Latino Interchanges: Greater East Los Angeles in the Freeway Era
By: Gilbert Estrada and Jerry González
Why Eastside Los Angeles?
With a lack of Eastside financial capital, a dearth of political representation followed. Freeway planning can be an obscure top-down process, but freeway planning is also part of American democracy. After World War II, racism, gerrymandering, and voter suppression left Mexican Americans the most underrepresented group in L.A.17 Equitable political representation could have changed L.A.’s freeway landscape if local elected officials voted against freeways, which did occur in other Southland cities. California freeways were built by the state Division of Highways. The state needed approval from city governments in order to build freeways by signing a “freeway agreement” in order to close local streets, demolish or relocate properties, and construct freeways.18
With insufficient political representation, there was little or no political recourse Mexican Eastsiders could take, especially in the early years of freeway planning. For example, the Eastside Belvedere area was divided into three assembly districts and three congressional districts, ensuring that although Mexicans were the highest percentage of residents, they remained the lowest percentage within their voting district. During the two decades after World War II, the peak years of freeway construction, only one Mexican American, Edward Roybal, served on the Los Angeles Council; before his election, the last Mexican to serve on the council did so in 1881.19
With the Eastside facing freeway construction and because some folks had leveraged military service and wartime labor during World War II, many Eastside Latinos quietly joined their Jewish neighbors in saying goodbye to the neighborhood. One indicator of this outmigration of middle-class Latina/os is that they created wrinkles in suburban consumer markets as potential homebuyers and as retail spenders. In an unincorporated section of Los Angeles County near Whittier, three residential subdivisions opened by 1950 and specifically marketed to Mexican American war veterans.20 And in the San Gabriel Valley, merchants reportedly employed Mexican American associates in order to establish friendly consumer relations with prospective Latino/a clients.21 The sub- urban explosion over the next decade and a half included a burgeoning Latino/a homeowner class that exercised power in local communities outside of the Eastside while civic leaders decided how best to divide it.22 In East Los Angeles, the San Bernardino I-10 (1943), the Santa Ana I-5 (1944), and the Golden State Freeways (1955) were all designed to keep construction costs low. A key feature that governed the Division of Highways decisions centered on purchasing low-cost properties through the government mechanism of eminent domain while avoiding high-priced industrial-zoned properties. Heinz Heckeroth, who served as lead engineer in the East L.A. Interchange design and whose career spanned thirty-three years, noted his cost-effective approach. “I looked for the most expensive buildings and I said we can’t afford to buy them. If you begin to look in location from a right-of-way cost standpoint and you identify right-of-way controls, then you begin to pattern places in geometric locations which you can’t hit.” A Southwest Builder Contractor author also acknowledged, “State Highway engineers located the [free- way] route with very little disturbance to existing industrial properties.” A short list of industrial sites missed in East Los Angeles is the Times Mirror Catalog Warehouse (which sat untouched in the middle of the ELAI), the L.A. Union Stock Yard Railroad, the Sears Roebuck & Company building, and the Union Pacific Company Warehouse.23
In order to build this network of freeways, some 21,011 people were displaced in East Los Angeles, probably the largest per capita displacement in California history.24 Freeway displacements were not limited to households specifically in the path of the proposed freeways. The imposition of new roadways and its ancillary effects on quality of life spurred a migration out of the Eastside into surrounding suburbs. The years associated with highway and freeway expansion coincided with the development of myriad planned communities and commercial nodes. In the period Becky Nicolaides calls the era of the “Sitcom Suburb,” from 1940 to 1970, 75 percent of the housing structures in Los Angeles County were erected.25 However common suburbanization became, the sense of loss associated with being forced out by freeway development speaks to the deep communal ties to the neighborhoods forged by generations of multiracial and multiethnic place making. Whereas city planners viewed the city as a landscape for profit, community members placed intangible value on the belonging associated with their neighborhoods.
As careful as developers were to avoid major disruptions to commercial and industrial properties, they were equally detailed in their determinations about which houses to preserve and which to tear asunder. The Division of Highways instead cleared what they labeled as “sub- standard” East L.A. housing.26 Boyle Heights residents were accustomed to technocratic social control measures. City engineers had been operating in the area since before the Great Depression as they shaped the infrastructure and roads of the neighborhood. One engineer, Rex Thompson, even assumed leadership over the county welfare department, which would oversee Mexican repatriation efforts in the 1930s. Civic leaders viewed the local residents as disposable.27
Metropolitan Growth and the East L.A. Interchange
By 1950, Los Angeles was at the leading edge of suburban development as it grew in expanse and population more rapidly than did any other metropolitan region.28 Indeed, between 1940 and 1950 the county population almost doubled, from 2.78 to 4.15 million residents.29 Con- currently, the Latino population in the county grew from 61,248 to 249,173.30 Increased birth rate, immigration, and a significant interstate migration contributed to this boom. The Eastside became too small to contain this growing population. Freeway construction and over- crowding pushed Mexican Americans out of Eastside barrios and into expanding suburbs. And by 1960, Los Angeles reached a population of 2.5 million residents, with a metropolitan-wide population that had surpassed 6 million inhabitants.31 Also in that decade, the number of Latinos in Los Angeles County more than doubled to 582,309.32 A collective push into Montebello, Alhambra, San Gabriel, Pico Rivera, Whittier, Santa Fe Springs, Downey, West Covina, Baldwin Park, Lake- wood, and South Gate began to remake the racial geography of the region.
Where the I-10, I-5, US 101, and CA 60 all meet at the East Los Angeles Interchange, February 24, 2017. (Photo Credit: formulaone)
With an expanding, automobile-dependent populace, local and state governments made vital interventions that hastened freeway and high- way expansion in the postwar period: The Collier–Burns Act of 1947 in California allowed for special tax assessments on gasoline and other transportation services, and the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 authorized the construction of 41,000 miles of Interstate highways, ostensibly for defense purposes.33 The centerpiece of the entire Los Angeles freeway system resides in Boyle Heights. First opened in 1961 as part of John F. Kennedy’s National Highway Week, the East Los Angeles Interchange remains one of the largest and busiest interchanges in the world. Originally designed as a simple “Y” interchange, it was increased in size threefold by the Division of Highways.34 It’s so large, the ELAI could actually be three separate interchanges and is several stories high, according to Heinz Heckeroth, who also conveyed the importance of the East L.A. Interchange: “During the time, [that] was it, [the East L.A. Interchange] was the enchilada, the whole thing.” In 1958, the Division of Highways claimed that the interchange’s widest point was twenty-seven lanes.35 But according to modern satellite imaging, at least thirty automotive traffic lanes exist; including emergency lanes, there are forty-eight lanes at its widest point.36 The East L.A. Interchange is also the nexus between L.A.’s downtown civic center and the suburbs. The interchange is the start of the Hollywood 101 Freeway. It is the transition point for the Golden State Freeway and Santa Ana 5 Free- way and the place where the Santa Monica Freeway becomes the San Bernardino 10 Freeway. The interchange also is the beginning of the Pomona 60 Freeway. These words scarcely describe the impact felt by the community. Satellite imaging and living in the community provide a better understanding of what six freeways, interconnecting lanes, on- ramps, off-ramps, emergency lanes, freeway lighting, walls, shrubbery, and noise and exhaust have created for Boyle Heights residents.
During the planning of the ELAI, two central transportation goals arose: enable transportation to eastern suburbs and facilitate transportation to downtown Los Angeles, specifically retail and corporate offices. The freeway was intended partially to ensure downtown capitalism; L.A. freeways were intensely lobbied for by corporate interests. “If the central [business center] is to survive, they must replace some of the business lost. The new highway networks are helping to make this possible,” noted the American Automobile Association in a 1961 article republished by the Division of Highways in their bimonthly magazine, California Highway and Public Works. The 16-page report published by the state planning agency touted billion-dollar corporations and the millions they invested in downtown L.A., and it stressed the downtown business community’s demand for freeways. To downtown corporations, freeways represented a direct route to their new offices and also meant customers. Eric Avila has also explored the influence of the Downtown Businessmen’s Association and its pursuit of freeways to serve the city’s downtown. The association’s lobbying proved so successful, planners and business leaders raved over the “critical key” the East Los Angeles Interchange provided. Not all civic leaders shared the elation over freeway plans. Congressional representative Edward Roybal recalled that the State Highway Commis- sion approved construction of the Golden State 5 Freeway despite the community’s protest against it.37
Of course, the value that people placed on a home imbued with love, struggle, pain, and poetry did not align with developers’ understanding of value, which privileged the investment market. Although they were paltry remuneration given the importance most people placed on their home and community, the state buyout checks that replaced the homes seized for development enabled some families to combine the cash with GI Bill benefits and savings in order to reestablish themselves in nearby suburbs such as Pico Rivera and Montebello. Many of the people who made this move were influenced by the proximity to their Eastside com- munities and access to the very freeways that displaced them, making work commutes easier.
Many ELAIs: The Case of Jimtown
The East L.A. Interchange provided a model for how other Los Ange- les–area neighborhoods experienced eminent domain, displacement, and freeway construction. The introduction of the freeway system to rural San Gabriel Valley remade it into a suburban appendage to Los Angeles’s burgeoning economic opportunities; at the same time, it sub- urbanized the uneven costs for vulnerable communities.38 In 1954, the California Highway Commission announced plans for a San Gabriel River Freeway to run north and south from Lakewood to a junction with the San Bernardino Freeway between El Monte and Covina. The proposed freeway aimed to reduce congestion on north–south city and county highways and link with freeway flows to Santa Ana and down- town Los Angeles. Scattered resistance to the freeway originated from White homeowners, while suburban municipalities worked to rezone areas adjacent to the right of way.39 The proposed route straddled the San Gabriel River and cut through a network of colonias, Flood Ranch in Santa Fe Springs, and Jimtown in an unincorporated neighborhood between Whittier and Pico.40 Jimtown’s fate might have been influenced by preceding technocratic measures. The HOLC redlined Jim- town in similar yet distinct terms from Boyle Heights. Whereas Boyle Heights’s multiracial and multicultural diversity induced HOLC surveyors to stamp it with a hazardous grade, the federal agency specifically cited Jimtown’s Mexican residents in its assessment that “the area is generously accorded a ‘low red’ grade.”41 On the 1939 neighborhood appraisal, the area is described as San Gabriel Wash & Whittier Way, which described its location between the frequently flooding plain for the San Gabriel River and State Route 72, Whittier Boulevard. Of the finer points that led to its debilitating HOLC evaluation, the appraiser noted that the community was comprised of Mexicans, “many American born—impossible to differentiate.” Moreover, the “shacks and hovels” that housed these families invited the “infiltration of goats, rabbits, and dark-skinned babies.” The spatial racial analysis labeled Jimtown “an extremely old Mexican shack district” with “no pride of ancestry or hope of posterity.” In the eyes of the surveyor, it amounted to nothing more than a “typical semi tropical countryside slum.” Yet despite the vivid demarcation outside the bounds of modern Los Angeles, the evaluator noted that a bus line on Whittier Boulevard connected Jimtown residents to a rapidly sprawling labor market.42
Metropolitan development surrounding Jimtown introduced staggered processes of displacement and subsequent investment and dis- investment. The introduction of the railroad lines along the western edge of the neighborhood in 1940 brought noise pollution and deadly encounters with the trains. In July 1940, a train struck and killed sixty- five-year-old Juan Garavito as he collected firewood to warm the home he shared with his mother. In 1955, as county leaders ramped up efforts to clear the community to make way for the freeway, renters and community homeowners attempted to save their community by complying with mandates to self-improve houses and infrastructure.43 Despite the promises to preserve residences by county leaders, more than half of the community was razed so that the 605 San Gabriel Freeway could connect suburbs to the city.
A reunion of displaced Jimtown residents in 1982 attested to the strength of community bonds established over decades. Although the freeway reduced the former community to fifty homes on an island accessible by one street in and out of the neighborhood, the family ties ran deep. Contrary to the claims made by the HOLC surveyor, the com- munity did have pride and posterity. Despite the discursive treatment of Jimtown as impoverished and crime-ridden, it marks a significant place in the history of Latino suburban struggles for inclusion and persists to this day at the northbound Whittier Boulevard exit off the 605 Freeway. Many of the displaced residents joined the suburban migration like their counterparts on the Eastside. Given their proximity to communities in Whittier, El Monte, Norwalk, Pico Rivera, and, after the construction of the freeway, to the entire metropolis, folks dispersed in search of new places to call home.44
LA District Map VII, January 1, 1959. (Photo Credit: California Highways and Public Roads)
Going Home Again
The Eastside lacked spectacular revolts against freeway expansion and therefore did not witness dramatic successes of other communities that fought freeway development, such as the ongoing resistance to the expansion of the 710 Freeway to connect with the 210 Freeway in Pasadena.45 Instead, the resistance played out silently, and perhaps more artistically, as Eastside residents adopted the freeway system as their own canvas and made it part of their local identities.46 Famed artist and muralist Judith Baca painted a bright and powerful rejoinder to the freeway devastation
of the Eastside in her Great Wall of Los Angeles, a sweeping mural of local histories of dispossession and community resistance. Johana Londoño notes that Chicana/o political muralists sought to tell the stories of their barrios in brightly colored imagery in an effort to reclaim control of their narrative and exercise a modicum of control over a landscape that was so thoroughly imbued with colonial expressions.47
When freeway construction ended in the early 1970s with a county population around 7 million, seven freeways criss-crossed the Mexican American Eastside. The small community is also home to one of the busiest diesel truck corridors in the state, the I-710 Long Beach Freeway, and six interchanges, including one of the busiest interchanges in the world, the ELAI, which facilitates at least 1.78 million vehicles a day. The traffic total for the Eastside Interchange is approximately 5 mil- lion vehicles a day.48 This extended network of freeways and highways served the population that L.A. county and city leaders had planned for decades. Perhaps an unintended byproduct of freeway planning, the di- versification of suburban Los Angeles yielded communities that harked back to Boyle Heights’s wonderfully cosmopolitan community.
In September 1979, Keith Takahashi, a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, published an article celebrating the diversity of Montebello, an independent suburb 10 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. By declaring the town a “melting pot” worthy of the title “U.N. of Southeast [Los Angeles County],” Takahashi signaled that the booming diversity of Los Angeles’s suburbs marked a transition point in American racial and ethnic democracy, one that figured to deliver the promise of equality to the residential landscape that had come to be associated so markedly with structural racism and exclusion.49 Freeway displacement did in fact create racialized distinctions between Whites and people of color in every major metropolitan area across the United States; however, in Los Angeles the process was not so linear, nor so complete. As urban renewal projects displaced Latina/os from the Eastside, many of them moved
further east into the increasingly Brown suburbs. Thus, it was not only White folks who flew unconsciously over the freeways past the once-be-loved communities. Many Latinos did so as well, but most continued to visit the communities to which they once belonged, repeatedly renewing their ties to place. And even though some of the barrios that housed Mexican Americans for generations were bulldozed and gone, the memories of those places persist and remain symbolic homes for Angelenos who never saw those neighborhoods with their own eyes or touched their feet to the pavement that meant so much to prior generations.
