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).


Beyond Hollywood

by Scott Simmon

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

A hidden history of California filmmaking

California has a wilder, more diverse movie heritage than we’d know from Hollywood blockbusters or even from the dustier aisles of video stores. A core sample of this buried history is back on view through the most recent of the DVD anthologies that I put together for the National Film Preservation Foundation. Treasures 5: The West, which was published last September, brings together forty silent and early sound films—narrative shorts and features, documentaries, promotional films, newsreels, and travelogues—showcasing the American West as it was recorded and imagined from 1898 to 1938. It’s the fifth volume in the foundation’s Treasures from American Film Archives series, through which nonprofit and public archives join to make their hidden holdings available on DVD.

Typical of what’s newly unearthed is The Sergeant (1910), lost for a century until a single print turned up in New Zealand, of all places, and was returned to the United States in 2010. About 90 percent of American films from before 1930 are now lost, but because they were originally distributed worldwide, such finds abroad are not uncommon. The Sergeant is the first surviving narrative film shot in Yosemite—and a spectacular hybrid it turns out to be, telling its story within something of a travelogue. The intertitles relate both the story and the shooting location. One title reads “IN LOOKING FOR THEIR HORSES THEY LOSE THEIR WAY. ILLILLOUTTE FALLS” (the characters are lost but viewers aren’t). At release, Variety raved, “Worth the price of several admissions. If one doesn’t care a rap about the plot, he can find ample entertainment in viewing the picturesque natural scenery.” An army sergeant, stationed in Yosemite Valley, is in love with his commander’s daughter. (The army’s Fourth Cavalry was Yosemite’s police force when the film was made—before the creation of the National Park Service—although the army’s presence may be a little anticipatory for a story set in the 1880s.) An “Indian renegade” steals the couple’s horses while they are exploring Cascade Creek. The sergeant is busted down to private and must prove himself heroic before the one-reeler’s fifteen-minute running time ends. The film’s lead and writer, Hobart Bosworth, is a former Broadway Shakespearean who had come west to recover from tuberculosis. The climate must have done the trick, to judge from his stunt swim down the frigid Merced River. As Bosworth put it archly in 1915 about his demanding location work in early one-reelers, “I feel a particular personal interest in California because I have fallen down most of it, either from the top of a cliff or from a horse.”

Hobart Bosworth and Iva Shepard in The Sergeant (1910), the first surviving narrative film shot in Yosemite. PRESERVED BY THE NEW ZEALAND FILM ARCHIVE AND THE ACADEMY OF MOTION PICTURE ARTS AND SCIENCES

You might assume that the first California Westerns more or less resembled Hollywood’s later patterns—if the films saved by archives didn’t tell a wider story. In the first half of the 1910s, Northern California rivaled the south as a production center, and probably the most surprising long-lost film in Treasures 5 is the inaugural feature from the San Francisco–based California Motion Picture Corporation. Salomy Jane (1914) is a seven-reel (ca. 90-minute) film whose visual beauty and directorial sophistication upend assumptions of what a first feature by an untried company ought to look like. Feature-length films were still novel back then, and the company’s Northern California boosters had not the slightest experience making movies. But national reviewers recognized something extraordinary, with admiration split between the film’s photographic splendor and its dramatic arc. For The New York Dramatic Mirror, “Unless nature betters her handiwork in the forests of California, it is difficult to see how producers are going to improve upon the scenic beauty of Salomy Jane.” That the film is forgotten is due primarily to the destruction of all of the company’s original negatives in a 1931 fire at its abandoned Marin County studio. A single print of Salomy Jane, found in Australia in 1996, is the source of preservation by the Library of Congress.

The full onscreen title promotes the locations: Salomy Jane, A Story of the Days of ’49, Produced in the Famous California Redwoods. In expanding Bret Harte’s 1898 story “Salomy Jane’s Kiss” for the stage in 1907, Paul Armstrong borrowed characters from other Harte writings and invented vengeance subplots. Although titled for its lead, Salomy Jane is a community story, set in the summer of 1852 in Hangtown (the gold-mining settlement more welcomingly renamed Placerville in 1854). In the title role is twenty-four-year-old Beatriz Michelena, promoted on the musical stage as the “California Prima Donna” and America’s first Hispanic movie star.

The California Motion Picture Corporation had high ambitions and built a glass-enclosed studio, as impressive as any at the time, in San Rafael (a few miles from where Lucasfilm’s Skywalker Ranch now sprawls). In 1914, the company launched its Golden Gate Weekly newsreel (none of whose issues are known to survive) and then shot Salomy Jane in locations along the Bay Area coast—standing in for the Sierra foothills—as far north as the Russian River and south to Santa Cruz. Closer to the studio was the Lagunitas Creek location for the final kiss under an arching tree. In just two years the new corporation would be defunct—a victim of the growing stranglehold on distribution by vertically integrated production companies with theater chains—but Salomy Jane survives to give vivid witness to the flourishing of the Northern California film industry in the years just before the conglomeration of Hollywood.

San Rafael also had been home to the Essanay company’s more makeshift studio for an earlier one-reeler in the DVD anthology: Broncho Billy and the Schoolmistress, shot in 1911 by the movies’ first Western star, Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson. It’s among the fifty films Anderson directed during an eight-month stay in Marin County. As it opens, a stagecoach arrives in Essanay’s usual frontier town, “Snakeville,” played this time by downtown Fairfax. The historical era isn’t specified, but the film didn’t need inventive art direction; in 1911 Fairfax still had a stagecoach line running to Bolinas on the coast.

House Peters and Beatriz Michelena in the closing tableau of Salomy Jane (1914), the only surviving feature from the California Motion Picture Corporation. In the background, Mount Tamalpais and Lagunitas Creek. PRESERVED BY THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

The Western film is associated with its cowboys—and the first true cowboy star, Tom Mix, is represented in the anthology by Legal Advice (1916), which he directed at his rough studio in Newhall in the Santa Clarita Valley—but the first Westerns were also populated with surprising numbers of fighting heroines, Mexican Americans, even Asian Americans. For a few brief years at the start of California moviemaking, Native Americans were regularly hired to play Indian roles: A Lakota Sioux tribe transplanted from South Dakota to the “Inceville” studio above Santa Monica is at the center of the moving cross-cultural tragedy Last of the Line (1914). Real-life sheriffs and outlaws reenacted history that they had made themselves. Former bank- and train-robber Al Jennings—after the commutation of his life sentence—was producer and star of the autobiographical The Lady of the Dugout (1918), in which the Mojave Desert stands in for Oklahoma, and Tehachapi plays a Texas town. The film’s director, W.S. Van Dyke, shows a feel for arid Western lands that perhaps ran in the family. His uncle, the Rutgers art historian John C. Van Dyke, had staked out an aesthetic defense in The Desert (1901).

In Del Monte’s two-color promotional film Sunshine Gatherers (1921), Mission Santa Barbara. PRESERVED BY THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART

Indeed, the first California Westerns document California’s deserts before their transformations. Representative in the DVD is the Museum of Modern Art’s new restoration of D.W. Griffith’s Over Silent Paths: A Story of the American Desert (1910), surprising now for its determined heroine who avenges her father’s murder, but praised in reviews of the time mainly for its locations in the “far-off California desert, wild and rugged and splendidly photographed.” Its story of gold greed could have been made as a forty-niner tale, but it is both filmed and set in the contemporary San Fernando Valley, mainly on land soon to be incorporated into Los Angeles. It was, after all, a different valley landscape back then, so vacant and cactus-filled that “the desert wanderer” in the film loses his bearings in post-crime panic. Mileage can be glimpsed on a road sign as the miner’s daughter pulls into frontier San Fernando in her covered wagon: “BURBANK, 10.2.” Before 1910, Westerns had been made almost exclusively on the East Coast, giving them a lush and woodsy look. But that year several motion picture companies began filming in California, including Griffith’s Manhattan-based Biograph Company. Over Silent Paths was shot with typical speed over two days in April 1910, with abandoned Mission San Fernando as backdrop. The previous week Griffith had taken a relatively leisurely four days with Ramona: A Story of the White Man’s Injustice to the Indian, an adaptation of Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel of 1840s California (and available in the NFPF’s earlier Treasures III DVD set).

What made the San Fernando Valley bloom—and ended its days as a desert movie location—is given unintentionally revealing form in Romance of Water (1931), available here thanks to the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s 2010 restoration. In the guise of an educational film, it was sponsored by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to tell its side of the most contentious battle in the West’s water wars—around the creation of the aqueduct and reservoirs to transport water from Owens Valley 250 miles north. The film builds its argument without mention of the two essential stories behind it: the violent resistance to the aqueduct from Owens Valley farmers and the catastrophic 1928 collapse of the department’s San Francisquito Canyon dam. “CORPSES FLUNG IN MUDDY CHAOS BY TIDE OF DOOM,” read a typical headline about the perhaps 450 killed (although with so many bodies washed out to sea an accurate count proved impossible). The film substitutes “romance” for all this, as aqueduct water winds its “peaceful way” down Owens Valley and “safely” into Los Angeles. The narrator’s soothing voice informs us, “Formerly these waters were wasted in the saline bed of Owens Lake. Now the enterprise of man has harnessed the river … for the benefit of the thriving metropolis far to the south.”

In Del Monte’s two-color promotional film Sunshine Gatherers (1921), contented cannery workers look out onto California peach orchards. PRESERVED BY THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART

California was also fodder for the newsreel stories, travelogues promoting rail and auto tours, town portraits, and product advertisements included in Treasures 5—and the passing years have only made these nonfiction types more revealing. In The “Promised Land” Barred to “Hoboes,” Hearst Metrotone News reports on the 1936 crackdown on immigration from other states. Life on the Circle Ranch in California (1912), probably the earliest surviving full-reel documentary about ranching in America, trumpets on its title card its location: Santa Monica (not where one might think now to look for cattle). The early “Prizmacolor” Sunshine Gatherers (1921) opens with a pastoral history of California, with the arrival of Father Serra “from Spain’s romantic shores” and his missionaries teaching Indians the “first principles of horticulture.” The ironies are compounded by ads touting Sunshine Gatherers as “the Story of America’s Garden of Eden.” The only initial hint that the film is an elaborate advertising pitch is the red shield shape enclosing the title; the association with the Del Monte brand of fruits and vegetables would have been more than subliminal.

Colorful art labels on citrus crates shipped east long had pushed an association of California with sunshine, beauty, and health. Now California’s sunshine would be packaged for the nation year-round. Print ads trumpeted that Del Monte fruits were “Canned in the Sunny Orchards, where They Grow,” a claim carried over to the film’s smiling young female cannery workers bathed by sunlight from picture windows opening onto orchards. The film’s director, George E. Stone, ran his own studio in Carmel-by-the-Sea, where the reenactment of Serra’s arrival was staged.

