Interviews

Revisiting Joan Didion’s California: An Interview with David L. Ulin

Ryan Reft
David L. Ulin

“One difference between the West and the South, I came to realize in the 1970s, was this: in the South they remained convinced that they had bloodied their land with history. In California we did not believe that history could bloody the land, or even touch it,” Joan Didion wrote in her 2003 memoir, Where I Was From. In it, Didion spends a great deal of time re-evaluating her earlier work. After all, Didion documented the era that reshaped and initiated California’s transformation from its golden, hermetically sealed mid-century “idyllic” years as a symbol of the “American Dream” into the global, more complex, racially diverse, quasi-nation state that it is today representative of globalization.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the new collection from the Library of America: Joan Didion: The 1960s & 70s. Comprised of her first five works, Run, River, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Play It As It Lays, and The White Album, the volume, a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, offers a window into a transformative period in American and Californian life, documented by Didion. Over the course of her five books, the two formats, the real and the imagined, intertwine to produce a distinctly Didion-esque narrative of the era: detached, intrigued, and clear-eyed. Author, literary critic, and editor of the new volume, David L. Ulin spoke with Boom by phone about the famed California writer, her disbelief in ideologies, and how he thinks about Didion’s work then, in the context of today.

This interview has been edited for length and content. 

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Ryan Reft: In a volume like this, what do you think an 18-year-old reader might take from it, as opposed to someone older such as a 32 year old? What do you think each might take from it, in terms of Joan Didion’s writing, and California and so on?

David L. Ulin: I think that’s a really good question and I don’t know the answer to it. I was drawn to her at 18 because I was a particular kind of 18-year-old, in a sense that I spent a lot of time in my own head. When I started reading her, my first thought was one of connection because I thought “this is someone who spends as much time in her own head as I do or maybe more.” I was really drawn by the interiority of it and the self exposure, even in material that wasn’t necessarily inherently autobiographical. Like “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” where she basically is tipping her hand about a whole sensibility instead of attitudes and social postures, but it’s woven into the body of the text. So there was that. Also at 18, I was already kind of self-identifying as a writer. So, although I don’t want to say that I was thinking about it as programmatically as I would later come to think of it, I was definitely on some level thinking about sentences and paragraphs and structure and sentences. I do remember opening the book Slouching towards Bethlehem having never read her and “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” is the first essay in the book, and what I do remember is quickly within a few pages thinking, “Wow, I’ve never read somebody write sentences like this.” I mean, I was really intrigued by the language. So that was the first impulse. I think for an 18-year-old reader with those same kind of sensibilities or that same kind of wiring, I could see them coming to her work in all sorts of ways. It’s interesting because I don’t necessarily think of this collection as the gateway for that kind of reader. Only because it’s an expensive, hardcover with five books in it. I have to imagine most 18-year-olds are getting their books online or the cheapest possible used copy. I think in terms of California, it’s interesting because a lot of what she says about California is still relevant. A distinction that we see in terms of reading her work now is that the California she’s describing leaves out large parts of the California we live in. She’s not intentionally leaving them out, she’s focusing on other areas. So I think that for someone reading her now, to get a handle on California or Southern California in particular, she would be missing a lot. Her racial politics or racial vision, deals with a vision of black and white. In the ‘50s and the ‘60s, that was the frame and mechanism for how we wrote and thought of America. But even then it was a narrow way of looking at California, and certainly now it’s an extremely limited lens on California. She’d have to be supplemented now in terms of really digging into what the persuasion of the state is.

Reft: You make a very good point about the much broader, non-binary, multi-racial nature of California as the way we think about the state today. I wanted to ask you about race because you know some people, as I’ve read her, and others such as Lorraine Berry, she mentioned that in her review of Didion’s had South and West, she had said that “Didion contently treats people of color as objects of observation, they are objects of discussion, but never once do they get to offer Didion their views of the states they live in.” I think this is broadly true but also I do think Didion was sympathetic. You’ve already said you’d supplement it but what would you supplement her work with?

Ulin: Yes, I’ve read that piece that you’re citing, and I don’t disagree with it, I think it’s complicated. I think that the whole issue of Didion and –I don’t mean to package these two things together though I do think they overlap –say, race and class, is complicated because Didion is writing out of a particular demographic position. And that demographic position is certainly a position of privilege, but a nuanced kind of privilege. She’s writing out of class privilege in a sense that her family came over on the Oregon Trail, so she is a kind of a first California family, she’s writing out of that similar position of those old roots because of having been raised in Sacramento and the state politics component, you know playing in the governor’s mansion when she was a kid and that sort of stuff, but also the kind of nostalgia of what that California means. It’s a very Anglo vision of California. The so-called “First Californians” in this construct are not so much the Chumash or the Tongva, they are the Anglo settlers who came from Iowa and Missouri or whatever, and who came before the railroads were built and pioneered it over to California. So that’s a very particular sensibility. I think that’s a valid sensibility in terms of thinking about California but again as we are talking about in terms of the non-binary discussion of race, it is now finally commonly acknowledged and accepted as it should be as simply one of the theories of overlapping perspectives or visions of California as opposed to the only one or even the central one. There are dozens and dozens of others. This is a long way of saying that I think she is sympathetic. I think in large measure the sense of distance is not so much a political or social posture for her as it is a psychological or personal posture for her. I think that Didion’s was always at a distance. Didion famously said style is substance. She very interested in the surfaces of things because she wants to see what they signify, but also because she is always approaching others from the surface. She keeps a distance and is either not trying or not able to be intimate with them in a different way. Another thing that really fascinates me about her is the kind of collapsing distinction between the personal and the social. She always has the posture of an outsider, as someone who is looking at other people as objects, as someone operating from the outside in.

Reft: I actually find that her detachment attracted me to her writing.

 Ulin: Me too. I think that is something I psychologically share with her, and I think it’s one of the reasons when I read her as a teenager, I felt myself moving through the world. I don’t think I’d ever come across that  kind of detached sensibility.

Reft: In Where I Was From, she’s spent a great deal of time talking about the ’60s or ’70s when California came out of this hermetically sealed existence and started becoming celebrated as a symbol of what America’s promise was, whether one believes in that or not.  I think that that’s an interesting dynamic, particularly in the fact that she’s still in California when you get the rise of Ronald Reagan and the New Right, which you could argue is not so outward-looking.

Ulin: She was highly critical of Reagan, (and particularly of Nancy Reagan) and justifiably so, but I also think she understood him. Reagan is interesting, because he’s not a product of the ’60s.  But as a political figure, he’s as much a product of the ’60s as Mario Savio. In some ways without Mario Savio we don’t get Ronald Reagan. Now that’s a broad generalization. Without the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley in 1964 and 1965 maybe there’s not a kind of Silent Majority backlash. There’s so much interesting overlap in terms of the kind of pendulum of history, and I think Didion is aware of that. I don’t think Didion is particularly surprised by Reagan, but Reagan really comes out of that Old California, that pioneer California or that insular California trying to reach out and grab its territory. I think that tension is embodied in a lot of Didion’s writing about the ’60s because you know she started off the ’60s as a conservative, she voted for Goldwater in 64. One of my favorite pieces of information about her is that in 62 she flew back from New York to vote against Nixon in the Republican Gubernatorial Primary because he was not sufficiently conservative. She is in her own way very socially conservative. The entire essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” which is a masterpiece, is built in part around the notion that traditional social narratives have eroded and that nothing has replaced them. These little things we take for granted like “how do we set a place at a table,” we think are not that important, but she’s arguing that in fact they are extremely important as pieces of social fabric or the social narrative. That’s a very socially conservative point of view. At the same time, because of what she is going through and living through, her head is sort of exploding with ideas and possibilities and I think that there’s a real tension in Didion between a kind of innate social conservatism on the one hand and the wildness of what she’s observing and also, in some way, living through in Southern California. The uncertainty if it, the breakdown of narratives. For her, narrative is both a necessity and also something that she grows not to trust. And I think that that’s really, really important and it grows out of the overlap of all of these elements and influences.

