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.
In the long saga of the Bay Area, the East Bay is often cast in a secondary role to the more famous San Francisco. Perhaps best known as the place where UC Berkeley thrives, the East Bay is home to decades of urban and industrial growth that brought the whole region to global prominence under the moniker “San Francisco.” Though much writing on the region follows this line—that San Francisco is the central city of the larger region—we are interested in the ways that the East Bay is also, and has always been, central. At this book’s writing the entire East Bay was experiencing intense and rapid change as Silicon Valley tech firms moved in, and as Oakland sought to fast-track housing development to serve the broader regional economic boom. Meanwhile, the East Bay is home to a broad spectrum of communities, who collectively speak some 125 languages and who have forged social movements that shape national and even international politics, from the Left to the Right.
A Shifting Center
We center many of the stories of this chapter in The Town, which is the affectionate local name for the city of Oakland, but we’ll also take you out to Emeryville, for a quick stroll through Berkeley, and north to the cities of Albany and Richmond. In choosing sites for this chapter, we were interested in broad representation, but we also looked for places that are suggestive of some of the larger struggles of the area, from policing to racial justice, economic development and cycles of displacement. We’re interested in the ways that today’s built environment reveals layers of the past—including important traces of the long history of human habitation prior to the Spanish and Anglo conquests.
As the original terminus of the trans- continental railroad in the nineteenth century, Oakland could have emerged as the socioeconomic powerhouse of the region. Instead, urban developers logged Oakland’s forests and capitalists built wealth around San Francisco’s deep-water port first, leaving Oakland to persist as a “second city” culturally, politically, and economically—even as the two cities shared workers, families, and ecosystems. The 1906 San Francisco quake and fire, which destroyed San Francisco’s downtown and nearby neighborhoods, could have shifted the regional urban core east to Oakland. But even though a large share of San Francisco’s industry and residents left at that time to populate the East Bay—Oakland’s Chinatown expanded, for example—and even though the educational powerhouse of UC Berkeley fostered generations of public intellectuals and planted the seeds of activist movements with global influence, San Francisco remained the capital city of the region.
Two of the key drivers of this ongoing dynamic are the wicked problems of race and class. Race-class exclusions drove post–World War II disinvestment, which meant that capitalist and middle-class wealth withdrew from Oakland. This flight-by-capital left the once-vibrant downtown relatively vacant for decades and weakened the urban tax base, even as urban-fringe neighborhoods boomed. By the 1960s, African Americans had made Oakland a central home, having been both displaced by San Francisco’s redevelopment of the Fillmore District and excluded from East Bay suburbs. At the same time, Oakland leaders also pursued urban redevelopment, uprooting those same communities to make way for free- ways and mega-developments. These projects improved regional mobility, but they left gaping wounds in the cityscape across Oakland’s multiracial working-class com- munities, disproportionately hitting Black, and later Latinx, homes and businesses.
These urban rearrangements intersected with the social configurations of the time. Before WWII, white violence was, at its most extreme, embodied by the Ku Klux Klan’s growth in Oakland and the island city of Alameda. After WWII it continued in the practices of the police and sheriff departments. The counterforce of groups like the Black Panther Party and the Brown Berets emerged in part as a response to those conditions—and more. Though pop culture narratives tend to remember them for posing with guns in front of Oakland City Hall, for example, the Panthers’ “Ten Point Platform” included an emphasis on universal literacy and feeding people. It was a stance that emerged out of members’ everyday experiences of poverty and over-policing in The Town. These politics also grew from members’ intellectual investigations that crossed urban borders through- out the East Bay, with the public university and college systems playing a fundamental role in offering young people the chance to develop their ideas, and with intersecting social movements—including South Asian, Chicano, and labor movements—all learning from each other and in some cases joining together to demand better education at UC Berkeley and beyond. These earlier struggles set the stage for today’s Oakland and greater East Bay, in which the collective lived experience of people, across ethnic and racial lines, includes the apparent paradox of deep poverty alongside the riches of successive booms. With each force comes a counterforce.
Community struggles over access to affordable and safe housing offer a lesson in the complexity of the East Bay and its place in the region. In the 2010s, for example, the cost of housing rose sharply, housing development didn’t match job creation, and new proposals lacked sufficient affordable housing or enough protection for vulnerable residents in redeveloped neighborhoods. Oakland moved from the police blotter to the travel section of big city papers in the 2000s, and its reputation was reshaped by commercial boosters who encouraged a renaissance of new, young transplants to the area. But the housing crisis of the gentrification era was a problem with deeper historical roots. Outside of the urban cores, much (though not all) of the East Bay was first developed as a series of low-density urban-fringe neighborhoods, initiating a pattern of housing inequity that remains. Meanwhile, the capital that fled the Oakland core fifty years ago has returned quite unevenly.
Wealth’s renewed interest in Oakland has meant that some areas are receiving much-needed upgrades to dilapidated housing and commercial building stock, as well as city services, but often in forms that push out longtime Oaklanders, sparking revivals of housing-centered social movements. In fact, community members’ efforts to remain in their homes and neighborhoods are central to their role in making the East Bay. Indeed, the East Bay’s legacy of political organizing and creativity is quite alive, and community organizations have pushed for a vision of “development without displacement,” motivating a regional coalition to push for expansions of state and local rent protections, widening the geography of protest and struggle. These efforts intersect with energized local campaigns in many Bay Area cities, including the relatively small city of Richmond to the north. There, a long-growing progressive coalition turned ideals into pragmatic policy. Aiming to curb the toxic impact of local refineries, Richmond residents organized to raise the local minimum wage, bought back guns to remove them from the streets, and threatened the use of eminent domain (which is the city’s power to retake private property) as a way to help stop foreclosure-related displacement.
The stories of housing struggles thus link to the larger challenges of urban life and the balancing act between encouraging needed investment and supporting existing communities. With that in mind, this chapter raises issues and tells stories that are rooted in place, but tries to do so in a way that treads lightly on the very same landscapes that we find so interesting; we are aware of the mixed blessings of tourist attentions.
There are many other stories and paths that we trace in this chapter, stories of culture and art, innovations in everyday life, and long-buried histories that come to light. For us it adds up to this: it’s time to see and listen to the East Bay. Listen to the stories of the people who have built and fostered its many cultures and communities, giving these cities their character and sense of place. Dig deeper to understand the geographies that make and continue to remake these places from the ground up.
1500 Block of Adeline Street Adeline Street Between 14th and 15th Streets, Oakland 94607
The fallout from the foreclosure crisis of the 2000s is written in the streets of Oakland. Much of that story is a painful one of displacement, but there are some important legacies of community organizing and resistance, and this block of West Oakland represents one epicenter for organizing where some residents used mass community pressure to save their homes. On December 6, 2011, for example, Adeline Street resident Gayla Newsome decided to put the rallying cry of a nationwide “Occupy Our Homes Day” into action. Together with a group of about a hundred activists from Occupy Oakland and ACCE (Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment), Newsome and her three daughters successfully reclaimed their home of fifteen years, which was under active foreclosure. The family lived on this block, at the heart of one of the long contested residential spaces of West Oakland, where waves of eviction and foreclosure compounded upon decades of disinvestment. We’re not including her exact address here to maintain residential privacy.
Between 2005 and 2015, banks foreclosed on well over twenty thousand homes across Oakland, according to research by the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project (AEMP). The mass evictions of small property owners and renters that ensued were largely the result of predatory lending practices actively targeting low-income communities of color, as was later widely uncovered by researchers across the country. A report conducted by the nonprofit Urban Strategies Council in 2011 found that 42 percent of homes foreclosed in Oakland between 2007 and 2011 were acquired by large institutional investors, many of whom are based outside of Oakland. Some of them had previously been mortgage brokers, meaning they not only had access to valuable insider knowledge, but might have also played a part in creating the crisis in the first place. Others would later be prosecuted by the FBI for conspiring to rig foreclosure auctions in their own favor.
West Oakland saw a thick concentration of foreclosures and large-investor accumulation. Neill Sullivan’s REO Homes LLC, for example, snapped up over one hundred fore- closed homes in West Oakland alone. Sullivan focused on single-family homes, which are exempt from rent control by California state law; he followed those acquisitions with a round of evictions, serving 357 eviction notices between 2010 and 2016, according to public Rent Board data collected by AEMP researchers. The evictions helped clear the way for a neighborhood rebranding as West Oakland was sold as the “eclectic West Side” and the “new edge of Silicon Valley.”
Even as investors like Sullivan were taking control of the neighborhood, activists turned their energy toward the foreclosures and joined in to support Newsome and other neighborhood leaders. They formed the Foreclosure Defense Group, which sought to disrupt foreclosure auctions at the Alameda County Courthouse. The group worked to reclaim the homes of community members through direct action by reoccupying emptied homes; they would initiate a campaign of community pressure, garnering media attention and rallying a mass phone campaign to pressure the banks. Newsome’s home on Adeline Street was one of the success stories of this tactic. Organizers also used the foreclosure activism as a base-building effort, which meant that each home they reoccupied was an opportunity to knock on doors and talk to neighbors. Through this process they sought to develop stronger networks for community solidarity and support. (Section authored by Katja Schwaller)
Albany Bulb 1 Buchanan Street, Albany, CA 94706
The Albany Bulb is a place literally made from the ruins of Bay Area urbanization. This former landfill turned quasi-public park represents the alternative lives that capitalist cities inevitably produce through redevelopment and continual creation of consumer detritus. At the same time, the Albany Bulb is a phenomenally beautiful place to visit and offers a fascinating story about a Bay Area place that remains a bit less regulated and controlled than just about everywhere else.
Views from every corner of this park provide a panorama of the region. San Francisco looms misty and dreamlike across the bay. The trails teem with a wild mix of grasses, flowers, overgrown fennel—and art. Freestanding murals once dotted the edge of the marshy shoreline, and a mix of large sculpture and other installations, all of which can change year to year, is typically scattered throughout the park. The space has also often been home to people—disaffected, houseless, seeking connection that they couldn’t find in the urbanized parts of the region—those who, long before the Occupy movement, found ways to reclaim and reuse public spaces.
For many years the city of Albany used this site to dump construction debris and municipal waste. The result was a thirty- one-acre lollipop-shaped peninsula colloquially known as the Bulb, with a landscape of twisted metal, slag left over from nearby mining, rusty pipes, and chunks of redeveloped streets, sometimes retaining their yellow lane-stripes. The landfill that produced the Bulb was one of several major sites along the East Bay waterfront that inspired the creation of the environmental nonprofit Save the Bay, which targeted the Bulb’s land- fill for closure in the early 1980s. The closing of the landfill in 1983 both created an opportunity for artists and coincided with the modern period of rising homelessness, so it is no surprise that people without homes adopted its knolls and tucks as their own. In between the chaotic beauty of wildflowers and trash-turned-art, people built outdoor kitchens, small homes from driftwood, and other shelter.
A move to incorporate the Bulb into the larger McLaughlin Eastshore State Park—named for Save the Bay cofounder Sylvia McLaughlin—has been underway since the early 2000s. This shift toward park formalization has raised the challenging question of which public has the right to use the space as they want. Those who found shelter here note that they improved the land, having built many of the long-used trails and gardens. City and state officials argue they must enforce regulations against overnight camping and off-leash dogs. Artists and hikers often enjoy the place for its unregulated surprises. The struggle has inspired feisty artistic responses to the exercise of state power. In 1999, for example, the landfill’s residents faced a highly publicized eviction. After the eviction, artists erected a monument to the homeless: a massive pile of shopping carts that was later mined for sculptural work across the park. However, in 2014 the most definitive of the many rounds of eviction took place, with the city paying people to leave with the signed promise of never returning.
Creative resistance to formalize the landscape into a planned conservation district has been taken up by the nonprofit Love the Bulb, which organizes art and cultural programming and walking tours that emphasize the unregulated nature of the place. Free-range artists continue to make and remake the place. Enter from the parking lot at the end of Buchanan, near the Golden Gate Fields racetrack; bring extra layers, as it’s typically colder out on the Bulb than in the parking lot.
Berkeley High School 1980 Allston Way, Berkeley 94704
Infuriatingly, many US schools are more segregated now than any time since the end of the Jim Crow era, a fact that undermines the narrative of civil rights progress that many hold dear. That’s part of what makes the Berkeley High School story unique. Back in 1994, the New York Times labeled Berkeley High the “most integrated school in America.” The school reflected the city’s diverse population, making the institution fertile ground for political and cultural debate and home to the country’s first and longest- running high school African American studies department. But all of this did not come easily—even in Berkeley. It was hard fought, and keeping programs like this alive continues to be a conscious struggle in a rapidly changing Bay Area.
In the heat of the civil rights struggle, Berkeley Unified School District launched a 1968 desegregation campaign titled Integration ’68 and became one of the first districts in the country to voluntarily integrate its elementary and middle schools by busing children of color from neighborhoods in the south and west areas of the city to schools in the overwhelmingly white north and east, and vice versa. The impact of the busing tactic here, as across the country, was mixed, and it was hard for parents to remain involved or feel that their kids were learning in culturally appropriate ways. Although the busing program was not aimed directly at Berkeley High, the new racial landscape profoundly impacted education there. That same year, educators inspired both by the national call for Afrocentric education (see Nairobi School System, p. 104), and by the intersecting struggles of the Free Speech and Ethnic Studies movements underway at the college level, founded African American studies at Berkeley High. The school was already racially integrated, but it lacked an inclusive curriculum, and educators sought to give Berkeley’s students a sense of racial equity that busing could not address. This was part of a wave of new Black studies and African American economics curricula at Bay Area institutions, from grade schools to universities.
At its height, Berkeley High’s program offered courses in African American literature and history, the Black Social Experience (later to be called Black Male-Female Relations), Black Psychology, African American Economics, and African-Haitian Dance. Students took Kiswahili language courses, and enrolled in a youth empowerment class called Black Soul, Black Gold, Black Dynamite. The program produced its own newspaper, Ujama. Inspired by this legacy, in the early 1990s students successfully pushed to expand this programming to include Chicano and Asian American studies courses. Implementation of this programming, however, has always been contested by more conservative residents and administrators, in what the Reverend Robert McKnight, former teacher and chair of African American studies, has described as a “perpetual struggle” to maintain the programming.
The social and racial justice activism of the student body has remained a corner- stone of the school’s identity. In 2000, a group of immigrant students—primarily South Asian girls—formed a group called Cultural Unity to reflect the diversity of the English Language Learner student body and to highlight their relative isolation within it. In the months after 9/11, harassment of Muslim and Sikh students increased, with two documented on-campus assaults on Cultural Unity members. In response, South Asian students wrote and published a short book of stories and poetry for use in the school’s curriculum. They also organized free legal clinics for the local Muslim com- munity and organized “Unity Assemblies” that emphasized cultural performance and cross-cultural political dialogue. The legacy of diversity and struggle at Berkeley High is commemorated in visible ways. One can begin by visiting the utility boxes along the perimeter of the high school, illustrated by the Arts and Humanities Academy Class of 2012, which depict some of the school’s famed activist alumni, including Black Panther Bobby Seale, writers Ursula K. Le Guin and Chinaka Hodge, as well as musicians Phil Lesh and Joshua Redman. (Section authored by Diana Negrín da Silva)
Black Cultural Zone 2277 International Boulevard, Oakland 94606
In the mid-2010s, the artists and activists connected to the nonprofit East Side Arts Alliance began work on establishing Black Cultural Zones (BCZ), conceived as a series of “safe Black spaces” at points served by new transit lines along International Boulevard, as well as the MacArthur and Bancroft neighborhoods. This effort was a response to the ongoing outmigration of Black people from Oakland. The International Boulevard corridor is the commercial and cultural heart of the racially and ethnically heterogeneous neighborhoods of East Oakland, stretching from Lake Merritt to the southern border of Oakland (the street continues, under other names, through several cities). More broadly, East Oakland, often overshadowed by the dynamics of downtown and West Oakland, has become known for creative approaches to urban change, including a much-lauded program of transit-oriented development that specifically guarded against displacement around the Fruitvale BART station. The Black Cultural Zone is another such effort, an example of proactive grassroots planning to prevent further displacement of residents and what are now commonly known as “legacy businesses.”
