Category: Reviews

Reviews

Inland Shift: Towards a Radical Intercommunalism in the Inland Empire

J.T. Roane

During a speech delivered at Boston College on November 18, 1970 Huey P. Newton extended Marxist-Leninist material dialecticism as a mode of theoretical and practical inquiry through his critical neologism “intercommunalism.” Describing two variants of intercommunalism, one reactionary and the other revolutionary, Newton premised his analytic on an understanding that American empire had eclipsed the nation-colony model of European imperial integration in a similar fashion to the ways that system eclipsed the “primitive empire” Romans built within the world as they conceived it in the Classical period of the West. “North America,” he argued had been “transformed at the hands of the ruling circle from a nation to an empire,” changing “the whole composition of the world.” As a result, the elite of the United States “necessarily control[led] the whole world either directly or indirectly.” Intercommunalism, in its reactionary variant, created a world defined by the dislocation of finance, production, and consumption across increasingly dispersed and mediated geographic system of resource-siphoning in which automation would give way to “cybernation [and] probably to technocracy.” The primary effect of reactionary intercommunalism, according to Newton, was the creation of a permanent class of expendable people the world over with no access to the benefits of technological transformation and who were forced to bear the worst effects of global integration.1

In contrast to reactionary intercommunalism, Newton proposed and adopted “revolutionary intercommunalism.” As a result of “nations hav[ing] been transformed into [the] communities of the world,” revolutionary organizers could also make it a “time when the people seize[d] the means of production and distribute[d] the wealth and the technology in an egalitarian way to the many communities of the world.” Newton’s interpretation of the revolutionary variant of intercommunalism justified the shift of the Black Panther Party toward its Survival Programs. Without the basics of subsistence in food and healthcare and without critical education, there would be no ability to survive, let alone to throw off the technocratic elite, he reasoned. Revolutionary intercommunalists could shut down the draining of collective resources to line the pockets of Empire’s elites. Using the capacity of the new technological age, which had taken a person to the moon but which refused to end hunger and depravation, revolutionary intercommunalists, including the Panthers, could create a global sense of the world based not on exploitation but rather on the power to extend human happiness and wellbeing equitably.2

These key turns in Newton’s thought, his analysis of both the reactionary and revolutionary versions of intercommunalism, as well as the Black Panther’s organizational praxis responding to these novel theorizations, remain important theoretical and practical points in challenging globalization—the hegemonic financial and cultural integration of the earth that has continued since the era of Newton’s theorization. This, our age of the orange autocrat in the U.S. and of multiple neo-fascist regimes around the world, is defined by unprecedented technocratic monopoly and the devastating expansion of the permanently jobless, homeless, and nationless who can make no claim to the advances associated with globalization and who face the brunt of the negative effects of this order. Extending Newton’s concept, we currently face the rise of what I call reactionary, reactionary intercommunalism—a variant in which the façade of integration accompanying multicultural neoliberalism has given way to the explicit embrace of autocracy in and through technological, economic, and political integration. Across disparate human geographies a technocratic elite—ranging from logistics capital to social media tycoons—dictate the lives of ordinary people, deciding if they work, live, or die and under what conditions.

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Basil D, Soufi, “Aerial view of the Inland Empire overlooking San Bernardino and Rialto, California,” Courtesy of Soufi via Creative Commons

Juan D. De Lara’s important new book Inland Shift: Race, Space, and Capital in Southern California (UC Press, 2018), garners for readers analytic purchase not only on the dynamics of the technologically integrated commodity chains shaping contemporary reactionary, reactionary intercommunalism, but also on the potential for labor organizing and politics to extend the practice of Newton’s revolutionary intercommunalism. One of the powerful aspects of De Lara’s study is that, like Clyde Woods’ work in the context of the Mississippi Delta, he takes the region as his point of analysis. Foremost, as De Lara argues, the region provides a frame through which to analyze the ways that “[c]reative destruction is…woven into the fabric of capitalist development” and provides “solution to the devaluation of fixed capital by reconfiguring spatial-temporal relationships to create new investment options.” Emerging from a “speculative growth regime” the Inland Empire as a distribution center for global commodities emerged as corporate boosters and politicians beginning in the 1980s justified the expenditure of collective resources to extend Southern California’s port, warehouse, and distribution infrastructures into the region encompassing cities east of Los Angeles like Riverside, San Bernardino, and Ontario. As De Lara demonstrates, these changes were sold to ordinary people as the tide that would lift all boats, as the collective potential for prospering after the devastation of the region’s rapid deindustrialization in competition with emerging production centers around the world. Elites reasoned that the expenditures, as well as the environmental-health threats related to concentrated diesel pollution, would be worth the enhancement of the region’s position in the mounting competition for increased commodity imports. They argued that these developments would improve the lives of the region’s ordinary residents by providing them with stable incomes and concomitantly with access to the housing market as owners. In effect, however, these processes further entrenched vulnerability in communities exposed to global market fluctuations. Indeed, the cost of speculatively-growing Southern California ports and the Inland Empire distribution networks to make them competitive with others around the nation, was the extension of tedious and poorly compensated labor under conditions of often cyborg-like surveillance, as well as environmental degradation, and racial violence.

As it chronicles the rise of a regional elite, De Lara’s work holds onto material dialecticism, introducing points of possibility for the subversion of regional logistics hegemony through the narratives of predominantly Latinx warehouse workers. In particular, he includes, along with his analysis of the dominant social-spatial features of the Inland Empire, the “counter-mappings” of workers, or the “collective stories provid[ing] insight into how people make sense of the world” which are also the “seeds of opposition to dominant systems.” Importantly, De Lara credits ordinary people with the ability to generate theoretical and cartographic insights useful in analyzing and thwarting this reviling and destructive system. In chapter five, for example, De Lara shows the ways that ordinary Latinx warehouse workers, “José,” “Angelica,” and “Marta” make sense of vulnerability within the wider geography of the region. He connects their analysis with their attempts to defy the imposition of a system of technologically enhanced management in which workers are wired to track productivity (or the lack thereof) as part of the wider coordination of production, commodity importation, warehousing, and distribution for corporations like Walmart. De Lara places these everyday forms of analysis and resistance on a continuum with the efforts of organizations to combat vulnerability. For example, these mappings helped to drive the inroads made by unions to end temporary work and also undergirded efforts to halt raids, detentions, and deportations undermining local Latinx communities. The rudimentary coordinates of worker’s alternative vistas on the matters of labor, place, and politics, served as the substrate out of which activist consciousness emerged. Union and community organizers drew together people by highlighting their shared narratives and common geographic analyses.

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De Lara’s book provides an excellent addition to the growing work in critical human geography. It would be particularly effective if paired with important works of regional analysis and Marxist geography including Clyde Woods’ work and Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s in Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. These works, taken together, help us to gain purchase on the development of the geographies of gendered racial capitalism in state and global capital formations and also to take stock of resistance. These works also remind us of the vital place of what Newton understood as “the left of the proletariat.” In a world, increasingly defined by reactionary global integration, it is only the everyday and organized subversions on the part of ordinary people that can dislodge the tyranny of technocracy, giving expression to a world free of borders wherein the advances in technological capacity can be distributed to address crises such as the environmental catastrophe, in order to insure our collective wellbeing rather than our collective destruction. As De Lara’s work effectively illustrates, we must recover the radical potential of Newton’s analysis, forwarding it into the nascent order. We must also organize shoulder to shoulder with the potentially revolutionary intercommunalists across the world if we are to survive the terrifying juncture of environmental destruction, technocratic monopoly, and global integration. The people of the Inland Empire have led the way in demonstrating the place of ordinary people can incapacitate technocratic power and fighting fascism, the political analog of an economy based in technocratic monopoly.

May the revolutionary intercommunalists of the world unite!

Notes

1 Huey P. Newton, “Speech Delivered at Boston College: November 18, 1970, To Die for the People, ed. Toni Morrison, (San Francisco: City Light Books, 2009): 20-38.

2 ibid.

J.T. Roane is assistant professor of African and African American Studies in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University. Roane is broadly concerned about matters of geography, ecologies, sexuality, and religion in relation to Black communities. He is at work on a manuscript under contract with NYU Press titled, “Dark Agoras: Insurgent Black Social Life and the Politics of Place in Philadelphia.” He serves as co-senior editor for Black Perspectives, the digital platform of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS).

Copyright: © 2019 J.T. Roane. 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

American Fruit

California Citrus State Historic Park Visitor's Center, Riverside

California Citrus State Historic Park Visitor’s Center, Riverside

Elisabet Barrios Mateo

I grew up surrounded by a vast agricultural landscape in California. I never questioned the orchards’ beauty, or the sweetness of the apricots and cherries it bore. In Collisions at the Crossroads: How Place and Mobility Make Race, Genevieve Carpio peels back the history of the “Citrus Belt” in Southern California to reveal its unsettling past.

Reading Collisions at the Crossroads is like holding a hundred-dollar bill to a light and seeing its racial watermarks with a naked-eye. Through a deep analysis of literature, newspaper articles, maps, and legal and congressional records, Carpio exposes the many symbols of white supremacy embedded within these artifacts. She unapologetically argues that racial logics have been used to produce inequality via laws, regional policies, and cultural narratives in the United States.

With this book, readers will come to comprehend a dynamic portrait of how World War I and II, Dust Bowl migration, and the emergence of the automobile industry replicated the same racial hierarchies that nourished the Citrus Belt. It is a captivating read that weaves together athleticism, Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, and Route 66 in eye-opening ways. Her argument of spatial mobility as a human right, powerfully contributes to the debate on whether or not race produces inequality beyond economic stratifications. The first two chapters come to expose how land rights favored white settlers, and how they leveraged citizenship and belonging through historical myths. The middle three chapters transition to uncover how economic and cultural disadvantages were produced through immigration laws, policing, and housing segregation that targeted racial minorities. The final chapter concludes by connecting to past and present debates on U.S. identity and belonging.

Carpio uses racial triangulation throughout her book to unpack race as a relative construct. Like Natalia Molina in How Race is Made in America: Immigration, Citizenship and the Historical Power of Racial Scripts, Carpio argues that racial narratives are relational. Covering a longer time-period, she examines how Indigenous, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Puerto Rican, and Mexican communities were hierarchically positioned and selectively framed over the twentieth- century. White farmers entered the national debate on the Immigration Bill of 1924 to juxtapose Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Filipino workers to serve their economic interests while strategically framing people from all three groups as supposed threats to the Anglo racial landscape.

Carpio makes a resounding argument of mobility as a human right that cannot be divorced from the educational, residential, and economic outcomes that social scientists examine. She connects us to the past by drawing and expanding on old academic boundaries, while charting a new path for contemporary scholars and political leaders. Her book is a liberating piece that sheds light on the mechanisms through which non-white Americans have been excluded from full citizenship and belonging. It demonstrates the power of lies, storytelling, and the potential for reclaiming space through a collective narrative.

