With “Postcards,” creative non-fiction stories grounded in place, we aspire to create a new cartography of California. For us, literature and language are as much about marking and representing space, as they are about storytelling.
March 12, 2006. My second big punk show. The Adicts at the Showcase Theatre in Corona, California. Way the fuck away from my home in La Puente.
I was supposed to see them a week prior, not too far away at the British Invasion festival at the Orange Pavilion in San Bernardino. The show got shut down after I had been there for two or three bands. A skinhead demonstration had led to a stabbing, tear gas, looting, and riot police. I was fourteen.
My dad had been nearby listening to KFWB in his old Datsun, heard about what was going on, and came back and swooped me up. I was extremely disappointed to have missed the Adicts, essentially the only band I came to see, until it was announced that they were playing another show a week later, for half the price. I took a flier with me to school. The older, hippie punks I knew, who had claimed to smash a cop’s windshield that night said, “Oh, it’s at Showcase.” They didn’t seem too surprised, and smiled slightly.
At what? At where? I had only heard of punk shows happening in backyards in the San Gabriel Valley, clubs in Hollywood, and this lame coffee shop in Azusa called Smart City Grinds where Cheap Sex played once. The bell rang and I headed to class while the hippie punks returned to their hacky sack game.
It seemed like all of a sudden the Inland Empire was the place to be, before I even knew of it’s reputation. In my mind, that’s where Mexican and white punks gathered in mass numbers, stood together against fascists, smashed fast food restaurants, and where the Adicts played whenever you wanted to see them.
I pleaded with my father to take me again. This time, he wasn’t just dropping me off. Two tickets it was, and a ride down two freeways I’d never heard of.
We drove out from La Puente on the 91 and the 71 on a school night. My dad excitedly reminisced about visiting his aunt in Corona in the early 60s, riding mini-bikes in empty fields, and eating hamburgers at Hi Spot. It sounded like some redneck shit to me.
We got off on Main Street and arrived to what seemed to me like flat-in-the-middle of fucking nowhere. A Del Taco to our left, a 76 Station to the right. In spite of some charming old buildings and a curving line of trees, the place felt somewhat sad. It was getting dark in downtown Corona.
We went another block or two, past the city library, and then I turned my head to see hundreds of kids surrounding a frumpy brick building next to the 99 Cent Store. It was like they had taken it over.
We parked beside some girls hanging out in a blanketed truck camper, slyly drinking forties. My old man seemed more accustomed to this kind of scene than I was (after all, he saw the Doors in the 70s). As we walked up to the building, he snapped a picture of the building’s cheesy marquee: The Showcase Theatre.
The parking lot was alive with girls and boys with blue and pink hair, spiderweb tattoos, painted leather, and cheetah print everything. They screamed at each other, played grab-ass, while the older ones smoked cigarettes. There were also a few middle aged people there too, just as punk as the rest.
This Corona was redneck shit indeed, and my sheltered Mexican-mom-having adolescent self was about to get his first taste of it. I met a 19 or 20-ish year-old guy who’s name I don’t remember. He had the tallest spiked hair I’d ever seen and the most thrashed, moldy Cramps shirt. It gave those hippies at school a run for their money. He said he lived around the corner. I asked if he came to all the punk shows. I had just become aware of hardcore, metal, and “scene kid” music and eyed it with distrust. He said he came to the Showcase Theater every night, no matter who played, just to fuck around. He made eye contact with the tallest, scariest bouncer and called “Waddup Big Ron?!” Big Ron’s scowl turned into a huge grin.
At seven o’clock sharp, the bouncers snapped into authoritarian mode and shouted us into lines. Everyone mostly complied. When I got to the box office window, ringed with stickers and faded graffiti, a middle-aged blonde woman with Coke bottle glasses and a green cardigan asked me, “Tickets or Will Call?” Not understanding the question, I blinked at her. She sternly repeated herself and then gave a look to a Mexican goodfella in skate clothes standing by the door. He told me to empty my pockets, took my ticket, and sent me inside. He was the club’s talent booker and stage hand, Joe Case.
I felt like Bilbo Baggins entering the back door of the Lonely Mountain under moonlight. There was a dark hallway covered in posters for upcoming shows: UK Subs, The Meteors, Avengers. It was probably only 12 or 15 feet long, but it’s burned into my memory like the slow pan-up at the beginning of a movie that takes place in a Chuck E. Cheese for punks.
Traffic lights and an old bicycle hung from the ceiling. There was a small, round stage, no more than three and a half feet high, flanked by huge speakers, and a little cage next to it for the sound guy. The wooden dance floor in front of it was soaked in years of sweat, and framed by a squared, corral-like rail that separated the pit from the loading ramp, the entrance, and the snack bar with its Christmas lights. The old crust punk tíos and lifers leaned up on the rail with slushies and popcorn while their young ones ran up and down the staircase to check out t-shirts and CDs on the balcony. Underneath the balcony was the chill out – or make out – area. Behind the snack bar, past the world’s loveliest bathroom, was a red naugahyde couch, arcade machines, and a water fountain that never worked.
The show started quickly. My pop and I went up the balcony to watch the opener, the Giggaloops. They were locals, mostly girls, four or five years older than me, and they were playing their last show ever. First song and the kids were already pitting and singing along. I couldn’t believe a band this young had a following and could open for legends like the Adicts. I think one of their moms might have worked in the snack bar. I was enamored with their lead singer’s pin-up style and cool vintage microphone. They thanked Showcase numerous times – that’s what everyone called it, Showcase – and when I got their free CDR later, it had live tracks recorded at the Showcase that actually sounded better than their demo.
The Adicts as I would find out, played the Showcase many times a year. It was where they had made their return from hiatus in 2002, before they moved to California. They’d released several records with a label co-founded by the venue’s owner, Ezzat Soliman. These British legends made Corona their home base, and were huge in So Cal. The tight confines of the club (capacity of 450, I think), gave the perfect conditions for the band to explode confetti and throw out beach balls to a swaying crowd of teenage heathens.
After that first show, I kept making the trip out to Corona any chance I got over the next two years, meeting new friends, eating the pizza next door, and pissing off the 99 Cent Store staff. I saw more and more that the Showcase had its own scene of artists who were making (or trying to make) their careers in music largely off the opportunities that this little place and it’s community afforded. Not only was it the spot to see Vice Squad or TSOL, but there were hordes of young people honing their chops on locals-only bills that were generously provided by Joe Case and Ezzat Soliman.
The stereotypical skeezy Inland Empire element was there. I remember a middle-aged, leather-faced crew called the Runt Punx. They had names like Spit and Weasel, and dressed sorta like GI’s or Gestapo. One of them slapped my best friend Garrett in the titty as we crossed paths in the doorway. Boy was he pissed. The Corona City Bootboys were a skinhead group that came out and busted up a D.I. show. I once saw a methed out guy who looked like Matthew Lillard push a revolver in a fresh cut baby skin’s face and ask him if he wanted to “play with bullets” while the kid pleaded, “I’m not a fuckin’ nazi man, please don’t shoot me, I’m not a nazi man!” This happened about a block south of the club. My sister and I watched with bewilderment from the bushes.
But I met a lot of artists and intellectual types there too: a family with a record label whose kids ran food drives and became train hoppers. A guy from Temecula who printed Patti Smith and other poets on his shirts. All the photographers. Of course, there were all the politically-minded bands and fans spreading messages about police, war, and animal rights. And just a lot of friendly people who loved to dance and didn’t mind getting crashed into.
I’m not totally sure where everyone came out from, and how many people were Corona locals. Many came from Riverside, where the Showcase’s predecessor, Spanky’s, resided in the late 80s. Garrett came out from Rancho Cucamonga. Recently I learned that my cousins, who had moved from Alhambra to Ontario to Mira Loma, had gone to Showcase with their aunt and gotten drunk for the first time in the parking lot. All the while, the IE felt like such a nebulous region to me.
In 2008, the Showcase shut down pretty quickly. I didn’t know what exactly happened – a lot of pressure from Corona City Council apparently – but I had gotten my taste of what punk rock was supposed to be, and spent many more nights in search of it in backyards in the SGV, galleries in Echo Park, and bars in Orange County.
As I ventured further into rock scenes enabled by the bull economy and gentrification of the Obama years, the happy times I spent in the circle pit at the Showcase didn’t feel quite as hip. I drank in some of the high brow, anti-hick, and apolitical sentiments that swirled around some of the more affluent garage rock and art punk shows. Showcase wasn’t a place I brought up anymore, and I’m ashamed to say I even cringed a time or two when my father mentioned it years after.
More recently, I just about completely lost interest in the bulk of what goes on in the LA rock scene, as even the bands who are supposed to be super punk mostly just play in clubs with sideways fences that seem to have been built to serve as backdrops in commercials. Everyone’s gotta make a buck. It’s not to say something isn’t happening somewhere that means something to someone though. In fact, geographically, I started to notice something funny.
Maybe it was just nostalgia that caught my peripheral vision, but I started noticing that old school punk, with all of its trappings, still exists in the boonies like Corona. Marla Ríos-Hernández’s dissertation on punk made the papers. A gigantic fair for punk street vendors was happening yearly in Upland, until Covid. And Alta Loma’s Dr. Strange Records is still going strong 22 years later. I hadn’t seen an honest-to-god punk family walking the street in the SGV in ages, until I went to see Logan Colby’s 2019 documentary “If These Walls Could Sing” at the Concert Lounge in Riverside. It was a rowdy and emotional evening. The audience cheered younger versions of themselves jumping off the stage, as the Soliman family sat tearing up in the back row.
Now, 12 years since the Showcase shut down, the Inland Empire has taken on a clearer identity in my head. It’s a place without pretense, where people do what they have to to survive and thrive. The IE, and Corona, are punk.
Chris Greenspon is a radio journalist from La Puente, California, and the host of the public affairs podcast SGV Weekly. His work has been heard on KPCC, KCRW, Latino USA, and Marketplace. Listen to a radio version of this story here.
There is a growing concern with the relationship between private philanthropy and nonprofit regional organizing and development efforts to address economic inequality and racial injustice. As shown in the groundbreaking book The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Nonprofit Industrial Complex (INCITE! 2007) and a growing body of ethnographic and historical research, private philanthropy has influenced patterns of nonprofit professionalization and introduced individualistic and racialized market logics that limit and contain grassroots efforts to address structural inequality. Unlike the also important journalistic and philosophical texts on the power of philanthropy that tend towards broad claims about foundations and the wealthy elite, this body of empirical research grounds philanthropy in the power-laden relationships between funders, transnational actors, nonprofit institutions and staff, and local communities – echoing long standing concerns of nonprofit practitioners and movement leaders.
Recently, development and philanthropy scholars critique the “philanthrocapitalist” turn where charitable institutions seek new profits through private-sector investments in major social policy arenas including global health, agriculture, education, workforce development, and disaster relief that create new markets of wealth production that in turn produce or maintain inequality. A striking example of the philanthrocapitalist model provides a challenge to recent claims that philanthropic efforts in post-Katrina New Orleans represent a new model for social justice giving. Vincanne Adams’ book Markets of Sorrow and John Arena’s book Driven from New Orleans provide detailed accounts of how, instead of delivering justice to displaced residents, philanthropic partnerships in post-Katrina New Orleans paved the way for private housing development and new debt structures that generated profit for private industry while making it extremely difficult for displaced homeowners and residents to stay or return.
These trends are not new. Just as the Ford Foundation was heralded as a civil rights advocate in the 1960s, it was later critiqued for watering down the Black Power movement and the more radical wings of the United States War on Poverty community action programs. In co-author Erica Kohl-Arenas’ study of funder investments in the California Farmworker Movement, the Field Foundation and the Rosenberg Foundation were valuable allies in the early days of the movement but were unwilling to fund union organizing, strikes, boycotts, or legal representation of farmworkers when the movement heated up in the fields of California’s Central Valley in the late 1960s. Today, we see widespread congratulations for donors and nationally-scaled nonprofit organizations that support movements against the exploitation of poor people, women, immigrants, and communities of color. While these resources and professional forms of community organizing are desperately needed, do all strategies of nonprofit and philanthropic organizing matter equally? We propose that it is necessary, especially during times of crisis, to investigate how well-funded nonprofit organizing campaigns intersect with, sometimes support and catalyze, and yet sometimes overshadow or contain local struggles.
The case study featured in this essay shows how private and publicly funded domestic worker organizing projects that aim to empower women can weaken and redirect efforts away from building a broad-based worker and immigrant-owned movement and towards the needs of market owners. However, as we will also see in the featured case, the power of privately funded professionalized nonprofit organizing is not always represented in clear-cut capitalist agendas. Instead, professionals negotiate and adapt program strategies to align with the interests of partners with power and resources, in the end making poor people responsible for alleviating their own suffering while excluding questions of how structural inequality is produced and maintained.
The study takes on the difficult task of interrogating the risks involved in professionally organizing some of the most marginalized people in this country –undocumented immigrant women who clean homes for a living. While we believe that this organizing is urgently needed, we also found that incentivized volunteerism, required participation in national domestic worker efforts, and privately-funded media campaigns can run counter to building a strong movement of, by, and for immigrant women. Strategies to counter political, economic, and racial oppression are of utmost importance today. It is also important to pay attention to how organizing strategies that aim to also align with the interests of employers in rapidly gentrifying regions, may contain contradictions that risk compromising movements for social, economic, racial, gender, and political justice over the long haul. Central to these contradictions is the dilemma endemic to community organizing in the advanced nonprofit sector where movements that claim to embrace localized grassroots organizing, are often organized around “upward accountability” to professional staff, funding structures, and regional employers – not to the communities they aim to empower and mobilize. This professionalized approach to organizing is not inherently bad. However, institutional arrangements and strategies are often disconnected from the daily struggles, critical analyses, and strategic engagement of those most impacted in the issues a movement seeks to address.
Based on the findings of co-author Erika Grajeda’s ethnographic research at an immigrant worker center in San Francisco, California, we make three specific claims about the problems presented by privately funded, nationally connected, nonprofit institutional worker organizing. First, we found that asking one of the most precarious workforces, predominantly undocumented immigrant women who clean homes, to participate in volunteer organizational maintenance activities replicates an increasingly common form of unpaid labor required of women who seek support through poverty alleviation programs throughout the global South. In other words, economic opportunities extended to immigrant household workers were contingent upon unpaid nonprofit organizational care, duty, and labor. A second finding discussed in this paper involves the ways in which women participants themselves become a strategic site of intervention rather than the structural arrangements of domestic labor within the regional and national economy. Similar to transnational poverty eradication programs targeting girls/women, women workers are engaged as a malleable economic resource and investment. Finally, through public communications campaigns associated with the worker center’s funded programming, we found that by privileging employer audiences, largely imagined as middle-class Bay Area residents and tech workers, domestic workers emerged as selfless and industrious individuals while workplace challenges and regional structures of inequality experienced by domestic workers were made invisible.
In the following pages, we show how specifically gendered program frameworks, narrative tropes, and forms of nonprofit governance hold undocumented immigrant women responsible for solving problems produced by broader structures of inequality. Through privately-funded programmatic logics, they are at once told to evaluate their own self-worth based on volunteer labor and caring, and that worker organizing is about incentives, rewards, and communication campaigns alongside agreeable regional employers. We first provide a historical and geographic context for worker center organizing in the San Francisco Bay Area. The following sections share our findings around the three central themes of gendered and incentivized participation in nonprofit worker organizing, the project of making women responsible for their own suffering, and finally the politics of “win-win” public media narratives that aim to both empower women workers and make employers feel comfortable and charitable hiring immigrant domestic workers. We conclude by returning to the complicated question of the purpose and risks associated with critiquing one or the most important organizing agendas within a historical context of political oppression and urgency in the U.S.
The Worker Power Center
Scholars have long documented how the adversities faced by undocumented immigrants vary considerably across geographic regions in the U.S. California, emerging in recent years as a champion of “immigrant rights,” has supported a host of policies intended to help undocumented immigrants. Under threat of possible retaliation by the Trump administration, then Governor Jerry Brown signed landmark sanctuary state legislation vowing to protect “hardworking families” while continuing to target “dangerous criminals.” Within the state, cities such as San Francisco have upheld longstanding sanctuary policies or related law enforcement orders. Considered “as good as it gets” for undocumented immigrants, the San Francisco Bay Area is lauded as a racially heterogeneous and progressive setting that is accommodating and charitable to noncitizens. This façade of tolerance and inclusivity, however, overstates the city’s ability to provide refuge and safety to undocumented populations, particularly in the post-9/11 era with the ascendancy of what some refer to as the Homeland Security State. Importantly today, it also overshadows the Silicon Valley tech boom-induced housing and affordability crisis that has led to a rapid increase in homelessness and flight of working-class Black and Latino residents from the city.
Alongside these trends, a migrant civil society has flourished to deal with the crisis of social reproduction confronting low-wage, immigrant workers in the Bay Area. Worker centers have been at the forefront, seeking to counter the process of labor subordination by helping immigrant workers navigate the landscape of substandard work. As “informal unions,” these mediating organizations are tasked with supporting immigrant workers through a combination of advocacy, organizing, and service provision. Through their efforts to contest informal work practices, they not only aim to alter the terms of labor relations, but also create additional income-generating activities as alternatives to low-wage jobs. Worker centers are thus considered important agents for economic equity. Contributing to a twenty-first century pro-labor moral economy which draws attention to the plight of low-wage immigrant workers, the nonprofit worker center model has emerged as a promising development that is reenergizing labor and immigrant social movements in the U.S.
The Worker Power Center (WPC) is a city-sponsored program that focuses on strengthening the individual well-being and collective power of low-wage immigrant workers in San Francisco. Previously part of La Raza Centro Legal, a community-based legal organization, the WPC currently falls under the fiscal sponsorship of Dolores Street Community Services, a nonprofit that was created in the 1980s to provide shelter and sanctuary to Central American refugees. With their institutional support, the WPC oversees two worker collectives, the Day Labor Program (DLP) and the Women’s Collective (WC). The DLP, which originated in the early 1990s as an outgrowth of a burgeoning immigrant rights movement across California, extended job development and social services to mostly undocumented and homeless men. The program is currently located in the historically Latino neighborhood of the Mission, near a corridor where immigrant workers have long gathered to solicit employment. The worker center, in a display of converging interests of local authorities, neighborhood groups, and migrant justice activists over the growth of informal hiring sites and immigrant dispossession, emerged as a ‘win-win’ solution for the problems posed by informal day labor markets amidst rapid gentrification. Aiming to provide “support, structure, and resources” to both day laborers and their employers, it hoped to ensure a steady supply of “low cost, seasonal, [and] temporary” labor while simultaneously preserving the “dignity” of workers. Today, the worker center model is heralded as the best possible solution to the “crisis” facing many local governments over the growth of informal labor markets. 
In the early 2000s, the WPC created the “feminist wing” of the organization, the Women’s Collective (WC), to provide immigrant women laboring in household industries with an independent organizing space. As a standalone program with its own membership structure and decision-making procedures, the WC currently represents more than a third of the WPC membership base. In addition to extending job opportunities to a mostly Latin American, immigrant and female workforce, the WC offers members opportunities “to learn, work and participate” in local and national social movements. By providing Latina migrants with more than just “dignified employment,” the WC is a pioneer among worker centers which have traditionally been male-dominated spaces catering to industries such as construction. Today, the WC is considered an incubator for immigrant household workers to hone their leadership and entrepreneurial skills, self-esteem, and political consciousness.
As founding members and leaders in the worker center movement that includes umbrella organizations such as the National Day Labor Organizing Network (NDLON) and the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), both programs share a social justice orientation intended to incite collective mobilization. At the organizational level, however, a more disjointed picture unfolds as day laborers and domestic workers, through their respective programs, are treated as two distinct populations endowed with varying levels of political agency and potential. As we will illustrate in greater detail below, day laborers and domestic workers are incorporated into the organization through different membership and participation requirements. These differences, we argue, reflect and reinforce distinct funding imperatives, political agendas, and gendered expectations. We find, for instance, that while the WC is concerned with promoting immigrant women’s civic engagement and leadership, encouraging greater visibility in migrant justice movements, the DLP prioritizes men’s labor market integration and “community embeddedness.” DLP members are encouraged to await work indoors, venturing out collectively mostly to participate in community cleanup and volunteering efforts aimed at making a positive impression on neighboring communities. Women, however, take on a more visible and political role due to their distinct participation requirements. This means that while the worker center aims to function as an “organizing hub” for WC members, inciting personal transformation and empowerment, it often serves as a day shelter for immigrant men looking to secure work through the DLP.
Funding streams for the WC and DLP also differ. The DLP receives roughly $250,000 per fiscal year from public grants offered by the City and County of San Francisco’s Office of Civic Engagement & Immigrant Affairs (OCEIA). According to the 2014 OCEIA’s Request for Proposal, the purpose of such grants is to provide “structure, job training, and support” to the informal day labor industry as well as to address community concerns over safety. These grants emphasize the dual goal of providing day laborers with a “structured” work environment to ensure their economic self-sufficiency, and securing a stable supply of low cost, on-demand labor for local industries and employers. The DLP then is tasked with ensuring a reliable supply of flexible labor while promoting immigrant integration and public safety. Alternatively, the WC receives funding from private foundations such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Benton Foundation, and the Zellerbach Family Foundation, which according to staff, is largely directed toward the “social justice” side of their operations. As an affiliate and founding member of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and the California Domestic Workers Coalition (CDWC), the WC receives additional funding to attend national retreats and participate in outreach and advocacy campaigns. While OCEIA grants for the day labor program emphasize economic self-sufficiency, safety, and greater oversight of informal economies, funding for the WC largely focuses on promoting civic engagement and leadership development. Both foundation funding and OCEIA grants, however, look to these community-based organizations to address the challenges experienced by and ensure the reproduction of low-wage immigrant workers in a gentrified and increasingly unaffordable city.
In 2016, the Worker Power Center celebrated its 25th anniversary with a relaunch and rebranding campaign. Envisioning itself as a full-service organization seeking to “unite, empower, and organize” low-wage immigrant workers in San Francisco, the Worker Power Center (WPC) has increasingly embraced marketplace solutions. These have included employing marketing strategies and media campaigns to create what they perceive to be a more sustainable and scalable organizational model. This new approach has also entailed expanding their employer base, particularly those in the tech industry, embracing innovative technologies such as apps to combat wage theft and expedite the hiring process, as well as experimenting with public-private partnerships. With this relaunch, the WPC seeks to enhance the individual lives of low-wage immigrant workers by providing them with greater employment prospects through professionalization and vocational training. They also seek to extend more opportunities for leadership development and civic engagement in migrant justice and labor movements.
