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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.

0770_236500001

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.

125_73DF_6530001raw

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.

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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.

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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.

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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/.

Articles

Following the Moniker Trail: Hobo Graffiti and the Strange Tale of Jack London, Skysail, and A-No. 1

Susan Phillips

Figure 1.

Railroad shed on the Southern Pacific Line, Red Bluff, California. Photograph by Robert Ranberg, 1969. Courtesy of the Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society.

In his book The Road, Jack London describes his experiences living as a hobo. From hopping trains, begging, and doing time to writing graffiti, London’s book recounts his experiences traveling across North America in the 1890s. During this period, London was known by several monikers, including Frisco Kid, Sailor Kid, and Sailor Jack due to his work on ships and his home in the Bay Area of California, near San Francisco. Based on London’s 1894 diary and experiences, The Road describes encounters with fellow hobos, wanderers, gypsies, lawmen, and trainmen, as well as his adventures with Kelly’s Industrial Army, a migratory group protesting unemployment and labor issues in the United States. Within this rich backdrop, London writes about the importance of tramp communication. While London’s writings about the Klondike and other topics put him on the literary map, his hobo writings remain lesser known.[1]

Hoboing or tramping was rooted in post-Civil War infrastructural, railroad, and urban development.[2] Distinct traditions of cultural expression emerged among both hobos and railroad workers in the mid-to-late 19th century that followed the wake of railroad construction. References to hobo graffiti from this period are well known in literature, but less is known about works documented in photography, or carvings that survive at various sites around the United States. After finding a wall of intact hobo writing in Los Angeles in 2000 dated 1914-1921, I began research into the topic across a broader geographical range and during an earlier time period.

Figure 2

Oakland Red in Los Angeles, California, 1914-1921. Oakland Red utilized a negative lettering style that would have been customarily rendered in hobo carvings and is still used in contemporary graffiti today. The letter “W” below his name may indicate his westward direction of travel.

Analysis of hobo graffiti—or any graffiti for that matter—necessitates an embrace of the tension between conjecture and empiricism. Graffiti can be tricky analytical ground. The self-sequestering nature of hobo populations has led to everything from academic erasure to a surrounding literature that toggles between meticulous observation and extreme lack of rigor. In his writing about hobos, for example, musicologist Graham Raulerson says that, in part due to their Wobbly philosophies, hobos tend to mistrust linear notions of history in favor of a “more spontaneous, place-bound view of time…partly because of the centrality of boredom and waiting in the hobo lifestyle.”[3]

Enter graffiti—craft of boredom and icon of lives temporally and physically in between. Graffiti is a singularly well-suited device for analyzing hobo and other fringe groups. It’s a self-produced medium of expression defined by absent authors, idle time, and encoded evasions. For these reasons, graffiti remains a neglected but particularly useful form of primary source data that can be analyzed across multiple historic circumstances.

In the 20th century United States, urban graffiti has been one manifestation of what it means to claim space on the part of fringe populations. Taking over city-space is often less overtly political than it is a key ingredient in what I think of as “soul survival.” By this I mean that graffiti is not only used in functional ways that insure the physical survival of marginalized people. Writing graffiti also does something bigger: it feeds the internal self on a steady diet of insider status, special knowledge, and the communal joy in one another’s company. The importance of that usually outweighs whatever direct benefits come from the messages themselves.

Figure 3

Surviving hobo carvings at Medford, Oregon’s Medford Railroad Park. Original photograph by Tony Johnson taken before the building’s restoration. Note the initials “CCC” which may have stood for the Civilian Conservation Corps, part of Roosevelt’s New Deal programming.

Even before the 1890s and well past the 1920s, hobo graffiti was the equivalent of what more common graffiti tagging is today—the main kind of subcultural writing inscribed in public locations other than on bathroom walls. From the mid-nineteenth century onward, hobos had created styles of writing directed at one another that were placed in or near rail yards, on wooden sheds or water tanks, under bridges, on sewer trestles, or sometimes on residential dwellings, fences, or other structures. For hobos, writing or carving monikers was a way for a transient population to remain connected despite the unpredictability of clandestine railroad travel, a lack of telecommunications, and frequent incarceration. Carved or written traces stayed in place, acting as clues for other hobos as to the past and future locations of the writer. That was the functional part. The messages also meant that people were connected, that they had a place, and that they were part of something, even when they had been rejected from everything else. Soul survival.

Popular understandings of the “hobo code” fixed most prominently in the American imagination are largely limited to unsubstantiated, self-referencing accounts of an intricate system of communication across the hobo ranks, most commonly associated with the depression era. Comparatively little attention has been paid to the more prolific, simpler, and corroborated forms of writing on the part of hobos at the turn of the century. In his work on hobos and Jack London, John Lennon argues that it is not enough to consider what London “wrote” but what London “did.” I wish to take this impulse one step further by analyzing hobo graffiti not only through literary texts on the subject, as has been the case in the past, but through the actual marks that hobos themselves created. So far, no treatment of this phenomenon has looked to actual graffiti marks in order to analyze this subject. And while surviving hobo graffiti is rare, pockets of it remain around the United States, along with photographic documentation of writings that no longer survive.[4]

Using graffiti to analyze hobo practices does not eliminate the tension between conjecture and empiricism. However, graffiti provides a productive nexus between the two that can drive more informed lines of questioning, empirically grounded research trajectories, links to specific archival and historical materials and, ultimately, the creation of more reliable forms of knowledge. Graffiti, and what I think of metaphorically as “following the moniker trail,” tells us where to look and the sorts of questions we might ask. As with many kinds of folkloric materials, graffiti is a playful form of evidence due to its illicit nature and absent authors. Jeff Ferrell writes that traditional methodologies are inadequate to the task of studying fringe, transient populations as whole. Hobo history, he argues, is a case study in “ambiguity and absence” and requires methods that match the ethos of insider communities. [5] The grounding graffiti provides is invaluable for a topic that has been plagued by assumptions, misinformation, and romanticized mythologizing.

Contemporaneous with London, Leon Ray Livingston, better known as “A-No. 1,” claimed to be the most famous hobo in the United States by the beginning of the twentieth century. He had travelled across the world, purportedly logging over 500,000 miles on just $7.61.[6]  He recounted his journeys in over a dozen books. A-No. 1 was a hobo tagger extraordinaire. He had carved his moniker all over the United States: in boxcars, on walls, on water tanks, on fences. He once served a five-month sentence in a San Francisco jail for carving his moniker into the wood of fancy hotels and bars. A lifelong rambler, he is credited with consolidating the entire system of hobo communication through his publications. Despite his romantic writings on the subject, he urged kids on the road to avoid the tramp life and often paid their return fares home. Dozens of newspaper accounts detail his graffiti-related escapades. Despite his notoriety in the early twentieth century, Leon Ray Livingston is today a relatively unknown figure.

Figure 4

Cover of From Coast to Coast with Jack London showing a photograph of Leon Ray Livingston and Jack London. A-No. 1 Publishing Co., 1917.

Even lesser known is the relationship between Jack London and A-No. 1. In his book From Coast to Coast with Jack London, Livingston described a series of farfetched adventures with London as a young man. In the book, Livingston hopes to return London home to the Bay Area, to cure him of a life of wandering. From Coast to Coast was published just one year after Jack London’s death with the permission of London’s widow, Charmian London. A-No. 1’s account, though entirely fictitious, was later made into a 1973 film, Emperor of the North, which starred Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine. [7] Both the book and film cemented the false impression that the two had hoboed together, but archival evidence definitively refutes this notion. They did eventually meet and maintain a relationship until London’s death, but this was long after either of them was on the road. While A-No. 1’s accounts are full of exaggeration, his stories communicate a passion for the road and its problems and abuses.

London’s and Livingston’s accounts of the system of graffiti communication are in close alignment, and their core descriptions of this practice are supported by ample photographic documentation of hobo writing from this same period. Before introducing a key site of California-based hobo graffiti, I want to position that work within the broader history of trail and town marking in the United States and Europe to contextualize the pre-cursors of hobo graffiti, including vagabond marking, frontier identity, and colonial expansion.

Pioneers, “Gypsies,” Beggars, and Thieves

Several forms of what might be called “trail marking” pre-date the culture of hobo writing that developed in the nineteenth century. First is the practice of carving out the west as a frontier landscape by marking trails beginning in the seventeenth century on the part of pioneers and colonizers.[8] Individuals with Anglo and Spanish surnames left names, dates, and messages in places now named for the graffiti on them, such as Pioneer Register in Utah, Signature Rock in Wyoming, Inscription Loop at El Morro National Monument in New Mexico, and Register Cliff or Independence Rock on the Oregon Trail. These “pioneers” following westbound or northbound routes carved either on pristine desert rock or next to the in-situ rock art of indigenous populations as a form of claiming or communion. In addition to carved letters, early pioneers sometimes left trail markings in tar—axle grease from their wagon wheels. Pioneer graffiti is aberrant in its association with what would become a dominant population but very much in line with people using graffiti to mark waypoints on a journey. The project of westward expansion and trail marking continued into the twentieth century and is carried forward today by contemporary hikers following some of the same routes.

A second example of trail marking that acts as a precursor to hobo graffiti is the polar opposite of the pioneer graffiti above. These are the sometimes-mythologized codes in the US and Europe associated with fringe populations that were not tied to property, and that were connected to work in a way that was like the people at stake—itinerant. The history of this type of code writing is linked to wandering and labor, and to how vagabonds, tramps, “gypsies,” or travelers, and what were called “the roving unemployed” created interconnections despite their continual movement. [9] Early accounts of this practice exist among Romani people in Europe, for example, and scholars of the subject describe the way Romani would scatter grass or leaves, or arrange sticks in certain ways that gave meaning to the raw landscape. Romani also marked houses with so-called “chine” codes that judged the inhabitants and their habits to note where opportunities might be profitable or work welcome. Paola Toninato argues that

Nature supplies the Roma with a ‘semantic space’ onto which they can symbolically ‘inscribe’ the ephemeral messages conveyed via their non-alphabetic graphic practices. This semantic relationship with nature enables the Roma to survive among the non-Roma by providing them with a separate communication system and thereby a means of distinguishing themselves from the non-Roma.

Toninato pulls from various sources, including ethnographic accounts from the mid nineteenth century.[10]

A type of coding similar to the Roma chine codes was also utilized among non-Roma English and Scottish beggars and thieves. For example, John Camden Hotten’s 1865 The Slang Dictionary includes a chapter entitled “The Account of the Hieroglyphics Used by Vagabonds.” Hotten details the manner in which English tramps would not only mark doorsteps or other areas with signals, but also affix paper maps to tramp lodging house interiors in order to provide neighborhood, street, and house determinations regarding these areas or their inhabitants. Hotten includes a reproduction of one such map along with an explanatory key (see Fig 5). He notes that the widespread “English practice of marking everything, and scratching names on public property, extends itself to the tribe of vagabonds.”[11] In other words, Hotten describes a generic graffiti tradition at that time in England, which makes the contents and placement of the writing, rather than the generic practice of writing, an insider as opposed to outsider practice.

Figure 5

Cadger’s Map with an “Explanation of the Hieroglyphics.” From John Camden Hotten’s Slang Dictionary, 1885.

In the cases above, the notion of migration or movement is key, wherein people use graffiti to claim space for different reasons, to leave messages for one another, and use writing to anchor themselves temporarily in place. In the first case, graffiti associated with pioneers and colonizers helped to create a vision of the west as a blank slate. In the second case, the unknowns of towns for wandering populations inspired marking traditions that were both functional and that signaled reciprocity within disempowered populations. Because all of the above people were in motion, these examples of graffiti practices counter the ephemerality of movement and outsider status with concrete symbolic productions.

 Hobo Culture

Hoboing was initially a post-Civil War phenomenon. The Civil War had helped to develop railroad lines to carry troops, and the post-War era accompanied the shift from an agrarian to an industrialized economy. So-called “tramping” transformed from a largely foot-based, walking endeavor with the development of the railroad, which expanded opportunities for long-range travel. The Civil War had both absorbed the ranks of existing wanderers and created many more by simply shoving people post-war into a world that had undergone significant transformation. This shift caused a generation of individuals to take to the road—people who could no longer find their place economically or socially, and who sought out opportunities where the newly built railroads could carry them. They soon developed a culture of the road shared among fellow travelers. Much of the travel was structured around itinerant work opportunities, and a network of so-called “jungles,” or hobo camps, soon developed across the U.S. and Canada. The boom in the tramping population aided the building of roads, bridges, railroads, houses, buildings, water infrastructure, and sewer lines. Hobos partially made up the labor for these endeavors, and had on again off again relationships to municipalities and law enforcement.[12]

Several excellent scholarly accounts depict hobo social groups this period, including Nels Anderson’s 1923 sociological-practitioner classic The Hobo, Todd DePastino’s Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America, Tim Cresswell’s The Tramp in America, and John Lennon’s Boxcar Politics. [13] Analyzing everything from the road to hobo sexual practices, this scholarship is rich in aspects of the culture and includes some references to carvings and monikers. Complimenting this work are many first-hand accounts of hobo life, including most notably the writings of Jim Tully and Josiah Flynt, as well as A-No. 1 (Leon Ray Livingston) and Jack London.[14] Among these, A-No. 1’s works are as questionable as they are prolific. While Nels Anderson, for example, discounts the writings of A-No. 1 as exaggerated and unpopular among an insider hobo readership, he also bases his entire discussion of nicknaming on A-No. 1’s work.

Little is known about hobo practices of marking towns and cities other than the “fake folklore” versions of the mythologized hobo code one can find on the Internet.[15] The most simplified versions of this use some of the same symbols as did the cadger’s code or Romani Chine codes above, and for the same purpose. In an early text from the United States, detective, spy, and author Allan Pinkerton describes a hobo code that he indicates is derived directly from these earlier traditions—and that was popular among multi-generational begging families with roots in “the old country.”[16]

Pinkerton is a complicated figure in American history. He was a spy during the Civil War and a slave abolitionist whose house was a stop on the Underground Railroad. He also engaged in union busting, particularly by exposing union corruption among the railroads. His writing exhibits a street-worthy judgment of tramping and its life of hard knocks, but he is unexpectedly sympathetic to the cause of tramps due to his own experiences tramping as a youth. He approaches the culture as someone who wishes to rectify the misunderstandings surrounding it. In his 1878 book Strikers, Communists, Tramps, and Detectives, Pinkerton describes what he calls “mendicant freemasonry” on the part of tramps to help them find a pathway, to rely on one another not to start from scratch, and to get the lay of the land before entering a new town. Pinkerton writes that:

Among this class every possible art and device is resorted to. Charts of the country, showing the best routes for travel, and of cities, designating the most benevolent neighborhoods, are common. This same class have a regular system of operation. In the cities they beg during the winter, and when summer comes, one of a party will start out in advance and “work a route” as a peddler or tinker. In this way, as he stops at nearly every house on a designated route, he will have learned the character of the inmates, whether they are benevolent or rude, and he seldom takes his departure without leaving some pre-arranged sign to indicate to him who follows after, just where, and where not, to make application. These scamps become such keen and correct judges of people and surroundings that they scarcely ever commit an error; and if one could read the hieroglyphics upon door, steps, gate, fence, or tree, which is usually laid to the chalk or jackknife of the bad boy of the neighborhood, they could ascertain just what opinion was had of them by the tramps who have passed that way.[17]

Pinkerton stops short of deciphering specific codes utilized in this practice, saying that “deciphering these symbols is simply impossible.”[18] Groups would routinely change the signs in order for others not to take advantage of their labor. Without providing specific descriptions, Pinkerton describes only a generic tradition linked to earlier European practices that communicate about conditions on the road and the temper of towns where police were on the prowl or where inhabitants might trade labor for food or a place to sleep. Like Hotten’s example before him, Pinkerton’s account is difficult to substantiate as a singular source of unverifiable information.

It is almost certain that tramps in the United States left some sort of signage on fences, signposts, post boxes, and so forth in towns and urban centers—and the contents of the simplified codes in European and U.S. cases are startlingly similar. There are simply too many stories and nostalgic remembrances to discount it entirely. But little direct evidence exists of this practice aside from the kind of unsubstantiated writing in which Pinkerton engages, some newspaper accounts, references in literature, and the memories of people who grew up seeing such marks.

As with many hobo practices, this sort of signage has been most subject to fabrication. Graham Raulerson writes that in general, since World War II, “the concept of the hobo has trended toward mythology.”[19] In his exploration of hobo graffiti, John Lennon argues that he has never found convincing evidence of an advanced symbolic system among hobos, but rather a strong tradition of names, dates, and directions: “Although it seems reasonable that some hobos could have used common symbols – especially in populated urban centers – to communicate certain information, my research has shown that hobo graffiti is comprised of much more basic materials: monikers, dates, and logos.” Giving examples from Jack London, writer and hobo Jim Tully, and hobo composer Harry Partch, Lennon discusses the need to “remove hobo graffiti from a pedestal of a sophisticated language system that supposedly revealed a secret coded history of hobos. Instead, these writers’ examples place hobo graffiti within the larger overall history of graffiti, where wall markings are about illegally emplacing a name on property, symbolically stating their presence as a member of minority subculture.”[20]

As Lennon observes, hobo graffiti has been subject to uncritical circulation, especially via the Internet, but comparatively little grounded research. I have never seen a firsthand photograph or example featuring any symbols said to be part of the hobo code.[21] Each time I have been introduced to a new site with surviving hobo writing or its documentation, I wonder whether it might contain evidence of this practice, but so far I have encountered nothing remotely similar to it. A skeptic’s view of this phenomenon is supported due to the amount of surviving hobo graffiti whose contents are not linked to such practices. Seen another way, however, the places and media that hobos would have used to create coded markings—such as fences or sign posts marked in chalk or charcoal—were less likely to survive than the carving they produced on wooden sheds or fences.

Hobo Graffiti

As argued above, the mystique of the hobo codes has eclipsed the well-documented, prolific writing practices in which hobos engaged at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During this period, hobo graffiti was the equivalent of what more common graffiti tagging is today—the main kind of subcultural writing inscribed in public locations other than on bathroom walls. Carved nicknames, or monikers (sometimes written as “monicas”), were based on personal characteristics and places of origin, and hobo writers often included dates with arrows and letters (N, S, E, or W) indicating the direction of travel. They placed these writings in or near rail yards, on wooden sheds or water tanks, or sometimes in hobo jungles under the shelter of bridges or in other locations near the railroad. The basic hobo equation of a nickname, a direction signified by an arrow and sometimes place name, and the date would become a foundational graffiti tradition in the United States in the twentieth century.

Figure 6

Earliest documented hobo carving by Montana Slim, dated 1875, from Red Bluff, CA. Montana Slim indicates that he is bound north on April 11, 1875. There is a discrepancy between this graffiti and the official recording of the building’s construction in 1880.

For hobos, writing or carving monikers was a way for a transient population to remain connected despite the unpredictability of clandestine railroad travel, a lack of telecommunication, and frequent incarceration. Carved or written traces stayed in place, acting as clues for other hobos as to the past and future locations of the writers. Hobos created a society of insiders through nicknames and special knowledge that included a tradition of clandestine writing as well as distinctive forms of dress, song writing and storytelling traditions, and other forms of carving, such as potato or wood carving, that might earn a modest income.[22] Hobos also created a unique community of practice with intimate knowledge of train schedules, methods of hopping and riding the rails, tricks to avoid police or railroad “bulls,” and the uncanny ability to earn the sympathy of kind-hearted housewives. “Sit down” dinners, handouts, or care packages acted as counterweights to police brutality and targeted incarceration that were frequent companions to hobo life.

Montana Slim’s carving in the image above hosts a discrepancy between the carved date 1875 and the recorded date of this building’s construction in 1880. The graffiti casts doubt upon the officially recorded date not just because of the presence of the 1875 carving, but because of one key piece of contextual information: The Southern Pacific Line to Red Bluff was completed in December 1871.[23] This date of completion makes Montana Slim’s northbound journey in April of 1875 possible, and it provides a potential new construction date for the building that would support a place to query the veracity of official documents. Graffiti and official records are equally reliable and equally full of error. To render these two forms of recording equivalent flips power hierarchies on their heads by questioning information entered into official records and by considering in the same breath what is carved by the hands of fringe populations.[24]

Following the Moniker Trail

Jack London first tried hoboing in the summer of 1892 at sixteen years of age.[25] After getting his feet wet with mostly local trips, he began a cross continental journey in 1894 when he was eighteen. During these periods, he first went by the monikers Frisco Kid, Sailor Kid, and, in 1894, Sailor Jack. London wrote of the moniker tradition in his 1907 memoir The Road, which recounted his travels in 1894:

Water-tanks are tramp directories. Not all in idle wantonness do tramps carve their monicas, dates, and courses. Often and often have I met hoboes earnestly inquiring if I had seen anywhere such and such a “stiff” or his monica. And more than once I have been able to give the monica of recent date, the water-tank, and the direction in which he was then bound…I have met hoboes who, in trying to catch a pal, had pursued clear across the continent and back again, and were still going.[26]

Both Jack London and Leon Ray Livingston wrote of “following the moniker trail” of people with whom they sought to connect. A-No. 1 recounts two stories of chasing missing boys across the country by following out their monikers. Jack London wrote of his desire to link up with a man named Skysail Jack. London had heard that Skysail shared his own Bay Area origin and had worked in the harbor—hence the distinctive appellation so similar to London’s own. London imagined they would get on famously together:  “I was a ‘comet’ and ‘tramp-royal, so was Skysail Jack; and it was up to my pride and reputation to catch up with him. I ‘railroaded’ day and night, and I passed him; then turn about he passed me.”[27] In his treatment of the hobo in U.S. culture and literature, John Lennon describes London’s tale “as a hyper-masculine competition where there were neither prizes nor even rules—just who could get farther ahead of the other”—all “marked by a trail of graffiti left in each other’s wake.”[28] To me, London’s pursuit of Skysail always reads as full of longing—he recounts a series of missed opportunities, all signaled by carvings, that ultimately indicate the loss of potential male communion as opposed to competition. For London, Skysail’s carvings were simply not a good enough stand in for the real person: “Skysail Jack and Sailor Jack – gee! if we’d ever got together.”[29]

My own version of following the moniker trail began inadvertently in 2000. I was with a group of friends in 2000 looking for historic graffiti in Los Angeles. Tommy Maron, artist Chaz Bojórquez, Ben Higa and I had formed a team whose quest was to find older graffiti in the city. One day, we hit pay dirt, finding an intact wall of hobo graffiti under a bridge just above the confluence of the L.A. River and the Arroyo Seco. The wall included names such as Kid Bill, Chito the Tuscon Kid, Harden, Kid Smith, and Oakland Red, with dates from August 1914, July 1919, or 1921. Over a decade later, I realized that the wall included one notable name: A-No. 1. I had thought the name was Spanish, for Año, and had thus read over it for many years without realizing its significance. After I gave a presentation at the Autry Museum of the American West on behalf of the L.A. History & Metro Studies Group of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, the news of A-No. 1’s name and the hobo wall in general generated national and international media attention. It all came as a bit of a surprise, especially so many years after the initial find.

The news coverage put me in touch with people who wanted to recount childhood memories or who wanted to tell me about places they knew of that might have similar markings. One of those people was Joel Reinhard of Red Bluff, California. Reading the news coverage about A-No.1, Reinhard contacted me regarding a photo archive of hobo carvings that had been documented by amateur photographer Robert Ranberg in 1969. Upon Ranberg’s death, Reinhard had recognized the importance of these images along with a 16mm film of hobo carvings. He literally plucked them from the trash heap and then turned them over to the Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society, where they remained in storage for several years. I travelled to Red Bluff to meet with Reinhard, eager to see the collection. Upon viewing slides and film, I was surprised to recognize some of the names carved onto the walls—including several monikers Jack London refers to in The Road. These included Buck Kid, Midget Kid, Skysail himself, the date 1894, and one of London’s own monikers, Frisco Kid. I eventually helped to digitize these materials for the Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society and spent a great deal of time analyzing the photographs and film and their contents.

Figure 7

Kid Wing plus initials. Photograph by Robert Ranberg. Courtesy of the Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society.

