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Navigating Anti-Black Racism in the Concert Hall: Timpanist Elayne Jones and the Challenge of Inclusion

Grace Wang

In a hand-written letter addressed to the personnel manager of San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in January 1972, Elayne Jones expressed interest in auditioning for the orchestra’s upcoming timpani opening. She was confident in her talent and ability, noting how her sterling musical reputation had established her as “first call for just about every freelance job which requires tympani.”[1] “This fact,” as she wrote, “is considered quite remarkable given that I am neither a male or white” in a field overwhelmingly dominated by both. Indeed, as an African American woman navigating a field of culture perceived and elevated through segregationist practices as “white man’s music,” she defied assumptions about who should play Western classical music; moreover, she played timpani, an orchestral percussion instrument typically understood in her profession as “male.” Jones was accustomed to performing under extraordinary scrutiny and skepticism — to being the only and often the first in the orchestral spaces she entered. Still, she had no interest in pursuing an audition in vain. And thus, she inquired: “Would there be any point to my coming out to audition? … I’m aware this is not the type of question to ask point blank, but at the same time it isn’t fair to travel so far and prepare for this with hopeful expectations if there is really no chance.”

In posing this question, Jones alluded to the history of racism that left nearly “no chance” for African American musicians to secure professional symphony orchestra positions, regardless of their training and ability. Orchestra auditions had long been inequitable, governed by the whims and outsized influence of autocratic conductors, favored principal players, and management, which failed to advertise openings publicly. While such practices could feel opaque and undemocratic to all musicians, for Jones, they emblematized the institutional racism of a musical culture that actively excluded her. She, alongside other African American musicians, had spent years advocating for fairer audition procedures. They organized, among other things, for “blind” auditions — auditions held behind a screen so the player’s identity would remain obscured.[2] Given the long history of segregation and racism both in and beyond the orchestral field, many Black musicians believed that only an anonymous audition process would allow for an impartial assessment of musical ability. By 1972, some orchestras, including SFS, had begun conducting preliminary rounds behind a screen. Recounting how she eventually won the position with SFS, Jones credits the screen for her success: “I wouldn’t have gotten the job if the screen wasn’t in play. I’m the recipient [laughing] of a thing that I worked on.”[3]

There is a burgeoning movement in Western classical music to upend traditional hierarchies and to reimagine this traditionally exclusive cultural field. These efforts have intensified in the post-George-Floyd era, as the classical music field grapples with its own complicity in anti-Black racism and white supremacy.[4] Jones, a 93-year-old classical musician, socialist, and self-proclaimed “stealth bomber” is a key figure whose life work of linking musical advocacy with social justice prefigures this current moment. In what follows, I ask what her struggles in San Francisco allow us to understand about the systemic racism embedded in the classical music field. Jones often despairs at the unchanged landscape of orchestras, lamenting that “to this day, you still have maybe one percent of Black musicians in all of the orchestras in the world.”[5] The barriers she faced in her career help us understand how this situation persists while also inserting into the historical record the efforts of working musicians like herself “who were willing to flare up and be an issue.”

Jones at the timpani in her home at Rossmoor, 2019. Photo by author.

I first met Jones years ago after attending a friend’s violin recital at Rossmoor, an active senior community located in the upscale suburban community of Walnut Creek in Northern California. An anomaly in the homogeneous whiteness of Rossmoor, I had already noticed Jones in the audience when she approached me after the concert, curious about my own presence. Gregarious and highly social, Jones quickly launched into a series of questions: “Had I heard of the San Francisco Symphony? Juilliard? Tanglewood?” As I later came to realize, Jones often introduces herself this way, highlighting these elite music institutions as a way to invite discussions into her past. Having researched the politics of race in classical music for Asian/Asian American musicians, I was intrigued by the fragments of her life she shared. I began visiting her for long conversations over meals. I knew Jones was engaged in a decades-long project of writing a memoir. This process led her to be introspective about her life and its meaning. But as her health began faltering, I began recording more formal oral interviews. Here, I focus on Jones’s musical experiences in San Francisco, a city that looms large in her own life narrative. When she arrived in San Francisco, the local press heralded her position with the orchestra as evidence of the city’s progressiveness. But Jones soon encountered significant backlash, including a well-publicized tenure denial. Drawing on her self-published memoir and extensive oral interviews, I highlight both the radical imagination that guides her life and the accumulated costs of pursuing artistic excellence in the face of persistent racial and gender exclusions.

Jones at the timpani, 1972. Photo by Don Jones, Courtesy of San Francisco Symphony Archives.

San Francisco and the Battle for Tenure

A Harlem native, Jones planned to stay in New York for her entire career, viewing the city as the epicenter for both her racial advocacy and musical ambitions. But San Francisco sparkled with its reputation as a progressive cultural and activist oasis. She had never visited the “fabled city on the Bay” before auditioning for SFS but quickly fell in love, enraptured by the scent of eucalyptus leaves in Golden Gate Park, the ease of mild winters, and the colorful architecture that seemed to exude optimism and promise. She believed San Francisco represented a place less entrenched in racism. She left New York fully expecting to remain with SFS until her retirement.

Given the paucity of non-white musicians in any major symphony during the 1970s, Jones’s presence at SFS served as validation of the city’s progressiveness and difference. The symphony’s young Japanese conductor, Seiji Ozawa, already burnished this image. A coveted star on the rise when SFS hired him in 1970, Ozawa embodied a sense of newness and excitement. As Larry Rothe recounts in his history of the orchestra, music critics hailed Ozawa as the “Now Generation Conductor,” captivated by his youth, the novelty of his ethnicity, and his generally “hip” style: turtlenecks, Nehru jackets, long shaggy mane, medallions, and love beads. Jones fit seamlessly into this marketing of San Francisco and its symphony orchestra as a “break with the past” and part of the “now.”[6] Together, Jones and Ozawa heralded a new era; they projected a forward looking vision of classical music.

San Francisco Symphony Music Director Seiji Ozawa and members of the orchestra outside airplane on 1973 European/USSR Tour. Photograph by J.C. Watts and Partners Commercial Photographers, Courtesy of San Francisco Symphony Archives.

Jones’s orchestral debut in San Francisco began auspiciously with a glowing review in the San Francisco Chronicle, where the music critic Heuwell Tircuit proclaimed: “Major event — one not listed on the program — was the local debut performance of the Symphony’s new timpanist, Elayne Jones. Sensational! Absolutely sensational … Clean articulation, fine intonation, and technical savvy — a particularly fine roll, smooth as butter — rich tonal sensibility, and what was really mind blowing, she phrases.”[7] Jones included an excerpt of the review in the “Peace Day” holiday greeting sent to family and friends that year.

When I came across this holiday greeting nestled amongst the abundance of documents and ephemera accumulated in her home over the decades, it struck me in its promise and anticipation of a rosy future. Today, it remains a lingering snapshot of what could have been. Looking at it, I am reminded of William Cheng’s writing on loving music, how that love can be weaponized to dehumanize others, and the resulting “pain of unrequited love.”[8] Jones loved playing in a symphony orchestra. She reveled in the sounds of instruments coming together and creating palettes of such wondrous beauty. She maintained this love, even when its doors remained closed to her. Finally, Jones believed that her dedication to craft and musical excellence would be recognized and returned if not by love, than with tenure and membership in one of the nation’s most celebrated orchestras.

1972 “Peace Day” holiday greeting. Courtesy of Jones.

As is standard, Jones joined SFS on a two-year probationary period, after which she would be eligible for tenure. She knew that as an African American woman, the standard of excellence placed on her would exceed that of her white, male peers. She committed herself fully to the position. At the same time, she refused the additional labor of performing gratitude and subservience to her colleagues. If Jones’s family holiday greeting reflects exuberance and excitement for her family’s beautiful new adventure, the card she gave to her fellow SFS players centered her blackness. This interrupted the supposed racelessness of the orchestral space. As she recalls, her colleagues perceived the card to be political and intrusive: 

“When I got into the San Francisco Symphony that first year, people were giving out cards and everything. And I looked at all these cards and all these white angels and I thought, ‘White angels? Some angels must be Black.’ And that was when I discovered Marcus bookstore in San Francisco.[9]… Anyhow, so I got these cards with all these white angels. And I thought, ‘Why should I give my kids any cards with white angels? Well, if my kids can have white angels, their kids can have Black angels.’ So I went to Marcus and they had some Black Madonnas and I made some cards and I gave ‘em out. Well, you know, they protested that I’m imposing my beliefs on them. ‘Well, you’re imposing yours on me. Why do my children have to see white angels and your kids can’t see Black angels?’ Well, that may have been the downfall of myself – why I didn’t do too well with the orchestra. I should have just gone in and kept my mouth shut and not rocked the boat or made waves. And I guess this is why they had to get rid of me.”

“They had to get rid of me” — the tenure committee, SFS, the classical music establishment, and the white status quo most broadly. Decades later, Jones still chokes up discussing her tenure case, a trauma that loops in her mind, litigated repetitively to the same result.

In 1974, SFS evaluated eight players for tenure. Only the two non-white players, Jones and Japanese bassoonist Ryohei Nakagawa, received negative votes from the Player’s committee (the 7-person committee that votes on tenure). For Jones, losing her battle for tenure at SFS marked the symbolic end to her music career, extinguishing years of striving and ambition. Her years with San Francisco Opera Orchestra, where she earned tenure and worked for over 25 years, barely merits any mention in her memoir. This should not suggest that Jones does not have fond memories of her years with San Francisco Opera. By all accounts, she held some epic parties and made lifelong friends. But pit orchestras, tucked in the shadows under the stage (with the percussion section far back in its recesses) do not provide a visible platform. The singers on stage occupy the spotlight, while the orchestral musicians remain largely unseen, behind a perpetual screen of sorts. This may speak to why Jones found the most steady work in pit orchestras, where the concealment of her body allowed for some greater measure of inclusion. Prior to SF Opera, she played with New York City Opera for 12 years, where she was the first African American and female musician hired by that orchestra. As a musician quoted in a 1976 Los Angeles Times article about the absence of African Americans in symphony orchestras suggested, talented Black musicians, knowing how unwelcome they are in symphony orchestras, gravitate elsewhere, including “pit orchestras where our color won’t disturb sensitive souls who can’t believe that Afro-Americans can understand the great music of Western civilization.”[10]

What does inclusion look, feel, and sound like when the erasure of one’s body is part of the precondition for considering one’s admittance? In its most literal form, screened auditions distill music making to its aural element, redacting the body to create a blank slate for listening. Racial fantasies, projections, and stereotypes have long filled the gap between a musician’s body and their performance, a process that can unwittingly serve as self-fulfilling prophecies of racialized beliefs.[11] The screen interrupts these imaginations, anonymizing the body through a large black apparatus. But the screen is a mechanism designed to engender impartiality. It functions in the service of meritocracy rather than a commitment to diversity or racial justice.[12] And meritocracy’s relentless focus on individual effort and ability does little to address the systemic racism, discrimination, and history of segregation that sustain inequities in the orchestral field.

Popular media often extols the use of screens in orchestra auditions, pointing to the near 50% increase in the representation of women since its implementation and encouraging other industries to use similar anonymizing strategies to tackle implicit bias in hiring.[13] What is clear, however, is that the use of screens has done little to increase the representation of African American musicians in U.S. symphony orchestras. And in Jones’s case, the screen did little to change the conditions that precipitated its existence in the first place. As a Black woman occupying a principal position in SFS, an orchestra with no other African Americans and only 22 women (out of approximately 100 players) when she joined in 1972, Jones was, as she puts it: “treading on the toes of the white male, and that was really a bit too much for most of these people to deal with.”[14] 

Jones’s negative tenure vote and lawsuit made national news, spurred local protests, a letter writing campaign, and threats to withhold the symphony’s funding. She filed a lawsuit charging racial and sexual discrimination, which she dropped after receiving an additional provisional year and vote on tenure.[15] But when the second tenure vote came back negative, Jones filed another lawsuit. In 1977, her tenure battle ended when the courts dismissed the case.

The details of Jones’s tenure case involve skirmishes of power between multiple parties — unions, orchestral players, management, and Ozawa. Rather than relitigate the specific merits of the case, I focus, instead, on what the case reveals about the institutional history and culture of symphony orchestras. Part of the difficulty Jones encountered proving racism stemmed from long standing beliefs separating politics from the distilled performance of “the music itself” and understandings of the whiteness of symphony orchestras as incidental rather than instrumental to the assessment of musical excellence.

Jones spent decades repeatedly proving her ability and musical worth. When she learned of the shockingly low scores she received for her tenure, they felt like a personal assault to diminish and demean. For her first tenure vote, she received 177 out of a possible 700 points. Two tenure committee members gave her an insulting score of 1 out of 100. The vote the following year came in even lower. As a point of contrast, in the final round of Jones’s audition for SFS, she received 920 points out of a possible 1000 from the audition committee.[16]

In my interviews, Jones’s speech uncharacteristically sputters and pauses as she recalls the reasons used to justify her tenure denial:

“How all of a sudden could I be so bad? And these guys said…well, I…well, what was the thing with the trumpet player?…well, there was…he made a statement…What was?…there’s something silly they said I didn’t do…I try to block them out. That’s why I have difficulties remembering. … Gosh. Well. I mean it boils down to the fact, so I have to be perfect but nobody else around me is perfect?”

For Jones, the moving target of perfection placed on her felt unbearable. The criticism levied about her playing proved equally damaging to her psyche. She considered leaving the profession for good. “I’m a perfectionist,” she continues to muse, “so I will still think, was it my playing?” But perfection, while aspirational, is both elusive and subjective. This is particularly true for musicians playing at her high level of musicianship.

In the first public statement issued by the SFS Players’ Committee (the tenure committee) in September 1974 about Jones’s tenure denial, it concluded by referencing the hallowed space occupied by a symphony orchestra:

“A symphony orchestra is a rare and special thing. It is the unique product of our Western Musical Tradition, a tradition centuries old. It is made up of members who each embody decades of training and experience. It is not a work-force or an assembly line. It is a living thing, a musical and social organism. And like any living thing, it should be treated with care for its health, and respect for its accomplishments.”[17]

This language is, on the one hand, unsurprising in its description of a symphony orchestra as a “special thing” for a select few. Unlike other workplaces, a symphony orchestra exceeded such mundanities of labor and production. It represented both an enduring testament to centuries of European tradition and a delicately balanced living organism, whose inheritors stewarded its continued maintenance and care. On the other hand, such evocations of a symphony orchestra contained a clear message. Like the purported racelessness of meritocracy and the symphony orchestra, the players’ invocation of our “Western Musical Tradition” functioned as a proxy for whiteness and its continued preservation.

Would the outcome of Jones’s tenure vote have differed if she had muted her “zippy, boat-rocking personality,” acquiesced to claiming less space, and accommodated more to the status quo?[18] As she wrote in a letter to the supporters of her tenure: “Someone I trust confided to me that I was disliked because I didn’t conform to the subservient image of a black woman — and had stood up for my rights instead, with pride, and not with the soft humility some considered more befitting.” Rather than subservience, Jones embodied its mirror in her defiance and anger. At the same time, Nakagawa, by all accounts a “soft-spoken” and mild-mannered principal bassoonist who accepted his negative tenure vote without challenge, did not fare any better.[19] It is unsurprising how closely descriptions attached to Jones and Nakagawa’s outward personalities hew to the racial and gendered scripts placed on Asians and African Americans. In the end, the similar fates of Nagakawa and Jones speak to the bind that musicians of color face gaining inclusion and holding leadership positions in spaces of white supremacy. 

When Jones discusses racism, she often adds that white people do not understand what racism entails, viewing it as a matter of etiquette and hurtful comments rather than a system of acquiring and maintaining power. She, like Nakagawa, was a principal player — a first chair position, which represents a leadership position in the orchestra. This translated into greater pay and power than other section players in their workplace, not a special living thing. Their presence disturbed the “natural” order of the organism:

“I was a principal player, the person who is the head of a section and always paid above the rest of the section, first ever for an African American. I was experienced and I was competent; conductors and audiences acknowledged that. … This situation was compounded by the fact that the orchestra had a conductor and another principal player, who like me, were not of European origin. Having these three non-Europeans in the orchestra in leading positions was a little more than their egos could handle.”[20]

In Jones’s view, their collective visibility in positions of power precipitated their downfall. Nakagawa returned to Japan. And while Ozawa did not attribute his resignation from SFS in 1975 to the tenure disputes, he left as well, continuing his post with Boston Symphony Orchestra full time.

It is impossible to know how the fragility of white egos might have entered into the Players’ Committee’s vote on tenure. But an 8-page, typed document in the SFS archives, written in 1992 by a member of Jones’s second tenure committee, provides some clues. It is unclear why or to whom this treatise titled “the Elayne Jones Affair” was written. When I inquired, the archivist at SFS could offer no additional details. But as a defense of the symphony and the committee’s commitment to objectivity, it contains a litany of highly charged personal claims. The accusations levied against Jones included: the “distorted view” she had of her music ability and her tendency to blame career disappointments on racism (or sexism) rather than her own shortcomings; insinuations that affairs with music critics led to all of her positive newspaper reviews; and the multiple “cards in her deck” that Jones held due to her race and gender, effectively rendering SFS “impotent.” The document closes with the musician’s continued discomfort encountering Jones periodically in his everyday life — on the tennis courts in San Francisco and as a colleague at music festivals. As he writes: “she is the only person who has ever publicly charged me with being racist or sexist.” In the end, being accused of racism and sexism proved this musician’s most enduring slight.

Conclusion

For Jones, at 93, mulling over the events in her life can become a form of rehearsal. In our conversations, certain moments loop and rewind, an attempt to move past the racialized trauma of her tenure denial, only to return again to well-tread tales: playing with conductor Leopold Stokowski; her political advocacy; encountering segregation in St. Louis and Chicago; winning the position with SFS. The record skips and repeats, landing again and again on her tenure denial where the narrative inevitably stops. As she wrote to the supporters of her tenure battle: “I don’t know why I’ve worked so hard to climb up so far, because the long fall is so painful.”

In a roundtable discussion centered on the experiences of African Americans in classical music, Anthony McGill, principal clarinetist with the New York Philharmonic (and the only African American musician currently in that orchestra), eschewed the “exceptional talent” narrative for what it elides. Refusing to allow his own success story to serve as an acquittal of the field, he asserted: “I think it’s actually very important to highlight everybody else …[those] who are blocked from having that path. It’s important to look from that perspective as well.”[21]

How do we highlight this perspective in the institutional history of symphony orchestras? This is an archive of absence and of what could have been — aspirations thwarted, talents obstructed, careers re-routed, and spirits incalculably destroyed. But it is also, as Jones’s life shows us, an archive of defiance and refusal. Her life offers new insights into the past — a way to rethink the history and culture of American symphony orchestras through her visionary perspective. Tina Campt speaks of black feminist futurity as “a performance of a future that hasn’t yet happened but must.”[22] Making music and occupying space in sites where African American women have and continue to be excluded, Jones’ life compels us to grapple with the segregated histories that structure how we listen and see. “If my life matters,” Jones told me recently, “it’s because I have to make you think it matters.” Here I offer space to understand how her life matters for what it allows us to envision — new worlds and modes of imagining the orchestral field, music making, and the structures of power that sustain them.


[1] Letter to Verne Sellin from Elayne Jones. San Francisco Symphony archives

[2] For an incisive critique of the ableism contained in the term “blind” auditions, see William Cheng, Loving Music Till it Hurts (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 63-64.

[3] Unless otherwise cited, all quotes from Jones come from interviews and conversations with the author.

[4] See, for example, Michael Andor Brodeur, “That sound you’re hearing is the classical music’s long overdue reckoning with racism,” Washington Post, July 16, 2020, Zachary Woolfe and Joshua Barone (interviewers), “Black Artists on How to Change Classical Music,” New York Times, July 16, 2020, James Bennett, “On Taking Lip [Service], WQXR blog, June 2, 2020, Aaron Flagg, Anti-Black Discrimination in American Orchestras, Symphony, Summer 2020.

[5] This statistic has remained relatively constant. A survey conducted in 1974 revealed African Americans to make up less than 1% of orchestras in the U.S. “Symphony Orchestras: A Bad Scene,” The Crisis, January 1975. In a 2014 survey by the League of American Orchestras, the figure had risen to just 1.8%.

[6] Rothe, Music for a City, Music for the World, 156-57.

[7] Heuwell Tircuit, “Show of Symphony Pride,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 6, 1972.

[8] Cheng, Loving Music Till it Hurts, 104.

[9] Marcus Books (named after Marcus Garvey), currently located in Oakland, is the oldest independent Black bookstore in the United States.

[10] Dorothy Samachson, “Orchestras in the U.S. — Where are the Blacks?” Los Angeles Times, October 10, 1976.

[11] For more on racialized listening practices see, for example, Nina Sun Eidsheim, The Race of Sound (Durham: Duke UP, 2019); Jennifer Lynn Stoever, The Sonic Color Line (New York: NYU Press, 2016); Kira Thurman, “Performing Lieder, Hearing Race,” Journal of the American Musicological Society, vol. 72, Number 3, 825-865; Grace Wang, Soundtracks of Asian America (Durham: Duke UP, 2015).

[12] See Anthony Tommasini, “To Make Orchestras More Diverse, End Blind Auditions,” New York Times, July 16, 2020 and Cheng’s discussion of anonymous audition processes and meritocracy in Loving Music Till It Hurts, 63-104.

[13] Malcolm Gladwell writing on “blind auditions” in Blink, New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2005 helped popularize the findings of the widely-cited article by Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse, “Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of ‘Blind’ Auditions on Female Musicians,” American Economic Review, vol. 90, no. 4, September 2000, 715-741.

[14] Charles Burrell, a double bassist, the first African American musician hired by SFS, performed with the orchestra from 1959-64. Jones’s lawyer claimed that Burrell was forced out, a narrative that differs from the official history of SFS, which recounts how earthquakes in the region prompted the bassist to return to more stable ground in Colorado. Larry Rothe, Music for a City, Music for the World, San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2011, 134-35.

[15] The extent to which the courts did not consider race and gender discrimation as intersectional created further obstacles for Jones. In his sworn affidavit, Jerry Spain, President of Musician’s Union Local 6 offered the statistics on gender at SFS, noting that the orchestra employed more women musicians than any other major symphony. This fact was used to buttress the orchestra’s claim that it did not discriminate on the basis of sex. This defense recalls Kimberle Crenshaw’s argument that separating gender and race discrimination leaves no place for Black women. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum (1989): 139-67

[16] For tenure during this period at SFS, a Players Committee (composed of 7 musicians) and the music director award points, with each side able to override or deny tenure. Musicians needed to receive a total of 351 votes to have the conductor’s vote added to their tally. As such, the low scores effectively sidelined Ozawa. The members of the audition and tenure committee were different, so do not represent a direct contrast (although the tenure committee is supposed to represent the collective view of the orchestra).

[17] Report to the 1974 ICSOM Convention from the San Francisco Symphony Players’ Committee. San Francisco Symphony archives.

[18] Quote from Arthur Bloomfield, “The Story That Won’t Go Away,” San Francisco Examiner, Sept 2, 1975.

[19] The narrative around Nakagawa’s tenure denial in the press and within SFS also suggested (falsely) that he was Ozawa’s former roommate in Japan and enjoyed a closeness to the conductor given their shared ethnicity. This narrative implied cronyism in his hiring. See Paul Hertelendy, “Jones: ‘How Good Do You Have To Be?’”Oakland Tribune, August 31, 1975. Although Nakagawa did not challenge his tenure denial, following Jones’s lawsuit he, too, was given a second vote.

[20] Jones, Little Lady wIth a Big Drum, 303.

[21]Learning to Listen” June 10, 2020.

[22] Tina Campt, Listening to Images (Durham: Duke UP, 2017), 17.

Grace Wang is Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of California, Davis. She is the author of Soundtracks of Asian America: Navigating Race through Musical Performance (Duke UP) and is currently collaborating with filmmaker Julie Wyman on a documentary film about Elayne Jones’s life in politics and music.

Articles

Before Amazon: Land, Labor, and Logistics in the Inland Empire of WWII

Brinda Sarathy

On August 25, 2015, the Moreno Valley City Council in Riverside County, California green lit the World Logistics Center (WLC) in a contentious 3-2 vote. Slated to be the largest inland port in the USA, the WLC envisions more than 40 million square feet of warehouses built atop 2,610 acres of now open fields on the city’s far-east side, south of the 60 Freeway. Once completed, the massive complex will span the equivalent of 700 football fields and is estimated to generate 68,712 vehicle trips daily, of which 14,006 will be made by majority diesel trucks.[1] For those less familiar with this area of the Golden State— often referred to as the “Inland Empire”—picture once largely citrus-growing and Kaiser steel-producing Counties of Riverside and San Bernardino as now ground zero for the nation’s goods-movement industry. Over the past two decades, Inland Valley politicians and developers have pushed an aggressive growth agenda which has seen the construction of over 159 million square feet of industrial warehouse space in Riverside and San Bernardino Counties between 2000 and 2008,[2] and a dramatic increase in truck and rail transportation of goods from the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles to the rest of the country.[3] As warehouses carpet vast alluvial valley floors and high deserts alike, the Santa Ana, San Bernardino, and San Jacinto Mountains trap the fumes of economic “progress” generated by diesel transport. This is the 21st century terrain wrought by e-commerce giants such as Amazon, FedEx, and UPS, who have set up shop in the Inland Empire, to make good on everyday consumers’ desires for one-click and same day delivery services.

Aerial of World Logistics Center site, Moreno Valley, California

According to Iddo Benzeevi, the developer in charge of the mammoth WLC undertaking and, not incidentally, a key donor behind the successful races of several Moreno Valley City Council members, the project will be a boon to the region and result in 20,000 permanent jobs, 13,00 construction jobs, and $2.5 billion a year in economic activity.[4] Such promotion of the WLC as a solution for regional employment is not new. As the region’s demographic and political makeup have shifted over the past two decades—from an older white and Republican population to predominantly working-class Latinx immigrants—local economic boosters have promoted warehouse construction and employment in the logistics industry as the main path for their modestly educated populations to achieve the middle-class.[5]

Racial Composition of Workforce in Inland Empire, UCR CSI, p. 3

Between 2013 and 2016, Amazon alone invested $4.6 billion in San Bernardino and Riverside Counties, and built a total of 15 fulfillment and distribution centers in the predominantly Latinx communities of San Bernardino, Riverside, Rialto, Moreno Valley, and Eastvale. Moreover, of the over 15.1million square feet of warehouse space currently occupied by Amazon in four counties of the Southland, fifty percent is located in San Bernardino County, with another forty-four percent in Riverside County.[6] When asked why the IE was such a “great place to have so many Amazon fulfillment networks,” a company spokesperson noted that “It’s a perfect mix of valuable things — an exceptional workforce, thoughtful partners, great locations and strong customer support.”[7]

Square feet of Warehouse Space by City and County, Flaming and Burns, 2019. p. 25.

Scholar Juan De Lara, by contrast, has compellingly argued in his recent book Inland Shift, that the region as a hub for logistics is, instead, about the “territorialization of race” and frictions between labor and capital from the 1970s onward.[8] As a fundamentally spatial process, territorialization in the Inland Empire has involved the “fixing” of racialized groups in particular places and within certain occupations. De Lara expertly chronicles how labor was made flexible through differences in race, gender, and immigration status; the dismantling of defunct industrial plants; specific practices that facilitate just-in-time production; and the ongoing discursive formations that make such transformations possible in a post-Keynesian world. His analysis, moreover, undergirds long-standing contentions on the part of environmental justice activists that the WLC and similar warehouse complexes present not a boon, but rather an economic, ecological and public health boondoggle. Organizers and researchers have long raised serious concerns about the impacts of worsening air quality on public health and disproportionate burden on low-income communities of color who live along diesel thoroughfares and warehouse fence lines elsewhere in the Inland region.[9] In 2001, for example, the South Coast Air Quality Management District found that Mira Loma Village, a low-income Latinx community of 101 homes in what was then an unincorporated part of Riverside County, had the highest levels of particulate pollution in the nation.[10] Now part of the City of Jurupa Valley, the Mira Loma community essentially constitutes a residential island afloat among an ocean of warehouses and with more than 800 trucks passing by the Mira Loma Village each hour.  Similarly, in 2008, the California Air Resources Board ranked the San Bernardino Rail facility among the top five most polluting rail yards in California and “first in terms of community health risk due to the large population living in the immediate vicinity.”[11] Coupled with already existing air pollution blowing eastwards from Central Los Angeles, and the natural inversion effect created by the San Bernardino, San Jacinto, and Santa Ana mountain ranges, it is no wonder that Riverside and San Bernardino Counties have among the worst air quality and highest rates of asthma in the nation.[12]

Aerial of Mira Loma Village surrounded by warehouses, Jurupa Valley, California. Google Maps.

Finally, activists and scholars have questioned developer assertions about warehouses being a panacea for employment. Indeed, the WLC made a similar claim during its first phase of construction which saw the creation of a 1.8 million square foot Sketchers distribution center in Moreno Valley. Yet, that project resulted in a net zero job gain for the community and actually led to the loss of some 200 jobs when the facility moved from its original location in Ontario, California.[13] More recently, precarious labor conditions and the rise of automation within warehouse work itself have dampened claims that these facilities are a meaningful solution to address underemployment in the region.[14] In this context, the World Logistics Center is only the most recent and perhaps most egregious example of unfettered support for warehouse growth in the face of potential harm to people and the environment. 

Whether and when the WLC will come to fruition remains an open question. A coalition of land conservation and environmental justice groups have been working to challenge the project in court and, in August 2019, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the development was not exempt from state environmental regulations.[15] California’s Attorney General Xavier Becerra and the California Air Resources Board also filed an amicus brief with the Fourth Circuit, challenging the WLC for disregarding the California Environmental Quality Act and failing to accurately capture the greenhouse gas emissions from the development. Most recently, in April 2021, litigating parties and the developer reached a $47 million settlement to help fund the electrification of trucks, on-site vehicles, and charging infrastructure. Iddo Benzeevi has spun the legal settlement as a “significant achievement of making the World Logistics Center the first net-zero (greenhouse gas) project in the nation and setting a new precedent for sustainable development.”[16] Yet, the legal challenges keep coming as other conservation organizations and environmental justice advocates fight the rising tide of warehouse development in Moreno Valley and elsewhere in the region.[17]

What all parties seem to agree upon, however, is a shared narrative of warehouse development and logistics in the Inland Empire as a relatively recent phenomenon, one dating back to the early 2000s. While the rapid rise of warehousing as a regional economic development phenomenon is certainly a post-2000 story, I argue that warehousing and logistics in themselves are not new to the inland region. Over the remainder of this essay, I extend Juan De Lara’s conceptualization of the “territorialization of race” even farther back in time to trace the production of the Inland Empire’s logistics industry to the development of military installations, differentially incarcerated Italian prisoners of war and Japanese American internees, and racialized warehouse work during World War II. In so doing, my aim is to understand the production of the inland region through various flows, both material and metaphoric, and how particular racialized groups have been partly sedimented in particular places and occupations.

Warehousing People and Provisions: Japanese American Internment

In the early 1940s, six decades before the 101 homes of Mira Loma Village in western Riverside County became infamous among public health practitioners and environmental justice activists for their veritable terrestrial containment by warehouses and exposure to high levels of fine particulate matter, this area comprised a bucolic landscape of open ranch lands growing grapes, barley, and pasture for horses and dairy herds. Twenty odd miles away, it was the City of San Bernardino which gave rise to the first mass storage facilities in the region when, on January, 16, 1942, the U.S. Quartermaster General (a branch of the U.S. Army) established the San Bernardino Depot. The establishment of this facility would soon impact land use in Mira Loma as well and can be viewed as constitutive of a larger logistics landscape shaped by warfare.

Also known as “Camp Ono,” the San Bernardino Depot was part and parcel of World War II mobilization efforts on the West Coast and addressed the need for space to house various military units including the Signal Corps, Corps of Engineers, Medical Corps, and the Chemical Warfare Corps. In 1942, the Depot operated 11 warehouses comprising approximately 100,00 square feet of floor space dispersed over an area of “approximately six miles in diameter” between Colton and San Bernardino.[18]  In addition to carrying out the supply functions for troops in the Southern California Sector— which included Armored Forces Troops that had assembled at the Desert Training Center near Indio, California— Camp Ono soon became central to the provisioning of Japanese American concentration camps between April and October 1942, and charged with supplying 60,000 “Japanese aliens” at its peak.[19] The storage and movement of goods for U.S. troops stationed in inland Southern California during World War II, and the transport and provisioning of Japanese American internees thus became the first seeds to germinate warehouse development in the region.

Camp Ono, San Bernardino, California. Los Angeles Times, Sunday, December 13, 1981. Photos provided by Perry Pugno.
Camp Ono, San Bernardino, California. Los Angeles Times, Sunday, December 13, 1981. Photos provided by Perry Pugno.

