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

Karl Kullmann

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Articles

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

Tracy Perkins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***     

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

Acknowledgements

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

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

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

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

ArticlesPhotography/Art

Indigenous Oaxacan Visibility

Brenda Nicolas

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Notes:

[1] Also spelled Abya Yala.

[2] Census 2020

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

[4] Andrews 2018

[5] Hernández-Díaz 2019

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

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

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

[9] Ramírez 2007

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

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

[12] Nix et al. 2017.

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

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

Articles

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

Jessica Lage

Gentrification and dual migration

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

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

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

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

Migration to West Marin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cows grazing in a West Marin pasture.

“Invisible labor”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Affordable housing in West Marin (a detour)

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

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

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

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

Housing for agricultural workers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Selection of local cheeses at a West Marin market

Food insecurity

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

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

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

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

Tensions in the community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Displacement and exclusionary displacement

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[xi] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

[xvii] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[xliii] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[liii] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Articles

Whose Farm, Which Fork?: An Assemblage of Critical Observations on Sacramento’s Farm-to-Fork Campaign

Kimberly D. Nettles-Barcelón

In the spring of 2015 while waiting in line at Starbucks Coffeehouse in a Greenhaven, Sacramento strip mall, I picked up an issue of Sacramento Magazine to pass the time.[1]  While thumbing through it the advertisement featuring the Juneteenth Black Chefs Collaborative (IMAGE #1) immediately caught my eye. I was aware of the city’s rebranding as The Farm-to-Fork Capital but I had not seen any images connected with it featuring Black people.[2] The ad piqued my interest and I spent the next several months gathering additional images associated with the campaign.

The five ads I found, that ran from about January 2015 through January 2016, frame the key optics of the campaign and its slogan -“We Are America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital.” In addition to these advertisements, local media – especially magazines – served as an avenue to describe the parameters of the “farm-to-fork”: farmers, vintners, brewers, and other food craft people who make/grow/create products consumed within the restaurants, bars, festivals, and other events associated with the farm-to-fork campaign. At face value, including the ads featuring the Yisrael Family Urban Farm (IMAGE #2) and the Juneteenth Black Chefs Collaborative, lends a certain air of inclusivity to the messaging/branding. However, these images serve not as markers of how broad-based the work of the farm-to-fork campaign is but rather the degree to which there are fissures that resist containment. The ruptures in the seemingly inclusive narrative of “We are America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital” is stark in the two ads featuring Black folks.

In the Juneteenth Black Chefs Collective ad (IMAGE #1), what we see are a group of chefs whose foodwork is not connected with the spaces where they cook nor are there any relationships to farmer(s) who supply their raw food and bespoke artisanal products. The background appears urban and residential. The barred screen door and the wooden stairs and porch indicate a roughened neighborhood. Is this a home or is it a restaurant? The chefs themselves are looking in all sorts of directions, some directly at the camera and two (Pannell and E. Hayles) are looking in the distance. While the title of the Collaborative is visible, it is unclear what that means or how that ties into “farm-to-fork.” In fact, their narratives cannot fit nicely within the campaign.[3] None of these chefs hold the title of Executive Chef in an established restaurant context; cooking instead outside of the domain of standard restaurant organization as private chefs, chefs at women’s centers, caterers, or food truck owners.  They would not be on the map in terms of the connections between and amongst the top restaurateurs in this area and the region’s large scale organic farmers – connections that are central to Sacramento’s farm-to-fork ethos.

Similarly, when we see the members of the Yisrael Family Urban Farm (IMAGE #2) they are photographed in what appears to be a residential yard, holding farm implements, and dressed in earth toned t-shirts with the name of the farm. Again, how their food work resonates with the farm-to-fork campaign is not clear. Are they the farm side of the equation to the Black chefs from the Juneteenth Collaborative? Where do they grow? What is an urban farm? None of this is clear in the advertisement. Indeed, telling the complicated narratives of either group is not possible within the context of advertisements that “fundamentally talk to us as individuals and addresses us about how we can become happy. The answers it provides are all oriented to the marketplace, through the purchase of goods or services.”[4]

Sacramento’s “Farm-to-Fork Capital” campaign is, at its roots, a marketing campaign designed to boost tourism, development, and economic growth within Sacramento.[5]  This campaign attempts to sell us a vision of the “good life” which involves locally grown and produced vegetables, meats, wines, and cheeses – consumed in beautiful restaurants, wineries, farmers’ markets, well-appointed homes and backyards. The romanticized relationship between the local farmer (food or beverage producer) and the consumer is at the center of the “movement.” The uncomfortable, complex, and not-so-pretty bits of the politics of food and eating is deftly pushed to the margins.

In this essay, I consider some of the images associated with the Farm-to-Fork Capital campaign to think about the power of this work to shape public discourse surrounding issues of food, place, and social change in the Sacramento area. I write as both a consumer of this imagery (primarily through attending local “farm-to-fork” events and reading articles about them) and as a scholar and teacher of critical food studies at the university level. My feminist methodology contains both auto-ethnographic and critical media studies within its toolkit – using juxtaposition as my space of inquiry.

Throughout, this essay, I argue that Sacramento’s “Farm-to-Fork Capital” campaign (circa 2012-2020) utilizes advertising, magazine articles, and large public facing events to both define the city and the meanings of farm-to-fork in ways that minimize the racial, ethnic, citizenship, gender, and class inequities undergirding our food systems – locally, nationally, and globally. I also explore the ways that the experiences of folks whose work should be at the center of any endeavor to create a just food system are pushed to the margins of the high-end farm-to-fork marketplace. By critically reading advertisements, magazine content, and my own interactions in the “field” of Sacramento’s Farm-to-Fork Capital campaign, I engage in an embodied and reflexive interpretation of the culture of the so-called movement.

I begin with describing the origins of the campaign in the next section with a focus on the representations of it in local publications. I then think through how the representations of the “other” – Latino farm workers and children of color – shape the public discourse about who gets to participate and how they are engaged within the farm-to-fork ethos. I end the essay with a description of a local urban farmer whose work provides a corrective to the myopic representations of farm-to-fork in the local media. I also explore the ways in which the realities of the Covid-19 pandemic and the racial reckoning of the Black Lives Matter movement have impacted the mainstream approach to farm-to-fork. As such, I end with a renewed sense of possibility as I continue to live in the midst of and critically engage Sacramento’s Farm-to-Fork campaign.

The Beginnings…

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson proclaims Sacramento the Farm‐to‐Fork Capital of America at a press conference held in Cesar Chavez Plaza on Wednesday, October 31, 2012. (Photo by Alyssa Green)

In 2012, Mayor Kevin Johnson dubbed Sacramento the “Farm-to-Fork Capital,” thereby kicking off an intense branding campaign designed to revamp the image of the city (sometimes  referred to with the pejorative “cow-town” designation) and surrounding Central Valley region to take advantage of its deep agricultural and viticulture roots and growing urban foodie culture.[6] Johnson’s efforts to rebrand the Sacramento region has also meant eliminating the “City of Trees” from official signage and brochures.[7]

The proclamation of Sacramento as the “Farm-to-Fork Capital” took place on the Cesar Chavez Plaza in Downtown, Sacramento The above photo is telling in that the platform for the press conference is placed opposite the large Chavez Memorial sculpture depicting the Farmworkers’ Movement  but no mention is made of that history in the short piece accompanying this photograph.[8] Chavez’s work with other UFW activists Dolores Huerta, Gilbert Padilla, and Filipino farm worker movement leader, Larry Itliong to organize and secure union representation for Filipino and Mexican farmworkers in several major agricultural industries in California – tomato, winery, berry, table grapes, and dairy – is work that continues to have relevance in this contemporary moment. [9]

But Mayor Johnson’s focus that day is on amplifying the significance of Sacramento as a natural leader in national farm-to-fork efforts. “This recognition as America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital isn’t something that this region needs to grow into because we’ve been walking this walk for decades.” To buttress that point, the reporter/photographer lists how many Certified Farmers Markets exist in the region and its location in the fertile Central Valley. The piece goes on to state that in conjunction with the Mayor’s announcement, the Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau has planned a weeklong celebration. All of this aimed to support increasing community pride, local farming, and “marketing the region as a culinary tourism destination.”[10]

At the root of the “Farm-to-Fork Capital” campaign are a series of “news stories” and advertisements that identify the key players in the restaurant and beverage industry in the Sacramento region. These are people whose establishments and products turn up at most of the events tied to the campaign.  The caption on the advertisement (masquerading as an editorial feature) below reads: “The Capital City is quickly becoming nationally celebrated for its farm-to-fork ethos. In the following pages, meet some of the top chefs who are leading this movement and making the Sacramento region a hotbed of destination dining.”

