Kelly Goto

by Emily Cotler

From Boom Spring 2012, Vol. 2, No. 1

Studying You

In 2003, when tweeting was something only birds did, and websites were by and large built in tables (shudder), my friend and colleague Kelly Goto stood on the rooftop of her San Francisco Mission District loft and made the decision to redirect a significant slice of her company’s resources into mobile design—except it wasn’t called “mobile” at the time. “Wireless” was the buzzword. Colleagues thought she was crazy. Cell phones were for talking. And besides, who really needed or wanted to be connected everywhere they went?

History is laced with these kinds of foresight stories. Not obvious-from-the-get-go innovations like the light bulb, the birth control pill, or the printing press. Many brilliant ideas seemed ludicrous at the time. Like Fred Smith’s famous C+ from Harvard Business School for his Fedex business plan, because how many people would pay extra for overnight shipping? Or Richard Sears’ foolhardy belief that people would actually shop from a catalogue for things they couldn’t see and inspect first. Or the preposterous suggestion put forth by Jobs and Wozniak that every household would someday have a personal computer. I mean, really.

Pioneers. People who audaciously question accepted status quo thinking. Kelly Goto doesn’t necessarily think of herself as a pioneer. Always an evangelist for immersive research methods, she is looking at how today’s experiences with devices are moving quickly into touch, voice-activation, and other sensory levels of interaction that had not been designed for previously: the emotional side of the user experience. “Understanding the triggers of emotion is a vitally important aspect of controlling an online experience,” she points out. “And if companies can utilize this thinking, they can better prioritize and plan to meet these needs.” The implication is huge. This innovative approach to understanding audience may revolutionize the way we weigh demographics in favor of tapping how people feel. This may be new territory for online and mobile design, but it is not conventional wisdom … not yet. But neither was the on-demand video service project she helped design in 1990 (well before internet-streaming) featuring girls on roller skates delivering VHS tapes to a bank. And ten years ago, when Kelly saw the way people everywhere were becoming attached to their handheld devices, she knew she was at the forefront of something big.

“With the mobile thing,” Kelly explains, referring back to a time before data-plans, “I started to think in terms of combining what we did on the web with what we could be doing with device and web-to-device experiences.” She would hold her cell phone and stare at it, knowing we had not even scratched the surface of its possibilities. And then she did what any hotshot with an idea does these days: she began blogging about it. “I certainly didn’t articulate it as such then, but what I was exploring was the emotional way in which people craved connection.”

In her humbler moments, Kelly Goto is just a designer who pushes the envelope. Just another hardworking mom managing family life while maintaining a successful business in today’s incredibly challenging economic climate. But in her near-eponymous role of design ethnographer, she has been at the forefront of “user experience” (UX) since before it had a name, much less an acronym. And in 2003, while on sabbatical in New Zealand, Kelly started conceptualizing the Mobile User Experience, which at the time did not exist. “It was a world of coders focusing on handsets and BREW, completely run by Europe and Asia,” she remembers. “And in the US, no one was thinking or talking about the mobile user experience.”1

Kelly soon joined World Wireless Forum and connected with Rudy DeWaele, an entrepreneur out of Barcelona, and Jaakko Villa, then CEO at Idean Research in Finland. Together they began convincing clients, industry, anyone, that the “device experience”—how our devices shape our experiences—was relevant and deserved extensive research. It was 2003. We called our mobile devices cellphones, and all decisions were driven by cost and convenience; the actual experience of using the phone did not enter into corporate America’s marketing plan. The US was way behind with a cellphone penetration rate of 67%, while Japan and South Korea were at 99% and over 100%, respectively. Globally, people were doing a whole lot more than talking. Mobile users around the world were developing patterns and habits and emotional attachments. A collective experience was forming.


As she talks, Kelly starts moving her hands as if sliding something open and closed. “I had a Helio phone back then that was shaped like a pod with smooth, rounded corners. I loved that phone, particularly the strangely satisfying little click it made when fully opened, or fully closed.” She is remembering the tactile part of the experience, and it’s not such a stretch to connect that with the left-to-right swipe required in opening an iPhone. Now, eight years later, we are hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t think of their smartphone as a personal cybernetic appendage.

A design ethnographer studies the creation of people-friendly experiences, inspired by first-hand observation of context, behavior, and needs. Kelly considers herself a practitioner who finds design solutions through direct observation and interaction with her subjects. She is a curious creative who takes the time to understand the true needs and behaviors of her audience. Her passion lies in the areas of research and design, in combining the two to inform design challenges into more than just a subjective solution. These days her company, gotomedia, LLC, has moved beyond the desktop and into connected user experiences across device and context. Its goal: to capture unmet needs and desires which can jumpstart a company’s approach and product migration. And over time, she has become one of the industry’s leading experts in the evolution of connections. “I’ve just completed a series of interviews with a few dozen students on local Bay Area campuses,” Kelly says. “It’s a pilot for a larger study, and I’m gathering as many insights as possible into the world these students live in. I am interested in how they envision their world and the future. And how technology fits into their lives and learning.”

As a researcher, Kelly is adamant that one cannot ask those questions directly and expect to learn what students’ actual needs and desires are. And what she learns is never precisely what she expects. One student in the study reported that the passion his teacher displayed for the subject matter was a bigger driving force in his learning experience than the teacher’s methodology in conveying it. Another said, “Sometimes I feel I learn more from my peers than I do in the classroom.” And whether that is truth or bunk, the fact is that all of these students have access to and are actively using the latest technology and online learning tools. “But what they want and feel comfort within,” Kelly explains, “is connection—connection to their teachers and to their peers.”

Connection. The online mimicking of human interaction, something we all crave. That was what was missing from the early web. Back in the mid-’90s almost all websites were, essentially, brochures. It was considered fantastic to be able to click not only from page one to page two, but to any page. Anything that actually loaded and worked in a streamlined way impressed people. To be able to update info without a full reprint was amazing. But sites did not engage the user; sites were there to provide information. And as far back as 1996, when Kelly was on the team that launched Warner Bros. Online, with its forums for all the shows and chats tied to what was quite possibly the first-ever online store (“Nobody will ever trust inputting their credit card number over the web” was the established market research at that time), Kelly started articulating what no one was actually saying: It’s all about audience.

Today, there’s nothing groundbreaking in that sentence; there is no aha! there. But in 1995 this was a seminal thought. The idea that the “user experience” would actually drive the success of a site (and by extension, effectiveness of the business model—just ask Borders Books)—was as alien to an early-web designer as an air-to-ground battle strategy was to Napoleon. In the late ’90s, designers were simply trying to make things work. We were all either Lewis-and-Clarking, or trying to follow the designers who were.

But then, at the end of the 1990s, the dotcom bubble made everything appear so easy that the online model simply had to have a concept to attract IPO interest. The UX requirement that Kelly had foreseen wasn’t yet driving the dotcoms. But after the bubble was no more, businesses tightened budgets, and corporate survival necessitated an entirely new approach to online design. Usability testing demonstrated that people’s online habits, understanding and capabilities were not necessarily what business owners or designers had assumed. Watching site users in real-time lab settings generated acutely important data that exposed everything from overly complicated logins, to cumbersome ordering, frustrating navigation, and more. Other pioneers like Jakob Neilsen and Jared Spool touted the heuristic value of watching what people actually do rather than listening to what they say they will do, or less reliably, what web site producers assume they will do—or much less reliably—what C-level executives think they will do.


For the last ten-plus years, Kelly Goto has been convincing clients that major budget slices should go into rapid prototyping and shaping user experiences. Seiko Epson Japan was one of these clients. After gotomedia force-fed seven rounds of usability testing and prototyping printer interfaces into a two-month process, it was clear, contrary to Epson’s assumptions, what the test group’s moms and non-techie grandparents wanted: simplicity over features. Result: the product was changed from corporate projection to fit audience desires.

“We used to bury the cost of research inside the design process budget,” Kelly admits. “But now, with this challenging economy, companies are realizing the importance of shaping their customer experience across multiple devices and locations. Integrated services and interfaces that literally respond to your touch are now a reality. While we have not yet moved to voice-activated home systems, it’s not far away. As designers, we must continue to create experiences that connect people with the experiences they crave.”

Since Kelly started her journey as a designer, she has seen the role evolve. Gone is the day of the designer who had to have little beyond a good eye for layout, color, and typography. Today, they must hybridize and consider technical possibilities and limitations just as much as the color palette and font. The creativity that goes into the Photoshop layering of that stunning masthead must also consider the usability of the navigational presentation and the integration of login, forms, community, and any of a dozen other user-driven functionalities. Visual designers must be able to think in the dimension of information flow and, and, and … There is a lot of user experience research to be integrated into the visual now, where ten or twelve years ago there was none. What used to be the sole franchise of branding specialists now must be pondered by designers as well.

In 1993, Kelly led a six-figure promotional print project for Infiniti USA that incorporated stunning, wildly expensive photography and rich custom paper. The abstract piece had a Velcro closure and interesting folds. But in the showroom, it fell apart. No one opened it the way Kelly intended, and she watched as it clearly frustrated every person who held it. In horror, she realized that at no point during production had she let anyone actually open the brochure without showing them first. It was an incredibly painful lesson, but it has stuck with her.

She tells this story now in presentation after presentation—nearly 20 years later—to demonstrate the critical importance of learning as much as possible about user experience before producing anything. The spectacular failure of that piece was the first step in the evolution of a heady career that in hindsight has been 100% colored by the understanding of how experience, with all its myriad aspects including emotion, the senses, usability, convenience, cost, and yes, connection—must drive every aspect of design. And whatever the future holds, whatever today’s pioneers are dreaming up, designing experiences that map people’s real needs and desires will play a leading role.

1. Binary Run-time Environment for Wireless.


The Quotidian Patio

by Susan Straight

From Boom Spring 2012, Vol. 2, No. 1

From Good Living to Decadence

The quotidian patio. A cement square or even a long narrow apron of concrete. An aluminum roof or green plastic, crenellated so when rain ran down in rivulets, children imagined they were inside a waterfall. Supports of wrought iron or aluminum, sometimes wreathed with molded-metal leaves or vines for decoration. To cook? A hibachi or small Weber barbecue, the coals glowing like red piles of shredded wheat. To sit? Plastic lawn furniture, or metal chaise lounges with oilcloth cushions that stuck to skin and sealed in the sweat on a hot day, even in the patio shade.

Almost every yard I visited in my southern California childhood had this patio. Every ranch house in every tract, my uncle’s in Chatsworth, my friends’ in Riverside, my grandmother’s mobile home in Hemet.

We spun skateboards in dizzying circles around and around the cement, or sat on the strapped-plastic rockers listening to adults who laughed and drank Sangria. The 1970s. A patio was quintessential California.

Not a veranda or gallery or wrap-around porch or screened-in front. The patio was carefree, outdoor living.


Not now. If judged by countless ads in newspapers and magazines and television shows, California currently aspires to The Outdoor Room. The Extension of the House.

This isn’t about jealousy. It’s a little about nostalgia. But it’s also about the environment, and what we think of when we think of outdoors, and living. Must we tame every inch of the land we own? Are we afraid to have nothing to do out there? Didn’t we used to go outside to escape the formality and cleaning and worry of inside?


The Outdoor Room has real furniture, and coffee tables, and rugs, and lamps, and gauzy drapes at the edge of a structure such as a gazebo or permanent trellis. Copper firepits once were de rigueur, but now coveted are actual (though gas-fired) fireplaces, built into masonry walls. Chandeliers or elaborate lanterns overhead are advertised as appropriate. And there must be an actual built-in bar and grill in an island clad in granite or steel, with tall stools along the bar, and even a small refrigerator or stovetop so you don’t have to go inside to cook.

In other words, it’s a kitchen, dining area, and living room—outside. Under a covering of some kind. More house. More to clean and furnish, even in rain and wind.

