Gerald W. Haslam
Growing up in an oilfield community at the southern end of the Great Central Valley, I for many years believed California ended where the Tehachapi Mountains met the Temblor Range. Southern California seemed to be a continent away. Then my parents transferred me to a Catholic middle/high school in Bakersfield, and I encountered many Latino students, some of whom spoke of a mysterious place—perhaps part of California, perhaps not—called simply “Baja” or sometimes “la frontera.”
Few, I recall, claimed to have visited there. Rather it existed for us as a dangerous (but tempting) idea, a no-holds-barred locale that produced “Tijuana bibles” and tire-tread huaraches, and that housed a fabled red-light district. In our imaginations, that frontera was a remnant of the wild west, the sin capital of the west.
The actual place, as Verónica Castillo-Muñoz reveals in The Other California: Land, Identity, and Politics on the Mexican Borderlands, was culturally and economically far more complex than we had imagined. It slipped in and out of the grasp of Yankee capitalists (principally in the guise of the Colorado River Land Company and the International Mexican Company) in the late nineteenth century. Those companies “transformed Baja California from a Mexican backwater territory to one of the most prosperous cotton-producing centers along the U.S.-Mexico border.”
Castillo-Muñoz presents a detailed outline of how Baja California, a region of northern Mexico, was for a time an economic pawn to Mexican politicians, was a Pacific entry for Chinese and Japanese immigrants to the Americas, and was treated as an outlier (it didn’t gain statehood in Mexico until 1952). It was slowly built by hard-working people who came to largely ignore static gender roles and varying racial barriers, thus enriching the cultural landscape of western Mexico. The book traces no utopian society, but rather reveals “how ethnicity and racially diverse communities of laborers changed the social landscape of Baja California,” and does a good job of that.
Social stability and economic viability were by no means quickly achieved. The society detailed by Castillo-Muñoz’s book churned and boiled. Part of that was due to the self-serving influence of absentee owners, especially Yankees. But locals were capable of shooting themselves in the foot, too. For instance,
Chinese and Japanese earned an average of 40 centavos per day, while mestizo and indigenous workers earned average of 1.25 pesos. It was only a matter of time before Chinese and Japanese workers discovered the wage disparity, and they held strikes against the company [Compagnie du Boleo] several times.
Despite discrimination, “By 1920 the Baja California peninsula stood out as one of the most diverse communities in northern Mexico, with a growing population that spoke nineteen languages.”
Although women in Mexico did not get the vote nationally until 1953, their activism played a steady role in the social and economic development of Baja. “Ejido [communal land grant] distribution shaped gender relations and campesino [farm worker] identity in the Mexicali Valley where women saw their role on the ejido equally important to that of men.” World War II solidified that.
In 1942, Mexico entered the war on the side of the Allies. That little-discussed fact (in the USA, at least) led to the Bracero contract that sent male Mexican workers between the ages of seventeen and forty to “fill jobs in the farming and railroad sectors caused by the US labor shortage.” That, in turn, opened jobs in Mexico for women, “Thus both ejido farmers and private farmers in the Mexicali Valley came to rely on women’s labor for the cultivation and picking of cotton.” In 1944, President Manuel Avila Camacho smoothed the path toward gender equality when he “endorsed a campaign for women to join the workforce in northern Mexico to offset the shortage of labor caused by the Bracero Program.”
Castillo-Muñoz’s slim book (113 page text) is literally packed with such information, and is supplemented by 30 pages of valuable notes, a detailed bibliography and an index. For better or worse, the author shows, Baja California reflects many of the same issues that have plagued us here in Alta California—think of water, for instance, or racial tensions or gender discrimination. The Other California’s academic tone might be off-putting to some, but the text is so rich in information that this reader hardly noticed. It is an excellent intro to California’s southern namesake.
Gerald W. Haslam, an Oildale native, is professor emeritus at Sonoma State University, and the author of, among other books, The Other California: The Great Central Valley in Life and Letters (University of Nevada Press, 1994).
Copyright: © 2017 Gerald W. Haslam. 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/