To varying degrees, each chapter provides evidence that communities of color have fought mobility constraints, which leads her to focus on resistance within legal and social institutions. Unfortunately, this leaves informal avenues of resistance unexamined. And yet we know that from common practices today, these informal avenues were likely also engaging spaces of resistance. For instance, contemporary undocumented immigrant communities use real-time communication chains to organize around police checkpoints and immigration raids. What might such informal strategies have looked like during the period Carpio examines? These could be crucial to understanding how non-white communities shift boundaries around physical and social spaces throughout everyday life.

Carpio’s book is a noteworthy contribution to our historical and present-day understanding of how racial hierarchies are used to curtail the rights and privileges of communities of color. She invites readers to learn about their not-so-distant past, while provoking them to reflect on the lies readers have imbibed and internalized. Reading a bit like a local version of Howard Zinn’s, A People’s History of the United States, her writing poetically uncovers racial inequalities in the legal system, while simultaneously portraying a dynamic human experience. By the end of the book, the reader can hear echoes of the narratives used to forge the Citrus Belt in the political discourse under the Trump administration.

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Elisabet Barrios Mateo
is a doctoral student in Sociology at the University of California, Irvine. Her research focuses on the ways federal law and state policy shape the sense of belonging for young immigrants in United States. She also writes poetry about social justice, the immigrant experience, and love.

Copyright: © 2019 Elisabet Barrios Mateo. 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

Black Bruin Stories

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Jackie Robinson, 1940. Photo courtesy of ASUCLA Photography.

Nickolas Hardy

James W. Johnson’s The Black Bruins maps the rise of five former Bruins’ athletes who not only helped further the integration of college sport, but each became trailblazers in their own right. While the legacies of Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, and Jackie Robinson rest with the integration of professional sports, Ray Bartlett’s and Tom Bradley’s reside with public service in a racially hostile environment.[1] Simply put, The Black Bruins notes the overcoming of racial roadblocks of the times, while presenting each man’s narrative as a non-monolithic experience. It illustrates how each man capitalized on his talents and opportunities, showing five separate works of art all displayed on the same canvas, and leaving with six unique perspectives—the whole and its parts. That is to say, conveying the breadth of multiple narratives in a few brush strokes.

For starters, the prologue transports the reader back in time by framing the socio-historical landscape of the 1930s American West—Los Angeles, in particular. This section showcases the significance of the first Great Migration shaping an optimism for many African Americans flocking to LA in the hopes of bettering their lives outside of the constraints of the Jim Crow South. Johnson emphasizes this point in addressing both the large African-American population of LA at the time and the White flight occurring from the South as well.[2] The idea of African Americans fleeing the oppression of the South, while White Southerners are also relocating to LA juxtaposes the idealism of the highway to progress with the reality of obstruction waiting at the next rest stop. Both Jackie Robinson (from Georgia) and Tom Bradley (from Texas) were children of the South, as their families were part of this African American migratory group.[3] Contrary to Robinson and Bradley, Bartlett, Strode, and Washington were born and raised in Los Angeles—not versed in the culture of de jure racism, but aptly familiar with de facto racism. However, common experiences do not always render common responses. This is key, as each man’s response to the times is distinct.

The five men were track and field teammates at one point, with Washington, Strode, Bartlett, and Robinson also playing football together. Additionally, Robinson played basketball and baseball for UCLA. Despite this, Johnson takes great care to ensure that the other narratives are given their due and weaves a larger tapestry for the reader to appreciate. Jackie Robinson’s rise from Pasadena City College to UCLA and finally the integration of professional baseball carries some prominence in the narrative. Yet, Kenny Washington’s and Woody Strode’s integration into professional football by signing with the LA Rams is one of the books’ several gems, and, Strode also became a moderately successful actor. Another gem is the coverage of Tom Bradley’s climb to become Los Angeles’ first African American mayor, serving the community for twenty years.[4] Although, Ray Bartlett’s star did not shine as bright as did those of his teammates, his legacy of public service is significant.

By interconnecting the narratives, Johnson creates an enjoyable web of “six degrees of separation” in a who’s who and who else of important people that contributed to the rise of the “Black Bruins” along the way. The Black Bruins succeeds in articulating the significance of UCLA’s often overlooked role in integrating college sports during a time when many universities (including USC) were either reluctant to recruit more than a few African American athletes, opposed to start African American athletes or simply observed the “Gentleman’s Agreement.” This is not to say that the roadblocks were minimal. Johnson enumerates multiple instances in which Strode, Washington, Robinson, Bradley, and Bartlett were subject to racism both home and abroad. Those familiar with the history of the era will note this as par for the course. It provides a legacy today that UCLA and other UCs can and must build upon, especially as the UC campuses maintain a significant underrepresentation of African American students.

The book presents a bit of a paradox. Johnson articulates five remarkable biographies, but the story still feels like it is told too quickly, a legacy still not adequately appropriated. Overall, The Black Bruins is a home-run for those unfamiliar with both UCLA’s modest—yet significant—contribution in integrating college sports in the late 1930s and the five former teammates who helped put UCLA on the map. The book also reminds readers that narratives are not singular, but intersect with others. Perhaps an existential take-away from The Black Bruins is one that compels us not only to consider more carefully how to appropriate and build upon such legacies, but also to better see how our own diverse and distinct California narratives connect to each other.

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Notes

[1] Kenny Washington and Woody Strode re-integrate the NFL in 1946. Jackie Robinson integrates Major League Baseball in 1947. Ray Bartlett was a Pasadena Police Officer (one of the first and few African-American police officers). Tom Bradley becomes the first African-American mayor of Los Angeles, serving twenty years.

[2] Both Southern African Americans and Southern Whites were leaving the South seeking opportunity during the early Great Depression Era. James W. Johnson, The Black Bruins: Remarkable Lives of UCLA’S Jackie Robinson, Woody Strode, Tom Bradley, Kenny Washington, and Ray Bartlett (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018), 3.

[3] Johnson discusses Jackie Robinson’s “Black Belt” Georgia background (p. 7) and Tom Bradley’s Texas roots (pp. 18-19).

[4] Johnson articulates Tom Bradley’s transformative impact on Los Angeles that is significant in both his tenure and the city’s response (p. 211).

 

Nickolas Hardy is a retired U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) veteran and lecturer at Cal Poly Pomona.  His studies in Kinesiology include Socio-Cultural Perspectives in Sport, History of Sport, and Philosophy of Sport.  He is an avid researcher in the dynamic intersections between sport and society, emphasizing on the African-American experience.

Copyright: © 2018 Nickolas Hardy. 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/.

 

Photography/ArtReviews

Lynell George Sings Los Angeles

Mike Sonksen

In the last few years, dozens of articles and think-pieces composed by cultural critics and urban pundits have discussed rising rents across Los Angeles accompanied by the transforming local landscape and built environment. Many of these pieces approach the city from a distant, more theoretical standpoint. The native Angeleno journalist Lynell George provides a much more personal and an even deeper perspective on shifts across Los Angeles because she’s been covering the terrain longer than just about anybody. Her new book of essays and photographs from Angel City Press, After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame,[1] examines and explicates Los Angeles in search of place and belonging with an uncanny verisimilitude.

Rooted in personal experience, George catalogs the changing landscape, delving deeply into the city’s shifting districts and ever-evolving zeitgeist coming to rise because of these shifts. A lifetime of covering her hometown is distilled into eleven meticulous essays complemented perfectly by her own poignant, original photography. One of the key themes of this collection, as she states in the text, is that there are “‘many’ Los Angeleses swarming, each with stories that [tend to]) remain in the margins, territories that could only be accessed by someone familiar with its history and layout.” Another key idea she hammers home is that the Los Angeles depicted “on television or in the movies didn’t jibe with what [she] encountered daily, no matter where [she] lived.”

Quite simply, George knows Los Angeles better than almost anyone. City of Quartz author Mike Davis stated to me in an email late April that “L.A.’s written image has always been a predictable mixture of hyperbole, cliché and outsider ignorance, with boosterism and fear as two sides of the same coin. Lynell George comes from a different place entirely. With subtle love she explores the everyday to discover the extraordinary: the creative and rebellious spirits of the neighborhoods, the schools, and the true (not fake) bohemias. She truly sings Los Angeles.”

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The Many Los Angeleses

As Davis notes, George’s forte is revealing the many Los Angeleses and she’s been doing this for over three decades. A former staff writer at both the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly, her writing has won many awards over the years, even a 2018 Grammy Award for Best Album Notes for writing the liner notes, “The Stomp Comes to the Strip,” for the six-CD set, Otis Redding Live at the Whisky A Go Go. In 2017, George also won the Alan Jutzi Fellowship from the Huntington Library for her work with the Octavia E. Butler archive.

Her first book, No Crystal Stair, published by Verso in 1992 peeled back the false facades of South Central Los Angeles to reveal the faces of the city: the mothers, fathers, extended families, the churches, the schools, and legions of teachers and social workers in the district that walked the walk. Her behind the scenes portraits of community pillars like community organizer and youth advocate Levi Kingston, jazz musician John Carter, filmmaker Charles Burnett, the Marcus Garvey School, and the Ward AME Church showed the real South Central Los Angeles, not the exaggerated misrepresentation that mass media promoted in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Her early essays are meticulously reported and stand the test of time. This new collection carries this spirit even further, matching her poetic prose with her equally skilled photography. There’s an organic unity in After/Image that radiates from every page.

Lynell George was born in Hollywood, raised in the Crenshaw District, and then moved to Culver City just before adolescence. Her parents were both teachers around inner-city Los Angeles and her father eventually became a principal. Both of her parents migrated to Los Angeles for opportunity during the early 1950s, the last wave of the Great Migration. Her father was from Pennsylvania and her mother, Louisiana.

After/Image revisits her formative years to paint an in-depth portrait of not only Black L.A.’s transformation, but the city at large. “The black L.A. where I grew up in the ’70s,” she writes, “was a territory built of dreams and defeats. A work-in-progress that was still being shaped by the unrest of the ’60s and the outsized dreams of our forebears.” After/Image maps these territories, “both physical and of the mind.”

After graduating from Culver City High School, she attended Loyola Marymount University (LMU) and studied with the great Los Angeles novelist Carolyn See. See praised her work right from the beginning. “Carolyn was a Mentor,” George tells me. “She was the first to suggest in college that I send one of the pieces I wrote for her class to either the Weekly or the L.A. Reader. Ten years later, that piece (or part of that piece), ended up being part of an essay in the Pantheon collection, Sex, Death and God in L.A.,[2] and entirely by chance, Carolyn had an essay in the same volume as well.”

After graduating from LMU, George went to graduate school for Creative Writing at San Francisco State. While in San Francisco, she met the novelist, essayist and professor Leonard Michaels. Michaels helped her sort out if she should continue in the Masters’ Creative Writing Program or take the leap of leaving grad school. “He gave me advice about what a writer should do: ‘Read. Write. Find someone who you trust to read and critique your work,’” she recalled. “He encouraged me to stay open to the world.” George ended up staying in San Francisco for only a year when a summer internship back home at the LA Weekly became a job opportunity. She listened to Michaels’ advice and sooner than later, she was doing cover stories for the Weekly.