And the yard? Pools, yes, but also multi-level fountains, waterfalls, small putting greens near The Outdoor Room.


By pools I don’t mean the above-ground kind some people used to have in my old neighborhood, or the small plastic kind which some people have in the front yards of my present neighborhood. (We don’t need to talk about the infinity pools, which I’ve only been close to one time, and I still don’t understand how the water spills endlessly into the horizon because I was afraid to go investigate.)

Stay with the patio. The word patio comes from the Spanish, those lovely private courtyards which we still see in Spain, in Mexico, in Italy, and in many architectural layouts here in California—especially the Mission Revival or Spanish-style homes of the past. And think of the missions. Each one was designed around a patio, where the residents gathered to feel a cool breeze or night air, to be protected in a central enclosed area against raiders, to visit and eat and pray.

Visitors to the missions today can see the particular appeal, and why those Spanish friars and priests transported the idea of the patio to California. But the Native Americans already had their own outdoor gathering areas, which influenced the patios of the missions where they worked and cooked and did laundry—seldom voluntarily.


The various tribes in southern California had enramadas, outside spaces swept clean, shaded by wooden structures covered with palm fronds laid in a fringed pattern of shelter. Under these places they gathered daily and nightly, in the heat and in the cool. They tended firepits, sat on chairs and benches, wove baskets, and conversed. I remember sitting at San Juan Capistrano, in the patio, as a child, and thinking it the most beautiful place in the world. I remember travelling around America as a young adult and noticing what was different about the way people sat outside: porches in Minnesota and Massachusetts, screened against mosquitoes; verandas and galleries in Florida and Louisiana, with painted wooden floorboards and slow fans built into the wooden ceilings; fire escapes with one chair and a potted plant in New York City, which I thought the most exotic way to be outside back then.

But I loved my childhood patio.

On my own small brick-paved square in the backyard, under a wooden trellis tangled with wisteria, I still have a plastic-strapped rocker and the redwood picnic table my mother bought for her own first patio, a small cement rec-tangle attached to the back of her one-bedroom house in Glen Avon, California. I have a loveseat and coffee table as well—all-weather wicker from Kmart.


The magazines, however, show the elaborate, orchestrated Outdoor Rooms some Californians might love better, behind houses with cathedral ceilings and great rooms, screening rooms, and exercise rooms, eat-in kitchens and formal dining rooms. New tract homes advertised with up to six bedrooms and six bathrooms. And still another extension of formality and display seems necessary.

The quotidian patio may not be cool enough. But its simple elements can be cleaned with a quick hose-wash. And I’ve heard that Sangria, in an ironic and hip kind of winking way, is making a comeback.


Architecture and Social Justice

by David Serlin

From Boom Spring 2012, Vol. 2, No. 1

Independent Living on Campus

Ed Roberts Campus, Berkeley, CA. Designed by Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects, 2011. Photograph by Amy Tremper.

In 1972, the Center for Independent Living (CIL) opened in a former car dealership building at the intersection of Telegraph and Blake avenues in downtown Berkeley. The CIL emerged from efforts by activists to create a community resource for people with disabilities. Among the leaders was Ed Roberts, one of the earliest severely disabled students to attend UC Berkeley in the mid-1960s. The Center, with its DIY-style warren of makeshift offices decorated with mismatched furniture, became a geographical and symbolic site for the disability rights movement’s grassroots activism.

The CIL worked with engineers, architects, urban planners, and city council members to alter the built environment, a breakthrough concept in an era when disabled people experienced paternalistic and often exploitative care. Curb cuts for wheelchairs, for example, and audible crosswalk signals were installed throughout adjacent neighborhoods in Berkeley and Oakland. Raymond Lifchez, a professor of architecture at UC Berkeley, collaborated with members of the CIL to implement domestic designs based on what disabled people actually needed in their homes and workplaces to accomplish tasks by themselves, such as accessible ramps and platforms, lowered kitchen counters, lift bars for toilets and bathtubs, and so forth.

By the early 1990s, however, the scale and diversity of Berkeley’s disabled community encouraged the CIL and its numerous supporters to explore the possibility of reconceiving what and how the center actually accomplished its goals. While larger quarters might provide more resources and serve more people, many believed that a truly reconceptualized CIL would be rooted not only in the principles of disability rights but align them with the principles of Universal Design, first developed by disability activist Ron Mace at North Carolina State University during the late 1980s. Universal Design bridges egalitarian function with modernist aesthetics; among its most widely adopted tenets are structural flexibility, such as moving walls, and designs for low physical exertion, such as automatic doors and elevator buttons placed at floor level.

The CIL’s goal of bridging disability rights with Universal Design was finally realized when, in April 2011, it reopened in an 80,000-square-foot space incorporated into the Ashby station of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) metro network, just on the cusp between Berkeley and Oakland. The building’s structural interface with BART includes a new public plaza, storage lockers, and a café, suggesting that it has retained and even expanded its status as a spatial crossroads for numerous urban needs and constituencies. Furthermore, the building’s energy-efficient ventilation systems and building materials, such as glass curtain walls that provide abundant natural light, underscore a vision of social justice through architecture galvanized by both Universal Design and the green architecture movement. A central helix-shaped ramp and wide corridors enable visitors to move around easily between floors, while fully accessible bathrooms, automatic doors and lighting fixtures, and way-finding devices for people with visual impairments send a fundamental message of inclusion and autonomy.

Some activists may mourn the loss of the CIL’s ragtag, DIY origins on Telegraph Avenue and bristle at the Center’s glossy sheen and well-appointed interior spaces. But the newly configured CIL, which has been renamed the Ed Roberts Campus of UC Berkeley, updates the radicalism of its organization’s most robust agitator for social and political change by recasting the building as a noble experiment in public architecture for the twenty-first century. Four decades after the Center’s original founding, and seventeen years after Roberts’ death in 1994 at the age of fifty-six, the Ed Roberts Campus has reimagined a local community institution as a sustainable and transit-oriented public space—one that demonstrates emphatically how designing for disability can lead to creative forms of collaborative urban redevelopment.



From Design to Design Thinking

by Barry Katz

From Boom Spring 2012, Vol. 2, No. 1

Manufacturing Culture in Silicon Valley

California design is now a brand of inestimable value, but it did not descend from the sky like the perpetual sunshine, or roll in like the endless surf. “Designed in California” has its roots in the unique manufacturing culture of Silicon Valley, yet has survived the sea change that has led to most things being “assembled in China.”

In a special issue dedicated to “Design on the West Coast,” Industrial Design magazine unwisely predicted that “despite the pleasant environment and the proximity of centers of scientific investigation … [the San Francisco Bay region] may never challenge Los Angeles for industrial primacy on the West Coast.”1 These words were written in 1957, and the editors may be forgiven if they failed to notice the founding in the previous year of Shockley Semiconductor Laboratories in an industrial no-man’s land on the border of Palo Alto and Mountain View, or to discern, among the apricot orchards and walnut groves that dotted Santa Clara Valley, the shape of things to come. Within a decade the 30-mile strip of land bracketed by Highways 101 and 280 had begun its metamorphosis into what journalist Don Hoefler officially christened “Silicon Valley, USA.”2

Even then, however, the idea that the region was, or might ever become, an important center of design was implausible at best. In the public imagination, “California Design” in the early 1970s evoked the psychedelic posters of the Grateful Dead, the craft movement personified by Sam Maloof, or the lingering midcentury modernism of Charles and Ray Eames. By contrast, the products of Silicon Valley—audio oscillators, gas analyzers, industrial lasers, missile guidance systems—were remote from most people’s lived experience. A vast abyss separated the equation-driven world of technical engineering from the vagaries of consumer-oriented product design.

Only one Silicon Valley company, the game designer Atari, oriented itself toward the public, but Atari’s spectacular rise and precipitous decline served as a warning against what the Valley’s resident journalist, Michael S. Malone, called “the siren call of the consumer business.”3 Intel’s attempt to market a digital wristwatch—the famous Microma—was a $15 million write-off. Hewlett Packard fared no better with the HP-01 watch-calculator, a truly hideous marvel of miniaturization whose 28 tiny buttons had to be pressed with a stylus built into the strap. Even selling chips that went into consumer products (like televisions) was distasteful to companies that wanted to be at the forefront of technology. A handful of industrial designers worked in the corporate offices of HP, IBM, and Ampex, but they lived a marginal existence, working mainly on technical instruments created by and for engineers who regarded them with the utmost suspicion.

Inevitably, however, the fruits of Silicon Valley R&D began to filter outward to the consumer market, and the idea slowly took hold that designers might do something other than stuff electronics into sheet metal boxes. By the later seventies a loose-knit community had begun to form, fed by the design programs at Stanford and San Jose State and knitted together around the Palo Alto Center for Design, the annual Stanford Design Conference, and a mimeographed newsletter of the local IDSA (Industrial Design Society of America) chapter that gained surprisingly wide circulation. A few enterprising individuals, sniffing the opportunities posed by the emerging digital technology, began to migrate to the region from across the U.S. and even Europe, and by the end of the decade the outlines were discernible of a distinct regional culture.

Photograph by Barry Katz

Although now-defunct firms such as GVO, Innova, and Clement DesignLabs had laid the groundwork, the rise of the consultancies may be said to have begun in 1979 when Bill Moggridge ventured west from the U.K. to plant his first overseas colony, I.D. Two, in Palo Alto. As business grew—a revolutionary “laptop” computer for GRiD Systems, a desktop computer for Convergent Technologies—partner Mike Nuttall split off to form Matrix Design. They entered into ad hoc partnerships with more technically proficient groups such as David Kelley Design, a small, engineering-driven outfit formed by a handful of recent graduates from Stanford, and the three formally merged in 1991 to form IDEO. Lunar Design was formed in 1982, and Studio Red a couple of years later, sustained by the flight of impatient entrepreneurs from the labs at Xerox PARC and the shift of the computer industry from mainframes and minis to what visionary researcher Alan Kay had once imagined as “personal computers.”4

The pivotal event may have come in 1982, the year that the six-year-old Apple Computer decided that it had outgrown its roots in suburban Cupertino and began an international search for a designer to develop a unified design language and a global identity. Two years later the so-called “Snow White” competition had netted Hartmut Esslinger, who relocated from the Federal Republic of Germany and renamed his company frogdesign. By the end of the 1970s there were dozens of design firms in the Bay Area and the profession had begun to gain traction; by the end of the 1980s there were hundreds and it had hit critical mass.

The new firms competed, cooperated, merged, and split off from one another in dizzying succession: frogdesign spawned fuseproject, New Deal Design, Whipsaw, and Vent. Speck, NONOBJECT, and Daylight would spin off from IDEO. The ’90s saw the founding of Astro Studios, Jump Associates, and so many others that it seems almost arbitrary to name just a few. As they grew they learned to leverage complementary skills—European and American training; design and engineering; hardware and software. They cobbled together business plans, and improvised methodologies. As the technological insurgency of the region continued unabated—from semiconductors to PCs and from PCs to software—the perimeter around the boundaries of design itself expanded. By the mid-1980s it had become clear that the QWERTY keyboard was about the only thing that linked the typewriter to the computer, and the field of Interaction Design was born; the complexity of people’s relations with digital objects prompted a searching investigation into our engagement with even the most mundane artifacts, and by 1990 cultural anthropologists, developmental psychologists, and other “human factors” specialists had arrived en masse and begun, in the memorable words of W.H. Auden, to “commit social science.”

As their collective confidence grew, and companies in the increasingly commoditized technology sector sought with growing desperation to differentiate their products from those of their competitors, designers lobbied hard to be brought into projects at the outset (“Phase Zero”) rather than be handed an assortment of components and instructed to package them. They resisted the assumption of many clients (and all journalists) that designers are essentially stylists, and endeavored to climb higher and higher on the value chain and move further and further upstream (the astute reader will have detected the arrival of the MBAs). “Design services” evolved into “strategic services,” and many designers found—somewhat to their own chagrin—that they were no longer relegated to the back of the bus, and in a few cases had moved almost into the driver’s seat.

