Category: Reviews

Reviews

Beyond the model minority and struggle fetish: We Are Not Dreamers, a book review

Luis Fernando Macías

On January 31, 2018, the Jimmy Kimmel-Live show aired a segment called “Fierce DACA Opponents Meet DREAMer Family Face to Face.” This segment was a departure from the talk show’s usual format: comedic monologue, prank videos, celebrity interviews and musical guests. The host, Jimmy Kimmel, acknowledged the deviation and introduced the segment with a rudimentary overview about the debate around reinstating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), which the Trump administration had capriciously rescinded months prior. The eight-and-a-half-minute-long segment began with Kimmel interviewing the six panelists about their opposition to DACA and undocumented immigration at large. Their responses echoed popular nativist talking points such as following the rule of law and the importance of getting “in line” for immigration status. As saccharine piano music began playing in the background, they were walked to a room to meet Esmeralda and her family.

Esmeralda is a DACA recipient and mother to her young daughter who was sitting on her lap. Kimmel prompts Esmeralda to share her immigrant story then highlights that she has no criminal record, she is a nursing student, she is gainfully employed and is a dutiful taxpayer. Her fiancé, Michael, a soldier in the armed forces, then enters the room. Kimmel tells the panel that soon Michael will be deployed overseas and if Esmeralda loses her DACA permit and is deported, the family will be separated. Presumably, the segment was intended to show opponents of DACA that if they met someone in this situation then they would reconsider their hardline position. Unsurprisingly, they did not. The segment ended without a musical or emotional crescendo. No resolution, just panelists continuing to shout xenophobic statements to a visibly uncomfortable family.

This segment is emblematic of the discourse about undocumented youth and young adults at large. Even people with the best intentions will rely on patriotic, meritocratic, heteronormative, assimilationist, capitalistic ideals of who is worthy of being in the United States. This specific portrayal of the “good immigrant” echoes back to the late 1990s when immigrant advocacy organizations and state legislators needed a literal poster child as a way of garnering national support for comprehensive immigration reform. In 2001, the proposed legislation “DREAM Act[1]” focused on undocumented youth and purposefully used the backronym D.R.E.A.M as a way of alluding to the exceptional immigrant youth who are portrayed as an extension of the mythical American Dream. Consequently, DREAMer as a term and ideology is entrenched everywhere: in subsequently proposed legislation, in employment and scholarship requirements, and especially in academic literature.

We Are Not Dreamers, edited by Leisy J. Abrego and Genevive Negrón-Gonzales, is a notable addition in the research literature because much (albeit not all) of the academic publications on the experiences of undocumented students are authored by those who are not undocumented (this includes me). Many of us are compelled to explore these realities because of our own personal connections and history. Yet, growing up in a mixed status family, having a partner who is undocumented or who must endure a xenophobic slur does not equate to the experiential knowledge and realities of being illegalized by the State. All the authors, not including the editors, are or were undocumented at some point. Their perspectives, theories, realities and approaches to liberation vary greatly from one another. Their only commonality is an aversion to having their complex lives reduced to an unrealistic ideal of meritocratic excellence. The resulting research findings, personal narratives, and theories in the flesh are astounding.    

The editors begin the book by providing historical context about the DREAMer narrative’s creation, its relative effectiveness in shifting public opinion and prevalence in social and academic discourse. The book’s introduction concludes with the critical point that any advancement (including the Obama administration’s concessionary DACA) has come as a direct result of the activism and advocacy led by undocumented youth and young adults. The reader is then welcomed to select a chapter in any order and learn about different realities present in the lives of many undocumented youth. In this way, the book is akin to a mosaic. The reader can focus on a particular section and then step back to appreciate it in its entirety.  Perspectives shared in the book include, but are not limited to, the stigma of being on academic probation (chapter 2), commodification of university diversity initiates (chapter 3), the paradox of marriage for both love and immigration status (chapter 9) and the family dynamics of undocuqueer parenting (chapter 10). The rich and textured narratives provide the reader a glimpse into people’s lives in a way that is not voyeuristic or marauding. The realities the authors share are not curated for an audience that fetishizes trauma and struggle. Rather, they are unfiltered narratives about life as an illegalized person that echo the tradition of testimonios, which denounce injustices and document the experiences and acts of survival of oppressed groups.[2]

Given that my own scholarship focuses on Education, chapters 2 and 3 were of particular interest to me. In chapter 2, Grecia Mondragón focuses on undocumented university students who have been placed on academic probation. This chapter vividly articulates the toxicity of the DREAMer narrative and its consequences. Similar to the model minority archetype, students labeled as DREAMers are expected to demonstrate their worth through high academic achievement and stoic meritocratic perseverance, regardless of the circumstance. Mondragón centers participants’ own words about being outside of these impossible standards and the resulting internalized guilt and shame that they felt. The chapter concludes with an implication section that explicitly places the onus on universities to improve their policies and practices regarding academic probation because participants indicated that in their time of most critical need, faculty and staff treated them as deficient and unworthy of support.

Chapter 3 also explores the university’s relationship to undocumented students, specifically its commodification thereof. In a meticulously researched and masterfully articulated examination, Gabrielle Cabrera posits that The University of California-Merced profits from the recognition and state funding associated with having the highest percentage of undocumented students of any campus within the UC system. In the chapter, Cabrera states that “the university sells undocumented stories of migration and trauma as a method of cultivating an image of an altruistic, progressive institution” yet systematically fails to deliver on any commitment to support them. She then chronicles the undocumented student activism that pushed the university to confront their unfulfilled pledges, particularly that which relates to funding. I was so impressed by this chapter that I felt compelled to reach out to the author to compliment her work. It was then that I learned that it was based on her undergraduate senior thesis. I was astonished. At a very early stage in her academic training, Cabrera accomplished what I have rarely seen even senior academics do. She spoke truth to power, with every resolute statement substantiated with reports and public records while simultaneously and seamlessly weaving in quotes and theory to demonstrate how that university (and arguably liberal institutions writ large) utilize diversity and multicultural initiatives and rhetoric to undermine systematic change. This speaks to the ethos of the book: when afforded agency over the portrayal of their own experiences, the resulting brilliance is unmatched.

The book is undoubtedly outstanding. However, at times some chapters are dense with academic jargon and theories specific to certain disciplines. There are also instances in which some authors fall short of fully articulating their main arguments and/or stray from coherence of the theories they cite. In general, the book is also very much geographically centered in California with many of the perspectives coming from the larger Latinx undocumented community. The editors acknowledge this predominance, which is not so much a fundamental flaw as it is a possibility. The potential for future volumes where authors from other communities (geographic, cultural, racial) contribute their perspectives to expand the literature on illegalized lives is exciting. We Are Not Dreamers will undoubtedly become canonical. It should be required reading for every educator, administrator, and staff member across all levels of education, specifically higher education. It is also recommended for anyone who has ever used “DREAMer” to refer to undocumented students. Basically, it would benefit everyone to read this book, including late-night talk show hosts and producers.


Notes

[1] Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act

[2] See: Solórzano, D. G., & Bernal, D. D. (2001). Examining Transformational Resistance through a Critical Race and LatCrit Theory Framework: Chicana and Chicano Students in an Urban Context. Urban Education, 36(3), 308-342.

Luis Fernando Macías, Ph.D. is an assistant professor in the Department of Chicano and Latin American Studies at California State University, Fresno. His scholarly focus is on undocumented studies, racial formations and how they relate to educational policies and practices. In addition to research, he has organized several educational summer camps for immigrant and refugee youth and previously worked as a Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) accredited representative. His work has been featured in various media outlets like the podcast: Politically Re-active with W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu (episode 54).

Reviews

Breaking Through, Breaking Free: A Review of Cassandra Lane’s We Are Bridges

Lynell George

Early in Cassandra Lane’s keen-edged, forthright memoir, We Are Bridges, she encounters an unexpected spiritual chasm: the gap between the person she has been, and the person she needs to become. 

Thirty-five and freshly linked with a promising new partner, she learns that she is pregnant. Instead of unmitigated enthusiasm, she feels curiously outside of herself. Motherhood is a reality for which she hasn’t prepared. It is, in fact, a role she vowed she’d never undertake. “I was witness to my mother’s failed romances and the hardships of child rearing,” she reveals, “I wanted to be free of all the chains and stains of motherhood.”

This new ambivalence, consequently, unsettles her. Her decision to not bear a child had been nothing less than a pact. Hadn’t she been clear? With everyone? Not least of all herself. 

Looking squarely into that deep breach, she realizes, might offer some necessary answers. Her fear of bearing a Black child into a world of antipathy was plenty enough. Yet, bringing that same child into the unaddressed legacy of family trauma was another daunting contract altogether. “The more folks bury a thing,” she reflects, “the more they sweep it under a rug, the bigger it becomes, the filthier it becomes—the more it demands to be raised.” 

In order to step forward, she would have to circle back. 

Lane grew up in her small-town Louisiana home with hand-me-down heartache circling around the household like ghosts: “Haints” that bumped in the night, spirits that seeped into the crevices and kept watch. For years, without questioning it, Lane found herself falling in-line with the family trait—stepping over and around the heaviness of its unspoken presence. And while she was not convinced of the power of the restless “disembodied,” she was coming to realize: “I do know the past is a ghost.”

The collective family disarray was formidable: Romantic relationships that slid out of grasp or off the rails; women and men boxing with free-floating pain stemming from systemic racism and attendant racial violence; and, most particularly, the quagmire of self-doubt or shame that the women in her family found themselves lost in. 

Lane discerned a wisp of herself floating there, too. While she’d imagined many scenarios for her life—journalist, teacher, and culture worker—the list of evolving roles formed the semblance of moving forward, yet in certain respects, emotionally, she was running in place. 

To break that cycle, to edge closer to new territory, a new self, she knew, her journey would have to begin with an ending: The lynching of her great-grandfather, Burt Bridges, and the breach left at the center of her great-grandmother Mary’s heart. This meant walking into a century-old, raw wound, and confronting the possibility that the journey may not offer up answers, but even more painful questions. Even still, the endeavor would allow her, perhaps, to offer her expectant child something more than she had—a framework and language to investigate the whys and hows. 

Who was Burt Bridges? Not the tragedy, but the person. How does he hover over the family? Lane knows a name and the outline of his story; who he was, as flesh and blood, exists only in fragments of passed-around family stories. What is clear is that he was all plans, pride and dreams.  Taken together, this made him a highly visible target to the small-town white powers-that be. His desire was to flee the Jim Crow South, and try his luck with California, a destination that seemed big enough to foster his dreams. He doesn’t make it, but more than a century later, Lane, his great-granddaughter, does. 

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

Time here is not linear. The narrative slides, jumps, circles back on itself; in a vivid, experiential way, it is a commentary about how hurt tails us, leaps a generation, lies dormant and suddenly springs to life when we least expect—or want—it to. 

While the “Bridges” of the title speaks specifically to lineage, the symbolic “bridges,” in Lane’s account are two-fold: It is a tricky span she must navigate in order to cross into new life territory; as well, it is a new generation and its hope—to move from pain to healing.

Lane, with an expert seamstress’ finesse, weaves trauma and its legacy into the story’s backdrop. It is its own character, hanging back, weighting the atmosphere, as fulsome as Louisiana humidity.

Trauma lays in wait; it touches everything.  From the outset, Lane reveals that there isn’t much physical documentation or  family testimony left: Instead she confronts absence: a dearth of letters or intimate journals to discover or guide her; a paucity of legal documents to ground her, or point her forward. These were people that kept their secrets close. 

As a rule, the journalist’s way is to get as close to the truth as one possibly can, to look for a primary source–the person who bore witness. Consequently, Lane’s way of writing herself back into the moment is to “listen to the hurt,” the few family anecdotes—and the melancholy that shadowed them over generations. Then she could  imagine its effect, and name it.

At the narrative’s outset, Lane classifies the book as a “hybrid”: It’s memoir, yes, but it’s also a journey into the speculative, tunneling back into a series of what ifs and if onlys.  In so doing, she creates lush scenes and dancing, intimate dialogue, that pull the reader effectively into both the terror and the tenderness, and give her forebears’ ghosts flesh and form. As well, it hands them back their dreams and aspirations, but also sharply reanimates the hurt—making  it palpable and present. 

The fluid structure allows Lane the necessary breadth to animate and theorize, to move the fragments around, and in certain respects, to haunt the past. She is skillful at examining cause and effect, intimating how past and present bend and interact. In bridging the present to the past, her language is at turns lapidary and crisp: Of the disintegration of one her mother’s hopeful romantic liaisons she writes:  “The courtship ended just outside our house, where the plums were still light green the way I like them: tart and hard and begging for salt, an astringent against the teeth…”  

For all of the lyric language and her adroit ability to call up lost worlds, Lane does not dodge unpleasantness: She refuses to prettify or idealize; she does not sidestep the uncomfortable. Instead she lets the light in—illumination that is both astringent and purifying. She holds key subjects’ feet to the fire: the father who doesn’t appear to know how to love, the newspaper editors who undervalued her abilities, the graduate school classmate who advises her to hold-back, to censor her pain on the page, and not least of all herself, for her own blind spots and transgressions. 

