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/

Articles

Feudal-Aristocratic Drag: Neo-Liberal Erotic Imaginaries of California as Counterrevolutionary Heterotopia in The Mask of Zorro

LJ Frazier and Deborah Cohen

Flirtatious repartee and sensuous swish of swords: gliding to and fro on soft horse stable hay, the upstart peasant, now-masked swordsman, adroitly slices away the feisty noble-maiden’s chemise. Featured in trailers, this became an iconic scene from The Mask of Zorro (Martin Campbell, 1998, Steven Spielberg executive producer). Sizzling cross-class desire inflames aspirations for wealth, nobility, and power in a California of great estates, contested political control, and servile commoners.

California began the nineteenth century on the periphery of the Spanish Empire; in 1821, it was incorporated into a newly independent, but politically unstable Mexico, vacillating between monarchy and republic; and, then, in 1848, sold to the United States in the aftermath of a war of territorial conquest. This is the setting for The Mask of Zorro. One of many revisions of Mark of Zorro (1920, one of the first United Artists films), Mask foregrounds the intergenerational dynamics underlying the Zorro theme of rivalry between nobleman-turned-bandit and corrupt officials. The main protagonists in this rivalry are: the elder Zorro, landed gentleman Diego de la Vega, who avenges his own twenty-year imprisonment, shooting of wife Esperanza, and kidnapping of daughter Elena; don Rafael Montero, former Spanish governor, who carried out these acts, now aided by young U.S. southern mercenary, Captain Harrison Love; and Alejandro Murrieta, young orphaned thief of ambiguous ethnic parentage, whom Diego transforms into a gentleman-avenger to inherit the role of Zorro. This is a tale of aspirational nobility, dynastic power. Such aspirations set in California-between-empires fantastically epitomize the ideological space of the neoliberal 1990s: a cradle for a patronizing elite caste unfettered by state oversight.[1] 

To see this filmic neoliberal space in Mask, we recall Michel Foucault’s “heterotopias” –actual spaces that exist apart from, but always in relation to, the “real space of Society.” To illustrate: the horse stable (above) is a special kind of space within the class demarcations of the great-estate–unlike, say, a chicken coop or milk barn—wherein refined equestrian skills permit both an elite woman and a lower-class man to interact, triangulated via sensuous animals, in ways not sanctioned in other estate spaces, say, the dining hall. This is further illustrated in another stable scene wherein Elena (unknowingly) meets her long-lost father (Diego) posing as a servant. Moreover, while scholars have argued that film is intrinsically heterotopic; this particular film evokes quintessential Hollywood tropes to constitute California itself as a heterotopia, epitomizing late 20th century neoliberalism.[2]

 Mask’s visually-resplendent heterotopia presents something of a puzzle with respect to Jacques Ranciere’s assertion that representational politics impact possibilities for democratic spaces, namely, a plentitude of forms that correlates with plurality: what, then, are the representational practices of the unraveling of democratic formations under the guise of noblesse oblige? Historicizing its 1990s lens, we see Mask’s explicit counterrevolutionary politics.

Mapping Kingly Enterprise as Counterrevolutionary Heterotopia

Mask overlays three instantiations of heterotopia: first, within the storyline, we have visually-constituted heterotopias—specifically, maps and painterly images from a prop portrait to shots that themselves index particular nineteenth-century European/American genres and iconic paintings; second, the use of cinematic clichés to index classic films and genres that points to the ways that film as a medium is a heterotopia and this film as a synecdoche for Hollywood; and third, in ideological content, Mask offers a political imaginary of a stateless transnational California under the domain of a benevolent, racialized creole elite. Clintonian neoliberalism required such feudal fantasies which draw on elements of nineteenth-century California, what Foucault calls “slices of time,” and other available California tropes in a racialized erotic economy of images extolling counterrevolutionary transformation.

The counterrevolutionary heft of the film comes from its layering of heterotopias: neoliberal California as heterotopia, film itself as heterotopia, and particular aspects within the film as heterotopias. The counterrevolutionary lens refracts through nineteenth-century revolutions; the very shift from Empire to Nation that destabilized elite alliances and left unsettled the political form that new polities would take: republican or monarchical. We extrapolate the dimensions of gender and sexuality in Benedict Anderson’s insights about the cultural work involved in political struggles of the nineteenth century, to understand what was at stake during the 1990s heyday of neoliberalism.

Shot during the apex of neoliberalism–and President Clinton’s rhetoric of shared prosperity in unsustainable and lopsided economic growth—Mask’s heterotopia is a space of capitalist “feudal-aristocratic drag” (Anderson, 153): bucolic landed estates where creole (of European descent) settler-elite employ and protect dark-skinned subordinates, largely coded as indigenous and mestizo through language and dress. The story and the cinematic language through which it is told might be cliché. Nonetheless—indeed, because of these clichés—it maps the collective desires of those who prospered handsomely and those who aspired to wealth in the 1990s economic boom.

While Foucault suggests that some heterotopias may preserve transformative possibilities, our reading of Mask posits a counterrevolutionary transformation. [3] It disarms its viewer through tongue-in-check humor, mobilizing cinematic formulas that reference prior Zorro films (especially but not only the sword-fighting), action films (Campbell, having directed a Bond film, here offers Bond-esque closing credits: billowing plumes of slow-motion flame set to a pop song), and Westerns (for example, Shane, in the use of the young Alejandro and Joaquin’s witnessing of Zorro’s heroics at the outset of the film, and broadly, in the use of desert landscapes). This filmic indexing underscores the cinematic work of the film as a heterotopia. That is, although this retelling of the Zorro legend is fantastical and enjoyable, it is not merely escapist pleasure. Rather, the film reflects and contributes to a counterrevolutionary neoliberal project: dismantling a state nominally proactive in its defense of the (albeit limited) redistribution (away from the wealthy) of resources necessary for basic conditions of daily life; unregulated minimally-taxed private economic schemes; and the accumulation of wealth and conspicuous consumption by a small class of people whose incomes exceeded thousand-fold those of the majority of workers.

Within the film, neoliberal heterotopia is rendered visually in maps as props that overtly configure polity spatially, as well as through the staging of painterly images—in particular, landscapes, portraits, and counterrevolutionary framings of revolutionary iconography. Whereas political philosopher Jacque Ranciere connects representationally-heterogeneous and political-liberatory spaces, the visually-rich range of images here indexes a political economy increasingly oriented around the rent-seeking interests of capitalist elites and others aspiring to wealth and power. Indeed, the heterotopias visually reference economic and political maneuvers  since the 1970s, that made possible President Reagan’s rolling back of the Keynesian state and gains made by anticolonial and antiracist movements, the groundwork for Clintonian neoliberalism. These 1990s counterrevolutionary maneuvers required counterrevolutionary heterotopias to shape a hospitable terrain for such drastic re-makings.

Two key maps establish heterotopic California. One is a gigantic rendering of pre-U.S.-Alta California (today’s California, marked in reddish brown), Baja California and the rest of Mexico (in green), and the United States (in yellow); labeled Mapa Reino California (map of the Kingdom of California), this cloth map of an ostensibly-empty capacious space covers an entire wall in the courtyard of don Rafael’s hacienda. The other is a portable topographical map; hand-drawn on leather, it designates the built environment, with road and waterways, local haciendas (with Spanish names), mountain ranges, with a compass indicating directions; also clearly marked is El Dorado, the gold mine shown in the film; hence its role as a treasure map of Alta California’s riches.

These maps appear in two critical sequences. In the first, the viewer is introduced to the wall map; in the second, a long set of scenes, both maps are used. The large map situates the nation as open and available, disconnected from a state political project; while the smaller treasure map designates riches rife for elite taking. California is made a terrain of conquest in service not of state-building, but of transnational market desires.

The first map scene is set in don Rafael’s courtyard. Various dons, dressed in their finest attire, are shown seated around a large King Arthur-style roundtable, their eyes trained on Rafael; Alejandro, who has just gained entrance to this group, stands apart. After some musings over why he has gathered them together, Montero announces, “I give you the Republic of California.” He motions to one of his henchmen, who releases a large cloth covering the courtyard wall, revealing the map. Montero tells the dons of his plan to buy California from Mexican president Santa Anna, who is then preoccupied with defending the country from an encroaching United States. When the dons suggest the infeasibility of such a plan—that they do not possess enough money to buy all of California—Montero informs them that this is no preposterous idea. They are to buy it, he tells them, with gold from Santa Anna’s own mine. One of the dons derides, “You are living in a dream, Montero.” And Rafael responds, “Then why don’t we all live in the same dream together?” Bars of gold are presented for the dons to see. They are stamped not with the Mexican seal, the actual owner of the mine, but with the seal of the Spanish crown. The camera then pans over to re-frame Rafael squarely in the center of the map. The discourse of the dream here culminates Alejandro’s successful effort earlier in this sequence of scenes to ingratiate himself (unbeknownst to Rafael, as a spy) into Rafael’s camp saying, “I am a man in search of a vision.” In prominently scripting this language of dream and vision (an imaginary world apart but in relation to), the film, in effect, testifies to the importance of heterotopias for political projects.

Map of the Kingdom of California. Rafael (Stuart Wilson) and his fellow noblemen aim to buy California from Mexico with Mexico’s own gold. Courtesy of Zorro Productions.

In this space of contending nation-states, the United States and Mexico, Montero seeks to privatize California; it is to become a commodity bought with its own flesh (gold garnered from the depths of the earth). Thus, this gold constitutes a key to mapping neoliberal heterotopia: consistent with the logic of finance capitalism, gold is perversely the ultimate fetish as currency, capital, and capitalist rent “naturally” available for exploitation.

This scene works because it invokes an imagined-real California past. Foucault notes that heterotopias often entail a sense of a slice of time. Indeed, here we find the use of a past not to make a historical claim, nor to create a nostalgic sense of the good old days, but rather to enrich a sense of a fantasy parallel possibility (not unlike and partaking in the Fantasy genre of Arthurian tales). Set in a California prior to the Gold Rush (1849), the U.S.-Mexico War (1846-48), and the post-war purchase by the United States of nearly a third of northern Mexico (including California) for the bargain basement price of fifteen million dollars, the map-as-prop constitutes this place as largely open, unpopulated, and culturally Spanish with a significant indigenous population coded in the film through the presence of non-Spanish speaking people, such as Elena’s nursemaid, wearing indigenous clothing and a small mestizo population who we see mostly as grunt soldiers (Lie, 492).[4] In this sense, the concept of heterotopias is particularly useful for understanding the ideological work of the film’s setting: to conjure not an ideal past to which we should return, but rather an allegory of where neo-liberalism can take us.

Treasure map of California mine and surrounding territory. Courtesy of Zorro Productions.

Not surprisingly, the historical context invoked is more complex, a complexity which impacted the very political debates of 1990s California into which the film implicitly enters. In addition to the eleven Spanish families who in 1781 established Los Angeles, Spaniards founded missions throughout the region (1769-1820): seats of local power established to convert indigenous people to Catholicism, while protecting the already converted from attacks by groups unwilling to submit to Spanish dominance. While Mexico’s 1821 independence ousted the Spanish, war left now-Mexican California at the periphery of a state weak, fractious, and distant. Mexico’s state changed in form, from part of a colonial/imperial state to (theoretically) sovereign nation-state. Benedict Anderson attributes the work of this transformation to “creole pioneers,” who differed from those of Mother country’s original settlers not by race or ethnicity or language, but by place of birth. He sees in the Americas the great historical shift that made the nation-state the paradigm for political formation—a weakened empire. This weakened empire, he argues, enabled these so-called pioneers to seize the political opening and create both the political form of the nation and the very political philosophical justification—Liberalism (laissez-faire governance, market-facilitating infrastructure)—that would best accommodate emerging industrial capitalism. The role of creole-settlers of the Spanish post-colonial world (of which California was a part) in establishing the form-philosophy duo is confirmed in Doris Sommers’ analysis of nineteenth-century novels as “family romance.” According to Sommer, these pioneers ideologically married the interests of the landed gentry (represented in these novels by the plantation owner’s daughter) with those of the emerging financial- and trade-oriented elite (often represented as an upstart, self-made suitor).[5]

Also left in Spain’s wake was a particular racial hierarchy that situated indigenous peasants on the bottom, Spanish and creole-settlers (those of Spanish descent born in the Americas) at the top, and mestizos (the progeny of Spanish and Indian pairings) in the middle. Indians were largely dismissed, while mestizos would later have the possibility of tenuous incorporation into the post-revolutionary Mexican nation. With the U.S.-Mexico War and the subsequent integration of California into the United States, this social hierarchy would come into conflict with a U.S. white (free)/black (slave)/Indian (past) racial system. This happened, especially, during the Gold Rush, when Native Americans, Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and people from the eastern United States as well as Russia, Chile, and China flooded the region, changing San Francisco into a boomtown; other towns were rapidly chartered and California’s first constitutional convention soon held. By the late 1840s, then, the region catapulted from agrarian backwater to international economic hotbed, destination of mass migration, and the ultimate site of U.S. Manifest Destiny.

When Mask was produced (late 1990s), California, once again, found itself at the center of profound economic and social reconfigurations, this time critical to the constellation of the neoliberal state: sustained and increasing immigration, especially from Latin America and the global south; outmigration of capital and capitalists; and attacks on—and the unraveling of—the former model government bureaucracy and the educational system. Some reconfigurations were exacerbated by the federal government’s reorientation toward supposedly free trade and personal responsibility, announced in the passage in 1994 of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and welfare reform. The latter removed thousands of U.S. citizens from the welfare rolls, made support contingent on certain behaviors, and funneled these former welfare-supported (majority) women into low wage jobs (with an attendant and broader downward wage pressure). NAFTA devastated factory workers and professionals in the United States; it also ravaged small farmers in Mexico, making migration to the United States, and California specifically, the logical option. In turn, California reacted to this mass influx of immigrants and disruptive economic landscape by passing Proposition 187, turning teachers, police officers, healthcare workers, and clergy into unofficial arms of a state, to find and criminalize unauthorized immigrants. Proposition 187 was eventually found unconstitutional, and California is today the nation’s most ethnically diverse state and around 40 percent Latinx. These changes led to the re-emergence of an assimilationist nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment—some U.S.-born Latinxs, like their non-Latinx compatriots, favored harsh sanctions (Newton 2000). Unfolding at the highpoint of Clintonian neoliberalism, these virulent anti-immigrant movements occurred in relation to a successful sexual counterrevolution (Herzog 2008). We see in this convergence the alliance between sexual counterrevolution and the neoliberal political economy’s increasing investment in a multiculturalism where particular, eroticized incarnations of ethnic difference took on market currency. Tapping into an imagined past understood as real and connecting it to an imagined present enables Mask to work as an allegory for neoliberalism and neoliberal relations, and California to constitute a heterotopia.

Re-making this imagined past real relies on sounds and images of “the West,” ones borrowed from Hollywood Westerns and swashbucklers: the crisp sound of drums and guitars of flamenco music, the sound of boots across a wooden floor, the swoosh of the sword, the quick repeated taps of a flamenco dancer; the long shot of a crowd of peasants as they stand awaiting the execution of those pulled randomly from the crowd, tight shots of tussles between soldiers and peasants struggling against this arbitrary power, the close-ups of peasants shouting for the captives’ freedom, the Spanish flag being ripped from its pole, dirt kicked up as men on horseback ride in, an aerial view of the blindfolded peasants roped to poles, and don Rafael standing on the balcony looking down monarchically at the yelling crowd. Mask’s introductory captions, opening scenes of struggle and discord, and panoramic views confirm California as territorially expansive, open, and ruled by an illegitimate leader, don Rafael Montero, who governs through violence and arbitrary power. Gestured through the cinematic use of “the West,” California is made an available uninhabited space—a frontier, of sorts—full of dust, small shacks, mountains, open stretches of land, and blue slightly clouded skies. This West, like the Westerns it references, is peopled with dark, mestizo peasants, largely poor, humble, and leaderless. They tread lightly on a landscape where local strongmen or soldiers arbitrarily interfere on behalf of a faraway power. That is, these people and this place were open, virgin, and un-stated at the start. Spielberg relies on these quick shots to mark California as both without a legitimate leader and in need of a benevolent patriarch; it becomes recognizable as “the West”—that is, the United States—while the movie still marks it as Mexican territory.

In a second, long set of scenes, the climax of the film, both map-props –the treasure map of El Dorado and the political map of California– figure prominently. The sequence opens with Alejandro’s return to don Rafael’s hacienda, this time dressed as Zorro; he comes in search of the treasure map to the gold mine to which the dons and he, then blindfolded, had earlier been escorted. Hidden from view on the ceiling, Alejandro extends his sword to spear the treasure map from Rafael’s desk as he and his American henchman Capitan Love turn their backs in worried discussion of Zorro’s intentions. Alejandro then presents himself as Zorro and fends off Love, Montero, and Montero’s soldiers, as the fighting moves from the corridor to the courtyard. At one point in this swordfight sequence, he jumps up on Montero’s roundtable for a fighting advantage. Culminating the duel, Alejandro cuts loose the large map of California, releasing it from its mounts on the wall with flicks of his sword. The giant map floats down, enveloping the attacking soldiers and Montero, allowing Alejandro to escape. Maps, as images of (un)marked landscapes, figure as neoliberal heterotopias—they are indications of the nation under conquest, productively disconnected from any state political project.

Kingship, here condensed in the figure of Rafael Montero, lends itself to a heterotopic political imaginary because the elision of the noble body and the territory constitutes a place protected from historical temporality and everyday political contests: “The king is dead, long live the king.” Containing Rafael’s and Love’s ambitions under the giant map while Alejandro eluded capture, suggests a defanged nobility disciplined for the renewed monarchical market project—the nation is only the body of the king; no state interference needed, even as the new benevolent patriarch, now embodied by Alejandro as Zorro (whitened and gentrified in his training process) is ready to take his place. In this neoliberal heterotopia, the monarchical fantasy is not in question, only who has rightful claim to that throne and its privatized territory.

No industry glorified this fantasy of accumulation (or worried about the concomitant radical injustices it wrought) more than Hollywood. Indeed, in the “fantasy of free trade” (Dean 2009), Clintonian neoliberal “communicative capitalism” found particularly fertile soil in California’s entertainment industry. The free-trade expansionary moment brought about a revision in the Hollywood enterprise. While studios had historically marketed to other places films created for U.S. audiences, industry moguls now understood the need to make movies not just or even primarily for domestic consumption. To do this, films needed to incorporate themes and characters attractive to the rapidly expanding global markets (Jones, 13). This market re-envisioning grew out of a recognition that neoliberal policies had created a new transnational elite with the ready cash to consume their products. Not only did this elite lavishly enjoy the boom, they could now imagine themselves as and be transnational jetsetters. Moreover; elites reveled in seeing themselves reflected in the admiring, envious gaze of the wider populace (think Paris Hilton), the chimera of upward mobility through get-rich-quick schemes (think lotteries and casinos), television makeovers and celebrity benevolence (think Oprah and reality-TV stars), real estate, and other financial houses-of-cards (think Madoff).

Appealing to growing overseas audiences, in particular Latin America, necessitated re-conceiving race in movies. The Mask was part of a Hollywood neoliberal enterprise to refigure Hispanicity by promoting a market multiculturalism that whitens the category of Latino (Lie 2001). With Europeans cast elite Hispanic Californians, promotional interviews remade Spanish Antonio Banderas into a (white) Latino subject. In the 1990s, the U.S. government debuted demographic categories of “white Hispanic” and “non-Hispanic” white; creeping into U.S. popular culture at the same moment was the use of Latino as a designation for all Latin Americans (even in Latin America). Thus, for those seen as “white,” “Latino” offered an ethnic, as opposed to racial marker. This compounded the racialized erotics of promoting Banderas as a “Latin lover,” a long established designation for the (usually Anglo) men who played Zorro.

The Zorro franchise is very closely identified with Hollywood and its history—not only was The Mark of Zorro the fourth film made by United Artists, but the Zorro franchise has served as a century-long vehicle for romantic male stars (Williamson, 4).[6] In addition, Hollywood has often served as a synecdoche for California: massive highway system, housing and technology expansion, and huge influx of immigrants from Latin America identify it as both the future of the United States and the emblem, positive and negative, of neoliberalism. The map-props used in Mask re-instantiate an imagined Spanish California as a vast place of harmonious relations, even as they tie this imaginary to a neoliberal project.

Maps, as Benedict Anderson asserts, “profoundly shaped the way that the colonial state imagined its dominion—the nature of the human beings it ruled, the geography of its domain, and the legitimacy of its ancestry” as “institutions of power” upon which post-colonial nationalisms modeled themselves (64). Nationalist “dreams of racism” had their roots in class distinctions:, “[c]olonial racism was a major element in that conception of ‘Empire’ which attempted to weld dynastic legitimacy and national community” (150). Our reading of Mask suggests what happens when a postcolonial society embraces neoliberalism’s globalizations that require, like colonialism did before it, transnational elite class allegiances: neoliberal market-oriented mappings of heterotopias rely on a racialized visual grammar to instantiate the national demography, geography, and the legitimacy of the ruler.

Neoliberal Fantasy and Images of Counterrevolutionary Heterotopia

To further specify the political imaginary through which Zorro’s California served as a heterotopia for 1990s neoliberalism, we turn here to Anderson’s insights on the colonial genealogy of nationalism: in migrating to the colonies, Europeans of many levels could refashion themselves and approximate aristocratic lifestyles. This approximation—or the putting-on of a class disguise—creates a “tropical Gothic” where capitalism became a “feudal-aristocratic drag” with “dreams of rac[ial]” certainty of superiority vis-à-vis locals  that allowed a fondness for patria. In patriotic love of Empire or Nation, “what the eye is to the lover,” language is to a patriot (154). Anderson’s drag does not imply camp in the sense of a self-referential excessive costuming, but rather a kind of costuming to transform identity. The dubbing of this feudal styling underscores the artifice of newly elite colonials applying the style of an earlier era widely seen as the precursor of European capitalist imperialism. Refashioning themselves as, in their minds, quintessential aristocrats—that is, feudal lords—cemented elite allegiance to Empire and, later, to Nation. In emulating a by-then-nostalgic vision of European feudal lords and landscapes, colonial elites asserted an imperial and later transnational ideal-type of racialized class mode.

De la Vega estate. Courtesy of Zorro Productions.

Capitalism’s “feudal-aristocratic” (i.e.class) “drag” thrived in the 1990s, a moment when, ideologically-speaking, Free-Marketers subordinated the needs of Nation to those of Market. This class drag is not camp, but one positing the possibility of class transformation. Indeed, the gleeful camp of Zorro’s costume—mask, close-fitting black clothes, whip, sword, and all—might distract from earnest work of feudal-aristocratic drag, which required a thoroughly visual erotics in imagining neoliberal heterotopias. This visual language nostalgically evokes a creolized European nineteenth-century high-art-aesthetic: a set of inter-related movements in painting, mimetic or realist in approach, romantic in themes, and experimental with techniques maximizing optical perception and luminosity. This aesthetic was, perhaps, less Anderson’s “tropical gothic” than one celebrating the foundation of bucolic estates, noble lineages, and a feudal social order under the oversight of benevolent nobility. Indeed, Clintonian neoliberalism broke from its Reagan/Bush-1 predecessor by insisting that the economic expansion of the 1990s should expand prosperity for new, previously marginalized sectors.

Exploring visual aesthetics of heterotopias—implied but not elaborated in Foucault’s garden and mirror examples —we offer three key moments (among several) in the film where viewers are offered a painterly image: First, a bucolic landscape of Liberal/Neoliberal California under the care of a fiercely protective creole nobility; Second, a scene constituting the focus of all erotic drives, whose dynastic quality in its mode of feudal-aristocratic drag; and, third, one that transcends historical temporality. This fantasy content is aptly paralleled in mass media nostalgia for a (high art) media whose heyday was pre-cinematic. Neoliberal feudal fantasies are rendered through shots cinematically recreating classic painterly images and genres. Examining each moment reveals that together these painterly images instantiate feudal-aristocratic heterotopia as an aesthetic overlay for the film’s action.

The first image occurs in the opening action sequence, where the elder Zorro (Diego de la Vega) disrupts execution in the densely-packed plaza of several peasants and penetrates the governor’s palace to thwart his nemesis’ attempt to abscond with California treasure; it then moves to the scene of don Diego’s private life as landed gentleman. The transition between the masked public hero and the private patriarch/nobleman is marked with a wide-frame shot sustained for several frames. The pink and coral evening light lends an intensely colorful luminescence to a landscape scene that centers the de la Vega estate. To the left, the manor house overlooks a bay with ships and to the right, outbuildings and a vineyard cradled in a half-circle of coastal mountains; directly to the bottom half of the screen are a waterfall and lush forests. The waterfall is a classic Zorro-film characteristic as the masked bandit often hides in a cave just behind it, a lair connected by a stairway to the mansion above. The significance of the cave is cued by the only two motions in this sequence: the falling water and the downward arch of a crying seagull. The seagull’s call punctuates the scoring of strings sustaining a high C sharp. The style of the image is much like that of early JM Turner nineteenth-century romantic landscapes of estates with intense colors and shimmering light (for example, Pope’s Villa at Twickenham, oil on canvas, 1808). While these commissioned bucolic pieces lack the narrative drama and concern with cruelty and injustice of his stormy shipwreck paintings, they share the use of light to generate particular kinds of atmosphere. Similarly, in Mask, both the image (of Diego’s estate) and a later one of barracks at sunset just before Alejandro creates havoc by stealing a spectacular horse evening light suggests a kind of temporary visual calm.

J.M. Turner, Pope’s Villa at Twickenham. Oil on canvas, 1808.

In many romantic landscape paintings of large estates, both labor and politics are absented. Geographer Don Mitchell traces the history of California landscapes depicting paternalist protection of the bucolic to contain the dangers of non-elites: rural smallholders and workers, industrial workers, native communities; erasure produces California as modern yet idyllic natural space, because, for this to happen, all signs of the state’s literal production—that is, its non-natural condition—must be hidden. Douglas Brinkley also examines this production of place, exploring Teddy Roosevelt’s creation of a national park system at height of immigration and industrialization in the name of democratic liberty materialized in pristine nature even as, according to Karl Jacoby, the creation of parks curtailed food-ways of rural populations. Projects, state and national in scope, mobilized landscape as an ideological frame that demanded containment of non-elites. Nineteenth-century U.S. painters, such as Albert Bierstadt, favored panoramas to evidence the truth of Manifest Destiny, the resonant 1820s idea that the United States should bridge coasts. Zorro’s idyllic California of this opening sequence captures these costly political formations between empire and nation-state.

If California landscape has worked through dispossession, the cinematic use of a painterly invoking of romantic capitalism suggests a politics of representation in which privileging of the oil painting’s flatness, to borrow Ranciere’s insight, suggests a timeless aesthetic ideal. Feudal-aristocratic drag thrives in nostalgic visual aesthetics.

Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo, Il quarto stato (The Fourth Estate). Oil on poplar, 1901.

A second key painterly shot is not a still transition, but rather, culminates the climatic sequence of the film. It is a filmic rendition of Italian painter Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s famous (1901, oil on poplar) neo-impressionist painting, “Il quarto stato,” (the fourth estate, or, the proletariat); this image was famously used during the opening credits of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 (1976 Italy/France/Germany), an important film in collectivist socialist cinema. In the painting, striking workers, men and women, are advancing forward (from assumed darkness) into the light, with two male farmers and a woman with baby in the forefront with clearly delineated and interacting figures following. Not the nuclear family, this is a revolutionary collectivity united in class cohesion and struggle. Like in Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, where he states that history happens twice, the first time as tragedy and the second as farce, Mask perversely appropriates this revolutionarily socialist image to anoint a neoliberal monarchical counterrevolutionary allegory. The image, restaged a la 1990s, shows a mass of inarticulate brown people—the film calls them “slaves”—just freed from captivity in an illicit gold mine, being led out of the dust from the exploding mine not by fellow workers, but by the new Zorro, Alejandro, and the creole (“princess”) Elena, both fiercely benevolent patrons rescuing children from a certain explosive entombment. Since the previous shot showed Elena and Alejandro breaking open the “slaves” cells, this subsequent scene does not need to do the work of advancing the plot, but rather securely encapsulated the counterrevolutionary framing of these events.  As the aesthetic resolution of the capitalist greed instantiated in the treasure map-prop, this neoliberal scene shows a responsible elite protecting those in their care. No mention is made of seizing the means of production–the gold mine–for public good; all we understand is that crude exploitation for personal greed has been foiled.

As the people faintly emerge from the plumes of smoke and dust, we hear composer James Horner’s symphonic score of low strings; then as the figures take shape, the strings make an extended crescendo and are then echoed in brass. These bars make it clear that this is an epic moment. This long shot takes its time in developing from opaque white smoke to Alejandro carrying a child and Elena guiding another; they move into depth of field with the mass of bodies following behind still slightly out of focus. Interestingly, this is a 2-shot within a group shot since only Alejandro’s and Elena’s faces can be seen; and even the children’s faces are averted, visually delimiting the protagonists of the scene. The new creole nuclear family is featured both through these shots, camera focus, and costuming. The tones of the costume and the dusty backdrop are all creams, browns, and blacks, giving the overall shot a sepia, vintage tint. Alejandro stands out in his black Zorro outfit and Elena is the most visually striking with her white v-neck blouse showing plenty of pale neck and chest skin. The faces of the so-called slaves, children and adults, cannot be distinguished not because they are just out of focus but also because of the narrow palette of the scene. In no uncertain terms, the film visually produces phenotypic difference, a racialized social order of a white benevolent elite leading brown humble, even abject, masses.

Alejandro and Elena leading the “slaves” out of the mine. Courtesy of Zorro Productions.

Curiously enough, by the end of the sequence of frames, the exception to imperceptibility through this visually-produced racial-class difference is an indigenous-marked woman standing to the left of Elena. Both her face and stocky build are discernible compared to the rest of the freed “slaves.” She represents, quite possibly, the biological mother of the escorted children, reassuring the audience that a racialized social order will be secured not through the rupturing of stratification, but through its benevolent reform. Any threat of cross-class revolution leading to a miscegenated family is further neutralized both by foregrounding intra-elite warring (for sexual access to the creole princess and for access to non-elite labor and allegiance) and in the film’s subsequent resolution. The 4th estate scene ends with a blinding-white iris and bleeds into a once-again all-white screen, where the dying Diego joins Elena’s and Alejandro’s hands and commands that there must always be a Zorro. In this sequence of scenes, proper, racially-contained reproduction—the productive comingling of Elena and a now whitened and elite Alejandro—is assured as the native, non-elite subjects are absented in favor of the white, creole (birthed on California soil) baby—a prince—born into a legitimate patriarchal noble family. The ongoing mass appeal of this feudal-aristocratic drag marks the success of the neoliberal counterrevolution, a nuanced counterrevolutionary project savvy in building heterotopic spaces to imagine and enact its political revision.

The final painterly shot that interests us is one at the end of the film. The shot forms a portrait of Elena posed in the doorway of the nursery, watching now-husband Alejandro tell chivalrous Zorro tales to baby Joaquín. She is silhouetted by the arches of the hacienda’s outdoor hallway, through which we glimpse their lush estate, a now fully patriarchal redux of the opening estate landscape shot. In this medium shot, Elena is on the left of the screen and the audience is looking at her from over Alejandro’s shoulder on the lower right; out of the depth of frame, the upper right of the screen is filled by the parallel arches of the exterior manor corridor leading off to estate gardens, a sunset shown in the distance. Elena’s costume exactly mirrors the colors of the sky, with orange embroidery on sheer beige shoulders and sleeves, and a deep blue bodice and skirt. Her sleeves and Alejandro’s shirt are the same colors as the stone walls lit by the orange fire of torches. The audience’s perspective overlaps that of the baby prince, the lord and lady of the manor are thus organically part of the built and natural environment. In this two-shot, we are visually assured that this is a long-term, procreative union as the sunset comes to them. Indeed, this redoing of the opening scene is not unusual. As Simmon claims for Westerns, “the narratives seek to reestablish the tableau idyll of the first shot by the time they arrive at their last shot” as they carry “further [an] aura of loss and melancholy.” This, then, is how they enact their “allegorical imperative” (Simmon, 18).

Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) at the estate house. Courtesy of Zorro Productions.

The score further asserts that this is a quintessentially domestic scene. Harmonious in melody carried by wind instruments, the music still pulses with percussive flamenco guitar rhythm suggesting ongoing libidinal drive echoed in subsequent spoken dialogue whereby they declare their love for one another. When Elena states that she’ll “dream” of Zorro, we are reminded of the tension in these layered heterotopias: between feudal-aristocratic drag, Alejandro’s class transformation and securing of the dynastic lineage; and camp, the playful donning of the Zorro gear and pursuit of further adventures. These adventures do not require enactment in other forms of political space; the monarchy is the political body.

Edmund Blaire Leighton, Stitching the Standard. Oil on canvas, 1911.

This portrait is very much like English pre-Raphaelite paintings–for example, Stitching the Standard (oil on canvas, 1911) among other historic genre oil paintings by Edmund Blair Leighton–in which he poses medieval women against stone buildings and elaborate gardens. The noblewoman’s domestic duty is also one of militant loyalty as she leans against a stone parapet overlooking the estate’s fields at sunset. Pre-Raphaelites often nostalgically mobilized such medieval themes depicted mimetically. A most iconic image of this school of painting further layers this nostalgia by harkening back to medieval imaginings of the Arthurian dark ages, as in William Morris’ The Defense of Guenevere (oil on canvas, 1858), where the heroine is presented as the archetypical pre-Raphaelite women: long dark hair, slender, long-limbed, and pensive. Such maidens grace Fantasy films since the 1980s from Excalibur to The Lord of the Rings. Thus, as with the previous image, this one nostalgically indexes both high European art and prior appropriations of painterly images as cinematic clichés.

This end of film vision of Elena in the estate is bookended by a quite similar image early in the film of her mother, Esperanza, seated in front of their manor house, awaiting her husband’s return from Zorro adventures. Akin to shot of Elena, in the first frame, we view the bay at sunset over her shoulder, then the camera switches its angle to center her in front of the manor house; her body constitutes the link between the panoramic California landscape and feudal estate as the legitimate instantiation of power. These bookending mother-daughter shots use dusk lighting to intensify the color palette; both merge the body of the wife with that of the patrimonial estate, in part, by extending the colors of the landscape lighting to the costuming: dusk, in Esperanza’s golden dress, and sunset, in the pinkish orange embroidery and deep blue of Elena’s gown.

Esperanza (Julietta Rosen) in front of the De la Vega manor house. Courtesy of Zorro Productions.

The use of romantic portraiture links patriarchy and patrimony, the feudal landscape and the body of the wife, a linking made all the more apparent by a key film prop: the portrait of Esperanza. This portrait first brings the viewer intimately into Zorro’s private life as don Diego, and next into Rafael’s hacienda, this time misrepresented to daughter Elena as Rafael’s lost wife. Painterly images capture the idealized white creole-settler woman whose body, as the font of feudal patrimony, is the libidinal focus; these thoroughly domesticated images of nobility derive further erotic appeal from their connection to passionate scenes.

