly complex water projects farther into the state’s interior. California’s map is dotted with sites where urban, industrial, or agricultural demand for water came at the expense of Indian communities: Hetch Hetchy Valley was flooded to provide water to the city of San Francisco; Owens Lake was drained to provide water to the city of Los Angeles; Capitan Grande was flooded to enable the city of San Diego to grow.
California Indians sat at the center of some of the most well-known histories of water disputes in the state, but they are commonly sidelined in the narratives constructed about them. For example, long a staple case study in environmental history, the story of the flooding of the Hetch Hetchy Valley is often depicted as a victory of conservationists over preservationists and an important step in the beginning of the modern environmental movement. The valley, however, was also Miwok land. Both the Ahwahnechee and the Tuolumne Bands of Sierra Miwok claimed the valley in summer and fall. John Muir praised the valley’s “natural” beauty, calling it an “acorn orchard.” Orchards are not natural, and neither was the valley’s landscape, which Ahwahnechee and Tuolumne managed through controlled burns to increase seed output and fern growth. In addition to increasing the deer population, regular burning also reduced underbrush and contributed to the growth of the black oak trees, whose acorns formed a critical component of the Miwok diet.
The actors in the story, as it is normally told, are San Francisco city officials, the secretary of the interior, President Theodore Roosevelt, and John Muir. They all wrestled for control of the valley throughout the first two decades of the twentieth century. Some saw in it a solution to the city’s growing water problem, while others saw it as a place of great natural beauty deserving protection. That distinction pitted a reflective, aesthetic use of the valley for leisure against the “daily comfort and welfare of 99 percent.” The Miwok absence in the story highlights a central tenet of the environmental movement in California—namely, that preservation often, if not always, involved removing Indians from their land or severely reducing their ability to use it. In 1919, construction of the dam began, and within a few years, waters submerged the vast “acorn orchard.”
One of the most dramatic examples of urban infrastructure intervening in the Indigenous landscapes occurred in the Owens Valley in the eastern part of the state. Owens Lake lives on as a vestigial legacy on digital street maps, but it has long since disappeared. The lake dried up in 1926 (see fig. 24). The Owens River flows south through the slender valley, fed from the Sierra Nevada on its west and the White Mountains and Inyo Mountains on the east. Owens Valley Paiutes built a comprehensive irrigation system with lateral aqueducts running off of the east- west flowing creeks to grow seed grasses and edible tubers. As a result, before American settlement, the valley supported a Paiute population of between one thousand and two thousand people.
Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, American settlers, attracted by the valley’s suitability for ranching, encroached on Paiute settlements. In a familiar pattern, settler cattle destroyed grasses and tubers, and ranchers increasingly appropriated the water, without which the valley floor would become a semiarid dustscape. In 1862, tensions exploded into violence when settlers pushed Paiutes to the north end of the valley. Owens Valley Paiutes and Shoshone Bands from the east united under the leadership of Joaquin Jim and pushed the settlers back, reclaiming the valley for a brief time in the spring. By summer, the US Army moved in to starve the Paiutes out. They destroyed grain stores and ditches and forced the Paiutes into the mountains. Fighting continued through a peace treaty, eventually leading to the forced removal of almost one thousand Paiutes from the valley to the Sebastian Indian Reserve near Fort Tejon.
Ultimately, the war cost the lives of more than two hundred Paiutes and around thirty American settlers. The army remained in the valley for more than a decade to defend settler possession. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Paiutes made up around 20 percent of the local population but a majority of the labor force in the valley’s ranching economy. Ranchers depended on Paiute labor and mountain water and therefore resisted efforts to remove Paiutes to reservations farther south or to give them a solid legal claim to control their own resources.
All of this changed when the city of Los Angeles came to the valley. Beginning in 1905, the city, desperate for additional sources of water to accommodate its rapidly growing needs, began to surreptitiously purchase land in the valley to get control of the water rights attached to it. Within a few years, the LA Department of Water and Power (LADWP) began to construct an aqueduct to carry the river water more than two hundred miles south to the growing city. By 1913, the city had fully diverted the river into the aqueduct. As much as settler society dispossessed the Paiute residents of the valley, the LADWP effectively dispossessed the dispossessors, who themselves depended on Paiute labor. By the mid-1920s, resistance by valley residents again turned violent, and they dynamited the aqueduct on several occasions. Nonetheless, by 1926, the lake dried up, leaving a toxic salt flat and layers of animosity and anger. The story, often told as a fight between small farmers and ranchers and the city of Los Angeles, took place on Paiute land and reinscribed the colonial process as it erased the wage labor that enabled Owens Valley Paiutes to retain a tenuous grip on their homeland.
Beginning in 1925, Paiutes who received individual allotments, and were able to sell their land, recognized the value of their water rights as Los Angeles attempted to increase the volume of water it took from the valley. But rather than selling their land and water rights individually, Paiutes banded together and proposed a land exchange. They proposed giving up allotted individual plots of land in return for community tracts. At first, the city of Los Angeles resisted the proposal and attempted to pressure individual owners into selling. Paiutes persisted, and as a result, Los Angeles officials abandoned the plan.
By 1932, the city agreed to the land exchange, and in 1937, Owens Valley Paiutes traded Los Angeles previously allotted land for the land that became the Bishop, Big Pine, and Lone Pine Reservations, allowing Paiutes to retain tribal land in the valley. The land exchange did not include water rights, which Paiutes retained to be negotiated later when the city of Los Angeles secured necessary approval. In the interim, Los Angeles promised to deliver water to the Paiutes. That has yet to hap- pen. As of August of 2020, the Owens Valley Indian Water Commission is still fighting for the rights guaranteed by the 1937 legislation.
A map of reservoirs in California follows the contours of Indigenous land. Nowhere is this clearer than in San Diego County. In 1919, Congress authorized the construction of a dam on the San Diego River through an agreement with the city of San Diego and the BIA. The dam was designed to create a reservoir to store water for the city’s growing needs. The Capitan Grande Indian community opposed the dam. Their resistance prolonged but did not prevent the construction, which began in 1931. Members of the Capitan Grande community split into three groups over their forced removal: approximately 35 percent of the 153 members of the community moved in early 1932 to newly constructed, architect-designed “model” cement block houses with indoor plumbing at Barona. Approximately 15 percent of the community, the shaahook (or “ten”), took their per capita shares in cash and left the reservation. The remaining 50 percent held out, refusing to move or allow officials to relocate their graveyard unless the BIA purchased a nearby ranch for their relocation. With the dam completed in October of 1934, the BIA relented and purchased the land that became the Viejas Reservation. Bureaucratic delays hampered their move. Ventura Paipa complained, “Here it is 1936, winter is upon us, and through unnecessary delay and lack of attention to our planning by the Bureau, we are facing a chance for a POOR CROP next year [with families] still living in barns with little or no protection from the winter snows sure to come.” By 1938, water filled the El Capitan Reservoir, and the former residents of the lake bed relocated to new reservations. Residents at Barona and Viejas successfully pushed to retain control over the portion of their former reservation that remains above water as a nature preserve.
This pattern of flooding Indian lands for the “greater good” of non-Indian peoples repeated itself across California time and time again. Between 1923 and 1961, major dams built on the Colorado, Feather, Merced, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Trinity, and Tuolumne Rivers flooded lands of the Chemehuevi, Hupa, Maidu, Miwok, Paiute, Wintun, Yokuts, and Yuroks, among others. The state left few rivers untouched. Forty of the fifty largest lakes in the state are man-made reservoirs, and every one of them flooded Indigenous land. A hydro- logical map of the state is a map of Indian dispossession. In the 1950s, the Bradbury Dam on the Santa Ynez River created Lake Cachuma. In her poem “Indian Cartography,” Ohlone-Costanoan-Esselen poet Deborah Miranda describes the dam’s effects:
Lake Cachuma, created when they dammed the Santa Ynez, flooded a valley, divided my father’s boyhood: days he learned to swim the hard way, and days he walked across the silver scales, swollen bellies of salmon coming back to a river that wasn’t there. The government paid those Indians to move away, he says; I don’t know where they went.
Most poignantly, Miranda points to the land under the surface of the water, “not drawn on any map.” A map of California highlighting reservoirs is a map outlining theft and erasure of Indian land.
Historical studies of American slavery have focused most intensely on events that took place in the southeastern part of the United States, and on the social, economic, and political developments that surrounded it there. In West of Slavery, Kevin Waite demonstrates that slavery was in the process of expanding in the southwestern part of the country before the Civil War began, and that efforts to establish what he calls the “Continental South” grew in strength and intensity as the conflict continued. If those efforts had been successful, he argues, slavery would have extended across the southern part of the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and even into foreign lands. Waite’s statement that “slaveholders lusted after a transpacific dominion” is vividly supported by this book.
Waite’s definition of the “Continental South” includes California, Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Utah. Although plantation slavery never took root there, he demonstrates that other forms of coercive labor received strong legal protection there and, for a time, flourished. During the Civil War, supporters of this labor threatened to bring the region into the conflict, encouraging the Confederate rebellion and promising the creation of a continent–wide nation devoted to the perpetuation of slavery and other forms of oppressive labor. West of Slavery’s purpose is to show how this proslavery influence began, continued, and was ultimately crushed.
Much of Waite’s book is devoted to the rise of pro–Southern and pro–slavery influence in Southern California, where Democrats under the leadership of California’s U.S. Senator William M. Gwin held sway during the 1850s. (Gwin actually owned about two-hundred slaves in Mississippi, although he did not bring them to California.) Southerners from the southeastern United States, motivated first by John C. Calhoun, who died in March 1850, later by a prominent plantation owner and railroad promoter named James Gadsden, and then by Jefferson Davis, who served as secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce, supported Gwin and his efforts to bring a southern railroad from the west banks of the Mississippi to San Diego and to permit plantation owners to establish slave colonies in Southern California. These efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, but not for want of trying.
The story of the slaveholders’ efforts to bring a southern railroad to California is compelling. All westerners hoped for a railway that would cross the plains, valleys, deserts, and mountains that separated the Mississippi and the Pacific Ocean. But there were different hopes for where it should be built. Some wanted it in the north, some argued that it should be built across the center of the country, and yet others in the extreme south. The southerners supported the southern route, of course, but acquiesced in a survey that would determine where the best route would be. While waiting for decisions to be made, and facing the critical question of whether the federal government should lend its financial support to the construction of the railroad, southerners supported a wagon road, first called the Overland Mail Road, later the Butterfield Overland Mail Road (John Butterfield was the man who actually ran the company that operated the road), and, after Butterfield fell into financial distress, the Wells Fargo Overland Mail. Although many Southern political leaders asserted constitutional arguments against any federal financial assistance to the proposed railroad, they were happy to support the Overland Mail road, which at considerable federal expense carried mail as well as west–bound travelers, some of whom were looking for places where they could establish colonies replete with slave laborers. When Davis learned that the southern railroad route was faced with looming mountain obstacles, he urged Pierce to send Gadsden to Mexico to purchase additional land through which the railroad could pass south of the mountains. This effort resulted in what is now known as the Gadsden Purchase. The Overland Mail was rendered unprofitable by the short–lived Pony Express, which in 1860 crossed the middle of the country, and by the development of rail routes across Panama and Nicaragua, before the last link in the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. Waite’s account of how all of this happened, and how Southern efforts to build what they affectionately called the “great slavery road,” ultimately failed, is long and detailed. His scholarship raises the story to a new level.
West of Slavery plunges deep into the Civil War history of New Mexico and Arizona and the efforts of slavery supporters to extend their empires into those territories. Political struggles were matched by military conflicts that for a time gave hope to the Southerners that they would prevail. Jefferson Davis authorized two military officers, Colonel John R. Baylor and Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley, to invade New Mexico from Texas and, after they did so, they achieved some notable victories, capturing Mesilla, Albuquerque, and Santa Fe, then going on to Tucson. Ultimately, however, they did not prevail, due in large part to anti–slavery forces that moved eastward from California to meet them. U.S. Army Colonel James Henry Carleton’s 2,000–man “California Column” left Camp Drum on the Southern California coast in the spring of 1862, passed through Yuma, went on to capture Tucson, then proceeded along the Rio Grande to Santa Fe, ultimately forcing the Confederates to retreat back into Texas. Waite’s description of these events is detailed and compelling.