Late in the book, Grandma Mary reflects: “Why are we [women] always the ones weeping and toting all the pain.” This question moves Mary, in another one of Lane’s invented scenes, to pull back and consider, for all the damage, pain and desolation that cycles back on itself:  “What is the purpose of black life?” 

What Lane’s book eloquently illuminates is that we all too often overlook the quiet victories along the path to survival. Not perfection, but endurance. The sturdy branches, reaching out. There’s not just damage, not just “a generational trail of broken people,”  Lane finds, but a specific type of fortitude and hopefulness that was buried back there as well. That too must be alive. This act of looking back? This act of reclamation? It is as much for her, as it is for her newborn.

At this life’s crossroad, what are the necessary tools and gifts that she might pass down to her child? Lane won’t allow an easy answer; she is more tough-minded than that. She’s come to know, you have to be ready for the truth. As it comes—shards, rough edges and all.  

“The world is not all bad Mary,” Lane ascribes these words to her great-grandfather Burt, who is making his case for the dream of California, its possibilities. But, perhaps, on reconsideration Burt’s words are not necessarily imagined, but received, over the bridge of time: “The world is full of beauty and potential. Full of life and second chances.”  Messages for the journey. A spirit’s nudge. Those sturdy bloodlines connect sons to grand daughters, to the next generation of great-grands and beyond. But even more—they offer a passage to brand new ways of seeing; to renewed opportunities, to not so much make things right, but, first and foremost, to make yourself free. 

We Are Bridges by Cassandra Lane. Copyright © 2021 by Feminist Press. Used by permission of the publisher. https://www.feministpress.org/

Lynell George is an award-winning Los Angeles based journalist and essayist. A former staff writer for both the Los Angeles Times and L.A. Weekly, she is the author of  three books of nonfiction: No Crystal Stair African Americans in the City of Angels (Verso/Doubleday); After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame, a collection of her essays and photographs (Angel City Press) and  “A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler” published by Angel City Press in 2020.

Reviews

The Hispanic Republican

Jerry González

[E-0026-013-39], San Antonio Express-News Photograph Collection, MS 360, University of Texas at San Antonio Libraries Special Collections

On August 28, 1970, a group of constituents penned a letter to Chester Holifield, California’s 19th District Congress member.[1] Comprised primarily of women, the authors asserted that welfare recipients in their suburban communities constitute a “burden on the taxpayer and the homeowner.” Decades of conservative angst over the New Deal state birthed nativism throughout suburban Los Angeles. “Aliens of any country should not be allowed in our country if they have no means of support,” they argued before asking rhetorically, “have you seen the cars these people drive?” And, in a move that became so emblematic of Ronald Reagan’s brand of conservatism, the authors pathologized women who depended on government assistance in arguing that “unwed mothers, divorcees, dope addicts…and aliens” deserved no public benefits.[2] This was not George Wallace’s Alabama; it was Reagan’s California. Latinx population increases in those suburbs, and others like them across the state, fueled local populist anxieties that nested in state and national Republican Party platforms. Spanish surnames like Andrade, Ochoa, and Saldivar,to name just a few, scrawled across the final page revealed an unsettling truth about the suburbs east of East Los Angeles; an emerging Hispanic conservative base had found its voice.

In The Hispanic Republican: The Shaping of an American Political Identity, from Nixon to Trump, Geraldo Cadava explains the origins of the GOP’s Hispanic constituency (Hispanic is the preferred identifier for most in this group). Hispanic support of the Republican Party has calcified over the last five decades and yielded considerable support for Donald J. Trump’s GOP despite its bombastic rhetoric and lethal policies. Since the early 1970s, Hispanic conservatives have influenced elections by siphoning off votes from Democrats and pointing a new direction in American racial politics. Even when the GOP loses, as in the 2020 presidential election where Trump lost to Democratic challenger Joseph R. Biden by a considerable margin, Hispanic support for the GOP remains steady. Polls show that Trump actually gained in Hispanic voter support from 2016 to 2020 — a concerning statistic for many. Indeed, Cadava argues that a principal objective of his book is to historicize and contextualize Hispanic support for Republicans, including Trump (336). Why there are Republican Hispanics is not so much the driving question, as that would presume a political authenticity that is not true of any group. As Cadava asserts, “Latinos aren’t naturally liberal or conservative. They aren’t naturally anything” (xvii). Rather, Cadava explores how Hispanic Republicans crafted collective identities within the conservative movement and to what extent they wielded real institutional power.

New York: ECCO an imprint of Harper Collins, 2020

Argued over ten chapters and divided into four sections, “Awakening,” Influence,” “Doubt,” and “Loyalty,” Cadava’s book is a sweeping survey of the leaders, organizations, and shifts that make up the Hispanic Republican leadership and the opening to an increasingly urgent conversation about the intertwined futures of Latinx politics and the evolution of the GOP. As Cadava writes, partisan issues such as border-wall funding, taxes and business regulations are a result of an electorates’ set of concerns in a given place and time. However, a significant contribution that he makes here is to extend “issues” into the past in order to expose the ideological foundations upon which they rest. More than any single problem, Hispanics have become loyal Republicans over the last seven decades based on a web of dogmas about U.S.-Latin American relations; the United States’ role in spreading democracy around the globe; government-supported capitalism; and a “contrarian identity politics that is every bit as pronounced as the liberal identity politics they’ve spent decades criticizing.” (xvi).

The first wave of Hispanic Republicans formed their political identities through the crucible of the Cold War in Latin America and its manifestations within the territorial boundaries of the continental United States. Prior to the 1950s, Hispanic partisanship vacillated between both major parties, but Cadava argues that World War II and national political realignment following Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency shaped Hispanic politics just as it did for other Americans. Cuban American exiles like Desi Arnaz of I Love Lucy fame, and Mexican American business leaders like Lionel Sosa, a graduate of Sidney Lanier High School in San Antonio’s West Side barrio, embraced the party’s tough stance against communism, its position on law and order on the domestic front, and its business-friendly policymaking laced with rhetoric of self-determination. For Cadava, Dwight Eisenhower’s presidential bid in 1952 proved a testing ground for the GOP’s appeal to Hispanic voters. The 1952 “Latinos con Eisenhower” campaign and its successor “Me Gusta Ike” in 1956 promoted Eisenhower’s Cold Warrior credentials and beckoned supporters who felt like the Democratic Party took Latinos for granted. Disaffected Latino Democrats proved a source of recruitment for Republicans during the Eisenhower years. John Flores and Manuel Mesa, both from California, created the institutional frameworks to recruit Hispanics to the Republican camp by tapping into the same disillusionment that spurred leftist community organizers both in the cities and in the fields. The Republican Party adopted a militant anti-communist platform and won Hispanic support, particularly from those with roots in regions touched by revolution, CIA-backed coup d’états, and draconian immigration enforcement policies.

In anti-communism Republicans readied the assault on domestic labor organizing and civil rights efforts. The 1950 deportation of renowned labor organizer and civil rights activist Luisa Moreno is testament to the emergence of Cold War maneuvers on the domestic front. However, rather than oppose such actions, Hispanic Republicans became more defiant in their racial politics. Democratic Party leadership, at least rhetorically, had taken up the mantle for civil rights. By contrast, conservatives such as Barry Goldwater innovated new modalities of anti-blackness by hanging their arguments for segregation on outcomes of the free market.

Barry Goldwater’s conservatism and anti-communism shifted the Republican Party further to the right. The racist ideologies underlying his platforms attracted like-minded blue-collar voters across the country, which included Hispanics who identified more with Anglo Americans than with non-whites. Perhaps because Hispanic Republican numbers were few in the early 1960s, they showed surprising unity despite regional and national-origin differences.

Cadava highlights the role that California Republican candidates played in pushing the party to recognize the Hispanic electorate. Richard Nixon grew the Hispanic Republican base because of his personal history in suburban southern California and because he recognized early on that Hispanics, particularly Mexican Americans, could potentially put Republicans over the top.

In the third chapter, “Nixon’s Hispanics,” Cadava recounts the stories of several influential Hispanic businesspeople. Romana Acosta Bañuelos, who immigrated from Chihuahua, Mexico, rose to success at the head of Ramona’s Mexican Food Products in Los Angeles, and became chairwoman of the Pan American National Bank located on First Street in East Los Angeles. Nixon selected Bañuelos to head the Treasury based on her hard scrabble background and the symbolism it offered for free market capitalism and rugged individualism. He also approved of the fact that she did not participate in the Chicano Movement, despite the décor of her bank adorned with imagery of Aztec civilization – a ubiquitous iconography of the movement (95-7). Even though many Chicanos considered Bañuelos a “tia taco,” or “vendida,” (Chicanx slang for sell-out) she would emerge as one of Nixon’s greatest ambassadors for courting Hispanics. Whether or not she truly represented a “token,” as her detractors argued, she wielded actual power and influence as the Treasurer of the United States appointed by a Republican president. Democrats had never come close to incorporating Latinos – let alone Latinas! – into serious positions of authority, despite the presidencies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson whose popularity with Latinos far surpassed that of any Republican politician then or since. This fact was not lost on the community-at-large, nor on the Nixon surrogates who helped to orchestrate the nomination. Influence and visibility counted for a lot and Democrats lost the race in that respect.

[E-0022-067-27], San Antonio Express-News Photograph Collection, MS 360, University of Texas at San Antonio Libraries Special Collections

Bañuelos’s rise to prominence in the Nixon White House resulted from a strategy to attract Hispanics in greater numbers to the party’s orbit. However, an immigration raid on Bañuelos’s business in East Los Angeles in 1971 cast a pall around her nomination for Secretary of the Treasury because public opinion about undocumented immigrant workers circulated widely through the California press. Calls for employer sanctions on those businesses that knowingly employed undocumented labor culminated  in the Dixon Arnett bill that Gov. Reagan signed into law a mere one month following the Bañuelos raid.[3]

Nixon’s efforts to install Hispanics in government positions, regardless of their efficacy as politicos or of their community acceptance, helped to solidify a Hispanic base for the party well into the future. Even the dirty tricks embodied by the Watergate affair strangely shored up Cuban American support, particularly in Miami as 4 of the 5 men held close association with Cuba either through ancestry, anticommunism, or both. The effort to bug the Democratic Party offices in the complex was prompted by Nixon surrogates’ assertions that the Castro regime secretly funneled large sums of money to the George McGovern campaign. Thus, spying on Democrats was justified in the eyes of many everyday Cuban Americans whose disdain for Castro and communism ran deep. Many, in fact, wondered why the arrested “plumbers” were considered criminal at all given the Cold War context of the narrative. Under the Trump Administration, they might have been elevated to the level of national heroes and fully pardoned by the president. It was an ignominious contribution, but Cuban American participation in the Watergate break signified one of the most consequential events in modern Republican Party politics. Cadava shows that despite Nixon’s culpability, perhaps even because of it, Hispanic support of the GOP did not waiver. Rather than repel Cubanos, the event did the opposite by burnishing the Cold Warrior credentials of the GOP standard bearer. Also, by that time, an infrastructure had been built to expand Hispanic influence in the party. The Republican National Hispanic Assembly (RNHA) had emerged as force within the party and thus launched the efforts by members to reach further into the apparatus.

Cadava writes about the latter half of the 1970s as a period of doubt marked by a decline in Hispanic support that was triggered by uninspired leadership, the loss of the Vietnam War, a global recession, and increased undocumented immigration. Nixon’s downfall caused ripples across the rest of the Hispanic Republican world. Where Cuban Americans found a bedrock of anti-communist support in the party, Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans in different parts of the United States waivered in their enthusiasm for the party’s direction.

[E-0022-067-39], San Antonio Express-News Photograph Collection, MS 360, University of Texas at San Antonio Libraries Special Collections

Into this void stepped Benjamin Fernandez, a Mid-Western born Mexican American with dreams of uniting all Hispanics under the GOP banner. As quixotic as any Hispanic Republican leader before or since, “Boxcar Ben” – as he was known because of his self-styled narrative about his birth in a railroad boxcar in Kansas City, Missouri – mattered because he was able to situate himself against the measures of his time: the Chicano Movement, immigration liberalization, and the government social safety net. The son of migrant workers from Michoacán who traversed the Midwestern states before settling in East Chicago, Indiana, Fernandez pulled hard on the bootstraps mythology that he believed colored his story. A lifelong Republican, he set out to become the first Hispanic president of the United States running in the 1980 primaries against the likes of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and John Connally. Although he did not win even 1 percent of the national electoral vote, Cadava rescues this character from the historical shadows to demonstrate that the new militancy birthed by the Chicano Movement coincided with a smaller, but equally persistent, movement within conservative circles to tap into the working-class and family-oriented sensibilities of many Hispanics just as blue-collar whites began to leave the Democratic Party en masse.

Reagan reenergized the Hispanic constituency by reviving the Cold War, particularly in the face of retrenchment with Cuba. Additionally, he played his popularity as governor of California and the battles he waged against civil rights, to the Hispanics who supported him in his home state. Reagan’s landslide victory in November 1980 not only burst Ben Fernandez’s bubble, but also consolidated conservative politics at the national level. Reagan’s tough stance against Fidel Castro inspired Cuban Americans to support the newly elected president. Jorge Mas Canosa, a Miami-based Cuban American politico, helped to form the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) modeled on American Israel Political Affairs Committee and laid the foundation for a reliable GOP constituency in South Florida that persists today. Reagan further garnered Hispanic support by usurping the immigration bill that existed in many draft forms since the early 70s (it lived for a time as the Carter Bill) to sign the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. IRCA endeared Reagan to Hispanics because it opened a path for amnesty at the same time that it codified employer sanctions and drew limits around further legal immigration. It proved a Pyrrhic victory for the GOP as it would also throw fuel onto the kindling of nativism that had begun to emerge within party ranks as early as the 1970s.

