This is the state we’re in—the California that people love to jeer in a perennial way, the one they used to say would be “the first failed state!” with a certain glee. They are from most any other state, and they think we all live in The Hills of Hollywood-Malibu-Laguna, a fictional place where we get plastic surgery, drink endless lattes, and rise from our hot tubs to descend directly from our crumbling/fire-flood-prone/iceplant-laden cliff onto our own private beaches. But we are not the only state this season with budget impasses, with shutdowns and IOUs and intransigent politicians who will not bend, even when people are going hungry.
Taxes. That is what all the arguments seem to be based on. We are a state sorely divided by the issue of raising taxes. Here in Riverside County, Supervisor Jeff Stone (born in Los Angeles, raised in Anaheim) has called for secession! He wants to split the state into two entities—I would live in South California, which doesn’t even sound right. My own assemblyman, Ken Calvert (born and raised in Corona, worked at his father’s restaurant) is focused mostly on immigration, according to the frequent mailers I receive about securing the border.
But we won’t fail, contrary to the barely camouflaged derision of other Americans watching us, thinking we’re sinking fast because of taxes, immigration, and government.
Oh, government might be failing. At every level, our state—which was headed by Arnold S, born in Austria, but now by Jerry Brown, someone whose father was an icon to my own parents—is plodding toward Epic Fail, as my kids like to say. There could be no more perfect phrase with which to describe it.
But we’re not failing. We’re just off the grid, as people put it, and under the radar, in every way possible. Politicians don’t seem to know us or pay attention to how we’re living. We are invisible, and that’s fine with us, as long as we’re not epically failing. Many of our transactions are unfettered by taxation or representation. They are based in kinship and geography and loyalty, and bred from years of government indifference.
I live a few blocks from the hospital where I was born, in Riverside. Ah, the Inland Empire, the misunderstood, vaguely cinematic, desert-like place where we are all related to biker gangs (yes, The Hell’s Angels did begin here in Fontana) and only make the national news when we pass legislation limiting our backyard rooster ownership to two. I have four chickens, myself, one of which is a Mexican fighting hen I inherited from my brother, also born here. He was encouraged to raise fighting roosters by his neighbor out in the orange groves, Big José, born in Chihuahua. My brother was unable to teach his roosters to fight, because he loved them, so instead he taught them to sit on the couch beside him and watch NFL games while eating Doritos. The mother of some of those roosters lives in my yard now. Her name is Coco. I inherited her after my brother died in 2002.
Today, I bought extra tamales from Angel Jr., my tamale guy born in East LA, who comes Thursdays in his white truck with the compartment filled with varieties of homemade tamales. I’d been saving for a few years to put a brick path in my backyard; I’d recently given away the third-hand, metal swing set that my three daughters and countless friends had loved for years. The absence of the swing set, and two of my three daughters who grew up and left for college, left an ache in my chest, so I called my friend Luis, born in Corona, and he recommended Ofa, born in Tonga, who was now in the yard with his cousin and three nephews, laying brick.
I bought Angel’s tamales for the bricklayers because the previous day they’d requested shrimp burritos from Señor Baja, our local taco place. That’s why I love California. While Ofa and his relatives, born in Tonga and raised in Hawaii and now living in Ontario and Rialto and San Bernardino, who all speak Tongan among each other and English to me, ate lunch, I got in my car.
I left my hundred-year-old former orange grove farmhouse and drove down my street, past my neighbor S, born in Oakland, who is working as a funeral singer for our nearby Catholic church. I waved at another neighbor K, born in Riverside, who unloaded lumber; an elementary school teacher, he is doubling the size of his house. No McMansions in my neighborhood; his original wood-frame house is 650 square feet, and he’s building a second bedroom after twenty years.
I drove past the hospital where I was born, and then the new multistory building downtown where a giant metal dome, which cost $1.2 million, sits on one corner of the roof, looking exactly like a juicer for oranges. My neighbors find this hilarious since our city was once the citrus capital of the nation (in 1882, of the more than one-half million citrus trees in California, half were in Riverside) with the highest per capita income in America (in 1895, we had that distinction, due to citrus exports).
Riverside County’s reported unemployment rate is one of the highest in the nation—16 percent—and has been for over two years. The foreclosure rate is one of the highest as well. But we have done this before—when our steel mill was disassembled and sold to China, when the Air Force Base was made into a reserve facility, and now, when the entire country remains in meltdown.
I drove to San Bernardino, past a towing yard where last year I retrieved my middle daughter’s Honda after it was stolen and stripped down to the frame. We put it back together with seats and door panels bought from Pick-A-Part, the locally famous junkyard where my ex-husband and his friends, all born in the same hospital as I was, scour cars for any particular item they need.
In San Bernardino, my mother, who was born in Switzerland, had her first job in 1955, at a Household Finance Loan company. Back then, she saw loans refused every day, because people didn’t have a steady salary, because they were the wrong color, because someone was in a bad mood. There was no subprime, no zero-down.
A few miles directly west of the red light where I stopped, my grandparents lived in Fontana after they immigrated from Switzerland in the 1950s. My grandfather, a former Swiss train conductor, worked for the Riverside Cement Company. My grandmother was a nurse for Kaiser Steel’s company healthcare program—Kaiser Permanente. It was one of the nation’s first HMOs when it began to offer industrial healthcare for California steel mill workers. My grandmother has told me stories of injured steelworkers during the 1950s being brought to a wooden building in the yard where she tended to them.
Back at my house, Ofa and his cousin and three nephews had finished laying bricks. Ofa’s cousin was a world-class surfer and rugby player, and he had just brought back from Tonga a long piece of sugar cane, which he balanced against my fence, built years ago by me and my neighbor J, born in Texas.
He told me, “Much better than American sugar cane. It’s soft. Better for eating.”
His wife was born in England. He met her when he played rugby there. Their son, born in Rialto, standing beside me, thought he was a ladies’ man and inquired about my daughters. On his forearm was tattooed KILLA. Ofa and his cousin and I, all in our forties, rolled our eyes at him.
Ofa sawed off a section of the sugar cane and handed it to me. It had five buds at the joints, shaped like tiny plump shields. Each bud will grow a new stalk after I plant it in the backyard, next to the lemon-scented ti grass given to me by Maria, the woman across the street, who was born on a rural farm in the Philippines and came here years ago when she married an American serviceman. The day she gave me the seedling-bunch of grass, she sat on my porch and told me a story about a woman in her village who turned into a dog at night, how she’d seen this woman transform.
On the other side of the sugar cane is my first navel orange tree, the kind originally planted by Eliza Tibbets, born in Cincinnati, who began the citrus industry in 1873 when she put into the Riverside ground (about six miles directly west of my home) two navel orange seedlings from Bahía, Brazil, sent to her by a USDA agriculturist in Washington, D.C.
We will not fail epically, in the backyards and driveways and parking lots of California. It doesn’t matter where we were born. The government will have little to do with it. We will make deals and give each other plants and fix each other’s cars and hand each other worn, creased dollar bills, and then tell a few stories before we go on our way.
The image is stark. An East LA gang member, neck swathed in tattoos, stares out over a burning Los Angeles skyline. Clouds brood above. Behind the gang member four children stand at a cliff edge as if about to plunge off. The scene is apocalyptic, intimidating, especially when seen in person. The six-by-four-foot canvas, hanging on a wall in a downtown Los Angeles café, looms like some unwelcome dispatch from the city’s dark side.
The scene is also familiar, at least to anyone versed in recent trends in Chicano art. The acrylic painting, titled Pay Me No Mind, is by a former East LA gang member named Fabian Debora. It looks remarkably like the work of another, more famous Chicano artist named Vincent Valdez, whose 2009 painting BurnBabyBurn depicts LA’s fabled grid of nighttime streetlights twinkling while in the distance a raging wildfire consumes surrounding hillsides. The similarity is no accident. Debora, whose purchase on the LA art scene is more tenuous than Valdez’s, interned for Valdez two years ago and describes Pay Me No Mind as an effort to channel his mentor’s signature, hyper-real visual style.
And yet, for all their surface likeness, the two paintings, and the artists who painted them, could not be more different. Their differences tell a story. Vincent Valdez is a rising art star, educated at the Rhode Island School of Design, exhibiting his work in museums ranging from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He paints like many latter-day Chicano artists, employing visual irony to address wider themes only tangentially related to traditional barrio concerns.
Fabian Debora, born in America to Mexican parents, grew up the son of a heroin addict and joined one of East LA’s oldest and most violent street gangs as a teenager. He wrestled for years with drug addiction and at age thirty tried to commit suicide by running across the southbound lanes of the Golden State Freeway (Interstate 5). It was only after what he describes as an encounter with God during that suicide attempt that he entered rehab and began seriously to pursue an artistic career. Fabian paints like a man eminently grateful for his hard-won state of grace. Pay Me No Mind, he informed me, was intended as an inspirational image, an effort to illustrate that pivotal moment when a gang member, or anyone gone astray, finally decides to make a change. The light shining on the gang member’s face is meant to signify divine illumination. The gang member, turning away from the burning city below, decides at the same moment to become a responsible father, shielding his children from the flames of his former life. It is a far different vision from that of Valdez, who in an interview described BurnBabyBurn as a visual representation of the social “turbulence” generated by Los Angeles, that symbol of American racial tension and economic inequality. Fabian’s aims are simpler. “I find the divine in the image of a gang member,” he told me. “Art is the closest thing you can get to the essence of God.”
Pay Me No Mind by Fabian Debora (2010, acrylic/canvas)
Most contemporary artists dedicated, like Vincent Valdez, to stylistic innovation and cultural critique, do not as a rule incorporate such bald religious sentiments into their work. Fabian Debora is not a typical contemporary artist. His biography is not standard MFA fare. More importantly, he has maintained roots in a part of America uniquely suited to fostering his peculiar artistic mix of visual sophistication, street savvy, and spiritual engagement. Fabian grew up, lives, and works in the heart of immigrant LA. His neighborhood, Boyle Heights, is known for its rich history of migration, encompassing waves of Jews, Russian Orthodox, African Americans, Japanese, and Mexicans. It is also marked by another defining characteristic of immigrant communities: its religiosity. In line with a recent Pew study showing that immigrants, especially those from Mexico and Latin America, are more likely to be Catholic and to believe in God than native-born Americans, Boyle Heights is anchored by Fabian’s childhood Catholic parish, Dolores Mission, LA’s poorest, which at various times in its ninety-year history has provided sanctuary for undocumented migrants, staged neighborhood Christmas festivals at which Joseph and Mary’s search for lodging in Bethlehem is reenacted as a Mexican border crossing, organized neighborhood mothers to combat gang violence, and run an elementary and junior high school attended mostly by the children of immigrants. The neighborhood is a place where faith and immigrant life are deeply intertwined.
BurnBabyBurn by Vincent Valdez (2009, oil/canvas)
The same goes for the rest of LA. Thirty-four percent of Southern Californians are foreign-born, according to the United States Census, which is America’s highest big-city concentration of immigrants. Like New York a century ago, Los Angeles in recent decades has spawned an immense religious infrastructure ministering to newly arrived migrants struggling to find their place in a nation often hostile to their presence. The Islamic Society of Orange County in the city of Garden Grove, one of America’s largest mosques, offers worshippers a complete kit of civic services, including a mortuary, a preschool, an elementary and junior high school, and meeting rooms for weddings and other community activities. In Hacienda Heights, an LA suburb a few freeway exits away from Fabian’s neighborhood, the fifteen-acre Hsi Lai Taiwanese Buddhist temple, the largest in the western hemisphere, organizes summer camps for local youth, teaches Cantonese, produces radio and television broadcasts, raises money for disabled children, operates a printing press, and runs an art gallery.