Reft: Eric Avila wrote an essay about how she had anticipated a rising conservative critique of cultural decline in the US. But it’s weird because when I read her, I never felt that it was ideological.

Ulin: She starts out ideologically when she’s like 28 or 30 in 1962 and 1964. I don’t think that the ideology crosses into the work, but she is ideologically conservative. Then she kind of loses a sense of faith in ideology. It’s one of the narratives that collapses for her because the ideologies are inconsistent, and situations are too complicated. She is very good because she is a dread junkie in her way, which is also something I share with her. She’s really good at focusing on how the narratives collapse and desert us and leave us bereft, and that isn’t an ideological issue, really because the narratives on both sides are doing that, or at least that’s Didion’s position. It’s a position I also share with her. So all narratives are up for grabs and you end up with everyone being kneecapped by the collapse of whatever their chosen narrative is.

Reft:In a 2017 interview with you, she made a comment about narratives being atomized even in her novel, Play It As It Lays, as almost imagistic. It seems like that kind atomized essay form speaks to the current moment. In your 2019 interview with the Library of America, you say, “Didion is drawn to disruption, social, cultural, and personal.” What I find particularly noteworthy about that description is how it fits the current rhetoric of disruption that came out of Silicon Valley and the tech industry. The larger point being that the comment that she made in 2017 about the atomization of narratives, and your comment, speak to the way we encounter narratives today. I wonder if this collection, even though it is from the ’60s and ’70s, actually speaks in its physical form to how we think about these things today. Does that make sense?

Ulin: Yeah, it does, and I don’t know if I can speak to how the collection addresses it for contemporary readers, only because I think that’s for each contemporary reader to figure out. First of all, I agree with her that narratives become atomized, I mean if you watch the latest Democratic Presidential Debate, you got an atomized series of versions of what essentially is a shared narrative. Right? And so we can’t even agree on how we are going to agree at this point, or what our common ground is. And I’m not only talking in terms of political narrative. I think there are a lot of reasons for this, some of them have to do with politics and ideology, and some of them have to do with education. Some of them have to do simply with cultural overload, the breakdown of authority. I actually think that that’s not a terrible thing, you know, the breakdown of traditional gatekeepers, and of that kind of structure by which stories went out into the world. I think that it does come back to technology in some way because technology is disruptive, and social media in particular is disruptive. It can be disruptive in really useful ways, and one of those useful ways is by giving everyone an unfiltered platform by which they can speak without being curated by somebody else. So I think that we live in that kind of universe already. When I talk to students, they’re gathering information, as we all are, but they’re gathering information from all sorts of overlapping sources that don’t on the face have anything to do with each other. Students understand that they’re different sources, but they’re not necessarily concerned about those distinctions. So you’ll have a social media post, a novel, something from a film or streaming video, conversations they might have had, a photo of someone’s food –they all kind of overlap. We are all collaging it now as we go along. I don’t want to make a claim for her prescience but again I do think this has to do with Didion’s sensibility and her emotional and psychological framework. I think Didion identifies this really early. In a lot of ways it all grows out of the Haight Ashbury essay in Slouching Towards Bethlehem  because that essay is the first of what we can call a concrete example of one of her atomized narratives. That’s an essay written entirely of fragments. None of the fragments are very long. They do add up in the sense that they move chronologically through a period of time, so we have a sense of time progressing and we run into some of the same characters over and over again. But there’s no real movement. Those characters aren’t doing anything different. There’s no change or progression in their behavior or their attitudes. At the same time, there are these anonymous or secondary characters who are interchangeable and drop in and out. Like the kids she buys the burgers and Cokes for –the sort of “clueless young” is what we can call them in the concept of the essay. So that essay, the only way to tell that story, which is essentially a story of stasis and chaos, is for her to create a structural form, a fragmentation that allows her to mirror in the structure of the writing the fragmentation that she’s trying to describe. As a critic, I trace a direct line from that essay to Play It As It Lays which is essentially the atomized narrative writ large, it’s an atomized novel. It’s a 200 page novel with over 100 chapters, and some of those chapters are a sentence long, and there’s something really, really interesting about that as a formal move. And then she moves from that into the essay “The White Album,” which is also an atomized, fragmented narrative. There’s “Los Angeles Notebook’ which also operates that way. She’s playing around really early with this idea of using fragmentary structures to reflect or illuminate the fragmentation of personal and collective narrative that she’s observing in the culture around her. At one point 10 or 12 years ago I wrote an essay saying that in some way, her description of 1968 was highly relevant to 2008, because if you wanted to break down an atomized or fragmented narrative approach you have Barack Obama’s narrative on one hand, and Sarah Palin’s narrative on the other, and they both were American narratives, but they were utterly divergent with no point of intersection. Didion was aware of this 40 years before. So I think that that’s a really interesting and important part of these writings in particular, because these are the books that she is staking out that territory content-wise, but even more importantly where she’s developing narrative and structural strategy to illuminate and illustrate through the movement of the language on the page.

Reft: Despite my saying that, I also think that when you read through the collection from Run, River and the rest all the way through, it almost reads like a big sprawling conversation. It starts with the story of this august California family, and its failure to adapt to postwar realities in the States, and then in the essays she discusses California’s larger history in this way.  In The White Album, in her essay on motorcycle films in Slouching Toward Bethlehem, then in Play It As It Lays, in which the main character Maria Wyeth is trying to get a role in such a film, and in the “Bureaucrats” in The White Album. You could even look at A Book of Common Prayer, where Marin is basically a symbol of a kind of student unrest. Do you think that her fictional work and her nonfiction writing intertwine? And when they do, what do you think that does for the narrative? Does it muddy it, or do you think that it brings it into clearer focus? Or does it do something completely different all together?

