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.
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.
Virtually nowhere in the metropolitan United States could rent be called affordable for the average family, and there are certainly no places where a family on poverty wages could pay rent without assistance. In California, a family must report a household income of roughly $100,000 to make the median rent in the state. These numbers vary widely depending on region, reaching their most extreme levels in the Bay Area cities. However, even in Fresno, the largest urban center of the Central Valley, a family needs to earn nearly $20 per hour to afford the median rent in the area while the current state minimum wage is only $12 per hour. These gaps are not static over time but are growing as rent increases outpace wage increases, a point recently explored by The New York Times.The fallout from this feature of the affordable housing crisis is the subject of so many other stories that characterize California – homelessness, substandard housing, population decline, and displacement.
Matthew Desmond’s Pulitzer-prize winning book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, directed the affordable housing crisis conversation toward one particularly devastating consequence that ultimately links the unaffordability of housing to homelessness: evictions. Often, evictions happen because the tenant failed to pay their rent. Other times, evictions occur with no fault on the part of the tenant – because of a foreclosure, habitability issues, or, egregiously, because of retaliation against the tenant by the landlord. In addition to formal, court-ordered evictions, Desmond estimates from survey data in Milwaukee that informal evictions may as much as double the total amount of evictions that take place. These are evictions that occur outside of the judicial process and reflect the vulnerable position of the tenant, who vacates the premises prior to the court filing out of fear of entering the court process or because they cannot afford the court process. Evicted forced researchers, reporters, advocates, and policymakers to realize that the process of evicting a family from their home is a key culprit in exacerbating family poverty, unemployment, and neighborhood instability. More importantly, Desmond’s work illuminated the harsh reality of a court system that is designed not to protect families from entering a downward spiral into poverty and homelessness, but to protect property.
Often, the conversations about the affordable housing crisis and its consequences focus on the major metropolitan areas of California in the Bay Area and Southern California. In a database search on scholarly articles, graduate level theses, and newspaper articles over the past 20 years using the key phrases “housing crisis” and “California”, we found 1109 results for “Bay Area,” 3081 results for “San Francisco,” 1586 results for “Southern California,” and 3525 results for “Los Angeles.” In contrast, over the same period with the same key phrases, we only found 288 results for “Central Valley” and 250 results for “Fresno.” This demonstrates that both the scholarly and popular attention has been largely focused on the housing crisis in the southern and northern metropolitan areas of California, with far less given to the Central Valley.
Yet, in Fresno alone the California Housing Partnership Corporation reported a nearly 35,000 unit shortfall in affordable housing, and the National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates a 41,000 unit shortfall for the county overall. More alarmingly, Central Valley counties, where approximately 45 percent of households are renters, experience far higher rates of evictions than anywhere else in California. The typical renter in the Central Valley is rent-burdened, which is defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as a household that spends 30 percent or more of its income on housing costs. Fully a quarter of those households are severely rent-burdened, defined as a household that spends half or more of its income on housing costs. For this and other reasons, including higher rates of poverty, the virtual non-existence of tenant protection programs and laws at local levels, and increased migration from Southern and Northern California metropolitan areas into the Central Valley in search of lower housing costs, the affordable housing crisis conversation must include the Central Valley.
In this piece, we examine evictions and displacement in the Central Valley. This work developed through our research and experiences as scholar-activists and housing justice advocates in the Central Valley. We focus primarily on Fresno County, a sprawling, diverse metropolitan area comprising both urban and rural settlement in the heart of the Central Valley, but also include some findings from San Joaquin and Kern Counties, which are located in the northern and southern regions of the San Joaquin Valley, respectively. We draw on data from eviction court filings, observations in eviction court, and stories from tenants in Fresno County to answer the question: What accounts for the high eviction rates observed in the Central Valley? In answering this question, we develop three main points:
The affordable housing crisis conversation in California must include the Central Valley, where stark social inequalities are intricately tied with housing and neighborhood inequality. This means that scholarly work must consider the complexities of the housing crisis in California from the high-cost, high-income urban areas outside of the Central Valley to the lower-cost, lower-income urban and rural areas within the Central Valley. Housing activists as well must include the population and the needs of the Central Valley in their advocacy work and support the activism taking place within the Central Valley;
Evictions happen at a higher rate in the Central Valley than anywhere else in California. They are a devastating outcome of the affordable housing crisis and are an effective tool of the court system used to prioritize the protection of property and property-owners over poor families and families of color, and;
Immediate action could be taken by policymakers in the Central Valley at the local level that would bring balance to the relationship between tenants and property-owners and prevent further displacement, systemic social inequality, and neighborhood instability, which is particularly urgent in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impact.
Background: The Central Valley
The Central Valley is a vibrant, dynamic region known for its representation of over a hundred cultures, nationalities, and racial and ethnic identities, according to 2018 American Community Survey estimates. But it is also an area known for its high levels of social inequality by a multitude of metrics – income and wealth inequality, residential segregation, health disparities, and opportunity gaps in labor and education. The nature of social inequality in the Central Valley is so complex that it would be impossible to identify any one cause or solution. However, it becomes very clear through a spatial lens that many of the inequalities observed in the Central Valley are tied to neighborhoods and housing. When we map median income, median home values, percent in poverty, and percent nonwhite by census tract in the urban center of Fresno County, we see an indisputable overlap (Figures 1-4). To the east is the city of Clovis, a predominately White, wealthy suburb where the availability of affordable housing is so inadequate that it prompted a lawsuit by a local legal aid organization. Yet even within the more racially and socioeconomically diverse city of Fresno, it is apparent that there are distinct boundaries drawn which prevent low-income families of color from entering certain neighborhoods and in turn concentrate these families in identifiable areas of the city.
These boundaries are in part historical, tracing back to the days of racial covenants, and later redlining, which prompted further public and private disinvestment in neighborhoods where families of color resided while resources and opportunities were diverted to Whiter, wealthier neighborhoods. In addition, public housing, which shifted to become a resource for families of color neglected by the federal government, was primarily built in racially segregated neighborhoods where Black and Latinx families resided. This history is an important piece in understanding housing insecurity and inequality in Fresno because it led to widely disparate home values between neighborhoods.
Because families of color saw their neighborhoods forced to depreciate due to the actions of federal and local government, wealth and class inequality are now almost inseparable from racial inequality in Fresno. In White, affluent neighborhoods, housing values appreciated by directly benefiting from the inequities created by racist and classist housing policy. White families have enjoyed both wealth accumulation and racial exclusivity because the unaffordability of housing in these areas for low-income families has mostly meant that it is unaffordable for families of color as well. In Clovis specifically, experts argue that the deliberate choice to not zone low-income affordable housing is precisely why it is a predominately White community. These neighborhood-based inequalities created a setting where larger economic forces, in particular rising housing costs combined with depressed wages, would lead to a far more troubling human crisis: displacement and homelessness.
Evicted in the Central Valley
Given that financial hardship is responsible for both the triggering of an eviction and the vulnerability of the tenant, poverty is part of this story, but focusing on individual poverty does not capture the full effect of what changing economic conditions can do. Douglas Massey demonstrated in a compelling simulation how segregation can create a scenario where economic downturns are heavily absorbed by areas of concentrated poverty. When race and class segregation are interrelated, this specifically means that poor communities of color shoulder a heavier economic burden. In the context of an ongoing housing crisis in an area that was hit particularly hard by the housing bust, the pattern of segregation in Fresno County created an uneven distribution of evictions and displacement, with families of color seeing the most precipitous drops in housing value and poor families of color experiencing evictions at a higher rate than anybody else.
The eviction rate in 2016 in Fresno County was 2.16 percent, meaning that just over 2 percent of renters were formally evicted that year. While this seems like a negligible percentage, 2 percent amounts to over 3,000 families displaced from their homes in a single year. The volume of evictions physically manifests in the form of standing room-only crowds within the courtroom. In relative terms, the eviction rate in Fresno County is substantially higher than in both San Francisco County (0.25 percent) and Los Angeles County (0.58 percent), as well as in the state of California overall (0.83 percent). In addition, we have reason to believe that the number of families evicted each year in Fresno is perhaps thousands more when informal evictions, or evictions that happen outside of the court system, are considered.
Families who are informally evicted often vacate before the formal eviction process begins in order to avoid court action, which could incur fees and tarnish their record as a tenant. These are more likely to be impoverished families who cannot afford the added costs of responding to a court Summons and Complaint. In Fresno and surrounding rural communities, where there is also a large population of undocumented and mixed-status families in addition to families in poverty, we suspect that the number of informal evictions is even higher because of families who fear court action due to their immigration status. Even without data on informal evictions however, the number of formal evictions alone is shockingly high. Our research suggests some possible explanations for why evictions occur at such a significantly higher rate in the Central Valley than in areas with more notorious affordable housing issues.
In our previous report, we found that in 80-90 percent of eviction cases, the reason for the eviction was unpaid rent. In the majority of these cases, the amount of rent owed was less than two months’ worth. Here, then, is the first clue: rent burden. Rent burden is defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as the percentage of household income that is spent on rent. A family that spends more than 30 percent of their household income on rent is considered “rent-burdened.” The number is somewhat arbitrary, but it captures families who have less of a financial cushion when something goes wrong – an unforeseen medical incident, an accident, a sudden job loss or drop in income. In San Francisco County, where rents are among the highest in the country, rent burden is 27.5 percent, which means the typical family spends just over a quarter of their income on rent. In contrast, in Fresno County rent burden is 34.7 percent. Rental costs may be higher in the Bay Area, but costs relative to income matter. In Fresno County, the typical renter household is rent-burdened. In areas characterized by high levels of poverty, the typical family is severely rent-burdened. To reiterate, a severely rent-burdened household is defined by HUD as a household that spends half or more of its household income on rent.
Eviction Court and the Prioritization of Property
With the typical family spending over 30 percent of their income on rent, it is not a surprise that many families fail to pay rent, triggering an eviction filing almost as soon as rent is past due. From the perspective of property-owners and the court, this is reason enough to abruptly order a family out of their home. In eviction court, this process is quick and brutal. We have seen families appear for their court date unaware that their story of impending homelessness, catastrophic financial loss, and emotional and mental trauma would hold no bearing in a setting where the main priority is to protect the property and the financial interests of the landlord. Eviction court is a sphere dominated by attorneys who have made a career out of representing landlords, the same handful of predominately men appearing every week with an attitude towards the whole affair as something routine, each judgment seeming to be a foregone conclusion in favor of the landlord. The gender and racial disparities are apparent, with women of color overrepresented among tenants who appear in eviction court and White men overrepresented among the attorneys. As one tenant, a single Black mother in Fresno County, remarked on the power imbalance in the tenant-landlord attorney dynamic, “It was a lawyer against a little Black girl.” This mother was ultimately evicted with her young son after a confusing court process that left her with no option to fight her case.
In our previous study of evictions filed in 2016 in Fresno County, we found that 73 percent of the landlords in our sample had legal representation compared to only 1 percent of tenants. Not once, after months of observation, did we witness a judgment in favor of a tenant. Most families who we observed or spoke to appeared in court without any realization that they were entering partway through an ongoing process of filed paperwork, evidence-gathering, and legal consultation on the plaintiff’s (i.e. landlord’s) side. In many cases, tenants were not aware that they had missed their opportunity to file an answer, which must happen typically within five days of receiving the eviction notice, or that to have their side of the story heard they would need to have a trial separate from the unlawful detainer hearing. These trials usually occur the same day, catching tenants by surprise and without the needed evidence or witnesses to defend their case. This gives tenants little time to seek legal advice and gather documents. Oftentimes, we witnessed trials occurring within an hour of the hearing. And here, in seeking to understand why evictions happen at a higher rate in Fresno County than in other areas, is our second explanation for why evictions are so frequent: a woefully imbalanced justice system with few protections in place for tenants.
While some court processes, such as small and large claims cases, are slow and cases can carry on for months, eviction cases, known in legal terms as unlawful detainer cases, are moved through the system with astounding speed. In Fresno County, we found that most cases end in default or they are resolved and renters are evicted within a month of the initial court filing. The emphasis on property and the prioritization of the needs of property-owners is a key reason why this is so. Judges often frame their decisions as prioritizing the return of the property back to the property-owner. When talking about the property itself, judges use terms such as “expedite” and “urgent.” In contrast, there is little concern in the legal process for the tenant and their far more urgent need to stay housed. In the rare instance that tenants are truly able to confidently present their case to the judge, tenants openly express anxiety over not knowing where to go once they are locked out. Pleas are often met with expressions of sympathy from the judge but nonetheless cold resolution from the ruling, which holds that they must vacate the property or be forced out. Evictions are whiplash-fast and are considered a concluded matter almost as soon as the tenant is served with a notice. Ultimately the law is designed to put the needs of the property-owner over the needs of the tenant, who has no claim to ownership. Thus the matter of returning the property to the property-owners is often handled very quickly and decisions almost always fall in favor of the landlord. As evidence to this point, Eviction Lab data reports that of the 3,058 eviction court filings in Fresno County in 2016, 3,036 resulted in evictions – 99.3 percent. Meanwhile, the remaining issue of determining money damages that the tenant may be responsible for can be placed on a different, slower timeline.
Other actors in the eviction process, including the attorneys and law enforcement, also demonstrate the prioritization of property over humanity. In our survey research and advocacy work, tenants have described sometimes overly forceful behavior from authorities, such as sheriff’s deputies kicking down the front door while children were home alone. The overall motivation of landlord attorneys is to win cases and to collect fees that renters are typically ordered to pay, leading them to ruthlessly confuse and mislead tenants. Tenants are called to meet with landlord attorneys, without attorneys of their own, in the hallway or in small conference rooms in the courthouse. As the attorneys interact with tenants, it becomes clear whose interests they represent. We observed on numerous occasions landlord attorneys frame the situation in ways that discredit tenants’ statements and evidence, invoking anxiety and fear in the tenant, which only adds to an already stressful and confusing situation. Some of the tactics that we observed include presenting ledgers that do not include all of the payments that the tenants have made and muddling timelines so that the tenant can no longer recall dates or the order in which events occurred. Even though tenants bring their own evidence of money orders purchased and rent checks cashed, they soon begin to doubt their own account or worry that the evidence will be insufficient to win their case. Landlord attorneys make matters worse by explaining to tenants what the cost will be if they lose their case rather than settling for an agreement with the landlord.
Tenants have everything to lose, and within minutes they are forced to make a decision that is far from their original objective when they arrived at court, which was to keep their home. Now, after feeling intimidated and confused, their objective becomes: escape the court process with as little long-term consequence as possible. The property and the interests of the property-owner are the primary concern of the court, and while there are mediators to facilitate negotiations between landlords and tenants, nobody stands up for the tenant in the courtroom. The roles of advocates and activists could make a significant difference here, a factor that we discuss further in our conclusions.
Finally, the third explanation is the lack of local policies that protect renters. In California, there are jurisdictions where renter protections are well-established. However, they are very few in number: according to Tenants Together, only 23 out of 482 cities in California have rent control and/or “just cause” policies in place. Rent control effectively caps increases on rent to keep housing costs more affordable, while “just cause” requires landlords to justify their reason for issuing an eviction. Tenant protection laws are not without their controversy, but regardless of what other effects they may have, we found that in cities where these laws are in place, evictions are far more likely to be on the decline in tandem with an improving post-recession economy. In an analysis of eviction rates from 2006 to 2016 in California, we found that 70 percent of the neighborhoods located in cities with tenant protection laws in place saw eviction rates decline over the ten-year period. In comparison, only 46 percent of the neighborhoods located in cities without tenant protection laws experienced a decline in evictions. Notably, none of the twenty-three cities with local tenant protection laws are located in the Central Valley.
The recent enactment of the Tenant Protection Act of 2019 in California, which among other things makes “just cause” evictions the law across the state and caps rent increases, may improve matters in this regard. But the Central Valley continues to be notoriously lacking in local protections for tenants, a fact that is not well-understood but certainly observable in most jurisdictions, and this is reflected in the court system where tenants have little power to defend their rights by law due to a lack of legal representation and an unjustly opaque legal process that leaves many of them in a losing position over a failure to follow procedure. Recently, Nelson highlighted the discordance between how the tenant perceives the legal process of eviction and the process itself. Oftentimes, tenants misunderstand their relationship with the landlord and do not expect the swiftness of court action. Community advocates and grassroots organizations who fight for housing justice are carrying much of the critical work of educating tenants through “Know Your Rights” workshops, flyers, and resources. With local tenant unions in the Central Valley, outreach and organizing efforts could go even further.
Evictions as a Tool of the Social Divides
We have up to this point written in very general terms about eviction trends and procedures in the Central Valley and more specifically in Fresno, but our discussion about the historically established class and race divides in Fresno is important to bear in mind, because these determine who is more likely to face eviction. According to national estimates from the 2017 American Housing Survey, 3.3 percent of Black renters reported receiving a threat of eviction compared to only 1.3 percent of White renters. For those who identify as American Indian or Alaska Native, the disparity is even more staggering, with 4.4 percent reporting an eviction threat. Poverty and rent-burden are also factors, reflecting the relationship between housing insecurity and financial insecurity. Of those who are severely rent-burdened, 2.6 percent reported receiving a threat of eviction compared to 1.4 percent of those whose housing costs relative to income are moderate. Of renters who live below the poverty line, 3.2 percent reported receiving an eviction threat compared to only 1 percent of those whose income is 200 percent of the poverty threshold.
The obvious consequence of evictions is that families who are evicted find themselves suddenly severely housing insecure. But the fallout of an eviction is even more widespread and far-reaching than its effect on housing options. In our analysis of eviction court records in Fresno County, we calculated a measure that we call “compounded burden.” As we described above, most tenants are evicted over failure to pay rent. But the final money judgment includes the original amount owed plus other costs: holdover damages (i.e. the money that the landlord has lost in unpaid rent since the eviction) and attorney and court fees. The compounded burden is the factor by which the initial amount owed is multiplied when the final money judgment is made.
On average, tenants end up having to pay four times what they initially owed. The average tenant in our study owed approximately $1000 at the time of eviction. Based on the average compounded burden, the average tenant will find herself owing $4000 when the final judgment is made. If this amount goes unpaid, the State of California permits a 10% annual interest rate on the amount owed. Each year that the amount goes unpaid, this hypothetical average tenant who no doubt struggles with a multitude of financial hardships will owe another $400. Indeed, from our observations in eviction court it was not unusual to hear of a money judgment that would include nearly $1000 in attorney and court fees alone along with holdover damages that would amount to 1-2 more months’ rent in addition to the initial amount owed. Another factor associated with compounded burden is the prolonged period of time that vulnerable tenants are forced to carry debt. For example, a tenant and landlord enter into a stipulation (agreement between two parties approved by the judge) in the amount of $4,300, which includes past due rent, holdover damages, and court and attorney fees. The tenant, who makes a minimum wage, can only afford to pay $35 per month and is now carrying this debt for 10 years. Evictions alone may not affect a tenant’s credit score. However, if a tenant is ordered to pay money damages and fails to pay, they can be sent to collections. A credit reporting agency then places derogatory information on their credit report. Evictions with money damages are a twofold blow. Threefold, if you include the fact that a judgment accrues interest.
And this measure of compounded burden does not account for all of the other costs incurred from a sudden displacement – moving costs, storage fees, hours missed at work, extra transportation costs to handle legal obligations, search for a new place, and drive children to schools in neighborhoods that they no longer live in, the exorbitant cost of taking up temporary shelter in a motel, which many families do in Fresno, and the repeated fees attached to each rental application (up to $35 per application). It becomes apparent that an eviction, triggered by financial hardship, begets even greater financial hardship. When one considers that the families who are more likely to face an eviction are families of color, have children, and live in poverty, we can understand how so many social disparities can persist.
Consider, for example, the impact that an eviction has on a child – after all, children are one of the most likely populations to experience eviction. The social lives of children are anchored in multiple ways – their families, but also their neighborhoods and especially their schools. When a family is evicted, they are not likely to stay in the same neighborhood. This disruption removes a child from their neighborhood and may eventually force them to enroll in a new school, breaking critical social ties with teachers, classmates, and neighborhood friends. When we examined the frequency of evictions by month in Fresno County, we found that evictions happen at a high rate every month out of the year, which means that hundreds of families are evicted in the middle of the school year as well as during summer and winter breaks (Figure 5). Even if a child is able to stay in the same school, school attendance becomes difficult to maintain while the family is displaced and the parents are managing the situation. An eviction event can be traumatic for a child despite a parent’s best efforts to protect them, particularly when the eviction is carried out by law enforcement. Children coping with instability in their lives are more likely to face challenges when it comes to mental health and development. With conscious support from educators, this sudden disruption can be mitigated in its impact on the child’s social, emotional, and academic outcomes. However, while school districts track an overlapping population of students who are homeless, they do not specifically track students who have experienced an eviction.
The spatial dynamics of these trends again must be considered. Sociologists Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, in their influential work American Apartheid, drew out how segregation works as an effective mechanism for reinforcing inequality and oppression. When segregation is in place, it becomes very easy for the dominant group – wealthy Whites – to hoard resources and opportunities even while living in the same metropolitan area as other groups. In a metropolitan area, this can happen through municipal boundaries, with Whites moving to suburbs with exclusionary zoning and cutting off Black and Latinx families from their tax base and resources. As mentioned previously, this is the story that is told about the city of Clovis. In a single city, however, where all residents to a limited degree have access to the same tax base, more covert tactics must be used to maintain race and class boundaries and restrict access to the higher investments and newer development of White neighborhoods. The favored tactic in this scenario is housing discrimination.
There are many ways that housing discrimination can occur: for example, through steering, whereby realtors and property managers selectively show properties to families on the basis of their race and/or income, through housing loan discrimination, or through screening out prospective tenants who have Section 8 vouchers, (i.e. housing assistance). In California, all of these tactics are now outlawed under federal and state laws (e.g. Fair Housing Act of 1968 and SB 329). While this does not stop these forms of discrimination from occurring and enforcement is weak at best, it certainly reduces their frequency. But there is one extremely powerful, legal way to screen out low-income applicants, which in a city like Fresno can also effectively block many Black and Latinx households: deny them housing on the basis of an eviction record. When a tenant is evicted by the court, the eviction appears on their tenant record for seven years. Evicted tenants are placed on what is essentially a tenant blacklist with little chance of finding rental housing outside of areas of high poverty. In talking about the eviction on her record, one tenant said, “I’ve got seven years,” as if it were a prison sentence. In a way, an eviction on record likely does have a similar impact as a felony conviction when it comes to finding housing, especially in an area with an enormous deficit in affordable housing. Another tenant, a single mother with her daughter, expressed fear of losing her Section 8 housing following an eviction judgment. The loss of public housing assistance is an enormous blow, given that the waitlist for public housing assistance is closed in Fresno County and families on the list wait years to receive assistance.