There are more Catholics in the Los Angeles Archdiocese—almost 4.5 million—than in any other American archdiocese, and Dolores Mission in Boyle Heights was omnipresent in Fabian’s upbringing. As an artistically talented student at the parish school, he was encouraged to draw the Virgin of Guadalupe for religious festivals. When he was expelled from Dolores Mission in eighth grade (he threw a desk at a teacher who ripped up one of his drawings), he was sent to see the parish priest, Father Gregory Boyle (a Jesuit who went on to found Homeboy Industries, a celebrated gang intervention program now headquartered near downtown Los Angeles). Boyle became a mentor. He sent Fabian home that day with a pointed request: “I want you to draw something for me.” A few years later, after Fabian had drifted into gang life and begun bouncing in and out of jail, Boyle convinced Fabian’s probation officer to allow his charge to work as an apprentice to Wayne Healy, one of the founding fathers of LA’s Chicano mural movement. In Healy’s warehouse studio, Fabian met veteran Chicano artists and recent art-school graduates. He learned to paint and worked with Healy on a mural outside the chapel of Eastlake Juvenile Hall, where Fabian himself once had been incarcerated.
Although Fabian ended up wrestling with drug abuse for several years before finally cleaning up and embarking on an artistic career, he never forgot Boyle’s redemptive Jesuit vision. He even narrated his bottoming-out suicide attempt to me as a kind of born-again experience. He’d found himself running toward the freeway one afternoon, he said, after fleeing from his mother’s attic, where she’d caught him smoking methamphetamine. Scrambling up a retaining wall, he heard voices: “You don’t deserve to live. Kill yourself!” He stepped out into traffic. “I saw a turquoise Chevy Suburban coming at me. I looked at the grill of the truck. The smile of the bumper was like a demon. I felt the impact of the truck, but it wasn’t the truck. It was something greater and higher than myself pushing me to the center divider. I looked up and saw clouds and birds and peace. I realized that God loved me so much he got me to the center divider and showed me who I could be.”
That was five years ago. Today, Fabian works a day job as a lead substance abuse counselor at Homeboy Industries and paints in a loft overlooking downtown LA. He has worked on seven murals around Los Angeles and exhibited his work at a few university art galleries and on the walls of Homegirl Café, a restaurant adjacent to Homeboy Industries that recently exhibited Pay Me No Mind and other canvases in a series Fabian calls Childhood Memories. Working for Boyle, Fabian spends much of his life within the shelter of that LA immigrant religious infrastructure. His job shows in his art. He has painted gang members bowing at the feet of the Virgin Mary; flowers wilting at an impromptu street-side shrine; a gang member mourning the destruction of a recently razed Boyle Heights public housing project; and another gang member hoisting up a small child with the words, “Tu Eres Mi Otro Yo“—You Are My Other Self. “I’m taking something sad and dead and I see the beauty in it,” Fabian told me. “Art allows me to do that.”
It is no accident, I think, that an artist like Fabian has emerged in Los Angeles. Writing in the Los Angeles Times Magazine several years ago, critic Josh Kun observed that “a rapidly expanding pool of young Southern California artists is actively redefining what it means to make Chicano art in the new millennium.” Fabian Debora is one of those young Chicano artists, but he has charted a path different from many of his contemporaries. His work is rooted less in his city’s ascendant place in the international contemporary art scene and more in LA’s current status as America’s immigrant capital. While many young LA Chicano artists, educated at top art schools and courted by international galleries and museums, seek artistic horizons beyond the barrios that once spawned the Chicano movement, Fabian remains tied to his community, painting with the same hunger for inspiration that brings so many recent migrants to LA’s myriad religious institutions.
His “Pay Me No Mind” is a perfect illustration. Borrowing from Vincent Valdez to create a recognizably apocalyptic scene, the painting then turns that scene on its head by telling the story of a man stepping away from, not falling into, his own private catastrophe. The gang member at the painting’s center is modeled on a friend of Fabian’s named Richard Cabral, who, like Fabian, left the gang life and got a job at Homeboy Industries, baking bread at the organization’s Homeboy Bakery. The children behind Cabral are Fabian’s own four children, who range in age from three to eight. The clouds are painted to draw the viewer’s eye upward, toward the sun breaking through: new life, the presence of God. The painting says to a community hungry for good news: “I’m taking something sad and dead and I see the beauty in it.” To repeat, it is no accident that an artist like Fabian should emerge in Los Angeles. America’s immigrant future is playing out in this City of Angels. If Fabian Debora’s art is any indication, that future will involve finding the divine not only in the image of the gangbanger, but in the face of a new America itself.
A movement founder explains the deep roots of Critical Mass
“If the increase continues, the time is not very distant when not to own and ride a bicycle will be a confession that one is not able-bodied, is exceptionally awkward, or is hopelessly belated.”
—“The Bicycle Festival,” New York Times, July 13, 1895
California is world-famous as the home of car culture, the place that gave birth to freeways, cruising, hot rods, and the whole mash-up of beaches, girls, convertibles, and teenage fun. That’s one story and it has some truth to it, but it’s a story of the twentieth century. The successful marketing of this image in films and literature—branding California as a car-obsessed state in which life unfolds mostly behind the wheel—has profoundly shaped the aspirations of people around the world. But it has also obscured another story that both precedes and succeeds the rise of the private automobile—the bicycle.
Given the rising tide of climate chaos rooted in fossil fuel combustion, it’s urgent that we tell ourselves other stories about our lives here in the Golden State. Such stories can point us toward viable alternatives that, coincidentally, are well-rooted in the state’s own history.
In September 1992, after months of tentative and speculative conversation about bicycling and politics among a couple of dozen friends (only a year and a half after the bombastic but fragile New World Order emerged in the first Gulf War), the first Critical Mass took place in San Francisco. I was one of those first forty-eight riders and had been intimately involved in the informal discussions that gave rise to it. The first ride didn’t yet have the name; they called it “Commute Clot.” Two months later, the more compelling “Critical Mass,” taken from a casual description of Chinese traffic patterns in Ted White’s documentary “Return of the Scorcher,” was adopted. The ride began with a simple goal: to fill the streets with bikes so completely that they would displace cars, and in so doing would create a new kind of mobile, temporary public space. The obvious irony of the concept lay in the fact that the streets of our cities are the closest thing we have to a genuine public space, but they are so dominated by the parking and movement of private automobiles that the use of the space is predetermined and markedly antisocial.
The second bicycling club nationally and the first on the west coast was the San Francisco Bicycle Club, founded on December 13, 1876. The club petitioned the Park Commission for permission to ride their new-fangled devices in Golden Gate Park. The park commissioners, overcoming their astonishment that there was actually a club for wheelmen, allowed them to “enter Golden Gate Park at the Stanyan Street entrance to the South Drive before 7 A.M. only.” Intensive self-policing kept the wheelmen within the bounds of the variance, and before too long the “privileges were extended.”1 But it was in the next decade that bicycling began its precipitous takeoff. In the words of one contemporary:
The first competition for the SF Bicycle Club was “The Bay City Wheelmen,” founded in 1884. It raised enthusiasm to the highest pitch. Each man was eager to find opportunities for the keenest rivalry, for the honor of his club was at stake, and in those days wheeling was a clean sport. Sport for the true love of sport. There were none of the sordid motives which follow in the train of professionalism. To become a professional was to place one’s self outside of the social pale.2
The mass of nineteenth-century cyclists in San Francisco were not narrowly focused on bicycling alone. They became the backbone of a broad movement for improved streets and “Good Roads.” On July 25, 1896, thousands of cyclists filled the streets in the largest demonstration seen in the city’s history. In that century’s last decade, San Francisco was a muddy, dirty town, long past its glory years as a boomtown, but still one of the ten largest cities in the United States. The streets were full of horseshit, and between the ubiquitous cable car slots and the tangled web of streetcar rails, pedestrians and bicyclists had a hazardous course to traverse en route to their destinations. After months of organizing among the thriving bicycling clubs of the city, a huge parade was organized that drew as many as 100,000 spectators. Hank Chapot re-creates the scene:
“A five-year wheelman named McGuire, speaking for the South Side Improvement Club stated: ‘The purpose for the march is three-fold; to show our strength, to celebrate the paving of Folsom Street and to protest against the conditions of San Francisco pavement in general and of Market Street in particular. If the united press of this city decides that Market Street must be repaved, it will be done in a year.’ Asked if southsiders were offended that the grandstand would be north of Market, McGuire exclaimed, ‘Offended! No! We want the north side to be waked up. We south of Market folks are lively enough, but you people over the line are deader than Pharaoh!'”3
The movement for Good Roads would dovetail with the early progressive efforts to recalibrate government to provide services to the citizenry. After decades of parsimonious government expenditures in a climate that eschewed taxation in favor of privatization through franchises to provide public benefits (water, electricity, telephones, streetcars, etc.), new political actors in the 1890s turned against the big corporations and trusts. San Francisco politicians embraced the bicyclists’ demand for Good Roads along with a growing interest in public water, electricity, and transportation.
Meanwhile, in Southern California, an elegant bikeway was built along the Arroyo Seco corridor north of the Los Angeles River in 1900. It was the keystone of a plan to link Los Angeles and Pasadena with an eight-mile “great transit artery.” Pasadena Mayor Horace Dobbins dedicated public funds to an elevated, multilane, wooden cycleway, including streetlights and gazebo turnouts. The fifteen-cent toll didn’t dissuade hundreds of cyclists who showed up to the opening, going on to ride through a beautiful pre-urban Los Angeles landscape. More than 20 percent of the population were already regular bikers in 1900, and of course the weather was ideal. Cycleways were going to crisscross the area and provide a stylish and modern system for personal transport.4
As the twentieth century unfolded, the automobile rushed into the picture. Within a few years, bikeway expansion was scrapped and even the Arroyo Seco Cycleway was soon turned into a motorway (now better known as the Pasadena Freeway). As thousands of Californians became motorists, patterns of city life began to change. The chaotic crisscrossing of pedestrians, horses and horse-drawn wagons, streetcars, cable cars, and steam railroads, already joined by increasing numbers of bicyclists, now saw an influx of private automobiles.
The crowded, diseased, and dangerous streets of the nineteenth century were an additional motivation for progressive leaders who sought to ameliorate these conditions through efficient city planning, then a new discipline. As city centers choked with traffic congestion and automobile injuries and deaths soared, a struggle to reshape city streets took place. Police and parents wanted to control speeds to promote safety. Highway engineers wanted to widen and streamline city streets to promote through traffic at higher speeds. Auto companies promoted the “freedom of the open road” and claimed that street improvements must properly be directed to bettering driving conditions, since most of the money for road building and maintenance was derived from gasoline taxes. Bicycles and pedestrians were the obvious losers in this era as highway engineers—reinforced by auto industry propaganda—focused on widening streets, increasing parking, and creating parkways and highways (later freeways), while society subtly shifted the blame for car-related fatalities to careless pedestrians and cyclists, or individual bad drivers.5
In the late 1960s, after decades of car ascendancy, with the bicycle reduced in popular imagination to a children’s toy or an obscure sport, the bicycle began to assume its modern significance. An early breakthrough came in the bucolic university town of Davis, California, where in 1965 five locals formed a vaguely named “Bicycle Safety Committee” to save the imperiled cycling community. Davis was growing by 10 percent a year, and bicyclists were diminishing as the population was growing. The committee mapped a bike lane system for Davis, and after being thwarted by a hostile City Council managed to elect a pro-bicycling Council in 1966. Davis’s reputation as California’s best-known cycling town dates from that time, when local government gave a green light to a new network of bike lanes. Interestingly, during the first few years of trial and error, a separated bike lane between parked cars and the sidewalk was tried and discarded as unsafe, a system that has been successfully implemented in Copenhagen, Berlin, Amsterdam, and other European cities.6
A few years later, in 1969, hundreds of cyclists gathered in the first “Smog-Free Locomotion Day” demonstration on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. For the next few years, this ecological protest bike ride rolled through the East Bay before sputtering out in the wake of the first oil crisis and the slow unraveling of the protest era.