In the remaining sections, we turn to our findings that complicate how these benefits are delivered to WPC members under the nonprofit organizational model. We highlight the three central themes of gendered and incentivized participation in nonprofit worker organizing, the project of making women responsible for curing their own “trauma,” and finally, the politics of “win-win” media narratives that aim to both empower members and compel employers to support immigrant workers. We conclude with a discussion about the practice of embracing nationally scaled and market-based solutions to address enduring labor challenges, particularly the extent to which privately funded nonprofit institutions are engaging workers in developing organizing strategies that hold employers and industries accountable to change. Gendered and incentivized participation in nonprofit worker organizing
Membership in the Worker Power Center (WPC) is considered a “privilege” that is not automatic but must be earned. While some worker centers offer multiple membership tiers with different levels of rights, obligations, and decision-making privileges, membership structures are generally devised with the goal of empowering members to serve as their own advocates of change. At the WPC, prospective members have to fill out an application form, attend an orientation meeting, and pay monthly dues. Once established, membership extends job dispatching privileges to workers, which is one of the most important services the center provides. Although membership provides job allocation privileges to both day laborers and domestic workers, only for the latter is “active participation” a requirement for securing household employment through the Women’s Collective (WC). Day laborers, for instance, are allocated jobs using a rotating sign-in system, which requires that they be physically present at the center to be eligible for work on any given day. After every job placement, the Day Labor Program (DLP) requires that workers volunteer either by cleaning the facilities or distributing flyers throughout the city advertising their services. While encouraged, members of the DLP are not required to attend weekly member meetings.
For domestic workers in the WC, a point system is used to codify, track, and reward optimal levels of participation. While its exact origin is not known by current staff or WC members, household workers earn the “right” to jobs through the collective by what organizers refer to as “active participation.” Through an intricate point system, WC members earn a point for every activity or event they attend on a weekly basis. These can include flyering or advertising their services throughout the city, but also attending marches, protests, self-help meetings, theater group rehearsals and performances, making legislative visits, and at times, engaging in acts of civil disobedience. Women also engage in other “volunteering” activities, including organizational maintenance work such as cleaning and cooking for members during communal events. While expected, this type of gendered community care work—often attributed to a culturally-specific ethos of cooperation and conviviality—is not accounted for or tabulated into the point system. Staff acknowledge that the point system is the source of much internal conflict, resentment, and surveillance among WC members—as well as a considerable amount of administrative work on their end. Still, the point system is considered a “necessary incentive” that serves to maximize women’s participation and more importantly, to develop their political consciousness.
Job allocation, which staff describe as a referral service linking prospective employers with job seekers, is considered secondary to the organization’s larger political goals, which is to “empower” immigrant Latinas. This message is delivered to women during an initial orientation meeting where prospective members learn about the WC’s “mission and vision,” but also at weekly mandatory meetings and events. Ana, a senior member of the WC, reinforced this point to a prospective member during an orientation meeting: “One can’t just show up and take up space.” After becoming a WC member, this woman explained that she understood that to secure jobs through the collective she would “have to work hard.” As part of the WC’s mission and vision then, immigrant women were being called to “join the fight” instead of remaining on the sidelines as spectators. Josefina, a cofounder of the Women’s Collective and a former domestic worker herself, elaborated on this point at a general member meeting:
“The women who are truly committed don’t just show up to earn points. They participate because they are truly concerned with what is going on in their communities, in the legislature, in D.C. They aren’t just a warm body on a chair. It is not greed or selfishness that motivates them but the belief that as immigrant women we all have to fight for what we want . . . it is not fair that some of us put in the time and effort to attend all of these events, participate, march, protest, share our stories, talk to politicians and journalists, while others simply get to sit back and enjoy the fruits of our labor.”
As the above quote suggests, “active participation” entails more than being a “warm body.” To secure household jobs through the collective, members are expected to “participate, march, [and] protest.” They also have to be willing to put their bodies on the line, at times quite literally, by engaging in acts of civil disobedience, risking arrest and even deportation, in their efforts to secure employment through the collective. When members have questioned or challenged the intrinsic value of participation, they are reminded that membership is a “privilege” and that the benefits extended include the “opportunity” to be part of a social movement in the U.S. As Victoria, a WC committee noted, members are often reminded that the opportunity to participate and acquire valuable leadership skills should be payment enough. However, as Victoria retorted, “We’re the ones out on the front lines,” adding that while the WC encourages women to fight for immigrant rights, members are not encouraged to apply those values internally, or to make changes to the collective’s organizational structure. Ultimately, she shares, “the compañeras give and give [and] not out of the goodness of their heart but out of necessity because they need jobs.”
Healing immigrant women
Providing members with ample opportunities to be politically engaged is part of the WC’s approach to empowerment. That is, domestic workers are incentivized to march, protest, fast, meet with public officials and in some cases, engage in contentious-style politics. Empowerment, however, also requires personal transformation. To that end, WC members are encouraged to “work on themselves” by engaging in transformative activities aimed at restoring and revitalizing their “body and soul.” These personal transformations are made possible through their incentivized participation in self-help groups, theater, retreats, and other activities that emphasize psychic and somatic healing. This emphasis on personal transformation and healing is inspired by the National Domestic Workers Alliance’s (NDWA) Strategy, Organizing, Leadership (SOL) initiative program. According to this initiative, skilled organizing requires a “centered, open and connected” individual who understands not only her own trauma and healing, but also the current and historical sociopolitical context. As a program that aims to build resilient grassroots leaders who can “lead with skill and love,” SOL encourages worker leaders to tackle lingering traumas and other pathologies that can generate individualist and antisocial tendencies. Left unresolved, these pathologies are seen as potentially stifling political participation and community power. As such, healing the “body and soul’” of household workers is deemed imperative for building robust social movements and grassroots organizations.
At the WC, women’s inability (or unwillingness) to be active in the local nonprofit organization and the nationally-scaled domestic worker movement is often attributed to moral and individual shortcomings. According to a WC cofounder and staff member, nonparticipation is rooted in low self-esteem, trauma and culturally-rooted pathologies that ultimately stifle collective action and create divisions within movements. Defining individuals through their assumed trauma – as victims of structural, physical and sexual violence – allows for interventions into their lives to be justified as a political obligation. Instrumentally, addressing these pathologies and lingering traumas is seen as integral for building robust social movement organizations and leaders. Here, again, is Josefina describing the collective’s “healing” mission:
“Many of the women that walk through that door are broken. They come from countries where women have no rights, no voice, and no way of providing for their children. They have been beaten, exploited, even raped, and so they come to the WC looking for someone to extend a helping hand. That is what we do here, we provide them the tools they need to reach their full potential as women, to expand their possibilities so that they can aspire to more in life than just cleaning houses, which is hard work . . . They come here broken and leave as heroínas.”
To ensure that WC members reach their “full potential” as entrepreneurs and social movement participants, the collective cannot thus merely “assist” them in securing household work. Instead, through a discourse of empowerment – borrowed from feminist thought and praxis – the WC aims to provide immigrant Latinas with the tools they need to “aspire to more in life than just cleaning houses.” To cultivate empowered subjectivities, these assumed to be “broken” women must “work on themselves” by participating in self-help activities aimed at “restoring the body and soul.” This emphasis on psychic and somatic healing, borrowed from the National Domestic Workers Alliance’s (NDWA) Strategy, Organizing, Leadership (SOL) initiative, receives generous financial support from the Angell Foundation, Hidden Leaf Foundation, Open Society Foundations, Alexander Soros Foundation, Oak Foundation, Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, NoVo Foundation, and Seasons Fund for Social Transformation. As a holistic and transformative organizing model, SOL approaches personal healing as a political necessity.
To that end, WC members and staff receive financial support to attend the National Domestic Workers Alliance’s (NDWA) Strategy, Organizing, Leadership (SOL) retreats, where domestic worker organizers and leaders learn about the importance of both personal and social transformation. By developing the concept of “transformative organizing,” the SOL initiative aims to address the human needs of household workers by promoting embodied transformations, mindfulness, and developing healing and caring responses to ensure longevity and active participation. On a weekly basis, WC members also participate in a SOL inspired self-help group, Grupo SOL, which is designed to boost members’ self-esteem and develop peer group solidarity. In Grupo SOL, intimate disclosures are not only considered integral to personal healing and transformation but also to nurturing a more empowered sense of citizenship. While these types of disclosures can be potentially liberating, connecting the personal to the political in strategic and powerful ways, many of the women interviewed expressed feeling that they are deprived of an intimate or private sphere in their quest to secure employment through the collective. This emphasis on healing and self-help thus reveals a contradictory problematic. Whereas the women are asked to reveal the true nature of their own suffering, the foundation funded and professionally run program sessions were organized around the presumption that the root of women’s struggles is a lack of confidence, self-esteem, and voice and not the broader structural challenges such as seeking a living wage, affordable housing, or safety from immigration policing. Here we see a model that again is not “bad” in and of itself: healing from trauma is important and personal empowerment pedagogy has a long-standing movement history. However, it did not “land well” or as intended by virtue of being required within the context of an incentivized participation scheme and designed and delivered by remote nonprofit professionals. For WC members, tending to their “body and soul” is yet more labor they are expected to perform for community uplift.
Win-Win Organizing: public narrative and the politics of care
Unlike day laborers, domestic workers dedicate a significant amount of time and labor to the organization and to self-help. Their distinct participation requirements and funding streams incentivize optimum levels of engagement among women, alongside a gendered improvement program aimed at healing “broken” immigrant Latinas. We argue that the way women members are differently incorporated into the organization produce highly dependable and active members that are compelled to take on multiple roles as caregivers, entrepreneurs, and activists. Emerging as the best hope for a revitalized labor and immigrant movement, these women are continually called upon to “work on themselves,” thereby redirecting the responsibility for managing social risks such as unemployment, poverty, and “illegality” on individual immigrant Latinas. Domestic workers have also been central figures in recent advocacy campaigns that aim to address “injustices of recognition.” As others have documented, nonprofit worker organizations such as the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance have increasingly focused on the promotion of dignity and visibility of domestic workers through positive representational modes such as storytelling and legal advocacy. These efforts seek to remedy the legal exclusion of an entire industry while also to addressing the historical devaluation of household work and its gendered and racialized workforce.
The WC has paralleled these national efforts by seeking to situate immigrant household workers within the framework of recovery and redress through media marketing campaigns. In 2012, for instance, the WC launched the Domestic Worker Safety & Dignity Project, a three-year collaboration that included UC Berkeley’s Labor Occupational Health Program (LOHP) and Underground Advertising. With financial support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s national grantmaking program, New Routes to Community Health, the team designed a marketing and media campaign to promote dignity and health awareness among domestic workers and their employers. The campaign not only addressed occupational safety and health considerations associated with the reliance on toxic cleaning products. It also tackled the public devaluation of household work and its racialized workforce through storytelling strategies that emphasize pride, bravery, and respect. Their goal was twofold: to enhance household working conditions while simultaneously altering the perception of this industry from undervalued women’s work to a “respectable contribution” to the economy.
To promote the WC’s unique brand as a “conscientious cleaning service on a mission,” the team commissioned a photographer to shoot glamorous portrait photography that would be featured on billboards, buses, and other outdoor media in San Francisco. These images would also be featured on their website and printed on flyers to advertise their services. The messages accompanying the images of immigrant household workers referred to WC members as “angels,” “fairy godmothers,” and the “keepers” of their employers’ sanity. In mobilizing these gendered tropes, which focus on benevolence, resourcefulness, and magical qualities, the campaign not only reinforced stereotypical gendered views of domesticity and affect, but also portrayed these workers as a source of gentle reassurance for employers. That is, by presenting immigrant household workers as benign and selfless figures endowed with magical powers, these motifs glamorize marginalized women workers in subservient positions. Moreover, in depicting WC members as instrumental to their employers’ emancipation from the drudgery of household tasks, the campaign not only privileged the needs of employers but also projected an idealized image of this racialized and gendered workforce: industrious, resourceful, and most importantly, ephemeral.
In addition to glamorous photography and strategic messaging evoking the image of the self-sacrificing and magical doméstica, the campaign included an exhibit, “Profiles in Strength & Dignity”, which showcased “moving” autobiographical narratives of WC members. These curated autobiographical accounts offered potential employers “a glimpse” into the workers’ lives and the many roles they take on—as wives, mothers, domestic workers, and now, as activists fighting for “rights and representation.” “Profiles in Strength & Dignity” also reinforces the organization’s political and rehabilitative mission. Their autobiographical accounts highlight, for instance, how the WC provides recent immigrants with a ready-made community in addition to vast opportunities for political activism. For instance, Lorena, who worked as a nanny when she arrived to the U.S., contends that: “Before I came to La Colectiva, I felt like a scared little bunny rabbit—I was frightened of everything.” In these curated accounts, the WC is presented as providing Latinas with stewardship, protection, and care to ensure that they become self-sufficient, confident, and respectable. Domestic workers, portrayed as frightened and defenseless upon arriving to the collective (and the U.S.), are treated as redeemable and ripe with potential, which can be cultivated through proper guidance and care.
Featured on the collective’s website,“Profiles in Strength & Dignity” also promotes the notion of the potential “win-win” or shared prosperity for both workers and employers:
“When the women of La Colectiva pick up the broom and dustpan, they aren’t just clearing away dust—they’re clearing a path to respect and pride for domestic workers everywhere. It’s a win-win: employers get the peace of mind that comes from having a clean house, and the women get dignified work in a healthy workplace. But La Colectiva isn’t just a place to find work. It’s a community for recent immigrants, often separated from their families in a strange new environment. It’s an opportunity for civic engagement and activism towards social justice. And it’s a step towards a better life.”
As the passage suggests, what makes the WC different from its competitors—their distinct “brand”—is that they represent a “conscientious cleaning service on a mission.” Unlike for-profit agencies, the WC provides immigrant Latinas with the opportunity for empowerment through entrepreneurship and political engagement. Presenting “organized labor for an organized home” as a win-win scenario, beneficial for both workers and employers, parallels recent domestic worker organizing efforts at the national level. This is particularly the case with the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and its focus on forging strategic alliances with employers and other institutional actors. This “win-win” approach positions employers and workers on an equal footing through a presumed shared vulnerability (and prosperity), presenting their distinct goals and aspirations as perfectly compatible. It also appeals to employers’ moral sensibilities through the strategic mobilization of compelling personal narratives that renders their “conscientious cleaning service” as an “opportunity” for helping immigrant domestics to help themselves. This strategic branding constructs WC members as a worthy social investment, in their futurity as citizens, entrepreneurs, and pillars of the community. Employers, on the other hand, are viewed as conscientious consumers driven by compassion and social responsibility, without concern about the structures that generate such deep class divisions and categories of exploitable labor.
In this paper, we explored the central problematics presented by privately funded, regionally focused and nationally scaled, nonprofit worker organizing. First, we found that asking undocumented immigrant women to participate in volunteer organizational maintenance activities unintentionally promotes an increasingly common form of unpaid labor required of women in global poverty alleviation programs. WC members were required to execute time intensive volunteer duties in exchange for jobs. In other words, economic opportunities in the domestic work economy were presented as contingent upon unpaid nonprofit organizational care and labor. In addition to institutional maintenance requirements, women were incentivized to participate in professionally orchestrated national domestic worker campaign actions, also in exchange for job referrals. This privately funded and professionally staffed institutional approach to mobilization presents a limited range of opportunities for women workers to define and lead organizing agendas on their own terms. It also puts women under additional pressure as they are asked to take a publicly visible stand which for some puts their immigration status at risk, and for others requires additional resources towards childcare and family support during hours of program participation.
Second, we showed how foundation funded program imperatives that make workers themselves the most important site of intervention fail to address the structural arrangements of domestic labor within the regional and national economy. For male participants, day labor centers function as a kind of shelter, or in the words of a staff member at a day labor center, “a homeless campsite.”  Considering the parallels between worker centers and non-profit poverty management institutions, these sites often serve as repositories for containing and making invisible “surplus” populations within gentrifying urban neighborhoods. As in the structural arrangement of 21st century racial capitalism, a pattern of urban “banishment” is performed as poverty programs intersect with real estate development and speculation, clearing streets to protect the view (and the opportunities) of middle class and wealthy residents concerned with urban “blight” and value.
Whereas men are contained or managed within these spaces, women are disciplined as traumatized individuals in need of healing and care. When “fixed,” these once “broken” women are seen by funders, and thus by program managers, as holding great untapped potential as an entrepreneurial agent of development. Similar to transnational poverty eradication schemes targeting girls/women, women workers are engaged as a malleable economic resource. International development campaigns like #thefutureisfemale, or the Nike Foundation’s “The Girl Effect”are illustrative of gender-specific forms of holding women as responsible for unleashing new markets in the broader project of global economic development. Programs designed to empower women have also become prominent in migrant justice and labor movements—at once providing critical leadership opportunities for immigrant women and re-inscribing racialized and gendered relationships of community responsibility and care.
Finally, the funded public communications campaigns that claim to provide a “win-win” outcome for both workers and employers, privilege the perspectives of employers and middle-class Bay Area residents while avoiding the more challenging employment relationships domestic workers experience. The “win-win” oriented campaign, designed to both empower workers and make employers feel “safe” and “good” about hiring empowered immigrant women, ends up promoting essentialist narratives and racialized gendered tropes about the helpful, non-confrontational domestic worker who is proudly improving her own life while also improving the home life of her employer. Not unlike co-author Kohl-Arenas’ study of farmworker-grower philanthropic initiatives in California’s Central Valley “win-win” projects that aim to serve the interests of people with greatly unequal power often end up marginalizing or hiding the concerns of the weaker party. An increasingly popular form of consensus politics is wielded by mass media campaigns that claim to improve the well-being of poor and marginalized communities, but often hide conflict, struggle, and the structural conditions that produce and maintain poverty and inequality. Often promising “mutual prosperity” for both worker and employer, simplified narratives of self-help and empowerment seldom put pressure on the employer or address regional patterns of inequality such as access to affordable housing and living wage jobs, presenting a limited range of organizing opportunities.
Ultimately, privately funded, institutionally managed, nationally scaled community organizing increasingly forgoes the hard work of long-haul person-to-person movement building. With program frameworks and outcomes mapped by donors, fewer resources are devoted to the daily work of convening community members to inform concrete strategies against the dominant economic structure and towards more equitable futures. Central to the contradictions presented in these stories is the specific arrangement of the advanced nonprofit sector where funders embrace the language of community organizing but are not prepared to take on the broader economic and power arrangements that make philanthropic wealth possible. Professionalized and mandated program participation, incentivized volunteerism, public-private market based partnerships, and self-help program frameworks are all familiar tropes of the advanced “Nonprofit Industrial Complex” (INCITE 2009). In today’s political context, this incentivized organizing presents additional complications and risks for immigrant activists who are increasingly targeted and incarcerated. At the same time, the increasing lack of trust, fear, isolation, seclusion and “hiding out” among previously active immigrant rights organizers does remind us that today all immigrant organizing tactics perhaps do matter.
We simultaneously conclude that, with organizations like the National Domestic Worker Alliance (NDWA) receiving record levels of funding from private foundations such as the Irvine Foundation, W.K. Kellogg, NoVo and Ford Foundation, and a practice of embracing nationally scaled and market based solutions to address enduring labor challenges, it is important to ask how privately funded nonprofit institutions are negotiating relationships with funders on behalf of their constituents. When do institutional negotiations and large-scale initiatives result in increased resources for labor organizing and when do they result in compromised agendas that fail to change the structures of inequality produced by industries and markets? Yet, should we critique nonprofit and philanthropic efforts to support immigrant and worker rights during a time of political resurgence among right-wing, conservative, anti-state politics and white supremacist movements? Not to mention the difficulty of doing grassroots community organizing during a global pandemic, with disproportionate impacts on Black and brown communities. Our answer is yes, and no. No, there is no point in critiquing mainstream philanthropy when we need every penny and every ally to stand up against anti-immigrant hate, racism, and fear-mongering politics. On the other hand, yes, we must pay attention to the role of philanthropy in creating common-sense narratives that contribute to individualist solutions to collective structural problems. It is clear that philanthropy plays a prominent role in promoting narratives that muddy regional organizing strategies, in the end failing to reveal systems of power or align with the struggles of oppressed people.
In this context, critical philanthropy and nonprofit studies are more important than ever. Ethnographic research, such as the work featured in this article, reveals the complicated partial narratives, fragmented organizing strategies, and limited frameworks private donors present when engaging movements for economic equality and racial justice. The urgency of our moment calls for us to hold private funders and nonprofit organizers accountable to the people who increasingly struggle with political violence, economic insecurity, precarity, and banishment from social, economic, political and civic life.
Erika Denisse Grajeda is the Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Southwestern University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology. Her research on intimate labor and immigrant social movements in the U.S. focuses on emergent forms of social control mobilized by state and non-state actors to manage illegalized migrants, and fashion idealized forms of employment and political participation. She is currently working on anarchist feminist collectives in Mexico City.
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Linsey McGoey. No Such Thing As a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy. (London, New York: Verso Press, 2015); Behrooz Morvaridi, ‘Capitalist Philanthropy and Hegemonic Partnerships.’ Third World Quarterly Volume 33, Issue 7 (2012)
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Capitol White Bone White Pale Smoke Winter Mood Victorian Pewter Silver Charm Oatmeal Macaroon Moth Gray Closet Mix Master Mix Eggshell White Powder Paper White White Dove Snowfall White Swiss Coffee Parchment White Flour Seditious White Chantilly Lace Alabaster Pure White Cloud White Moonlight White Creamy Extra White Accessible Beige Agreeable Gray Alabaster Diamond Muslin Seed Pearl Snow Bound Oyster White White Reflection Extra White Casa Blanca Silk White Antique White Aged Paper Lava White White Duck Natural Choice Best White Super White Simply White Extra White Halo White
white supremacy’s identity crisis as slow-motion-crash
[found poem from cspan after the camp auschwitz insurrection ransacked the capitol and the senate debated vote counting and the idea of american democracy]
we brought this hell upon ourselves it is a wrenching day
our words and actions have had consequences of a very very negative nature
we ought to watch our words and think about what they should mean
attacked by the enemy within encouraged by the president-in-chief
everyone says “we the people” if those were “the people,” we are in a lot of trouble
tally interrupted by violent insurrection despite clear and insurmountable,
concede already the election of she and him
justice, must not fail feast on the epiphany
Dr. Amy Shimshon-Santo is a poet-in-residence on Earth. Her interdisciplinary work connects the arts, education, and urbanism. She is the author Even the Milky Way Is Undocumented, a poetry collection available in print and audiobook nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Raindow Reads Award (Unsolicited Press, 2020). She has been recognized on the National Honor Roll for Service Learning. Her writing has been nominated for Best of the Net in Poetry (2018), a Pushcart Prize for Creative Nonfiction (2017), and appears in Prairie Schooner, ArtPlace America, Tiltwest,Zócalo Public Square, Entropy, Rose Quartz Journal, Awkward Mermaid Press, Rag Queen Periodicals, Anti-Heroin Chic, Lady Liberty Lit, Full Blede, SAGE, UC Press, SUNY Press, Public!: A Journal of Imagining America, Teaching Artist Journal, Critical Planning Journal, and the Tiferet Journal. Her choreography and spoken word have been performed throughout the United States, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Singapore in venues including the John F. Kennedy Center for the Arts in D.C. Learn more at www.amyshimshon.com.
As the condition of our climate continues to deteriorate, national and state policies beholden to special interests often play an exacerbating role in worsening effects on working-class communities, especially communities of color. Lack of adequate urban planning and underfunded public projects that can improve quality of life and reduce pollution are often ignored in the larger conversations around climate justice. Dedicated public servant David Diaz is the Executive Director of Active San Gabriel Valley, a local nonprofit organization that focuses on mobility, climate, and health and wellness in underserved communities. He joins Boom California to discuss the connections between public policy and environmental equality, and how we can take an active role in combating climate change in our own neighborhoods.
