Category: Excerpts

Excerpts

Techtopia: Privatized Wholeness and Public Brokenness

Carolyn Chen

What happens to society when its members worship work? Silicon Valley offers us an answer. The tech industry has created what I call Techtopia, one of its most disruptive innovations yet. Techtopia is Silicon Valley’s upgraded social “operating system”—an engineered society where people find their highest fulfillment in the utopian workplace. It promises high-skilled Americans a new kind of “wholeness.” Professionally managed, data-driven, meritocratic, and designed to scale, Techtopia gives tech workers what their families, religions, neighborhoods, unions, and civic organizations have failed to deliver in the last forty years: meaning, purpose, recognition, spirituality, and community. It is the twenty-first century American Dream.

Techtopia’s promise of fulfillment may feel distant, or even comical to most Americans. But in fact, it addresses a silent and growing absence in the American soul: an absence of belonging. Social institutions that once nurtured belonging and fulfillment no longer serve Americans well. In the last forty years, Americans have withdrawn not only from religion, but from marriage and civic associations that at once offered “wholeness.” Rates of marriage and civic participation are at an all-time low.[1] Few Americans are members of unions any longer.[2] Many people don’t even have a sense of attachment to the companies they work for because they are subcontracted labor, including many of the people who make the tech companies thrive. Even a sense of national belonging is in crisis. In 2018, a record low number of Americans reported being “extremely proud to be American.”[3] What institutions do we turn to now for belonging and purpose in life? Where do we go for “wholeness?”

The media pathologizes people who worship work, calling them “workaholics.” But what is the alternative? In American society today, there is no single institution that so faithfully aspires to meet the material, social, and spiritual needs of its members as work does for its highly skilled workers. Tech workers are worshipping work because work has become worthy of worship.

Techtopia is a cautionary tale for the rest of America. It may be making an elite group of tech workers “whole,” but it is leaving the rest of society broken. What kind of society do we become when human fulfillment is centered in the workplace? What happens to our families, religions, communities, and civil society when work satisfies too many of our needs? Silicon Valley is a bellwether of what happens when we worship work—when we surrender our time, our identities, our resources, and even our cherished traditions in service to work. It is what will happen if we don’t invest in building and sustaining social institutions and traditions that nurture community, identity, and purpose outside of work.

Photograph by Matt Gush, mattgush.com


Techtopia and the Monopolization of Human Energy

Techtopia seeks to monopolize the collective energies of communities, channeling them away from religions, families, neighborhoods, and civic associations, and into the tech workplace. To illustrate tech’s relationship to the community, imagine social institutions represented as a variety of magnets spaced out on a tabletop. And let’s say we have a bucket of metal filings that symbolize the energy (time, effort, attention) of people in the community. If we scattered the bucket of metal filings onto the table, the filings would cluster around the most powerful magnets. And even if we tried to distribute the filings evenly across the table, they would naturally migrate toward the most powerful magnets. The piles of filings show us where the energy of the community gravitates.

The metaphor of magnets and metal filings illustrates the relationship between work and human energy in Silicon Valley. Workplaces are like big and powerful magnets that attract the energy of individuals away from weaker magnets such as families, religious congregations, neighborhoods, and civic associations—institutions that we typically associate with “life” in the “work-life” binary. The magnets don’t “rob” or “extract”—words that we use to describe labor exploitation. Instead they attract the filings, monopolizing human energy by exerting an attractive rather than extractive force. By creating workplaces that meet all of life’s needs, tech companies attract the energy and devotion people would otherwise devote to other social institutions, ones that, traditionally and historically, have been sources of life fulfillment.

Consider how the “life” provisions of the workplace attracted the devotion of Sheba Nair, a tech worker and single mother. She chose to take a more senior position at a new firm even though it would mean longer hours, leaving her less time to spend with her seven-year-old daughter. Despite the longer hours, the new job had perks that made her life easier as a single mother. The company had an after-school child-care facility and a big playground that stayed open late. In the past, Sheba had struggled to pick up her daughter by six from her school’s aftercare program. Now, Sheba can work late knowing that her daughter is safe and well cared for. On top of that, the new company’s cafeteria serves dinner. Now, instead of hastily heating up a microwaved frozen dinner, Sheba and her daughter have stress-free healthy dinners at work, where she enjoys “quality time” with her daughter.

If Sheba lived in a different time or place, she would have called on other institutions and individuals to care for her daughter: the watchful eyes of neighborhood adults, a neighborhood youth center, or extended kin. But all the other families in her neighborhood are like hers. They, too, work long hours in tech and send their kids to after-school programs away from the neighborhood. Moreover, as a “tech migrant” who moved to Silicon Valley from India, Sheba has no extended kin nearby to rely on.

In Techtopia, companies replace all other potential providers of social support—families, local businesses, neighborhoods, and public services. Indeed, the company’s professional, managed care is so efficient that the services of other social institutions pale in comparison. One woman marveled at the perks of her daughter’s tech job—the meals, laundry service, wellness benefits. “I could never give her all that,” she admitted.

Companies are also stepping in where religions have failed. “I was talking to a guy at work the other day about mindfulness,” Jim Ward, the mindfulness director at one firm, recalls. “And he said, ‘I want to do more of this. Are there groups where you can get together and do this?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, it’s called church.’ [laughing] And he says, ‘Oh yeah, but I don’t want church.’” Jim delivers the all-too-serious punch line with a grin: the company’s mindfulness program is “having church at work without having church.”

People are hungry for spirituality, Jim says, but they “are turned off by religion.” Although he is an active member of a faith community outside of his company, Jim doesn’t see religious institutions meeting people’s spiritual needs in Silicon Valley. The workplace, in his view, is the answer: “I think we can create that place at work, where they can be spiritual without even knowing they are being spiritual. … They can feed that part of themselves that wants to be fed in a way that’s completely secular.”

Carrie Hawthorne, a former human resources director at a large tech firm, also sees the depth of people’s unmet needs and the company willingness to take the place of religion: “People don’t really go to church the way they used to. They’re not really rooted in their communities the way they used to be. There is this deep need for being a part of something larger than themselves, so feeling connected to the other people in the company, to the mission of the organization … it’s taking the place of some of these other institutions that we used to have.”

Most of us can agree that eating well, being physically fit, experiencing spiritual growth, and having a purpose in life are all good things. Why should we care if people fulfill these needs through their workplaces, especially if work provides them more efficiently than families, neighborhoods, and faith communities?

The problem is that tech companies increasingly operate like the most extreme of religious organizations—cults. They channel the energy of their employees inward and cut them off from things outside. As I’ve discussed, tech companies do this by hoarding so much of their employees’ time, energy, and passions that they have nothing left for anything else. And they provide for so many of their employees’ needs that tech workers can do without the public. As a result, Techtopia is corroding the collective capacity to build and sustain a common good.

Peter Kim, a tech entrepreneur in his late forties, has witnessed the breakdown of community and civic participation as tech workers took over his Silicon Valley suburb. Fifteen years ago, Peter had neighbors with diverse occupations—one neighbor was in real estate, one in finance, another a plumber, and another a small business owner. Peter would see them walking their dogs and mowing their lawns, and their children playing in the yards. The neighborhood felt to him like a community, he says. There was a sense of mutual concern for each other and the neighborhood as a whole. They belonged to the neighborhood. The previous owner of Peter’s house used to run a day-care center from the home, drawing in many of the children and families from the neighborhood. When issues arose, they’d organize community meetings and post flyers around the neighborhood. Peter, who is now running for elected office in his city, credits his start in city politics to the activism of this earlier neighborhood. If it weren’t for those neighbors, he believes, he wouldn’t be running for political office today.

Today, he says, “a lot of those people are gone.” Many moved because of the rising cost of living. Others sold their homes at unthinkable profits and retired early somewhere else. What do his neighbors do for a living now? Peter goes down the list: “software engineer, software engineer, software engineer.” None of them, in his view, care about the neighborhood. They live there, but there’s no sense of belonging. The town was closing small neighborhood parks to cut costs, he complained. That was something his old neighbors would have fought. But now, his neighbors don’t do anything. I asked him why engineers are different. “They’re busy,” he answered. Peter rarely sees his neighbors anymore. They’re not around enough to see the town notices about the impending shut-down of their neighborhood park. And even if they see the notices, they don’t seem to care. “They don’t go to the park, so it just disappears,” Peter explained.

Peter’s story made me think of Sheba. What if Sheba had lived in Peter’s old neighborhood when it was rich with social relations? Sheba and her daughter’s life might have been different. Her daughter might have attended a child-care center run out of a neighbor’s house, instead of the company program. The child would have been able to walk to the neighborhood park instead of relying on her mother to drive her to the company playground. Between the neighbors, whose work schedules were different from Sheba’s, there would usually have been some adult to keep an eye on the kids at the park. Her daughter’s playmates would have been neighborhood children with parents from different walks of life—as realtors, small business owners, and plumbers—and not just the children of other tech workers. The swing set and the monkey bars in the neighborhood park wouldn’t be as new and flashy as the ones at Sheba’s company, but one could imagine such a community fighting the city tooth and nail if it tried to take the park away from them.[4]

Richard Grant, a longtime Protestant minister in Silicon Valley, notices that church participation has declined as tech has grown. People, he says, now live at “a breathless pace.” Thirty years ago, the typical member of his church attended both Sunday service and Sunday school most weeks. Today, the average member of his church attends only Sunday service once a month. This has caused a “volunteer challenge” in his church. Time and energy that people used to devote to church is now going to work.

In Techtopia, people don’t belong to neighborhoods, churches, or cities. They belong to work.[5] Instead of building friendships, trust, and goodwill within their communities, they develop the social capital of their companies.

Silicon Valley shows what happens when we worship work—when we surrender our time, our identities, our resources, and even our cherished traditions in service to work. How, then, can we not worship work? How do we break the theocracy of work?

“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life,” the late writer David Foster Wallace observed, “there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”[6] We stop worshipping work, Wallace suggests, by choosing to worship something else. But we cannot do it alone, in the private sanctuary of our personal prayers and devotions. Since worshipping work is a social enterprise, choosing not to worship work must also be a collective endeavor. We can do this by intentionally building shared places of worship, fulfillment, and belonging that attract our time, energy, and devotion. These are our families, neighborhoods, clubs, and civic associations, as well as our faith communities. We need to recharge these “magnets” that have grown weak. Contrary to what time management pundits tell us, we do this by letting these magnets attract more and not less of our time, energy, and passion. This is not a call to end work; it’s a call to energize non-workplaces. It’s an invitation to reflect on how we as a society expend our collective energy. It’s an appeal to redistribute our devotion into the institutions that we want to shape our desires and fulfill us. And it’s a proposition to invest in institutions that share resources equitably across society.

Among our civic institutions, religions are especially well positioned to respond to the challenges of our time. Religion is one of the last spheres of social life to offer cohesive and communal traditions that resist marketized forms of logic and exchange. Unfortunately, most organized religions in the United States today seem to regard the worship of work not as a problem to change, but rather as something to accommodate. In places like Silicon Valley, religion has become a therapeutic salve to heal the inner self in a work-obsessed world. Religions as varied as Buddhism and evangelical Christianity offer “personal freedom” and “personal salvation” but leave the worship of work intact.

Religions can do much more, of course. Their liturgies, practices, and teachings reorient the human heart, mind, and body away from the world of work and markets. Religious traditions can offer a powerful and distinct set of ethics, communities, and rituals to counter the morally bereft religion of work. They can teach virtues such as justice, stewardship, kinship, and compassion, qualities that help us determine how, why, and when to work; how and what to produce; and what to do with the profits of our work. Religion can show us that values such as efficiency, productivity, and growth are means and not ends in themselves. Now more than ever, we need the prophetic voices of our religious traditions and communities to help us restore a collective wholeness.

As we enter the third year of the pandemic, the future of work is uncertain for Silicon Valley and the rest of the world. Most tech workers in Silicon Valley work from home. They no longer live their lives at work. Instead, work now lives with them at home. It’s become the newest family member and has settled in, like a newborn, requiring constant attention and devotion.

There’s no telling how work will change for Silicon Valley tech workers and other high-skilled professionals after the pandemic. Some companies, such as Twitter, claim that they are going completely remote for good. Others are so invested in their infrastructures and cultures that they’ll want to return to the way things were. But once we reopen our workplaces, neighborhoods, churches, temples, and gyms, we will have to learn to be with one another again. We will have to re-create our communities. What will we do? The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre writes that our actions and ethics emerge from our sense of belonging: “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”[7] To whom and to what will we choose to belong? What will we choose to worship?



Notes

*All photographs by Matt Gush, mattgush.com.

[1] Although voter participation in the 2020 presidential election was at an all-time high, general rates of civic participation have trended downward for the past fifty years. See Theda Skocpol, Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003); Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000); Robert D. Putnam with Shaylyn Romney Garrett, The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2020). For marriage rates, see Sally C. Curtin and Paul D. Sutton, “Marriage Rates in the United States, 1900–2018,” National Center for Health Statistics E-Stat, April 29, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hestat/marriage_rate_2018/marriage_rate_2018.htm.

[2] Putnam, Upswing, 51.

[3] Jeffrey Jones, “In U.S., Record-Low 47% Extremely Proud to Be Americans,” Gallup News, July 2, 2018, https://news.gallup.com/poll/236420/record-low-extremely-proud-americans.aspx.

[4] To be sure, Silicon Valley was never as community oriented as its longtime residents remember it. It promoted land-intensive, spread-out tract housing long before Google showed up, and it relentlessly segregated Black and Latinx residents away from the park-rich neighborhoods people like Peter rightly cherished. But the tech companies’ appetite for human energy has played a crucial role in the unravelling of civil society, whose consequences are only just beginning to be felt. For the history of suburbanization and racial segregation in Northern California, see Robert O. Self, American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).

[5] Economist Paul Collier makes a similar argument to explain the rise of nationalism and the polarization between the working class and the highly skilled in Western democracies. In the last fifty years, the highly skilled have switched their identity from nation to work because work best “maximizes their esteem,” he claims. The working class that got left behind in the new economy, on the other hand, turned to nationalism. Paul Collier, The Future of Capitalism: Facing the New Anxieties (Great Britain: Penguin Random House UK, 2018), 52.

[6] David Foster Wallace, This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life (New York: Little, Brown, 2009), 7.

[7] Alasdair C. MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1984), 250.

Carolyn Chen (www.carolynchen.org) is a sociologist and associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Getting Saved in America (Princeton), coeditor with Russell Jeung of Sustaining Faith Traditions and the author of the new book, Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley (Princeton), from which the above article is excerpted.

Matt Gush (www.mattgush.com) is a photographic journalist based in Southern California, whose work has been collected by National Geographic, featured by The New York Times, and is represented by Getty Images.

Excerpts

Fútbol in the Park: Immigrants, Soccer, and the Creation of Social Ties

David Trouille

Working Connections

One afternoon about two years into my research at Mar Vista, I joined a group of men sitting at picnic tables by the soccer field. Most of them had just finished playing soccer in the midday games. As I walked over, Mi Chavo hopped in Moncho’s truck. As I suspected, he was off to buy beer, which Polo revealed by accusing me of timing my arrival to avoid contributing money. I smiled and responded that he could count on “mis dos pesitos” (my two dollars) for the next beer run. Polo shook his head and replied, “Otro güey que no trabaja.” (Another guy who doesn’t work.)

Even two years after the economic recession of 2008, good employment opportunities remained scarce for many of the men. That afternoon, Polo was complaining about an overbearing supervisor and claimed he was prepared to quit if he persisted with his “mamadas” (bullshit). When someone questioned his seriousness, Polo replied that he could find work at another restaurant “en dos toques” (in the blink of an eye). Araña told Polo he should be thankful he had a job, as it had been over a month since he himself had laid tile. Valderrama, a general handyman, commented that there was plenty of work in construction so long as you were willing to work “por pesos” (for cheap). Barba challenged these familiar gripes: “Hay jale [there is work], but Araña doesn’t want to work. He prefers to drink for free in the park.” Araña fired back by pointing out the precariousness of Barba’s own situation, who—despite working full-time at a supermarket— was sleeping in his “pinche combi” (fucking van).

As the men talked, Titi remained unusually silent and morose. I knew from previous conversations that he had been struggling to find steady work as a painter. He was trying to set out on his own, rather than work for his brother or other contractors. However, going solo was proving more difficult than he had imagined, despite his years of experience. His expression warmed with the buzzing of his cell phone resting expectantly on the concrete table. He seemed even more pleased when he recognized the number of the incoming call.

Titi stood up and answered the phone in English: “Hello.” With one hand on the picnic table, he listened to the voice on the other line and replied: “No problem! Yes, yes. Okay, goodbye.” As soon as he hung up, he motioned to Mi Chavo and spoke in his native Spanish: “Let’s go, I’ve got to see un cliente.” Polo interjected: “Don’t go, Mi Chavo! He was just talking to his vieja [old lady],” implying that his exaggerated talk in English was a ruse to impress the men. Titi ignored Polo’s jab, but when Araña asked him where he was headed, he told him to mind his own business. Titi added that he didn’t want any “drunks” on his crew, which everyone understood to be a clear crack at Araña, who was always looking for work as a hired hand. As the two men walked toward Titi’s van stocked ready with painting supplies, Araña yelled out: “Cuidado [careful], Mi Chavo”—a face-saving and not-so-subtle warning for the “ayudante” (helper). Polo interjected with his own jibe at the departing duo: “Come back with beer!” On cue, Titi shot back: “Busquen trabajo, culeros.” (Look for work, assholes.)

Kathy and Zurdo

*

The world of work was never far removed from the park. Even though many men claimed to come there to escape their workaday lives, intersections between work and play abounded. Work was a frequent topic of conversation, during which the men often complained about problems with bosses or clients and about a general lack of opportunities. Yet as they socialized, they also talked shop and vaunted their achievements and adventures at work. The steady flow of people to and from jobs and phone calls from employers made work feel ever present, especially since cell phones allowed the men to remain “on call” while at the park. Men arriving in clothing stained with dirt and paint as well as vehicles stocked with tools and supplies identified them as workers, as did nicknames like Carwash, Locksmith, Mata Rata (exterminator), and Pisa Muerto (morgue attendant) and iconic park insults like “go heat up the soup” or “go paint toilets.” In any case, most of the men were familiar with their peers’ employment schedules that kept them on the move. Fixing cars or equipment in the parking lot and planning projects at the picnic tables were other ways the workplace flowed into the park. Moreover, as many of the men worked nearby, the park provided a convenient pit stop or respectable waiting post between jobs. But long stretches in the park could signal a lack of employment—a humiliation exacerbated by the recurring taunt to “look for work.”

However, these indicators of employment (or lack thereof) only dimly reflect the close interconnections between park life and the men’s work lives. What the men created and sustained in the park facilitated the development of relationships and reputations that spilled over into the men’s labor. They came to play and unwind, but found that the park provided a vital space to network and generate employment opportunities. Many of the men who met in the park worked together, referred each other for jobs, and exchanged work-related information and resources. Most of these concerned low-paying jobs in restaurants, construction, gardening, and cleaning—positions filled with fellow Latino immigrants. The park also became a place for many of the men to combat the isolation and drudgery of their work, giving them a unique space to construct and revel in meaningful interactions and rewarding relationships.

This chapter explores the men’s work lives and their connections to the park and beyond. I focus primarily on labor in private homes, in which I was able to participate and observe projects firsthand, in contrast to other employment sectors (such as restaurant work) that tended to be off-limits and knowable only through interviews. By shadowing the men at work, I saw how social relationships and informal arrangements organized their labor. I also grew to appreciate how an increasingly vital sector of the contemporary economy was filled by immigrant labor in private homes, where—in contrast to the park—the men and other workers like them were welcomed and depended upon.

Immigrant Labor

In Los Angeles and many other parts of the country, certain tasks historically carried out by middle-class and some wealthier homeowners—tasks such as painting, housecleaning, gardening, and childcare—are increasingly done by hired help. Immigrants commonly do this work and are often employed “off the books.” Today private homes, rather than factories, serve as major economic points of entry for new immigrants.

This shift in hiring practices is well documented in the research on domestic workers. Less well understood are the types of paid services provided by the men from the park, such as small-scale construction, painting, and gardening jobs. Yet, as with nannies, their work is critical in keeping the culture and economy of Los Angeles afloat. Indeed, in many communities, immigrant labor has become indispensable to the maintenance of smoothly running households and affluent lifestyles. Today’s “hourglass economy” generates—and depends on—low-paying jobs, including in restaurants, another major source of employment at the park.

Despite the ubiquity of immigrant labor in Los Angeles, prospective workers and their clients face many challenges in this informal economy. Like any client, homeowners seek to maximize quality and minimize costs, both economic and social. Whereas companies in the formal economy— like painting firms, for example—are publicly accessible and provide institutionalized credibility and legal recourse, they are often much more expensive than off-the-record workers due to greater overhead, licensing fees, insurance costs, and mandated wages and benefits. These requirements also make them less flexible and less adaptable to shifting economic conditions and to the evolving needs of clients.

Anonymous day laborers present different challenges. While usually cheaper, they offer few safeguards to clients if the work goes badly. Moreover, the prospect of selecting workers at a formal or informal hiring center and bringing them in and around one’s home can prove daunting for even the most adventurous homeowner. Like day laborers themselves, clients face fears and uncertainties interacting with strangers in an unregulated labor market, be it over theft, negligence, or other forms of abuse. In fact, studies of day-labor sites show how workers and employers try to transcend the competition and anonymity of these sites by establishing more familiar and permanent employment relationships.

While formal companies and day laborers can and do meet homeowner needs, the men served a more intermediary position in the labor market: workers who neither work in the formal economy nor deal with clients as complete strangers. They avoided the heavy costs of regulated companies, as well as the risks of anonymity. However, these work arrangements did not develop automatically or without effort. For in contrast to friendships formed in the park, the relationships between these workers and employers involved people separated by considerable social distance played out within the physical proximity and private spaces of clients’ homes. The site of production was also the place of consumption, raising the stakes and providing leverage for both parties.

The Work

During the final three years of my primary fieldwork, I observed fourteen men from the park at work. On roughly half of these jobs, “ayudantes” (paid helpers) from the park assisted. In total, I observed thirty-four jobs over a three-year period. In twenty-five of these projects, a range of new tasks or “extras” were added to the original labor agreement as the work progressed. Several of these expanded jobs lasted over a month, although most projects were completed in under two weeks.

The work primarily involved maintenance and home-improvement jobs, including construction, painting, cleaning, gardening, and renovation projects. The size and format ranged from small-scale or repeat tasks (such as fixing a fence or repainting a bedroom) to long-term arrangements (such as weekly gardening or pool maintenance) to large-scale projects (like remodeling a kitchen or repainting an entire home). In many cases, the men had worked for clients for several years, even decades, although I observed initial and onetime encounters as well. Work relationships often began with small, short-term tasks, but then developed over time into more substantial, long-term arrangements.

I primarily shadowed the men at work in West Los Angeles. Occasionally, they serviced multimillion-dollar homes in the most exclusive sections, such as Beverly Hills, Brentwood, and Malibu. But more typically they worked for middle- and upper-middle-class white homeowners in and around Santa Monica, Venice, Pacific Palisades, and Culver City. As I drove around with the men, this area became a monument of sorts to their professional careers as they pointed out various homes they had worked in over the years—some within a few blocks of the park.

In addition to location, the jobs shared several other characteristics, notably the fact that the men generally worked directly for the homeowner, rather than for a third party, such as a contractor or property manager. The men described this job arrangement as “por mi cuenta” (on my own). Many of the men had experience working for compañías or as ayudantes but preferred working independently. Although this work could be sporadic and uncertain, they found it more lucrative and enjoyed the freedom and flexibility that came with being self-employed. However, working on their own did require them to constantly look for new jobs—what sociologist Mary Romero referred to as “finding casas” in her study of domestic workers. Unlike their friends employed in restaurants, they did not work for a salary on a regular schedule.

Chango’s career arc followed a familiar path from apprentice to entrepreneur. He started painting with his father, who taught Chango the trade over weekends and summers. Seeking greater independence and new experiences after finishing high school, Chango began working for other contractors and spent over a year with a commercial painting firm. But by his late twenties and with a growing family at home, he was anxious to set out on his own. Feeling confident in his skills and start-up funds, he embarked on this new chapter in his professional life. By the time I met him in his early thirties, Chango was well established as an independent painter, moving from one casa to the next.

Like other independent contractors, Chango sometimes needed to hire additional workers. These ayudantes were almost always people he knew, rather than anonymous workers encountered on the street. The contractors I met at the park often employed the same helpers, most of whom they knew from Mar Vista. Seven ayudantes from the park accompanied the men on jobs I observed, and two helpers not associated with the park were hired as well. Like Chango, most men had begun their careers as ayudantes, working as apprentices under a more seasoned professional. Occasionally, men who typically worked on their own would work as helpers. The vast majority of these shifting arrangements and relationships were tied to the park.

The work was generally “informal” in that it was not regulated by or reported to the government. Usually the parties relied on verbal agreements and cash payments, although contracts were sometimes produced and services paid with personal checks. Although federal and state regulations do apply to this type of work, I never sensed that either party was aware of or concerned with these guidelines. Neither party secured permits for any of the projects I observed, although the men acknowledged that some jobs did require formal approval. In some cases, they took special efforts to avoid inspection; in other cases, they claimed to have lost out on jobs because they were unable to secure a permit or to meet other licensing or insurance requirements. I never observed any clients openly inquiring about the men’s legal status when negotiating the fee or scope of work.

How the men secured work varied, but these jobs almost always involved some sort of referral or recommendation either from a client or a fellow worker. Few of the men actively solicited work from strangers through business cards, advertisements, or employment agencies. The helpers generally worked for someone they knew as well, rather than seeking work at day-laborer centers. Clients, in turn, typically hired someone they knew or recommended either by friends, neighbors, or colleagues or by people they had employed for other jobs.

Friends and Family

Taking Titi as a paradigmatic case, we see how a variety of personal ties could generate work opportunities. It was his mother-in-law’s recommendation that led to the phone call he received in the opening vignette. She recommended Titi to paint the inside of a condominium apartment she had cleaned for over twenty years. Another referral came to Titi through a former soccer teammate, who recommended him for a job painting two bedrooms in a home where he was installing new windows. And Motor— another friend from the park—urged his client to hire Titi to paint a kitchen he was in the process of remodeling. In all three cases, the recommendations led to Titi securing the job.

Titi’s work history reveals the value of ties to people who work in private homes. Indeed, the more people the men knew with such clients, the greater the potential for referrals. As working-class Latino immigrants, their social circle tended to include people who did similar “brown-collar” work, although not all networks were of equal value. Although the men drew referrals from other parts of their lives, the park became a key networking site, especially because it brought together men who did similar work.

Chances for referrals were also high because of the various jobs that unfold in the life of a home, as well as the need for regular maintenance. Along with shifting cultural expectations, the pressures of a competitive real-estate market produce a steady supply of work as well. Upper-class clients regularly asked their working-class hires for recommendations for maintaining their homes. As the clients suspected, the men almost always knew someone who could do the work, if they did not offer themselves as candidates for the job. Moreover, they could usually count on the work being done well at low cost, which is what drew them to this intermediary sector of the labor market in the first place.

For example, as Titi was painting a wall above a fireplace, his client asked him if he knew someone who could install a new gas fixture, adding that she was tired of not having a working fireplace. Titi replied that he did, although he admitted to me that at the time he wasn’t sure who could do the job. But the following week, he returned with Raul, a plumber he knew from the park, and the two men installed a new unit, splitting the earnings in half. The client later explained that she asked Titi about the fireplace because she was worried that a “company” would be too expensive. She added that she didn’t want to deal with “all the hassle” of finding someone and negotiating the terms by herself. In fact, she told Titi to “take care of it” and did not ask him how much it would cost. To her relief, Titi knew someone who could do the job at an affordable rate.

Referrals were usually made in response to client requests, but were also offered in anticipation of their service needs. Workers often made suggestions—and subsequent referrals—for work that might be less notice- able to the client. For example, Valderrama mentioned that his brother- in-law, a gardener, frequently brought issues (such as a rotting fence or a cracked wall) to the attention of his clients. Similarly, when Titi noticed that a client’s gutter was leaking, he told him he knew someone who could repair it. Talking with me later, the homeowner expressed gratitude for having had the problem identified and fixed. When I asked him what he would have done without the recommendation, he explained: “I’m sure I would have found someone to take care of it, but it would have been a pain and taken a while.” He later joked: “I probably wouldn’t even have noticed it, like a lot of things around this house.” Indeed, I often saw men working on a job recommend a friend or relative to fix problems the homeowner had put off handling or hadn’t even noticed.

However, a referral did not guarantee employment. I observed several men who missed out on jobs, despite having received a strong recommendation, usually due to scheduling conflicts or disagreements over fees. The referral merely opened up the possibility of work by bringing the two parties together. Yet hiring through word of mouth offered the advantage of lessening the uncertainty that came with anonymity and the men’s unregulated status. Not only do people tend to trust people they know—which is why they ask for recommendations in the first place—they also recognize that the recommender’s reputation is on the line, which is especially important if future work is at stake. The stakes of the referral became apparent when clients talked fondly of the recommender when negotiating a new hire. For example, meeting Titi for the first time, his client gushed about how much she loved his mother-in-law, Gladys, who cleaned for her, and how happy she was to help out her family. The client later told me in confidence that she trusted Gladys’s judgment, but also knew she would “keep an eye on” her son-in-law. After the job was completed to her satisfaction, she presumably expected Titi—who by then had earned her trust—to serve the same role in supervising Raul on the fireplace project. As in other workplaces, the referral was leveraged as a source both of information and control.15

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Referrals were rarely made strictly for benevolent reasons. The men making the referral expected to be compensated, although the form of compensation varied. In some cases, a cash payment was offered. For example, Locksmith usually gave around ten dollars to doormen he knew at several Santa Monica high-rises when they referred him to residents locked out of their apartments. In another case, Pow Wow gave Barba fifty dollars for a job he helped him win. When I asked Barba what would have happened if Pow Wow had not paid him, he replied: “Nothing, I just wouldn’t have recommended him anymore.” As Barba was a sociable man who mingled in different social circles, Pow Wow would have lost a valuable contact. In this way, Barba underlined the importance of maintaining relationships with well-connected people.

Reciprocity was more typically achieved through subsequent referrals rather than through cash payments. The prospect of future employment was what most motivated the men to recommend others: “Hoy por ti, mañana por mí.” (Today for you, tomorrow for me.) Valderrama explained his decision to refer fellow workers in these terms: “If I help someone [get jobs], they’ll help me out later with work.” This form of exchange was most common among those whose work lent itself to helping others. For example, Beto (a carpenter), Chicas (an electrician), and Caballo (a plumber)—all friends from the park—frequently referred each other to clients, either in the course of doing a job or when contacted by a client. Like the exchanges and associated obligations built around beer drinking at the park, the trading of job referrals indebted the men to each other and deepened their relationships. Generally, there was a double bonus in these exchanges since the referral benefited their friends and employers, thereby increasing their status and future prospects with both parties. Understandably, the men were excited when their friends obtained work as it could lead to opportunities for them. For example, when I told Martín that Titi had been contacted for a new painting project, he replied: “Ojalá [hopefully] he gets it,” knowing this could mean work for him as a helper.

Caballo and Son

Referrals did not go smoothly every time. There was always a delicate balance between helping out a friend and making sure that person would do a good job; indeed, even a skilled worker could behave inappropriately, showing up late or offending the homeowner in other ways. A bad referral could have disastrous consequences for everyone involved, as illustrated by a falling out between Titi and Motor over a job gone sour:

As Titi was repainting a home, the client asked him if he knew someone who could install new kitchen cabinets. Titi recommended Motor, having worked with him before on a similar job. Recently, the two men had been socializing more often after Titi had begun playing for the soccer team Motor coached. Motor agreed to take on the job, happy to have found work after a brief stretch of inactivity.