In the 1980s, bicycle activism hit a low ebb until the end of the decade when San Francisco bike messengers organized a mass ride to encircle City Hall. The messengers were protesting the mayor and police threats to crack down on scofflaw messengers and force them to register and become licensed. The protest succeeded, and the plans to license messengers were abandoned. In 1990 a new group, Bay Area Bike Action, organized a bike ride through Golden Gate Park to advocate for a “park, not a parking lot!” During the first Gulf War in 1991, dozens of cyclists appeared at the periphery of large antiwar demonstrations in the city and pioneered a role for themselves as scouts, rolling ahead of marchers to see where police might be waiting for them. Finally, a group of fifty cyclists rode together from Santa Cruz to San Francisco during this same period, protesting the invasion of Kuwait and the bombing of Iraq.
Critical Mass Is Born in San Francisco, 1992
From these many threads through time, the first Critical Mass rode in San Francisco in September, 1992. While few of the first riders, if any, knew of their complicated legacy, they were resuming an honorable, century-old tradition of combining bicycling with politics. The several dozen Critical Mass initiators had different tastes, ideas, politics, and experiences. Some of us had been active in ecological efforts, others in antiwar and antinuclear campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s, a few were bike messengers, while others still were people who simply chose bikes as their preferred transportation. We made no effort to arrive at a consensus explanation for our action, but hoped that in the space we planned to open, many ideas could flourish and many purposes find their expression. We all agreed that the maltreatment and second-class citizenship we suffered as isolated everyday cyclists deserved a robust response; and if nothing else, by gathering and riding en masse, we would make our presence felt as it hadn’t been felt before.
It was obvious that if any formal organization took responsibility for the event, city authorities would most likely insist they have a permit and probably liability insurance, so we proceeded anonymously. We chose not to approach the police or the local government, defining the gathering as “an organized coincidence.” That proved to be a fortuitous decision, since no one could be held personally responsible for the gathering of dozens, then hundreds, and eventually thousands of citizens, all determined to use the public thoroughfares to “ride home together,” paralleling the utterly banal and normalized traffic jams that clogged the streets every day with cars. The slogan that emerged after awhile was “We aren’t blocking traffic, we ARE traffic!” (This also became the title of Ted White’s 1998 documentary on Critical Mass.7) Moreover, since no individual or organization “owned” the ride, it was easy for anyone to feel it was theirs as much as anyone else’s.
What none of us could know in that dry autumn and winter of 1992–1993, as the police took no notice of us and our numbers swelled toward a couple hundred riders by February, was that the idea had become a classic meme, spreading from person to person through phone calls, through letters, through visitors who rode with us and took the idea back to their hometowns. (A Polish expat in San Francisco told his old friends in Poznan, Poland, who may have had the first ride in Europe.) About eight of us put together a small pamphlet, “How to Make a Critical Mass,”8 which we sent out to anyone who requested it, only a couple of dozen by the end of 1993.
Coincidentally, 1993 was also the year that the World Wide Web began to have a real presence in our lives, especially in San Francisco, so email, listserv discussions, and eventually websites began to proliferate. Other Critical Mass rides were started across the bay in Berkeley; in New York; in Austin, Texas; Madison, Wisconsin; Portland, Oregon; and Montreal. The idea began to snowball that year, and people in dozens of other cities and towns started their own Critical Mass rides. They all followed similar ideas to the ones that animated our San Francisco ride from the beginning: no leaders, ideas communicated by way of “xerocracy” (using ubiquitous photo-copying machines, anyone could put their ideas out on a flyer and have influence over the culture and experience of the local ride); sticking together in dense masses of bikes, even if it meant running red lights, for it was safer to stick together than to get spread out and mixed with autos; “corking” side traffic by having one or a few cyclists stop in front of rows of cars to prevent them from encroaching on the Mass; and so on.
In time, dozens of major cities around the world would have Critical Mass bike rides, from Rome and Milan in Italy (along with twenty other cities), to London (and two dozen other United Kingdom locales), Chicago, Los Angeles, San Diego, São Paulo, Toronto, Vancouver, Budapest, Berlin, Sydney, Melbourne, Paris, Lyon, Madrid, Barcelona, Mexico City, Guadalajara, Quito, Santiago, and many more. Each city’s ride took some of the wider concept and made it their own, adapting as needed to local conditions. Some were tightly organized, others less so. Chicago contributed the “bike lift” to the culture, which was later best demonstrated in a Budapest ride of over 40,000 cyclists, all holding their bicycles aloft while cheering wildly. (Budapest had a recent history as a heavily policed “Communist” city; therefore, organizers chose to negotiate with the authorities rather than risk a violent confrontation and decided to hold Critical Mass rides only at the end of April and September, twice a year. This has led them to hold the record for most riders, recently topping 50,000.)
Everyday Bicycling Returns
Critical Mass was, and is, just a starting point. It’s a place where people meet and further projects begin to find adherents, often but not only bicycle-related. In the last decade, dozens of bike “zines” have been published (Mudflap, Bike Love, Chainbreaker, Sin on Wheels, Mercury Rising, to name a few). Lately such quality periodicals as Boneshaker magazine from Bristol, England, Bike Monkey from Santa Rosa, California, Dandyhorse from Toronto, and Momentum from Vancouver, Canada, have given the new bicycling culture aesthetically beautiful, editorially thoughtful media of its own.
Do-it-yourself bike shops, anchored by volunteer labor, have proliferated, too. In Los Angeles, the triumvirate of the Bike Kitchen, the Bike Oven, and the Bikerowave, has helped thousands of Angelenos become daily cyclists. Most recently, the Los Angeles Bicycle Coalition helped spawn La Bici Digna, a do-it-yourself bikeshop for Spanish-speaking day laborers in metropolitan Los Angeles. Similar kinds of efforts are running in San Francisco, Toronto, Chicago, and New York, and they have really taken off in Italy, where they’re called “ciclofficine,” and have found ready homes in the network of squatted social centers around the country (Rome alone has at least six such spaces, providing tools and spare parts to all comers to fix—or make—their own bikes). Another half-dozen free bike spaces have emerged in squatted buildings in Madrid.
In recent years, other kinds of rides have also begun, sometimes as deliberate efforts to start social bike rides that don’t have Critical Mass’s anarchistic reputation. This reputation, proliferated by the mass media, is sometimes deserved: a San Diego Critical Mass on Black Friday 2010 rode into a mall and through the aisles of a Target store. Midnight Ridazz in Los Angeles attracts huge crowds of middle-of-the-night riders. A San Jose Bike Party, designed to be law-abiding and respectful while fun and social too, started only a couple of years ago and is attracting thousands of riders to its monthly 8:00 P.M. rides through various Silicon Valley burgs. The East Bay and San Francisco have inaugurated Bike Party rides, in 2010 and 2011 respectively.
In the wake of all this social riding, formal advocacy groups are gaining political power. The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, with its couple of dozen volunteers and occasional meetings in restaurants, is now 12,000 dues-paying members strong, and considered by most to be a serious political force in local politics. Similar advocacy groups in Marin County, the East Bay, Silicon Valley, and Los Angeles, with more modest memberships, have grown in influence during the past decade. Bicycle boulevards and traffic-calmed streets have been established throughout Berkeley and Davis, and are beginning to get attention from larger cities too, including LA and SF. A long-abandoned railroad tunnel linking Mill Valley to Corte Madera has just been refurbished and opened to bicyclists in Marin County.
Riding alongside mainstream groups are many other activists and initiatives, from CicLAvia in Los Angeles to the Bikes on Board campaign on Caltrain along the San Mateo peninsula, and the new Sunday Streets program in San Francisco. Less than a decade ago Bogotá, Colombia, established Sunday street closures, which have spread to dozens of major cities in South America and are now being adopted in San Francisco, too. Bikeshare programs are also being started. From the well-known Vélib program in Paris to similar bike shares in Copenhagen, Milan, London, and other European centers, the idea has taken hold in Mexico City and is slated to open in San Francisco soon.
Critical Mass captures a larger moment in history, a time when great numbers of people are searching for ways to make personal and political changes in their everyday lives in response to the multiple crises of energy, ecology, economy, and general anomie. Bursting on the scene in cities across the world over the past nearly twenty years, reinvented again and again by dozens of people in widely divergent geographic areas, Critical Mass emerges from a commonality of experience and resonates with popular imagination in a surprisingly wide range of cultures and languages. Dozens of other organizations and initiatives have been launched, sometimes directly from the milieu of Critical Mass cyclists, other times merely as further independent manifestations of the same shifting cultural zeitgeist of which Critical Mass is such a bright signifier. At its simplest level, Critical Mass has led untold numbers of people to abandon their former commute patterns and embrace the bicycle as their everyday transportation. I’ve heard hundreds of anecdotal accounts over the years, from San Francisco to New York, Rome to São Paulo, of people becoming regular bicyclists after trying it first in Critical Mass. But if Critical Mass seems to be a starting point, it’s vital to remember the great antecedents that took place long before anyone riding now was even alive.
“When you have attained a proficiency which enables you to take out your handkerchief, wipe your nose and replace the mouchoir in your pocket without slackening your pace, you have fairly graduated … For fun there is nothing like cycling, and before many years two or three family wheels will be as much a part of the ménage as the modern range and sewing machine are now.”
—San Francisco Chronicle, 1896
The bicycle is the personal vehicle of the twenty-first century. It is an antidote to oil wars, carbon emissions, the obesity epidemic, and tens of thousands of annual highway fatalities. Bicycling puts us into the life of our streets and connects us to friends, neighbors, and strangers in ways that the car culture has blocked for so long. Thousands of Californians have chosen the bicycle, and millions more will as we alter our urban landscapes to welcome and facilitate that choice. Citywide and intercity systems of dedicated bikeways are long overdue. Imagine how many more people would ride if there were safe thoroughfares to make bicycling the most pleasant and direct way to get from anywhere in the city to anywhere else—point A to point B, smelling the flowers, the clean air, hearing the birds, and enjoying your friends and neighbors. Why not?
1. Ida L. Howard, “When San Francisco Was Teaching America to Ride a Bicycle,” San Francisco Chronicle, 26 February 1905.
I recently sat down with Yolanda Cruz, a filmmaker, graduate of UCLA’s film school, and 2011 Sundance Screenwriters Lab Fellow, to talk about filmmaking, her indigenous origins as a Chatino (one of sixteen indigenous groups in Oaxaca, Mexico), and her views of indigenous peoples in California and, more broadly, across the globe. Cruz has produced seven films, including her latest, “2501 Migrants,” which depicts the unique work of Alejandro Santiago, an indigenous artist from Oaxaca. The film examines how Santiago uses his artwork to bring attention to the migrants who have left the region and inadvertently created what has been called “a landscape of cultural and domestic abandonment.” In our conversation, she mused about the power of filmmaking, organizing indigenous communities, dispelling myths about indigenous people, immigration and globalization, perseverance, and education.
What inspired you to go into filmmaking?
When I came to the US in the 1990s, I came with the intention of learning English and returning to Mexico to get a degree in law or teaching. But because I come from a very active community in Oaxaca, I was very active in Olympia, Washington, where I lived and went to college. I studied photography and creative writing. Then I took some media classes and realized that media was a very effective tool for organizing. That led me to study other forms of filmmaking around the world. I was so amazed with what film could do that I wanted to do one on the revolutions of Latin America. I think that because the idea was pretty crazy, I got the attention of the Selection Committee at UCLA. And, to my surprise, I was accepted to film school.
I had to fight to find a place for my voice. When I got there, to UCLA, it was difficult to adapt because it was like going back to my years in Mexico. We were told what to do. I became a part of a group of Oaxacans living in LA, more so as an individual than a filmmaker. For my thesis, I chose to do a documentary about a community activist from Oaxaca, a man who was so passionate for his community that he spent five years of his personal savings to return to his village and make an offering. I submitted it to the Sundance Film Festival, not knowing how competitive it was, and it was accepted. When I learned that, I was like, oh my God. The entire experience was overwhelming too because it was my first festival and I got a lot of attention I didn’t want. I realized that my film was different from what I had originally wanted to do in film school, which was to organize the Oaxacan community.