The populist uprising within the party around Puerto Rican statehood and undocumented Latino immigration tested the loyalty of many Hispanic Republicans. Despite Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s victory in a Florida special congressional election in 1988 which signaled a significant victory for Cuban American Republicans, the national appeal of the party faced jeopardy because of the swell in thinly veiled white nationalist rhetoric and policy priorities.

Cadava shines a spotlight on George H.W. Bush’s influence on Hispanic Republicans. With a naturalized Mexican American daughter-in-law and mixed-race grandchildren whom, H.W. notoriously referred to as Jebby’s “little brown ones” on the campaign trail in 1988, H.W. inspired hope as a moderating force within the GOP to continue to rally Hispanic voters. His victory in 1988 yielded strong support initially. He oversaw the confirmations of three prominent Hispanics to his administration, Lauro Cavazos as Education Secretary, Manuel Luján, Jr. as Secretary of the Interior, and Catalina Vásquez Villalpondo as Treasurer. He also flexed support for Puerto Rican Statehood and appeared to Cuban Americans as a battle-tested Cold Warrior by virtue of his eight-year tenure as Vice President under Reagan. However, not long into his term, he began to lose support as statehood died in Congress at the hands of fiscal conservatives in both parties. Also, the end of the Soviet Union and normalization of U.S.-Russia relations essentially removed Cuba from the foreign affairs priority list as national security concerns shifted from communism to terrorism and flipped the map from Latin America to the Middle East. Notably, the Department of Justice opened an investigation into Villalpondo’s activities in the Treasury Department where she faced accusations of improperly influencing the delegation of non-competitive contracts to her former employer. She was eventually convicted of tax evasion and destruction of evidence.

Pat Buchanan’s insertion into the debates around Puerto Rican statehood inflamed tensions between Hispanics in the Republican Party and their non-Hispanic fellows. Buchanan launched a tirade in the Washington Times early in 1990 that played overtly to strains of white ethnonationalism already strong in the GOP. He claimed that 50 percent of Puerto Ricans qualified for welfare and therefore posed a significant financial burden to the United States. Buchanan further asserted that including 6 million Spanish speakers would mark the end of the English-only United States and argued that the new proposed state would send six new Democratic house members and two new liberal senators to Washington (284-5). Prominent Hispanic Republican Luis A. Ferré responded vigorously, speaking  for the collective outraged Puerto Rican community that Buchanan’s  racist arguments were unfounded, and that the 51st state would contribute to the nation in taxes and military sacrifice, and that the language argument held no merit because 15 million Spanish speakers already called the U.S. home. He also wrote that although nobody on the island in 1898 asked to become a colony of the U.S., Puerto Ricans remained “loyal Americans” (286). Buchanan’s position ultimately won the day and marked a significant pivot from a longstanding GOP policy priority. On a more expanded level, it signaled the growing power of xenophobic discourse and white grievance politics as weapons against people of color and center-left and progressive advocates.

The would-be rupture between Hispanic Republicans and the party, although strained, failed to materialize even as Pat Buchanan blustered on a national stage. In California, former San Diego mayor and U.S. Senator Pete Wilson pushed the GOP immigration agenda further to the right as governor of the Golden State from 1991 to 1999. This creep in party discourse began during the Reagan years as the agendas in 1984 and 1988 insisted that the U.S. retained an “absolute right” to secure its borders by legislation, police enforcement, and even physical barriers. Cadava writes that Hispanic Republicans found themselves betwixt and between a party that grew in hostility towards people who looked like them and their compatriots who would be potential Republicans if the party toned down its rhetoric. One example Cadava offers that exposes the choppy waters Hispanic Republicans navigated came in 1992 during the GOP national convention agenda which  called for the erection of “structures” along the southern border. Rather than recognize the most common definition of that term, i.e. physical barriers, many surrogates, including Hispanics, described the phrasing as metaphorical (295-296).

Debates over fencing in the 1990s became a proxy for white nationalist, nativist, and anti-Latino sentiment. Far from an easily cordoned off set of camps, many Hispanics supported fencing and immigration restriction, and many non-Latinos opposed the same measures. Bill Clinton’s immigration agenda included some of the most militaristic efforts in decades, beginning with Operation Hold the Line in El Paso and followed by Operation Gatekeeper in California and Operation Safeguard in Arizona. So as the GOP drifted further into the nativist cesspool, Democrats followed as the Clinton White House established policy prescriptions that would prove even deadlier for migrants seeking to cross into the U.S.

This is perhaps the greatest strength of the book in that it demonstrates that an agenda built on fiscal austerity and small government was not the overriding raison d’etre for Republicans despite their claims to the contrary. Rather, demographic change, nativism, and racism were equally powerful drivers, if not more so, in shaping the modern Republican agenda. As one of the founders of the Save Our State initiative in California, better remembered as Proposition 187, recalled as she walked into a social services center in 1991 “with babies and little children all over the place,” speaking Spanish, she learned that they qualified for the same benefits as U.S. citizens and then and there transformed from a “political neophyte to a fiery crusader” (301-2). Such populist energy against demographic change fueled Governor Pete Wilson’s re-election platform in 1994. Running on anti-immigrant sentiment and championing Prop. 187 made Wilson a GOP darling for those on the far right such as Rush Limbaugh, at the time a burgeoning radio personality.     

Cadava highlights the 1990s as a watershed for immigration legislative debate. The far-right agenda focusing on restriction and removal became the center of the GOP, and likewise influenced Democratic positions (310). Support of anti-immigrant measures at the state and federal levels hurt the GOP and shook the faith of its longtime Hispanic supporters. As a presidential candidate, Bob Dole did not commit to cultivating Hispanic support for his candidacy, not out of any special enmity, but more likely because he was a rather terrible candidate. His poor showings in California and in Florida,where he was the first Republican candidate to lose the state since 1968, signaled to the national party that Hispanic support was slipping. Combining a bad candidate with bad politics sunk the national party in that decade. Additionally, the renewed nativism on the right prompted a groundswell of naturalization and permanent residency applications by Latinos in direct response. As Cadava notes, this was likely not a result of newfound patriotism for the U.S., but a pragmatic decision to protect themselves and their families from deportation or loss of benefits (311).

For Cuban Americans in Miami, the Elián González case confirmed their conservative partisanship. The Democratic Party’s adherence to Bill Clinton’s “wet foot, dry foot” policy for Cubans crossing into the United States sunk Al Gore’s chances in the state as Hispanics in Florida rallying around González punished him at the polls in favor of his Republican challenger, George W. Bush (321-2). Détente between nativist forces and compassionate conservatives was made possible by the Bush family’s influence and popularity with Hispanics. But the floodgates were blitzed and the peace lasted only as long as the PATRIOT Act and the unsupported popular perception that the southern border offered viable passage for would be terrorists.

Fifty years following the Holifield letter that opened this review, the city council in Whittier, California added a new member, Jessica Martinez, whose political identity aligns with the insurgency championed by Donald Trump. Social media posts that predated her election caused an outrage for what some viewed as their bald racism and bigotry. However, the mark of her trumpista GOP identity was confirmed on January 6, 2021 as she attended the “Stop the Steal” rally promoted by Trump and his boot lickers in an effort to overturn the 2020 Presidential Election results which Joe Biden won by more than 7 million popular votes. Although Martinez contends that she would not have gone to Washington, D.C. if she had known violence would rock the Capitol, she remains unrepentant in her political beliefs, despite narrowly escaping formal censure.[4] More well-known is Miami-born Enrique Tarrio, the Afro-Cuban leader of the fascist organization Proud Boys who have become an informal political army for Trump. Tarrio spent the day prior to the insurrection in a jail cell as law enforcement personnel arrested him upon arrival to D.C. for his role in burning a Black Lives Matter flag during a protest the previous month.[5] So what are we to make of these Hispanics, past and present, who continue their allegiance to a party that has long since proven to harbor anti-Latino agendas?

For all the answers that Cadava provides in this text, we are left to speculate how self-identified Hispanics like Martinez and Tarrio became contributors to the latest white supremacist surge. Here it is important to remember what George Lipsitz taught us about the power of whiteness as an identity that structures opportunities, benefits, and, as we consistently see, protection from accountability: “even nonwhite people can become active agents of white supremacy as well as passive participants in its hierarchies and rewards.”[6] As a condition predicated more on power than prejudice or pigment, whiteness “manifests itself through practices that create differential access to wealth, health, housing, education, jobs, and justice.”[7] Historically, people of color who have touted conservative populist causes have done so by aligning with taxpayers or homeowners groups concerned about declining property values. In our present day, the fascist rearticulation of the term “patriot” enables people like Martinez and Tarrio to nuzzle up to whiteness so long as they express outrage at undocumented immigration, or any immigration for that matter, denounce Black Lives Matter, and support a whole host of lies.

Similar to the internal struggles in the 1960s and 1970s,  brown participants in the GOP do not go unchallenged. As the Latinos Por Trump group ramped up efforts, Latinx opponents refashioned the epithets from an earlier generation that charged these actors as sell outs to their people. A popular insult – “tiene el nopal en la frente” – highlights the hypocrisy of being Latina/o/x and supporting white American conservative causes, particularly those that target Latino immigrants. Literally translated as “you have the cactus on your forehead”, the point it makes is that brown/indigenous/mestizo physical features belie the support of white supremacy. 

It is in these grittier social contexts that readers will ask more from this text than it delivers. It is not a social history of Hispanic Republicans, nor does Cadava frame it in such terms. Rather than a focus on everyday Hispanic conservatives, the focus is fixed primarily on the institutions that created access for Hispanics into the party, and the principal actors in this historical drama. Many will want an explanation for folks like Tarrio, Martinez from the Whittier City Council, and the signatories of the Holifield letter, but, for now, will have to analyze them and other grassroots conservatives through the prism of this institutional history. 

Perhaps a more peculiar absence in this book is an analysis of the Ayn Rand-style libertarian influence on the current GOP. The “greed is good” strain of conservative thought has arguably been as influential in the evolution of the post-Reagan machine as blue-collar conservatism and racism. How do Hispanic Republicans figure into the libertarian wing of the party? Certainly Ted Cruz, a renowned Rand acolyte and self-styled libertarian, enjoys a significant following of Hispanic voters (35% support in the 2018 Texas senate race versus Beto O’Rourke). The extent to which Hispanics subscribe to GOP-informed libertarianism is an open question and one that merits further research to understand how future pathways to whiteness channel through such conservative ideals.

Another condition of the modern GOP that is curiously absent in Cadava’s book is a focused analysis on space and how it contoured conservative politics at the metropolitan level. As Juan De Lara points out in Inland Shift (2018) places like Inland Southern California from 1978 to the 2000s supplanted the coastal regions as conservative bastions with large numbers of Republican Party voters and representatives. Indeed, as demonstrated in Adam Goodman’s essay  in East of East (2020) and in his monograph, The Deportation Machine (2020), suburban municipalities like South El Monte, California became new nativist fronts marked by Immigration and Naturalization Service raids and support for anti-immigrant legislation like Proposition 187 in 1994. Such efforts have steadily come to dominate the national Republican Party immigration agenda, but all began at local levels. Trump’s immigration czar, Stephen Miller, grew up in Santa Monica and came up through the ranks of southern California’s nativist machine, first by consuming conservative radio that in the 1980s included characters like Wally George and in the 1990s were dominated by figures like Rush Limbaugh, and Larry Elder, and then by making a name as an undergraduate provocateur at Duke University. The political positions he developed in Southern California eventually came to define the Trump Administration’s immigration agenda. 

I highlight the absences because, as a study with ambitions to forge new lines of inquiry within Latinx Studies, it is highly successful and will undoubtedly launch new and sorely needed research projects that deepen our understanding of the diverse political identities of this growing population. Traditional studies of Latinx politics focused on organizations and institutions to broaden access to the grassroots-level research on organizers and activists. Cadava has paved the way for such future studies by contextualizing the key organs of Hispanic power within the GOP. For one, the Republican National Hispanic Assembly receives considerable attention throughout the text for its role in shaping a constituency within the GOP. Founded in the late 1960s as the Republican National Hispanic Council by a group of war veterans and professionals, the organization would grow to wield significant influence. This vehicle for Hispanic participation embedded in the GOP network symbolized the party’s official recognition of “the little brown ones” in their midst – to borrow from George H.W. Bush’s lexicon – and opened pathways for future recruitment.

Additionally, Cadava highlights the gendered experiences of Hispanic women leaders who played fundamental roles both in the GOP apparatus and national politics. For example, Romana Acosta Bañuelos, Katherine Ortega, and Catalina Vasquez Villalpando, all Hispanic women, all Treasurers of the United States under Republican presidents, represent more than “tokens” but actual power brokers. The fact that Richard Nixon appointed a fellow Californian, Bañuelos, a Mexican American banker from East Los Angeles, meant that a Hispanic Republican and woman of color exercised actual authority over federal decisions. Cadava demonstrates that  the GOP has  implemented strategic efforts to  challenge the idea that their political agenda is racist and sexist by promoting women and people of color for national and state leadership.