Women hikers race up Half Dome in Seeing Yosemite with David A. Curry (1916). PRESERVED BY THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

In a sense, the years have turned even fiction films into travelogues. The indisputable comic masterpiece of the DVD set is Mantrap (1926), which transports a beguiling Clara Bow into Canada’s “Great Outdoors,” played by Lake Arrowhead and the San Bernardino Mountains. In Mexican Filibusters: An Incident in the Recent Uprising (1911), El Paso is impersonated by Glendale. The Better Man (1912) was shot when Santa Monica beachfront could play a deserted frontier: The gambler rides up to an oceanfront saloon, he’s thrown off a sandstone cliff by the Mexican outlaw, and the needed doctor lives in a beach hut.

In the true travelogues, California is already teeming with visitors. What strikes one now when viewing the 1916 promotional film Seeing Yosemite with David A. Curry is just how many people—and motor vehicles—are already jammed into the park. David Curry (1860–1917), the larger-than-life manager of Yosemite’s Camp Curry, welcomes the arrival of a motor bus loaded with happy campers. In the year of the film, Tioga Pass Road from the east was opened to cars, and the new National Park Service issued its first “automobile guide.” An apparently endless line of enthusiastic hikers can be seen making rapid climbs up Half Dome and 13,000-foot Mount Lyell, the park’s highest peak.

Also from 1916 is Lake Tahoe, Land of the Sky, which captures the opening of the lake to automobile tourism. The first shots throw us into heavy snowfall at Truckee but we’re then magically transported from any evocation of the Donner Party up to a sunny Emerald Bay. The single-word intertitle “Contentment” sets the reel’s tone, notwithstanding something new to the lake: motorists. Tourists could drive from the Truckee River outflow to South Shore along the new twenty-five-mile “Automobile Boulevard” that is seen rising impressively above Meeks Bay—and one gets the sense that the filmmakers have rounded up all the cars they could find to create their shot of the traffic-filled boulevard. The film may borrow its title from the lake’s first guidebook, George Wharton James’s 1915 The Lake of the Sky, which admires the heroic construction of the road “blasted through fiercely solid and hostile rock” and provides gentle encouragement to the auto adventurer: “Naturally it is not as easy to negotiate as a San Francisco boulevard, but with the wheel in the hands of a careful chauffeur there is perfect safety.”

Water skiing (“A Thrilling Sport”) in Lake Tahoe, Land of the Sky (1916). PRESERVED BY THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

The automobile opened remote California regions to unprecedented numbers of visitors in the 1910s, but the way most people first discovered the state was at the movies. By and large, these early films and the others in Treasures 5: The West have been hidden for decades in archives and known only to the more determined of researchers. To help recover the stories behind the films, twenty-three Western historians, film scholars, and archivists were tapped to put things into context through audio commentaries, available on the DVD as an alternative sound track for each film. The complexity of the West—as a concept, a landscape, a borderland, a tourist destination, a burgeoning economy, and an arena for clashing cultures—is on view again through these long-forgotten movies.

A full list of the forty titles, and the commentators, can be found at the National Film Preservation Foundation’s website:


Demise and Ascent

by Todd Holmes

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

The career of Thomas Kuchel and the advent of the Reagan right

Thundering applause pierced the frigid Connecticut air on the evening of February 23, 1965, echoing from the brownstone gothic building that towered on the edge of Yale’s central campus. Inside, Senator Thomas Kuchel addressed a sea of navy blue blazers otherwise known as the Yale Political Union, discussing the state of the Republican Party and the “suicidal tragedy” he deemed Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential nomination. “Republicans lost because they did not keep faith with their basic principles,” the senator declared, taking pointed aim at the rising influence of the GOP’s far-right contingent. Characterizing the November election as a “repudiation of a party which … [had] forgotten its heritage,” Kuchel warned that the rightward drift of the party must be stemmed at all costs. “If the grand old Republican Party were to become a shriveled, shrunken, impotent political haven for an anachronistic few, then vast changes, and not for the good, would enter our way of life.”1

Kuchel’s statement presages the significant shifts in the Republican Party since 1965. Not long after his remarks, voices of critique and concern within the GOP became persecuted and then silenced. By the end of the 1960s, a liberal consensus was giving way to the conservative phenomenon known as Reaganism. At the forefront in fighting America’s right turn were traditional Republicans like Kuchel.

In his thirty-two-year political career, Thomas Kuchel was a California Republican in the Hiram Johnson and Earl Warren mold—a progressive who championed reform, responsible government, and a bipartisan politics of moderation. In today’s era of Reagan centennials, Fox News, and Tea Party marches, Republicans like Kuchel stand all too forgotten in the political consciousness of twenty-first century Americans. His 101st birthday this past August offers an opportunity to reflect on both the current Republican Party and the proud progressive tradition of California Republicanism that was fought for and lost amid the rise of Reaganism.

California Congressional Delegation Breakfast, March 23, 1955. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library University of California Berkeley

Born and raised in Anaheim, California, Thomas Kuchel began his Republican political career fresh out of University of Southern California law school at the young age of twenty-six. First elected to represent Orange County in the State Assembly in 1936, Kuchel would continue to climb California’s political ladder, serving as State Senator (1941–1945), State Controller (1946–1953), and finally United States Senator upon Governor Earl Warren’s 1953 appointment. In the Senate, Kuchel wore the progressive stripes of California Republicanism proudly—a stark contrast to the suburban warriors who would later make his home region of Orange County identifiable with the Conservative Right. “Progressive Republicans,” he recalled, “brought to politics the philosophy of governing for the many.” Over the next fifteen years, Kuchel followed this principle by playing key roles in the passage of the Interstate Highway Act, the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Leading a “baker’s dozen” of progressive Republicans in the Senate, Kuchel even helped provide the necessary margin for passage of Lyndon Johnson’s Social Security and Medicare programs. As the ranking member of the Senate Interior Committee, he sponsored numerous laws to create and expand wildlife refuges and national parks, including Northern California’s Redwood National Park. Indeed, Kuchel enjoyed strong support in both California and the US Senate. He was the last Senate nominee in California to win all fifty-eight counties and the only senator elected Assistant Minority Leader five consecutive times.2

Kuchel’s brand of progressive Republicanism claimed deep roots in the political soils of California. Contrary to the liberal-Democrat persona often ascribed today, the Republican Party commanded an influential majority in the Golden State for most of the twentieth century, guiding much of California’s development in the areas of industry, education, conservation, and social reform. At the forefront of the state’s GOP stood Hiram Johnson, the two-term governor (1911–1917) and long-time US Senator (1917–1945) for California. Considered one of the founders of American Progressivism, Johnson crafted a type of Republicanism that balanced conservative and liberal ideals, championing responsible economic development and fiscal policy on one hand, and an agenda of social-political reform, conservation, and state funded programs on the other. Just as Johnson created the foundation of California’s Progressive Republicanism, Earl Warren (governor 1943–1953) helped guide it through the Democratic era of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. Indeed, Warren continued to champion the balanced politics crafted by Johnson. Yet in the age of Roosevelt, he also pushed to have bipartisan cooperation brought into the fold of the state’s GOP—a moderate political thrust Warren trumpeted as “independent,” “nonpartisan,” and placing “citizenship above partisanship.”3

It was upon this California landscape, and among these influential progressive Republicans, that Thomas Kuchel grew up and cut his political teeth. In his youth, he read both the Congressional and State Legislature records daily to his father, studying the politics of Hiram Johnson as well as adopting his strong independence and calculated style of debate—a style that on the high school debate team helped Kuchel defeat an opponent from Fullerton named Richard Nixon. Under the mentorship of Earl Warren as both state legislator and Controller, Kuchel also learned the art of balanced politics and bipartisan compromise that had long guided California’s GOP majority. To be sure, it was this brand of Republicanism that Kuchel brought to the United States Senate, and others like Dwight Eisenhower sought to adopt on the national level. As Kuchel later defined it in a televised speech, Progressive Republicanism was a “combination of liberal and conservative … conservative in dealing with the people’s money, liberal in dealing with human problems.”4

Thomas Kuchel with Dwight Eisenhower. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library University of California Berkeley

By the early 1960s, however, Thomas Kuchel began to confront what he deemed as an “evil and offensive” danger to both America and the traditional principles of his beloved Republican Party. The menace he fought was neither communists nor the counterculture, but the conservative right and groups like the John Birch Society who threatened the balanced politics of Progressive Republicanism. Charging to the Senate floor in May 1963, Kuchel in his characteristic independence issued one of the first Republican denunciations of right-wing extremism, warning his colleagues to heed the rising “danger of hate and venom, of slander and abuse generated by … [a] handful of zealots, in the ranks of self-styled ‘I am a better American than you are’ organizations.” To Kuchel, these “fear peddlers” of the far right not only “degraded America … [but also] defiled the honorable philosophy of conservatism.” Undoubtedly, far-right corrosion of the GOP stood at the heart of Kuchel’s concern. In a July 1963 letter to Congress, the California senator stressed his intention to defend the traditional principles of the Republican Party from right-wing co-option. “I shall continue to speak out against those who call themselves ‘Republicans’ but who … would change our Grand Old Party from one of constructive reason … into a zany and dangerous voice espousing abolition of the income tax, white supremacy, preventative war, the break-up of NATO, or similar nonsense.”5

Kuchel’s stance in 1963 was a heightened defense of the traditional Republican principles he had advanced since the late 1950s. He had publicly defended his mentor, California Governor-turned-US Chief Justice Earl Warren, against red-baiting slurs and right-wing threats of impeachment, and roundly condemned Birch Society founder Robert Welch for calling President Eisenhower a communist. In the 1962 California gubernatorial race, Kuchel even refused to endorse GOP candidate Richard Nixon due to his rightward stray from the party’s center. Such political abstention, however, reached new heights in 1964. After an unsuccessful attempt to deliver the GOP presidential nomination to fellow moderate Nelson Rockefeller, the California senator shunned conservative nominee Barry Goldwater. Labeling Goldwater’s nomination a “tragic interlude” of “intellectual sterility,” the independent Kuchel premised his silence on the continued defense of traditional Republicanism. “I consider myself the Republican,” he declared. “I consider what Barry Goldwater was saying hardly Republican doctrine.” Kuchel cited similar criteria for his refusal to endorse conservative George Murphy in his successful run for California’s other US Senate seat that same year, underscoring the chasm between party loyalty and Republican principles. In Kuchel’s words, “I never coveted public office enough to become a wholesale hypocrite.”6

