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

Amber R. Crowell and Janine Nkosi

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

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

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

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

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

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

Background: The Central Valley

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

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

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

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

Evicted in the Central Valley

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

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

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

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

Eviction Court and the Prioritization of Property

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evictions as a Tool of the Social Divides

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After the Pandemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion: What Should Be Done?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

[4] Ibid.

[5] California Housing Partnership (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[14] Eviction Lab (2016)

[15] Desmond (2016)

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

[17] Eviction Lab (2016)

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

[19] Nkosi et al. (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[29] Fresno County Superior Court (2016)

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

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

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

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

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

[35] Eviction Lab (2016)

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

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

[38] American Housing Survey national estimates (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[50] Desmond (2016)

[51] Ibid.

[52] Nkosi et al. (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Articles

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

LJ Frazier and Deborah Cohen

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

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

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

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

Mapping Kingly Enterprise as Counterrevolutionary Heterotopia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neoliberal Fantasy and Images of Counterrevolutionary Heterotopia

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

De la Vega estate. Courtesy of Zorro Productions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

[4] Leonard Pitt, cited in Lie.

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

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

Work cited:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

Articles

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

Hadar Aviram

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Context: California as a Populistic, Polarized State

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

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

Healthcare in California Prisons Before Brown v. Plata

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

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

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

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

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

From State to Counties

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

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

Bifurcation and the Violent/Nonviolent Dichotomy

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

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

System-Wide Population Reduction

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

Crisis and Mismanagement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

StopSanQuentinOutbreak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[26] Dagan and Teles, Prison Break.

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

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

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

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

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

[32] Assembly Bill 2019.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[45] Barker, The Politics of Imprisonment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright: © 2020 Hadar Aviram. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Articles

California and the 1918–1920 Influenza Pandemic

 

CH_97_03_North_Fig_01-troops-marching-in-masks

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

Published in collaboration with California History 

Diane M. T. North

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

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

CH_97_03_North_Fig_02-nurses-marching-in-masks

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

Problems with 1918–1920 Data

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

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

Table 1 (2)

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

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

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

CH_97_03_North_Fig_03-USS Minneapolis 1918 NH 46179

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

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

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

CH_97_03_North_Fig_04-USS Oregon NH 63387

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

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

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

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

The First Wave in California: February–June 1918

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

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

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

CH_97_03_North_Fig_05-grand-review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CH_97_03_North_Fig_07_Yerba Buena Island

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

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

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

CH_97_03_North_Fig_08-NH 2654, Yerba Buena

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

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

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

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

The Second Wave in California Communities: August–December 1918

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

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

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

CH_97_03_North_Fig_10-Dunsmuir Roundhouse

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

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

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

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

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

CH_97_03_North_Fig_12-nlm_nlmuid-101453499-img-1

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

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

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

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

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

CH_97_03_North_Fig_13-San Francisco Police Court

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Third Wave in California: January–May 1919

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

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

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

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

Table 3 (1)

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

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

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

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

A Fourth Wave in California: January–March 1920

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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

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

 

 

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[15] Ibid., 368.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid, 368.

[18] Ibid., 368.

[19] Ibid., 370.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[31] Ibid., 996–997.

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

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

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

[35] Ibid., 371.

[36] Ibid., 370.

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

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

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

[40] Communicable and Other Diseases, 138.

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

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

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

[44] Ibid., 445–446.

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

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

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

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

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

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[66] Ibid; “CPI Inflation Calculator.”

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

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

[69] “Los Angeles, California.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[81] Ibid., 1007.

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

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

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

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

[86] Ibid.

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

[88] “Los Angeles, California.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Copyright: © 2020 Diane M.T. North. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Articles

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

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

Kevin Waite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Confederate Culture Takes Root

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

image001

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

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

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

Jefferson Davis in California

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

image003

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

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

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

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

The Vanishing Confederate in Twenty-First-Century California

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright: © 2020 Kevin Waite. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Articles

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

Daniel Wuebben

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

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

Boom_image1_BigCreek_1913 (1)

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

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

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

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

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

Isolation: Telegraph Road and the Thomas Fire

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

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

FE964215-6C25-417A-A589-CA1BF0A75FAF

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AnlaufCanyon1

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

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

AnlaufCanyon2

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

Intensification at Newhall Pass

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

KernRiver_Towers

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

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

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

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

NewHall-Pass_Line_Arc_Farmer_Comments

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

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

Whitney_Canyon_Variety

Whitney Canyon Variety, Photograph by author

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

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

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


Boom_Image8_LADWP_Aqueduct

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

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

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

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

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

The Portals

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

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

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

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

p16003coll2_6432_extralarge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright: © 2020 Daniel Wuebben. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Articles

LA Oil Noir: Genre, Activism, and Spatial Justice in a City Made by Fossil Fuels

Miranda Trimmier

Sometimes it’s hard to see the shape of the story you’re being told. As I understood it, the plot points laid out by my then-lover Bill went like this:

The earthquake itself wasn’t scary. It was strong enough to wake him up and send a wheeled chair skittering across his bedroom floor. The windows rattled in their panes. The neighbor’s dog howled. A few seconds later the whole thing was over and Bill went back to sleep.

But by the next day, the story had morphed into something sinister. Something was off, Bill complained over the phone. It hadn’t even been earthquake weather beforehand. Listening from a grey morning in New York, my brain snagged on the claim. Southern Californians swore that a sunny, queasy-still air preceded earthquakes, but the phenomenon wasn’t real. Unsure of what it meant to say a not-real phenomenon hadn’t happened, I steered Bill to another subject. How was work? His nurse’s union was in the middle of an anti-fracking campaign, calling out the public health risks of the Los Angeles metro area’s more than 5,000 oil wells.[1] I had never lived somewhere where oil was drilled, but it was 2015, and climate change demanded that I pay more attention to fossil fuels. And so Bill provided an entry point into a political conversation I was trying to join for myself. I followed the ups and downs of my lover’s work as though they were my own.

The campaign was also key to Bill’s earthquake story, though it took some more clues to figure that out. I bumped into them while browsing LA oil news. In the past year, there had been a lot. First came the articles that wondered whether three earthquakes were connected with the fracking residents swore was happening at Inglewood Oil Field. Though seismologists said no, the plot points read uncertainly enough. The cracked curbs and building foundations in adjacent neighborhoods. The much-hyped new study linking fracking with earthquakes in Oklahoma. The oil company’s claim that they hadn’t “recently” fracked the field, plus the fact that, at the time, they weren’t legally required to disclose jobs. One resident said she wanted answers but didn’t “know who[se] to trust.” I guessed that the oil company-sponsored report, which certified fracking safe at Inglewood and blamed nearby damage to slope instability caused by rainfall,[2] wasn’t especially comforting.

And then there was the 10,000-gallon oil spill in the middle of the night in Atwater near Griffith Park. Videos shot creeping close-ups of the oil as it blanketed the concrete, and reports lingered on an evacuated strip club in a way that suggested something archetypically sullied was going on.[3] Other news stories adopted the same tone as strange happenings unfolded around town. In oil-producing neighborhoods, children suffered chronic nosebleeds, adults were plagued by migraines, and garden plants withered and died. At Redondo, Manhattan, and Hermosa beaches, armies of sticky tar balls washed up on the sand, so many the city closed them down for clean-up. Though an observer might guess tar balls are the result of the more than 100,000-gallon oil spill about 100 miles up the coast in Santa Barbara a couple weeks earlier, a Department of Fish and Wildlife rep urged calm. The public should reserve judgment until tests could trace the oil’s “fingerprints.”[4]

With a bit of research, in other words, the scattered stories began to feel less scattered. Eventually an arc of sorts emerged, a narrative chain linking Bill’s earthquake to “natural slope instability” and bloody noses and oily fingerprints. The narrative sounded paranoid and shadowy, like a noir, and Angelenos seemed to be voicing it without especially meaning to. As I began to connect fossil fuel politics to my everyday life, I felt pulled in, too. What did it mean to tell an LA oil noir? What could a New Yorker, observing from three thousand miles away, bring to the plot? I’d see how it all played out.

**

Los_Angeles_CA_-__An_Oil_Well_in_Every_Yard_(NBY_432173)

“Los Angeles CA — An Oil Well in Every Yard,” unknown date 1900-1909, DPC7775, Detroit Publishing Company Collections, Newberry Library, Chicago, Illinois.

For most cultural critics, noir begins with German expressionism, detective potboilers, and the Hollywood film set. But that history, while in some respects correct, downplays the local politics that forced the genre to the fore.[5] At the turn of the 20th century, real estate boosters sold Los Angeles as a sunny paradise, a place where everyone might own a home and some land. Sometimes those profits involved oil; prospectors had struck it in Whittier, Montebello, Richfield, Newport Beach, Huntington Beach, Signal Hill, Santa Fe Springs, Torrance, Dominguez, Inglewood, Seal Beach, and Wilmington.[6] For a time Southern California produced 20% of the world’s supply. Real estate ads teased buyers with the promise of instant liquid wealth. Postcards featured derricks against hopeful, rosy skies. A person didn’t even need to own land to get in on the boom. Every day, free chartered buses drove hundreds of Angelenos to an oil field-cum-investment opportunity. Under a big-top tent, they were treated to music and hot dogs and invited to become fabulously rich.[7]

It wasn’t long before the mood began to turn. Oil flowed between property lines, so a legal precedent called “the rule of capture” gave rights to whomever sucked it up first. Prospectors and producers rushed up derricks everywhere, crowding streets, homes, and beaches without thought to the people living nearby. If drill jobs loosed a gusher that slopped crude, shale, and sand on Signal Hill houses, that was the collateral damage of a cutthroat business. Same went for the river of burning oil that blazed for six hours down a Long Beach thoroughfare, the explosion that set 2.25 million barrels aflame and smoked out the sun in Brea, and commonplace accidents that sent oil rushing into the ocean, slicking city harbors with a four-inch layer of crude.[8]

If this devastation didn’t sour people, the corruption did. Many residents had invested in flat-out fraudulent stock. The most infamous scam was run by C. C. Julian, who leveraged new print and radio media to offer “Gold Bonds” to “Mr. Thoroughbreds” smart enough to smell a deal.[9] When the company collapsed, robbing 40,000 LA residents of $150 million, the subsequent investigation uncovered a knot of scandals and touched off a spree of cover-ups and revenge. Scores of prominent bankers and businesspeople had profited, and a grand jury indicted fifty-five of them, but, after bribes to DAs and jurors ruined the first trial, the rest of the charges were dropped. For months, LA residents woke to a daily stream of shady Julian news. A former exec lived a lavish European life while on the run from police. A man lost his left eye in a melee at a company shareholder meeting. And a banker at the center of the pools was shot dead during the fifth trial mounted to hold him accountable for his crimes. The banker, a once-beloved philanthropist, had $63,000 in his pocket at the time of his death.[10]

Enter the noir novel, which deployed what urbanist Mike Davis calls a “transformational grammar”[11] to comment on the state of the Southern California dream. Sunny days became earthquake weather. Single-family homes became claustrophobic prisons. City patriarchs became a criminal overclass, crooked and poisonous and prone to fits of violence. A century later, it’s easy to read the genre as fantasy instead of a stab at realism in a particular time and place. It is easy to forget that every noir is an LA noir, and every LA noir is touched by the seep of oil.

**

In the early days of my investigation, I often felt obtuse: too clumsy to be the detective at the helm of a noir. I was nothing like Philip Marlowe, the protagonist of eight of LA writer Raymond Chandler’s novels. Marlowe has a quick wit and a sharp tongue and drinks to forget the sleaze he’s seen. Chandler developed his own suspicion at Dabney Oil, where he worked for 13 years, first as a junior accountant and then, after catching his boss embezzling, as the department head. Eventually he rose to vice-president. The work fascinated him; it let him study all manner of bad behavior. He learned to spot the abuses of the people passing through his company, and became obsessed with anticipating cheating in other areas of his life.[12] But he never forgot the industry that jaded him first. When Dabney finally fired him for alcoholism, he started working on The Big Sleep, a drama that swirls around the corrupt Sternwood family, who’d made a fortune in oil.

Noir conveys much of its narrators’ wariness through setting and atmospherics. Interior spaces are shabby and cramped, or nauseatingly opulent, or suffused with their inhabitants’ truculent neuroses. Outdoor spaces are ominous no matter the weather. Even the LA sun is a sign of trouble. Early noir writers portrayed it as oppressive, suggested that a fundamental violence simmered beneath. Chandler paid special attention to climate. Earthquake weather and the Santa Ana winds haunted his characters’ days and served as symbol of a city in physical, psychic, and moral decline.[13] In The Big Sleep, oil infrastructure does some of this work. Derricks show up in key scenes at the beginning and end of the book. Chandler describes them as stained and falling apart. They stand near tepid pools of dirty water. They dribble out last dregs of oil or stand stilled amidst a litter of rusted drums.[14] Eventually Marlowe discovers that one of the Sternwoods killed a man and buried him in the family oil fields. The site summed up an entire fallen city. “Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you,” Marlowe says in the book’s final lines. “You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now.”[15]

For disillusioned Angelenos, identifying the nastiness became a favorite narrative stance. After Hollywood popularized noir in the 1930s and 1940s, the genre resurfaced regularly as a way of shooting down buoyant city myths. In the 1960s, Joan Didion processed the Manson murders with an anxious noir slant. In the 1970s, Roman Polanski used the form to explore corrupt water politics. In the 1980s, Bret Easton Ellis brought noir to bear on malls and materialism.[16] The literary theorist Lauren Berlant says genre provides “an expectation of the experience of watching something unfold, whether that thing is in life or in art.”[17] Certainly this was a good way of describing what I saw noir doing in LA. What struck me was the subtlety with which the dynamic surfaced. Bill blipped about earthquake weather, a sidewalk looked buckled, a nose dripped a bit of blood. The story shaded into paranoia, but from one angle, for just a second. Blink and you could miss it.

On one trip to Los Angeles, I almost did. Time had passed and life had changed since my first oil noir. I’d moved from New York to Tucson, and Bill had cut me loose. Still, my friends Andrew and Paige lived in town, too, so I visited and the three of us went tooling around in Andrew’s car, a light-lemon vintage Mercedes with crisp leather seats. The car was a sort that can only exist in Southern California, and I felt the same about our morning. We’d spent it drinking coffee and eating panaderia pastries and watching scrub jays swoop into his winter garden, a space filled with persimmon trees, succulents, and trailing flowered vines. As Andrew put Stevie Wonder in the tape deck and eased onto the freeway, I threw my arm out the window and said what I thought we all had to be thinking: God, the weather was nice.

Hmm, said Andrew, unconvinced. He didn’t know. Sometimes all the sunny weather struck him as oppressive.

 

**

Views_of_oil_fields_around_Los_Angeles_LOC_2006627695

Forncrook, C.S. and E. M. Views of oil fields around Los Angeles, Map, 1922. 2006627695, Library of Congress, Washington DC, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.gmd/g4361h.ct001874

 Early LA was also terrible for labor. Besides open land and oil, boosters touted a cowed workforce as a signature Southern Californian perk. One of the most powerful, Colonel Harrison Grey Otis, used his business connections to lockout and blacklist union members with the help of local police. Otis considered himself at war with the labor movement and waged it on the ideological front, too, filling the L.A. Times, which he owned, with open-shop vitriol. Across Los Angeles, Otis helped set the tone. The city’s workers, branded “rowdies,” “ruffians,” and “pinheads,”[18] were treated like dirt.