Faces of Farm to Fork Sactown Magazine August/September 2014

Many of those surrounding Johnson on the Cesar Chavez Plaza in the fall of 2012 are also featured in this piece from Sactown Magazine (August/September2014). Sactown, like its slightly glossier counterpart Sacramento Magazine, runs stories classified as “lifestyle features.” The monthly magazines consist of interesting, easy-reading stories that attempt to paint Sacramento in a positive light – exploring local travel destinations (e.g., Lake Tahoe), new restaurants and shops, as well as interviews with prominent local businesspersons, athletes, or government players. Sometimes they feature compelling long-form journalism stories that focus on local issues.

What is also true about both magazines is that they often run advertising that is so integrated into the texture of the magazine that the reader is not immediately able to differentiate them. Such is the case with the above image drawn from a 20-page insert nestled between the magazine’s “What’s Cooking” section and the “Bites” restaurant listings section. It blurs the boundaries and reads like a regular feature in the magazine but is produced “[i]n Collaboration with the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau.” There are short write-ups on some of the folks pictured as well as ruminations on why Sacramento deserves its “Farm-to-Fork Capital” moniker. Each of the men (and they all are with one exception) featured are recurring faces in advertising, events, and other media related to the farm-to-fork branding[11]. Moreover, when featured, nonwhite men are usually cooking food one might describe as ethnic. Which is also the case for the one female chef/restauranteur featured—Biba Caggiano’s Italian cuisine[12]. The white male chefs have greater range and are cooking American food with touches of the Southern United States, European, or Latin cuisines. Others of the white males featured are brew masters or wine makers.

The upper-end casual dining scene in Sacramento is shaped by a few big players whose food work is imagined to be creating a chain of interconnected relationships between chefs, farmers, wine makers and brewers. For instance, the Sacramento Magazine’s “The Farmer and the Chef” (August 2015) article describes the symbiotic relationship between chef and farmer the movement mythologizes. The work of the farmer is cast here as expert and collaborator with the chef. The chef, in these portraits, understands his role as an interpreter of the bounty of produce/raw product presented him by the farmer. He does not tell the farmer what to grow, but rather is inspired by what the farmer brings to him.

Imaging Farm-to-Fork—The Farmer and the Chef

In “The Farmer and the Chef” photo essay a lot of the description of the farmer/chef experience hinges on relationships that go beyond the chef simply buying the produce. It is, instead, one where “like minds” come together to create something sensational – the food to be consumed. However, it is not just food consumption, but rather a certain image/idea about what good food is, what it should look like, and how it should taste. Equally germane is the presentation of the farmer:

[Tomato farmer, Heidi Watanabe] personally delivers to restaurants, driving the truck herself and often working until 10 or 1 p.m. Michael Thiemann [Chef/Owner of Mother vegetarian restaurant] loves when she brings her products in through [the] front door and unloads them in front of his diners. “Looks cool, huh?” she once said to Thiemann with a grin.[13]

Food work is performative work. Moreover, the performance resonates differently depending on who is playing which part. In this story, a white female farmer, driving a pick-up truck delivers produce to the popular upscale vegetarian restaurant owned by a white male chef.  The chef, who has learned from the farmer about the realities of growing and using farm product fully, can then be the erudite face of the restaurant. The farmer as white and female means a more edgy representation, but not too dangerous. She is both novelty and seen as the same social standing as the white male chef. The delivery of the produce through the front of the house makes those relations – farmer and chef — seem egalitarian. However, the female farmer/owner and the male restaurant chef/owner are at the top of the social hierarchy and visible. The workers (likely to be primarily people of color – Latino, Asian, and Black – and of all genders) who plant and harvest the produce or cook, serve, and clean at the restaurant are absent from this picture story. 

The hypervisibility of privilege is also on the stage in the “news photos” featuring the annual Farm-to-Fork Gala dinner on the Tower Bridge – which spans the Sacramento River between Old Sacramento (on the east) and West Sacramento (on the west). Closed to traffic, the bridge becomes the location fora white tablecloth dinner. Months in advance the chefs selected to prepare the meal begin planning the menu. The menu, held in the strictest of confidence until the week or so leading-up to the dinner, is “released” to great fanfare. Tickets for the dinner cost in the $175 range (per person, including alcohol) and sell-out quickly. The last few years there has been a lottery system used to distribute “fairly” the chance to purchase a ticket.[14] In the two-page spread from Sactown Magazine, we see many of the familiar faces of chefs (e.g., Randall Selland of Selland’s Family Restaurants and Kurt Spataro, Executive Chef of the Paragary Restaurant Group), winemakers, political notables (e.g., West Sacramento Mayor Cabaldon and Congresswoman Doris Matsui), and business leaders (e.g., Five Star Bank President & CEO James Beckwith). The Tower Bridge Dinner happens days after longhorn steers are driven[15] across the Tower Bridge kicking off the Farm-to-Fork Week. The day following the dinner, the Farm-to-Fork festival is set-up on the main street leading from the Tower Bridge to the Capital building. The festival is open more broadly to the public and includes live music, prepared foods and fresh produce, lectures on various topics related to food, and other typical festival activities. The festival is free and has had up to 55,000 people in attendance. The reach and the impact of these events have been successful in bringing attention to the robust nature of Sacramento and the Central Valley’s roles in growing and producing food in California.

********

From “Their” Hands to “Ours”

This farm-to-fork “movement” crosses boundaries between commerce, boosterism, and social change in contradictory/uncomfortable ways. For instance, the issue of Sactown which included the above photo spread on the Tower Bridge Dinner also featured a story by Max Whittaker titled, “The Fruits of Their Labor,” which purports to shine light on the often overlooked farm laborers who pick “our” fruits and vegetables. This image of the “Farm-to-Fork Capital” in these pics is about crafting and showcasing a narrative which leaves out all the uncomfortable elements of food work.  While the author hopes to bring attention to farmworkers, the language used in the photo essay is patronizing, condescending, and ignorant of questions of ownership (who is the “our” the author identifies throughout the story) or histories of farmworker labor struggles.  

“Our newfound civic conversation about the ‘farm-to-fork’ movement has trained a well-deserved spotlight on our region’s chefs and farmers. But one essential link in that food chain gets overlooked in the public eye – the unsung efforts of our region’s farmworkers who, with quiet dedication and uncommon discipline, toil under the relentless sun to hand-pick our tomatoes, irrigate our fields and harvest our grapes. Herein lies a glimpse into the world of the hardworking men and women who are harvesting our heritage.[16]  

The essay opens with a full two-page photo of tomato vines and a man kneeling down to pick them. The man (identified as Raul Cordova) is a wearing a blue baseball cap, striped button-down work shirt, and blue jeans. He has heavy gloves on and shown intently looking at tomatoes. Raul Cordova works at Full Belly Farm[17] in Yolo County … harvesting produce to sell at a farmer’s market or included in one of the boxes delivered through their popular CSA program – Farm Fresh To You.[18]

The story also contains photos from the Terra d’Oro Burke Ranch[19] in Plymouth where the farm workers are harvesting grapes to become one of their signature wines. This worker’s got a messy job – standing directly in the stream of juicy bunches of grapes as they fly toward him off the conveyor belt – but he seems to be loving it. 

Whittaker describes how grapes are one of the last crops of the season picked by hand. Picking “fast and furiously”, Whittaker writes that workers can fill on “average about 90-125 [buckets] in four to five hours.” At $1.00 per bucket, these workers can earn roughly $18.00 to $25.00 an hour. More than the minimum wage, to be sure, but not a living wage in California.[20]  

On the next page of the photo essay, Whittaker follows an all-female crew working in Yuba City.  In the author’s description, the foreman (Mario Perez) acts as a middleman between the farmworkers and the labor contractor. He locates the workers, picks them up, and drives them to wherever they have been assigned to work. In this particular story, the farmworkers are actually picking up leftover irrigation piping to clear the field for planting. Whittaker writes: “…[I] could tell that picking up trash all day in a giant tomato field was definitely not their favorite task. It’s {sic} difficult work, bending over and over again. My back hurt just watching them.” Then when describing another team’s labor laying irrigation, Whittaker writes: “These guys made irrigation seem like an art form learned over multiple seasons” (91). While Whittaker recognizes the depths of their work, imagining them as a combination of laborers and artists absolves the author from reckoning with that labor as grueling, repetitive, not well paid, and precarious. In fact, the most egregious example of this narrative turn is in Whittaker’s description of farm worker Alma Perales:

Alma Perales is pouring a bucket of cherry tomatoes straight into their retail packaging. It kind of blew my mind that Alma would be the only person ever to touch these tomatoes before they got sold. To me, that really sums up the concept of ‘farm-to-fork.’ There’s not some long, crazy logistical chain between Alma’s hand and my plate – just a short truck drive to a farmers’ market. (93)

Whittaker’s photo essay is a powerful example of well-intentioned middle-class neoliberalism where exploitative market relations are cast as virtuous enterprises.[21]  For instance, he sums up the article by saying: “I was amazed at the level of dedication that I saw in all the farmworkers I met over the past year. I’ve done manual labor before and found it to be incredibly challenging. Raul and his fellow farm-workers had a Zen-like focus that I envy and admire.” Whittaker makes no mention of the way in which the labor wreaks havoc on their bodies and, as contract day laborers, they have few or no medical benefits to help them if they are injured. Indeed, the author misunderstands that the labor is grueling and is done not out of some space of desire, but most likely out of necessity. Admiring their “Zen-like focus” implies that their work equates to an exercise in mindfulness; rather than demanding physical labor that they perform every day.