Boom: Hi David. We’re interested in knowing what the climate crisis looks like for a majority-minority city, one populated by migrants and children of migrants. Can you tell us a little bit about how it is that you, as a child of migrants, arrived to an understanding of environmental justice and the climate crisis.
David Diaz: Yeah, it’s a nice place to start. I was born in Mexico, as you know in Baja, California, and at six months old my parents brought me over and we landed in the city of El Monte. We’re right on the border of the city of El Monte and South El Monte. So, for me growing up as a latchkey kid, my parents had to work multiple jobs to make it work. We lived in this house that was subdivided internally. So, we had what was the front of the house. And then, in addition, there were two other units that were in the back. As a latchkey kid, I grew up on frozen food. My parents, due to a lack of economic opportunities, they had to work, so they couldn’t cook fresh meals. We ate a lot of McDonalds; we had a lot of frozen food. As a result, I became an obese kid growing up. Similarly, a lot of family members, extended family members, had diabetes, heart disease, coronary related diseases. I went to a lot of funerals due to strokes. When I was probably 18, 19 years old I was at about 260 pounds. I went on this trip of Muay Thai kickboxing mixed martial arts and nutrition education, learning about how I could be a healthier individual and so through that process I ended up losing about 110 pounds. And when I was going through this process, I was also going to Rio Hondo Community College and learning about culture, the erasure of culture, displacement, all the things that were not taught at the high school level. That really impacted me deeply. I ended up going to college at Arizona State to study psychology and social health and what I looked at was how systems play a role in determining the outcomes of people’s well-being and quality of life.
When you look at the communities that I grew up in, El Monte and South El Monte, some of the realities that emerge liken it to a concrete jungle. When I say concrete jungle, what does that mean? It means the absence of canopy, urban canopy, trees, vegetation, greenery in our communities. The national average for urban canopies is about 22%, so this means the percentage of publicly owned trees. In the city of El Monte, that’s about 5%.We’re not lacking fast food or liquor stores or tobacco, you can find one of those pretty easily. We’re also a super park poor community. The national average is approximately six acres per one thousand residents, and for the cities of El Monte and South El Monte, it’s about 0.41 acres per one thousand residents. And just to give a perspective: one acre is roughly the size of a soccer field, so we’re talking about cramming one thousand people in less than half the size of a soccer field.
And so, that coupled with questions like: what were the outcomes in the community I grew up in? Severe pollution burden, high childhood and adult obesity rates, low educational attainment, high unemployment. You start looking at the connections in the system and not just pointing them to personal responsibility, but understanding that all this stuff was done intentionally. So that really motivated me to take the opportunities that were provided for me and come back into my community to be part of that change. I ended up going to Claremont Graduate University to get my Master’s of Public Health. Simultaneously, I was interning at the city of Pomona’s Manager’s Office. I was also working for a startup in south Los Angeles on this concept of dealing with the whole health of an individual. Through these experiences I was able to connect with like-minded folks and organizations that were doing work that I was interested in. One of those organizations was Day One, which was based out of Pasadena, and they actually had this position that had recently opened, and it was titled El Monte Nutrition Education and Obesity Prevention Coordinator. And when I read it, I remember thinking: that’s what I want to do! Like it’s in the title, what I want to do. So, I ended up applying and I got the job. And then that put me into this kick of working in El Monte and South El Monte on various initiatives.
Boom:One of the things that you just outlined for us is the different ways in which residents in El Monte, and other majority-minority cities, experience what we might call if not climate change, at least, environmental injustice. Lack of access to parks and green space, lack of urban canopy, easy access to fast food and liquor stores. Are there any other things that you think are ways that people experience climate crisis or environmental injustice in El Monte and South El Monte that you haven’t mentioned?
David Diaz: When I jumped into the work, it was about nutrition education and obesity prevention for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. So, it’s called SNAP for short, food stamps or food assistance program. Providing them with physical activity and nutrition education is great. However, folks would tell me things like I love to eat healthy meals, I just have to work 14 hours and my schedule is variable. And I’m also worried about my housing insecurity and also I don’t have a car. And I would love to walk in my community, but I just don’t feel safe going outside and walking, because there’s no infrastructure for people to feel safe while walking. Those include simple things like the presence of sidewalks. In El Monte, more than 35% of the sidewalk network is missing. I quickly realized that we can’t just focus on direct services. We need to continue to address the systems that are in place. Poor urban planning has led to a number of things. Harm from freeways has been documented. They’ve displaced thousands of people and mitigated generational wealth from families. The car industry in general, is problematic. So, for example, if you’re a person that’s in El Monte and you want to get to a place within the city of El Monte, pretty much your options are limited to whether you have a car. And what does that create? Car dependency, which creates dependency on oil and gas because you need that. Poor urban planning has contributed greatly to the environmental inequities that we see today. And again, those things aren’t by accident, they’re by design.
Boom: I think one of the things that you’re teasing out is the ways in which there are individual actions and choices that one can make. But in some ways, depending on one’s class, one’s neighborhoods, folks are limited by these larger structural factors. How does Active SGV work to address personal choice and structural conditions?
David Diaz: At Active SGV our mission is to create a more sustainable, equitable, and livable San Gabriel Valley. Active SGV started off as a Facebook page in 2010 by a group of concerned residents from the San Gabriel Valley. They were a multiracial group that lives in different parts of the San Gabriel Valley, from West SGV to East SGV, all concerned about the lack of public transit and active transportation opportunities available for folks. When I say active transportation, that’s everything that’s human powered: walking, biking, skating, scooting. The Facebook page grew into an official organization. They were a chapter of Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, the Western Gabriel Bicycle Coalition, and then they ended up being called Bike San Gabriel Valley.One of the first things that they did was identify these things called master plans, like a bicycle master plan or active transportation master plan and what the gaps were for cities. There’s 31 cities and four large unincorporated areas in SGV. About 2 million residents. They audited which of these cities have done any planning or thinking about active transportation or bicycle master plans.
Since 2012, Active SGV has worked on 12 masterplan processes for 12 individual cities and counting. What that looks like is that we’ve coordinated regional efforts so that there’s regional connectivity in the San Gabriel Valley. Because it’s not enough to just create one bike lane and then see it end at the city boundary, after which you no longer have anywhere to go. For Active SGV, it’s really been about doing the work around identifying where the gaps are and then providing some of the programming ourselves. So, our focus is really on mobility, climate, and health and wellness. Those are the kind of broad categories in which we’re trying to tackle this climate crisis because we know that you need a combination of the above strategy. We need to do the engineering. We need to have actual projects or infrastructure built in the ground.
For Active SGV our communities of concern are really the ones that are most pollution burdened, impacted by pollution, park poor, low income, so that’s what we’ve focused on. The West Puente Valley, El Monte, South El Monte, La Puente, Baldwin Park, parts of Monterey Park, parts of Alhambra. We’re working in Azusa and northwest Pasadena right now, which are really impacted. We’re trying to do this multifocal approach to address some of the region’s most pressing needs. And over the last few years that’s looked like coordinating one of the longest Open Streets programs in the United States. It was 17-plus miles long, from South Pasadena, all the way up to Azusa. Open Streets provides an opportunity to take our biggest public asset, meaning the thing we have most of—roads, which are a fully funded asset—and temporarily transforming them into parks.
We are also working with UCLA and the Energy Coalition to do an indoor air quality study. There are a lot of different appliances that people use that rely on gas. El Monte and South El Monte are in the top five worst pollution burdened sites in California. And that puts us around the top 10 in the entire United States because the county has one of the worst air quality indexes in the United States. If you look at it from that frame and then you look at peoples’ indoor air quality, it’s about five to seven times worse than their outdoor air quality.
People are literally living in toxic conditions because of some behaviors, gas, not having proper installation, or the type of dwelling they’re living in. It’s a number of variables. So, what we’re hoping to do with the outcomes of this study is to inform future building codes for the State of California. Like moving to electrification.
One of the examples that is good for our health and wellness efforts is that we’re currently funded to address food insecurity in the San Gabriel Valley. What we’re doing is coordinating a number of up to 160 – 190 nutrition education and/or physical activity classes with communities that are considered SNAP eligible.
Those are just a few examples of the work that Active SGV is doing, but our frame is always investment where it’s most needed. Doing the work alongside the communities that are most in need and then thinking about multiple benefits. We know that food insecurity doesn’t exist by itself. There’s a lot of complexity that creates food insecurity. Same with absent infrastructure for people walking and biking. It just doesn’t exist by itself.
Boom: One of the images that I got when I was listening to you talk is the El Monte airport. El Monte residents don’t own the planes and they don’t get to go on the planes. It’s almost like there’s literally another freeway. What are your thoughts about the El Monte airport?
David Diaz: The airport for me is like a visualization of the inequity that occurs. Neighboring communities used to have these airports too, that were from way back when, like WWII or something like that. I’m so puzzled as to why we still have this airport that is for leisure activities of the people who have, and it comes at the expense of people who don’t have, which is the people that live in the city El Monte, including myself. I would love for there to be some type of mixed-use development at that site that includes parks and addresses the housing need and has opportunities for economic development for small business owners, entrepreneurs and people from the community. Instead of what it is right now, which is a parking lot for rich people. If I had a wish list, I would love to get rid of that airport. I don’t see the value that it brings to the city of El Monte. It doesn’t generate revenue for them, they’re not getting significant taxes from them. We’re just getting all the pollution, and all of the carbon. So, I would love to see it become something else.
Boom:There’s this term that I read in an LA Times article recently “solastaglia.” It’s a term coined by Glenn Albrecht to describe nostalgia for a place that is no longer the same place. And it’s not that place anymore because of environmental degradation, because of climate change, because it’s been transformed. This really hit me. As you know, Greater El Monte used to be surrounded by water, now it’s surrounded by freeways. We grew up with it surrounded by freeways. I imagine, some generations miss Marrano Beach and being surrounded by water. You have a baby, I have a baby. What do you think we’re going to be nostalgic for in 20 years if we keep headed in the direction we are headed?
David Diaz: As someone who’s involved in the climate world, people are pretty much of two frames of mind. One is resilience. We need to build resilience, and another way to say resilience is that we need to create adaptive strategies. Climate adaptive strategies. What that signals to me is that we pretty much have passed the point of no return. It’s like it’s coming. It’s going to happen. Therefore, let’s just try and adapt to the best of our ability. I think that right now people take for granted being able to go outside. Something as simple as that. You and I are going to miss the days where it was just as simple as, hey let’s go outside today. Because the wildfires that are happening right now aren’t a thing of this moment. They’re going to be a thing of this moment, tomorrow, next month, next year. They’re going to continue to happen and more major human made disaster events are going to continue to happen. And so when I think about it, it really comes down to things as simple as, we’re going to miss being able to go outside. You’re going to have these clean air days and not clean air days determining when you can actually go outside if we continue on the path that we are on right now without an aggressive or bold redirection somewhere else. I think it’s as simple as that. And I know that back in the smog days, people couldn’t go outside because of smog days or limit your physical activity outside because of smog. But moving forward, UCLA scientists right now are saying that the number of days by 2050, the number of days above 95 degrees are going to climb from 32 to 74 by 2050. That’s what UCLA scientists are predicting right now. Today, you and I are having this discussion and it’s currently 101 according to my watch.
Boom: Let’s end with one last question. We’ll try to end on a positive note: how can folks get involved with Active SGV? How can folks make small and big decisions that will help us move in a better direction?
David Diaz: Good question. I think in general one of the things I would offer to folks is to engage with Active SGV at activesgv.org and find our volunteer internship opportunities. We’re trying to do a much better job of building local capacity at the local level. One of the things that you mentioned right now is, how can at the individual level, people do better? One is educating themselves and we can work with folks to help them work through that education of what’s going on. I think that for me I’ve been learning as I’ve been going. What are best practices? What do we need to do? What’s the latest research? And working alongside folks to discover best strategies.
I think that one of the things that we’ve been doing a whole lot, while we still want to do a whole lot more, is build local capacity so that it could be advocacy at the local and state level. Because ultimately, one of the things is that the climate has been politicized. We can’t agree on whether it’s real or how progressive it is, the whole electoral process, you know, from the local level to the state and national level, special interest has a lot of grip on politicians.
One of the immediate ways to engage with us is to help do some of this advocacy around some of the legislation that’s being introduced. Particularly here at the local level, as we know that our assembly members and Senate members both take a lot of oil and gas money. They voted, and you can see it, in favor of oil. They wouldn’t even agree to vote against like a 2,500 foot setback from oil drilling sites and where homes should be located. I think that’s one way. I think in general a solution that needs to be considered at the statewide level or even at the more regional level, is how we build more regenerative economies and really focus on how we can not only create – but it’s also been this battle of jobs vs climate. Either we have climate or we have jobs, and I don’t see it as that black and white. We need to be able to find ways can do it all. It’s not just investing in climate infrastructure, but it’s also investing in people; moving them onto green jobs and divestment from fossil fuels.
Divestment strategies are very important. Sign up with a credit union or public banks because private banks fund a lot of fossil fuel interest. If you currently have a pension or 401k, 403b, look at how your profits are coming back from oil and gas. What stocks are you investing in if you have that? I think that we need to build this economy where it’s inclusive of everyone. And we talk about things like a just transition. A just transition and that really gets to having a more regenerative economy that includes building good economic opportunities for folks addressing the most climate pressing needs, focusing on base frameworks, including racial justice so that we can live in the community that we’d like to. One of the things that I love about this organization that works in the southeast LA area and also Long Beach, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, that one of their hashtags is #WeAreJustTryingtoBreathe. And while that sounds simple, it’s a reality: we are just trying to breathe. We are literally just trying to breathe. And so, I would love for us to get to a point where we talk more about regenerative strategies versus resilient or adaptive ones.
David Diaz serves as the Executive Director of Active San Gabriel Valley, a local nonprofit organization, focusing on mobility, climate, and health and wellness in underserved communities. He’s a dedicated public servant and advocate with project management, coalition building experience who has successfully worked with youth, schools, businesses, nonprofit organizations and cities to advance sustainability, equity and public health. David is also a member of the El Monte Union High School District, Investing in Place Board Member, member of the San Gabriel Valley Service Council, Chair of the Measure A Oversight Committee, and Vice Chair of the Upper San Gabriel River Watershed Area Steering Committee. He holds a Masters of Public Health degree and lives in the City of El Monte.
With “Postcards,” creative non-fiction stories grounded in place, we aspire to create a new cartography of California. For us, literature and language are as much about marking and representing space, as they are about storytelling.
We never ate salads. World-class mechanics drive lemons, world-class musicians pawn instruments. Know-it-all scholars would come to our store because the university was close by. All the math was done on a Scribe notebook, quietly, as a swamp cooler rocked you to sleep. Tripping out, because there is no other way to spend time in a fruit stand after morning setup duties. Art was there, always, always, always. In the way you stacked tomatoes. In the rotation of the avocados. In the Dutch angle tamarind candy. In the handcrafted, misspelled signage with the price collaged on neon bright fluorescent colored paper.
There’s a science and technique to opening costales. Just like there is to cleaning and bagging cacahuates. Or stacking bags of carbon. In the Malverde merchandise room, chaos was art, as Jesús’s bust would watch over you trying to make sense of the merchandise rearrangement. A framed print of San Martin Caballero hung in the lobby open to the public where we played the nice señora ballads. Malverde was in the back where the radios blared to a different beat, punk and norteño music. If you were a wiseass, you’d oversleep to stay in the air conditioner in the house next door where my grandparents lived. But the smell of garlic was too alluring. The chile pico de pájaro halo that adorned our day-to-day is something I miss every day. Many years later, the smells of dried chile california and chile pasilla still jump-start those memories.
I did some of my growing up in a fruit stand in Mexicali. Frutería Alejandrina. An establishment full of disaster, poor judgment and reflections of a teenage memory. The funniest, most beautiful place to roll out the red carpet on being a peacock. Toda la pinche vida carposa.
My grandparents had a fruit stand in the northern border of a super, super nice part of town. Where governors lived and the houses looked like marble mansions. Safe as houses even if that hood had a big ole graveyard, with gangs like “Los Panteons” referencing it. Colonia Libertad, the freedom neighborhood. A place where detached, lived-in people from the hood or posh intellectual fucks on their mistress dates would come by and purchase the bare essentials. It wasn’t as tough as my neighborhood, which was two blocks away from the physical U.S.-Mexico border, but it was poor neighboring the richest part of town. Everything seemed more ironic. And those memories are crisper, because you don’t have fear or crime clouding your overall existence and sadness. There were cute girls coming into the shop. Rocker girls. With money. The cruising strip was not too far away from there in the rich part of town. My barrio was amber alert. My grandpa’s barrio was divine. We were a border frutería in a border city, an assertion that you needed us, it was love amidst class war.
And once every week or so, Frutería Alejandrina had to restock. So, we would drive back near my hood to downtown Mexicali, to a place full of wonder and smells and culture and a taste of all of México nicknamed “La Yarda.” A double entendre poem in motion. Mercado Braulio Maldonado is known to all the locals as “La Yarda.” A place frozen in time. Founded by working people and their offspring for generations to come. It was hot. It was absurd. It was full of lament and fast-paced driving decisions. It was millimetric. It was colorful. It was full of smiles and laughter. And sun. You had a stake in it. The United States were not far off. But the tale was everybody’s. We had possession, we were awake. It was always day in “La Yarda.” If you saw it by night you were a bit of a tourist.
Named after what was by all accounts a brutal and repressive governor, Mercado Braulio Maldonado is referred to as “La Yarda” for reasons unbeknownst to many. Local unofficial historians even claim it’s a pochismo, a bastardization of the language, as the border always does, signifying “The Yard,” due to all the loading and unloading docks filled with truckloads of fruit and vegetables lining the immense real estate. La Yarda, like any beautifully chaotic memory, is fiercely contested geographically. “Where does it start?” “Who started it where?” “Were you so and so’s neighbors back in 1962?”
But this is a postcard. A postcard to my grandfather, a mi Tata. Reverse psychology souls. We were both heavy breathing alcohol. Drinking ourselves away like little devils in a graveyard.
The kiosk where the mariachis and taka takas would wait for gigs was our parking departure. My cousin and my uncle would reiterate that I wasn’t shit as they blew up their grandeur driving the van or crowded pickup truck, even when I didn’t want their Yarda canonization or holiness. My grandma hated all of it, the restock. There was no love in that affair for her unfortunately. Just separation. But I found peace there. Peace from social classes, genres of youth roleplay, it was all mixed up together. Beautifully. Low blows n’ all. An oasis for the shrink wrapped battalions of drunks and nihilists dreaming of luxurious starlets at the magazine stand. The audience at the cockfight dishing out fables, day drinking. Euphoria.
My grandfather’s journey as a merchant began in Culiacan, Sinaloa. His father married and remarried but always took his first-born son along with him. Teaching him the trade, being the owner of a wholesale distributor that supplied its clients with fruits and vegetables from all over Mexico. Once he was of age, my grandfather’s dad set him up with a fruit stand in Culiacan’s Mercado Garmendia, where he met my grandmother, a client who would come in and ask the price of items individually to see how much her handful of coins could afford her. My grandmother had been left behind by her widowed mother who migrated to the border town of Mexicali and formed a new family of her own in the border city. After my grandmother’s grandma passed away, she was left to the care of an abusive aunt who would take a big bulk of her profits doing home-to-home manicures and pedicures. Out of desperation, she asked my grandfather if she could live with him, who in turn left his girlfriend, and they moved in with consent from both families, later starting a family of their own.
Years later, my grandmother’s mother would come back to Culiacan from Mexicali on a trip to reconnect with her daughter and her family, and that established constant travel between both cities. My mother would be taken to Mexicali at the age of five to practically be raised by her aunt and grandma, but when they wanted to adopt her at the age of 13, my grandmother refused, and back to Sinaloa she went. My mom would eventually move to Mexicali as a young adult, having grown tired of not being allowed to study or work where she wanted. Taking advantage of a vacation to the border city, she found independence and did not return. Some of her sisters and brother would follow the promise of borderland employment. My grandmother would later follow her children and her mother to the border city, reuniting three different generations of family affected by distance. My grandfather, after a series of poor financial decisions and now nearly alone in Culiacan, moved to Mexicali to rejoin his family with very little money and no business connections.
My grandfather would have a humble reinvention in Mexicali as a birria taco vendor with a cart outside the city’s railroad station, as passenger trains arrived and departed. One day, he caught the eye of a couple of young men who used to be kids when he owned fruit stands in Culiacan, guys that couldn’t believe he wasn’t owning his own business as he did back in their home state. They offered to give him a loan to start up a new business in Mexicali, supplying him with all the merchandise needed to commence what my grandfather would graciously call Frutería Alejandrina, in honor of the young men’s business of the same name. Years later, with no more credit to pay and the property ownership under his belt, my grandfather had built what we all considered our home away from home, that beloved frutería forever etched in our memory.
There’d be rich people that would roll into Frutería Alejandrina, asking what it took to make a yummy guacamole. They all have that same face of discovery. La Yarda was no different. It even had a local bus station by the mariachi kiosk that picked up and dropped off people, one farm at a time, to restock, next to world class vehicles and air-conditioned wine and cheese connoisseurs. But it was also a party. A playing field in a police state for migrants. Where self-made people unmount towards commerce. Where you could build a party from scratch, get different styles and sizes of piñatas, the ultimate Mexican dulces, theme-party candy bags… It was a place where you could see humans connected with nature, disconnect from it and package it. Signmaker commissions highlighted storefronts, restaurants, worker bars & gay bars, barber shops, banda music for hire bass drums, and mariachi & norteño groups’ vans.
Nowadays it’s a fascist state battle between wannabe gentrifiers “rehabilitating downtown”, police harassing immigrants, divide and conquer Christians, and no end to justify the means. It’s a place of constant relocation anyway. The tacos from El Jefe were better when he was down in the pit and outdoors, not his brick and mortar three blocks up, years later. Food at a marketplace tastes better when eaten standing up. These are facts.
If one business was struggling, others could relieve it. There was store-to-store credit. Grin and bear, it was La Yarda’s mission statement. If you were young and thought you were enlightened nobody cared. You still had to arrange the wooden crates along the wall. My cousin and I would wake up at night to drink, that was our dawn. Dawn was our afternoon, we would be so hungover. Everything was an interminable binge and a hangover. And on the street there was always a scam, always a story. Men that cry to take your money. Professional actors. Cons. “Let me tell you something…” Weird caressing holds from grimy sausage fingers. All downtowns are beset by ghosts.
At Frutería Alejandrina, my grandfather and I could go days together working and hanging out without talking much, just reading El Libro Vaquero or watching classic movies from Mexico’s Golden Age on the De Pelicula channel. When we’d visit La Yarda we could both sense the status differences amidst businesses. The cold-storage room owners had personalized gold rings on several fingers, the daughters of the wholesalers wore designer jeans and ordered workers around, one could only imagine the lavish parties where they did the same. The rehab center fugitives wore rope around their waists, their hair flailing around looking for the “ghostbusters van” to take them back to internment one last time. From the back of our van and in honor of all this chaos, we drank beers from the ice chest, between loading up, in between sugar wafer and Hot Cheeto bites, observing.