The Hispanic Republican is a wake-up call for progressives, particularly white liberals, who uncritically believe that rising Latinx population numbers will naturally shift the political winds. We learn a lot about the machinations of Hispanic Republican power, how it is cultivated and seated, and why any liberal dreams of it evaporating are pure fantasy, given how embedded it is in the GOP apparatus.  There is nothing irrational in many Hispanics’ embrace of conservative causes and policies. Rather, the historical resonances with one-third of the messy conglomeration of peoples lumped into the category challenges us to think critically about the value they find in Republican Party platforms and promises.

One of the real gems of this book is how Cadava rescues monumental figures from the throwaway lines and endnote catacombs of so many Latino political histories prior. Bañuelos, for example, receives a full treatment, as does “Boxcar” Ben. Regardless of their brand of politics, they are significant figures in the grand tapestry of Latinx history and deserve to be adequately critiqued in the context of their counterparts. For example, Bañuelos faced protests by the United Farm Workers and Chicana/o activists as a result of her hiring practices  and for her loyalty to Nixon. These kinds of internal politics warrant closer examination and introspection for Chicanx scholars who seek to understand the ripple effect of the 1970s on our current politics. In the end, we learn that Hispanic Republicans are dogmatic about the principles that govern the GOP. Anti-communism paved the way for hostility towards any political philosophy left of center. Goldwater’s color-blind racism became the seed bed for a refashioned white supremacy, and the hero-worship that Nixon once enjoyed, and that Reagan still holds, created a condition that allows for a single person to shape the party agenda. In other words, Hispanic Republicans are just like the majority of Republicans, and they will not be so easily dislodged from the party apparatus.

Notes


[1] This letter is dated one day prior to the Chicano Moratorium that overtook Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles and infamously culminated in widespread abuse by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies and the murder of Los Angeles Times columnist Rubén Salazar.

[2] Betty Lounsberry, et. al. to Holifield, 28 August 1970, Chester Holifield Papers, box 22, folder “Welfare Programs 1970,” Department of Special Collections, University of Southern California.

[3] For more about the political climate surrounding undocumented immigration in California see Jimmy Patiño, ¡Raza Si! ¡Migra No!: Chicano Movement Struggles for Immigrant Rights in San Diego (Chapel Hill: University of North Carlina Press, 2017, 104. The California Supreme Court eventually ruled the Dixon Arnett legislation unconstitutional.

[4] David Mendez, “Whittier City Council Split after Member Attends DC Rally that Turned into a Riot,” Spectrum News I, 18 January 2021, https://spectrumnews1.com/ca/la-west/politics/2021/01/18/whittier-city-council-split-after-member-attends-jan–6-rally.

[5] Peter Hermann and Martin Weil, “Proud Boys Leader Arrested in the Burning of Church’s Black Lives Matter Banner, DC Police Say,” Washington Post, 4 January 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/public-safety/proud-boys-enrique-tarrio-arrest/2021/01/04/8642a76a-4edf-11eb-b96e-0e54447b23a1_story.html.

[6] George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics, Twentieth Anniversary ed., (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, viii.

[7] Ibid.

Jerry González is Associate Professor of History at the University of Texas at San Antonio, Director of the UTSA Mexico Center, and Principal Investigator on the UTSA Mellon Humanities Pathways Grant. His research interests in Latinx metropolitan history and identity, transnational and transregional migrations, and the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands inform the courses he teaches in history and American Studies. Prior to arriving at UTSA he spent 2009-2010 as a Chancellor’s Post-Doctoral Research Associate in the Latina/Latino Studies Department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where he began work on his book, In Search of the Mexican Beverly Hills: Latino Suburbanization in Postwar Los Angeles published in 2018 by Rutgers University Press in the Series “Latinidad: Transnational Cultures in the United States.” His current research on San Antonio as a site of continuous Latin American migrations explores the intersection of Sunbelt and Borderlands political economies, cultural confluence, and grassroots organizing.

Reviews

Plantation Empire: A Review of Waite’s West of Slavery

Brian McGinty

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

Waite’s definition of the “Continental South” includes California, Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Utah. Although plantation slavery never took root there, he demonstrates that other forms of coercive labor received strong legal protection there and, for a time, flourished. During the Civil War, supporters of this labor threatened to bring the region into the conflict, encouraging the Confederate rebellion and promising the creation of a continent–wide nation devoted to the perpetuation of slavery and other forms of oppressive labor. West of Slavery’s purpose is to show how this proslavery influence began, continued, and was ultimately crushed.

White southerners transported an estimated 500-1,500 enslaved African Americans into gold rush California. Here, an interracial party mines for gold in Spanish Flat, El Dorado County, in 1852. Although the status of these black men is unknown, they were likely enslaved, as El Dorado County had one of the highest concentrations of slaveholders in the state at this time. Joseph Blaney Starkweather, Spanish Flat, 1852, California History room, California State Library, Sacramento.

Much of Waite’s book is devoted to the rise of pro–Southern and pro–slavery influence in Southern California, where Democrats under the leadership of California’s U.S. Senator William M. Gwin held sway during the 1850s. (Gwin actually owned about two-hundred slaves in Mississippi, although he did not bring them to California.) Southerners from the southeastern United States, motivated first by John C. Calhoun, who died in March 1850, later by a prominent plantation owner and railroad promoter named James Gadsden, and then by Jefferson Davis, who served as secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce, supported Gwin and his efforts to bring a southern railroad from the west banks of the Mississippi to San Diego and to permit plantation owners to establish slave colonies in Southern California. These efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, but not for want of trying.

The story of the slaveholders’ efforts to bring a southern railroad to California is compelling. All westerners hoped for a railway that would cross the plains, valleys, deserts, and mountains that separated the Mississippi and the Pacific Ocean. But there were different hopes for where it should be built. Some wanted it in the north, some argued that it should be built across the center of the country, and yet others in the extreme south. The southerners supported the southern route, of course, but acquiesced in a survey that would determine where the best route would be. While waiting for decisions to be made, and facing the critical question of whether the federal government should lend its financial support to the construction of the railroad, southerners supported a wagon road, first called the Overland Mail Road, later the Butterfield Overland Mail Road (John Butterfield was the man who actually ran the company that operated the road), and, after Butterfield fell into financial distress, the Wells Fargo Overland Mail. Although many Southern political leaders asserted constitutional arguments against any federal financial assistance to the proposed railroad, they were happy to support the Overland Mail road, which at considerable federal expense carried mail as well as west–bound travelers, some of whom were looking for places where they could establish colonies replete with slave laborers. When Davis learned that the southern railroad route was faced with looming mountain obstacles, he urged Pierce to send Gadsden to Mexico to purchase additional land through which the railroad could pass south of the mountains. This effort resulted in what is now known as the Gadsden Purchase. The Overland Mail was rendered unprofitable by the short–lived Pony Express, which in 1860 crossed the middle of the country, and by the development of rail routes across Panama and Nicaragua, before the last link in the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. Waite’s account of how all of this happened, and how Southern efforts to build what they affectionately called the “great slavery road,” ultimately failed, is long and detailed. His scholarship raises the story to a new level.

A crowd gathers as a Butterfield stagecoach prepares to depart from San Francisco. The San Francisco Bulletin called the Overland Mail “the most popular institution of the Far West.” Harper’s Weekly, December 11, 1858.

West of Slavery plunges deep into the Civil War history of New Mexico and Arizona and the efforts of slavery supporters to extend their empires into those territories. Political struggles were matched by military conflicts that for a time gave hope to the Southerners that they would prevail. Jefferson Davis authorized two military officers, Colonel John R. Baylor and Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley, to invade New Mexico from Texas and, after they did so, they achieved some notable victories, capturing Mesilla, Albuquerque, and Santa Fe, then going on to Tucson. Ultimately, however, they did not prevail, due in large part to anti–slavery forces that moved eastward from California to meet them. U.S. Army Colonel James Henry Carleton’s 2,000–man “California Column” left Camp Drum on the Southern California coast in the spring of 1862, passed through Yuma, went on to capture Tucson, then proceeded along the Rio Grande to Santa Fe, ultimately forcing the Confederates to retreat back into Texas. Waite’s description of these events is detailed and compelling.

The US military installation at Drum Barracks, Wilmington, California, circa 1865. Note the camel in the foreground, a Unionist repurposing of Jefferson Davis’s antebellum pet project. USC Digital Library, California Historical Society Collection, Los Angeles.

Waite includes informative descriptions and analyses of events that took place in his “Continental South” as the war drew to a close, then proceeded into the post–war era of Reconstruction. African Americans did not fare well in these events, nor did the Asian Americans and the Native Americans who were faced with an almost unending chain of bitter opposition. This part of West of Slavery effectively extends the bigger story of the efforts of the slave powers to extend their empire across North America and, after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, to perpetuate all that they could of that empire.

The book includes a study of efforts to remember the pro–slavery “Continental South” through the formation of organizations that celebrated slavery, that built monuments to Confederate heroes, and that sought to honor those heroes by applying their names to mountains, valleys, roads, and soaring trees––all in the land that the Confederates had hoped to build a great slavery empire in. Through these efforts, they sought to perpetuate the memory of what Waite calls “the presence of the Old South in the Far West.”

A granite pillar in Hollywood Forever Cemetery, honoring some thirty Confederate veterans buried in the surrounding plot. Erected in 1925, this was the first major Confederate memorial in the Far West. It was removed in August 2017, following the white supremacist riot in Charlottesville, Virginia. Photograph by the author.

Kevin Waite is not only a determined scholar. He is also a wonderful writer. Those who are impatient to quickly arrive at the conclusion of his story must be patient, however. The book is filled with detailed discoveries. Sometimes it can be tiring to reach the end of a story, but the end rewards the reader’s patience.

One slight objection is the title of Waite’s book. When first read, West of Slavery suggests that the book is about a part of the West that is beyond slavery. It is not, of course. It is a land in which forced labor was strong and rampant, in which the hopes of spreading slavery and the efforts to do so were vigorous and determined, and in which the failure of those efforts was far from inevitable. If the title had been The West of Slavery, it might have been clearer. Waite himself hints at this, writing that the “preposition in this book’s title is possessive. In other words, the Far Southwest was a land of slavery and slaveholding influence; it was not free from it.” This objection is, however, not only slight––it is very slight.

West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire by Kevin Waite. Copyright © 2021 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. http://www.uncpress.org

Brian McGinty (BA, American History, JD, School of Law, University of California, Berkeley) is the author of twelve books and 200 articles that have appeared in popular magazines and scholarly journals. His Lincoln’s Greatest Case: The River, the Bridge, and the Making of America (Liveright/W.W. Norton 2015) and Lincoln and the Court (Harvard University Press 2008) discuss important chapters in the life of Abraham Lincoln. His Archy Lee’s Struggle for Freedom: The True Story of California Gold, the Nation’s Tragic March toward Civil War, and a Young Black Man’s Fight for Liberty (Lyons Press/Rowman & Littlefield 2019) and The Rest I will Kill: William Tillman and the Unforgettable Story of How a Free Black Man Refused to Become a Slave (Liveright/W.W. Norton 2016) describe important chapters in the struggle of African Americans to escape slavery and win freedom both before and after the Civil War. His John Brown’s Trial (Harvard University Press 2009) describes the sensational judicial proceeding that made the abolitionist John Brown one of the most famous (and controversial) martyrs in American history. See more of Brian’s work at http://brianmcgintyauthor.com/

Reviews

Forgotten Pasts, Remembered Futures: Sesshu Foster and Arturo Romo’s ELADATL

Janet Sarbanes

You’re listening to a live broadcast on Ehekatl 99.9, a pirate radio station named after the Aztec god of the wind, whose mission is to “advance the proletarian interest of the community and to counteract the military-industrial propaganda of the oppressor government.” A pilot-trainee has just taken the wheel of a “700-foot long state-of-the-art post-modern dirigible,” a master pilot by her side, and this Report in Progress is tracking their attempt to find Sky City, “a conglomeration of debris in the stratospheric rings – agglutinated by force—careening through the upper atmosphere, encircling the planet.” What they expect to find there: “enough plant and animal life and atmospheric water to have sustained a totally marginalized and invisible population, in spite of the occasional 1979 Pontiac El Caminos, delivery vans, old tires and broken water heaters that fall out of the sky at approximately 145 miles an hour terminal velocity, landing in school yards and shopping mall parking lots, which the government blames on Muslims and maintains is yet another thing soon to be fixed by tax cuts.”

Reader, welcome to ELADATL, a mind-blowing book collaboration between poet and novelist Sesshu Foster and artist Arturo Romo that brings forth a whole other past, present and future within the space-time continuum we (think we) know as Southern California. Billed as “a fictional history of an actual company,” ELADATL traces the rise and fall and rise again of the East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines, a local addition to the long history of unsung ventures in U.S. airship transport by those “marginalized and disappeared” by capitalism, white supremacy, settler colonialism and patriarchy. These include, among others, the Bessie Coleman Aero Club, founded by real-life black aviator William Powell, and the East L.A. Balloon club, founded by the fictional Ericka Llanera. Building on his longstanding practice of personae-based artmaking, Romo gives this history/historical fiction a captivating visual form in détourned photographs, collages, etchings and mixed-media prints dispersed throughout the book, which blend the factual (incorporating photographs of real people, places and artifacts) and the fictional (assigning them captions that correspond to events and characters in the story).