The client purchased the cabinets, and Motor went to work installing them. The two men rarely interacted because instructions were passed through Titi. When Motor finished, the client said his wife was unhappy with how they looked. She wanted them positioned differently. He claimed that Motor had not followed his instructions and that he would not pay him until the cabinets were moved. Titi relayed the news to Motor, who was already growing anxious about being paid for three days of work. Motor pushed back, arguing that he did exactly what Titi said the client had requested. He refused to move the cabinets until he was paid for the work he had already done. In the meantime, unbeknownst to Titi, the client found someone else to do the job, and Motor was never paid.

Despite making this “bad” referral, Titi was nevertheless fortunate to avoid the worst-case scenario in which both workers were fired. Instead, as more typically happened in these cases, the client continued to hire the first one for work—as he had already proven himself—but no longer asked for his suggestions.

Consequently, with fewer opportunities to recommend people, Titi’s own chances of receiving referrals declined. As the men depended on the exchange of referrals, it was therefore in their best interest to offer reliable recommendations to their clients, at least to those with whom they wished to remain in good standing. Similarly, those referred were under pressure to perform well if they hoped to be recommended again for jobs in the future. Like their clients, the men used the prospect of future referrals as a means to motivate their protégés and to keep them in line. For example, Titi told Motor that there would likely be much more work with the client to whom he was recommending him “si termina bien” (if it ends well). Yet the job, as we learned, did not go well, after which Titi chided Motor: “You lost a lot of work with that guy!”

At the same time, there was sometimes trepidation about introducing a potential competitor to a client. Indeed, many of the men were adept at different home-improvement tasks or at least professed to be. For example, Titi (a painter) preferred to recommend Motor for carpentry jobs, rather than Valderrama, because the latter was also a skilled painter. By contrast, Titi claimed that Chango no longer employed him on his painting crew because he was worried Titi would “steal his clients.” Chango laughed when I asked him if this was really the case, but he did not dispute Titi’s allegation. While these two men remained friends, I knew of several relationships that soured due to pilfered work. So it was hardly surprising that the men were very careful in choosing whom they recommended to their clients.

Valderrama and Barba

Building Reputations at the Park

The park represented a key social setting for the men to sort out many of these concerns. As the opening vignette shows, the men often talked about their work as they socialized. Through these stories, the men learned about each other as workers—information they later used to make decisions about whom to hire or recommend. As expected, tales of referrals or hiring arrangements gone bad garnered special attention. For example, it took several years for Coloccini to restore his reputation after Barba told everyone at the park he bungled a job he had helped him secure. Barba later told me he was angry with Coloccini because the client—who owned several apartment buildings—no longer asked him to recommend workers, thereby depriving him of fees for referrals and also reducing opportunities for recommendations for himself from those he might otherwise have recommended. Similarly, after Secada was caught by a client taking a shower in her home, Araña, who had hired him, was immediately fired. Subsequently, many men refused to employ Secada as a helper. But culpability was not always clear or uncontested. For example, Secada claimed that Araña made up the shower story to avoid paying him. Similarly, following the kitchen cabinet debacle, outsiders disagreed over who was at fault; some felt that Titi was responsible for the miscommunications with the client and therefore should have paid Motor out of pocket for his work.

As these cases suggest, workers’ reputations were an important and guarded source of currency at the park. In lieu of firsthand knowledge, the men’s performance and behavior on the job were the grounds on which referrals or hires were based. It is therefore hardly surprising that the men aggressively promoted and protected their standing as workers. This meant making sure others knew they were working, which was always in doubt when they were at the park. The men communicated this verbally, but also by arriving in vehicles stocked with supplies and in clothing stained with dirt or paint. When possible, the men also took their breaks at the park. Phone calls with clients, especially when conducted in English, were another way to signal active work lives. Although these moves were not necessarily deliberate, their implication was brought into focus when others joked that these phone calls were only simulations of the real thing, as Polo did when mocking Titi’s phone conversation recounted at the opening of the chapter.

Work histories took on a more forceful and strategic tone in the men’s storytelling. As they socialized, they were quick to publicize successful jobs and wealthy clients—a strategy evident in the following exchange:

It was late afternoon on a Tuesday when Valderrama pulled into the parking lot. Manuel, his regular helper, was sitting in the passenger’s seat. Valderrama hopped out of his truck and walked straight over to the group of men I was sitting with by the picnic tables. He was wearing jeans, boots, and a flannel shirt, all of which looked dusty from a hard day’s work. Valderrama said hello and exchanged handshakes with most of the men. He then sat down and exhaled deeply as he stretched out his arms and legs. He seemed relieved to be sitting down.

After surveying the scene, Valderrama blurted out to no one in particular: “What a day!” Filling the silence, he reached out to Martín, a fellow construction worker: “Hey, Martín, remember that job in Brentwood by the school? I’m working over there. We’re fixing a stone wall by the entrance.” Sensing he had Martín’s attention, he continued: “Puros millonarios [nothing but millionaires] over there. They have a pool, security guard, de todo [everything]! But the owner wants it exact. He’s European.” Gaining momentum, he turned to another colleague in the business: “Motor, you should see the wall, pura calidad [top quality].” Martín and Motor nodded their heads in approval, but the latter then cautioned: “Don’t forget to finish it,” alluding to a well-known situation from a few years earlier when Valderrama failed to complete a job he was working on with Motor. Valderrama laughed and responded: “We’re almost done. We could have finished today, but there’s no rush. Hopefully there’s more work.”

As with Valderrama, the stories the men shared about their work tended to involve bigger jobs and more affluent clients. Like their friends who worked in restaurants, the men felt better about serving important people, so they had a personal interest in elevating the status of the people for whom they worked. They tried to gain status by association, not only to boost their self-worth, but also as a way to promote their skills. In borrowing prestige from their clients, they built themselves up as prestigious workers and therefore as worthy of being recommended by their peers.

But like much that was said at the park, these statements tended to be met with scrutiny and suspicion. For example, several men questioned Titi’s claims about the new job mentioned in the opening section and joked that he had actually been hired to have sex with the elderly client. Workers relied on their powers of persuasion, but also called on companions to corroborate their statements. With most of the men working alone or in pairs in isolated homes, stories were a key way to publicize their work experience in order to increase their chance of being hired or recommended for other jobs. As Valderrama did with Manuel, the men often engaged me in conversation about their work when socializing with the other men, asking me to tell the others about the fanciness of the home or the particularities of a client. I suspect that one of the reasons the men were willing to take me along to their jobs was in order to use me as a more neutral source of corroboration.

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In addition to stories about the men’s work, park life—as we’ve learned— provided ample opportunity to evaluate their character in ways that affected the men’s hiring practices and referrals. For example, Beavis felt that he was denied work as an ayudante because “I get into too many fights.” Several men told me that they did not hire or recommend one man for jobs because they had seen or heard about him stealing at the park. Several men were excluded from employment deals because of their heavy drinking, for fears that they would show up drunk or not at all. Others were shunned because of their failure to adequately reciprocate in dealings with their peers. For example, when I asked Pachanga why he refused to work for a notorious freeloader at the park, he replied: “How am I going to work for him? He never puts in money for beer!” Sensing that I did not understand the connection, he clarified: “If he doesn’t pay here, he’s not going to pay there!” Park interactions also put pressure on workers to behave on the job, as Robert explained when questioning rumors claiming that a park regular failed to pay his assistants: “How are you not going to pay someone you see at the park every day?”

By contrast, men who handled themselves well at the park—whether on the soccer field or drinking beer together—were more likely to be considered for jobs. For although they came to have fun, they recognized the opportunities that could arise from interactions with a large group of men in similar lines of work. Most men also preferred to work with friends since this helped pass the time, despite the occasional complications. Like an invitation to drink a beer together, hiring or recommending someone for a job solidified and deepened relationships at the park. For example, when I commented to Roberto during a return visit to L.A. that Polo and Motor seemed to be spending a lot more time together at the park, he responded: “It’s because Polo’s working with Motor now,” the former having decided to take a break from decades in the restaurant industry. As in this case and many others, bonds built at the park and on the job became mutually reinforcing and facilitated a range of employment opportunities.

Referrals from Clients and Their Circle of Friends and Neighbors

Referrals also came from the men’s existing clients, who represented another key means of networking. Often these recommendations were requested by clients’ friends or neighbors who needed people to service their home, but had yet to find qualified and trustworthy workers to do the job. For example, several clients explained to me that their friends were always looking for “good help.” In the crowded and largely unregulated informal labor market, finding “good help” could be difficult, which is what made recommendations so valuable. A referral based on firsthand experience offered them assurances that the job would be done well. It also provided information about cost, another source of uncertainty. Moreover, in contrast to recommendations for restaurants or movies, the stakes were high, as one client emphasized as she negotiated with a prospective hire: “This is my home. I live here and need the work to be done correctly.” A referral from a trusted adviser helped allay these concerns.

All fourteen of the men I followed said they received work through client referrals. For example, the painting job Titi secured through his mother-in-law resulted in the client referring him to three of her friends, two of whom ended up hiring him. She even invited friends to her home to meet Titi and to see his work. Months later, one of these new clients told me that she was “so happy” to have met Titi because “he’s done such a good job” painting her apartment. I observed a similar development with Chango. A client invited two of his friends to meet him and to inspect the finished job. Chango ended up painting their homes, which expanded his clientele and earnings.

Several of the men pointed to a particular client who had been especially helpful in introducing them to new clients. For example, Chango attributed his heavy workload to referrals from a longtime client who owned a paint store and who recommended him to many of her customers. Similarly, Motor secured a series of jobs in an apartment complex after doing work for someone he met playing soccer at the park who recommended him to his neighbors. A particularly striking example of networking through clients concerns Araña, who obtained a number of jobs through members of an extended family he had worked for over the previous two decades. The depth of his connections to that family became clear when I observed him installing kitchen tiles in the home of a man Araña had known as a child when he was working for his parents.

The men’s affluent, primarily White clients dwelt in very different social circles from them and consequently had access to a wider range of people outside the men’s networks. By putting the men in contact with other homeowners, these “weak ties” expanded the men’s opportunities. This was especially true of the better-connected and more motivated clients. These links were crucial, given that these clients had only so much work to do and money to invest in their own homes.

The men also told me stories about clients trying to poach them when they were working as ayudantes, just as their colleagues suspected. For example, Pasmado told me about a client who surreptitiously asked for his phone number as he discussed a future job. The men believed clients did this because they assumed that so-called helpers would be less expensive than their bosses. They also had the comfort of having seen the men at work in their home. Notwithstanding the potential for greater earnings and autonomy, the men said they were careful about sharing their contact information because allegations of job poaching could tarnish their relationships and reputation, as previously explained. Despite these risks, several men told me that they developed more independent relationships with clients after initially meeting them as hired hands. Like Valderrama, most of the men got their start as ayudantes, and this was one way to strike out on their own. Clients’ underhanded moves also show the lengths to which they would go to secure cheap and dependable labor for themselves and their friends. Yet at the same time, they expanded the men’s reach into untapped networks.

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The visibility of the men and their work proved to be another valuable source of referrals. The fact that the homeowners’ friends and neighbors saw the men on the job gave prospective clients an opportunity to observe and interact with them. As with referrals from employees and friends, these interactions lessened some of the costs and uncertainties involved in the hiring process. Instead of choosing a stranger through advertisements or at a day-laborer center, the chance to talk with the men and observe them at work gave a prospective client confidence that the job would be done well for a reasonable price.

Over the course of my research, I observed sixteen neighbors approach the men about potential jobs in their homes. Clients usually spoke directly about the work, but sometimes began with small talk, without making specific reference to a job. The men quickly realized that the neighbors were “feeling them out,” which explains why they never ignored or dismissed these onlookers, no matter how distracting or strange these encounters may have seemed. Here’s an example of one such encounter:

As Güero—a gardener—was packing up his equipment, a white man in his mid-forties walked by with his dog. The man stopped and stared at Güero for a bit and then blurted out: “Muy caliente” (very hot) in accented Spanish. Güero smiled and replied, “Sí,” as he returned to his work under the scorching sun. The man then asked Güero in English if he had just worked at the home in front of which he was parked. Güero answered yes and set down the hedge trimmer he was in the process of repairing. The man took this opening to explain that he was looking for someone to do his yardwork. Güero nodded and responded, “Okay.” Güero went into his truck for a piece of paper to write down his given name (Francisco) and phone number. He handed it over to the man, who was being pulled away by his dog. As he departed, he shouted out: “We’ll talk later.”

While prospective clients usually approached the men on the edges of the work site, it was not uncommon for people to enter their neighbor’s home to observe the work firsthand and speak with the men, even when the homeowner was not around. As with encounters on the street, the men did not appear startled or at all bothered by these intrusions, perhaps be- cause the intruders were generally White and appeared to live in the area.

All the men I followed said that they had independently secured work with a client’s neighbor or with someone simply passing by the client’s home. They admitted that not all conversations led to work; but, well aware of the rewards their visibility could bring, they appreciated the potential of these interactions. As Güero explained, “My work is my best advertisement.” It was therefore not surprising that the men seemed to spend considerable time and energy perfecting sections of their work visible to passersby, especially in walkable neighborhoods. For example, when I asked Motor why he was redoing a part of a fence the client would not be able to see, he replied with a wink: “Para los vecinos” (for the neighbors), which he later confirmed was in the hope of attracting new business. For the same reason, the men rarely changed out of work clothes stained with paint or dirt, as they recognized this as another way of advertising their skills. Thus, rather than lower the visibility associated with their status as immigrant workers, the men tried to heighten it by lingering near the job site and calling attention to the quality of their work.

Not all jobs provided the same visibility or opportunities. Those whose work kept them more hidden from public view engaged in other strategic forms of self-promotion in the hope of publicizing their work. For example, Enrique made a point of leaving supplies and equipment in and around his truck to identify himself as a pool cleaner, which was harder to see since he worked in backyards. This became apparent when I noticed him speaking with a client’s neighbor. When I asked Enrique how the neighbor knew he cleaned pools, he responded, “You see that net? I always leave one sticking out the back window.” In this case, the neighbor explained that he had just moved into the neighborhood and was looking for someone to clean his pool. Enrique gave the man his phone number and, several weeks later—having “caught” the client with his net—added the home to his route.

When I asked Enrique why he did not post a sign and phone number on his truck—which seemed a more straightforward way to share his information—he replied: “Porque no vale la pena.” (Because it’s not worth it.) Like Enrique, few of the other men had business cards or any identifying information on their trucks or their work clothes. Some claimed to have advertised this way in the past, but had not found that it attracted much business. In any case, these more formal signs of organization might have made them appear more expensive and regulated. There was a certain benefit for their business to appear informal, small scale, and presumably undocumented in the eyes of their clients, as when Titi’s client asked for help from one of his “friends” to fix her fireplace. Publicizing a company name and phone number on one’s truck or work clothes would have disrupted this image. Moreover, clients and workers alike appreciated the value of referrals—rather than more indirect methods—to initiate work arrangements. In fact, some clients later confided to me that they had not seriously considered initiating a project until they saw the men at work, which suggests that the prospect of finding someone to do a competent job represented a barrier overcome by the visibility of the men.

That these men secured work through referrals should be of little surprise, especially to migration scholars who repeatedly show the significance of social networks in employment outcomes. Indeed, a common theme in migration studies is the mobilization of interpersonal ties by immigrants to further their material interests. The men secured work through multiple sources, which together formed a dynamic web of relations that expanded with every successful project. However, as we shall see, the most noteworthy and illuminating aspect of the men’s work proved to be the consequences of networking on the job.

Zapata and Enrique sharing a laugh

Networking on the Job

Referrals figured prominently in workplace dynamics, both in terms of how the men viewed and carried out their work and how clients attempted to motivate and control their labor. For example, the men claimed to take on projects and even lower their fee in the hope of securing future work. For reasons that often escaped my attention, they looked beyond the require- ments of any one task when deciding which projects to pursue, how much to charge, and how to conduct themselves on the job.

The prospect of further employment and greater earnings was always on the men’s minds as they negotiated with clients and completed a given project. For example, as Titi painted the interior of the condominium apartment referred to in the opening vignette, he repeatedly told me that he expected to paint the exterior of the building, which he pointed out needed a fresh coat. In fact, it became a running joke between us every time we went outside for him to tell me: “I’m going to paint this build- ing.” He later told me that he was motivated to take the inside job in the hope of securing the more lucrative outside job. Although it turned out that the residents were not ready to repaint the exterior, Titi eventually won a job painting several rooms in another unit, thanks to the client’s recommendation.

For a different client, Titi agreed to do a small-scale painting job in the expectation of getting hired for additional work he felt was necessary, given the condition of the home. As he anticipated, the initial $500 job to paint the front porch led to the much larger $9,000 contract to paint the entire home’s interior. Like Titi, the men were eager to secure employ- ment in homes that appeared to require substantial work, even if meant beginning with smaller, less profitable projects. The wealth and aspirations of clients were also taken into account. For example, when pursuing the initial porch project, Titi told me with a big smile that the client “tiene mucha plata” (has a lot of money). Similarly, Valderrama explained his interest in a potential job because he had heard that the client bought and sold houses. By contrast, some clients were found to be stingy or short on funds and thus not worth cultivating.

The prospect of more lucrative jobs affected not only the men’s choice of projects, but also the quality of their work. For example, when I asked Titi why he was being especially diligent repainting a closet, he replied: “She’ll see me doing a good job and recommend me to her friends.” As mentioned earlier, Motor explained that he took extra care installing the fence around a multi-unit condominium, knowing that both the client and other residents would be watching. Based on his past experiences, he believed that once the client’s neighbors saw the quality of his work, they would consider him for their own projects. Sure enough, a second resident hired him to fix a bedroom door, and a third hired him to install a shelving unit. The last time we spoke, he had completed three more jobs in the same twelve-unit complex as he further established himself as a skillful and dependable handyman.

The quality of the men’s work, however, was not always clear to the client. Often they were not able to perceive or appreciate the effort and skill involved. Consequently, the men took pains to draw the client’s attention to less conspicuous aspects of their labor in order to highlight their diligence and expertise. They made the quality of their work more visible to earn approval for the job at hand, but also with an eye toward the future. For example, when painting the condo, Titi regularly called the client over to show her various problems he was fixing or challenges he was facing in executing the job. In one instance, he asked her to stand on his ladder to inspect a small crack in the ceiling that he was in the process of filling. “A lot of painters come and just paint without looking,” he explained to her. “I take my time and do it right.” This interaction served not only to highlight the quality of his work, but also to assuage the client’s growing concerns over how long the job was taking.

Like Titi, the men often asked clients to inspect their work and compared themselves favorably to less skilled or less careful workers in order to tout their services and justify what they charged. And, like Titi, they also employed a range of other tactics to showcase their talents, including more indirect strategies, such as making elaborate gestures to cover and protect furniture or leaving expensive materials in full view for clients to see, even if they didn’t actually use them on the job. Similarly, several painters told clients they bought materials from an upscale shop in Santa Monica, when they really bought cheaper alternatives from Home Depot. Above all, they were always careful to maintain clean and tidy job sites. At times, the men employed more duplicitous strategies to impress their clients, such as taking shortcuts without informing them, concealing problems, or taking longer on tasks to make the work seem more involved in order to increase their fee. For example, Motor surreptitiously removed part of a railing to maintain a level fence, and Pow Wow concealed a scratch on a floor using a colored marker and putty. In one of the more extreme cases, a man I shadowed filled a garbage bag with dirt from outside, which he then claimed to the homeowner to have cleaned off the window frames and blinds. As Güero explained, it was important to “mantener” (care for and cultivate) the client, and there were a variety of ways to do this, some more underhanded than others.

The men also explained that they adjusted their pricing in relation to what the job might bring. For example, Titi claimed that he could have charged $7,000 for the condo painting job. But hoping a lower fee would lead to additional jobs in the building and worried about being outpriced by someone else, he decided to charge only $5,000. By contrast, Titi confided to me that he inflated his price on a different job because he did not expect it to lead to subsequent work. Similarly, Motor offered a relatively low price on the fence job because it was his first project at the site, correctly anticipating that it would lead to other work, provided he did a good job.

The men also considered the long-term prospects of a particular client. For example, Valderrama agreed to charge one client a low rate because, as the owner of several apartment buildings, he had provided a steady supply of work for him over the previous fifteen years. These jobs became especially important as Valderrama struggled to find work with other clients during the economic downturn that began in 2008. In fact, whenever we discussed his work history and prospects, Valderrama quipped, but only half-jokingly, that this key employer “better not die!” When dealing with their regular clients, the men offered special treatment in addition to inexpensive rates. For example, Chango served regularly as a handyman for one family, and Motor did frequent work for the owner of a dozen rental homes. In both cases, the work was not always lucrative and could interfere with other projects, but the men always gave them priority. At first, I was perplexed to see them leave a job or the park to attend to their clients’ needs—sometimes for something as small as a blown fuse or burned-out lightbulb. However, I grew to appreciate how important these clients were to the men because of the steady work they had provided over the years. In cases such as these, seemingly trivial tasks were understood as part of larger endeavors.

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For the most part, the men’s approach to their work coincided with clients’ interests. Clients wanted quality work at a reasonable price, which explains why they initially hired the men and subsequently rehired or referred them to others. That many of the men were skilled in a variety of trades—or usually knew someone who could do the work they could not—was crucial for securing the various jobs that unfolded in the life of a home. Chango’s work for a key client over twelve months illustrated this diversity and consistency of ventures: at this client’s home, he repainted two bedrooms, rewired a bathroom, delivered and installed a large bookcase, and removed a small tree from the backyard.

The alignment between the men’s skill and affordability, on the one hand, and the clients’ needs, on the other, was hardly surprising. More surprising were the ways clients deliberately exploited the possibility of future work as a source of leverage and control. For example, when negotiating costs with Titi, the client repeatedly mentioned: “I know people with money.” When installing the fence, the client tried to lower the price by suggesting to Motor that the other condominium residents would want his services, especially with his recommendation. One of Güero’s prospective clients made a similar point as they were negotiating a bimonthly gardening contract: “Everyone knows me here. I’ll help you out.”

Clients also used the prospect of future jobs to motivate the men to do their best work. They understood that the workers had longer-term interests and tried to leverage their best performance by tapping into their ambitions. It was a game of persuasion played by both parties, but with different goals and resources. For example, as one of Titi’s clients was inspecting his work, she reiterated that if he did a good job, she would be sure to refer him to her “rich friends.” She then added: “Trust me, they know I’m picky,” implying that her recommendation carried weight. Similarly, after a decorator helped Chango secure a painting job with one of her wealthy clients, she told him in front of the homeowners: “This is good for you. Make sure you do a good job.” We see a similar approach used by the client who hired Motor for the fence project discussed earlier. After inspecting Motor’s handiwork, the client joked that he would soon be working all over the neighborhood—a prediction he then fulfilled by introducing Motor to a neighbor who needed a broken window frame fixed. This, as we saw, led to several other projects in the same building. In the case of longtime clients, the prospect of future work could go unspoken, but nevertheless motivated the men to do their best. For example, when I asked Valderrama why he was redoing a section of a wall for one of his main clients, he replied, “He would eventually see [the problem], and then I’d be in trouble.” Valderrama and the others knew the risks of losing a valued client.

Extracting “Extras”

While referrals opened up the possibility for future work, “extras” were often a sure way for the men to increase their earnings. By “extras”—a term used by the men—I refer to work added to the initial job agreement. In most cases, the men were financially compensated for this additional work, although clients were adept at extracting free labor as well.

Given the nature of the home and workplace, the possibilities for supplemental work were ever present. Most homeowners had a long list of home-improvement needs apart from what they actually hired the men to do. Some predated the men’s arrival; others emerged over the course of a project. Motivated by the men’s presence and know-how, clients regularly asked them to take on additional tasks. These tasks were generally small and seemingly minor. For example, one of Titi’s clients asked him to do a variety of chores as he painted her condominium, a job that took approximately three weeks to complete. Over the course of two consecutive days, she asked him to change a lightbulb, hang a picture frame, water a plant, empty the trash, watch her dog, retrieve boxes from storage, and help her unload groceries from her car. The client prefaced each request with some version of “since you’re here.” Some of these tasks she certainly could have done herself, but others—like changing a hard-to-reach light bulb and hanging a heavy picture frame—would have been too difficult for her to do. But for Titi, these were relatively simple undertakings, especially with the help of a tall ladder and a strong coworker. Hiring someone for these menial jobs, however, would have seemed outlandish.

As I observed with Titi and several other of the men, clients often asked workers to do unpaid jobs around the home unrelated to the project for which they were hired. For example, as Motor was removing an old fence around an apartment complex, one of the residents asked him if he could remove a dozen wood planks from her back porch. This request was more substantial than most, taking us around twenty minutes to remove and dispose of the rotting wood. The client’s visible relief suggested that she felt unable to remove the rotting wood herself. Yet for Motor and his helper, moving the wood was relatively easy; moreover, he had his truck to haul it away. In this case, as in many others, the men possessed the strength, skill, and equipment to take on tasks their clients could not. Motor agreed to the work without any mention of pay, but after we finished, he told the resident that she should call him if she needed any additional assistance. Later that day, she asked Motor if he could fix an uneven door. In this case, she paid him $100 for two hours of work.

I was repeatedly struck by how frequently and nonchalantly clients asked the men to do work beyond what they were initially hired to do. They seemed to believe that hiring workers for one job entitled them to complimentary assistance on other household tasks, some of which they could have done themselves. The men’s informal status was key, in contrast to formal companies, where everything had a contractual rate and protocol. Differences in race, class, and citizenship might also have emboldened clients to make these requests, as did dangling the prospect of future work and recommendations to other potential clients.

The men generally attended to their clients’ wishes, although in private they sometimes expressed frustration over these intrusions. For example, after a series of interruptions, Titi’s helper exclaimed: “I wish she’d leave us alone.” He found her frequent requests invasive and sometimes draining; but most of all, they interrupted the work they had been paid to do and kept them from moving onto other paid projects. But Titi told his helper not to worry because “it keeps her happy” and because he was counting on her recommendation to her “rich friends.” Like Titi, most of the men were willing to take on minor—often easy—unpaid tasks in order to ingratiate themselves with their clients in the hope of gaining additional paid work.

While clients were more likely to initiate side jobs, the men themselves sometimes volunteered to take care of tasks separate from what they were hired to do. This work was usually minor as well, as when Valderrama asked a client if he needed help moving garbage bags to the alley or when Titi offered to repair the latch on a door. In cases like these, the men capitalized on their superior knowledge and capability, as well as cultural expectations about their subservient position, in order to curry favor with their clients. Most of the men’s clients took for granted free labor of this kind. Yet always with their eyes fixed on the future, the men viewed these unpaid tasks and their subordinate position within a broader and potentially more lucrative frame of exchanges. Like their clients, they exploited their informal status, which gave them the flexibility to execute their work and fees on a case-by-case basis. By doing these favors, they transformed the relationship, creating an expectation of reciprocity in the future.

*

Taking on extra work was not simply a way to keep clients happy. Extras also regularly surfaced as a key source of additional revenue. But in contrast to unpaid labor, most of these paid projects were anticipated and initiated by the workers. They also grew out of the work the men were hired to do, in contrast to the more disparate tasks described above. By altering the home, whether in small or substantial ways, new possibilities for payment often emerged. Some men even lowered their bids or agreed to smaller projects in expectation of expanding the scope of work and making more money as the job progressed.

The mutability of the scope of work was evident in many jobs I observed or heard about from the men. For example, Chango was hired to paint adjoining living and dining rooms. He encouraged the client to add crown molding, but she declined. She felt it was unnecessary and was worried about the added costs and complications. However, after the client saw the bare walls and rooms emptied of furniture—a requirement agreed upon for the job—she agreed that crown molding would look better and consented to the higher price. Chango later explained that he had not initially pushed for the more expensive project because he was confident she would agree to it once he emptied the room. I asked him if this often happened, and he responded with a sigh: “¡Siempre es lo mismo!” (It’s always the same!)

On some projects, unexpected complications emerged that also increased the costs. For example, Chicas was hired to install a new light and heat- ing fixture in a bathroom. The job seemed relatively straightforward, and Chicas negotiated a price of $100 plus materials. However, in the course of removing the old unit, Chicas identified a problem that required fixing. He explained to the client that the wires needed to be replaced and recommended installation of a separate breaker for the unit. The client agreed to the expanded work, which increased the cost to $300.

As with Chicas, clients sometimes had to take workers at their word when agreeing to additional work and pay. In such cases, the men depended on their reputation and powers of persuasion to convince the client, who at first might have been hesitant and distressed at the thought of increased costs. The average client’s ignorance and lack of skills also worked to the men’s advantage, since skilled homeowners might choose to do the work themselves. Regarding the bathroom job mentioned earlier, Chicas told the client that he had installed a similar breaker and wiring system in his own home. Similarly, to convince a hesitant homeowner to add crown molding in her living and dining rooms, Chango claimed that this was a standard feature in the homes of many of his clients. More typically, the problem was more or less self-evident, especially when pointed out and explained by the workers. For example, when Chino Julio removed the carpeting in a client’s house in order to refinish the wood floor underneath, he discov- ered damaged floorboards throughout the small home. When he called to explain the problem, the client asked him if he could simply repair the wood or fill in the gaps with putty. Chino Julio replied that this was not feasible and urged the client to come see for himself. After seeing all the damage, the client consented to the additional work. As he left to return to work, he yelled out: “Just let me know how much more it’s going to cost!”

New tasks often emerged due to the very nature of home-improvement projects. Once work began, clients tended to see their homes in a new light, which sometimes convinced them to agree to additional work they had initially declined or not even contemplated. As we have seen, empty rooms and torn-out carpeting presented new possibilities. The intrusive quality of renovation projects encouraged additional work, particularly those that required significant construction. Once clients saw holes in the wall and their furniture displaced, they often consented to expanded projects. They realized that doing additional work separately would have been much more expensive and disruptive. I frequently heard clients utter a version of the comment “since you’ve started” to explain their decision to consent to additional work and increased costs. Comments like these seemed to echo the logic behind that other common refrain “since you’re here” that motivated clients to request uncompensated side jobs.

As these different examples show, most of the men anticipated the possibility of extras, which motivated them to take on jobs that may initially have appeared small scale and low paying. In some cases, they doubled or tripled their earnings through additional work. Expanded projects also solidified their reputations as capable workers and led to future work and referrals. They were investing in their future, since the job they had in hand was not the one they needed to worry about.

Extras were the only way some workers could substantially increase their pay. Unlike their bigger competitors, independent contractors in this informal economy could not take advantage of economies of scale, relying instead on more intermittent gains. For example, Güero and Enrique supplemented their regular work for companies with side jobs. Güero charged around $200 a month for weekly gardening jobs, Enrique a bit less for cleaning and servicing pools. Yet both men supplemented these monthly paychecks thanks to the occasional extras that emerged. For example, Güero added annual and biannual upgrades to his weekly assignments (such as cleaning gutters, planting flowers, or trimming trees) that earned him additional money. Similarly, Enrique augmented his earnings through more periodic tasks, such as emptying pools for deeper cleanings, repairing broken tiles, or fixing filtration systems. However, in order to obtain these extras, the two men needed to hold on to the weekly jobs, which they claimed were not very lucrative on their own. Not surprisingly, they were frustrated by the clients who never went beyond the primary agreement.