In contrast to the other great periods in the history of design—the Arts and Crafts Movement in 19th-century Britain, streamlining in Machine Age America—design in Silicon Valley was never defined by a style or a methodology. Its distinctiveness lay in the fact that in this charmed sliver of inflated real estate designers were challenged to give form to the digital revolution that was transforming the texture of everyday life. What should a “modem” look like? How do we prototype the experience of a passenger purchasing an airline ticket online? What is the future of the book? What kind of curriculum will teach students that the real foundation of professional practice is no longer the Bauhaus mantra of “art plus technology“ but rather “design research?”

The deflation of the dotcom bubble has given rise to most recent expression of the broadening base: the movement—celebrated by some and deplored by others—that has come to be known as “design thinking.”5 This latest addition to “California Design” holds that designers, over the course of their collective history, have evolved a set of intellectual skills that can be applied to a vastly greater range of problems than may have previously been supposed: not just the design of the latest injection-molded, flat-screened, microprocessed gizmo, but of a program to combat pediatric obesity in urban America; to build solar-powered health clinics in Rwanda; or to promote social entrepreneurship in Colombia. And if that were not a sufficient affront to the tradition of the inspired form-giver, this dramatic redirection implies that one does not have to be a designer to think like one.

The designers of Silicon Valley always rested upon a culture of technology, engineering and manufacture; in the early years, at least, this was the source of their clients, their tools, and their training. With the dawning of the new millennium, however, the manufacturing base had begun to migrate to the cheaper and less regulated Special Economic Zones of Asia, and many observers noted that California was devolving into a hollowed out, post-industrial shell. In other times and places the loss of the organic connection to manufacturing doomed the design field, but by this time “Designed in California” had acquired a meaning all its own.

1. Avrom Fleishman, “Design on the West Coast,” Industrial Design, 4 (1957), 49.
2. Don Hoefler, Electronics News, in the first of three articles beginning on January 11, 1971.
3. Michael S. Malone, The Big Score: The Billion Dollar Story of Silicon Valley (New York: Doubleday, 1985), 68.
4. Alan Kay, “Microelectronics and the Personal Computer,” Scientific American, 237 (1977), 230–244.
5. Tim Brown and Barry Katz, Change By Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation (New York: Harper Collins, 2009).


New Factories in the Fields

by Ray Winter

From Boom Winter 2011, Vol. 1, No. 4

Meth in the Central Valley

California’s San Joaquin Valley, the southern half of its Great Central Valley, is the world’s leading producer of agricultural products, grossing over $20 billion of the state’s $34.8 billion agricultural earnings in 2009.1 It’s also home to a less recognized but significant economic force in the Valley: the manufacture and use of methamphetamine—also known as glass, crank, speed, crystal, zip, and ice—a brain-altering, central nervous system stimulant. Eighty percent of the nation’s meth labs and 97 percent of its “superlabs” are located there.2

Stylized in the golden-era iconography of California agriculture, this mural is displayed on the wall of an abandoned building in a field of weeds just outside the San Joaquin Valley town of Sanger. PHOTO BY RAY WINTER.

According to the 2010 Central Valley High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) Market Analysis, Central California is the principal methamphetamine producing region in the United States, controlled predominantly by Mexican drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs).3 The profits are huge. The US Department of Justice’s 2010 National Drug Threat Assessment cites Mexican DTOs alone as making tens of billions of dollars annually through sales of illicit drugs, largely methamphetamine produced in the rural belt of California. The average street value per gram (the weight of a dollar bill) was $127 in September, 2009. If drug officials are correct that ten times the amount of seized methamphetamine makes it to the streets, then meth manufactured in the Central Valley in 2009 edged out peaches as the twentieth highest-earning cash crop in the state—over $327 million.4 This is a conservative, perhaps wishful, underestimation.

Such industrial-scale manufacture and consumption of a brain-altering drug puts the cultural, environmental, and economic well-being of this region at great risk. Meth’s large-scale manufacture inflicts an immeasurable environmental strain on America’s most fertile farmland and entraps many of its citizens. A multimillion-dollar industry mainly orchestrated by Mexican nationals would seem to have trickle-down benefits for the immigrant farmworker—a dark counter-narrative within the largely class- and race-based traditions of industrial farming exposed by Carey McWilliams in his classic analysis Factories in the Field. But in reality, there is little poetic justice here. The common agricultural laborer is hired to perform the deadly job of cooking and transporting this drug. Lured by the promise of a higher wage, he has changed vocations to little use: he is still indentured in chronic poverty with compounded threats to his health.

Evidence from a methamphetamine bust at a rural home west of Madera. PHOTO BY CRAIG KOHLRUSS. COURTESY OF FRESNO BEE.

The Valley is the prime location for such a nucleus of toxic harvest. Many circumstances make it favorable besides its remote and, therefore, “hidden” quality: there is the close proximity to the most powerful Mexican drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs); the elimination of porous yet risky border transport; the presence of a willing and vulnerable labor force from Mexico in the form of low-paid field workers; close proximity to dense population groups for its sale; easy access to interstate transport along the I-5 and CA-99 corridors; uninhabited spaces; and the opportunity for less conspicuous acquisition of large quantities of various toxic ingredients available from the surrounding agricultural industry.

Increasingly, the presence of meth alters the cultural fabric of a place already strained by a complex socio-economic infrastructure. Hundreds of billions of dollars are lost annually to overburdened justice and healthcare systems, decreased productivity, and environmental destruction.5 Besides threatening the tenuous economic balance of California, meth destroys the lives of its users, a spectrum of ethnicities but primarily the economically vulnerable. On the domestic and civil fronts, methamphetamine holds the title as the single greatest drug threat throughout the region. Most violent and property crimes in the Valley are meth-related, including theft, domestic violence, child abuse, and homicide induced by its side effects.6

The effects of this drug on the human body are horrific, escalating according to the duration of use. In fact, as meth forces the abnormally large release of the body’s pleasure chemical dopamine onto the brain’s neuroreceptors for an extended time, it exhausts this natural chemical and makes it harder to get high. A user’s response, of course, is to use harder and heavier. Made of corrosive and toxic materials such as Freon, paint thinner, battery acid, and anhydrous ammonia, it is no surprise that its effects on the human body are long-lasting and life-altering.7 Brain function is altered at the synaptic level, affecting memory, judgment, and motor coordination. Hallucinations and long-term paranoia commonly occur. Impaired judgment leads to crime, sexual promiscuity and accompanying diseases, and social dysfunction due to a singular desire to stay high. Users risk heart failure and stroke due to the strain on the heart and blood vessels from extended periods of kinetic unrest. They experience skin sores, malnutrition, and horrifying oral decay known as “meth mouth.”8

Wall of graffiti in west Fresno. PHOTO BY RAY WINTER.

Even before meth does its damage to users, this “poor man’s cocaine” first threatens the lives of its makers. Fresno, Tulare, and Kern Counties are three of the state’s five largest agricultural employers, each averaging over 20,000 employees.9 The laborers in this large pool are far from home and generally without legal rights or social agency as they look for the best available alternative to poverty in the Golden State. These circumstances make them expendable targets for the DTOs that promise big money as “cooks” or “mules.” Once lured into the mechanism of production and distribution, they often find themselves trapped, having told the Mexican DTOs where to send their earnings back in Mexico. Ringleaders then confirm a family connection, which all but enslaves the workers to these drug lords out of fear that a lack of acquiescence or loyalty will lead to the death of a wife, child, or other relative.10 They are enslaved in a system that ends either in arrest or death. DTO recruiters are distinctly aware of the total lack of alternatives for undocumented Mexican nationals in the United States and clearly target this most disempowered sector of the laboring population. Throughout the 1990s, twice as many Federal methamphetamine cases involved Hispanic noncitizens than Hispanic citizens.11

Amelia Turse examines a hole on her property where a methamphetamine lab was uncovered. PHOTO BY CRAIG KOHLRUSS. COURTESY OF FRESNO BEE.

The situation is particularly perilous for cooks, who render the toxic ingredients into the end product. Even if they escape arrest by authorities or murder by their employer—a depressingly frequent occurrence—they face serious health risks from the chemical ingredients and volatile reactions inherent in the manufacturing process. The acidic compounds, deadly if breathed or touched are much more caustic than the muriatic acid used in swimming pools, able to burn flesh off the bone in seconds and cause chemical pneumonia leading to a quick and painful death.

Methamphetamine’s destructive appetite devours more than human lives. Drug-fighting agencies estimate that for every pound of methamphetamine manufactured, five to seven pounds of liquid toxic waste are produced.12 Untold amounts are regularly dumped into canals, streams, irrigation ditches, top soil, shallow pits, sewage lines, and eventually leak into the Central Valley water table.13 This unregulated and criminally irresponsible dumping of toxic by-products directly into the water systems of the Central Valley may stand alongside the long-term damages from widespread pesticide spraying, once all the facts are known. A fifty-pound batch of meth produces as much as 350 pounds of concentrated toxic by-product, which in the case of one superlab was dumped directly into nearby soil or waterways. The EPA has identified sixty-five by-products from its production as hazardous waste materials (classified as cyanides, corrosives, solvents, irritants, and metals/salts).14 The specific effects and toxicity of these chemical cocktails are uncertain, but present a threat of ecological devastation. When considering that the Central California landscape and waterways are integrally connected and engineered to maximize food growth for the nation, tracking these chemicals and their effects leads directly to dinner tables across America.

This epidemic is one of the most devastating and ironic contemporary counter-narratives of the idealized California landscape. The deadly effects of methamphetamine on its low-income users and labor force and its post-manufacture strain on the environment and economy represent the new lows to which idealized prosperity has fallen in the name of private-party profit. Why do people use the drug? Is it to escape the disappointment of a once promising but ever unfulfilling life in the West?15 “Big Rock Candy Mountain” isn’t just a folksong but a very real social and environmental toxin. A short-lived, hyper-euphoric high is hardly a legitimate substitute for the California Dream.

The new drug factories in California fields have added another layer to the many ways in which the American farm has caused as much pain and poverty as it has enjoyed prosperity. Drugs are as mainstream a commodity as the food that makes its way to every store shelf in America, yet they are invisible in the commercial depictions of the wholesome California farm. Tourism and agricultural boards spend millions of dollars maintaining the concept of pastoral perfection through images of happy cows, healthy chickens, and bumper crops from family farms. It seems the state and private-party profits accrued in part by the maintenance of this pristine image continue to take priority over curbing the very real human and ecological costs of meth. The unmediated dumping of toxic by-products directly into waterways endangers the economic livelihood of the farms and families that feed America, surely a significant enough threat to this multibillion-dollar industry to warrant significant governmental and private response. In the meantime, meth dealers are effectively urging a grotesque “Buy California” slogan to pedal “Californian ice” to the farthest reaches of the nation.

The magnitude and momentum of this problem deserve immediate and uncompromising attention. Attempted solutions to this epidemic reveal an infrastructure committed to a reactive approach that engenders exorbitant economic, social, and environmental costs. However, potential improvements can be seen in the actions of entities such as the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and interagency collaborations. One recent example is Save Our Sierra (SOS), an interagency law enforcement effort in Fresno County seeking to eradicate ecologically devastating clandestine marijuana farms in the Sierras.16 In 2009 they reported the seizure of over $1.1 billion of marijuana plants and made eighty-eight arrests, some of which were tied to DTOs.