Waite includes informative descriptions and analyses of events that took place in his “Continental South” as the war drew to a close, then proceeded into the post–war era of Reconstruction. African Americans did not fare well in these events, nor did the Asian Americans and the Native Americans who were faced with an almost unending chain of bitter opposition. This part of West of Slavery effectively extends the bigger story of the efforts of the slave powers to extend their empire across North America and, after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, to perpetuate all that they could of that empire.
The book includes a study of efforts to remember the pro–slavery “Continental South” through the formation of organizations that celebrated slavery, that built monuments to Confederate heroes, and that sought to honor those heroes by applying their names to mountains, valleys, roads, and soaring trees––all in the land that the Confederates had hoped to build a great slavery empire in. Through these efforts, they sought to perpetuate the memory of what Waite calls “the presence of the Old South in the Far West.”
Kevin Waite is not only a determined scholar. He is also a wonderful writer. Those who are impatient to quickly arrive at the conclusion of his story must be patient, however. The book is filled with detailed discoveries. Sometimes it can be tiring to reach the end of a story, but the end rewards the reader’s patience.
One slight objection is the title of Waite’s book. When first read, West of Slavery suggests that the book is about a part of the West that is beyond slavery. It is not, of course. It is a land in which forced labor was strong and rampant, in which the hopes of spreading slavery and the efforts to do so were vigorous and determined, and in which the failure of those efforts was far from inevitable. If the title had been The West of Slavery, it might have been clearer. Waite himself hints at this, writing that the “preposition in this book’s title is possessive. In other words, the Far Southwest was a land of slavery and slaveholding influence; it was not free from it.” This objection is, however, not only slight––it is very slight.
Brian McGinty (BA, American History, JD, School of Law, University of California, Berkeley) is the author of twelve books and 200 articles that have appeared in popular magazines and scholarly journals. His Lincoln’s Greatest Case: The River, the Bridge, and the Making of America (Liveright/W.W. Norton 2015) and Lincoln and the Court (Harvard University Press 2008) discuss important chapters in the life of Abraham Lincoln. His Archy Lee’s Struggle for Freedom: The True Story of California Gold, the Nation’s Tragic March toward Civil War, and a Young Black Man’s Fight for Liberty (Lyons Press/Rowman & Littlefield 2019) and The Rest I will Kill: William Tillman and the Unforgettable Story of How a Free Black Man Refused to Become a Slave (Liveright/W.W. Norton 2016) describe important chapters in the struggle of African Americans to escape slavery and win freedom both before and after the Civil War. His John Brown’s Trial (Harvard University Press 2009) describes the sensational judicial proceeding that made the abolitionist John Brown one of the most famous (and controversial) martyrs in American history. See more of Brian’s work at http://brianmcgintyauthor.com/
You’re listening to a live broadcast on Ehekatl 99.9, a pirate radio station named after the Aztec god of the wind, whose mission is to “advance the proletarian interest of the community and to counteract the military-industrial propaganda of the oppressor government.” A pilot-trainee has just taken the wheel of a “700-foot long state-of-the-art post-modern dirigible,” a master pilot by her side, and this Report in Progress is tracking their attempt to find Sky City, “a conglomeration of debris in the stratospheric rings – agglutinated by force—careening through the upper atmosphere, encircling the planet.” What they expect to find there: “enough plant and animal life and atmospheric water to have sustained a totally marginalized and invisible population, in spite of the occasional 1979 Pontiac El Caminos, delivery vans, old tires and broken water heaters that fall out of the sky at approximately 145 miles an hour terminal velocity, landing in school yards and shopping mall parking lots, which the government blames on Muslims and maintains is yet another thing soon to be fixed by tax cuts.”
Reader, welcome to ELADATL, a mind-blowing book collaboration between poet and novelist Sesshu Foster and artist Arturo Romo that brings forth a whole other past, present and future within the space-time continuum we (think we) know as Southern California. Billed as “a fictional history of an actual company,” ELADATL traces the rise and fall and rise again of the East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines, a local addition to the long history of unsung ventures in U.S. airship transport by those “marginalized and disappeared” by capitalism, white supremacy, settler colonialism and patriarchy. These include, among others, the Bessie Coleman Aero Club, founded by real-life black aviator William Powell, and the East L.A. Balloon club, founded by the fictional Ericka Llanera. Building on his longstanding practice of personae-based artmaking, Romo gives this history/historical fiction a captivating visual form in détourned photographs, collages, etchings and mixed-media prints dispersed throughout the book, which blend the factual (incorporating photographs of real people, places and artifacts) and the fictional (assigning them captions that correspond to events and characters in the story).
One of the many pleasures of reading – or sifting through – ELADATL derives from the interplay between Romo’s and Foster’s sensibilities. As Romo describes their process, which includes the co-creation of characters and events, “sometimes the text would match the image, sometimes the text would fill in the gaps in the image, and sometimes the text would float away from the image. The relationship was dynamic.” With this project, and other related ones, such as a series of walking tours of East L.A. collected at elaguide.org, he and Foster feel they hit upon “an alternative to colonial, capitalist and white supremacist constructs of art-making,” working in a way that “wasn’t privatized or individualized or attuned to the market, that wasn’t restricted by hierarchy of medium, and that didn’t believe in the legitimacy of non-fiction over fiction or vice-versa.”
Another of the book’s pleasures lies in how it activates the relationship of part to whole, whether that be fragment to narrative, neighborhood to city/region, or individual to collective. The story of the dirigible lines themselves is not one of seamless coordination, but of hit-or-miss connections within a crumbling infrastructure that must constantly be made and re-made, imagined and re-imagined. In the chapter titled “Following Years Without Communications from Downtown, This Was What Our Agents Reported,” the company responds to an unfavorable customer review by organizing teams of agents to serve as inspectors, “sending them out to check on all the lines, our ships, stations, and maintenance and ancillary facilities. The reports we received back were like a slap in the face by an octopus. Twice maybe.”
Throughout the book, characters appear, disappear and reappear unexpectedly, with no one “character arc” predominating—though the on again/off again romance between Sergio, a world-weary dirigible builder, and Mel, a fearless young dirigible pilot, causes things to gel just enough before it, too, comes apart. And here, too, the lines between fiction and reality are blurred: another character, Swirling Alhambra, seems to function as a surrogate for the writer, who’s been awarded a Poet of the Universe residency “located in a remote area of City Terrace” (the East L.A. neighborhood where Foster grew up and the subject of his influential poetry collection City Terrace Field Manual). Swirling is a humorously unreliable member of ELADATL, and a source of annoyance to many, but he is committed to the collective enterprise. In this fundamental orientation he resembles both Foster and Romo themselves (who are LAUSD teachers and activists), and the novelist Oscar Zeta Acosta, author of the legendary Revolt of the Cockroach People, who was a Chicano movement lawyer.
Acosta makes several cameos in the text, and ELADATL is animated throughout by a rasquache sensibility similar to Acosta’s own, a bricolage aesthetic with an underdog spirit and sense of struggle that is “down but not out,” to borrow Tomás Ybarra-Frausto’s memorable formulation. Another rasquache forebear, Noah Purifoy, the L.A. Black assemblage artist and founder of the Watts Towers Art Center, also puts in an appearance –or his legendary desert “junk art” environment does, as an abandoned dirigible station. Nothing is thrown away, everything is repurposed — the form, or many forms, of ELADATL mark “an ongoing process of dodging erasure or denial,” in Foster’s words, “and individually, personally, reinventing community in order to survive.” As Romo observes, “the very way the book was created comes out of a particular political way of being.” Don’t be fooled by its wry, irreverent tone; this is a work of serious social imagination.
Given ELADATL’s rich texture and many layers, one must ask the question, can there even be a central storyline to a work like this? Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that there is what’s happening with the dirigibles, up in the sky, and there is what’s happening down below, an archaeology of everyday life in East L.A., with its own “mysteries,” also documented in the book, which includes over seventy pages of appendices. One overarching goal of the project, Foster tells us, “was to float the figure of the imagination over the historical landscape of the ordinary everyday and ask people to look.” The dirigible, with its slow-moving heft, drifting along erratic pathways, is the perfect incarnation of an imagination always in sight but just beyond reach of the predictable circuits of daily life (work, eat, sleep, repeat).
As we read on in ELADATL, the struggle to reactivate the dirigible lines begins to merge with the climate crisis, and the very real possibility that that there are no more possibilities to be had. Even as Mel and Tina, another young agent, hustle to get the ships back in the air, dirigible stations throughout Southern California are being repurposed by anarchist mutual aid groups and other community members to house climate refugees. At the South Gate station, Food Not Bombs “was showing Salt of the Earth and Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill over and over for refugees from the most recent firestorm . . . [and had] set up the vegetarian buffet for people who hadn’t had hot food in days, José Uriarte brought in his taco truck and set out the salsa, and even Ray Palafox mobilized Los Quemados to blast out cumbias or whatever they call it in a free concert.” ELADATL shows us what climate collapse looks like in the everyday:
That’s just how it is (when it’s not worse), everybody driving with their lights on even if it doesn’t help much to cut the blowing clouds of particulate and debris, pedestrians wearing face masks and head wraps, hunched over against it like a desert sandstorm, now there’s a haboob for you, everything glowing orange from sunlight refracted through carbon dioxide, they say, and the wind tearing through the streets . . . a telephone pole in an intersection, people driving around it, shipping container on top of a store, a billboard on top of parked cars.
In an eerie parallel to Marjorie Taylor Greene’s Jewish-lasers-from-space-caused-the-California-wildfires conspiracy theory, “experts and spokespersonifiers” insist that all of this is not, in fact, due to climate change, but the work of Hair Balls from Outer Space blasting Europe and the United States with Death Rays. While “white guys with automatic rifles” drive around “firing at anything suspicious,” the official response is the same old non-response: “trillions of spending on rockets” and “nukes to rain down on enemies and terrorists and stuff.”
Unabashedly experimental, ELADATL resists linear narrative at every turn, knocking time out of joint by bringing invisible histories to light and to life, not content to let the past be the past, nor the present be the present. This strategy reveals its full power in the moving scene where Mel and Tina briefly exit “the blasted smoke and particulate atmosphere” of full-on societal and climate apocalypse and “[descend] in actual sunshine and [merge] with the crowd into the infinitely forgetful city.” They suddenly find themselves marching towards downtown L.A. in the middle of something that looks a lot like the recent protests for George Floyd, or an immigrant rights protest, or a teachers’ strike—or as it happens these days, all three–running into old friends (who also happen to be Foster’s and Romo’s real-life comrades, fellow artists, writers, educators and activists), everyone glad to be there and be there together. Is this all in the past now, only a memory? Or is it a glimpse of what C.L.R. James called “the future in the present,” a way out of the nightmare – if, like Foster and Romo, we know where and how to look.
Sesshu Foster (left) Arturo Ernesto Romo (right)
Janet Sarbanes is the author of the short story collections Army of One and The Protester Has Been Released. Her book of essays, Letters on the Autonomy Project in Art and Politics, will be published by Punctum in 2021. She lives in Los Angeles and teaches in the MFA Creative Writing Program at CalArts.
 “Q & A with Sesshu Foster and Arturo Ernesto Romo, authors of ELADATL: A History of the East los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines,” City Lights.
 Ybarra-Frausto, Tomás. “Rasquachismo: a Chicano sensibility.” In Chicano aesthetics : Rasquachismo, 5-8. Exh. cat., Phenix, Aruz. : MARS, Movimiento Artiscico del Rio Salado, 1989.
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.
George B. Sánchez-Tello
The long white buses are unmarked. The paint job on the bus panels looks thin and cheap. If I stare long enough, I could probably make out the name of the school district or church or factory under that white layer of cover. The buses idle in an empty parking lot which is pockmarked with potholes partially filled with drainage. The gravel is crumbling. The people boarding the buses stand in single file. Their informal uniform consists of jeans and sweatshirts, baseball hats, bandanas and other shards of cloth fashioned into face masks.
In the distance, mist hovers over the fields. The buses will carry them to those fields. Soon the workers will be silhouettes in the distance, bent over and picking, working themselves up and down the rows of lettuce, strawberry and spinach.
Every one of them has a name. A home they come from. A language they were born into and another adopted for work. Most of those people have children. I always wondered who they were and what was their story. None of this is new. There was no “news peg to hang it on,” as an editor would say. So I wrote a song.
