Postcards Series

Who I Used To Be

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Original art by Fernando Mendez Corona

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.


Toni Mirosevich

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.”

“Oh yeah?”

“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.

Copyright: © 2019 Toni Mirosevich. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Postcard Series:

  1. Jenise Miller, “We are our own Multitude: Los Angeles’ Black Panamanian Community”

 

Postcards Series

We are our own Multitude: Los Angeles’ Black Panamanian Community

Ilustracion 1 RGB

Courtesy of Fernando Mendez Corona

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.


Jenise Miller

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.

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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.

Outside Shop hanging victor in hat and others

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.[1] 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).[2] 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.

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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.[3] 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[4] 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. [5]

Outside Shop today 2

The entire building has experienced a transformation, with new tenants replacing old ones

While many families moved out of L.A. County, some families,[6] 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.

Notes

[1] Linda Burum, “Getting Down Home JAMAICAN,” Los Angeles Times. Sep. 10, 1989. Accessed at  https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1989-09-10-ca-2664-story.html

[2] Ibid.

[3] Steve Lopez, As L.A. riots raged, she was shot before she was even born. Now 25, she embodies survival and resolve” Los Angeles Times, Apr. 29, 2017. Accessed at https://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-lopez-king-evers-0430-story.html.

[4] “Natraliart, A Meaty Jamaican Spot in Arlington Heights,” Eater Los Angeles, Jul. 11, 2014. Accessed at  https://la.eater.com/2014/7/11/6188189/natraliart-a-meaty-jamaican-spot-in-arlington-heights.

[5] Lynell George, No Crystal Stair: African-Americans in the City of Angels (San Francisco: Verso, 1992) pp. 239-40.

[6] Steve Lopez, As L.A. riots raged, she was shot before she was even born. Now 25, she embodies survival and resolve” Los Angeles Times, Apr. 29, 2017. Accessed at https://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-lopez-king-evers-0430-story.html.

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.

Copyright: © 2019 Jenise Miller. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Excerpts

Oil Beach: How Toxic Infrastructure Threatens Life in the Ports of Los Angeles and Beyond

By: Christina Dunbar-Hester

Oil Beach: How Toxic Infrastructure Threatens Life in the Ports of Los Angeles and Beyond by Christina Dunbar-Hester, published by The University of Chicago Press. © 2023 by Christina Dunbar-Hester. All rights reserved.

Coastal Translocations: Watery Life in Captivity

The Aquarium of the Pacific was founded in the 1990s during a period of questions about what to do with Long Beach’s harbor area. Much of the coast in San Pedro Bay is devoted to industrial use, and the entire shoreline is manipulated. On the far side of the port complex, near the border with Orange County, is a recreational beach. But the waterfront area right between the beach and the port, nearest to downtown Long Beach, had been subject to “ups, downs, and an identity crisis,” in the words of a New York Times reporter writing in 2000.35 In the very early twentieth century, the waterfront hosted the Pike, a Coney-Island-esque bathing area, boardwalk, and amusement park featuring rides and games, concessions, an elaborate hand-carved carousel, and, in a later era, tattoo shops (the buildup to World War II brought the navy to the harbor, and sailors brought demand for tattoos).36 

In 1979, the Pike was formally shuttered, though it was well off its heyday before then. The area retained some tourist attractions, notably the docked RMS Queen Mary ocean liner, Howard Hughes’s massive wooden plane, the Spruce Goose (encased in a custom-built geodesic dome), and an annual Grand Prix motor race, begun in 1975.37 But the area was underutilized by urban development standards, and the city considered how to update it. The Disney Corporation managed both the Spruce Goose and the Queen Mary starting in 1988.38 Around then, Disney expressed interest in siting a massive ocean-related theme park in the Long Beach harbor, to be called DisneySea; the entire complex was to include a research center and resort, and to be collectively called Port Disney.39 Fantastical artistic renderings of the complex resembled the contemporary Biosphere 2 artificial environment, with a glistening science-fiction sheen evocative of the space age. But these plans were short-lived; the park was never built.40 The harbor nonetheless contained glimpses of futuristic fancy: a 1967 artist’s rendering of an oil island at night rivals the Disney imaginary; and the Queen Mary and dome, although divested by Disney in the 1990s, still remain today. 

Fantastical harbor flourishes aside, the 1990s hit Long Beach hard economically. The navy consolidated its Southern California presence in San Diego, closing a naval station and hospital as well as shuttering a shipyard in the Long Beach harbor. In turn, aviation manufacturing plants reliant on military contracts also closed. It was in this context that the city looked to cultivate tourist attractions, with or without Disney’s involvement. (Simultaneously, the region pursued port development as an economic strategy.) It secured municipal financing to build an aquarium—albeit a more modest, far less spectacular one than the facility Disney had planned—and develop the harbor with a shopping center and refurbished convention center.41 The aquarium was paid for through government funding and philanthropic contributions, although indirectly the municipal funds were tied to the city’s oil revenues.42 The city owns the aquarium, which is managed and operated by a nonprofit organization.43 

Public institutions for the display of animals emerged in larger Euro-American cities in the nineteenth century, often with funding from scientific societies.44  Projects of taxonomy and empire, displaying unfamiliar animals from other locales, zoos and aquariums both satisfied and stoked public interest in animal life. Some early American zoos also bore the influence of the urban parks movement, emphasizing conservation of native species. Zoos often resembled amusement parks, offering children rides on ponies and Galápagos tortoises, transporting visitors around the parks on buses and trains, and dramatically exhibiting trained seals and chimpanzees to enthralled audiences, according to historian Pamela Henson. Not unlike circus sideshows, they emphasized the novelty and exoticism of their offerings, and they competed with other zoos, even to the point of keeping animal care regimens secret.45 By the middle of the twentieth century, conservation emerged as a more consistent concern, and zoos were coming under fire for animal exploitation and poor conditions.46 By the late twentieth century, zoos had brought conservation fully into their remit, including cooperating to serve as genetic reservoirs for endangered species, sharing information and resources, and addressing conservation in exhibits and mission statements.47 

The RMS Queen Mary ocean liner with Spruce Goose dome. Long Beach, 2011. Photo by David Jones, CC- BY 2.0 license.

Both the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Aquarium of the Pacific’s work with otters is in line with these trends. Zoos and aquariums conduct conservation work both in situ and ex situ, in field sites.48 But aquariums, unlike zoos, often work closely with local wildlife officials too.49 The aquariums’ otter work involves housing a native (sub)species whose numbers have dwindled in the wild with the goals of educating the public and expanding the population, within the parameters of their own institutional mandates and constraints.50 

As noted above, MBA has had ambitious otter conservation programs central to its mission since its inception. The Aquarium of the Pacific has also hosted otters since its earliest days. When it was founded in 1998, otters were not local to the immediate Southern California coastal area near Long Beach, due to the otter-free zone, though of course they were ecologically native to the area. The Aquarium of the Pacific immediately worked closely with MBA to host otters, offering housing and care for otters that could not live in the wild; this allowed the two institutions working together to care for more animals than MBA could alone. The Aquarium of the Pacific declared its first full summer in operation, 1999, to be “Sea Otter Summer,” with a full public relations blitz. Its charismatic otters were Monterey Bay transplants, young animals who were not suitable candidates for release into the wild and instead resided in the Aquarium of the Pacific’s Northern Pacific habitat (here Northern Pacific means essentially California and north, that is, the cooler water zone north of the warm-cold mixing in the ecotone that is the Southern California Bight). At least two of the otters were orphaned during El Niño storms in 1997 (rough water and wind can cause pups to get separated from mothers, and storms are a common cause of pup stranding).51 Given the timing, these young animals would not have been candidates for surrogacy, which did not begin until 2001. 

One of the Aquarium of the Pacific’s otters, a young female aptly named Summer, featured in a heartbreaking and frankly bizarre Los Angeles Times article that accompanied the exhibition: 

A little girl named Summer arrived in Long Beach last month with what sounds like a Hollywood crisis: a lousy fur coat, a weight problem and a dependency issue. Summer, an 11-month-old sea otter at the Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific, also would be distressed to know she’s missing her spot in the limelight. This Saturday the aquarium will launch Sea Otter Summer, but the budding diva will be in rehab.52 

Distressing anthropomorphism and peculiar pathologizing aside, the article paints a vivid picture of the struggles stranded otters and their human caregivers can face. When rescued by MBA, Summer’s caregivers hoped to rehabilitate her for release into the wild, but over time, she failed to thrive: her coat did not come in with sufficient thickness to keep her afloat and warm, which was evident when human handlers took her on daily ocean swims as part of rehabilitation efforts. (Otters’ coats are dense, and pups’ fur actually helps them float because of how it traps air, which saves their bodies energy. The drive to commodify this lustrous fur is what led otters to be hunted to near extinction.53) Summer did not gain sufficient weight, probably because of being chilled. And her “addiction” to suckling towels was an unfortunate effect of her separation from her mother when she was only one week old.54 

Chloe the otter standing up, reaching toward her handler. Aquarium of the Pacific Virtual Otter Encounter, 2020. Screenshot by the author.

Aquarium curators laid out a comprehensive plan of care for Summer. Her towel suckling appeared to be a core cause of her failure to thrive. Without otters to care for pups, human handlers gave otter pups towels to suckle, cuddle, and groom themselves with, “a replacement for their moms.” Handlers suspected the enthusiasm with which Summer took to snuggling and suckling towels was actually damaging her fur; according to laboratory analysis of her pelt, the fibers were twisted and damaged. So in addition to continuing to trying to get her weight up through attentive feeding, caregivers weaned the pup off towels: she went from one per hour to two per day, with the goal of being able to comfortably give them up entirely. Her handler said: “The rewards of the job are similar to those of parenting[.] I enjoy the satisfaction of seeing the otters hit certain milestones. I also think it’s a responsible act. Summer couldn’t survive in the ocean, but she’s healthy. Why not give her a good life, while educating the public and us about how otters live so we can use the knowledge to help the environment?”55 

Summer lived another eleven years at the Aquarium of the Pacific, though she never fully recovered from the health issues she experienced as a pup. Aquarium staff tried to diagnose and cure Summer, unsuccessfully; veterinary dermapathologists suspected her fur and thermoregulation issues perhaps ultimately derived from an immune-mediated condition, similar to an autoimmune disease in humans.56 The causes of autoimmune disease are complex, but exposures to toxins are strong possibilities; effects of chemical violence are not necessarily immediate, even leading to epigenetic harms.57 In spite of Summer’s health problems, aquarium officials stated that she had led a “relatively healthy and apparently happy” life with her exhibit-mates at the Aquarium of the Pacific, until reaching a more advanced age when her health declined again, leading to compromised organ function. They determined that euthanasia was the most humane course, but Summer died on her own hours before the planned procedure, in September 2010.58 Twelve years is a somewhat shorter lifespan than might be expected for a female otter in captivity, though not dramatically so. Her loss was mourned by aquarium staff and caregivers, many of whom had known her since her arrival. 

Around the time of Summer’s death in 2010, the Aquarium of the Pacific opened a new animal care facility. The 14,000-square-foot facility was unusual in one main regard: it included a large room for veterinary exams open to the public (through a pane of glass). On most days, aquarium staff perform veterinary exams and medical procedures on aquarium animals, in public view, with either a staff interpreter out in front of the window or one inside who explains what staff are doing over a public address system for viewers outside. Simulations of veterinary procedures are on display even when the aquarium is closed. 

One day in September 2019, two otter dental procedures were listed on a whiteboard: a root canal for Betty, age seven, and a tooth extraction for Maggie, age seventeen.59 A curator said that there is treatment activity on public view at least a couple of days per week, and that the facility conducts nearly every procedure in public view (exceptions might be if no interpretive staff were available to narrate, or in case of a high-stakes procedure where the patient might be in danger of “crashing,” in which case blinds would be drawn). An adult sea otter would get at least one exam per year, including blood draws, x-rays, and an ultrasound, all during regular business hours in full public view.60 The aquarium holds around 11,000 animals (fish, reptiles, mammals, birds), so there is a lot of opportunity for routine exams that can double as public programming.61 While the Aquarium of the Pacific’s public viewing facility was novel at the time it was introduced, more and more facilities like it are being built; it is a trend that promotes public understanding of and transparency about the institution’s activities.62 (Though the curator did not spell this out, it also helps communicate to the public the expense associated with so much care for so many animals.) At the same time, the procedures with the aquarium’s actual living animals, and especially the use of plush children’s toys to stand in for wildlife, arguably domesticate these creatures, blurring boundaries. These spectacles also normalize “nature” in human care, or even on life support. Though managers act in pursuit of “autonomy” for wild animals, this state is “deferred and impossible to achieve,” requiring dependence (especially in the case of highly managed creatures at the edge of extinction).63 This has potential implications for how the aquarium’s audience relates to these animals in the aquarium as well as outside of it. 

Photo by Christina Dunbar-Hester, September 2019

As of 2020, the Aquarium of the Pacific could house up to six adult otters comfortably, but it was expanding its capacity in order to implement a surrogacy program. The agreement the Aquarium of the Pacific formalized with MBA in early 2020 solidified a commitment to create the conditions to be able to add as many as five adult females who could nurture and socialize pups. As many as ten to fifteen stranded southern sea otter pups are discovered annually in California, so this would add significant capacity for otter care. Like Summer, all stranded pups will first go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium for around eight weeks, and then some will move to Long Beach for longer-term rearing (six to seven months), learning to groom and feed and act like “regular” sea otters.64 If a pup does well with its surrogate mother in the Aquarium of the Pacific, it will return to MBA for another month or two to socialize with peers, and then, assuming it is deemed fit, it will be released into the wild. Released young adults will be radiotagged with VHF transmitters and trackable for up to three years; scientists will no longer be able to track the otters once the transmitters’ batteries die, though the tracking devices will remain in the animals for the rest of their lives. 

Sea otters come ashore rarely and can perform all essential life functions at sea, including sleeping and giving birth. Charismatic representations of them often feature a mother and pup afloat in a kelp bed.65 The otters of the Aquarium of the Pacific, as well as many other creatures, live in marine water that approximates their oceanic habitats. The aquarium’s water supply therefore is a life-sustaining consideration of major consequence for the institution and its residents. It is sourced from the harbor just outside the aquarium’s door, processed by a company that also supplies water to other aquariums and marine science facilities throughout the western United States and for which the Aquarium of the Pacific is a major customer. 

Founded in 1988, Catalina Water Company commodifies a naturally occurring substance, ocean water.66 In claiming water as a resource, processing it, and selling it, the company provides an environment to sustain ocean life in circumstances where it would not be found otherwise: in conditions of captivity and often in geographic locales far from the species’ native environments. Tropical fish in home or institutional aquariums, otters in conservation programs, jellyfish in veterinary care, and mollusks in neuroscience research settings may all find themselves swimming in this water (or, in the case of mollusks, anchored in it). Commodification of ocean water is driven by the commercial trade of tropical fish: “The aquarium hobby could never have become what it is today without the business interests that were, and still are, involved.”67 Recent estimates are that 25–30 million animals from more than 2,000 species are traded annually, including fish and corals; animals are imported from the Philippines, Indonesia, the Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Australia, Fiji, the Maldives, and Palau, especially richly biodiverse reef ecologies; and domestic fish outnumber pet cats and dogs in both the United States and United Kingdom.68 Most collectible animals are taken from the wild, and many marine species’ needs for breeding in captivity are poorly understood.69 Of course, this practice of removing animals from oceans for global hobbyist trade has ecological implications in their sites of origin. These accumulating environmental injuries are not the main focus here but bear notice as a significant effect of the commodification of marine life and seawater.70 

Unsurprisingly, supplying conditions for marine life, let alone healthy marine life, is challenging. The Aquarium of the Pacific’s water comes from the Pacific Ocean via Catalina Water Company, but another option for coastal aquariums is building a water intake system with pipes going out into the sea to take in and discharge water. (A curator at the Aquarium of the Pacific speculated that this would be hard to gain approval for in California’s present-day regulatory environment.71) Facilities that are not coastally located are more likely to manufacture their water, mixing salt and fresh water. Catalina Water Company touts its product by stating, “All synthetic salt mixtures have one thing in common. They are attempting to duplicate real saltwater. Catalina Water Company provides real ocean salt- water, not a synthetic substitute. Synthetic Saltwater, while being basically sound, simply can not provide all the subtle chemical benefits of true saltwater.” The volume of water that the company sells for simulated ocean environments is at least ten million gallons per year.72 The Aquarium of the Pacific is a major client and takes several deliveries per week; its biggest tank, as of 2012, was a 56,000-gallon quarantine tank, part of the Molina Care Center, a holding tank for large animals that need to be kept separately.73 Deliveries of fresh ocean water at the scale needed by aquariums are delivered via truck in food-grade stainless steel tankers. Catalina Water Company also sells packaged seawater for home aquarium use through the PetCo pet store chain.74 

Truck delivering Catalina Water Company seawater (“Real Ocean Water”) to laboratory at California State University, Northridge, 2016. Courtesy Mike Kaiser.

The quarantine tank leads toward a further consideration of the water itself. To become commodified, seawater must be processed. Catalina Water Company notes on its website that it “starts with natural ocean sea- water which is filtered, (fiber, sand, and charcoal) ozonated, and protein skimmed.”75 Before using the water for its marine life, the Aquarium of the Pacific also runs its own tests to make sure it is safe for the animals, and filters it again.76 The 1999 Los Angeles Times article about Summer the pup also offers details about how seriously the Aquarium of the Pacific takes its marine environment: “Before he climbs the metal ladder to the access door of Summer’s tank, [Summer’s handler] steps in two bins of liquid, one containing water and one a disinfectant. He’ll step in them again when he leaves. ‘We’re fussy about quarantine here,’ he explains. ‘I don’t want to take any germs into her habitat or out to the rest of the aquarium.’”77 Of course, extra precautions are indeed necessary for public health in congregate settings (as the COVID-19 pandemic recently showed when the virus cut a tragic, lethal, and preventable path through prisons and elder care facilities). 

But this attention to hygiene, water filtration, and monitoring in the aquarium setting exposes an irony. Otters and other life-forms under custodial care of the aquarium are provided cleaner and safer water than their counterparts in the wild. As noted at the outset of this chapter, worries of otter annihilation in the wake of an oil discharge prompted conservation efforts in the 1980s, leading to, among other developments, the otter relocation to San Nicolas Island. The rationale was not only to prompt the settlement of a new territory but to have a population reservoir in a more protected locale, less vulnerable to spills than the near-coastal area the otters inhabited. And spilled oil is not the only source of chemical harm for otters: industrial agricultural fertilizers and other contaminants wash into the ocean from land, bringing toxins that can sicken and even kill marine otters.78 Toxins should thus not be understood as mere “wayward molecules”: they are substances whose patterned presences in land, water, and bodies are indicative of particular political and economic relations.79


FOOTNOTES

35) Sterngold, “Long Beach.” His statement is about Long Beach generally but it fits the waterfront area well.

36) As of 2020, parts of the carousel and vestigial Pike games are on display at Looff ’ Lite- A- Line on Long Beach Boulevard.

37) The Queen Mary docked permanently in Long Beach in 1967. Th e Spruce Goose was housed there only from 1980– 92, but its dome remains and is currently used as Carnival Cruise Lines’ dockside cruise terminal.

38) Kopetman, “Spruce Goose to Be Moved.”

39) Addison, “Long Beach Lost.”

40) Various factors were responsible. Disney requested things the City of Long Beach was unable to deliver single- handedly, like highway modifi cations. Addison, “Long Beach Lost,” notes that Long Beach was hard to build in both politically and financially since local, state, and federal approvals were all required; Disney instead reinvested in and expanded its Anaheim (Orange County) operations.

41) Sterngold, “Long Beach.”

42) Johnson, “Long Beach, Calif., Gets a Boost.” Th e “tidelands grant” the state issued the city to develop the harbor stipulated that revenue from oil profi ts drilled from the Wilmington and Long Beach oil fi elds, located in the tidelands, be reinvested in the tidelands area (and overseen by the state).

43) Kingsley, “Aquarium of the Pacific Turns 20 Today.”

44) Young, “Zoos and Aquariums.”

45) Henson, “American Zoos,” 65, 70, 66.

46) Young, “Zoos and Aquariums”; Henson, “American Zoos,” 72.

47) Henson, “American Zoos,” 66; Braverman, Zooland.

48) Henson writes, “as ‘natural environments’ become more stressed through development and climate change, the line has become blurred between ex situ, orzoo- and aquarium-based, research and conservation and in situ, or field-based, biological research and conservation practice” (“American Zoos,” 66); see especially Braverman, Wild Life, for more on this troubled boundary.

49) Muka, “Conservation Constellations.”

50) The California or southern sea otter is classified as a subspecies of an otter whose range used to be the entire Pacific coast from Baja California to Alaska. It is now only found from about Point Conception, just north and west of Santa Barbara, to San Francisco; in other words, just north of the Southern California Bight into which San Pedro Bay is nestled.

51) Morris, “Long Beach Aquarium.”

52) Jameson, “She’s One Happy Pup.”

53) Further north in the Pacific Northwest, Russian traders established a sea otter fur trade with China in the mid- eighteenth century (Gibson, Otter Skins, Boston Ships, and China Goods). Otter hunting in fact drew Russians eastward fromSiberia. Spanish colonists in California did not initially recognize the value of otter pelts in “their” territories but soon also entered the otter fur trade with China, and these otters were members of the southern or California sea otter subspecies.

In both cases, Indigenous people also participated in these markets as hunters, though they oft en were resistant to hunting on the scale desired by merchants (Ogden, California Sea Otter Trade, 1784–1848, 43). Overhunting of otters is part of what pushed American maritime traders toward beavers in the nineteenth century (Gibson, Otter Skins, Boston Ships, and China Goods).

54) Jameson, “She’s One Happy Pup.”

55) Jameson. Th e journalist noted that the handler was himself a father of two, tying his parental duties with the otter to those with his human young.

56) Segura, “Long Beach Aquarium’s Beloved Otter Dies.” In humans, poisons like PCBs and dioxin have been detected in blood, breast milk, and urine (Murphy, “Alterlife,” 495).

57) Murphy invokes a stencil by Métis artist and activist Erin Marie Konsmo depicting lungs filled with transformer towers connecting to underground fracking, accompanied by the statement “Violence from Fracking [and Pipelines] is Violence on Our Bodies” (“Alterlife,” 500– 501). Though the image depicts human lungs, the statement fits animal bodies as well—though chemical violence is not limited to fossil fuels, of course. See also Fiske, “Naked in the Face of Contamination”; Tuana, “Viscous Porosity.”

58) Segura, “Long Beach Aquarium’s Beloved Otter Dies.”

59) Field notes, September 2019.

60) Aquarium of the Pacific curator, interview, December 7, 2020.

61) Aquarium of the Pacific, “Aquarium Animal Care.”

62) Aquarium of the Pacific curator, interview, December 7, 2020.

63) Parreñas, Decolonizing Extinction, 155; van Dooren, Flight Ways.

64) Aquarium of the Pacific curator, interview, December 7, 2020.

65) Mothers will even wrap pups in kelp to hold them in place and keep them afloat while they go off to forage (e.g. Kranking, “Floating through Life”).

66) The company is presumably named for the island that Spanish settlers dubbed Santa Catalina, one of the Channel Islands, just off shore from Los Angeles and Long Beach. It hosts tourism and marine research, and its rock is the source material for many modifications in San Pedro Bay.

67) Brunner, Ocean at Home, 140– 41.

68) Brunner, “Through a Glass Sadly.”

69) Brunner, Ocean at Home, 141. This is probably less a function of breeding being impossible to do and more that there is little profit motive to attempt it.

70) Brunner notes that only one in ten fi sh caught for aquarium trade survives the shipping and trade process and ends up in a hobby tank (“Through a Glass Sadly”). Toxic injury is also relevant here: Brunner adds that poisons are sometimes used in the water to numb or stun fish and make them easier to capture, and excess poison remains in the water after stunned fish are captured. The habitat effects call to mind Nixon’s description of “delayed destruction” (Slow Violence, 2; see also Neimanis, “‘Chemists’ War’”)

71) Aquarium of the Pacific curator, interview, December 7, 2020. The curator added that Monterey Bay Aquarium, built in the 1980s, has such a system.

72) Catalina Water Company, homepage.

73) Aquarium of the Pacific curator, interview, December 7, 2020; Aquarium of the Pacific, “Molina Animal Care Center.”

74) Catalina Water Company, homepage.

75) Catalina Water Company, homepage. Punctuation per original.

76) Aquarium of the Pacific curator, interview, December 7, 2020.

77) Jameson, “She’s One Happy Pup.”

78) Aquarium of the Pacific, “Sea Otter Conservation.” Parasites can also wash out
from land.

79) Liboiron, Pollution Is Colonialism, 82; Murphy, “Alterlife.”


SOURCES

Addison, Brian. “Long Beach Lost: The Dramatic Tale of the Disney Theme Park in Downtown.” Long Beach Post, December 4, 2018.

Aquarium of the Pacific. “Aquarium Animal Care.” Accessed December 5, 2020. https://www.aquariumofpacific.org/exhibits/animalcarecenter/animal_care.
—. “Molina Animal Care Center.” Accessed December 23, 2020.
https://www.aquariumofpacific.org/ exhibits/animalcarecenter.
—. “Sea Otter Conservation.” Accessed December 5, 2020.
https://www.aquariumofpacific.org/exhibits/otters/sea_otter_conservation.
—. “Sea Otter Habitat.” Accessed March 11, 2022.
https://www.aquariumofpacific.org/exhibits/otters/
—. “Southern Sea Otter.” Accessed December 5, 2020.
https://www.aquariumofpacific.org/exhibits/otters/southern _sea_otter.