While these measures are a necessary part of the holistic response to such an invasive problem, they don’t address systemic causes of rampant domestic drug manufacture and use such as insufficient border controls, inconsistent farm laborer rights, the accessibility of key drug ingredients, and the depletion of funding for drug-awareness efforts. Such issues are being addressed on the legal and educational fronts by political representatives and engaged citizen groups, but federal funding and corporate support heavily favor a reactive response to the epidemic as seen in the extreme juxtaposition of spending between prisons and rehabilitation as compared to preventative educational programs, special agency funding, and community awareness.17

As long as this pattern continues, meth will always have a safe place to hide while the land and the people of the Central Valley pay a dear price. The solution to this epidemic may include reimagining the Valley as something more dubious, and less profitable, than the “land of milk and honey.” This may be too high a price to pay for those who profit greatly from this idyllic perception. Either way, the bountiful land of the Central Valley and the lucrative profits that are the source of the region’s livelihood are compromised by a parasitic parallel system of manufacture, labor, and distribution that is more than willing to supplant industrial agriculture as the new factory in the fields.

Chemical stained sheets and packaging card found at methamphetamine chemical dump. PHOTO BY CRAIG KOHLRUSS. COURTESY OF FRESNO BEE.


1. CA Dept. of Food and Ag; “Agricultural Statistical Review” of 2009; page 19 chart;

2. These percentages are according to California Department of Justice’s “Clandestine Meth Labs” report. A “superlab” is a production facility that manufactures ten pounds or more of meth per batch, as compared to a typical one pound “stove top” batch; many superlabs have been found that produce fifty or more pounds per batch. From 2005–2009, an average of 207 laboratories and abandonments were found by authorities in San Joaquin Valley counties, led by Stanislaus, Merced, San Joaquin, and Fresno (US Department of Justice, National Drug Intelligence Center, Central Valley California HIDTA Drug Market Analysis 2010, June 2010, Table 2). According to the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH, 2010) published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, first time users of meth from 2002 through 2009 average over 216,000 per year (Figure 5.6). The total number of users nation-wide is not estimated, but is considered a significant percentage of the nearly twenty-two million illicit drug users.

3. According to US Dept. of Justice, National Drug Intelligence Center, “Central Valley High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Drug Market Analysis 2010.”

4. According to Central Valley California HIDTA Drug Market Analysis 2010 (June 2010), 258 kilograms of meth were seized in 2009 in the Central Valley, which calculates to $327.66 million once multiplied by street value and increased by ten to calculate for unseized meth. Statewide income from peaches in 2009 was $326,331,000 (California Dept. of Food and Agriculture, 2010 Agricultural Statistical Review). Ed Synicky, a state agent fighting the drug war, is quoted in Arax and Gorman’s article in the Los Angeles Times titled, “California’s Illicit Farm Belt Export” as saying that for every meth lab seized, it is assumed there are ten more that go undiscovered (13 March 1995).

5. According to the US Dept. of Justice’s 2010 National Drug Threat Assessment (February), economic costs are estimated at $215 billion a year.

6. In the Pacific Region (dominated statistically by the Central Valley), 87.3% of state and local law enforcement agencies characterize methamphetamine as the greatest drug threat in their jurisdictions, compared with 29.4% of agencies nationwide (US Dept. of Justice, National Drug Intelligence Center, National Methamphetamine Threat Assessment 2009, December 2008, Pacific Region). The crime patterns, as well as the environmental data that follows, are recorded in a number of reports (2001–2010) posted on the Department of Justice’s National Drug Intelligence Center website. Gang-related violence is also a result of meth manufacture, but more a product of gang culture than the use of meth.

7. As sited on the Meth Awareness and Prevention Project of South Dakota;

8. Effects of meth are collected from,, and’s article, “The Meth Epidemic: How Meth Destroys the Body.” For information and images of meth mouth, go to

9. Employment Development Dept., State of California; based on the 2009 annual average; published in November 2010;

10. As described in Mark Arax and Tom Gorman’s Los Angeles Times article, “California’s Illicit Farm Belt Export,” 13 March 1995.

11. As cited in “Methamphetamine Use: Lessons Learned” by Hunt, Kuck, and Truitt. Abt Associates, Inc. February 2006, 27. This information derived from the US Sentencing Commission, 1999.

12. According to the 2010 National Drug Threat Assessment compiled by the US Dept. of Justice.

13. National Drug Threat Assessment 2010, “Impact on the Environment” discusses the patterns of dumping and the amount of by-product waste created. The EPA document from September of 2008 titled “RCRA Hazardous Waste Identification of Methamphetamine Production Process By-products” further explains the typical domestic disposal of toxic by-product into city sewage lines, septic systems, and nearby soil.

14. Taken from the EPA document from September, 2008 titled “RCRA Hazardous Waste Identification of Methamphetamine Production Process By-products,” Appendix B.

15. According to the 2010 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Results from the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Volume I. Summary of National Findings, the western region of the United States has the highest percentage of drug dependence at 9.5% of its population.

16. Described on the US Forest Service Pacific Southwest Region website in an article titled “Operation Save Our Sierra (SOS)” by John C. Heil III. Updated 29 July 2009.

17. Examples of legislation seeking to curb meth production are highlighted by the Comprehensive Methamphetamine Control Act of 1996 (MCA), which regulates the distribution, import, and export of key ingredients (US Dept. of Justice, Office of Diversion Control; Federal Register: 28 March 2002 (Volume 67, Number 60). The Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2006 placed restrictions on the over-the-counter sale of key ingredients pseudophedrine and ephedrine (National Drug Threat Assessment, 2010). Also, the Mexican government banned the import and use of key ingredients pseudoephedrine and ephedrine in 2009 (National Drug Threat Assessment, 2010).


The Art of Crossing Borders: Migrant Rights and Academic Freedom

by Louis Warren
Photography by Spring Warren

From Boom Winter 2011, Vol. 1, No. 4

An interview with Ricardo Dominguez

Ricardo Dominguez, Professor of New Media, Performance Art, and a Principal Investigator at CALIT2 at the University of California, San Diego, specializes in electronic civil disobedience as an art form. In January, 2010, he was placed under university investigation for misuse of research funds, a charge that could have resulted in his termination. At issue was the work of his research organizations, b.a.n.g. lab (for “bits, atoms, neurons, genes”) and his Electronic Disturbance Theater. Dominguez directed these organizations in creating the Transborder Immigrant Tool, an application that could allow immigrants to use GPS technology in cheap cell phones to find water caches in the desert between Mexico and Southern California and to access poems, which Dominguez calls “survival poetry.” Before the investigation was completed, several congressmen demanded punitive action and anti-immigrant pundits on cable news networks demanded Dominguez be fired. Louis Warren sat down with Ricardo Dominguez to find out what happened.

Louis Warren: When was it that you realized that the university might actually fire you for your research?

Ricardo Dominguez: Well, that was on January 11, 2010. I received an email from Accounting and Auditing at UC San Diego saying that they were going to initiate an investigation of the Transborder Immigrant Tool Project.

Warren: Was this a surprise?

Dominguez: I had had no indication up to that point that there was institutional concern about the project. Up to that point, I had received funding from UCSD. I had received letters of commendation for my teaching in these areas of electronic civil disobedience and border disturbance technology.

Warren: You had been involved in this kind of work for years, in New York and in Florida, before you got hired at UC San Diego. So, it’s not like the people at UCSD who hired you didn’t know what they were getting, right?

Dominguez: Indeed, it was the track record that initiated the conversation for me getting hired.

Warren: How did you develop the idea of electronic civil disobedience prior to coming to UC San Diego?

Dominguez: The original theory that we had in the 1990s was that electronic civil disobedience could only be really developed by those who had a coherent understanding of digital bodies, and those would be hackers. And that it would have to be a secret cell of hackers who had an intimate knowledge of code to initiate electronic civil disobedience. We felt that activists who were bound to the question of the streets would never initiate electronic civil disobedience because they had a history of Luddite quality, for good reason. But we felt, and we made a very harsh rhetorical statement, the streets are dead capital.

Warren: The streets are … .?

Dominguez: Dead capital. We felt that cybercapitalism was lifting off from the streets—that electronic civil disobedience would be, really, the only way to disturb the conditions of cybercapitalism, because the streets were now no longer bound to the flows of capital. But we also felt that hackers didn’t have a politics. They were only really bound to a question of politics of code qua code. The politics of the street, of the meat space, were something they wouldn’t really care about. So, we found then that activists would not create electronic civil disobedience and really, hackers wouldn’t do it ’cause it wasn’t in their particular frame, right? So it had to be artists.

Warren: So where is the “performance” in this performance art?

Dominguez: I think it is interesting to try to imagine the conditions of data bodies and real bodies interacting within each other as a performance.

Warren: You were uniting activists and hackers to create “hacktivists,” hackers with a political goal? Is that it?

Dominguez: Yes.

Warren: How is electronic civil disobedience related to the Transborder Immigrant Tool?

Dominguez: Well, as I was saying, one of the problems that we had conceptually with the original idea of electronic civil disobedience was that it was dependent on a cadre of hackers [and] on a certain knowledge of technology. Which is a similar assumption to what the RAND Corporation had done in their definitions of cyberwar, cyberterrorism, cybercrime. You needed infrastructure. You needed instant tactical knowledge of code. You needed a semantic awareness of how to transfer that information between code builders and machines.

Warren: So you’ve got the Transborder Immigrant Tool, the purpose of which is to get real bodies, real bodies to cross the border, cross these desert spaces without dying of thirst, for example. How is this performance art?

Dominguez: Performance art is about the body and transgression. It’s about the relationship of the body to space, right? For instance, with the Transborder Immigrant Tool, we are taking a technology, the GPS system and a cell phone system, which, again, are very attuned, at this moment in time, to attachment to the body. And so the Transborder Immigrant Tool does continue the history of electronic civil disobedience in creating a code that basically performs the belief that there is a higher law that needs to be brought to the foreground: a universal common law of the rights of safe passage. And so the tool calls forth this sense that there is a community of artists who are willing to foreground the higher law. We connect to the histories of higher law within the US, from civil disobedience to the underground railroad. So, the performative matrix that b.a.n.g. lab and Electronic Disturbance Theater has always tried to establish is indeed a deep connection between code and the body—a deep connection between code and those bodies that are outside of the regime of concern in terms of rights, in terms of consideration, in terms of being a community worthy of some sense of universal rights.

Warren: Do you want to abolish the border?

Dominguez: I do feel that whatever rights commodities have, individuals should have those same rights. A Coca-Cola can has more rights of protection in the flow across borders than the people who make the can, who fill the can, and pack the cans. And often they are devastated enough in that process that they feel they have to go elsewhere. And NAFTA seems to indicate that these commodities have [rights] and a right of flow. So, to me, transborders, trans-California, would be about an equation wherein the equality of the commodities would have a direct impact on the equality of the individuals who are the very flows of production there.

Warren: Have immigrants actually used the Transborder Immigrant Tool?

Dominguez: No. The investigation that started really slowed us down because our lawyers felt that to move forward would’ve put us in some jeopardy in terms of the investigation. But what we did do is, we continued to work with the NGOs and communities that leave water caches because they are a very important part of the project. And so we’ve been very lucky in that they’ve been very supportive and see the tool function. So what was supposed to be like a month long investigation turned out to be about ten months. And we accidentally discovered that we had been cleared. They never sent us the final “you’re cleared” statement. It was only by sheer accident that I discovered that we had been cleared of misuse of funds.

Warren: What triggered the investigation?

Dominguez: I did an interview with a magazine called Vice. This was picked up by Boing Boing [the online magazine], which is a major hub for exchange, and then it was picked up by NPR. This was in September/October of 2009; the project started in 2007. Before that, we had been funded, awards, all that sort of stuff, but it was internal. So this Vice interview went viral, and the nativists started getting involved. Every time there was a story on Fox News, we’d get slammed by hate mail. [In] most of it, they wanted to kill us in one way or another. We were accused of creating a cadre rebel army within the UC system. And that’s what started the university investigation.