In the pre-dawn dust of the parking lot the workers form a line They board the long white transport bus and hope the kids are fine Left home alone with the little ones The cousins will take care Mom wraps a t-shirt around her face to filter out the filthy air No food to wake the little ones Pop tarts will do just fine Gonna’ make do with what we got Gotta’ stretch every single last dime Why? Cause that’s where we’re at.
A few miles away, on a given Friday night, the children of those workers sing along. In a small café or the back room of a Mexican restaurant, bodies pack together, in their own uniform of jeans, faded black t-shirts with band logos, jackets or vests quilted with small square patches. Everyone joins in to sing:
Another song about the Salad Bowl About the place that we live This valley can be a prison Just ask the kids!
“Where We’re At” is a song I wrote for Rum & Rebellion, a punk rock band from Salinas, a farm town in Monterey County on California’s Central Coast. We were one of many: from Salas, Chole, Prunetucky, Watson and King City. We played in cafes, backyards, apartments, community centers, storage sheds, bars, restaurants, parking lots and clubs.
Rum & Rebellion songs were a refuge for stories. A place to safely express my voice – literal and literary. During the day, I worked as a newspaper reporter, first for the Salinas Californian and later the Monterey County Herald. I often wrote newspaper articles about crime, education and local politics. I wrote songs about what I witnessed: The tired paletero. The teenager walking to school. The father of a lifer. The campesino. Portraits of the people, stories and moments between me and the farm fields that surrounded a town known for labor, e. coli and, of course, Mr. Steinbeck. What was otherwise setting in an article became a story in a song.
For being a small, farm town, Salinas has a population of about 150,000, making it the largest city in Monterey County. Someone once said the population doubled during the harvest season. Of course, it was exaggeration, but the harvest – or more like the people harvesting – was inherent in all aspects of life in Salas. Education officials coordinate with districts in Washington and Arizona as families migrate to work the harvest elsewhere. The school districts start later in the winter to account for families returning from Mexico. For many years the town was segregated: Whites to the west, Mexicans to the east, or the Alisal, as it was called. The annual César Chávez march is not a relic from a Chicano Studies class, but a testament to community, organizing and the continuing ability to mobilize in support of one another.
Not all Rum & Rebellion songs were high-minded: I wrote about crushes on an older woman and colleagues. And drinking.
I wrote angry responses: as in the song “No Charity”
Don’t need no charity Got my own pair of lungs There are no voiceless there’s only repression
And songs – “Hey Armando!”, “No Folk Song (New DA Blues),” “Not Down”, “Four Years” – about prisoners. All of whom I’d met and spoken with.
If there was a news peg, I filed an article. But the daily, almost taken for granted, became song. I think one of my favorite compliments of Rum & Rebellion lyrics was the disappointment from one person after she learned I was from Los Angeles and not Salas.
Rum & Rebellion came together after a freelance assignment for Punk Planet, one of the national punk ‘zines at the time. Scott MacDonald, a photographer for the SalinasCalifornian, and I spent a weekend with Against Me! and Lucero. Scott also played drums. I could play guitar. I could write. And yell.
As a reporter, there were stories I carried with me, stories I’d witnessed, that would never get past my editors. Like the quiet dignity of campesinos lining up for work in the early morning: a sight so familiar in East Salinas it had become a regular backdrop. Or the ritual of family members waiting in line outside county jail on visiting day. Stories that required more nuance than I could fit into a 12-inch print article. Or stories that required a different worldview than most of the papers’ readers and editors.
There were subtle reminders, like the “news from home” section that carried articles from the Midwest. Maybe it was because I was from Los Angeles and I had plenty of co-workers from other parts of California, or simply knowing home for many in Salinas was Mexico. Sometimes they were blatant: like a red faced, irate white editor telling me “everybody knows Latinos are the most macho people.”
I can’t pin it on a single editor, though there were certainly a few that reminded me. Because I think I learned lessons about what to share and what to withhold long before I became a writer. Lessons about the sense of security in silence. Lessons learned by parents who, in turn, transmitted them to me. Lessons of “Americanization” taught by the Sisters of Loretto across the southwest two generations before my birth. Lessons of silence wrought by the onset of the Guatemalan Civil War. Lessons of hiding in plain sight after my family arrived in Los Angeles after the mass deportation of Mexican and Mexican-Americans during the Great Depression. Lessons of obedience when my father began working for the Los Angeles Police Department. And the lesson that no matter how I spoke, what I wore or where I lived, I’d never fit comfortably into an affluent white suburb.
When I wrote my entrance application essay for Saint Francis High School, I took seriously the invitation to write about someone I admired. I wrote about Steve Clark, Def Leppard’s founding guitarist. I still go back and forth about whether that was one time when I should have kept a story to myself. By the time I wrote my entrance essay for Loyola High, I had “learned” better.
As a reporter, I had my own uniform: I wore a collared shirt and necktie. With my black and white Doc Marten brogues, I had a distinct, pachuco-inspired style. But it was still a shirt and tie. A shirt and tie I wore purposefully to access what Nolan Cabrera calls “white immunity,” or the protection from disparate treatment. Day in and day out, sitting on the press bench in a courtroom, I couldn’t help but notice that the people who looked like me also wore uniforms: either orange jumpsuits for inmates or green and khaki of the sheriff’s deputies. Those with ties were attorneys, the judge and, on the rare occasion, a defendant. And me.
I learned to wear a tie at Loyola, an all-boys high school. By that point, I had learned to be careful of what I said in front of who. To be aware of authority. Eventually writing became the place where I could express myself freely.
When my editor caught a Rum & Rebellion acoustic set at the Cherry Bean and he asked me to write more articles like my songs, I appreciated the compliment, but I couldn’t simply shrug off the decades and generations of learned and practiced silence. Thankfully there were those who wouldn’t remain silent.
Touring punk bands typically bypass Salinas, heading north to Santa Cruz or San Jose. The exception were those that were connected through the Razacore network of punks who could put up bands and shows in farm towns outside the bigger cities. Thanks to Eduardo of the band Outraged in Watson, Limp Wrist came through. Argentina’s Boom Boom Kid did a show in Salas. But there were two bands – La Plebe and Los Dryheavers – with roots in Salas who always returned from San Pancho and San Jo to play periodically. Those shows were the best.
Salas punk shows meant 50-100 young, sweaty bodies squeezed up against the walls, counters and the band itself. Shows with booze were at the Penny, an English Pub, and all-ages shows were up the street at the Cherry Bean, a local café.
When the Dryheavers played, the guitarists, bassist and singer encircled the drummer. They usually had to play with their backs to the crowd to ensure the space to strum and, in the singer’s case, make sure the crush of the crowd didn’t lead to teeth getting knocked out.
There is a story about the Dryheavers. It is too good to ruin by finding out if it’s true. The Dryheavers “played” the Warped Tour. Except Warped’s Kevin Lyman didn’t invite Los Dryheavers. They simply packed up their van and drove along with the Warped caravan. At each stop, the Dryheavers set up outside the festival and played. With the exception of Kory, all the Dryheavers were big, heavy Chicanos. Not even Warped security wanted to bother them, or so the story goes.
One Salas show, in between songs, the Dryheavers’ singer, Hector, took a moment to speak. First, he needed to catch his breath. Not uncommon.
“My family works hard. They work the fields, like your families,” said Hector, slightly gasping from screaming and trying to breathe through the humid air thick with sweat and body odor.
Hector turned to Felix, one of the Dryheavers’ guitarists, and asked what his parents did.
“Big pimpin,” he responded.
The sudden pivot from vulnerable self-admission and statement of solidarity to crude humor: I laughed. That was Salas punk – irreverent, political by imposition and impatient for the next song. It was Chicano Punk Rock. It was Immigrant Punk. It was Los Dryheavers, La Plebe, Outraged, Uzi Suicide, The Gunslinger, The Kings Kids, Dear Avarice, The Achievement, Cali Nation, Bound to Break, Madtown Mulligan, Darktown Rounders, Chainsaw Death Squad, Toxic U.S. and so many others.
George B. Sánchez-Tello lives, writes and teaches in Los Angeles.
For Mark Cantu: El mejor recuerdo es una simple canción para alguien que ya no está.QEPD.
Thank you: Scott MacDonald, Claudia Meléndez-Salinas and Clarissa Aljentera, colleagues from the Salinas Californian and Monterey County Herald who added valuable suggestions and edits.
On September 9, 1942, the members of the Merchants Association of Fresno, the largest city in California’s San Joaquin Valley, called an emergency session to respond to a burgeoning crisis. For much of the year, farmers and ranchers in the Valley—among the most productive agricultural regions in the United States—had struggled to secure sufficient hands to tend to their crops and herds. This labor shortage became particularly acute in early September, when checkups revealed that more than half of the region’s highly perishable raisin grape crop remained unpicked. In Fresno County alone, officials insisted on September 9, five thousand additional workers were needed to get the remaining grapes off their vines and on to drying trays over the next eight days. Otherwise, grape growers, and the Valley economy that the lucrative crop helped to fuel, would suffer a devastating blow. So, too, would American servicemen who were battling Axis Powers overseas. “These raisins,” Irvine S. Terrell, chairman of the Area Agricultural War Manpower Commission, told Merchants Association members, “must be made for the soldiers, sailors and marines on the fighting fronts, as requested by the government.” And if the raisins were not made immediately, Terrell warned, “you merchants are going to see the government step in and allocate labor.”
Terrell and his colleagues on the newly established Area Agricultural War Manpower Commission (AAWMC), which had jurisdiction over the southern section of the San Joaquin Valley, singled out Fresno residents—and especially the employees of local businesses—for failing to volunteer to assist with the vital grape harvest. Earlier that day, at a meeting between the AAWMC and the Fresno County Chamber of Commerce, Terrell had chastised “city people” for not contributing. “The school children are doing a fine job,” he insisted, “but when we can get only 200 or 300 people out of the stores to help in the harvest something is wrong.”
At the emergency Merchants Association of Fresno meeting a few hours later, local business owners agreed to immediately commence a recruitment program to enlist 25% of clerks at Fresno businesses to take leave from their jobs and report to Valley vineyards. They hoped that this plan would add at least six hundred more grape pickers each day, putting a sizeable dent in the five thousand–person county-wide shortage.
The recruitment program, combined with the broader mobilization of community members throughout the Valley that had begun in August and would last through the end of the year, worked. By September 16, just a week after the emergency session, Valley officials were praising what later became known as the Victory Harvest Army—comprising furloughed store workers as well as students, housewives, and other community members—for rescuing the grape harvest. “This voluntary movement of local volunteers to the fields and vineyards,” announced Willard S. Marsh of Fresno’s United States Employment Service office, “has been the salvation of the crops.” Marsh estimated that ten thousand people—fully 5% of the county’s population—had been employed by farms since the start of September. “Unless the movement slackens,” he added, “Fresno County’s raisin variety grape harvest will be virtually complete within a week.” Marsh was particularly keen to thank the area’s grammar and high school students for their willingness to lend a hand.
The Victory Harvest Army was in some ways a model of patriotism, volunteerism, and community cooperation. Faced with an unprecedented crisis, San Joaquin Valley residents from all walks of life rallied together to salvage the year’s raisin grape crop as well as a handful of others, including a cotton crop valued at $51 million. Through these efforts, they not only helped to rescue the region’s most important industry from potential ruin but also contributed to the worldwide struggle between freedom and democracy on the one hand, and tyranny and fascism on the other. Even if they could not produce munitions in a factory or use them on the battlefield, the harvest gave Valley civilians an opportunity to do their part.
Yet Irvine Terrell’s warning that Fresno clerks might be compelled to take to the fields exposes the fact that the successful 1942 harvest was not without its problems and ironies, some of which belied the very ideals for which American soldiers were fighting overseas. As the labor shortage worsened in the latter half of the year, for one, Valley authorities targeted individuals and businesses that did not appear to be aiding the harvest, at times even attempting to coerce “vagrants” and other reluctant workers into the fields. Communities across the Valley also experimented with the practice of promising leniency to prisoners who cooperated, while at the same time threatening harsher sentences for those who refused.
California’s 1942 farm labor shortage spurred a nasty public debate as well, much of which played out in the pages of the Fresno Bee, the Valley’s leading newspaper. While some residents hoped to tap Mexican nationals and especially Japanese internees held that summer in area relocation centers, others denounced these non-white sources of labor, often in unapologetically racist terms. The irony of the anti-Japanese attacks was that the labor shortage itself was to some extent the result of the federal government’s xenophobic decision to evacuate Japanese residents, many of whom had worked in agriculture.