Although additional tasks often increased the overall costs of projects, clients did not hesitate to exploit workplace conditions to advance their interests. In addition to receiving free labor for relatively minor tasks, they expected and generally received a discounted rate for more substantial extras—an arrangement that lowered the cost in comparison to what they would have paid to hire someone separately. A case in point is when Titi identified a leak in the kitchen ceiling of a client who asked him to check all the accessible pipes. With the kitchen walls and ceiling already opened up, this was a relatively simple task, so Titi agreed to check the pipes at no charge. To the client’s great relief, Titi’s brother found and fixed the source of the leak in another section of the house. Thanks to him, the client received a free inspection of his pipes—and peace of mind. Hiring a plumber to do this job from scratch would have meant much higher costs, not to mention all the inconvenience. Had Titi and his brother found additional leaks, they presumably would have earned additional money to fix the problems.

As in Titi’s case, I frequently observed the clients taking advantage of work in progress to attend to issues not included in the original scope of the project. Some requests were related to the task at hand; others were less connected but made possible by the work. For example, as Valderrama was digging holes to build a backyard wall, the client asked him to lay plastic tubes for a sprinkler system he eventually planned to set up. Valderrama agreed to do the work free of charge, even though it required digging several additional holes. On a different job, Motor was asked to run wiring along a fence he was installing. Like Valderrama, Motor did the work at no additional cost, hoping to impress his new clients. Attaching the wire was not difficult, and the clients were pleased to have outdoor lighting without having to find someone else to install it and pay for their services. As Valderrama, Motor, and the others knew well, work in private homes was an evolving and negotiated endeavor, and they were adept at dealing with clients’ changing needs.

Working Connections

On balance, this chapter presents an optimistic account of the men’s world of work. It highlights their autonomy and capacity for negotiation, as well as the freedom with which they made themselves and their work visible in public. The men had something to offer that their customers lacked: namely, know-how that might not require formal schooling but that generally entailed a certain level of competence and certainly more skill than their clients possessed or were prepared to acquire.

The more I learned about the men’s work, the more I came to appreciate the significance of the phone call described at the beginning of the chapter. For Titi and other men at the park—especially those involved in home-maintenance and home-improvement work—employment opportunities were structured by their social relations. In a world that prioritized personal connections and referrals, Titi’s excitement over the incoming call was understandable. This could be his big break, which is why his mother-in-law—despite their differences—had recommended him for the job. With these high stakes in play, Titi’s face brightened at the voice on the other line, and he agreed to meet with the client right away to discuss the project. His enthusiasm proved prescient. After establishing himself as a capable and trustworthy painter, the client recommended him to several of her friends and neighbors, some of whom hired him for their own painting projects. And, as we have seen, Titi ended up doing a range of additional jobs in their homes as well—some paid for, others done for free.

*

The work experiences recounted in this chapter stand in sharp contrast to other, more common depictions of low-wage immigrant workers. For example, immigrants working as babysitters, housekeepers, or for cleaning services are usually more or less interchangeable with parents, relatives, or non-immigrant caretakers. By contrast, because the upper-middle-class lifestyles or aspirations of the men’s clients have often committed them to investments requiring long-term maintenance, their relationship to the men tends to be ongoing and not one-off as it would be had they hired a day laborer. This mutual interdependence helps explain why the economic recession of 2008 was not totally disastrous for the men.

Despite their ingenuity and hard work, the men confronted challenges and setbacks working in the home-improvement sector of the economy. They faced stiff competition from other workers, which tended to drive down wages.The pressure to find work and maintain equipment proved burdensome as well—a main reason why some men preferred working for companies or in restaurants. An unregulated work environment and social differences with their clients could also be marginalizing and lead to the men’s exploitation. They were hired for their willingness to work, which sometimes forced them to accept unfair working conditions, including from clients who believed they were purchasing the right to have the men perform whatever tasks they stipulated. The men also found themselves barred from more lucrative projects because they lacked the necessary permits, licenses, and insurance policies, which confined them to smaller-scale work where these qualifications and credentials were not required. In this way, their marginal status was a double-edged sword that both facilitated and constrained their opportunities. Imperfect English also ruled them out from jobs that required more prolonged or complex communication. Thus, while pleased to be working on their own—and no longer as ayudantes—the men faced numerous roadblocks in their efforts to climb the socioeconomic ladder.

Perhaps most importantly, not all networks were created equal, nor were they permanent. Just as social connections could expand and in- crease opportunities, networks could also be unreliable and transitory.For example, while Motor boasted that “people call me now” to explain his heavy workload, Martín lamented that his contacts had retired, died, or moved away. And, as Titi’s case revealed, it takes time, perseverance, and lucky breaks to start out on one’s own. Despite these challenges, the men adapted in creative ways to create greater demand for their services. Most notably, they negotiated referrals and extras on the job to survive in a competitive, often precarious labor market.

Workers as People

When following the men at work, my thoughts inevitably returned to the park. This was due in part to the men themselves, as they often talked about goings-on at the park as we worked together or as we strategized ways to return in time for the midday soccer games or post-match beer drinking. I was constantly reminded how these worlds of work and play were intertwined. In ways I heard about but later confirmed firsthand, the park served as a place to build the relationships and reputations that helped many of the men secure employment. Others relied on the park as an arena to find hired hands they could count on, often on short notice. While this chapter focuses on work in private homes, I learned of similar network-based hiring practices in restaurants, another primary source of employment at the park. With many of the workers limited by their credentials and immigration status—as well as by a competitive labor market and isolated work environment—the park emerged as a key networking site and source of stability in the men’s lives.So, in contrast, to the men’s oft-repeated lament “el parque no paga” (the park doesn’t pay), time there could indeed pay off.

As we have seen, few of the men held traditional nine-to-five jobs. Their employment situations tended to be precarious, requiring them to be “on call” for phone calls that might or might not come. The park solved the problem of what to do while they waited by allowing them to pass the time in a meaningful way. Like other precariously employed individuals who seek refuge in coffee shops or libraries, playing soccer and socializing at the park helped fill the time between jobs, while also providing connections that helped the men find work.

But for the Mar Vista soccer cohort, the park represented much more than simply a convenient pit stop and useful networking site for immigrant workers. More importantly, it became a place for the men to enrich their lives. Here they could be someone in ways they couldn’t necessarily be at work. At the park, they participated in a social world where they were viewed as people valued for their history and for achievements beyond their abilities to wash dishes, lay tile, or mow lawns. My visits with the men on the job gave them an opportunity to share this world with their employers, who seemed to wonder how I knew them. Polo revealed the significance of these exchanges when I ate at the restaurant where he worked. He came over to my table with several waitresses and encouraged me to tell them about his soccer-playing exploits. In return, he touted my prowess on the field and my studies at UCLA. Like Polo, many of the men I accompanied on the job made a point of explaining to their employers that we knew each other from playing soccer together at the park. I sensed the employers’ curiosity and the men’s satisfaction as they relayed this information in ways suggesting that this was the first time they had communicated an identity beyond work to them.

*

Not surprisingly, the relationship between the men’s work and what they had created at the park was entirely absent from debates about the soccer field recounted in the concluding chapter. While some local residents were sympathetic to the men’s need for recreation, many others felt that their presence was bringing disorder and disrepute to the park and surround- ing area. But neither side in the debate seemed to appreciate how park life enriched the men’s work opportunities, in ways comparable to White men networking on the golf course, over drinks at a bar, or at a professional luncheon. Even the men’s family members failed to appreciate the importance of socializing at the park, including Valderrama’s brother, who refused to hire “los borrachos del parque” (the park drunks), as well as several spouses who urged me to avoid the park and spoke disparagingly of it to my wife.

Yet I always suspected there was a deeper, more sinister reason for outsiders’ aversion to the men’s presence and activities at the park. To put it bluntly, the working-class Latino immigrant men were seen as “out of place” at the park during “normal” working hours because they were expected to be working. It was not only the men’s foreignness that provoked this backlash, but what was perceived as their idleness. In fact, I often heard field critics question why the men were not working, as when one local resident wrote over email: “Don’t these guys have jobs?”Police officers posed similar questions when interrogating the men at the park.

The hostility the men faced for “playing” in the park contrasted sharply with the warm welcome they received as workers in people’s homes— including by homeowners living only a few miles from the park. As workers in people’s homes, their presence and activities were not only embraced, but actively sought after and relied on for all the reasons explained in this chapter. In fact, most homeowners seemed to have a marked preference for foreign-born Latino workers, which my presence appeared to disrupt—and hence their apparent relief when they learned I was not a “real” worker. Yet despite the substantial social and cultural differences separating the men from their clients, these relationships depended on trust and involved close interactions behind closed doors. Workers saw their clients at their most vulnerable and in their most private domestic spaces. Clients, for their part, spoke fondly of the men, even in familial terms, and occasionally offered them “gifts,” usually household items and clothing they no longer had use for. And even if colored by their social differences and the constraints of employer-employee relations, over time these relationships often developed a degree of comfort and familiarity, as conversations about work led to questions about the worker’s family and country of birth.

The men did not receive the same welcome at the park, where their foreignness and working-class status were perceived as threatening, rather than as reassuring and appealing. There, they became “bad hombres.” At the park, the men interacted with local residents from a distance, becoming visible and menacing in ways they were not when they were working in people’s homes. In fact, the stigma associated with “brown-collar occupations” seemed to accentuate differences that made them unwelcome in the park but approachable on the job. By contrast, I never sensed that Latina immigrant nannies faced resentment of this kind when they came to the park with their charges from the neighborhood; parkgoers and neighbors seemed to understand that they were there simply doing their job.31 This disjuncture between the worlds of work and leisure points to the enduring dilemma faced by immigrant workers. As Swiss playwright Max Frisch famously noted in an essay about foreign workers’ feelings of alienation, “We asked for workers, but people came.” Immigrants are desired for their labor, not for their social presence, and the men I studied broke that bargain by socializing as people in the park.


Dr. David Trouille is Assistant Professor of Sociology at James Madison University

Notes:

Excerpt taken from Fútbol in the Park: Immigrants, Soccer, and the Creation of Social Ties (The University of Chicago Press, 2021)

Excerpts

A People’s Guide to Orange County

Elaine Lewinnek, Gustavo Arellano, and Thuy Vo Dang

Home to Disneyland, beautiful beaches, neo-Nazis, decadent housewives, and the modern-day Republican Party: this is Orange County, California, in the American popular imagination. Home to civil rights heroes, LGBTQ victories, Indigenous persistence, labor movements, and an electorate that has recently turned blue: this is the Orange County, California, that lies beneath the pop cultural representation, too little examined even by locals.                  

First advertised on orange crate labels as a golden space of labor-free abundance, then promoted through the reassuring leisure of the Happiest Place on Earth, and most recently showcased in television portraits of the area’s hypercapitalism, Orange County also contains a surprisingly diverse and dis- cordant past that has consequences for the present. Alongside its paved-over orange groves, amusement parks, and malls, it is a place where people have resisted segregation, struggled for public spaces, created vibrant youth cultures, and launched long-lasting movements for environmental justice and against police brutality.

Memorably, Ronald Reagan called Orange County the place “where all the good Republicans go to die,” but it is also a space where many working-class immigrants have come to live and work in its agricultural, military-industrial, and tourist service economies. While it is widely recognized for incubating national conservative politics during the Cold War, recently the legacy of Cold War global migrations has helped this county tilt Democratic, in a shift that has national consequences. It is a county whose complexities are worth paying attention to.

Every day, thousands of people drive past Panhe at the southern Orange County border without knowing that it is there. A village thousands of years old, where the Acjachemem Nation of Indigenous people still gather regularly, Panhe is visible from the 5 freeway if you know where to look. Nearby, a few miles inland from Panhe, is the Capistrano Test Site, where President Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” program of laser missiles was secretly developed in the 1980s until its weapons of mass destruction were exposed by a brush fire. Both sites are reminders of the long, varied, and little-known history of Orange County, from an Indigenous village to a military-industrial laboratory. Our book, A People’s Guide to Orange County, aims to reveal that diverse range of Orange County’s past and present, exposing stories that are too often forgotten.

Orange County is the fifth-most-populous county in the United States. If it were a city, it would be the nation’s third-largest. If it were a state, its population would make it larger than twenty other states, larger than Iowa or Nevada, larger than New Hampshire and Montana combined. Political scientist Karl Lamb declared in his 1976 book of the same name that “As Orange Goes,” so goes the nation, but it was not quite clear where Orange County was going in 1976 or, indeed, where it is going today. As queer studies theorist Karen Tongson explains: “Orange County is at once a conservative hotbed, an immigration hot zone, and a sub- urban fantasyland of modern amusement… a site of oscillation [between] provincialism and cosmopolitanism,” veering also between frontier nostalgia and postmodern sunbelt sprawl. Its Cold War growth, its supposed exceptionalism, and its separation from Los Angeles County have all earned it the descriptor of being “behind the Orange Curtain,” but Tongson argues that looking and listening beyond the Orange Curtain reveal a “mess and cacophony” that would shock Walt Disney, with his famed commit- ment to orderly control. It is the tangled stories and unlikely alliances that make Orange County such an intriguing and pivotal place, and those stories are the focus of our book.

Annually, forty-two million tourists visit here, but Orange County tends to be a chapter or two squeezed into guidebooks centered on Los Angeles. Mainstream guides direct tourists to Orange County’s amuse- ment parks and wealthy coastal communities, with side trips to palatial shopping malls—the same landscapes that have long dominated popular knowledge of the region. If you have three days here, spend two of them at Disneyland and the third visiting shops, spas, or Knott’s Berry Farm, according to the Lonely Planet’s Los Angeles, San Diego, and Southern California guide. Careful readers may notice that some guide-books also note the presence of Little Saigon, the shuttered conservative megachurch Crystal Cathedral, the quaint revivalism of Old Towne Orange, and the sentimentalized nostalgia of Mission San Juan Capistrano, but even in the longest guidebook, Insider’s Guide to Orange County, one must search for sites to visit away from Orange County’s predominantly wealthy, largely white coast. It is only The Insider’s Guide chapter on “Relocations” that mentions that those who cannot afford to spend millions on housing might need to live in the inland portions of this county. Of the guides for tourists, only the Lonely Planet recommends any sites in the half of the county north of the 5 freeway, and then only two: the Richard Nixon Library in Yorba Linda and Glen Ivy Hot Springs, a popular Southern California resort that is, oddly, across a mountain range and in another county entirely.

Tourists who rely on these guidebooks do not get to see Orange County’s most heterogeneous half, the northern and inland spaces where, in the county’s first half century, the vast majority of oranges were grown alongside oil derricks, herds of sheep, and groves of loquats and lemons. Now many of the wealthy suburbanites of southern Orange County depend on service sector workers who live in northern Orange County or beyond, often forced into long commutes by the high costs of housing closer to the coast. Orange County is not simply the wealthy “California Riviera” that Fodor’s Los Angeles with Disneyland claims it is—and even the Riviera requires workers who merit attention.                                      

Geographically, Orange County is a wide basin, stretching from the mountains at its eastern edge to the ocean at its west, situated between the powerful metropolitan regions of Los Angeles to the north and San Diego to the south. Many popular tourist guidebooks do not even name Orange County in their titles, instead referring to Los Angeles, San Diego, and Disneyland. The county’s boundaries are two creeks—Coyote Creek to the north, which feeds into the San Gabriel River, and San Mateo Creek to the south—and Orange County itself centers on the broad floodplain of the Santa Ana River. Current-day residents may forget about these waterways as they drive along freeway overpasses above the concrete basins that contain intermittent water. Southern California is famous for forgetting its own past, but it also holds the archival records and memories to correct that widespread cultural amnesia, and the landscape itself still has stories to tell.

Although existing guidebooks minimize it, Orange County has a deep history. Human habitation of Southern California began more than nine thousand years ago, when Indigenous people thrived along Orange County’s coast and rivers, foothills and mountains, as well as the Channel Islands nearby. The county is now full of sites associated with Native American people as well as ongoing, contemporary Indigenous activism. The Tongva people, whom Spanish missionaries called Gabrieliño, inhabited northern parts of present-day Orange County. The Acjachemem people, whom Spanish missionaries later referred to as Juaneño, were centered on San Juan Capistrano. Their tribal networks reached far: both the Tongva and Acjachemem languages are part of the Uto-Aztecan family, which stretches from current-day Utah to Texas to central Mexico.

During the Spanish colonial era of 1769–1821, Indigenous people were dispossessed of much of their land, especially along the coastal plain, and the Spanish crown granted large tracts of land to Spanish settlers. The largest Spanish land grant in all of California, Rancho los Nietos, stretched from Whittier in Los Angeles County across Orange County to the Santa Ana River, covering a territory of three hundred thousand acres (today eighteen different towns), all presented to retired Spanish soldier Manuel Nieto. This grant was so vast that the San Gabriel Mission in Los Angeles contested its terms, claiming it encroached on mission land. Colonial courts did not mention that it also encroached on Indigenous land. In 1810, the Spanish king gifted another retired soldier, Jose Antonio Yorba, with Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana, stretching twenty-five miles along the southern side of the Santa Ana River, where Yorba had already been grazing cattle with his father-in-law. Those rancho cattle disrupted the environmental resources that the Acjachemem and Tongva people had relied on, increasingly pressuring Native people into coreced, unpaid labor in the missions. The enormous Spanish land grants and the colonial system of forced labor also set the stage for later rounds of land transfer and dispossession, shaping Orange County’s ongoing disparities between rich and poor, owners and workers.        

When Mexico gained its independence from Spain, after 1821, Rancho Los Nietos was broken into six smaller ranchos, and mission property was redistributed, with ongoing controversies over Indigenous land claims. Some Mexican settlers were given land in the northern foothills of present-day Orange County, slightly more modest grants the size of present-day cities. Larger ranches in southern Orange County were granted to the Sepulveda, Serrano, and Pico families and were also sold to newly arrived Anglo merchants like John Forster, Abel Stearns, and William Wolfskill, who became Mexican citizens in order to legally own land here. While Orange County contains the largest land grant in California, Rancho los Nietos, it also has the smallest, the Rios Adobe: a house lot of 7.7 acres in San Juan Capistrano, presented in 1843 to the Rios family, members of the Acjachemem Nation, who still live in the home their ancestors first built there in 1794.

US conquest in 1848 brought new land commission policies challenging the terms of Spanish and Mexican land grants, forcing the ranchos’ owners to defend their land titles in expensive court cases. Anglo squatters, new taxes, lack of access to capital, and droughts all combined to force most of the earlier owners to sell their land. During the devastating droughts of 1862 and especially 1864, wheat crops wilted and thousands of starving cattle were driven in mercy killings off the cliffs into the ocean. Most of Orange County’s land passed from Indigenous and Mexican American owners to Anglo ones. James Irvine, Lewis Moulton, Richard O’Neill, and Dwight Whiting consolidated some of the earlier ranchos into their own vast landholdings for the next century.

In between the ranches, in the swampier areas around the Santa Ana River as well as the foothills, Orange County also gave birth to utopian communities that challenged class hierarchies. Before it became a center of twentieth-century conservatism, many of Orange County’s nineteenth-century European settlers were actually radicals taking advantage of cheap land that had been expropriated from Indigenous people and then Mexicans, where the Europeans could experiment with new societies. A cooperative colony of German wine makers founded Anaheim in 1857, relying on Chinese laborers. Polish artists also attempted a utopian society in Anaheim before moving in 1888 to Modjeska Canyon near Santiago Peak. So many Mormons and Methodists settled in the floodplain of the Santa Ana River, in present-day Garden Grove, Santa Ana, and Fountain Valley, that it was known as Gospel Swamp. Vegetarian spiritualists lived in Placentia from 1876 to 1923, near Quakers in Yorba Linda. Other Quakers settled in El Modena, while free-love socialists from the Oneida community established a colony in Santa Ana in the 1880s, gaining enough respectability to serve as the county’s first judges. Few remember those early experimenters, but they were here.

The completion of transcontinental railway connections to Los Angeles in the 1880s helped connect Orange County agricultural products to national markets and encouraged a speculative land boom. Rising land prices here increased political power among Orange County’s landowners, who probably bribed the state legislature to allow them to secede from Los Angeles County in 1889. This county could have been called Grape, Celery, Walnut, or Lima Bean County, since those were the area’s major crops at the time of secession, but boosters decided that the luxurious, exotic image of oranges would sell the most real estate. Eventually, the citrus industry grew so that Orange County did live up to its name. In 1893, citrus growers organized the Southern California Fruit Exchange, later renamed Sunkist, an oligarchical corporate organization that consolidated power across Southern California. Employing Native American, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Mexican American, Dust Bowl, and Jamaican workers, the Sunkist corporation exercised tight managerial control over the diverse people who planted and harvested the orange groves. The conditions of labor were justified by growing ideas about racialization. As Japanese American farmer Abiko Kyutaro observed in the early twentieth century, California was “A wasted grassland / Turned to fertile fields by sweat / Of cultivation: / But I, made dry and fallow / By tolerating insults.”

Pressel Grove in Anaheim, one of the last remaining orange orchards in Orange County, and also a site that set off the 1936 Citrus Wars when police battled with striking naranjeros. Photo courtesy of Paula Beckman.

While Orange County’s agribusinesses created a racialized workforce, they also marketed a vision of this state as a nearly labor-free paradise of abundantly productive land. Huntington Beach farmer Luther Henry Winters designed much of the California exhibit at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, bringing Orange County products to a wide audience. Fullerton’s Charles Chapman pioneered the use of orange-crate labels to market both oranges and Southern California. Few people of color ever appeared on these orange-crate labels, and when they did, it was either as servants, cast members in California’s Spanish-fantasy past, or signifiers of nature. Enormously popular and widely circulated, orange-crate labels did not picture most of the transnational workers; nor did they show the oil derricks, the cyanide sprayers, the heavily patrolled fields, the vibrant cultural communities of “picker villages,” or the labor protests that also emerged from Orange County’s agribusiness.

World War II was a turning point for Orange County, as for much of California. Its strategic location, open space, fair weather, and political influence drew the Santa Ana Army Air Base, the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station, and Marine Corps air stations in Tustin and El Toro, as well as Camp Pendleton just over the border in San Diego County, which brought in military personnel as well as defense-related industries. The military presence here enabled new employment opportunities, especially for Orange County’s Indigenous people and African American people.         

After 1945, Cold War federal defense spending led to sprawling growth centered on a military-industrial and service economy, in a pattern of expansion repeated across the Sunbelt South and West. The U.S. Department of Defense budget ballooned in the 1950s to $228 billion, including $50 billion to California alone, more than any other state, and most of that sum went to Orange County and its neighboring counties. By 1960, the county contained thirty-one thousand workers in defense-related industries, includ- ing Hughes Aircraft, American Electronics, and Beckman Instruments in Fullerton, Autonetics and Nortronics in Anaheim, Collins Defense Communications / Rockwell International in Santa Ana, Lockheed Martin in Irvine, and Ford Aeronutronics in Newport Beach. Related industries, from fast food to real estate development, followed. Construction of the I-5 freeway, connecting Los Angeles to Santa Ana to San Diego in the 1950s, further spurred business and residential growth. The county’s population increased nearly fourfold from 113,760 in 1940 to 703,925 in 1960, then doubled again to 1.5 million by 1970 and doubled again to more than 3 million today.

That disorienting, sudden growth and the lack of traditional town centers in postwar suburbia converged with the individualist philosophies of earlier ranch owners and right-wing local media, so that many of Orange County’s Cold War migrants eventually found ideals of community and tradition within new megachurches and a new strain of conservative politics that took root in Orange County’s postwar tract housing. Suspicious of federal power even though dependent on it, a grassroots cadre of mostly female Orange County conservative activists spread their political message at coffees and backyard barbecues, organized “Freedom Forum” bookstores, served on local school boards, and pressured the local Republican Party in ways that eventually reoriented conservatism in America as they advocated for the elections of Goldwater, Nixon, and Reagan.

Philip K. Dick found postwar Orange County an ideal space from which to write dystopian science fiction, including his classic Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, later filmed as Blade Runner. Dick describes this space memorably in A Scanner Darkly (1977) when his disillusioned narrator observes: “Life in Anaheim, California, was a commercial for itself, endlessly replayed. Nothing changed; it just spread out farther and farther in the form of neon ooze. What there was always more of had been congealed into permanence long ago, as if the automatic factory that cranked out these objects had jammed in the on position. How the land became plastic.” Despite that vivid and often-apt description, the tract homes and mini-malls of Orange County do change and are also contested.                  

In the decades after 1945, Orange County became a leader of privatization, developing the nation’s first planned gated community, one of the first age-segregated retirement communities, the first homeowners’ associations, and the first privatized toll road. Along with the enclosure of newly privatized residential communities and roads went increasing construction of carceral spaces, from local jails to a military brig and an international border checkpoint. Yet conservative politics, privatization, and enclosure are not the only stories here. Environmental and Indigenous activists waged decades-long movements, eventually achieving the preservation of Bolsa Chica Wetlands in 1989, the shuttering of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in 2013, and the defeat of a proposed privatized toll road at Trestles surf spot in 2016.       

Mark Faegre and Melissa Shattuck protesting at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in 1979. In a startlingly long social movement, protests at San Onofre began in 1963, as soon as the nuclear generating station was planned, eventually led to its shutting down in 2013, and continue to ask questions about long-term storage of nuclear waste there. Photo courtesy of Douglas Miller.

Even before those environmentalist successes, local people of color allied with civil rights organizations to bring pathbreaking lawsuits here: housing covenant case Doss v. Bernal (1942), school desegregation case Mendez et al. v. Westminster (1946), and housing desegregation case Reitman v. Mulkey (1967). That resistance came at a steep cost: too many of this county’s midcentury radicals died young from stress-related illnesses. Nevertheless, their achievements belie the county’s well-earned reputation for conservative politics, which grew from the prominence of the extremist John Birch Society in the 1960s through the antigay Briggs Initiative of 1978 and the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 campaign that originated here in the 1990s.

Many of the stories in our book are contrapuntal ones, as this county often contains the seeds of its own oppositional movements. This area that boosters advertised as a white rancher’s paradise relied on transnational workers on Indigenous land claimed by successive waves of colonizers: Spain, Mexico, and then the United States. The Sunkist corporation promoted strict capitalism for workers but a sort of socialism for owners, as they pooled their resources collectively. The postwar military-industrial complex here fueled much of the county’s conservatism, but it was those same large aerospace and electronic corporations that first employed minority workers here in anything other than menial or agricultural jobs, partly to meet federal antidiscrimination requirements. Orange County’s mega-churches led some of its conservative activism, but faith-based organizations have also made this a center for international refugees who have brought their own wide range of politics. The military presence here encouraged some of Orange County’s conservatism, but it was also military personnel who desegregated much of this county and created openings for LGBTQ individuals to express themselves.                              

Academic observers debate whether Orange County’s thirty-four cities are an enormous suburb or a multinucleated post-suburban space, where housing is interspersed with extensive retail and light industry, while some agriculture and military uses remain alongside neighborhoods that range from working class to ultraelite. Orange County is both its suburban image and the cracks in its own veneer.

In coastal South County, Laguna Beach’s art scene attracted famous gay bars and enabled the first openly gay mayor in California, but it was in North County, in a space that had recently held small dairy farms and strawberry patches, that even more gay bars flourished, as community entrepreneurs found opportunities in an overlooked space with affordable rents. Eventually, international refugees also settled in pockets of cheaper land that others had not wanted in Westminster and its modest neighboring communities, establishing Little Saigon, Little Arabia, Koreatown, and enclaves of Filipinos, Armenians, Cambodians, and Romanians in Orange County.  

In 2004, the US Census Bureau announced that Orange County had become majority minority: more than 50 percent of its residents were people of color, a trend that has continued its upward trajectory so that in 2019, 60 percent of the county was not white. The county’s steadily increasing racial diversity is a legacy of its role in the Cold War as well as a result of its location near the US-Mexico border and its role as an important hub in the Asian-Pacific economy. Orange County holds the largest Vietnamese community outside Vietnam and for years contained the largest city in the United States with an all-Latinx city council.

The Orange County Visitors Association advertises this county as a space for “family-friendly fun . . . a taste of the good life” and “the real California dream.” That pervasive image of California leisure has a global appeal, inspiring an “Orange County” gated community outside Beijing, as well as two “Orange County” luxury resorts in India. Orange County’s image is global because Orange County itself is global. In the 1980s, Newport Beach was the first place in the US outside Washington, D.C., to have an export- licensing office. The county’s seat, Santa Ana, is overwhelmingly Latinx, while other cities across the county, from La Palma to Irvine, are majority or near-majority Asian. It may be one of the few counties in the United States where most Starbucks baristas can correctly spell and pronounce the name of one of our coauthors, Thuy. It is also the county where the coauthor whose family has been here the longest, Gustavo, is the one most often mislabeled as an immigrant. It is a varied and contradictory place of multicultural borderlands and economic struggles rooted in geography, history, and politics.         

Lucy Gortarez at the June, 1972 student walkouts at El Salvador Park, Santa Ana, when middle- and high-school students called for more ethnic studies, more Spanish-speaking school staff, and an end to mass suspensions. Their demands were met with more suspensions but today, all California high school students will have ethnic studies classes, where we hope they will learn about forebears like Lucy Gortarez. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Times.

Genevieve Carpio, Wendy Cheng, Juan de Lara, Romeo Guzman, and Carribean Fragoza have all recently published thoughtful works recentering the margins of Southern California studies. As Carpio observes, an “Anglo fantasy past” has suffused much heritage tourism in Southern California, showcasing Anglo pioneers while obscuring the nonwhites who have also been here all along. Indigenous, Asian, and Latinx people have been part of Orange County since its beginnings as a county. During the early years of European settlement, it was people of color who constructed the irrigation canals, planted the fields, built the railways, and picked and packed the crops. They also faced widespread dispossession, from Tongva and Acjachemem territories, to the nineteenth-century Chinatowns in Anaheim and Santa Ana, to the early twentieth-century Mexican American citrus worker colonias. Working-class people of color have been pushed off the land and out of public memories in two related dispossessions, one geographic and one discursive. Our book is an effort to address that erasure.                                              

This means refocusing on overlooked peoples and questioning who gets to lay claim to the image of Orange County. It also means refocusing on the vernacular landscape, the ordinary, seemingly unremarkable spaces that often contain extraordinary stories. Take the county seat, Santa Ana. A shuttered barbershop there was central to the civil rights movement and national fair housing laws. Nearby is a parking lot that used to be Santa Ana’s Chinatown before authorities deliberately burned it down in 1906. Groups of Asian Americans began moving back to Santa Ana in the 1970s, and in 2016 two Orange County activists founded Taco Trucks at Every Mosque at a Cambodian Muslim mosque in Santa Ana. Palestinian American activist Rida Hamida explains that this is a movement to get to know her many Latinx neighbors while breaking the Ramadan fast and mocking the Republican strategist who worried about a taco truck on every corner. That activism growing from Middle Eastern, Asian, and Latinx communities living side by side is an Orange County story worth knowing, but it is not the Orange County many people think they know.

Geographers recognize that landscapes are often constructed in ways that obscure the conditions of their own production. Vernacular landscapes in particular can appear to be so ordinary as to be easily overlooked. Our book aims to refocus attention on the sometimes plain-looking landscapes of Orange County: the parking lots like Santa Ana’s Chinatown and vacant-seeming areas like Capistrano Test Site, as well as the gated communities, office parks, suburban houses, university buildings, and other ordinary spaces that actually contain extraordinary stories. Powerful wealthy interests, persistent grassroots activists, desires for an affordable labor force, the natural flow of water, and numerous debates over how to best use the land have all shaped this contested space.