In many ways, it is possible to argue that your films relay messages about what it means to be a global citizen living in a global society.
I think so. But I also think that my films dispel the myth that indigenous people do not contribute to the global society. They do more than just maintain the traditions and history. I don’t just go around asking them to tell me about their old stories. Indigenous people are concerned with what is happening around the world and I want to give them a chance to express their opinion.
What do you think about the formation of Oaxacan communities—with intimate ties to Oaxaca— in places like California and the United States, more broadly?
I think it’s important to study these communities because Mexico and the United States are neighbors and they need to collaborate more on slowing the process of immigration. I think this involves improving the life of a particular community. But I think it’s more difficult to slow the process [now] and we need to find new ways of working together.
In “2501 Migrants,” you tell the story of Alejandro Santiago, an indigenous artist based in Oaxaca. What inspired you to tell his story?
Most of my films are about organizing the Oaxacan community in Mexico and the United States. I learned of Santiago’s story a few years back. I thought his project to create hundreds of clay statutes representing the migrants who had left the region was a little crazy. But then I understood that as an artist, his dream was to populate his village because he felt emptiness. Santiago himself left Oaxaca and later returned. He and I have a lot in common. We both immigrated when we were really young and now we’re both trying to do something for our community even though the community never asked. We all want to be the voice of our communities, [have a say] about how things should be, but then we leave. Unlike the locals, we are immigrants who have the privilege of going back and forth to the United States. In the film, I started exploring this idea and I think it gives the film a very honest perspective. It is not about how once Santiago creates a statue, everybody’s happy.
Are you satisfied with the reception that “2501 Migrants” has received?
I don’t know how satisfied I am, but I am overwhelmed and grateful. Initially I thought, who in their right mind is going to follow this kind of story? I thought that like my other films, it was going to have a very select group of universities and museums screening it and that’s it. But no, it’s had wider appeal. I think it is because people see art as neutral ground, not political, and it allows for a conversation to begin about the larger issues. Plus, when people hear about this eccentric guy, the statues, and the immensity of the project, they become interested.
What do you see as the film’s message for people in Oaxaca or in Mexico in general?
If you look at Alejandro Santiago, he didn’t have a formal education; in Oaxaca, it’s a privilege to have that. He went to high school and trained himself to be an artist even though there is no art school in Oaxaca. For a year, he would go to the library everyday. He’d do that as a job. He’d go from eight in the morning until one in the afternoon, and he would take a lunch break, and then he would go back at two and stay until eight. There are a lot challenges indigenous artists have to endure. That’s something I always say to young people—we have to motivate ourselves. If you want things to change and to improve the quality of life, you need education and self-motivation. When I started out, I did not think about the competitiveness of filmmaking. I thought, I want to do this and I’m going to push myself to do it. Migrants face a lot of obstacles; they have to take action on their own to achieve their dreams.
Given that you’re originally from Oaxaca, Mexico, a Chatino, and you speak three languages, English, Spanish, and Chatino, how do you identify yourself?
When I moved to the city of Oaxaca, I was indigenous. Then, when I came to the US, I was Latina, a Mexican. And, now, when I go back to Mexico, I’m Chatino, and when I go to Europe, I’m an immigrant. I embrace all the labels. I think it’s very important to recognize that people have fought really hard for their identities. But more than anything, I would consider myself an indigenous filmmaker.
What kind of advice would you give to young Latinos or Latinas who are interested in going into film?
If they have a story they’re dying to tell, they should pursue it in school or with someone in the industry who can teach them. In order to succeed in this business, you have to be unique and I think we all have unique stories. We are all special. But sometimes it can be discouraging when people don’t respond well.
Can you talk about your next project?
It’s about a boy who lives in a town [where] all the grown men have left, and the boy wants to do the same. But he’s waiting to grow up a bit, since he’s eleven-years-old. Then one day he finds a refrigerator and he decides to sell it, thinking it’s his ticket to the United States. Yet the refrigerator keeps breaking down and giving him a lot of headaches and he can’t sell it. Essentially, it’s a comedy about survival.
I spent the months leading up to last year’s midterm elections in California’s twentieth congressional district, a sprawling, dusty territory hugging Interstate 5 along the southwestern edge of the San Joaquin Valley. With a US Census map on the dashboard, I repeatedly drove the length of a region recently named the poorest congressional district in the nation.
A man walks past a line of deserted storefronts. McFarland, California.
Using measures of health, education, and income—the Human Development Index—this dusty stretch of agricultural land and small farmworker towns ranks dead last among the nation’s 435 congressional districts. This hidden pocket of poverty is so deep that it surpasses even the Mississippi Delta and the hills of Appalachia in terms of pure human suffering: about 640,000 of the most desperate lives in America, just a few hundred miles up the highway from the opulent Hollywood Hills.
Although the average farmworker in Cal-20 makes just $10,000 per year, the district’s approximately 5,000 square miles encompass some of the richest farmland in the world. This is far from an impoverished land despite the intense poverty of its residents: its fields produce everything from tomatoes and cotton to lettuce and pistachios, fueling the engine of California’s $38.4 billion agricultural industry and lining the pockets of some of the state’s largest and richest landowners.
During my drives, I would occasionally pull over and study the map, trying to imagine the mapmaker who, knowingly or not, had taken a highlighter to California’s hidden underbelly—corralling some of the poorest towns in the state, like Mendota, Huron, and Lamont, along with slices of West Fresno’s and South Bakersfield’s hardest neighborhoods; shaping his gerrymandered amalgam of poverty with surgical precision; slicing streets down the middle and cutting towns in half. In another time, such a skilled cartographer would have given his map a name—California Profunda, say—and decorated the margins with sketches of vast ranches and humble settlements.
On Election Day, as incumbent Democrat Jim Costa faced off against an (ultimately unsuccessful) Republican challenger, I went to Lost Hills, a town of about 2,000 a few miles off Interstate 5. After half an hour searching for a polling station, I stopped for directions at the double-wide trailer that serves as the town’s post office. “I don’t live in this town, so I can’t help you,” the postmaster said, seemingly eager to put some distance between himself and his dusty surroundings. Ana Lomeli, twenty-three, walked by me in the parking lot. She told me the polling place was in Wasco, twenty miles away. “They probably don’t bother to put one here because no one votes in this town anyway,” she said.
A labor camp resident at her home. Huron, California
As I traced the contours of Cal-20, the car’s radio reception would often wane, and my dial would inevitably shift downward to the self-proclaimed “50,000 watt blowtorch” of the San Joaquin Valley, Fresno’s KMJ, a conservative talk station with a typical right-wing lineup. As I passed through the streets of Lost Hills and saw a Oaxacan immigrant mother lug a five-gallon jug of drinking water home in a shopping cart, the disconnect between what I was seeing and the bombast I was hearing was profound, the overheated voices less abrasive than just utterly irrelevant to the surroundings: a fuzzy dispatch from some rich and distant country.
What initially in my journey had felt like an exploration of a strange anomaly started to feel like something deeper, the discovery of a hidden country, California’s own interior colony, a dominion exploited for its natural wealth but ignored and neglected by its overlords. Passing by the fields of Cal-20, one could easily see residents paying their tributes one underpaid man-hour at a time, but their suzerain, lounging fat and content in some far distant place, could only be imagined.
A homeless farmworker cooks his breakfast. Mendota, California.
Men in a parking lot wait for work. Huron, California.
A shepherd corrals his sheep. Lemoore, California.
A man closes his roadside stand. Huron, California.
Unemployed men gather in an alley. Mendota, California.
A shepherd opens his pasture’s gate. Coalinga, California.
A farmworker clears tumbleweeds. Lamont, California.
The only reason I know the Iraqi folk song “Fog il Nachal,” which means, literally, “I am as happy as the highest date palm tree,” is because it played continuously against the backdrop of my youth in Los Angeles of 1978–1988, mingled in with The Police, Blondie, Siouxsie and The Banshees, and Bananarama. Though at the time I hated the Arabic music my father and his friends played at home and at their parties, it was always “Fog il Nachal” that stuck in my mind throughout those years. Although I could sing it perfectly and whistle the tune, I had no idea what the lyrics were, nor did my parents bother to tell me. Arabic was spoken between them and their Iraqi friends—on the phone, at parties, at the synagogue on Wilshire Boulevard; Hebrew was spoken to my older brothers, who both grew up in Israel, and English was spoken to me. In fact, from around the ages of eight to ten, I believed that Arabic was a language that only belonged to adults. I was completely floored when I first heard a child speak Arabic—ironically, this happened when we visited Israel and I saw Palestinian children for the first time. Somehow Arabic got absorbed, as languages and music do, in that department of “forbidden sounds” in my brain.
“Fog il Nachal” was particularly loved by the community because it was, as my mother called it, “a happy tune” not a “sad, wailing” tune in Arabic. At all night house parties, the men seemed to love the sad, wailing tunes. They sat around on the floor waving their hands and wagging their fingers at the musicians (my dad sometimes playing the oud), while the women gossiped in the other room and only emerged for the more upbeat tunes. I often slept over in guest bedrooms amid the coats and handbags, lulled to sleep by the twang of the khanoun, the drumbeat of the darbukka, and the deep-belly tones of the oud. Songs that seemed to go on forever by Egyptian greats Uum Khalthoum and Abdul Wahab, and Lebanese songstress Fairouz, repeated abstractly in my head the next day as I attended dance class at Beverly Hills High. Layered over the remnants of the Arabic music was a daytime soundtrack of another kind of wailing from Siouxsie Sioux or David Sylvian, or experimental music with oriental sounds coming from Brian Ferry or Peter Gabriel. All my friends at the time were immigrant kids—Mexican or Filipino or Armenian—and we were united in our love of the same music. My best friend at the time, a Latina musician, played her own new-wavey version of Latin-Arabic sounds that predated so much of what would explode in pop music a decade later. It was as if this music led to our self-understanding as people with different cultures at home. It was not harmony but disharmony that felt real and more complicated. Strangely, it only occurred to me sometime after college that this kind of happy/sad sound—shared by new wave and oriental music—was united in dissonance. It was all about that singular quarter tone that makes music sound slightly off-key or out of tune (especially to Western ears).
The history of atonal music is bound up with the history of modernism—related to industry, depersonalization, ideas of progress and social utopia. But was the dissonant quarter tone used in alternative music of the 1980s an expression of difference? Or resistance? It certainly seemed to represent longing, but longing for what? I and my immigrant friends might have heard it subliminally, might have interpreted it as a validation of our otherness, of our melancholy at being misunderstood both at home and in Californian culture. In a sense, those of us who fall between cultures—the never-really-modern, never-really-traditional cultures—inhabit this space created by the dissonant tone—the tone that resonates as deceptively off-key or unfinished, and that allows us to choose a constant state of tuning.
I knew early on that there must have been a really good reason my parents did not speak their native Judeo-Arabic dialect outside our home and deftly avoided references in public places to countries of birth. These were secrets I did not enjoy; they made our otherness more pronounced and mysterious. Looking back, what I did enjoy, despite my teenage grumblings about ethnic parents and their habits, was their flagrant party culture. When there weren’t enough families to host those all-night house parties (more Iraqi Jews live in London, Montreal, or New York than Los Angeles), we’d go to nightclubs like the Lebanese club, Byblos, on Westwood Boulevard, or Pips on Doheny Drive. (Pips wasn’t an Arabic club, but the Iraqis liked its plush carpeting, mirrored walls, low-lighting, and disco.) At Byblos, at least two or three belly dancers would perform throughout the night, and on their breaks, the dance floor would open up for us to dance to Western music. The belly dancers, to my great surprise, were more often American women who had learned to dance in LA, rather than Middle Eastern women. I always wondered how my parents and their friends tolerated this “inauthenticity.”