The 1942 labor crisis revealed another irony, too—farmers’ deep-seated affinity for government aid. As they had for decades, Valley agricultural interests called for, and benefited from, interventions and resources from federal, state, and county officials, undercutting boasts that free enterprise and rugged individualism—embodied by the mythic Western cowboy—were sufficient for growing crops.
In the spring and summer of 1942, residents of the San Joaquin Valley—which stretches 260 miles from The Grapevine in the south to Lodi in the north—were plagued by war-related anxiety, much of which centered on Japanese Americans. Nearly everyone who wrote in to the Fresno Bee to discuss removal, ordered by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on February 19, just months after the Pearl Harbor bombing, supported the plan. The Japanese, whether native born or not, were disloyal. To trust them, argued Mrs. B.E.S. of Fresno, was “like trying to pet a mad dog.” W.R. Arrington of nearby Firebaugh agreed: “The Japanese people are somewhat unique for striking unexpectedly from behind a smile, a smirk or a bow.” One Fresnan suggested the formation of a home guard comprised of deer hunters—“some of the best shots in the world”—to protect against the enemy within.
Valley farmers, however, worried for other reasons. Surging wartime demand for food prompted local growers to bring more acreage into cultivation in 1942, but the draft and the lure of higher-paying jobs in wartime industry, among other factors, had already provoked farm labor shortages. This was no small matter in an agricultural powerhouse like the San Joaquin Valley, where just two counties—Tulare and Fresno, which ranked second and third in the country in the value of their agricultural output—combined to produce crops worth more than $55 million annually. What would happen to this bounty once Japanese residents, who played a central role in California agriculture as farm laborers and operators, had been evacuated?
Although some white Californians looked forward to acquiring productive land from their Japanese neighbors, many farmers expressed dismay that their Japanese workforce would no longer be around to assist them. In early April 1942, the California Deciduous Growers League, which represented the growers of cherries, apricots, peaches, plumbs, pears, and grapes, asked the Department of Agriculture to delay removal in twelve counties where twenty thousand people of Japanese descent were critical to picking operations. In Fresno, Tulare, and Kern counties, ethnic Japanese residents constituted 25% of the pickers; in Merced County, they made up 75%. Noting that the picking and handling of deciduous fruit necessitated “a high degree of skill and experience,” the League insisted that it would be impossible to train replacements in time. This was only the beginning, of course, as other crops—from olives, to strawberries, to cotton—would need to be harvested in the coming months as well. Production on farms operated by Japanese Americans would also be affected. Japanese internees had produced 20% of the total acreage of vegetables grown in California, Oregon, and Washington and 70% of the total acreage of berries in California. They also cultivated more than twenty-seven thousand acres of grapes, nearly all in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys.
The federal government had, to some extent, anticipated adverse consequences on farming. During initial discussions about the possible removal of Japanese residents in early 1942, several officials pointed out that West Coast crop production would suffer in the event of Japanese evacuation. The U.S. Army responded to this challenge by forcing Japanese farmers to carry on with the spring planting under threat of arrest for hindering the war effort, even though the removal order meant that they would not be around to reap the rewards of their efforts in the fall. The Department of Agriculture, in turn, created the Wartime Farm Adjustment Program to facilitate the transfer of farm lands owned or rented by Japanese residents to non-Japanese operators for the duration of the war. But this program, which began in the San Joaquin Valley in mid-March, was not a quick fix. It required finding farmers interested in assuming responsibility for the evacuated lands, some of whom then had to obtain loans. The program also did little to ensure that Japanese farmers got a fair price for their land, and it did nothing to make up for the loss of labor performed by Japanese wage workers.
Concerns about lost revenue and food shortages, however, paled in comparison to those about the so-called “yellow menace,” at least at the federal level. The Army announced in late April that the removal of the Japanese would proceed as planned, despite rumors to the contrary. As Colonel Karl R. Bendetsen, one of the loudest voices for removal, put the matter: “Military necessity is an unrelenting taskmaster.” By the end of the year that taskmaster had cost more than one hundred thousand Japanese Americans their freedom, according to one estimate, and in the process cost California between twenty-five and thirty thousand agricultural workers.
Some Valley residents, meanwhile, expressed skepticism about farmers’ worries, deploying a potent combination of racism and class resentment to make their point. There was no labor shortage, one Hanford man claimed; there were only big landowners—or “swivel chair farmers,” in his words—who loved the Japanese more “than they do their own people,” plenty of whom were available for work. Mrs. C. Z. Kerman of Fresno also found Japanese field hands unnecessary, though she was more inclined to blame New Deal programs than growers for any perceived labor shortage. “There are many, many people just roaming around,” she insisted. “You can see every day. If the WPA and welfare were cut off, they would have to get in and work.” “This yapping we hear about the shortage of vegetables we are going to experience on account of the dear Japanese being forced into concentration camps,” sneered a fellow Fresnan, “is enough to give a true American a severe attack of indigestion. Give the white race the same chance that was given the Japanese and its members will raise just as much and just as good fruit and vegetables as ever did the Japanese.” A Parlier man who described himself as a “100 percent…Arkansas red blooded American” similarly accused farmers of overlooking unemployed white Americans in favor of the Japanese. This Dust Bowl refugee proposed revenge, urging his white neighbors to refuse work as pickers or packers during the upcoming harvest season. If a group like the Deciduous Growers League needed laborers, he concluded, “I refer it to the many in the internment camps. Those are the headquarters for the Japanese.”
A whiff of sarcasm hangs over this man’s admonition. After all, he preferred that red-blooded Americans—which, in his mind, did not include people of Japanese descent, even if they were American-born citizens, as most internees were—be given farm jobs. But others were quite serious in suggesting the use of internees for field work once it became clear that there would be no delay in evacuation. Olive, grape, peach, and apricot growers were especially worried as spring turned to summer. In July, one vineyard owner asked the Fresno County Chamber of Commerce to petition the military for permission to employ the Japanese currently being held in the two assembly centers in Fresno. These centers held close to ten thousand people, many of whom were former residents of Fresno, Tulare, Kings, and Madera counties, awaiting deportation to permanent internment camps further inland. “Some of us will be lucky,” he declared, “if we harvest 50 per cent of our crop due to the present labor shortage.”
The chamber disliked this plan, which would have entailed transporting the internees to and from camps and paying prevailing wages. But the vast majority of organizations, farmers, and officials who went on the record—from the Fresno County Farm Bureau and district attorney to the Merced County sheriff to Governor Culbert L. Olson—did so in support of it, on the condition that the army strictly limit the mobility of internees. The Japanese “have been law abiding people,” argued one Clovis farmer, “and with a little supervision we should have no trouble at all.”
All told, 45% of Japanese Americans living in the West had worked in agriculture before the war, and in a few states some of them did end up doing field labor after removal. In Idaho, Montana, and Utah, for example, internees harvested sugar beets; in Wyoming, they built canals to irrigate farm land. But Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, who oversaw internment as head of the Western Defense Command, ultimately decided against allowing the practice in California. In a July 8 conference, he told Governor Olson that “the use of evacuated Japanese as farm workers would require an entire change of program which had been adopted as a military necessity,” framing removal just as Colonel Bendetsen had done a few months earlier.
If anyone saw the irony of advocating for the use of Japanese internees to compensate for a labor shortage caused, in part, by their very internment, they did not let on. Instead, in the face of the government’s decision, San Joaquin Valley officials and growers swiftly dropped the idea. Soon the matter became moot. In mid-July, the Pinedale Assembly Center began transporting its 4,750 internees to the Tule Relocation Center in the remote, northeastern corner of California, and to a concentration camp in Arizona. By the end of October, when the Fresno Assembly Center completed the evacuation of its more than five thousand internees to an Arkansas camp, the only Japanese residents remaining in the Valley were three expectant mothers who were temporarily residing in convalescent homes.
These developments, however, did not stop Valley citizens from regularly expressing anti-Japanese sentiments. “It burns me up to hear some selfish Japanese lover rave about turning them loose to help with the farm labor,” fumed a Madera woman on July 13. “I say pack them up and send them back to Japan.” A few weeks later another Fresno Bee reader insisted, “There is no Japanese who is a true American. They were all sent here and born here for a purpose and that purpose was eventually to control the United States.”
As Valley residents continued to denigrate their Japanese neighbors, California farmers and officials pivoted to other potential solutions to the worsening labor crisis. On July 8, Governor Olson suggested several other sources for “emergency” workers, including Mexican immigrants. Bringing in laborers from Mexico was an idea about which state and federal officials, as well as growers in numerous western states, had been talking since 1941. Yet this prospect elicited the same sort of xenophobic response as had the proposal to employ Japanese internees. “I am a solider on leave,” wrote George Dulin to the Fresno Bee on September 23, “and read in your paper that they are bringing Mexicans to make up for the shortage of laborers.” Dulin believed it was time to take a stand against this measure. “We have millions of idle men, plenty of them, in every town and city. I say make them work rather than import Mexican labor.” One week later, Mrs. M. L. K. of Woodlake, on the east side of the Valley, wrote to the Bee to say that she agreed with Dulin: “Keep the Mexicans out of our U.S.A.”
These anti-Mexican residents had little to fear, however, at least in the short run. There was precedent for American importation of Mexican labor in wartime—seventy-three thousand Mexicans had come to the United States to work during World War I—and increasing support for the plan among both officials and growers. But the shortcomings of that earlier guestworker program, which was plagued by employers’ abuse of laborers and unwillingness to abide by contract terms, made both the United States and Mexican governments slow to forge another such arrangement. The two countries started sketching out a bilateral arrangement in the spring of 1942, but they did not formally agree to the Bracero Program, as the new farm labor program came to be called, until August 4. And the first group of five hundred braceros, who were brought in to work in the sugar beet fields of Stockton, in the north end of the Valley, did not arrive until September 29. Those initial five hundred were followed shortly thereafter by small numbers of braceros contracted to grow lettuce, strawberries, and artichokes in the California’s Salinas Valley and sugar beets in Washington state. All told, however, in 1942 the United States allowed in only 4,189 braceros—and just five hundred of them ended up in the San Joaquin Valley, all in Stockton.
The failure to bring in more braceros to redress the labor shortfall frustrated Valley farmers to no end. “We asked for Mexicans in 1941,” insisted Arphaxad Setrakian, president of the California Grape Advisory Council, in a U.S. Senate hearing on labor conditions in the West held late the following year. Yet “all we get is procrastination, delay, politics, and promises.” Setrakian, a diminutive Fresno farmer who went by the nickname ‘Sox,’ placed much of the blame for the delay on social reformers—“peddlers of bunk” and “mildewed braintrusters,” in his estimation—who questioned whether growers were prepared to offer braceros adequate housing. “They always meet with us and talk about housing conditions and baths and showers,” Sox complained, “they tell us we have got to have bathtubs.” But, he insisted, the housing question was no question at all. “We constructed an assembly point to house 10,000 Japanese in Fresno,” Sox observed, adding that he wasn’t sure whether it was occupied or not. Regardless, Sox wondered, “If we need food and fiber, can anyone tell me that the Government cannot overnight build assembly points where the Mexicans can be brought and properly housed and distributed to the farmers in the neighborhood?”
Japanese assembly centers were, in fact, eventually turned into housing for braceros. But that process would not begin until 1943. In the meantime, Valley farmers were forced to rely on homegrown workers. Governor Olson had highlighted one such source—“civilian volunteers’’—in his July 8 message, though he had his doubts about whether they could make the difference. Seeking out such civilian volunteers, Olson concluded, was “a little bit like looking for scrap rubber—you get some, of course, but probably not enough that is usable.”
The governor was not the only one who had misgivings about civilian volunteers. Earlier that year, University of California professor of farm management R. L. Adams had “warned that the city bred youngsters may not be able to withstand the rigors and monotony of farm labor.” In a subsequent letter to the Fresno Bee, a Mills, California, resident added that many school-aged children—whether from the city or the countryside—would not be of much help with fruit picking, which necessitated the use of top-heavy, 12-foot ladders. Other observers believed that city students were more than up to the task.  One young Fresnan, for instance, called Adams’s comments “an injustice and an insult,” insisting that Fresno schools provided sufficient physical education training to enable its students “to do some of the toughest farm jobs.”