Warren: How did Congress get involved?

Dominguez: It was midway through that investigation that three Republican Congressmen sent this letter requesting that the university investigate us about misuse of funds. Now, the irony is that Congressman Hunter [one of the three who sent the letter] is the nephew of John Hunter, and he is the person who started Water Station, Inc. about ten years ago. And he’s a hardcore Republican guy.

Warren: Water Station, Inc.—they cache water in the desert for immigrants?

Dominguez: Yes.

Warren: But they come from the political right?

Dominguez: Yes.

Warren: Why do they do this?

Dominguez: Well, I guess some of them might actually believe the New Testament. And they don’t want people to die unnecessarily. They want to help their brothers and sisters.

Warren: What’s the disposition of the university investigation of your lab?

Dominguez: Nothing was discovered in the investigation. No misuse of funds.

Warren: When some people think of art, they’re looking for a painting that will match their sofa. You seem to operate from the premise that art should make us uncomfortable with our assumptions—that there is something profoundly discomforting and political about true art. Is that right?

Dominguez: An artwork should create a sense that there is something that is occurring, something is happening. It should disturb the normal ontology of things. It seems to be unframing rather than framing. And it initiates a deeper currency of conversation beyond the museum or gallery. It forces art onto the front pages as opposed to the leisure page or the technology page or the art page, or somewhere in the back of the newspaper. It initiates a dialogue about art with congressmen. The truth of painting I would say is around the question of the frame. And for us, artwork is about unbinding that frame and letting it spill out into the conditions of the social space.

Warren: How do you see yourself in relation to artists in times past, say the Impressionists or anyone else? Were they disturbing the political world in parallel or analogous ways to what you’re doing?

Dominguez: Our work is more in the minor key. We are outside of the landscape of the major important work. But for us, the minor condition is much more important.

Warren: You mean minor as in dissonant, not minor as in less important?

Dominguez: No, no. I mean, for people who support the most conservative definition of art, Kafka is minor literature. Because that’s what Kafka called it. And certainly we saw during the cultural wars that performance art by women—Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, art that deals with questions of women’s bodies or lesbianism—were not part of what is considered the frame of art. The National Endowment for the Arts was attacked for funding it. Tim Miller’s performances of being a gay man were not considered something that should be funded, either. Mapplethorpe’s imagery—not to be funded, right? And so we fall much more along the minor literature, the minor art of the Holly Hughes, Karen Finley, Tim Miller, perhaps to some kinship with Mapplethorpe and others along that particular line. We are concerned more about the qualities not of the exterior presentation, but with the internal mechanism of what is being produced and its intent.

Warren: In a sense, museums are ways of containing art. The art that you do is radically uncontained. It bursts not just the boundaries of the building but of the nation—thus, the Transborder Immigrant Tool … .

Dominguez: Right, but at the same time, we insist we are artists. We do want to have a conversation with art. So, we have no anxiety about [speaking] in a loud way. Everybody in this research team are all out-of-the-closet artists: Brett Stalbaum, Micha Cardenas, Amy Sara Carroll, and Elle Mehrmand. We’re not activists, we are artists. Our interest is not GPS global positioning systems but global poetic systems.

Warren: Is the Transborder Immigrant Tool being used or are similar things being devised for other borders around the world?

Dominguez: Well, we hope. The code can be used by other communities of artists to deal with their own poetics and aesthetics around their borders, to create transborders.

Warren: Are transborders places of crossing? Are they spaces between nations? What are they?

Dominguez: If you count all the folks who are crossing borders across the arcs of the world, it’s a pretty large population—larger than some countries. So the concept of the “transborder” as undocumented bodies moving between states is a way of imagining them as a flowing nation state that perhaps should have their own transborder rights, transborder rights to health, education, labor rights—in the not too distant future we may all be stateless undocumented bodies whose only rights will be transborder rights.


Hayakawa Among the Conservatives

by Gerald Haslam

From Boom Winter 2011, Vol. 1, No. 4

Stranger in a strange land

When the famed author, editor, and lecturer Dr. S.I. “Don” Hayakawa, joined the faculty at San Francisco State College in 1955, his presence seemed to elevate the college’s reputation. It also led to a series of events that would make Hayakawa arguably not only America’s best-known citizen of Japanese ancestry but also, according to journalist Ed Salzman, “The only folk hero to have emerged from American higher education.” My own acquaintance with Hayakawa stretched over decades, in a relationship that never quite revealed who or even what he was, other than controversial.

The professor, a Canadian native who had only recently become a citizen of the United States, much impressed his colleague Manfred Wolf, who wrote: “It was fitting that after years in the Midwest he should have come to perform on the brighter, brasher stage of California.”

Hayakawa’s unusual academic specialty, general semantics, stimulated considerable buzz in the Bay Area, and his evening course in the subject enrolled an overflow 300 students. General semantics had been formulated by Count Alfred Korzybski as “an integrated science of man” through the understanding of symbols and their use in human affairs.

By 1973, Hayakawa was an ex-president of San Francisco State University contemplating a political run. COURTESY OF HAYAKAWA FAMILY ARCHIVE

There was far more to Hayakawa than “GS.” Over the years he had been a poet, a columnist, an editor, a jazz maven, and even a fencing coach. Most of all, he and his talented wife, Margedant Peters, had been noted liberals, quick to embrace causes and eloquent in defending them, whether endorsing co-ops and racial equality or attacking anti-Semitism and price gouging, they seemed to be exemplars of progressive politics.

But Don Hayakawa, who had not been confined, was also a sometimes apologist for the World War II internment and relocation of Japanese Canadians and Japanese Americans. “Whatever the heartbreaks and losses created by the wartime relocation, there were unforeseen benefits… . almost all Nisei and many Issei were thrown out of their ghettoized Japan-town existence into the mainstream of American life… . “1 That position, and the frequency with which he repeated it, troubled many.

The “brighter, brasher” stage of California turned out not to have as much room for general semantics as originally seemed possible. As a result, Hayakawa’s dream of a “GS” major at San Francisco State was frustrated due to the opposition of colleagues. By 1966, when an editor of San Francisco State’s student newspaper wrote a column making fun of efforts of SFSC’s professors to organize a union, Hayakawa, who was then teaching only part-time, wrote him a note saying, in part, “Basically, I agree with you … . there are a lot of lazy, oververbalized bores in any college faculty, including our own—people unfit for any other work but drinking coffee and chewing the fat with their juniors.” He, of course, refused to join the union, and some colleagues wondered if he was festering over earlier rebuffs.

Sensator SIH and President Reagan at the White House in 1981. COURTESY OF HAYAKAWA FAMILY ARCHIVE

As student dissent began to crest in 1968, Hayakawa helped form a campus group called Faculty Renaissance that urged resistance to student demands. He contacted Chancellor Glenn Dumke then and, as a result of events that have never been fully explained,2 Hayakawa was offered an appointment as acting president of San Francisco State. Conservative Governor Ronald Reagan reportedly said, “If he’ll take the job we’ll forgive him for Pearl Harbor.” It was a statement that would not have surprised Hayakawa, who felt Reagan had great political instincts but was often poorly informed. He took the job, and on December 2 of that year, Hayakawa (and his signature plaid Tam’-o’-Shanter) became symbols of resistance to student rebellion when he ripped out speaker wires on a sound truck and stopped an illegal demonstration—or denied First Amendment rights—or both. Many faculty opposed his actions, but the public, sick of academics capitulating to rude students, embraced him as the only college administrator with guts.3 Meanwhile, many in the general public also asked for the first time, who is this guy?

Samuel Ichiyé Hayakawa was born to immigrant Japanese parents in Vancouver, B.C., Canada, on July 18, 1906. When he and his younger brother were in their teens, their parents returned to Japan, leaving the boys in Canada.4 Samuel eventually graduated from the University of Manitoba in 1927, earned an M.A. from McGill University in 1928, and completed a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin in 1935.

In that time of anti-Japanese sentiment,5 he could not find a tenure-track college teaching job, frequently losing out to white candidates who had no doctorates. He didn’t bother to complain, but dug in and by 1938 had published enough to be considered a solid literary scholar and a promising poet. The young Canadian, then an instructor at the University of Wisconsin Extension, read Stuart Chase’s book The Tyranny of Words and was enthralled. He then read Chase’s inspiration, Alfred Korzybski’s Science and Sanity, and decided to study general semantics with its developer, setting in motion events that would lead him to fame, to fortune, and finally to frustration.

Left to right: Otoko Hayakawa, Marge and Alan Hayakawa, Great-Grandmother Hayakawa, SIH; Marge, Alan and Don visit Don’s family in Kusakabe, in Yamanashi City, Japan, 1953. COURTESY OF HAYAKAWA FAMILY ARCHIVE

In 1941, only days before the Pearl Harbor attack, his own book on general semantics, Language in Action, was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and became a best seller. He embraced the sudden notoriety and would no longer be considered a literary scholar or a poet; he was a “famed semanticist.” What he couldn’t know is that GS would never penetrate the academic mainstream and neither would he, despite enjoying a degree of celebrity.

During World War II, while Japanese Americans on the West Coast were being interned and relocated, he was on the faculty at Illinois Tech in Chicago, where he and his wife remained prominent on the cultural scene. In the 1940s he became a popular lecturer nationally, the editor of a quarterly journal, ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, and a columnist for the Chicago Defender; his wife was a major figure on the co-op scene and an editor at Poetry magazine, as well as the mother of three young children.

By the 1950s, though, all was not well. S.I. Hayakawa had resigned his tenured position at Illinois Tech and was unhappy teaching only part-time for the University of Chicago evening division. Then his wife discovered that he was involved romantically with one of her associates at Poetry. Hayakawa had a standing offer of a professorship at San Francisco State College, where he had taught summer classes. Despite reservations about California’s anti-Asian history, and with his marriage on the line, he relocated to SFSC in 1955.

Six years later, my new bride and I drove to San Francisco State College from the Central Valley where I’d been working as a roughneck on a drilling rig. We hoped to begin a life that would offer more choices than the oilfields did. I met the famous professor in 1963 as a first-semester graduate student enrolled in his seminar on general semantics, a course based on a reading of the daunting Science and Sanity, which we discussed in detail. The professor listened intently to students, and then his comments revealed what seemed to me to be an extraordinarily broad base of knowledge.

In 1966, the strike erupted at SFSC. Hayakawa had favored some of the reforms demanded by students, such as the development of an Ethnic Studies program, but he opposed the tactics of strikers and their demand for total autonomy. Many of his colleagues, in turn, opposed Hayakawa’s efforts, and each felt betrayed by the other. When the smoke finally cleared after 167 days, the immediate winner in the strike settlement was Hayakawa, whose great popularity among the general public—not merely conservatives—opened doors. But the tide of history was on the side of the young; eventually they would be the establishment, and many of their best ideas would be implemented while they outgrew others.

Senator S. I. Hayakawa with the Cambodian refuge kids at the holding center for Kampucheans in Thailand, in 1980. COURTESY OF HAYAKAWA FAMILY ARCHIVE

Hayakawa was for a time rudderless, due to rejection by his old liberal and progressive allies, but he had to decide how to use his popularity. Earlier in his life he had considered politics, and by 1973 his ambitions matured. When his aide Gene Prat asked Hayakawa what he hoped to accomplish in office, he replied, “To be a statesman.” To accomplish that, he switched parties, becoming a Republican in 1975, and the next year ran for the United States Senate against Democratic incumbent John Tunney, even though he still held some of the liberal positions that had once led him to be called a “pinko.”6

In what seemed to be his greatest triumph, he won the Senate seat. During the years that followed I sent him letters complaining about this vote or that, and at first he replied, but finally I no longer heard from him—although I kept sending missives, because it seemed to me that he had become, politically at least, a mirror image of the man I had admired.