The channeling of creole erotic desire into dynastic reproduction restores the pastoral to an aristocratic landscape now populated with dynastic fruits. Moreover, attention to this channeling of desire restores the pastoral to the visual dimensions of heterotopic erotics, reminding us that these erotics are racialized through representational practices. Thus, painterly images visually punctuate the narrative with neoliberal heterotopias that exceed the drives of narrative to appeal to a feudal-aristocratic aesthetic enduring beyond, outside, despite, and instead of actual history. 

In The Mask of Zorro, we see that heterotopias both generate and resonate with eroticized visual economies, beginning with the relationship between heterotopias and everyday spaces; that is, heterotopias are a priori eroticized, racialized through particular representational practices. As we have argued here, this Hollywood blockbuster constitutes a neoliberal heterotopia in and of itself. This heterotopic effect is magnified both by the self-referentialism of this Zorro (re)interpretation as an iconic film—indeed, the film is replete with references to prior Zorro renditions —and by its setting in California, connecting a mythologized past of an open western frontier directly to this (post)modern neoliberal space cast as the U.S. future. The film overlays a (fantastical) California origin moment with the neoliberal context, thus re-imagining both past and present through heterotopias within the heterotopias: the narrative role played by depictions of political spaces, namely, maps as key props, and the use of lush (European-esque) painterly shots to punctuate the narrative arc with a nostalgic aesthetics.

Heterotopic aesthetics undergird the narrative’s counterrevolutionary political thrust: California of the early nineteenth century (best) epitomizes the ideal late twentieth-century neoliberal space: a site of white (creole) oligarchic socio-economic privilege and libidinal gratification unfettered by the state. Transnational capitalists, too, eschew the fetters of acting within the confines of any particular political space. If Ranciere’s heterotopy implies that representationally-rich spaces might signal emancipatory potentiality, then our foray into questions around this Hollywood blockbuster’s multiple and erotic aesthetics of political heterotopias that mark the giddy culmination of the neoliberal counterrevolution forces us to think carefully about equating representational heterogeneity with liberatory political spaces (45).


[1]  “Neoliberal” references justifications for dismantling the New Deal state (roughly 1933-1989, reorienting state priorities toward the global Market.

[2] Adrián Pérez Melgosa, “Opening the Cabaret America Gallery,” contends that film is a heterotopia and shows how a film can reflect and negotiate political conundrums, in his case the workings of race and intra-American hemispheric politics at the beginning of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy.

[3] Foucault’s post-sixties theorization of place, space, and politics counters classic theorizations of a revolutionary utopia—an ideal future place—with heterotopias–actually existing places that stand in contrast to ‘real’ ones, that reflect, alter, and comment upon so-called real spaces. See Christophe Bruchansky’s incisive analysis of Disney as heterotopia. By way of an example, he offers the honeymoon trip, suggesting more broadly that spaces of sexual initiation often are heterotopias, for they are marked as apart from, but condense, real domestic space. Film (industrial commodity and cultural imaginary), is arguably the quintessential heterotopic space; like Foucault’s example of the mirror, it exists, even as it is understood to have an attenuated relationship to non-filmic places. The political impact of a heterotopia depends on its embodiment of alternative power formations (Surin). Historicizing variations in heterotopias, then, is critical to seeing the contours of political geographies of place within heterotopic filmic spaces, including the status of counterrevolutionary transformation.

[4] Leonard Pitt, cited in Lie.

[5] For more on romance and Latin Americanism, see Adrián Pérez Melgosa, “Cinematic Contact Zones.”

[6] This, though many Zorro movies are either non-Hollywood products or Hollywood collaborations with overseas studios.

Work cited:

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1991).

Douglas Brinkley, The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America (New York: Harper Perennial, reprint 2010).

Christophe Bruchansky, “The Heterotopia of Disney World,” Philosophy Now 77: Sept/Oct 2012; http://philosophynow.org/issues/77/The_Heterotopia_of_Disney_World (accessed Sept 27, 2012).

Jodi Dean Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009).

Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias” (1967); http://foucault.info/documents/heteroTopia/foucault.heteroTopia.en.html (accessed Oct 9, 2010).

Dagmar Herzog Sex in Crisis: The New Sexual Revolution and the Future of American Politics (New York: Basic Books, 2008).

Dorothy B. Jones “Hollywood War Films, 1942-1944,” Hollywood Quarterly 1: 1945: 1-19.

Nadia Lie, “Free trade in images? Zorro as cultural signifier in the contemporary global/local systemNepantla: Views from South 2001: 2: 3: 489-508.

Karl Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (New York: Wildside Press, 2008).

Adrián Pérez Melgosa, “Cinematic Contact Zones: Hemispheric Romances in Film and the Construction and Reconstruction of Latin Americanism,” Social Text  28: 3: 104: 2010: 119-150.

Adrián Pérez Melgosa “Opening the Cabaret America Allegory: Hemispheric Politics, Performance, and Utopia in Flying Down to Rio,” American Quarterly 64: 2: June 2012: 249-275.

Lina Y. Newton, “Why Some Latinos Supported Proposition 187: Testing Economic Threat and Cultural Identity Hypotheses,” Social Science Quarterly 81: 1: 2000: 180-193. 

Jacques Ranciere, The Future of the Image tr. Gregory Elliot (London: Verso Press, 2007).

Jacques Rancière, The Hatred of Democracy, trans. Steve Corcoran (London: Verso, 2006).

Scott Simmon, The Invention of the Western Film (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

Doris Sommer, Foundational Fictions, The National Romances of Latin America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

Kenneth Surin, Freedom Not Yet: Liberation and the Next World Order (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009).Catherine Williamson “‘Draped Crusaders’: Disrobing Gender in The Mark of Zorro,” Cinema Journal 36: 2: Winter 1997: 3-16.

Notes

LJ Frazier works on political cultures of the Americas and Europe through transnational and global analytics. Trained in Anthropology and History, her interest in the intersection of cultural studies theories of power, subjectivity, and ideology with questions of political economy has resulted in publications on gender and sexuality, nation-state formation, and empire, human rights, mental health policies, memory, activism, and feminist ethnography: authoring Desired States: Gender, Sexuality & Political Culture (Rutgers),  Salt in the Sand: Memory, Violence and the Nation-State (Duke) and co-editing Gender’s Place: Feminist Anthropologies of Latin America (Palgrave) and (with D. Cohen) Gender and Sexuality in 1968 (Palgrave).

Deborah Cohen, Associate Professor of History/Director of Latina/Latino Studies at University of Missouri-St. Louis, brings questions of race, gender, imperialism, and labor to bear on nation-state formation and other political projects. Her first book, Braceros (University of North Carolina, 2011; paperback, 2013) reveals the paradoxes of modernist political economies and the predicaments of transnational subjects in the United States and Mexico; whereas her new project, “Loyalty and Betrayal,” examines how transnational migration reshaped the pressures and pleasures of affective ties of family, race, ethnicity, and people-ness. She and Frazier are co-authoring three books: on ’68 in Mexico; a global ’68 history; and one that uses Zorro films to map shifting imaginaries of political projects, economic orders, and notions of social justice.

Reviews

‘Vivitos y Coleando’: The Cultural Politics of the Paisa Periphery

Adrián Félix

When Gustavo Arellano of the Los Angeles Times interviewed me earlier this summer about the cultural politics of our paisano José Huizar’s corruption scandal, I had this to say about the disgraced city councilmember: “How did I feel when José invoked our patron saint the Santo Niño de Atocha before he was arrested by the FBI? The same way I felt whenever I saw him wear a mariachi suit in Boyle Heights or a charro suit in our hometown of Jerez: just another politico reverting to cultural politics to curry favor with his paisanos in gestures that felt hallow.” In many ways, Huizar’s shameful downfall was a textbook case of political charrismo, the Mexican euphemism for corrupt political bossism. I was introduced to the historiography behind this term through the work of a graduate school comrade—one of the imprescindibles to emerge from the University of Southern California (USC), Alex Aviña and his powerful book Specters of Revolution: Peasant Guerrillas in the Cold War Mexican Countryside—where I learned that the phrase came from a twentieth-century corrupt union boss who was partial to wearing charro suits. I forever cursed this despicable figure out of the long cast of corrupt Mexican elites for betraying rank-and-file workers and for giving charros a bad name.

Now, thanks to the pathbreaking work of another luminary to emerge from our graduate school years at USC, we have the first full-length academic study of charros and charrería (Mexican cowboys and rodeo) in the United States: Dr. Laura Barraclough’s Charros: How Mexican Cowboys are Remapping Race and American Identity (UC Press). Dr. Barraclough, now at Yale University, grew up in a white equestrian community in the Northeast San Fernando Valley, where she first encountered Mexican charros. “My friends and I”, writes Barraclough in the introduction, “riding bareback and barefoot in our cutoff denim shorts, had no idea what to make of these men” (26). I, on the other hand, came of age riding with those very men on the Mexican side of the Northeast San Fernando Valley, born into an extended charro clan with ancestral origins in the migrant-sending Mexican state of Zacatecas and a world apart from the sphere of those white horse-owners. Our corner of the Northeast San Fernando Valley was what I call, often tongue-in-cheek, the “paisa periphery” (short for paisano periphery)—those peripheral spaces inhabited by Mexican migrant networks in the shadows of any migrant metropolis like Los Angeles, that are marginalized but nevertheless vitally linked to it and which represent deep reserves of cultural values and pockets of political potential. As someone born into cross-border charrería and reared in California’s paisano periphery, I was eager to get my hands on Dr. Barraclough’s book and am honored to have the opportunity to review it.         

As the “first history of charros in the United States”, the scope of this project is ambitious, wide-ranging and far-reaching, as it offers a “historical and cultural geography of charros and charrería in the U.S. southwest” and, notably, across state and international borders (3). In doing so Barraclough brings into the foreground the “prehistories of charrería” and into sharp focus its protagonists; in the process, rewriting the historiography of Mexican migrants, Mexican Americans and Chicanos, where “charros often lurk in the background” (5) as shadow figures that are portrayed as either empty ethnic signifiers or fetishized cultural caricatures. By its very subject matter, this trailblazing text engages and contributes to an impressive array of emerging and established scholarly fields: Chicanx/Latinx geographies; studies of the Mexican middle class; sports studies; heritage studies; and animal studies. Here, I want to underscore the first of these fields, Chicanx and Latinx geographies, which, as Barraclaough sums up, “explores how the social production of space and place shapes Latinx identity, the location of Latinx people within structures of inequality, and the form and content of their resistance to the spatial conditions of their lives” (19). Attempting to depict charros with some complexity and nuance, Barraclough states in the introduction, “the charro associations have never had a monopoly on the meaning or the political utility of the charro, who circulates in popular culture and politics as much as in the lienzo (the distinctive keyhole-shaped arena used for charreadas)” or charro competitions (4). Yet, in narrating the history of charros in the U.S., the book tends to skew toward a Mexican subjectivity that is “middle class, masculine, and aligned with Spanish-Mexican histories of colonialism and aspirations to whiteness” (4). This is partly the result of Barraclough’s methodological choice to provide a historical account by “Taking the long view” (true to her training) and preemptively stating that the “book is not an ethnographic account” (26). This is yet another way in which our trajectories overlap but diverge, as I write this review from the vantage point of a historically informed ethnographer of migrant political life and death whose locus of enunciation is the paisano periphery.      

Chapter one, “Claiming State Power in Mid-Twentieth-Century Los Angeles”, unearths the history of charros in the gateway City of Angels, that quintessential Mexican migrant metropolis. In doing so, Barraclough retraces the well-treaded history of the sediments of coloniality in Los Angeles, walking us through the city’s periods under Spanish, Mexican and U.S. colonialism. While Barraclough invokes a comparative ethnic history—acknowledging Los Angeles’ Native, Asian and Black communities—the chapter’s focus is on “how diverse ethnic Mexicans used the figure of the charro to access sate powers in mid-twentieth-century Los Angeles” (42). It argues that “At a time when the city was gripped by state and mob violence targeting working-class ethnic Mexicans, the charros’ work was essential in allowing both middle-class and elite ethnic Mexicans to assert their respectability, their law-abiding nature, and their capacity for citizenship” (43). In doing so, Barraclough contributes to the imperative task of transnationalizing Chicano historiography, however, at times privileging elite transnational ties and figures in charro lore. While Barraclough literally rewrites charros into key moments of Chicano history, she nevertheless corrals them between the dated conceptual frameworks of cultural citizenship on the one hand and Mexican nationalism on the other. To cite one illustrative example, she states the following about the figure of the charro: “Staked out in opposition to the zoot suit, their trajes de charro represented a decidedly different sensibility—one that emphasized respectability, social conservatism, and moderate institutional reform, as well as their embrace of Mexican cultural nationalism” (54). Part of this unduly narrow take stems from Barraclough’s choice to foreground institutional actors like Sherriff Eugene Biscailuz, who established the Sheriff’s Mounted Posse in 1933 and was propped up as “the official first caballero of Los Angeles”. Barraclough documents how “Biscailuz and other civic leaders embraced the charro as a symbol of civic and transnational unity” and argues that “civic leaders had begun to position the charro as a figure with the potential to bridge tensions and cultivate unity among city residents, in part through invocation of a ranching past associated with the Mexican elite” (51).      

Before going too far down this line of argumentation, however, Barraclough reins in the chapter reminding us once again that “elites like Biscailuz did not have a monopoly on the meaning or strategic use of the charro” (52). Indeed, as the veteran California chronicler Sam Quinones argues in his coverage of charro subculture in Southern California (which unfortunately did not make it into Barraclough’s bibliography), charrería in the U.S. for many rank-and-file migrants was the realization of a dream deferred stretching back to rural México.[i] One early organization that is unearthed in this chapter that speaks to this bottom-up perspective on charro culture is a pioneering group known as the Charros de Los Angeles. Barraclough turns to an impressive array of primary sources to excavate the history of this group, including historical census records, photographs and filmic texts. She notes of the group’s makeup: “Of the twenty original members of the organization, most were from the states of Jalisco, Michoacán, and Zacatecas” (56). Importantly, “In 1962…the Charros de Los Angeles became the very first charro association in in the United States to be formally recognized by the FMCH” México’s official federation of charrería (66). Toward the end of the chapter, tucked away in an endnote, Barraclough cites a post on the Charros de Los Angeles’ Facebook page, raising the possibility of ethnographic interviews or oral histories, which the author completely passes on for the sake of sticking to the “long view”, a missed opportunity that haunts the remainder of the book.  

In Paso de la muerte or death leap, a contestant leaps from his horse onto the bare back of a wild mare. Photo courtesy of Al Rendon, used with permission.

Chapter two, “Building San Antonio’s Postwar Tourist Economy”, narrates the transnational tale of charros in Texas and their struggles around place-making and spatiality “At the crossroads of the American south and Mexican North” (72). Barraclough opens by rehearsing the history of displacement, dispossession and racial violence against Mexicans in Texas, a torturous tale that Monica Muñoz Martinez documents in her groundbreaking tome The Injustice Never Leaves You, which painstakingly pays homage to the intimate trace of Mexicano claims of belonging, down to the level of a family branding iron (a potent ranchero and charro symbol if there ever was one), while at the same time leveling a critique of masculinist historiography and its tendency to romanticize mounted and armed Mexican masculinity (depicted in full detail on Barraclough’s book cover). Barraclough’s stake in this chapter is centered more decisively on cultural politics and particularly on how charros in Texas confronted white imperialist nostalgia and violent settler narratives of the cowboy, in the process demonstrating how charros were part of the storied Mexican American generation and, indeed, the history of the West. As Barraclough states, “In San Antonio, as in other southwestern and border cities, the materials of the old West include not just cowboys and Indians, but also charros” (73). Herein lies the second monumental move that Barraclough makes in this book—inverting the historical record and exploding white settler frontier mythology by situating Mexican charros as the “original cowboys.” She also refers to these charros as what Chris Zepeda-Millán calls “border brokers”, highlighting their “anchoring and bridging roles” (86) across diverse constituencies and communities. “As binational, bilingual actors committed to a growth agenda” Barraclough writes, “charros were especially well positioned to cultivate networks with elite businessmen from Northern Mexico, tying together a borderlands economy” (87). Cross-border visits and charro competitions were held throughout the 1950s in Texas enabling what Barraclough aptly describes as “the constant fertilization of networks” (87). Yet the networks Barraclough focuses on bank on mestizo privilege: “They did so by drawing on the charro’s symbolic power as a representation of skilled, landowning, and dignified Mexican masculinity, and by using collaboration, negotiations, and persuasion to nurture relationships with the elite business classes of both San Antonio and northern Mexico” (96).

In Chapter three, “Creating Multicultural Public Institutions in Denver and Pueblo”, Barraclough takes these elite transnational ties to an unexpected geography: the “Hispano homeland” of rural New Mexico and Colorado. The “Hispano homeland” is defined as “an interconnected web of rural villages…established during the first push of Spanish colonial settlement” which “remained both spatially and culturally isolated from Mexico” and where “Hispanos were more likely to identify with Spanish histories of settlement and baroque forms of Spanish culture than anything related to Mexican nationalism” (98-99). Illustrating the degree to which charros were part of the Mexican migrant, Mexican American, Chicano and Hispano historical experiences, Barraclough argues: “Hispano and Mexican leaders turned to the charro as a vehicle for forging a shared racial identity, with the goal of building a more inclusive and responsive urban public sphere” (100). Barraclough unequivocally makes this point about one of the charro organizations she chronicles in this chapter, stating summarily: “The Pueblo Charro Association was an indisputably Hispano organization” (102). She charts charros’ struggles for political inclusion and cultural recognition in multiple civic spaces, ranging from education to local government. Barraclough carefully analyzes the work of Lena Archuleta, a member of the Denver Charro Association and Hispana educator, whose “curriculum guide centered Hispano’s and Mexicans’ historical contributions to the making of southwestern ranch culture as the basis for a shared racial and cultural identity through which children could experience an empowering education” (113). In the realm of urban politics, the president of the Pueblo city council “formally proclaimed the first week of November 1974 to be ‘International Charro Week’ in Pueblo because ‘the Charro has contributed greatly to the socio-economic and cultural development of the Southwest’ and because ‘the friendship of the United States of America and the United States of Mexico is of great significance to the Western hemisphere’” (121). Returning to Archuleta, Barraclough state’s that her pedagogy “embraced the Mexican ranching past and its diverse cast of characters, especially the charro, which she saw as a unifying symbol for Hispano, Chicano, and Mexican immigrant children in southwestern schools…her guide recuperates the agency of workers and indigenous people in the making of ranch cultures and economies” (111). Such efforts had the effect of “Inserting the charro into whitewashed histories of cowboys, ranching, and rural life in Colorado.” Still, the cross-border charro networks that Barraclough uncovers between Colorado and México were enmeshed in transnational elite alliances. “One of the lessons they surely learned was that charrería in Mexico was an extravagant affair associated with the Mexican political and economic elite” she states of one of the Colorado charros’ visits to México. “On their first day in Guadalajara, the Pueblo delegates listened to a speech by Jalisco governor Alberto Orozco Romero. There were multiple luxurious banquets, dances, and award ceremonies” (122). With the eventual decline of this vibrant charro circuit in Colorado, Barraclough states toward the end of the chapter: “Not until the early 2000s, when Mexican migration to Colorado expanded, would charrería experience resurgence in the state” (131).  While she once again turns to social media and internet sites in the endnotes to this chapter, such as LinkedIn and the contemporary web page for the Unión de Asociaciones de Charros de Colorado, Barraclough does not see these as a possible entrée into ethnography or deeper oral histories with charros past or present. 

Many charreadas include the escaramuza, a women’s mounted drill team. Photo courtesy of Al Rendon, used with permission.

The narrative structure of the book follows this spatial-temporal flow, chronologically tracing charros’ claims of belonging, galloping across the Southwest, from California to Texas to Colorado and back again. In Chapter four, “Claiming Suburban Public Space and Transforming L.A.’s Racial Geographies”, we are squarely back in California’s paisano periphery. While the chapter takes as its stage suburbia as contested racial terrain, it uncovers all of the hallmarks of the paisano periphery, which is mired in segregation, racialized poverty and disenfranchisement. A fuller explanation of the historical formation of the paisano periphery is found in the third endnote to this chapter and is worth quoting at length. “Though East L.A. became the largest and most well-known urban barrio, proto-suburban Mexican communities remained in the form of agricultural colonias (worker colonies). Located close to the fields and packinghouses and marked by dilapidated housing, insufficient infrastructure, and civic neglect, these suburban communities were barrios in their own right. Though small in population relative to the expanding urban barrios of the Southwest’s largest cities, they marked a consistent ethnic Mexican suburban presence” (231). One of the critical contributions of this chapter is to show the making of suburbia as white settler space. White residents of the San Fernando Valley “participated in community planning processes that rejected multi-family, industrial, or commercial zoning. The result was to embed Anglo-American histories of ranching and whitewashed histories of cowboys in the American West in the suburban landscape via municipal zoning and planning codes” thus producing “whitewashed renditions of the cowboy and the frontier” (139). Yet ethnic Mexicans fought to carve out their cultural spaces in the paisano periphery, in the process erecting charro citadels from the San Fernando Valley to Pico Rivera. These projects “allowed for the collective invocation of Mexican histories of ranch land and labor, while reterritorializing those histories in the suburban present.” In doing so, “they challenged dominant ideas about American suburbia, especially how people of color and immigrants should behave, and reclaimed a Mexican presence on the outskirts of Los Angeles” (143). This chapter thus further drives home the transnational argument about charros as the original cowboys, who, through their efforts, “recast the origins of ranching beyond America to the Américas, simultaneously refuting the U.S. nationalism undergirding the cowboy as white American hero and reclaiming Latin American horsemen, including the charro, in the making of hemispheric ranch cultures” (146). Methodologically, while the chapter makes ingenious use of primary documents (e.g. financial ledgers from charreadas in the 1970s), oral histories are virtually nonexistent (drawing on one telephonic interview with charro pioneer Julian Nava).  

Charros winds down with a final substantive chapter that rethinks the animal rights debate as it relates to the sport and expands the book’s geographic scope beyond the Southwest. This chapter casts the animal welfare movement in relation to charrería in a critical light, arguing that charros perceived it as a thinly-veiled assault on the public display of their rural mexicanidad in the U.S. Barraclough rightly points out that “the ‘horse-tripping’ laws have often been passed by the very same state legislatures that adopted anti-immigrant laws” and mange to “discursively construct charros and those who participate in their events as criminal, barbarian, and threatening subjects” (166). One of the local lawmakers to endorse such a bill was Joe Baca, a Latino assemblyman from San Bernardino in Southern California’s Inland Empire, an emblematic community of the paisano periphery if there ever was one. AB 1809 “would make it a misdemeanor to intentionally trip or fell an equine by the legs for entertainment or sport” (169). To make matters worse, iconic Mexican American organizations supported this legislation, including Mexican American Political Association, Mexican American Chambers of Commerce and the United Farm Workers, leading charros to see this as “a cumulative attack on their livelihoods and cultures” (173). This is especially the case considering that American (read: white) rodeo activities where explicitly protected in some of these bills, including “jumping or steeplechase events, racing, training, branding…calf or steer roping events, bulldogging or steer wrestling events…barrel racing, bareback or saddled bronc riding or other similar activities or events” (185). Yet, Barraclough sticks to her argument about the increased political sophistication of charros, insisting that they were “careful to register themselves as modern, rational political subjects, rather than ethnic radicals or political extremists” (182). This historical argument stands in sharp contrast to a charro clan from the San Fernando Valley today, who proudly proclaimed themselves “Charros for Bernie”[ii]. While the chapter again makes impressive use of primary documents, ranging from constituency correspondence to transcripts of state legislature hearings in California and Nevada among others, the oral history material is thin, citing one email communication from Toby de la Torre, another charro precursor.  

Octavio Paz once wrote about the zacatecano poet Ramón López Velarde that “irony is his rein and the adjective his spur.” Not so for Barraclough, who is more of a straight shooter; her writing is neither flowery nor poetic, careful not to over-stretch charro metaphors in her prose. However, my main critique of this book is not in its form but rather in its method. True to her formation as a geographer, Barraclough opens the conclusion by stating: “Hover over virtually any city in the U.S. West using the satellite view of a web mapping service, and you will almost certainly spot the distinctive keyhole shape of at least one lienzo charro” (196). Her argument about “place-making”, “vernacular spaces” and “ranchero landscapes” on the “metropolitan fringe” is an important one, as “lienzos offer an important space for cultural affirmation and transnational collectivity” (196) and an “invocation of a shared rural Mexican ranching past left behind” (197). As is the central argument that positions charros as the “original cowboys”: “Asserting the historic presence of ethnic Mexican ranchers and vaqueros as the ‘original cowboys’ in the region that became the U.S. Southwest, they have transformed core narratives of American identity centered on the cowboy, ranching, and the rodeo” (200). Yet for all her focus on “scalar dynamics” and “scaling up”, it would behoove Barraclough to descend from the bird’s eye view, and the historic “long view”, and scale down. It is the task of the ethnographer to, as charros put it, “entrarle al ruedo” (“enter the rodeo ring”), with all of the political ethics that implies, plunging into the depths of the paisano periphery. This, however, would require oral histories and deep ethnography, something Barraclough entirely avoids. Those who are up to the task will find charros not as long-gone historical figures but as living, breathing, flesh-and-bone denizens of the paisano periphery, with all of our contradictions, as the charro adage goes, vivitos y coleando. Alive and bull-tailing.

Notes

[1] https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2004-sep-04-me-rodeo4-story.html

[2] https://laopinion.com/2019/06/13/familia-de-charros-se-involucra-en-la-politica/

Adrián Félix is Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Riverside and is the author of the award-winning book Specters of Belonging: The Political Life Cycle of Mexican Migrants (Oxford 2019).

Copyright: © 2020 Adrián Félix. 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/

Reviews

The Machete of Memory: Roberto Lovato’s Memoir Unforgetting

Steven Osuna

It has been 13 years since I first traveled to El Salvador. My father, Ramon, left his homeland of El Salvador for the U.S. in the late 1970s. Ramon was always in and out of my life. The last time I saw my father was in 2004. By the time I took this trip, I had completely lost contact with him. This trip to El Salvador was my way to connect with Ramon’s home country without having a relationship with him. It was my way of searching for an opaque past.

While in El Salvador, I learned the significance of “memoria histórica” (historical memory). To know history, is to know oneself. As Italian socialist, Antonio Gramsci, once said: “The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is ‘knowing thyself’ as a product of the historical process to date which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory.”[1] My yearning to trace my history would not bring me closer to Ramon, but it would help me understand him and myself. It permanently informed my political consciousness and commitments, and the love I have for El Salvador.

In Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas (Harper Collins, 2020), scholar, activist, and journalist Roberto Lovato takes us through his own journey of re-membering the infinite traces of his life as a child of Salvadoran migrants in the Mission District of San Francisco. By navigating through history, borders, silences and half-truths, Lovato excavates his family’s past, his participation in the Salvadoran revolutionary process, and the “gangs-as-cause-of-every-problem-thesis” in El Salvador. While mainstream media, law enforcement, and U.S. presidents point toward gangs such as MS13 as the culprit of Central America’s social problems, Lovato complicates this claim. Unforgetting is an urgent demand to sit with the beauty and messiness in our lives, our traumas, and the historical moments that shape our present and possibly our futures.

This morning, my neighbor was gardening. His tool of choice? The machete he brought back from visiting his family in El Salvador. As I heard him hacking away at the branches of a tree, I was reminded of the first words in Lovato’s memoir: “The machete of memory can cut swiftly or slowly.”[2] The machete, a cultural reference to El Salvador for many of us, is the tool of choice Lovato uses to conjure the memories that have shaped him, his family and all Salvadorans. With this machete, Lovato cuts and slices through over 80 years of Salvadoran history. Rather than a simple, linear narrative beginning in the past and ending in the present, Lovato travels through distinct instances of his father’s life, his own life, and the historical events that connect towns and cities in El Salvador to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Karnes County, Texas. The machete of memory, Lovato reminds us, is versatile. It can summon pain, love, and nostalgia. The memories shared by Lovato in his memoir invite us to feel a collage of emotions while grounding us in their material conditions.

The Lovato Family on Folsom Street in the San Francisco Mission District. Courtesy of Roberto Lovato

“My story is apocalyptic in the original sense of the term in Greek: apokaluptō…to uncover, lay open what has been veiled or covered up.”[3] Like a finely made braid, Lovato interlaces his family’s history with the history of El Salvador. Through the Matanza of 1932, the migrations of Salvadorans to Mexico and to the U.S., the revolutionary struggles of the 1980s, the criminalization of youth, and the caging of Salvadoran refugees during the Obama and Trump administrations, Lovato and his family are always present. Rather than bystanders, Lovato shows how he, his grandmother, his father, his mother, his aunts, and cousins, were all active agents in the making of El Salvador and the Mission District of San Francisco. Through memoria histórica, Lovato shares his journey of uncovering his father’s intimate connection to the 1932 massacre of over 30,000 indigenous people and communists. The moment his father shares his testimonio is one of the most powerful images in the memoir: “At that moment, my eight-eight-year-old father became the nine-year-old boy who’d witnessed one of the worst massacres in the history of the Americas.”[4]

Roberto Lovato in Chalantenango, El Salvador, 1991. Courtesy of Roberto Lovato

If you have followed Lovato’s journalism and activism throughout the years, you know he does not shy away from showing us his rage. “Rage is my vocation,” he states.[5] By way of Cuban musician Silvio Rodríguez’s lyrics in “Días y Flores,” we learn the origins of Lovato’s rage and how it shifted from his family, El Salvador, and himself to U.S. empire. Through Lovato’s intimate and comradely relationship with a Salvadoran revolutionary named G, we are taken through scenes of U.S. imperialism in El Salvador, its support of death squads, and the revolutionary struggles for Salvadoran dignity during the 1980s civil war. Revolution is a major theme in Lovato’s memoir. Although the word revolution might be outdated for some, Lovato reminds us its ideals and necessity live on. 

Instead of reifying gang violence in El Salvador, Lovato urges us to think deeply and try to understand what turns kids into violent, even murderous gang members while also holding space for the child victims of this violence, what he calls a “double helix of death,” that condemns many in El Salvador.[6] In many scenes of the memoir, Lovato forces us to reckon with a whirlwind of emotions that does not explain away the violence, but rather helps us understand it. Through his own investigations, Lovato argues the violence we often hear about through the corporate media “is no small part, an expression of forgotten American violence.”[7] He reminds us that the most destructive agents in El Salvador are not the youth gangs, but the gangsters in suits who are “protected by even more violent gangsters in military uniforms.”[8]

According to Central American Studies scholar Ester E. Hernández, “the process of transmitting cultural memory brings to light the history of diaspora.”[9] Through her use of the concept “working memory,” Hernández shows how U.S.-based Central Americans use film, murals, and performances to revisit complex and contradictory narratives of war, migration, and resistance.[10] Adding to this working memory and history of the Salvadoran diaspora, Lovato’s Unforgetting contributes to U.S.-based Central American cultural production, activism, and the growing field of Central American Studies. It is part and parcel of a growing tradition of U.S.-based Central Americans writing their own radical histories of U.S. empire. This memoir is an ideal text for undergraduate courses and people interested in Salvadoran history.  

Roberto Lovato at the Instituto de Medicina Legal, 2015. Courtesy of Roberto Lovato

Unforgetting is an invitation, or more like a demand, to remember the violence of settler colonialism, anti-communism, and imperialist interventions in El Salvador. Simultaneously, it is a refusal to forget the love, hope, agency, and struggles of Salvadorans and Central Americans. It is a timely memoir that should be studied on your own or with a study group. As we continue to hear, see, and organize against the caging, raiding, and deporting of our people, let us remember Lovato’s call to action. We must never forget the roots causes of the trauma, forced displacement, and criminalization. We must never forget the dignity of our people. Salvadorans have a rich history. Lovato urges others to read, listen, and learn from them.


Notes

[1] Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 2nd ed. Edited by Quintin Hoare and Geoffret Nowell Smith. New York: International Publishers, 1999, 324.

[2] Lovato, Roberto. Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas. New York: Harper Collins, 2020, xvii

[3] Ibid, 300.

[4] Ibid, 275.

[5] Ibid, 190.

[6] Ibid, 47.

[7] Ibid, 304.

[8] Ibid, 57.

[9] Hernández, Ester E. “Remembering Through Cultural Interventions: Mapping Central Americans in L.A. Public Space,” in U.S. Central Americans: Reconstructing Memories, Struggles, and Communities of Resistance. Edited by Karina O. Alvarado, Alicia Ivonne Estrada, and Ester E. Hernández. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2017, 144.

[10] Ibid, 144. 

Steven Osuna is an educator, researcher, and activist based in Los Angeles. He is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at California State University, Long Beach. 

Copyright: © 2020 Steven Osuna. 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/

Poetry

1989 Caprice Classic

Image (3)

Original art by Fernando Mendez Corona

Vickie Vértiz

Is it talking dirty if you’re just listening? What you see in the picture is me. Passenger Front seat. Cinder block wall behind me. I mailed it to my Romanian pen pal, me making a sexy face in my friend’s Falcon. To my right is the dustless dashboard. In the backseat is my older friend Junior. Give me a sexy look, he says. He’s taking a picture for my pen pal but it’s really for him. It’s also for me. For my other friend who’s driving. My sexy hair looks like this: a ponytail on top of my head, wavy brown cascading over to the side of my face. In my denim jacket and white button up, the other thing that sizzles is my plaid flannel skirt, one my mother made. Her hands lined my hem. The driver rolls carefully down my alley. Me, trying out my sexy look and he’s looking too. We enjoy it, watching me try. And I enjoy trying. I shelf my looks for the receiver—on the phone later, I will charm him. He was a junior. I, a freshman, listen to his dream where I was giving him head under a restaurant table, but the table cloth covered me and no one could see. I will play along in the dark under a blanket when everyone’s asleep because he doesn’t scare me. He’s got skater hair, crooked teeth, and likes the Golden Girls as much as me. He drives a Caprice Classic—a mid 80s machine the color of sour wine. Oh yeah? I tell him. And then what did I do? Is it dirty if it was safe? We could turn it on—we could turn it off. He taught me how to drive that thing. Down the Commerce streets—gray warehouses and no workers inside them at night. Entire fields of pavement for us to play on. Another night, I took a fruit roll up and wrapped it around his finger, my first blowjob. His hands were clean thank god. He was older but not older-scary just old enough to make it fun. There are infinite degrees of being sexy when you’re 15.  The mint-satin-dress kind. The kind where all you had to do was put your head in the lap of a boy who loved you so much he could cry (and did). The kind that drives you to the drive-in and tests the limits of your high-waisted cotton panties. The kind where you’re just trying to get to school and you know you’re being followed. But that’s not sexy, that’s surviving. That’s an open secret. Junior knew my secrets: that I really loved _______ and that my friends were sometimes shitty, but sometimes, also: my lovers.