LA oil workers got no special relief. They labored at a hazardous job. Men were burned to death by steam lines and fires. Others fell from the tops of derricks, or fainted from fumes and drowned in oil tanks covered by a thin layer of tarpaper. At least one had his arms pulled off when they got caught in a machine.[19] During World War I, California oil workers had won concessions, including better wages, a switch from 12- to 8-hour days, and union negotiating rights. But by the early ‘20s, oil companies hit back, forcing union members to sign yellow-dog contracts or be fired. 8,000 oil workers in Central California went on strike,[20] but the effort failed. Wages dropped drastically across the state, and industry workers didn’t regain a toehold until well into the ‘30s.[21]

Blocked in economic channels, labor leaders poured energy into political organizing. In places like Long Beach, Huntington Beach, and Torrance, union organizers threw events, founded broadsheets, and turned out voters in the push to regulate oil. They also formed coalitions with residents and conservationists, at times gathering under the umbrella of newly formed property owners’ associations.[22] In a Los Angeles disenchanted with oil, the language of property and property values became a major way residents fought back. When one oil company proposed new wells near downtown LA, the Wilshire Community Council called it “inimical to the esthetic development of the city as a home-owners’ haven.”[23] In a noir-ish oil landscape, real estate was becoming central to the complaint.

**

THUMS Island(s) at sunset

Center for Land Use Interpretation, THUMS islands (Island Grissom) at sunset, 2010.

Andrew’s genre slip was apt, because we weren’t only cruising. Earlier that morning, I’d convinced him and Paige to join my investigation, to ride along on a two-building tour. We took the car down the I-10, headed north on La Cienega, and arrived on busy Pico Boulevard to our first site.

The meters in front of the building were all open, so we parked at random and got out for a look. Ivy climbed the windowless stone walls. The door was industrial-looking and locked. From the center of the otherwise low structure rose Cardiff Tower, trimmed elegantly in white. The architects who built it in the late ‘60s hoped people would think it was a synagogue serving the neighborhood’s Orthodox Jews. In this they were somewhat successful. It was hard to imagine that the building hid forty oil wells, at least until we walked around to the side street and read the gold placard warning about carcinogens. And stopped long enough to notice the mechanical humming coming from inside. And caught a whiff of the faint but acrid smell. Paige scrunched her nose and tongued the roof of her mouth in disgust. “Ugh,” she said, “You can taste it.”

A mile and a half down Pico, the Packard Drill Site pretended to be an office building. Inside, a moveable derrick tracked around on a mechanical grid between fifty-one wells.[24] Apparently, it lacked a roof. Before leaving home, Andrew and Paige and I had pulled up satellite photos and gaped into a weird shadowed hole. Once onsite we did as at Cardiff: We circled, stopped, listened, sniffed. Landscaped palms and jade plants described neat swaths in the front and along the sides. The glass-doored entrance revealed a dusty, shuttered public lobby display. In back houses abutted it a cozy 125 feet away.

Some thought Cardiff and Packard a sign of progress. The buildings were examples of an odd class of camouflage architecture that evolved in the mid-twentieth century as LA residents pushed back against oil drilling. Perhaps the strangest of these structures were the Astronaut Islands in Long Beach. Also known as THUMS — for Texaco, Humble, Union Oil, Mobil, and Shell, the oil companies originally partnered there — the Astronauts were made of hundreds of tons of quarried rock and several million cubic yards of dredged harbor mud and sand to serve as offshore drilling sites. After the derricks and pipes and tanks went up, the THUMS planning team brought on Joseph Linesch, who’d helped design Disneyland, to hide the purpose of the place. He opted for palms, decorative towers, a waterfall, and a series of sculpted concrete walls to ring the island. At night, spotlights bathed the walls in brilliant neon hues.

The Astronauts were closed to the public. I knew because I’d trawled the internet trying to figure out how to visit. As a back-up, I packed a pair of binoculars, and, after dropping Paige and Andrew back at home, took them out with my rented car as dusk fell. By the time I reached the Long Beach shoreline, it was dark and had begun to rain. I found a parking lot on the harbor and pointed the binoculars out my windshield at the islands, which glowed a foggy pink and orange. Under the clouded night sky, they reflected a phrase I encountered over and over in my research. In contrast to the spectacular violence of the early 20th century, LA oil production was now hidden in plain sight.

**

 

Los Angeles is a famously fragmented place; as one oft-quoted quip has it, it is “seventy-two suburbs in search of a city.”[25] Early oil development played a central role in making this so. Many neighborhoods and suburbs grew up around drilling or refining sites or as residential communities for workers. Oil revenues allowed some of them to incorporate separately from Los Angeles, while cheap oil gave them further independence in the form of power plants, paved roads, and fuel for cars. I felt it while trying to tour more after THUMS. I started the morning in Beverly Hills, site of a derrick hidden under a shell decorated with children’s art; then watched rusted pumpjacks bob along the fences of the Inglewood Oil Field; then stopped to see rigs looming over houses in West Adams and University Park. In between I took wrong turns, stopped for directions, and inched painfully along in a rush hour that never seemed to end. By the time I was casing the perimeters of the giant refineries in Wilmington, I had passed through five independently incorporated towns, traveled thirty-five miles, and driven away a significant portion of the day.

Homeowners associations helped fragment Los Angeles, too. If early groups helped restrict oil production, many were also obsessed with another agenda: locking Black and Asian residents out of their blocks and streets. Over the course of the ‘20s, homeowner activists helped establish 95% of housing stock within LA city limits as white-only. Mike Davis calls this period the “white-supremacist genealogy” of what would become “[t]he most significant ‘social movement’ in Southern California…[:] affluent homeowners, organized by notional community designations or tract names, engaged in defense of home values and neighborhood exclusivity.”[26] By the middle of the 20th century, that movement had gained incorporation laws and zoning rules to pursue a whole host of demands. At times the new tools were wielded to racist, classist, anti-busing and anti-renter and English-only kinds of ends. At other moments they were used to stand down corporate developers and win environmental regulations. As their political power grew, homeowners expanded their attention to a scattershot list of small-scale NIMBY concerns. They fought against mini malls, diamond highway lanes, a fancy bistro, the shaving of a hill, and, in a campaign that galvanized a thousand activists and left a local councilman branded a “Dog Nazi,” dog owners who let their pets shit in a park.[27]

The jumbled protests shared a tone. It saw threat everywhere and betrayed an often-inflated, noir-ish sense of risk. By the ‘80s, local politicians learned to bow to the homeowners, or at least fake it lest they get kicked out of office, and middle- and upper-class concerns came to dominate LA politics just as state- and federal-level neoliberal policies were hitting working-class communities of color hardest. The results were predictable. Helped along by homeowner noirs, neighborhood-based inequities grew and compounded in risk and resources.

The pattern was obvious in the metro landscape I’d been investigating. Though a full third of LA-area residents lived within a mile of a drilling site, more protections were won, and safety standards more strictly enforced, in affluent and majority-white neighborhoods than in working-class neighborhoods of color. The faux buildings at Cardiff and Packard — elaborate compared to the beige walls that hid oil operations elsewhere— were one example of the accommodations wealthy residents had won. Others included limited drilling hours, restrictions on trucking, lower-polluting electric drills, weekly emissions tests, 24-7 noise monitoring, and dedicated community liaisons.[28]

Contrast that with University Park in South LA, whose residents are mostly working-class and of color; in 2010, when the AllenCo oil site began emitting dense, obvious fumes, it took them years to get heard. Sometimes the air smelled like petroleum, other times like fruity chemicals. People got nosebleeds, migraines, and stomachaches. Then Monic Uriarte was out taking photos for a photography class with her daughter Nalleli and found the gate to the beige-walled compound ajar. Uriarte hadn’t known anything about what was behind the walls; now a worker showed them around, touring past oil pipes and oil tanks and signs for toxic gas. The worker gave Nalleli a baby food jar filled with water and a heavy, sinking layer of crude. Oil and water don’t mix, he said: She should take it to school to show the other kids the site was safe.

And so the University Park investigation had begun. Uriarte talked to neighbors, and they talked to more, and soon they’d hooked up with Esperanza Community Housing and launched a campaign. Residents flooded the regional air quality complaint line with messages while Esperanza researched AllenCo and interviewed people about their symptoms. Together they dropped banners, held protests and press conferences, and, because AllenCo leased their land from the Catholic archdiocese, sent a video starring Nalleli to the Pope. They dug up record of hundreds of environmental violations and learned that AllenCo had upped production 400% around the time the fumes showed up. Still it took three years before an L.A. Times exposé and a visit by then-Senator Barbara Boxer forced the city to act. They shut the site down, but the damage was done. A set of more long-terms threats had been seeded. Though their nosebleeds and stomachaches were gone, University Park residents had a heightened risk of cancer, reproductive anomalies, and other illnesses. Chemical exposure had left Uriarte, for one, without a sense a smell.[29]

Many critics have called out the history of the noir protagonist, how most have been middle-class and white. That fact is not abstract. It trails consequences for everyday space and behavior; it is tangled in the inequalities of mundane, material LA. An oil executive, speaking to West Adams activist Richard Parks about their local drilling site, illustrated the reality with terrible, careless ease. West Adams residents are also predominantly working-class and of color, and when the activist relayed his neighbors’ complaints, including a day where the site rained a mist of oil on the entire surrounding block, the oil exec shrugged. “Look, this isn’t exactly Laguna Niguel,” he said, meaning a well-off beach community.[30] In the landscape of the Los Angeles oil noir, West Adams didn’t register in the plot.

**

Like the University Park activists, I didn’t stay clumsy. In time, I became my own Marlowe, ready with a meticulous mental map of policies, perps, and case studies. But my competence only mattered so much. However good one gets at reading noir, the story is always fragmented, its through line hard to grasp. Information in a Marlowe novel is imparted, in the words of cultural theorist Frederic Jameson, like “glimpses through a window” and “noises from the back of a store.”[31] This quality was heightened by the secretive realities of oil production. Industry reps stonewalled and gaslit. In Beverly Hills, where a camouflaged derrick pumps oil next to Beverly Hills High School, Venoco loosed a sharky legal team on a thousand-some graduates who’d developed rare cancers, discrediting their class-action lawsuit.[32] In Porter Ranch, which sits beside an oil field and giant gas storage facilities, SoCal Gas downplayed the size of a massive gas leak and said science hadn’t “definitively” found gas dangerous.[33] In Wilmington, whose toxic concentration of oil refineries have led to abysmal health outcomes for residents, Warren E&P gave out gas gift cards as a paltry gesture of remuneration.[34]

Porter Ranch Protest

Porter Ranch Protest, photo by Elijah Hurwitz. Courtesy of Hurwitz

Changing production techniques muddied the informational waters, too. Los Angeles’ oil fields are old and over-pumped. To stay profitable, companies fracked and acidized, shooting sand and chemicals into wells to force the dregs out. A quarter of wells used some enhanced technique, and the government agencies tasked with overseeing them showed neither the will nor the ability to keep up.[35] Residents had little help if they wanted to know what was going on. In West Adams in 2015, a church group called Redeemer Community Partnership filmed volunteer Niki Wong staked out beside the beige wall of the local oil site. “It’s like 6:35am,” Wong said to the camera quietly, crouching, as birds chirped the morning awake. “We got a tip that they’re going to be doing an acidizing maintenance job.” Two to four tankers, each filled with five thousand gallons of chemicals, would soon be driving through the neighborhood. By law Freeport McMoRan, the site owners, had to give neighbors just a day’s notice for the job, but Wong had kept tabs and organized a group to rapid-respond. When the tankers rolled towards the site, they planned to mass up into a blockade. In the video, Wong pointed above her head to a surveillance camera she’d been ducking, then looked down to catch a text on her phone. “Oh, shoot,” she frowned. Freeport had cancelled the job.[36]

There were still other layers of obfuscation at work. When a site stopped serving oil companies, they could simply sell their land and whatever responsibility it might entail. At Inglewood Oil Field, site of the earthquake rumors that made Bill paranoid, owners PXP Oil funded their study showing fracking to be safe and soon after, perhaps tired of answering to resident concerns, sold their holdings to Freeport McMoRan. For their part, Freeport McMoRan held the fields for a stint before palming them off to Sentinel Peak Resources, which had been buying up sites around LA.[37]

15226111610_d265f89d1f_k

Allenco Oil site. Photo by Sarah Craig. Courtesy of Craig

And that was just the fate of active wells. Responsibility could be an even murkier question for the metro area’s thousands of abandoned wells. Near downtown, the Edward Roybal Learning Center, a high school, was built on top of nineteen old wells and surrounded by hundreds more. Many were capped before the ‘50s, when government agencies first created rules for doing so, and workers stopped them with anything they could find: garbage, rocks, telephone poles. School construction took two decades, and even costly remediation didn’t fix the site’s problems. Around the school grounds, imitation lampposts vented the methane that kept belching from the wells. But some days fumes still filled campus, and some days students and teachers still got headache-y and sick.[38]

These were the sorts of rabbit holes one fell into when sleuthing around the oil industry. Eventually, even dedicated detectives were likely to get lost. It had happened to me, but the real story lay with longtime LA residents. “We never know what is going on,” Lillian Marenco, who’d lived in West Adams for thirty years, explained through a megaphone to a gathered crowd. Though Wong’s stakeout hadn’t worked, the protest went on as planned. A few dozen people marched and carried signs and sang a call-and-response song. Staaand together — Against neighborhood drilling! Staaand together — Against neighborhood drilling! Then they gathered for a press conference. “If they just come to get the money and leave us with all the nuisance,” Marenco asked her neighbors and the press, “Then what is the benefit of my community? I wonder.”[39]

**

Back home in Tucson, I kept poking around online. The 2015-2016 Porter Ranch gas leak was especially easy to learn about; for the four months from the moment the leak was discovered to when it was plugged, the story had gotten tons of coverage. Many stories cited a video taken looking down into the foothills where the leak had been found. Taken by the activist group Earthworks,[40]  the video deploys a straightforward transformational grammar. At first it’s a regular LA day: just sun, hills, cars. Five seconds later, the camera switches into infrared view and you are watching a thick cloud of — something billowing over the exact same spot. The film toggles between the two frames in chunky cuts. Sunny day. Thick cloud. Sunny day. Thick cloud. Even without context — knowledge of the size of the leak and the methane and benzene and other toxic compounds billowing everywhere — the image is unnerving. With context, it is a precise and succinct depiction of the mystery of living next door to the oil industry. How that cloud might be invisibly menacing you. The video struck me as an ingenuous oil noir.

But, whatever its strengths, the genre hadn’t yet lived up to its more radical political promise. This was true of the noir of books and films as well as the noir that filtered into oil activist storytelling. Historically speaking, its stars had been too white and middle-class, its sense of injury too stuck on property and other individually minded dreams, its understanding of power too piecemeal and vague. Historically speaking, it had fashioned a politics from eerie atmospherics and an impoverished sense of what geographer Edward Soja called spatial justice. In my online wanderings I found a GIS map[41] that captured it well. The map uses black dots to represent active oil wells in the LA metro area, to unsettling result. As I scrolled around, zooming in and out, the city looked riddled with bullet holes. Some well-off neighborhoods were shot up, in danger, making a lie of the kind of activism that treats oil production like a quality-of-life annoyance. On a map shaped by that activism, these endangered neighborhoods sat beside poorer neighborhoods that were under full-on siege, buried under and erased by wells.

DOGGR LA Co Oil Well Map

Well Finder, Screenshot, California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM), formerly Department of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR). https://maps.conservation.ca.gov/doggr/wellfinder/#openModal/-118.03211/33.98398/12

That tension echoed in Porter Ranch, which became a flashpoint for local environmental justice advocates tracking disparities in oil industry protections. The neighborhood’s affluent residents garnered local and national attention and secured concessions other neighborhoods hadn’t gotten, including relocation to hotels on SoCal’s dime.[42] At times their public testimonies reflected the homeowner-activist playbook and its class-bound complaints. People fretted about property values. They lamented disrupted Christmas plans and the expense of nannies hired when parents got migraines.[43] In the face of a giant, dangerous leak, some residents dramatized the real injustice of their situation as that of lost middle-class normalcy.   

