Excerpts

A People’s Guide to Orange County

Elaine Lewinnek, Gustavo Arellano, and Thuy Vo Dang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Notes:

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

Reviews

Lamentation and Place: A review of Inter State: Essays from California

Dan Cady

Accord to polls, most Americans believe in life after death. Among those who hold most tightly to this improbable notion are faithful Christians. In the texts they adopted from the ancient Hebrews, their god condemned the first humans to death—this otherwise unknown fate—for attempting to eat their way to knowledge. With anger and irony, he scolded his creations saying, “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” God invents death. Yet death remains a secondary theological theme until the Christian era.  In the Christian Gospels, their messiah engages dead people, dying people, people who fear dead or dying people, and people who simply fear death. He councils them, cures them, and even raises them from the dead. As the messiah himself contemplates his own demise, he too shows fear. But then, with one act, death is reinvented into a fork in the road leading to eternity, with the faithful heading one way, and the rest slouching towards Mordor. The scheme allows this American majority to view dying as a temporary interlude between the material world and the inescapable occupation of a celestial (or scorching hot) afterlife.

This makes Americans particularly piss-poor at accepting loss and expressing grief. Though some tried. In the 1960s, rationalists, (or perhaps folks just hedging their bets), came to believe that they could systematize their fears by adopting Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief. By the book, each subject moved from denial to acceptance with a tantrum, a deal, and the blues sandwiched in between. In Inter State, José Vadi illustrates that grief is chaotic and not conveniently compartmentalized. Sometimes acceptance is followed by anger, and sometimes each stage happens in minutes, and sometimes simultaneously. He grieves for people. He grieves for cities. He grieves for himself and the transient world around him. For Vadi, struggling with grieving most closely resembles anger, but in expressions peppered by the other four—as they are hardly mutually exclusive. His grieving, however, is perfectly appropriate, and greatly appreciated. He lost his grandfather, his childhood, and the very places those ghosts might still haunt. He writes, but we commiserate together. He demands his reader to be a good listener.

A lamentation on memory, place, loss, and erasure, through Inter State, Vadi traverses and critiques California like a quixotic Umberto Eco—but unlike Eco, he does so not as a tourist, but a lifer. Vadi’s emotional investment in the San Gabriel Valley and Bay Area proper is evidenced in his intimate descriptions of dive bars, street corners, and under-appreciated urban vistas. Walking with him through San Francisco’s Tenderloin or cutting across Oakland’s (and Berkeley’s) Telegraph avenue feels authentic enough to conjure up the sound of multi-lane traffic and the smell of marijuana and urine. As someone who spent years in both the SGV and San Francisco (a generation later for the former, and earlier for the latter) I was genuinely touched by his vision and his loss. His San Francisco, where tech conquered and gentrified, replaced my San Francisco. And for this, I too still feel anger, denial, and begrudging acceptance.

Vadi’s book is both edgy and nostalgic, and at its most provocative hints at issues concerning the future of ethnic identity in a demographically shifting state that constructs public memory at its own convenience. His visits through the Central Valley, Tehachapi, and Salinas suggests as much. He wonders how one commemorates transients. He wrestles with the necessity of memorializing and the subsequent proliferation of historical fraud.  But for me, Vadi is at his best when skating, or dreaming about skating. He approaches his environments at the sidewalk level. Skyscrapers may fascinate spire-gazing Midwestern tourists, but Vadi’s line of sight explores ground level. Every curb, bench, stairwell, and handrail holds both purpose and memory. The sound of his wheels in historic (but often invisible) locations echo the familiar noise of every skater who came before—some famous, some infamous, but most nameless. The clank of an adolescent’s failed kick-flip, for Vadi must be both the sound of comfort and the reminder of the inescapable adulthood confronting a married, employed Berkeley grad.

I do have a beef with José Vadi; and that’s concerning his dismissal of Fresno. By pronouncing it “dead,” he did to Fresno what Gertrude Stein did to Oakland with her oft-quoted, “There’s no there there.” Stein, of course, said so because of losing the Oakland she once knew; Vadi, who otherwise strives for authentic experiences, has no relationship to the derided town. He drives through Fresno–one of the most gritty, troubled, confounding, demographically diverse cities on the planet–and jots down his condemnation and short caveat with less care than Francis Trollope mustered in her evisceration of Cincinnati. Like Pomona, Fontana, and even Oakland, Fresno can be grim, but it still deserves a skater’s eye rather than a Victorian’s snub. If Vadi relied on his hubba better angels, he might have found his way into the Fresno High area, and heard the scraping sounds of teenagers launching their boards and bodies down the local school’s notorious staircase. He could have cased the Tower district and followed the plumes of weed and experienced other like-kinds with eclectic tastes, soccer knowledge, scabbed elbows, and the want of cold beers. Unlike Oakland, Fresno’s downtown might have offered a small haven from the sort of gentrification responsible for much of Vadi’s angst. Without tech money to reinvent block after block, Fresno’s downtown changes slowly. If Vadi is being honest about his want of an urban environment uncorrupted by the thing some call progress, Fresno awaits his return.

Regardless of his dismissal of my current hometown, Inter State is affecting. His writing comes from vulnerability which manifests as authenticity. I think Vadi accepts the permanence of death for both people and their built environments. In Inter State, he grapples with loss, and in doing so helps us all grieve a little better.

Inter State: Essays from California by José Vadi. Copyright © 2021 by Soft Skull Press. Used by permission of the publisher. Link to title

Dan Cady is Associate Professor of History at Fresno State

Articles

An Incomplete List: Boom Roundup

In our three years as editors, we’ve tried and consistently failed to compile an end of the year list. Something always gets in the way. The busyness of the end of the semester, the family time during the holiday season, and of course, the global pandemic that continues to illuminate the inability of capitalism and governments to take care of their peoples’ basic needs. In the last week folks took to Twitter to express their frustration with the CDC’s new five day quarantine guidelines: “Sana sana colita de rana,” says the CDC, to borrow Natalia Molina’s tweet.

And then there is our general resistance to lists. Despite an author’s best intentions, these lists always feel definitive and carry a pretense of objectivity. However, they are subjective and incomplete and tend to feature books from big publishers.

So let’s not call it a list. Below you’ll find eleven books that shaped how we think about California, along with a few shout-outs to and updates from our tiny, but mighty Boom California editorial team.

Books we reviewed or featured:

Allisa Richardson, Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest #Journalism

“In her book, Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest #Journalism, Richardson examines the forms of Black witnessing that animate the Black Lives Matter movement, while situating them within the much longer arc of witnessing practices that have helped shape historic struggles for Black liberation.  In the process, her book brings into focus just how much efforts to combat the horrors of white supremacy and to sustain movements for racial justice have relied on often-overlooked acts of seeing and truth-telling that have been undertaken by Black witnesses past and present.” Elizabeth E. Sine

Kevin Waite, West of Slavery

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

Lynell George, A Handful of Earth, a Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia Butler.

“Lynell George spent four years, starting in 2016, in the Octavia E. Butler Papers at the Huntington Library, Art, and Botanical Gardens Museum diligently sifting through almost 400 boxes of Butler’s personal items including notebooks, to-do lists, recipes, scraps of paper, letters, bus passes, library cards, hand-me-down diaries, receipts and all sorts of other ephemera. These notes, George demonstrates in her book, add up to the math of Butler’s life, especially in lists connected to time and money.” Mike Sonksen

Cassandra Lane, We are Bridges: A Memoir

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

Geraldo Cadava, The Hispanic Republican: The Shaping of an American Political Identity, from Nixon to Trump

“Geraldo Cadava explains the origins of the GOP’s Hispanic constituency (Hispanic is the preferred identifier for most in this group). Hispanic support of the Republican Party has calcified over the last five decades and yielded considerable support for Donald J. Trump’s GOP despite its bombastic rhetoric and lethal policies. Since the early 1970s, Hispanic conservatives have influenced elections by siphoning off votes from Democrats and pointing a new direction in American racial politics. Even when the GOP loses, as in the 2020 presidential election where Trump lost to Democratic challenger Joseph R. Biden by a considerable margin, Hispanic support for the GOP remains steady.” –Jerry González

Leisy J. Abrego and Genevive Negrón-Gonzales, edt. We Are Not Dreamers: Undocumented Scholars Theorize Undocumented Life in the United States

“A notable addition in the research literature because much (albeit not all) of the academic publications on the experiences of undocumented students are authored by those who are not undocumented (this includes me). All the authors, not including the editors, are or were undocumented at some point. Their perspectives, theories, realities and approaches to liberation vary greatly from one another. Their only commonality is an aversion to having their complex lives reduced to an unrealistic ideal of meritocratic excellence. The resulting research findings, personal narratives, and theories in the flesh are astounding.” –Luis Fernando Macías

Roberto Lovato, Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas

Scholar, activist, and journalist Roberto Lovato takes us through his own journey of re-membering the infinite traces of his life as a child of Salvadoran migrants in the Mission District of San Francisco. By navigating through history, borders, silences and half-truths, Lovato excavates his family’s past, his participation in the Salvadoran revolutionary process, and the “gangs-as-cause-of-every-problem-thesis” in El Salvador.

Adam Goodman, The Deportation Machine: America’s Long History of Expelling Immigrants

“The rampant spread of coronavirus throughout the United States has illuminated undocumented migrants’ role as essential workers as well as their precarious position in this country. Indeed, Trump’s administration continues to find novel measures to expel undocumented migrants and asylum seekers. In The Deportation Machine: America’s Long History of Expelling Immigrants, Adam Goodman traces the United States’ efforts to expel and terrorize migrants as well as people’s efforts to stop the deportation machine. Historian Elliott Young spoke with Goodman about his new book and this long history.” Boom interview

Jessica Ordaz, The Shadow of El Centro: A History of Migrant Incarceration and Solidarity

“In her timely new book, The Shadow of El Centro: A History of Migrant Incarceration and Solidarity, Jessica Ordaz deftly shows the extent to which detention, control, and violence have come to dominate America’s response to undocumented immigration through a history of one of America’s oldest detention facilities, El Centro, in the city of El Centro in the Imperial Valley of California.” Daniel Morales

Damon B. Akins and William J. Bauer Jr., We are the Land: A History of Native California

Excerpt here.