His largely conservative voting record in the Senate was deceptive. He at times seemed to be voting against liberals rather than for anything. Never really active in California’s amorphous New Right, he soon learned that lone wolves accomplish little in Congress, so he joined the luncheon caucus of the Senate’s New Right, with colleagues such as Jake Garn, Orrin Hatch, Paul Laxalt, and Jesse Helms. Still, he was not easy to categorize, since his positive votes on public funding for abortions and on returning the Panama Canal to Panama, as well as his insistence on the privacy of behavior between consenting adults, perplexed liberals and conservatives alike. A few journalists began to refer to him as a libertarian.

During his stint in Washington, an unacknowledged sleeping disorder undid his image. Friends had long noticed that he seemed to doze at unlikely times; I once saw him fall asleep mid-conversation. Johnny Carson soon picked up the sleeping-Senator theme. Carson, whose Tonight Show dominated late-night television, began joking about Don—”What would S.I. Hayakawa’s personalized auto license plate be?” “ZZZZZZ.” But Carson also offered the new Senator the opportunity to appear on the show in 1977. In addition to his skill as a speaker, Don was an engaging personality and on the national A-list of lecturers then. Members of his staff advised against an appearance on Carson’s show, a decision that would haunt them. One aide later explained to Hayakawa, “I think it was felt [by staff] that as a US Senator, it would not be appropriate for you to be going on ‘The Tonight Show’ as a guest.” As a result of that decision, many in the public came to know only the caricature.

When his Senate term ended, Don acknowledged that it was not considered successful. Asked what he’d be remembered for, he told Los Angeles Times reporter Cathleen Decker, “Sleeping, I guess.” An unlikely chain of events had brought Don Hayakawa the possibility of great success, and he had grasped it only to become its victim. This irony, of course, gave Hayakawa’s considerable list of enemies reason to rejoice and to mock him.

His post-Senate activity as spokesperson for US English and its campaign to declare English the national language resonated with a segment of the public. He perhaps exaggerated the need for a national language because he had seen his own immigrant mother trapped by a lack of English skill. Hayakawa’s more important work as special advisor for Secretary of State George Schultz, especially on MIAs in Southeast Asia, went largely unnoticed, subsumed under chuckles about “sleeping Sam.”

Nevertheless, Hayakawa never ceased promoting diversity and assimilation. As he once explained, “Who said being American—or Canadian—meant being white? Look at our vocabularies, look at our dining habits, our styles of dress, and increasingly our theological and philosophical concepts … look at our children and our grandchildren … those are by no means exclusively Anglo-Saxon.” He remained committed to a multiethnic American identity.

By the late-1980s, the ex-senator was a spokesman for U.S. English, an advocacy group. COURTESY OF HAYAKAWA FAMILY ARCHIVE

In the late 1980s, I received a phone call from him and, sounding as though we’d played poker just the night before, he said, “Gerry, would you and Jan like to join Marge and me for lunch next Wednesday? I have something I’d like to discuss with you.” I was surprised, but also intrigued, so we accepted, and enjoyed a “reunion” meal. He asked if I’d like to collaborate with him on a new edition of Language in Thought and Action, but I had to defer because I was at work on a book on the Central Valley. Nevertheless, that lunch reestablished our relationship.

In 1991, I was reading from a new collection of stories at The Depot Bookstore and Café in Mill Valley when I noticed the Hayakawas slip into the back of the room, Don pulling a portable oxygen tank. Following the festivities and with two of my old SFSC professors, Thurston Womack and John Dennis, who had been strikers at San Francisco State, I greeted Don and Marge. That led to an invitation to their nearby home for a drink, which we three accepted.

Once there, though, Womack was startled when Don, who was clearly failing, looked up and asked, “Who are you, again?” Thurston, once Hayakawa’s commute partner, identified himself, and then Don said, “Thurston, do you know I wasted six years of my life in the United States Senate?” That was the last time we three ever saw him.

S.I. “Don” Hayakawa was undone by a combination of his own limitations and by events beyond his control. He had a kind of hubris; his son Alan said S.I.H. could never understand why everyone didn’t agree with him if he was given a chance to explain his position. He also put all his eggs in the general semantics basket, and they ended up broken due to lack of acceptance in the academic mainstream. The success of his first book made him famous but limited his academic options, and his term in the Senate revealed flaws that bordered on caricature. Nevertheless, the sum of his accomplishments marks him as memorable; exactly how he’ll be remembered in the long run may depend on which version of his life one cares to believe.


1. Written in “‘Farewell to Manzanar: An unorthodox view of the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans,” TV Guide, 6 March 1976, 13.

2. Including the resignation of President Bob Smith.

3. Apparent capitulations at schools such as Columbia, UC Berkeley, SUNY, etc., were creating a negative image of administrators and faculty alike. Herb Wilner and Leo Litwak, both pro-strike professors at SFSC, acknowledged that “it was a revelation to discover that we were among the bad guys, damned by eighty percent of the public … .”

4. SIH’s father had offices in Japan and Canada. He kept a mistress in Japan, and his wife in Canada found out, so she took her two young daughters to Japan to confront him, leaving the boys (who were barely able to speak Japanese). The senior Hayakawas remained in Japan thereafter.

5. The 1930s were a period of growing anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States and Canada as Nippon became ever more aggressive: 1931—occupied Manchuria; 1933—withdrew from League of Nations; 1937—invaded China (Rape of Nanking followed); 1940—invaded French Indo-China.

6. Even two FOIA requests (one supported by the ACLU, the other by Representative Lynn Woolsey) could not force the US Department of Justice to open its files on Hayakawa. His kin, friends, and old neighbors reported that he had been called names, especially after he wrote a devastating critique of arch-conservative Superintendent of Schools Max Rafferty. He was also identified with Friends of KPFA, the co-op movement, and racial integration. This author personally heard him called “comsymp,” “parlor pink,” “pinko,” and other epithets in the late 1950s and 1960s.


Checking In

by Michael Ziser

From Boom Winter 2011, Vol. 1, No. 4

Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel
Coffee House Press (Minneapolis, 2010)

Many members of this year’s multiethnic college-freshman class were born in 1993, the year before Newt Gingrich and John Boehner’s Contract with America, the blueprint for today’s interlinked and seemingly unstoppable abandonment of the public welfare investments of the New Deal, the civil rights achievements of the 1960s, and the sexual revolutions of the 1970s. Even the most precocious and politically aware of these students will likely date their political awakening to sometime during the second term of George W. Bush. They will not be able to vote in their first national election until 2012. When they arrive on campus, however, many will encounter syllabi in American culture and politics courses shaped by the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, that bitter era of reckoning with the new attitudes toward race, class, gender, and sexuality that bloomed with the coming-of-age of the Baby Boomers. What their older professors regard as existential questions about the validity and utility of the multicultural accommodation forged in those years, today’s freshmen are likely to view as a mystifying archive of arguments with few clear connections to their own historical context of national economic decline, global warfare, and the surveillance state. For them, the New Left might as well be the Wobblies.

Although few would suggest that the new generation should simply get with the Aquarian program, the loss of political and personal memory from one generation to another presents a serious challenge for the fragile American tradition of leftist political dissent, and the gap between the Boomers and Generation Z is one that must be carefully bridged in the few years left before the Boomers retire from public life. This is not a question of persuading freshmen to declare allegiance to the politics of Soul on Ice (Eldridge Cleaver), Sexual Politics (Kate Millet), or The Revolt of the Cockroach People (Oscar Zeta Acosta); rather, it is the more difficult task of freeing them from the flattened and narrowed representations of their parents’ politics as retailed in pop culture while encouraging them to imagine themselves as similarly empowered political agents.

So, despite the evident surplus of superficial and self-congratulatory Boomer memorials to their youthful radicalism, there is still a crucial place for writing that captures both the feel and the historicity of a politically open moment. Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel, in a genre all its own somewhere between historical fiction and creative nonfiction, is an inventive attempt to re-present such an era in a way that is simultaneously heuristic and available to the imaginations of the young.

The historical core of the book comes out of Yamashita’s decade-long research into the rise of multicultural politics, particularly the Asian-American Movement, in the San Francisco Bay Area of the late 1960s and early 1970s, gathered out of various libraries, archives, geographies, and living memories. From that material, Yamashita has produced a sort of roman à clef of the major and minor figures responsible for the consolidation of Asian-American identity and political power from 1968 to 1977. Readers knowledgeable about the place and time will easily recognize many of the figures thinly disguised behind her pseudonymous and composite characters (Ling-chi Wang, Takeo Terada, Florence Hongo, Richard Aoki, Mo Nishida, S.I. Hayakawa, and dozens of others) as well as actual events (the student protests at San Francisco State, the demolition of the International Hotel, the occupation of Alcatraz, etc.). Those for whom this history is new will be drawn toward traditional historiography of the period (Erika Lee and Linda Yung’s Angel Island; Michael Liu, Kim Geron, and Tracy Lai’s The Snake Dance of Asian American Activism; and Estella Habal’s San Francisco’s International Hotel would make a great trio of background reading).

Reminiscent of her two previous historically-based works about Japanese diaspora communities in Brazil, Brazil-Maru (1993) and the Circle K Cycles (2001), I Hotel naturally lacks the zanier plot elements of Yamashita’s early magical-realist novels, Through the Arc of the Rainforest (1990) and Tropic of Orange (1997)—no mysterious plastic substances, trialectics, or portable latitude lines here! What I Hotel lacks in the fantastic, however, it more than recoups through its unorthodox form. Composed of ten independent but interlinked novellas, one for each year from 1968 to 1977, I Hotel tells its story through an astonishing variety of technical means, ranging from first-person narration to screenplay to graphic novel (the last achieved with the aid of illustrators Leland Wong and Sina Grace). The multitude of perspectives may preclude the deep psychological insights readers sometime expect from novels, but on the other hand it is not difficult to read I Hotel as a radical form of autobiography (Yamashita was born in Oakland) limning the rooming-house consciousness of the author herself.

Rather than try to locate a single dramatic narrative that condenses the entire experience of the time, as less venturesome novelists might, Yamashita opts to tell ten distinct but overlapping narratives, each involving three different main characters and each told from differing narrative points-of-view, with subchapters delivered in different styles ranging from first-person limited to teleplay script to surveillance file. Each section is primarily set in its given year, beginning with the 1968 tale of a Chinese young man, Paul Lin, whose father has died and left him to inherit the seemingly irreconcilable traditions of San Francisco’s Chinatown and the Bohemian intellectual and political scene coming to prominence in the 1960s. As it turns out—in both Yamashita’s narrative and in the history upon which it is based—the cultures of Portsmouth Square and Sproul Plaza are not so incommensurable after all. This Paul learns when he meets Chen Wen-guang, a Chinese ex-pat professor of Chinese literature at San Francisco State University (then State College). The professor serves as a connection between the young Paul and many of his fellow SCSF students (Edmund Lee and Judy Eng most prominently) and as a link to the radical politics of the 1940s. (After being expelled from the United States for his connections to Communism, Chen headed to China to fight alongside Zhou Enlai during the early Chinese revolution; in the 1960s he remains, despite small misgivings, committed to Maoism). His political experience makes him a natural mentor for students caught up in their own smaller moment of rebellion, and it opens Yamashita’s novel to the broad back-story of the Chinese diaspora in California and its complicated transnational status.

But Yamashita well understands that her story must embrace ideologies outside the Left and Asian-American ethnicities beyond the Chinese. In the first chapter, the complexity of the moment is expressed through the figure of S.I. Hayakawa, the semanticist and traditional Republican Japanese-Canadian-American president of San Francisco State. His crackdown on student protesters, including the infamous incident in which he literally pulled the plug on a student PA system, helped propel him to a single, troubled term in the United States Senate on a wave of the same antiradical and antistudent sentiment that made Ronald Reagan into a nationally recognized conservative leader. He too is a part of the story of Asian California, albeit ultimately a marginal one.