In May 1943, James Bennett, the Quartermaster Depot historian captured well the connection between warehouses, supply provisioning, and the internment of Japanese Americans at Camp Manzanar to the east.[20]  Bennett’s records reveal that the U.S. Government approached Japanese American internment as a logistical problem to be solved by military and civilian personnel alike.  While depot officials viewed the feeding and watering of Japanese ‘aliens’ as a “first class headache,”[21] Camp Ono soon became known for the efficiency and frugality of its operations under Commanding Officer, Colonel Chas E. Stafford. The accolades garnered by Camp Ono were primarily framed in terms of the good cheer and cooperation with which American civilians and military personnel endured the hardships posed by the evacuation effort, with nary a perspective into what it might have meant for the U.S. citizens of Japanese descent who were dispossessed and displaced as a result of internment.  In one letter, E.H. Fryer, Regional Director of the War Relocation Authority, lauded Stafford for his “cheerful cooperation, suggestions, and wholehearted interest.”[22] Another officer similarly praised U.S. civilians for their adaptation “to this new phase of work and laboring wholeheartedly to accomplish the end without regard to many hours of hard effort after the normal working day had expired.” [23] At the national level, too, the U.S. Army was hailed for its superb coordination of an involuntary internal mass migration.  None other than Carey McWilliams, then Chief of the Division of Immigration and Housing for the State of California noted: “the evacuation of 100,000 Japanese, men, women and children… has been accomplished on time, without mishap and with virtually no trouble… In effecting this vast movement of people in a brief time, the conduct of the Army has been wholly admirable.”[24]

Los Angeles, California. Evacuees of Japanese ancestry entraining for Manzanar, California, 250 miles away, where they are now housed in a War Relocation Authority center. NARA – 536765.jpg Clem Albers, Photographer (NARA record: 8452194) – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
Santa Anita reception center, Los Angeles, California. The evacuation of Japanese and Japanese-Americans from West Coast areas under U.S. Army war emergency 
order. Registering Japanese-Americans as they arrive, 1942. Photographer: Russell Lee
http://historyinphotos.blogspot.com/2013/08/russell-lee-japanese-internment.html

How to move goods efficiently and on time? While behemoths like Amazon have perfected just-in-time delivery in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, military personnel in the 1940s faced supply chain challenges as they figured out ways to get fresh fruits and vegetables to Japanese American internees. The main supply center was in Los Angeles, which lay 220 miles to the southwest of Camp Manzanar.  Because fast freight was used to supply Army troops, the slow freight that transported goods to internees resulted in considerable spoilage. It was in this context that refrigerated trucks first began to transport perishable foodstuffs to internees, representing one of the earliest iterations of “goods movement” in the inland region.   The use of commercial truck lines reduced transit time and also led to considerable declines in spoilage.[25] 

Certainly, the irony of their situation was not lost on depot officials who noted that “the Japanese [sic] were ordered to abandon their thousands of truck farms—their produce left to wilt, unpicked— yet at the same time…they themselves were herded into camps where food must somehow be found for them.”[26] And Colonel Stafford and his staff were just as quick to hone the Depot’s operations by taking advantage of the plight of Japanese Americans in Los Angeles.  The expedited process of evacuation and internment forced Japanese American wholesalers and retailers to dump large stocks of “noodles, soy sauce, miso sauce, canned fish, dried shrimp and various marine products” to American middlemen at “probably half price.” Stafford aptly noted that the U.S. Army “would undoubtedly have to pay those jobbers the full price” in order to provision internees. To avoid the inflated prices imposed by opportunistic middlemen, Stafford suggested that the Japanese Chamber of Commerce in Los Angeles coordinate the purchase of goods from Japanese American suppliers at a fixed price, “before that food gets into the hands of jobbers.”  These goods were subsequently stored at the Depot and “saved the Government thousands of dollars.”[27]

By late March, the first barracks for Japanese-American internees had been erected at Camp Manzanar and a steady stream of internees from that point on—numbering in the thousands per day— dramatically increased the need for warehouse storage in the region.  Upon visiting the San Bernardino Quartermaster Depot, Colonel W.E. Waldron of the Western Defense Command and Fourth Army, ordered the erection of 50 theater-of-operations pre-fabricated buildings, each capable of being up in about 48-man hours, to alleviate the shortage of storage facilities.  The storage needs of the San Bernardino Depot during this period provide another window into both the sheer scale of evacuation and the basic needs of internees: 10,000 pounds of noodles, 80,000 pounds of rice, and 2000 pounds of tea…hair and bobby pins, baby clothes and diapers, infant bottles and nipples.  According to Bennett, “perhaps the strangest requisition of all was for 1000 of what Americans alternately call chamber pots or thunder mugs. The full quota of this item was procured, after a considerable search, from Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward mail order houses who in turn were forced to hunt at some length in the stacks of obsolete stock.”[28]

The cost cutting measures of the U.S. Army were primarily borne and subsidized by the internees themselves. Even the machinery for making miso sauce and pickled radish at the camps had been bought/taken from imprisoned Nissei (American-born Japanese), who then made miso sauce for the camps. Depot officials also scrutinized substitutions to food supply requests made by internment camp cooks and managers.  Indeed, the latter were viewed as being too extravagant in their orders. One officer, for example, complained: “In addition to the prime meat and 92 score butter, the camp managers were requisitioning quantities of canned pears and canned sliced peaches, and an ‘excess of jam: strawberry, raspberry, blackberry.’ And they were demanding it in small, uneconomical-sized tins. They were asking for whale meat and fancy tinned shrimp. Also, they demanded six to seven tons of pancake flour…Of course, we will see that they (i.e. the evacuees) be given good food, but they shouldn’t be given these extra items regularly—that is, better food than that which our soldiers receive.”[29] Similar tensions arose over public perception over “the siphoning off” of fresh milk to internment camps.  Not surprisingly, Colonel Stafford responded by defending “the Great American Pocketbook against what appeared to him unwarranted extravagance.”[30] Ultimately, this problem was solved by substituting half of the ration of fresh milk for canned or powdered milk.[31]  

Growing Supply Needs: The Birth of Mira Loma Depot

As demands to provision interned Japanese Americans and desert training troops increased, the U.S. Army formally activated the Mira Loma Quartermaster Depot on August 15, 1942. Located approximately 44 miles from the nearest metropolitan center Los Angeles, Mira Loma was considered ideal for the purposes of a military depot.  From a transportation-oriented point of view, it was close to the Union Pacific Railroad tracks, with necessary spurs and sidings, and near two railway division points: San Bernardino for the Santa Fe Railroad, and Colton for the Southern Pacific Lines. Key roadways also bordered the depot, including Mission Boulevard/ U.S. 60— the main truck highway between San Diego, Riverside and Los Angeles— to the south and, paralleling it, three miles to the north, U.S. 99—the Ocean-to-Ocean Highway known locally at the time as the Valley Boulevard. Charged with supplying a Desert Training Force of 67,000 troops with A rations on a daily basis, the Mira Loma Depot was considered “ground zero” for warehouse operations in the Inland region.  It vastly outsized the buildings at Camp Ono—all of which could be placed in one of several warehouses that were constructed at the new site.  In total, Mira Loma Depot constituted 2,162,706 square feet of warehouse and office space[32] and in January 1944 employed 2,646 civilian personnel.[33]

Mira Loma Quarter Master Depot hand drawn map of warehouses and buildings.  Record Group: 92 Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General Agency or Division: Mira Loma Quartermaster Depot Mira Loma, CA Series: Historical Diaries, Journals and Reports 1942-1954. Folder Title: The Storage Division M.L.Q.M.D.  A Historical Study [2/2] Box 9, National Archives at Riverside.

U.S. officials consistently praised the labor of white military and civilian personnel in supplying goods to Camp Manzanar, yet overlooked the ten percent of Mira Loma’s labor force made up of African American and Mexican workers.  Historian James Bennett’s racially fraught views about the depot workforce likely also reflected those of his superiors. Bennett, for example, mused about the forbearance of white managers and workers and viewed their contributions to Mira Loma as both singular and preferable to that of Black and brown labor:

“The officers and the labor foremen, from the very beginning of the Depot, have tried to treat their darker skinned laborers with scrupulous fairness. In fact, there have been an appreciable number of cases of slight unfairness to their white [emphasis in original] laborers, in disputes between white and colored, stemming from this determined bending over backwards attitude.

The white laborers, in fact, have made no objection to working with the colored races, and the work has been performed without resultant friction. In this willingness of the whites, the Mira Loma Depot is, possibly, unique.

The problem posed by the Mexicans is not so much that of racial pride—although that occasionally enters. It is inherent in their whole philosophy of life. They work—hard—make a little money. Then they slack, are absent without cause or actually resign. Their wants are few, and they deplore the American itch to get ahead and keep on working after one’s pocket is full of dollars. And this dolce far niente [emphasis in original] attitude is also held to a somewhat lesser degree by the Negroes. Consequently, from Mira Loma’s point of view, the darker races are none too dependable.”[34]

Overall, white civilians and military personnel in Southern California supply depots territorialized race and racialized labor through a variety of logistical operations that both expanded the social and spatial mobility of whites and restricted the movement of non-white groups. In the Inland Empire of the 1940s, logistics in particular aimed to efficiently manage the movement of incarcerated Japanese Americans, who were dispossessed of their property and herded into a high desert concentration camp at Manzanar.

“Those Were the Three Best Years of My Life:” Italian POWs and White Freedom

In contrast to the ordeal of Japanese Americans in California, Italian Prisoners of War brought to the United States faced distinctly different treatment at the hands of the Army. With Italy’s formal surrender to the Allies in September 1943, General Eisenhower, then Commander in Chief of Allied Forces in the Mediterranean, and Italy’s new, provisional leader Marshall Pietro Badoglio reached an agreement of cooperation. In December 1943, Badoglio issued a statement requesting all Italian prisoners of war held in the United States to assist the Allies in every possible way, excepting in actual combat.

A few weeks later, in January 1944, the War Department’s chief of the Army Special Forces put Badoglio’s call into action by creating Italian Service Units, or ISUs. Over the next several months, Italian POWs brought to and detained in the United States voluntarily enlisted in ISUs, which were structured almost the same as equivalent American units and whose members were paid about twenty-four dollars per month, the same as American GIs. In sharp contrast to the plight of Japanese Americans, ISUs had considerable social and spatial freedoms and the acceptance of local communities in which they labored.[35] Between 1944-46, 499 former Italian POWs turned ISUs were detained in inland Southern California. These soldiers were initially brought to Norfolk, Virginia, and then shipped by train to spend a summer picking cotton in the blazing fields of Florence, Arizona. As elsewhere in the United States, the war had resulted in agricultural labor shortages that were filled by foreign worker primarily through the Bracero Program.[36]

In January of 1944, as part of a deal brokered between the Southern California Farmers’ Association and the U.S. Army, 499 Italian soldiers signed up to go to the Italian American community of Guasti, near what is now Rancho Cucamonga in San Bernardino County. The Farmers Association agreed to house, feed, and compensate the soldiers in exchange for their pruning vineyards and working the fields of the Inland Empire. The Army agreed to provide a few military guards to ensure minimal safety. Again, the treatment of Italian POWs compared with the internment of Japanese Americans highlights the territorialization of race and labor in the Inland region. Of the arrival of Italian prisoners in Guasti, one media account notes:

“Handshakes and kisses were exchanged and inquiries made about relatives back in Italy… By the time the last of the prisoners was off the train and onto the waiting buses the entire group had begun singing Italian folk songs…Out in the fields the prisoners worked side by side with the farmers, many of them Italian, and their families. At noon meals were served by the women. Often there was a bottle of wine passed around.

There was never a shortage of food. Many of the grateful farmers, feeling 80 cents a day was not enough, donated chickens, eggs, vegetables, cheese and the like.”[37]

Italian Service Units sent to Camp Ono received similarly favorable treatment as recounted by a former unit member:

“The POW’s [sic] had many liberties regarding entertainment. In fact, on many weekends they were driven into San Bernardino to see a movie or to have dinner with their girlfriends’ families!

…on Sundays the prisoners were allowed to take walks into the surrounding vineyards, as this was a fond reminder of their homeland. They would casually walk out for hours at a time with no military escorts. Their only identification was a green arm band that each wore with “ITALY” spelled out in white letters.”[38]

Certainly, all 850 Italian Service Units put to work at the Mira Loma Quarter Master Repair Sub Depot on the outskirts of San Bernardino and the Main Quarter Master Depot in Mira Loma were considered a boon by Army officials faced with a “man-power shortage of major proportions.” The Italian units primarily repaired tents, machinery and appliances and were remarked upon by the Depot historian—in contrast to his less savory appraisal of Mexican and Black workers—for their productivity and focus:

“…For the month of January 1945, the Italians contributed 27,000 man-days. Their lost time record is remarkable- less than 1%- and this includes absence due to illness as well as confinement for disciplinary purposes.” [39]

Moreover, and in contrast to Japanese American internees’ experiences, Italian Service Units were generally afforded dignified and humanitarian treatment. They were taught by San Bernardino Junior College teachers of “university-caliber,” offered classes in English, job training, and military functions and operations, and given time for leisure and the upkeep of their spirits. Per depot historian, James Bennett:

In order to keep the moral of the Italians at the present high standard, they have been encouraged to utilize their dramatic talents in a series of plays which members of the Battalion write, direct and perform during off duty hours…

…the Italians are permitted a limited amount of off-duty athletics. Among their activities in this category they have developed an excellent soccer team. Games are scheduled for each Sunday with soccer teams in this area. To date, the Italians have won the major number of their contests.[40]

The Final Years: Weapons and Waste

After WWII, the Mira Loma Quarter Master Depot had a larger classification operation receiving shipments of material from overseas and the deactivation of military installations in the southwest. In addition, in 1947 and 1948, Mira Loma became a Distribution Center of American Graves Registration, participating in the return of remains program. By 1955, as Army operations declined, the Mira Loma Depot was transferred to the Department of the Air Force and became a storing and dismantling ground for 83 retired Titan 1 and Atlas missiles. About 33 of these relics were distributed to museums, parks and schools as static displays while the remaining 50 were scrapped on site in Mira Loma in 1966.[41] Unsurprisingly, such activities would lead to perchlorate contamination of the site. In 1966, approximately 2/3 of the land was sold to a private entity, the Mira Loma Space Center, which re-developed the site as an industrial and commercial office park, embodying the warehouse landscapes so characteristic of the Inland Empire of today.

Titan-I ICBM SM vehicles being destroyed at Mira Loma AFS for the SALT-1 Treaty Date: 2011-11-08. Credit: Leebrandoncremer License: http://www.wikiwand.com/en/HGM-25A_Titan_I
Titan-I ICBM SM vehicles being destroyed at Mira Loma AFS for the SALT-1 Treaty Date: 2011-11-08. Credit: Leebrandoncremer License: http://www.wikiwand.com/en/HGM-25A_Titan_I

The U.S. Army’s warehousing and transportation operations in Southern California during World War II laid the groundwork for cost-effective practices and time-saving measures that have new incarnations in the consumer warehouses of today.  Japanese Americans imprisoned at Camp Manzanar served a critical “proving ground” for such logistical operations in one iteration, and U.S. troops stationed in the desert were another. Finally, the contamination of the Depot’s original site, by perchlorate from dismantled weapons of war, echoes contamination of another kind—that of airborne, fine particulate matter emitted by diesel trucks in the Inland Empire’s contemporary logistics industry.

NOTES


[1] IMRAN GHORI, “Judge Sides with Moreno Valley in Challenge against World Logistics Center,” Press Enterprise, accessed March 13, 2017, http://www.pe.com/articles/environmental-810973-city-state.html.

[2] Martha Matsuoka et al., “Global Trade Impacts: Addressing the Health, Social and Environmental Consequences of Moving International Freight through Our Communities” (Occidental College and University of Southern California, March 2011), 30, http://departments.oxy.edu/uepi/publications/GlobalTrade.pdf.

[3] John Froines, “Exposure to Railyard Emissions in Adjacent Communities.”

[4] GHORI, “Judge Sides with Moreno Valley in Challenge against World Logistics Center.”

[5] Sheheryar Kaoosji and Penny Newman, “World Logistics Center Bad for Air, Won’t Bring High-Quality Jobs: Guest Commentary,” accessed March 13, 2017, http://www.dailybulletin.com/article/LH/20170106/LOCAL1/170109693; “State of Work in the Inland Empire,” Center for Social Innovation, accessed January 16, 2020, https://socialinnovation.ucr.edu/state-work-inland-empire.

[6] Daniel Flaming and Patrick Burns, “Too Big to Govern: Public Balance Sheet for the World’s Largest Store,” Economic Roundtable (Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, November 26, 2019), 25, https://economicrt.org/publication/too-big-to-govern/.

[7] “Amazon Says It Invested $4.7 Billion in the Inland Empire,” Daily Bulletin (blog), April 27, 2018, http://www.dailybulletin.com/amazon-says-it-invested-4-7-billion-in-the-inland-empire.

[8] Juan De Lara, Inland Shift: Race, Space, and Capital in Southern California (Univ of California Press, 2018).

[9] Penny Newman, “Inland Ports of Southern California: Warehouses, Distribution Centers, Intermodal Facilities” (Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, June 28, 2012); Jeremy O’Kelley, “South Coast Air Quality Management District Monitoring and Analysis: Mira Loma PM10 Monitoring,” March 2001.

[10] South Coast Air Quality Management District, “Multiple Air Toxics Exposure Study (MATES-II),” March 2000, http://www.aqmd.gov/matesiidf/es.pdf.

[11] Rhonda Spencer-Hwang et al., “Experiences of a Rail Yard Community: Life Is Hard,” Journal of Environmental Health 77, no. 2 (September 2014): 8–17; Hector Castaneda et al., “Health Risk Assessment for the BNSF San Bernardino Railyard,” n.d., 124.

[12] “Key Findings | State of the Air,” American Lung Association, accessed January 16, 2020, https://www.lung.org/our-initiatives/healthy-air/sota/key-findings/.

[13] Laura Hines, “Moreno Valley: Residents Fear Being Surrounded by Warehouse Complex,” The Press Enterprise, May 6, 2012.

[14] Flaming and Burns, “Too Big to Govern: Public Balance Sheet for the World’s Largest Store”; “State of Work in the Inland Empire.”

[15] Plaintiffs on the lawsuit include the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Coalition for Clean Air, and the San Bernardino Valley Audobon Society.

[16] Beau Yarbrough, “$47 Million Settlement Reached in World Logistics Center Lawsuit,” Press Enterprise, April 29, 2021, https://www.pe.com/2021/04/29/47-million-settlement-reached-in-world-logistics-center-lawsuit/.

[17] “When Your House Is Surrounded by Massive Warehouses,” Los Angeles Times, October 27, 2019, https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2019-10-27/fontana-california-warehouses-inland-empire-pollution; “Environmental Group Sues San Bernardino County, Developer over Warehouse Project in Bloomington,” San Bernardino Sun (blog), October 31, 2018, https://www.sbsun.com/environmental-group-sues-san-bernardino-county-developer-over-warehouse-project-in-bloomington; “Developers Sharing Environmental Findings for Warehouse Proposal in Upland,” Daily Bulletin (blog), January 4, 2020, https://www.dailybulletin.com/developers-sharing-environmental-findings-for-warehouse-proposal-in-upland; Steve Scauzillo, “Judge Requires Environmental Review for Proposed Upland Warehouse Rumored for Amazon,” Daily Bulletin, July 28, 2021, https://www.dailybulletin.com/2021/07/27/judge-requires-environmental-review-for-proposed-upland-warehouse-rumored-for-amazon.

[18] James W. Bennett, “Part A; Early Days” (Mira Loma Quartermaster Depot: Office of the Quartermaster General, July 27, 1943), Record Group 92, Box 7, Folder 1, National Archives at Riverside.

[19] James W. Bennett, “Supplying Forty Thousand Japanese Aliens,” May 25, 1943, Record Group 92, Box 7, National Archives at Riverside.

[20] Bennett’s position represented a conscious decision by the US Army to hire military historians to document their institution’s efforts to address technical and administrative problems in order to serve as a resource for future personnel and situations.  The Army was mindful about recording lessons learned about goods movement during World War II and how these could benefit operations during peacetime as well.  Reflecting on the role of embedded historian’s, the Army noted: “This will provide a significant part of the education and orientation of future officers.  They will know what worked well and what worked badly during this war.  More than that, they will know why. Those officers, in the future must build an enormous supply system from a peace-time basis, will have an appreciable advantage over the men who were called upon to develop the administrative machine during the present conflict.  Obviously, industrial and social conditions will have changed. Officers, however, will know what will work well under a given set of circumstances, and many of these circumstances will be repeated.” Bennett.

[21] Bennett.

[22] Bennett.

[23] Bennett.

[24] Carey McWilliams, “Moving the West-Coast Japanese,” Harper’s Magazine 185 (September 1942): 359–69. While McWilliams admired the logistical execution of the relocation operation in 1942, he also later praised the loyalty of Japanese Americans and opined on the “democratic possibilities” of the relocation program. Carey McWilliams, What about Our Japanese-Americans?, Public Affairs Pamphlets, 91 ([New York]: [Public Affairs Committee, Inc.], 1944).

[25] Bennett, “Supplying Forty Thousand Japanese Aliens”; James W. Bennett, “Part B: The Sons of Dai Nippon Present a Problem” (Mira Loma Quartermaster Depot, July 27, 1943), Record Group 92, Box 7, Folder 1, National Archives at Riverside.

[26] Bennett, “Supplying Forty Thousand Japanese Aliens.”

[27] James W. Bennett, “Transcript of Telephone Communication between Colonel Stafford and Major B.P. Spry, Ninth Service Command, Fort Douglas, Utah.,” March 19, 1942, Record Group 92, Box 7, Folder 1, National Archives at Riverside.

[28] Bennett, “Part B: The Sons of Dai Nippon Present a Problem.”

[29] James W. Bennett, “Transcript of Telephone Conversation between Captain Emery D.K. Jackson at the San Bernardino Depot and Colonel E.A. Evans, G-4 Office, the Presidio of San Francisco.,” April 24, 1942, Record Group 92, Box 7, Folder 1, National Archives at Riverside.

[30] James W. Bennett, “Transcript of Telephone Conversation,” October 30, 1942, Record Group 92, Box 7, Folder 1, National Archives at Riverside.(82-83) (Oct. 31, 1942 phone conversation)

[31] James W. Bennett, “Summary of Phone Conversation between Colonel Stafford and Colonel Webster.,” October 31, 1942, Record Group 92, Box 7, Folder 1, National Archives at Riverside.

[32] The new Depot comprised several large warehouses, an administration building, a training building, infirmary, garage, officer’s quarters, sewage disposal plant, engine house, oil pump house, motor repair shop, paint shop, post restaurant, oil storage building, water storage building, and various sheds. James W. Bennett, “Part Three: An Engineering Feat” (Mira Loma Quartermaster Depot, August 28, 1943), Record Group 92, Box 7, Folder 1, National Archives at Riverside.

[33] By continuing improvement of methods, by June in 1945, the personnel was at 1,691 although the freight tonnage handled at this time was increased 40% over that handled in 1944. “History (of Mira Loma Depot),” n.d., Record Group 92, Box 7, Folder: Depot History 1950-51-52, National Archives at Riverside.

[34] James W. Bennett, “Labor at the Mira Loma Depot (an Interim Report), Part A: History and Problems” (Mira Loma Quartermaster Depot, n.d.), Record Group 92, Box 7, Folder: 314.7 Labor at the Mira Loma Depot (An Interim Report) by the Depot Historian, National Archives at Riverside.

[35] Jack Hamann, On American Soil: How Justice Became a Casualty of World War II, 1st pbk. ed (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2007).

[36] Nicholas, R. Cataldo, “City of San Bernardino – POW’s in San Bernardino,” City of San Bernardino, California, accessed March 18, 2018, http://www.ci.san-bernardino.ca.us/about/history/pows_in_san_bernardino.asp.

[37] T.A. Sunderland, “From Italian POWs to Citizens of the United States,” Los Angeles Times, December 13, 1981, sec. VIEW, http://www.ci.san-bernardino.ca.us/about/history/camp_ono_story___la_times.asp.

[38] Nicholas, R. Cataldo, “City of San Bernardino – POW’s in San Bernardino.”

[39] James W. Bennett, “Report on Italian Service Units” (Mira Loma Quartermaster Depot, 1945), Record Group 92, Box 7, Folder: Historical Items 1945, National Archives at Riverside.

[40] Bennett.

[41] “Mira Loma Quartermaster Depot (Mira Loma Air Force Station, Prisoner of War Camp),” accessed January 20, 2020, http://www.militarymuseum.org/MiraLomaQMD.html.

Dr. Brinda Sarathy joined the University of Washington Bothell as professor and dean of the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences in July 2021. Sarathy’s scholarly expertise includes U.S. environmental policy, California water politics, natural resource management, and environmental justice. Her books include Partnerships for Empowerment: Participatory Research for Community-Based Natural Resource Management (2008), Pineros: Latino Labour and the Changing Face of Forestry in the Pacific Northwest (2012), and Inevitably Toxic: Historic Cases of Contamination, Exposure and Expertise (2018). Her articles have appeared in a number of peer-reviewed venues including the Journal of Forestry, Society and Natural Resources, Policy Sciences, Race Gender & Class, and Local Environment. Sarathy’s current research examines the environmental history of the first Superfund site in California, the Stringfellow Acid Pits.

Articles

The Other Southland: Missions, Monuments, and Memory in Tovaangar

Catherine S. Ramírez

I come from the other Southland. Not the Southland of Lynyrd Skynyrd, plantations, Scarlett O’Hara, and monuments to Stonewall Jackson, but the Southland of The Beach Boys, missions, Ramona, and monuments to Junípero Serra. I’m from Southern California. Notwithstanding the historical, political, demographic, and cultural differences between the South and Greater Los Angeles, both are sites of struggle over how or whether to remember white supremacy and the peoples subjected to it. Both are also sites of settler colonialism and indigenous dispossession and survival.

Figure 1: Mission San Gabriel, San Gabriel, California. Photo by the author.

I also come from the other valley. Not The Valley of movie studios and Valley girls, but the San Gabriel Valley, a constellation of 47 cities and unincorporated areas that stretches some 200 miles from East LA in the west to the Pomona Valley in the east and from the San Gabriel Mountains in the north to Puente Hills in the south. Just as the San Fernando Valley takes its name from the mission that Spanish priests established there in 1797, my valley is home to Mission San Gabriel Arcángel (Figure 1). The fourth of California’s twenty-one missions, Mission San Gabriel was founded by Serra in 1771, ten years before the establishment of el Pueblo de Nuestra Señora de la Reina de los Ángeles. Also known as Tovaangar, the LA Basin, of which the San Gabriel Valley is part, is the ancestral and enduring home of the Tongva, the Native people the Spaniards called gabrieleños. In the twenty-first century, LA County has the largest indigenous population of any urban area in the US. While some of the peaks in the San Gabriel Mountains were named after white supremacists, the SGV, as the San Gabriel Valley is affectionately known, is now one of the least white places in the United States; the majority of its 1.4 million residents are Latinx and Asian. Masses at Mission San Gabriel are offered in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese.[1]

As a child in the 1970s and early ‘80s, I attended masses in Spanish in honor of the Virgin Mary at Mission San Gabriel. My family called these masses ofrecering, a Spanglish word that we invented for offering. Unlike the masses we attended every Sunday at St. Thomas More, our parish church in nearby Alhambra, ofrecering was a special occasion. St. Thomas More was housed in a mundane glass and concrete block dating back to what was then the proximate 1960s. In contrast, Mission San Gabriel was a simultaneously rustic and resplendent two-hundred-year-old historical landmark made by Tongva laborers of brick, stone, and adobe. Like some of the other California missions, it boasts a campanario, a wall with openings for bells. San Gabriel’s holds six bells, the oldest of which dates back to 1795. Yet what makes the mission architecturally distinctive is its strong Moorish style, a testament, in all likelihood, to the Andalusian origin of its designer, Father Antonio Cruzado. Cruzado hailed from Córdoba and the ten capped buttresses along the mission’s imposing, thirty-foot-tall south wall resemble those atop Córdoba’s famous cathedral, a mosque until 1236.[2]

Figure 2: The author (first on left) and her sisters outside Mission San Gabriel, early 1970s. Original photo by the author’s father.

Ofrecering mandated special attire. Not even our Sunday best was good enough. Girls, including my sisters and I, wore white dresses and veils (Figure 2). If my outfit was especially on point, I rocked a pair of white patent leather shoes as well. Boys wore shirts, jackets, and ties. Dressed like miniature brides and grooms, we children paraded up the chapel’s center aisle bearing flowers for the Virgin Mary. Ofrecering was both solemn and sensory. I marched to the altar and left my flowers at the base of a porcelain statue of the Virgin as I watched the light of the candles flicker on the mission’s walls, listened to the choir sing, and took in the scent of incense and fresh-cut roses and calla lilies.

Figure 3: The author in her San Gabriel Mission High School uniform, September 1983. Original photo by the author’s father

In 1983, I returned to Mission San Gabriel for a more prosaic reason: high school. In addition to an elementary school, the mission houses a girls’ high school. Instead of dressing like a bride, I was required to wear black-and-white saddle shoes, a white oxford shirt, a green or navy vest or cardigan, and a green, blue, white, and yellow plaid skirt as a student at San Gabriel Mission High School (Figure 3). Even though there were few students of Scottish descent — the vast majority were Mexican American — our uniform looked a lot like the Gordon Dress tartan, as registered in the Scottish Register of Tartans. Since the school’s founding in 1949, its mascot has been the Pioneer (Figure 4). What this mascot looks like is anyone’s guess. According to the school’s 2019 Official Branding Document, “No images should be used with the name ‘Pioneer’ as there is no official image chosen by the school in its history.”  

Figure 4: San Gabriel Mission High School, San Gabriel, California, August 2020. Photo by the author

Growing up in California, I learned in school that there were three peoples who’d inhabited my state: the Indians, who, I was told, had vanished eons ago; the Spanish explorers, padres, and soldiers, who, I presumed, had also gone away; and the white (sometimes called Anglo) pioneers who’d stayed and given us the present we inhabited. It’s unclear if San Gabriel Mission High School’s Pioneer is Spanish or Anglo. Notwithstanding this ambiguity, the true founders of modern California, I was taught, were white, whether they were from Spain or Scotland. Where, if at all, people of Mexican origin fit into the master narrative of California history was unclear. Until I got to college, I learned nothing about California’s Mexican period (1821-1848). And while I didn’t encounter the word Tovaangar until I was well into my 40s, I learned where Mallorca, Serra’s birthplace, was when I was in the fourth grade.

*          *          *

Figure 5: The author working on her model of Mission San Carlos Borroméo de Carmelo, 1979. Original photo by the author’s father

In California schools, state history is taught in the fourth grade. For generations, the mission project has been a hallmark of the fourth-grade curriculum.[3] Using two quart-size milk cartons for bell towers, homemade yogurt as plaster, and Fisher-Price Little People, my parents and I built a model of Mission San Carlos Borroméo de Carmelo (Figure 5). Like Mission San Gabriel, Mission Carmel was founded by Serra. Of the twenty-one missions, Carmel was reputed to be his “personal favorite.” With its tall, thick walls and high, narrow windows, Mission San Gabriel, the site of multiple uprisings by Native Americans, has the air of a fortress.[4] Carmel, in contrast, is the apotheosis of California’s Spanish fantasy. Its lush courtyard and blue tile fountain belie its role in the enslavement, starvation, torture, and decimation of the indigenous Ohlone and Esselen peoples.  

The Spanish fantasy, a conceit identified and named by journalist, author, and lawyer Carey McWilliams in 1946, is “a fictionalized past exploited by Los Angeles ‘Boosters’ bent on transforming the region into the cultural and economic capital of the West.”[5] In that fantasy, “the Indians were devoted to the Franciscans…their true friends,” while the lay colonizers, genteel dons and pretty señoritas, “lived out days of beautiful indolence.”[6] Poet Caroline Randall Williams reminds us that the South’s “prosperity and sense of romance and nostalgia were built upon the grievous exploitation of black life.” Likewise, the Spanish fantasy obscures and distorts the violence of indigenous and Mexican dispossession in California.

Figure 6: Gateway Plaza Monument, Alhambra, California, August 2020. Photo by the author.
Figure 7: Alhambra High School, Alhambra, California, August 2020. Photo by author.

While the missions have long been associated with the Spanish fantasy, they aren’t its only avatars. The Spanish fantasy permeates the very geography of the San Gabriel Valley. Alhambra, a municipality on the western edge of the SGV, offers a uniquely orientalist take on that fantasy. In 1874, Benjamin “Don Benito” Wilson, a white trapper and trader originally from Tennessee who’d married into a prominent Californio family, bought 275 acres of land about three miles southwest of Mission San Gabriel. He named his purchase Alhambra, after the storied Islamic fortress-palace in Granada, Spain. According to the city of Alhambra website, he chose this name not because of the nearby mission’s Moorish architecture, but simply because his daughter happened to be reading Washington Irving’s 1832 book Tales of the Alhambra. Today, the Gateway Plaza Monument (Figure 6), a replica of the eleventh-century Puerta de Elvira in Granada, sits near the corner of Fremont Avenue and Valley Boulevard.[7] The Gateway Plaza Monument also figures prominently in the Alhambra city logo. Alhambra High School’s mascot is the Moor (Figure 7). I learned to swim in the public pool at Granada Park and I attended quinceañeras, wedding receptions, memorial services and a concert by the ‘80s disco group Tapps at Almansor Court (Figure 8), a banquet hall in Almansor Park. (Almansor, a variation of Almanzor and al-Mansur, was the ruler of Islamic Iberia in the late tenth century.)   

Figure 8: Almansor Court, Alhambra, California, August 2020. Photo by the author.

In addition to erasing Native Californians, the Spanish fantasy erases Mexicans.[8] It replaces both groups with exotic and distant Moors or sanitized and proximate (vis-à-vis other Europeans) Spaniards. Thus, it should come as no surprise that some Mexican Americans have tried to insert Mexicans into the Spanish fantasy as a means of claiming a part of California’s past. Writing about conflicts in the 1960s and ‘70s over California’s fourth-grade mission curriculum, historian Zevi Gutfreund observes that accommodationist Mexican Americans “believed that teaching missions tied their heritage to state history in a powerful way….They believed that accepting the mission myth forged ties to white privilege.”[9] To further solidify the ties between eighteenth-century Spanish colonizers and twenty-first century Latinxs, Pope Francis declared Serra “special patron of the Hispanic people” when he canonized the Franciscan missionary in 2015. What’s more, the pope upheld Serra as “one of the founding fathers of the United States,” thereby rendering Mexicans and other Latinxs “worthy of inclusion as true Americans.”[10] Once again, the pioneer — a settler colonial, in other words — is cast as the true American. When displaced by the white pioneer, Mexicans are victims of settler colonialism. When we become the pioneer, we are agents of it.