Sesshu Foster and Arturo Ernesto Romo, ELADATL: A History of the East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines

ELADATL, a mind-blowing book collaboration between poet and novelist Sesshu Foster and artist Arturo Romo that brings forth a whole other past, present and future within the space-time continuum we (think we) know as Southern California. Billed as ‘a fictional history of an actual company,’ ELADATL traces the rise and fall and rise again of the East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines, a local addition to the long history of unsung ventures in U.S. airship transport by those ‘marginalized and disappeared’ by capitalism, white supremacy, settler colonialism and patriarchy” Janet Sarbanes

***

Our Boom California team has also welcomed new books into the world. Anthony Cody, our poetry editor during our time at Fresno State, published Borderland Apocrypha, which won an American book award. Romeo Guzmán,  Carribean Fragoza, and their homies published East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte, which is being used in Ethnic Studies classes in El Monte Union High School District classes. (You can browse the book’s companion website and digital archive here.) Carribean’s book Eat the Mouth That Feeds You continues to receive rave reviews and is a finalist for a PEN Award. Romeo dropped a DIY chapbook titled Pocho Blues.

We have some exciting things coming up in 2022. We’ll be collaborating with La Casa de El Hijo del Ahuizote, the Magón archive and cultural space in Mexico City, to publish Daniel Olmos and Samuel Brown-Vazquez’s chapbook/photo essay titled, “Los Aguacateros: Avocado Heights and the Cultural Politics of Place.” Sneak peak.

Lastly, Romeo and Carribean’s art collective, the South El Monte Arts Posse, will have a space in 2022. Hopefully, this is the year we finally host a Boom event. Stay tuned!

Reviews

Haunted by a Prison that Never Was: A review of The Shadow of El Centro: A History of Migrant Incarceration and Solidarity

Daniel Morales

In June 2019, U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez described Donald Trump’s detention centers, especially those holding separated children, as concentration camps. Her accusation created a controversy in the media over the use of the term “concentration camps” to describe immigration detention centers. Some pundits argued that the use of the term was an exaggeration that drew an equivalence between migrant detention centers and Nazi concentration camps and the holocaust. Activists and scholars have countered that concentration camps had a long history of use around the world that included: Native American wars, the Philippine-American War, and the Boar War among many uses. Into this conversation steps Jessica Ordaz and her timely new book, The Shadow of El Centro. Ordaz, assistant professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, deftly shows the extent to which detention, control, and violence have come to dominate America’s response to undocumented immigration through a history of one of America’s oldest detention facilities, El Centro, in the city of El Centro in the Imperial Valley of California.

The El Centro Immigration Detention Center operated from 1945 to 2014, encompassing seven decades of changes in the way the U.S. detains undocumented migrants, not for the better. Ordaz shows just how different notions of what is “normal” operated across most of the twentieth century and twenty first century. She follows the detention of German merchants taken during World War II who were allowed incredible freedoms by later standards. That facility came to house Japanese detainees and after the war, under the INS, became El Centro. Ordaz makes it clear that the primary difference in how people were seen and treated was race; placing the detention of people of color in the long history of settler colonialism, conquest, slavery, and forced labor. In this context the term concentration camp was used casually at the time to describe various forced camps in the 19th and early 20th century, including WWII camps. The name of camps’ location itself carries these historical echoes; the Imperial Valley of California was named for the agricultural company that promoted literal colonial imperialism and dispossession from the local native people.

The way El Centro’s officials detained Mexicans and Central Americans reflected and created racialized hierarchies. Just as white farmers viewed Mexicans as racially fit to stoop labor, so did INS officials who saw no issue with forcing detainees to labor in hundred plus degree heat. The forced labor system that the INS ran for decades is then one of the central components of control over the agricultural labor economy of the Imperial Valley, along with its sibling, the bracero processing center, and ports of entry. Migrants are seen as dangerous and criminal, subject to control by all these entities. Their bodies are seen as potential vectors of disease, so they are stripped and doused with dangerous chemicals. As the story moves from the 1940s to the 1970s and 1980s, migrants, especially Central Americans, come to be seen as potential subversives in the Cold War, subject to imprisonment and removal from the country.

The book uses the metaphor of haunting to think about how the past keeps on shaping the present. Ordaz answers Giorgio Agamben’s call to “investigate carefully the juridical procedures and deployments of power by which human beings could be so completely deprived of rights and prerogatives that no act committed against them could appear any longer a crime.” As Ordaz reminds readers, migrants in these camps are “detainees” not prisoners, the camps are “detention centers” not prisons. El Centro was never a prison in the legal sense. This is because the inmates have not been convicted of anything, they are usually not even facing criminal prosecution. Violating immigration law is an administrative offense, not a criminal one. However, they are treated as if they are inherently criminal, with all the trappings of the industrial prison complex. They are subject to forced labor, arbitrary rules like a requirement to wear hats at all times, a lack of rights, solitary confinement, and a shocking degree of routine violence. The legal fiction of administrative law places much of the migration detention and deportation system beyond the reach of judicial review, meaning that migrants do not have the constitutional protections criminal defendants have.

Yet, from inside of El Centro and similar facilities, migrants have found ways to resist their circumstances. Unlike many scholars who focus on migrant policies, legislation, and law, Ordaz looks at how these policies worked on the ground. She shows a culture of abuse, where racialized violence is rendered normal. Guards beat migrants with impunity and cease to see them as fellow humans. In response migrants find ways to resist, by escaping, sometimes across the nearby border into Mexico. In the 1970s Mexican activists protested conditions and sought asylum. In 1985 a group of Central Americans staged the largest hunger strike in El Centro’s history and filed a series of lawsuits. The lawsuits Ordaz explores provide a counterpoint to INS manuals and reports in illustrating individual stories of abuse and death and attempts to push back.

While immigration ports of entry like Ellis Island are accorded a large place in public imagination, commemoration, and scholarship, places of detention like El Centro are largely unknown. Angel Island occupies something of a middle ground, a port of entry that was also a detention center, mostly of Asians, for which there is increasing public awareness. Most detention centers on the other hand are anonymous, places on rural landscapes far from urban centers, not known outside their local communities. Few exist beyond a decade or two, which makes the story of El Centro unique. The El Centro Immigration Detention Center and the stories of those who resisted detention deserve to be better known and memorialized in the landscape.

At El Centro, the use of forced labor, regularized violence, and solitary confinement on civilians who have not been convicted of anything were so normalized the guards did not call them into question. And the law provided impunity. The way the law was structured made it nearly impossible to hold people and institutions accountable, giving license to abuse. Ordaz argues that this was not an anomaly, but central to how detention and deportation function in America. This is what activists in the 1940s, 1960s, 1980s, and today were calling attention to by deploying the term ‘concentration camp.’ Ordaz is part of the wave of scholarship that criticizes the prison industrial complex, the migration detention system, and the racialization of Latin American migrants in the United States. She builds on them by showing what these policies engender in facilities and on too many migrant lives. Ultimately, her account asks us: would it not be better if all detention centers were abolished?

The Shadow of El Centro: A History of Migrant Incarceration and Solidarity by Jessica Ordaz. Copyright © 2021 by University of North Carolina Press Chapel Hill Used by permission of the publisher. Link to title

Daniel Morales is an assistant professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University specializing in Latinx history, immigration, and public history. He is from Azusa California and earned his Ph.D. in history from Columbia University in 2016, and B.A. at the University of Chicago in 2008. His research focuses on the social and economic history of migration between Latin America and the United States. His upcoming book Entre Aquí y Allá: The Political Economy of Transnational Mexican Migration, examines the creation of transnational migratory networks across Mexico and the United States in the twentieth century.

Articles

Navigating Anti-Black Racism in the Concert Hall: Timpanist Elayne Jones and the Challenge of Inclusion

Grace Wang

In a hand-written letter addressed to the personnel manager of San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in January 1972, Elayne Jones expressed interest in auditioning for the orchestra’s upcoming timpani opening. She was confident in her talent and ability, noting how her sterling musical reputation had established her as “first call for just about every freelance job which requires tympani.”[1] “This fact,” as she wrote, “is considered quite remarkable given that I am neither a male or white” in a field overwhelmingly dominated by both. Indeed, as an African American woman navigating a field of culture perceived and elevated through segregationist practices as “white man’s music,” she defied assumptions about who should play Western classical music; moreover, she played timpani, an orchestral percussion instrument typically understood in her profession as “male.” Jones was accustomed to performing under extraordinary scrutiny and skepticism — to being the only and often the first in the orchestral spaces she entered. Still, she had no interest in pursuing an audition in vain. And thus, she inquired: “Would there be any point to my coming out to audition? … I’m aware this is not the type of question to ask point blank, but at the same time it isn’t fair to travel so far and prepare for this with hopeful expectations if there is really no chance.”

In posing this question, Jones alluded to the history of racism that left nearly “no chance” for African American musicians to secure professional symphony orchestra positions, regardless of their training and ability. Orchestra auditions had long been inequitable, governed by the whims and outsized influence of autocratic conductors, favored principal players, and management, which failed to advertise openings publicly. While such practices could feel opaque and undemocratic to all musicians, for Jones, they emblematized the institutional racism of a musical culture that actively excluded her. She, alongside other African American musicians, had spent years advocating for fairer audition procedures. They organized, among other things, for “blind” auditions — auditions held behind a screen so the player’s identity would remain obscured.[2] Given the long history of segregation and racism both in and beyond the orchestral field, many Black musicians believed that only an anonymous audition process would allow for an impartial assessment of musical ability. By 1972, some orchestras, including SFS, had begun conducting preliminary rounds behind a screen. Recounting how she eventually won the position with SFS, Jones credits the screen for her success: “I wouldn’t have gotten the job if the screen wasn’t in play. I’m the recipient [laughing] of a thing that I worked on.”[3]

There is a burgeoning movement in Western classical music to upend traditional hierarchies and to reimagine this traditionally exclusive cultural field. These efforts have intensified in the post-George-Floyd era, as the classical music field grapples with its own complicity in anti-Black racism and white supremacy.[4] Jones, a 93-year-old classical musician, socialist, and self-proclaimed “stealth bomber” is a key figure whose life work of linking musical advocacy with social justice prefigures this current moment. In what follows, I ask what her struggles in San Francisco allow us to understand about the systemic racism embedded in the classical music field. Jones often despairs at the unchanged landscape of orchestras, lamenting that “to this day, you still have maybe one percent of Black musicians in all of the orchestras in the world.”[5] The barriers she faced in her career help us understand how this situation persists while also inserting into the historical record the efforts of working musicians like herself “who were willing to flare up and be an issue.”