These two stories (the top chefs and the farm workers) offer food work – being a chef and being a farm worker – as engaging and creative tasks. However, while the Chefs get to speak and define the community of workers they engage, the farm workers do not. An outsider who romanticizes their labor practices and rather than illuminate the inequalities built into the food system tells the farm workers’ stories, in pictures and in words.  The imagined connections between the production (farm) and consumption (fork), is in reality deeply hierarchical where the products cannot be consumed by laborers in the rarefied venues and events associated with the campaign. Alma Perales’ earnings picking and sorting tomatoes in an eight-hour day would barely purchase one ticket to the fancy fundraiser dinner on the Tower Bridge. In fact, Alma Perales’ income and working conditions are likely to render her and her family food insecure within this bountiful agricultural region.[22] Interestingly the 2021 promotional materials for the Tower Bridge Dinner included mention that some of the money raised supports the College Assistance Migrant Program at California State University in Sacramento. [23] This is an ironic sort of “award” for children of agricultural workers like Alma Perales and Raul Cordova, who have sacrificed their health and well-being in service to industrial agricultural complex.

Farm-to-Fork in Action

Just as Latino farmworkers are imagined as noble laborers, other people of color (and sometimes the children of the farm laborers) are often portrayed as the needy recipients of the information connected to Sacramento’s “Farm-to-Fork Capital”” campaign.[24] I have witnessed this sort of imagining on the ground in the work of the Food Literacy Center – whose mission is “to inspire kids to eat their vegetables.”[25] They “teach children in low-income elementary schools cooking, nutrition, gardening, and active play to improve our health, environment, and economy.”  As one of the critical cultural workers in Sacramento’s mainstream farm-to-fork movement, the Food Literacy Center hosts an annual Food Film Festival as a fundraiser for the nonprofit[26] and as part of its public facing work. In the spring of 2017, my then 9-year-old, daughter and I attended a screening of the film Sustainable[27] (2016). The screening took place in the Central Library Galleria space overlooking Cesar Chavez Park in Downtown Sacramento. The audience was, at first glance, quite diverse[28]. I was encouraged to see Chanowk Yisrael of Yisrael Family Urban Farm in the room, sitting near to the stage. The farm was featured in the 2015 ad campaign and in 2018 the Farmer’s Guild and the Community Alliance with Family Farms named them Farm Advocates of the Year.[29] Chanowk is also Slow Food Sacramento’s farm representative and board member at the non-profit’s global conference in Italy.[30] I was eager to hear and participate in a discussion of the film from various angles. However, as the evening progressed, I realized that the narrative running throughout the event was tied to a particular understanding of food politics.

For instance, in the lead up to the screening Amber Stott invited to the stage some “student chefs” who were participants in the Food Literacy Center’s school-based program. There were three of them: 13-year-old Matthew (White or Latino), 8-year-old Olivia (maybe Latina), and 7-year-old Jackie (Black). Each of the “student chefs” spoke about their experience with the Food Literacy Center and named their favorite vegetable. These young people were super cute and very earnest. However, their participation felt scripted and manipulative. I was dismayed with Stott’s use of the little brown kids as “demonstrations” of the effectiveness of the Food Literacy Center and as representatives of the “problem” made right. Indeed, much of the imaging associated with The Food Literacy Center features black and brown, smiling children happily eating carrots, broccoli, etc. [See IMAGES #14-16]

In that vein, before the screening began my daughter and I were walking around looking at the various booths and tables. We stopped at the Whole Foods Market table and I considered purchasing their “bag of local goodies” which was $25 and included beautifully packaged items like extra-virgin olive oil, a chocolate bar, Bloody Mary Mix, some heirloom flower seeds.  As I stood there pondering this, one of the Food Literacy women came up to us – a young woman, perhaps Latina, with short dark hair. She asks my daughter if she is one of the “student chefs.” Already bristling, I jumped in and said, “Nope. But she is a chef in our house.” The young woman says, “Oh, really?!” and then asks my daughter, “What’s your favorite thing to cook?” She responds that she loves to bake bread. The young woman was visibly surprised; perhaps it was not the answer she expected to hear. Nevertheless, without too much hesitation, she reaches into the basket of local goodies and comes up with a small root vegetable. She asks my daughter, “Do you know what this is?” My then 8-year old daughter, who is usually not shy, said in a low voice, “a radish.” The young woman on point in her script, belted out without really hearing her answer, and says, “It’s a radish!” My daughter just shakes her head in the affirmative. Then I interject, “Do y’all grow radishes in your school garden?” My daughter shakes her head “no,” looking embarrassed by the woman’s query and my obvious displeasure with the exchange. However, The FLC advocate does not pick-up on the fact that my daughter already knew about radishes, has experienced growing stuff, and does not need to be “educated” about eating her veggies. The Food Literacy Center advocate simply launches into a bunch of “fun facts” about radishes.

Moving beyond my personal irritation with this scenario, I understand it as part of a system of racial coding. The subtle and invasive assumption that Black people (and Black food) are somehow already deficient or abject.[31] Stott’s work with the Food Literacy Center has been quite successful and she, as Founder & Chief Food Genius, has played a central role in crafting the images of the “needy” side of the farm-to-fork.  Stott has also been instrumental in defining “farm-to-fork” in a variety of local events and publications (Edible Sacramento, Sacramento Magazine, and Sactown Magazine, TEDx Sacramento, Sacramento Food Film Festival), as well as regionally and beyond the U.S.  She opines: “No matter where I go or who I speak with, the question of farm to fork boils down to two important elements beyond the obvious ‘buy local’ mantra: education and intentionality.”[32] For Stott it is simple: know where your food comes from and commit to eating locally and seasonally.

She traces the roots of Sacramento’s contemporary efforts to the U.S. “back-to-the-land movement” of the 1970s and Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California; arguing that it is both a lifestyle and a movement. And it is actually in that designation – both movement and lifestyle – where she and others posit their work as advocates for social change through educating others to lead (and desire to lead) a particular sort of lifestyle. The classist and racist dimensions of the project of educating some of those others (needy, “food desert” inhabitants) becomes one of the platforms through which the “farm-to-fork” lifestyle gets funded and authenticated by well-heeled donors, federal, state and local government funding for nonprofits, etc.

As a political force in the local terrain, Stott has had the power to shape the discourse around sustainability, food, and hunger.[33] However, the narrative (and imagery) she and others elevate continues to hinge on poor folks (Black and brown, but not always) as recipients and middle- and upper-class folks (white, but not always) in the roles of leaders, pioneers, risk-takers, food geniuses, etc.  The Food Literacy Center operates within this political spectrum by de-fanging the possibilities of collective social movement around the need for systemic changes in our food system.[34] They do so by focusing on such things as lifestyle, personal/individual choice, and specific prescriptions for what constitutes good eating rather than exploring the multiple and contradictory politics of food in our society. As Julie Guthman writes:

[I]t may well be that the focus of activism should shift away from the particularities of food and towards the injustices that underlie disparities in food access. Activists might pay more attention to projects considered much more difficult in the current political climate: eliminating redlining, investing in urban renewal [not gentrification], expanding entitlement programs, obtaining living wages, along with eliminating toxins from and improving the quality of the mainstream food supply. The question, then, is what kind of cultural politics might facilitate this shift.[35]

Unfortunately, opportunities to engage in dialogue and debate across different expressions within a much broader food justice movement have not been evident in Sacramento’s mainstream Farm-to-Fork Capital efforts.

For instance, when we walked into the Sustainable screening and I noticed Chanowk Yisrael of Yisrael Family Urban Farm, I assumed that he would be on the panel discussing the film and/or the implications for urban farmers in Sacramento. However, he was not on the stage during the discussion and, in fact, left before the screening was complete. I do not know the circumstances surrounding his departure, but I felt keenly the missed opportunity to hear him speak about local food matters from a wholly different perspective. The farm-to-fork messaging (visually through advertisements or narratively in the magazine stories) is geared toward a particular audience and not articulated as connected to critical explorations of small-scale urban farming or home gardens in low-income or working class communities, food insecurity, poverty, farm workers’ plight, or other socio-economic issues. Attempts to foster public conversations across these ideas does not happen.