While many landscapes may appear ordinary and unproduced, places have a remarkable ability to intervene in collective memory. Once you know where a lynching tree is, it can be hard to forget the forces that gathered at that spot. As cultural geographers from Dolores Hayden to our colleagues in the People’s Guide series have pointed out, there is a power of place to contain public memories, especially when scholars expose the less noticed peoples’ histories there and connect those stories to larger structural forces. Palm-studded ocean vistas that once included affordable housing, tracts of seemingly endless beige walls in neighborhoods where most of the signage is in languages other than English, traffic jams, open space, the very classrooms where some of our readers may sit, and the buried nuclear waste here are all rooted in long-running debates over how Orange County’s people should use this land and who counts as Orange County’s people at all.                                

In Orange County, examining the diverse past can be frowned upon or actively repressed by those invested in selling Orange County in the style of its booster Anglo settlers from 150 years ago. Our book tells the diverse political history beyond the bucolic imagery of orange-crate labels. We hope it will inspire readers to further explore Orange County and reflect on even more sites that could be included in the ordinary, extraordinary landscape here.


Dr. Elaine Lewinnek is professor of American Studies and chair of the Environmental Studies program at California State University, Fullerton. She has a Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale University and is the author of The Working Man’s Reward: Chicago’s Early Suburbs and the Roots of American Sprawl.

Gustavo Arellano is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, covering Southern California everything and a bunch of the West and beyond. He is author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered AmericaOrange County: A Personal History, and Ask a Mexican.

Dr. Thuy Vo Dang is Curator for the University of California, Irvine Libraries Southeast Asian Archive and Research Librarian for Asian American studies. She has a Ph.D. in ethnic studies from UC San Diego and is co-author of the book, Vietnamese in Orange County. Thuy serves on the board of directors for Arts OC and the Vietnamese American Arts & Letters Association.

Notes:

Excerpt taken from A People’s Guide to Orange County (UC Press, 2022)

Excerpts

Chicana-Chicano Agonists

Frank P. Barajas 

Raised in a community culture of collective resistance, youth of the Chicana- Chicano generation—ranging from children old enough to recall earlier events to men and women in their early to mid-twenties—observed, if not participated in, the insurgencies of outfits such as the Community Service Organization (cso), Farm Worker Organizing Project, and United Farm Workers throughout the 1960s to mid-1970. Such groups role-modeled struggle, often militant, largely to realize just work conditions. With this community memory Chicana-Chicano agonists made their presence known on school and college campuses as news spread of student walkouts and protests throughout the Southwest. They also heeded the direct actions of peers in organizations such as the Students for a Democratic Society (sds) and the Black Student Union (bsu). This compelled many of the Chicana-Chicano generation to ask, “What are we doing?” As a result they embarked upon gutsy actions of their own. This chapter argues, in this regard, that the Chicana-Chicano generation of Ventura County exerted its collective agency on campuses and in their communities to mobilize campaigns of self-determination with a moxie all their own.

The World of the Chicana-Chicano Generation

Like their Mexican American generation predecessors, many Chicanas-Chicanos dreaded school, where in their early lives they suffered or witnessed violent punishments, both physical and psychological, at the hands of callous educators for using the language of their Spanish-speaking parents—an experience that destroyed their ability to excel. Such was the case for Yvonne De Los Santos from the unincorporated Ventura County community of Saticoy. Injured by such assaults, and the associated slings of poverty, the self-esteem of Del Los Santos and many of her peers deteriorated with each school day.1 The school system instantiated the inferiority of ethnic Mexicans with the curricular erasure of their historical presence in the nation as well as by systematically tracking them away from pathways to college to vocational shop classes for boys and home economics for girls.2

While ethnic Mexicans lived in rural citrus communities such as Fillmore, Rancho Sespe, and Saticoy, their experience also encompassed the suburban and urban. At Ventura County’s northeastern edge, the metropolis of Los Angeles was less than an hour’s drive away. Families traveled regularly to the big city and were visited by kin from places such as Boyle Heights, Compton, and the San Fernando Valley. So not all Ventura County Chicanas-Chicanos were yokels, at least completely. Having a rurban consciousness of the town and city, many of the Chicana-Chicano generation understood the spectrum of material deprivations of working-class people, having often accompanied family and neighbors to harvest chabacanos (apricots), nueces (walnuts), fresas (strawberries), ciruelas (plums), and other specialty crops up and down the state. While on the migrant circuit, they lived in varied accommodations from the standard to the inhumane—for example, cashiered Quonset huts, barns, stables, and leaky tents.3

Ironically, the poverty of ethnic Mexican families was underscored when family breadwinners—both men and women—obtained often unionized or public-sector jobs that provided not only adequate wages to cover food, shelter, and clothing but also unemployment, pension, health, and vacation benefits. When these heads of household were so employed, Chicana-Chicano children experienced the smell and feel of new clothes, shoes, and toys. Such work also made possible enrichment opportunities in organized sports and the performing arts. Indeed, De Los Santos recalled how her family enjoyed such comforts when her father had the good fortune to obtain a job as a unionized construction worker. As a result of the incremental elevation in their quality of life, Yvonne’s mother made sure her husband stayed current in his union dues, even when no work was to be had.4

Elders relayed to youth historical acts of collective resistance as children eavesdropped on the conversation of their parents and relatives. Unionism that organized all people provided ethnic Mexicans and their families with a system of recourse to challenge arbitrary dismissals, wage theft, and oppressive work conditions, as well as to fight for the prized benefits of health and unemployment insurance, vacation, and retirement. From these stories Chicanas-Chicanos internalized a sense of group dignity.5 Other families who may not have been directly connected to organized labor were involved in service organizations such as the Unión Patriótica Benéfica Mexicana Independiente, Las Guardianes de la Colonia, and CSO. Therefore, when Chicana and Chicano youth refused to tolerate injustice, they consciously or unconsciously referenced examples of the collective action of prior generations.6

Storms Brewing

The righteous indignation of Chicana-Chicano student clubs in Ventura County—which ranged and fluctuated in membership from ten to seventy students—stemmed from the overall subordination of the ethnic Mexican community. The diversity of club labels signified the pursuit of students to define themselves not only in terms of their ethnic identity but also in relation to their citizenship and political temperament. For example, before the creation of El Plan de Santa Barbara in the spring of 1969, many ethnic Mexican student clubs in Southern California named themselves, commensurate with the mentalité of the generation before them, United Mexican American Students (UMAS), as was the case at Oxnard High School. At Ventura High a similar club was labeled La Alianza Latino Mexicano (the Latino Mexican Alliance), which alluded to the organization’s pan-Latino outreach, with the simultaneous recognition that the ethnic Mexican student population was its core constituency. In the northeast plain of Oxnard, Rio Mesa High School formed the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO) while Moorpark High formed the Mexican American Youth Club. Many group’s cognomens fluctuated as members weighed and debated labels based on their mission, member disposition, and the way they wished to be understood by people from the outside.7

No matter how student clubs of Ventura County identified themselves (although many ultimately adopted the MEChA epithet, the acronym for El Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán), they shared a commitment to support peers and those that followed them in the K–12 system. The evangelic promotion of education by Chicana-Chicano student clubs signifies the failure, if not the refusal, of educators to communicate high academic expectations for ethnic Mexican students or to support their aspirations. Chicana-Chicano youth also questioned their societal status as they defined their identity. To counter racist assumptions, Chicana-Chicano students embraced and publicly promoted their Mexican heritage as an iteration of Americanism. To bridge intraethnic differences, some clubs sought to support teachers with monolingual Spanish-speaking students.8

Indeed, the right to express themselves in the language of their community unimpeded served as a means by which Chicana-Chicano students asserted their amour propre, given that educators for decades prohibited ethnic Mexican students from speaking Spanish. This proscription entailed violence, to use Chicano studies professor Roberto D. Hernández’s definition, that entailed being forced to wear dunce hats as well as having their hands struck with rulers and their mouths washed out with soap.9 To resist these assaults, which were grounded in settler colonial notions of white supremacy, in the spring semester of 1969 UMAS at Channel Islands High School in South Oxnard, with a membership of about seventy-five, drafted a constitution that restricted, irrespective of race and ethnicity, its membership to Spanish-speaking students. This bold attempt to centralize their ethnic Mexican heritage, however, disqualified the club from school recognition, as the state’s education code mandated that clubs be open to all students. This compelled a faction of UMAS students and their supporters totaling about forty to picket the campus administration building in February 1969. UMAS protesters also sought redress in relation to instructor racism and the lack of ethnic Mexican teachers.10

In 1970 Oxnard High School (OHS) students protested racist practices on the part of teachers and the absence of support services. Part of the conflict involved the refusal of students to accept advisors from within the district, since they found the faculty and staff unsympathetic to their interests. To quell the controversy, officials of the Oxnard Union High School District (OUHSD) reached out to the Association of Mexican American Educators (AMAE) to appoint a volunteer advisor from the community. The issue of racism in the schools on the Oxnard Plain reemerged the next year when chairman of the Oxnard Community Relations Commission Wallace Taylor reported that one OUHSD teacher allegedly had been asked to resign or face dismissal for calling students “n—” and “dumb Mexicans.” Fellow commissioner William Terry announced that this was an example of the hostility that students faced. Terry also referenced how campuses restricted UMAS from becoming an official club and suspended students who wore such buttons.11

On September 16, 1971, Mexican Independence Day, OHS Mechistas joined farmworkers of the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC) in protesting working conditions. Familiar with the staff at the UFW Office in La Colonia off Cooper Road, MECha president Peter Martínez suggested that the protestors march around the school site. When they did so, he and other Mechistas yelled to their peers on campus and in class, “Walk out! Walk out! Walk out!” And many did. High school administrators subsequently punished 40 student participants with detentions and suspensions. The next week half of OHS’s 2,100 students blew out. As this took place, Black and brown students fought white peers. After the initial outbreak, other brawls flared later that afternoon. Pent-up frustrations united those who walked out. The situation then escalated to the point that campus officials shut down the school at 1 p.m. on Thursday, September 23. Later that evening a free-for-all erupted at a football game between Channel Islands High School and Simi High. Consistent with other instances of social unrest that involved disaffection with white-dominated institutions, Principal Clifford Powell told the press that he was clueless as to the cause of the uprising.12

In early October 1971 a contingent of Black and Chicana-Chicano students of La Colonia barrio formed the Minority Affairs Committee (MAC) to address grievances of racism in the schools and the lack of teachers, staff, and administrators who were reflective of their community. Their demands also included the institution of Black and Chicano studies in the curriculum. mac met at the Juanita Elementary and protested the establishment of a district committee of students, teachers, district administrators, and community representatives that did not include them. They viewed the involvement of Oxnard City councilperson Salvatore Sánchez as an accommodationist who undermined the interests of minority constituents.13 Sánchez responded to mac’s opposition to his inclusion on the OUHSD committee by stating, “I consider it an honor to be considered a threat to the real enemies of our community I feel these people are not only hurting the image of the Mexican-American but are bringing disgrace to those who are truly trying to become a part of our mainstream.”14

A month after the conflicts at ohs, the campus administration office was firebombed on the evening of Saturday, October 30, 1971. The persons responsible marked the walls with “Racist Pigs” and “We Declar [sic] this a racist school,” initialed with “CLF,” assumed to stand for the Chicano Liberation Front.15 On November 2, 1971, the Oxnard Press-Courier published an editorial on the arson attack. In a tone of condescension, the newspaper faulted district officials for the adoption of a “rap-session approach” to address tension within its schools.16 In this dialogue, however, participants aired their grievances on topics of racist teachers throughout the district, arbitrary and unequal discipline meted out to minority students in comparison to their white counterparts, and the lack of minority faculty and administrators.17

Go to School, Stay in School

Chicana-Chicano students, however, did not limit their agency solely to the redress of grievances. In 1973 Channel Islands High’s MEChA—composed of 140 members, the largest campus club in the district—sponsored service activities in the community such as a clothing drive for the needy in Mexico’s border city of Tijuana. It also held car washes for the recreation center of La Colonia. To raise additional funds, the organization sponsored a semiformal tardeada and jamaica (a late afternoon social and charity sale, respectively). To fill the vacuum of a culturally relevant curriculum, the club produced a literary magazine titled Nuestra Raza that advanced ethnic pride by way of the arts.18 In the course of these activities, MEChA organizations networked with each other across the district. That same year MEChA at Rio Mesa High School launched its third annual tutorial program at El Rio Elementary and sponsored an annual Christmas food drive.19

Many students of these high schools graduated to continue their activism at universities and community colleges in and out of Southern California. In numerous instances the pipeline of barrio students to academic institutions involved an advance guard of students. Once on campus a consciousness of ethnic Mexican scarcity hit them hard. Indeed, when Diana Borrego Martínez of Santa Paula spotted Chicana-Chicano students at San Fernando Valley State College (sfvsc) in the late 1960s, she waited in front of their classes to introduce herself. In other instances, first-generation college students from the barrios and colonias of Southern California as well as afar congressed at de facto sanctuary spaces near student unions and cafeterias. Once Chicana- Chicano students discovered each other, often via restorative organizations such as UMAS and MEChA, they embarked upon recruitment drives in their home communities to cajole—if not shanghai—friends into college; such was their mission. Yvonne De Los Santos credited students active in Moorpark College’s MEChA for her matriculation. Once on campus, De Los Santos enjoyed the organization’s esprit de corps. Alienated, even traumatized, by the K–12 educational system, MEChA and Chicano studies courses cultivated a rich awareness of the worlds from which they came. Prior to the widespread institutionalization of Educational Opportunity Programs in California col- leges and universities, such organizations also served as the support structure for the recruitment, retention, transfer, and graduation of students.20

As a Vietnam veteran wounded by a land mine while on patrol, Jess Gutiérrez returned to Oxnard and found employment as a salesperson at a local car dealership. High school classmate and fellow veteran Armando López visited him one day at his work to recruit him for Moorpark College. At first Gutiérrez rebuffed the idea: he was older than most college students and had a family to support. But López was persistent, and he eventually convinced Gutiérrez to enroll after explaining that he could receive more income as a full-time student with his veteran benefits and other financial aid than at his current job.21

A snowball effect of matriculation resulted. Once politicized, Chicana- Chicano college students recruited friends in and out of Ventura County. Many that enrolled did not survive academically for a number of reasons: some (especially men) due to a severe lack of preparation, confidence, finances, and the inability to envision the rewards of a higher education. However, success stories did emerge. The first wave of Chicana-Chicano students ultimately turned the corner scholastically with the committed support of not only their peers but also empathetic faculty and staff mentors from all backgrounds who were sensitive to the debilitating harm of interlocked white supremacist systems of education, labor, and politics. Students considered by many to be academic throwaways went on to become public and private sector professionals, which afforded them and their progeny improved life chances in terms of health, superannuation, the accumulation of assets, and the life of the mind.22

The Community College Connection

In the fall of 1967, Moorpark College opened its doors. To promote enrollment, officials of the Ventura County Community College District contracted a vendor to transport students from the communities of Fillmore, Piru, Santa Paula, and Oxnard to both Moorpark College and Ventura College. Chicana- Chicano students from Oxnard nicknamed the service the “barrio bus.” A cohort of youthful and politically liberal faculty at the new campus—many of them recent graduates of the University of California, Los Angeles (ucla), to the south, and the University of California, Santa Barbara (ucsb), to the north—embraced all students, especially the historically underserved.23 Once out of their provincial environs, Chicana-Chicano community college students interacted to an extended degree with peers from a spectrum of ethnicities and economic backgrounds.

By the start of 1968, Oxnard Brown Berets López and Roberto Soria, the brother of Oxnard school desegregation advocate and community leader John Soria and father of the principal plaintiffs of the desegregation case, engaged peers in the formation of culturally relevant programs at Moorpark College. The Berets and Mechistas invited ucsb professor of economics and Democratic candidate for Congress Stanley Sheinbaum to speak on campus.24 In October 1968 the Berets attended a conference on poverty hosted at Ventura College. López, as the group’s prime minister of education, organized a peace- ful demonstration to protest neglect on the part of county social workers in relation to the needs of ethnic Mexican communities. As López spoke, fellow Brown Berets held placards that read “Less Talk and More Action” and “Viva la Raza.” The Berets also presented a slideshow complemented by music and narration that detailed the Chicano perspective on poverty in Ventura County.25 As one of its main goals, high school and college MEChA organizations promoted as well as reinforced a sense of ethnic Mexican pride to extirpate any stigma internalized in some of its members by way of settler colonial perspectives in schools and a popular culture that not only erased the historical presence of ethnic Mexicans but also portrayed them in the present as outsiders, and often criminal at that. The provenance of self-negation, moreover, stemmed from decades of institutionalized racism and violence. Mechistas bolstered the promotion of amour propre with community-building programs in and outside their campuses. Toward this objective, Ventura County MEChAs embarked upon tutorial programs to serve grade school students. In an interview with Moorpark College’s student newspaper, the Raiders Reporter, López described MEChA’s goal as “to develop the child’s self-concept and identity.” Soria, in turn, asserted the importance of bilingual education to maintain and reinstate pride in young ethnic Mexican students.26

Raising consciousness of the challenges historically faced by ethnic Mexican communities served as another goal of MEChAs in Ventura County.27 In November 1969 the Raiders Reporter spotlighted the student activism of Soria, who had suffered the loss of a brother in the Vietnam War, experienced economic deprivations associated with migrant life, and who dropped out of high school to work in the fields to support his family.28 Soria’s life lessons, coupled with his activism, ballasted a constructive indignation and motivation to challenge societal injustices. Given that Moorpark College was a startup campus that supported curricular innovation with few-to-no faculty with academic training in the Mexican American experience, the administration afforded Soria, López, and other students opportunities to formally teach classes and deliver lectures to their peers on the history, culture, and politics of the Chicano community.29

Be One, Bring More than One

El Plan de Santa Barbara (drafted by students, faculty, and staff from different institutions at ucsb in the spring of 1969) served as the manifesto for Chicanas- Chicanos of all ages, as it delineated the goals and objectives of MEChA

. A central tenet of El Plan guided all in academe with the advancement of education in the community. Ventura County Chicanas-Chicanos actualized this mandate by visits to elementary schools to volunteer their time as tutors. For example, Oxnard Brown Berets Francisco DeLeon, Roberto Flores, Andrés and Fermín Herrera, and Armando López visited the elementary schools of Juanita and Ramona, in the heart of La Colonia, to conduct culturally relevant puppet shows. The Brown Berets of Oxnard also implemented a tutorial program in the district. The Berets then worked with the administration of Moorpark College to establish a program of recruitment and support services. In an era of a white, middle class–focused curriculum that featured “Janet and Mark” and “Dick and Jane” narratives, the Berets created curricula that spotlighted the ethnic Mexican experience.30

Even before the creation of El Plan in 1969, Chicana-Chicano students at the colleges and universities of Moorpark and Ventura, sfvsc, ucla, and ucsb also went back to the barrios and colonias from which they came to encourage family and friends to become activists and obtain a higher education—not only for the sake of their own edification and empowerment, but that of their communities. In February 1969 López, while a student at Moorpark College, spoke at Rio Mesa High School to share with students the goals and objec- tives of the Brown Berets, an agenda that consisted of social change by way of the promotion of Mexican American studies, the establishment of a citizens’ police review board, and the promotion of better communication with the community. In relation to direct action, López stressed the organization’s commitment to a nonviolent philosophy.31

Later in November 1969, ucsb Mechistas Daniel Castro, Castulo de la Rocha, and Javier Escobar drove forty-five minutes south to meet with the members of Ventura College MEChA to discuss, among other challenges, the state’s high school dropout rate among ethnic Mexicans. The three guest speakers also noted that of those that managed to graduate, many were academically ill prepared, particularly in comparison to their Black and white counterparts. The next year Tim Vásquez of UCSB’s MEChA visited Ventura College to recruit Mechistas to join him in Coachella Valley to assist the United Farm Workers in stopping scabs from picking grapes during the strike. Vásquez also urged the Mechistas to participate in the moratorium march to be conducted in Santa Barbara that May.32

To motivate Chicana-Chicano students to stay in school and ultimately obtain degrees from the systems of the California State College and the Uni- versity of California, Flores, as an Oxnard Brown Beret and ucla premed student, worked with a newly established Educational Opportunity Program (eop) to create in 1968 a nonprofit work-study project titled the University Study Center (usc). Based in Oxnard, usc placed approximately thirty high school and college students within public agencies. This had two functions: first, to provide students with incomes while they obtained on-the-job training in professional environs, and, second, to introduce students to white-collar careers that required college degrees. In some cases Chicana-Chicano activists virtually ushered family and friends off barrio streets to enroll them in such programs. eop slots had opened up at universities and colleges as a result of protests such as the walkouts in East Los Angeles that year; it was now incumbent upon activists who demanded this inclusion to fill them. A number of the individuals who had no plans of going to college due to a multitude of challenges (e.g., school tracking, preparation, maturity, economics, family obligations) failed to succeed, while others initially struggled to survive and then flourished as they created social networks of support on campus.33

But the USC project was not just for the college-bound. It also served professionals who sought to enhance cultural competencies to effectively serve the ethnic Mexican community. For example, UCSB offered an extension course in the summer of 1969 titled Mexican-American: Past, Present, and Future, conducted at the Juanita school by Brown Beret members Fermín Herrera, Flores, and López along with Professor Rodolfo F. Acuña of SFVSC.34

A Space for Chicano Studies

In April 1969 MEChA, with a membership of approximately forty, met with Moorpark College president John Collins to propose the implementation of a curriculum relevant to the experience of ethnic Mexicans as well as recruit- ing and admitting more students from their communities. To retain students MEChA called for the college’s employment of ethnic Mexican faculty, staff, and administrators. Students would endorse the appointment of candidates and recommend their termination if they failed to serve students.35 President Collins supported MEChA’s proposals. His actions contrasted with that of campus presidents at Ventura College, California State College Los Angeles, California State College at Fresno, and San Diego State College who rejected Chicano studies. Many campus presidents labeled this new field as ideologically particular in scope as opposed to universal and therefore not a legitimate academic course of study, due to its perceived Marxist radical politics.36

Nonetheless, in the fall of 1969, Moorpark College recruited its first director of the Mexican American Studies (MAS) Program: Amado Reynoso, who held degrees from San Diego State and San Francisco State.37 Moorpark College Mechistas and Reynoso, as their faculty advisor, wasted no time making its mark within El Movimiento in Southern California. In November 1969 they organized a one-day conference of workshops and lectures. People from other community colleges, private and public four-year institutions, and high schools attended. In addition to establishing a support network, conference organizers strategized how to cultivate Mexican American studies while increasing the matriculation and graduation of ethnic Mexicans in high schools and colleges.38 President Collins, with his newly appointed MAS director, opened the program with a welcome to attendees and an introduction of the conference schedule. Jesus Chavarria of UCSB and Dr. Acuña spoke on the relevancy of Chicano studies. Raquel Montenegro of the Association of Bilingual Educators made an address on “The Broken Promises of the American Dream.” After the first round of speeches, workshops addressed topics regarding the recruitment of ethnic Mexican staff and students, financial aid, support services, and curriculum development.39

The event, however, did not escape controversy. Campus food services erred in their catering by including table grapes at a time when César Chávez’s National Farm Workers Union imposed an international boycott of the product to pressure growers for a collective bargaining agreement. Students from Los Angeles rebuked Moorpark Mechistas for the gaffe. Later, East Los Angeles College MEChA wrote a scathing open letter to President Collins expressing the offense taken. The letter pointed to the failure of “white society” to join the effort of pro- test of the time. Instead, the letter continued, “white society” issued an insult.40

Despite the table grape goof, Moorpark College MEChA pulled off a successful conference, and the succor that President Collins extended did not go unrecognized. In April 1970 the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA) of Ventura County saluted President Collins at its annual awards banquet for doing more for the Chicano than anyone else. This was a well- deserved honor, as President Collins, judging from the reports in the Raider Reporter, consistently supported the advancement of Mexican American studies and the hiring of faculty and staff of Mexican origin and was sensitive to the needs of students.41

¡Despierta! (Wake Up!)

The recognition of a gracious campus president such as Collins was of particular import, as Chicana-Chicano students did not enjoy such help at the sister campus of Ventura College with Ray E. Loehr as president. Moreover, the direct actions of Black students awakened many students unaware of, or initially unconcerned with, broader national currents of protests. At the Area IX Junior College Student Association Conference in October 1968, for example, Black students accused the association of failing to address unnamed problems important to their minority peers, then stormed out in protest. Two months later Black students presented President Loehr with a petition bearing 280 student signatures that demanded the recruitment of Black faculty. A meeting resulted after a rumor circulated that Black students planned to stage a protest at the college’s homecoming football game if their demands were not met.42

In the following spring of 1970, BSU spokesperson Larry Ellis presented President Loehr with a list of demands that not only called for the hiring of Black professors but also instituting an independent Black studies department with a curriculum transferable to four-year colleges and universities. As part of the campus’s overall infrastructure, the students called for a Black studies section in the campus library. And, to support the success of students, the BSU listed the need for Black counselors, financial aid administrators, and staff employees.43 The next year at Moorpark College, in October 1971, thirty Black students cleared the library’s bookshelves in protest of the campus’s refusal to hire a Black secretary for an open position. Like Chicana-Chicano students at Moorpark College earlier that March, the BSU held an on-campus conference with the goal “to create a black awareness within the community while encouraging young blacks toward higher education.” Oxnard resident, activist, and founding member of the cultural organization Harambee Uhuru (Swahili for Freedom Fights), William Terry was one of the several speakers at the conference.44 As the BSU took direct action, Chicana-Chicano students endorsed their demands. Witnesses of broader protest movements in support of farmworkers and against the war in Vietnam, as well as of the student blowouts in East Los Angeles, Ventura County Chicanas-Chicanos reflected upon the needs within their communities. Like the Ventura County CSO and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People earlier, the BSU and MEChA exerted independent, yet parallel, pressure upon the administration of Ventura College to meet the needs of their students. This resulted in the appointments of Isaiah “Bubba” Brown and Ray Reyes as counselors at the Minority Student Center (MSC) in the winter of 1971.45

Networks in the Southern California region tethered together the activism of Chicanas and Chicanos at various high schools, colleges, and universities. Young men and women traveled roads and freeways to visit campuses, cruised lowrider cars on main streets, socialized at parks, and dated love interests in other communities. They voraciously read alternative newspapers and magazines that spoke to their experience: Con Safos, El Chicano, La Causa, El Gallo, El Grito, El Malcriado, and La Raza Magazine, to name a few. These publications, and others similar to them, established translocal, shared experiences.46

Other students participated in landmark protests and conferences such as East Los Angeles’s Chicano Moratorium, La Marcha de la Reconquista, the Santa Barbara Conference of El Plan that was named after it, the protest marches of the United Farm Workers, and the Denver Youth Conferences. As Chicana- Chicano students listened to the speeches of anti–Vietnam War protestors such as sfvsc student Gilbert Cano, César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzalez, and others, they were inspired by the defiant messages that contextualized their sense of history, mythology, and status. People who participated in or observed these events found their own experiences with racist systems of oppression affirmed; in other words, they discovered that their grievances were not imagined or individualized. This in turn inspired them to invite iconic figures of El Movimiento to their own campuses. And if they could not attract big-name movement people, Mechistas at Moorpark and Ventura College brought in local academics and activists to interpret and comment on the events of their time.

In oral history interviews, Manuela Aparicio Twitchell of Fillmore, Yvonne De Los Santos of Saticoy, and Roberto Flores and Jess Gutiérrez, both from Oxnard, expressed with pride the work they had performed in programming Cinco de Mayo and Mexican Independence Day celebrations. Collectively, organizers developed their leadership skills, which entailed the formal submis- sion of proposals for campus authorization and funds as well as the logistical navigation of bureaucratic systems. In the process Mechistas developed cross-cultural alliances with other students to support peers on Associated Students boards for the sponsorship of their events. And, on the day of a program, Mechistas enhanced their talents at public speaking by serving as emcees and, at times, filled in for no-show guests.

For the campus’s Cinco de Mayo Celebration of 1971, Moorpark College MEChA hosted Reies López Tijerina Jr. (the son of the land grant activist in New Mexico) and Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales. The pair were part of a two-day program of speeches and performances that included Chicano poet Alurista, guitarist-folklorist Suni Paz, and Mariachi Uclatlan from ucla. An evening concert featured the music of the Thee Midniters and Dark Corner.47 The next year MEChA successfully booked Reis López Tijerina himself. But, that time, the organizers would add a twist to the celebration. Instead of a two-day program, the event took place over three days. And, in the spirit of El Plan de Santa Barbara, of bringing barrio communities to colleges and universities and vice versa, Moorpark College MEChA scheduled events on campus and in the communities of Oxnard and Santa Paula. The program entailed talks by, again, Alurista, and movement leaders of the Mexican American generation such as labor and immigrant rights activist Bert Corona, Armando Morales of ucla and author of the book on police violence Ando sangrando, as well as Sal Castro, who mentored student leaders in the East Los Angeles blowouts. Teatro Aztlán of SFVSC and the college’s own Teatro Quetzalcoatl performed actos, or short plays.48

It was at Moorpark College that Gutiérrez became further politicized, both by the zeitgeist and the knowledge he learned. Coupled with the counterhegemonic perspectives espoused by movement speakers and that of his peers, the inchoate body of Chicano studies literature expanded his worldview. And although Moorpark College did not have a Chicano studies degree, MEChA served as the focal point of support for first-generation college students.49 Gutiérrez had been so inspired by his involvement in Moorpark College’s MEChA that he ran for a seat on the politically conservative OUHSD Board of Trustees.50

Minority Student Center

Once matriculated on college campuses, Chicanas-Chicanos noticed BSU’s demand for the curricular inclusion of their own experience and support ser- vices. This prompted them to develop similar petitions. At Ventura College, for example, both Black and Chicana-Chicano students made one demand in a parallel manner, for a minority students center. Their call converged in a meeting with the college’s administration in May 1970. BSU and MEChA also pushed simultaneously, yet separately, for tutorial services to advance the retention of first-generation college students.51

Starting in 1972 the two organizations also collaborated each year in a Christmas charity fashion show. The proceeds from the event went toward the distribution of food baskets for the needy. Once the campus established its Minority Student Center, the two clubs jointly planned other programs. In one case they sponsored a weeklong series to educate the campus about the history and culture of their respective heritages. Spokespersons from each club articu- lated two outcomes. For example, in relation to space, counselor and MEChA faculty advisor Reyes stated, “We will convert the [patio] area into a Mexican marketplace in an effort to reproduce the festival that is held in Huachemango (a Mexican city) each year at this time.” And in relation to the analogous experi- ences of Blacks and Chicanas-Chicanos, Larry Ellis stated, “The black and brown peoples are deprived culturally and educationally here and this is our chance to do our own thing and we want people to know what we are and can do.”52

But the existence of the Minority Student Center unsettled Louis Zitnik, who felt that it segregated people and compromised notions of racial equality. For Zitnik inequities among racial groups were financial. As a result he called for unity among the economically disadvantaged, as race, he thought, only served to disunite people with common interest.53 Vietnam veteran and student Arnulfo Casillas offered a response that complicated the notion of people of color being a minority in Ventura County, pointing out that several communities did not have white-majority populations: for instance, Moorpark, with 60 percent of its residents of Mexican origin, and both Fillmore and Santa Paula, with 50 percent of its residents as such. To appreciate the true character of segregation, Casillas referenced the spatial isolation that ethnic Mexicans experienced in the barrios of La Colonia in Oxnard, the Avenue in Ventura, Grant Avenue in Santa Paula, El Campo of Saticoy, and El Campito of Fillmore. It was in such places that people failed to enjoy the services they paid in taxes that white-dominant communities enjoyed. Casillas highlighted that this contributed to Chicana- Chicano students not graduating from or dropping out of high school at a rate of 50 percent. This exclusion also evidenced itself in the Vietnam War, where Chicano military servicemen consisted of 20 percent of the casualties when they only made up 5 percent of the population in the Southwest.54

The Minority Student Center gained greater visibility when MEChA, with the support of the Associated Students, convinced President Loehr to permit the installation of a mural on the building in the spring of 1973 in time for the campus’s annual Cinco de Mayo celebration. Created by Blas Menchaca, the mural consisted of a gendered mosaic of tiles with images of patriarchal icons of Mexican history Joaquin Murrieta, Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, Benito Juárez, Jose María Morelos, Cuauhtéhmoc, Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, and Che Guevara below the rain god Tlaloc.55

Veni, Vidi, Vici Chicana-Chicano Style

Once a critical mass of Chicana-Chicano students found their way to college, they struggled to create a conducive campus culture. Ultimately, with the guid- ance of Mexican American generation mentors such as Reynoso and Reyes, they accomplished this. One objective entailed the promotion of Mexican culture on campuses. Another sought to create additional structures of support like the Minority Student Center, as many Chicana-Chicano students did not have the scholastic preparation and financial means to sustain their retention on campus. Then there were students that did not understand the connection of a higher education with improved life chances in employment, housing, health care, as well as the intergenerational transfer of social capital. This being the case, it was critical for Chicana-Chicano students—with the support of faculty, staff, and administrators who, in effect, served in loco parentis—to create systems that holistically developed students.