A great deal of beautiful lettering appears on the wall—the word “Portland” carved in Old English font, creative letterforms, various monikers and hometowns, and two carved birds. The most prolific carver was Kid Wing, who also wrote his full name, Wing Foey. Wing Foey was related to an original Chinese family in Red Bluff. The Foeys still make their home there, including Bill Foey, a prolific author and artist who was interested to find out more about his Uncle Wing. I was able to meet with Bill after a presentation for the Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society in summer 2018. Because Bill’s father and grandfather had children at older ages, Bill is just the third generation beyond the founding members of the Red Bluff Foeys. At one point Kid Wing carved “Import Tokay” next to his name, referencing the cheap wine in which hobos might partake. Broken bottles of Tokay wine appear in the final cuts of Ranberg’s film, and Bill Foey believed that his Uncle Wing may have struggled with substance abuse. Kid Wing’s story, recounted here in only a cursory manner, hints at a more complete picture of hobo life during the latter 1800s and early 1900s.

Figure 8

“Frisco Kid.” Film still taken from 16mm film by Robert Ranberg, 1969. Courtesy of the Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society.

Other keystone carvings bring the tale back to the somewhat complex relationship between London, Skysail, and A-No. 1. In 1892, 1894, and 1905, respectively, each of these individuals seems to have carved their monikers into a wall off the sheds along Red Bluff’s Southern Pacific Line. Prolific hobo graffiti writer Tex-KT (Tex King of Tramps) carved his name there too, probably much later, making it a veritable wall of hobo graffiti superstars. One of London’s road-kid names appears as well: “Frisco Kid” was a moniker he used in the summer of 1892 when he was taking baby steps in freight hopping. There is no way to attribute this mark to him definitively.[30]  But the other writing on the wall does settle one minor discrepancy associated with London’s work. While recounting his pursuit of Skysail in The Road, London confused the dates, writing that Skysail carved his initials on 9-15-94. But London transcribed that as being October 15, 1894 instead of September of that year. Richard Etulain notes that this is a mistake on London’s part, but he doesn’t tell us how he knows this.[31] One piece of evidence in favor of that interpretation comes from the walls themselves.

In October 1894, a crew of hobo notables passed through Red Bluff, leaving their names together on the wall. One of them was Skysail, who appears along with carver Den. Brook. (Den. is for Denver; I am unsure why a period appears after Brook), Midgit Kid (whose name appears in the image above as Miget Kid), Scoty Sho. (meaning unknown), Colo. Slim (for Colorado Slim), Det. Kid (for Detroit Kid) and Sailor YT (YT is occasionally used in hobo writing but I have been unable to determine the meaning). This carving indicates that the crew was southbound by the depiction of a large letter S, along with the date 10/16/94. This date makes it impossible for Skysail to be in Canada pursued by Jack London just one day earlier, and lends credibility to the interpretation that London’s Canadian pursuit of Skysail took place in September. It’s a small example of the way that graffiti can both complicate temporalities and settle them through an altogether different kind of evidence, constructed by hobos themselves.

The year 1894 was the same year as London’s journey, and the year of Kelly’s Army/Coxey’s Army, in which London participated and about which he wrote. The October date would have been after the army disbanded in August of that year after their months of organizing and the march on Washington as labor protest.[32] The October 1894 date works well temporally and geographically based on London’s pursuit of Skysail through Canada that he recounts as taking place that September, a few weeks earlier.

Figure 9

“Skysail” and friends, 10/16/94. Red Bluff, California. Film still taken from 16mm film by Robert Ranberg, 1969. Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society.

Graffiti invites conjecture, which begs the question about how to distinguish the suggestive from the empirical. One can hint at connections that remain unsubstantiated—such as Jack London as the Frisco Kid on the wall in Red Bluff. But the best graffiti analysis blends conjectural statements with more definitive ones—such as a group of hobo monikers appearing on a wall and whose “noms-de-rail” Jack London subsequently writes of, including Buck Kid, Midget Kid, and Skysail himself.

After his return from tramping in 1894, London wrote about a hobo youngster in a series of stories entitled “The Frisco Kid” and “The Frisco Kid Comes Back” in which he captured some of the linguistic parlance of hobo road kids of the time. He penned these stories while still in high school and utilized the appellation that he himself had taken on in his early travels. While it is impossible to definitively link the carving of Frisco Kid to London’s own hand, the dates, geographic location, and proximity to other characters of which London writes add veracity to this interpretation. In this case, the tension between empiricism and conjecture is productive as opposed to mythologizing. The questioning that emerges from it is connected to historical events and archival data as opposed to guesses that lead to further speculation or self-referencing conclusions.

In the case of A-No. 1, his own fictitious representation of the association between him and Jack London has muddied the analytical waters surrounding their relationship for nearly a century. After London’s 1907 publication of The Road, A-No. 1 had admired the famous author from afar and eventually penned a ten-page letter to him. A-No. 1’s reason for writing was his concern for the plight of tramps in the convict lease system—a practice he compared to slavery that targeted northern tramps and tramps of African American origin in the Southern United States. Livingston attempted to enlist the help of London, whom he considered had the ear of the public and could possibly galvanize change around this issue. While convict leasing may have been the stated reason for the correspondence, my guess is that A-No. 1 simply wanted to connect to London, whose work wound up inspiring Livingston’s own literary career. He wrote: “Perhaps you have heard of me many a time while ‘rambling’ up and down ‘lines’ and across lots. I am known everywhere under the ‘monika’ of ‘A-No. 1.” This letter began their relationship long after their hobo years had ended. They did meet in person eventually and maintained a relationship until London’s death. The archival information related to their story evidences somewhat of an uneven relationship between the two, and a bit of a wet-blanket reception regarding the idea of a piece on convict leasing on London’s part. But A-No. 1 continued to correspond with Jack and then with Charmian London after Jack’s death. He eventually gained permission from the widow to write From Coast to Coast.

A-No. 1 accidentally got on Charmian London’s bad side after Jack’s death. In a letter to her, A-No. 1 described his publication plans in From Coast to Coast that seemed to include a mention of alcohol in conjunction with Jack’s name. Then, in attempted praise for Mrs. London, A-No. 1 suggested that she, Charmian, might have had a hand in some of Jack’s writing.[33] Charmian did not take kindly to either suggestion. On June 10, 1917, she wrote: “My dear Mr. Livingston (A-No. 1): I am going to give you a scolding, and I am sure that you will feel that I am justified.” She admonished him never, ever to write about Jack in association with alcohol, to change the electrotype of his forthcoming book at any cost, and never to insinuate that anyone penned Jack’s works but Jack himself. After this tirade, Charmian threatened A-No. 1 in a post-script: “be careful of what you say about JL now.” If she were “nasty,” she might choose to give up the entire story about him and Jack not actually being companions on the road. A-No. 1 must have had that kicked-in-the-gut feeling we’ve all had from time to time. He plead misunderstanding and begged forgiveness via telegram from Erie, Pennsylvania to Glen Ellen, California.[34]

Figure 10

A-No. 1, 1905. Red Bluff, Photograph by Robert Ranberg, 1969. Courtesy of the Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society.

As complex as life can be, the walls offer a welcome simplicity. For all the drama of A-No.1’s relationship with Jack and Charmian, for all the unrequited longing between Skysail and Sailor Jack, graffiti cuts life down to its bare essentials. Complex stories are always behind the statement “I was here.” In this case, the “here” turned out to be Red Bluff.  In 1905, A-No. 1 came through town, leaving a trail of carvings in his wake.[35] While London, Skysail, and A-No. 1 were never on the road together in the conventional sense, they actually did wind up together, on this one wall, on this one shed, off the Southern Pacific Line in Red Bluff, California. London, Skysail, and A-No. 1 were connected in place but disconnected in time. The walls held convergence nonetheless.

The buildings where these carvings resided burned down in 1969, shortly after Robert Ranberg filmed and photographed them. Ranberg’s documentary work puts the unassuming Northern California town of Red Bluff on the map as one of the most significant sites of hobo writing in the United States.

Figure 11

In between the two sheds in Red Bluff. Photograph by Robert Ranberg, 1969. Courtesy of the Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society.

Hobo Legacies in Contemporary Graffiti

Hobo writing is often given a nod in compendia that attempt to chart the history of graffiti in the United States, but the specifics of its impact are seldom elaborated.[36] Turn-of-the-century hobo graffiti directly influenced at least two contemporary graffiti genres: gang graffiti and freight train moniker writing. Below, I review hobo influences on gang writing in Los Angeles (the example I know best), spend some time with the widespread and wildly popular genre of freight train graffiti known as moniker writing. I then touch upon hobo connections to contemporary New York style graffiti that has now spread across the United States and globally.

Gangs and hobos occupied similar social spaces in their day. They were subject to hostile news media treatments, police brutality, mass incarceration, and public ostracism. Turn-of-the-century hobo associations with Wobbly labor groups linked hobos to paranoid discourses regarding anarchism and socialism, which further vilified their forms of sociality, political potential, and collective living. Similarly, gang youth in Los Angeles in the 1940s were subject to a paranoid gaze due to their social groups and distinctive clothing. They were said to be ripe for Axis exploitation and reminiscent of bloodthirsty Aztecs or wolves hunting in packs. They constructed neighborhood space differently, and they were legally penalized as collectivities rather than as individuals.[37]

Figure 12

Examples of negative lettering in hobo carving (Jule Kid and EW) from Red Bluff (c. 1890s); by Harpys gang in Los Angeles, 1990s; by graffiti crew LOD (non-gang), 2019.

In Los Angeles, gang members co-generated graffiti stylistic conventions alongside hobos in the early twentieth century. From the turn of the century through the 1940s, connections to hobos on the part of Latino and other youth occurred in the environs of the Los Angeles River and other waterways, where gang members had direct connections with hobos and visual access to their graffiti as well as materials for writing: railroad tar, railroad spikes, and occasional flares. Gang members in the late 1940s frequently wrote in tar, which had been a common hobo medium, and before that a pioneer writing medium. Gang members also adopted several hobo stylistic elements, such as arrows, pluses, quotations, or sometimes scrolls to surround their compositions. As with hobos, gang members took on monikers—nicknames—as part of marking out elements of landscape. And like the hobo term “moniker,” the name gang members used for nicknames—the placa—meant both the name itself and the graffiti form of the name.[38] Some hobo practices – such as drawing arrows, the backward “N,” the use of negative lettering, and even use of the term “Crip” – remain in use in gang graffiti and contemporary graffiti forms today. And my sense is that at least some of the angularity of early gang writing must have been inspired by hobo graffiti that was initially carved. Hobos had a stylistic influence on gangs in cities like Los Angeles that seems to have carried forward through today.

Another contemporary graffiti tradition directly influenced by hobo writing is freight train moniker writing, which has its initial history in the graffiti of railroad workers. Hobos and trainmen were both produced by the same factors: the Civil War, the shift to an industrialized society, urban development, the expansion of the frontier, and, of course, the construction of the North American railroad. Within this context, twin and opposite brotherhoods developed—like a Cain and Abel, though it was hard to tell who was the evil one and who was the good one at times. Hobos could be seen as either hard-luck cases or parasitic opportunists, and trainmen as either hardworking souls or sadistic bullies. Much of the time, they were both. Tramps and trainmen were subject to similar kinds of media paranoia. Union membership was contentious in its early days because of the way that it undermined capital accumulation. Railroad fraternities held the trappings of secret societies and union labor was fundamentally in opposition to bootstrapping or rugged individualism—ideologies hobo lifestyles also violated. At the same time trainmen, hobos, and the railroad itself symbolized other core American principles of freedom, movement, frontier, and the value of hard work. Even as opposites, both groups were simultaneously reviled and revered.

For both railroad workers and for hobos, waiting was part of the primum mobile of graffiti production. For railroad workers, waiting came in the yards. There would be a flurry of work, and then nothing. This fallow period became a creative nexus. Workers had the medium at hand, a sequestered place to write, and the time to do it. Railroaders were prolific writers, creating what they called “chalk marking,” “writing,” or “boxcar art.” They didn’t use the word moniker—even though the rail tradition that gave birth to what we know now as the moniker tradition. Moniker was a hobo word. The chalk markings of railroaders helped to express other aspects of the world of labor—getting a nickname, jockeying for position, dealing with subordination, being tied to the drudgery of the job, navigating union politics. Railroaders through time wrote a great deal on various surfaces, as well as on the trains themselves. In so doing, they created the inversion of what happened with hobos. Switchmen or car knockers who performed inspections with chalk in hand would stay in the yard and write on train cars. The marks they produced would then travel without them, while hobos frequently left graffiti near railroad locations as they themselves travelled.

At some point in the latter part of the twentieth century, these two opposed brotherhoods of hobos and trainmen gave birth to a third brotherhood, that is sometimes called the “folklore brotherhood.” In this contemporary brotherhood, freight hoppers (would-be contemporary hobos), railroad workers, and other people interested in trains or art are engaged in co-producing this tradition. In his book, Mostly True, Bill Daniel writes that: “The rail tag was born the bastard child of two warring parents; the working stiff and the shiftless wanderer. […] This duality is manifested in the astonishingly elegant and modest drawing modality that tramps and rail workers have spent the last 100 years co-evolving.”[39]

Figure 13

Moniker’d 11-17 by Anarchy Cat. Photograph by the artist, with permission from the artist.

Contemporary moniker writing consists of an insignia written in paint stick usually with a saying of some kind, the date, and select additional information. Moniker writing today was carried through from the turn of the century to today by a few key railroaders, including Bozo Texino, Herbie, JB King, and Colossus of Roads (some of these names represented more than one individual writer).[40] Their work developed into a recognizable rail-based graffiti art form with national and international devotees and a robust following on digital platforms such as Instagram. So-called “benchers”—people addicted to freight train writing of all kinds—document these marks as they roll by on lumbering freights. As documentarians rather than producers, benchers create zines and digital video compilations, and at least some of them use analogue means to circulate their productions to those with like-minded interests. Today, moniker writing mostly involves people who choose to be part of it rather than those who are using the markings as a creative outlet based on their labor or social position.

Javier Abarca writes that many accounts of contemporary moniker writing ideologically link this practice to 1930s depression-era hobos, while ignoring “the phenomenal hobo roaming and graffiti culture that developed in the late nineteenth century.”[41] Despite changes within the culture, the moniker practice remains based in its original context and continues to be practiced by graffiti-writing communities, which in this case continues to include both tramps and trainmen whose traditional graffiti practices are rooted in deeper history.

In all its guises, graffiti counters the tension between ephemerality and permanence. This tension is a fundamental aspect of what it means to be part of graffiti-producing communities. That liminality of the in-between drives carving in place while wandering, or writing on trains that are moving while workers stayed put.

In the United States, major graffiti traditions have emerged during times of significant economic transformation. Hobo culture and the hobo writing system developed during the transition from an agrarian society to an industrialized society in the nineteenth century. In case of contemporary writers, the emergence of graffiti that began on New York subways in the 1970s bridged the shift from an industrial to a post-industrial society. Javier Abarca further traces the linkages between the New York style contemporary graffiti and hobo writing. Both, he says, are based in the subversion of an alienating capitalist environment, both make use of nicknames and networks of communication based on the graffitied name, and both incorporate the ethos of going “all city,” of getting one’s name up in a way that can stand apart from the person. Linkages to the hobo tradition included intimate understanding of transportation systems and urban infrastructure, knowledge of which is still relevant among contemporary graffiti writers regardless of their city of origin. Writes Abarca, “as a carrier of names and as a carrier of people, the giant and alienating train detourned into a vehicle for fantastic, free mobility is at the core of both moniker writing and New York graffiti.”[42]  As with “moniker” and “placa,” the “tag” represents both the nickname and the graffitied version of the name.

Though much of the above treatment remains preliminary, ample evidence supports the role of hobo graffiti as a keystone graffiti genre with ongoing influences in graffiti practices today.

Conclusion

In writing graffiti, people through time have carved out pathways for survival through economic changes, created alternate forms of livelihood and sociality, and nurtured the camaraderie that has seen writers through the physical and emotional challenges of the road, of poverty, or of neighborhood life in places whose violence stems as much from law enforcement as from internal sources. Soul survival. As with most graffiti–centered subcultures, hobo groups directed their messages toward themselves. In the process they created rich genres of expression with aesthetic and grammatical sensibilities that that influenced subsequent graffiti traditions.

In California, hobos provided the link between traditional American folk culture and contemporary street culture. During the so-called “tramp era” at the turn of the twentieth century, hobos took on monikers and developed a form of written communication that shared information about identity, location, and travel. The basic hobo equation of a nickname, a direction signified by an arrow and sometimes place name, and the date would become the foundational graffiti tradition in the United States in the early twentieth century.  In cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Sacramento, this culture of the American road directly informed nascent traditions of gang writing. California cities with hobo influences and emergent gangs helped to incubate some of the earliest forms of street culture in the United States.

In his books, A-No. 1 writes about the “lure” of the tramp life. To some degree, his musing on the subject holds true today. People in the United States and abroad feel a visceral sense of connection to the hobo mystique. That lure has accompanied widespread circulation of ungrounded stories and mythical understandings regarding hobo life. At the same time, a well-elaborated practice of hobo writing connected to firsthand documentation and literary references provides fodder for heretofore under-examined aspects of hobo life in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Graffiti is an untapped form of primary source data that brings further clarity to several aspects of hobo culture, including the lives of notable individuals such as Jack London or A-No. 1. It also offers scope and purpose to hobo written communication. Analysis of hobo graffiti also opens further lines of questioning and necessitates deep cushioning within archival, historical, infrastructural, and narrative contexts. As examined above in the case of Red Bluff, California, hobo carvings give shape to the kinds of questions to which scholars can seek answers in order to extend reliable flows of information. Due to its absent authors and ephemeral nature, graffiti is never a wholesale solution to speculative problems—in fact the opposite is true. A degree of ambiguity is one of the delightful things about graffiti research and an important reminder of the tentative nature of knowledge production in general. But the ambiguity in this case is generative. It invites further inferences but in a manner that is both informed and fabled. In the cases above, graffiti provides a unique lens into an obscure practice by helping to ground questions as well as caution answers.

Notes

[1] With thanks to: Javier Abarca, Thomas Chambers, Owen Clayton, Bill Daniel, Bill Foey, Devon Hanofski, Tony Johnson and the Medford Railroad Park, Carol Mieske and the Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society, Becky Nicolaides and the USC-Huntington Metro Studies Group, Robert Ranberg, Joel Reinhard, and Charles Wray. Jack London, The Road (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1907); Richard W. Etulain, Jack London on the Road: The Tramp Diary and Other Hobo Writings (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1979). Some segments of this material were previously published in Susan Phillips, Javier Abarca, and Thomas Chambers. Tramp Directories, Noms-de-Road, and Unwritten Codes: A Souvenir of Hobo Graffiti (Madrid: Urbanario, 2017).

[2]Tim Cresswell, The Tramp in America (London: Reaktion Books, 2001); Todd DePastino, Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003); Mark Wyman, Hoboes: Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps, and the Harvesting of the West (New York: Hill and Wang, 2011).

[3] Graham Raulerson, “A Fountainhead of Pure Musical Americana: Hobo Philosophy in Harry Partch’s Bitter Music,” Journal of the Society for American Music 11/4 (2017): 454.

[4] John Lennon, “Trains, Railroad Workers and Illegal Riders.” In Jeffrey Ian Ross (ed.) Routledge Handbook of Graffiti and Street Art (2016), 27-35; John Lennon, “Can a Hobo Share a Box-Car? Jack London, the Industrial Army, and the Politics of (In)visibility” American Studies (2007 48/4): 7. Charles and Michael Wray and Devon Hanofski have (separately) conducted the most thorough investigations of hobo sites in the United States, and they have identified and documented multiple sites across numerous states.

[5] Jeff Ferrell, Drift: Illicit Mobility and Uncertain Knowledge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018), 73.

[6] Leon Ray Livingston, Life and Adventures of A-No. 1, America’s Most Celebrated Tramp (Erie, Penn.: The A-No. 1 Publishing Company, 1910).

[7] Leon Ray Livingston, From Coast to Coast with Jack London. (Erie, Penn.: The A-No. 1 Publishing Company, 1917). The Robert Aldrich film is Emperor of the North Pole (20th Century Fox 1973).

[8] Stephen Benz, “A Grave on the High Plains.” River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative (2017 17/1):135-141; Stanley B. Kimball, Stanley B. 1988. Historic Sites and Markers along the Mormon and Other Great Western Trails. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988; Timothy Rostov Urbaniak, Historic Inscriptions of the Northern Plains: Identity and Influence in the Residual Communication Record (University of Montana, Ph.D. Dissertation, 2014).

[9] Eric Monkkonen, (ed.) 1984. Walking to Work: Tramps in America, 1790-1935. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984): 2.

[10] George Borrow, The Zincali: An Account of the Gypsies of Spain. London: Murray 1841); Paola Toninato, Romani Writing: Literacy, Literature and Identity Politics. London: Routledge, 2014), 59.

[11] John Camden Hotten, The Slang Dictionary (London: Piccadilly, 1865), 29.

[12] Monkkonen, Walking to Work; Kelly Lytle Hernández, Kelly Lytle, City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771–1965 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

[13] Nels Anderson, The Hobo: The Sociology of the Homeless Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1923); Cresswell, The Tramp in America; DePastino, Citizen Hobo. John Lennon, Boxcar Politics: The Hobo in U.S. Culture and Literature, 1869-1956 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014).

[14] Josiah Flynt, 1891, “The American Tramp,” Contemporary Review (60/August 1891); Jim Tully, Beggars of Life (New York: A. & C. Boni, 1924); Livingston, Life and Adventures of A-No. 1; London, The Road.

[15] Richard M. Dorson, Folklore and Fakelore: Essays Toward a Discipline of Folk Studies (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1976); Alan Dundes, “Nationalistic Inferiority Complexes and the Fabrication of Fakelore: A Reconsideration of Ossian, the ‘Kinder-und Hausmärchen’, the ‘Kalevala’, and Paul Bunyan,” Journal of Folklore Research (22/1, 1985): 5-18.

[16] Allan Pinkerton, Strikers, Communists, Tramps, and Detectives (New York: Carleton and Co. Publishers, 1878), 57.

[17] Pinkerton, Strikers, Communists, Tramps: 57-58.

[18] Ibid, 58.

[19] Raulerson, Graham. 2011. The Hobo in American Musical Culture, x.

[20] Lennon, “Trains, Railroad Workers, and Illegal Riders,” 34. Several authors note the confusion between genres of hobo graffiti and railroad moniker art produced by railway workers. Mistaken impressions about authorship abound in the history of graffiti.

[21] Charles Wray and Devon Hanofski, mentioned in footnote 5 above, have similarly indicated to me that they have never encountered first-hand evidence of such markings in their explorations of hobo sites in the United States. Personal communication via email, April 3, 2019 (Hanofski). Personal communication via telephone, April 4, 2019 (Charles Wray).

[22] Laura M. Addison, ed. No Idle Hands: The Myths & Meanings of Tramp Art. (Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2017).

[23] Erle Heath, Seventy-Five Years of Progress: An Historical Sketch of the Southern Pacific: 1869-1944 (2014). Accessed on April 2, 2019 at http://www.cprr.org/Museum/SP_1869-1944/

[24] In my work on Hollywood sound stages, I have encountered similar temporal discrepancies between graffiti and recorded dates of construction and concluded that the graffiti were the more reliable source that created a more nuanced history of the site in question.

[25] Etulain, Jack London on the Road. Earle Labor, Earle. Jack London: An American Life (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013);

[26] London, The Road, 68.

[27] Ibid, 123.

[28] Lennon, Boxcar Politics, 33.

[29] London, The Road, 68.

[30] I emailed Earle Labor about the find and Labor said, despite there being no way to know for sure, that the mark was “highly likely” to be London’s. Personal communication via email, August 22, 2017.

[31] Etulain (1978) includes a map with specific dates but doesn’t cite where his knowledge of the dates comes from. Because they are not included in London’s tramp diaries, which end in April, this leaves the mistake open to interpretation. Thanks to Owen Clayton for pointing out this discrepancy.

[32] Carlos A. Schwantes, Coxey’s Army: An American Odyssey (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985).

[33] Letter from Livingston to Charmian London, Utah State University Jack and Charmian London Collection.

[34] These materials are housed at Utah State University’s Jack and Charmian London Collection at the University Libraries.

[35] A-No. 1’s visit is corroborated by a 1910 newspaper article about him, which references his previous 1905 visit to town. “World’s Greatest Tramp Was in Town,” The Red Bluff News, August 25, 1910.