17. Rodolfo F. Acuña, A Community under Siege: A Chronicle of Chicanos East of the Los Angeles River, 1945–1975 (Los Angeles: Chicano Studies Research Center Publications, 1984), 103–6.
18. Heinz Heckeroth, interviewed by Gilbert Estrada, July 2001, Sacramento, California; “Planning,” California Highway and Public Works (November–December 1962): 45; Ralph W. Keith, et al., Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. John A. Volpe, et al., United States District Court, Ninth Circuit, February 16, 1972, California State Archives. For example, twenty-seven freeway agreements were needed to build the 105 Century Freeway. See also “Freeway Agreements and Route Matters,” https://dot.ca.gov/programs/design/freeway-agreements-route-matters. The Division of Highways was changed to CALTRANS in 1973.
19. Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, “Cultural Needs Assessment: Metro Red Line East Side Extension,” 1995, iv–7; Leonard Pitt and Dale Pitt, Los Angeles A to Z: An Encyclopedia of the City and County (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997), 251, 281, 442. Edward Roybal was elected to the Los Angeles Council in 1949. No Mexican American served on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors until 1991.
20. “Throngs Inspect New Development in South Whittier,” Los Angeles Times, September 10, 1950, E2.
21. “Se Habla Espanol,” Vida News, 13 November 1963, vol. 1, no. 4, pg. 2, in Box 20, Folder 2, Eduardo Quevedo Papers, M0349, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.
22. See Jerry González, In Search of the Mexican Beverly Hills: Latino Suburbanization in Postwar Los Angeles (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2017), chapters 2 and 3.
23. “Freeway Procedure,” California Highway and Public Works (May–June 1948): 14–16; A. N. George, “Work on New Santa Ana Freeway in Los Angeles Is Well Under Way,” California Highway and Public Works (March– April 1946): 25–26; “New Freeway,” California Highway and Public Works (July–August 1948): 1, 14–18; “Santa Ana Freeway Paving Starts Oct.: Two Overcrossings Scheduled in Project,” Southwest Builder Contractor, July 12, 1946.
24. Los Angeles Department of City Planning, Boyle Heights Community Plan Background Report (Los Angeles: City of Los Angeles, 1974), 47; Barrio Planners, Inc., “Nuestro Ambiente: East Los Angeles Visual Survey and Analysis” (Los Angeles, 1973), 50; Los Angeles Department of City Planning, Boyle Heights Community Plan: A Part of the General Plan of the City of Los Angeles (Los Angeles, adopted 1979), 4; City of Los Angeles Department of City Planning, ARC GIS data, email from Public Relations Specialist, January 2022.
25. Becky Nicolaides, “Suburban Landscapes of Los Angeles,” in Wim De Wit and Christopher James Alexander, eds., Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940–1990 (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2013), 128.
26. “Freeway Procedure,” 14–16; George, “Work on New Santa Ana Freeway in Los Angeles Is Well Under Way,” 25–26; “New Freeway,” 1, 14–18; “Santa Ana Freeway Paving Starts Oct.”
27. George J. Sánchez, “Disposable People, Expendable Neighborhoods,” in Greg Hise and William Deverell, eds., Blackwell Companion to Los Angeles (New York: Wiley, 2010), 132.
28. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier, 238–39.
29. Becky Nicolaides, My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working-Class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920–1965 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 219.
30. Philip J. Ethington, William H. Frey, and Dowell Myers, “The Racial Resegregation of Los Angeles County, 1940–2000,” Race Contours 2000 Study, Public Research Report no. 2001-04 (Los Angeles: School of Policy, Planning, and Development, University of Southern California, May 12, 2001), 10.
31. Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), 26.
32. Ethington et al., “The Racial Resegregation of Los Angeles County,” 10.
33. Ryan Reft, “The Future Fulfilled?: Modernism’s Effect on the California We Know Today,” KCET, November 6, 2019, https://www.kcet.org /shows/lost-la/the-future-fulfilled-modernisms-effect-on-the-california-we-know-today.
34. “Design of Interchange Was a Team Effort,” California Highway and Public Works (November–December 1958): 20–22; Heinz Heckeroth, interviewed by Gilbert Estrada, July 2001, Sacramento, California; Liam Dillon and Ben Poston, “Freeways Force Out Residents in Communities of Color—Again,” Los Angeles Times (November 11, 2021).
35. Heinz Heckeroth, interviewed by the Gilbert Estrada, July 2001, Sacramento, California; “Design of Interchange Was a Team Effort,” 20–22; “Model of New Freeway Interchange Displayed,” Los Angeles Times, September 3, 1958.
36. Talk by E. T. Telford, assistant state highway engineer, presented before ASCE Convention in Phoenix, Arizona, April 13, 1961, “The East Los Angeles Interchange”; “Design of Interchange Was a Team Effort,” 20–22; “National Highway Week Observed,” California Highway and Public Works (May–June 1961): 1; “Huge East Los Angeles Interchange Dedicated,” Los Angeles Times, May 24, 1961. The Interchange is at least 135 acres.
37. “Mexican American Study Project; Community Advisory Committee Meeting, Statler Hilton Hotel,” September 26, 1964, Eduardo Quevedo Papers, M0349, box 4, folder 6, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.
38. Ryan Reft, “Transportational El Monte: From the Red Car to the Freeway,” in Romeo Guzmán et al., eds., East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2020), 197–98.
39. “San Gabriel River Freeway Route Proposed,” Los Angeles Times, November 19, 1954, A2; “Homeowners Form Freeway Committee,” Los Angeles Times, June 19, 1955, SC3; “Council to Buy Parkway Land in Pico Rivera,” Los Angeles Times, October 22, 1959, E11.
40. Florentino Aguirre recalled that people in the colonias surrounding Pico Rivera in East L.A., Whittier, Los Nietos, Downey, Montebello, San Gabriel, Azusa, El Monte, and Hayes regularly came together for Mexican Independence and other celebrations in Streamland Park, a small amusement park and green space on the edge of Pico Rivera near Jimtown. See Florentino Aguirre interview by Vince Ponce and Maggie McNamara, in Personal Stories from the Pio Pico Neighborhood (Whittier, CA: Rio Hondo College, 1978), 12.
41. HOLC appraisal of “San Gabriel Wash & Whittier Way” area of Los Angeles County, Los Angeles City Survey Files, Area Descriptions, Home Owner’s Loan Corporation, Record Group 195, National Archives, Washington DC, 1939, Doc # D-57. See also Becky Nicolaides and Andrew Wiese, eds., The Suburb Reader (New York: Routledge, 2006), 243 and chapter 8; and González, In Search of the Mexican Beverly Hills, 20–1.
43. “Wood Gleaner Killed by Train; Supported Mother, Aged 105,” Los Angeles Times, July 12, 1940, A3; “Annexation Vote for Jimtown Set at Whittier,” Los Angeles Times, October 11, 1951, A6; Charles Gould, “Sleepy Jimtown Responds to ‘Clean Up or Else’ Order,” Los Angeles Times, March 13, 1955, F1.
44. Lynn Simross, “Digging Up Roots of a Former Mexican Barrio: Former Residents of Jimtown Gather for First Reunion,” Los Angeles Times, October 29, 1984, OC_C1.
However polite its title, the 1891 “Petition to the Senators and Representatives of the Congress of the United States in the Behalf of the Remnants of the former Tribes of the Yosemite Indians Praying for Aid and Assistance” was anything but deferential.
The petition offered a blunt critique of the mostly white gold miners’ brutal incursion into the Yosemite region in the late 1840s. It sharply criticized the state-sanctioned violence that California unleashed in the 1850s on the Indigenous Peoples of the Central Sierra, and astutely recognized that elite tourists—and the amenities they required to cushion their late nineteenth-century visits to the rugged landscape—were also responsible for cultural disruption and physical dispossession. The petition reported that the previous half century of exploitation had turned the Ahwahneechii and Monos into “poorly-clad paupers and unwelcome guests, silently the objects of curiosity or contemptuous pity to the throngs of strangers who yearly gather in this our own land and heritage.”
The once fertile and sustaining terrain of the Indigenous Peoples had been torn apart. “The gradual destruction of its trees, the occupancy of every foot of its territory by bands of grazing horses and cattle, the decimation of the fish in the river, the destruction of every means of support for ourselves and families by the rapacious acts of the whites,” the petition asserted, would “shortly result in the total exclusion of the remaining remnants of our tribes from this our beloved valley, which has been ours from time beyond our faintest traditions, and which we still claim.”
The US government did not respond to this appeal for the return of tribal lands, an ironclad treaty that would protect their inheritance, and compensation for their decades of immiseration. Instead, the petition, to which forty-three survivors put their names, was buried in the 1891 report of Yosemite’s acting park superintendent. But its bureaucratic fate doesn’t diminish its importance any more than does the probability that the document’s amanuensis was a Euro-American fluent in English. The oral histories on which the petition depends, and, as anthropologist Ed Castillo observed, the “incredible description” it provides of the “political, military, and ecological factors driving remaining tribesmen from their valley could only have as their source local Indigenous knowledge.”
That knowledge, and the distressing catalogue of injustices it contains, is an important challenge to settler-colonial justifications for How the West Was Won. One facet of that master narrative also centers on Yosemite National Park— by the time tourists arrived to “ooh and ahhh” over its iconic waterfalls, steep granite walls, and staggering vistas, the land was “empty.” Its putative emptiness, the result of violent dispossession, set the stage for an early twentieth-century, decade-long battle over whether to build a dam in the park’s Hetch Hetchy Valley. The dam’s proponents, including federal officials, as well as citizens and politicians in San Francisco eager to secure a stable water supply following the 1906 earthquake that devastated the city, believed the dam was emblematic of Progressive Era reforms that provided essential—and publicly owned—resources to a rapidly urbanizing society. John Muir, founding president of the Sierra Club, which was established in 1892, was among those who pushed back, arguing that the dam’s construction would inundate the wild Hetch Hetchy Valley. “Dam Hetch Hetchy!” he thundered, “as well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated for the heart of man.”
What neither side admitted was that their respective arguments depended on a shared perception that no one lived in the Hetch Hetchy Valley., or that no had ever lived there. Its emptiness enabled dam supporters to conclude that the site would be perfect for a reservoir. Its emptiness, for those like Muir who pressed for the valley’s preservation, was a mark of its higher utility as pristine nature. Yet to conceive of this valley as devoid of people required two forms of erasure of the history and contemporary status of the Indigenous Peoples that their 1891 petition so brilliantly evoked.
The first erasure occurred in the mid-nineteenth century, when California and the United States governments sanctioned the violent expulsion of the Indigenous Peoples from the Sierras’s flanking valleys and foothills. The dispossession of the Miwok, Paiute, Shoshone, and others from their ancestral territories was an act of genocide, historian Benjamin Madley argues in American Genocide. He writes: the “pressures of demographics (the migration of hundreds of thousands of immigrants), economics (the largest gold rush in US history), and profound racial hatred all made the genocide possible, it took sustained political will—at both the federal and state levels—to create the laws, policies, and well-funded killing machine that carried it out and ensured its continuation over decades.”
The second erasure is embedded in the continuing and disquieting silence over the interlocking connection between the ruthless uprooting of Indigenous Peoples from the Yosemite region, the establishment of the national park, and the subsequent Hetch Hetchy controversy. Until that silence is broken, our understanding of the ongoing debate about the dam and reservoir will remain incomplete. This accounting is especially necessary because scholars and activists assert that the formative battle over the Hetch Hetchy dam marked the birth of the modern environmental movement in the United States. The assertion reveals a troubling and complicated story.
Muir was integral to each of these erasures. Consider his reflections that he jotted down in his journal after a hike up what he called Bloody Canyon in Mono County and then revised for publication in his book The Mountains of California 1894). Entering the pass, the “huge rocks began to close around in all their wild, mysterious impressiveness,” Muir wrote, “when suddenly, as I gazed eagerly about me, a drove of gray, hairy beings came into sight., lumbering toward with a kind of boneless, wallowing motion like bears.” Anxious about “so grim a company,” and suppressing his fears, he realized “that although hairy as bears and as crooked as summit pines, the strange creatures were sufficiently erect to belong to our own species.” He was hiking up a trail that the Mono and other Indigenous Peoples had worn smooth over the millennia, transiting between the Mono and Owens basins and Yosemite and the valleys below. His disdain for these men and women shows throughout his descriptions, such as, “the dirt on their faces was fairly stratified and seemed so ancient and so undisturbed it might almost possess a geological significance.” To Muir they belonged to a distant time, and befouled his wilderness. “Somehow they seemed to have no right place in the landscape, and I was glad to see them fading out of sight down the pass.”
The larger settler-colonial culture adopted his perspective and, whether Indigenous Peoples were forced out of Yosemite by force of arms or the scratch of a pen, a key consequence was that this “empty” terrain was ripe for commercial exploitation. Tourism to the region, enabled by a growing cross-continental transportation grid, and the growth of San Francisco and Los Angeles, was fueled by artists and photographers who visited the region a decade or more before Muir’s arrival there in 1868. James Mason Hutchings, who hired Muir to work at his Yosemite hotel, was a relentless promoter. He drew a swelling number of artists, scientists, and tourists to make the arduous journey to the remote location through his publication of tour guides, lithographs, and magazine articles about Yosemite’s wonders and curiosities. Many of these visitors recounted their experiences in the rough and wild space, some published, others not. However manifest, these documents reinforced the cultural conversation about what they perceived to be Yosemite’s prime value—a beneficent refuge in an industrializing world, where you could escape civilization, and yet have its amenities.
The sanctuary status was one of the key arguments that Muir and others developed in the early twentieth century against the city of San Francisco and its political allies who laid claim to the Hetch Hetchy Valley inside what became Yosemite National Park. The thrust and counterthrust manifested in a series of congressional hearings, in the pages of many of the nation’s leading magazines and newspapers, and in oft angry speeches. The fierce debate testifies to the centrality of a valley that few Americans had ever visited. Even though San Francisco’s interests prevailed, and the O’Shaughnessy Dam and its steep-walled reservoir that funnels potable water to the Bay Area was built, the controversy continues to simmer. Beginning in the 1980s, an odd coalition of Republican state and national politicians and the Sierra Club and its allies periodically call into question San Francisco’s reliance on the reservoir and urge the federal government to tear down the dam and restore the long-submerged valley.