In later chapters, Yamashita goes on to explore the Japan-Town Collective, a radical San Francisco community organization, and the Third-World Liberation Front, a Berkeley student group advocating curricular changes in support of the world’s indigenous peoples. For 1970, we are thrown into the International Hotel of the title, an aging single-room occupancy hotel (at the edge of San Francisco’s old Manilatown and Chinatown) catering mainly to aged Filipino farmworkers and dockworkers. Slated for demolition by its Japanese conglomerate owner to make way for the construction of the massive highrises that now house the firms of the Financial District, it becomes a squat and an important mixing place for Yellow Power and Black Panther radicals. Later chapters range from a highly experimental meditation on the enmity between the twin origins of contemporary Asian American literature, Maxine Hong Kingston and Frank Chin; the connection between the organized Filipino Left and the budding Mexican farmworkers movement; the Native American occupation of Alcatraz; the advance guard of Vietnamese refugees; the Coit Tower murals painted by a Nisei Communist who was for a time the roommate of Paul Lin’s father; and an uproarious pig-roasting contest between Filipino and Pacific Islander cooks.

The novel ends with the forcible eviction of the International Hotel residents and activists and the leveling of the building itself. By this point, the symbolic significance of the hotel is clear: it serves as the crucible in which the many varied traditions of Asian immigrants were temporarily united in defense of the poorest among them. As one activist with a strong sense of the novelty of the “Asian-American” identity produced in that moment remarks: “Goes to show, you can weld anything to anything” (p. 480). Although there is a utopian moment of solidarity, when the I Hotel (wired up with microphones as part of the public protest) becomes a “gigantic organic voice-box of our own making,” Yamashita’s book is equally committed to presenting the shearing and centrifugal forces at work, the divisions and disagreements that remain part of the structure of any particular history and of any individual psyche that emerges from it (p. 580).

And in time we may remember, collecting every little memory, all the bits and pieces, into a larger memory, rebuilding a great layered and labyrinthine, now imagined, international hotel of many rooms, the urban experiment of a homeless community built to house the needs of temporary lives. And for what? To resist death and dementia. To haunt a disappearing landscape. To forever embed this geography with our visions and voices. To kiss the past and you good-bye, leaving the indelible spit of our DNA on still moist lips. Sweet. Sour. Salty. Bitter. (p. 605)

Here, as elsewhere in the novel, Yamashita manages to capture the combination of continuity and contingency in the making of cultural and political identities, offering dozens of historical rooms (taken, abandoned, and unclaimed) into which her readers, especially younger ones looking for a way to connect to the political past without being smothered by it, might check the unfinished fragments of their own lives.


Jobs. Good Jobs.

by Wade Collins

From Boom Winter 2011, Vol. 1, No. 4

Nothing’s simple in the vineyard

On some level I knew it wasn’t going to work out when the manager of my new job asked me if I could give her a second emergency contact phone number—someone to call besides my wife, in case the bobcat who had been patiently picking off some of the resident poultry decided to up the ante and go for larger fare, or the orchestrators of the illegal pot-growing operation, recently discovered out beyond the vineyards, decided one day to start taking hostages in exchange for safe passage into Mendocino county.

“Hmm … like my mom?” I asked.

“If you wish,” she responded.

“Sure,” I said, “but you could only call her for minor emergencies—like infected hairs, or a really bad sunburn, that sort of thing—she is eighty-two, you know.”

In most circumstances in my life, this obvious attempt at humor and levity would have, at the very least, met with a polite chuckle—a gracious nod to the effort that one has made to lighten a particular moment, even if that effort had been less than fully realized. Here though, my remark was swept aside as if unspoken and with thinly disguised annoyance, a second request was made for an additional emergency contact phone number.

“This is going to be tough,” I thought to myself, “it really is—for both of us,” suddenly sorry that I would undoubtedly be bombarding this poor soul over the course of our professional working relationship with countless unwanted attempts to make her laugh. This apparent incompatibility, in and of itself, was not enough to sour me on the job, however—after all, I’d met plenty of people in my life who hadn’t thought I was funny. I even dated a few of them (for reasons best left to a pedigreed professional with a spiral notepad and leather couch). In every other way my new manager was seemingly a lovely person—kind, generous to a fault, and accommodating. No, what sealed the fate, so to speak, of my new job were the ATVs.

Photo by Guy Foster

Vineyards are big places. They consist of row after row of neatly manicured and trellised grape vines coursing over the contours of the land, seemingly oblivious to concerns of slope, marching up and down the rises of the Napa Valley foothills like obedient columns from Caesar’s legendary legions. Access to all the far-flung outposts of this empire of wine is provided, by and large, courtesy of the ATV, that boisterous vehicle of teenage restlessness, here domesticated for its predilection for traversing sometimes difficult terrain, quickly and easily. One of the first tasks of my new job was to master the operation of the two resident ATVs the estate owned. Although I was not being hired to work in the vineyard, per se, the ATVs had numerous uses around the gardens, grounds, and orchards, and I would be expected to use them whenever necessary. So, after some embarrassed fumbling of gears, and a period of furtive stopping and starting—akin to an unwelcome case of inebriated hiccupping, until the correct amount of throttle to use was discovered—I was soon on my way, barreling down the graveled, tree-lined, and shade-speckled roads with, if not the boyish aplomb of youth, an ableness nonetheless.

Now, an hour of jostling, bouncing, and jiggling may be, to most, an adrenaline-tinged amusement, but to me it was something quite different. Nearly three years ago, in a remote section of northern New Mexico’s Carson National Forest, while harvesting dead wood for fence posts from a section of forest devastated by the pinyon bark beetle, the top portion of one of the trees broke off—striking me on the head. And I have to say, if you are ever in your lifetime presented with a choice about this, I would strongly advise an unwavering course of action to prevent said tree from hitting said head. Other than the initial amazement that one is, in fact, not dead after such an encounter, there is nothing to recommend it. Once an impact great enough to cause the skull to strike the fragile tissue it encases occurs, there is, like a lost virginity, no going back. Repairs are made, neuronal networks are reorganized, but the brain will never regain the original vigor and elasticity of the pre-concussive state, and will be forever susceptible to further injury.

Dismounting from the ATV, my speech slow to form and slightly slurred, my gait unsure and unsteady, I knew I had crossed the imaginary line that my now fragile brain—with its circuitry pruned, but not for strength and productivity like the vines I had just been whizzing past—was ill-equipped to tolerate. Like myself three years previously, my new job was then and there concussed—and ultimately, there would be no going back to it.

Perhaps it was prescient that during my drive down from Washington state to Napa, I had listened to John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” that epic narrative of forced wandering in which the idea, and the ideal, of California play such a prominent role. The promise of “jobs, good jobs,” pushes the Joads and hundreds of thousands like them westward, driven from their lands by poor soil and greedy bankers. I, too, was in flight, away from two years of unemployment—looking for a job, any job. And in this, I imagine, I was not alone. With a national underemployment rate stuck, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’, at around 16 percent over the past two years, and with home foreclosures at historic highs, I wondered about all the modern-day Joads being created—pushed out of their homes, unable to find work, government assistance running out—where do they go? Where do we go? Toward jobs. In my case, like the Joads, toward California.

By the time the Joads arrived, during the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s, California, the place, was “all bought up” and remains so today. Land here has either already been intensively developed or is in large-scale commercial agricultural production. In Napa, where I was headed, that meant one thing—wine.

Photo by Jens Dahlin

Although Napa arrived a little late to the scene (archeological evidence suggests that the first properly aged wine originated about eight thousand years ago in what is now the modern Republic of Georgia), the combination of a favorable climate and the setting aside of some thirty-eight thousand acres for permanent agricultural use in 1968 have made the area one of the preeminent wine-growing regions of the world. It’s no surprise, then, that wine grapes are big business here. With $5 billion in annual revenue, they are California’s second most-valuable agricultural commodity. In Napa, where the majority of that crop is grown, a ton of grapes can fetch upward of $4,000. Compare that with the going rate for a ton of Fresno grapes—$260—and you start to have an appreciation for the reverential esteem in which Napa Valley grapes are held. But for all the abundance, there is an unease here as well. Bankruptcies and mortgage defaults are at an all-time high—and consolidation of smaller, privately owned vineyards into larger corporate holdings is occurring with startling rapidity. Add to that mix the almost certain dislocation of the delicate Napa Valley climate by global warming, and the patina of unworried affluence begins to show itself for what it is: brittle, and potentially hollow—and perhaps just one more example of the reckless denial that has come to typify our current age.

The most important crop in California, however, in terms of revenue is, by far, marijuana. Statewide, it is a $15 billion a year industry, and growing. Here in Napa, it is second only to grapes in economic significance, bringing in about $350 million annually. But, in spite of its undeniable economic muscle, it still largely exists in the shadows, both legally and geographically—a point which was soon to be brought home to me on my very first day in the state.

Not long before I arrived, on the estate in which I was newly hired to work, a discovery was made in a wooded area just beyond the sun-soaked vineyards. Six lines of irrigation hose leading off in different directions were found emanating from an all but forgotten cistern. Those hoses led to areas being prepared for marijuana cultivation. Since, however, no crop had been started yet, the county sheriffs who had been called to inspect the operation took no actions to confiscate the equipment. Upon receipt of this information, in a sort of informal pre-work orientation with my manager over tea and avocado sandwiches topped with homemade pickled fennel (delicious, by the way), I was, to say the least, surprised. I especially found the live-and-let-live approach to law enforcement in evidence here somewhat peculiar. The officers would, they said, come back to check up on the operation nearer harvest time, but until then, the landowner (and their employees—i.e. us) would be very much on our own.

“Carry a gun,” they advised. “They’ll be armed; it would be better if you were too.”

To the police, it was a fairly common occurrence, vineyards being favored locations for illegal grow operations owing to their proximity to water, the ready availability of irrigation equipment, and the presence of skilled horticultural workers. But I’m not so sure the picture I had of growing Swiss chard and tending fruit trees in what I thought to be a somewhat bucolic Napa included holstered weaponry—in fact, I’m sure it did not. Thankfully, in this my manager and I were of like minds, and so she had, so far, resisted the call to arms. But the hoses were and are still there. And so is the danger. Three people were killed at grow camps the previous year, all growers slain during raids by police as part of the thirty-year long CAMP (Campaign against Marijuana Planting) Program. When next year’s raids start up again in August, there will, undoubtedly, be further violence.

When the raids do happen, though, I will not be there. Seven days into the job, my head still reeling from my stint on the ATVs, I broke the news to my manager that due to the damage to my brain that had occurred, and might in all likelihood recur in the future, I would be resigning. And I can’t tell you how disappointing it is to write these words. Back in December, a week before Christmas, when my wife and I learned that I was going to be offered the position—we cried. It had been a little over two years since I had been laid off from my job. My position as a department head at an organic seed company had been eliminated due to a corporate restructuring. With my ninety-nine weeks of unemployment insurance exhausted, all the future held for us before the offer was made were food stamps and a continued reliance on family for housing. Now, we believed that my two years of unemployment, and along with it our uncertainty, our fear of the future, would be but a memory—that period of our lives that we got through—the bridge that connected one settled bit of security to the next. But instead of signing a lease on a rental house and making a reservation for a moving truck, I was back on the 101, headed north—headed home.

For the Joads, the real California was a place of hardship, regret, and loss—but also a place that tested and deepened their humanity. And while I in no way endured, in my two weeks, the same sort of trials and tribulations that they did, the journey had taken something away from me that I couldn’t get back—the job, obviously, and all that it represented—but something else too. I was forty-five, with a recurring brain injury. I could no longer do the sort of work for which I was trained. Where did that leave me? Adrift, in search of a new identity—disoriented, but also possessing a sort of hard-won sense of opportunity that was no longer contingent upon false hopes. California had taken something away, that’s true, but it had also given me something new—and perhaps that is what California, the place and the idea, does for people. And maybe that’s enough, sometimes.