It was through this lens that my grandfather and I built our history together. We’d drink till all the perishables would become unsafe for consumption. If we were really hungover, we’d stop in at the birrieria and ask for coffee. I remember the first time I went, I said “Grandpa, I don’t like coffee.” “Shut up, just drink it. It’s before 10.” I’d get a coffee cup full of foamy ice-cold beer prior to alcohol sale permits, then he’d order birria the right way. His background as a birria vendor informing his purchases, he only permitted us to to go to this one birria spot. Where it was birria de chivo, none of that lamb or beef shit. With machito and costilla, cebolla y cilantro, limones and salsa, all the different textures and flavors necessary to make it an experience. Then we’d get pretty faded ordering more caguamas, drinking them while sipping on our consomé with warm handmade corn tortillas. One time I remember he ordered the birria goat head, and I ate the eye by mistake, but the meat would come off the warm tortilla scoop like butter.
If it was after a Yarda restock, we’d get drunk with all the merchandise in the blazing heat, the chicken would thaw and go bad, and he’d invite his girlfriend over. We’d have to ask the restaurant owners to take away all of the beer bottles, coffee and consomé cups, belonging to my cousin, my uncle, my grandpa, his lover, and her daughter all having a dandy ol’ time. We’d be greeted back at Alejandrina by a well-thumbed hose spray and disciplinary actions, one time I saw him get a whole bucket. It was sad but I would just escape to the cruising strip. And keep drinking. One time my uncle and I got stoned and drunk while taking my grandpa to restock. Since it was the first restock of the year, my grandpa wanted to go to the downtown cathedral. He wouldn’t go to church regularly, much less to confession, but he’d still cruise up and go get the host. Walked into a church full of police officers because it was their annual mass, several of those cops knew us, especially my uncle. Never a bigger smile. Wasted. Watching my tipsy grandpa take communion, the only person not in blue. We left as soon as the host dissolved in his fiery breath.
When my grandpa would get very drunk, he’d start singing the lyrics to this one song: “Angelitos Negros.” After claiming for years he wrote it, we discovered Javier Solis had sung it. So had Pedro Infante, famously. I only recently found out that Roberta Flack and Eartha Kitt did it too.
Pintor nacido en mi tierra Con el pincel extranjero Pintor que sigues el rumbo De tantos pintores viejos
Aunque la virgen sea blanca Píntale angelitos negros Que también se van al cielo Todos los negritos buenos
Pintor si pintas con amor ¿Por qué desprecias su color? Si sabes que en el cielo También los quiere Dios
Pintor de santos y alcobas Si tienes alma en el cuerpo ¿Por qué al pintar en tus cuadros Te olvidaste de los negros?
Siempre que pintas iglesias Pintas angelitos bellos Pero nunca te acordaste De pintar un ángel negro
It was grounding.
He would yell it! That feeling when he sang it. And I remember thinking I’ll carry that underappreciated sentiment with me everywhere I’m headed.
There is a court of appeals that succeeds when we remember our blurry selves; those intoxicating, enamored, simpler versions of ourselves. Like a greatest hits album. Not remembering the times we’ve been racist, idiotic, suicidal, sexist, apathetic, or truly, truly helplessly sad. Such are oral histories. There are landmarks that serve as living documents, testaments to when you and I were unstable and precarious, we’ve all driven past them after years of public transport to fall back in love with ourselves.
My tata’s frutería was one of those chaotic commerce places that you could say was such without having to face your own mess at home.
There’s one like it in your town.
Dedicado a mi tío Efraín. (1952-2020)
Marco Vera is a documentary filmmaker and full-time editor residing in Los Angeles, California. Originally from the oldest neighborhood in the border city of Mexicali, he was the founder and director of Mexicali Rose Media/Arts Center, a grass roots communitarian organization dedicated to providing free access to artistic media for community youth.
The Pasadena-born science fiction author Octavia Butler is considered among the most prescient writers of the last several generations. Her superbly crafted stories deconstruct race, gender, politics, religion, and sexuality while travelling back and forth across space and time. Recent Los Angeles Poet Laureate Robin Coste Lewis describes Butler as being “on the frontier of human imagination.”
Though Butler passed in 2006, her work has never been more popular. Butler’s Parable of the Sower reached number one on both The New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller lists in the fall of 2020, 27 years after original publication. In 2019, the Los Angeles Central Library named a do-it-yourself studio space in the library, the Octavia Lab. Adding further momentum to Butler’s lasting significance is a new book A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler by the award-winning author Lynell George that showcases Butler’s inner world.
George demystifies the legendary science fiction author by using archival material from the Huntington to meticulously uncover how Butler constructed herself through a regimented autodidactic recipe of reading, writing and ritual. A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky is creative non-fiction as inspiration without solipsism.
Make the Impossible Possible
Years before Butler won the MacArthur “Genius” Award in 1995 and had published any of her eleven celebrated novels like Kindred, Wild Seed and Parable of the Sower, she was a humble soul growing up in Pasadena stealing time to write in the middle of the night or making a small paycheck stretch for weeks at a time. Butler made, as George writes “the impossible possible” and expanded space and time through her discipline and concentration. The fact that she wrote science fiction is further proof of her intention to create new worlds.
George reveals how Butler’s “most ambitious and remarkable creation was the shapeshifting narrative of her own life–the one she honed and sharpened, draft after draft after draft. It was a work of art that was not complete until she made the impossible possible; the unseen, seen. Who is Octavia E. Butler, ‘That tall girl who was always writing?”
George spent four years, starting in 2016, in the Octavia E. Butler Papers at the Huntington Library, Art, and Botanical Gardens Museum diligently sifting through almost 400 boxes of Butler’s personal items including notebooks, to-do lists, recipes, scraps of paper, letters, bus passes, library cards, hand-me-down diaries, receipts and all sorts of other ephemera. George came to call her weekly forays into the archive, “Fridays with Octavia.” George committed to “let the archive lead her.” George’s instinct to let the archive lead her proved fruitful as she found some of Butler’s most insightful thoughts on scratch pads or even on the back of an envelope. It was this marginalia where George found the portal to Butler’s inner world. It was this personal voice that would prove the most fidelity to Butler’s intent. George also found hundreds of newspaper clippings Butler kept on topics like global warming, cancer, vampires and social unrest. These saved articles showed how much research Butler did to write her prophetic stories.
These notes, George demonstrates in her book, add up to the math of Butler’s life, especially in lists connected to time and money. From the time she was a teenager, Butler crafted her life, filling dozens of notebooks with to-do lists, budgeting and contracts with herself, complete with extra specific wishes serving as willful manifestations. George’s book artfully includes images of artifacts from the Butler archive like a library card, an old calendar, a few pages from Butler’s journal, bus passes, covers of her notebooks and ticket stubs. Butler’s candid handwriting on an old notebook testifies to just how miraculous her journey was.
In our contemporary 21st Century era when New Age commentators on Instagram talk about “the law of attraction,” and “creating your own reality,” George’s portrait of Butler shows us someone who did just that years before these ideas permeated popular culture. “If you read these pages in succession, day after day,” George writes, “they are nothing short of a prayer.”
“Art may be the finest form of prayer,” writes Julia Cameron in her book, Walking In This World. Cameron’s made a long career out of writing books on world building like her perennial bestseller The Artist’s Way. Many of the journaling strategies Cameron offers corroborate with practices Butler was doing instinctually years before Cameron’s book was published. One more Cameron quote connects to Butler: “We make art not merely to make our way in the world but also to make something of ourselves, and often the something that we make is a person with an inviolable sense of inner dignity.”
Butler meticulously constructed her life and vigilantly protected her time and energy to preserve her dignity and achieve her destiny against all odds. Though Butler did not have the specific instructions presented by Cameron, George discovered in the archive that Butler read self-help books by Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, J. Lowell Henderson and Claude Bristol among others. The writings by these men advised her. “Her advisors, she acknowledged,” George writes, “may not be on the same page socio-politically, may even be dead, but she’d intuited that something essential could be gained from submitting to their worldview, even if she was never meant to be the target audience.” The clues Butler gained from these books taught her how “to keep her own counsel” and write her own affirmations. “These affirmations,” George declares, “are her safety net. They are her therapy she has neither the time, money nor constitution to undertake.” Butler discovered these books in the Pasadena Central Library as a teenager and by the time she started submitting her writing for publication in her early twenties, she had created her own practice to keep herself going. She conquered her fear and self-doubt by using these affirmations and following her strict discipline of research and writing.
Interspersed throughout George’s text are various quotes from Butler that show how she kept herself inspired. Consider this: “We don’t have to wait for anything at all. What we have to do is start.” Butler jump-started her journey in the dark without a map to follow. She grew up in Northwest Pasadena, an omnivorous reader and lifelong hermit who purposely never drove a car. Nonetheless she crisscrossed Los Angeles on public transit and took long walks to find her way in the world. George reveals all of this and shows how Butler’s worldbuilding and writing processes were methodical. She charted her life with such precision that she would often write on the calendar how many pages she wrote each day.
A Lifeline for Writers
The celebrated Angeleno novelist and USC professor Dana Johnson calls George’s book on Butler, “a lifeline for writers.” In conversation with George for a virtual event hosted by Vroman’s Books, Johnson tells her that, “[she] shows us an Octavia Butler we have not seen before.”
George saw Butler speak a handful of times over a three-decade period. The first time George ever saw Butler was when George was in her late teens and she attended the reading with her mother, an English teacher and voracious reader. George’s mom was a fan of Butler and they attended a few of her readings together. George cannot remember if it was at EsoWon Books or the long gone Midnight Special in Santa Monica but she does know that attending these readings impressed themselves upon her as her own journey as a writer was beginning.
Years later George saw Butler in Seattle in 2004 for “Black to the Future: A Black Science Fiction Festival.” George travelled to the Pacific Northwest to cover this event for the Los Angeles Times and she even briefly spoke to Butler that day. George’s Times essay, “Black Writers Crossing the Final Frontier,” published on June 22, 2004 described the event and explained that when Butler began writing science fiction in the early 1970s she was often one of the only Black writers doing it, let alone a woman in a male-dominated genre. They made an agreement to speak again but as fate would have it Butler passed two years later in 2006.
Another important point George told Dana Johnson the night of the Vroman’s reading was that this book is a product of serendipity. In 2016 Julia Meltzer, the Executive Director of Clockshop invited George to participate in their year-long program celebrating Butler. This is how it all started. Meltzer recently told me via email: “When we first dreamed up Radio Imagination –a year-long program celebrating Octavia E. Butler where artists and writers were invited to work with her archives at the Huntington Library—I knew that writer Lynell George had to be a part of it.”
“I felt certain that learning about Octavia’s life through what she left behind,” Meltzer states, “would resonate with Lynell and that she would bring her intrepid, dogged and steady journalistic eye to the project. Very early on in Lynell’s research process I sensed that a book was soon to be born. I’m thrilled that my hunches were correct. How lucky we all are to be able to learn more about how Octavia E. Butler deliberately and carefully made herself into a science fiction writer.”
Clockshop’s 2018 book, Radio Imagination includes writing from George, Tisa Bryant, Robin Coste Lewis, Fred Moten and artwork by Laylah Ali, Malik Gaines, Lauren Halsey and Alexandro Segarde. George’s piece was a “posthumous interview” for which she immersed herself countless hours in the archive. As George communed with Butler’s archive, she felt as if she could hear her voice and the channeling for the piece began.
Forecasting the Future
Though readers marvel at Butler’s seeming ability to predict the future, journalist and former editor of LA Weekly Judith Lewis Mernit recalls soliciting Butler for an essay on the “future of reading”. Instead, Butler wrote about how she still wrote on her typewriter because she liked to be methodical and deliberate with her process. However, it was her careful attention to her craft that allowed her to turn a keen eye on the present and imagine the future.
According to Mernit and Lynell George, Butler also observed the world around her by reading hundreds of articles on climate change and taking daily walks around Pasadena. Butler always paid close attention to the plants and trees in her neighborhood, noting the different species and details, such as, whether a tree was producing as many fruit as in the previous year. Like a scientist, she carefully cataloged her observations in her notebooks in detailed lists.
George’s book includes lists that Butler created from her walks and bus rides around the city. In these trips, Butler observed the city up close. The lists she wrote often read like poems. Here is one of Butler’s poem-like lists exactly as it appears in George’s book:
Brown and deep green hills of early summer
The grass is dry for the most part.
Blond with a little green grass
And many deep green trees.
Alvarado + Sunset—N. on Alv.
Small El rancho mkt—not chain
Way into hills
W. on Sunset—through cut hills
Both sides—houses cluttered on hills
Much wood frame
@ Sunset to sea—enclaves + open
As George’s narrative reminds us again and again, Butler’s careful attention to the world around her empowered her with the x-ray vision to write about the environmental conditions of the future. She was watching her immediate surroundings so closely that she could read the writing on the wall about rising temperatures or social unrest before everyone else.
A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky spotlights Butler with the same verisimilitude that Butler herself used to show us the future of our world. George writes that she found the book’s title while reading a passage in the archive: “Science fiction allowed her to reach for something beyond what she could visualize. Reading through a draft of a speech Octavia was puzzling out, I was struck by a particular answer. Science fiction is a handful of earth, and a handful of sky and everything around and between.”
Lynell and Octavia
George shares several commonalities with Butler beginning with the fact that she lives in Pasadena just minutes from where Butler grew up. Moreover, both Lynell George and Octavia Butler write the type of impeccable prose that only comes from countless drafts and years of practice.
Indeed, George has practiced her own diligent writing regimen with the same dedication as Butler, having written thousands of essays over the last 30 plus years for publications like Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Essence, LA Weekly, Alta Journal, the Smithsonian, and others. George’s countless articles have mapped Los Angeles and crisscrossed California with the same veracity as Butler’s fiction. And finally, they both were very close to their mothers and were gifted typewriter’s by them when they were little girls. George’s dedication in the book reads, “To my mother, who bought me my first typewriter.”
A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky accomplishes many missions simultaneously. Whether the reader wants to learn more about what made Octavia Butler so influential or if they want to learn how to be as influential as Octavia Butler, Lynell George provides a roadmap that reveals Octavia Butler’s secret recipe for expanding space and time.
Mike Sonksen is a 3rd-generation Angeleno. Poet, professor, journalist, historian and tour-guide, his book Letters to My City was published by Writ Large Press. His poetry’s been featured on Public Radio Stations KCRW, KPCC & KPFK. He teaches at Woodbury University.
Virtually nowhere in the metropolitan United States could rent be called affordable for the average family, and there are certainly no places where a family on poverty wages could pay rent without assistance. In California, a family must report a household income of roughly $100,000 to make the median rent in the state. These numbers vary widely depending on region, reaching their most extreme levels in the Bay Area cities. However, even in Fresno, the largest urban center of the Central Valley, a family needs to earn nearly $20 per hour to afford the median rent in the area while the current state minimum wage is only $12 per hour. These gaps are not static over time but are growing as rent increases outpace wage increases, a point recently explored by The New York Times.The fallout from this feature of the affordable housing crisis is the subject of so many other stories that characterize California – homelessness, substandard housing, population decline, and displacement.
Matthew Desmond’s Pulitzer-prize winning book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, directed the affordable housing crisis conversation toward one particularly devastating consequence that ultimately links the unaffordability of housing to homelessness: evictions. Often, evictions happen because the tenant failed to pay their rent. Other times, evictions occur with no fault on the part of the tenant – because of a foreclosure, habitability issues, or, egregiously, because of retaliation against the tenant by the landlord. In addition to formal, court-ordered evictions, Desmond estimates from survey data in Milwaukee that informal evictions may as much as double the total amount of evictions that take place. These are evictions that occur outside of the judicial process and reflect the vulnerable position of the tenant, who vacates the premises prior to the court filing out of fear of entering the court process or because they cannot afford the court process. Evicted forced researchers, reporters, advocates, and policymakers to realize that the process of evicting a family from their home is a key culprit in exacerbating family poverty, unemployment, and neighborhood instability. More importantly, Desmond’s work illuminated the harsh reality of a court system that is designed not to protect families from entering a downward spiral into poverty and homelessness, but to protect property.
Often, the conversations about the affordable housing crisis and its consequences focus on the major metropolitan areas of California in the Bay Area and Southern California. In a database search on scholarly articles, graduate level theses, and newspaper articles over the past 20 years using the key phrases “housing crisis” and “California”, we found 1109 results for “Bay Area,” 3081 results for “San Francisco,” 1586 results for “Southern California,” and 3525 results for “Los Angeles.” In contrast, over the same period with the same key phrases, we only found 288 results for “Central Valley” and 250 results for “Fresno.” This demonstrates that both the scholarly and popular attention has been largely focused on the housing crisis in the southern and northern metropolitan areas of California, with far less given to the Central Valley.
Yet, in Fresno alone the California Housing Partnership Corporation reported a nearly 35,000 unit shortfall in affordable housing, and the National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates a 41,000 unit shortfall for the county overall. More alarmingly, Central Valley counties, where approximately 45 percent of households are renters, experience far higher rates of evictions than anywhere else in California. The typical renter in the Central Valley is rent-burdened, which is defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as a household that spends 30 percent or more of its income on housing costs. Fully a quarter of those households are severely rent-burdened, defined as a household that spends half or more of its income on housing costs. For this and other reasons, including higher rates of poverty, the virtual non-existence of tenant protection programs and laws at local levels, and increased migration from Southern and Northern California metropolitan areas into the Central Valley in search of lower housing costs, the affordable housing crisis conversation must include the Central Valley.
In this piece, we examine evictions and displacement in the Central Valley. This work developed through our research and experiences as scholar-activists and housing justice advocates in the Central Valley. We focus primarily on Fresno County, a sprawling, diverse metropolitan area comprising both urban and rural settlement in the heart of the Central Valley, but also include some findings from San Joaquin and Kern Counties, which are located in the northern and southern regions of the San Joaquin Valley, respectively. We draw on data from eviction court filings, observations in eviction court, and stories from tenants in Fresno County to answer the question: What accounts for the high eviction rates observed in the Central Valley? In answering this question, we develop three main points:
The affordable housing crisis conversation in California must include the Central Valley, where stark social inequalities are intricately tied with housing and neighborhood inequality. This means that scholarly work must consider the complexities of the housing crisis in California from the high-cost, high-income urban areas outside of the Central Valley to the lower-cost, lower-income urban and rural areas within the Central Valley. Housing activists as well must include the population and the needs of the Central Valley in their advocacy work and support the activism taking place within the Central Valley;
Evictions happen at a higher rate in the Central Valley than anywhere else in California. They are a devastating outcome of the affordable housing crisis and are an effective tool of the court system used to prioritize the protection of property and property-owners over poor families and families of color, and;
Immediate action could be taken by policymakers in the Central Valley at the local level that would bring balance to the relationship between tenants and property-owners and prevent further displacement, systemic social inequality, and neighborhood instability, which is particularly urgent in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impact.
Background: The Central Valley
The Central Valley is a vibrant, dynamic region known for its representation of over a hundred cultures, nationalities, and racial and ethnic identities, according to 2018 American Community Survey estimates. But it is also an area known for its high levels of social inequality by a multitude of metrics – income and wealth inequality, residential segregation, health disparities, and opportunity gaps in labor and education. The nature of social inequality in the Central Valley is so complex that it would be impossible to identify any one cause or solution. However, it becomes very clear through a spatial lens that many of the inequalities observed in the Central Valley are tied to neighborhoods and housing. When we map median income, median home values, percent in poverty, and percent nonwhite by census tract in the urban center of Fresno County, we see an indisputable overlap (Figures 1-4). To the east is the city of Clovis, a predominately White, wealthy suburb where the availability of affordable housing is so inadequate that it prompted a lawsuit by a local legal aid organization. Yet even within the more racially and socioeconomically diverse city of Fresno, it is apparent that there are distinct boundaries drawn which prevent low-income families of color from entering certain neighborhoods and in turn concentrate these families in identifiable areas of the city.
These boundaries are in part historical, tracing back to the days of racial covenants, and later redlining, which prompted further public and private disinvestment in neighborhoods where families of color resided while resources and opportunities were diverted to Whiter, wealthier neighborhoods. In addition, public housing, which shifted to become a resource for families of color neglected by the federal government, was primarily built in racially segregated neighborhoods where Black and Latinx families resided. This history is an important piece in understanding housing insecurity and inequality in Fresno because it led to widely disparate home values between neighborhoods.
Because families of color saw their neighborhoods forced to depreciate due to the actions of federal and local government, wealth and class inequality are now almost inseparable from racial inequality in Fresno. In White, affluent neighborhoods, housing values appreciated by directly benefiting from the inequities created by racist and classist housing policy. White families have enjoyed both wealth accumulation and racial exclusivity because the unaffordability of housing in these areas for low-income families has mostly meant that it is unaffordable for families of color as well. In Clovis specifically, experts argue that the deliberate choice to not zone low-income affordable housing is precisely why it is a predominately White community. These neighborhood-based inequalities created a setting where larger economic forces, in particular rising housing costs combined with depressed wages, would lead to a far more troubling human crisis: displacement and homelessness.
Evicted in the Central Valley
Given that financial hardship is responsible for both the triggering of an eviction and the vulnerability of the tenant, poverty is part of this story, but focusing on individual poverty does not capture the full effect of what changing economic conditions can do. Douglas Massey demonstrated in a compelling simulation how segregation can create a scenario where economic downturns are heavily absorbed by areas of concentrated poverty. When race and class segregation are interrelated, this specifically means that poor communities of color shoulder a heavier economic burden. In the context of an ongoing housing crisis in an area that was hit particularly hard by the housing bust, the pattern of segregation in Fresno County created an uneven distribution of evictions and displacement, with families of color seeing the most precipitous drops in housing value and poor families of color experiencing evictions at a higher rate than anybody else.
The eviction rate in 2016 in Fresno County was 2.16 percent, meaning that just over 2 percent of renters were formally evicted that year. While this seems like a negligible percentage, 2 percent amounts to over 3,000 families displaced from their homes in a single year. The volume of evictions physically manifests in the form of standing room-only crowds within the courtroom. In relative terms, the eviction rate in Fresno County is substantially higher than in both San Francisco County (0.25 percent) and Los Angeles County (0.58 percent), as well as in the state of California overall (0.83 percent). In addition, we have reason to believe that the number of families evicted each year in Fresno is perhaps thousands more when informal evictions, or evictions that happen outside of the court system, are considered.
Families who are informally evicted often vacate before the formal eviction process begins in order to avoid court action, which could incur fees and tarnish their record as a tenant. These are more likely to be impoverished families who cannot afford the added costs of responding to a court Summons and Complaint. In Fresno and surrounding rural communities, where there is also a large population of undocumented and mixed-status families in addition to families in poverty, we suspect that the number of informal evictions is even higher because of families who fear court action due to their immigration status. Even without data on informal evictions however, the number of formal evictions alone is shockingly high. Our research suggests some possible explanations for why evictions occur at such a significantly higher rate in the Central Valley than in areas with more notorious affordable housing issues.