*          *          *

Serra’s canonization and the reckoning over monuments that the Black Lives Matter movement has compelled have brought renewed scrutiny to the missionary and his likeness. On September 27, 2015, four days after his canonization, a person or group of people broke into Mission Carmel, where Serra died and is buried. The bronze statue of Serra in the courtyard was toppled and “Saint of Genocide” was scrawled across a stone. Statues of Serra have also been defaced or torn down at the missions in San Fernando, Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Rafael, in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, in Capitol Park in Sacramento, and in Father Serra Park in downtown LA.[11]

Figure 9: The author’s parents and children at Mission San Gabriel, June 2020. Photo by the author.

On June 20, 2020, the day that indigenous activists felled the statue in Father Serra Park, I happened to take my elderly parents and teenage children to Mission San Gabriel. I’m not religious, but I have fond memories of the mission. Moreover, after three months cooped up at home because of the coronavirus pandemic, we were simply desperate to go somewhere. Unaware of what was happening at Father Serra Park, I wagered that driving past the mission was a relatively low-risk activity. The mission was closed, but I was able to take a photo of my family with the Serra statue near the chapel’s main entrance (Figure 9). Although my parents and kids are wearing masks, it’s evident that no one is smiling. Shortly after I snapped that photo, mission authorities moved the statue to an interior garden, away from public view. Then, in the pre-dawn hours of July 11, 2020, a day after $200,000 in renovations had been completed, a fire erupted at Mission San Gabriel. The fire damaged much of the chapel’s interior and destroyed its roof. After a nine-month investigation, the LA County District Attorney charged a man with arson and other counts. No motive for the fire was given.

When I first heard about the fire, I thought I felt ambivalent about it. I shared the outrage and triumph of the protestors in Bristol, England, who, in June of 2020, tore down and pounced on that city’s late-nineteenth-century bronze statue of the seventeenth-century slaver Edward Colston before hurling said statue into Bristol Harbor. Similarly, when I saw over the summer of 2020 how protestors in Richmond, Virginia, had transformed the late-nineteenth-century bronze Robert E. Lee Monument by covering it with images and “names of victims of police violence, protest chants, calls for compassion, revolutionary symbols and anti-police slogans in dozens of colors,” I felt a wrong had been righted, even if only for a moment. Then I admitted to myself that, irrespective of the cause of the fire at the mission, I felt more sadness and loss than ambivalence about it. Undeniably, Mission San Gabriel testifies to the violent past and present of settler colonialism and indigenous dispossession and displacement. So, too, do the White House, the Statue of Liberty, Alhambra’s Gateway Plaza Monument, and the post-World War II tract home in which I grew up. At the same time, Mission San Gabriel, not unlike these aforementioned sites, holds memories and meaning for many.

Above all, Tongva labor, artistry, and survival are manifest at Mission San Gabriel. As art historian Yve Chavez has pointed out,

My Tongva ancestors lived and died at Mission San Gabriel….A visitor unfamiliar with the true history of the missions…may not recognize the Native labor that made this church and other mission buildings….These structures are not just about Spanish colonization…they also reflect the accommodations that Native peoples made under very difficult circumstances: they learned new skills to construct buildings that were not adapted to California’s earthquake-prone environment; they attended mass in the churches either against their will or maybe reluctantly; and they also made these spaces their own. 

Chavez has identified mission museums in particular as troves of “archival materials….made by our ancestors” and has called for increased access to those collections for Native scholars. In September 2020, she noted that “only one of the twenty-one missions has a Native curator.” “The recent fire at Mission San Gabriel,” she stressed, “…is a reminder of the fragility of the historic churches and other buildings that remain at these sites….The missions need Native scholars.” The fire at Mission San Gabriel wrecked not only a living place of worship — of baptisms, quinceañeras, weddings, funerals, and ofrecering — but an irreplaceable primary source and a living connection to the past.

If, as the folks at Monument Lab remind us, a monument is a statement of power and presence in public, then the missions were and are monuments. The Spaniards forced Native Californians to build them, accommodationist Mexican Americans have embraced them, and protestors target them precisely because these structures were and remain statements of power and presence in public. Yet Chavez’s call to “indigenize mission narratives” underscores the need to rethink our, including and especially Chicanxs’, relationship to monuments.

Like lots of people of Mexican origin, I’m of indigenous North American and Iberian descent. While I’m a beneficiary of settler colonialism and indigenous dispossession — I write these words in my house in Santa Cruz, unceded territory of the Awaswas-speaking Uypi Tribe — I reject monuments of Serra and other colonizers, such as Juan de Oñate and Christopher Columbus. These men, problematic in their own time and today, aren’t my heroes. Inviting or compelling me, other Latinxs, and immigrants to identify with and to celebrate them lays bare the violence of assimilation and settler colonial erasure. Rather than reproduce that violence, I seek new ways of remembering and new relationships among past, present, and future.   

*          *          *

Figure 10: Rendering of the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial’s Meditative Sitting areas. Illustration used with the permission of Sandra de la Loza and Arturo Romo.

With the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial, artists Sandra de la Loza and Arturo Romo offer a new vision of the matrix of history, society, and environment. They also offer a new way to link past, present, and future. At the time of this writing (July 2021), funding for the construction of the memorial hasn’t yet been secured, so it’s unclear if it will ever be built. Still, the time is nigh for a new kind of monument in the United States. Because we are, as journalist Mychal Denzel Smith reminds us, Americans “through force, choice, or happenstance,” we need monuments that confront the complex and contradictory roles we play as displacers and displaced.[12] We need monuments that grapple with what critical Latinx indigeneities scholar Maylei Blackwell calls “layers of coloniality,” such as Spanish, Mexican, and U.S. colonialities.[13] We need monuments that rethink power and presence, including indigenous presence. And we need monuments that allow us to heal without forgetting.

The Sleepy Lagoon incident took place in the early morning hours of August 2, 1942, about eight miles southeast of downtown LA, near the intersection of what are now South Atlantic and Bandini Boulevards. The incident involved a couple of fights between groups of Mexicans and Mexican Americans: the first at Sleepy Lagoon, a quarry pit that doubled as a swimming hole, and the second at a party at nearby Williams Ranch. José Díaz, a twenty-two-year-old Mexican immigrant, attended that party. After his bloody and battered body was found outside the hosts’ house, police rounded up hundreds of Mexican American youths as suspects in his murder. Twenty-two young men from the nearby 38th Street neighborhood, all but one of whom were of Mexican descent, were tried and convicted of conspiracy to murder. Ten girls and young women ranging in age from thirteen to twenty-one were held as witnesses in what came to be known as the Sleepy Lagoon case. At least five of those girls and young women were incarcerated at the Ventura School for Girls, while their male counterparts entered the California prison system. Teachers, cops, academics, social workers, the mainstream Angeleno press, and the judge and district attorney in the Sleepy Lagoon case branded Mexican American youths gang members. The zoot look, a style of dress popular among not only some of the participants in the Sleepy Lagoon incident, but among young, working-class Americans in general, was declared the uniform of the Mexican American delinquent.[14]

The Sleepy Lagoon incident catapulted the figure of the Mexican American gangster into the American imaginary. It also foreshadowed the Zoot Suit Riots, clashes in LA between white servicemen and people of color over the first two weeks of June 1943. During the so-called riots, white servicemen attacked Mexican American zooters and people of color in general. The police did nothing or they arrested the servicemen’s victims.  

The Sleepy Lagoon incident and its aftermath exemplify state-sanctioned violence against people of color. In these events, we see elements of the carceral state, such as racial profiling, stop and frisk, and the gang injunction. We see heightened xenophobia and jingoism, the destructive power of yellow journalism, and bitter contests over public space in a city rapidly morphing into an industrial, highly segregated metropolis. And in the zoot suit, we see a syncretic, interracial, urban youth culture with roots in African American jazz. The Sleepy Lagoon incident, Zoot Suit Riots, and World War II-era zoot subculture loom large in Chicanx cultural production. They’re also a part of many family histories, including my own. My uncles and aunts, for example, wore variations of the zoot look, such as baggy trousers and high bouffants, and my father remembers the Sleepy Lagoon case and the Zoot Suit Riots. However, there are no markers in LA (or anywhere else) commemorating Sleepy Lagoon, the Zoot Suit Riots, or the zoot subculture. As Los Angeles Times reporter Carolina A. Miranda has observed, these “oversights…speak volumes about the histories our city considers worth honoring and those it has chosen to overlook.”

The Sleepy Lagoon Memorial would help remedy these oversights. However, as de la Loza informed me, it wouldn’t “exalt” a particular individual or “a singular event.”[15] Instead, it rethinks the very idea of the monument. Spanning approximately 150 yards in Riverfront Park in the city of Maywood, the memorial would consist of multiple parts, including a path; a swale containing native plants, such as California Sagebrush, milkweed, and prickly pear cactus; works of art, such as concrete sculptures and designs on the ground; and seated elements, such as a bench and sculptures in the form of tree stumps (Figure 10). In homage to the Tongva and “current indigenous diasporic communities in Bell, Maywood and surrounding communities,” the tree stump seats would be modeled after trees “native to one of the many cultures that have inhabited Southeast Los Angeles, past and present.” For example, some would be modeled after the California Oak and the Ceiba of Mexico and Central America. Similarly, signage would be in English, Spanish, Tongva, Nahuatl, and Mayan.[16]

To design the memorial, de la Loza and Romo consulted archives, community members, plant experts, historians, and Tongva cultural leaders. They also collaborated with DakeLuna, a landscape architecture firm focusing on “local and regional conservation and watershed issues,” and East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, an organization that works toward “a safe and healthy environment for communities that are disproportionately suffering the negative impacts of industrial pollution” in East LA, Southeast LA, and Long Beach.[17] The city of Bell and the San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy, a branch of the California Resources Agency, underwrote the cost of the design.[18] 

Riverfront Park is located on the western edge of the Los Angeles River, about two miles southwest from where Sleepy Lagoon and Williams Ranch used to be. The 7.3-acre park opened in 2008 as part of the LA River Master Plan, a vision of “shared public open space and parks, stewardship of precious water resources, improved ecosystem function, and continued flood management” along the river from the San Fernando Valley to Long Beach. Riverfront Park was selected as the site for the memorial because, as Romo explained, “People wanted a monument that they could visit in a place that was accessible already.”[19] Warehouses, parking lots, and the 710 freeway occupy what used to be Sleepy Lagoon and Williams Ranch. Not unlike Dodger Stadium, former site of the vibrant Mexican American neighborhood of Chavez Ravine, these structures concretize historical erasure.  

In addition to undoing that erasure, the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial would offer “ecological remediation.”[20] The area where Sleepy Lagoon and Williams Ranch used to be was once somewhat rural. Today, it’s one of the most densely populated and polluted corners of LA County. Riverfront Park is roughly three miles from Exide Technologies, the source of one of the worst environmental and public health disasters in California and a textbook example of environmental racism. From 1922 until its closure in 2014, the smelter and battery recycling plant at Exide spewed lead, arsenic, and other toxins known to cause cancer, respiratory problems, and learning disabilities into the communities of Bell, Boyle Heights, Commerce, East LA, Huntington Park, Maywood, and Vernon. These communities are predominantly Latinx and about one-third of their residents live in poverty.[21] In October 2020, a federal judge approved Exide’s bankruptcy plan, effectively punting the cost of cleaning up its former facility and its environs to taxpayers.   

Figure 11: Rendering of the mural on the back of the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial’s Whispering Wall and Bench. Illustration used with permission of Sandra de la Loza and Arturo Romo.

Intertwining past, present, and future and the social and ecological, the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial reckons with the violence committed against the peoples, plants, and animals in and around what used to be Sleepy Lagoon. The memorial also celebrates the persistence and resilience of human and non-human life. Parts of the memorial resemble what de la Loza described as “more formal” monuments.[22] For example, the bas-relief mural on the back of the Whispering Wall and Bench (Figure 11) features images of pachucas and pachucos. Meanwhile, the swale that the bench overlooks evokes Sleepy Lagoon, the “gravel pit” that Mexican American youths transformed into a swimming hole because they were often denied access to segregated public pools.[23] The native plants filling the swale were selected not only in honor of “the ecologies that have been displaced through development,” but also because they help with stormwater filtration and soil remediation.[24]

Like the missions and statues of Serra, the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial would be a statement of power and presence in public. Yet rather than projecting white supremacy and inspiring terror, the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial sets out to heal historical, social, and physical wounds. It remedies the omission of Latinxs from dominant narratives of Angeleno history while acknowledging LA’s past and present indigenous peoples. It reminds us of the ongoing need to address profound social problems, such as police violence against communities of color and struggles over space, especially between poor, racialized communities and more powerful forces. And it beckons all of us to pay attention to the health of our planet, beginning with a corner of a park in a brown and working-class neighborhood.    

About a year after I photographed my family in front of a shuttered Mission San Gabriel, my parents and I visited Riverfront Park. The scene couldn’t have been more different from the stillness, solitude, and severity of the previous year. People were enjoying the Saturday-afternoon sun and one another’s company. Children scampered in the playground and on the basketball court, men hurled balls against the walls of the handball courts with the intensity of Olympians, and friends and families picnicked under the pavilions and on the grass. Some picnickers napped in hammocks they’d hung beneath the pavilions and between trees. A paletero competed with an ice cream truck playing “Turkey in the Straw” over and over and an occasional light breeze carried the scent of weed. As we strolled along the park’s path, my father told me about living in Maywood as a small boy in the 1920s. He and his family moved there from Arizona because his father got a job with Standard Oil. My father wasn’t sure what his dad did for Standard Oil. However, in all likelihood, my grandfather, a hardscrabble Mexican immigrant, found work after the Huntington Beach Oil Field, a string of oil pools stretching from Orange County to Santa Barbara, was tapped in 1920. Although I grew up in the SGV, I learned during our visit to Riverfront Park that I, too, am connected to Southeast LA’s braided histories of displacement, extractivisim, migration, exploitation, survival, and resilience.  


Figure 12: Rendering of the path and bridge in the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial. Illustration used with the permission of Sandra de la Loza and Arturo Romo.
Figure 13: Rendering of the front of the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial’s Whispering Wall and Bench, with a tree stump seat in the foreground. Illustration used with the permission of Sandra de la Loza and Arturo Romo.

Traditional monuments, like those of Serra, Oñate, Columbus, Colston, and Lee, are objects. In contrast, the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial would be an ecosystem, a system in which all parts are connected. Above all, it would be an alternative ecosystem to those of el Camino Real, the Spanish fantasy, and toxic capitalism. With its path and scattered seated elements, the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial brings together motion and stillness. The path (Figure 12) is an invitation to enter and to move through the memorial. Indeed, the life-size foot patterns on the bridge crossing the swale – a reference to jazz and the zoot-suiter’s dancing feet — instruct us to “move there” (“MUEVELE ALLI”). Meanwhile, the memorial’s seated elements are an invitation to stay. That the Whispering Wall, the memorial’s most monument-ish component, doubles as a bench is significant (Figure 13). A bench is a resting place. It gives us the opportunity to be still. In addition to transferring “the cultural and environmental knowledge and history of the area,” the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial seeks “to provide space for reflection and regeneration for present and future generations.”[25] Put another way, this expansive, dynamic, and living memorial invites us to stroll, to shake a leg, and then to sit down, to learn about what went down in and near where we’re seated, and to marvel at the living beings that have made and continue to make Tovaangar their home.

Acknowledgements
I thank Sandra de la Loza and Arturo Romo for sharing information and materials about the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial with me; my colleagues, Chris Benner, George Bunch, Ernesto Chavez, Yve Chavez, Sylvanna Falcón, Dana Frank, Dan Guevara, Rebecca Hernandez, Kate Jones, and Veronica Terriquez, for our conversations about missions, monuments, and the SGV; and Carribean Fragoza and Romeo Guzmán for their keen editorial skills. All errors and oversights in this essay are my own. 


Notes

[1] Wendy Cheng, The Changs Next Door to the Díazes: Remapping Race in Suburban California (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013). East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte, ed. Romeo Guzmán, Caribbean Fragoza, Alex Sayf Cummings, and Ryan Reft (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2020).

[2] Hubert Howe Bancroft, The Works of Hubert Howe Bancroft, Volume XIX: History of California, Vol. II, 1801-1824 (San Francisco: The History Company, 1886), 113.

[3] Zevi Gutfreund, “Standing Up to Sugar Cubes: The Contest over Ethnic Identity in California’s Fourth-Grade Mission Curriculum,” Southern California Quarterly 92, no. 2 (2010): 161-197.

[4] As early as 1771, the Tongva resisted the Spaniards’ incursions and abuses. As the Catholic News Agency has put it, “At the time [1771], Spanish soldiers in the area were occasionally provoking serious conflicts with the indigenous Tongva population. On one occasion, a Spanish solider raped two indigenous women….The indigenous community, angered by the soldiers’ abuses, at one point confronted the mission.” John Dietler, Heather Gibson, and Benjamin Vargas add, “At Mission San Gabriel, five major uprisings were documented through trial transcripts and missionary correspondence.” Perhaps the most celebrated revolt was the one planned and led in 1785 by Nicolás José, a neophyte, and Toypurina, a medicine woman. See Jonah McKeown, “Our Lady of Sorrows Painting Recovered from Burned California Mission Church,” Catholic News Agency, October 15, 2020, https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/our-lady-of-sorrows-painting-recovered-from-burned-california-mission-church-55051. John Dietler, Heather Gibson, and Benjamin Vargas, “’A Mourning Dirge Was Sung’: Community and Remembrance at Mission San Gabriel,” in Forging Communities in Alta California, ed. Kathleen L. Hull and John G. Douglass (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2018), 69; Steven W. Hackel, “Sources of Rebellion: Indian Testimony and the Mission San Gabriel Uprising of 1785,” Ethnohistory 50, no. 4 (2003): 643-669; and Cecilia Rasmussen, “Shaman and Freedom-Fighter Led Indians’ Mission Revolt,” Los Angeles Times, June 10, 2001, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2001-jun-10-me-8853-story.html.

[5] Rosa-Linda Fregoso, MeXicana Encounters: The Making of Social Identities on the Borderlands (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 103.

[6] Carey McWilliams, Southern California Country: An Island on the Land (New York: Duell, Sloane & Pearce, 1946), 22.

[7] Thanks to Ernie Chavez for pointing out the Gateway Plaza Monument’s resemblance to Puerta de Elvira.

[8] William Deverell, Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past (Berkeley: University of California, 2004). Phoebe Kropp, California Vieja: Culture and Memory in a Modern American Place (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

[9] Gutfreund 180-181.

[10] Baron L. Pineda, “’First Hispanic Pope, First Hispanic Saint’: Whiteness, Founding Fathers, and the Canonization of Friar Junípero Serra,” Latino Studies 16 (2018): 287.

[11] Carolina A. Miranda, “Father Serra’s Fall from Grace: The Toppling of the Sainted Friar’s Statue in L.A. Signals Hope for a Reframed State History,” Los Angeles Times, June 22, 2020: E1.

[12] Mychal Denzel Smith, Stakes Is High: Life after the American Dream (New York: Bold Type Books, 2020), 37.

[13] Maylei Blackwell, “Indigeneity,” in Keywords for Latina/o Studies, ed. Deborah R. Vargas, Nancy Raquel Mirabal, and Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes (New York: New York University Press, 2017), 100.

[14] Catherine S. Ramírez, The Woman in the Zoot Suit: Gender, Nationalism, and the Cultural Politics of Memory (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009). Elizabeth R. Escobedo, From Coveralls to Zoot Suits: The Lives of Mexican American Women on the World War II Home Front (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

[15] Author’s interview with Sandra de la Loza and Arturo Romo, December 3, 2020 (in author’s possession). I base my descriptions of the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial on this interview and on the design materials the artists generously shared with me.

[16] Arturo Romo and Sandra de la Loza, “Final Concept Design Narrative: Sleepy Lagoon Memorial,” June 25, 2020 (in possession of author).

[17] Carolina A. Miranda, “Goodbye, Guy on a Horse: A New Wave of Monument Design Is Changing How We Honor History,” Los Angeles Times, July 23, 2020, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2020-07-23/momument-debate-honor-history-new-design-goodbye-guy-on-a-horse

[18] Author’s interview with de la Loza and Romo.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] According to 2019 Census data, 98.4% of the residents of Maywood, for example, are Latinx.

[22] Author’s interview with de la Loza and Romo.

[23] Carey McWilliams, North from Mexico: The Spanish-Speaking People of the United States, 2nd Edition (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1990), 207.

[24] Romo and de la Loza, “Final Concept Design Narrative.”

[25] Ibid.

Catherine S. Ramírez, chair of the Latin American and Latino Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is a scholar of Mexican American history; race, migration, and citizenship; Latinx literature and visual culture; comparative ethnic studies; gender studies; and speculative fiction. She is the author of Assimilation: An Alternative History and The Woman in the Zoot Suit: Gender, Nationalism, and the Cultural Politics of Memory and she is a co-editor of Precarity and Belonging: Labor, Migration, and Noncitizenship. She has also written for the New York TimesThe Atlantic, and Public Books

Articles

Deeply Rooted: Immigrants and the Hidden Histories of California’s Wine Industry

Julia Ornelas-Higdon

California’s contemporary wine industry has the allure of an exclusive product created by and for privileged populations. Mediterranean-inspired wineries and gentle rolling hills covered with lush vineyards dot landscapes across the state. California boasts varied wine regions extending from Napa and Sonoma, to the Central Coast, to Temecula, and to the Central Valley and beyond. Often portrayed as the purview of Italian-Americans, the state’s twentieth-century wine industry rose to prominence in the post-WWII decades and made some of California’s most storied wine houses, such as Mondavi, Gallo, and Sebastiani, household names. Further, the industry’s focus on its postwar development has built a romantic veneer around California wine that obscures its diverse, working-class roots. By looking backwards to the origins of the California wine industry, historians can claim a space for the racialized groups who built the industry and who have been rendered invisible in its most recent iterations. This history also destabilizes race and class boundaries, ultimately questioning and redefining what it means to belong in the contemporary wine industry.  

In the last twenty years, prominent Mexican-American wineries have emerged to challenge stereotypes about who represents the “typical” California winemaker. Media coverage about Robledo, Mi Sueño, Mario Bazan Cellar, Maldonado Vineyards, and Ceja in Napa and Sonoma has celebrated the growth of these wineries, which collaborated to organize the Mexican-American Vintners Association (MAVA) in 2010.[1] Many of the MAVA member wineries were founded and directed by working-class Mexican immigrants and their Mexican-American children.[2] They developed from their respective families’ Mexican immigrant roots as well as from decades of expertise as vineyard workers. As L. Stephen Velasquez has argued, “The transnational migrants’ sense of cultural identity and the traditions they brought from various regions in Mexico helped build Napa-Sonoma wineries and enabled these families to move from vineyard workers to winemakers and vineyard owners. The stories of these families’ migration, hard work, and success illustrate the American dream….” In doing so, Mexican-American winemakers have used their work to achieve “economic and social inclusion.” [3] Despite this, their histories are relatively limited within the literature on the contemporary wine industry, with the exception of scholars like Velasquez who have begun to explore this work.[4]

Mexican-American winemakers also have been featured in recent cultural productions.The 2019 documentary, “Harvest Season” profiled Mexican-American winemakers and migrant workers within the California wine industry. The Smithsonian National Museum of American History highlighted the contributions of Mexican-Americans to the wine industry in its exhibit, “Food: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000.”[5] The Smithsonian exhibition of “La Familia Robledo” displayed items from the Robledo Family Winery, including family patriarch Reynaldo Robledo’s hat, tools, and a wine label from their 2004 vintage of Los Braceros. This red wine honors the Mexican migrant workers who labored in the Bracero program in the 1950s and 1960s. Significantly, Los Braceros puts vineyard workers—who are usually relegated to the background and rendered invisible to the consumer—prominently on display and implicitly recognizes their contributions in creating the finished product, wine. Los Braceros challenges contemporary stereotypes about California wines by highlighting the reality of who is working behind the scenes to produce the beverage in that bottle. (And yes, I have personally sampled Los Braceros—for research purposes, of course—and it is sublime.)

Despite the success of Mexican-American wineries like Robledo, and their families’ long histories in Napa and Sonoma, they are still portrayed as novelties and atypical wineries. And, wine labels similar to that of Los Braceros thatpresent farmworkers as the public face of the industry remain the exception. The continued success of Robledo and other MAVA wineries challenges dominant, white-only narratives about the wine industry in the twenty-first century. Their visibility within the industry helps assert the right of Mexican immigrants, especially agricultural workers, to be in the United States during a period where these rights are continually violated and challenged.

Los Braceros Wine Label

By ignoring the industry’s history before the twentieth century, we obscure the multiethnic, working-class roots of California’s historic wine industry that reframe the novelty of Mexican-American family wineries as part of a more complex and varied legacy. If we look to the origins of winegrowing in California during the eighteenth-century Spanish colonization of Alta California and move forward into the wine industry’s commercialization in the nineteenth century, it becomes apparent that California’s wine industry was born out of the labor of multiracial, working-class immigrants. These included California Indians and Mexican-Californios, as well as EuroAmerican, Chinese, and German migrants. Between the 1780s and the 1880s, these laborers and winegrowers transformed regional landscapes by importing foreign grape varietals, planting new vineyards, and producing California’s first vintages. Along with Native Californians, these racialized immigrant groups were fundamental in building the nascent wine industry all while they were largely excluded from citizenship in California. As such, the wine industry emerged as part of a larger system of race-making and citizenship formation at play in nineteenth-century California.  

This article reveals the importance of these groups, and not just Italian-Americans, in establishing one of California’s most storied agricultural industries. Although popular books about the twentieth-century wine industry predominate in comparison to scholarship about the  pre-World War II wine industry, historians have begun to explore the complex roots of winegrowing in California.[6] This article builds on this existing literature by examining the wine industry’s varied immigrant and working-class growers and laborers, and by claiming a place for California Indians, who are often left out of contemporary conversations about the region’s history. Although Italian-Americans certainly were instrumental in shaping the wine industry we know today, they did not actually enter the scene in large numbers until the late nineteenth century, roughly one hundred years after winegrowing was first established in California. More importantly, their successes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries grew out of the foundation built by the laborers and winemakers who preceded them. Thus, while wineries founded by immigrant laborers and their children might seem like a novelty in the twenty-first century wine industry, in actuality, they are far from anomalous when situated within the broader scope of its historic origins. I argue that exploring its nineteenth-century roots reveals a complex wine industry. This hidden history challenges elite, white-only narratives that predominate within the contemporary California wine industry and highlights the historical erasure of Native Californians and other ethnic agricultural workers.

Mission Origins, Immigrant Roots: Historical overview of the California Wine Industry

As with many other agricultural ventures in California, the roots of viticulture and winemaking lie in the mission system. Under the leadership of Junípero Serra, the Franciscans constructed mission outposts up and down the coast of Alta California beginning with San Diego Alcala in 1769. After the construction of mission churches, the Franciscans’ key priority was to establish formal agricultural cultivation. First, instructing Indians in the agricultural arts were part of the process of Hispanicization, which furthered the Spanish conquest and colonization of Alta California.[7] Second, doing so would secure a regular supply of food that could sustain the missions. Still, scarcity plagued the missions throughout the 1770s. In his frequent letters to government officials and church leaders in Mexico City, Junípero Serra frequently pleaded for materials, especially religious and liturgical goods to furnish the new missions and allow for further expansion.[8] Without fundamental religious items—such as candles, crucifixes, and  eucharistic hosts—the Franciscans could not carry out their primary objective, to convert and baptize Indian neophytes. These shortages included sacramental wine, which was of paramount importance to the Franciscans. They could not say the mass without access to a regular supply of wine, which had to be shipped from Mexico; this threatened to hamper their evangelization.[9] To remedy these shortages, the Franciscans directed mission Indians to begin planting the region’s first vineyards in the late 1770s at San Juan Capistrano and San Gabriel, with the first mission wines produced in the mid-1780s.[10]

The success of mission vineyards relied on the migration of plants, ideas, and, most significantly, of people. Because native California grape varietals are not suitable for wine, the Franciscans imported vitis vinifera grape vines from the Iberian Peninsula via Mexico.[11] More importantly, the Franciscans relied heavily on the expertise and labor of Indians from Baja California, who migrated north with the Franciscans.[12] These campesinos serve as liaisons between the Franciscans and local Indians, teaching and supervising their labor in constructing mission buildings and in clearing fields, planting, irrigating, and harvesting crops.

At its core, winegrowing was established for the sole purpose of furthering the conquest and colonization of Alta California. Wine was not simply a beverage, but rather was a tool of conquest. The Franciscans used viticulture to Hispanicize California Indians, and they used wine produced from mission grapes to convert them to Christianity. Indian laborers planted vineyards, brought in the harvest, and crushed the grapes. In doing so, mission Indians literally sowed the seeds of viticulture and wine in California. Because the Franciscans used agricultural labor to further conquest, they often eschewed modern farming methods that had the potential to make vineyard labor easier on Indian farmworkers. For example, they implemented recommendations from an antiquated Spanish agricultural manual, which meant that Indians pruned grape vines using the “head-pruning” method, essentially training vines to grow into low bushes instead of along wires, trellises, and posts.[13] This did lessen the labor initially required to plant vineyards, but the bending required to prune and harvest the grapes was especially strenuous. This was in keeping with labor across the missions, which consisted of backbreaking stoop labor and other farm work that was not mechanized until the 1820s, long after mechanized cultivation reached other regions of North America.[14]

During the Franciscans’ fifty-year tenure in Alta California, winegrowing remained a largely non-commercial venture. Although there was limited trade of wine between the missions, presidios, and pueblos of Alta California, and evidence of illicit alcohol sales (particularly to Indians, who were prohibited by law from enjoying the fruits of their labors outside of the mass), Spanish colonial laws restricted the wine trade. Winegrowing took a commercial turn following a series of political events that dramatically altered California. First, Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1822 opened California to foreign traders. Second, the Mexican government passed the Colonization Act of 1824 to entice colonists to its northwestern frontier.[15] Finally, in 1833 the secularization of the missions opened up vast tracts of land originally intended for Indians, but which ended up in the hands of large-scale land owners.[16]

Together, these legal changes directly led to the expansion of viticulture around the southern missions and the Pueblos of Los Angeles.[17] Plentiful lands were available on which newcomers could plant vineyards, as were markets to trade in wines and aguardiente.[18] The vineyardists and vintners driving this commercial turn included Mexican-Californios of the elite ranchero class and immigrants from Europe and the United States. In addition to their work as cattle ranchers, Californios Tomás Yorba and Vicenta Sepúlveda Yorba produced wine and aguardiente from their vineyards at Rancho Cañon de Santa Ana. They traded their ranch goods, including hides, tallow, wine, and aguardiente, with Americans like William Heath Davis.[19] Likewise, French immigrant Jean Louis Vignes arrived in Los Angeles in 1833. He purchased one hundred acres in the center of the Pueblo of Los Angeles near the river, naming his land El Aliso and renaming himself Don Luis Vignes to assimilate into Mexican-Californio culture. While his previous ventures in France and the Sandwich Islands have failed, in California he found success. Vignes planted extensive vineyards and orange orchards and built a winery and brandy distillery. Vignes likely produced his first vintage in 1837; by the early 1840s, he was shipping his wines across California.[20]

One aspect of winegrowing that did not change after secularization was that former mission Indians continued to labor in vineyards and wineries on lands previously belonging to the missions, but that were now owned by Californios and other immigrant landowners. In short, these two groups benefited from the continued racialization and exclusion of Indians outside the parameters of citizenship and landownership in Mexican California. At Rancho Cañon de Santa Ana, Tomás Yorba and Vicenta Sepúlveda Yorba relied on former Mission Indians who had previously lived at San Gabriel and San Juan Capistrano.[21] By mid-1830s, they employed nearly seventy Indians across their ranch.[22] Likewise, Don Luis Vignes hired Gabreliño Indians from the nearby San Gabriel Mission to tend his orchards and vineyards. Although Indians continued to work in a state of servitude on newly expanded vineyards, their lives were not as regimented as they had been in the missions. Landowners did not force Indians to live according to prescribed religious programs, nor did they control every aspect of Indians’ lives.[23] As with Spanish law, Mexican laws ostensibly prohibited Indians from legally purchasing alcohol, but this did not prevent winemakers from selling wine and aguardiente to Indians. Thus, this second generation of Mexican-Californio and immigrant winegrowers was responsible for forging California’s first commercialized wine industry, which continued to be driven by Indian labor. Yet, they found ways to categorize Indians as second-class citizens, including their continued exclusion from the privilege of enjoying wine, the product of their labor.  