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A Pioneer of Los Angeles Journalism

For about seven years George was a staff writer at the Weekly and eventually went on to become a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times for fifteen years. George was one of the first writers in the city to cover the rise of Leimert Park as an artistic enclave in the late 1980s and the first writer to spotlight the district in the LA Weekly. She also pioneered coverage for important topics like the Black and Korean Alliances before the 1992 uprisings happened and dozens of other issues that are now more widely discussed like public versus private schools, Black filmmakers, and gentrification.

These were the glory days of the LA Weekly and George was printed along with important L.A. voices like Wanda Coleman, Ruben Martinez, and Mike Davis, all of whom she became close confidantes with. She met Coleman sometime in the late 1980s and they remained in touch all the way until 2013 when the legendary poet and writer passed. Coleman even introduced Lynell to her brother George Evans and the artist Michael Massenberg, both of whom George has had fruitful collaborations with in recent years. “Wanda was a special force in my life,” George confides. “She was a solid sounding board and sat down with me to make sure that I paid attention to whom and what was around me. She always alerted me to good stories, good people I needed to know or have around me.”

Though Coleman was nearly two decades older than George, they shared many commonalities like both being African American women writers from South Los Angeles with parents who came to Los Angeles during the Great Migration, though Coleman’s parents were in the first wave and George’s at the end. “[Wanda] was a letter writer,” George remembers, “and I still have those notes, postcards and double-spaced typewritten letters she’d drop in the mail.” Their last meeting, shortly before Coleman passed “was a ‘lunch’ that went for seven hours. It was more than a lunch, it was a seminar—in research, history, writing, life, and of course Los Angeles. I’ll never forget it.”

Like Wanda Coleman, George has lived almost her entire life in Los Angeles County. In her adulthood, George lived in Echo Park and Pasadena. Though some of After/Image is autobiographical, it is a larger meditation on the rapid changes sweeping Southern California in the last few decades.

Throughout the text, George converses with a variety of local experts like Lila Higgins from the Natural History Museum who muses on the once-ample green space across the city now developed. The chapter with Higgins, “Urban Wild,” explains how Southern California is “a hotspot of biodiversity,” and what we need to do to preserve local ecosystems and restore the Los Angeles River.

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Recording A Vanishing Place

In the book’s opening essay, she writes: “I seem to have ‘lost’ Los Angeles. It’s as if the city were a set of keys I’ve somehow misplaced. I keep frantically retracing my steps hoping to locate it—something’s lost and must be found.” George embarked on this journey as a writer, and a photographer. She rose early every Sunday morning and began wandering all over the city to record “that vanishing sense of place.”

Another mission of the book is to not only locate Los Angeles, but also “to find and catalog what and who is still here. What is Los Angeles when you pull the image of the city away? What are you left with? What is the Los Angeles that lives inside of us? The one—the afterimage—that lingers in the mind’s eye.” The resulting essays, interviews and photographs presented in After/Image are a captivating panorama of 2018 Los Angeles. Among the many subjects covered, she highlights the shrinking size of Little Tokyo and rising rents in the Arts District and Boyle Heights. George shares her conversations with native Angelenos and neighborhood experts like James Rojas, Nancy Uyemura, and Evelyn Yoshimura for sharper insight.

The second chapter of the book, “Lost Angelena,” is a short section that gives insight into the collection’s genesis. For three years, George taught a journalism course at Loyola Marymount University called, “Telling Los Angeles’s Story.” In this class, she encouraged students to look deeper at the city and to analyze beyond the standard tropes and stereotypes that have characterized Los Angeles to outsiders and to followers of film and mass media. “As I encouraged students to look beyond facile definitions I found that I had to as well,” she writes. “My challenge was slightly different than theirs since I was teaching the class in the shadow of what home and place had once meant—and consequently means now.” She ended up diving back into “the city’s grid, drifting past old intersections and addresses.”

The third chapter is appropriately titled, “Arteries of Memory.” Revisiting her childhood home near 61st and West, George recounts her rite of passage growing up in the Crenshaw District. In between breaking down the backstory of streets like Slauson, she explains how the area transformed and the reverence so many residents then and some still feel for city streets. “My father used to recite the names of major surface streets like liturgy: Main, First, Washington, Western, Sepulveda, Exposition, Adams… and, closer to home, Slauson.” She even shares the old Johnny Carson joke: “Take the Slauson cut off, get out of your car and cut off your Slauson.”

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The inside story is one of a truer Los Angeles. Her family had been the first black family on their stretch of the street. For a time, she states, “That little stretch of 61st, in that moment, could have been a filmmaker’s backdrop for conveying the mirage of Los Angeles that existed in our collective imagination: white-stucco homes, built in the teens and twenties, with terracotta roofs and wrap-around porches, long driveways and yards that were a vivid sketchpad of shaggy palms and fruit trees and flower beds where the snapdragons fought for space among the succulents. Paradise—until we found that it wasn’t.”

George discusses her family moving from the Crenshaw District to Culver City in the early 1970s and the changing cityscape. Her observations on race are nuanced and from firsthand experience: “I started school with almost all black classmates. For a time, predominantly white. Then black, and by the end, tipping toward mixed again.”

As much as George covers the city’s history within the narrative, there’s a deeper insight embedded in every page. Well-documented topics like the 1965 Watts Uprisings, white flight, and neighborhood redevelopment are shown by George in a new light with greater context. Her conversations on the changing cityscape with longtime Angelenos like Frances E. Williams and Skira Martinez concretizes the topic and makes it more personal. George shows how “Gentrification begins with words. Language of erasure. There used to be nothing here…. That place is a ghost town after dark…. No one goes there anymore…. It’s a no man’s land.” The very language used to describe evolving neighborhoods, she points out, begins the process of erasure with words like “discovered” and “unearthed.” These terms are how the word “Columbusing” has recently emerged.

In the penultimate chapter, “Flow,” she explores what race means in Los Angeles by celebrating the “in-between spaces where new identities formed.” Beginning with her own high school experience she grew up with a “black kid that surfed,” “the white kid that pop-locked,” and the “Japanese-American kid who played basketball with a J.J. Walker comic back-bend.” To further illustrate these stereotype-defying individuals, she remembers an old high school confidante, an Irish-Catholic girl. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, the city was still very segregated, and yet her friend “was part of an emerging new crop: those who were bold enough not to run from, but to step out and embrace what was new; what we would be in conversation with each day.”

Furthermore, George writes, “Before we used words like ally or accomplice, [the Irish-Catholic girl] found a way to stand shoulder to shoulder in ways that mattered most—being quiet, listening, defending, reaching out. She spoke a passable schoolyard Spanish, well enough to be understood, and perhaps most critically, to understand. What was most important to me was she had your back.” The second half of “Flow” spends time with another genre-bending native Angeleno, the bass player Wil-Dog Abers from the iconic L.A. musical group, Ozomatli. Wil-Dog was a white kid within the racially tense 1980s who used music to find an identity, “his portal into enclaves, neighborhood, hidden outposts, and intimate friendships.” People like Wil-Dog and her old friend represent how Angelenos embraced the world around them and flowed along with the changes in the city.

A final word also needs to be said about After/Image’s photography. The last section of the book, “The Spirit of Place,” is almost exclusively photos for sixteen pages. There’s a three-paragraph introduction to the chapter and then five quotes from Angelenos like recent poet laureate Luis J. Rodriguez and the Japanese-American writer and activist, Traci Kato-Kiriyama, interspersed through the images.

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The spirit of Los Angeles

George’s opening sentence of the final passage says it all: “The most evocative features of Los Angeles can’t always be put into words. Sense of place is a connection that takes root. It flourishes deep inside. That spirit of place may come in a quick glimpse or along a periphery. Maybe it’s a mood. A hidden vista. The scale of a street. The bend of a skyscraping fan palm.” The book’s cover image of Union Station with the glowing purple sky in the background is a perfect example of a picture beyond words.

George’s photos throughout After/Image capture the evocative moods and hidden vistas nested within the fabric of the city. Influenced by Roy DeCarava, the iconic Harlem-born photographer who used his photography to celebrate everyday life in Black America, her photos of everyday Los Angeles extend the moment with the same kind of authenticity. George has been taking photos as long as she’s been writing, but in her recent explorations walking across the city over the last five years, she “began to take along a camera to record specific details—front steps, attic windows, a tangle of succulents, the remnants of backyard incinerators, hand-drawn signs, lost lists, long shadows, the play of light, details or moments that forced [her] to look twice or ask questions.”

The overall work provides a powerful portrait of Los Angeles in 2018 and over the last half century. She admits, “I can’t quite say if this narrative—the photographs, the testimonials—is a love letter or a Dear John note.” Ultimately, the book is a remarkable ode to Los Angeles and the sweeping arc of her narrative is compelling to natives and nonnatives alike. Her final sentence before the extended photo essay summarizes both the book and her intentions: “I walk to remember to tell and honor these stories—what still lies outside the frame and the images of Los Angeles that live inside of me. And us.”

In March and April of 2018, George has been appearing across Southern California supporting After/Image in venues like Vroman’s Bookstore, the Annenberg Beach House, and the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. She also has essays in two forthcoming books: L.A. Baseball: Photographs from the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection; and Radio Imagination: Artists and Writers in the Archive of Octavia E. Butler. George’s meticulously prevalent writing and research combined with her personal insight proves why she is one of today’s best voices singing Los Angeles.

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Notes 

* All photos courtesy of Lynell George, used by permission.

[1] https://www.angelcitypress.com/products/aila.

[2] David Reid, ed., Sex, God and L.A. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).

 

Mike Sonksen is a third-generation Los Angeles native whose prose and poetry have been included in programs with the Mayor’s Office, the Los Angeles Public Library’s “Made in LA,” series and Grand Park. Most recently, one of his KCET essays was nominated for an Award with the L.A. Press Club. Sonksen teaches at Woodbury University.

Copyright: © 2018 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

The Latin American Aesthetic of L.A. Music Culture

Kun-4

Benjamin Cawthra

In the middle of a series of fascinating interviews with Latin American Los Angeles session musicians, the editor of this volume, Josh Kun, puts a series of questions to the great Brazilian percussionist Paulinho da Costa. In the midst of these, he lets his thesis slip. “You can tell musical history through the artist,” he says. “But you can also tell it from the back end, from the perspective of the session player. How does that change musical history? Suddenly Brazilian music is no longer this marginal exotic sound but at the center of virtually everything people are listening to.”[1]

Finding a new center, or a new listening point, for the history of popular music is at the heart of The Tide Was Always High. Kun’s wide-ranging introductory essay and the more particular contributions from a variety of writers display just what a substantial and ambitious task this book is to undertake. In order to pull it off, Kun asks us to rethink not only what is Latin American about Los Angeles culture, but also what is truly “Los Angeles” about the work of Latin American musicians? In order to make the argument, he is willing to rethink how hierarchies of taste and value are established and revised. In arguing for the pervasiveness of the Latin influence on American music, he is less interested in pitting genres against one another, or even determining critical value within a genre, than he is in showing connections among them all. Los Angeles session musicians like da Costa, whom some in the music press over the years have held in a sort of mild contempt as slick guns-for-hire, provide the intellectual model for Kun’s project. They treat each session, no matter the artist nor the context—whether commercial jingle, Hollywood soundtrack, jazz, pop—as an opportunity to make an important and distinctive cultural contribution, one rooted in their own ethnic backgrounds but functioning as anchor points for someone else’s music. In doing so, Kun argues, they essentially are remaking American cultural expression with a Latin American cast.