 

Vickie Vértiz was born and raised in Bell Gardens, a city in southeast Los Angeles County. Her writing is featured in the New York Times magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, HuizacheNepantla, the Los Angeles Review of Books,  KCET Departures, and the anthologies: Open the Door (from McSweeney’s and the Poetry Foundation), and The Coiled Serpent (from Tia Chucha Press), among many others. Vértiz’s first full collection of poetry, Palm Frond with Its Throat Cut, published in the Camino del Sol Series by The University of Arizona Press won a 2018 PEN America literary prize.

Copyright: © 2020 Vickie Vértiz. 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/.

 

Articles

California’s COVID-19 Prison Disaster and the Trap of Palatable Reform

Hadar Aviram

Eighteenth-century prison reformer John Howard was endowed not only with a considerable fortune but with an inquisitive eye and a compassionate heart. In 1777, following his tour of more than one hundred prisons in England and Wales, Howard published The State of the Prisons, which opens as follows:

There are prisons, into which whoever looks will, at first sight of the people confined there, be convinced, that there is some great error in the management of them; the sallow meagre countenances declare, without words, that they are very miserable; many who went in healthy, are in a few months changed into emaciated dejected objects. Some are seen pining under diseases, “sick and in prison;” expiring on the floors, in loathsome cells, of pestilential fevers, and the confluent small-pox; victims, I must say not to the cruelty, but I will say to the inattention, of sheriffs, and gentlemen in the commission of the peace…. The cause of this distress is, that many prisons are scantily supplied, and some almost totally unprovided with the necessaries of life.[1]

The connection Howard made between incarceration and disease was fortified by his later adventures: after a brief stint as prison reform administrator, he returned to his travels, experiencing people’s fear of the plague and finding himself imprisoned at a lazaretto in Venice. Miasma and contagion are not only metaphors for the prison experience: they have been part and parcel of the reality of incarceration, to the point that the architecture of early American prisons was explicitly designed to prevent disease spread.[2]

Recently, at a press conference held in front of the San Quentin gates, Dr. Peter Chin-Hong from the University of California, San Francisco, eerily echoed Howard’s conclusions. Facing the COVID-19 crisis that has ravaged California prisons, and remembering the years-long struggle with valley fever infections in the same prisons,[3] he remarked that “prisons are incompatible with healthcare.”[4]

At the time of writing this particular essay, more than half of the incarcerated population of San Quentin has been infected with COVID-19.[5] There are 8,429 cases of the virus in California prisons—eight times the infection rate in the general state population—and only a little over half of the prison population has been tested. Fifty people have died, twenty-two of them at San Quentin and sixteen at the California Institute of Men in Chino. The crisis at San Quentin, brought about by a botched transfer of untested people from Chino,[6] has provoked outrage from advocates, activists, health care and criminal justice professionals. After the San Quentin press conference, which featured lawmakers and elected officials as well as formerly incarcerated people and loved ones of people directly impacted by the contagion, Governor Newsom announced the upcoming release of up to 8,000 prisoners.[7] Albeit a welcome initial step to alleviate virus-ravaged state prisons, I argue here that the strategy proposed by the Governor and CDCR will not suffice to stop the contagion and save lives.

My analysis places the Governor’s announcement in the context of California’s political culture and its historical struggle with overcrowded prisons and inadequate healthcare. Against a backdrop of decades of neglect, abuse, and iatrogenic disease and death, after pressure by federal courts the state released large numbers of prisoners starting in 2011. This was accomplished primarily via two statutory amendments: the Criminal Justice Realignment,[8] which shifted the responsibility for nonviolent, nonserious, nonsexual offenders (the “non-non-nons”) to the counties; and Prop. 47,[9] which reclassified some common felonies as misdemeanors. The good intentions behind these efforts, however, backfired in creating vague standards for overcrowding and in decentralizing the responsibility for people’s health by placing people in ill-prepared contexts. In addition, the focus on less-controversial categories of prisoners as reform targets, which made them more palatable to the public, ignored robust literature on the risk of reoffending. These well-intended reforms, against the backdrop of the horrors that preceded them and the political culture in which they were implemented, are at the root of today’s prison COVID-19 crisis; moreover, the reforms proposed now echo these flaws, and are therefore insufficient and ineffective to combat the pandemic threat, or offer any kind of comprehensive and compassionate reform.

In other words, not only is the COVID-19 crisis in prison a function of persistent structural, administrative, and persistent cultural-political conditions, but the proposed solution reflects and exploits these same weaknesses.

Context: California as a Populistic, Polarized State

 In her book The Politics of Incarceration Vanessa Barker compares the political cultures of three states: California, Washington, and New York.[10] Barker attributes the different degrees of punitiveness in these three states to their levels and styles of civic engagement and to their political makeup. California’s political culture, which Barker refers to as “polarized populism,” is characterized by great contrasts between right and left, and by an emotion-driven referendum system, which is used frequently by parties with private interests and the ability to fund expensive public campaigns. In contrast to Washington’s political culture, which features a town-hall style deliberate democracy, and to the elitist-pragmatic principles characterizing New York, California’s culture renders it vulnerable to arguments based on high emotional valence.[11] In this environment, “redball crimes”—violent, heinous crimes, which are as rare as they are shocking—have a strong rhetorical pull, which is effectively utilized to introduce punitive voter initiatives,[12] particularly by California’s powerful prison guard union and its connections with victims’ rights organizations.[13] These characteristics prime our state conversations about criminal justice to revolve around, on one hand, a laissez-faire attitude and, on the other, a fear of crime (and so-called “criminals”), and particularly a reluctance to seriously consider nonpunitive reforms to sentencing and incarceration of people convicted of crime—especially “violent crime.”

These tendencies were exacerbated by California’s pioneering transition to a system of determinate sentencing in 1977, which removed the judges’ ability to sentence defendants by using a breadth of considerations and greatly limited the authority of parole boards to set prisoner release dates. Before this reform, California’s prisons, by contrast to Arizona and Texas’ “cheap justice” farm- and plantation-like institutions, were large bureaucratic creatures, driven by ideas of correction and rehabilitation fostered by employees from therapeutic professions who toiled in obscurity within the prison. The transition to a determinate sentencing model shifted the power from these professionals to elected officials: legislators, who responded to public emotions and demands by proposing punitive bills, and prosecutors, who had the power to choose charging offenses. Gradually, felony sentencing in California increased in length, largely due to the creation of sentencing enhancements and aggravating conditions, resulting in the largest prison population in the United States and in grossly overcrowded institutions.

Healthcare in California Prisons Before Brown v. Plata

The Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Plata (2011),[14] which upheld a federal three-judge-panel order to alleviate prison overcrowding under the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996 (PLRA), was the culmination of a decades-long litigation effort on behalf of incarcerated people seeking relief from the abysmal prison healthcare system. This drastic measure was adopted after several less extreme reforms failed, including placing the entire prison healthcare system in the hands of a federal receiver.[15] Despite eating up more than a fourth of the California correctional budget,[16] the healthcare system was a reign of chaos and neglect. Every six days, a prisoner would die from a preventable (sometimes iatrogenic) condition.[17] The case’s namesake was emblematic: Marciano Plata hurt himself in 1997 in the course of working in the prison kitchen and was unable to continue working in the prison kitchen. Unable to get adequate medical attention because of insufficient medical staffing, Plata’s condition worsened to the point that his knee required surgery, which took years to schedule.[18]

Throughout the Plata litigation, California prisons were grossly overcrowded at near 200% of their design capacity. “Bad beds”—triple bunks and makeshift beds in hallways and gyms—were a common sight in the system. These conditions hindered the system’s ability to provide basic healthcare for several reasons. Correctional medical personnel were (and still are) difficult to hire and retain, because of California’s unattractive correctional geography: large institutions in remote, rural locations.[19] Providing for necessities such as housing, clothing, and feeding on such a scale required considerable compromises in quality, making it difficult to introduce preventative health measures.[20] This problem was compounded by California’s increasingly lengthy sentences: as a consequence of repeated “public safety” legislation adding sentencing enhancements, one fourth of the current prison population has a life sentence, producing an aging population in increasingly poor health, which requires more chronic and expensive healthcare.[21] Under these circumstances, registration and pharmaceutical services became disorganized and dated. Even when people were finally taken to medical appointments, they would be required to wait for long hours in tiny holding cages without access to bathrooms. Taking prisoners to medical appointments often required lockdowns, which in turn created more delays and administrative hassles. And the prisoners’ medical complaints were regularly trivialized and disbelieved—not, usually, out of sadism, but out of fatigue and indifference in the face of so much need. Indeed, by 2006, the Federal Receiver overseeing the prison medical system and the Special Master overseeing the mental health system reported that overcrowding was impeding their ability to effectuate change, and Gov. Schwarzenegger proclaimed a state prison crowding emergency.[22] The link between the severe overcrowding and the conditions of the prison medical system was an important step toward the resolution of Plata. The PLRA, under which incarcerated people and their advocates sought relief, places numerous hurdles on prison rights litigation in general, and on population reduction orders in particular; such orders may be entered only by a three-judge district court, after the panel ascertains that prior attempts to alleviate prison conditions have failed to bring prison conditions into compliance with constitutional requirements, that overcrowding is the primary cause of the violation, and that no other relief will remedy the conditions.

The Era of Plata: Recession-Era Reforms and Their Limitations

The late 2000s were years of transformation not only in California, but nationwide, due to a confluence of events. The advent of the 2008 financial crisis plunged state and local governments into a deep recession, which awakened interest in local budgets, of which correctional expenditures were a considerable share.[23] The realization that incarceration on such a scale was financially unsustainable created the opportunity for bipartisan coalitions at the state and federal levels,[24] dovetailing with the Obama Administration’s focus on criminal justice reform and racial justice.[25] Part and parcel of these coalition-building efforts was the need to focus the proposed reforms on low-hanging fruit, in the form of politically palatable populations, such as nonviolent drug offenders, which received the bulk of reformist attention both from the right[26] and the left.[27]

Against this backdrop, the litigation in Plata hurtled forward, and the PLRA conditions for population reduction were finally met. In 2009, the three-judge panel found overcrowding to be the primary cause of the health care system’s dysfunction and acknowledged that prior attempts to improve the situation had failed. Consequently, the panel ordered a reduction of California’s prison population to 137.5% of system-wide design capacity—admittedly, a drastic population cut that the state would continue to fight tooth and nail all the way to the Supreme Court—but shied away from specifying how the population reduction was to be done.[28] Theoretically, the state could have built more prisons to alleviate overcrowding, but recession-era cuts impeded this course of action; another possibility, relying on private contractors, was blocked by conflicting political interests.[29] In 2011, as Plata made its way to the Supreme Court, Gov. Brown continued the path charted by his predecessor, Gov. Schwarzenegger,[30] and signed extensive legislation that many considered “the greatest experiment” in American corrections.[31] Under the Criminal Justice Realignment,[32] people convicted of “non-non-non” offenses—nonviolent, nonsexual, nonserious—would serve their sentence in county jails, rather than in state prisons. This would internalize the costs of incarceration and eliminate the problem that several scholars have referred to as the “correctional free lunch”: prosecutors asking for, and judges meting out, lengthy prison sentences in county courts, oblivious to the “price tag”—the costs of incarceration, which would be borne by state agencies.[33] Judges were given more discretion regarding sentencing, to alleviate incarceration and, in most cases, the state system’s parole supervision functions were transferred to community probation offices, which would now handle both probation (a sanction, typically viewed as an alternative to incarceration) and parole (post-incarceration supervision).

From State to Counties

The implementation of Realignment meant that tens of thousands of people, who were under the auspices (and financial responsibility) of the state, would now be housed, clothed, and fed at the county level. Many scholars and policymakers who welcomed this jurisdictional shift thought that counties would be better positioned to connect people with rehabilitation and reentry services because of their stronger ties to the home communities of incarcerated people, and that healthcare at the state level was so dire that the counties would surely do better.[34]

But the assumption that jails would be an improvement neglected to consider several factors. The first of these, which law professor Margo Schlanger referred to as the “hydra problem,” was concern about the impact that a decentralized health care system would create, making it more difficult to monitor and implement improvement: i.e., rather than following the health care instructions and practices in one jurisdiction (the state), prison rights advocates would now have to obtain information about conditions and mismanagement in each of the counties as well, and possibly begin new, separate litigation efforts against each county. In addition, there were the inherent limitations of county facilities. Jails, originally built to house people only for short terms (pretrial or for less than a year), were ill-equipped to deal with a population in need of both acute and chronic healthcare. The extent to which counties proved equal to the task varied greatly: while some counties made efforts to prevent incarceration well ahead of the anticipated legislation and court decisions, others, in panic, started building jails[35] or changing revenue structures to roll expenses onto the inmates themselves. Such structure include “pay to stay” jails, in which people pay for their own incarceration (as if they were staying in a hotel) through liens on their post-incarceration earnings, or more opaque practices: monetizing and charging for haircuts, food, and some healthcare services.[36] The gaps in implementation were also reflected in divergent reliance on incarceration among judges in different counties.[37] These divergent patterns were unfortunately exacerbated by the formula for funding the newly burdened county systems, which was initially based on the counties’ respective incarceration rates; this funding mechanism rewarded counties that relied more on incarceration and penalized those who developed alternatives to it, disincentivizing courts, sheriff’s departments, and probation services from investing more in non-carceral options.[38]

Bifurcation and the Violent/Nonviolent Dichotomy

Related to the “hydra problem” was the fact that the new sentencing and jurisdictional rules applied only to the “non-non-nons,” which were considered an easier “sell” from a public appeal perspective. Realignment was not unique in that respect. Generally speaking, recession-era reforms were characterized by a bifurcation element: they applied to nonviolent offenders and retrenched negative public opinion about so-called violent offenders.

This distinction was based on several empirically unfounded myths, the first of which was that the American correctional predicament was due mostly to the incarceration of non-level offenders. In fact, drug offenders—the recipients of bipartisan sympathies, and justifiably so given the racial disparities in drug enforcement—have constantly been no more than a fourth of the state prison population nationwide, whereas people convicted of “violent” offenses constituted a majority of those in state prisons.[39] In California, especially after the legislative changes in 2011 and 2014, three quarters of the prison population are people convicted of “violent” crimes.[40] A related myth was the perception that violent offenders posed a greater risk to public safety—which, when empirically tested, proved to be untrue.[41] In California, specifically, the focus on the crime of conviction led the legal system to ignore a fourth of the prison population—the people serving the state’s three most extreme sentence: incarceration on death row, life without parole, and life with parole. Because of the rarity of executions in California and the rarity of release on parole, these three punishments merged into an “extreme punishment trifecta,”[42] consisting of decades behind bars. Greatly overlapping with this category were prisoners aged fifty and above[43] who, as a consequence of serving extremely lengthy sentences, had not only aged out of crime,[44] but also incurred disabilities and chronic health conditions. Well-meaning reforms, therefore, calcified public opinion against the people who were wrongly perceived, because of their crime of commitment, to pose risks to public safety while, at the same time, facing increased risks to their own health because of their age and the prison conditions they have endured during their lengthy sentences. California’s aforementioned political culture[45] tends to emotional arguments building on heinous (albeit very rare) violent crimes, and public opinion has been remarkably resistant to the idea of distinguishing between, and extending compassion to, people convicted of violent crimes.

System-Wide Population Reduction

Another well-meaning aspect of the Plata reforms was that the court order required a population reduction in the system as a whole, rather than per individual institution. Part of the vagueness of the order was due to the already-extreme measure of relying on the PLRA to require an enormous state-wide effort. However, the choice of litigation strategy also mattered. By contrast to European and international standards, which measure humane incarceration standards based on a minimal square area per prisoner,[46] the order in California did not go so far as to ensure that each inmate would have adequate space—only that the average inmate in the entire system would. For years after the Plata decision, there was considerable variety in the occupation rates of state prisons, with some prisons still at pre-Plata capacity while others were at capacity or even slightly below. The impact of the decision, therefore, was not inclusive of all inmates.

Crisis and Mismanagement

Against the backdrop of these vulnerabilities—fragmented correctional institutions, rising to divergent standards and accountable to different local governments, a legacy of challenges providing minimal healthcare, uneven occupancy rates, and the perception that public opinion is dead-set against the releases of violent prisoners—came the triggers: the pandemic and a few crucial mismanagement steps by CDCR and by county jails. Some of these problems are evident from CDCR’s own tracking tool, but some we know about only from journalistic exposés—especially the ones pertaining to local jails. As of July 13, CDCR has tested 43.4% of its prison population, but testing rates have widely ranged between institutions. In the first two weeks of July, 55% of the California Correctional Center population was tested, but only 2% of the Kern Valley State Prison were tested, and percentages of tests ranges from 97% at Amador to 11.4% at Chuckawalla. More than half of San Quentin’s population tested positive, with nine deaths since mid-July, most of them being individuals on death row.[47] Bizarrely, if death row isolation, where people are housed in single-occupancy cells, is not sufficient protection from contagion, it is unclear where and how the prison can prevent contagion through social distancing.

The contagion on death row raises unique issues. In 2019, after decades in which the state had sentenced people to death only to see them languish for decades on death row, waiting for legal representation to enable them postconviction litigation, Gov. Newsom placed a moratorium on the death penalty. During these decades—and even now, because the death penalty is still on the books—the state has spent billions of dollars “tinkering with the machinery of death” by litigating minute technicalities of executions, such as the type and number of drugs to be injected.[48] Extensive appellate proceedings have gotten into the minutiae of convicts’ physical and mental health, to ensure that they are healthy enough to be killed by the state. This endless technical litigation seems particularly absurd as hundreds of inmates may face a death sentence via COVID-19. Even those who might secretly harbor the thought that such a sentence on death row might be appropriate would be surprised to know that capital trials are notoriously arbitrary and inefficient, and do not effectively single out “the worst of the worst” for capital punishment.[49] Even to the extent that it is possible to qualitatively differentiate between more or less heinous homicides (our Penal Code does so through lists of aggravating circumstances), who ends up on death row is not necessarily a function of the heinousness of the crime, but rather of the quality of the theatrical spectacle for the jury. The recent jury decision to sentence Joseph DeAngelo, the notorious “Golden State Killer,” to life without parole reflects the pragmatic realization that, with the death chamber dismantled, any meaning attached to a symbolic death sentence, as well as the costly expenditure of time and finances that will flow from postconviction litigation, is unnecessary.[50]

An additional trigger is the mismanagement of transfers between institutions during the pandemic. Reportedly, the outbreak at San Quentin is a function of a botched transfer of prisoners from the California Institute of Men in Chino, the site of a serious (and now almost abated) contagion. The prisoners were not tested before being transferred.[51] This scenario then replicated itself: prisoners from San Quentin, in turn, were transferred to the California Correctional Center (CCC) in Susanville and not tested or quarantined upon arrival,[52] resulting in hundreds of cases, with the infection unabated as of mid-July. While another prison in Susanville, High Desert State Prison, has only seen four cases as of mid-July, testing rates there are remarkably low and it is overcrowded at 154% of its capacity, raising concerns about the possibility of preventing much worse outcomes through social distancing.

Beyond the concerns for people behind bars are the concerns for the effect of prison contagion on the surrounding communities. CDCR confirms 1,243 cases among its staff, 205 of which are at San Quentin. Comparing CDCR data about infections within the prison with the Los Angeles Times statistics[53] for the neighboring counties shows a temporal link between the outbreak at San Quentin and the soaring number of cases in the surrounding community.[54] Similarly, the spike in cases in Lassen County occurred after the outbreak at CCC. In both cases, without contact tracing, it is impossible to provide an airtight causal story; the temporal link, however, raises serious concerns that attempting to incubate the virus in prisons puts the entire community at risk.

The interplay between the prison and the community seems to have finally driven home the point that prisoners reside in the county in which the prison is located for the duration of their incarceration, whether or not they are (or should) being “counted” as such for purposes such as the US Census.[55] Realizing that Lassen County people’s health depends, in part, on health outcomes inside Lassen County’s prisons, Brian and Megan Dahle, respectively a Senator and an Assembly Member for Lassen County’s First District wrote a letter to CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz asking him “to provide answers on questionable protocols that have led to a surge of inmate #COVID19 cases in Lassen County.”[56] Reportedly, despite arguments about jurisdiction, the prison and county are finally working together to test the prison population.[57] This collaboration is less likely to play out in Marin County, where the identity and livelihood of the community is less tied to its local prison than at Susanville, “Prison Town, U.S.A.”[58]

The concerns about prison outbreaks, at this point, go beyond the extreme outbreaks at San Quentin, Avenal, CIM, and CCI. A careful look at the CDCR contagion data reveals several locations at which the status of contagion is still unclear given the lack of testing and the paucity of information about transfers—what Donald Rumsfeld referred to, in a different context, as the “known unknowns.”[59] In some prisons, the outbreak seems to have reached its peak and abated; in others, it continues unabated. In some prisons, there have been new outbreaks after previous waves had seemingly abated. Some prisons have only a handful of cases; because these prisons, for the most part, have tested only a small percentage of their population, it is impossible to know whether contagion has been contained or the few cases are the beginning of a serious outbreak. And while several prisons have had no cases at all, it remains to be seen whether administrative blunders in the form of population transfers or insufficient staff protocols will introduce the virus into these institutions and their environs.

Finally, there is the matter of another “known unknown”: the situation in California’s county jails. As outbreaks were reported in several jails, notably at Alameda,[60] San Bernardino, Riverside,[61] Fresno, and Tulare counties,[62] the respective Sheriff’s Departments did not provide statistics on infections and hospitalizations on their webpages. Indeed, UCLA’s new data collection project on COVID-19 in correctional institutions led by Sharon Dolovich impressively covers state and federal prisons, but only a handful of jails, because information has been so scant.[63] The five-month delay in obtaining reliable statistics on county jail infections statewide is an important social fact, which undergirds Schlanger’s “hydra problem”: by contrast to CDCR, which provides an informative tracking tool, the fifty-nine counties have had different approaches as to reportage, and even those who report statistics do not do so in a uniform manner. Only as late as five months into the crisis, the Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) finally required county sheriffs to provide contagion statistics on jails.[64] The resulting database offers partial information, with no historical or cumulative data.[65] The gaps between official COVID-19 policies as listed on county sheriffs’ websites and the realities on the ground became a matter of public record when the Orange County Sheriff was sued for providing inadequate precautions. After the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the Sheriff to enforce social distancing and provide the inmates with soap, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, stayed the injunction, thus temporarily relieving the Sheriff from these obligations. The decision was surprising, to say the least, because stays are not usually granted when the Supreme Court is unlikely to grant certiorari and reverse the decision on the merits; it was particularly surprising because there was ample proof of substantial harm to the jail population. In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor wrote:

Although the Jail had been warned that “social distancing is the cornerstone of reducing transmission of COVID–19,” inmates described being transported back and forth to the jail in crammed buses, socializing in dayrooms with no space to distance physically, lining up next to each other to wait for the phone, sleeping in bunk beds two to three feet apart, and even being ordered to stand closer than six feet apart when inmates tried to socially distance. Moreover, although the Jail told its inmates that they could “best protect” themselves by washing their hands with “soap and water throughout the day,” numerous inmates reported receiving just one small, hotel-sized bar of soap per week. And after symptomatic inmates were removed from their units, other inmates were ordered to dispose of their belongings without gloves or other protective equipment. Finally, despite the Jail’s stated policy to test and isolate individuals who reported or exhibited symptoms consistent with COVID-19, multiple symptomatic detainees described being denied tests, and others recounted sharing common spaces with infected or symptomatic inmates.[1][66]

Beyond the distressing fact that the county preferred to spend its resources petitioning the Supreme Court for a stay, rather than providing its jail population with adequate amounts of soap, the case raises concerns about the situation in other jails. While it is impossible to make definitive extrapolations from the Orange County example, the divergence between the jail’s “health and safety” protocols per its website and the practices on the ground as reported by the jail populations suggest that the official policies are no assurance that people serving short sentences—and people who are in pretrial detention, and thus presumed innocent—are receiving adequate protections from infection.

StopSanQuentinOutbreak

The Proposed Solution: Case-by-Case Releases of Non-Non-Nons?

On July 10, a day after activists and elected officials held a press conference before the San Quentin gate, Gov. Newsom announced impending releases of 8,000 people. In the heels of his announcement, CDCR issued a press release detailing the plan.[67] The plan closely resembles the strategies adopted in 2011 and 2014 to trim the prison population: it focuses on the relatively less controversial moves of hastening the release dates of people sentenced for nonviolent crimes who are nearing the end of their sentences. More particularly, the plan consists of the following steps:

  1. Release 4,800 people with 180 days left on their sentences, who are not serving time for violence or domestic violence, nor are to register as sex offenders.
  2. Release an undetermined number of people with a year left on their sentence for a nonviolent, nonsex crime, who are incarcerated at an outbreak epicenter: San Quentin State Prison (SQ), Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF), California Health Care Facility (CHCF), California Institution for Men (CIM), California Institution for Women (CIW), California Medical Facility (CMF), Folsom State Prison (FOL) and Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility (RJD). Those aged 30 and over are immediately eligible; younger people will be reviewed case-by-case by CDCR.
  3. A 12-week programming credit (hastening the date of release) to all those not on death row or serving life without parole who don’t have a serious violation on their record since March 1. “Serious rules violations” while in prison range from murder to possession of a cellphone. This category of those who have no serious violations since March 1 encompasses 108,000 people, out of which 2,100 would advance to the point of being eligible for release between July and September.
  4. Case-by-case assessment for release of people aged over 65 with a chronic medical condition or with respiratory illnesses, who have been assessed as low risk for violence and who are not on death row, serving life without parole, or high-risk sex offenders.
  5. Individual assessment for release of people in hospice or pregnant, as well as expediting release for people who have been granted parole (including the governor’s approval.)

The plan, regardless of its particulars, is an important first step. For the individuals who will be released, the plan could spell relief from illness and death; the gradual release schedule, albeit not ideal from a pandemic prevention perspective, offers a silver lining that might allow some people to better plan their future on the outside, especially against the backdrop of a terrible economy. Nonetheless, it is woefully insufficient to stop the virus in its tracks, for four reasons: it is too modest, too late, too reactive, and too restrictive.

First, the overall number is far too modest. 8,000 releases—a mere 6% of the current prison population of approximately 125,000—would not allow prison healthcare officials to institute appropriate social distancing measures. In some institutions, the need to release massive numbers of people is even more pressing. In mid-June, a team of physicians specializing in prison healthcare published a report about a site visit to San Quentin,[68] in which they recommended that, due to San Quentin’s age and decrepitude, the population there specifically be reduced to 50% of current capacity. Many of the problems are not endemic to San Quentin: according to the July 8 population count,[69] 26 facilities—24 for men, 2 for women—are overcrowded beyond design capacity. Nine facilities are overcrowded above the 137.5% Plata standard (had the standard been applied to individual prisons, rather than systemwide), and ten more are overcrowded above 120% of their design capacity. Under these conditions, releasing a total of 8,000 people will not even nearly allow the kind of social distancing necessary to halt pandemic spread.

Second, the plan relies heavily on individualized, case-by-case evaluations. The time to take such careful measures has long passed; for months, criminal justice scholars issued warnings of prison contagion, to no avail.[70] Given the spread of the epidemic, CDCR must resort to triage measures, which approach people in broader categories of age and risk.

Third, the plan is reactive to the point of being already dated at its publication. The list of prisons that CDCR prioritizes for releases, published on June 10, already overlooked new outbreaks at several prisons. Moreover, the plan excluded places in which the pandemic had seemingly abated, even though testing levels were partial and unsatisfactory, and did not provide a true sense of pandemic activity. The prisons listed in the press release already are already ravaged by a robust outbreak, and releasing vigorously from those particular locations, while helpful in terms of treating people, would not help with prevention.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the plan’s restrictions on categories for release echoes previous efforts to curb unfounded public backlash at the expense of actual facts and public health. The release plan targets, yet again, a version of the “non-non-nons”: nonserious, nonviolent, nonsexual offenders. Before and after the 2011 and 2014 releases, prison scholars in California and elsewhere conducted robust research on risk assessment and have concluded time and again that there is no correlation between the crime of commitment and the risk to public safety.[71]

The choice to focus, yet again, on “non-non-nons” is particularly worrisome in the current crisis because it stubbornly evades addressing the most obvious category of people for release: people who have been serving lengthy sentences for violent crimes committed decades ago. As robust literature on life-course criminology shows,[72] people age out of violent street crime by their mid- to late-twenties, and by the time they are fifty years old, pose virtually no public safety risk; indeed, parole officers repeatedly express a preference for working with former lifers because they are such a low-risk population.[73]  This category, which constitutes a quarter of the prison population,[74] is an ideal target for release: they do not pose significant risk to public safety and, at the same time, they face enhanced risk to their own health and, by extension—if the virus is incubated in the prisons—to the health of others if they remain incarcerated.

Conclusion

It is hard to contemplate the grim picture in California’s prisons and not feel frustration with the lack of progress since John Howard indicted prisons of being incubators of disease in 1777. Whether the COVID-19 crisis in California prisons can be attributed to “cruelty” or “inattention,” a question that did not matter to the horrified Howard, is one that might matter in litigation, but at this point it suffices to say that much of it was preventable and foreseeable. The well-meaning champions of Plata can hardly be blamed for seeking a remedy that seemed, at the time, to address a systemic ill; but against the backdrop of prison conditions and of the limitations of the Plata remedy, state authorities should have acted as early as March to release people from prison and alleviate overcrowding, particularly in antiquated, decrepit facilities. The late and tepid reaction in July reverts to our state’s characteristic approach to crime and punishment. California’s populistic, polarized political culture has led elected officials, time after time, to seek solutions that raise as little controversy as possible—and time after time, such solutions have proven inefficient. This time, too, officials might be hoping that, by cobbling together palatable candidates for release, the numbers will somehow add up to sufficient prevention. Unfortunately, they won’t.

The Governor must make use of the many “levers” that open prison doors at his disposal. In a universe of moratorium, it is not beyond imagination to commute all death sentences, and all life without parole sentences, to life with parole, and speed early release policies, commutations, parole hearings, and resentencing. It is imperative to let go of concerns about the optics of releasing people who, decades ago, were sentenced for violent crime, and to follow risk assessments that prioritize aging and failing health.

It is equally essential to make a concerted effort to dramatically ramp up testing, so as to test as close to 100% of the prison population as possible. The muddled picture of infection needs to clear up considerably before the points of contact between prisons and the community can accurately be pinpointed and further transfer fiascos avoided. For a voluntary testing program to be effective, it is crucial to communicate that no retaliatory or negative consequences will stem from testing positive—and that includes refraining from the use of death row and solitary confinement cells, which carry terrifying connotations, for the purpose of medical isolation.[75]

Prison authorities must also exercise extreme caution when transferring people between facilities. No transfers must be made to institutions that have no active cases. Similarly, messaging and instructions to staff must take into account their crucial role in prevention.

Finally, county jails are a hidden but important dimension of the COVID-19 challenge. Counties must liaise with CDCR and install matching tracking tools for each county jail.

Where the blame lies, and whether it is cruelty or inattention, matters less than the pressing need to overcome this crisis; mostly, it is paramount to understand that prisons are not separate from the communities in which they are located. Prisons are part of the community, and prisoners are members of the community, and prevention strategies must see them as such.

Notes

[1] John Howard, The State of the Prisons in England and Wales, with an Account of Some Foreign Prisons (1977), cited in Andrew Barrett and Chris Harrison, eds., Crime and Punishment in England: A Sourcebook (London: UCL Press, 1999), 173.

[2] Ashley Rubin, “ Prisons Were Once Designed To Prevent Disease Outbreaks,” Honolulu Civil Beat, April 27, 2020, https://www.civilbeat.org/2020/04/prisons-were-once-designed-to-prevent-disease-outbreaks/.

[3] Kerry Klein, “California Prisons Fight to Reduce Dangerous ‘Valley Fever’ Infections Among Inmates,” KQED, February 15, 2017, https://www.kqed.org/stateofhealth/291413/california-prisons-fight-to-reduce-dangerous-valley-fever-infections-among-inmates.

[4] Dr. Chin-Hong spoke at San Quentin on July 9, 2020. Abené Clayton, “‘Make things right’: criminal justice officials urge California to release prisoners amid Covid-19 surge,” The Guardian, July 9, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jul/09/california-governor-urged-release-prisoners-coronavirus-surge.

[5] California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Population COVID-19 Tracking, accessible at https://www.cdcr.ca.gov/covid19/population-status-tracking/.

[6] Megan Cassidy and Jason Fagone, “Coronavirus tears through San Quentin’s Death Row; condemned inmate dead of unknown cause,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 25, 2020, https://www.sfchronicle.com/crime/article/Coronavirus-tears-through-San-Quentin-s-Death-15367782.php.

[7] Jason Fagone , Megan Cassidy and Alexei Koseff, “Newsom to Release 8,000 Prisoners in California by End of August amid Coronavirus Outbreaks”, San Francisco Chronicle, July 10, 2020, https://www.sfchronicle.com/crime/article/Newsom-to-announce-8-000-new-prison-releases-15399956.php.

[8] Public Safety Realignment Act (AB 109) (2011).

[9] California Proposition 47, the Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative (approved Nov. 2014).

[10] Vanessa Barker, The Politics of Imprisonment How the Democratic Process Shapes the Way America Punishes Offenders (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[11] California’s culture can also be seen as somewhat overlapping the punitive politics of what Mona Lynch refers to as the “sunbelt: Mona Lynch, Sunbelt Justice: Arizona and the Transformation of American Punishment, Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2009. It alsoshares some characteristics with Florida’s culture: Heather Schoenfeld, Building the Prison State: Race and the Politics of Mass Incarceration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018).

[12] Hadar Aviram, Yesterday’s Monsters: The Manson Family Cases and the Illusion of Parole (Oakland: University of California Press, 2020).

[13] Joshua Page, The Toughest Beat: Politics, Punishment, and the Prison Officers Union in California (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[14] Brown v. Plata, 563 U.S. 493 (2011).

[15] Joe Infantino, “California Turns a Corner in Effort To Regain Prison Health Care Oversight”, California Healthline, October 15, 2015, https://californiahealthline.org/news/california-turns-a-corner-in-effort-to-regain-prison-health-care-oversight/.

[16] The most recent CDCR budget, totaling $13.4 billion, devotes $3.6 billion to healthcare. California Public Safety Budget 20-21, http://www.ebudget.ca.gov/2020-21/pdf/BudgetSummary/PublicSafety.pdf.

[17] Adam Liptak, “Justices, 5-4, Tell California to Cut Prisoner Population,” New York Times, May 23, 2011, https://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/24/us/24scotus.html#:~:text=A%20lower%20court%20in%20the,Plata%2C%20No.

[18] Jonathan Simon, Mass Incarceration on Trial: A Remarkable Court Decision and the Future of Prisons in America (New York: The New Press, 2014).

[19] Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Oakland: University of California Press, 2006).

[20] Emily Widra, “Incarceration shortens life expectancy,” Prison Policy Initiative, June 26, 2017, https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2017/06/26/life_expectancy/.