El Grito and the Tea Party

by Alexander I. Olson
with art by Guillermo Nericcio García

From Boom Winter 2011, Vol. 1, No. 4

Recalling Diversity

Less than a month after California’s hotly contested midterm election in November 2010, the Sacramento Bee reported that local Tea Party activists had begun gathering signatures for a ballot measure modeled after Arizona’s notorious SB 1070—the law requiring state and local law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of suspected “illegals.” It is no surprise that the craze for border enforcement has again swept California. Although the Pew Research Center has found that the flow of undocumented workers into the United States has actually decreased in recent years, and despite the estimated $253 million in lost economic output that Arizona has endured since the passage of SB 1070, polling has suggested that a majority of California voters support the Arizona measure.1 As Michael Erickson, the Tea Party activist behind the California measure, explained in the Bee, “it’s going to be we the people who are going to make it happen.”2

Whatever the fate of Erickson’s signature drive, his populist rhetoric mirrors that of the national Tea Party, with its emphasis on “taking back” the country and “restoring” American democracy. Despite imagery that would suggest a preoccupation with contesting the meaning of the American Revolution (witness the Minutemen at the United States-Mexico border and the revival of the Gadsden flag), the Tea Party has proven itself to be a potent force in contemporary US politics, drawing together diverse conservative ideologies.3 The movement’s fusion of past and present can be seen in the writings of former Fox News personality Glenn Beck, whose revision of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense spent four months atop the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list in 2009.4 Readers can enroll in “Beck University” to take lessons in topics that include “Divine Providence vs. Manifest Destiny” and “Presidents You Need to Hate.”5 Such lessons portray the United States’ claim to Alta California—a northern territory of Mexico ceded to the United States in 1848 by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War—as justified by divine sanction. Particularly in the US Southwest, the Tea Party’s emphasis on border enforcement is as much about defending an embattled white American heritage as more widely cited reasons such as preventing unemployment and terrorism.6 In the dystopian vision of Beck and his compatriots, Mexican immigrants and their “anchor babies” will shove aside the rituals of the Fourth of July in favor of el Grito—the cry of September 16th, or Mexican Independence Day.7

As California voters contemplate the wisdom of racial profiling and mass deportation, it is worth looking back to another aspect of California’s heritage: the multicultural towns of Owens Valley in the late nineteenth century. These isolated communities in the eastern Sierra Nevada were remnants of the complicated demographics of the Gold Rush and, indeed, the forty-niners were late arrivals in a region with a long history of migration—Native American, Spanish, Mexican, and Russian.

Some of the first Anglo visitors to Alta California were convicts dumped on the beach in Carmel in 1796. According to Doyce Nunis, Jr., they proved to be “hard-working and docile” laborers under the Spanish colonial regime before being sent to Spain the following year. After Mexican independence in 1821, the naturalization process was made “fast and easy” for migrants from the United States and around the world, many of whom intermarried with locals. An exciting body of literature in recent years—including Louise Pubols’s masterful study of the de la Guerra family of Santa Barbara, The Father of All (2009)—has deepened our understanding of the complex social and economic world of the Californios.8

“Bear on the Lam” by Guillermo Nericcio García (2011, digital mixed media)

All this was threatened when Mexico lost Alta California to the United States in 1848. Although wealthier Californios remained active and savvy players in the new political system, the American Invasion ushered in an era of state-sponsored racial violence, as Anglos sought to drive Mexican, Chilean, and other “foreign” families from mining country through such measures as the Foreign Miners Tax of 1850. By sanctioning white supremacy, such laws eroded the land claims and citizenship rights of racialized “others” who were recast as “illegal aliens” in the twentieth century.9 Nevertheless, Anglo dominance was “difficult to enforce, and groups of people united by shared interests could create for themselves spheres of autonomy and strategies for interdependence.”10 The Owens Valley became such a sphere. For Anglos no less than Mexican, Basque, and Cuban families in the late nineteenth century, the towns of the Owens Valley were motley communities of exiles hoping to make a living in their adopted home.

By 1903, when Mary Hunter Austin published The Land of Little Rain, many of these towns were dwindling, if not vanished, and Los Angeles had already begun to eye the Owens Valley’s water resources.11 Rather than emphasizing decline, however, Austin painted a portrait of a vibrant, transnational, and deeply Californian culture where borders meant little, languages blended, and the chance to celebrate el Grito sparked joy, not fear. Every year on September 16, in her telling, shouts of ¡Viva la Libertad! and ¡Viva Mexico! resounded through the “Little Town of the Grape Vines.”12 From the grito itself to the hoisting of “the red, white, and green of Old Mexico,” the entire town joined in the festivities. At midnight, according to Austin, as the singing and dancing drew to a close, the flag was taken down. But this was not the end of the celebration. As “shepherd fires glow strongly on the glooming hills,” the music began “softly and aside,” playing “airs of old longing and exile.” Next, and suddenly, the music struck “a barbaric swelling tune,” and the Star Spangled Banner was raised above the camp. The same people who had shouted the grito joined in singing the US national anthem. As Austin put it, “They sing everything, America, the Marseillaise, for the sake of the French shepherds hereabout, the hymn of Cuba, and the Chilean national air to comfort two families of that land.“13

To be sure, Austin’s vision of harmony passes all too easily over the darker sides of life in the Owens Valley in the late nineteenth century—-the misogyny, the poverty, the endemic violence. Austin herself escaped this world for the literary communities of San Francisco and Santa Fe, and her portrait of the “Little Town of the Grape Vines” might be understood as an example of what Renato Rosaldo has called “imperialist nostalgia,” an ethnographic stance and mode of cultural production in which “people mourn the passing of what they themselves have transformed.”14 Austin never mentions efforts to erode multiculturalism through public health policy and anti-immigration measures such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.15 Yet unlike other examples of such nostalgia—including the ongoing fascination with the Gold Rush legend of the Mexican bandit Joaquín Murrieta, a figure who turned the tables on white colonial violence in attacks aimed at Anglo invaders—Austin’s story does not position the Owens Valley as a culture of the past, but as a vision for the future that inspired her later work on regionalism.16 Romanticized as her version of the Grito celebration might be, it offers a powerful corrective to the Tea Party’s campaign for harsh new immigration restrictions, reminding Californians of all stripes that our multicultural present has roots in many decades of migration—east, west, north, and south.


1. Jeffrey Passel and D’Vera Cohn, “U.S. Unauthorized Immigration Flows Are Down Sharply Since Mid-Decade,” Pew Hispanic Center Report, 1 September 2010. A Los Angeles Times/USC poll of California voters showed a split of 50%–43% in favor of the Arizona measure. Seema Mehta, “Voters Split on Arizona Law,” Los Angeles Times, 31 May 2010. A Field Poll in June 2010 found a similar split of 49%–45% in favor of the measure. Shelby Grad, “Arizona Immigration Crackdown Divides California Voters, New Poll Shows,” Los Angeles Times, 16 July 2010. The lost economic output figure is based on an estimate of conference cancellations. Marshall Fitz and Angela Kelley, “Stop the Conference: The Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Conference Cancellations Due to Arizona’s S.B. 1070,” Center for American Progress Report, November 2010.

2. Susan Ferriss, “Tea Party Activist Launches Arizona-style Immigration Initiative for California,” Sacramento Bee, 24 November 2010.

3. For the Tea Party’s role in a longer cultural struggle over the meaning of the American Revolution, see Jill Lepore, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010). The Tea Party’s ideological composition is surveyed in “The Tea Party, Religion and Social Issues,” Pew Research Center Report, 23 February 2011.

4. Glenn Beck, Glenn Beck’s Common Sense: The Case Against an Out-of-Control Government, Inspired by Thomas Paine (New York: Mercury Radio Arts/Threshold Editions, 1999). For number of weeks on the bestseller list, see New York Times, 18 October 2009. [accessed 1 March 2011]. For Beck’s connection to the Tea Party, see Sean Wilentz, “Confounding Fathers: The Tea Party’s Cold War Roots,” The New Yorker, 18 October 2010. Wilentz identifies Beck’s role in the movement as “both a unifying figure and an intellectual guide.”

5. Beck University. [accessed 1 March 2011].

6. On, a group with offices in California and Texas, the first item in a list of “Non-negotiable core beliefs” is “Illegal Aliens Are Here Illegally.” [accessed 1 March 2011].

7. Jorge Rivas, “Fox News: ‘Penélope Cruz Is Having an Anchor Baby,'” Color Lines: News for Action, 13 December 2010. [accessed 1 March 2011]. See also “Beck Embraces ‘Anchor Babies’ Slur,” Media Matters, 6 May 2010. [accessed 1 March 2011]. Michael Erickson, sponsor of the SB 1070-style measure in California, has styled himself as a voice of reason by opposing state legislative attacks on “anchor babies”—even while arguing for judicial solutions and warning against the “ravages of crime and welfare dependency” supposedly encouraged by birthright citizenship. See Michael Erickson, “Birthright Citizenship: The Latest Gimmick of Immigration Enforcement Advocates,” 7 February 2011 (quotation by Erickson is located in comments section). [accessed 1 March 2011].

8. Doyce B. Nunis, Jr., “Alta California’s Trojan Horse: Foreign Immigration,” in Ramón A. Gutiérrez and Richard J. Orsi, eds., Contested Eden: California Before the Gold Rush (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 302–305. For intermarriage of Anglos and Californios before the Gold Rush, see Louise Pubols, “Open Ports and Intermarriage,” in The Father of All: The de la Guerra Family, Power, and Patriarchy in Mexican California (Berkeley: University of California Press and Huntington Library, 2009), 105–148, and María Raquél Casas, Married to a Daughter of the Land: Spanish-Mexican Women and Interethnic Marriage in California, 1820–1880 (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2007). For conflict with Native Americans, see Michael González, This Small City Will Be a Mexican Paradise: Exploring the Origins of Mexican Culture in Los Angeles, 1821–1846 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005).

9. Mae Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).

10. Susan Lee Johnson, Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000), 51. For racial conflict in the Santa Clara Valley, see Stephen Pitti, The Devil in Silicon Valley: Northern California, Race, and Mexican Americans (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).

11. Construction on the Los Angeles Aqueduct—which devastated the remaining farms in the Owens Valley by diverting their water—began in 1908, and led to decades of conflict. See William Kahrl, Water and Power: The Conflict over Los Angeles’ Water Supply in the Owens Valley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), and John Walton, Western Times and Water Wars: State, Culture, and Rebellion in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).

12. The modern celebration of el Grito de la Independencia begins the night of September 15, with the shouting of el grito (“the cry”) resounding near midnight. The festivities continue on through September 16.

13. Mary Hunter Austin, The Land of Little Rain (New York: Modern Library, 2003 ed.), 106–107.

14. Renato Rosaldo, “Imperialist Nostalgia,” Representations, no. 26 (Spring 1989): 108.

15. For efforts to curb or contain racial diversity in California through public health policy, see Natalia Molina, Fit to Be Citizens? Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879–1939 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), Alexandra Stern, Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), and Nayah Shah, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001). Austin’s portrait echoed the efforts of boosters to celebrate a sanitized version of the region’s racial history, a marketing strategy that “allowed easterners to luxuriate in the Southern California so brilliantly advertised: exotic, semi-tropic, romantic.” William Deverell, Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 28.

16. John Rollin Ridge, Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, The Celebrated California Bandit (San Francisco, 1854). Susan Lee Johnson links the Murrieta legend to the concept of “imperialist nostalgia” in Roaring Camp, 49. Murrieta’s ongoing cultural resonance can be seen in Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune (New York: HarperCollins, 1999) and the Hollywood blockbuster The Mask of Zorro (1998).