The effort grew out of cultural work that dates back to 2000, when four arts organizations in this area organized the first Malcolm X Jazz Arts Festival, an annual May event in San Antonio Park (1701 E. 19th Street), featuring local and visiting musicians alongside graffiti battles, dance performances, and booths representing local crafts and community organizations. The East Side Arts Alliance (ESAA, 2277 International Blvd.) was born from that first festival, positioning itself as a voice in local politics, advocating for “development without displacement” in city government meetings, and securing properties in East Oakland through nonprofit and grassroots partnerships. The organization bought its own building, offering a counterpoint to gentrification in the area by incorporating affordable housing into its art-and-politics organizational structure. When the city developed a new bus rapid transit route along International Boulevard, ESAA secured foundation grants and city support to help align the transit corridor with the values and experiences of longtime residents. Building on these efforts, the Black Cultural Zone project envisions a shift in Oakland’s land use that highlights the economic and cultural resources of long- time residents as a platform for equitable development. Working with neighborhood partners, the BCZ will be integrated into new public plazas that will partner with existing businesses, nonprofits, and religious institutions as well as new mixed-use developments with below-market housing. At this writing, the large historic building that once served as the headquarters for Safeway, at the intersection of International Boulevard and 57th Avenue, had been proposed as the BCZ’s geographic hub. (Section authored by Diana Negrín da Silva)
“Black Panther Park” (Dover Park) Dover Street, between 57th and 58th Streets, Oakland 94609
Tucked behind the former Merritt College site on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, this is one of many places associated with the creation of the Black Panther Party (BPP) in 1966. BPP founders Bobby Seale and Huey Newton lived and studied together in this neighborhood before forging, with many others, the vision for Black liberation codified in the party’s Ten Point Program. Their political message, a response to the conditions of this neighborhood and others like it at the time, spoke of transforming power relations with the police, uplifting Black people, and providing for the basic needs of everyday Oaklanders.
Serving as a framework for the party as it expanded from its Oakland roots, the program articulated a set of baseline beliefs that shaped the politics of the organization while inspiring others around the world. “We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community,” they wrote. “We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.” Under this banner, they created free breakfast programs for kids, and international solidarity with other working-class people, across racial lines. The community college where they polished these ideas, and where they anchored some of their early community- organizing efforts, was relocated in 1960; the building on that site is now a senior center.
By the fiftieth anniversary of the BPP’s founding in 2016, things had changed significantly in the Bushrod, which is one of a few names for the neighborhood surrounding Dover Park. By then the real estate website Redfin had labeled it the hottest neighbor- hood for housing sales in the country. This shift in the neighborhood’s fortunes came not long after officials created a gang-injunction zone in the area, which Restorative Justice (RJ) activists used to show the connections between policing and real estate speculation. They showed, for example, that the decreased visibility of young men of color on local streets and the increased police presence (both of which were produced by the gang injunction) fed into the intensified marketing of the neighborhood as “safe” to new home buyers.
Traces of the political history of the area remain in the landscape, and Dover Park continues to maintain and reinvigorate the message of Black Panther activism. Since 2010, Dover Park has served as host to the Phat Beets food justice collective, which merges urban agriculture with social justice organizing, maintaining an edible public garden here. The garden circles the park with fruit trees, vegetables, herbs, and native plants, labeled to serve as tools of beautification, education, and public engagement. The food grown here has at times gone to support Aunti Frances’s Love Mission Self Help Hunger Program, a local group that cooks free meals in nearby Driver Plaza at the intersection of Adeline, Stanford, and 61st Streets. Aunti Frances’s program is one of many organizations around Oakland that was explicitly inspired by the BPP’s call for self-help on a community scale. Frances has said that she learned the value of community care and organizing as a child, when she personally benefited from the BPP’s free breakfast programs.
Black.Seed Demonstration, one expression of #BlackLives Matter San Francisco Bay Bridge, just east of Yerba Buena Island 210 Burma Road, Oakland 94607 (This is the parking lot with closest access to the bike/walk trail on the bridge.)
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2016, west- bound traffic on the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge came to a halt. Activists— chained together to block the road—raised their fists and displayed a banner declaring “Black Health Matters.” To see this site, you should not stop in a vehicle on the car lanes of the Bay Bridge. But you can get close to it via the bike and pedestrian path that runs from Oakland’s industrial waterfront along the bridge to Yerba Buena Island. You may want to bike, bus, or drive all the way onto the island, where you can look back at the eastern span of the bridge from Forest Road. From there you can get a sense of the impact that a takeover of the bridge would have, with all six westbound lanes blocked in the middle of the afternoon.
The 2016 demonstration was led largely by gender-queer African American activists and their allies affiliated with Black.Seed, one of many groups that formed in the first few years of the Black Lives Matter movement. The group coordinated their entry to the bridge through the East Bay car toll- gates. Once they stopped, they chained their bodies to each other through the cars to create a true barrier across every lane. Posing with their sign about Black health, they sought media attention to shift the public dialogue.
The name of the larger struggle—Black Lives Matter—was born from a social media post coauthored by Bay Area activist Alicia Garza, who cofounded that movement in 2013 in the wake of the acquittal of the killer of young Trayvon Martin in Florida. Soon after, transit and transportation disruptions across the nation sought to draw public attention to the problems of overpolicing, mass incarceration, police killings, and health disparities in the Black community. Drawing from the civil rights playbook, activists employed the strategy of reaching the public as they engaged in everyday activities; with their urgent message about the value of African American life, activists blocked highways from Minnesota to Dallas. In Oakland a shutdown of the West Oakland BART station in 2014 stymied trans-bay trains for four and a half hours to remind the public of the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, after which police left Brown’s corpse on the street for more than four hours. Others took speeches and poetry on Sundays to restaurants around the bay in predominantly white neighborhoods as part of a “Black Brunch” action.
The Black.Seed bridge takeover brought together many of these concerns. The group issued a set of demands, including “the immediate divestment of city funds for policing and investment in sustainable, affordable housing so Black, Brown and Indigenous people can remain in their hometowns of Oakland and San Francisco.” They also called for the firing of officers involved in police killings locally—including that of Mario Woods, Richard Perkins, Yuvette Henderson, Amilcar Lopez, Alex Nieto, Demouriah Hogg, Richard Linyard, and O’Shaine Evans—and for the resignation of mayors and police chiefs who failed to hold officers accountable for shooting residents. They weren’t the only ones calling for this, and San Francisco’s police chief resigned under pressure a few months later.
While you’re here, we’ll note that the views on this four-and-a-half-mile bridge are incredible, but they come at significant financial and social cost. The state rebuilt the eastern span of the bridge in the 2010s to replace a 1936 structure that had been a source of concern since its dramatic partial collapse during the 1989 Loma Prieta earth- quake. Completed in 2015, the eastern span went far over budget, costing $6.5 billion to date. The new span has its own structural problems, however, and more spending has been required for repairs and adjustments to ensure the stability of the span when we face the next big earthquake.
Frances Albrier Community Center 2800 Park Street, Berkeley 94702
San Pablo Park’s Community Center commemorates the life of African American activist Frances Albrier as part of the long and rich history of cross-class multi-ethnic culture, community, and social struggle in South Berkeley. Albrier’s life story sheds light on the character of her neighbors, who fostered a strong sense of community that was often forged in the sports fields of San Pablo Park.
Born in 1898, Albrier grew up in Alabama with her grandmother, a former enslaved woman and midwife who cared deeply about education. Albrier’s grandmother was a founding supporter of the Tuskegee Institute, the prominent Black school where Frances studied before joining her father in Berkeley in 1920. She received further training as a nurse, married, and settled into a house nearby at 1621 Oregon Street to raise her three children. Racial discrimination prevented Albrier from securing work as a nurse, but she later found employment with the Pullman train company and became active in a labor union. Having been refused a job as a welder at the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond (although she had twice the hours of training needed), Albrier leveraged her knowledge of a new federal anti-discrimination law to pressure Kaiser. She won and began work as the first Black woman welder in 1942. Her persistence helped pave the way for thousands of African American and women workers to get better-paying jobs in the shipyards (see Rosie the Riveter Monument and National Park, p. 65).
Outside of her own workplaces, Albrier engaged in a series of campaigns to challenge discrimination and social injustice. She organized a women’s club that pressured the Berkeley schools to hire the first Black teacher at nearby Longfellow School. She initiated a “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work Campaign” at Sacramento and Ashby—just a few blocks from San Pablo Park—that pushed local shopkeepers to hire Black employees. She was the first African American to run for Berkeley City Council in 1939. She didn’t win, but she went on to hold prominent positions in the local and statewide Democratic Party and served on Berkeley’s Model Cities program, which brought federal community-development dollars to South Berkeley.
Albrier was a powerful person and leader, but she was also a product of a remarkable community. Byron Rumford lived nearby at Acton and Russell. His Sacramento Street pharmacy became a neighborhood institution, and in 1948 Rumford became Northern California’s first Black elected official when he won a seat in the state assembly through
the work of an alliance of African Americans, progressive labor unions, and liberals of all ethnicities. He leveraged these coalitions to pass landmark state legislation for fair employment in 1959 and fair housing in 1963. A statue of Rumford by sculptor Dana King stands in the median on Sacramento Avenue, near his former pharmacy.
Berkeley’s Japanese American community was centered just east of this area in a thriving community with dozens of organizations, churches, and cultural groups. During WWII the federal government incarcerated more than thirteen hundred Japanese American Berkeley residents. Under Albrier’s and Rumford’s leadership, Berkeley’s Interracial Committee protested war- time treatment of Japanese Americans, and some entrusted the deeds to their homes to Albrier while they lived behind barbed wire. (Section authored by Donna Graves)
Marcus Books 3900 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Oakland 94609
The East Bay offers a strong counter to the notion that the age of independent booksellers is over. Between Oakland and Berkeley alone, an array of independently owned and operated stores and small local chains serve niche audiences and the broader community alike. Marcus Books holds a special place on this list as the oldest continuously operating Black-owned and operated bookstore in the United States. Marcus was founded in 1960 by Julian and Raye Richardson as the Success Book Company in San Francisco. The institution was part of a wave of Black book- stores that opened in the 1960s and 1970s, offering access to books by and about people of the African diaspora, including information absent or scarce in other bookstores, public libraries, and schools. The spread of books by W.E.B. DuBois, Toni Morrison, Frantz Fanon, and many others provided intellectual foundations for transformations in Black community consciousness.
The Richardsons opened the original Success Book Company in the front of their independent San Francisco printing shop, where they published writers who were shut out of the white-dominated publishing industry or whose work was difficult to find. Julian Richardson published Marcus Garvey’s Philosophy and Opinions in 1966 after discovering that it had been out of print for forty years. He also printed two influential literary magazines of the Black Arts movement, Black Dialogue and the Journal of Black Poetry, and published a number of books of poetry under his own imprint. The bookstore–print shop was a hub for Black artistic and cultural activity in San Francisco, hosting events and political meetings, playing an active role in local political struggles.
In 1970 the Richardsons opened a second location in Berkeley and changed the name to Marcus Books, after Garvey. The East Bay expansion allowed Marcus Books to conduct business with schools and other large institutions in Alameda County, such as prisons and social service facilities, according to a 1978 interview with Julian Richardson. They moved the East Bay store from Berkeley to its current site in Oakland in 1976. The new location was around the corner from the recently opened MacArthur BART station and close to the first storefront location of the East Bay Negro Historical Society (the earliest predecessor of the African American Museum and Library of Oakland). This new location was central to political activity in the neighborhoods of North and West Oakland as well as downtown.
Meanwhile, the San Francisco location moved to the heart of the Fillmore district in 1980, to Victorian Square, a small cluster of buildings that had been rescued from the redevelopment bulldozers some years earlier. In 2014, after a long community struggle to save it, the San Francisco location at 1712 Fillmore shuttered. The Oakland location remains and stocks a catalog of Black books in all genres and hosts events on-site and in partnership with other organizations. Even amid the Black outmigration of the 1990s and 2000s that has changed Oakland’s demography dramatically, and after financial troubles that plagued the store for some time, Marcus Books remains rooted here on MLK Way. (Section authored by Simon Abramowitsch)
Authorship The majority of this book is written by Rachel Brahinsky, Alexander Tarr, or the two of us together. Our individual and collective work has no additional byline. We are honored to also include the contributions of a wonderful group of Bay Area geographers, researchers, and public historians. Their names are noted at the end of any site entry that they authored or contributed to, with the caveat that we have edited the whole book for consistency.
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.
There’s this hill, a perfectly-sloped green hill, that rises above the Pomona Freeway on your left as you cross the 605 and drive west into Los Angeles. Young trees stand equidistant from one another — clearly planned and planted not long ago. Between them, snaking their way from street level all the way up to the top mesa, green plastic tubes about 2 feet in diameter rise above the ground, transporting the methane gas produced by the slowly decomposing trash that lives inside the belly of the mountain.
As the population of LA County has expanded over the last 50 years, so has the hill. About a decade ago, an average 12,000 tons of trash arrived daily (that’s the equivalent of about 200 adult elephants, to give you an idea) atop these huge dump trucks. The non-recyclable waste would then get flattened out by the dump truck’s equally huge wheels. I had a photo taken next to one of them just so I could remember their size: A bright yellow safety helmet sits awkwardly atop my head; behind me, one of the truck’s tires rises to twice my size.
“All waste facilities have great views,” told me one of the landfill’s workers back in 2010 when I visited Puente Hills. He pointed down to cookie-cutter housing developments, a few pockets of green, orderly suburban streets where cars could be seen shuttling in all directions and at different speeds.
But a mountain of trash is still trash, no matter how many trees may be covering it up, no matter how pretty the sight. And this perfectly sloped mountain of trash was getting to be just too big for Los Angeles. The Puente Hills landfill would have to close down, and the trash would need to be shipped elsewhere.
Early one summer, a little over a decade ago, my editor sent me to a town about 160 miles east of Los Angeles. My assignment was to spend a couple of days trying to understand why there had been a history of illegal dumping in these parts and why the Los Angeles County Sanitation District had considered the Imperial Valley desert close to the U.S.-Mexico border a future disposal site.
I took Interstate 8 east of San Diego, towards the Jacumba Mountains’ huge, round boulders, past a Border Patrol checkpoint, and the curve in the road that brought me just a mile away from the U.S.-Mexico border wall. Then, less than two hours into my ride past another rocky mountain range, the plain opened up in front of me just as the sun was coming up. I could see just two layers in the landscape ahead — the Imperial Valley’s sandy light brown and a blue sky — that resembled a Mark Rothko painting.
The closer I got to my destination, the more green mixed into the landscape. This is the Eastern Coachella desert but still it is known for its agricultural production 300 days of the year; one only made possible by an informal migrant workforce and intense irrigation. Eighty-eight percent of cropland here is artificially irrigated with water from the All-American Canal.
Seasonal farm workers can be seen dotting the fields and picking produce almost yearround, even when temperatures reach 110 degrees. By the time I showed up to the unincorporated community of Thermal mid-morning, the air was dry and warm. Eduardo Guevara, a gentle, stocky guy with a closely cropped dark mustache and beard, waited for me by the side of the road.
I first heard about Lawson Dump when I became obsessed with Los Angeles’ massive output of trash and wondered where it ends up. It turned out some of the county’s construction debris and hazardous waste was illegally ending up here, a 50-foot-high dump that would be set on fire regularly. Next to it was Duroville, a trailer park infamous for its poor living conditions and bad air quality. Without paved roads and garbage pick-up, Duroville was a sad indictment of the daily reality of too many California farmworkers. And it was overcrowded—at one point, up to 4,000 people lived on the 40-acre site.
Meanwhile, Duroville residents had no idea of the possible risks of living next to a smoldering dump. “This is where nearby farms disposed of grape stakes covered in pesticides; where people discarded their old cell phones and computers,” Eduardo told me as we walked around the edge of the dump. “We knew people burned trash here, but we didn’t know it was that bad.”
Even before coming to Thermal, I’d become both fascinated and repelled by this place: Here was the largest toxic dump in California located a short drive east from the gated communities and irrigated golf courses of Palm Springs and the site of the Coachella music festival. It was a symbol of the great disparities you’d find in the state: of the migrant farmworker as a dispensable asset, of the desert landscape as a literal wasteland.
We spent much of that day exploring the four unincorporated rural towns of the Eastern Coachella Valley that border the Salton Sea: Thermal, Mecca, Oasis and North Shore. Eduardo told me he’d managed to get his family out of a trailer but his wife still suffered from the severe asthma she acquired during their time in Duroville. He’d begged county officials to do something about poor quality housing, pesticide drift, hazardous waste and water contamination, but nothing came of it.
“Maybe researchers couldn’t link the asthma directly to the dumps, but it’s a big coincidence for a community that has been living next to a burning, open-air dump for years, don’t you think?” he said, as we stood atop one of the mounds that made up Lawson Dump. I listened to him intently, thinking I’d also need to get a response from public officials, check the record, do my research, be objective. My story, I genuinely thought, would capture the injustices of this place. It would take me some time — years, really — to be able to identify the lessons that this part of the desert held for me.
I kept coming back, driving the two-and-a-half to three hours from the city. By 2014, the Los Angeles County Sanitation District decided to indefinitely postpone its “waste-by-rail” plans of moving LA’s trash to this part of the state and Lawson Dump was ordered shut by a court. More often than not, I came alone and without an assignment, struggling to make a case to my editor that one or two stories couldn’t possibly capture the complexity of what I was seeing or what it all meant.
I met Griselda Barrera at a middle school auditorium in Thermal, moments after she offered her public comment about air quality to a panel of state regulators. With her long, black hair, straight talk and black platform pumps, Griselda demanded attention. But the public officials facing her, all of them men, avoided her gaze.