Thousands of Fresno youths would soon find out if they were up to the rigors of farm labor, harvesting tomatoes, grapes, and other Valley crops under the scorching summer sun. Less than a week after the Army vetoed the use of Japanese internees as laborers, the Fresno Bee reported that a range of “city folk”—men, women, and children—had begun spending weekends and summer vacation as volunteer pickers at area farms. Over the next few months, the newspaper was filled with stories, often two or three a day, chronicling the campaign of a labor force that by the fall had been dubbed the “Victory Harvest Army.”
The San Joaquin Valley was not the only part of the country that tapped students, housewives, and other volunteers for the 1942 harvest. Farmers in at least five western states targeted these populations as well. New York and New Jersey each passed legislation easing child labor laws so that students over 14 years of age could be excused from classes to work on farms. Seven thousand New York City high school students applied for summer agricultural work on upstate farms, and some schools in Washington state moved to a six-day-week schedule to shorten the academic year and free up students to work.
Women, too, flooded farms—from the South Atlantic states to the West Coast. According to one survey, women accounted for 13% of total agricultural workers in 1942, compared to just 1.5% in 1941. During the fall cotton harvest, residents in at least half a dozen Georgia counties took picking holidays, while the Works Progress Administration halted all Atlanta-area construction projects to free up six hundred men to head out to the cotton fields.
But few, if any, communities marshalled a phalanx of pickers that matched the Victory Harvest Army of the San Joaquin Valley. Although the labor shortage impacted the harvest of a range of Valley crops, it was most acute for grapes and cotton.
The grape harvest, valued at $30 million, came first. Starting in mid-August, area businesses, including the main Bank of America branch in Fresno and two wholesale paper companies, began making arrangements for its employees to leave work and help pick grapes. The Fresno office of the United States Employment Service (USES), a New Deal agency that helped connect employers and employees, coordinated getting city residents to the farms where they were needed. School buses left the Inyo Street office each morning at 6:30 or 7:00 to transport workers to vineyards in Reedley, Fowler, and Kingsburg. The Sanger Parent Teacher Association and the Fresno City Board of Education provided nursery care for mothers who assisted with the harvest. In the small town of Selma, the USES introduced a two-ton mobile farm labor recruiting station—one of only two operating in California.
This initial wave of volunteerism was followed by the AAWMC’s more concerted effort to pressure workers at local businesses to join the effort. “City people,” as Irvine S. Terrell had complained to the Fresno Chamber of Commerce on September 9, needed to do more.
The Fresno Bee also pitched in, running regular stories and photographs that encouraged Valley residents to fulfill their patriotic duty to pick grapes. At the zenith of the grape harvest, the paper’s social news editor, Bess Middleton, wrote a column chronicling a day she spent in the fields. “As an American woman I volunteered yesterday to go out and pick grapes,” she wrote on September 11. “If I lived in Nazi controlled country, I, and thousands of other women, would have been ordered into the vineyards long ago, not just for one day or one week but until every grape was harvested.” Middleton worked alongside about fifty other pickers—“a true cross section of democratic America,” in her estimation—including a dentist, a country school teacher, a Fresno State College faculty member, and two dozen high school boys and girls. She was also joined by Bee photographer Edwin E. Schober, who was assigned to take photographs that might spark greater interest in the harvest. Schober lauded the personal benefits of the work, which helped settle his “rather jumpy” nerves. “Perhaps if you are feeling not quite up to par,” he advised Bee readers, “a few hours in the vineyard may be just what the doctor ordered. Then, too, you will be doing your bit to save the crop, help Uncle Sam win the war and earn a few dollars either for your piggy bank or for victory bonds.”
Despite the pressure exerted on Valley adults, area schools and their students were likely the most important factor in the success of the grape harvest. In mid-August, the principals of Selma, Fowler, Central Union, and Parlier high schools had agreed to a Fresno County Farm Bureau plan to use their schools to house and feed boys from Los Angeles and San Francisco who would temporarily be brought in to work in Valley vineyards. Meanwhile, many local schools decided to delay opening until September 28 so that their students could stay in the fields longer. Although Fresno city schools did not implement a similar delay, the Board of Education excused junior and senior high school students who wanted to help with the harvest and made provisions for 20% of city school teachers to accompany and supervise the student pickers. During the first week of school, nearly sixteen hundred boys and girls—comprising more than 25% of secondary students enrolled in Fresno city schools—were forgoing their studies to pick grapes. This included more than three hundred students from Edison Technical High School and 225 from Alexander Hamilton Junior High School, as well as members of the football teams from Fresno High School and Fresno State College.
Vernon Selland, one of the Hamilton Junior High School students who participated in the 1942 harvest, remembers those days fondly. “They called upon us to volunteer” before classes began, he observed in a recent interview, “and they said as a reward we will start school two weeks late.” Picking figs in Fresno and grapes in the Fowler, Selma, and Kingsburg area, Selland was happy to miss several weeks of school, to get paid a modest salary that “seemed really swell at the time,” and to lend a hand in the war effort. He did not find the work particularly arduous, perhaps because Selland—unlike some of his classmates—was familiar with harvesting crops, having spent several summers in the grape and cotton fields on a family farm near Caruthers. He recalls the kindness of the Valley farmers, who brought “out sandwiches for lunch and that sort of thing.” In sum, the picking holiday was a “really positive” experience for Selland and surely for many of his classmates, who were also happy to delay the start of the school year, earn a bit of money, and play a role, however small, in the war against fascism.
Vernon Selland and the rest of the Victory Harvest Army would, as we have seen, ultimately prevail in the fight to save the grape crop, saving growers from disaster by the end of September. They earned praise from the Fresno County Farm Bureau board of directors, which on October 1 passed a motion to extend its “appreciation to the volunteer workers in the grape harvest for the splendid response to the appeal from the farmer to save this tremendous food for freedom.” The board offered special thanks to Fresno youths, women, and schools, as well as to the members of the Fresno Merchants Association and “all the business interests in the smaller towns in our county” for making their employees available to work in the fields.
But these foot soldiers of the Victory Harvest Army soon faced a more daunting challenge: the cotton harvest. Like grapes, cotton was critical to the San Joaquin Valley economy—the crops were the two most important in many Valley counties—and it was deemed essential to the war effort, used to make servicemen’s uniforms, duffle bags, explosives, cellulose, and seed oil. Cotton was also California’s most labor-intensive crop, thus necessitating a large, transient work force, with a harvest season that stretched from September to January. Volunteer labor was needed to pick Valley cotton, explained Willard Marsh, Fresno district manager of the USES, “but this is not like the grape harvest—that was a matter of a few weeks, while cotton picking will extend over several months.” As such, “the volunteers must keep turning out if their efforts are to offset the shortage of transient workers.”
The Fresno Bee trumpeted the severity of the crisis in headline after headline that fall. “4,000 Cotton Pickers Needed in Kern County,” the paper declared on October 28. “10,000 Pickers Needed to Save Tulare Cotton,” it proclaimed the following day. By the start of November, the USES estimated that the Valley as a whole was short twenty thousand workers to harvest a cotton crop valued at more than $50 million. The agency tried to entice transient farm hands, sending interpreters to Southern California to interview Spanish-speaking workers living there. But it ran into hurdles getting many of these workers up north. Ultimately, Willard Marsh estimated that Valley cotton growers could count on just one third of the normal number of transient pickers in 1942. “This is the ideal time for volunteers to try their luck,” he observed on November 1, hoping to motivate locals to pick up the slack. “The weather is good, the first picking is heavy, and the wages—$2 a hundredweight—are the highest ever paid.”
Once again, local school districts ensured that students played a central role in the harvest. Many Valley schools, including those in Tranquillity, Alta Vista, Hanford, and Caruthers, adopted a minimum-day schedule, opening for four hours each morning and freeing up students to work in the afternoon. Other school districts implemented crop holidays. In mid-October, the Madera County Superintendent of Schools announced that its elementary and high schools would shut down for three weeks to enable students to pick cotton. Corcoran and Kerman schools both closed for two weeks, while schools in Tulare, Delano, and Kern counties implemented shorter crop holidays. At an October 29 meeting, the Fresno County War Manpower Committee asked school officials throughout the county to suspend classes while the weather was still good. Although the cotton harvest season lasted into January, the rain and cooler temperatures that typically arrived in late fall would jeopardize the quality of Valley cotton and make picking more difficult. “Every day gained before the advent of bad weather,” maintained the committee’s chairman, “means a higher grade product and increased supplies of cotton and its byproducts so urgently needed by America and her allies.”
On November 17, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors went one step further. Worried that less than 30% of the crop had been harvested—70% was normal by that point—the board adopted a resolution that called on “every able bodied man, woman and child in Fresno County to ‘join the Victory Cotton Army and aid in the harvesting the war crop.’” The Fresno City Board of Education, in turn, pledged “full cooperation” with the Board of Supervisor’s resolution. When city schools recessed for the annual Thanksgiving vacation later that week, School Superintendent Homer C. Wilson urged teachers and principals to encourage as many of the city’s more than thirteen thousand students to assist with the harvest as possible. “No more patriotic Thanksgiving service could be rendered by pupils and teachers than by spending Thanksgiving week…in the cotton fields to save the crop,” he held. “We may as well get used to doing these things voluntarily, because if we don’t, next year we may be drafted to do the same thing.”
Truth be told, quite a few people had already been compelled to participate in the harvesting of Valley crops. As the summer proposal to employ Japanese evacuees had already revealed, local farmers and officials harbored no inherent affinity for voluntary labor. The myriad stories of city folk and students sacrificing their time and bodies to pick crops for the war effort certainly buoyed spirits and testified to a wellspring of local patriotism. But coercion was not off the table. Perhaps the most obvious place to look on this score was the military. Several California politicians, including Governor Olson, asked General DeWitt to send soldiers to the Valley to work, for pay, in the fields. On at least one occasion in early September, about two hundred soldiers in Fresno—“all volunteers,” according to the Bee—did participate in the grape harvest. It is unclear, however, how much choice they had. Men who had enlisted in or been drafted by the army were unlikely to have been given, or to have expected, much freedom in determining how they spent their days.
According to War Department policy, troops could only be used to harvest crops when other sources of labor had been exhausted. And Valley farmers and officials, for their part, continued to believe that there were sufficient hands to be found among area residents, though these potential laborers—and their current employers—needed prodding. The emergency meeting of the AAWMC on September 9, at which chairman Irvine S. Terrell threatened merchants with the prospect of governmental labor allocation, provided evidence of this conviction. Terrell announced that “every ounce of authority of the War Manpower Commission is going to be utilized to save these crops. Non cooperators are going to feel the power of the people.”
Some in the audience had concerns about the limits of that power. When Fresno furniture store owner Louis Slater asked whether employees given time off could be forced to help with the harvest under this new proposal, Terrell replied that “such compulsion is not in line with democratic principles.” Yet the AAWMC went on to approve a seven-point program to explore designating several farm districts as emergency areas so that peace officers there would be empowered to roundup “loafers refusing to aid the grape harvest.” This proposal, however, was nixed by the regional director of the manpower commission, who informed Terrell and his colleagues that the conscription of labor was unacceptable. “Such a program,” announced the director from his headquarters in San Francisco, “definitely is not the policy of this office.”
Despite the disapproval of the regional manpower office, many Valley residents and officials embraced measures targeting so-called “vagrants.” “Go down the street,” a woman in Tulare County instructed, “and idle men are in bars drinking…Draft them or put them to work.” Local authorities by and large agreed with this sentiment. The Fresno County District Attorney ordered law enforcement officers to compel unemployed men to find work in the fields or face arrest. “I believe,” he announced, “that these idle persons are either slackers or persons not in sympathy with the war effort of our government.” Hanford judge Harry V. Breton and Delano mayor William B. Smith advocated similar policies, both of which were designed to get idle men off the streets and into the fields. The Delano Chamber of Commerce urged nearby towns to adopt its approach in order to “prevent loiterers from going to other communities and force them into the harvest fields.” According to AAWMC chairman Terrell, such steps were, in fact, being taken—and well beyond Delano. “The skid rows, gambling houses and pool halls throughout the San Joaquin Valley,” he explained in early September, “are being cleaned out and the men ordered to get into the labor ranks where they are most needed.”