Jones at the timpani in her home at Rossmoor, 2019. Photo by author.

I first met Jones years ago after attending a friend’s violin recital at Rossmoor, an active senior community located in the upscale suburban community of Walnut Creek in Northern California. An anomaly in the homogeneous whiteness of Rossmoor, I had already noticed Jones in the audience when she approached me after the concert, curious about my own presence. Gregarious and highly social, Jones quickly launched into a series of questions: “Had I heard of the San Francisco Symphony? Juilliard? Tanglewood?” As I later came to realize, Jones often introduces herself this way, highlighting these elite music institutions as a way to invite discussions into her past. Having researched the politics of race in classical music for Asian/Asian American musicians, I was intrigued by the fragments of her life she shared. I began visiting her for long conversations over meals. I knew Jones was engaged in a decades-long project of writing a memoir. This process led her to be introspective about her life and its meaning. But as her health began faltering, I began recording more formal oral interviews. Here, I focus on Jones’s musical experiences in San Francisco, a city that looms large in her own life narrative. When she arrived in San Francisco, the local press heralded her position with the orchestra as evidence of the city’s progressiveness. But Jones soon encountered significant backlash, including a well-publicized tenure denial. Drawing on her self-published memoir and extensive oral interviews, I highlight both the radical imagination that guides her life and the accumulated costs of pursuing artistic excellence in the face of persistent racial and gender exclusions.

Jones at the timpani, 1972. Photo by Don Jones, Courtesy of San Francisco Symphony Archives.

San Francisco and the Battle for Tenure

A Harlem native, Jones planned to stay in New York for her entire career, viewing the city as the epicenter for both her racial advocacy and musical ambitions. But San Francisco sparkled with its reputation as a progressive cultural and activist oasis. She had never visited the “fabled city on the Bay” before auditioning for SFS but quickly fell in love, enraptured by the scent of eucalyptus leaves in Golden Gate Park, the ease of mild winters, and the colorful architecture that seemed to exude optimism and promise. She believed San Francisco represented a place less entrenched in racism. She left New York fully expecting to remain with SFS until her retirement.

Given the paucity of non-white musicians in any major symphony during the 1970s, Jones’s presence at SFS served as validation of the city’s progressiveness and difference. The symphony’s young Japanese conductor, Seiji Ozawa, already burnished this image. A coveted star on the rise when SFS hired him in 1970, Ozawa embodied a sense of newness and excitement. As Larry Rothe recounts in his history of the orchestra, music critics hailed Ozawa as the “Now Generation Conductor,” captivated by his youth, the novelty of his ethnicity, and his generally “hip” style: turtlenecks, Nehru jackets, long shaggy mane, medallions, and love beads. Jones fit seamlessly into this marketing of San Francisco and its symphony orchestra as a “break with the past” and part of the “now.”[6] Together, Jones and Ozawa heralded a new era; they projected a forward looking vision of classical music.

San Francisco Symphony Music Director Seiji Ozawa and members of the orchestra outside airplane on 1973 European/USSR Tour. Photograph by J.C. Watts and Partners Commercial Photographers, Courtesy of San Francisco Symphony Archives.

Jones’s orchestral debut in San Francisco began auspiciously with a glowing review in the San Francisco Chronicle, where the music critic Heuwell Tircuit proclaimed: “Major event — one not listed on the program — was the local debut performance of the Symphony’s new timpanist, Elayne Jones. Sensational! Absolutely sensational … Clean articulation, fine intonation, and technical savvy — a particularly fine roll, smooth as butter — rich tonal sensibility, and what was really mind blowing, she phrases.”[7] Jones included an excerpt of the review in the “Peace Day” holiday greeting sent to family and friends that year.

When I came across this holiday greeting nestled amongst the abundance of documents and ephemera accumulated in her home over the decades, it struck me in its promise and anticipation of a rosy future. Today, it remains a lingering snapshot of what could have been. Looking at it, I am reminded of William Cheng’s writing on loving music, how that love can be weaponized to dehumanize others, and the resulting “pain of unrequited love.”[8] Jones loved playing in a symphony orchestra. She reveled in the sounds of instruments coming together and creating palettes of such wondrous beauty. She maintained this love, even when its doors remained closed to her. Finally, Jones believed that her dedication to craft and musical excellence would be recognized and returned if not by love, than with tenure and membership in one of the nation’s most celebrated orchestras.

1972 “Peace Day” holiday greeting. Courtesy of Jones.

As is standard, Jones joined SFS on a two-year probationary period, after which she would be eligible for tenure. She knew that as an African American woman, the standard of excellence placed on her would exceed that of her white, male peers. She committed herself fully to the position. At the same time, she refused the additional labor of performing gratitude and subservience to her colleagues. If Jones’s family holiday greeting reflects exuberance and excitement for her family’s beautiful new adventure, the card she gave to her fellow SFS players centered her blackness. This interrupted the supposed racelessness of the orchestral space. As she recalls, her colleagues perceived the card to be political and intrusive: 

“When I got into the San Francisco Symphony that first year, people were giving out cards and everything. And I looked at all these cards and all these white angels and I thought, ‘White angels? Some angels must be Black.’ And that was when I discovered Marcus bookstore in San Francisco.[9]… Anyhow, so I got these cards with all these white angels. And I thought, ‘Why should I give my kids any cards with white angels? Well, if my kids can have white angels, their kids can have Black angels.’ So I went to Marcus and they had some Black Madonnas and I made some cards and I gave ‘em out. Well, you know, they protested that I’m imposing my beliefs on them. ‘Well, you’re imposing yours on me. Why do my children have to see white angels and your kids can’t see Black angels?’ Well, that may have been the downfall of myself – why I didn’t do too well with the orchestra. I should have just gone in and kept my mouth shut and not rocked the boat or made waves. And I guess this is why they had to get rid of me.”

“They had to get rid of me” — the tenure committee, SFS, the classical music establishment, and the white status quo most broadly. Decades later, Jones still chokes up discussing her tenure case, a trauma that loops in her mind, litigated repetitively to the same result.

In 1974, SFS evaluated eight players for tenure. Only the two non-white players, Jones and Japanese bassoonist Ryohei Nakagawa, received negative votes from the Player’s committee (the 7-person committee that votes on tenure). For Jones, losing her battle for tenure at SFS marked the symbolic end to her music career, extinguishing years of striving and ambition. Her years with San Francisco Opera Orchestra, where she earned tenure and worked for over 25 years, barely merits any mention in her memoir. This should not suggest that Jones does not have fond memories of her years with San Francisco Opera. By all accounts, she held some epic parties and made lifelong friends. But pit orchestras, tucked in the shadows under the stage (with the percussion section far back in its recesses) do not provide a visible platform. The singers on stage occupy the spotlight, while the orchestral musicians remain largely unseen, behind a perpetual screen of sorts. This may speak to why Jones found the most steady work in pit orchestras, where the concealment of her body allowed for some greater measure of inclusion. Prior to SF Opera, she played with New York City Opera for 12 years, where she was the first African American and female musician hired by that orchestra. As a musician quoted in a 1976 Los Angeles Times article about the absence of African Americans in symphony orchestras suggested, talented Black musicians, knowing how unwelcome they are in symphony orchestras, gravitate elsewhere, including “pit orchestras where our color won’t disturb sensitive souls who can’t believe that Afro-Americans can understand the great music of Western civilization.”[10]

What does inclusion look, feel, and sound like when the erasure of one’s body is part of the precondition for considering one’s admittance? In its most literal form, screened auditions distill music making to its aural element, redacting the body to create a blank slate for listening. Racial fantasies, projections, and stereotypes have long filled the gap between a musician’s body and their performance, a process that can unwittingly serve as self-fulfilling prophecies of racialized beliefs.[11] The screen interrupts these imaginations, anonymizing the body through a large black apparatus. But the screen is a mechanism designed to engender impartiality. It functions in the service of meritocracy rather than a commitment to diversity or racial justice.[12] And meritocracy’s relentless focus on individual effort and ability does little to address the systemic racism, discrimination, and history of segregation that sustain inequities in the orchestral field.

Popular media often extols the use of screens in orchestra auditions, pointing to the near 50% increase in the representation of women since its implementation and encouraging other industries to use similar anonymizing strategies to tackle implicit bias in hiring.[13] What is clear, however, is that the use of screens has done little to increase the representation of African American musicians in U.S. symphony orchestras. And in Jones’s case, the screen did little to change the conditions that precipitated its existence in the first place. As a Black woman occupying a principal position in SFS, an orchestra with no other African Americans and only 22 women (out of approximately 100 players) when she joined in 1972, Jones was, as she puts it: “treading on the toes of the white male, and that was really a bit too much for most of these people to deal with.”[14] 

Jones’s negative tenure vote and lawsuit made national news, spurred local protests, a letter writing campaign, and threats to withhold the symphony’s funding. She filed a lawsuit charging racial and sexual discrimination, which she dropped after receiving an additional provisional year and vote on tenure.[15] But when the second tenure vote came back negative, Jones filed another lawsuit. In 1977, her tenure battle ended when the courts dismissed the case.

The details of Jones’s tenure case involve skirmishes of power between multiple parties — unions, orchestral players, management, and Ozawa. Rather than relitigate the specific merits of the case, I focus, instead, on what the case reveals about the institutional history and culture of symphony orchestras. Part of the difficulty Jones encountered proving racism stemmed from long standing beliefs separating politics from the distilled performance of “the music itself” and understandings of the whiteness of symphony orchestras as incidental rather than instrumental to the assessment of musical excellence.