I later learned that belly dancers in Middle Eastern cultures are practically regarded as prostitutes. In the 1940s, in Iraq at least, a woman singer or entertainer was considered loose and compromised. Traditionally, women living in Muslim countries were not supposed to attend musical gatherings in public, let alone sing in public. Although there was nothing of the fanatical fundamentalism we are seeing today, those cultures are still conservative when it comes to women appearing in public spaces. Jewish women living in those societies followed suit, which is not a stretch, as women in Judaism traditionally sat separately from men in the synagogues. Thankfully, the divisions today are less severe.
Once in California, such restrictive social mores were more or less left behind. Perhaps, too, the Californian Iraqi Jews had something to prove to the Iranian Jews, who arrived in Los Angeles through the 1980s: we were more “modern,” more assimilated than they.
So much seemed to be revealed at those house parties and through the music. Every so often I’d see a woman who so loved Arabic music that she couldn’t help singing alongside the men. One such family friend—I’ll call her “Laura,” which is the name she chose when she came to the States—sings a mean “Fog Il Nachal” herself, when begged to do so. Her family had migrated to California earlier than my parents, in the 1950s, barely getting safely through Israel, so the evidence of assimilation was much deeper. Their accents were less pronounced, their children were more removed from Iraqi culture, their morals seemed looser, and they had a dog (Arabic culture, by and large, frowns upon dogs as pets).
Laura was the quintessential hostess for Iraqi parties. She made everyone from every class within the community feel at home. She also arranged for all the music, sometimes bringing in Palestinian or Syrian musicians who could play the tunes loved by the Iraqi Jews. No one ever spoke openly of this interreligious musical arrangement, though.
Loads of live recordings of these house parties on cassette and VHS tapes fill my parents’ bathroom cabinets. My own meager teenage cassette collection from this time has nothing on theirs. It wasn’t only about capturing the music but just as much the heckling, teasing, and jokes from the live audience, typical Middle Eastern behavior that you’d never encounter outside that intimate setting. The cassettes are traded and presented as gifts to friends and family abroad in a network that, ultimately, contains the social code holding people together. It may not be nostalgia, but it is reenactment, a kind that feels more like a form of resistance than active nostalgia does. It was as if our secret musical citizenship superceded time and place. Repeated again and again in different homes—the same songs, the same food, the same guests—this was the ever-present internal life of the party, where the music of 1940s and 1950s Iraq played on in pockets of Beverly Hills, Encino, and even San Diego. I had always wondered if Iraqis back in Iraq were still listening to this repertoire. Or was it just within the diasporic community?
Images, courtesy of Regine Basha, from the VHS recordings copied and shared among the Iraqi Jews of Los Angeles. The author explores these parties in her project “Tuning Baghdad” at http://www.tuningbaghdad.net
As my curiosity about our identification with this music grew over time, I decided to research the history of “Chagli” (the Arabic word used for Jewish musical house parties) in Baghdad. In 1932, a Jewish band called Chagli, a folk ensemble with nye, dumbek, violin, and oud, was invited to represent Iraq at the Cairo International Music Convention, the first music industry event of its kind in the Middle East. At that time, Jews and their music were not separated from Iraqi culture; the Chagli was never considered “Jewish music.” But for reasons that had to do with social mores in that era, Iraqi Jews tended to be the musicians of Iraq—so much so that music ceased on the radio and in the streets on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. Throughout the late 1930s and 1940s, the Iraqi National Radio station was a productive place for new compositions and collaborations, headed by the Jewish brothers Salah and Daoud Al- Kuwaiti. Though the Iraqi Maqam (a kind of musical scale) was often sung by a Muslim singer, Jews always provided the musical accompaniment. This led to the writing of new modern compositions modeled after the popular Egyptian compositions at the time—which led the way for Modern Arabic music throughout the whole Middle East. The eventual displacement of this culture (a force majeure after Israel was established) affected the music scene of Iraq for decades, as most of the music teachers were also Jews.
In my latest research on the Iraqi Jewish musicians of this generation who are still alive and playing, no one stands out more than the octogenarian Abraham Salman. A virtuosic khanoun player, blind since birth, he now lives modestly in an Iraqi Jewish suburb of Tel Aviv, performing only for the friends who come over and egg him on. Salman was a beloved child prodigy in Iraq and continued to perform shortly after arriving in Israel in the early 1950s as part of the program “Kol Israel” (a televised “Oriental” orchestral broadcast à la Lawrence Welk). In his living room over cookies and tea, his wife told me of his continued following in the Middle East—especially in Saudi Arabia, where efforts to bring him for a concert have proved futile. Earnestly, I asked Salman if he could talk about the Maqam to me, and explain it in layman terms perhaps. He reluctantly responded in Arabic by asking where I lived. When I stated, “New York,” he simply said, “Oh … that’s too far.”
I don’t know whether or not Abraham Salman’s music is still known to or appreciated by Iraqis back in the homeland. I have heard of a younger generation of Iraqi musicians who are seeking out this modern chapter in history, as apparently, Saddam Hussein actively erased it from the history books and radio waves. How ironic it is that in the hills of Encino or the suburbs of Tel Aviv, we are likely to hear the sounds of one of the last bastions of cosmopolitanism in Iraq.
If there could be a sound for that condition, it would definitely ring atonally.
Chagli: a four-piece ensemble that performs the Maqam. A term also used to refer to the party at which this ensemble would play. Related to the Byzantine Caglia that also spread to the Balkans and other reaches of the Ottoman Empire.
Darbukka or Dumbek: a clay or ceramic drum with a natural membrane for the skin.
Khanoun: A Middle Eastern instrument, like the zither that is plucked. Features prominently in most Arabic music orchestras.
Maqam: a system of melodic modes in Arabic music that can be played in an improvisational way.
In 1911, the state of California amended its constitution to create the ballot initiative, the referendum, and the recall. In response, the New York Times published the following, remarkably prescient warning.
We have received the official statement of questions submitted to the people of California in connection with the recent special election, setting forth the amendments to the Constitution to be then voted upon, together with arguments pro and con. The statement is in more senses than one monstrous. It is printed in small and nearly unreadable type on both sides of an immense sheet, the reading matter covering in all twelve square feet. The amendments are twenty-three in number. Four of them are really important—woman suffrage, the initiative, the referendum, and the recall. Most of them are not fit for constitutional enactment at all, but should be within the scope of the powers of the Legislature.
The number, complexity, and minuteness of the propositions submitted to the popular vote make it physically impossible that the ordinary voter shall understand their nature and effect or the actual consequences of his own act. And the process of confusing and practically paralyzing the faculty of discretion and discrimination in the mind of the voter is, of course, a continuous and cumulative one. The multitudinous changes in the “fundamental” law wrought at one election invite and, indeed compel, further changes, correcting the mistakes made, or adding to them. Consistency, stability, and continuity are simply impracticable under this process. The rights and interests of the community are involved in a perpetual flux. Human experience has shown that certainty, simplicity, clarity, and reasonable uniformity are the prime safeguards of justice and reason in the making and in the application of the laws affecting the public. These cannot be had in a State where the Constitution is made to meddle with details innumerable and where its provisions are subject to the passing whims of popular feeling and opinion.
This new method of handling the basic law of the State is advocated in the name of democracy. In reality it is utterly and hopelessly undemocratic. While pretending to give greater rights to the voters, it deprives them of the opportunity effectively and intelligently to use their powers. They receive the right to vote much oftener and on a larger number of matters than before, but the number and variety of the votes they are called on to cast does away with all chance of really using sense and discretion as to all of them. The new method is proposed as a check on the machines. But the strength of the machines lies in the inattention and indifference of the voters, and the voters are sure in the long run to be more inattentive and indifferent in proportion to the number of the questions forced upon them at one time. When the machine managers get familiar with the working of the new method, they will work it for their own ends far more readily than they work the present method. The average voter, muddled and puzzled and tired by the impossible task of really understanding and deciding on a mass of matters, will give it up, and then the politicians will get in their fine work.
The remedy for the undoubted evils of machine politics is not in multiplying, confusing, and making more troublesome the duties of the voter, but in simplifying and restricting them and making the discharge of each of them more effective. So long as we make our political business so difficult that common men cannot, will not, and ought not to give to it the time and labor absolutely needed for success in it, so long there will be professionals to attend to it. It would be as easy to run the business of a big railway by leaving every detail of its management to a vote of the shareholders as it will be to run the business of a State under the new system. And the results in the latter case will be as mischievous as those in the former would be sure to be.
Richard Steven Street, Everyone Had Cameras: Photography and Farmworkers in California, 1850–2000 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).
Jan Goggans, California on the Breadlines: Dorothea Lange, Paul Taylor, and the Making of a New Deal Narrative (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010).
Rick Nahmias, The Migrant Project: Contemporary California Farm Workers (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008).
We are all familiar with California’s privileged relationship to the visual technologies that captured the twentieth century—photography, film, television—but less well-known is the fact that during the same period the state was at the vanguard in the production of equally influential forms of invisibility. As large landholdings were snatched up by wealthy and often absentee owners in the late nineteenth century, California’s agricultural sector became a key site in the broader American shift from reliance on relatively small resident farmers to the post-Civil War reconfiguration of farmwork into a form of wage labor paid by distant corporate owners of land and equipment. The corporate ownership/wage labor model has come to dominate our agricultural landscape so thoroughly that most middle-class Californians today have no personal experience of agricultural labor, regarding it (if at all) as something outdated and alien. Indeed, farmwork is now largely performed by “aliens,” migrants from Mexico and Central America who speak languages other than English and carry Latino cultural traditions.
Chronically impoverished, politically disenfranchised, and largely excluded from the dominant culture, California fieldworkers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—historically hailing from China, the Philippines, India, and Japan, as well as Latin America—found themselves in the curious position of living and laboring unseen at the very epicenter of what another immigrant, Theodor Adorno, famously described as “the culture industry.” In the unprecedented concentration of technological and human resources dedicated to producing and distributing visual images, there was a powerful tension between farmworkers’ material presence and their social absence. Still photography, which emerged just as California agriculture was getting established, was particularly well-suited to capturing this paradox, and the long, mostly underground tradition of photojournalism in California’s agricultural interior is a prime study in the relationship between politics and aesthetics.
The three books reviewed here all focus on the century-plus tradition of documentary and artistic photography centered on farm labor to explore its role in the history of professed American ideals like shared economic prosperity and the democratic mediation of cultural difference. Richard Steven Street’s Everyone Had Cameras is a historically comprehensive survey of visual records of farmworkers over the past 150 years; Jan Goggans’s California on the Breadlines pursues a narrower and deeper engagement with the most effective photojournalist in that tradition, Dorothea Lange, and her economist husband, Paul Taylor; and Rick Nahmias’s The Migrant Project exemplifies the ongoing personal and political value of taking a camera out among the furrows.
Street’s Everyone Had Cameras is the comprehensive history of the subject, and it is difficult to imagine it ever being superseded. Street has devoted more than thirty years to the history and continued chronicling of farmworkers in California, and his long immersion in the subject shows in the astonishing level of historical detail and analytical good judgment he brings to this crowning work. Richly illustrated with 149 photos, Street’s book spans the entire post-contact history of California. Opening with a discussion of Spanish painters such as Padre Ignacio Tirsch and José Cardero, who recorded distant images of native Californian field hands laboring at coastal missions in the mid-1700s, Street moves on to the drawings produced by American military artists from the 1830s forward. Those panoramic images are geographic and documentary in intent, aiming to inform distant audiences of the geology, people, and agricultural practices of what was then an isolated outpost of European civilization. When photography first came to California, its application was limited to portraiture by the heaviness and delicacy of the equipment and the long exposure times required. During this period, Euro-American (and occasionally Native Californian) farmworkers on trips into town sat for their portraits in one of the studios to be found in every city of size, purchasing prints in the form of small cartes de visite or slightly larger cabinet cards.