State laws nationwide, including in California, gave authorities considerable discretion in defining vagrancy and, thus, in exploiting this potential labor pool. Updated in the summer of 1941, the California penal code classified a wide variety of individuals as vagrants, subjecting them to a fine of up to $500, jail time of up to six months, or both. Prostitutes, drunks, thieves, beggars, and “every idle, or lewd, or dissolute person” and “every person without visible means of living who has the physical ability to work” all qualified as vagrants. Wandering around the streets late at night was a sufficient enough violation for arrest. California officials had long deployed vagrancy laws for a variety of policing and coercive purposes, including compelling the poor to work. But the context of the war provided a patina of patriotism to justify actions that, to some, might otherwise seem to be government overreach. Authorities could argue that destitute men who refused to work in the fields failed not just themselves and their families, but their nation as well.
Authorities also targeted the incarcerated. On September 25, forty Valley police chiefs, judges, and other law enforcement officials unanimously endorsed a plan already adopted by the town of Stockton: unemployed men arrested for minor offenses, including vagrancy and intoxication, who agreed to do harvest work would have their jail terms suspended. Those who refused the offer, however, would receive more severe sentences than they otherwise would have. The secretary of the Fresno County Chamber of Commerce speculated that if implemented throughout the Valley, this plan could net six thousand additional farm workers. One month later, Merced County officials urged Sheriff N. L. Cornell to use prisoners in the county jail to assist with the harvest. “There is no way prisoners can be forced to work under existing laws,” replied Cornell. But the sheriff noted that he had been paroling as many prisoners as possible for farm work.
Valley communities even tried to limit the flow of alcohol. Bar and liquor store owners in Merced agreed in September to close on Sundays for the rest of the harvest season. Doing so, they hoped, would reduce Monday absenteeism caused by hangovers. By November, Merced farmers were asking that bar and pool rooms be shuttered for most of the week, with the lone exception of Saturday nights. In Stockton, Tracy, Marysville, and Modesto, retail liquor establishments reduced their hours of operation, closing at 12 AM rather than 2 AM and opening at 8 AM rather than 6 AM. The Fresno County War Manpower Commission (a subordinate of the Area Commission), farm industry representatives, and local law enforcement agents proposed this same plan to the county’s liquor license holders at a large meeting at Fresno Memorial Auditorium on September 28. “The midnight to 8 A.M. is worth trying,” urged the gathering’s sponsors, “for it will eliminate what seems to be one of the major hindrances in keeping available workers employed steadily.” Alcohol abuse was the worst between 12 and 2, they insisted. And the delayed opening would ensure that individuals won’t “visit bars early in the morning,” before they headed out to work. Although this plan was presented as a voluntary measure, numerous speakers suggested that if it did not pass, the Army might step in and impose a compulsory one. Eventually, four hundred Fresno County liquor license holders—representing roughly half of the establishments selling alcohol in the county—agreed to a slightly modified version of the proposal. Beginning in October and lasting through the end of the war, they would close early and open late every day but Saturday.
It is difficult to determine whether shutting down bars and similar venues early had much measurable impact on the farm labor shortage. The same goes for efforts to coerce idle, intemperate, or incarcerated individuals into the cotton fields. Judging by reports in the Fresno Bee, it appears that the bulk of the work in the cotton harvest was performed voluntarily by the local citizenry, albeit with significant prodding by government officials, as had been the case with the grape harvest.
By early December, authorities in some portions of the region were feeling encouraged by the progress that had been made on cotton farms. “The harvest in the vicinity of Fresno is well ahead of that in the rest of the county,” reported Al J. Brown, chairman of the Fresno Chamber of Commerce agricultural committee on December 1. He saw this fact as a testament to “the splendid cooperation and assistance we have been getting from the schools.” But in the county as a whole, not to mention the rest of the San Joaquin Valley, the situation remained critical. According to one cotton processing firm, by December 5, just 43 % of Fresno County cotton had been ginned, compared to the 90% that was typical for that point in the season. With that shortfall in mind, Fresno city and county officials decided to capitalize on the approaching Pearl Harbor attack anniversary, urging locals to “remember the Pearl Harbor treachery” by “doing their part on the home front to help avenge it.” Cotton clothing and equipment is “needed to win the war,” Brown reminded residents. “Our job is to get it picked. By doing that we can deliver a solid blow against the Axis.”
Patriotic pleas such as this one bolstered student turnout for cotton picking in Fresno on December 7 and throughout the Christmas holiday break. By mid-January, the statewide cotton harvest total nearly matched that of the previous year. Two months later, the state reported that the county’s farms had produced $83 million worth of food and fiber in 1942, surpassing the 1941 total by $24.5 million. Looking forward to the next year’s harvest season, Fresno County Chamber of Commerce executive secretary M.P. Lohse predicted that “if agriculture during 1943 is to equal the 1942 record, even greater dependence must be placed on workers recruited from groups not heretofore considered as being a necessary part of the agricultural picture.”
Lohse was correct, at least in part. Through the duration of the war, Valley agricultural interests continued to rely on thousands of local volunteers, especially students, to help with the harvest of key crops.
But volunteerism was only part of the story. The Victory Harvest Army’s success was also the result of intervention by the local, state, and federal governments. The 1942 farm labor crisis thus speaks to a broader continuity in the history of the San Joaquin Valley, of California, and, indeed, of the U.S. West, one that predated and extends beyond World War II. Despite the myth of Western individualism, since the nineteenth century Western farmers, ranchers, and residents in general have depended on federal government interventions and resources—from Native American removal to permits to graze on public lands to the massive flood control, reclamation, and irrigation projects that enabled the region’s growth and booming economy.
Throughout the 1942 harvest crisis, Valley growers looked time and again to federal officials—as well as to local and state officials—to redress their labor shortage. They asked the U.S. Army to permit them to employee Japanese internees, and they urged the federal government to negotiate a treaty to bring in Mexican braceros. When these efforts failed to solve the problem, Valley farmers relied on local, state, and federal authorities to encourage, coordinate, and at times compel the participation of Valley residents in the 1942 harvest.
In the years that followed, Valley ranchers and growers would continue to rely on the federal government to solve their labor problems by providing an increasingly foreign-born labor force. In 1943 and 1944, the San Joaquin Valley Agricultural Labor Bureau brought in nearly seven thousand Mexican nationals as a part of the Bracero Program. At the end of the 1943 season, Irvine S. Terrell, who managed the labor bureau’s Fresno office in addition to his AAWMC duties, praised these temporary laborers for their remarkably low turnover rate and “highly satisfactory work” on cattle ranches and especially peach, grape, and cotton farms. A Merced County official credited braceros for not only helping to avert major crop losses that year but also making “it unnecessary to issue a general call for volunteer labor from cities in the county.”
Not everyone, however, was enthusiastic about the new labor source. Indeed, anti-Mexican and Japanese sentiments remained as strong among some Valley residents as they had been in 1942, as side-by-side letters to the editor published by the Fresno Bee on February 23, 1943 make clear. In one, Robert G. Williams of Lodi accused Japanese immigrants to the United States of attempting to seize control of the country through propaganda, Japanese language schools, and espionage. In the other, Fresnan Cecil Clark lamented the ongoing “howling” for the importation of “Mexican labor,” which to his mind was inferior to “American white labor.”
The Victory Harvest Army, in the end, ultimately lived up to its name and saved the 1942 season. But such ugly assertions of bigotry against the Valley’s non-white residents—like the thorny questions about the duties of patriotism, the limits of government coercion, and the role of government support for private agricultural interests—reveal that the 1942 farm labor crisis perfectly encapsulated the real meanings, and costs, of victory in this campaign and in World War II as a whole.
 Our account of the San Joaquin Valley’s 1942 farm labor crisis builds on and is indebted to the unpublished research of Christina Morales Guzmán. See Guzmán, “Race, Citizenship, and the Negotiation of Space: Chinese, Japanese, and Mexicans in Fresno, California, 1870-1949” (PhD diss., University of California, Santa Cruz, 2012): 151-190.
 Heather Cox Richardson, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), xvi, 85-91.
 Devra Weber, Dark Sweat, White Gold: California Farm Workers, Cotton, and the New Deal (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 225n1.
 Greg Robinson, By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 108.
New York Times, Feb. 1, 1942; New York Times, Mar. 26, 1942; Fresno Bee, Apr. 14, 1942; Hearings Before the Special Committee to Investigate Farm Labor Conditions in the West, United States Senate, Seventy-Seventh Congress, Second Session on S. Res. 299, in Four Parts (Washington: US Govt. Printing Office, 1943), 187-188; Cameron E. Woods, “Mexican Agricultural Labor in California: 1941-1945” (MA thesis, California State University, Fresno 1950), 7-11, 46-7; Erasmo Gamboa, Mexican Labor and World War II: Braceros in the Pacific Northwest, 1942-1947 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990), xii; Gerald D. Nash, The American West Transformed: The Impact of the Second World War (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), 46-7; Fresno Bee, Apr. 4, 1942. This farm labor shortage, it is worth noting, was highly localized. Indeed, California as a whole had a sufficient number of laborers. Yet inefficient worker distribution, transportation challenges, and the perishability of Valley crops undermined growers’ ability to tap into this workforce. Don Mitchell, They Saved the Crops: Labor, Landscape, and the Struggle over Industrial Farming in Bracero-Era California (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012), 23, 434n9; Otey M. Scruggs, “Evolution of the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement of 1942,” Agricultural History 34 (July 1960): 140.
 The long-term consequences of this program were devastating. Few Japanese farm owners realized any compensation for the time, labor, and expenses they devoted to the 1942 planting, and most ultimately lost their land—often unloading it to white neighbors at “fire-sale” prices. Robinson, A Tragedy of Democracy, 122-127; Aaron Mejia, “Dispossessed: Japanese Internment and the California Alien Land Laws,” May 8, 2019, unpublished paper in authors’ possession.
Fresno Bee, June 5, 942; Louis Fiset, “Thinning, Topping, and Loading: Japanese Americans and Beet Sugar in World War II,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly (Summer 1999): 129; New York Times, Sept. 14, 1942; New York Times, Sept. 22, 1942; Gamboa, Mexican Labor, 28-29.
Fresno Bee, Apr. 9, 1942; Fresno Bee, Apr. 14, 1942; Fresno Bee, May 22, 1942; Fresno Bee, June 3, 1942; Fresno Bee, June 30, 1942; Gamboa, Mexican Labor, 39; Hearings Before the Special Committee, 244; Scruggs, “Evolution of the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement,” 141; Mitchell, They Saved the Crops, 22.
 Lori A. Flores, Grounds for Dreaming: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the California Farm Worker Movement (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016), 42; Mitchell, They Saved the Crops, 22-23; Wayne Rassmussen, A History of the Emergency Farm Labor Supply Program, 1943-47 (Washington, D.C: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1951), 200, https://archive.org/details/historyofemergen13rasm/page/n1.
 Gamboa, Mexican Labor, 39-40; Flores, Grounds for Dreaming, 42.
 Scruggs, “Evolution of the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement,”140; Gamboa, Mexican Labor, 40-41; Flores, Grounds for Dreaming, 47.
Hearings Before the Special Committee, 244-48; Los Angeles Times, May 15, 1986. Fresno, in fact, had two assembly centers, not one.
 The Japanese assembly centers in Stockton, Merced, and Tulare were used as “holding camp facilities” for more than five thousand braceros who were either newly arrived and awaiting work assignments or in between jobs. In addition, some buildings from these centers were provided to growers, who moved them to labor camps throughout the Valley. Mitchell, They Saved the Crops, 51-52; Fresno Bee, Sept. 5, 1943.
Fresno Bee, July 8, 1942. Olson previously endorsed the recruitment of white-collar workers and students. Fresno Bee, June 30, 1942.
 Vernon Selland, interview with Blain Roberts and Ethan J. Kytle, Fresno, CA, June 3, 2020.
 Although the 1942 grape harvest was not the disaster many thought it would be in late August and early September, the state’s total raisin grape yield did drop from 1,421,000 tons in 1941 to 1,326,000 tons in 1942. In addition, California growers failed to meet the total of 350,000 tons of raisins requested by the War Production Board for 1942, producing just 250,000 tons. Fresno Bee, Nov. 11, 1942; Hearings Before the Special Committee to Investigate Farm Labor Conditions, 26.
Fresno Bee, Sept. 9, 1942. The San Joaquin Valley was not the only agricultural region where coercive tactics were used to secure farm laborers during World War II. In the Arkansas and Mississippi deltas, for instance, cotton planters employed government programs not only to depress wages among their workers but also to make it difficult for them to leave the region. See Nan Elizabeth Woodruff, “Pick or Fight: The Emergency Farm Labor Program in the Arkansas and Mississippi Deltas during World War II,” Agricultural History 64 (Spring 1990): 74-85.