Still, there seemed no reason noir couldn’t be more politically astute. Chester Himes used it to express the nightmarishness of being a Black longshoreman in the 1945 novel If He Hollers Let Him Go. The sometimes-Communist writers of early noir films smuggled in the occasional systemic critique. And I was sure that other examples lurked in literary and filmic back catalogues. But it seemed less important to unearth those than to hear the new noir insights brought forth by those battling LA oil today. They could be found everywhere, including in Porter Ranch, where neighborhood activists in noir-ish gas masks carried signs that amended an early slogan, Shut It Down, to the more spatially capacious Shut It ALL Down. A protester named Matt Pakucko pushed the thesis further, called out the lopsided attention trained on his neighborhood: “There’s other communities with probably worse problems than us, for decades longer …. Do they get relocated? No. Because it’s a poor neighborhood.”[44]

Further insight came from STAND-LA, a coalition formed to agitate for citywide drilling standards. Esperanza Community Housing was a member and brought its experience in University Park, which it read through the lens of economic and health justice. In an interview about the campaign, Esperanza director Nancy Halpern Ibrahim complicated the point. Though they’d suspected the company was fracking, they didn’t know the technical specifics and were sure it would take forever to find out. And so, though the specter of fracking drove oil rumors across the city, they took AllenCo’s deception as baseline, didn’t fixate on the injustice of being lied to, and kept health at the center of a simpler message on traditional drilling.[45] To these new noir suggestions — transforming stories about property into stories about collectivity, treating corporate dishonesty not as shocking betrayal but as systemic truism — the West Adams video added one more. After Niki Wong’s stakeout dramatized Freeport McMoRan’s secrecy, it noted that most of the information that had been discovered came from resident photos and reports. Here was an edit to one of noir’s most beloved premises: There was no such thing as a solo detective; there were only many.

Another update peeked out during a 2015 strike at the Tesoro Refinery in Wilmington. A worker named Melissa Bailey told a journalist that she’d just worked twelve to fourteen hours nineteen days in a row.[46] For another article, colleagues explained how they survived such grueling schedules: with coffee, energy drinks, and sugary snacks.[47] That plus fatigue left them dazed and drunk and led to injuries, which workers often hid so as not to miss out on safety bonuses. The practice was called, viscerally, “bloody pockets,” conjuring a sinister work atmosphere while offering a reminder that fields and refineries and storage plants didn’t just have neighbors. They were also populated with workers.

A final noir revision surfaced in Culver City, a small town incorporated in the middle of Los Angeles. Culver City sits beside the Inglewood Oil Field and is part of a Community Standard District, a special zoning designation whose drilling regulations were celebrated as the region’s most stringent. The 2008 planning text that brought the district into being opens with a legalistic preamble that defines fifty-eight words whose meanings Inglewood owners might dispute. The words include “drilling,” “fluid,” “derrick,” “well,” “gas,” and “oil.”[48] The anticipation of a doublespeak so fundamental begged a conclusion that in the end took ten years to gel. In 2018, Culver City launched a study to figure out they could legally shut their portion of the oil field down. The town’s vice-mayor cited a long history of damage at the field, then said it sat atop a fault that was due a big earthquake any day.[49] In the unequal landscape oil had made of the Los Angeles metro region, Culver City had been a privileged squeaky wheel. But if a more radical approach to land use could surge up around it, the logic of their gambit would be powerful. Zoning isn’t enough to limit harm to residents’ health, that logic says. The drilling would have to stop.

**

“We are invested not only in talking about what we don’t want but also in making the case for a meaningful, just transition,” Nancy Halpern Ibrahim told me over the phone. I’d called to hear a about Esperanza and STAND-LA’s work moving forward, and, though I felt silly relating the flimsy anecdote that had propelled me to her work in University Park, Ibrahim wasn’t fazed. After an hour of her own rambling — “I don’t speak in sound bites,” she said, appealingly not sorry — we’d reached what seemed the conversation’s upshot. She and coalition colleagues had convinced the mayor’s office to form a Climate Emergency Mobilization Department, which opened in 2019; given its oil history, they thought, Los Angeles had nationally relevant ideas on how to transition away from oil. What would become of the department remained to be seen, but we’d scaled out to an essential question: not just how Los Angeles could overcome its spatial injustices, but what that fight had to do with those elsewhere.

I wondered about that, too. For the moment, my encounter with Inglewood and West Adams and Porter Ranch seemed to be wrapping up, and the task seemed to be to turn towards the rest of the maps I shared with others. I thought of my dad’s family in Texas, where the oil stories to be reckoned with had less to do with noir than the lure of the rich oilman as hero and villain. In North Dakota’s Bakken Shale, where some friends had been spending time, the myths of the Western frontier lived on. And though it was less obvious which genres bound fossil fuel politics in New York and Tucson, I knew I didn’t have to dig alone. As in LA, my two homes were surely peopled by activists who might help teach me the plot.

Notes

Author’s note: Thanks go to Morgan Adamson, Aaron Bady, Stefano Bloch, Bill Gallagher, Raquel Gutiérrez, Nancy Halpern Ibrahim, Andrew Knighton, Ava Kofman, Ruth Nervig, Paige Sweet, and workshop participants in UA’s creative nonfiction program. 

[1]            James Sadd and Bhavna Shamasunder. “Oil extraction in Los Angeles: Health, Land Use and Environmental Justice Consequences” Drilling Down: The Community Consequences of Expanded Oil Development in Los Angeles. (Los Angeles, Liberty Hill Foundation, 2015.)

[2]           Zahira Torres and Laura Nelson. “Baldwin Hills-area quakes not linked to oil operations, experts say,” LA Times. 3 May 2015. See also Carlos Granda, “Baldwin Hills resident concerned fracking may be causing earthquakes,” ABC7 News. 4 May 2015; “3.5 earthquake rattles Los Angeles,” LA Times. 12 April 2015.

[3]           “Raw Footage: 10-K Gallon Oil Spill in Atwater Village,” NBC Southern California, 15 May 2014; Ashley Soley-Cerro, 10,000-Gallon Crude Oil Spill Prompts Evacuation of L.A. Strip Club,“ KTLA 5, 15 May 2014; Jason Wells. “10,000-gallon crude oil spill in Atwater Village looked ‘like a lake,’” LA Times. 15 May 2014.Village

[4]           Carly Dryden. “South Bay beaches remain closed as officials investigate source of apparent oil spill,” The Daily Breeze, 28 May 2015. See also Kelly Goff and Gadi Schwartz. “Beaches Closed Due to Mysterious Petroleum Globs,” NBC Southern California, 27 May 2015; Veronica Rocha. “Tar balls in South Bay: Beaches closed until further notice,” LA Times, 29 May 2015.

[5]           Mike Davis. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. (New York: Verso, 1990), 36-7.

[6]           Nancy Quam-Wickham. “An ‘Oleaginous Civilization’: Oil in Southern California,” Southern California Quarterly, Vol. 97, No. 3, p 285; “Fred Viehe. “Black Gold Suburbs: The Influence of the Extractive Industry on the Suburbanization of Los Angeles, 1890-1930.” Journal of Urban History, Vol. 8 No. 1 (November 1981), p 6.

[7]           Jules Tygiel. The Great Los Angeles Swindle: Oils, Stocks, and Scandal during the Roaring 20s. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 37-9.

[8]           Nancy Quam-Wickham. “‘Cities Sacrificed on the Altar of Oil’: Popular Opposition to Oil Development in 1920s Los Angeles.” Environmental History, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Apr. 1998), 192.

[9]           Tom Hiney. Raymond Chandler: A Biography. (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997), 58; Jules Tygiel, The Great Los Angeles Swindle, 40.

[10]         Jules Tygiel. The Great Los Angeles Swindle, 213-257.

[11]         Mike Davis, City of Quartz, 38.

[12]         Tom Hiney, Raymond Chandler, 51-7.

[13]         Mike Davis, City of Quartz, 38.

[14]         “The Oil Pumps in The Big Sleep,” https://www.shmoop.com/big-sleep/oil-pumps-symbol.html.

[15]         Quoted in Tom Hiney, Raymond Chandler, 69.

[16]         Mike Davis, City of Quartz, 44-5.

[17]         Lauren Berlant. Cruel Optimism. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 6.

[18]         Dennis MacDougal, Privileged Son: Otis Chandler And The Rise And Fall Of The L.A. Times Dynasty. (New York: Hachette Books, 2009), 46.

[19]         Nancy Quam-Wickham. “An ‘Oleaginous Civilization,’” 287.

[20]         John Laslett. Sunshine Was Never Enough: Los Angeles Workers, 1880–2010. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 98-9.

[21]         John Laslett. Sunshine Was Never Enough, 99.

[22]         Nancy Quam-Wickham. “‘Cities Sacrificed on the Altar of Oil,’” 197-202.

[23]         Sarah Elkind. “Oil in the City: The Fall and Rise of Oil Drilling in Los Angeles.” The Journal of American History, Vol. 82 (June 2012), p 86.

[24]         This visit took place in 2017; Google Maps now lists the site as closed, though I found no news stories to confirm or give detail.

[25]         This quote is often attributed to Dorothy Parker; it is actually a distortion of Aldous Huxley, who called LA “nineteen suburbs in search of a metropolis” in his 1925 book Americana. Adrienne Crew, “Misquoting Dorothy Parker,” LA Observed. 22 August 2013. http://www.laobserved.com/intell/2013/08/misquoting_dorothy_parker.php

[26]         Mike Davis, City of Quartz, 153.

[27]         Mike Davis, City of Quartz, 184-204.

[28]         Community Health Councils. “Oil Drilling in Los Angeles: A Story of Unequal Protections,” (Los Angeles, 2015). http://www.climateaccess.org/sites/default/files/CHC-Issue-Brief-Oil-Drilling-In-Los-Angeles.pdf

[29]         Nancy Halpern Ibrahim. Personal interview, 11 October 2019; Barbara Osborn, “When Regulators Fail,” Drilling Down: The Community Consequences of Expanded Oil Development in Los Angeles. (Los Angeles, Liberty Hill Foundation, 2015.)

[30]         Barbara Osborn, “‘How are these Chemicals being used?’” Drilling Down, 18.

[31]         Quoted in Cornelius Fitz. “disclosing being – on raymond chandler: the detections of totality by fredric jameson,” 3am Magazine. 6 December 2016. http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/disclosing-raymond-chandler-detections-totality-fredric-jameson/

[32]         Joy Horowitz. Parts Per Million: The Poisoning of Beverly Hills High School. (New York: Penguin Books, 2008)

[33]         Jane Yamamoto. “Outrage Builds in Porter Ranch Over Gas Leak,” NBC Southern California. 12 December 2015.

[34]         “Warren E&P, Wilmington.” Stand-LA. https://www.stand.la/wilmington.html

[35]         Molly Peterson. “Oil and gas regulators admit to massive oversight failures in new report,” KPCC. 8 October 2015. https://www.scpr.org/news/2015/10/08/54934/oil-and-gas-regulators-admit-to-massive-oversight/

[36]         Redeemer Community Partnership. “The Jefferson Drill Documentary,” 2015. https://vimeo.com/133806931

[37]         Kaitlin Parker. “Concerns arise as Inglewood Oil Field plans for increased activity,” Intersections South LA, 4 January 2012; Susan Taylor, “Freeport-McMoRan Sells Inglewood Oil Field to Sentinel Peak,” Culver City Crossroads via Reuters. 14 October 2014.

[38]         “Echo Park Wells,” Stand-LA. https://www.stand.la/echo-park-wells.html

[39]         Redeemer Community Partnership. “The Jefferson Drill Documentary”; Susan Abram. “How These Neighbors Took On The Oil Company In Their Backyard And Won,” Huffington Post. 27 July 2019. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/oil-drill-site-protest-california_n_5d3911a0e4b004b6adbab9c6

[40]         Pete Dronkers. “SoCalGas Aliso Canyon, CA,” https://earthworks.org/blog/what_i_saw_in_porter_ranch/

[41]         DOGGR Well Finder. https://maps.conservation.ca.gov/doggr/wellfinder/#openModal/-118.03211/33.98384/12

[42]         Laura Bliss. “L.A.’s Slow-Moving Oil and Gas Disaster,” City Lab. 3 February 2016. https://www.citylab.com/equity/2016/02/california-porter-ranch-gas-leak-oil-environmental-justice/425052/

[43]         Elijah Hurwitz, “Poison Ranch: The Porter Ranch Gas Blowout,” Pacific Standard. 5 May 2016. https://psmag.com/news/poison-ranch-the-porter-ranch-gas-blowout

[44]         Sarah Parvini and Tony Barboza. “No relief in sight for Porter Ranch residents,” LA Times, 3 December 2015. Proquest. https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy2.library.arizona.edu/docview/1738673342?accountid=8360&rfr_id=info%3Axri%2Fsid%3Aprimo

[45]         Nancy Halpern Ibrahim. Personal interview, 11 October 2019.

[46]         Haya El Nasser. “Striking California oil refinery workers demand better safety, wages,” Al Jazeera America, 4 February 2015. http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/2/4/workers-strike-at-california-oil-refinery.html

[47]         Tiffany Hsu. “At L.A. oil refinery, striking workers vent about long hours and stress,” LA Times. 26 February 2015. https://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-refinery-strike-20150227-story.html

[48]         Los Angeles County Department of Planning. “Baldwin Hills Community Standards District” p 8. http://planning.lacounty.gov/assets/upl/project/bh_title22.pdf

[49]         Christian May-Suzuki. “City Council meets to continue discussion on Inglewood Oil Field,” Culver City News. 18 July 2019. https://www.culvercitynews.org/city-council-meets-to-continue-discussion-on-inglewood-oil-field/

 

Miranda Trimmier is from Milwaukee, lives in Tucson, and writes about land-use politics. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Arizona and has published with Places JournalThe New InquiryTerrain, and other outlets.

Copyright: © 2020 Miranda Trimmier. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Articles

Yemeni Farm Workers and the Politics of Arab Nationalism in the UFW

Neama Alamri

Growing up in the Central Valley, the history of the United Farm Workers (UFW) and Cesar Chavez loomed large. When teachers in school incorporated him into our history lessons, many of the students were already familiar with the impact he and the farm worker movement had on the lives of farm workers in California. Yet, despite being born and raised in the Central Valley, as a Yemeni American, I didn’t always identify with the history of the UFW which primarily focused on the experiences of Mexican and Filipino laborers. It was not until my father shared with me that he attended Chavez’s rallies during his time picking grapes near Delano in the 1970s, that I began to discover the role Yemenis played in the UFW. My father’s stories unlocked for me an entire history of Yemenis in the Central Valley and their experiences in the farm worker movement.

The UFW and the farm worker movement led by Cesar Chavez has been well documented and has allowed historians to explore the successes and failures of perhaps the most well-known labor movement in United States history.[1] There has been an effort from both scholars and public institutions such as the National Parks Services to improve public history on the UFW and address many of the misunderstandings within this history by engaging in public storytelling through academic scholarship, historical landmarks, and even children’s literature.[2] Following in the path of this work, this article begins with my father’s stories in order to explore the history of Yemeni farm workers in the Central Valley and their involvement in the UFW throughout the 1970s. For those familiar with the farm worker movement, the inclusion of Yemenis is limited to the death of Nagi Daifallah, a young Yemeni immigrant and UFW organizer killed by a deputy sheriff in Lamont, California. Not often discussed, however, is the fact that during Nagi’s funeral march in August of 1973, Yemenis decided to carry a portrait of the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, a leader of anti-colonial Arab nationalism. Based on an oral history with my father as well as archival material that has been largely ignored, including Nagi Daifallah’s papers, this article contextualizes why Yemenis turned to Arab nationalism and the impact it had on the UFW’s social justice platform. By exploring the life of Nagi and other Yemeni farm workers, this article looks at this understudied chapter in the UFW’s history to argue that because of their Arab and Muslim identities as well as invocation of anticolonial Arab nationalism, Yemenis had a complicated relationship with the union that disrupts the narrative of a multicultural movement.