But The Tide Was Always High does far more than send music geeks who actually read session credits (this reviewer included) back to their record collections to be reminded of just what da Costa, Alex Acuña, and their compatriots have been doing in Los Angeles studios over the past several decades. John Koegel takes a deep dive into the history of Mexican musical theater in pre-1930 Los Angeles. Walter Aaron Clark’s study of Carmen Miranda and Carol Ann Hess’s on Disney’s Saludos Amigos reveals the ways Hollywood has played with concepts of ethnic or folk authenticity. We learn of Latin music at the high end of the musicians’ union schedule (Agustin Gurza on the Hollywood Bowl) and also at the low end, and begin to understand the very short cultural distance between the two (Daniel F. Garcia on the Paramount Ballroom in Boyle Heights).

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The question of what is real and what is not is, of course, fundamental to modern entertainment, from Barnum and coon shows to lip-synched pop concerts. One of the great values of this volume is the ways it reveals the layers of Latin American music in Los Angeles, from the personae of performers—Portuguese-born Carmen Miranda as a representative of exotic Brazil and Latin America in general; Yma Sumac’s Inca princess character defining the Peruvian—to the very permutations of the music and the mixing of audiences for various styles of Latin American sounds. What might be considered the ersatz seems to matter as much as the real thing, if for no other reason than that such categories are made moot by the eclecticism of the musicians themselves, with bandleader and composer-for-all-seasons Esquivel! as a prime example—Hans Ulrich Obrist’s interview with the effervescent pianist, Juan García Esquivel, is especially valuable for this reason alone.

Kun and his talented colleagues—poets, musicians, and journalists are every bit as welcome as scholars here—document a time of racial segregation when musical borrowings and syntheses seemed to be less problematic. The boundaries of cultural territory seem to have been less closely policed in the twentieth-century decades covered by this volume, even as reckonings with racism kept getting pushed into the future. Years ago, Eric Lott published Love and Theft, a book on minstrelsy. The book’s title came to stand for an entire history of white appropriation of black cultural forms. Kun not only comes to celebrate the various pop manifestations of this in relation to Latin American music, but he also names the book after one of the highest-charting examples: Blondie’s “The Tide Is High.” (I don’t hold it against Kun at all that it has now become my earworm of several weeks’ standing.)

The catholicity expressed by Kun, the seeming lack of interest in aesthetic judgment that has, for better or worse, determined the character of popular music history, is perhaps appropriate in uncovering a Latin American Los Angeles not dominated by blues-based African American styles. You cannot read the history of music in New Orleans or Chicago or New York without large helpings of African American influence and performance, almost always with the assumption that there are hierarchies of quality and authenticity involved that are almost as clear as Du Bois’s color line. That model, whatever its merits and shortcomings, is a suit that does not fit well on Los Angeles, and Kun is an open enough thinker to find a new way of examining ethnicity in popular music made in Los Angeles by editing a volume where jazz and rock orthodoxies are absent (and Los Lobos, perhaps pointedly, is not mentioned). It is in fact the latest iteration in a long-running reimagining of the place of music in American culture going back at least as far as Kun’s Audiotopia (2006).

Befitting a companion volume to an exhibition, Kun provides numerous album covers and other vibrant visual ephemera that are still stirring up curiosity about the sounds under discussion. There is probably more to say about the imagery associated with Latin American recorded music, but that could easily become another project entirely. Kun’s willingness to listen—to listen deeply not only to music but to musicians—results in a rethinking of his subject and a jumping-off point for new conversations not just about Los Angeles and its cultural history, but about the assumptions and goals of such conversations that encompass implications that go well beyond California.

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Note

[1] Josh Kun, ed., The Tide Was Always High: The Music of Latin America in Los Angeles (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017), 186.

 

Benjamin Cawthra, Professor of History and Associate Director, Lawrence de Graaf Center for Oral and Public History, California State University, Fullerton, is the author of Blue Notes in Black and White: Photography and Jazz. He teaches cultural, public, and visual history and has written on Duke Ellington and Miles Davis.

Copyright: © 2018 Benjamin Cawthra. 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

Illusions and Perversions in California’s History of Preservation

Andrew Seles_Point Reyes National Seashore

Point Reyes National Seashore via Flickr user Andrew Seles.

Nathan F. Sayre

Laura Watt’s catchy title, The Paradox of Preservation,[1] doesn’t do her book proper justice. What she terms a paradox is more accurately a contradiction: because landscapes are never static but “actually dynamic, continually shaped by social forces… and similarly affecting the forms those social forces take” (p. 5), they cannot be preserved but only managed. Moreover, it is the politics of land management, rather than any paradox, that makes the case of Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS) so important. The changes that have occurred there in 50-plus years of preservation, Watt argues, have been “invisible to the public” and “invisible to the managers, who present them to the public as part of what was originally preserved” (p. 5).

This may seem paradoxical, but in the first instance it is some combination of error and deception—if it must alliterate, perhaps perversion is a better word than paradox? We are dealing with a case of collective illusion, akin to the “conspiracy of optimism” that Paul Hirt diagnosed in the Forest Service, but perpetrated in the name of wilderness rather than timber production.[2] Anyone who wonders why rural agricultural producers are so suspicious of environmentalists, or who thinks that ranchers’ complaints about the federal government are nothing more than paranoid delusions, needs to read this book.

Watt opens her account with Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar’s decision, in late 2012, to terminate the lease that permitted the Drakes Bay Oyster Company to operate in Drake’s Estero, an estuary situated within a designated “potential wilderness” in PRNS. She closes by likening the “absolutist environmental organizations” (p. 233) that opposed the oyster farm to the militants who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in early 2016. But cows and ranchers, not oysters, are the primary focus of Watt’s book, which grew out of her doctoral research at UC Berkeley. (Full disclosure: Watt studied with a former colleague of mine, although she was not a student in our department.)

Point Reyes is one of a handful of national seashores administered by the National Park Service (NPS) but created in places and for reasons quite different from national parks. In 1962, when the enabling legislation for PRNS was passed, the entire peninsula was private land, descended from a Mexican-era land grant that had been finagled into Anglo hands a century earlier. Point Reyes comprised some two-dozen ranches, encircled by a rugged and supremely scenic coastline, all within easy driving distance of the booming San Francisco metropolitan area.

Point Reyes_Stefan Klocek

Point Reyes via Flickr user Stefan Klocek.

PRNS was antidote to and offspring of post-war urban sprawl. Congressman Claire Engle claimed in 1958 that public acquisition was the only way to protect Point Reyes from subdivision and development. This was untrue, Watt explains, but also self-fulfilling: speculators seized the opportunity to buy land and demand inflated prices from the federal government. This reinforced a vicious cycle: prices climbed, values rose, property taxes increased, and estate tax exposure exploded. Park Service Director George Hartzog positively exploited the situation by asking Congress to allow his agency to develop home sites to help offset acquisition costs. Congress demurred, but the ranch owners eventually agreed to NPS acquisition in exchange for long-term leases to continue ranching, seeing it as their only way out of the property and estate tax traps they had fallen into. In short, the NPS played “the major role… at Point Reyes, both in pushing to establish the park in the first place, and in driving the threat of development, thereby creating its own justification for acquiring the ranches” (p. 95). If it happened today, scholars would call this a land grab.

Watt portrays PRNS as both relict and bellwether of larger trends. Fee simple ownership gave the NPS ultimate authority over land use and management, even if private uses—including cattle grazing, dairy production and the oyster farm—were grandfathered in and protected by explicit legislative testimony as well as long-term leases. Shortly later, a backlash against perceived government encroachment on private lands and property rights helped propel the Reagan revolution, and in other parts of the country the NPS devised alternative models that permitted more private lands to persist within or around parks. But at Point Reyes the older paradigm held, and tensions mounted over the decades.

Many scholars have critiqued “wilderness” as a tool of colonial exploitation[3] and an ecologically incoherent, environmentalist fetish.[4] Watt adds an intriguing wrinkle to this literature, arguing that the original intent of both the 1964 Wilderness Act and the 1976 statute that created the category “potential wilderness” was to prevent federal agencies from building new roads and developments, not to eliminate previously existing private uses and activities. She shows how an evolving alliance of NPS officials and environmental groups inverted this intent and turned the potential wilderness designation against ranchers and the oyster farm. Only forty percent of the land area devoted to ranching in 1962 remains in that use today, and roughly half of the built environment inside PRNS—including at least 170 buildings—has been demolished. By omission and commission alike, the NPS has worked to produce “the invisibility of the working landscape” (p. 142) in favor of “the appearance of hands-off, ‘wild’ nature” (p. 158, emphasis in original). As Watt pointedly puts it, “the authentic past is that which the authorities have chosen to preserve” (p. 21).

By the 1990s, PRNS and NPS officials viewed the dairies and ranches of Point Reyes as doomed anachronisms, destined to go out of business and thus unworthy of consideration. This again proved both false and self-fulfilling. The ranches persevered and even thrived in the marketplace by going organic, shifting into value-added products, and tapping into the Bay Area’s flourishing local “foodie” scene. But PRNS decisions regarding wildlife—especially the tule elk, which was (re)introduced to various parts of the peninsula in mysterious, seemingly duplicitous ways—depleted the ranches’ forage base, which could void their organic certification by forcing their cattle off of the native pastures. As leases came due, NPS negotiations for renewal or extension were capricious, ad hoc and divisive, further undermining the ranches’ viability.

m01229_The Point Reyes shipwreck

The Point Reyes shipwreck via Flickr user m01229.

Many of the details of this history are difficult to sift and reconcile from the tangle of conflicting memories, interviews, media stories and NPS documents that Watt assembled in her research. No doubt there are PRNS officials who might dispute some or many of her claims. Suffice to say, first, that Watt’s 20-year effort is undoubtedly more disinterested, sustained and thoroughgoing than any others, and second, that the “official” story has long since passed into a twilight zone of bureaucratic doublespeak and face-saving evasions.

When Watt returns to the battle over Drakes Bay Oyster Company, in her final chapter, it functions as an indirect or proxy validation of her larger interpretation. Starting in 2006, the NPS blamed the oyster farm for various environmental damages. “None of these claims have stood up to scientific scrutiny” (p. 189). A panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the PRNS had “selectively presented, overinterpreted, or misrepresented the available scientific information” (p. 189) in evaluating the oyster operation’s effects on Drakes Estero, and the Interior Department’s own Office of the Solicitor “found five NPS officials and scientists guilty of violating the NPS Code of Scientific and Scholarly Conduct” (p. 191) by among other things withholding relevant material and data from the oyster company and the National Academy panel. In short, the credibility of the NPS and PRNS is severely compromised.