This was also evident at the 2017 Farm-to-Fork Festival where demos/presentations put on by the Food Literacy Center (Amber Stott) and the Juneteenth Chefs Collaborative (Chef Andrea O’Neal) occurred back-to-back on the same stage, but no conversation between the women was brokered.[36]  For Stott’s presentation, she did what she described as a “simple” recipe while delivering her usual script about the 40% obesity rate in Sacramento.[37] During her demo of Grilled Corn with Chili and Lime, Stott talked about what her organization does and how they have attempted to tackle the problem of obesity in low-income neighborhoods/schools. She also talked about how eating fresh corn reminds her of growing up in the Midwest where corn was very plentiful in the summer months.  Yet, she made no mention of how this particular recipe draws quite obviously from the well-known elote or Mexican Street Corn that is prevalent within Latino communities throughout Sacramento. At one point during her presentation, her mentor and Food Literacy Center Board Member, Elise Bauer, was invited to the stage by the reporter emcee to assist. Once on stage, Bauer and Stott talked more about making “simple recipes” that are accessible for families (especially moms) to use daily.[38] After Stott and Bauer leave the stage, Chef Andrea O’Neal one of the chefs featured in the Farm-to-Fork Capital ad campaign (see IMAGE #1), takes the stage. [39]  There is no discussion or communication between O’Neal and the Stott-Bauer team, almost as if they did not know each other.

Chef O’Neal’s work speaks of an approach to food work that invokes food as a catalyst for change rather than a destination. She described how, in the past eight years she has worked in various capacities with food. Chef Andrea has cooked at My Sister’s Café[40]and My Sister’s House[41], as well as offering cooking classes through the Juneteenth Chefs Collaborative in Elk Grove (a suburb of Sacramento).[42] At the time of this presentation, she was Cooking Chef at UC Davis Health System’s Institute for Population Health Improvement.[43] Chef Andrea prepared Coho salmon with a homemade blueberry ketchup while offering tidbits about her own journey through food work and the work of the Juneteenth Chefs Collaborative. She gave tips about food and health – e.g., that canola oil is not as healthy as we think – but also talked about the kinds of advocacy work she does and encourages others to get involved. She tells us …

My Sister’s Café opened about four years ago.  It is specific for women of Asian descent.  It helps get them back into job mode; their children back into schooling; women who have been abused, sex trafficked, drug addicted―It’s just a really good program. I was their Chef for about 4 years before opening up the restaurant and then another 2 years after that. It is a good program, if you guys [sic] have time to volunteer there, please do so.[44]

In reflecting on the two presentations, it would have been engaging and informative if there had been some interaction between Amber Stott and Chef Andrea O’Neal … perhaps giving them a platform to draw connections between their work with food and “at-risk” populations.[45]

Chef Andrea talked about empowerment of the women they work with via My Sister’s House emphasizing that the goal is to get the women on their feet. For her, food (especially entrepreneurial food work) is a tool toward stability/empowerment amongst some of the most vulnerable peoples there are – immigrant women and women of color escaping entrapment, sexual and physical violence. My Sister’s Café serves as a funding source for My Sister’s House and a space where women can gain skills they might use to seek employment. In comparison, Stott harkened back to her days growing up in the Midwest and her understanding of what constitutes a “good” and “healthy” relationship with food. What Stott’s narrative misses completely is that her experience with food is likely from a place not shaped by racism, poverty, or trauma. Nevertheless, Stott’s privilege and social capital have afforded her the opportunity to grow a non-profit that taps into the middle and upper-middle class foodie’s desire to do good works. [See IMAGES #14-16]

The work of the farm-to-fork advertisements and related events is about celebrating the bounty of the region and the innovative ways that chefs, vintners, brew masters, organic farmers and others are collaborating to create spaces and events that engage those who have means to do so. As Stott writes, “We are the lucky ones who live closest to [the agricultural bounty], who have the strongest ability to intentionally implement a farm-to-fork lifestyle, and hopefully, educate ourselves deeply on what a truly sustainable food system looks like not just in restaurants and on farms, but in school cafeterias, food banks and at home in our own backyards.”[46] I argue, however, that the Food Literacy Center’s inclusion within the imagery connected to Sacramento’s Farm-to-Fork Capital campaign is just as problematic as the shadowy inclusion of The Juneteenth Black Chefs Collaborative and the Yisrael Family Urban Farm.  Restaurants, school cafeterias, food banks, and “our” homes and backyards may all be connected to and/or resistive of the industrial agricultural food system, but equally yoked within that system we are not.

For instance, the Food Literacy Center’s efforts to counter the “obesity crisis” amongst low-income children in Sacramento with a two-pronged approach of teaching children to love eating vegetables like broccoli and remaking the school lunch program by building a centralized kitchen where healthful foods are prepared and disseminated to 80 schools within the district, feels like a step forward.[47] Who would not want freshly prepared meals to replace reliance on industrialized and processed foods for children, particularly those most vulnerable to hunger and food insecurity? However, this sort of intervention continues historical efforts to shape bodies to fit within mainstream ideals of the good citizen.[48] The Food Literacy Center and the new Central Kitchen are manifestations of biopower – “forms of power aimed at controlling life itself through the management and administration of a populations’ health.”[49]

The US school food system has undergone significant transformations since its inception at the beginning of the twentieth century. Its development over time clearly illustrates biopower mechanisms in action. In the school luunch program, truth discourses promoted by experts, social reformers, and child advocates justify collective interventions into the eating practices of children. Through the school lunch program, children are taught self-discipline by emulating lunchroom eating norms and social practices in the space of the school.[50] 

The “truth discourses” embedded in the Sacramento Farm-to-Fork Campaign about the benefits of eating locally, seasonally, and with intention permeate the language of the Food Literacy Center. The development of the Central Kitchen is part of the “collective intervention” which will imbed knowledge about how and what to eat in the minds of the schoolchildren. Those “truth discourses” say nothing about the inequalities within school, work, and in communities grappling with the impacts of historical disinvestment and contemporary gentrification. Moreover, until recently, they did not address cultural relevant foods or historically different foodways.

Conclusions: Where do we go from here?: Our Farm, Our Fork, Our Community[51]

 At the same time that images of Sacramento’s Farm-to-Fork Campaign appeared, Chanowk and Judith Yisrael and their urban farm were featured in less glossy publications like the Sacramento News & Review,  INSIDE, and Edible Sacramento, as well as the local business magazine Comstock’s: Business Insight for the Capital Region.[52] The images and stories of the Yisrael Family Urban Farm in these publications reveal layered reasons behind the farm’s beginning. [53] Shaped by personal and familial struggles with cancer and other health ailments, coupled with the realities of supporting a large family while working and commuting long distances to corporate jobs each day, Chanowk and Judith took what was a large residential lot with fruit trees and a small garden and grew it into a total farming enterprise.           

The Yisrael Family Urban Farm’s motto, “Transforming the HOOD for G.O.O.D (Growing Our Own Destiny),” makes clear that their mission includes but goes beyond addressing health/diet-related illness. They seek to use “urban agriculture as a tool for community engagement, empowerment and employment.”[54] In this way, their work extends from that of Fannie Lou Hamer’s Freedom Farm Cooperative (circa 1967) and its critical intervention in the struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi.[55] We might also understand Chanowk and Judith’s farm as a contemporary manifestation of the work of the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast Program.[56]  As Judith Yisrael says:

I care about changing the food system because it’s a way to confront and change the inequities which have been present in the United States since its inception.[57]

Since breaking ground on the farm in 2008 and then leaving their corporate jobs several years later, Chanowk and Judith have been focused on creating a space centered on sustainability. Sustainability of self, family, the land and community as interconnected entities.

With 40 fruit trees, 11 free-range chickens, a stocked greenhouse, a busy honeybee hive and endless varieties of fruits and vegetables, Chanowk dares visitors to name what the family doesn’t grow—because the possibilities on this farm are endless. […] If there is one family that embodies the farm-to-fork lifestyle in Sacramento, it’s [sic] the Yisraels. Farming is their everyday way of life. It’s [sic] not a clever hashtag or newfound diet. It’s [sic] simply how they eat, how they bond, how they come together: around food.[58]

Their work has ranged from hosting farm-to-fork events on their farm where guests eat home cooked, plant-based meals built on ingredients from their farm; to working with other urban farmers to pass the Sacramento Urban Agriculture Ordinance that allows residents to sell produce grown on their residential plots (vacant or inhabited)[59]; to teaching plant-based cooking classes at the Sacramento Food Bank (located in North Oak Park); to encouraging Black and Brown youth to become a part of the G team. While the significance of their work within the space of Oak Park deserves an in depth documentation and study beyond the scope of this essay, it is clear that in terms of the Sacramento Farm-to-Fork Capital campaign images including the Yisrael Family Urban Farm needed greater context to make them visible to the broader public. Efforts to contextualize HOW their work engages farm-to-fork from a different perspective would allow people not likely to frequent the high end restaurants, Tower Bridge Dinner, or even the Farm-to-Fork Festival to get a glimpse into the issues which undergird experiences of food insecurity, lack of good employment options within urban communities, make connections between the consumption of processed foods and poor health, all within the context of radical self-care.[60] The twin reckonings of 2020 – the Covid-19 pandemic and the increasing visibility of the BLACK LIVES MATTER movement for social justice – illuminate the necessity to understand our fates as interconnected and to lay bare the histories of disenfranchisement that have long roots.