The wine industry evolved yet again between the 1850s and 1880s following the American conquest of California. Scholars have demonstrated how American legal and economic systems, the racial exclusion of former Mexican citizens, and violence all functioned to reorganize the power and wealth in California, ultimately dispossessing Mexican-Californios of their land and property rights.[24] A new influx of EuroAmerican immigrant vineyardists and winemakers were part of this group of new landowners that emerged in the decades following the Mexican-American War. They further commercialized and professionalized the industry by organizing trade groups and lobbying for government assistance.[25] As they did so, these American newcomers helped to redefine the boundaries whiteness and citizenship away from their previous understandings in Spanish and Mexican California. Beginning in the 1860s, German immigrants emerged as a group of influential winegrowers in the Los Angeles area, which continued as the state’s hub of winegrowing. In 1854, German musicians John Frohling and Charles Kohler left San Francisco to become winegrowers in Los Angeles.[26] There, they purchased a vineyard and founded Kohler & Frohling Winery. By 1858, their wines were earning prizes at state agricultural fairs.[27] The winery was so successful that the firm collaborated with George Hansen, a Los Angeles surveyor, to establish a vineyard colony, which could sell grapes to their winery and allow for increased production.[28] Incorporated in 1857, the Los Angeles Vineyard Society was formed as a joint-stock company by a group of German immigrants from San Francisco. The company purchased land along the Santa Ana River, planted vineyards, and built a town, Anaheim.[29]  Within ten years, Anaheim’s winegrowers claimed that their vineyards were producing six hundred thousand gallons of wine annually; although this was likely an overestimation, Anaheim’s growers were recognized among the most productive in the state.[30] Likewise, German immigrant Leonard J. Rose arrived in Los Angeles in the early 1860s. He settled in the San Gabriel Valley on a ranch he called Sunny Slope and soon established himself as a vineyardist and horse breeder. By the 1880s, his winery was producing four hundred thousand gallons of wine and one hundred thousand gallons of brandy annually.[31]

This period also witnessed the continued influence of other European immigrants. Mathew Keller, an Irish immigrant, established a productive vineyard in Los Angeles.[32] Pierre and Jean-Louis Sansevain (nephews of Jean Louis Vignes) had purchased their uncle’s vineyard and winery, El Aliso, in the early 1850s. They expanded production, built new wine cellars, and were known for their award-winning, unadulterated wines.[33] A Hungarian immigrant with a colorful past, Agoston Haraszthy was a well-known winegrower in Sonoma.[34] Haraszthy emerged as a vocal leader within agricultural trade groups, even traveling to Europe on behalf of the California State Agricultural Society to gather grape varietals and learn about best practices from the continent’s best wine regions.[35]

At the same these time new immigrants replaced Mexican-Californio winegrowers and landowners, the decline of California Indians in the 1860s brought different groups of racialized workers to the state’s vineyards and wineries—groups whose race and class status continued to render them ineligible for citizenship in American California.Many growers hired working-class Mexicans and Indians from other parts of the southwest. For a period, Anaheim’s vineyardists employed Yaqui Indians from Arizona and northern Mexico who had fled the Sonoran borderlands to escape war with the Mexican government.[36] Leonard J. Rose regularly hired crews of “Mexican peons” from the nearby rancheria to work in his vineyards at Sunny Slope.[37] Chinese immigrants also worked in vineyards, particularly as they came off working on the transcontinental railroad in the 1870s. Even in the wake of growing anti-Chinese sentiment in California during the 1870s, and with the rise of federal Chinese exclusion in 1882, winegrowers sought out crews of Chinese vineyard workers.[38] Between the 1850s and 1870s, the colonists at Anaheim sent for Chinese workers from San Francisco several times and eventually established a segregated Chinatown in town. [39] For Anaheim’s growers, the Chinese “proved to be good farmers, were industrious, sober, clean, peaceful and in every way a welcome contrast to the Indians.”[40] At Sunny Slope, Leonard J. Rose employed Chinese workers because they were “absolutely dependable and honest, rarely losing a day and seldom quitting their jobs.”[41] Agoston Haraszthy hired crews of Chinese workers to clear land and plant over seventy thousand vines at Buena Vista Vineyard.[42] Using their experience with dynamite from the railroads, they dug hundred feet of tunnels to construct wine cellars at Buena Vista.[43] Leland Stanford also relied on Chinese laborers to tend his vineyards at Vina Ranch in the Sierra Nevada foothills and faced angry pushback from anti-Chinese nativists in the surrounding areas.[44]Growers favored the Chinese because they stereotyped them as being more docile than other populations, and because they could pay them lower wages.[45] Indeed, these presumed characteristics which excluded the Chinese from access to landownership and citizenship rights made them ideal workers from the perspective of vineyard owners.

At its core, these first iterations of the California wine industry emerged from the labor of diverse groups. This historic wine industry drew from the various populations of immigrants—Chinese, German, and Irish, among others—pouring into nineteenth-century California, and put them side-by-side with California Indians and Mexican-Californios. From landowners to vineyard workers, vineyards and wineries were unique spaces where diverse groups interacted and worked together. Most importantly, racialized vineyard and winery workers built the industry.They cleared land for vineyards, planted grape vines, harvested the grapes, and crushed them with their feet. At the same time they engaged in this important work, racialized Indian, Mexican, and Chinese laborers were largely excluded from the boundaries of citizenship in nineteenth-century California. As such, their contributions to building the wine industry have been largely forgotten and ignored.

In the late nineteenth century, a series of environmental and economic catastrophes nearly crippled the California wine industry, marking another pivot in the business.[46] At this juncture, a group of enterprising Italian-Americans based in San Francisco reorganized and modernized the wine industry, helping to save it from demise. Within the complex racial hierarchies of California, immigrant winemakers and entrepreneurs from northern Italy were able to capitalize on their ambiguous racial status in ways that Chinese and working-class Mexicans in California, and even southern Italian immigrants working in the eastern industries were not.[47] As Simone Cinotto has argued, these immigrant winemakers had access to “rights from which Asian immigrants were legally deprived, such as naturalization and landowning, and that were de facto denied to Mexicans by virtue of their colonized status,” which, in in turn, allowed Italian immigrants to “envision a path of mobility to independent occupations as farmers and winemakers—a social condition so deeply entrenched with the notions of freedom and whiteness in the United States.”[48] Ultimately, these northern Italian immigrants occupied a racial “middle-ground” that provided access to the privileges associated with whiteness in California, such as landownership and capital, that enabled them to pursue wine cultivation not as wage workers, but as vineyardists and wine entrepreneurs.

The Italian-Swiss Colony was founded by prominent Italian-American merchants in San Francisco under the leadership of Andrea Sbarboro, who spearheaded the purchase of their land, Asti, in Sonoma County. Although the company struggled in its early years, it took off in the late 1880s when Pietro Carlo Rossi took over management of the company. Rossi implemented modern winemaking techniques that enabled the Italian-Swiss Colony to standardize bulk production of wine and ship its product to national and international markets.[49] In 1894, Sbarboro and Rossi also helped found the California Wine-Makers’ Corporation, a syndicate of winemakers who organized to compete with the California Wine Association monopoly of the wine markets.[50] The CWA and the CWMC subsequently engaged in a “wine war” over market control. Eventually, the CWA absorbed the CWMC, with Rossi becoming a director within the CWA.

California Wine Association Headquarters before 1906 earthquake

Similarly, Secondo Guasti founded the Italian Vineyard Company in 1900, planting vineyards on a former Mexican ranch in Cucamonga. His proximity to the new Southern Pacific Railroad afforded Guasti easy access to distant markets. At the turn of the twentieth century, Italian-American winemakers helped to inaugurate a modern wine industry—more corporate and funded by investors, like the Bank of Italy—built on the foundation established by the diverse growers who preceded them. Unlike their predecessors, these growers preferred to hire Italian-American workers, and not racialized vineyard laborers, as had their predecessors. Guasti occasionally hired temporary Japanese workers, but Sbarboro went so far as to ban Asians.[51] Guasti and Sbarboro’s antipathy towards Asian workers was not unique given the context of the period. They were operating in the decades after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 amid growing public outrage against Asian farmers that would, ultimately, lead to California Alien Land Law of 1913 targeting Japanese immigrants. However, their exclusion of non-Italian-American farmworkers was uncommon. Consequently, over time the wine industry became less diverse. These winegrowers flourished for the next twenty years, but Prohibition coupled with the Great Depression ultimately weakened California’s wine industry until its renaissance in the post-war period

The Contemporary California Wine Industry

Moving forward to the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, winegrowing has expanded to occupy an outsized role in California agriculture. Currently, wine grapes and wine occupy an important role in the state and national agricultural economies. Wine grape acreage in California grew steadily from just over 100,000 acres in 1960 to nearly 600,000 acres in the most recent statistics, with considerable spikes in production during the 1970s and 1990s.[52] More recently, the number of bearing acres of wine grapes increased by 70,000 acres between 2008 and 2017.[53] Casual observers across the state can note these changes in land use as orchards along Interstate-5 in the Central Valley have been replaced with vineyards. Within the state agricultural economy, over 590,000 acres of vineyards were harvested in 2018, producing over 4,285,000 tons of grapes with a total value of over $4.3 billion.[54] In 2018, California wine was a top export commodity for the United States, ranking fourth among all agricultural products.[55] Nationally, California wines made up over 91% of US exports of wine, with a value of nearly $1.5 billion in 2018.[56] California wines ship all over the world, with top-receiving countries in the European Union, Canada, Japan, and China. Wine drives trade, and it serves as a cultural ambassador for California, drawing tourism dollars in wine regions across the state.

Clearly, the wine industry occupies an important place in contemporary American society and for California itself. The story California wine does not conform to the mythology of Thomas Jefferson’s yeoman farmer, nor is it solely Italian-American. It is a uniquely American story in that the industry was built on the model of commercial, large-scale growers who relied on racialized wageworkers. But, why should we care about the historic origins of the wine industry, particularly since there is not a linear history between its birth in the missions and contemporary industry?

By historicizing the wine industry’s deep immigrant roots and racial diversity, we can challenge contemporary narratives about the wine industry as an exclusive and predominately white space. First, wine cultivation in California grew from the labor of mission Indians, California’s first farm workers. This history claims a space for California Indians within this lauded industry. Second, this history also challenges contemporary arguments about immigration, belonging, and citizenship by unveiling the California wine industry’s deep immigrant roots. These hidden histories contests the erasure of racialized groups from the wine industry. In doing so, this article underscores the longevity and historical significance of immigrant agricultural laborers, who are largely ostracized outside of the body politic as outsiders or temporary sojourners across the United States. There is no linear line connecting nineteenth-century winemakers and vineyard laborers to contemporary Mexican-American vintners and agricultural workers. However, by putting these groups in conversation with each other and framing them within the historical trajectory of the wine industry, we begin to challenge and disrupt exclusionary racial and class stereotypes about the contemporary California wine industry.This hidden history challenges the erasure of these groups from contemporary narratives about California wine, and about the immigrants who built the wine industry. In the twenty-first century, immigrants and their descendants continue their legacy, reshaping this industry and challenging what it means to belong in the contemporary United States at a moment when immigrants are facing historic levels of nativism, exclusion, and detainment across the country. Exploring the roots of the wine industry makes a space for Mexican-American winemakers and vineyard workers to claim their stake in the rich valleys of Napa, Sonoma, and beyond.

Notes

[1] “Our Rich History,” MAVA, accessed 8/8/19, http://nsmava.org/about/.

[2] Henry Lutz, “Napa Valley’s Mexican-American Vintners have a Story to Tell,” Napa Valley Register, August 21, 2018, https://napavalleyregister.com/news/local/napa-valley-s-mexican-american-vintners-have-a-story-to/article_9845ea3e-1df1-56f9-8680-b3faa1549244.html.

[3] L. Stephen Velasquez, “Doing it with ‘Ganas’: Mexicans and Mexican Americans Shaping the California Wine Industry,” Southern California Quarterly 100: 2 (Summer 2018): 217-218.

[4] For example, see Frances Mollno, Deep Roots and Immigrant Dreams: A Social History of Viticulture in Southern California, 1769-1960 (PhD Diss., Claremont Graduate University, 2008) and L. Stephen Velasquez, “Doing it with ‘Ganas’: Mexicans and Mexican Americans Shaping the California Wine Industry.”

[5] The exhibit, which opened in 2012, documents American winemaking in the post-WWII period. For discussion of the Robledo Family winery, see https://americanhistory.si.edu/food/wine-table/la-familia-robledo. Accessed August 6, 2019.

[6] For discussion of the wine industry’s early history, see Erica Hannickel’s Empire of Vines: Wine Culture in America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), which demonstrates how nineteenth-century viticulturists across the United States shaped continental expansion, empire, as well as ideas about race and miscegenation. Similarly, Linda Frances Mollno, Deep Roots and Immigrant Dreams: A Social History of Viticulture in Southern California, 1769-1960 (PhD Diss., Claremont Graduate University, 2008), Thomas Pinney’s History of Wine in America Volume I: From Beginnings to Prohibition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007),Victor W. Geraci’s “Fermenting a Twenty-First-Century California Wine Industry,” Agricultural History 78, no. 4 (October 1, 2004), 438–65, and Vincent P. Carosso’s The California Wine Industry: A Study of the Formative Years (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951) have documented the evolution of California’s historic wine industry.

[7] For further discussion of the Hispanicizing goals of the Franciscan missionaries, see Steven W Hackel, Children of Coyote, Missionaries of Saint Francis: Indian-Spanish Relations in Colonial California, 1769-1850 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 280-287; David Sweet, “The Ibero-Aerican Frontier Mission in Native American History,” in The New Latin American Mission History, ed. Erick Langer and Robert H. Jackson (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), 4; Robert H. Jackson, “The Formation of Frontier Indigenous Communities: Missions in California and Texas,” in New Views of Borderlands History, ed. Robert H. Jackson (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998), 134.

[8] Junípero Serra, Writings of Junipero Serra, Volume I, ed. Antoinin Tiber, O.F.M. (Washington, D.C.: Academy of American Franciscan History, 1955), 62-63, 221.

[9] Junípero Serra to Father Francisco Palou, written at Monterey, June 21, 1771, Writings of Juniper Serra, Volume I, ed. Antonine Tiber, O.F.M. (Washington, D.C.: Academy of American Franciscan History, 1955), 243.

[10] Some scholars date the first Mission vintage between 1781 and 1784 at San Juan Capistrano, but likely the first wines were produced a few years later. Thomas Pinney, History of Wine in America, 238.

[11] Later generations of growers named this the Mission grape. See Thomas Pinney, “The Early Days in Southern California,” in The University of California/Sotheby Book of California Wine, ed.  Doris Muscatine, et al. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 4.

[12] Richard Steven Street, Beasts of the Field: A Narrative History of California Farmworkers, 1769-1913 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 19.

[13] Alonso de Herrera, Agricultura General (Madrid: Don Antonio de Sancha), 1777. Originally published in the 16th century, this treatise underwent multiple revisions by various authors well into the 19th century. Several missions, including Santa Bárbara and Santa Clara, owned copies of the reference book. See Mission Santa Clara (Mission Santa Clara Archives, R.G. 1, Series V: Secularization and the Formation of California’s First Diocese, 1833-1851, Box 17, Folder 14: Mission Santa Clara Inventory of 1851 (Reproduction, Transcription, and Translation), 1851; Thomas Pinney, “The Early Days in Southern California,” in The University of California/Sotheby Book of California Wine, 2.

[14] Richard Steven Street, Beasts of the Fields, 28.

[15] Doyce B. Nunis, Jr. “Alta California’s Trojan Horse: Foreign Immigration,” in Contested Eden: California before the Gold Rush, ed. Ramón A. Gutiérrez, and Richard J. Orsi (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 305; Douglas Monroy, “The Creation and Re-creation of Californio Society,” in Contested Eden, 180-181.

[16] After 1833, large land grants were redistributed to Californios at a rapid pace. Relatively few Indians received title to land, and those who did got small plots of land. See Steven W. Hackel, 388-389; Miroslava Chávez-García, Negotiating Conquest: Gender and Power in California, 1770s to 1880s (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2004), 62.

[17] Los Angeles was the winegrowing hub of California until the 1880s. 

[18] Aguardiente was distilled grape brandy. It was the most common distilled alcohol in California before the Gold Rush. Pinney, A History of Wine in America, 238.

[19] William Heath Davis, Seventy-five Years in California (San Francisco: J. Howell, 1929), 222.

[20] Scott Macconnell, “Jean-Louis Vignes: California’s Forgotten Winemaker,” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture 11, no. 1 (April 2011): 90-91; Vincent P. Carosso, 8.

[21] Wayne Dell Gibson, Tomas Yorba’s Santa Ana Viejo, 1769-1847 (Santa Ana, CA: Santa Ana College Foundation Press and Rancho Santiago Community College District, 1976), 79; Testimony of Jose Dolores Sepulveda, The Anaheim Water Company, et. Al., Plaintiffs and Respondents vs. The Semi-Tropic Water Company, et al., Defendants and Appellants, Transcript on Appeal in the Superior Court of Los Angeles, State of California, Quoted in George Harwood Phillips, Vineyards & Vaqueros: Indian Labor and the Economic Expansion of Southern California, 1771-1877 (Norman: Arthur H. Clark Co., 2010), 162.

[22] Terry E. Stephenson, Don Bernardo Yorba (Los Angeles: G. Dawson, 1941), 32-33.

[23] Steven W. Hackel, 369.

[24] For further discussion of American conquest in California, see Linda Heidenreich, “This Land Was Mexican Once:” Histories of Resistance from Northern California, (University of Texas Press, 2007); John Mack Faragher, Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015); Tomás Almaguer, Racial Fault Lines: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994); Lisbeth Haas, Conquests and Historical Identities in California, 1769–1936 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995); Chávez-García, Miroslava, Negotiating Conquest Gender and Power in California, 1770s to

1800s (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2004.

[25] Between the 1850s and 1870s, newly organized trade groups lobbied the state legislature to support research, education, and the distribution of plants and materials among viticulturists throughout the region. For example, see M.G. Gillette, Report of Special Committee on the Culture of the Grape-Vine in California: Introduced by Mr. Morrison Under Resolution of Mr. Gillette, to Examine into, and Report Upon, the Growth, Culture, and Improvement, of the Grape-Vine in California (Sacramento: Charles T. Botts, State Printer, 1861), 3-10.

[26] “An Account of the Wine Business in California, from Materials Furnished by Charles Kohler,” MSS C-D 111, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

[27] “Native Wines,” Los Angeles Star, October 23, 1858.

[28] Leo J. Friis, Campo Aleman: The First Ten Years of Anaheim (Santa Ana: Friis-Pioneer Press, 1983), 15.

[29] Dorothea Jean Paule, “The German Settlement at Anaheim” (Master’s Thesis, University of Southern California, 1952), 10, 175; Leo J. Friis, 15-17

[30] Anaheim Wine Growers’ Association, Anaheim: its People and Products, 1869, 3.

[31] L. J Rose, Jr., L. J. Rose of Sunny Slope, 1827-1899: California Pioneer, fruit Grower, Wine Maker, Horse Breeder (San Marino: Huntington Library Press, 1959).

[32] California State Agricultural Society, Third Annual Fair, Cattle Show, and Industrial Exhibition, Held at San Jose, October 7th to 10th, 1856 (San Francisco, California Farmer Office, 1856), 21.

[33] “Report of the Visiting Committee,” in Transactions of the California Agricultural Society During the Year 1858 (Sacramento:C.T. Botts, State Printer, 1859), 286.

[34] AHungarian who claimed a dubious noble heritage, Haraszthy had already left his mark on Wisconsin, San Diego, and San Francisco where he was charged with fraud in his management of the U.S. mint. Possibly to rebuild his reputation, Haraszthy abandoned his business and moved to Sonoma to take up winegrowing in 1857. For further discussion see Thomas Pinney, A History of Wine in America, 273.

[35] Agoston Haraszthy, “Report on Grapes and Wine of California,” in Transactions of the California State Agricultural Society During the Year 1858, 313; “California Commission on the Culture of the Grape-Vine” in Report of Commissioners on the Culture of the Grape-Vine in California, (Sacramento: Benj. P. Avery State Printer, 1861), 7. 

[36] Nicole Marie Guidotti-Hernández discusses the violence against Yaqui Indians along the US-Mexico border in Unspeakable Violence: Remapping U.S. and Mexican National Imaginaries (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

[37] Leonard John Rose Papers, MSSHM 70724: Box 1, 25, Huntington Library, San Marino.

[38] For discussion of anti-Chinese public discourse and laws, see Sucheng Chan, This Bittersweet Soil: The Chinese in California Agriculture, 1860-1910 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 370 and Natalia Molina, Fit to be Citizens? Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879-1939, (University of California Press, 2006), 12.

[39] Minutes of the Los Angeles Vineyard Society, September 20, 1857, Los Angeles Vineyard Society Vertical File, Anaheim Public Library; Mildred Yorba MacArthur, Anaheim: The Mother Colony (Los Angeles: The Ward Ritchie Press, 1959), 30.

[40] Lucile Dickson, “The Founding and Early History of Anaheim, California,” Annual Publications, Historical Society of Southern California (XI, 1919), 30-31.

[41] L. J Rose, Jr., L. J. Rose of Sunny Slope, 1827-1899: California Pioneer, Fruit Grower, Wine Maker, Horse Breeder (San Marino: Huntington Library, 1959), 81-82.

[42] Sucheng Chan, 242.

[43] Agoston Haraszthy, The Father of California Wine (Santa Barbara: Capra Press, 1979),28.

[44] “Chinese Argonauts,” Bulletin of the Chinese Historical Society of America, VII, No. 4 (April 1972), 7.

[45] For example, see comparison of wages paid to L.J. Rose’s workers according to their race. Leonard J. Rose, Jr., L. J. Rose of Sunny Slope, 1827-1899: California Pioneer, fruit Grower, Wine Maker, Horse Breeder (San Marino: Huntington Library, 1959), 107.

[46] The phylloxera epidemic of the 1880s and the overproduction of grapes in California destabilized the grape and wine markets. For further discussion, see Erica Hannickel, 161-167; Thomas Pinney, A History of Wine in America, 343-355.

[47] Simone Cinotto, Soft Soil, Black Grapes: The Birth of Italian Winemaking in California, (New York: NYU Press, 2012), 23.

[48] Simone Cinotto, 15.

[49] Simone Cinotto, 25-28, 157-158.  

[50] The CWA would control the California wine market until Prohibition. For further discussion see Ernest P. Peninou and Gail G. Unzelman, The California Wine Association and its Member Wineries, 1894-1920, (Santa Rosa, CA: Nomis Press, 2000), 72-80; Thomas Pinney, A History of Wine in America, 358-363.

[51] Simone Cinotto, 3, 139, 143

[52] J.M. Alston, J.T, Lapsley, and O. Sambucci, “Grape and Wine Production in California,” in California Agriculture: Dimensions and Issues ed. R. Goodhue, P. Martin, and B. Wright, (Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics, Berkeley, CA, 2018), 4-5, https://s.giannini.ucop.edu/uploads/giannini_public/a1/1e/a11eb90f-af2a-4deb- ae58-9af60ce6aa40/grape_and_wine_production.pdf.

[53] California Department of Food and Agriculture, “California Agricultural Statistics Review, 2017-2018,” 63, accessed July 25, 2019, www.cdfa.ca.gov/statistics.

[54] California Department of Food and Agriculture, “California Agricultural Statistics Review, 2018-2019,” 68, accessed July 27, 2020, https://www.cdfa.ca.gov/statistics/PDFs/AgExports2018-2019.pdf.

[55] California Department of Agriculture, “California Agricultural Exports 2018-2019,”4, accessed July 27, 2020, “California Agricultural Statistics Review, 2018-2019,” 8,12, accessed June 24, 2020, https://www.cdfa.ca.gov/statistics/PDFs/AgExports2018-2019.pdf.

[56] “California Agricultural Statistics Review, 2018-2019,” 114.

Julia Ornelas-Higdon is an Assistant Professor of History at California State University, Channel Islands. Her research and teaching focuses on the intersections of race, agriculture, and labor histories. She received a Faculty Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities for the 2018-2019 academic year. Her forthcoming book, The Grapes of Conquest: Race, Labor, and the Industrialization of California Wine, 1769-1920, explores California’s 19th century wine industry as a site of conquest and racialization.

Articles

“Our Job Is to Get It Picked”: Volunteerism, Coercion, and the California Farm Labor Crisis of 1942

Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts

On September 9, 1942, the members of the Merchants Association of Fresno, the largest city in California’s San Joaquin Valley, called an emergency session to respond to a burgeoning crisis. For much of the year, farmers and ranchers in the Valley—among the most productive agricultural regions in the United States—had struggled to secure sufficient hands to tend to their crops and herds. This labor shortage became particularly acute in early September, when checkups revealed that more than half of the region’s highly perishable raisin grape crop remained unpicked. In Fresno County alone, officials insisted on September 9, five thousand additional workers were needed to get the remaining grapes off their vines and on to drying trays over the next eight days. Otherwise, grape growers, and the Valley economy that the lucrative crop helped to fuel, would suffer a devastating blow. So, too, would American servicemen who were battling Axis Powers overseas. “These raisins,” Irvine S. Terrell, chairman of the Area Agricultural War Manpower Commission, told Merchants Association members, “must be made for the soldiers, sailors and marines on the fighting fronts, as requested by the government.” And if the raisins were not made immediately, Terrell warned, “you merchants are going to see the government step in and allocate labor.”[1]

Terrell and his colleagues on the newly established Area Agricultural War Manpower Commission (AAWMC), which had jurisdiction over the southern section of the San Joaquin Valley, singled out Fresno residents—and especially the employees of local businesses—for failing to volunteer to assist with the vital grape harvest. Earlier that day, at a meeting between the AAWMC and the Fresno County Chamber of Commerce, Terrell had chastised “city people” for not contributing. “The school children are doing a fine job,” he insisted, “but when we can get only 200 or 300 people out of the stores to help in the harvest something is wrong.”[2]

At the emergency Merchants Association of Fresno meeting a few hours later, local business owners agreed to immediately commence a recruitment program to enlist 25% of clerks at Fresno businesses to take leave from their jobs and report to Valley vineyards. They hoped that this plan would add at least six hundred more grape pickers each day, putting a sizeable dent in the five thousand–person county-wide shortage.[3]

The recruitment program, combined with the broader mobilization of community members throughout the Valley that had begun in August and would last through the end of the year, worked. By September 16, just a week after the emergency session, Valley officials were praising what later became known as the Victory Harvest Army—comprising furloughed store workers as well as students, housewives, and other community members—for rescuing the grape harvest. “This voluntary movement of local volunteers to the fields and vineyards,” announced Willard S. Marsh of Fresno’s United States Employment Service office, “has been the salvation of the crops.” Marsh estimated that ten thousand people—fully 5% of the county’s population—had been employed by farms since the start of September. “Unless the movement slackens,” he added, “Fresno County’s raisin variety grape harvest will be virtually complete within a week.” Marsh was particularly keen to thank the area’s grammar and high school students for their willingness to lend a hand.[4]

The Victory Harvest Army was in some ways a model of patriotism, volunteerism, and community cooperation. Faced with an unprecedented crisis, San Joaquin Valley residents from all walks of life rallied together to salvage the year’s raisin grape crop as well as a handful of others, including a cotton crop valued at $51 million.[5] Through these efforts, they not only helped to rescue the region’s most important industry from potential ruin but also contributed to the worldwide struggle between freedom and democracy on the one hand, and tyranny and fascism on the other. Even if they could not produce munitions in a factory or use them on the battlefield, the harvest gave Valley civilians an opportunity to do their part.

Yet Irvine Terrell’s warning that Fresno clerks might be compelled to take to the fields exposes the fact that the successful 1942 harvest was not without its problems and ironies, some of which belied the very ideals for which American soldiers were fighting overseas. As the labor shortage worsened in the latter half of the year, for one, Valley authorities targeted individuals and businesses that did not appear to be aiding the harvest, at times even attempting to coerce “vagrants” and other reluctant workers into the fields.[6] Communities across the Valley also experimented with the practice of promising leniency to prisoners who cooperated, while at the same time threatening harsher sentences for those who refused.

California’s 1942 farm labor shortage spurred a nasty public debate as well, much of which played out in the pages of the Fresno Bee, the Valley’s leading newspaper. While some residents hoped to tap Mexican nationals and especially Japanese internees held that summer in area relocation centers, others denounced these non-white sources of labor, often in unapologetically racist terms. The irony of the anti-Japanese attacks was that the labor shortage itself was to some extent the result of the federal government’s xenophobic decision to evacuate Japanese residents, many of whom had worked in agriculture.[7]  

The 1942 labor crisis revealed another irony, too—farmers’ deep-seated affinity for government aid. As they had for decades, Valley agricultural interests called for, and benefited from, interventions and resources from federal, state, and county officials, undercutting boasts that free enterprise and rugged individualism—embodied by the mythic Western cowboy—were sufficient for growing crops.[8] 


1938 employment signs for cotton pickers near Fresno. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

***

In the spring and summer of 1942, residents of the San Joaquin Valley—which stretches 260 miles from The Grapevine in the south to Lodi in the north—were plagued by war-related anxiety, much of which centered on Japanese Americans.[9] Nearly everyone who wrote in to the Fresno Bee to discuss removal, ordered by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on February 19, just months after the Pearl Harbor bombing, supported the plan.[10] The Japanese, whether native born or not, were disloyal. To trust them, argued Mrs. B.E.S. of Fresno, was “like trying to pet a mad dog.”[11] W.R. Arrington of nearby Firebaugh agreed: “The Japanese people are somewhat unique for striking unexpectedly from behind a smile, a smirk or a bow.”[12] One Fresnan suggested the formation of a home guard comprised of deer hunters—“some of the best shots in the world”—to protect against the enemy within.[13]

Valley farmers, however, worried for other reasons. Surging wartime demand for food prompted local growers to bring more acreage into cultivation in 1942, but the draft and the lure of higher-paying jobs in wartime industry, among other factors, had already provoked farm labor shortages.[14] This was no small matter in an agricultural powerhouse like the San Joaquin Valley, where just two counties—Tulare and Fresno, which ranked second and third in the country in the value of their agricultural output—combined to produce crops worth more than $55 million annually.[15] What would happen to this bounty once Japanese residents, who played a central role in California agriculture as farm laborers and operators, had been evacuated?