[21] Heather Harris, Justin Goss, Joseph Hayes, Alexandria Gumbs, “California’s Prison Population,” Public Policy Institute of California, July 2019, https://www.ppic.org/publication/californias-prison-population/#:~:text=Criminal%20Justice-,California’s%20Prison%20Population,system%20was%20built%20to%20house.

[22] Jennifer Warren, “State Prison Crowding Emergency Declared,” Los Angeles Times, Oct. 5, 2006, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2006-oct-05-me-prison5-story.html

[23] Hadar Aviram, Cheap on Crime: Recession-Era Politics and the Transformation of American Punishment (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015).

[24] David Dagan and Steven M. Teles, Prison Break: Why Conservatives Turned Against Mass Incarceration (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[25] Barack Obama, “The President’s Role in Advancing Criminal Justice Reform,” Harvard Law Review 130/811 (2017), https://harvardlawreview.org/2017/01/the-presidents-role-in-advancing-criminal-justice-reform/.

[26] Dagan and Teles, Prison Break.

[27] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010). For a critique of Alexander’s excessive focus on drug crimes, see James Forman, “Racial Critiques of Mass Incarceration: Beyond the New Jim Crow,” New York University Law Review 87/101-150 (2012).

[28] Coleman v. Schwarzenegger, NO. CIV S-90-0520 LKK JFM P, Plata v. Schwarzenegger, NO. C01-1351 THE, Three Judge Court Opinion and Order, August 4, 2009, http://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/general/2009/08/04/Opinion%20&%20Order%20FINAL.pdf.

[29] This was not so much out of a principled resistance to private entrepreneurs, but due to fierce objection on the part of California’s prison guards’ union, which protested against a prison built by a private company on speculation: Page, The Toughest Beat, . In 2013, the state did, however, enter a contract to operate this speculative prison, the California City Correctional Center (CAC). Christine Bedell, “Cal City Prison to House State Inmates,” Bakersfield.com, October 25, 2013, https://www.bakersfield.com/news/cal-city-prison-to-house-state-inmates/article_41af12cd-3acf-5a21-9485-30b7ce8af4cb.html.

[30] Joan Petersilia, “A Retrospective View of Corrections Reform in the Schwarzenegger Administration,” Federal Sentencing Reporter 22/3 (2010): 148-153.

[31] Charis Kubrin and Caroll Seron, eds., The Great Experiment: Realigning Criminal Justice in California and Beyond, the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 664/1 (2016.

[32] Assembly Bill 2019.

[33] Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins, The Scale of Imprisonment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 211; W. David Ball, “Defunding State Prisons,” Criminal Law Bulletin 50 (2014): 1060-1089.

[34] Margo Schlanger, “Plata v. Brown and Realignment: Jails, Prisons, Courts, and Politics,” Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review 481 (2013): 165-215.

[35] Alex Emslie, Julie Small, Lisa Pickoff-White, “Realignment 5 Years On: Counties Build Jails for Inmates With Mental Illness,” KQED—The California Report, September 29, 2016, https://www.kqed.org/news/11107949/realignment-5-years-on-counties-build-jails-for-inmates-with-mental-illness#:~:text=Realignment%20aimed%20to%20satisfy%20a,nonviolent%20or%20non%2Dsex%20offenses.&text=It’s%20been%20about%20a%20%242.5%20billion%20windfall%20for%20jail%20construction%20in%20California.

[36] Michael Carona, “Pay-To-Stay Programs in California Jails,” Michigan Law Review First Impressions 106/104 (2007).

[37] Magnus Lofstrom and Brandon Martin, “ Public Safety Realignment: Impacts So Far,” Public Policy Institute of California, September, 2015, https://www.ppic.org/publication/public-safety-realignment-impacts-so-far/.

[38] David Ball, “Tough on Crime (on the State’s Dime): How Violent Crime Does Not Drive California Counties’ Incarceration Rates—And Why it Should,” Georgia State L. Rev. 28 (2012): 987-1084.

[39] John Pfaff, Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform (New York: Basic Books, 2017). The only setting in which this is not true is the federal prison population, which is approximately one tenth of the national prison population.

[40] “Offender Data Points: Offender Demographics for the 24-Month Period Ending December 2018,” California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, p. 11. https://www.cdcr.ca.gov/research/wp-content/uploads/sites/174/2020/01/201812_DataPoints.pdf.

[41] Susan Turner, “Moving California Corrections from an Offense- to Risk-Based System,” UC Irvine Law Review 8 (2018): 97-120 (2018).

[42] Aviram, Yesterday’s Monsters, 38.

[43] Harris et al., “California’s Prison Population.”

[44] The relationship between age and crime is one of the most stable findings of life-course criminology. For a useful summary see Marc Mauer, “Long-Term Sentences: Time to Reconsider the Scale of Punishment,” The Sentencing Project, November 15, 2018, https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/long-term-sentences-time-reconsider-scale-punishment/.

[45] Barker, The Politics of Imprisonment.

[46] Holly Cartner, Prison Conditions in Romania, Human Rights Watch (1992), 8. Eric Goldstein, Prison Conditions in Israel and in the Occupied Territories, Human Rights Watch (1991), 29.

[47] Cassidy and Fagone, “Coronavirus Tears Through San Quentin’s Death Row.”

[48] Hadar Aviram and Ryan S. Newby, “Death Row Economics: The Rise of Fiscally Prudent Anti-Death-Penalty Activism,” Criminal Justice 28 (2013): 33-41.

[49] Sarah Beth Kaufman, American Roulette: The Social Logic of Death Penalty Sentencing Trials (Oakland: University of California Press, 2020); Paul Kaplan, Murder Stories: Ideological Narratives in Capital Punishment (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books), 2012.

[50] George Skelton, “In California, the Death Penalty is All but Meaningless: A Life Sentence for the Golden State Killer Was the Right Move,” Los Angeles Times, July 2, 2020, https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-07-02/skelton-golden-state-killer-capital-punishment-death-penalty#:~:text=In%20California%2C%20the%20death%20penalty,in%20Sacramento%20on%20June%2029

[51] Cassidy and Fagone, “Coronavirus Tears Through San Quentin’s Death Row.”

[52] Staff, “COVID-19 Outbreak Infects Inmates, Staff at Susanville’s Two Prisons”, Lassen County Times, June 26, 2020, https://www.lassennews.com/lassen-cares-hosts-facebook-event-thursday/.

[53] Los Angeles Times Staff, “Tracking the Coronavirus in California,” continuously updated in the Los Angeles Times, https://www.latimes.com/projects/california-coronavirus-cases-tracking-outbreak/.

[54] Hadar Aviram, “Are Outbreaks in Prisons and Surrounding Counties Correlated?” July 20, 2020, https://www.hadaraviram.com/2020/07/20/are-outbreaks-in-prisons-and-surrounding-counties-correlated/; Hadar Aviram, “CA Prisons as COVID-19 Incubators: Data Analysis,” July 5, 2020, https://www.hadaraviram.com/2020/07/05/ca-prisons-as-covid-19-incubators-data-analysis/.

[55] For more on the question of counting prisoners and its impact on voting, see Tim Henderson, “Counting Prison Inmates Differently Could Shift Political Power to Cities,” Stateline, Pew Center on the States, January 2, 2019, https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2019/01/02/counting-prison-inmates-differently-could-shift-political-power-to-cities.

[56] Megan Dahle for Assembly Facebook Page, post dated June 26, 2020, https://www.facebook.com/voteMeganAD1/posts/843803776144240.

[57] Staff, “Prisons Cooperate with Local Officials in COVID-19 Testing,” Lassen County Times, June 26, 2020,

https://www.lassennews.com/prisons-cooperate-with-local-officials-in-covid-19-testing/?fbclid=IwAR3uWyG1kqltM2qARI29oGUbHdnBlxkv3AGQCupgzdNhMh3tMRtJrSuyDvk.

[58] Prison Town, USA [film]. PBS, 2007; dir. Katie Galloway, Po Hutchins.

[59] Donald Rumsfeld, Department of Defense Briefing, February 12, 2002, quoted in David A. Graham, “Rumsfeld’s Knowns and Unknowns: The Intellectual History of a Quip,” The Atlantic, March 27, 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/03/rumsfelds-knowns-and-unknowns-the-intellectual-history-of-a-quip/359719/.

[60] Angela Ruggiero, “Record Numbers of Coronavirus Cases Reported at Santa Rita Jail,” San Jose Mercury News, July 16, 2020, https://www.mercurynews.com/2020/07/16/biggest-outbreak-of-coronavirus-reported-at-santa-rita-jail/.

[61] Rich Tarpening, “Coronavirus Cases Increase in Both San Bernardino and Riverside County Jails,” KASQ Channel 3, June 27, 2020, https://kesq.com/news/2020/05/09/coronavirus-cases-increase-in-both-san-bernardino-and-riverside-county-jails/.

[62] Anthony Galaviz, “Positive Tests in Tulare County, Death at Avenal Prison Add to Coronavirus Inmate Toll,” The Fresno Bee, June 27, 2020, at: https://www.fresnobee.com/news/coronavirus/article243850527.html.

[63] See https://law.ucla.edu/academics/centers/criminal-justice-program/ucla-covid-19-behind-bars-data-project.

[64] Letter from Linda Penner, Chair of BSCC, to Sheriffs and Chief Probation Officers, July 15, 2020, https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/6989449-COVID-19-Data-Dashboard-BSCC-7-15-2020.html.

[65] BSCC, “COVID-19 Data Dashboard,” http://www.bscc.ca.gov/covid-19-data-dashboard-landing-page/.

[66] Barnes v. Ahlman, 591 U.S. ___ (2020) (J. Sotomayor, Diss.), 3.

[67] Press Release, “CDCR Announces Additional Actions to Reduce Population and Maximize Space Systemwide to Address COVID-19”, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, July 10, 2020, https://www.cdcr.ca.gov/news/2020/07/10/cdcr-announces-additional-actions-to-reduce-population-and-maximize-space-systemwide-to-address-covid-19/?fbclid=IwAR2RDYnBij0JyG-fIyZTLTwInzvZFeFe27s8FTZn-vZQZwKMHk04-yBLZw8.

[68] Sandra McCoy, Stefano M. Bertozzi, David Sears, Ada Kwan, Catherine Duarte, Drew Cameron, Brie Williams, “Urgent Memo–COVID-19 Outbreak: San Quentin Prison,” AMEND: Changing Correctional Culture and UC Berkeley School of Public Health, June 15, 2020, https://amend.us/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/COVID19-Outbreak-SQ-Prison-6.15.2020.pdf.

[69] California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Weekly Report of Population As of Midnight July 8, 2020, https://www.cdcr.ca.gov/research/wp-content/uploads/sites/174/2020/07/Tpop1d200708.pdf.

[70] Margo Schlanger and Sonja Starr, “Four Things Every Prison System Must Do Today,” Slate, March 27, 2000,

https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2020/03/four-steps-prevent-coronavirus-prison-system-catastrophe.html; Sharon Dolovich, “Every Public Official with the Power to Decarcerate Must Exercise That Power Now,” The Appeal, April 20, 2020,  https://theappeal.org/every-public-official-with-the-power-to-decarcerate-must-exercise-that-power-now/.

[71] For a summary of this body of literature see Susan Turner, “Moving California Corrections from an Offense- to Risk-Based System.”

[72] Robert Sampson and John Laub, “Life-Course Desisters? Trajectories of Crime Among Delinquent Boys Followed to Age 70,” Criminology 41 (2003): 555-592.

Caitlin V. M. Cornelius, Christopher J. Lynch, and Ross Gore, “Aging Out of Crime: Exploring the Relationship between Age and Crime with Agent-Based Modeling,” Society for Modeling and Simulation International, 2017.

[73] Aviram, Yesterday’s Monsters, 134.

[74] Heather Harris, et al., “California’s Prison Population.”

[75] See the physicians’ caveat about this regrettable practice in McCoy et al., “Urgent Memo – COVID-19 Outbreak: San Quentin Prison.”

Hadar Aviram is Professor of Law at UC Hastings and a frequent media commentator on politics, criminal justice policy, and civil rights. She is author of Cheap on Crime: Recession-Era Politics and the Transformation of American Punishment (UC Press, 2015) and Yesterday’s Monsters: The Manson Family Cases and the Illusion of Parole (UC Press, 2020) and her blog, California Correctional Crisis, covers criminal justice policy in California. She served as President of the Western Society of Criminology and on the Board of Trustees of the Law and Society Association, and is currently the Book Review Editor of the Law & Society Review.

Copyright: © 2020 Hadar Aviram. 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/

Articles

California and the 1918–1920 Influenza Pandemic

 

CH_97_03_North_Fig_01-troops-marching-in-masks

“Victory Parade, ca. 1918.” Van Covert Martin, photographer. Soldiers march along East Main Street, Stockton, California, in front of Tredway Brothers store during the influenza pandemic. Many Californians were among those the United States sent to East Asia as part of the Siberian Expedition. Scholars do not know if Californians carried the disease with them, contracted it in Siberia, or both.
Courtesy Holt-Atherton Special Collections (Western Americana), University of the Pacific Library,

Published in collaboration with California History 

Diane M. T. North

The 1918–1920 influenza pandemic remains the deadliest influenza pandemic in recorded history. It began in the midst of World War I (1914–1918), as millions of combatants fought on the battlefields of Europe, Africa, the Middle East, the Far East, and at sea. The exceptionally contagious, unknown strain of influenza virus spread rapidly and attacked all ages. Whereas previous epidemics had affected those under five years of age or the elderly, the new virus especially targeted young adults, ages twenty to forty-four—the age range of sailors, marines, soldiers, pilots, physicians, nurses, and support staff. Influenza spread from person to person by close contact, especially through sneezing, coughing, or sharing items such as drinking cups. Key transmission vectors within the military included training camps, in transit aboard trains or ships, and along the front lines of battlefields. Key transmission vectors for civilians included refugee camps, crowded cities, transportation services, factories, and public gatherings. There were no ventilators, vaccines, antibiotics, or antiviral medicines to help the pandemic’s victims. An estimated 50–100 million people died worldwide, many from complications of pneumonia. Approximately 500 million, or one-third of the world’s population, became infected.[1] More U.S. military personnel died from influenza than from battlefield wounds.[2]

This article examines the evolution of four waves of the 1918–1920 influenza pandemic, emphasizes the role of the U.S. Navy and sea travel as the initial transmitters of the virus in the United States, and focuses on California as a case study in the response to the crisis. Although the world war, limited medical science, and the unknown nature of the virus made it extremely difficult to fight the disease, the responses of national, state, and community leaders to the 1918–1920 influenza pandemic can provide useful lessons in 2020, as the onslaught of the novel coronavirus (or SARS-CoV-2) that causes the disease, COVID-19, forces people worldwide to confront a terrible illness and death.

CH_97_03_North_Fig_02-nurses-marching-in-masks

“Victory Parade, ca. 1918.” Van Covert Martin, photographer. American Red Cross (ARC) nurses march during the influenza pandemic along North Hunter Street, Stockton, California, in front of the Boston Rooms, Hunter Square Café, and the Willard Hardware Company. In addition to serving with the ARC on the home front, California women served with the ARC and the U.S. Army in Europe and Siberia and with the U.S. Navy aboard ships at sea.
Courtesy Holt-Atherton Special Collections (Western Americana), University of the Pacific Library)

Problems with 1918–1920 Data

From the outset, it is important to acknowledge several difficulties in understanding the historical complexity of the influenza pandemic: its geographic origin, the precise arrival times as the contagion spread worldwide, and its deadly impact. Scholars continue to debate the geographic origin of the pandemic—the battlefields of western France, the United States, or the Far East.[3] Another challenge is related to charting the path of infection as it reached different populations at different times. The same dilemma exists with the COVID-19 pandemic. After the virus spread from China, U.S. health officials originally thought that the first U.S. COVID-19 death occurred in Washington state on February 26, 2020, but new evidence suggests that the first death occurred in Santa Clara County, California, on February 6, 2020. Dr. Sara Cody, the county’s health officer, recognized that the virus had gone undetected in the United States during January and early February 2020.[4] This news will change as physicians learn more.

More importantly, scholars today warn that the worldwide morbidity and mortality numbers for the 1918–1920 influenza pandemic are understated.[5] In the United States, the available statistics give an incomplete picture of the magnitude of the disease. Between 1918 and 1920, the U.S. population grew slightly, from 103 million to 106.5 million. During that time, an estimated 850,000 people died from influenza and pneumonia. However, out of forty-eight states, only thirty contributed to the 1918 Bureau of Census Mortality Statistics, and only twenty-four states contributed to the 1919 report. In 1920, the bureau was able to count only an estimated 82.3 percent of the U.S. population, including the Territory of Hawaii.[6] In California, with an estimated population of 2.3 to 3.4 million between 1918 and 1920, approximately 29,738 died of influenza and pneumonia during those years, but these data also are unreliable (Table 1).[7] 

Table 1 (2)

Not until the last week of September 1918 did the surgeon general of the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) designate influenza as a “reportable” disease and request that all public health officials telegraph weekly reports of incidences, even though, by then, the disease had spread to twenty-seven states, including California. Responding to the federal directive, the executive officer of the California State Board of Health (CSBH), Dr. Wilfred H. Kellogg, wrote to all city and county health officers on September 27, 1918, advising that the communicable disease, influenza, now qualified as “reportable and isolatable” under Section 2979 of the Political Code. Kellogg authorized California health officials to “require the isolation of cases appearing in your community, it being hoped in this manner to check the rapid spread of the disease, which otherwise appears inevitable.”[8]

Evolution of the First Wave: The United States and the World, January–July 1918

Scholars now generally accept that the influenza pandemic arrived in the United States in three waves, in spring 1918, autumn–winter 1918, and winter–spring 1919. More recent research identifies a possible fourth wave in the winter and spring of 1920.[9] Some sources suggest that the initial U.S. outbreak appeared at U.S. Army bases in Kansas in March or April of 1918.[10] However, a careful reading of contemporary reports issued by the U.S. Navy and the USPHS provides more precise and generally overlooked information about the infection’s first-wave arrival times in the United States and around the world. Naval records are particularly germane to California, with its 1,200-mile coastline, significant seaports, U.S. Navy and Army installations, and the constant movement of people and goods on ships traveling around the entire Pacific Rim and through the Panama Canal.

CH_97_03_North_Fig_03-USS Minneapolis 1918 NH 46179

U.S.S. Minneapolis (Cruiser # 13), with the ship’s commander, Captain Rufus Z. Johnston (seated right of center), and the ship’s surgeon and hospital corpsmen, 1918. The navy recorded the first outbreak of “suspicious” influenza aboard this ship in January 1918 when twenty-one sailors became ill. Photograph NH 46179.
Courtesy U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command

The U.S. Navy’s surgeon general described the first “suspicious outbreak of influenza” on board the U.S.S. Minneapolis at the Philadelphia Navy Yard in January, 1918, where twenty-one sailors became ill.[11] By February 1918, as the navy continued to train sailors and marines and protect U.S. merchant ships carrying food and supplies to Europe from German submarine attacks, medical officers recorded approximately 700 influenza cases, including at the navy yards in Portsmouth, NH, Boston, and New York. Of the 700 cases, 350–400 occurred at the U.S. Naval Radio School at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.[12] Physicians treating patients at the radio school observed eleven influenza cases with complications due to streptococcus pneumonia. Here, the navy’s description presents another dimension to the disease—the acute role of pneumonia in the 1918–1920 influenza pandemic—and demonstrates the importance of keeping accurate, detailed records during the COVID-19 pandemic due to the complex presence of pneumonia in certain of its sufferers.[13]

The geographic areas affected by influenza expanded in March 1918. The navy reported approximately 300 cases on ships stationed along the U.S. eastern seaboard.[14] By April 1918, as the United States trained and transported more troops, influenza numbers among navy personnel rose to over a thousand, including sailors and marines aboard ships along the southeastern and Gulf coasts and in Cuba, France, and California. In the latter state alone, there were 450 cases (and one death) on the U.S.S. Oregon in the Mare Island Naval Shipyard, 120 cases at the submarine base in San Pedro, and 410 cases at the San Diego Naval Training Camp (for further details, see below).[15]

CH_97_03_North_Fig_04-USS Oregon NH 63387

U.S.S. Oregon (BB-3). During April 1918, at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard, 410 sailors stationed aboard this ship suffered from influenza and one died. Photograph NH 63387.
Courtesy U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command

As military operations intensified, the navy’s 478 influenza cases chronicled in May 1918 show that the disease’s geographic area swelled to ships and shore stations in Ireland, Scotland, England, France, and Gibraltar.[16]

During the summer of 1918, the first wave of the pandemic continued to spread. Many Californians were among those the United States sent to Russia as part of the ill-fated Siberian Expedition. Scholars do not know if they carried the disease with them, contracted it in Siberia as the men mingled with local residents, or both. However, as navy ships traveled across the Pacific in June, the surgeon general recorded first-wave incidences at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and Vladivostok, Siberia, in June 1918. In the former, 125 sailors on the U.S.S. Monterey—or 66 percent of the crew—suffered from influenza. In the latter, the disease remained prevalent among the crew of the U.S.S. Brooklyn for eight weeks, with no morbidity or mortality figures given.[17]

By July 1918, the first wave had struck seamen aboard ships at Key West, Florida (U.S.S. Tallahassee, 76 cases), and the Azores (U.S.S. Galatea, 30 cases). Reflecting the escalation of U.S. participation in the war and the changes in war technology, influenza reached military personnel at naval air stations at Wexford and Queenstown, Ireland, and in four French ports.[18] The navy also stated that an influenza pandemic “was evident” in Spain, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, France, and Great Britain.[19]

The First Wave in California: February–June 1918

Although the data lack narrative details, it is important to point out that the USPHS calculated a somewhat elevated or “excess” rate of mortality from influenza and pneumonia in early 1918 in fifty U.S. cities with a population over 100,000, including three in California: San Francisco from February through June; Los Angeles from March through May; and Oakland (located across the bay from San Francisco) from March through April.[20] These were not classified as outbreaks but are noteworthy because the disease was evident.

By April 1918, seven known first-wave influenza outbreaks occurred in separate locations throughout the state. Military physicians attributed three—in San Pedro, San Diego, and Linda Vista—to the arrival of two Japanese training cruisers, the Asama and the Iwate, with a thousand sailors, commanded by Vice Admiral Kantarō Suzuki. The ships docked in San Francisco on March 22 as part of a goodwill tour among allies. During World War I, Japan was allied with the United States, France, and Britain. California military and civilian dignitaries welcomed and socialized with Japanese officials at receptions and dinners. The Japanese cadets toured the Bay Area and attended athletic and cultural events where they mixed with the general public. The cruisers left San Francisco on March 29 and sailed south along the California coast.[21]

The Iwate and Asama docked at Los Angeles harbor on Monday, April 1. On Thursday, April 4, the Chambers of Commerce of San Pedro and Long Beach entertained a hundred officers and midshipmen at a banquet ashore. The next afternoon, Vice Admiral Suzuki welcomed these same officials plus delegates from the mayor’s office, and their wives, to afternoon teas held aboard both cruisers. Four hundred people attended.[22] The Japanese then sailed to San Diego. On April 9, the army training center, Camp Kearny, located in Linda Vista, north of San Diego, held a “Grand Review” in honor of “the Allied Countries.” Admiral Suzuki attended, along with representatives from the French and British militaries.[23]

CH_97_03_North_Fig_05-grand-review

On April 9, 1918, Camp Kearny (near San Diego, California) held a “Grand Review” for “the Allied Countries.” That April, 560 soldiers at the training camp became ill with influenza.
Courtesy Library of Congress

Following the ships’ visit to Los Angeles, medical officers at the submarine base in San Pedro recorded 120 cases in an outbreak of ten days’ duration that April. The connection was clear to the navy’s surgeon general, who in 1919 reported that the outbreak followed the visit of a Japanese ship “on board which the disease was prevalent.”[24] Soon after the Iwate and Asama departed San Diego, the medical officers at the U.S. Naval Training Camp reported that 410 sailors, or 9 percent of the base complement, were infected with influenza. The origin of this outbreak, too, was obvious to navy doctors: it came “following the visit of a Japanese Squadron.” Pneumonia complicated twelve cases.[25] Camp Kearny’s medical officer—responsible for 560 infected soldiers—also linked the arrival of Japanese ships carrying influenza-infected sailors to his camp’s outbreak.[26]

Four additional first-wave influenza cases, of unknown origin, appeared in California in April 1918—on Mare Island, at Camp Fremont, at Stanford University, and in the state prison at San Quentin. In the April outbreak at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard, located on a peninsula across the Napa River from the town of Vallejo, 450 sailors or “two-thirds of the ship’s company” aboard the battleship U.S.S. Oregon became infected with the influenza virus. One sailor, Harry McKinley Johnson, a musician first class in the U.S. Navy Reserves, died on April 12.[27]

South of San Francisco, U.S. Army medical officers at Camp Fremont, located in Menlo Park, reported another first-wave attack. Camp Fremont hospitalized 1,045 men as officers moved quickly to prevent the spread of the disease. They prohibited indoor assemblies and improved camp sanitation, including disinfecting affected patients’ tents and clothing. The surgeon sprayed the men’s noses and throats with an antiseptic, but these methods proved ineffective. Nineteen men died.[28] In addition, at Stanford University, immediately adjacent to Camp Fremont, administrators counted 260 influenza cases. Patients were isolated and hospitalized, but six died.[29]

North of San Francisco, another first-wave incident occurred in April 1918, in the California state prison at San Quentin. Dr. L. L. Stanley, the resident public health officer at the prison, carefully noted its first influenza infection on April 13. Stanley attributed the arrival of the disease to “the entrance into the institution of a [sick] prisoner who had come from the county jail in Los Angeles, where, he stated, a number of other inmates had been ill.”[30] From April 14 until May 26, Stanley treated “an epidemic of unusual severity” at San Quentin, with 101 patients hospitalized. Seven of these developed bronchopneumonia and three died. He noted that prisoners became ill within two to three days of contact with an infected prisoner. Stanley tracked the course of the disease, which peaked on April 23–24. At least 1,450 people, over 76 percent of the institution’s 1,900 prisoners, reported sick at the height of the outbreak.[31]

The Second Wave in California Naval Stations and Army Camps: August–December 1918

Influenza spread quickly throughout U.S. ships and military installations at home and overseas. Between June 1917 and November 1918, the United States trained nearly two million men and then shipped them overseas. Accompanying those men were at least 15,000 women from the navy, army, American Red Cross (ARC), and private agencies, who served as physicians, nurses, physical and occupational therapists, reconstruction aides, switchboard operators, casualty searchers, and clerks.[32] Late in August 1918, navy doctors observed that a second, more severe wave had evolved: “The type of cases changed; the disease began to spread progressively from one community to another. The percentage of pulmonary complications increased beyond comparison with regard to the earlier epidemics, and influenzal pneumonia frequently began very early in the disease.”[33]

According to the navy’s surgeon general, “in the United States, the first cases of this phase of the pandemic” were recognized on August 27 aboard a ship that housed new recruits at Commonwealth Pier in Boston.[34] The navy transferred those patients to the U.S. Naval Hospital in Chelsea, Massachusetts. Starting with three cases, fifty-eight were ill only two days later, on August 29.[35] The navy reported that “epidemics of like character occurred almost simultaneously in most parts of the world.”[36] As scholars now know, this was the beginning of a second, even more severe wave of the pandemic. According to the scientists David M. Morens and Anthony S. Fauci, the “identit[ies] of viruses during [the] first and third waves are not known.” However, recent research indicates that “at least 2 virus variants [emerged and spread] during the second wave.”[37]

With the onset of the more fatal second wave of influenza in California, 5,188 soldiers became ill and 129 died at Camp Kearny in Linda Vista, near San Diego, from September 24 to December 8, 1918. Unfortunately, officials were slow to respond. Fourteen days after the first case was reported, camp leaders closed all indoor post exchanges (retail operations) and amusement halls. On October 9, they quarantined the camp. New arrivals were detained for five days and examined daily for signs of infection. For ten days—November 2 to 12—authorities ordered everyone in the camp to wear gauze masks. At the 1,280-bed hospital, dishes were boiled, linens were sterilized, and screens were placed between the cots. The camp then established a separate convalescent area for soldiers discharged from the hospital.[38]

The disease also recurred in fall 1918 at the U.S. Naval Training Camp at San Diego, which trained, housed, and fed an average of 4,932 personnel. New infections peaked between September 8 and 30. The final tally was 628 cases with nineteen fatalities for the period from September 21 to December 14.[39]

When the second wave attacked Camp Fremont in Menlo Park, medical officers improved upon their first-wave response in April by quickly closing theaters and post exchanges and canceling YMCA meetings and all assemblies, except for drill formations. Medical staff wore masks, and patients were assigned separate cubicles. Despite these heightened efforts, from October 8 to November 7, doctors treated 2,778 soldiers for influenza and pneumonia; 149 died.[40]

CH_97_03_North_Fig_06-Captain Harry George, Mare Island Naval Shipyard, NH 119808

Captain Harry George, USN, and staff, Mare Island Naval Shipyard, California, February 1, 1919. When an influenza outbreak started on Mare Island in September 1918, Captain George instituted a modified quarantine. Navy corpsmen, in cooperation with Dominican nuns, took care of influenza patients in the nearby town of Vallejo. Photograph NH 119808.

On September 24, 1918, Captain Harry George, the commandant at Mare Island, ordered precautions “in anticipation of an epidemic of influenza”.[41] With 7,657 navy personnel assigned to the yard, Mare Island was unusually permeable to infection. Between 8,000 to 10,000 civilians entered the shipyard daily, most of whom lived in Vallejo and the surrounding towns, typically in overcrowded, unsanitary rooming houses.[42] Additionally, with the nation at war, the navy routinely sent new recruits and draftees to Mare Island to be trained and assigned to ships. Under these circumstances, George believed, an absolute quarantine was unfeasible. He called instead for a modified quarantine and instructed all personnel to take precautions.[43] George ordered new recruits into detention for twenty-one days. Officials redesigned the sailors’ and marines’ sleeping quarters and allocated each man a sleeping area of fifty square feet within the barracks. Curtains hung between the bunks, cots, and hammocks formed cubicles that offered a measure of isolation. George closed on-base theaters (both live performances and “moving pictures”), recreation and reading rooms, classrooms, and churches. The commandant ordered strict isolation for influenza patients. Medical personnel were ordered to wear gowns and face masks, and to disinfect their hands after treating patients. Additional sanitary measures included steam-cleaning clothing and boiling all eating utensils and mess gear in dishwashing machines for at least five minutes.[44]

Despite these efforts, by the end of November 1918, physicians treated 1,536 navy personnel during the second wave. To supplement the permanent, 200-bed Navy hospital, workers at Mare Island constructed thirteen hospital buildings with 550 beds. When this proved inadequate, medical staff set up emergency tents to care for the additional sick during the peak period in October and requested additional nurses and medical officers.[45]

As the second wave overwhelmed navy physicians and corpsmen on Mare Island, civilians in the nearby town of Vallejo turned to the navy for help. In moves that would be familiar during the COVID-19 pandemic, the navy prohibited sailors and marines from leaving the shipyard and urged civic leaders to close their public buildings. To reduce contact between churchgoers, the navy encouraged congregations to hold services out of doors. From November 3 to 30, 1918, Navy corpsmen operated an emergency hospital for civilian employees on the grounds of the navy shipyard, caring for 287 patients. As the crisis worsened and Vallejo city officials were unable to manage, a local order of Dominican nuns temporarily lent the navy its new school building for a hospital, which patients quickly named “St. Vincent’s Navy Hospital.” Beginning on November 2, the nuns served as nurses alongside four navy physicians, twenty-four corpsmen, and fifty-eight support personnel. This hospital also remained open until November 30, ultimately caring for 190 patients.[46]

CH_97_03_North_Fig_07_Yerba Buena Island

Naval Training Station, San Francisco, California (Yerba Buena Island). View looking southward over the wharf area, from the eastern end of Yerba Buena, 1921. The isolated position of the training station allowed the commandant to quarantine all military personnel from September 23 to November 21, 1918, keeping the station free from influenza. Photograph NH 100361.
Courtesy of U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command

At San Francisco’s U.S. Naval Training Station, located on Yerba Buena Island, a different story unfolded. On September 23, the commandant imposed an absolute quarantine, recalling all officers, enlisted men, and civilians to base and requiring them to remain on the island. In the barracks, a muslin screen extended around the head and along the side of each man’s cot. The navy implemented what, in 2019–2020, would be called “social distancing”: the station curtailed all contact with San Francisco and Oakland except to collect supplies and welcome recruits and those who “necessarily had to be received.” The navy restricted the actions of tugboat crews and ordered them to stay twenty feet away from people on the dock. Passengers donned gauze face masks before boarding tugboats bound for the island.

Yerba Buena doctors administered then-standard measures designed to prevent contagious disease transmissions. The navy’s surgeon general, for example, reported that anyone arriving from the mainland had his “pharynx and nasal passages thoroughly sprayed with a 10 per cent solution of Silvol,” a solution of silver in water.[47] Parke, Davis & Company, makers of the product, touted it as an antiseptic and germicidal effective in combating infection.[48] Newcomers to Yerba Buena entered a quarantine camp for several days, where they continued to wear masks, received three daily treatments of Silvol spray, and kept a distance of twenty feet from each other.[49] Outside the quarantine camp, everyone on the station had his pharynx and nasal passages sprayed once daily with the same solution. Drinking fountains were “flamed with a gasoline torch, and all telephone transmitters were disinfected twice daily.”[50] The medical staff inoculated everyone on the island with three successive doses of “a mixed bacterial vaccine” on October 12, 15, and 18.[51]

CH_97_03_North_Fig_08-NH 2654, Yerba Buena

Naval Training Station, San Francisco, California (Yerba Buena Island), ca. November 1918. Once the navy lifted its initial quarantine, over 100 sailors became ill. The navy improvised crowded arrangements on the Drill Hall floor, Main Barracks. The bunks were arranged in columns, with patients placed head to foot by row. Photograph NH 2654.
Courtesy U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command

At the time, the navy’s surgeon general recognized that “this was not a pure quarantine experiment.” Yet as long as the quarantine remained in effect, the island remained free of infection. When the station resumed open contact with San Francisco and Oakland on November 21, the pandemic’s second wave battered Yerba Buena. On December 6, sixteen days after the navy lifted the quarantine, the medical officer reported the island’s first influenza case. During December, the navy counted 148 cases of acute bronchitis, thirteen of bronchopneumonia, four of lobar pneumonia, and twenty-five of influenza on Yerba Buena. Three men died of “influenza (influenzal pneumonia)” and two men died of pneumonia.[52] As the photographs illustrate, medical staff gradually obtained the cloth material to keep infected patients isolated from each other on the Drill Hall floor of the Main Barracks.

Naval Training Station, San Francisco (Yerba Buena Island), ca. December 1918. The navy erected sneeze screens between patients on the Drill Hall floor, Main Barracks.