In early June 2020, during the social unrest after the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, Guys on the Grid, took an aerial photograph of the grassy median leading from the Tower Bridge to the Sacramento Capitol building where BLACK LIVES MATTER had been painted in all caps with bold, black paint on the grassy median.[61] This image came across my Facebook feed on June 6, 2020 with a reflection written by Devin Bruce focusing on the politics of the space:  

Do you know that right where “Black Lives Matter” is painted on the dead grass there on Capitol [Blvd] there used to be a vibrant neighborhood of Black (and Japanese) owned homes and businesses known as the ‘West End’? It was a full community of people and included homes, schools, markets and jazz clubs where the likes of Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday would go and perform at after hours when they were in town. But – it was the first thing you saw when crossing the Tower Bridge and entering Sacramento proper and the white people didn’t like that. The white people said that it was ‘blighted’ and needed to be redeveloped – so they forced all of the Black and Japanese people to move as they tore down the buildings and built a ‘grand entrance’ to the city.[…] They relocated everyone to the Southside Park area but then wanted to build Hwy 50 [in that location] […] At this point, redlining was all the rage so they designated Oak Park for the Black people and the Japanese were pushed farther south of the city.[62]

In pre-pandemic and pre-BLM times, this location served as the space for the annual Farm-to-Fork Festival. As I have discussed in this essay, issues of privilege, biopower, or food justice were not a part of the conversation in the mainstream public. My examination of Sacramento’s Farm-to-Fork Capital campaign mirrors the findings of Broad’s study in Los Angeles, about which he writes:

In popular media, the nutritional, environmental, and social problems of the food system were often portrayed as having utterly simple, conflict-free solutions, generally involving nothing more than individual consumer choices and a little bit of ‘growing your own.’ If we could simply get the general public to understand the importance of healthy eating, pop culture advocates suggested, perhaps by having young boys and girls taste a tomato grown in their own school garden or by opening a community farmers’ market, we would all be well on our way toward health and sustainability. […] Unfortunately, missing from the design, deployment, and management of many of the alternative food initiatives I observed was any recognition that inequity in the food system was centrally linked to histories of racial and economic discrimination.  […] Alternative food initiatives tended to benefit mostly white, economically secure, and already healthy consumers. Low-income communities of color, by contrast, were too often treated as subjects to be taught the ‘right way to eat,’ while issues of systematic injustice in the labor force and other barriers to community health were downplayed or ignored.[63]

Perhaps, times are changing. For instance, the racial reckoning of 2020 seems to have made an impression on the Food Literacy Center’s approach to (or at least public narrative about) the food work they do, as evidenced in a March 24, 2021 email with the subject line: “Subject: 🍎 Race, Equity, Inclusion, and Our Kids 🍎” sent to those on their listserve:

Food Literacy Center Newsletter (March 24, 2021)

This “Weekly Update” was the first newsletter I received from the Food Literacy Center that explicitly discussed race, equity and inclusion issues in relation to their mission with this level of depth.[64] I hope that it is a step forward and is not simply a well-crafted statement for this moment of heightened awareness. What I have come to see during the racial reckoning that was 2020 (building on countless years before that) is the hard work of recognizing and undoing white privilege is an ongoing, complicated endeavor that needs everyone to engage – especially those who benefit most from the system of inequities. Perhaps the Food Literacy Center and the mainstream farm, restaurant, food, and beverage industries they engage with are ready to do that work. Especially as the precarity long-experienced by Black and Brown working-class folks has been amplified as the shutdowns of businesses during the Covid-19 pandemic hit the food and restaurant industry particularly hard.

In fact, just as the language of the Food Literacy Center has shifted, so too has the advertising leading up to the 2021 Tower Bridge Dinner. The dinner was not held in 2020 due to the pandemic and, as we know, many restaurants have struggled to remain open. Restaurant workers have seen their jobs vanish overnight. Others, who maintained their jobs, were categorized as essential workers and thus engaged in public facing work before vaccinations became available. Thereby putting themselves and their families at risk of infection. The Farm-to-Fork Capital website now includes short videos of tearful restaurant owners thanking the public for continuing to patronize their establishments through the pandemic. In addition, others talk of the importance of continuing the ethos of the Tower Bridge Dinner as a socially-distant event where folks could pick-up farm-to-table inspired meals at select restaurants. There was not, of course, the big Farm-to-Fork Festival on Capital Avenue between the Tower Bridge and the Capital Building.

In 2021, the Tower Bridge Dinner happened (tickets sold out), but the chefs at the center of the event were not just the key, high-end restaurateurs of years past but a team of chefs of color (Latino and Asian) and women working in a variety of food spaces – led by UC Davis Health System’s Executive Chef Santana Diaz.[65] On August 10, 2021, it was announced that Visit Sacramento, the entity that oversees all of the Farm-to-Fork Capital events has created a new position – Chief of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and moved its chief marketing officer, African American Sonya Bradley, into the position.

While all of the developments are potentially positive. Perhaps they are part of a process of critically thinking about what the Farm-to-Fork Capitol might do to make an impact on the food system locally, within California, nationally, and perhaps globally. My exploration in this essay points to the necessity of building or engaging a collective of folks whose work is about creating the spaces of dialogue needed to uncover the biases and misinformation presented as truth. We must foreground the need to call our leaders (self-proclaimed, selected, and elected) to a greater sense of accountability – not to capitalistic notions of progress – but to the people whose lives are deeply impacted everyday by the issues glibly presented in various media outlets. As Stuart Hall spent his life’s work unpacking and exploring the “politics of representation,” we continue to be in a struggle over meaning.[66]


Notes:

[1] The Pocket-Greenhaven area of Sacramento is located south of the downtown core, east of the Sacramento River. It is a largely middle and upper-middle class community with significant numbers of residents of African American (approximately 18%) and Asian American (approximately 21%) descent.

[2] “Known as the nation’s farm-to-fork capital, the Sacramento area is home to nearly 8,000 acres of boutique farmland and boasts the largest certified farmers market in California” (https://www.visitcalifornia.com/attraction/farm-fork-capital#:~:text=Top%20Sacramento%20Restaurants,-Spotlight%3A%20Sacramento&text=Known%20as%20the%20nation’s%20farm,certified%20farmers%20market%20in%20California.) Last accessed 6/8/2020

[3] My search details are included in the parenthesis after their names.

[4] Jhally 2015, page 247.

[5] “As a division of Visit Sacramento, a 501(c)(6), the Farm-to-Fork program is guided by Visit Sacramento’s dedicated volunteer board. The board represents all aspects of the tourism and hospitality industries’ most important stakeholders, including lodging, meeting facilities, attractions, restaurants, arts and culture, government, retail, sports and transportation.” Source: https://www.farmtofork.com/. Last Accessed 6/16/20. See also: https://ca.meetingsmags.com/sacramento-elevates-its-profile-farm-fork-campaign. Last Accessed 8/28/21.

[6] In 2000, the Los Angeles Lakers’ Head Coach Phil Jackson dubbed Sacramento a “cow town” when the Sacramento Kings advanced to the NBA Playoffs Western Finals and the team’s fans often rang cowbells during the games. “Jackson called Sacramento a “cow town” and said Kings fans were “semi-civilized” and “maybe redneck in some form or fashion.”” (David Dupree, “California dreamin’ for Western final” USA Today, May 17, 2002.)

[7] “Visit Sacramento, the tourism organization that sponsors the wildly successful farm-to-fork events in September says there are many cities that claim to be the “City of Trees” around the world and even locally. But Sacramento is now known around the world for popularizing a new food concept.” See: Lonnie Wong, “Water Tower No Longer Reads ‘Welcome to Sacramento, City of Trees’” Fox 40 Local News, March 9, 2017. https://fox40.com/news/local-news/water-tower-no-longer-reads-welcome-to-sacramento-city-of-trees/ Last accessed: 7/7/2021.