One of the many pleasures of reading – or sifting through – ELADATL derives from the interplay between Romo’s and Foster’s sensibilities. As Romo describes their process, which includes the co-creation of characters and events, “sometimes the text would match the image, sometimes the text would fill in the gaps in the image, and sometimes the text would float away from the image. The relationship was dynamic.”[1] With this project, and other related ones, such as a series of walking tours of East L.A. collected at elaguide.org, he and Foster feel they hit upon “an alternative to colonial, capitalist and white supremacist constructs of art-making,” working in a way that “wasn’t privatized or individualized or attuned to the market, that wasn’t restricted by hierarchy of medium, and that didn’t believe in the legitimacy of non-fiction over fiction or vice-versa.”

Another of the book’s pleasures lies in how it activates the relationship of part to whole, whether that be fragment to narrative, neighborhood to city/region, or individual to collective. The story of the dirigible lines themselves is not one of seamless coordination, but of hit-or-miss connections within a crumbling infrastructure that must constantly be made and re-made, imagined and re-imagined. In the chapter titled “Following Years Without Communications from Downtown, This Was What Our Agents Reported,” the company responds to an unfavorable customer review by organizing teams of agents to serve as inspectors, “sending them out to check on all the lines, our ships, stations, and maintenance and ancillary facilities. The reports we received back were like a slap in the face by an octopus. Twice maybe.”  

Throughout the book, characters appear, disappear and reappear unexpectedly, with no one “character arc” predominating—though the on again/off again romance between Sergio, a world-weary dirigible builder, and Mel, a fearless young dirigible pilot, causes things to gel just enough before it, too, comes apart. And here, too, the lines between fiction and reality are blurred: another character, Swirling Alhambra, seems to function as a surrogate for the writer, who’s been awarded a Poet of the Universe residency “located in a remote area of City Terrace” (the East L.A. neighborhood where Foster grew up and the subject of his influential poetry collection City Terrace Field Manual). Swirling is a humorously unreliable member of ELADATL, and a source of annoyance to many, but he is committed to the collective enterprise. In this fundamental orientation he resembles both Foster and Romo themselves (who are LAUSD teachers and activists), and the novelist Oscar Zeta Acosta, author of the legendary Revolt of the Cockroach People, who was a Chicano movement lawyer.

Acosta makes several cameos in the text, and ELADATL is animated throughout by a rasquache sensibility similar to Acosta’s own, a bricolage aesthetic with an underdog spirit and sense of struggle that is “down but not out,” to borrow Tomás Ybarra-Frausto’s memorable formulation.[2] Another rasquache forebear, Noah Purifoy, the L.A. Black assemblage artist and founder of the Watts Towers Art Center, also puts in an appearance –or his legendary desert “junk art” environment does, as an abandoned dirigible station. Nothing is thrown away, everything is repurposed — the form, or many forms, of ELADATL mark “an ongoing process of dodging erasure or denial,” in Foster’s words, “and individually, personally, reinventing community in order to survive.” As Romo observes, “the very way the book was created comes out of a particular political way of being.” Don’t be fooled by its wry, irreverent tone; this is a work of serious social imagination.

Given ELADATL’s rich texture and many layers, one must ask the question, can there even be a central storyline to a work like this? Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that there is what’s happening with the dirigibles, up in the sky, and there is what’s happening down below, an archaeology of everyday life in East L.A., with its own “mysteries,” also documented in the book, which includes over seventy pages of appendices. One overarching goal of the project, Foster tells us, “was to float the figure of the imagination over the historical landscape of the ordinary everyday and ask people to look.” The dirigible, with its slow-moving heft, drifting along erratic pathways, is the perfect incarnation of an imagination always in sight but just beyond reach of the predictable circuits of daily life (work, eat, sleep, repeat).

As we read on in ELADATL, the struggle to reactivate the dirigible lines begins to merge with the climate crisis, and the very real possibility that that there are no more possibilities to be had. Even as Mel and Tina, another young agent, hustle to get the ships back in the air, dirigible stations throughout Southern California are being repurposed by anarchist mutual aid groups and other community members to house climate refugees. At the South Gate station, Food Not Bombs “was showing Salt of the Earth and Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill over and over for refugees from the most recent firestorm . . . [and had] set up the vegetarian buffet for people who hadn’t had hot food in days, José Uriarte brought in his taco truck and set out the salsa, and even Ray Palafox mobilized Los Quemados to blast out cumbias or whatever they call it in a free concert.” ELADATL shows us what climate collapse looks like in the everyday:

That’s just how it is (when it’s not worse), everybody driving with their lights on even if it doesn’t help much to cut the blowing clouds of particulate and debris, pedestrians wearing face masks and head wraps, hunched over against it like a desert sandstorm, now there’s a haboob for you, everything glowing orange from sunlight refracted through carbon dioxide, they say, and the wind tearing through the streets . . . a telephone pole in an intersection, people driving around it, shipping container on top of a store, a billboard on top of parked cars.

In an eerie parallel to Marjorie Taylor Greene’s Jewish-lasers-from-space-caused-the-California-wildfires conspiracy theory, “experts and spokespersonifiers” insist that all of this is not, in fact, due to climate change, but the work of Hair Balls from Outer Space blasting Europe and the United States with Death Rays. While “white guys with automatic rifles” drive around “firing at anything suspicious,” the official response is the same old non-response: “trillions of spending on rockets” and “nukes to rain down on enemies and terrorists and stuff.”

Unabashedly experimental, ELADATL resists linear narrative at every turn, knocking time out of joint by bringing invisible histories to light and to life, not content to let the past be the past, nor the present be the present. This strategy reveals its full power in the moving scene where Mel and Tina briefly exit “the blasted smoke and particulate atmosphere” of full-on societal and climate apocalypse and “[descend] in actual sunshine and [merge] with the crowd into the infinitely forgetful city.” They suddenly find themselves marching towards downtown L.A. in the middle of something that looks a lot like the recent protests for George Floyd, or an immigrant rights protest, or a teachers’ strike—or as it happens these days, all three–running into old friends (who also happen to be Foster’s and Romo’s real-life comrades, fellow artists, writers, educators and activists), everyone glad to be there and be there together. Is this all in the past now, only a memory? Or is it a glimpse of what C.L.R. James called “the future in the present,” a way out of the nightmare – if, like Foster and Romo, we know where and how to look.

Sesshu Foster (left) Arturo Ernesto Romo (right)

Janet Sarbanes is the author of the short story collections Army of One and The Protester Has Been Released. Her book of essays, Letters on the Autonomy Project in Art and Politics, will be published by Punctum in 2021. She lives in Los Angeles and teaches in the MFA Creative Writing Program at CalArts.

[1] “Q & A with Sesshu Foster and Arturo Ernesto Romo, authors of ELADATL: A History of the East los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines,” City Lights.

[2] Ybarra-Frausto, Tomás. “Rasquachismo: a Chicano sensibility.” In Chicano aesthetics : Rasquachismo, 5-8. Exh. cat., Phenix, Aruz. : MARS, Movimiento Artiscico del Rio Salado, 1989.

Reviews

Breathing Life into the Archive: A Review of Richardson’s Bearing Witness While Black

Elizabeth E. Sine

Seas of cellphones floating above the anchors of outstretched arms; the litany of hashtags bearing the names of the dead; livestream footage broadcasted by protestors with boots on the ground; the videos that capture for the world to see the life being taken from Black bodies by police—all of these have become recognizable features of the movement against police brutality and for Black lives, which has swept the nation and the world over the past decade.  But they are more than mere characteristics. They are critical mechanisms by which the movement travels, transmits messages, grows, and pushes back against the daily horrors of structural racism and state violence within the United States.  They are examples of a political practice that Allissa V. Richardson calls “Black witnessing,” which has played a constitutive role in what has arguably become the most powerful movement of our time.  In her book, Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest #Journalism, Richardson examines the forms of Black witnessing that animate the Black Lives Matter movement, while situating them within the much longer arc of witnessing practices that have helped shape historic struggles for Black liberation.  In the process, her book brings into focus just how much efforts to combat the horrors of white supremacy and to sustain movements for racial justice have relied on often-overlooked acts of seeing and truth-telling that have been undertaken by Black witnesses past and present.

As she builds on a growing body of research that investigates African Americans’ use of cell phones and social media, Richardson bases her study especially on a pool of interviews she conducted with fifteen prominent Black witnesses, along with in-depth analyses of their Twitter timelines.  Her interviewees are diverse in their gender identities, sexual orientations, and relationships to the Black Lives Matter movement, offering important insight into the patterns, interconnections, and differences that characterize their experiences and perspectives as Black witnesses.  She organizes her analysis into three parts: Smartphones, Slogans, and Selfies.  Across these three sections, the broad strokes of her work situate the smartphone era in a longer history of Black struggle, provide an archaeology of contemporary Black witnessing practices, and examine the visual iconography of Black protest journalism in the age of Black Lives Matter, along with its implications for Black witnesses and broader efforts for racial justice.

Courtesy of Pew Research Center

One of Richardson’s core contributions in Bearing Witness While Black is her centering of Blackness within her exploration of witnessing and its relationship to movement formation.  In positing a distinctly Black witnessing as the focus of her study, she makes the case not only that Black people bear witness differently than others but, further, that witnessing has been a vital arena in which Black people have staked the evidentiary foundations of an oppositional narrative about race, power, and democracy within the United States.  Black witnessing carries important legal weight for the pursuit of racial justice in courts.  It also has a powerful capacity to mobilize public action, fueling pushback against racist policing patterns and the institutional racism that undergirds them.  At least as significantly for Richardson is the role that it plays in linking Black people to one another.  Particularly in the context of crisis, as Richardson puts it, Black witnessing functions as “a form of connective tissue among Black people that transcends place.”[1]  Rather than distancing or depersonalizing the connection between the victims of atrocity and the viewers, as the main currents of media witnessing scholarship suggest, she argues that cellphone footage of anti-Black violence, when seen by Black people, “blurs [the line] between viewer and victim.”[2]  For those who bear witness while Black (and some allied people of color, whom she includes in her analysis), Richardson’s work underscores that incidents of anti-Black violence are never isolated or episodic in nature.  Rather, they grow out of, occur within, and are experienced through the context of systemic violence and generational trauma that history has wrought upon Black people for centuries.

As richly nuanced as it is in the ways it engages and builds upon media witnessing theory, Richardson’s work is also firmly anchored in and driven by the imperatives of praxis.  Drawing on her experiences as a journalist, as a teacher of mobile journalism, and as an African-American woman who grew up in Prince George’s County, Maryland in the age of the police assault on Rodney King and the L.A. Rebellion, she writes with an acute attentiveness to the stakes of the news-making practices she analyzes, including for witnesses themselves.  Having worked with citizen journalists in a wide range of contexts, including in South Africa at the front lines of the country’s HIV/AIDS crisis and in Morocco in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings, she also speaks to the comparative dimensions of witnessing practices across a variety of social movements.  She highlights a certain degree of relatability that links the use of smartphones and social media by participants in the Black Lives Matter movement with that of people in the Occupy Wall Street protests and the Arab Spring.  

Yet, in significant ways, she also emphasizes that the scope, scale, and systematic nature of racial violence to which African Americans bear witness make their witnessing even more akin to that of Holocaust survivors than to protestors in these other movements.  As she explains, when Black people bear witness to the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and far, far too many others, their actions simultaneously memorialize “the more than 10 million Africans who were sold into bondage across the Atlantic Ocean . . . the 5,000 African American men, women, and children who continued to be victims of lynching across the United States . . . [and] the more than 1 million African American and Latinx men and women who have fallen victim to mass incarceration since the late 1970s.”[3]  Black witnessing honors those subjected to suffering and premature death, all the while refusing to let the public forget the past, or, for that matter, look away from the horrors of the present.  Therein lies its urgency.

It is not only the long history of anti-Black racism that weighs on the present.  As Richardson demonstrates, contemporary Black witnessing practices also carry forth the legacies of Black survival, struggle, and resistance.  As she situates the Black Lives Matter movement within a much longer genealogy of Black liberatory struggles, Richardson charts a history of Black witnessing that links the role of slave narratives, African American newspapers and magazines, television, early internet-based social networks, and Black Twitter along a historical continuum—forming “an unbroken chain of brave seers.”[4]  Earlier generations laid the groundwork for the modes of witnessing we have seen in the past decade, Richardson argues.  The primary factor that distinguishes the witnessing practices of our contemporary moment is the accessibility of the technology involved.  With the introduction of the smartphone, witnesses the world over acquired “a tool that would allow anyone to create and distribute media quickly, without the need for a privileged gatekeeper.”[5]  Combined with social media platforms and speedy internet connections, the smartphone has equipped today’s Black witnesses to follow in the footsteps of their ancestors, while at the same time enabling them to share, collectively grieve, strategize, and organize in response to news of police brutality at a more rapid pace and on a more thoroughly mass scale than ever before.