In our previous report, we found that in 80-90 percent of eviction cases, the reason for the eviction was unpaid rent. In the majority of these cases, the amount of rent owed was less than two months’ worth. Here, then, is the first clue: rent burden. Rent burden is defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as the percentage of household income that is spent on rent. A family that spends more than 30 percent of their household income on rent is considered “rent-burdened.” The number is somewhat arbitrary, but it captures families who have less of a financial cushion when something goes wrong – an unforeseen medical incident, an accident, a sudden job loss or drop in income. In San Francisco County, where rents are among the highest in the country, rent burden is 27.5 percent, which means the typical family spends just over a quarter of their income on rent. In contrast, in Fresno County rent burden is 34.7 percent. Rental costs may be higher in the Bay Area, but costs relative to income matter. In Fresno County, the typical renter household is rent-burdened. In areas characterized by high levels of poverty, the typical family is severely rent-burdened. To reiterate, a severely rent-burdened household is defined by HUD as a household that spends half or more of its household income on rent.
Eviction Court and the Prioritization of Property
With the typical family spending over 30 percent of their income on rent, it is not a surprise that many families fail to pay rent, triggering an eviction filing almost as soon as rent is past due. From the perspective of property-owners and the court, this is reason enough to abruptly order a family out of their home. In eviction court, this process is quick and brutal. We have seen families appear for their court date unaware that their story of impending homelessness, catastrophic financial loss, and emotional and mental trauma would hold no bearing in a setting where the main priority is to protect the property and the financial interests of the landlord. Eviction court is a sphere dominated by attorneys who have made a career out of representing landlords, the same handful of predominately men appearing every week with an attitude towards the whole affair as something routine, each judgment seeming to be a foregone conclusion in favor of the landlord. The gender and racial disparities are apparent, with women of color overrepresented among tenants who appear in eviction court and White men overrepresented among the attorneys. As one tenant, a single Black mother in Fresno County, remarked on the power imbalance in the tenant-landlord attorney dynamic, “It was a lawyer against a little Black girl.” This mother was ultimately evicted with her young son after a confusing court process that left her with no option to fight her case.
In our previous study of evictions filed in 2016 in Fresno County, we found that 73 percent of the landlords in our sample had legal representation compared to only 1 percent of tenants. Not once, after months of observation, did we witness a judgment in favor of a tenant. Most families who we observed or spoke to appeared in court without any realization that they were entering partway through an ongoing process of filed paperwork, evidence-gathering, and legal consultation on the plaintiff’s (i.e. landlord’s) side. In many cases, tenants were not aware that they had missed their opportunity to file an answer, which must happen typically within five days of receiving the eviction notice, or that to have their side of the story heard they would need to have a trial separate from the unlawful detainer hearing. These trials usually occur the same day, catching tenants by surprise and without the needed evidence or witnesses to defend their case. This gives tenants little time to seek legal advice and gather documents. Oftentimes, we witnessed trials occurring within an hour of the hearing. And here, in seeking to understand why evictions happen at a higher rate in Fresno County than in other areas, is our second explanation for why evictions are so frequent: a woefully imbalanced justice system with few protections in place for tenants.
While some court processes, such as small and large claims cases, are slow and cases can carry on for months, eviction cases, known in legal terms as unlawful detainer cases, are moved through the system with astounding speed. In Fresno County, we found that most cases end in default or they are resolved and renters are evicted within a month of the initial court filing. The emphasis on property and the prioritization of the needs of property-owners is a key reason why this is so. Judges often frame their decisions as prioritizing the return of the property back to the property-owner. When talking about the property itself, judges use terms such as “expedite” and “urgent.” In contrast, there is little concern in the legal process for the tenant and their far more urgent need to stay housed. In the rare instance that tenants are truly able to confidently present their case to the judge, tenants openly express anxiety over not knowing where to go once they are locked out. Pleas are often met with expressions of sympathy from the judge but nonetheless cold resolution from the ruling, which holds that they must vacate the property or be forced out. Evictions are whiplash-fast and are considered a concluded matter almost as soon as the tenant is served with a notice. Ultimately the law is designed to put the needs of the property-owner over the needs of the tenant, who has no claim to ownership. Thus the matter of returning the property to the property-owners is often handled very quickly and decisions almost always fall in favor of the landlord. As evidence to this point, Eviction Lab data reports that of the 3,058 eviction court filings in Fresno County in 2016, 3,036 resulted in evictions – 99.3 percent. Meanwhile, the remaining issue of determining money damages that the tenant may be responsible for can be placed on a different, slower timeline.
Other actors in the eviction process, including the attorneys and law enforcement, also demonstrate the prioritization of property over humanity. In our survey research and advocacy work, tenants have described sometimes overly forceful behavior from authorities, such as sheriff’s deputies kicking down the front door while children were home alone. The overall motivation of landlord attorneys is to win cases and to collect fees that renters are typically ordered to pay, leading them to ruthlessly confuse and mislead tenants. Tenants are called to meet with landlord attorneys, without attorneys of their own, in the hallway or in small conference rooms in the courthouse. As the attorneys interact with tenants, it becomes clear whose interests they represent. We observed on numerous occasions landlord attorneys frame the situation in ways that discredit tenants’ statements and evidence, invoking anxiety and fear in the tenant, which only adds to an already stressful and confusing situation. Some of the tactics that we observed include presenting ledgers that do not include all of the payments that the tenants have made and muddling timelines so that the tenant can no longer recall dates or the order in which events occurred. Even though tenants bring their own evidence of money orders purchased and rent checks cashed, they soon begin to doubt their own account or worry that the evidence will be insufficient to win their case. Landlord attorneys make matters worse by explaining to tenants what the cost will be if they lose their case rather than settling for an agreement with the landlord.
Tenants have everything to lose, and within minutes they are forced to make a decision that is far from their original objective when they arrived at court, which was to keep their home. Now, after feeling intimidated and confused, their objective becomes: escape the court process with as little long-term consequence as possible. The property and the interests of the property-owner are the primary concern of the court, and while there are mediators to facilitate negotiations between landlords and tenants, nobody stands up for the tenant in the courtroom. The roles of advocates and activists could make a significant difference here, a factor that we discuss further in our conclusions.
Finally, the third explanation is the lack of local policies that protect renters. In California, there are jurisdictions where renter protections are well-established. However, they are very few in number: according to Tenants Together, only 23 out of 482 cities in California have rent control and/or “just cause” policies in place. Rent control effectively caps increases on rent to keep housing costs more affordable, while “just cause” requires landlords to justify their reason for issuing an eviction. Tenant protection laws are not without their controversy, but regardless of what other effects they may have, we found that in cities where these laws are in place, evictions are far more likely to be on the decline in tandem with an improving post-recession economy. In an analysis of eviction rates from 2006 to 2016 in California, we found that 70 percent of the neighborhoods located in cities with tenant protection laws in place saw eviction rates decline over the ten-year period. In comparison, only 46 percent of the neighborhoods located in cities without tenant protection laws experienced a decline in evictions. Notably, none of the twenty-three cities with local tenant protection laws are located in the Central Valley.
The recent enactment of the Tenant Protection Act of 2019 in California, which among other things makes “just cause” evictions the law across the state and caps rent increases, may improve matters in this regard. But the Central Valley continues to be notoriously lacking in local protections for tenants, a fact that is not well-understood but certainly observable in most jurisdictions, and this is reflected in the court system where tenants have little power to defend their rights by law due to a lack of legal representation and an unjustly opaque legal process that leaves many of them in a losing position over a failure to follow procedure. Recently, Nelson highlighted the discordance between how the tenant perceives the legal process of eviction and the process itself. Oftentimes, tenants misunderstand their relationship with the landlord and do not expect the swiftness of court action. Community advocates and grassroots organizations who fight for housing justice are carrying much of the critical work of educating tenants through “Know Your Rights” workshops, flyers, and resources. With local tenant unions in the Central Valley, outreach and organizing efforts could go even further.
Evictions as a Tool of the Social Divides
We have up to this point written in very general terms about eviction trends and procedures in the Central Valley and more specifically in Fresno, but our discussion about the historically established class and race divides in Fresno is important to bear in mind, because these determine who is more likely to face eviction. According to national estimates from the 2017 American Housing Survey, 3.3 percent of Black renters reported receiving a threat of eviction compared to only 1.3 percent of White renters. For those who identify as American Indian or Alaska Native, the disparity is even more staggering, with 4.4 percent reporting an eviction threat. Poverty and rent-burden are also factors, reflecting the relationship between housing insecurity and financial insecurity. Of those who are severely rent-burdened, 2.6 percent reported receiving a threat of eviction compared to 1.4 percent of those whose housing costs relative to income are moderate. Of renters who live below the poverty line, 3.2 percent reported receiving an eviction threat compared to only 1 percent of those whose income is 200 percent of the poverty threshold.
The obvious consequence of evictions is that families who are evicted find themselves suddenly severely housing insecure. But the fallout of an eviction is even more widespread and far-reaching than its effect on housing options. In our analysis of eviction court records in Fresno County, we calculated a measure that we call “compounded burden.” As we described above, most tenants are evicted over failure to pay rent. But the final money judgment includes the original amount owed plus other costs: holdover damages (i.e. the money that the landlord has lost in unpaid rent since the eviction) and attorney and court fees. The compounded burden is the factor by which the initial amount owed is multiplied when the final money judgment is made.
On average, tenants end up having to pay four times what they initially owed. The average tenant in our study owed approximately $1000 at the time of eviction. Based on the average compounded burden, the average tenant will find herself owing $4000 when the final judgment is made. If this amount goes unpaid, the State of California permits a 10% annual interest rate on the amount owed. Each year that the amount goes unpaid, this hypothetical average tenant who no doubt struggles with a multitude of financial hardships will owe another $400. Indeed, from our observations in eviction court it was not unusual to hear of a money judgment that would include nearly $1000 in attorney and court fees alone along with holdover damages that would amount to 1-2 more months’ rent in addition to the initial amount owed. Another factor associated with compounded burden is the prolonged period of time that vulnerable tenants are forced to carry debt. For example, a tenant and landlord enter into a stipulation (agreement between two parties approved by the judge) in the amount of $4,300, which includes past due rent, holdover damages, and court and attorney fees. The tenant, who makes a minimum wage, can only afford to pay $35 per month and is now carrying this debt for 10 years. Evictions alone may not affect a tenant’s credit score. However, if a tenant is ordered to pay money damages and fails to pay, they can be sent to collections. A credit reporting agency then places derogatory information on their credit report. Evictions with money damages are a twofold blow. Threefold, if you include the fact that a judgment accrues interest.
And this measure of compounded burden does not account for all of the other costs incurred from a sudden displacement – moving costs, storage fees, hours missed at work, extra transportation costs to handle legal obligations, search for a new place, and drive children to schools in neighborhoods that they no longer live in, the exorbitant cost of taking up temporary shelter in a motel, which many families do in Fresno, and the repeated fees attached to each rental application (up to $35 per application). It becomes apparent that an eviction, triggered by financial hardship, begets even greater financial hardship. When one considers that the families who are more likely to face an eviction are families of color, have children, and live in poverty, we can understand how so many social disparities can persist.
Consider, for example, the impact that an eviction has on a child – after all, children are one of the most likely populations to experience eviction. The social lives of children are anchored in multiple ways – their families, but also their neighborhoods and especially their schools. When a family is evicted, they are not likely to stay in the same neighborhood. This disruption removes a child from their neighborhood and may eventually force them to enroll in a new school, breaking critical social ties with teachers, classmates, and neighborhood friends. When we examined the frequency of evictions by month in Fresno County, we found that evictions happen at a high rate every month out of the year, which means that hundreds of families are evicted in the middle of the school year as well as during summer and winter breaks (Figure 5). Even if a child is able to stay in the same school, school attendance becomes difficult to maintain while the family is displaced and the parents are managing the situation. An eviction event can be traumatic for a child despite a parent’s best efforts to protect them, particularly when the eviction is carried out by law enforcement. Children coping with instability in their lives are more likely to face challenges when it comes to mental health and development. With conscious support from educators, this sudden disruption can be mitigated in its impact on the child’s social, emotional, and academic outcomes. However, while school districts track an overlapping population of students who are homeless, they do not specifically track students who have experienced an eviction.
The spatial dynamics of these trends again must be considered. Sociologists Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, in their influential work American Apartheid, drew out how segregation works as an effective mechanism for reinforcing inequality and oppression. When segregation is in place, it becomes very easy for the dominant group – wealthy Whites – to hoard resources and opportunities even while living in the same metropolitan area as other groups. In a metropolitan area, this can happen through municipal boundaries, with Whites moving to suburbs with exclusionary zoning and cutting off Black and Latinx families from their tax base and resources. As mentioned previously, this is the story that is told about the city of Clovis. In a single city, however, where all residents to a limited degree have access to the same tax base, more covert tactics must be used to maintain race and class boundaries and restrict access to the higher investments and newer development of White neighborhoods. The favored tactic in this scenario is housing discrimination.
There are many ways that housing discrimination can occur: for example, through steering, whereby realtors and property managers selectively show properties to families on the basis of their race and/or income, through housing loan discrimination, or through screening out prospective tenants who have Section 8 vouchers, (i.e. housing assistance). In California, all of these tactics are now outlawed under federal and state laws (e.g. Fair Housing Act of 1968 and SB 329). While this does not stop these forms of discrimination from occurring and enforcement is weak at best, it certainly reduces their frequency. But there is one extremely powerful, legal way to screen out low-income applicants, which in a city like Fresno can also effectively block many Black and Latinx households: deny them housing on the basis of an eviction record. When a tenant is evicted by the court, the eviction appears on their tenant record for seven years. Evicted tenants are placed on what is essentially a tenant blacklist with little chance of finding rental housing outside of areas of high poverty. In talking about the eviction on her record, one tenant said, “I’ve got seven years,” as if it were a prison sentence. In a way, an eviction on record likely does have a similar impact as a felony conviction when it comes to finding housing, especially in an area with an enormous deficit in affordable housing. Another tenant, a single mother with her daughter, expressed fear of losing her Section 8 housing following an eviction judgment. The loss of public housing assistance is an enormous blow, given that the waitlist for public housing assistance is closed in Fresno County and families on the list wait years to receive assistance.
The financial and emotional destruction that an eviction can create for a family is so immense that it is difficult to overstate, but evictions also contribute to instability in neighborhoods. If there were no geographic pattern to evictions, we would speak only of the effect on the family. But evictions are not geographically random and they happen in certain areas with remarkable frequency. In Fresno, specific parts of the county and especially in the city of Fresno experience higher rates of eviction than others (Figure 6). In neighborhoods of concentrated poverty where the population is predominately Black, Latinx, or Southeast Asian, and the typical family is spending over half of their income on rent, the eviction rates reach as high as 10 percent, which means that nearly 1 in 10 families are evicted every year in these neighborhoods. This, again, does not account for the informal evictions that are also occurring in these areas.
With such a high rate of turnover, neighborhood cohesion and solidarity is very difficult to establish, which makes it challenging for residents to build safe and healthy communities and, importantly, mobilize and wield political power. This particular consequence of evictions is two-sided: while poor communities with high instability have difficulty developing political capital, wealthier stable communities are able to lobby on their own behalf and claim more of the city’s resources and investment. The blame for this imbalance is often directed towards the poor communities, with local agencies such as the police department referring to them as “broken” neighborhoods and letting others assume that it is the residents themselves who did the breaking. But the instability of these neighborhoods is largely affected by external mechanisms of destabilization, including evictions.
Given that evictions happen at a higher rate in neighborhoods where poor, Black, and Latinx families live, segregation is reinforced. Because these families now have an eviction on their record as a tenant, they find themselves barred from entering wealthier, Whiter neighborhoods where families enjoy better-funded schools, maintained roads, more parks and greenspace, and newer housing stock. They not only become stuck in neighborhoods marred by disinvestment, they actually sink deeper into these areas as they must now find housing where landlords are willing to overlook their eviction record. In a city like Fresno where slum housing is numerous, these families have a higher likelihood of finding themselves in the clutches of slumlords, living in substandard housing with an even higher risk of eviction.
Many more evicted tenants may end up homeless, but the likelihood of homelessness following an eviction is not equal for all tenants. National estimates from the 2017 American Housing Survey reveal that among renters, White households, households above the poverty line, and households who are not rent-burdened are more likely to say that they can find a new home if they are evicted. Black householders, severely rent-burdened households, and households living below the poverty line are more likely to say that they will go to a shelter following an eviction (Figure 7). In our ongoing eviction court study, we have yet to survey a tenant who knows where they will live after being evicted from their current home, with some expressing only the possibility that they could move in with a family member and others telling us that they have moved into a motel room.
Beyond the communities that suffer the direct consequences of housing insecurity and evictions, the jurisdiction also pays a price for not doing more to keep families in stable housing. The cost of evicting a family who could not afford rent and certainly cannot afford the added fees accrued through the court eviction process is borne by local governments. Counties must deal with the cost of processing thousands of evictions a year, and both cities and counties must devote more funding to public programs to support a growing homeless population who not only lack shelter but may also have more complicated healthcare needs.
After the Pandemic
When we first began researching and writing on this topic, the COVID-19 virus was not a part of the conversation. But now we are in the middle of a pandemic and what appears to be a massive societal shift as we rapidly adjust our entire way of life to prevent the spread of a highly infectious disease. Social scientists and social advocates fear that this shift will follow the well-worn paths carved out by centuries of systemic oppression and resulting social inequalities. As unemployment surges in the immediate economic fallout of a nation under siege, we have every reason to expect a widening of the chasm between those with wealth and those without.
In the weeks after the COVID-19 pandemic truly began to hit home in the United States, housing advocates raised the alarm based on what we already knew about the precariousness of being a renter. In the Central Valley, where the majority of renters experience unsustainable levels of rent burden, we knew that the public health safety measures put in place which resulted in cutting wage-labor hours, layoffs, and school closures would leave low-income renters unable to make next month’s rent. Some local jurisdictions in California acted quickly to protect renters, but none in the Central Valley led the way. In Kern County, only the City of Delano instated any renter protections. San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties adopted emergency resolutions with language revoking commercial and residential landlord authority to evict tenants for nonpayment of rent due to COVID-19. However, both resolutions offer zero guidelines on what tenants can or should do if they are served with a notice. The City of Stockton was the first in the Central Valley to enact emergency measures temporarily halting some evictions, but they are inadequate for providing much-needed protections for the most vulnerable renters.
In the City of Fresno, the reaction was lethargic and the final policy decision, which came only after Governor Gavin Newsom issued Executive Order N-28-20 authorizing local jurisdictions to take emergency action on evictions, fell far short of providing needed protection for renters. Fresno City Council, like other local governments, passed a policy that placed the burden of protection squarely on renters. Renters needed to be aware of the ordinance and then notify their landlord in writing of their inability to pay rent due to COVID-19 and provide documentation within 10 days of notifying their landlords. Evictions for reasons other than nonpayment were excluded from the order (e.g. unauthorized occupants to care for a loved one or shelter in place with family). This left many renters still at risk of eviction.
Ultimately, only around 10 percent of the jurisdictions across California chose to instate any sort of emergency ordinance for renters during peak months of unemployment. Most of the orders adopted a similar approach, helping renters establish a legal defense against eviction for nonpayment of rent due to COVID-19. Under the emergency ordinances put in place by local jurisdictions and another executive order by Governor Newsom, some tenants were given the opportunity to document their inability to pay rent due to COVID-19 so that, upon receiving an eviction notice, they could respond to the complaint in court with evidence that their failure to pay rent was due to loss of income or health issues related to the pandemic. This policy is fundamentally different from an eviction moratorium, which legal experts describe as a comprehensive ban on eviction filings. The only example of a moratorium in California was in Oakland where landlords are able to bring a small claims suit for past due rent but cannot file an eviction lawsuit.
But still, there is reason to hope. While the decisions by local and state policymakers to address eviction still inherently privilege the landlord over the tenant, many policymakers made it clear that they are not ignorant of the calls from housing advocates. In early April 2020, the Judicial Council of California, which is responsible for making rules for courts in the state of California, did what other government entities would not and halted the processing of all eviction filings (with some public safety exceptions) for the duration of the pandemic emergency, temporarily, but comprehensively, addressing the gap in protections put in place by the Governor’s executive order and local emergency orders. The ruling was lifted on September 1 but was followed by the passage of AB 3088 in the California legislature, which protects tenants from eviction due to nonpayment of rent through February 2021. Immediately after the passage of AB 3088, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a nationwide moratorium on evictions in the name of public health.
These are signs of progress. The recognition that many renters are housing insecure and vulnerable to crises positions our society to make long-lasting structural changes. However, the will to shift the balance of power between owners and tenants is still anemic in the Central Valley, with few jurisdictions signaling that they are considering the aftereffects of the pandemic on renters when the emergency ordinances are lifted and the business of evictions can return to full operation. This means that once the emergency orders are lifted, if tenants are served with a notice, they must still go through the court process of responding to an eviction lawsuit and gathering their own evidence to defend their case. Tenants must still be prepared to navigate the legal system to retain their housing, almost always without legal assistance or representation. Therefore, the systemic problems that we identified as contributing to the high eviction rates observed in the Central Valley prior to this pandemic, such as the lack of legal representation for tenants, are likely to remain in place and allow this current state of emergency to exacerbate the eviction crisis in the region. Indeed, California scored only a 0.9 out of 5 on the Eviction Lab’s COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard, a policy analysis tool designed to evaluate the extent to which state governments are protecting tenants from displacement during and after the pandemic, because statewide orders do little to truly prevent a surge in evictions. They choose only to defer rather than halt evictions.
We can also assume that informal evictions, which operate outside of the law and therefore are unlikely to be affected by policy changes aimed at formal evictions, will carry on. These evictions primarily impact undocumented or mixed-status immigrant households and extremely financially precarious households – the same households that are at a higher risk of COVID-19 infection due to a reliance on essential worker jobs in the agriculture, manufacturing, and service industries. To be protected by the COVID-19 emergency policies, one must be privileged by the law in the first place. Based on Desmond’s work, the implication is that undocumented families, extremely poor families, and families impacted by mass incarceration are less likely to find protection from displacement during the pandemic, especially if they are renting from slumlords.
We cannot say with certainty what our society will look like when we come out on the other side of this global crisis, but we can formulate some predictions regarding evictions based on the existing evidence. Without taking action to instate long-term protections for renters, we expect to return to a standing-room only eviction court when society is restored to something akin to normal. Tenants are placed at an institutional disadvantage by a society that has always privileged the needs and interests of those who own property over those who do not. This truth is reflected even in the COVID-19 emergency ordinances, which only extend protection from evictions while the state of emergency is ongoing. Once the public health crisis is over and the danger is no longer imminent, there is no obvious plan to protect renters from the full force of eviction proceedings throughout the Central Valley, which means that the emergency ordinances are not about making radical changes to reduce the financial and social vulnerability of renters.
Conclusion: What Should Be Done?
The skeptic who asks whether the goal should be to reduce evictions may now understand that the consequences of eviction are multilayered and far-reaching, exacerbating deep family poverty, uprooting children from their schools and communities, and destabilizing neighborhoods. Anybody who believes in the importance of a functioning society ought to agree that these issues, especially when they are systemic, are signs of societal dysfunction. In the Central Valley, with high levels of poverty and a worsening housing crisis, we argue that we are witnessing dysfunction. We also argue that stable housing is critical for giving families opportunities and ensuring their health and well-being. Housing may not solve every issue, but it certainly, as Desmond so vividly demonstrated in his work, gives families stable ground to stand on and address other issues.