[36] See for example Caleb Neelon and Roger Gastman, History of American Graffiti (New York: HarperCollins, 2011).

[37] Mauricio Mazón, The Zoot-Suit Riots: The Psychology of Symbolic Annihilation (University of Texas Press, 2010).

[38] Bill Daniel first pointed this similarity out to me regarding hobo monikers.

[39] Bill Daniel, Mostly True, second edition (Microcosm Publishing, 2012), 1.

[40] See Bill Daniel’s film Who Is Bozo Texino? The Secret History of Hobo Graffiti (2005) for the best treatment of this genre of moniker writing.

[41] Javier Abarca, “Foreword.” In Susan Phillips, et al Tramp Directories, 8.

[42] Abarca, Foreword, 10.

Susan A. Phillips has studied graffiti, gangs and the U.S. prison system since 1990. She has published two books: Wallbangin: Graffiti and Gangs in L.A. (Chicago, 1999) and Operation Fly Trap: L.A. Gangs, Drugs, and the Law (Chicago, 2012), and co-authored a small volume on hobo graffiti in 2017. Phillips was named a Soros Justice Media Fellow in 2008 and received a Harry Frank Guggenheim research grant in 2005. She has been in residence twice at the Getty Research Institute—most recently in 2016. Her new book, The City Beneath: A Century of Los Angeles Graffiti, will be published by Yale University Press in fall 2019. Phillips received her PhD in anthropology from UCLA in 1998 and is currently a Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pitzer College in Claremont.

ArticlesExcerpts

Los Angeles, The Automobile, and Mexican American Life

Eric Avila
Genevieve Carpio

losangelesfreeway

Essential Los Angeles: Revisiting the Automobile (Eric Avila)

Just when we thought we knew everything about Los Angeles and the automobile, Genevieve Carpio delivers Collisions at the Crossroads, not just a model of rigorous, empirically-driven, theoretically sophisticated scholarship, but a critical intervention into a canonical body of knowledge that explains the enduring love affair between Angelenos and their automobiles. The story is familiar: Los Angeles grew up with the automobile. Its vast expanse of flat arid land—partitioned by mountains, arroyos, and rivers—provided an ideal setting for the mass adoption of the automobile during the early decades of the twentieth century. Even in the depths of the Great Depression, southern Californians purchased automobiles in record numbers, creating an impetus for the construction of new streets, boulevards, and highways. These arteries and the cars they served fattened the coffers of oil, rubber, glass, steel, trucking, and construction companies, and furthered the sprawling, decentralized pattern of urban development that typified a broader pattern of ‘sunbelt’ urbanism.[1]

This history became the basis of a full-blown myth about Los Angeles as ‘Autopia,’ penned by a British expat who roamed the L.A. grid in a convertible Mustang in the swinging Sixties. First published in 1971, Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies generated a new appreciation of Los Angeles, furthering a broader ‘postmodern’ sensibility that drew inspiration from the commercial landscapes of a car-oriented, hyper-consumer society. Much in the same vein as contemporary artists working in the Pop aesthetic (think Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha, and David Hockney, another British expat in L.A.), Banham recognized the centrality of the automobile in a new suburban way of life unfolding in southern California. To him, the automobile symbolized mobility, autonomy, convenience, and free choice—the attributes of a consumer society and the underlying values of a new model of democratic urbanism. Banham thought little of recent conflagrations like Watts, which he dismissed as a “fashionable venue for confrontations.” Instead, he saluted the automobile and its role in making a city where “all parts are equal and equally accessible from all other parts at once,” concluding that “freedom of movement is the prime symbolic attribute of the Angel City.”[2] Yet in challenging these accounts of L.A.’s autopia that assert a universal mobile subject, Carpio reminds us of the divergent claims to mobility by diverse groups who navigated the metropolitan landscape and their racial positions within it.

Banham and his predecessors had important insights about the automobile and its impact upon Los Angeles’s development. Their narrative makes important contributions to understanding why Los Angeles is the way it is and why the city “bleeds” (as Carpio evocatively puts it) into its hinterlands. Her book Collision at the Crossroads tells a different story about the automobile, and about spatial movement more broadly, reminding us that the old story is dated for its failure to address issues of inequality, immobility, and injustice—issues that L.A. historians can no longer ignore.

WorkersAndTheirCars

Workers and their Cars.

WashingCar

Washing a Car.

In the two centuries of its relatively brief existence, Los Angeles sustains (thanks to a recent generation of historians who align with social justice movements) a not-so-hidden history of violence, oppression, and injustice, but also of resilience, struggle, accommodation, hybridity, and mestizaje or mixed-races. The city’s track record of mob violence and racial uprisings, not to mention its history of mass incarceration and police brutality, forces a need to rethink both the city and the technology that made it, including the car, but also emergent forms of police enforcement, public policies aimed at diverse movers, innovative strategies to navigate metropolitan space by the aggrieved, and claims to the right to mobility. In Collisions at the Crossroads, Carpio tells this story from the vantage point of inland southern California, where claims to mobility have been complex and always contestable. The automobile made Greater Los Angeles, as did streetcars and railroads in their day, but its arrival and accommodation benefitted some groups of people at the expense of others.

As with many technological advancements, white men usurp the privileges they afford themselves and deny those same benefits to everyone else (with some brilliant exceptions). This includes the automobile, one of the most consequential inventions in human history. Not just the automobile as object, but especially its meaning as a symbol: the promise of unfettered mobility, autonomous movement, and mastery over time and space at high speeds on the open highway. Reyner Banham exalted these qualities and rightly expressed their seemingly universal appeal (at least in his time). So many of us love the automobile: we wash their bodies, clean their engines, quench their thirst for oil, air, water, and gasoline, polish their glass and chrome, register their possession with state authorities, insure them against damage and destruction—we eat, drink, argue, bond, and think thoughts in automobiles. We love these damn things so much that those of us written out of autopia’s dominant scripts—women, people of color, immigrants—forget that we often relinquish our autonomy, will, even safety, by surrendering to the automobile’s allure.

What Banham and other apologists for the automobile also ignore is a counterstory of how the automobile became a powerful tool of state surveillance and discipline. As demonstrated in the larger chapter from which the excerpt to follow draws, the car’s pleasures are accorded selectively by a repressive police force that incorporated the automobile into its arsenal, enabling new forms of enforcement in which they could “invoke the eyes of fellow police cruisers over the radio, track car owners through vehicle registration, and erect traffic checkpoints to distinguish criminals from the law-abiding mobile public.”[3]

LAPD1958ClassicCruiser

LAPD Classic Cruiser, 1958.

WattsRiot1

Watts Riots, 1965.

Carpio’s work provides early insights into emerging forms of state surveillance that would mature into the postwar period. During the 1950s and under the leadership of Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker, local law enforcement invented the squad car, equipped with short-band radios, sirens, rifles, shotguns, spotlights, and powerful engines. Parker revolutionized law enforcement in an age of mass suburbanization, effecting greater control over disparate working class Black and Latino communities that took shape throughout the five-county urban region.[4] The police arrest of Marquette Frye, who was pulled over on a hot summer day in early August 1965, illustrated the lethal consequences of ‘driving while black.’ His arrest sparked the Watts Riots, the most violent episode of urban racial violence during the mid-1960s, resulting in thirty-four deaths and hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage.

Chief Parker realized the automobile’s potential on a new highway system that took shape during his tenure. During the 1950s and 1960s, federal money poured into the construction of a massive highway system, linking disparate suburban communities to the historic core of Los Angeles. Orange County now linked to the San Fernando Valley, and they had new links to the inland communities of Claremont, Pomona, and Ontario. This sprawling network of freeways converged just east of the downtown core, in the neighborhood of Boyle Heights, which bore the brunt of state and federal highway construction projects. Today, Boyle Heights stands at the center of L.A.’s expansive freeway system, quarantined from the rest of the city by massive highway interchanges built in conjunction with slum clearance efforts. A redlined neighborhood since the 1930s, Boyle Heights earned the official distinction of being “hopelessly heterogeneous” by the Homeowners’ Loan Corporation, identified as “an ideal site for a massive slum clearance project” which turned out to be two massive highway interchanges, built less than two miles apart from each other in the late 1950s.

In this deracinated landscape, ravaged by white flight and highway construction; in the shadows and din of new freeway interchanges, a new ‘Chicano’ culture took shape, a hybrid mix of Mexican cultural traditions, shaped by the cosmopolitan influences of a polyglot, glamorous, and dangerous society. Zoot Suits came from Boyle Heights, murals too, and lowriders, which fashioned an alternative car culture that had nothing to do with the very qualities of speed and mobility that Banham celebrated. They embraced ‘low and slow’ as their aesthetic, indulging in a new suburban pleasure that drew upon urban traditions of showmanship and technological mastery, and gave a big middle finger to the ideals of efficiency, speed, mobility, and productivity built into the object and symbol of the automobile itself. Lowriders were not 9-to-5 commuters and they re-fashioned these machines for their own sensory and aesthetic pleasure. Their spatial claims evoked strong responses from the viewing public and local authorities, contests that Carpio argues have continued to play out over symbolic landscapes like Route 66. Lowriders chose boulevards over freeways as the primary venue for their motorized brand of chrome-polish swagger, and enthralled sidewalk spectators who marveled at these machines.[5] Are lowriders the victims of a ‘false consciousness’ sponsored by a corporate-consumer car culture? Or are they subversive agents of a technological counterculture? Drawing on the history of contested claims to mobility appearing across the twentieth century, Collisions at the Crossroads suggests the latter.

Today, we stand at another crossroad. Like most every aspect of technological modernity, the automobile is a blessing and a curse. It remains the dominant mode of transportation in the southland, yet its false premise of unfettered, autonomous mobility seems to have hit a wall of its own making. We Angelenos suffer from a chronic addiction to oil and gasoline. Too many people, too many cars: the concept of rush hour is obsolete. Every hour is rush hour; traffic is at a standstill on most freeway arteries, at most times of the day. Although new systems of mass transit are providing alternatives to the automobile and the freeway, there is little relief from the congestion and pollution that cars inflict upon our daily lives. Like red meat, our insatiable appetite for oil accelerates global warming, sparking what will become a desperate search for new alternatives to fossil fuels. Whether or not the automobile will remain the dominant mode of transportation in the region depends upon a clear-eyed assessment of its costs and benefits. Carpio implicates that machine in a broader history of racial and class inequality that now poses an existential threat to the survival of the species.

OldsmobileAdLowriders


The Automobile in Mexican Immigrant and Mexican American Life (Genevieve Carpio)[6]

By World War I, the automobile was already an integral part of life for Mexican agricultural workers in Southern California. Prominent citrus ranchers provided laborers garages alongside bathrooms, running water, electricity, and other utilities they deemed fundamental to worker housing. As described by Archibald Shamel, a USDA scientist who wrote extensively on Mexican citrus workers, “[the automobile is] an essential part of the household equipment.”[7] Local cooperative associations occasionally provided vehicles for their workers, but more often than not individual pickers and their families purchased their own. Like the Japanese bicyclists who preceded them, Mexican motorists used vehicles to maximize their work opportunities, and for fashioning themselves as modern citizens. Although at the national level cars at that time were largely owned by the white middle class, for use in leisure activities like tourism and cross-country travel, in the Mexican communities of Southern California automobiles were a working class item used to traverse uncertain economic and social landscapes.[8]

Disrupting national trends that linked whiteness and driving, period sources suggest that ethnic Mexicans owned automobiles at far higher rates than the Southern California population as a whole. A 1933 Heller Committee cost of living study, by the University of California, sheds light on patterns of automotive proprietorship, expense, and usage. In a survey of a hundred Mexican-descent families living in San Diego, the Heller Committee found twenty-six percent of households owned and operated their own automobile. A similar survey taken in San Fernando, about thirty miles north of Los Angeles, found that nearly forty percent of families residing in the “Mexican district” owned a vehicle. These figures are particularly significant when we consider that the automobile ownership rate in California as a whole was only seventeen percent, about half of the rate for the Mexican communities of San Diego and San Fernando.[9]

Far from elite toys of the rich, automobiles were regularly a necessity for Mexican laborers. Only two percent of the vehicles counted in the Heller study had been purchased new. Rather, families typically bought their cars and trucks secondhand, often as an essential expense. Purchasing a vehicle was a financial hardship that required cutting back elsewhere, sometimes even on food. Nevertheless, for their drivers, automobiles’ economic and cultural value exceeded their costs. Mexican respondents reported they used their vehicles for a variety of functions, including searching for work in surrounding towns, informal outings, and travel to family events.[10]

UncleJoe

Joe Hernandez (third from left) and crew on work truck, 1938. Courtesy of Inland Mexican Heritage.

Car and truck ownership often translated into direct economic gains for Citrus Belt workers. Groves were spread throughout the region and laborers commonly lived in towns adjacent to large farms, moving among them as the crops matured. Families who owned automobiles could leverage this location gap between housing and the groves to earn extra income. Former citrus worker Howard Herrera remembered, “In those days you had to pay for your ride. Sometimes the house would pay it. If the house would hire a truck to take the crew to work they’d pay the driver for all the heads that would drive and arrive in the truck.”[11] By transporting their neighbors to the fields, truck owners not only solved the problem of spatial dissonance, but also identified workers for the citrus cooperative in exchange for pay. In these roles, they served as recruiters, translators, and transporters. Women were often key in the relative success of these efforts. The son of one citrus foreman recalls that his mother provided warm lunches for riders as extra incentive to choose his father’s crew over others.[12] For these services, Mexican families were financially rewarded, receiving a small payment for each rider or a portion of the profits from the harvest.

If Mexican motorists could increase their wages by providing a vital service to ranchers, their automobility could also be used to challenge employers’ control over workers’ livelihoods. Mobility enabled Mexican-descent workers to determine which employment opportunities—agricultural or otherwise—offered the most competitive wages. Those with access to private vehicles identified opportunities at a range much larger than previously possible, aided by a growing network of roads, their ability to carry multiple passengers, and the incentive of hauling cargo for additional payment. While vehicles widened the geographic scale and types of employment available to Mexican drivers, vehicles were also beneficial in times of collective action. Even if primarily used for daily transportation, a truck could moonlight as a mobile picket line, stage for mobile theater, or emergency shelter. During times of direct action, vehicles helped to galvanize workers and prolonged their ability to strike. In this sense, automobility could quite directly contribute to the collective’s economic mobility.[13]

Automotive culture permeated not only the lives of those who moved, but also those in the communities that were passed. The largely Mexican Westside of San Bernardino is exemplary of this synergism. Later designated as Route 66, Mount Vernon Avenue provided residents with entrepreneurial opportunities to offer services to long distance travelers, such as managing motels, bars, gas stations, and restaurants. Consider Mitla Café. In 1927, its owners, Lucia and Salvador Rodríguez, migrated to California, and soon after this Lucia opened a small taco stand. The side business grew into a local landmark where the Rodríguez family catered to Mount Vernon residents, including workers from the nearby Santa Fe railroad repair shop, and passing motorists looking for something warm and affordable to eat. A combination of its location on Highway 66, its homey atmosphere, and foremost its Cal-Mex cuisine even earned Mitla Café a mention in the popular Duncan Hines travel culinary guide, Adventures in Good Eating.[14] Business leaders along the busy Highway 66 corridor often became community leaders and their businesses popular sites of community organization and place making.[15]

In addition to their economic value, vehicles held an important symbolic role for their drivers. Analysis of photographs collected by grassroots recovery efforts, such as Inland Mexican Heritage (IMH), further sheds light on the cultural significance of vehicles in Mexican agricultural communities. Looking to these personal family records adds a new perspective to those of the period’s social worker reports, which erroneously equated Mexican automotive practice with those of white middle class families. In public events held by IMH throughout the 1990s and 2000s, residents of former citrus communities near San Bernardino were invited to contribute family photographs and oral histories as part of a recovery project focused on Mexican American communities. Among cherished images of weddings, returning veterans, and family gatherings, residents frequently submitted family portraits in which cars and trucks figured as prominent features of the image.[16]

Unlike government or professional photographs from this period, examining the function of automobiles within these self-selected compositions helps reveal the ways Mexican American people themselves positioned vehicles in their everyday lives. While members of the family and their friends occupy the focal point, they were often staged in the photographs sitting or standing on vehicles. On the one hand, this positioning points towards the frequent presence of automobiles in Mexican American life, which were conveniently present during both special family events and mundane daily passings. On the other, the frequent appearance of cars as a central part of the photographs’ compositions underscores the subjects’ desires to craft particular self-identities.[17] Automobiles represented more than vehicles for travel. Rather, they held distinct social significance for those involved at the moment of a photograph’s creation. Where a group of youth dressed in their best outfits and standing in front of a car might represent the subjects’ identity as a modern subject immersed in leisure culture, workers posing with a truck filled with boxes of oranges could emphasize a strong work ethic, upward mobility, or traditional links between masculinity and labor. Historian Phil Deloria has examined the ways images of both American Indians and automobiles have been used by non-Indians to signify important elements in American culture. When brought together, these signifiers have conjured a “palpable disconnection between the high-tech automotive world and the primitivism that so often clings to the figure of the Indian.”[18] Where automobiles seemed anachronistic or unmerited when driven by nonwhites, photographs produced by Mexican American drivers were all the more powerful for the ways they disrupted normative expectations and bolstered self-representation in complex ways.

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Jessie Ortiz and friend posing on fender of car near San Timoteo Canyon, 1928. Courtesy of Inland Mexican Heritage.

Where photographic records help to uncover symbolic systems attached to vehicles by multigenerational Mexican American populations, songs emerge as an archive of the meanings produced by Mexican immigrants. Corridos—poetry set to music—are cultural artifacts that archive artistic expressions of daily life.[19] In these songs, vehicles held an important symbolic role in conveying immigrants’ experiences in the United States. As described by Mexican anthropologist Manuel Gamio, Mexican rates of vehicle ownership grew markedly among immigrants who had worked for a period in the United States. A close reading of popular corridos collected by Gamio and reprinted by the Social Science Research Council in the 1920s uncovers an ambivalent attitude among Mexican immigrants towards cars—and by extension, an ambivalent attitude towards U.S. life in general.[20]

A consistent note among corridos was nostalgia for life in Mexico, and the internal tensions generated among immigrants when pursuing American economic mobility. The lyrics of “El Dónde Yo Nací,” for example, use the car to signify dissatisfaction with U.S. consumer culture. The protagonist sings:

No me gusta coche ni autómovil
como al estilo de por aquí.
A mi me gusta carreta de bueyes
como en el rancho dónde yo nací.

(I do not care for the cars or the automobiles
like those found around here.
I prefer the oxcart
like on the ranch where I was born.)[21]

In this instance, the singer rejects the extravagant automobiles he views in the United States in favor of an old oxcart he owned in rural Mexico. At a literal level, his dissatisfaction indicates the singer’s longing for the ranch where he was born, land owned by his family and free from the empty consumerism he observes in the United States. Seemingly nationalistic, the singer’s nostalgia may also be read as a critique of political changes in Mexico, where privatization drastically transformed the countryside and large agricultural operations displaced many of the migrants. Dispossession pushed them to seek work in the United States.[22]

In a variation of this critique, another corrido titled “El Renegado” focused its criticism on Mexican immigrants seduced by U.S. markers of social status. The automobile in this corrido signals an immigrant who, upon gaining some profit, looks down upon his fellow countrymen who have not adopted a U.S. lifestyle. The ballad disapproves of the renegade’s “dandy” attire and his conceit when driving a flashy car, “andas por hay luciendo gran autómovil.”[23] Where the driver seeks attention by wielding control over the ultimate symbol of social mobility, the singer critiques this ostentatious display of wealth. The song discredits those immigrants who would negate their homeland and working class origins.[24] In both “El Dónde Yo Nací” and “El Renegado,” the automobile represents a U.S. lifestyle that stands in opposition to a Mexico envisioned as rural, homeland, and anticapitalistic.

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Roque Family and their car, 1930s. Courtesy of Inland Mexican Heritage.

Looking to these creative expressions of Mexican immigrant life helps reveal illicit uses of automobiles unaccounted for in most oral histories. Further, they recast as autonomous subjects the drivers who might otherwise be considered deviant. For instance, the car is often described with fondness for the freedom it offers its driver. “El Fotingo,” which can be loosely translated as “The Jalopy,” is one such example.[25] Although the jalopy is worn down and without seats, doors, or even lights, the song’s lyrics recall moonlit nights when the driver’s speeding Ford could be mistaken for a Willys-Overland. Where the old Ford represented economy and utility, the Overland had relatively more luxurious associations. By playing with the symbolic systems attached to the two models, the driver himself seems transformed in the moonlight from a worn-down laborer to a playboy bootlegger. The singer proudly describes flirting with women, smoking marijuana, and evading U.S. custom’s officers while smuggling liquor across the border. The mobility enabled by his vehicle is a fitting metaphor for the intersections between Mexican and American life, particularly as the increasing ease of automobility blurred the boundaries between the two, just as migrating bodies and smuggled booze could disrupt the apparent solidity of national boundaries.

Rising automobile registration rates in Mexico rose with Mexican American and Mexican immigrant vehicle ownership in the United States. Before 1910, there were no more than 3,000 vehicles registered across the Mexican nation. This quickly changed when Francisco Madero replaced Porfirio Díaz as president of Mexico in 1911. Fifteen years after abolishing a prohibitive tax on automobile ownership, registration increased from half a million to 17.5 million.[26] A continuing rise in vehicle registration was fostered by the arrival of the Ford Motor Company in Mexico City in 1925 and the construction of a vast new factory in 1932.[27]

Migration between the United States and Mexico further contributed to the growth of automotive ownership among ethnic Mexicans on both sides of the border. In December 1926, Mexico exempted repatriates from paying duty on U.S. items, including vehicles. Upon their return, thirty-eight percent of all repatriates owned an automobile. The widespread resale economy in Mexican border towns may have further boosted Mexican Americans’ ability to purchase low-cost Fords, creating a synergy between automotive manufacturing and policies in Mexico as well as Mexican Americans’ automobility in the United States.[28]

Surveys, oral histories, photographs, and corridos each provide insight into the internal significance of automobiles for Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants living in the United States. Vehicles were significant for increasing one’s economic mobility, and served as important social symbols used in self-fashioning as well as lyrical devices used to describe immigrant life in Mexican America. Focusing on reports by social scientists and others begins to reveal more of the external values placed on Mexican mobility at the economic crossroads of the 1920s and the Great Depression—an important background for understanding how we got where we are today with the Automobile and Mexican American life.

BookCover

Notes

 * This article, with introduction by Eric Avila, is an adapted excerpt from Genevieve Carpio, Collisions at the Crossroads: How Place and Mobility Make Race (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019).

[1] Scott L. Bottles, Los Angeles and the Automobile: The Making of the Modern City (Berkeley: University of California Press,1987); Richard Longstreth, City Center to Regional Mall: Architecture, the Automobile, and Retailing in Los Angeles, 1920-1950 (Boston: MIT Press, 1997); Jeremiah Axelrod, Inventing Autopia: Envisioning the Modern Metropolis in Jazz Age Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009); David Brodsly, L.A. Freeway: An Appreciative Essay (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).

[2] Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, 2d ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 18.

[3] Genevieve Carpio, Collisions at the Crossroads: How Place and Mobility Make Race (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019), 75.

[4] Inclusive of Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino counties.

[5] Brenda Jo Bright and Liza Bakewell, Looking High and Low: Art and Cultural Identity (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1995); Denise Sandoval, “Bajito y Suavecito/Low and Slow: Cruising Through Lowrider Culture,” unpublished Ph.D. diss. (Claremont Graduate University, 2003); Ben Chappel, Lowrider Space: Aesthetics and Politics of Modern Custom Cars (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012).

[6] This section excerpted from Genevieve Carpio, “‘An Essential Part of the Household Equipment’: The Automobile in Mexican Immigrant and Mexican American Life,” in Collisions at the Crossroads: How Place and Mobility Make Race (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019): 144-150.

[7] Archibald Shamel, “Housing Conditions of the Employe[e]s of California Citrus Ranches,” typescript, undated, p. 4, Archibald Shamel Papers, Tomás Rivera Library, University of California Riverside.

[8] On automotive cultures in this period, see Thomas Weiss, “Tourism in America before World War II,” Journal of Economic History 64 (2004); Marguerite S. Shaffer, See America First: Tourism and National Identity, 1880-1940 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian, 2001); Virginia Scharff, Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1992).