On March 19, 1969, the Raiders Reporter published an unsigned essay titled “Chicano Speaks: The Mexican Fiesta—a Chance to ‘Discharge the Soul.’” The anonymous writer (or collective) described cultural events as the expression of the community’s soul in an oppressive society that sought the eradication of the ethnic Mexican presence. The essay went on to proclaim, profoundly, that “the fiesta is a revolt, a revolution    The fiesta unites everything: good and evil, day and night and the sacred and profane.”56 Therefore, music, theater, and lectures promoted by MEChA in Ventura County middle schools, high schools, and colleges enabled Chicana-Chicano students to declare a restorative cultural pride. This often occasioned the blare of trumpets and the strum of string instruments (violins, el guitarrón, and vihuela) as mariachi sang the songs of Mexico in the heart of campuses during the midday, when students walked to and from class. Within a hegemonic context in which all that was Mexican was subordinated—if not at best considered mediocre compared to the standards of European culture—the open-air reverence for Mexican traditions by ethnic Mexican students born or raised in the United States was, as the unsigned Raider-Reporter letter of March 19 proclaimed, a revolutionary act.

At Ventura College music professor Frank A. Salazar and his Spanish faculty colleague Francis X. Maggipinto worked with Chicana-Chicano students in 1968 to develop a Mexican-style Christmas program that would, in the words of Salazar, “totally immerse” the campus in the traditions of Mexico. The Mexican American generation professors and students invited children from the Ventura barrio of the Avenue and Santa Paula to instill in them not only a unique sense of Chicana-Chicano culture but also to sow semillas (seeds) on the importance of a college education.57

The promotion of música mexicana included songs of the 1950s. This finessed the inclusion of intergenerational ethnic Mexican cohorts of migrant prove- nance. It also integrated others equally influenced by the sounds of Motown and r&b. Raves encompassed all students attracted to this genre of music, as the mellifluous Brown sounds demanded attention. As this took place, Mechistas recruited members and won over intergroup supporters. Mechistas of Ventura College took this one step further when they obtained an hour of weekly airtime on kacy radio, hosted by Bernardo Larios, titled La Hora del Chicano. By way of the sponsorship of such programing, Mechistas not only developed culturally responsive environs, but also advanced the goodwill of their institutions in the barrios and colonias from which they came, making their schools truly “community” colleges.58

The promotion of Mexican cultural expressions also served as a praxis of restoration. Celebrations of El Diez y Seis de Septiembre (Mexican Indepen- dence Day), Cinco de Mayo, and Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), for example, contested the dominant cultural view that depicted ethnic Mexicans as perpetual “aliens.” In the spring of 1973, Casillas expressed this perspective when he stated, “When we go into the celebration of Cinco de Mayo, may we remember that this is not a foreign culture, but one that is very much a part of all that we have seen and experience during our lifetime, in our history.”59 Renascent celebrations in Ventura County schools and colleges elevated the profile of ethnic Mexican students, particularly those active in MEChA. This not only attracted a steady cycle of new members but also inspired Mechistas

to pursue campus leadership opportunities. Two such instances involved the election of representatives. The first consisted of the campus election of homecoming queens at Moorpark and Ventura College; the second entailed the election of Associated Students (as) board members at both campuses. In 1969 Manuela Aparicio ran for homecoming queen at Moorpark College and was voted the runner-up. When Chicana-Chicano peers asked why she entered the competition, she answered why not. In the fall of 1970, Jeanette Velasco represented MEChA as a candidate for homecoming queen at Moorpark College. She ran against Luedora Wallace. Interestingly, the newspaper was silent on who won this race. Two years later Aurelia Aparicio, Manuela’s sister, won the title of homecoming queen. At Ventura College, in the fall of 1969, MEChA successfully campaigned for Betty Luna to be homecoming queen. The next year Jayne Lopez of Santa Paula was one of three elected by the students as finalists. The other two were BSU candidate Debbie Shelton and Maureen Cooney, sponsored by the Associated Men’s Student club. The football team made the final decision, and, again, the campus newspaper was silent on who the team chose.60 But the actual outcome of who won was secondary to the candidacies of Chicanas and Black women to run for elected positions—putatively the privilege, if not the right, of white contestants.

In 1969 MEChA member Richard Hernandez served as president of Moor- park College’s ASB. At the end of his term, he endorsed the candidacy of fellow Mechista Angel Luevano, who won, as his successor. In 1972 Zeke Ruelas was elected speaker of parliament at Moorpark College.61 But the most pronounced expression of the actualization of power by Chicana-Chicano students took place at Ventura College. At the behest of their Mexican American generation advisor, Ray Reyes, who mentored them to be a politically active and savvy organization that administered budgets, as opposed to just being a social club, Ventura College MEChA students held tremendous influence over the as board for much of the 1970s. But in 1975 it achieved its zenith as the school newspaper focused on MEChA’s representative majority on the as board. A Crystal City moment, however, occurred that spring semester, when MEChA members and MEChA-endorsed candidates swept the as election. In addition, nine other nonexecutive posts were held by MEChA members. Graciela Casillas, the younger sister of Arnulfo, won the position of ASB president. Pleased by the result, Casillas graciously expressed her appreciation for MEChA’s support and promised to represent the interests of all students. But fellow Mechista and Casillas’s predecessor as the outgoing ASB chair, Manuel Razo, was not so politic; he brazenly stated to the school reporter, “Just put ‘MEChA wins, honkies lose.’ . . . It’s only obvious that MEChA is the strongest organization on campus. We are the power structure of the college.” Similarly, Jesus Hernández proclaimed after winning the seat of ASB vice-president, “My number one priority is MEChA members needs Mi raza primero. We came, we saw and we conquered.” Like Casillas, though, Lupe Razo, who won the post as ASB secretary, more inclusively expressed her appreciation for MEChA’s support and vowed to work on the behalf of not only Chicanos but also all women.62 In response to the subsequent backlash, MEChA embarked upon political damage control. In March 1975 it held a weekend conference. In an interview with reporter for the Pirate Press, Jaime Casillas, the brother of Graciela and Arnulfo, stated that the purpose of the event was to recruit new members and to address false ideas about MEChA, since the remarks of Razo and Hernán- dez confirmed in the eyes of many their view of the organization as exclusive, aggressively militant, and resolute in the reconquista of the Southwest. For the most part, however, the goals and objectives of the organization were moderate, inclusive of all people, regardless of ethnicity and race. Most of all the organization was reformist in character, in terms of its pursuit of progressive change within extant institutions.63

But the braggadocio of two of its members made MEChA politically vulnerable. Ventura College’s Alpha Gama Sigma (AGS) ran a slate of candidates of its own in the spring 1975 election for the executive posts of the as board. In previous elections incumbents often ran unopposed. But this cycle was different; AGS ran against Mechistas to diminish, if not demolish, the organization’s power. As the campaign commenced, both AGS and MEChA candidates denied that their election would result in their favoritism of one group of students over others.64 Michael C. Dill, AGS candidate for the Office of Finance, who ran against Mechista Tony Valenzuela, wrote a letter to the editor right before the election. He commended MEChA for the organization’s engagement in campus affairs and how its activism inspired him to run for the as board to break its political domination. The goal was not to eliminate completely MEChA’s presence on the as board, but he desired more balanced representation.65 In the end, however, the Mechistas lost all seats on the board of student government.66

A Contretemps of Identities

In addition to collective actions of self-determination on campuses and in their communities, Chicana-Chicano youth asserted their new identity in a more individualistic fashion in print distinctive from their elder counterparts with Mexican American or Mexicanist identities. Combined, local movements and the propaganda of the larger movimiento influenced the ways in which young men and women viewed themselves as a people. The term “propaganda” in U.S. culture connotes a certain stigma of bias and rhetoric; in the tradition of Mexican culture, however, propaganda involves public relations in the dissemination of values. In this regard Chicana-Chicano youth challenged those who questioned the identity they espoused. This debate, often heated, emerged in the letters to the editor within campus and community newspapers.

An extended conversation commenced on the label “Chicano” when the Oxnard Press-Courier reported in January 1970 California State College Hay- ward’s implementation of a Chicano studies program. This raised the ire of city of Ventura resident R. De Leon, who emphasized the pejorative provenance of the moniker. De Leon argued that people who identified themselves as Chicano desired attention and held a “chip on their shoulders.” Although De Leon respected the right of individuals to identify themselves as they wished, he challenged the newspaper’s use of the label to describe the Mexican American community, since individuals like himself rejected it. The next month Jerry R. Rosalez, like De Leon, opposed the daily’s identification of ethnic Mexicans as Chicano; this, in his opinion, referenced a group of impostors.67 In the same edition of the newspaper that printed Rosalez’s letter, however, Faye Villa, a resident of Ventura County’s city of Camarillo, challenged De Leon’s perspective. She asked rhetorically if he had taken a poll to determine that most ethnic Mexicans disliked the label “Chicano.” Villa went on to contend that the Anglo use of the label “Spanish” was a euphemism and rebutted the notion that ethnic Mexicans were not different than “anyone else.” In fact, Villa held, ethnic Mexicans suffered racism in the United States due to their appearance; she concluded her letter by stating that he should “accept it [being of a distinct ethnicity] and live with it—happily.”68

Daniel E. Contreras did exactly this. The next day the Oxnard Press-Courier published a letter that defined his sense of the “Chicano” soubriquet. Contreras referenced the infamous opinion of Judge Gerald S. Chargin, who espoused a racist characterization of a Chicano youth convicted of raping his sister. Contreras mentioned three ways in which the Chicano, as a community, was “exercising his shoulders.” One was by an unnamed Chicano lawyer working to have Chargin removed from the bench. The second entailed the recruitment of Chicanos to go onto college. Third, Contreras concluded, “in essence, to be a Chicano is to believe and live as one. One is born a Mexican but one becomes a Chicano by choice.  I don’t relish encounters with people with chips on their shoulders, but it’s just as bad, if not worse, dealing with people with no shoulders at all.”69 Under the pseudonym “Nomas Milando” (roughly translated to “just observing”), a writer in the Voice of the People section, published on February 7, responded to the contribution of Rosalez. He contextualized the label in relation to the need for ethnic Mexicans to be prideful of their heritage within an “Anglo society” that denigrated every aspect of their being. Furthermore, to compel self-erasure, society forced ethnic Mexicans to identify with the moniker of “Spanish American.” But what was important was that people determine their own identity. In fact, Nomas Milando contended, an internalized white supremacy grounded Rosalez’s objection to the word “Chicano.” This entailed the portrayal of ethnic Mexicans as criminally inclined, if not in fact criminal, and lazy. He also referenced a statement made by deceased senator Dennis Chávez of New Mexico that when Mexican Americans won a congressional medal of honor for valor, they were labeled “Latin American”; when they won political office they were “Spanish American”; and, when unemployed, society tagged them as “Mexican.” Nomas Milando concluded, “So with this in mind, Mr. Rosalez, please do not lose sight of the ‘real’ problem. Direct your energies to stamp out the existing cancer [i.e., racism] of our society and do not waste your time bickering over an idiomatic term.”70

As part of the ongoing contretemps, the Oxnard Press-Courier published an essay by Contreras in late February titled “Chicano Power Defined.” Contre- ras referenced the song “Chicano Power” by the East Los Angeles band Thee Midniters to argue that the epithet encompassed all ethnic Mexicans with a U.S. life experience—at least with persons who identified as Mexican in the first place. “Chicano Power” signified the centrality of an education for the well-being and advancement of the ethnic Mexican community; a relevant curriculum would instill a positive self-concept and, in the process, challenge negative stereotypes perpetuated by a white, ethnocentric media. Contreras credited the Brown Berets for their promotion of cultural pride, like the Black Panthers. For him the Brown Berets were “tough-minded individuals” who struggled by way of direct action for positive social change.71

The initial letter of R. De Leon that protested the Oxnard Press-Courier’s use of the “Chicano” appellation predated by two weeks an op-ed by former Los Angeles Times reporter Ruben Salazar titled “Who Is a Chicano? And What Is It the Chicanos Want?” on February 6, 1970. In this piece Salazar discussed the nuances of the label as expressing a social consciousness of resistance. Conversely, the label “Mexican American” held an inverse connotation less critical of the subordination of ethnic Mexicans. In the words of Salazar, “Chicanos, then, are merely fighting to become ‘Americans.’ Yes, but with a Chicano outlook.”72

Takeaway

An enthusiasm for actualizing positive change and achieving greater representation in society’s institutions with élan inspired the young and old. Since Chicana-Chicano youth existed at all levels of education, campuses served as the grounds for dreaming (to borrow the concept from historian Lori Flores’s work) an enriched condition for ethnic Mexican students in terms of the curricular inclusion of their experiences, support services, and greater representation in faculty and staff. These students, with the guidance of mentors from the Mexican American generation, learned, gained confidence, and worked collaboratively with others to achieve positive changes. Chicana-Chicano students of Ventura County, therefore, fought similar struggles as their counterparts in different parts of the nation, but with a rurban chic all their own.


Frank P. Barajas is a professor of history at California State University Channel Islands. He is the author of Curious Unions: Mexican American Workers and Resistance in Oxnard, California, 1898–1961 (Nebraska, 2012).

Notes:

Excerpt taken from Mexican Americans with Moxie: A Transgenerational History of El Movimiento Chicano in Ventura County, California, 1945–1975 (University of Nebraska Press, 2021)

  1. Yvonne De Los Santos and Roberto Flores, interview by Frank P. Barajas, February 1, 2013.
  2. Roberto Flores, interview by Frank P. Barajas, April 14, 2006; Helen Galindo Casillas, interview by Frank P. Barajas, June 9, 2006; Armando López, interview by Frank P. Barajas, June 21, 2010; Rachel Murguia Wong, interview by Frank P. Barajas, May 30, 2010.
  3. De Los Santos and Flores interview, 2013; Roberto Flores, interview by Frank
    P. Barajas, April 14, 2006; Galindo Casillas interview, 2006; Frank H. Barajas, interview by Frank P. Barajas, May 16, 2020.
  4. De Los Santos and Flores interview, 2013.
  5. Juan Lagunas Soria, interview by Frank Bardacke, January 25, 1996; Flores inter- view, 2006.
  6. De Los Santos and Flores interview, 2013; Laura Espinosa, interview by Frank P. Barajas, May 30, 2012; Galindo Casillas interview, 2006; Moses Mora, interview by Frank P. Barajas, June 1, 2016; Ray and Teresa Tejada, interview by Frank P. Barajas, June 26, 2012.
  7. Eva Barbara Brown, “New High School Clubs Rising to Meet Challenge of Ethnic Awakening,” Ventura County Star-Free Press, February 1, 1970.
  8. Brown, “New High School Clubs Rising.”
  9. Roberto Hernández, Coloniality of the U.S./Mexico Border, 24–27.
  10. “Protesting ci Students Face Suspensions, Principal Says,” Oxnard Press-Courier, February 27, 1969.
  11. “Chicano Educators’ Aid to Be Requested,” Oxnard Press-Courier, November 19, 1970; “naacp Charges Elks Discriminate,” Oxnard Press-Courier, February 23, 1971.
  12. “Farm Workers Return to Jobs After ‘Holiday,’” Oxnard Press-Courier, September 17, 1971; “Fighting Disrupts Oxnard School,” Los Angeles Times, September 24, 1971; “Oxnard Grid Game Canceled; Beatings Cut School Attendance,” Oxnard Press-Courier, September 24, 1971; John Willson, “Oxnard High Violence Forces Closure,” Ventura County Star-Free Press, September 24, 1971; “Oxnard Football Opener Canceled,” Oxnard Press-Courier, September 25, 1971; “Monday Reopen- ing: Oxnard High Seeking Calm,” Ventura County Star-Free Press, September 26, 1971; Peter Martínez, interview by Frank P. Barajas, June 23, 2020.
  13. “Minority Committee to Meet,” Oxnard Press-Courier, October 3, 1971; “Smith’s Resignation Offer Favored by Oxnard Board,” Oxnard Press-Courier, November 12, 1971.
  14. Art Kuhn, “Black Offered Job: Smith’s Resignation Offer Favored by Oxnard Board,” Oxnard Press-Courier, November 12, 1971.
  15. Rick Nielsen, “Oxnard High School Firebombed,” Oxnard Press-Courier, October 31, 1971; “U.S. Enters Oxnard High Probe,” Oxnard Press-Courier, November 1, 1971.
  16. “Editorials: Firebombing Act of Desperation?,” Oxnard Press-Courier, November 2, 1971.
  17. “ohs to Get New Principal Shortly,” Oxnard Press-Courier, December 9, 1971.
  18. Cindy Garcia, “Channel Islands mecha Conducts Clothes Drive for Tijuana Needy,” Oxnard Press-Courier, December 2, 1973.
  19. Karly Eichner, “Candy Sale Contest Starts at Rio Mesa,” December 2, 1973; “mecha
    Sponsored Event Draws 100 Parents,” Oxnard Press-Courier, November 12, 1972.
  20. Diana Borrego Martínez, interview by Frank P. Barajas, July 9, 2012; De Los Santos and Flores interview, 2013.
  21. Jess Gutiérrez, interview by Frank P. Barajas, June 28, 2010.
  22. Borrego Martínez interview, 2012; De Los Santos and Flores interview, 2013; Acuña, Making of Chicana/o Studies, 95, 96.
  23. Jess Gutiérrez lecture, csuci, April 2014; Manuela Aparicio-Twitchell, interview by Frank P. Barajas, July 22, 2014; “mc Opens to 1200 Day Students,” Moorpark College Reporter 1, no. 1, September 29, 1967; “Campus News: Oxnard Repeats Bus Service to College,” Pirate Press, September 19, 1969; “Commuter Bus Routes Approved,” Oxnard Press-Courier, July 14, 1971.
  24. “Berets Present Sheinbaum Today,” Raiders Reporter 2, no. 3, October 4, 1968.
  25. “Moorpark Students Engage in Peaceful Protest at Poverty Conf.,” Raiders Reporter
    2, no. 5, October 23, 1968.
  26. “Of Campus Organizations: Berets Build ‘Community Pride,’” Raiders Reporter
    2, no. 5, October 23, 1968.
  27. “Berets Build ‘Community Pride.’”
  28. Bill Bader, “Of Personalities: ‘I’m Here to Educate You’–Soria,” Raiders Reporter
    2, no. 8, November 13, 1968.
  29. Bader, “I’m Here to Educate You”; López interview, 2010.
  30. “Unity Group Planned for Oxnard,” Oxnard Press-Courier, December 29, 1968; Flores interview, 2006; “Voice of the People: Berets Give Service,” Oxnard Press- Courier, February 3, 1969.
  31. Fbi File, February 5, 1969, courtesy of Milo Alvarez.
  32. Reynaldo Rivera, “Chicanos Suffer in This Country,” Pirate Press, December 12, 1969; “mecha Group Nominates Officers, Representatives,” by Michel Wolf, Pirate Press, May 22, 1970.
  33. Robert Flores, interview by Frank P. Barajas, June 10, 2010; De Los Santos and Flores interview, 2013; Borrego Martínez interview, 2012; Gutiérrez interview, 2010; Ismael “Mayo” de la Rocha, interview by Frank P. Barajas, May 15 and 22, 2014; Fermín Herrera, interview by Frank P. Barajas, August 14, 2019; “Editorials: Study Project Deserves a Chance,” Oxnard Press-Courier, July 5, 1969; Acuña, Making of Chicana/o Studies, 52–54.
  34. “Mexican-America ucsb Course Topic,” Oxnard Press-Courier, August 18, 1969.
  35. Over thirty-five students belonged to Moorpark College mecha; see Steve Horton, “mecha Proposes mc Chicano Study Program: Confrontation with Administration Has Harmonious Start,” Raiders Reporter 2, no. 25, April 23, 1969.
  36. “Mexican Flag Flies at mc in Independence Day Fete,” Raiders Reporter 3 no. 1, September 17, 1969; Muñoz, Youth, Identity, Power, 189–90.
  37. Professor Reynoso was the brother of Cruz Reynoso, who would be appointed to the California Supreme Court in 1981 by governor Jerry Brown; see “New, Yet Familiar: mas Head Reynoso Finds mc ‘Exciting,’” Raiders Reporter 3, no. 4, October 8, 1969.
  38. “Mas Conference Planned at mc,” Raider Reporter 3, no. 9, November 12, 1969.
  39. “Mas Conference Planned at mc”; “Chicano Studies Conference Slated at Moor- park College,” Oxnard Pres-Courier, November 17, 1969.
  40. Bill Sanchez et al., “To the Editor: Open Letter,” La Voz del Pueblo, November 21, 1969.
  41. “Julian Nava,” Raiders Reporter 3, no. 24, April 15, 1970, 4. After his tenure at Moorpark College, Collins went on to continue his support of Chicano studies as president of Bakersfield college; see Rosales, “Mississippi West,” 172–73.
  42. Raoul Contreras, “Raoul Reacts: Black Power,” Pirate Press, November 15, 1968; Borrego Martínez interview, 2012; Mayo de la Rocha, interview by Frank P. Barajas, May 15 and 22, 2014; “Meet Features sb Walk-Out,” Pirate Press, October 1, 1968; Raoul Contreras, “Black Students, Officials Confront Problem Areas,” Pirate Press, December 6, 1968.
  43. Duane Warren, “Larry Ellis, Black Activities Head, Expounds upon bsu’s Eight Demands,” Pirate Press, January 9, 1970.
  44. “Mc Library Fuss Penalties Pressed,” Oxnard Press-Courier, October 6, 1971; “Moorpark bsu Slates Black Events,” Oxnard Press-Courier, March 3, 1971.
  45. Emilia Alaniz, “Two Counselors Hired to Aid Disadvantaged,” Pirate Press, Decem- ber 4, 1970; “Minority Centers Form New Programs, Goals,” Pirate Press, February 26, 1971.
  46. Blackwell, ¡Chicana Power!, 135; Montejano, Quixote’s Soldiers, 126–27.
  47. Jill Patrick, “4-Day Cinco de Mayo Event Begins Tues,” Raiders Reporter 4, no. 28, April 28, 1971.
  48. “mc Commemorates Cinco De Mayo,” Raider Reporter 5, no. 29, May 3, 1972.
  49. De Los Santos and Flores interview, 2013; Gutiérrez interview, 2010.
  50. Dick Cooper, “People’s Choice,” Oxnard Press-Courier, April 15, 1973.
  51. Michael Kremer, “mecha Outlines Seven Proposals: Dr. Glenn Announces Steps to Implement Minority Plans,” Pirate Press, May 15, 1970; “Minority Students’ Informational Center Opens for Business on vc Campus,” Pirate Press, October 2, 1970; “Campus News: mecha, bsu Organize Tutoring for Disadvantaged,” Pirate Press, October 23, 1970.
  52. “Bsu, mecha Present Show,” Pirate Press, December 8, 1972; Dennis McCarthy, “Minority Center Plans Festivities,” Pirate Press, May 7, 1971.
  53. Louis Zitnik, “Letters to the Editor: Minorities,” Pirate Press, March 30, 1973.
  54. Arnulfo Casillas, “Writer Differs with Letter to Editor,” Pirate Press, April 13, 1973.
  55. “Mecha Mounts Mural,” Pirate Press, May 4, 1973; “Chicano Celebration Con- tinues,” Pirate Press, May 4, 1973.
  56. “Chicano Speaks: The Mexican Fiesta—a Chance to ‘Discharge the Soul,’” Raiders Reporter 2, no. 21, March 19, 1969.
  57. Raoul Contreras, “Mexican Students Propose Festive Christmas Season,” Pirate Press, November 8, 1968; “Mexicans Prepare Holiday Festivities,” Pirate Press, December 6, 1968.
  58. Silvia Monica Robledo, “Letters to the Editor: Chicana Reader Explains, Defends Movimiento, Challenges Campos to Meaningful Participation,” Pirate Press, May 24, 1974.
  59. Arnulfo Casillas, “Cinco de Mayo Explained,” Pirate Press, April 27, 1973. For the study of the usages of history to situate the power of collectives in the Chicana- Chicano community, see Bebout, Mythohistorical Imaginations.
  60. Aparicio-Twitchell interview, 2014; “Jeanette Valasco mecha and Luedora Wallace bsu for Homecoming Queen,” Raiders Reporter 4, no. 9, November 12, 1970; “Aure- lia Aparicio mc Homecoming Queen,” Raider Reporter, November 22, 1972; “Betty Luna Reigns as Homecoming Queen,” Pirate Press, November 7, 1969; “Pirates’ Roy- alty for Homecoming Crowned Today,” Pirate Press, November 20, 1970.
  61. “Hernández Endorses Luevano for Top Post,” Raiders Reporter 2, no. 27, May 7, 1969; Becky Merrell, “New Winds of Activism: mas Program Expanding Understanding,” Raider Reporter 3, no. 14, December 17, 1969; “Rueles Elected as New Speaker of Parliament,” Raider Reporter 5, no. 21, March 1, 1972.
  62. Jenaro Valdez, interview by Frank P. Barajas, June 19, 2019. Tom Richter, “Seven Vie for Four Positions on A.S. Board Tuesday,” Pirate Press, January 10, 1975; Tom Rich- ter, “3 Percent Vote: mecha Sweeps A.S. Elections,” Pirate Press, January 17, 1975.
  63. “Mechistas Hear Platform, Purposes,” Pirate Press, March 7, 1975; Manuel Razo, “Let- ters to the Editor: So What Is mecha All About?,” Pirate Press, October 4, 1974.
  64. Jill Boardmand, “Alpha Gamma Challenges mecha: as Election Set for Next Week,” Pirate Press, May 23, 1975; Jill Boardman and Tom Richter, “Fall as Board Candidates Fight for Leadership Positions,” Pirate Press, May 30, 1975.
  65. Michael C. Dill, “Letters to the Editor: Grouch Runs for Treasurer,” Pirate Press, May 30, 1975.
  66. Leigh Ann Dewey, “as Board: Election Controversy Erupts,” Pirate Press, June 6, 1976; Tom Richter, “ags Wins as Election; Voting Number Doubles,” Pirate Press, June 6, 1975.
  67. R. De Leon, “Voice of the People: Objects to ‘Chicano,’” Oxnard Press-Courier, January 21, 1970; Jerry R. Rosalez, “Voice of the People: ‘Chicano’ Opposed,” Oxnard Press-Courier, February 2, 1970.
  68. Faye Villa, “Voice of the People: ‘Chicanos’ Challenge,” Oxnard Press-Courier, February 2, 1970.
  69. Dan E. Contreras, “Voice of the People: Chicano Spokesman,” Oxnard Press- Courier, February 3, 1970.
  70. Nomas Milando, “Voice of the People: More on ‘Chicano,’” Oxnard Press-Courier, February 7, 1970.
  71. Daniel Eugenio Contreras, “Voice of the People: Chicano Power Defined,” Oxnard Press-Courier, February 23, 1970.
  72. Ruben Salazar, “Who Is a Chicano? What Is It the Chicanos Want?,” Los Angeles Times, February 6, 1970.

© 2021 by Frank P. Barajas.; used with permission by University of Nebraska Press. 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/.

Excerpts

We Are the Land: A History of Native California

Damon B. Akins and William J. Bauer Jr.

In May of 1928, Congress passed an enabling act to allow the “Indians of California” to sue the federal government for the land lost because of the eighteen unratified treaties signed in 1851 and 1852. To limit the scope of the action and consolidate lawsuits, the act provided the first legal definition of the Indians of California: “all Indians who were residing in the State of California on June 1, 1852, and their descendants now living in said state.” Lawmakers hoped this would prevent a flood of lawsuits parcel by parcel, rancheria by rancheria, village by village, tribe by tribe. The act authorized the lawsuit, which became known as the California Indian Claims Case, often referred to by its docket number: K-344. The case wound its way through the courts until a 1944 decision.

There have always been Indians in California, and despite their distinctiveness, the conditions they faced often shared important characteristics. But the idea of a category, much less a legal category encompassing all of the state’s far-flung and various Indigenous Peoples, was a new and contested notion. The “Indians of California” resulted from decades of activism and various networks of education and mutual support in response to attacks on their existence and livelihood in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Indians of California increasingly pressed their collective issues through the courts, laws, at state fairs, and the state capital, and in defense of the land itself. The category did not subsume individual, village, rancheria, reservation, or tribal identities. Instead, the name provided yet another aggregate conceptual category to organize and strengthen local activism.

Mrs. Ruby Snyder, Chemehuevi Indian, Poston, Arizona. Created by Clem Albers. Photo courtesy Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

In the middle of the twentieth century, the various people that the federal government subsumed under the moniker “Indians of California” responded to and shaped the ebbs and flows of federal Indian policy. Across the state, officials clamored to dam rivers and flood reservation lands in the name of urban development. During the Great Depression, the federal government initiated what it considered a new phase of federal Indian policy—the Indian Reorganization Act. The government promised the new act ensured the independence of California Indians and other Indigenous People in North America. In Southern California, Indigenous People questioned those beliefs. Finally, in the 1950s, policies swung back toward those of the 1920s, attempting to absorb Indigenous lands and sovereignty through the ominously titled “termination” policies. Throughout the era, California Indians charted their own path to secure land and sovereignty.

Indigenous People were bound up in California’s image of itself, which was one of the state’s most valuable export commodities in the 1920s and 1930s. The region’s Mediterranean climate, landscape, and architecture, as well as its increasing prominence in the global economy, contributed to the production of the “Spanish fantasy past.” Business, culture, and political leaders highlighted California’s imaginary Spanish past to promote their vision of nostalgia for a vaguely European heritage and the tourism it supported. That story also helped to erase the diverse present by relocating people of color to the past. The gauzy stories of happy and orderly early California featured prominently at inter- national expositions held around the region. These expositions announced California’s promising future, yoked to an imaginary past. The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 in San Francisco and the Panama-California Exposition of 1915–16 in San Diego celebrated California’s growth, especially because of the increased maritime trade brought about by the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914. Both expositions presented to the world a highly idealized version of California as paradise, with its Indians an important part of that past, not the present. Later expositions and fairs, such as the Long Beach Pacific Southwest Exposition of 1928 and San Diego’s California-Pacific International Exposition of 1935–36, continued this theme.