By 1966, Kuchel’s fight to protect the Republican Party from far-right corrosion collided head-on with the gubernatorial aspirations of conservative candidate Ronald Reagan. Well financed and directed by a consortium of corporate conservatives, Reagan’s campaign trumpeted a new version of Republicanism—one that spurned the traditional ideal of progressives like Kuchel. It was a corporate conservatism whose tenets of pro-business, antilabor, antireform, and the racial status quo Reagan articulated on a range of issues, from Watts and Open Housing (Proposition 14) to Berkeley and César Chávez’s farmworker movement. Aghast at a Republican candidate he deemed extremist, unqualified, and well outside the GOP mainstream, Kuchel threw his political weight behind San Francisco’s moderate Republican Mayor George Christopher. Upon Reagan’s primary victory, however, the progressive senator touted his Warren-like independence and settled back into the familiar posture of political silence. Kuchel’s refusal to endorse Ronald Reagan’s bid for the California governorship scored national headlines and further placed the thirty-year Republican veteran in the crosshairs of the New Right. Just two months before Reagan announced his candidacy, Kuchel had continued to publicly censure the “so-called Republican groups in California,” characterizing right-wing demands like privatizing Social Security, abrogating the Nuclear Test Ban treaty, and repealing the federal income tax as “far more in keeping with Fascism than Americanism.” Now refusing to support the New Right’s favorite son saddled him with an ultimatum from conservatives and party loyalists alike: “support the party’s nominee in 1966,” one newspaper paraphrased, “or face political extinction in 1968.” Such threats emanated particularly from California GOP chairman Gaylord Parkinson, causing an indignant Kuchel to demand “who the hell is Parkinson” to attempt such “intimidation.” Speaking to reporters two weeks before the election, Kuchel announced that he would take his chances in 1968, affirming he would not under any circumstances endorse Ronald Reagan.7

Thomas Kuchel on television, March 15, 1960. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library University of California Berkeley

Kuchel offered no apologies for his lack of support in the wake of Reagan’s victory. “I called my signals as I saw them,” he told reporters after the election. “No one leads this senator around with a ring through his nose.” Yet, as Kuchel pledged to continue advancing a “forward-looking Republicanism,” the corporate conservatives amassing under the new Reagan Administration in Sacramento held other plans. Labeled the Kitchen Cabinet by the press, the consortium of conservative businessmen backing Ronald Reagan—Holmes Tuttle, Henry Salvatori, A.C. Rubel, Leonard Firestone, and Justin Dart—set out to eliminate, in Reagan’s words, “that damn Tommy Kuchel.” Within a year, Reagan’s backers had propped up conservative Max Rafferty to challenge the incumbent senator, waging a primary campaign that some pundits deemed “vicious” and “far below minimum standards of decent political behavior.” Red-baiting slurs and ferocious fabrications emanated from the Rafferty camp, all propelled by a war chest of over $1 million—an insurmountable sum for Kuchel, who often remarked that his refusal to stomach the pageantry of campaign fundraising was his “Achilles’ heel.” In the face of the conservative onslaught, the senator continued to cling to his political roots. “There are certain elements of the Republican Party who have seen fit to denounce me,” Kuchel wrote one constituent, “but I have no intention of compromising the political principles I have followed for thirty years.” The primary election of June 5, 1968, proved one of California’s darkest days. While gunshots had taken the life of Democrat Robert F. Kennedy, the corporate conservatives had defeated Thomas Kuchel, sounding the death knell of California’s progressive Republicanism. In New York for Kennedy’s funeral days later, an aging Earl Warren embraced his younger protégé, telling Kuchel “I just feel so badly about your defeat. I can’t talk about it.”8

In assessing the impact of Kuchel’s primary loss, the Los Angeles Times observed that California “will suffer from the short-sightedness of those who voted against him.” Indeed, the Times’ words, like the many warnings of Kuchel, have proved prescient. In today’s GOP-fueled landscape, the “fear peddlers” still operate, the corporate interests still dominate, and the moderate, progressive stripe of California Republicanism now only emanates as a historical artifact from the political graveyard. In remembrance of Thomas Kuchel’s 101st birthday, let us pause and reflect on a tradition lost and an honorable public servant who stood as one of the most costly political casualties of Reaganism’s rise.9


1. “Sen. Kuchel Asks Students to Help Build ‘Viable’ GOP,” Yale Daily News, 24 February 1965, 1; “Chafee, Kuchel, Scott Talk to Students on GOP,” Yale Daily News, 24 February 1965, 1; “The Choice is Yours,” Kuchel Speech at Yale University, 23 February 1965, Political Folder, Box 245, Thomas H. Kuchel Papers, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

2. Rep. Stephen Horn, “Honoring A True Public Servant: Senator Thomas Kuchel,” Congressional Record, 107 cong., 10 October 2002, E1856–59; “O.C. Politician and Ex-Senator Kuchel, 84, Dies,” Los Angeles Times, 23 November 1994, 1; “Thomas H. Kuchel Dies at 84,” New York Times, 18; Thomas Henry Kuchel, Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, [accessed May 2011]. For more on the far right in Orange County, see Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton, 2001). Kuchel is mentioned only three times in the book.

3. Democrats did not gain a majority in California politics until 1959. See Olin, Spencer. California’s Prodigal Sons: Hiram Johnson and the Progressives, 1911–1917 (Berkeley, 1968); William Deverell and Tom Sitton, eds., California Progressivism Revisited (Berkeley, 1994), especially Jackson Putnam, “The Progressive Legacy in California,” 247–63. Warren for Governor Non-Partisan Committee memo, 20 July 1942; Warren Campaign Ad, 1942, 1942 Gubernatorial Campaign F3640:443; Warren Reelection Announcement, 15 March 1946, 1946 Gubernatorial Campaign Files F3640:572, Earl Warren Papers, California State Archives.

4. “Thomas Kuchel—Class of 1928” Anaheim High School Alumni Association, [accessed 22 July 2011]; “O.C. Politician and Ex-Senator Kuchel, 84, Dies,” Los Angeles Times, 23 November 1994, 1; Stephen Cummings and Patrick Reddy, California After Arnold (New York, 2009), 64; Thomas Kuchel 1968 speech, NBC Television, [accessed 22 July 2011].

5.Thomas Kuchel, “Fright Peddlers,” Congressional Record, 88 cong., 2 May 1963, 7636–42; Kuchel Letter to Congress, 29 July 1963, Political Folder, Box 245, Kuchel Papers.

6.”O.C. Politician and Ex-Senator Kuchel, 84, Dies,” Los Angeles Times, 23 November 1994, 1; “Chafee, Kuchel, Scott Talk to Students on GOP,” Yale Daily News, 24 February 1965, 1; “Who’s the Republican Extremist?” Riverside Press, Goldwater File, Box 262, Kuchel Papers.

7. “Republicans Warn Kuchel to Support Reagan,” Houston Tribune, 23 June 1966, GOP 1966 Folder, Box 262; “Kuchel Letter to Republicans,” 6 October 1965, Political Folder, Box 242, Kuchel Papers; “Sen. Kuchel Out on Limb in California,” Boston Globe, 17 July 1966, A5; “Angry Kuchel Assails State GOP Chairman,” Los Angeles Times, 4 June 1966, 4; “Kuchel, Will Not Aid Reagan,” New York Times, 25 October 1966, 22; “UPI Release,” 25 October 1966, Reagan Folder, Box 263, Kuchel Papers.

8. “Reagan Non-Support Upheld by Kuchel,” Baltimore Sun, 2 December 1966, A7; “Kuchel Indicates He’ll Ignore Critics,” Los Angeles Times, 2 December 1966, 3; “Dump Kuchel Plan by Reaganites,” Sacramento Bee, 21 September 1966, Reagan Folder, Box 263, Kuchel Papers; “Reagan to Goldwater,” 11 November 1966, Folder 5-Reagan, Box 18, Barry Goldwater Papers, Arizona Historical Society, Tempe, AZ; “Tom Moore Political Analysis,” 21 August 1968, Kreps Folder, Box 515, Alan Cranston Papers, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley; “Rafferty Lists Election Spending of $1 Million,” Los Angeles Times, 10 July 1968, 27; “Kuchel to Rosenberg, 29 February 1968, Campaign ’68 “R”, Box 271, Kuchel Papers; “O.C. Politician and Ex-Senator Kuchel, 84, Dies,” Los Angeles Times, 23 November 1994, 1.

9. “Sen. Kuchel: A Loss for California,” Los Angeles Times, 7 October 1968, A4.


Off the Grid

by Susan Straight
Photography by Douglas McCulloh

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

Undercover independence

This is the state we’re in—the California that people love to jeer in a perennial way, the one they used to say would be “the first failed state!” with a certain glee. They are from most any other state, and they think we all live in The Hills of Hollywood-Malibu-Laguna, a fictional place where we get plastic surgery, drink endless lattes, and rise from our hot tubs to descend directly from our crumbling/fire-flood-prone/iceplant-laden cliff onto our own private beaches. But we are not the only state this season with budget impasses, with shutdowns and IOUs and intransigent politicians who will not bend, even when people are going hungry.

Taxes. That is what all the arguments seem to be based on. We are a state sorely divided by the issue of raising taxes. Here in Riverside County, Supervisor Jeff Stone (born in Los Angeles, raised in Anaheim) has called for secession! He wants to split the state into two entities—I would live in South California, which doesn’t even sound right. My own assemblyman, Ken Calvert (born and raised in Corona, worked at his father’s restaurant) is focused mostly on immigration, according to the frequent mailers I receive about securing the border.

But we won’t fail, contrary to the barely camouflaged derision of other Americans watching us, thinking we’re sinking fast because of taxes, immigration, and government.

Oh, government might be failing. At every level, our state—which was headed by Arnold S, born in Austria, but now by Jerry Brown, someone whose father was an icon to my own parents—is plodding toward Epic Fail, as my kids like to say. There could be no more perfect phrase with which to describe it.

But we’re not failing. We’re just off the grid, as people put it, and under the radar, in every way possible. Politicians don’t seem to know us or pay attention to how we’re living. We are invisible, and that’s fine with us, as long as we’re not epically failing. Many of our transactions are unfettered by taxation or representation. They are based in kinship and geography and loyalty, and bred from years of government indifference.