[9] Constantine Panunzio and the Heller Committee for Research in Social Economics of the University of California, “Cost of Living Studies V. How Mexicans Earn and Live: A Study of the Incomes and Expenditures of One Hundred Mexican Families in San Diego, California,” University of California Publications in Economics, 13 (1933). In their report, the Mexican Fact-Finding Committee cites the San Fernando figure from an unpublished report by the Los Angeles County Health Department. See Mexican Fact-Finding Committee, “Mexicans in California,” 178. See also Scott L. Bottles, Los Angeles and the Automobile: The Making of the Modern City (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987). Statewide statistics for Mexican American motorists are unavailable.

[10] Panunzio and the Heller Committee, “Cost of Living Studies v. How Mexicans Earn and Live”; Mexican Fact-Finding Committee, “Mexicans in California.”

[11] Howard Herrera interviewed by Robert Gonzalez, transcript, 13 April 1994, Inland Mexican Heritage, Redlands.

[12] In an interview conducted with my paternal grandfather, Vincent Carpio Sr., he recounted his experience as a foreman and the bonus he received for identifying and transporting workers to the fields surrounding Pomona in the 1940s. He described the effective role of “incentives,” such as warm food prepared by my grandmother Consuelo Carpio and cold beer on payday, in retaining workers. Vincent Carpio interviewed by Genevieve Carpio, Spring 2001, Pomona, CA.

[13] On the connection of migrant workers, automobiles, and collective action see Don Mitchell, The Lie of the Land: Migrant Workers and the California Landscape (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996).

[14] Rick Martinez, “Co-Founder of Mitla Lucia Rodriguez Dies,” San Bernardino County Sun, 13 January 1981; Route 66 Special,” Access Rewind [film], IE Media Group, 2011.

[15] For more on Latina/o restaurant owners as place-makers, see Natalia Molina, “The Importance of Place and Place-Makers in the Life of a Los Angeles Community: What Gentrification Erases from Echo Park,” Southern California Quarterly 97 (2015): 69-111.

[16] Author has worked in consultation on various IMH projects since 2004.

[17] A selection of these photographs can be found in Antonio González Vazquez and Genevieve Carpio, Mexican Americans in Redlands (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2012).

[18] Phil Deloria, Indians in Unexpected Places (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2004), 138.

[19] For the continuing significance of the corridor in Los Angeles, see “The Corrido of LA,” an exhibition by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2010, http://www.lacma.org/art/installation/corrido-la; for sound recordings, see the Strachwitz Frontera Collection of Mexican and Mexican American Recordings, UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center and UCLA Digital Library, http:// frontera.library.ucla.edu.

[20] Manuel Gamio, Mexican Immigration to the United States (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1930).

[21] Translated by author. Original printed in Gamio, Mexican Immigration to the United States.

[22] Veronica Castillo-Muñoz, “Historical Roots of Rural Migration: Land Reform, Corn Credit, and the Displacement of Rural Farmers in Nayarit Mexico, 1900-1952,” Mexican Studies/ Estudios Mexicanos 29 (2013).

[23] “You go around showing off in your big automobile.” Translated by author. Original printed in Gamio, Mexican Immigration to the United States, 93.

[24] Rita Urquijo-Ruiz writes that El Renegade was a character in a popular comedy routine in teatro de carpa, or traveling tent theater, used to poke fun at assimilated Mexicans. See Rita Urquijo-Ruiz, Wild Tongues: Transnational Mexican Popular Culture (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012), 23-25.

[25] Original printed in Gamio, Mexican Immigration to the United States, 31; the term “fotingo” was often synonymous with Ford motor cars, which Mexican farm laborers frequently owned due to their affordability.

[26] Ricardo Romo,“Work and Restlessness: Occupational and Spatial Mobility among Mexicanos in Los Angeles,” Pacific Historical Review 46 (1977): 176.

[27] See digital archive of Ford’s Mexico City plant at “Ford Mexico City Plant Photographs,” The Henry Ford, Dearborn, MI, accessed July 2018, https://www .thehenryford.org/collections-and-research/digital-collections/sets/11598/. See also Ford Motor Company, “Historia de Ford de Mexico,” accessed 29 March 2013, http://media.ford.com/article_display.cfm?article_id = 4166.

[28] Indeed, the vast majority were Ford cars and trucks, at twenty-seven percent of all automotive objects (a category including automobile types and auto parts) brought to Mexico by repatriates. See Gamio, Mexican Immigration to the United States, esp. Appendix 5, 224-225; for more accounts of Ford automobiles moving back and forth across the U.S.-Mexico border, see Alice Evans Cruz, “The Romanzas Train Señora Nurse,” The Survey 60 (1928): 468-469, 488; Cara Finnegan, Picturing Poverty: Print Culture and FSA Photographs (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2003).


Eric Avila
is an urban cultural historian, studying the intersections of racial identity, urban space, and cultural representation in twentieth century America. He is author of Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004) and The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City (University of Minnesota Press, 2014).

Genevieve Carpio is Assistant Professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of Collisions at the Crossroads: How Place and Mobility Make Race (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019).
Copyright: © 2019 Eric Avila and Genevieve Carpio. 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

Our Ramona

 

Postcards

Julia Sizek

Though largely forgotten by contemporary Californians, Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1884 Ramona was the most important novel about California of the nineteenth century.[1] Ramona follows its heroine, a mestiza, as she leaves the rancho of her adopted Californio family to live in the San Jacinto foothills with her love Alessandro, an Indian. Though the historical novel follows Victorian stylistic conventions, Jackson intended it to be a social commentary on the early days of California statehood. She hoped that Ramona would inspire social critique, making American settlers question their treatment of Native Americans and Mexican-Americans in Southern California when California became a state, causing the dispossession of both Native Americans and Californios.

At the time of its publication, Ramona’s immense popularity and social message earned it comparisons to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the only novel more popular than Ramona in the nineteenth century.[2] Like Stowe’s novel, Ramona was controversial upon its publication. White settlers accused Jackson of defaming them in their new home. Conversely, the book inspired a proliferation of tourism in Southern California that glorified Spanish history, as white settlers glorified dispossessed Californios and Native Americans in a performance of imperialist nostalgia. Ramona outgrew its origin as a novel intended to protest the treatment of Native Americans and Mexican-Americans in California, becoming the romanticized and fictional basis for interpreting California as a place for Euroamerican settlers, Mexican-Americans, and Native Americans.

In its many adaptations, translations, and transformations, Ramona is a story about belonging and dispossession. It is the story of three Californias belonging to the Native Americans, Californios, and Americanos. In its many versions, the story tends to follow the contours of the novel. It begins with Ramona’s life as a teenager at the rancho with her adopted family. Her adopted mother, a Californio named Señora Moreno, is the widow of a Spanish-Mexican man who had fought against the Americans. She is bitter at the Americans who killed her husband and shrunk her rancho after taking control under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Only her sickly son, Felipe, remains to help the Señora at the rancho. During the sheep-shearing season, Ramona falls in love with a hired Native American hand, Alessandro. In a fight with Señora Moreno, the Señora reveals Ramona’s true heritage as both Scottish and Native American. Ramona then decides to leave the rancho to elope with Alessandro, the son of the chief of the Luiseño tribe, based in Temecula village.

The couple travels across Southern California, seeking both work and places to live, made difficult by an influx of American homesteaders settling on Native lands. They have a daughter, Eyes of the Sky, who dies of a fever because they could not convince a doctor to come to their homestead. Their second child, named after her mother, is also born during this time. Unable to withstand the loss of Native lands and constant humiliation at the hands of the Americanos, Alessandro becomes unstable and is killed by a local vigilante after a misunderstanding. After Alessandro’s death, Ramona returns to the rancho (now missing Señora Moreno, who died in the interim). Eventually she marries her adopted brother Felipe and moves to Mexico City, the romantic dream of California proven to be no more than tragedy.

HelenHuntJackson

Helen Hunt Jackson intended Ramona to be a protest novel against the mistreatment of Native Americans in the United States.[3] She wrote the historical novel in a feverish three months, drawing from her travels through Indian country in Southern California, as well as her research for, A Century of Dishonor, her nonfiction account of the abuse and neglect of Native Americans at the hands of the federal government.

The novel failed as a reform effort because her white readers did not see the story as a tragic telling of the fallout of California statehood.[4] Instead readers saw it as a romance, an emplotment in which the main character overcomes oppression to become saved or emancipated. Ramona’s commercial success came from readers understanding it as a love story and a regional novel of Southern California. After being published serially it was still a best-seller, selling 21,000 copies in 1885.[5] It has never gone out of print. Though Ramona failed to create political change, it succeeded in popularizing a California myth from the historical facts Jackson had collected.

This new myth of California followed on the Romantic tradition rather than a tragic one, celebrating California multiculturalism in a way that today we would understand through anthropologist Renato Rosaldo’s concept of “imperialist nostalgia,” a problematic longing and valorization of the Native Americans and Californios, which Americans pushed out years prior.[6] Ramona brought new tourists to California, aided by the “See America First” patriotic tourism campaign and low railroad fares. Due to demand, proprietors had shifted their already-existing tourist sites to accommodate Ramona-themed tourism by the mid-1920s.

What began as tourist sightseeing became a veritable Ramona industry as guidebooks to the region appeared (the most enduring by George Wharton James in 1908). Towns and businesses adopted Ramona themes: you could also visit locations like the Ramona Highway or Ramona Pharmacy. The book was translated into many languages, adapted into five films and a telenovela in the U.S. and Mexico, and made into no less than eight plays, the most famous of which is the annual Ramona Pageant in Hemet, dating back to 1923.[7]

Tourists searched for the ‘real’ Ramona promised to them in tourist literature, though they were often met by many seeking to make a quick buck on the myth.[8] Perhaps the most ‘real’ of the Ramonas was a Cahuilla woman by the name Ramona Lubo, who Jackson had read about while writing her novel.[9] Like the fictional Alessandro, Lubo’s husband Juan Diego had mistaken the horse of a white man for his, and a vigilante band subsequently shot him in front of his wife and children. Lubo never received justice for her husband’s death. As a woman and an Indian, she had no legal standing as a citizen at the trial and was not invited to testify.

Lubo tried to benefit from the popularity of Ramona, charging small fees for tourists to take pictures of her with their new Kodak cameras, or for entrepreneurs to take pictures of her to reproduce in postcards (she certainly did not receive royalties for the latter). Newspapers denounced her opportunism, a charge they didn’t level at white and Latino Ramona entrepreneurs.[10]

Though Lubo sustained her livelihood in part from Ramona, she probably died from it too. While on exhibit as Ramona at a fair in San Bernardino in 1922, she contracted a respiratory illness from which she never recovered. Her grave became another in the long list of Ramona sites, suffering from unscrupulous tourists who chipped off souvenir pieces of headstones in the graveyard. The Cahuilla tribe closed that cemetery in 1973, taking Lubo back from the tourists who had defined her in life and death.

RamonaLubo

Ramona Lubo

The best site to understand contemporary Ramona tourism is the Ramona Pageant in Hemet. Inspired in part by the pageant Tahquitz in Palm Springs, the Hemet-San Jacinto Chamber of Commerce hired Garnet Holme (who later became pageant master for the National Park Service) to write a dramatization of Ramona.[11] Like other pageants of the era, the Ramona Pageant was played predominantly by amateurs who recounted scenes of local history with spectacular crowd scenes, music, and choreography. Theater historians disagree as to whether the Ramona Pageant is more of a pageant, a melodrama, or a hybrid of the two, but both sides agree that Ramona can’t simply be viewed as an “ideologically innocent expression of tradition.”[12]

Pageants were one of the most important art forms of the early twentieth century. They created historical stories that were sedimented in the public imagination and drew in heritage tourism. A prominent example was The Mission Play, which ran from 1912 through the mid-1930s in San Gabriel. The Mission Play articulated tropes of Southern California into a clear and self-evident story: The Spanish period was one of European civilization and the following Mexican period was one of decadence and degeneration.[13] Degeneration theory justified American expansion into California as a civilizing force against Californios and Native Americans. Like the Native American village in Yosemite, these tourist attractions romanticized Native Americans and legitimized their dispossession under the new American government.[14] These myths—forms of imperialist nostalgia—gave a way for tourists and settlers to understand their history through the narrative conventions of drama.

Even though the Pageant was originally marketed to motor tourists in the 1920s and 1930s, the play has always served a large role in community life as a ‘rite of spring.’ Many of the Pageant volunteers return yearly for the event, defining the seasons of their lives by Pageant-time. Barb Matson, an ethnographer of the Pageant in the 1990s, argues that the Pageant is a ritual in which both participants and audience-goers emerge as transformed converts to the Ramona story and its multicultural values.[15]  In Hemet, where today forty percent of the population is Latino, the play attempts to reflect the diversity of the community through its Pageantry. Many trained ballet folklórico dancers perform, as do Native American tribal members. Former Ramona Pageant historian Phil Brigandi notes that participants include all socioeconomic classes in the San Jacinto Valley, noting that   “some of the most prominent and wealthy families in the region perform alongside people on welfare.”[16]

A longstanding goal of the Pageant has been multiculturalism and intercultural understanding, if not social critique of the actions of Americanos in California after 1848. One of the first big changes to the play was the introduction of Spanish language into the script, but arguably the largest transformation has been the increased representation of Native American tribes. While prominent Native families had always participated, students from Sherman Indian School (the local boarding school) were invited to participate by performing tribal dances in the Pageant in the 1930s.[17] In the 1980s, a Native American Advisory Council was formed to improve the Elder Blessing Scene, which had only been allotted four and a half minutes in earlier iterations of the play.[18] Today, this portion of the play almost equals the length of the fiesta scene at the rancho, including Bird Singing (a southern California Native American singing tradition) and a Native soloist, Hoop Dancers, and the Red Tail Spirit Dancers, together representing California and Southwestern Native American traditions.

HoopDancersAtPageant

Hoop Dancers at Pageant

Native participation in the play is made visible through the performers themselves, but it’s also clear from the program. The Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians, San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, and the Soboba Foundation (of the Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians) provided financial support for the 2018 season of the Pageant. A local participant in the Ramona Pageant noted that “the Pageant may have gone belly-up” without the help of tribes today.[19]

Today’s Native American sponsorship of the Ramona Pageant inverts the historical relationship between tribes in the Pageant. In 1927, Condino Hopkins, the son of Ramona Lubo, wrote a letter to the San Jacinto-Hemet Chamber of Commerce accusing them of profiting from retelling the tragedy of Native dispossession. “Although the pageant is supposed to be in honor of the Indian woman who was immortalized in Mrs. Jackson’s famous story, it is well-known that it is primarily a publicity scheme on the part of the real estate interests in your locality…. In view of the fact that her name is thus commercialized, with the proceeds of this exhibition netting thousands of dollars each season, it would seem to me that it would be no more than right and proper for her heirs to share in such receipts.”[20] Though Hopkins’s point that the play was meant to honor an individual is incorrect, his critique of the Pageant reveals that the benefits of the Pageant largely went to the European settlers in the form of community growth and development,[21] not to the tribes who lost so much from Euroamerican settlement. Though the Pageant is one of the few representations of Native history that could be used to ask hard questions of settlers, has it been used both to reveal how California Native Americans were treated by European settlers and to critique it? A Native American former pageanteer told me that he still hasn’t decided whether the Pageant can bring awareness to Native issues or be a viable social critique, even after a lifetime of attending the event and seven years participating as a Bird Singer. [22]

Though the Pageant is a community building exercise, former Pageant historians places the value of the Pageant in the story: “The message is the story and the story is the message.” Garnet Holme’s dramatization of the play hewed closely to the book in order to have theatergoers identify with Californios and Native American tribes, an identification made possible by the understanding that both groups are tragically doomed. This identification manifests itself in one of the longstanding traditions of the play, when the crowd boos Americano cowboys as they ride away after threatening Ramona.[23] Jackson hoped that strong identification with Native American and Californios would make contemporary Americanos question their role as settlers in a land that was not originally theirs.

The novel highlights this with the final tragedy that befalls Ramona and Alessandro. After Alessandro’s wrongful death at the hands of a greedy Americano, Ramona moves back to the rancho. Life in California becomes more and more difficult, and Ramona and Felipe choose to move to Mexico—a homeland yet unseen—rather than endure the Americans. On the boat, Felipe asks Ramona to marry him and she agrees, deciding that it would be selfish to refuse. He accepts her reluctant hand, realizing that he will never have all of Ramona, as part of her will always be with Alessandro. They have a prosperous life and many children together in Mexico City. Of the children, the most beautiful and loved is “Ramona, daughter of Alessandro the Indian,” the words with which the novel ends.[24]

Ramona_and_Alessandro_Hemet_Pageant

Ramona and Alessandro, Hemet Pageant

Scholars of Ramona disagree as to the meaning of this ending. Some have argued that Ramona is not miserable enough at the conclusion to make the novel a searing social critique, but other readings suggest that the ending is tragic, since Ramona can never live in Alta California because of discrimination against Native Americans, nor will she ever love Felipe as she had Alessandro.[25] Through the allegorical deaths of Señora Moreno and Padre Salvierdierra, the Spanish aristocracy and Mission system of California become deceased too, making California alien to Ramona and Felipe. Alessandro’s death also dooms California Indians, creating tragedy for remaining Californios and Native Americans.

Garnet Holme’s original script for the Ramona Pageant maintains the sense of injustice by ending with a speech by the ranch manager Juan Canito, in which he begs God to send the Indians justice and return to them the land that was theirs before the Americanos stepped in. The emphatic plea for justice furthers the invocation of tragedy.

In 2015, the Ramona Pageant Board of Directors commissioned an Idyllwild local, Steven Savage, to write a new version of the play. Unlike the Garnet Holme version and Jackson’s book, this version keeps Ramona—and Felipe—in California, at the rancho that they both love. Rather than recognize the changing times and the tragedy that has befallen them both, Ramona seems to overcome tragedy, making the play into a narrative romance. She ends the play with the following words: “My home, California, where everyone can receive justice.”

The newer version papers over the injustices Ramona has suffered with a quick song and speech, rendering anew the question of what Ramona has become today, and the kind of parable it does—and should—offer to its audience. In his compelling reading of C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins, anthropologist David Scott demonstrates how historical metanarratives structure possibilities for future thought; that is, how understanding history as tragedy or romance has implications for our understandings of present politics.[26]

As a novel and story that has been told of California and its history, Ramona has been read as both a romance—in which a hero can overcome present conditions to emerge victorious—and a tragedy—which “sets before us the image of a man or woman obliged to act in a world in which values are unstable and ambiguous.”[27] In a moment where it is obvious that a multicultural democracy is not a “done deal,” perhaps Ramona should not be understood as a romance, but rather as a tragic cautionary tale. This tale is one in which Americanos are the ‘bad’ guys and Ramona is trapped in an unstable and unforgiving world that cannot be resolved by a single song.

RamonaPosingAtGrave

Ramona Lubo posing at a grave


Notes

[1] Dydia DeLyser, Ramona Memories: Tourism and the Shaping of Southern California (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005); Lawrence Clark Powell, California Classics: The Creative Literature of the Golden State (Los Angeles: Ward Ritchie Press, 1971).

[2] Blake Allmendinger, A History of California Literature (London: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 46.

[3] Valerie Sherer Mathes, “Friends of the California Mission Indians: Helen Hunt Jackson and Her Legacy,” unpublished PhD dissertation (Tempe: Arizona State University, 1988), iv.

[4] Although the political message of Ramona was missed in the United States, Cuban writer José Martí felt compelled to translate the novel as soon as he recognized the critique of American expansion into Mexico inherent in the tragic work. This is a pan-American (not North American) story, he argues in his introduction to his 1888 translation of the novel, despite being written by a gringa. See Ana-Maria Kerekes, Poder y belleza de la Palabra: Análysis de la traducción martiana de la novela Ramona de Helen Hunt Jackson,” unpublished Master’s thesis (Montreal: Concordia University, 2009), 21-22, and José Martí, José Martí: Obras Completas 24 (La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1991), 204.

[5] Mathes, “Friends of the California Mission Indians,’ 201, Allmendinger, A History, 46. John M. Gonzalez, “The Warp of Whiteness: Domesticity and Empire in Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona,” American Literary History 16 (2004): 437-65.

[6] Renato Rosaldo, “Imperialist Nostalgia,” Representations 26 (1989): 107-22.

[7] Vincent Brook, Land of Smoke and Mirrors: A Cultural History of Los Angeles (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2013): 52. Dydia DeLyser, “Ramona Memories: Fiction, Tourist Practices, and Placing the Past in Southern California,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 93 (2003): 886-908. George Wharton James, Through Ramona’s Country (New York: Little, Brown, 1908).

[8] For example, see D. A. Hufford, The Real Ramona of Helen Hunt Jackson’s Famous Novel (Los Angeles: D. A. Hufford & Co., 1900) and Carlyle Channing Davis and William A. Alderson, The True Story of ‘Ramona’: Its Facts and Fictions, Inspiration and Purpose (New York: Dodge Pub. Co., 1914).

[9] Mathes, “Friends of the California Mission Indians,” 197.

[10] DeLyser, “Ramona Memories,” 127-129.

[11] Phil Brigandi, Garnet Holme: California’s Pageant Master (Hemet: Ramona Pageant Association, 1991).

[12] Shilarna Stokes, “Playing the Crowd: Mass Pageantry in Europe and the United States, 1905-1935,” unpublished PhD dissertation (New York: Columbia University, 2013). See also Barb Matson, “Performing Identity, Staging Injustice: California’s Ramona festival as Ritual,” unpublished PhD dissertation (Boulder: University of Colorado, 2006).

[13] Chelsea K. Vaughn, “The Joining of Historical Pageantry and the Spanish Fantasy Past: The Meeting of Señora Josefa Yorba and Lucretia del Valle,” Journal of San Diego History 57 (2011): 213-235.

[14] Mark David Spence, Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks (New York : Oxford University Press, 1999).

[15] Matson, “Performing Identity,” 431.

[16] Phone interview with Phil Brigandi, 29 May 2018.

[17] Although this was a good faith effort on the part of Pageant organizers, Sherman (like most Indian Boarding Schools) has a much darker history as places where students were prohibited from speaking in their Native languages and forcibly removed from their family for assimilation. See Clifford E. Trafzer, Jean A. Keller, and Lorene Sisquoc, Boarding School Blues: Revisiting American Indian Educational Experiences (Norman: University of Nebraska Press, 2006).

[18] Matson, “Performing Identity,” 466.

[19] Phone interview, 31 May 2018.

[20] Hopkins quoted in DeLyser, Ramona Memories, 135.

[21] A 1972 study tried to tracked some of the economic impacts of the Ramona Pageant, and found that around 7.5 percent of San Jacinto Valley residents had moved to the area after being introduced through the play. This points to the impact of the play as being both an economic change to the community and a social shift to growth in the region based on Ramona tourism. See Robert M. McLaughlin, “A Descriptive Study of the Interrelationships Between the City of Hemet and the Ramona Pageant,” unpublished Master’s thesis (Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles, 1972).

[22] Phone interview, 31 May 2018.

[23] Matson, “Performing Identity,” 50.

[24] Helen Hunt Jackson, Ramona: A Story (New York: Avon Press: 1970 [1884]), 349.

[25] Matson, “Performing Identity.” See also Allan Nevins, “Helen Hunt Jackson: Sentimentalist v. Realist,” American Scholar 10 (1941): 280; Kate Phillips, Helen Hunt Jackson: A Literary Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 259; Rosemary Whitaker, “Helen Hunt Jackson,” Boise State University Western Writers Series 78 (Boise: Boise State University, 1987), 37.

[26] David Scott, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).

[27] Ibid.


Julia Sizek
is a Ph.D. Candidate in Anthropology at UC Berkeley and Associate Scholar for the Native American Land Conservancy. Her doctoral research focuses on contemporary land use problems in California’s Mojave Desert. Support for research in this article was provided by NSF Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant (#BCS- 1756340) and Wenner-Gren dissertation fieldwork grant (#9561).

Copyright: © 2019 Julia Sizek. 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

Dream Interrupted

Kevin_Starr

Peter Richardson

With his book series, “Americans and the California Dream,” Kevin Starr did as much as any single author to frame the way we think about California history. Published between 1973 and 2009, the eight-volume series was monumental in its scope and ambition, yet organized by a single trope. Like most dreams, the California one resisted precise definition. But Starr skillfully deployed this metaphor to shape and direct his sweeping account. Over time, his approach became the default way to conceptualize California culture.