While Richardson makes clear her position on the side of viewing Black witnessing as a positive force for racial justice, her endorsement is not the kind that romanticizes.  In fact, some of the richest parts of her analysis are those where she explores the tensions and contradictions inherent in the practice.  Among the troubling aspects of Black witnessing she examines is the way that the smartphone technology on which today’s protest journalists rely—“the very tool that empowers the activists”—carries with it “the potential to extinguish them.”[6]  Highlighting the growing use of Stingray tracking technology by authorities and harking back to the role of COINTELPRO in the movements of the 1960s and 1970s, Richardson complicates any inclination to celebrate the smartphone’s democratizing effects without reckoning with the ways it expands the terrain for surveillance and political repression. 

Graphic illustration of the impact of COINTELPRO by Black Panther Minister of Culture Emory Douglas, 1976

Another set of challenges Richardson investigates is the potential harm that comes from seeing itself.  On one level, bearing witness to atrocity can have serious emotional and psychological effects on the viewer, not to mention the threat of backlash from authorities to which they expose themselves.  (Many will remember Ramsey Orta in this respect, the video witness who was the only one from the scene of Eric Garner’s death in 2014 who was arrested.)  On another level, when footage of Black police victims’ last moments is shown repeatedly, often unedited and without freeze frame or face blurring techniques, the imagery may do more to normalize racist violence and uphold the terror of white supremacy than to challenge it.  All this leads Richardson to the assertion that how such footage is shared is as significant as whether it is shared. 

Poster by Tony Carranza

It is noteworthy that Bearing Witness While Black entered into print in June 2020, at the very same moment that the nation’s racial uprisings reached peak levels of intensity following the deaths of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, among others.  While Richardson could not have anticipated the exact synchronicity of events, it is a testament to just how “on time” her work truly is.[7]  Questions remain about how Black witnessing practices may vary across class lines, since Richardson’s interview sample overwhelmingly comprises graduates of prominent universities with advanced degrees, a factor that Richardson herself acknowledges.  The relational dynamics that link the experiences and perspectives of Black-identified witnesses with those of non-Black witnesses of color is another topic that some readers may wish to see analyzed further, as her discussion on this front is relatively brief.  Still, well researched and engagingly written, the book offers a fresh critical lens on the Black Lives Matter movement and on the possibilities and perils of efforts for social change more generally, adding significantly to both scholarly and broader public conversations.  It will be of particular interest not only to media and journalism scholars, but also scholars of race/ethnicity, social movements, technology and history, as well as social activists and organizers for whom it bears lessons.

Elizabeth E. Sine is a historian of race, labor, and social movements in California and the broader United States (Ph.D., University of California San Diego) and Lecturer in History at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. She is author of the recent book, Rebel Imaginaries: Labor, Culture, and Politics in Depression-Era California (Duke University Press, 2021) and co-editor of Another University Is Possible (University Readers, 2010).  She is also on the steering committee of R.A.C.E. Matters in San Luis Obispo, California.


[1] Allissa V. Richardson, Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest #Journalism (Oxford University Press, 2020), 12.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Richardson, xii-xiii.

[4] Richardson, 44.

[5] Richardson, 39.

[6] Richardson, 114.

[7] The reference here to being “on time” comes from Ivory Perry, qtd. in George Lipsitz, A Life in the Struggle: Ivory Perry and the Culture of Opposition (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988), 269.

Reviews

Black California: A Review of West of Jim Crow

Kevin Waite

Mallie Robinson and her five children came to California in search of something better, only to find more of the same. When the Robinsons relocated from Cairo, Georgia to a family home on Pepper Street in Pasadena in 1922, their white neighbors greeted them with a flaming cross on their front lawn. Mallie discovered that most jobs were closed to Black women, aside from domestic work, while her children attended segregated schools. They were also barred from Pasadena’s public pool. The Plunge finally reopened to African Americans in 1930, but only for one day a week. Tuesday was known as “Negro Day,” when the Robinsons were allowed to swim alongside other people of color. That evening, the city drained the pool and filled it with fresh water for white swimmers on Wednesday. “Pasadena regarded us as intruders,” recalled one of Mallie Robinson’s children, a young man named Jackie. 

When it opened in 1914, African Americans and other people of color were only allowed to use the facilities at Brookside Pool one day a week. By the 1930s, when this photograph was taken, “Negro Day” had been renamed “International Day.” Courtesy of the Pasadena Public Library, Pasadena, California

Pasadena is now eager to claim Jackie Robinson, the sports legend who broke professional baseball’s color barrier, as one of its own. A community center and a city park are named for him, and two mammoth brass sculptures to Jackie and his brother Mack, an Olympic medalist, occupy a central courtyard across from Pasadena City Hall. Yet nowhere in in the city’s landscape are markers or acknowledgements to what Jackie and his family endured, when Pasadena largely closed itself to African Americans. The wealthiest city in the nation when Jackie Robinson was growing up, Pasadena was also one of the most rigorously segregated.

Pasadena was no outlier among California cities, as Lynn M. Hudson explains in her urgent new book, West of Jim Crow. Although officials in Pasadena policed the color line with particular vigilance, they represented a mere sliver of the segregationist apparatus in twentieth-century California. Hudson brilliantly illustrates how this vast network – including city and state officials, politicians, lawyers, policemen, and everyday citizens – turned California into a bastion of Jim Crow segregation and a hotspot for anti-Black violence. But she also documents the numerous ways in which African Americans fought back. From a certain perspective, the virulent force of white supremacy in California can be seen as a testament to the remarkable achievements and prominence of Black men and women in public life.

Myra Weiss wrote this pamphlet after the murder of her sister and brother-in-law and their two children. Weiss was a leader of the Socialist movement in California, and fought to keep the Shorts murder in the public eye. The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, California.

California’s history of race-based segregation, of course, runs deep. Modern California – now one of the most outwardly liberal and cosmopolitan states in the nation – was built upon the forced relocation and dispossession of multiple ethnic groups. That history includes the seizure of vast amounts of land from Indigenous inhabitants and Mexican rancheros in the nineteenth century. And it includes the violent removal of Chinese immigrants from their communities across the state, as well as a sixty-year ban on migration from China, beginning in 1882. The hostility that Black Californians faced (and face still) belongs to this longer history.

Hudson’s canvas is broad – one of the many reasons her work will appeal to scholars, students, and general readers alike. West of Jim Crow spans the antebellum era up to the start of the Civil Rights movement, with a focus on the Black struggle for justice in the early to mid-twentieth century. Hudson ranges across space and time to cover a diverse range of moments in California’s Black history: San Francisco’s Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915, the building of all-Black town in the Central Valley, the African American anti-lynching campaign, the rise of Ku Klux Klan in the Inland Empire, and the long fight against segregation in Pasadena.          

Colonel Allensworth and the eponymous town he founded with the artist Josephine Leavell Allensworth courtesy of the Smithsonian Learning Lab (Public Domain)

The Black struggle for racial justice in California is as old as the state itself. By the early 1850s, hundreds of enslaved African Americans had been forcibly imported to work the gold diggings around Sacramento. When many of them won their freedom later in the decade, they still faced a raft of discriminatory laws and practices. African Americans could not legally testify against whites in courts of law, nor could they marry across the color line. They were also routinely barred from streetcars and viciously parodied in San Francisco’s popular minstrel shows.

Against all odds, some early Black Californians prospered. Biddy Mason, a former slave from the plantation belt, personified hard-won fortune for this first generation of African American migrants. Born into slavery in Georgia, Mason was forcibly transported across the country, before she finally won freedom for herself and thirteen others in a Los Angeles courtroom in 1856. First as a nurse and midwife, then as a real estate entrepreneur, Mason built a business enterprise that made her one of the wealthiest women of color in the American West. Her success seeded a family fortune estimated at $300,000 by the turn of the century. At that point, Los Angeles had one of the highest proportions of Black homeowners of any city in the country. Yet as the Black community grew in numbers and affluence, it encountered mounting hostility and discrimination.

The story of racial struggle in California is largely one of self-empowered Black women like Mason. Generations of female leaders – Delilah Beasley, Josephine Allensworth, Carlotta Bass, Ruby Williams, and Edna Griffin, among many others – endowed their communities with strength and vision. Hudson, the author of an excellent biography on the San Francisco businesswoman, Mammy Pleasant, is well-equipped to recover these women’s contributions. She does so by placing them within the larger networks in which they operated, rather than rendering them as individual biographies. The effect is to highlight the cumulative power of Black women’s organizing. They never struggled alone.

Portrait of Delilah Beasley

Hudson locates influential Black women in places that historians typically overlook. Allensworth, the first and only all-Black municipality in California, was often advertised as a retirement community for Buffalo Soldiers. The town’s founder, Army veteran Allen Allensworth, embodied the masculine initiative that he hoped would propel his Central Valley settlement to prosperity. But it was the women of Allensworth who deserve much of the credit for the town’s survival in the 1910s and 20s. Some of the most successful businesses in Allensworth, including the hotel and boardinghouses, were owned and operated by women. Women also constituted the leadership of Allensworth’s church, and they taught generations of students in the schoolhouse. Their lessons in Black history proved transformative. “It was really the first time I’d ever heard nice things said about black people from a historical perspective,” one former student recalled. The moral was a simple but powerful one: “There was nothing inferior about me. I was pretty hard to stop from there on in” (115).

Scholars might quibble with certain aspects of the book, including its terminology. Hudson affixes the label “Jim Crow” to virtually all acts of anti-Black discrimination, beginning with the Reconstruction period. Most historians, however, generally date the start of the Jim Crow era to the late nineteenth century, when the former Confederate states adopted a series of laws to segregate and disenfranchise their Black populations. The term “Jim Crow Law” doesn’t appear in print until the 1890s. This isn’t to suggest that the racism African Americans faced in 1870s California was somehow less damaging. But Hudson would have been wise to explain why the term, which otherwise appears anachronistic, should have purchase for this earlier period. In doing so, she might have convincingly extended not only the geography of the Jim Crow era but the chronology as well. 

Minor critiques aside, West of Jim Crow is among the best introductions to Black California history yet written. It should be read alongside the seminal works of Albert Broussard, Quintard Taylor, Stacey Smith, Mark Brilliant, Lonnie Bunch, Shirley Ann Wilson Moore, Douglas Flamming, Scott Kurashige, and Josh Sides. Because many of their books are more tightly focused – centered on particular cities or on a few decades of state history – Hudson’s ambitious and wide-ranging work will appeal especially to those looking for a primer on the subject. West of Jim Crow is an elegant synthesis that will doubtlessly stand the test of time.  

Jackie and Mack Robinson Memorial in Pasadena, California Courtesy of s.t.srinivasan

Jackie Robinson never forgot the trauma or humiliation of his segregated childhood in Pasadena. For Black families like his, the city’s affluence and upscale public services weren’t points of civic pride; they were reminders of what had been denied them. Even apparent victories for African Americans could be transformed into defeats. After a protracted court battle, Pasadena was finally forced to open its public pool to people of color by 1947. But rather than integrate, the city instead chose to drain its pool of funding, as it had been drained of water after “Negro Day” every week. If white families couldn’t have the pool to themselves, no one would.  The Plunge, once the most popular public pool in California, deteriorated. And Jim Crow lived on.

Kevin Waite is an assistant professor of American history at Durham University in the UK. His first book, West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire, will be published by the University of North Carolina Press in April 2021. With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, he co-directs a collaborative research grant on the life and times of Biddy Mason.

Reviews

South Central is Home: Race and the Power of Community Investment in Los Angeles

Claudia Sandoval

What makes a space a home? While we often think of it as the site for the nuclear family, home is also the space that communities create. In this sense, cities and neighborhoods evolve in much the same way as singular households. Individuals make a community their own by ensuring that the area reflects the needs and identity of its residents. Yet, as gentrification grows throughout many U.S. cities, marginalized communities are being stripped of the very essence that made these spaces home to its members. The anger over the loss of these spaces takes many people by surprise, even as others view the transition of their communities as a marker of progress. However, one loses the rich history of how these cities and spaces became home to millions of individuals in the face of structural divestment, disinterest, and overall erasure.

Through a historical analysis, Abigail Rosas discusses the ways in which a marginalized community, like South Central, California, became home to the thousands of Black and Latinx residents that have migrated to California since the 1960s. It is a beautifully written narrative of the work that Black and Latinx residents put into a community to make it their home. And it is ultimately a plea against gentrification’s displacement of Black and Brown bodies.

To contextualize and ground the project, one has to remember that the United States is quickly becoming a minority-majority nation. Most research continues to focus on the white population as representative of the average American, while rendering the life and experiences of other groups as marginal. According to a 2015 Census report, more than half of the U.S. population is projected to belong to a minority group by 2060, with Black and non-Black Latinx groups accounting for almost 43% of the population.[1] This is precisely why research that focuses on Black and Latinx communities is not simply a one-off project, but instead represents the future of the United States and is the reason why the importance of South Central is Home extends well beyond the borders of California.       

Rosas shapes her historical analysis by grounding the discussion around ideas of place-making, community-building, and race relations in South Central, Los Angeles (or South L.A., as it is now known). From beginning to end, the book eloquently narrates the ways in which African Americans began their place-making journey to South L.A. in the 1960s, against a backdrop of systemic racial oppression and racial covenants that segregated Black communities. In their journey from the U.S. South, Black residents migrated to the Southwest with the hope of starting anew, in a community whose history was not bogged down with the burdens of slavery.