Photograph © Douglas McCulloh

I live a few blocks from the hospital where I was born, in Riverside. Ah, the Inland Empire, the misunderstood, vaguely cinematic, desert-like place where we are all related to biker gangs (yes, The Hell’s Angels did begin here in Fontana) and only make the national news when we pass legislation limiting our backyard rooster ownership to two. I have four chickens, myself, one of which is a Mexican fighting hen I inherited from my brother, also born here. He was encouraged to raise fighting roosters by his neighbor out in the orange groves, Big José, born in Chihuahua. My brother was unable to teach his roosters to fight, because he loved them, so instead he taught them to sit on the couch beside him and watch NFL games while eating Doritos. The mother of some of those roosters lives in my yard now. Her name is Coco. I inherited her after my brother died in 2002.

Today, I bought extra tamales from Angel Jr., my tamale guy born in East LA, who comes Thursdays in his white truck with the compartment filled with varieties of homemade tamales. I’d been saving for a few years to put a brick path in my backyard; I’d recently given away the third-hand, metal swing set that my three daughters and countless friends had loved for years. The absence of the swing set, and two of my three daughters who grew up and left for college, left an ache in my chest, so I called my friend Luis, born in Corona, and he recommended Ofa, born in Tonga, who was now in the yard with his cousin and three nephews, laying brick.

I bought Angel’s tamales for the bricklayers because the previous day they’d requested shrimp burritos from Señor Baja, our local taco place. That’s why I love California. While Ofa and his relatives, born in Tonga and raised in Hawaii and now living in Ontario and Rialto and San Bernardino, who all speak Tongan among each other and English to me, ate lunch, I got in my car.

I left my hundred-year-old former orange grove farmhouse and drove down my street, past my neighbor S, born in Oakland, who is working as a funeral singer for our nearby Catholic church. I waved at another neighbor K, born in Riverside, who unloaded lumber; an elementary school teacher, he is doubling the size of his house. No McMansions in my neighborhood; his original wood-frame house is 650 square feet, and he’s building a second bedroom after twenty years.

I drove past the hospital where I was born, and then the new multistory building downtown where a giant metal dome, which cost $1.2 million, sits on one corner of the roof, looking exactly like a juicer for oranges. My neighbors find this hilarious since our city was once the citrus capital of the nation (in 1882, of the more than one-half million citrus trees in California, half were in Riverside) with the highest per capita income in America (in 1895, we had that distinction, due to citrus exports).

Photograph © Douglas McCulloh

Riverside County’s reported unemployment rate is one of the highest in the nation—16 percent—and has been for over two years. The foreclosure rate is one of the highest as well. But we have done this before—when our steel mill was disassembled and sold to China, when the Air Force Base was made into a reserve facility, and now, when the entire country remains in meltdown.

I drove to San Bernardino, past a towing yard where last year I retrieved my middle daughter’s Honda after it was stolen and stripped down to the frame. We put it back together with seats and door panels bought from Pick-A-Part, the locally famous junkyard where my ex-husband and his friends, all born in the same hospital as I was, scour cars for any particular item they need.

In San Bernardino, my mother, who was born in Switzerland, had her first job in 1955, at a Household Finance Loan company. Back then, she saw loans refused every day, because people didn’t have a steady salary, because they were the wrong color, because someone was in a bad mood. There was no subprime, no zero-down.

A few miles directly west of the red light where I stopped, my grandparents lived in Fontana after they immigrated from Switzerland in the 1950s. My grandfather, a former Swiss train conductor, worked for the Riverside Cement Company. My grandmother was a nurse for Kaiser Steel’s company healthcare program—Kaiser Permanente. It was one of the nation’s first HMOs when it began to offer industrial healthcare for California steel mill workers. My grandmother has told me stories of injured steelworkers during the 1950s being brought to a wooden building in the yard where she tended to them.

Back at my house, Ofa and his cousin and three nephews had finished laying bricks. Ofa’s cousin was a world-class surfer and rugby player, and he had just brought back from Tonga a long piece of sugar cane, which he balanced against my fence, built years ago by me and my neighbor J, born in Texas.

He told me, “Much better than American sugar cane. It’s soft. Better for eating.”

His wife was born in England. He met her when he played rugby there. Their son, born in Rialto, standing beside me, thought he was a ladies’ man and inquired about my daughters. On his forearm was tattooed KILLA. Ofa and his cousin and I, all in our forties, rolled our eyes at him.

Ofa sawed off a section of the sugar cane and handed it to me. It had five buds at the joints, shaped like tiny plump shields. Each bud will grow a new stalk after I plant it in the backyard, next to the lemon-scented ti grass given to me by Maria, the woman across the street, who was born on a rural farm in the Philippines and came here years ago when she married an American serviceman. The day she gave me the seedling-bunch of grass, she sat on my porch and told me a story about a woman in her village who turned into a dog at night, how she’d seen this woman transform.

On the other side of the sugar cane is my first navel orange tree, the kind originally planted by Eliza Tibbets, born in Cincinnati, who began the citrus industry in 1873 when she put into the Riverside ground (about six miles directly west of my home) two navel orange seedlings from Bahía, Brazil, sent to her by a USDA agriculturist in Washington, D.C.

We will not fail epically, in the backyards and driveways and parking lots of California. It doesn’t matter where we were born. The government will have little to do with it. We will make deals and give each other plants and fix each other’s cars and hand each other worn, creased dollar bills, and then tell a few stories before we go on our way.


Pay Me No Mind

by Jim Hinch
(above: Pay Me No Mind by Fabian Debora (2010, acrylic/canvas)

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

A former gangbanger paints a new LA

The image is stark. An East LA gang member, neck swathed in tattoos, stares out over a burning Los Angeles skyline. Clouds brood above. Behind the gang member four children stand at a cliff edge as if about to plunge off. The scene is apocalyptic, intimidating, especially when seen in person. The six-by-four-foot canvas, hanging on a wall in a downtown Los Angeles café, looms like some unwelcome dispatch from the city’s dark side.

The scene is also familiar, at least to anyone versed in recent trends in Chicano art. The acrylic painting, titled Pay Me No Mind, is by a former East LA gang member named Fabian Debora. It looks remarkably like the work of another, more famous Chicano artist named Vincent Valdez, whose 2009 painting BurnBabyBurn depicts LA’s fabled grid of nighttime streetlights twinkling while in the distance a raging wildfire consumes surrounding hillsides. The similarity is no accident. Debora, whose purchase on the LA art scene is more tenuous than Valdez’s, interned for Valdez two years ago and describes Pay Me No Mind as an effort to channel his mentor’s signature, hyper-real visual style.

And yet, for all their surface likeness, the two paintings, and the artists who painted them, could not be more different. Their differences tell a story. Vincent Valdez is a rising art star, educated at the Rhode Island School of Design, exhibiting his work in museums ranging from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He paints like many latter-day Chicano artists, employing visual irony to address wider themes only tangentially related to traditional barrio concerns.

Fabian Debora, born in America to Mexican parents, grew up the son of a heroin addict and joined one of East LA’s oldest and most violent street gangs as a teenager. He wrestled for years with drug addiction and at age thirty tried to commit suicide by running across the southbound lanes of the Golden State Freeway (Interstate 5). It was only after what he describes as an encounter with God during that suicide attempt that he entered rehab and began seriously to pursue an artistic career. Fabian paints like a man eminently grateful for his hard-won state of grace. Pay Me No Mind, he informed me, was intended as an inspirational image, an effort to illustrate that pivotal moment when a gang member, or anyone gone astray, finally decides to make a change. The light shining on the gang member’s face is meant to signify divine illumination. The gang member, turning away from the burning city below, decides at the same moment to become a responsible father, shielding his children from the flames of his former life. It is a far different vision from that of Valdez, who in an interview described BurnBabyBurn as a visual representation of the social “turbulence” generated by Los Angeles, that symbol of American racial tension and economic inequality. Fabian’s aims are simpler. “I find the divine in the image of a gang member,” he told me. “Art is the closest thing you can get to the essence of God.”

Pay Me No Mind by Fabian Debora (2010, acrylic/canvas)

Most contemporary artists dedicated, like Vincent Valdez, to stylistic innovation and cultural critique, do not as a rule incorporate such bald religious sentiments into their work. Fabian Debora is not a typical contemporary artist. His biography is not standard MFA fare. More importantly, he has maintained roots in a part of America uniquely suited to fostering his peculiar artistic mix of visual sophistication, street savvy, and spiritual engagement. Fabian grew up, lives, and works in the heart of immigrant LA. His neighborhood, Boyle Heights, is known for its rich history of migration, encompassing waves of Jews, Russian Orthodox, African Americans, Japanese, and Mexicans. It is also marked by another defining characteristic of immigrant communities: its religiosity. In line with a recent Pew study showing that immigrants, especially those from Mexico and Latin America, are more likely to be Catholic and to believe in God than native-born Americans, Boyle Heights is anchored by Fabian’s childhood Catholic parish, Dolores Mission, LA’s poorest, which at various times in its ninety-year history has provided sanctuary for undocumented migrants, staged neighborhood Christmas festivals at which Joseph and Mary’s search for lodging in Bethlehem is reenacted as a Mexican border crossing, organized neighborhood mothers to combat gang violence, and run an elementary and junior high school attended mostly by the children of immigrants. The neighborhood is a place where faith and immigrant life are deeply intertwined.

BurnBabyBurn by Vincent Valdez (2009, oil/canvas)

The same goes for the rest of LA. Thirty-four percent of Southern Californians are foreign-born, according to the United States Census, which is America’s highest big-city concentration of immigrants. Like New York a century ago, Los Angeles in recent decades has spawned an immense religious infrastructure ministering to newly arrived migrants struggling to find their place in a nation often hostile to their presence. The Islamic Society of Orange County in the city of Garden Grove, one of America’s largest mosques, offers worshippers a complete kit of civic services, including a mortuary, a preschool, an elementary and junior high school, and meeting rooms for weddings and other community activities. In Hacienda Heights, an LA suburb a few freeway exits away from Fabian’s neighborhood, the fifteen-acre Hsi Lai Taiwanese Buddhist temple, the largest in the western hemisphere, organizes summer camps for local youth, teaches Cantonese, produces radio and television broadcasts, raises money for disabled children, operates a printing press, and runs an art gallery.