 Risa Goluboff, Vagrant Nation: Police Power, Constitutional Change, and the Making of the 1960s (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 1-4.
Fresno Bee, Oct. 26, 1942. Although California prohibited contract convict labor, some prisoners in the state were employed in harvest camps during World War II. See Ward M. McAfee, “A History of Convict Labor in California,” Southern California Quarterly 72 (Spring 1990): 22, 30.
 Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: Norton, 1987), 82-83, 138-39; Norris Hundley, Jr., The Great Thirst: Californians and Water A History, Revised Edition (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001).
Seas of cellphones floating above the anchors of outstretched arms; the litany of hashtags bearing the names of the dead; livestream footage broadcasted by protestors with boots on the ground; the videos that capture for the world to see the life being taken from Black bodies by police—all of these have become recognizable features of the movement against police brutality and for Black lives, which has swept the nation and the world over the past decade. But they are more than mere characteristics. They are critical mechanisms by which the movement travels, transmits messages, grows, and pushes back against the daily horrors of structural racism and state violence within the United States. They are examples of a political practice that Allissa V. Richardson calls “Black witnessing,” which has played a constitutive role in what has arguably become the most powerful movement of our time. In her book, Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest #Journalism, Richardson examines the forms of Black witnessing that animate the Black Lives Matter movement, while situating them within the much longer arc of witnessing practices that have helped shape historic struggles for Black liberation. In the process, her book brings into focus just how much efforts to combat the horrors of white supremacy and to sustain movements for racial justice have relied on often-overlooked acts of seeing and truth-telling that have been undertaken by Black witnesses past and present.
As she builds on a growing body of research that investigates African Americans’ use of cell phones and social media, Richardson bases her study especially on a pool of interviews she conducted with fifteen prominent Black witnesses, along with in-depth analyses of their Twitter timelines. Her interviewees are diverse in their gender identities, sexual orientations, and relationships to the Black Lives Matter movement, offering important insight into the patterns, interconnections, and differences that characterize their experiences and perspectives as Black witnesses. She organizes her analysis into three parts: Smartphones, Slogans, and Selfies. Across these three sections, the broad strokes of her work situate the smartphone era in a longer history of Black struggle, provide an archaeology of contemporary Black witnessing practices, and examine the visual iconography of Black protest journalism in the age of Black Lives Matter, along with its implications for Black witnesses and broader efforts for racial justice.
One of Richardson’s core contributions in Bearing Witness While Black is her centering of Blackness within her exploration of witnessing and its relationship to movement formation. In positing a distinctly Black witnessing as the focus of her study, she makes the case not only that Black people bear witness differently than others but, further, that witnessing has been a vital arena in which Black people have staked the evidentiary foundations of an oppositional narrative about race, power, and democracy within the United States. Black witnessing carries important legal weight for the pursuit of racial justice in courts. It also has a powerful capacity to mobilize public action, fueling pushback against racist policing patterns and the institutional racism that undergirds them. At least as significantly for Richardson is the role that it plays in linking Black people to one another. Particularly in the context of crisis, as Richardson puts it, Black witnessing functions as “a form of connective tissue among Black people that transcends place.” Rather than distancing or depersonalizing the connection between the victims of atrocity and the viewers, as the main currents of media witnessing scholarship suggest, she argues that cellphone footage of anti-Black violence, when seen by Black people, “blurs [the line] between viewer and victim.” For those who bear witness while Black (and some allied people of color, whom she includes in her analysis), Richardson’s work underscores that incidents of anti-Black violence are never isolated or episodic in nature. Rather, they grow out of, occur within, and are experienced through the context of systemic violence and generational trauma that history has wrought upon Black people for centuries.
As richly nuanced as it is in the ways it engages and builds upon media witnessing theory, Richardson’s work is also firmly anchored in and driven by the imperatives of praxis. Drawing on her experiences as a journalist, as a teacher of mobile journalism, and as an African-American woman who grew up in Prince George’s County, Maryland in the age of the police assault on Rodney King and the L.A. Rebellion, she writes with an acute attentiveness to the stakes of the news-making practices she analyzes, including for witnesses themselves. Having worked with citizen journalists in a wide range of contexts, including in South Africa at the front lines of the country’s HIV/AIDS crisis and in Morocco in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings, she also speaks to the comparative dimensions of witnessing practices across a variety of social movements. She highlights a certain degree of relatability that links the use of smartphones and social media by participants in the Black Lives Matter movement with that of people in the Occupy Wall Street protests and the Arab Spring.
Yet, in significant ways, she also emphasizes that the scope, scale, and systematic nature of racial violence to which African Americans bear witness make their witnessing even more akin to that of Holocaust survivors than to protestors in these other movements. As she explains, when Black people bear witness to the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and far, far too many others, their actions simultaneously memorialize “the more than 10 million Africans who were sold into bondage across the Atlantic Ocean . . . the 5,000 African American men, women, and children who continued to be victims of lynching across the United States . . . [and] the more than 1 million African American and Latinx men and women who have fallen victim to mass incarceration since the late 1970s.” Black witnessing honors those subjected to suffering and premature death, all the while refusing to let the public forget the past, or, for that matter, look away from the horrors of the present. Therein lies its urgency.
It is not only the long history of anti-Black racism that weighs on the present. As Richardson demonstrates, contemporary Black witnessing practices also carry forth the legacies of Black survival, struggle, and resistance. As she situates the Black Lives Matter movement within a much longer genealogy of Black liberatory struggles, Richardson charts a history of Black witnessing that links the role of slave narratives, African American newspapers and magazines, television, early internet-based social networks, and Black Twitter along a historical continuum—forming “an unbroken chain of brave seers.” Earlier generations laid the groundwork for the modes of witnessing we have seen in the past decade, Richardson argues. The primary factor that distinguishes the witnessing practices of our contemporary moment is the accessibility of the technology involved. With the introduction of the smartphone, witnesses the world over acquired “a tool that would allow anyone to create and distribute media quickly, without the need for a privileged gatekeeper.” Combined with social media platforms and speedy internet connections, the smartphone has equipped today’s Black witnesses to follow in the footsteps of their ancestors, while at the same time enabling them to share, collectively grieve, strategize, and organize in response to news of police brutality at a more rapid pace and on a more thoroughly mass scale than ever before.
While Richardson makes clear her position on the side of viewing Black witnessing as a positive force for racial justice, her endorsement is not the kind that romanticizes. In fact, some of the richest parts of her analysis are those where she explores the tensions and contradictions inherent in the practice. Among the troubling aspects of Black witnessing she examines is the way that the smartphone technology on which today’s protest journalists rely—“the very tool that empowers the activists”—carries with it “the potential to extinguish them.” Highlighting the growing use of Stingray tracking technology by authorities and harking back to the role of COINTELPRO in the movements of the 1960s and 1970s, Richardson complicates any inclination to celebrate the smartphone’s democratizing effects without reckoning with the ways it expands the terrain for surveillance and political repression.
Another set of challenges Richardson investigates is the potential harm that comes from seeing itself. On one level, bearing witness to atrocity can have serious emotional and psychological effects on the viewer, not to mention the threat of backlash from authorities to which they expose themselves. (Many will remember Ramsey Orta in this respect, the video witness who was the only one from the scene of Eric Garner’s death in 2014 who was arrested.) On another level, when footage of Black police victims’ last moments is shown repeatedly, often unedited and without freeze frame or face blurring techniques, the imagery may do more to normalize racist violence and uphold the terror of white supremacy than to challenge it. All this leads Richardson to the assertion that how such footage is shared is as significant as whether it is shared.
It is noteworthy that Bearing Witness While Black entered into print in June 2020, at the very same moment that the nation’s racial uprisings reached peak levels of intensity following the deaths of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, among others. While Richardson could not have anticipated the exact synchronicity of events, it is a testament to just how “on time” her work truly is. Questions remain about how Black witnessing practices may vary across class lines, since Richardson’s interview sample overwhelmingly comprises graduates of prominent universities with advanced degrees, a factor that Richardson herself acknowledges. The relational dynamics that link the experiences and perspectives of Black-identified witnesses with those of non-Black witnesses of color is another topic that some readers may wish to see analyzed further, as her discussion on this front is relatively brief. Still, well researched and engagingly written, the book offers a fresh critical lens on the Black Lives Matter movement and on the possibilities and perils of efforts for social change more generally, adding significantly to both scholarly and broader public conversations. It will be of particular interest not only to media and journalism scholars, but also scholars of race/ethnicity, social movements, technology and history, as well as social activists and organizers for whom it bears lessons.
Elizabeth E. Sine is a historian of race, labor, and social movements in California and the broader United States (Ph.D., University of California San Diego) and Lecturer in History at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. She is author of the recent book, Rebel Imaginaries: Labor, Culture, and Politics in Depression-Era California (Duke University Press, 2021) and co-editor of Another University Is Possible (University Readers, 2010). She is also on the steering committee of R.A.C.E. Matters in San Luis Obispo, California.
 Allissa V. Richardson, Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest #Journalism (Oxford University Press, 2020), 12.
 The reference here to being “on time” comes from Ivory Perry, qtd. in George Lipsitz, A Life in the Struggle: Ivory Perry and the Culture of Opposition (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988), 269.
Adam Goodman sat down with professor, author, and human rights advocate Elliott Young to discuss his new book which shines a light on the often cruel and senseless policies that make up the intersection of immigration and criminal justice in the United States.
Adam Goodman: The book’s title, Forever Prisoners, is provocative. How did you come up with it and what does it mean?
Elliott Young: A friend who does prison abolition activism work and criminal justice said that the stories I tell sound a lot like the Guantanamo prisoners who have been there for twenty years, many of them not charged with any crimes. And so, this moniker: forever prisoners. The more I thought about it, I said, “Yes, forever prisoners is exactly the state in which many of these immigrants found themselves.” Of course, most of them didn’t spend their entire lives in prison. Some died after being detained, but many got out; but even when people get out, immigrants found themselves in positions of rightlessness or diminished rights. For people deported to places in Central America where there is lots of gang violence or political violence, they find themselves also like prisoners, in the sense of being trapped in their houses. So, the long reach of the tentacles of the prison seemed like an apt metaphor to think about the condition in which immigrants have been living for the last 140 years.
AG: Many scholars of immigration detention focus on the 1980s to the present. You start a century earlier. Why? What do we learn by tracing that longer history?
EY: My previous book was about Chinese immigration and starts off in the mid-nineteenth, so I knew that the Chinese were being detained and deported (obviously not in the numbers that we have today) right from the beginning of when the federal immigration system was set up. It seemed that the origins of that system were important to understand and to try to understand the trajectory from the late nineteenth century all the way through to the present. Not to say that there were no changes, but to track those changes so we don’t make the mistake of thinking we could return to an idealized earlier era. Sometimes people say 1954, “Oh, that was the moment like immigrant detention ended.” Well, 1954 to the 1980s was not a good time for Mexicans who were coming across the border without authorization.
AG: One of the things I found most compelling about your book is that you tell the history of immigration detention through a series of incredible, incredibly revealing, and often disturbing stories. The book’s first story takes place not on Ellis Island or on Angel Island, but on McNeil Island, off the coast of Washington. Why there?
EY: McNeil Island was a remote prison island off the coast of Tacoma, one of the three penitentiaries in the United States in this period. I started to do research on Chinese imprisoned there and discovered that they were put there for unauthorized entry—but they were sentenced to hard labor, which was a prison sentence. They were not simply put in this prison pending deportation, which is now the justification for imprisoning immigrants. In this case, they were actually given sentences, but they didn’t go through a judicial trial, so this is completely illegal based on the Constitution. Eventually the Supreme Court, in a landmark 1896 case, decided that you couldn’t do that. You could imprison or detain immigrants pending deportation, but you couldn’t impose criminal sentence on them without a judicial trial.
In this early period, they are experimenting with what to do with immigrants, so they put them in McNeil Island. It was clear that Chinese at that point were crossing the border from Canada to come across into the Pacific Northwest without authorization. The easiest thing for the immigration authorities was to just take them to the border of Canada and push them across. But at that point, Canada had established a head tax requirement for the Chinese and the migrants didn’t have the money to pay. So, Canada refused them entry and they ended up in McNeil Island prison for years, while there were diplomatic negotiations with the Canadian government. Eventually, in the early 1890s, U.S. officials deported them back to China. It’s in this early period that you see the U.S. government trying to work out both the legal grounds for holding immigrants as well as developing the whole bureaucracy and mechanisms for deporting people across the globe.