Mexican and Central American immigrants began moving into the predominantly Black South Central neighborhood in the 1980s. Many of these immigrants left for economic and/or political motives in search of a more decent life. However, like African Americans, Central American and Mexican immigrants were relegated to the same “forgotten places” of the city.[2] Rosas contextualizes the environment in which Black and Latin American peoples would come to make South Central their home. More importantly, it provides the historical background in which these residents came together to advocate for their own community and well-being, often against the interests of powerful government entities. As Rosas puts it, “South Central African American and Latina/o residents advocate for investment and care for the community, but an investment that would not leave them behind.” It is through this collaboration that Rosas identifies the power of relational community formation.

Photo Courtesy of Abigal Rosas
Mural By: Imelda Carrasco, Edwin Cuatiacuatl, Tevin Brown, Florinda Pascual, Karen Vega, Antonia Rivera, Brayana Harris, Jasmonz Bron, Raul Lopez, Fransico Aquila, Alex Truatisky, Jennifer Roman, Manny Velazquez

The seven chapters in this book can be broken down into three important categories: place-making, investment, and race relations. Impressively, Rosas situates the historical realities of Black and Latina/o/x residents in South Central. Within these historical accounts, Rosas intertwines the ways in which systems of oppression and racialization created the conditions in which these residents were required to maintain and preserve a community that would serve the needs of its members. Even when it comes to government investment initiatives like the Head Start program and healthcare clinics, it was the community members themselves that had to work together to make the programs fit the needs of the people in South Central.

In the chapters dedicated to Head Start and healthcare clinics, Rosas effectively captures how the programs were first rolled out, the difficulties encountered, and the way in which Black and Latina/o/x folks worked together to make both institutions a success. Interestingly, while both the Head Start program and Drew King Hospital were funded through important government initiatives, both instances of investment were often used to racialize the community through the insidious narrative of a culture of poverty. By interacting with and attempting to shape these spaces Black and Latinx residents were forced to interact with each other.


Photo Courtesy of Abigal Rosas
Mural by Xolotl Kristy Sandoval Joseph Dias

While Rosas demonstrates the power that Black and Latinx communities have when they work together, she also brings up two important points that are not fleshed out in their entirety: the erasure of the Latinx community and negative race relations. As she notes on many occasions, the increased immigrant presence in South Los Angeles has done little to “erode the African American identity and character the people readily associate with the area.”[3] Rosas worries that the Latino and Latinx presence will be erased from the popular image of South L.A.. While I do not think Rosas suggests that the Latino and Latinx experience is more precarious than the Black experience, Rosas could have spent more time explaining the persistent association of South L.A. with African Americans. In other words, thinking about the ways in which understanding South L.A. as a Black community, even if demographic numbers tell us otherwise, is also about the importance of place-making for a community whose history in the United States is founded on the erasure of its people. Rosas’ focus on the positive aspects of Black-Latinx relations is noteworthy. However, understanding why they do not always get along is just as important as highlighting when they do.

Photo Courtesy of Abigal Rosas
Mural by Xolotl Kristy Sandoval Joseph Dias

South Central is Home will be of interest to sociologists, political scientists, historians, and ethnic studies scholars, among others. As a book that centers race relations in communities of color, this book would be especially useful for undergraduate and graduate students, community organizers, and even political leaders. For young scholars, it provides a model for writing about communities that formed us, communities that we unapologetically love. Many traditional scholars continue to view scholarship that center ones community or family as “me-search”. This critique of course is rarely made of white scholars researching white communities. Lastly, by disentangling the rich history of South Central, Rosas shows us the future of cities across the United States.

Claudia Sandoval is a professor in the Political Science department at Loyola Marymount University where she teaches courses on Race, Immigration, and Black/Latina/o relations. Professor Sandoval is a first-generation Mexican immigrant who grew up in Inglewood, California. Sandoval received her B.A. in political science from UCLA in 2006. She graduated from the University of Chicago with both her master’s and doctorate in political science in 2014.


[1] Colby, Sandra L. and Jennifer M. Ortman.  “Projections of the Size and Composition of the U.S. Population: 2014 to 2016. Accessed January 29, 2020.            https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2015/demo/p25-1143.pdf

[2] Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. “Forgotten Places and the Seeds of Grassroots Planning”. In Engaging Contradictions: Theory, Politics and Methods of Activist Scholarship, edited by Charles R. Hale, 31-61. Berkeley and Los Angeles: UC Press, 2008.

[3] Rosas, Abigail. South Central is Home: Race and the Power of Community Investment in Los   Angeles. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019.

Reviews

“Making the Impossible Possible”: Octavia Butler Reimagines Space and Time

Mike Sonksen

The Pasadena-born science fiction author Octavia Butler is considered among the most prescient writers of the last several generations. Her superbly crafted stories deconstruct race, gender, politics, religion, and sexuality while travelling back and forth across space and time. Recent Los Angeles Poet Laureate Robin Coste Lewis describes Butler as being “on the frontier of human imagination.”

Though Butler passed in 2006, her work has never been more popular. Butler’s Parable of the Sower reached number one on both The New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller lists in the fall of 2020, 27 years after original publication. In 2019, the Los Angeles Central Library named a do-it-yourself studio space in the library, the Octavia Lab. Adding further momentum to Butler’s lasting significance is a new book A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler by the award-winning author Lynell George that showcases Butler’s inner world.

George demystifies the legendary science fiction author by using archival material from the Huntington to meticulously uncover how Butler constructed herself through a regimented autodidactic recipe of reading, writing and ritual. A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky is creative non-fiction as inspiration without solipsism.

Make the Impossible Possible

Years before Butler won the MacArthur “Genius” Award in 1995 and had published any of her eleven celebrated novels like Kindred, Wild Seed and Parable of the Sower, she was a humble soul growing up in Pasadena stealing time to write in the middle of the night or making a small paycheck stretch for weeks at a time. Butler made, as George writes “the impossible possible” and expanded space and time through her discipline and concentration. The fact that she wrote science fiction is further proof of her intention to create new worlds. 

George reveals how Butler’s “most ambitious and remarkable creation was the shapeshifting narrative of her own life–the one she honed and sharpened, draft after draft after draft. It was a work of art that was not complete until she made the impossible possible; the unseen, seen. Who is Octavia E. Butler, ‘That tall girl who was always writing?”

George spent four years, starting in 2016, in the Octavia E. Butler Papers at the Huntington Library, Art, and Botanical Gardens Museum diligently sifting through almost 400 boxes of Butler’s personal items including notebooks, to-do lists, recipes, scraps of paper, letters, bus passes, library cards, hand-me-down diaries, receipts and all sorts of other ephemera. George came to call her weekly forays into the archive, “Fridays with Octavia.” George committed to “let the archive lead her.” George’s instinct to let the archive lead her proved fruitful as she found some of Butler’s most insightful thoughts on scratch pads or even on the back of an envelope. It was this marginalia where George found the portal to Butler’s inner world. It was this personal voice that would prove the most fidelity to Butler’s intent. George also found hundreds of newspaper clippings Butler kept on topics like global warming, cancer, vampires and social unrest. These saved articles showed how much research Butler did to write her prophetic stories. 

These notes, George demonstrates in her book, add up to the math of Butler’s life, especially in lists connected to time and money. From the time she was a teenager, Butler crafted her life, filling dozens of notebooks with to-do lists, budgeting and contracts with herself, complete with extra specific wishes serving as willful manifestations. George’s book artfully includes images of artifacts from the Butler archive like a library card, an old calendar, a few pages from Butler’s journal, bus passes, covers of her notebooks and ticket stubs. Butler’s candid handwriting on an old notebook testifies to just how miraculous her journey was.

Visiting Octavia E. Butler at Mountain View Cemetery in Altadena, Courtesy of Lynell George

Octavia’s Way

In our contemporary 21st Century era when New Age commentators on Instagram talk about “the law of attraction,” and “creating your own reality,” George’s portrait of Butler shows us someone who did just that years before these ideas permeated popular culture. “If you read these pages in succession, day after day,” George writes, “they are nothing short of a prayer.”

“Art may be the finest form of prayer,” writes Julia Cameron in her book, Walking In This World. Cameron’s made a long career out of writing books on world building like her perennial bestseller The Artist’s Way.  Many of the journaling strategies Cameron offers corroborate with practices Butler was doing instinctually years before Cameron’s book was published. One more Cameron quote connects to Butler: “We make art not merely to make our way in the world but also to make something of ourselves, and often the something that we make is a person with an inviolable sense of inner dignity.”

Butler meticulously constructed her life and vigilantly protected her time and energy to preserve her dignity and achieve her destiny against all odds. Though Butler did not have the specific instructions presented by Cameron, George discovered in the archive that Butler read self-help books by Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, J. Lowell Henderson and Claude Bristol among others. The writings by these men advised her. “Her advisors, she acknowledged,” George writes, “may not be on the same page socio-politically, may even be dead, but she’d intuited that something essential could be gained from submitting to their worldview, even if she was never meant to be the target audience.” The clues Butler gained from these books taught her how “to keep her own counsel” and write her own affirmations. “These affirmations,” George declares, “are her safety net. They are her therapy she has neither the time, money nor constitution to undertake.” Butler discovered these books in the Pasadena Central Library as a teenager and by the time she started submitting her writing for publication in her early twenties, she had created her own practice to keep herself going. She conquered her fear and self-doubt by using these affirmations and following her strict discipline of research and writing.

Interspersed throughout George’s text are various quotes from Butler that show how she kept herself inspired. Consider this: “We don’t have to wait for anything at all. What we have to do is start.” Butler jump-started her journey in the dark without a map to follow. She grew up in Northwest Pasadena, an omnivorous reader and lifelong hermit who purposely never drove a car. Nonetheless she crisscrossed Los Angeles on public transit and took long walks to find her way in the world. George reveals all of this and shows how Butler’s worldbuilding and writing processes were methodical. She charted her life with such precision that she would often write on the calendar how many pages she wrote each day. 

A Lifeline for Writers

The celebrated Angeleno novelist and USC professor Dana Johnson calls George’s book on Butler, “a lifeline for writers.” In conversation with George for a virtual event hosted by Vroman’s Books, Johnson tells her that, “[she] shows us an Octavia Butler we have not seen before.”

George saw Butler speak a handful of times over a three-decade period. The first time George ever saw Butler was when George was in her late teens and she attended the reading with her mother, an English teacher and voracious reader. George’s mom was a fan of Butler and they attended a few of her readings together. George cannot remember if it was at EsoWon Books or the long gone Midnight Special in Santa Monica but she does know that attending these readings impressed themselves upon her as her own journey as a writer was beginning.

Years later George saw Butler in Seattle in 2004 for “Black to the Future: A Black Science Fiction Festival.” George travelled to the Pacific Northwest to cover this event for the Los Angeles Times and she even briefly spoke to Butler that day. George’s Times essay, “Black Writers Crossing the Final Frontier,” published on June 22, 2004 described the event and explained that when Butler began writing science fiction in the early 1970s she was often one of the only Black writers doing it, let alone a woman in a male-dominated genre. They made an agreement to speak again but as fate would have it Butler passed two years later in 2006.

Another important point George told Dana Johnson the night of the Vroman’s reading was that this book is a product of serendipity. In 2016 Julia Meltzer, the Executive Director of Clockshop invited George to participate in their year-long program celebrating Butler. This is how it all started. Meltzer recently told me via email: “When we first dreamed up Radio Imagination –a year-long program celebrating Octavia E. Butler where artists and writers were invited to work with her archives at the Huntington Library—I knew that writer Lynell George had to be a part of it.”

“I felt certain that learning about Octavia’s life through what she left behind,” Meltzer states, “would resonate with Lynell and that she would bring her intrepid, dogged and steady journalistic eye to the project. Very early on in Lynell’s research process I sensed that a book was soon to be born. I’m thrilled that my hunches were correct. How lucky we all are to be able to learn more about how Octavia E. Butler deliberately and carefully made herself into a science fiction writer.”

Clockshop’s 2018 book, Radio Imagination includes writing from George, Tisa Bryant, Robin Coste Lewis, Fred Moten and artwork by Laylah Ali, Malik Gaines, Lauren Halsey and Alexandro Segarde. George’s piece was a “posthumous interview” for which she immersed herself countless hours in the archive. As George communed with Butler’s archive, she felt as if she could hear her voice and the channeling for the piece began.

A modest Pasadena Bungalow, Courtesy of Lynell George

Forecasting the Future

Though readers marvel at Butler’s seeming ability to predict the future, journalist and former editor of LA Weekly Judith Lewis Mernit recalls soliciting Butler for an essay on the “future of reading”. Instead, Butler wrote about how she still wrote on her typewriter because she liked to be methodical and deliberate with her process. However, it was her careful attention to her craft that allowed her to turn a keen eye on the present and imagine the future.

According to Mernit and Lynell George, Butler also observed the world around her by reading hundreds of articles on climate change and taking daily walks around Pasadena. Butler always paid close attention to the plants and trees in her neighborhood, noting the different species and details, such as, whether a tree was producing as many fruit as in the previous year. Like a scientist, she carefully cataloged her observations in her notebooks in detailed lists.