Tens of thousands of eviction lawsuits are filed annually throughout the Central Valley and even greater numbers of informal evictions occur outside of the legal realm. The narrative that displacement is a problem in the Bay Area and Southern California and rents are affordable in the Central Valley is false and harmful. Affordability is relative to wages, cost of living, the supply of affordable housing, and strong public policies that protect tenants and landlords. This false narrative must be challenged because it serves to exacerbate the existing housing crisis in the Central Valley as residents from Southern California and the Bay Area are pushed out of their communities and spill over into the Central Valley. The Central Valley has the highest rate of evictions in California and the majority of cases end in a Clerk Default Judgment. This means that tenants automatically lose, by default, before they ever have a chance to share their side of the story. Too many tenants cannot access or navigate the complicated court system within the very narrow window permitted. This leads us to conclude that the court system is designed to operate as a debt collector or legally sanctioned displacement instrument for landlords. The bottom line: the system prioritizes the protection of private property and property-owners over poor families and families of color.
Our previous analysis of court records in addition to our observations and survey data from eviction court have led us to some possible solutions. In our research, we found that most tenants (83%) owed less than two months’ rent and half of these tenants owed only one month plus late fees, meaning that often tenants are issued a notice almost as soon as their rent is late. We found that the property owners with the largest portfolios only accounted for just over 2 percent of all evictions in Fresno County. This leads us to conclude that the majority of evictors are landlords who own few properties and in many cases may only own one other property which they are financing and renting out, perhaps as a strategy for building personal wealth. We say this with the understanding that slumlords with large portfolios use multiple LLCs to obscure the size of their holdings. But the ‘mom and pop’ landlords, understandably, cannot afford for their tenants to miss rent. Local emergency rent funds could prevent a majority of evictions from occurring, ultimately helping the tenant family stay in their home until a long-term solution is reached and protecting the landlord from sudden financial difficulties. Fully-funded local rental assistance programs are crucial to combat the eviction crisis in the Central Valley. Emergency rent (or relocation) assistance is a proactive measure that will help stabilize housing for tens of thousands of Central Valley renters. Over the span of the COVID-19 pandemic, following pressure from housing advocates, major Central Valley cities like Fresno, Bakersfield, and Stockton passed emergency rent assistance programs. However, these programs are COVID-19 focused and largely funded with CARES Act funds – the first major COVID-19 stimulus bill passed by Congress – and thus there is no indication that these rental assistance programs will remain in place or stay funded when the state of emergency ends.
Further, John Pollock, Coordinator for the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel argues that providing vulnerable tenants access to legal representation in eviction cases is critical to prevent displacement. A growing number of jurisdictions across the nation (San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Newark, and New York) agree and findings that assess the impact of these programs on reducing evictions are promising. New York City, the first city to implement a Right to Counsel for eviction, experienced a 14% decrease in eviction filings in the first year and a significant number of families (84%) who were served with an unlawful detainer lawsuit remained in their homes.
Similarly, the Sargent Shriver Civil Counsel Act (AB 590), which launched housing pilot projects in six California counties (Kern, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Yolo) led to positive outcomes for tenants. Tenants received either full-scope legal representation (i.e. having an attorney file pleadings, and represent the tenant in court, etc.) or access to court services such as legal advice and/or were provided assistance filling out and filing court documents. With greater access to legal representation tenants were able to successfully navigate the court process, negotiate a fair settlement (70%), have their case heard by a judge and secure a favorable outcome. Major findings from the first-year evaluation of San Francisco’s universal right to counsel program found a 10% reduction in eviction lawsuit filings from 2018 to 2019, an increase in housing stability among tenants (67% of those receiving full legal representation were able to remain in their homes), with an even higher rate of success (80%) for African American tenants. Although the program does not restrict access on the basis of household income, 85% of recipients were extremely low or low income. The cards are stacked against tenants who are poor, and among economically vulnerable Black and Latinx tenants in particular. A civil right to counsel is only one tool, but it is proving effective in leveling the playing field for tenants in eviction court. As policymakers search for solutions to address the eviction crisis, especially as a means to combat long-standing racial inequities, a civil right to counsel that includes proactive rent assistance shows promise in addressing economic and racial inequities in housing. In addition, while most housing advocacy groups cannot give legal advice, they have increasingly carried some of the work of legal aid organizations by organizing workshops, creating toolkits, appearing at hearings, and sharing information through social media networks to help tenants prepare for eviction court and defend themselves from illegal landlord activity. These efforts should be more fully supported with public funding and resources.
Housing advocates have been regularly attending city council and board of supervisor meetings across the Central Valley to give public comment, in addition to holding research meetings with local elected officials and state representatives, to inform elected leaders of the eviction crisis, pressure them to take action, and bring concrete policy solutions to the table. We believe that when elected leaders are presented with evidence of a crisis impacting thousands of people in their community annually with no end in sight, they have a moral, ethical, and legal duty to act and act quickly. Some have risen to their duty under the urgency of the COVID-19 crisis by enacting temporary restrictions on evictions and rent relief programs, but the actions taken fall woefully short of instating long-term stabilizing protections. We have outlined the multitude of problems associated with the eviction crisis, the longstanding inequities that lock poor families and families of color out of safe, decent, and affordable housing opportunities, and demonstrated how the eviction court process disadvantages renters. We provided evidence-based solutions that elected leaders can enact immediately to combat the eviction crisis in the Central Valley. We have demonstrated that the Central Valley must be included in the conversations about housing justice. We are now, in the middle of a pandemic, certainly in an unprecedented time but crises have a way of bringing to the surface longstanding injustices which create the opportunity for systemic change. We can reimagine a new normal where every human lives in a safe and affordable home in a thriving neighborhood.
 Rebecca Diamond, Tim McQuade, and Franklin Qian, “The Effects of Rent Control Expansion on Tenants, Landlords, and Inequality: Evidence from San Francisco,” American Economic Review 109, no. 9, (2019)
 Michael C. Lens, Kyle Nelson, Ashley Gromis, and Yiwen Kuai, “The Neighborhood Context of Eviction in Southern California,” City & Community, https://doi.org/10.111.12487 (2020); Nkosi et al. (2019)
 City of Delano, “An Urgency Ordinance Of The City Council Of The City Of Delano Temporarily Prohibiting Evictions Of Residential Tenants Arising From Income Loss Or Substantial Medical Expenses Related To The Covid- 19 Pandemic,” March 26, 2020, https://www.cityofdelano.org/ArchiveCenter/ViewFile/Item/2465
Amber R. Crowell is Assistant Professor of Sociology at California State University, Fresno. Her research focuses on residential segregation, housing, social inequality, and race. She has published research on the spatial demography and driving factors behind racial residential segregation patterns. She is also a community advocate for tenants’ rights in the Central Valley, working to reduce evictions and establish a right to housing for all. She currently serves as Regional Housing Coordinator for the grassroots community organization Faith in the Valley and is an appointed member of the City of Fresno Anti-Displacement Task Force.
Janine Nkosi is a dedicated and passionate sociologist, activist-educator, and community-based researcher. She is firmly committed to helping folks develop and deepen their sociological imagination through critical community-based research and organizing to address some of the most pressing issues in the community. Dr. Nkosi is a lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Fresno State and teaches full-time at Merritt College in Oakland, CA. She is the Regional Advisor for Faith in the Valley a grassroots community organization dedicated to working alongside residents to advance racial justice across the Central Valley. One of the campaigns Janine is involved in is the Healthy Housing Campaign, which is rooted in a belief that housing is a fundamental human right, and everyone deserves a safe, healthy, and deeply affordable place to call home. Janine’s teaching, research, and organizing philosophy are rooted in critical race methodologies, critical pedagogy, relational organizing, asset-based perspectives, and lived experience.
Reaganland is the final installment of Rick Perlstein’s critically acclaimed history of the modern conservative movement. Beginning with Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign, continuing through the Nixon years, and culminating with Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory, the four-volume saga furnishes an enormous amount of period detail culled from a wide variety of sources. Focused mostly on electoral politics, it chronicles the period’s key campaigns, surveys the social movements that shaped the political landscape, and encapsulates countless contemporary issues. Perlstein’s commentary is sparing but refreshingly tart. Although he elsewhere describes himself as a European-style social democrat, he clearly admires the conservative movement’s passion and resolve, and he is especially tough on liberal pundits and operatives who dismissed or underestimated their adversaries. For these and other reasons, Perlstein’s magnum opus is the most comprehensive introduction to the Age of Reagan.
In my review of the third volume, I noted that Perlstein’s style was exhausting but not quite exhaustive. That pattern is even more evident in Reaganland. Unlike its predecessors, it does not use an explicit theme or organizing device to shape and direct the story. Moreover, it violates a basic narrative convention by steadily expanding the size of the cast. On almost every page of this lengthy book, Perlstein introduces several new characters, many of whom appear only once. As a result, the final volume sprawls more than an Orange County suburb. Perlstein marches through the major events, issues, and news items of the Carter presidency: Panama Canal, OPEC, Iran, SALT II, Moral Majority, Three Mile Island, Afghanistan, tax revolt, affirmative action, supply-side economics, and so on. He also details the shifting rivalries and alliances, both major and minor, within and between the two parties. Although his determination to map every twist in the road is impressive, the steady accumulation of detail does not always lead to a deeper understanding of the period or its major figures. Indeed, I often felt that I was reliving, rather than reassessing, a four-year period that was not especially enjoyable the first time around. Even as the curtain falls on his lengthy series, Perlstein draws no conclusions about the movement he has chronicled. Instead, he quotes Reagan’s inaugural speech (“In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem …”) and adds that the fur coats at the inaugural balls “so overloaded the coatracks that they resembled great lumbering mastodons out of the prehistoric past.” It is a nice touch but not a helpful summation of a lengthy, complicated narrative.
Something else is missing as well. Having read the entire cycle, I now believe it is related to the story’s provenance. Thousands of minor characters come and go in Perlstein’s epic, but its chief protagonists emerged from a relatively small region— Southern California and Arizona—which had exercised little political influence at the national level. Perlstein documents the rising power of the Sun Belt, but one can read this entire series without learning why Southern California produced the two most important American politicians in the second half of the twentieth century. When posed directly, that question calls our attention to Perlstein’s grasp of the region’s history and political culture. Although one does not expect complete mastery in a story of this scope, his portrait of California has several gaps and flat sides. It would have benefited, I think, from Kathryn S. Olmsted’s analysis in Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism (2015), which argues that California agribusiness served as the state’s political crucible during that turbulent decade. Businessmen forged a new kind of populism that combined corporate funding for grassroots efforts, sophisticated media campaigns, systematic intelligence-gathering on adversaries, and coalitions between religious and economic conservatives. That form of corporate populism was also characterized by its virulent anti-communism, which eventually spread from the state’s fields and canneries to Hollywood and the University of California. It is no accident, Olmsted notes, that Nixon and Reagan launched their political careers by attacking Communists real and imagined. Perlstein touches on related material, but Olmsted puts the movement’s origins into sharper focus.
Also absent are critiques by California leftists. Chief among them is Carey McWilliams, who has been described as “the state’s most astute political observer” (Kevin Starr) and “the California left’s one-man think tank” (Mike Davis). Although McWilliams was known back east for editing The Nation magazine, he was also tracking Nixon and Reagan as early as the 1940s. When Nixon ran for the Senate in 1950, McWilliams tagged him as “a dapper little man with an astonishing capacity for petty malice.” In the mid-1960s, when the conservative movement began to flex its muscles, McWilliams regularly challenged Nixon and Reagan in the pages of The Nation. In 1966, for example, he called out Reagan in an article called “How to Succeed with the Backlash.” In it, he described that year’s gubernatorial race as “one of the most subtle and intensive racist political campaigns ever waged in a Northern or Western state.” In the aftermath of the Watts Riots and the state’s fair-housing ordeal, McWilliams took note of Reagan’s dog whistles:
There won’t be much plain talk from Californians about the racism that they know permeates the Brown-Reagan contest. Most of them won’t talk about it at all if they can escape it. They don’t want the nation to know—they don’t want to admit to themselves—that the number-one state may elect Ronald Reagan governor in order to ‘keep the Negro in his place.’
Despite his perspicacity, or perhaps because of it, McWilliams never appears in Perlstein’s epic. He certainly did not play the part of the clueless liberal, one of Perlstein’s favorite types. Barely two years after Goldwater’s crushing defeat, McWilliams was well aware of the conservative movement’s growing power in California. Indeed, he warned that Pat Brown, the two-term incumbent, was in danger of losing to a former B-movie actor who had never held public office. Mainstream outlets largely ignored his charge of racism, preferring the weak sauce of consensus journalism, but McWilliams and others saw through Reagan in real time.
Perlstein’s most remarkable omission, however, concerns the Los Angeles Times. Quite simply, one cannot understand Southern California history or politics without a thorough consideration of that newspaper and its owners. For three generations, aspiring Republicans curried favor with the Chandler family. Norman Chandler later conceded that the Times strongly supported the GOP—not only on the op-ed page, but also in its news coverage. In fact, the newspaper had sabotaged Democratic candidates, including Upton Sinclair, whom the Times smeared regularly during his 1934 gubernatorial campaign. The paper’s political editor, Kyle Palmer, told a colleague, “We don’t go in for that kind of crap that you have back in New York—of being obliged to print both sides. We’re going to beat this son of a bitch Sinclair any way we can. We’re going to kill him.” That pattern changed in the 1960s, when Otis Chandler turned the Times into a respectable news organization. The Times became a less reliable advocate for GOP candidates, but it occupied an even larger niche in the national media ecology. Bitter about the newspaper’s new orientation, President Nixon ordered an investigation of Otis Chandler’s taxes. Perlstein probably understands the newspaper’s centrality; a note in the first volume recommends David Halberstam’s history of the Times during its early years. By my count, however, the newspaper receives only 13 passing mentions in all four volumes. Otis Chandler is cited once—in a passage about the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Buff and Norman Chandler, who exerted enormous political, commercial, and cultural influence in Los Angeles, likewise receive one brief mention each.
When Perlstein focuses on California politics, the results are mixed. Howard Jarvis’s tax revolt receives ample discussion in Reaganland, as does Governor Jerry Brown’s response to it. Perlstein’s summary of the property tax issue is on point, but his depiction of Brown conforms to the Governor Moonbeam stereotype. “Jerry Brown was a strange man,” Perlstein asserts. “He drove his own used Plymouth sedan, slept on a mattress on the floor of his bachelor apartment, and spent his spare time at the San Francisco Zen Center.” Brown was by no means a conventional politician, but even now, nothing in Perlstein’s description seems especially odd to me. Nor does it capture Brown’s appeal. His trademark emphasis on limits and fiscal restraint, which Perlstein suggests were trumped by Reagan’s blue-sky optimism, turned out to be useful after the global economic meltdown of 2008. A byproduct of the Reagan revolution’s penchant for deregulation, that crisis brought California to the brink of insolvency, but Brown helped clean up the mess. Perhaps it is a matter of taste, but a figure like J. Edgar Hoover, who appears frequently in the early volumes, seems far stranger to me than Jerry Brown.
Reaganland also gives ample space to the Briggs Initiative, which sought to ban gays and lesbians from teaching in California. Harvey Milk figured prominently in that episode, and Perlstein quotes his Gay Freedom Day speech at length. Although Milk begged President Carter to denounce the initiative, it was Reagan who surprised everyone by taking a relatively soft line on the issue, and Orange County state senator John Briggs blamed him for the measure’s defeat. That outcome seems sane enough, but 200 pages later, Perlstein doubles down on his portrait of “oddball California.” He returns to the gay rights movement, recounts the assassinations of George Moscone and Harvey Milk, and features Dan White’s trial. Relying heavily on Warren Hinckle’s coverage, he mistakes Hinckle for “a former New Left radical” and scrambles the sequence of the two events that staggered San Francisco: “Then came those assassinations, then Jonestown, within the space of ten awful days.” In fact, the Jonestown massacre preceded the City Hall slayings. Perlstein closes the episode with an interesting irony. The word neighborhood, he notes, was one of the “five simple, familiar, everyday words” that Reagan believed should guide every GOP message. After describing the Castro district riots that followed the White verdict, Perlstein adds that Reagan’s insight was a sound one: “Just look at how many people were willing to spill blood for their neighborhoods in San Francisco.” Of course, such conflicts were unthinkable in Reaganland. Although sparingly applied, Perlstein’s piquant sense of irony is one of his major assets.
Behind Perlstein’s project is a deceptively simple question: How did Ronald Reagan become the dominant American politician of his era? Reaganland is the most obvious place to address that question directly, but Perlstein largely coasts on his earlier claim that, in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, Reagan’s political success sprang from the tension between American optimism and pessimism. Reaganland recounts Jimmy Carter’s failed attempts to harness that tension, but as Perlstein notes in the previous volume, Reagan had already resolved it with a single (if dubious) theological stroke. In Reagan’s sunny view, even the country’s gravest mistakes, crimes, and sins were trivial compared to America’s divinely ordained role as leader of the free world. He considered the U.S. effort in Vietnam a noble cause, stood by Richard Nixon long after the Watergate scandal destroyed his presidency, and seemed untroubled by even the ugliest forms of racism. In Perlstein’s view, Reagan had “the capacity to cleanse any hint of doubt regarding American innocence. That was the soul of his political appeal: his liturgy of absolution.” When other conservatives spouted racist remarks and violent threats, that capacity was especially useful.
For all the differences between the two men, Reagan also endorsed Nixon’s peculiar sense of inculpability. Discussing the president’s role in national security, Nixon famously claimed, “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” In effect, Reagan extended that immunity to the nation as a whole. In Reagan’s imaginary republic, America could do no wrong. If a person thought that about himself, we would consider him a sociopath. Now, four decades after Reagan’s victory, even the most casual observer can see that pathology on full display in the White House. This degeneration is perhaps the most dispiriting aspect of American political history since 1980. As political commentator Charles Pierce likes to say, that was the year the GOP ate the monkey brains. Despite its foibles, Reaganland shows exactly how that table was set.
“A good deal about California does not, on its own preferred terms, add up,” Joan Didion wrote about her home state. The same was true of Reagan’s fantasies and simplifications. In the end, we paid for all of them, though Perlstein’s monumental work will not document that reckoning.
Peter Richardson teaches humanities at San Francisco State University, where he also coordinates the American Studies and California Studies programs. His books include No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead (2015); A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America (2009); and American Prophet: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams, which the University of California Press published in paperback in 2019.
With “Postcards,” creative non-fiction stories grounded in place, we aspire to create a new cartography of California. For us, literature and language are as much about marking and representing space, as they are about storytelling.
–After the Dome Fire, August 2020
It’s a hot, late September Day, and I’m driving alone into the East Mojave Preserve from the south, following Kelso Road off of Interstate 40.
I’m on my way to view the impacts of the recent, devastating 43,000-acre Dome Fire, which ripped through the Cima Dome area, formerly home to one of the world’s healthiest and most stunning Joshua tree woodlands.
I’m not intimidated by these vastly remote spaces of the Mojave Desert. In fact, I feel quite at home. Every mile I drive, past granite outcrops, ragged rock peaks, the massive Kelso Sand Dunes brings me closer to the heart of memory and home.
This is where I worked on many wildfires during the late 1980s, based at the Bureau of Land Management California Desert District Apple Valley Fire Station a 2-hour drive to the south. I worked one season on Engine Crew 6365, and a second season as a Helicopter 554 helitack/hotshot crew member.
As the miles melt into one another on this lonely, two-lane road, I’m embraced with memories that are both reassuring and unsettling as I remember firefighting moments and memories from time spent and shared with family and friends in the subsequent years.
This is where I fell in love with my daughter’s father, who I met and worked with on the engine crew, another fire crew member. This is where we battled several vehicle fires, and stopped the spread of any adjacent brush fires, using water hoses from our fire engine and the occasional shovel and chainsaw.
This is where I flew many times during the summer of 1987 on Helicopter 554, dropped off with six other crew members, high up in the Granite Mountains to control a lightning-torched blaze in a pinyon pine forest and spent a surprisingly cold night to make sure the fire was completely out.
Every desert fire, past and present, especially ones I worked on and even now, feels deeply personal to me. As I watched media coverage of the Dome Fire play out online, I reacted as I usually do during every major desert fire event over the years. I was frustrated and felt displaced to not be there in person, doing something to help with fire suppression operations – shovel work cutting fireline, perhaps, or helping with helicopter operations at the makeshift helicopter operations base.
The East Mojave Preserve – a large part of my firefighter turf for two fire seasons – in particular, feels like home to me. My memories and lingering physical presence are seared into the landscape itself. With every new fire, I have felt a familiar rush of adrenaline, a huge responsibility to be there, participating in the teamwork and makeshift firefighter community to help mitigate the damage from the burn. Many of my former desert wildland firefighter friends tell me they feel the same way.
There’s the ruts of the Old Mojave Road heading west towards a harsh area known as the Devil’s Playground, route for many 19th century pioneers heading west to the Promised Land of California citrus and sunshine, layered over a centuries old trail established and used by indigenous people traveling across the Mojave from one rare and precious water source to the next: places such as Marl and ZZYZX Springs, often up to thirty miles apart. My daughter – now a young adult raising a family of her own in Minneapolis – and I explored out here in my Jeep years ago to search for and photograph 30 different species of desert wildflowers for her high school biology class project.
I drive past the Kelso Depot, an historic train station that’s been recently refurbished to its early 20th century glory, and head north towards Cima Road. Slowly, to the west, I begin to see the massive bulge of Cima Dome, a part of the area out here known as the Cinder Cones National Natural Landmark. The remains of eroding granite that formed under the earth’s surface millions of years ago, it rises 1,500 feet (460 m) above the volcanic plain and covers 70 square miles.
It is the color of charcoal today. The size of the Dome Fire slowly reveals itself, and the searing impacts of its black wrath are obvious. Teutonia Peak, once covered with part of one of the world’s most expansive Joshua tree forests, has taken on the tones and look of a cinder cone.
As I slow the car down and pull into the small dirt parking area at the trailhead to Teutonia Peak, I look up: a red-tail hawk circles above, riding on a fit of ash-strewn wind that is spinning into a dark dust devil.
I put the car into park, turn off the ignition. Complete silence. I’m in a desert graveyard, and the most obvious dead appear to be the ghosts of charred Joshua trees.
My mind goes into a sort of firefighter mode as I begin to walk through the ashy remains, grateful I wore my oldest hiking boots, which area already getting charred. I imagine how this fire played out, what it would have been like to have worked on the Dome Fire.
I was, and still am, often asked why I, as a woman, would “do that kind of work.” And to me, it’s always been simple: it is work that I felt incredibly at home with, at one with a working family, and a job that allowed me to express my love and need to nurture and care for the land that I deeply loved. By tending to wildfire, and its immediate and enduring impacts on the land.