Braverman, Irus. Wild Life: The Institution of Nature. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015.
—. Zooland: The Institution of Captivity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012.

Brunner, Bernd. The Ocean at Home. London: Reaktion Books, 2011.
—. “Th rough a Glass Sadly.” Aeon, November 30, 2015. https://aeon.co/essays/why-it-s-time-to-put-an-end-to-the-cult-of-the-aquarium.

Henson, Pamela M. “American Zoos: A Shift ing Balance between Recreation and Conservation.” In Th e Ark and Beyond: Th e Evolution of Zoo and Aquarium Conservation, ed. Ben Minteer, Jane Maienschein, and James P. Collins, 65–76. Chicago, University of Chicago Press: 2018.

Jameson, Marnell. “She’s One Happy Pup: A Young Otter Name [sic] Summer Once Faced Certain Death, but Today Is Safe, Warm and Getting a Good, if Soggy, Education.” Los Angeles Times, June 17, 1999.

Kingsley, Barbara. “Aquarium of the Pacific Turns 20 Today, Hopes to Make a Splash When Pacific Visions Opens in 2019.” Daily Breeze, June 15, 2018.

Kopetman, Roxana. “Spruce Goose to Be Moved to Oregon.” Los Angeles Times, July 10, 1992.

Morris, Asia. “Long Beach Aquarium Mourns the Loss of Brook the Sea Otter.” Long Beach Post, January 30, 2019.

Muka, Samantha. “Conservation Constellations: Aquariums in Aquatic Conservation Networks.” In The Ark and Beyond: The Evolution of Zoo and Aquarium Conservation, ed. Ben Minteer, Jane Maienschein, and James P. Collins, 90– 103. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018.

Sterngold, James. “Long Beach, in Los Angeles’ Shadow, Strives for a Spotlight.” New York Times, July 27, 2000, A14.

Christina Dunbar-Hester is a science and technology studies scholar and associate professor in the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication. She is the author of Low Power to the People: Pirates, Protest, and Politics in FM Radio Activism and Hacking Diversity: The Politics of Inclusion in Open Technology Cultures.

Excerpts

Evolution of a Movement

Kettleman City: Case Study of Community Activism in Changing Times

Excerpted from Evolution of a Movement: Four Decades of California Environmental Justice Activism by Tracy Perkins, published by the University of California Press. © 2022 by Tracy Perkins. 

Many Californians who recognize the name “Kettleman City” do so because it is a good place to stop for gas and a snack on the long drive between Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, passing through the Central Valley’s agricultural landscape. But some Californians recognize the name of the tiny town (population 1,439) because it played the David to the Goliath of Waste Management, the country’s largest waste company.[1]

Kettleman City, like so many other poor communities of color, was a prime target for a hazardous waste landfill. The town’s demographics are comparable to many other places that host hazardous waste facilities: 100 percent of the community is Latinx; 57.5 percent of residents over age twenty-five have less than a ninth-grade education; and the average per capita income is $15,656 per year.[2] Kettleman City hosts one of three Class 1 landfills in California (all three are located in or near predominantly Latinx communities), and the community’s opinion was not sought when the landfill was sited. Indeed, residents did not even know about the dump until after it had been permitted and built in 1979. But when a hazardous waste incinerator was proposed on the dump site, the residents made their opposition known, loud and clear. The fight in the late 1980s and early 1990s against the incinerator at the Kettleman City landfill was a paradigmatic early case in the environmental justice movement.[3]

This chapter traces the thirty-plus-year history of environmental justice activism in Kettleman City as a case study within the broader evolution of environmental justice activism. This case study exemplifies the broader trends discussed in chapters 2 and 3 and analyzes how these trends played out on the ground. The Kettleman City story is an early environmental justice success, preventing the construction of a new “locally unwanted land use”—here, an incinerator. These successes added up in town after town; only three of the seventy-five or more new or expanded incinerators proposed since the 1980s were ever built.[4] However, Kettleman City’s example also shows how these successes, as important as they are, could not on their own address existing unwanted land uses or the effect of multiple sources of contamination in one location. And these successes left other problems in their wake: the challenge of sustaining broad levels of local activism after the immediate threat ended made it difficult to address the broader structural conditions of capitalism that disproportionately locate pollution in low-income communities and communities of color and that constrain efforts to change the status quo.

The case of Kettleman City shows the unevenness of the environmental justice movement’s transition from “protest” to “politics.” Many in the environmental justice movement have used the limitations of fighting individual, defensive battles site by site as a reason to scale up into state-wide policy advocacy and collaborative work with state agencies. Others have ventured into efforts to build gardens, parks, and other environmental amenities, some of which pursue a DIY model that eschews state involvement. But in Kettleman City, much environmental justice activism remains true to its roots: focused on local sources of polluting health threats and engaged in continued confrontations with industry and state agencies. Of course, Kettleman City activists are also influenced by the broader trends described in chapters 2 and 3: changing racial politics and industrial public relations efforts, pressure to collaborate with state agencies, the opportunities and challenges of increasingly relying on philanthropically funded nonprofit structures to support activism, and the normalization of risk from the nearby hazardous waste landfill. They also face the challenge of pursuing activism within the context of neoliberal policies under capitalism, which mitigate against increasing environmental enforcement budgets and channel environmental activism toward voluntary and market-based (rather than regulatory) measures to contain industry pollution.

In Kettleman City, we can also see the fissures in the movement caused by the disagreement over tactics. The town hosted the first meeting of the newly formed California Environmental Justice Coalition, which was formed as an alternative to the better-funded, exclusive California Environmental Justice Alliance. Finally, in the face of skepticism about the value of participating on government advisory committees and improving the public’s ability to participate fairly in environmental decision-making, Kettleman City’s difficult history accessing environmental decision-making also shows why activists worked toward these goals in the first place.

Rey Leon (with megaphone), Linda McKay (with sign, in front), and other activists marching with Kettleman City residents protesting a birth defect cluster and planned expansion of the Chemical Waste Management hazardous waste landfill, Kettleman City, July 18, 2009. Photo by author.

The Anti-incinerator Campaign

In the late 1970s, Chemical Waste Management, Inc. (a subsidiary of Waste Management Inc.) built a hazardous waste landfill 3.5 miles away from Kettleman City on land formerly used to store waste mud from nearby oil drilling. As a Class 1 landfill, the facility is authorized to take almost any hazardous substance up to, but excluding, radioactive waste. It is the largest hazardous waste landfill west of the Mississippi. In the 1980s, Chemical Waste began the permitting process to add a hazardous waste incinerator to the existing landfill. The incinerator would burn hazardous waste instead of landfilling it. According to the waste management industry, the push toward incinerators in the 1980s was a response to a national crisis of landfills running out of room for new waste. (However, as David Pellow, Kenneth Gould, and others have written, the “crisis” had other origins, including that the public increasingly did not want to live near them, and industry was blocking or shuttering recycling initiatives.)[5] These incinerators would add dangerous toxins to the air, and the proposed incinerator sites were disproportionately in low-income communities and communities of color, such as Kettleman City.[6]

Many residents of Kettleman City did not even know about the existing hazardous waste landfill just outside of town, where it is not easily visible from the road. Residents did not discover its presence until after it was built—some in 1985, when the dump was fined for operating unauthorized waste ponds, and some not until they learned about the incinerator proposal a few years later.[7] Maricela Mares Alatorre, daughter of activists Mary Lou and Ramon Mares, remembers that her family and neighbors had no idea that the dump existed, or that a hazardous waste incinerator was proposed to be added to it, until Greenpeace organizer Bradley Angel knocked on her door while recruiting residents to attend an upcoming permitting hearing. The hearings, however, were not easy to participate in:

When we started attending these meetings, we noticed that they were never in town, they were usually in the middle of the day, 45 miles away, where they weren’t really accessible to people. And if you could get there, they didn’t translate them into Spanish when most of the town speaks Spanish. And we started finding out that there was a pattern to the way these things happen. We started researching the company. We were informed about the Cerrell Report. It was a 1984 document, which was commissioned by the California Waste Management Board where they said how you should choose a town for these kinds of projects. And we found out that they were going around choosing towns that had a large minority population, where people didn’t speak English, large immigrant populations, low education, and Catholic.[8] That was actually in the report: Catholic. And we were—we were shocked because we really had no idea. I had no idea that environmental racism existed until we were made aware of that document. And it’s like you don’t want to have to go to a meeting. You don’t want to have to, you know, spend all your time in these boring hearings, and sometimes you don’t understand what they’re saying. But it makes you mad when we saw the pattern. And we talked to people from other towns, and we started networking, and we saw how they deliberately chose people like us to do these things to. It makes you mad.[9]

Mares Alatorre’s story is a common one in communities fighting incinerators and other waste facilities in the 1980s and 1990s. As people across the country learned that toxic industries were being located in politically vulnerable communities, residents faced off with local government officials and industry representatives (who appeared to march in lockstep), resorting to disruptive political tactics when their pleas to government officials fell on deaf ears. In Kettleman City, residents, concerned about the threat to their health, formed a grassroots group to tackle the problem: El Pueblo para el Aire y Agua Limpio (People for Clean Air and Water). Mary Lou and Ramon Mares, and Esperanza and Joe Maya, among others, took leadership roles. Some of El Pueblo’s members brought in prior experience with farmworker organizing in the United Farm Workers of America to El Pueblo, while for others El Pueblo was their first experience with organizing.[10]

Like many other groups nationwide, El Pueblo pursued local, direct action and community organizing strategies. However, it was unique in having early access to a lawyer, Luke Cole at California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), who used the case as a test for the use of civil rights law to address pollution in communities of color.[11] The organization also had the support of organizers from the large environmental group Greenpeace, which (unlike many other large national and international environmental organizations) embraced direct-action tactics and at the time, at least on the West Coast, invested in local antitoxics and environmental justice organizing. In addition to their work with Greenpeace and CRLA, activists also attracted support from the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice, Las Madres del Este de Los Angeles, Citizen Action, Rev. Jesse Jackson, a UC Berkeley student group (Nindakin: People of Color for Environmental Justice), and a wide array of others.[12]

One of the most iconic moments in the campaign occurred at a 1988 public hearing about the toxic waste incinerator proposal. By the time this hearing took place, residents had lost faith in both state and industry officials and came prepared to confront them:

So, before this meeting, I’m at my home, and we said, “Well, whenever we don’t like something, we’re going to have to let them know.” All their same lies. So, I made hundreds of copies of this piece of paper with the word “NO” real bold on it. It’s just that, “NO.” I said, when we don’t like something, we’re going to scream “No!” So, we all had those with us.

The circumstances of the hearing underscored how Kettleman City residents were being excluded from the normal process of government decision-making. Like other hearings, this one was not in Kettleman City but in the county seat in Hanford, thirty miles away. Although it was held in the winter, the hearing was not scheduled for one of the comfortable, well-heated spaces available in town such as the high school auditorium. Rather, the hearing was held in the County Fairground building, a building about the size of a football field that was, as one resident told me, “an exhibit barn for arts and crafts, or your animals or whatever. One of those big galvanized buildings made out of sheet metal or something. It’s cold. Cement floor.” The planning commission sat elevated at the front of the room, with portable heaters at their feet and hot coffee on their table. Open space, microphones, and then about fifty rows of seats lay before them, followed by bleachers. Behind the bleachers, there was empty concrete that stretched until the end of the building.[13]

Kettleman City street signs, July 18, 2009. General Petroleum Avenue and Standard Oil Avenue are two of the main roads running through the residential part of Kettleman City.  Photo by author.

Luke Cole and Sheila Foster describe provisions made for Spanish- speaking residents as follows:

Kettleman City residents showed up at the meeting in force. About 200 people came by bus and carpool from Kettleman City, and, as one of their leaders made clear, “We’re here, we want to testify on this project, and we brought our own translator.” The chair of the Kings County Planning Commission looked down on the crowd and said, “That request has been denied. The translation is taking place in the back of the room and it won’t happen up here.” Residents looked at where the Planning Commissioner was pointing: they looked from the Planning Commission up on their dais, they looked at the open space and the microphones, they looked at all the rows of chairs, and they looked at the bleachers. And then they looked way back behind the bleachers, nearly at the rear of the room, where there was one forlorn man sitting surrounded by a little circle of about twenty-five empty chairs. The Planning Commission chair said again, “Why don’t you go back there? There are monitors back there. We are all in the same room.”[14]

Kettleman City residents had come prepared to press their cause, and this arrangement did not suit them at all. One activist describes what happened at the meeting as follows:

It was supposed to be open all day for people that wanted to go and say whether they’re for [the incinerator], against it, or have questions for the supervisors. And we had a certain time we were supposed to be there. We were bused over there. Some people took their cars, and some people went on their own, but when we got there, they didn’t let us speak ’til about 9:00 or 10:00 that evening. They let other people speak first that should have spoke during the day. They were getting us to be tired so we would just go home, you know, and leave them alone. Then they didn’t have the translators they were supposed to have had. They had some translators. We asked for the translators and then they said, “Well, the translators are going to be in the back of the building. Go to the back.” They told us to go in the back! Go to the back of the room for the translators. And we all went, “No!” You know, “You bring the translators to us when we’re up there speaking!” So we go, “No!” And then we said, “Adelante!” and we all went forward with our “No! No!” “We’re not going to go to the back of the room!” . . . And they were shocked that we did that. Why would they send us to the back of the room? That’s discrimination there in itself. So, they didn’t have translators, and it was just waiting for somebody to do something wrong, to jump on us, to fight with us. You couldn’t even go to the bathroom, ’cause they were waiting for you in there to do something, the Chem Waste employees. It was just really, really bad.

Negative encounters like these, in which state decision-makers and industry representatives blatantly disrespected residents, drew more people into the fight, as this early incinerator opponent describes:

When the people that needed the translation started understanding what they were trying to do to them and how they were being disrespected, that made them more active. So that’s how we got more people to get into the fight for the incinerator.

Another iconic moment of disruption took place later in the campaign, the day before another hearing, when activists blockaded the entryway to the landfill with an old school bus and chained themselves to its axle. An activist who had been part of a successful campaign to oppose the construction of another incinerator in nearby Alpaugh helped out in Kettleman City. Greenpeace stored the bus on her property until it was needed and used her home as a planning area for the demonstration. She describes the opportunity to have supporters from out of town staying with her as a strange but wonderful experience. A Kettleman City resident who also hosted out-of-town supporters had a similar experience:

One time I housed a lot of people from Greenpeace at my house. They were at my house for almost two weeks, and they camped in my backyard. They came to canvas. I didn’t even know what that word meant.   But I remember seeing them coming in with money in the evening. I didn’t even know what was going on. We were so green to all this. So I was asked if I could house them and I said, “Yeah.” Well, they all came over to help us and I don’t even know who they were. And I remember that I used to cook for them. They would not eat meat, so I would cook a big pot of pinto beans every day, and they would eat the whole damn pot—[laughter]—of beans and salsa. I always had that, and I don’t know who furnished the pasta, but they always had big bags of pasta and I would cook the pasta. And they stayed at my house for that long. The posters were made in my backyard. The canvas banners were done there. I housed a lot of people throughout the years in my home—strangers, you know? Strangers because I never seen them before, but they came to help. I didn’t even know what the organization Greenpeace was, or who they were, who Bradley [Angel] was, you know? But I learned throughout the years.

During this period, environmental justice activism felt like it was becoming a national mass movement, with Kettleman City as one of many hot spots. In addition to the student activists and others brought by Greenpeace, residents from other affected communities such as San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point, East Los Angeles, and Alpaugh visited Kettleman City to lend their support. One Kettleman City activist remembers those days fondly:

I think all of it was a high point. I was really amazed that people outside Kettleman City actually cared for us, what happened to us. We started networking and all these people came to our aid. Who were they? Why did they care? We couldn’t understand that. Like Bradley [Angel] and his organizations, and Luke Cole with the lawyers. Why did they care? We’re just a poor Hispanic migrant little town, you know? But they knew more of what Chem Waste was doing. We were not the only site in the United States. We found out later that there were other dumpsites, and that they have the same pattern [of locating dumps in politically disadvantaged communities] throughout.

Kettleman City activists returned the favor, giving their support to people elsewhere and strengthening the emerging network of grassroots environmental justice activists. They went to the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., in 1991, which helped bring together people facing similar problems across the country. They traveled to Los Angeles and other California locations, as well as New York, Alabama, and the town of Playas de Rosarito, ten miles south of the US-Mexico border. These visits were not just to provide moral support, but to share tactics and information about their common corporate opponents. The meetings laid bare the lies that Chemical Waste was telling on each side. For example, the residents of Playas de Rosarito had been told that the people of Kettleman City were supportive of the incinerator proposal—a lie that Kettleman City residents quickly debunked when they met. The Mexican residents had wanted to come see the landfill in Kettleman City as they considered their options but were told no by Chemical Waste; at the same time, Chemical Waste was telling Kettleman City residents that they could come see the landfill anytime, because the company had nothing to hide. The Kettleman City activists therefore planned a visit to the dump without mentioning to Chemical Waste that they would be accompanied by several busloads of Mexican residents from Playas de Rosarito and local press. The Mexican visitors returned home and successfully blocked the building of the incinerator proposed for their town.

As Kettleman City residents met activists from elsewhere, many developed broader political critiques about waste infrastructure writ large, broadening their opposition beyond the early “not in my back- yard” beliefs. Mary Lou Mares shared the following:

We started going to statewide conferences and meeting other people who were fighting other terrible stuff. There was Stormy Williams, she was fighting in the Mojave Desert. Everybody says, “Why can’t you put this incinerator in the desert or somewhere where people don’t . . . ?” And she would get up and say, “Wait a minute, I live in the desert!” [Laughter] At first, you are so ignorant that it’s easy to say, “Put it in the desert,” but you start meeting people and you start understanding that there is no place to put an incinerator because the air belongs to everybody and it has currents and it goes around and comes around. You just cannot put anything into the air.[15]

Despite the efforts by Kettleman City residents and allies, the Kings County Planning Commission nevertheless voted to approve the incinerator construction. Kettleman City is an unincorporated community, which means the people have no local governance structure of their own but rather are governed from a distance by a county board of supervisors, located forty miles away in the whiter and more affluent county seat of Hanford (where the public hearings took place). At that time, Kettleman City had little representation on the Planning Commission, which was mostly made up of people who did not live near the dump. The county stood to increase its revenues through taxing the landfill operators (although, as Kettleman City residents complained, precious few of those resources were reinvested in Kettleman City itself—an example of how racial capitalism functions at the county level).

Maricela Mares Alatorre and thirteen-year old son Miguel Alatorre at a protest in front of the Chemical Waste Management hazardous waste landfill, Kettleman City, November 16, 2007. Photo by author.

El Pueblo appealed the decision to the Kings County Board of Supervisors, who upheld the incinerator approval. El Pueblo and its legal supporters at CRLA filed a class-action lawsuit against Kings County in 1991. In 1992, a superior court judge overturned the Kings County approval of the incinerator, ruling that it was based on an inadequate environmental impact report and that the public permitting process had failed to meaningfully involve the local population, since residents in the predominantly Spanish-speaking town had received the relevant documents only in English. Chemical Waste Management filed an appeal, but then withdrew the incinerator application in 1993. One activist describes the immense relief she and her friend felt after winning the protracted campaign:

[My friend] and I just cried and cried the day we got the announcement. The reporter came first to my house, saying, “Tell us what you’re doing, what’s your next this and that, your next strategy,” and then along came the general manager of Chem Waste and he comes up to us and he says, “It’s over. The lawsuit, it’s over. We’re withdrawing the plan to put in the incinerator.” I said, “What?!” He said that they are not doing the incinerator. “Oh, I gotta go see [my friend]!” And I go to [my friend’s house] and we just hugged and cried and cried. It was [many] years of struggle, you know, it was great. It was so good.

Kettleman City’s fight against the incinerator was often framed as an epic David versus Goliath battle between the largest waste management company in the country and a tiny, low-income Latinx community in a largely forgotten part of California. The activists’ victory became a symbol of the movement’s vitality and potential.[16] It also inspired environmental justice activists across the country. The Kettleman City residents’ visits to and from other communities confronting similar problems helped activists see the bigger picture, that this was not a local but a systemic problem. This campaign thus helped nurture the broader environmental justice movement, both in California and the nation.

End of excerpt from chapter four. For the rest of this chapter, see the complete book, available at University of California Press and elsewhere.


Footnotes

[1] The landfill is managed by Chemical Waste Management, Inc., a subsidiary of Waste Management. Speakers use variations of both names (Chemical Waste, Chem Waste, and Waste Management), usually to refer to the local managers of the landfill.

[2] US Bureau of the Census, “ACS Demographic and Housing Estimates (Latinx population); US Bureau of the Census, “Educational Attainment” (education); and US Bureau of the Census, “Selected Economic Characteristics” (income).

[3] Cole and Foster, From the Ground Up; and Bullard, Confronting Environmental Racism.

[4] Two of these three were still in operation in 2021. Rosengren, “After It First WTE Facility Closes.” These numbers come from personal communications with Mike Ewall, executive director of Energy Justice Network, September 3 2018, and Bradley Angel, executive director of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, March 26, 2021. Although no new commercial municipal waste incinerators have been built in the time indicated, several incinerators have been retrofitted, expanded, or built on the same site as existing incinerators since 1995. In addition, in 2017 a small, noncommercial-scale gasification incinerator was built at Army Garrison Fort Hunter Liggett in Monterey County, California. There are also two medical waste incinerators operating in California, in Paramount and Hesperian. Here I follow the activist convention of calling these modern facilities incinerators, whereas the waste industry calls them waste-to-energy facilities that “superheat” waste rather than burn it. Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice and Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, “Incinerators in Disguise.”

[5] Pellow, “Environmental Inequality Formation”; and Gould, Schnaiberg, and Weinberg, Local Environmental Struggles.

[6] Baptista and Perovich, U.S. Municipal Solid Waste Incinerators; Costner and Thornton, Playing with Fire; and White, “Hazardous Waste Incineration and Minority Communities.”

[7] Cole and Foster, From the Ground Up.

[8] The Cerrell Report itself does not specify race as a category by which locations for incinerators should be chosen, but many of the proposed locations were nonetheless in communities of color. Powell, “Political Difficulties Facing Waste-to-Energy Conversion Plant Siting.”

[9] Perkins, “Voices.”

[10] Perkins, “Multiple People of Color Origins of the US Environmental Justice Movement”; and Perkins, “Women’s Pathways into Activism.”

[11] Cole, “Environmental Justice Litigation.”

[12] Cole and Foster, From the Ground Up.

[12] Cole and Foster, From the Ground Up.

[14] Cole and Foster, From the Ground Up.

[15] Perkins, “Voices.”

[16] Cole and Foster, From the Ground Up.


Sources

Baptista, Ana Isabel, and Adrienne Perovich. U.S. Municipal Solid Waste Incinerators: An Industry in Decline. New York: Tishman Environment and Design Center at the New School, 2019.

Bullard, Robert D., ed. Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots. Boston: South End Press, 1993.

Cole, Luke W., and Sheila Foster. From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

Costner, Pat, and Joe Thornton. Playing with Fire: Hazardous Waste Incineration. Washington, DC: Greenpeace USA, 1990.

Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice and Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. “Incinerators in Disguise: Case Studies of Gasification, Pyrolysis, and Plasma in Europe, Asia, and the United States.” June 2006. http://www.no-burn.org/incinerators-in-disguise-case-studies-of-gasification-pyrolysis-and-plasma-in-europe-asia-and-the-united states/.

Gould, Kenneth, Allan Schnaiberg, and Adam Weinberg. Local Environmental Struggles: Citizen Activism in the Treadmill of Production. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Pellow, David N. “Environmental Inequality Formation: Toward a Theory of Environmental Injustice.” American Behavioral Scientist 43, no. 4 (2000): 581–601. https://doi.org/10.1177/0002764200043004004.

Perkins, Tracy. “Voices.” Voices from the Valley: Environmental Justice in California’s San Joaquin Valley, 2008. http://www.voicesfromthevalley.org/voices/.

Perkins, Tracy. “The Multiple People of Color Origins of the US Environmental Justice Movement: Social Movement Spillover and Regional Racial Projects in California.” Environmental Sociology 7, no. 2 (2021): 147–59. https://doi.org/10.1080/23251042.2020.1848502.

Perkins, Tracy. “Women’s Pathways into Activism: Rethinking the Women’s Environmental Justice Narrative in California’s San Joaquin Valley.” Organization & Environment 25, no. 1 (2012): 76–94. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10
.1177/1086026612445390.

Rosengren, Cole. “After Its First WTE Closes, California Down to 2.” Waste-dive, August 2, 2018. http://www.wastedive.com/news/california-first-wte-facility-closes/529164/.

US Bureau of the Census. “ACS Demographic and Housing Estimates.” 2009–2013 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, 2013. http://factfinder.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml.

US Bureau of the Census. “Selected Economic Characteristics.” 2009–2013 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, 2013. http://factfinder.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml.

US Bureau of the Census. “Educational Attainment.” 2009–2013 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, 2013. http://factfinder.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml.