“I’m tired of the agencies that come here asking us to bring people from the community as an audience for their presentations,” she said out loud in Spanish. “We have no idea what they do with the information we give them. Nothing changes.”
Fifteen years ago, Griselda told me, she and her family came from Mexico and moved into Duroville. They, of course, hated it. She and her husband got a seasonal job picking grapes and chiles, averaging only $15,000 per year.
Low wages in the fields define this corner of California: They are the reason why a majority of workers endure substandard living conditions in mobile home parks, and why at the height of harvesting season, four men will share a single room for months, or worse yet, live out of their cars. Income inequality is why migrant populations typically are forced to face extreme levels of environmental hazards and also why migrants’ health disparities are so persistently widespread. In 2010, there was only one primary care physician per every 8,400 residents in the Eastern Coachella Valley. Local clinics report higher rates of diabetes and asthma, particularly among young children, coupled with a 30 percent uninsured rate among patients.
“I’m taking you to the new Duroville,” Griselda promised me the day we met, explaining how after the old dump and trailer park had been ordered shut down, the county created a new $28 million public-private mobile home development in its stead. I’d be able to meet Griselda’s youngest son who’d dropped out of college and now worked in a fast food joint, and her eldest, who had just welcomed a baby with his young wife from El Salvador who had also spent her first few years in America living in (but plotting her exit out of) Duroville.
“But you should think about a way to pay people for their time,” Griselda said, coyly, as we made plans to meet again. I tried to explain to her that it was unethical for journalists to pay for interviews. Then, for weeks, I waited for Griselda to reply to my messages.
I was once a middle-class kid growing up in Caracas, Venezuela, a big city flanked by mountains and less than an hour’s drive from the Caribbean Sea; an urban setting not unlike Los Angeles, located far away from where my food was grown and where my trash was disposed of.
The tropics’ tall, flowering trees, and seasonal monsoon rains defined my view of nature. When my family visited the desert dunes in Coro, 300 miles west of Caracas, we jokingly called it “a beach without water;” a habitat for scorpions and snakes. I never thought I’d one day come to love the Eastern Coachella desert and the Sonoran Desert, my home of the past two years, with its stalwart and adaptable biodiversity despite high summer temperatures and a lack of water.
Once in the U.S., I would become an outsider: Spanish-speaking, but not from Mexico. Nostalgic, but increasingly independent and distant from my own family’s traditions. I learned to survive winters.
The deeper I got into the legacies of Duroville and Lawson Dump, the more I learned about the life and work and dreams of migrant farmworkers, the harder it became to sort out whether I was being a well-meaning witness to injustice or someone exploiting the details of others’ suffering for my own sake. It turns out that like most journalists, I could be both.
Like a privileged Western foreign correspondent parachuted into a conflict area in the developing world, I was routinely asked to make sense of a history I did not feel or know. Yet for years, I’d functioned under the assumption that as a journalist, my craft was the only thing I needed to show loyalty to. My stories, I naively thought, would shed light on the injustices faced by people, creating a shift in public opinion, and eventually, tangible change.
It would take me another decade to see the shortsightedness of this promise — mainly, that I could efficiently yet deeply understand and share stories about “other” people and places, without getting to truly understand myself first. Neither my class consciousness nor my native Spanish-speaking could make up for the easy characterization of other people’s lives, for the way their stories could be perceived by others, how they could contribute to the already-existing stereotypes about migrants, desert-dwellers, immigrants, farm workers, activists.
I needed to sort out my duty to the people who trust me with their lives and feelings, and figure out that in the end, these stories I’m drawn to, past and present, are also about myself: They are stories about home or the search for it. Stories about dignity and justice. More often than not, the narratives I care to help tell the most, the ones that keep me up at night, and give me a sense of purpose, are about individuals and communities who have a sense of hope about their futures.
In getting to know the desert —its vastness and possibility— I have learned to slow down my experiences to see what happens when I give myself one month or two or a year to tell a story, instead of one day or one week. Sometimes, the stories never get told and instead, I befriend the people I interview. Other times, these stories morph into life lessons instead or into yet more stories, or rather, snippets that make their way into my dreams. The places I write about become fixations, and I keep returning, as if hitting the rewind button to replay the scenes of a movie that hold some personal meaning that I cannot yet decipher.
This past November, I paid my latest visit to Thermal. Eduardo and Griselda are no longer living nearby, but the last time we spoke, they’d both told me how proud they were of the roles each of them played in the clean up of the old Lawson Dump site. The hill is still there. It rises above street level but the waste is now hidden beneath thick layers of dirt. Next door, where Duroville’s trailers once peppered the landscape, there is nothing but flat open land. Beyond, on either side, I could see a patchwork of fields of lettuce and other greens being harvested by men and women hunched forward, donning big hats, dreaming their dreams of home here in the desert, or elsewhere.
Ruxandra Guidi is a native of Caracas, Venezuela. She has been working in public radio, magazines, and podcasts for twenty years across the US, Latin America, and the US-Mexico border region. She’s an assistant professor of practice at the University of Arizona School of Journalism and a contributing editor to High Country News magazine. She collaborates regularly with her partner Bear Guerra under the name Fonografia Collective.
Mallie Robinson and her five children came to California in search of something better, only to find more of the same. When the Robinsons relocated from Cairo, Georgia to a family home on Pepper Street in Pasadena in 1922, their white neighbors greeted them with a flaming cross on their front lawn. Mallie discovered that most jobs were closed to Black women, aside from domestic work, while her children attended segregated schools. They were also barred from Pasadena’s public pool. The Plunge finally reopened to African Americans in 1930, but only for one day a week. Tuesday was known as “Negro Day,” when the Robinsons were allowed to swim alongside other people of color. That evening, the city drained the pool and filled it with fresh water for white swimmers on Wednesday. “Pasadena regarded us as intruders,” recalled one of Mallie Robinson’s children, a young man named Jackie.
Pasadena is now eager to claim Jackie Robinson, the sports legend who broke professional baseball’s color barrier, as one of its own. A community center and a city park are named for him, and two mammoth brass sculptures to Jackie and his brother Mack, an Olympic medalist, occupy a central courtyard across from Pasadena City Hall. Yet nowhere in in the city’s landscape are markers or acknowledgements to what Jackie and his family endured, when Pasadena largely closed itself to African Americans. The wealthiest city in the nation when Jackie Robinson was growing up, Pasadena was also one of the most rigorously segregated.
Pasadena was no outlier among California cities, as Lynn M. Hudson explains in her urgent new book, West of Jim Crow.Although officials in Pasadena policed the color line with particular vigilance, they represented a mere sliver of the segregationist apparatus in twentieth-century California. Hudson brilliantly illustrates how this vast network – including city and state officials, politicians, lawyers, policemen, and everyday citizens – turned California into a bastion of Jim Crow segregation and a hotspot for anti-Black violence. But she also documents the numerous ways in which African Americans fought back. From a certain perspective, the virulent force of white supremacy in California can be seen as a testament to the remarkable achievements and prominence of Black men and women in public life.
California’s history of race-based segregation, of course, runs deep. Modern California – now one of the most outwardly liberal and cosmopolitan states in the nation – was built upon the forced relocation and dispossession of multiple ethnic groups. That history includes the seizure of vast amounts of land from Indigenous inhabitants and Mexican rancheros in the nineteenth century. And it includes the violent removal of Chinese immigrants from their communities across the state, as well as a sixty-year ban on migration from China, beginning in 1882. The hostility that Black Californians faced (and face still) belongs to this longer history.
Hudson’s canvas is broad – one of the many reasons her work will appeal to scholars, students, and general readers alike. West of Jim Crow spans the antebellum era up to the start of the Civil Rights movement, with a focus on the Black struggle for justice in the early to mid-twentieth century. Hudson ranges across space and time to cover a diverse range of moments in California’s Black history: San Francisco’s Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915, the building of all-Black town in the Central Valley, the African American anti-lynching campaign, the rise of Ku Klux Klan in the Inland Empire, and the long fight against segregation in Pasadena.
The Black struggle for racial justice in California is as old as the state itself. By the early 1850s, hundreds of enslaved African Americans had been forcibly imported to work the gold diggings around Sacramento. When many of them won their freedom later in the decade, they still faced a raft of discriminatory laws and practices. African Americans could not legally testify against whites in courts of law, nor could they marry across the color line. They were also routinely barred from streetcars and viciously parodied in San Francisco’s popular minstrel shows.
Against all odds, some early Black Californians prospered. Biddy Mason, a former slave from the plantation belt, personified hard-won fortune for this first generation of African American migrants. Born into slavery in Georgia, Mason was forcibly transported across the country, before she finally won freedom for herself and thirteen others in a Los Angeles courtroom in 1856. First as a nurse and midwife, then as a real estate entrepreneur, Mason built a business enterprise that made her one of the wealthiest women of color in the American West. Her success seeded a family fortune estimated at $300,000 by the turn of the century. At that point, Los Angeles had one of the highest proportions of Black homeowners of any city in the country. Yet as the Black community grew in numbers and affluence, it encountered mounting hostility and discrimination.
The story of racial struggle in California is largely one of self-empowered Black women like Mason. Generations of female leaders – Delilah Beasley, Josephine Allensworth, Carlotta Bass, Ruby Williams, and Edna Griffin, among many others – endowed their communities with strength and vision. Hudson, the author of an excellent biography on the San Francisco businesswoman, Mammy Pleasant, is well-equipped to recover these women’s contributions. She does so by placing them within the larger networks in which they operated, rather than rendering them as individual biographies. The effect is to highlight the cumulative power of Black women’s organizing. They never struggled alone.
Hudson locates influential Black women in places that historians typically overlook. Allensworth, the first and only all-Black municipality in California, was often advertised as a retirement community for Buffalo Soldiers. The town’s founder, Army veteran Allen Allensworth, embodied the masculine initiative that he hoped would propel his Central Valley settlement to prosperity. But it was the women of Allensworth who deserve much of the credit for the town’s survival in the 1910s and 20s. Some of the most successful businesses in Allensworth, including the hotel and boardinghouses, were owned and operated by women. Women also constituted the leadership of Allensworth’s church, and they taught generations of students in the schoolhouse. Their lessons in Black history proved transformative. “It was really the first time I’d ever heard nice things said about black people from a historical perspective,” one former student recalled. The moral was a simple but powerful one: “There was nothing inferior about me. I was pretty hard to stop from there on in” (115).
Scholars might quibble with certain aspects of the book, including its terminology. Hudson affixes the label “Jim Crow” to virtually all acts of anti-Black discrimination, beginning with the Reconstruction period. Most historians, however, generally date the start of the Jim Crow era to the late nineteenth century, when the former Confederate states adopted a series of laws to segregate and disenfranchise their Black populations. The term “Jim Crow Law” doesn’t appear in print until the 1890s. This isn’t to suggest that the racism African Americans faced in 1870s California was somehow less damaging. But Hudson would have been wise to explain why the term, which otherwise appears anachronistic, should have purchase for this earlier period. In doing so, she might have convincingly extended not only the geography of the Jim Crow era but the chronology as well.
Minor critiques aside, West of Jim Crow is among the best introductions to Black California history yet written. It should be read alongside the seminal works of Albert Broussard, Quintard Taylor, Stacey Smith, Mark Brilliant, Lonnie Bunch, Shirley Ann Wilson Moore, Douglas Flamming, Scott Kurashige, and Josh Sides. Because many of their books are more tightly focused – centered on particular cities or on a few decades of state history – Hudson’s ambitious and wide-ranging work will appeal especially to those looking for a primer on the subject. West of Jim Crow is an elegant synthesis that will doubtlessly stand the test of time.
Jackie Robinson never forgot the trauma or humiliation of his segregated childhood in Pasadena. For Black families like his, the city’s affluence and upscale public services weren’t points of civic pride; they were reminders of what had been denied them. Even apparent victories for African Americans could be transformed into defeats. After a protracted court battle, Pasadena was finally forced to open its public pool to people of color by 1947. But rather than integrate, the city instead chose to drain its pool of funding, as it had been drained of water after “Negro Day” every week. If white families couldn’t have the pool to themselves, no one would. The Plunge, once the most popular public pool in California, deteriorated. And Jim Crow lived on.
Kevin Waite is an assistant professor of American history at Durham University in the UK. His first book, West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire, will be published by the University of North Carolina Press in April 2021. With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, he co-directs a collaborative research grant on the life and times of Biddy Mason.
What makes a space a home? While we often think of it as the site for the nuclear family, home is also the space that communities create. In this sense, cities and neighborhoods evolve in much the same way as singular households. Individuals make a community their own by ensuring that the area reflects the needs and identity of its residents. Yet, as gentrification grows throughout many U.S. cities, marginalized communities are being stripped of the very essence that made these spaces home to its members. The anger over the loss of these spaces takes many people by surprise, even as others view the transition of their communities as a marker of progress. However, one loses the rich history of how these cities and spaces became home to millions of individuals in the face of structural divestment, disinterest, and overall erasure.
Through a historical analysis, Abigail Rosas discusses the ways in which a marginalized community, like South Central, California, became home to the thousands of Black and Latinx residents that have migrated to California since the 1960s. It is a beautifully written narrative of the work that Black and Latinx residents put into a community to make it their home. And it is ultimately a plea against gentrification’s displacement of Black and Brown bodies.
To contextualize and ground the project, one has to remember that the United States is quickly becoming a minority-majority nation. Most research continues to focus on the white population as representative of the average American, while rendering the life and experiences of other groups as marginal. According to a 2015 Census report, more than half of the U.S. population is projected to belong to a minority group by 2060, with Black and non-Black Latinx groups accounting for almost 43% of the population. This is precisely why research that focuses on Black and Latinx communities is not simply a one-off project, but instead represents the future of the United States and is the reason why the importance of South Central is Home extends well beyond the borders of California.
Rosas shapes her historical analysis by grounding the discussion around ideas of place-making, community-building, and race relations in South Central, Los Angeles (or South L.A., as it is now known). From beginning to end, the book eloquently narrates the ways in which African Americans began their place-making journey to South L.A. in the 1960s, against a backdrop of systemic racial oppression and racial covenants that segregated Black communities. In their journey from the U.S. South, Black residents migrated to the Southwest with the hope of starting anew, in a community whose history was not bogged down with the burdens of slavery.
Mexican and Central American immigrants began moving into the predominantly Black South Central neighborhood in the 1980s. Many of these immigrants left for economic and/or political motives in search of a more decent life. However, like African Americans, Central American and Mexican immigrants were relegated to the same “forgotten places” of the city. Rosas contextualizes the environment in which Black and Latin American peoples would come to make South Central their home. More importantly, it provides the historical background in which these residents came together to advocate for their own community and well-being, often against the interests of powerful government entities. As Rosas puts it, “South Central African American and Latina/o residents advocate for investment and care for the community, but an investment that would not leave them behind.” It is through this collaboration that Rosas identifies the power of relational community formation.
The seven chapters in this book can be broken down into three important categories: place-making, investment, and race relations. Impressively, Rosas situates the historical realities of Black and Latina/o/x residents in South Central. Within these historical accounts, Rosas intertwines the ways in which systems of oppression and racialization created the conditions in which these residents were required to maintain and preserve a community that would serve the needs of its members. Even when it comes to government investment initiatives like the Head Start program and healthcare clinics, it was the community members themselves that had to work together to make the programs fit the needs of the people in South Central.
In the chapters dedicated to Head Start and healthcare clinics, Rosas effectively captures how the programs were first rolled out, the difficulties encountered, and the way in which Black and Latina/o/x folks worked together to make both institutions a success. Interestingly, while both the Head Start program and Drew King Hospital were funded through important government initiatives, both instances of investment were often used to racialize the community through the insidious narrative of a culture of poverty. By interacting with and attempting to shape these spaces Black and Latinx residents were forced to interact with each other.
While Rosas demonstrates the power that Black and Latinx communities have when they work together, she also brings up two important points that are not fleshed out in their entirety: the erasure of the Latinx community and negative race relations. As she notes on many occasions, the increased immigrant presence in South Los Angeles has done little to “erode the African American identity and character the people readily associate with the area.” Rosas worries that the Latino and Latinx presence will be erased from the popular image of South L.A.. While I do not think Rosas suggests that the Latino and Latinx experience is more precarious than the Black experience, Rosas could have spent more time explaining the persistent association of South L.A. with African Americans. In other words, thinking about the ways in which understanding South L.A. as a Black community, even if demographic numbers tell us otherwise, is also about the importance of place-making for a community whose history in the United States is founded on the erasure of its people. Rosas’ focus on the positive aspects of Black-Latinx relations is noteworthy. However, understanding why they do not always get along is just as important as highlighting when they do.
South Central is Home will be of interest to sociologists, political scientists, historians, and ethnic studies scholars, among others. As a book that centers race relations in communities of color, this book would be especially useful for undergraduate and graduate students, community organizers, and even political leaders. For young scholars, it provides a model for writing about communities that formed us, communities that we unapologetically love. Many traditional scholars continue to view scholarship that center ones community or family as “me-search”. This critique of course is rarely made of white scholars researching white communities. Lastly, by disentangling the rich history of South Central, Rosas shows us the future of cities across the United States.