George’s book includes lists that Butler created from her walks and bus rides around the city. In these trips, Butler observed the city up close. The lists she wrote often read like poems. Here is one of Butler’s poem-like lists exactly as it appears in George’s book:

#79 Bus

Brown and deep green hills of early summer

The grass is dry for the most part.

Blond with a little green grass

And many deep green trees.

•••

Alvarado + Sunset—N. on Alv.

Small El rancho mkt—not chain

Way into hills

W. on Sunset—through cut hills

Both sides—houses cluttered on hills

Much wood frame

@ Sunset to sea—enclaves + open

Thru-way

As George’s narrative reminds us again and again, Butler’s careful attention to the world around her empowered her with the x-ray vision to write about the environmental conditions of the future. She was watching her immediate surroundings so closely that she could read the writing on the wall about rising temperatures or social unrest before everyone else.

A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky spotlights Butler with the same verisimilitude that Butler herself used to show us the future of our world. George writes that she found the book’s title while reading a passage in the archive: “Science fiction allowed her to reach for something beyond what she could visualize. Reading through a draft of a speech Octavia was puzzling out, I was struck by a particular answer. Science fiction is a handful of earth, and a handful of sky and everything around and between.”

Lynell and Octavia

George shares several commonalities with Butler beginning with the fact that she lives in Pasadena just minutes from where Butler grew up. Moreover, both Lynell George and Octavia Butler write the type of impeccable prose that only comes from countless drafts and years of practice.

Indeed, George has practiced her own diligent writing regimen with the same dedication as Butler, having written thousands of essays over the last 30 plus years for publications like Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Essence, LA Weekly, Alta Journal, the Smithsonian, and others. George’s countless articles have mapped Los Angeles and crisscrossed California with the same veracity as Butler’s fiction. And finally, they both were very close to their mothers and were gifted typewriter’s by them when they were little girls. George’s dedication in the book reads, “To my mother, who bought me my first typewriter.”

A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky accomplishes many missions simultaneously. Whether the reader wants to learn more about what made Octavia Butler so influential or if they want to learn how to be as influential as Octavia Butler, Lynell George provides a roadmap that reveals Octavia Butler’s secret recipe for expanding space and time.   

Mike Sonksen is a 3rd-generation Angeleno. Poet, professor, journalist, historian and tour-guide, his book Letters to My City was published by Writ Large Press. His poetry’s been featured on Public Radio Stations KCRW, KPCC & KPFK. He teaches at Woodbury University. 

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

Reviews

Exhausting, But Not Exhaustive: A Review of Rick Perlstein’s “Reaganland”

Peter Richardson

Reaganland is the final installment of Rick Perlstein’s critically acclaimed history of the modern conservative movement. Beginning with Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign, continuing through the Nixon years, and culminating with Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory, the four-volume saga furnishes an enormous amount of period detail culled from a wide variety of sources. Focused mostly on electoral politics, it chronicles the period’s key campaigns, surveys the social movements that shaped the political landscape, and encapsulates countless contemporary issues. Perlstein’s commentary is sparing but refreshingly tart. Although he elsewhere describes himself as a European-style social democrat, he clearly admires the conservative movement’s passion and resolve, and he is especially tough on liberal pundits and operatives who dismissed or underestimated their adversaries. For these and other reasons, Perlstein’s magnum opus is the most comprehensive introduction to the Age of Reagan.

In my review of the third volume, I noted that Perlstein’s style was exhausting but not quite exhaustive. That pattern is even more evident in Reaganland. Unlike its predecessors, it does not use an explicit theme or organizing device to shape and direct the story. Moreover, it violates a basic narrative convention by steadily expanding the size of the cast. On almost every page of this lengthy book, Perlstein introduces several new characters, many of whom appear only once. As a result, the final volume sprawls more than an Orange County suburb. Perlstein marches through the major events, issues, and news items of the Carter presidency: Panama Canal, OPEC, Iran, SALT II, Moral Majority, Three Mile Island, Afghanistan, tax revolt, affirmative action, supply-side economics, and so on. He also details the shifting rivalries and alliances, both major and minor, within and between the two parties. Although his determination to map every twist in the road is impressive, the steady accumulation of detail does not always lead to a deeper understanding of the period or its major figures. Indeed, I often felt that I was reliving, rather than reassessing, a four-year period that was not especially enjoyable the first time around. Even as the curtain falls on his lengthy series, Perlstein draws no conclusions about the movement he has chronicled. Instead, he quotes Reagan’s inaugural speech (“In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem …”) and adds that the fur coats at the inaugural balls “so overloaded the coatracks that they resembled great lumbering mastodons out of the prehistoric past.” It is a nice touch but not a helpful summation of a lengthy, complicated narrative.

Something else is missing as well. Having read the entire cycle, I now believe it is related to the story’s provenance. Thousands of minor characters come and go in Perlstein’s epic, but its chief protagonists emerged from a relatively small region— Southern California and Arizona—which had exercised little political influence at the national level. Perlstein documents the rising power of the Sun Belt, but one can read this entire series without learning why Southern California produced the two most important American politicians in the second half of the twentieth century. When posed directly, that question calls our attention to Perlstein’s grasp of the region’s history and political culture. Although one does not expect complete mastery in a story of this scope, his portrait of California has several gaps and flat sides. It would have benefited, I think, from Kathryn S. Olmsted’s analysis in Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism (2015), which argues that California agribusiness served as the state’s political crucible during that turbulent decade. Businessmen forged a new kind of populism that combined corporate funding for grassroots efforts, sophisticated media campaigns, systematic intelligence-gathering on adversaries, and coalitions between religious and economic conservatives. That form of corporate populism was also characterized by its virulent anti-communism, which eventually spread from the state’s fields and canneries to Hollywood and the University of California. It is no accident, Olmsted notes, that Nixon and Reagan launched their political careers by attacking Communists real and imagined. Perlstein touches on related material, but Olmsted puts the movement’s origins into sharper focus.

Also absent are critiques by California leftists. Chief among them is Carey McWilliams, who has been described as “the state’s most astute political observer” (Kevin Starr) and “the California left’s one-man think tank” (Mike Davis). Although McWilliams was known back east for editing The Nation magazine, he was also tracking Nixon and Reagan as early as the 1940s. When Nixon ran for the Senate in 1950, McWilliams tagged him as “a dapper little man with an astonishing capacity for petty malice.” In the mid-1960s, when the conservative movement began to flex its muscles, McWilliams regularly challenged Nixon and Reagan in the pages of The Nation. In 1966, for example, he called out Reagan in an article called “How to Succeed with the Backlash.” In it, he described that year’s gubernatorial race as “one of the most subtle and intensive racist political campaigns ever waged in a Northern or Western state.” In the aftermath of the Watts Riots and the state’s fair-housing ordeal, McWilliams took note of Reagan’s dog whistles:

There won’t be much plain talk from Californians about the racism that they know permeates the Brown-Reagan contest. Most of them won’t talk about it at all if they can escape it. They don’t want the nation to know—they don’t want to admit to themselves—that the number-one state may elect Ronald Reagan governor in order to ‘keep the Negro in his place.’

Despite his perspicacity, or perhaps because of it, McWilliams never appears in Perlstein’s epic. He certainly did not play the part of the clueless liberal, one of Perlstein’s favorite types. Barely two years after Goldwater’s crushing defeat, McWilliams was well aware of the conservative movement’s growing power in California. Indeed, he warned that Pat Brown, the two-term incumbent, was in danger of losing to a former B-movie actor who had never held public office. Mainstream outlets largely ignored his charge of racism, preferring the weak sauce of consensus journalism, but McWilliams and others saw through Reagan in real time.

Perlstein’s most remarkable omission, however, concerns the Los Angeles Times. Quite simply, one cannot understand Southern California history or politics without a thorough consideration of that newspaper and its owners. For three generations, aspiring Republicans curried favor with the Chandler family. Norman Chandler later conceded that the Times strongly supported the GOP—not only on the op-ed page, but also in its news coverage. In fact, the newspaper had sabotaged Democratic candidates, including Upton Sinclair, whom the Times smeared regularly during his 1934 gubernatorial campaign. The paper’s political editor, Kyle Palmer, told a colleague, “We don’t go in for that kind of crap that you have back in New York—of being obliged to print both sides. We’re going to beat this son of a bitch Sinclair any way we can. We’re going to kill him.” That pattern changed in the 1960s, when Otis Chandler turned the Times into a respectable news organization. The Times became a less reliable advocate for GOP candidates, but it occupied an even larger niche in the national media ecology. Bitter about the newspaper’s new orientation, President Nixon ordered an investigation of Otis Chandler’s taxes. Perlstein probably understands the newspaper’s centrality; a note in the first volume recommends David Halberstam’s history of the Times during its early years. By my count, however, the newspaper receives only 13 passing mentions in all four volumes. Otis Chandler is cited once—in a passage about the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Buff and Norman Chandler, who exerted enormous political, commercial, and cultural influence in Los Angeles, likewise receive one brief mention each.

When Perlstein focuses on California politics, the results are mixed. Howard Jarvis’s tax revolt receives ample discussion in Reaganland, as does Governor Jerry Brown’s response to it. Perlstein’s summary of the property tax issue is on point, but his depiction of Brown conforms to the Governor Moonbeam stereotype. “Jerry Brown was a strange man,” Perlstein asserts. “He drove his own used Plymouth sedan, slept on a mattress on the floor of his bachelor apartment, and spent his spare time at the San Francisco Zen Center.” Brown was by no means a conventional politician, but even now, nothing in Perlstein’s description seems especially odd to me. Nor does it capture Brown’s appeal. His trademark emphasis on limits and fiscal restraint, which Perlstein suggests were trumped by Reagan’s blue-sky optimism, turned out to be useful after the global economic meltdown of 2008. A byproduct of the Reagan revolution’s penchant for deregulation, that crisis brought California to the brink of insolvency, but Brown helped clean up the mess. Perhaps it is a matter of taste, but a figure like J. Edgar Hoover, who appears frequently in the early volumes, seems far stranger to me than Jerry Brown.

Reaganland also gives ample space to the Briggs Initiative, which sought to ban gays and lesbians from teaching in California. Harvey Milk figured prominently in that episode, and Perlstein quotes his Gay Freedom Day speech at length. Although Milk begged President Carter to denounce the initiative, it was Reagan who surprised everyone by taking a relatively soft line on the issue, and Orange County state senator John Briggs blamed him for the measure’s defeat. That outcome seems sane enough, but 200 pages later, Perlstein doubles down on his portrait of “oddball California.” He returns to the gay rights movement, recounts the assassinations of George Moscone and Harvey Milk, and features Dan White’s trial. Relying heavily on Warren Hinckle’s coverage, he mistakes Hinckle for “a former New Left radical” and scrambles the sequence of the two events that staggered San Francisco: “Then came those assassinations, then Jonestown, within the space of ten awful days.” In fact, the Jonestown massacre preceded the City Hall slayings. Perlstein closes the episode with an interesting irony. The word neighborhood, he notes, was one of the “five simple, familiar, everyday words” that Reagan believed should guide every GOP message. After describing the Castro district riots that followed the White verdict, Perlstein adds that Reagan’s insight was a sound one: “Just look at how many people were willing to spill blood for their neighborhoods in San Francisco.” Of course, such conflicts were unthinkable in Reaganland. Although sparingly applied, Perlstein’s piquant sense of irony is one of his major assets.

Behind Perlstein’s project is a deceptively simple question: How did Ronald Reagan become the dominant American politician of his era? Reaganland is the most obvious place to address that question directly, but Perlstein largely coasts on his earlier claim that, in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, Reagan’s political success sprang from the tension between American optimism and pessimism. Reaganland recounts Jimmy Carter’s failed attempts to harness that tension, but as Perlstein notes in the previous volume, Reagan had already resolved it with a single (if dubious) theological stroke. In Reagan’s sunny view, even the country’s gravest mistakes, crimes, and sins were trivial compared to America’s divinely ordained role as leader of the free world. He considered the U.S. effort in Vietnam a noble cause, stood by Richard Nixon long after the Watergate scandal destroyed his presidency, and seemed untroubled by even the ugliest forms of racism. In Perlstein’s view, Reagan had “the capacity to cleanse any hint of doubt regarding American innocence. That was the soul of his political appeal: his liturgy of absolution.” When other conservatives spouted racist remarks and violent threats, that capacity was especially useful.

For all the differences between the two men, Reagan also endorsed Nixon’s peculiar sense of inculpability. Discussing the president’s role in national security, Nixon famously claimed, “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” In effect, Reagan extended that immunity to the nation as a whole. In Reagan’s imaginary republic, America could do no wrong. If a person thought that about himself, we would consider him a sociopath. Now, four decades after Reagan’s victory, even the most casual observer can see that pathology on full display in the White House. This degeneration is perhaps the most dispiriting aspect of American political history since 1980. As political commentator Charles Pierce likes to say, that was the year the GOP ate the monkey brains. Despite its foibles, Reaganland shows exactly how that table was set.

“A good deal about California does not, on its own preferred terms, add up,” Joan Didion wrote about her home state. The same was true of Reagan’s fantasies and simplifications. In the end, we paid for all of them, though Perlstein’s monumental work will not document that reckoning.


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

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