There are more Catholics in the Los Angeles Archdiocese—almost 4.5 million—than in any other American archdiocese, and Dolores Mission in Boyle Heights was omnipresent in Fabian’s upbringing. As an artistically talented student at the parish school, he was encouraged to draw the Virgin of Guadalupe for religious festivals. When he was expelled from Dolores Mission in eighth grade (he threw a desk at a teacher who ripped up one of his drawings), he was sent to see the parish priest, Father Gregory Boyle (a Jesuit who went on to found Homeboy Industries, a celebrated gang intervention program now headquartered near downtown Los Angeles). Boyle became a mentor. He sent Fabian home that day with a pointed request: “I want you to draw something for me.” A few years later, after Fabian had drifted into gang life and begun bouncing in and out of jail, Boyle convinced Fabian’s probation officer to allow his charge to work as an apprentice to Wayne Healy, one of the founding fathers of LA’s Chicano mural movement. In Healy’s warehouse studio, Fabian met veteran Chicano artists and recent art-school graduates. He learned to paint and worked with Healy on a mural outside the chapel of Eastlake Juvenile Hall, where Fabian himself once had been incarcerated.

Although Fabian ended up wrestling with drug abuse for several years before finally cleaning up and embarking on an artistic career, he never forgot Boyle’s redemptive Jesuit vision. He even narrated his bottoming-out suicide attempt to me as a kind of born-again experience. He’d found himself running toward the freeway one afternoon, he said, after fleeing from his mother’s attic, where she’d caught him smoking methamphetamine. Scrambling up a retaining wall, he heard voices: “You don’t deserve to live. Kill yourself!” He stepped out into traffic. “I saw a turquoise Chevy Suburban coming at me. I looked at the grill of the truck. The smile of the bumper was like a demon. I felt the impact of the truck, but it wasn’t the truck. It was something greater and higher than myself pushing me to the center divider. I looked up and saw clouds and birds and peace. I realized that God loved me so much he got me to the center divider and showed me who I could be.”

That was five years ago. Today, Fabian works a day job as a lead substance abuse counselor at Homeboy Industries and paints in a loft overlooking downtown LA. He has worked on seven murals around Los Angeles and exhibited his work at a few university art galleries and on the walls of Homegirl Café, a restaurant adjacent to Homeboy Industries that recently exhibited Pay Me No Mind and other canvases in a series Fabian calls Childhood Memories. Working for Boyle, Fabian spends much of his life within the shelter of that LA immigrant religious infrastructure. His job shows in his art. He has painted gang members bowing at the feet of the Virgin Mary; flowers wilting at an impromptu street-side shrine; a gang member mourning the destruction of a recently razed Boyle Heights public housing project; and another gang member hoisting up a small child with the words, “Tu Eres Mi Otro Yo“—You Are My Other Self. “I’m taking something sad and dead and I see the beauty in it,” Fabian told me. “Art allows me to do that.”

It is no accident, I think, that an artist like Fabian has emerged in Los Angeles. Writing in the Los Angeles Times Magazine several years ago, critic Josh Kun observed that “a rapidly expanding pool of young Southern California artists is actively redefining what it means to make Chicano art in the new millennium.” Fabian Debora is one of those young Chicano artists, but he has charted a path different from many of his contemporaries. His work is rooted less in his city’s ascendant place in the international contemporary art scene and more in LA’s current status as America’s immigrant capital. While many young LA Chicano artists, educated at top art schools and courted by international galleries and museums, seek artistic horizons beyond the barrios that once spawned the Chicano movement, Fabian remains tied to his community, painting with the same hunger for inspiration that brings so many recent migrants to LA’s myriad religious institutions.

His “Pay Me No Mind” is a perfect illustration. Borrowing from Vincent Valdez to create a recognizably apocalyptic scene, the painting then turns that scene on its head by telling the story of a man stepping away from, not falling into, his own private catastrophe. The gang member at the painting’s center is modeled on a friend of Fabian’s named Richard Cabral, who, like Fabian, left the gang life and got a job at Homeboy Industries, baking bread at the organization’s Homeboy Bakery. The children behind Cabral are Fabian’s own four children, who range in age from three to eight. The clouds are painted to draw the viewer’s eye upward, toward the sun breaking through: new life, the presence of God. The painting says to a community hungry for good news: “I’m taking something sad and dead and I see the beauty in it.” To repeat, it is no accident that an artist like Fabian should emerge in Los Angeles. America’s immigrant future is playing out in this City of Angels. If Fabian Debora’s art is any indication, that future will involve finding the divine not only in the image of the gangbanger, but in the face of a new America itself.


King of the Road

by Chris Carlsson

From Boom Fall 2011, Vol. 1, No. 3

A movement founder explains the deep roots of Critical Mass

“If the increase continues, the time is not very distant when not to own and ride a bicycle will be a confession that one is not able-bodied, is exceptionally awkward, or is hopelessly belated.”

“The Bicycle Festival,” New York Times, July 13, 1895


California is world-famous as the home of car culture, the place that gave birth to freeways, cruising, hot rods, and the whole mash-up of beaches, girls, convertibles, and teenage fun. That’s one story and it has some truth to it, but it’s a story of the twentieth century. The successful marketing of this image in films and literature—branding California as a car-obsessed state in which life unfolds mostly behind the wheel—has profoundly shaped the aspirations of people around the world. But it has also obscured another story that both precedes and succeeds the rise of the private automobile—the bicycle.

Given the rising tide of climate chaos rooted in fossil fuel combustion, it’s urgent that we tell ourselves other stories about our lives here in the Golden State. Such stories can point us toward viable alternatives that, coincidentally, are well-rooted in the state’s own history.

In September 1992, after months of tentative and speculative conversation about bicycling and politics among a couple of dozen friends (only a year and a half after the bombastic but fragile New World Order emerged in the first Gulf War), the first Critical Mass took place in San Francisco. I was one of those first forty-eight riders and had been intimately involved in the informal discussions that gave rise to it. The first ride didn’t yet have the name; they called it “Commute Clot.” Two months later, the more compelling “Critical Mass,” taken from a casual description of Chinese traffic patterns in Ted White’s documentary “Return of the Scorcher,” was adopted. The ride began with a simple goal: to fill the streets with bikes so completely that they would displace cars, and in so doing would create a new kind of mobile, temporary public space. The obvious irony of the concept lay in the fact that the streets of our cities are the closest thing we have to a genuine public space, but they are so dominated by the parking and movement of private automobiles that the use of the space is predetermined and markedly antisocial.

Nineteenth-Century Bicycling
The second bicycling club nationally and the first on the west coast was the San Francisco Bicycle Club, founded on December 13, 1876. The club petitioned the Park Commission for permission to ride their new-fangled devices in Golden Gate Park. The park commissioners, overcoming their astonishment that there was actually a club for wheelmen, allowed them to “enter Golden Gate Park at the Stanyan Street entrance to the South Drive before 7 A.M. only.” Intensive self-policing kept the wheelmen within the bounds of the variance, and before too long the “privileges were extended.”1 But it was in the next decade that bicycling began its precipitous takeoff. In the words of one contemporary:

The first competition for the SF Bicycle Club was “The Bay City Wheelmen,” founded in 1884. It raised enthusiasm to the highest pitch. Each man was eager to find opportunities for the keenest rivalry, for the honor of his club was at stake, and in those days wheeling was a clean sport. Sport for the true love of sport. There were none of the sordid motives which follow in the train of professionalism. To become a professional was to place one’s self outside of the social pale.2

The mass of nineteenth-century cyclists in San Francisco were not narrowly focused on bicycling alone. They became the backbone of a broad movement for improved streets and “Good Roads.” On July 25, 1896, thousands of cyclists filled the streets in the largest demonstration seen in the city’s history. In that century’s last decade, San Francisco was a muddy, dirty town, long past its glory years as a boomtown, but still one of the ten largest cities in the United States. The streets were full of horseshit, and between the ubiquitous cable car slots and the tangled web of streetcar rails, pedestrians and bicyclists had a hazardous course to traverse en route to their destinations. After months of organizing among the thriving bicycling clubs of the city, a huge parade was organized that drew as many as 100,000 spectators. Hank Chapot re-creates the scene:

“A five-year wheelman named McGuire, speaking for the South Side Improvement Club stated: ‘The purpose for the march is three-fold; to show our strength, to celebrate the paving of Folsom Street and to protest against the conditions of San Francisco pavement in general and of Market Street in particular. If the united press of this city decides that Market Street must be repaved, it will be done in a year.’ Asked if southsiders were offended that the grandstand would be north of Market, McGuire exclaimed, ‘Offended! No! We want the north side to be waked up. We south of Market folks are lively enough, but you people over the line are deader than Pharaoh!'”3

The movement for Good Roads would dovetail with the early progressive efforts to recalibrate government to provide services to the citizenry. After decades of parsimonious government expenditures in a climate that eschewed taxation in favor of privatization through franchises to provide public benefits (water, electricity, telephones, streetcars, etc.), new political actors in the 1890s turned against the big corporations and trusts. San Francisco politicians embraced the bicyclists’ demand for Good Roads along with a growing interest in public water, electricity, and transportation.

Meanwhile, in Southern California, an elegant bikeway was built along the Arroyo Seco corridor north of the Los Angeles River in 1900. It was the keystone of a plan to link Los Angeles and Pasadena with an eight-mile “great transit artery.” Pasadena Mayor Horace Dobbins dedicated public funds to an elevated, multilane, wooden cycleway, including streetlights and gazebo turnouts. The fifteen-cent toll didn’t dissuade hundreds of cyclists who showed up to the opening, going on to ride through a beautiful pre-urban Los Angeles landscape. More than 20 percent of the population were already regular bikers in 1900, and of course the weather was ideal. Cycleways were going to crisscross the area and provide a stylish and modern system for personal transport.4

As the twentieth century unfolded, the automobile rushed into the picture. Within a few years, bikeway expansion was scrapped and even the Arroyo Seco Cycleway was soon turned into a motorway (now better known as the Pasadena Freeway). As thousands of Californians became motorists, patterns of city life began to change. The chaotic crisscrossing of pedestrians, horses and horse-drawn wagons, streetcars, cable cars, and steam railroads, already joined by increasing numbers of bicyclists, now saw an influx of private automobiles.