Jones spent decades repeatedly proving her ability and musical worth. When she learned of the shockingly low scores she received for her tenure, they felt like a personal assault to diminish and demean. For her first tenure vote, she received 177 out of a possible 700 points. Two tenure committee members gave her an insulting score of 1 out of 100. The vote the following year came in even lower. As a point of contrast, in the final round of Jones’s audition for SFS, she received 920 points out of a possible 1000 from the audition committee.[16]

In my interviews, Jones’s speech uncharacteristically sputters and pauses as she recalls the reasons used to justify her tenure denial:

“How all of a sudden could I be so bad? And these guys said…well, I…well, what was the thing with the trumpet player?…well, there was…he made a statement…What was?…there’s something silly they said I didn’t do…I try to block them out. That’s why I have difficulties remembering. … Gosh. Well. I mean it boils down to the fact, so I have to be perfect but nobody else around me is perfect?”

For Jones, the moving target of perfection placed on her felt unbearable. The criticism levied about her playing proved equally damaging to her psyche. She considered leaving the profession for good. “I’m a perfectionist,” she continues to muse, “so I will still think, was it my playing?” But perfection, while aspirational, is both elusive and subjective. This is particularly true for musicians playing at her high level of musicianship.

In the first public statement issued by the SFS Players’ Committee (the tenure committee) in September 1974 about Jones’s tenure denial, it concluded by referencing the hallowed space occupied by a symphony orchestra:

“A symphony orchestra is a rare and special thing. It is the unique product of our Western Musical Tradition, a tradition centuries old. It is made up of members who each embody decades of training and experience. It is not a work-force or an assembly line. It is a living thing, a musical and social organism. And like any living thing, it should be treated with care for its health, and respect for its accomplishments.”[17]

This language is, on the one hand, unsurprising in its description of a symphony orchestra as a “special thing” for a select few. Unlike other workplaces, a symphony orchestra exceeded such mundanities of labor and production. It represented both an enduring testament to centuries of European tradition and a delicately balanced living organism, whose inheritors stewarded its continued maintenance and care. On the other hand, such evocations of a symphony orchestra contained a clear message. Like the purported racelessness of meritocracy and the symphony orchestra, the players’ invocation of our “Western Musical Tradition” functioned as a proxy for whiteness and its continued preservation.

Would the outcome of Jones’s tenure vote have differed if she had muted her “zippy, boat-rocking personality,” acquiesced to claiming less space, and accommodated more to the status quo?[18] As she wrote in a letter to the supporters of her tenure: “Someone I trust confided to me that I was disliked because I didn’t conform to the subservient image of a black woman — and had stood up for my rights instead, with pride, and not with the soft humility some considered more befitting.” Rather than subservience, Jones embodied its mirror in her defiance and anger. At the same time, Nakagawa, by all accounts a “soft-spoken” and mild-mannered principal bassoonist who accepted his negative tenure vote without challenge, did not fare any better.[19] It is unsurprising how closely descriptions attached to Jones and Nakagawa’s outward personalities hew to the racial and gendered scripts placed on Asians and African Americans. In the end, the similar fates of Nagakawa and Jones speak to the bind that musicians of color face gaining inclusion and holding leadership positions in spaces of white supremacy. 

When Jones discusses racism, she often adds that white people do not understand what racism entails, viewing it as a matter of etiquette and hurtful comments rather than a system of acquiring and maintaining power. She, like Nakagawa, was a principal player — a first chair position, which represents a leadership position in the orchestra. This translated into greater pay and power than other section players in their workplace, not a special living thing. Their presence disturbed the “natural” order of the organism:

“I was a principal player, the person who is the head of a section and always paid above the rest of the section, first ever for an African American. I was experienced and I was competent; conductors and audiences acknowledged that. … This situation was compounded by the fact that the orchestra had a conductor and another principal player, who like me, were not of European origin. Having these three non-Europeans in the orchestra in leading positions was a little more than their egos could handle.”[20]

In Jones’s view, their collective visibility in positions of power precipitated their downfall. Nakagawa returned to Japan. And while Ozawa did not attribute his resignation from SFS in 1975 to the tenure disputes, he left as well, continuing his post with Boston Symphony Orchestra full time.

It is impossible to know how the fragility of white egos might have entered into the Players’ Committee’s vote on tenure. But an 8-page, typed document in the SFS archives, written in 1992 by a member of Jones’s second tenure committee, provides some clues. It is unclear why or to whom this treatise titled “the Elayne Jones Affair” was written. When I inquired, the archivist at SFS could offer no additional details. But as a defense of the symphony and the committee’s commitment to objectivity, it contains a litany of highly charged personal claims. The accusations levied against Jones included: the “distorted view” she had of her music ability and her tendency to blame career disappointments on racism (or sexism) rather than her own shortcomings; insinuations that affairs with music critics led to all of her positive newspaper reviews; and the multiple “cards in her deck” that Jones held due to her race and gender, effectively rendering SFS “impotent.” The document closes with the musician’s continued discomfort encountering Jones periodically in his everyday life — on the tennis courts in San Francisco and as a colleague at music festivals. As he writes: “she is the only person who has ever publicly charged me with being racist or sexist.” In the end, being accused of racism and sexism proved this musician’s most enduring slight.

Conclusion

For Jones, at 93, mulling over the events in her life can become a form of rehearsal. In our conversations, certain moments loop and rewind, an attempt to move past the racialized trauma of her tenure denial, only to return again to well-tread tales: playing with conductor Leopold Stokowski; her political advocacy; encountering segregation in St. Louis and Chicago; winning the position with SFS. The record skips and repeats, landing again and again on her tenure denial where the narrative inevitably stops. As she wrote to the supporters of her tenure battle: “I don’t know why I’ve worked so hard to climb up so far, because the long fall is so painful.”

In a roundtable discussion centered on the experiences of African Americans in classical music, Anthony McGill, principal clarinetist with the New York Philharmonic (and the only African American musician currently in that orchestra), eschewed the “exceptional talent” narrative for what it elides. Refusing to allow his own success story to serve as an acquittal of the field, he asserted: “I think it’s actually very important to highlight everybody else …[those] who are blocked from having that path. It’s important to look from that perspective as well.”[21]

How do we highlight this perspective in the institutional history of symphony orchestras? This is an archive of absence and of what could have been — aspirations thwarted, talents obstructed, careers re-routed, and spirits incalculably destroyed. But it is also, as Jones’s life shows us, an archive of defiance and refusal. Her life offers new insights into the past — a way to rethink the history and culture of American symphony orchestras through her visionary perspective. Tina Campt speaks of black feminist futurity as “a performance of a future that hasn’t yet happened but must.”[22] Making music and occupying space in sites where African American women have and continue to be excluded, Jones’ life compels us to grapple with the segregated histories that structure how we listen and see. “If my life matters,” Jones told me recently, “it’s because I have to make you think it matters.” Here I offer space to understand how her life matters for what it allows us to envision — new worlds and modes of imagining the orchestral field, music making, and the structures of power that sustain them.


[1] Letter to Verne Sellin from Elayne Jones. San Francisco Symphony archives

[2] For an incisive critique of the ableism contained in the term “blind” auditions, see William Cheng, Loving Music Till it Hurts (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 63-64.

[3] Unless otherwise cited, all quotes from Jones come from interviews and conversations with the author.

[4] See, for example, Michael Andor Brodeur, “That sound you’re hearing is the classical music’s long overdue reckoning with racism,” Washington Post, July 16, 2020, Zachary Woolfe and Joshua Barone (interviewers), “Black Artists on How to Change Classical Music,” New York Times, July 16, 2020, James Bennett, “On Taking Lip [Service], WQXR blog, June 2, 2020, Aaron Flagg, Anti-Black Discrimination in American Orchestras, Symphony, Summer 2020.

[5] This statistic has remained relatively constant. A survey conducted in 1974 revealed African Americans to make up less than 1% of orchestras in the U.S. “Symphony Orchestras: A Bad Scene,” The Crisis, January 1975. In a 2014 survey by the League of American Orchestras, the figure had risen to just 1.8%.

[6] Rothe, Music for a City, Music for the World, 156-57.

[7] Heuwell Tircuit, “Show of Symphony Pride,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 6, 1972.

[8] Cheng, Loving Music Till it Hurts, 104.

[9] Marcus Books (named after Marcus Garvey), currently located in Oakland, is the oldest independent Black bookstore in the United States.

[10] Dorothy Samachson, “Orchestras in the U.S. — Where are the Blacks?” Los Angeles Times, October 10, 1976.

[11] For more on racialized listening practices see, for example, Nina Sun Eidsheim, The Race of Sound (Durham: Duke UP, 2019); Jennifer Lynn Stoever, The Sonic Color Line (New York: NYU Press, 2016); Kira Thurman, “Performing Lieder, Hearing Race,” Journal of the American Musicological Society, vol. 72, Number 3, 825-865; Grace Wang, Soundtracks of Asian America (Durham: Duke UP, 2015).

[12] See Anthony Tommasini, “To Make Orchestras More Diverse, End Blind Auditions,” New York Times, July 16, 2020 and Cheng’s discussion of anonymous audition processes and meritocracy in Loving Music Till It Hurts, 63-104.

[13] Malcolm Gladwell writing on “blind auditions” in Blink, New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2005 helped popularize the findings of the widely-cited article by Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse, “Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of ‘Blind’ Auditions on Female Musicians,” American Economic Review, vol. 90, no. 4, September 2000, 715-741.

[14] Charles Burrell, a double bassist, the first African American musician hired by SFS, performed with the orchestra from 1959-64. Jones’s lawyer claimed that Burrell was forced out, a narrative that differs from the official history of SFS, which recounts how earthquakes in the region prompted the bassist to return to more stable ground in Colorado. Larry Rothe, Music for a City, Music for the World, San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2011, 134-35.

[15] The extent to which the courts did not consider race and gender discrimation as intersectional created further obstacles for Jones. In his sworn affidavit, Jerry Spain, President of Musician’s Union Local 6 offered the statistics on gender at SFS, noting that the orchestra employed more women musicians than any other major symphony. This fact was used to buttress the orchestra’s claim that it did not discriminate on the basis of sex. This defense recalls Kimberle Crenshaw’s argument that separating gender and race discrimination leaves no place for Black women. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum (1989): 139-67

[16] For tenure during this period at SFS, a Players Committee (composed of 7 musicians) and the music director award points, with each side able to override or deny tenure. Musicians needed to receive a total of 351 votes to have the conductor’s vote added to their tally. As such, the low scores effectively sidelined Ozawa. The members of the audition and tenure committee were different, so do not represent a direct contrast (although the tenure committee is supposed to represent the collective view of the orchestra).