White, Harvey. “Hazardous Waste Incineration and Minority Communities.” In Race and the Incidence of Environmental Hazards: A Time for Discourse, edited by Bunyan Bryant and Paul Mohai, 126–39. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992.



Tracy Perkins 
is an Assistant Professor in the School for Social Transformation at Arizona State University.

ArticlesPhotography/Art

Interspecies Assemblage: The San Gabriel Valley through the lens of Jesús Romo

Text by Daniel Talamantes, photos by Jesús Romo

“Riding the River”

Taking Shape of the River

“In it, you realize the river has no shape,” reflects Jesús Romo on his photo, “Riding in the River.” The photo depicts a pair of vaqueros wading through a tributary in Whittier Narrows. Above the horses’ cannon, water splashes above their knees, infusing motion in the still. Twilight eclipses a vaquero’s greeting hand and sombrero as his riding partner advances toward us—or is he following Jesús Romo? Ripples, ephemera, trace the contours of Jesús Romo’s ghost in the water out of frame as he puts the scene in focus. The patina of ordered ripples contrasts with the shoreline brush of shadowy chaos.

“Riding in the River,” though taken recently, feels like it belongs in another place and time. The photo conjures modalities in movement, of diaspora, and an environmental legacy that were once ubiquitous in the region, but now reduced to a rare and confined natural space. Wilderness and vaqueros elicit a pathos or melancholic reflection of what could have been. While the photo may hint toward a better depiction of the San Gabriel Valley’s natural setting, it does not necessarily portray the accurate social history of Mexican and Latinx communities. Still, it shows how vaqueros or vaqueras have gained success in claiming public space and reclaiming Mexican presence in the San Gabriel Valley.

What remains of Whittier Narrows is only a hint of what the region used to be. As David Reid in East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte writes, “[Whittier Narrows] ensured the survival of some 400 acres of forest, lakes, trails, lawns, and soccer fields… preserved a link to the Whittier Narrows area’s history and to the natural world… and offers the first taste of the natural world to many locals.”1 Always under threat of development, Whittier Narrows, cleaved and siloed by the 60 freeway, 605 freeway, and Rosemead Boulevard remains a site of natural wonder, preservation, and recreation for the surrounding communities of Avocado Heights, El Monte, South El Monte, and La Puente, among others.

“Riding in the Narrows”

The oneiric quality of Whittier Narrows is troubled by the waking reality of the Whittier Narrow Dam. Despite community efforts to preserve Whittier Narrows by relocating the dam further down the river, the dam ultimately punctuates the city and county’s priority for energy extraction and management. But there’s a great irony here: the county’s erection of the dam had arguably secured Whittier Narrow’s survival. This is an important consideration. It evinces this space as an example of a contested site of culture and power. The dam becomes a metonym for industrial control and extraction of diaspora’s flow. Just beyond the frame, a titanic urban landscape lurks. It encroaches. Matrices of roads and freeways, telephone wires, and pipes fasten to strangulate the veritable island of wilderness. Waste facilities, manufacturing plants, and distribution centers leech pollutants into streams and soil. The air over it so thick of smog can be noisome of sulfur, ammonia, rubber, or other strands of toxic fumes.

“Trail ride with Esteban and company”

In winter, without any other form of access or way to bridge neighboring communities, Jesús Romo explains that the tributaries are the only passable trails connecting this natural corridor to his community of Avocado Heights, until they are too deep to traverse. Auto industries, waste facilities, and housing developments converted a rich agricultural and natural landscape into grids of pavement, fences, pipes, and wires. Avocado Heights, among many surrounding communities, became what city planner scholar William Fulton refers to as the “suburbs of extraction,” where Latinx individuals, despite attaining political power, struggle in economic scarcity to access resources and fund public services.2 Furthering this, scholar Laura R. Barraclough writes in Charros: How Mexican Cowboys are Remapping Race and American Identity, suburbs of extraction like the many in San Gabriel Valley, “[find] themselves empty-handed, with few strategies available beyond luring businesses such as casinos, pawn shops, and scrap metal recycling yards—all of which…extract any remaining wealth from already-disinvested sources.”3          

“Employee at feed store near Sports Arena”

Situated between the Puente Hills, California canyons and Whittier Narrows, Avocado Heights is an unincorporated neighborhood east of the 605 freeway and just north of the San Jose Creek which feeds into the San Gabriel River. The town’s population remains approximately fifteen thousand people, yet it is surrounded by much larger cities such as City of Industry, La Puente, El Monte, South El Monte, and adjacent to a constellation of other unincorporated communities such as Bassett and North Whittier. A distinct feature of Avocado Heights is its designation as an equestrian district which traces its legacy to the vaqueros of early Californio’s and Mexico—of which hold a vast majority of the demographics. And while Avocado Heights has a prominent identity and agency of its own, its characteristics are as interpretable as the river.

“Rancho Jimenez”

“Mis tíos”

Wading through the river, vaqueros interact with assemblages of making and being. Contested sites, specific histories, and cultural exchanges emerge and submerge in expression of power and resistance. Though we can abstract histories and narratives from the photo, “Riding in the River” is material. The photograph is now a part of Whittier Narrows’ ecology. It is a fragment of the location, both as a living portal and as artifact. It would not exist if not for its historical contingency. Despite attempts at cultural erasure or despite the elision from regional, state, or national narratives, Avocado Heights is immutable. Photographs expose. They are taken, putting moments, people, and places into focus.

“Colitas”

Transnational Desfile

“Community desfile”
“la paseada patron saint festival in Avocado Heights”

“Community desfile” and “la paseada patron saint festival AH style” are celebrations of the patron saint festival, La Paseada. Celebrated in Avocado Heights annually, this is the second biggest event in Avocado Heights Park after the Easter celebration. Romo says, “Starting a few years ago after a group of different families in the area formed an association to raise money and connect with their loved ones back home by several individuals who were undocumented and unable to visit their home communities.” The organizers of the event originate from Las Palmas, Jalisco and like most patron saint festivals, these are religious celebrations that coincide with the whole community having the week off.

The celebration in Las Palmas is known for having a large cabalgata to inaugurate the event, Romo continues, “Given that this is horse country, we all join in their festivities in the Avocado Heights version as if we are there in Las Palmas for the week.” Along with the tamborazo, a reina usually carries the American and Mexican flag while following an altar containing the patron saint. The Independence celebrations in Yahualica, Jalisco are on September 16, 2016. The celebrations in Avocado Heights and among the equestrian community, at times, closely resemble the celebrations in Mexico.

“Industry Expo feria de caballo español”

It is not uncommon for the escaramuzas and charros of the San Gabriel Valley to compete with some frequency down in Mexico, or to attend an annual coleadero at their ranch, and then to come back to the US and give an update to their family and group of friends about the latest community gossip, who’s the leading equestrian athlete, and what musical group headlined the event.  For being a relatively small neighborhood, Avocado Heights epitomizes in many ways this unique bilateral relationship with Mexico. These are not relationships that exist because parents grew up in a particular place, but rather, these are relationships that are constantly reinforced by the consistent back and forth travel that occurs for recurring events, such as patron saint festivals or independence celebrations.

“Privadita”
“Filming a music video”

Vaquerx Ephemera

“Horse Parade in Jalisco”

On September 16, 2016, in the city streets of Yahualica, Jalisco, Romo joins a cabalgata underway. The vaquera centered in the photo is Nadia. And while she doesn’t announce her sexuality publicly, she is widely known in the horse community for being a prominent fixture at horse events and is often seen accompanied by her partner. Romo explains, “After marching on horseback in the parade, Nadia hired the banda and it was myself and one other escaramuza, kind of a protege of Nadia’s, who joined her for an impromptu parade once again throughout the town.” Nadia was not dressed in the typical escaramuza outfit, but rather a charro outfit. “She triumphantly led us on a long-winded post-march route with a loaded gun in her holster. It was a very public and triumphant display and I just had to document the photo.”

In Nadia’s story we have a unique exposure to the dimensions of gender embodiment and representation in vaquerx culture. She is both a leader and yet presents herself in traditional charro outfits. Likewise, her partnership, according to Romo, remains a discretionary fact. It is no doubt the case that vaquero culture celebrates and predominantly exhibits traditional masculine traits. Yet, it is and historically has been a space and identity that has opened gender fluidity and resistance. Across the United States and in Mexico, vaquerx spaces foster hetero-, homo-, and transsexual performance. Massive conventions occur every year in cities including Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Dallas, and Mexico City which host queer reuniones vaqueros. The events feature live performance combined with regional Mexican food, drink, music, and dancing. Though these conventions are unique, they also amplify the reality of the vaquero/a/x everyday—one present in Avocado Heights. Romo, who established his ranch in Avocado Heights as a queer space for artists and vaquerx, disrupts masculinized narratives in his photographs’ style and through his positionality.

Historian Susan Stryker argued that gender representation is analogous to a digital image. She writes, “It’s unclear exactly how [a digital image] is related to the world of physical objects. It doesn’t point to some ‘real’ thing… it might in fact be a complete fabrication built up pixel by pixel or bit by bit—but a fabrication that nevertheless exists as an image or a sound as real as any other.” Like the digital image, gender is a construction, not a material fact. Pixel by pixel, bit by bit, the bodily stylings through clothing and accessories, a person’s behaviors and interactions, their movements, dancing, songs, vocal utterances, and expressions add up to the mix of gender, sexuality, class, race, ethnicity, and nationality identifications present in vaquerx lifestyles.

Away from the recursive performance of male bodies in vaquero spaces, Romo shares that out on the trails, men transcend typical male behaviors and share intimate details and stories about their lives with each other over bonfires. They exhibit acts of care, play, and bonding that transmute traditional male roles. Heteronormative behavior characteristics are often found to be more fluid where the binary gender model of nuclear family orientation is out of the picture. Men and women ride together in the desfile around the central park of Avocado Heights to show off their horses, socialize, and play. Performative gender hierarchies, though present here and there, are most often ambiguous and indeterminable within these events or settings. Vaquero/a/x practices can disrupt imposed binaries and essentialist notions through endless re-imaginings of sex/gender models, white/brown bodies, and middle class/working class lives. Vaquero/a/x performance digitizes and decolonizes the body. Like music, it blends and flows in measures and meter imperceptibly.

“Towards the San Jose Creek River Trail”

Interspecies

“Ranch in Avocado Heights”

Horses become the witness of human behavior. Witnessing their play, love, and connection, exists an entire irreducible lifeworld. The horse, the viewer from vantage of the horse, is immersed. They can grasp a sense of the embodied experience but are always in some way dispositioned. One can lament the separation, but the degrees of connection and distance are innate in every interaction, whether that is by photograph or in embracing a partner for the dance. The interaction between man and animal exposes gestural language. In behaviors between animal and human, or photographer and researcher, or dance partners are modes of interaction, coding and decoding practices, and unconscious and conscious choices.

In “The Vaquero Way” a horse trainer, Sheila Varian explains, “The Vaquero method of training is a beautiful song sung with the softness and beauty of the rhythm of the horse. It is about the total harmony and togetherness of horse and rider.”7 The process of becoming a vaquero often begins at an early age. Training involves more than the act of breaking or taming a horse, but developing a mutual relationship, a partnership with another being grown from respect. The best horses are trained over varied terrain and can navigate their surroundings through experiential learning. Feeling and unity with the horse comprise the methodology.

“Pajaretes”
“Recycled wood chips”

Like a photographer and their subject, or a historian and a past culture, animals and human beings train together to become “available to events.”8 French ethologist Jean-Claude Barrey’s analysis of this phenomenon is defined as isopraxis. To him, isopraxis articulates the “unintentional movements” of muscles that fire and contract in both horse and human at the exact same time.

“Talented riders behave and move like horses… Human bodies have been transformed by and into a horse’s body. Who influences and who is influenced, in this story, are questions that can no longer receive a clear answer. Both, human and horse, are cause and effect of each other’s movements. Both induce and are induced, affect and are affected. Both embody each other’s mind.”9

Animals and humans, like material and their environments become response-able. The interface reveals that between space and place, signifier and significant, forms lose distinction. Through iterations, intention, and idiosyncratic relations, emergent patterns evince rich cultural understandings.

“Herrero”

The complex interactive relations described between Avocado Heights’ connection with horses, their fellowship to other riders, how the vaqueros/as become innate stewards of the land, and how this connection ties history to the present situates humans, nature, and horses as central actors in the story. As anthropologist Anna Tsing argues, “Species interdependence is a well-known fact— except when it comes to humans. Human exceptionalism blinds us.”10 No matter the cultural variety available, many believe humanity, the biological human, is a constant. Instead, from molecule to ecosystem, humans reshape as they are reshaped. In considering the domestications that closely knot humans with horses and all other organisms, Tsing asks, “What if we imagined a human nature that shifted historically together with varied webs of interspecies dependence?”11 She and Haraway submit that humanity is an interspecies relationship. It is more than us. It is more than human.

With the connection to the horses, the specific natural history of the San Gabriel Valley, and continual exploitation of the community’s health, Jesús Romo’s photographs convey that we are indelibly intertwined with our environment. Our subject of human nature and what is natural has historically excluded, or marginally considered, nature as a critical element of culture and society. Human behavior is a part of natural processes and never exempt from them. Everything from viruses, evolution, mycelium, deforestation, drought, food systems, tectonic shifts, to cosmic events are essential explanations for behavior. Environmental racism through development discourse is not just material but epistemic violence. Between fact-retrieval through the modalities of linguistic conventions, embodiment and space, or nature, these are “exposures” which emancipate past stories, events, places, things, and people from the rigor of hegemonic, settler, colonial regimes. As each modality can lead one down a lifetime of research for just one subject alone, the researcher alone depends on this collaboration to make something of the findings. The intention of the project and the responsibility of its representation are most important.

Photographs, when not outright exploitative practices, almost ensure a type of embodiment or positionality less credible in alternative medias. Jesús Romo’s positionality, affiliation, and agency inspire an even greater trust in the content and intentionality in representation. Jesús Romo’s photographs are exposures of interspecies assemblage of the San Gabriel Valley.


Notes

[1] David Reid, “Whittier Narrows Park,” East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte, edited by Romeo Guzman, Caribbean Fragoza, et al. Rutgers, 2020. 191

[2] Barraclough, Laura R. Charros: How Mexican Cowboys Are Remapping Race and American Identity, 1st ed.. University of California Press, 2019. 164

[3] Barraclough, Charros, 159

[4] Kara L. Stewart. ”The Vaquero Way.” Horse Illustrated. November 16, 2004

[5] Donna Haraway. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2008.

[6] Vinciane Despret. ”The Body We Care For: Figures of Anthropo-zoo-genesis.” Body & Society. Vol. 10(2–3): 111–134. DOI: 10.1177/1357034X04042938

[7] Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. Friction: an Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005. [8] Ibid.

Daniel Talamantes is a writer from the Central Valley of California. He is working toward a doctorate at Claremont Graduate University currently as an environmental historian, ethnographer, and environmental justice activist. Essays, short stories, and poems of his have been published with Entropy, Elderly, SF Chronicle, Soft Punk, to name a few. His first poetry chapbook Ruminate Emergent was the winner of the Desert Pavilion Chapbook Series and set to be published Fall 2022. 

Jesús Romo is an activist, photographer, and resident of Avocado Heights. You can find him on the trails and fighting for clean air, water, and land with and for SGV residents.

ArticlesPhotography/Art

The Gravity of Things: Grounding landscape parliaments in California’s borderlands

Karl Kullmann

Rolling down under: protesting the proposed fencing off of the people’s hill at New Parliament House, Canberra, Australia. Image credit: Lukas Coch / AAP, reproduced with permission.

An imaginative form of protest took place on the other side of the world in 2017 as some Australians took to rolling down grassy slopes at the heart of the nation’s capital of Canberra.[1] Although it appeared lighthearted, the motivations of these tumbling citizens were quite serious. They were rolling down Parliament Hill, situated at the heart of Canberra’s constellation of avenues and topographic landmarks. They were rolling to exercise an egalitarian ideal that was originally embedded in the design of the New Parliament House.

When conceptualizing the design in the 1980s, the New Parliament House architect Romaldo Giurgola sought to place the people above the parliament, rather than subservient to it. While this ideal has since been expressed in other parliaments—such as Foster and Partner’s gravity defying ramp that spirals above the Reichstag in Berlin—the design for Australia’s Parliament took the radical approach of burying the parliamentary chambers beneath a publicly accessible grassy knoll. This fusion of parliament and landscape sought to embrace the aspirations of all inhabitants and their interdependence with the timeless landscapes of the Island Continent.

The people’s hill: New Parliament House, Canberra, Australia. Image credit: John Gollings, reproduced with permission.

As landscape poetics go, it is a beautiful notion. Yet it is also selective, in the sense that First Australians have never identified with, or felt included in, the narrative of the people’s hill. The Aboriginal Tent Embassy, which for almost half a century has continuously occupied the lawn at the foot of Australia’s Parliament House, embodies this implicit exclusion.[2]

This exclusion remains unresolved, with global events overtaking Giurgola’s egalitarian gesture after little more than a quarter of a century in the ground. The concept of the people’s hill was initially eroded with the tightening of security following the trauma of September 11, 2001. Then, in September 2017, the object of the people’s protest materialized: a nine-foot high welded steel security fence was erected around the hill to finish the job once and for all.[3] By sealing the knoll—and its legislature—off from its citizens, the new fence invokes a fortified medieval hill town that has shut the gate on its hinterland.

Shutting the gate on the people’s hill: fencing off New Parliament House, Canberra, Australia. Image credit: Kym Smith / Newspix, reproduced with permission.

And so, the people roll no more. As is also evident in the worldwide barricading of public space to repel vehicular terrorism, fencing off Australia’s Landscape Parliament is deeply symbolic. It reveals a feedback loop, whereby political systems are pushed further and further away, even as the ideal encapsulated in the people’s hill would seem ever more relevant to many political predicaments on other continents, including here in California.

To comprehend why a landscape parliament in the land Down Under was worth rolling for—and why it is relevant to California—entails venturing a thousand years back in time to Iceland.  The land of ice and fire is steeped in geysers, glaciers, volcanoes, and Sagas. Amidst this storied landscape lies Iceland’s most hallowed ground, where from the year 930 to 1798, Thingvellir (Þingvellir) served as the dramatic venue for the world’s first parliament. Unlike the climate-controlled buildings that house contemporary political forums, Iceland’s parliament was held out under the open sky. Each year, Icelanders gathered amid the rocky fissures formed by diverging tectonic plates to discuss important matters of concern.[4]

Site of the ancient landscape parliament of Thingvellir, Iceland. Image credit: Karl Kullmann.

In reference to its topographic setting, the name Þingvellir translates loosely as meeting valley in English. And while the correlation between vellir and valley is evident, understanding the other half of the name is more complicated. Although Þing is etymologically connected to the English word thing, it is unlike anything we know today. In Old Norse, Þings referred to landscape-based forums for discussing important community matters. Indeed, while the dramatic setting and near millennium of constant use make Thingvellir the most celebrated example, Thing parliaments were established in many locations throughout the Viking world. Their names live on in places such as Gulating in Norway, Tingwalla in Sweden, Tinganes in the Faroe Islands, Tingwall in Shetland and Orkney, and Tynwald on the Isle of Man.

The etymology of Þing can also be traced further back to the ancient Germanic proto-parliamentary Ding.[5] Referring to a general assembly or court of law in Old High German, Dings were often sited in topographically prominent locations that typically included megaliths, springs, or distinctive trees. These meanings were also absorbed into English, with traces of Þing and Ding still retained in thing, in the sense that we might say that someone “knows a thing or two” to imply that they comprehend the issues at hand.[6]

But these traces hang by a thread. In today’s industrialized world, we are far more likely to understand things as the many inanimate objects that surround us with our own indifference. Today, things are just the peripheral stuff that we overlook and often can’t be bothered to call by name. We might run an errand to “buy some things” or observe that we “forgot something.” And as the Internet of Things vaporizes our interaction with everyday appliances into the Cloud, our collective ambivalence towards things seems destined to increase.

Dispensing with things. Self Portrait as Revealed by Trash: 365 days of photographing everything I threw out, gallery exhibit, 2004-2008, Tim Gaudreau. Image credit: Tim Gaudreau, reproduced with permission.

To understand why the language of things changed so profoundly over the centuries—from the discussion of important matters to the trivialization of dispensable objects—entails travelling again. Even as Thingvellir’s parliament continued to operate within the unique and isolated landscapes of Iceland, things were subject to new forces of transformation in Continental Europe. As Europe modernized and political control centralized, the process of land enclosure began to displace the feudal commons that Thing parliaments had traditionally occupied. With no place left in the landscape, Thing parliaments moved undercover, and in time, into the fully enclosed buildings that inhabitants of the industrialized world take for granted today.[7]

In addition to parliaments, other culturally significant forums such as markets, performance spaces, and religious ceremonies also came in from the cold. Extrapolating this process to the present day, enclosure takes the form of industrially scaled agriculture within endless fields of climate-controlled hydroponic greenhouses.

The Sea of Plastic: the fully enclosed agricultural landscape of Mar del Plástico, Almeria, Spain.  Image credit: George Steinmetz, reproduced with permission.

Whereas Things once referred to landscape-based community assemblies for discussing important issues, the enclosure of these forums led to things becoming understood more as the objects that surround them. With things now conceived more as objects than as issues, this shift also had profound implications for conceptions of landscape. Divested of its thingness, the landscape became more of a passive receptacle of physical things than a political Thing inherently.[8] So much so, that today it is hard to imagine landscape in any other way than as a benign scene or as ‘threatened’ nature in need of human assistance.

In this world, the landscape bears the scars of objects and events, but no longer takes a seat in the parliament that it once cultivated. And despite the promise of a seamless globe in which humans, capital, and wildebeest move without friction, the landscape is riven with more fissures than ever before.[9] These divisions take the form of walls between nation states, infrastructural ruptures within communities, socio-economic inequality, fragmentation of ecological biomes, and so forth.

Gathering at the edges: migrants attempting to cross the Macedonian Border from Greece, 2015. Image credit: Nikos Arvanitidis, reproduced with permission.

And yet, many of the most pressing issues that define the present Age of the Anthropocene transcend these barriers with impunity.[10] Walls do not readily circumscribe global warming, nuclear radiation, antibiotic resistance, non-biodegradable plastics, or global human migration. And unlike the everyday things that surround us all, these hyper-things are so vast and enduring that they often defy human scales of comprehension. They reveal a yawning gulf between our hazy awareness of the things that matter and our limited capacity to discuss, let alone address them.[11]

What to do? The issue here is one of horizons. From within houses of legislature or parliament, our shared political horizons are simply too inhibited to accommodate the scale and scope of the Anthropocene. In response, a city, a state, a nation, or even a coalition of nations, may seek to construct more expansive parliaments under which to gather ever-larger political assemblies.[12] And yet, even if these forums were to rival in enormity the largest sporting stadiums on Earth, they would still be buildings. And as buildings, they remain historically bound to the enclosure of political gatherings, and subsequent diminishment of Things into things.

For all their proficiency in keeping the rain out and the politicians in, buildings can never truly become Things. How, then, might the ancient conception of the landscape parliament be re-imagined to stretch our shared political horizons in order to more adequately encompass contemporary matters of concern? That is, how might some of the lost agency of landscape be rediscovered within the political process? How might some of the Thingness of things be recovered?

This is not to imply that Californians begin dissolving Capitol Hills and City Halls and repatriating venues of governance out into the landscape in a futile attempt at refashioning Thingvellir. It is not possible to just go back and recreate Things because the nature of contemporary political processes and assemblies has profoundly changed. To take Things literally in this way would probably just add to the assortment of unused public amphitheaters that unwittingly reify nostalgic yearnings for community congregations of yesteryear.

Taking Things literally: abandoned amphitheater, Foster Park, Ventura County, California. Image credit: Karl Kullmann.

Nor is cultivating Thingness in landscape akin to invoking some form of animism that imbues inanimate objects with a mystical life force. And to be clear, re-connecting landscape and politics has nothing to do with the “blood and soil” that the Third Reich used to such catastrophic effect by weaponizing the power of place on an industrial scale. What it is about is feeling connected to a process. It is about leveraging the public landscape to embolden the public in politics.[13]

To begin this process, the first instinct may be to take down the fences. De-fencing parliaments and legislatures would be a revolution of sorts. It suggests comparisons with the eighteenth and nineteenth century process of dis-parking, whereby the royal hunting grounds of Europe were gradually opened up to public use.[14] This process was initiated by unlocking the gates, and ultimately—as Californians now take for granted in city parks that remain open 24/7—demolishing the boundary walls altogether.

If we return Down Under for a moment and think through dis-parking Australia’s freshly fortified landscape parliament, the flaw in this venture becomes apparent. To remain functional in the current climate, new, more sophisticated, invisible, and insidious forms of security would almost inevitably emerge to offset a de-fenced the house of the legislature. Albeit at a vaster scale, this phenomenon is demonstrated along the US southern border. From California to Texas, the heavily surveilled and profiled 100-mile-wide thickened zone that shadows the border puts fences and walls in context; material expressions of a more pervasive filtering process that occurs before a traveler even knows they have arrived and persists long after they think they have left.