The crowded, diseased, and dangerous streets of the nineteenth century were an additional motivation for progressive leaders who sought to ameliorate these conditions through efficient city planning, then a new discipline. As city centers choked with traffic congestion and automobile injuries and deaths soared, a struggle to reshape city streets took place. Police and parents wanted to control speeds to promote safety. Highway engineers wanted to widen and streamline city streets to promote through traffic at higher speeds. Auto companies promoted the “freedom of the open road” and claimed that street improvements must properly be directed to bettering driving conditions, since most of the money for road building and maintenance was derived from gasoline taxes. Bicycles and pedestrians were the obvious losers in this era as highway engineers—reinforced by auto industry propaganda—focused on widening streets, increasing parking, and creating parkways and highways (later freeways), while society subtly shifted the blame for car-related fatalities to careless pedestrians and cyclists, or individual bad drivers.5

In the late 1960s, after decades of car ascendancy, with the bicycle reduced in popular imagination to a children’s toy or an obscure sport, the bicycle began to assume its modern significance. An early breakthrough came in the bucolic university town of Davis, California, where in 1965 five locals formed a vaguely named “Bicycle Safety Committee” to save the imperiled cycling community. Davis was growing by 10 percent a year, and bicyclists were diminishing as the population was growing. The committee mapped a bike lane system for Davis, and after being thwarted by a hostile City Council managed to elect a pro-bicycling Council in 1966. Davis’s reputation as California’s best-known cycling town dates from that time, when local government gave a green light to a new network of bike lanes. Interestingly, during the first few years of trial and error, a separated bike lane between parked cars and the sidewalk was tried and discarded as unsafe, a system that has been successfully implemented in Copenhagen, Berlin, Amsterdam, and other European cities.6

A few years later, in 1969, hundreds of cyclists gathered in the first “Smog-Free Locomotion Day” demonstration on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. For the next few years, this ecological protest bike ride rolled through the East Bay before sputtering out in the wake of the first oil crisis and the slow unraveling of the protest era.

In the 1980s, bicycle activism hit a low ebb until the end of the decade when San Francisco bike messengers organized a mass ride to encircle City Hall. The messengers were protesting the mayor and police threats to crack down on scofflaw messengers and force them to register and become licensed. The protest succeeded, and the plans to license messengers were abandoned. In 1990 a new group, Bay Area Bike Action, organized a bike ride through Golden Gate Park to advocate for a “park, not a parking lot!” During the first Gulf War in 1991, dozens of cyclists appeared at the periphery of large antiwar demonstrations in the city and pioneered a role for themselves as scouts, rolling ahead of marchers to see where police might be waiting for them. Finally, a group of fifty cyclists rode together from Santa Cruz to San Francisco during this same period, protesting the invasion of Kuwait and the bombing of Iraq.

Critical Mass Is Born in San Francisco, 1992
From these many threads through time, the first Critical Mass rode in San Francisco in September, 1992. While few of the first riders, if any, knew of their complicated legacy, they were resuming an honorable, century-old tradition of combining bicycling with politics. The several dozen Critical Mass initiators had different tastes, ideas, politics, and experiences. Some of us had been active in ecological efforts, others in antiwar and antinuclear campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s, a few were bike messengers, while others still were people who simply chose bikes as their preferred transportation. We made no effort to arrive at a consensus explanation for our action, but hoped that in the space we planned to open, many ideas could flourish and many purposes find their expression. We all agreed that the maltreatment and second-class citizenship we suffered as isolated everyday cyclists deserved a robust response; and if nothing else, by gathering and riding en masse, we would make our presence felt as it hadn’t been felt before.

It was obvious that if any formal organization took responsibility for the event, city authorities would most likely insist they have a permit and probably liability insurance, so we proceeded anonymously. We chose not to approach the police or the local government, defining the gathering as “an organized coincidence.” That proved to be a fortuitous decision, since no one could be held personally responsible for the gathering of dozens, then hundreds, and eventually thousands of citizens, all determined to use the public thoroughfares to “ride home together,” paralleling the utterly banal and normalized traffic jams that clogged the streets every day with cars. The slogan that emerged after awhile was “We aren’t blocking traffic, we ARE traffic!” (This also became the title of Ted White’s 1998 documentary on Critical Mass.7) Moreover, since no individual or organization “owned” the ride, it was easy for anyone to feel it was theirs as much as anyone else’s.

What none of us could know in that dry autumn and winter of 1992–1993, as the police took no notice of us and our numbers swelled toward a couple hundred riders by February, was that the idea had become a classic meme, spreading from person to person through phone calls, through letters, through visitors who rode with us and took the idea back to their hometowns. (A Polish expat in San Francisco told his old friends in Poznan, Poland, who may have had the first ride in Europe.) About eight of us put together a small pamphlet, “How to Make a Critical Mass,”8 which we sent out to anyone who requested it, only a couple of dozen by the end of 1993.

Coincidentally, 1993 was also the year that the World Wide Web began to have a real presence in our lives, especially in San Francisco, so email, listserv discussions, and eventually websites began to proliferate. Other Critical Mass rides were started across the bay in Berkeley; in New York; in Austin, Texas; Madison, Wisconsin; Portland, Oregon; and Montreal. The idea began to snowball that year, and people in dozens of other cities and towns started their own Critical Mass rides. They all followed similar ideas to the ones that animated our San Francisco ride from the beginning: no leaders, ideas communicated by way of “xerocracy” (using ubiquitous photo-copying machines, anyone could put their ideas out on a flyer and have influence over the culture and experience of the local ride); sticking together in dense masses of bikes, even if it meant running red lights, for it was safer to stick together than to get spread out and mixed with autos; “corking” side traffic by having one or a few cyclists stop in front of rows of cars to prevent them from encroaching on the Mass; and so on.

In time, dozens of major cities around the world would have Critical Mass bike rides, from Rome and Milan in Italy (along with twenty other cities), to London (and two dozen other United Kingdom locales), Chicago, Los Angeles, San Diego, São Paulo, Toronto, Vancouver, Budapest, Berlin, Sydney, Melbourne, Paris, Lyon, Madrid, Barcelona, Mexico City, Guadalajara, Quito, Santiago, and many more. Each city’s ride took some of the wider concept and made it their own, adapting as needed to local conditions. Some were tightly organized, others less so. Chicago contributed the “bike lift” to the culture, which was later best demonstrated in a Budapest ride of over 40,000 cyclists, all holding their bicycles aloft while cheering wildly. (Budapest had a recent history as a heavily policed “Communist” city; therefore, organizers chose to negotiate with the authorities rather than risk a violent confrontation and decided to hold Critical Mass rides only at the end of April and September, twice a year. This has led them to hold the record for most riders, recently topping 50,000.)

Everyday Bicycling Returns
Critical Mass was, and is, just a starting point. It’s a place where people meet and further projects begin to find adherents, often but not only bicycle-related. In the last decade, dozens of bike “zines” have been published (Mudflap, Bike Love, Chainbreaker, Sin on Wheels, Mercury Rising, to name a few). Lately such quality periodicals as Boneshaker magazine from Bristol, England, Bike Monkey from Santa Rosa, California, Dandyhorse from Toronto, and Momentum from Vancouver, Canada, have given the new bicycling culture aesthetically beautiful, editorially thoughtful media of its own.

Do-it-yourself bike shops, anchored by volunteer labor, have proliferated, too. In Los Angeles, the triumvirate of the Bike Kitchen, the Bike Oven, and the Bikerowave, has helped thousands of Angelenos become daily cyclists. Most recently, the Los Angeles Bicycle Coalition helped spawn La Bici Digna, a do-it-yourself bikeshop for Spanish-speaking day laborers in metropolitan Los Angeles. Similar kinds of efforts are running in San Francisco, Toronto, Chicago, and New York, and they have really taken off in Italy, where they’re called “ciclofficine,” and have found ready homes in the network of squatted social centers around the country (Rome alone has at least six such spaces, providing tools and spare parts to all comers to fix—or make—their own bikes). Another half-dozen free bike spaces have emerged in squatted buildings in Madrid.

In recent years, other kinds of rides have also begun, sometimes as deliberate efforts to start social bike rides that don’t have Critical Mass’s anarchistic reputation. This reputation, proliferated by the mass media, is sometimes deserved: a San Diego Critical Mass on Black Friday 2010 rode into a mall and through the aisles of a Target store. Midnight Ridazz in Los Angeles attracts huge crowds of middle-of-the-night riders. A San Jose Bike Party, designed to be law-abiding and respectful while fun and social too, started only a couple of years ago and is attracting thousands of riders to its monthly 8:00 P.M. rides through various Silicon Valley burgs. The East Bay and San Francisco have inaugurated Bike Party rides, in 2010 and 2011 respectively.

In the wake of all this social riding, formal advocacy groups are gaining political power. The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, with its couple of dozen volunteers and occasional meetings in restaurants, is now 12,000 dues-paying members strong, and considered by most to be a serious political force in local politics. Similar advocacy groups in Marin County, the East Bay, Silicon Valley, and Los Angeles, with more modest memberships, have grown in influence during the past decade. Bicycle boulevards and traffic-calmed streets have been established throughout Berkeley and Davis, and are beginning to get attention from larger cities too, including LA and SF. A long-abandoned railroad tunnel linking Mill Valley to Corte Madera has just been refurbished and opened to bicyclists in Marin County.

Riding alongside mainstream groups are many other activists and initiatives, from CicLAvia in Los Angeles to the Bikes on Board campaign on Caltrain along the San Mateo peninsula, and the new Sunday Streets program in San Francisco. Less than a decade ago Bogotá, Colombia, established Sunday street closures, which have spread to dozens of major cities in South America and are now being adopted in San Francisco, too. Bikeshare programs are also being started. From the well-known Vélib program in Paris to similar bike shares in Copenhagen, Milan, London, and other European centers, the idea has taken hold in Mexico City and is slated to open in San Francisco soon.

Critical Mass captures a larger moment in history, a time when great numbers of people are searching for ways to make personal and political changes in their everyday lives in response to the multiple crises of energy, ecology, economy, and general anomie. Bursting on the scene in cities across the world over the past nearly twenty years, reinvented again and again by dozens of people in widely divergent geographic areas, Critical Mass emerges from a commonality of experience and resonates with popular imagination in a surprisingly wide range of cultures and languages. Dozens of other organizations and initiatives have been launched, sometimes directly from the milieu of Critical Mass cyclists, other times merely as further independent manifestations of the same shifting cultural zeitgeist of which Critical Mass is such a bright signifier. At its simplest level, Critical Mass has led untold numbers of people to abandon their former commute patterns and embrace the bicycle as their everyday transportation. I’ve heard hundreds of anecdotal accounts over the years, from San Francisco to New York, Rome to São Paulo, of people becoming regular bicyclists after trying it first in Critical Mass. But if Critical Mass seems to be a starting point, it’s vital to remember the great antecedents that took place long before anyone riding now was even alive.

“When you have attained a proficiency which enables you to take out your handkerchief, wipe your nose and replace the mouchoir in your pocket without slackening your pace, you have fairly graduated … For fun there is nothing like cycling, and before many years two or three family wheels will be as much a part of the ménage as the modern range and sewing machine are now.”