My father, Mohamed Alamri, immigrated to the United States from Yemen in the summer of 1975. He first arrived in Dearborn, Michigan where there existed a large Yemeni community, thousands of whom were working in Detroit’s booming auto industry for companies like Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler. Less prominent in numbers, yet growing each year, was the community of Yemenis in California, which everyone in Dearborn told Mohamed was where you can find the “real money.” Driven by the motivation to find a job that could provide the most for his parents and siblings back in Yemen, Mohamed hopped a plane to California. The first job he landed was in Poplar, a small town 70 miles south of Fresno, picking grapes. Mohamed recalled how the other Yemenis at the labor camp laughed when he arrived dressed in a tie, button-down shirt, and slacks. Growing up in Yemen and hearing of America’s wealth and luxury, he wanted to look his best. Yet, after a long day toiling under the summer heat, Mohamed quickly learned that working in the fields of Central Valley was not very different than village life in Yemen.[3] 

Mohamed photo

Mohamed, right, after a day’s work in Poplar, CA. Courtesy of author

 Mohamed joined thousands of Yemeni farm workers who found work in the fields from the late 1960s to the end of the 1970s. Due to lack of official records, it is unclear exactly how many Yemeni farm workers there were during this period, but estimates range from a few hundred to over five thousand.[4] Yemenis migrated within three major agricultural regions within California: the Sacramento Valley, the San Joaquin Valley and the Imperial Valley. [5]   Migration cycles began with the April asparagus harvest in Stockton, and then moved to the southern end of the valley in the Delano-Porterville-Bakersfield area for the grape harvest until the end of November. Then, many Yemenis moved to Arvin or Coachella where the grapevine-pruning season began. They eventually returned to the Delano-Porterville area to complete more grapevine pruning and remained in that area until the next migration cycle.[6] Like other farm workers, Yemenis faced several obstacles from low wages, language barriers, and limited access to health care and social services. They were, however, seen as desirable by employers. As growers were faced with the increasing resistance and union organizing amongst Mexican and Filipino workers, many were eager to employ Yemenis whom they believed were docile and “easier to control.”[7] The growers did not anticipate the fact that not only would Yemenis organize alongside the UFW, but were also equipped with radical politics inspired by events in Yemen as well as their Muslim and Arab identities, differentiating them from their Mexican and Filipino counterparts.

For my father and many other Yemenis who grew up in the context of decolonization and revolution in Yemen, the UFW’s emphasis on social justice was both identifiable and appealing. The 1960s and 1970s were a time of tumultuous political changes in former North and South Yemen. With the spread of Arab nationalism inspired by Arab leaders, such as Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, as well as anti-colonial movements throughout the world, North and South Yemenis were inspired to challenge systems of power. In 1963, the National Liberation Front was established in South Yemen in order to decolonize the British Protectorate of Aden.[8] Meanwhile, in North Yemen, military rebels fought to overthrow the ruling monarchy at the time and establish a republic. In 1967, South Yemen successfully decolonized Aden, ending over a hundred years of British imperial presence in the region, and became a Marxist regime known as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. A year later in 1968, North Yemen overthrew the monarchy and established the Republic of Yemen.  The wars in South and North Yemen as well as the end of British colonization in Aden, led to a deterioration of Yemen’s economy. With many families facing poverty, Yemen’s largest economic export became its labor force, consisting primarily of men. Although Yemenis had been migrating for work beginning in the late 19th and early 20th century, the 1960s and 1970s saw large scale labor migration of Yemenis to other parts of the world, including Britain, Southeast Asia, East Africa, and the United States. The 1965 Immigration Act, which ended restrictive immigration policies, increased Yemeni immigration to the United States.  By the 1970s, many of the Yemenis arriving in the United States worked in automobile factories in Detroit, Michigan, steel plants in Buffalo, New York, and agricultural farms across California. The experiences of Yemeni immigrants in California were reflective of many of the experiences of Arab immigrants who arrived post-1965. Yet, unlike other Arab immigrants, primarily from Lebanon and Syria, who arrived in the early twentieth century, Yemenis who came to the U.S. in the late 1960s and 1970s were predominantly working-class and Muslim.[9]  While many Arabs in the U.S. prior to the 1960s had been racialized as white, the intersection of class and religion racialized Yemeni immigrants as non-white, “other” minorities.

Alongside increased employment by growers, there are several reasons why Yemenis came to California. Many came to the U.S. with agricultural experience in Yemen already, as families usually owned a few acres in which they grew and harvested their own food. Following the wars in Yemen, however, a decline in national resources and limited economic opportunities pushed most families to rely on foreign imports. Another strategy included sending relatives, usually young men, to other countries for work in order to earn money for the entire family. In the mid-twentieth century, the booming California agricultural industry offered immediate employment opportunities to many young Yemeni men who came to the U.S. with some agricultural experience in hopes of supporting their families back home. Another channel by which Yemenis came to California was a credit system established by Trans World Airlines (TWA). The system was allegedly backed by growers to help expedite travel for immigrants, predominantly young men from Yemen. Although not Mohamed’s experience, based on testimonies from UFW volunteers and the few secondary sources available, there are speculations that growers themselves funded the travel to bring groups of young men from Yemen to work.[10] Through this system, a relative or friend residing in California paid a $100 deposit with a cosigner in Yemen for a plane ticket from the TWA costing $800 with the condition that upon arrival the worker would pay the beneficiary back. While providing loans to help travel from Yemen was common between Yemenis, the involvement of the TWA in facilitating this communal practice was unusual. Yemenis who came in through the TWA credit system arrived in the dozens and essentially went straight from the airport to the hiring halls. A spokesman representing a group of workers would initiate applications for social security numbers so the workers could begin working as soon as possible.[11] There are several discrepancies between the numbers provided by the Immigration and Naturalization Service records which reports 380 alien Yemenis registered in 1974 as opposed to the numbers given by the TWA office in Los Angeles which reports 100,000 in the decade leading up to 1974.[12] This discrepancy indicates the possibility that the number reported by TWA were of undocumented Yemenis.

Yemeni farm workers faced several obstacles from low wages, language barriers, and limited access to health care and social services. Similar to other farm workers, the conditions for Yemenis were inextricably linked to the exploitive system established by the growers. Faced with the precarities of being a low-wage laborer and immigrant, it was no surprise, then, that the UFW appealed to Yemenis. Beginning in the late 1960s, there were at least 500 Yemeni UFW members, although the numbers were likely higher.[13] The UFW offered Yemenis a platform to advocate, assert their presence, and gain resources. Amongst many things, the UFW worked to provide Arabic translators for Yemeni workers, halal food in the labor camps, as well as access to health care. While health issues such as tuberculosis and respiratory infections were common among farm workers, many Yemenis suffered from schistosomiasis, an intestinal infection caused by contact of parasites in water endemic in Yemen. The UFW tested and treated hundreds of Yemenis.[14]

While the UFW was accommodating to needs of Yemeni workers by providing them with services, the invocation of Arab nationalism also threatened the UFW’s platform and reputation amongst supporters. Throughout the first half of the 1970s, the peak of Yemeni immigration to California, Yemeni farm workers were present for some of the most successful as well as contentious years of the UFW.[15] As the UFW fought to sustain their success following the 1970 historic grape contracts, Yemenis were a strategic group to mobilize.  The UFW hired several Yemeni organizers in order to reach out to the Yemeni community, many of whom only spoke Arabic.[16] Some of these organizers included: Saeed Mohammed Al-Alas, Ahmed Shaibi, and Nagi Daifallah. Saeed Mohamed Al-Alas a UFW organizer from Aden, the capital of former South Yemen, organized with the UFW in the early 1970s and was the lead organizer for a funeral march in Porterville honoring the life of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.[17] Ahmed Shaibi who was also South Yemeni was hired by the UFW in 1977 and served for the union for several years before opening the first local chapter of the Anti-Arab Discrimination Committee in Delano in 1982. Lastly Nagi Daifallah, whose untimely death profoundly impacted the trajectory of the union, was also a union organizer.[18]

Like Saeed Mohammed Al-Alas, Ahmed Shaibi, and Nagi Daifallah, those with a background in social justice activism in Yemen, including anti-colonial and Arab nationalist ideologies, became involved as organizers the UFW. While these ideologies had origins in the context of political changes in Yemen and the Middle East, they were not mutually exclusive from the issues Yemeni farm workers faced in the Central Valley. Yemenis invoked these political identities as a way to assert themselves as immigrants in California, as well as, define their involvement in the farm worker movement. One example of this was a funeral march for Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, an ardent leader of Arab nationalism, that was organized by Yemeni farm workers in Porterville.  On October 1, 1970, after Gamal Abdel Nasser died of a heart attack, local Yemenis planned a funeral march in his honor. Nearly one thousand Yemeni farm workers in Porterville attended a funeral march to mourn the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Led by a drummer, marchers carried an American flag alongside the United Arab Republic flag and a portrait of the late President Nasser covered in a black veil.[19] In an article of the union’s newsletter, El Malcriado, documenting the event, Yemeni UFW organizer Saeed Mohammed Al-Alas stated, “Nasser has been a father to us. He was the only great leader we had. He brought all the Arabs together, began economic programs, and threw the British out of Egypt. He was really interested in the people.”[20] Mohammed Al-Alas’ statement on Nasser discussed three political projects: Arab unity, economic justice and lastly anti-colonialism. All of these things contextualized Mohammed Al-Alas’ involvement in fighting for farm worker justice in California. When asked why he remains in the Central Valley he replied, “Where else could I do as much for my countrymen?”[21] Evident in Mohammed Al-Alas’ statement, and for many other Yemenis, politics rooted in Arab nationalism and decolonization were not separate from their identities as UFW supporters and immigrants in the Central Valley. Highlighted in the union’s newsletter, the inclusion of  Yemenis in the movement in the early 1970s helped boost the union’s reputation for multicultural social justice, particularly at a time when Filipino farm workers became disillusioned with Chavez’s leadership.[22] Yet, the turn to anti-colonial Arab nationalism radicalized Yemenis in a way that was illegible to the UFW’s mission.

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Chavez, center, marching with Yemeni activists, Delano, CA, 1973. Courtesy of Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries

Three years later, in August of 1973, the portrait of Nasser would be carried once more, this time to mourn the death of Nagi Daifallah. Nagi’s death occurred in the midst of combative union politics between the UFW and the Teamsters, police violence against workers, as well as police and grower collaboration. On July 29, 1970, the UFW signed what would come to be known as the historic grape contracts, ending the five-year-long grape strike and boycott that began in Delano and marked the first collective bargaining agreement for farm workers in California. The UFW’s fight for farm worker justice did not end there, of course. In the summer of 1973, as the UFW’s three-year grape contracts came up for renewal, strikes took place again after growers signed sweetheart contracts with the Teamsters union without an election. Thousands of strikers were arrested, and hundreds suffered injuries at the hands of law enforcement.[23] On the evening of August 13, 1973, a group of farm workers and UFW volunteers and organizers stood outside a café in Lamont, California. Deputy Sheriff Gilbert Cooper arrived on the scene to arrest picket captain Frank Quintana on charges of disturbing the peace. Several workers began to protest Quintana’s arrest; among them was a 24-year-old farm worker from Yemen, Nagi Daifallah.[24] Upon protest of Quintana’s arrest, Sheriff Cooper began harassing Nagi. As Nagi attempted to run away, Cooper swung a metal flashlight at his head causing severe injuries to his spinal cord.[25] Nagi was left to die on the pavement. While harassment by police was a common reality faced by strikers, workers, and UFW organizers, the death of Nagi sent shock waves through the union and deeply impacted the trajectory of the farm worker movement. On August 17, 1973 over 7,000 Yemeni, Mexican, and Filipino mourners gathered at the Forty Acres union field office in Delano, the “cradle” of the farm worker movement to attend Nagi’s funeral march.[26] Yemeni farm workers, UFW volunteers, organizers, and Cesar Chavez himself, marched in silence alongside Nagi’s casket in solidarity against the violence and systemic oppression perpetuated by agribusiness. Chavez spoke very highly of Nagi who was an organizer for the union and was deemed a martyr for the movement.

Facing a shared oppression by law enforcement and agribusiness, Nagi’s death brought together Yemeni, Mexican, and Filipino communities in solidarity, if only for a moment. His death provided an opportunity for the UFW to emphasize that the movement was for all immigrants and people of color. In his eulogy statement for Nagi Chavez highlighted his immigrant identity stating that “Nagi had come to this country from his native Yemen looking for a better life” and “gave himself to the grape strike and the struggle for justice for all farm workers.” Yet, the picture of Nagi painted by Chavez and the UFW portrayed him as simply a passive victim of his circumstances. In his eulogy, Chavez stated how Yemeni workers were, “the latest group of people to come to California to be exploited by the California growers” and that “most of them, like Nagi, were young men in their early twenties, they were unusually shy, of slight frame, Moslem, spoke no English, and live in barren labor camps.” [27] By characterizing the movement for all immigrants and people of color, Chavez answered to critics at the time who accused the UFW for being ethnocentric by prioritizing Mexican workers as well as being too Catholic-based. It also addressed critiques that the UFW was too dependent on white, middle class volunteers and advisors.[28]

However, the characterization of Nagi as “unusually shy,” portrayed him as a passive victim as opposed to the political activist he was. Beyond the dominant narrative which focuses solely on Nagi’s death, the writings and letters he left behind for his father offer a look into his experiences working in the fields and being involved with the UFW.  In actuality, when Nagi became a UFW organizer he already had experience in political activism back in Yemen. Nagi, originally from North Yemen, became politically involved at a young age. While going to school in Aden (South Yemen) during British occupation, Nagi publicly stood against the British as well as the North Yemeni government, which resulted in his imprisonment for some time. As a young man, Nagi was arrested for pulling down both the British flag and the North Yemen flag in an act of protest while attending a college in Aden.[29]  Furthermore, based on letters he wrote to his father, it was evident that rather than being shy and inexperienced, Nagi  had a keen understanding of how power and exploitation was operating within agribusiness. In a letter to his father, Nagi wrote:

Dearest father, you will be amazed at this which I am writing to you in this letter about the prisons for workers in American, and (when I) tell you how much an agriculture worker suffers and endures in terms of severe ill-will from the landlords of ranches. These workers live in encampments that resemble military barracks, surrounded by barbed wire and a massive barrier of governmental agents, who forbid anyone from contacting the workers, or even conversing with their friends, except by signals, or when they are completely outside the camp, where they are far from the police. The landowners do not permit the workers to work in agriculture, except under laws the ranch-owners impose on them, with less than legal wages and insufficient safety precautions for the workers.[30]

He vividly paints a picture about the life farm workers, comparing the labor camps to prisons and war camps. He discusses grower exploitation of workers through, not only controlling their wages, but also by limiting access to services and communication and purposely putting them in unsafe conditions.[31] Nagi, like other Yemeni workers, also understood his oppression in both local and global ways, comparing his experiences in the Central Valley to those of living under an oppressive regime in Yemen.