Indians from around the state and region found work at the fairs and expositions, building the Painted Desert exhibit in San Diego in 1914–15 and performing as “show Indians” in the pageants recounting California’s history. They also produced items for display and sale. In the 1910s and 1920s, the market for California Indian baskets changed. As the collector’s craze for baskets declined, Wiyot-Hupa Louise Hickox and Washoe Lena Dick led the way to finding retail outlets to sell their baskets and to promote their work at fairs and expositions. Hickox learned weaving from her mother, Elizabeth, and her grandmother, Polly Conrad Steve, who survived the notorious Indian Island massacre in 1860, when she was twelve years old.

Pomo-Patwin Mabel McKay appeared at the California State Fair and at various times at the California State Indian Museum, where she displayed her exquisite work. At the state fair in 1929, fair officials forced her to wear a skimpy beaded and fringed buckskin dress. After McKay reluctantly put it on, she asked wryly, “Do I look like an Indian yet?” In 1934, she appeared in the Sacramento Union, again dressed in a stereotypical Indian costume that bore no resemblance to Pomo culture. McKay displayed some of her well-known laconic wit when asked, what, besides basket weaving, the Pomos do. “Just live,” she answered.

In McKay’s case, tensions between “traditional” and “market” considerations revealed themselves. McKay was a Dreamer and a sucking doctor in the Bole Maru religion. Her great uncle, Richard Taylor, led the revivalist religious movement that became Bole Maru in the nineteenth century. While McKay grew up around very accomplished basket makers, including her aunt Laura Somersal, she learned weaving in her dreams. Baskets served a critical function in her healing practice, and McKay steadfastly refused to sell those baskets. At the same time, she often took commissions at demonstrations such as the 1929 State Fair.

Indians saw attending the fair as work—perhaps unsavory at times but work that had value. Margaret Harrie, a Karuk basket maker, single mother, and pikváhaan (storyteller), wrote to Grace Nicholson:

I send you this little red basket just for [a] present. . . . My little girl made it. . . . I sell my baskets to you very cheap. [T]hat black basket cost very high [b]ut I send it to you very cheap [b]ecause I think you are my friend. . . . We do not get our straw to fix the basket with up here. We get our straw down the Klamath River they do not grow up here so we have a hard work in get- ting them I have a hard living Because I have childrens to take care of all by myself. P.S. I forgot to tell you that my baskets were all $28.75 worth.

Harrie established a trade relationship with Nicholson for very practical economic reasons and pointed out the importance of site-specific har- vesting. She pursued a similar strategy later when the anthropologists began to show interest. Around 1930, Harrie worked with Hans Uldall, a Danish linguist, reciting the story of “Coyote and Old Woman Bull- head.” Whether it was baskets or stories, Harrie recognized the value of her culture, to herself and to others.

California Indian baskets are ecologically sensitive and site specific. While weavers have adapted new plants and forbs into their baskets, the sedge, redbud, willow, and other materials that formed the core of the craft were susceptible to environmental change. Urbanization pushed increasingly complex water projects farther into the state’s interior. California’s map is dotted with sites where urban, industrial, or agricultural demand for water came at the expense of Indian communities: Hetch Hetchy Valley was flooded to provide water to the city of San Francisco; Owens Lake was drained to provide water to the city of Los Angeles; Capitan Grande was flooded to enable the city of San Diego to grow.

California Indians sat at the center of some of the most well-known histories of water disputes in the state, but they are commonly sidelined in the narratives constructed about them. For example, long a staple case study in environmental history, the story of the flooding of the Hetch Hetchy Valley is often depicted as a victory of conservationists over preservationists and an important step in the beginning of the modern environmental movement. The valley, however, was also Miwok land. Both the Ahwahnechee and the Tuolumne Bands of Sierra Miwok claimed the valley in summer and fall. John Muir praised the valley’s “natural” beauty, calling it an “acorn orchard.” Orchards are not natural, and neither was the valley’s landscape, which Ahwahnechee and Tuolumne managed through controlled burns to increase seed output and fern growth. In addition to increasing the deer population, regular burning also reduced underbrush and contributed to the growth of the black oak trees, whose acorns formed a critical component of the Miwok diet.

The actors in the story, as it is normally told, are San Francisco city officials, the secretary of the interior, President Theodore Roosevelt, and John Muir. They all wrestled for control of the valley throughout the first two decades of the twentieth century. Some saw in it a solution to the city’s growing water problem, while others saw it as a place of great natural beauty deserving protection. That distinction pitted a reflective, aesthetic use of the valley for leisure against the “daily comfort and welfare of 99 percent.” The Miwok absence in the story highlights a central tenet of the environmental movement in California—namely, that preservation often, if not always, involved removing Indians from their land or severely reducing their ability to use it. In 1919, construction of the dam began, and within a few years, waters submerged the vast “acorn orchard.”

One of the most dramatic examples of urban infrastructure intervening in the Indigenous landscapes occurred in the Owens Valley in the eastern part of the state. Owens Lake lives on as a vestigial legacy on digital street maps, but it has long since disappeared. The lake dried up in 1926 (see fig. 24). The Owens River flows south through the slender valley, fed from the Sierra Nevada on its west and the White Mountains and Inyo Mountains on the east. Owens Valley Paiutes built a comprehensive irrigation system with lateral aqueducts running off of the east- west flowing creeks to grow seed grasses and edible tubers. As a result, before American settlement, the valley supported a Paiute population of between one thousand and two thousand people.


View of the dry lake bed of Owens Lake, looking north, with cracked pink clay due to high amounts of halophilic archaebacteria. Photo by Vahe Martirosyan, April 2019. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, American settlers, attracted by the valley’s suitability for ranching, encroached on Paiute settlements. In a familiar pattern, settler cattle destroyed grasses and tubers, and ranchers increasingly appropriated the water, without which the valley floor would become a semiarid dustscape. In 1862, tensions exploded into violence when settlers pushed Paiutes to the north end of the valley. Owens Valley Paiutes and Shoshone Bands from the east united under the leadership of Joaquin Jim and pushed the settlers back, reclaiming the valley for a brief time in the spring. By summer, the US Army moved in to starve the Paiutes out. They destroyed grain stores and ditches and forced the Paiutes into the mountains. Fighting continued through a peace treaty, eventually leading to the forced removal of almost one thousand Paiutes from the valley to the Sebastian Indian Reserve near Fort Tejon.

Ultimately, the war cost the lives of more than two hundred Paiutes and around thirty American settlers. The army remained in the valley for more than a decade to defend settler possession. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Paiutes made up around 20 percent of the local population but a majority of the labor force in the valley’s ranching economy. Ranchers depended on Paiute labor and mountain water and therefore resisted efforts to remove Paiutes to reservations farther south or to give them a solid legal claim to control their own resources.

All of this changed when the city of Los Angeles came to the valley. Beginning in 1905, the city, desperate for additional sources of water to accommodate its rapidly growing needs, began to surreptitiously purchase land in the valley to get control of the water rights attached to it. Within a few years, the LA Department of Water and Power (LADWP) began to construct an aqueduct to carry the river water more than two hundred miles south to the growing city. By 1913, the city had fully diverted the river into the aqueduct. As much as settler society dispossessed the Paiute residents of the valley, the LADWP effectively dispossessed the dispossessors, who themselves depended on Paiute labor. By the mid-1920s, resistance by valley residents again turned violent, and they dynamited the aqueduct on several occasions. Nonetheless, by 1926, the lake dried up, leaving a toxic salt flat and layers of animosity and anger. The story, often told as a fight between small farmers and ranchers and the city of Los Angeles, took place on Paiute land and reinscribed the colonial process as it erased the wage labor that enabled Owens Valley Paiutes to retain a tenuous grip on their homeland.

Beginning in 1925, Paiutes who received individual allotments, and were able to sell their land, recognized the value of their water rights as Los Angeles attempted to increase the volume of water it took from the valley. But rather than selling their land and water rights individually, Paiutes banded together and proposed a land exchange. They proposed giving up allotted individual plots of land in return for community tracts. At first, the city of Los Angeles resisted the proposal and attempted to pressure individual owners into selling. Paiutes persisted, and as a result, Los Angeles officials abandoned the plan.

By 1932, the city agreed to the land exchange, and in 1937, Owens Valley Paiutes traded Los Angeles previously allotted land for the land that became the Bishop, Big Pine, and Lone Pine Reservations, allowing Paiutes to retain tribal land in the valley. The land exchange did not include water rights, which Paiutes retained to be negotiated later when the city of Los Angeles secured necessary approval. In the interim, Los Angeles promised to deliver water to the Paiutes. That has yet to hap- pen. As of August of 2020, the Owens Valley Indian Water Commission is still fighting for the rights guaranteed by the 1937 legislation.

A map of reservoirs in California follows the contours of Indigenous land. Nowhere is this clearer than in San Diego County. In 1919, Congress authorized the construction of a dam on the San Diego River through an agreement with the city of San Diego and the BIA. The dam was designed to create a reservoir to store water for the city’s growing needs. The Capitan Grande Indian community opposed the dam. Their resistance prolonged but did not prevent the construction, which began in 1931. Members of the Capitan Grande community split into three groups over their forced removal: approximately 35 percent of the 153 members of the community moved in early 1932 to newly constructed, architect-designed “model” cement block houses with indoor plumbing at Barona. Approximately 15 percent of the community, the shaahook (or “ten”), took their per capita shares in cash and left the reservation. The remaining 50 percent held out, refusing to move or allow officials to relocate their graveyard unless the BIA purchased a nearby ranch for their relocation. With the dam completed in October of 1934, the BIA relented and purchased the land that became the Viejas Reservation. Bureaucratic delays hampered their move. Ventura Paipa complained, “Here it is 1936, winter is upon us, and through unnecessary delay and lack of attention to our planning by the Bureau, we are facing a chance for a POOR CROP next year [with families] still living in barns with little or no protection from the winter snows sure to come.” By 1938, water filled the El Capitan Reservoir, and the former residents of the lake bed relocated to new reservations. Residents at Barona and Viejas successfully pushed to retain control over the portion of their former reservation that remains above water as a nature preserve.

This pattern of flooding Indian lands for the “greater good” of non-Indian peoples repeated itself across California time and time again. Between 1923 and 1961, major dams built on the Colorado, Feather, Merced, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Trinity, and Tuolumne Rivers flooded lands of the Chemehuevi, Hupa, Maidu, Miwok, Paiute, Wintun, Yokuts, and Yuroks, among others. The state left few rivers untouched. Forty of the fifty largest lakes in the state are man-made reservoirs, and every one of them flooded Indigenous land. A hydro- logical map of the state is a map of Indian dispossession. In the 1950s, the Bradbury Dam on the Santa Ynez River created Lake Cachuma. In her poem “Indian Cartography,” Ohlone-Costanoan-Esselen poet Deborah Miranda describes the dam’s effects:

Lake Cachuma, created when they
dammed the Santa Ynez, flooded
a valley, divided
my father’s boyhood: days
he learned to swim the hard way,
and days he walked across the silver scales,
swollen bellies of salmon coming back
to a river that wasn’t there.
The government paid those Indians to move away,
he says; I don’t know where they went.

Most poignantly, Miranda points to the land under the surface of the water, “not drawn on any map.” A map of California highlighting reservoirs is a map outlining theft and erasure of Indian land.

Notes: Excerpt taken from We Are the Land: A History of Native California (UC Press, 2021)

© 2021 by Damon B. Akins and William J. Bauer Jr.; used with permission by University of California Press. 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/.

Excerpts

A People’s Guide to the San Francisco Bay Area

Rachel Brahinsky and Alexander Tarr

In the long saga of the Bay Area, the East Bay is often cast in a secondary role to the more famous San Francisco. Perhaps best known as the place where UC Berkeley thrives, the East Bay is home to decades of urban and industrial growth that brought the whole region to global prominence under the moniker “San Francisco.” Though much writing on the region follows this line—that San Francisco is the central city of the larger region—we are interested in the ways that the East Bay is also, and has always been, central. At this book’s writing the entire East Bay was experiencing intense and rapid change as Silicon Valley tech firms moved in, and as Oakland sought to fast-track housing development to serve the broader regional economic boom. Meanwhile, the East Bay is home to a broad spectrum of communities, who collectively speak some 125 languages and who have forged social movements that shape national and even international politics, from the Left to the Right.


Posted: No alcohol . . . No racism. Rules announce a radically inclusive space for overlapping subcultures at the 924 Gilman music venue in Berkeley (photo courtesy of Bruce Rinehart)

A Shifting Center

We center many of the stories of this chapter in The Town, which is the affectionate local name for the city of Oakland, but we’ll also take you out to Emeryville, for a quick stroll through Berkeley, and north to the cities of Albany and Richmond. In choosing sites for this chapter, we were interested in broad representation, but we also looked for places that are suggestive of some of the larger struggles of the area, from policing to racial justice, economic development and cycles of displacement. We’re interested in the ways that today’s built environment reveals layers of the past—including important traces of the long history of human habitation prior to the Spanish and Anglo conquests.

As the original terminus of the trans- continental railroad in the nineteenth century, Oakland could have emerged as the socioeconomic powerhouse of the region. Instead, urban developers logged Oakland’s forests and capitalists built wealth around San Francisco’s deep-water port first, leaving Oakland to persist as a “second city” culturally, politically, and economically—even as the two cities shared workers, families, and ecosystems. The 1906 San Francisco quake and fire, which destroyed San Francisco’s downtown and nearby neighborhoods, could have shifted the regional urban core east to Oakland. But even though a large share of San Francisco’s industry and residents left at that time to populate the East Bay—Oakland’s Chinatown expanded, for example—and even though the educational powerhouse of UC Berkeley fostered generations of public intellectuals and planted the seeds of activist movements with global influence, San Francisco remained the capital city of the region.

Two of the key drivers of this ongoing dynamic are the wicked problems of race and class. Race-class exclusions drove post–World War II disinvestment, which meant that capitalist and middle-class wealth withdrew from Oakland. This flight-by-capital left the once-vibrant downtown relatively vacant for decades and weakened the urban tax base, even as urban-fringe neighborhoods boomed. By the 1960s, African Americans had made Oakland a central home, having been both displaced by San Francisco’s redevelopment of the Fillmore District and excluded from East Bay suburbs. At the same time, Oakland leaders also pursued urban redevelopment, uprooting those same communities to make way for free- ways and mega-developments. These projects improved regional mobility, but they left gaping wounds in the cityscape across Oakland’s multiracial working-class com- munities, disproportionately hitting Black, and later Latinx, homes and businesses.


Mandela Grocery Cooperative in 2019, just before plans were announced for a major expansion (photo courtesy of Bruce Rinehart)

These urban rearrangements intersected with the social configurations of the time. Before WWII, white violence was, at its most extreme, embodied by the Ku Klux Klan’s growth in Oakland and the island city of Alameda. After WWII it continued in the practices of the police and sheriff departments. The counterforce of groups like the Black Panther Party and the Brown Berets emerged in part as a response to those conditions—and more. Though pop culture narratives tend to remember them for posing with guns in front of Oakland City Hall, for example, the Panthers’ “Ten Point Platform” included an emphasis on universal literacy and feeding people. It was a stance that emerged out of members’ everyday experiences of poverty and over-policing in The Town. These politics also grew from members’ intellectual investigations that crossed urban borders through- out the East Bay, with the public university and college systems playing a fundamental role in offering young people the chance to develop their ideas, and with intersecting social movements—including South Asian, Chicano, and labor movements—all learning from each other and in some cases joining together to demand better education at UC Berkeley and beyond. These earlier struggles set the stage for today’s Oakland and greater East Bay, in which the collective lived experience of people, across ethnic and racial lines, includes the apparent paradox of deep poverty alongside the riches of successive booms. With each force comes a counterforce.

Community struggles over access to affordable and safe housing offer a lesson in the complexity of the East Bay and its place in the region. In the 2010s, for example, the cost of housing rose sharply, housing development didn’t match job creation, and new proposals lacked sufficient affordable housing or enough protection for vulnerable residents in redeveloped neighborhoods. Oakland moved from the police blotter to the travel section of big city papers in the 2000s, and its reputation was reshaped by commercial boosters who encouraged a renaissance of new, young transplants to the area. But the housing crisis of the gentrification era was a problem with deeper historical roots. Outside of the urban cores, much (though not all) of the East Bay was first developed as a series of low-density urban-fringe neighborhoods, initiating a pattern of housing inequity that remains. Meanwhile, the capital that fled the Oakland core fifty years ago has returned quite unevenly.

Wealth’s renewed interest in Oakland has meant that some areas are receiving much-needed upgrades to dilapidated housing and commercial building stock, as well as city services, but often in forms that push out longtime Oaklanders, sparking revivals of housing-centered social movements. In fact, community members’ efforts to remain in their homes and neighborhoods are central to their role in making the East Bay. Indeed, the East Bay’s legacy of political organizing and creativity is quite alive, and community organizations have pushed for a vision of “development without displacement,” motivating a regional coalition to push for expansions of state and local rent protections, widening the geography of protest and struggle. These efforts intersect with energized local campaigns in many Bay Area cities, including the relatively small city of Richmond to the north. There, a long-growing progressive coalition turned ideals into pragmatic policy. Aiming to curb the toxic impact of local refineries, Richmond residents organized to raise the local minimum wage, bought back guns to remove them from the streets, and threatened the use of eminent domain (which is the city’s power to retake private property) as a way to help stop foreclosure-related displacement.

A 2006 mural outside the Intertribal Friendship House in Oakland. Artist Jason Dobbs; restored 2018 by the Community Rejuvenation Project (photo courtesy of Bruce Rinehart)

The stories of housing struggles thus link to the larger challenges of urban life and the balancing act between encouraging needed investment and supporting existing communities. With that in mind, this chapter raises issues and tells stories that are rooted in place, but tries to do so in a way that treads lightly on the very same landscapes that we find so interesting; we are aware of the mixed blessings of tourist attentions.

There are many other stories and paths that we trace in this chapter, stories of culture and art, innovations in everyday life, and long-buried histories that come to light. For us it adds up to this: it’s time to see and listen to the East Bay. Listen to the stories of the people who have built and fostered its many cultures and communities, giving these cities their character and sense of place. Dig deeper to understand the geographies that make and continue to remake these places from the ground up.

1500 Block of Adeline Street
Adeline Street Between 14th and 15th Streets, Oakland 94607

The fallout from the foreclosure crisis of the 2000s is written in the streets of Oakland. Much of that story is a painful one of displacement, but there are some important legacies of community organizing and resistance, and this block of West Oakland represents one epicenter for organizing where some residents used mass community pressure to save their homes. On December 6, 2011, for example, Adeline Street resident Gayla Newsome decided to put the rallying cry of a nationwide “Occupy Our Homes Day” into action. Together with a group of about a hundred activists from Occupy Oakland and ACCE (Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment), Newsome and her three daughters successfully reclaimed their home of fifteen years, which was under active foreclosure. The family lived on this block, at the heart of one of the long contested residential spaces of West Oakland, where waves of eviction and foreclosure compounded upon decades of disinvestment. We’re not including her exact address here to maintain residential privacy.

Between 2005 and 2015, banks foreclosed on well over twenty thousand homes across Oakland, according to research by the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project (AEMP). The mass evictions of small property owners and renters that ensued were largely the result of predatory lending practices actively targeting low-income communities of color, as was later widely uncovered by researchers across the country. A report conducted by the nonprofit Urban Strategies Council in 2011 found that 42 percent of homes foreclosed in Oakland between 2007 and 2011 were acquired by large institutional investors, many of whom are based outside of Oakland. Some of them had previously been mortgage brokers, meaning they not only had access to valuable insider knowledge, but might have also played a part in creating the crisis in the first place. Others would later be prosecuted by the FBI for conspiring to rig foreclosure auctions in their own favor.

West Oakland saw a thick concentration of foreclosures and large-investor accumulation. Neill Sullivan’s REO Homes LLC, for example, snapped up over one hundred fore- closed homes in West Oakland alone. Sullivan focused on single-family homes, which are exempt from rent control by California state law; he followed those acquisitions with a round of evictions, serving 357 eviction notices between 2010 and 2016, according to public Rent Board data collected by AEMP researchers. The evictions helped clear the way for a neighborhood rebranding as West Oakland was sold as the “eclectic West Side” and the “new edge of Silicon Valley.”

Even as investors like Sullivan were taking control of the neighborhood, activists turned their energy toward the foreclosures and joined in to support Newsome and other neighborhood leaders. They formed the Foreclosure Defense Group, which sought to disrupt foreclosure auctions at the Alameda County Courthouse. The group worked to reclaim the homes of community members through direct action by reoccupying emptied homes; they would initiate a campaign of community pressure, garnering media attention and rallying a mass phone campaign to pressure the banks. Newsome’s home on Adeline Street was one of the success stories of this tactic. Organizers also used the foreclosure activism as a base-building effort, which meant that each home they reoccupied was an opportunity to knock on doors and talk to neighbors. Through this process they sought to develop stronger networks for community solidarity and support. (Section authored by Katja Schwaller)

Albany Bulb
1 Buchanan Street, Albany, CA 94706

The Albany Bulb is a place literally made from the ruins of Bay Area urbanization. This former landfill turned quasi-public park represents the alternative lives that capitalist cities inevitably produce through redevelopment and continual creation of consumer detritus. At the same time, the Albany Bulb is a phenomenally beautiful place to visit and offers a fascinating story about a Bay Area place that remains a bit less regulated and controlled than just about everywhere else.

Views from every corner of this park provide a panorama of the region. San Francisco looms misty and dreamlike across the bay. The trails teem with a wild mix of grasses, flowers, overgrown fennel—and art. Freestanding murals once dotted the edge of the marshy shoreline, and a mix of large sculpture and other installations, all of which can change year to year, is typically scattered throughout the park. The space has also often been home to people—disaffected, houseless, seeking connection that they couldn’t find in the urbanized parts of the region—those who, long before the Occupy movement, found ways to reclaim and reuse public spaces.


This is one of many works of art made from found and scrap materials at the Albany Bulb. Berkeley attorney Osha Neumann, who is known for representing houseless people, created this one, called The Beseeching Woman (foreground, photographed 2019 courtesy of Bruce Rinehart)

For many years the city of Albany used this site to dump construction debris and municipal waste. The result was a thirty- one-acre lollipop-shaped peninsula colloquially known as the Bulb, with a landscape of twisted metal, slag left over from nearby mining, rusty pipes, and chunks of redeveloped streets, sometimes retaining their yellow lane-stripes. The landfill that produced the Bulb was one of several major sites along the East Bay waterfront that inspired the creation of the environmental nonprofit Save the Bay, which targeted the Bulb’s land- fill for closure in the early 1980s. The closing of the landfill in 1983 both created an opportunity for artists and coincided with the modern period of rising homelessness, so it is no surprise that people without homes adopted its knolls and tucks as their own. In between the chaotic beauty of wildflowers and trash-turned-art, people built outdoor kitchens, small homes from driftwood, and other shelter.

A move to incorporate the Bulb into the larger McLaughlin Eastshore State Park—named for Save the Bay cofounder Sylvia McLaughlin—has been underway since the early 2000s. This shift toward park formalization has raised the challenging question of which public has the right to use the space as they want. Those who found shelter here note that they improved the land, having built many of the long-used trails and gardens. City and state officials argue they must enforce regulations against overnight camping and off-leash dogs. Artists and hikers often enjoy the place for its unregulated surprises. The struggle has inspired feisty artistic responses to the exercise of state power. In 1999, for example, the landfill’s residents faced a highly publicized eviction. After the eviction, artists erected a monument to the homeless: a massive pile of shopping carts that was later mined for sculptural work across the park. However, in 2014 the most definitive of the many rounds of eviction took place, with the city paying people to leave with the signed promise of never returning.

Creative resistance to formalize the landscape into a planned conservation district has been taken up by the nonprofit Love the Bulb, which organizes art and cultural programming and walking tours that emphasize the unregulated nature of the place. Free-range artists continue to make and remake the place. Enter from the parking lot at the end of Buchanan, near the Golden Gate Fields racetrack; bring extra layers, as it’s typically colder out on the Bulb than in the parking lot.

Berkeley High School
1980 Allston Way, Berkeley 94704

Infuriatingly, many US schools are more segregated now than any time since the end of the Jim Crow era, a fact that undermines the narrative of civil rights progress that many hold dear. That’s part of what makes the Berkeley High School story unique. Back in 1994, the New York Times labeled Berkeley High the “most integrated school in America.” The school reflected the city’s diverse population, making the institution fertile ground for political and cultural debate and home to the country’s first and longest- running high school African American studies department. But all of this did not come easily—even in Berkeley. It was hard fought, and keeping programs like this alive continues to be a conscious struggle in a rapidly changing Bay Area.


Joshua Redman is one of several alumni featured on the art boxes that surround Berkeley High, which has
a history of student and teacher activism (photo courtesy of Bruce Rinehart)

In the heat of the civil rights struggle, Berkeley Unified School District launched a 1968 desegregation campaign titled Integration ’68 and became one of the first districts in the country to voluntarily integrate its elementary and middle schools by busing children of color from neighborhoods in the south and west areas of the city to schools in the overwhelmingly white north and east, and vice versa. The impact of the busing tactic here, as across the country, was mixed, and it was hard for parents to remain involved or feel that their kids were learning in culturally appropriate ways. Although the busing program was not aimed directly at Berkeley High, the new racial landscape profoundly impacted education there. That same year, educators inspired both by the national call for Afrocentric education (see Nairobi School System, p. 104), and by the intersecting struggles of the Free Speech and Ethnic Studies movements underway at the college level, founded African American studies at Berkeley High. The school was already racially integrated, but it lacked an inclusive curriculum, and educators sought to give Berkeley’s students a sense of racial equity that busing could not address. This was part of a wave of new Black studies and African American economics curricula at Bay Area institutions, from grade schools to universities.

At its height, Berkeley High’s program offered courses in African American literature and history, the Black Social Experience (later to be called Black Male-Female Relations), Black Psychology, African American Economics, and African-Haitian Dance. Students took Kiswahili language courses, and enrolled in a youth empowerment class called Black Soul, Black Gold, Black Dynamite. The program produced its own newspaper, Ujama. Inspired by this legacy, in the early 1990s students successfully pushed to expand this programming to include Chicano and Asian American studies courses. Implementation of this programming, however, has always been contested by more conservative residents and administrators, in what the Reverend Robert McKnight, former teacher and chair of African American studies, has described as a “perpetual struggle” to maintain the programming.

The social and racial justice activism of the student body has remained a corner- stone of the school’s identity. In 2000, a group of immigrant students—primarily South Asian girls—formed a group called Cultural Unity to reflect the diversity of the English Language Learner student body and to highlight their relative isolation within it. In the months after 9/11, harassment of Muslim and Sikh students increased, with two documented on-campus assaults on Cultural Unity members. In response, South Asian students wrote and published a short book of stories and poetry for use in the school’s curriculum. They also organized free legal clinics for the local Muslim com- munity and organized “Unity Assemblies” that emphasized cultural performance and cross-cultural political dialogue. The legacy of diversity and struggle at Berkeley High is commemorated in visible ways. One can begin by visiting the utility boxes along the perimeter of the high school, illustrated by the Arts and Humanities Academy Class
of 2012, which depict some of the school’s famed activist alumni, including Black Panther Bobby Seale, writers Ursula K. Le Guin and Chinaka Hodge, as well as musicians Phil Lesh and Joshua Redman. (Section authored by Diana Negrín da Silva)

Black Cultural Zone
2277 International Boulevard, Oakland 94606

In the mid-2010s, the artists and activists connected to the nonprofit East Side Arts Alliance began work on establishing Black Cultural Zones (BCZ), conceived as a series of “safe Black spaces” at points served by new transit lines along International Boulevard, as well as the MacArthur and Bancroft neighborhoods. This effort was a response to the ongoing outmigration of Black people from Oakland. The International Boulevard corridor is the commercial and cultural heart of the racially and ethnically heterogeneous neighborhoods of East Oakland, stretching from Lake Merritt to the southern border of Oakland (the street continues, under other names, through several cities). More broadly, East Oakland, often overshadowed by the dynamics of downtown and West Oakland, has become known for creative approaches to urban change, including a much-lauded program of transit-oriented development that specifically guarded against displacement around the Fruitvale BART station. The Black Cultural Zone is another such effort, an example of proactive grassroots planning to prevent further displacement of residents and what are now commonly known as “legacy businesses.”

The effort grew out of cultural work that dates back to 2000, when four arts organizations in this area organized the first Malcolm X Jazz Arts Festival, an annual May event in San Antonio Park (1701 E. 19th Street), featuring local and visiting musicians alongside graffiti battles, dance performances, and booths representing local crafts and community organizations. The East Side Arts Alliance (ESAA, 2277 International Blvd.) was born from that first festival, positioning itself as a voice in local politics, advocating for “development without displacement” in city government meetings, and securing properties in East Oakland through nonprofit and grassroots partnerships. The organization bought its own building, offering a counterpoint to gentrification in the area by incorporating affordable housing into its art-and-politics organizational structure. When the city developed a new bus rapid transit route along International Boulevard, ESAA secured foundation grants and city support to help align the transit corridor with the values and experiences of longtime residents. Building on these efforts, the Black Cultural Zone project envisions a shift in Oakland’s land use that highlights the economic and cultural resources of long- time residents as a platform for equitable development. Working with neighborhood partners, the BCZ will be integrated into new public plazas that will partner with existing businesses, nonprofits, and religious institutions as well as new mixed-use developments with below-market housing. At this writing, the large historic building that once served as the headquarters for Safeway, at the intersection of International Boulevard and 57th Avenue, had been proposed as the BCZ’s geographic hub. (Section authored by Diana Negrín da Silva)

“Black Panther Park” (Dover Park)
Dover Street, between 57th and 58th Streets, Oakland 94609

Tucked behind the former Merritt College site on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, this is one of many places associated with the creation of the Black Panther Party (BPP) in 1966. BPP founders Bobby Seale and Huey Newton lived and studied together in this neighborhood before forging, with many others, the vision for Black liberation codified in the party’s Ten Point Program. Their political message, a response to the conditions of this neighborhood and others like it at the time, spoke of transforming power relations with the police, uplifting Black people, and providing for the basic needs of everyday Oaklanders.

Serving as a framework for the party as it expanded from its Oakland roots, the program articulated a set of baseline beliefs that shaped the politics of the organization while inspiring others around the world. “We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community,” they wrote. “We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.” Under this banner, they created free breakfast programs for kids, and international solidarity with other working-class people, across racial lines. The community college where they polished these ideas, and where they anchored some of their early community- organizing efforts, was relocated in 1960; the building on that site is now a senior center.

By the fiftieth anniversary of the BPP’s founding in 2016, things had changed significantly in the Bushrod, which is one of a few names for the neighborhood surrounding Dover Park. By then the real estate website Redfin had labeled it the hottest neighbor- hood for housing sales in the country. This shift in the neighborhood’s fortunes came not long after officials created a gang-injunction zone in the area, which Restorative Justice (RJ) activists used to show the connections between policing and real estate speculation. They showed, for example, that the decreased visibility of young men of color on local streets and the increased police presence (both of which were produced by the gang injunction) fed into the intensified marketing of the neighborhood as “safe” to new home buyers.

Traces of the political history of the area remain in the landscape, and Dover Park continues to maintain and reinvigorate the message of Black Panther activism. Since 2010, Dover Park has served as host to the Phat Beets food justice collective, which merges urban agriculture with social justice organizing, maintaining an edible public garden here. The garden circles the park with fruit trees, vegetables, herbs, and native plants, labeled to serve as tools of beautification, education, and public engagement. The food grown here has at times gone to support Aunti Frances’s Love Mission Self Help Hunger Program, a local group that cooks free meals in nearby Driver Plaza at the intersection of Adeline, Stanford, and 61st Streets. Aunti Frances’s program is one of many organizations around Oakland that was explicitly inspired by the BPP’s call for self-help on a community scale. Frances has said that she learned the value of community care and organizing as a child, when she personally benefited from the BPP’s free breakfast programs.