Yet any resolution of this enduring latest struggle to define the future of Hetch Hetchy, and by extension Yosemite, must start by prioritizing what hitherto has been ignored. Novelist, historian, and activist David Treuer writes, “America’s national parks comprise only a small fraction of the land stolen from Native Americans, but they loom large in the broader story of our dispossession.” His pithy conclusion—”the American West began with war but concluded with parks”—is mirrored in the Yosemite Indigenous Peoples’ claims asserted in the 1891 petition: “We say this valley was not given to us by our fathers for a day, or a year, but for all time.”
Char Miller is the W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis and History at Pomona College and the director of the Claremont Colleges‘ environmental analysis program.
The Aquarium of the Pacific was founded in the 1990s during a period of questions about what to do with Long Beach’s harbor area. Much of the coast in San Pedro Bay is devoted to industrial use, and the entire shoreline is manipulated. On the far side of the port complex, near the border with Orange County, is a recreational beach. But the waterfront area right between the beach and the port, nearest to downtown Long Beach, had been subject to “ups, downs, and an identity crisis,” in the words of a New York Times reporter writing in 2000.35 In the very early twentieth century, the waterfront hosted the Pike, a Coney-Island-esque bathing area, boardwalk, and amusement park featuring rides and games, concessions, an elaborate hand-carved carousel, and, in a later era, tattoo shops (the buildup to World War II brought the navy to the harbor, and sailors brought demand for tattoos).36
In 1979, the Pike was formally shuttered, though it was well off its heyday before then. The area retained some tourist attractions, notably the docked RMS Queen Mary ocean liner, Howard Hughes’s massive wooden plane, the Spruce Goose (encased in a custom-built geodesic dome), and an annual Grand Prix motor race, begun in 1975.37 But the area was underutilized by urban development standards, and the city considered how to update it. The Disney Corporation managed both the Spruce Goose and the Queen Mary starting in 1988.38 Around then, Disney expressed interest in siting a massive ocean-related theme park in the Long Beach harbor, to be called DisneySea; the entire complex was to include a research center and resort, and to be collectively called Port Disney.39 Fantastical artistic renderings of the complex resembled the contemporary Biosphere 2 artificial environment, with a glistening science-fiction sheen evocative of the space age. But these plans were short-lived; the park was never built.40 The harbor nonetheless contained glimpses of futuristic fancy: a 1967 artist’s rendering of an oil island at night rivals the Disney imaginary; and the Queen Mary and dome, although divested by Disney in the 1990s, still remain today.
Fantastical harbor flourishes aside, the 1990s hit Long Beach hard economically. The navy consolidated its Southern California presence in San Diego, closing a naval station and hospital as well as shuttering a shipyard in the Long Beach harbor. In turn, aviation manufacturing plants reliant on military contracts also closed. It was in this context that the city looked to cultivate tourist attractions, with or without Disney’s involvement. (Simultaneously, the region pursued port development as an economic strategy.) It secured municipal financing to build an aquarium—albeit a more modest, far less spectacular one than the facility Disney had planned—and develop the harbor with a shopping center and refurbished convention center.41 The aquarium was paid for through government funding and philanthropic contributions, although indirectly the municipal funds were tied to the city’s oil revenues.42 The city owns the aquarium, which is managed and operated by a nonprofit organization.43
Public institutions for the display of animals emerged in larger Euro-American cities in the nineteenth century, often with funding from scientific societies.44 Projects of taxonomy and empire, displaying unfamiliar animals from other locales, zoos and aquariums both satisfied and stoked public interest in animal life. Some early American zoos also bore the influence of the urban parks movement, emphasizing conservation of native species. Zoos often resembled amusement parks, offering children rides on ponies and Galápagos tortoises, transporting visitors around the parks on buses and trains, and dramatically exhibiting trained seals and chimpanzees to enthralled audiences, according to historian Pamela Henson. Not unlike circus sideshows, they emphasized the novelty and exoticism of their offerings, and they competed with other zoos, even to the point of keeping animal care regimens secret.45 By the middle of the twentieth century, conservation emerged as a more consistent concern, and zoos were coming under fire for animal exploitation and poor conditions.46 By the late twentieth century, zoos had brought conservation fully into their remit, including cooperating to serve as genetic reservoirs for endangered species, sharing information and resources, and addressing conservation in exhibits and mission statements.47
Both the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Aquarium of the Pacific’s work with otters is in line with these trends. Zoos and aquariums conduct conservation work both in situ and ex situ, in field sites.48 But aquariums, unlike zoos, often work closely with local wildlife officials too.49 The aquariums’ otter work involves housing a native (sub)species whose numbers have dwindled in the wild with the goals of educating the public and expanding the population, within the parameters of their own institutional mandates and constraints.50
As noted above, MBA has had ambitious otter conservation programs central to its mission since its inception. The Aquarium of the Pacific has also hosted otters since its earliest days. When it was founded in 1998, otters were not local to the immediate Southern California coastal area near Long Beach, due to the otter-free zone, though of course they were ecologically native to the area. The Aquarium of the Pacific immediately worked closely with MBA to host otters, offering housing and care for otters that could not live in the wild; this allowed the two institutions working together to care for more animals than MBA could alone. The Aquarium of the Pacific declared its first full summer in operation, 1999, to be “Sea Otter Summer,” with a full public relations blitz. Its charismatic otters were Monterey Bay transplants, young animals who were not suitable candidates for release into the wild and instead resided in the Aquarium of the Pacific’s Northern Pacific habitat (here Northern Pacific means essentially California and north, that is, the cooler water zone north of the warm-cold mixing in the ecotone that is the Southern California Bight). At least two of the otters were orphaned during El Niño storms in 1997 (rough water and wind can cause pups to get separated from mothers, and storms are a common cause of pup stranding).51 Given the timing, these young animals would not have been candidates for surrogacy, which did not begin until 2001.
One of the Aquarium of the Pacific’s otters, a young female aptly named Summer, featured in a heartbreaking and frankly bizarre Los Angeles Times article that accompanied the exhibition:
A little girl named Summer arrived in Long Beach last month with what sounds like a Hollywood crisis: a lousy fur coat, a weight problem and a dependency issue. Summer, an 11-month-old sea otter at the Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific, also would be distressed to know she’s missing her spot in the limelight. This Saturday the aquarium will launch Sea Otter Summer, but the budding diva will be in rehab.52
Distressing anthropomorphism and peculiar pathologizing aside, the article paints a vivid picture of the struggles stranded otters and their human caregivers can face. When rescued by MBA, Summer’s caregivers hoped to rehabilitate her for release into the wild, but over time, she failed to thrive: her coat did not come in with sufficient thickness to keep her afloat and warm, which was evident when human handlers took her on daily ocean swims as part of rehabilitation efforts. (Otters’ coats are dense, and pups’ fur actually helps them float because of how it traps air, which saves their bodies energy. The drive to commodify this lustrous fur is what led otters to be hunted to near extinction.53) Summer did not gain sufficient weight, probably because of being chilled. And her “addiction” to suckling towels was an unfortunate effect of her separation from her mother when she was only one week old.54
Aquarium curators laid out a comprehensive plan of care for Summer. Her towel suckling appeared to be a core cause of her failure to thrive. Without otters to care for pups, human handlers gave otter pups towels to suckle, cuddle, and groom themselves with, “a replacement for their moms.” Handlers suspected the enthusiasm with which Summer took to snuggling and suckling towels was actually damaging her fur; according to laboratory analysis of her pelt, the fibers were twisted and damaged. So in addition to continuing to trying to get her weight up through attentive feeding, caregivers weaned the pup off towels: she went from one per hour to two per day, with the goal of being able to comfortably give them up entirely. Her handler said: “The rewards of the job are similar to those of parenting[.] I enjoy the satisfaction of seeing the otters hit certain milestones. I also think it’s a responsible act. Summer couldn’t survive in the ocean, but she’s healthy. Why not give her a good life, while educating the public and us about how otters live so we can use the knowledge to help the environment?”55
Summer lived another eleven years at the Aquarium of the Pacific, though she never fully recovered from the health issues she experienced as a pup. Aquarium staff tried to diagnose and cure Summer, unsuccessfully; veterinary dermapathologists suspected her fur and thermoregulation issues perhaps ultimately derived from an immune-mediated condition, similar to an autoimmune disease in humans.56 The causes of autoimmune disease are complex, but exposures to toxins are strong possibilities; effects of chemical violence are not necessarily immediate, even leading to epigenetic harms.57 In spite of Summer’s health problems, aquarium officials stated that she had led a “relatively healthy and apparently happy” life with her exhibit-mates at the Aquarium of the Pacific, until reaching a more advanced age when her health declined again, leading to compromised organ function. They determined that euthanasia was the most humane course, but Summer died on her own hours before the planned procedure, in September 2010.58 Twelve years is a somewhat shorter lifespan than might be expected for a female otter in captivity, though not dramatically so. Her loss was mourned by aquarium staff and caregivers, many of whom had known her since her arrival.
Around the time of Summer’s death in 2010, the Aquarium of the Pacific opened a new animal care facility. The 14,000-square-foot facility was unusual in one main regard: it included a large room for veterinary exams open to the public (through a pane of glass). On most days, aquarium staff perform veterinary exams and medical procedures on aquarium animals, in public view, with either a staff interpreter out in front of the window or one inside who explains what staff are doing over a public address system for viewers outside. Simulations of veterinary procedures are on display even when the aquarium is closed.
One day in September 2019, two otter dental procedures were listed on a whiteboard: a root canal for Betty, age seven, and a tooth extraction for Maggie, age seventeen.59 A curator said that there is treatment activity on public view at least a couple of days per week, and that the facility conducts nearly every procedure in public view (exceptions might be if no interpretive staff were available to narrate, or in case of a high-stakes procedure where the patient might be in danger of “crashing,” in which case blinds would be drawn). An adult sea otter would get at least one exam per year, including blood draws, x-rays, and an ultrasound, all during regular business hours in full public view.60 The aquarium holds around 11,000 animals (fish, reptiles, mammals, birds), so there is a lot of opportunity for routine exams that can double as public programming.61 While the Aquarium of the Pacific’s public viewing facility was novel at the time it was introduced, more and more facilities like it are being built; it is a trend that promotes public understanding of and transparency about the institution’s activities.62 (Though the curator did not spell this out, it also helps communicate to the public the expense associated with so much care for so many animals.) At the same time, the procedures with the aquarium’s actual living animals, and especially the use of plush children’s toys to stand in for wildlife, arguably domesticate these creatures, blurring boundaries. These spectacles also normalize “nature” in human care, or even on life support. Though managers act in pursuit of “autonomy” for wild animals, this state is “deferred and impossible to achieve,” requiring dependence (especially in the case of highly managed creatures at the edge of extinction).63 This has potential implications for how the aquarium’s audience relates to these animals in the aquarium as well as outside of it.
As of 2020, the Aquarium of the Pacific could house up to six adult otters comfortably, but it was expanding its capacity in order to implement a surrogacy program. The agreement the Aquarium of the Pacific formalized with MBA in early 2020 solidified a commitment to create the conditions to be able to add as many as five adult females who could nurture and socialize pups. As many as ten to fifteen stranded southern sea otter pups are discovered annually in California, so this would add significant capacity for otter care. Like Summer, all stranded pups will first go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium for around eight weeks, and then some will move to Long Beach for longer-term rearing (six to seven months), learning to groom and feed and act like “regular” sea otters.64 If a pup does well with its surrogate mother in the Aquarium of the Pacific, it will return to MBA for another month or two to socialize with peers, and then, assuming it is deemed fit, it will be released into the wild. Released young adults will be radiotagged with VHF transmitters and trackable for up to three years; scientists will no longer be able to track the otters once the transmitters’ batteries die, though the tracking devices will remain in the animals for the rest of their lives.
Sea otters come ashore rarely and can perform all essential life functions at sea, including sleeping and giving birth. Charismatic representations of them often feature a mother and pup afloat in a kelp bed.65 The otters of the Aquarium of the Pacific, as well as many other creatures, live in marine water that approximates their oceanic habitats. The aquarium’s water supply therefore is a life-sustaining consideration of major consequence for the institution and its residents. It is sourced from the harbor just outside the aquarium’s door, processed by a company that also supplies water to other aquariums and marine science facilities throughout the western United States and for which the Aquarium of the Pacific is a major customer.
Founded in 1988, Catalina Water Company commodifies a naturally occurring substance, ocean water.66 In claiming water as a resource, processing it, and selling it, the company provides an environment to sustain ocean life in circumstances where it would not be found otherwise: in conditions of captivity and often in geographic locales far from the species’ native environments. Tropical fish in home or institutional aquariums, otters in conservation programs, jellyfish in veterinary care, and mollusks in neuroscience research settings may all find themselves swimming in this water (or, in the case of mollusks, anchored in it). Commodification of ocean water is driven by the commercial trade of tropical fish: “The aquarium hobby could never have become what it is today without the business interests that were, and still are, involved.”67 Recent estimates are that 25–30 million animals from more than 2,000 species are traded annually, including fish and corals; animals are imported from the Philippines, Indonesia, the Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Australia, Fiji, the Maldives, and Palau, especially richly biodiverse reef ecologies; and domestic fish outnumber pet cats and dogs in both the United States and United Kingdom.68 Most collectible animals are taken from the wild, and many marine species’ needs for breeding in captivity are poorly understood.69 Of course, this practice of removing animals from oceans for global hobbyist trade has ecological implications in their sites of origin. These accumulating environmental injuries are not the main focus here but bear notice as a significant effect of the commodification of marine life and seawater.70
Unsurprisingly, supplying conditions for marine life, let alone healthy marine life, is challenging. The Aquarium of the Pacific’s water comes from the Pacific Ocean via Catalina Water Company, but another option for coastal aquariums is building a water intake system with pipes going out into the sea to take in and discharge water. (A curator at the Aquarium of the Pacific speculated that this would be hard to gain approval for in California’s present-day regulatory environment.71) Facilities that are not coastally located are more likely to manufacture their water, mixing salt and fresh water. Catalina Water Company touts its product by stating, “All synthetic salt mixtures have one thing in common. They are attempting to duplicate real saltwater. Catalina Water Company provides real ocean salt- water, not a synthetic substitute. Synthetic Saltwater, while being basically sound, simply can not provide all the subtle chemical benefits of true saltwater.” The volume of water that the company sells for simulated ocean environments is at least ten million gallons per year.72 The Aquarium of the Pacific is a major client and takes several deliveries per week; its biggest tank, as of 2012, was a 56,000-gallon quarantine tank, part of the Molina Care Center, a holding tank for large animals that need to be kept separately.73 Deliveries of fresh ocean water at the scale needed by aquariums are delivered via truck in food-grade stainless steel tankers. Catalina Water Company also sells packaged seawater for home aquarium use through the PetCo pet store chain.74
The quarantine tank leads toward a further consideration of the water itself. To become commodified, seawater must be processed. Catalina Water Company notes on its website that it “starts with natural ocean sea- water which is filtered, (fiber, sand, and charcoal) ozonated, and protein skimmed.”75 Before using the water for its marine life, the Aquarium of the Pacific also runs its own tests to make sure it is safe for the animals, and filters it again.76 The 1999 Los Angeles Times article about Summer the pup also offers details about how seriously the Aquarium of the Pacific takes its marine environment: “Before he climbs the metal ladder to the access door of Summer’s tank, [Summer’s handler] steps in two bins of liquid, one containing water and one a disinfectant. He’ll step in them again when he leaves. ‘We’re fussy about quarantine here,’ he explains. ‘I don’t want to take any germs into her habitat or out to the rest of the aquarium.’”77 Of course, extra precautions are indeed necessary for public health in congregate settings (as the COVID-19 pandemic recently showed when the virus cut a tragic, lethal, and preventable path through prisons and elder care facilities).