[17] Report to the 1974 ICSOM Convention from the San Francisco Symphony Players’ Committee. San Francisco Symphony archives.

[18] Quote from Arthur Bloomfield, “The Story That Won’t Go Away,” San Francisco Examiner, Sept 2, 1975.

[19] The narrative around Nakagawa’s tenure denial in the press and within SFS also suggested (falsely) that he was Ozawa’s former roommate in Japan and enjoyed a closeness to the conductor given their shared ethnicity. This narrative implied cronyism in his hiring. See Paul Hertelendy, “Jones: ‘How Good Do You Have To Be?’”Oakland Tribune, August 31, 1975. Although Nakagawa did not challenge his tenure denial, following Jones’s lawsuit he, too, was given a second vote.

[20] Jones, Little Lady wIth a Big Drum, 303.

[21]Learning to Listen” June 10, 2020.

[22] Tina Campt, Listening to Images (Durham: Duke UP, 2017), 17.

Grace Wang is Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of California, Davis. She is the author of Soundtracks of Asian America: Navigating Race through Musical Performance (Duke UP) and is currently collaborating with filmmaker Julie Wyman on a documentary film about Elayne Jones’s life in politics and music.

Excerpts

Chicana-Chicano Agonists

Frank P. Barajas 

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

The World of the Chicana-Chicano Generation

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

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

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

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

Storms Brewing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go to School, Stay in School

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

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

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

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

The Community College Connection

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

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

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

Be One, Bring More than One

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Space for Chicano Studies

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

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

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

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

¡Despierta! (Wake Up!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minority Student Center

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

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

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

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

Veni, Vidi, Vici Chicana-Chicano Style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Contretemps of Identities

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

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

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

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

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

Takeaway

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


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

Notes:

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

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

© 2021 by Frank P. Barajas.; used with permission by University of Nebraska Press. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Poetry

After I’m Gone

Illustration by Fernando Mendez Corona

Michael Torres

I’ve written this poem before. I left Miguel here last
time, sitting in the front row of the church, near
the aisle. He must be asleep by now, his head against
the end of a pew. Maybe he’s dreaming of us alive
and young, walking into an AM/PM. He used to
grab two burgers from the food warmer, slip one
into the bag of another burger. I was a great
lookout. If he went up the aisle with the candy
and grabbed a pack of Twizzlers I knew he was
ready to go. If he took a cup and filled it with Icee,
I had to ask the cashier for a key to the bathroom.
If he ran, I ran, and I’d go left toward the field
past factories. He went right, cut thru the lot of that
church for ex-gang members who every other Sunday
asked God to look upon them again. It must be
the morning after my funeral, Miguel waking up
to his sore feet in those black dress shoes. His tie
loosened. Everyone else gone or never arrived.

*

After death, when it’s just me
with my slick soul, my see-thru
self, I imagine my eyes as two
brown balloons tied together that
a child has let slip from her fingers
and now must watch as they lift
further into a sky she could not have
imagined going on for so long. All that
blue, and I am only the balloons
no one believes in. I am barely out
of sight, looking back down at earth
one last time, watching the town where
I grew up and decided to leave when
I’d felt it shrink around me. I didn’t want
to say it like that, but that’s how it happens
sometimes. The same town I wanted,
nevertheless, to be buried in, I realized
when I was maybe sixteen, standing
in the cemetery for a funeral, burying
a friend of a friend, who did not end up
like his father, though his father was
there, handcuffed and dressed in orange.
His jumpsuit stinging the morning. An officer
at each side. I’d kept that image with me,
of the father, all my life, and would
wonder, from time to time, why the police
had not let him wear a suit to the burial.
I came to the conclusion that they could not
recognize him as a father. They found every
other word to define him. They fit those
handcuffs and felt good about their work.
The rest of the mourners had the freedom
of multiplicity. That morning, everyone’s words
tangled in a rain not so different from the storm

*

I once picked up Miguel in. He was still in love
with a woman who didn’t know what she wanted
except some time to think. It was a Saturday
afternoon when I found him walking in the rain.
Would you even call it afternoon, in a storm
like that? He said thanks after shutting the door.
Maybe both of us laughed for no reason
other than to start conversation, though neither
of us brought up what had happened. I’m a good
lookout. I can say that about myself. I drove on
and he put his face in his hands. I said nothing.
He wore a baseball cap. Deep blue. The radio was
playing low a commercial where someone didn’t
have auto insurance, and their friend asked them
why not. It’s a dumb thing to remember now, but
I can’t separate it from that moment. The wipers kept
smearing the glass. The rain returned. Again. I pressed
the gas and tried to catch up with the hour. I heard his
belt buckle click into place after a moment.


Michael Torres was born and brought up in Pomona, California where he spent his adolescence as a graffiti artist. His debut collection of poems, An Incomplete List of Names (Beacon Press, 2020) was selected by Raquel Salas Rivera for the National Poetry Series and named one of NPR’s Best Books of 2020. His honors include awards and support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the McKnight Foundation, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, CantoMundo, VONA Voices, the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Jerome Foundation, the Camargo Foundation, and the Loft Literary Center. Currently he’s an Assistant Professor in the MFA program at Minnesota State University, Mankato, and a teaching artist with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. Visit him at: michaeltorreswriter.com

Reviews

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

Luis Fernando Macías

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Notes

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

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

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

Articles

Before Amazon: Land, Labor, and Logistics in the Inland Empire of WWII

Brinda Sarathy

On August 25, 2015, the Moreno Valley City Council in Riverside County, California green lit the World Logistics Center (WLC) in a contentious 3-2 vote. Slated to be the largest inland port in the USA, the WLC envisions more than 40 million square feet of warehouses built atop 2,610 acres of now open fields on the city’s far-east side, south of the 60 Freeway. Once completed, the massive complex will span the equivalent of 700 football fields and is estimated to generate 68,712 vehicle trips daily, of which 14,006 will be made by majority diesel trucks.[1] For those less familiar with this area of the Golden State— often referred to as the “Inland Empire”—picture once largely citrus-growing and Kaiser steel-producing Counties of Riverside and San Bernardino as now ground zero for the nation’s goods-movement industry. Over the past two decades, Inland Valley politicians and developers have pushed an aggressive growth agenda which has seen the construction of over 159 million square feet of industrial warehouse space in Riverside and San Bernardino Counties between 2000 and 2008,[2] and a dramatic increase in truck and rail transportation of goods from the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles to the rest of the country.[3] As warehouses carpet vast alluvial valley floors and high deserts alike, the Santa Ana, San Bernardino, and San Jacinto Mountains trap the fumes of economic “progress” generated by diesel transport. This is the 21st century terrain wrought by e-commerce giants such as Amazon, FedEx, and UPS, who have set up shop in the Inland Empire, to make good on everyday consumers’ desires for one-click and same day delivery services.

Aerial of World Logistics Center site, Moreno Valley, California

According to Iddo Benzeevi, the developer in charge of the mammoth WLC undertaking and, not incidentally, a key donor behind the successful races of several Moreno Valley City Council members, the project will be a boon to the region and result in 20,000 permanent jobs, 13,00 construction jobs, and $2.5 billion a year in economic activity.[4] Such promotion of the WLC as a solution for regional employment is not new. As the region’s demographic and political makeup have shifted over the past two decades—from an older white and Republican population to predominantly working-class Latinx immigrants—local economic boosters have promoted warehouse construction and employment in the logistics industry as the main path for their modestly educated populations to achieve the middle-class.[5]

Racial Composition of Workforce in Inland Empire, UCR CSI, p. 3

Between 2013 and 2016, Amazon alone invested $4.6 billion in San Bernardino and Riverside Counties, and built a total of 15 fulfillment and distribution centers in the predominantly Latinx communities of San Bernardino, Riverside, Rialto, Moreno Valley, and Eastvale. Moreover, of the over 15.1million square feet of warehouse space currently occupied by Amazon in four counties of the Southland, fifty percent is located in San Bernardino County, with another forty-four percent in Riverside County.[6] When asked why the IE was such a “great place to have so many Amazon fulfillment networks,” a company spokesperson noted that “It’s a perfect mix of valuable things — an exceptional workforce, thoughtful partners, great locations and strong customer support.”[7]

Square feet of Warehouse Space by City and County, Flaming and Burns, 2019. p. 25.

Scholar Juan De Lara, by contrast, has compellingly argued in his recent book Inland Shift, that the region as a hub for logistics is, instead, about the “territorialization of race” and frictions between labor and capital from the 1970s onward.[8] As a fundamentally spatial process, territorialization in the Inland Empire has involved the “fixing” of racialized groups in particular places and within certain occupations. De Lara expertly chronicles how labor was made flexible through differences in race, gender, and immigration status; the dismantling of defunct industrial plants; specific practices that facilitate just-in-time production; and the ongoing discursive formations that make such transformations possible in a post-Keynesian world. His analysis, moreover, undergirds long-standing contentions on the part of environmental justice activists that the WLC and similar warehouse complexes present not a boon, but rather an economic, ecological and public health boondoggle. Organizers and researchers have long raised serious concerns about the impacts of worsening air quality on public health and disproportionate burden on low-income communities of color who live along diesel thoroughfares and warehouse fence lines elsewhere in the Inland region.[9] In 2001, for example, the South Coast Air Quality Management District found that Mira Loma Village, a low-income Latinx community of 101 homes in what was then an unincorporated part of Riverside County, had the highest levels of particulate pollution in the nation.[10] Now part of the City of Jurupa Valley, the Mira Loma community essentially constitutes a residential island afloat among an ocean of warehouses and with more than 800 trucks passing by the Mira Loma Village each hour.  Similarly, in 2008, the California Air Resources Board ranked the San Bernardino Rail facility among the top five most polluting rail yards in California and “first in terms of community health risk due to the large population living in the immediate vicinity.”[11] Coupled with already existing air pollution blowing eastwards from Central Los Angeles, and the natural inversion effect created by the San Bernardino, San Jacinto, and Santa Ana mountain ranges, it is no wonder that Riverside and San Bernardino Counties have among the worst air quality and highest rates of asthma in the nation.[12]

Aerial of Mira Loma Village surrounded by warehouses, Jurupa Valley, California. Google Maps.