Naval Training Station, San Francisco (Yerba Buena Island), ca. December 1918. The navy erected sneeze screens between patients on the Drill Hall floor, Main Barracks. Sign on wall at left reads: “DO NOT SPIT ON THE FLOOR[,] TO DO SO MAY SPREAD DISEASE.” Photograph NH 41871. Courtesy of the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command

The Second Wave in California Communities: August–December 1918

California newspaper coverage of what would become the most severe influenza wave began haltingly. Only a few California papers reported on the presence of the second wave of influenza in August and September 1918. On August 31, the Sacramento public health officer advised “Sacramento girls” to cover their kisses with a handkerchief to avoid spreading influenza, “which has gained quite a footing in the cities in the East.”[53] On September 25, one news item announced an unknown number of cases on a coast steamer arriving at Los Angeles from San Francisco, twelve cases in Laverne, near Los Angeles, and an unknown number of cases in San Luis Obispo County. However, Dr. Kellogg, the CSBH’s executive officer, did not think these accounts were genuine.[54] He soon learned otherwise. Californians were somewhat oblivious to, and unprepared for, the second wave of a deadly disease.

As explained above, the USPHS did not declare “influenza” as a reportable disease until the last week in September 1918, when it required public health officers nationwide to send in weekly reports by telegram. Immediately after receiving orders from the USPHS, Kellogg contacted all public health officials in the state on September 27 and requested their compliance with official policy. Recognizing the severity of the disease and its threat to public health, Kellogg advised his fellow physicians that “the disease in the present pandemic seems to exhibit an unusual virulence, and is extremely prone to pneumonic complications.”[55] By the time the federal and state notices arrived in local communities, citizens in twenty-seven states, including California, had suffered from the more severe second wave of influenza.[56]

Just as crowded World War I military transports, stations, and camps—and the military’s interaction with local communities—clearly served as breeding grounds for the transmission of influenza, other vectors spread the disease. In California, these included railroad travel, railroad and highway construction camps, and steamship and ferry travel, as individuals moved up and down the coast and around the bays. Dunsmuir, a community near the Oregon border with approximately two thousand residents, was the site of a sizable Southern Pacific Railroad roundhouse used to service and turn its passenger and freight trains. By October 5, Dunsmuir’s first case, reported on September 21, 1918, had multiplied: 109 railroad workers and townspeople were sick.[57]

CH_97_03_North_Fig_10-Dunsmuir Roundhouse

Southern Pacific Railroad, Dunsmuir, California, Roundhouse, ca 1910. Railroads and railroad towns served as vectors for the transmission of influenza. Dunsmuir, population approximately 2,000, was located near the Oregon border on the main rail line to the Pacific Northwest. By October 5, 1918, 109 railroad workers and townspeople were ill with influenza.
Courtesy Northeastern California Historical Photograph Collection, Meriam Library, California State University, Chico

On October 1, 1918, federal authorities acknowledged the rapid spread of the second wave of influenza throughout the nation. Congress responded by appropriating $1 million ($16 million in 2020 dollars) to enable the USPHS and local boards of health to combat and suppress the influenza pandemic. Congress advised the army, navy, and USPHS to work together to fight the virus.[58] After urging local health authorities to report influenza cases, the surgeon general of the USPHS, Rupert Blue, organized a nationwide campaign warning people of the dangers of the disease, and designated the states’ chief health officers to direct doctors and nurses to serve in areas with high morbidity and mortality.[59]

CH_97_03_North_Fig_11-wear-a-mask--CSBHWilfred H KelloggM.D Influenza A Study of Measures Adopted for the Control of the Epidemic Special Bulletin No 31 Sac State Printing Office 1919 2

“To Avoid Influenza, Wear a Mask.”
California State Board of Health and Wilfred H. Kellogg, M.D. Influenza: A Study of Measures Adopted for the Control of the Epidemic, Special Bulletin No. 31 (Sacramento: State Printing Office, 1919), 16.

By October 12, 1918, the USPHS, with the aid of the ARC, had organized a volunteer medical corps. Eighty-eight California communities requested assistance, and 180 California nurses and sixty physicians offered their help. Kellogg clarified “simple isolation” to mean that sick patients should remain in a private room within their homes, and he confirmed that local health officials had the authority to impose a ten-day “detention period.” He ordered doctors, nurses, patients, family members, and those with a cold to wear gauze face masks; and he recommended that barbers, dentists, druggists, and “many others” wear them as a public duty. Newspapers published the CSBH’s instructions for making, cleaning, and disposing of masks, along with guidelines called “What To Do Until the Doctor Comes”. These included staying in bed, keeping warm, and eating nourishing food, such as plain milk, egg and milk, or broth, every four hours. The CSBH reminded people to avoid crowded places and sick people, to walk to work rather than ride public conveyances, to wash hands before eating, and to spend time outdoors in the sunshine.[60] The USPHS distributed over six million pamphlets informing citizens about the perils of the highly contagious virus and circulated posters throughout the country explaining how influenza was transmitted and what precautions to take.[61]

CH_97_03_North_Fig_12-nlm_nlmuid-101453499-img-1

“Influenza Spread by Droplets Sprayed from Nose and Throat,” Public Health Service, U.S. Department of Treasury.
Courtesy U.S. National Library of Medicine, Digital Collections, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

And still Californians kept dying of influenza, with complications from pneumonia. By the end of October, California reported 124,167 cases of influenza and pneumonia, and the number of deaths had climbed to 5,381. These comprised 3,541 males (or 65.8 percent of fatalities) and 1,840 females (34.2 percent). Nearly two-thirds (64.6 percent) of those who died were between the ages of twenty and thirty-nine. The CSBH also noted the racial characteristics of the October deaths: 5,080 were whites (listed as “Caucasians”); 162 Japanese; 57 Negroes (sic); 46 Chinese; and 36 Indians.[62]

California’s two major cities—Los Angeles and San Francisco—responded to the pandemic threat differently. L.A. authorities acted quickly to combat the virus. Their precautions were wise, given the city’s rapidly growing population, which ballooned from 319,198 in 1910 to 576,673 in 1920.[63] Los Angeles counted seven new cases on September 21.[64] Later scholars would identify fifty-five Polytechnic High School students as among the city’s earliest suspected cases.[65] Recognizing the threat to public health, the city’s health commissioner, Dr. Luther Milton Powers, conferred with the mayor, Frederic Thomas Woodman. On October 11, the mayor declared a state of emergency. Taking actions that would be repeated throughout California during March 2020 in the COVID-19 pandemic, the L.A. City Council passed an ordinance closing public gathering places. Citizens who failed to comply could receive a misdemeanor conviction, six months in jail, and a $500 fine ($8,083 in 2020 dollars).[66] The city closed schools, amusement parks, theaters, movie houses, dance halls, concert venues, exhibitions, and religious services. The county health officer ordered schools closed in a dozen nearby communities. City officials canceled two major World War I–era pathways for transmission of the virus: a parade and a Liberty Loan bond fundraiser. Even though Herbert Hoover, head of the U.S. Food Administration, had designated the film industry as “official purveyors” of publicity for his agency, producers and actors agreed to temporarily halt film production, including filming crowd scenes. L.A. officials also organized several hospitals.[67]

Not everyone agreed with the city’s measures. Residents objected to the conversion of Mount Washington Hotel into a convalescent hospital for influenza patients and to the city spending $10,500 ($169,754 in 2020 dollars) to do so.[68] On December 4, the L.A. City Council voted to lift the ban on public gatherings, even though second-wave infection rates confirmed that the contagion continued to spread. By mid-December, a reported 38,382 people were ill.[69]

Community leaders in San Francisco resisted implementing the kinds of draconian measures undertaken in L.A. San Francisco’s population had grown more slowly than that of Los Angeles, with 416,912 residents in 1910 and 506,676 in 1920. Yet the city experienced a higher proportion of influenza morbidity and mortality than its neighbor to the south. The death rates from influenza and pneumonia in the United States overall, in California, and in L.A., San Francisco, and Oakland are summarized in Table 2.[70]

CH_97_03_North_Fig_13-San Francisco Police Court

San Francisco Police Court officials hold a session in the open as a precaution against spreading influenza, 1918.
Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration

On October 17, 1918, with 21,000 diagnosed influenza cases, a group in San Francisco—including the mayor, James Rolph; city health officer William C. Hassler, MD; and representatives from the USPHS, the ARC, and the military—met to discuss ways to contain the pandemic. The city’s Board of Health closed schools and public amusements, canceled dances and lodge meetings, and prohibited social gatherings. However, it allowed a Liberty Loan bond drive and parade to take place. Officials recommended that church gatherings be held outside. Some city services met outside, such as Police Court. On October 18, Hassler recommended that citizens wear gauze face masks. The following week, despite loud public protest, the city passed an ordinance mandating masks in public or when two or more people were together.[71] ARC volunteers made and distributed 100,000 gauze masks by October 25.[72] The next day, the ARC quickly started converting the Civic Center into a hospital for three hundred influenza patients and appealed for more nurses to care for the sick.[73] Also during October, some San Francisco women learned to drive cars to help physicians and patients; and, just as people in the United States would someday use technology at home for school, work, and socializing during the COVID-19 pandemic, in October 1918 the telephone company installed more phones, a relative novelty, in households with influenza sufferers.[74] By November 2, firemen volunteered to assist the coroner as deaths increased.[75] Due to the generosity of its supporters, the San Francisco chapter of the ARC spent $100,000 ($1.5 million in 2020 dollars) by mid-November to combat influenza in the city and provide relief for the needy.[76]

CH_97_03_North-Table-2-death-rates-per-100000

San Francisco lifted the ban on public gatherings in some parts of the city on November 16. Five days later, officials permitted residents to remove their face masks. On November 25, the city reopened schools, movie houses, theaters, and sports facilities, but the disease continued to spread.[77] According to California Public Health Department data, between October 5, 1918, and January 25, 1919, approximately 39,000 San Franciscans suffered from influenza and pneumonia; 3,600 died.[78] Chart 1 shows the death rates in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Stockton, and Sacramento during the second wave.[79]

CH_97_03_North_Chart_1, Influenza Deaths, Four California Cities, 1918-1919

In another example of the arrival of the epidemic’s second wave, the public health officer at San Quentin, Dr. Stanley, recorded that the prison’s autumn occurrence followed the October 3, 1918, entrance of a prisoner from Los Angeles whose guard was sick. The prisoner became ill the next day and was hospitalized, but not before exposing others (he had spent the preceding night in a receiving room with ten other men, and ate meals in the dining hall with an estimated 1,900 men).

To safeguard the prisoners’ health, Stanley closed the prison’s indoor “picture show” and invited the Oakland Municipal Band to perform an open-air concert on October 20. Influenza cases peaked the following day. For the next eleven days, Stanley took care of sixty-nine second-wave influenza patients; 8–12 percent of these developed pneumonia, and two died.[80] When Stanley submitted his final report on the outbreak to the USPHS, he concluded: “The most effective means available for combating the spread of the disease in this prison were hospitalization, quarantine, isolation, and the closure of congregating places.”[81] The conclusions reached by the San Quentin doctor are especially important in relation to COVID-19 because the state’s 2020 prison population of approximately 240,000 is difficult to protect.[82]

As scientists and historians now recognize, the influenza epidemic’s second wave struck California during the fall and early winter of 1918 and proved more lethal than the first wave. The new outbreak of infection both caused and revealed a shortage of physicians, nurses, and hospitals. In response, volunteer members of the state’s well-organized Women’s Committee of the Council of Defense shifted from war work to caring for influenza victims. Earlier in the year, the Women’s Committee had established twenty-two Children’s Health Centers statewide. Committee members used information from these centers to identify sick children and their families. Volunteers nursed the sick, obtained beds and bedding, and purchased medicines, fuel, and groceries and delivered them to the ill; they cooked meals for patients and even cleaned their homes. Members of the Women’s Committee set up a motor corps and located drivers to take patients to and from hospitals.[83]

The Third Wave in California: January–May 1919

At the beginning of the new year, Mrs. Bernard T. Miller of Oakland and her six children lay ill with influenza. Her husband, an army captain, was stationed in Virginia. On January 9, 1919, their youngest child, seventeen-month-old Robert, died from the disease.[84] The Oakland Tribune announced “137 New Flu Cases Here in 24 Hours,” with twelve deaths in the same period, including little Robert.[85] Oakland called for more volunteer ARC nurses to care for local cases.[86]

As the third wave of influenza struck, the city of Berkeley, adjacent to Oakland, still debated how to protect its residents. Amid the same kind of arguments that would echo across the United States in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Berkeley City Council failed to pass a mask ordinance despite the recommendations of Berkeley’s city health officer, Dr. J. J. Benton, and a University of California physician and professor of hygiene, Dr. Robert T. Legge. The city’s commissioner of public health and safety, Charles D. Heywood, a prominent businessman, opposed the ordinance.[87]

At the beginning of 1919, influenza cases and deaths increased in San Francisco and Los Angeles. In response, Los Angeles, in early January 1919, passed a series of strict quarantine measures, including ordering influenza patients to remain in their homes, and hired quarantine inspectors.[88] By the end of January 1919, the City of Los Angeles had spent all of the funds intended for the entire fiscal year: $247,000 ($3.8 million in 2020 dollars).[89] Later studies reveal that it was money well spent.[90]

In early January 1919, at the onset of the third wave, San Francisco pleaded for more ARC nurses to volunteer at San Francisco Hospital to care for influenza victims, and the mayor even requested help from the navy.[91] On January 19, San Francisco restored its mask ordinance and did not rescind it until February 1.[92] As the third wave continued to expand around the state, the California legislature allocated $55,000 ($840,000 in 2020 dollars) to enable the CSBH to control contagious diseases.[93]

Table 3 (1)

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a total of 189,326 people died of influenza and pneumonia in 1919. In California, the total number of deaths from influenza and pneumonia for 1919 was 7,240.[94]

The third wave again led to cooperation between military and civilian populations. During the third wave, the naval training station on Yerba Buena reported 127 cases and seventeen deaths. Mare Island recorded 271 cases and nine deaths.[95] Civilians employed at the shipyard again asked the navy for help. In January 1919, the Dominican nuns reopened St. Vincent’s Hospital, where they cared for fifty-five patients, one of whom died. The hospital closed on January 28, shortly after Vallejo lifted the order shuttering public places.[96] It is clear that the second wave proved deadlier than the first and third, but a fourth wave, less deadly than the previous three, struck in 1920, as officials had warned (see Tables 1 and 2).

CH_97_03_North_Fig_14-Childrens Ward San Jose Convalescent Hospital Courtesy of History San Jose

Children’s Ward, San Jose Convalescent Hospital during the influenza pandemic, 1918. Townspeople donated the beds, bedding, clothing for the patients, as well as flowers and toys.
Courtesy of History San José

A Fourth Wave in California: January–March 1920

By the start of 1920, Californians were experienced influenza fighters. In San Francisco, as another wave of the pandemic struck, city officials once again called for ARC nurses to volunteer their services.[97] Long Beach and Los Angeles physicians did not request a ban on public gatherings or close schools, but they did call for preventive isolation.[98]

The U.S. Census Bureau provides evidence of a fourth wave of the pandemic in its analysis of 1920 mortality statistics: “An epidemic of considerable proportions marked the early months of 1920—an epidemic which caused 33 percent as many deaths as the great pandemic of 1918–1919.” In the United States, 182,205 people died from influenza and pneumonia in 1920, including 5,725 Californians.[99]

CONCLUSION

The 1918–1920 influenza pandemic alarmed everyone—physicians, scientists, public officials, the military, and citizens—with the rapidity of its spread, the severity of its effects, the extraordinary morbidity and mortality counts, and the insidious way that the disease lingered and flared up again. Ship movements during World War I transported influenza from port to port, nation to nation (just as, in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic swept through aircraft carriers such as the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt and among crews and passengers of international cruise ships).[100] One hundred years ago, all efforts to produce a cure, a vaccine, or drugs to alleviate victims’ suffering failed. Although Congress appropriated money for the military and the USPHS, and the latter advertised the dangers of influenza extensively and helped coordinate physicians and nurses, most states and communities devised their own strategies for dealing with the crisis. Some responded more sensibly and effectively than others. Despite the staggering death rate—the most conservative estimate was 850,000 deaths in the United States—no national planning for future emergencies or a national health care plan emerged from the catastrophe.

The influenza pandemic began in the last year of a devastating world war that claimed at least ten million military lives (and twice that many wounded). The pandemic ended as the war’s survivors and refugees struggled to return home and rebuild their lives.[101] It took scientists more than seventy years to recover and reconstruct the 1918 pandemic virus and to begin decoding its genetic characteristics. Scientists continue to learn more about the 1918–1920 influenza pandemic, though many questions remain unanswered.[102]

As the pandemic raged, especially by the onset of what we now know as the second wave, the military pioneered the most effective responses, leading the way in attempts to slow the rate of infection. Wherever possible, military leaders ordered absolute or modified quarantines, enlarged existing hospitals and built new ones, and demanded both better personal hygiene and improved sanitation of facilities. When quarantine orders were lifted too soon, rates of infection escalated. The quick and forthright decisions made by Los Angeles officials, in contrast to those in San Francisco, serve as instructive examples. Also instructive is the cooperation that developed between the U.S. Navy at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard and the Dominican nuns in Vallejo. The spirit of voluntarism displayed by members of the Women’s Committee of the California Council of Defense and the American Red Cross demonstrate how ordinary citizens rose to the challenge of caring for the sick in unprecedented numbers. As the world suffers today with the onslaught of COVID-19, we must look to the lessons of the 1918–1920 influenza pandemic.

 

 

Notes

[1] J. K. Taubenberger and D. M. Morens, “1918 Influenza: The Mother of All Pandemics,” Emerging Infectious Diseases 12, no. 1 (2006), http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/12/1/05-0979_article.htm#; M. van Wijke et al., “Loose Ends in the Epidemiology of the 1918 Pandemic: Explaining the Extreme Mortality Risk in Young Adults,” American Journal of Epidemiology 187 (2018): 2503–2510. The United States declared war against Germany on April 6, 1917. A more comprehensive article will appear in August 2020: Diane M. T. North, “California and the 1918-1920 Influenza Pandemic,” California History  97, no.3 (Summer 2020).

[2] Congressional Research Service, American War and Military Operations Casualties: Lists and Statistics, comp. Anne Leland and Mari-Jana Oboroceanu (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2010), 2. During U.S. involvement in World War I (1917–1918), a total 4,734,991 Americans served. Of the 116,516 total deaths, (including approximately 4,000 Californians), 53,402 were battle deaths and 63,114 deaths were listed as “Other,” mainly from influenza. Carol Byerly, “The U.S. Military and the Influenza Pandemic of 1918–1919,” Public Health Reports 125, Supplement 3 (2010): 83.

[3] J. A. B. Hammond, W. Rolland, and T. H. G. Shore, “Purulent Bronchitis: A Study of Cases Occurring amongst the British Troops at a Base in France,” Lancet 2 (1917): 41–45; Michael Worobey, Jim Cox, and Douglas Gill, “The Origins of the Great Pandemic,” Evolution, Medicine, and Public Health 2019 (January 21, 2019): 18–25; Mark Osborne Humphries, “Paths of Infection: The First World War and the Origins of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic,” War in History 21 (2014): 55–81.

[4] New York Times, “Coronavirus Live Updates,” April 22, 2020, 5:30 p.m. ET, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/22/us/coronavirus-live-coverage.html?action=click&module=Spotlight&pgtype=Homepage#link-7cf633cc.

[5] Niall P. A. S. Johnson and Juergen Mueller, “Updating the Accounts: Global Mortality of the 1918–1920 ‘Spanish’ Influenza Pandemic,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 76 (2002): 105–115..

[6] U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Census, Mortality Statistics 1918, Nineteenth Annual Report (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1920) (hereafter cited as Mortality Statistics 1918): in the text, on page 27, the census bureau lists 477,467 deaths from influenza and pneumonia (all forms); however, on p. 30 in the unnumbered table, the census bureau lists 367,433 deaths. I selected the higher number for the totals. Bureau of Census, Mortality Statistics 1919, Twentieth Annual Report (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1921) (hereafter cited as Mortality Statistics 1919): in the text, on page 28, the census bureau lists 189,326 deaths from influenza and pneumonia (all forms); however, on the unnumbered table on the same page, the census bureau lists 143,548 deaths. I selected the higher number for the totals. Bureau of Census, Mortality Statistics 1920, Twenty-First Annual Report (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1922) (hereafter cited as Mortality Statistics 1920), 5, for percent of registration area; see 17 and 31 for 62,097 influenza deaths; see 51 for 120,108 pneumonia deaths (all forms) and the combined total of influenza and pneumonia (all forms): 182,205.

[7] Mortality Statistics 1918, 30: mortality for influenza and pneumonia (all forms), 16,773; Mortality Statistics 1919, 28: mortality for influenza and pneumonia (all forms), 7,240; Mortality Statistics 1920: 5,725 deaths; 314 (influenza: 2,185 deaths); 315 (pneumonia: 3,540 deaths).

[8] “Epidemic Influenza (‘Spanish Influenza’): Prevalence in the United States,” Public Health Reports 22, no. 29 (September 27, 1918): 1625–1626 (previously reportable diseases in the United States included smallpox, tuberculosis, malaria, measles, mumps, typhoid fever, whooping cough, diphtheria, scarlet fever, poliomyelitis, chickenpox, meningitis, pellagra, and venereal diseases); California State Board of Health and Wilfred H. Kellogg, Influenza: A Study of the Measures Adopted for the Control of the Epidemic, Special Bulletin No. 31 (Sacramento: State Printing Office, 1919) (hereafter cited as Kellogg, Influenza: A Study of Measures), 26. In addition, not until 1930 did the USPHS publish a detailed study of the 1918–1920 excess mortality data. See Selwyn D. Collins, W. H. Frost, Mary Gover, and Edgar Sydenstricker, “Mortality from Influenza and Pneumonia in 50 Large Cities of the United States, 1910–1929,” Public Health Reports 45, no. 39 (September 26, 1930): 2277–2363.

[9] Howard Markel, Alexandra M. Stern, J. Alexander Navarro, and Joseph R. Michalsen, “A Historical Assessment of Nonpharmaceutical Disease Containment Strategies Employed by Selected U.S. Communities during the Second Wave of the 1918–1920 Influenza Pandemic” (Fort Belvoir, VA: Defense Threat Reduction Agency, January 31, 2006), 27–32; Johnson and Mueller, “Updating the Accounts: Global Mortality of the 1918–1920 ‘Spanish’ Influenza Pandemic,” 107; Nancy K. Bristow, American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 3; Alfred W. Crosby, America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 203–204.

[10] For the March cases at Camp Funston, Fort Riley, Kansas, see “1918 Influenza Pandemic Historic Timeline,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (page last reviewed March 20, 2018), https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-commemoration/pandemic-timeline-1918.htm (accessed March 26, 2020); Crosby, America’s Forgotten Pandemic, 18. For April 5, 1918, cases in Haskell, Kansas, see “1918 Influenza Pandemic Historic Timeline,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (page last reviewed March 20, 2018); https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-commemoration/pandemic-timeline-1918.htm (accessed March 26, 2020). For March and April 1918, see Carol R. Byerly, Fever of War: The Influenza Epidemic in the U.S. Army during World War I (New York: New York University Press, 2005), 71. The army also reported influenza cases in March 1918 at training camps in New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Oklahoma, but that information has been overlooked because of the emphasis on Kansas. U.S. Army, Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Army 1919, 2 vols. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1919), vol. 1, 784 (hereafter cited as Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Army 1919).

[11] U.S. Navy Department, Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Navy 1919 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1919), 367 (hereafter cited as Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Navy 1919); U.S. Department of Navy, Naval Historical Center, “Casualties: U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Personnel Killed and Injured in Selected Accidents and Other Incidents Not Directly the Result of Enemy Action,” https://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/NHC/accidents.htm (accessed March 18, 2020).

[12] Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Navy 1919, 367.

[13] Richard Levitan, “The Infection That’s Silently Killing Coronavirus Patients,” New York Times, April 20, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/20/opinion/coronavirus-testing-pneumonia.html; John F. Brundage and G. Dennis Shanks, “Deaths from Bacterial Pneumonia during the 1918–1919 Influenza Pandemic, Emerging Infectious Diseases 14 (August 2008): 1193–1199.

[14] Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Navy 1919, 367–368.

[15] Ibid., 368.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid, 368.

[18] Ibid., 368.

[19] Ibid., 370.

[20] Collins et al., “Mortality from Influenza and Pneumonia in 50 Large Cities of the United States, 1910–1929,” table A: “Excess Monthly Death Rates (annual basis) per 100,000 from Influenza and Pneumonia in Each of 50 Cities in the United States, 1910–1929”: Los Angeles, 2310; San Francisco, 2317; Oakland, 2313.

[21] San Francisco Examiner, “2 Japanese Training Ships Pay a Visit,” March 23, 1918, 6; San Francisco Examiner, “Japanese Training Ships Visit Port,” March 24, 1918, 3; San Francisco Examiner, “Consul to Entertain Japanese Officers,” March 25, 1918, 2; San Francisco Examiner, “S.F. Japanese Hold Big Field Day Show,” March 25, 1918, 8; Oakland Tribune, “Honor Japanese,” March 28, 1918, 4; San Francisco Examiner, “Japanese Admiral Tells Nippon Aims,” March 29, 4; Eric Lacroix and Linton Wells II, Japanese Cruisers of the Pacific War (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997), 552, 657–658.

[22] Long Beach Daily Telegram, “Jap Training Ships in L. A. Harbor,” April 2, 1918, 9; Long Beach Press, “Japanese Guests Feted by Local Organizations,” April 5, 1918, 2; Long Beach Daily Telegram, “Jap Officers Return Courtesies,” April 6, 1918, 16.

[23] History of the Fortieth (Sunshine) Division, 1917–1919 (Los Angeles, CA: C.S. Hutson, 1920), 65; Bakersfield Morning Echo, “Kearny Division Men Reviewed by Allied Officers,” April 10, 1918, 10.

[24]Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Navy 1919, 368.

[25] Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Navy 1919, 368.

[26] U.S. Army, Medical Department, Office of Medical History, and Maj. Milton W. Hall, “Inflammatory Diseases of the Respiratory Tract,” in The Medical Department of the United States Army in the World War, vol. 9: Communicable and Other Diseases (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1928), 133 (hereafter cited as Communicable and Other Diseases).

[27]Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Navy 1919, 367–368 (The medical officer did not list a possible source for the disease.); “Died of Accident or Other Causes, Including Camp Deaths,” Yolo in Word & Picture (Woodland, CA: Woodland Daily Democrat, 1920), 10; “Harry McKinley Johnson,” Find a Grave, https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/125036704/harry-mckinley-johnson (accessed March 25, 2020). See also Diane M. T. North, California at War: The State and the People during World War I (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2018), 29–66, 109–177.

[28] Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Army 1919, vol. 1, 784.

[29] Kate Chesley, “100 Years Ago, the Spanish Flu Hit the Stanford Campus,” Stanford News, March 14, 2018, https://news.stanford.edu/thedish/2018/03/15/100-years-ago-the-spanish-flu-hit-the-stanford-campus/.

[30] L. L. Stanley, “Influenza at San Quentin Prison, California,” Public Health Reports 34, no. 19 (May 9, 1919): 996.

[31] Ibid., 996–997.

[32] Frank M. McMurry, The Geography of the Great War (New York: Macmillan, 1919), 31; North, California at War: The State and the People during World War I, 43–46, 81–105.

[33] Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Navy 1919, 370. See also David M. Morens, Jeffery K. Taubenberger, and Anthony S. Fauci, “Predominant Role of Bacterial Pneumonia as a Cause of Death in Pandemic Influenza: Implications for Pandemic Influenza Preparedness,” Journal of Infectious Diseases 198 (October 1, 2008): 962–970.

[34] Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Navy 1919, 370.

[35] Ibid., 371.

[36] Ibid., 370.

[37] Morens and Fauci, “The 1918 Influenza Pandemic: Insights for the 21st Century,” 1019.

[38] Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Army 1919, vol. 1, 746, 634 (table 304); Communicable and Other Diseases, 138.

[39] Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Navy 1919, 372, 374 (table 1), 375, (table 3), 376 (table 4). The medical officer speculated that the intense nature of the disease in the spring modified its course in the autumn.

[40] Communicable and Other Diseases, 138.

[41] Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Navy 1919, 429; see 445–446 for “Commandant’s Order No. 386, Mare Island, Cal., September 24, 1918.”

[42] Capt. Thomas L. Snyder, MC, USNR, “The Great Flu Crisis at Mare Island Navy Yard, and Vallejo, California,” Navy Medicine 94, no. 5 (September–October 2003), 26.

[43] Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Navy 1919, 445.

[44] Ibid., 445–446.

[45] Snyder, “The Great Flu Crisis at Mare Island Navy Yard, and Vallejo, California,” 26; Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Navy 1919, 35.

[46] Snyder, “The Great Flu Crisis at Mare Island Navy Yard, and Vallejo, California, ”27–28; San Francisco Examiner, “Vallejo Asks Navy Aid with 1,000 Flu Cases,” October 31, 1918, 13; “Receipts of the Secretary General’s Office,” Catholic Education Association Bulletin 16 (November 1919), 26, mentions the Dominican sisters in Vallejo.

[47] Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Navy 1919, 428.

[48] “Silvol—A Useful Germicide,” Texas Medical Journal 33 (January 1918): 335.

[49] Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Navy 1919, 428.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Navy 1919, 429. The “first wave” of the pandemic appears to have missed Yerba Buena.

[53] The Sacramento story was reported in the Santa Barbara Daily News and Independent, “If You Must, Use a Kerchief,” August 31, 1918, 2.

[54] Sacramento Bee, “Spanish Influenza Spreading in South,” September 25, 1918, 5. Because Spain witnessed well-published high morbidity and mortality cases during the first wave of 1918, the disease earned the popular name “Spanish Influenza” or “Spanish Flu.”

[55] “Epidemic Influenza (‘Spanish Influenza’): Prevalence in the United States,” Public Health Reports 22, no. 29 (September 27, 1918): 1625–1626; Kellogg, Influenza: A Study of Measures, 26.

[56] “Epidemic Influenza (‘Spanish Influenza’): Prevalence in the United States,” 1625–1626, 1644.

[57] California State Board of Health, Monthly Bulletin 14, no. 7 (January 1919): 226; Jessica Skropanic, “Bon Voyage: Make Tracks to California Train Stations, Part Three,” Record Searchlight, June 19, 2014, http://archive.redding.com/lifestyle/bon-voyage-make-tracks-to-california-train-stations-part-three-ep-375171960-354445101.html; Richard J. Orsi, “Railroads and the Urban Environment: Sacramento’s Story,” in Christopher J. Castaneda and Lee M. A. Simpson (eds.), River City and Valley Life: An Environmental History of the Sacramento Region (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013), 89–90.

[58] Public Resolution, No. 42, U.S. Statutes at Large 40, Ch. 179 (October 1, 1918): 1008; U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, “CPI Inflation Calculator,” http://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm (accessed May 1, 2020; hereafter cited as “CPI Inflation Calculator”).

[59] Gary Gernhart, “A Forgotten Enemy: PHS’s Fight against the 1918 Influenza Pandemic,” Public Health Chronicles 114 (November–December 1999): 559–560, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1308540/pdf/pubhealthrep00024-0077.pdf.

[60] California State Board of Health, Monthly Bulletin 14, no. 7 (January 1919): 221, 226; Kellogg, Influenza: A Study of Measures, 16–18, 26; San Francisco Examiner, “State Doctors Are Mobilized,” October 11, 1918, 4; Sacramento Bee, “Everyone with a Cold Must Wear a Mask,” October 22, 1918, 1.

[61] Gernhart, “A Forgotten Enemy: PHS’s Fight against the 1918 Influenza Pandemic,” 560.

[62] California State Board of Health, Monthly Bulletin 14, nos. 5 and 6 (November–December 1918): for October morbidity, see 173; for September and October mortality and other data, 189.

[63] U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Census, Thirteenth Census 1910, vol. 2: Population (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1913), 157; and Fourteenth Census 1920, vol. 1: Population, detailed tables (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1921), 95–96 (table 49); 151 (table 50); 183–185 (table 51).

[64] “Epidemic Influenza: Prevalence in the United States,” 1688. The USPHS noted seven influenza cases in the city of Los Angeles by September 21.

[65] “Los Angeles, California,” in The American Influenza Epidemic of 1918–1919, A Digital Encyclopedia, ed. J. Alex Navarro and Howard Markel (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine and Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2016) (hereafter cited as “Los Angeles, California”), https://quod.lib.umich.edu/f/flu/cities/city-losangeles.html (accessed March 30, 2020).

[66] Ibid; “CPI Inflation Calculator.”

[67] “Los Angeles, California”; North, California at War: The State and the People during World War I, 169.

[68] Ibid.; “CPI Inflation Calculator.”

[69] “Los Angeles, California.”

[70] Thirteenth Census 1910, vol. 2: Population, 157; Fourteenth Census 1920, vol. 1: Population, detailed tables, 95–96 (table 49); 151 (table 50); 183–185 (table 51); Mortality Statistics 1920, 29–30.

[71] W. H. Frost, “The Epidemiology of Influenza, 1919, with a commentary by Thomas M. Daniel, Public Health Reports 121, Supplement 1 (2006): 148–159 (Frost’s study was first published in 1919); “San Francisco, California,” in The American Influenza Epidemic of 1918–1919: A Digital Encyclopedia (herefter cited as “San Francisco, California”), https://quod.lib.umich.edu/f/flu/cities/city-sanfrancisco.html (accessed March 28, 2020).

[72] San Francisco Chronicle, “Red Cross Gives Out 100,000 Gauze Masks,” October 25, 1918, 7.

[73] San Francisco Chronicle, “Red Cross Rushes Quarters at Civic Center for Use as Hospital to Fight Influenza,” October 26, 1918, 1.

[74] San Francisco Examiner, “Women Drive Cars to Aid Doctors,” October 25, 1918, 7; San Francisco Chronicle, “Phones Added for Influenza Sufferers,” October 23, 1918, 1.

[75] San Francisco Chronicle, “Firemen Volunteer to Assist Coroner,” November 2, 1918, 1.

[76] San Francisco Examiner, “$100,000 Spent to Fight ‘Flu,’ ” November 21, 1918, 11; “CPI Inflation Calculator.”

[77] “San Francisco, California,” 91–120.

[78] Arseny K. Hrenoff, “The Influenza Epidemic of 1918–1919 in San Francisco,” Military Surgeon 89 (November 1941): 807, table 1A: 2,257 died from October through December 1918 and 1,379 died in the first two months of 1919.

[79] Kellogg, Influenza: A Study of Measures, 5.

[80] Stanley, “Influenza at San Quentin Prison, California,” 999–1001.

[81] Ibid., 1007.

[82] Prison Policy Initiative, “California Profile,” https://www.prisonpolicy.org/profiles/CA.html (accessed April 25, 2020).