The financial and emotional destruction that an eviction can create for a family is so immense that it is difficult to overstate, but evictions also contribute to instability in neighborhoods. If there were no geographic pattern to evictions, we would speak only of the effect on the family. But evictions are not geographically random and they happen in certain areas with remarkable frequency. In Fresno, specific parts of the county and especially in the city of Fresno experience higher rates of eviction than others (Figure 6). In neighborhoods of concentrated poverty where the population is predominately Black, Latinx, or Southeast Asian, and the typical family is spending over half of their income on rent, the eviction rates reach as high as 10 percent, which means that nearly 1 in 10 families are evicted every year in these neighborhoods. This, again, does not account for the informal evictions that are also occurring in these areas.
With such a high rate of turnover, neighborhood cohesion and solidarity is very difficult to establish, which makes it challenging for residents to build safe and healthy communities and, importantly, mobilize and wield political power. This particular consequence of evictions is two-sided: while poor communities with high instability have difficulty developing political capital, wealthier stable communities are able to lobby on their own behalf and claim more of the city’s resources and investment. The blame for this imbalance is often directed towards the poor communities, with local agencies such as the police department referring to them as “broken” neighborhoods and letting others assume that it is the residents themselves who did the breaking. But the instability of these neighborhoods is largely affected by external mechanisms of destabilization, including evictions.
Given that evictions happen at a higher rate in neighborhoods where poor, Black, and Latinx families live, segregation is reinforced. Because these families now have an eviction on their record as a tenant, they find themselves barred from entering wealthier, Whiter neighborhoods where families enjoy better-funded schools, maintained roads, more parks and greenspace, and newer housing stock. They not only become stuck in neighborhoods marred by disinvestment, they actually sink deeper into these areas as they must now find housing where landlords are willing to overlook their eviction record. In a city like Fresno where slum housing is numerous, these families have a higher likelihood of finding themselves in the clutches of slumlords, living in substandard housing with an even higher risk of eviction.
Many more evicted tenants may end up homeless, but the likelihood of homelessness following an eviction is not equal for all tenants. National estimates from the 2017 American Housing Survey reveal that among renters, White households, households above the poverty line, and households who are not rent-burdened are more likely to say that they can find a new home if they are evicted. Black householders, severely rent-burdened households, and households living below the poverty line are more likely to say that they will go to a shelter following an eviction (Figure 7). In our ongoing eviction court study, we have yet to survey a tenant who knows where they will live after being evicted from their current home, with some expressing only the possibility that they could move in with a family member and others telling us that they have moved into a motel room.
Beyond the communities that suffer the direct consequences of housing insecurity and evictions, the jurisdiction also pays a price for not doing more to keep families in stable housing. The cost of evicting a family who could not afford rent and certainly cannot afford the added fees accrued through the court eviction process is borne by local governments. Counties must deal with the cost of processing thousands of evictions a year, and both cities and counties must devote more funding to public programs to support a growing homeless population who not only lack shelter but may also have more complicated healthcare needs.
After the Pandemic
When we first began researching and writing on this topic, the COVID-19 virus was not a part of the conversation. But now we are in the middle of a pandemic and what appears to be a massive societal shift as we rapidly adjust our entire way of life to prevent the spread of a highly infectious disease. Social scientists and social advocates fear that this shift will follow the well-worn paths carved out by centuries of systemic oppression and resulting social inequalities. As unemployment surges in the immediate economic fallout of a nation under siege, we have every reason to expect a widening of the chasm between those with wealth and those without.
In the weeks after the COVID-19 pandemic truly began to hit home in the United States, housing advocates raised the alarm based on what we already knew about the precariousness of being a renter. In the Central Valley, where the majority of renters experience unsustainable levels of rent burden, we knew that the public health safety measures put in place which resulted in cutting wage-labor hours, layoffs, and school closures would leave low-income renters unable to make next month’s rent. Some local jurisdictions in California acted quickly to protect renters, but none in the Central Valley led the way. In Kern County, only the City of Delano instated any renter protections. San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties adopted emergency resolutions with language revoking commercial and residential landlord authority to evict tenants for nonpayment of rent due to COVID-19. However, both resolutions offer zero guidelines on what tenants can or should do if they are served with a notice. The City of Stockton was the first in the Central Valley to enact emergency measures temporarily halting some evictions, but they are inadequate for providing much-needed protections for the most vulnerable renters.
In the City of Fresno, the reaction was lethargic and the final policy decision, which came only after Governor Gavin Newsom issued Executive Order N-28-20 authorizing local jurisdictions to take emergency action on evictions, fell far short of providing needed protection for renters. Fresno City Council, like other local governments, passed a policy that placed the burden of protection squarely on renters. Renters needed to be aware of the ordinance and then notify their landlord in writing of their inability to pay rent due to COVID-19 and provide documentation within 10 days of notifying their landlords. Evictions for reasons other than nonpayment were excluded from the order (e.g. unauthorized occupants to care for a loved one or shelter in place with family). This left many renters still at risk of eviction.
Ultimately, only around 10 percent of the jurisdictions across California chose to instate any sort of emergency ordinance for renters during peak months of unemployment. Most of the orders adopted a similar approach, helping renters establish a legal defense against eviction for nonpayment of rent due to COVID-19. Under the emergency ordinances put in place by local jurisdictions and another executive order by Governor Newsom, some tenants were given the opportunity to document their inability to pay rent due to COVID-19 so that, upon receiving an eviction notice, they could respond to the complaint in court with evidence that their failure to pay rent was due to loss of income or health issues related to the pandemic. This policy is fundamentally different from an eviction moratorium, which legal experts describe as a comprehensive ban on eviction filings. The only example of a moratorium in California was in Oakland where landlords are able to bring a small claims suit for past due rent but cannot file an eviction lawsuit.
But still, there is reason to hope. While the decisions by local and state policymakers to address eviction still inherently privilege the landlord over the tenant, many policymakers made it clear that they are not ignorant of the calls from housing advocates. In early April 2020, the Judicial Council of California, which is responsible for making rules for courts in the state of California, did what other government entities would not and halted the processing of all eviction filings (with some public safety exceptions) for the duration of the pandemic emergency, temporarily, but comprehensively, addressing the gap in protections put in place by the Governor’s executive order and local emergency orders. The ruling was lifted on September 1 but was followed by the passage of AB 3088 in the California legislature, which protects tenants from eviction due to nonpayment of rent through February 2021. Immediately after the passage of AB 3088, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a nationwide moratorium on evictions in the name of public health.
These are signs of progress. The recognition that many renters are housing insecure and vulnerable to crises positions our society to make long-lasting structural changes. However, the will to shift the balance of power between owners and tenants is still anemic in the Central Valley, with few jurisdictions signaling that they are considering the aftereffects of the pandemic on renters when the emergency ordinances are lifted and the business of evictions can return to full operation. This means that once the emergency orders are lifted, if tenants are served with a notice, they must still go through the court process of responding to an eviction lawsuit and gathering their own evidence to defend their case. Tenants must still be prepared to navigate the legal system to retain their housing, almost always without legal assistance or representation. Therefore, the systemic problems that we identified as contributing to the high eviction rates observed in the Central Valley prior to this pandemic, such as the lack of legal representation for tenants, are likely to remain in place and allow this current state of emergency to exacerbate the eviction crisis in the region. Indeed, California scored only a 0.9 out of 5 on the Eviction Lab’s COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard, a policy analysis tool designed to evaluate the extent to which state governments are protecting tenants from displacement during and after the pandemic, because statewide orders do little to truly prevent a surge in evictions. They choose only to defer rather than halt evictions.
We can also assume that informal evictions, which operate outside of the law and therefore are unlikely to be affected by policy changes aimed at formal evictions, will carry on. These evictions primarily impact undocumented or mixed-status immigrant households and extremely financially precarious households – the same households that are at a higher risk of COVID-19 infection due to a reliance on essential worker jobs in the agriculture, manufacturing, and service industries. To be protected by the COVID-19 emergency policies, one must be privileged by the law in the first place. Based on Desmond’s work, the implication is that undocumented families, extremely poor families, and families impacted by mass incarceration are less likely to find protection from displacement during the pandemic, especially if they are renting from slumlords.
We cannot say with certainty what our society will look like when we come out on the other side of this global crisis, but we can formulate some predictions regarding evictions based on the existing evidence. Without taking action to instate long-term protections for renters, we expect to return to a standing-room only eviction court when society is restored to something akin to normal. Tenants are placed at an institutional disadvantage by a society that has always privileged the needs and interests of those who own property over those who do not. This truth is reflected even in the COVID-19 emergency ordinances, which only extend protection from evictions while the state of emergency is ongoing. Once the public health crisis is over and the danger is no longer imminent, there is no obvious plan to protect renters from the full force of eviction proceedings throughout the Central Valley, which means that the emergency ordinances are not about making radical changes to reduce the financial and social vulnerability of renters.
Conclusion: What Should Be Done?
The skeptic who asks whether the goal should be to reduce evictions may now understand that the consequences of eviction are multilayered and far-reaching, exacerbating deep family poverty, uprooting children from their schools and communities, and destabilizing neighborhoods. Anybody who believes in the importance of a functioning society ought to agree that these issues, especially when they are systemic, are signs of societal dysfunction. In the Central Valley, with high levels of poverty and a worsening housing crisis, we argue that we are witnessing dysfunction. We also argue that stable housing is critical for giving families opportunities and ensuring their health and well-being. Housing may not solve every issue, but it certainly, as Desmond so vividly demonstrated in his work, gives families stable ground to stand on and address other issues.
Tens of thousands of eviction lawsuits are filed annually throughout the Central Valley and even greater numbers of informal evictions occur outside of the legal realm. The narrative that displacement is a problem in the Bay Area and Southern California and rents are affordable in the Central Valley is false and harmful. Affordability is relative to wages, cost of living, the supply of affordable housing, and strong public policies that protect tenants and landlords. This false narrative must be challenged because it serves to exacerbate the existing housing crisis in the Central Valley as residents from Southern California and the Bay Area are pushed out of their communities and spill over into the Central Valley. The Central Valley has the highest rate of evictions in California and the majority of cases end in a Clerk Default Judgment. This means that tenants automatically lose, by default, before they ever have a chance to share their side of the story. Too many tenants cannot access or navigate the complicated court system within the very narrow window permitted. This leads us to conclude that the court system is designed to operate as a debt collector or legally sanctioned displacement instrument for landlords. The bottom line: the system prioritizes the protection of private property and property-owners over poor families and families of color.
Our previous analysis of court records in addition to our observations and survey data from eviction court have led us to some possible solutions. In our research, we found that most tenants (83%) owed less than two months’ rent and half of these tenants owed only one month plus late fees, meaning that often tenants are issued a notice almost as soon as their rent is late. We found that the property owners with the largest portfolios only accounted for just over 2 percent of all evictions in Fresno County. This leads us to conclude that the majority of evictors are landlords who own few properties and in many cases may only own one other property which they are financing and renting out, perhaps as a strategy for building personal wealth. We say this with the understanding that slumlords with large portfolios use multiple LLCs to obscure the size of their holdings. But the ‘mom and pop’ landlords, understandably, cannot afford for their tenants to miss rent. Local emergency rent funds could prevent a majority of evictions from occurring, ultimately helping the tenant family stay in their home until a long-term solution is reached and protecting the landlord from sudden financial difficulties. Fully-funded local rental assistance programs are crucial to combat the eviction crisis in the Central Valley. Emergency rent (or relocation) assistance is a proactive measure that will help stabilize housing for tens of thousands of Central Valley renters. Over the span of the COVID-19 pandemic, following pressure from housing advocates, major Central Valley cities like Fresno, Bakersfield, and Stockton passed emergency rent assistance programs. However, these programs are COVID-19 focused and largely funded with CARES Act funds – the first major COVID-19 stimulus bill passed by Congress – and thus there is no indication that these rental assistance programs will remain in place or stay funded when the state of emergency ends.
Further, John Pollock, Coordinator for the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel argues that providing vulnerable tenants access to legal representation in eviction cases is critical to prevent displacement. A growing number of jurisdictions across the nation (San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Newark, and New York) agree and findings that assess the impact of these programs on reducing evictions are promising. New York City, the first city to implement a Right to Counsel for eviction, experienced a 14% decrease in eviction filings in the first year and a significant number of families (84%) who were served with an unlawful detainer lawsuit remained in their homes.
Similarly, the Sargent Shriver Civil Counsel Act (AB 590), which launched housing pilot projects in six California counties (Kern, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Yolo) led to positive outcomes for tenants. Tenants received either full-scope legal representation (i.e. having an attorney file pleadings, and represent the tenant in court, etc.) or access to court services such as legal advice and/or were provided assistance filling out and filing court documents. With greater access to legal representation tenants were able to successfully navigate the court process, negotiate a fair settlement (70%), have their case heard by a judge and secure a favorable outcome. Major findings from the first-year evaluation of San Francisco’s universal right to counsel program found a 10% reduction in eviction lawsuit filings from 2018 to 2019, an increase in housing stability among tenants (67% of those receiving full legal representation were able to remain in their homes), with an even higher rate of success (80%) for African American tenants. Although the program does not restrict access on the basis of household income, 85% of recipients were extremely low or low income. The cards are stacked against tenants who are poor, and among economically vulnerable Black and Latinx tenants in particular. A civil right to counsel is only one tool, but it is proving effective in leveling the playing field for tenants in eviction court. As policymakers search for solutions to address the eviction crisis, especially as a means to combat long-standing racial inequities, a civil right to counsel that includes proactive rent assistance shows promise in addressing economic and racial inequities in housing. In addition, while most housing advocacy groups cannot give legal advice, they have increasingly carried some of the work of legal aid organizations by organizing workshops, creating toolkits, appearing at hearings, and sharing information through social media networks to help tenants prepare for eviction court and defend themselves from illegal landlord activity. These efforts should be more fully supported with public funding and resources.
Housing advocates have been regularly attending city council and board of supervisor meetings across the Central Valley to give public comment, in addition to holding research meetings with local elected officials and state representatives, to inform elected leaders of the eviction crisis, pressure them to take action, and bring concrete policy solutions to the table. We believe that when elected leaders are presented with evidence of a crisis impacting thousands of people in their community annually with no end in sight, they have a moral, ethical, and legal duty to act and act quickly. Some have risen to their duty under the urgency of the COVID-19 crisis by enacting temporary restrictions on evictions and rent relief programs, but the actions taken fall woefully short of instating long-term stabilizing protections. We have outlined the multitude of problems associated with the eviction crisis, the longstanding inequities that lock poor families and families of color out of safe, decent, and affordable housing opportunities, and demonstrated how the eviction court process disadvantages renters. We provided evidence-based solutions that elected leaders can enact immediately to combat the eviction crisis in the Central Valley. We have demonstrated that the Central Valley must be included in the conversations about housing justice. We are now, in the middle of a pandemic, certainly in an unprecedented time but crises have a way of bringing to the surface longstanding injustices which create the opportunity for systemic change. We can reimagine a new normal where every human lives in a safe and affordable home in a thriving neighborhood.
 Rebecca Diamond, Tim McQuade, and Franklin Qian, “The Effects of Rent Control Expansion on Tenants, Landlords, and Inequality: Evidence from San Francisco,” American Economic Review 109, no. 9, (2019)
 Michael C. Lens, Kyle Nelson, Ashley Gromis, and Yiwen Kuai, “The Neighborhood Context of Eviction in Southern California,” City & Community, https://doi.org/10.111.12487 (2020); Nkosi et al. (2019)
 City of Delano, “An Urgency Ordinance Of The City Council Of The City Of Delano Temporarily Prohibiting Evictions Of Residential Tenants Arising From Income Loss Or Substantial Medical Expenses Related To The Covid- 19 Pandemic,” March 26, 2020, https://www.cityofdelano.org/ArchiveCenter/ViewFile/Item/2465
Amber R. Crowell is Assistant Professor of Sociology at California State University, Fresno. Her research focuses on residential segregation, housing, social inequality, and race. She has published research on the spatial demography and driving factors behind racial residential segregation patterns. She is also a community advocate for tenants’ rights in the Central Valley, working to reduce evictions and establish a right to housing for all. She currently serves as Regional Housing Coordinator for the grassroots community organization Faith in the Valley and is an appointed member of the City of Fresno Anti-Displacement Task Force.
Janine Nkosi is a dedicated and passionate sociologist, activist-educator, and community-based researcher. She is firmly committed to helping folks develop and deepen their sociological imagination through critical community-based research and organizing to address some of the most pressing issues in the community. Dr. Nkosi is a lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Fresno State and teaches full-time at Merritt College in Oakland, CA. She is the Regional Advisor for Faith in the Valley a grassroots community organization dedicated to working alongside residents to advance racial justice across the Central Valley. One of the campaigns Janine is involved in is the Healthy Housing Campaign, which is rooted in a belief that housing is a fundamental human right, and everyone deserves a safe, healthy, and deeply affordable place to call home. Janine’s teaching, research, and organizing philosophy are rooted in critical race methodologies, critical pedagogy, relational organizing, asset-based perspectives, and lived experience.
Reaganland is the final installment of Rick Perlstein’s critically acclaimed history of the modern conservative movement. Beginning with Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign, continuing through the Nixon years, and culminating with Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory, the four-volume saga furnishes an enormous amount of period detail culled from a wide variety of sources. Focused mostly on electoral politics, it chronicles the period’s key campaigns, surveys the social movements that shaped the political landscape, and encapsulates countless contemporary issues. Perlstein’s commentary is sparing but refreshingly tart. Although he elsewhere describes himself as a European-style social democrat, he clearly admires the conservative movement’s passion and resolve, and he is especially tough on liberal pundits and operatives who dismissed or underestimated their adversaries. For these and other reasons, Perlstein’s magnum opus is the most comprehensive introduction to the Age of Reagan.
In my review of the third volume, I noted that Perlstein’s style was exhausting but not quite exhaustive. That pattern is even more evident in Reaganland. Unlike its predecessors, it does not use an explicit theme or organizing device to shape and direct the story. Moreover, it violates a basic narrative convention by steadily expanding the size of the cast. On almost every page of this lengthy book, Perlstein introduces several new characters, many of whom appear only once. As a result, the final volume sprawls more than an Orange County suburb. Perlstein marches through the major events, issues, and news items of the Carter presidency: Panama Canal, OPEC, Iran, SALT II, Moral Majority, Three Mile Island, Afghanistan, tax revolt, affirmative action, supply-side economics, and so on. He also details the shifting rivalries and alliances, both major and minor, within and between the two parties. Although his determination to map every twist in the road is impressive, the steady accumulation of detail does not always lead to a deeper understanding of the period or its major figures. Indeed, I often felt that I was reliving, rather than reassessing, a four-year period that was not especially enjoyable the first time around. Even as the curtain falls on his lengthy series, Perlstein draws no conclusions about the movement he has chronicled. Instead, he quotes Reagan’s inaugural speech (“In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem …”) and adds that the fur coats at the inaugural balls “so overloaded the coatracks that they resembled great lumbering mastodons out of the prehistoric past.” It is a nice touch but not a helpful summation of a lengthy, complicated narrative.
Something else is missing as well. Having read the entire cycle, I now believe it is related to the story’s provenance. Thousands of minor characters come and go in Perlstein’s epic, but its chief protagonists emerged from a relatively small region— Southern California and Arizona—which had exercised little political influence at the national level. Perlstein documents the rising power of the Sun Belt, but one can read this entire series without learning why Southern California produced the two most important American politicians in the second half of the twentieth century. When posed directly, that question calls our attention to Perlstein’s grasp of the region’s history and political culture. Although one does not expect complete mastery in a story of this scope, his portrait of California has several gaps and flat sides. It would have benefited, I think, from Kathryn S. Olmsted’s analysis in Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism (2015), which argues that California agribusiness served as the state’s political crucible during that turbulent decade. Businessmen forged a new kind of populism that combined corporate funding for grassroots efforts, sophisticated media campaigns, systematic intelligence-gathering on adversaries, and coalitions between religious and economic conservatives. That form of corporate populism was also characterized by its virulent anti-communism, which eventually spread from the state’s fields and canneries to Hollywood and the University of California. It is no accident, Olmsted notes, that Nixon and Reagan launched their political careers by attacking Communists real and imagined. Perlstein touches on related material, but Olmsted puts the movement’s origins into sharper focus.
Also absent are critiques by California leftists. Chief among them is Carey McWilliams, who has been described as “the state’s most astute political observer” (Kevin Starr) and “the California left’s one-man think tank” (Mike Davis). Although McWilliams was known back east for editing The Nation magazine, he was also tracking Nixon and Reagan as early as the 1940s. When Nixon ran for the Senate in 1950, McWilliams tagged him as “a dapper little man with an astonishing capacity for petty malice.” In the mid-1960s, when the conservative movement began to flex its muscles, McWilliams regularly challenged Nixon and Reagan in the pages of The Nation. In 1966, for example, he called out Reagan in an article called “How to Succeed with the Backlash.” In it, he described that year’s gubernatorial race as “one of the most subtle and intensive racist political campaigns ever waged in a Northern or Western state.” In the aftermath of the Watts Riots and the state’s fair-housing ordeal, McWilliams took note of Reagan’s dog whistles:
There won’t be much plain talk from Californians about the racism that they know permeates the Brown-Reagan contest. Most of them won’t talk about it at all if they can escape it. They don’t want the nation to know—they don’t want to admit to themselves—that the number-one state may elect Ronald Reagan governor in order to ‘keep the Negro in his place.’
Despite his perspicacity, or perhaps because of it, McWilliams never appears in Perlstein’s epic. He certainly did not play the part of the clueless liberal, one of Perlstein’s favorite types. Barely two years after Goldwater’s crushing defeat, McWilliams was well aware of the conservative movement’s growing power in California. Indeed, he warned that Pat Brown, the two-term incumbent, was in danger of losing to a former B-movie actor who had never held public office. Mainstream outlets largely ignored his charge of racism, preferring the weak sauce of consensus journalism, but McWilliams and others saw through Reagan in real time.