But this attention to hygiene, water filtration, and monitoring in the aquarium setting exposes an irony. Otters and other life-forms under custodial care of the aquarium are provided cleaner and safer water than their counterparts in the wild. As noted at the outset of this chapter, worries of otter annihilation in the wake of an oil discharge prompted conservation efforts in the 1980s, leading to, among other developments, the otter relocation to San Nicolas Island. The rationale was not only to prompt the settlement of a new territory but to have a population reservoir in a more protected locale, less vulnerable to spills than the near-coastal area the otters inhabited. And spilled oil is not the only source of chemical harm for otters: industrial agricultural fertilizers and other contaminants wash into the ocean from land, bringing toxins that can sicken and even kill marine otters.78 Toxins should thus not be understood as mere “wayward molecules”: they are substances whose patterned presences in land, water, and bodies are indicative of particular political and economic relations.79
35) Sterngold, “Long Beach.” His statement is about Long Beach generally but it fits the waterfront area well.
36) As of 2020, parts of the carousel and vestigial Pike games are on display at Looff ’ Lite- A- Line on Long Beach Boulevard.
37) The Queen Mary docked permanently in Long Beach in 1967. Th e Spruce Goose was housed there only from 1980– 92, but its dome remains and is currently used as Carnival Cruise Lines’ dockside cruise terminal.
38) Kopetman, “Spruce Goose to Be Moved.”
39) Addison, “Long Beach Lost.”
40) Various factors were responsible. Disney requested things the City of Long Beach was unable to deliver single- handedly, like highway modifi cations. Addison, “Long Beach Lost,” notes that Long Beach was hard to build in both politically and financially since local, state, and federal approvals were all required; Disney instead reinvested in and expanded its Anaheim (Orange County) operations.
41) Sterngold, “Long Beach.”
42) Johnson, “Long Beach, Calif., Gets a Boost.” Th e “tidelands grant” the state issued the city to develop the harbor stipulated that revenue from oil profi ts drilled from the Wilmington and Long Beach oil fi elds, located in the tidelands, be reinvested in the tidelands area (and overseen by the state).
43) Kingsley, “Aquarium of the Pacific Turns 20 Today.”
44) Young, “Zoos and Aquariums.”
45) Henson, “American Zoos,” 65, 70, 66.
46) Young, “Zoos and Aquariums”; Henson, “American Zoos,” 72.
48) Henson writes, “as ‘natural environments’ become more stressed through development and climate change, the line has become blurred between ex situ, orzoo- and aquarium-based, research and conservation and in situ, or field-based, biological research and conservation practice” (“American Zoos,” 66); see especially Braverman, Wild Life, for more on this troubled boundary.
49) Muka, “Conservation Constellations.”
50) The California or southern sea otter is classified as a subspecies of an otter whose range used to be the entire Pacific coast from Baja California to Alaska. It is now only found from about Point Conception, just north and west of Santa Barbara, to San Francisco; in other words, just north of the Southern California Bight into which San Pedro Bay is nestled.
51) Morris, “Long Beach Aquarium.”
52) Jameson, “She’s One Happy Pup.”
53) Further north in the Pacific Northwest, Russian traders established a sea otter fur trade with China in the mid- eighteenth century (Gibson, Otter Skins, Boston Ships, and China Goods). Otter hunting in fact drew Russians eastward fromSiberia. Spanish colonists in California did not initially recognize the value of otter pelts in “their” territories but soon also entered the otter fur trade with China, and these otters were members of the southern or California sea otter subspecies.
In both cases, Indigenous people also participated in these markets as hunters, though they oft en were resistant to hunting on the scale desired by merchants (Ogden, California Sea Otter Trade, 1784–1848, 43). Overhunting of otters is part of what pushed American maritime traders toward beavers in the nineteenth century (Gibson, Otter Skins, Boston Ships, and China Goods).
54) Jameson, “She’s One Happy Pup.”
55) Jameson. Th e journalist noted that the handler was himself a father of two, tying his parental duties with the otter to those with his human young.
56) Segura, “Long Beach Aquarium’s Beloved Otter Dies.” In humans, poisons like PCBs and dioxin have been detected in blood, breast milk, and urine (Murphy, “Alterlife,” 495).
57) Murphy invokes a stencil by Métis artist and activist Erin Marie Konsmo depicting lungs filled with transformer towers connecting to underground fracking, accompanied by the statement “Violence from Fracking [and Pipelines] is Violence on Our Bodies” (“Alterlife,” 500– 501). Though the image depicts human lungs, the statement fits animal bodies as well—though chemical violence is not limited to fossil fuels, of course. See also Fiske, “Naked in the Face of Contamination”; Tuana, “Viscous Porosity.”
60) Aquarium of the Pacific curator, interview, December 7, 2020.
61) Aquarium of the Pacific, “Aquarium Animal Care.”
62) Aquarium of the Pacific curator, interview, December 7, 2020.
63) Parreñas, Decolonizing Extinction, 155; van Dooren, Flight Ways.
64) Aquarium of the Pacific curator, interview, December 7, 2020.
65) Mothers will even wrap pups in kelp to hold them in place and keep them afloat while they go off to forage (e.g. Kranking, “Floating through Life”).
66) The company is presumably named for the island that Spanish settlers dubbed Santa Catalina, one of the Channel Islands, just off shore from Los Angeles and Long Beach. It hosts tourism and marine research, and its rock is the source material for many modifications in San Pedro Bay.
67) Brunner, Ocean at Home, 140– 41.
68) Brunner, “Through a Glass Sadly.”
69) Brunner, Ocean at Home, 141. This is probably less a function of breeding being impossible to do and more that there is little profit motive to attempt it.
70) Brunner notes that only one in ten fi sh caught for aquarium trade survives the shipping and trade process and ends up in a hobby tank (“Through a Glass Sadly”). Toxic injury is also relevant here: Brunner adds that poisons are sometimes used in the water to numb or stun fish and make them easier to capture, and excess poison remains in the water after stunned fish are captured. The habitat effects call to mind Nixon’s description of “delayed destruction” (Slow Violence, 2; see also Neimanis, “‘Chemists’ War’”)
71) Aquarium of the Pacific curator, interview, December 7, 2020. The curator added that Monterey Bay Aquarium, built in the 1980s, has such a system.
72) Catalina Water Company, homepage.
73) Aquarium of the Pacific curator, interview, December 7, 2020; Aquarium of the Pacific, “Molina Animal Care Center.”
74) Catalina Water Company, homepage.
75) Catalina Water Company, homepage. Punctuation per original.
76) Aquarium of the Pacific curator, interview, December 7, 2020.
77) Jameson, “She’s One Happy Pup.”
78) Aquarium of the Pacific, “Sea Otter Conservation.” Parasites can also wash out from land.
79) Liboiron, Pollution Is Colonialism, 82; Murphy, “Alterlife.”
Addison, Brian. “Long Beach Lost: The Dramatic Tale of the Disney Theme Park in Downtown.” Long Beach Post, December 4, 2018.
Henson, Pamela M. “American Zoos: A Shift ing Balance between Recreation and Conservation.” In Th e Ark and Beyond: Th e Evolution of Zoo and Aquarium Conservation, ed. Ben Minteer, Jane Maienschein, and James P. Collins, 65–76. Chicago, University of Chicago Press: 2018.
Jameson, Marnell. “She’s One Happy Pup: A Young Otter Name [sic] Summer Once Faced Certain Death, but Today Is Safe, Warm and Getting a Good, if Soggy, Education.” Los Angeles Times, June 17, 1999.
Kingsley, Barbara. “Aquarium of the Pacific Turns 20 Today, Hopes to Make a Splash When Pacific Visions Opens in 2019.” Daily Breeze, June 15, 2018.
Kopetman, Roxana. “Spruce Goose to Be Moved to Oregon.” Los Angeles Times, July 10, 1992.
Morris, Asia. “Long Beach Aquarium Mourns the Loss of Brook the Sea Otter.” Long Beach Post, January 30, 2019.
Muka, Samantha. “Conservation Constellations: Aquariums in Aquatic Conservation Networks.” In The Ark and Beyond: The Evolution of Zoo and Aquarium Conservation, ed. Ben Minteer, Jane Maienschein, and James P. Collins, 90– 103. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018.
Sterngold, James. “Long Beach, in Los Angeles’ Shadow, Strives for a Spotlight.” New York Times, July 27, 2000, A14.
Christina Dunbar-Hester is a science and technology studies scholar and associate professor in the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication. She is the author of Low Power to the People: Pirates, Protest, and Politics in FM Radio Activism and Hacking Diversity: The Politics of Inclusion in Open Technology Cultures.
Many Californians who recognize the name “Kettleman City” do so because it is a good place to stop for gas and a snack on the long drive between Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, passing through the Central Valley’s agricultural landscape. But some Californians recognize the name of the tiny town (population 1,439) because it played the David to the Goliath of Waste Management, the country’s largest waste company.
Kettleman City, like so many other poor communities of color, was a prime target for a hazardous waste landfill. The town’s demographics are comparable to many other places that host hazardous waste facilities: 100 percent of the community is Latinx; 57.5 percent of residents over age twenty-five have less than a ninth-grade education; and the average per capita income is $15,656 per year. Kettleman City hosts one of three Class 1 landfills in California (all three are located in or near predominantly Latinx communities), and the community’s opinion was not sought when the landfill was sited. Indeed, residents did not even know about the dump until after it had been permitted and built in 1979. But when a hazardous waste incinerator was proposed on the dump site, the residents made their opposition known, loud and clear. The fight in the late 1980s and early 1990s against the incinerator at the Kettleman City landfill was a paradigmatic early case in the environmental justice movement.
This chapter traces the thirty-plus-year history of environmental justice activism in Kettleman City as a case study within the broader evolution of environmental justice activism. This case study exemplifies the broader trends discussed in chapters 2 and 3 and analyzes how these trends played out on the ground. The Kettleman City story is an early environmental justice success, preventing the construction of a new “locally unwanted land use”—here, an incinerator. These successes added up in town after town; only three of the seventy-five or more new or expanded incinerators proposed since the 1980s were ever built. However, Kettleman City’s example also shows how these successes, as important as they are, could not on their own address existing unwanted land uses or the effect of multiple sources of contamination in one location. And these successes left other problems in their wake: the challenge of sustaining broad levels of local activism after the immediate threat ended made it difficult to address the broader structural conditions of capitalism that disproportionately locate pollution in low-income communities and communities of color and that constrain efforts to change the status quo.
The case of Kettleman City shows the unevenness of the environmental justice movement’s transition from “protest” to “politics.” Many in the environmental justice movement have used the limitations of fighting individual, defensive battles site by site as a reason to scale up into state-wide policy advocacy and collaborative work with state agencies. Others have ventured into efforts to build gardens, parks, and other environmental amenities, some of which pursue a DIY model that eschews state involvement. But in Kettleman City, much environmental justice activism remains true to its roots: focused on local sources of polluting health threats and engaged in continued confrontations with industry and state agencies. Of course, Kettleman City activists are also influenced by the broader trends described in chapters 2 and 3: changing racial politics and industrial public relations efforts, pressure to collaborate with state agencies, the opportunities and challenges of increasingly relying on philanthropically funded nonprofit structures to support activism, and the normalization of risk from the nearby hazardous waste landfill. They also face the challenge of pursuing activism within the context of neoliberal policies under capitalism, which mitigate against increasing environmental enforcement budgets and channel environmental activism toward voluntary and market-based (rather than regulatory) measures to contain industry pollution.
In Kettleman City, we can also see the fissures in the movement caused by the disagreement over tactics. The town hosted the first meeting of the newly formed California Environmental Justice Coalition, which was formed as an alternative to the better-funded, exclusive California Environmental Justice Alliance. Finally, in the face of skepticism about the value of participating on government advisory committees and improving the public’s ability to participate fairly in environmental decision-making, Kettleman City’s difficult history accessing environmental decision-making also shows why activists worked toward these goals in the first place.
The Anti-incinerator Campaign
In the late 1970s, Chemical Waste Management, Inc. (a subsidiary of Waste Management Inc.) built a hazardous waste landfill 3.5 miles away from Kettleman City on land formerly used to store waste mud from nearby oil drilling. As a Class 1 landfill, the facility is authorized to take almost any hazardous substance up to, but excluding, radioactive waste. It is the largest hazardous waste landfill west of the Mississippi. In the 1980s, Chemical Waste began the permitting process to add a hazardous waste incinerator to the existing landfill. The incinerator would burn hazardous waste instead of landfilling it. According to the waste management industry, the push toward incinerators in the 1980s was a response to a national crisis of landfills running out of room for new waste. (However, as David Pellow, Kenneth Gould, and others have written, the “crisis” had other origins, including that the public increasingly did not want to live near them, and industry was blocking or shuttering recycling initiatives.) These incinerators would add dangerous toxins to the air, and the proposed incinerator sites were disproportionately in low-income communities and communities of color, such as Kettleman City.