Ulin: I think that the relationship between her fiction and nonfiction is really interesting. To be totally honest, for years, decades, I completely gave her fiction short drift. I wasn’t particularly interested in it. After I first read Slouching, I went and read The White Album and then I basically went and got all the nonfiction that was available and read it. As new nonfiction books would come out I would buy them, in hardcover and read them instantly. But the fiction… I think the only novel for a long time I had read was Play It As It Lays. I have to say I think it’s a really interesting novel, though I also think it has a bunch of problems. I wasn’t that interested in Hollywood at that point. I was still living on the East Coast. So it didn’t resonate with me and I really thought the fiction was somehow secondary. That changed prior to my getting involved in this project. But the work on the project has been interesting in kind of exactly the way you are asking about, because one of the things that the work of the project required at the beginning was the kind of end to end rereading of the entire body of work. Over the years, I had ultimately come to read all of the novels, and I think a couple of them are quite good. I think Democracy is a really spectacularly good novel. And I’m a big fan of Run, River. I really think it’s a really good novel and particularly for a first novel. I’ve always kind of liked A Book of Common Prayer for a variety of reasons. But I do think that in the context of the whole career, the fiction seems a lot more essential to me than it did when I was thinking simply book-to-book. And partly for the reasons you are talking about, it makes sense because as a writer and as a human, she’s not addressing certain concerns in fiction and certain concerns in non-fiction. She’s writing out of  whatever it is she’s wrestling with. And she’s wrestling consistently over a period of years. So I think that it’s absolutely the case that the novels are in conversation with the essays; that they’re learning things from each other about style and structure; that they are learning things from each other about content and angle of attack. I think we really see it in Where I Was From, where she doubles back and basically takes apart Run, River. In Where I Was From, she uses her reevaluation of Run, River to make a larger reevaluation of California mythology and narratives, you know, narratives she bought into, that she’s now no longer buying into. It’s really an interesting pair of bookends, if the career had ended with Where I was From. It would have been a kind of perfectly arched structure in a certain sense with a conversation taking place between a book of fiction and a book of nonfiction. I don’t think she is mapping it out that way, but you know as a writer, she is clearly aware on a cellular level, if nothing else, of how these books are informing each other. But one of the great pleasures of doing this project and there have been many, is that it has allowed me to think about and contextualize her fiction as an essential part of her body of work. And that is something that as a reader of her, I’ve had to grow into that perception.

Reft: I can’t end this interview without asking a question about gender. Famously, in her essay from “The Women’s Movement,” from The White Album, she wrote, “I’ve also often wondered about gender. And then, at the exact dispirited moment when there seemed no one at all willing to play the proletariat, along came the women’s movement, and the invention of women as a ‘class’ … To read even desultorily in this literature was to recognize instantly a certain dolorous phantasm, an imagined Every Woman with whom the authors seemed to identify all too entirely. This ubiquitous construct was everyone’s victim but her own.’” Now that sounds like a dismissal of feminism. But then when you read this volume, you’ve got women in a constellation of roles and positions. You’ve got Lily Knight in Run, River as an adultress stuck in a complicated marriage. You’ve got Maria Wyeth, who at first may seem like a victim of Hollywood’s toxic culture but by its conclusion is revealed to be much more complicated and perhaps much more problematic than the reader realizes. And then Charlotte Douglass and her daughter Marin are these independent and emotional elusive figures; Marin a literal criminal. So how do you think readers will wrestle with this aspect of her writing in terms of gender, because on the one hand it seems dismissive, and on the other hand when you actually read through it, it’s not at all. 

Ulin: I think that’s a key question. I will say “The Women’s Movement” essay is not one of my favorites, it feels to me not fully formed in some way, like that’s an essay I would love to have seen her revisit in some fashion. But I do agree with you, though she’s not dismissing, she’s critiquing the movements. She’s always writing about strong women characters. For me, it’s not necessarily feminism or what feminism entails or means or activates that she is resisting. I don’t even think that’s true. I think that on practical terms, she’s a feminist. A strong working woman who put her career first, always did. She wanted to go to Saigon and report on the war, and no one would send her because she’s a woman. She and Dunne were going to bring Quintana as a baby to Saigon. I think you know the idea of a kind of strong, self-directed woman is not something she feels she has to champion because it’s just who she is. She’s natural. That’s the first part. I do think that’s true. I also think it’s more of her resistance to the idea of a movement, rather than going back to what we were talking about. She’s not a “joiner.” So the idea that to be actualized or activated, she needs to be part of a movement, I think that’s what she’s resisting. And I also think she’s resisting a certain kind of flattening of language and rhetoric that comes out of movement ideology and movement thinking. I think that across the board whatever that movement is, and that’s true not just of progressive or liberal movements, it’s also true for conservative movements. I think she’s rejecting the idea of group think in favor of a kind of individual consciousness. Now the trick about that or the catch is that that is a position of a class privilege. Only a human who is in a position to be able to self-actualize, who has the resources, whether they are financial or professional or whatever, to do what she needs to do can step away. The value of a movement is that it works for everybody. It’s not about the individual, it’s about making everybody rises on the tide. Only someone who has already risen can stand  askance from the movement. Didion is not someone who is struggling to get a job, she’s not struggling to get recognition or respect, she’s not someone struggling financially, or any of these things. But by the same token, that is who she is. That is what her experience is, that is her social positioning, and so there’s no way for her not to operate out of that social positioning. It’s her context. And so I think it’s really complicated, particularly around the women’s movement, because she is emblematic of many of the things that the women’s movement stands for, but she’s suspicious of movements in general. She’s privileged enough that she hasn’t had to be part of that collective process. I think there we see a lot of the impulses and contradictions that come together in some way. Again, with Didion, it comes back to personal positioning and and personal sensibility first, and the political or social positioning or sensibility grows out of that.

 

 

Ryan Reft is a historian of 20th and 21st-century American history at the Library of Congress. His work has appeared in several journals, including Souls, The Sixties, California History, Planning Perspectives, Southern California Quarterly, and the Journal of Urban History, as well as in the anthology “Barack Obama and African American Empowerment: The Rise of Black America’s New Leadership” and “Asian American Sporting Cultures.” He is the co-editor of East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte. The opinions expressed by Reft are solely his and not those of the Library of Congress. He can be reached on twitter at @ryanreft.

David L. Ulin is Associate Professor of the Practice of English. He is the author or editor of a dozen books, including Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, shortlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, and Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, which won a California Book Award. The former book editor and book critic of the Los Angeles Times, he has written for The Atlantic MonthlyVirginia Quarterly ReviewThe Paris Review, and The New York Times. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, Black Mountain Institute, and the Lannan Foundation. Most recently, he edited the Library of America’s Didion: The 1960s and 70s, the first in a three volume edition of the author’s collected works.

Copyright: © 2020 Ryan Reft and David L. Ulin. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Reviews

Lunch Ladies and the Fight for School Food Justice: A Superhero Origin Story

Christine Tran

Plagued by unsavory stories in American popular culture, the lunch lady has been a mocked and villainized figure for decades. Yet, as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds in real-time, lunch ladies across the country are emerging as unassuming superheroes feeding millions across the United States.

Because of school closures and an economic downturn, school food is assuming a major role in providing emergency meals for their communities. Some are doing so independently and others have partnered with local food banks, faith-based organizations, and the Red Cross. With nearly 75 million children under the age of eighteen across the country,[1] coupled with families losing their incomes at a startling rate, more and more people are in need of food. In the first three weeks of shelter-in-place orders, sixteen million Americans filed for unemployment[2] while in nearly the same three-week period, the Los Angeles Unified School District served five million meals to children and adults.[3]

Arroyo Knights. El Monte.

Arroyo High Schools in El Monte, California

Yet unlike the origin stories of comic book heroes, the history of the lunch lady has been almost entirely erased. Moreover, their collective stories have fallen victim to historical amnesia. As a result, school food, as a sector, is invisible to and undervalued by society. For decades, most lunch ladies held some of the lowest paying jobs in school systems, making hourly wages with little to no benefits—creating a lasting impact on their economic and social worth. This is the underappreciated workforce that the United States now looks to for support.

More than ever, it is important to elevate the origin story of the lunch lady. As comic books have taught us, we can’t undo the past but we can learn from it as we move on to create future narratives, where lunch ladies (and gentlemen, or more gender non-conforming “food folks”) are acknowledged and respected for the essential workers that they are, during and outside of a pandemic. To bring those narratives to light, Jennifer Gaddis gives us their origin story in The Labor of Lunch: Why We Need Real Food and Real Jobs in American Public Schools (UC Press, 2019).