Claudia Sandoval is a professor in the Political Science department at Loyola Marymount University where she teaches courses on Race, Immigration, and Black/Latina/o relations. Professor Sandoval is a first-generation Mexican immigrant who grew up in Inglewood, California. Sandoval received her B.A. in political science from UCLA in 2006. She graduated from the University of Chicago with both her master’s and doctorate in political science in 2014.
 Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. “Forgotten Places and the Seeds of Grassroots Planning”. In Engaging Contradictions: Theory, Politics and Methods of Activist Scholarship, edited by Charles R. Hale, 31-61. Berkeley and Los Angeles: UC Press, 2008.
 Rosas, Abigail. South Central is Home: Race and the Power of Community Investment in Los Angeles. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019.
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.
March 12, 2006. My second big punk show. The Adicts at the Showcase Theatre in Corona, California. Way the fuck away from my home in La Puente.
I was supposed to see them a week prior, not too far away at the British Invasion festival at the Orange Pavilion in San Bernardino. The show got shut down after I had been there for two or three bands. A skinhead demonstration had led to a stabbing, tear gas, looting, and riot police. I was fourteen.
My dad had been nearby listening to KFWB in his old Datsun, heard about what was going on, and came back and swooped me up. I was extremely disappointed to have missed the Adicts, essentially the only band I came to see, until it was announced that they were playing another show a week later, for half the price. I took a flier with me to school. The older, hippie punks I knew, who had claimed to smash a cop’s windshield that night said, “Oh, it’s at Showcase.” They didn’t seem too surprised, and smiled slightly.
At what? At where? I had only heard of punk shows happening in backyards in the San Gabriel Valley, clubs in Hollywood, and this lame coffee shop in Azusa called Smart City Grinds where Cheap Sex played once. The bell rang and I headed to class while the hippie punks returned to their hacky sack game.
It seemed like all of a sudden the Inland Empire was the place to be, before I even knew of it’s reputation. In my mind, that’s where Mexican and white punks gathered in mass numbers, stood together against fascists, smashed fast food restaurants, and where the Adicts played whenever you wanted to see them.
I pleaded with my father to take me again. This time, he wasn’t just dropping me off. Two tickets it was, and a ride down two freeways I’d never heard of.
We drove out from La Puente on the 91 and the 71 on a school night. My dad excitedly reminisced about visiting his aunt in Corona in the early 60s, riding mini-bikes in empty fields, and eating hamburgers at Hi Spot. It sounded like some redneck shit to me.
We got off on Main Street and arrived to what seemed to me like flat-in-the-middle of fucking nowhere. A Del Taco to our left, a 76 Station to the right. In spite of some charming old buildings and a curving line of trees, the place felt somewhat sad. It was getting dark in downtown Corona.
We went another block or two, past the city library, and then I turned my head to see hundreds of kids surrounding a frumpy brick building next to the 99 Cent Store. It was like they had taken it over.
We parked beside some girls hanging out in a blanketed truck camper, slyly drinking forties. My old man seemed more accustomed to this kind of scene than I was (after all, he saw the Doors in the 70s). As we walked up to the building, he snapped a picture of the building’s cheesy marquee: The Showcase Theatre.
The parking lot was alive with girls and boys with blue and pink hair, spiderweb tattoos, painted leather, and cheetah print everything. They screamed at each other, played grab-ass, while the older ones smoked cigarettes. There were also a few middle aged people there too, just as punk as the rest.
This Corona was redneck shit indeed, and my sheltered Mexican-mom-having adolescent self was about to get his first taste of it. I met a 19 or 20-ish year-old guy who’s name I don’t remember. He had the tallest spiked hair I’d ever seen and the most thrashed, moldy Cramps shirt. It gave those hippies at school a run for their money. He said he lived around the corner. I asked if he came to all the punk shows. I had just become aware of hardcore, metal, and “scene kid” music and eyed it with distrust. He said he came to the Showcase Theater every night, no matter who played, just to fuck around. He made eye contact with the tallest, scariest bouncer and called “Waddup Big Ron?!” Big Ron’s scowl turned into a huge grin.
At seven o’clock sharp, the bouncers snapped into authoritarian mode and shouted us into lines. Everyone mostly complied. When I got to the box office window, ringed with stickers and faded graffiti, a middle-aged blonde woman with Coke bottle glasses and a green cardigan asked me, “Tickets or Will Call?” Not understanding the question, I blinked at her. She sternly repeated herself and then gave a look to a Mexican goodfella in skate clothes standing by the door. He told me to empty my pockets, took my ticket, and sent me inside. He was the club’s talent booker and stage hand, Joe Case.
I felt like Bilbo Baggins entering the back door of the Lonely Mountain under moonlight. There was a dark hallway covered in posters for upcoming shows: UK Subs, The Meteors, Avengers. It was probably only 12 or 15 feet long, but it’s burned into my memory like the slow pan-up at the beginning of a movie that takes place in a Chuck E. Cheese for punks.
Traffic lights and an old bicycle hung from the ceiling. There was a small, round stage, no more than three and a half feet high, flanked by huge speakers, and a little cage next to it for the sound guy. The wooden dance floor in front of it was soaked in years of sweat, and framed by a squared, corral-like rail that separated the pit from the loading ramp, the entrance, and the snack bar with its Christmas lights. The old crust punk tíos and lifers leaned up on the rail with slushies and popcorn while their young ones ran up and down the staircase to check out t-shirts and CDs on the balcony. Underneath the balcony was the chill out – or make out – area. Behind the snack bar, past the world’s loveliest bathroom, was a red naugahyde couch, arcade machines, and a water fountain that never worked.
The show started quickly. My pop and I went up the balcony to watch the opener, the Giggaloops. They were locals, mostly girls, four or five years older than me, and they were playing their last show ever. First song and the kids were already pitting and singing along. I couldn’t believe a band this young had a following and could open for legends like the Adicts. I think one of their moms might have worked in the snack bar. I was enamored with their lead singer’s pin-up style and cool vintage microphone. They thanked Showcase numerous times – that’s what everyone called it, Showcase – and when I got their free CDR later, it had live tracks recorded at the Showcase that actually sounded better than their demo.
The Adicts as I would find out, played the Showcase many times a year. It was where they had made their return from hiatus in 2002, before they moved to California. They’d released several records with a label co-founded by the venue’s owner, Ezzat Soliman. These British legends made Corona their home base, and were huge in So Cal. The tight confines of the club (capacity of 450, I think), gave the perfect conditions for the band to explode confetti and throw out beach balls to a swaying crowd of teenage heathens.
After that first show, I kept making the trip out to Corona any chance I got over the next two years, meeting new friends, eating the pizza next door, and pissing off the 99 Cent Store staff. I saw more and more that the Showcase had its own scene of artists who were making (or trying to make) their careers in music largely off the opportunities that this little place and it’s community afforded. Not only was it the spot to see Vice Squad or TSOL, but there were hordes of young people honing their chops on locals-only bills that were generously provided by Joe Case and Ezzat Soliman.
The stereotypical skeezy Inland Empire element was there. I remember a middle-aged, leather-faced crew called the Runt Punx. They had names like Spit and Weasel, and dressed sorta like GI’s or Gestapo. One of them slapped my best friend Garrett in the titty as we crossed paths in the doorway. Boy was he pissed. The Corona City Bootboys were a skinhead group that came out and busted up a D.I. show. I once saw a methed out guy who looked like Matthew Lillard push a revolver in a fresh cut baby skin’s face and ask him if he wanted to “play with bullets” while the kid pleaded, “I’m not a fuckin’ nazi man, please don’t shoot me, I’m not a nazi man!” This happened about a block south of the club. My sister and I watched with bewilderment from the bushes.
But I met a lot of artists and intellectual types there too: a family with a record label whose kids ran food drives and became train hoppers. A guy from Temecula who printed Patti Smith and other poets on his shirts. All the photographers. Of course, there were all the politically-minded bands and fans spreading messages about police, war, and animal rights. And just a lot of friendly people who loved to dance and didn’t mind getting crashed into.
I’m not totally sure where everyone came out from, and how many people were Corona locals. Many came from Riverside, where the Showcase’s predecessor, Spanky’s, resided in the late 80s. Garrett came out from Rancho Cucamonga. Recently I learned that my cousins, who had moved from Alhambra to Ontario to Mira Loma, had gone to Showcase with their aunt and gotten drunk for the first time in the parking lot. All the while, the IE felt like such a nebulous region to me.
In 2008, the Showcase shut down pretty quickly. I didn’t know what exactly happened – a lot of pressure from Corona City Council apparently – but I had gotten my taste of what punk rock was supposed to be, and spent many more nights in search of it in backyards in the SGV, galleries in Echo Park, and bars in Orange County.
As I ventured further into rock scenes enabled by the bull economy and gentrification of the Obama years, the happy times I spent in the circle pit at the Showcase didn’t feel quite as hip. I drank in some of the high brow, anti-hick, and apolitical sentiments that swirled around some of the more affluent garage rock and art punk shows. Showcase wasn’t a place I brought up anymore, and I’m ashamed to say I even cringed a time or two when my father mentioned it years after.
More recently, I just about completely lost interest in the bulk of what goes on in the LA rock scene, as even the bands who are supposed to be super punk mostly just play in clubs with sideways fences that seem to have been built to serve as backdrops in commercials. Everyone’s gotta make a buck. It’s not to say something isn’t happening somewhere that means something to someone though. In fact, geographically, I started to notice something funny.
Maybe it was just nostalgia that caught my peripheral vision, but I started noticing that old school punk, with all of its trappings, still exists in the boonies like Corona. Marla Ríos-Hernández’s dissertation on punk made the papers. A gigantic fair for punk street vendors was happening yearly in Upland, until Covid. And Alta Loma’s Dr. Strange Records is still going strong 22 years later. I hadn’t seen an honest-to-god punk family walking the street in the SGV in ages, until I went to see Logan Colby’s 2019 documentary “If These Walls Could Sing” at the Concert Lounge in Riverside. It was a rowdy and emotional evening. The audience cheered younger versions of themselves jumping off the stage, as the Soliman family sat tearing up in the back row.
Now, 12 years since the Showcase shut down, the Inland Empire has taken on a clearer identity in my head. It’s a place without pretense, where people do what they have to to survive and thrive. The IE, and Corona, are punk.
Chris Greenspon is a radio journalist from La Puente, California, and the host of the public affairs podcast SGV Weekly. His work has been heard on KPCC, KCRW, Latino USA, and Marketplace. Listen to a radio version of this story here.
There is a growing concern with the relationship between private philanthropy and nonprofit regional organizing and development efforts to address economic inequality and racial injustice. As shown in the groundbreaking book The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Nonprofit Industrial Complex (INCITE! 2007) and a growing body of ethnographic and historical research, private philanthropy has influenced patterns of nonprofit professionalization and introduced individualistic and racialized market logics that limit and contain grassroots efforts to address structural inequality. Unlike the also important journalistic and philosophical texts on the power of philanthropy that tend towards broad claims about foundations and the wealthy elite, this body of empirical research grounds philanthropy in the power-laden relationships between funders, transnational actors, nonprofit institutions and staff, and local communities – echoing long standing concerns of nonprofit practitioners and movement leaders.
Recently, development and philanthropy scholars critique the “philanthrocapitalist” turn where charitable institutions seek new profits through private-sector investments in major social policy arenas including global health, agriculture, education, workforce development, and disaster relief that create new markets of wealth production that in turn produce or maintain inequality. A striking example of the philanthrocapitalist model provides a challenge to recent claims that philanthropic efforts in post-Katrina New Orleans represent a new model for social justice giving. Vincanne Adams’ book Markets of Sorrow and John Arena’s book Driven from New Orleans provide detailed accounts of how, instead of delivering justice to displaced residents, philanthropic partnerships in post-Katrina New Orleans paved the way for private housing development and new debt structures that generated profit for private industry while making it extremely difficult for displaced homeowners and residents to stay or return.
These trends are not new. Just as the Ford Foundation was heralded as a civil rights advocate in the 1960s, it was later critiqued for watering down the Black Power movement and the more radical wings of the United States War on Poverty community action programs. In co-author Erica Kohl-Arenas’ study of funder investments in the California Farmworker Movement, the Field Foundation and the Rosenberg Foundation were valuable allies in the early days of the movement but were unwilling to fund union organizing, strikes, boycotts, or legal representation of farmworkers when the movement heated up in the fields of California’s Central Valley in the late 1960s. Today, we see widespread congratulations for donors and nationally-scaled nonprofit organizations that support movements against the exploitation of poor people, women, immigrants, and communities of color. While these resources and professional forms of community organizing are desperately needed, do all strategies of nonprofit and philanthropic organizing matter equally? We propose that it is necessary, especially during times of crisis, to investigate how well-funded nonprofit organizing campaigns intersect with, sometimes support and catalyze, and yet sometimes overshadow or contain local struggles.
The case study featured in this essay shows how private and publicly funded domestic worker organizing projects that aim to empower women can weaken and redirect efforts away from building a broad-based worker and immigrant-owned movement and towards the needs of market owners. However, as we will also see in the featured case, the power of privately funded professionalized nonprofit organizing is not always represented in clear-cut capitalist agendas. Instead, professionals negotiate and adapt program strategies to align with the interests of partners with power and resources, in the end making poor people responsible for alleviating their own suffering while excluding questions of how structural inequality is produced and maintained.
The study takes on the difficult task of interrogating the risks involved in professionally organizing some of the most marginalized people in this country –undocumented immigrant women who clean homes for a living. While we believe that this organizing is urgently needed, we also found that incentivized volunteerism, required participation in national domestic worker efforts, and privately-funded media campaigns can run counter to building a strong movement of, by, and for immigrant women. Strategies to counter political, economic, and racial oppression are of utmost importance today. It is also important to pay attention to how organizing strategies that aim to also align with the interests of employers in rapidly gentrifying regions, may contain contradictions that risk compromising movements for social, economic, racial, gender, and political justice over the long haul. Central to these contradictions is the dilemma endemic to community organizing in the advanced nonprofit sector where movements that claim to embrace localized grassroots organizing, are often organized around “upward accountability” to professional staff, funding structures, and regional employers – not to the communities they aim to empower and mobilize. This professionalized approach to organizing is not inherently bad. However, institutional arrangements and strategies are often disconnected from the daily struggles, critical analyses, and strategic engagement of those most impacted in the issues a movement seeks to address.
Based on the findings of co-author Erika Grajeda’s ethnographic research at an immigrant worker center in San Francisco, California, we make three specific claims about the problems presented by privately funded, nationally connected, nonprofit institutional worker organizing. First, we found that asking one of the most precarious workforces, predominantly undocumented immigrant women who clean homes, to participate in volunteer organizational maintenance activities replicates an increasingly common form of unpaid labor required of women who seek support through poverty alleviation programs throughout the global South. In other words, economic opportunities extended to immigrant household workers were contingent upon unpaid nonprofit organizational care, duty, and labor. A second finding discussed in this paper involves the ways in which women participants themselves become a strategic site of intervention rather than the structural arrangements of domestic labor within the regional and national economy. Similar to transnational poverty eradication programs targeting girls/women, women workers are engaged as a malleable economic resource and investment. Finally, through public communications campaigns associated with the worker center’s funded programming, we found that by privileging employer audiences, largely imagined as middle-class Bay Area residents and tech workers, domestic workers emerged as selfless and industrious individuals while workplace challenges and regional structures of inequality experienced by domestic workers were made invisible.
In the following pages, we show how specifically gendered program frameworks, narrative tropes, and forms of nonprofit governance hold undocumented immigrant women responsible for solving problems produced by broader structures of inequality. Through privately-funded programmatic logics, they are at once told to evaluate their own self-worth based on volunteer labor and caring, and that worker organizing is about incentives, rewards, and communication campaigns alongside agreeable regional employers. We first provide a historical and geographic context for worker center organizing in the San Francisco Bay Area. The following sections share our findings around the three central themes of gendered and incentivized participation in nonprofit worker organizing, the project of making women responsible for their own suffering, and finally the politics of “win-win” public media narratives that aim to both empower women workers and make employers feel comfortable and charitable hiring immigrant domestic workers. We conclude by returning to the complicated question of the purpose and risks associated with critiquing one or the most important organizing agendas within a historical context of political oppression and urgency in the U.S.