Many residents of Kettleman City did not even know about the existing hazardous waste landfill just outside of town, where it is not easily visible from the road. Residents did not discover its presence until after it was built—some in 1985, when the dump was fined for operating unauthorized waste ponds, and some not until they learned about the incinerator proposal a few years later. Maricela Mares Alatorre, daughter of activists Mary Lou and Ramon Mares, remembers that her family and neighbors had no idea that the dump existed, or that a hazardous waste incinerator was proposed to be added to it, until Greenpeace organizer Bradley Angel knocked on her door while recruiting residents to attend an upcoming permitting hearing. The hearings, however, were not easy to participate in:
When we started attending these meetings, we noticed that they were never in town, they were usually in the middle of the day, 45 miles away, where they weren’t really accessible to people. And if you could get there, they didn’t translate them into Spanish when most of the town speaks Spanish. And we started finding out that there was a pattern to the way these things happen. We started researching the company. We were informed about the Cerrell Report. It was a 1984 document, which was commissioned by the California Waste Management Board where they said how you should choose a town for these kinds of projects. And we found out that they were going around choosing towns that had a large minority population, where people didn’t speak English, large immigrant populations, low education, and Catholic. That was actually in the report: Catholic. And we were—we were shocked because we really had no idea. I had no idea that environmental racism existed until we were made aware of that document. And it’s like you don’t want to have to go to a meeting. You don’t want to have to, you know, spend all your time in these boring hearings, and sometimes you don’t understand what they’re saying. But it makes you mad when we saw the pattern. And we talked to people from other towns, and we started networking, and we saw how they deliberately chose people like us to do these things to. It makes you mad.
Mares Alatorre’s story is a common one in communities fighting incinerators and other waste facilities in the 1980s and 1990s. As people across the country learned that toxic industries were being located in politically vulnerable communities, residents faced off with local government officials and industry representatives (who appeared to march in lockstep), resorting to disruptive political tactics when their pleas to government officials fell on deaf ears. In Kettleman City, residents, concerned about the threat to their health, formed a grassroots group to tackle the problem: El Pueblo para el Aire y Agua Limpio (People for Clean Air and Water). Mary Lou and Ramon Mares, and Esperanza and Joe Maya, among others, took leadership roles. Some of El Pueblo’s members brought in prior experience with farmworker organizing in the United Farm Workers of America to El Pueblo, while for others El Pueblo was their first experience with organizing.
Like many other groups nationwide, El Pueblo pursued local, direct action and community organizing strategies. However, it was unique in having early access to a lawyer, Luke Cole at California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), who used the case as a test for the use of civil rights law to address pollution in communities of color. The organization also had the support of organizers from the large environmental group Greenpeace, which (unlike many other large national and international environmental organizations) embraced direct-action tactics and at the time, at least on the West Coast, invested in local antitoxics and environmental justice organizing. In addition to their work with Greenpeace and CRLA, activists also attracted support from the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice, Las Madres del Este de Los Angeles, Citizen Action, Rev. Jesse Jackson, a UC Berkeley student group (Nindakin: People of Color for Environmental Justice), and a wide array of others.
One of the most iconic moments in the campaign occurred at a 1988 public hearing about the toxic waste incinerator proposal. By the time this hearing took place, residents had lost faith in both state and industry officials and came prepared to confront them:
So, before this meeting, I’m at my home, and we said, “Well, whenever we don’t like something, we’re going to have to let them know.” All their same lies. So, I made hundreds of copies of this piece of paper with the word “NO” real bold on it. It’s just that, “NO.” I said, when we don’t like something, we’re going to scream “No!” So, we all had those with us.
The circumstances of the hearing underscored how Kettleman City residents were being excluded from the normal process of government decision-making. Like other hearings, this one was not in Kettleman City but in the county seat in Hanford, thirty miles away. Although it was held in the winter, the hearing was not scheduled for one of the comfortable, well-heated spaces available in town such as the high school auditorium. Rather, the hearing was held in the County Fairground building, a building about the size of a football field that was, as one resident told me, “an exhibit barn for arts and crafts, or your animals or whatever. One of those big galvanized buildings made out of sheet metal or something. It’s cold. Cement floor.” The planning commission sat elevated at the front of the room, with portable heaters at their feet and hot coffee on their table. Open space, microphones, and then about fifty rows of seats lay before them, followed by bleachers. Behind the bleachers, there was empty concrete that stretched until the end of the building.
Luke Cole and Sheila Foster describe provisions made for Spanish- speaking residents as follows:
Kettleman City residents showed up at the meeting in force. About 200 people came by bus and carpool from Kettleman City, and, as one of their leaders made clear, “We’re here, we want to testify on this project, and we brought our own translator.” The chair of the Kings County Planning Commission looked down on the crowd and said, “That request has been denied. The translation is taking place in the back of the room and it won’t happen up here.” Residents looked at where the Planning Commissioner was pointing: they looked from the Planning Commission up on their dais, they looked at the open space and the microphones, they looked at all the rows of chairs, and they looked at the bleachers. And then they looked way back behind the bleachers, nearly at the rear of the room, where there was one forlorn man sitting surrounded by a little circle of about twenty-five empty chairs. The Planning Commission chair said again, “Why don’t you go back there? There are monitors back there. We are all in the same room.”
Kettleman City residents had come prepared to press their cause, and this arrangement did not suit them at all. One activist describes what happened at the meeting as follows:
It was supposed to be open all day for people that wanted to go and say whether they’re for [the incinerator], against it, or have questions for the supervisors. And we had a certain time we were supposed to be there. We were bused over there. Some people took their cars, and some people went on their own, but when we got there, they didn’t let us speak ’til about 9:00 or 10:00 that evening. They let other people speak first that should have spoke during the day. They were getting us to be tired so we would just go home, you know, and leave them alone. Then they didn’t have the translators they were supposed to have had. They had some translators. We asked for the translators and then they said, “Well, the translators are going to be in the back of the building. Go to the back.” They told us to go in the back! Go to the back of the room for the translators. And we all went, “No!” You know, “You bring the translators to us when we’re up there speaking!” So we go, “No!” And then we said, “Adelante!” and we all went forward with our “No! No!” “We’re not going to go to the back of the room!” . . . And they were shocked that we did that. Why would they send us to the back of the room? That’s discrimination there in itself. So, they didn’t have translators, and it was just waiting for somebody to do something wrong, to jump on us, to fight with us. You couldn’t even go to the bathroom, ’cause they were waiting for you in there to do something, the Chem Waste employees. It was just really, really bad.
Negative encounters like these, in which state decision-makers and industry representatives blatantly disrespected residents, drew more people into the fight, as this early incinerator opponent describes:
When the people that needed the translation started understanding what they were trying to do to them and how they were being disrespected, that made them more active. So that’s how we got more people to get into the fight for the incinerator.
Another iconic moment of disruption took place later in the campaign, the day before another hearing, when activists blockaded the entryway to the landfill with an old school bus and chained themselves to its axle. An activist who had been part of a successful campaign to oppose the construction of another incinerator in nearby Alpaugh helped out in Kettleman City. Greenpeace stored the bus on her property until it was needed and used her home as a planning area for the demonstration. She describes the opportunity to have supporters from out of town staying with her as a strange but wonderful experience. A Kettleman City resident who also hosted out-of-town supporters had a similar experience:
One time I housed a lot of people from Greenpeace at my house. They were at my house for almost two weeks, and they camped in my backyard. They came to canvas. I didn’t even know what that word meant. But I remember seeing them coming in with money in the evening. I didn’t even know what was going on. We were so green to all this. So I was asked if I could house them and I said, “Yeah.” Well, they all came over to help us and I don’t even know who they were. And I remember that I used to cook for them. They would not eat meat, so I would cook a big pot of pinto beans every day, and they would eat the whole damn pot—[laughter]—of beans and salsa. I always had that, and I don’t know who furnished the pasta, but they always had big bags of pasta and I would cook the pasta. And they stayed at my house for that long. The posters were made in my backyard. The canvas banners were done there. I housed a lot of people throughout the years in my home—strangers, you know? Strangers because I never seen them before, but they came to help. I didn’t even know what the organization Greenpeace was, or who they were, who Bradley [Angel] was, you know? But I learned throughout the years.
During this period, environmental justice activism felt like it was becoming a national mass movement, with Kettleman City as one of many hot spots. In addition to the student activists and others brought by Greenpeace, residents from other affected communities such as San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point, East Los Angeles, and Alpaugh visited Kettleman City to lend their support. One Kettleman City activist remembers those days fondly:
I think all of it was a high point. I was really amazed that people outside Kettleman City actually cared for us, what happened to us. We started networking and all these people came to our aid. Who were they? Why did they care? We couldn’t understand that. Like Bradley [Angel] and his organizations, and Luke Cole with the lawyers. Why did they care? We’re just a poor Hispanic migrant little town, you know? But they knew more of what Chem Waste was doing. We were not the only site in the United States. We found out later that there were other dumpsites, and that they have the same pattern [of locating dumps in politically disadvantaged communities] throughout.
Kettleman City activists returned the favor, giving their support to people elsewhere and strengthening the emerging network of grassroots environmental justice activists. They went to the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., in 1991, which helped bring together people facing similar problems across the country. They traveled to Los Angeles and other California locations, as well as New York, Alabama, and the town of Playas de Rosarito, ten miles south of the US-Mexico border. These visits were not just to provide moral support, but to share tactics and information about their common corporate opponents. The meetings laid bare the lies that Chemical Waste was telling on each side. For example, the residents of Playas de Rosarito had been told that the people of Kettleman City were supportive of the incinerator proposal—a lie that Kettleman City residents quickly debunked when they met. The Mexican residents had wanted to come see the landfill in Kettleman City as they considered their options but were told no by Chemical Waste; at the same time, Chemical Waste was telling Kettleman City residents that they could come see the landfill anytime, because the company had nothing to hide. The Kettleman City activists therefore planned a visit to the dump without mentioning to Chemical Waste that they would be accompanied by several busloads of Mexican residents from Playas de Rosarito and local press. The Mexican visitors returned home and successfully blocked the building of the incinerator proposed for their town.
As Kettleman City residents met activists from elsewhere, many developed broader political critiques about waste infrastructure writ large, broadening their opposition beyond the early “not in my back- yard” beliefs. Mary Lou Mares shared the following:
We started going to statewide conferences and meeting other people who were fighting other terrible stuff. There was Stormy Williams, she was fighting in the Mojave Desert. Everybody says, “Why can’t you put this incinerator in the desert or somewhere where people don’t . . . ?” And she would get up and say, “Wait a minute, I live in the desert!” [Laughter] At first, you are so ignorant that it’s easy to say, “Put it in the desert,” but you start meeting people and you start understanding that there is no place to put an incinerator because the air belongs to everybody and it has currents and it goes around and comes around. You just cannot put anything into the air.
Despite the efforts by Kettleman City residents and allies, the Kings County Planning Commission nevertheless voted to approve the incinerator construction. Kettleman City is an unincorporated community, which means the people have no local governance structure of their own but rather are governed from a distance by a county board of supervisors, located forty miles away in the whiter and more affluent county seat of Hanford (where the public hearings took place). At that time, Kettleman City had little representation on the Planning Commission, which was mostly made up of people who did not live near the dump. The county stood to increase its revenues through taxing the landfill operators (although, as Kettleman City residents complained, precious few of those resources were reinvested in Kettleman City itself—an example of how racial capitalism functions at the county level).
El Pueblo appealed the decision to the Kings County Board of Supervisors, who upheld the incinerator approval. El Pueblo and its legal supporters at CRLA filed a class-action lawsuit against Kings County in 1991. In 1992, a superior court judge overturned the Kings County approval of the incinerator, ruling that it was based on an inadequate environmental impact report and that the public permitting process had failed to meaningfully involve the local population, since residents in the predominantly Spanish-speaking town had received the relevant documents only in English. Chemical Waste Management filed an appeal, but then withdrew the incinerator application in 1993. One activist describes the immense relief she and her friend felt after winning the protracted campaign:
[My friend] and I just cried and cried the day we got the announcement. The reporter came first to my house, saying, “Tell us what you’re doing, what’s your next this and that, your next strategy,” and then along came the general manager of Chem Waste and he comes up to us and he says, “It’s over. The lawsuit, it’s over. We’re withdrawing the plan to put in the incinerator.” I said, “What?!” He said that they are not doing the incinerator. “Oh, I gotta go see [my friend]!” And I go to [my friend’s house] and we just hugged and cried and cried. It was [many] years of struggle, you know, it was great. It was so good.
Kettleman City’s fight against the incinerator was often framed as an epic David versus Goliath battle between the largest waste management company in the country and a tiny, low-income Latinx community in a largely forgotten part of California. The activists’ victory became a symbol of the movement’s vitality and potential. It also inspired environmental justice activists across the country. The Kettleman City residents’ visits to and from other communities confronting similar problems helped activists see the bigger picture, that this was not a local but a systemic problem. This campaign thus helped nurture the broader environmental justice movement, both in California and the nation.
End of excerpt from chapter four. For the rest of this chapter, see the complete book, available at University of California Press and elsewhere.
 The landfill is managed by Chemical Waste Management, Inc., a subsidiary of Waste Management. Speakers use variations of both names (Chemical Waste, Chem Waste, and Waste Management), usually to refer to the local managers of the landfill.
 US Bureau of the Census, “ACS Demographic and Housing Estimates (Latinx population); US Bureau of the Census, “Educational Attainment” (education); and US Bureau of the Census, “Selected Economic Characteristics” (income).
 Cole and Foster, From the Ground Up; and Bullard, Confronting Environmental Racism.
 Two of these three were still in operation in 2021. Rosengren, “After It First WTE Facility Closes.” These numbers come from personal communications with Mike Ewall, executive director of Energy Justice Network, September 3 2018, and Bradley Angel, executive director of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, March 26, 2021. Although no new commercial municipal waste incinerators have been built in the time indicated, several incinerators have been retrofitted, expanded, or built on the same site as existing incinerators since 1995. In addition, in 2017 a small, noncommercial-scale gasification incinerator was built at Army Garrison Fort Hunter Liggett in Monterey County, California. There are also two medical waste incinerators operating in California, in Paramount and Hesperian. Here I follow the activist convention of calling these modern facilities incinerators, whereas the waste industry calls them waste-to-energy facilities that “superheat” waste rather than burn it. Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice and Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, “Incinerators in Disguise.”
 Pellow, “Environmental Inequality Formation”; and Gould, Schnaiberg, and Weinberg, Local Environmental Struggles.
 Baptista and Perovich, U.S. Municipal Solid Waste Incinerators; Costner and Thornton, Playing with Fire; and White, “Hazardous Waste Incineration and Minority Communities.”
 The Cerrell Report itself does not specify race as a category by which locations for incinerators should be chosen, but many of the proposed locations were nonetheless in communities of color. Powell, “Political Difficulties Facing Waste-to-Energy Conversion Plant Siting.”
Perkins, Tracy. “The Multiple People of Color Origins of the US Environmental Justice Movement: Social Movement Spillover and Regional Racial Projects in California.” Environmental Sociology 7, no. 2 (2021): 147–59. https://doi.org/10.1080/23251042.2020.1848502.
Perkins, Tracy. “Women’s Pathways into Activism: Rethinking the Women’s Environmental Justice Narrative in California’s San Joaquin Valley.” Organization & Environment 25, no. 1 (2012): 76–94. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10 .1177/1086026612445390.