Finally, activists and scholars have questioned developer assertions about warehouses being a panacea for employment. Indeed, the WLC made a similar claim during its first phase of construction which saw the creation of a 1.8 million square foot Sketchers distribution center in Moreno Valley. Yet, that project resulted in a net zero job gain for the community and actually led to the loss of some 200 jobs when the facility moved from its original location in Ontario, California.[13] More recently, precarious labor conditions and the rise of automation within warehouse work itself have dampened claims that these facilities are a meaningful solution to address underemployment in the region.[14] In this context, the World Logistics Center is only the most recent and perhaps most egregious example of unfettered support for warehouse growth in the face of potential harm to people and the environment. 

Whether and when the WLC will come to fruition remains an open question. A coalition of land conservation and environmental justice groups have been working to challenge the project in court and, in August 2019, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the development was not exempt from state environmental regulations.[15] California’s Attorney General Xavier Becerra and the California Air Resources Board also filed an amicus brief with the Fourth Circuit, challenging the WLC for disregarding the California Environmental Quality Act and failing to accurately capture the greenhouse gas emissions from the development. Most recently, in April 2021, litigating parties and the developer reached a $47 million settlement to help fund the electrification of trucks, on-site vehicles, and charging infrastructure. Iddo Benzeevi has spun the legal settlement as a “significant achievement of making the World Logistics Center the first net-zero (greenhouse gas) project in the nation and setting a new precedent for sustainable development.”[16] Yet, the legal challenges keep coming as other conservation organizations and environmental justice advocates fight the rising tide of warehouse development in Moreno Valley and elsewhere in the region.[17]

What all parties seem to agree upon, however, is a shared narrative of warehouse development and logistics in the Inland Empire as a relatively recent phenomenon, one dating back to the early 2000s. While the rapid rise of warehousing as a regional economic development phenomenon is certainly a post-2000 story, I argue that warehousing and logistics in themselves are not new to the inland region. Over the remainder of this essay, I extend Juan De Lara’s conceptualization of the “territorialization of race” even farther back in time to trace the production of the Inland Empire’s logistics industry to the development of military installations, differentially incarcerated Italian prisoners of war and Japanese American internees, and racialized warehouse work during World War II. In so doing, my aim is to understand the production of the inland region through various flows, both material and metaphoric, and how particular racialized groups have been partly sedimented in particular places and occupations.

Warehousing People and Provisions: Japanese American Internment

In the early 1940s, six decades before the 101 homes of Mira Loma Village in western Riverside County became infamous among public health practitioners and environmental justice activists for their veritable terrestrial containment by warehouses and exposure to high levels of fine particulate matter, this area comprised a bucolic landscape of open ranch lands growing grapes, barley, and pasture for horses and dairy herds. Twenty odd miles away, it was the City of San Bernardino which gave rise to the first mass storage facilities in the region when, on January, 16, 1942, the U.S. Quartermaster General (a branch of the U.S. Army) established the San Bernardino Depot. The establishment of this facility would soon impact land use in Mira Loma as well and can be viewed as constitutive of a larger logistics landscape shaped by warfare.

Also known as “Camp Ono,” the San Bernardino Depot was part and parcel of World War II mobilization efforts on the West Coast and addressed the need for space to house various military units including the Signal Corps, Corps of Engineers, Medical Corps, and the Chemical Warfare Corps. In 1942, the Depot operated 11 warehouses comprising approximately 100,00 square feet of floor space dispersed over an area of “approximately six miles in diameter” between Colton and San Bernardino.[18]  In addition to carrying out the supply functions for troops in the Southern California Sector— which included Armored Forces Troops that had assembled at the Desert Training Center near Indio, California— Camp Ono soon became central to the provisioning of Japanese American concentration camps between April and October 1942, and charged with supplying 60,000 “Japanese aliens” at its peak.[19] The storage and movement of goods for U.S. troops stationed in inland Southern California during World War II, and the transport and provisioning of Japanese American internees thus became the first seeds to germinate warehouse development in the region.

Camp Ono, San Bernardino, California. Los Angeles Times, Sunday, December 13, 1981. Photos provided by Perry Pugno.
Camp Ono, San Bernardino, California. Los Angeles Times, Sunday, December 13, 1981. Photos provided by Perry Pugno.

In May 1943, James Bennett, the Quartermaster Depot historian captured well the connection between warehouses, supply provisioning, and the internment of Japanese Americans at Camp Manzanar to the east.[20]  Bennett’s records reveal that the U.S. Government approached Japanese American internment as a logistical problem to be solved by military and civilian personnel alike.  While depot officials viewed the feeding and watering of Japanese ‘aliens’ as a “first class headache,”[21] Camp Ono soon became known for the efficiency and frugality of its operations under Commanding Officer, Colonel Chas E. Stafford. The accolades garnered by Camp Ono were primarily framed in terms of the good cheer and cooperation with which American civilians and military personnel endured the hardships posed by the evacuation effort, with nary a perspective into what it might have meant for the U.S. citizens of Japanese descent who were dispossessed and displaced as a result of internment.  In one letter, E.H. Fryer, Regional Director of the War Relocation Authority, lauded Stafford for his “cheerful cooperation, suggestions, and wholehearted interest.”[22] Another officer similarly praised U.S. civilians for their adaptation “to this new phase of work and laboring wholeheartedly to accomplish the end without regard to many hours of hard effort after the normal working day had expired.” [23] At the national level, too, the U.S. Army was hailed for its superb coordination of an involuntary internal mass migration.  None other than Carey McWilliams, then Chief of the Division of Immigration and Housing for the State of California noted: “the evacuation of 100,000 Japanese, men, women and children… has been accomplished on time, without mishap and with virtually no trouble… In effecting this vast movement of people in a brief time, the conduct of the Army has been wholly admirable.”[24]

Los Angeles, California. Evacuees of Japanese ancestry entraining for Manzanar, California, 250 miles away, where they are now housed in a War Relocation Authority center. NARA – 536765.jpg Clem Albers, Photographer (NARA record: 8452194) – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
Santa Anita reception center, Los Angeles, California. The evacuation of Japanese and Japanese-Americans from West Coast areas under U.S. Army war emergency 
order. Registering Japanese-Americans as they arrive, 1942. Photographer: Russell Lee
http://historyinphotos.blogspot.com/2013/08/russell-lee-japanese-internment.html

How to move goods efficiently and on time? While behemoths like Amazon have perfected just-in-time delivery in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, military personnel in the 1940s faced supply chain challenges as they figured out ways to get fresh fruits and vegetables to Japanese American internees. The main supply center was in Los Angeles, which lay 220 miles to the southwest of Camp Manzanar.  Because fast freight was used to supply Army troops, the slow freight that transported goods to internees resulted in considerable spoilage. It was in this context that refrigerated trucks first began to transport perishable foodstuffs to internees, representing one of the earliest iterations of “goods movement” in the inland region.   The use of commercial truck lines reduced transit time and also led to considerable declines in spoilage.[25] 

Certainly, the irony of their situation was not lost on depot officials who noted that “the Japanese [sic] were ordered to abandon their thousands of truck farms—their produce left to wilt, unpicked— yet at the same time…they themselves were herded into camps where food must somehow be found for them.”[26] And Colonel Stafford and his staff were just as quick to hone the Depot’s operations by taking advantage of the plight of Japanese Americans in Los Angeles.  The expedited process of evacuation and internment forced Japanese American wholesalers and retailers to dump large stocks of “noodles, soy sauce, miso sauce, canned fish, dried shrimp and various marine products” to American middlemen at “probably half price.” Stafford aptly noted that the U.S. Army “would undoubtedly have to pay those jobbers the full price” in order to provision internees. To avoid the inflated prices imposed by opportunistic middlemen, Stafford suggested that the Japanese Chamber of Commerce in Los Angeles coordinate the purchase of goods from Japanese American suppliers at a fixed price, “before that food gets into the hands of jobbers.”  These goods were subsequently stored at the Depot and “saved the Government thousands of dollars.”[27]

By late March, the first barracks for Japanese-American internees had been erected at Camp Manzanar and a steady stream of internees from that point on—numbering in the thousands per day— dramatically increased the need for warehouse storage in the region.  Upon visiting the San Bernardino Quartermaster Depot, Colonel W.E. Waldron of the Western Defense Command and Fourth Army, ordered the erection of 50 theater-of-operations pre-fabricated buildings, each capable of being up in about 48-man hours, to alleviate the shortage of storage facilities.  The storage needs of the San Bernardino Depot during this period provide another window into both the sheer scale of evacuation and the basic needs of internees: 10,000 pounds of noodles, 80,000 pounds of rice, and 2000 pounds of tea…hair and bobby pins, baby clothes and diapers, infant bottles and nipples.  According to Bennett, “perhaps the strangest requisition of all was for 1000 of what Americans alternately call chamber pots or thunder mugs. The full quota of this item was procured, after a considerable search, from Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward mail order houses who in turn were forced to hunt at some length in the stacks of obsolete stock.”[28]

The cost cutting measures of the U.S. Army were primarily borne and subsidized by the internees themselves. Even the machinery for making miso sauce and pickled radish at the camps had been bought/taken from imprisoned Nissei (American-born Japanese), who then made miso sauce for the camps. Depot officials also scrutinized substitutions to food supply requests made by internment camp cooks and managers.  Indeed, the latter were viewed as being too extravagant in their orders. One officer, for example, complained: “In addition to the prime meat and 92 score butter, the camp managers were requisitioning quantities of canned pears and canned sliced peaches, and an ‘excess of jam: strawberry, raspberry, blackberry.’ And they were demanding it in small, uneconomical-sized tins. They were asking for whale meat and fancy tinned shrimp. Also, they demanded six to seven tons of pancake flour…Of course, we will see that they (i.e. the evacuees) be given good food, but they shouldn’t be given these extra items regularly—that is, better food than that which our soldiers receive.”[29] Similar tensions arose over public perception over “the siphoning off” of fresh milk to internment camps.  Not surprisingly, Colonel Stafford responded by defending “the Great American Pocketbook against what appeared to him unwarranted extravagance.”[30] Ultimately, this problem was solved by substituting half of the ration of fresh milk for canned or powdered milk.[31]  