Although popular, Starr’s series was not immediately embraced in academic circles. “By the time my second volume appeared,” he noted in 2007, “the New Historians had made their appearance, and I was on the verge of being out of favor…. I stayed out of favor for approximately a decade and a half.”[1] As academics shifted their sights to issues of race, class, gender, and environmental despoliation, Starr’s narrative risked the charge of Whig history, with its inexorable march toward progress and enlightenment. But as Forrest G. Robinson has argued, Starr’s historiography was “profoundly religious,” more baroque than Victorian. Far from denying California’s legacy of violence and iniquity, he presented it as a story of sin, atonement, and redemption. The possibility of redemption, in turn, kept the dream alive and underwrote Starr’s durable optimism.[2]

At first, Starr’s series unfolded in chronological order, with most volumes focusing on a decade or so of the state’s history. That pattern was disrupted after the 2002 publication of Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940-1950. Instead of proceeding to the 1950s, Starr jumped ahead to Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990-2003, the only volume not published by Oxford University Press. He returned to form with Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-63, the final volume in the series. Although he continued to write books, he left a gap of almost three decades in the middle of his signature series. He passed over the late 1960s in silence. Likewise, he wrote nothing about the 1970s and 1980s, which author David Talbot later called San Francisco’s “season of the witch.”[3]

When asked about the gap, Starr had a stock reply: Whoever wrote the book about the 1960s should call it Smoking the Dream.[4] When pressed for a serious answer, he mentioned his distance from that era’s major themes. “I am currently finishing the final volume of my ‘Americans and the California Dream’ series,” he said in 2007.

It covers the period 1950 to 1963. The very fact that I am ending what has been my life’s work as an historian with this date speaks for itself. Intellectually, psychologically, socially, even politically, I was formed by the 1950s.… I will leave it to future historians to deal with the mid- and late-1960s, the 1970s, even the 1980s.[5]

BookSkyline

Starr’s decision, however, does not quite speak for itself. Historians usually write about periods that have not shaped them personally. In the same interview, Starr speaks at length about his own formation and predilections but never quite explains his reason for avoiding almost a quarter century of eventful California history. His indirection suggests another reason for the omission in what he calls his life’s work as a historian.

Yet if the temporal gap in Starr’s series seems mysterious, we need not speculate about his views of that period. In fact, he wrote copiously about those decades—not as a historian, but as a columnist for The San Francisco Examiner. Churning out more than 5,000 words per week between 1976 and 1983, Starr made it perfectly clear where he stood on the issues of the day, especially in San Francisco. Indeed, his articles hint at, but do not definitively establish, his reason for avoiding that period in his series.

Starr’s path to the Examiner was unusual. He grew up in San Francisco, living from age ten to fifteen in the Potrero Hill Housing Project. He attended St. Boniface School in the Tenderloin and, for one year, Saint Ignatius High School. After majoring in English at the University of San Francisco and serving in the U.S. Army, he earned a Ph.D. in English and American Literature at Harvard University, which he recalled as “a magical and nurturing place.”[6] Widener Library’s vast California collection inspired him to write about his native state. “I thought, ‘There’s all kinds of wonderful books on California, but they don’t seem to have the point of view we’re encouraged to look at—the social drama of the imagination,’” he later told the Los Angeles Times.[7] In 1973, Oxford University Press published his critically acclaimed dissertation book, Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915.

Instead of pursuing an academic career, Starr returned to San Francisco, wrote speeches for mayor Joseph Alioto, and was appointed city librarian in 1974. His decision to work for Alioto was consequential. The wealthy Catholic lawyer was a Democrat, but members of the so-called Burton machine—most notably Phillip and John Burton, Willie Brown and George Moscone—considered Alioto a threat to their progressive coalition. When the ILWU, the radical longshoremen’s union, endorsed Alioto’s 1967 mayoral bid, an angry Phil Burton threw his support behind Jack Morrison, Alioto’s opponent. “We’re going to shove Jack Morrison’s bald head up Alioto’s ass,” Burton told an ILWU representative.[8] In fact, Alioto sailed to victory and was reelected in 1971. He ran for governor in 1974, but lost to Jerry Brown in the Democratic Party primary. When Moscone edged out conservative supervisor John Barbagelata in the 1975 mayoral race, the Burton machine finally captured City Hall. By that time, the coalition included gay and environmental activists as well as labor unionists, racial and ethnic minorities, and white progressives.

StreetView

Shortly after Moscone’s victory, Starr began writing for the Examiner, which had served as the Hearst Corporation’s flagship publication for decades.The Monarch of the Dailies” was still a political force in the city, but its influence was shrinking along with its market share. In 1965, it signed a joint operating agreement with the more popular San Francisco Chronicle, whose executive editor, Scott Newhall, had regarded the Hearst newspapers as “something evil” designed to stupefy the masses. Newhall wanted to produce a very different kind of publication:I figured the Chronicle had to be successful, and the city had to have a paper that would amuse, entertain and inform, and save people from the perdition of Hearstian ignorance.”[9] When it came to hard news, however, the Examiner considered itself the scrappy underdog. “We were the No. 2 paper in town with declining circulation,” recalled former editor Steve Cook. “But the spirit on the staff was sort of impressive—we actually thought of ourselves as the better paper in town, we thought we could show our morning rivals how to cover the news.”[10]

Soon Starr was writing six columns per week, including a Saturday article devoted to religion. Most of his columns featured the city’s cultural activities and personages, but Starr also took the opportunity to shape his public profile. He presented himself as a conservative Catholic intellectual, a San Francisco version of William F. Buckley Jr., whom he frequently praised. In one column, he described himself as “a conservative neo-Thomist Roman Catholic with Platonist leanings and occasional temptations towards anarchy.”[11] He also wrote about the challenges of that identity in San Francisco:

It’s not easy to be a conservative. It’s often lonely to be a thinking conservative. And to be a thinking conservative in San Francisco can frequently be an even more difficult and isolated condition…. Here in San Francisco such left-liberal opinions have coalesced into a rigid inquisitorial orthodoxy—an orthodoxy now reinforced by political power—that brooks no opposition whatsoever.[12]

The “political power” Starr had in mind was likely the Burton machine. With Moscone in City Hall, Willie Brown in the Assembly, and the Burton brothers in Congress, that machine was shifting into overdrive. Yet Starr clearly thought that San Francisco was moving in the wrong direction.

PhilBurton

Proposition T, which voters approved in 1976, reinforced Starr’s misgivings. By substituting district elections for citywide races, that measure reduced the power of downtown business interests and boosted the electoral prospects of neighborhood activists. Months before the first district elections occurred, Starr suspected that the new arrangement could usher in “a large number of alienated, left-wing nuts, hostile to the private sector, determined to dismantle anything in San Francisco that doesn’t conform to their pseudo-proletarian, paranoid world-view.”[13] He might have been channeling Alioto, who championed downtown interests, but the intensity of his anti-left rhetoric was notable. In the end, the switch to district elections benefited Harvey Milk and Dan White, who became supervisors in January 1978. Milk won in District 5, which was centered in the gay Castro neighborhood, while White represented District 8, which included the white, Catholic, and decidedly unhip neighborhoods on the city’s southern border.

Starr weighed in on other issues as well. In an interview with Moscone, another former Saint Ignatius student, he asked, “Don’t you feel you’ve been too partisan as mayor, firing all the Alioto commissioners and appointing only people from the left-liberal spectrum?” Moscone replied, “Like a lot of people from old-time San Francisco stock, you’re a little paranoid over changes in this city.” Starr also defended Proposition 13, the 1978 initiative that capped increases in property tax rates. Later, he bemoaned the predictable cuts to the arts and library budgets that followed its passage. He called the city’s refusal to restrict pornography to certain neighborhoods “a form of sexual molestation.” The hippie movement, he claimed, peaked in 1967 with the Human Be-In. The Love Generation “had nothing and no one to love—love truly, that is, in a spirit of ecstatic self-surrender and ardent sacrifice.” In another column, he noted that the city had grown slack and facile: “We are feeding ourselves on the stale husks of Aquarius when we should be nourishing ourselves on the good bread of moral renewal and social realism.”[14]

In May 1978, Starr produced a series of articles on left-wing political violence, which he equated with terrorism. It was all the more surprising, then, when he argued that Patricia Hearst, whose family owned the Examiner, should be pardoned for the bank robberies she committed with the Symbionese Liberation Army after they abducted her. Hearst, who was defended by an expensive legal team, had avoided murder charges by testifying against her abductors and former comrades. Many observers regarded her trial and its aftermath as an example of preferential treatment for wealthy defendants, but Starr turned that notion on its head. For him, the media heiress was nothing less than a political prisoner, and his argument appealed directly to his audience’s class and racial resentments:

If she were born poor, or born to minority parents, she would be free today—free to reassemble the shattered fragments of her life. Patricia Hearst is a political prisoner. She is a prisoner to the envy of those who do not like her class, her race, her family. She is the victim of a dark, obscure ritual that reveals something hideous in the collective American psyche—something that ignores justice in a headlong rush to indulge base envy. Patricia Hearst is a political prisoner of the politics of class resentment.[15]

Following a coordinated campaign on Patricia Heart’s behalf, President Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence in 1979. Two decades later, President Clinton pardoned her despite the strong objection of Robert S. Mueller, III, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California, who noted that Hearst had expressed no remorse for her crimes.

PattyHearst

Most of Starr’s columns were anodyne, but he was capable of full-throated moral outrage. In one column, “Sodom-by-the-Sea,” he decried what he called San Francisco’s “hedonism touched by malevolence.”

On weekends the Lear jets swoop into the airports of the Bay Area, disgorging groups of affluent thrill-seekers. They cruise the town in Roll-Royces, here for weekends of unusual sex. Men, women, boys, girls, S & M, B & D, whatever—they quicken their jaded appetites through the sheer virtuosity of their excess, consuming bodies, cocaine, booze, in an onrush of perverted exuberance.[16]

In Starr’s view, this perversion led to even worse outcomes: “Violence is always lurking in the underlife of Sodom and Gomorrah; for when the consumption of bodies exhausts itself and still there is no satisfaction, then comes the killing rage.” Even worse, local politicians encouraged that descent into vice.

Assemblyman Willie Brown, Jr. recently put out an open invitation for the gays of America to flock to San Francisco. Supervisor Harvey Milk reiterated the invitation recently on national television. I understand these gentlemen’s political motivation. More gays means more votes. But I abhor the idea of turning San Francisco into one big bathhouse, gay or straight.

Starr also claimed that “the excesses of sexual exploitation and murder” were “beginning to give San Francisco the sinister ambiance of Berlin during the waning years of the Weimar Republic.” In another column, Starr criticized “the outer fringe of the gay community” for “appropriating the ordeal of European Jewry as the image of themselves.” He added, “There were no bars or bathhouses or Coors beer at Dachau. There were no drag-queen contests at Buchenwald…. In any event, the spiritual successors of the holocaust Jews are not the boys on Castro Street.”[17]

These barbs were not lost on Harvey Milk. In his most famous speech, delivered at the 1978 San Francisco Gay Freedom Parade, he rebuked Starr by name: “And here, in so-called liberal San Francisco, we have a columnist for The San Francisco Examiner, a columnist called Kevin Starr, who has printed a number of columns containing distortions and lies about gays. He is getting away with it.”[18] Later in the speech, Milk referred to Starr as a bigot and grouped him with anti-gay activist Anita Bryant and State Senator John Briggs, who sought to prevent gays from working in public schools.

Starr’s coverage of conservative politicians was more favorable. His profile of John Barbagelata appeared five days after the Jonestown tragedy in November 1978. Barbagelata had warned his colleagues about Peoples Temple pastor Jim Jones, who was responsible for the deaths of more than 900 persons, including Congressman Leo Ryan, in Guyana. But after Jones mobilized his congregation to aid the Moscone campaign, he was embraced by the Burton machine and appointed to the San Francisco Housing Authority Commission.[19] The Jonestown incident furnished a golden opportunity to lambast Moscone, but Starr also had played a role in the Peoples Temple saga. As editor of New West, a Rupert Murdoch-owned magazine launched in 1976, Starr killed a story about Jones after a church delegation persuaded him that the piece would harm their humanitarian work. The revised story ran in New West only after Starr was replaced.[20]

In his Examiner column, Starr only hinted at the Jonestown atrocity. He imagined how Barbagelata, who had suffered a stroke, felt as Moscone “was being feted in the Fairmont Hotel by the people willing and able to pay $500 per plate.”

I wonder if John Barbagelata felt bitter as he lay in his hospital room, his health broken by all those arduous years on the Board of Supervisors, trying to save San Francisco from fiscal prodigality, from ideological politics, from the takeover of city government by self-righteous special interest groups.[21]

In the same column, Starr sympathized with Dan White, who had recently resigned from the Board of Supervisors.

Supervisor Dan White feels so neglected, so unaware of the value of what he was bringing to San Francisco through his responsible presence on the Board, that he resigns in a fit of fatigue, the combat infantryman paratrooper from Vietnam, discovering that San Francisco politics can be an even more fierce battleground than the Mekong Delta.

ChronicleMosconeMilkMurders

Five days later, that “responsible presence” turned lethal. After White assassinated Moscone and Milk at City Hall, Starr did not suggest that White or the institutions that shaped him—the Catholic Church, U.S. Army, San Francisco Police Department, and the San Francisco Fire Department—might somehow be at fault. Rather, he argued that the entire city needed to atone for its sins.

San Francisco is such a cursed city. Some deep disorder of the soul holds the spirit of San Francisco in thrall, like the loathsome embrace of an evil spirit.… Like the peoples of old, we should take off our vestments of luxury. Wearing sackcloth and ashes, we should anoint our faces with the bloodstained earth that lies beneath us, and, collectively, we should implore the intercession of God, or the gods, or whatever values and ideals we hold sacred. We should beg forgiveness for our sins—sins against the light, sins against each other.[22]

When White was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, not murder, Starr criticized liberals for objecting to the verdict; after all, weren’t they responsible for the diminished capacity defense that White deployed?[23] He also assailed the gay community, which had suffered for decades at the hands of the San Francisco Police Department, for the White Night riots that followed the verdict. Moreover, Starr wondered how the police must have felt during those riots: “What feeling of betrayal must have surged through the rank and file as they stood on line, defenseless against an angry mob!”[24]

Starr did not always toe the conservative line. The death of radical author and journalist Carey McWilliams prompted an appreciative article in 1980; later, Starr described McWilliams as “the state’s most astute political observer” and “the single finest nonfiction writer on California—ever.” After attacking Governor Jerry Brown in a column called, “Grow Up, Jerry Brown,” Starr finally admitted his fondness for the former Jesuit seminarian and Saint Ignatius alumnus. He endorsed Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Dennis McNally’s biography of Jack Kerouac. In 1981, he commended the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence for their presence and work in San Francisco. He also urged compassion for illegal immigrants, whom he described as “dreamers in the desert.” Those who died trying to enter the United States, he wrote, “had better American dreams than most of us have. They know what we have forgotten—that America is worth everything, if it is worth anything at all.”[25]

In 1984, one year after leaving the Examiner, Starr ran for supervisor. He received endorsements from Alioto, former mayor George Christopher, and Leo McCarthy, the state legislative leader and Burton rival. Starr was also endorsed by the Chronicle and Examiner, which cast him as a centrist. “People do not want to live in a city where there is constant conflict,” he told the Examiner. “Elected officials have the duty to harmonize, but lately they have pitted left against right, the neighborhoods against downtown, and labor against management.”[26]

SF_Bridge_50s

By that time, San Francisco had reverted to citywide elections, and the Board of Supervisors had six open seats. Starr finished a distant seventh. One of his campaign volunteers, Michael Bernick, later identified Starr’s aversion to identity politics and class conflict as a key factor in his defeat.

Throughout his campaign, Starr was both mystified and angered by what he considered to be a pandering attempt to divide the city by race, gender, or economic status. When the various Democratic clubs sent out questionnaires asking for support for their advocacy or projects, campaign volunteers would urge Starr to play ball. But Starr always refused to tell these groups what they wanted to hear. He saw San Francisco through the lens of a “civic culture” by which race, gender, and economic status were secondary to San Francisco as a greater entity.[27]

Much later, Starr wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times with a similar message. Newly elected governor Arnold Schwarzenegger should not run an ideological or fiercely partisan Republication administration, Starr argued. “The core principle of the Party of California is that the state—its history and heritage, its environment, its economy, and above all the well-being of its people—is worth imagining, worth struggling for; California represents a collective ideal connected to individual and social fulfillment.”[28] Schwarzenegger sent the article to his senior staff with his approval.[29]

After the failed 1984 campaign, Starr began to refashion himself, California style. Inventing the Dream, the second volume in what his publisher was already billing as a series, appeared in 1985. Four years later, he became a visiting professor at the School of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Southern California. Five years after that, Republican governor Pete Wilson appointed him California State Librarian, a position he held for a decade. During that time, he encouraged countless projects devoted to California history, including my biography of Carey McWilliams, for which he also wrote a blurb. In 1998, Starr was promoted to University Professor and Professor of History at USC. Over the next twelve years, he produced the final five volumes of his series, a brief history of California, and a short book on the Golden Gate Bridge. Among his many awards was the National Humanities Medal, which President George W. Bush presented to him in 2006.

As Starr’s profile rose, the Examiner columns faded from view. One wonders how he squared that body of work with the dream series. Did his criticisms of Harvey Milk and George Moscone, his sympathy for Dan White, his arguments on behalf of Patricia Hearst, or his role in the Peoples Temple tragedy dissuade him from treating those topics in his books? Perhaps, but the evidence is more suggestive than dispositive. Certainly the tone and temper of his work evolved in concert with his new professional duties. As the dream series unfolded, it began to reflect his sponsorial role at the state library and his emergent academic persona. The result was a new and more expansive authorial self, one that appealed to the state’s aspirations rather than to partisanship or moral reaction. Despite this evolution, or perhaps because of it, Starr declined to revisit the years immediately before, during, and immediately after his stint at the Examiner.

Although Starr didn’t parlay his early journalism into a political career, it groomed him for the work to come, much as his experience at Harvard did. It seasoned him, taught him how to write on deadline for general audiences, and introduced him to public figures and issues he wouldn’t have encountered had he accepted an academic position straight out of graduate school. But there was nothing inevitable about Starr’s achievement. To become California’s foremost historian, he had to overcome setbacks and adapt to changing circumstances. Only by shedding his journalistic persona and adopting a new model of authorship could he become the ardent but politically tempered chronicler of California civilization.

 

 

Notes

[1] Forrest G. Robinson, “An Interview with Kevin Starr,” Rethinking History 11 (2007): 28

[2] Forrest G. Robinson, “Spiritual Radiance, Expressive Delight: The Baroque Historiography of Kevin Starr,” California History 78 (1999/2000): 274.

[3] David Talbot, Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love (New York: Free Press, 2012).

[4] See, for example, Patt Morrison, “Kevin Starr: Making History,” Los Angeles Times, 9 July 2009. http://www.latimes.com/la-oe-morrison11-2009jul11-column.html

[5] Robinson, “An Interview with Kevin Starr,” 23-24.

[6] Ibid., 25.

[7] David Zahniser and Matt Hamilton, “Kevin Starr, Author of California Histories and Former State Librarian, Dies at 76,” Los Angeles Times, 15 January 2017. http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-kevin-starr-obit-20170115-story.html.

[8] John Jacobs, A Rage for Justice: The Passion and Politics of Phillip Burton (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 173.

[9] Scott Newhall, “A Newspaperman’s Voyage Across San Francisco Bay: San Francisco Chronicle, 1935-1971, and Other Adventures,” Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1990.

[10] Dan Schreiber, “For the Past 150 Years, the Examiner Has Recorded Life in The City,” San Francisco Examiner, 11 June 2005, https://archives.sfexaminer.com/sanfrancisco/for-the-past-150-years-the-examiner-has-recorded-life-in-the-city/Content?oid=2932866

[11] Kevin Starr, “Class and Contradiction,” San Francisco Examiner, 11 May 1977.

[12] Kevin Starr, “Right Thinking,” San Francisco Examiner, 12 September 1977.

[13] Kevin Starr, “To T or Not to T?” San Francisco Examiner, 6 April 1977.

[14] For the Moscone interview, see Kevin Starr, “Have You Been a Good Mayor?” San Francisco Examiner, 30 April 1977. For his positions on Proposition 13, see his columns on 23 March 1978; 9 May 1978; 20 June 1978; and 24 June 1978. On budget cuts, see “Where Are Our Priorities?” 30 April 1982. On pornography, see “Putting Porn in Its Place,” 19 February 1977. On the Love Generation, see “Beginning of the End,” 2 January 1979. On the city’s moral fiber, see his column on 15 January 1977.

[15] Kevin Starr, “Class Action,” San Francisco Examiner, 16 August 1978.

[16] Kevin Starr, “Sodom-by-the-Sea,” San Francisco Examiner, 26 April 1978

[17] Kevin Starr, “A Lesson in History,” San Francisco Examiner, 6 May 1978. The Coors beer reference alludes to a boycott organized in the Castro by Harvey Milk and organized labor.

[18] Randy Shilts, The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk (New York: Macmillan, 2008), 365.

[19] Michael Taylor, “Jones Captivated S.F.’s Liberal Elite,” San Francisco Chronicle, 12 November 1998. https://www.sfgate.com/politics/article/Jones-Captivated-S-F-s-Liberal-Elite-They-were-2979186.php.

[20] Tim Reiterman, Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People (New York: Penguin, 2008), 325.

[21] Kevin Starr, “Public Service,” San Francisco Examiner, 22 November 1978.

[22] Kevin Starr, “Liturgy,” San Francisco Examiner, 29 November 1978.

[23] Kevin Starr, “The Dan White Verdict,” San Francisco Examiner, 30 May 1979.

[24] Kevin Starr, “The Men in Blue,” San Francisco Examiner, 5 June 1979.

[25] For the McWilliams column, see “An Historical Legacy,” 14 July 1980; Starr’s other compliments to McWilliams appear in Embattled Dreams, pp. 257 and 103. “Grow Up, Jerry Brown” ran in the Examiner on 17 August 1980. Starr touted Apocalypse Now on 24 September 1979; “Walking the Beat,” his review of McNally’s Desolate Angel, ran on 16 August 1979. Melissa M. Wilcox notes his approach to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and the negative response from the Catholic Church in Queer Nuns: Religion, Activism, and Serious Parody (New York: New York University Press, 2018), 44. He expressed compassion for unauthorized immigrants in “Dreamers in the Desert,” which appeared on 13 July 1980.

[26] Bruce Pettit, “Why Starr Seeks S.F. Seat,” San Francisco Examiner, 4 January 1984.

[27] Bernick, “Why California’s Greatest Historian Couldn’t Get Elected in San Francisco,” Zocalo Public Square, 25 July 2017, http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2017/07/25/californias-greatest-historian-couldnt-get-elected-san-francisco/ideas/nexus/.

[28] Kevin Starr, “Fuse It—Or Lose It,” Los Angeles Times, 16 November 2003.

[29] Miriam Pawel, The Browns of California: The Family Dynasty That Transformed a State and Shaped a Nation (New York: Bloomsbury, 2018), 359.

 

Peter Richardson teaches humanities at San Francisco State University, where he also coordinates the American Studies and California Studies programs. His books include No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead (2015); A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America (2009); and American Prophet: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams, which the University of California Press published in paperback in 2019.

Copyright: © 2019 Peter Richardson. 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

From Heart Mountain, Wyoming, to the Heart of Little Tokyo

Arnab Banerji

Located in the heart of the city’s Little Tokyo Historic District, a visit to Los Angeles’ Japanese American National Museum (JANM) is a humbling experience. JANM exists by active community collaboration.[1] The museum’s exhibits tell the story of a group of people who persevered in their hopes of making America their home even as “white” America pushed back on accommodating and accepting people of Japanese ancestry. Anchoring the museum’s display is a wooden structure. The sparse and rickety edifice is frugally-built and a less sturdy version of the log cabins that one finds in the Great Smoky Mountains in the American South. The wooden structure is one of the few surviving housing structures bought and relocated to the museum from the Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming. It represents one of the most dismal and yet often overlooked chapters of modern American history—the forceful removal, relocation, and imprisonment of over 120,000 Japanese Americans to inland detention facilities from the coasts during World War II.