White, Harvey. “Hazardous Waste Incineration and Minority Communities.” In Race and the Incidence of Environmental Hazards: A Time for Discourse, edited by Bunyan Bryant and Paul Mohai, 126–39. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992.
Small Shareholders and Global Radicals in Revolutionary Mexico
In the age of the New Imperialism, the world was turned inside out. The dark slumbering core of the earth was flooded with light, wrenched by fiery blasts, then hacked and dragged, bit by craggy bit, to the surface. From the forced mouths of mine shafts, its innards were scavenged. Silver, copper, and zinc were dredged out of Mexico; gold was wrested from the Yukon lands of the Klondike; and diamonds were plucked from the bowels of South Africa. From deposits of unburied iron, a new exoskeleton of rail fused together across the horizon. Railways screamed over continents with the velocity of finance, tearing new pathways of commerce and trade, and bruising the land around it. Coals disgorged from the mines of West Virginia, Colorado, and Manchuria were made radiant with fire and fed, inexhaustibly, to furnaces. Skies blackened with the spew of smokestacks. Ash drifted onto windowsills. Ash was coughed up from throats. Where forests had been felled and burned to make charcoal, this era reached deep beneath tombs, down past the ancient muck and humus to grab the earth’s vital forces. Oil that had coursed through subterranean veins was transfused into the lifeblood of modern industry. Rubber ran like devil’s milk from Congolese vines into waiting Belgian ships, becoming tires, wire insulation, and machine belts, the sinews of industrial production. From the ground, grains were coaxed to even heights over gridded fields, sheathed into uniform bushels, then loaded into gaping containers. Over rails, roads, ship lines, and pounded copper wires, goods were moved, tracked, and transubstantiated into value. This new geometry of motion was animated by global capital, but it was built and shaped by disciplined muscle. Hands, arms, backs, and thighs were lowered and bent, again and again, becoming pulsing metronomes of economic time. From the dark center of the earth at the turn of the century, capital came dripping with dirt and blood from every pore. How, some wondered, could it be otherwise? The world had been turned inside out. Could it also be turned upside down?
Across the windswept expanse of the Sonora Desert, where the Colorado River snakes through the Mexicali Valley and slips down jagged rocks before it spills into the Sea of Cortez, there, where the US border looms like a mirage, an Okinawan immigrant named Shinsei “Paul” Kōchi found internationalism. Shipwrecked and shoeless, Kōchi walked for miles in a daze. He stepped gingerly on thorny scrub and walked reverently around the discarded canteens and dried bones of those who had come before. It was to them, the “numerous and nameless,” that Kōchi dedicated his reflections in Imin no Aiwa (An Immigrant’s Sorrowful Tale).Following the river north, Kōchi searched for food, warmth, and shelter with a small band of survivors from China, Mexico, and Japan in December 1917. Worldwide, millions had fled their countries, compelled by starvation, debt, dispossession, political repression, and the ravages of the First World War. Immigrants who were not allowed to enter countries “with dignity through the front door” routinely risked their lives “breaking in through the back gate.” Those who perished were often “buried in the sea” while others “left their bones to dry on the empty desert.” As Kōchi observed, the “tragedy” of these journeys came not from heedless risk nor naïve adventurism but “a contradiction born precisely out of modern capitalist society.”
For many like Paul Kōchi, the world of 1917 was at once tragic and aflame with possibility. At twenty-eight, he and his “comrade” Seitoku Miyasato had set sail for Mexico, escaping arrest and political persecution at home. The two friends hailed from Nakijin Village in Okinawa, the largest island in a South Sea chain annexed by Japan only decades prior. Despised by mainland Japanese, Okinawans struggled against accusations of being “backwards” southerners in need of centralized political rule, strengthened work ethic, linguistic assimilation, and the abandonment of their “savage” cultural traditions. Kōchi and Miyasato were active in an underground reading group of village teachers opposed to Japanese despotism. Authorities blacklisted members upon discovering their copies of Daisan Teikoku, a journal critical of the government. Fearing repression, the pair planned to escape Okinawa, leaving their young families behind. Convinced they would return after a brief sojourn, they boarded a steamer at the port in Naha. Once aboard, Kōchi noted the “inexpressible feeling” that welled up in his fellow passengers as they looked upon the possible “last sight of their homeland” and of their loved ones. As the “unfeeling” ship set sail, Kōchi and Miyasato watched their young wives and children disappear, “looking permanently abandoned,” as the harbor receded. The men stood together on the deck, “arm still linked to arm,” until their “mountain home sank beneath the horizon.”
Internationalism, for Kōchi, began with a sense of identification. In Hawai’i, where the ship refueled, he felt profound kinship with the Indigenous Kanaka Maoli dockworkers loading and unloading cargo. He observed the first-class passengers’ delight as they threw coins at young Hawaiians, compelling them to dive into the waves chasing the sinking pocket change. He recognized that Hawai’i, “in its climate, customs, products, as well as its recent history,” was like Okinawa: a remote chain of mountainous islands inhabited by people whose language, culture, and sovereignty were all threatened from the mainland. Hawai’i, like Okinawa, was also dominated by sugarcane cultivation, a commonality that would have been apparent to the nearly ten thousand Okinawans who labored in the Hawai’ian sugarcane plantations at the time. Kōchi listened and felt profoundly moved by the musical resonance between the two cultures: “That heart-tugging farewell Aloha Oe was, in fact, the farewell song to the fleeing king of Hawaii. (Our famous Sanyamā was just such a song for the king of Okinawa.)” Such connections only deepened throughout his journey.
As the ship briefly docked in Southern California’s San Pedro harbor, Kōchi, Miyasato, and all the other Asian passengers found themselves trapped aboard. The 1917 Immigration Act and similar diplomatic agreements prevented immigrants from the so-called “barred Asiatic zone” from entering the country. Kōchi railed against these laws and against the nativism fomented during the First World War that kept Asians from ever setting “one foot down” on US soil. A flurry of indignation overtook the passengers. One Japanese man jumped overboard, desperate to reach shore. Passengers looked on in horror as the man drowned in the cold waters of the Pacific. Despondent in his confinement onboard, Kōchi stared at Catalina Island off the California coast. Slowly he began to reappraise his situation. He considered the long, violent history of US settlement and Indigenous dispossession that drove Native people like the Tongva “into the mountain recesses” to starve. He realized that if the same exclusionary nativism that was applied to him had also been “radically applied” to the United States, no settler would be allowed to set foot in the country. Kōchi condemned US immigration laws and observed that the national boundaries they maintained were themselves illegitimate. Considering the intertwined histories of racist immigration laws and rapacious settler colonialism, Kōchi imagined internationalist bonds forged through shared rage: a web of refusal seething within and against national borders.
With five hundred immigrants from Japan, India, and China still aboard, barred from entering the United States, the steamship Anyōmaru chugged south, destined for Brazil. While many in the upper decks sailed leisurely towards exotic lands and thrilling business ventures, most passengers had been coerced onboard by the churning transformations of the global economy. Since the late nineteenth century, countries newly pulled into the frenzy of modern finance saw intensified investment in extractive industries and commercialized agriculture. The subsequent evisceration of communal land holdings and subsistence farming practices had uprooted millions of peasants, including those en routefrom the “barred Asiatic zone.” Many of the Anyōmaru’s passengers were bound for contract work in the Caribbean and throughout Latin America, often following labor recruiters’ promised jobs. Japanese and Okinawan immigrants sought to join compatriots in Brazilian mining communities. Along with Chinese counterparts, they also sought contracts in places like Peru and throughout the Caribbean. The swirling chaos of colonialism and war also produced its own global circuits, dragging colonial soldiers, particularly from India, onto foreign battlefields. As their labors were conscripted into war economies, their ranks expanded in what Priyamvada Gopal describes as a “world-wide belt of insurgencies.” Radical Japanese students who called themselves “comrades of the four seas” invited Kōchi and Miyasato to join them in Cuba. The two friends had other plans. A ship’s porter had hinted about the possibility of sneaking into the United States through Mexico. This is what the pair resolved to do once the ship docked in Oaxaca.
From the moment their “feet touched down” in Mexico, Kōchi and Miyasato were immediately conscious of being “immigrants owning nothing but our bodies.” They were detained and quarantined in harrowing conditions along with other immigrants. The men looked on in horror as a prisoner from India was stripped and then doused with sulfur, his money belt stolen in the process. As they shared with him their meager funds, the man thanked them for being “Buddhas in Hell.” A few days later, several dozen Asian immigrants, including some of their fellow Okinawan villagers, joined their cell. The area was “well-known for its searing winds,” which blew through the barred windows day and night, creating “sandstorms” inside the jail. Covered in the same dust, Kōchi understood his fellow prisoners as “convicts banished to Siberia in Tsarist Russia,” a timely comparison given that Russian people had recently overthrown that Tsarist regime during the Bolshevik Revolution. The experience was not lost on the men. Given their travels, confinements, and commitments, Kōchi declared retrospectively that he and Miyasato were already “internationalists.”
Released from prison and into the heat of the Revolution, Kōchi and Miyasato (along with their Spanish-speaking countrymen) raced toward the US border. The men traversed a convulsive landscape, dancing to guitars in Mazatlán and narrowly escaping bandits as their train hugged the western coast through Culiacán. They launched a small boat out of Guayamas. For a week, they sailed north up the inlet of the Gulf of California. In a disaster, the boat caught fire, forcing all passengers to jump overboard. When they reassembled on shore, they discovered that only thirteen of the original passengers remained. Shipwrecked in the Sonoran Desert on December 2, 1917, the small group had next to no supplies. They collected “snow waters” from the Colorado River in rusty tin cans. They ripped strips of cloth and tore out their trouser pockets in vain attempts to protect their feet from sagebrush, cacti, and the cold. A crumbling biscuit was shared among the men. Tearing down the shore, Kōchi called out for his friend. His cries of “Miyasato! Miyasato!” were swallowed by the sea. The group was forced to press on.
In his travels throughout northern Mexico, Kōchi continually discovered and rediscovered internationalism. His group was saved by an Indigenous Yaqui family, who fed the men, gave them shelter, and offered them homemade leather shoes. The warmth of the family reminded him of home. He encountered a French trader who smuggled him to the border under a pile of hay to avoid the eyes of Mexican guards. This kindness, he said, “was surely internationalism.” When Kōchi finally reached the border, it was a group of Chinese immigrant workers who met him. Wrote Kōchi, “It seemed that for them we were all immigrants travelling the same road and they understood our situation from their hearts. This ‘class consciousness’ cuts across race and nationality and promotes mutual understanding which, if preserved and extended, would make the deserts bloom.”
Paul Kōchi’s story demonstrates how the uprooted, dispossessed, and despised of the world came to know each other in shadows, in the tangled spaces of expulsion, extraction, transportation, debt, exploitation, and destruction: the garroting circuits of modern capital. Whether crammed in tight ship quarters; knocking together over the rails; sweating and swaying in the relentless tempo of industrial agriculture; inhaling the dank air of mine shafts; hearing each other breathing, coughing, fighting, singing, snoring, and sighing through thin walls; or corralled like livestock in jails and prisons, the contradictions of modern capital were shared in its intimate spaces. Within such sites, people discovered that the circuits of revolution, like the countervailing circuits of capital, were realizable in motion, often through unplanned assemblages. Roaring at their backs were the revolutionary currents of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, currents that howled from the metropolitan hearts of empire and wailed across the peripheries of the global world system. Standing before them, in the middle of its own revolution, was Mexico. From the vantage point of these struggles, the new century did not simply portend the inevitability of urban revolts and insurgencies at the point of production, but an epoch of peasant wars, rural uprisings, anti-colonial movements, and, of course, the Mexican Revolution. Mexico, as both a real country and an imagined space of revolution, would become a crucible of internationalism for the world’s “rebels” like Paul Kōchi.
Paul Kōchi’s Imin no Aiwa presents internationalism as nearly an inevitable phenomenon. By narrating his path from Okinawa to the United States through Mexico, Kōchi describes how travel along the contradictory routes newly limned by capital and imperialism enabled him to acquire a radical global consciousness. In describing his encounters with Indigenous people and other immigrants along the way, he offers a sense of how such consciousness could be produced through the contradictory social spaces of ships, trains, boats, in detention, and through covert passage across Mexico towards the US border. Kōchi’s story offers an important perspective into the relationship between the political economy of the period and the formation of a revolutionary consciousness. In this, Kōchi was not alone.
The transformation of the global economy certainly set the stage for the development of an internationalist consciousness. But if all that was required for internationalism were the conditions of a hard journey, the world would be full of internationalists. As significant as Kōchi’s travels were, there were far more people who lived during the era of the Mexican Revolution, who even came to Mexico at the time, who did not become internationalists. This was particularly true for the fortune hunters who arrived seeking land, fame, or wealth in the country in spite of the many radical possibilities presented by the Revolution. This was also true for many Asian immigrants like Kōchi, particularly Chinese immigrants who suffered extraordinary violence and repression at the hands of state and non-state actors. The paths of those who came, saw, but chose moderate or outright reactionary paths reveal some of the fetters inhibiting the making of internationalism. This chapter explores both these possibilities and barriers.
In the era of its Revolution, Mexico represented multiple configurations of space: it was simultaneously a fixed place on the map, a place made meaningful relative to the places it bordered or was connected to through roads, rails, and ports, and it was also an imagined space, upon which multiple competing fantasies were projected. The chapter considers the experiences of radicals who lived in, traveled to, or found themselves in Mexico during the during the fighting phase of the Revolution, 1910–20. The collective act of making new worlds, as they discovered, required a reckoning with the seductions of nationalism, the social relations of imperialism, and the spatial imaginaries of capital. Internationalism, in other words, had to be forged, not simply found. To do so, as this chapter shows, it had to compete with the enticements of the color line, the racist and gendered fantasies of the New Imperialism.
 Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Penguin Books,  1990), 926; Rosa, Luxemburg, Accumulation of Capital (London: Routledge, 2003); David Montgomery, Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State and American Labor Activism, 1865–1925 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 70; John Tully, Devil’s Milk: A Social History of Rubber (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011); Arthur Conan Doyle, Crime of the Congo. (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1909); Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (New York: Viking Press, 1972).
 Quotes come from Paul Shinsei Kōchi, Imin No Aiwa (An Immigrant’s Sorrowful Tale), trans. Ben Kobashigawa (Los Angeles: Privately printed, 1978). There are minor differences between this version and the version written in June 1938 and republished as Shinshei Kōchi, “Sad Tale of an Immigrant: Dedicated to the Souls of the Departed,” in History of the Okinawans in North America, trans. Ben Kobashigawa (Los Angeles: Okinawan Club of America and the Asian American Studies Center, University of California, 1988), 524–540. Where relevant, these differences will be noted.