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Funeral ceremony for martyr Nagi Daifullah. Courtesy of Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

The inclusion of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s portrait during Nagi’s funeral march represented this understanding that politics in the Central Valley were inseparable from global politics, like Arab nationalism. Alongside Nasser’s portrait, Yemeni workers carried flags representing the United States, Yemen, and the UFW, but it was Nasser’s image that would prove to be the most controversial. After Daifallah’s funeral, Chavez received several letters from supporters who were extremely disappointed to see Nasser, whom they viewed as an extremist and anti-Semitic, associated with the UFW and the movement.  One example was a letter dated September 17, 1973 from Nate Bodin, President of the Local 800, American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO, of which the UFW was an independent affiliate.[32] Bodin wrote to Chavez expressing disapproval at the inclusion of Nasser’s image, a man he compared to “Hitler or Porfirio Diaz [sic].”[33] Bodin attached the image from the funeral march with Nasser’s portrait, which was published in The Los Angeles Times. He first pointed out how Local 800 has financially supported the UFW and then requested the UFW produce a statement regarding the Nasser portrait:

We know you to be a man of great courage and honesty. We know that unity among people of good-will is crucial. We applaud your efforts and wish you well with all the resources we can muster. However, we would like to have a statement from you regarding the above matter. We would like to know how you stand regarding the use of the representative of a people (Nasser) who have been in our opinion, misguided. We think the choice of ‘hero’ was a poor one for this sad occasion.[34]

These letters demonstrated that the portrait of Nasser, a leader of Arab nationalism and Palestinian liberation threatened the UFW’s relationship with the AFL-CIO, an organization that boosted the union’s platform nationally. The decision to include Nasser spoke politically to the connections Yemeni workers made between social injustices abroad with the injustices they faced as farm workers in the U.S. However, it put Chavez and the UFW in a very tough situation and threatened the union’s support from pro-Israeli organizations as well as Jewish American religious leaders. Based on a social justice platform rooted in American civil rights discourse, the UFW was not prepared to take on global politics of Arab nationalism nor the question of Palestine.[35]  It became clear that the presence of Yemenis alongside the portrait of Nasser, was not only illegible to this platform, but challenged the very possibility of a truly multicultural movement.

In response to Bodin’s letter as well as letters from other disappointed supporters, Chavez and his assistants wrote back attempting to diffuse the situation. In these letters, Chavez invoked Nagi’s victimhood and martyrdom in order to depoliticize the presence of Nasser’s portrait and continue positive relations with the angry supporters.[36] In one of these letters Chavez wrote:

Nagi’s death and his funeral procession were deeply personal events for thousands of our members. As a movement, we were both mourning his loss and standing in solidarity with his family. If you can place yourself in that very personal context I think you will understand why no one in the farm workers union can, in retrospect, cast negative reflections on what happened during the Nagi’s funeral march.[37]

It is evident that while Yemeni farm workers chose to march with the image of Nasser in expression of their political identities as Arabs and the UFW did not object to this, Chavez and his leadership, on the other hand, were not prepared to be associated with a pro-Palestine Arab leader. The controversy over Nasser’s portrait demonstrated the ways in which the UFW navigated between communities and conflicting definitions of social justice in order to uphold the portrayal of an inclusive, multiethnic farm worker movement. When Daifallah was killed and deemed a martyr of the movement, the UFW opened its arms to the Yemeni community. With the Yemeni community now on Chavez’s side, however, the UFW’s position on global issues such as the question of Palestine, suddenly mattered. While the death of Nagi Daifallah brought together Yemeni, Mexican, and Filipino communities on the basis of a shared oppression by law enforcement and agribusiness, it also highlighted the ways in which solidarities can be complicated and difficult to maintain. The visibility of Yemenis at Daifallah’s funeral and the controversy surrounding Nasser’s portrait revealed the complicated space Yemenis occupied within the movement.  My own father’s experience demonstrates this as well. [38]

My father, Mohamed, proudly recalled attending Chavez’s rallies and being a UFW member. He told me that after all these years, he even saved his union card. After scrimmaging through some old boxes to find the card, we discovered he was actually a Teamsters member, a rival union to the UFW notorious for implementing scare tactics and even physical violence against workers.[39] Although Mohamed aligned with the UFW ideologically, he remembered that in order to keep his job he had to join the Teamsters, which was the case for many workers.  My father’s memory of the union card is in many ways symbolic of the complicated relationship Yemenis had with the UFW. The notion that Yemenis had a place in a union of other immigrants of color seemed ideologically sound but often lacked substance. In reality, the presence of Yemenis highlighted the complicated, sometimes tense, interactions between ethnic groups, both outside and inside the UFW. This is not to say that solidarities never existed between Yemeni, Mexican, and Filipino workers in the UFW, but rather that a celebratory or simplistic narrative obscures this complicated history.

The history of Yemeni farm workers expands the farm worker movement’s narrative and uncovers the role that Yemeni American activists had in U.S. labor movements. However, we must avoid simple additive history in which marginalized groups are just added into narratives. A few years back, I attended a UFW event and was approached by a woman with a rather confused look her face that asked: “So what do you have to do with all of this?” I knew exactly what she had meant, she was curious as to what a Muslim, Arab American woman possible had to do with the histories of the UFW. I explained to her that my father when he first immigrated to the U.S. from Yemen had worked as a farm worker and that I am now researching the history of Yemeni involvement in the UFW – but, I felt this explanation was simply not enough. There is the sort of obvious connection Yemenis have with this movement like having been present, attending Chavez’s rallies, and engaging in organizing.  Simply put, they were there. But beyond simply inserting Yemenis in this history, we must interrogate the broader historical significance of these narratives. This includes asking why Yemenis have been marginalized within this history. Part of the answer is that numerically speaking, there simply were not as many Yemeni farm workers during that time compared to the majority Mexican and Filipino laborers. However, the other reason why Yemenis have been overlooked has to do with how their engagement with Arab nationalism disrupted the UFW’s mission.

By 1982, there were no Yemeni UFW organizers. In that same year, Ahmed Shaibi, who had formerly organized with the UFW, established the Delano chapter of the American Anti-Arab Discrimination Committee (ADC). Shaibi saw a dire need for an organization that focused on the specific needs of the Yemeni community. Shaibi estimated that Arabs inhabited nearly 90 percent of labor camps in Delano and yet, there was nowhere they could go for social services. This was particularly challenging due to language barriers Yemeni workers faced and the lack of translators who spoke Arabic. However, the promise that the ADC had for Yemenis in the Central Valley never reached its full potential. By 1985, the same year that Palestinian American Alex Odeh, the West Coast regional director of the ADC, was murdered by a bomb planted in his Santa Ana office the ADC in Delano was defunct.[40] The closing of the Delano ADC was most likely a direct reaction of Odeh’s murder, as many Yemeni and Arab American activists feared the consequences of political activism.

During the same time the ADC closed, the majority of Yemenis who worked as agricultural laborers left the fields for other jobs.  Many of them found occupations in major California cities such as San Francisco as janitors, opened grocery stores, or returned to Yemen. Today, many Yemenis own small businesses in the same cities that they originally worked in as farm workers. Asking my father about his initial years in the U.S. as a farm worker unraveled an entire history of Yemenis in the UFW that I otherwise would not have known because it is not recognized in the official narrative or visibly present in the archives. This signifies the importance of building new archives as marginalized stories live on through the people around us, sometimes those closest to us.

The experiences of Yemenis in the UFW is an important chapter in the history of the Central Valley’s Yemeni community, a population that has significantly grown in numbers in the past few years. These stories contribute to the historiography of rural California and multiracial communities in the Central Valley. Alongside the history of other immigrant groups in the Central Valley including Mexican, Filipino, and Punjabi laborers, the experiences of Yemenis underscore how the local is deeply intertwined with global politics like Arab nationalism. The history of the Yemeni American community matters now more than ever. As Yemeni Americans face increasing restrictive immigration legislation and xenophobic rhetoric, this history is a reminder that Yemenis have long been a part of U.S. history, despite not always being recognized.

Notes

[1] See: Laura Araiza, To March for Others: The Black Freedom Struggle and the United Farm Workers, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014); Frank Bardacke, Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers, (London: Verso, 2011); Matthew Garcia, From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press,2012); Ana Raquel Minian, “‘Indiscriminate and Shameless Sex’: The Strategic Use of Sexuality by the United Farm Workers.” American Quarterly (2013, Volume, 65.1): 63–90.  2013; Miriam Pawel, The Crusades of Cesar Chavez: A Biography, (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2014).

[2] Cesar Chavez Special Resource Study and Environmental Assessment,” National Park Services U.S. Department of the Interior, (Fall 2013).; Dawn Bohulano Mabalon and Gayle Romasanta, Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong, (Bridge and Delta Publishing, 2018); Ray Rast, Cesar Chavez Special Resource Study and Environmental Assessment, with multiple co-authors. San Francisco: National Park Service, Pacific West Region, 2012.

[3] Mohamed Alamri interview by Neama Alamri, April 5, 2015.

[4] Ron Kelley, “Yemeni Farmworkers in California,” in Sojourners and Settlers: The Yemeni Immigrant Experience, ed. Jonathan Friedlander (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1988); Mohamed Alamri interview by Neama Alamri, April 5, 2015.;”Voices from the Heartland: Young Yemeni Americans Speak,” Middle Eastern Resources Online.  http://www.mearo.org/yemeni-americans/san-joaquin-valley.php

[5] Mary Bisharat, “Yemeni Migrant Workers in California,” in Arabs in America: Myths and Realities, (Wilmette: Medina University Press International, 1975), 208.

[6] Juan J. Sanchez and Solache Saul, “Yemeni Agricultural Workers in California: Migration Impact,” Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund Records, Bulk 1968-1995, box 18, folder 14, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University, Stanford CA.

[7] Mary Bisharat, “Yemeni Migrant Workers in California,” in Arabs in America: Myths and Realities, (Wilmette: Medina University Press International, 1975), 208.

[8] Robert Stookey, South Yemen: A Marxist Republic in Arabia, (Boulder: Westview Press, 1982).

[9] Gregory Orfalea, The Arab Americans: A History, (Northampton: Olive Branch Press, 2006), 153

[10] Marcia Aronson, “My Involvement in the United Farm Workers of America 1973-1978,” Farm Worker Documentation Project

[11] Mary Bisharat, “Yemeni Migrant Workers in California,” in Arabs in America: Myths and Realities, (Wilmette: Medina University Press International, 1975), 206-207.

[12] Mary Bisharat, “Yemeni Migrant Workers in California,” 208.

[13] Ron Kelley, “Yemeni Farmworkers in California.”

[14] Clinic Program for Arab Members,” 9 March 1973, El Malcriado, Farm Worker Documentation Project, UC San Diego.

[15] Matthew Garcia, 15.

[16] “UFWOC: A Strong Union for the Arab Farm Worker.” El Malcriado. Nov. 1, 1970. Farm Worker Documentation Project. UC San Diego Library.

[17] Ibid.

[18] “UFWOC: A Strong Union for the Arab Farm Worker.” El Malcriado. Nov. 1, 1970. Farm Worker Documentation Project. UC San Diego Library.; Ron Kelley, “Yemeni Farmworkers in California,” in Sojourners and Settlers: The Yemeni Immigrant Experience, ed. Jonathan Friedlander (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1988); Philip Diehl, “Arab advocate bridges gap between cultures,” 7 Dec. 1982, Delano Record, Delano Record Archives.

[19] “Morning March Here For Nasser,” 30 Sept. 1970, Porterville Recorder, Porterville Public Library; “Nasser Buried, Mideast Sad,” 1 Oct. 1970, Porterville Recorder.

[20] “UFWOC: A Strong Union for the Arab Farm Worker,” 1 Nov. 1970, El Malcriado, Farm Worker Documentation Project. UC San Diego Library.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Matthew Garcia, 103-105.

[23] Matthew Garcia, From the Jaws of Victory, 100

[24]15,000 farm workers honor fallen strikers,” El Malcriado, September 21, 1973, Farm Worker Documentation Project, UC San Diego Library, San Diego, CA.

[25] 15,000 farm workers honor fallen strikers,” El Malcriado, September 21, 1973, Farm Worker Documentation Project, UC San Diego Library, San Diego, CA. ; Nadine Naber, “The Yemeni UFW Martyr,” Middle East Research and Information Project, vol. 44 (Winter 2014).

[26] 15,000 farm workers honor fallen strikers,” El Malcriado, September 21, 1973, Farm Worker Documentation Project, UC San Diego Library, San Diego, CA. ; Matt. Garcia. From The Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 62.

[27] “UFW Martyrs: Nagi Daifallah,” United Farm Workers,  www.UFW.org.

[28] Matthew Garcia, From the Jaws of Victory, (University of California Press, 2014), 127

[29] United Farm Workers Administration Collection, Box 114, Folder 3, “Martyr Nagi Mohsin Daifallah Handad, 17 June 1980,” Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

[30] Chris Hartmire Personal Papers, Retrieved from Miriam Pawel; Arabic version is from United Farm Workers Administration Collection, Box 114, Folder 3, “Martyr Nagi Mohsin Daifallah Handad, 17 June 1980,” Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

[31] Ibid.

[32] In 1972, the UFW was officially affiliated with the AFL-CIO and created a national executive board. This was also when they changed their name from United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC) to United Farm Workers of America, known simply by their acronym, “UFW.” The affiliation with the AFL-CIO boosted the political platform of the UFW nationally. See Matthew Garcia, “Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Movement,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. https://oxfordre.com/americanhistory/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.001.0001/acrefore-9780199329175-e-217

[33] UFW Work Department, Box 3, File 1, Daifullah, Nagi, 1973,” Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

[34] UFW Work Department, Box 3, File 1, Daifullah, Nagi, 1973,” Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

[35] In my dissertation, I explore Nagi’s funeral march as well as the 1973 October War with more depth. Chavez, for example, received many requests to take a stance in support of the state of Israel and eventually decided to issue a statement of support which received criticism from many UFW members and supporters. The UFW’s support of Israel also hurt their relationship with the Black Panther Party which had been Pro-Palestine from their founding. See Laura Araiza, To March for Others: The Black Freedom Struggle and the United Farm Workers, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), 163.

[36] UFW Work Department Collection, Box 3, Folder 1, “Daifullah, Nagi 1973,” “Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

[37] UFW Work Department Collection, Box 3, Folder 1, “Daifullah, Nagi 1973,” “Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

[38] Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries

[39] Matt. Garcia. From The Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 99.

[40] Philip Diehl, “Arab advocate bridges gap between cultures,” 7 Dec. 1982, Delano Record, Delano Record Archives.; Delinda C. Hanley. “Arab Americans Demand Answers in 1985 Slaying of Alex Odeh,” The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Vol. 32.9, Dec. 2013

 

Neama Alamri is completing her PhD in Interdisciplinary Humanities at UC Merced and will be finished by May 2020. She will continue to work on her book project, “Long Live the Arab Worker: A Transnational History of Labor Activism in the Yemeni Diaspora,” which examines how Yemeni workers and activists, throughout the 20th century highlighted the connections between local challenges in the diaspora with global politics of empire.

Copyright: © 2020 Neama Alamri. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Articles

American Empire and the Landscapes of Los Angeles

Jessica Kim

A drive through contemporary Los Angeles reveals American empire embedded throughout its urban landscape. “Imperial capital” likely conjures visions of eighteenth or nineteenth century European cities—London, Paris, Madrid—rather than twenty-first century Southern California. However, from Lisbon to London to Los Angeles, we encounter empire in the architecture, monuments, and even suburban gardens of these imperial centers.[1] In Los Angeles, nineteenth-century Mexican resources, extracted through imperial schemes, are fixed in the city’s iconic sprawl. This wealth, extracted through imperial plans and regimes in Mexico over the past century and a half, became manifest in the Los Angeles landscape. As explored in my recent book, Imperial Metropolis: Los Angeles, Mexico, and the Borderlands of American Empire, 1865-1941, white investors and settlers in Los Angeles believed that for their newly acquired western city to grow, they needed an expansive hinterland or empire.[2]  Los Angeles would boom, they argued, if it took in “tributary territories,” from Southern California, to Nevada, to Arizona, and, notably, to Mexico. Angeleno investors who sought opportunity in Mexico also bequeathed the city with tangible remembrances of their wealth.