The wooden structure with its modest interiors greets visitors as the first object of display in the museum’s second floor. Beyond the wooden structure lies an exhibit that includes everyday objects, historic photographs, and useful anecdotes that support the visitor in navigating what is bound to be a fairly new immigrant narrative for most people. The open floor plan that one traverses to explore the first couple of rooms comes to an abrupt halt as visitors make their way past the thick glass doors into the section devoted to the Japanese internment. Although, it might simply have been an architectural choice to separate this section of the exhibit. I couldn’t help but imagine a curatorial intent behind forcing visitors to push open a pair of heavy doors to enter into an area earmarked for exhibits depicting life during a state-sanctioned sequestering of fellow citizens. Like the sudden, swift blow to Japanese American aspirations of realizing their American dreams, the visitor is transported, beyond the glass doors, from the tranquility of everyday Japanese American life to the hostile badlands of middle America.

Little Tokyo, the neighborhood that houses the museum is today a symbol of resistance and resilience. A gateway to Japanese immigrants in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the neighborhood was home to some 30,000 Japanese Americans before it was swept clean during Executive Order 9066 in 1941-42.[2] During the war years, the once burgeoning neighborhood became a ghost town before being populated by large groups of Hispanic and African-American laborers. These workers who had arrived in the city lured by defense manufacturing jobs were unable to find housing because of restrictive housing covenants and occupied the abandoned Little Tokyo structures.[3]

Bronzeville, as the area came to be referred to during World War II, was the site of the Zoot Suit riots between white sailors and Hispanic residents of the area.[4] After the war, Japanese residents gradually started coming back to Little Tokyo. Under the leadership of the Little Tokyo Business Association, the area was rebuilt and revitalized around 1947 and is today a thriving tourist and business destination, even if escalating costs have forced the bulk of the Japanese American residential communities to move to Torrance, Gardena, West Los Angeles, and Arcadia.[5]

The Little Tokyo neighborhood is framed by the JANM on one side and the Aratani Theatre on the other with the Little Tokyo Village plaza, with its convenience stores, confectioneries, and restaurants separating the two pivotal landmarks. The Aratani theatre managed by the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC) has been a point of pride for the Little Tokyo district. Since opening its doors in 1983, they have hosted some of the biggest names in Japanese theatre, music, and the arts.[6]

The East West Players (EWP) is another stalwart of the neighborhood. EWP was founded in 1965 by Asian American actors. Now in its fifty-third year, the company is the longest-running professional theatre of color and is seemingly the largest producing organization of Asian American work.[7] Snehal Desai, who is the EWP’s producing artistic director, explained how the East West Players is located at an interesting intersection of the city in that it is surrounded by the Los Angeles Police Department, City Hall, the erstwhile Los Angeles Times building, and a stone’s throw from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and the Music Center. This puts it squarely in the middle of the multiple loci of power—intellectual, political, and administrative—in the city. And yet the nation’s oldest and largest Asian American company holds on dearly to its diminutive appearance, housed in a former church.[8] It seems the company deliberately stays away from the glitz and glamor of the entertainment world even as it continues to produce and promote high caliber work that celebrates the diversity of the American experience.

EWP was founded in 1965 by Asian American actors. Now in its 53rd year the company is the longest-running professional theatre of color and the largest producing organization of Asian American work.

With Little Tokyo as its setting, the memories enshrined in the Japanese American National Museum as reminders, East West Players and the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center as partners, and the Aratani Theatre as its venue, Allegiance: A New Musical Inspired by a True Story made its Los Angeles premiere in March 2018. Before it arrived at Aratani, the George Takei starrer had had its world premiere at San Diego’s Old Globe and a brief Broadway run at New York City’s Longacre Theatre. The musical had been in the works since 2008 when Takei and his husband Brad initiated a conversation with its creators, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione, about creating a musical that would embrace and put the experience of Takei and several thousands like him who survived the Japanese internment during the Second World War into a stage performance. The conversation started in the aftermath of two back to back chance meetings between Takei and Brad, and Kuo and Thione while attending shows in New York City. Takei was particularly moved by the song “Inutil” during a performance of In the Heights, which the four attended together. And the conversation that ensued convinced Kuo and Thione that Takei’s family experience would produce a moving show.[9]

The George Takei story itself is a celebration of the Asian-American version of the American Dream. Born Hosato Takei in 1937 in Los Angeles to an Issei (first-generation) father and a Nissei (second-generation) mother, Takei was christened “George” after the British monarch of the same name. In 1942 Takei and his family were forcefully relocated first to Santa Anita, then to Rohwer, Arkansas, and finally to the Tule Lake War Relocation Center, Northern California as part of the Japanese-American internment during the Second World War.[10] After the war and the release of the former internees, Takei and his family moved back to Los Angeles where his father took up a petty job to support his family. The world war not only claimed a part of Takei’s childhood, but it also took away an aunt and a young cousin who were found dead in a ditch in Hiroshima in the aftermath of the U.S. atomic attack on the Japanese cities.[11] Takei originated the role of Hikaru Sulu in Star Trek and went on to achieve both critical and popular fame for this iconic television role. Since Star Trek, Takei has appeared in numerous films and television shows. Starting in the late 2000s, he embraced various social media platforms and became a social media celebrity with millions of followers across Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Takei also recently launched a YouTube series called It Takeis Two with his husband Brad. Using his iconic status first as a popular and beloved television star and more recently as a social media phenomenon, Takei has been vocal about pressing social issues, most notably LGBTQ advocacy and rights. Takei says, “Raising awareness of the JA internment has been my life mission,” and with Allegiance Takei has opened up a national conversation on Japanese internment while simultaneously touching on its overall national shame as much as it is a personal history for the veteran actor.[12]

The most recent Los Angeles avatar of the play opens with a celebration in the Kimura household in Salinas, California where the family are shown to be artichoke farmers. Sammy (Ethan Le Phong), the young son of the family is portrayed to have just returned from college where he has been elected as class president. His father Tatsuo (Scott Watanabe) is quietly proud of his son, but still manages to push him to do better. This mentality rings true for most Asian parent stereotypes in that they seem impossible to satisfy. Kei (Elena Wang), Sammy’s sister and Ojii-chan (George Takei) make up the rest of the family. The celebration is short-lived as the family receives the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Sammy is eager to prove his allegiance by enlisting, but the family instead is forced to join other dazed and confused families as they make their way to Heart Mountain, Wyoming, “where their multifamily barrack is meager protection from choking dust and bitter cold.”[13]

The Japanese internment in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attacks was one of the darker episodes in the modern history of the United States. Responding to the anti-Japanese sentiment sweeping through the country after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt issued the infamous Executive Order 9066. This executive order gave sweeping authority to the Secretary of War and his military personnel to designate restricted areas and exclude certain members of the population from these prohibited military areas.[14] Under the aegis of the executive order and under the sweeping authority granted by it, the Western Defense Command announced that all people of Japanese ancestry would be relocated from the West Coast.[15] Notices began to appear in Japanese communities in April 1942 instructing families of Japanese ancestry to make preparations and report to designated areas for relocation. Defiance of the order could lead to arrest and imprisonment.

Several Japanese Americans expressed shock at the turn of events. Miné Okubo, an artist from Oakland writes, “To think this could happen in the United States. We were citizens. We did nothing. It was only because of our race. They did nothing to the Italians and the Germans. It was something that didn’t have to happen. Imagine mass evacuating little children, mothers, and old people!”[16] Evacuees were instructed to pack two suitcases and a duffle bag each and were warned that the relocation centers were pioneer communities without adequate infrastructure. 120,000 Japanese Americans, several of them American born citizens left their homes, businesses, farms, and possessions behind as they embarked on a new adventure inland, unsure about their imminent futures.

Not unlike their real-life counterparts, the play’s characters find themselves in a hostile environment and under brutal suppression once at the camp. Throughout the longer first half of the play, however, we see the internees reconciling with their fate and negotiating with the inimical situation, making it work. In the camp, Tatsuo Kimura, the proud Japanese patriarch of the Kimura household refuses to disavow his Japanese identity when he is asked to fill out an insulting questionnaire designed to test the allegiance of interred citizens. This form, reminiscent of several contemporary visa application forms where applicants are asked if they have ever endorsed terrorism or terrorist organizations, is seen as an affront by Tatsuo to the honest life that he has led while pursuing his American dream.

The play ends with an older Sam Kimura portrayed by George Takei, getting ready for yet another Pearl Harbor commemoration. A visitor, who he doesn’t know has brought a big brown envelope. In it we find a copy of Time magazine, with a young Sammy on its cover, memorabilia that Tatsuo had held on to till his last day, and a purple heart. Sam learns that the messenger is Hanako, the daughter of Kei and Suzuki, named after the slain nurse from the Heart Mountain camp—Hannah, the girl who Sammy had dared to love knowing fully well that their relationship would be considered illegal before law. Reminded of the past, and all that he had missed during the years that he stayed out of touch with his family, Sam Kimura breaks down as he welcomes his niece back into his life in a beautifully touching moment of familial reconciliation.

Allegiance 6

The cast performing “Wishes on the Wind” in the Los Angeles premiere of Allegiance starring George Takei at the Aratani Theatre, co-produced by East West Players and Japanese American Cultural & Community Center. Photo by Michael Lamont.

Director Snehal Desai says that this play has always had a Los Angeles connection, with Takei being from the city, the first reading of the play taking place in the Japanese American National Museum, and with Los Angeles being home to the nation’s largest Japanese American population. The director, who also heads the East West Players as artistic director was therefore excited to bring the musical back to its spiritual if not actual home. George Takei offered a more nuanced take on Los Angeles’ relationship to the play in an email interview. The octogenarian writes, “In many ways, the City of Los Angeles is the epicenter of the work we have done to keep alive the memory, history and education about the Japanese American internment.”[17] He points to institutions of socio-cultural significance that call the area home to further his point, “With things like the JANM and the Go For Broke Monument, not to mention the JACCC and the support of venerable institutions such as East West Players, Los Angeles has resources that no other city has to integrate our show’s message and story with the rich tapestry of the community today.”[18] But extant resources aside, the history of the neighborhood cements its ties further with the story that the play shares. Takei walked me through the history of this neighborhood highlighting pivotal existing landmarks that are reminiscent of this recent painful history: “Both the JANM’s first ‘building’ and East West Players’ original Union Church building are historic landmarks of the internment of Japanese Americans. The JANM’s first home was the former Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, which was first built in 1927 and served as the headquarters of the Shin sect of the JA Buddhist community until the evacuation order.”[19] Takei continued, “Union Church was founded by JA Christians and was built to contrast with the traditional Buddhist ceremonial entrance of the Buddhist Temple on the east side of the same block. With the evacuation order coming down, JA Christians were gathered in front of the Christian Union Church and from there, they too were bused to Santa Anita Race Track.”[20]

And if the historical past was not reason enough for the city to have a unique stake in the Allegiance story, Takei points out that, “Allegiance still lives here in LA” with the “JACCC, the Isamu Noguchi sculpture in the plaza, the Go For Broke Memorial Monument and in a cozy side plaza beside the JACCC, the Memorial Honor Court of War Veterans are all stirring reminders of the sacrifice, anguish as well as the resilience and indeed the true patriotism expressed in so many countless ways by JAs during the war years. One cannot not be aware of our history in Little Tokyo today.”[21] Hillary Jenks has studied Little Tokyo as a lieu de mémoire.[22] The place of memory serving as places that “not only recall the past but also represent lost alternate futures, making them constant reminders of the social and political consequences of previous choices rather than depoliticized diversions.”[23] Takei’s deft recalling of the various nooks and crannies of this “ethnic” enclave in downtown Los Angeles, the presence of historically significant landmarks, and the inspiration that they lent to the creators of Allegiance to formulate and share the story signifies the importance of this neighborhood as a continued determinant of Japanese American identity even when gentrification rapidly changes the demographic makeup of the area surrounding this neighborhood. However, the changes effecting the community today won’t be the first time that this stretch between City Hall and the Los Angeles river have had to forcefully undergo a change of character to accommodate rapid social changes.

JACCC, the Isamu Noguchi sculpture in the plaza, the Go For Broke Memorial Monument and in a cozy side plaza beside the JACCC, the Memorial Honor Court of War Veterans are all stirring reminders of the sacrifice, anguish as well as the resilience and indeed the true patriotism expressed in so many countless ways by JAs during the war years. One cannot not be aware of our history in Little Tokyo today.

The forceful Japanese American relocation under Executive Order 9066 opened up a vacuum that was quickly filled by other minority communities—especially African Americans and Hispanic Americans. The Bronzeville period of this neighborhood was a result of the rapid westward migration of African American populations during the war. Segregated housing laws did not allow this new population to find reasonable accommodation resulting in the city’s newest residents squatting in houses and structures abandoned by the Japanese Americans. Takei reminds us how Little Tokyo landmarks, like the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, were opened up to welcome the new African American Baptist congregation in order to hold Sunday services. Takei imagines that “during the war, this Buddhist Temple rocked with the foot stamping, hand clapping ‘Hallelujahs’ of Southern Baptist Sunday services” in the Providence Baptist Church.[24] The same holds true for Union Church which also “welcomed African American congregants until the return of the JAs after the war.”[25] The African American settlers in the Japanese enclave were hopeful of turning the struggling neighborhood around, but popular perception of the area as “the city’s most notorious problem neighborhood quickly overshadowed Bronzeville boosterism.”[26] The neighborhood struggled under the pressure of the sudden growth in population driven by Los Angeles’ racist and restrictive housing laws. The California Eagle aptly summarized the situation, “With 95 percent of our town locked, bolted, and barred against us the Negro is bound into a ghetto as fast as any which binds the Jewish people in Germany today.”[27]

The pressure on the already strained resources increased with the return of the Japanese American internees back to Los Angeles from their encampments. Takei recalls relocating back to Little Tokyo after he and his family were finally released from the camps. By then Bronzeville was a shadow of its confident resilient former self and was “skid row.” In Takei’s words, “It was a place for the poorest of the poor, and it was to be honest a harrowing experience—dirty, crowded, and crime-ridden.”[28] The relocation was horrific enough for Takei’s sister to wish that they were back home to the camps, which Takei suggests were “at least clean even for a prison camp.”[29] The African American residents of Bronzeville and the Japanese American stakeholders of the erstwhile Little Tokyo tried finding common ground to resist the racist segregationist policies and practices of the Los Angeles city council and the War Relocation Authority (WRA) respectively. In spite of concerted efforts from community leaders and some positive movement in reconciling the differences that separated the two communities and their efforts to achieve financial and social recognition in white America, “the events of the war had set in motion a divergence of experience between Black and Japanese American[s] that would … prove too wide to reconcile.”[30] The shrinking landscape of the symbolic Little Tokyo “became a target for Civic Center expansion in the in the 1950s.”[31] The development forcefully replacing residents with parking structures and the new police headquarters. The bureaucratic encroachment of the city into Little Tokyo was resisted by the Little Tokyo Redevelopment Authority or LTRA which was created in 1963 to prevent “external land grabbing.”[32] In the 1970s, the LTRA development plan joined forces with the Community Redevelopment Authority (CRA) and Little Tokyo subsequently began its transformation. It thus was turning into a commercial area bearing the kitschy signs of Japanese-ness that would attract a tourist population often at the expense of the ubiquitous Japanese American features that it had celebrated since it was settled in the late nineteenth century.[33]

Weller_Court Wikimedia

The forceful “Japanization” of the area was also resisted by second generation Nissei Japanese Americans who spearheaded efforts to locate within the boundaries of Little Tokyo memory artifacts and promoted ethnic, historical, and cultural venues in the neighborhood. As the child of an Issei father, and a Nissei mother, George Takei seemed to have been at the hub of the Little Tokyo redevelopment. Looking back at the 1980s effort to stop “Japanization,” Takei recalls how

In the late ’80s, actress Beulah Quo and I spearheaded the fundraising drive to adaptively reuse the old Union Church as the new home of the EWP. Just before the turn of the century, in the late 90s, the EWP staged its gala opening with a new artistic director, Tim Dang, a new 250 seat theater and a spectacular production of Sondheim’s “Pacific Overtures.” When EWP presents stories of the internment, it is told in a building that resonates with the heartbeat of the people who were gathered right in front of those four Ionic columns. Union Church today is a living landmark that tells the story that happened in and around its walls.[34]

Jenks’ refers to the 90s effort to resist the touristic commercialization as a “suffocating pilling-on” of cultural memorabilia. The urge to pile on memory seemed to have stemmed from the need of the community to retain Little Tokyo as a lieu de mémoire (a place of memory). A location like this is peppered with landmarks that serve to remind the community of their Japanese roots. Fundamentally, the “internment demands they remember.”[35] It is no surprise, then, that Takei celebrates the current avatar of his former neighborhood as a “vibrant JA community that welcomes all people to enjoy, discover and learn from the cuisine, the performances and our cultural heritage. It is not simply a ‘commercial’ district. It is a healthy, living and lively community with a unique cultural and historic heritage.”[36] Locating Allegiance in this part of town which is so integrally connected to the story that the play shares therefore becomes as much of a political decision as it is a logistical necessity.

Allegiance, the musical is a reclamation of a history and curating it for retelling strictly from the victim’s perspective. The creative team at the helm of the show chose to soften the critical and historical blow by not creating a scathing drama, but rather a mellifluous musical that, barring its occasional highhandedness, holds its act very firmly together. And in the process the play weaves a musical journey that is reminiscent of the classic American musical. It is interesting that both Allegiance and David Henry Hwang’s Soft Power, (which held its world premiere barely a month after Allegiance closed) both use music that is not fiercely original but somewhat of a throwback to the greatest among the showtunes. Much of mainstream criticism of these new works have therefore criticized the music for not being original. It seems a deliberate choice on the part of the creators to critique erroneous representations of Asia and Asian-ness in much of mainstream musicals. It is also a quick draw for the crowds who are then introduced to a history, this new perspective, or even a story that they would have been hitherto clueless about. However, the musical as a form still has its ways of encompassing expressions that are beyond what has been used as definitive examples. Takei explained that every evening he witnessed audiences celebrating the work of the team both during the Broadway run of the show and beyond. And this popular reception seemed to have carried more weight for him and the others in the Allegiance creative team over the not always favorable critical responses that the team garnered. Audience enthusiasm and support continue to be the mainstay for musicals like Allegiance and Soft Power, which may quite possibly only continue to be unfavorably reviewed by mainstream critics who judge these works on the same parameters as most mainstream musicals, and without the nuance of the historical lacuna that the musicals aim to address.

East West Players’ artistic director and the director for the Los Angeles edition of Allegiance, Snehal Desai, mapped out the journey that led to the musical’s eventual coming to Los Angeles during an informal afternoon chat in the EWP premises in downtown Los Angeles. After the Broadway opening, the EWP felicitated members of the Broadway company at the EWP annual gala. George Takei himself continues to serve as a co-chair with his husband Brad of the EWP council of governors and has nurtured and nourished the company for the entirety of its existence. It was therefore only natural that the EWP were involved in conversations regarding the musical’s future after the Broadway run. And after plans for a national tour were shelved EWP teamed up with JACCC and the production team to bring the musical home to Los Angeles.

Desai decided to don the director’s hat himself because he wanted someone who hadn’t seen the musical to reimagine this edition. Even though he was in close proximity to the musical when it was developing from an idea to a fully realized musical, he had neither seen nor personally heard it.  The decision to direct the musical was further motivated by his keen interest in politics, which was something that Desai cultivated during his college days as a political science major while simultaneously pursuing theatre. I quizzed Desai on EWP taking up the challenge of not only producing a play that had struggled to make a mark on Broadway, but also committing to a six-week run in an eight hundred seat theatre. Desai’s nuanced response downplayed the significance of Broadway as the benchmark for great theatre. He went on to say that a few decades ago, Broadway was thought of as the place where new voices and new works were to be seen but that has stopped being the case now when Disney is at the helm of several theatres and the entertainment on offer caters to a tourist crowd who watch plays to check off a bucket list item. And therefore, EWP did not balk from the lukewarm response to Allegiance on Broadway. They went instead with the fact that the show was one of the biggest successes at the Old Globe in San Diego. And Angelenos came out in large numbers to support the play. The overwhelming support that the show enjoyed in Los Angeles potentially could have stemmed from the politics of locating the play within the lieu de mémoire of Little Tokyo and the attempt of the neighborhood to strike a balance between touristy marketing and community engagement. Desai’s refuting of Broadway as a commercial rather than a critical benchmark for contemporary American theatre certainly hints at that direction as well.

The play temporarily enters the urban space of the neighborhood to offer a performed portrayal of not only the community’s reaffirmation of its distinct ethnic identity but also its relationship and resistance to literal and figurative encroachments of bureaucratic and economic forces.

Desai recollects that the Los Angeles edition of the musical came about at what was becoming an increasingly difficult political climate with regards to immigration. The exclusionary rhetoric employed by the current presidential administration towards citizens, citizens-in-waiting, and immigrants finds echoes in this shameful episode from fairly recent American history. An episode that some Americans are painfully unaware of to this day. Takei took me back to an even earlier political moment that the veteran actor heralded his team into during the 2015 Broadway run of the show. Takei says that the show’s creators could never imagine that the play would have such contemporary relevance even though he remembers that the warning signs were already visible. And so in, “2015, as then-candidate Donald Trump questioned whether the Japanese American internment was really such a bad thing, that he would have ‘had to have been there.’ We then invited him to see the show and reserved a special seat for him every night, so that he could ‘be there’ and learn this history.”[37] The candidate never took the company up on the offer. Based on his recent experience of visiting the Texan border towns of Brownsville and McAllen, Takei reminded me of the ongoing vilification of immigrant communities and his memory of the internment, that “JAs cannot help but be reminded of our unjust incarceration and [so have] galvanized anew to fight for justice for others.”[38] In Los Angeles particularly, the location of Allegiance near the various loci of power and the Metropolitan Detention Center (albeit not an ICE facility) is a powerful statement when seen in conjunction with Jenks’ characterization of the Little Tokyo district as a lieu de mémoire. The play temporarily enters the urban space of the neighborhood to offer a performed portrayal of not only the community’s reaffirmation of its distinct ethnic identity, but also its relationship and resistance to literal and figurative encroachments of bureaucratic and economic forces.   

Allegiance 1

It was difficult to find tickets to the performance. The search was so difficult that I had to wait until the closing week to finally manage to scalp a ticket. Desai confirmed that the performance played to near capacity during most of its run, reaching roughly 200,000 folks over its course. Desai also talked about the Wednesday matinees which were for high school students. The company was really excited at the immersive day that the students would be having if they came for the play including a conversation with George, a survivor from the camps, the Go For Broke Monument, which celebrates and commemorates Japanese American soldiers who fought in 442nd Regimental Combat Team. And then visit JANM for a more hands on interaction with the history that they had just seen performed. Desai was thrilled at the way the community came out to support the telling of this important story and at the ways in which various people were able to relate to it on different levels—personal and historical. The company had anticipated some of this response and therefore as Desai confirmed they did their due diligence in terms of their historical homework. It is wise, however as Desai reminded me, to remember that this was the dramatization of a historical moment—a musical based on a true story, rather than a true story as it really was.