Black.Seed Demonstration, one expression of #BlackLives Matter
San Francisco Bay Bridge, just east of Yerba Buena Island
210 Burma Road, Oakland 94607
(This is the parking lot with closest access to the bike/walk trail on the bridge.)

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2016, west- bound traffic on the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge came to a halt. Activists— chained together to block the road—raised their fists and displayed a banner declaring “Black Health Matters.” To see this site, you should not stop in a vehicle on the car lanes of the Bay Bridge. But you can get close to it via the bike and pedestrian path that runs from Oakland’s industrial waterfront along the bridge to Yerba Buena Island. You may want to bike, bus, or drive all the way onto the island, where you can look back at the eastern span of the bridge from Forest Road. From there you can get a sense of the impact that a takeover of the bridge would have, with all six westbound lanes blocked in the middle of the afternoon.

The 2016 demonstration was led largely by gender-queer African American activists and their allies affiliated with Black.Seed, one of many groups that formed in the first few years of the Black Lives Matter movement. The group coordinated their entry to the bridge through the East Bay car toll- gates. Once they stopped, they chained their bodies to each other through the cars to create a true barrier across every lane. Posing with their sign about Black health, they sought media attention to shift the public dialogue.

The name of the larger struggle—Black Lives Matter—was born from a social media post coauthored by Bay Area activist Alicia Garza, who cofounded that movement in 2013 in the wake of the acquittal of the killer of young Trayvon Martin in Florida. Soon after, transit and transportation disruptions across the nation sought to draw public attention to the problems of overpolicing, mass incarceration, police killings, and health disparities in the Black community. Drawing from the civil rights playbook, activists employed the strategy of reaching the public as they engaged in everyday activities; with their urgent message about the value of African American life, activists blocked highways from Minnesota to Dallas. In Oakland a shutdown of the West Oakland BART station in 2014 stymied trans-bay trains for four and a half hours to remind the public of the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, after which police left Brown’s corpse on the street for more than four hours. Others took speeches and poetry on Sundays to restaurants around the bay in predominantly white neighborhoods as part of a “Black Brunch” action.

The Black.Seed bridge takeover brought together many of these concerns. The group issued a set of demands, including “the immediate divestment of city funds for policing and investment in sustainable, affordable housing so Black, Brown and Indigenous people can remain in their hometowns of Oakland and San Francisco.” They also called for the firing of officers involved in police killings locally—including that of Mario Woods, Richard Perkins, Yuvette Henderson, Amilcar Lopez, Alex Nieto, Demouriah Hogg, Richard Linyard, and O’Shaine Evans—and for the resignation of mayors and police chiefs who failed to hold officers accountable for shooting residents. They weren’t the only ones calling for this, and San Francisco’s police chief resigned under pressure a few months later.

While you’re here, we’ll note that the views on this four-and-a-half-mile bridge are incredible, but they come at significant financial and social cost. The state rebuilt the eastern span of the bridge in the 2010s to replace a 1936 structure that had been a source of concern since its dramatic partial collapse during the 1989 Loma Prieta earth- quake. Completed in 2015, the eastern span went far over budget, costing $6.5 billion to date. The new span has its own structural problems, however, and more spending has been required for repairs and adjustments to ensure the stability of the span when we face the next big earthquake.

Frances Albrier Community Center
2800 Park Street, Berkeley 94702

San Pablo Park’s Community Center commemorates the life of African American activist Frances Albrier as part of the long and rich history of cross-class multi-ethnic culture, community, and social struggle in South Berkeley. Albrier’s life story sheds light on the character of her neighbors, who fostered a strong sense of community that was often forged in the sports fields of San Pablo Park.

A flyer from 1940 outlines the goals of an anti-discrimination campaign: “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work.” (Below Right) Frances Albrier photographed in a successful 1940 demonstration against workplace discrimination in South Berkeley (Presley Winfield photos)

Born in 1898, Albrier grew up in Alabama with her grandmother, a former enslaved woman and midwife who cared deeply about education. Albrier’s grandmother was a founding supporter of the Tuskegee Institute, the prominent Black school where Frances studied before joining her father in Berkeley in 1920. She received further training as a nurse, married, and settled into a house nearby at 1621 Oregon Street to raise her three children. Racial discrimination prevented Albrier from securing work as a nurse, but she later found employment with the Pullman train company and became active in a labor union. Having been refused a job as a welder at the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond (although she had twice the hours of training needed), Albrier leveraged her knowledge of a new federal anti-discrimination law to pressure Kaiser. She won and began work as the first Black woman welder in 1942. Her persistence helped pave the way for thousands of African American and women workers to get better-paying jobs in the shipyards (see Rosie the Riveter Monument and National Park, p. 65).

Outside of her own workplaces, Albrier engaged in a series of campaigns to challenge discrimination and social injustice. She organized a women’s club that pressured the Berkeley schools to hire the first Black teacher at nearby Longfellow School. She initiated a “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work Campaign” at Sacramento and Ashby—just a few blocks from San Pablo Park—that pushed local shopkeepers to hire Black employees. She was the first African American to run for Berkeley City Council in 1939. She didn’t win, but she went on to hold prominent positions in the local and statewide Democratic Party and served on Berkeley’s Model Cities program, which brought federal community-development dollars to South Berkeley.

Albrier was a powerful person and leader, but she was also a product of a remarkable community. Byron Rumford lived nearby at Acton and Russell. His Sacramento Street pharmacy became a neighborhood institution, and in 1948 Rumford became Northern California’s first Black elected official when he won a seat in the state assembly through

the work of an alliance of African Americans, progressive labor unions, and liberals of all ethnicities. He leveraged these coalitions to pass landmark state legislation for fair employment in 1959 and fair housing in 1963. A statue of Rumford by sculptor Dana King stands in the median on Sacramento Avenue, near his former pharmacy.

Berkeley’s Japanese American community was centered just east of this area in a thriving community with dozens of organizations, churches, and cultural groups. During WWII the federal government incarcerated more than thirteen hundred Japanese American Berkeley residents. Under Albrier’s and Rumford’s leadership, Berkeley’s Interracial Committee protested war- time treatment of Japanese Americans, and some entrusted the deeds to their homes to Albrier while they lived behind barbed wire. (Section authored by Donna Graves)

Marcus Books
3900 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Oakland 94609

The East Bay offers a strong counter to the notion that the age of independent booksellers is over. Between Oakland and Berkeley alone, an array of independently owned and operated stores and small local chains serve niche audiences and the broader community alike. Marcus Books holds a special place on this list as the oldest continuously operating Black-owned and operated bookstore in the United States. Marcus was founded in 1960 by Julian and Raye Richardson as the Success Book Company in San Francisco. The institution was part of a wave of Black book- stores that opened in the 1960s and 1970s, offering access to books by and about people of the African diaspora, including information absent or scarce in other bookstores, public libraries, and schools. The spread of books by W.E.B. DuBois, Toni Morrison, Frantz Fanon, and many others provided intellectual foundations for transformations in Black community consciousness.

The Richardsons opened the original Success Book Company in the front of their independent San Francisco printing shop, where they published writers who were shut out of the white-dominated publishing industry or whose work was difficult to find. Julian Richardson published Marcus Garvey’s Philosophy and Opinions in 1966 after discovering that it had been out of print for forty years. He also printed two influential literary magazines of the Black Arts movement, Black Dialogue and the Journal of Black Poetry, and published a number of books of poetry under his own imprint. The bookstore–print shop was a hub for Black artistic and cultural activity in San Francisco, hosting events and political meetings, playing an active role in local political struggles.


The outer wall of Marcus Books, painted with titles by Zora Neale Hurston, Carter Woodson, Elaine Brown, and others. Malcolm X (left) and Marcus Garvey (right) stand watch. Mural coordinated by Community Rejuvenation Project (photo courtesy of Bruce Rinehart)

In 1970 the Richardsons opened a second location in Berkeley and changed the name to Marcus Books, after Garvey. The East Bay expansion allowed Marcus Books to conduct business with schools and other large institutions in Alameda County, such as prisons and social service facilities, according to a 1978 interview with Julian Richardson. They moved the East Bay store from Berkeley to its current site in Oakland in 1976. The new location was around the corner from the recently opened MacArthur BART station and close to the first storefront location of the East Bay Negro Historical Society (the earliest predecessor of the African American Museum and Library of Oakland). This new location was central to political activity in the neighborhoods of North and West Oakland as well as downtown.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco location moved to the heart of the Fillmore district in 1980, to Victorian Square, a small cluster of buildings that had been rescued from the redevelopment bulldozers some years earlier. In 2014, after a long community struggle to save it, the San Francisco location at 1712 Fillmore shuttered. The Oakland location remains and stocks a catalog of Black books in all genres and hosts events on-site and in partnership with other organizations. Even amid the Black outmigration of the 1990s and 2000s that has changed Oakland’s demography dramatically, and after financial troubles that plagued the store for some time, Marcus Books remains rooted here on MLK Way. (Section authored by Simon Abramowitsch)

Notes: Excerpt taken from A People’s Guide to the SF Bay Area (UC Press, 2020)

Authorship
The majority of this book is written by Rachel Brahinsky, Alexander Tarr, or the two of us together. Our individual and collective work has no additional byline. We are honored to also include the contributions of a wonderful group of Bay Area geographers, researchers, and public historians. Their names are noted at the end of any site entry that they authored or contributed to, with the caveat that we have edited the whole book for consistency.

© 2020 by Rachel Brahinsky and Alexander Tarr; used with permission by University of California Press. 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/.

Excerpts

Chinese Workers and the Transcontinental Railroad

Manu Karuka

The Central Pacific Railroad transformed California from an overseas possession to a continental possession of the United States. Chinese railroad labor, organized under contract and disciplined by racial violence, was situated at the war-finance nexus. After completion of the railroad, Chinese exclusion formalized racial violence and labor control on a continental scale, evacuating models of relationship governing the movement of people across Indigenous lands and waters. The railroad, and exclusion, were core infrastructures of continental imperialism.

Racial dimensions of the war-finance nexus manifested in the snarling rhetoric of Leland Stanford’s 1862 inaugural speech as governor of California: “While the settlement of our State is of the first importance, the character of those who shall become settlers is worthy of scarcely less consideration.” Stanford’s fear of an Asian invasion grew out of racial and class anxieties, that California would act as an escape valve for the “dregs” of Asia. Racial, class, and cultural qualities of imagined future Asian migrations threatened Stanford’s vision of California as a space of settler accumulation. He voiced a colonialist anxiety about dispossession, a racial paranoia centering on fears of invasion and divestment. The colonization of California, accomplished by constant, ongoing, and overwhelming violation of Indigenous life, proceeded through relationships with Asia’s “numberless millions,” threatening, in Stanford’s perspective, to undermine the stability of the colonial order. Chinese labor was an instrument, not a subject, of colonialism. Stanford urged the California government to request land and credit from the U.S. federal government, to support the construction of a transcontinental railroad, to remake California as a site of continental imperialism. Stanford’s rhetoric was not without precedent. In his 1851 inaugural speech as the first U.S. civil governor of California, Peter Burnett had called for a “war of extermination” against Indigenous peoples in California. From the base of their “mountain fastness,” Burnett argued, Natives engaged in irregular warfare that made settlers always vulnerable to random attack, and made it impossible for settlers to distinguish Indigenous combatants from noncombatants.[1] Colonialist race war fueled the fears for colonial futures.

Five weeks after Stanford gave his speech, the U.S. Congress approved “An Act to prohibit the ‘Coolie Trade’ by American Citizens in American Vessels.” The act prohibited U.S. citizens and residents from transporting “the inhabitants, or subjects of China known as ‘coolies,’” defined as individuals “disposed of, or sold, or transferred, for any term of years or for any time whatever, as servants or apprentices, or to be held to service or labor.” U.S. law associated coolie status with indenture, a status marked in time, distinct from slavery. A distance from “freedom” was visible through categories of labor and relationships of exploitation rather than geographic origins, a suspicion of not quite being free. The act enumerated conditions for “free and voluntary emigration of any Chinese subject,” requiring men arriving from China to carry a certificate of freedom, issued by a U.S, consular official at the port of emigration. Although the law made it illegal to bring Chinese people to the United States as “coolies,” it would remain practically unenforced.[2]

Two months later, in April 1862, the California state legislature passed an Anti-Coolie Act, instituting a monthly tax on Chinese people working gold mines and owning businesses, a new cost for being identified as Chinese in California. Against the logic of the federal law, which presented “coolie” status as a condition of labor, California legislated in racial terms. “Coolie,” in the logic of California law, meant “Chinese,” a racial status, not a debt and labor structure. Where in the federal anti-coolie law, the U.S. government asserted territorial prerogatives to control borders, in the California law, the state distinguished Chinese people as a significant source of state revenue. The racial logics of California state revenue betrayed colonial origins, echoing an 1847 law mandating that Indigenous people’s employers issue passes and certificates of employment for Indians who wished to trade in California towns.[3]

The Price of a Ticket

In an interview with the historian Hurbert Bancroft, Kwong Ki- Chaou, a California-based representative of the Chinese government, described Chinese migrations to the United States: “Chinese coming to this country are as free as European immigrants- they come here free.” Kwong framed Chinese migrations (and freedom) in relation to the transformation of European provinciality into New World whiteness, distancing from the legacies of slavery on life in North America, claiming participant status in the creation of a New World. Contra Stanford, Kwong presented Chinese people not as alien invaders, but as constituents in the colonial pageant of California. Freedom was a claim to belong, a claim to possession, predicated on the ongoing occupation of Indigenous lands. Kwong continued, saying that Chinese people in North America “have no masters” with one exception: “Only those persons who came to work for the railroad came under contract but most of them ran away when they got here. Those who brought them lost money’ but all others came free.”[4] Were those who came from China to work for the railroad free?

U.S. authorities had inherited labor structures from Spanish colonial California. Toward the end of the 1840s, whites were organizing hunting parties that systematically attacked entire Indigenous communities, a particularly gendered form of violence that targeted Indigenous women. Amidst colonialist race war, with the high cost of labor during the Gold Rush, the California legislature passed one of its first laws, the 1850 Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, legalizing debt peonage to force Indigenous children and adults into compulsory labor for large-scale agricultural interests, under the guise of indenture. The U.S. military government in San Francisco had already begun enforcing compulsory Indigenous labor in 1847. The area north of San Francisco Bay was home to over 100,000 Indigenous people in 1846. Early U.S. military campaigns against communities branded as “horse-thief Indians” established U.S. authority over the region, a point of commensurability between the Mexican ranching elite, newly arrived settlers from the United States, and the U.S. military. Race war and overseas imperialism shaped the development of San Francisco. As a port of arrival, San Francisco was linked to Singapore and Penang, points of entry for Chinese workers to tin and gold mines in southeast Asia. En route to San Francisco, ships stopped in Manila, Guam, and Honolulu. Gold fields near Marysville, as well as Union Pacific construction, drew Chinese people, following Kānaka Maolis who had arrived to a place that was already deeply imbued with Oceanic histories and relationships.[5]

On arrival in California, most of the migrants from China found work through family or social connections, or through district associations, the huiguan. Known in San Francisco as the Six Companies, district associations functioned as mutual-aid societies where new and indigent arrivals could find shelter and basic amenities, following organizational models among Chinese communities in Southeast Asia. The huiguan entrenched the power of merchants in Chinatown communities, institutions to localize and delegate functions of community upkeep and policing, operating through solidarity and control, linking mercantile economy spanning southeast Asia, the Philippines, and Hawai’i.[6]

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Chinese camp, Brown’s Station. Photograph by Alfred A. Hart, between 1865-1869. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Sucheng Chan described Chinese merchants’ main assets in California: working knowledge of English and ready access to laborers. Merchants developed business around arrivals to California and departures to China, situated strategically between Chinatown communities and major corporations. Chinese merchant capital in California could not shake off constraints on its reproduction and valorization. Its primary economic function was to provide and provision Chinese labor on demand. Labor contractors recruited and organized Chinese workers into gangs of twenty-five to thirty men. The Central Pacific kept accounts by gang, disbursing wages to a headman, who then divided the wages. Charles Crocker, who oversaw construction on the Central Pacific, told the U.S. Senate, “we cannot distinguish Chinamen by names very well.” According to Crocker, the names of Chinese workers sounded too much alike for railroad authorities to distinguish between individuals, constituting instead a homogenous mass in the railroad company’s wage accounts. “We could not know Ah Sin, Ah You, Kong Won, all such names. We cannot keep their names in the usual way, because it is a different language. You understand the difficulty. It is not done in that way because they are slaves.” To be a Chinese worker on the Central Pacific was definitely not to be a slave, the property of another. It was, however, a reduction to the status of a tool for grading earth and drilling a mountain. It was to be expendable, interchangeable, replaceable. Chinese workers were instruments of labor, constant capital for the Central Pacific Railroad Company. The quality of their lives interfered with their essential function, as a quantity of labor.[7]

State and corporation supplied the organizational basis for colonialism in nineteenth-century California. Neither could be disentangled from the other. Leland Stanford was president of the Central Pacific Railroad while serving as the first Republican governor of California. The first locomotive in service for the Central Pacific was christened the “Governor Stanford.” In 1863, Governor Stanford appointed Edwin Bryant Crocker, elder brother of Charles (the superintendent of Central Pacific construction), as a justice of the California Supreme Court. A year later, E.B., “the Judge,” as his associates hailed him, became chief counsel for the Central Pacific, joining the circle of directors including Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Collis Huntington, and Charles.[8]

Testifying later before the U.S. Senate, Charles Crocker would stress wages to argue that Chinese labor in the Central Pacific was free labor. “You cannot control a Chinaman except you pay him for it. You cannot make a contract with him, or his friend, or supposed master, and get his labors unless you pay for it, and pay for him.” The Central Pacific recruited Chinese labor through labor contractors, combining wages with coercion, resting on the power of contractors to control mobility and immobility at the same time. According to Crocker’s Senate testimony, the Central Pacific procured Chinese workers through the services of Chinese and white labor contractors alike. One firm, Sisson, Wallace & Co., eventually “furnished pretty much all of the Chinamen that we worked.”[9] Clark Crocker, brother of Charles and E.D., was the “& Co.” in question.

Leland Stanford, in his 1866 report of the president of the Central Pacific, assured investors there was no system similar to slavery among Chinese workers, whose wages and provisions were distributed by independent agents: “We have assurances from leading Chinese merchants, that under the just and liberal policy pursued by the Company, it will be able to produce during the next year, not less than fifteen thousand laborers.” Employing Chinese workers as a racially distinct labor force, whose labor was cheaper than white, was not inevitable for the Central Pacific. The directors arrived at these hiring strategies only after considering other sources of labor, such as Confederate prisoners working under guard. Across the South, African Americans competed with Confederate veterans for railroad jobs. In Virginia, in August 1865, such competition sparked violent confrontation between Black workers and white workers (the latter backed by a Maryland militia sent to break up the fighting). That October, the Committee on Industrial Pursuits at the 1865 California State Convention of Colored Citizens forwarded a resolution to send three representatives to present to Central Pacific directors “the expediency of employing from twenty to forty thousand freedmen on the Great Pacific Railroad” and to petition members of the California state legislature and congressional representatives for aid.[10] The Central Pacific directors did not receive the message, or they chose to ignore it.

A few months earlier, in May 1865, at the outset of the summer construction season, Mark Hopkins had written to Collis Huntington, “We find a difficulty getting laborers on the railroad work.” According to Hopkins, workers would come and go as they pleased, like “tramping journeymen.” Labor recruiting and labor control posed major obstacles for Central Pacific construction, and Hopkins saw Chinese workers as essential to managing both of these issues. “Without them,” he worried, “it would be impossible to go on with the work. But China laborers are coming in slowly so that Charley thinks the force will steadily increase from this time on.”[11] A report from the Sacramento Daily Union a little over a year later, in June 1866, provides a sense of the rapid increase Chinese labor as Central Pacific construction proceeded. Between Colfax and summit, the railroad employed 11,000 Chinese Workers:

Almost the entire work of digging is done by Chinamen, and the Directors of the road say it would be impossible to build it at present without them. They are found to be equally as good as white men, and less inclined to quarrel and strikes. They are paid $30 per month and boarded, and a cook is allowed for every twelve men. They do not accomplish so much in a given time as Irish laborers, but they are willing to work more hours per day, and are content with their lot so long as they are promptly paid.

The value of Chinese labor is accounted, here, in terms of racial comparison, involving a give and take between productivity and control, indispensable for making accurate predictions of the future. “If the work on this road continues to progress as fast as it has done during this season,” the Union continued, “there is little doubt that the cars will be running from Sacramento to Salt Lake inside of three years.”[12] Accurate predictions could stimulate investment. The ethereal relations of finance capital took flight from land grants, and the racial and gendered control of bodies and space.

Although celebrated for their supposed docility, news circulated in California of different modes of Chinese being. In December 1866, the Sacramento Daily Union reported that six Chinese miners working a placer on Bear River had defended themselves from four white men, killing two of their attackers, and causing the other two to flee for their lives. A second report, from Shasta County, relayed information about an attack on a group of miners near Rock Creek, which the Daily Union writer blamed on growing racist sentiment against Chinese miners. The attack at Rock Creek resulted in three wounded miners, and in the days afterwards, “the Chinese in the various camps around town have been purchasing arms to protect themselves with.” Although mining life shaped the context for Chinese labor, it had already been superseded by the industrial transformation of the regional economy. As a Daily Union writer baldly stated a day after the reports of violence against Chinese miners, in an article entitled “Railroads and Capital”: “This is emphatically an era of railroads.”[13]

A few days later, on January 2, 1867, Stanford and Judge Crocker attended a banquet at the Occidental Hotel to celebrate the departure of the first steamship bound for China and Japan from San Francisco. In his remarks that evening, Stanford made no explicit mention of Chinese workers, but he had China on his mind. Projecting forward to an anticipated completion of the transcontinental in 1870, Stanford prattled:

Then will the “ligament be perfect that binds the Eastern Eng and Western Chang together.” Then, Mr. Chairman, behold the result! For America, the chief control of the developed trade of the better part of Asia with Europe and America. Our Pacific slope, and particularly California, filling rapidly with a hardy, enterprising and industrious people mostly of our brethren and sisters of our old Atlantic homes.[14]

 Stanford had slightly revised his inaugural speech from eight years before, imagining a putatively national body assembled from distinct colonial parts, to enable the future development of California along desirable lines. For Stanford, Chinese people were not, themselves, part of the social body of continental imperialism. Instead, this social body acts on Chinese people in North America, and beyond.

Stanford’s grandiose visions, however, were not borne out by the unfolding calculations among Central Pacific directors, to recruit and control a labor force at wages and work conditions that would maximize their profits. Just days after Stanford spoke, Judge Crocker and Collis Huntington debated how large of a work force to maintain through the slower winter construction, Huntington favoring cutting the work force down to seasonal size. Discharge experienced Chinese workers, Crocker worried, and they would move into mining, putting the Central Pacific at a decided disadvantage during the short summer season. The previous summer, construction managers had difficulty keeping workers at the grueling hard rock tunnel work. Those currently employed by the Central Pacific had already experienced the conditions at the summit, and the judge felt them to be “dependable.” Crocker asked Huntington to test his own powers of forbearance and accept a relatively higher level of employment during the winter. “We hope you will strain every nerve bringing everything to bear to keep along, and not ask us to discharge a man.”[15]

Huntington remained skeptical, or perhaps his nerves could not bear the strain, and he asked for an accounting of the cost of excavating one cubic yard at the summit tunnel. Judge Crocker obligingly explained that construction directors projected working three men on each drill, at the excruciating pace of a 13/4 inch hole one foot, per hour, organizing the work in day and night shifts of eight hours. Construction managers experimented with new tools, such as “gunpowder drills” and nitroglycerin, to speed up and cheapen construction. The tools met the rock, of course, through the application of the worker. And the worker was a category with distinctions. Closer to the status of tools, of drills, gunpowder, and nitroglycerin than white workers, Chinese railroad workers gave the directors of the Central Pacific a chance to squeeze more profit from a hard place. The judge calculated, “Each white man costs us in board and wages $2 1/2 each 8 hours, but Chinamen cost us $1.19 each 8 hours, and they drill nearly as fast.” Chinese railroad labor was a quantity measuring time in relation to price, and the price was lower than that of white labor. Where the Central Pacific covered housing and food costs for white railroad labor, the reproduction of Chinese labor was free.[16] By the end of the month, the directors doubled down, printing and circulating a Chinese language recruiting notice throughout California and in China. The judge was not entirely sure what the notice said. “The Chinamen all understand it,” he explained to Huntington, “but it is hard for them to translate it back into English.”[17] Behind the bluster of corporate control lurked countersovereignty, a reactive dependence on others.

Reproducing Racial Control

The shared culture of Chinese workers and merchants functioned simultaneously as a sphere of pleasure and sustenance and a sphere of constriction. Railroad workers’ corporate wages supplanted the shared profits of miners in the gold fields. Chinese workers’ isolation in temporary work camps, scattered along the line of railroad construction, bound them to relationships cementing their control. A separate system of disbursing wages and provisioning food and housing reflected these distinctions. Charles Nordhoff visited a Chinese railroad work camp on the San Joaquin River, where he found seven hundred Chinese men and one hundred white men. The Chinese workers were supposed to receive $28 for working twenty-six days each month, paying for food, tents, and utensils, with labor contractors paying the cooks. Several railroad cars at the end of track acted as a store for Chinese workers. According to Nordhoff, most of the items sold in this store were imported from China. Organizing and provisioning a male society, the Central Pacific took on a military structure. This was the organizational form of the war-finance nexus, in which class formation occurred through the structures of war. Merchants handled the distribution of food, and workers were captive to their supplies and profits. Collectively, Chinese railroad workers had no future. The success of their labor would ensure the obsolescence of their lives.[18]

Planning in relation to Chinese labor, Central Pacific directors balanced the temporality of seasonal work conditions with temporalities of Chinese laborers’ lives. In early February 1867, recruiting delays during lunar New Year left the Central Pacific short of at least 1,500 workers for immediate work, threatening to jam up the progress of construction after the snow melted. In the howling winter, according to Judge Crocker’s report, 1,500 Chinese men were already at work on the summit, and 1,000 on the approach.[19] The Chinese calendar, with its festivals and feasts, helped Chinese workers on the Central Pacific maintain a sense of connection to their homes and families and to their ancestors. It also ritualized their connection to the merchants and contractors who continued to profit from both their employment and their social reproduction. Calendar time blended into labor time for Chinese workers along the railroad’s line of construction. The formation of a Chinese merchant class in North America, both provisioning and supplying labor, revolved around relationships to Chinese workers as both consumers and producers.[20]

As Judge Crocker explained to Huntington in mid-February 1867, nearly all of those drilling for the Central Pacific were Chinese men whose work was “fully equal to white men,” but they were employed at a rate requiring them to work twenty-six days a month, covering the cost of their own food and housing, unlike their white counterparts.[21] Huntington remained unconvinced, and the judge emphasized the relative value of Chinese railroad labor two days later:

We have had a chance to compass the merits of our Chinese laborers and Cornish miners, who are deemed the best underground workers in the world, and the Chinese beat them right straight all along, day in and day out. We have a large force of well-trained Chinese tunnel workers, and they can’t be beat. They cost only about half what white men do, and are more regular in labor, and more peaceable. They are not men who get drunk and pickup rows, but can be relied upon for steady work.[22]

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Laborers and rocks, near opening of Summit Tunnel. Chinese camp, Brown’s Station. Photograph by Alfred A. Hart, between 1865-1869. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Empirical observation of racial competition settled the question. For Central Pacific Railroad Company directors, race was a calculus of profit maximization.

Mark Hopkins gave another perspective on this racial calculus, laying out three conditions whereby he and the other directors should “never be financially troubled hereafter,” including an early spring melting off the Sierras, $250 per month of investments coming in from the eastern United States from June through November, and “increased numbers of Chinamen come into the work.”[23] Weather, investments, and Chinese labor were the legs of a platform on which Hopkins and his associates planned to build their personal fortunes. For the first, they could pray. For the second, they could bluster and impress. For the third, they had to rely on others. How could anyone imagine this to be stable, to imagine that the men perched atop could be in control?

Strike

Late in May 1867, as the snow finally began melting between Cisco and the Truckee River, the Central Pacific directors prepared a full push on the summit. As the weather cooperated, and funds for equipment and wages flowed, it was suddenly difficult to find workers. Judge Crocker explained to Huntington,

The truth is the Chinese are now exclusively employed in quartz mills and a thousand other employments new to them. Our use of them led hundreds of others to employ them, so that now when we want to gather them up for the spring and summer work, a large portion are permanently employed at work they like better. The snow & labor questions have our progress quite uncertain.

Five days later, the judge notified Huntington of plans to raise the Chinese workers’ wages almost 13 percent, from $31 to $35 per month. Chinese workers were finding work in quartz mills, building roads and canals, and many were going to Idaho and Montana, looking for work. “Our supply,” he cautioned, “will be short unless we do something.” And so the Central Pacific directors responded, at a loss of “$100,000 in gold on this season’s work.” By early June, the judge was panicking, “Our force is not now increasing, and the season has come when it ought to increase.” He understood the Central Pacific as a victim of its own innovation: “We have proved their value as laborers, and everybody is trying them, and now we can’t get them.”[24]

In late June, Mark Hopkins notified Huntington of “an unexpected feature.” After the Central Pacific had raised Chinese workers’ wages in the hopes of quickly increasing the drilling work force for the summer construction season at the summit, news arrived that the Chinese workers had gone on strike, demanding $40 per month and a ten-hour day, instead of the current eleven-hour work days. The strike demands would tip over the platform upon which the directors had imagined profit. As Hopkins put it, “if they are successful in this demand, then they control, and their demands will be increased.” It was a war for control. It was not only a class war over the conditions of work. It was also a war to decide who would colonize California, and on what terms, echoing Stanford’s gubernatorial address. Hopkins expressed hope in a Central Pacific “application for 5000 Freedmen from the Freedmen’s Bureau.” It was a lesson in political economy. “When any commodity is in demand beyond the natural supply, even Chinese labor, the price will tend to increase.”[25]

The Sacramento Daily Union printed a telegram attributed to Huntington, dated June 28, stating, “There will be no trouble in getting all the laborers you want. How many thousand shall I send? You can contract for passage at low rates.” He was bluffing.[26] The next day, Judge Crocker wrote with more honesty: “The truth is, they are getting smart.” However, he doubted the workers’ intelligence: “Who has stirred up the strike we don’t know, but it was evidently planned and concerted.” The strike was a bid for direct accountability between individual workers and the Central Pacific, directed against the railroad directors and construction supervisors. While it forced the Central Pacific directors to reckon with their workers as a unified group, it was also a bid to force the bosses to consider them as individuals.

The Central Pacific directors were inclined to reinvest in a racial division of labor. Judge Crocker notified Huntington of a man named Yates, a ship’s steward who had met with Stanford in San Francisco. William Henry Yates had arrived in San Francisco in 1851 from Washington, DC, where he had been active in the Underground Railroad, and had worked as a steward on river steamers and ferry boats in California. Yates had played a leadership role in the 1865 Colored Citizens’ convention. “His plan was to get a large number of freedmen to come to California under the Freedmen’s Bureau, and under the aid of the government, that is a sort of military organization crossing the plains.” The judge understood that Yates was then in Washington, trying to find support for the idea. The racial organization of labor, for the Central Pacific Railroad, was situated squarely at the nexus of war and finance. The social reproduction of continental imperialism is the social reproduction of war. The judge understood the strike as a skirmish in a deeper war.