Ultimately, Secretary Salazar admitted that he shut down the oyster farm simply because commerce and wilderness are incompatible, not because of any scientific data (p. 199). “A long tradition of cultivation has vanished—in exchange, more or less, for a label, since the estero was already managed as wilderness… environmental activists have sacrificed the relative wild for an idealized one” (p. 213). And in so doing, they have been complicit in many of the same mendacious and duplicitous tactics that they habitually ascribe to big industry.

Watt correctly notes that this outcome is “increasingly out of step” with larger trends locally, nationally and globally, which uphold the value of agriculture, collaboration and heritage. “The NPS needs to recognize that residents have a different relationship to place than do visitors, and particularly that working the land, especially over generations, creates a unique connection that should be respected and incorporated into management practices” (p. 220). Instead, the NPS has “sacrific[ed] their needs to the illusion of pristine nature” (p. 5) and succumbed to environmentalists who “confuse a sense of shared national heritage with actual ownership and control” (p. 23).

In July 2017, a settlement was announced in a lawsuit, brought by environmentalists against the NPS, challenging the ranches’ leases in PRNS. The agreement provides five-year lease extensions to the ranches, during which time the NPS must assess the effects of grazing and formulate an official management plan. There is every reason to suspect that five years will not be enough time for the assessment and planning tasks—after all, the NPS has been pledging to do these very things for more than 30 years. But it is more than enough time for everyone involved to read Laura Watt’s book.

Point Reyes Oyster Farm_Ross Mayfield

Point Reyes Oyster Farm via Flickr user Ross Mayfield.

Notes

[1] Laura Alice Watt, The Paradox of Preservation: Wilderness and Working Landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017).

[2] Paul W. Hirt, A Conspiracy of Optimism: Management of the National Forests since World War II (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994).

[3] Roderick P. Neumann, Imposing Wilderness: Struggles Over Livelihood and Nature Preservation in Africa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

[4] William Cronon, ‘The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” Environmental History 1 (1996): 7-28.

 

Nathan F. Sayre is professor and chair of Geography at the University of California Berkeley. He specializes in the history and politics of rangeland conservation and management. His books include Working Wilderness: the Malpai Borderlands Group and the Future of the Western Range; Ranching, Endangered Species, and Urbanization in the Southwest; and The Politics of Scale: A History of Rangeland Science.

 

Copyright: © 2017 Nathan F. Sayre. 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

Writing Orange County

Orange County flag design, 1968

Orange County flag design, 1968, courtesy of Orange County Archives via Flickr.

Elaine Lewinnek

Naming a literary depiction of Orange County is no easy task. One or two sitcoms that describe the place may come to mind, along with movies depicting decadent capitalism or theme parks of overly-controlled leisure. Some may know the songs that offer resistance to that glossy, shallow image of Orange County. But novels or poetry? Those seeking literary guides to Southern California have had David Ulin’s magisterial Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology (Library of America, 2002), but now those seeking the literature of Orange County have their own guide: Lisa Alvarez’s and Andrew Tonkovich’s anthology, Orange County: A Literary Field Guide (Heyday, 2017). Drawing from community-college literary magazines as well as literary luminaries, this is a work of impressive research and discovery. Arranged geographically and then, within each region, chronologically, this book portrays an Orange County of consummate surprise.

There are no Stepford wives here. While Michael Chabon’s short story “Ocean Avenue” features a beautiful woman of leisure buying coffee in exercise clothes, she is neither one-dimensional nor docile; she’s unforgettable. And she is not alone. Her neighbor, in this anthology, might be a large Gullah-speaking mother of two football stars, displaced from home and determinedly seeking public space in her red tile roof and white stucco walled condo development, depicted in Susan Straight’s I Been in Sorrow’s Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots. Beekeepers, bicyclists, day laborers, artists, fishermen, surfers aggressively protecting their turf, Vietnamese immigrants protesting each other, Iranian teenagers desperate to fit in to a gated community painted endless shades of white, a lonely teenager who keeps giving her phone number to undocumented immigrants, the ghosts of an agrarian past, and a nervous young man serving an eviction notice at the beach mansion of his aging rock hero: this is a complex, divided, fractious, and deep depiction of Orange County. It is, in Aracelis Gormay’s poetry:

Santa Ana of grocery carts, truckers,
eggs in the kitchen at 4 am, nurses, cleaning ladies
the saints of ironing, the saints
of tortillas. Santa Ana of cross-guards, tomato pickers,
bakeries of bread in pinks & yellows, sugars.
Santa Ana of Cambodia, Viet Nam, Aztlán

The Orange County in view is a fictional one that many locals will recognize as true. It is also, in Lorene Delany-Ullman’s prose poetry, a space of “wetlands and weapons.” Violence, racism, and “the meeting of boom and loss,” in Tom Vanderbilt’s penetrating expression—all are here, in complicated histories bursting out beneath tidy suburban surfaces, like weeds pushing through sidewalk cracks.

In a region famous for its history of forgetting, to borrow Norman Klein’s title,[1] a place of “willful amnesia” where “a sales pitch… has always been substituted for history,” in D. J. Waldie’s depiction,[2] this is a book startlingly full of what the editors call, in their introduction to Lisa Alvarez’s poetry, “the contentious, unresolved history of Orange County’s suburban milieu, which is never far below the surface—if it’s below it at all.” Too literarily clear-eyed to be called nostalgic, there is still something close to nostalgia here as character after character laments the effects of development on beloved pieces of nature, while story after story faces paved-over land and dreams. In this book’s Orange County, a sense of place comes with a sense of history.

While good, this anthology is not perfect. The editors call the foothills area “the flatlands.” The excerpted stories by Christopher Isherwood and a few others end a bit abruptly. But like any anthology, this one serves up appetizers that may lead readers to investigate the fuller works of authors like James Blaylock, Martin Smith, Kem Nunn, or Anh Chi Pham. Gustavo Arellano’s “Foreword” mistakenly regrets the omission of Tom Vanderbilt’s Baffler piece about the Crystal Cathedral, which actually is included. Orange County’s oral histories, corridos, and church-newsletter literature also might have been included. But there is already so much in this volume that it seems churlish to state that it is unclear why the literature of Richard Henry Dana, Carey McWilliams, and Viet Thanh Nguyen are absent.

This book is for readers who relish knowing that LSD tablets were once dropped from an airplane to a crowd of hippies gathered in Laguna Beach, and that the unobstructed Santa Ana winds were once so strong they wore grooves in the floorboards of Jessamyn West’s house in Yorba Linda by repeatedly pushing the beds across the room. It is for those wanting to know “what’s been lost,” in Edward Humes phrase, or anyone who wants to name the history of what Tom Zoellner calls, in an essay written specifically for this anthology, “The Orange Industrial Complex.” The collection is for residents, students, teachers, tourists, and all who wish to understand America’s complicated suburbia.

This book, filled with empathy and environmentalism, is poetic critical geography. It is wonderful.

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Notes

[1] Norman M. Klein, The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory, new and updated ed. (New York: Penguin Random House, 2008).

[2] Carolina A. Miranda, “How to look at Los Angeles: A conversation with D.J. Waldie, Lynell George and Josh Kun,” Los Angeles Times, 24 July 2015, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/miranda/la-et-cam-how-to-see-los-angeles-dj-waldie-lynell-george-and-josh-kun-20150721-column.html.

Elaine Lewinnek is professor in the department of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton. She is the author of The Working Man’s Reward: Chicago’s Early Suburbs and the Roots of American Sprawl (Oxford, 2015), and is currently working on a bottom-up history of Orange County with Gustavo Arellano, Thuy Vo Dang, and Michael Steiner, titled A People’s Guide to Orange County (UC Press, forthcoming).

Copyright: © 2017 Elaine Lewinnek. 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

The Other “Other” California

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July sky at Bahia de Los Angeles, Baja California, Mexico, courtesy of Bill Gracey via Flickr.

Gerald W. Haslam

Growing up in an oilfield community at the southern end of the Great Central Valley, I for many years believed California ended where the Tehachapi Mountains met the Temblor Range. Southern California seemed to be a continent away. Then my parents transferred me to a Catholic middle/high school in Bakersfield, and I encountered many Latino students, some of whom spoke of a mysterious place—perhaps part of California, perhaps not—called simply “Baja” or sometimes “la frontera.”

Few, I recall, claimed to have visited there. Rather it existed for us as a dangerous (but tempting) idea, a no-holds-barred locale that produced “Tijuana bibles” and tire-tread huaraches, and that housed a fabled red-light district. In our imaginations, that frontera was a remnant of the wild west, the sin capital of the west.

The actual place, as Verónica Castillo-Muñoz reveals in The Other California: Land, Identity, and Politics on the Mexican Borderlands, was culturally and economically far more complex than we had imagined. It slipped in and out of the grasp of Yankee capitalists (principally in the guise of the Colorado River Land Company and the International Mexican Company) in the late nineteenth century. Those companies “transformed Baja California from a Mexican backwater territory to one of the most prosperous cotton-producing centers along the U.S.-Mexico border.”

Castillo-Muñoz presents a detailed outline of how Baja California, a region of northern Mexico, was for a time an economic pawn to Mexican politicians, was a Pacific entry for Chinese and Japanese immigrants to the Americas, and was treated as an outlier (it didn’t gain statehood in Mexico until 1952). It was slowly built by hard-working people who came to largely ignore static gender roles and varying racial barriers, thus enriching the cultural landscape of western Mexico. The book traces no utopian society, but rather reveals “how ethnicity and racially diverse communities of laborers changed the social landscape of Baja California,” and does a good job of that.

Social stability and economic viability were by no means quickly achieved. The society detailed by Castillo-Muñoz’s book churned and boiled. Part of that was due to the self-serving influence of absentee owners, especially Yankees. But locals were capable of shooting themselves in the foot, too. For instance,

Chinese and Japanese earned an average of 40 centavos per day, while mestizo and indigenous workers earned average of 1.25 pesos. It was only a matter of time before Chinese and Japanese workers discovered the wage disparity, and they held strikes against the company [Compagnie du Boleo] several times.

Despite discrimination, “By 1920 the Baja California peninsula stood out as one of the most diverse communities in northern Mexico, with a growing population that spoke nineteen languages.”

Although women in Mexico did not get the vote nationally until 1953, their activism played a steady role in the social and economic development of Baja. “Ejido [communal land grant] distribution shaped gender relations and campesino [farm worker] identity in the Mexicali Valley where women saw their role on the ejido equally important to that of men.” World War II solidified that.

In 1942, Mexico entered the war on the side of the Allies. That little-discussed fact (in the USA, at least) led to the Bracero contract that sent male Mexican workers between the ages of seventeen and forty to “fill jobs in the farming and railroad sectors caused by the US labor shortage.”  That, in turn, opened jobs in Mexico for women, “Thus both ejido farmers and private farmers in the Mexicali Valley came to rely on women’s labor for the cultivation and picking of cotton.” In 1944, President Manuel Avila Camacho smoothed the path toward gender equality when he “endorsed a campaign for women to join the workforce in northern Mexico to offset the shortage of labor caused by the Bracero Program.”