Japanese American critics vehemently have critiqued what they have termed as outlandish portrayals of camp life and the associated violence that comes with it. They all coherently contend that the “camp was degrading. It was dehumanizing.”[39] Others have questioned how Frankie Suzuki’s resistance movement has been portrayed in the musical or how life in the camp was not as brutal as the musical would have us believe.[40] Takei offers a nuanced take on the way this painful history was recreated for the stage. He acknowledges that the company was tasked with a “difficult job of creating a story that told many facets of all of our story, with respect to all of the camps in one location. This obviously meant that in some cases what we depicted might seem harsher than what some people remember at their own camps.”[41] Based his own experience first at the Rohwer camp in Arkansas and later at the Tule Lake camp for the “‘disloyals’ in the community,” Takei recalls the harsh reality that “camp was brutal. There were beatings. There was enforced solitary confinement.”[42] Historical fact is significant. An exception can perhaps be made under exceptional circumstances like in the case of Allegiance. The musical succeeds in instigating conversations about an issue that a vast majority of the American people are either ignorant about or would rather forget. And the success of the musical in this regard makes Takei’s confident assertion, “I’m proud of the story we told, and am not bothered by those who wanted a different one,” sound like a celebration for a just cause rather than a casual disregard for history.[43]

Allegiance is a bold retelling of an episode that is often ignored in contemporary American history. And it is especially important that we revisit this historical period today when America faces several immigration challenges. Snehal Desai drew my attention to the parallels in language used to discuss and describe the Japanese in 1941-42 to the rhetoric from the top-down while discussing Muslims, Central Americans, non-white immigrants, and refugees today. The Los Angeles edition came about at what was becoming an increasingly difficult political climate especially with regard to immigration and immigrants. The exclusionary rhetoric employed by the current presidential administration towards citizens, citizens-in-waiting, and immigrants finds echoes in this shameful episode from fairly recent American history—something that a large number of Americans are painfully unaware of today. There seems to be more uncanny parallels between the time that we are living through in 2019 and the time when trucks rolled up in downtown Los Angeles more than seven decades ago to take citizens away from everything they had worked their entire lives for. The proposed amendments to the census forms, increased surveillance on non-citizens and their social media presence, and the erosion of civic discourse all seem eerily similar to the period that Allegiance puts squarely under scrutiny within its musical framework. More than anything else, this is perhaps the reason why it is such an important piece of work worthy of critical engagement. In several ways, this play is a metaphor for the city of Los Angeles—quietly significant, sprawling in its scope and possibilities, and irritatingly tedious at times. If so, then it is no wonder why it hit the mark here rather than in New York where many interpreted it simply to be this “singing history lesson” by someone who would rather be entertained while remaining oblivious to history.[44]

And on a final point about George Takei, the headliner of Allegiance and an Angeleno by birth: I would be lying if I said that I went to watch the musical drawn by its story. I went to the Aratani to see Hikari Sulu in flesh and blood. I came away inspired, intrigued, and in awe of this octogenarian who has worked tirelessly over the greater part of the last decade to share a story that is at once extremely personal and yet universal in its ramifications. And, as if to counter the observation made by Kelvin Yu character Brian in A Master of None about Takei being busy with “gay stuff,” the social media phenomenon is a gentle presence on stage, essaying Ojii-chan as an affable grandfather who never ceases to lose his sense of humor and spirit. The older Sam Kimura, similarly bears the burden of family separation, witnesses war, and yet remained resolute as a soldier.[45] Throughout the performance, Takei frequently takes himself to the background and makes room for an excellent group of young Asian-American actors to perform characters beyond caricatures and stereotypes. In the end, Allegiance celebrates inclusion like very few musicals are able to and, in the process, hopefully inaugurates a new kind of musical entertainment that is not intent on promoting superficiality when embarking on such relevant themes, but even more so informs and challenges the range of thematic possibilities.

George Takei by Matthew Murphy

George Takei as Sam Kimura in the original Broadway production of Allegiance. Photo by Matthew Murphy.


Notes

[1] “About JANM,” About the Museum, Japanese American National Museum, accessed on 20 July 2018, http://www.janm.org/about/.

[2] “131 Years of History,” About LTBA, accessed 15 July 2018, http://www.visitlittletokyo.com/About-LTBA.html.

[3] Ibid.

[4] See Roger Bruns, Zoot Suit Riots (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2014) for a detailed study on the infamous riots instigated by US Servicemen against Mexican-American and African-American residents of downtown Los Angeles.

[5] See Jonathan H. X. Lee, Japanese Americans: The History and Culture of a People (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2017) for a detailed study of the history of the community.

[6] Alison M. De La Cruz, “The Aratani Theatre: A Meditation on Impermanence,” Performances, March 2018, P10.

[7] “About,” East West Players, http://www.eastwestplayers.org/about-us/.

[8] Snehal Desai, Personal conversation with author, 22 June 2018.

[9] James Herbert, “’Allegiance’ pledges to make it to Broadway,” San Diego Union Tribune, 18 July 2010, http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/sdut-allegiance-pledges-to-make-it-to-broadway-2010jul18-story.html.

[10] George Takei, email interview with author, 31 January 2019.

[11] Landress Kearns, “George Takei Reminds Donald Trump Of the Past Horrors of Nuclear Weapons,” Huffington Post, 22 December 2016, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/george-takei-nuclear-weapons-trump_us_585c5511e4b0de3a08f4ccae?.

[12] George Takei, email interview with author.

[13] Daryl H. Miller, “George Takei & Co. pledge an ‘Allegiance’ to teaching WWII history,” Los Angeles Times, 1 March 2018, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-et-cm-allegiance-east-west-players-theater-review-20180302-story.html.

[14] Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Transcript of Executive Order 9066: Resulting in the Relocation of Japanese (1942),” 19 February 1942, ourdocuments.gov, U.S. National Archives & Records Administration, accessed 23 July 2018, https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?doc=74&page=transcript.

[15] Peggy Daniels Becker, Japanese American Internment during World War II (Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2013), 32.

[16] Becker, Japanese American Internment, 34.

[17] George Takei, email interview with author, 31 January 2019.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Hillary Jenks, “Urban Space, ethnic community, and national belonging: the political landscape of memory in Little Tokyo,” GeoJournal Vol. 73, no. 3 (2008): 231-244.

[23] Ibid., 235.

[24] George Takei, email interview with author corroborated by Scott Kurashige, “Bronzeville and Little Tokyo,” in The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 160.

[25] George Takei, email interview with author.

[26] Kurashige, “Bronzeville,” 160.

[27] Ibid., 161.

[28] George Takei, email interview with author.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Kurashige, “Bronzeville,”185.

[31] Hillary Jenks, “The Politics of Preservation: Power, Memory, and Identity in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo,” in Cultural Landscapes: Balancing Nature and Heritage in Preservation Practice, ed. Richard Longstreth (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), 39.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid., 35.

[34] George Takei, email interview with author.

[35] Jenks, “Politics of Preservation,” 50.

[36] George Takei, email interview with author.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Frank Abe, “Allegiance Uplifts by Doctoring Japanese American History,” Resisters.com-John Okada/Conscience and the Constitution, 27 October 2015, http://resisters.com/2015/10/27/allegiance-preview/.

[40] Brian Niiya, “Allegiance: See the Film, but Watch for these Historical Inaccuracies,” Densho Blog, 10 February 2017, https://densho.org/allegiance-see-film-watch-historical-inaccuracies/.

[41] George Takei, email conversation with author.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Charles Isherwood, “‘Allegiance,’ a Musical History Lesson About Interned Japanese-Americans,” New York Times, 8 November 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/09/theater/review-allegiance-a-musical-history-lesson-about-interned-japanese-americans.html.

[45] Master of None, Season 1 Episode 4, written by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, directed by Eric Wareheim, released on 6 November 2015, Netflix.


Arnab Banerji
is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Loyola Marymount University where he teaches courses on Theatre History, Indian Performance, and Diaspora performance. His research focuses on Asian American theatre, contemporary Indian theatre, and theatre translation. His articles and reviews have appeared in Asian Theatre Journal, Theatre Journal, TDR, Theatre Symposium, South Eastern Review of Asian Studies, among others.

Copyright: © 2019 Arnab Banerji. 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

From Resourceful to Illegal

Becky Nicolaides

California resides at the leading edge of so many big political issues of the day—immigration, the #MeToo movement, social justice activism, climate change—and we can add another one to that list: Housing. If some believe that the affordable housing crisis looms as the “next big political issue,” California could easily be its poster child.[1] Crisis conditions have swelled for decades. It hits many, many people: the homeless in expanding encampments, their numbers recently reaching epic proportions; millennials struggling to find affordable digs in this jaw-dropping housing market, their searches triggering gentrification in low-income neighborhoods; working families struggling to put a roof over their heads. A recent study by the advocacy group Up for Growth found California leads the nation in housing under-production, falling short by a whopping 3.4 million homes in meeting demand and population growth.[2]

There’s a metric called “housing burden” that reveals a lot. It shows the ratio of housing costs to income. For my recent work on the suburban history of L.A. County from 1945-2000, I gathered data that traced this metric over sixty plus years in the county, and it looks something like the following:

chart

Sources: For 1950-2010, U.S. Census of Population, 1950-2010; for 2016, U.S. Census, American Fact Finder.

This is the kind of data that puts a pit in your stomach if you’re hoping to buy a home one day. I think of it this way: When my father bought our family home in South Pasadena back in 1966, it cost him about three years’ salary. Nowadays, it takes at least eight years’ salary if you’re even that lucky, and don’t hit a housing bubble, a recession putting you out of work, and or other potential macro-economic catastrophes working against you.

In metro areas like Los Angeles, San Diego, and the Silicon Valley, where suburban homes dominate the built landscape, it becomes more difficult to tackle this affordable housing problem. Strict zoning often limits the possibilities for in-filling or densifying built-up areas. Suburbia indeed is a particularly stubborn obstructer. If zoning doesn’t shut down the construction of affordable dwellings—like apartments—irate homeowners of all colors and classes will. They turn out in droves to oppose homeless shelters, low-income housing or Section 8 tenants, continuing a tradition of homeowner politics that’s been around for decades.[3]

Informal housing represents a creative response to the housing crisis, gaining traction in California with the recent passage of laws on Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). These measures relax regulations on ADUs—like granny flats, converted garages, backyard cottages, and secondary units tucked away in suburban backyards—making it easier for homeowners to build them and even receive fee assistance.[4] It’s a very decentralized, individualized solution to the housing crisis. Rather than foisting large housing projects on neighborhoods, it throws the initiative to individual homeowners to densify from within. This approach has a suburban feel to it. The units are often hidden from view thus preserving suburban streetscapes, and they’re homeowner driven. It’s a deft solution to a vexing problem exacerbated by the suburban form itself. While it may not solve the housing crisis, it can chip away at it at the very least.

In this piece, I explore one slice of the informal housing story, focusing on the history of garage dwellings from the 1920s to the 1990s. At times, I hone in on South and Southeast Los Angeles, a part of Los Angeles where housing always had a dimension of informality to it, reflecting the strategies and needs of working-class residents struggling to get by. For generations, they maximized the productive potentials of their property to help make ends meet, set within the context of suburbia—towns with single-family detached homes, yards, and families. As the ethnic profile of southern Los Angeles changed, those efforts met with harsher challenges and barriers. In a nutshell, informal housing began as an auspicious opportunity for working-class whites in the 1920s, took on patriotic overtones during World War II, and then was essentially racialized and criminalized by the 1980s when the area flipped from white to Latino. Informal housing was suppressed right at a moment when housing need was exploding. This history reveals how housing policy became entwined with immigration policy at the local level, creating formidable barriers to solving L.A.’s on-going shelter problem.

Urban scholars who have studied informal housing emphasize the diversity and ubiquity of these units, which sheltered elderly parents, grown children, extended family, care providers, and the like. They appear in a variety of class, ethno-racial, and spatial settings, from rich to poor, sprawling to dense. My focus on southern Los Angeles necessarily narrows my gaze onto a population of the lower middle class, working-class, and the poor, who have remained a constant presence in this part of L.A. While it reflects county-wide trends in some ways, in others this story was shaped deeply by local conditions. These suburbs flipped from all-white to all-Latino beginning in the 1980s, a moment when deindustrialization ravaged much of South L.A. This trajectory mirrored patterns unfolding across the U.S., where Latinos migrated right into the “urban crisis,” into cities and suburbs suffering from disinvestment and white flight, seizing opportunity where others abandoned it.[5] In this maelstrom, informal housing was embraced and rejected—all at the same time—and it revealed the ways that suburbia was linking housing and immigration in new and disconcerting ways.


1920s: Working-class roots

In working-class South Gate, Huntington Park, Maywood, Bell Gardens, Watts, and surrounding neighborhoods in Southeast L.A., the streetscapes are suburban and always have been. Homes are modest, maybe squeezed in a little tightly, but they sit in tidy yards and gardens. Many are inhabited by families with children. And the overall physical profile is low-slung, with detached single-family homes, commercial strips, and shopping centers.

When these suburbs were first developed in the 1910s and 1920s, it was an auspicious moment in the history of metropolitan Los Angeles. It was a time when suburbia was an open, accessible, flexible landscape that offered working people the opportunity to become homeowners, practice small-scale homesteading, and in the process achieve a measure of self-sufficiency and independence. In suburbs like South Gate, this openness was created by the affordability of land and the town’s loose regulatory climate that allowed a family, for example, to live in a tent, jerry-build a house, and then raise dozens of chickens behind the house. These practices flourished in subdivisions like Home Gardens and nearby in Watts, Bell Gardens, Cudahy, and surrounding unincorporated pockets—where lots were small and cheap and families, poor. In these towns, the initiative for “development” was thrown to the homeowners who created their own version of sustainable suburbs. Their quotidian practices revealed a powerful ethic of self-reliance, frugality, hard work, and independence. And it gave residents a leg up, a chance to build a nest egg and secure shelter in uncertain times.[6]

South Gate Aerial

The wide-open spaces of early South Gate, March 1926. Ample, cheap land and lax regulation allowed working-class family to achieve a semblance of economic security in the young suburb, by self-building homes and informal structures. Reprinted in Huntington Park Daily Signal, 19 January 1973, p. C3.

This was especially crucial in the 1920s and early 1930s, when L.A. was rabidly open-shop and America still lacked a social safety net. Suburban homeownership became that safety net, in a world where sickness, layoffs, or old age could sink a household. For working-class families especially, the home was a source of economic security, something they could fall back upon in hard times. To squeeze all they could out of their property, they grew fruits, vegetables, and small livestock in backyards, took in boarders, or ran small businesses out of the home. Sweat equity—exerted in suburban yards and homes—became paramount. It gave them access to property ownership free of debt and a cherished economic cushion. In a suburb like South Gate, it was an achievable goal.[7]

Do-it-yourself construction was quite common, with many residents self-building their own homes. Daniel Smith’s family was typical. They constructed a small but sturdy home in 1926, soon after their arrival from Tennessee. During the building phase, they lived in a tent at first, and then a detached garage they constructed. The whole family helped out—including four young daughters—laying floorboards, handing nails to dad, and fetching tools. In a similar way, another Smith family—Frank, Estafana, and two daughters—lived in a modest home Frank built himself, two blocks away from “the sandy banks” of the L.A. River. She was an immigrant from Mexico, he from Germany. In 1920, thirty-six South Gate families were living in garages while building their own homes. The loose regulatory climate of these suburbs allowed these practices to flourish and lent the entire suburban landscape an air of informality. The homes were ramshackle, following few if any building regulations. These were grassroots, bottom-up strategies for grasping a semblance of economic security in insecure times. Especially for the white working-class such informal practices offered a crucial mode of economic sustenance.

wattshome

A modest-frame home in Watts (no date). This dwelling was likely self-built. Photograph by Louis Clyde Stoumen, photo number 00033658, Los Angeles Housing Authority Collection, Los Angeles Public Library. https://tessa.lapl.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/photos/id/1357/rec/1.

Thanks to a host of race restrictions in place, the overwhelming majority of residents in these suburbs were white.[8] Even so, some Mexicans managed to gain a foothold in the early years, in towns like South Gate, El Monte, La Puente, and Azusa.[9] South Gate’s Mexican households included immigrants, second generation, American-Mexican intermarriages, and a small colony of Mexican-born “white” Mormons who had been caught in a decades-long circular migration from the U.S. to Mexico and back again. By 1930, at least 175 residents of South Gate were Mexican immigrants and their kin, many of whomhad immigrated around the 1910 Mexican Revolution. They represented 0.9 percent of the local population. Of these ethnic Mexican households, homeowners outnumbered renters, a remarkable fact given that most of these owners were classified by federal authorities as “alien.”[10] South Gate’s earliest undocumented immigrants thus had managed to achieve home ownership within the suburb’s affordable, open, unregulated environment. Yet for most, that advantage was short lived—by 1940 many had left, possibly deported during L.A.’s 1930s repatriation crackdown, or in search of something better during the Depression. The security that whites achieved through homeownership eluded most of South Gate’s earliest ethnic Mexican families, likely because of their insecure immigration status.

The southern suburbs of L.A. were shaped deeply by these working-class roots, which generated opportunities along with certain formidable challenges. Early residents created towns out of shoddy housing, minimal infrastructure, and loose regulations. Rickety self-built homes, small detached garages, and cheap utilities made up the young bones of these communities. This established not only their physical foundation, but also local traditions of self-building, informality, and the expectations that homeowners could do whatever they pleased to maximize their property’s economic potential. This local culture gave working-class suburbanites a crucial economic edge, and it was built into the DNA of suburbs like South Gate and nearby towns.

 


1940s: Informal Housing as Patriotic Duty

By the 1940s, dramatic changes were afoot. The rise of the New Deal established a social safety net under American families—namely white families—gradually easing those everyday survival pressures. The labor movement gained momentum in Los Angeles and nationally, putting working-class families in a stronger position. And then World War II broke out. In the meantime, the combined pressures of the Depression—when home construction had come to a screeching halt—and the massive influx of defense workers to California created a housing shortage of epic proportions. South Los Angeles especially felt the squeeze, since this was where nearly half of the southland’s defense plants were located. In South Gate, the population spiked from 27,000 to 45,000 during the war. Yet local housing fell far short of need. By 1946, the crisis prompted seventy-five members of veterans groups in South Gate to petition the city council for immediate completion of city-sponsored emergency housing.[11]

This set off a major push to create housing for the millions pouring into California, including servicemen and women, defense workers, and other migrants. One huge initiative was launched by large-scale builders who drew on new federal supports and guidelines to mass-produce suburban homes at unprecedented scales. Los Angeles builders (like Fritz Burns) were pioneers, applying new mass-production techniques to the construction of homes. Developments like Westchester, Panorama City, and Lakewood were examples of this mass-building push to meet the intense demand for housing during and after the war.[12]

Another initiative was to encourage homeowners to convert rooms or garages to rent, a campaign that spread across L.A. County. Officials framed it as a patriotic gesture to help alleviate the housing crisis for homeless servicemen, along with defense workers and their families. In South Gate, the local war housing council put it like this: “Rent your houses to a war worker with children, and be thankful those kiddies are speaking our American language instead of Japanese.” South Gate property owners were urged to convert habitable spaces into actual living quarters, then list those units with a War Housing Center as a “patriotic duty.”[13]

The appeals worked. They spurred local homeowners to convert spare rooms and garages into rentals, a phenomenon happening all over Los Angeles. In 1945, a thirty-one-year-old veteran, his wife, and two kids spent nearly a year living in a garage in nearby Lynwood, with dirt floors and no plumbing or heating.. He claimed that they suffered no sickness because his wife “kept the place as clean as a pin.” In 1946, William Price, a fifty-five-year-old warehouse foreman, and his wife Edna were living in a double garage in South Gate. That same year, a family of four was living in a single garage in South Gate after moving from Oak Ridge, Tennessee where the daughter was “affected by atomic rays.” Another couple (a veteran and his wife)—was living for several months in a single room, “from which they were evicted just a few hours before their baby was born.” Similar stories continued into the 1950s. In 1952, a disabled veteran lived in a small dwelling behind a home in Huntington Park. The same year in the nearby Central Avenue district, a seventy-one-year-old pensioner was living in a garage cited for its “unsanitary conditions.” By 1961, the residue of these practices became clear even in the San Fernando Valley, where hundreds of homes had conversions for rent—garages, spare rooms, and add-ons—a practice that began during the WWII housing shortage.[14] The practice was common in suburban areas across the country, even as far away as Long Island, NY.[15]

 

The popular discourse surrounding these units reflected not just acceptance and praise, but a belief that informal housing was downright patriotic. In the 1940s and early 1950s, the Los Angeles Times ran a series of features profiling garage conversions across the southland, from North Hollywood to Arcadia to Palm Springs. These stories offered good housing-keeping style tips on how to design and decorate a garage, complete with floor plans, and they presented the profiled garages as “model dwellings.” The subtext was clear: A wholehearted acceptance of garage rentals, with an appreciation for the resourcefulness of their white tenants who were making the best of a tough housing market. “The garage apartment where Charles Hofflund and his British war bride are living is an excellent example of how ingenuity can triumph over necessity,” declared a 1946 feature. The couple divided a double garage into a bedroom on one side and a living room and kitchen on the other. Through cozy decorating touches, such as pale green wallpaper and maple furniture, the tenants gave their garage “the air and informality of a cottage.” A 1947 article noted the temporary nature of the converted garage and praised its occupant—who happened to be an interior designer—for the cheerful, colorful flourishes she brought to the small space. “There is no feeling of ‘make do’ … of grinning and bearing life in a garage while waiting for building conditions to become more settled. Everything is so ingeniously planned, so adroitly placed and so pleasant to the eye that try as you may you can’t feel sorry for the Faulkners.” In West Arcadia, Dr. and Mrs. Milo Sweet converted a garage into a “liveable and attractive little cottage—all within a matter of less than two months.” With a minor addition, the garage was expanded to accommodate a living room, bath, kitchen, dining nook, and child’s room. “The cement floors were painted an ashes-of-roses tone to blend with the rug…. A needlepoint chair brings all the room colorings together in a Colonial bouquet…. The kitchen in this little cottage is light, airy, beautiful and practical.”[16]

A 1945 feature epitomized the cheerful praise, with the eye-grabbing headline, “A Garage Goes Formal.” The writer described the unit as “very dignified and sophisticated… this garage is frankly elegant with decorator touches that any city apartment might envy.” This was a second home for the dweller, who converted the garage to be closer to work. The Times praised his resourcefulness, and the fact that this was a DIY project all the way. The front door was salvaged from a junk yard, and the living space included a small kitchen, shower, and lavatory. The interior was decorated with red and white striped wall paper, a mirrored dressing table and crystal lamps, giving the space a “surprisingly Victorian atmosphere.”[17] In all of these features, the tone was admiration for the plucky, creative ingenuity of the people doing the conversions, who could serve as a model for others. In this particular context and with these Anglo occupants, garage conversions enjoyed an aura of legitimacy and patriotism.


1980s: Immigrant Suburbia and the Criminalization of Informal Housing

By the 1980s, Southeast Los Angeles experienced another sea change. Factory closures swept the entire southern part of L.A., transforming it from a vibrant center of industrial production to L.A.’s own rustbelt. By the mid-1980s, over 40,000 jobs in the southern suburbs were lost to plant closings and indefinite layoff. South Gate alone lost over 12,500, mostly high-wage union jobs.[18] Not surprisingly, real estate prices plummeted as the bottom dropped out of the local economy. This downturn in prices became a moment of opportunity for home-seeking Latinos. As a result, south and southeast Los Angeles experienced a radical demographic turnover from white to Latino. The entire area essentially resegregated, as the population boomed.

In many of these suburbs, the Latino population included both a small middle class and a swelling cohort of working-class and working poor families, many of them recent immigrants from Mexico, with smaller numbers from Central America and Cuba. In South Gate, from 1970 to 2000 the number of families below the poverty line rose from 7.4 to 17.4 percent of the total population. By 2000, 17,612 people in South Gate lived in poverty, many of them undocumented immigrants.

This human inflow sparked yet another housing crisis in South Los Angeles. While real estate prices had indeed tanked, the existing housing inventory did not come close to meeting the spiking demand for affordable housing. In South Gate, the very suburb was partly to blame for this crisis. In the 1970s and 1980s, local leaders refused time and again to build affordable housing, even when they had the funds to do so. While they went after federal grants to attract business and industry—to fill the gaping hole left by the plant closures—they directed little of those funds to low-income housing, even when that money was earmarked for it. In some ways, leaders in suburbs like South Gate and Bell Gardens used redevelopment money as a sort of “slow growth” tool: build for industry and retail, but not housing, since housing would draw more residents. These policy approaches uniformly backfired, resulting not in a slower influx but in an exploding housing crisis as the local population continued to soar.[19] From 1980 to 2010, South Gate’s population rose from 64,000 to 94,000—and probably even higher because of census undercounts.[20] This dynamic created a new system of housing usage, driven by poverty and immigrant insecurity, that transformed these suburbs into spaces of ultra-high density living where informal housing drove the trend.