And as the deplorable scenes from the January 2021 breaching of the US Capitol demonstrate, even the most hallowed ramparts can be scaled with sufficient incitement. As at the border, the walls of the Capitol proved more performative than impervious; something reassuringly concrete to assail as a diversion from thinking though what one hopes to accomplish once inside. Here, as at Australia’s parliament, walls and fences are a symptom not a cause. The parliament’s fence is going to remain somewhere; if not encircling the building in full view, then as a thickened zone on the margins, or, more perniciously, as a wall in the minds of those who feel shut out from the political process.[15]

US/Mexico border zone, Jacumba Hot Springs, California. Image credit: Karl Kullmann.

Instead of deconstructing the walls and roofs of official houses of parliament and legislature of the State (only for other more pervasive barriers to raise in their place), a more constructive path could lay in devolving landscape parliaments as parallel processes. That is, perhaps the role of landscape Things today is not to be reprised as (non)representative parliaments for making laws, but to operate as moral shadow parliaments for discussing the issues that really matter; issues that dithering bricks-and-mortar parliaments and legislatures seem to habitually forfeit under the weight of earmarks and the fog of obfuscation.

With Things no longer satisfactorily represented in conventional parliaments and legislatures, where might these shadow landscape parliaments be situated? Perhaps everywhere and nowhere, in the sense that today a great deal of political assembly occurs in online forums that transcend borders and censors. But being digitally untethered from time and place has the significant downside of conveniently enabling individuals to insulate themselves from divisive issues within polarized online communities.

Yet even as social media spins its wheels, when people really need their voices heard, they still take to the streets on foot. If these issue-driven gatherings are to stick for any longer than an outrage-news-cycle, momentarily occupying the frictionless ground of polished airport foyers and online echo chambers is insufficient.[16] To stop Things from just slipping away into a capsicum haze of unfulfilled aspirations, landscape shadow parliaments would need to somehow lodge into the fissures that permeate everyday Californian environments. The Occupy Wall Street movement in New York and the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Australia’s capital Canberra are recent and continuing precedents for this enduring act of literally digging in on an issue.[17]

Interstitial spaces in Northern California, (top) freeway teardown in Hayes Valley, San Francisco, and (bottom) freeway easement in Santa Rosa, California. Image credit: Karl Kullmann.

Although often overlooked in our individual cognitive maps, California’s cultural landscapes are riven with local borderlands that cleave between neighborhoods, discordant land-uses, maintained and derelict sites, and most insidiously, between planning visions and their lived reality.[18]

In many situations, agencies or communities have valid rationales and useful mechanisms with which to heal rifts in the urban fabric. Consider, for example, the re-stitching of San Francisco’s Hayes Valley neighborhood following the demolition of the earthquake damaged double-tiered Central Freeway. Yet in other circumstances, adjacent locales march to decidedly different tunes. Consider a neighbourhood ‘on the other side of the tracks’ that is vulnerable to runaway change when the tracks are sunken or removed. Richmond’s Iron Triangle, which circumscribes an underprivileged neighborhood in the shadow of the oil refinery, encapsulates this condition.

In certain circumstances, this latter type of linear no-man’s-land could provide fertile sites for snagging shadow landscape parliaments. Dug into these thin borderland situations, landscape Things could be configured to thicken the jump-cut between two conditions with a third space that is neither one, nor the other. Here, ancient Thingvellir is instructive, with the geological fissures of the Icelandic setting cleaving space between local clans, into which the parliament occupied an interstitial every-man’s-land over which no single clan held jurisdiction.

The parliament of tears: Friendship Park, California/Mexico border at the Pacific Ocean. Image credit: Karl Kullmann.

While California’s coastal conurbations are riddled with manmade fissures that suggest potential thickening into landscape Things, one of most potent (and confounding) sites surely lies at the State’s southernmost edge. Friendship Park straddles the US/Mexico border on the last high ground before the border fence spills down into the surf.[19] As one of the few locations where in-person cross-border interaction is condoned for a few hours on weekends, Friendship Park is a place of family reunions, mixed emotions, sit-in protests and coordinated trans-border activities. Twin fences define the site; one on the border, and a second inside US soil. This second fence is furnished with a disproportionately monumental gateway that promises thoroughfare but leads only to no-man’s-land.

Considered in the context of other heavily fortified no-man’s lands in urban areas, one may continue to hope for a future ‘Berlin moment,’ whereby the fortification of California’s southern border is eventually demolished as a relic of history.[20] But in the meantime, working within current geopolitical realities, how might a site such as Friendship Park be thickened into a third space? How might the fledgling aspirations Friendship Park be amplified into a landscape Thing?

At present, the challenges of the site and situation are immense. The fences are too insistent, admission to the controlled no-man’s-land too selective, and the shared horizon glistening out across the Pacific Ocean too bittersweet. Indeed, as the semantic distinction between fences and walls becomes increasingly partisan, the border ‘fence’ at Friendship Park is now so heavily armored with welded mesh—leaving apertures barely wider than a human finger—that it is, in substance, already a ‘wall.’

And although walls ably defended territories for thousands of years, their presence today is decidedly regressive.[21] In the sixteenth century, as medieval fortifications proved increasingly ineffective against advancements in ballistic technology, horizontal defensive earthworks supplanted vertical masonry walls. Reaching its zenith in Europe’s Renaissance star forts, this strategy can still be explored today in the Batteries that were built along the California coast in the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, the advent of long-range ballistics pushed defensive earthworks to new extremes. As threats materialized from over the horizon in every direction, people retreated underground, relying on the thickness and shape of the land as their primary mode of defense.

Battery Cavallo, Fort Baker, California, circa 1938. Image credit: National Archives and Records Administration, Aerial Photographs Collection, image in the public domain.

This brief fortification primer illuminates the superiority of strategically shaped landform over masonry walls and reinforced fences. By shifting this capability from a defensive to a public conception of space, the shaping of landscape thickness becomes an intriguing proposition. Through the medium of land shaping, what form could a shadow landscape forum at Friendship Park—or elsewhere—take?

Mounding the landscape up into a hill would seem the obvious answer. As was (until recently) possible on Australia’s Parliament House hill, Californians from all walks of life may seek to fabricate the moral high ground from which to better foresee and understand the expansive issues at hand. If the concept of a political horizon is conflated with the physical horizon (as formed by the curvature of the earth), climbing a hill would appear to expand one’s horizons, allowing each of us to see more things—to literally see over the wall.

To take things to the next level, those who are so inclined could go a little higher in the basket of a hot air balloon and expand their political horizons a little further. Or, they could liftoff into the low Earth-orbit of the International Space Station and see what satellites see. Or, like the astronauts on Apollo 17, travel halfway to the moon to catch the lonely blue marble within the single frame of a Hasselblad; revealing that the whole Earth is itself a thing, albeit one that no human can see both sides of at the same time. In the sense that this epiphany energized the environmental movement, humanity has been metaphorically trying to get back down to Earth ever since.[22]

The Earth becomes a thing: Southern California and Mexico seen from the International Space Station. Image credit: © 2011 NASA, ISS, reproduced in accordance with NASA/ISS non-commercial use policy.

The point is that the higher an individual goes, the more likely they are to feel as though they are on top of things. And yet, from up on the hill (or space station) their horizons defer further outwards, circumscribing more and more issues while leaving them no closer to grasping or acting on the issues that matter. But what if this yearning to climb is upended, and instead of seeking landscape Things up on hills, we think of Things as forming down in hollows? Once again, ancient Thingvellir offers guidance here, with the geologically fissured Icelandic landscape providing a range of crevices that drew in gatherings of varied scale and scope within their embrace.

Through the organizational pull of gravity, hollows instinctively collect things. Consider the dunes on the floor of California’s Death Valley, where over the eons each grain of sand made its way to a gathering of like-minded grains at the lowest point in North America. Or in a more general sense, consider how water—access to which is a defining wall-crossing issue of the twenty-first century—converges fluidly into hollowed out landforms.

And like the water that makes up about 60 percent of our bodily mass, hollows can also collect humans. If the people rolling off Australia’s parliament hill were to repeat their mass tumble from the rim of a hollow, they would all end up drawn together at the bottom. What they may find there could be confronting, since hollows have also served historically as dumping grounds; as places where all the things that humans discard end up, out of sight and out of mind. It turns out that many of these things are still there, decaying on a geological timescale. Confronted with these things, the parliamentary hollow impels its occupants to recall; not in the sense of officially ordering someone (such as a Governor) to return, but in the other sense of bringing an event or situation back into one’s mind.[23]

Hollows foreground these things by compressing space and time by retraining the horizons of those who enter them. When going down into a hollow, everyone’s personal horizon temporarily retracts to the rim of the concave landform.[24] A kind of horizonal hand-over occurs, whereby instead of retreating unceasingly into the distance (and off into the future) as each individual moves around, the horizon stays tethered to the landform. As a result, everyone in the hollow sees the same horizon. That is, they share a collective horizon with the many other things—human, non-human, and inanimate—that are gathered in the present moment.

Gathering things: the horizon as formed by the curvature of the Earth from (top to bottom) on the plain; up on the hill; and down in the hollow. Image credit: Karl Kullmann.

The other thing about hollows is that they leak. Through either infiltration or evaporation, hollow landforms leak water (otherwise they would become lakes), and unfortunately hollows often leak toxins when associated with dumping grounds. Yet in a positive sense, hollows also potentially leak people and ideas. In contrast to the illusion of a hermetically sealed leak-proof house of parliament, the landscape parliament shaped as a hollow makes no claims to being watertight. Unlike a wall or fence, the rim that encircles the hollow landform remains permeable. Freed of the limitations that architectural containment places on access and participation, humans, along with many other things, can cross over this topographic threshold and gather to discuss matters of concern. And when the time for discussion has passed and the time for action is present, they can move back over the collective threshold and leave.

Outside of the hollow, the Earth’s horizon comes back into focus and the wider world, with its myriad issues, comes back into play. Out here individuals are potentially primed to extend issues of concern beyond a preoccupation with their own and immediate futures, which from ecological crises to genetic design, encompass vast and miniscule scales and temporalities.

However, potential does not necessarily translate into actuality. While this can be true in any situation, it is doubly so in the landscape. Whereas the programmatic capacity of buildings is reasonably predictable, predetermining the usefulness of a landscape in advance remains an imprecise art.[25] Buildings have doors and roofs with which to encapsulate and regulate the activities of their occupants. Landscape, on the other hand, is less obliging; think of landscape in terms of the vagaries of the weather upon which it is beholden, or in terms of the indeterminate flow of the rivers that run through it.

Fluid horizons: “View of Sacramento City as it appeared during the great inundation in January 1850 / Drawn from nature by Geo. W. Casilear & Henry Bainbridge. New York : Lith. of Sarony c1850.” Source: California State Library, image in the public domain.

The landscape’s inherent uncertainty can be extended to humans, who often do not adopt landscapes in the way in which planners intended. Part of this is undoubtedly down to the preponderance of poorly designed public spaces (in California and elsewhere) that fail both functionally and expressively. Yet even with the best intentions, landscapes can fall flat. In this context, expecting landscape parliaments to routinely perform as places for actual discussion could backfire. The weight of expectation could create intimidating spaces that people completely avoid, unwittingly adding to the existing trove of empty amphitheaters.

Instead of pressuring landscape things to be routinely parliamentary from the outset, perhaps their role needs to be initiated in more down to earth terms. Positioned more humbly, landscape Things would principally seek to simply collect people in situ, essentially drawing each of us out of our internet of things and into the shared world of Things. Once drawn—like moths to a lamp—into the public realm, we are more likely to participate in, and engage with, the issues (or things) that concern us all.

Drawn together: groups around bonfires on Ocean Beach, San Francisco. Image credit: Kim Komenich / San Francisco Chronicle / Polaris, reproduced with permission.

From this unassuming basis, in certain situations where particularly potent matters of concern converge on the ground, contemporary landscape Things might emerge. While there is a great deal of indeterminacy involved, we can assume that these Things are unlikely to leaven on Capitol hills. Just as legislatures and issues are not progressing, forums and gatherings are not aligning. The forums that govern Californians are fixed at the center, on the hill, while the gatherings that matter dig in at the edges, in the fissures. It is here that shadow landscape parliaments are at most likely to be at home.

Given that they are not tied to the conventional apparatuses of federal, state, or local governance, to which other scales might landscape shadow parliaments extend? And, in addition to Friendship Park, where else in California might these reimagined landscape shadow parliaments (Things) be dispersed? As nature and politics increasingly converge, perhaps Things might draw within their horizons each of the world’s 867 bioregions, ten of which intersect with California.[26] Or, across the Sierras, perhaps Landscape Parliaments might grip onto the salty banks of the overdrawn Mono Lake, stripped of inflows that are gravity-fed southbound along the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Or, as traditional zoological gardens become less and less defensible, Things might colonize the naturalistic habitats of decommissioned animal exhibits in San Francisco zoo.

Drawn to the edge: Sunken City, Sn Pedro, California. Image credit: Karl Kullmann.

Or, perhaps the position of Landscape Parliaments might be calibrated to sea level rise projections: not safely on higher ground, but at the waterline near vulnerable communities such as East Palo Alto, to be intentionally inundated as a wet-feet reality check on rising tides. Or, find niches amidst the fragmented ruins of the aptly named Sunken City near Long Beach, where buildings and streets slumped into the Pacific Ocean. Or, ride the precipice of vanishing ground, by convening Things on the concrete pads of recently demolished buildings atop Pacifica’s rapidly receding cliff line. Or, inhabit the new ground that results when landfill is decommissioned, such as that of the Albany Bulb wasteland that protrudes into the tidelands of San Francisco Bay’s eastern shore.

By gathering Californians together within the contours of these settings, Landscape Things might help us to recall the gravity of the things that matter, nearer to where they matter.


Notes

[1] Editorial, ‘Australians Roll Down Lawns of Parliament House to Protest Against Fence’ (17 December 2016), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-38349994.

[2] Gregory Cowan, ‘Collapsing Australian Architecture: The Aboriginal Tent Embassy’, Journal of Australian Studies 25/67 (2001): 30–36.

[3] Henry Belot, ‘Parliament House’s Iconic Grass Lawns Blocked Off by New Security Fences’ (11 September 2017), http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-09-12/security-fences-shut-patrons-out-parliament-house-grassy-slopes/8896074.

[4] Agust Gudmundsson, ‘Tectonics of the Thingvellir Fissure Swarm, SW Iceland’, Journal of Structural Geology 9/1 (1987): 61–69.  Richard Beck, ‘Iceland’s Thousand Year Old Parliament’, Scandinavian Studies and Notes 10/5 (1929): 149–153.

[5] See Kenneth R. Olwig, ‘Liminality, Seasonality and Landscape’, Landscape Research 30/2 (2005): 259–271.

[6] Here I draw on Martin Heidegger, ‘The Thing’, in: Albert Hofstadter (trans.), Poetry Language Thought (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 161–180, at 173.

[7] See Álvaro Sevilla-Buitrago, ‘Urbs in Rure: Historical Enclosure and the Extended Urbanization of the Countryside’, in: Neil Brenner (ed.), Implosions / Explosions (Berlin: Jovis Verlag, 2014), 236–259.

[8] See Kenneth R. Olwig, ‘Heidegger, Latour and the Reification of Things: The Inversion and Spatial Enclosure of the Substantive Landscape of Things–The Lake District Case’, Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography 95/3 (2013): 251–273, at 256.

[9] See Karl Kullmann, ‘Route Fittko: Tracing Walter Benjamin’s Path of No Return”, Ground Up (Delineations) 5 (2016): 70–75.

[10] In the current epoch that Paul Crutzen famously labelled the Anthropocene, human activity is permanently recorded in the geological record. Paul J. Crutzen, ‘The “Anthropocene”’, in Eckart Ehlers and Thomas Krafft (eds.), Earth System Science in the Anthropocene (Berlin & Heidelberg: Springer 2006), 13–18.

[11] Here I draw on Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).

[12] Here I draw on Bruno Latour, ‘From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik or How to Make Things Public’, in Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), 4–31. Bruno Latour, ‘A Cautious Prometheus?’ Keynote lecture for the Networks of Design meeting of the Design History Society, Falmouth, Cornwall, 3 September 2008.

[13] The public landscape is not limited to the bucolic countryside or the protected wilderness. Today it also includes the burgeoning urban landscape: the streets, the parks, the appropriated interstitial spaces, the postindustrial wastelands, the cultural precincts, and even the external surfaces of buildings.

[14] The archaic verb dispark means to ‘divest a park of its private use’ by ‘throw[ing] parkland open.’ Charles Talbut Onions (ed.), The Shorter English Dictionary on Historical Principals (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), 530.

[15] This is a reference to the Mauer im Kopf (the wall in the head), that persists in the psycho-geographies of Berliners long after the fall of the concrete Berlin Wall.

[16] This is a reference to the spontaneous airport demonstrations that followed the Trump administration’s January 2017 Muslim travel ban.

[17] For a site-specific mapping of an Occupy site, see Jonathan Massey and Brett Snyder, ‘Occupying Wall Street: Places and Spaces of Political Action: Surveying a Hypercity Built of Granite and Asphalt, Algorithms And Information’, Places Journal (September 2012), https://placesjournal.org/article/occupying-wall-street-places-and-spaces-of-political-action/.

[18] See Karl Kullmann, ‘Thin Parks / Thick Edges: Towards a Linear Park Typology for (Post)infrastructural Sites’, Journal of Landscape Architecture 6/2 (2011): 70–81.

[19] For in depth explorations of the Mexico/US borderlands, see Michael Dear, ‘Imagining a Third Nation: US-Mexico Border’, Ground Up (Delineations) 5 (2016): 46–55.

[20] For a distinctly theological perspective on the California border in relationship to California citizenship, see Jason S. Sexton, ‘Borders and Barriers: Citizenship in California’, in Kirsteen Kim and Alexia Salvatierra (eds.), Los Angeles as a Global Crossroads: Migration, Transnationalism, and Faith (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2022), 131–150.

[21] The return of border walls has revived some decidedly medieval devices for their circumvention in the form of ladders, catapults and tunnels.

[22] On the cultural impact of the whole earth image, see Denis Cosgrove, Geography and Vision: Seeing, Imagining and Representing the World (London: I.B. Taurus, 2008), chapter 1.

[23] As defined by The Oxford English Dictionary: Second Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).

[24] See James J. Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (Hillsdale NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1986).

[25] See Karl Kullmann, ‘The Usefulness of Uselessness: Towards a Landscape Framework for Un-activated Urban Public Space’, Architectural Theory Review 19/2 (2015): 154–173.

[26] As classified by the World Wide Fund for Nature, bioregions are ecologically and geographically distinct areas.

Karl Kullmann is a landscape architect, urban designer, and Associate Professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture & Environmental Planning, University of California, Berkeley.

Articles

Roadside Art in the “Salad Bowl of the World:” How Agricultural Ideology Obscures Racial Capitalism and Inhibits Labor Reform

Tracy Perkins

            Drivers passing through the Salinas Valley from the San Francisco Bay Area to San Louis Obispo, Santa Barbara and points further south see a visually beautiful landscape. Strawberries, lettuce or artichokes stretch in neat rows to the base of steep hills blanketed with grasses that, depending on season, are colored alternately emerald green or golden. If the drivers notice workers in the fields, they will likely be small, distant figures who are quickly passed. In the place of actual workers, however, drivers may see one of the many attractive, larger-than-life cutout billboard murals of farmers and farmworkers.

            The farm fields that form the paintings’ backdrops make up the “salad bowl of the world,” so-named for the region’s export-intensive cool weather crops. The people depicted look happy with their work. They are painted in bright, sunny colors, and stand alone or in groups of two or three. Press coverage of the billboard art describes it as celebrating the region’s agricultural economy and its people (Pogash 2005; Roth 2013). But there is more to these images, and to California agricultural history, than first meets the eye. By alternately obscuring the existence of farmworkers or suggesting to the broader population that farmworkers are happy and well-treated, this art draws on long-standing agricultural ideologies to sustain racial capitalism and inhibit organizing, ultimately rendering agriculture’s reform more difficult.

Image 1: Billboard mural of “field man” Bob Lyman holding sliced head of lettuce. Vernon Morris provides scale. Photo by Tracy Perkins. Mural by John Cerney.

            Most of the cut-out billboard murals are painted by Salinas based artists John Cerney and Dong Sun Kim. Their murals often depict specific people, either current or past owners or workers at the farms where the billboards are displayed. Cerney grew up in the Salinas Valley, where he worked in the post-harvest lettuce industry before getting a college degree in art. He has been painting giant cutout billboard people since the 1990s, and estimates that he has completed about 300 in his career, 30-40 of which are scattered around Monterey County, where the Salinas Valley is located (Chatfield 2018; Roth 2013). Most of his work is commissioned by business owners, organizations and sometimes individuals, but as his career has matured he has also begun creating murals of his own design that he donates to towns around the country (Chatfield 2018).

            There is little information available in the public sphere about Kim. He is a self-taught artist who emigrated to the Salinas Valley from Seol, Korea. His youthful art depicted nature scenes, but as he got older, he developed an interest in “all things American.” (Indeed, much of Cerney and Kim’s work fits into the larger category of Americana). Kim fed this interest by reading US history books and watching cowboy movies (Robinson 2012). After his emigration, he collaborated with Cerney for a time on Cerney’s cut-out billboard murals, and now paints these and other murals on his own.

Image 2: Farmers and their artichokes. Photo by Tracy Perkins. Mural artist unknown.

            The Salinas Valley billboard people draw on familiar visual themes. For example, Image 2 shows two happy, friendly older white men. One has one arm casually around the other man, while his other hand, wedding ring visible, rests on the sign behind which they are placed. The other man holds three plump artichokes. Both wear old-fashioned glasses and coveralls with the “Ocean Mist” logo sewn onto the breasts. The billboard is painted in an Americana style reminiscent of the 1950s that evoke values of honesty, hard work, and thrift. The men’s weathered, smiling faces tap into agrarian tropes that suggest pride in work done well and according to the season’s changing patterns, and life in tight-knit rural communities in which people are both independent and yet also supportive of their neighbors when trouble strikes.

            As a single image, this mural could be simply a historical representation of the two men in question. But images never stand alone. This mural is in the company of other such agricultural imagery in the Salinas Valley, across the nation, and indeed in food products at grocery stores seemingly everywhere. The regularity with which such happy, white, old-timey farmers appear in agricultural imagery is what signals that something larger than individual artistry is at work. In this case, that “something larger” is ideology (Althusser 1971). More specifically, it is the ideology of Jeffersonian agrarianism combined with a more recent and overlapping form of white nostalgia.

            Ideologies are systems of ideas that either support or contest the way the world works. Dominant, or ruling ideologies combine with what Althusser calls repressive state apparatuses (i.e. the police, courts, prisons) to supp­­ort existing economic structures (capitalism) and the multiple forms of exploitation that uphold it (1971). The ideology of Jeffersonian agrarianism is foundational to the widespread tendency in the US to associate farmers with positive moral values. Thomas Jefferson saw small-scale farmers as particularly virtuous members of society. He promoted an economy based on small-scale farming combined with a weak federal government as the best foundation for a healthy democracy (Jefferson 1982). However, Jefferson’s vision was meant for free white farmers who labored on land that they owned. It excluded enslaved Africans and those who worked land owned by others. These exclusions from the category of virtuousness and democracy, were necessary to support Jefferson’s own lifestyle. Jefferson owned 13,700 acres of land and at least 187 enslaved people at the time of the US Revolutionary War (Isenberg 2016). As a “founding father” of the nation, Jefferson’s agricultural ideology also had larger significance beyond his own household, directing attention away from the enslaved Africans and African Americans whose labor provided the foundation of much US agriculture and wealth (Baptist 2014; Carney 2002; Johnson 2013). Jeffersonian agrarianism thus upheld white supremacy.

            Jefferson’s agrarian vision persists (Buttel and Flinn 1975; Wald 2011). Now, it is most explicitly called on by white advocates of small-scale, family farming (Rampell 2017). But even though Jefferson attributed unique worth to the small-scale, pre-industrial, white, land-owning farmer who supplies most labor needs with family members, his vision has also been bent to the purposes of large scale, industrialized agribusinesses owned by whites who employ vast numbers of largely non-white, non-family labor.

            The idealization of white rural life embedded in Jeffersonian agrarianism strengthened after the Civil War ended legal slavery; as the US population changed from predominantly rural to predominantly urban in the 20th century; and again in the post-Civil Rights era. In each of these moments white nostalgia informed agrarian ideologies, and racial ideologies in general. White nostalgia functions, for whites, to cast in a warm glow of memory all-white spaces of the past, or racially mixed spaces in which whites were unquestioningly at the top of racial hierarchies. As Maly, Dalmage and Michaels write, “Nostalgia is a special type of memory, one that elevates pleasurable experiences… while scrubbing away stories that are unpleasant and even shameful” (2013:758–59), such as the horrific treatment of enslaved Africans, Black sharecroppers, and, more recently, Mexican farmworkers. As a result, the valorization of white farmers and erasure of workers of color has persisted across time in art, advertising, literature and politics (Alkon and McCullen 2011; Mitchell 1996; Sackman 2005; Wald 2011, 2016). When they are not simply erased, slaves and workers of color are typically portrayed as servile, simple, happy and/or exotic in ways that serve dominant economic interests (Adamkiewicz 2016; Besky 2014; Klein 2020).

            Many of these nostalgic visions now paint dreamy visions of white life in the 1950s which, not coincidentally, was the last decade before the bulk of the legal victories of the civil rights movement took place in the 1960s. Indeed, many of the Salinas Valley’s agricultural billboards depict aesthetics and agricultural technologies from the 1950s and earlier. These revered pasts took place before the disruption of (limited) racial integration in the 1960s, and, for the white lower middle classes, the economic erosion of the 1970s and beyond.