Although some white Californians looked forward to acquiring productive land from their Japanese neighbors, many farmers expressed dismay that their Japanese workforce would no longer be around to assist them. In early April 1942, the California Deciduous Growers League, which represented the growers of cherries, apricots, peaches, plumbs, pears, and grapes, asked the Department of Agriculture to delay removal in twelve counties where twenty thousand people of Japanese descent were critical to picking operations. In Fresno, Tulare, and Kern counties, ethnic Japanese residents constituted 25% of the pickers; in Merced County, they made up 75%. Noting that the picking and handling of deciduous fruit necessitated “a high degree of skill and experience,” the League insisted that it would be impossible to train replacements in time.[16] This was only the beginning, of course, as other crops—from olives, to strawberries, to cotton—would need to be harvested in the coming months as well.[17] Production on farms operated by Japanese Americans would also be affected. Japanese internees had produced 20% of the total acreage of vegetables grown in California, Oregon, and Washington and 70% of the total acreage of berries in California. They also cultivated more than twenty-seven thousand acres of grapes, nearly all in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys.[18]

The federal government had, to some extent, anticipated adverse consequences on farming. During initial discussions about the possible removal of Japanese residents in early 1942, several officials pointed out that West Coast crop production would suffer in the event of Japanese evacuation.[19] The U.S. Army responded to this challenge by forcing Japanese farmers to carry on with the spring planting under threat of arrest for hindering the war effort, even though the removal order meant that they would not be around to reap the rewards of their efforts in the fall.[20] The Department of Agriculture, in turn, created the Wartime Farm Adjustment Program to facilitate the transfer of farm lands owned or rented by Japanese residents to non-Japanese operators for the duration of the war. But this program, which began in the San Joaquin Valley in mid-March, was not a quick fix. It required finding farmers interested in assuming responsibility for the evacuated lands, some of whom then had to obtain loans.[21] The program also did little to ensure that Japanese farmers got a fair price for their land, and it did nothing to make up for the loss of labor performed by Japanese wage workers.[22]

Concerns about lost revenue and food shortages, however, paled in comparison to those about the so-called “yellow menace,” at least at the federal level. The Army announced in late April that the removal of the Japanese would proceed as planned, despite rumors to the contrary. As Colonel Karl R. Bendetsen, one of the loudest voices for removal, put the matter: “Military necessity is an unrelenting taskmaster.”[23] By the end of the year that taskmaster had cost more than one hundred thousand Japanese Americans their freedom, according to one estimate, and in the process cost California between twenty-five and thirty thousand agricultural workers.[24] 

Some Valley residents, meanwhile, expressed skepticism about farmers’ worries, deploying a potent combination of racism and class resentment to make their point. There was no labor shortage, one Hanford man claimed; there were only big landowners—or “swivel chair farmers,” in his words—who loved the Japanese more “than they do their own people,” plenty of whom were available for work.[25] Mrs. C. Z. Kerman of Fresno also found Japanese field hands unnecessary, though she was more inclined to blame New Deal programs than growers for any perceived labor shortage. “There are many, many people just roaming around,” she insisted. “You can see every day. If the WPA and welfare were cut off, they would have to get in and work.”[26]  “This yapping we hear about the shortage of vegetables we are going to experience on account of the dear Japanese being forced into concentration camps,” sneered a fellow Fresnan, “is enough to give a true American a severe attack of indigestion. Give the white race the same chance that was given the Japanese and its members will raise just as much and just as good fruit and vegetables as ever did the Japanese.”[27] A Parlier man who described himself as a “100 percent…Arkansas red blooded American” similarly accused farmers of overlooking unemployed white Americans in favor of the Japanese. This Dust Bowl refugee proposed revenge, urging his white neighbors to refuse work as pickers or packers during the upcoming harvest season. If a group like the Deciduous Growers League needed laborers, he concluded, “I refer it to the many in the internment camps. Those are the headquarters for the Japanese.”[28]

A whiff of sarcasm hangs over this man’s admonition. After all, he preferred that red-blooded Americans—which, in his mind, did not include people of Japanese descent, even if they were American-born citizens, as most internees were—be given farm jobs.[29] But others were quite serious in suggesting the use of internees for field work once it became clear that there would be no delay in evacuation. Olive, grape, peach, and apricot growers were especially worried as spring turned to summer. In July, one vineyard owner asked the Fresno County Chamber of Commerce to petition the military for permission to employ the Japanese currently being held in the two assembly centers in Fresno. These centers held close to ten thousand people, many of whom were former residents of Fresno, Tulare, Kings, and Madera counties, awaiting deportation to permanent internment camps further inland.[30] “Some of us will be lucky,” he declared, “if we harvest 50 per cent of our crop due to the present labor shortage.”[31]

The chamber disliked this plan, which would have entailed transporting the internees to and from camps and paying prevailing wages. But the vast majority of organizations, farmers, and officials who went on the record—from the Fresno County Farm Bureau and district attorney to the Merced County sheriff to Governor Culbert L. Olson—did so in support of it, on the condition that the army strictly limit the mobility of internees.[32] The Japanese “have been law abiding people,” argued one Clovis farmer, “and with a little supervision we should have no trouble at all.”[33]

All told, 45% of Japanese Americans living in the West had worked in agriculture before the war, and in a few states some of them did end up doing field labor after removal.[34] In Idaho, Montana, and Utah, for example, internees harvested sugar beets; in Wyoming, they built canals to irrigate farm land.[35] But Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, who oversaw internment as head of the Western Defense Command, ultimately decided against allowing the practice in California. In a July 8 conference, he told Governor Olson that “the use of evacuated Japanese as farm workers would require an entire change of program which had been adopted as a military necessity,” framing removal just as Colonel Bendetsen had done a few months earlier.[36]

If anyone saw the irony of advocating for the use of Japanese internees to compensate for a labor shortage caused, in part, by their very internment, they did not let on. Instead, in the face of the government’s decision, San Joaquin Valley officials and growers swiftly dropped the idea.[37] Soon the matter became moot. In mid-July, the Pinedale Assembly Center began transporting its 4,750 internees to the Tule Relocation Center in the remote, northeastern corner of California, and to a concentration camp in Arizona.[38] By the end of October, when the Fresno Assembly Center completed the evacuation of its more than five thousand internees to an Arkansas camp, the only Japanese residents remaining in the Valley were three expectant mothers who were temporarily residing in convalescent homes.[39]


Pinedale Assembly Center. Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

These developments, however, did not stop Valley citizens from regularly expressing anti-Japanese sentiments. “It burns me up to hear some selfish Japanese lover rave about turning them loose to help with the farm labor,” fumed a Madera woman on July 13. “I say pack them up and send them back to Japan.”[40] A few weeks later another Fresno Bee reader insisted, “There is no Japanese who is a true American. They were all sent here and born here for a purpose and that purpose was eventually to control the United States.”[41]

As Valley residents continued to denigrate their Japanese neighbors, California farmers and officials pivoted to other potential solutions to the worsening labor crisis. On July 8, Governor Olson suggested several other sources for “emergency” workers, including Mexican immigrants.[42] Bringing in laborers from Mexico was an idea about which state and federal officials, as well as growers in numerous western states, had been talking since 1941.[43] Yet this prospect elicited the same sort of xenophobic response as had the proposal to employ Japanese internees. “I am a solider on leave,” wrote George Dulin to the Fresno Bee on September 23, “and read in your paper that they are bringing Mexicans to make up for the shortage of laborers.” Dulin believed it was time to take a stand against this measure. “We have millions of idle men, plenty of them, in every town and city. I say make them work rather than import Mexican labor.”[44] One week later, Mrs. M. L. K. of Woodlake, on the east side of the Valley, wrote to the Bee to say that she agreed with Dulin: “Keep the Mexicans out of our U.S.A.”[45]

These anti-Mexican residents had little to fear, however, at least in the short run. There was precedent for American importation of Mexican labor in wartime—seventy-three thousand Mexicans had come to the United States to work during World War I—and increasing support for the plan among both officials and growers.[46] But the shortcomings of that earlier guestworker program, which was plagued by employers’ abuse of laborers and unwillingness to abide by contract terms, made both the United States and Mexican governments slow to forge another such arrangement.[47] The two countries started sketching out a bilateral arrangement in the spring of 1942, but they did not formally agree to the Bracero Program, as the new farm labor program came to be called, until August 4. And the first group of five hundred braceros, who were brought in to work in the sugar beet fields of Stockton, in the north end of the Valley, did not arrive until September 29. Those initial five hundred were followed shortly thereafter by small numbers of braceros contracted to grow lettuce, strawberries, and artichokes in the California’s Salinas Valley and sugar beets in Washington state. All told, however, in 1942 the United States allowed in only 4,189 braceros—and just five hundred of them ended up in the San Joaquin Valley, all in Stockton.[48]

The failure to bring in more braceros to redress the labor shortfall frustrated Valley farmers to no end. “We asked for Mexicans in 1941,” insisted Arphaxad Setrakian, president of the California Grape Advisory Council, in a U.S. Senate hearing on labor conditions in the West held late the following year. Yet “all we get is procrastination, delay, politics, and promises.” Setrakian, a diminutive Fresno farmer who went by the nickname ‘Sox,’ placed much of the blame for the delay on social reformers—“peddlers of bunk” and “mildewed braintrusters,” in his estimation—who questioned whether growers were prepared to offer braceros adequate housing. “They always meet with us and talk about housing conditions and baths and showers,” Sox complained, “they tell us we have got to have bathtubs.” But, he insisted, the housing question was no question at all. “We constructed an assembly point to house 10,000 Japanese in Fresno,” Sox observed, adding that he wasn’t sure whether it was occupied or not. Regardless, Sox wondered, “If we need food and fiber, can anyone tell me that the Government cannot overnight build assembly points where the Mexicans can be brought and properly housed and distributed to the farmers in the neighborhood?”[49]


Housing for Mexican transient workers on ranch southwest of Mendota, 1940. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Japanese assembly centers were, in fact, eventually turned into housing for braceros. But that process would not begin until 1943.[50] In the meantime, Valley farmers were forced to rely on homegrown workers. Governor Olson had highlighted one such source—“civilian volunteers’’—in his July 8 message, though he had his doubts about whether they could make the difference. Seeking out such civilian volunteers, Olson concluded, was “a little bit like looking for scrap rubber—you get some, of course, but probably not enough that is usable.”[51]

The governor was not the only one who had misgivings about civilian volunteers. Earlier that year, University of California professor of farm management R. L. Adams had “warned that the city bred youngsters may not be able to withstand the rigors and monotony of farm labor.”[52] In a subsequent letter to the Fresno Bee, a Mills, California, resident added that many school-aged children—whether from the city or the countryside—would not be of much help with fruit picking, which necessitated the use of top-heavy, 12-foot ladders.[53] Other observers believed that city students were more than up to the task. [54] One young Fresnan, for instance, called Adams’s comments “an injustice and an insult,” insisting that Fresno schools provided sufficient physical education training to enable its students “to do some of the toughest farm jobs.”[55]

Thousands of Fresno youths would soon find out if they were up to the rigors of farm labor, harvesting tomatoes, grapes, and other Valley crops under the scorching summer sun.  Less than a week after the Army vetoed the use of Japanese internees as laborers, the Fresno Bee reported that a range of “city folk”—men, women, and children—had begun spending weekends and summer vacation as volunteer pickers at area farms.[56] Over the next few months, the newspaper was filled with stories, often two or three a day, chronicling the campaign of a labor force that by the fall had been dubbed the “Victory Harvest Army.”[57]

The San Joaquin Valley was not the only part of the country that tapped students, housewives, and other volunteers for the 1942 harvest. Farmers in at least five western states targeted these populations as well.[58] New York and New Jersey each passed legislation easing child labor laws so that students over 14 years of age could be excused from classes to work on farms.[59] Seven thousand New York City high school students applied for summer agricultural work on upstate farms, and some schools in Washington state moved to a six-day-week schedule to shorten the academic year and free up students to work.[60]

Women, too, flooded farms—from the South Atlantic states to the West Coast. According to one survey, women accounted for 13% of total agricultural workers in 1942, compared to just 1.5% in 1941.[61] During the fall cotton harvest, residents in at least half a dozen Georgia counties took picking holidays, while the Works Progress Administration halted all Atlanta-area construction projects to free up six hundred men to head out to the cotton fields.[62]

But few, if any, communities marshalled a phalanx of pickers that matched the Victory Harvest Army of the San Joaquin Valley. Although the labor shortage impacted the harvest of a range of Valley crops, it was most acute for grapes and cotton.[63]

The grape harvest, valued at $30 million, came first.[64] Starting in mid-August, area businesses, including the main Bank of America branch in Fresno and two wholesale paper companies, began making arrangements for its employees to leave work and help pick grapes.[65] The Fresno office of the United States Employment Service (USES), a New Deal agency that helped connect employers and employees, coordinated getting city residents to the farms where they were needed. School buses left the Inyo Street office each morning at 6:30 or 7:00 to transport workers to vineyards in Reedley, Fowler, and Kingsburg.[66] The Sanger Parent Teacher Association and the Fresno City Board of Education provided nursery care for mothers who assisted with the harvest.[67] In the small town of Selma, the USES introduced a two-ton mobile farm labor recruiting station—one of only two operating in California.[68]

This initial wave of volunteerism was followed by the AAWMC’s more concerted effort to pressure workers at local businesses to join the effort. “City people,” as Irvine S. Terrell had complained to the Fresno Chamber of Commerce on September 9, needed to do more.[69]

The Fresno Bee also pitched in, running regular stories and photographs that encouraged Valley residents to fulfill their patriotic duty to pick grapes. At the zenith of the grape harvest, the paper’s social news editor, Bess Middleton, wrote a column chronicling a day she spent in the fields. “As an American woman I volunteered yesterday to go out and pick grapes,” she wrote on September 11. “If I lived in Nazi controlled country, I, and thousands of other women, would have been ordered into the vineyards long ago, not just for one day or one week but until every grape was harvested.” Middleton worked alongside about fifty other pickers—“a true cross section of democratic America,” in her estimation—including a dentist, a country school teacher, a Fresno State College faculty member, and two dozen high school boys and girls. She was also joined by Bee photographer Edwin E. Schober, who was assigned to take photographs that might spark greater interest in the harvest. Schober lauded the personal benefits of the work, which helped settle his “rather jumpy” nerves. “Perhaps if you are feeling not quite up to par,” he advised Bee readers, “a few hours in the vineyard may be just what the doctor ordered. Then, too, you will be doing your bit to save the crop, help Uncle Sam win the war and earn a few dollars either for your piggy bank or for victory bonds.”[70]

Despite the pressure exerted on Valley adults, area schools and their students were likely the most important factor in the success of the grape harvest. In mid-August, the principals of Selma, Fowler, Central Union, and Parlier high schools had agreed to a Fresno County Farm Bureau plan to use their schools to house and feed boys from Los Angeles and San Francisco who would temporarily be brought in to work in Valley vineyards.[71] Meanwhile, many local schools decided to delay opening until September 28 so that their students could stay in the fields longer.[72] Although Fresno city schools did not implement a similar delay, the Board of Education excused junior and senior high school students who wanted to help with the harvest and made provisions for 20% of city school teachers to accompany and supervise the student pickers.[73] During the first week of school, nearly sixteen hundred boys and girls—comprising more than 25% of secondary students enrolled in Fresno city schools—were forgoing their studies to pick grapes. This included more than three hundred students from Edison Technical High School and 225 from Alexander Hamilton Junior High School, as well as members of the football teams from Fresno High School and Fresno State College.[74] 

Vernon Selland, one of the Hamilton Junior High School students who participated in the 1942 harvest, remembers those days fondly. “They called upon us to volunteer” before classes began, he observed in a recent interview, “and they said as a reward we will start school two weeks late.” Picking figs in Fresno and grapes in the Fowler, Selma, and Kingsburg area, Selland was happy to miss several weeks of school, to get paid a modest salary that “seemed really swell at the time,” and to lend a hand in the war effort. He did not find the work particularly arduous, perhaps because Selland—unlike some of his classmates—was familiar with harvesting crops, having spent several summers in the grape and cotton fields on a family farm near Caruthers. He recalls the kindness of the Valley farmers, who brought “out sandwiches for lunch and that sort of thing.” In sum, the picking holiday was a “really positive” experience for Selland and surely for many of his classmates, who were also happy to delay the start of the school year, earn a bit of money, and play a role, however small, in the war against fascism.[75]

Vernon Selland and the rest of the Victory Harvest Army would, as we have seen, ultimately prevail in the fight to save the grape crop, saving growers from disaster by the end of September.[76] They earned praise from the Fresno County Farm Bureau board of directors, which on October 1 passed a motion to extend its “appreciation to the volunteer workers in the grape harvest for the splendid response to the appeal from the farmer to save this tremendous food for freedom.” The board offered special thanks to Fresno youths, women, and schools, as well as to the members of the Fresno Merchants Association and “all the business interests in the smaller towns in our county” for making their employees available to work in the fields.[77]

 But these foot soldiers of the Victory Harvest Army soon faced a more daunting challenge: the cotton harvest. Like grapes, cotton was critical to the San Joaquin Valley economy—the crops were the two most important in many Valley counties—and it was deemed essential to the war effort, used to make servicemen’s uniforms, duffle bags, explosives, cellulose, and seed oil.[78] Cotton was also California’s most labor-intensive crop, thus necessitating a large, transient work force, with a harvest season that stretched from September to January.[79] Volunteer labor was needed to pick Valley cotton, explained Willard Marsh, Fresno district manager of the USES, “but this is not like the grape harvest—that was a matter of a few weeks, while cotton picking will extend over several months.” As such, “the volunteers must keep turning out if their efforts are to offset the shortage of transient workers.”[80]

The Fresno Bee trumpeted the severity of the crisis in headline after headline that fall. “4,000 Cotton Pickers Needed in Kern County,” the paper declared on October 28. “10,000 Pickers Needed to Save Tulare Cotton,” it proclaimed the following day.[81] By the start of November, the USES estimated that the Valley as a whole was short twenty thousand workers to harvest a cotton crop valued at more than $50 million.[82] The agency tried to entice transient farm hands, sending interpreters to Southern California to interview Spanish-speaking workers living there. But it ran into hurdles getting many of these workers up north.[83] Ultimately, Willard Marsh estimated that Valley cotton growers could count on just one third of the normal number of transient pickers in 1942. “This is the ideal time for volunteers to try their luck,” he observed on November 1, hoping to motivate locals to pick up the slack. “The weather is good, the first picking is heavy, and the wages—$2 a hundredweight—are the highest ever paid.”[84]


Photo of Hiroko Kamikawa, the last Japanese intern removed from the Fresno Assembly Center, Oct. 31, 1942.

Once again, local school districts ensured that students played a central role in the harvest. Many Valley schools, including those in Tranquillity, Alta Vista, Hanford, and Caruthers, adopted a minimum-day schedule, opening for four hours each morning and freeing up students to work in the afternoon.[85] Other school districts implemented crop holidays. In mid-October, the Madera County Superintendent of Schools announced that its elementary and high schools would shut down for three weeks to enable students to pick cotton.[86] Corcoran and Kerman schools both closed for two weeks, while schools in Tulare, Delano, and Kern counties implemented shorter crop holidays.[87] At an October 29 meeting, the Fresno County War Manpower Committee asked school officials throughout the county to suspend classes while the weather was still good. Although the cotton harvest season lasted into January, the rain and cooler temperatures that typically arrived in late fall would jeopardize the quality of Valley cotton and make picking more difficult. “Every day gained before the advent of bad weather,” maintained the committee’s chairman, “means a higher grade product and increased supplies of cotton and its byproducts so urgently needed by America and her allies.”[88]

On November 17, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors went one step further. Worried that less than 30% of the crop had been harvested—70% was normal by that point—the board adopted a resolution that called on “every able bodied man, woman and child in Fresno County to ‘join the Victory Cotton Army and aid in the harvesting the war crop.’”[89] The Fresno City Board of Education, in turn, pledged “full cooperation” with the Board of Supervisor’s resolution.[90] When city schools recessed for the annual Thanksgiving vacation later that week, School Superintendent Homer C. Wilson urged teachers and principals to encourage as many of the city’s more than thirteen thousand students to assist with the harvest as possible. “No more patriotic Thanksgiving service could be rendered by pupils and teachers than by spending Thanksgiving week…in the cotton fields to save the crop,” he held. “We may as well get used to doing these things voluntarily, because if we don’t, next year we may be drafted to do the same thing.”[91]

***

Truth be told, quite a few people had already been compelled to participate in the harvesting of Valley crops. As the summer proposal to employ Japanese evacuees had already revealed, local farmers and officials harbored no inherent affinity for voluntary labor. The myriad stories of city folk and students sacrificing their time and bodies to pick crops for the war effort certainly buoyed spirits and testified to a wellspring of local patriotism. But coercion was not off the table. Perhaps the most obvious place to look on this score was the military. Several California politicians, including Governor Olson, asked General DeWitt to send soldiers to the Valley to work, for pay, in the fields.[92] On at least one occasion in early September, about two hundred soldiers in Fresno—“all volunteers,” according to the Bee—did participate in the grape harvest.[93] It is unclear, however, how much choice they had. Men who had enlisted in or been drafted by the army were unlikely to have been given, or to have expected, much freedom in determining how they spent their days.

According to War Department policy, troops could only be used to harvest crops when other sources of labor had been exhausted.[94] And Valley farmers and officials, for their part, continued to believe that there were sufficient hands to be found among area residents, though these potential laborers—and their current employers—needed prodding. The emergency meeting of the AAWMC on September 9, at which chairman Irvine S. Terrell threatened merchants with the prospect of governmental labor allocation, provided evidence of this conviction. Terrell announced that “every ounce of authority of the War Manpower Commission is going to be utilized to save these crops. Non cooperators are going to feel the power of the people.”[95]

Some in the audience had concerns about the limits of that power. When Fresno furniture store owner Louis Slater asked whether employees given time off could be forced to help with the harvest under this new proposal, Terrell replied that “such compulsion is not in line with democratic principles.”[96] Yet the AAWMC went on to approve a seven-point program to explore designating several farm districts as emergency areas so that peace officers there would be empowered to roundup “loafers refusing to aid the grape harvest.” This proposal, however, was nixed by the regional director of the manpower commission, who informed Terrell and his colleagues that the conscription of labor was unacceptable. “Such a program,” announced the director from his headquarters in San Francisco, “definitely is not the policy of this office.”[97]

Despite the disapproval of the regional manpower office, many Valley residents and officials embraced measures targeting so-called “vagrants.” “Go down the street,” a woman in Tulare County instructed, “and idle men are in bars drinking…Draft them or put them to work.”[98] Local authorities by and large agreed with this sentiment. The Fresno County District Attorney ordered law enforcement officers to compel unemployed men to find work in the fields or face arrest. “I believe,” he announced, “that these idle persons are either slackers or persons not in sympathy with the war effort of our government.”[99] Hanford judge Harry V. Breton and Delano mayor William B. Smith advocated similar policies, both of which were designed to get idle men off the streets and into the fields. The Delano Chamber of Commerce urged nearby towns to adopt its approach in order to “prevent loiterers from going to other communities and force them into the harvest fields.”[100] According to AAWMC chairman Terrell, such steps were, in fact, being taken—and well beyond Delano. “The skid rows, gambling houses and pool halls throughout the San Joaquin Valley,” he explained in early September, “are being cleaned out and the men ordered to get into the labor ranks where they are most needed.”[101]

State laws nationwide, including in California, gave authorities considerable discretion in defining vagrancy and, thus, in exploiting this potential labor pool.[102] Updated in the summer of 1941, the California penal code classified a wide variety of individuals as vagrants, subjecting them to a fine of up to $500, jail time of up to six months, or both. Prostitutes, drunks, thieves, beggars, and “every idle, or lewd, or dissolute person” and “every person without visible means of living who has the physical ability to work” all qualified as vagrants. Wandering around the streets late at night was a sufficient enough violation for arrest.[103] California officials had long deployed vagrancy laws for a variety of policing and coercive purposes, including compelling the poor to work. But the context of the war provided a patina of patriotism to justify actions that, to some, might otherwise seem to be government overreach. Authorities could argue that destitute men who refused to work in the fields failed not just themselves and their families, but their nation as well.

Authorities also targeted the incarcerated. On September 25, forty Valley police chiefs, judges, and other law enforcement officials unanimously endorsed a plan already adopted by the town of Stockton: unemployed men arrested for minor offenses, including vagrancy and intoxication, who agreed to do harvest work would have their jail terms suspended. Those who refused the offer, however, would receive more severe sentences than they otherwise would have.[104] The secretary of the Fresno County Chamber of Commerce speculated that if implemented throughout the Valley, this plan could net six thousand additional farm workers.[105] One month later, Merced County officials urged Sheriff N. L. Cornell to use prisoners in the county jail to assist with the harvest. “There is no way prisoners can be forced to work under existing laws,” replied Cornell. But the sheriff noted that he had been paroling as many prisoners as possible for farm work.[106]

Valley communities even tried to limit the flow of alcohol. Bar and liquor store owners in Merced agreed in September to close on Sundays for the rest of the harvest season. Doing so, they hoped, would reduce Monday absenteeism caused by hangovers.[107] By November, Merced farmers were asking that bar and pool rooms be shuttered for most of the week, with the lone exception of Saturday nights.[108] In Stockton, Tracy, Marysville, and Modesto, retail liquor establishments reduced their hours of operation, closing at 12 AM rather than 2 AM and opening at 8 AM rather than 6 AM.[109] The Fresno County War Manpower Commission (a subordinate of the Area Commission), farm industry representatives, and local law enforcement agents proposed this same plan to the county’s liquor license holders at a large meeting at Fresno Memorial Auditorium on September 28. “The midnight to 8 A.M. is worth trying,” urged the gathering’s sponsors, “for it will eliminate what seems to be one of the major hindrances in keeping available workers employed steadily.” Alcohol abuse was the worst between 12 and 2, they insisted. And the delayed opening would ensure that individuals won’t “visit bars early in the morning,” before they headed out to work. Although this plan was presented as a voluntary measure, numerous speakers suggested that if it did not pass, the Army might step in and impose a compulsory one. Eventually, four hundred Fresno County liquor license holders—representing roughly half of the establishments selling alcohol in the county—agreed to a slightly modified version of the proposal. Beginning in October and lasting through the end of the war, they would close early and open late every day but Saturday.[110]

***

It is difficult to determine whether shutting down bars and similar venues early had much measurable impact on the farm labor shortage. The same goes for efforts to coerce idle, intemperate, or incarcerated individuals into the cotton fields. Judging by reports in the Fresno Bee, it appears that the bulk of the work in the cotton harvest was performed voluntarily by the local citizenry, albeit with significant prodding by government officials, as had been the case with the grape harvest.

By early December, authorities in some portions of the region were feeling encouraged by the progress that had been made on cotton farms. “The harvest in the vicinity of Fresno is well ahead of that in the rest of the county,” reported Al J. Brown, chairman of the Fresno Chamber of Commerce agricultural committee on December 1. He saw this fact as a testament to “the splendid cooperation and assistance we have been getting from the schools.”[111] But in the county as a whole, not to mention the rest of the San Joaquin Valley, the situation remained critical. According to one cotton processing firm, by December 5, just 43 % of Fresno County cotton had been ginned, compared to the 90% that was typical for that point in the season. With that shortfall in mind, Fresno city and county officials decided to capitalize on the approaching Pearl Harbor attack anniversary, urging locals to “remember the Pearl Harbor treachery” by “doing their part on the home front to help avenge it.” Cotton clothing and equipment is “needed to win the war,” Brown reminded residents. “Our job is to get it picked. By doing that we can deliver a solid blow against the Axis.”[112]

Patriotic pleas such as this one bolstered student turnout for cotton picking in Fresno on December 7 and throughout the Christmas holiday break.[113] By mid-January, the statewide cotton harvest total nearly matched that of the previous year.[114] Two months later, the state reported that the county’s farms had produced $83 million worth of food and fiber in 1942, surpassing the 1941 total by $24.5 million. Looking forward to the next year’s harvest season, Fresno County Chamber of Commerce executive secretary M.P. Lohse predicted that “if agriculture during 1943 is to equal the 1942 record, even greater dependence must be placed on workers recruited from groups not heretofore considered as being a necessary part of the agricultural picture.”[115]

Lohse was correct, at least in part. Through the duration of the war, Valley agricultural interests continued to rely on thousands of local volunteers, especially students, to help with the harvest of key crops.[116]

But volunteerism was only part of the story. The Victory Harvest Army’s success was also the result of intervention by the local, state, and federal governments. The 1942 farm labor crisis thus speaks to a broader continuity in the history of the San Joaquin Valley, of California, and, indeed, of the U.S. West, one that predated and extends beyond World War II. Despite the myth of Western individualism, since the nineteenth century Western farmers, ranchers, and residents in general have depended on federal government interventions and resources—from Native American removal to permits to graze on public lands to the massive flood control, reclamation, and irrigation projects that enabled the region’s growth and booming economy.[117] 

Throughout the 1942 harvest crisis, Valley growers looked time and again to federal officials—as well as to local and state officials—to redress their labor shortage. They asked the U.S. Army to permit them to employee Japanese internees, and they urged the federal government to negotiate a treaty to bring in Mexican braceros. When these efforts failed to solve the problem, Valley farmers relied on local, state, and federal authorities to encourage, coordinate, and at times compel the participation of Valley residents in the 1942 harvest.

In the years that followed, Valley ranchers and growers would continue to rely on the federal government to solve their labor problems by providing an increasingly foreign-born labor force. In 1943 and 1944, the San Joaquin Valley Agricultural Labor Bureau brought in nearly seven thousand Mexican nationals as a part of the Bracero Program.[118] At the end of the 1943 season, Irvine S. Terrell, who managed the labor bureau’s Fresno office in addition to his AAWMC duties, praised these temporary laborers for their remarkably low turnover rate and “highly satisfactory work” on cattle ranches and especially peach, grape, and cotton farms.[119] A Merced County official credited braceros for not only helping to avert major crop losses that year but also making “it unnecessary to issue a general call for volunteer labor from cities in the county.”[120]

Not everyone, however, was enthusiastic about the new labor source. Indeed, anti-Mexican and Japanese sentiments remained as strong among some Valley residents as they had been in 1942, as side-by-side letters to the editor published by the Fresno Bee on February 23, 1943 make clear. In one, Robert G. Williams of Lodi accused Japanese immigrants to the United States of attempting to seize control of the country through propaganda, Japanese language schools, and espionage. In the other, Fresnan Cecil Clark lamented the ongoing “howling” for the importation of “Mexican labor,” which to his mind was inferior to “American white labor.”[121]

The Victory Harvest Army, in the end, ultimately lived up to its name and saved the 1942 season. But such ugly assertions of bigotry against the Valley’s non-white residents—like the thorny questions about the duties of patriotism, the limits of government coercion, and the role of government support for private agricultural interests—reveal that the 1942 farm labor crisis perfectly encapsulated the real meanings, and costs, of victory in this campaign and in World War II as a whole.

Mexican cotton pickers Corcoran, 1940. Photo courtesy of Dorothea Lange – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts are professors of history at California State University, Fresno. They are co-authors of Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy (New Press, 2018)now available in paperback. They are currently writing a narrative history of the 1960 battle to desegregate public schools in New Orleans.


[1] Fresno Bee, Sept. 10, 1942.

[2] Fresno Bee, Sept. 9, 1942.

[3] Fresno Bee, Sept. 10, 1942.

[4] Fresno Bee, Sept. 17, 1942; U.S. Department of Commerce, “1950 Census of Population Preliminary Counts,” Sept. 28, 1950, https://www2.census.gov/library/publications/decennial/1950/pc-02/pc-2-48.pdf.

[5] Fresno Bee, Nov. 1, 1942.

[6] Fresno Bee, Sept. 24, 1942.

[7] Our account of the San Joaquin Valley’s 1942 farm labor crisis builds on and is indebted to the unpublished research of Christina Morales Guzmán. See Guzmán, “Race, Citizenship, and the Negotiation of Space: Chinese, Japanese, and Mexicans in Fresno, California, 1870-1949” (PhD diss., University of California, Santa Cruz, 2012): 151-190.

[8] Heather Cox Richardson, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), xvi, 85-91.

[9] Devra Weber, Dark Sweat, White Gold: California Farm Workers, Cotton, and the New Deal (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 225n1.

[10] Greg Robinson, By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 108.

[11] Fresno Bee, Apr. 16, 1942.

[12] Fresno Bee, May 20, 1942.

[13] Fresno Bee, Mar. 27, 1942.

[14] New York Times, Feb. 1, 1942; New York Times, Mar. 26, 1942; Fresno Bee, Apr. 14, 1942;  Hearings Before the Special Committee to Investigate Farm Labor Conditions in the West, United States Senate, Seventy-Seventh Congress, Second Session on S. Res. 299, in Four Parts (Washington: US Govt. Printing Office, 1943), 187-188; Cameron E. Woods, “Mexican Agricultural Labor in California: 1941-1945” (MA thesis, California State University, Fresno 1950), 7-11, 46-7; Erasmo Gamboa, Mexican Labor and World War II: Braceros in the Pacific Northwest, 1942-1947 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990), xii; Gerald D. Nash, The American West Transformed: The Impact of the Second World War (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), 46-7; Fresno Bee, Apr. 4, 1942. This farm labor shortage, it is worth noting, was highly localized. Indeed, California as a whole had a sufficient number of laborers. Yet inefficient worker distribution, transportation challenges, and the perishability of Valley crops undermined growers’ ability to tap into this workforce. Don Mitchell, They Saved the Crops: Labor, Landscape, and the Struggle over Industrial Farming in Bracero-Era California (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012), 23, 434n9; Otey M. Scruggs, “Evolution of the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement of 1942,” Agricultural History 34 (July 1960): 140.

[15] Fresno Bee, Oct. 24, 1942.

[16] Fresno Bee, Apr. 5, 1942.

[17] Fresno Bee, July 1, 1942; Fresno Bee, June 1, 1942; Fresno Bee, Nov. 18, 1942.

[18] Adon Poli and Warren M. Engstrand, “Japanese Agriculture on the Pacific Coast,” Journal of Land & Public Utility Economics 21 (Nov. 1945): 356-57.

[19] Morton Grodzins, Americans Betrayed: Politics and the Japanese Evacuation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949), 74-75.

[20] Greg Robinson, A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 127.

[21] Fresno Bee, Mar. 18, 1942.

[22] The long-term consequences of this program were devastating. Few Japanese farm owners realized any compensation for the time, labor, and expenses they devoted to the 1942 planting, and most ultimately lost their land—often unloading it to white neighbors at “fire-sale” prices. Robinson, A Tragedy of Democracy, 122-127; Aaron Mejia, “Dispossessed: Japanese Internment and the California Alien Land Laws,” May 8, 2019, unpublished paper in authors’ possession.

[23] Fresno Bee, Apr. 30, 1942.

[24] Hearings Before the Special Committee, 188.

[25] Fresno Bee, Apr. 13, 1942.

[26] Fresno Bee, June 21, 1942.

[27] Fresno Bee, Apr. 10, 1942.

[28] Fresno Bee, May 10, 1942.

[29] Poli and Engstrand, “Japanese Agriculture on the Pacific Coast,” 353.

[30] Fresno Bee, July 5, 1942; Fresno Bee, May 13, 1942.

[31] Fresno Bee, July 2, 1942; Fresno Bee, June 27, 1942; Fresno Bee, July 1, 1942.

[32] Fresno Bee, July 2, 1942; Fresno Bee, June 5, 1942; Fresno Bee, May 22, 1942; Fresno Bee, June 27, 1942; Fresno Bee, July 1, 1942; Fresno Bee, July 19, 1942; Fresno Bee, May 26, 1942.

[33] Fresno Bee, June 1, 1942.

[34] U.S. Army, Final Report: Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast, 1942 (Washington, D.C., 1943), https://archive.org/stream/japaneseevacuati00dewi/japaneseevacuati00dewi_djvu.txt.

[35] Fresno Bee, June 5, 942; Louis Fiset, “Thinning, Topping, and Loading: Japanese Americans and Beet Sugar in World War II,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly (Summer 1999): 129; New York Times, Sept. 14, 1942; New York Times, Sept. 22, 1942; Gamboa, Mexican Labor, 28-29.

[36] Fresno Bee, July 8, 1942.

[37] Fresno Bee, July 19, 1942.

[38] Fresno Bee, July 23, 1942; Fresno Bee, Oct. 12, 1942.

[39] Fresno Bee, Oct. 31, 1942.

[40] Fresno Bee, July 13, 1942.

[41] Fresno Bee, Aug. 1, 1942.

[42] Fresno Bee, July 8, 1942.

[43] Fresno Bee, Apr. 9, 1942; Fresno Bee, Apr. 14, 1942; Fresno Bee, May 22, 1942; Fresno Bee, June 3, 1942; Fresno Bee, June 30, 1942; Gamboa, Mexican Labor, 39; Hearings Before the Special Committee, 244; Scruggs, “Evolution of the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement,” 141; Mitchell, They Saved the Crops, 22.

[44] Fresno Bee, Sept. 23, 1942.

[45] Fresno Bee, Sept. 28, 1942.

[46] Lori A. Flores, Grounds for Dreaming: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the California Farm Worker Movement (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016), 42; Mitchell, They Saved the Crops, 22-23; Wayne Rassmussen, A History of the Emergency Farm Labor Supply Program, 1943-47 (Washington, D.C: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1951), 200, https://archive.org/details/historyofemergen13rasm/page/n1.

[47] Gamboa, Mexican Labor, 39-40; Flores, Grounds for Dreaming, 42.

[48] Scruggs, “Evolution of the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement,”140; Gamboa, Mexican Labor, 40-41; Flores, Grounds for Dreaming, 47.