Castillo-Muñoz’s slim book (113 page text) is literally packed with such information, and is supplemented by 30 pages of valuable notes, a detailed bibliography and an index. For better or worse, the author shows, Baja California reflects many of the same issues that have plagued us here in Alta California—think of water, for instance, or racial tensions or gender discrimination. The Other California’s academic tone might be off-putting to some, but the text is so rich in information that this reader hardly noticed. It is an excellent intro to California’s southern namesake.

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Notes

Gerald W. Haslam, an Oildale native, is professor emeritus at Sonoma State University, and the author of, among other books, The Other California: The Great Central Valley in Life and Letters (University of Nevada Press, 1994).

Copyright: © 2017 Gerald W. Haslam. 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/

Photography/ArtReviews

Photography and Public Lands: Seeing Yosemite

Hetch Hetchy

Stone trail work at Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.

A review of Nancy Robbins, A Sense of Yosemite, with essays by David Mas Masumoto. Yosemite National Park: Yosemite Conservancy, 2016.

Sublime photos of heaven-high cliffs, canyons, and waterfalls have long defined Yosemite. In her book, A Sense of Yosemite, photographer Nancy Robbins builds on this tradition of photography as both an artistic medium and an articulation of the importance of public lands.

Robbins lives within Yosemite’s boundaries, and her familiarity with the park serves as her greatest advantage. She offers her audience a refreshing glimpse of Yosemite beyond familiar black-and-white stock images. Her detailed perspectives treat the landscape with the keen observation that intimacy provides.

Robbins’s eye for detail takes us beyond the usual vistas of the park. She focuses on the textures of scabbed bark, the veins of yellow leaves encased in a sheet of ice, and brilliant waterfalls of fiery light. These rich images guide the reader through the might and brilliance of each season, documenting foxes to cottonwood trees, rivers to gauzy starlight, and more.

By excluding people from her images of the park, Robbins joins other landscape photographers in perpetuating the myth of pristine wilderness. The only noticeable photo of people depicts distant climbers on a cliffside bivouac at night. This image beautifully speaks to the adventurous spirit of Yosemite but fails to tell the whole story. It’s rare to experience the park without people.

Tuolumne Meadows_1843_16x20 copy (2)a_2000While Robbins’s photos of the park through its seasonal cycles are impressive, the book’s structure and written commentary leave us wanting more. Her captions and David Mas Masumoto’s essays convey little about Yosemite’s intricacies. Robbins’s vivid images speak far more powerfully about the park than the text, which in comparison comes off rather bland.

As a farmer living outside of Yosemite Valley, Masumoto provides a perspective that many readers can identify with: a neighbor to Yosemite who feels a connection to the place. However, the relationship between his essays laced throughout the first half of the book and the photos can feel a bit jarring. The reader is pulled from the visual flow of Robbins’s work that frame Yosemite through both the senses and the seasons.

Unfortunately, the book neglects to mention the park’s indigenous history and Yosemite’s central role in the development of the national park system and conservation movement. Nor does it touch upon the grave ecological challenges facing Yosemite precipitated by a changing climate and ever-increasing human visitation. Briefly, Masumoto writes: “We all have a stake in the destinies of these sacred geographies.” But in this narrative of the visual sublimity of Yosemite, an opportunity is lost to prompt readers to grasp its complex, pivotal history, and to contemplate what is at stake for its future.

Although A Sense of Yosemite may not offer such fully discerning reflections upon this iconic park, for any reader wishing to experience Yosemite through a collection of colorful photographs with striking light, this book will satisfy. Robbins’s work celebrates the park in every season, portraying both light and color with a softness that reflects the subtlest moods of the landscape. Through her technical mastery, her access to singular weather phenomena and rare moments, and her obvious affection for Yosemite, Robbins successfully captures the splendor of one of the most inspirational places in North America and the place she calls home.

Milky Way over Yosemite Valley

The Milky Way over Yosemite Valley, photographed from Tunnel View.

Notes

  • All photographs taken by Nancy Robbins. All rights reserved.

Reviewed by Jai Bashir, Ayja Bounous, Casey Clifford, Bianca Greeff, Dan Hohl, Kailey Kornhauser, Brooke Larsen, Kathleen Metcalf, Maya Silver, Francesca Varela, and Josh Wennergren, graduate students in the Environmental Humanities writing seminar, University of Utah, taught by Stephen Trimble. Trimble’s publications include, Bargaining for Eden: The Fight for the Last Open Spaces in America (UC Press), The Sagebrush Ocean: A Natural History of the Great Basin (University of Nevada Press), and Red Rock Stories: Three Generations of Writers Speak on Behalf of Utah’s Public Lands (Torrey House Press). Trimble makes his home in Salt Lake City and in the redrock country of Torrey, Utah.

Copyright: © 2017 The Authors. 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/

ArticlesReviews

Migracious Stories: Organize or Die

Fred B. Glass

A review essay of Gabriel Thompson, America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century. Oakland: University of California Press, 2016.

“An organizer is a leader who does not lead; he gets behind the people and pushes.” —Fred Ross

I doubt Fred Ross would have been the subject of a book length biography had he not recruited United Farm Workers founder and civil rights leader Cesar Chavez to the organizer’s trade. Yet the reasons why a full portrait of Ross’s life is both timely and useful extend far beyond his star pupil.

Gabriel Thompson’s America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century reveals a driven, singularly focused man, who sacrificed family and personal comfort to devote himself to organizing poor people for collective action on their own behalf. Thompson documents the deep positive impact Ross had on working class communities, and on the practices of two generations of organizers. These pages also unveil, often painfully, the personal damage to his loved ones that his priorities inflicted on them.

Ross shunned the limelight, believing an organizer’s role was to find leaders, help them to develop, and get out of their way. He found a lot of them, including Chavez, but others too—bighearted, ambitious, or both—who went on to important roles in the labor movement and electoral politics. Ross developed garden-variety activists as well, training thousands over the course of a forty-year career. But he was also ruthless in assessing and discarding individuals he deemed insufficiently dedicated to the difficult, tedious, mundane, and time-consuming chores—the checklists, the follow-up phone calls, the endless meetings—involved in creating social change.

I share this with Cesar Chavez: both of us were recruited to organizing work by Fred Ross. My initiation occurred during a warm spring afternoon in 1974, underneath a tree next to Campbell Hall at UCLA. My leftist English professor had asked a few politically interested students if they would like to hear about the United Farm Workers from one of the union’s organizers.

I was a senior, contemplating without too much urgency my post-graduation prospects. Ross sat with us on the grass in a circle. He was old (by which I mean exactly the same age I am now) but animated with a quiet assurance about the importance of the work he described. I don’t remember his words but they were effective. After an hour or so my friend Wayne Baron had decided to become a full-time organizer for the UFW boycott effort. I had other priorities—eventually, graduate school—but with the war in Vietnam winding down, I was casting about for another volunteer political activity, and knew I had found it. For the next year and a half I sat behind a table on Bruin Walk piled with UFW literature, buttons, and bumper stickers and accepted donations for the cause. I organized house meetings and film screenings. I stood outside supermarkets and asked shoppers to not buy grapes and lettuce. I caravanned to Delano in the Central Valley to join demonstrations.

Eventually I moved to San Francisco for graduate school. Wayne had gone there before me, and now ran the city’s boycott effort out of a former church dormitory. He was extremely proud of the article written about his work by an undercover John Birch Society reporter that began, “Where nuns once prayed and slept, now filthy mattresses lie four abreast, supporting communist subversion.” He pinned it to the bulletin board next to his office and showed it to everyone who visited.

I continued to volunteer a few hours a week for la causa after starting school, plugging into Wayne’s impressive boycott operation. Few stores carried non-union grapes or lettuce, and the ones that did faced lively picket lines each weekend. On the other hand, many storefront windows sported the black and red UFW eagle, pledging fealty to the boycott. And wherever I walked with Wayne, we could not go more than a few hundred feet without being stopped by someone—store owners, union members, community activists, students—who knew him through his indefatigable UFW boycott organizing.

Multiply this situation in San Francisco by scores around the country in major urban centers—there were four hundred full-time organizers on staff, receiving $5 a week plus room and board—and you have an idea of the reach and effectiveness of the boycott in the mid-70s. Polls showed that 10–12% of the American population had stopped eating grapes and lettuce in sympathy with the struggle of California farm workers for a better life.

I didn’t connect the dots at the time, but much of this was ultimately traceable back to Fred Ross, through a combination of the serendipity of his meeting and resulting relationship with Chavez, and the unbelievably hard work Ross devoted to organizing on the way to that meeting, creating the conditions for it to occur, and afterward, nurturing conditions for the movement to flourish.

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Thompson’s book begins, fittingly, with the well-known story of Ross visiting Chavez’s house in the barrio of East San Jose, Sal Si Puedes, in late spring 1952. Although a full treatment of Ross’s life had to wait for Thompson’s book, the UFW itself is the most well documented labor movement in United States history; within that literature the meeting at Chavez’s house with Ross remains the stuff of legend. Outside that moment, though, many of the now aging cohort of activists who came up through the farmworker movement knew relatively little of Ross’s pre-Chavez life. In extending our knowledge about the master organizer, Thompson’s book holds his subject beneath an unblinking wide angled lens, and what we learn, not entirely pretty, explains a lot about both men.

Fred Ross was born in Los Angeles in 1910, product of the unhappy marriage of Frederick Ross and Daisy Crowell. Ross’s later political development was not nurtured in his early home environment. Frederick Ross worked in newspaper advertising and later for the National Association of Manufacturers—a trajectory his employer at the Los Angeles Times, the virulently anti-union Harrison Gray Otis, would have found commendable. Thompson notes that young Fred’s parents shared racist attitudes, and referred to poor people as “trash.” Daisy was incensed when the school district boundaries near their Echo Park neighborhood home changed and she found her son going to school with black children. She raised such a stink he was allowed to transfer back to his former school.

Ross the senior probably cheated on Daisy, according to Thompson, precipitating their divorce when Fred was ten and his brother six. Her job as a secretary barely paid the bills, even with child support payments. Eventually Daisy couldn’t handle Fred’s continuous bad behavior. Her parents, who owned a modest hotel in San Pedro, took Fred in on the weekends and gave him the attention Daisy could not. They also provided him with a structured religious upbringing, schooling him in the Bible so deeply he was anointed junior pastor in their Methodist church.

Ross did less well in actual school, disinterested in academic achievement or classroom decorum. His wild antics (example: setting off fireworks at his elementary graduation rehearsal) led Daisy, at considerable expense, to send him to a military school in San Diego, but after getting sick he returned home and finished high school with a C average.

After a few years enduring low paying jobs and taking some classes at Los Angeles Junior College, Ross enrolled at University of Southern California, subsidized by Daisy’s lover, a judge. Here things began to change. His friendship with fellow student Eugene Wolman, a Jewish Communist from New York, opened Ross’s eyes to the Great Depression and its impact on the working class. He became active in student political organizing, took a class from a socialist professor that made a deep impression on his intellectual development, and allowed himself to be recruited to lead the campus chapter of the Communist Party-inspired National Student League.