Perlstein’s most remarkable omission, however, concerns the Los Angeles Times. Quite simply, one cannot understand Southern California history or politics without a thorough consideration of that newspaper and its owners. For three generations, aspiring Republicans curried favor with the Chandler family. Norman Chandler later conceded that the Times strongly supported the GOP—not only on the op-ed page, but also in its news coverage. In fact, the newspaper had sabotaged Democratic candidates, including Upton Sinclair, whom the Times smeared regularly during his 1934 gubernatorial campaign. The paper’s political editor, Kyle Palmer, told a colleague, “We don’t go in for that kind of crap that you have back in New York—of being obliged to print both sides. We’re going to beat this son of a bitch Sinclair any way we can. We’re going to kill him.” That pattern changed in the 1960s, when Otis Chandler turned the Times into a respectable news organization. The Times became a less reliable advocate for GOP candidates, but it occupied an even larger niche in the national media ecology. Bitter about the newspaper’s new orientation, President Nixon ordered an investigation of Otis Chandler’s taxes. Perlstein probably understands the newspaper’s centrality; a note in the first volume recommends David Halberstam’s history of the Times during its early years. By my count, however, the newspaper receives only 13 passing mentions in all four volumes. Otis Chandler is cited once—in a passage about the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Buff and Norman Chandler, who exerted enormous political, commercial, and cultural influence in Los Angeles, likewise receive one brief mention each.
When Perlstein focuses on California politics, the results are mixed. Howard Jarvis’s tax revolt receives ample discussion in Reaganland, as does Governor Jerry Brown’s response to it. Perlstein’s summary of the property tax issue is on point, but his depiction of Brown conforms to the Governor Moonbeam stereotype. “Jerry Brown was a strange man,” Perlstein asserts. “He drove his own used Plymouth sedan, slept on a mattress on the floor of his bachelor apartment, and spent his spare time at the San Francisco Zen Center.” Brown was by no means a conventional politician, but even now, nothing in Perlstein’s description seems especially odd to me. Nor does it capture Brown’s appeal. His trademark emphasis on limits and fiscal restraint, which Perlstein suggests were trumped by Reagan’s blue-sky optimism, turned out to be useful after the global economic meltdown of 2008. A byproduct of the Reagan revolution’s penchant for deregulation, that crisis brought California to the brink of insolvency, but Brown helped clean up the mess. Perhaps it is a matter of taste, but a figure like J. Edgar Hoover, who appears frequently in the early volumes, seems far stranger to me than Jerry Brown.
Reaganland also gives ample space to the Briggs Initiative, which sought to ban gays and lesbians from teaching in California. Harvey Milk figured prominently in that episode, and Perlstein quotes his Gay Freedom Day speech at length. Although Milk begged President Carter to denounce the initiative, it was Reagan who surprised everyone by taking a relatively soft line on the issue, and Orange County state senator John Briggs blamed him for the measure’s defeat. That outcome seems sane enough, but 200 pages later, Perlstein doubles down on his portrait of “oddball California.” He returns to the gay rights movement, recounts the assassinations of George Moscone and Harvey Milk, and features Dan White’s trial. Relying heavily on Warren Hinckle’s coverage, he mistakes Hinckle for “a former New Left radical” and scrambles the sequence of the two events that staggered San Francisco: “Then came those assassinations, then Jonestown, within the space of ten awful days.” In fact, the Jonestown massacre preceded the City Hall slayings. Perlstein closes the episode with an interesting irony. The word neighborhood, he notes, was one of the “five simple, familiar, everyday words” that Reagan believed should guide every GOP message. After describing the Castro district riots that followed the White verdict, Perlstein adds that Reagan’s insight was a sound one: “Just look at how many people were willing to spill blood for their neighborhoods in San Francisco.” Of course, such conflicts were unthinkable in Reaganland. Although sparingly applied, Perlstein’s piquant sense of irony is one of his major assets.
Behind Perlstein’s project is a deceptively simple question: How did Ronald Reagan become the dominant American politician of his era? Reaganland is the most obvious place to address that question directly, but Perlstein largely coasts on his earlier claim that, in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, Reagan’s political success sprang from the tension between American optimism and pessimism. Reaganland recounts Jimmy Carter’s failed attempts to harness that tension, but as Perlstein notes in the previous volume, Reagan had already resolved it with a single (if dubious) theological stroke. In Reagan’s sunny view, even the country’s gravest mistakes, crimes, and sins were trivial compared to America’s divinely ordained role as leader of the free world. He considered the U.S. effort in Vietnam a noble cause, stood by Richard Nixon long after the Watergate scandal destroyed his presidency, and seemed untroubled by even the ugliest forms of racism. In Perlstein’s view, Reagan had “the capacity to cleanse any hint of doubt regarding American innocence. That was the soul of his political appeal: his liturgy of absolution.” When other conservatives spouted racist remarks and violent threats, that capacity was especially useful.
For all the differences between the two men, Reagan also endorsed Nixon’s peculiar sense of inculpability. Discussing the president’s role in national security, Nixon famously claimed, “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” In effect, Reagan extended that immunity to the nation as a whole. In Reagan’s imaginary republic, America could do no wrong. If a person thought that about himself, we would consider him a sociopath. Now, four decades after Reagan’s victory, even the most casual observer can see that pathology on full display in the White House. This degeneration is perhaps the most dispiriting aspect of American political history since 1980. As political commentator Charles Pierce likes to say, that was the year the GOP ate the monkey brains. Despite its foibles, Reaganland shows exactly how that table was set.
“A good deal about California does not, on its own preferred terms, add up,” Joan Didion wrote about her home state. The same was true of Reagan’s fantasies and simplifications. In the end, we paid for all of them, though Perlstein’s monumental work will not document that reckoning.
Peter Richardson teaches humanities at San Francisco State University, where he also coordinates the American Studies and California Studies programs. His books include No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead (2015); A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America (2009); and American Prophet: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams, which the University of California Press published in paperback in 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.
–After the Dome Fire, August 2020
It’s a hot, late September Day, and I’m driving alone into the East Mojave Preserve from the south, following Kelso Road off of Interstate 40.
I’m on my way to view the impacts of the recent, devastating 43,000-acre Dome Fire, which ripped through the Cima Dome area, formerly home to one of the world’s healthiest and most stunning Joshua tree woodlands.
I’m not intimidated by these vastly remote spaces of the Mojave Desert. In fact, I feel quite at home. Every mile I drive, past granite outcrops, ragged rock peaks, the massive Kelso Sand Dunes brings me closer to the heart of memory and home.
This is where I worked on many wildfires during the late 1980s, based at the Bureau of Land Management California Desert District Apple Valley Fire Station a 2-hour drive to the south. I worked one season on Engine Crew 6365, and a second season as a Helicopter 554 helitack/hotshot crew member.
As the miles melt into one another on this lonely, two-lane road, I’m embraced with memories that are both reassuring and unsettling as I remember firefighting moments and memories from time spent and shared with family and friends in the subsequent years.
This is where I fell in love with my daughter’s father, who I met and worked with on the engine crew, another fire crew member. This is where we battled several vehicle fires, and stopped the spread of any adjacent brush fires, using water hoses from our fire engine and the occasional shovel and chainsaw.
This is where I flew many times during the summer of 1987 on Helicopter 554, dropped off with six other crew members, high up in the Granite Mountains to control a lightning-torched blaze in a pinyon pine forest and spent a surprisingly cold night to make sure the fire was completely out.
Every desert fire, past and present, especially ones I worked on and even now, feels deeply personal to me. As I watched media coverage of the Dome Fire play out online, I reacted as I usually do during every major desert fire event over the years. I was frustrated and felt displaced to not be there in person, doing something to help with fire suppression operations – shovel work cutting fireline, perhaps, or helping with helicopter operations at the makeshift helicopter operations base.
The East Mojave Preserve – a large part of my firefighter turf for two fire seasons – in particular, feels like home to me. My memories and lingering physical presence are seared into the landscape itself. With every new fire, I have felt a familiar rush of adrenaline, a huge responsibility to be there, participating in the teamwork and makeshift firefighter community to help mitigate the damage from the burn. Many of my former desert wildland firefighter friends tell me they feel the same way.
There’s the ruts of the Old Mojave Road heading west towards a harsh area known as the Devil’s Playground, route for many 19th century pioneers heading west to the Promised Land of California citrus and sunshine, layered over a centuries old trail established and used by indigenous people traveling across the Mojave from one rare and precious water source to the next: places such as Marl and ZZYZX Springs, often up to thirty miles apart. My daughter – now a young adult raising a family of her own in Minneapolis – and I explored out here in my Jeep years ago to search for and photograph 30 different species of desert wildflowers for her high school biology class project.
I drive past the Kelso Depot, an historic train station that’s been recently refurbished to its early 20th century glory, and head north towards Cima Road. Slowly, to the west, I begin to see the massive bulge of Cima Dome, a part of the area out here known as the Cinder Cones National Natural Landmark. The remains of eroding granite that formed under the earth’s surface millions of years ago, it rises 1,500 feet (460 m) above the volcanic plain and covers 70 square miles.
It is the color of charcoal today. The size of the Dome Fire slowly reveals itself, and the searing impacts of its black wrath are obvious. Teutonia Peak, once covered with part of one of the world’s most expansive Joshua tree forests, has taken on the tones and look of a cinder cone.
As I slow the car down and pull into the small dirt parking area at the trailhead to Teutonia Peak, I look up: a red-tail hawk circles above, riding on a fit of ash-strewn wind that is spinning into a dark dust devil.
I put the car into park, turn off the ignition. Complete silence. I’m in a desert graveyard, and the most obvious dead appear to be the ghosts of charred Joshua trees.
My mind goes into a sort of firefighter mode as I begin to walk through the ashy remains, grateful I wore my oldest hiking boots, which area already getting charred. I imagine how this fire played out, what it would have been like to have worked on the Dome Fire.
I was, and still am, often asked why I, as a woman, would “do that kind of work.” And to me, it’s always been simple: it is work that I felt incredibly at home with, at one with a working family, and a job that allowed me to express my love and need to nurture and care for the land that I deeply loved. By tending to wildfire, and its immediate and enduring impacts on the land.
First and foremost is a feeling of performing a job that is layered in domestic terminology and structure. The firefighting community is as tightly knit and mutually interdependent as a family unit. Crew members, whose lives depended on the vigilance and support of one another, and who typically
Even many of the terms in the firefighter’s lexicon are domestic: there’s the endless chore known as “mopping up,” which involves spending many slow and tedious hours walking through areas that have burned and stirring and cooling layers of hot ash. There are the times we’d spend “babysitting a fire,” usually at night, when many fires tended to slow down, or “laid itself down,” where fire crews would spread themselves 10 or 20 feet apart along a fireline at the edge of the burn to prevent spot fires from starting up in the green vegetation. And, the activities that include “putting a fire to bed:” wrapping up a wildfire event with a fire under control and operations winding down. There are also the “widow makers,” trees that have partially burned or whose roots are smoldering that occasionally fall down without warning as crews work below, sometimes lethally.
Even though I wasn’t a mother yet then, I operated in a mama bear mode, ready to protect life and limb of my beloved desert and western wildlands, as well as human lives and homes, without hesitation.
We were firmly guided by critical principles, such as the 10 Basic Firefighter Rules, that are imprinted into my brain to this day and often serve as a guiding survival template in day to day living and have informed my work as a parent and educator in many ways.
For example: Be alert, keep calm, think clearly, act decisively. Know your escape route at all times. Give clear instructions and ensure they are understood. Fight fire aggressively, having provided for safety first.
I’ll never forget the scorching summer day working on a desert fire when a crew member, a friend to this day, turned and yelled, “Rattlesnake!” just as I was about to step on a huge Mojave Green.
I learned, through vivid and immediate experience, that sometimes, fires are mostly out of firefighters’ control. That things don’t always turn out the way we would have expected them to. And that we have to learn to live with that. We can’t save everything. And firefighters sometimes get injured. Some even die.
As I and walk along the edge of the ragged, hastily-cut fireline at the edge of the burn zone, I search for what firefighters may have left behind: boot prints in the ashes, not erased by away by rain; fragments of charred fire hose; perhaps a broken boot lace or someone’s crumpled bandana. I can almost hear the whine of Helicopter 554’s rotors and feel the wash of wind and sting of dirt kicking up in my face as I guide it to land for another water bucket refill, a gritty taste in my mouth.
The jagged caw-caw of a raven perched atop a black bristle of burnt Joshua tree pulls me out of my reverie. I look to the sky, which is slowly turning into a hazy brown as smoke from multiple other wildfire events across California and the Western U.S. works its way across the Mojave Desert.
As I survey the hulking charred ruins of the Joshua tree forests stretching beyond me farther than I can see, I can’t help but wonder, like a fretful parent soothing their little one’s feverish brow while trying to work out how their child has gotten seriously ill, what happened out here? Why and how did this desert fire get so big? Why was did it take four days for helicopter support?
It’s a tragedy that the Dome Fire grew to the size that it did. It’s inexplicable to me that H554 didn’t get out here as an initial attack crew and get this fire under control immediately. I know it was possible, had resources been available on August 12 when a lightning strike started this blaze. Then again, there were so many things out of anyone’s control that day. Fire resources were already stretched thin as multiple major fires played out across California, an unfortunate situation worsened by the sharp reduction of available inmate firefighter crews due to the coronavirus pandemic.
I’m reminded, as I look for signs of life, and recovery, and don’t see any yet, that many expectations in my personal life haven’t turned out the way I thought they would.
It wasn’t long after my time working on fires out here that my daughter’s father began his lifelong stints in prison – first working for Susanville fire camp, and later, as his crimes became more serious, time in maximum prison. I haven’t communicated with him in years.
My boyfriend, ten years ago, dying by suicide not long after we took our beauty-love drive through here and added to the stories. My friend I collected soil samples with and bonded over our appreciation for the nuances of how to get unstuck from deep sand, died several years ago in a terrible highway accident.
And so it is that I stand alone out here, embraced in a collective grief that is not mine alone. I also share it with many friends and desert lovers who also express their dismay at the Joshua tree loss on social media.
It’s awkward that the trees are still here, they still stand, and many will soon tumble to the ground, their limbs strewn across a suddenly emptied land space like human bones, and the recovery in this arid land will evolve slowly, as slow as the movements of a desert tortoise, as all ecologies in the desert do. And fire regimes – long-term burn and recovery impacts and adaptations/regrowth in Mojave Desert ecologies are still not entirely known.
But standing in loss is not enough. What will I tell my grandchildren when I bring them here?
Wildfire, one of the four basic elements, even at its most terrible, works its magic in the desert in ways we do not understand. I have enough knowledge from experience to know that fire on the land is both a blessing and a bane, and I’m nourished by my growing understanding, layered atop my firefighting work and my ongoing research for my humanities project, Fire on the Mojave: Stories from the Deserts and Mountains of Inland Southern California, that beauty and restoration will come.
So many desert stories, mine, and those who passed through here before me, those I worked alongside on fire crews. Today, I’m bound to honor these stories, and keep their visages alive, just as the Joshua trees have not simply disappeared – they have been transformed, even if it’s not what I want to see.
I refuse to resign myself to the circulating, apocalyptic idea that climate change has destroyed this place forever. That at the whim of a lightning strike and a resulting massive fire fueled by climate change alone, this cherished and well-tended place, turned into an eternal place of death.
I’ll bring my little grandchildren here next spring, and as with other Mojave Desert wildfire remains, we’ll look for places on this altered landscape that may have been obscured before the fire. Perhaps we’ll find sleeping circles, or petroglyphs on the rocks at one of the area’s springs, now revealed after the underbrush around them has been burned away. We may even discern, and follow, the faint traces of forgotten trails, where so many of our ancestors have walked before us.
And if we come at the right time, we’ll surely see wildflowers carpeting the burn zone, with or without adequate winter rain, purple, yellow, white and orange, as a direct result of the fire – as occurred in the site of the nearby 2005 Hackberry Fire – as well as the resprouting of other native shrubs. We may even see the tiniest of resprouts of some of the Joshua trees, needling their way towards the sun, one slow and sure inch at a time.
And I’ll bring a stack of makeshift fire tools – small, foldable shovels – and teach the kids how to cut a small fireline, how to stir the ashes and make sure the hot coals are completely out, and how to work as a team. We will learn how to tend the land by fighting fire, even it’s a make believe one for them, and how to care for our desert land, together, as a family. Together, we will build relationships with wildfire and the long-established fire ecologies here in the Mojave Desert, where fires will always, inevitably burn, as part of the natural processes of lightning and flame and transformation spelled out upon the land.
Ruth Nolan grew up in California’s Mojave Desert and worked as a wildland firefighter for the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service during the 1980s. Her California-desert based writing has been published in LA Fiction: Southland Writing by Southland Writers (Red Hen Press;) Women Studies Quarterly; Rattling Wall; Desert Oracle; Sierra Club Desert Report; the Desert Sun/USA Today; News from Native California; New California Writing/Heyday; KCET Artbound L.A. and KCET Tending Nature. Her fiction has been nominated for a PEN Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers and received an honorable mention award in Sequestrum’s editor reprint contest. She is curator of the ongoing humanities project Fire on the Mojave: Stories from the Deserts and Mountains of Inland Southern California. Ruth is coeditor of Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California (Scarlet Tanager), which placed as a finalist in the 2018 Eric Hoffer Independent Book Awards, and editor of the critically-acclaimed No Place for a Puritan: the Literature of California’s Deserts (Heyday.)She is also the author of the poetry book Ruby Mountain (Finishing Line.) She is the recipient of grants from the California Arts Council; Bread Loaf Writers Conference; Phi Kappa Phi and the California Writers Residency/1888 Center program. Ruth isProfessor of English and creative writing at College of the Desert.
Flirtatious repartee and sensuous swish of swords: gliding to and fro on soft horse stable hay, the upstart peasant, now-masked swordsman, adroitly slices away the feisty noble-maiden’s chemise. Featured in trailers, this became an iconic scene from The Mask of Zorro (Martin Campbell, 1998, Steven Spielberg executive producer). Sizzling cross-class desire inflames aspirations for wealth, nobility, and power in a California of great estates, contested political control, and servile commoners.
California began the nineteenth century on the periphery of the Spanish Empire; in 1821, it was incorporated into a newly independent, but politically unstable Mexico, vacillating between monarchy and republic; and, then, in 1848, sold to the United States in the aftermath of a war of territorial conquest. This is the setting for The Mask of Zorro. One of many revisions of Mark of Zorro (1920, one of the first United Artists films), Mask foregrounds the intergenerational dynamics underlying the Zorro theme of rivalry between nobleman-turned-bandit and corrupt officials. The main protagonists in this rivalry are: the elder Zorro, landed gentleman Diego de la Vega, who avenges his own twenty-year imprisonment, shooting of wife Esperanza, and kidnapping of daughter Elena; don Rafael Montero, former Spanish governor, who carried out these acts, now aided by young U.S. southern mercenary, Captain Harrison Love; and Alejandro Murrieta, young orphaned thief of ambiguous ethnic parentage, whom Diego transforms into a gentleman-avenger to inherit the role of Zorro. This is a tale of aspirational nobility, dynastic power. Such aspirations set in California-between-empires fantastically epitomize the ideological space of the neoliberal 1990s: a cradle for a patronizing elite caste unfettered by state oversight.
To see this filmic neoliberal space in Mask, we recall Michel Foucault’s “heterotopias” –actual spaces that exist apart from, but always in relation to, the “real space of Society.” To illustrate: the horse stable (above) is a special kind of space within the class demarcations of the great-estate–unlike, say, a chicken coop or milk barn—wherein refined equestrian skills permit both an elite woman and a lower-class man to interact, triangulated via sensuous animals, in ways not sanctioned in other estate spaces, say, the dining hall. This is further illustrated in another stable scene wherein Elena (unknowingly) meets her long-lost father (Diego) posing as a servant. Moreover, while scholars have argued that film is intrinsically heterotopic; this particular film evokes quintessential Hollywood tropes to constitute California itself as a heterotopia, epitomizing late 20th century neoliberalism.
Mask’s visually-resplendent heterotopia presents something of a puzzle with respect to Jacques Ranciere’s assertion that representational politics impact possibilities for democratic spaces, namely, a plentitude of forms that correlates with plurality: what, then, are the representational practices of the unraveling of democratic formations under the guise of noblesse oblige? Historicizing its 1990s lens, we see Mask’s explicit counterrevolutionary politics.
Mapping Kingly Enterprise as Counterrevolutionary Heterotopia
Mask overlays three instantiations of heterotopia: first, within the storyline, we have visually-constituted heterotopias—specifically, maps and painterly images from a prop portrait to shots that themselves index particular nineteenth-century European/American genres and iconic paintings; second, the use of cinematic clichés to index classic films and genres that points to the ways that film as a medium is a heterotopia and this film as a synecdoche for Hollywood; and third, in ideological content, Mask offers a political imaginary of a stateless transnational California under the domain of a benevolent, racialized creole elite. Clintonian neoliberalism required such feudal fantasies which draw on elements of nineteenth-century California, what Foucault calls “slices of time,” and other available California tropes in a racialized erotic economy of images extolling counterrevolutionary transformation.
The counterrevolutionary heft of the film comes from its layering of heterotopias: neoliberal California as heterotopia, film itself as heterotopia, and particular aspects within the film as heterotopias. The counterrevolutionary lens refracts through nineteenth-century revolutions; the very shift from Empire to Nation that destabilized elite alliances and left unsettled the political form that new polities would take: republican or monarchical. We extrapolate the dimensions of gender and sexuality in Benedict Anderson’s insights about the cultural work involved in political struggles of the nineteenth century, to understand what was at stake during the 1990s heyday of neoliberalism.
Shot during the apex of neoliberalism–and President Clinton’s rhetoric of shared prosperity in unsustainable and lopsided economic growth—Mask’s heterotopia is a space of capitalist “feudal-aristocratic drag” (Anderson, 153): bucolic landed estates where creole (of European descent) settler-elite employ and protect dark-skinned subordinates, largely coded as indigenous and mestizo through language and dress. The story and the cinematic language through which it is told might be cliché. Nonetheless—indeed, because of these clichés—it maps the collective desires of those who prospered handsomely and those who aspired to wealth in the 1990s economic boom.
While Foucault suggests that some heterotopias may preserve transformative possibilities, our reading of Mask posits a counterrevolutionary transformation.  It disarms its viewer through tongue-in-check humor, mobilizing cinematic formulas that reference prior Zorro films (especially but not only the sword-fighting), action films (Campbell, having directed a Bond film, here offers Bond-esque closing credits: billowing plumes of slow-motion flame set to a pop song), and Westerns (for example, Shane, in the use of the young Alejandro and Joaquin’s witnessing of Zorro’s heroics at the outset of the film, and broadly, in the use of desert landscapes). This filmic indexing underscores the cinematic work of the film as a heterotopia. That is, although this retelling of the Zorro legend is fantastical and enjoyable, it is not merely escapist pleasure. Rather, the film reflects and contributes to a counterrevolutionary neoliberal project: dismantling a state nominally proactive in its defense of the (albeit limited) redistribution (away from the wealthy) of resources necessary for basic conditions of daily life; unregulated minimally-taxed private economic schemes; and the accumulation of wealth and conspicuous consumption by a small class of people whose incomes exceeded thousand-fold those of the majority of workers.