            Romanticized depictions of white rural life and agriculture hide the foundational role of Latinx farmworkers in California; 90 percent of today’s crop-workers in California are foreign born, with only 3% self-reporting as neither Hispanic nor Latino (U.S. Department of Labor n.d.). For example, Image 3 shows a presumably white man holding a head of lettuce while kneeling next to a packed lettuce box and his trusty dog. The box of lettuce is labeled with the Dole logo. This depiction intimately associates the man in question with the packing of the lettuce. However, the man depicted was the real-life owner of an agribusiness that farmed 10,700 acres of vegetable crops in California’s Salinas and San Joaquin Valleys as well as Arizona; one of his customers was the multinational corporation Dole Food Company (Caprara 2010; Preston 2016). It is highly unlikely that business owners who are responsible for farming on this scale spend much time packing produce. And even if they did, the vast majority of the labor would still be done by the Latinx who overwhelmingly make up the California agricultural labor force.

            Ocean Mist Farms, as depicted in Image 2, is also a large enterprise: they are the largest single grower of artichokes in the US, and grow in Arizona, Mexico, and four other regions of California in addition to the Salinas Valley (Anon n.d.-b). As such, they surely rely on Latinx farmworkers, despite the two kindly-looking white men featured on their billboard, and despite whatever their labor force may have looked like in the company’s early history.

Image 3: Owner of R.C. Farms, which sells to Dole, poses next to a packed box of lettuce. Photograph by Tracy Perkins. Mural artist unknown.

            Large scale, industrial farms are not the only agricultural enterprises that regularly depict white farmers while relying substantially on Latinx labor. Smaller farms, and especially organic ones, are often associated with white family farmers and/or fair labor conditions for workers. Image 4, painted by Dong Sun Kim, shows two white people surrounded by bountiful produce (Ha 2007). The billboard depicts a man and a woman standing closely together, the man pointing the way to the farm, and the woman leaning into the man. The image suggests a couple, and therefore a family farm. At their feet, the name of a farm is printed on the side of a box full of diverse produce. A quick internet search confirms that the people depicted are indeed a couple and the real-life owners of the farm in question. They are the third generation of their family to live on the property, they farm organically, and have farmed a relatively small 50-100 acres (Anon n.d.-a).

            Like this couple, whites in the Salinas Valley billboards are usually painted in ways suggestive of a status as farmers or farm owners by being positioned standing, with farm branding, and/or without hand-tools – see also Images 2 and 3. Latinx are typically depicted actively laboring on the land, and are less likely to appear with farm branding unless they are painted doing the work of packing branded boxes – see Images 5, 6 and 7. This representation of farmers/farm owners as white and farm workers as Latinx fairly accurately represents reality. Although there are important exceptions to this trend (Jett 2020; Mihesuah and Hoover 2019; Minkoff-Zern 2019; White 2018), across the US farm owners are largely and disproportionately white and farmworkers are largely and disproportionately Latinx. This racialized distinction between farmers and farmworkers depends in part on systems put in place across history to use people racialized as “other” than white as the foundation of agricultural labor. But it also depends on other systems that prevented people of color from owning land themselves, or that disappropriated or discriminated against those who did (Daniel 2007; Jett 2020; Matsumoto 1993; Minkoff-Zern and Sloat 2017; Ng 2002).

           Still, the billboard depicted in Image 4 constructs a white understanding of farming that belies the state’s largely Latinx labor force on not just conventional but also most organic farms. In addition to the makeup of the workforce, there are also the working conditions to consider. Although consumers often assume organic farms treat their workers better, organic farms cannot be assumed to have better labor practices than conventional farms; some do, but plenty of others do not (Getz, Brown, and Shreck 2008; Guthman 2014).

Image 4: Billboard mural of the owners of Swank Farms. Photo by Tracy Perkins. Mural by Dong Sun Kim

           In obscuring the labor of Latinx workers, much of the Salinas Valley roadside agricultural art also does something more: it hides the larger economic context of racial capitalism. This concept draws attention to racism’s important role in American capitalism, which both produces and profits from racism as it has been enacted in wages, working conditions, immigration policy and labor protections, or the lack thereof (Baptist 2014; Du Bois 1999; Robinson 2005).

           A vast array of different racialized groups provided the labor on which the agricultural economy depended across California history. Indigenous peoples formed the primary agricultural labor force from colonization until the mid 1850s; first those brought from what is now the Mexican state of Baja California, and after too many of them died en route, later from what is now California. Catholic missionaries were a leading edge of colonialism, and indigenous people were not allowed to leave the missions without permission. Those who fled were often tracked down and returned by soldiers, and sometimes whipped and jailed. They were neither paid for their work, nor could they typically own personal property, marry of their own accord, move about at night, or raise their own children. The status of Indigenous farmworkers changed little after Mexican Independence, when modern day California changed hands from Spain to Mexico in 1821, nor after it changed hands again to the United States in 1846 (Street 2004). Disease and genocide decimated Indigenous populations, and survivors fled farm work.

           The Salinas Valley’s roadside agricultural art evokes the feel of small, mom-and-pop farm businesses. But the size of California agricultural enterprises was enormous almost from the start, set into place by Spanish and Mexican land policies that granted huge tracts of land to favored colonial elites (Daniel 1981).  Farmworkers, not family members, provided the labor on the majority of California’s vast farms – California was one of the few places outside of the slave south in which farming was not largely a family effort (Street 2004). California agriculture was also firmly capitalist by the time it joined the United States, with few of the subsistence or semi-subsistence farms more prevalent elsewhere.

           Workers from many other groups assumed the positions of the early indigenous farmworkers over time, including those from Asia (China, Japan, Korea, India, and the Philippines), Europe (Ireland, Germany, Britain, Italy, Portugal) and Latin America (Chile, Mexico, Central America), as well as Black workers from the US South and other American-born people (Daniel 1981; Street 2004; Walker 2004). To counter the organizing of existing workers, foreign born workers were brought in whenever possible in order to create an oversupply of labor that helped maintain low wages. Many were recruited from parts of the world suffering economic and social upheavals, and were often misled about the nature of the opportunities that would be available to them in California. Conditions of travel and life upon arrival were often harsh. Chinese workers were subject to mob violence and individual assaults by whites, some of whom were organized in parallel to the Ku Klux Klan through the Order of Caucasians (Street 2004).

           Widespread Depression-era labor unrest ultimately extracted new labor protections from the federal government, but key reforms that created a national minimum wage and protected the right to unionize were denied to agricultural workers. This national carve-out was a result of a political deal made to appease Southern Democrats intent on preserving Jim Crow by blocking any possibility of improving the circumstances of the region’s mostly Black agricultural workers (Farhang and Katznelson 2005). Then, from 1942 to 1964, the Bracero program formalized the pattern of supplying plentiful foreign-born laborers at low wages – this time from Mexico. Close to five million people were issued short-term worker permits during the lifetime of the program, and others came without official paperwork (Mitchell 2012). The industrialization of agriculture also intensified during this period – poisons were increasingly applied to crops to control pests, and workers suffered the consequences (Walker 2004).

            Ever since the Bracero era, California agricultural workers have remained predominantly Mexican. The latest wave of workers to occupy the bottom rungs of the agricultural work force are indigenous Mexicans whose numbers began to grow in the 1990s. Some speak neither Spanish nor English and are thus particularly vulnerable to abuse. Indigenous farmers are especially concentrated in Coastal California, of which the Salinas Valley is part (Mines, Nichols, and Runsten 2010).

            Across all of this time, whites racialized agricultural workers to justify their exploitation, arguing that people of color were less susceptible to disease, and that particular racialized groups, which changed over time, were “naturally suited” to backbreaking agricultural work (Holmes 2013; Maldonado 2009; Omi and Winant 2015; Street 2004). White farm owners and politicians also racialized agricultural workers to build up social barriers between groups in order to make cross-racial organizing more difficult (Valdés 2011). As a result, since colonization farmworkers have worked under changing legal circumstances that have had them work without wages or have kept those wages low. These systems have been extraordinarily effective. In 2019, the state earned over $50 billion in cash receipts from agriculture, making it the leading agricultural state in the nation (USDA Economic Research Service n.d.). The devaluation of agricultural workers of color that many white farmers both benefited from and helped create enabled white agricultural capitalists to pay lower wages and provide worse working conditions than they might have otherwise, thus generating more profits. In other words, racial capitalism provided a foundation for California agriculture from its origins to the present day, even though at certain moments of history poor whites also formed significant parts of the exploited class of farmworkers.

***

            The tendency for white farmers to be valorized and for people of color farmers and farmworkers to be obscured is deep and long-standing. But while most of the agriculturally themed Salinas Valley cut-out billboard murals depict white-presenting people, what makes the collection more interesting are the murals that call attention to Latinx farmworkers. The paintings of them are dignified and show them as contributors not only to the local economy, but also the global food supply. For example, in Image 5, a Latino worker carries a long length of irrigation pipe on one shoulder in front of text that reads, “Salinas Valley: Feeding Our Nation.” The mural connects Latinx agricultural labor to masculinity, pride of place and pride in farmworker contributions to the global food supply. These images uniquely stretch the Jeffersonian valorization of white farmers to include Latinx farmworkers as well. This is significant in light of the systemic erasure of farmworkers from the public imagination of agriculture (Alkon and McCullen 2011).

            Returning to Althusser’s theory of ideology is useful here. In his accounts, ruling ideologies that support the status quo coexist with challenger ideologies that contest the status quo. But, ruling ideologies often incorporate parts of these challenger ideologies in ways that blunt their impact. As a result, ruling ideologies change over time, responding to changing political conditions in ways that sustain capitalism. Indeed, dominant agricultural ideologies in the US have changed over time in ways that parallel broader ideological change: from Jeffersonian agrarianism (Jefferson 1982), to white nostalgia (Adamkiewicz 2016; Maly et al. 2013; Mann 2008), to, most recently, symbolic multiculturalism (Gunderson 2021).[i]

            Multiculturalism potentially functions as a challenger ideology, but, when reduced largely to symbolism, becomes another facet of ruling ideologies. The Latinx workers depicted in the Salinas Valley billboard art can be read as examples of symbolic multiculturalism, which showcases people of color without fundamentally challenging their (collectively) subordinate place in the economy. Symbolic multiculturalism can do more than simply fail to make things better – in depicting people of color as happy and empowered, it can actively undercut efforts to reduce racism by promoting the idea that racism no longer exists.[ii]

Image 5: Billboard mural visible from highway 68 when entering Salinas from the south. Photo by Tracy Perkins. Mural by John Cerney.

            These outcomes can occur even when they are not the intention of the artist nor of the person commissioning the art. The first billboard cut-out people that artist Cerney created were commissioned by the owner of a local produce company to honor his workers, many of whom are Latinx, and to draw attention to their contributions to the food supply (Pogash 2005). As the farm owner says, “I was tired of people bad-mouthing agriculture… thinking everything comes out of a bag or carton. I was trying to show the community it takes a lot of people to grow food, that farming is a good occupation and that people work in the fields to produce good food for us” (Paris 1999). The figures were modeled on employees, and one was even painted to honor a specific worker who had been with the company for over fifty years on the occasion of his 80th birthday (see Image 1) (Cerney n.d.). The website of the company that commissioned and displays the 18-foot-tall murals describes the labor that each of the billboard people are conducting: thinning, harvesting, packing, and weighing boxes of harvested lettuce, as well as overseeing the irrigation and the farm as a whole. The billboards and website together educate the public about the specific, diverse skills need to accomplish the tasks required of farmworkers and farm managers (Anon n.d.-c).

            Commentators quoted in press coverage of the billboard murals respond with enthusiastic endorsements, from the president of Salinas Valley Chamber of Commerce to a dean at nearby Hartnell College to a spokesperson for Salinas’s National Steinbeck Center (Garcia 2017; Paris 1999; Pogash 2005; Roth 2013). The latter says that the billboard murals “do what public art is supposed to do, it enriches the landscape visually and emotionally” (Pogash 2005). Journalists call the work empowering and heroic (Garcia 2017; Pogash 2005), or comment on the likeness between Cerney’s work and that of famed local author John Steinbeck, writing, “In a certain light, Cerney’s plywood figures are an extension of Steinbeck’s lifelong passion for giving voice to the voiceless” (Roth 2013). The only slightly sour note is sounded by the chair of the Visual and Public Arts Department at nearby California State University Monterey Bay, who notes that the murals do not show, “poor working conditions, illnesses from pesticides and bad housing,” which is “a whole other story that’s never told” (Pogash 2005). However, she is quoted as saying that this is because the farmer who commissioned the farmworker billboards is “positive and fair with his workers.”

            Herein lies the crux of interpreting the Salinas Valley agricultural billboard art, and other images like it. The intent of the artist and the person who commissions the art matters, as do the labor practices of the farm owners who commission the work and the experiences of the workers depicted. But what is more significant is, first, the way the art will be read by the general public, who know little to nothing of these individual level details, and second, the structural conditions that continue to leave most farmworkers vulnerable to violence and abuse. Even if the farm owners who commission images of farmworkers are all fair-minded employers who go above and beyond existing labor law, the structurally vulnerable position of most farmworkers remains. This vulnerability is not accidental. It has been reproduced at great cost to farmworkers over and over across California history, via, in part, racial capitalism and the ideologies that support it. In sustaining exploitative agricultural economies, these ideologies work in tandem with Althusser’s repressive state apparatuses (1971): the Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcements, and the courts.

            And, despite the above assertion that the farmworker murals give “voice to the voiceless,” this is not actually true. While the murals draw attention to the often-unacknowledged labor of farmworkers, they are painted by artists at the request of farm owners, not farm workers. The results depict a uniformly positive experience of farmwork, despite many farmworkers’ actual claims of difficult working conditions, low pay and abuse, and efforts to have their children enter occupations other than farmwork. None of the press coverage I found included any quotes from farmworkers. Rather, press coverage “gives voice” to the artists, the commissioning farm owners, and at times an array of other local business, cultural and educational leaders. In only one case were the opinions of farmworkers even tangentially referenced. Below, artist Cerney describes a conversation with the farmowner who first commissioned billboards depicting workers, showing how Cerney came to use real farmworkers as the models:

On his first commission, [the farmowner] said, “use your own people [as models].” I said “well, it’ll be more intimate, and you’ll get more of a kick out of it, if you use your own people.” So he relented and I used some of his farmworkers, and now, boy I hear stories of one of these guys who comes out here and cleans it off every couple of weeks, and they’re all proud of it, and it turns out to be a good thing. (Anon 2006)

Of all the existing coverage of the art that I found, this story told by the artist, as told to him by, presumably, the farmowner, is the closest thing to providing insight into farmworker reception of the art. Although the story could have been distorted as it was passed along from farmowner, to artist, to audience, there likely are indeed farmworkers who are pleased to be commemorated in art, or pleased to see images of other farmworkers so commemorated. But such a reception does not affect the billboards’ broader ideological impacts. Despite showcasing the role of Latinx farmworkers in the regional economy and the global food supply, the Salinas Valley agricultural murals also obscure the actual conditions in which much of this labor takes place.

Image 6: Billboard mural of worker bending over to trim iceberg lettuce. Photo by Tracy Perkins. Mural by John Cerney

            What the images show is as important as what they do not show: sexual violence, hunger, injury, exposure to poisons, wage theft, labor regimes that profit from racial hierarchies which leave farmworkers vulnerable by design, and the threat of deportation imposed by a nation that cannot stomach their presence and yet cannot do without their labor. In Fresno County, the most agriculturally productive county in the country with $3.7 billion dollars of annual farm sales, nearly half of farmworkers go hungry (Brown and Getz 2011; Wirth, Strochlic, and Getz 2007). Farmworkers also suffer from multiple, layered health problems that evolve over time in response to pesticide exposure, stoop labor, injuries, violence, and inadequate health care (Holmes 2013; Saxton 2015). Many are part of binational families and remain separated from loved ones for long stretches of time; their opportunities to visit home involve dangerous crossings of the US border that risk their lives (Holmes 2013; De León 2015; Lopez 2007). Women, who make up 29% of California farmworkers (U.S. Department of Labor n.d.), are particularly at risk of sexual violence at work (Waugh 2010; Yeng and Rubenstein 2013). One Salinas Valley field is known among workers as the “field de calzón,” or “field of panties,” because of how many rapes take place there (Tamayo 2000). But the Salinas Valley billboards do not show these grim realities. Instead, the billboard workers often look happy, as in the smiling lettuce worker in Image 6 who is bent over in the form of stoop labor that has long debilitated farmworkers. Crucially, what also is not shown is farmworkers’ long history of collective organizing against these abuses. Rather, the billboard murals depict individual farmworkers contentedly going about their daily labor in the fields in ones, twos and threes, as in Image 7.

Image 7: Billboard mural of woman weeding and thinning early crops. Photo by Tracy Perkins. Mural by John Cerney.

            Though you would not know it from looking at the roadside agricultural imagery of the Salinas Valley, farmworkers consistently found ways to organize for improved working and living conditions across Spanish, Mexican and US rule. In the first 13 years of the 1900s alone, Japanese farmworkers created successful labor associations, Japanese and Mexican sugar beet workers struck in Oxnard, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or Wobblies) organized farmworkers known as bindlemen, and hop pickers staged the largest strike of farmworkers in California history at that time (it became known as known as “Bloody Sunday” or the Wheatland hop riot) (Street 2004). The Communist Party, Congress of Industrial Organizations, and the American Federation of Labor also all organized agricultural workers through the 1930s. California was a hot-spot: half of the more than 275 agricultural strikes of the 1930s took place there (Valdés 2011:6).

            Although Braceros were brought to the US under conditions designed to limit their ability to organize for improved working conditions, they too undertook such efforts (Loza 2016). Mexican workers organized strikes starting in the very first year of the Bracero Program, 1942. Farmworkers kept striking through, among others, the DiGiorgio farm strike of 1947-1950, the Imperial Valley lettuce strike 1961, and the Delano grape strike of 1965. The latter led to the creation of the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), launching the farmworkers movement (Mitchell 2012; Valdés 2011). During the 1960s and 1970s, farmworkers increased their wages, improved working conditions, signed union contracts with employers that banned the use of highly toxic pesticides, strengthened pesticides regulation and helped legalize collective bargaining (Pulido 1996; Wells and Villarejo 2004). Other victories included banning the use of the short handled hoe, called el cortito, which required its users to damage their bodies by staying bent over as they used it, hour after hour, day in and day out (Jourdane 2004). However, many of these gains were later eroded as growers fought against their victories, as Republicans newly voted into public office in 1982 undermined their legislative victories, and as the UFW moved away from its early strategy of on-the-ground organizing (Wells and Villarejo 2004). Knowing this history is vital to developing the ability to see the ‘work’ that ideology does to deflect attention away from the long history of racial capitalism in agriculture, and the long history of resistance to it.

***

           Although all ideology has a relationship to the economic order of the day, the Salinas Valley agricultural billboards have a particularly close relationship to the local economy. While the billboard murals are regularly described in the press as public art, they are also commercial. Many of the images advertise the businesses in question. In some cases this is explicit, as in Image 8, which uses nostalgic, old-timey imagery featuring a 1940’s era tractor and oversized artichokes, a regional specialty, to draw people into a roadside store. Indeed, several of the agricultural billboard murals, such as Image 4, have run into problems with the government resulting from conflicting opinions about whether the images were advertisements, which have size and location restrictions, or art (Anon 2006, Ha 2007; Chatfield 2018). In other cases, the billboards themselves are objects of interest. For example, Images 1, 6 and 7 are listed as attractions at the demonstration farm and visitor center where they are located. Indeed, several of the farms that display the murals run agritourism projects on their properties (corn mazes, pumpkin patches, etc.), and thus need to find ways to encourage visitors (see Image 4). Many of the murals sell an image of agriculture that benefits the farms in question by tapping into nostalgia for purportedly better, simpler times to generate visitors and sales.

Image 8: Roadside mural features a wagon of oversized artichokes, one of the region’s specialties, being pulled by a 1940s-era tractor. Photo by Tracy Perkins. Mural artist unknown.

           Although Cerney says money is not that important to him and that he leads a simple lifestyle (Anon 2006), the practicalities of making a living as an artist still require finding a way to financially support the art. Cerney says, ruefully, “When I can do exactly what I want to do without anyone telling me, that’s what I really love to do. I wish money wasn’t a factor. I would do nothing but my own work, place it in the field, and if my bills were paid I would do nothing but that” (Anon 2017). Instead, as he says elsewhere, “I do a lot of farm stuff because I live here and people ask me to do that” (Paris 1999). Roth makes the connection between Cerney’s art and the regional economy more explicit: “Farm life holds no special appeal for [Cerney], but given that his plywood people are placed in fields and he’s based in one of California’s most profitable farming regions, farm paintings are the ones that bring him the most attention” (2013). Cerney speaks further to the impact of the commission process on subjects of his art, saying that early murals he did on the side of barns,

led to, eventually, people seeing your work and calling you, commercial businesses, “What can you do for me.” Because my work was realism. It was easy for the average person to take in and understand. My thought process, my way of working, was a little Norman Rockwellish, with a little sense of humor. Which everybody got, and everybody understood. So it was easy to sell to make a living doing that. So I got on that treadmill and started doing that. (Anon 2017)

Cerney’s explanations of the financial constraints on his art, and the commercial interests that have led to the creation of much of his agriculturally themed work, underscores the relationship between ruling ideologies and the economic systems in which they are enmeshed. Indeed, the murals are commissioned by people who can both afford the fee and either own or rent property on which to display the billboards, both of which tilt the art away from representing the ideas of poor people such as farmworkers. And given the long-established hostility of many farm owners to organized labor in the region (Flores 2016; Frank Bardacke 2011; Neubeurger 2013), depictions of farmworker organizing would not only not be commissioned by most farm owners, but to many would be unwelcome additions to the regional landscape.

           Imagine, for example, artist Ester Hernández’s 1982 redesign of the famous “Sun Maid” raisin advertisement. The original advertisement features a young white woman wearing a red bonnet and holding a basket of grapes, referencing an Edenic agricultural environment, abundance, purity, and femininity. However, Hernández’s version features the harm experienced by grape workers. She replaces the fresh-faced girl with a skeleton that wears the same red bonnet and holds the same basket of grapes. Hernández’s text tells viewers that “Sun Mad” raisins are “unnaturally grown” with insecticides, miticides, herbicides and fungicides (Hutchison 2013). A subsequent image made in 2008, titled “Sun Raid,” recasts the original advertisement again, this time to critique workplace raids and the deportation of Mexican workers.

           Or, consider Octavio Ocampo’s work, “Cesar Chavez: Portrait of La Causa,” which superimposes UFW leader Chavez over a landscape that could well be the Salinas Valley. An airplane sprays pesticides over skulls on one side of the valley, and crosses float above the mountains at the top of the image. The skulls and crosses represent harm and death to farmworkers, while on the other side of the valley, and showing through Chavez’s translucent face and body, are masses of farmworkers holding banners and signs, representing the farmworker movement. Such artistic representations underscore how far removed the Salinas Valley billboard art is from any critique of the agricultural industry. It is no accident that Hernandez and Ocampo’s paintings are displayed in museums rather than on the properties of commercial farming enterprises.

***     

            The Salinas Valley’s roadside agricultural imagery offers lessons bigger than their local impact. Some of them show that Jeffersonian agrarianism and white nostalgia continue to frame much of the public view of agriculture. Others show that even when these narratives are pierced with depictions of the nation’s Latinx agricultural workforce, just inserting into the public consciousness people whose contributions to society have been systematically minimized is not enough. American history is full of examples of workers who, when they are not erased, are depicted as happy in their circumstances or romanticized in other ways (think, for example, of the “happy slave” tropes present in so many depictions of plantation agriculture (2020)). Such depictions contribute to the continuation of exploitative labor regimes by associating the status quo with warm, happy feelings. As one admirer writes, “Every time I cruise by one of Cerney’s pieces, I think of the thousands of drivers and passengers locked in their cars. Suddenly, a purple and orange cow appears on a roadside field. Moods improve. Life seems simpler and easier. Even if it’s just for a moment. That, to my way of thinking, is the highest form of public art in public places” (Nordstrand 2014). This writer references a quirky mural of a multicolored cow as an example, but their comments also apply to the murals depicting the human components of agriculture – the farmers and farmworkers that make it all happen. But what is needed is not public art that reassures, but art that unsettles. Art that reifies old, romantic tropes of agricultural labor serves the ideological and commercial interests that have exploited farmworkers for centuries. What is needed is art that challenges ruling ideologies by centering workers’ interests rather than those of their employers.

Acknowledgements

Christopher Gunderson’s generous suggestions provided much of the theoretical framework of this paper. The author would also like to thank for their comments Ruben Espinoza, Rodney Green, Vernon Morris, Manuel Vallée, Lauren Richter, Christie McCullen, and participants in the fall 2019 “Currents: Humanities Work Now” series at the University of Maryland Baltimore County’s Dresher Center for the Humanities, at which an early version of this work was presented.

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[i] Christopher Gunderson provided this term as I have used it here. I have since found that there is also limited, overlapping use of the term in the published literature, used primarily to describe Canadian politics (Roberts and Clifton 1990).