[49] Hearings Before the Special Committee, 244-48; Los Angeles Times, May 15, 1986. Fresno, in fact, had two assembly centers, not one.

[50] The Japanese assembly centers in Stockton, Merced, and Tulare were used as “holding camp facilities” for more than five thousand braceros who were either newly arrived and awaiting work assignments or in between jobs. In addition, some buildings from these centers were provided to growers, who moved them to labor camps throughout the Valley. Mitchell, They Saved the Crops, 51-52; Fresno Bee, Sept. 5, 1943.

[51] Fresno Bee, July 8, 1942. Olson previously endorsed the recruitment of white-collar workers and students. Fresno Bee, June 30, 1942.

[52] Sacramento Bee, May 22, 1942.

[53] Fresno Bee, June 1, 1942.

[54] Fresno Bee, Mar. 27, 1942; Fresno Bee, May 22, 1942; Fresno Bee, May 30, 1942.

[55] Fresno Bee, May 30, 1942.

[56] Fresno Bee, July 12, 1942.

[57] Fresno Bee, Nov. 6, 1942.

[58] Nash, American West Transformed, 48.

[59] New York Times, Mar. 18, 1942; New York Times, Mar. 25, 1942; New York Times, Apr. 3, 1942.

[60] New York Times, Apr. 27, 1942; Gamboa, Mexican Labor, 27.

[61] New York Times, Apr. 19, 1942.

[62] New York Times, Sept. 27, 1942.

[63] Fresno Bee, Sept. 17, 1942.

[64] Fresno Bee, Sept. 1, 1942.

[65] Fresno Bee, Aug. 14, 1942; Fresno Bee, Sept. 11, 1942.

[66] Fresno Bee, Aug. 30, 1942.

[67] Fresno Bee, Sept. 11, 1942.

[68] Fresno Bee, Sept. 9, 1942.

[69] Fresno Bee, Sept. 9, 1942.

[70] Fresno Bee, Sept. 11, 1942.

[71] Fresno Bee, Aug. 14, 1942.

[72] Fresno Bee, Aug. 30, 1942.

[73] Fresno Bee, Sept. 11, 1942.

[74] Fresno Bee, Sept. 16, 1942.

[75] Vernon Selland, interview with Blain Roberts and Ethan J. Kytle, Fresno, CA, June 3, 2020.

[76] Although the 1942 grape harvest was not the disaster many thought it would be in late August and early September, the state’s total raisin grape yield did drop from 1,421,000 tons in 1941 to 1,326,000 tons in 1942. In addition, California growers failed to meet the total of 350,000 tons of raisins requested by the War Production Board for 1942, producing just 250,000 tons. Fresno Bee, Nov. 11, 1942; Hearings Before the Special Committee to Investigate Farm Labor Conditions, 26.

[77] Fresno Bee, Oct. 14, 1942.

[78] Fresno Bee, Nov. 18, 1942. 

[79] Weber, Dark Sweat, White Gold, 34.

[80] Fresno Bee, Oct. 30, 1942.

[81] Fresno Bee, Oct. 28, 1942; Fresno Bee, Oct. 29, 1942.

[82] Fresno Bee, Nov. 1, 1942.

[83] Fresno Bee, Oct. 30, 1942.

[84] Fresno Bee, Nov. 1, 1942.

[85] Fresno Bee, Nov. 2, 1942; Fresno Bee, Nov. 6, 1942.

[86] Fresno Bee, Oct. 21, 1942.

[87] Fresno Bee, Oct. 28, 1942, Fresno Bee, Nov. 2, 1942; Fresno Bee, Nov. 10, 1942; Fresno Bee, Nov. 11, 1942; Fresno Bee, Nov. 12, 1942.

[88] Fresno Bee, Oct. 30, 1942; Fresno Bee, Nov. 1, 1942; Fresno Bee, Nov. 18, 1942.

[89] Fresno Bee, Nov. 18, 1942.

[90] Fresno Bee, Nov. 18, 1942

[91] Fresno Bee, Nov. 20, 1942.

[92] Fresno Bee, Aug. 13, 1942; Fresno Bee, Sept. 10, 1942.

[93] Fresno Bee, Sept. 9, 1942.

[94] Fresno Bee, Nov. 6, 1942.

[95] Fresno Bee, Sept. 9, 1942.

[96] Fresno Bee, Sept. 10, 1942.

[97] Fresno Bee, Sept. 10, 1942.

[98] Fresno Bee, Sept. 28, 1942; Fresno Bee, Sept. 23, 1942; Fresno Bee, Oct. 5, 1942.

[99] Fresno Bee, Aug. 13, 1942.

[100] Fresno Bee, Nov. 15, 1942; Fresno Bee, Nov. 12, 1942.

[101] Fresno Bee, Sept. 9, 1942. The San Joaquin Valley was not the only agricultural region where coercive tactics were used to secure farm laborers during World War II. In the Arkansas and Mississippi deltas, for instance, cotton planters employed government programs not only to depress wages among their workers but also to make it difficult for them to leave the region. See Nan Elizabeth Woodruff, “Pick or Fight: The Emergency Farm Labor Program in the Arkansas and Mississippi Deltas during World War II,” Agricultural History 64 (Spring 1990): 74-85.

[102] Risa Goluboff, Vagrant Nation: Police Power, Constitutional Change, and the Making of the 1960s (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 1-4.

[103] California Penal Code § 647 (Deering 1941).

[104] Fresno Bee, Sept. 24, 1942; Fresno Bee, Sept. 25, 1942.

[105] Fresno Bee, Sept. 24, 1942.

[106] Fresno Bee, Oct. 26, 1942. Although California prohibited contract convict labor, some prisoners in the state were employed in harvest camps during World War II. See Ward M. McAfee, “A History of Convict Labor in California,” Southern California Quarterly 72 (Spring 1990): 22, 30.

[107] Fresno Bee, Sept. 16, 1942.

[108] Fresno Bee, Nov. 10, 1942.

[109] Fresno Bee, Sept. 28, 1942.

[110] Fresno Bee, Sept. 28, 1942; Fresno Bee, Sept. 29, 1942.

[111] Fresno Bee, Dec. 1, 1942.

[112] Fresno Bee, Dec. 5, 1942.

[113] Fresno Bee, Dec. 8, 1942; Fresno Bee, Dec. 1, 1942; Fresno Bee, Dec. 23, 1942.

[114] Fresno Bee, Dec.  26, 1942; Fresno Bee, Dec. 13, 1942. Although the 1942-3 harvest was only slightly behind the 1941-2 harvest, it trailed the 1940-1 harvest significantly.

[115] Fresno Bee, Mar. 26, 1943.

[116] Fresno Bee, May 7, 1943; Fresno Bee, June 25, 1943; Fresno Bee, Dec. 13, 1945; Fresno Bee, Sept. 5, 1943; Fresno Bee, Oct. 25, 1943; Fresno Bee, Nov. 29, 1943; Fresno Bee, Dec. 13, 1945.

[117] Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: Norton, 1987), 82-83, 138-39; Norris Hundley, Jr., The Great Thirst: Californians and Water A History, Revised Edition (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001).

[118] Fresno Bee, Dec. 23, 1943; Fresno Bee, Dec. 19, 1944.

[119] Fresno Bee, Dec. 23, 1943.

[120] Fresno Bee, Nov. 29, 1943.

[121] Fresno Bee, Feb. 23, 1943.

Articles

Organized Labor, Organized Home: Domestic Worker Organizing and the Contradictory Politics of Care in the Nonprofit Industrial Complex

Erika Grajeda and Erica Kohl-Arenas

There is a growing concern with the relationship between private philanthropy and nonprofit regional organizing and development efforts to address economic inequality and racial injustice. As shown in the groundbreaking book The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Nonprofit Industrial Complex (INCITE! 2007) and a growing body of ethnographic and historical research,[1] private philanthropy has influenced patterns of nonprofit professionalization and introduced individualistic and racialized market logics that limit and contain grassroots efforts to address structural inequality. Unlike the also important journalistic and philosophical texts on the power of philanthropy that tend towards broad claims about foundations and the wealthy elite[2], this body of empirical research grounds philanthropy in the power-laden relationships between funders, transnational actors, nonprofit institutions and staff, and local communities – echoing long standing concerns of nonprofit practitioners and movement leaders.[3]

Recently, development and philanthropy scholars critique the “philanthrocapitalist” turn where charitable institutions seek new profits through private-sector investments in major social policy arenas including global health, agriculture, education, workforce development, and disaster relief that create new markets of wealth production that in turn produce or maintain inequality.[4] A striking example of the philanthrocapitalist model provides a challenge to recent claims that philanthropic efforts in post-Katrina New Orleans represent a new model for social justice giving.[5] Vincanne Adams’ book Markets of Sorrow and John Arena’s book Driven from New Orleans provide detailed accounts of how, instead of delivering justice to displaced residents, philanthropic partnerships in post-Katrina New Orleans paved the way for private housing development and new debt structures that generated profit for private industry while making it extremely difficult for displaced homeowners and residents to stay or return.[6]

These trends are not new. Just as the Ford Foundation was heralded as a civil rights advocate in the 1960s, it was later critiqued for watering down the Black Power movement and the more radical wings of the United States War on Poverty community action programs.[7] In co-author Erica Kohl-Arenas’ study of funder investments in the California Farmworker Movement, the Field Foundation and the Rosenberg Foundation were valuable allies in the early days of the movement but were unwilling to fund union organizing, strikes, boycotts, or legal representation of farmworkers when the movement heated up in the fields of California’s Central Valley in the late 1960s.[8] Today, we see widespread congratulations for donors and nationally-scaled nonprofit organizations that support movements against the exploitation of poor people, women, immigrants, and communities of color. While these resources and professional forms of community organizing are desperately needed, do all strategies of nonprofit and philanthropic organizing matter equally? We propose that it is necessary, especially during times of crisis, to investigate how well-funded nonprofit organizing campaigns intersect with, sometimes support and catalyze, and yet sometimes overshadow or contain local struggles.

The case study featured in this essay shows how private and publicly funded domestic worker organizing projects that aim to empower women can weaken and redirect efforts away from building a broad-based worker and immigrant-owned movement and towards the needs of market owners. However, as we will also see in the featured case, the power of privately funded professionalized nonprofit organizing is not always represented in clear-cut capitalist agendas. Instead, professionals negotiate and adapt program strategies to align with the interests of partners with power and resources, in the end making poor people responsible for alleviating their own suffering while excluding questions of how structural inequality is produced and maintained.

The study takes on the difficult task of interrogating the risks involved in professionally organizing some of the most marginalized people in this country –undocumented immigrant women who clean homes for a living. While we believe that this organizing is urgently needed, we also found that incentivized volunteerism, required participation in national domestic worker efforts, and privately-funded media campaigns can run counter to building a strong movement of, by, and for immigrant women. Strategies to counter political, economic, and racial oppression are of utmost importance today. It is also important to pay attention to how organizing strategies that aim to also align with the interests of employers in rapidly gentrifying regions, may contain contradictions that risk compromising movements for social, economic, racial, gender, and political justice over the long haul. Central to these contradictions is the dilemma endemic to community organizing in the advanced nonprofit sector where movements that claim to embrace localized grassroots organizing, are often organized around “upward accountability” to professional staff, funding structures, and regional employers – not to the communities they aim to empower and mobilize.[9] This professionalized approach to organizing is not inherently bad. However, institutional arrangements and strategies are often disconnected from the daily struggles, critical analyses, and strategic engagement of those most impacted in the issues a movement seeks to address.

Based on the findings of co-author Erika Grajeda’s ethnographic research at an immigrant worker center in San Francisco, California, we make three specific claims about the problems presented by privately funded, nationally connected, nonprofit institutional worker organizing. First, we found that asking one of the most precarious workforces, predominantly undocumented immigrant women who clean homes, to participate in volunteer organizational maintenance activities replicates an increasingly common form of unpaid labor required of women who seek support through poverty alleviation programs throughout the global South.[10] In other words, economic opportunities extended to immigrant household workers were contingent upon unpaid nonprofit organizational care, duty, and labor. A second finding discussed in this paper involves the ways in which women participants themselves become a strategic site of intervention rather than the structural arrangements of domestic labor within the regional and national economy. Similar to transnational poverty eradication programs targeting girls/women, women workers are engaged as a malleable economic resource and investment. Finally, through public communications campaigns associated with the worker center’s funded programming, we found that by privileging employer audiences, largely imagined as middle-class Bay Area residents and tech workers, domestic workers emerged as selfless and industrious individuals while workplace challenges and regional structures of inequality experienced by domestic workers were made invisible.

In the following pages, we show how specifically gendered program frameworks, narrative tropes, and forms of nonprofit governance hold undocumented immigrant women responsible for solving problems produced by broader structures of inequality. Through privately-funded programmatic logics, they are at once told to evaluate their own self-worth based on volunteer labor and caring, and that worker organizing is about incentives, rewards, and communication campaigns alongside agreeable regional employers. We first provide a historical and geographic context for worker center organizing in the San Francisco Bay Area. The following sections share our findings around the three central themes of gendered and incentivized participation in nonprofit worker organizing, the project of making women responsible for their own suffering, and finally the politics of “win-win” public media narratives that aim to both empower women workers and make employers feel comfortable and charitable hiring immigrant domestic workers. We conclude by returning to the complicated question of the purpose and risks associated with critiquing one or the most important organizing agendas within a historical context of political oppression and urgency in the U.S.

The Worker Power Center

Scholars have long documented how the adversities faced by undocumented immigrants vary considerably across geographic regions in the U.S.[11] California, emerging in recent years as a champion of “immigrant rights,” has supported a host of policies intended to help undocumented immigrants.[12] Under threat of possible retaliation by the Trump administration, then Governor Jerry Brown signed landmark sanctuary state legislation vowing to protect “hardworking families” while continuing to target “dangerous criminals.” Within the state, cities such as San Francisco have upheld longstanding sanctuary policies or related law enforcement orders. Considered “as good as it gets” for undocumented immigrants, the San Francisco Bay Area is lauded as a racially heterogeneous and progressive setting that is accommodating and charitable to noncitizens.[13] This façade of tolerance and inclusivity, however, overstates the city’s ability to provide refuge and safety to undocumented populations, particularly in the post-9/11 era with the ascendancy of what some refer to as the Homeland Security State.[14] Importantly today, it also overshadows the Silicon Valley tech boom-induced housing and affordability crisis that has led to a rapid increase in homelessness and flight of working-class Black and Latino residents from the city.

Alongside these trends, a migrant civil society has flourished to deal with the crisis of social reproduction confronting low-wage, immigrant workers in the Bay Area.[15] Worker centers have been at the forefront, seeking to counter the process of labor subordination by helping immigrant workers navigate the landscape of substandard work. As “informal unions,” these mediating organizations are tasked with supporting immigrant workers through a combination of advocacy, organizing, and service provision.[16] Through their efforts to contest informal work practices, they not only aim to alter the terms of labor relations, but also create additional income-generating activities as alternatives to low-wage jobs. Worker centers are thus considered important agents for economic equity.[17] Contributing to a twenty-first century pro-labor moral economy which draws attention to the plight of low-wage immigrant workers, the nonprofit worker center model has emerged as a promising development that is reenergizing labor and immigrant social movements in the U.S.

The Worker Power Center (WPC) is a city-sponsored program that focuses on strengthening the individual well-being and collective power of low-wage immigrant workers in San Francisco. Previously part of La Raza Centro Legal, a community-based legal organization, the WPC currently falls under the fiscal sponsorship of Dolores Street Community Services, a nonprofit that was created in the 1980s to provide shelter and sanctuary to Central American refugees. With their institutional support, the WPC oversees two worker collectives, the Day Labor Program (DLP) and the Women’s Collective (WC). The DLP, which originated in the early 1990s as an outgrowth of a burgeoning immigrant rights movement across California, extended job development and social services to mostly undocumented and homeless men. The program is currently located in the historically Latino neighborhood of the Mission, near a corridor where immigrant workers have long gathered to solicit employment.[18] The worker center, in a display of converging interests of local authorities, neighborhood groups, and migrant justice activists over the growth of informal hiring sites and immigrant dispossession, emerged as a ‘win-win’ solution for the problems posed by informal day labor markets amidst rapid gentrification. Aiming to provide “support, structure, and resources” to both day laborers and their employers, it hoped to ensure a steady supply of “low cost, seasonal, [and] temporary” labor while simultaneously preserving the “dignity” of workers. Today, the worker center model is heralded as the best possible solution to the “crisis” facing many local governments over the growth of informal labor markets. [19]

In the early 2000s, the WPC created the “feminist wing” of the organization, the Women’s Collective (WC), to provide immigrant women laboring in household industries with an independent organizing space. As a standalone program with its own membership structure and decision-making procedures, the WC currently represents more than a third of the WPC membership base. In addition to extending job opportunities to a mostly Latin American, immigrant and female workforce, the WC offers members opportunities “to learn, work and participate” in local and national social movements. By providing Latina migrants with more than just “dignified employment,” the WC is a pioneer among worker centers which have traditionally been male-dominated spaces catering to industries such as construction.[20] Today, the WC is considered an incubator for immigrant household workers to hone their leadership and entrepreneurial skills, self-esteem, and political consciousness.

As founding members and leaders in the worker center movement that includes umbrella organizations such as the National Day Labor Organizing Network (NDLON) and the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), both programs share a social justice orientation intended to incite collective mobilization. At the organizational level, however, a more disjointed picture unfolds as day laborers and domestic workers, through their respective programs, are treated as two distinct populations endowed with varying levels of political agency and potential. As we will illustrate in greater detail below, day laborers and domestic workers are incorporated into the organization through different membership and participation requirements. These differences, we argue, reflect and reinforce distinct funding imperatives, political agendas, and gendered expectations. We find, for instance, that while the WC is concerned with promoting immigrant women’s civic engagement and leadership, encouraging greater visibility in migrant justice movements, the DLP prioritizes men’s labor market integration and “community embeddedness.” DLP members are encouraged to await work indoors, venturing out collectively mostly to participate in community cleanup and volunteering efforts aimed at making a positive impression on neighboring communities. Women, however, take on a more visible and political role due to their distinct participation requirements. This means that while the worker center aims to function as an “organizing hub” for WC members, inciting personal transformation and empowerment, it often serves as a day shelter for immigrant men looking to secure work through the DLP.  

Funding streams for the WC and DLP also differ. The DLP receives roughly $250,000 per fiscal year from public grants offered by the City and County of San Francisco’s Office of Civic Engagement & Immigrant Affairs (OCEIA). According to the 2014 OCEIA’s Request for Proposal, the purpose of such grants is to provide “structure, job training, and support” to the informal day labor industry as well as to address community concerns over safety. These grants emphasize the dual goal of providing day laborers with a “structured” work environment to ensure their economic self-sufficiency, and securing a stable supply of low cost, on-demand labor for local industries and employers. The DLP then is tasked with ensuring a reliable supply of flexible labor while promoting immigrant integration and public safety. Alternatively, the WC receives funding from private foundations such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Benton Foundation, and the Zellerbach Family Foundation, which according to staff, is largely directed toward the “social justice” side of their operations. As an affiliate and founding member of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and the California Domestic Workers Coalition (CDWC), the WC receives additional funding to attend national retreats and participate in outreach and advocacy campaigns. While OCEIA grants for the day labor program emphasize economic self-sufficiency, safety, and greater oversight of informal economies, funding for the WC largely focuses on promoting civic engagement and leadership development. Both foundation funding and OCEIA grants, however, look to these community-based organizations to address the challenges experienced by and ensure the reproduction of low-wage immigrant workers in a gentrified and increasingly unaffordable city.

In 2016, the Worker Power Center celebrated its 25th anniversary with a relaunch and rebranding campaign. Envisioning itself as a full-service organization seeking to “unite, empower, and organize” low-wage immigrant workers in San Francisco, the Worker Power Center (WPC) has increasingly embraced marketplace solutions. These have included employing marketing strategies and media campaigns to create what they perceive to be a more sustainable and scalable organizational model. This new approach has also entailed expanding their employer base, particularly those in the tech industry, embracing innovative technologies such as apps to combat wage theft and expedite the hiring process, as well as experimenting with public-private partnerships. With this relaunch, the WPC seeks to enhance the individual lives of low-wage immigrant workers by providing them with greater employment prospects through professionalization and vocational training. They also seek to extend more opportunities for leadership development and civic engagement in migrant justice and labor movements.

In the remaining sections, we turn to our findings that complicate how these benefits are delivered to WPC members under the nonprofit organizational model. We highlight the three central themes of gendered and incentivized participation in nonprofit worker organizing, the project of making women responsible for curing their own “trauma,” and finally, the politics of “win-win” media narratives that aim to both empower members and compel employers to support immigrant workers. We conclude with a discussion about the practice of embracing nationally scaled and market-based solutions to address enduring labor challenges, particularly the extent to which privately funded nonprofit institutions are engaging workers in developing organizing strategies that hold employers and industries accountable to change.

Gendered and incentivized participation in nonprofit worker organizing

Membership in the Worker Power Center (WPC) is considered a “privilege” that is not automatic but must be earned.[21] While some worker centers offer multiple membership tiers with different levels of rights, obligations, and decision-making privileges, membership structures are generally devised with the goal of empowering members to serve as their own advocates of change.[22] At the WPC, prospective members have to fill out an application form, attend an orientation meeting, and pay monthly dues. Once established, membership extends job dispatching privileges to workers, which is one of the most important services the center provides. Although membership provides job allocation privileges to both day laborers and domestic workers, only for the latter is “active participation” a requirement for securing household employment through the Women’s Collective (WC). Day laborers, for instance, are allocated jobs using a rotating sign-in system, which requires that they be physically present at the center to be eligible for work on any given day. After every job placement, the Day Labor Program (DLP) requires that workers volunteer either by cleaning the facilities or distributing flyers throughout the city advertising their services. While encouraged, members of the DLP are not required to attend weekly member meetings.

For domestic workers in the WC, a point system is used to codify, track, and reward optimal levels of participation. While its exact origin is not known by current staff or WC members, household workers earn the “right” to jobs through the collective by what organizers refer to as “active participation.” Through an intricate point system, WC members earn a point for every activity or event they attend on a weekly basis. These can include flyering or advertising their services throughout the city, but also attending marches, protests, self-help meetings, theater group rehearsals and performances, making legislative visits, and at times, engaging in acts of civil disobedience. Women also engage in other “volunteering” activities, including organizational maintenance work such as cleaning and cooking for members during communal events. While expected, this type of gendered community care work—often attributed to a culturally-specific ethos of cooperation and conviviality—is not accounted for or tabulated into the point system.[23] Staff acknowledge that the point system is the source of much internal conflict, resentment, and surveillance among WC members—as well as a considerable amount of administrative work on their end. Still, the point system is considered a “necessary incentive” that serves to maximize women’s participation and more importantly, to develop their political consciousness.

Job allocation, which staff describe as a referral service linking prospective employers with job seekers, is considered secondary to the organization’s larger political goals, which is to “empower” immigrant Latinas. This message is delivered to women during an initial orientation meeting where prospective members learn about the WC’s “mission and vision,” but also at weekly mandatory meetings and events. Ana, a senior member of the WC, reinforced this point to a prospective member during an orientation meeting: “One can’t just show up and take up space.” After becoming a WC member, this woman explained that she understood that to secure jobs through the collective she would “have to work hard.” As part of the WC’s mission and vision then, immigrant women were being called to “join the fight” instead of remaining on the sidelines as spectators. Josefina, a cofounder of the Women’s Collective and a former domestic worker herself, elaborated on this point at a general member meeting:

“The women who are truly committed don’t just show up to earn points. They participate because they are truly concerned with what is going on in their communities, in the legislature, in D.C. They aren’t just a warm body on a chair. It is not greed or selfishness that motivates them but the belief that as immigrant women we all have to fight for what we want . . . it is not fair that some of us put in the time and effort to attend all of these events, participate, march, protest, share our stories, talk to politicians and journalists, while others simply get to sit back and enjoy the fruits of our labor.”

As the above quote suggests, “active participation” entails more than being a “warm body.” To secure household jobs through the collective, members are expected to “participate, march, [and] protest.” They also have to be willing to put their bodies on the line, at times quite literally, by engaging in acts of civil disobedience, risking arrest and even deportation, in their efforts to secure employment through the collective. When members have questioned or challenged the intrinsic value of participation, they are reminded that membership is a “privilege” and that the benefits extended include the “opportunity” to be part of a social movement in the U.S. As Victoria, a WC committee noted, members are often reminded that the opportunity to participate and acquire valuable leadership skills should be payment enough. However, as Victoria retorted, “We’re the ones out on the front lines,” adding that while the WC encourages women to fight for immigrant rights, members are not encouraged to apply those values internally, or to make changes to the collective’s organizational structure. Ultimately, she shares, “the compañeras give and give [and] not out of the goodness of their heart but out of necessity because they need jobs.”

Healing immigrant women

Providing members with ample opportunities to be politically engaged is part of the WC’s approach to empowerment. That is, domestic workers are incentivized to march, protest, fast, meet with public officials and in some cases, engage in contentious-style politics. Empowerment, however, also requires personal transformation. To that end, WC members are encouraged to “work on themselves” by engaging in transformative activities aimed at restoring and revitalizing their “body and soul.” These personal transformations are made possible through their incentivized participation in self-help groups, theater, retreats, and other activities that emphasize psychic and somatic healing. This emphasis on personal transformation and healing is inspired by the National Domestic Workers Alliance’s (NDWA) Strategy, Organizing, Leadership (SOL) initiative program. According to this initiative, skilled organizing requires a “centered, open and connected” individual who understands not only her own trauma and healing, but also the current and historical sociopolitical context.[24] As a program that aims to build resilient grassroots leaders who can “lead with skill and love,” SOL encourages worker leaders to tackle lingering traumas and other pathologies that can generate individualist and antisocial tendencies. Left unresolved, these pathologies are seen as potentially stifling political participation and community power. As such, healing the “body and soul’” of household workers is deemed imperative for building robust social movements and grassroots organizations.

At the WC, women’s inability (or unwillingness) to be active in the local nonprofit organization and the nationally-scaled domestic worker movement is often attributed to moral and individual shortcomings. According to a WC cofounder and staff member, nonparticipation is rooted in low self-esteem, trauma and culturally-rooted pathologies that ultimately stifle collective action and create divisions within movements. Defining individuals through their assumed trauma – as victims of structural, physical and sexual violence – allows for interventions into their lives to be justified as a political obligation. Instrumentally, addressing these pathologies and lingering traumas is seen as integral for building robust social movement organizations and leaders. Here, again, is Josefina describing the collective’s “healing” mission:

“Many of the women that walk through that door are broken. They come from countries where women have no rights, no voice, and no way of providing for their children. They have been beaten, exploited, even raped, and so they come to the WC looking for someone to extend a helping hand. That is what we do here, we provide them the tools they need to reach their full potential as women, to expand their possibilities so that they can aspire to more in life than just cleaning houses, which is hard work . . . They come here broken and leave as heroínas.”

To ensure that WC members reach their “full potential” as entrepreneurs and social movement participants, the collective cannot thus merely “assist” them in securing household work. Instead, through a discourse of empowerment – borrowed from feminist thought and praxis – the WC aims to provide immigrant Latinas with the tools they need to “aspire to more in life than just cleaning houses.”[25] To cultivate empowered subjectivities, these assumed to be “broken” women must “work on themselves” by participating in self-help activities aimed at “restoring the body and soul.” This emphasis on psychic and somatic healing, borrowed from the National Domestic Workers Alliance’s (NDWA) Strategy, Organizing, Leadership (SOL) initiative, receives generous financial support from the Angell Foundation, Hidden Leaf Foundation, Open Society Foundations, Alexander Soros Foundation, Oak Foundation, Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, NoVo Foundation, and Seasons Fund for Social Transformation.[26] As a holistic and transformative organizing model, SOL approaches personal healing as a political necessity.

To that end, WC members and staff receive financial support to attend the National Domestic Workers Alliance’s (NDWA) Strategy, Organizing, Leadership (SOL) retreats, where domestic worker organizers and leaders learn about the importance of both personal and social transformation. By developing the concept of “transformative organizing,” the SOL initiative aims to address the human needs of household workers by promoting embodied transformations, mindfulness, and developing healing and caring responses to ensure longevity and active participation. On a weekly basis, WC members also participate in a SOL inspired self-help group, Grupo SOL, which is designed to boost members’ self-esteem and develop peer group solidarity. In Grupo SOL, intimate disclosures are not only considered integral to personal healing and transformation but also to nurturing a more empowered sense of citizenship. While these types of disclosures can be potentially liberating, connecting the personal to the political in strategic and powerful ways, many of the women interviewed expressed feeling that they are deprived of an intimate or private sphere in their quest to secure employment through the collective. This emphasis on healing and self-help thus reveals a contradictory problematic. Whereas the women are asked to reveal the true nature of their own suffering, the foundation funded and professionally run program sessions were organized around the presumption that the root of women’s struggles is a lack of confidence, self-esteem, and voice and not the broader structural challenges such as seeking a living wage, affordable housing, or safety from immigration policing. Here we see a model that again is not “bad” in and of itself: healing from trauma is important and personal empowerment pedagogy has a long-standing movement history. However, it did not “land well” or as intended by virtue of being required within the context of an incentivized participation scheme and designed and delivered by remote nonprofit professionals. For WC members, tending to their “body and soul” is yet more labor they are expected to perform for community uplift.

Win-Win Organizing: public narrative and the politics of care

Unlike day laborers, domestic workers dedicate a significant amount of time and labor to the organization and to self-help. Their distinct participation requirements and funding streams incentivize optimum levels of engagement among women, alongside a gendered improvement program aimed at healing “broken” immigrant Latinas. We argue that the way women members are differently incorporated into the organization produce highly dependable and active members that are compelled to take on multiple roles as caregivers, entrepreneurs, and activists. Emerging as the best hope for a revitalized labor and immigrant movement, these women are continually called upon to “work on themselves,” thereby redirecting the responsibility for managing social risks such as unemployment, poverty, and “illegality” on individual immigrant Latinas.[27] Domestic workers have also been central figures in recent advocacy campaigns that aim to address “injustices of recognition.”[28] As others have documented, nonprofit worker organizations such as the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance have increasingly focused on the promotion of dignity and visibility of domestic workers through positive representational modes such as storytelling and legal advocacy. These efforts seek to remedy the legal exclusion of an entire industry while also to addressing the historical devaluation of household work and its gendered and racialized workforce.

The WC has paralleled these national efforts by seeking to situate immigrant household workers within the framework of recovery and redress through media marketing campaigns. In 2012, for instance, the WC launched the Domestic Worker Safety & Dignity Project, a three-year collaboration that included UC Berkeley’s Labor Occupational Health Program (LOHP) and Underground Advertising. With financial support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s national grantmaking program, New Routes to Community Health, the team designed a marketing and media campaign to promote dignity and health awareness among domestic workers and their employers. The campaign not only addressed occupational safety and health considerations associated with the reliance on toxic cleaning products. It also tackled the public devaluation of household work and its racialized workforce through storytelling strategies that emphasize pride, bravery, and respect. Their goal was twofold: to enhance household working conditions while simultaneously altering the perception of this industry from undervalued women’s work to a “respectable contribution” to the economy.

“Our name is La Colectiva. But you can call us Your Fairy Godmothers.” Images courtesy Joseph Cultice.

To promote the WC’s unique brand as a “conscientious cleaning service on a mission,” the team commissioned a photographer to shoot glamorous portrait photography that would be featured on billboards, buses, and other outdoor media in San Francisco. These images would also be featured on their website and printed on flyers to advertise their services. The messages accompanying the images of immigrant household workers referred to WC members as “angels,” “fairy godmothers,” and the “keepers” of their employers’ sanity. In mobilizing these gendered tropes, which focus on benevolence, resourcefulness, and magical qualities, the campaign not only reinforced stereotypical gendered views of domesticity and affect, but also portrayed these workers as a source of gentle reassurance for employers. That is, by presenting immigrant household workers as benign and selfless figures endowed with magical powers, these motifs glamorize marginalized women workers in subservient positions. Moreover, in depicting WC members as instrumental to their employers’ emancipation from the drudgery of household tasks, the campaign not only privileged the needs of employers but also projected an idealized image of this racialized and gendered workforce: industrious, resourceful, and most importantly, ephemeral.

“If cleanliness is next to godliness, then La Colectiva are Angels.” Images courtesy Joseph Cultice.  

In addition to glamorous photography and strategic messaging evoking the image of the self-sacrificing and magical doméstica, the campaign included an exhibit, “Profiles in Strength & Dignity”, which showcased “moving” autobiographical narratives of WC members. These curated autobiographical accounts offered potential employers “a glimpse” into the workers’ lives and the many roles they take on—as wives, mothers, domestic workers, and now, as activists fighting for “rights and representation.” “Profiles in Strength & Dignity” also reinforces the organization’s political and rehabilitative mission. Their autobiographical accounts highlight, for instance, how the WC provides recent immigrants with a ready-made community in addition to vast opportunities for political activism. For instance, Lorena, who worked as a nanny when she arrived to the U.S., contends that: “Before I came to La Colectiva, I felt like a scared little bunny rabbit—I was frightened of everything.” In these curated accounts, the WC is presented as providing Latinas with stewardship, protection, and care to ensure that they become self-sufficient, confident, and respectable. Domestic workers, portrayed as frightened and defenseless upon arriving to the collective (and the U.S.), are treated as redeemable and ripe with potential, which can be cultivated through proper guidance and care.