Within the film, neoliberal heterotopia is rendered visually in maps as props that overtly configure polity spatially, as well as through the staging of painterly images—in particular, landscapes, portraits, and counterrevolutionary framings of revolutionary iconography. Whereas political philosopher Jacque Ranciere connects representationally-heterogeneous and political-liberatory spaces, the visually-rich range of images here indexes a political economy increasingly oriented around the rent-seeking interests of capitalist elites and others aspiring to wealth and power. Indeed, the heterotopias visually reference economic and political maneuvers since the 1970s, that made possible President Reagan’s rolling back of the Keynesian state and gains made by anticolonial and antiracist movements, the groundwork for Clintonian neoliberalism. These 1990s counterrevolutionary maneuvers required counterrevolutionary heterotopias to shape a hospitable terrain for such drastic re-makings.
Two key maps establish heterotopic California. One is a gigantic rendering of pre-U.S.-Alta California (today’s California, marked in reddish brown), Baja California and the rest of Mexico (in green), and the United States (in yellow); labeled Mapa Reino California (map of the Kingdom of California), this cloth map of an ostensibly-empty capacious space covers an entire wall in the courtyard of don Rafael’s hacienda. The other is a portable topographical map; hand-drawn on leather, it designates the built environment, with road and waterways, local haciendas (with Spanish names), mountain ranges, with a compass indicating directions; also clearly marked is El Dorado, the gold mine shown in the film; hence its role as a treasure map of Alta California’s riches.
These maps appear in two critical sequences. In the first, the viewer is introduced to the wall map; in the second, a long set of scenes, both maps are used. The large map situates the nation as open and available, disconnected from a state political project; while the smaller treasure map designates riches rife for elite taking. California is made a terrain of conquest in service not of state-building, but of transnational market desires.
The first map scene is set in don Rafael’s courtyard. Various dons, dressed in their finest attire, are shown seated around a large King Arthur-style roundtable, their eyes trained on Rafael; Alejandro, who has just gained entrance to this group, stands apart. After some musings over why he has gathered them together, Montero announces, “I give you the Republic of California.” He motions to one of his henchmen, who releases a large cloth covering the courtyard wall, revealing the map. Montero tells the dons of his plan to buy California from Mexican president Santa Anna, who is then preoccupied with defending the country from an encroaching United States. When the dons suggest the infeasibility of such a plan—that they do not possess enough money to buy all of California—Montero informs them that this is no preposterous idea. They are to buy it, he tells them, with gold from Santa Anna’s own mine. One of the dons derides, “You are living in a dream, Montero.” And Rafael responds, “Then why don’t we all live in the same dream together?” Bars of gold are presented for the dons to see. They are stamped not with the Mexican seal, the actual owner of the mine, but with the seal of the Spanish crown. The camera then pans over to re-frame Rafael squarely in the center of the map. The discourse of the dream here culminates Alejandro’s successful effort earlier in this sequence of scenes to ingratiate himself (unbeknownst to Rafael, as a spy) into Rafael’s camp saying, “I am a man in search of a vision.” In prominently scripting this language of dream and vision (an imaginary world apart but in relation to), the film, in effect, testifies to the importance of heterotopias for political projects.
In this space of contending nation-states, the United States and Mexico, Montero seeks to privatize California; it is to become a commodity bought with its own flesh (gold garnered from the depths of the earth). Thus, this gold constitutes a key to mapping neoliberal heterotopia: consistent with the logic of finance capitalism, gold is perversely the ultimate fetish as currency, capital, and capitalist rent “naturally” available for exploitation.
This scene works because it invokes an imagined-real California past. Foucault notes that heterotopias often entail a sense of a slice of time. Indeed, here we find the use of a past not to make a historical claim, nor to create a nostalgic sense of the good old days, but rather to enrich a sense of a fantasy parallel possibility (not unlike and partaking in the Fantasy genre of Arthurian tales). Set in a California prior to the Gold Rush (1849), the U.S.-Mexico War (1846-48), and the post-war purchase by the United States of nearly a third of northern Mexico (including California) for the bargain basement price of fifteen million dollars, the map-as-prop constitutes this place as largely open, unpopulated, and culturally Spanish with a significant indigenous population coded in the film through the presence of non-Spanish speaking people, such as Elena’s nursemaid, wearing indigenous clothing and a small mestizo population who we see mostly as grunt soldiers (Lie, 492). In this sense, the concept of heterotopias is particularly useful for understanding the ideological work of the film’s setting: to conjure not an ideal past to which we should return, but rather an allegory of where neo-liberalism can take us.
Not surprisingly, the historical context invoked is more complex, a complexity which impacted the very political debates of 1990s California into which the film implicitly enters. In addition to the eleven Spanish families who in 1781 established Los Angeles, Spaniards founded missions throughout the region (1769-1820): seats of local power established to convert indigenous people to Catholicism, while protecting the already converted from attacks by groups unwilling to submit to Spanish dominance. While Mexico’s 1821 independence ousted the Spanish, war left now-Mexican California at the periphery of a state weak, fractious, and distant. Mexico’s state changed in form, from part of a colonial/imperial state to (theoretically) sovereign nation-state. Benedict Anderson attributes the work of this transformation to “creole pioneers,” who differed from those of Mother country’s original settlers not by race or ethnicity or language, but by place of birth. He sees in the Americas the great historical shift that made the nation-state the paradigm for political formation—a weakened empire. This weakened empire, he argues, enabled these so-called pioneers to seize the political opening and create both the political form of the nation and the very political philosophical justification—Liberalism (laissez-faire governance, market-facilitating infrastructure)—that would best accommodate emerging industrial capitalism. The role of creole-settlers of the Spanish post-colonial world (of which California was a part) in establishing the form-philosophy duo is confirmed in Doris Sommers’ analysis of nineteenth-century novels as “family romance.” According to Sommer, these pioneers ideologically married the interests of the landed gentry (represented in these novels by the plantation owner’s daughter) with those of the emerging financial- and trade-oriented elite (often represented as an upstart, self-made suitor).
Also left in Spain’s wake was a particular racial hierarchy that situated indigenous peasants on the bottom, Spanish and creole-settlers (those of Spanish descent born in the Americas) at the top, and mestizos (the progeny of Spanish and Indian pairings) in the middle. Indians were largely dismissed, while mestizos would later have the possibility of tenuous incorporation into the post-revolutionary Mexican nation. With the U.S.-Mexico War and the subsequent integration of California into the United States, this social hierarchy would come into conflict with a U.S. white (free)/black (slave)/Indian (past) racial system. This happened, especially, during the Gold Rush, when Native Americans, Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and people from the eastern United States as well as Russia, Chile, and China flooded the region, changing San Francisco into a boomtown; other towns were rapidly chartered and California’s first constitutional convention soon held. By the late 1840s, then, the region catapulted from agrarian backwater to international economic hotbed, destination of mass migration, and the ultimate site of U.S. Manifest Destiny.
When Mask was produced (late 1990s), California, once again, found itself at the center of profound economic and social reconfigurations, this time critical to the constellation of the neoliberal state: sustained and increasing immigration, especially from Latin America and the global south; outmigration of capital and capitalists; and attacks on—and the unraveling of—the former model government bureaucracy and the educational system. Some reconfigurations were exacerbated by the federal government’s reorientation toward supposedly free trade and personal responsibility, announced in the passage in 1994 of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and welfare reform. The latter removed thousands of U.S. citizens from the welfare rolls, made support contingent on certain behaviors, and funneled these former welfare-supported (majority) women into low wage jobs (with an attendant and broader downward wage pressure). NAFTA devastated factory workers and professionals in the United States; it also ravaged small farmers in Mexico, making migration to the United States, and California specifically, the logical option. In turn, California reacted to this mass influx of immigrants and disruptive economic landscape by passing Proposition 187, turning teachers, police officers, healthcare workers, and clergy into unofficial arms of a state, to find and criminalize unauthorized immigrants. Proposition 187 was eventually found unconstitutional, and California is today the nation’s most ethnically diverse state and around 40 percent Latinx. These changes led to the re-emergence of an assimilationist nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment—some U.S.-born Latinxs, like their non-Latinx compatriots, favored harsh sanctions (Newton 2000). Unfolding at the highpoint of Clintonian neoliberalism, these virulent anti-immigrant movements occurred in relation to a successful sexual counterrevolution (Herzog 2008). We see in this convergence the alliance between sexual counterrevolution and the neoliberal political economy’s increasing investment in a multiculturalism where particular, eroticized incarnations of ethnic difference took on market currency. Tapping into an imagined past understood as real and connecting it to an imagined present enables Mask to work as an allegory for neoliberalism and neoliberal relations, and California to constitute a heterotopia.
Re-making this imagined past real relies on sounds and images of “the West,” ones borrowed from Hollywood Westerns and swashbucklers: the crisp sound of drums and guitars of flamenco music, the sound of boots across a wooden floor, the swoosh of the sword, the quick repeated taps of a flamenco dancer; the long shot of a crowd of peasants as they stand awaiting the execution of those pulled randomly from the crowd, tight shots of tussles between soldiers and peasants struggling against this arbitrary power, the close-ups of peasants shouting for the captives’ freedom, the Spanish flag being ripped from its pole, dirt kicked up as men on horseback ride in, an aerial view of the blindfolded peasants roped to poles, and don Rafael standing on the balcony looking down monarchically at the yelling crowd. Mask’s introductory captions, opening scenes of struggle and discord, and panoramic views confirm California as territorially expansive, open, and ruled by an illegitimate leader, don Rafael Montero, who governs through violence and arbitrary power. Gestured through the cinematic use of “the West,” California is made an available uninhabited space—a frontier, of sorts—full of dust, small shacks, mountains, open stretches of land, and blue slightly clouded skies. This West, like the Westerns it references, is peopled with dark, mestizo peasants, largely poor, humble, and leaderless. They tread lightly on a landscape where local strongmen or soldiers arbitrarily interfere on behalf of a faraway power. That is, these people and this place were open, virgin, and un-stated at the start. Spielberg relies on these quick shots to mark California as both without a legitimate leader and in need of a benevolent patriarch; it becomes recognizable as “the West”—that is, the United States—while the movie still marks it as Mexican territory.
In a second, long set of scenes, the climax of the film, both map-props –the treasure map of El Dorado and the political map of California– figure prominently. The sequence opens with Alejandro’s return to don Rafael’s hacienda, this time dressed as Zorro; he comes in search of the treasure map to the gold mine to which the dons and he, then blindfolded, had earlier been escorted. Hidden from view on the ceiling, Alejandro extends his sword to spear the treasure map from Rafael’s desk as he and his American henchman Capitan Love turn their backs in worried discussion of Zorro’s intentions. Alejandro then presents himself as Zorro and fends off Love, Montero, and Montero’s soldiers, as the fighting moves from the corridor to the courtyard. At one point in this swordfight sequence, he jumps up on Montero’s roundtable for a fighting advantage. Culminating the duel, Alejandro cuts loose the large map of California, releasing it from its mounts on the wall with flicks of his sword. The giant map floats down, enveloping the attacking soldiers and Montero, allowing Alejandro to escape. Maps, as images of (un)marked landscapes, figure as neoliberal heterotopias—they are indications of the nation under conquest, productively disconnected from any state political project.
Kingship, here condensed in the figure of Rafael Montero, lends itself to a heterotopic political imaginary because the elision of the noble body and the territory constitutes a place protected from historical temporality and everyday political contests: “The king is dead, long live the king.” Containing Rafael’s and Love’s ambitions under the giant map while Alejandro eluded capture, suggests a defanged nobility disciplined for the renewed monarchical market project—the nation is only the body of the king; no state interference needed, even as the new benevolent patriarch, now embodied by Alejandro as Zorro (whitened and gentrified in his training process) is ready to take his place. In this neoliberal heterotopia, the monarchical fantasy is not in question, only who has rightful claim to that throne and its privatized territory.
No industry glorified this fantasy of accumulation (or worried about the concomitant radical injustices it wrought) more than Hollywood. Indeed, in the “fantasy of free trade” (Dean 2009), Clintonian neoliberal “communicative capitalism” found particularly fertile soil in California’s entertainment industry. The free-trade expansionary moment brought about a revision in the Hollywood enterprise. While studios had historically marketed to other places films created for U.S. audiences, industry moguls now understood the need to make movies not just or even primarily for domestic consumption. To do this, films needed to incorporate themes and characters attractive to the rapidly expanding global markets (Jones, 13). This market re-envisioning grew out of a recognition that neoliberal policies had created a new transnational elite with the ready cash to consume their products. Not only did this elite lavishly enjoy the boom, they could now imagine themselves as and be transnational jetsetters. Moreover; elites reveled in seeing themselves reflected in the admiring, envious gaze of the wider populace (think Paris Hilton), the chimera of upward mobility through get-rich-quick schemes (think lotteries and casinos), television makeovers and celebrity benevolence (think Oprah and reality-TV stars), real estate, and other financial houses-of-cards (think Madoff).
Appealing to growing overseas audiences, in particular Latin America, necessitated re-conceiving race in movies. The Mask was part of a Hollywood neoliberal enterprise to refigure Hispanicity by promoting a market multiculturalism that whitens the category of Latino (Lie 2001). With Europeans cast elite Hispanic Californians, promotional interviews remade Spanish Antonio Banderas into a (white) Latino subject. In the 1990s, the U.S. government debuted demographic categories of “white Hispanic” and “non-Hispanic” white; creeping into U.S. popular culture at the same moment was the use of Latino as a designation for all Latin Americans (even in Latin America). Thus, for those seen as “white,” “Latino” offered an ethnic, as opposed to racial marker. This compounded the racialized erotics of promoting Banderas as a “Latin lover,” a long established designation for the (usually Anglo) men who played Zorro.
The Zorro franchise is very closely identified with Hollywood and its history—not only was The Mark of Zorro the fourth film made by United Artists, but the Zorro franchise has served as a century-long vehicle for romantic male stars (Williamson, 4). In addition, Hollywood has often served as a synecdoche for California: massive highway system, housing and technology expansion, and huge influx of immigrants from Latin America identify it as both the future of the United States and the emblem, positive and negative, of neoliberalism. The map-props used in Mask re-instantiate an imagined Spanish California as a vast place of harmonious relations, even as they tie this imaginary to a neoliberal project.
Maps, as Benedict Anderson asserts, “profoundly shaped the way that the colonial state imagined its dominion—the nature of the human beings it ruled, the geography of its domain, and the legitimacy of its ancestry” as “institutions of power” upon which post-colonial nationalisms modeled themselves (64). Nationalist “dreams of racism” had their roots in class distinctions:, “[c]olonial racism was a major element in that conception of ‘Empire’ which attempted to weld dynastic legitimacy and national community” (150). Our reading of Mask suggests what happens when a postcolonial society embraces neoliberalism’s globalizations that require, like colonialism did before it, transnational elite class allegiances: neoliberal market-oriented mappings of heterotopias rely on a racialized visual grammar to instantiate the national demography, geography, and the legitimacy of the ruler.
Neoliberal Fantasy and Images of Counterrevolutionary Heterotopia
To further specify the political imaginary through which Zorro’s California served as a heterotopia for 1990s neoliberalism, we turn here to Anderson’s insights on the colonial genealogy of nationalism: in migrating to the colonies, Europeans of many levels could refashion themselves and approximate aristocratic lifestyles. This approximation—or the putting-on of a class disguise—creates a “tropical Gothic” where capitalism became a “feudal-aristocratic drag” with “dreams of rac[ial]” certainty of superiority vis-à-vis locals that allowed a fondness for patria. In patriotic love of Empire or Nation, “what the eye is to the lover,” language is to a patriot (154). Anderson’s drag does not imply camp in the sense of a self-referential excessive costuming, but rather a kind of costuming to transform identity. The dubbing of this feudal styling underscores the artifice of newly elite colonials applying the style of an earlier era widely seen as the precursor of European capitalist imperialism. Refashioning themselves as, in their minds, quintessential aristocrats—that is, feudal lords—cemented elite allegiance to Empire and, later, to Nation. In emulating a by-then-nostalgic vision of European feudal lords and landscapes, colonial elites asserted an imperial and later transnational ideal-type of racialized class mode.
Capitalism’s “feudal-aristocratic” (i.e.class) “drag” thrived in the 1990s, a moment when, ideologically-speaking, Free-Marketers subordinated the needs of Nation to those of Market. This class drag is not camp, but one positing the possibility of class transformation. Indeed, the gleeful camp of Zorro’s costume—mask, close-fitting black clothes, whip, sword, and all—might distract from earnest work of feudal-aristocratic drag, which required a thoroughly visual erotics in imagining neoliberal heterotopias. This visual language nostalgically evokes a creolized European nineteenth-century high-art-aesthetic: a set of inter-related movements in painting, mimetic or realist in approach, romantic in themes, and experimental with techniques maximizing optical perception and luminosity. This aesthetic was, perhaps, less Anderson’s “tropical gothic” than one celebrating the foundation of bucolic estates, noble lineages, and a feudal social order under the oversight of benevolent nobility. Indeed, Clintonian neoliberalism broke from its Reagan/Bush-1 predecessor by insisting that the economic expansion of the 1990s should expand prosperity for new, previously marginalized sectors.
Exploring visual aesthetics of heterotopias—implied but not elaborated in Foucault’s garden and mirror examples —we offer three key moments (among several) in the film where viewers are offered a painterly image: First, a bucolic landscape of Liberal/Neoliberal California under the care of a fiercely protective creole nobility; Second, a scene constituting the focus of all erotic drives, whose dynastic quality in its mode of feudal-aristocratic drag; and, third, one that transcends historical temporality. This fantasy content is aptly paralleled in mass media nostalgia for a (high art) media whose heyday was pre-cinematic. Neoliberal feudal fantasies are rendered through shots cinematically recreating classic painterly images and genres. Examining each moment reveals that together these painterly images instantiate feudal-aristocratic heterotopia as an aesthetic overlay for the film’s action.
The first image occurs in the opening action sequence, where the elder Zorro (Diego de la Vega) disrupts execution in the densely-packed plaza of several peasants and penetrates the governor’s palace to thwart his nemesis’ attempt to abscond with California treasure; it then moves to the scene of don Diego’s private life as landed gentleman. The transition between the masked public hero and the private patriarch/nobleman is marked with a wide-frame shot sustained for several frames. The pink and coral evening light lends an intensely colorful luminescence to a landscape scene that centers the de la Vega estate. To the left, the manor house overlooks a bay with ships and to the right, outbuildings and a vineyard cradled in a half-circle of coastal mountains; directly to the bottom half of the screen are a waterfall and lush forests. The waterfall is a classic Zorro-film characteristic as the masked bandit often hides in a cave just behind it, a lair connected by a stairway to the mansion above. The significance of the cave is cued by the only two motions in this sequence: the falling water and the downward arch of a crying seagull. The seagull’s call punctuates the scoring of strings sustaining a high C sharp. The style of the image is much like that of early JM Turner nineteenth-century romantic landscapes of estates with intense colors and shimmering light (for example, Pope’s Villa at Twickenham, oil on canvas, 1808). While these commissioned bucolic pieces lack the narrative drama and concern with cruelty and injustice of his stormy shipwreck paintings, they share the use of light to generate particular kinds of atmosphere. Similarly, in Mask, both the image (of Diego’s estate) and a later one of barracks at sunset just before Alejandro creates havoc by stealing a spectacular horse evening light suggests a kind of temporary visual calm.
In many romantic landscape paintings of large estates, both labor and politics are absented. Geographer Don Mitchell traces the history of California landscapes depicting paternalist protection of the bucolic to contain the dangers of non-elites: rural smallholders and workers, industrial workers, native communities; erasure produces California as modern yet idyllic natural space, because, for this to happen, all signs of the state’s literal production—that is, its non-natural condition—must be hidden. Douglas Brinkley also examines this production of place, exploring Teddy Roosevelt’s creation of a national park system at height of immigration and industrialization in the name of democratic liberty materialized in pristine nature even as, according to Karl Jacoby, the creation of parks curtailed food-ways of rural populations. Projects, state and national in scope, mobilized landscape as an ideological frame that demanded containment of non-elites. Nineteenth-century U.S. painters, such as Albert Bierstadt, favored panoramas to evidence the truth of Manifest Destiny, the resonant 1820s idea that the United States should bridge coasts. Zorro’s idyllic California of this opening sequence captures these costly political formations between empire and nation-state.
If California landscape has worked through dispossession, the cinematic use of a painterly invoking of romantic capitalism suggests a politics of representation in which privileging of the oil painting’s flatness, to borrow Ranciere’s insight, suggests a timeless aesthetic ideal. Feudal-aristocratic drag thrives in nostalgic visual aesthetics.
A second key painterly shot is not a still transition, but rather, culminates the climatic sequence of the film. It is a filmic rendition of Italian painter Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s famous (1901, oil on poplar) neo-impressionist painting, “Il quarto stato,” (the fourth estate, or, the proletariat); this image was famously used during the opening credits of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 (1976 Italy/France/Germany), an important film in collectivist socialist cinema. In the painting, striking workers, men and women, are advancing forward (from assumed darkness) into the light, with two male farmers and a woman with baby in the forefront with clearly delineated and interacting figures following. Not the nuclear family, this is a revolutionary collectivity united in class cohesion and struggle. Like in Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, where he states that history happens twice, the first time as tragedy and the second as farce, Mask perversely appropriates this revolutionarily socialist image to anoint a neoliberal monarchical counterrevolutionary allegory. The image, restaged a la 1990s, shows a mass of inarticulate brown people—the film calls them “slaves”—just freed from captivity in an illicit gold mine, being led out of the dust from the exploding mine not by fellow workers, but by the new Zorro, Alejandro, and the creole (“princess”) Elena, both fiercely benevolent patrons rescuing children from a certain explosive entombment. Since the previous shot showed Elena and Alejandro breaking open the “slaves” cells, this subsequent scene does not need to do the work of advancing the plot, but rather securely encapsulated the counterrevolutionary framing of these events. As the aesthetic resolution of the capitalist greed instantiated in the treasure map-prop, this neoliberal scene shows a responsible elite protecting those in their care. No mention is made of seizing the means of production–the gold mine–for public good; all we understand is that crude exploitation for personal greed has been foiled.