[83] California State Council of Defense, Report, Women’s Committee of the State Council of Defense of California from June 1, 1917 to January 1, 1919 (Los Angeles, 1919), 36.

[84] Oakland Tribune, “Flu Takes Baby as Six Others Improve,” January 10, 1919, 3.

[85] Oakland Tribune, “137 New Flu Cases Here in 24 Hours,” January 10, 1919, 3.

[86] Ibid.

[87] Oakland Tribune, “Single Vote Able to Kill Masking Law,” January 10, 1919, 3.

[88] “Los Angeles, California.”

[89] Ibid.; “CPI Inflation Calculator.”

[90] Howard Markel, Harvey B. Lipman, J. A. Navarro, Alexandra Sloan, Joseph R. Michalsen, Alexandra M. Stern, and Martin S. Cetron, “Nonpharmaceutical Interventions Implemented by US Cities during the 1918–1919 Influenza Pandemic,” Journal of the American Medical Association 298 (August 8, 2007): 644–654.

[91] San Francisco Examiner, “Need of Nurses at S. F. Hospital Declared Vital,” January 3, 1919, 5; San Francisco Examiner, “Rolph Calls for Navy Nurses,” January 4, 1919, 5.

[92] “San Francisco, California,” 91–120.

[93] California, The Statutes of California and Amendments to the Codes, 43rd session, 1919 (Sacramento: State Printing Office, 1919), 838: Chapter 449, May 22, 1919; “CPI Inflation Calculator.”

[94]Mortality Statistics 1919, 28. The government’s data for separate influenza and pneumonia numbers for the entire United States contain inconsistencies in the tables in relation to the overall number of mortalities explained in the text. For California cities, by type of disease, see 200 for influenza and 201 for pneumonia (Los Angeles: 637 influenza deaths and 418 pneumonia deaths; Oakland: 234 influenza deaths and 273 pneumonia deaths; San Francisco: 763 influenza deaths and 659 pneumonia deaths).

[95] U.S. Navy, Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Navy 1920 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1920), 206 (hereafter cited as Annual Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Navy 1920), 206.

[96] Snyder, “The Great Flu Crisis at Mare Island Navy Yard, and Vallejo, California,” 28.

[97] San Francisco Examiner, “City to Join State Board in ‘Flu’ War,” January 30, 1920, 3.

[98] Long Beach Press, “Influenza as Epidemic to Be Met by Isolation,” January 27, 1920, 9; Long Beach Press, “Same Measures in Los Angeles as Long Beach,” January 27, 1920, 9.

[99] Mortality Statistics 1920: percent: 5; quote: 29–30; total: 31; influenza: 31 (62,097 deaths); pneumonia: 51 (120,108 deaths); Californians, total: 314–315; influenza: 314 (2,185 deaths); pneumonia: 315 (3,540 deaths).

[100] Gordon Lubold and Nancy C. Youssef, “U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt Outbreak Is Linked to Flight Crews, Not Vietnam Visit,” Wall Street Journal, April 15, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/uss-theodore-roosevelt-outbreak-is-linked-to-flight-crews-not-vietnam-visit-11586981891; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Public Health Responses to COVID-19 Outbreaks on Cruise Ships—Worldwide, February-March 2020,” March 27, 2020, at https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6912e3.htm.

[101] Antoine Prost, “The Dead,” in Jay Winter (ed.), The Cambridge History of the First World War, vol. 3: Civil Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 587–591. The exact numbers for civilian casualties are unknown; conservative estimates suggest ten million.

[102] Douglas Jordan, Terrence Tumpey, and Barbara Jester, “The Deadliest Flu: The Complete Story of the Discovery and Reconstruction of the 1918 Pandemic Virus,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (page last reviewed Dec. 17, 2019), https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/reconstruction-1918-virus.html (accessed March 18, 2020); Jeffrey K. Taubenberger, Ann H. Reid, Karen E. Bijwaard, and Thomas G. Fanning, “Initial Genetic Characterization of the 1918 ‘Spanish’ Influenza Virus,” Science 275 (March 21, 1997): 1793–1796; Jeffrey K. Taubenberger, David Baltimore, Peter C. Doherty, Howard Markel, David M. Morens, Robert G. Webster, and Ian A. Wilson, “Reconstruction of the 1918 Influenza Virus: Unexpected Rewards from the Past,” mBio 3, no. 5 (September–October 2012): 1–5, https://mbio.asm.org/content/mbio/3/5/e00201-12.full.pdf; John S. Oxford and Douglas Gill, “Unanswered Questions about the 1918 Influenza Pandemic: Origin, Pathology, and the Virus Itself,” Lancet Infectious Diseases 8, no. 11 (published online, June 20, 2018), https://www.thelancet.com/pdfs/journals/laninf/PIIS1473-3099(18)30359-1.pdf.

 

Diane M. T. North is an award-winning professor of history at the University of Maryland Global Campus and the author of California at War: The State and the People during World War I (University Press of Kansas, 2018).

Copyright: © 2020 Diane M.T. North. 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/

Articles

The “Lost Cause” Goes West: Confederate Culture and Civil War Memory in California

This essay was originally published in California History, Vol 97, No. 1

Kevin Waite

Where the monument once stood, only a gentle divot in the earth remains. Visitors to Hollywood Forever Cemetery today could easily pass over the spot without realizing that, for the better part a century, this quiet corner of Los Angeles housed a six-foot granite tribute to the dead soldiers of the Confederacy. The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) erected the monument in 1925 to honor their rebel ancestors, buried in the surrounding cemetery plot. It was the first of its kind anywhere in the Far West. And it remained the most significant Confederate marker in California until it was removed from the cemetery grounds in the wake of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. That rally—which began with a tiki-torch-lit vigil around a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee and ended in the murder of one of the counterprotesters—sparked a national backlash against Confederate iconography and the history it represents.[1] In the weeks that followed, numerous Confederate monuments across the country came down. If only fleetingly, California played an important part in this reckoning with Civil War memory and the legacies of American slavery.

The Hollywood memorial was not the only one of its kind in California. In fact, no other state beyond the South contained as many monuments, markers, and place-names honoring the Confederate States of America (1861–1865) and its soldiers.[2] In addition to the Hollywood Forever memorial, Californians paid homage to the Confederacy with a large granite pillar in Orange County’s Santa Ana Cemetery; schools in San Diego and Long Beach named for Robert E. Lee; the township of Confederate Corners in Monterey County; mountaintops in the Sierra Nevada range commemorating Confederate president Jefferson Davis and General George E. Picket; the Robert E. Lee redwood in Kings Canyon National Park, plus three other large trees that bear the rebel general’s name; a scenic network of rock formations near Lone Pine named for the CSS Alabama, one of the Confederacy’s most feared warships; a small monument to Robert S. Garnett, the first rebel general killed in the Civil War; and five markers to the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway.[3] Many of the monuments were removed or renamed following events in Charlottesville. But for much of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, they stood as totems to the slave South in the American West.

Why did a free state, far beyond the major military theaters of the Civil War, host such a collection of rebel monuments and memorials? The answer lies partly in the Golden State’s long-standing affinity for the Old South. That transregional relationship dates back much further than 1925, when the first of these monuments appeared in California. Although admitted to the Union as a free state in 1850 and populated primarily by migrants from northern states and territories, California was coopted by southern-born politicians. They occupied a majority of California’s high offices and steered the state along a conspicuously proslavery path in the final decade before the Civil War. Many of these leaders faded from the scene after slave emancipation in 1865. But those who replaced them nurtured a nostalgia for the plantation South and hostility toward the progressive, Republican policies of Reconstruction. Due to their efforts, California became the only free state that refused to ratify both the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution—the measures that, respectively, extended citizenship rights to most natural-born Americans and granted suffrage to black men.[4]

In the coming decades, thousands of migrants from the former Confederate states arrived in California, strengthening the bonds between South and West. Although they represented a dwindling proportion of the state’s overall population, these migrants wielded an outsized cultural influence in the West.[5] By the turn of the century, they had formed numerous chapters of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the UDC. As California’s Union veterans and their ancestors celebrated the preservation of the United States, these Confederate memorial associations crafted an alternate memory of the conflict. Through various commemorative activities, they advanced a revisionist interpretation of the Civil War known as the “Lost Cause.”

The Lost Cause is almost as old as the Civil War itself. The Southern partisan Edward Pollard laid out some of its major themes in his 1866 work of the same name.[6] Over the coming decades, writers, orators, artists, filmmakers, and memorial associations would build upon the major themes of the Lost Cause, as they sought to craft a sympathetic public memory of the war and imbue their rebellion with romance and dignity. Each Lost Cause warrior celebrated a slightly different aspect of the Confederate past but, over time, most came to embrace a common set of arguments. They denied the central role of slavery in triggering secession; they blamed the war on abolitionists in the North, rather than fire-eaters in the South; they exalted the gallantry of the common Confederate soldier and the virtues of their commanders; they dismissed the Union victory as a nearly inevitable consequence of superior numbers and resources; and they looked back nostalgically on the era of plantation slavery. The Lost Cause lives on in hundreds of Confederate markers and memorials across the country.[7]

Despite a vast literature on the origins, evolution, and enduring influence of the Lost Cause, little has been written on how this ideology impacted the political culture and physical space of the American West.[8] Historians have ably described California’s proslavery origins as well as its postwar record of white supremacy.[9] But how those politics played out through a decades-long struggle over historical memory within the state is only dimly understood. By surveying the Confederate landscape of California, this essay attempts to address that historical lacuna. As an introduction to the subject, rather than a detailed analysis of the Lost Cause in the American West, it also suggests avenues for further research. Hidden in plain sight for generations, the Confederate memorials of California have an important history to tell. Together, they testify to the continental reach of the Lost Cause.

The contest over Civil War memory and the Western landscape was always that—a contest. To carry the Lost Cause into California required enormous effort and organization from dozens of Confederate memorial associations. Monuments, after all, would not dedicate themselves. And while most Californians remained ignorant of the rebel markers that dotted their state, Confederate apologists rarely had an easy time of it. They faced funding shortfalls and preoccupied local governments. Even a small group of outraged Union veterans could spell doom for a Confederate marker, as they did for an obelisk honoring Jefferson Davis, erected in San Diego in 1926. Meanwhile, Union memorial organizations dedicated monuments and renamed geographic sites in California at an even faster rate than their Confederate counterparts. Whether cast in bronze, carved in stone, or paved in asphalt, these memorials raised a thorny set of questions: Who belongs in the American pantheon? Who deserves a place on the American map? And, crucially, who does not? Recently, these questions have prompted dramatic and sometimes violent responses in the public spaces of the South. But for nearly a century, the struggle over Civil War memory has been quietly brewing in the infrastructure, graveyards, and natural landscape of the West as well.

Confederate Culture Takes Root

Shortly after the war, and decades before any permanent monument to the Confederacy was erected in California, the language of the Lost Cause migrated west. It made an early appearance in the pages of the San Francisco Examiner, the leading Democratic newspaper in the state. The paper’s editor, Benjamin Franklin Washington, came by his Southern sympathies naturally. Born on a Virginia plantation in 1820, Washington could trace his family lineage to the nation’s first president. He retained his allegiance to the slaveholding class even after moving to California in 1849. There, he rose to prominence within the Democratic Party and assumed the editorship of the Examiner in 1865. Washington filled his columns with invective against Republicans in Congress, federal Reconstruction, and black enfranchisement. He also articulated some of the major tenets of an emerging Lost Cause ideology. Unlike many other proponents of the Lost Cause, Washington was not himself a veteran of the war. His writings, therefore, focused less on military themes than on the ills afflicting the South in the immediate postwar years. But collectively, his columns amounted to perhaps the most forceful apologia for the Old South anywhere in the postbellum West.[10]

As slavery’s staunchest postmortem defender in California, Washington looked on the emancipated South with a shudder and upon its antebellum days with longing. Slavery, he wrote shortly after the war, was the “negro birthright.” The institution, he continued, granted each black person in the South “the protecting care and guardianship of his master who provided for all his wants, and made him a useful member of the community.” Republicans—whom he lambasted as “Abolitionists, Free Lovers, and the rag-tag-and-bobtail of the entire fanatical tribe of New England”—had “robbed” blacks of these protections, throwing the South into disarray.[11] In Washington’s view, African-descended people were “not only totally incapable of self-government, but wholly unfit to be free.”[12] His frequent paeans to human bondage led the San Francisco Elevator, one of California’s African American newspapers, to conclude that Washington “would doubtless like to see the old era reestablished, and slavery triumphant over the land.”[13]

Washington’s nostalgia extended to the leaders of the Old South and soldiers of the Confederacy. He penned tributes to deceased slaveholding luminaries such as John C. Calhoun and defended Jefferson Davis, calling his trial for treason a “shameful, disgraceful and contemptible farce.”[14] Like many other Confederate apologists, Washington blamed Northern abolitionists, rather than Southern rebels, for the outbreak of the war. “We believe now, and always shall believe,” he wrote in 1869, “that the recent war was unnecessary, uncalled for, and wicked in its inception.”[15] As for the white Southerners who waged that war, Washington had only praise. “No men ever embarked in a cause with a more thorough conviction of right and justice than did they,” he argued. “No men conscious of wrong could ever have made the heroic and prolonged resistance against such overwhelming odds.”[16] Washington directly echoed the sentiments of Robert E. Lee’s so-called farewell address of April 1865, which anticipated one of the major themes—Southern courage versus sheer Northern numbers—of the Lost Cause.[17]

While politicos like Washington gave voice to certain tenets of the Lost Cause in the immediate postwar years, the mythology of the Old South reached full flower within California only in the early twentieth century. As was true in the South, women played the leading role in California’s Confederate renaissance. They did so primarily through the UDC, a heredity organization dedicated to commemorating the Southern war effort and its soldiers. Members of the UDC perpetuated this memory through a number of initiatives. They hosted gatherings for rebel veterans; sponsored school textbooks that put a Southern spin on the Civil War; and erected memorials to the leaders and common soldiers of the Confederacy. Riffing on a common Lost Cause trope, the UDC said that its mission was to “tell of the glorious fight against the greatest odds a nation ever faced, that their hallowed memory should never die.”[18] The first chapter was founded in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1894, but within just a few years the UDC had gone continental.

By the turn of the century, several UDC chapters had formed in California, including the Jefferson Davis Chapter (1899), the Emma Sansome Chapter (1899), and the Stonewall Jackson Chapter (1901). Like their counterparts in the South, California’s Daughters dedicated themselves to the care of Confederate veterans, a number of whom had relocated to the Pacific Coast after the war, and to commemorating their military service. Although particularly active in Southern California, the UDC’s Pacific network ran the length of the state. In fact, during this period, no other part of the country beyond the former slaveholding regions contained as many chapters as California.[19]

Despite their prominence, these western chapters have received little attention from academic historians. Without a more extensive study of the origins of the UDC in California, the broader history of the Lost Cause and Civil War memory in the American West will remain incomplete. Fortunately, future scholars have several important archives available to them. Extensive paper collections related to these early California chapters can be found in major repositories across the state, including the University of the Pacific; campuses of the University of California at Davis and Santa Barbara; and California State University, Fullerton.[20] Through these records, historians might explore how the Lost Cause was manifested, not only in the physical landscape, but in popular culture, in school curricula, and in the political orientation of the American West.

The UDC and related Confederate associations played a particularly active role in the cultural life of Los Angeles County. Their prominence within the community was the product of both postwar migration and the state’s deep antebellum roots. Beginning with the gold rush, Southern California attracted a disproportionate share of migrants from the slave states. The major overland road that ran westward from the American South ended in Los Angeles. And while some of these migrants continued north into the gold diggings around Sacramento, a number of them settled in Los Angeles and the surrounding areas, where they soon constituted a majority of the U.S.-born population of the county. These migrants wed the region’s political fortunes to the Democratic Party and the slave South, even after California entered the Union as a free state in 1850. At the helm of the city’s political machine sat Joseph Lancaster Brent, a Maryland native and future Confederate general. According to one contemporary observer, Brent carried antebellum Los Angeles in “his vest pocket.”[21] In concert with the large Mexican-born population of the county, Brent preserved a monopoly on power for the Chivalry, the proslavery wing of California’s Democratic Party.[22]

When war erupted between North and South in 1861, a wave of secessionist scares swept across the West. Los Angeles was the beating heart of disunionism in California. Hundreds of rebel sympathizers, including Brent himself, fled Southern California to enlist in the Confederate Army. Among those in the exodus were the Los Angeles Mounted Rifles, a group of eighty secessionists who would become the only organized militia from a free state to fight under a Confederate banner.[23] Other rebel sympathizers stayed put in Southern California, where they constituted a Confederate “fifth column” within U.S. territory. As U.S. authorities attempted to preserve their fragile command over the region, these California rebels demonstrated their disloyalty in a number of ways, from unfurling the Confederate flag in public spaces, to hurrahing Jefferson Davis and his generals, to openly brawling with federal soldiers. As one of Southern California’s rare Unionists recalled in his memoirs, “The leading men of the county were for the Jeff Davis government first, last and all the time.”[24] The threat became so dire that Union officials established a large military garrison outside Los Angeles to prevent the region from slipping into rebel hands. Although California, on the whole, remained loyal to the United States, secessionists in the southern counties presented a near-constant threat.[25]

Given its long proslavery history and enduring Southern connections, Los Angeles was a fitting location for the West’s first major Confederate memorial. In 1925, the Confederate Monument Association of Los Angeles, in conjunction with the UDC, erected a six-foot granite structure in Hollywood Cemetery. It was a tribute to the wartime services of several dozen Confederate veterans who settled in the region after the war and took their final rest under Southern California soil.[26] In anticipation of the monument’s unveiling, California chapters of the UDC hosted several large gatherings. That spring in Pasadena, for instance, a hundred Southern women, “all bubbling with typical Southern hospitality,” hosted the president of the UDC, who entertained the crowd with “a number of southern stories in the negro dialect,” according to the Los Angeles Times.[27] The UDC and the Confederate Monument Association of Los Angeles would eventually purchase seventy-five plots around the monument for soldiers and their families. For years to come, the region’s memorial associations decorated the graves of their fallen soldiers and hosted commemorative gatherings on the cemetery plot.[28]

image001

Erected in 1925, this memorial to Confederate soldiers “who have died or may die on the Pacific coast” stood in Hollywood Forever Cemetery until 2017. It was removed shortly after the white supremacist riot in Charlottesville that August. Photo courtesy of Kevin Waite

Southern California’s Daughters tended to the living as well as the dead. In 1929, the UDC established Dixie Manor, the first and only Confederate veterans’ rest home beyond the former slave states and territories.[29] Located outside Los Angeles in leafy San Gabriel, Dixie Manor was a large, stately structure, leased from the former chief justice of the California Supreme Court and the secretary of the Navy under President Calvin Coolidge. By February of that year, the first veterans had moved in. In April, some five hundred guests gathered for the dedication of the home. Over the next seven years, twenty-one former rebels would pass through the home before they died, most of them bound for the Confederate section of Hollywood Cemetery.[30]

Although not a particularly large operation, it was an expensive one, especially in the midst of a global economic meltdown. Dixie Manor ran on contributions from UDC chapters across the state, whose funds covered food, medical care, allowances for residents, salaries for workers, upkeep for the home, and the cost of frequent celebrations. Hundreds of visitors came to the home each year to pay tribute to the last rebels of the West and, in the process, to perpetuate the memory of the Lost Cause. In 1936, the five remaining veterans died and Dixie Manor was closed.[31]

Jefferson Davis in California

Jefferson Davis came to California with the automobile. The former Confederate president never set foot in the state during his lifetime, but he enjoyed a posthumous presence there in the form of a vast road system named in his honor. Like so many other Lost Cause initiatives, the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway was the brainchild of the UDC. Beginning in 1913, UDC members began lobbying to put their old president on the American map. They conceived of the Davis road as a rival to the recently announced Lincoln Highway from New York to San Francisco, which had been bankrolled by Yankee capitalists. Rather than building new roads, members of the UDC instead threw their collective energy into renaming already-existing auto trails. By designating enough individual highways in Davis’s honor, they hoped to stitch together a continental thoroughfare of Confederate memory. Over the coming decades, the UDC lobbied state governments, erected markers, and mapped out a road system to run the length of the country.[32]

Although Davis would not live to see the age of the automobile, the motorway was a fitting tribute for a man who had championed major transportation projects during his lifetime. As secretary of war and a U.S. senator in the 1850s, Davis spearheaded a decade-long campaign for the nation’s first transcontinental railway. The railroad of his fantasies was to run from the slave states all the way to the Pacific Coast, thereby bringing the South and West into a political and commercial embrace—and perhaps extending the institution of slavery across the American continent. Davis took a particular interest in California, the proposed terminus of his railroad, which he hoped to tether to the slave South with a bond of iron.[33]

Debates over the proposed railway’s route became deeply entangled in the controversy over slavery and the American West. Critics of Davis’s preferred route recognized its ominous potential and dubbed it the “great slavery road.”[34] In the rancorous political atmosphere of the 1850s, Northern politicians closed rank against virtually all proposed southern routes, while Southern leaders struck down numerous bills for northern lines. The result was political quagmire. Only with the secession of eleven slaveholding states in 1861 could plans for a Pacific railroad begin again in earnest. Congress swiftly capitalized on the Southern rebellion and the decisive Republican majority that it produced by passing the Pacific Railroad Act for a line between Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Sacramento. Abraham Lincoln signed the act into law in July 1862.[35] Davis never got his great slavery road.

Yet Davis’s nineteenth-century vision received a twentieth-century reboot in the extensive road system that bears his name. The end result, while not the continuous highway its architects initially envisioned, was a monumental achievement nonetheless. To this day, stretches of the Davis Highway run for hundreds of miles through the South, while dozens of markers to the old rebel can be found across the West, including California. Taken together, the Jefferson Davis Highway is the largest Confederate monument in the country, and it will likely remain the most indelible homage to the Lost Cause.[36]

The UDC erected the first California marker to the Davis Highway in San Diego in 1926. The Daughters thumbed their collective noses at the Union by placing a large stone obelisk dedicated to Davis in Horton Plaza, directly across from the U.S. Grant Hotel, which had been built by the war hero’s son. W. Jefferson Davis, a local attorney and distant relative of the Confederate president, helped to underwrite the cost of the monument. Almost immediately, Union veterans began protesting the presence of this rebel tribute in one of San Diego’s premier locations, and they succeeded in having it carted off later that year. But three decades later, the Confederate South rose again in San Diego, when local members of the UDC reinstalled a Davis Highway marker in Horton Plaza. The new plaque celebrated San Diego as the “Pacific terminus” of the Davis Highway.[37] The marker doubled as a thinly veiled critique of Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the landmark school desegregation case recently decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.[38]

Four other Davis Highway markers remain, scattered across the state. One of them, now located in a Bakersfield museum, pays tribute to Davis’s antebellum efforts on behalf of infrastructural development, albeit with a touch of hyperbole. Erected in 1942 by the Mildred Lee Chapter of the UDC, the monument salutes Davis as “The Father of National Highways.” That honorific is a reference to his work, as secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce, in overseeing four major transcontinental railroad surveys in 1853–1854. Unsurprisingly, the marker fails to mention that Davis exploited his position in an attempt to extend slavery westward. In his official report, Davis formally endorsed the southernmost of these routes, despite numerous obstacles, while dismissing all routes across free soil as untenable.[39] This Davis monument originally stood in the Central Valley north of Los Angeles, along U.S. 99, until the highway was modernized in the 1960s, at which point the marker was moved to the Kern County Museum in Bakersfield. Another marker to the Davis Highway was erected nearby in 1956 but has since been removed to Fort Tejon State Park. Two other Davis Highway markers currently sit in Hornbrook and Winterhaven, at opposite ends of the state.[40]

No building materials were necessary for some of the grandest California tributes to Davis and his rebel associates. Confederate veterans and members of the UDC simply used the state’s majestic natural landscape to celebrate their old cause. Spanning roughly thirty thousand acres, a scenic range of rock formations known as the Alabama Hills honors one of the Confederacy’s greatest warships. The area, near Lone Pine, was named for the CSS Alabama by Southern sympathizers in the 1860s. The mountains of California also carry the names of rebel commanders. When a number of Confederate veterans settled in Alpine County after the war, they named a nearby peak after their former president. Another mountaintop in the same range commemorates General George E. Pickett, who ordered the bloody, failed charge at Gettysburg in July 1863.[41]

image003

The Alabama Hills, at the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada mountain range near Lone Pine, were named for the Confederate warship CSS Alabama.
Photo courtesy of Bobak Ha’Eri.

Of all the Confederate markers in California, trees named for Robert E. Lee are perhaps the best known and most frequently visited. There are four in total, including the fifth-largest tree in the world (the twelfth-largest excluding reiterations and branches), located in Kings Canyon National Park. It was named by a former Confederate officer in 1875. Other sequoias bearing Lee’s name can be found in Yosemite National Park, Giant Sequoia National Monument, and Sequoia National Park. The UDC formally dedicated the “General Lee” Sequoia with a commemorative gathering in 1937. A handful of California redwoods are named for Union commanders, including Lincoln, Grant, and William Tecumseh Sherman.[42]

image005

The Robert E. Lee tree in Kings Canyon National Park is one of four California redwoods named for the rebel general. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia public domain

Education has long been a centerpiece of the Lost Cause tradition, so it is not entirely surprising that several schools in California should be named for rebels. When a Long Beach school took Robert E. Lee’s name in 1935, it elicited some grumbling from local residents. But others, including a commentator as far off as Warren, Pennsylvania, applauded the school. “Northerners have been able to see more and more clearly that the character and knightly manhood of Lee constitute one of the country’s most precious possessions,” read a glowing column in the Warren Times-Mirror.[43] Roughly twenty-five years later, another elementary school named for the Confederate general opened in San Diego, amid a national backlash over school desegregation. In attendance at the school’s dedication were officers of the Stonewall Jackson Chapter of the UDC, who presented a portrait of Lee for the occasion.[44] In East Los Angeles, a middle school bears the name of filmmaker D. W. Griffith. Although Griffith was not a Confederate veteran himself, his 1915 film epic Birth of a Nation did more to romanticize the Lost Cause than anything before it, not to mention reinvigorating the Ku Klux Klan, which had been more or less dormant since the 1870s.

The Vanishing Confederate in Twenty-First-Century California

Like their counterparts in the South, most of California’s Confederate markers were products either of the Jim Crow era or of pushback against civil rights activism in the mid-twentieth century. And as in the South, the Confederate culture of California has recently come under attack for its deep-rooted associations with white supremacy. Nevertheless, the Lost Cause in California lives on, even if diminished in stature. Memorial associations continue to gather, to dispense scholarships to descendants of rebel veterans, and to mobilize politically for the preservation of their monuments. The tide of public opinion may be against them now, but pockets of California have nurtured their Confederate connections into the twenty-first century.

One of the most audacious Confederate monuments in the West was erected as recently as May 2004. It was a curious one: a nine-foot granite pillar in an Orange County cemetery bearing the names of numerous rebels, including some, like Stonewall Jackson, who had never set foot in the state. Inscribed on the monument’s pedestal was characteristic Lost Cause rhetoric, with a Western twist: “to honor the sacred memory of the pioneers who built Orange County after their valiant effort to defend the Cause of Southern Independence.” Some of these Confederate veterans were buried in the Santa Ana cemetery where the monument stood. In this regard, the Orange County marker was not unlike the Hollywood memorial, erected nearly a century earlier. Also like the Hollywood marker, it drew little criticism when a local Confederate memorial association unveiled it. The dedication ceremony, organized by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, was a celebratory affair, with patrons and supporters posing proudly for the occasion in period costume, including Confederate gray.[45]

image007

The Sons of Confederate Veterans erected this nine-foot granite monument to the rebel veterans of Orange County in 2004. It stood in Santa Ana Cemetery until its removal in August 2019.
Photo courtesy of Gustavo Arellano

At the turn of the twenty-first century, rebel memorial associations were still thriving across California, despite their geographic and temporal distance from the Civil War. While the Sons of Confederate Veterans scored perhaps the greatest contemporary coup for the Old South in the Far West with their Santa Ana monument, the UDC maintained a robust presence in California as well. A 1999 national register of the UDC lists eighteen chapters within California alone. For comparison, the next closest free states in terms of UDC activity, Ohio and New York, each had only three chapters. California was also home to more UDC chapters than several former slave states, including Missouri, Kentucky, and Arkansas.[46] UDC membership in California has dipped slightly in recent years, but as of this writing there are still fourteen active chapters within the state, according to the California Division’s official website.[47]

While still numerous, California’s Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy have become more circumspect in recent years. Once a sunny haven for rebel veterans and their offspring, California is now largely hostile to open displays of Confederate heritage. In 2014, the legislature passed a law that prohibits the state from displaying or selling the Confederate battle flag or related imagery, unless for educational purposes. That law, however, drew a First Amendment challenge a year later, after organizers of the Big Fresno Fair, an annual event on state property, barred a Civil War–themed painting showing the Confederate flag. The artist successfully sued, claiming that his depiction of the 1864 Battle of Atlanta, featuring Confederate troops and their flag, had been unlawfully rejected. In the settlement, the state agreed that the ban does not apply to individual citizens, who are free to display and even sell the flag, either on private or public property.[48]

A new Confederate monument on the scale of the Santa Ana pillar would be nearly impossible to erect in present-day California. In the fifteen years since that monument’s dedication, Confederate iconography, and the slave regime it represents, has come under a sustained national attack. Violent neo-Confederates are themselves to blame for the turn in opinion. The anti-Confederate backlash began in 2015 in response to the murder of nine black worshippers, including the senior minister, at one of the nation’s oldest African American churches. The murderer, Dylann Roof, had proudly displayed the Confederate flag in his racist online manifesto before the attack in Charleston. In response, the South Carolina legislature agreed to take down the Confederate battle flag that had flown over their state house for a decade and a half.[49] This was followed by the fiercely contested removal of several monuments to Confederate leaders within New Orleans in spring 2017. Later that summer, the connection between racial hatred and the Confederate flag was again made explicit by an angry crowd of white supremacists who rallied around an equestrian statue to Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia. In the ensuing clash between white supremacists and counterprotesters, a Nazi sympathizer drove his car through the crowd, killing a young woman. Numerous Confederate monuments, including several in California, came down in the wake of her death.[50]

Due to its long history and size, the Hollywood memorial received more media coverage than any other Confederate monument removal in California. The story made national headlines and generated several features on National Public Radio and extensive local print and television coverage.[51] While the monument had stood uncontested for nearly a century, its removal came surprisingly swiftly, just days after the violence in Charlottesville.[52] Both the proprietor of the cemetery and the Long Beach Chapter of the UDC, the owner of the monument, yielded to a growing wave of outrage. Activists flooded the Hollywood Forever administration with calls and emails, while an online petition quickly generated more than 1,900 signatures demanding the monument’s removal.[53] A day before it was carted out of the cemetery, the memorial was vandalized with the word “NO” scrawled in black marker across its bronze plaque. When workers packed the Hollywood memorial onto a truck and drove it to an undisclosed location, they purged Los Angeles of its last Confederate link.

Activists have recently challenged Jefferson Davis’s presence in California as well. On the same day that the Los Angeles memorial was hauled out of Hollywood Forever Cemetery, the mayor of San Diego ordered the removal of the Davis Highway marker in Horton Plaza. While the four other Davis Highway markers within the state have not been targeted for removal, none are in their original locations. Other Davis markers in the Far West have been more imaginatively targeted. In August 2017, activists with a particular flare for historical shaming rituals tarred and feathered a Davis Highway monument east of Phoenix, Arizona.[54] The Jeff Davis Peak near Lake Tahoe, California, has retained its name for well over a century, but that too may soon change. The Hung-A-Lel-Ti Woodfords Washoe tribe has proposed a Native name, “Da-ek Dow Go-et” (or “saddle between two points”), in place of the Confederate president’s. The proposal is pending with the U.S. Board of Geographical Names.[55]

Like his rebel commander-in-chief, Robert E. Lee is no longer as prominent in California as he once was. The Confederate general’s name still graces four redwoods within the state, but his schools in Long Beach and San Diego have since been rechristened. After fifty-seven years, Robert E. Lee Elementary in San Diego is now, rather innocuously, Pacific View Leadership Elementary. The renaming occurred in May 2016, largely in response to the events in Charleston. Also in 2016, Lee’s name was stripped from the Long Beach school. It was renamed for Nieto Herrera, a local Mexican American activist and longtime ally of Cesar Chavez in the fight for migrant farmworkers’ rights. Proponents of the name changes argued that within such diverse communities it was incongruous, if not offensive, to continue honoring a man who fought to maintain white supremacy and race-based slavery.[56] There have also been recent calls, including an online petition, to rename D. W. Griffith Middle School in East Los Angeles.[57] To date, however, the school retains its associations with The Birth of a Nation filmmaker.

The Santa Ana cemetery monument may be the shortest-lived Confederate marker in California history. Erected in 2004, the monument was gone by August 2019. As with the memorial in Hollywood Forever Cemetery, the Orange County pillar became a casualty of rising local activism as well as vandalism. Just days before its removal, someone defaced the monument with red paint, spraying the word “racists” in large letters down the face of the granite pillar. According to cemetery officials, the monument had become “an unsightly public nuisance” (not to mention a political liability). A one-hundred-foot crane was required to remove the granite structure, which weighs several tons, at an estimated cost of $15,000. For the Sons of Confederate Veterans who erected the monument, the action was tantamount to “Santa Ana spit[ting] on its own history.” For others, though, the removal was more akin to a cleansing, purifying the California landscape of its long association with a slaveholders’ rebellion.[58]

Conclusion

Within the space of a few years, monuments tended by memorial associations for decades have been dismantled or renamed. The oldest and the largest man-made Confederate monuments—those in Hollywood and Santa Ana, respectively—are now gone. So too is the first California marker to the Jefferson Davis Highway, as well as the name of Robert E. Lee from all schools in the state. California, of course, still contains some relics of its Confederate past, including four markers to the Davis Highway, although no California motorists refer to any of their roads by the Confederate president’s name. And while the natural monuments to the Confederacy—Lee’s trees, Davis’s peak, and the Alabama Hills—retain their old names, those too may change.

Perhaps, though, the most surprising aspect of this history is not how quickly these monuments have come down, but how long they survived. For nearly a century, a six-foot granite structure paid tribute to the Confederacy and its soldiers in the heart of Los Angeles. In the teeth of the Great Depression, patrons kept open the doors of Dixie Manor and provided food, housing, and medical care to over twenty ailing veterans. Directly in front of the U. S. Grant Hotel, members of the UDC erected a large obelisk to the Confederate president. And after Union veterans had it hauled away in protest in 1926, the Daughters persisted until it was reinstalled in the mid-1950s. To this day, far more Confederate memorial chapters can be found in California than in any other free state. Physical monuments to the rebellion may be vanishing from California, but these Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy continue to celebrate their peculiar version of the Civil War. Through them, a small part of the slave South lives on in the Far West.