Featured on the collective’s website,“Profiles in Strength & Dignity” also promotes the notion of the potential “win-win” or shared prosperity for both workers and employers:

“When the women of La Colectiva pick up the broom and dustpan, they aren’t just clearing away dust—they’re clearing a path to respect and pride for domestic workers everywhere. It’s a win-win: employers get the peace of mind that comes from having a clean house, and the women get dignified work in a healthy workplace. But La Colectiva isn’t just a place to find work. It’s a community for recent immigrants, often separated from their families in a strange new environment. It’s an opportunity for civic engagement and activism towards social justice. And it’s a step towards a better life.”

As the passage suggests, what makes the WC different from its competitors—their distinct “brand”—is that they represent a “conscientious cleaning service on a mission.” Unlike for-profit agencies, the WC provides immigrant Latinas with the opportunity for empowerment through entrepreneurship and political engagement. Presenting “organized labor for an organized home” as a win-win scenario, beneficial for both workers and employers, parallels recent domestic worker organizing efforts at the national level. This is particularly the case with the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and its focus on forging strategic alliances with employers and other institutional actors. This “win-win” approach positions employers and workers on an equal footing through a presumed shared vulnerability (and prosperity), presenting their distinct goals and aspirations as perfectly compatible. It also appeals to employers’ moral sensibilities through the strategic mobilization of compelling personal narratives that renders their “conscientious cleaning service” as an “opportunity” for helping immigrant domestics to help themselves. This strategic branding constructs WC members as a worthy social investment, in their futurity as citizens, entrepreneurs, and pillars of the community. Employers, on the other hand, are viewed as conscientious consumers driven by compassion and social responsibility, without concern about the structures that generate such deep class divisions and categories of exploitable labor.

Conclusion

In this paper, we explored the central problematics presented by privately funded, regionally focused and nationally scaled, nonprofit worker organizing. First, we found that asking undocumented immigrant women to participate in volunteer organizational maintenance activities unintentionally promotes an increasingly common form of unpaid labor required of women in global poverty alleviation programs.[29] WC members were required to execute time intensive volunteer duties in exchange for jobs. In other words, economic opportunities in the domestic work economy were presented as contingent upon unpaid nonprofit organizational care and labor. In addition to institutional maintenance requirements, women were incentivized to participate in professionally orchestrated national domestic worker campaign actions, also in exchange for job referrals. This privately funded and professionally staffed institutional approach to mobilization presents a limited range of opportunities for women workers to define and lead organizing agendas on their own terms. It also puts women under additional pressure as they are asked to take a publicly visible stand which for some puts their immigration status at risk, and for others requires additional resources towards childcare and family support during hours of program participation.

Second, we showed how foundation funded program imperatives that make workers themselves the most important site of intervention fail to address the structural arrangements of domestic labor within the regional and national economy. For male participants, day labor centers function as a kind of shelter, or in the words of a staff member at a day labor center, “a homeless campsite.” [30] Considering the parallels between worker centers and non-profit poverty management institutions, these sites often serve as repositories for containing and making invisible “surplus” populations within gentrifying urban neighborhoods. As in the structural arrangement of 21st century racial capitalism, a pattern of urban “banishment” is performed as poverty programs intersect with real estate development and speculation, clearing streets to protect the view (and the opportunities) of middle class and wealthy residents concerned with urban “blight” and value.[31]

Whereas men are contained or managed within these spaces, women are disciplined as traumatized individuals in need of healing and care. When “fixed,” these once “broken” women are seen by funders, and thus by program managers, as holding great untapped potential as an entrepreneurial agent of development. Similar to transnational poverty eradication schemes targeting girls/women, women workers are engaged as a malleable economic resource. International development campaigns like #thefutureisfemale, or the Nike Foundation’s “The Girl Effect”are illustrative of gender-specific forms of holding women as responsible for unleashing new markets in the broader project of global economic development.[32] Programs designed to empower women have also become prominent in migrant justice and labor movements—at once providing critical leadership opportunities for immigrant women and re-inscribing racialized and gendered relationships of community responsibility and care.[33]

Finally, the funded public communications campaigns that claim to provide a “win-win” outcome for both workers and employers, privilege the perspectives of employers and middle-class Bay Area residents while avoiding the more challenging employment relationships domestic workers experience. The “win-win” oriented campaign, designed to both empower workers and make employers feel “safe” and “good” about hiring empowered immigrant women, ends up promoting essentialist narratives and racialized gendered tropes about the helpful, non-confrontational domestic worker who is proudly improving her own life while also improving the home life of her employer. Not unlike co-author Kohl-Arenas’ study of farmworker-grower philanthropic initiatives in California’s Central Valley “win-win” projects that aim to serve the interests of people with greatly unequal power often end up marginalizing or hiding the concerns of the weaker party.[34] An increasingly popular form of consensus politics is wielded by mass media campaigns that claim to improve the well-being of poor and marginalized communities, but often hide conflict, struggle, and the structural conditions that produce and maintain poverty and inequality. Often promising “mutual prosperity” for both worker and employer, simplified narratives of self-help and empowerment seldom put pressure on the employer or address regional patterns of inequality such as access to affordable housing and living wage jobs, presenting a limited range of organizing opportunities.

Ultimately, privately funded, institutionally managed, nationally scaled community organizing increasingly forgoes the hard work of long-haul person-to-person movement building. With program frameworks and outcomes mapped by donors, fewer resources are devoted to the daily work of convening community members to inform concrete strategies against the dominant economic structure and towards more equitable futures. Central to the contradictions presented in these stories is the specific arrangement of the advanced nonprofit sector where funders embrace the language of community organizing but are not prepared to take on the broader economic and power arrangements that make philanthropic wealth possible. Professionalized and mandated program participation, incentivized volunteerism, public-private market based partnerships, and self-help program frameworks are all familiar tropes of the advanced “Nonprofit Industrial Complex” (INCITE 2009).[35] In today’s political context, this incentivized organizing presents additional complications and risks for immigrant activists who are increasingly targeted and incarcerated.[36] At the same time, the increasing lack of trust, fear, isolation, seclusion and “hiding out” among previously active immigrant rights organizers does remind us that today all immigrant organizing tactics perhaps do matter.

We simultaneously conclude that, with organizations like the National Domestic Worker Alliance (NDWA) receiving record levels of funding from private foundations such as the Irvine Foundation, W.K. Kellogg, NoVo and Ford Foundation, and a practice of embracing nationally scaled and market based solutions to address enduring labor challenges, it is important to ask how privately funded nonprofit institutions are negotiating relationships with funders on behalf of their constituents. When do institutional negotiations and large-scale initiatives result in increased resources for labor organizing and when do they result in compromised agendas that fail to change the structures of inequality produced by industries and markets?[37] Yet, should we critique nonprofit and philanthropic efforts to support immigrant and worker rights during a time of political resurgence among right-wing, conservative, anti-state politics and white supremacist movements? Not to mention the difficulty of doing grassroots community organizing during a global pandemic, with disproportionate impacts on Black and brown communities. Our answer is yes, and no. No, there is no point in critiquing mainstream philanthropy when we need every penny and every ally to stand up against anti-immigrant hate, racism, and fear-mongering politics. On the other hand, yes, we must pay attention to the role of philanthropy in creating common-sense narratives that contribute to individualist solutions to collective structural problems. It is clear that philanthropy plays a prominent role in promoting narratives that muddy regional organizing strategies, in the end failing to reveal systems of power or align with the struggles of oppressed people.

In this context, critical philanthropy and nonprofit studies are more important than ever. Ethnographic research, such as the work featured in this article, reveals the complicated partial narratives, fragmented organizing strategies, and limited frameworks private donors present when engaging movements for economic equality and racial justice. The urgency of our moment calls for us to hold private funders and nonprofit organizers accountable to the people who increasingly struggle with political violence, economic insecurity, precarity, and banishment from social, economic, political and civic life.


Erika Denisse Grajeda is the Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Southwestern University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology. Her research on intimate labor and immigrant social movements in the U.S. focuses on emergent forms of social control mobilized by state and non-state actors to manage illegalized migrants, and fashion idealized forms of employment and political participation. She is currently working on anarchist feminist collectives in Mexico City.

Erica Kohl-Arenas is an Associate Professor in American Studies at the University of California, Davis and the Faculty Director of Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life. She is a scholar of the radical imaginations and deferred dreams of social movements that become entangled with the politics of institutionalization and funding. This work is captured in her book The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty (University of California Press, 2016) and in a diversity of publications including Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography, Social Movement Studies, Journal of Poverty, Geography Compassand HistPhil.


[1] INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence (eds): The revolution will not be funded: Beyond the non-profit industrial complex (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2007); Ming-Francis, Megan. ‘The Price of Civil Rights: Black Lives, White Funding, and Movement Capture.’ Law & Society Review Volume 53, Number 1: 275-309 (2019); Grajeda, Erika. ‘Immigrant Worker Centers, Technologies of Citizenship, and the Duty to Be Well.’ Critical Sociology Volume 45, Number 4-5: 647–666 (2018); Kathryn Moeller, The Gender Effect: Capitalism, Feminism, and the Corporate Politics of Development, (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017); Tiffany Willoughby-Herard, ​Waste of a White Skin​: ​The Carnegie Corporation and the Racial Logic of White Vulnerability (B​erkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2015); Erica Kohl-Arenas, The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty. (Oakland, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2016); Megan Tompkins-Stange, ​Policy Patrons: Philanthropy, Education Reform, and the Politics of Influence. (C​ambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Education Press, 2016); Vincanne Adams, ​Markets of Sorrow, Labors of Faith: New Orleans in the Wake of Katrina.​ (Durham, London: Duke University Press, 2013); Ananya Roy, Poverty Capital: Microfinance and the Making of Development. New York: Routledge, 2010).

[2] Anand Giridharadas, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. New York: Vintage Books, 2019); Robert Reich, Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How it Can Do Better (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2018)

[3] See articles addressing nonprofit/foundation power relationships in the popular blog Nonprofit AF: https://nonprofitaf.com/?s=philanthropy

[4]Linsey McGoey. No Such Thing As a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy.​ (London, New York: Verso Press, 2015); Behrooz Morvaridi, ‘Capitalist Philanthropy and Hegemonic Partnerships.’ Third World Quarterly Volume 33, Issue 7 (2012)

[5] Darren Walker, From Generosity to Justice: A New Gospel of Wealth. (New York, New York: Ford Foundation, 2019).

[6]Vincanne Adams, ​Markets of Sorrow, Labors of Faith: New Orleans in the Wake of Katrina.​ (Durham, London: Duke University Press, 2013); John Arena, ​Driven from New Orleans: How Nonprofits Betray Public Housing and Promote Privatization. (M​inneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Pres, 2012).

[7] Karen Ferguson, Top Down: The Ford Foundation, Black Power, and the Reinvention of

Racial Liberalism, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).

[8] Erica Kohl-Arenas, The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty. (Oakland, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2016).

[9] James Petras,‘NGOs: In the Service of Imperialism,’ Journal of Contemporary Asia 29:

429-40 (1999)

[10] Tara Cookson, Unjust Conditions: Women’s Work and the Hidden Cost of Cash Transfer

Programs. (Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2018); Kathryn Moeller, The Gender Effect: Capitalism, Feminism, and the Corporate Politics of

Development, (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017)

[11] Monica W Varsanyi, ‘Immigration Policing Through the Backdoor: City Ordinances, The

‘Right to the City,’ and the Exclusion of Undocumented Day Laborers,’ Urban Geography 29(1): 29-52 (2008); Nicholas De Genova, ‘Migrant ‘Illegality’ and Deportability in Everyday Life,’

Annual Review of Anthropology 31(1): 419-447 (2002).

[12] Allan Colbern and S. Karthick Ramakrishnan, ‘Citizens of California: How the Golden

State Went from Worst to First on Immigrant Rights,’ New Political Science 40(2): 353-367 (2018).

[13] James Quesada, Sonya Arreola, Alex Kral, Sahar Khoury, Kurt C. Organista, and Paula Worby, ‘‘As good as it gets’: Undocumented Latino Day Laborers Negotiating Discrimination in San Francisco and Berkeley, California, USA,’ City & Society 26(1):29-50 (2014).

[14] Nicholas De Genova, ‘Migrant ‘Illegality’ and Deportability in Everyday Life,’

Annual Review of Anthropology 31(1): 419-447 (2002).

[15] Nina Martin, ‘The Crisis of Social Reproduction among Migrant Workers: Interrogating

the Role of Migrant Civil Society,’ Antipode 42(1): 127-151 (2010); Nik Theodore and Nina Martin, ‘Migrant Civil Society: New Voices in the Struggle Over Community Development,’ Journal of Urban Affairs 29(3): 269-287 (2007).

[16] Sebastien Chauvin, ‘Bounded Mobilizations: Informal Unionism and Secondary Shaming

Amongst Immigrant Temp Workers in Chicago,’ In Neoliberal Capitalism and Precarious Work, ed. Rob Lambert and Andy Herod, 72-95. Northampton: Edward Elgar (2016); Janice Fine, Worker Centers: Organizing Communities at the Edge of the Dream, (Ithaca,

NY: Cornell University Press, 2006).

[17]Cesar F. Rosado Marzán, ‘Worker Centers and the Moral Economy: Disrupting through

Brokerage, Prestige, and Moral Framing,’ University of Chicago Legal Forum Vol. 2017, Article 16, (2018) https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol2017/iss1/16.

[18] James Quesada, Sonya Arreola, Alex Kral, Sahar Khoury, Kurt C. Organista, and Paula Worby, ‘‘As good as it gets’: Undocumented Latino Day Laborers Negotiating Discrimination in San Francisco and Berkeley, California, USA.’ City & Society 26(1):29-50 (2014).

[19] Office of Civic Engagement & Immigrant Affairs, City and County of San Francisco, ‘Request for Proposals: San Francisco Day Labor Program,’ (2014) Available (consulted 12 May 2016) at: www.sfgov.org/oceia. ; Jill Esbenshade,‘The ‘Crisis’ over Day Labor: The Politics of Visibility and Public Space. WorkingUSA 3(6): 27-70 (2000).

[20] Ruth Milkman and Veronica Terriquez,‘‘We Are the Ones Who Are out in Front’:

Women’s Leadership in the Immigrant Rights Movement, ’ Feminist Studies 38(3): 723–52 (2012); Yolanda Alindor,. Bay Area Day Labor Programs: Services, Political Environment and

Priorities. Zellerbach Family Foundation. Available (consulted 12 June 2016) at: http://www.ca-ilg.org/sites/main/files/file-attachments/collab_strategies_final_9-15-11_4.pdf.

[21] Janice Fine, Worker Centers: Organizing Communities at the Edge of the Dream, (Ithaca,

NY: Cornell University Press, 2006)

[22]  Jennifer Chun, George Lipsitz, and Young Shin, ‘Immigrant Women Workers at the Center of Social Change: Asian Immigrant Women Advocates,’ In Immigrant Women Workers in the Neoliberal Age, ed. Nilda Flores Gonzalez, Anna Romina Guevara, Maura Toro-Morn, and Grace Chang, (Urbana, Chicago and Springfield: University of Illinois Pres, 2013)

[23] Paul Apostolidis,‘Day Laborers and the Refusal of Work,’ South Atlantic Quarterly 117(2): 439-448 (2018).

[24] Ito, Jennifer, Rachel Rosner, Vanessa Carter, and Manuel Pastor. Transforming Lives,

Transforming Movement Building: Lessons from the National Domestic Workers Alliance Strategy – Organizing – Leadership (SOL) Initiative. USC Program for Environmental and Regional Equity, 2014.. Available at: www.soltransforminglives.org

[25]  Emilie Hache, ‘La responsabilité, une technique de gouvernementalité néolibérale?’

Raisons politiques 28(4): 49–65 (2007)

[26] Ito, Jennifer, Rachel Rosner, Vanessa Carter, and Manuel Pastor. Transforming Lives,

Transforming Movement Building: Lessons from the National Domestic Workers Alliance Strategy – Organizing – Leadership (SOL) Initiative. USC Program for Environmental and Regional Equity, 2014.. Available at: www.soltransforminglives.org

[27] Michel Foucault, ‘Governmentality.’ In The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality,

ed. Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon, and Peter Miller  (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991).

[28] Sujatha Fernandes, ‘Out of the Home, into the House: Narratives and Strategies in

Domestic Worker Legislative Campaigns.’ Social Text 34(3): 1-25 (2016); Sujatha Fernandes, Curated Stories: The Uses and Misuses of Storytelling (New York:

Oxford University Press, 2017).  

[29] Tara Cookson, Unjust Conditions: Women’s Work and the Hidden Cost of Cash Transfer

Programs, ( Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2018).

[30] Purser, ‘The Dignity of Job-Seeking Men: Boundary Work among Immigrant Day

Laborers.’ Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 38(1): 117-139 (2009).

[31] Ananya Roy, ‘At the Limits of Urban Theory: racial banishment in the contemporary

city,’ Lecture at the London School of Economics Cities (February 13, 2018).

[32] Kathryn Moeller,  The Gender Effect: Capitalism, Feminism, and the Corporate Politics of

Development (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017).

[33] Ananya Roy, ‘Subjects of Risk: Technologies of Gender in the Making of

Millennial Modernity,’ Public Culture 24(1): 131-155 (2012).

[34]

[35] INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence (eds): The revolution will not be funded: Beyond the non-profit industrial complex (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2007)

[36] Maria Ibarra-Frayre, ‘Under the US Deportation Region, Activists are Policing Themselves,’

TruthOut (June 21, 2018)

[37] Fernandes, 2017

Articles

Evicted in the Central Valley: The Avoidable Crisis and Systemic Injustice of Housing Displacement

Amber R. Crowell and Janine Nkosi

Virtually nowhere in the metropolitan United States could rent be called affordable for the average family, and there are certainly no places where a family on poverty wages could pay rent without assistance. In California, a family must report a household income of roughly $100,000 to make the median rent in the state. These numbers vary widely depending on region, reaching their most extreme levels in the Bay Area cities. However, even in Fresno, the largest urban center of the Central Valley, a family needs to earn nearly $20 per hour to afford the median rent in the area while the current state minimum wage is only $12 per hour.[1] These gaps are not static over time but are growing as rent increases outpace wage increases, a point recently explored by The New York Times.[2] The fallout from this feature of the affordable housing crisis is the subject of so many other stories that characterize California – homelessness, substandard housing, population decline, and displacement. 

Matthew Desmond’s Pulitzer-prize winning book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City[3], directed the affordable housing crisis conversation toward one particularly devastating consequence that ultimately links the unaffordability of housing to homelessness: evictions. Often, evictions happen because the tenant failed to pay their rent. Other times, evictions occur with no fault on the part of the tenant – because of a foreclosure, habitability issues, or, egregiously, because of retaliation against the tenant by the landlord. In addition to formal, court-ordered evictions, Desmond estimates from survey data in Milwaukee that informal evictions may as much as double the total amount of evictions that take place. These are evictions that occur outside of the judicial process and reflect the vulnerable position of the tenant, who vacates the premises prior to the court filing out of fear of entering the court process or because they cannot afford the court process. Evicted forced researchers, reporters, advocates, and policymakers to realize that the process of evicting a family from their home is a key culprit in exacerbating family poverty, unemployment, and neighborhood instability.[4] More importantly, Desmond’s work illuminated the harsh reality of a court system that is designed not to protect families from entering a downward spiral into poverty and homelessness, but to protect property.

Often, the conversations about the affordable housing crisis and its consequences focus on the major metropolitan areas of California in the Bay Area and Southern California. In a database search on scholarly articles, graduate level theses, and newspaper articles over the past 20 years using the key phrases “housing crisis” and “California”, we found 1109 results for “Bay Area,” 3081 results for “San Francisco,” 1586 results for “Southern California,” and 3525 results for “Los Angeles.” In contrast, over the same period with the same key phrases, we only found 288 results for “Central Valley” and 250 results for “Fresno.” This demonstrates that both the scholarly and popular attention has been largely focused on the housing crisis in the southern and northern metropolitan areas of California, with far less given to the Central Valley. 

Yet, in Fresno alone the California Housing Partnership Corporation reported a nearly 35,000 unit shortfall in affordable housing, and the National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates a 41,000 unit shortfall for the county overall.[5] More alarmingly, Central Valley counties, where approximately 45 percent of households are renters, experience far higher rates of evictions than anywhere else in California.[6] The typical renter in the Central Valley is rent-burdened, which is defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as a household that spends 30 percent or more of its income on housing costs. Fully a quarter of those households are severely rent-burdened, defined as a household that spends half or more of its income on housing costs. For this and other reasons, including higher rates of poverty, the virtual non-existence of tenant protection programs and laws at local levels, and increased migration from Southern and Northern California metropolitan areas into the Central Valley in search of lower housing costs, the affordable housing crisis conversation must include the Central Valley.

In this piece, we examine evictions and displacement in the Central Valley. This work developed through our research and experiences as scholar-activists and housing justice advocates in the Central Valley. We focus primarily on Fresno County, a sprawling, diverse metropolitan area comprising both urban and rural settlement in the heart of the Central Valley, but also include some findings from San Joaquin and Kern Counties, which are located in the northern and southern regions of the San Joaquin Valley, respectively. We draw on data from eviction court filings, observations in eviction court, and stories from tenants in Fresno County to answer the question: What accounts for the high eviction rates observed in the Central Valley? In answering this question, we develop three main points: 

  1. The affordable housing crisis conversation in California must include the Central Valley, where stark social inequalities are intricately tied with housing and neighborhood inequality. This means that scholarly work must consider the complexities of the housing crisis in California from the high-cost, high-income urban areas outside of the Central Valley to the lower-cost, lower-income urban and rural areas within the Central Valley. Housing activists as well must include the population and the needs of the Central Valley in their advocacy work and support the activism taking place within the Central Valley; 
  2. Evictions happen at a higher rate in the Central Valley than anywhere else in California. They are a devastating outcome of the affordable housing crisis and are an effective tool of the court system used to prioritize the protection of property and property-owners over poor families and families of color, and;
  3. Immediate action could be taken by policymakers in the Central Valley at the local level that would bring balance to the relationship between tenants and property-owners and prevent further displacement, systemic social inequality, and neighborhood instability, which is particularly urgent in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impact.  

Background: The Central Valley

The Central Valley is a vibrant, dynamic region known for its representation of over a hundred cultures, nationalities, and racial and ethnic identities, according to 2018 American Community Survey estimates. But it is also an area known for its high levels of social inequality by a multitude of metrics – income and wealth inequality, residential segregation, health disparities, and opportunity gaps in labor and education. The nature of social inequality in the Central Valley is so complex that it would be impossible to identify any one cause or solution. However, it becomes very clear through a spatial lens that many of the inequalities observed in the Central Valley are tied to neighborhoods and housing. When we map median income, median home values, percent in poverty, and percent nonwhite by census tract in the urban center of Fresno County, we see an indisputable overlap (Figures 1-4).[7] To the east is the city of Clovis, a predominately White, wealthy suburb where the availability of affordable housing is so inadequate that it prompted a lawsuit by a local legal aid organization.[8] Yet even within the more racially and socioeconomically diverse city of Fresno, it is apparent that there are distinct boundaries drawn which prevent low-income families of color from entering certain neighborhoods and in turn concentrate these families in identifiable areas of the city. 

Figure 1. Median household income in Fresno County, census block groups, 2016.
Figure 2. Percent in poverty in Fresno County, census block groups, 2016.
Figure 3. Median home values in Fresno County, census block groups, 2016.
Figure 4. Percent Non-Hispanic White in Fresno County, census block groups, 2016.

These boundaries are in part historical, tracing back to the days of racial covenants[9], and later redlining, which prompted further public and private disinvestment in neighborhoods where families of color resided[10] while resources and opportunities were diverted to Whiter, wealthier neighborhoods. In addition, public housing, which shifted to become a resource for families of color neglected by the federal government, was primarily built in racially segregated neighborhoods where Black and Latinx families resided.[11] This history is an important piece in understanding housing insecurity and inequality in Fresno because it led to widely disparate home values between neighborhoods. 

Because families of color saw their neighborhoods forced to depreciate due to the actions of federal and local government, wealth and class inequality are now almost inseparable from racial inequality in Fresno. In White, affluent neighborhoods, housing values appreciated by directly benefiting from the inequities created by racist and classist housing policy. White families have enjoyed both wealth accumulation and racial exclusivity because the unaffordability of housing in these areas for low-income families has mostly meant that it is unaffordable for families of color as well. In Clovis specifically, experts argue that the deliberate choice to not zone low-income affordable housing is precisely why it is a predominately White community. These neighborhood-based inequalities created a setting where larger economic forces, in particular rising housing costs combined with depressed wages, would lead to a far more troubling human crisis: displacement and homelessness. 

Evicted in the Central Valley

Given that financial hardship is responsible for both the triggering of an eviction and the vulnerability of the tenant, poverty is part of this story, but focusing on individual poverty does not capture the full effect of what changing economic conditions can do. Douglas Massey demonstrated in a compelling simulation how segregation can create a scenario where economic downturns are heavily absorbed by areas of concentrated poverty.[12] When race and class segregation are interrelated, this specifically means that poor communities of color shoulder a heavier economic burden. In the context of an ongoing housing crisis in an area that was hit particularly hard by the housing bust, the pattern of segregation in Fresno County created an uneven distribution of evictions and displacement, with families of color seeing the most precipitous drops in housing value and poor families of color experiencing evictions at a higher rate than anybody else.[13] 

The eviction rate in 2016 in Fresno County was 2.16 percent, meaning that just over 2 percent of renters were formally evicted that year.[14] While this seems like a negligible percentage, 2 percent amounts to over 3,000 families displaced from their homes in a single year. The volume of evictions physically manifests in the form of standing room-only crowds within the courtroom. In relative terms, the eviction rate in Fresno County is substantially higher than in both San Francisco County (0.25 percent) and Los Angeles County (0.58 percent), as well as in the state of California overall (0.83 percent). In addition, we have reason to believe that the number of families evicted each year in Fresno is perhaps thousands more when informal evictions, or evictions that happen outside of the court system, are considered.[15]

Families who are informally evicted often vacate before the formal eviction process begins in order to avoid court action, which could incur fees and tarnish their record as a tenant. These are more likely to be impoverished families who cannot afford the added costs of responding to a court Summons and Complaint. In Fresno and surrounding rural communities, where there is also a large population of undocumented and mixed-status families in addition to families in poverty, we suspect that the number of informal evictions is even higher because of families who fear court action due to their immigration status. Even without data on informal evictions however, the number of formal evictions alone is shockingly high. Our research suggests some possible explanations for why evictions occur at such a significantly higher rate in the Central Valley than in areas with more notorious affordable housing issues.

In our previous report[16], we found that in 80-90 percent of eviction cases, the reason for the eviction was unpaid rent. In the majority of these cases, the amount of rent owed was less than two months’ worth. Here, then, is the first clue: rent burden. Rent burden is defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as the percentage of household income that is spent on rent. A family that spends more than 30 percent of their household income on rent is considered “rent-burdened.” The number is somewhat arbitrary, but it captures families who have less of a financial cushion when something goes wrong – an unforeseen medical incident, an accident, a sudden job loss or drop in income. In San Francisco County, where rents are among the highest in the country, rent burden is 27.5 percent, which means the typical family spends just over a quarter of their income on rent. In contrast, in Fresno County rent burden is 34.7 percent. Rental costs may be higher in the Bay Area, but costs relative to income matter. In Fresno County, the typical renter household is rent-burdened.[17] In areas characterized by high levels of poverty, the typical family is severely rent-burdened. To reiterate, a severely rent-burdened household is defined by HUD as a household that spends half or more of its household income on rent. 

Eviction Court and the Prioritization of Property

With the typical family spending over 30 percent of their income on rent, it is not a surprise that many families fail to pay rent, triggering an eviction filing almost as soon as rent is past due. From the perspective of property-owners and the court, this is reason enough to abruptly order a family out of their home. In eviction court, this process is quick and brutal. We have seen families appear for their court date unaware that their story of impending homelessness, catastrophic financial loss, and emotional and mental trauma would hold no bearing in a setting where the main priority is to protect the property and the financial interests of the landlord. Eviction court is a sphere dominated by attorneys who have made a career out of representing landlords, the same handful of predominately men appearing every week with an attitude towards the whole affair as something routine, each judgment seeming to be a foregone conclusion in favor of the landlord. The gender and racial disparities are apparent, with women of color overrepresented among tenants who appear in eviction court and White men overrepresented among the attorneys. As one tenant, a single Black mother in Fresno County, remarked on the power imbalance in the tenant-landlord attorney dynamic, “It was a lawyer against a little Black girl.”[18] This mother was ultimately evicted with her young son after a confusing court process that left her with no option to fight her case.

In our previous study of evictions filed in 2016 in Fresno County, we found that 73 percent of the landlords in our sample had legal representation compared to only 1 percent of tenants.[19] Not once, after months of observation, did we witness a judgment in favor of a tenant. Most families who we observed or spoke to appeared in court without any realization that they were entering partway through an ongoing process of filed paperwork, evidence-gathering, and legal consultation on the plaintiff’s (i.e. landlord’s) side. In many cases, tenants were not aware that they had missed their opportunity to file an answer, which must happen typically within five days of receiving the eviction notice, or that to have their side of the story heard they would need to have a trial separate from the unlawful detainer hearing. These trials usually occur the same day, catching tenants by surprise and without the needed evidence or witnesses to defend their case. This gives tenants little time to seek legal advice and gather documents. Oftentimes, we witnessed trials occurring within an hour of the hearing. And here, in seeking to understand why evictions happen at a higher rate in Fresno County than in other areas, is our second explanation for why evictions are so frequent: a woefully imbalanced justice system with few protections in place for tenants. 

While some court processes, such as small and large claims cases, are slow and cases can carry on for months, eviction cases, known in legal terms as unlawful detainer cases, are moved through the system with astounding speed.[20] In Fresno County, we found that most cases end in default or they are resolved and renters are evicted within a month of the initial court filing. The emphasis on property and the prioritization of the needs of property-owners is a key reason why this is so. Judges often frame their decisions as prioritizing the return of the property back to the property-owner. When talking about the property itself, judges use terms such as “expedite” and “urgent.” In contrast, there is little concern in the legal process for the tenant and their far more urgent need to stay housed. In the rare instance that tenants are truly able to confidently present their case to the judge, tenants openly express anxiety over not knowing where to go once they are locked out. Pleas are often met with expressions of sympathy from the judge but nonetheless cold resolution from the ruling, which holds that they must vacate the property or be forced out. Evictions are whiplash-fast and are considered a concluded matter almost as soon as the tenant is served with a notice. Ultimately the law is designed to put the needs of the property-owner over the needs of the tenant, who has no claim to ownership. Thus the matter of returning the property to the property-owners is often handled very quickly and decisions almost always fall in favor of the landlord. As evidence to this point, Eviction Lab data reports that of the 3,058 eviction court filings in Fresno County in 2016, 3,036 resulted in evictions – 99.3 percent. Meanwhile, the remaining issue of determining money damages that the tenant may be responsible for can be placed on a different, slower timeline. 

Other actors in the eviction process, including the attorneys and law enforcement, also demonstrate the prioritization of property over humanity. In our survey research and advocacy work, tenants have described sometimes overly forceful behavior from authorities, such as sheriff’s deputies kicking down the front door while children were home alone. The overall motivation of landlord attorneys is to win cases and to collect fees that renters are typically ordered to pay, leading them to ruthlessly confuse and mislead tenants. Tenants are called to meet with landlord attorneys, without attorneys of their own, in the hallway or in small conference rooms in the courthouse. As the attorneys interact with tenants, it becomes clear whose interests they represent. We observed on numerous occasions landlord attorneys frame the situation in ways that discredit tenants’ statements and evidence, invoking anxiety and fear in the tenant, which only adds to an already stressful and confusing situation. Some of the tactics that we observed include presenting ledgers that do not include all of the payments that the tenants have made and muddling timelines so that the tenant can no longer recall dates or the order in which events occurred. Even though tenants bring their own evidence of money orders purchased and rent checks cashed, they soon begin to doubt their own account or worry that the evidence will be insufficient to win their case. Landlord attorneys make matters worse by explaining to tenants what the cost will be if they lose their case rather than settling for an agreement with the landlord.

Tenants have everything to lose, and within minutes they are forced to make a decision that is far from their original objective when they arrived at court, which was to keep their home. Now, after feeling intimidated and confused, their objective becomes: escape the court process with as little long-term consequence as possible. The property and the interests of the property-owner are the primary concern of the court, and while there are mediators to facilitate negotiations between landlords and tenants, nobody stands up for the tenant in the courtroom. The roles of advocates and activists could make a significant difference here, a factor that we discuss further in our conclusions.

Finally, the third explanation is the lack of local policies that protect renters. In California, there are jurisdictions where renter protections are well-established. However, they are very few in number: according to Tenants Together, only 23 out of 482 cities in California have rent control and/or “just cause” policies in place.[21] Rent control effectively caps increases on rent to keep housing costs more affordable, while “just cause” requires landlords to justify their reason for issuing an eviction. Tenant protection laws are not without their controversy[22], but regardless of what other effects they may have, we found that in cities where these laws are in place, evictions are far more likely to be on the decline in tandem with an improving post-recession economy. In an analysis of eviction rates from 2006 to 2016 in California, we found that 70 percent of the neighborhoods located in cities with tenant protection laws in place saw eviction rates decline over the ten-year period. In comparison, only 46 percent of the neighborhoods located in cities without tenant protection laws experienced a decline in evictions. Notably, none of the twenty-three cities with local tenant protection laws are located in the Central Valley. 