Before turning to the city’s imperial landscapes, how did early Anglo migrants to Los Angeles envision the role of their new city in the world at the end of the nineteenth century and dawn of the twentieth? Take, for example, Harrison Gray Otis, publisher of the Los Angeles Times and enthusiastic investor in Mexico. With his son-in-law Harry Chandler and a small group of other investors, he owned almost a million acres of agricultural land in Mexico at the turn of the century and counted Mexican President Porfirio Díaz a close personal friend.  In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, Otis and his newspaper also served as some of the staunchest and most vocal proponents of regional growth, north and south of the border. As he built a newspaper and real estate empire, Otis imagined a spectacular and distinctly imperial future for Los Angeles.  In his words, the city would become “a mightier Pacific empire, with a population numbering millions where now we see only thousands, and possessing a measure of wealth, civilization and power now inconceivable.”[3]

In keeping with this belief, Otis embraced American empire and its corollary racial hierarchy, in which Anglo American purveyors of empire argued it was their burden to govern and “uplift” nonwhite peoples.  From Los Angeles, he requested an army appointment immediately after the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898 and won his military ranking of brigadier general during his tour in the Philippines, where he helped oversee a bloody repression of Philippine nationalists and vocally declared his distaste for the territory’s nonwhite population.  Bellicose editorials penned by Otis and his staff supported the expansion of American commercial interests and political control into Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Panama. During his time in the Philippines, Otis declared to readers of his newspaper that the archipelago “must remain absolutely under American control…some of them [are] still in a state of savagery.”[4]

Otis exported a portion of this imperial vision to Mexico, where he bought a substantial investment property in 1904.  With a syndicate of other Los Angeles investors, he purchased the Colorado River Land Company (CRLC), directly south of the California-Baja California border.  Otis also leveraged support from the Mexican federal government through his friendship with Díaz, who welcomed American investment dollars in Mexico during his tenure, between 1876 and 1910.  They corresponded regularly about the advantages of U.S. investments in Mexico and shared a perspective on the strict control of labor.  Both were staunchly anti-union. After observing Diaz’s brutal suppression of several strikes in Mexico, Otis suggested utilizing Díaz’s union busting tactics in California and the West.  Otis also regularly welcomed high ranking officials in the Díaz administration to his home, which he dubbed the “Bivouac,” in reference to his days in the military.[5]

Image 1

Image of Otis’s home just after its completion in 1898.  The house was completed at the same time Otis was serving in the Philippines and he dubbed the home the “Bivouac” or military encampment. Image 000100, Los Angeles Times Company Records, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

Otis imbued his imperial outlook into the buildings he constructed in his hometown. In military parlance, “bivouac” refers to a temporary camp constructed by soldiers.  Although his home was a solid and permanent structure in the then-fashionable MacArthur Park neighborhood, Otis imagined it as his military encampment.  In it he created a “war room” where he proudly displayed weapons and memorabilia collected during his time in the military, including rifles, knives, swords, a pith helmet, and a large framed photo of himself in uniform.  The architecture of the “Bivouac” also bears significance.  The façade is distinctly mission revival, an early example of the architectural style that would sweep across Southern California and allow Anglos to link “Spanish architecture, the suburban good life, and racial hierarchy.”[6]  In the naming of his newspaper headquarters, Otis also inscribed his imperial and militaristic worldview on the Los Angeles landscape.  The Los Angeles Times building, from which he vociferously advocated for an American and Los Angeles empire, he dubbed the “Fortress.”  Otis ruled his economic and publishing empire from this building, reinforced with granite against an attack he was sure lurked outside its walls.  In case of conflict with labor unions, Otis stored fifty rifles in a tower room and a case of loaded shotguns next the managing editor’s desk.  He also conducted military drills in Times offices.[7]

Image 2

Otis even incorporated his imperial and martial mentality into his home decor.  Pictured here is the war memorabilia room at the “Bivouac.”  Image 000092, Los Angeles Times Company Records, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

Image 3

Image of the Los Angeles Times building just after it was bombed by trade unionists in 1910. Otis dubbed the headquarters of his newspaper “The Fortress.” C. C. Pierce Collection of Photographs, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

Unfortunately, neither Otis’ home nor the original Times building still stands.  Labor activists bombed the Times building in 1910, hoping to undermine Otis and the city’s rabidly anti-union newspaper.  Union activists sought, through dynamite and fire, to literally blow the Times building out of the city’s topography.  The ties of empire, labor, and dissent are also intricate here—Job Harriman, the defense lawyer for the Times bombers, would also defend Mexican revolutionaries Enrique and Ricardo Flores Magón.  Credited as the intellectual spark for the Mexican Revolution, the Flores Magón brothers critiqued American investment in Mexico generally and Harrison Gray Otis directly and were arrested and imprisoned in Los Angeles at the urging of the Times owner.[8]  The other building, the Bivouac, Otis donated to Los Angeles County with the stipulation that it be used in perpetuity to “promote the arts.”  The county founded the Otis Art Institute in the general’s former home but eventually tore down the building to construct a bigger facility in the 1950s.

The street corner in front of Otis’ former home, however, still bears witness to his martial mentality and imperial aspirations.  Shortly after his death in 1916, son-in-law Harry Chandler organized a group of friends to raise $50,000 to hire an artist (and Russian prince) to immortalize Otis in a statue, placed just steps from the “Bivouac.”  Cast in bronze, Otis wears his military uniform and, reminiscent of conquistadors and adventurers who preceded him, points vigorously at landscapes beyond his street corner.[9]

Image 4

Statue of Otis, center, dressed in his military uniform.  The statue stands across the street from the location of his former home in MacArthur Park.  California Historical Society Collection, University of Southern California Libraries.

Other figures in Los Angeles history also staked out commercial empires in Mexico and then marked their imperial exploits on the city’s landscape, including oil titan Edward Doheny. Doheny was at one point the largest oil producer in the world, one of the world’s wealthiest men, and was one of the first to drill for oil in Mexico.  By 1894, Doheny controlled the largest portion of Los Angeles’ emerging oil industry. Due in large part to his efforts, in the first two decades of the twentieth century the Los Angeles region became one of the world’s most important oil producers. Wells sprinkled across Southern California produced 20% of the world’s supply by World War I. [10]

Eager to apply his petroleum knowledge in other locales and to reap further fortunes, Doheny looked eagerly to extend his corporate empire beyond the environs of Southern California. In fact, it was Doheny who first exported the oil expertise developed in Southern California’s oil industry to Mexico. In 1900, Doheny took his first trip to Mexico to prospect for oil near Tampico in the State of Tamaulipas on the Gulf of Mexico. In his first decade in Mexico, Doheny produced 85 percent of the oil extracted in the nation and emerged as the largest independent oil producer in the world.[11]

He also held that pulling the fuel of the modern era out of the earth was an endeavor that would propel Mexico towards modernity and civilization. Like many American empire builders, he saw his investment in Mexico and dealings with Mexican workers as both a civilizing force and a way to enrich himself. His job, as he saw it, was to make a fortune while simultaneously “uplifting” the non-white workers he employed in Mexico.  As he testified to congress regarding his treatment of his Mexican employees: “We must be patient with the ignorance and the lack of initiative in the Mexican peon.  They do not learn by instruction but must be taught by example…the greatest thing we can do in Mexico is the example which our workmen present to the Mexican of how to work, how to live, and how to progress.”[12]

Doheny brought the bulk of his fortune back to Los Angeles and became integral to its development. He had already sparked the city’s oil boom and helped establish one of the region’s most lucrative industries. He helped to develop the City of Beverly Hills. He gave generously to the University of Southern California, located just a few blocks south of his lush complex of mansions at Chester Place, the city’s first gated community. A devout Catholic, Doheny also gave millions of his oil dollars to various Catholic churches and causes in Southern California—as much as $100 million over the course of his life in Los Angeles.[13]

His home, particularly the structure of the greenhouse, was a brick-and-mortar paean to his oil empire. Life at his lavish estate in Chester Place included a private bowling alley, a small private zoo, and this greenhouse featuring an indoor pool large enough to float a canoe. Doheny filled the greenhouse with Mexican plant specimens, carefully moving plant samples from Mexico’s oil regions on his private rail car that ran regularly between Los Angeles and Mexico’s eastern coast. Some historians call this practice—transplanting plant specimens from a colony to an imperial center—“botanical imperialism.”[14] In other words, it was not a simply an interest in gardening that led Doheny to transplant botanical specimens from the Tampico oil region to Los Angeles.  During the age of empire, cultivating plants from colonial outposts was intimately bound up in processes of conquest, acquisition, power, and ultimately, display.

Image 5

The greenhouse and pool, including the canoe and Mexican plant specimens, in Doheny’s Los Angeles home. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

The Spanish-language press in Los Angeles did not miss the fact that Mexican resources paid for his opulent presence in the built environment of Los Angeles. In a scathing critique of Doheny published by La Prensa (a Los Angeles-based Spanish language paper), an anonymous author observed in 1919: “Where did his colossal fortune come from?  Simply from Mexico…the whole fortune accumulated by the ‘parvenu’ Doheny has come from Mexico without the least benefitting the country. On the contrary, every dollar coming from the Tampico Oil Fields is invested in the United States and especially in Los Angeles where he has a palatial mansion which attracts attention through a lavish display of oriental luxury.”[15]  Mexican Americans in Los Angeles were well aware that Doheny’s exploitation of Mexican mineral resources and labor had translated into astonishing displays of wealth north of the border.

Doheny’s Mexican fortune also constructed the library, in Spanish colonial style, at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, just north of Los Angeles. In addition to the building’s Spanish colonial architecture, the library’s facade is based on the Metropolitan Cathedral, the church located in Mexico City’s central plaza and the largest cathedral in the Americas. This mirroring of Mexico in Los Angeles, paid for by Mexican resources, is more than just symbolic. Los Angeles is a twenty-first global metropolis because its early promoters and investors oriented the city towards Mexico, the borderlands, and empire at the end of the nineteenth century. That a replica of a Mexican cathedral stands in Southern California, built with wealth wrought from Mexican oil, is the result of imperial design, not chance. It demonstrates the power of changing the landscape as part of strategies of empire—the Spanish built the original cathedral literally on the center of the Aztec empire.  Doheny’s fortune replicated it in the seat of his power—Los Angeles.

Image 6

St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, California, just north of Los Angeles. The building’s architecture is Spanish colonial and the façade to the right is based on the Catedral Metropolitana in Mexico City.  Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

SONY DSC

The Catedral Metropolitana in Mexico City, the largest church in Latin America.  The smaller chapel on the right served as the model for the library at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, California.  The Doheny family provided the funds for the construction of the library. “Catedral Metropolitana Mexico City (1)” by Carl Campbell is licensed under Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0

While empire is embedded across the greater Los Angeles landscape, we can also find resistance to American imperial projects built into the city’s infrastructure. Take for example, a public art, and in many ways a public history, controversy over Los Angeles and empire that erupted in 1932.  Los Angeles city leaders, notably white, had just finished an overhaul of the city’s historic core, known as “Olvera Street.”  Chandler, now owner of the Los Angeles Times, and Los Angeles promoter Christine Sterling spearheaded the effort.  They remade the oldest part of Los Angeles (a historically Mexican and Asian neighborhood and what they described as a “slum”) into a bucolic and entirely fabricated Mexican village.[16]

Over the course of his life in Los Angeles, Chandler aggressively promoted the region, calculating that a growing city would benefit both his newspaper and his extensive real estate investments.  Promoting the city paid—toward the end of his life in the 1940s, the Times estimated that he was the eleventh richest man in the world.  Part of his portfolio included holding on to the million acres of property that he and his father-in-law purchased at the turn of the century for almost forty years.

Part of the renovation of Olvera Street, begun in the 1920s, included inviting the famed Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros to paint an 80-foot mural on the side of the neighborhood’s Italian Hall. A veteran of the Mexican Revolution, Siqueiros had worked with Diego Rivera on mural campaigns in Mexico City and considered art a political tool and vehicle of revolutionary thought.  Siqueiros also believed that revolutionary art should be truly “public” and had just developed a new type of paint and painting technique that would allow murals to be done outdoors and on the sides of buildings, where anyone could see and appreciate them.[17]  Chandler and Olvera Street renovators expected Siqueiros to paint something “exotic and picturesque,” in keeping with the recently revamped neighborhood.[18]

Instead, Siqueiros chose the history of European and American imperialism in Mexico as the dramatic subject for his mural, América Tropical. Through images of toppled pyramids, he gestured to the violent Spanish destruction of indigenous culture and society. A bald eagle, symbolizing the United States, hovers over the crucifixion of an Indigenous man. To the right, revolutionary soldiers crouch, training their rifles on the eagle.  Significantly, the mural faced Los Angeles city hall. Aimed at the seat of power in the city, the mural embodied a scathing critique of not just American imperialism in Mexico and Latin America, but a critique leveled at the city itself and its role in promoting the interests of American investors in Mexico.

Image 8

Siqueiros’ América Tropical shortly after its completion in 1932. Los Angeles Examiner Photographs Collection, University of Southern California Libraries.

Chandler, Sterling, and their partners in the Olvera Street renovation, including municipal leaders, immediately had the mural whitewashed. Critiques of empire had no place in their bucolic reimagining of Mexico in Los Angeles’ historic core.  Less than six months after it was unveiled in 1932, the entire mural was covered in a thick coat of white paint.  Calls for restoration began in the 1960s with the rise of the Chicano Movement but it was not until the 2000s that restoration work began in earnest. The Getty Foundation (endowed by the oil fortune of the Getty family) funded one third of the project with the City of Los Angeles covering the remainder.  Ironies abound here—major funding for the restoration came from just the type of capitalist enterprise that Siquieros, a committed communist, could not stand.  And city government, key in having the original covered in 1932, paid for the bulk of the restoration during the early 2000s.

Ultimately, finding empire and anti-imperialism embedded in Los Angeles’ infrastructure is more than simply a reflection of some historical or economic and imperial trends.  Instead, the examples explored here advanced certain ideologies and narratives about the past and the present.  Public space and urban landscapes became a place of conversation and dialogue and sometimes even violence about urban growth and the advance of American empire and capitalism from the U.S. west and into Mexico.  There were military and martial components of this ideology—as seen in Otis’s impact on the Los Angeles built environment.  As he and Doheny also asserted through their infrastructure, this advance was racialized.  They maintained that empire could unfold from the U.S. West and into Mexico and the Pacific precisely because whites where superior to nonwhites.  Finally, labor activists, artists and critics of these imperial projects used or attempted to use public space and urban landscapes to push back against more dominant narratives.  The bombing of a building or the south-facing brick wall and a new type of mural paint served as the tools to call the historical and contemporary narratives about a Los Angeles deserving of imperial reach into Mexico into question.

Empire continues to shape Los Angeles landscapes.  Take for example that the neighborhood surrounding Harrison Gray Otis’s home and the statue of him is now a center of the Mexican and Central American immigrant community in Los Angeles.  It was precisely the type of imperial and commercial ventures that he promoted that resulted in economic displacement of Mexicans and Central Americans over the last century and caused them to seek refuge in the United States.  If we consider the history and topography of the MacArthur Park neighborhood, past and present, we unravel the history of empire and its consequences over a century, all within a block.  An empire builder and advocate of extracting resources in Mexican and Latin America, stands in the midst of a neighborhood of migrants, many displaced by that history but also creating something new—a vibrant immigrant community in a space suffering from decline and disinvestment since the 1960s.