The Worker Power Center
Scholars have long documented how the adversities faced by undocumented immigrants vary considerably across geographic regions in the U.S. California, emerging in recent years as a champion of “immigrant rights,” has supported a host of policies intended to help undocumented immigrants. Under threat of possible retaliation by the Trump administration, then Governor Jerry Brown signed landmark sanctuary state legislation vowing to protect “hardworking families” while continuing to target “dangerous criminals.” Within the state, cities such as San Francisco have upheld longstanding sanctuary policies or related law enforcement orders. Considered “as good as it gets” for undocumented immigrants, the San Francisco Bay Area is lauded as a racially heterogeneous and progressive setting that is accommodating and charitable to noncitizens. This façade of tolerance and inclusivity, however, overstates the city’s ability to provide refuge and safety to undocumented populations, particularly in the post-9/11 era with the ascendancy of what some refer to as the Homeland Security State. Importantly today, it also overshadows the Silicon Valley tech boom-induced housing and affordability crisis that has led to a rapid increase in homelessness and flight of working-class Black and Latino residents from the city.
Alongside these trends, a migrant civil society has flourished to deal with the crisis of social reproduction confronting low-wage, immigrant workers in the Bay Area. Worker centers have been at the forefront, seeking to counter the process of labor subordination by helping immigrant workers navigate the landscape of substandard work. As “informal unions,” these mediating organizations are tasked with supporting immigrant workers through a combination of advocacy, organizing, and service provision. Through their efforts to contest informal work practices, they not only aim to alter the terms of labor relations, but also create additional income-generating activities as alternatives to low-wage jobs. Worker centers are thus considered important agents for economic equity. Contributing to a twenty-first century pro-labor moral economy which draws attention to the plight of low-wage immigrant workers, the nonprofit worker center model has emerged as a promising development that is reenergizing labor and immigrant social movements in the U.S.
The Worker Power Center (WPC) is a city-sponsored program that focuses on strengthening the individual well-being and collective power of low-wage immigrant workers in San Francisco. Previously part of La Raza Centro Legal, a community-based legal organization, the WPC currently falls under the fiscal sponsorship of Dolores Street Community Services, a nonprofit that was created in the 1980s to provide shelter and sanctuary to Central American refugees. With their institutional support, the WPC oversees two worker collectives, the Day Labor Program (DLP) and the Women’s Collective (WC). The DLP, which originated in the early 1990s as an outgrowth of a burgeoning immigrant rights movement across California, extended job development and social services to mostly undocumented and homeless men. The program is currently located in the historically Latino neighborhood of the Mission, near a corridor where immigrant workers have long gathered to solicit employment. The worker center, in a display of converging interests of local authorities, neighborhood groups, and migrant justice activists over the growth of informal hiring sites and immigrant dispossession, emerged as a ‘win-win’ solution for the problems posed by informal day labor markets amidst rapid gentrification. Aiming to provide “support, structure, and resources” to both day laborers and their employers, it hoped to ensure a steady supply of “low cost, seasonal, [and] temporary” labor while simultaneously preserving the “dignity” of workers. Today, the worker center model is heralded as the best possible solution to the “crisis” facing many local governments over the growth of informal labor markets. 
In the early 2000s, the WPC created the “feminist wing” of the organization, the Women’s Collective (WC), to provide immigrant women laboring in household industries with an independent organizing space. As a standalone program with its own membership structure and decision-making procedures, the WC currently represents more than a third of the WPC membership base. In addition to extending job opportunities to a mostly Latin American, immigrant and female workforce, the WC offers members opportunities “to learn, work and participate” in local and national social movements. By providing Latina migrants with more than just “dignified employment,” the WC is a pioneer among worker centers which have traditionally been male-dominated spaces catering to industries such as construction. Today, the WC is considered an incubator for immigrant household workers to hone their leadership and entrepreneurial skills, self-esteem, and political consciousness.
As founding members and leaders in the worker center movement that includes umbrella organizations such as the National Day Labor Organizing Network (NDLON) and the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), both programs share a social justice orientation intended to incite collective mobilization. At the organizational level, however, a more disjointed picture unfolds as day laborers and domestic workers, through their respective programs, are treated as two distinct populations endowed with varying levels of political agency and potential. As we will illustrate in greater detail below, day laborers and domestic workers are incorporated into the organization through different membership and participation requirements. These differences, we argue, reflect and reinforce distinct funding imperatives, political agendas, and gendered expectations. We find, for instance, that while the WC is concerned with promoting immigrant women’s civic engagement and leadership, encouraging greater visibility in migrant justice movements, the DLP prioritizes men’s labor market integration and “community embeddedness.” DLP members are encouraged to await work indoors, venturing out collectively mostly to participate in community cleanup and volunteering efforts aimed at making a positive impression on neighboring communities. Women, however, take on a more visible and political role due to their distinct participation requirements. This means that while the worker center aims to function as an “organizing hub” for WC members, inciting personal transformation and empowerment, it often serves as a day shelter for immigrant men looking to secure work through the DLP.
Funding streams for the WC and DLP also differ. The DLP receives roughly $250,000 per fiscal year from public grants offered by the City and County of San Francisco’s Office of Civic Engagement & Immigrant Affairs (OCEIA). According to the 2014 OCEIA’s Request for Proposal, the purpose of such grants is to provide “structure, job training, and support” to the informal day labor industry as well as to address community concerns over safety. These grants emphasize the dual goal of providing day laborers with a “structured” work environment to ensure their economic self-sufficiency, and securing a stable supply of low cost, on-demand labor for local industries and employers. The DLP then is tasked with ensuring a reliable supply of flexible labor while promoting immigrant integration and public safety. Alternatively, the WC receives funding from private foundations such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Benton Foundation, and the Zellerbach Family Foundation, which according to staff, is largely directed toward the “social justice” side of their operations. As an affiliate and founding member of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and the California Domestic Workers Coalition (CDWC), the WC receives additional funding to attend national retreats and participate in outreach and advocacy campaigns. While OCEIA grants for the day labor program emphasize economic self-sufficiency, safety, and greater oversight of informal economies, funding for the WC largely focuses on promoting civic engagement and leadership development. Both foundation funding and OCEIA grants, however, look to these community-based organizations to address the challenges experienced by and ensure the reproduction of low-wage immigrant workers in a gentrified and increasingly unaffordable city.
In 2016, the Worker Power Center celebrated its 25th anniversary with a relaunch and rebranding campaign. Envisioning itself as a full-service organization seeking to “unite, empower, and organize” low-wage immigrant workers in San Francisco, the Worker Power Center (WPC) has increasingly embraced marketplace solutions. These have included employing marketing strategies and media campaigns to create what they perceive to be a more sustainable and scalable organizational model. This new approach has also entailed expanding their employer base, particularly those in the tech industry, embracing innovative technologies such as apps to combat wage theft and expedite the hiring process, as well as experimenting with public-private partnerships. With this relaunch, the WPC seeks to enhance the individual lives of low-wage immigrant workers by providing them with greater employment prospects through professionalization and vocational training. They also seek to extend more opportunities for leadership development and civic engagement in migrant justice and labor movements.
In the remaining sections, we turn to our findings that complicate how these benefits are delivered to WPC members under the nonprofit organizational model. We highlight the three central themes of gendered and incentivized participation in nonprofit worker organizing, the project of making women responsible for curing their own “trauma,” and finally, the politics of “win-win” media narratives that aim to both empower members and compel employers to support immigrant workers. We conclude with a discussion about the practice of embracing nationally scaled and market-based solutions to address enduring labor challenges, particularly the extent to which privately funded nonprofit institutions are engaging workers in developing organizing strategies that hold employers and industries accountable to change. Gendered and incentivized participation in nonprofit worker organizing
Membership in the Worker Power Center (WPC) is considered a “privilege” that is not automatic but must be earned. While some worker centers offer multiple membership tiers with different levels of rights, obligations, and decision-making privileges, membership structures are generally devised with the goal of empowering members to serve as their own advocates of change. At the WPC, prospective members have to fill out an application form, attend an orientation meeting, and pay monthly dues. Once established, membership extends job dispatching privileges to workers, which is one of the most important services the center provides. Although membership provides job allocation privileges to both day laborers and domestic workers, only for the latter is “active participation” a requirement for securing household employment through the Women’s Collective (WC). Day laborers, for instance, are allocated jobs using a rotating sign-in system, which requires that they be physically present at the center to be eligible for work on any given day. After every job placement, the Day Labor Program (DLP) requires that workers volunteer either by cleaning the facilities or distributing flyers throughout the city advertising their services. While encouraged, members of the DLP are not required to attend weekly member meetings.
For domestic workers in the WC, a point system is used to codify, track, and reward optimal levels of participation. While its exact origin is not known by current staff or WC members, household workers earn the “right” to jobs through the collective by what organizers refer to as “active participation.” Through an intricate point system, WC members earn a point for every activity or event they attend on a weekly basis. These can include flyering or advertising their services throughout the city, but also attending marches, protests, self-help meetings, theater group rehearsals and performances, making legislative visits, and at times, engaging in acts of civil disobedience. Women also engage in other “volunteering” activities, including organizational maintenance work such as cleaning and cooking for members during communal events. While expected, this type of gendered community care work—often attributed to a culturally-specific ethos of cooperation and conviviality—is not accounted for or tabulated into the point system. Staff acknowledge that the point system is the source of much internal conflict, resentment, and surveillance among WC members—as well as a considerable amount of administrative work on their end. Still, the point system is considered a “necessary incentive” that serves to maximize women’s participation and more importantly, to develop their political consciousness.
Job allocation, which staff describe as a referral service linking prospective employers with job seekers, is considered secondary to the organization’s larger political goals, which is to “empower” immigrant Latinas. This message is delivered to women during an initial orientation meeting where prospective members learn about the WC’s “mission and vision,” but also at weekly mandatory meetings and events. Ana, a senior member of the WC, reinforced this point to a prospective member during an orientation meeting: “One can’t just show up and take up space.” After becoming a WC member, this woman explained that she understood that to secure jobs through the collective she would “have to work hard.” As part of the WC’s mission and vision then, immigrant women were being called to “join the fight” instead of remaining on the sidelines as spectators. Josefina, a cofounder of the Women’s Collective and a former domestic worker herself, elaborated on this point at a general member meeting:
“The women who are truly committed don’t just show up to earn points. They participate because they are truly concerned with what is going on in their communities, in the legislature, in D.C. They aren’t just a warm body on a chair. It is not greed or selfishness that motivates them but the belief that as immigrant women we all have to fight for what we want . . . it is not fair that some of us put in the time and effort to attend all of these events, participate, march, protest, share our stories, talk to politicians and journalists, while others simply get to sit back and enjoy the fruits of our labor.”
As the above quote suggests, “active participation” entails more than being a “warm body.” To secure household jobs through the collective, members are expected to “participate, march, [and] protest.” They also have to be willing to put their bodies on the line, at times quite literally, by engaging in acts of civil disobedience, risking arrest and even deportation, in their efforts to secure employment through the collective. When members have questioned or challenged the intrinsic value of participation, they are reminded that membership is a “privilege” and that the benefits extended include the “opportunity” to be part of a social movement in the U.S. As Victoria, a WC committee noted, members are often reminded that the opportunity to participate and acquire valuable leadership skills should be payment enough. However, as Victoria retorted, “We’re the ones out on the front lines,” adding that while the WC encourages women to fight for immigrant rights, members are not encouraged to apply those values internally, or to make changes to the collective’s organizational structure. Ultimately, she shares, “the compañeras give and give [and] not out of the goodness of their heart but out of necessity because they need jobs.”
Healing immigrant women
Providing members with ample opportunities to be politically engaged is part of the WC’s approach to empowerment. That is, domestic workers are incentivized to march, protest, fast, meet with public officials and in some cases, engage in contentious-style politics. Empowerment, however, also requires personal transformation. To that end, WC members are encouraged to “work on themselves” by engaging in transformative activities aimed at restoring and revitalizing their “body and soul.” These personal transformations are made possible through their incentivized participation in self-help groups, theater, retreats, and other activities that emphasize psychic and somatic healing. This emphasis on personal transformation and healing is inspired by the National Domestic Workers Alliance’s (NDWA) Strategy, Organizing, Leadership (SOL) initiative program. According to this initiative, skilled organizing requires a “centered, open and connected” individual who understands not only her own trauma and healing, but also the current and historical sociopolitical context. As a program that aims to build resilient grassroots leaders who can “lead with skill and love,” SOL encourages worker leaders to tackle lingering traumas and other pathologies that can generate individualist and antisocial tendencies. Left unresolved, these pathologies are seen as potentially stifling political participation and community power. As such, healing the “body and soul’” of household workers is deemed imperative for building robust social movements and grassroots organizations.
At the WC, women’s inability (or unwillingness) to be active in the local nonprofit organization and the nationally-scaled domestic worker movement is often attributed to moral and individual shortcomings. According to a WC cofounder and staff member, nonparticipation is rooted in low self-esteem, trauma and culturally-rooted pathologies that ultimately stifle collective action and create divisions within movements. Defining individuals through their assumed trauma – as victims of structural, physical and sexual violence – allows for interventions into their lives to be justified as a political obligation. Instrumentally, addressing these pathologies and lingering traumas is seen as integral for building robust social movement organizations and leaders. Here, again, is Josefina describing the collective’s “healing” mission:
“Many of the women that walk through that door are broken. They come from countries where women have no rights, no voice, and no way of providing for their children. They have been beaten, exploited, even raped, and so they come to the WC looking for someone to extend a helping hand. That is what we do here, we provide them the tools they need to reach their full potential as women, to expand their possibilities so that they can aspire to more in life than just cleaning houses, which is hard work . . . They come here broken and leave as heroínas.”
To ensure that WC members reach their “full potential” as entrepreneurs and social movement participants, the collective cannot thus merely “assist” them in securing household work. Instead, through a discourse of empowerment – borrowed from feminist thought and praxis – the WC aims to provide immigrant Latinas with the tools they need to “aspire to more in life than just cleaning houses.” To cultivate empowered subjectivities, these assumed to be “broken” women must “work on themselves” by participating in self-help activities aimed at “restoring the body and soul.” This emphasis on psychic and somatic healing, borrowed from the National Domestic Workers Alliance’s (NDWA) Strategy, Organizing, Leadership (SOL) initiative, receives generous financial support from the Angell Foundation, Hidden Leaf Foundation, Open Society Foundations, Alexander Soros Foundation, Oak Foundation, Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, NoVo Foundation, and Seasons Fund for Social Transformation. As a holistic and transformative organizing model, SOL approaches personal healing as a political necessity.
To that end, WC members and staff receive financial support to attend the National Domestic Workers Alliance’s (NDWA) Strategy, Organizing, Leadership (SOL) retreats, where domestic worker organizers and leaders learn about the importance of both personal and social transformation. By developing the concept of “transformative organizing,” the SOL initiative aims to address the human needs of household workers by promoting embodied transformations, mindfulness, and developing healing and caring responses to ensure longevity and active participation. On a weekly basis, WC members also participate in a SOL inspired self-help group, Grupo SOL, which is designed to boost members’ self-esteem and develop peer group solidarity. In Grupo SOL, intimate disclosures are not only considered integral to personal healing and transformation but also to nurturing a more empowered sense of citizenship. While these types of disclosures can be potentially liberating, connecting the personal to the political in strategic and powerful ways, many of the women interviewed expressed feeling that they are deprived of an intimate or private sphere in their quest to secure employment through the collective. This emphasis on healing and self-help thus reveals a contradictory problematic. Whereas the women are asked to reveal the true nature of their own suffering, the foundation funded and professionally run program sessions were organized around the presumption that the root of women’s struggles is a lack of confidence, self-esteem, and voice and not the broader structural challenges such as seeking a living wage, affordable housing, or safety from immigration policing. Here we see a model that again is not “bad” in and of itself: healing from trauma is important and personal empowerment pedagogy has a long-standing movement history. However, it did not “land well” or as intended by virtue of being required within the context of an incentivized participation scheme and designed and delivered by remote nonprofit professionals. For WC members, tending to their “body and soul” is yet more labor they are expected to perform for community uplift.
Win-Win Organizing: public narrative and the politics of care
Unlike day laborers, domestic workers dedicate a significant amount of time and labor to the organization and to self-help. Their distinct participation requirements and funding streams incentivize optimum levels of engagement among women, alongside a gendered improvement program aimed at healing “broken” immigrant Latinas. We argue that the way women members are differently incorporated into the organization produce highly dependable and active members that are compelled to take on multiple roles as caregivers, entrepreneurs, and activists. Emerging as the best hope for a revitalized labor and immigrant movement, these women are continually called upon to “work on themselves,” thereby redirecting the responsibility for managing social risks such as unemployment, poverty, and “illegality” on individual immigrant Latinas. Domestic workers have also been central figures in recent advocacy campaigns that aim to address “injustices of recognition.” As others have documented, nonprofit worker organizations such as the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance have increasingly focused on the promotion of dignity and visibility of domestic workers through positive representational modes such as storytelling and legal advocacy. These efforts seek to remedy the legal exclusion of an entire industry while also to addressing the historical devaluation of household work and its gendered and racialized workforce.