Growing Supply Needs: The Birth of Mira Loma Depot

As demands to provision interned Japanese Americans and desert training troops increased, the U.S. Army formally activated the Mira Loma Quartermaster Depot on August 15, 1942. Located approximately 44 miles from the nearest metropolitan center Los Angeles, Mira Loma was considered ideal for the purposes of a military depot.  From a transportation-oriented point of view, it was close to the Union Pacific Railroad tracks, with necessary spurs and sidings, and near two railway division points: San Bernardino for the Santa Fe Railroad, and Colton for the Southern Pacific Lines. Key roadways also bordered the depot, including Mission Boulevard/ U.S. 60— the main truck highway between San Diego, Riverside and Los Angeles— to the south and, paralleling it, three miles to the north, U.S. 99—the Ocean-to-Ocean Highway known locally at the time as the Valley Boulevard. Charged with supplying a Desert Training Force of 67,000 troops with A rations on a daily basis, the Mira Loma Depot was considered “ground zero” for warehouse operations in the Inland region.  It vastly outsized the buildings at Camp Ono—all of which could be placed in one of several warehouses that were constructed at the new site.  In total, Mira Loma Depot constituted 2,162,706 square feet of warehouse and office space[32] and in January 1944 employed 2,646 civilian personnel.[33]

Mira Loma Quarter Master Depot hand drawn map of warehouses and buildings.  Record Group: 92 Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General Agency or Division: Mira Loma Quartermaster Depot Mira Loma, CA Series: Historical Diaries, Journals and Reports 1942-1954. Folder Title: The Storage Division M.L.Q.M.D.  A Historical Study [2/2] Box 9, National Archives at Riverside.

U.S. officials consistently praised the labor of white military and civilian personnel in supplying goods to Camp Manzanar, yet overlooked the ten percent of Mira Loma’s labor force made up of African American and Mexican workers.  Historian James Bennett’s racially fraught views about the depot workforce likely also reflected those of his superiors. Bennett, for example, mused about the forbearance of white managers and workers and viewed their contributions to Mira Loma as both singular and preferable to that of Black and brown labor:

“The officers and the labor foremen, from the very beginning of the Depot, have tried to treat their darker skinned laborers with scrupulous fairness. In fact, there have been an appreciable number of cases of slight unfairness to their white [emphasis in original] laborers, in disputes between white and colored, stemming from this determined bending over backwards attitude.

The white laborers, in fact, have made no objection to working with the colored races, and the work has been performed without resultant friction. In this willingness of the whites, the Mira Loma Depot is, possibly, unique.

The problem posed by the Mexicans is not so much that of racial pride—although that occasionally enters. It is inherent in their whole philosophy of life. They work—hard—make a little money. Then they slack, are absent without cause or actually resign. Their wants are few, and they deplore the American itch to get ahead and keep on working after one’s pocket is full of dollars. And this dolce far niente [emphasis in original] attitude is also held to a somewhat lesser degree by the Negroes. Consequently, from Mira Loma’s point of view, the darker races are none too dependable.”[34]

Overall, white civilians and military personnel in Southern California supply depots territorialized race and racialized labor through a variety of logistical operations that both expanded the social and spatial mobility of whites and restricted the movement of non-white groups. In the Inland Empire of the 1940s, logistics in particular aimed to efficiently manage the movement of incarcerated Japanese Americans, who were dispossessed of their property and herded into a high desert concentration camp at Manzanar.

“Those Were the Three Best Years of My Life:” Italian POWs and White Freedom

In contrast to the ordeal of Japanese Americans in California, Italian Prisoners of War brought to the United States faced distinctly different treatment at the hands of the Army. With Italy’s formal surrender to the Allies in September 1943, General Eisenhower, then Commander in Chief of Allied Forces in the Mediterranean, and Italy’s new, provisional leader Marshall Pietro Badoglio reached an agreement of cooperation. In December 1943, Badoglio issued a statement requesting all Italian prisoners of war held in the United States to assist the Allies in every possible way, excepting in actual combat.

A few weeks later, in January 1944, the War Department’s chief of the Army Special Forces put Badoglio’s call into action by creating Italian Service Units, or ISUs. Over the next several months, Italian POWs brought to and detained in the United States voluntarily enlisted in ISUs, which were structured almost the same as equivalent American units and whose members were paid about twenty-four dollars per month, the same as American GIs. In sharp contrast to the plight of Japanese Americans, ISUs had considerable social and spatial freedoms and the acceptance of local communities in which they labored.[35] Between 1944-46, 499 former Italian POWs turned ISUs were detained in inland Southern California. These soldiers were initially brought to Norfolk, Virginia, and then shipped by train to spend a summer picking cotton in the blazing fields of Florence, Arizona. As elsewhere in the United States, the war had resulted in agricultural labor shortages that were filled by foreign worker primarily through the Bracero Program.[36]

In January of 1944, as part of a deal brokered between the Southern California Farmers’ Association and the U.S. Army, 499 Italian soldiers signed up to go to the Italian American community of Guasti, near what is now Rancho Cucamonga in San Bernardino County. The Farmers Association agreed to house, feed, and compensate the soldiers in exchange for their pruning vineyards and working the fields of the Inland Empire. The Army agreed to provide a few military guards to ensure minimal safety. Again, the treatment of Italian POWs compared with the internment of Japanese Americans highlights the territorialization of race and labor in the Inland region. Of the arrival of Italian prisoners in Guasti, one media account notes:

“Handshakes and kisses were exchanged and inquiries made about relatives back in Italy… By the time the last of the prisoners was off the train and onto the waiting buses the entire group had begun singing Italian folk songs…Out in the fields the prisoners worked side by side with the farmers, many of them Italian, and their families. At noon meals were served by the women. Often there was a bottle of wine passed around.

There was never a shortage of food. Many of the grateful farmers, feeling 80 cents a day was not enough, donated chickens, eggs, vegetables, cheese and the like.”[37]

Italian Service Units sent to Camp Ono received similarly favorable treatment as recounted by a former unit member:

“The POW’s [sic] had many liberties regarding entertainment. In fact, on many weekends they were driven into San Bernardino to see a movie or to have dinner with their girlfriends’ families!

…on Sundays the prisoners were allowed to take walks into the surrounding vineyards, as this was a fond reminder of their homeland. They would casually walk out for hours at a time with no military escorts. Their only identification was a green arm band that each wore with “ITALY” spelled out in white letters.”[38]

Certainly, all 850 Italian Service Units put to work at the Mira Loma Quarter Master Repair Sub Depot on the outskirts of San Bernardino and the Main Quarter Master Depot in Mira Loma were considered a boon by Army officials faced with a “man-power shortage of major proportions.” The Italian units primarily repaired tents, machinery and appliances and were remarked upon by the Depot historian—in contrast to his less savory appraisal of Mexican and Black workers—for their productivity and focus:

“…For the month of January 1945, the Italians contributed 27,000 man-days. Their lost time record is remarkable- less than 1%- and this includes absence due to illness as well as confinement for disciplinary purposes.” [39]

Moreover, and in contrast to Japanese American internees’ experiences, Italian Service Units were generally afforded dignified and humanitarian treatment. They were taught by San Bernardino Junior College teachers of “university-caliber,” offered classes in English, job training, and military functions and operations, and given time for leisure and the upkeep of their spirits. Per depot historian, James Bennett:

In order to keep the moral of the Italians at the present high standard, they have been encouraged to utilize their dramatic talents in a series of plays which members of the Battalion write, direct and perform during off duty hours…

…the Italians are permitted a limited amount of off-duty athletics. Among their activities in this category they have developed an excellent soccer team. Games are scheduled for each Sunday with soccer teams in this area. To date, the Italians have won the major number of their contests.[40]

The Final Years: Weapons and Waste

After WWII, the Mira Loma Quarter Master Depot had a larger classification operation receiving shipments of material from overseas and the deactivation of military installations in the southwest. In addition, in 1947 and 1948, Mira Loma became a Distribution Center of American Graves Registration, participating in the return of remains program. By 1955, as Army operations declined, the Mira Loma Depot was transferred to the Department of the Air Force and became a storing and dismantling ground for 83 retired Titan 1 and Atlas missiles. About 33 of these relics were distributed to museums, parks and schools as static displays while the remaining 50 were scrapped on site in Mira Loma in 1966.[41] Unsurprisingly, such activities would lead to perchlorate contamination of the site. In 1966, approximately 2/3 of the land was sold to a private entity, the Mira Loma Space Center, which re-developed the site as an industrial and commercial office park, embodying the warehouse landscapes so characteristic of the Inland Empire of today.

Titan-I ICBM SM vehicles being destroyed at Mira Loma AFS for the SALT-1 Treaty Date: 2011-11-08. Credit: Leebrandoncremer License: http://www.wikiwand.com/en/HGM-25A_Titan_I
Titan-I ICBM SM vehicles being destroyed at Mira Loma AFS for the SALT-1 Treaty Date: 2011-11-08. Credit: Leebrandoncremer License: http://www.wikiwand.com/en/HGM-25A_Titan_I

The U.S. Army’s warehousing and transportation operations in Southern California during World War II laid the groundwork for cost-effective practices and time-saving measures that have new incarnations in the consumer warehouses of today.  Japanese Americans imprisoned at Camp Manzanar served a critical “proving ground” for such logistical operations in one iteration, and U.S. troops stationed in the desert were another. Finally, the contamination of the Depot’s original site, by perchlorate from dismantled weapons of war, echoes contamination of another kind—that of airborne, fine particulate matter emitted by diesel trucks in the Inland Empire’s contemporary logistics industry.

NOTES


[1] IMRAN GHORI, “Judge Sides with Moreno Valley in Challenge against World Logistics Center,” Press Enterprise, accessed March 13, 2017, http://www.pe.com/articles/environmental-810973-city-state.html.