In her book, Gaddis addresses implicit biases the reader may hold about lunch ladies by guiding us through a richly-layered history of school food and labor. Using archival photos and first-hand stories, she connects us with narratives that have been withheld from our collective consciousness. She addresses the inequities of this work head on by laying out the historic role that racial and economic discrimination, capitalism, and patriarchy played in perpetuating stereotypes of school food service workers.

Gaddis sets the stage for the book not in faraway time or even in a cafeteria. She starts the book in 2004 with Lisa, a 48-year-old assistant cook, testifying in front of a local school board: “Good evening, distinguished board members and all in the room who have an ethical obligation to our children. I see some faces whose children I have had the honor of personally feeding. I use the word honor because it is the highest trust a parent can give, letting someone else care and nurture their children” (1). In her own words, Lisa addresses the board as an advocate and labor union member, identities not often associated with lunch ladies.

Gaddis_Fig3

UNITE HERE Local 1 workers gather in protest outside Chicago Public Schools head-quarters in April 2012 as part of a series of actions in their real-food, real-jobs campaigns.Courtesy UNITE HERE

Further so, she aptly titles the first chapter of the book, “The Radical Roots of School Lunch.” This foundational section to the book disaggregates the history you may find on the internet when you search for “school lunch.” Gaddis tells a history of a movement that began half a century before the passing of the 1946 National School Lunch Act, by firmly rooting school food history alongside feminist history, calling it a “product of generations of women’s activism.” In fact, school lunch started out in the 1890s  as a localized “penny lunch” program as part of a “nonprofit school lunch movement.” It was born out of a public necessity to feed extremely poor children, “not as private, gendered responsibility” (18). School lunch, along with kindergarten and public kitchens, were just some approaches advocates used to create new forms of public caregiving to support the changing roles of women during this industrializing era.

A federal policy that paves the way for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) can appear to be a win, but who is actually benefiting from the program? Gaddis examines the systemic racial inequities that excluded many populations of color under the federal school lunch program. In the chapter, “The Fight for Food Justice,” Gaddis discusses the role of the Black Panther Party in organizing local support for poor black communities whose needs were unmet by the government. In 1968, a group of Oakland mothers worked alongside the Panthers to start the very first Free Breakfast for Children Program. This program resulted in a national movement of localized expansion in poor black communities that would feed tens of thousands of poor black children across the country while exposing inequities, and demonstrating to the American public “a working example of how social reproduction could be collectivized at the neighborhood scale in a truly egalitarian fashion” (62).

In addition to social and political movements, the chronology of school food is also heavily influenced by the industrialization of food and rise of the cheap food economy, as well as the government’s role in regulating what goes into school meals. In 1981, the Reagan administration reduced the school food budget by one-third, resulting in the need to cut costs by changing regulations to include cheaper substitutes. A task force was convened to discuss cheaper alternatives to certain meal components: “Suddenly corn chips, pretzels, doughnuts, and pies could all pass as ‘bread’ in the NSLP” (98). Gaddis also describes the shifting labor of school lunch, as more central kitchen models were being constructed and for-profit Big Food factories began receiving more contracts to turn commodity foods like chicken into nuggets. These shifts led to reheating already prepared foods and diminishing a school cafeteria’s capacity to cook from scratch. This period, according to Gaddis, had a stark effect on the school food programming across the country.

Gaddis_Fig1

Workers making prepack sandwiches in a central kitchen facility. Records of the Office of  the Secretary of Agriculture, 1974-ca. 2003, National Archives and Records Administration.

Despite the challenges that exist in school food, Gaddis positions a lofty goal for the school food sector: “Empowering school kitchen and cafeteria workers to cook real food from scratch using locally sourced and school-grown ingredients can transform the entire culture of [NSLP]” (174). Rather than one-off solutions or one-size fits all approaches, Gaddis offers several examples to realize this “real food economy.” One approach is farm-to-school, by which schools can connect and buy directly from local farmers. This type of programming effectively builds relationships with food so that we know where it comes from. This requires coordinated efforts and investments: “Establishing comprehensive farm-to-school programs that combine local food procurement, school gardening, and classroom education takes significant effort that is difficult to sustain without grant funding and personal donations” (196). Identifying and working with local partners is key to making this change. Gaddis reminds us of this shared responsibility: “The NSLP is a public program. And we, the public, can reimagine and ultimately transform it into an engine for positive social and economic change” (214). We must remember that to feed children, we must also employ people to serve, cook, transport, and grow food. In effect, this would stimulate the economy, not take away from it.

Making these sweeping changes to the school food system requires a greater shift in society. Gaddis positions the notion of a real school food system into a new economy of care. How do we care about school food and the labor behind it? Gaddis reminds us that the value of school food and labor is dependent on our collective respect for it: “It’s up to us to change the paradigm. Cheapness is not synonymous with public value.” (228). Now more than ever, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, food service workers across the country need this paradigm shift as they risk their own health to feed millions of children. By valuing their labor and school food we can better support them on the frontlines of this public health crisis.

Notes

[1] https://www.childtrends.org/indicators/number-of-children

[2] https://apnews.com/20a7e14dada836862b250b54a11305dd

[3] https://civileats.com/2020/04/07/with-schools-closed-some-districts-are-feeding-more-people-than-food-banks/

 

Christine Tran is a food and education advocate from South El Monte, California. She is passionate about people, places, food, and stories that connect us all. Her diverse background in education, food justice, communities, and policy has taken her across the country and around the world. As a multimedia storyteller, she aspires to spark dialogues to deepen our understanding of each other, the food we eat, and the world we share. Christine is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington studying Educational Leadership, Policy & Organizations. She obtained her bachelor’s degrees in Asian American Studies and English, as well as a Master of Education from UCLA. She also holds a Master of Arts in sociology from Columbia University in the City of New York.

Copyright: © 2020 Christine Tran. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Poetry

After

IMG_5389

Original art by Fernando Mendez Corona

Chiwan Choi

at best
we will lose each other
at something we have been taught
to call the end.

but look
not beyond the rubble of los angeles
the destruction that became
of our lives
but in it, in the heart of it

the skeleton that rises
into silence
bones of apartments and arms

don’t believe them
when they tell you
there is nothing above us
but god

go
climb up
and find the room
and you will see what is left of our city
our home
the life we had
promised to
each other

look around
do you see the bricks on the floor

rebuild it and call this place immaculate

there will be no god
nor angels
nor anything invisible they asked us
to believe in

instead
on the balcony
you will see a body
walking toward you
and a face that peeks in
with a smile

and you will say
i know your name
i have known your name

and one by one
we will arrive
and gather
and rebuild all of it
with our names

rejoice
we will rejoice
sing the songs
of our names
and fill the skies
with laughter.

 

Chiwan Choi is the author of 3 books of poetry, The Flood (Tía Chucha Press, 2010), Abductions (Writ Large Press, 2012), and The Yellow House (CCM, 2017). He wrote, presented, and destroyed the novel Ghostmaker throughout the course of 2015. His poems and essays have appeared in numerous journals and magazines, including The New York Times MagazineONTHEBUS, Esquire.com, and The Nervous Breakdown. He is currently at work on My Name Is Wolf, the follow up to The Yellow House. Chiwan is a partner at Writ Large Press, a Los Angeles based indie publisher, focused on using literary arts to resist, disrupt, and transgress, and a member of The Accomplices. Chiwan was born in Seoul, Korea, spent his early childhood in Asunción, Paraguay, and now splits his time between Pittsburgh and Los Angeles.