San Francisco Chronicle, 1896

The bicycle is the personal vehicle of the twenty-first century. It is an antidote to oil wars, carbon emissions, the obesity epidemic, and tens of thousands of annual highway fatalities. Bicycling puts us into the life of our streets and connects us to friends, neighbors, and strangers in ways that the car culture has blocked for so long. Thousands of Californians have chosen the bicycle, and millions more will as we alter our urban landscapes to welcome and facilitate that choice. Citywide and intercity systems of dedicated bikeways are long overdue. Imagine how many more people would ride if there were safe thoroughfares to make bicycling the most pleasant and direct way to get from anywhere in the city to anywhere else—point A to point B, smelling the flowers, the clean air, hearing the birds, and enjoying your friends and neighbors. Why not?


1. Ida L. Howard, “When San Francisco Was Teaching America to Ride a Bicycle,” San Francisco Chronicle, 26 February 1905.

2. Ibid.

3. Hank Chapot, “The Great San Francisco Bicycle Protest of 1896,” Processed World 2.001. Accessed 11 December 2010.


5. Jane Holtz Kay, Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 148–164.

6. Dale Lott, “How our bike lanes were born,” Accessed 31 March 2011.


8. This document appears in the appendix of the book Critical Mass: Bicycling’s Defiant Celebration, ed. Chris Carlsson (Oakland CA: AK Press, 2002) and is available online at two or three websites.


Interview with Yolanda Cruz

by Miroslava Chávez-García
From Boom Fall 2011, Vol. 1, No. 3


A filmmaker documents depopulation in Mexico

I recently sat down with Yolanda Cruz, a filmmaker, graduate of UCLA’s film school, and 2011 Sundance Screenwriters Lab Fellow, to talk about filmmaking, her indigenous origins as a Chatino (one of sixteen indigenous groups in Oaxaca, Mexico), and her views of indigenous peoples in California and, more broadly, across the globe. Cruz has produced seven films, including her latest, “2501 Migrants,” which depicts the unique work of Alejandro Santiago, an indigenous artist from Oaxaca. The film examines how Santiago uses his artwork to bring attention to the migrants who have left the region and inadvertently created what has been called “a landscape of cultural and domestic abandonment.” In our conversation, she mused about the power of filmmaking, organizing indigenous communities, dispelling myths about indigenous people, immigration and globalization, perseverance, and education.

What inspired you to go into filmmaking?
When I came to the US in the 1990s, I came with the intention of learning English and returning to Mexico to get a degree in law or teaching. But because I come from a very active community in Oaxaca, I was very active in Olympia, Washington, where I lived and went to college. I studied photography and creative writing. Then I took some media classes and realized that media was a very effective tool for organizing. That led me to study other forms of filmmaking around the world. I was so amazed with what film could do that I wanted to do one on the revolutions of Latin America. I think that because the idea was pretty crazy, I got the attention of the Selection Committee at UCLA. And, to my surprise, I was accepted to film school.

I had to fight to find a place for my voice. When I got there, to UCLA, it was difficult to adapt because it was like going back to my years in Mexico. We were told what to do. I became a part of a group of Oaxacans living in LA, more so as an individual than a filmmaker. For my thesis, I chose to do a documentary about a community activist from Oaxaca, a man who was so passionate for his community that he spent five years of his personal savings to return to his village and make an offering. I submitted it to the Sundance Film Festival, not knowing how competitive it was, and it was accepted. When I learned that, I was like, oh my God. The entire experience was overwhelming too because it was my first festival and I got a lot of attention I didn’t want. I realized that my film was different from what I had originally wanted to do in film school, which was to organize the Oaxacan community.

In many ways, it is possible to argue that your films relay messages about what it means to be a global citizen living in a global society.
I think so. But I also think that my films dispel the myth that indigenous people do not contribute to the global society. They do more than just maintain the traditions and history. I don’t just go around asking them to tell me about their old stories. Indigenous people are concerned with what is happening around the world and I want to give them a chance to express their opinion.

What do you think about the formation of Oaxacan communities—with intimate ties to Oaxaca— in places like California and the United States, more broadly?
I think it’s important to study these communities because Mexico and the United States are neighbors and they need to collaborate more on slowing the process of immigration. I think this involves improving the life of a particular community. But I think it’s more difficult to slow the process [now] and we need to find new ways of working together.

In “2501 Migrants,” you tell the story of Alejandro Santiago, an indigenous artist based in Oaxaca. What inspired you to tell his story?
Most of my films are about organizing the Oaxacan community in Mexico and the United States. I learned of Santiago’s story a few years back. I thought his project to create hundreds of clay statutes representing the migrants who had left the region was a little crazy. But then I understood that as an artist, his dream was to populate his village because he felt emptiness. Santiago himself left Oaxaca and later returned. He and I have a lot in common. We both immigrated when we were really young and now we’re both trying to do something for our community even though the community never asked. We all want to be the voice of our communities, [have a say] about how things should be, but then we leave. Unlike the locals, we are immigrants who have the privilege of going back and forth to the United States. In the film, I started exploring this idea and I think it gives the film a very honest perspective. It is not about how once Santiago creates a statue, everybody’s happy.

Are you satisfied with the reception that “2501 Migrants” has received?
I don’t know how satisfied I am, but I am overwhelmed and grateful. Initially I thought, who in their right mind is going to follow this kind of story? I thought that like my other films, it was going to have a very select group of universities and museums screening it and that’s it. But no, it’s had wider appeal. I think it is because people see art as neutral ground, not political, and it allows for a conversation to begin about the larger issues. Plus, when people hear about this eccentric guy, the statues, and the immensity of the project, they become interested.

What do you see as the film’s message for people in Oaxaca or in Mexico in general?
If you look at Alejandro Santiago, he didn’t have a formal education; in Oaxaca, it’s a privilege to have that. He went to high school and trained himself to be an artist even though there is no art school in Oaxaca. For a year, he would go to the library everyday. He’d do that as a job. He’d go from eight in the morning until one in the afternoon, and he would take a lunch break, and then he would go back at two and stay until eight. There are a lot challenges indigenous artists have to endure. That’s something I always say to young people—we have to motivate ourselves. If you want things to change and to improve the quality of life, you need education and self-motivation. When I started out, I did not think about the competitiveness of filmmaking. I thought, I want to do this and I’m going to push myself to do it. Migrants face a lot of obstacles; they have to take action on their own to achieve their dreams.

Given that you’re originally from Oaxaca, Mexico, a Chatino, and you speak three languages, English, Spanish, and Chatino, how do you identify yourself?
When I moved to the city of Oaxaca, I was indigenous. Then, when I came to the US, I was Latina, a Mexican. And, now, when I go back to Mexico, I’m Chatino, and when I go to Europe, I’m an immigrant. I embrace all the labels. I think it’s very important to recognize that people have fought really hard for their identities. But more than anything, I would consider myself an indigenous filmmaker.

What kind of advice would you give to young Latinos or Latinas who are interested in going into film?
If they have a story they’re dying to tell, they should pursue it in school or with someone in the industry who can teach them. In order to succeed in this business, you have to be unique and I think we all have unique stories. We are all special. But sometimes it can be discouraging when people don’t respond well.

Can you talk about your next project?
It’s about a boy who lives in a town [where] all the grown men have left, and the boy wants to do the same. But he’s waiting to grow up a bit, since he’s eleven-years-old. Then one day he finds a refrigerator and he decides to sell it, thinking it’s his ticket to the United States. Yet the refrigerator keeps breaking down and giving him a lot of headaches and he can’t sell it. Essentially, it’s a comedy about survival.



by Matt Black
all photographs © Matt Black

From Boom Fall 2011, Vol. 1, No. 3

California’s interior colony

I spent the months leading up to last year’s midterm elections in California’s twentieth congressional district, a sprawling, dusty territory hugging Interstate 5 along the southwestern edge of the San Joaquin Valley. With a US Census map on the dashboard, I repeatedly drove the length of a region recently named the poorest congressional district in the nation.

A man walks past a line of deserted storefronts. McFarland, California.

Using measures of health, education, and income—the Human Development Index—this dusty stretch of agricultural land and small farmworker towns ranks dead last among the nation’s 435 congressional districts. This hidden pocket of poverty is so deep that it surpasses even the Mississippi Delta and the hills of Appalachia in terms of pure human suffering: about 640,000 of the most desperate lives in America, just a few hundred miles up the highway from the opulent Hollywood Hills.

Although the average farmworker in Cal-20 makes just $10,000 per year, the district’s approximately 5,000 square miles encompass some of the richest farmland in the world. This is far from an impoverished land despite the intense poverty of its residents: its fields produce everything from tomatoes and cotton to lettuce and pistachios, fueling the engine of California’s $38.4 billion agricultural industry and lining the pockets of some of the state’s largest and richest landowners.

During my drives, I would occasionally pull over and study the map, trying to imagine the mapmaker who, knowingly or not, had taken a highlighter to California’s hidden underbelly—corralling some of the poorest towns in the state, like Mendota, Huron, and Lamont, along with slices of West Fresno’s and South Bakersfield’s hardest neighborhoods; shaping his gerrymandered amalgam of poverty with surgical precision; slicing streets down the middle and cutting towns in half. In another time, such a skilled cartographer would have given his map a name—California Profunda, say—and decorated the margins with sketches of vast ranches and humble settlements.

On Election Day, as incumbent Democrat Jim Costa faced off against an (ultimately unsuccessful) Republican challenger, I went to Lost Hills, a town of about 2,000 a few miles off Interstate 5. After half an hour searching for a polling station, I stopped for directions at the double-wide trailer that serves as the town’s post office. “I don’t live in this town, so I can’t help you,” the postmaster said, seemingly eager to put some distance between himself and his dusty surroundings. Ana Lomeli, twenty-three, walked by me in the parking lot. She told me the polling place was in Wasco, twenty miles away. “They probably don’t bother to put one here because no one votes in this town anyway,” she said.

A labor camp resident at her home. Huron, California

As I traced the contours of Cal-20, the car’s radio reception would often wane, and my dial would inevitably shift downward to the self-proclaimed “50,000 watt blowtorch” of the San Joaquin Valley, Fresno’s KMJ, a conservative talk station with a typical right-wing lineup. As I passed through the streets of Lost Hills and saw a Oaxacan immigrant mother lug a five-gallon jug of drinking water home in a shopping cart, the disconnect between what I was seeing and the bombast I was hearing was profound, the overheated voices less abrasive than just utterly irrelevant to the surroundings: a fuzzy dispatch from some rich and distant country.

What initially in my journey had felt like an exploration of a strange anomaly started to feel like something deeper, the discovery of a hidden country, California’s own interior colony, a dominion exploited for its natural wealth but ignored and neglected by its overlords. Passing by the fields of Cal-20, one could easily see residents paying their tributes one underpaid man-hour at a time, but their suzerain, lounging fat and content in some far distant place, could only be imagined.