As the people faintly emerge from the plumes of smoke and dust, we hear composer James Horner’s symphonic score of low strings; then as the figures take shape, the strings make an extended crescendo and are then echoed in brass. These bars make it clear that this is an epic moment. This long shot takes its time in developing from opaque white smoke to Alejandro carrying a child and Elena guiding another; they move into depth of field with the mass of bodies following behind still slightly out of focus. Interestingly, this is a 2-shot within a group shot since only Alejandro’s and Elena’s faces can be seen; and even the children’s faces are averted, visually delimiting the protagonists of the scene. The new creole nuclear family is featured both through these shots, camera focus, and costuming. The tones of the costume and the dusty backdrop are all creams, browns, and blacks, giving the overall shot a sepia, vintage tint. Alejandro stands out in his black Zorro outfit and Elena is the most visually striking with her white v-neck blouse showing plenty of pale neck and chest skin. The faces of the so-called slaves, children and adults, cannot be distinguished not because they are just out of focus but also because of the narrow palette of the scene. In no uncertain terms, the film visually produces phenotypic difference, a racialized social order of a white benevolent elite leading brown humble, even abject, masses.
Curiously enough, by the end of the sequence of frames, the exception to imperceptibility through this visually-produced racial-class difference is an indigenous-marked woman standing to the left of Elena. Both her face and stocky build are discernible compared to the rest of the freed “slaves.” She represents, quite possibly, the biological mother of the escorted children, reassuring the audience that a racialized social order will be secured not through the rupturing of stratification, but through its benevolent reform. Any threat of cross-class revolution leading to a miscegenated family is further neutralized both by foregrounding intra-elite warring (for sexual access to the creole princess and for access to non-elite labor and allegiance) and in the film’s subsequent resolution. The 4th estate scene ends with a blinding-white iris and bleeds into a once-again all-white screen, where the dying Diego joins Elena’s and Alejandro’s hands and commands that there must always be a Zorro. In this sequence of scenes, proper, racially-contained reproduction—the productive comingling of Elena and a now whitened and elite Alejandro—is assured as the native, non-elite subjects are absented in favor of the white, creole (birthed on California soil) baby—a prince—born into a legitimate patriarchal noble family. The ongoing mass appeal of this feudal-aristocratic drag marks the success of the neoliberal counterrevolution, a nuanced counterrevolutionary project savvy in building heterotopic spaces to imagine and enact its political revision.
The final painterly shot that interests us is one at the end of the film. The shot forms a portrait of Elena posed in the doorway of the nursery, watching now-husband Alejandro tell chivalrous Zorro tales to baby Joaquín. She is silhouetted by the arches of the hacienda’s outdoor hallway, through which we glimpse their lush estate, a now fully patriarchal redux of the opening estate landscape shot. In this medium shot, Elena is on the left of the screen and the audience is looking at her from over Alejandro’s shoulder on the lower right; out of the depth of frame, the upper right of the screen is filled by the parallel arches of the exterior manor corridor leading off to estate gardens, a sunset shown in the distance. Elena’s costume exactly mirrors the colors of the sky, with orange embroidery on sheer beige shoulders and sleeves, and a deep blue bodice and skirt. Her sleeves and Alejandro’s shirt are the same colors as the stone walls lit by the orange fire of torches. The audience’s perspective overlaps that of the baby prince, the lord and lady of the manor are thus organically part of the built and natural environment. In this two-shot, we are visually assured that this is a long-term, procreative union as the sunset comes to them. Indeed, this redoing of the opening scene is not unusual. As Simmon claims for Westerns, “the narratives seek to reestablish the tableau idyll of the first shot by the time they arrive at their last shot” as they carry “further [an] aura of loss and melancholy.” This, then, is how they enact their “allegorical imperative” (Simmon, 18).
The score further asserts that this is a quintessentially domestic scene. Harmonious in melody carried by wind instruments, the music still pulses with percussive flamenco guitar rhythm suggesting ongoing libidinal drive echoed in subsequent spoken dialogue whereby they declare their love for one another. When Elena states that she’ll “dream” of Zorro, we are reminded of the tension in these layered heterotopias: between feudal-aristocratic drag, Alejandro’s class transformation and securing of the dynastic lineage; and camp, the playful donning of the Zorro gear and pursuit of further adventures. These adventures do not require enactment in other forms of political space; the monarchy is the political body.
This portrait is very much like English pre-Raphaelite paintings–for example, Stitching the Standard (oil on canvas, 1911) among other historic genre oil paintings by Edmund Blair Leighton–in which he poses medieval women against stone buildings and elaborate gardens. The noblewoman’s domestic duty is also one of militant loyalty as she leans against a stone parapet overlooking the estate’s fields at sunset. Pre-Raphaelites often nostalgically mobilized such medieval themes depicted mimetically. A most iconic image of this school of painting further layers this nostalgia by harkening back to medieval imaginings of the Arthurian dark ages, as in William Morris’ The Defense of Guenevere (oil on canvas, 1858), where the heroine is presented as the archetypical pre-Raphaelite women: long dark hair, slender, long-limbed, and pensive. Such maidens grace Fantasy films since the 1980s from Excalibur to The Lord of the Rings. Thus, as with the previous image, this one nostalgically indexes both high European art and prior appropriations of painterly images as cinematic clichés.
This end of film vision of Elena in the estate is bookended by a quite similar image early in the film of her mother, Esperanza, seated in front of their manor house, awaiting her husband’s return from Zorro adventures. Akin to shot of Elena, in the first frame, we view the bay at sunset over her shoulder, then the camera switches its angle to center her in front of the manor house; her body constitutes the link between the panoramic California landscape and feudal estate as the legitimate instantiation of power. These bookending mother-daughter shots use dusk lighting to intensify the color palette; both merge the body of the wife with that of the patrimonial estate, in part, by extending the colors of the landscape lighting to the costuming: dusk, in Esperanza’s golden dress, and sunset, in the pinkish orange embroidery and deep blue of Elena’s gown.
The use of romantic portraiture links patriarchy and patrimony, the feudal landscape and the body of the wife, a linking made all the more apparent by a key film prop: the portrait of Esperanza. This portrait first brings the viewer intimately into Zorro’s private life as don Diego, and next into Rafael’s hacienda, this time misrepresented to daughter Elena as Rafael’s lost wife. Painterly images capture the idealized white creole-settler woman whose body, as the font of feudal patrimony, is the libidinal focus; these thoroughly domesticated images of nobility derive further erotic appeal from their connection to passionate scenes.
The channeling of creole erotic desire into dynastic reproduction restores the pastoral to an aristocratic landscape now populated with dynastic fruits. Moreover, attention to this channeling of desire restores the pastoral to the visual dimensions of heterotopic erotics, reminding us that these erotics are racialized through representational practices. Thus, painterly images visually punctuate the narrative with neoliberal heterotopias that exceed the drives of narrative to appeal to a feudal-aristocratic aesthetic enduring beyond, outside, despite, and instead of actual history.
In The Mask of Zorro, we see that heterotopias both generate and resonate with eroticized visual economies, beginning with the relationship between heterotopias and everyday spaces; that is, heterotopias are a priori eroticized, racialized through particular representational practices. As we have argued here, this Hollywood blockbuster constitutes a neoliberal heterotopia in and of itself. This heterotopic effect is magnified both by the self-referentialism of this Zorro (re)interpretation as an iconic film—indeed, the film is replete with references to prior Zorro renditions —and by its setting in California, connecting a mythologized past of an open western frontier directly to this (post)modern neoliberal space cast as the U.S. future. The film overlays a (fantastical) California origin moment with the neoliberal context, thus re-imagining both past and present through heterotopias within the heterotopias: the narrative role played by depictions of political spaces, namely, maps as key props, and the use of lush (European-esque) painterly shots to punctuate the narrative arc with a nostalgic aesthetics.
Heterotopic aesthetics undergird the narrative’s counterrevolutionary political thrust: California of the early nineteenth century (best) epitomizes the ideal late twentieth-century neoliberal space: a site of white (creole) oligarchic socio-economic privilege and libidinal gratification unfettered by the state. Transnational capitalists, too, eschew the fetters of acting within the confines of any particular political space. If Ranciere’s heterotopy implies that representationally-rich spaces might signal emancipatory potentiality, then our foray into questions around this Hollywood blockbuster’s multiple and erotic aesthetics of political heterotopias that mark the giddy culmination of the neoliberal counterrevolution forces us to think carefully about equating representational heterogeneity with liberatory political spaces (45).
 “Neoliberal” references justifications for dismantling the New Deal state (roughly 1933-1989, reorienting state priorities toward the global Market.
 Adrián Pérez Melgosa, “Opening the Cabaret America Gallery,” contends that film is a heterotopia and shows how a film can reflect and negotiate political conundrums, in his case the workings of race and intra-American hemispheric politics at the beginning of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy.
 Foucault’s post-sixties theorization of place, space, and politics counters classic theorizations of a revolutionary utopia—an ideal future place—with heterotopias–actually existing places that stand in contrast to ‘real’ ones, that reflect, alter, and comment upon so-called real spaces. See Christophe Bruchansky’s incisive analysis of Disney as heterotopia. By way of an example, he offers the honeymoon trip, suggesting more broadly that spaces of sexual initiation often are heterotopias, for they are marked as apart from, but condense, real domestic space. Film (industrial commodity and cultural imaginary), is arguably the quintessential heterotopic space; like Foucault’s example of the mirror, it exists, even as it is understood to have an attenuated relationship to non-filmic places. The political impact of a heterotopia depends on its embodiment of alternative power formations (Surin). Historicizing variations in heterotopias, then, is critical to seeing the contours of political geographies of place within heterotopic filmic spaces, including the status of counterrevolutionary transformation.
Scott Simmon, The Invention of the Western Film (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
Doris Sommer, Foundational Fictions, The National Romances of Latin America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).
Kenneth Surin, Freedom Not Yet: Liberation and the Next World Order (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009).Catherine Williamson “‘Draped Crusaders’: Disrobing Gender in The Mark of Zorro,” Cinema Journal 36: 2: Winter 1997: 3-16.
LJ Frazier works on political cultures of the Americas and Europe through transnational and global analytics. Trained in Anthropology and History, her interest in the intersection of cultural studies theories of power, subjectivity, and ideology with questions of political economy has resulted in publications on gender and sexuality, nation-state formation, and empire, human rights, mental health policies, memory, activism, and feminist ethnography: authoring Desired States: Gender, Sexuality & Political Culture(Rutgers), Salt in the Sand: Memory, Violence and the Nation-State (Duke) and co-editing Gender’s Place: Feminist Anthropologies of Latin America (Palgrave) and (with D. Cohen) Gender and Sexuality in 1968 (Palgrave).
Deborah Cohen, Associate Professor of History/Director of Latina/Latino Studies at University of Missouri-St. Louis, brings questions of race, gender, imperialism, and labor to bear on nation-state formation and other political projects. Her first book, Braceros(University of North Carolina, 2011; paperback, 2013) reveals the paradoxes of modernist political economies and the predicaments of transnational subjects in the United States and Mexico; whereas her new project, “Loyalty and Betrayal,” examines how transnational migration reshaped the pressures and pleasures of affective ties of family, race, ethnicity, and people-ness. She and Frazier are co-authoring three books: on ’68 in Mexico; a global ’68 history; and one that uses Zorro films to map shifting imaginaries of political projects, economic orders, and notions of social justice.
Luis J. Rodriguez is an L.A. cultural icon. A major figure in Chicanx literature, the former poet laureate of Los Angeles is perhaps best known for his 1993 book, Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A., which was one of the first autobiographical insider accounts of gang life in Los Angeles. Banned in cities throughout the state, it became required reading in L.A. Unified School District.
Earlier this Spring, Luis sat down with Boom’s Editor-at-Large, theologian Jason S. Sexton, in Sexton’s class at UCLA called Sociology of Crime. The wide-ranging conversation explored themes in the book and in contemporary California life related to crime, gangs, drugs, politics, and his own experience of life in Los Angeles and beyond.
Boom: This class at UCLA is called Sociology of Crime, and we’ve been exploring how “the victim” is a primary model of elevated American identity, but you’ve also got to have the reverse… a perpetrator, a criminal, somebody who’s committed the crime, created the victim… both of those swirling around. We like these hard binaries. Historians often describe crime in two ways: as ordinary crimes… and extraordinary crimes, with extraordinary crimes being those big crimes that really reshape the criminal justice system in radical ways. I want to talk about an extraordinary crime not on the books, but it’s in your “I Love LA” poem. I want to talk about “Water,” and perhaps L.A.’s original sin: water theft and water rights. I wonder if you could talk about that crime.
Luis: The way capitalism is, there are legal ways of making money, which is not that different than illegal ways. They make laws first that allow certain things to happen, but then end up doing stuff like stealing, committing theft, even murdering people. But if it’s legal, it’s ok, it’s in the bounds of whatever society says. The shadow of that is that people do this by illegal means as well. You can kill people in this country if you are legally supposed to. If you’re not, and you don’t have that given legal power to kill somebody then you’ll likely end up in prison. This is why police were given the power of life and death over certain communities. They literally had that. And now people are waking up to it with Black Lives Matter. But it used to be where police could kill people and nobody could complain, nobody could do nothing. I lost four friends, unarmed, to police violence. There was no recourse. Police had the power to do that.
Boom: And we have a history, of course, of federally sanctioned slaughtering of Native Indians.
Luis: The dominance and genocide starts off with Native peoples. Whites in power took their land, and it got legalized. You could do homesteading and you could do all kinds of things. Then they start legalizing removals and all this stuff. They also legalized slavery. The way things were done, you could legally do anything to another human being with slavery. They were constitutionally declared less than human. Then when they [slaves] escaped, you had the Fugitive Slave Act, which got the whole country involved in capturing escaped slaves. In other words, this country legalized these terrible things. It’s “okay.” But it’s not okay if it’s not a part of the legal thing. So to me, crimes in the shadow are reflective of what I would call crimes by a social system. If they allow certain people to do certain things, like steal people’s lands, steal their minerals, steal their labor, steal their water, then the shadow side is reflective of something that is allowed. When you got power, you can do this; when you don’t have power, this is what you do—commit crimes as a way to survive. I’m not justifying any of it, I think human beings shouldn’t do none of that. But the point is, that’s what we end up doing.
Boom: You identify as a Native person. Do you see Los Angeles ever making amends for that original sin, original crime?
Luis: I don’t see it happening. I was really pleased that not that long ago we changed Columbus Day in L.A. and made it Indigenous People’s Day. We were one of the first cities to do this. I just found out Chicago just did that the other day. It’s recognizing that there was a terrible theft. And you can’t honor the man that helped open that door. You can’t.
Boom: William Mulholland.
Luis: He’s one of those guys. He played a big role in the water theft. One of the things about the Owens Valley is that it used to be mostly Native peoples and it was beautiful and green. The Native peoples had a way of thinking: you only take what you need, you always give back what you take, and you never take more than you need. So, it kept green. Developers came in and said, “These people are wasting the land.” So they got rid of the first peoples. They started taking over the water. Since then the Owens Valley became horrible, dry. It’s lost most of its greenery.
Boom: They’re still taking it from the ground. So now I want to sort of push back on this a little bit because in your L.A. poem … in the last line, that it’s a city “lined with those majestic palm trees,” which take a lot of water, [bear] no fruit, they’re not indigenous, they’re imports, they provide no shade … and you feed into the myth.
Luis: Well, I feed into it because it is a myth. I feed into it because what people think about L.A. is kind of like the transplant of the palm trees, the transplant of people. The only ones who can’t say they’re transplanted are the indigenous people who have been pushed out and are made strangers in their own land. But what happened is that we become like palm trees. … I am feeding into the myth, but the myth is that this is … not really L.A. but that’s how we’ve become. There’s a layer of L.A. that’s all made up…that people have created on top of it. But one of the things I also want to point out and contrast to this is that palm trees are very sturdy. They do take up a lot of water. Every once in a while, winds can knock them down, but hardly. The winds, rains, everything coming through here; most palm trees stay up. There’s also something there I see [in] the people of L.A. There’s resilience in the people; I think there’s something deep in everyone that comes here, and that’s what I love about L.A. Even if you come from other parts in the world, you start getting a certain depth, a creative depth, in L.A. I find fascinating.
Boom: As we’re talking about L.A., you mention in another line in that poem that this is “still a one industry town.” I wonder if we could talk about and it was mentioned recently in some of the academy award winners’ [speeches], mentioning not only the whiteness of the academy, but also the neglect, and I think the Tarantino movie, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Brad Pitt highlights that with a lot of the stunt workers—the workers, I wonder if we could talk about the workers in that industry.
Luis: Well one of my sons, the one who went to prison, works for a Hollywood company that does sets. He’s a driver, and they bring stuff into wherever they’re filming. They’ve hired felons, and they’re doing good work; these men are working hard. And my son loves it. Somehow, he’s part of the Hollywood world. Now, he’s one of these workers that helps Hollywood get going; but nobody knows them. They’re not in front of the camera, not even behind the camera. They’re just the ones who get all the peripheral stuff needed for films to be made. So Hollywood to me is what makes L.A. the one industry town…; [but] let’s not forget this area is also the largest manufacturing center in the country. We have more manufacturing than Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh. And like those cities, we lost a lot of [good] industry in the ’80s. … In a sense people had jobs, made good money, and all this was pulled from other them. I was there when Goodyear, GM, Ford, Bethlehem… all the tire, auto, and steel plants went down, … when it all vanished. I used to work in some of these places. I worked as a welder, pipe-fitter, mechanic, in construction, and those industries were closing down, leaving. No jobs. We had one of the largest garment industries in the world, and it’s almost all gone, except for hole-in-the wall shops here and there. We were part of the rust belt and we weren’t in the rust belt. This is why by ’92 when the uprising happened, you could see how people lost their jobs, lost the ability to survive, and in turn how police got more money and became more oppressive. You can see the foundation for such an uprising because that’s the perfect storm that had developed.
Boom: Could we talk about your new book, From Our Land to Our Land, and how law, crime, and justice can better be conceived in thisland.
Luis: Here’s what happened: slavery’s gone, but people are still treated badly. A lot of other things are gone, but things aren’t right. Native peoples have reservations but those are not the most beautiful places. A lot of injustice is still going on. They start building up the border, [which…] was a made-up thing.
Boom: We had a strong immigration bill in ’96 in this country, ten years after Reagan gave everyone amnesty.
Luis: What happened is they militarized the border, and an unfortunate aspect is you got Mexican tribal people and U.S. tribal people who have long ties, deep connections, family connections, that are adversely affected by this border. My mother’s family is from the Tarahumara tribe of Chihuahua, Mexico. They are known as some of the fastest runners in the world. They do marathons, and they do it with their tire-tread sandals. They don’t do it with Nike’s. The only ones they don’t beat are the Kenyans. The Tarahumaras have six canyons in southern Chihuahua. One of them is deeper than the Grand Canyon. I’ve been there, walked among them. Many live in caves. There were about 80,000 [people] living in caves when I visited. One of the few cave dweller [communities] in the world. They are Native peoples, don’t speak Spanish, they’re not Catholic, they’re Native. That tribe is related to the Pueblos, the Hopi, the Paiute, the California tribes. There’s a Uto-Azteca linguistic thing they’re all tied to. But the border comes and guess what? My mother who is Tarahumara has me born in El, Paso, [and] we live in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. She went across the international bridge, and it’s all part of the Chihuahuan desert. El Paso, parts of New Mexico, and Chihuahua, have this link to the Chihuahua desert. Those people have been there for at least 10,000 years. But now with the border, we don’t belong anymore. Now we’re aliens, strangers, “illegals.” When I was born, we went from our land to our land. 10,000 years to me means more than the last 150 years, even though my mother and my dad and my whole family were treated like foreigners.
I have an issue with this country making us immigrants. We’re not immigrants, we’re migrants, like people all around the world. And I’m not against any other migrant from around the world, I’m just saying you gotta understand our ties to Native peoples and Native lands—that it is as deep as anyone’s. If you work with Native Americans, so many of them recognize that. There are pow wows that include Mexicans from Central Mexico. There’s Native American nations that now adopt Mexicans as members of their tribes. The Navajo have a Mexican clan. In other words, some indigenous people in the US are recognizing that Mexicans are not Spanish or Europeans. They are from this land. Even if we’re mixed in with Spanish, African, Asian, and other Europeans. Everybody’s mixed up in some fashion. Native Americans have some of the most mixed people. I’ve worked with some wonderful, amazing blue-eyed Indians. I worked with some amazing African-mixed Indian people. They’re still Native. So Mexicans have that. Then of course Mexico has the largest number of actual tribal people in the whole continent. The numbers are greater than any other country. Per capita, Guatemala and Peru might have more indigenous people, but Mexico has the largest number of them.
Boom: This is fascinating, and especially significant for a key theme in this class about how crime is conceived culturally, especially when you have an imposition of laws that are meant to reflect the culture, but the question is “which culture?” When people talk about criminal justice reform, how does that even happen in relationship to who have been perceived as criminals?
Luis: The whole book is really a vision for a new country. I really want to imagine a new America. I have to. I can’t just accept everything that America’s become to this day. Now people have said, “Well why don’t you go to another country?” I’ve heard this a lot of times. I don’t have to go anywhere else—this is my land. This is my country, and I have a lot to say about it. I’m not going to go anyplace else to do that. I’m going to do it here. Because I have these indigenous ties… I’m not going anywhere, I’m staying here. Yes, I have ties to Mexico, and I’m very concerned with what happens in Mexico, but I’m really concerned with what happens in the United States. So I feel there has to be a new imagination. And the imagination has to be more encompassing. Prison is one of the worst things we’ve ever created as a country. It does not work. It does not do what it’s supposed to do; … [it] actually does the opposite. Since they started building more prisons, more crime has been the result. The gangs in L.A. in the ’60s and ’70s expanded because of prisons. There were fifteen prisons with 15,000 prisoners in the early ‘70s. Since that time, California built up to 34 prisons with upwards of [appx.] 175,000 incarcerated men and women. California gangs are spread out to other parts of the world. You got L.A. gangs all over Central America, in Mexico, and other countries. Prisons made it worse for everybody, [not] any better.