[8] The artist who sculpted the piece, Lisa Reinertson, said “Many of the people in the sculpture are based on actual people who were involved in the Farmworkers’ Movement. For example, there is a depiction of Dolores Huerta holding a “Huelga” sign. Cesar Chavez’s brother and daughter are also depicted on the “mural” side, as is Robert Kennedy, breaking fast with Cesar. I also visited La Paz (UFW Headquarters) in the process of doing research for the sculpture, so the side that has the marchers has many people that were either on the March from Delano to Sacramento, or I may have used photos I took of people at La Paz that would have been the right age at that time. (For example, one of Cesar Chavez’ daughter-in-law and grandsons.) I had a few people pose for me that asked to remain unnamed, but who also had been connected to the UFW. Also, grape strike leader Larry ltliong, is depicted in the march with another Filipino woman who was on the march. Some of the people are from photographs from the era of the UFW movement. My own mother was on the organizing end of the march in Sacramento. She was both a Civil Rights and Peace activist. She and her friend volunteered to find accommodations for the marchers as they arrived in the city. Our family joined in on some of the march, walking up Hwy 99, and the final march to the State Capitol. I was only 11 at the time but was very moved by the experience. I was able to witness Cesar Chavez speak, both at a local church the night before the march on the Capitol and also at the Capitol. The injustice of the plight of the farmworkers struck me deeply, and being able to leave a visible legacy and reminder of the struggles and successes of the Farmworkers’ Movement felt very important to me, and was an honor to be able to do as a sculptor.” Personal correspondence May, 12, 2017.

[9] In 1962 Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Gilbert Padilla (and others) began the United Farmworkers of America and eventually successfully unionized several industries (ufw.org/about-us/our-vision). On the plaza opposite where Mayor Johnson made the announcement, is a statue representing the UFW movement featuring images of Chavez, Huerta, and Padilla along with Larry Itliong, the leader of the Filipino farmworkers’ movement. Itliong had urged Chavez years before the formation of UFW, to join him and his constituency to push for worker protections within the table grape growing industry. See Jill Cowan, “A leader of Farmworkers and Filipino Place in American History” New York Times October 21, 2019 and Lisa Morehouse, “Grapes of Wrath: The Forgotten Filipinos Who Led a Farm Worker Revolution” NPR The Salt, September 19, 2015.; Matthew Garcia, From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement. UC Press, 2014.

[10] Green, 11/1/2012

[11] Erica Maria Cheung’s “Dudes of Food.” MA Thesis, UC Irvine, 2016.

[12] Biba Caggiano passed away in August 2019, See: https://www.sacbee.com/news/local/obituaries/article232620167.html.

[13] Bizjack, page 83; Mother restaurant abruptly closed its doors in January 2020. See:  https://sacramento.cbslocal.com/2020/01/02/mother-restaurant-sacramento-closes/

[14] After a hiatus in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, The Tower Bridge Gala returned in 2021 featuring a lineup of local chefs with both Latina/o and Asian representation. https://www.farmtofork.com/events/the-tower-bridge-dinner/. During the pandemic year, there was an alternative “Tower Bridge Dinner to Go” which offered foods directly to customers. This alternative was also offered in 2021. https://www.farmtofork.com/tower-bridge-dinner-to-go/.

[15] https://fox40.com/news/farm-to-fork-kicks-off-with-tower-bridge-cattle-drive/.

[16] Page 89, bold added by author.

[17] http://fullbellyfarm.com/. Full Belly Farm has 80 different crops that require to picking by hand – to preserve the fruit/nuts, etc. at their peak of ripeness – a premium in the farm-to-fork marketplace (page 92).

[18] https://www.farmfreshtoyou.com/

[19] https://www.terradorowinery.com/index.cfm? Located in the wildly popular Amador County wine region.

[20] https://livingwage.mit.edu/states/06

[21] George Monbiot, “Neoliberalism—the ideology at the root of all our problems” The Guardian [Economics], April 15-2016. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/15/neoliberalism-ideology-problem-george-monbiot

[22] See: Sandy Brown and Christy Getz, “Farmworker Food Insecurity and the Production of Hunger in California” Chapter 6 in Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability edited by Alison Hope Alkon and Julian Agyeman (The MIT Press, 2011). One of the epitaphs on the Cesar Chavez Memorial: “Capital and labor together produce the fruits of the land, but what really counts is labor. The human beings who torture their bodies, sacrifice their youth and numb their spirits to produce this great agricultural wealth. A wealth so vast that it feeds all of America and much of the world. And yet the men, women and children who are the flesh and blood of this production often do not have enough to feed themselves.” Cesar Chavez, 1979, Eulogy for slain lettuce strikers in the Imperial Valley.

[23] https://www.sacbee.com/food-drink/article164667337.html. Last Accessed: 8/28/21

[24] Most of the farmworkers in California are Mexican or of Mexican descent, many (65%) are without documents and 1/3 are women. See https://farmworkerfamily.org/information. Last Accessed 8/31/21.

[25] https://www.foodliteracycenter.org/. During the uprisings of 2020, the practice of companies posting statements of solidarity around Black Lives Matter – FLC posted the following on their website: “When we commit to protecting kids’ health with vegetables, we also stand up for their lives. Black lives matter. We stand with our Black community members to call out injustice and to take action. Food literacy is food justice.” Last accessed June 30, 2020.

[26] Stott opened the event (after the Friends of the Library spokesperson spoke) and spent a good deal of time talking about the work of the Food Literacy Center. In general, I was taken with how she talked about the Food Literacy Center using language that I would consider that of a for profit enterprise – specifically, that their model was “scalable” and “gets results.” It was unclear to me what the results were – 1) a reduction in the prevalence of childhood obesity? Or 2) the growth of the Food Literacy Center, servicing one school in its beginnings in 2012 and now in nine schools in 2017? In 2021, the Food Literacy Center is leading the opening of a Central Kitchen to serve the Sacramento City’s public schools hot lunches.

[27] See sustainablefoodfilm.com and foodliteracycenter.org/film-festival-event/sold-out-sustainable-0  

[28] The folks who were at the screening, primarily white and older, but with smatterings of others represented: young millennials (tattooed), young families (with infants), a few older Black folks; a fair number of folks who looked Asian (mostly young). 

[29] https://m.facebook.com/yisraelfarm/photos/every-year-the-the-farmers-guild-gives-food-and-farm-related-awards-in-7-categor/1646392858749213/

[30] https://www.slowfoodsacramento.org/board-members; https://www.comstocksmag.com/qa/chanowk-yisrael-talks-about-changing-hood-good

[31] See Psyche Williams-Forson’s forthcoming Eating While Black: Food Shaming and Race in America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, August 16, 2022). See also: Vivian Nun Halloran’s, “Eating in Public: As Performance of Assimilation, Diaspora, or Ethnic Belonging in her The Immigrant Kitchen: Food, Ethnicity, and Diaspora (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2016); pages 41-63.

[32] Stott, “Farm-to-Fork Defined”, Edible Sacramento[32], September/October 2015, page 10)

[33] Amber K. Stott is the Founding Executive Director of the California Food Literacy Center and has been named a Food Revolution Hero by the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation. Stott was instrumental in getting legislation passed to designate September as Food Literacy Month in California. (http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=201120120ACR161. Recently, Stott’s work has also been instrumental in developing a Central Kitchen within the Sacramento Unified School District. The kitchen, slated to open and begin providing meals to schools in fall 2020. See: https://www.scusd.edu/central-kitchen and https://sacramento.cbslocal.com/2017/06/06/sacramento-schools-farm-to-fork/.

[34] See: Dylan Rodríguez, “Navigating Neoliberalism in the Academy, Nonprofits, and Beyond: The Political Logic of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex.” The Scholar & Feminist Online Issue 13.2 | Spring 2016 (https://sfonline.barnard.edu/navigating-neoliberalism-in-the-academy-nonprofits-and-beyond/paul-kivel-social-service-or-social-change/) and Sidra Morgan-Montoya, “Nonprofit Industrial Complex 101: A primer on how it upholds inequity and flattens resistance.”  Community Centric Fundraising, August 10, 2020 (https://communitycentricfundraising.org/2020/08/10/nonprofit-industrial-complex-101-a-primer-on-how-it-upholds-inequity-and-flattens-resistance/).

[35]“Bringing good food to others: investigating the subjects of alternative food practice.” Cultural Geographies, Volume 15, 2008; 431-457.

[36] They were on the Visit Sacramento Demo Stage at 2:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. respectively.

[37] The Food Literacy Center uses compelling photos of “at risk” risk kids and narratives of need to substantiate its mission. The 40% obesity rate in Sacramento is a statistic that has a certain purchase and is used liberally. See: https://www.foodliteracycenter.org/broccoli-beet-year/holiday-fund-school-drive

[38] As far as I have been able to ascertain, neither Stott nor Bauer have children of her own. Their food work is shaped by their memories of cooking and eating in their own families, as Stott mentions in the grilled corn demonstration and as Bauer describes on her website. See: http://www.simplyrecipes.com. Last Accessed 6/17/2020.

[39] https://www.facebook.com/chefamor.alwaysfresh

[40] http://www.mysisterscafe.org/

[41] http://www.my-sisters-house.org/

[42] http://goharvest.org/

[43] The Institute for Population Health Improvement (IPHI) was founded in 2011 and engaged in partnerships/collaborations with various government entities and nonprofits to work toward better health outcomes (and reduced health costs). See: Kenneth W. Kizer, “Improving Population Health through Clinical-Community Collaboration: A Case Study of a Collaboration between State Government and an Academic Health System,” Chapter 9 in Public Health Leadership: Strategies for Innovations in Population Health and Social Determinants, edited by Richard F. Callahan and Dru Bhattacharya (Routledge, 2017). The IPHI ceased to exist when in 2019, the founding director Dr. Kenneth Kizer, left UC Davis to join Atlas Research as Chief Healthcare Transformation Officer and Senior Executive Vice President (https://www.atlasresearch.us/news/leading-health-care-reformer-dr-ken-kizer-joins-atlas-research).