[ii] Symbolic multiculturalism thus overlaps significantly with what other scholars have called color-blind racism, racism without racists, and multiracial white supremacy (Bonilla-Silva 2014; Omi and Winant 2015). All of these respond to claims of racism with surface-level improvements that allow some few people of color to rise to elevated social and economic positions without fundamentally challenging racism at its roots, thus sustaining overall racial inequality.

Tracy Perkins is an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University. She specializes in social inequality, social movements, the environment, agriculture and the politics of knowledge, and produces traditional written academic output as well as photography and digital humanities websites. Her book Evolution of a Movement: Four Decades of California Environmental Justice Activism (University of California Press, 2022) examines the political evolution of the California environmental justice movement from the 1980s to the mid 2010s. Dr. Perkins has degrees from UC Berkeley, UC Davis, and UC Santa Cruz, and previously worked as an Assistant Professor at Howard University. See more of her work at tracyperkins.org.

ArticlesPhotography/Art

Indigenous Oaxacan Visibility

Brenda Nicolas

The following article references the exhibition and programming series Boom Oaxaca. Presented by Arte Américas and the Centro Binacional para el Desarollo Indígena Oaxaqueño, “Boom Oaxaca: Conversaciones de Campo a Campo” is an invitation to participate in local and transnational conversations around food sovereignty and Indigenous sovereignty as issues that uniquely converge in the Central Valley’s Oaxaqueño community. Boom Oaxaca is guided by the work of Narsiso Martinez and Tlacolulokos, who use self-representation and visibility as an act of political rebellion, and as an autonomous approach to an ownership of culture. Grounded in the context of both Oaxaca and California, these artists create images of often invisibilized spaces, and in turn demand attention and humanize the experiences of their community. The exhibit is open until August 14th, 2022 at Arte Américas, Fresno California. For more information visit: https://boomoaxaca.com/

*

To talk about Latinidad, migration, or invisibility, requires us to examine Indigenous migration from Abiayala (Latin America).[1] When we consider Indigenous diasporas from Abiayala and across the Pacific, in addition to American Indians in the United States, California is one of three states with the largest Indigenous population.[2] In the San Joaquín Valley, Ñuu Savi (Mixtecos) from Oaxaca and Triquis make up most of the Indigenous Mexican diaspora.[3] Their migration and settlement patterns are due to Mexico opening to US foreign markets (1960s–1980s) that instituted agricultural reforms to seize communally owned lands throughout Oaxaca, largely ending self-sufficient farming.[4] The restructuring of the market caused pricing of corn and other main crops to drastically fall, which then prevented small farmers and families in rural Mexico to compete with large-scale companies. As Indigenous Oaxacans were forced to migrate, large-scale farmers subsequently benefitted from agricultural reforms and sought cheap and skilled labor from those fleeing the Mixteca region, including Triquis and Zapotecs mostly from the Sierra Norte, to be hired in Veracruz, northern Mexico, such as Sinaloa, San Quintin, and other Baja California areas, and eventually the United States.[5] With NAFTA, however, US contract recruiters sought Oaxacans as new immigrant cheap labor to supplant traditional migrant-sending rural communities from states like Michoacán, Jalisco, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosí, and Zacatecas who are largely non-Indigenous mestizos.[6]

As the “Boom Oaxaca” exhibition seeks to make visible, Oaxacan migrants are predominantly Indigenous peoples who have settled in San Diego, Los Angeles County, Oxnard, Santa María, Bakersfield, Fresno, Madera, Watsonville, and Hollister. The US racialization process towards migrants from south of the border, unfortunately obscures their unique identity and culture. We are Indigenous peoples, not Latina/o or Hispanics. As Native peoples to the “Americas” relationship to land is tied to Indigenous world views, practices, and mutual existence that shapes how Indigenous Oaxacan diasporas make meaning to the lands we are guests/visitors on. Therefore, to talk about Indigenous Oaxacans in the United States requires us to rethink how we have historically been racialized in this country, how our racialization affects us, and how it benefits colonial structures who force us out of our Native land, while extracting natural “resources” that give life to all beings. Ñuu Savi, Triqui, Zapotec, Chinantecs, and other Indigenous Oaxacan generations throughout California, continue to organize across the US and Mexico border.

Tlacolulokos, (Ruiz Gallery, Arte Américas) — Photo by Samuel Contreras

From grassroots efforts built in response to racial violence (“bullying”), labor injustices in the fields, living conditions in the US, to state repression in Oaxaca—particularly the horrific tortures, murders, and disappearances of teachers and allies during the 2006 uprising, and other unlivable conditions perpetrated and allowed under settler colonial governments—Oaxacans throughout California and in Mexico have never stopped organizing nor demanding justice. Grassroots cross-border organizations like the Frente Indígena de Organizaciones Binacionales (FIOB) have left their footprints for newer generations, and nonprofits like the Centro Binacional Para el Desarrollo Indígena Oaxaqueño (CBDIO), and the Mixtec Indígena Community Organizing Project (MICOP) have also enabled our visibility and our voice as Indigenous peoples by speaking against racial, cultural, and linguistic homogenization that affects both our self-determination and rights to existence as Indigenous peoples. Children of migrants who were brought as children or who were born in the United States are maintaining and constructing new ways in which as Indigenous Oaxacans we say, “still here,” “we do exist” and we continue to be Indigenous despite thousands of miles away from our ancestral homelands.[7] From the FIOB youth to the Oaxacan Youth Encuentro (OYE), the Tequio Youth Group in Oxnard, Los Autónomos in the Central Valley, the OaxaCal student group at UC Berkeley, other youth-led Oaxacan collectives, cooperatives, including Oaxacans with a large social media presence, demonstrate how Indigeneity is neither static nor is it detached from homeland or collective existence. Being Ñuu Savi, Triqui, Zapotec is a complex interplay between land, memory, survival, and relational being.

This space (not a place) that Oaxacans refer to as Oaxacalifornia, a term coined by anthropologist Michael Kearney, takes many shapes and reflects both the violent and nonviolent experiences Oaxacans generations have confronted.[8] As younger generations come of age, however, they increasingly reflect how their unique position as Indigenous guests on Native land informs their interactions with the Native people whose lands they are guest on. In her work with relocated American Indians and Indigenous Oaxacans in Silicon Valley, Renya K. Ramírez (Winnebago/Ojibwe), refers to this coexistence as “Native Hub.” For Ramírez “Native Hub” is a collective network of support relocated American Indians and Indigenous Oaxacan migrants create using their knowledge, cultural, social, and political processes to build intracommunity belonging away from home.[9] As a growing field of study, Critical Latinx Indigeneities (CLI) privileges Indigenous diasporas from “Latin America” in scholarly work by considering social, political, cultural, religious, and other forms of collective Indigenous practices in the US. Since its formation in 2013, Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars—long dedicated with Indigenous migrants—take on a critical analysis that considers Indigenous diasporas’ unique position as guests on Native land and settler colonial interventions across Abiayala.[10] In doing so, CLI scholars have added to the complexities of Latinidad, Chicanidad, and mestizaje.

The art presented by Zapotec artists Narsiso Martínez and the Tlacolulokos bring together diverse Indigenous Oaxacan experiences in the San Joaquín Valley of California. Based on self and community representation, they portray a plurality of Oaxacan migrant experiences spanning the Central Valley and Los Angeles County. Martínez, who was born in Oaxaca and migrated to California at the age of twenty, represents the hard labor of Oaxacan migrants working in the fields. Unique to his style is the use of produce boxes, rather than canvas, which he gathers himself from local grocery stores. With the use of these recycled boxes, he gives greater meaning not only to those who help produce what they hold, but to everyday consumers who seldom think of the people exposed more than eight hours a day to scorching heat waves and pesticides. As a former farmworker himself, Martínez began working in the fields as a young kid. During college, he returned to work in the fields to pay for his tuition. His story, however, is not his alone—many Oaxacan children raised in the Central Valley have had similar experiences, including some of the organizers and contributors to this exhibition and those they grew up with, such as members of the CBDIO and FIOB Fresno.

Narsiso Martínez, Always Fresh, 2018, Ink, Charcoal, Gouache, Gold Leaf, and Collage on Reclaimed Produce Boxes, Compound LB. © 2018, Narsiso Martinez. Photo by Roger Gonzalez.

Young Oaxacans in the fields and at school face endless anti-Indigenous discrimination by the larger non-Indigenous Mexican community they grew up alongside. This discrimination, at times being physical violence, frequently targets Oaxacans who speak their Native language in public, have darker skin and other bodily stereotypical features, and simply for “looking Indigenous.” For example, take the 2012 campaign, “No Me Llames Oaxaquita” (“Don’t Call Me Little Oaxacan”), where Indigenous Oaxacans organized to demand the Ventura County School District ban the derogatory term “Oaxaquita” and “Indito” (little Indian) from their schools after incessant ridicule and bullying.[11] Yet this case, which received international news, is not new—it has been happening since the first wave of Oaxacan children, many of whom are now in their late forties and fifties in Los Angeles. Through his art, Martínez demonstrates his own experience as a former field worker, which is often the experience of many other Oaxacan youth in the US.

Similarly, Dario Canul and Cosijoesa Cernas, two Zapotec men from the Tlacolula-based art collective known as the Tlacolulokos, show a multitude of Oaxacan urban experiences in their murals. Particularly, they capture the experiences and emotions between different urban landscapes that Oaxacan migrants cross (Los Angeles and now Fresno) and those they leave behind (mostly the Central Valleys of Oaxaca and more recently the Sierra Juárez). Like Martínez, the portraits they draw have names, are living, and not made up. They express sadness, longing, happiness, rebellion, thoughtfulness, firmness, and seriousness. More than a simple mixture in art, they bring the nostalgia and impact on traditions that migration has had on Oaxacans by displaying the portraits with tattoos, piercings, baggy jeans, blue LA Dodger baseball caps, white T-shirts, and Nike Cortes, while merging them with the traditional clothes and hairdos of the pueblos, alongside a wind instrument like a trumpet.

Tlacolulokos, Guerreros de la Calle, 2021, acrylic paint on cotton canvas, Arte Américas. Commissioned for Boom Oaxaca with a grant from The McClatchy Fresno Arts Endowment of The James B. McClatchy Foundation. © 2021, Tlacolulokos. Photo by Roger Gonzalez.
Tlacolulokos, Low Rider, 2021, acrylic paint on cotton canvas, Arte Américas. Commissioned for Boom Oaxaca with a grant from The McClatchy Fresno Arts Endowment of The James B. McClatchy Foundation. © 2021, Tlacolulokos. Photo by Yadani 
Tlacolulokos, Hazlo tu Mismo, 2021, acrylic paint on cotton canvas, Arte Américas. Commissioned for Boom Oaxaca with a grant from The McClatchy Fresno Arts Endowment of The James B. McClatchy Foundation. © 2021, Tlacolulokos. Photo by Yadani 

Although Cernas and Canul have never migrated to California, through conversations they record on both sides of the border, they are able to understand the difficulty migrants express of living and working hard in the US to barely get by, while attempting to send remittances to their loved ones. Meanwhile, those who stay in the pueblos feel the everyday pain of having their child, husband, parent, or sibling del otro lado (on the other side) wondering when, and if at all, they will see each other due to their immigration status. One of their mural panel displays from their 2017 exhibition, “Visualizing Language: Oaxaca in Los Angeles,” states, “Donde quiera que vayas” (wherever you may go), which makes homage of all generations in diaspora that we have not forgotten where we come from, even if we were not born there. Their identity and love for their pueblos is ours too—we continue to be communally invested in and with our pueblos and relatives back in the hometown. In other words, we live, embody, and in multiple ways continue our traditional practices with our pueblos.

These multiple forms of practices are rooted in Indigenous ways of being described as comunalidad, according to Ayuujk intellectual, Floriberto Díaz Gómez (1951–1995) from Tlahuitoltepec Mixe, and Zapotec intellectual, Jaime Martínez Luna (b. 1951) from Guelatao in the Sierra Juárez. Comunalidad are practices rooted in the community’s collective wellbeing. They are run by, for, and with the community. These communal practices happen through dances, playing in the Oaxacan brass bands, harvesting, and taking on a cargo (position) in our usos y costumbres (Indigenous customary law)municipalities and its agencies, especially for pueblos of the Sierra and Mixteca region that still practice multiple communal ways of life, and do not have electoral politics or political parties.

As Indigenous peoples in the United States, our comunalidad practices and beliefs of “doing for the good of the people” have also been used in demanding that our rights be respected. Most recently, the killing of Zapotec youth, Gerardo Martínez Chávez, by the Salinas (Monterey County) police has sparked outrage among the community. The ongoing murders and brutality by the police against Brown and Black unarmed men for crimes they did not commit.[12] However, Indigenous men, mostly from Latin America, like that of Mr. Martínez Chávez and Maya Ki’che’ day laborer Manuel Jamines Xum, shot and killed by the LAPD in 2012, have made it all too clear that Indigenous peoples continue to be invisible beyond the countries they came from. Both men’s language was their Native Zapotec and Maya, respectively, and therefore community organizers and other human rights advocates argue that they did not understand the English or Spanish commands of the officers nor were they offered a translator. Under federal law, any public agency receiving federal money, like a hospital, clinic, or police station, is required to have a translator available for the person in question, regardless of legal status. Organizations throughout California, like that of the Centro Binacional Para el Desarrollo Indígena Oaxaqueño, the Frente Indígena de Organizaciones Binacionales, the Mixteco Indígena Community Organizing Project, and the Comunidades Indígenas en Liderazgo have begun to provide interpreting services for Indigenous Oaxacan migrants, and others as well, throughout the country.

As a space in which multiple Indigenous Oaxacan voices come together with allies, “Boom Oaxaca” attempts to make visible distinctive and common ground experiences as Ñuu Savi, Triqui, Zapotec, and other Indigenous Oaxacans. Like the artists themselves, the portraits, Indigenous organizations and sponsors of the exhibition, and academics who are Zapotec, we say invisible no more! We continue to exist and be Indigenous! To intentionally map ourselves in these spaces is to resist settler colonial erasure inside and outside Latinidad, Chicanidad and mestizaje. Like Indigeneity, Oaxacans are diverse, have held fluid identities to survive elimination, and have complex realities that cannot be singly defined, but do require the creation of “comfortable spaces to have uncomfortable conversations” about Indigeneity, nationalism, racial violence, even if others may not want to listen or brings up critiques of Indigenous appropriation. As Indigenous peoples, responsibility and respect are a comunalidad process among each other as pueblos originarios (original pueblos/peoples). Many Oaxacan generations in diaspora are still closely related to our respective pueblos. These same Indigenous communal values of respect for the land and its peoples are now part of our relationship building with the Native peoples on whose land we are guests throughout California. To our Indigenous Oaxacan communities and relations, we give thanks—Yoshxleno!

~ A Zapoteca mother & scholar, Brenda Nicolas (Sierra Norte).


Notes:

[1] Also spelled Abya Yala.

[2] Census 2020

[3] Fox and Rivera-Salgado 2004; Holmes 2013

[4] Andrews 2018

[5] Hernández-Díaz 2019

[6] Cornelius 1990; Durand, Massey, and Zenteno 2001

[7] Odilia Romero, Los Angeles Times, 2021.

[8] Kearny 1991, 1995; Rivera-Salgado 2014; Stephen 2014

[9] Ramírez 2007

[10] Blackwell, Boj Lopez, and Urrieta, 2017.

[11] For more on the “No Me Llames Oaxaquita” campaign see, Nicolas, “Reclamando lo que es nuestro: Identity Formation Among Zapoteco Youth in Oaxaca and Los Angeles” (2012); Marco Werman, “Oxnard Group Trying  to Make ‘Oaxaquita’ Epithet Illegal,” The World: Public Radio International, May 31, 2012, https://www.pri.org/stories/2012-05-31/oxnard-group-trying-make-oaxaquita-epithet-illegal.

[12] Nix et al. 2017.

Dr. Brenda Nicolas (Bene Xhiin, Zapotec) is Assistant Professor in Global Studies at UC Irvine where her work looks at the transborder communal experiences of Zapotec diasporas in Los Angeles. Dr. Nicolas received her PhD in Chicana/o and Central American Studies (UCLA). She has an M.A. in Chicana/o Studies (UCLA) and an M.A. in Latin American Studies from UC San Diego. She holds a B.A in Sociology and Latin American Studies from UC Riverside. She lives in LA and enjoys spending time outdoors with her son and husband.

La Dra. Brenda Nicolás (Bene xhiin, zapoteca) es Profesora Asistente en la facultad de Estudios de Globalidad en UC Irvine donde su trabajo analiza las experiencias comunitarias transfronterizas de las diásporas zapotecas en Los Ángeles. La Dra. Nicolás recibió su doctorado en Chicana/o y Estudios Centroamericanos (UCLA) donde también completó una Maestría. Tiene una Maestría en Estudios Latinoamericanos de UC San Diego y recibió una licenciatura en Sociología y Estudios Latinoamericanos de UC Riverside. Vive en Los Ángeles y le gusta pasar tiempo en las afueras con su hijo y esposo.

Articles

“Know the hands that feed you”: Gentrification and labor migration in West Marin

Jessica Lage

Gentrification and dual migration

One day in fall of 2019, my family and I made one of our frequent trips along the winding pastoral roads of West Marin to spend a day hiking to the beach. The early morning air was cool, the California Buckeye had lost their leaves and the Big Leaf maple were turning shades of orange, red, and yellow. We passed several pelotons of bicyclists, cohorts of motorcycles enjoying the curves, and then a string of fifteen bright-colored Lamborghinis raced by. When we arrived in Point Reyes Station, the town bustled with people drifting from the bookstore to the bakery to the specialty food stores. As on most weekends, groups of cyclists in Lycra and bikers in leather collected on the sidewalk to enjoy a fresh scone and a coffee, and Porsches outnumbered pickups.

West Marin—the northwestern corner of Marin County—is only an hour from San Francisco and East Bay cities.[1] Despite its proximity to the urban metropolis, it feels remote, and two-lane coastal or country roads are the only access routes.[2] It is rural in appearance—mostly ranchlands and small towns whose physical landscape gives few clues of a gentrified population—but it is no longer the relatively isolated agricultural area it once was. West Marin is experiencing profound socioeconomic changes that are reflective of the landscape of growing wealth and expanding poverty across the Bay Area.

Rising global inequality, the global housing crisis, and the epidemic of foreclosures put the spotlight on gentrification in cities around the world.[3] Gentrification is often thought of as an urban phenomenon, yet in Northern California, what’s happening in rural Marin County—where there is gaping income inequality and a severe housing squeeze—is an essential part of the bigger picture of gentrification in the San Francisco Bay Area as a whole. It illuminates the complex interrelationships between urban and rural areas—and how they give rise to and are intertwined with each other.

Over several decades, as the technology industry has transformed the Bay Area, the influx of people and capital into urban areas has played an important role in shaping rural West Marin: recreation and agricultural tourism, both in part initiated and cultivated by urbanites, draw tourists from surrounding areas; second-home owners and short-term rentals have driven housing prices up and removed rental units from the housing market. But while stories about gentrification often disproportionately focus on the in-migration of wealth and the displacement of working class communities, in doing so, they overlook another critical aspect of gentrification: dual migration, or the in-migration of workers who come to meet the needs of the service economy. Several streams of in-migrants have made West Marin what it is today, but the Mexican immigrants and their Mexican American families who began to arrive in the 1960s are those who sustain the agricultural and tourist economies of gentrifying West Marin.

Migration to West Marin

Before European explorers and Mexican settlers arrived in West Marin, Coast Miwok people lived in the area for thousands of years. Shellmounds date the history of Coast Miwok people in Marin to 5,000 years ago, while oral histories date the lineage as twice as long.[4] More than 100 villages, some with several hundred inhabitants, dotted the point’s sloping mesas, the shores of Drakes Estero, and the hills across Tomales Bay.

The earliest non indigenous settlers in Marin County were known as Californios, families who had received land grants from Spain and Mexico in the late 1700s and early 1800s. In the mid-1800s, immigrants from all over the world flooded to California during the Gold Rush; many who came to make their fortune from gold discovered that ranching would be more profitable than mining, as demand for local products grew with the great influx of forty-niners to San Francisco. Irish, Swiss-Italian, and Portuguese immigrants found their way to West Marin, where they ran dairy ranches. Chinese laborers also ended up in West Marin, building the narrow-gauge railroad that would run between Sausalito and Sonoma County, up the east shore of Tomales Bay; many Chinese settled and worked on potato and dairy ranches and as cowboys or fishermen.[5] Later, in the early 1900s, Japanese families started farms on the peninsula, until they were interned in prison camps in the 1940s.

In the nineteenth century, West Marin’s year-round grasses and cool maritime temperatures made it the most productive dairy land in California. By the late 1800s, it was a center of agricultural production for San Francisco, which, as a result of the Gold Rush, had become a financial hub of the state. Wealthy families from the city retreated to summer residences in West Marin, beginning a tradition of second homes in the small coastal towns. In the 1920s, some urbanites began to commute from West Marin to jobs in the city. By the 1950s, some summer people had retired to their vacation homes and lived there year-round. West Marin towns also appealed to artists, who were drawn by the scenery as well as the quiet lifestyle and still relatively cheap land. Socially and politically, West Marin was a conservative area, comprised mostly of ranchers and others involved in agriculture, along with a smattering of artists, retirees, and summer residents.

In 1962, Point Reyes National Seashore was established and began to attract visitors from the nearby urban centers of the Bay Area. Over time, a small tourist industry around outdoor recreation took hold. Also beginning in the 1960s, back-to-the-land hippies began to arrive, fundamentally changing West Marin and bringing the social and political flavor associated with West Marin today. “It was the people who came in the 1960s and ‘70s who made it liberal,” one long-time resident told me.[6] The members of the 1960s counterculture did more than bring different politics and professions; they also founded some of the essential community institutions, including the community center, the health clinic, and the radio station.

Another stream of migrants began to arrive around the same time as the counterculture, with as significant an influence, though less visible: Mexican immigrants who first came to work on the dairy ranches. In the decade after the seashore was protected, surrounding agricultural land was also protected, through a county zoning mandate and—a few years later—a successful agricultural land trust. As a result, unlike in many rural gentrifying areas, agriculture maintained its hold in West Marin. In order to compete with industrial agriculture in the rest of California, Marin’s small family ranches found ways to connect to the growing foodie culture of the Bay Area. Beginning in the early 2000s, an agricultural-based tourist economy flourished; West Marin increasingly became a destination for tourists and second-home owners, not only because of its natural beauty and protected seashore, but also because of its local food economy and agricultural attractions.

Camilo Hermosillo is said to have been the first Mexican immigrant to settle in West Marin. He came to the United States with the Bracero program in 1952, but later returned to Mexico. In 1964, he made his way to the Marin/Sonoma border, where he found work on a dairy ranch. Hermosillo was from Jalostotitlán (Jalos), a town in the Mexican state of Jalisco. Others from Jalos soon followed him and found work on the dairy ranches as milkers. Point Reyes became the primary destination for the Mexican immigrants from Jalostotitlán,[7] and an extended network of migrants from Jalos and surrounding villages began to settle in West Marin.[8]

The local newspaper estimated that in the early 1970s, the Spanish-speaking population in West Marin was 300 and that by the early 1980s, it had tripled.[9] One immigrant who arrived in the 1980s told me that when she came, “only the people who worked on the farms were Latino. So it was very hard to see any Latinos working at the Palace Market [local grocery store] or at hotels.”[10] Over time, two things changed: the young men who immigrated from Mexico began to bring their wives and girlfriends and start families in West Marin; and the need for more service workers grew as visitors to the area increased and the tourist economy expanded.

Over the next few decades, immigrants from Mexico continued to come for jobs on the dairies. Others found work on oyster farms in Tomales Bay. Family members found work in West Marin towns—in restaurants, lodging, stores, housekeeping, and landscaping. As the children of Mexican immigrants have grown up in West Marin, fluent in English and with the opportunity to go to school and continue with higher education, second- and third-generation Mexican Americans have gone on to find jobs with the National Park Service, in schools and banks, pharmacies, and other professions. “Now you will see Latinos working in every corner of this area.”[11]

Mexicans and their Mexican American families have been critical to sustaining the agricultural and tourist economies. They have also transformed West Marin—in workforce, school population, and community presence—yet they face difficulties that are accentuated by gentrification, including lack of housing, food insecurity, invisibility in the workplace and misunderstanding on the part of the Anglo community.

Cows grazing in a West Marin pasture.

“Invisible labor”

In West Marin, gentrification—in-migration of upper-income residents, displacement of workers, and the increasing gap between housing prices and wages—has gone hand-in-hand with the preservation of agriculture, and agriculture itself has become gentrified. The productive landscape and its products are principal amenities, drawing visitors and amenity migrants who romanticize and consume them as much as the scenic vistas, beaches, kayaking, and hiking opportunities in the national seashore.