First and foremost is a feeling of performing a job that is layered in domestic terminology and structure. The firefighting community is as tightly knit and mutually interdependent as a family unit. Crew members, whose lives depended on the vigilance and support of one another, and who typically
Even many of the terms in the firefighter’s lexicon are domestic: there’s the endless chore known as “mopping up,” which involves spending many slow and tedious hours walking through areas that have burned and stirring and cooling layers of hot ash. There are the times we’d spend “babysitting a fire,” usually at night, when many fires tended to slow down, or “laid itself down,” where fire crews would spread themselves 10 or 20 feet apart along a fireline at the edge of the burn to prevent spot fires from starting up in the green vegetation. And, the activities that include “putting a fire to bed:” wrapping up a wildfire event with a fire under control and operations winding down. There are also the “widow makers,” trees that have partially burned or whose roots are smoldering that occasionally fall down without warning as crews work below, sometimes lethally.
Even though I wasn’t a mother yet then, I operated in a mama bear mode, ready to protect life and limb of my beloved desert and western wildlands, as well as human lives and homes, without hesitation.
We were firmly guided by critical principles, such as the 10 Basic Firefighter Rules, that are imprinted into my brain to this day and often serve as a guiding survival template in day to day living and have informed my work as a parent and educator in many ways.
For example: Be alert, keep calm, think clearly, act decisively. Know your escape route at all times. Give clear instructions and ensure they are understood. Fight fire aggressively, having provided for safety first.
I’ll never forget the scorching summer day working on a desert fire when a crew member, a friend to this day, turned and yelled, “Rattlesnake!” just as I was about to step on a huge Mojave Green.
I learned, through vivid and immediate experience, that sometimes, fires are mostly out of firefighters’ control. That things don’t always turn out the way we would have expected them to. And that we have to learn to live with that. We can’t save everything. And firefighters sometimes get injured. Some even die.
As I and walk along the edge of the ragged, hastily-cut fireline at the edge of the burn zone, I search for what firefighters may have left behind: boot prints in the ashes, not erased by away by rain; fragments of charred fire hose; perhaps a broken boot lace or someone’s crumpled bandana. I can almost hear the whine of Helicopter 554’s rotors and feel the wash of wind and sting of dirt kicking up in my face as I guide it to land for another water bucket refill, a gritty taste in my mouth.
The jagged caw-caw of a raven perched atop a black bristle of burnt Joshua tree pulls me out of my reverie. I look to the sky, which is slowly turning into a hazy brown as smoke from multiple other wildfire events across California and the Western U.S. works its way across the Mojave Desert.
As I survey the hulking charred ruins of the Joshua tree forests stretching beyond me farther than I can see, I can’t help but wonder, like a fretful parent soothing their little one’s feverish brow while trying to work out how their child has gotten seriously ill, what happened out here? Why and how did this desert fire get so big? Why was did it take four days for helicopter support?
It’s a tragedy that the Dome Fire grew to the size that it did. It’s inexplicable to me that H554 didn’t get out here as an initial attack crew and get this fire under control immediately. I know it was possible, had resources been available on August 12 when a lightning strike started this blaze. Then again, there were so many things out of anyone’s control that day. Fire resources were already stretched thin as multiple major fires played out across California, an unfortunate situation worsened by the sharp reduction of available inmate firefighter crews due to the coronavirus pandemic.
I’m reminded, as I look for signs of life, and recovery, and don’t see any yet, that many expectations in my personal life haven’t turned out the way I thought they would.
It wasn’t long after my time working on fires out here that my daughter’s father began his lifelong stints in prison – first working for Susanville fire camp, and later, as his crimes became more serious, time in maximum prison. I haven’t communicated with him in years.
My boyfriend, ten years ago, dying by suicide not long after we took our beauty-love drive through here and added to the stories. My friend I collected soil samples with and bonded over our appreciation for the nuances of how to get unstuck from deep sand, died several years ago in a terrible highway accident.
And so it is that I stand alone out here, embraced in a collective grief that is not mine alone. I also share it with many friends and desert lovers who also express their dismay at the Joshua tree loss on social media.
It’s awkward that the trees are still here, they still stand, and many will soon tumble to the ground, their limbs strewn across a suddenly emptied land space like human bones, and the recovery in this arid land will evolve slowly, as slow as the movements of a desert tortoise, as all ecologies in the desert do. And fire regimes – long-term burn and recovery impacts and adaptations/regrowth in Mojave Desert ecologies are still not entirely known.
But standing in loss is not enough. What will I tell my grandchildren when I bring them here?
Wildfire, one of the four basic elements, even at its most terrible, works its magic in the desert in ways we do not understand. I have enough knowledge from experience to know that fire on the land is both a blessing and a bane, and I’m nourished by my growing understanding, layered atop my firefighting work and my ongoing research for my humanities project, Fire on the Mojave: Stories from the Deserts and Mountains of Inland Southern California, that beauty and restoration will come.
So many desert stories, mine, and those who passed through here before me, those I worked alongside on fire crews. Today, I’m bound to honor these stories, and keep their visages alive, just as the Joshua trees have not simply disappeared – they have been transformed, even if it’s not what I want to see.
I refuse to resign myself to the circulating, apocalyptic idea that climate change has destroyed this place forever. That at the whim of a lightning strike and a resulting massive fire fueled by climate change alone, this cherished and well-tended place, turned into an eternal place of death.
I’ll bring my little grandchildren here next spring, and as with other Mojave Desert wildfire remains, we’ll look for places on this altered landscape that may have been obscured before the fire. Perhaps we’ll find sleeping circles, or petroglyphs on the rocks at one of the area’s springs, now revealed after the underbrush around them has been burned away. We may even discern, and follow, the faint traces of forgotten trails, where so many of our ancestors have walked before us.
And if we come at the right time, we’ll surely see wildflowers carpeting the burn zone, with or without adequate winter rain, purple, yellow, white and orange, as a direct result of the fire – as occurred in the site of the nearby 2005 Hackberry Fire – as well as the resprouting of other native shrubs. We may even see the tiniest of resprouts of some of the Joshua trees, needling their way towards the sun, one slow and sure inch at a time.
And I’ll bring a stack of makeshift fire tools – small, foldable shovels – and teach the kids how to cut a small fireline, how to stir the ashes and make sure the hot coals are completely out, and how to work as a team. We will learn how to tend the land by fighting fire, even it’s a make believe one for them, and how to care for our desert land, together, as a family. Together, we will build relationships with wildfire and the long-established fire ecologies here in the Mojave Desert, where fires will always, inevitably burn, as part of the natural processes of lightning and flame and transformation spelled out upon the land.
Ruth Nolan grew up in California’s Mojave Desert and worked as a wildland firefighter for the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service during the 1980s. Her California-desert based writing has been published in LA Fiction: Southland Writing by Southland Writers (Red Hen Press;) Women Studies Quarterly; Rattling Wall; Desert Oracle; Sierra Club Desert Report; the Desert Sun/USA Today; News from Native California; New California Writing/Heyday; KCET Artbound L.A. and KCET Tending Nature. Her fiction has been nominated for a PEN Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers and received an honorable mention award in Sequestrum’s editor reprint contest. She is curator of the ongoing humanities project Fire on the Mojave: Stories from the Deserts and Mountains of Inland Southern California. Ruth is coeditor of Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California (Scarlet Tanager), which placed as a finalist in the 2018 Eric Hoffer Independent Book Awards, and editor of the critically-acclaimed No Place for a Puritan: the Literature of California’s Deserts (Heyday.)She is also the author of the poetry book Ruby Mountain (Finishing Line.) She is the recipient of grants from the California Arts Council; Bread Loaf Writers Conference; Phi Kappa Phi and the California Writers Residency/1888 Center program. Ruth isProfessor of English and creative writing at College of the Desert.
Flirtatious repartee and sensuous swish of swords: gliding to and fro on soft horse stable hay, the upstart peasant, now-masked swordsman, adroitly slices away the feisty noble-maiden’s chemise. Featured in trailers, this became an iconic scene from The Mask of Zorro (Martin Campbell, 1998, Steven Spielberg executive producer). Sizzling cross-class desire inflames aspirations for wealth, nobility, and power in a California of great estates, contested political control, and servile commoners.
California began the nineteenth century on the periphery of the Spanish Empire; in 1821, it was incorporated into a newly independent, but politically unstable Mexico, vacillating between monarchy and republic; and, then, in 1848, sold to the United States in the aftermath of a war of territorial conquest. This is the setting for The Mask of Zorro. One of many revisions of Mark of Zorro (1920, one of the first United Artists films), Mask foregrounds the intergenerational dynamics underlying the Zorro theme of rivalry between nobleman-turned-bandit and corrupt officials. The main protagonists in this rivalry are: the elder Zorro, landed gentleman Diego de la Vega, who avenges his own twenty-year imprisonment, shooting of wife Esperanza, and kidnapping of daughter Elena; don Rafael Montero, former Spanish governor, who carried out these acts, now aided by young U.S. southern mercenary, Captain Harrison Love; and Alejandro Murrieta, young orphaned thief of ambiguous ethnic parentage, whom Diego transforms into a gentleman-avenger to inherit the role of Zorro. This is a tale of aspirational nobility, dynastic power. Such aspirations set in California-between-empires fantastically epitomize the ideological space of the neoliberal 1990s: a cradle for a patronizing elite caste unfettered by state oversight.
To see this filmic neoliberal space in Mask, we recall Michel Foucault’s “heterotopias” –actual spaces that exist apart from, but always in relation to, the “real space of Society.” To illustrate: the horse stable (above) is a special kind of space within the class demarcations of the great-estate–unlike, say, a chicken coop or milk barn—wherein refined equestrian skills permit both an elite woman and a lower-class man to interact, triangulated via sensuous animals, in ways not sanctioned in other estate spaces, say, the dining hall. This is further illustrated in another stable scene wherein Elena (unknowingly) meets her long-lost father (Diego) posing as a servant. Moreover, while scholars have argued that film is intrinsically heterotopic; this particular film evokes quintessential Hollywood tropes to constitute California itself as a heterotopia, epitomizing late 20th century neoliberalism.
Mask’s visually-resplendent heterotopia presents something of a puzzle with respect to Jacques Ranciere’s assertion that representational politics impact possibilities for democratic spaces, namely, a plentitude of forms that correlates with plurality: what, then, are the representational practices of the unraveling of democratic formations under the guise of noblesse oblige? Historicizing its 1990s lens, we see Mask’s explicit counterrevolutionary politics.
Mapping Kingly Enterprise as Counterrevolutionary Heterotopia
Mask overlays three instantiations of heterotopia: first, within the storyline, we have visually-constituted heterotopias—specifically, maps and painterly images from a prop portrait to shots that themselves index particular nineteenth-century European/American genres and iconic paintings; second, the use of cinematic clichés to index classic films and genres that points to the ways that film as a medium is a heterotopia and this film as a synecdoche for Hollywood; and third, in ideological content, Mask offers a political imaginary of a stateless transnational California under the domain of a benevolent, racialized creole elite. Clintonian neoliberalism required such feudal fantasies which draw on elements of nineteenth-century California, what Foucault calls “slices of time,” and other available California tropes in a racialized erotic economy of images extolling counterrevolutionary transformation.
The counterrevolutionary heft of the film comes from its layering of heterotopias: neoliberal California as heterotopia, film itself as heterotopia, and particular aspects within the film as heterotopias. The counterrevolutionary lens refracts through nineteenth-century revolutions; the very shift from Empire to Nation that destabilized elite alliances and left unsettled the political form that new polities would take: republican or monarchical. We extrapolate the dimensions of gender and sexuality in Benedict Anderson’s insights about the cultural work involved in political struggles of the nineteenth century, to understand what was at stake during the 1990s heyday of neoliberalism.
Shot during the apex of neoliberalism–and President Clinton’s rhetoric of shared prosperity in unsustainable and lopsided economic growth—Mask’s heterotopia is a space of capitalist “feudal-aristocratic drag” (Anderson, 153): bucolic landed estates where creole (of European descent) settler-elite employ and protect dark-skinned subordinates, largely coded as indigenous and mestizo through language and dress. The story and the cinematic language through which it is told might be cliché. Nonetheless—indeed, because of these clichés—it maps the collective desires of those who prospered handsomely and those who aspired to wealth in the 1990s economic boom.
While Foucault suggests that some heterotopias may preserve transformative possibilities, our reading of Mask posits a counterrevolutionary transformation.  It disarms its viewer through tongue-in-check humor, mobilizing cinematic formulas that reference prior Zorro films (especially but not only the sword-fighting), action films (Campbell, having directed a Bond film, here offers Bond-esque closing credits: billowing plumes of slow-motion flame set to a pop song), and Westerns (for example, Shane, in the use of the young Alejandro and Joaquin’s witnessing of Zorro’s heroics at the outset of the film, and broadly, in the use of desert landscapes). This filmic indexing underscores the cinematic work of the film as a heterotopia. That is, although this retelling of the Zorro legend is fantastical and enjoyable, it is not merely escapist pleasure. Rather, the film reflects and contributes to a counterrevolutionary neoliberal project: dismantling a state nominally proactive in its defense of the (albeit limited) redistribution (away from the wealthy) of resources necessary for basic conditions of daily life; unregulated minimally-taxed private economic schemes; and the accumulation of wealth and conspicuous consumption by a small class of people whose incomes exceeded thousand-fold those of the majority of workers.
Within the film, neoliberal heterotopia is rendered visually in maps as props that overtly configure polity spatially, as well as through the staging of painterly images—in particular, landscapes, portraits, and counterrevolutionary framings of revolutionary iconography. Whereas political philosopher Jacque Ranciere connects representationally-heterogeneous and political-liberatory spaces, the visually-rich range of images here indexes a political economy increasingly oriented around the rent-seeking interests of capitalist elites and others aspiring to wealth and power. Indeed, the heterotopias visually reference economic and political maneuvers since the 1970s, that made possible President Reagan’s rolling back of the Keynesian state and gains made by anticolonial and antiracist movements, the groundwork for Clintonian neoliberalism. These 1990s counterrevolutionary maneuvers required counterrevolutionary heterotopias to shape a hospitable terrain for such drastic re-makings.
Two key maps establish heterotopic California. One is a gigantic rendering of pre-U.S.-Alta California (today’s California, marked in reddish brown), Baja California and the rest of Mexico (in green), and the United States (in yellow); labeled Mapa Reino California (map of the Kingdom of California), this cloth map of an ostensibly-empty capacious space covers an entire wall in the courtyard of don Rafael’s hacienda. The other is a portable topographical map; hand-drawn on leather, it designates the built environment, with road and waterways, local haciendas (with Spanish names), mountain ranges, with a compass indicating directions; also clearly marked is El Dorado, the gold mine shown in the film; hence its role as a treasure map of Alta California’s riches.
These maps appear in two critical sequences. In the first, the viewer is introduced to the wall map; in the second, a long set of scenes, both maps are used. The large map situates the nation as open and available, disconnected from a state political project; while the smaller treasure map designates riches rife for elite taking. California is made a terrain of conquest in service not of state-building, but of transnational market desires.
The first map scene is set in don Rafael’s courtyard. Various dons, dressed in their finest attire, are shown seated around a large King Arthur-style roundtable, their eyes trained on Rafael; Alejandro, who has just gained entrance to this group, stands apart. After some musings over why he has gathered them together, Montero announces, “I give you the Republic of California.” He motions to one of his henchmen, who releases a large cloth covering the courtyard wall, revealing the map. Montero tells the dons of his plan to buy California from Mexican president Santa Anna, who is then preoccupied with defending the country from an encroaching United States. When the dons suggest the infeasibility of such a plan—that they do not possess enough money to buy all of California—Montero informs them that this is no preposterous idea. They are to buy it, he tells them, with gold from Santa Anna’s own mine. One of the dons derides, “You are living in a dream, Montero.” And Rafael responds, “Then why don’t we all live in the same dream together?” Bars of gold are presented for the dons to see. They are stamped not with the Mexican seal, the actual owner of the mine, but with the seal of the Spanish crown. The camera then pans over to re-frame Rafael squarely in the center of the map. The discourse of the dream here culminates Alejandro’s successful effort earlier in this sequence of scenes to ingratiate himself (unbeknownst to Rafael, as a spy) into Rafael’s camp saying, “I am a man in search of a vision.” In prominently scripting this language of dream and vision (an imaginary world apart but in relation to), the film, in effect, testifies to the importance of heterotopias for political projects.
In this space of contending nation-states, the United States and Mexico, Montero seeks to privatize California; it is to become a commodity bought with its own flesh (gold garnered from the depths of the earth). Thus, this gold constitutes a key to mapping neoliberal heterotopia: consistent with the logic of finance capitalism, gold is perversely the ultimate fetish as currency, capital, and capitalist rent “naturally” available for exploitation.
This scene works because it invokes an imagined-real California past. Foucault notes that heterotopias often entail a sense of a slice of time. Indeed, here we find the use of a past not to make a historical claim, nor to create a nostalgic sense of the good old days, but rather to enrich a sense of a fantasy parallel possibility (not unlike and partaking in the Fantasy genre of Arthurian tales). Set in a California prior to the Gold Rush (1849), the U.S.-Mexico War (1846-48), and the post-war purchase by the United States of nearly a third of northern Mexico (including California) for the bargain basement price of fifteen million dollars, the map-as-prop constitutes this place as largely open, unpopulated, and culturally Spanish with a significant indigenous population coded in the film through the presence of non-Spanish speaking people, such as Elena’s nursemaid, wearing indigenous clothing and a small mestizo population who we see mostly as grunt soldiers (Lie, 492). In this sense, the concept of heterotopias is particularly useful for understanding the ideological work of the film’s setting: to conjure not an ideal past to which we should return, but rather an allegory of where neo-liberalism can take us.
Not surprisingly, the historical context invoked is more complex, a complexity which impacted the very political debates of 1990s California into which the film implicitly enters. In addition to the eleven Spanish families who in 1781 established Los Angeles, Spaniards founded missions throughout the region (1769-1820): seats of local power established to convert indigenous people to Catholicism, while protecting the already converted from attacks by groups unwilling to submit to Spanish dominance. While Mexico’s 1821 independence ousted the Spanish, war left now-Mexican California at the periphery of a state weak, fractious, and distant. Mexico’s state changed in form, from part of a colonial/imperial state to (theoretically) sovereign nation-state. Benedict Anderson attributes the work of this transformation to “creole pioneers,” who differed from those of Mother country’s original settlers not by race or ethnicity or language, but by place of birth. He sees in the Americas the great historical shift that made the nation-state the paradigm for political formation—a weakened empire. This weakened empire, he argues, enabled these so-called pioneers to seize the political opening and create both the political form of the nation and the very political philosophical justification—Liberalism (laissez-faire governance, market-facilitating infrastructure)—that would best accommodate emerging industrial capitalism. The role of creole-settlers of the Spanish post-colonial world (of which California was a part) in establishing the form-philosophy duo is confirmed in Doris Sommers’ analysis of nineteenth-century novels as “family romance.” According to Sommer, these pioneers ideologically married the interests of the landed gentry (represented in these novels by the plantation owner’s daughter) with those of the emerging financial- and trade-oriented elite (often represented as an upstart, self-made suitor).
Also left in Spain’s wake was a particular racial hierarchy that situated indigenous peasants on the bottom, Spanish and creole-settlers (those of Spanish descent born in the Americas) at the top, and mestizos (the progeny of Spanish and Indian pairings) in the middle. Indians were largely dismissed, while mestizos would later have the possibility of tenuous incorporation into the post-revolutionary Mexican nation. With the U.S.-Mexico War and the subsequent integration of California into the United States, this social hierarchy would come into conflict with a U.S. white (free)/black (slave)/Indian (past) racial system. This happened, especially, during the Gold Rush, when Native Americans, Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and people from the eastern United States as well as Russia, Chile, and China flooded the region, changing San Francisco into a boomtown; other towns were rapidly chartered and California’s first constitutional convention soon held. By the late 1840s, then, the region catapulted from agrarian backwater to international economic hotbed, destination of mass migration, and the ultimate site of U.S. Manifest Destiny.
When Mask was produced (late 1990s), California, once again, found itself at the center of profound economic and social reconfigurations, this time critical to the constellation of the neoliberal state: sustained and increasing immigration, especially from Latin America and the global south; outmigration of capital and capitalists; and attacks on—and the unraveling of—the former model government bureaucracy and the educational system. Some reconfigurations were exacerbated by the federal government’s reorientation toward supposedly free trade and personal responsibility, announced in the passage in 1994 of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and welfare reform. The latter removed thousands of U.S. citizens from the welfare rolls, made support contingent on certain behaviors, and funneled these former welfare-supported (majority) women into low wage jobs (with an attendant and broader downward wage pressure). NAFTA devastated factory workers and professionals in the United States; it also ravaged small farmers in Mexico, making migration to the United States, and California specifically, the logical option. In turn, California reacted to this mass influx of immigrants and disruptive economic landscape by passing Proposition 187, turning teachers, police officers, healthcare workers, and clergy into unofficial arms of a state, to find and criminalize unauthorized immigrants. Proposition 187 was eventually found unconstitutional, and California is today the nation’s most ethnically diverse state and around 40 percent Latinx. These changes led to the re-emergence of an assimilationist nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment—some U.S.-born Latinxs, like their non-Latinx compatriots, favored harsh sanctions (Newton 2000). Unfolding at the highpoint of Clintonian neoliberalism, these virulent anti-immigrant movements occurred in relation to a successful sexual counterrevolution (Herzog 2008). We see in this convergence the alliance between sexual counterrevolution and the neoliberal political economy’s increasing investment in a multiculturalism where particular, eroticized incarnations of ethnic difference took on market currency. Tapping into an imagined past understood as real and connecting it to an imagined present enables Mask to work as an allegory for neoliberalism and neoliberal relations, and California to constitute a heterotopia.
Re-making this imagined past real relies on sounds and images of “the West,” ones borrowed from Hollywood Westerns and swashbucklers: the crisp sound of drums and guitars of flamenco music, the sound of boots across a wooden floor, the swoosh of the sword, the quick repeated taps of a flamenco dancer; the long shot of a crowd of peasants as they stand awaiting the execution of those pulled randomly from the crowd, tight shots of tussles between soldiers and peasants struggling against this arbitrary power, the close-ups of peasants shouting for the captives’ freedom, the Spanish flag being ripped from its pole, dirt kicked up as men on horseback ride in, an aerial view of the blindfolded peasants roped to poles, and don Rafael standing on the balcony looking down monarchically at the yelling crowd. Mask’s introductory captions, opening scenes of struggle and discord, and panoramic views confirm California as territorially expansive, open, and ruled by an illegitimate leader, don Rafael Montero, who governs through violence and arbitrary power. Gestured through the cinematic use of “the West,” California is made an available uninhabited space—a frontier, of sorts—full of dust, small shacks, mountains, open stretches of land, and blue slightly clouded skies. This West, like the Westerns it references, is peopled with dark, mestizo peasants, largely poor, humble, and leaderless. They tread lightly on a landscape where local strongmen or soldiers arbitrarily interfere on behalf of a faraway power. That is, these people and this place were open, virgin, and un-stated at the start. Spielberg relies on these quick shots to mark California as both without a legitimate leader and in need of a benevolent patriarch; it becomes recognizable as “the West”—that is, the United States—while the movie still marks it as Mexican territory.