The WC has paralleled these national efforts by seeking to situate immigrant household workers within the framework of recovery and redress through media marketing campaigns. In 2012, for instance, the WC launched the Domestic Worker Safety & Dignity Project, a three-year collaboration that included UC Berkeley’s Labor Occupational Health Program (LOHP) and Underground Advertising. With financial support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s national grantmaking program, New Routes to Community Health, the team designed a marketing and media campaign to promote dignity and health awareness among domestic workers and their employers. The campaign not only addressed occupational safety and health considerations associated with the reliance on toxic cleaning products. It also tackled the public devaluation of household work and its racialized workforce through storytelling strategies that emphasize pride, bravery, and respect. Their goal was twofold: to enhance household working conditions while simultaneously altering the perception of this industry from undervalued women’s work to a “respectable contribution” to the economy.
To promote the WC’s unique brand as a “conscientious cleaning service on a mission,” the team commissioned a photographer to shoot glamorous portrait photography that would be featured on billboards, buses, and other outdoor media in San Francisco. These images would also be featured on their website and printed on flyers to advertise their services. The messages accompanying the images of immigrant household workers referred to WC members as “angels,” “fairy godmothers,” and the “keepers” of their employers’ sanity. In mobilizing these gendered tropes, which focus on benevolence, resourcefulness, and magical qualities, the campaign not only reinforced stereotypical gendered views of domesticity and affect, but also portrayed these workers as a source of gentle reassurance for employers. That is, by presenting immigrant household workers as benign and selfless figures endowed with magical powers, these motifs glamorize marginalized women workers in subservient positions. Moreover, in depicting WC members as instrumental to their employers’ emancipation from the drudgery of household tasks, the campaign not only privileged the needs of employers but also projected an idealized image of this racialized and gendered workforce: industrious, resourceful, and most importantly, ephemeral.
In addition to glamorous photography and strategic messaging evoking the image of the self-sacrificing and magical doméstica, the campaign included an exhibit, “Profiles in Strength & Dignity”, which showcased “moving” autobiographical narratives of WC members. These curated autobiographical accounts offered potential employers “a glimpse” into the workers’ lives and the many roles they take on—as wives, mothers, domestic workers, and now, as activists fighting for “rights and representation.” “Profiles in Strength & Dignity” also reinforces the organization’s political and rehabilitative mission. Their autobiographical accounts highlight, for instance, how the WC provides recent immigrants with a ready-made community in addition to vast opportunities for political activism. For instance, Lorena, who worked as a nanny when she arrived to the U.S., contends that: “Before I came to La Colectiva, I felt like a scared little bunny rabbit—I was frightened of everything.” In these curated accounts, the WC is presented as providing Latinas with stewardship, protection, and care to ensure that they become self-sufficient, confident, and respectable. Domestic workers, portrayed as frightened and defenseless upon arriving to the collective (and the U.S.), are treated as redeemable and ripe with potential, which can be cultivated through proper guidance and care.
Featured on the collective’s website,“Profiles in Strength & Dignity” also promotes the notion of the potential “win-win” or shared prosperity for both workers and employers:
“When the women of La Colectiva pick up the broom and dustpan, they aren’t just clearing away dust—they’re clearing a path to respect and pride for domestic workers everywhere. It’s a win-win: employers get the peace of mind that comes from having a clean house, and the women get dignified work in a healthy workplace. But La Colectiva isn’t just a place to find work. It’s a community for recent immigrants, often separated from their families in a strange new environment. It’s an opportunity for civic engagement and activism towards social justice. And it’s a step towards a better life.”
As the passage suggests, what makes the WC different from its competitors—their distinct “brand”—is that they represent a “conscientious cleaning service on a mission.” Unlike for-profit agencies, the WC provides immigrant Latinas with the opportunity for empowerment through entrepreneurship and political engagement. Presenting “organized labor for an organized home” as a win-win scenario, beneficial for both workers and employers, parallels recent domestic worker organizing efforts at the national level. This is particularly the case with the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and its focus on forging strategic alliances with employers and other institutional actors. This “win-win” approach positions employers and workers on an equal footing through a presumed shared vulnerability (and prosperity), presenting their distinct goals and aspirations as perfectly compatible. It also appeals to employers’ moral sensibilities through the strategic mobilization of compelling personal narratives that renders their “conscientious cleaning service” as an “opportunity” for helping immigrant domestics to help themselves. This strategic branding constructs WC members as a worthy social investment, in their futurity as citizens, entrepreneurs, and pillars of the community. Employers, on the other hand, are viewed as conscientious consumers driven by compassion and social responsibility, without concern about the structures that generate such deep class divisions and categories of exploitable labor.
In this paper, we explored the central problematics presented by privately funded, regionally focused and nationally scaled, nonprofit worker organizing. First, we found that asking undocumented immigrant women to participate in volunteer organizational maintenance activities unintentionally promotes an increasingly common form of unpaid labor required of women in global poverty alleviation programs. WC members were required to execute time intensive volunteer duties in exchange for jobs. In other words, economic opportunities in the domestic work economy were presented as contingent upon unpaid nonprofit organizational care and labor. In addition to institutional maintenance requirements, women were incentivized to participate in professionally orchestrated national domestic worker campaign actions, also in exchange for job referrals. This privately funded and professionally staffed institutional approach to mobilization presents a limited range of opportunities for women workers to define and lead organizing agendas on their own terms. It also puts women under additional pressure as they are asked to take a publicly visible stand which for some puts their immigration status at risk, and for others requires additional resources towards childcare and family support during hours of program participation.
Second, we showed how foundation funded program imperatives that make workers themselves the most important site of intervention fail to address the structural arrangements of domestic labor within the regional and national economy. For male participants, day labor centers function as a kind of shelter, or in the words of a staff member at a day labor center, “a homeless campsite.”  Considering the parallels between worker centers and non-profit poverty management institutions, these sites often serve as repositories for containing and making invisible “surplus” populations within gentrifying urban neighborhoods. As in the structural arrangement of 21st century racial capitalism, a pattern of urban “banishment” is performed as poverty programs intersect with real estate development and speculation, clearing streets to protect the view (and the opportunities) of middle class and wealthy residents concerned with urban “blight” and value.
Whereas men are contained or managed within these spaces, women are disciplined as traumatized individuals in need of healing and care. When “fixed,” these once “broken” women are seen by funders, and thus by program managers, as holding great untapped potential as an entrepreneurial agent of development. Similar to transnational poverty eradication schemes targeting girls/women, women workers are engaged as a malleable economic resource. International development campaigns like #thefutureisfemale, or the Nike Foundation’s “The Girl Effect”are illustrative of gender-specific forms of holding women as responsible for unleashing new markets in the broader project of global economic development. Programs designed to empower women have also become prominent in migrant justice and labor movements—at once providing critical leadership opportunities for immigrant women and re-inscribing racialized and gendered relationships of community responsibility and care.
Finally, the funded public communications campaigns that claim to provide a “win-win” outcome for both workers and employers, privilege the perspectives of employers and middle-class Bay Area residents while avoiding the more challenging employment relationships domestic workers experience. The “win-win” oriented campaign, designed to both empower workers and make employers feel “safe” and “good” about hiring empowered immigrant women, ends up promoting essentialist narratives and racialized gendered tropes about the helpful, non-confrontational domestic worker who is proudly improving her own life while also improving the home life of her employer. Not unlike co-author Kohl-Arenas’ study of farmworker-grower philanthropic initiatives in California’s Central Valley “win-win” projects that aim to serve the interests of people with greatly unequal power often end up marginalizing or hiding the concerns of the weaker party. An increasingly popular form of consensus politics is wielded by mass media campaigns that claim to improve the well-being of poor and marginalized communities, but often hide conflict, struggle, and the structural conditions that produce and maintain poverty and inequality. Often promising “mutual prosperity” for both worker and employer, simplified narratives of self-help and empowerment seldom put pressure on the employer or address regional patterns of inequality such as access to affordable housing and living wage jobs, presenting a limited range of organizing opportunities.
Ultimately, privately funded, institutionally managed, nationally scaled community organizing increasingly forgoes the hard work of long-haul person-to-person movement building. With program frameworks and outcomes mapped by donors, fewer resources are devoted to the daily work of convening community members to inform concrete strategies against the dominant economic structure and towards more equitable futures. Central to the contradictions presented in these stories is the specific arrangement of the advanced nonprofit sector where funders embrace the language of community organizing but are not prepared to take on the broader economic and power arrangements that make philanthropic wealth possible. Professionalized and mandated program participation, incentivized volunteerism, public-private market based partnerships, and self-help program frameworks are all familiar tropes of the advanced “Nonprofit Industrial Complex” (INCITE 2009). In today’s political context, this incentivized organizing presents additional complications and risks for immigrant activists who are increasingly targeted and incarcerated. At the same time, the increasing lack of trust, fear, isolation, seclusion and “hiding out” among previously active immigrant rights organizers does remind us that today all immigrant organizing tactics perhaps do matter.
We simultaneously conclude that, with organizations like the National Domestic Worker Alliance (NDWA) receiving record levels of funding from private foundations such as the Irvine Foundation, W.K. Kellogg, NoVo and Ford Foundation, and a practice of embracing nationally scaled and market based solutions to address enduring labor challenges, it is important to ask how privately funded nonprofit institutions are negotiating relationships with funders on behalf of their constituents. When do institutional negotiations and large-scale initiatives result in increased resources for labor organizing and when do they result in compromised agendas that fail to change the structures of inequality produced by industries and markets? Yet, should we critique nonprofit and philanthropic efforts to support immigrant and worker rights during a time of political resurgence among right-wing, conservative, anti-state politics and white supremacist movements? Not to mention the difficulty of doing grassroots community organizing during a global pandemic, with disproportionate impacts on Black and brown communities. Our answer is yes, and no. No, there is no point in critiquing mainstream philanthropy when we need every penny and every ally to stand up against anti-immigrant hate, racism, and fear-mongering politics. On the other hand, yes, we must pay attention to the role of philanthropy in creating common-sense narratives that contribute to individualist solutions to collective structural problems. It is clear that philanthropy plays a prominent role in promoting narratives that muddy regional organizing strategies, in the end failing to reveal systems of power or align with the struggles of oppressed people.
In this context, critical philanthropy and nonprofit studies are more important than ever. Ethnographic research, such as the work featured in this article, reveals the complicated partial narratives, fragmented organizing strategies, and limited frameworks private donors present when engaging movements for economic equality and racial justice. The urgency of our moment calls for us to hold private funders and nonprofit organizers accountable to the people who increasingly struggle with political violence, economic insecurity, precarity, and banishment from social, economic, political and civic life.
Erika Denisse Grajeda is the Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Southwestern University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology. Her research on intimate labor and immigrant social movements in the U.S. focuses on emergent forms of social control mobilized by state and non-state actors to manage illegalized migrants, and fashion idealized forms of employment and political participation. She is currently working on anarchist feminist collectives in Mexico City.
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Capitol White Bone White Pale Smoke Winter Mood Victorian Pewter Silver Charm Oatmeal Macaroon Moth Gray Closet Mix Master Mix Eggshell White Powder Paper White White Dove Snowfall White Swiss Coffee Parchment White Flour Seditious White Chantilly Lace Alabaster Pure White Cloud White Moonlight White Creamy Extra White Accessible Beige Agreeable Gray Alabaster Diamond Muslin Seed Pearl Snow Bound Oyster White White Reflection Extra White Casa Blanca Silk White Antique White Aged Paper Lava White White Duck Natural Choice Best White Super White Simply White Extra White Halo White
white supremacy’s identity crisis as slow-motion-crash
[found poem from cspan after the camp auschwitz insurrection ransacked the capitol and the senate debated vote counting and the idea of american democracy]
we brought this hell upon ourselves it is a wrenching day
our words and actions have had consequences of a very very negative nature
we ought to watch our words and think about what they should mean
attacked by the enemy within encouraged by the president-in-chief
everyone says “we the people” if those were “the people,” we are in a lot of trouble
tally interrupted by violent insurrection despite clear and insurmountable,
concede already the election of she and him
justice, must not fail feast on the epiphany
Dr. Amy Shimshon-Santo is a poet-in-residence on Earth. Her interdisciplinary work connects the arts, education, and urbanism. She is the author Even the Milky Way Is Undocumented, a poetry collection available in print and audiobook nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Raindow Reads Award (Unsolicited Press, 2020). She has been recognized on the National Honor Roll for Service Learning. Her writing has been nominated for Best of the Net in Poetry (2018), a Pushcart Prize for Creative Nonfiction (2017), and appears in Prairie Schooner, ArtPlace America, Tiltwest,Zócalo Public Square, Entropy, Rose Quartz Journal, Awkward Mermaid Press, Rag Queen Periodicals, Anti-Heroin Chic, Lady Liberty Lit, Full Blede, SAGE, UC Press, SUNY Press, Public!: A Journal of Imagining America, Teaching Artist Journal, Critical Planning Journal, and the Tiferet Journal. Her choreography and spoken word have been performed throughout the United States, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Singapore in venues including the John F. Kennedy Center for the Arts in D.C. Learn more at www.amyshimshon.com.
As the condition of our climate continues to deteriorate, national and state policies beholden to special interests often play an exacerbating role in worsening effects on working-class communities, especially communities of color. Lack of adequate urban planning and underfunded public projects that can improve quality of life and reduce pollution are often ignored in the larger conversations around climate justice. Dedicated public servant David Diaz is the Executive Director of Active San Gabriel Valley, a local nonprofit organization that focuses on mobility, climate, and health and wellness in underserved communities. He joins Boom California to discuss the connections between public policy and environmental equality, and how we can take an active role in combating climate change in our own neighborhoods.
Boom: Hi David. We’re interested in knowing what the climate crisis looks like for a majority-minority city, one populated by migrants and children of migrants. Can you tell us a little bit about how it is that you, as a child of migrants, arrived to an understanding of environmental justice and the climate crisis.
David Diaz: Yeah, it’s a nice place to start. I was born in Mexico, as you know in Baja, California, and at six months old my parents brought me over and we landed in the city of El Monte. We’re right on the border of the city of El Monte and South El Monte. So, for me growing up as a latchkey kid, my parents had to work multiple jobs to make it work. We lived in this house that was subdivided internally. So, we had what was the front of the house. And then, in addition, there were two other units that were in the back. As a latchkey kid, I grew up on frozen food. My parents, due to a lack of economic opportunities, they had to work, so they couldn’t cook fresh meals. We ate a lot of McDonalds; we had a lot of frozen food. As a result, I became an obese kid growing up. Similarly, a lot of family members, extended family members, had diabetes, heart disease, coronary related diseases. I went to a lot of funerals due to strokes. When I was probably 18, 19 years old I was at about 260 pounds. I went on this trip of Muay Thai kickboxing mixed martial arts and nutrition education, learning about how I could be a healthier individual and so through that process I ended up losing about 110 pounds. And when I was going through this process, I was also going to Rio Hondo Community College and learning about culture, the erasure of culture, displacement, all the things that were not taught at the high school level. That really impacted me deeply. I ended up going to college at Arizona State to study psychology and social health and what I looked at was how systems play a role in determining the outcomes of people’s well-being and quality of life.
When you look at the communities that I grew up in, El Monte and South El Monte, some of the realities that emerge liken it to a concrete jungle. When I say concrete jungle, what does that mean? It means the absence of canopy, urban canopy, trees, vegetation, greenery in our communities. The national average for urban canopies is about 22%, so this means the percentage of publicly owned trees. In the city of El Monte, that’s about 5%.We’re not lacking fast food or liquor stores or tobacco, you can find one of those pretty easily. We’re also a super park poor community. The national average is approximately six acres per one thousand residents, and for the cities of El Monte and South El Monte, it’s about 0.41 acres per one thousand residents. And just to give a perspective: one acre is roughly the size of a soccer field, so we’re talking about cramming one thousand people in less than half the size of a soccer field.
And so, that coupled with questions like: what were the outcomes in the community I grew up in? Severe pollution burden, high childhood and adult obesity rates, low educational attainment, high unemployment. You start looking at the connections in the system and not just pointing them to personal responsibility, but understanding that all this stuff was done intentionally. So that really motivated me to take the opportunities that were provided for me and come back into my community to be part of that change. I ended up going to Claremont Graduate University to get my Master’s of Public Health. Simultaneously, I was interning at the city of Pomona’s Manager’s Office. I was also working for a startup in south Los Angeles on this concept of dealing with the whole health of an individual. Through these experiences I was able to connect with like-minded folks and organizations that were doing work that I was interested in. One of those organizations was Day One, which was based out of Pasadena, and they actually had this position that had recently opened, and it was titled El Monte Nutrition Education and Obesity Prevention Coordinator. And when I read it, I remember thinking: that’s what I want to do! Like it’s in the title, what I want to do. So, I ended up applying and I got the job. And then that put me into this kick of working in El Monte and South El Monte on various initiatives.
Boom:One of the things that you just outlined for us is the different ways in which residents in El Monte, and other majority-minority cities, experience what we might call if not climate change, at least, environmental injustice. Lack of access to parks and green space, lack of urban canopy, easy access to fast food and liquor stores. Are there any other things that you think are ways that people experience climate crisis or environmental injustice in El Monte and South El Monte that you haven’t mentioned?