The recent enactment of the Tenant Protection Act of 2019[23] in California, which among other things makes “just cause” evictions the law across the state and caps rent increases, may improve matters in this regard. But the Central Valley continues to be notoriously lacking in local protections for tenants, a fact that is not well-understood but certainly observable in most jurisdictions, and this is reflected in the court system where tenants have little power to defend their rights by law due to a lack of legal representation and an unjustly opaque legal process that leaves many of them in a losing position over a failure to follow procedure. Recently, Nelson[24] highlighted the discordance between how the tenant perceives the legal process of eviction and the process itself. Oftentimes, tenants misunderstand their relationship with the landlord and do not expect the swiftness of court action. Community advocates and grassroots organizations who fight for housing justice are carrying much of the critical work of educating tenants through “Know Your Rights” workshops, flyers, and resources. With local tenant unions in the Central Valley, outreach and organizing efforts could go even further.

Evictions as a Tool of the Social Divides

We have up to this point written in very general terms about eviction trends and procedures in the Central Valley and more specifically in Fresno, but our discussion about the historically established class and race divides in Fresno is important to bear in mind, because these determine who is more likely to face eviction. According to national estimates from the 2017 American Housing Survey, 3.3 percent of Black renters reported receiving a threat of eviction compared to only 1.3 percent of White renters. For those who identify as American Indian or Alaska Native, the disparity is even more staggering, with 4.4 percent reporting an eviction threat. Poverty and rent-burden are also factors, reflecting the relationship between housing insecurity and financial insecurity. Of those who are severely rent-burdened, 2.6 percent reported receiving a threat of eviction compared to 1.4 percent of those whose housing costs relative to income are moderate. Of renters who live below the poverty line, 3.2 percent reported receiving an eviction threat compared to only 1 percent of those whose income is 200 percent of the poverty threshold. 

The obvious consequence of evictions is that families who are evicted find themselves suddenly severely housing insecure. But the fallout of an eviction is even more widespread and far-reaching than its effect on housing options. In our analysis of eviction court records in Fresno County, we calculated a measure that we call “compounded burden.” As we described above, most tenants are evicted over failure to pay rent. But the final money judgment includes the original amount owed plus other costs: holdover damages (i.e. the money that the landlord has lost in unpaid rent since the eviction) and attorney and court fees. The compounded burden is the factor by which the initial amount owed is multiplied when the final money judgment is made. 

On average, tenants end up having to pay four times what they initially owed. The average tenant in our study owed approximately $1000 at the time of eviction. Based on the average compounded burden, the average tenant will find herself owing $4000 when the final judgment is made. If this amount goes unpaid, the State of California permits a 10% annual interest rate on the amount owed. Each year that the amount goes unpaid, this hypothetical average tenant who no doubt struggles with a multitude of financial hardships will owe another $400. Indeed, from our observations in eviction court it was not unusual to hear of a money judgment that would include nearly $1000 in attorney and court fees alone along with holdover damages that would amount to 1-2 more months’ rent in addition to the initial amount owed. Another factor associated with compounded burden is the prolonged period of time that vulnerable tenants are forced to carry debt. For example, a tenant and landlord enter into a stipulation (agreement between two parties approved by the judge) in the amount of $4,300, which includes past due rent, holdover damages, and court and attorney fees. The tenant, who makes a minimum wage, can only afford to pay $35 per month and is now carrying this debt for 10 years. Evictions alone may not affect a tenant’s credit score. However, if a tenant is ordered to pay money damages and fails to pay, they can be sent to collections. A credit reporting agency then places derogatory information on their credit report. Evictions with money damages are a twofold blow. Threefold, if you include the fact that a judgment accrues interest.[25]  

And this measure of compounded burden does not account for all of the other costs incurred from a sudden displacement – moving costs, storage fees, hours missed at work, extra transportation costs to handle legal obligations, search for a new place, and drive children to schools in neighborhoods that they no longer live in, the exorbitant cost of taking up temporary shelter in a motel, which many families do in Fresno[26], and the repeated fees attached to each rental application (up to $35 per application[27]). It becomes apparent that an eviction, triggered by financial hardship, begets even greater financial hardship. When one considers that the families who are more likely to face an eviction are families of color, have children, and live in poverty, we can understand how so many social disparities can persist. 

Consider, for example, the impact that an eviction has on a child – after all, children are one of the most likely populations to experience eviction.[28] The social lives of children are anchored in multiple ways – their families, but also their neighborhoods and especially their schools. When a family is evicted, they are not likely to stay in the same neighborhood. This disruption removes a child from their neighborhood and may eventually force them to enroll in a new school, breaking critical social ties with teachers, classmates, and neighborhood friends. When we examined the frequency of evictions by month in Fresno County, we found that evictions happen at a high rate every month out of the year, which means that hundreds of families are evicted in the middle of the school year as well as during summer and winter breaks (Figure 5).[29] Even if a child is able to stay in the same school, school attendance becomes difficult to maintain while the family is displaced and the parents are managing the situation. An eviction event can be traumatic for a child despite a parent’s best efforts to protect them, particularly when the eviction is carried out by law enforcement. Children coping with instability in their lives are more likely to face challenges when it comes to mental health and development.[30] With conscious support from educators, this sudden disruption can be mitigated in its impact on the child’s social, emotional, and academic outcomes. However, while school districts track an overlapping population of students who are homeless, they do not specifically track students who have experienced an eviction. 

Figure 5. Eviction filings by month in Fresno County, 2016.

The spatial dynamics of these trends again must be considered. Sociologists Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, in their influential work American Apartheid[31], drew out how segregation works as an effective mechanism for reinforcing inequality and oppression. When segregation is in place, it becomes very easy for the dominant group – wealthy Whites – to hoard resources and opportunities even while living in the same metropolitan area as other groups. In a metropolitan area, this can happen through municipal boundaries, with Whites moving to suburbs with exclusionary zoning and cutting off Black and Latinx families from their tax base and resources.[32] As mentioned previously, this is the story that is told about the city of Clovis. In a single city, however, where all residents to a limited degree have access to the same tax base, more covert tactics must be used to maintain race and class boundaries and restrict access to the higher investments and newer development of White neighborhoods. The favored tactic in this scenario is housing discrimination. 

There are many ways that housing discrimination can occur: for example, through steering, whereby realtors and property managers selectively show properties to families on the basis of their race and/or income[33], through housing loan discrimination[34], or through screening out prospective tenants who have Section 8 vouchers, (i.e. housing assistance). In California, all of these tactics are now outlawed under federal and state laws (e.g. Fair Housing Act of 1968 and SB 329). While this does not stop these forms of discrimination from occurring and enforcement is weak at best, it certainly reduces their frequency. But there is one extremely powerful, legal way to screen out low-income applicants, which in a city like Fresno can also effectively block many Black and Latinx households: deny them housing on the basis of an eviction record. When a tenant is evicted by the court, the eviction appears on their tenant record for seven years. Evicted tenants are placed on what is essentially a tenant blacklist with little chance of finding rental housing outside of areas of high poverty. In talking about the eviction on her record, one tenant said, “I’ve got seven years,” as if it were a prison sentence. In a way, an eviction on record likely does have a similar impact as a felony conviction when it comes to finding housing, especially in an area with an enormous deficit in affordable housing. Another tenant, a single mother with her daughter, expressed fear of losing her Section 8 housing following an eviction judgment. The loss of public housing assistance is an enormous blow, given that the waitlist for public housing assistance is closed in Fresno County and families on the list wait years to receive assistance.

The financial and emotional destruction that an eviction can create for a family is so immense that it is difficult to overstate, but evictions also contribute to instability in neighborhoods. If there were no geographic pattern to evictions, we would speak only of the effect on the family. But evictions are not geographically random and they happen in certain areas with remarkable frequency. In Fresno, specific parts of the county and especially in the city of Fresno experience higher rates of eviction than others (Figure 6).[35] In neighborhoods of concentrated poverty where the population is predominately Black, Latinx, or Southeast Asian, and the typical family is spending over half of their income on rent, the eviction rates reach as high as 10 percent, which means that nearly 1 in 10 families are evicted every year in these neighborhoods. This, again, does not account for the informal evictions that are also occurring in these areas. 

Figure 6. Eviction rates in Fresno County, census block groups, 2016.

With such a high rate of turnover, neighborhood cohesion and solidarity is very difficult to establish, which makes it challenging for residents to build safe and healthy communities and, importantly, mobilize and wield political power. This particular consequence of evictions is two-sided: while poor communities with high instability have difficulty developing political capital, wealthier stable communities are able to lobby on their own behalf and claim more of the city’s resources and investment. The blame for this imbalance is often directed towards the poor communities, with local agencies such as the police department referring to them as “broken” neighborhoods and letting others assume that it is the residents themselves who did the breaking. But the instability of these neighborhoods is largely affected by external mechanisms of destabilization, including evictions.  

Given that evictions happen at a higher rate in neighborhoods where poor, Black, and Latinx families live[36], segregation is reinforced. Because these families now have an eviction on their record as a tenant, they find themselves barred from entering wealthier, Whiter neighborhoods where families enjoy better-funded schools, maintained roads, more parks and greenspace, and newer housing stock. They not only become stuck in neighborhoods marred by disinvestment, they actually sink deeper into these areas as they must now find housing where landlords are willing to overlook their eviction record. In a city like Fresno where slum housing is numerous[37], these families have a higher likelihood of finding themselves in the clutches of slumlords, living in substandard housing with an even higher risk of eviction. 

Many more evicted tenants may end up homeless, but the likelihood of homelessness following an eviction is not equal for all tenants. National estimates from the 2017 American Housing Survey reveal that among renters, White households, households above the poverty line, and households who are not rent-burdened are more likely to say that they can find a new home if they are evicted. Black householders, severely rent-burdened households, and households living below the poverty line are more likely to say that they will go to a shelter following an eviction (Figure 7).[38]  In our ongoing eviction court study, we have yet to survey a tenant who knows where they will live after being evicted from their current home, with some expressing only the possibility that they could move in with a family member and others telling us that they have moved into a motel room. 

Figure 7. Where renters say they are likely to go if evicted, by level of rent burden (i.e. percent of household income claimed by monthly housing expenses).

Beyond the communities that suffer the direct consequences of housing insecurity and evictions, the jurisdiction also pays a price for not doing more to keep families in stable housing. The cost of evicting a family who could not afford rent and certainly cannot afford the added fees accrued through the court eviction process is borne by local governments. Counties must deal with the cost of processing thousands of evictions a year, and both cities and counties must devote more funding to public programs to support a growing homeless population who not only lack shelter but may also have more complicated healthcare needs.[39]

After the Pandemic

When we first began researching and writing on this topic, the COVID-19 virus was not a part of the conversation. But now we are in the middle of a pandemic and what appears to be a massive societal shift as we rapidly adjust our entire way of life to prevent the spread of a highly infectious disease. Social scientists and social advocates fear that this shift will follow the well-worn paths carved out by centuries of systemic oppression and resulting social inequalities. As unemployment surges in the immediate economic fallout of a nation under siege, we have every reason to expect a widening of the chasm between those with wealth and those without. 

In the weeks after the COVID-19 pandemic truly began to hit home in the United States, housing advocates raised the alarm based on what we already knew about the precariousness of being a renter. In the Central Valley, where the majority of renters experience unsustainable levels of rent burden, we knew that the public health safety measures put in place which resulted in cutting wage-labor hours, layoffs, and school closures would leave low-income renters unable to make next month’s rent. Some local jurisdictions in California acted quickly to protect renters, but none in the Central Valley led the way. In Kern County, only the City of Delano[40] instated any renter protections. San Joaquin[41] and Stanislaus[42] counties adopted emergency resolutions with language revoking commercial and residential landlord authority to evict tenants for nonpayment of rent due to COVID-19. However, both resolutions offer zero guidelines on what tenants can or should do if they are served with a notice. The City of Stockton was the first in the Central Valley to enact emergency measures temporarily halting some evictions, but they are inadequate for providing much-needed protections for the most vulnerable renters.

In the City of Fresno, the reaction was lethargic and the final policy decision, which came only after Governor Gavin Newsom issued Executive Order N-28-20 authorizing local jurisdictions to take emergency action on evictions[43], fell far short of providing needed protection for renters.[44] Fresno City Council, like other local governments, passed a policy that placed the burden of protection squarely on renters. Renters needed to be aware of the ordinance and then notify their landlord in writing of their inability to pay rent due to COVID-19 and provide documentation within 10 days of notifying their landlords. Evictions for reasons other than nonpayment were excluded from the order (e.g. unauthorized occupants to care for a loved one or shelter in place with family). This left many renters still at risk of eviction. 

Ultimately, only around 10 percent of the jurisdictions across California chose to instate any sort of emergency ordinance for renters during peak months of unemployment. Most of the orders adopted a similar approach, helping renters establish a legal defense against eviction for nonpayment of rent due to COVID-19. Under the emergency ordinances put in place by local jurisdictions and another executive order by Governor Newsom[45], some tenants were given the opportunity to document their inability to pay rent due to COVID-19 so that, upon receiving an eviction notice, they could respond to the complaint in court with evidence that their failure to pay rent was due to loss of income or health issues related to the pandemic. This policy is fundamentally different from an eviction moratorium, which legal experts describe as a comprehensive ban on eviction filings.[46] The only example of a moratorium in California was in Oakland where landlords are able to bring a small claims suit for past due rent but cannot file an eviction lawsuit. 

But still, there is reason to hope. While the decisions by local and state policymakers to address eviction still inherently privilege the landlord over the tenant, many policymakers made it clear that they are not ignorant of the calls from housing advocates. In early April 2020, the Judicial Council of California, which is responsible for making rules for courts in the state of California, did what other government entities would not and halted the processing of all eviction filings (with some public safety exceptions) for the duration of the pandemic emergency[47], temporarily, but comprehensively, addressing the gap in protections put in place by the Governor’s executive order and local emergency orders. The ruling was lifted on September 1 but was followed by the passage of AB 3088 in the California legislature, which protects tenants from eviction due to nonpayment of rent through February 2021. Immediately after the passage of AB 3088, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a nationwide moratorium on evictions in the name of public health. 

These are signs of progress. The recognition that many renters are housing insecure and vulnerable to crises positions our society to make long-lasting structural changes. However, the will to shift the balance of power between owners and tenants is still anemic in the Central Valley, with few jurisdictions signaling that they are considering the aftereffects of the pandemic on renters when the emergency ordinances are lifted and the business of evictions can return to full operation. This means that once the emergency orders are lifted, if tenants are served with a notice, they must still go through the court process of responding to an eviction lawsuit and gathering their own evidence to defend their case. Tenants must still be prepared to navigate the legal system to retain their housing, almost always without legal assistance or representation. Therefore, the systemic problems that we identified as contributing to the high eviction rates observed in the Central Valley prior to this pandemic, such as the lack of legal representation for tenants, are likely to remain in place and allow this current state of emergency to exacerbate the eviction crisis in the region. Indeed, California scored only a 0.9 out of 5 on the Eviction Lab’s COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard[48], a policy analysis tool designed to evaluate the extent to which state governments are protecting tenants from displacement during and after the pandemic, because statewide orders do little to truly prevent a surge in evictions. They choose only to defer rather than halt evictions.

We can also assume that informal evictions, which operate outside of the law and therefore are unlikely to be affected by policy changes aimed at formal evictions, will carry on. These evictions primarily impact undocumented or mixed-status immigrant households and extremely financially precarious households – the same households that are at a higher risk of COVID-19 infection due to a reliance on essential worker jobs in the agriculture, manufacturing, and service industries.[49] To be protected by the COVID-19 emergency policies, one must be privileged by the law in the first place. Based on Desmond’s work[50], the implication is that undocumented families, extremely poor families, and families impacted by mass incarceration are less likely to find protection from displacement during the pandemic, especially if they are renting from slumlords.

We cannot say with certainty what our society will look like when we come out on the other side of this global crisis, but we can formulate some predictions regarding evictions based on the existing evidence. Without taking action to instate long-term protections for renters, we expect to return to a standing-room only eviction court when society is restored to something akin to normal. Tenants are placed at an institutional disadvantage by a society that has always privileged the needs and interests of those who own property over those who do not. This truth is reflected even in the COVID-19 emergency ordinances, which only extend protection from evictions while the state of emergency is ongoing. Once the public health crisis is over and the danger is no longer imminent, there is no obvious plan to protect renters from the full force of eviction proceedings throughout the Central Valley, which means that the emergency ordinances are not about making radical changes to reduce the financial and social vulnerability of renters. 

Conclusion: What Should Be Done?

The skeptic who asks whether the goal should be to reduce evictions may now understand that the consequences of eviction are multilayered and far-reaching, exacerbating deep family poverty, uprooting children from their schools and communities, and destabilizing neighborhoods. Anybody who believes in the importance of a functioning society ought to agree that these issues, especially when they are systemic, are signs of societal dysfunction. In the Central Valley, with high levels of poverty and a worsening housing crisis, we argue that we are witnessing dysfunction. We also argue that stable housing is critical for giving families opportunities and ensuring their health and well-being. Housing may not solve every issue, but it certainly, as Desmond[51] so vividly demonstrated in his work, gives families stable ground to stand on and address other issues. 

Tens of thousands of eviction lawsuits are filed annually throughout the Central Valley and even greater numbers of informal evictions occur outside of the legal realm. The narrative that displacement is a problem in the Bay Area and Southern California and rents are affordable in the Central Valley is false and harmful. Affordability is relative to wages, cost of living, the supply of affordable housing, and strong public policies that protect tenants and landlords. This false narrative must be challenged because it serves to exacerbate the existing housing crisis in the Central Valley as residents from Southern California and the Bay Area are pushed out of their communities and spill over into the Central Valley. The Central Valley has the highest rate of evictions in California and the majority of cases end in a Clerk Default Judgment. This means that tenants automatically lose, by default, before they ever have a chance to share their side of the story. Too many tenants cannot access or navigate the complicated court system within the very narrow window permitted. This leads us to conclude that the court system is designed to operate as a debt collector or legally sanctioned displacement instrument for landlords. The bottom line: the system prioritizes the protection of private property and property-owners over poor families and families of color.   

Our previous analysis of court records in addition to our observations and survey data from eviction court have led us to some possible solutions. In our research, we found that most tenants (83%) owed less than two months’ rent and half of these tenants owed only one month plus late fees, meaning that often tenants are issued a notice almost as soon as their rent is late.[52] We found that the property owners with the largest portfolios only accounted for just over 2 percent of all evictions in Fresno County. This leads us to conclude that the majority of evictors are landlords who own few properties and in many cases may only own one other property which they are financing and renting out, perhaps as a strategy for building personal wealth. We say this with the understanding that slumlords with large portfolios use multiple LLCs to obscure the size of their holdings. But the ‘mom and pop’ landlords, understandably, cannot afford for their tenants to miss rent. Local emergency rent funds could prevent a majority of evictions from occurring, ultimately helping the tenant family stay in their home until a long-term solution is reached and protecting the landlord from sudden financial difficulties. Fully-funded local rental assistance programs are crucial to combat the eviction crisis in the Central Valley. Emergency rent (or relocation) assistance is a proactive measure that will help stabilize housing for tens of thousands of Central Valley renters. Over the span of the COVID-19 pandemic, following pressure from housing advocates, major Central Valley cities like Fresno, Bakersfield, and Stockton passed emergency rent assistance programs. However, these programs are COVID-19 focused and largely funded with CARES Act funds – the first major COVID-19 stimulus bill passed by Congress – and thus there is no indication that these rental assistance programs will remain in place or stay funded when the state of emergency ends. 

Further, John Pollock, Coordinator for the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel argues that providing vulnerable tenants access to legal representation in eviction cases is critical to prevent displacement.[53] A growing number of jurisdictions across the nation (San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Newark, and New York) agree and findings that assess the impact of these programs on reducing evictions are promising. New York City, the first city to implement a Right to Counsel for eviction, experienced a 14% decrease in eviction filings in the first year and a significant number of families (84%) who were served with an unlawful detainer lawsuit remained in their homes.[54] 

Similarly, the Sargent Shriver Civil Counsel Act (AB 590)[55], which launched housing pilot projects in six California counties (Kern, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Yolo) led to positive outcomes for tenants. Tenants received either full-scope legal representation (i.e. having an attorney file pleadings, and represent the tenant in court, etc.) or access to court services such as legal advice and/or were provided assistance filling out and filing court documents. With greater access to legal representation tenants were able to successfully navigate the court process, negotiate a fair settlement (70%), have their case heard by a judge and secure a favorable outcome. Major findings from the first-year evaluation of San Francisco’s universal right to counsel program found a 10% reduction in eviction lawsuit filings from 2018 to 2019, an increase in housing stability among tenants (67% of those receiving full legal representation were able to remain in their homes), with an even higher rate of success (80%) for African American tenants. Although the program does not restrict access on the basis of household income, 85% of recipients were extremely low or low income.[56] The cards are stacked against tenants who are poor, and among economically vulnerable Black and Latinx tenants in particular. A civil right to counsel is only one tool, but it is proving effective in leveling the playing field for tenants in eviction court. As policymakers search for solutions to address the eviction crisis, especially as a means to combat long-standing racial inequities, a civil right to counsel that includes proactive rent assistance shows promise in addressing economic and racial inequities in housing. In addition, while most housing advocacy groups cannot give legal advice, they have increasingly carried some of the work of legal aid organizations by organizing workshops, creating toolkits, appearing at hearings, and sharing information through social media networks to help tenants prepare for eviction court and defend themselves from illegal landlord activity. These efforts should be more fully supported with public funding and resources. 

Housing advocates have been regularly attending city council and board of supervisor meetings across the Central Valley to give public comment, in addition to holding research meetings with local elected officials and state representatives, to inform elected leaders of the eviction crisis, pressure them to take action, and bring concrete policy solutions to the table. We believe that when elected leaders are presented with evidence of a crisis impacting thousands of people in their community annually with no end in sight, they have a moral, ethical, and legal duty to act and act quickly. Some have risen to their duty under the urgency of the COVID-19 crisis by enacting temporary restrictions on evictions and rent relief programs, but the actions taken fall woefully short of instating long-term stabilizing protections. We have outlined the multitude of problems associated with the eviction crisis, the longstanding inequities that lock poor families and families of color out of safe, decent, and affordable housing opportunities, and demonstrated how the eviction court process disadvantages renters. We provided evidence-based solutions that elected leaders can enact immediately to combat the eviction crisis in the Central Valley. We have demonstrated that the Central Valley must be included in the conversations about housing justice. We are now, in the middle of a pandemic, certainly in an unprecedented time but crises have a way of bringing to the surface longstanding injustices which create the opportunity for systemic change. We can reimagine a new normal where every human lives in a safe and affordable home in a thriving neighborhood.

Notes

[1] California Housing Partnership, “Fresno County’s Housing Emergency and Proposed Solutions,” April 2018, https://1p08d91kd0c03rlxhmhtydpr-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Fresno-HNR-2018.pdf

[2] Jill Cowan and Robert Gebeloff, “As Rents Outrun Pay, California Families Live On a Knife’s Edge,” New York Times, November 21, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/21/us/california-housing-crisis-rent.html

[3] Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (New York: Crown Publishing, 2016)

[4] Ibid.

[5] California Housing Partnership (2018)

[6] “Eviction Lab”, 2016, http://evictionlab.org

[7] American Community Survey 5-year estimates (2016)

[8] Manuela Tobias, “Clovis is Mostly White and That’s No Accident, Says Group Suing the City Over Housing,” Fresno Bee (Fresno, CA), October 23, 2019,  https://www.fresnobee.com/news/local/article236544733.html

[9] Ramon D. Chacón, “The Beginning of Racial Segregation: The Chinese in West Fresno and Chinatown’s Role as Red Light District, 1870s-1920s,” Southern California Quarterly 70, no. 4 (1988)

[10] Robert K. Nelson, LaDale Winling, Richard Marciano, Nathan Connolly, et al., “Mapping Inequality,” American Panorama, Accessed April 20, 2020, https://dsl.richmond.edu/panorama/redlining/

[11] Naomi Cytron, “The Enduring Challenge of Concentrated Poverty in America: Case Study of Fresno, California,” April 2009, https://www.frbsf.org/community-development/files/fresno_case_study.pdf

[12] Douglas Massey, “American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass,” American Journal of Sociology 96, no. 2 (1990)

[13] Richard Shearer, John Ng, Alan Berube, and Alec Friedhoff, “Metro Monitor 2016: Tracking Growth, Prosperity, and Inclusion in the 100 Largest U.S. Metropolitan Areas,” January 2016, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/MetroMonitor.pdf

[14] Eviction Lab (2016)

[15] Desmond (2016)

[16] Janine Nkosi, Amber R. Crowell, Patience Milrod, Veronica Garibay, and Ashley Werner, “Evicted in Fresno: Facts for Housing Advocates,” (2019), https://faithinthevalley.org/evicted-fresno/ ; Janine Nkosi, Amber R. Crowell, Veronica Garibay, and Ashley Werner, “Evicted in San Joaquin: Facts for Housing Advocates,” (2020), https://faithinthevalley.org/evicted-san-joaquin/

[17] Eviction Lab (2016)

[18] Manuela Tobias, “30 Tenants Received Eviction Notices in Madera Ahead of New California Law. Here’s Why,” Fresno Bee (Fresno, CA), November 19, 2019, https://www.fresnobee.com/news/local/article237339549.html

[19] Nkosi et al. (2019)

[20] Aimee Inglis and Dean Preston, “California Evictions are Fast and Frequent,” May 2018, http://boomcalifornia.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/cf71b-ca_evictions_are_fast_and_frequent.pdf 

[21] Tenants Together, “List of Rent Control Ordinances by City,” Accessed April 18, 2020, http://www.tenantstogether.org/resources/list-rent-control-ordinances-city

[22] Rebecca Diamond, Tim McQuade, and Franklin Qian, “The Effects of Rent Control Expansion on Tenants, Landlords, and Inequality: Evidence from San Francisco,” American Economic Review 109, no. 9, (2019)

[23] Western Center on Law and Poverty, “AB 1482 – California Rent Cap & Just Cause For Eviction Resources,” February 20, 2020, https://wclp.org/eviction-resources-in-response-to-ab-1482/

[24] Kyle Nelson, “The Microfoundations of Bureaucratic Outcomes: Causes and Consequences of Interpretive Disjuncture in Eviction Cases,” Social Problems, doi: 10.1093/socpro/spz050, (2019)

[25] The Judicial Branch of California, “Paying the Judgment,” Accessed April 21, 2020, https://www.courts.ca.gov/1327.htm?rdeLocaleAttr=en

[26] Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado, “On the Verge of Homelessness, Fresno Motels Are Last-chance Housing. City Eyes Reform,” Fresno Bee (Fresno, CA), January 15, 2020,  https://www.fresnobee.com/news/local/article237853109.html

[27] Janet Portman, “California Law on Tenant Application Screening Fees and Credit Reports,” Nolo, Accessed April 27, 2020, https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/california-law-tenant-application-screening-fees-credit-reports.html

[28] Matthew Desmond, Weihua An, Richelle Winkler, and Thomas Ferriss, “Evicting Children,” Social Forces 92, no. 1, (2013)

[29] Fresno County Superior Court (2016)

[30] Heather Sandstrom and Sandra Huerta, “The Negative Effects of Instability on Child Development,” September 2013, https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/32706/412899-The-Negative-Effects-of-Instability-on-Child-Development-A-Research-Synthesis.PDF

[31] Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993)

[32] Jessica Trounstine, Segregation by Design: Local Politics and Inequality in American Cities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018)

[33] Margery Austin Turner, Rob Santos, Diane K. Levy, Doug Wissoker, Claudia Aranda, and Rob Pitingolo, “Housing Discrimination Against Racial and Ethnic Minorities 2012: Executive Summary,” June 2013, https://www.huduser.gov/portal/Publications/pdf/HUD-514_HDS2012_execsumm.pdf

[34] Vedika Ahuja and Jason Richardson, “State of Gentrification: Home Lending to Communities of Color in California,” December 6, 2017, https://greenlining.org/publications/2017/state-of-gentrification-lending-to-people-of-color-in-california/

[35] Eviction Lab (2016)

[36] Michael C. Lens, Kyle Nelson, Ashley Gromis, and Yiwen Kuai, “The Neighborhood Context of Eviction in Southern California,” City & Community, https://doi.org/10.111.12487 (2020); Nkosi et al. (2019)

[37] Bohnia Lee, “These Housing Inspectors Found 4,200 Violations. They Are Investigating 3,700 More,” Fresno Bee (Fresno, CA), January 25, 2018, https://www.fresnobee.com/news/special-reports/housing-blight/article196721299.html

[38] American Housing Survey national estimates (2017)

[39] Emily Peiffer, “Why We Need to Stop Evictions Before They Happen,” July 25, 2018, https://housingmatters.urban.org/feature/why-we-need-stop-evictions-they-happen

[40] City of Delano, “An Urgency Ordinance Of The City Council Of The City Of Delano Temporarily Prohibiting Evictions Of Residential Tenants Arising From Income Loss Or Substantial Medical Expenses Related To The Covid- 19 Pandemic,” March 26, 2020, https://www.cityofdelano.org/ArchiveCenter/ViewFile/Item/2465

[41] San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors, “Adopt a Resolution Exercising the Police Powers of the County of San Joaquin to Impose Substantive Limitation on Residential and Commercial Evictions,” March 24, 2020, http://sanjoaquincountyca.iqm2.com/Citizens/FileOpen.aspx?Type=1&ID=2325&Inline=True

[42] Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors, “Exercise Of The County’s Police Power To Impose Substantive Limitations On Residential And Commercial Evictions,” March 31, 2020, http://www.stancounty.com/bos/agenda/2020/20200331/DIS02.pdf

[43] Office of Governor Gavin Newsom,  “Governor Newsom Issues Executive Order to Protect Renters and Homeowners During COVID-19 Pandemic,” March 16, 2020, https://www.gov.ca.gov/2020/03/16/governor-newsom-issues-executive-order-to-protect-renters-and-homeowners-during-covid-19-pandemic/

[44] City of Fresno, “An Emergency Ordinance of the City of Fresno, California Amending Section 2-514 Of The Fresno Municipal Code Regarding The Covid-19 Pandemic Emergency,” April 23, 2020, https://fresno.legistar.com/View.ashx?M=F&ID=8253540&GUID=A7927080-41BD-4464-AFCC-B3CFB68C3948

[45] Office of Governor Gavin Newsom, “Governor Newsom Takes Executive Action to Establish a Statewide Moratorium on Evictions,” March 27, 2020, https://www.gov.ca.gov/2020/03/27/governor-newsom-takes-executive-action-to-establish-a-statewide-moratorium-on-evictions/

[46] Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, “Press statement: Executive order falls short,” March 27, 2020, https://leadershipcounsel.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Press-statement-Gov-Newsom-Executive-Order_Evictions_Leadership-Counsel-March-27-2020.pdf

[47] Western Center on Law and Poverty, “Summary: California Courts Issue Emergency Rule On Evictions And Foreclosures,” April 13, 2020, https://wclp.org/summary-california-courts-emergency-rule-on-evictions-and-foreclosures/

[48] Eviction Lab, “COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard – California,” Accessed April 20, 2020, https://evictionlab.org/covid-policy-scorecard/ca/

[49] COVID-19 Farmworker Study, “Preliminary Data Brief,” July 27, 2020, http://covid19farmworkerstudy.org/survey/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/EN-COFS-Preliminary-Data-Brief_FINAL.pdf

[50] Desmond (2016)

[51] Ibid.

[52] Nkosi et al. (2019)

[53] Legal Aid Association of California, “A Right to Counsel in Civil Cases: History, Status, and the Latest Happenings,” August 14, 2017, https://www.laaconline.org/training/a-right-to-counsel-in-civil-cases-history-status-and-the-latest-happenings/

[54] Los Angeles Right to Counsel Coalition, “Right to Counsel Initiative: Goals and Framework,” Right to Counsel Working Group and “Stemming the Flow into Homelessness: A Proposal for a Tenants’ Right to Counsel in the City of Los Angeles,” November 1, 2019, http://clkrep.lacity.org/onlinedocs/2018/18-0610_rpt_MAYOR_11-01-2019.pdf

[55] Kelly L. Jarvis, Charlene E. Zil, Timothy Ho, Theresa Herrera Allen, and Lisa M. Lucas, “Evaluation of the Sargent Shriver Civil Counsel Act (AB590) Probate Pilot Project,” July 2017, https://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/Shriver-Probate-2017.pdf

[56] Office of San Francisco Supervisor Dean Preston, “Supervisor Dean Preston Holds Hearing on Implementation for Right to Counsel Law,” February 24, 2020, http://civilrighttocounsel.org/uploaded_files/262/PRESS_RELEASE_-_Supervisor_Dean_Preston_Holds_Hearing_Monday_on_Implementation_for_Right_to_Counsel_Law.pdf

Amber R. Crowell is Assistant Professor of Sociology at California State University, Fresno. Her research focuses on residential segregation, housing, social inequality, and race. She has published research on the spatial demography and driving factors behind racial residential segregation patterns. She is also a community advocate for tenants’ rights in the Central Valley, working to reduce evictions and establish a right to housing for all. She currently serves as Regional Housing Coordinator for the grassroots community organization Faith in the Valley and is an appointed member of the City of Fresno Anti-Displacement Task Force. 

Janine Nkosi is a dedicated and passionate sociologist, activist-educator, and community-based researcher. She is firmly committed to helping folks develop and deepen their sociological imagination through critical community-based research and organizing to address some of the most pressing issues in the community. Dr. Nkosi is a lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Fresno State and teaches full-time at Merritt College in Oakland, CA. She is the Regional Advisor for Faith in the Valley a grassroots community organization dedicated to working alongside residents to advance racial justice across the Central Valley. One of the campaigns Janine is involved in is the Healthy Housing Campaign, which is rooted in a belief that housing is a fundamental human right, and everyone deserves a safe, healthy, and deeply affordable place to call home. Janine’s teaching, research, and organizing philosophy are rooted in critical race methodologies, critical pedagogy, relational organizing, asset-based perspectives, and lived experience.

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.

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/