[2] Martha Matsuoka et al., “Global Trade Impacts: Addressing the Health, Social and Environmental Consequences of Moving International Freight through Our Communities” (Occidental College and University of Southern California, March 2011), 30, http://departments.oxy.edu/uepi/publications/GlobalTrade.pdf.

[3] John Froines, “Exposure to Railyard Emissions in Adjacent Communities.”

[4] GHORI, “Judge Sides with Moreno Valley in Challenge against World Logistics Center.”

[5] Sheheryar Kaoosji and Penny Newman, “World Logistics Center Bad for Air, Won’t Bring High-Quality Jobs: Guest Commentary,” accessed March 13, 2017, http://www.dailybulletin.com/article/LH/20170106/LOCAL1/170109693; “State of Work in the Inland Empire,” Center for Social Innovation, accessed January 16, 2020, https://socialinnovation.ucr.edu/state-work-inland-empire.

[6] Daniel Flaming and Patrick Burns, “Too Big to Govern: Public Balance Sheet for the World’s Largest Store,” Economic Roundtable (Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, November 26, 2019), 25, https://economicrt.org/publication/too-big-to-govern/.

[7] “Amazon Says It Invested $4.7 Billion in the Inland Empire,” Daily Bulletin (blog), April 27, 2018, http://www.dailybulletin.com/amazon-says-it-invested-4-7-billion-in-the-inland-empire.

[8] Juan De Lara, Inland Shift: Race, Space, and Capital in Southern California (Univ of California Press, 2018).

[9] Penny Newman, “Inland Ports of Southern California: Warehouses, Distribution Centers, Intermodal Facilities” (Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, June 28, 2012); Jeremy O’Kelley, “South Coast Air Quality Management District Monitoring and Analysis: Mira Loma PM10 Monitoring,” March 2001.

[10] South Coast Air Quality Management District, “Multiple Air Toxics Exposure Study (MATES-II),” March 2000, http://www.aqmd.gov/matesiidf/es.pdf.

[11] Rhonda Spencer-Hwang et al., “Experiences of a Rail Yard Community: Life Is Hard,” Journal of Environmental Health 77, no. 2 (September 2014): 8–17; Hector Castaneda et al., “Health Risk Assessment for the BNSF San Bernardino Railyard,” n.d., 124.

[12] “Key Findings | State of the Air,” American Lung Association, accessed January 16, 2020, https://www.lung.org/our-initiatives/healthy-air/sota/key-findings/.

[13] Laura Hines, “Moreno Valley: Residents Fear Being Surrounded by Warehouse Complex,” The Press Enterprise, May 6, 2012.

[14] Flaming and Burns, “Too Big to Govern: Public Balance Sheet for the World’s Largest Store”; “State of Work in the Inland Empire.”

[15] Plaintiffs on the lawsuit include the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Coalition for Clean Air, and the San Bernardino Valley Audobon Society.

[16] Beau Yarbrough, “$47 Million Settlement Reached in World Logistics Center Lawsuit,” Press Enterprise, April 29, 2021, https://www.pe.com/2021/04/29/47-million-settlement-reached-in-world-logistics-center-lawsuit/.

[17] “When Your House Is Surrounded by Massive Warehouses,” Los Angeles Times, October 27, 2019, https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2019-10-27/fontana-california-warehouses-inland-empire-pollution; “Environmental Group Sues San Bernardino County, Developer over Warehouse Project in Bloomington,” San Bernardino Sun (blog), October 31, 2018, https://www.sbsun.com/environmental-group-sues-san-bernardino-county-developer-over-warehouse-project-in-bloomington; “Developers Sharing Environmental Findings for Warehouse Proposal in Upland,” Daily Bulletin (blog), January 4, 2020, https://www.dailybulletin.com/developers-sharing-environmental-findings-for-warehouse-proposal-in-upland; Steve Scauzillo, “Judge Requires Environmental Review for Proposed Upland Warehouse Rumored for Amazon,” Daily Bulletin, July 28, 2021, https://www.dailybulletin.com/2021/07/27/judge-requires-environmental-review-for-proposed-upland-warehouse-rumored-for-amazon.

[18] James W. Bennett, “Part A; Early Days” (Mira Loma Quartermaster Depot: Office of the Quartermaster General, July 27, 1943), Record Group 92, Box 7, Folder 1, National Archives at Riverside.

[19] James W. Bennett, “Supplying Forty Thousand Japanese Aliens,” May 25, 1943, Record Group 92, Box 7, National Archives at Riverside.

[20] Bennett’s position represented a conscious decision by the US Army to hire military historians to document their institution’s efforts to address technical and administrative problems in order to serve as a resource for future personnel and situations.  The Army was mindful about recording lessons learned about goods movement during World War II and how these could benefit operations during peacetime as well.  Reflecting on the role of embedded historian’s, the Army noted: “This will provide a significant part of the education and orientation of future officers.  They will know what worked well and what worked badly during this war.  More than that, they will know why. Those officers, in the future must build an enormous supply system from a peace-time basis, will have an appreciable advantage over the men who were called upon to develop the administrative machine during the present conflict.  Obviously, industrial and social conditions will have changed. Officers, however, will know what will work well under a given set of circumstances, and many of these circumstances will be repeated.” Bennett.

[21] Bennett.

[22] Bennett.

[23] Bennett.

[24] Carey McWilliams, “Moving the West-Coast Japanese,” Harper’s Magazine 185 (September 1942): 359–69. While McWilliams admired the logistical execution of the relocation operation in 1942, he also later praised the loyalty of Japanese Americans and opined on the “democratic possibilities” of the relocation program. Carey McWilliams, What about Our Japanese-Americans?, Public Affairs Pamphlets, 91 ([New York]: [Public Affairs Committee, Inc.], 1944).

[25] Bennett, “Supplying Forty Thousand Japanese Aliens”; James W. Bennett, “Part B: The Sons of Dai Nippon Present a Problem” (Mira Loma Quartermaster Depot, July 27, 1943), Record Group 92, Box 7, Folder 1, National Archives at Riverside.

[26] Bennett, “Supplying Forty Thousand Japanese Aliens.”

[27] James W. Bennett, “Transcript of Telephone Communication between Colonel Stafford and Major B.P. Spry, Ninth Service Command, Fort Douglas, Utah.,” March 19, 1942, Record Group 92, Box 7, Folder 1, National Archives at Riverside.

[28] Bennett, “Part B: The Sons of Dai Nippon Present a Problem.”

[29] James W. Bennett, “Transcript of Telephone Conversation between Captain Emery D.K. Jackson at the San Bernardino Depot and Colonel E.A. Evans, G-4 Office, the Presidio of San Francisco.,” April 24, 1942, Record Group 92, Box 7, Folder 1, National Archives at Riverside.

[30] James W. Bennett, “Transcript of Telephone Conversation,” October 30, 1942, Record Group 92, Box 7, Folder 1, National Archives at Riverside.(82-83) (Oct. 31, 1942 phone conversation)

[31] James W. Bennett, “Summary of Phone Conversation between Colonel Stafford and Colonel Webster.,” October 31, 1942, Record Group 92, Box 7, Folder 1, National Archives at Riverside.

[32] The new Depot comprised several large warehouses, an administration building, a training building, infirmary, garage, officer’s quarters, sewage disposal plant, engine house, oil pump house, motor repair shop, paint shop, post restaurant, oil storage building, water storage building, and various sheds. James W. Bennett, “Part Three: An Engineering Feat” (Mira Loma Quartermaster Depot, August 28, 1943), Record Group 92, Box 7, Folder 1, National Archives at Riverside.

[33] By continuing improvement of methods, by June in 1945, the personnel was at 1,691 although the freight tonnage handled at this time was increased 40% over that handled in 1944. “History (of Mira Loma Depot),” n.d., Record Group 92, Box 7, Folder: Depot History 1950-51-52, National Archives at Riverside.

[34] James W. Bennett, “Labor at the Mira Loma Depot (an Interim Report), Part A: History and Problems” (Mira Loma Quartermaster Depot, n.d.), Record Group 92, Box 7, Folder: 314.7 Labor at the Mira Loma Depot (An Interim Report) by the Depot Historian, National Archives at Riverside.

[35] Jack Hamann, On American Soil: How Justice Became a Casualty of World War II, 1st pbk. ed (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2007).

[36] Nicholas, R. Cataldo, “City of San Bernardino – POW’s in San Bernardino,” City of San Bernardino, California, accessed March 18, 2018, http://www.ci.san-bernardino.ca.us/about/history/pows_in_san_bernardino.asp.

[37] T.A. Sunderland, “From Italian POWs to Citizens of the United States,” Los Angeles Times, December 13, 1981, sec. VIEW, http://www.ci.san-bernardino.ca.us/about/history/camp_ono_story___la_times.asp.

[38] Nicholas, R. Cataldo, “City of San Bernardino – POW’s in San Bernardino.”

[39] James W. Bennett, “Report on Italian Service Units” (Mira Loma Quartermaster Depot, 1945), Record Group 92, Box 7, Folder: Historical Items 1945, National Archives at Riverside.

[40] Bennett.

[41] “Mira Loma Quartermaster Depot (Mira Loma Air Force Station, Prisoner of War Camp),” accessed January 20, 2020, http://www.militarymuseum.org/MiraLomaQMD.html.

Dr. Brinda Sarathy joined the University of Washington Bothell as professor and dean of the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences in July 2021. Sarathy’s scholarly expertise includes U.S. environmental policy, California water politics, natural resource management, and environmental justice. Her books include Partnerships for Empowerment: Participatory Research for Community-Based Natural Resource Management (2008), Pineros: Latino Labour and the Changing Face of Forestry in the Pacific Northwest (2012), and Inevitably Toxic: Historic Cases of Contamination, Exposure and Expertise (2018). Her articles have appeared in a number of peer-reviewed venues including the Journal of Forestry, Society and Natural Resources, Policy Sciences, Race Gender & Class, and Local Environment. Sarathy’s current research examines the environmental history of the first Superfund site in California, the Stringfellow Acid Pits.

Reviews

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

Lynell George

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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