Notes

[1] The perpetrator, James Fields Jr., was convicted of first-degree murder in December 2018; Jonathan M. Katz and Farah Stockman, “James Fields Guilty of First-Degree Murder in Death of Heather Heyer,” New York Times, December 7, 2018.

[2] See the statistics on Confederate markers across the country compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center: https://www.splcenter.org/20190201/whose-heritage-public-symbols-confederacy. Oklahoma contains about as many Confederate monuments and place-names as California, but because the major Native nations of Indian Territory (roughly the present state of Oklahoma) had legalized slavery and officially sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War, I have included Oklahoma in my designation of the “slave South.” The detailed national map of Confederate markers and place-names, compiled by the SPLC, actually misses several in California, including the memorial in Hollywood and another in Orange County.

[3] For a succinct catalog of these monuments and their histories, see Mike Moffitt, “Are All the Monuments to White Supremacy in California Gone Yet?” SFGate, April 7, 2019; and Kevin Waite, “California’s Forgotten Confederate History,” New Republic, August 19, 2019.

[4] California would not ratify the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments until 1959 and 1962, respectively. For the state’s long proslavery history, see Stacey Smith, Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation and Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013); Leonard Richards, The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War (New York: Vintage, 2007); Rudolph M. Lapp, Blacks in Gold Rush California (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977); Kevin Waite, “The Slave South in the Far West: California, the Pacific, and Proslavery Visions of Empire,” PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2016.

[5] By 1870, there were roughly 21,000 migrants from the former Confederate states in California, far more than could be found in any other Far Western state or territory at the time. For figures, see Francis A. Walker, A Compendium of the Ninth Census (June 1, 1870), Compile Pursuant to a Concurrent Resolution of Congress, and Under the Direction of the Secretary of the Interior (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1872), 378–388; Eugene H. Berwanger, The West and Reconstruction (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981), 19–20; Doris Marion Wright, “The Making of Cosmopolitan California: An Analysis of Immigration, 1848–1870,” California Historical Society Quarterly 19 (December 1940), 339.

[6] Edward A. Pollard, The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates (New York: E.B. Treat, 1866).

[7] For useful introductions to the history and evolution of the Lost Cause, see Gary W. Gallagher, “Introduction,” and Alan T. Nolan, “The Anatomy of the Myth,” both in Gallagher and Nolan (eds.), The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000).

[8] The literature on the Lost Cause and Civil War memory is vast. For some of the most important works on the subject, see Charles Reagan Wilson, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865–1920 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980); Gaines M. Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2001); Karen L. Cox, Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003); Caroline Janney, Burying the Dead but Not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008); Caroline Janney, Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013); Thomas L. Connelly and Barbara L. Bellows, God and General Longstreet: The Lost Cause and the Southern Mind (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995); Kirk Savage, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, new ed., 2018). On the recent debates over Confederate iconography in particular, see Catherine Clinton (ed.), Confederate Statues and Memorialization (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2019). For important recent studies that address Civil War memory in other parts of the West, see Matthew Christopher Hulbert, The Ghosts of Guerrilla Memory: How Civil War Bushwhackers Became Gunslingers in the American West (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2016); and Matthew E. Stanley, The Loyal West: Civil War and Reunion in Middle America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017).

[9] See Smith, Freedom’s Frontier; Richards, California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War; Lapp, Blacks in Gold Rush California; Kevin Waite, West of Slavery: The Continental Crisis of the Civil War Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, forthcoming); Joshua Paddison, American Heathens: Religion, Race, and Reconstruction in California (Berkeley and San Marino: University of California Press and the Huntington Library, 2012); D. Michael Bottoms, An Aristocracy of Color: Race and Reconstruction in California and the West, 1850–1890 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013).

[10] Kevin Waite, “The West and Reconstruction after the Civil War,” in Andrew L. Slap (ed.), Oxford Handbook on Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020); Waite, “Slave South in the Far West,” ch. 6.

[11] San Francisco Examiner, July 24, 1865; June 12, 1865.

[12] San Francisco Examiner, January 11, 1869.

[13] San Francisco Elevator, July 28, 1865.

[14] San Francisco Examiner, July 8, 1868; November 23, 1868.

[15] San Francisco Examiner, April 21, 1869.

[16] San Francisco Examiner, July 23, 1867. For more tributes to the South and southerners, see San Francisco Examiner, July 8, 1868; January 16, 1869.

[17] General Lee’s Farewell Address to the Army of Northern Virginia, April 10, 1865 (Petersburg, 1865), Library of Congress.

[18] Quoted in W. Stuart Towns, Enduring Legacy: Rhetoric and Ritual of the Lost Cause (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2012), 31; see also Cox, Dixie’s Daughters.

[19] This early history is briefly recounted in UDC, United Daughters of the Confederacy Patriot Ancestor Album (Paducah, KY: Turner, 1999), 23–24. The United Confederate Veterans also organized a Pacific Division at the turn of the century. It was headquartered in Los Angeles; see “Organization of Camps in the United Confederate Veterans Association, Prepared Expressly for Use of Delegates to the Thirteenth Reunion and Meeting of the Association” (New Orleans, 1903).

[20] Smaller collections related to the California UDC can be found at the Seaver Center for Western History Research and the Huntington Library.

[21] Joseph Lancaster Brent, Memoirs of the War between the States (New Orleans: Fontana Printing, 1940), 22–23. See also Daniel Lynch, “Southern California Chivalry: Southerners, Californios, and the Forging of an Unlikely Alliance,” California History 91 (Fall 2014); Waite, “Slave South in the Far West,” ch. 3; John Mack Faragher, Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles (New York: W.W. Norton, 2016), 376.

[22] Daniel Brendan Lynch, “Southern California Chivalry: The Convergence of Southerners and Californios in the Far Southwest, 1846–1866,” PhD diss., UCLA, 2015.

[23] Faragher, Eternity Street, 385–386.

[24] Horace Bell, On the Old West Coast: Being Further Reminiscences of a Ranger, ed. Lanier Bartlett (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1930), 72.

[25] On the secessionist presence in Civil War California, see Official Records of the War of the Rebellion (hereafter “OR”), series I, vol. L, part 1, pp. 563–566; Sumner to Colonel E. D. Townsend, Assistant Adjutant-General, Department of the Pacific, April 28, 1861, OR, series I, vol. L, part 1, p. 472; [San Francisco businessmen] to Simon Cameron, August 28, 1861, OR, series I, vol. L, part 1, 589–591; San Francisco Bulletin, September 13, 1862; Los Angeles Southern News, March 1, 1861. See also John W. Robinson, Los Angeles in Civil War Days, 1860–1865 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1977, 2013); Glenna Matthews, The Golden State in the Civil War: Thomas Starr King, the Republican Party, and the Birth of Modern California (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012); Helen B. Walters, “Confederates in Southern California,” The Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly 35 (March 1953); Ronald C. Woolsey. “The Politics of a Lost Cause: ‘Seceshers’ and Democrats in Southern California during the Civil War,” California History 69 (Winter 1990/1991); Woolsey, “Disunion or Dissent? A New Look at an Old Problem in Southern California: Attitudes toward the Civil War,” Southern California Quarterly 66 (Fall 1984); Albert Lucian Lewis, “Los Angeles in the Civil War Decades, 1850–1868,” PhD diss., University of Southern California, 1970.

[26] Staff correspondent, “U.D.C.,” Los Angeles Times, June 3, 1925.

[27] Staff correspondent, “Fete Chief of United Daughters,” Los Angeles Times, May 17, 1925.

[28] Connie Walton Moretti, Dixie Manor Days: The Confederate Veterans Who Lived There and the UDC Members Who Made It Possible (Redondo Beach, CA.: Mulberry Bush, 2004), 5.

[29] In addition to numerous homes within the former slave states, there was also one in Ardmore, Oklahoma, part of Confederate-held Indian Territory for much of the war. For more on these Confederate soldiers’ homes, see Rusty Williams, My Old Confederate Home: A Respectable Place for Civil War Veterans (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2010); and R. B. Rosenburg, Living Monuments: Confederate Soldiers’ Homes in the New South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993).

[30] Los Angeles Times, April 20, 1936.

[31] Los Angeles Times, April 20, 1936; Moretti, Dixie Manor Days, 9–44.

[32] Euan Hague and Edward H. Sebesta, “The Jefferson Davis Highway: Contesting the Confederacy in the Pacific Northwest,” Journal of American Studies 45 (May 2011), 281–301.

[33] Kevin Waite, “Jefferson Davis and Proslavery Visions of Empire in the Far West,” Journal of the Civil War Era 6 (December 2016), 536–565. See also Jefferson Davis, “Report of the Secretary of War, December 3, 1855,” in Dunbar Rowland (ed.), Jefferson Davis, Constitutionalist: His Letters, Papers and Speeches (Jackson: Mississippi Department of Archives and History, 1923), vol. 2, 567–570; James Gadsden to Jefferson Davis, May 23, 1853, Jefferson Davis Papers, Special Collections & Archives, Transylvania University, Lexington, Kentucky.

[34] See the speech of Thomas Jefferson Green near Marshall, Texas, excerpted in the Texas State Gazette, July 29, 1854.

[35] Congressional Globe, 37th Congress, 2nd session (May 5, 1862), p. 1948; and 37th Congress, 2nd session (May 6, 1862), p. 1950. See also Robert R. Russel, Improvement of Communication with the Pacific Coast as an Issue in American Politics, 1783–1864 (Cedar Rapids, IA: Torch Press, 1948), 294–307.

[36] This argument first appeared in Kevin Waite, “The Largest Confederate Monument in American Can’t Be Taken Down,” Washington Post, August 22, 2017, which was later anthologized in Clinton, Confederate Statues and Memorialization, 132–136.

[37] Roughly a century earlier, slaveholding railroad developers also eyed San Diego as the most desirable terminus for their proposed transcontinental railroad. See Waite, “Slave South in the Far West,” ch. 2.

[38] San Diego Union-Tribune, August 16, 2017.

[39] Jefferson Davis, Report of the Secretary of War on the Several Pacific Railroad Expeditions (Washington, DC: A.O.P. Nicholson, 1855), 8–34; 37–39; and Waite, “Jefferson Davis and Proslavery Visions of Empire,” 542–544.

[40] Bakersfield.com, August 23, 2017, https://www.bakersfield.com/news/artifact-of-confederate-figure-rests-mostly-unnoticed-at-kern-county/article_2525c98a-8859-11e7-82dc-d34e857dbee0.html.

[41] Matt Johnson, “Roust the Rebels from Our Mountains,” Sierra Splendor, April 10, 2016, http://sierrasplendor.com/2016/04/10/roust-the-rebels-from-our-mountains/.

[42] Detailed information on the Lee trees can be found at http://famousredwoods.com/robert_e_lee/.

[43] “A Fine Example,” Warren Times Mirror, December 17, 1935.

[44] Maureen Magee, “Robert E. Lee school name changed,” San Diego Union-Tribune, May 23, 2016.

[45] Gustavo Arellano, “California’s Last Confederate Monument Is at Santa Ana Cemetery—and It Was Erected in 2004,” OC Weekly, August 17, 2017.

[46] UDC, United Daughters of the Confederacy Patriot Ancestor Album, 5–10.

[47] For a list of active chapters and further information on the UDC’s activities within the state, see the website of the California Division: http://californiaudc.com/.

[48] “California Confederate flag ban excludes individuals, state says,” Associated Press, May 2, 2017; see also “Editorial: Taking a ban on Confederate flag displays to an absurd extreme,” Los Angeles Times, September 2, 2016.

[49] Sarah McCammon, “2 Years after S.C.’s Flag Came Down, Cities Grapple with Confederate Symbols,” National Public Radio, July 10, 2017.

[50] Leanna Garfield and Ellen Cranley, “More Than a Year after Charlottesville, These Cities across the US Have Torn Down Controversial Confederate Monuments,” Business Insider, January 15, 2019.

[51] For a sampling of that news coverage, across the political spectrum, see Alene Tchekmedyian, Irfan Khan, and Veronica Rocha, “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Removes Confederate Monument after Calls from Activists and Threats of Vandalism,” Los Angeles Times, August 16, 2017; “Does Los Angeles Have a Confederate Monument problem?” KCRW radio, August 16, 2017; “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Removes Confederate Monument,” KPCC radio, August 16, 2017; Ian Lovett, “Landmark Cemetery in Los Angeles Removes Confederate Monument,” Wall Street Journal, August 16, 2017; Joel B. Pollak, “Threats Force Hollywood Cemetery to Remove Confederate Memorial,” Breitbart, August 16, 2017.

[52] The monument first came to public attention roughly a week before the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, when the Los Angeles Times published my op-ed, “The Struggle over Slavery Was Not Confined to the South, L.A. Has a Confederate Memorial Problem Too,” Los Angeles Times, August 4, 2017.

[53] “Remove the Confederate Monument from Hollywood Forever,” Change.org petition, https://www.change.org/p/remove-the-confederate-monument-from-hollywood-forever.

[54] William Hughes, “Somebody tarred and feathered a memorial to Jefferson Davis,” AV Club, August 18, 2017.

[55] Mike Moffitt, “Confederate landmarks near Tahoe could get Native American name,” SFGate, May 15, 2018 (https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Confederate-landmark-Tahoe-Jeff-Davis-peak-12917085.php). In June 2019, another Jeff Davis peak, this one located in Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada, was renamed “Doso Doyabi,” what the local Shoshone people have long called it; Dailykos.com, June 14, 2019, https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2019/6/14/1856404/-You-have-a-new-mountain-America-USGS-changes-name-of-Nevada-s-Jeff-Davis-Peak-to-Doso-Doyabi.

[56] Magee, “Robert E. Lee school name changed,” San Diego Union-Tribune, May 23, 2016; Soren Sum, “Robert E. Lee Elementary renamed after Long Beach activist with ties to Cesar Chavez,” Long Beach Post, November 3, 2016.

[57] Change.org petition: “Change the name of D.W. Griffith Middle School in East Los Angeles,” Change.org petition, https://www.change.org/p/los-angeles-unified-school-district-change-the-name-of-d-w-griffith-middle-school-in-east-los-angeles-there-is-no-room-for-racism-in-our-schools.

[58] Alicia Robinson, “Confederate Monument Defaced Last Month Has Been Removed from Santa Ana Cemetery,” Orange County Register, August 1, 2019; “Confederate Monument Removed from Santa Ana Cemetery after Being Vandalized,” KTLA 5, August 2, 2019, https://ktla.com/2019/08/02/confederate-monument-removed-from-california-cemetery/.

Kevin Waite is an assistant professor of history at Durham University in the U.K. His first book, a history of slavery and the Civil War in the American West, will be published by University of North Carolina Press next year. Alongside Sarah Barringer Gordon, he is codirector of a major National Endowment for the Humanities–funded project, “The Long Road to Freedom: Biddy Mason and the Making of Black Los Angeles.” He has written about California’s place in the controversy over Confederate monuments for the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the New Republic, among other popular publications.

Copyright: © 2020 Kevin Waite. 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/

Postcards Series

South Bakersfield’s Confederate Remains

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.


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Nicholas Belardes

I. The Battle of Chester Avenue

We gather south of Chester Avenue’s railroad tracks. Air murmurs with violence. Everyone’s hungry for the blood of what’s taken place, a battle between freight train and car. We gaze at the aftermath. A hellscape. A nightmare. A car mangled in near darkness a few dozen yards from where Dad often takes us for burgers. A&W Root Beer. This is the periphery of how far me and my siblings are allowed to wander from our home on Geneva Avenue.

We heard the crash from our living rooms and front yards and now the community mobs the street. Years later I think this must have been what watching the Civil War was like: a community coming together to observe the collision of gunpowder, steel and flesh. Only, this is our poor man’s take. The barrio version. The working class.

It will be decades before I have any kind of worldview or identity. This is the summer of ‘77. California’s Central Valley. South Bakersfield. A few months before a gargantuan dust storm swallows everything.

Our mixed community as a whole doesn’t seem conscious of itself. Not tonight as we fume and buzz over the train wreck.

I’m small in the crowd. A thing. A feeling. A spore. A lost boy, decades from his struggle to fight political and social forces much greater than this metaphor of rails and blood. Before all the immigration reform marches and rallies. I’m in fourth grade. I don’t realize I’m fighting against this train. It’s smashing into my identity every day, the same way it barrels through Russian thistle and ghosts of. I’m not aware of my hopelessness. I don’t realize I’m the car. I only know I’m here. I want to see the remains of this disaster.

The police won’t allow anyone near the tracks. Not unless you’re a firefighter or detective. From the driver’s seat of our van, Dad, a self-professed ex-Bay Area cop watches the scene with a kind of calm. A vato with a mission. Somehow wanting to teach his kids that our world is violent, mercurial, dangerous. He seems attracted to the pull of violence, like he has to be in the middle of it. And since my brother, sister and I feel safe around him, we’re eager as we slowly park alongside this mass of bodies that fills this usually busy thoroughfare.

The freight train sprawls across Chester Avenue in semi-darkness. The car twisted and smashed against its engine. Detectives hunt with flashlights further down the tracks.

Parents, teenagers, and kids have congregated. What makes this crowd special is all the forgotten hate between neighbors. These people live next door to each other but never talk. They secretly throw rocks at each other’s windows when they’re not home. All the bullies are here too. The ones who pick on me at school—friendly during this snapshot of violence. All making up stories as fast as their mouths can yammer. They want to be heard. Even if only a half peckerwood like me is listening.

Necks crane to see what might happen next, whether ghosts might rise from rocks and dirt. Whether bodies might slip out of the mangled car and stumble herky-jerk down the rails.

“They’re looking for a hand,” says Ruben, a bully with a mouth scar that looks like his lips had once been sewed together.

Other rumors fly like bats. The train smashed into the car on purpose. The car flew across the tracks on a dare. A semi pushed the car into the train. Black, white, Japanese-American, Mexican-American—doesn’t matter who makes up each conspiracy. This could have been a meteor strike or space alien invasion and these people would have banded together to talk shit like it really happened. This is something I’ve never seen in the neighborhood. Something I will never see again except at South High School football games when families from the projects and low-income housing come to root on their racist mascots made in the image of Confederate militants. It’s insane if you think about it: Confederate imagery in the mixed-race neighborhoods of South Bakersfield.

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The Belardes family in the 1970s. Photograph courtesy of author.

II. A White Mythology

Confederate and Civil War imagery surround me. It’s 1982. I’m fourteen, a freshman at South High School. Home of the Rebels. The Blue & Gray. The Merrimac Yearbook. Johnny and Jody yell leaders in military-style grey uniforms and Confederate hats. Our mascot is a cartoon Confederate soldier. I don’t understand what I’m seeing. I don’t understand racism, slavery, war, who fought what or when, and for what cause. I’m so caught up in our school spirit I pin a tiny Confederate flag to a Confederate soldier hat my Mexican-American dad brings home from a swapmeet. He thinks it’s cool. I think this is what high school is all about. Rebel soldiers. Like Star Wars. Like The Empire Strikes Back. I don’t realize a cartoon mascot is a symbol for retaining an economic system that allows for the horrific right to own slaves. I somehow think I’m one of the good guys.

Street names around South High are all Civil War-inspired. Sumter, Merrimac, Monitor, Rebel, Raider, Evelyn. Evelyn might be Evelyn Magruder DeJarnette, a white nineteenth-century writer. She taught slave kids on a Virginia plantation. She culturally appropriated them by writing stories in slave dialect. Her husband was a captain for the Confederate Army, a farmer who owned slaves.

Take a turn down White (Supremacist) Lane onto Monitor Street and you’ll reach Plantation Avenue. An elementary school by the same name still stands there (So do the street names).

III. The Gridiron Race Riot

Sometime between 1984 and 1986 I’m in the stands above our school’s sunken gridiron battlefield for a matchup between North and South high schools. I’m tossing confetti, chanting cheers. I’m really into it when both football teams transform gridiron to full-on mob violence. Karate jump-kicks. Flying fists. Helmets swung like morning stars. A football coach gets smacked with a clipboard. Students and parents run from the stands. Not to break up the fight but to join in. If ever there’s a melee fueled by racism this is it, our twisted fabrication of North versus South. On one side, South High—empowered with its white mythology, though a mixed race school. On the other, North High, embedded in a mostly white community called Oildale, firmly empowered with its own white superiority complex and racist intentions.

While this is a mixed-race school versus a white school, I suspect South High football players of color had images in their heads of being shot if they enter the wrong side of town, of crosses burning in yards, of kids getting lynched outside the dirt-floor shanties of Oildale, California. This is the fear fed to us about the northern suburbs of Bakersfield. If you’re brown, you stay out of that town.

I can only imagine what’s been said on the field, what parents of either team have been feeding the minds of their children. Decades later a Black former South High football star tells me the n-word had been dropped regularly by North High’s feeder teams in years prior during peewee games. “We knew the level of hatred against our melting pot of a school,” he said. “That [North-South] game had been eagerly anticipated.”

IV. A Racism Origin Story

By the time Dad moves us to Geneva Avenue in 1976, the area is fairly mixed: Black, Mexican-American, Japanese-American, white. A wave of Vietnamese immigrants is on the way.

Our neighbors are Mexican-American on one side and white on the other. After the Mexican-American couple moves out, a Black man moves in. Dad doesn’t use that word when referencing him. He uses the n-word. There’s a clear hatred from my old man. Our neighbor avoids Dad, avoids all of us. You can see it in how quickly he enters his house, how he’s never outside, never greeting us. We never have a conversation in the four or five years we share the neighborhood.

I always wonder if Dad had ever really been a cop. In 2019, two decades after his death, one of my uncles says Dad’s cop stories were lies. I’d already seen photos of him in a uniform. Then a retired cop checking in to see if former academy members had died, phoned. Dad’s name had been on a list. Dad had definitely enrolled at the San Jose Police Academy in the 1960s. One of the first Latinos there, no less. Proof that he hung out with and had been influenced by powerful white men.

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But had he been an actual cop?

And if he had been a cop, why hadn’t he stuck with it? One family member said he couldn’t pass the height requirements at the time. Maybe he didn’t want some low-paying security gig as a result. That wasted police education maybe not only put that killer look in his eye, perhaps it transformed him into the assimilationist he was.

That means I was assimilated. No Spanish was taught in the home. Dad constantly told me I was white. He bought Confederate flags for my bedroom wall. Mostly American foods were put on the dinner table. Racist epithets were used in conversation and jokes. “Chicano” was never uttered.

Truth is, we’re a dual-ethnic family in our south Bakersfield neighborhood during those mid 1970s and early 1980s. The streets are rough for me as a result. Neighborhood fights get fueled by kids with giant boy egos and petty racial differences. More than a few punches get thrown. I usually just receive them. Terrified, I stand my ground, take some licks, never really understanding why fists matter. I toss a lunchpail at one kid’s head who fights my brother over us “peckerwoods” being in their hood. I’m too stupid to argue that I’m Mexican-American, Latino, or Hispanic. I think I’m white though my father’s brown as an oak-stained table. I run for my life. I hide in my room. I’m afraid of black vampires outside my window.

Dad just wants me to fight. He’s bragged for years that he was a cop. I want him to be a cop, my cop. But he doesn’t help or show me how to fight. He orders me to “straighten up,” to “be tough” with those n-word boys down the street. He talks tough, but what else is he? A brown cowboy? Some white image he’s pulled from American cinema? He loves John Wayne, Charles Bronson. He worships Dirty Harry, Billy Jack. Blazing Saddles. He wears a black cowboy hat. He drives a tanker truck hauling gas for an oil company. I later refer to him as mothertrucker. He carries a gun in a shoulder holster. He buys me and my brother cowboy hats and boots. He wants us to be him. He wants us to be what he isn’t.

V. Yell Leaders, Mascots and Monuments

Johnny and Jody Rebel stand on podiums on the edge of a stadium racetrack. All eyes on them in their Confederate uniforms as they lead cheers. It’s 1986. Johnny is a Mexican-American kid named Gabe. Jody is a Black girl named Georgia. Together they upend the image of the Confederate South. At the same time, they become a mockery, performing a bizarre cultural appropriation of oppressive white heritage that transforms students into puppetry. An entire mythology has been reproduced on the backs of Black and Mexican-American children. In this white thuggish military garb that literally screams enslavement, kids are transformed. They lose self-identity in the supremacist imagery before the crowd. They’re reduced to monuments. Symbols of a war meant to oppress, that sought to continue a way of life that made Southern planters wealthy.

The Confederate flag once flew over South High School. It was banned in 1968, the year I was born. No Confederate imagery is retired during my education there. Not the school mascot. Not the rebel military uniforms on yell leaders. Not the street names. Not the school names. Not even Plantation Elementary School.

Killing a flag wasn’t ever going to erase its shadowy image of oppression. Not with all the blue and grey. Not with all the misplaced school pride placed upon so many high school kids screaming rebel chants. A school’s fanatical pride isn’t unlike Southerner pride suggesting that times have changed when they haven’t.

VI. Marching

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Author, second to the right, marching.

On March 30, 2006, students from Bakersfield area high schools, including South High pour into downtown. I’m documenting the march for my blog wishing I’d been one of these high school kids as their throng enters a wide plaza outside the Rabobank Arena and Civic Auditorium.

Part of me is ashamed. Not for the kids. For me. But I don’t have time to reflect on South High, why it’s still seeped in Confederate mythology, or why my past haunts me. Right now it’s just me and a KERO news crew. We’re the only ones documenting this historic moment akin to the 1968 East L.A. blowout.

Then a car speeds alongside the curb. Out jumps Kern County’s controversial District Attorney Ed Jagels, mastermind of 25 false convictions during the Satanic Panic. Well-known for his ridiculous media posturing, he plants his face in his hands in mock desperation, as if the kids now swarming the plaza are about to climb the battlements and lay siege to a fountain.

A few days later I’m at Jastro Park documenting another rally alongside an AP news photographer. We’re on the same stage as Dolores Huerta. An ocean of red farm worker flags wave in front of her as she she dances with CSU Bakersfield professor Gonzalo Santos during a ranchera melody. I’m pulled into this. I’m feeling this intersection between farm workers, immigrant rights and the Chicano Movement. There’s something here I need to fight for.

By May 1st I’m taking part as an honored poet, hands shaking on stage at Beach Park, reading “Immigration! Interrogation!” to a sea of 10,000-15,000. It doesn’t enter my mind to think, Here I am, former South High Student on stage! Not at all. By this time, South High is lost to me, a place that should have corrected itself long ago. I take no pride in my connections to that institution, only shame. If anything, I close my eyes and see my street, Geneva Avenue. I see the paths I walked to school. I see the dirt fields and hear the train crashing over and over again.

Eleven years later it’s May 1, 2017. I text my youngest son Landen to see if he’ll come to Mill Creek Park to listen to me present, “The Mother of All Bombs,” a poem less about Donald Trump’s propaganda war machine, and more a revelation about ironies of oppression, the anger that is connected to it in relation to the southern Central Valley. I realize that one portion of the lengthy poem feels so much like it’s from where I grew up in South Bakersfield. Though about the oppression of place, I’ve generalized my own streets. I’ve hidden my old school, my old haunts, even my old living room on Geneva, with Dad inside telling me how white I am.

The Mother of All Bombs is the woman down the street
laughing at my words then waking up tomorrow realizing
she’s felt the heavy weight of America too.
How long did it take her to understand
she’d taken on the characteristics
of the oppressor, that she was insane, drooling
with madness in the Church of Intolerance,
while her own children were hungrier than ours
under the continued shame of Make America Great Again,
which here in the San Joaquin Valley is a
new special blend of McCarthyism.

After a long line of us march downtown, those of us who carried the American flag walk onto the stage. Music blasts from speakers. Some start dancing. I gaze into the crowd and see my son. I feel a pride I can’t explain. A connecting point. A circle re-attached. Landen and I were part of that march nearly eleven years before. He’d walked out with all those high school kids in 2006. We’d both later attended President Obama’s speech at La Paz, a historic dedication of Cesar Chavez’ resting place as a National Monument.

Prior to, and after that day in 2017, my son and I continue to share father-son discussions about art, words, music, taking risks, about not being afraid to make a statement about the world, and to the world. He’s often working on songs and sends rough cuts. Sometimes we call each other afterwards, talking about his latest lyrics, drum beats and guitar riffs. As we often do, we shift our focus to peoples and behaviors, to speaking up for others, to ways in which we can inject a more purposeful truth into our art. Inevitably, during these moments, I drift. Sometimes for only a second. That’s all it takes. The place is usually the same. I’m back in that old living room on Geneva Avenue. I see Dad’s face but I don’t hear anything as he talks to me. I see his eyes. I see that grim mouth. And I see change coming.

 

 

Nicholas Belardes’ work has appeared or is forthcoming in Latino Rebels, The Latinx Archive: Speculative Fiction for Dreamers (Ohio State University Press), Southwestern American Literature (Texas State University), Carve Magazine, and others. Read more at nicholasbelardes.com. Follow him on twitter @nickbelardes

Copyright: © 2020 Nicholas Belardes. 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”
  2. Toni Mirosevich, “Who I Used To Be”
  3. Myriam Gurba, “El Corrido del Copete”
  4. Jennifer Carr, “The Tides that Erase: Automation and the Los Angeles Waterfront”
  5. Melissa Hidalgo, “A Chumash Line: How an old email and five PDFs revealed my Native Californian Roots” 
  6. Brynn Saito with Photographs by Dave Lehl, “Acts of Grace: Memory Journeys Through the San Joaquin Valley”
Interviews

Rise Against the Machine: Interview with Adam Goodman

The rampant spread of coronavirus throughout the United States has illuminated undocumented migrants’ role as essential workers as well as their precarious position in this country. Indeed, Trump’s administration continues to find novel measures to expel undocumented migrants and asylum seekers. In The Deportation Machine: America’s Long History of Expelling Immigrants, Adam Goodman traces the United States’ efforts to expel and terrorize migrants as well as people’s efforts to stop the deportation machine. Historian Elliott Young spoke with Goodman about his new book and this long history. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Elliott Young (EY): What led you to this particular book project and how do you think it responds to the present immigration crisis?

Adam Goodman (AG): My interest in immigration started to deepen when I was living and teaching high school on the U.S.-Mexico border in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas. Seeing the ways that migration policies shaped both the region and the lives of my students and their families piqued my interest in learning more about migration history. When I got to graduate school, the historiography and the literature really captured my imagination. That was at the start of Obama’s first term, when there was a lot of attention on his immigration enforcement actions. The issues that have dominated news headlines in recent years are not unique to Trump and they didn’t start with Barack Obama, George W. Bush, or Bill Clinton either; the origins of the deportation machine date back to the late nineteenth century.

EY: One of the big arguments you make in your book is that we need to consider all forms of deportation. That term deportation is used colloquially, but as you show the immigration bureaucracy divides these up into what are “voluntary returns” and so-called self-deportations where conditions are such that people are pushed out, along with formal removals that are done through a legal process. What kinds of insights does this more holistic view of these forms of deportation provide?

AG: Having this broader understanding of deportation sheds light on expulsion’s importance throughout the twentieth century, the fashioning of state power, and how deportation—or the possibility of being deported—shapes people’s lives. It also shifts the chronology. Deportation isn’t something that just emerges after the Immigration Act of 1996, which led to a spike in formal deportations, or after 9/11. There are a tremendous number of people who have been removed through formal deportations—8 million or so throughout US history. (The vast majority during the past 25 years.) But there are 48 million people who have been deported via voluntary departure, and an uncountable number of others who have left in response to self-deportation campaigns. So, if we want to understand the history of deportation, we need to expand our time frame and look at how 85-90% of the expulsions throughout U.S. history have happened. Which, in turn, reveals that Mexicans have been even more disproportionately targeted than we thought.

EY: Given that so many scholars start by looking at formal deportations to make the argument that everything changes in the 1980s and beyond, what do you think the qualitative differences are between the informal or voluntary returns versus the formal and legal deportations?

AG: It’s important to distinguish and delineate the different types of expulsion. I argue that we shouldn’t conflate them, but should instead understand how they work in conjunction with one another, because that’s how the deportation machine functions. Formal deportations, historically, have carried more severe penalties and consequences, including bans on re-entry of five, ten or twenty years, or sometimes even lifetime bans. You also might have to spend an extended or indefinite period of time in detention. Many people recognized that’s not a very appealing option and immigration authorities used the threat of bans on re-entry and of indefinite detention to coerce people into accepting administrative removals via voluntary departure. In the book, I equate this to the role plea bargains play in the criminal justice system. If officials threaten someone with 25 years in prison, they might take a plea for four years to mitigate the risk. It’s somewhat similar as to why someone would accept voluntary departure. I recognize the important difference between types of expulsion, while also arguing that voluntary departures have been punitive in nature. They weren’t simply part of a nod-and-wink system in which immigration authorities let people come and go in a pattern of circular migration while employers were able to maintain a cheap exploitable supply of workers. The stereotype of Mexicans as “illegal aliens” has been created, in part, through repeated apprehension and deportation via voluntary departure.

EY: Why does the government turn to the tactic of voluntary removal in the early twentieth century?

AG: Immigration officials never had the resources they needed to carry out the enforcement actions that Congress charged them with implementing. At different moments officials wanted to apprehend and deport more people, but they didn’t have the resources to do so. Congress wasn’t willing to provide them, and perhaps the United States public didn’t have the stomach for such actions either. This led to voluntary departures and informal means to deport people, which depended on giving discretion to low level immigration authorities who, within the system as a whole, had very little power, but had complete or near total power over any one individual migrant. That’s largely still the same today.

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Activist and organizer José Jacques Medina speaks to a crowd of more than 200 people at the Embassy Auditorium in Los Angeles, March 1977, Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

EY: You show in the book how the well-publicized workplace raids and other kinds of raids that happened in the 1930s, 1950s, and 1970s are calculated campaigns that sowed fear and terror in immigrant communities to provoke them to “self-deport.” Do you think the workplace raids in recent years are done for the same purpose? In other words, are these principally propaganda campaigns to instill fear in immigrant communities?

AG: This administration has ratcheted up the fear campaigns and is doing everything it can to instill fear in immigrant communities. That’s happening through public proclamations by officials; it’s happening by leaking things to the press and carefully placing stories; it’s happening by relying on an extensive network of restrictionist think tanks and policy groups that promote an anti-immigrant agenda within Washington in hopes of making it more mainstream. I should point out here that in spite of such self-deportations campaigns, the majority of people have stayed. When Trump took office there were an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. Most of those people are still here. It’s important to recognize the way pervasive fear campaigns not only lead to self-deportation, but also affect and shape the lives of people who remain in the country.

EY: In one of your chapters, you describe the resistance by a group of shoe factory workers in South El Monte, right outside of Los Angeles. They refused to answer immigration agents’ questions and thereby blocked deportation efforts. This led to a lawsuit that in 1992 resulted in the recognition that immigrants are protected by certain elements of the Constitution and that immigration agents have to make immigrants aware of such rights when they’re being arrested. So, it’s a kind of success story in your book. But following that success story is a tremendous rise in the numbers of immigrants deported. I’m wondering whether legal strategies have been successful in protecting immigrants.