You don’t punish crime away. It doesn’t work to punish people, especially when they’re adults—kids, even worse—it doesn’t work that way. If you commit a crime, if you’re troubled, if you need a lot of help, you should have a lot of resources at your disposal. You should be given tools, knowledge, connections, whatever you need to get through it. That’s not the way it presently works, and I know because I’ve been active in this area for decades. For forty years I’ve been going to prisons—teaching, reading poetry, doing healing circles. One thing you should know about the California prison system, it’s filled with almost eighty percent people of color, and we’re not near that [number] in the state’s total population. The largest single group [in prison] is Chicano, about forty percent, which is closer to the state’s population. African Americans are the most disproportionate because they’re about thirty to thirty-five percent in prison, when their population numbers are like sixteen percent. Whites and Asians… are far less than their [statewide] populations. So something wrong is going on here. That’s what people have to look at, what is going on, and why does the prison system reflect that?
I teach at the only California state prison in Los Angeles County, in Lancaster, every Monday. I go into two high-security yards. One of them is general population. Before I got there thirteen years ago, there were riots, there were lockdowns, [and] all these terrible things. We started doing programming. I was one of the first people to come into the general population yard to do programming at Lancaster. This was in 2016. Now there’s a lot of programming. The violence has gone down. The drug use has gone down. It’s not perfect. Every once in a while, things happen, so I’m not saying that everything is great. They’re doing much better; they really are better. Even the guards have recognized it. Before, [the guards] were my biggest problem. They would say, “why do you come here, why do you bother?” Now they’re friendly to me: “I’m glad you’re here.” They help me out. It’s changed, and that to me is what’s important. Can we find, can we imagine a way to deal with human beings [that] does [not] mean locking them up, putting them away, throwing away the key, and just making them worse than when they came in?
Boom: But you also … actually took some of this vision in a political direction. Running for governor, you got a lot of votes; you would have been the first Mexican governor that we’ve ever had.
Luis: Probably not since the 1800s.
Boom: And certainly before we became an American state in 1850. I wonder if we could talk about politics, and politics not just related to California and this vision. I Iove what you’re describing and Kevin Starr would often talk similarly, and he would triangulate that he lived in San Francisco, but worked in Sacramento as State Librarian, and then taught at USC. In his books he would sign, “Kevin Starr—San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles.” People would ask him “well where do you live?” And he would say, “I live in a city called California.” It was a beautiful vision. And some of that, I think you pick up as well with different ways that we can better make life here, that’s more meaningful, related to work, related to education, resources. We’re not all at the same place socioeconomically. So how can we be more just?
Luis: I do not believe that Republicans or Democrats have much imagination. I find them to be stuck, both parties. I think all political parties in this country, and probably around the world, are in crisis. And I think all religions as well, which is not a bad thing necessarily because the essence of all of them begins to rise up while everything else falls to the side. … Everything’s in crisis for a reason. My campaign was called, “Imagine a New California.” I couldn’t do a Democratic or Republican thing. I had to imagine a whole new way to go. I’m not saying there are not good things in either party, but I have to imagine a new way that can take the best of all of them and create a new path. With no money. Governor Brown had twenty million dollars at the primary and there were fifteen candidates running at the time. I didn’t have [much] money, but I went up and down the state a dozen times, talked to a lot of people. I ended up getting fifth out of fifteen people in the primary elections, and first among all the Independents and third-party people. I also beat Governor Brown in border precincts and was second to him in San Francisco. He wasn’t the worst governor in the world, but he was, again, not very imaginative, I felt. But I’ll tell you one thing that happened, I got like 70,000 votes. You’re not going to win nothing in California with 70,000 votes, but that’s something considering that 70,000 people thought I was worth voting for. And maybe it was my name, who knows how they do it. The thing that got to me was that Brown actually picked up some of my issues after the primaries. He starts talking about poverty when he never used to. He started to talk about prison reform in a different way. And he was doing something he wasn’t doing before: he was commuting a lot of guys that had been in prison, some life without parole, but were doing very good because of programming. People were amazed that he was taking on these issues differently than he had before. I think, again maybe not, I think it had to do with what I was doing, with what I was saying.
Boom: And you do vote, you’re still involved?
Luis: I’m still involved. I still vote.
Boom: I wonder if we could take it back to talk about some laws recently passed related to criminal justice reform, which never addressed the issue of violent crime. It’s like, “you could have a commuted sentence if you didn’t do a violent crime.” But that relates to something of a preconceived understanding of, at least at some point, how a checks and balance might be provided with violent crime.
Luis: I think this looking at crime differently really started in Chicago, and then came over to New York and other cities eventually, when Jane Addams expressed the idea that you can’t just put these people away. She was putting forward, creating settlement houses primarily for the communities of white immigrants that were getting into a lot of trouble. These white immigrants—Irish, German, Italians, Eastern Europeans—were getting into a lot of trouble in their neighborhoods. They were poor, but were able to rise up because there were always Black people they can say were lower than them. The Irish were treated very badly, but they were never treated as badly as Black people. Some of them joined with the anti-Black stuff, some didn’t, but the point being: the reformers wanted to say, “Can we help these people?” The industrial world was creating crime. So they figured, “Okay these aren’t really criminals in the sense that they are just bad people; they’re bad people because the jobs aren’t there.” They gotta eat. So settlement houses, and the idea that maybe we don’t have to imprison these people as much as give them a leg up.
It was evident when there were white immigrants suffering, they were prepared to help. Now, in the twentieth century when crime involved more people of color, all of a sudden those ideas went out the door. “Let’s just put them away. They ain’t no good. They’re never going to get it. You got to put them away for a long long time.” This started to get really bad in the last 40 years, especially in the ’90s. Even Democrats fell into this. When kids were being tried as adults, they were given 135 years, they were just fourteen to sixteen years old, given a lot of years because they were already going back to the whole idea that you can’t change anything. And they weren’t justifying it by looking at the economy, they were just saying, “something’s wrong with these people, put them away.” So they were creating monsters, as I say in my book. They were monsters of our own making. We created these monsters, and now we don’t know what to do except say, “they’re monsters.”
I go to the prison now … there are guys serving their whole lives in prison who would never commit a crime again. I do thirteen-to-fifteen-week classes, so every thirteen to fifteen weeks I have a new group of guys. In the B yard, which is the general population yard, there’s about thirty guys—tattooed-faced, all buff, even though there’s no weights to work out with. They’d scare the heck out of anybody. But I do this regularly, I work with them, and some of them, over a course of time, you find out they are quite decent and complex human beings. Many of these guys are murderers, most of them have life without possibility of parole sentences. Some have been doing thirty to forty years already, some former gang members but I am working with them now, and I find a lot of decency, a lot of people that want to make some changes. Some of them are never getting out and they still want to make deep changes.
Jason S. Sexton is Visiting Research Scholar at UCLA’s California Center for Sustainable Communities, editor of Theology and California: Theological Refractions on California’s Culture (Routledge) and Editor-at Large of Boom California.
Luis J. Rodriguez is the former poet laureate of Los Angeles, and his most recent book is called, From Our Land to Our Land: Essays, Journeys, and Imaginings from a Native Xicanx Writer, published by Seven Stories Press
When Gustavo Arellano of the Los Angeles Times interviewed me earlier this summer about the cultural politics of our paisano José Huizar’s corruption scandal, I had this to say about the disgraced city councilmember: “How did I feel when José invoked our patron saint the Santo Niño de Atocha before he was arrested by the FBI? The same way I felt whenever I saw him wear a mariachi suit in Boyle Heights or a charro suit in our hometown of Jerez: just another politico reverting to cultural politics to curry favor with his paisanos in gestures that felt hallow.” In many ways, Huizar’s shameful downfall was a textbook case of political charrismo, the Mexican euphemism for corrupt political bossism. I was introduced to the historiography behind this term through the work of a graduate school comrade—one of the imprescindibles to emerge from the University of Southern California (USC), Alex Aviña and his powerful book Specters of Revolution: Peasant Guerrillas in the Cold War Mexican Countryside—where I learned that the phrase came from a twentieth-century corrupt union boss who was partial to wearing charro suits. I forever cursed this despicable figure out of the long cast of corrupt Mexican elites for betraying rank-and-file workers and for giving charros a bad name.
Now, thanks to the pathbreaking work of another luminary to emerge from our graduate school years at USC, we have the first full-length academic study of charros and charrería (Mexican cowboys and rodeo) in the United States: Dr. Laura Barraclough’s Charros: How Mexican Cowboys are Remapping Race and American Identity (UC Press). Dr. Barraclough, now at Yale University, grew up in a white equestrian community in the Northeast San Fernando Valley, where she first encountered Mexican charros. “My friends and I”, writes Barraclough in the introduction, “riding bareback and barefoot in our cutoff denim shorts, had no idea what to make of these men” (26). I, on the other hand, came of age riding with those very men on the Mexican side of the Northeast San Fernando Valley, born into an extended charro clan with ancestral origins in the migrant-sending Mexican state of Zacatecas and a world apart from the sphere of those white horse-owners. Our corner of the Northeast San Fernando Valley was what I call, often tongue-in-cheek, the “paisa periphery” (short for paisano periphery)—those peripheral spaces inhabited by Mexican migrant networks in the shadows of any migrant metropolis like Los Angeles, that are marginalized but nevertheless vitally linked to it and which represent deep reserves of cultural values and pockets of political potential. As someone born into cross-border charrería and reared in California’s paisano periphery, I was eager to get my hands on Dr. Barraclough’s book and am honored to have the opportunity to review it.
As the “first history of charros in the United States”, the scope of this project is ambitious, wide-ranging and far-reaching, as it offers a “historical and cultural geography of charros and charrería in the U.S. southwest” and, notably, across state and international borders (3). In doing so Barraclough brings into the foreground the “prehistories of charrería” and into sharp focus its protagonists; in the process, rewriting the historiography of Mexican migrants, Mexican Americans and Chicanos, where “charros often lurk in the background” (5) as shadow figures that are portrayed as either empty ethnic signifiers or fetishized cultural caricatures. By its very subject matter, this trailblazing text engages and contributes to an impressive array of emerging and established scholarly fields: Chicanx/Latinx geographies; studies of the Mexican middle class; sports studies; heritage studies; and animal studies. Here, I want to underscore the first of these fields, Chicanx and Latinx geographies, which, as Barraclaough sums up, “explores how the social production of space and place shapes Latinx identity, the location of Latinx people within structures of inequality, and the form and content of their resistance to the spatial conditions of their lives” (19). Attempting to depict charros with some complexity and nuance, Barraclough states in the introduction, “the charro associations have never had a monopoly on the meaning or the political utility of the charro, who circulates in popular culture and politics as much as in the lienzo (the distinctive keyhole-shaped arena used for charreadas)” or charro competitions (4). Yet, in narrating the history of charros in the U.S., the book tends to skew toward a Mexican subjectivity that is “middle class, masculine, and aligned with Spanish-Mexican histories of colonialism and aspirations to whiteness” (4). This is partly the result of Barraclough’s methodological choice to provide a historical account by “Taking the long view” (true to her training) and preemptively stating that the “book is not an ethnographic account” (26). This is yet another way in which our trajectories overlap but diverge, as I write this review from the vantage point of a historically informed ethnographer of migrant political life and death whose locus of enunciation is the paisano periphery.
Chapter one, “Claiming State Power in Mid-Twentieth-Century Los Angeles”, unearths the history of charros in the gateway City of Angels, that quintessential Mexican migrant metropolis. In doing so, Barraclough retraces the well-treaded history of the sediments of coloniality in Los Angeles, walking us through the city’s periods under Spanish, Mexican and U.S. colonialism. While Barraclough invokes a comparative ethnic history—acknowledging Los Angeles’ Native, Asian and Black communities—the chapter’s focus is on “how diverse ethnic Mexicans used the figure of the charro to access sate powers in mid-twentieth-century Los Angeles” (42). It argues that “At a time when the city was gripped by state and mob violence targeting working-class ethnic Mexicans, the charros’ work was essential in allowing both middle-class and elite ethnic Mexicans to assert their respectability, their law-abiding nature, and their capacity for citizenship” (43). In doing so, Barraclough contributes to the imperative task of transnationalizing Chicano historiography, however, at times privileging elite transnational ties and figures in charro lore. While Barraclough literally rewrites charros into key moments of Chicano history, she nevertheless corrals them between the dated conceptual frameworks of cultural citizenship on the one hand and Mexican nationalism on the other. To cite one illustrative example, she states the following about the figure of the charro: “Staked out in opposition to the zoot suit, their trajes de charro represented a decidedly different sensibility—one that emphasized respectability, social conservatism, and moderate institutional reform, as well as their embrace of Mexican cultural nationalism” (54). Part of this unduly narrow take stems from Barraclough’s choice to foreground institutional actors like Sherriff Eugene Biscailuz, who established the Sheriff’s Mounted Posse in 1933 and was propped up as “the official first caballero of Los Angeles”. Barraclough documents how “Biscailuz and other civic leaders embraced the charro as a symbol of civic and transnational unity” and argues that “civic leaders had begun to position the charro as a figure with the potential to bridge tensions and cultivate unity among city residents, in part through invocation of a ranching past associated with the Mexican elite” (51).
Before going too far down this line of argumentation, however, Barraclough reins in the chapter reminding us once again that “elites like Biscailuz did not have a monopoly on the meaning or strategic use of the charro” (52). Indeed, as the veteran California chronicler Sam Quinones argues in his coverage of charro subculture in Southern California (which unfortunately did not make it into Barraclough’s bibliography), charrería in the U.S. for many rank-and-file migrants was the realization of a dream deferred stretching back to rural México.[i] One early organization that is unearthed in this chapter that speaks to this bottom-up perspective on charro culture is a pioneering group known as the Charros de Los Angeles. Barraclough turns to an impressive array of primary sources to excavate the history of this group, including historical census records, photographs and filmic texts. She notes of the group’s makeup: “Of the twenty original members of the organization, most were from the states of Jalisco, Michoacán, and Zacatecas” (56). Importantly, “In 1962…the Charros de Los Angeles became the very first charro association in in the United States to be formally recognized by the FMCH” México’s official federation of charrería (66). Toward the end of the chapter, tucked away in an endnote, Barraclough cites a post on the Charros de Los Angeles’ Facebook page, raising the possibility of ethnographic interviews or oral histories, which the author completely passes on for the sake of sticking to the “long view”, a missed opportunity that haunts the remainder of the book.
Chapter two, “Building San Antonio’s Postwar Tourist Economy”, narrates the transnational tale of charros in Texas and their struggles around place-making and spatiality “At the crossroads of the American south and Mexican North” (72). Barraclough opens by rehearsing the history of displacement, dispossession and racial violence against Mexicans in Texas, a torturous tale that Monica Muñoz Martinez documents in her groundbreaking tome The Injustice Never Leaves You, which painstakingly pays homage to the intimate trace of Mexicano claims of belonging, down to the level of a family branding iron (a potent ranchero and charro symbol if there ever was one), while at the same time leveling a critique of masculinist historiography and its tendency to romanticize mounted and armed Mexican masculinity (depicted in full detail on Barraclough’s book cover). Barraclough’s stake in this chapter is centered more decisively on cultural politics and particularly on how charros in Texas confronted white imperialist nostalgia and violent settler narratives of the cowboy, in the process demonstrating how charros were part of the storied Mexican American generation and, indeed, the history of the West. As Barraclough states, “In San Antonio, as in other southwestern and border cities, the materials of the old West include not just cowboys and Indians, but also charros” (73). Herein lies the second monumental move that Barraclough makes in this book—inverting the historical record and exploding white settler frontier mythology by situating Mexican charros as the “original cowboys.” She also refers to these charros as what Chris Zepeda-Millán calls “border brokers”, highlighting their “anchoring and bridging roles” (86) across diverse constituencies and communities. “As binational, bilingual actors committed to a growth agenda” Barraclough writes, “charros were especially well positioned to cultivate networks with elite businessmen from Northern Mexico, tying together a borderlands economy” (87). Cross-border visits and charro competitions were held throughout the 1950s in Texas enabling what Barraclough aptly describes as “the constant fertilization of networks” (87). Yet the networks Barraclough focuses on bank on mestizo privilege: “They did so by drawing on the charro’s symbolic power as a representation of skilled, landowning, and dignified Mexican masculinity, and by using collaboration, negotiations, and persuasion to nurture relationships with the elite business classes of both San Antonio and northern Mexico” (96).
In Chapter three, “Creating Multicultural Public Institutions in Denver and Pueblo”, Barraclough takes these elite transnational ties to an unexpected geography: the “Hispano homeland” of rural New Mexico and Colorado. The “Hispano homeland” is defined as “an interconnected web of rural villages…established during the first push of Spanish colonial settlement” which “remained both spatially and culturally isolated from Mexico” and where “Hispanos were more likely to identify with Spanish histories of settlement and baroque forms of Spanish culture than anything related to Mexican nationalism” (98-99). Illustrating the degree to which charros were part of the Mexican migrant, Mexican American, Chicano and Hispano historical experiences, Barraclough argues: “Hispano and Mexican leaders turned to the charro as a vehicle for forging a shared racial identity, with the goal of building a more inclusive and responsive urban public sphere” (100). Barraclough unequivocally makes this point about one of the charro organizations she chronicles in this chapter, stating summarily: “The Pueblo Charro Association was an indisputably Hispano organization” (102). She charts charros’ struggles for political inclusion and cultural recognition in multiple civic spaces, ranging from education to local government. Barraclough carefully analyzes the work of Lena Archuleta, a member of the Denver Charro Association and Hispana educator, whose “curriculum guide centered Hispano’s and Mexicans’ historical contributions to the making of southwestern ranch culture as the basis for a shared racial and cultural identity through which children could experience an empowering education” (113). In the realm of urban politics, the president of the Pueblo city council “formally proclaimed the first week of November 1974 to be ‘International Charro Week’ in Pueblo because ‘the Charro has contributed greatly to the socio-economic and cultural development of the Southwest’ and because ‘the friendship of the United States of America and the United States of Mexico is of great significance to the Western hemisphere’” (121). Returning to Archuleta, Barraclough state’s that her pedagogy “embraced the Mexican ranching past and its diverse cast of characters, especially the charro, which she saw as a unifying symbol for Hispano, Chicano, and Mexican immigrant children in southwestern schools…her guide recuperates the agency of workers and indigenous people in the making of ranch cultures and economies” (111). Such efforts had the effect of “Inserting the charro into whitewashed histories of cowboys, ranching, and rural life in Colorado.” Still, the cross-border charro networks that Barraclough uncovers between Colorado and México were enmeshed in transnational elite alliances. “One of the lessons they surely learned was that charrería in Mexico was an extravagant affair associated with the Mexican political and economic elite” she states of one of the Colorado charros’ visits to México. “On their first day in Guadalajara, the Pueblo delegates listened to a speech by Jalisco governor Alberto Orozco Romero. There were multiple luxurious banquets, dances, and award ceremonies” (122). With the eventual decline of this vibrant charro circuit in Colorado, Barraclough states toward the end of the chapter: “Not until the early 2000s, when Mexican migration to Colorado expanded, would charrería experience resurgence in the state” (131). While she once again turns to social media and internet sites in the endnotes to this chapter, such as LinkedIn and the contemporary web page for the Unión de Asociaciones de Charros de Colorado, Barraclough does not see these as a possible entrée into ethnography or deeper oral histories with charros past or present.
The narrative structure of the book follows this spatial-temporal flow, chronologically tracing charros’ claims of belonging, galloping across the Southwest, from California to Texas to Colorado and back again. In Chapter four, “Claiming Suburban Public Space and Transforming L.A.’s Racial Geographies”, we are squarely back in California’s paisano periphery. While the chapter takes as its stage suburbia as contested racial terrain, it uncovers all of the hallmarks of the paisano periphery, which is mired in segregation, racialized poverty and disenfranchisement. A fuller explanation of the historical formation of the paisano periphery is found in the third endnote to this chapter and is worth quoting at length. “Though East L.A. became the largest and most well-known urban barrio, proto-suburban Mexican communities remained in the form of agricultural colonias (worker colonies). Located close to the fields and packinghouses and marked by dilapidated housing, insufficient infrastructure, and civic neglect, these suburban communities were barrios in their own right. Though small in population relative to the expanding urban barrios of the Southwest’s largest cities, they marked a consistent ethnic Mexican suburban presence” (231). One of the critical contributions of this chapter is to show the making of suburbia as white settler space. White residents of the San Fernando Valley “participated in community planning processes that rejected multi-family, industrial, or commercial zoning. The result was to embed Anglo-American histories of ranching and whitewashed histories of cowboys in the American West in the suburban landscape via municipal zoning and planning codes” thus producing “whitewashed renditions of the cowboy and the frontier” (139). Yet ethnic Mexicans fought to carve out their cultural spaces in the paisano periphery, in the process erecting charro citadels from the San Fernando Valley to Pico Rivera. These projects “allowed for the collective invocation of Mexican histories of ranch land and labor, while reterritorializing those histories in the suburban present.” In doing so, “they challenged dominant ideas about American suburbia, especially how people of color and immigrants should behave, and reclaimed a Mexican presence on the outskirts of Los Angeles” (143). This chapter thus further drives home the transnational argument about charros as the original cowboys, who, through their efforts, “recast the origins of ranching beyond America to the Américas, simultaneously refuting the U.S. nationalism undergirding the cowboy as white American hero and reclaiming Latin American horsemen, including the charro, in the making of hemispheric ranch cultures” (146). Methodologically, while the chapter makes ingenious use of primary documents (e.g. financial ledgers from charreadas in the 1970s), oral histories are virtually nonexistent (drawing on one telephonic interview with charro pioneer Julian Nava).
Charros winds down with a final substantive chapter that rethinks the animal rights debate as it relates to the sport and expands the book’s geographic scope beyond the Southwest. This chapter casts the animal welfare movement in relation to charrería in a critical light, arguing that charros perceived it as a thinly-veiled assault on the public display of their rural mexicanidad in the U.S. Barraclough rightly points out that “the ‘horse-tripping’ laws have often been passed by the very same state legislatures that adopted anti-immigrant laws” and mange to “discursively construct charros and those who participate in their events as criminal, barbarian, and threatening subjects” (166). One of the local lawmakers to endorse such a bill was Joe Baca, a Latino assemblyman from San Bernardino in Southern California’s Inland Empire, an emblematic community of the paisano periphery if there ever was one. AB 1809 “would make it a misdemeanor to intentionally trip or fell an equine by the legs for entertainment or sport” (169). To make matters worse, iconic Mexican American organizations supported this legislation, including Mexican American Political Association, Mexican American Chambers of Commerce and the United Farm Workers, leading charros to see this as “a cumulative attack on their livelihoods and cultures” (173). This is especially the case considering that American (read: white) rodeo activities where explicitly protected in some of these bills, including “jumping or steeplechase events, racing, training, branding…calf or steer roping events, bulldogging or steer wrestling events…barrel racing, bareback or saddled bronc riding or other similar activities or events” (185). Yet, Barraclough sticks to her argument about the increased political sophistication of charros, insisting that they were “careful to register themselves as modern, rational political subjects, rather than ethnic radicals or political extremists” (182). This historical argument stands in sharp contrast to a charro clan from the San Fernando Valley today, who proudly proclaimed themselves “Charros for Bernie”[ii]. While the chapter again makes impressive use of primary documents, ranging from constituency correspondence to transcripts of state legislature hearings in California and Nevada among others, the oral history material is thin, citing one email communication from Toby de la Torre, another charro precursor.