Copyright: © 2020 Chiwan Choi. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Excerpts

Chinese Workers and the Transcontinental Railroad

Manu Karuka

The Central Pacific Railroad transformed California from an overseas possession to a continental possession of the United States. Chinese railroad labor, organized under contract and disciplined by racial violence, was situated at the war-finance nexus. After completion of the railroad, Chinese exclusion formalized racial violence and labor control on a continental scale, evacuating models of relationship governing the movement of people across Indigenous lands and waters. The railroad, and exclusion, were core infrastructures of continental imperialism.

Racial dimensions of the war-finance nexus manifested in the snarling rhetoric of Leland Stanford’s 1862 inaugural speech as governor of California: “While the settlement of our State is of the first importance, the character of those who shall become settlers is worthy of scarcely less consideration.” Stanford’s fear of an Asian invasion grew out of racial and class anxieties, that California would act as an escape valve for the “dregs” of Asia. Racial, class, and cultural qualities of imagined future Asian migrations threatened Stanford’s vision of California as a space of settler accumulation. He voiced a colonialist anxiety about dispossession, a racial paranoia centering on fears of invasion and divestment. The colonization of California, accomplished by constant, ongoing, and overwhelming violation of Indigenous life, proceeded through relationships with Asia’s “numberless millions,” threatening, in Stanford’s perspective, to undermine the stability of the colonial order. Chinese labor was an instrument, not a subject, of colonialism. Stanford urged the California government to request land and credit from the U.S. federal government, to support the construction of a transcontinental railroad, to remake California as a site of continental imperialism. Stanford’s rhetoric was not without precedent. In his 1851 inaugural speech as the first U.S. civil governor of California, Peter Burnett had called for a “war of extermination” against Indigenous peoples in California. From the base of their “mountain fastness,” Burnett argued, Natives engaged in irregular warfare that made settlers always vulnerable to random attack, and made it impossible for settlers to distinguish Indigenous combatants from noncombatants.[1] Colonialist race war fueled the fears for colonial futures.

Five weeks after Stanford gave his speech, the U.S. Congress approved “An Act to prohibit the ‘Coolie Trade’ by American Citizens in American Vessels.” The act prohibited U.S. citizens and residents from transporting “the inhabitants, or subjects of China known as ‘coolies,’” defined as individuals “disposed of, or sold, or transferred, for any term of years or for any time whatever, as servants or apprentices, or to be held to service or labor.” U.S. law associated coolie status with indenture, a status marked in time, distinct from slavery. A distance from “freedom” was visible through categories of labor and relationships of exploitation rather than geographic origins, a suspicion of not quite being free. The act enumerated conditions for “free and voluntary emigration of any Chinese subject,” requiring men arriving from China to carry a certificate of freedom, issued by a U.S, consular official at the port of emigration. Although the law made it illegal to bring Chinese people to the United States as “coolies,” it would remain practically unenforced.[2]

Two months later, in April 1862, the California state legislature passed an Anti-Coolie Act, instituting a monthly tax on Chinese people working gold mines and owning businesses, a new cost for being identified as Chinese in California. Against the logic of the federal law, which presented “coolie” status as a condition of labor, California legislated in racial terms. “Coolie,” in the logic of California law, meant “Chinese,” a racial status, not a debt and labor structure. Where in the federal anti-coolie law, the U.S. government asserted territorial prerogatives to control borders, in the California law, the state distinguished Chinese people as a significant source of state revenue. The racial logics of California state revenue betrayed colonial origins, echoing an 1847 law mandating that Indigenous people’s employers issue passes and certificates of employment for Indians who wished to trade in California towns.[3]

The Price of a Ticket

In an interview with the historian Hurbert Bancroft, Kwong Ki- Chaou, a California-based representative of the Chinese government, described Chinese migrations to the United States: “Chinese coming to this country are as free as European immigrants- they come here free.” Kwong framed Chinese migrations (and freedom) in relation to the transformation of European provinciality into New World whiteness, distancing from the legacies of slavery on life in North America, claiming participant status in the creation of a New World. Contra Stanford, Kwong presented Chinese people not as alien invaders, but as constituents in the colonial pageant of California. Freedom was a claim to belong, a claim to possession, predicated on the ongoing occupation of Indigenous lands. Kwong continued, saying that Chinese people in North America “have no masters” with one exception: “Only those persons who came to work for the railroad came under contract but most of them ran away when they got here. Those who brought them lost money’ but all others came free.”[4] Were those who came from China to work for the railroad free?

U.S. authorities had inherited labor structures from Spanish colonial California. Toward the end of the 1840s, whites were organizing hunting parties that systematically attacked entire Indigenous communities, a particularly gendered form of violence that targeted Indigenous women. Amidst colonialist race war, with the high cost of labor during the Gold Rush, the California legislature passed one of its first laws, the 1850 Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, legalizing debt peonage to force Indigenous children and adults into compulsory labor for large-scale agricultural interests, under the guise of indenture. The U.S. military government in San Francisco had already begun enforcing compulsory Indigenous labor in 1847. The area north of San Francisco Bay was home to over 100,000 Indigenous people in 1846. Early U.S. military campaigns against communities branded as “horse-thief Indians” established U.S. authority over the region, a point of commensurability between the Mexican ranching elite, newly arrived settlers from the United States, and the U.S. military. Race war and overseas imperialism shaped the development of San Francisco. As a port of arrival, San Francisco was linked to Singapore and Penang, points of entry for Chinese workers to tin and gold mines in southeast Asia. En route to San Francisco, ships stopped in Manila, Guam, and Honolulu. Gold fields near Marysville, as well as Union Pacific construction, drew Chinese people, following Kānaka Maolis who had arrived to a place that was already deeply imbued with Oceanic histories and relationships.[5]

On arrival in California, most of the migrants from China found work through family or social connections, or through district associations, the huiguan. Known in San Francisco as the Six Companies, district associations functioned as mutual-aid societies where new and indigent arrivals could find shelter and basic amenities, following organizational models among Chinese communities in Southeast Asia. The huiguan entrenched the power of merchants in Chinatown communities, institutions to localize and delegate functions of community upkeep and policing, operating through solidarity and control, linking mercantile economy spanning southeast Asia, the Philippines, and Hawai’i.[6]

1s00615v

Chinese camp, Brown’s Station. Photograph by Alfred A. Hart, between 1865-1869. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Sucheng Chan described Chinese merchants’ main assets in California: working knowledge of English and ready access to laborers. Merchants developed business around arrivals to California and departures to China, situated strategically between Chinatown communities and major corporations. Chinese merchant capital in California could not shake off constraints on its reproduction and valorization. Its primary economic function was to provide and provision Chinese labor on demand. Labor contractors recruited and organized Chinese workers into gangs of twenty-five to thirty men. The Central Pacific kept accounts by gang, disbursing wages to a headman, who then divided the wages. Charles Crocker, who oversaw construction on the Central Pacific, told the U.S. Senate, “we cannot distinguish Chinamen by names very well.” According to Crocker, the names of Chinese workers sounded too much alike for railroad authorities to distinguish between individuals, constituting instead a homogenous mass in the railroad company’s wage accounts. “We could not know Ah Sin, Ah You, Kong Won, all such names. We cannot keep their names in the usual way, because it is a different language. You understand the difficulty. It is not done in that way because they are slaves.” To be a Chinese worker on the Central Pacific was definitely not to be a slave, the property of another. It was, however, a reduction to the status of a tool for grading earth and drilling a mountain. It was to be expendable, interchangeable, replaceable. Chinese workers were instruments of labor, constant capital for the Central Pacific Railroad Company. The quality of their lives interfered with their essential function, as a quantity of labor.[7]