In a second, long set of scenes, the climax of the film, both map-props –the treasure map of El Dorado and the political map of California– figure prominently. The sequence opens with Alejandro’s return to don Rafael’s hacienda, this time dressed as Zorro; he comes in search of the treasure map to the gold mine to which the dons and he, then blindfolded, had earlier been escorted. Hidden from view on the ceiling, Alejandro extends his sword to spear the treasure map from Rafael’s desk as he and his American henchman Capitan Love turn their backs in worried discussion of Zorro’s intentions. Alejandro then presents himself as Zorro and fends off Love, Montero, and Montero’s soldiers, as the fighting moves from the corridor to the courtyard. At one point in this swordfight sequence, he jumps up on Montero’s roundtable for a fighting advantage. Culminating the duel, Alejandro cuts loose the large map of California, releasing it from its mounts on the wall with flicks of his sword. The giant map floats down, enveloping the attacking soldiers and Montero, allowing Alejandro to escape. Maps, as images of (un)marked landscapes, figure as neoliberal heterotopias—they are indications of the nation under conquest, productively disconnected from any state political project.
Kingship, here condensed in the figure of Rafael Montero, lends itself to a heterotopic political imaginary because the elision of the noble body and the territory constitutes a place protected from historical temporality and everyday political contests: “The king is dead, long live the king.” Containing Rafael’s and Love’s ambitions under the giant map while Alejandro eluded capture, suggests a defanged nobility disciplined for the renewed monarchical market project—the nation is only the body of the king; no state interference needed, even as the new benevolent patriarch, now embodied by Alejandro as Zorro (whitened and gentrified in his training process) is ready to take his place. In this neoliberal heterotopia, the monarchical fantasy is not in question, only who has rightful claim to that throne and its privatized territory.
No industry glorified this fantasy of accumulation (or worried about the concomitant radical injustices it wrought) more than Hollywood. Indeed, in the “fantasy of free trade” (Dean 2009), Clintonian neoliberal “communicative capitalism” found particularly fertile soil in California’s entertainment industry. The free-trade expansionary moment brought about a revision in the Hollywood enterprise. While studios had historically marketed to other places films created for U.S. audiences, industry moguls now understood the need to make movies not just or even primarily for domestic consumption. To do this, films needed to incorporate themes and characters attractive to the rapidly expanding global markets (Jones, 13). This market re-envisioning grew out of a recognition that neoliberal policies had created a new transnational elite with the ready cash to consume their products. Not only did this elite lavishly enjoy the boom, they could now imagine themselves as and be transnational jetsetters. Moreover; elites reveled in seeing themselves reflected in the admiring, envious gaze of the wider populace (think Paris Hilton), the chimera of upward mobility through get-rich-quick schemes (think lotteries and casinos), television makeovers and celebrity benevolence (think Oprah and reality-TV stars), real estate, and other financial houses-of-cards (think Madoff).
Appealing to growing overseas audiences, in particular Latin America, necessitated re-conceiving race in movies. The Mask was part of a Hollywood neoliberal enterprise to refigure Hispanicity by promoting a market multiculturalism that whitens the category of Latino (Lie 2001). With Europeans cast elite Hispanic Californians, promotional interviews remade Spanish Antonio Banderas into a (white) Latino subject. In the 1990s, the U.S. government debuted demographic categories of “white Hispanic” and “non-Hispanic” white; creeping into U.S. popular culture at the same moment was the use of Latino as a designation for all Latin Americans (even in Latin America). Thus, for those seen as “white,” “Latino” offered an ethnic, as opposed to racial marker. This compounded the racialized erotics of promoting Banderas as a “Latin lover,” a long established designation for the (usually Anglo) men who played Zorro.
The Zorro franchise is very closely identified with Hollywood and its history—not only was The Mark of Zorro the fourth film made by United Artists, but the Zorro franchise has served as a century-long vehicle for romantic male stars (Williamson, 4). In addition, Hollywood has often served as a synecdoche for California: massive highway system, housing and technology expansion, and huge influx of immigrants from Latin America identify it as both the future of the United States and the emblem, positive and negative, of neoliberalism. The map-props used in Mask re-instantiate an imagined Spanish California as a vast place of harmonious relations, even as they tie this imaginary to a neoliberal project.
Maps, as Benedict Anderson asserts, “profoundly shaped the way that the colonial state imagined its dominion—the nature of the human beings it ruled, the geography of its domain, and the legitimacy of its ancestry” as “institutions of power” upon which post-colonial nationalisms modeled themselves (64). Nationalist “dreams of racism” had their roots in class distinctions:, “[c]olonial racism was a major element in that conception of ‘Empire’ which attempted to weld dynastic legitimacy and national community” (150). Our reading of Mask suggests what happens when a postcolonial society embraces neoliberalism’s globalizations that require, like colonialism did before it, transnational elite class allegiances: neoliberal market-oriented mappings of heterotopias rely on a racialized visual grammar to instantiate the national demography, geography, and the legitimacy of the ruler.
Neoliberal Fantasy and Images of Counterrevolutionary Heterotopia
To further specify the political imaginary through which Zorro’s California served as a heterotopia for 1990s neoliberalism, we turn here to Anderson’s insights on the colonial genealogy of nationalism: in migrating to the colonies, Europeans of many levels could refashion themselves and approximate aristocratic lifestyles. This approximation—or the putting-on of a class disguise—creates a “tropical Gothic” where capitalism became a “feudal-aristocratic drag” with “dreams of rac[ial]” certainty of superiority vis-à-vis locals that allowed a fondness for patria. In patriotic love of Empire or Nation, “what the eye is to the lover,” language is to a patriot (154). Anderson’s drag does not imply camp in the sense of a self-referential excessive costuming, but rather a kind of costuming to transform identity. The dubbing of this feudal styling underscores the artifice of newly elite colonials applying the style of an earlier era widely seen as the precursor of European capitalist imperialism. Refashioning themselves as, in their minds, quintessential aristocrats—that is, feudal lords—cemented elite allegiance to Empire and, later, to Nation. In emulating a by-then-nostalgic vision of European feudal lords and landscapes, colonial elites asserted an imperial and later transnational ideal-type of racialized class mode.
Capitalism’s “feudal-aristocratic” (i.e.class) “drag” thrived in the 1990s, a moment when, ideologically-speaking, Free-Marketers subordinated the needs of Nation to those of Market. This class drag is not camp, but one positing the possibility of class transformation. Indeed, the gleeful camp of Zorro’s costume—mask, close-fitting black clothes, whip, sword, and all—might distract from earnest work of feudal-aristocratic drag, which required a thoroughly visual erotics in imagining neoliberal heterotopias. This visual language nostalgically evokes a creolized European nineteenth-century high-art-aesthetic: a set of inter-related movements in painting, mimetic or realist in approach, romantic in themes, and experimental with techniques maximizing optical perception and luminosity. This aesthetic was, perhaps, less Anderson’s “tropical gothic” than one celebrating the foundation of bucolic estates, noble lineages, and a feudal social order under the oversight of benevolent nobility. Indeed, Clintonian neoliberalism broke from its Reagan/Bush-1 predecessor by insisting that the economic expansion of the 1990s should expand prosperity for new, previously marginalized sectors.
Exploring visual aesthetics of heterotopias—implied but not elaborated in Foucault’s garden and mirror examples —we offer three key moments (among several) in the film where viewers are offered a painterly image: First, a bucolic landscape of Liberal/Neoliberal California under the care of a fiercely protective creole nobility; Second, a scene constituting the focus of all erotic drives, whose dynastic quality in its mode of feudal-aristocratic drag; and, third, one that transcends historical temporality. This fantasy content is aptly paralleled in mass media nostalgia for a (high art) media whose heyday was pre-cinematic. Neoliberal feudal fantasies are rendered through shots cinematically recreating classic painterly images and genres. Examining each moment reveals that together these painterly images instantiate feudal-aristocratic heterotopia as an aesthetic overlay for the film’s action.
The first image occurs in the opening action sequence, where the elder Zorro (Diego de la Vega) disrupts execution in the densely-packed plaza of several peasants and penetrates the governor’s palace to thwart his nemesis’ attempt to abscond with California treasure; it then moves to the scene of don Diego’s private life as landed gentleman. The transition between the masked public hero and the private patriarch/nobleman is marked with a wide-frame shot sustained for several frames. The pink and coral evening light lends an intensely colorful luminescence to a landscape scene that centers the de la Vega estate. To the left, the manor house overlooks a bay with ships and to the right, outbuildings and a vineyard cradled in a half-circle of coastal mountains; directly to the bottom half of the screen are a waterfall and lush forests. The waterfall is a classic Zorro-film characteristic as the masked bandit often hides in a cave just behind it, a lair connected by a stairway to the mansion above. The significance of the cave is cued by the only two motions in this sequence: the falling water and the downward arch of a crying seagull. The seagull’s call punctuates the scoring of strings sustaining a high C sharp. The style of the image is much like that of early JM Turner nineteenth-century romantic landscapes of estates with intense colors and shimmering light (for example, Pope’s Villa at Twickenham, oil on canvas, 1808). While these commissioned bucolic pieces lack the narrative drama and concern with cruelty and injustice of his stormy shipwreck paintings, they share the use of light to generate particular kinds of atmosphere. Similarly, in Mask, both the image (of Diego’s estate) and a later one of barracks at sunset just before Alejandro creates havoc by stealing a spectacular horse evening light suggests a kind of temporary visual calm.
In many romantic landscape paintings of large estates, both labor and politics are absented. Geographer Don Mitchell traces the history of California landscapes depicting paternalist protection of the bucolic to contain the dangers of non-elites: rural smallholders and workers, industrial workers, native communities; erasure produces California as modern yet idyllic natural space, because, for this to happen, all signs of the state’s literal production—that is, its non-natural condition—must be hidden. Douglas Brinkley also examines this production of place, exploring Teddy Roosevelt’s creation of a national park system at height of immigration and industrialization in the name of democratic liberty materialized in pristine nature even as, according to Karl Jacoby, the creation of parks curtailed food-ways of rural populations. Projects, state and national in scope, mobilized landscape as an ideological frame that demanded containment of non-elites. Nineteenth-century U.S. painters, such as Albert Bierstadt, favored panoramas to evidence the truth of Manifest Destiny, the resonant 1820s idea that the United States should bridge coasts. Zorro’s idyllic California of this opening sequence captures these costly political formations between empire and nation-state.
If California landscape has worked through dispossession, the cinematic use of a painterly invoking of romantic capitalism suggests a politics of representation in which privileging of the oil painting’s flatness, to borrow Ranciere’s insight, suggests a timeless aesthetic ideal. Feudal-aristocratic drag thrives in nostalgic visual aesthetics.
A second key painterly shot is not a still transition, but rather, culminates the climatic sequence of the film. It is a filmic rendition of Italian painter Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s famous (1901, oil on poplar) neo-impressionist painting, “Il quarto stato,” (the fourth estate, or, the proletariat); this image was famously used during the opening credits of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 (1976 Italy/France/Germany), an important film in collectivist socialist cinema. In the painting, striking workers, men and women, are advancing forward (from assumed darkness) into the light, with two male farmers and a woman with baby in the forefront with clearly delineated and interacting figures following. Not the nuclear family, this is a revolutionary collectivity united in class cohesion and struggle. Like in Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, where he states that history happens twice, the first time as tragedy and the second as farce, Mask perversely appropriates this revolutionarily socialist image to anoint a neoliberal monarchical counterrevolutionary allegory. The image, restaged a la 1990s, shows a mass of inarticulate brown people—the film calls them “slaves”—just freed from captivity in an illicit gold mine, being led out of the dust from the exploding mine not by fellow workers, but by the new Zorro, Alejandro, and the creole (“princess”) Elena, both fiercely benevolent patrons rescuing children from a certain explosive entombment. Since the previous shot showed Elena and Alejandro breaking open the “slaves” cells, this subsequent scene does not need to do the work of advancing the plot, but rather securely encapsulated the counterrevolutionary framing of these events. As the aesthetic resolution of the capitalist greed instantiated in the treasure map-prop, this neoliberal scene shows a responsible elite protecting those in their care. No mention is made of seizing the means of production–the gold mine–for public good; all we understand is that crude exploitation for personal greed has been foiled.
As the people faintly emerge from the plumes of smoke and dust, we hear composer James Horner’s symphonic score of low strings; then as the figures take shape, the strings make an extended crescendo and are then echoed in brass. These bars make it clear that this is an epic moment. This long shot takes its time in developing from opaque white smoke to Alejandro carrying a child and Elena guiding another; they move into depth of field with the mass of bodies following behind still slightly out of focus. Interestingly, this is a 2-shot within a group shot since only Alejandro’s and Elena’s faces can be seen; and even the children’s faces are averted, visually delimiting the protagonists of the scene. The new creole nuclear family is featured both through these shots, camera focus, and costuming. The tones of the costume and the dusty backdrop are all creams, browns, and blacks, giving the overall shot a sepia, vintage tint. Alejandro stands out in his black Zorro outfit and Elena is the most visually striking with her white v-neck blouse showing plenty of pale neck and chest skin. The faces of the so-called slaves, children and adults, cannot be distinguished not because they are just out of focus but also because of the narrow palette of the scene. In no uncertain terms, the film visually produces phenotypic difference, a racialized social order of a white benevolent elite leading brown humble, even abject, masses.
Curiously enough, by the end of the sequence of frames, the exception to imperceptibility through this visually-produced racial-class difference is an indigenous-marked woman standing to the left of Elena. Both her face and stocky build are discernible compared to the rest of the freed “slaves.” She represents, quite possibly, the biological mother of the escorted children, reassuring the audience that a racialized social order will be secured not through the rupturing of stratification, but through its benevolent reform. Any threat of cross-class revolution leading to a miscegenated family is further neutralized both by foregrounding intra-elite warring (for sexual access to the creole princess and for access to non-elite labor and allegiance) and in the film’s subsequent resolution. The 4th estate scene ends with a blinding-white iris and bleeds into a once-again all-white screen, where the dying Diego joins Elena’s and Alejandro’s hands and commands that there must always be a Zorro. In this sequence of scenes, proper, racially-contained reproduction—the productive comingling of Elena and a now whitened and elite Alejandro—is assured as the native, non-elite subjects are absented in favor of the white, creole (birthed on California soil) baby—a prince—born into a legitimate patriarchal noble family. The ongoing mass appeal of this feudal-aristocratic drag marks the success of the neoliberal counterrevolution, a nuanced counterrevolutionary project savvy in building heterotopic spaces to imagine and enact its political revision.
The final painterly shot that interests us is one at the end of the film. The shot forms a portrait of Elena posed in the doorway of the nursery, watching now-husband Alejandro tell chivalrous Zorro tales to baby Joaquín. She is silhouetted by the arches of the hacienda’s outdoor hallway, through which we glimpse their lush estate, a now fully patriarchal redux of the opening estate landscape shot. In this medium shot, Elena is on the left of the screen and the audience is looking at her from over Alejandro’s shoulder on the lower right; out of the depth of frame, the upper right of the screen is filled by the parallel arches of the exterior manor corridor leading off to estate gardens, a sunset shown in the distance. Elena’s costume exactly mirrors the colors of the sky, with orange embroidery on sheer beige shoulders and sleeves, and a deep blue bodice and skirt. Her sleeves and Alejandro’s shirt are the same colors as the stone walls lit by the orange fire of torches. The audience’s perspective overlaps that of the baby prince, the lord and lady of the manor are thus organically part of the built and natural environment. In this two-shot, we are visually assured that this is a long-term, procreative union as the sunset comes to them. Indeed, this redoing of the opening scene is not unusual. As Simmon claims for Westerns, “the narratives seek to reestablish the tableau idyll of the first shot by the time they arrive at their last shot” as they carry “further [an] aura of loss and melancholy.” This, then, is how they enact their “allegorical imperative” (Simmon, 18).
The score further asserts that this is a quintessentially domestic scene. Harmonious in melody carried by wind instruments, the music still pulses with percussive flamenco guitar rhythm suggesting ongoing libidinal drive echoed in subsequent spoken dialogue whereby they declare their love for one another. When Elena states that she’ll “dream” of Zorro, we are reminded of the tension in these layered heterotopias: between feudal-aristocratic drag, Alejandro’s class transformation and securing of the dynastic lineage; and camp, the playful donning of the Zorro gear and pursuit of further adventures. These adventures do not require enactment in other forms of political space; the monarchy is the political body.
This portrait is very much like English pre-Raphaelite paintings–for example, Stitching the Standard (oil on canvas, 1911) among other historic genre oil paintings by Edmund Blair Leighton–in which he poses medieval women against stone buildings and elaborate gardens. The noblewoman’s domestic duty is also one of militant loyalty as she leans against a stone parapet overlooking the estate’s fields at sunset. Pre-Raphaelites often nostalgically mobilized such medieval themes depicted mimetically. A most iconic image of this school of painting further layers this nostalgia by harkening back to medieval imaginings of the Arthurian dark ages, as in William Morris’ The Defense of Guenevere (oil on canvas, 1858), where the heroine is presented as the archetypical pre-Raphaelite women: long dark hair, slender, long-limbed, and pensive. Such maidens grace Fantasy films since the 1980s from Excalibur to The Lord of the Rings. Thus, as with the previous image, this one nostalgically indexes both high European art and prior appropriations of painterly images as cinematic clichés.
This end of film vision of Elena in the estate is bookended by a quite similar image early in the film of her mother, Esperanza, seated in front of their manor house, awaiting her husband’s return from Zorro adventures. Akin to shot of Elena, in the first frame, we view the bay at sunset over her shoulder, then the camera switches its angle to center her in front of the manor house; her body constitutes the link between the panoramic California landscape and feudal estate as the legitimate instantiation of power. These bookending mother-daughter shots use dusk lighting to intensify the color palette; both merge the body of the wife with that of the patrimonial estate, in part, by extending the colors of the landscape lighting to the costuming: dusk, in Esperanza’s golden dress, and sunset, in the pinkish orange embroidery and deep blue of Elena’s gown.
The use of romantic portraiture links patriarchy and patrimony, the feudal landscape and the body of the wife, a linking made all the more apparent by a key film prop: the portrait of Esperanza. This portrait first brings the viewer intimately into Zorro’s private life as don Diego, and next into Rafael’s hacienda, this time misrepresented to daughter Elena as Rafael’s lost wife. Painterly images capture the idealized white creole-settler woman whose body, as the font of feudal patrimony, is the libidinal focus; these thoroughly domesticated images of nobility derive further erotic appeal from their connection to passionate scenes.
The channeling of creole erotic desire into dynastic reproduction restores the pastoral to an aristocratic landscape now populated with dynastic fruits. Moreover, attention to this channeling of desire restores the pastoral to the visual dimensions of heterotopic erotics, reminding us that these erotics are racialized through representational practices. Thus, painterly images visually punctuate the narrative with neoliberal heterotopias that exceed the drives of narrative to appeal to a feudal-aristocratic aesthetic enduring beyond, outside, despite, and instead of actual history.
In The Mask of Zorro, we see that heterotopias both generate and resonate with eroticized visual economies, beginning with the relationship between heterotopias and everyday spaces; that is, heterotopias are a priori eroticized, racialized through particular representational practices. As we have argued here, this Hollywood blockbuster constitutes a neoliberal heterotopia in and of itself. This heterotopic effect is magnified both by the self-referentialism of this Zorro (re)interpretation as an iconic film—indeed, the film is replete with references to prior Zorro renditions —and by its setting in California, connecting a mythologized past of an open western frontier directly to this (post)modern neoliberal space cast as the U.S. future. The film overlays a (fantastical) California origin moment with the neoliberal context, thus re-imagining both past and present through heterotopias within the heterotopias: the narrative role played by depictions of political spaces, namely, maps as key props, and the use of lush (European-esque) painterly shots to punctuate the narrative arc with a nostalgic aesthetics.
Heterotopic aesthetics undergird the narrative’s counterrevolutionary political thrust: California of the early nineteenth century (best) epitomizes the ideal late twentieth-century neoliberal space: a site of white (creole) oligarchic socio-economic privilege and libidinal gratification unfettered by the state. Transnational capitalists, too, eschew the fetters of acting within the confines of any particular political space. If Ranciere’s heterotopy implies that representationally-rich spaces might signal emancipatory potentiality, then our foray into questions around this Hollywood blockbuster’s multiple and erotic aesthetics of political heterotopias that mark the giddy culmination of the neoliberal counterrevolution forces us to think carefully about equating representational heterogeneity with liberatory political spaces (45).
 “Neoliberal” references justifications for dismantling the New Deal state (roughly 1933-1989, reorienting state priorities toward the global Market.
 Adrián Pérez Melgosa, “Opening the Cabaret America Gallery,” contends that film is a heterotopia and shows how a film can reflect and negotiate political conundrums, in his case the workings of race and intra-American hemispheric politics at the beginning of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy.
 Foucault’s post-sixties theorization of place, space, and politics counters classic theorizations of a revolutionary utopia—an ideal future place—with heterotopias–actually existing places that stand in contrast to ‘real’ ones, that reflect, alter, and comment upon so-called real spaces. See Christophe Bruchansky’s incisive analysis of Disney as heterotopia. By way of an example, he offers the honeymoon trip, suggesting more broadly that spaces of sexual initiation often are heterotopias, for they are marked as apart from, but condense, real domestic space. Film (industrial commodity and cultural imaginary), is arguably the quintessential heterotopic space; like Foucault’s example of the mirror, it exists, even as it is understood to have an attenuated relationship to non-filmic places. The political impact of a heterotopia depends on its embodiment of alternative power formations (Surin). Historicizing variations in heterotopias, then, is critical to seeing the contours of political geographies of place within heterotopic filmic spaces, including the status of counterrevolutionary transformation.
Scott Simmon, The Invention of the Western Film (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
Doris Sommer, Foundational Fictions, The National Romances of Latin America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).
Kenneth Surin, Freedom Not Yet: Liberation and the Next World Order (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009).Catherine Williamson “‘Draped Crusaders’: Disrobing Gender in The Mark of Zorro,” Cinema Journal 36: 2: Winter 1997: 3-16.
LJ Frazier works on political cultures of the Americas and Europe through transnational and global analytics. Trained in Anthropology and History, her interest in the intersection of cultural studies theories of power, subjectivity, and ideology with questions of political economy has resulted in publications on gender and sexuality, nation-state formation, and empire, human rights, mental health policies, memory, activism, and feminist ethnography: authoring Desired States: Gender, Sexuality & Political Culture(Rutgers), Salt in the Sand: Memory, Violence and the Nation-State (Duke) and co-editing Gender’s Place: Feminist Anthropologies of Latin America (Palgrave) and (with D. Cohen) Gender and Sexuality in 1968 (Palgrave).
Deborah Cohen, Associate Professor of History/Director of Latina/Latino Studies at University of Missouri-St. Louis, brings questions of race, gender, imperialism, and labor to bear on nation-state formation and other political projects. Her first book, Braceros(University of North Carolina, 2011; paperback, 2013) reveals the paradoxes of modernist political economies and the predicaments of transnational subjects in the United States and Mexico; whereas her new project, “Loyalty and Betrayal,” examines how transnational migration reshaped the pressures and pleasures of affective ties of family, race, ethnicity, and people-ness. She and Frazier are co-authoring three books: on ’68 in Mexico; a global ’68 history; and one that uses Zorro films to map shifting imaginaries of political projects, economic orders, and notions of social justice.