In the 1970s and 1980s, L.A.’s southern suburbs entered the third phase of informal housing: An extensive “shadow market” of unpermitted rental units tucked away in suburban backyards and detached garages. Just as previous generations of working-class suburbanites sought to maximize the economic potentials of their homes, many of South Gate’s Latino residents sought to do the same by squeezing all they could out of their properties. This time, it was playing out in the larger local context of economic distress, constricted job prospects, and immigrant poverty. They jerry-rigged small rental units out of detached garages, constructed lean-tos, or otherwise found creative ways to shelter tenants. These practices were enabled by the loosely regulated climate of this working-class suburb—generations in the making—that endured through the 1970s.

Planning scholar Jake Wegmann has remarkably documented the rise of these units in Southeast Los Angeles from the 1980s to the 2000s. He identified two main modes of informal housing: the conversion of existing space, and the addition of new space. These included partitioning a single-family home into multiple separate living spaces, converting garages into living spaces, transforming a home into a bunkhouse for “hot-bedding,” building onto a home in the back, and using a habitable vehicle or structure (like an RV or tool shed) on the property. This was a “deeply participatory” landscape, he notes, created by working-class people facing a brutally tight housing market. There were similarities to South Gate’s earliest working-class pioneers who self-built their homes; the crucial difference was that much of the latter-day working-class population lost out on the ultimate pay-off of everyday discomfort—property ownership.[21]

By the early 1980s, these informal units spread across the southern suburbs. Conditions varied from decent to horrific. In 1981 in Huntington Park, three adjacent double garages along an alley housed ten occupants. The living was rough—an extension cord ran from the front house to each unit, mattresses were spread wall to wall on the dirt floor, and a hot plate and refrigerator served as a makeshift kitchen. While the tenants had a portable television, they lacked plumbing—using a five-gallon can or a laundry sink as a toilet. A Huntington Park building inspector estimated that 50 percent of the suburb’s garage tenants were undocumented immigrants. In Norwalk in early 1981, a “small shed city” was erected behind two homes, consisting of ten metal garden sheds sheltering sixteen families. They jerry-rigged cooking and bathroom facilities in the same structure. In nearby Bellflower, most of the conversions were built by professional contractors and were “quite attractive,” according to a code enforcement office. The situation was more dire in Maywood, where hazardous conditions were reported—from raw sewage running under floors to exposed light sockets. Similar informal housing appeared in many poverty pockets across Southern California—from San Fernando, Pacoima, and Arleta to the north, to Santa Ana, Anaheim, and Long Beach to the south. In 1987, the Los Angeles Times published an expose on these illicit conversions, emphasizing their dire conditions and their tendency to house immigrants. While some scholars emphasize the ubiquity of informal housing—across space, time, and class—this working-class form concentrated especially in the southern suburbs, like South Gate, Huntington Park, Bell Gardens, and Maywood.[22]

In South Gate, the practice was quite widespread by the 1980s. In 1987, an estimated 20,000 people—about 20 percent of South Gate’s population—lived in a converted garage. A conversion, which could cost anywhere from $5,000 to $8,000 in the 1980s, might involve installing dry wall, tiles on the floor, and dividing walls for a makeshift bathroom. The garage door was often covered over with dry wall, eliminating that exit and concealing the living quarters if the garage door was opened. Health hazards ran rampant—cold drafts blowing through, poor ventilation, inadequate kitchen facilities to ensure food could be properly cleaned, cooked, and refrigerated, and the absence of bathrooms.[23]

Fueled by this shadow housing supply, the density levels in the southeast suburbs reached astronomical levels by the 1990s thus creating a pattern Jake Wegmann terms, “horizontal density.”[24] Maywood was the most densely populated town in California and among the most crowded in the nation. According to a study by the California Department of Finance, Southeast L.A. contained four of the five densest cities in California, including Maywood, Cudahy, Huntington Park, and Bell Gardens—the first three running ahead of San Francisco. Maywood had 25,083 residents per square mile, compared to 16,927 in San Francisco. Only a handful of cities on the east coast—including the boroughs of Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn—topped these levels. In towns like Maywood, the numbers were remarkable because that density was achieved mostly in one or two-story suburban homes and apartments.[25]

As shocking as it could be, this system of informal housing fulfilled the mutual needs of property owners and renters. For property owners, these rentals helped them make the mortgage payment every month and accrue savings. For renters, it was a survival strategy. Tenants were often undocumented immigrants, many arriving cash strapped after spending hundreds of dollars to cross the border and then ending up in low-wage jobs. For them, a garage rental was a viable option in L.A.’s tight, costly housing market; and the informality enabled them to evade the regulation of an apartment rental. Because everything was under the table, there was no lease agreement, no references were required, and instead of a hefty security deposit, a tenant could move in with just first month’s rent. For some, informal housing was a family-based strategy to provide shelter and pool resources. South Gate code enforcement officer Veronica Lopez estimated that in the 1980s at least 60 percent of conversions were done for family members.[26]

Garage conversion. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Pacheco Bell.

Garage conversion. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Pacheco Bell.

This informal housing system created a novel scenario of interclass proximity in suburbia. Contrary to more typical suburbs that excluded the poor, these communities not only housed the poor but did so in the most integrated, intimate way—within the spaces of domestic homes and property. The poor were not relegated to housing complexes or fringe settlements. They were interspersed in backyard garages, rental rooms, and ad-hoc backyard dwellings, physically present in the suburbs’ most private spaces. Despite all efforts to eradicate these spaces, the system persisted and adapted, housing a permanent resident underclass in South Gate. By 2011, South Gate had a comparatively low homeless population, suggesting that this system helped keep people off the streets in some type of shelter, however substandard.[27]

In the 1980s, local leaders in South Gate and some of its neighboring towns launched a massive crackdown on these units. This represented a jarring break with the past in that it was the first time local informal housing was criminalized and heavily regulated. Not surprisingly, it was also identified as an immigrant problem. These measures were part of a broader clampdown on Latino public life in South Gate that was meant to preserve a more traditional Anglo suburban aura that many felt was slipping away. Some leaders behind these campaigns were Latinos, recently elected to local office. The spatial policing that ensued represented a local layer of the state’s apparatus that rendered undocumented Mexicans “illegal” in the context of everyday life. For the first time in its history, local leaders transformed South Gate from a loosely regulated into a highly regulated suburb.

Part of what drove this shift was the intensifying pressure on local jobs, services, and infrastructure, which many blamed on the immigrant influx. Reeling from the mass exodus of factory jobs, intense anxiety over job losses led to scapegoating of Mexicans and “illegal aliens.” In 1984, the South Gate Press ran a front-page story declaring, “Illegal aliens said to take most new jobs.”[28] Strains on local services and infrastructure were likewise blamed on immigrants, whose presence in shadow housing overtaxed water systems, sewers, and the schools. South Gate, in fact, was suffering from massive overcrowding in its schools, which forced the adoption of a year-round school schedule and bussing kids to schools as far away as the San Fernando Valley.[29] Many blamed the school crisis on the housing situation.

A crackdown ensued. Local leaders launched a spatial “law and order” campaign that built upon prior 1960s city beautification efforts, but it did indeed take things in a more punitive, racialized direction. It deployed the teeth of local regulation and enforcement to codify the strictest land use measures in the town’s history. These rules were meant to ensure a suburb of properly utilized single-family homes and public spaces, and they were implicitly aimed against Latinos who were perceived as the main violators. This spatial crackdown was a broad initiative across the southeast suburbs, with Bell, Bell Gardens, Cudahy, Maywood, Lynwood, and Huntington Park initiating similar campaigns against suburban “decay,” “eyesores,” and garage conversions. South Gate’s measures were among the strictest.[30]

In 1981, the city council launched a protracted campaign against informal housing. It began by beefing up the suburb’s enforcement authority around building code violations. An amendment to the municipal building code allowed the city to take violators “directly to a court judge” and re-designated violations to a fine-able “infraction” of the law. Henry Gonzalez, who in 1982 became the first Latino elected to the South Gate city council, carried the momentum forward. In 1983, during his first mayoral term, he began a proactive campaign of spatial policing. It started with a monthly “mayor’s tour” of South Gate, where he and other local officials climbed into a van and roamed the suburb in a quest to “find the ugliest spots in town.” They jotted down addresses in violation of city codes, including illegally converted garages.[31]

A 1983 ordinance sealed the effort by mandating the proper care of local properties. Residents were required to mow lawns, pull weeds, paint homes, keep yards clear of cars, clotheslines, and junk, and refrain from unauthorized conversions. Violators would face criminal misdemeanor charges, with a fine of $1,000 or six months in county jail.[32] The next year, South Gate’s “fight against blight” included ramped up enforcement: A new team of six building inspectors—equipped with shiny, white 1984 Ford Escorts—were empowered to patrol the suburb and issue citations on the spot. This system of spatial policing, adopted by Huntington Park in 1980 and South Gate in 1983, was fairly rare; one Huntington Park official estimated that one in one-hundred cities empowered building inspectors to issue citations, much like a police officer. In 1985, South Gate passed a pre-sale inspection ordinance, which required a city inspection of all homes for sale, a measure expressly designed to combat illegal conversions. It essentially inserted city authority into a private transaction, giving officials a handy means for scoping out violators.[33] This new enforcement apparatus represented a key turning point—property regulation shifted from a reactive system that responded to complaints, to a proactive, well-funded system that sniffed out violators.[34]

Occupied RV. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Pacheco Bell.

Occupied RV. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Pacheco Bell.

Local debates around these measures reflected a racialized view of informal housing, by those both for and against the crackdown. They shared the view that the prime culprits behind informal housing were Latinos, often undocumented. Those who voiced opinions were mostly Anglos or American-born Mexicans, who felt empowered to express opinions at public meetings. Opponents of the pre-sale law were mostly Anglo realtors who feared the measure would hamper home sales, and long-time white residents who felt the law was an infringement upon their property rights. Dorothea Lombardo, a longtime resident, told the city council, “it was understood by the citizens that the ordinances were intended to keep illegal aliens out of the City but that law-abiding citizens are being hurt by these ordinances.” Lombardo had little sympathy for the undocumented and felt South Gate ought to use the INS—rather than city resources—to crack down on illegal conversions. Such an approach would kill two birds with one stone—eradicating both illegal housing and “illegal aliens.” Councilman Del Snavely voiced the opinion of some white residents that the laws should be selectively enforced—targeting units rented out unlawfully, but “grandfathering in” garage conversions done before 1960 (implicitly, by white residents).[35]

Other opponents saw the new law as a civil rights violation. For example, Gregory Slaughter complained to the city council that inspectors “told him they wished to check his garage for illegal aliens” and he believed “this to be a violation of people’s rights particularly in regard to searches.”[36] Larry Swisher claimed the housing crackdown had deeper implications: “The council wanted to get the illegals out of garages. They avoided saying it…” out of a fear of offending Latino residents.[37] Local officials ultimately showed some flexibility in financial hardship cases—homeowners forced to undo garage conversions—but this forgiveness extended mostly to homeowners not using garages as rental units.[38]

In the eyes of some residents, housing inspection had become a local tool of immigration control, despite the insistence of city officials that they were   “concerned about enforcing civil rights in this community.”[39] The system implicitly used housing code enforcement to regulate undocumented residents, and encouraged neighbors to turn in people they saw violating housing regulations. South Gate set up a hotline, and deployed code enforcement officers, the police department, and building inspectors to follow up on tips.[40] By this point, informal housing had taken a wide pendulum swing in South Gate—begun as a viable survival strategy in the 1920s, encouraged as a patriotic duty in the 1940s, and then fully criminalized by the 1980s, when the practice had become racialized and linked to undocumented Mexican immigrants.

Similar conditions and crackdowns occurred across Southern California—it wasn’t just a South L.A. thing. In the early 1990s, the Los Angeles Times reported on the ubiquity of garage conversions, from Temple City to Simi Valley to South Laguna. In the beach cities of Manhattan, Redondo, and Hermosa, illegal conversions were rampant as rents there skyrocketed. Young adults, single parents, seniors, and the poor lived in garages, like the two illegal units Edward Roszyk added onto his house in Redondo Beach. In another Redondo Beach home, the landlord lined his wine cellar with bunk beds and rented it out to sixteen Latino immigrants. Redondo officials received five bootleg complaints a month in the early 1990s. In wealthy Simi Valley, there were reports of single-family homes sheltering four to five families, and a family of nine crowded into a single converted garage. The crackdowns similarly spread—and many targeted Latino renters. In 1989, the City of Los Angeles clamped down on garage conversions in South Central—for the first time in over twenty years—when Latinos began moving into the area. And clear to the north in Santa Clarita, officials launched nighttime raids in 1991 on illegal garage conversions, targeting that sprawling suburb’s neighborhood of East Newhall, where Latinos were 90 percent of the population. Two members of the Santa Clarita city council were vocal supporters of the raids, hoping they would drive out “illegal aliens.” As one put it, “If we make housing more difficult to find for these people, hopefully, they’ll move on.”[41]

Just two months ago, the Los Angeles Times ran a front-page story by columnist Steve Lopez on garage living among LA’s poorest.  Like the Times expose back in 1987, Lopez’s column delivered a powerful emotional punch.  He described how Alejandra and her two children lived in a garage in Pacoima for $900 a month, the small space partionened into a tiny kitchen, main living area, a small bedroom with bunk beds, and bathroom.  The walls were plastered and painted, a cage with chirping parrots sat nearby, and the space smelled of homemade soup boiling on the stove. Modest as it was, said Alejandra, it was better than what she had back in Mexico. The teachers at the local school elementary school claimed that garage living has been on the rise in recent years. The practice and the need, clearly, are still with us.[42]


Moving Toward Solutions

This story shows how policies toward informal housing have varied throughout the years, depending on factors like a particular socio-economic context, depending on who the landlords and tenants were, and depending on who was making such policies. Mexican immigrants were particularly vulnerable targets of housing crackdowns, exacerbating their insecure status via new modes of localized regulation upon everyday life.

Urban planning scholars like Vinit Mukhija, Jake Wegmann, and Jonathan Pacheco Bell have all argued persuasively that we need more flexible policies on informal housing if we ever hope to solve the crushing housing crisis in California and even across the nation. Such policies might support the practice of creating accessory dwelling units by providing resources and guidance for making these dwellings safer through upgrades and fixes. Total prohibition is not a productive approach. Especially in suburban communities, where we must devise ways to utilize land in more economical, efficient ways, informal housing holds immense potential.[43]

As Vinit Mukhija and Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris point out in The Informal American City, informality has the paradoxical nature of being both productive and exploitative, and—sometimes both at once. The challenge for policy is to emphasize action that privileges the poor instead of punishing them.[44] California’s new ADU laws are a step in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go. Once suburbanites and their elected leaders grasp the positive potential in informal housing—and the fact that it’s been around in L.A. a very long time—we may move a step closer toward solving our intractable affordable housing crisis.

Occupied Garden Shed. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Pacheco Bell.

Occupied Garden Shed. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Pacheco Bell.

 

Notes

[1] Benjamin Schneider, “The American Housing Crisis Might Be Our Next Big Political Issue,” Atlantic CityLab, 16 May 2018, https://www.citylab.com/equity/2018/05/is-housing-americas-next-big-political-issue/560378/?utm_source=citylab-daily&silverid=MzEwMTkyMzE2NzgwS0.

[2] Madeline Baron, et. al, “Housing Underproduction in the U.S.” (Up for Growth National Coalition and Holland Government Affairs, 2018), https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/336283_2d8fcafe99fa4aa181dc9884864eb750.pdf.

[3] For example, see James S. Duncan and Nancy G. Duncan, Landscapes of Privilege: The Politics of the Aesthetic in an American Suburb (New York: Routledge, 2004); L. Owen Kirkpatrick and Casey Gallagher, “The Suburban Geography of Moral Panic: Low-Income Panic and the Revanchist Fringe,” in Christopher Niedt, ed., Social Justice in Diverse Suburbs: History, Politics, and Prospects (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2013), 31-53. A recent round of suburban protests against homeless shelter occurred in Irvine, spearheaded by Asian homeowners (Los Angeles Times, 1, 25 April 2018).

[4] http://www.hcd.ca.gov/policy-research/AccessoryDwellingUnits.shtml.

[5] Andrew K. Sandoval-Strausz, “Latino Landscapes: Postwar Cities and the Transnational Origins of a New Urban America,” Journal of American History 101 (2014): 804-31; Llana Barber, Latino City: Immigration and Urban Crisis in Lawrence, Massachusetts (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017); Mike Davis, Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. Big City (London: Verso, 2000).

[6] Becky Nicolaides, My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working-Class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920-1965 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), chapter 1-4.

[7] Ibid., chapter 1.

[8] Ibid., 42-43.

[9] On El Monte, La Puente, and Azusa, see Jerry Gonzalez, In Search of the Mexican Beverly Hills (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2017), chapter 2; Matt Garcia, A World of Its Own: Race, Labor and the Making of Greater Los Angeles, 1900-1970 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001). In My Blue Heaven, p. 44, I noted that very few Latinos lived in South Gate in the 1920s. That assessment was wrong. Since that book’s publication, the opening up of the U.S. Census manuscripts for the 1930s and 1940s has allowed me to correct that portrayal along the lines of my description here.

[10] Information on these residents reconstructed from: United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1930. Census Place: South Gate, Los Angeles, California; Roll: 171; Page: 15A; Enumeration District: 1353; FHL microfilm: 2339906. Accessed at Ancestry.com. 1930 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc., 2002. I cross-checked with additional 1940s records on Ancestry.com—including U.S. Census, Naturalization records, and city directories. On Mormon colonies in Mexico around this time, see John B. Wright, “Mormon Colonias of Chihuahua,” Geographical Review 91 (2001): 586-96; Thomas Romney, Mormon Colonies in Mexico (University of Utah Press, 1938, reprinted 2005).

[11] Nicolaides, My Blue Heaven, 220; Los Angeles Times, 14 August 1946.

[12] Greg Hise, Magnetic Los Angeles: Planning the Twentieth Century Metropolis (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997); Greg Hise, “Home building and industrial decentralization in Los Angeles: the roots of the postwar urban region,” Journal of Urban History 19 (1992): 95-125; D. J. Waldie, Holy Land (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005); Barbara Lane Miller, Houses for a New World: Builders and Buyers in American Suburbs, 1945-1965 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).

[13] Los Angeles Times, 6 May 1943; South Gate Press, 6, 27 January 1944.

[14] Los Angeles Times, 11 November 1945, 24 July 1946, 8 April 1952, 16 May 1952, 16 March 1961; South Gate Press, 1 August, 3 October 1946.

[15] Jacob Wegmann, “‘We Just Built It’: Code Enforcement, Local Politics, and the Informal Housing Market in Southeast Los Angeles County,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation (Berkeley: University of California, 2014), 18-23; Tim Keogh, “Suburbs in Black and White: How Jobs Created Inequality in Affluent America” (manuscript in progress); also see Vinit Mukhija, “Outlaw In-Laws: Informal Second Units and the Stealth Reinvention of Single-Family Housing,” in Vinit Mukhija and Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, eds., The Informal American City (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014), 39-45.

[16] Los Angeles Times, 14 April, 15 September 1946, 17 August 1947.

[17] Los Angeles Times, 2 September 1945

[18] Nicolaides, My Blue Heaven, 329; Ed Soja, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory (London: Verso, 1989), chapter 8; James R. Curtis, “Barrio Space and Place in Southeast Los Angeles, California,” in Daniel D. Arreola, ed., Hispanic Spaces, Latino Places: Community and Cultural Diversity in Contemporary America (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004), 133-136.

[19] Graham McNeill, “Deindustrialization and the Evolution of the Working-Class Suburban Dream in Southeast Los Angeles (1965-1990),” unpublished seminar paper (Claremont Graduate University, 2014), 11-21; William Fulton, The Reluctant Metropolis: The Politics of Urban Growth in Los Angeles (Point Arena, CA, Solano Press Books, 1997), 85-87; Los Angeles Times, 1 October 1989.

[20] U.S. Census, 1980-2000. Local officials voiced concerns about census undercounts at least since the early 1980s: see South Gate Press, 26 July 1980.

[21] Jake Wegmann, “Research Notes: The Hidden Cityscapes of Informal Housing in Suburban Los Angeles and the Paradox of Horizontal Density,” Buildings and Landscapes 22 (2015): 89-110, Jake Wegmann and Sarah Mawhorter, “Measuring Informal Housing Production in California Cities,” Journal of the American Planning Association 83 (2017): 119-130.

[22] South Gate Press, 29 April 1981; Los Angeles Times, 8 September 1983, 24 May 1987. On the ubiquity of informal housing, see Noah J. Durst and Jake Wegmann, “Informal Housing in the United States,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 41 (2017): 282-297.

[23] Los Angeles Times, 8 September 1983, 14 March 1985, 24 May 1987; South Gate Press, 29 April 1981, 20 June 1984 (on cost estimates); Veronica Lopez oral history, conducted by Becky Nicolaides, 6 March 2017, South Gate, CA, pp. 7, 15, 17-18.

[24] Wegmann, “We Just Built It,” 120-123.

[25] Los Angeles Times, 19 December 1999; Wegmann, “We Just Built It,” 65.

[26] Veronica Lopez oral history, pp. 7-8, 11-12, 15, 24-25; South Gate Press, 29 April 1981; Los Angeles Times, 24 May 1987; Wegmann, “We Just Built It,” 140-14.

[27] City of South Gate, “Housing Element,” in South Gate General Plan 2035, January 2014, p. 24 (accessed at http://www.southgatecc.org/community/planning-division/). In 2011, South Gate had 199 homeless persons, which represented 0.21 percent of the total population. The L.A. County rate was 0.46 percent of the total population.

[28] South Gate Press, 20 June 1984.

[29] For examples of the extensive press coverage of school overcrowding in this period, see South Gate Press, 16 April, 7, 14, June, 13 September, 8 October, 16 August 1980, 3 January 1981; Los Angeles Times, 9 October 1978, 9 February 1986.

[30] Los Angeles Times, 8 September 1983.

[31] South Gate Press, 17 January 1981; Los Angeles Times, 8 September 1983; South Gate Ordinance No. 1562, 11 April 1983, South Gate City Clerk’s Office.

[32] Los Angeles Times, 8 September 1983; South Gate Ordinance No. 1562, 11 April 1983, SG City Clerk’s Office.

[33] South Gate Ordinance No. 1651-A, 3 April 1985, SG City Clerk’s Office; Los Angeles Times, 14 March 1985.

[34] Los Angeles Times, 8 September 1983, 6 September 1984, 9 February 1986. South Gate budgeted $265,000 in 1984, and $335,000 in 1986 for the enforcement of municipal building codes.

[35] South Gate City Council minutes, 27 May 1986, pp. 3-4.

[36] South Gate City Council minutes, 27 January 1986, p. 7, 10 February 1986, p. 5. Both Lombardo and Slaughter were later elected to the South Gate City Council.

[37] South Gate Press, 25 September 1986 (Box 6, file 14, South Gate History Archive, Weaver Library). Swisher was part of an unsuccessful citizen movement to overturn South Gate’s laws against garage conversions.

[38] South Gate City Council minutes, 23 June 1986. A war of petitions occurred at this point: the pro-crackdown side gathered 121 signatures, those against had 1,000 signatures. The opposition petition was never submitted to the city council because many people who signed did not want their identity revealed (South Gate City Council minutes, 27 January 1986, 24 March 1986), p. 7.

[39] South Gate City Council minutes, January 27, 1986, 10 February 1986, p. 5.

[40] Los Angeles Times, 21 December 1996. For example, one councilman reported on complaints from a resident that “illegal aliens” were living in a garage on their street (South Gate City Council minutes, 27 May 1986).

[41] Los Angeles Times, 11 May 1990, 7 June 1991.

[42] Los Angeles Times, 27 November 2018.

[43] Vinit Mukhija and Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, eds., The Informal American City (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014); Wegmann, “We Just Built It”; Jake Wegmann and Jonathan Pacheco Bell, “The Invisibility of Code Enforcement in Planning Praxis: The Case of Informal Housing in Southern California,” Focus: The Journal of Planning Practice and Education 13 (2016), http://digitalcommons.calpoly.edu/focus/vol13/iss1/10/.

[44] Mukhija and Loukaitou-Sideris, eds., The Informal American City, 9.
Becky Nicolaides is a research affiliate at USC and UCLA. She’s currently working on her third book called On the Ground in Suburbia, which explores how social and civic life evolved in LA’s suburbs from 1945-2000. Her UCLA website: http://www.tinyurl.com/NicolaidesUCLA.

Copyright: © 2019 Becky Nicolaides. 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/.