After graduation Ross remained at USC for another semester to get a teaching credential, while Wolman went to work in a nearby factory, hoping to organize a CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) union. He invited Ross to come to the first organizing meeting, at which but one worker showed up. Thompson notes, “For Ross, it wasn’t the most inspiring introduction to organizing. But it did offer a useful lesson: to organize, you needed energy and passion, which Wolman had in abundance, but you also need a solid plan.”

Wolman went on to fight and die in the Spanish Civil War. This, too, had a big impact on Ross, according to Thompson, “an example of how, no matter what sacrifices he might make as an organizer—the long hours, the low pay, the constant travel—others had sacrificed much more.”

Despite his recently acquired teaching credential, history teachers were more plentiful than jobs in 1937, and when Ross was offered a position as a social worker he took it. California had set up the State Relief Agency (SRA) a couple years before, ostensibly to help the unemployed get through hard times. Ross found that in the agricultural counties surrounding Los Angeles its other purpose was to supply cheap labor for growers. It enforced this function by removing its destitute clients from the relief rolls if they refused to go to work at any price.

Here Ross began to develop the work habits he maintained throughout his life, including long hours, careful note taking, and leaving behind his young wife for days—or weeks, or months—at a time. Ross gained some real world details to fill out the incomplete picture his college radicalism had painted of the working class. At first outraged to discover that some of his clients had lied and were actually working in the fields while drawing unemployment compensation—because, as they told him, the piece rates they were being paid could not sustain them, let alone their families, and they needed the extra income—he determined to prove that they must not be working hard enough.

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Ross and family on porch. Photo courtesy of the Ross family.

But his meritocratic ideology taught him something different than what he had expected. Going to work one day in disguise tying carrots, where growers needed workers so badly they were always hiring, he labored twelve hours and emerged bone tired with eighty-four cents. After he was disfraciplined by his supervisor when he described what he had done, Ross quit the SRA and got hired by the federal Farm Security Administration (FSA). Renowned today for the photographs by Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn and others that burned the faces of the Dust Bowl refugees Ross worked with into the nation’s conscience, the agency hired Ross for a job in a warehouse distributing dry goods in the Coachella Valley.

As Thompson records, Ross discovered that “The poor were complicatedly human, as three-dimensional as anyone else; they just happened to have more roadblocks thrown up in their way.” One Okie migrant in particular, a sixty-two year old man who lost his farm, became Ross’s friend. As a result of his storytelling—what one transplanted southwestern woman called their “migracious stories”—he and people like him were no longer “political abstractions, neither the right’s lazy creatures prone to ‘chronic dependency’ nor the left’s flawless victims.”

Early in 1939 Ross accepted more responsibility and stepped into what ultimately became one of the few other well-known—if not entirely accurate—elements of the Ross legend. The FSA had set up nineteen model farm labor camps around California’s central valley. As Thompson points out, these were meant to provide an alternative to the filthy and oppressive conditions found in most camps set up by growers for their low paid labor force: these were clean, relatively well-run, featured laundry facilities, and contained showers in their bathrooms. They also demonstrated that with some encouragement, the campers—mostly migrant Okies—might find some dignity beyond personal hygiene in cultural activities (for example, camp newsletters, dances and concerts, film screenings, theatrical productions, etc.) and participation in camp governance.

Ross served a four month apprenticeship in the Visalia camp, and then became manager of his own, outside the feudal town of Arvin, where Joseph Di Giorgio, pacesetter capitalist in the newly-named “agribusiness” flourishing despite the Great Depression, held sway.

The way I had heard the story from Wayne and other UFW activists, Fred Ross was the inspiration for the kindly government camp director in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, which appeared later that year in 1939. I always thought the timing wasn’t right, and Thompson sets the record straight: it was an earlier director of the same camp, Tom Collins, who had modeled that role for Steinbeck. In any case, Ross didn’t waste the opportunity he had been handed.

In addition to the Okie workers and their families, the Arvin camp served as temporary quarters for left wing troubadour Woody Guthrie, who played and sang for the migrants on numerous occasions, as well as two hard-bitten state organizers for the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packinghouse and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA-CIO). These men, Luke Hinman and Wyman Hicks, took the opening willingly provided by Ross to utilize Arvin Camp as a base for organizing field workers residing there and in the surrounding area.

This was a tough row to hoe, but one in which Ross would make a large contribution himself in later years. At this point he simply watched, learned, and bent the FSA rules to accommodate his guests as they built the will among his campers to go on strike in October, 1939. He also became acquainted at this time with Carey McWilliams.

McWilliams had been appointed by Culbert Olsen, the first Democrat elected California governor in the twentieth century, to oversee agricultural labor as the state commissioner of immigration and housing. His book Factories in the Field, a well-researched non-fiction flip side to The Grapes of Wrath, came out the same year, strengthening the growing public understanding that something was very wrong in the sprawling farm districts of California. Unlike his predecessors at the top of California government agencies dealing with farm labor, McWilliams did what he could to help migrant farmworker families. Ross, as Thompson reports, was still assigning Factories in the Field to his organizer trainees decades later.

In camp Ross did not hide his sympathies. Thompson notes, “His partisanship was so overt that one resident would pen a letter to Ross’s supervisor complaining that the camp was “practically run” by the union, that Ross was a “strong member” of the CIO, and that the camp was no longer a place for “us honest and non-communists to live in.”

The strike, however exhilarating at the start, lasted two weeks before being efficiently and violently crushed by the growers; their weapon, the Associated Farmers, had been described without hyperbole by McWilliams as a fascist organization. The job action, involving thousands of workers in dozens of farms, turned out to be the last hurrah in the fields for the UCAPAWA, heir to communist-led organizing for the previous decade. Rethinking its strategies after the defeat, it retreated to canneries and packing sheds, where its leaders planned to rebuild a structure in the agricultural supply chain that would eventually allow them to return to field organizing.

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Brawley meeting. Photo courtesy of Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries.

That never occurred, as McCarthyism ultimately destroyed UCAPAWA along with a dozen or so other left wing CIO unions by the early 1950s. Ross, moved by his experience during the strike and conversations with Hinman and Hicks, eventually played a major role in a different farmworker organization’s attempt to organize field workers. But first another formative moment awaited him during World War II, when he left the FSA to work for the War Relocation Authority (WRA), with Japanese-Americans interned in concentration camps.

While in some respects the WRA represented continuity for Ross—working with a stigmatized social group in rural America—it also demonstrated conclusively to him the limits of a model of social action emphasizing service to victims. Although he didn’t understand it at the time, it set him inexorably on the path to his calling as an organizer.

Initially believing the government’s justification for relocation—that the Japanese Americans threatened national security—working closely with them changed his mind. Stationed in Minidoka, Idaho, Ross learned that nothing he attempted to do on behalf of the nearly ten thousand detainees would be approved by his superiors. His experience provided him with insight into the deep wellspring of racism in American politics and culture, which suffused the WRA bureaucracy, nearby towns, and, after Ross got transferred to Cleveland to work on relocation efforts, the attitudes of white workers within war industries desperate to hire any workers—except “dirty Japs.”

Ross found that getting Japanese-American workers employed within the still fierce “them and us” hothouse atmosphere of war necessitated building and using a big toolbox of tactics. Besides eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with anger, prejudice and fear, Ross had to establish functional relationships among government agencies, community groups, employers, and unions—including persuading racist southern white workers who had come north for well-paying defense jobs that winning the war on the home front required setting aside ingrained beliefs about others.

Ross gained another perspective on the same set of issues at home. Ross’s second wife Frances (his first wife having divorced him early in the war) got a job in a Cleveland factory, where her efforts helping to integrate African Americans into the plant’s workforce eventually led to a job with Roosevelt’s Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPA), the federal agency responsible for enforcing a modest standard of racial justice in hiring and promotion in war industries. The FEPA was understaffed and limited in its ability to fulfill its mission. Occasionally other authorities stepped up to fill the vacuum.

For instance, after returning to San Francisco at the end of the war, Ross accompanied International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union president Harry Bridges on an expedition to a Petaluma warehouse north of the Golden Gate Bridge, where the radical labor leader, who later married a Nisei, told his members refusing to work alongside a Japanese-American that he would pull their local charter if they did not allow the man to work.

This full immersion program in race and employment relations outside and within his home during and after World War II led Ross in a new direction. Thompson tells us that “Ross the social worker was receding, soon to disappear; the outlines of Ross the campaigner, Ross the organizer, were beginning to take shape.”

The circumstances out of which Ross emerged in his late thirties as a superb organizer have been chronicled elsewhere, notably in Ken Burt’s The Search for a Civic Voice: California Latino Politics. Thompson dives more deeply into the discipline of organizing, using Ross’s experience to demonstrate what Ross felt was necessity for an organizer—full devotion to a cause—but for others could seem like near obsession.

Ross knew how to listen, as he had already shown in his work with the New Deal “alphabet soup” agencies. Despite poor Spanish skills, he began to do that listening in southern California barrios, working first for the American Council on Race Relations and then, crucially, for famed Chicago organizer and author (Reveille for Radicals) Saul Alinsky and what was to become the Community Service Organization (CSO). Prior to their meeting, Ross had spent a couple years bringing together Southern California Mexican American and African American low income communities in coalitions for voter registration drives, successful campaigns to oust racist school board and local city council officials, and efforts to integrate and secure resources for schools and community centers.

These activities had brought him to the attention of the older Alinsky (not to mention the FBI). It was also during these campaigns that Ross realized that the house meeting was the essential building block of community organizing, a method he refined over time with near-scientific precision.

In Thompson’s telling, when Alinsky, founder of the Industrial Areas Foundation based in Chicago, met Ross, he wrote a friend, “I have hired a guy who I think is a natural for our work. It will really be the first time that I have an associate who understands exactly what we are after.” The phrase, ‘what we are after,’ referred to organizing working people in the early years of the Cold War, as anti-communism was corroding longstanding progressive political alliances, poisoning public discourse, and enveloping anyone whose occupation was “organizing,” especially in working class communities of color, within a fog of suspicion.

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Swearing in CSO members. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Daily News, UCLA.

Nowhere did these factors play into the equation more than in the melting pot of Boyle Heights, where immigration combined with radical politics circa 1950 to morph the neighborhood—just east of downtown Los Angeles—from early twentieth-century white working class origins to a diverse international community including Russians, Mexicans, and Japanese. But as Thompson recounts, the area was commonly known as the “lower East Side” of Los Angeles, with a large Jewish working class population, heavily leavened with socialists and communists.

A decade later, fearful working class Anglos fought against and fled integration a few miles away in Watts, other south Los Angeles County neighborhoods, and the downtown. But here, the leftward tilt of this midcentury community was already a couple generations old; Boyle Heights had been a bastion of support for labor organizer Fred Wheeler in the 1910s and 1920s, the first Socialist elected to Los Angeles City Council. Postwar Boyle Heights welcomed a growing Mexican American population and a broader mix of other ethnic groups at the same time as a racist police department and media culture led by The Los Angeles Times promoted social exclusion via employment codes, blacklists, restrictive housing covenants, and the physical repression of non-whites.