State and corporation supplied the organizational basis for colonialism in nineteenth-century California. Neither could be disentangled from the other. Leland Stanford was president of the Central Pacific Railroad while serving as the first Republican governor of California. The first locomotive in service for the Central Pacific was christened the “Governor Stanford.” In 1863, Governor Stanford appointed Edwin Bryant Crocker, elder brother of Charles (the superintendent of Central Pacific construction), as a justice of the California Supreme Court. A year later, E.B., “the Judge,” as his associates hailed him, became chief counsel for the Central Pacific, joining the circle of directors including Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Collis Huntington, and Charles.[8]

Testifying later before the U.S. Senate, Charles Crocker would stress wages to argue that Chinese labor in the Central Pacific was free labor. “You cannot control a Chinaman except you pay him for it. You cannot make a contract with him, or his friend, or supposed master, and get his labors unless you pay for it, and pay for him.” The Central Pacific recruited Chinese labor through labor contractors, combining wages with coercion, resting on the power of contractors to control mobility and immobility at the same time. According to Crocker’s Senate testimony, the Central Pacific procured Chinese workers through the services of Chinese and white labor contractors alike. One firm, Sisson, Wallace & Co., eventually “furnished pretty much all of the Chinamen that we worked.”[9] Clark Crocker, brother of Charles and E.D., was the “& Co.” in question.

Leland Stanford, in his 1866 report of the president of the Central Pacific, assured investors there was no system similar to slavery among Chinese workers, whose wages and provisions were distributed by independent agents: “We have assurances from leading Chinese merchants, that under the just and liberal policy pursued by the Company, it will be able to produce during the next year, not less than fifteen thousand laborers.” Employing Chinese workers as a racially distinct labor force, whose labor was cheaper than white, was not inevitable for the Central Pacific. The directors arrived at these hiring strategies only after considering other sources of labor, such as Confederate prisoners working under guard. Across the South, African Americans competed with Confederate veterans for railroad jobs. In Virginia, in August 1865, such competition sparked violent confrontation between Black workers and white workers (the latter backed by a Maryland militia sent to break up the fighting). That October, the Committee on Industrial Pursuits at the 1865 California State Convention of Colored Citizens forwarded a resolution to send three representatives to present to Central Pacific directors “the expediency of employing from twenty to forty thousand freedmen on the Great Pacific Railroad” and to petition members of the California state legislature and congressional representatives for aid.[10] The Central Pacific directors did not receive the message, or they chose to ignore it.

A few months earlier, in May 1865, at the outset of the summer construction season, Mark Hopkins had written to Collis Huntington, “We find a difficulty getting laborers on the railroad work.” According to Hopkins, workers would come and go as they pleased, like “tramping journeymen.” Labor recruiting and labor control posed major obstacles for Central Pacific construction, and Hopkins saw Chinese workers as essential to managing both of these issues. “Without them,” he worried, “it would be impossible to go on with the work. But China laborers are coming in slowly so that Charley thinks the force will steadily increase from this time on.”[11] A report from the Sacramento Daily Union a little over a year later, in June 1866, provides a sense of the rapid increase Chinese labor as Central Pacific construction proceeded. Between Colfax and summit, the railroad employed 11,000 Chinese Workers:

Almost the entire work of digging is done by Chinamen, and the Directors of the road say it would be impossible to build it at present without them. They are found to be equally as good as white men, and less inclined to quarrel and strikes. They are paid $30 per month and boarded, and a cook is allowed for every twelve men. They do not accomplish so much in a given time as Irish laborers, but they are willing to work more hours per day, and are content with their lot so long as they are promptly paid.

The value of Chinese labor is accounted, here, in terms of racial comparison, involving a give and take between productivity and control, indispensable for making accurate predictions of the future. “If the work on this road continues to progress as fast as it has done during this season,” the Union continued, “there is little doubt that the cars will be running from Sacramento to Salt Lake inside of three years.”[12] Accurate predictions could stimulate investment. The ethereal relations of finance capital took flight from land grants, and the racial and gendered control of bodies and space.

Although celebrated for their supposed docility, news circulated in California of different modes of Chinese being. In December 1866, the Sacramento Daily Union reported that six Chinese miners working a placer on Bear River had defended themselves from four white men, killing two of their attackers, and causing the other two to flee for their lives. A second report, from Shasta County, relayed information about an attack on a group of miners near Rock Creek, which the Daily Union writer blamed on growing racist sentiment against Chinese miners. The attack at Rock Creek resulted in three wounded miners, and in the days afterwards, “the Chinese in the various camps around town have been purchasing arms to protect themselves with.” Although mining life shaped the context for Chinese labor, it had already been superseded by the industrial transformation of the regional economy. As a Daily Union writer baldly stated a day after the reports of violence against Chinese miners, in an article entitled “Railroads and Capital”: “This is emphatically an era of railroads.”[13]

A few days later, on January 2, 1867, Stanford and Judge Crocker attended a banquet at the Occidental Hotel to celebrate the departure of the first steamship bound for China and Japan from San Francisco. In his remarks that evening, Stanford made no explicit mention of Chinese workers, but he had China on his mind. Projecting forward to an anticipated completion of the transcontinental in 1870, Stanford prattled:

Then will the “ligament be perfect that binds the Eastern Eng and Western Chang together.” Then, Mr. Chairman, behold the result! For America, the chief control of the developed trade of the better part of Asia with Europe and America. Our Pacific slope, and particularly California, filling rapidly with a hardy, enterprising and industrious people mostly of our brethren and sisters of our old Atlantic homes.[14]

 Stanford had slightly revised his inaugural speech from eight years before, imagining a putatively national body assembled from distinct colonial parts, to enable the future development of California along desirable lines. For Stanford, Chinese people were not, themselves, part of the social body of continental imperialism. Instead, this social body acts on Chinese people in North America, and beyond.

Stanford’s grandiose visions, however, were not borne out by the unfolding calculations among Central Pacific directors, to recruit and control a labor force at wages and work conditions that would maximize their profits. Just days after Stanford spoke, Judge Crocker and Collis Huntington debated how large of a work force to maintain through the slower winter construction, Huntington favoring cutting the work force down to seasonal size. Discharge experienced Chinese workers, Crocker worried, and they would move into mining, putting the Central Pacific at a decided disadvantage during the short summer season. The previous summer, construction managers had difficulty keeping workers at the grueling hard rock tunnel work. Those currently employed by the Central Pacific had already experienced the conditions at the summit, and the judge felt them to be “dependable.” Crocker asked Huntington to test his own powers of forbearance and accept a relatively higher level of employment during the winter. “We hope you will strain every nerve bringing everything to bear to keep along, and not ask us to discharge a man.”[15]

Huntington remained skeptical, or perhaps his nerves could not bear the strain, and he asked for an accounting of the cost of excavating one cubic yard at the summit tunnel. Judge Crocker obligingly explained that construction directors projected working three men on each drill, at the excruciating pace of a 13/4 inch hole one foot, per hour, organizing the work in day and night shifts of eight hours. Construction managers experimented with new tools, such as “gunpowder drills” and nitroglycerin, to speed up and cheapen construction. The tools met the rock, of course, through the application of the worker. And the worker was a category with distinctions. Closer to the status of tools, of drills, gunpowder, and nitroglycerin than white workers, Chinese railroad workers gave the directors of the Central Pacific a chance to squeeze more profit from a hard place. The judge calculated, “Each white man costs us in board and wages $2 1/2 each 8 hours, but Chinamen cost us $1.19 each 8 hours, and they drill nearly as fast.” Chinese railroad labor was a quantity measuring time in relation to price, and the price was lower than that of white labor. Where the Central Pacific covered housing and food costs for white railroad labor, the reproduction of Chinese labor was free.[16] By the end of the month, the directors doubled down, printing and circulating a Chinese language recruiting notice throughout California and in China. The judge was not entirely sure what the notice said. “The Chinamen all understand it,” he explained to Huntington, “but it is hard for them to translate it back into English.”[17] Behind the bluster of corporate control lurked countersovereignty, a reactive dependence on others.