A homeless farmworker cooks his breakfast. Mendota, California.

Men in a parking lot wait for work. Huron, California.

A shepherd corrals his sheep. Lemoore, California.

A man closes his roadside stand. Huron, California.

Unemployed men gather in an alley. Mendota, California.

A shepherd opens his pasture’s gate. Coalinga, California.

A farmworker clears tumbleweeds. Lamont, California.


Life of the Party

by Regine Basha
photographs by Spring Warren

From Boom Fall 2011, Vol. 1, No. 3

Music by Iraqi Jewish Angelenos

The only reason I know the Iraqi folk song “Fog il Nachal,” which means, literally, “I am as happy as the highest date palm tree,” is because it played continuously against the backdrop of my youth in Los Angeles of 1978–1988, mingled in with The Police, Blondie, Siouxsie and The Banshees, and Bananarama. Though at the time I hated the Arabic music my father and his friends played at home and at their parties, it was always “Fog il Nachal” that stuck in my mind throughout those years. Although I could sing it perfectly and whistle the tune, I had no idea what the lyrics were, nor did my parents bother to tell me. Arabic was spoken between them and their Iraqi friends—on the phone, at parties, at the synagogue on Wilshire Boulevard; Hebrew was spoken to my older brothers, who both grew up in Israel, and English was spoken to me. In fact, from around the ages of eight to ten, I believed that Arabic was a language that only belonged to adults. I was completely floored when I first heard a child speak Arabic—ironically, this happened when we visited Israel and I saw Palestinian children for the first time. Somehow Arabic got absorbed, as languages and music do, in that department of “forbidden sounds” in my brain.
boom-2011-1-3-67-ufigure-1“Fog il Nachal” was particularly loved by the community because it was, as my mother called it, “a happy tune” not a “sad, wailing” tune in Arabic. At all night house parties, the men seemed to love the sad, wailing tunes. They sat around on the floor waving their hands and wagging their fingers at the musicians (my dad sometimes playing the oud), while the women gossiped in the other room and only emerged for the more upbeat tunes. I often slept over in guest bedrooms amid the coats and handbags, lulled to sleep by the twang of the khanoun, the drumbeat of the darbukka, and the deep-belly tones of the oud. Songs that seemed to go on forever by Egyptian greats Uum Khalthoum and Abdul Wahab, and Lebanese songstress Fairouz, repeated abstractly in my head the next day as I attended dance class at Beverly Hills High. Layered over the remnants of the Arabic music was a daytime soundtrack of another kind of wailing from Siouxsie Sioux or David Sylvian, or experimental music with oriental sounds coming from Brian Ferry or Peter Gabriel. All my friends at the time were immigrant kids—Mexican or Filipino or Armenian—and we were united in our love of the same music. My best friend at the time, a Latina musician, played her own new-wavey version of Latin-Arabic sounds that predated so much of what would explode in pop music a decade later. It was as if this music led to our self-understanding as people with different cultures at home. It was not harmony but disharmony that felt real and more complicated. Strangely, it only occurred to me sometime after college that this kind of happy/sad sound—shared by new wave and oriental music—was united in dissonance. It was all about that singular quarter tone that makes music sound slightly off-key or out of tune (especially to Western ears).

The history of atonal music is bound up with the history of modernism—related to industry, depersonalization, ideas of progress and social utopia. But was the dissonant quarter tone used in alternative music of the 1980s an expression of difference? Or resistance? It certainly seemed to represent longing, but longing for what? I and my immigrant friends might have heard it subliminally, might have interpreted it as a validation of our otherness, of our melancholy at being misunderstood both at home and in Californian culture. In a sense, those of us who fall between cultures—the never-really-modern, never-really-traditional cultures—inhabit this space created by the dissonant tone—the tone that resonates as deceptively off-key or unfinished, and that allows us to choose a constant state of tuning.


boom-2011-1-3-67-ufigure-2I knew early on that there must have been a really good reason my parents did not speak their native Judeo-Arabic dialect outside our home and deftly avoided references in public places to countries of birth. These were secrets I did not enjoy; they made our otherness more pronounced and mysterious. Looking back, what I did enjoy, despite my teenage grumblings about ethnic parents and their habits, was their flagrant party culture. When there weren’t enough families to host those all-night house parties (more Iraqi Jews live in London, Montreal, or New York than Los Angeles), we’d go to nightclubs like the Lebanese club, Byblos, on Westwood Boulevard, or Pips on Doheny Drive. (Pips wasn’t an Arabic club, but the Iraqis liked its plush carpeting, mirrored walls, low-lighting, and disco.) At Byblos, at least two or three belly dancers would perform throughout the night, and on their breaks, the dance floor would open up for us to dance to Western music. The belly dancers, to my great surprise, were more often American women who had learned to dance in LA, rather than Middle Eastern women. I always wondered how my parents and their friends tolerated this “inauthenticity.”

I later learned that belly dancers in Middle Eastern cultures are practically regarded as prostitutes. In the 1940s, in Iraq at least, a woman singer or entertainer was considered loose and compromised. Traditionally, women living in Muslim countries were not supposed to attend musical gatherings in public, let alone sing in public. Although there was nothing of the fanatical fundamentalism we are seeing today, those cultures are still conservative when it comes to women appearing in public spaces. Jewish women living in those societies followed suit, which is not a stretch, as women in Judaism traditionally sat separately from men in the synagogues. Thankfully, the divisions today are less severe.

Once in California, such restrictive social mores were more or less left behind. Perhaps, too, the Californian Iraqi Jews had something to prove to the Iranian Jews, who arrived in Los Angeles through the 1980s: we were more “modern,” more assimilated than they.

So much seemed to be revealed at those house parties and through the music. Every so often I’d see a woman who so loved Arabic music that she couldn’t help singing alongside the men. One such family friend—I’ll call her “Laura,” which is the name she chose when she came to the States—sings a mean “Fog Il Nachal” herself, when begged to do so. Her family had migrated to California earlier than my parents, in the 1950s, barely getting safely through Israel, so the evidence of assimilation was much deeper. Their accents were less pronounced, their children were more removed from Iraqi culture, their morals seemed looser, and they had a dog (Arabic culture, by and large, frowns upon dogs as pets).

Laura was the quintessential hostess for Iraqi parties. She made everyone from every class within the community feel at home. She also arranged for all the music, sometimes bringing in Palestinian or Syrian musicians who could play the tunes loved by the Iraqi Jews. No one ever spoke openly of this interreligious musical arrangement, though.


Loads of live recordings of these house parties on cassette and VHS tapes fill my parents’ bathroom cabinets. My own meager teenage cassette collection from this time has nothing on theirs. It wasn’t only about capturing the music but just as much the heckling, teasing, and jokes from the live audience, typical Middle Eastern behavior that you’d never encounter outside that intimate setting. The cassettes are traded and presented as gifts to friends and family abroad in a network that, ultimately, contains the social code holding people together. It may not be nostalgia, but it is reenactment, a kind that feels more like a form of resistance than active nostalgia does. It was as if our secret musical citizenship superceded time and place. Repeated again and again in different homes—the same songs, the same food, the same guests—this was the ever-present internal life of the party, where the music of 1940s and 1950s Iraq played on in pockets of Beverly Hills, Encino, and even San Diego. I had always wondered if Iraqis back in Iraq were still listening to this repertoire. Or was it just within the diasporic community?

Images, courtesy of Regine Basha, from the VHS recordings copied and shared among the Iraqi Jews of Los Angeles. The author explores these parties in her project “Tuning Baghdad” at

As my curiosity about our identification with this music grew over time, I decided to research the history of “Chagli” (the Arabic word used for Jewish musical house parties) in Baghdad. In 1932, a Jewish band called Chagli, a folk ensemble with nye, dumbek, violin, and oud, was invited to represent Iraq at the Cairo International Music Convention, the first music industry event of its kind in the Middle East. At that time, Jews and their music were not separated from Iraqi culture; the Chagli was never considered “Jewish music.” But for reasons that had to do with social mores in that era, Iraqi Jews tended to be the musicians of Iraq—so much so that music ceased on the radio and in the streets on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. Throughout the late 1930s and 1940s, the Iraqi National Radio station was a productive place for new compositions and collaborations, headed by the Jewish brothers Salah and Daoud Al- Kuwaiti. Though the Iraqi Maqam (a kind of musical scale) was often sung by a Muslim singer, Jews always provided the musical accompaniment. This led to the writing of new modern compositions modeled after the popular Egyptian compositions at the time—which led the way for Modern Arabic music throughout the whole Middle East. The eventual displacement of this culture (a force majeure after Israel was established) affected the music scene of Iraq for decades, as most of the music teachers were also Jews.

In my latest research on the Iraqi Jewish musicians of this generation who are still alive and playing, no one stands out more than the octogenarian Abraham Salman. A virtuosic khanoun player, blind since birth, he now lives modestly in an Iraqi Jewish suburb of Tel Aviv, performing only for the friends who come over and egg him on. Salman was a beloved child prodigy in Iraq and continued to perform shortly after arriving in Israel in the early 1950s as part of the program “Kol Israel” (a televised “Oriental” orchestral broadcast à la Lawrence Welk). In his living room over cookies and tea, his wife told me of his continued following in the Middle East—especially in Saudi Arabia, where efforts to bring him for a concert have proved futile. Earnestly, I asked Salman if he could talk about the Maqam to me, and explain it in layman terms perhaps. He reluctantly responded in Arabic by asking where I lived. When I stated, “New York,” he simply said, “Oh … that’s too far.”

I don’t know whether or not Abraham Salman’s music is still known to or appreciated by Iraqis back in the homeland. I have heard of a younger generation of Iraqi musicians who are seeking out this modern chapter in history, as apparently, Saddam Hussein actively erased it from the history books and radio waves. How ironic it is that in the hills of Encino or the suburbs of Tel Aviv, we are likely to hear the sounds of one of the last bastions of cosmopolitanism in Iraq.

If there could be a sound for that condition, it would definitely ring atonally.


Chagli: a four-piece ensemble that performs the Maqam. A term also used to refer to the party at which this ensemble would play. Related to the Byzantine Caglia that also spread to the Balkans and other reaches of the Ottoman Empire.

Darbukka or Dumbek: a clay or ceramic drum with a natural membrane for the skin.

Khanoun: A Middle Eastern instrument, like the zither that is plucked. Features prominently in most Arabic music orchestras.

Maqam: a system of melodic modes in Arabic music that can be played in an improvisational way.

Nye: an ancient flute.