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Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

AG: I’m interested in how people have endured, adapted, and fought against the machine. The chapter you’re referring to looks at the 1970s, in particular, what I call the dawn of the age of mass expulsion, when we see the number of deportations rise exponentially and reach 900,000-plus people per year (which continues until the end of the century). This was a different era. Building on the Chicano/a and civil rights movements, they took to the streets. They also took their fight to the courts, and the case of the shoe factory workers is an inspiring story because of how people organized. That was one of the key takeaways: It wasn’t individuals engaging in random acts of resistance, it was the joint efforts of immigrant workers, labor organizers, activists, and lawyers that threatened to bring the deportation machine to a halt.  The deportation machine was vulnerable and it remains so today. Part of the job of undocumented immigrants and their allies is to identify how the machine works and where its points of vulnerability are, and to press on them.

EY: Is the trend we see since 2000 positive, in that we have a decreasing number of total deportations even though formal removals have increased significantly, reaching their height under President Obama? How do you interpret the last two decades of deportation history?

AG:  How many people are deported each year matters, of course, but what also matters is how people are expelled and how the consequences of being deported have changed over time. What we see is that deportation has become more punitive and separation more permanent, because of the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, the explosion in enforcement funding, and the rise in formal deportations. I’m interested in the experiences of deportees and understanding things from their perspective. Simply looking at the number of expulsions and stopping there isn’t sufficient.

EY: I want to bring you to the point where historians never want to go, which is thinking about policy. You’ve talked about how deportations have been a bipartisan policy for more than a century. And, you argue that no particular party or president is responsible for the creation of this deportation machine, something I would definitely agree with. That being said, what kinds of immigration policies would you advocate?  And do either the major political parties offer a way to turn the United States into a nation of immigrants, rather than a deportation nation as you described in your epilogue?

AG: The Trump administration has made immigration policy more partisan. Whereas Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, and Republicans and Democrats in Congress supported policies ramping up enforcement, today we see Democrats trying to stake out a different position. I’m a little skeptical about whether that will lead to real change; I’ll defer judgment. That being said, there are reforms that would solve a lot of the problems related to immigration policy. So much now is focused on national security and the needs of the nation, without reckoning with the fact that the migrants—the people these policies affect most—are very much a part of this nation. Allowing people to reunite with families, allowing people to come fill the country’s labor demands, creating more visa slots for Mexicans and doing away with the one-size-fits-all 20,000-person-per-year country quota are just some common sense proposals. Many people in the United States face real economic hardship, there’s no denying that. But scapegoating migrants is not the answer.

EY: The idea of prison abolition has been a powerful political way of conceptualizing the campaign against mass incarceration. I’m wondering if you think there should be a similar campaign to abolish immigration detention and deportation?

AG: Yes, and people are doing this work already. Groups like Organized Communities Against Deportations (OCAD) here in Chicago, the Detention Watch Network, and many others. A lot of community-based, grassroots organizations across the country are advocating bold policy reforms and their voices need to be heard; those possibilities need to be on the table. Whether or not we see such radical change in our lifetime is up in the air. But one thing history teaches us is that sometimes, when we’re least expecting it, transformative change happens, and it usually isn’t by luck—it’s through organizing and through sustained struggle.

Goodman_Deportation.Machine_Jacket_FINAL (with border)

Adam Goodman teaches in the Latin American and Latino Studies Program and in the Department of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His writing on immigration history and policy has appeared in outlets such as the Washington PostThe Nation, and the Journal of American History. Goodman is a faculty advisor to UIC’s Fearless Undocumented Alliance, a co-convener of the Newberry Library’s Borderlands and Latino/a Studies seminar, and a co-organizer of the #ImmigrationSyllabus public history project. The Deportation Machine: America’s Long History of Expelling Immigrants (Princeton University Press, 2020) is his first book.

Elliott Young is Professor in the History Department at Lewis and Clark College. Professor Young is the author of Alien Nation: Chinese Migration in the Americas from the Coolie Era through WWIICatarino Garza’s Revolution on the Texas-Mexico Border, and co-editor of Continental Crossroads: Remapping US-Mexico Borderlands History, and a forthcoming book “Forever Prisoners: How the United States Built the Largest Immigrant Detention System in the World.” He is co-founder of the Tepoztlán Institute for Transnational History of the Americas. He has also provided expert witness testimony for over 250 asylum cases.

Copyright: © 2020 Adam Goodman and Elliott Young. 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/.

 

Articles

Power Lines Around Los Angeles: Isolation, Interconnection, and Aesthetics

Daniel Wuebben

Historically, California’s overhead electric lines have been pushed to the margins of the built environment and, when possible, physically buried out of sight; now, the webs over our heads are central artifacts in the broader struggle to avoid climate catastrophe and enact climate justice.

Power lines are sites of tension. They have simultaneously proliferated electric currents across California and faded in popularity for over a century. In 1913, when Southern California Edison opened the Big Creek Power House No. 1 and sent hydroelectric power at an unprecedented potential of 150,000 volts across 241-miles to the Eagle Rock substation, the Los Angeles Times envisioned “a hand robed with lightning” stretched “across the gulf of valleys and mountains to the doors of this city.” Contemporaries may have viewed the new, soaring steel transmission towers that began in the Sierras, crossed the Tejon Pass, the Newhall Pass, and then descended into the valley as hands, “robed with lightning,” but by the second half of the twentieth century, most Angelinos associated overhead power lines with industrial blight. Wires, poles, and lattice steel towers made aesthetic intrusions on otherwise beautiful California landscapes. In recent years, another negative inflection has been laced onto the lines. Long, energized wires are potential tinder boxes. Instead of hands robed with lighting, the unpredictable arcing of energized lines swaying in the wind and warmed by climate change has unwittingly ignited dry vegetation and sent waves of fire across mountains and valleys to the doors of Los Angeles.

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Big Creek, 1913. The first power lines in the United States to use all lattice steel towers. “Stringing wires on the 243-mile long Big Creek to Los Angeles 150,00-volt transmission line,” 1913, Bishop G. Haven, Southern California Edison Archive, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California

However, California’s electric infrastructure will, for the foreseeable future, remain fire hazards and lynchpins of climate justice. Efforts to decarbonize and bring more renewable energy sources online requires wires. Indeed, along with wind turbines and solar fields, long-distance, high voltage transmission lines must be built to “”unlock a renewable energy bounty.”[1] The clean energy transition demands transmission. However, gaining public approval for new transmission projects is difficult, especially as the tightrope of electric transmission spans a physical and political landscape charred by wildfires and threatened by blackouts. What can the history of California’s transmission lines offer during this pivotal moment of energy transitions and climate activism?

One can hope that policy makers and affluent communities fighting for clean energy will not shift the burdens of transmission infrastructure into sensitive ecosystems or onto communities already poised to bear the brunt of climate change. The history of infrastructure in California dampens such hopes, but overhead lines have long evoked ambiguous responses. Select lines have been viewed as safe, controlled “lightning”; however, the majority are unruly and sprawling. Some lines have been framed as beacons of progress, others as icons of blight. The lines in our landscape may be viewed as revolutionary links of a technological wonderland or banal webs choking life from the environment.

The following considers some of the historical forces and visual associations of electric lines around Los Angeles. I am not a power lines apologist and am not certain what might incite utilities to repair the thousands of miles of existing lines or the public to accept the new transmission that might be built. Here, I frame specific lines as emblematic of the isolation, interconnection, and aesthetic conflicts in the broader power network. These lines also happen to be on the route between Santa Barbara, where I lived from 2011 to 2015, and the Huntington Library in San Marino, where I completed research for Power-lined: Electricity, Landscape, and the American Mind.

I recently returned to the area and retraced my regular route. It begins and ends with the 101 and a series of smooth, seaside curves that mirror the silky bottom turns surfers make on breaking waves beyond the rumble strips at Rincon Point. After Ventura, one may continue southeast on the 101, over the Conejo Pass and through Thousand Oaks; or, take the longer route east from Ventura and through the Santa Clara River Valley, the self-claimed “Citrus Capital of the World.” Here, I turn east, make a detour towards Ojai, and then continue towards Pasadena and San Marino. I head back on the 101 through Hollywood and then north to Santa Barbara to complete the circuit.

Isolation: Telegraph Road and the Thomas Fire

In 1853, the first telegraph line on the Pacific Coast was strung across the branches of living pine trees. The single wire spanned 23 miles between the northern mining towns of Nevada, Grass Valley, and Auburn.[2]  San Francisco was connected to Los Angeles in 1860, less than a year before the transcontinental telegraph line linked California with the East.[3] The line strengthened coast-to-coast correspondence, but, for most of the nineteenth century, California’s geographically isolated mining outfits, ranch towns, and agricultural settlements sometimes hung together by a mere telegraph thread. Despite growing inter-state communication between San Francisco and other Western cities in the 1850s, the intra-state network remained sparse. In the 1860s that telegraph finally began to spread south in California, reaching Los Angeles in 1860 and San Diego in 1870. James Schwoch’s excellent history, Wired into Nature (2018), considers these environmental pressures. He explains how gold mining and the Civil War spurred the need for telegraph lines in California while difficult terrain and snowstorms in the Sierras hindered this spread.[4] Another challenge was the fact that, even for a state teeming with timber, it was difficult to obtain relatively cheap and easy to move telegraph poles. In the 1860s, groves of Blue Gum Eucalyptus, a species imported from Australia, provided poles for telegraph lines.[5]

California’s relative lack of telegraph lines during the period of late-nineteenth-century occupation and development may be why, in 2020, it appears to have more streets, avenues, and roads with the name “telegraph” than any other state.[6] Over a century ago, a single telegraph line was a noteworthy feature in the middle landscape between wilderness and civilization. Compared to the glut of wires on the Eastern seaboard, a telegraph line in California seemed significant. The lines did not intersect multiple streets of neighboring towns or even connect every district in the cities; rather, the telegraph line was often erected alongside an existing thoroughfare, such as “Telegraph Road” in Los Angeles, which runs diagonally from Beth Israel Cemetery at Olympic Boulevard to Imperial Highway in La Mirada. Collectively, “telegraph” street names may be considered holdovers from an age when new (or at least newly named) dirt roads, stagecoach trails, train tracks, and telegraph wires made collective imprints on the California landscape.

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Telegraph Road in Fillmore, CA. Various sections of Telegraph Road connect Castaic Junction to Ventura.  Photograph by author.

Twenty minutes after I veer off the 101 and onto Route 126, I reach Santa Paula where West Telegraph Road, turns into East Telegraph Road and then continues as Old Telegraph Road. As it appears and disappears, Telegraph Road splits through orchards and nurseries, sometimes overlapping with 126 to arrive in downtown Fillmore. Here, the Fillmore and Western Railway declares itself “Home of Movie Trains” for film and television productions.[7] The telegraph and railroad arrived here in tandem in the late nineteenth century. Film and television crews from Los Angeles still use the railway’s collection of historic train cars and depot scenes to create the illusion of the past. Of course, real telegraph lines and poles are nowhere to be found, but telegraph poles and wires have been a crucial backdrop and narrative device for the Western genre.

In the first decades of the twentieth century, as Los Angeles was wired for power and the lights of the American movie industry flickered to life, director D.W. Griffith used telegraph lines—and telegraph cutting—to signal a sudden isolation of protagonists in two of his more famous short films, The Lonedale Operator (1911) and The Girl and Her Trust (1912). Wire cutting heightens the tension of a pending attack as the characters can no longer send for help. The trope was repeated in the opening scenes of Stagecoach (1939) as well as Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). In the Western, focusing on the single telegraph pole or wire, which the viewer knows can and probably will be broken, evokes the terror of isolation. Wire cutting, loss of telegraphic communication, and the fear felt by the fictional Western characters seems quaint in comparison to the sudden, widespread, and sometimes deadly loss of electric power that has accompanied some of the state’s recent wildfires.

Instead of continuing on Telegraph, I turn up 150, or North Ojai Road. This two-lane road is flanked by wooden utility poles, ranch style homes, and a blend of fan palms and eucalyptus. The valley widens. Goldenrod and chaparral pour down the hills. Soon, I arrive at my destination—Anlauf Canyon Road. On Monday, December 4, 2017, at approximately 6:14pm, the cables which stretch from the poles lining 150 towards a family ranch in Anlauf Canyon swayed and then struck one another resulting in “line slapping.” According to the Ventura Fire Department Report, “phase to phase contact on several spans of [these] power lines” caused “molten aluminum particles to fall to the ground,” which then ignited sagebrush in the dry streambed.[8]

California is crisscrossed by thousands of miles of power lines. Many intersect difficult terrain, pushed away from parks, schools, family homes and sensitive habitats.  For various reasons, electrified lines start thousands of small fires each year. Some rural lines are poorly maintained, some crowded by overgrowth, and some susceptible to being jostled out of position by the warmer, faster winds incited by climate change.[9] In recent years, vulnerable or faulty equipment have ignited California’s most catastrophic blazes.

When an iron hook holding up a 115,000-volt line owned by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) snapped on the morning of November 8, 2018, it ignited what was later named the Camp Fire, the deadliest fire in California’s history. An investigation revealed that PG&E “knew for years that hundreds of miles of high-voltage power lines could fail and spark fires, yet it repeatedly failed to perform the necessary upgrades.”[10] In October of 2019, after PG&E preemptively shut off power across the northern part of the state, a broken jumper wire started the Kincade Fire. These utility’s culpability for these faulty and exposed lines is part of ongoing lawsuits. To insulate itself, PG&E has filed for bankruptcy. Meanwhile, Southern California Edison—who owns and controls the lines running through this bucolic canyon near Ojai—is fighting its own legal battles regarding the Thomas Fire and the Montecito Mudslides.

What started with this seemingly simple line spread, scorched 282,000 acres over forty days. The fires directly caused two deaths and destroyed hundreds of structures. The tragic catastrophe and heroic effort to fight the fire has been explored, both in gripping journalism and stunning multimodal photoblogs.[11] Meanwhile, locals on the outer edges of the fire footprint are planning a memorial to the many victims and heroic first responders to the mudslides that ripped through Montecito on January 9, 2018.

Two years after the fire and mudslides, I stand on edge of 150 and look East over Steckel Park towards Anlauf Canyon. No sign or memorial will be placed here. I hear the creek gurgling below, see rich and verdant shrubs, and watch the waxy leaves of the Cottonwoods flickering like an organic strobe. This quiet canyon seems like the scene for a Western, a garden seemingly detached from the sprawling metropolis to the south or the devastation wrought in the rich hamlet to the northeast. I know the isolation is illusory. The sensation of being “cut off” from the beautiful vistas of the 101 and the bustle of Los Angeles can be almost instantly collapsed by a loose cable, especially in this age of dryer winters and warmer winds. Decades of damage has exposed our networks to nature’s wrath.

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Charred tree on Highway 150, or North Ojai road.  Photograph by author.

From the shoulder, I photograph some of the visible remnants of the fire, including charred poles, some of which are spray painted with an X. It’s unclear if they have simply not yet been replaced or will continue to be ignored. A series of scorched tree stumps line the opposite side of the road and above, I can see the cables with a hint of green, clearly shiny and new. I imagine most of the drivers that zip past me on 150 do not differentiate between the replacement poles and wires and the original, broken infrastructure. When the fires are controlled and the power returns, how do we notice the lines that ignited it? Why should the technological source of our tragedy be replaced? Why not let them hang there like obsolete telegraph poles alongside train tracks? For me, the electric lines, visible and disappeared, are salient. Maybe the locals see them too. Maybe the experience of the Thomas Fire has led them to see overhead wires as threats, as reminders of how easily the landscape around them could ignite and leave each tiny ranch or small town an island isolated by a sea of flames.

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These wooden poles, insulators, and cables that run towards the Anlauf Canyon site where, December 4, 2017, power lines swaying in high winds cause sparks to fly and ignited the Thomas Fires. Photograph by author.

Intensification at Newhall Pass

Twenty-five miles east of the Fillmore, California Highway 126 reaches Castaic Junction and U.S. Interstate 5. This north-south interstate parallels the Pacific coast from the Mexico-U.S. border at San Diego to the Canadian border in Washington State. In the rocky landscape around Castaic, the 8-lane artery of I-5 is crossed by distinct packs of overhead cables and flanked by soaring transmission towers. To the north, I-5 rises through the Tejon Pass and continues into the Central Valley. In the span of sixty miles, the interstate is crossed by six major sets of 345 kv lines and three sets of 500 kv lines. The 500 kv lines are part of the Path 26 electric power transmission corridor, which runs from the Vincent Substation in Palmdale towards Midway station near Bakersfield. Midway, an industrial plot surrounded by vineyards and almond orchards, connects Path 26 to Path 15. Midway station is a node in the Pacific Intertie, a gigantic infrastructure that, like Interstate 5, stretches thousands of miles across the entire backbone of the continent. Few Californians likely know anything about the Pacific Intertie, but everyone, it seems, has had an experience with the I-5. One can physically engage the I-5, drive from Mexico to Canada on a border-to-border cannonball run in just about 21 hours or, be stuck in rush hour traffic for what feels like days. Meanwhile, no person travels the Pacific Intertie; instead, electrons move border to border in a matter of seconds.

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“Men changing insulators on tower in Kern River Canyon,” 1916, Photographed by Haven G. Bishop, Southern California Edison Photographs and Negatives, Huntington Digital Library, San Marino California

I turn on I-5 south towards Los Angeles. Transmission towers dissect the hills dotted with oak and chaparral. Near the exit for Magic Mountain Parkway, three side-by-side sets of lattice steel towers and two of the “portal” designs carry a cluster of twenty-seven dense cables overhead. Lines and poles repeatedly flicker into view between the palm trees and strip malls that flank the interstate. Two miles behind the Wal-Mart at exit 168 are the remains of the Pico Canyon Oil Field, site of the first commercially drilled oil wells in California and longest operating well in the world, having been tapped in 1876 and capped 114 years later, in 1990. Nearby marks one of California’s first oil refineries and pipelines.[12]

To appreciate the approach to my final destination, I turn east, cut through Santa Clarita, and park at the end of Newhall Avenue near Whitney Canyon Park. The pamphlet for this 442-acre open space boasts “outstanding examples of coastal sage scrub, oak woodland, chaparral and riparian corridor vegetation, with year-round springs and at least ten sensitive species.”[13] While the ecosystem deserves praise, the parks’ hills are visually dominated by lattice steel towers and swooping cables. I ascend the path and stand next to one of these massive specimens. A hawk circles, too close to the lines, I think, and then glides towards the summit.

In fact, wildlife—not wildfires—used to be the cause of California’s power outages. In a fascinating article on the confluence of electrical engineering and ornithology, Etienne Benson tells the story of how, in the 1920s, Southern California Edison employees traced the sudden short circuiting of certain power lines in this area to the streams of feces that hawks released as they launched from their perch on lattice steel towers. The engineers used pans, poles, and shields to break the conductive “streamers” of bird excrement before they draped across the energized lines and caused a flashover.[14]

NewHall-Pass_Line_Arc_Farmer_Comments

Note on the negative reads: “There is no evidence of any burning. Farmer has never seen or heard of any arc.” This may have been part of an investigation regarding an outage. In the 1920s, when the line was upgraded to 220kv, a series of unexplained flashovers were eventually linked to bird feces which splayed across lines, causing them to arc and often incinerating any evidence of the effluent. February 23, 1915. Southern California Edison Archive, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

The hawk above me does not release—or at least onto me. It continues in an ungeometric gyre. I listen to corona discharge dissipate in the breeze. I remember that the electrons charging these lines were likely generated by falling water in the Sierras and arrived only to dissipate here, in this lush corridor between the Santa Susana and San Gabriel ranges.

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Whitney Canyon Variety, Photograph by author

If there were such a thing as a park dedicated to the viewing of power lines around Los Angeles, this could be it. The dirt trails curve up and around small canyons and copses to different perspectives on unique tower designs, some L-5s 500 kv, others with more slender frames, fewer arms, lower voltages. The few mountain bikers, hikers, and families I pass do not seem to mind the towers, but I wonder what other purposes, beyond their function, these forms might serve? I am reminded of Leah Glaser’s claim:  transmission towers can be “valuable cultural resources with a crucial story about the impact of long-distance power.”[15] Unsurprisingly, the pamphlet does not tell that story.

The story of these towers would, in my mind, be the story of the “white coal” captured in the Sierras and extended to Los Angeles. Here, in 1906, the world’s first lattice steel transmission towers were used to transmit high voltage power. 1,140 lattice steel towers ranging from 30 to 60 feet tall carried what was at that time a record line with 75,000-volt potential from Kern River No. 1 across 118 miles to Los Angeles. As transmission voltages increased, taller and wider steel structures would replace wooden poles and H-frame structures across the United States and the rest of the world. In fact, California engineers initiated many global advances in power technology during the first decades of the twentieth century. As James C. Williams explains in Energy and the Making of Modern California: “By 1914, their success resulted in California having more long-distance, high tension transmission system that any other region in the world.”[16] Of course, the power systems stretched across the great expanse of the Sierra range, but the bulk of them funneled into San Francisco and Los Angeles. With its natural barriers to the north, lines coming into Los Angeles narrowed into bottlenecks. Nowhere is this more evident than at Newhall Pass.

Newhall Pass was the final gateway on the long journey from the eastern United States to Los Angeles. In 1854, Phineas Banning cut down an existing trail through these mountains by 30 feet to allow wagons the ability to more safely descend. In 1862, Edward Beale acquired a toll road franchise and made another 60-feet gash that was known as “Beale’s Cut.” The Newhall railroad tunnel went beneath the pass in 1876. The new tunnel provided Southern Pacific a direct line to Los Angeles and, with the ensuing and nearby oil boom, Newhall Pass became an inflection point for Los Angeles’s movements of oil, freight, water, and power.


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Los Angeles Aqueduct Cascades, 1913, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

I return to my car, drive through the corridor, and in seconds I am on the other side of the ridge. The geography is similar, but it feels like a different world. Here, packed into just over one square mile on the northern edge of Los Angeles county are the remnants or active features of the Ridge Route, the Sierra Highway, Interstate 5, the Antelope Valley Freeway and dozens of off ramps, flyovers, and interchanges. These concrete bands overlay two railroad tunnels and pass beside the first and second iteration of the Los Angeles Aqueduct Cascades. When this notable conduit first opened in 1913, 40,000 people gathered to hear William Mulholland dedicate the engineering feat and to release the flow of water with the famous words, “There it is. Take it!”

Flanking these overlapping tunnels, roads, pipes and chutes are sweeping packs of power lines. I follow the lines as they sweep over a hundred or so brand-new condos which have cardboard and plastic packaging hanging from their flawless garages. Besides one of these sparkling new homes, I notice a half acre burnt patch of recently planted sod grass. Here too, nature has reclaimed parts of the plastic buffer. I exit my rental car, climb up beneath a lattice steel transmission tower, and watch the hypnotic gush of the cascade.

From this vantage point near Newhall Pass, one might behold the latest iteration of what Christopher F. Jones calls “landscapes of intensification” which he defines as “material transformations of the natural environment that unlocked a world of ever-increasing energy flows delivered at ever-decreasing prices.”[17] The transport of energy across this intensified landscape includes transmission lines, which transport electrons. A further level of intensification occurs where these lines intersect other infrastructures.

If Whitney Park is a place from which to view power lines that rise and reach across mountains, Newhall Pass and Sylmar—with its substations, pipelines, aqueducts, warehouses, trucking yards, new homes, and array of industrial glut—may be the site to view the consolidation of material and financial power as its siphoned to and from Los Angeles.

The Portals

After revisiting materials in the Huntington Library stacks, I race through Pasadena towards Hollywood hoping to get beyond the 405-101 interchange before the yellow lines on my map app turn to the thick red of traffic. Like the crowds of isolated drivers around me, I pass countless lines, insulators, poles, and towers. Most are easily ignored and difficult to remember. In fact, in the 1970s, artist R. Crumb created a photo album filled with pictures of California’s street lights, poles, and other overhead infrastructure because, as he explained, “People don’t draw it, all this crap, people don’t focus attention on it because it’s ugly, it’s bleak, it’s depressing…The stuff is not created to be visually pleasing and you can’t remember exactly what it looks like. But, this is the world we live in; I wanted my work to reflect that, the background reality of urban life.”[18]

Amidst the “background reality” of Los Angeles, one series of transmission lines and distribution poles are not as bleak and they do stand out—the Dreyfuss designs.[19] In the late 1960s, in response to consumer outcries against the negative visual impact of power lines, Edison Electric Institute and Southern California Edison pioneered an industry-wide effort to improve the aesthetics of tower designs, to sway public opinions, and to avoid the astronomical costs of undergrounding. They commissioned Henry Dreyfuss, the “father of industrial design” to create a series of aesthetic models to merge the function of high voltage transmission with sleek, modernistic forms. The results initially took the form of a book, Electric Transmission Structures and a short film, Towers of Tomorrow. Both book and film showcase Dreyfuss’s 26 designs for poles and towers. In his introduction, Dreyfuss dreams: “When transmission towers are given the same purity of expression given great bridges, they, too, may be acclaimed as a Twentieth Century art form.” Dreyfuss also narrates Towers of Tomorrow, which features photographs of models against the backdrop of various projected landscapes. Dreyfuss guides viewers with comments related to the innovative features of the new towers such as, “The curve elements are important as they contribute strength as well as well as visual grace.”[20] Overall, the models show Dreyfuss’s preference for “robustness and seamlessness” and structures which would be “sturdy and unified-looking in contrast to their spindly predecessors.”[21]

Dreyfuss and Southern California Edison tried to convince the public that these “esthetic” towers made positive impacts on the visual landscape, but the campaign was not entirely successful.  One recent review notes, “[Dreyfuss’s] work was to be the first and the last cooperative attempt by industry to create new aesthetic structure designs.”[22]

While not exactly new, three distinct types of Dreyfuss power lines remain visible in Los Angeles. The “Starburst” for 69 kv poles features six cantilevered insulators spread out like a starfish. Their most famous placement is along Hollywood Boulevard. The “Sunburst” is a more remarkable design and is used for higher-voltage transmission. The “Sunburst” is a sleeker, more streamlined version of the typical lattice steel transmission tower. Two prototypes were erected near El Segundo in 1967 and thirteen more were put into place the following year. These remain the most exemplary of all Dreyfuss’s transmission line designs, although the dull brown variation is more common.

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“Sunburst” 66kV double-circuit pole design, Photographed by Art Adams, Southern California Edison Photographs and Negatives, Huntington Digital Library

Today, I visit the third of the Dreyfuss designs that remain in the area; the “portal.” In 1972, Southern California Edison described the portals as having “bold, simple silhouette” which is “very impressive at close-up viewing as well as at a distance. Its vee-string insulators are always orderly, even under minor side loads.”[23] One such example is visible above the Conejo Pass.

The Conejo Pass provides a fitting exit for my discussion of Los Angeles’s wired landscapes. Southbound on the iconic Highway 101 from Ventura, trucks lug up the right lanes of the 7% grade while more nimble vehicles whip by on the left. Older cars, I know from experience, are prone to overheat during this steady, 3-mile ascent. Northbound from Los Angeles, semi-truck drivers must have their brakes inspected before descending. Next to the brake checkpoint, just beyond the peak of this steep pass, two formidable pairs of brown concrete pylons are stamped into a rock outcropping like indestructible carpet staples. Twelve cables span the 1400-foot gap carrying 220 kV over the banking traffic. To the east, the lines extend towards to the Los Angeles suburb of Moorpark. To the southwest, they are crossed under by Edison Road, a dirt path that snakes beneath the lines and allows crews to access these pylons and the subsequent lattice steel towers. The portals help to transmit electricity through the mountains and then slope towards the Ormond Beach natural gas power plant on the edge of the Pacific. With its 1,516 megawatt capacity, Ormond Beach is the third largest power plant in California. Due to its age, and newer energy regulations regarding the use of ocean water, Ormand Beach was supposed to shut down in 2020. However, because of concerns about grid reliability, it may remain open for one to three more years.

I leave the car at a dead end in Newbury Park and take the trail I found online and which was posted by rock climbers who come here to scale the Conejo boulders.[24] After a short hike, I’m standing next to the portals, looking down at the 101.

These structures do more than provide physical support for invisible currents. In addition to their aesthetic posture, the specific context for these portals is also fitting, as they strike at the etymological roots of “pylon.” The word “pylon” comes from the Greek word for “gate,” and French archeologists originally used pylon to describe the monumental, side-by-side gateways placed near Egyptian pyramids and temples. For millennia, massive pylons have flanked and decorated prominent entrances, pathways, bridges, and ports. Presently, “pylon” also connotes smaller markers (e.g. “traffic pylon” and “end zone pylon”), tall poles used by airplanes or ships for navigational guidance, and, especially in the United Kingdom, electric transmission towers.

The pylons above Conejo Pass transmit electricity and mediate a visible exchange with landscape. They are portals. They are thresholds. They are visible tokens of the millions of miles of electric lines that, over the course of a century, helped transform this relatively rustic, arid, inhospitable area into one of the most powerful, diverse, and iconic regions on the planet.

Power lines are sites of tension, physically and culturally. While my interest in the history of technology attracts me to different lines like these, these portals have also come to signal my own entrances and exits, flights and perchings in the state of California. I wonder if others might feel the same. Just before I returned to make this tour, the LA Times published an opinion piece urging the California Public Utilities commission, PG&E, and SCE to come up with a plan for the “immediate inspection of all the power lines in the state, starting with those in the high-fire risk areas.”[25]

This has been more like a strange tour compared to the inspections required to keep residents safe during the next fire season. In addition, convincing the public to accept the transmission lines (and corresponding costs) or new transmission will be difficult. For now, viewing unique single slivers in the vast and complex power systems reminds me of the interplays between California’s history and future of electric power, engineering and environmentalism.

Notes

[1] Jeff St. John, “7 Transmission Projects That Could Unlock A Renewable Energy Bounty,” GreenTechMedia, 9 April 2020, https://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/9-transmission-projects-laying-the-paths-for-cross-country-clean-energy

[2] James D. Reid, The Telegraph in America:Its Founders, Promoters, and Noted Men (New York: Derby Brothers, 1879), 498.

[3] Alice Bates, “History of the Telegraph in California,” The Historical Society of Southern California Vol. 9.3 (1914), 181-187.

[4] James Schwoch, Wired Into Nature: The Telegraph and the North American Frontier (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2018).

[5] James C. Williams, Energy and the Making of Modern California (Akron, University of Akron Press, 1997), 42.

[6] Some of the most well-known “Telegraph” streets in California are “Telegraph Road” which crosses greater Los Angeles from La Mirada to East Los Angeles and “Telegraph Avenue” which passes from downtown Oakland to the campus of University of California Berkeley. Lesser-frequented telegraph paths are the “Telegraph Road” in a remote stretch of mountains in Midpines, “Telegraph Hill” in El Dorado Hill, “Telegraph Blvd” in Marina, “Telegraph Ave” in Folsom, “Telegraph Place” in San Francisco, and “Telegraph Drive” in San Jose. There are also Telegraph Canyon, Telegraph Peak, Telegraph Hill, Telegraph Ridge, and Telegraph City, named for its location on the line 33 miles east of Stockton and 30 miles west of Sonora.

[7] Richard Verrier, “In Hollywood, All Trains Lead to Fillmore,” LA Times, 20 July 2010 http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/entertainmentnewsbuzz/2010/07/in-hollywood-all-trains-lead-to-fillmore.html

[8] Joseph Serna, “Southern California Edison Power Lines Sparked Deadly Thomas Fire, Investigators Find,” LA Times, 13 March 2019. Ventura County Fire Department Report,  https://vcfd.org/images/news/Thomas-Fire-Investigation-Report_Redacted_3-14-19.pdf

[9] Alejandro Borunda, “Climate Change is Contributing to California’s WildFires” 25 Oct 2019, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2019/10/climate-change-california-power-outage/

[10] Katherine Blunt and Russell Gold, “PG&E Knew for Years Its Lines Could Spark Wildfires, and Didn’t Fix Them” Wall Street Journal 10 July 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/pg-e-knew-for-years-its-lines-could-spark-wildfires-and-didnt-fix-them-11562768885

[11] American Wildfire Experience, “Thomas Fire,” Accessed at https://www.mysteryranch.com/thomas-fire

[12] Stan Walker, “Brief History of Oil Development in Pico Canyon,” http://www.elsmerecanyon.com/picocanyon/history/history.htm

[13] Mountain Recreation and Conservation Authority. “Whitney Canyon Park.” CA.gov, https://mrca.ca.gov/parks/park-listing/whitney-canyon/

[14] Etienne Benson. “Generating Infrastructural Invisibility: Insulation, Interconnection, and Avian Excrement in the Southern California Power Grid.” Environmental Humanities Vol. 6.1 (2015), 103-130.

[15] Leah Glaser, “Nice Towers, eh? Evaluation a Transmission Line in Arizona,” Cultural Resource Management, U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Vol. 20.14 (1997), 23-24.

[16] James C. Williams, Energy and the Making of Modern California, 187.

[17] Christopher F. Jones, “Landscapes of Intensification: Transport and Energy in the U.S. Mid-Atlantic, 1820–1930” The Journal of Transport History, Vol. 35, No. 2 (Dec 2014).

[18] Reznik, Eugene. “R. Crumb’s Snapshots: Source Material of the Legendary Comic Artist.” TIME, 30 Sept 2013. http://time.com/3802766/r-crumbs-snapshots-source-material-of-the-legendary-comic-artist/

[19] Levy, Eugene. “The Aesthetics of Power: High-Voltage Transmission Systems and the American Landscape.” Technology and Culture Vol. 38 No. 3 (July 1997), 575-607.

[20] Towers of Tomorrow. 15 min. New York: Jack Brady Productions, 1968.

[21]  Russell Flinchum, Henry Dreyfuss, Industrial Designer: The Man in the Brown Suit (New York: Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and Rizzoli, 1997), 174.

[22] Tikalsky, Susan M. and C.J. Willyward. “Aesthetics and Public Perceptions of Transmission Structures: A Brief History of the Research.” Right of Way (Electric Power Research Institute, March-April 2007), 28-32.

[23] Southern California Edison, “Design Guide: Aesthetic Guidelines for Electric Transmission Lines,” Southern California Edison, Rosemead, CA, 1972.

[24] “Conejo Boulders Climbing,” MountainProject.com, https://www.mountainproject.com/area/105850674/conejo-mountain

[25] “Power Lines Are Still Starting California Wildfires” LA Times, Opinion, 29 Nov. 2019, https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2019-11-29/fix-california-wildfires-utlities-and-fire-starting-power-lines

Daniel Wuebben Ph.D. is the author of Power-Lined: Electricity, Landscape, and the American Mind (University of Nebraska Press, 2019). His research on floral codes, viral literacy, and surfing has been published in academic journals such as Victorian Literature and CultureComputers and Composition, and Symplokē. He lives in Segovia, Spain, and in July 2020 he will begin a two-year Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship with the Ciberimaginario Group at the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos. His project on “grid literacy” engages electric rhetoric and transmission’s role in the energy transition.

Copyright: © 2020 Daniel Wuebben. 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/.