As technological changes allowed the camera to move outdoors, California landscapes began to appear in the works of entrepreneurs who took the images on touring exhibitions through the United States and also in the collections of wealthy landowners who commissioned a photographic record of their holdings. Among the most significant of these patronage relationships was the one between Jonathan Bixby, a wealthy landowner with land in Los Angeles, Orange, and Monterey counties, and William Godfrey, a stereographer from the then-tiny town of Los Angeles. In 1872 Bixby invited Godfrey to document his Los Cerritos Ranch (near present-day Long Beach), and the stereographs of the land he produced, featuring Chinese and Mexican ranch-hands, are some of the earliest in situ photographic records of farm labor in California.
The pattern of commissioned work combined with retail stereograph sales persisted through the latter third of the century with Eadweard Muybridge, the technical master and colorful pioneer of moving-image technology. Like Godfrey, Muybridge did not limit his photography to white subjects, taking many neutral and even sympathetic images of the mostly Chinese field hands who brought in the grape harvest at Buena Vista, the massive and storied Sonoma vineyard of Agoston Haraszthy. In the 1880s, photographer Carleton Watkins was drawn into the infamous Lux v. Haggin irrigation dispute when he was hired by the attorney for Miller and Lux, Hall McAllister, to document the Kern River and its associated sloughs. Watkins later returned to Kern County, where he advertised his services to local farmers who wanted images of their operations. His photos from this commercial tour, which number over 750, contained many images of the Chinese and Mexican workforce, and his negatives were printed and perhaps also captioned by his Chinese American colleague, Ah Fue, in a San Francisco studio. Godfrey, Muybridge, and Watkins never intended anything in the way of an overt political statement by such inclusions, but in retrospect the mere presence of these poor and nonwhite faces is of great significance, given the rise of anti-Chinese sentiment and the resulting systematic exclusion of the Chinese from California society and from much of the historical record of the late nineteenth century.
Photographers became more firmly allied with the perspectives of big growers and their marketing associations as commercial demand for their work grew alongside the expanding national markets for California produce and the accompanying advances in printing and packaging technology. The major images from 1890 to 1910 tended to be promotional rather than documentary, and they downplayed the social questions associated with the modern farm economy. Instead of an exposé of conditions in the raisin-packing sheds, for example, we see the carefully managed image of Lorraine Collett, a packer who became the face of Sun-Maid raisins. Mexican workers, who by the 1910s had largely replaced the legally excluded Chinese, often appeared on marketing labels of the era in the form of caricatures of malingering campesinos purportedly representing the obsolete culture of the region before annexation. (“Lazy Peon” was one brand of avocados in the era.) Women, who in this pre-bracero era contributed significantly to the agricultural work force, especially in the sorting sheds, also found themselves represented in cartoonish, highly sexualized images emblazoned on the fruit crate labels of brands like “Buxom,” “Squeeze Me,” and “Nudist.” These images were part of a larger branding of California as a wealthy, fertile, and white agricultural paradise during the first half of the twentieth century.
“Migratory Mexican field worker’s home on the edge of a frozen pea field. Imperial Valley, California” by Dorothea Lange, 1937. (photograph courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection)
Contradicting this image were photos of much more limited circulation, such as those associated with the trial of the 1913 Wheatland hop rioters, or the series of criminal mugshots and case histories recorded by Clara Smith between 1900 and 1908. These photos reveal the racial diversity, extreme poverty, and poor living conditions of a California demimonde the agricultural marketers were eager to suppress. The advertising men were aided in their effort by the outbreak of the first World War, when agricultural labor shortages were met with government campaigns to bring women (The Women’s Land Army) and children (The Boys’ Working Reserve) from the cities into the fields at key points in the growing season. These atypical workers were frequently photographed in the smiling attitudes of picnickers in the countryside, a living version of the illustrations of contented laborers on boxes of fresh fruit shipped eastward decades before. Beneath this veneer, however, was the advent of the labor system we know today: in 1917, immigration restrictions and taxes that had somewhat restrained the northward migration of Mexican workers were lifted, and these workers, fleeing the disruption caused by the Mexican Revolution, came by the thousands to work in California fields. The racial and cultural divisions between the Mexican agricultural labor force and the Anglo middle class deepened over the next thirty years, so that by the mid-1920s a subgenre of newspaper photography emerged that recorded lurid images of the rural poor whose lives and deaths increasingly took place beyond the experience of the average newspaper reader.
The Great Depression both interrupted and ultimately reinforced the disappearance of the migrant labor force from the concerns of the urban public. In the aftermath of the worldwide economic downturn after Black Friday, two remarkable German immigrants, Otto Hagel and Joanna (“Hansel”) Mieth, emigrated to California and began to tumble aimlessly across the American Southwest, travelling and working with migrant laborers, documenting their lives with an intimacy and sympathy unmatched by their American colleagues. But it was a transplanted Iowan, Paul Taylor, who first exploited the power of the photographic image in the service of a larger vision of social and economic justice. A WWI veteran who came to California in the 1920s to rehabilitate lungs damaged by mustard gas, Taylor was driven by a now-rare sense of patriotic obligation to his less fortunate countrymen. Pursuing an academic career in labor and agricultural economics at UC Berkeley, he put the plight of the largely Mexican migrant population at the center of his research. Taylor sought early on to record some of his field experiences in California and Colorado, and as photography became a more common element in academic social science publications he included his images to illustrate the more abstract principles and data sets in his essays.
Hagel, Mieth, and Taylor were being swept along in a greater change in the relationship between workers and their employers. In the 1930s, the laboring classes in California began to assert their political, economic, and physical power, organizing across agricultural and industrial lines to put pressure on the ownership class. The Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union, formed in 1930, called for a farmworkers’ strike in 1931 after a grower-imposed wage cut. This was followed by a large and bloody cotton strike in 1933. Such strikes, key moments in the consolidation of both union and anti-union organizing, were directed by Communist organizers aiming to create solidarity among workers of all types and backgrounds in order to secure higher wages, better conditions, and greater control over decision-making from the politically powerful owners of land and capital. In the summer of 1934, dockworkers in the San Francisco office of the International Longshoremen’s Association called for a waterfront work stoppage and, eventually, a general strike. Although violently put down by private corporate militias, city police, and the National Guard, the strikes heralded a new balance of power between labor and capital that would play out in New Deal policy debates. Recognizing their significance, Taylor coauthored an article in the progressive journal Survey Graphic offering historical context and political analysis of the strikes. While waiting for an editorial response, he attended a photography exhibition in Oakland, where he was struck by a set of images depicting workers during the 1934 General Strike. At the last moment, and without knowing the photographer, he sent photos of the strike from the Oakland show to the publisher as replacements for his own illustrations. The photographer responsible for the photos was the young Dorothea Lange, a transplant from New York, studio photographer, and budding chronicler of life on the streets of Depression-era San Francisco, and this conjunction of the photographer’s art with the economist’s science was just the first chapter in what would become a lifelong professional collaboration and personal romance between Taylor and Lange.
While Street’s book devotes much of seven chapters to Lange and Taylor, providing crucial historical details about the context of their ascension as national spokesmen for the poor, Jan Goggans’s California on the Breadlines tells their remarkable tale with a storyteller’s ear for all of its human dimensions—as a key moment in the development of activist art, a rare and inspiring example of political ideals being realized in one’s work, a major chapter in California’s long-running struggle over how to pursue agricultural development, and as the subtitle suggests, an important prelude to national reforms implemented by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the New Deal. This last element, which perhaps owes its prominence to the publisher’s need to address a national audience, is in fact the least original and convincing strand in Goggans’s argument, as the evidence points toward a fortuitous convergence among Lange and Taylor’s interests and the needs of Roy Stryker, head of public relations for Rexford Tugwell’s newly established Resettlement Administration, tasked with reconstructing the country’s devastated farm communities from 1935 forward. As much as we now associate Lange’s famous photos with the Depression and the New Deal programs designed to alleviate it, the evidence is thin that the photos led to any major coalescence of public opinion, or that Taylor’s work was picked up by FDR’s Brain Trust and incorporated into national policy. These were largely parallel phenomena that are all too easily read, in retrospect, as cause and effect.
“In a carrot pullers’ camp near Holtville, California” by Dorothea Lange, 1939. (photograph courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection)
Fortunately, Goggans provides a wealth of other interpretive handles for us to take hold of, the most striking and unexpected of which relates to the gender roles and sexual mores at work beneath the surface of the Taylor/Lange collaboration. Their advocacy of better physical living conditions for migrant laborers had, of course, a common-sense rationale: social justice includes indoor plumbing, access to clean water, and protection from the elements. But as Goggans makes clear, Taylor’s politics in particular were deeply informed by a domestic ideology that went beyond a simple pragmatic interest in physical conditions, to the point that he regarded the traditional household as the moral basis for egalitarian social relations. His embrace of this ideology may have stemmed in part from the updated Jeffersonian ideal so often invoked by farm and labor activists of the time, but it was also reinforced by contemporary factors operating in the society at large. During the Depression, when pressure rose on women to leave the work force so that male breadwinners would face less competition for scarce jobs, the traditional domestic “women’s work” that had been increasingly outsourced to the market was now reabsorbed into the informal, and unpaid, economy. The vision of a self-sustaining family farm, operating smoothly along old gender divisions of labor, became all the more broadly appealing. There were also strong aesthetic conventions at work for Lange. The documentary photography of earlier urban reformers, like Jacob Riis or Margaret Bourke-White, often had relied on images of decrepit or incomplete houses to compel the attention of audiences, and many of Lange’s photographs of migrant camps followed suit in highlighting the relation between maternal subjects and their distressed or dysfunctional homes.
This element of Taylor and Lange’s photojournalistic project becomes more complex and interesting when we broaden our scope to include their own romantic entanglement. At the same time that they were making strategic use of traditionalist iconography to broadcast the plight of farmworkers, Lange and Taylor began an affair that would culminate in their marriage in 1935. Lange’s first marriage was to Maynard Dixon, the bohemian scion of an established California family and an artist whose long painting expeditions Lange subsidized with her studio portraiture. There was a long foreground to Lange’s decision to engage in an affair with Taylor: frequent separations, difficulties at home, and political differences wore down the Lange-Dixon marriage until at the end it was little more than an economic partnership. Taylor’s situation was even less traditional. His wife, Katharine Whiteside (his college fiancée), aware of their sexual and temperamental incompatibilities, proposed that they establish an open marriage. Taylor, however, could not abide so radical a challenge to the domestic structure that organized his world view, and after an awkward period of quasi-open marriage, he insisted on a divorce (and marriage to Lange).
An undercurrent of feminist liberation and a halting revision of sexual mores is thus a significant part of the Taylor/Lange story, and with a little imagination we can use these currents to enrich our understanding of Lange’s iconic images. Take Migrant Mother, the most famous of her photos. The most common version of the photograph shows an intent migrant woman from Oklahoma clutching her two shy children and staring anxiously into the distance. Other images from the same roll of film show the context of the portrait (a worn tent in a temporary pea-pickers’ camp). The most striking image, however, is of the woman, Florence Thompson, preparing to breastfeed her youngest child, a pose in which Lange often placed her subjects. It is an allusion to the Madonna, of course, but Goggans argues that it partakes in another visual tradition, that of the glamorous modern woman whose sexuality is a part of her strength rather than a defect in her character. If Goggans’s hunch is right, then images like Migrant Mother draw their power in part from the contrast between an ancient image of traditional femininity and a heterodox image of a strong, unrepressed woman unaccompanied by any males, a figure often demeaned as a “whore” but here celebrated and promoted. Lange’s frequent identification with her female subjects may go beyond their shared interest in economic reform to an underlying feminism that is not usually stressed in treatments of the period. Of her encounter with Florence Thompson, Lange recalled that “there was a sort of equality about it.”