 In the 1978 publication of Imin no Aiwa, Kōchi describes setting off: “At four in the afternoon on September 2 in the 7th year of the Taishō era (1918), we rebels boarded the Taigimaru bound for Kobi” (19). But the 1988 edition describes the graffiti Kōchi scribbles on the wall of the Salina Cruz detention center as a note signed “November 1917” and later a message on a rock dated “December 1917” (528, 532).
 On “backwardness” and “savage” and for debates on Okinawa’s colonial status, see Alan S. Christy, “The Making of Imperial Subjects in Okinawa,” in Formations of Colonial Modernity in East Asia, ed. Tani E. Barlow(Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997), 141–70, and Julia Yonetani, “Ambiguous Traces and the Politics of Sameness: Placing Okinawa in Meiji Japan,” Japanese Studies 20, no. 1 (2000): 15–31. For a discussion of Japan in the context of Gramsci’s “Southern Question,” see Harry Harootunian, “Some Reflections on Gramsci: The Southern Question in the Deprovincializing of Marx,” in Gramsci in the World,ed. Frederic Jameson and Robert M. Dainotto (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020), 140–57.
 Kōchi, Imin No Aiwa, 20; Chushichi Tsuzuki, The Pursuit of Power in Modern Japan, 1825–1995 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000)192; Chushichi Tsuzuki, “The Changing Image of Britain among Japanese Intellectuals,” in The History of Anglo-Japanese Relations 1600–2000: Social and Cultural Perspectives, ed. Gordon Daniels and Chushichi Tsuzuki (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 17–40.
 Kōchi, Imin No Aiwa,21, 33; Mamoru Akamine, The Ryukyu Kingdom: Cornerstone of East Asia, trans. Lina Terrell, ed. Robert N. Huey(Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2016), 140; Richard Siddle, “Colonialism and Identity in Okinawa Before 1945,” Japanese Studies 18, no. 2 (1998): 121–22; James E. Roberson, “Singing Diaspora: Okinawan Songs of Home, Departure, and Return,” Identities 17, no. 4 (2010): 430–53; J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, Hawaiian Blood: Colonialism and the Politics of Sovereignty and Indigeneity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008); Edith Mitsuko Kaneshiro, “‘Our home will be the five continents’: Okinawan Migration to Hawaii, California, and the Philippines, 1899–1941” (PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1999), 116; Adria L. Imada, “‘Aloha ‘Oe’”: Settler-Colonial Nostalgia and the Genealogy of a Love Song,” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 37, no. 2 (2013): 35–52; Michael Denning, Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Musical Revolution (New York: Verso, 2015), 35–67.
 Mae M. Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 18.
 Kōchi, Imin No Aiwa, 33. For intertwined histories of immigrant exclusion and settler colonialism see Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Not “A Nation of Immigrants”: Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy, and a History of Erasure and Exclusion (Boston: Beacon, 2021). On refusal to consent to colonial mappings and occupations of territory, seeAudra Simpson, Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 128. Mahmood Mamdani suggests placing US settler-colonialism into a “global-historical” standpoint as a precursor to decolonization in Neither Settler nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020), 98–99.
 Priyamvada Gopal, Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent (London: Verso, 2019), 209.
 Grace Peña Delgado, Making the Chinese Mexican: Global Migration, Localism, and Exclusion in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013); Edith M. Kaneshiro, “Communists, Christians, and Japanese Imperial Subjects: Okinawan Immigrants within the Japanese Diaspora, 1899 to 1941,” in Studies in Pacific History: Economics, Politics, and Migration, ed. Dennis O. Flynn, Arturo Giráldez, and James Sobredo(London: Routledge, 2018), 170–87.
 Kōchi, Imin no Aiwa, 23. Since there is a discrepancy over the date of the voyage, the nature of the quarantine is unclear. If the trip occurred at the end of 1917, the quarantine would have been for typhus. If it occurred at the end of 1918, it would have been for the Spanish Flu pandemic. See Ryan M. Alexander, “The Fever of War: Epidemic Typhus and Public Health in Revolutionary Mexico City, 1915–1917,” Hispanic American Historical Review 100, no. 1 (2020): 63–92; Ryan M. Alexander, “The Spanish Flu and the Sanitary Dictatorship: Mexico’s Response to the 1918 Influenza Pandemic,” The Americas 76. no. 3 (July 2019): 443–65.
 For the debates about the disjuncture between nineteenth-century revolutionary political predictions and twentieth-century revolutionary conditions, see Cedric J. Robinson, An Anthropology of Marxism (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2001), 153; Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (London: Verso, 2007), 174; Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (London: Verso, 2002), 207–9; Mike Davis, “Old Gods, New Enigmas,” Catalyst 1, no. 2 (2017): 7–40.For a discussion of the insufficiency of the “transnational” designation, see Arif Dirlik, “Performing the World: Reality and Representation in the Making of World Histor(ies),” Journal of World History 16, no. 4 (December 2005): 391–410. Dirlik notes, “Ethnic and diasporic spaces are prime examples in our day of such spaces that are often described, somewhat misleadingly in my opinion, as ‘transnational’ spaces. Such spaces preceded in their existence the emergence of nations; they may not be of equal significance to all parts of the nation, in which case they may help undermine its unity and homogeneity, and they are quite likely to outlast the nation as we have known it” (397).
 For many Asian immigrants like Kōchi, especially many Chinese people, the question of internationalism in relation to the Mexican Revolution was a vexed one. East Asians were unevenly incorporated into state-building and capitalist development projects. As Jason Oliver Chang notes, Chinese immigrants were largely regarded as disposable labor or motores de sangre (engines of blood) under the Porfiriato and then later reimagined as threats to the state and killable subjects at different points during the Revolution. See Jason Oliver Chang, Chino: Anti-Chinese Racism in Mexico, 1880–1940 (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2017), 8, 71–87; Robert Chao Romero, The Chinese in Mexico, 1882–1940 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2012); María Elena Ota Mishima, Destino México: un estudio de las Migraciones Asiáticas a México, siglos XIX y XX. Mexico D.F.: Colegio de Mexico Centro de Estudios de Asia y Africa, 1997.
Christina Heatherton is an American Studies scholar and historian of anti-racist social movements. She is an Associate Professor of American Studies and Human Rights at Trinity College.
In their introduction to the anthology Goth: Undead Subculture, Lauren M. E. Goodlad and Michael Bibby identify Sioux as one of goth’s founding figures. They write that Sioux, “who began her career as a gothic doyenne in the Sex Pistols’ scene, helped to popularize a look characterized by deathly pallor, dark makeup, Weimar-era decadence, and Nazi chic” (2007, 1). While one might take issue with their conflation of Sioux’s styles that span a significant period of time (particularly when her adoption of “Nazi chic” was an early, brief, and much regretted move that assented to the miscalculated punk attempt at subversiveness by wielding the swastika on an armband or T-shirt), Goodlad and Bibby are right to note her significant role in popularizing what we now understand as goth. However, on numerous occasions, Sioux and Banshees bassist Steven Severin have commented on their association with goth, often times referring to it as “goff” to signal a clichéd performance that has flattened rather than highlighted the nuances underscoring the band’s music. As Sioux asserts, “Gothic in its purest sense is actually a very powerful, twisted genre, but the way it was being used by journalists—‘goff’ with a double ‘f’—always seemed to me to be about tacky harum scarum horror and I find that anything but scary. That wasn’t what we were about at all. There was something hippie about it too. Juju [the Banshees’ fourth and undeniably most critically acclaimed album] did have a horror theme to it, but it was psychological horror, nothing to do with ghosts and ghouls” (Paytress 2003, 106, emphasis added). Noting that they were “reading a lot of Edgar Allan Poe at the time” (107), Severin admits that while the band indeed described Juju as “gothic” upon the album’s release, journalists had not picked up on or immediately classified the music and the band as such. Cited as a key influence on subsequent artists, Sioux clarifies that the “strong identity” of Juju was diluted: “The goth bands that came in our wake tried to mimic [us]. They were using horror as the basis for stupid rock ’n’ roll pantomime” (107).
While the “psychological horror” characteristic of the album and much of the band’s music runs more in the vein of The Twilight Zone than Dracula (or as one-time Banshees guitarist John McGeoch recalls, “More blood dripping on a daisy than scary beast sinking its fangs into its victim” (Paytress 2003, 107), it is also about the everyday alienation experienced by those on the periphery. Indeed, Severin notes that the track “Halloween,” which based on title alone may seem to conjure that yearly celebration’s attendant ghosts and ghouls, is based on a revelation the bassist had as a six-year-old: “I suddenly realised that I was a separate person. I was no longer simply a part of things. And once you realise that, you’ve lost a certain innocence.” As the lyrics substantiate, “‘Trick or treat’ / The bitter and the sweet / The carefree days / Are distant now.” And while Siouxsie became, as Mark Paytress points out, “a style icon for a generation of ambitious, thrill-seeking young women” who visually emulated their rebellious idol, she and the Banshees sounded a marshaling call for outsiders everywhere to stand and be counted. Recounting how she was bullied daily at school as a child, Garbage lead singer Shirley Manson saw in Siouxsie a rebel with whom she could identify, and the Banshees’ music provided the stimulus for converting her disenfranchisement into the feeling that she could rule the world. Moreover, in her foreword to Paytress’s biography, Manson reasons that miscategorizing the band as goth dulls the “real edge” of Siouxsie and the Banshees. Their music, she maintains, reveals “so much articulated spite, humour and politics with a small ‘p’” while refusing to perambulate “down that simple, gloomy path” (Paytress 2003, 9).
In the band’s assessment of Juju and its contested gothic impulse, what I find most remarkable is Severin’s following confession: “If there was a band that influenced what we did on Juju it was The Cramps. Not musically, because they were much more rooted in straightforward rock ’n’ roll, but in terms of some of their imagery and the way they came across” (Paytress 2003, 107). The Cramps—described by one journalist as “the scariest band of all time” (Tashjian 2018)—were an American punk band that began to take shape in Akron, Ohio, in 1974 and took flight the following year in New York City. Consisting of the husband-and-wife combo of vocalist Lux Interior and bassist Poison Ivy, along with guitarist Bryan Gregory and numerous drummers in their early years, the Cramps—after making a momentous impact on the formative New York punk scene and playing noted venues like CBGB and Max’s Kansas City—relocated to Los Angeles in 1980. According to Ivy, “We didn’t move to LA because the scene was in LA, it was because there was no scene any more that there was no reason to stay in New York” (Porter 2015, 163). And at that time, Lux notes, “New York [was] concentrating on British bands or out of town bands” (163). Indeed, 1980 was the year Siouxsie and the Banshees would first tour the United States.
Severin’s aforementioned comment that the Banshees drew influence from the Cramps makes sense for how the former crafted their persona after the latter, based not on their music but on their “imagery” and “how they came across.” When comparing the image of the Cramps and Siouxsie and the Banshees, what becomes apparent at this particular moment is that they both boasted an undeniable psychedelic aesthetic that flew in the face of an assumed perpetual adornment of all-black gear. One might also point to Ivy’s and Siouxsie’s teased big hair or both bands’ affinity for classic horror and psychological thriller films (which, despite each group’s distinct musical styles noted by Severin, is titularly registered by the Banshees’ “Spellbound” and the Cramps’ “I Was a Teenage Werewolf ”). And like the Banshees, “The Cramps were a fully formed vision. People think, ‘Ooh horror movies, and ooh black.’ But no, it’s so much more than that. . . . It was a whole lifestyle. A manifesto” (“Kid Congo Powers Oral History” 2005). In view of their association, I want to signal another link between the two bands: the bond shared by Siouxsie and the Cramps’ one-time guitarist, Kid Congo Powers.
The same year Siouxsie and the Banshees first toured the States, Kid (né Brian Tristan), a third-generation Mexican American born in La Puente, California, joined the Cramps to replace Bryan Gregory on guitar. Introduced to a variety of musical traditions and genres from his family, Kid recalls hearing Mexican rancheras at weekend family parties and bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones (and “low-rider music, doo wop, oldies, a lot of soul and funk music, a lot of Santana, Jimi Hendrix, and Black Sabbath”) while growing up. A thirteen-year-old “big magazine hound” who pored over the pages of Creem and Rock Scene, he learned of Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, the New York Dolls, Television, Patti Smith, and others defining the 1970s New York City glam and emergent punk scene, eventually becoming the Ramones fan club president. In 1977, the seventeen-year-old Brian traveled with a school group to Europe. With London as one stop on the trip, he and a friend split off from their peers “and just went to concerts the whole time and sought out punk rock record stores.” As he recalls, “I went to this club, the Vortex Club, and I saw the Slits play and different bands. And the Clash were hanging out and Siouxsie and it was all very very very exciting. I was like seventeen—not even eighteen yet. And I got a punk rock haircut and came back to NY at the time and saw the Dead Boys and the Heartbreakers and went to CBGB’s and went back to LA quite informed with what was going on” (“Kid Congo Powers Oral History” 2005).
A devoted fan of the Cramps, the twenty-year-old Kid was beyond elated when invited to join the band as their guitarist upon Gregory’s departure. Renamed “Kid Congo Powers” by Poison Ivy and Lux Interior from a Santeria candle with the inscription “When you light this candle, Congo powers will be revealed to you,” Tristan added “Kid” because he “thought it sounded like a boxer or a pirate” (Porter 2007, 87–88). Appearing on two of the band’s signature releases—Psychedelic Jungle (1981) and the live mini-album Smell of Female (1984)—he remained with the Cramps until September 1983. In an illuminating 2005 oral history with the online publication New York Night Train, Kid details his abiding relationship with Siouxsie over the duration of his membership with the Cramps, the Gun Club (the LA-based country/cow punk/post-punk band to which he was recruited by longtime El Monte friend and collaborator Jeffrey Lee Pierce, who in his book Go Tell the Mountain identifies Siouxsie and the Banshees as “friends more or less” [(1998) 2017, 45]), and Fur Bible (a collaborative endeavor with Patricia Morrison—bassist and cofounder of the Bags and later a member of the Sisters of Mercy—and drummer Desperate). In Kid’s words:
We had been friends with Siouxsie for a long time. I had actually met Siouxsie and the Banshees, the whole band, when I was in the Cramps and we did some shows together and I befriended them. Billy Holston, who was their assistant, right-hand man—he’s the guy who made the Fur Bible cover, the artwork on that—he was a champion of our band. And he suggested it to them. And the Gun Club had played some shows with the Banshees as well and they were big fans of the Gun Club. And so they asked us to go on a tour with them and of course we said yes. And that was good because they were really popular at the time. We played at the Royal Albert Hall, where Bob Dylan played, and we played at big theaters everywhere in England. I guess we went over OK. I don’t remember. (“Kid Congo Powers Oral History” 2005)
After the Gun Club’s split in 1984, Fur Bible lent their support to the Banshees, opening a number of shows for the Tinderbox tour. From their reformation two years later in 1986 until their final days in 1996, Siouxsie remained a fan and friend to both the band and Kid.