AG: That raises the question: What do U.S. officials do when there’s nowhere to deport someone? What happens when there’s a country that’s not willing to accept them? This comes up in the case of Nathan Cohen, who found himself in extended—perhaps even indefinite—detention.
EY: Nathan Cohen came from a part of Russia that’s kind of a borderlands region. He was Jewish, he had migrated to Brazil and spent a few years there, then went to New York in 1912. He ends up going to the Deep South, because he has relatives there, and opens a business with his uncle in Jacksonville, Florida. Within a short period of time, he gets married and then he’s swindled by his family. He loses his busines and his wife runs off with his best friend, and this sends him into a funk where he essentially becomes mute. He goes to Baltimore, where his sister was living, and gets put into a mental hospital run by the state, a public mental hospital, and gets declared insane. And because he had immigrated within three years, that declaration of insanity was grounds for deportation. So, he gets sent to Ellis Island and they put him on a ship to go back to Brazil. But Brazil refuses to take him. The ship goes on to Argentina, who also says they don’t want him. The U.S. government is trying to contact the Russians. This is during World War I, Cohen is a Jew, and there’s anti-Jewish programs going on in this region, so Russia isn’t interested in taking him. So, he’s essentially stateless. The press describes him as the wandering Jew, the man without a country. And so, he gets sent back to New York. After spending several months in detention on Ellis Island, they try to deport him again. The same thing happens.
AG: It’s a nightmare.
EY: It’s a nightmare; a Kafkaesque nightmare. The last time when he comes back to New York Harbor. The authorities don’t even let him off the boat because they realize that once he’s on U.S. soil he could have legal claims. What happens with Nathan Cohen, eventually the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the Knights of Pythias, which was a fraternal organization of which he was a member, intervene and agree to pay for his upkeep in a private sanatorium in Connecticut. He’s taken off the ship and lives in that sanatorium for about a year. Then he just dies, kind of mysteriously, since he’s still a young man at this point (mid-30s), and is buried on Staten Island.
Nathan Cohen’s story is fascinating on its own, but it also led me to discover that there was this whole other system of incarceration in the early twentieth century. Mental hospitals held many more citizens and noncitizens than detention centers or even in jails and prisons. By the 1960s, they started phasing out mental institutions in part because of the critiques of the way mental institutions were handled, and then we see the rise of mass incarceration. What we have now is lots of people who have mental illness, but instead of being in mental institutions they are in prisons and jails.
AG: Something else that stands out is the history of the U.S. government deporting people from Latin America to the United States, rather than vice versa, and detaining them during World War II.
EY: During World War II, there was this semi-secretive FBI program to identify and roundup Axis nationals in Latin America through the U.S. embassies in various countries. Thirteen countries participated in this program. I focus on the case of Seiichi Higashide, who is of Japanese origin, went to Peru as a young man, developed a business there selling goods, and married a Japanese Peruvian woman. He’s put on this list but manages to evade detection for a few years with the help of a local police chief. When he’s finally picked up, Peruvian officials force him onto a U.S. military transport ship and he’s taken to Panama. He’s briefly held at a U.S. military camp there, then put on another ship and taken to New Orleans. From New Orleans they put him on a train and he ends up in Texas. His wife and two children eventually decide to follow him to the United States to keep the family United. The story raises all these questions that we’re facing today about family separation. According to the government, all these people voluntarily went into detention, but it wasn’t so voluntary when the father was forcibly picked up and taken away and the family ends up joining him. U.S. officials detained them in a camp in Crystal City, Texas, which is actually 40 miles from the current family detention center in Dilley. There’s a long history of family detention in the heart of South Texas that continues to this very day.
AG: Another connection to the present is the history you trace of people resisting and organizing against detention. Tell us about the detention of Haitians and Cubans in the 1970s and 1980s, the uprisings in Oakdale, Louisiana, and Atlanta, Georgia, which you describe as “the longest prison takeover in U.S. history.”
EY: In the 1970s, you have Haitians escaping from political unrest and political violence thrown into detention. And almost universally, their asylum claims are rejected. Then, in 1980, there’s this massive boatlift of people from Cuba, the Mariel boatlift, and these are people escaping from a communist country. Initially, Carter sort of welcomes them with open arms into the United States. But this group of 125,000 Cubans was unlike the Cubans who had fled Castro in the early 1960s. Many of them are Black, and they come from lower socioeconomic groups. Their reception in Miami was not as welcoming as the reception in the 1960s had been. They were seen and stigmatized as criminals and as being mentally ill, because there was this idea that Castro just sort of emptied his jails and mental institutions.
The U.S. government responds by establishing mass immigrant detention spaces on military bases around the country. And the idea is they need to be processed to figure out who are the criminals, who are the mentally ill people, and figure out who has family sponsors. After a couple of years, it’s almost entirely Black Cubans who are still in detention. After about a year, almost all of them are paroled into the United States, but they still haven’t regularized their status. Some of those people commit low level offenses, many of them are picked up on marijuana possession charges. Some of them have assault charges and a handful of them do have more serious violent crimes like homicide. So those people are then criminally sentenced and do their time. But after they do their time, because of the immigration regulations, they are now ineligible for their status to be regularized. They face indefinite detention pending deportation.
Eventually, they are sent to Atlanta Penitentiary and to Oakdale, Louisiana, where there was another detention center. Many of them languish there for years. They arrived in 1980 and a few hundred of them were held until the late 1980s. The Castro regime was not interested in having these people return, so they were essentially in prison indefinitely. Then, in November 1987, the Cuban government agrees to take back 2,000 people. Word spreads to these two prisons that they’re going to be deported to Cuba, and that sets off an uprising, first in Oakdale and then a couple of days later in Atlanta.
AG: It’s incredible that these uprisings were more or less coordinated.
EY: They had word through the grapevine and through the media that this was going to happen, that these deportations were imminent. So, the uprising happens in Oakdale, they take over the prison, they seize hostages, and they start torching the buildings. Then the same thing in Atlanta. This is not too long, around 16 years, after Attica, and in that case the National Guard was called in and more than 40 people were massacred. So, the question was, “How is this standoff going to end?” Somewhat miraculously, only one Cuban was shot and killed in Atlanta. No one else died in this episode and after two weeks they finally come to an agreement thanks to the intervention of a Cuban American Bishop from Miami who encouraged the people to give up the hostages and to end the siege. They also received a commitment from the U.S. government to conduct individual asylum reviews. Finally, after Thanksgiving, they leave the prison with salsa music blaring and they give themselves up and turn over the hostages. The larger point of this story is that these uprisings offer insights into the beginnings of “crimmigration,” or the overlapping of criminal justice and immigration.
AG: Throughout the book you show how the criminalization of noncitizens has resulted in the detention and deportation of long-term residents, many of whom have U.S. citizen children. One of the book’s most moving stories is that of Mayra Machado.
EY: I knew for the last chapter I wanted to focus on crimmigration today, and probably a Central American case, since increasingly those are the people detained. As I was looking for media stories, one day I get a call from a detention center in Louisiana. I accepted the call and it was Mayra Machado, who I had done an expert witness asylum declaration for a couple of years earlier. That case was unsuccessful; she was deported.
Mayra was brought to the United States from El Salvador when she was five years old and grew up in Southern California. Then her family moved to Arkansas. When she was eighteen years-old she wrote a hot check; clearly a crime, a mistake. She was picked up, charged, and sentenced to six months in some camp for rehabilitation. She did her time, got out, and ended up having children. Then, in 2015, around Christmas time, she went to Hobby Lobby to buy decorations. Her son left his glasses at the store, and when they returned to get them, she was pulled over on failure to yield traffic violation. Because of the expansion of these Secure Communities agreements and 287(g) agreements, where local law enforcement was basically authorized as immigration agents, they ran her information through the system and discovered that she didn’t have authorization to be in the country. In reality, this is a woman who grew up in the United States, was a working mom—wasn’t some kind of violent criminal—and she’s all of a sudden faced with permanent banishment from the country and separation from her three U.S. citizen children.
I hadn’t actually even been in contact with her personally, but she had my number and she called me up and she said, “I came back into the United States.” Police had picked her up on a traffic violation and put her back in detention while awaiting deportation. At this point she was representing herself. Immigration law is extremely, extremely complicated. When immigrants, as smart as they are, try to represent themselves, the chance of them succeeding is almost nil. I was able to get her a pro bono lawyer from Loyola Law School (New Orleans). And I agreed to work on her case as an expert witness.
AG: How did you start providing expert witness testimony in immigration and asylum cases? What is immigration court like?
EY: This book is really about the present and from my perspective it’s sort of ethically obligatory to not only write about this from the ivory tower, but to actually use what you know to try to have an impact. And one of the ways to do this as an academic is by working on asylum cases.
In 2014, Steven Manning, a great immigration lawyer who runs the Innovation Law lab here in Portland, Oregon, contacted me and asked if I would do an expert witness country conditions declaration to inform the court about the political context related to claims being made. At this point I’ve done more than 400 of these.
Immigration courts are kind of like the Wild West. Immigration judges could decide what they will and won’t accept, so whether your claim has any grounds entirely depends on which immigration judge you get. In Louisiana, the rate of denial is over 90 percent, and some of the judges have 100 percent denial rates. Essentially, no matter what your claim, they’re going to deny it.
AG: It’s farcical.
EY: Yeah. In New York or San Francisco, you’ve got a much better shot. That being said, in almost all of the cases that I’ve worked on, the people actually do gain status or are able to avoid deportation. So, if you have a good lawyer and an expert witness—and if you’re also not in Louisiana or in one of these terrible jurisdictions—you can actually gain asylum. But the problem is, most immigrants are not represented by lawyers and most don’t have expert witnesses.
The hero of this story is Mayra, because if she hadn’t advocated for herself none of us would have gotten involved. Isabel Medina, Mayra’s lawyer, advocate Pablo Alvarado, the head of the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, and I went down to an ICE facility run by GEO, the private prison company, in a remote part of Louisiana. We presented all the evidence that when she had been deported back to El Salvador, she had been threatened by gangs with sexual assault and had also received serious threats against her life. But the immigration judge decided against her. Her lawyer appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court, and while the appeal was pending (this was in January of 2020, a year ago), one night at 7:00 p.m. officials told Mayra that they were going to deport her and at 3:00 a.m. that same night they took her to an airport in Alexandria, Louisiana. She argued with them, saying, “No, I’ve got an appeal pending.” But they shackled her and put her on a plane back to El Salvador.
AG: That’s harrowing, and also speaks to how detention and deportation affect U.S. citizens, like Mayra’s children. Something else that we’ve been circling around is the larger story you tell of how immigration detention became intertwined with the rise of mass incarceration writ large.
EY: I’m glad you brought up the mass incarceration question because it’s really what brought me to this project. I was concerned about the mass incarceration of citizens, and also noticed that the literature tended not to focus on immigrants. I wanted to show how immigrant detention is inextricably linked to the mass incarceration of citizens since the 1980s. It’s not a coincidence that the immigrants you find in detention are almost entirely Black and Brown people. This is a racially biased system, enforcement is targeted against particular people, and so in that sense it’s very much linked to the mass incarceration of citizens and the rhetoric that we had from Trump about the “criminals” who are supposedly crossing the border. This is an especially exciting moment when the people arguing against mass incarceration and the folks arguing against immigrant detention can really see how these two systems work together, and then fight to end detention, to end prisons.
AG: How can we accomplish that? Through abolition? Are there other solutions?
EY: I’ll come out and tell you that I’m someone who has an abolitionist horizon. I believe that we should construct a world where there are no prisons, where there are no immigrant detention systems. People should not be in prison because they have come to this country without authorization or they’ve come to this country seeking refuge. It is an abomination, it’s inhumane, and it doesn’t need to be this way. We had 50,000 people a day in ICE detention a year ago. Now, because of Covid, that’s down to 16,000 a day, which is still way too high, but it shows that this system could be dramatically reduced and the sky won’t fall. So, I’m hoping, against my better judgment, that the new Biden administration will not return to the policies of Obama—which were terrible for immigrants and which led to the greatest number of immigrants detained and formally deported in U.S. history—and will instead push for radical transformation of the massive bureaucracy that criminalizes and prevents immigrants from coming to this country in the first place.