Octavio Paz once wrote about the zacatecano poet Ramón López Velarde that “irony is his rein and the adjective his spur.” Not so for Barraclough, who is more of a straight shooter; her writing is neither flowery nor poetic, careful not to over-stretch charro metaphors in her prose. However, my main critique of this book is not in its form but rather in its method. True to her formation as a geographer, Barraclough opens the conclusion by stating: “Hover over virtually any city in the U.S. West using the satellite view of a web mapping service, and you will almost certainly spot the distinctive keyhole shape of at least one lienzo charro” (196). Her argument about “place-making”, “vernacular spaces” and “ranchero landscapes” on the “metropolitan fringe” is an important one, as “lienzos offer an important space for cultural affirmation and transnational collectivity” (196) and an “invocation of a shared rural Mexican ranching past left behind” (197). As is the central argument that positions charros as the “original cowboys”: “Asserting the historic presence of ethnic Mexican ranchers and vaqueros as the ‘original cowboys’ in the region that became the U.S. Southwest, they have transformed core narratives of American identity centered on the cowboy, ranching, and the rodeo” (200). Yet for all her focus on “scalar dynamics” and “scaling up”, it would behoove Barraclough to descend from the bird’s eye view, and the historic “long view”, and scale down. It is the task of the ethnographer to, as charros put it, “entrarle al ruedo” (“enter the rodeo ring”), with all of the political ethics that implies, plunging into the depths of the paisano periphery. This, however, would require oral histories and deep ethnography, something Barraclough entirely avoids. Those who are up to the task will find charros not as long-gone historical figures but as living, breathing, flesh-and-bone denizens of the paisano periphery, with all of our contradictions, as the charro adage goes, vivitos y coleando. Alive and bull-tailing.
Adrián Félix is Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Riverside and is the author of the award-winning book Specters of Belonging: The Political Life Cycle of Mexican Migrants (Oxford 2019).
It has been 13 years since I first traveled to El Salvador. My father, Ramon, left his homeland of El Salvador for the U.S. in the late 1970s. Ramon was always in and out of my life. The last time I saw my father was in 2004. By the time I took this trip, I had completely lost contact with him. This trip to El Salvador was my way to connect with Ramon’s home country without having a relationship with him. It was my way of searching for an opaque past.
While in El Salvador, I learned the significance of “memoria histórica” (historical memory). To know history, is to know oneself. As Italian socialist, Antonio Gramsci, once said: “The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is ‘knowing thyself’ as a product of the historical process to date which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory.” My yearning to trace my history would not bring me closer to Ramon, but it would help me understand him and myself. It permanently informed my political consciousness and commitments, and the love I have for El Salvador.
In Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas (Harper Collins, 2020), scholar, activist, and journalist Roberto Lovato takes us through his own journey of re-membering the infinite traces of his life as a child of Salvadoran migrants in the Mission District of San Francisco. By navigating through history, borders, silences and half-truths, Lovato excavates his family’s past, his participation in the Salvadoran revolutionary process, and the “gangs-as-cause-of-every-problem-thesis” in El Salvador. While mainstream media, law enforcement, and U.S. presidents point toward gangs such as MS13 as the culprit of Central America’s social problems, Lovato complicates this claim. Unforgetting is an urgent demand to sit with the beauty and messiness in our lives, our traumas, and the historical moments that shape our present and possibly our futures.
This morning, my neighbor was gardening. His tool of choice? The machete he brought back from visiting his family in El Salvador. As I heard him hacking away at the branches of a tree, I was reminded of the first words in Lovato’s memoir: “The machete of memory can cut swiftly or slowly.” The machete, a cultural reference to El Salvador for many of us, is the tool of choice Lovato uses to conjure the memories that have shaped him, his family and all Salvadorans. With this machete, Lovato cuts and slices through over 80 years of Salvadoran history. Rather than a simple, linear narrative beginning in the past and ending in the present, Lovato travels through distinct instances of his father’s life, his own life, and the historical events that connect towns and cities in El Salvador to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Karnes County, Texas. The machete of memory, Lovato reminds us, is versatile. It can summon pain, love, and nostalgia. The memories shared by Lovato in his memoir invite us to feel a collage of emotions while grounding us in their material conditions.
“My story is apocalyptic in the original sense of the term in Greek: apokaluptō…to uncover, lay open what has been veiled or covered up.” Like a finely made braid, Lovato interlaces his family’s history with the history of El Salvador. Through the Matanza of 1932, the migrations of Salvadorans to Mexico and to the U.S., the revolutionary struggles of the 1980s, the criminalization of youth, and the caging of Salvadoran refugees during the Obama and Trump administrations, Lovato and his family are always present. Rather than bystanders, Lovato shows how he, his grandmother, his father, his mother, his aunts, and cousins, were all active agents in the making of El Salvador and the Mission District of San Francisco. Through memoria histórica, Lovato shares his journey of uncovering his father’s intimate connection to the 1932 massacre of over 30,000 indigenous people and communists. The moment his father shares his testimonio is one of the most powerful images in the memoir: “At that moment, my eight-eight-year-old father became the nine-year-old boy who’d witnessed one of the worst massacres in the history of the Americas.”
If you have followed Lovato’s journalism and activism throughout the years, you know he does not shy away from showing us his rage. “Rage is my vocation,” he states. By way of Cuban musician Silvio Rodríguez’s lyrics in “Días y Flores,” we learn the origins of Lovato’s rage and how it shifted from his family, El Salvador, and himself to U.S. empire. Through Lovato’s intimate and comradely relationship with a Salvadoran revolutionary named G, we are taken through scenes of U.S. imperialism in El Salvador, its support of death squads, and the revolutionary struggles for Salvadoran dignity during the 1980s civil war. Revolution is a major theme in Lovato’s memoir. Although the word revolution might be outdated for some, Lovato reminds us its ideals and necessity live on.
Instead of reifying gang violence in El Salvador, Lovato urges us to think deeply and try to understand what turns kids into violent, even murderous gang members while also holding space for the child victims of this violence, what he calls a “double helix of death,” that condemns many in El Salvador. In many scenes of the memoir, Lovato forces us to reckon with a whirlwind of emotions that does not explain away the violence, but rather helps us understand it. Through his own investigations, Lovato argues the violence we often hear about through the corporate media “is no small part, an expression of forgotten American violence.” He reminds us that the most destructive agents in El Salvador are not the youth gangs, but the gangsters in suits who are “protected by even more violent gangsters in military uniforms.”
According to Central American Studies scholar Ester E. Hernández, “the process of transmitting cultural memory brings to light the history of diaspora.” Through her use of the concept “working memory,” Hernández shows how U.S.-based Central Americans use film, murals, and performances to revisit complex and contradictory narratives of war, migration, and resistance. Adding to this working memory and history of the Salvadoran diaspora, Lovato’s Unforgetting contributes to U.S.-based Central American cultural production, activism, and the growing field of Central American Studies. It is part and parcel of a growing tradition of U.S.-based Central Americans writing their own radical histories of U.S. empire. This memoir is an ideal text for undergraduate courses and people interested in Salvadoran history.
Unforgetting is an invitation, or more like a demand, to remember the violence of settler colonialism, anti-communism, and imperialist interventions in El Salvador. Simultaneously, it is a refusal to forget the love, hope, agency, and struggles of Salvadorans and Central Americans. It is a timely memoir that should be studied on your own or with a study group. As we continue to hear, see, and organize against the caging, raiding, and deporting of our people, let us remember Lovato’s call to action. We must never forget the roots causes of the trauma, forced displacement, and criminalization. We must never forget the dignity of our people. Salvadorans have a rich history. Lovato urges others to read, listen, and learn from them.
 Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 2nd ed. Edited by Quintin Hoare and Geoffret Nowell Smith. New York: International Publishers, 1999, 324.
 Lovato, Roberto. Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas. New York: Harper Collins, 2020, xvii
 Hernández, Ester E. “Remembering Through Cultural Interventions: Mapping Central Americans in L.A. Public Space,” in U.S. Central Americans: Reconstructing Memories, Struggles, and Communities of Resistance. Edited by Karina O. Alvarado, Alicia Ivonne Estrada, and Ester E. Hernández. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2017, 144.
Is it talking dirty if you’re just listening? What you see in the picture is me. Passenger Front seat. Cinder block wall behind me. I mailed it to my Romanian pen pal, me making a sexy face in my friend’s Falcon. To my right is the dustless dashboard. In the backseat is my older friend Junior. Give me a sexy look, he says. He’s taking a picture for my pen pal but it’s really for him. It’s also for me. For my other friend who’s driving. My sexy hair looks like this: a ponytail on top of my head, wavy brown cascading over to the side of my face. In my denim jacket and white button up, the other thing that sizzles is my plaid flannel skirt, one my mother made. Her hands lined my hem. The driver rolls carefully down my alley. Me, trying out my sexy look and he’s looking too. We enjoy it, watching me try. And I enjoy trying. I shelf my looks for the receiver—on the phone later, I will charm him. He was a junior. I, a freshman, listen to his dream where I was giving him head under a restaurant table, but the table cloth covered me and no one could see. I will play along in the dark under a blanket when everyone’s asleep because he doesn’t scare me. He’s got skater hair, crooked teeth, and likes the Golden Girls as much as me. He drives a Caprice Classic—a mid 80s machine the color of sour wine. Oh yeah? I tell him. And then what did I do? Is it dirty if it was safe? We could turn it on—we could turn it off. He taught me how to drive that thing. Down the Commerce streets—gray warehouses and no workers inside them at night. Entire fields of pavement for us to play on. Another night, I took a fruit roll up and wrapped it around his finger, my first blowjob. His hands were clean thank god. He was older but not older-scary just old enough to make it fun. There are infinite degrees of being sexy when you’re 15. The mint-satin-dress kind. The kind where all you had to do was put your head in the lap of a boy who loved you so much he could cry (and did). The kind that drives you to the drive-in and tests the limits of your high-waisted cotton panties. The kind where you’re just trying to get to school and you know you’re being followed. But that’s not sexy, that’s surviving. That’s an open secret. Junior knew my secrets: that I really loved _______ and that my friends were sometimes shitty, but sometimes, also: my lovers.
Vickie Vértiz was born and raised in Bell Gardens, a city in southeast Los Angeles County. Her writing is featured in the New York Times magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, Huizache, Nepantla, the Los Angeles Review of Books, KCET Departures, and the anthologies: Open the Door (from McSweeney’s and the Poetry Foundation), and The Coiled Serpent (from Tia Chucha Press), among many others. Vértiz’s first full collection of poetry, Palm Frond with Its Throat Cut, published in the Camino del Sol Series by The University of Arizona Press won a 2018 PEN America literary prize.
Eighteenth-century prison reformer John Howard was endowed not only with a considerable fortune but with an inquisitive eye and a compassionate heart. In 1777, following his tour of more than one hundred prisons in England and Wales, Howard published The State of the Prisons, which opens as follows:
There are prisons, into which whoever looks will, at first sight of the people confined there, be convinced, that there is some great error in the management of them; the sallow meagre countenances declare, without words, that they are very miserable; many who went in healthy, are in a few months changed into emaciated dejected objects. Some are seen pining under diseases, “sick and in prison;” expiring on the floors, in loathsome cells, of pestilential fevers, and the confluent small-pox; victims, I must say not to the cruelty, but I will say to the inattention, of sheriffs, and gentlemen in the commission of the peace…. The cause of this distress is, that many prisons are scantily supplied, and some almost totally unprovided with the necessaries of life.
The connection Howard made between incarceration and disease was fortified by his later adventures: after a brief stint as prison reform administrator, he returned to his travels, experiencing people’s fear of the plague and finding himself imprisoned at a lazaretto in Venice. Miasma and contagion are not only metaphors for the prison experience: they have been part and parcel of the reality of incarceration, to the point that the architecture of early American prisons was explicitly designed to prevent disease spread.
Recently, at a press conference held in front of the San Quentin gates, Dr. Peter Chin-Hong from the University of California, San Francisco, eerily echoed Howard’s conclusions. Facing the COVID-19 crisis that has ravaged California prisons, and remembering the years-long struggle with valley fever infections in the same prisons, he remarked that “prisons are incompatible with healthcare.”
At the time of writing this particular essay, more than half of the incarcerated population of San Quentin has been infected with COVID-19. There are 8,429 cases of the virus in California prisons—eight times the infection rate in the general state population—and only a little over half of the prison population has been tested. Fifty people have died, twenty-two of them at San Quentin and sixteen at the California Institute of Men in Chino. The crisis at San Quentin, brought about by a botched transfer of untested people from Chino, has provoked outrage from advocates, activists, health care and criminal justice professionals. After the San Quentin press conference, which featured lawmakers and elected officials as well as formerly incarcerated people and loved ones of people directly impacted by the contagion, Governor Newsom announced the upcoming release of up to 8,000 prisoners. Albeit a welcome initial step to alleviate virus-ravaged state prisons, I argue here that the strategy proposed by the Governor and CDCR will not suffice to stop the contagion and save lives.
My analysis places the Governor’s announcement in the context of California’s political culture and its historical struggle with overcrowded prisons and inadequate healthcare. Against a backdrop of decades of neglect, abuse, and iatrogenic disease and death, after pressure by federal courts the state released large numbers of prisoners starting in 2011. This was accomplished primarily via two statutory amendments: the Criminal Justice Realignment, which shifted the responsibility for nonviolent, nonserious, nonsexual offenders (the “non-non-nons”) to the counties; and Prop. 47, which reclassified some common felonies as misdemeanors. The good intentions behind these efforts, however, backfired in creating vague standards for overcrowding and in decentralizing the responsibility for people’s health by placing people in ill-prepared contexts. In addition, the focus on less-controversial categories of prisoners as reform targets, which made them more palatable to the public, ignored robust literature on the risk of reoffending. These well-intended reforms, against the backdrop of the horrors that preceded them and the political culture in which they were implemented, are at the root of today’s prison COVID-19 crisis; moreover, the reforms proposed now echo these flaws, and are therefore insufficient and ineffective to combat the pandemic threat, or offer any kind of comprehensive and compassionate reform.
In other words, not only is the COVID-19 crisis in prison a function of persistent structural, administrative, and persistent cultural-political conditions, but the proposed solution reflects and exploits these same weaknesses.
Context: California as a Populistic, Polarized State
In her book The Politics of Incarceration Vanessa Barker compares the political cultures of three states: California, Washington, and New York. Barker attributes the different degrees of punitiveness in these three states to their levels and styles of civic engagement and to their political makeup. California’s political culture, which Barker refers to as “polarized populism,” is characterized by great contrasts between right and left, and by an emotion-driven referendum system, which is used frequently by parties with private interests and the ability to fund expensive public campaigns. In contrast to Washington’s political culture, which features a town-hall style deliberate democracy, and to the elitist-pragmatic principles characterizing New York, California’s culture renders it vulnerable to arguments based on high emotional valence. In this environment, “redball crimes”—violent, heinous crimes, which are as rare as they are shocking—have a strong rhetorical pull, which is effectively utilized to introduce punitive voter initiatives, particularly by California’s powerful prison guard union and its connections with victims’ rights organizations. These characteristics prime our state conversations about criminal justice to revolve around, on one hand, a laissez-faire attitude and, on the other, a fear of crime (and so-called “criminals”), and particularly a reluctance to seriously consider nonpunitive reforms to sentencing and incarceration of people convicted of crime—especially “violent crime.”
These tendencies were exacerbated by California’s pioneering transition to a system of determinate sentencing in 1977, which removed the judges’ ability to sentence defendants by using a breadth of considerations and greatly limited the authority of parole boards to set prisoner release dates. Before this reform, California’s prisons, by contrast to Arizona and Texas’ “cheap justice” farm- and plantation-like institutions, were large bureaucratic creatures, driven by ideas of correction and rehabilitation fostered by employees from therapeutic professions who toiled in obscurity within the prison. The transition to a determinate sentencing model shifted the power from these professionals to elected officials: legislators, who responded to public emotions and demands by proposing punitive bills, and prosecutors, who had the power to choose charging offenses. Gradually, felony sentencing in California increased in length, largely due to the creation of sentencing enhancements and aggravating conditions, resulting in the largest prison population in the United States and in grossly overcrowded institutions.
Healthcare in California Prisons Before Brown v. Plata
The Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Plata (2011), which upheld a federal three-judge-panel order to alleviate prison overcrowding under the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996 (PLRA), was the culmination of a decades-long litigation effort on behalf of incarcerated people seeking relief from the abysmal prison healthcare system. This drastic measure was adopted after several less extreme reforms failed, including placing the entire prison healthcare system in the hands of a federal receiver. Despite eating up more than a fourth of the California correctional budget, the healthcare system was a reign of chaos and neglect. Every six days, a prisoner would die from a preventable (sometimes iatrogenic) condition. The case’s namesake was emblematic: Marciano Plata hurt himself in 1997 in the course of working in the prison kitchen and was unable to continue working in the prison kitchen. Unable to get adequate medical attention because of insufficient medical staffing, Plata’s condition worsened to the point that his knee required surgery, which took years to schedule.
Throughout the Plata litigation, California prisons were grossly overcrowded at near 200% of their design capacity. “Bad beds”—triple bunks and makeshift beds in hallways and gyms—were a common sight in the system. These conditions hindered the system’s ability to provide basic healthcare for several reasons. Correctional medical personnel were (and still are) difficult to hire and retain, because of California’s unattractive correctional geography: large institutions in remote, rural locations. Providing for necessities such as housing, clothing, and feeding on such a scale required considerable compromises in quality, making it difficult to introduce preventative health measures. This problem was compounded by California’s increasingly lengthy sentences: as a consequence of repeated “public safety” legislation adding sentencing enhancements, one fourth of the current prison population has a life sentence, producing an aging population in increasingly poor health, which requires more chronic and expensive healthcare. Under these circumstances, registration and pharmaceutical services became disorganized and dated. Even when people were finally taken to medical appointments, they would be required to wait for long hours in tiny holding cages without access to bathrooms. Taking prisoners to medical appointments often required lockdowns, which in turn created more delays and administrative hassles. And the prisoners’ medical complaints were regularly trivialized and disbelieved—not, usually, out of sadism, but out of fatigue and indifference in the face of so much need. Indeed, by 2006, the Federal Receiver overseeing the prison medical system and the Special Master overseeing the mental health system reported that overcrowding was impeding their ability to effectuate change, and Gov. Schwarzenegger proclaimed a state prison crowding emergency. The link between the severe overcrowding and the conditions of the prison medical system was an important step toward the resolution of Plata. The PLRA, under which incarcerated people and their advocates sought relief, places numerous hurdles on prison rights litigation in general, and on population reduction orders in particular; such orders may be entered only by a three-judge district court, after the panel ascertains that prior attempts to alleviate prison conditions have failed to bring prison conditions into compliance with constitutional requirements, that overcrowding is the primary cause of the violation, and that no other relief will remedy the conditions.
The Era of Plata: Recession-Era Reforms and Their Limitations
The late 2000s were years of transformation not only in California, but nationwide, due to a confluence of events. The advent of the 2008 financial crisis plunged state and local governments into a deep recession, which awakened interest in local budgets, of which correctional expenditures were a considerable share. The realization that incarceration on such a scale was financially unsustainable created the opportunity for bipartisan coalitions at the state and federal levels, dovetailing with the Obama Administration’s focus on criminal justice reform and racial justice. Part and parcel of these coalition-building efforts was the need to focus the proposed reforms on low-hanging fruit, in the form of politically palatable populations, such as nonviolent drug offenders, which received the bulk of reformist attention both from the right and the left.
Against this backdrop, the litigation in Plata hurtled forward, and the PLRA conditions for population reduction were finally met. In 2009, the three-judge panel found overcrowding to be the primary cause of the health care system’s dysfunction and acknowledged that prior attempts to improve the situation had failed. Consequently, the panel ordered a reduction of California’s prison population to 137.5% of system-wide design capacity—admittedly, a drastic population cut that the state would continue to fight tooth and nail all the way to the Supreme Court—but shied away from specifying how the population reduction was to be done. Theoretically, the state could have built more prisons to alleviate overcrowding, but recession-era cuts impeded this course of action; another possibility, relying on private contractors, was blocked by conflicting political interests. In 2011, as Plata made its way to the Supreme Court, Gov. Brown continued the path charted by his predecessor, Gov. Schwarzenegger, and signed extensive legislation that many considered “the greatest experiment” in American corrections. Under the Criminal Justice Realignment, people convicted of “non-non-non” offenses—nonviolent, nonsexual, nonserious—would serve their sentence in county jails, rather than in state prisons. This would internalize the costs of incarceration and eliminate the problem that several scholars have referred to as the “correctional free lunch”: prosecutors asking for, and judges meting out, lengthy prison sentences in county courts, oblivious to the “price tag”—the costs of incarceration, which would be borne by state agencies. Judges were given more discretion regarding sentencing, to alleviate incarceration and, in most cases, the state system’s parole supervision functions were transferred to community probation offices, which would now handle both probation (a sanction, typically viewed as an alternative to incarceration) and parole (post-incarceration supervision).
From State to Counties
The implementation of Realignment meant that tens of thousands of people, who were under the auspices (and financial responsibility) of the state, would now be housed, clothed, and fed at the county level. Many scholars and policymakers who welcomed this jurisdictional shift thought that counties would be better positioned to connect people with rehabilitation and reentry services because of their stronger ties to the home communities of incarcerated people, and that healthcare at the state level was so dire that the counties would surely do better.