[44] Both Stott and O’Neal’s sessions were audio recorded and then transcribed.

[45] At the 2015 Festival, there was a panel discussion (“The Mission of the Farm-to-Fork”) that featured folks associated with Food Literacy Center, Soil Born Farms, and the Center for Land-Based Learning. I wondered then why there were no representatives from the Juneteenth Black Chefs Collaborative, R. Kelley Farms, or the Yisrael Family Urban Farm on the panel.  

[46] Stott, “Farm-to-Fork Defined” page 41.

[47] https://thecentralkitchen.org/. Last accessed: 8/31/21. When my daughter was a student in a public charter school connected to Sacramento Unified School District, a few parents met to organize a “take back our school lunch” effort. Our school site, built in the 1950s, had a full kitchen that had been used to prepare lunches for the students who attended that school. During our time at the school, the lunches were brought in and heated up in industrial microwaves (bypassing the industrial ranges and ovens). Some fresh produce was available on the salad bar (which was decked out with beautiful “farm-to-fork” signage), but my daughter informed me that it mostly consisted of wilted salad greens, carrots, broccoli and food service sized ranch dressing. Our school also had a school garden that was a popular after school activity. However, the produce was not grown in sufficient quantity to supplement the cafeteria salad bar and there were restrictions around utilizing it in that way. We gave up on our efforts and more parents decided to forego hot lunch and pack lunches. When I approached the Food Literacy Center table at one of the Farm-To-Fork Festivals, I was told that because our school was not located in a low-income community and did not service a population with a significant number on the free-and-reduced lunch program, we were not eligible to become a Food Literacy Center site.

[48] See Sarah E. Dempsey and Kristina E. Gibson’s “Food, Biopower, and the Child’s Body as a Scale of Intervention,” Chapter 14 in Food & Place: A Critical Exploration edited by Pascale Joassart-Marcelli and Fernando J. Bosco (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018).

[49] Dempsey and Gibson, page 255. These authors are utilizing Foucault’s theory of biopower as a tool for understanding how “the child’s body functions as a highly contested scale of intervention into food and eating practices.”

[50] Dempsey and Gibson, page 257. See also Nun Halloran, note #31.

[51] Martin Luther King, Where Do We Go From Here?: Chaos or Community. Beacon Press, 2010.

[52] The first two publications are newspapers that are freely available in kiosks located around the city. Edible Sacramento is a free magazine often available at the Natural Foods Co-op while COMSTOCK’s is a magazine available for purchase at local newsstands and grocery stores.

[53] Sena Christian, “Grow Your Own Way.” COMSTOCK’S, Volume 29, Number 9 (September 2017), pages 40-51; Amber Stott, “Emerging Food Leaders: 5 People to Watch” Edible Sacramento, March/April 2016, pages 11-15; Janelle Bitker, “No Lawn. No Pool. Hello, Urban Farm: Sacramento Agriculturalists Turn Their Yards Into Gardens to Feed the City,” Sacramento News & Review Volume 27, Issue 23, 9/24/2015, pages 17-19; Gwen Schoen, “Urban Farmer: He Grows Both Food and Community in South Oak Park” Inside: Pocket, Greenhaven, South Pocket, Little Pocket June 2015, pages 30-31; Natasha Von Kaenel, “Cultivating Urban Ag in Sacramento County,” Sacramento News & Review March 10, 2016, page 24.

[54] https://www.yisraelfamilyfarm.net/

[55] See Monica M. White, “A Pig and a Garden: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Freedom Farm Collective” in her Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement (UNC Press, 2018), pages 65-87.

[56] See Raj Patel, “Survival Pending Revolution: What the Black Panthers Can Teach the U.S. Food Movement.” Chapter 7 in Food Movements Unit! Strategies to Transform Our Food Systems edited by Eric Holtz-Giménez (Oakland, CA: Food First Books, 2011). See also Monica White, “Black Farmers, Agriculture, and Resistance,” in her Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement (UNC Press, 2018); Analena Hope Hassberg, “Nurturing the Revolution: The Black Panther Party and the Early Seeds of the Food Justice Movement,” in Black Food Matters: Racial Justice in the Wake of Food Justice edited by Hanna Garth and Ashanté M. Reese(University of Minnesota Press, 2020); and Vivian Nun Halloran, “After Forty Acres: Food Security, Urban Agriculture, and Black Food Citizenship” in Dethroning the Deceitful Pork Chop: Rethinking African American Foodways from Slavery to Obama edited by Jennifer Jensen Wallach (The University of Arkansas Press, 2015).

[57] Amber Stott’s article, “Emerging  Food Leaders: 5 People to Watch” (Edible Sacramento March/April 2016, pages 11-15) features Elaine Lander (Program Officer, Food Literacy Center), Matt Read (Lawyer & Community Activist), Judith Yisrael (Co-Founder, The Yisrael Family Urban Farm), Rubie Simonsen (Program Officer, WAYUP Sacramento), and Sara Bernal (West Sacramento Urban Farm Program Coordinator, Center for Land-Based Learning).

[58] Steph Rodriguez, “Growing Prospects on the Yisrael Family Farm,” Edible Sacramento, March/April 2016, page 29.

[59] Although outside of the scope of this essay, it is important to note that repurposing empty lots into urban farms in communities seen as “blighted” often aids in the processes of gentrification and displacement of long-time lower-income residents from urban communities. White led urban gardens can unintentionally play a role in creating “white food spaces” that do not engage local residents of color. See: Pascale Joassart-Marcelli and Fernando J. Bosco, “Food and Gentrification: How Foodies are Transforming Urban Neighborhoods” Chapter 8 in their edited volume Food & Place: A Critical Exploration (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018) and Margaret Marietta Ramírez, “The Elusive Inclusive: Black Food Geographies and Racialized Food Spaces” Antipode Volume 47, Number 3, 2015: pages 748-769.

[60] I am referencing here Audre Lorde’s notion of radical self-care in her collection of essays, A Burst of Light: and Other Essays (New York: Firebrand Books, 1988), written while she was battling an aggressive form of breast cancer. Lorde understood self-care as an integral part of care of Black community in the face of white supremacy, not the individualized (and monetized) form of self-care popularly touted today. See: Kathleen Newman-Bremang “Reclaiming Audre Lorde’s Radical Self Care” Refinery 29 May 28, 2021 (https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2021/05/10493153/reclaiming-self-care-audre-lorde-black-women-community-care); Sarah Taylor, “Self-Care, Audre Lorde and Black Radical Activism” Dissolving Margins July 13, 2020 (https://www.dissolvingmargins.co/post/self-care-audre-lorde-and-black-radical-activism). Last accessed 9/6/2021

[61] See also: Leticia Ordaz, “Meet the man behind Sacramento’s Black Lives Matter mural near Capitol” KCRA, June 10, 2020. https://www.kcra.com/article/meet-the-man-behind-sacramentos-black-lives-matter-mural-capitol/32824444#. Last accessed: 9/8/2021.

[62]https://www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=10158312374154561&set=a.285667839560&__cft__[0]=AZVnnN8TrmK780Y9YUsspBs_U-9sU5YGrfvhoCNulYYdfxkL-VLOaMdp6Y5FLAlgf855v4qMcYvcwSDcyCyESuJj3uF-M6s-laWjVm6DZgFXEMvhZAueNmbtl8qmMV6mWWisfI0vTcn46sZj7CHp4MBjCTqpp7Y0-ADhLySi65VWKA&__tn__=EH-y-R. See also: Ananda Rochita, “How Sacramento’s West End revitalization left thousands without homes and jobs” ABC 10 June 23, 2020  (https://www.abc10.com/article/news/local/sacramento/sacramento-west-end-revitalization/103-98291e2c-371e-4891-aa59-d415768522d0) and the PBS Documentary: Replacing the Past—Sacramento’s Redevelopment History  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UEUNt6_oYtI&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR0U5_gSdbKUIDiOQFT5eCs2V2FbOohA033pv6wLeRK5j_IhQZHDfp2HfP8) Last Accessed June 10, 2020.

[63] See Garrett M. Broad, More Than Just Food: Food Justice and Community Change (University of California Press, 2015), page 6.