David Diaz: When I jumped into the work, it was about nutrition education and obesity prevention for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. So, it’s called SNAP for short, food stamps or food assistance program. Providing them with physical activity and nutrition education is great. However, folks would tell me things like I love to eat healthy meals, I just have to work 14 hours and my schedule is variable. And I’m also worried about my housing insecurity and also I don’t have a car. And I would love to walk in my community, but I just don’t feel safe going outside and walking, because there’s no infrastructure for people to feel safe while walking. Those include simple things like the presence of sidewalks. In El Monte, more than 35% of the sidewalk network is missing. I quickly realized that we can’t just focus on direct services. We need to continue to address the systems that are in place. Poor urban planning has led to a number of things. Harm from freeways has been documented. They’ve displaced thousands of people and mitigated generational wealth from families. The car industry in general, is problematic. So, for example, if you’re a person that’s in El Monte and you want to get to a place within the city of El Monte, pretty much your options are limited to whether you have a car. And what does that create? Car dependency, which creates dependency on oil and gas because you need that. Poor urban planning has contributed greatly to the environmental inequities that we see today. And again, those things aren’t by accident, they’re by design.
Boom: I think one of the things that you’re teasing out is the ways in which there are individual actions and choices that one can make. But in some ways, depending on one’s class, one’s neighborhoods, folks are limited by these larger structural factors. How does Active SGV work to address personal choice and structural conditions?
David Diaz: At Active SGV our mission is to create a more sustainable, equitable, and livable San Gabriel Valley. Active SGV started off as a Facebook page in 2010 by a group of concerned residents from the San Gabriel Valley. They were a multiracial group that lives in different parts of the San Gabriel Valley, from West SGV to East SGV, all concerned about the lack of public transit and active transportation opportunities available for folks. When I say active transportation, that’s everything that’s human powered: walking, biking, skating, scooting. The Facebook page grew into an official organization. They were a chapter of Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, the Western Gabriel Bicycle Coalition, and then they ended up being called Bike San Gabriel Valley.One of the first things that they did was identify these things called master plans, like a bicycle master plan or active transportation master plan and what the gaps were for cities. There’s 31 cities and four large unincorporated areas in SGV. About 2 million residents. They audited which of these cities have done any planning or thinking about active transportation or bicycle master plans.
Since 2012, Active SGV has worked on 12 masterplan processes for 12 individual cities and counting. What that looks like is that we’ve coordinated regional efforts so that there’s regional connectivity in the San Gabriel Valley. Because it’s not enough to just create one bike lane and then see it end at the city boundary, after which you no longer have anywhere to go. For Active SGV, it’s really been about doing the work around identifying where the gaps are and then providing some of the programming ourselves. So, our focus is really on mobility, climate, and health and wellness. Those are the kind of broad categories in which we’re trying to tackle this climate crisis because we know that you need a combination of the above strategy. We need to do the engineering. We need to have actual projects or infrastructure built in the ground.
For Active SGV our communities of concern are really the ones that are most pollution burdened, impacted by pollution, park poor, low income, so that’s what we’ve focused on. The West Puente Valley, El Monte, South El Monte, La Puente, Baldwin Park, parts of Monterey Park, parts of Alhambra. We’re working in Azusa and northwest Pasadena right now, which are really impacted. We’re trying to do this multifocal approach to address some of the region’s most pressing needs. And over the last few years that’s looked like coordinating one of the longest Open Streets programs in the United States. It was 17-plus miles long, from South Pasadena, all the way up to Azusa. Open Streets provides an opportunity to take our biggest public asset, meaning the thing we have most of—roads, which are a fully funded asset—and temporarily transforming them into parks.
We are also working with UCLA and the Energy Coalition to do an indoor air quality study. There are a lot of different appliances that people use that rely on gas. El Monte and South El Monte are in the top five worst pollution burdened sites in California. And that puts us around the top 10 in the entire United States because the county has one of the worst air quality indexes in the United States. If you look at it from that frame and then you look at peoples’ indoor air quality, it’s about five to seven times worse than their outdoor air quality.
People are literally living in toxic conditions because of some behaviors, gas, not having proper installation, or the type of dwelling they’re living in. It’s a number of variables. So, what we’re hoping to do with the outcomes of this study is to inform future building codes for the State of California. Like moving to electrification.
One of the examples that is good for our health and wellness efforts is that we’re currently funded to address food insecurity in the San Gabriel Valley. What we’re doing is coordinating a number of up to 160 – 190 nutrition education and/or physical activity classes with communities that are considered SNAP eligible.
Those are just a few examples of the work that Active SGV is doing, but our frame is always investment where it’s most needed. Doing the work alongside the communities that are most in need and then thinking about multiple benefits. We know that food insecurity doesn’t exist by itself. There’s a lot of complexity that creates food insecurity. Same with absent infrastructure for people walking and biking. It just doesn’t exist by itself.
Boom: One of the images that I got when I was listening to you talk is the El Monte airport. El Monte residents don’t own the planes and they don’t get to go on the planes. It’s almost like there’s literally another freeway. What are your thoughts about the El Monte airport?
David Diaz: The airport for me is like a visualization of the inequity that occurs. Neighboring communities used to have these airports too, that were from way back when, like WWII or something like that. I’m so puzzled as to why we still have this airport that is for leisure activities of the people who have, and it comes at the expense of people who don’t have, which is the people that live in the city El Monte, including myself. I would love for there to be some type of mixed-use development at that site that includes parks and addresses the housing need and has opportunities for economic development for small business owners, entrepreneurs and people from the community. Instead of what it is right now, which is a parking lot for rich people. If I had a wish list, I would love to get rid of that airport. I don’t see the value that it brings to the city of El Monte. It doesn’t generate revenue for them, they’re not getting significant taxes from them. We’re just getting all the pollution, and all of the carbon. So, I would love to see it become something else.
Boom:There’s this term that I read in an LA Times article recently “solastaglia.” It’s a term coined by Glenn Albrecht to describe nostalgia for a place that is no longer the same place. And it’s not that place anymore because of environmental degradation, because of climate change, because it’s been transformed. This really hit me. As you know, Greater El Monte used to be surrounded by water, now it’s surrounded by freeways. We grew up with it surrounded by freeways. I imagine, some generations miss Marrano Beach and being surrounded by water. You have a baby, I have a baby. What do you think we’re going to be nostalgic for in 20 years if we keep headed in the direction we are headed?
David Diaz: As someone who’s involved in the climate world, people are pretty much of two frames of mind. One is resilience. We need to build resilience, and another way to say resilience is that we need to create adaptive strategies. Climate adaptive strategies. What that signals to me is that we pretty much have passed the point of no return. It’s like it’s coming. It’s going to happen. Therefore, let’s just try and adapt to the best of our ability. I think that right now people take for granted being able to go outside. Something as simple as that. You and I are going to miss the days where it was just as simple as, hey let’s go outside today. Because the wildfires that are happening right now aren’t a thing of this moment. They’re going to be a thing of this moment, tomorrow, next month, next year. They’re going to continue to happen and more major human made disaster events are going to continue to happen. And so when I think about it, it really comes down to things as simple as, we’re going to miss being able to go outside. You’re going to have these clean air days and not clean air days determining when you can actually go outside if we continue on the path that we are on right now without an aggressive or bold redirection somewhere else. I think it’s as simple as that. And I know that back in the smog days, people couldn’t go outside because of smog days or limit your physical activity outside because of smog. But moving forward, UCLA scientists right now are saying that the number of days by 2050, the number of days above 95 degrees are going to climb from 32 to 74 by 2050. That’s what UCLA scientists are predicting right now. Today, you and I are having this discussion and it’s currently 101 according to my watch.
Boom: Let’s end with one last question. We’ll try to end on a positive note: how can folks get involved with Active SGV? How can folks make small and big decisions that will help us move in a better direction?
David Diaz: Good question. I think in general one of the things I would offer to folks is to engage with Active SGV at activesgv.org and find our volunteer internship opportunities. We’re trying to do a much better job of building local capacity at the local level. One of the things that you mentioned right now is, how can at the individual level, people do better? One is educating themselves and we can work with folks to help them work through that education of what’s going on. I think that for me I’ve been learning as I’ve been going. What are best practices? What do we need to do? What’s the latest research? And working alongside folks to discover best strategies.
I think that one of the things that we’ve been doing a whole lot, while we still want to do a whole lot more, is build local capacity so that it could be advocacy at the local and state level. Because ultimately, one of the things is that the climate has been politicized. We can’t agree on whether it’s real or how progressive it is, the whole electoral process, you know, from the local level to the state and national level, special interest has a lot of grip on politicians.
One of the immediate ways to engage with us is to help do some of this advocacy around some of the legislation that’s being introduced. Particularly here at the local level, as we know that our assembly members and Senate members both take a lot of oil and gas money. They voted, and you can see it, in favor of oil. They wouldn’t even agree to vote against like a 2,500 foot setback from oil drilling sites and where homes should be located. I think that’s one way. I think in general a solution that needs to be considered at the statewide level or even at the more regional level, is how we build more regenerative economies and really focus on how we can not only create – but it’s also been this battle of jobs vs climate. Either we have climate or we have jobs, and I don’t see it as that black and white. We need to be able to find ways can do it all. It’s not just investing in climate infrastructure, but it’s also investing in people; moving them onto green jobs and divestment from fossil fuels.
Divestment strategies are very important. Sign up with a credit union or public banks because private banks fund a lot of fossil fuel interest. If you currently have a pension or 401k, 403b, look at how your profits are coming back from oil and gas. What stocks are you investing in if you have that? I think that we need to build this economy where it’s inclusive of everyone. And we talk about things like a just transition. A just transition and that really gets to having a more regenerative economy that includes building good economic opportunities for folks addressing the most climate pressing needs, focusing on base frameworks, including racial justice so that we can live in the community that we’d like to. One of the things that I love about this organization that works in the southeast LA area and also Long Beach, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, that one of their hashtags is #WeAreJustTryingtoBreathe. And while that sounds simple, it’s a reality: we are just trying to breathe. We are literally just trying to breathe. And so, I would love for us to get to a point where we talk more about regenerative strategies versus resilient or adaptive ones.
David Diaz serves as the Executive Director of Active San Gabriel Valley, a local nonprofit organization, focusing on mobility, climate, and health and wellness in underserved communities. He’s a dedicated public servant and advocate with project management, coalition building experience who has successfully worked with youth, schools, businesses, nonprofit organizations and cities to advance sustainability, equity and public health. David is also a member of the El Monte Union High School District, Investing in Place Board Member, member of the San Gabriel Valley Service Council, Chair of the Measure A Oversight Committee, and Vice Chair of the Upper San Gabriel River Watershed Area Steering Committee. He holds a Masters of Public Health degree and lives in the City of El Monte.
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.
We never ate salads. World-class mechanics drive lemons, world-class musicians pawn instruments. Know-it-all scholars would come to our store because the university was close by. All the math was done on a Scribe notebook, quietly, as a swamp cooler rocked you to sleep. Tripping out, because there is no other way to spend time in a fruit stand after morning setup duties. Art was there, always, always, always. In the way you stacked tomatoes. In the rotation of the avocados. In the Dutch angle tamarind candy. In the handcrafted, misspelled signage with the price collaged on neon bright fluorescent colored paper.
There’s a science and technique to opening costales. Just like there is to cleaning and bagging cacahuates. Or stacking bags of carbon. In the Malverde merchandise room, chaos was art, as Jesús’s bust would watch over you trying to make sense of the merchandise rearrangement. A framed print of San Martin Caballero hung in the lobby open to the public where we played the nice señora ballads. Malverde was in the back where the radios blared to a different beat, punk and norteño music. If you were a wiseass, you’d oversleep to stay in the air conditioner in the house next door where my grandparents lived. But the smell of garlic was too alluring. The chile pico de pájaro halo that adorned our day-to-day is something I miss every day. Many years later, the smells of dried chile california and chile pasilla still jump-start those memories.
I did some of my growing up in a fruit stand in Mexicali. Frutería Alejandrina. An establishment full of disaster, poor judgment and reflections of a teenage memory. The funniest, most beautiful place to roll out the red carpet on being a peacock. Toda la pinche vida carposa.
My grandparents had a fruit stand in the northern border of a super, super nice part of town. Where governors lived and the houses looked like marble mansions. Safe as houses even if that hood had a big ole graveyard, with gangs like “Los Panteons” referencing it. Colonia Libertad, the freedom neighborhood. A place where detached, lived-in people from the hood or posh intellectual fucks on their mistress dates would come by and purchase the bare essentials. It wasn’t as tough as my neighborhood, which was two blocks away from the physical U.S.-Mexico border, but it was poor neighboring the richest part of town. Everything seemed more ironic. And those memories are crisper, because you don’t have fear or crime clouding your overall existence and sadness. There were cute girls coming into the shop. Rocker girls. With money. The cruising strip was not too far away from there in the rich part of town. My barrio was amber alert. My grandpa’s barrio was divine. We were a border frutería in a border city, an assertion that you needed us, it was love amidst class war.
And once every week or so, Frutería Alejandrina had to restock. So, we would drive back near my hood to downtown Mexicali, to a place full of wonder and smells and culture and a taste of all of México nicknamed “La Yarda.” A double entendre poem in motion. Mercado Braulio Maldonado is known to all the locals as “La Yarda.” A place frozen in time. Founded by working people and their offspring for generations to come. It was hot. It was absurd. It was full of lament and fast-paced driving decisions. It was millimetric. It was colorful. It was full of smiles and laughter. And sun. You had a stake in it. The United States were not far off. But the tale was everybody’s. We had possession, we were awake. It was always day in “La Yarda.” If you saw it by night you were a bit of a tourist.
Named after what was by all accounts a brutal and repressive governor, Mercado Braulio Maldonado is referred to as “La Yarda” for reasons unbeknownst to many. Local unofficial historians even claim it’s a pochismo, a bastardization of the language, as the border always does, signifying “The Yard,” due to all the loading and unloading docks filled with truckloads of fruit and vegetables lining the immense real estate. La Yarda, like any beautifully chaotic memory, is fiercely contested geographically. “Where does it start?” “Who started it where?” “Were you so and so’s neighbors back in 1962?”
But this is a postcard. A postcard to my grandfather, a mi Tata. Reverse psychology souls. We were both heavy breathing alcohol. Drinking ourselves away like little devils in a graveyard.
The kiosk where the mariachis and taka takas would wait for gigs was our parking departure. My cousin and my uncle would reiterate that I wasn’t shit as they blew up their grandeur driving the van or crowded pickup truck, even when I didn’t want their Yarda canonization or holiness. My grandma hated all of it, the restock. There was no love in that affair for her unfortunately. Just separation. But I found peace there. Peace from social classes, genres of youth roleplay, it was all mixed up together. Beautifully. Low blows n’ all. An oasis for the shrink wrapped battalions of drunks and nihilists dreaming of luxurious starlets at the magazine stand. The audience at the cockfight dishing out fables, day drinking. Euphoria.
My grandfather’s journey as a merchant began in Culiacan, Sinaloa. His father married and remarried but always took his first-born son along with him. Teaching him the trade, being the owner of a wholesale distributor that supplied its clients with fruits and vegetables from all over Mexico. Once he was of age, my grandfather’s dad set him up with a fruit stand in Culiacan’s Mercado Garmendia, where he met my grandmother, a client who would come in and ask the price of items individually to see how much her handful of coins could afford her. My grandmother had been left behind by her widowed mother who migrated to the border town of Mexicali and formed a new family of her own in the border city. After my grandmother’s grandma passed away, she was left to the care of an abusive aunt who would take a big bulk of her profits doing home-to-home manicures and pedicures. Out of desperation, she asked my grandfather if she could live with him, who in turn left his girlfriend, and they moved in with consent from both families, later starting a family of their own.
Years later, my grandmother’s mother would come back to Culiacan from Mexicali on a trip to reconnect with her daughter and her family, and that established constant travel between both cities. My mother would be taken to Mexicali at the age of five to practically be raised by her aunt and grandma, but when they wanted to adopt her at the age of 13, my grandmother refused, and back to Sinaloa she went. My mom would eventually move to Mexicali as a young adult, having grown tired of not being allowed to study or work where she wanted. Taking advantage of a vacation to the border city, she found independence and did not return. Some of her sisters and brother would follow the promise of borderland employment. My grandmother would later follow her children and her mother to the border city, reuniting three different generations of family affected by distance. My grandfather, after a series of poor financial decisions and now nearly alone in Culiacan, moved to Mexicali to rejoin his family with very little money and no business connections.
My grandfather would have a humble reinvention in Mexicali as a birria taco vendor with a cart outside the city’s railroad station, as passenger trains arrived and departed. One day, he caught the eye of a couple of young men who used to be kids when he owned fruit stands in Culiacan, guys that couldn’t believe he wasn’t owning his own business as he did back in their home state. They offered to give him a loan to start up a new business in Mexicali, supplying him with all the merchandise needed to commence what my grandfather would graciously call Frutería Alejandrina, in honor of the young men’s business of the same name. Years later, with no more credit to pay and the property ownership under his belt, my grandfather had built what we all considered our home away from home, that beloved frutería forever etched in our memory.