But agricultural labor, mostly done by Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans, is largely invisible to the tourists who come for ranch and farm tours, and to others who consume the specialty cheeses and grass-fed meats produced in West Marin. Publicity for ranches and farms, local foodie tours, and websites about local farming and culinary attractions all praise the hard work of ranching families and farmer-owners, but wage laborers are rarely, if ever, mentioned. One website written by a self-described “passionate advocate for sustainable agriculture, artisan food producers, and craft beverage makers” posts recipes, articles about heirloom vegetables and local farmers markets, and stories about local ranchers and artisan cheese- and cidermakers. She describes the people she writes about as: “…farmers [who] are passionate and committed in everything they do. Many come from families that have worked the land for generations; others have left traditional careers in search of a simpler, more authentic existence. All of them feel a connection to the earth that threads to their core.”[12]

Similarly, publicity for a local food and farm tour company quotes a rancher and cheesemaker as describing her favorite part of her “job” as “working in the cheese room, especially in the early morning while the [animals] are being milked next door in the parlor.”[13] When I spoke with the rancher, I asked her to tell me about her employees who do the milking and cheesemaking. She described to me her first employee, a Mexican immigrant who lives in a manufactured home on the ranch with his wife and two adult sons—both of whom work in restaurants. “We learned [our animals] together,” she told me, indicating how important this worker is to her operation. She later hired another full-time employee, a Mexican man who lived in a low-rent apartment in Petaluma with other day laborers. She described him as an “awesome worker”—he worked six days a week for four years, never missed a day and never arrived a minute late. He drove 30 minutes each way and sometimes worked a split shift.[14] Employees like these, and their work, are not mentioned in the glossy spreads that idealize the work of the family rancher.

Workers are also often left out of community conversations about local agriculture. I spoke with one resident who described to me a series of conversations, over the course of a year, about agricultural sustainability. He recounted his attempts to convince the steering committee that workers should be included in the conversation, and the committee’s response that it would be too controversial. “It was very frustrating. We all say Marin is the most progressive place in the world, but sustainability is on the back of the workers.”[15]

Similarly, in 2009 a local bookstore made “farming and the rural life” the focus of the “Geography of Hope” conference, an annual event that “gathers leading writers and activists together for a feast of readings, discussions, and activities to inspire and deepen an understanding of the relationships between people and place.”[16] Though the theme was agriculture, labor was not one of the topics. Before the symposium, someone anonymously put posters all over the town of Point Reyes Station calling into question the sustainability of West Marin farms and ranches. The posters were titled, “Whose Geography of Hope” and asked, “what about farm labor?” It publicized that some agricultural laborers “live in broken down trailers with moldy walls, old wiring, and cesspools,” and that “nearly half the families coming to the Point Reyes Food Pantry are Latinos who work and live on local organic farms and dairies.” The poster went on to say:

“Know the Hands That Feed You” the advertising goes… Those hands are brown. They are the hands of campesinos …who dig the soil; birth, feed, and milk the cows; …make the local artisan cheeses; and seed, harvest, shuck, and pack the shellfish for your gourmet feasts. These men, women, and children are not on the promotional posters. They are nowhere to be seen on the farm tours…[17]

A good deal of recent literature exposes the dark side of local and organic agriculture, including food insecurity among agricultural workers and the exploitation of workers who produce supposedly safer and healthier food. It makes clear the link between worker exploitation and their existence “in the shadows.”[18]

A social worker in West Marin said to me, “When workers are invisible, you can do anything you want with them.”[19] Removing workers from the public face of gentrified agriculture makes hiding working conditions easier: housing, long commutes, complicated worker-employer relations, and difficult access to food are all “invisible” parts of the of the idyllic pastoral scenes and delicious local food that draw tourists and second-home owners to West Marin.

A flyer for a tenant’s rights workshop, in Spanish and English

Affordable housing in West Marin (a detour)

Resistance to development is ubiquitous in affluent suburbs throughout the Bay Area and across the nation, but Marin County residents are particularly fierce in their opposition, especially to multi-unit and affordable housing.[20] Every seven years, the state of California calculates a Regional Housing Need Allocation (RHNA) based on projected population growth. For the 2007 to 2014 cycle, the Bay Area issued permits for only 57 percent of the 214,500 units the state mandated. Marin County issued permits for only 32 percent of the units required by the RHNA, lower than all other Bay Area counties.[21] In recent years, Marin residents have rejected several proposals for projects that would have provided low-income housing in the county, citing concerns about traffic,[22] water supply, impacts on schools, loss of open space, and “community character.”[23] While developing more housing units is complicated by institutional and infrastructure factors, for the most part, these concerns are smokescreens for simple racism and classism.

All of these things come into play in unincorporated West Marin, where the housing crisis is felt even more acutely than in the rest of the county. Institutional factors (zoning, Coastal Commission regulations, costs imposed by the county) and geographic and infrastructure factors (septic systems, water availability, and transportation limitations) create obstacles that are real limitations to development. In addition, land conservation has not only reduced available acreage, but even more importantly, has made West Marin a desirable place to visit and to live, which both raises prices and directs supply toward short-term rentals. It has also given rise to a community with a strong vision of what the physical and demographic landscape should look like, a community that aims to influence development in both formal (e.g., county development regulations) and informal (e.g., community pressure) ways.

The large low-wage workforce necessary to maintain the economy in West Marin accentuates the need for affordable housing, and second-home owners and short-term rentals dominate the housing rental market and capture the supply. Adding to the lack of housing is the imbalance in wages and housing costs. Earnings in the agricultural and service sectors are not sufficient to pay for housing in West Marin.  Within Marin County (which is a notoriously high earning county),[24] West Marin has some of the lowest median personal earnings.[25] The census tract that encompasses Point Reyes Station, Nicasio, Tomales, and Dillon Beach has a median income of $32,280. Nearby Bolinas and Stinson Beach were slightly lower, at $31,766, and Olema and Inverness slightly higher, at $33,037. The median personal income in all of West Marin in 2012 was $32,000. Other Marin County towns are at the other end of the spectrum: the median personal income in Tiburon is $80,595; in Mill Valley it is $75,808, Ross is $64,378. When broken down by race, Latino earnings countywide average just under $23,800, whereas the median personal income for whites countywide is $51,000.[26]

One woman who works in social services in West Marin told me that even though workers generally earn more than minimum wage, it’s not enough. “I don’t think anyone pays minimum wage in the area… , I have to be honest. They pay above. But people are making $12 an hour.” An income of about $3000 a month or less is normal for a Latino family of two wage earners in West Marin, but for a family of four, rents are about $3000. “No one can afford the rents compared to the incomes—it’s a huge gap.”[27]

Housing for agricultural workers

For agricultural workers, housing has been precarious for several decades. In the 1980s, Mark Dowie, West Marin resident and investigative journalist, wrote an exposé for the San Francisco Examiner Magazine on the miserable conditions of ranch worker housing in West Marin. “On many, although not all the ranches, housing quality was pretty terrible…trailers mostly, some hooked up to water via a garden hose and with inadequate sewage disposal.”[28] It was common to see raw sewage around the houses. At that time, unlike on the dairy ranches today, workers were charged rent for their housing, although they were paid minimum wage—about $3 per hour at that time. In addition, workers had little recourse to improve conditions; ranchers had agreed among themselves not to hire workers away from each other, making workers essentially indentured laborers.[29]

Since then, many ranches have made improvements. However, over three decades later, housing for ranch workers continues to be difficult to obtain, is often in poor conditions, and puts workers in a vulnerable position. The problem is multifaceted—related to the high cost of housing in West Marin and the lack of availability, and inadequate housing conditions, and compounded by the fact that many workers are undocumented—making them more vulnerable.

Most dairies provide on-site housing because ranches tend to be far from other housing options and milking hours are demanding: milkers usually have two shifts, one beginning at three or four a.m. and another beginning midday. Many ranch workers prefer to live on the ranches where they work rather than commute long distances to work. But too often, despite the improvements, ranch housing means overcrowded, unpermitted units, and substandard conditions.[30] Many units are “under the radar”—in garages, barns, commercial spaces, or recreational vehicles.[31] In addition, ranch housing is important not just for the workers who are essential to the agricultural economy of West Marin, but also for family members who are indispensable to other sectors of the economy, as they may work in restaurants, markets, bakeries, landscaping companies, and other jobs in towns throughout West Marin. Often families squeeze into on-ranch housing so as not to separate the family, or because rents are so high for other units. Despite its problems, ranch housing is one of the few affordable options in West Marin.[xxxii]

Ranches that are on national seashore land add another element to the housing crunch for workers in West Marin. When Point Reyes National Seashore was created, it became the first national park to allow agriculture within its boundaries—still a controversial decision. Ranching families continued operations under a special permit called “Reservation of Use and Occupancy” (RUO). Many RUOs have now expired and have become “lease permits,” which still allow ranching, but do not allow ranchers to provide housing to people who are not working for their ranch.[33] From the community’s perspective, it’s a “slap in the face” when the park cracks down on ranches that provide housing.[34]

Many people feel that the housing crisis in West Marin has been aggravated by the loss of housing on NPS land in recent years.[35] Dairy rancher Albert Straus (his ranch is in Marshall, not on NPS land), has been active in speaking out about the lack of housing for ranch and other local workers, and the repercussions for the community. With the help of local historian Dewey Livingston, Straus documented the housing units lost on NPS and state park properties in the last 50 years—far beyond loss of housing on ranches due to permit changes. They tallied about 135 structures that had served as homes that the park service either removed or abandoned beyond repair. Because creating new housing in West Marin is so difficult, making better use of existing housing is often the best chance for increasing the housing stock, but by doing away with park housing, the NPS is removing existing housing. The loss of housing on ranches affects not just ranch workers, but also often other local workers, and often means displacement for a whole family.

With housing so difficult to find, many residents don’t complain about substandard conditions or report them to the authorities, for fear of finding themselves with no housing at all. Agricultural workers, many of whose housing is tied to their work, and who may be undocumented, can be even more reticent to complain, as they could find themselves without housing or work.[36] People often end up feeling grateful that they have housing, a social worker told me, since they aren’t paying out-of-pocket—even though it may be in terrible condition. But the housing isn’t “free,” she points out. The cost of housing is reflected in the reduced salary of the workers.[37]

Workplace housing can generate not only a sense of unwarranted gratefulness, but also tangible worker vulnerability: if ranch workers lose their job, they lose their whole community. Several interviewees described having to leave West Marin because of a disagreement or dispute with a boss or co-worker in an on-site housing situation. Undocumented workers are especially vulnerable, and many agricultural workers in West Marin are undocumented immigrants or have family members who are undocumented. Even families who have been here many years are sometimes undocumented. One person told me: “I can tell you that there are families who have been living here twenty years and don’t have their papers, and I think that ranches take advantage of those employees. Not all ranches. There are a few that are better, provide a decent place to live.”[38]

Selection of local cheeses at a West Marin market

Food insecurity

Low-income workers in West Marin not only struggle with housing more than others in the community, but also with access to healthy and affordable food. In 2015 the Marin Food Policy Council explored equitable access to food in the county and identified West Marin as a top priority for where to focus their food security efforts. The size of West Marin (over 50 percent of the county in land mass) and the sparseness of the population make getting to the grocery store difficult because of travel time and the cost of gas. Low-income families have to shop less frequently (once a month), which means that they have to purchase mostly packaged food. But offerings in West Marin are limited. Local markets (including a small supermarket in Point Reyes Station, and several small markets in Inverness, Inverness Park, and other nearby towns) stock food that is not well matched to the needs or incomes of families in West Marin: they carry few staples—and those that they do stock are expensive, because of the stores’ own costs. The council also found that the food sold in Point Reyes Station, Marshall, Inverness, and other West Marin towns, rather than serving locals, caters to a bifurcated tourist market: either people who are recreating in the area, usually camping or traveling along the coast in an RV, and looking for lower-priced, easy-to-prepare meals; or travelers or second-home owners who are looking for high-end foodie-type foods, like locally produced artisan cheeses, specialty crackers, cured meats, and fruit preserves. The council also found an overabundance of alcohol, tobacco, and junk food in West Marin stores.

Another barrier to eating well for low-income families in West Marin is that many stores do not accept (or are not even aware of) food assistance programs. The council found that not all grocery stores in West Marin accept CalFresh (California’s version of SNAP, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).[39] At the time of the study, no stores in West Marin accepted WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) (though several thought they did). Many low-income families rely on WIC and not being able to use it at any West Marin grocery stores also means longer drives to buy food.[40]

The barriers to access to healthy food in West Marin mean that ranch and farm workers are not able to eat or feed to their families the food that they produce. It is particularly striking—though not unusual—in an area celebrated for quality ingredients, boutique artisanal production, and sustainable agriculture that the workers not only can’t afford to eat what they produce, but also have difficultly accessing healthy and affordable food. While this difference between low-income and high-income residents reflects the particulars of gentrification in West Marin, it is a widespread phenomenon among agricultural workers in locations all over the United States.[41]

The wall of an abandoned building in Point Reyes Station displays posters for CLAM, the Community Land Trust of West Marin, and Coast Guard Housing. One of CLAM’s most important projects has been converting the former Coast Guard housing site in Point Reyes Station to a neighborhood of affordable homes. The photo also shows that gentrification in West Marin is often not immediately visible in the built environment.

Tensions in the community

Several people I talked to in West Marin described the community as made up of three primary segments: ranchers, newer arrivals (hippies, ex-hippies, second-home owners, and others), and Latinos. A Mexican immigrant who has worked with the community since the 1980s told me: “I see three groups here: the ranchers, who are fairly conservative; the newcomers—hippies, and those who bought property after; and the Latinos. Among the Latinos, there are two groups: one that works on the ranches and another that works in the hotels and food services.”[42] She described her sense of the relations between ranchers and Latinos and newcomers and Latinos: “The ranchers, normally, don’t participate in any event—or haven’t until now participated in any of the community events that I’ve coordinated or that I’ve seen. Not one rancher.” She described their sense of power as the boss, the employer, as pervading relationships and impeding social interactions and went on to say that “with the community of newcomers and the hippie community, they accept more the [Latino] community” and support attempts to bring together Anglos and Latinos. “And then there are others who have been here for a long time…in Inverness or Point Reyes and they are the ones who support the most the Latino movement. Definitely, they are the most involved, or at least they are working so that there is more friendliness.”[43] Other community members commented on how segregated the community is. One non-Latino who moved from California’s Central Valley, where there is a large Latino population and agricultural sector, observed that compared to her experience there, “this place is surprisingly segregated in its white and Latino life.”[44]

Tensions over class and ethnic background are not explicitly stated, but often pervade interactions among community members. A recent criticism from the Anglo establishment demonstrated the gulf between the communities. Ostensibly with the intention of being inclusive, many began to complain that Latinos do not participate as members of the Board of Directors for the numerous non-profits in West Marin.[45] To the Latinos I spoke with, this demonstrates a myopic view of what integrating Latinos into the community might mean and is an unrealistic starting point for doing so. Many Latinos are commuting long distances or are working more than one job to afford a rental in West Marin. Many have children. Many, because of their level of education and facility with English, are not comfortable with the idea of being on a board with highly educated Anglos. Even Latinos who were born and grew up here, one interviewee told me, are often reticent to participate in the community. “They’ve gone to school here… And you wouldn’t believe it, but there’s an idea that ‘I don’t speak well.’” The sense of insecurity, she believes, is rooted in cultural and linguistic differences. “It’s not that they don’t speak well… Our Latino community uses a lot of Spanglish, our Anglo community doesn’t. So that’s the difference.”[46]

Another Latino resident from Puerto Rico, who has been active in the Anglo and Latino communities and has served on many boards, told me that his experience has been different from most Mexican immigrants in part because he hasn’t had the difficulties of citizenship and documentation. Apart from most Latinos having other more immediate concerns, he told me, if people cared about Latinos, they would not want to put them in situations in which they wouldn’t be comfortable.[47]

Prejudices emerge in other ways as well. One woman I spoke with told me that she is surprised how patronizing toward the Latino community the board members of an affordable housing group have been.[48] Their comments reveal at best unfamiliarity with the Latino community, and in many cases, deeper discrimination and often defensiveness. In interviews, several non-Latinos expressed ignorance about the Latino community and little idea of how to overcome what they see as a cultural gulf. One non-Latino told me that it’s difficult to know who to approach within the Latino community and how to approach them. She said that it wasn’t for lack of trying that the two communities remain separate, “but there is a gulf there and people are unsure of how to reach across cultures.” For her, the Latino community is hard to reach, especially since she doesn’t speak Spanish. “The Latino community can be opaque,” she said. “I feel pretty unprepared. I often feel like it’s not even my place to try to reach across [the gulf] and work with an entire community who has a different background.” She went on to say, “A weeklong bootcamp on how to talk to people in other cultures would be good,” as a precursor to making an overture to the Latino community.[49] Another non-Latino I interviewed noted that “Hispanics are such a tight community,” organized around “nuts and bolts issues” like food and medical care. “They feel like they already have community and don’t need ours.” Anglos are seeking community, he said, but don’t have the same cohesion as the Latino community in West Marin.[50]

A Mexican woman who has worked in West Marin for over 30 years told me that she feels that the white community has little understanding of the Latino community and is quick to criticize cultural differences. On holidays like Mexican Independence Day (September 16), or other celebrations, she says, “I’ve heard complaints about ‘a lot of noise.’ And that is true… But they are cultural differences.” And while she says that a lack of understanding about Mexican history and Mexican culture is at the root of their complaints, she also wonders why they can’t, in the meantime, enjoy the celebration or even simply say, “OK, it’s one day, and I’m going to cover my ears—tolerance.”[51]

The housing crisis is another situation pervaded by underlying prejudices. One non-Latino resident, a renter who has had to move numerous times, expressed a deep-seated feeling of difference between herself and Latinos who also struggle to find and maintain affordable housing. She commented that Latino workers are most affected by high housing costs, but tried to justify the differential access to housing. She told me about three Latino men she works with who commute to their jobs in Point Reyes Station. Two come from San Rafael (about 40 minutes each way) and one from Tomales (about 30 minutes each way). They work hard and they need to feed their families, she said, but still, to her they seem different: “They’re just in a different realm. It’s just evident that there is a hierarchy,” she said.[52]

She linked belonging in the community, and perhaps also right to housing, to “rootedness.” Her grandparents bought a house in Inverness and retired there in 1962, and she spent her childhood summers there. She explained that she considers being rooted in place essential. When I asked her what that means for workers, who need to live in a place for practical reasons—like a reasonable commute to their job—but may or may not have generational ties, she responded vaguely that housing for workers is “complex because it has to do with race and class,” and that that most people in West Marin don’t want to have a conversation about race and class.[53]

Discussions and community meetings about housing are largely segregated as well, presented as either ranchworker housing for Latino families or housing for seniors or for long-time residents who can’t afford to stay. One housing activist told me, “It’s rare out here to have a meeting where you feel like you’re in it together.”[54] A member of a group that addresses the problem of short-term rentals acknowledged to me that the group has not interacted with the Latino community. She was defensive about my inquiry, adding that the group was “not designed to solve the cultural problems of West Marin.”[55]

The discourse among non-Latinos suggests that they view the housing issue for Latinos as different from that for “locals.” Locals is a vague term but is mostly used to mean non-Latino residents who have lived in West Marin for many years. People make false distinctions when they talk about housing for those “who grew up here” who have been displaced and for Latino families—often most affected by the housing crisis—as though they could not be the same. Yet, as one woman emphasized to me, many of the Latino families who are displaced grew up in West Marin too, the second- or third-generation families of Mexicans who immigrated in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, and they are as much locals as anyone else. The assumption that the “locals” and “the kids who grew up here who can’t afford to stay” are only white, are mistaken. The local kids who can’t afford to stay are as likely to be second or third generation families of Mexicans, “but in terms of the way people talk, you will hear that distinction.”[56] 

The conversations about housing may be separate for other reasons as well. Evening meetings are difficult to attend for Latino families who may have long commutes (to Petaluma or Santa Rosa), or who work two jobs or a job that doesn’t have a nine-to-five schedule, or who have young children who need care. Language may also be a barrier, as well as the separation that permeates the community in general. As one housing activist told me, the problem of housing for the two communities is often treated separately, “because we’re already thinking in a bifurcated way.”[57]

Displacement and exclusionary displacement

We rely so much for everything now on the Hispanic population. All the people who work in the stores are Hispanics and all the people who we rely on for services, and yet there’s a commute into West Marin on Petaluma-Point Reyes Road every morning.[58]

In many cases, working-class migrations in gentrified places become daily in- and out-migrations of workers who can’t afford to live near their jobs.[59] If a worker loses existing housing, the chances of finding something affordable in West Marin are slim. Loss of housing can occur because of a lease change on a ranch within the national seashore, as I describe above, or because a ranch downsized operations when it shifted to organic production and reduced the number of workers as well as the herd size.[60] Other families have been evicted from ranches because of substandard housing conditions. Not just agricultural workers are affected when ranch housing is lost. When a popular oyster farm went out of business, for example, five or six housing units were removed, but the closure affected many more people than just their workers. Family members had jobs in nearby towns and their children went to the local schools. Sometimes a worker or family may lose housing because their rental unit is sold to new owners who want to keep the home as a weekend retreat for themselves or turn it into a short-term rental.

As rents increase, “what I have seen is more people having to move out of the area.”[61] In neighboring Sonoma County, in 2015 a two-bedroom apartment went for about $1,800 to $2,100 per month, but there was nothing available in that price range in the Point Reyes area. One Latina testified at a Marin County Board of Supervisors meeting about the housing crisis: “You find housing but they are $3,500 or $4,000 a month and we cannot afford them.”[62] Another spoke to say that she has lived in Point Reyes Station for nineteen years, “but I live with the stress that one month I can pay the rent, but I never know if I will make it for the next month.”[63]

Some workers who came several decades ago for jobs on the dairy ranches eventually sought better housing opportunities or retired outside of West Marin. “Most [Latinos] who were here in the ‘80s and ‘90s have moved,” one immigrant told me.[64] Families have dispersed to towns in Sonoma County—Rohnert Park, Petaluma, and Santa Rosa—and as far as Modesto in order to find affordable housing, but in many cases, they commute back—30 minutes, one hour, or more—to West Marin, for jobs, school, church, or simply to be with their community at events or gatherings.[65]

In places like West Marin, displacement, which is central to process of gentrification, exists alongside what is called exclusionary displacement—when workers who are the foundation of the economy, both in the agricultural and service sectors, haven’t been able to move to West Marin because of housing costs. There are more jobs in West Marin than there are homes, and incomes are far below what one would need to afford West Marin rents. These workers commute long distances to work in West Marin, as the tourist economy expands.

Conclusion

Recreation- and agriculture-based tourism and a housing market dominated by second-home owners have not only changed West Marin’s economy, but also its communities. As tourists and amenity-seekers move to West Marin, so too do low-wage service workers, especially Mexicans and Mexican Americans, whose labor has been critical to sustaining the agricultural and tourist economies. Worker migrations are not always residential migrations—rather, they may mean daily in- and out-migrations, because wages for service workers are far below those necessary to afford the rents and home prices in West Marin. Workers either are displaced as the tourist economy creates possibilities for higher rents or can’t move to West Marin from elsewhere to be close to their job.

Dual migration and exclusionary displacement are another manifestation of the ripple effect of wealth and people from urban core to hinterlands that gentrification causes. These migrations highlight that gentrification, while its visible effects may be local, is a regional phenomenon, produced through regional processes like housing and job-market shifts and community displacement. Gentrification in West Marin is also a product of regional relationships that have developed over decades: from land conservation and land-use regulations, to tech wealth, to the market for locally sourced and organic food that urban gentrification, West Marin is itself a largely a product of the urban core.


[i] The research area was a portion of West Marin that includes Point Reyes National Seashore, and the towns surrounding Tomales Bay— Inverness, Olema, Point Reyes Station, Marshall, and Tomales.

[ii] The Countywide Plan and the Local Coastal Program only allow road improvement projects that will enhance safety, but not increase the capacity of the roads.

[iii] Lees, L., T. Slater, and E. Wyly. 2008. Gentrification. New York: Routledge.

[iv] Coast Miwok Tribal Council. http://www.coastmiwokofmarin.org/our-history.html

[v]Haworth, E. 2021. “Honoring the Asian American Legacy in West Marin” Point Reyes Light. May 5.  https://www.ptreyeslight.com/features/honoring-asian-american-legacy-west-marin/. Avery, Christy. Tomales Bay Environmental History and Historic Resource Study. Point Reyes National Seashore. San Francisco, CA: National Park Service, Department of the Interior, 2009.

[vi] Holland, Wade. Interview with author. February 4, 2015

[vii] Bolinas, just south of Point Reyes, has a community of Mexicans from Sinaloa.

[viii] Anonymous. Interview with author. June 24, 2014.

[ix] The Light on the Coast. 1986. Point Reyes Station.

[x] Anonymous. Interview with author. September 25, 2015

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Pavone, K. Farmista’s feast. https://farministasfeast.com.

[xiii] Hill, E. 2018. Flavors of West Marin book. Food and Farm blog.

[xiv] This rancher also described at least three other employees to me, full- and part-time. Anonymous. Interview with author. October 20, 2016.

[xv] Porrata, Carlos. Interview with author. March 24, 2016

[xvi] Quoted in Fairfax, S., L.N. Dyble, G. Tor Guthey, L. Gwin, M. Moore, and J. Sokolove. 2012. California cuisine and just food. Boston: MIT Press: 160.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Gray, M. 2014. Labor and the locavore: The making of a comprehensive food ethic. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

[xix] Anonymous. Interview with author. February 2, 2016.

[xx] An employee of the planning department described to me community response to development as “vitriolic” (Anonymous. Interview with author. October 25, 2015).