Reproducing Racial Control

The shared culture of Chinese workers and merchants functioned simultaneously as a sphere of pleasure and sustenance and a sphere of constriction. Railroad workers’ corporate wages supplanted the shared profits of miners in the gold fields. Chinese workers’ isolation in temporary work camps, scattered along the line of railroad construction, bound them to relationships cementing their control. A separate system of disbursing wages and provisioning food and housing reflected these distinctions. Charles Nordhoff visited a Chinese railroad work camp on the San Joaquin River, where he found seven hundred Chinese men and one hundred white men. The Chinese workers were supposed to receive $28 for working twenty-six days each month, paying for food, tents, and utensils, with labor contractors paying the cooks. Several railroad cars at the end of track acted as a store for Chinese workers. According to Nordhoff, most of the items sold in this store were imported from China. Organizing and provisioning a male society, the Central Pacific took on a military structure. This was the organizational form of the war-finance nexus, in which class formation occurred through the structures of war. Merchants handled the distribution of food, and workers were captive to their supplies and profits. Collectively, Chinese railroad workers had no future. The success of their labor would ensure the obsolescence of their lives.[18]

Planning in relation to Chinese labor, Central Pacific directors balanced the temporality of seasonal work conditions with temporalities of Chinese laborers’ lives. In early February 1867, recruiting delays during lunar New Year left the Central Pacific short of at least 1,500 workers for immediate work, threatening to jam up the progress of construction after the snow melted. In the howling winter, according to Judge Crocker’s report, 1,500 Chinese men were already at work on the summit, and 1,000 on the approach.[19] The Chinese calendar, with its festivals and feasts, helped Chinese workers on the Central Pacific maintain a sense of connection to their homes and families and to their ancestors. It also ritualized their connection to the merchants and contractors who continued to profit from both their employment and their social reproduction. Calendar time blended into labor time for Chinese workers along the railroad’s line of construction. The formation of a Chinese merchant class in North America, both provisioning and supplying labor, revolved around relationships to Chinese workers as both consumers and producers.[20]

As Judge Crocker explained to Huntington in mid-February 1867, nearly all of those drilling for the Central Pacific were Chinese men whose work was “fully equal to white men,” but they were employed at a rate requiring them to work twenty-six days a month, covering the cost of their own food and housing, unlike their white counterparts.[21] Huntington remained unconvinced, and the judge emphasized the relative value of Chinese railroad labor two days later:

We have had a chance to compass the merits of our Chinese laborers and Cornish miners, who are deemed the best underground workers in the world, and the Chinese beat them right straight all along, day in and day out. We have a large force of well-trained Chinese tunnel workers, and they can’t be beat. They cost only about half what white men do, and are more regular in labor, and more peaceable. They are not men who get drunk and pickup rows, but can be relied upon for steady work.[22]

1s00510v

Laborers and rocks, near opening of Summit Tunnel. Chinese camp, Brown’s Station. Photograph by Alfred A. Hart, between 1865-1869. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Empirical observation of racial competition settled the question. For Central Pacific Railroad Company directors, race was a calculus of profit maximization.

Mark Hopkins gave another perspective on this racial calculus, laying out three conditions whereby he and the other directors should “never be financially troubled hereafter,” including an early spring melting off the Sierras, $250 per month of investments coming in from the eastern United States from June through November, and “increased numbers of Chinamen come into the work.”[23] Weather, investments, and Chinese labor were the legs of a platform on which Hopkins and his associates planned to build their personal fortunes. For the first, they could pray. For the second, they could bluster and impress. For the third, they had to rely on others. How could anyone imagine this to be stable, to imagine that the men perched atop could be in control?

Strike

Late in May 1867, as the snow finally began melting between Cisco and the Truckee River, the Central Pacific directors prepared a full push on the summit. As the weather cooperated, and funds for equipment and wages flowed, it was suddenly difficult to find workers. Judge Crocker explained to Huntington,

The truth is the Chinese are now exclusively employed in quartz mills and a thousand other employments new to them. Our use of them led hundreds of others to employ them, so that now when we want to gather them up for the spring and summer work, a large portion are permanently employed at work they like better. The snow & labor questions have our progress quite uncertain.

Five days later, the judge notified Huntington of plans to raise the Chinese workers’ wages almost 13 percent, from $31 to $35 per month. Chinese workers were finding work in quartz mills, building roads and canals, and many were going to Idaho and Montana, looking for work. “Our supply,” he cautioned, “will be short unless we do something.” And so the Central Pacific directors responded, at a loss of “$100,000 in gold on this season’s work.” By early June, the judge was panicking, “Our force is not now increasing, and the season has come when it ought to increase.” He understood the Central Pacific as a victim of its own innovation: “We have proved their value as laborers, and everybody is trying them, and now we can’t get them.”[24]

In late June, Mark Hopkins notified Huntington of “an unexpected feature.” After the Central Pacific had raised Chinese workers’ wages in the hopes of quickly increasing the drilling work force for the summer construction season at the summit, news arrived that the Chinese workers had gone on strike, demanding $40 per month and a ten-hour day, instead of the current eleven-hour work days. The strike demands would tip over the platform upon which the directors had imagined profit. As Hopkins put it, “if they are successful in this demand, then they control, and their demands will be increased.” It was a war for control. It was not only a class war over the conditions of work. It was also a war to decide who would colonize California, and on what terms, echoing Stanford’s gubernatorial address. Hopkins expressed hope in a Central Pacific “application for 5000 Freedmen from the Freedmen’s Bureau.” It was a lesson in political economy. “When any commodity is in demand beyond the natural supply, even Chinese labor, the price will tend to increase.”[25]

The Sacramento Daily Union printed a telegram attributed to Huntington, dated June 28, stating, “There will be no trouble in getting all the laborers you want. How many thousand shall I send? You can contract for passage at low rates.” He was bluffing.[26] The next day, Judge Crocker wrote with more honesty: “The truth is, they are getting smart.” However, he doubted the workers’ intelligence: “Who has stirred up the strike we don’t know, but it was evidently planned and concerted.” The strike was a bid for direct accountability between individual workers and the Central Pacific, directed against the railroad directors and construction supervisors. While it forced the Central Pacific directors to reckon with their workers as a unified group, it was also a bid to force the bosses to consider them as individuals.