As Dolores Hayden called for in her pathbreaking book, The Power of Place, it is imperative to “read” or analyze urban landscapes as historical texts, situating ourselves deeply in urban regions and neighborhoods, analyzing urban space as the result of human history and human struggles on particular landscapes.  In other words, we must ask questions about how relationships of power or categories and identities of race, class, and gender shape how cities are designed, constructed, occupied, appropriated, desecrated, and admired. In short, social and economic history and urban landscapes are intertwined.[19]

In a moment of intense public debate over historical monuments, historians are interrogating the narratives we tell—or fail to tell—in American landscapes. As in the vigorous recent debate over Confederate statues, historians of California and the West are reconsidering how western monuments and landscapes can tell a fuller and more nuanced story about social conflict and inequality, particularly those rooted in race, ethnicity, conquest, and empire.[20]  The remnants of these stories in Los Angeles are all around us—just look up.

Notes

[1] Felix Driver and David Gilbert, eds., Imperial Cities: Landscape, Display, and Identity (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999). See also Philip J. Ethington, “The Global Spaces of Los Angeles, 1920s-1930s,” in Gyan Prakash and Kevin M. Kruse, eds., The Spaces of the Modern City: Imaginaries, Politics, and Everyday Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

[2] Jessica Kim, Imperial Metropolis: Los Angeles, Mexico, and the Borderlands of American Empire, 1865-1941 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

[3] Robert Gottlieb and Irene Wolt, Thinking Big: The Story of the Los Angeles Times, Its Publishers, and Their Influence on Southern California (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1977).

[4] “Interview on the Philippines,” Los Angeles Times, October 9, 1902.

[5] “General Otis Pleased with His Trip to Mexico,” Los Angeles Times, October 16, 1902; Letter from Harrison Gray Otis to Porfirio Díaz, December 19, 1903, document 000430, legajo XXIX, Coleccíon Porfirio Díaz, Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City.

[6] Phoebe S. Kropp, California Vieja: Culture and Memory in a Modern American Place (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).  See also William Deverell, Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of its Mexican Past (Berkeley: University of Southern California Press, 2004).

[7] Errol Wayne Stevens, “Two Radicals and Their Los Angeles: Harrison Gray Otis and Job Harriman,” California History 84, no. 3 (2009) 44-70.

[8] Ibid.

[9] D. J. Waldie, “The Newsboy, the General, and the Lost Soldier of MacArthur Park,” https://www.kcet.org/shows/lost-la/the-newsboy-the-general-and-the-lost-soldier-of-macarthur-park.

[10] Martin Ansell, Oil Baron of the Southwest: Edward L. Doheny and the Development of the Petroleum Industry in California and Mexico (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1998); Margaret Leslie Davis, Dark Side of Fortune: Triumph and Scandal in the Life of Oil Tycoon Edward L. Doheny (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001); Dan La Botz, Edward L. Doheny: Petroleum, Power, and Politics in the United States and Mexico (New York: Praeger, 1991); Myrna Santiago, The Ecology of Oil: Environment, Labor, and the Mexican Revolution, 1900-1928 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[11] See Davis, La Botz, and Santiago.

[12] Statement of Edward L. Doheny, Investigation of Mexican Affairs, Hearing before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, 1919.

[13] See Davis, Ethington, and LaBotz.

[14] Rebecca Preston, “‘The Scenery of the Torrid Zone’: Imagined Travels and the Culture of Exotics in Nineteenth-Century British Gardens,” in Imperial Cities, edited by Felix Driver and David Gilbert, 194-214 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999).

[15] Translation of article published La Prensa, Los Angeles, April 12, 1919, box 34, Bergman Collection, Huntington Library.

[16] William Estrada, The Los Angeles Plaza: Sacred and Contested Space (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008); Kropp, California Vieja.

[17] Emily MacDonald-Korth and Leslie Rainer, “The Getty Conservation Institute Project to Conserve David Alfaro Siqueiros’s Mural América Tropical,” Getty Research Journal, no. 6 (2014) 103-114.

[18] Quoted in Kropp.

[19] Dolores Hayden, The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1995).

[20] See for example the important op-ed by Laura Dominguez, “Trump’s Stance on National Monuments is Straight out of the 19th Century,” Los Angeles Times, February 22, 2019, https://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-dominguez-antiquities-act-trump-monuments-20190222-story.html.

Jessica Kim is an associate professor of history at California State University, Northridge and the author of Imperial Metropolis: Los Angeles, Mexico, and the Borderlands of American Empire, 1865-1941 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

Copyright: © 2020 Jessica Kim. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Articles

Eating Thirty in Fresno: Finding Home at Hmong New Year

Lisa Lee Herrick

It starts in October with a whisper of smoke and silver tintinnabulations, with sequins flashing winter sun and glass beads tinkling with each delicate step of the approaching fairy parade. Ching-ching-ching!

It begins with the sharp bitterness of charred coriander, roasted lemongrass, and pork on the spit—fat spitting and sizzling onto hot charcoal—and the plangent beating of wooden pestles pounding shredded papaya within heavy-footed earthenware mortars. Tok-tok-tok!

It announces itself from the north with autumn’s first copper rust, from Oroville and Chico, then sweeps southward down California’s 450-mile spine—the great Central Valley—through Yuba City, Marysville, Sacramento, Stockton, Merced, until, finally, landing in Fresno for a weeklong celebration at the Fresno Fairgrounds, culminating with a cornucopia of sweet-and-savory treats, talent competitions, cultural exhibits and concerts as everyone wishes one another Nyob zoo xyoo tshiab!

The Hmong New Year Festival in Fresno is the largest annual gathering of overseas Hmong in the United States, attracting over 120,000 attendees and 200 vendors from around the world.[1] Today, over 101,000 Hmong Americans call California home—more than any other state in the U.S., according to the 2017 American Community Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau.[2] Fresno’s annual Hmong New Year Festival is a continuing testament to the resourcefulness, adaptability, and resilience of overseas Hmong to sustain a unified sense of identity through clan and kinship ties despite resettlement policies that purposely scattered Hmong refugees around the globe.

My parents and grandparents—as well as the 1.5 generation who were born and raised in Ban Vinai—still remember those stateless years waiting for sponsorship and fearing repatriation back into the maw of the newly-installed Pathet Lao state across the Mekong River. The Secret War disrupted the patrilineage that formed the foundation of Hmong cultural identity and its clans: nearly 25% of Hmong men and boys, or an estimated 30,000–40,000 Hmong soldiers, were killed in action; and up to 3,000 named missing in action.[3] This did not include the innumerable amount of civilian deaths during and after the Secret War. Survivors bonded in Ban Vinai refugee camp through shared trauma and proximity, forming tight kinship networks between friends and neighbors, each next of kin tearfully vowing to reunite someday. These promises would manifest as letters, phone calls, whisper networks, and audio-video recordings sent in the mail after safely resettling in their new respective host countries. I remember being fascinated by the colorful stamps from Thailand, China, French Guiana, France, and Germany that suddenly appeared in our mailbox each November. We listened to the voices of distant relations narrating their new lives and daily routines on cassette tape, and my parents cried hearing their songs rife with loneliness and longing for family. We watched VHS tapes of cousins hunting bushmeat in the Amazon Rainforest with their indigenous spouses and mixed-race children, who were even darker-skinned than us. My fair cousins from France mailed us perfumed letters with photographs of Le Jardin des Tuileries and L’Arc de Triomphe, and they looked stylish in their striped sweaters and tight jeans.

Starting in the 1980s, first- and second-wave Hmong refugees began settling in public housing projects in the southeast side of Fresno, California’s fifth-largest city, and established a uniquely Hmong enclave nicknamed “Ban Vinai Village,” after the eponymous refugee camp in Thailand where nearly all Hmong refugees were processed prior to its closure in 1992 by the Thai government. It was these first-wave Hmong refugees along with cultural leaders living in the metropolitan area that fostered the establishment of stable ethnic enclaves which, in turn, sponsored and financed subsequent waves of Hmong refugee resettlement. In 1977, there was only one Hmong refugee family recorded in Fresno, but by 1990, the Hmong population had exploded to 18,321 people.[4] In 2010, there were 31,771 Hmong living in Fresno.[5] In her book, The Hmong Refugee Experience in the United States: Crossing The River, Ines M. Miyares attributes the high concentration of clan leaders living in Fresno, including General Vang Pao, the de facto military and cultural leader for overseas Hmong, for this massive secondary migration: “[He] perceived the Valley to be a good location for the Hmong since the agricultural component of the region would decrease the stress of social and economic adjustment to American culture.” It was this pattern of secondary migration that established Fresno’s Hmong enclave despite official federal “scatter” policies from the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which were specifically designed to prevent the formation of such Southeast Asian ethnic communities.[6]

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Lisa Lee Herrick and her mother in their Merced apartment, 1986

I remember the day my parents announced that we were moving to Fresno, the urban epicenter of the San Joaquin Valley, because my mother wanted to be closer to her adult siblings and my father wanted to grow his home business. Like us, many Hmong refugee families had initially moved to Merced in the early 1980s when it was rumored that General Vang Pao planned to purchase a 3,500-acre farm to build a self-sufficient Hmong commune. When the utopian dream dissolved, clan leaders left Merced and Hmong families followed suit. We packed up our things in the middle of the school year in 1992, waved goodbye to our friends, and drove fifty miles down south on Highway 99 in search of “Ban Vinai Village.” In Fresno, my mother wore rubber flip-flops everywhere and grew herbs in tall plastic buckets clustered together in the backyard. She haggled with shopkeepers inside Asian Village Mall in Southeast Fresno over the price of imported fabrics and the potency of wild-foraged medicinal roots, much as she had experienced during her youth in the open-air markets of Xieng Khouang Province, Laos. To the casual observer, my mother’s life may have seemed poor, but the victorious grin on her face always betrayed her true feelings: here was a city that sounded, smelled, tasted, and felt like home.

Fresno imbued me with new perspectives and sensibilities about what it meant to be part of America’s long-standing immigrant narrative. My siblings and I formed hybrid identities as second-generation Americans from adjacent ethnic communities, and we adopted the nuances of our Mexican-American friends, neighbors, classmates, and co-workers—experimenting with cholo, chicano punk, bubble-gum, and emo-goth culture alike—plucking our eyebrows thin and sagging our jeans with our newfound tribes, and questioning cultural values and gender roles. However, one stalwart family tradition remained: every December after Christmas, we trekked toward downtown Fresno. We took the Ventura Avenue exit and followed it eastbound until it turned into Kings Canyon Boulevard, until the billboards, neon signs, and painted business names switched from English to Spanish and every language in between, until we reached the Fresno Fairgrounds and double-parked the family van in a lot filled with loose gravel. After the Hmong New Year Festival ended at sunset, we slurped phở at the cash-only cafes nearby then scanned street corners for the rainbow-striped umbrellas of the local fruit cart vendors for rose-cut mango con chile y limón.

This, too, was home.


When I was a teenager, the last thing I wanted to do during my winter break from high school was to dress up for Hmong New Year in my mother’s heavy, musty, hand-embroidered hemp clothing from her trousseau. I was a milk-fed American girl who ate cheeseburgers and fries nearly every weekday for lunch so, at sixteen, I was already wider and thicker than my mother, who was petite and fine-boned at five-foot-four and shrinking. Dressing up for the Hmong New Year was a multi-step process that can only be described as attempting to put on all of your formalwear at once while pinning the money from your wallet to every square-inch of fabric available—a must for good Hmong daughters to prove to potential suitors (and mother-in-laws) at Hmong New Year that you were wife material.

First, there was the black velvet jacket worn over a white, collared, button-down shirt, which was then wrapped around the waist using two thin cords. The seams of my hand-stitched jacket bulged and groaned against my widening back with each passing year, and I felt the pins and needles in my fingertips as the peacock blue cuffs coiled tighter and tighter around my meaty forearms.

“Why are your breasts so big!” my mother sighed, smacking my chest. “Are you wearing a bra or not?”

Mom!” I whined.

Next, came the heavy pleated hemp skirt. My paternal grandmother’s was dyed black with white trim, and cross-stitched with bright pink, orange, green, and turquoise threads symbolizing the Hmong’s journey over valleys and mountains to reach Laos because she was a member of the Green Hmong Tribe. My mother’s skirt was plain and white, because she was a member of the White Hmong Tribe, and she wrapped this around my hips with two long sashes. The skirt flared open in front like a hospital gown worn backwards, and my mother sucked at her teeth.

Aiyoh! Your butt’s too big for Hmong clothes,” she said. “If I had known that you girls would grow as big as cows in America, I would have bought more fabric. What? Why are you making that ugly face?”

The velvet and embroidered apron was essential for unmarried White Hmong Tribe girls, because it was worn over the front and the back of the pleated skirt for modesty. My mother instructed me to raise my elbows and spin slowly as she wound the long pink and green sashes around my waist and tied them tightly in the back. Then came the long belts with embroidery and silver piastres sewn directly into the fabric. After that, two purses were strapped across my chest so that each embroidered bag bounced on either side of my hips with their jingling coins. Once everything was adjusted, my mother piled up my long hair into a tight topknot, then wrapped an infinite roll of indigo fabric around my temples into a gravity-defying turban, binding my head so tightly that I felt my entire face lift up half-an-inch. A thin strip of black-and-white striped fabric was carefully draped over the turban and tucked to the nape of my neck with sharp bobby pins. The final touches were the heirloom jewelry: dainty silver earrings shaped like nippled bosoms, silver cuff bracelets painted with bright enamel triangles, rings, and the heavy silver yoke shackled around the neck. When completed, the costume weighed about twenty pounds—and added it, too.

“Can’t I just stay home?” I muttered. “This is so embarrassing.

“What’s so embarrassing?” my mother said. “This is your culture.”

“Exactly,” I said. Another smack.

The truth was that I didn’t enjoy going to Hmong New Year at the Fresno Fairgrounds because of the blatant staring. I had grown up in the barrio before moving to Fresno, which meant dipping pink conchas in black tea, chorizo with jasmine rice, lollipops rolled in Lucas Chamoy Polvo, and fish sauce in the pico de gallo. It meant long summer days in the strawberry fields every weekend, the skin on the back of your neck toasted warm brown like the color of cinnamon bark and stray dogs. It meant thick and ropey muscles from carrying five-gallon homer buckets full of fruit from sun-up to sundown so that your parents could make rent this month and next, and sometimes saying si pero while thinking out loud. At my school, I looked like everyone else. At Hmong New Year, I didn’t look like anyone else, and I glared at any flirtatious man who came too close to inspect me. This is how I stopped looking Hmong—how I already knew the words before they fell out of the old grandmothers’ wrinkled lips, the same words nested inside the false smiles of bemused aunties and their gawking husbands.

“Oh, this is your daughter? I thought she was a Mexican lady!”

Immediately followed by, “If only she wasn’t so big and dark, she could be Miss Hmong.” Cue me rolling my eyes, and another well-timed smack from my mother.

I found ways to silently rebel: I started dying my hair bright red and aggressively lined my eyes in black. One year, I wore my denim jacket over the costume. It was scrawled with anarchy signs and my favorite bands in permanent ink, and dotted with safety pins. Eventually, we called a truce when my little sister ran for Miss Hmong and I was no longer asked to dress up for the Hmong New Year, which suited me just fine. The torch had been passed.