But the assumption that jails would be an improvement neglected to consider several factors. The first of these, which law professor Margo Schlanger referred to as the “hydra problem,” was concern about the impact that a decentralized health care system would create, making it more difficult to monitor and implement improvement: i.e., rather than following the health care instructions and practices in one jurisdiction (the state), prison rights advocates would now have to obtain information about conditions and mismanagement in each of the counties as well, and possibly begin new, separate litigation efforts against each county. In addition, there were the inherent limitations of county facilities. Jails, originally built to house people only for short terms (pretrial or for less than a year), were ill-equipped to deal with a population in need of both acute and chronic healthcare. The extent to which counties proved equal to the task varied greatly: while some counties made efforts to prevent incarceration well ahead of the anticipated legislation and court decisions, others, in panic, started building jails or changing revenue structures to roll expenses onto the inmates themselves. Such structure include “pay to stay” jails, in which people pay for their own incarceration (as if they were staying in a hotel) through liens on their post-incarceration earnings, or more opaque practices: monetizing and charging for haircuts, food, and some healthcare services. The gaps in implementation were also reflected in divergent reliance on incarceration among judges in different counties. These divergent patterns were unfortunately exacerbated by the formula for funding the newly burdened county systems, which was initially based on the counties’ respective incarceration rates; this funding mechanism rewarded counties that relied more on incarceration and penalized those who developed alternatives to it, disincentivizing courts, sheriff’s departments, and probation services from investing more in non-carceral options.
Bifurcation and the Violent/Nonviolent Dichotomy
Related to the “hydra problem” was the fact that the new sentencing and jurisdictional rules applied only to the “non-non-nons,” which were considered an easier “sell” from a public appeal perspective. Realignment was not unique in that respect. Generally speaking, recession-era reforms were characterized by a bifurcation element: they applied to nonviolent offenders and retrenched negative public opinion about so-called violent offenders.
This distinction was based on several empirically unfounded myths, the first of which was that the American correctional predicament was due mostly to the incarceration of non-level offenders. In fact, drug offenders—the recipients of bipartisan sympathies, and justifiably so given the racial disparities in drug enforcement—have constantly been no more than a fourth of the state prison population nationwide, whereas people convicted of “violent” offenses constituted a majority of those in state prisons. In California, especially after the legislative changes in 2011 and 2014, three quarters of the prison population are people convicted of “violent” crimes. A related myth was the perception that violent offenders posed a greater risk to public safety—which, when empirically tested, proved to be untrue. In California, specifically, the focus on the crime of conviction led the legal system to ignore a fourth of the prison population—the people serving the state’s three most extreme sentence: incarceration on death row, life without parole, and life with parole. Because of the rarity of executions in California and the rarity of release on parole, these three punishments merged into an “extreme punishment trifecta,” consisting of decades behind bars. Greatly overlapping with this category were prisoners aged fifty and above who, as a consequence of serving extremely lengthy sentences, had not only aged out of crime, but also incurred disabilities and chronic health conditions. Well-meaning reforms, therefore, calcified public opinion against the people who were wrongly perceived, because of their crime of commitment, to pose risks to public safety while, at the same time, facing increased risks to their own health because of their age and the prison conditions they have endured during their lengthy sentences. California’s aforementioned political culture tends to emotional arguments building on heinous (albeit very rare) violent crimes, and public opinion has been remarkably resistant to the idea of distinguishing between, and extending compassion to, people convicted of violent crimes.
System-Wide Population Reduction
Another well-meaning aspect of the Plata reforms was that the court order required a population reduction in the system as a whole, rather than per individual institution. Part of the vagueness of the order was due to the already-extreme measure of relying on the PLRA to require an enormous state-wide effort. However, the choice of litigation strategy also mattered. By contrast to European and international standards, which measure humane incarceration standards based on a minimal square area per prisoner, the order in California did not go so far as to ensure that each inmate would have adequate space—only that the average inmate in the entire system would. For years after the Plata decision, there was considerable variety in the occupation rates of state prisons, with some prisons still at pre-Plata capacity while others were at capacity or even slightly below. The impact of the decision, therefore, was not inclusive of all inmates.
Crisis and Mismanagement
Against the backdrop of these vulnerabilities—fragmented correctional institutions, rising to divergent standards and accountable to different local governments, a legacy of challenges providing minimal healthcare, uneven occupancy rates, and the perception that public opinion is dead-set against the releases of violent prisoners—came the triggers: the pandemic and a few crucial mismanagement steps by CDCR and by county jails. Some of these problems are evident from CDCR’s own tracking tool, but some we know about only from journalistic exposés—especially the ones pertaining to local jails. As of July 13, CDCR has tested 43.4% of its prison population, but testing rates have widely ranged between institutions. In the first two weeks of July, 55% of the California Correctional Center population was tested, but only 2% of the Kern Valley State Prison were tested, and percentages of tests ranges from 97% at Amador to 11.4% at Chuckawalla. More than half of San Quentin’s population tested positive, with nine deaths since mid-July, most of them being individuals on death row. Bizarrely, if death row isolation, where people are housed in single-occupancy cells, is not sufficient protection from contagion, it is unclear where and how the prison can prevent contagion through social distancing.
The contagion on death row raises unique issues. In 2019, after decades in which the state had sentenced people to death only to see them languish for decades on death row, waiting for legal representation to enable them postconviction litigation, Gov. Newsom placed a moratorium on the death penalty. During these decades—and even now, because the death penalty is still on the books—the state has spent billions of dollars “tinkering with the machinery of death” by litigating minute technicalities of executions, such as the type and number of drugs to be injected. Extensive appellate proceedings have gotten into the minutiae of convicts’ physical and mental health, to ensure that they are healthy enough to be killed by the state. This endless technical litigation seems particularly absurd as hundreds of inmates may face a death sentence via COVID-19. Even those who might secretly harbor the thought that such a sentence on death row might be appropriate would be surprised to know that capital trials are notoriously arbitrary and inefficient, and do not effectively single out “the worst of the worst” for capital punishment. Even to the extent that it is possible to qualitatively differentiate between more or less heinous homicides (our Penal Code does so through lists of aggravating circumstances), who ends up on death row is not necessarily a function of the heinousness of the crime, but rather of the quality of the theatrical spectacle for the jury. The recent jury decision to sentence Joseph DeAngelo, the notorious “Golden State Killer,” to life without parole reflects the pragmatic realization that, with the death chamber dismantled, any meaning attached to a symbolic death sentence, as well as the costly expenditure of time and finances that will flow from postconviction litigation, is unnecessary.
An additional trigger is the mismanagement of transfers between institutions during the pandemic. Reportedly, the outbreak at San Quentin is a function of a botched transfer of prisoners from the California Institute of Men in Chino, the site of a serious (and now almost abated) contagion. The prisoners were not tested before being transferred. This scenario then replicated itself: prisoners from San Quentin, in turn, were transferred to the California Correctional Center (CCC) in Susanville and not tested or quarantined upon arrival, resulting in hundreds of cases, with the infection unabated as of mid-July. While another prison in Susanville, High Desert State Prison, has only seen four cases as of mid-July, testing rates there are remarkably low and it is overcrowded at 154% of its capacity, raising concerns about the possibility of preventing much worse outcomes through social distancing.
Beyond the concerns for people behind bars are the concerns for the effect of prison contagion on the surrounding communities. CDCR confirms 1,243 cases among its staff, 205 of which are at San Quentin. Comparing CDCR data about infections within the prison with the Los Angeles Times statistics for the neighboring counties shows a temporal link between the outbreak at San Quentin and the soaring number of cases in the surrounding community. Similarly, the spike in cases in Lassen County occurred after the outbreak at CCC. In both cases, without contact tracing, it is impossible to provide an airtight causal story; the temporal link, however, raises serious concerns that attempting to incubate the virus in prisons puts the entire community at risk.
The interplay between the prison and the community seems to have finally driven home the point that prisoners reside in the county in which the prison is located for the duration of their incarceration, whether or not they are (or should) being “counted” as such for purposes such as the US Census. Realizing that Lassen County people’s health depends, in part, on health outcomes inside Lassen County’s prisons, Brian and Megan Dahle, respectively a Senator and an Assembly Member for Lassen County’s First District wrote a letter to CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz asking him “to provide answers on questionable protocols that have led to a surge of inmate #COVID19 cases in Lassen County.” Reportedly, despite arguments about jurisdiction, the prison and county are finally working together to test the prison population. This collaboration is less likely to play out in Marin County, where the identity and livelihood of the community is less tied to its local prison than at Susanville, “Prison Town, U.S.A.”
The concerns about prison outbreaks, at this point, go beyond the extreme outbreaks at San Quentin, Avenal, CIM, and CCI. A careful look at the CDCR contagion data reveals several locations at which the status of contagion is still unclear given the lack of testing and the paucity of information about transfers—what Donald Rumsfeld referred to, in a different context, as the “known unknowns.” In some prisons, the outbreak seems to have reached its peak and abated; in others, it continues unabated. In some prisons, there have been new outbreaks after previous waves had seemingly abated. Some prisons have only a handful of cases; because these prisons, for the most part, have tested only a small percentage of their population, it is impossible to know whether contagion has been contained or the few cases are the beginning of a serious outbreak. And while several prisons have had no cases at all, it remains to be seen whether administrative blunders in the form of population transfers or insufficient staff protocols will introduce the virus into these institutions and their environs.
Finally, there is the matter of another “known unknown”: the situation in California’s county jails. As outbreaks were reported in several jails, notably at Alameda, San Bernardino, Riverside, Fresno, and Tulare counties, the respective Sheriff’s Departments did not provide statistics on infections and hospitalizations on their webpages. Indeed, UCLA’s new data collection project on COVID-19 in correctional institutions led by Sharon Dolovich impressively covers state and federal prisons, but only a handful of jails, because information has been so scant. The five-month delay in obtaining reliable statistics on county jail infections statewide is an important social fact, which undergirds Schlanger’s “hydra problem”: by contrast to CDCR, which provides an informative tracking tool, the fifty-nine counties have had different approaches as to reportage, and even those who report statistics do not do so in a uniform manner. Only as late as five months into the crisis, the Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) finally required county sheriffs to provide contagion statistics on jails. The resulting database offers partial information, with no historical or cumulative data. The gaps between official COVID-19 policies as listed on county sheriffs’ websites and the realities on the ground became a matter of public record when the Orange County Sheriff was sued for providing inadequate precautions. After the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the Sheriff to enforce social distancing and provide the inmates with soap, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, stayed the injunction, thus temporarily relieving the Sheriff from these obligations. The decision was surprising, to say the least, because stays are not usually granted when the Supreme Court is unlikely to grant certiorari and reverse the decision on the merits; it was particularly surprising because there was ample proof of substantial harm to the jail population. In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor wrote:
Although the Jail had been warned that “social distancing is the cornerstone of reducing transmission of COVID–19,” inmates described being transported back and forth to the jail in crammed buses, socializing in dayrooms with no space to distance physically, lining up next to each other to wait for the phone, sleeping in bunk beds two to three feet apart, and even being ordered to stand closer than six feet apart when inmates tried to socially distance. Moreover, although the Jail told its inmates that they could “best protect” themselves by washing their hands with “soap and water throughout the day,” numerous inmates reported receiving just one small, hotel-sized bar of soap per week. And after symptomatic inmates were removed from their units, other inmates were ordered to dispose of their belongings without gloves or other protective equipment. Finally, despite the Jail’s stated policy to test and isolate individuals who reported or exhibited symptoms consistent with COVID-19, multiple symptomatic detainees described being denied tests, and others recounted sharing common spaces with infected or symptomatic inmates.
Beyond the distressing fact that the county preferred to spend its resources petitioning the Supreme Court for a stay, rather than providing its jail population with adequate amounts of soap, the case raises concerns about the situation in other jails. While it is impossible to make definitive extrapolations from the Orange County example, the divergence between the jail’s “health and safety” protocols per its website and the practices on the ground as reported by the jail populations suggest that the official policies are no assurance that people serving short sentences—and people who are in pretrial detention, and thus presumed innocent—are receiving adequate protections from infection.
The Proposed Solution: Case-by-Case Releases of Non-Non-Nons?
On July 10, a day after activists and elected officials held a press conference before the San Quentin gate, Gov. Newsom announced impending releases of 8,000 people. In the heels of his announcement, CDCR issued a press release detailing the plan. The plan closely resembles the strategies adopted in 2011 and 2014 to trim the prison population: it focuses on the relatively less controversial moves of hastening the release dates of people sentenced for nonviolent crimes who are nearing the end of their sentences. More particularly, the plan consists of the following steps:
Release 4,800 people with 180 days left on their sentences, who are not serving time for violence or domestic violence, nor are to register as sex offenders.
Release an undetermined number of people with a year left on their sentence for a nonviolent, nonsex crime, who are incarcerated at an outbreak epicenter: San Quentin State Prison (SQ), Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF), California Health Care Facility (CHCF), California Institution for Men (CIM), California Institution for Women (CIW), California Medical Facility (CMF), Folsom State Prison (FOL) and Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility (RJD). Those aged 30 and over are immediately eligible; younger people will be reviewed case-by-case by CDCR.
A 12-week programming credit (hastening the date of release) to all those not on death row or serving life without parole who don’t have a serious violation on their record since March 1. “Serious rules violations” while in prison range from murder to possession of a cellphone. This category of those who have no serious violations since March 1 encompasses 108,000 people, out of which 2,100 would advance to the point of being eligible for release between July and September.
Case-by-case assessment for release of people aged over 65 with a chronic medical condition or with respiratory illnesses, who have been assessed as low risk for violence and who are not on death row, serving life without parole, or high-risk sex offenders.
Individual assessment for release of people in hospice or pregnant, as well as expediting release for people who have been granted parole (including the governor’s approval.)
The plan, regardless of its particulars, is an important first step. For the individuals who will be released, the plan could spell relief from illness and death; the gradual release schedule, albeit not ideal from a pandemic prevention perspective, offers a silver lining that might allow some people to better plan their future on the outside, especially against the backdrop of a terrible economy. Nonetheless, it is woefully insufficient to stop the virus in its tracks, for four reasons: it is too modest, too late, too reactive, and too restrictive.
First, the overall number is far too modest. 8,000 releases—a mere 6% of the current prison population of approximately 125,000—would not allow prison healthcare officials to institute appropriate social distancing measures. In some institutions, the need to release massive numbers of people is even more pressing. In mid-June, a team of physicians specializing in prison healthcare published a report about a site visit to San Quentin, in which they recommended that, due to San Quentin’s age and decrepitude, the population there specifically be reduced to 50% of current capacity. Many of the problems are not endemic to San Quentin: according to the July 8 population count, 26 facilities—24 for men, 2 for women—are overcrowded beyond design capacity. Nine facilities are overcrowded above the 137.5% Plata standard (had the standard been applied to individual prisons, rather than systemwide), and ten more are overcrowded above 120% of their design capacity. Under these conditions, releasing a total of 8,000 people will not even nearly allow the kind of social distancing necessary to halt pandemic spread.
Second, the plan relies heavily on individualized, case-by-case evaluations. The time to take such careful measures has long passed; for months, criminal justice scholars issued warnings of prison contagion, to no avail. Given the spread of the epidemic, CDCR must resort to triage measures, which approach people in broader categories of age and risk.
Third, the plan is reactive to the point of being already dated at its publication. The list of prisons that CDCR prioritizes for releases, published on June 10, already overlooked new outbreaks at several prisons. Moreover, the plan excluded places in which the pandemic had seemingly abated, even though testing levels were partial and unsatisfactory, and did not provide a true sense of pandemic activity. The prisons listed in the press release already are already ravaged by a robust outbreak, and releasing vigorously from those particular locations, while helpful in terms of treating people, would not help with prevention.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the plan’s restrictions on categories for release echoes previous efforts to curb unfounded public backlash at the expense of actual facts and public health. The release plan targets, yet again, a version of the “non-non-nons”: nonserious, nonviolent, nonsexual offenders. Before and after the 2011 and 2014 releases, prison scholars in California and elsewhere conducted robust research on risk assessment and have concluded time and again that there is no correlation between the crime of commitment and the risk to public safety.
The choice to focus, yet again, on “non-non-nons” is particularly worrisome in the current crisis because it stubbornly evades addressing the most obvious category of people for release: people who have been serving lengthy sentences for violent crimes committed decades ago. As robust literature on life-course criminology shows, people age out of violent street crime by their mid- to late-twenties, and by the time they are fifty years old, pose virtually no public safety risk; indeed, parole officers repeatedly express a preference for working with former lifers because they are such a low-risk population. This category, which constitutes a quarter of the prison population, is an ideal target for release: they do not pose significant risk to public safety and, at the same time, they face enhanced risk to their own health and, by extension—if the virus is incubated in the prisons—to the health of others if they remain incarcerated.
It is hard to contemplate the grim picture in California’s prisons and not feel frustration with the lack of progress since John Howard indicted prisons of being incubators of disease in 1777. Whether the COVID-19 crisis in California prisons can be attributed to “cruelty” or “inattention,” a question that did not matter to the horrified Howard, is one that might matter in litigation, but at this point it suffices to say that much of it was preventable and foreseeable. The well-meaning champions of Plata can hardly be blamed for seeking a remedy that seemed, at the time, to address a systemic ill; but against the backdrop of prison conditions and of the limitations of the Plata remedy, state authorities should have acted as early as March to release people from prison and alleviate overcrowding, particularly in antiquated, decrepit facilities. The late and tepid reaction in July reverts to our state’s characteristic approach to crime and punishment. California’s populistic, polarized political culture has led elected officials, time after time, to seek solutions that raise as little controversy as possible—and time after time, such solutions have proven inefficient. This time, too, officials might be hoping that, by cobbling together palatable candidates for release, the numbers will somehow add up to sufficient prevention. Unfortunately, they won’t.
The Governor must make use of the many “levers” that open prison doors at his disposal. In a universe of moratorium, it is not beyond imagination to commute all death sentences, and all life without parole sentences, to life with parole, and speed early release policies, commutations, parole hearings, and resentencing. It is imperative to let go of concerns about the optics of releasing people who, decades ago, were sentenced for violent crime, and to follow risk assessments that prioritize aging and failing health.
It is equally essential to make a concerted effort to dramatically ramp up testing, so as to test as close to 100% of the prison population as possible. The muddled picture of infection needs to clear up considerably before the points of contact between prisons and the community can accurately be pinpointed and further transfer fiascos avoided. For a voluntary testing program to be effective, it is crucial to communicate that no retaliatory or negative consequences will stem from testing positive—and that includes refraining from the use of death row and solitary confinement cells, which carry terrifying connotations, for the purpose of medical isolation.
Prison authorities must also exercise extreme caution when transferring people between facilities. No transfers must be made to institutions that have no active cases. Similarly, messaging and instructions to staff must take into account their crucial role in prevention.
Finally, county jails are a hidden but important dimension of the COVID-19 challenge. Counties must liaise with CDCR and install matching tracking tools for each county jail.
Where the blame lies, and whether it is cruelty or inattention, matters less than the pressing need to overcome this crisis; mostly, it is paramount to understand that prisons are not separate from the communities in which they are located. Prisons are part of the community, and prisoners are members of the community, and prevention strategies must see them as such.
 John Howard, The State of the Prisons in England and Wales, with an Account of Some Foreign Prisons (1977), cited in Andrew Barrett and Chris Harrison, eds., Crime and Punishment in England: A Sourcebook (London: UCL Press, 1999), 173.
 Public Safety Realignment Act (AB 109) (2011).
 California Proposition 47, the Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative (approved Nov. 2014).
 Vanessa Barker, The Politics of Imprisonment How the Democratic Process Shapes the Way America Punishes Offenders (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
 California’s culture can also be seen as somewhat overlapping the punitive politics of what Mona Lynch refers to as the “sunbelt: Mona Lynch, Sunbelt Justice: Arizona and the Transformation of American Punishment, Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2009. It alsoshares some characteristics with Florida’s culture: Heather Schoenfeld, Building the Prison State: Race and the Politics of Mass Incarceration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018).
 Hadar Aviram, Yesterday’s Monsters: The Manson Family Cases and the Illusion of Parole (Oakland: University of California Press, 2020).
 Joshua Page, The Toughest Beat: Politics, Punishment, and the Prison Officers Union in California (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
 Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010). For a critique of Alexander’s excessive focus on drug crimes, see James Forman, “Racial Critiques of Mass Incarceration: Beyond the New Jim Crow,” New York University Law Review 87/101-150 (2012).
 Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins, The Scale of Imprisonment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 211; W. David Ball, “Defunding State Prisons,” Criminal Law Bulletin 50 (2014): 1060-1089.
 Margo Schlanger, “Plata v. Brown and Realignment: Jails, Prisons, Courts, and Politics,” Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review 481 (2013): 165-215.
 David Ball, “Tough on Crime (on the State’s Dime): How Violent Crime Does Not Drive California Counties’ Incarceration Rates—And Why it Should,” Georgia State L. Rev. 28 (2012): 987-1084.
 John Pfaff, Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform (New York: Basic Books, 2017). The only setting in which this is not true is the federal prison population, which is approximately one tenth of the national prison population.
 Holly Cartner, Prison Conditions in Romania, Human Rights Watch (1992), 8. Eric Goldstein, Prison Conditions in Israel and in the Occupied Territories, Human Rights Watch (1991), 29.
 Cassidy and Fagone, “Coronavirus Tears Through San Quentin’s Death Row.”
 Hadar Aviram and Ryan S. Newby, “Death Row Economics: The Rise of Fiscally Prudent Anti-Death-Penalty Activism,” Criminal Justice 28 (2013): 33-41.
 Sarah Beth Kaufman, American Roulette: The Social Logic of Death Penalty Sentencing Trials (Oakland: University of California Press, 2020); Paul Kaplan, Murder Stories: Ideological Narratives in Capital Punishment (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books), 2012.
 For a summary of this body of literature see Susan Turner, “Moving California Corrections from an Offense- to Risk-Based System.”
 Robert Sampson and John Laub, “Life-Course Desisters? Trajectories of Crime Among Delinquent Boys Followed to Age 70,” Criminology 41 (2003): 555-592.
Caitlin V. M. Cornelius, Christopher J. Lynch, and Ross Gore, “Aging Out of Crime: Exploring the Relationship between Age and Crime with Agent-Based Modeling,” Society for Modeling and Simulation International, 2017.
 Heather Harris, et al., “California’s Prison Population.”
 See the physicians’ caveat about this regrettable practice in McCoy et al., “Urgent Memo – COVID-19 Outbreak: San Quentin Prison.”
Hadar Aviram is Professor of Law at UC Hastings and a frequent media commentator on politics, criminal justice policy, and civil rights. She is author of Cheap on Crime: Recession-Era Politics and the Transformation of American Punishment (UC Press, 2015) and Yesterday’s Monsters: The Manson Family Cases and the Illusion of Parole (UC Press, 2020) and her blog, California Correctional Crisis, covers criminal justice policy in California. She served as President of the Western Society of Criminology and on the Board of Trustees of the Law and Society Association, and is currently the Book Review Editor of the Law & Society Review.