The organization Ross built at the intersection of these many currents of politics and culture was the Community Service Organization (CSO). His work with CSO was the best-known part of Ross’s history, yet Thompson contributes new nuggets of information and interpretation. The CSO emerged from the nuts and bolts organizing techniques and experiences that Ross brought to a circle of Latino Boyle Heights activists around Edward Roybal.

Roybal eventually became a successful career politician, the first Latino to be elected to a citywide position since the nineteenth century; later he was elected to Congress. But when Ross met him, he and his circle were trying to regroup after their first effort, a loss. With Ross’s assistance, and based on the model he had developed over the previous couple of years, the group focused on voter registration in the growing but mostly non-voting Mexicano population. The next time around, Roybal got elected to the Los Angeles City Council.

The CSO, under Ross’s guidance, created a template for the most successful form of progressive alliance in the post war United States, replicating the same strengths and weaknesses many times elsewhere. Focusing on achievable goals in poor and working class communities, Ross relied on direct one-on-one organizing to create building blocks of change from house meetings to broad organizational coalitions to voter registration and turnout. Direct action tactics, like those that the nascent civil rights movement was borrowing from the mass union organizing of the previous two decades, were not first resort but were also not unknown in CSO either. But the deceptively simple thing emphasized by Ross was that to be an organizer meant one had to be organized—before, during, and after any moment in an organizing campaign.

Unions, churches, and civil rights organizations were all welcome to participate and support the CSO, and many did with financial contributions and the loan of organizers. Communists and their “front groups” were not officially banned from taking part, and in this way CSO was virtually unique among organizations in the era of, “Are you now or have you ever been….” Ross also urged Roybal not to vote for a proposed Los Angeles city ordinance seeking to force communists to register with the police.

Perhaps it was Ross’s early tutelage by his student friend or association with UCAPAWA organizers in his central valley farm labor camp that gave him the courage to do these things. He knew who communists were, what they stood for and above all the hard work they put into progressive causes.

But he was a pragmatist too, and when push came to shove Ross was not above figuring out the proper parliamentary procedures for denying communists the floor in meetings, or how to maneuver behind the scenes in coalitions to keep the CSO free from the red stain—enough so that progressive Latino political and community organizers closer to the Party like Burt Corona later accused Ross of red-baiting.

Ross organized CSO chapters in nearby southern California cities and then across California. It was in San Jose in 1952 that the meeting with Chavez took place. Of that moment’s impact, Chavez later said, “I learned quite a bit from studying Gandhi, but the first practical steps I learned from the best organizer that I know, Fred Ross. He changed my life.” Ross did the same for Dolores Huerta, the future co-founder of the United Farm Workers union, whom he likewise recruited to the CSO a few years later in the north San Joaquin Valley town of Stockton.

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Dolores Huerta with Fred Glass. Photo courtesy of Fred Glass.

Huerta, who had more formal education than Chavez, soon combined raising children, work for the CSO, and organizing farm workers with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), launched by the AFL-CIO with more resources than any previous effort in the fields. Brimming with energy, but not so good on time management, she needed Ross’s direction to focus her passion for social justice; as Thompson put it, “Huerta had a way of careening through life as if she were a football player covered in pads, running straight into challenges with a complete lack of fear.” Over time Huerta grew disenchanted with AWOC’s organizing model, which focused on signing up labor contractors, who in turn would bring workers into the union as a group, but crucially without a sense of their own agency.

Chavez, meanwhile, moved up to national director of the CSO, and eventually had to face two problems that threatened its viability throughout its growth and decline in the early 1960s: lack of a clear mission and shaky funding. Chavez grew more certain over time that he wanted the organization to move into farm worker organizing; its reluctance to fully commit to that goal eventually drove him to resign in 1962. At that point, penniless, and with eight children, he moved with his wife Helen to Delano.

It was here that he and Huerta divided up the map of the great agricultural valley at Helen’s kitchen table and began to put Ross’s organizing methods to work, finding and recruiting farm workers to their association (it wasn’t to be called a “union” until 1965) one house meeting at a time.

Their timing was good. Against the backdrop of a prosperous economy (at least for non-farm workers), ascendant civil rights movement, and a large and supportive AFL-CIO at the apex of its power, Chavez and Huerta could find allies in powerful places as they attempted to do something no one had before: build a farm worker union that lasted.

They almost succeeded. Ross’s contributions were considerable, including overseeing critical early union representation elections, serving as organizing director from 1966 to 1968 and putting in place protocols for the consumer grape boycott. The union organized tens of thousands of workers in several of the most important crops of California’s multi-billion dollar agribusiness empire. Collective bargaining, backed up by strikes and the boycott, forced growers to pay more attention, and higher wages, to farm workers than ever before.

For a decade and a half the union, despite the uneven playing field, contested seriously with the growers for power in the fields and public opinion. At that point, however, the union hit a wall. Much of the problem was not of the union’s making—the receding of the mass social movements of the 1960s and 70s, the ascension of anti-union, small government forces to the highest elected offices in California and the United States, and the long slide of union power and density. The UFW was a clever small fish swimming with larger protectors. When its supporters in labor and politics were assailed with troubles of their own, the small fish found itself facing its predators alone. And it did not survive.

Given the power of California agribusiness, it may well not have mattered what decisions Chavez and the UFW leadership made. Alinsky astutely aphorized the difficulties involved in farm worker organizing: “It’s like fighting on a constantly disintegrating bed of sand.”

Nonetheless, the other part of the problem was indeed the fault of the union leadership: it stopped organizing. Like a revolution, a union movement either organizes and moves forward, or else retreats. The union’s decision in the late 1970s to pull back from the fields to farm worker “advocacy” was compounded by Chavez’s increasingly autocratic and erratic behavior. His unfortunate choice to travel to the Philippines to accept an award from dictator Ferdinand Marcos shocked the UFW’s Filipino members, triggering the resignation of UFW vice-president Philip Vera Cruz. (Chavez’s choice eventuated in another, less historic, but personally significant consequence: I too ended my UFW volunteer activities.)

Thompson efficiently glosses recent revisionist history of the UFW’s decline—a story told at some length by Frank Bardacke and Miriam Pawel, and more succinctly by Marshall Ganz—while injecting his protagonist into the proceedings in order to ask, in essence, the question, “Why did Fred Ross, arguably the only person who Chavez might have listened to, not intervene?”

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Ross giving training. Photo courtesy of Ross family.

In the book’s penultimate chapter, “Blind Spot,” Thompson attempts to account for Ross’s failure to confront Chavez’s bad decisions and the union’s retreat from organizing. Apparently only one ugly instance, in which Chavez reportedly orchestrated an anti-Semitic smear against two long-time union leaders challenging his authority, roused Ross to call Chavez on the phone and protest. Numerous purges of union stalwarts who were perceived by Chavez as threats were abetted or ignored by Ross.

Ross’s son, Fred Ross, Jr., an accomplished organizer himself who provided Thompson with extensive access to his father’s documents, told his father at the time, “Dad, this is fucking wrong. You know it’s wrong.” But, he explained, “My dad had a hard time going there. His fallback position was that no one had made the sacrifices that Cesar had made. Except for the anti-Semitism, I don’t think my father ever challenged Cesar.”

Ross’s other blind spot related to similarly disastrous circumstances, but within the personal sphere of his family. Two wrecked marriages and alienated children represent just the headline over numerous ‘are you kidding me?’ stories recorded by Thompson, the result of Ross’s choice, nearly every time, of work over family life. One instance will suffice to paint the picture. Frances, pregnant, and suffering from polio, was in the hospital for three months. On the day she was to finally return home, Ross failed to show up at the appointed time, because he was at an organizing meeting.

Ross had some insight, albeit limited, into the damage caused by his prioritizing organizing over all else. He later admitted, “When you start organizing, that’s it. You’re not working any nine to five job anymore. You’re not working just six days a week. That’s the end of family life. I didn’t know that. Not that that would have stopped me.”

Thompson’s assessment of Ross’s legacy is astute, concise, and mostly accurate. In addition to closing a gap in UFW historiography, America’s Social Arsonist is a compact synthetic history of the social justice movements in which Ross played an important part. And Ross certainly deserves the credit Thompson gives him for pulling together key elements—especially putting house meetings at the center—during the early post-World War II fights to create an effective modern organizing playbook.

The book is not without a few questionable calls. Were house meetings as an organizing tool invented by Ross? It’s probably best to call this a reinvention. CIO unions utilized the tactic, especially in company towns where the public sphere as well as the workplaces were dominated by powerful employers. Due partly to a substantial presence of Communist Party members on staff and in leadership of a number of these unions, house meetings, like cell meetings, were traceable to underground organizing in Czarist Russia, clandestine meetings linked one to another away from the eyes of the hated government or company spies.

Beyond this, the occasional errant factoid mars Thompson’s otherwise scrupulously accurate narrative—e.g., the Ludlow Massacre of 1913 occurred in a Colorado mining town where John, not his son David Rockefeller (who wasn’t yet born) employed the miners. It might have also been useful to at least refer to the work of Ernesto Galarza. Although Thompson mentions the pioneering National Farm Labor Union staffer briefly, his contributions to the anti-Bracero fight and stubborn attempts to organize California farm workers in the 1950s were unfolding at the same time that Ross and Chavez were building the model in CSO that ultimately succeeded, for a time, in doing what Galarza could not.

In the historical moment following the recent Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, which managed to propel the concept “socialism” back into mainstream political discourse, the question facing the thousands of young people (and older ones) inspired by his vision of a “political revolution” is, what next? If they are to sustain a mass movement for social justice into the Trump era, amid its effort to roll back social justice to the nineteenth century, effective organizing will have to anchor the otherwise ephemeral passions of the moment.

Organizing has also clearly moved into the digital age. It is data driven (although it actually always has been; as Ross said, “If you can’t count it, it doesn’t exist”—we just have better ways to count now). Social media can spread the word for a meeting or demonstration faster than it seemed possible in years past. Beyond these superficial differences between the past and present of organizing, however, Thompson’s book provides a clue about what’s next: people talking with people, taking the inspiration and data and doing the hard work of using the tools, old and new, to organize. There are no short cuts. Fred Ross’s life provides an example—with both positive and negative lessons for organizers—pointing toward what is to be done.

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders rally at Cubberly Community Center in Palo Alto, California, 1 June, 2016. Photo courtesy of Dawn Endico via Flickr.

Fred B. Glass is the author of From Mission to Microchip: A History of the California Labor Movement (Oakland: University of California Press, 2016), recently reviewed in Boom California. He serves as Communications Director for the California Federation of Teachers and Instructor of Labor and Community Studies at City College of San Francisco. He wrote and directed Golden Lands, Working Hands, a ten-part documentary video series on California labor history.

Copyright: © 2017 Fred B. Glass. 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/