In Donna Santisi’s landmark book of photographs, Ask the Angels (originally published in 1978 and redistributed in 2010), Kid and Siouxsie are captured together during a 1982 visit to Disneyland in Anaheim, California. Santisi provides the backstory:
One day Siouxsie Sioux wanted to go to Disneyland. It was Sioux, Kid Congo, Marcy Blaustein, Randy Kaye, and me. Sioux was really excited when we got there but once we were on Main Street, two security men came up to her and told her she had to leave. They said that she looked like an attraction and it would confuse the people in the park. Siouxsie was telling the men that she just wanted to see everything and go on the rides. They finally agreed that Sioux could stay if she covered up with Randy’s raincoat. We were followed all day by several security people with walkie talkies.
Capturing Sioux’s delight in absorbing the sights and attractions of Disneyland, Santisi’s photography, as Kid keenly notes, “catches the subject matter at ease, casual, yet exciting” (Santisi  2010, 32). Since encountering these photos, I have diligently studied their details. Not only do they index the globally recognized theme park I’ve visited since childhood, given its location in the next city over from where I grew up, but they register an unmistakable intimacy between Siouxsie Sioux and Kid Congo Powers.
In the two photos reproduced in Santisi’s book—one in which they flank the walkaround character Br’er Fox culled from the animated sequences of the Disney film Song of the South (Foster and Jackson 1946) and the other capturing the two sharing a ride on the Tomorrowland Rocket Jets—Kid and Siouxsie, with their almost identical big, black manes, recall Severin’s comparison of the Banshees and the Cramps. In this instance, though, the Cramps are represented by this Chicano from the Los Angeles suburb of El Monte whose discernable brownness contrasts with his friend’s pallid complexion, yet his chosen aesthetic categorically matches that of the former suburban Bromley recluse turned Ice Queen. With Disneyland—a wider-scale Wonderland of sorts—serving as one spatial point of contact, Kid and Siouxsie’s post-punk transatlantic intimacy manifests in Santisi’s photos that connote unequivocal joy and affection. Apparent in the discernable touch shared by Siouxsie and Kid in the small space of the jet, one may also, following Tina Campt (2017), listen to this image to hear their respective bands’ sonic intimacy. And I can’t help but imagine my ten-year-old self at nearby Disneyland on the same day as Siouxsie and Kid, admiring these outcast and defiant figures whose names I would learn three years later from music magazines, not unlike those publications the young Brian Tristan, also as a thirteen-year-old queer Chicano Southern California kid, intently read with the information discovered on their pages solidly committed to memory.
Troy Andreas Araiza Kokinis, in his poignant essay “El Monte’s Wildweed: Biraciality and the Punk Ethos of the Gun Club’s Jeffrey Lee Pierce,” writes about the “otherness” uniquely experienced by Kid and Pierce (whose mother was Mexican and who felt at home in Southern California Mexican American culture) in relation to the punk and alternative music scenes. For Kid, Kokinis writes, “the Hollywood punk scene” was “a site of refuge for weirdos and outsiders of all types, including racialized people and gender queers,” whereas Pierce, despite “being a white-passing biracial Chicano,” “remained uncomfortable with whiteness throughout his life” (2020, 237, 238). Yet Kid, noting his inability to pass as white, concedes his incessant outcast status: “America is white culture and Anglo culture. No matter how I do not even speak Spanish; I was raised as anyone would be in LA. But you still feel like an outsider” (238). With the combined dimension of his queer sexuality, Kid declares a “built-in otherness and built-in bucking the system,” thus prompting his ability to “shine and belong, to others” (238). Given her history as a social outcast and her alliances forged with kindred outsiders like those making up “the Bromley Contingent,” Siouxsie’s bond with Kid Congo Powers makes complete sense not only with respect to their mutual admiration as artists but also based on the affinitive alignment of a gay Chicano man in a predominantly white subculture and a woman fronting an all-male band in a mostly male music scene. And while the body of writing about the participation of queers and people of color in punk contexts in either the US or the UK has exponentially grown, there’s also much to be said about the relationships cultivated between American musicians of color and British post-punk artists in these often-overlapping music scenes.
 Chapter 3, focused on the Northampton band Bauhaus, engages in a more thorough discussion of goth, particularly around the 1979 single “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” their most famous song, considered by many the first goth record and the unofficial goth anthem. Siouxsie has on more than one occasion expressed her regret for wearing the swastika, primarily on an armband. As she explains, “Maybe I had been naïve in thinking people would understand what I was doing with the swastika. I must have been, because we started to get a lot of National Front skinheads turning up to gigs. They used to piss me off so much. I tried everything to stop them coming, drawing attention to them and slagging them off, even stopping a gig and beating the shit out of them a few times. But they just wouldn’t fuck off. I was so pissed off that I decided to use another equally strong symbol, the Star of David, which would completely alienate the idiots. When we played this gig in Derby, we tried everything to stop them, but nothing seemed to work. So we went off stage, put the ‘Israel’ T-shirts on and did ‘Drop Dead’ with the lights spotlighting them. It was fantastic. The whole audience felt empowered and turned on them” (Paytress 2003, 104). Despite adopting the Star of David on T-shirts and for their single “Israel” (and featuring “Red over White” on the B-side) as “an atonement” and writing the song “Metal Postcard (Mittageisen)” in the memory of anti-Nazi visual artist John Heartfield, journalists and scholars continued to take note of the too-casual incorporation of Nazi imagery in punk contexts of which Siouxsie was a part. For a discussion on Sioux’s range of styles, see Kevin Petty (1995), “The Image of Siouxsie Sioux: Punk and the Politics of Gender”; and Simon Reynolds and Joy Press, The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion and Rock ’n’ Roll, which notes how Sioux’s “career has consisted of an endless succession of costume changes and sexual personae” (1995, 291). Lucy O’Brien’s ( 2020) foundational She Bop also provides an excellent arch for assessing Siouxsie’s initially controversial public image to her sui generis role in the British punk and post-punk scenes.
 Severin’s words are from the liner notes written by Mark Paytress for Polydor’s 2006 remastered cd release of Juju.
 The persistence of the Siouxsie clone extends into the recent present, as illustrated in a 2013 episode of the American sketch comedy television series Portlandia, where the character Alexandra models herself after Siouxsie, hilariously mispronouncing her name “Suxie Sux.”
 Taken from Manson’s interview in The Queens of British Pop (Newton 2009).
 These songs are no doubt nods to Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) and Gene Fowler Jr.’s I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957).
 For additional information, see “Kid Congo Powers Oral History” (2005).
 For an insightful local history of Kid Congo Powers, see Melissa Hidalgo (2021), “Gente from La Puente: Underground Punk Icon Kid Congo Powers Still Rocks.”
 John Wombat’s (2018) The Cramps, Beast and Beyond: A Book about Bryan Gregory provides an insightful account of Gregory’s personal history.
 Additional Santisi photos of the Disneyland visit can be found in Ray Stevenson’s (1986) Siouxsie and the Banshees: Photo Book, although they are reproduced in a much smaller scale. I thank Donna Santisi for clarifying that her photos were taken in January 1982.
 This Santisi quote is taken from an interview with Alice Bag (2016).
 For an interesting analysis that understands Kid Congo Powers’s future embrace of the vampire (and hus tallying another example of what she calls the “Chicano Dracula” figure) see Paloma Martinez-Cruz (2020), “Chicano Dracula: The Passions and Predations of Bela Lugosi, Gomez Addams, and Kid Congo Powers.” Martinez-Cruz’s argument about Kid Congo Powers-as-vampire superbly assists in refusing his categorization as some standard-issue goth.
 In the case of the former, see Alice Bag’s (2011) excellent autobiography Violence Girl: East L.A. Rage to Hollywood Stage, a Chicana Punk Story; Jayna Brown (2011), “‘Brown Girl in the Ring’: Poly Styrene, Anabella Lwin, and the Politics of Anger”; Michelle Cruz Gonzales (2016), The Spit Boy Rule: Tales of a Xicana in a Female Punk Band; Colin Gunckel (2017), “‘People Think We’re Weird ’Cause We’re Queer’: Art Meets Punk in Los Angeles”; and Celeste Bell and Zoë Howe (2019), Dayglo! The Poly Styrene Story.
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. Few Americans are members of unions any longer. 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.” 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.
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 attractthe 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 centerfrom 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.
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. 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.” 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?’” To whom and to what will we choose to belong? What will we choose to worship?
*All photographs by Matt Gush, mattgush.com.
 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.
 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).
 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.
 David Foster Wallace, This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life (New York: Little, Brown, 2009), 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.
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.)
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 America, Orange 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.
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
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
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).
Yvonne De Los Santos and Roberto Flores, interview by Frank P. Barajas, February 1, 2013.
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.
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.
De Los Santos and Flores interview, 2013.
Juan Lagunas Soria, interview by Frank Bardacke, January 25, 1996; Flores inter- view, 2006.
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.
Eva Barbara Brown, “New High School Clubs Rising to Meet Challenge of Ethnic Awakening,” Ventura County Star-Free Press, February 1, 1970.
Brown, “New High School Clubs Rising.”
Roberto Hernández, Coloniality of the U.S./Mexico Border, 24–27.
“Protesting ci Students Face Suspensions, Principal Says,” Oxnard Press-Courier, February 27, 1969.
“Chicano Educators’ Aid to Be Requested,” Oxnard Press-Courier, November 19, 1970; “naacp Charges Elks Discriminate,” Oxnard Press-Courier, February 23, 1971.
“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.
“Minority Committee to Meet,” Oxnard Press-Courier, October 3, 1971; “Smith’s Resignation Offer Favored by Oxnard Board,” Oxnard Press-Courier, November 12, 1971.
Art Kuhn, “Black Offered Job: Smith’s Resignation Offer Favored by Oxnard Board,” Oxnard Press-Courier, November 12, 1971.
Rick Nielsen, “Oxnard High School Firebombed,” Oxnard Press-Courier, October 31, 1971; “U.S. Enters Oxnard High Probe,” Oxnard Press-Courier, November 1, 1971.
“Editorials: Firebombing Act of Desperation?,” Oxnard Press-Courier, November 2, 1971.
“ohs to Get New Principal Shortly,” Oxnard Press-Courier, December 9, 1971.
Cindy Garcia, “Channel Islands mecha Conducts Clothes Drive for Tijuana Needy,” Oxnard Press-Courier, December 2, 1973.
Karly Eichner, “Candy Sale Contest Starts at Rio Mesa,” December 2, 1973; “mecha Sponsored Event Draws 100 Parents,” Oxnard Press-Courier, November 12, 1972.
Diana Borrego Martínez, interview by Frank P. Barajas, July 9, 2012; De Los Santos and Flores interview, 2013.
Jess Gutiérrez, interview by Frank P. Barajas, June 28, 2010.
Borrego Martínez interview, 2012; De Los Santos and Flores interview, 2013; Acuña, Making of Chicana/o Studies, 95, 96.
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.
Bill Bader, “Of Personalities: ‘I’m Here to Educate You’–Soria,” Raiders Reporter 2, no. 8, November 13, 1968.
Bader, “I’m Here to Educate You”; López interview, 2010.
“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.
Fbi File, February 5, 1969, courtesy of Milo Alvarez.
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.
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.
“Mexican-America ucsb Course Topic,” Oxnard Press-Courier, August 18, 1969.
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.
“Mexican Flag Flies at mc in Independence Day Fete,” Raiders Reporter 3 no. 1, September 17, 1969; Muñoz, Youth, Identity, Power, 189–90.
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.
“Mas Conference Planned at mc,” Raider Reporter 3, no. 9, November 12, 1969.
“Mas Conference Planned at mc”; “Chicano Studies Conference Slated at Moor- park College,” Oxnard Pres-Courier, November 17, 1969.
Bill Sanchez et al., “To the Editor: Open Letter,” La Voz del Pueblo, November 21, 1969.
“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.
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.
Duane Warren, “Larry Ellis, Black Activities Head, Expounds upon bsu’s Eight Demands,” Pirate Press, January 9, 1970.
“Mc Library Fuss Penalties Pressed,” Oxnard Press-Courier, October 6, 1971; “Moorpark bsu Slates Black Events,” Oxnard Press-Courier, March 3, 1971.
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.
Jill Patrick, “4-Day Cinco de Mayo Event Begins Tues,” Raiders Reporter 4, no. 28, April 28, 1971.
“mc Commemorates Cinco De Mayo,” Raider Reporter 5, no. 29, May 3, 1972.
De Los Santos and Flores interview, 2013; Gutiérrez interview, 2010.
Dick Cooper, “People’s Choice,” Oxnard Press-Courier, April 15, 1973.
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.
“Bsu, mecha Present Show,” Pirate Press, December 8, 1972; Dennis McCarthy, “Minority Center Plans Festivities,” Pirate Press, May 7, 1971.
Louis Zitnik, “Letters to the Editor: Minorities,” Pirate Press, March 30, 1973.
Arnulfo Casillas, “Writer Differs with Letter to Editor,” Pirate Press, April 13, 1973.
“Mecha Mounts Mural,” Pirate Press, May 4, 1973; “Chicano Celebration Con- tinues,” Pirate Press, May 4, 1973.
“Chicano Speaks: The Mexican Fiesta—a Chance to ‘Discharge the Soul,’” Raiders Reporter 2, no. 21, March 19, 1969.
Raoul Contreras, “Mexican Students Propose Festive Christmas Season,” Pirate Press, November 8, 1968; “Mexicans Prepare Holiday Festivities,” Pirate Press, December 6, 1968.
Silvia Monica Robledo, “Letters to the Editor: Chicana Reader Explains, Defends Movimiento, Challenges Campos to Meaningful Participation,” Pirate Press, May 24, 1974.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
Michael C. Dill, “Letters to the Editor: Grouch Runs for Treasurer,” Pirate Press, May 30, 1975.
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.
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.
Faye Villa, “Voice of the People: ‘Chicanos’ Challenge,” Oxnard Press-Courier, February 2, 1970.
Dan E. Contreras, “Voice of the People: Chicano Spokesman,” Oxnard Press- Courier, February 3, 1970.
Nomas Milando, “Voice of the People: More on ‘Chicano,’” Oxnard Press-Courier, February 7, 1970.
Daniel Eugenio Contreras, “Voice of the People: Chicano Power Defined,” Oxnard Press-Courier, February 23, 1970.
Ruben Salazar, “Who Is a Chicano? What Is It the Chicanos Want?,” Los Angeles Times, February 6, 1970.