Paul Taylor’s major academic focus had always been on Mexican migrant farm labor, which had risen in the first decades of the twentieth century to become the linchpin, alongside large irrigation projects, of dramatic growth in the Western and Southwestern agricultural sector. Almost alone among economists in studying what would become a lasting phenomenon, Paul Taylor integrated cultural and ethnographic insights into his more traditional economic methodology. He learned Spanish and recorded corridos during his trips into the field in California and Colorado. The presence of white farm laborers in California fields was an anomaly of the 1930s created by the economic and environmental catastrophes of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, which led to the deportation of vast numbers of Mexican migrants (regardless of their immigration status) and the influx of immigrants from Oklahoma. Even then, the rural work force was significantly nonwhite, and a substantial proportion of the “Okies” were themselves of native, Mexican, and/or African American ancestry. Florence Thompson, the woman pictured in Migrant Mother, was born on an Indian reservation, was married to a native man, and perhaps—there is some dispute about this—was herself part Native American.
César Chávez addressing strikers at DiGiogio’s Sierra Vista Ranch, March 1966. (photograph by Gerhard Gscheidle, courtesy of University of Minnesota Press)
As Goggans reveals, the apparent whiteness of the iconic images of Depression-era poverty was deliberate, a strategy to disassociate the white Okies from the “gypsy field hands,” whose race, culture, and domestic habits (conditioned by legal discrimination) kept them from becoming viable objects of sympathy for the middle-class voting public. John Steinbeck, whose Grapes of Wrath and In Dubious Battle are to the literary history of Depression California what Lange and Taylor’s works are to the photojournalistic tradition, was quite explicit about this, frequently drawing sharply racialized distinctions meant to benefit whites at the expense of nonwhite migrants. After public and private publishers passed over many images of native and Latino workers, families, and children in Lange’s early work, eventually Lange herself obliged this appetite by seeking out young, white, often very beautiful mothers for extensive portrait sessions.
During and after WWII, the Bracero program radically altered established patterns of Mexican migration to the fields of California. Although they had a laundry list of rights on paper, braceros proved readily exploitable. Delivered in groups to isolated farms where they had no independent means of shelter or sustenance, no family or social support, and no recourse against those who would short their pay, overcharge on rent, or ignore unsafe conditions, they represented the legal codification and institutionalization of the farmworking underclass. The photographic record of this era is relatively thin, owing in significant part to an increasingly aggressive campaign by growers to sue or otherwise punish photographers, filmmakers, magazines, and distributors guilty of what they termed “libel by visual innuendo.” The most famous of these campaigns was pursued by the DiGiorgio Company against the makers and backers of Poverty in the Valley of Plenty, a National Farm Laborers’ Union film that was shown to pro-labor audiences and aired on a few public television stations before being suppressed and destroyed per court order. With the DiGiorgio case, a new era of sophisticated visual campaigns began, culminating with César Chávez’s careful cultivation of news photographers in his successful attempts to organize and advance the United Farm Workers.
Street’s history carries us all the way up to the end of the millennium with more images and anecdotes than can possibly be conveyed here, and the visual chronicle of farm labor has continued to evolve in the work of contemporary photographers drawn to what Street calls the “picture of how the system of farm labor developed [and] . . . the price it extracts from a class of people.”
Rick Nahmias’s contribution to this body of work, The Migrant Project, is notable not for any special aesthetic achievement or unusual subject matter, but rather its sheer lack of artistic or sociological distinctiveness. Struck by his deep ignorance of the sources of California’s famous food culture, Nahmias set out on an adventure of self-discovery in the fields of his home state and underwent a conversion from blithe consumer to impassioned advocate for the people he found there. The photos he took along the way might have been taken by anyone with a camera, a roll of black-and-white film, a smattering of Spanish, and the desire to cross the boundaries that history has made. By the time one has finished leafing through The Migrant Project, one grasps that in our moment the mediocre snapshots and secondhand history are beside the point, and what really matters is only that last quality—the interest in finding out how our fellow Californians are faring.
The power of the photographic image to produce icons and influence policy appears to be on the wane, the victim of the dilutive power of a fragmented public sphere so saturated in arresting images that even the most effective photos often find no significant audience. But if Nahmias’s work suggests that the value of twenty-first-century agricultural photojournalism lies not in the images produced but in the photographer’s experience of crossing the linguistic, cultural, economic, and geographic lines that separate most of us from migrant farmworkers, the democratic access enabled by cheaply available digital cameras may be something to embrace. Everyone really does have a camera now: the average Californian has on his or her person a pretext for undoing the century-long isolation and invisibility of California farmworkers. You, too, can become a part of a tradition that is as much about sharing a world with the disempowered and keeping them in your thoughts and actions as it is about capturing the perfect image. Because they have few political rights and exist in innumerable jurisdictions, migrant farm laborers will never be able to directly secure their own just treatment, social inclusion, and prosperity. But those visual images of them in our cell phones and on our hard drives might, if we let them, act through us at the ballot box, the grocery store, and the meeting hall.
Gary Snyder’s poetry has explored Zen, nature, and labor for over fifty years, and in that time has profoundly shaped life and letters on the West Coast, in the United States, and even in Asia. Louis and Spring Warren recently sat down with Snyder at his house, Kitkiddizze, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, to talk about how he became a Californian and what the future holds for West Coast poetry.
LW: What does it mean to be a “California poet”?
Snyder: Well, that’s the question. It’s very difficult to talk about. Actually, there are four Californias, or five Californias even. You know, there is a split between the south and the north. And when I am traveling in the rest of the world, Europe or Asia, people ask me where I’m from, I say I’m from Northern California. I don’t say California, I say Northern California. They know right away what I mean.
LW: You grew up in the Pacific Northwest. Now you consider yourself a Northern Californian. Why did you choose California? What made you decide to work from here rather than Oregon or Washington?
Snyder: Well, I was born in San Francisco, actually, but spent my childhood in the Pacific Northwest, near Seattle. My paternal grandparents were well settled into the Northwest from the time it was still a territory in Kitsap County on the west side of Puget Sound. Anyway, I don’t recall ever thinking there was a serious division between British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, or even Northern California. And to begin with, weather patterns and a lot of the ecology extend well south of the California-Oregon border. In fact, there’s a lot here in California that belongs to the Northwest. The gardening zone for this area here, for the whole Sierra Nevada foothills actually, is gardening zone number seven in the Sunset Garden Book, which is the same zone as the Rogue River Valley.
LW: In Oregon?
Gary: Yes—zone 7 goes up as far as Roseburg in southern Oregon.
SW: So maybe when you go overseas and people ask where you’re from, you should say zone 7.
Snyder: You know, I could say that in California, and most people don’t know what I’m talking about. You have to be a gardener to know the zones in the Sunset Garden Book. But they’re very good. They’re very subtle, too. I have fun arguing and talking about these things. I say California’s borders are extremely misdrawn and the two desert zones really belong with their own area… . There’s an idea I take from Kroeber’s work in California Indian anthropology. He uses the term “heartland” or “core California” for California Indian culture as based in the Great Central Valley and radiating south and north a certain distance and over to the coast.
SW: So to your mind, “core California” is the Central Valley?
Snyder: Based in the Central Valley. Along the rivers. And over along the rivers all the way to the Bay. But of course, the Central Valley was a big marsh and it was full of waterfowl. Back before European contact, Indians didn’t really live in the Central Valley; they lived on the edges on the west side and on the edges of the east side. And if they lived on the west side, they made trips regularly over to the coast because they liked the taste of oysters. And if they lived on the edge of the foothills, they would come up higher to get away from the hot weather in the summer and also they could get yew wood for yew bows which were great trade items. So there’s all sorts of reasons to work these things out.
LW: How does the radicalism of San Francisco and Northern California fit in all this?
Snyder: The west side of the Pacific Coast, from British Columbia south to Big Sur, and possibly farther south, has had, for example, since the very early twentieth century, a number of Utopian socialist communities, has had a number of visionary and often left wing writers. It has had a number of very strong women writers.
LW: You’ve mentioned borders being misdrawn. It sounds like you feel they don’t match the complexities of land and culture?
Snyder: Oh yeah, straight lines with a ruler.
LW: What about the border with Mexico?
Snyder: That’s another one. The history of that tells you how clearly arbitrary it was… . And the same with the Canadian border. Because the west was occupied, settled, and began to be exploited far too rapidly for people to get much sense of where they were or what was going on or what were the right places to put things. And that’s why I would argue 400 to 500 years from now it will all be different. It won’t look the way it looks now. People will finally get around to trying to straighten it out.
SW: So what drew you to California? Was it San Francisco?
Snyder: The first visit I recall, I was down here staying with my aunt when I was nine years old for a month so that they could take me to see the World’s Fair.
LW: In San Francisco?
Snyder: On Treasure Island. I remember seeing the Chinese dive through burning hoops. They had the Chinese jugglers and acrobats that were quite memorable.
SW: So, after your childhood visit to San Francisco, when did you come to live there?
Snyder: My mother and father split when I was still in high school. He came down here sort of tentatively. He worked for the Veterans Administration. So he came down to try that job out and as it happened, he and my mother never got back together again. So he was living down here and then he remarried. She remained in Portland some years longer. But that gave me a foothold to come down here. And I think the first time I did that was when I was seventeen hitchhiking on my way back from New York to Portland, I curved around to go through San Francisco to see my father. I found it kind of a bizarre place.
SW: How so?
Snyder: [Laughs] Well, it is kind of bizarre, don’t you think? I touched base here, then I was going back to Indiana University to go to graduate school. I made my final decision there to quit graduate school in anthropology and linguistics and come down to Berkeley for graduate school, so then I made the trip back west. But I didn’t start at Berkeley for a year and a half. So, I got an apartment in North Beach and I worked on the docks. And while living and working in San Francisco at that time, right in North Beach, it was on Telegraph Lane, I met all kinds of people. I was writing some poetry already then, and thought that this is where I should make connections and figure out what’s going on in poetry. The Zen world was already getting started there. Alan Watts was giving talks on Zen out in Pacific Heights. It was 1952, ’53. It was a very lively place.
SW: What are you working on now?
Snyder: I’m working on an East West Transpacific Buddhist Memoir with a lot of, a certain amount of criticism and a certain amount of gossip in it. And then the other book I’m working on with a friend of mine who helped build this house in the summer of 1970, and he’s an architect now and he is also a neighbor, he and I are going to do a book together here on the building of this house.
SW: That sounds like a fantastic project. You built this house in 1970. How?
Snyder: We all camped out down in the meadow, had no electricity and no power tools… . It was like nineteenth century. Old Jimmy Coughlin, who died when he was 96, came over here one time and he watched us working and he looked at our tools and he said I’ve never seen anything like this in eighty years.
. . . .
LW: How would I know a West Coast poem?
Snyder: It’s not exactly loose, but the lines don’t all line up as much as they do on the East Coast. A lot of [writers] are women. Of course, they’ve got a lot of women on the East Coast, too. But it’s the content and the aesthetic approach to experience things different than it is, as Philip Whalen described his poetry, a graph of the mind moving. If you read, which you could easily do, especially if I Xeroxed it and mailed it to you, Leslie Scalapino’s introduction to Philip Whalen’s collected poetry… is a very good description of something that is basic to most West Coast poetry.
LW: It’s not the same as Beat poetry?
Snyder: It’s different from Beat poetry, which I am constantly trying to explain to people because I am often still categorized as a beat writer. And I try to make the distinction between Beat as a historical phenomenon, which I was involved in, and as an aesthetic and a source of a kind of writing, which I am not involved in. Once I point that out, most people with half a brain see it. And so it’s simple in that light. Leslie Scalapino just recently died of pancreatic cancer. She was sixty-two. And we all feel very bad about that cause she still had a lot to do. She lived in Berkeley and was the author of six or seven books. And was not publicly famous anywhere except on the West Coast. But what a smart woman.
I would say that West Coast poetic aesthetics is more defined by a kind of empiricism, a presence in the moment, concreteness, physicality often, and does not rely on wit or fancy so much as East Coast poetry, which is characterized often by what I would call intellectual fancy, as distinct from imagination. Fancy and imagination are not the same thing, as T.S. Eliot said in one of his literary essays years ago. East Coast poetry is more internal or personal, more about me and my feelings and what is happening in my complex life, and human-centered. There’s an enormous amount of openness to the landscape and openness to the physical world in West Coast poetry, and it has been expanding itself that way. One of the first people, the first person that you could call a real West Coast poet is Robinson Jeffers. The second one is Kenneth Rexroth.