There’d be rich people that would roll into Frutería Alejandrina, asking what it took to make a yummy guacamole. They all have that same face of discovery. La Yarda was no different. It even had a local bus station by the mariachi kiosk that picked up and dropped off people, one farm at a time, to restock, next to world class vehicles and air-conditioned wine and cheese connoisseurs. But it was also a party. A playing field in a police state for migrants. Where self-made people unmount towards commerce. Where you could build a party from scratch, get different styles and sizes of piñatas, the ultimate Mexican dulces, theme-party candy bags… It was a place where you could see humans connected with nature, disconnect from it and package it. Signmaker commissions highlighted storefronts, restaurants, worker bars & gay bars, barber shops, banda music for hire bass drums, and mariachi & norteño groups’ vans.
Nowadays it’s a fascist state battle between wannabe gentrifiers “rehabilitating downtown”, police harassing immigrants, divide and conquer Christians, and no end to justify the means. It’s a place of constant relocation anyway. The tacos from El Jefe were better when he was down in the pit and outdoors, not his brick and mortar three blocks up, years later. Food at a marketplace tastes better when eaten standing up. These are facts.
If one business was struggling, others could relieve it. There was store-to-store credit. Grin and bear, it was La Yarda’s mission statement. If you were young and thought you were enlightened nobody cared. You still had to arrange the wooden crates along the wall. My cousin and I would wake up at night to drink, that was our dawn. Dawn was our afternoon, we would be so hungover. Everything was an interminable binge and a hangover. And on the street there was always a scam, always a story. Men that cry to take your money. Professional actors. Cons. “Let me tell you something…” Weird caressing holds from grimy sausage fingers. All downtowns are beset by ghosts.
At Frutería Alejandrina, my grandfather and I could go days together working and hanging out without talking much, just reading El Libro Vaquero or watching classic movies from Mexico’s Golden Age on the De Pelicula channel. When we’d visit La Yarda we could both sense the status differences amidst businesses. The cold-storage room owners had personalized gold rings on several fingers, the daughters of the wholesalers wore designer jeans and ordered workers around, one could only imagine the lavish parties where they did the same. The rehab center fugitives wore rope around their waists, their hair flailing around looking for the “ghostbusters van” to take them back to internment one last time. From the back of our van and in honor of all this chaos, we drank beers from the ice chest, between loading up, in between sugar wafer and Hot Cheeto bites, observing.
It was through this lens that my grandfather and I built our history together. We’d drink till all the perishables would become unsafe for consumption. If we were really hungover, we’d stop in at the birrieria and ask for coffee. I remember the first time I went, I said “Grandpa, I don’t like coffee.” “Shut up, just drink it. It’s before 10.” I’d get a coffee cup full of foamy ice-cold beer prior to alcohol sale permits, then he’d order birria the right way. His background as a birria vendor informing his purchases, he only permitted us to to go to this one birria spot. Where it was birria de chivo, none of that lamb or beef shit. With machito and costilla, cebolla y cilantro, limones and salsa, all the different textures and flavors necessary to make it an experience. Then we’d get pretty faded ordering more caguamas, drinking them while sipping on our consomé with warm handmade corn tortillas. One time I remember he ordered the birria goat head, and I ate the eye by mistake, but the meat would come off the warm tortilla scoop like butter.
If it was after a Yarda restock, we’d get drunk with all the merchandise in the blazing heat, the chicken would thaw and go bad, and he’d invite his girlfriend over. We’d have to ask the restaurant owners to take away all of the beer bottles, coffee and consomé cups, belonging to my cousin, my uncle, my grandpa, his lover, and her daughter all having a dandy ol’ time. We’d be greeted back at Alejandrina by a well-thumbed hose spray and disciplinary actions, one time I saw him get a whole bucket. It was sad but I would just escape to the cruising strip. And keep drinking. One time my uncle and I got stoned and drunk while taking my grandpa to restock. Since it was the first restock of the year, my grandpa wanted to go to the downtown cathedral. He wouldn’t go to church regularly, much less to confession, but he’d still cruise up and go get the host. Walked into a church full of police officers because it was their annual mass, several of those cops knew us, especially my uncle. Never a bigger smile. Wasted. Watching my tipsy grandpa take communion, the only person not in blue. We left as soon as the host dissolved in his fiery breath.
When my grandpa would get very drunk, he’d start singing the lyrics to this one song: “Angelitos Negros.” After claiming for years he wrote it, we discovered Javier Solis had sung it. So had Pedro Infante, famously. I only recently found out that Roberta Flack and Eartha Kitt did it too.
Pintor nacido en mi tierra Con el pincel extranjero Pintor que sigues el rumbo De tantos pintores viejos
Aunque la virgen sea blanca Píntale angelitos negros Que también se van al cielo Todos los negritos buenos
Pintor si pintas con amor ¿Por qué desprecias su color? Si sabes que en el cielo También los quiere Dios
Pintor de santos y alcobas Si tienes alma en el cuerpo ¿Por qué al pintar en tus cuadros Te olvidaste de los negros?
Siempre que pintas iglesias Pintas angelitos bellos Pero nunca te acordaste De pintar un ángel negro
It was grounding.
He would yell it! That feeling when he sang it. And I remember thinking I’ll carry that underappreciated sentiment with me everywhere I’m headed.
There is a court of appeals that succeeds when we remember our blurry selves; those intoxicating, enamored, simpler versions of ourselves. Like a greatest hits album. Not remembering the times we’ve been racist, idiotic, suicidal, sexist, apathetic, or truly, truly helplessly sad. Such are oral histories. There are landmarks that serve as living documents, testaments to when you and I were unstable and precarious, we’ve all driven past them after years of public transport to fall back in love with ourselves.
My tata’s frutería was one of those chaotic commerce places that you could say was such without having to face your own mess at home.
There’s one like it in your town.
Dedicado a mi tío Efraín. (1952-2020)
Marco Vera is a documentary filmmaker and full-time editor residing in Los Angeles, California. Originally from the oldest neighborhood in the border city of Mexicali, he was the founder and director of Mexicali Rose Media/Arts Center, a grass roots communitarian organization dedicated to providing free access to artistic media for community youth.
The Pasadena-born science fiction author Octavia Butler is considered among the most prescient writers of the last several generations. Her superbly crafted stories deconstruct race, gender, politics, religion, and sexuality while travelling back and forth across space and time. Recent Los Angeles Poet Laureate Robin Coste Lewis describes Butler as being “on the frontier of human imagination.”
Though Butler passed in 2006, her work has never been more popular. Butler’s Parable of the Sower reached number one on both The New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller lists in the fall of 2020, 27 years after original publication. In 2019, the Los Angeles Central Library named a do-it-yourself studio space in the library, the Octavia Lab. Adding further momentum to Butler’s lasting significance is a new book A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler by the award-winning author Lynell George that showcases Butler’s inner world.
George demystifies the legendary science fiction author by using archival material from the Huntington to meticulously uncover how Butler constructed herself through a regimented autodidactic recipe of reading, writing and ritual. A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky is creative non-fiction as inspiration without solipsism.
Make the Impossible Possible
Years before Butler won the MacArthur “Genius” Award in 1995 and had published any of her eleven celebrated novels like Kindred, Wild Seed and Parable of the Sower, she was a humble soul growing up in Pasadena stealing time to write in the middle of the night or making a small paycheck stretch for weeks at a time. Butler made, as George writes “the impossible possible” and expanded space and time through her discipline and concentration. The fact that she wrote science fiction is further proof of her intention to create new worlds.
George reveals how Butler’s “most ambitious and remarkable creation was the shapeshifting narrative of her own life–the one she honed and sharpened, draft after draft after draft. It was a work of art that was not complete until she made the impossible possible; the unseen, seen. Who is Octavia E. Butler, ‘That tall girl who was always writing?”
George spent four years, starting in 2016, in the Octavia E. Butler Papers at the Huntington Library, Art, and Botanical Gardens Museum diligently sifting through almost 400 boxes of Butler’s personal items including notebooks, to-do lists, recipes, scraps of paper, letters, bus passes, library cards, hand-me-down diaries, receipts and all sorts of other ephemera. George came to call her weekly forays into the archive, “Fridays with Octavia.” George committed to “let the archive lead her.” George’s instinct to let the archive lead her proved fruitful as she found some of Butler’s most insightful thoughts on scratch pads or even on the back of an envelope. It was this marginalia where George found the portal to Butler’s inner world. It was this personal voice that would prove the most fidelity to Butler’s intent. George also found hundreds of newspaper clippings Butler kept on topics like global warming, cancer, vampires and social unrest. These saved articles showed how much research Butler did to write her prophetic stories.
These notes, George demonstrates in her book, add up to the math of Butler’s life, especially in lists connected to time and money. From the time she was a teenager, Butler crafted her life, filling dozens of notebooks with to-do lists, budgeting and contracts with herself, complete with extra specific wishes serving as willful manifestations. George’s book artfully includes images of artifacts from the Butler archive like a library card, an old calendar, a few pages from Butler’s journal, bus passes, covers of her notebooks and ticket stubs. Butler’s candid handwriting on an old notebook testifies to just how miraculous her journey was.
In our contemporary 21st Century era when New Age commentators on Instagram talk about “the law of attraction,” and “creating your own reality,” George’s portrait of Butler shows us someone who did just that years before these ideas permeated popular culture. “If you read these pages in succession, day after day,” George writes, “they are nothing short of a prayer.”
“Art may be the finest form of prayer,” writes Julia Cameron in her book, Walking In This World. Cameron’s made a long career out of writing books on world building like her perennial bestseller The Artist’s Way. Many of the journaling strategies Cameron offers corroborate with practices Butler was doing instinctually years before Cameron’s book was published. One more Cameron quote connects to Butler: “We make art not merely to make our way in the world but also to make something of ourselves, and often the something that we make is a person with an inviolable sense of inner dignity.”
Butler meticulously constructed her life and vigilantly protected her time and energy to preserve her dignity and achieve her destiny against all odds. Though Butler did not have the specific instructions presented by Cameron, George discovered in the archive that Butler read self-help books by Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, J. Lowell Henderson and Claude Bristol among others. The writings by these men advised her. “Her advisors, she acknowledged,” George writes, “may not be on the same page socio-politically, may even be dead, but she’d intuited that something essential could be gained from submitting to their worldview, even if she was never meant to be the target audience.” The clues Butler gained from these books taught her how “to keep her own counsel” and write her own affirmations. “These affirmations,” George declares, “are her safety net. They are her therapy she has neither the time, money nor constitution to undertake.” Butler discovered these books in the Pasadena Central Library as a teenager and by the time she started submitting her writing for publication in her early twenties, she had created her own practice to keep herself going. She conquered her fear and self-doubt by using these affirmations and following her strict discipline of research and writing.
Interspersed throughout George’s text are various quotes from Butler that show how she kept herself inspired. Consider this: “We don’t have to wait for anything at all. What we have to do is start.” Butler jump-started her journey in the dark without a map to follow. She grew up in Northwest Pasadena, an omnivorous reader and lifelong hermit who purposely never drove a car. Nonetheless she crisscrossed Los Angeles on public transit and took long walks to find her way in the world. George reveals all of this and shows how Butler’s worldbuilding and writing processes were methodical. She charted her life with such precision that she would often write on the calendar how many pages she wrote each day.
A Lifeline for Writers
The celebrated Angeleno novelist and USC professor Dana Johnson calls George’s book on Butler, “a lifeline for writers.” In conversation with George for a virtual event hosted by Vroman’s Books, Johnson tells her that, “[she] shows us an Octavia Butler we have not seen before.”
George saw Butler speak a handful of times over a three-decade period. The first time George ever saw Butler was when George was in her late teens and she attended the reading with her mother, an English teacher and voracious reader. George’s mom was a fan of Butler and they attended a few of her readings together. George cannot remember if it was at EsoWon Books or the long gone Midnight Special in Santa Monica but she does know that attending these readings impressed themselves upon her as her own journey as a writer was beginning.
Years later George saw Butler in Seattle in 2004 for “Black to the Future: A Black Science Fiction Festival.” George travelled to the Pacific Northwest to cover this event for the Los Angeles Times and she even briefly spoke to Butler that day. George’s Times essay, “Black Writers Crossing the Final Frontier,” published on June 22, 2004 described the event and explained that when Butler began writing science fiction in the early 1970s she was often one of the only Black writers doing it, let alone a woman in a male-dominated genre. They made an agreement to speak again but as fate would have it Butler passed two years later in 2006.
Another important point George told Dana Johnson the night of the Vroman’s reading was that this book is a product of serendipity. In 2016 Julia Meltzer, the Executive Director of Clockshop invited George to participate in their year-long program celebrating Butler. This is how it all started. Meltzer recently told me via email: “When we first dreamed up Radio Imagination –a year-long program celebrating Octavia E. Butler where artists and writers were invited to work with her archives at the Huntington Library—I knew that writer Lynell George had to be a part of it.”
“I felt certain that learning about Octavia’s life through what she left behind,” Meltzer states, “would resonate with Lynell and that she would bring her intrepid, dogged and steady journalistic eye to the project. Very early on in Lynell’s research process I sensed that a book was soon to be born. I’m thrilled that my hunches were correct. How lucky we all are to be able to learn more about how Octavia E. Butler deliberately and carefully made herself into a science fiction writer.”
Clockshop’s 2018 book, Radio Imagination includes writing from George, Tisa Bryant, Robin Coste Lewis, Fred Moten and artwork by Laylah Ali, Malik Gaines, Lauren Halsey and Alexandro Segarde. George’s piece was a “posthumous interview” for which she immersed herself countless hours in the archive. As George communed with Butler’s archive, she felt as if she could hear her voice and the channeling for the piece began.
Forecasting the Future
Though readers marvel at Butler’s seeming ability to predict the future, journalist and former editor of LA Weekly Judith Lewis Mernit recalls soliciting Butler for an essay on the “future of reading”. Instead, Butler wrote about how she still wrote on her typewriter because she liked to be methodical and deliberate with her process. However, it was her careful attention to her craft that allowed her to turn a keen eye on the present and imagine the future.
According to Mernit and Lynell George, Butler also observed the world around her by reading hundreds of articles on climate change and taking daily walks around Pasadena. Butler always paid close attention to the plants and trees in her neighborhood, noting the different species and details, such as, whether a tree was producing as many fruit as in the previous year. Like a scientist, she carefully cataloged her observations in her notebooks in detailed lists.
George’s book includes lists that Butler created from her walks and bus rides around the city. In these trips, Butler observed the city up close. The lists she wrote often read like poems. Here is one of Butler’s poem-like lists exactly as it appears in George’s book:
Brown and deep green hills of early summer
The grass is dry for the most part.
Blond with a little green grass
And many deep green trees.
Alvarado + Sunset—N. on Alv.
Small El rancho mkt—not chain
Way into hills
W. on Sunset—through cut hills
Both sides—houses cluttered on hills
Much wood frame
@ Sunset to sea—enclaves + open
As George’s narrative reminds us again and again, Butler’s careful attention to the world around her empowered her with the x-ray vision to write about the environmental conditions of the future. She was watching her immediate surroundings so closely that she could read the writing on the wall about rising temperatures or social unrest before everyone else.
A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky spotlights Butler with the same verisimilitude that Butler herself used to show us the future of our world. George writes that she found the book’s title while reading a passage in the archive: “Science fiction allowed her to reach for something beyond what she could visualize. Reading through a draft of a speech Octavia was puzzling out, I was struck by a particular answer. Science fiction is a handful of earth, and a handful of sky and everything around and between.”
Lynell and Octavia
George shares several commonalities with Butler beginning with the fact that she lives in Pasadena just minutes from where Butler grew up. Moreover, both Lynell George and Octavia Butler write the type of impeccable prose that only comes from countless drafts and years of practice.
Indeed, George has practiced her own diligent writing regimen with the same dedication as Butler, having written thousands of essays over the last 30 plus years for publications like Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Essence, LA Weekly, Alta Journal, the Smithsonian, and others. George’s countless articles have mapped Los Angeles and crisscrossed California with the same veracity as Butler’s fiction. And finally, they both were very close to their mothers and were gifted typewriter’s by them when they were little girls. George’s dedication in the book reads, “To my mother, who bought me my first typewriter.”
A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky accomplishes many missions simultaneously. Whether the reader wants to learn more about what made Octavia Butler so influential or if they want to learn how to be as influential as Octavia Butler, Lynell George provides a roadmap that reveals Octavia Butler’s secret recipe for expanding space and time.
Mike Sonksen is a 3rd-generation Angeleno. Poet, professor, journalist, historian and tour-guide, his book Letters to My City was published by Writ Large Press. His poetry’s been featured on Public Radio Stations KCRW, KPCC & KPFK. He teaches at Woodbury University.