[64] Since 2019, I have been the inaugural Faculty Director of the Center for the Advancement of Multicultural Perspectives in the Social Science, Arts and Humanities with our newly established Diversity, Equity and Inclusion office. In that capacity, I have engaged in a deep dive into the language of diversity, equity, and inclusion. One of my concerns as a long-time faculty member whose research, writing and teaching has always engaged these issues is that we don’t treat DEI as performative – but rather see it as an elemental effort that has been done (often without recognition) by marginalized faculty and staff within the university. As I read the FLC’s diversity statement, I could see the evidence of DEI trainings and coaching to help them articulate their work within this framework. It has not been evident in their public facing work prior to 2020 – which has relied more on a welfare-oriented narrative deeply imbedded in the non-profit industrial complex. What Stott and FLC have is a platform to do the work of DEI through food provisioning on a larger scale than can be accomplished by smaller, community-based organizations that have always existed and have likely always been underfunded. I hope they use their power well.

[65] Diaz oversees one of the largest production kitchens in the region – serving more than 6,500 meals a day – and has transformed standard hospital food into sustainable, healthy eating for patients, employees, and the shared community (https://www.farmtofork.com/chefs/santana-diaz/).  See also: https://health.ucdavis.edu/health-news/newsroom/executive-chef-santana-diaz-to-lead-2021-tower-bridge-dinner/2021/06

[66] Stuart Hall, “Introduction: The Spectacle of the ‘Other’,” Chapter Four in his edited volume Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices (London: SAGE Publications w/ The Open University, 2007/1997), page 277.

Kimberly D. Nettles-Barcelón is an Associate Professor in the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies program at UC Davis. She has degrees in Broadcast Journalism/Study of Women & Men in Society (B.A., University of Southern California), Sociology (M.A. and Ph.D., UCLA), and a Professional Baking Certificate (Tanté Marie Cooking School, San Francisco). Her research and writing interests are in Black women’s resistance throughout the African Diaspora. She has published an auto-ethnography of her travels to gather the life-history narratives of Guyanese women activists in her Guyana Diaries: Women’s Lives Across Difference (Left Coast Press, 2008). She is also a scholar of critical food studies with a particular focus on race and gendered representations of Black women and food in popular culture. Nettles-Barcelón also serves as a Book Review Editor for Food and Foodwaysand is the founding Faculty Director of the Center for the Advancement of Multicultural Perspectives in the Social Sciences, Arts & Humanities within the office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at UC Davis.

Articles

An Incomplete List: Boom Roundup

In our three years as editors, we’ve tried and consistently failed to compile an end of the year list. Something always gets in the way. The busyness of the end of the semester, the family time during the holiday season, and of course, the global pandemic that continues to illuminate the inability of capitalism and governments to take care of their peoples’ basic needs. In the last week folks took to Twitter to express their frustration with the CDC’s new five day quarantine guidelines: “Sana sana colita de rana,” says the CDC, to borrow Natalia Molina’s tweet.

And then there is our general resistance to lists. Despite an author’s best intentions, these lists always feel definitive and carry a pretense of objectivity. However, they are subjective and incomplete and tend to feature books from big publishers.

So let’s not call it a list. Below you’ll find eleven books that shaped how we think about California, along with a few shout-outs to and updates from our tiny, but mighty Boom California editorial team.

Books we reviewed or featured:

Allisa Richardson, Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest #Journalism

“In her book, Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest #Journalism, Richardson examines the forms of Black witnessing that animate the Black Lives Matter movement, while situating them within the much longer arc of witnessing practices that have helped shape historic struggles for Black liberation.  In the process, her book brings into focus just how much efforts to combat the horrors of white supremacy and to sustain movements for racial justice have relied on often-overlooked acts of seeing and truth-telling that have been undertaken by Black witnesses past and present.” Elizabeth E. Sine

Kevin Waite, West of Slavery

“Historical studies of American slavery have focused most intensely on events that took place in the southeastern part of the United States, and on the social, economic, and political developments that surrounded it there. In West of Slavery, Kevin Waite demonstrates that slavery was in the process of expanding in the southwestern part of the country before the Civil War began, and that efforts to establish what he calls the ‘Continental South’ grew in strength and intensity as the conflict continued. If those efforts had been successful, he argues, slavery would have extended across the southern part of the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and even into foreign lands.” Brian McGinty

Lynell George, A Handful of Earth, a Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia Butler.

“Lynell George spent four years, starting in 2016, in the Octavia E. Butler Papers at the Huntington Library, Art, and Botanical Gardens Museum diligently sifting through almost 400 boxes of Butler’s personal items including notebooks, to-do lists, recipes, scraps of paper, letters, bus passes, library cards, hand-me-down diaries, receipts and all sorts of other ephemera. These notes, George demonstrates in her book, add up to the math of Butler’s life, especially in lists connected to time and money.” Mike Sonksen

Cassandra Lane, We are Bridges: A Memoir

“Cassandra Lane’s narrative is fragmented; intentionally, so. We Are Bridges reads very much in the manner that generational stories are shared and received—in pieces, in tangents, in digressions. There are stories — or shards of them—that don’t come to you until they are intended, when you become of an age where it is appropriate to not just hear the story, but also fully apprehend it. You grow into it.” Lynell George

Geraldo Cadava, The Hispanic Republican: The Shaping of an American Political Identity, from Nixon to Trump

“Geraldo Cadava explains the origins of the GOP’s Hispanic constituency (Hispanic is the preferred identifier for most in this group). Hispanic support of the Republican Party has calcified over the last five decades and yielded considerable support for Donald J. Trump’s GOP despite its bombastic rhetoric and lethal policies. Since the early 1970s, Hispanic conservatives have influenced elections by siphoning off votes from Democrats and pointing a new direction in American racial politics. Even when the GOP loses, as in the 2020 presidential election where Trump lost to Democratic challenger Joseph R. Biden by a considerable margin, Hispanic support for the GOP remains steady.” –Jerry González

Leisy J. Abrego and Genevive Negrón-Gonzales, edt. We Are Not Dreamers: Undocumented Scholars Theorize Undocumented Life in the United States

“A notable addition in the research literature because much (albeit not all) of the academic publications on the experiences of undocumented students are authored by those who are not undocumented (this includes me). All the authors, not including the editors, are or were undocumented at some point. Their perspectives, theories, realities and approaches to liberation vary greatly from one another. Their only commonality is an aversion to having their complex lives reduced to an unrealistic ideal of meritocratic excellence. The resulting research findings, personal narratives, and theories in the flesh are astounding.” –Luis Fernando Macías

Roberto Lovato, Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas

Scholar, activist, and journalist Roberto Lovato takes us through his own journey of re-membering the infinite traces of his life as a child of Salvadoran migrants in the Mission District of San Francisco. By navigating through history, borders, silences and half-truths, Lovato excavates his family’s past, his participation in the Salvadoran revolutionary process, and the “gangs-as-cause-of-every-problem-thesis” in El Salvador.

Adam Goodman, The Deportation Machine: America’s Long History of Expelling Immigrants

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

Jessica Ordaz, The Shadow of El Centro: A History of Migrant Incarceration and Solidarity

“In her timely new book, The Shadow of El Centro: A History of Migrant Incarceration and Solidarity, Jessica Ordaz deftly shows the extent to which detention, control, and violence have come to dominate America’s response to undocumented immigration through a history of one of America’s oldest detention facilities, El Centro, in the city of El Centro in the Imperial Valley of California.” Daniel Morales

Damon B. Akins and William J. Bauer Jr., We are the Land: A History of Native California

Excerpt here.

Sesshu Foster and Arturo Ernesto Romo, ELADATL: A History of the East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines

ELADATL, a mind-blowing book collaboration between poet and novelist Sesshu Foster and artist Arturo Romo that brings forth a whole other past, present and future within the space-time continuum we (think we) know as Southern California. Billed as ‘a fictional history of an actual company,’ ELADATL traces the rise and fall and rise again of the East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines, a local addition to the long history of unsung ventures in U.S. airship transport by those ‘marginalized and disappeared’ by capitalism, white supremacy, settler colonialism and patriarchy” Janet Sarbanes

***

Our Boom California team has also welcomed new books into the world. Anthony Cody, our poetry editor during our time at Fresno State, published Borderland Apocrypha, which won an American book award. Romeo Guzmán,  Carribean Fragoza, and their homies published East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte, which is being used in Ethnic Studies classes in El Monte Union High School District classes. (You can browse the book’s companion website and digital archive here.) Carribean’s book Eat the Mouth That Feeds You continues to receive rave reviews and is a finalist for a PEN Award. Romeo dropped a DIY chapbook titled Pocho Blues.

We have some exciting things coming up in 2022. We’ll be collaborating with La Casa de El Hijo del Ahuizote, the Magón archive and cultural space in Mexico City, to publish Daniel Olmos and Samuel Brown-Vazquez’s chapbook/photo essay titled, “Los Aguacateros: Avocado Heights and the Cultural Politics of Place.” Sneak peak.

Lastly, Romeo and Carribean’s art collective, the South El Monte Arts Posse, will have a space in 2022. Hopefully, this is the year we finally host a Boom event. Stay tuned!

Articles

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.