SW: And to your mind, what are the other influences in West Coast poetry?
Snyder: There’s a big influence from East Asia, too. I’m not the only one who reads classical Chinese, but a lot of people read it in translation and took it on, and it became a significant influence. Robert Sund is a very good example. Jane Hirshfield, now there’s a good example: a woman living in Marin County who wrote a book called Nine Gates, about poetry—prose book, prose essays—that is all derived from basically Japanese aesthetics. There’s a lot of very interesting people that are doing these things.
SW: Do you think that East Coast publishers take California seriously enough?
Snyder: Well, you know, that’s another thing that I’ve gotten over being surprised by, but there is an ignorant dismissal of the West Coast in a lot of the East Coast intelligentsia. There is an identification of it with materialism and sort of trivial attitudes. And then it’s almost as if they’re saying, “Oh yeah, and you’ve got a lot of brown people there, too. A lot of Asians.”
LW: What new contributions are Asians making to West Coast Poetry?
Snyder: Right now I’m reading an anthology of Hmong poetry produced by the Hmong Writer’s Circle based in Fresno and Merced.
SW: How is it?
Snyder: It’s not like other West Coast poetry.
LW: But it is West Coast poetry, in a way?
Snyder: Yes. That’s what I’ve been thinking about. It is, well, it’s much more like Hispanic poetry. Which is to say it’s about their experience of trying to be in America and it’s about—a lot of it’s about things in Hmong culture that they’re still trying to connect with, and a lot of it is about their mother and father and grandmother, and a lot of it is personal pain about making the wrong communications, and a lot of it is very, very interesting because it’s like one poem, I was just reading this, it says well everybody in my neighborhood is a Hmong. And there’s a couple of shaman down the street that we can get but then there’s also some Christian Hmongs so we don’t know which to go to. And then my mother gets sick and she wants both. And a lot of sexism that they’re trying to fight, you know, find their way out of. And you know, many Hmong girls marry at thirteen or fourteen and some have their first babies and drop out of high school to start having babies. And so all of that is very much up there and in there. And so like it belongs to Central Valley culture, it really does.
LW: So is this a new strand in West Coast poetry then?
Snyder: Yeah, it’s going to be a book from Heyday Press. And I’m writing one of the back cover blurbs for it. It’s already in the works, you know? Pos Moua, who was a student at Davis, he is one of the editors of it. He was a student of mine, gosh, fifteen years ago now. The only Hmong I know who graduated from UC Davis in Creative Writing.
LW: Does this give you hope for California? Is this an optimistic story?
Snyder: You know, I don’t know. I mean, it’s all froth on the beach in a way. What will the next generation and the next generation of Hmong be writing like? It’s like the generations of Japanese Americans. Nisei [the first generation born in the US] don’t write poetry. Sansei [the children of the Nisei] write poetry about I’m Japanese and nobody likes me. Yonsei [the children of the Sansei] write about anything they damn please and [their children] the Gosei, they don’t write probably because they’re too little still. But, you know, my answer to all of that is, Guys, it’s okay to keep some recipes and know a few songs, but you better get used to where you are. And it isn’t the red, white, and blue. It’s California.
LW: And how should people get used to where they are? What are the kinds of things people need to know to inhabit a place?
Snyder: They need to know where the creek is and which direction it flows. They have to know their water. I mean, they can start with some kind of a sense of place and it doesn’t hurt to have a sense of the watershed as the sense of place that you connect with. It doesn’t matter if it’s urban or rural or what. And it helps, well first of all … it helps to know that you are in a Mediterranean climate. And that it’s normal for it to have six months of drought in the summer here. It’s not weird. And that it causes California to have a number of plants that are adapted to being wet in winter but can also survive drought in summer. Understanding that there is an ecological component and a climatic component here and that you should probably not try to have a watered lawn.
The history of Los Angeles is inextricably tied to migrations—though America has lately begun a harsher new chorus of the old anti-immigrant sentiment, Southern Californians should shake their heads and know better. From the first group of forty-four pobladores or townspeople to settle along the river at the behest of Felipe de Neve, Gobernador de Las Californias, to the latest immigrants arriving this week from Oaxaca or Guatemala or Nigeria or Iraq, or the migrants moving from the Midwest or northeast, Los Angeles has been shaped and shaded by people from other places.
Bobby and Lee Sims at the anniversary party, sharing jokes and stories (photograph courtesy Sims family)
Those pobladores included twenty-two children, sixteen of whom had African ancestry and would be considered “black” today. They were the basis, with the original Native Californians, of who we are today. New residents have married each other, or native Angelenos, or fellow migrants from Wisconsin and New York, and their children, born here, are Californians.
My family represents a classic spectrum of immigration and migration. My mother is from Switzerland, my stepfather from Canada. My former husband’s mother’s family is from Mississippi, his father from Oklahoma. Today, listening to the expressions of deepseated anger at people born elsewhere, hearing the pessimism of Californians who say the state will collapse, reading that Americans aren’t getting married, or are getting divorced, or aren’t having babies, I keep in mind The Proud Bird.
The Proud Bird is an iconic restaurant near Los Angeles International Airport, a place where African American Angelenos have gathered for decades to celebrate and dance and eat. Last summer, while jets thundered overhead, my ex-husband Dwayne, his aunt Loretta, and I parked near the replica of a famous plane from World War II. I met my husband in the eighth grade. We were married for fourteen years, have been divorced for thirteen years, and along with many others in our family who aren’t married anymore, we still see each other all the time and share a huge extended family. Loyalty and longevity in relationships, whether bound by legal documents or not, are hallmarks of our family.
The Proud Bird, near Los Angeles International Airport, and iconic aircraft (courtesy of Telstar Logistics)
We went into the lobby of the Tuskegee Room, where black and white photos of Tuskegee Airmen, posed near their aircraft, filled with pride, hope, resignation, anger, and defiance, seemed to study us. In one photo, airmen posed in Los Angeles with Lena Horne. Back then it was segregated Los Angeles and a segregated military—a part of history many Californians forget. At my side, our cousin, John Larkin, looked at the photos and murmured, “They never got their due until they were gone.”
As we entered the Tuskegee Room, I thought about how many decades of California history are contained here. The room was elegantly decorated for the sixtieth wedding anniversary of Robert and Lee Sims, my former husband’s uncle and aunt. They graduated from Jefferson High School together in 1947—a photo of them in gleaming cap and gown, taken in front of the high school, was displayed beside their wedding portrait, taken at the Ebenezer Baptist Church on Fifty-first and Hooper.
At their table, Uncle Bobby and Aunt Lee received legions of well-wishers. Nearly two hundred of us surrounded the dance floor while their favorite band warmed up with classics by Duke Ellington. As a young couple, Bobby and Lee danced to such bands back on Central Avenue in the 1940s and 1950s, when South Los Angeles was the hot jazz scene and skirts twirled like morning glory blossoms.
I first met them at nineteen, knowing I’d marry their nephew. Lee’s people were originally from Louisiana, and she came to California when she was young. From her front yard in Inglewood, where Dwayne and I went every year for Super Bowl Sunday, she gave me a cutting of a red-leafed plant, vivid as black-cherry Jell-O, for the balcony of my first married apartment. She pressed it into my palm wrapped in a damp paper towel, and said she’d brought it home from an island in the Caribbean. She called it “blood plant” because of the color.
I was a petite blonde girl on her nephew’s arm. She might have studied me with suspicion—maybe the suspicion that many Americans today seem to be cultivating in response to harder and harder times—but she never did, and times were much harder back then for African Americans and Angelenos.
In Lee’s living room, in 1980, the Sims men debated which meat had tasted the worst back when they were starving in Oklahoma, after their father died and they had to shoot dinner. Possum, raccoon, rabbit or squirrel. Uncle Bobby could certainly have mistrusted me—he’d come to LA to stay with his own aunt and uncle, whose brother quit Oklahoma after being shot in the knee during the Tulsa Riot of 1921. That June, most of the black community of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma was burned to the ground after a mob decided a young black man had touched a white woman in an elevator.
It’s the oldest tragic story—the seed for hundreds of lynchings—and yet no Sims has ever been unkind to me. Their nephew and I, along with our siblings, children, nieces, nephews, and cousins, were first-generation Californians—mixtures of black and Chicano and Haitian and Swiss and Filipino and Samoan and French. Some of us probably have skin the same shade as a few of those original poblador children.
Lee and her court of bridesmaids and flower girl, in front of her mother’s house in South Los Angeles (photograph courtesy Sims family)
Some of the loudest political voices have begun to insist that nothing can overcome the nation’s recent divisions and animosities. Such negative beliefs weaken not only family and clan, but California and America as a nation. Except for the Native Americans, all of us came here from somewhere else: Italy, like my daughters’ godmother’s parents who ended up outside Philadelphia; and Japan, like my college roommate’s great-grandparents; and like Uncle Bobby’s grandmother’s mother, who arrived in chains from Africa and was a slave in Tennessee.
Does America not remember this?
That slave woman had a Cherokee lover whom she was not allowed to marry, but their descendants did marry. They lived in single rented rooms or “colored” hotels in segregated Los Angeles, in Chicago and New York, and Washington, D.C., trying to get a foothold on the American Dream. A generation later, my high school sweetheart and I got married. Most of our furniture was donated by our families, and our first daughter slept in a dresser drawer by our bed for a few weeks. I have some of that furniture still: a small Sears oak table from my mother-in-law’s mother, who was born in Mississippi; next to me as I write, there is a black-lacquered wooden bowl painted with wildflowers of the Swiss Alps, brought to California by my mother from her small village.
At The Proud Bird, people shifted from table to table, relating stories of old Los Angeles, the dances and proms, and parties and restaurants. Chicken and waffles. Soul food on Central Avenue. Uncle John, Bobby’s youngest brother, told stories of the Mexican food given to him by families along his mail route in Glendale. Aunt Loretta, as beautiful when she was a teenager as Lena Horne, visited with people she hadn’t seen in years. I listened to decades of history and peals of laughter.
Uncle Bobby is a large, voluble man, a former Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy, and after the toast to his long marriage and to years of fishing in retirement, he joked that he’d been ready to start a new job as director of transportation for the city of Bell, and he’d planned to hire a few friends he named in the audience—but that deal was off. Everyone laughed. Bell is famous now—but just the latest story in greed and politics.
The band’s female vocalist then performed “Satin Doll” and “I’m A Woman.” I went outside with my cousin Teri’s son, David, who’s in his twenties. We walked around The Proud Bird. Over a small bridge, we could see a wedding reception taking place. The bride was glowing, her dark skin soft against a dress and stole of white satin. The groom wore white, too, and the bridesmaids were clad in a vivid tangerine to match the bride’s bouquet of lilies and roses. They were young, and David and I joked that they were bumping Jay Z while we could hear the strains of Duke Ellington from our own party.
Robert Sims and his groomsmen, including my father-in-law General (in glasses), in front of the house before the wedding (photograph courtesy Sims family)
Sixty years of marriage in one room and one hour of marriage in another. Los Angeles can still be in love. California is not going to collapse because people come here from other states or nations and marry each other and have children whose skin is a blending of theirs—whether pink or gold or brown or taupe. I felt unaccountably happy, wandering back under the eyes of the black men in uniform and the planes they piloted to help keep their nation free, at the behest of their President. Inside the Tuskegee Room, I watched our elders holding court at the tables, bobbing their heads to the song “At Last,” made famous by Etta James, a native of Los Angeles born to a fourteen-year-old African American mother who told Etta that her father was the white pool player “Minnesota Fats.”
“At last, my love has come along … my heart was wrapped up in clover, and life is like a song … “