The only safe way for us is to inundate this state and Nevada with laborers. Freedmen, Chinese, Japanese, all kinds of labor, so that men come to us for work instead of our hunting them up. They will all find something to do, and a surplus will keep wages low. It is our only security for strikes.[27]

Racial importation was a means to control the price of labor. Hopkins reinforced Crocker’s earlier message about Yates, whom he described as “a man of integrity and good abilities.” According to the plan, the Central Pacific would be responsible for expenses to bring freedmen to San Francisco, but “a Negro labor force would tend to keep the Chinese steady, as the Chinese have kept the Irishmen quiet.”[28] Hopkins saw this as a worthwhile investment in labor control. Judge Crocker fired off another note to Huntington that day. The strike was “the hardest blow we have here,” he sighed, and Charles had informed leaders of the Chinese community that the Central Pacific would pay no more than $35. Chinese community leaders had sent messages to the work camps, advising the workers to return to work. Something is left unwritten in the judge’s letter, which refers to more desperate measures, closing with the sentence, “It is the only way to deal with them.”[29]

Three days later, Hopkins sent word of Capital triumphant. The strike was broken, the workers returned to their jobs in the same conditions as before the strike. Curiously, after their victory, Hopkins speculated that “the strike appears to have been instigated by Chinese gamblers and opium traders, who are prohibited from plying their vocation on the line of the work.”[30] Hopkins imagined continuity between railroad workers’ collective voice and the lurid visions of an underground Chinese vice economy, specters perhaps, of the English and American opium traders who had helped set trans-Pacific Chinese migration patterns into play, under the banner of free trade. If nothing else, his statement contradicts the image of docile, hardworking, and clean-cut pets that Hopkins and the judge had imagined these Chinese workers to fulfill, just months before. The lives of their workers threatened the security of their profits.

On July 2, Judge Crocker relayed details of how the associates broke the strike:

Their agent stopped supplying them with goods and provisions and they really began to suffer. None of us went near them for a week. We did not want to exhibit anxiety. Then Charles went up, and they gathered around him, and he told them that he would not be dictated to, that he made the rules for them and not they for him.[31]

The destruction of the workers’ solidarity brutally reinscribed a hierarchy of exploitation driving Central Pacific construction, proceeding with the active participation of Chinese merchants who stopped supplying food and provisions to the work camps. The participation of Chinese merchants and labor contractors in breaking the strike clarifies their investments in the organization and management of labor on Central Pacific construction. There was no mutual aid, no principle of racial solidarity here. The Daily Union printed a more detailed account of the strike action and demands, clarifying the demand for eight hours from those working the tunnels, and ten hours from those on open ground. The report conveyed core strike demands:

We understand that a placard printed in the Chinese language was distributed along the line of the road a day or two before the strike occurred. This placard is said to have set forth the right of the workmen to higher wages and to a more moderate day’s work, and to deny the right of the overseers of the company to either whip them or to restrain them from leaving the road when they desire to seek other employment.

The workers struck over wages and the length of the working day. But they also struck for an end to physical punishment, and for the right to leave employment when they wanted to. These are not the hallmarks of free labor.[32]

From the perspectives of the Central Pacific directors, the situation improved after the strike. On July 6, Judge Crocker surmised to Huntington of the Chinese workers’ shame, predicting, “I don’t think we will ever have any more difficulties with them.”[33] Visions of worker docility had perhaps been reinforced with a confidence in racial hierarchies that had been reproduced by means of brute violence. A few weeks later, this turn coincided with workers, “arriving from China in large numbers,” according to Judge Crocker, who projected that the Central Pacific would soon meet its labor target.[34] Recruiting and controlling labor seemed to be resolved. While he imagined that the Chinese workers felt ashamed, the judge informed Huntington, “we feel a good deal encouraged.”[35]

Notes

This is an edited excerpt from Manu Karuka’s Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019)

[1] Peter Burnett, “Message to the California State Legislature,” January 7, 1851, California State Senate Journal (1851), 15; Leland Stanford, Inaugural Address of Leland Stanford, Governor of the State of California, January 10, 1862 (Sacramento: B. P. Avery, 1862);  June Mei, “Socioeconomic Origins of Emigration: Guangdong to California, 1850–1882,” in Labor Immigration under Capitalism: Asian Immigrant Workers in the United States before World War II, ed. Lucie Cheng and Edna Bonacich  (Berkeley:  University  of  California  Press, 1984);  Iyko  Day,  Alien Capital: Asian Racialization and the Logic of Settler Colonialism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press,  2016),  48–53; Moreton-Robinson, The White Possessive, 144, 152.

[2] U. S. 37th Cong., Sess II, Chs. 25, 27, 1862, pp. 340–41; Robert Schwendinger, “Investigating Chinese Immigrant Ships and Sailors,” in The Chinese American Experience: Papers from the Second  National  Conference  on  Chinese  American  Studies, ed. Genny Lim (San Francisco: Chinese Historical Society of America, 1980), 21; Robert Irick, Ch’ing Policy toward the Coolie Trade, 1847–1878 (China: Chinese Materials Center, 1982), 153; Moon-Ho Jung, “Outlawing ‘Coolies’: Race, Nation, and Empire in the Age of Emancipation,” American Quarterly 57, no. 3 (September 2005): 677–701; Moon-Ho Jung, Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor, and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 36–38; Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents, 25.

[3] An Act to Protect Free White Labor Against Competition with Chinese Coolie Labor, and to Discourage the Immigration of the Chinese Into the State of California, April 26, 1862; Moon Ho Jung, “What Is the ‘Coolie Question’?” Labour History 113 (2017): 3; Albert Hurtado, “Controlling California’s Indian Labor Force: Federal Administration of California Indian Affairs during the Mexican War,” Southern California Quarterly 61, no. 3 (1979): 228. Taxes on Chinese miners provided at least 10 percent of total state revenue from the early 1850s through 1864. Chinese people in California faced additional, racially targeted taxes in California during these years. Mark Kanazawa, “Immigration, Exclusion, and Taxation: Anti-Chinese Legislation in Gold Rush California,” Journal of Economic History 65, no. 3 (September 2005): 781, 785–87, 789.

[4] Moreton-Robinson, White Possessive, 5; Kwong Ki-Chaou, interview by H. H. Bancroft.

[5] Combined Asian American Resources Project: Oral History transcripts of tape-recorded interviews conducted 1974–76, p. 3; Albert Hurtado, Indian Survival on the California Frontier (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), 93; Albert Hurtado, “California Indians and the Workaday West: Labor, Assimilation, and Survival,” California History 69, no. 1 (Spring 1990): 5–6, 8; Tomás Almaguer, Racial Fault Lines: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 29–32; Yong Chen, “The Internal Origins of Chinese Emigration to California Reconsidered,” Western Historical Quarterly 28, no. 4 (Winter 1997): 520–46 at 540; Richard Steven Street, Beasts of the Field: A Narrative History of California Farmworkers, 1769–1913 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004), chaps. 6, 7; Michael Magliari, “Free Soil, Unfree Labor,” Pacific Historical Review 73, no. 3 (August 2004): 349–50, 352–53; Michael Magliari, “Free State Slavery: Bound Indian Labor and Slave Trafficking in California’s Sacramento Valley, 1850–1864,” Pacific Historical Review 81, no. 2 (May 2012): 157; Brendan C. Lindsay, Murder State: California’s Native American Genocide, 1846–1873 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012), chap. 5; Kornel Chang, Pacific Connections: The Making of the U. S.-Canadian Borderlands (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 12; Stacey L. Smith, Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 23–24; Hurtado, “California’s Indian Labor Force,” 219, 220, 222; Kwee Hui Kian, “Chinese Economic Dominance in Southeast Asia: A Longue Duree Perspective,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 55, no. 1 (2013): 21–22; Mei, “Socioeconomic Origins of Emigration,” 488–89; David Chang, The World and All the Things upon It: Native Hawaiian Geographies of Exploration (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 163–84.

[6] Rev. A. W. Loomis, “The Chinese Six Companies,” Overland Monthly 1, no. 3 (September 1868): 221–27 at 222–23; William Hoy, The Chinese Six Companies (San Francisco: Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, 1942); Him Mark Lai, Becoming Chinese American: A History of Communities and Institutions (New York: Alta Mira Press, 2004), 46, 58–59; Mei, “Socioeconomic Origins of Emigration,” 499–500; Kian, “Chinese Economic Dominance,” 8, 16–19; Mae Ngai, “Chinese Gold Miners and the ‘Chinese Question’ in Nineteenth-Century California and Victoria,” Journal of American History 101, no. 4 (2015): 1096.

[7] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 1976), 317. “. . . it is the wear and tear, the loss of value which they suffer as a result of continuous use over a period of time, which reappears as an element of value in the commodities which they produce”: Hilferding, Finance Capital, 245; Sucheng Chan, This Bittersweet Soil: The Chinese in California Agriculture, 1860–1910 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 347; Day, Alien Capital, 44; Vijay Prashad, The Karma of Brown Folk (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 90–91; Street, Beasts of the Field, chap. 12; Mae Ngai, The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010), 30, 74; Report of the Joint Special Committee to Investigate Chinese Immigration, 44th Congress (New York: Arno Press, 1978), Charles Crocker testimony, p. 675.

[8] Biographical Sketch of Edwin Bryant Crocker (manuscript). Judges played a central role in the California “apprenticeship “   system, which amounted to a trade in indigenous children to wealthy landowners. Magliari, “Free Soil, Unfree Labor,” 357.

[9] Charles Crocker testimony, Committee to Investigate Chinese Immigration, 674, 723–28; Chang, Pacific Connections, 30; Jung, Coolies and Cane, 61.

[10] Proceedings of the California State Convention of Colored Citizens, 1865, 92; Central Pacific Railroad Company, Report of the President, 1866, p. 33; Alexander Saxton, “The Army of Canton in the High Sierra,” in Chinese on the American Frontier, ed. Arif Dirlik (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), 29; William Thomas, The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011), 181–82.

[11] Hopkins to Huntington, May 31, 1865, Huntington Papers.

[12] Sacramento Daily Union, June 18, 1866.

[13] Sacramento Daily Union, December 18, 1866; Sacramento Daily Union, December 19, 1866. Archaeological research from a Chinese community in 1880s Truckee, California, found evidence that residents carried firearms for self-defense; R. Scott Baxter, “The Response of California’s Chinese Populations in the Anti- Chinese Movement,” Historical  Archaeology 42, no. 3 (2008): 33–34. Evidence from bodies of Chinese workers disinterred in Carlin, Nevada, suggest distinct patterns of cranial and facial trauma; Ryan P. Harrod, Jennifer L. Thompson, and Debra L. Martin, “Hard Labor and Hostile Encounters: What Human Remains Reveal about Institutional Violence and Chinese Immigrants Living in Carlin, Nevada (1885–1923),” Historical Archaeology 46, no. 4 (2012): 98, 100.

[14] Mark Hopkins to Collis Huntington, January 2, 1867, Huntington Papers; San Francisco Evening Bulletin, January 2, 1867; Cynthia Wu, Chang and Eng Reconnected: The Original Siamese Twins in American Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012).

[15] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, January 10, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[16] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, January 14, 1867, Huntington Papers; Day, Alien Capital, 44, 47.

[17] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, January 31, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[18] Charles Nordhoff, California: For Health, Pleasure, and Residence—A Book for Travellers and Settlers (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 1973; original 1873), 189–90; Ngai, “Chinese Gold Miners,” 1089; Day, Alien Capital, chap. 1.

[19] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, February 12, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[20] Chen, “Internal Origins of Chinese Emigration,” 118–21; Chang, Pacific Connections, 31. On the queer domesticity of urban Chinese life in California during these decades, see Nayan Shah, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown (Berkeley: University of California Press), chap. 3; Hobson wrote of Chinese workers, who were “introduced into the Transvaal as mere economic machines, not as colonists to aid the industrial and social development of a new country. Their presence is regarded as a social danger”: Hobson, Imperialism, 276.

[21] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, February 15, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[22] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, February 17, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[23] Mark Hopkins to Collis Huntington, February 15, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[24] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, May 22, 1867; E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, May 27, 1867; E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, June 4, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[25] Mark Hopkins to Collis Huntington, June 26, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[26] Sacramento Daily Union, July 1, 1867.

[27] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, June 27, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[28] Mark Hopkins to Collis Huntington, June 28, 1867, Huntington Papers; Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 569.

[29] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, June 28, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[30] Mark Hopkins to Collis Huntington, July 1, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[31] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, July 2, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[32] Sacramento Daily Union, July 2, 1867. Whipping was standard practice in the management of Indigenous labor in California. Magliari, “Free Soil, Unfree Labor,” 374.

[33] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, July 6, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[34] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, July 23, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[35] E. B. Cocker to Collis Huntington, July 30, 1867, Huntington Papers.

 

Manu Karuka  is an Assistant Professor of American Studies, and affiliated faculty with Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies at Barnard College, where he has taught since 2014. His work centers a critique of imperialism, with a particular focus on anti-racism and Indigenous decolonization. He teaches courses on the political economy of racism, U.S. imperialism and radical internationalism, Indigenous critiques of political economy, and liberation. He is the author of Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad (University of California Press, 2019). With Juliana Hu Pegues and Alyosha Goldstein he co-edited a special issue of Theory & Event, “On Colonial Unknowing,” (Vol. 19, No. 4, 2016) and with Vivek Bald, Miabi Chatterji, and Sujani Reddy, he co-edited The Sun Never Sets: South Asian Migrants in an Age of U.S. Power (NYU Press, 2013).

Copyright: © 2020 Manu Karuka. 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/.

 

Excerpts

Frank Zappa and Ruben And The Jets, 1972–1974

Rubén Funkahuatl Guevara

A few months after Who Are the People? closed, I ran into keyboardist Bob Harris as I was leaving a phone booth that doubled as my office on Fountain in Silver Lake. I knew him from the days when we hung out with John Beck, lead singer with the Leaves, while he was in a relationship with folk singer/songwriter Judee Sill. We talked about what we were doing and I told him about the musical I’d just staged. He had just returned from touring with Zappa, I think it was the Billy the Mountain tour. I told him I’d met Frank a few years earlier, and he suggested we pay him a visit, since Frank and I both seemed to be on a rock theater kick.

As we drove up Laurel Canyon I had flashbacks of working at Chicken Delight back in ’66. We passed the notorious Log Cabin where Zappa and his clan once lived along with the GTOs (Girls Together Outrageously, about whom I’ll say more later). I don’t know how I survived speeding around those curves, stoned and in the rain, delivering boxes of chicken. But hey, it meant at least a couple bucks tip if you got the chicken there hot. So now, just a few years later, I’m on my way to see the wild wizard of rock. Life’s a stone trip, all right.

We got to his tree-shrouded home, and surprisingly he answered the door himself. “We met a few years ago at the Shrine for the Cruising with Ruben & the Jets album release show,” I said. “Yeah, I remember you. You’re Rubén.” “Right. Sorry I never took you up on your offer to drop off some demos, but I went back to college. I wanna write music for films.” He didn’t say anything, just “Come on in.” We walked into his studio, which burst with guitars and sound equipment.

“So, you used to sing a little R & B, huh?” “Yeah in high school in the ’50s, then I put together a trio, the Apollo Brothers. We cut a single in ’61, sang around town, and did a little TV. We played the Legion once.” “The El Monte American Legion Stadium?” “Yeah, with Richard Berry, and the Olympics too.”

That led to an all-night session of listening to his collection of R & B oldies. Here we were, a couple of grown men tripping on old records like we were teenagers. That was the beginning of our bond: our love of L.A. rhythm and blues.

Then we talked about my discovering modern music composers at LACC, Bartók and Stravinsky in particular. We talked about how they weaved ethnic folk music into new musical and theatrical forms, which was how I interpreted his Ruben & the Jets garage doo-wop band. I saw it as Mexican American rock-theater, though in a very primitive form, which was cool with me.

9780520297234

I took a copy of Billboard with me that had reviews of Who Are the People? and his recent collaboration with the L.A. Philharmonic at UCLA next to it. That got his attention. As the sun was coming up he made a proposal: “How would you like to stage a real Ruben & the Jets? I’ll produce the album, and you can tour with the Mothers as an opening band to promote it.” I told him, “Thanks, man, that’s a damn groovy offer, but I’m not interested in going back to rock ’n’ roll. I don’t want to move backwards, and besides, too many detours.” He stared at me for a few long seconds with those dark eyes, then said, “Take what you know and build your own roads.”

I said I’d think about it and get back to him. It sounded cool, but still, the question kept coming up: could I trust rock musicians to pull off this great opportunity? Could I even work with flaky rockers again after working with serious classical cats? Then again, it wasn’t like I’d be starting from scratch. There was already an audience for Zappa’s Ruben & the Jets. To have an album produced by him and a spot on a tour sounded too good to resist. And I’d be creating a rock-theater piece right in line with my new direction. However, another burning question kept coming up: Was I honoring my sister’s memory with this project? Was I keeping my word to create art as a spiritually educating experience? Could I use it as a launching pad that would take me closer to my promises? My conclusion: Fuck, yeah! Give it a try.

I called m’ man “Flash,” who had just returned from Vietnam. “Hey, man, get your boogie-woogie fingers warmed up. We’re gonna audition for a once-in-a-lifetime shot!” We went into his bedroom at his parents’ home and rehearsed on the old upright piano that we’d used when we started the Apollo Brothers in high school.

The session with Frank started out a little bumpy. At one point “Flash” stopped playing, and Frank said, “Come on, Flash, this ain’t Carnegie Hall.” “It is for me,” he replied, then nodded that he was ready to play again. That time, we got into it and nailed it. Frank smiled, nodding his head up and down. He asked me to put a band together. I said, “I can have a band together in a few weeks.”

Ruben and the Jets

Courtesy of Rubén Funkahuatl Guevara

So I called bass player and vocalist Bill Wild of the Du-Vals, who had backed up the Apollo Brothers at Pandora’s Box and my Shindig! audition. I was reluctant to hire him, what with his history of drugs and booze, but he could play a funky bass and had a soulful voice that I needed for the harmonies. For the sax section I contacted former LACC classmate Clarence Matsui, a Japanese American alto sax cat from Boyle Heights. I also recruited another classmate, tenor sax player Bob “Buffalo” Roberts, and Frank suggested Jim “Motorhead” Sherwood, a former Mother, for the baritone sax parts.

Clarence had been playing with a band from East L.A. that he highly recommended, so I went to hear them play. I was impressed and invited them to come to the audition. They included vocalist and Hammond B-3 player John Martinez, probably the best all-around singer ever to come out of East L.A. Not only could he sing bass and falsetto parts, but he was also a killer lead singer. Then there was vocalist–rhythm guitarist–songwriter Robert “Frog” Camarena and vocalist–lead guitarist–songwriter Tony Duran, formerly of East L.A. ’60s greats the Premiers (“Farmer John”). Drummer Bobby Zamora was called in at the last minute. The band sounded great, and Frank dug it.

Zappa was in a wheelchair during this time with a broken leg and other injuries from being pushed off the stage at a concert in London by a jealous fan. This gave him plenty of time to work with the band.

It was my understanding that the members of the band would be signed as “sidemen” and that I would be the leader, sole composer, and lead singer on all material. The band members could be replaced at my discretion. It was also agreed that the project would be a collaboration between Frank and me that would feature original L.A.-style rhythm and blues/doo-wop, jump blues, along with straight-ahead rock ’n’ roll and blues—a kind of musical history and repository of Black and Brown L.A. music all wrapped in Mexican American rock-theater. The band didn’t get the theater part, though, as I would later discover.

Ruben and the Jets CS

Courtesy of Rubén Funkahuatl Guevara

I modeled the Jets’ harmonies on those of the Jaguars, a classic L.A. doo-wop group from Fremont High School. The multiracial vocal group of Blacks, an Italian, and a Mexican American epitomized the L.A. doo-wop style for me. Their recording of “Just the Way You Look Tonight” was the template I used to build on.

My recent composition experience writing gospel parts for Who Are the People? and my early work with the Apollo Brothers gave me the chops to arrange the vocal harmonies for the Jets. Since there were songwriters and great singers in the band, I decided to utilize their talents as much as possible, as both a democratic and a practical musical move. I didn’t realize I was also relinquishing my power. Frank wrote two songs for the band, the up-tempo doo-wopper “If I Could Only Be Your Love Again” (with George Duke sitting in on piano for the recording) and a crazy doo-woppish rocker, “The Weenie-Back Wino Walk,” which unfortunately didn’t make it to vinyl.

We rehearsed the material for the album for several months, then tested it out playing at Louis Stevenson Junior High in Boyle Heights, Garfield High School in East L.A., and at the Montebello Bowl. My plan was to create a buzz in East L.A. first, then bring the new fans to the Whisky in Hollywood for the debut.

 

Notes: Excerpt taken from Confessions of a Radical Chicano Doo-Wop Singer (UC Press, 2018) by Rubén Funkahuatl Guevara

Copyright: © 2018 Rubén Funkahuatl Guevara; used with permission by University of California Press. 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/.

Excerpts

Tracing L.A.’s Cruising Culture

Alex Espinoza

In Queer Space: Architecture and Same Sex Desire, Aaron Betsky writes, “The queerest space of all is the void, and AIDS has made us live in that emptiness, that absence, that loss…. It is not a queer space any of us would want to inhabit, but many have been forced to make it their own.”[1] In many ways, Danny Jauregui’s work goes beyond just inhabiting the void, that queer space separate from society. It is about identifying it, reclaiming it, and giving it a permanent spatial location in the decades following the crisis.  People cruised within communities, within neighborhoods, at local parks, bars, and shops. A single location can be so many places at once.

“I wanted to show that these locations once existed here,” he says.

The photos used in the artist Danny Jauregui’s project document a history that generations of young gay men might not be familiar with. Chronicling these sites then became a way for Jauregui to recover and graft the memory of gay cruising into the larger sphere of American identity and assemblage. The images are a stark reminder of the transient nature of cruising, allowing for a uniquely queer identity to integrate itself into the very tapestry of the history of Los Angeles.

I wanted to show that these locations once existed here.

I met Jauregui on an overcast mid-May morning at La Monarca Bakery on Cesar Chavez Boulevard in Boyle Heights. Danny is a charming and affable man almost a decade younger than me. He’s made a name for himself as an artist whose work encompasses many different media including photography, drawing, and sculpture. The son of immigrants from the state of Jalisco, Mexico, he grew up in South Central L.A. before his family moved to Whittier. Like me, Danny is an artist and academic; he teaches art and photography at Whittier College. Like me, he’s Latino. Like me, he is gay and in a long and stable relationship with a partner. Like me, he spent the past academic year chairing his department. Over sips of piping hot coffee, we commiserate over the challenges—and, yes, the rewards—of serving as heads of our respective units. We share a great deal in common, and I find it comforting to be sitting down and having an enlightening conversation about art and activism and the pressures of academic life with someone so similar to me.

“My brother was a trouble maker when we were growing up,” he says. “My parents decided to pour all their energies into making sure I wasn’t. They indulged my curiosity. If I was into something, they got it for me. When I was interested in art, my father went out and bought me colored pencils and a sketchbook.”

Danny’s work first came to my attention when I ran across an article featuring him and a project he had undertaken to map the cruising sites and locations around the city using Bob Damron’s Address Book as guidepost. When I ask what led him to put the two together, he smiles.

“I was living in Silverlake with my partner during the whole Proposition 8 battle,” he explains.

“Prop 8,” as it was more commonly known, was a statewide ballot aimed at eliminating same-sex marriage in California. The measure eventually passed, with 52.3%[2] of the population voting not to protect the rights of gay couples to marry. The “No on 8” campaign had rented out a building where a local gay bathhouse once stood. When Danny discovered this, it became the impetus for his work. It was such an ironic thing, he recalls, that the headquarters of a grassroots effort to secure the right for same-sex couples to marry had its office in what was once a place where men flocked to meet and have sex in public. In the 70s we’d gained our sexual liberation. We were free to have sex with whomever, whenever, and (pretty much) wherever we wanted. But 80s and 90s brought AIDS, cutting short the party, forcing so many to rethink such “hedonistic” lifestyle choices. Now, in the aftermath of so much loss, many who remained craved marriage and monogamy—grand symbols of heteronormativity.  For his part, Danny also embarked on a project that resulted in a map-based documentary of Damron’s Address Book. In doing so, Danny’s work investigated the spatial memory of gay cruising sites, of connection and intimacy that once played out in these locations—spaces no longer in use for that purpose, but also not completely erased either. They exist as reminders of an era of sexual liberation both before and during the AIDS crisis.

Danny explained that his work aims to preserve and document these sites as places of community building, where gay men once upon a time forged bonds and created a sense of shared belonging through the most intimate and secretive of acts. “I’m interested to know then if cruising is the result of a closeted culture?” he says. “Or another means of maintaining the integrity of a subculture that is uniquely our own.”

Griffith

A good friend once told me that the only time he ever felt truly alive was when he was out cruising. At the time he carried what he jokingly called a “roadside hazard kit” in his car that contained towels, condoms, bottles of lube, poppers, and a few worn out porno magazines (back before porn could be streamed on a smartphone).

“I’d spend hours driving around in my car,” he recalled, with a reverence that was almost spiritual. “I’d get lost in the whole ritual of it.”

Once he watched as cops arrested a man in a park bathroom. But that never stopped him. It worked to heighten the arousal, he said. It provided a thrill that he felt was otherwise missing in his life. His preferred spot to cruise was Griffith Park.

Author John Rechy situates Griffith Park in several of his novels like City of Night and Numbers. In the latter, handsome and charismatic Johnny Rio has come to Los Angeles after years in Texas. Faced with the certain reality that his age is catching up to him, Johnny returns to his former haunt, a place of past conquests, for ten days of sex before his beauty and looks fade away forever. Upon reaching the park, Rechy writes: “[It] is much vaster than Johnny expected. It sprawls over several thousand acres—threatening to spill out into Los Angeles, Hollywood, Glendale, invading even the sky; its various roads spiral up hills high above the city.”[3]

Here, the space of cruising sprawls, opens up, invades, and ruptures the larger environs. It interrupts the space contained by artificial impediments. The writer, like singer George Michael, arrested in a Beverly Hills park bathroom, brazenly calls attention to the location as a site of sexual exchanges that exist within the larger mesh of American culture. But this is a site that operates outside the boundary, a site that challenges greater notions of exchange and connection. He writes, “The branches of so many trees droop so thickly here that the sun filters through only in tiny shifting sequin points and jagged patches.

Perhaps Johnny’s fading good looks, his various exploits, and his frenzied attempts to recapture the glory days of his cruising jaunts could be seen as a commentary on the threats posed on this rare and little-known ecosystem. And like many delicate ecosystems, perhaps Rechy is making a commentary on the fading phenomenon surrounding such places as married couples with kids and dogs push in and the vast clearings that pocket the park, canopied by trees, go from being prime cruising spots to places for cyclists and joggers.

A 1997 L.A. Times article titled “Neighbors Tackle Gay Cruising” tells of neighbors, both newly arrived and longstanding, getting sick and tired of the cruising scene in the areas around Griffith Park. “In the enduring subculture of men cruising for sex with other men, a few pleasant residential blocks of Griffith Park Boulevard had become hot. A nearby sex club had drawn crowds, as did the boulevard’s mention in gay guides”[4] the article reported. The crackdown led to undercover police stings and road signs that read

NO CRUISING

TWO TIMES PAST SAME

POINT WITHIN 6 HOURS

IS CRUISING

Back in 2011 the Los Angeles city council unanimously voted to have the signs removed claiming them to be pointless and offensive. And though this might initially seem like a progressive and bold step on behalf of residents, one that looks to embrace the long history of homosexuality and gay cruising in the community, it’s actually not. The establishments that once attracted such activities have all packed up, replaced by pressed juice bars and yoga studios. “Today, residents say those type of clubs have closed and the neighborhood has changed. They believe the signs ‘stigmatize’ and embarrass the neighborhood,”[5] one website stated.

~~~

Begun by visual artist Carlos Motta and writer and dramaturge Joshua Lubin-Levy, Petit Mort: Recollections of a Queer Public is a visual art project that charts the experiences of gay men cruising around New York City. Each account presents detailed drawings by men and brief accounts of their experiences. Deeply personal and culturally significant, these accounts draw strong links between gay subculture and public spaces. Extending beyond the engaged sexual encounters, their project reinforced the idea of cruising as not just a frivolous act, but one with deep political roots, recognizing the foundation of resistant and sexual liberation in the gay community by giving permanence and legitimacy to these spaces in their art. The culture of gay cruising is threatened by gentrification, laws that limit such behaviors, and an overall stigma associated with sex in public. As the makeup of neighborhoods change, the secret cruising goldmines that once existed are slowly being converted or threatened with extinction.

In Los Angeles, Pershing Square was the central locus of gay cruising and hustling in the decades prior to the crisis. A central location in what was known as “The Run” from the 1920s to the 1960s, Pershing Square was the anchor around which gay men could cruise and visit friendly locales like the bathrooms at the Central Library and the Subway Terminal Building, and bars like the one in the Biltmore Hotel.[6]

Many of these places have since vanished and, though remnants of the physical locations might remain—the restroom of a local park, a building that once housed one of the most popular sex clubs in Silverlake, a seedy adult bookstore now fallen into disrepair over the years—they are but subtle traces of what used to be. Finding new cruising hotspots is a little easier now with smartphones equipped with geolocation features, websites, and apps. As these new modes of communication become more ubiquitous, the line between privacy and intimacy also blurs. And given the rise of gentrification in certain regions of Los Angeles as well as other metropolitan cities, the factors that threaten the subculture of cruising come not only from AIDS and other STDs, but also from a long string of new pressures.

CRUISING COVER FINAL

Notes

[1] Aaron Betsky, Queer Space: Architecture and Same Sex Desire (New York: William Morrow, 1997), 182.

[2] Chris Cillizza and Sean Sullivan, “How Proposition 8 passed in California — and why it wouldn’t today,” Washington Post, 26 March 2013, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2013/03/26/how-proposition-8-passed-in-california-and-why-it-wouldnt-today/?utm_term=.8173a8b9956a.

[3] John Rechy, Numbers (New York: Grove Press, 1994), 111.

[4] Bettina Boxall, “Neighbors Tackle Gay Cruising,” Los Angeles Times,, 27 August 1997, http://articles.latimes.com/1997/aug/27/news/ls-26163.

[5] Mekahlo Medina, “No More Gay Cruising Signs in Silver Lake,” NBC Los Angeles, 9 September 2011, https://www.nbclosangeles.com/news/local/No-More-Gay-Cruising-Signs-in-Silver-Lake-129528048.html.

[6] Bianca Barragan, “Mapping Los Angeles’s groundbreaking role in LGBT history,” Curbed Los Angeles, 9 February 2017, https://la.curbed.com/maps/mapping-los-angeless-groundbreaking-role-in-lgbt-history.

 

Alex Espinoza earned his MFA in Fiction from UC Irvine and holds the Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair in Creative Writing at UC Riverside. He’s the author of the novels Still Water Saints and The Five Acts of Diego León, both from Random House. His newest book is Cruising: An Intimate History of a Radical Pastime (Unnamed Press, June 2019). He has written for the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times Magazine, Virginia Quarterly Review, and NPR’s All Things Considered. The recipient of a fellowship in prose from the NEA and an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, he lives and teaches in Los Angeles and is completing a new novel. www.alexespinoza.com

Copyright: © 2019 Unnamed Media. 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/.

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.

CoupleOnCar

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.

FamilyPortrait

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/.