The contemporary Hmong New Year Festival varies greatly from its predecessors in Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and China, which were rooted in clan leadership and the natural seasons of the Hmong’s agrarian lifestyle. Traditionally known as noj peb caug, or “eat thirty,” the celebration marked the end of the rice and maize harvest season. It was a time of rest when families could reunite after a long year of toiling in the fields and feast for thirty days; when lovers could court potential wives and husbands; when entire villages gorged on red meat instead of meager meals of boiled rice and vegetables; when wealthy Hmong could display their money shamelessly with heavy, silver jewelry; where women could advertise their artistry and wifely skills through hand-embroidered clothing; where men could play the queej to demonstrate their fitness and finesse. Ball-tossing, games, and animal fights entertained all audiences. The very first celebration of the modern Hmong New Year Festival was held December 1975 in Minnesota[7] shortly after the first wave of sponsored Hmong refugees arrived, but each subsequent year’s festival reflected shifting kinship ties as Hmong refugees assimilated into American culture and became less dependent on clan leadership for individual identity formation and collective decision-making.

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Hmong B-boys at Battle of the New Years 3, Courtesy of Gary Yang

The leaders of the nineteen family clans were wary of losing influence as Hmong families moved and clustered together along the Pacific Northwest and California. They transitioned their military experience into business protocols, transforming the Hmong New Year Festival from a regional cultural event into a global enterprise by aggressively recruiting corporate sponsors and vendors, fundraising, holding co-ed board elections, and lobbying the U.S. government to publicly acknowledge the contributions of Hmong military service members as United States veterans. Money flowed, and the Hmong New Year Festival became big business. Bloody bullfights and cockfights were replaced by friendly soccer matches and talent shows. Attendees still flirted by playing pov pob, ball-tossing games, but more and more people wore casual Western fashions rather than the intricate, handmade heirlooms handed down from their mothers. Those who chose to wear Hmong costumes remixed their fashions with folk costumes from Hmong in Vietnam, Thailand, and China, and they traded in expensive hand-stitched embroideries for cheaper mass-produced designs screen-printed on polyester instead. Neon yellow rubber tennis balls replaced the soft fabric-wrapped bundles, and rows of couples playing pov pob quickly turned into competitive handball games. In later years, with the rise of online video and affordable genetic testing, overseas Hmong began to reconnect to their family roots in China’s southern provinces, to Miao identity, which is a common misnomer for Chinese Hmong identity. A tree-topped pole modeled after the Miao Flower Mountain Festival (苗族花山节) has been recently erected atop a stage in the center of the main concourse, and academic researchers like Zhang Xiao, Director of the Center for Ethnic and Women Development Studies at Guizhou University, have also taken an interest in documenting the cross-cultural interchange. As the Hmong New Year Festival beefed up with growing global academic and commercial interests in overseas Hmong, accelerated expansion effected growing pains.

In August 2016, Hmong Americans watched apprehensively as U.S. President Barack Obama became the first American president to visit Laos and meet face-to-face with President Bounhang Vorachith. Many first-generation Hmong Americans distrusted the intentions of this meeting while second- and third-generation Hmong Americans, who had no recollection of the Secret War, expressed cautious optimism about reconciliation and new economic markets.[8] A few months later, the national narrative on refugees and the status of naturalized U.S. citizens changed drastically with presidential election results, and rumors surfaced that infighting within Hmong New Year Festival organizers over money would result in a three-way divorce with each group angling to poach the others’ attendance and sponsors. Today, Fresno’s Hmong New Year Festival(s) are managed by three separate community organizations: The Hmong International New Year Foundation, Inc., the Hmong Cultural New Year Celebration, Inc., and The United Hmong Council.


Lisa Lee Herrick_Hmong New Year 04_dancers

Despite the infighting and turf wars over the Hmong New Year Festival in Fresno, the cultural centerpiece and crowd-favorite remains the annual crowning of the ntxhais nkauj ntsuab, the Miss Hmong beauty queen, which was a program originally introduced in 1968 at Long Cheng military air base to boost Hmong soldiers’ morale following their resounding defeat at The Battle of Phou Pha Thi.[9] And, in the mix of all of this upheaval, I was appointed as a judge for the Miss Hmong USA beauty pageant in December 2017.

According to Gee Xiong’s 2013 Fresno State masters thesis, “Ntxhais Nkauj Ntsuab: A Study on the Miss Hmong Pageants in America,” Miss Hmong beauty pageants in America serve “entertainment purposes to supplement the urbanized glamour of Long Cheng; however, and notably, the pageant reflected the evolving atmosphere of the Hmong community in Long Cheng.” Xiong wrote that “[t]he contestants would walk on a stage in front of the judges, who were high ranking military officials, and nuv or essentially greet the judges in a polite fashion,” and that “the winner was expected to accompany the military officials to various New Year celebrations.”

In Claiming Place: On the Agency of Hmong Women, a seminal work examining Hmong American women at the intersections of gender and power, authors Chia Youyee Vang, Faith Nibbs, and Ma Vang connected this military narrative with broader notions on the role of women in twenty-first century Hmong culture:

“For contemporary Hmong women, a combination of subordinations imposed by those with different interests—such as Hmong experiences with French colonialism in Southeast Asia, Hmong struggles against the Lao state, U.S. military violence, refugee and diasporic experiences, and institutional inequities—produces their convoluted subjectivities. This complexity is often ignored in favor of centering analyses of power relations on their more easily targetable patriarchal social organization. Thus, we problematize this premise that the Hmong woman stands in for traditional culture.”[10]

In other words, Miss Hmong beauty pageants were designed to glorify the military narrative of the Secret War while embodying outdated Hmong gender roles assigned to women, i.e. to be subservient, polite, meek, agreeable, and fiercely loyal to one’s patrilineal clan.

And, in other words, everything that I am not.

As a staunch feminist and reformed hippie-punk artist with infrequently neon hair and frequently loud opinions, I sat stoically in my chair in front of the main stage at the inaugural Hmong Cultural New Year Celebration. I wondered if I was now part of a new vanguard of second- and third-generation cultural brokers, signifying that the Hmong American community was ready for new leadership. Did this mean that I was no longer the black sheep of the family? Was my appointment as a Miss Hmong USA beauty queen judge was purely ironic?

What did I really know about what an ideal Hmong woman was supposed to look, act, and sound like? I had eschewed my mother’s nightly paj ndaub lessons, preferring instead to run wild with the neighborhood boys in the woods and listen to Grandfather’s war stories. While the other Hmong girls from my parents’ church had married young and helped on the family farm or lived at home while taking classes at community college, I had enrolled at the furthest school possible and only returned on holidays to debate politics, justice reform, public policy, and queer rights with my uncles over their beers. My hair changed with my moods from pink to red to purple and blue, and I left rainbows smears all over my mother’s white pillows and towels that refused to wash out. I still enjoyed arm wrestling my male cousins. Did my appointment to influence the results of this year’s beauty pageant reflect a sea change in gender norms for Hmong American women, or could I wag the dog in some minute capacity?

When I showed my mother my official VIP badge and told her that I had been selected to serve on the judging panel, she doubled-over laughing on the couch until breathless. She couldn’t believe it.


Lisa Lee Herrick_Hmong New Year 02_studio photos

As it turned out, a lot had changed at the Hmong New Year Festival while I was away from Fresno.

During intermission, I walked around the Fresno Fairgrounds counting booths and absorbing the raucous din coming from each stall. Tinny, metallic music blasted over crackling speakers. Aggressive hawkers shouted into megaphones, their staccato syllables like rapid gunfire, corrosive and deafening. Little boys ran around shooting orange-tipped toy machine guns at one another while their mothers fingered primary-colored polyester outfits with ironed-on sequin stickers. A regal-looking Chinese Miao man sat silently on a reed stool, and seemed lost. Movie studios screened their latest action and horror films on competing widescreen TV monitors, the stories forgettable with wooden acting, stilted dialogue, and laughable special effects. Elderly crooners mewled whining love songs over electric keyboards while younger musicians passed out free posters advertising their latest self-produced album. One starlet wore skimpy lingerie and tight jeans, and she posed blandly for adoring (male) fans.

There was the crush of food vendors ghettoed against the north fence, each promoting such similar menus that they were nearly indistinguishable from the other:  sticky rice plates with your choice of American or Hmong sausage, steamed tilapia with cilantro and ginger, roasted chickens, strips of roasted pork belly, and Lao-style papaya salad. One vendor’s papaya salad was cloyingly sweet while another’s spectacular chili-sauce temporarily revived an otherwise lifeless selection of entrees. Each person had their own irrational loyalties. Everyone was ready to argue who had the best Hmong sausages in the row and why. New to this mall in recent years were spiral-cut potatoes on skewers, coated in mayonnaise and parmesan cheese. Cart vendors sold cinnamon sugar-dusted churros and giant deli pickles. There was Korean barbecue, Chinese fast-food noodles, boba tea, and mango con chile. It was a food court; a culinary free-for-all. If you closed your eyes, it smelled like any other festival or county fair, save for the light chiming of Hmong women in costume walking by. Although it was a thrill to have so many food options, I wondered if increased non-specific options meant straddling the edge of inauthentic cultural experiences in the name of big profits.

On my walk back to the judging tables, I passed by a table with discrete rainbow flag buttons. It was an information booth for a political group of college-educated Hmong young adults advocating for women’s rights, LGBTQ awareness, voter registration, and civil discussion. Although many people walked in a wide arc around the table or steered clear of it, the very fact of their undisturbed presence at the Hmong New Year Festival signaled to me that the sociopolitical undercurrents were already swirling, gathering quiet momentum. I noticed booths featuring tech startups, social media platforms, podcasts productions, graphic designers, and creative agencies founded and marketed by Hmong American entrepreneurs. A pair of brothers owned a distillery and legally-brewed Hmong rice wine for commercial consumption. By all accounts, you could say that Hmong Americans had finally arrived after forty years. It had been a slow and subterranean crawl, but here we were at last . . . but would the beauty pageant be able to keep up with this cultural shift?

Would there be a year when a mixed-race Hmong woman would walk the stage? Or a darker-skinned contestant—or someone plus-sized, with visible tattoos and piercings—or openly queer be accepted? Would the Hmong community be ready to question whether a transitioning woman was enough to qualify? Gazing at each of the fair-skinned, heavily rouged and powdered, and conventionally attractive contestants—each sporting the same set of heavy, black glued-on lashes—the only certainty was that it wasn’t going to be this year’s presentation.

At the end of the festival, the winner of the Miss Hmong USA beauty pageant was announced. Some people griped about how many of the contestants could barely speak Hmong or, when they did, they sounded robotic and rehearsed. (The Hmong language requirement was removed for the following year.) Many women complained bitterly that it made no sense to hold a bikini competition in the middle of winter. (The organizers revisited this comment.). A few clans feuded, each insulting the other over competing contestants. (The organizers decided that, next year, contestants would only state their first names and not their surnames.). One contestant staged an elaborately choreographed dance performance complete with sets and costume changes, visually narrating the story of the Hmong’s life before, during, and after the Secret War. She started with a traditional Hmong folk costume and ended in the army fatigues and machine gun of a Long Cheng soldier. (She didn’t win.) A video of one contestant’s off-key singing during the competition went viral and she was ridiculed online, but she returned the following year to compete regardless. (Organizers debated whether or not contestants were required to know how to sing.) Only some people wondered out loud whether a Miss Hmong beauty pageant was still culturally relevant if contestants did not need to know the language, were not allowed to state their clan affiliation, know how to sing, or display any deep knowledge of Hmong culture and history.

I wondered all of this myself, and realized that my answer was irrelevant because, for the first time, Hmong Americans were truly trying to define themselves independent of clan leaders and military narratives. If this meant researching and remixing fragments of Hmong identity to create a wholly new sense of self, then so be it. It was still an interpretation of Hmong culture and identity examined through the lens of personal experience. There was no such thing as a panacea or the ideal utopian Hmong society.

After the audience disbanded, I walked behind the stage to thank the organizers for inviting me to participate, and thanked each of the contestants for their preparation and effort. They looked more relieved that it was over than I did, and I understood then that their ambivalence reflected mine. It was born from the recognition of a generation of new Americans in flux, at the cusp of something quite new and entirely experimental. Our mutual uncertainty and trepidation was centered on predicting the future, whether we—the inheritors of our families’ shared traumas and struggles—could get the facts straight enough to tell the story right and move forward with a renewed sense of purpose into the new year.

Will Fresno remain the Hmong cultural capital of America in the following years, or bow out to the growing population of sociopolitically-aware and upwardly-mobile Hmong from the Twin Cities? It’s hard to say. For now, I can say for sure that hundreds of thousands of overseas Hmong will continue to gather here annually, regardless of who produces the Hmong New Year Festival, as long as Fresno continues to feel like home—as long as Fresno sustains venues where Hmong can explore and test their shifting cultural values against traditions.

WORKS CITED:

  1. “Hmong New Year Celebration Bringing People From Around The World to Fresno.” Vanessa Vasconcelos. ABC30.com. December 26, 2017. Link: https://abc30.com/amp/community-events/hmong-new-year-celebration-bringing-people-from-around-the-world-to-fresno/2824871/
  2. American Community Survey. U.S. Census Bureau, 2017. Link: https://www.hmongstudiesjournal.org/uploads/4/5/8/7/4587788/hmongca_acs_17_1yr.pdf
  3. Hmong Timeline. Minnesota Historical Society. Link: https://www.mnhs.org/hmong/hmong-timeline
  4. Ines M. Miyares. The Hmong Refugee Experience in the United States: Crossing The River. ed. Franklin Ng. New York: Routledge, 1998. pp. 3-38.
  5. AAPI Data. “The State of the Hmong American Community 2013.” p. 14. Link: https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=http://aapidata.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/State-of-the-Hmong-American-Community-2013.pdf&ved=2ahUKEwi72u3K1prlAhWYHTQIHekKAnsQFjASegQIBxAB&usg=AOvVaw3V9ycQNZ0Ni7e79vhQWBnO
  6. Miyares, p. 3-12: Although the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metropolitan area, Minnesota, has a higher Hmong population than Fresno, the latter is colloquially considered the unofficial Hmong capital of the United States thanks to concentrated clusters of cultural governing bodies such as Hmong military veteran associations and privately-operated social welfare & religious organizations headquartered in city limits that provided new arrivals with direct referrals for public aid, housing, medical care, employment, legal representation, higher education, financial aid and other resources.
  7. “Largest Hmong New Year Celebration Kicks Off in California.” Wang, Frances Kai-Hwa. NBC News (December 26, 2016). Link: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/largest-u-s-hmong-new-year-celebration-kicks-california-n700316
  8. “Laotian, Hmong Americans Cautiously Optimistic Ahead of Obama’s Laos Visit.” Wang, Frances Kai-Hwa. NBC News (August 30, 2016). Link: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/laotian-hmong-americans-cautiously-optimistic-ahead-obama-s-laos-visit-n640346
  9. Gee Xiong. “Ntxhais Nkauj Ntsuab: A Study on the Miss Hmong Pageants in America.” Fresno State University, 2013. Link: https://books.google.com/books/about/Ntxhais_Nkauj_Ntsuab.html?id=wxIcoAEACAAJ
  10. Vang, Chia Youyee, Faith G. Nibbs, and Ma Vang. Claiming Place: On the Agency of Hmong Women. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016. p. ix.

 

Lisa Lee Herrick is a second-generation Hmong American writer, artist, and media specialist who helped produce the film, The Hmong and The Secret War, now available at PBS.org. She is a former television executive and award-nominated news journalist, and a founding member of the LitHop literary festival. Her essays and illustrations have been featured on or are forthcoming from The Rumpus, Food52, The Bold Italic, The Normal School, and others. She is writing a family memoir about the inheritance and aftermath of trauma, a cookbook, and two graphic novels.

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