[xxi] The numbers are not in for the current cycle, 2015-2023. Interestingly, for the 2007-2014 cycle, Marin was not ranked last in the Bay Area for permits issued for “very low” and “low” income housing. In fact, it far surpassed most other Bay Area counties in those areas, but other counties came closer to meeting goals for “moderate” and “above-moderate” housing. ABAG (Association of Bay Area Governments) 2014. San Francisco Bay Area progress in meeting 2007-2014 Regional housing need allocation (RHNA). https://abag.ca.gov/files/RHNAProgress2007_2014_082815.pdf

[xxii] The Housing Element does not explore why this concern, though widespread, does not hold weight; the bulk of the traffic in Marin is due to commuters, who, if they were able to live closer to their jobs, would not take up so much space on the roadways.

[xxiii] Community Development Agency. 2015. Marin County Housing Element 2015-2023. www.marincounty.org/HousingElement

[xxiv] Even so, 38 percent of Marin households are categorized as “extremely low,” “very low,” or “low income.”

[xxv] The wealth in the housing market comes from outside of the community.

[xxvi] Burd-Sharps, S. and K. Lewis. 2012. A portrait of Marin: Marin County human development report 2012. American Human Development Project of the Social Science Research Council. http://www.measureofamerica.org/docs/APOM_Final-SinglePages_12.14.11.pdf

[xxvii] Anonymous. Interview with author. September 25, 2015.

[xxviii] Mark Dowie emphasizes that “then and now there were and are exemplary ranchers who provide good housing and pay decent wages to their workers.” Email message to author. May 4, 2016.

[xxix] Dowie, Mark. Email message to author. May 4, 2016.

[xxx] California Human Development Corporation. 2008. Evaluation of the need for ranch worker housing in Marin County, California. Prepared for the Marin County Community Development Agency. July 2008: 6; Community Development Agency. 2015. Marin County Housing Element 2015-2023. www.marincounty.org/HousingElement.

[xxxi] California Human Development Corporation. 2008. Evaluation of the need for ranch worker housing in Marin County, California. Prepared for the Marin County Community Development Agency. July 2008: 10.

[xxxii] In some cases, mobile homes on a ranch are rented to directly non-ranch workers, because the lack of housing is so severe for those in the Latino community.

[xxxiii] Lease permits have a more complicated history than I go into here. Laura Watt details it in her 2017 book, The paradox of preservation: Wilderness and working landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.)

[xxxiv] Anonymous. Interview with author. June 14, 2016.

[xxxv] Relationships between individual ranches and the park vary, and many ranchers describe a good relationship with the park.

[xxxvi] Anonymous. Interview with author. February 2, 2016; Bach, T. 2012. Farm worker housing: 200 units planned. Point Reyes Light, February 2. http://www.ptreyeslight.com/article/farm-worker-housing-200-units-planned.

[xxxvii] Anonymous. Interview with author. February 2, 2016.

[xxxviii] Anonymous. Interview with author. September 25, 2015.

[xxxix] In many cases, storeowners said they accept CalFresh, but on further questioning they didn’t actually know what it was or the machine was broken and they could not accept it.

[xl] Anonymous. Interview with author. March 10, 2016; Marin Food Policy Council. 2015. Equitable access to healthy and local food in Marin County: Preliminary report on policy priorities to the Board of Supervisors, October. http://ucanr.edu/sites/MarinFoodPolicyCouncil/files/223505.pdf.

[xli] Brown, S. and C. Getz. 2011. Farmworker food insecurity and the production of hunger in California. In A.H. Alkon and J. Aygeman (eds.). Cultivating food justice: Race, class, and sustainability. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

[xlii] Anonymous. Interview with author. September 25, 2015.

[xliii] Ibid.

[xliv] Anonymous. Interview with author. March 20, 2015.

[xlv] Anonymous. Interview with author. February 2, 2016; Porrata, C. Interview with author.  March 24, 2016.

[xlvi] Anonymous. Interview with author. September 25, 2015.

[xlvii] Porrata, C. Interview with author. March 24, 2016.

[xlviii] Anonymous. Interview with author. March 20, 2015.

[xlix] Anonymous. Interview with author. March 15, 2016.

[l] Anonymous. Interview with author. December 14, 2015.

[li] Anonymous. Interview with author. September 25, 2015.

[lii] Anonymous. Interview with author. April 13, 2016.

[liii] Ibid.

[liv] Anonymous. Interview with author. December 14, 2015.

[lv] Anonymous. Interview with author. March 15, 2016.

[lvi] Anonymous. Interview with author. March 20, 2015.

[lvii] She did go on to say that since many Latino work on ranches and live in on-site housing, housing for the Latino community is to some extent a separate issue.

[lviii]  Holland, W. Interview with author. February 24, 2015.

[lix] Nelson, P.B., L. Nelson, and L. Trautman. 2014. Linked migration and labor market flexibility in rural amenity destinations in the United States. Journal of Rural Studies 36: 121-136.

[lx] Bach, T. 2012. Farm worker housing: 200 units planned. Point Reyes Light, February 2. http://www.ptreyeslight.com/article/farm-worker-housing-200-units-planned

[lxi] Anonymous. Interview with author. September 25, 2015.

[lxii] Gonzalez, F. 2015. Marin County Board of Supervisors meeting. November 27. https://www.marincounty.org/depts/bs/meeting-archive.

[lxiii] Reynoso, M. 2015. Marin County Board of Supervisors meeting. November 27. https://www.marincounty.org/depts/bs/meeting-archive.

[lxiv]  Anonymous. Interview with author. September 25, 2015.

[lxv] Bach, T. 2012. Farm worker housing: 200 units planned. Point Reyes Light, February 2. http://www.ptreyeslight.com/article/farm-worker-housing-200-units-planned; Anonymous. Interview with author, September 25, 2015. Commuting back to where one has been displaced from for work, school, or community is not unusual in gentrifying areas (See Dirks, S. and D. Katayama. 2017. American suburb. Forum. KQED radio, February 8. https://www.kqed.org/forum/2010101858666/kqed-looks-inside-the-changing-bay-area-with-american-suburb).

Jessica Lage received her PhD in Geography from UC Berkeley. She is the author of a guidebook to Point Reyes National Seashore. She works as an independent researcher and writer.

Reviews

The High Sierra, A User-Friendly Wilderness

Jon Christensen

I was worried about Kim Stanley Robinson’s new book The High Sierra: A Love Story.

At 560 pages it felt like a mountain to be climbed. It also seemed to be structured like his latest science fiction novel, The Ministry for the Future, which can be a bit of a slog, though an often riveting and sometimes terrifying one. That book mixes narrative sections with expository chapters that read like scientific and bureaucratic reports, intentionally on Robinson’s part, drawing attention to how even gray literature has become dystopian in the age of climate change.

Plus, I have heard Robinson speak a few times in recent years in defense of John Muir and wilderness in ways that made me think he was wandering into terrain that could be trouble.

But Robinson has been hailed as “our last great utopian visionary” (the Los Angeles Times Book Review) and “one of the most important political writers working in America today” (The New Yorker). And I happen to more or less agree with both of those assessments. He’s a utopian at heart, but he calls what he writes about “optopia,” for the optimal or best possible world given the circumstances. That means his sci-fi novels are deeply entangled with realistic politics, even when set in outer space. The Ministry for the Future takes on the climate crisis on Earth and is, at once, the most dire and most hopeful thing I’ve read about climate change.

Isosceles Peak from Dusy Basin, Tom Killion, 2012, used with permission from press

So if Robinson is going to write a book about the High Sierra, one of my favorite landscapes, too, I’m ready to tag along, even if it turns out to be a challenge.

Besides, I like Robinson. When I was editor of Boom, we published a long interview with him entitled “Planet of the Future.” And we’ve invited him to give talks at UCLA several times. Robinson is smart, nimble, insightful, generous, and critical, all qualities one appreciates in an interlocutor, whether on stage, in a seminar, or, I now imagine, sitting around a barebones camp high in the mountains: Robinson is an ardent advocate of ultra-light backpacking.

After reading a couple of chapters of The High Sierra, I wondered how on Earth he could sustain interest and a narrative through-line with all the rapid, seemingly random switches between categories he entitles “My Sierra Life,” “Geology” and “Psychogeology,” “Sierra People,” “Snow Camping,” “Moments of Being,” “Routes,” “The Swiss Alps,” and “An Annotated Sierra Bibliography.” Several of these categories have more than a dozen numbered chapters with subtitles. There are seventy chapters in all, along with copious photographs, maps, and illustrations.

But I forged on and soon settled into a pleasing rhythm. By the end of the book, I felt like I could keep going. And it made me want nothing more than to ditch everything and head to the High Sierra to ramble and scramble around like Robinson.

Schematic of a typical Sierra basin, used with permission from press.

Robinson’s book is a kind of “dérive,” a method of drifting through urban landscapes randomly as a means of discovery that was invented by French Situationists in the mid-twentieth century. It is said to have given form to “psychogeography,” too, the study of how different, usually urban, landscapes affect observers psychologically, or how certain landscapes might have their own affect, their own emotional states. Robinson is a fan of psychogeography, which he stretches to psychogeology.

So, The High Sierra: A Love Story, it turns out, is in some ways an urban form applied to the wilderness. And, oddly, it works. His dérives in the Sierra, and through Sierra geology, history, and literature, undertaken from the time when he was an undergraduate at U.C. San Diego in the early 1970s, to today from his home in Davis, create a pleasing personal thread upon which to hang all kinds of interesting observations, critiques, and analyses.

Robinson is a magpie — of theory, science, story, scene, and anecdote. A smart bird, like the magpie, he picks up objects and turns them into tools for thinking. This book will appeal to aficionados of California, lovers of the Sierra Nevada, scholars who enjoy seeing big ideas brought down to Earth, and readers of Robinson’s science fiction, who may enjoy seeing the writer work through on his own planet ideas he has tested on other worlds.

When Robinson gets to John Muir and wilderness, I did want to quarrel with him, but in a friendly way. Robinson thinks that Muir has gotten a bad rap for racist comments in his writings. He has read everything Muir has written — published and unpublished in the archives — and argues that there are only a few passages portraying Indigenous people negatively. And Muir grew to respect Native Americans, so remarks in his early texts should not stand in for a long writing career.

I interviewed Robinson recently for High Country News. In that conversation, Robinson characterized Muir as a literary character. He exists on paper now. He is someone we read about, review, and argue about. I think that gets it just about right. Muir as problematic text is much better than Muir as patron saint.

Robinson likes theory. But he packs it lightly – like everything in this big book. He uses actor network theory, for example, to argue that the mountain range was an actor in saving itself from development, along with Muir and many others. Scholars may find his casual use of complex ideas frustrating at times. But if you keep in mind that this is all something like a conversation around camp after a day off-trail, it seems apropos.

The Sierra’s east side. Photo courtesy of the press.

Take wilderness, for example. Robinson goes on a bit of a tirade against critics of the wilderness idea, like historian Bill Cronon, who once wrote an influential essay entitled “The Trouble with Wilderness” in the 1990s. Robinson seems to think that thinking critically about the history of wilderness, as a concept and an administrative designation for some public land, actually threatens those public lands. But there doesn’t seem to be much, if any, evidence of that in the twenty-six years since Cronon’s essay was published.

Where Robinson really throws down in a way that could be consequential is on the subject of names in the High Sierra. There are many peaks named for racists, eugenicists, and assorted ne’er-do-wells. Robinson would like to change that, and he has good ideas about how it should be done, de facto if not de jure. He and a group of friends already organized an expedition to name one numbered but unnamed peak after Henry David Thoreau.

Robinson demonstrates in these ways how nature and culture are scrambled in the Sierra. Part of him doesn’t seem to like that. He seems to want the High Sierra as pure wilderness, in a way. At the same time, he recognizes the muddle. And like many of the characters in his science fiction novels, he relishes a good argument without end.

Robinson isn’t the last word. And I don’t think he wants to be. Like his renaming project, which he says should be a kind of never-ending game, he just wants to keep playing in the High Sierra. It’s a pleasure to play along. The High Sierra, it turns out, is a user-friendly wilderness, both figuratively and literally.

California is largely terraformed. That is, human beings have transformed it with massive Earth-shaping works like the California State Water Project. At the same time, the least terraformed part of California, the High Sierra, is humanized in Robinson’s book. It’s made for rambling and scrambling and thinking with. It is a good place to contemplate, from a high angle, being alive on a planet spinning in space.

In turn, the High Sierra serves, for Robinson, as a model for terraforming other off-worlds. Quite a dérive, after all. And well worth the trip.

Jon Christensen  is an adjunct assistant professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and Luskin Center for Innovation and a founder of the Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies at UCLA.

Poetry

my name is wolf (of learning to let you go)

Chiwan Choi
abducted / displaced / then / misplaced / your body an object / lost /it learns to 
breathe / differently / because you can’t / let them know you / are still alive // you learn 
histories / that were never true / nor did it belong / to you / you learn to / shape your 
tongue / into lies / until even you / begin to / believe // but pretty sounds / from your 
lips / after you tamed your howls / never were enough / for them to / love you / and the 
coldness / of the window / in an unexpected april / reminds you / how you will fight /
 now / to never belong / to them // you are born / with two things / all yours— / your 
body / of connected / imperfections / and your death / to come // they convinced you / 
one is broken / and you have failed / by loving it // the other / your greatest fear / to 
run from / everyday / for the rest of / your mortgaged life // snow / touches / 
bewildered bodies / today / the wind / sideways / like a question /forbidden: // what is 
it / that your dying / has held / so valuable / that they have / worked so hard / to steal / 
from your heart

*

daughter, it’s been months since i spoke to you / these days are covered in snow, places 
melted / hiding the cold pools of water in skies reflected / i woke up with my arms 
curled tight / clutching something i can no longer remember // yesterday we laughed on 
our walk / at the tiny footprints left on the steps of / a house around the corner / we 
wondered who lives there / what small lives // daughter, how does time work where 
you have gone / i want to say that i picture you in light / in a place more picturesque 
than this / but i only see your face surrounded by endless black air / how old are you 
now, daughter / because it’s getting harder to remember / harder to forget // are you a 
child / are you older than me / or are you still unborn / as you were when you left // it’s 
winter now / isn’t it always so? / and we are all dying // will you return then / and claim 
the life / you were meant to own // walk through this world / touch the resentful 
texture / of a leaf still green / and cry just to feel / warmth on your face // daughter, 
each day i am afraid / of learning to let you go

*

in the shower / i scraped dirt off my skin / with an old razor / and wondered if death / is 
different under hot water // but only small cuts / opened up on / my shoulder / my hip /
 my thighs / and the blood came / and then dried eventually / as day turned / into gone / 
into leaving / into promises brought / in the dark // i feel it stinging / even in places / 
unharmed / i keep reaching / for my eye / checking to see if my lid / is bleeding // i woke 
up / missing people / i woke up / loving them / but what can such / sentiment mean / in 
a snow covered forest // i hear / her voice / calling me / wolf / the outline / of my body / 
made by / her lips // little sparks / of pain / explode on the surface / of me / and there is 
/ so much more / left / to carry

Chiwan Choi is the author of 3 books of poetry, The Flood (Tía Chucha Press, 2010), Abductions (Writ Large Press, 2012), and The Yellow House (CCM, 2017). He wrote, presented, and destroyed the novel Ghostmaker throughout the course of 2015. His poems and essays have appeared in numerous journals and magazines, including The New York Times MagazineONTHEBUS, Esquire.com, and The Nervous Breakdown. He is currently at work on My Name Is Wolf, the follow up to The Yellow House. Chiwan is a partner at Writ Large Press, a Los Angeles based indie publisher, focused on using literary arts to resist, disrupt, and transgress, and a member of The Accomplices. Chiwan was born in Seoul, Korea, spent his early childhood in Asunción, Paraguay, and now splits his time between Pittsburgh and Los Angeles.
Copyright: © 2022 Chiwan Choi. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.
Original Art by Fernando Corona
Reviews

A Beam of Light to Break Through Isolation: Mirosevich’s Spell Heaven

Jennifer Carr

A fishwife sits across from a writer and asks, “Do you know the difference between a fairy tale and a sea story?” When the writer says she doesn’t, the fishwife continues, “One begins, ‘Once upon a time.’ The other begins, ‘This is no shit.’” So begins Spell Heaven, Toni Mirosevich’s linked collection of stories and impressions and Borges-evoking philosophical meditations. Even the title evokes a question (verb? noun? adjective? all of these at once?) in a quest to connect in what has become an era of disconnection—politically, and especially in the isolation of COVID-19. Though there are only a couple of sparse references to the global pandemic that made landfall in Northern California (the collection’s setting) at the end of January 2020, Spell Heaven is the encapsulation of the forced separation that shook (it’s no stretch to say) all of humanity in a way that people under 102 years old had never experienced.

            Living through a global pandemic provides its own kind of “fish story,” but it’s the real thing that occupies Mirosevich, herself (like her narrator) the daughter of a fisherman and a cannery worker, bound inextricably to the sea, body and soul. Not ineffably, though—Mirosevich’s personal language and cadence is of the sea and is a known language to everyone who has descended from seafaring or sea-sifting people.

            In relating the fishwife’s own memory in the collection’s first story, “The Devil Wind,” our narrator places herself and the reader in the middle of the Thanksgiving Day storm of 1960: “She was holding on to the baby. She grabbed hold of the pole. The boat dipped over on its side. Over she went, she was over, they were over the side, in the sea, she was holding on, she and the baby, they were in, now out, now in, dunked into the sea, again and again. The pole bent like a tree branch. Like a branch in the wind. The pole bent but did not break. Tell me again, about this life on the sea. How a back bends and bends and does not break.” The sentences are tossed by uneven swells and surges, of waves crashing and hulls listing catastrophically. Even in quieter moments, landlocked moments, the lines move at times at a twelve-knot clip over rolling swells, at other times at anchor, letting light ripples nudge the lines in trochaic pulses (Mirosevich is also a poet).

            It’s the landlocked isolation from the sea, from the life she wished for herself, following in her father’s footsteps to be captain of her own vessel, that informs our narrator’s reflections. Our narrator, who shares more than a little biography with the author, is a self-proclaimed loner, though despite locking herself away at home or in a motel or her office at work, she is always reaching out, crossing the street to say hello to a new person on the pier, or on the routes between local dives and the sketchy parking lots between them, populated by the “out crowd,” the clique of outsiders and misfits, crabbers with day jobs or who live in their vans, who are holding on from one day to the next, waiting for a little luck or maybe just a little grace.

“There’s big luck—” Mirosevich writes, “being born with your choice of which silver spoon you want your nanny to use—and there’s small luck, the kind everyone gets a shot at.”

            Our narrator’s wife, Stevie, is the ballast to the loner tendencies—upon moving to a new neighborhood, the couple are hyper-aware of the perceptions of their relationship (loving lesbian neighbors—gasp!), though it’s not the vapors but acts of violence that make our narrator and Stevie wary. Our narrator’s reaction is to withdraw into the house and set up watch, while Stevie’s approach is of the “keep your enemies closer” variety.

            In “Murderer’s Bread,” we learn, “Stevie’s reaction to our emissary from the neighborhood’s welcome wagon is to plant with even greater fervor. […] My reaction is to be extra vigilant. To keep watch. There is:

            The guy who stands in the open doorway of his house…who gives us the evil eye every time we walk by.

            The boy I catch in the act of writing bitch on our fence in green felt pen…

            The man who mock-whispers “AC/DC” loud enough for us to hear when we go to put out our garbage cans for pickup. When he’s sure he’s got out attention, he pulls out his Johnny-jump-up and pees in the street.

            The family that launches bottle rockets toward our yard on July 4…”

            Stevie works overtime making bread for the neighborhood. Ice may or may not thaw, fog rolls in with a little less chill, and neighbors who are no less dangerous might become less dangerous to our narrator and her wife. Our narrator is no stranger to triangulating perceptions, both as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community and as the daughter of Croatian immigrants with the bluest of collars who lived a neighborhood with a slightly higher income bracket. In the end, though, a revelation: a knock on the door, our narrator spies through the peephole, the narrowest of views, most myopic of views, a potential threat. The door opens, it’s the man across the street, a man she’s been watching, a man who’s been watching her—he holds up her wallet, “I think you dropped this,” he says.

            There’s no instant redemption, but there is a recognition, a connection finally (despite one of them going to San Quentin for twenty-five to life for murder). Our narrator and Stevie are seen as of the neighborhood, people to be protected.

            Seeing and being seen is the recurring theme throughout Spell Heaven, the tide that surges and recedes, through familiarity, memory, Alzheimer’s, death, gentrification—surging, receding. “Memory is not so firmly fixed,” Mirosevich writes, and in fact, it moves and changes shape and reorders itself. Memory in this collection comes at once, swift as the tide or a taste of a madeleine, but in this case, the madeleine is an in-class presentation by one of the narrator’s students, or it’s a knock on a motel door, or a stranger’s tug on their facemask. “Does the smell of the center’s noontime meal—clam spaghetti and green beans, a steal for only two bucks—trigger a memory of the taste of salty bakalar, your favorite childhood dish, an image of your mother standing watch over a pot on a woodstove?”

The route through the stories, is circular, themes reappearing in the spin of a lighthouse light. Reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, where a story ends on one theme or character, and the next chapter picks up in that new character’s point of view and so on, Mirosevich’s stories pick up the subject illuminated by the beam of a lighthouse light, following them for a time, then onto the new subject until that light swings around again. In “Our Lady at the Derby,” our narrator waits for a stroke of luck, falls into a memory at the knock of the door, a memory of violence and intrusion, but instead of the current knock replicating that threat, there is offered the briefest moment of connection, a man just doing his job, upon which the narrator reflects: “the fact that our lives are going round and round, round and round, that we don’t know where we’re headed, that what we do know about each other is not enough it’s not enough. He doesn’t stop to stare at me or my home-brought objects: my lucky mouse pad, the Derby glass. He just turns away and the curtain closes and the sweeping stops.” The loss, the confusion isn’t resolved, we’re still waiting on our luck to come in; the next story, “Spell Heaven,” picks up that theme, follows that lighthouse’s beam of our narrator’s gaze, “When you’re lost and looking for a sign, an omen. A clue. When the wishbone pull doesn’t yield the lucky stem. When you no longer believe in heaven or hell, past lives or future, yet still hope for a hint…”

            Memory and understanding both are “sneaking around the edges of the frame,” nearly within grasp, in each of these stories: Stevie recalls a memory of watching her father take a “remedy” that would turn out to kill him. Meanwhile, her doctors are “watching” her cancer. Our narrator gazes at the out crowd on the pier, the collection she wants to be a part of. “Every day, while Billy is coming across found objects I come across found people, those who others deem marginal on the margins of the sea. I want to be part of this gang, yet I know I’m an outsider. I have a white collar job in an academic world where the clothes are clean but the politics are dirty. And I have one of those Italian coffee makers on the stove at home.”

            The eye (so often spying in these stories) makes judgments upon a woman obviously on meth, who lives in a car with her young daughter. Our narrator contemplates the call to social services, until she sees the love, protection, and tenderness the woman has for her daughter and the other out crowders have for them both. Thus, our narrator sends her own beam of watchful light out to them, until the woman starts to wave her over as a friend, saying hello, urging her closer.

            The lighthouse scans the seas, its open eye, its glare a warning, watch out, watch out, watch out, but it also is a plea: See me, see me, see me.

            The most acute instance of reciprocal gazing and recognition is in “Members Only,” where our narrator begins surveilling a new woman, Joan, who turns out to be an FBI agent near retirement, who in turn has been habitually surveilling the other cast of characters in this swiftly gentrifying south-of-San Francisco exclave. When the narrator and Joan discuss a man who leaves candy bars in the hollow of a tree, Joan admits to collecting them, recording the date and brand of each bar, then keeping them secure. When our narrator asks why Joan thinks he does this, Joan replies that it’s not her job to guess, not to find meaning in the actions, only to report.

            However, that’s not the writer’s job.

            Our narrator wonders: Are answers the same as meaning? Is understanding the same as knowing? Is recognition enough to make a connection?

            It’s no accident that our narrator, in a flash of rage, is ready to claw the eyes out of a gentrifier in a million dollar condo who calls animal control on the feral cats in the care of a local man/a member of the out crowd with Alzheimer’s, the cats being the one thing he never forgets, his devastation over their removal an ominous peephole into rapid cognitive descent. It’s cat scratch vengeance, but it also says you don’t deserve to see.

            Also, the man with Alzheimer’s was once a teacher of photography, who found the magic in a student’s accident, who said, “Look again…I can see what your disappointment won’t allow you to see.” The tenderness of recognition.

Of finally being “in with the out crowd.” It’s once the loners welcome her in that finally allows our narrator to feel at home, among her people. The ones who pass on are still remembered, in reupholstered furniture or in names scrawled in Sharpie on a bench.

            Memory as lighthouse beacon is itself an act of resilience—I’m still here, my wife and I are still in this neighborhood of misfits, who now even look out for us, in this crew of outsiders huddling together in this changing community, against battering storms, of remaining visible even in wariness, in danger, watching out for others in need, our gaze reaching out even as we stare at each other from our windows, across streets, from behind medical masks. But isn’t that a beautiful place to be, inside that glow.

Notes

Jennifer Carr frequently explores how our jobs reflect or inform our identities, and what happens when the jobs are threatened by time, automation, and politics. Her work has recently appeared in Baltimore ReviewOrigins Journal, and Panorama Journal, among others. Though she sometimes regrets not getting her union card, she loves teaching creative writing at Chapman University and spends the rest of her time as a ghostwriter. In the gaps, she is completing her novel set on the Los Angeles waterfront.