The Central Pacific directors were inclined to reinvest in a racial division of labor. Judge Crocker notified Huntington of a man named Yates, a ship’s steward who had met with Stanford in San Francisco. William Henry Yates had arrived in San Francisco in 1851 from Washington, DC, where he had been active in the Underground Railroad, and had worked as a steward on river steamers and ferry boats in California. Yates had played a leadership role in the 1865 Colored Citizens’ convention. “His plan was to get a large number of freedmen to come to California under the Freedmen’s Bureau, and under the aid of the government, that is a sort of military organization crossing the plains.” The judge understood that Yates was then in Washington, trying to find support for the idea. The racial organization of labor, for the Central Pacific Railroad, was situated squarely at the nexus of war and finance. The social reproduction of continental imperialism is the social reproduction of war. The judge understood the strike as a skirmish in a deeper war.

The only safe way for us is to inundate this state and Nevada with laborers. Freedmen, Chinese, Japanese, all kinds of labor, so that men come to us for work instead of our hunting them up. They will all find something to do, and a surplus will keep wages low. It is our only security for strikes.[27]

Racial importation was a means to control the price of labor. Hopkins reinforced Crocker’s earlier message about Yates, whom he described as “a man of integrity and good abilities.” According to the plan, the Central Pacific would be responsible for expenses to bring freedmen to San Francisco, but “a Negro labor force would tend to keep the Chinese steady, as the Chinese have kept the Irishmen quiet.”[28] Hopkins saw this as a worthwhile investment in labor control. Judge Crocker fired off another note to Huntington that day. The strike was “the hardest blow we have here,” he sighed, and Charles had informed leaders of the Chinese community that the Central Pacific would pay no more than $35. Chinese community leaders had sent messages to the work camps, advising the workers to return to work. Something is left unwritten in the judge’s letter, which refers to more desperate measures, closing with the sentence, “It is the only way to deal with them.”[29]

Three days later, Hopkins sent word of Capital triumphant. The strike was broken, the workers returned to their jobs in the same conditions as before the strike. Curiously, after their victory, Hopkins speculated that “the strike appears to have been instigated by Chinese gamblers and opium traders, who are prohibited from plying their vocation on the line of the work.”[30] Hopkins imagined continuity between railroad workers’ collective voice and the lurid visions of an underground Chinese vice economy, specters perhaps, of the English and American opium traders who had helped set trans-Pacific Chinese migration patterns into play, under the banner of free trade. If nothing else, his statement contradicts the image of docile, hardworking, and clean-cut pets that Hopkins and the judge had imagined these Chinese workers to fulfill, just months before. The lives of their workers threatened the security of their profits.

On July 2, Judge Crocker relayed details of how the associates broke the strike:

Their agent stopped supplying them with goods and provisions and they really began to suffer. None of us went near them for a week. We did not want to exhibit anxiety. Then Charles went up, and they gathered around him, and he told them that he would not be dictated to, that he made the rules for them and not they for him.[31]

The destruction of the workers’ solidarity brutally reinscribed a hierarchy of exploitation driving Central Pacific construction, proceeding with the active participation of Chinese merchants who stopped supplying food and provisions to the work camps. The participation of Chinese merchants and labor contractors in breaking the strike clarifies their investments in the organization and management of labor on Central Pacific construction. There was no mutual aid, no principle of racial solidarity here. The Daily Union printed a more detailed account of the strike action and demands, clarifying the demand for eight hours from those working the tunnels, and ten hours from those on open ground. The report conveyed core strike demands:

We understand that a placard printed in the Chinese language was distributed along the line of the road a day or two before the strike occurred. This placard is said to have set forth the right of the workmen to higher wages and to a more moderate day’s work, and to deny the right of the overseers of the company to either whip them or to restrain them from leaving the road when they desire to seek other employment.

The workers struck over wages and the length of the working day. But they also struck for an end to physical punishment, and for the right to leave employment when they wanted to. These are not the hallmarks of free labor.[32]

From the perspectives of the Central Pacific directors, the situation improved after the strike. On July 6, Judge Crocker surmised to Huntington of the Chinese workers’ shame, predicting, “I don’t think we will ever have any more difficulties with them.”[33] Visions of worker docility had perhaps been reinforced with a confidence in racial hierarchies that had been reproduced by means of brute violence. A few weeks later, this turn coincided with workers, “arriving from China in large numbers,” according to Judge Crocker, who projected that the Central Pacific would soon meet its labor target.[34] Recruiting and controlling labor seemed to be resolved. While he imagined that the Chinese workers felt ashamed, the judge informed Huntington, “we feel a good deal encouraged.”[35]

Notes

This is an edited excerpt from Manu Karuka’s Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019)

[1] Peter Burnett, “Message to the California State Legislature,” January 7, 1851, California State Senate Journal (1851), 15; Leland Stanford, Inaugural Address of Leland Stanford, Governor of the State of California, January 10, 1862 (Sacramento: B. P. Avery, 1862);  June Mei, “Socioeconomic Origins of Emigration: Guangdong to California, 1850–1882,” in Labor Immigration under Capitalism: Asian Immigrant Workers in the United States before World War II, ed. Lucie Cheng and Edna Bonacich  (Berkeley:  University  of  California  Press, 1984);  Iyko  Day,  Alien Capital: Asian Racialization and the Logic of Settler Colonialism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press,  2016),  48–53; Moreton-Robinson, The White Possessive, 144, 152.

[2] U. S. 37th Cong., Sess II, Chs. 25, 27, 1862, pp. 340–41; Robert Schwendinger, “Investigating Chinese Immigrant Ships and Sailors,” in The Chinese American Experience: Papers from the Second  National  Conference  on  Chinese  American  Studies, ed. Genny Lim (San Francisco: Chinese Historical Society of America, 1980), 21; Robert Irick, Ch’ing Policy toward the Coolie Trade, 1847–1878 (China: Chinese Materials Center, 1982), 153; Moon-Ho Jung, “Outlawing ‘Coolies’: Race, Nation, and Empire in the Age of Emancipation,” American Quarterly 57, no. 3 (September 2005): 677–701; Moon-Ho Jung, Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor, and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 36–38; Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents, 25.

[3] An Act to Protect Free White Labor Against Competition with Chinese Coolie Labor, and to Discourage the Immigration of the Chinese Into the State of California, April 26, 1862; Moon Ho Jung, “What Is the ‘Coolie Question’?” Labour History 113 (2017): 3; Albert Hurtado, “Controlling California’s Indian Labor Force: Federal Administration of California Indian Affairs during the Mexican War,” Southern California Quarterly 61, no. 3 (1979): 228. Taxes on Chinese miners provided at least 10 percent of total state revenue from the early 1850s through 1864. Chinese people in California faced additional, racially targeted taxes in California during these years. Mark Kanazawa, “Immigration, Exclusion, and Taxation: Anti-Chinese Legislation in Gold Rush California,” Journal of Economic History 65, no. 3 (September 2005): 781, 785–87, 789.

[4] Moreton-Robinson, White Possessive, 5; Kwong Ki-Chaou, interview by H. H. Bancroft.

[5] Combined Asian American Resources Project: Oral History transcripts of tape-recorded interviews conducted 1974–76, p. 3; Albert Hurtado, Indian Survival on the California Frontier (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), 93; Albert Hurtado, “California Indians and the Workaday West: Labor, Assimilation, and Survival,” California History 69, no. 1 (Spring 1990): 5–6, 8; Tomás Almaguer, Racial Fault Lines: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 29–32; Yong Chen, “The Internal Origins of Chinese Emigration to California Reconsidered,” Western Historical Quarterly 28, no. 4 (Winter 1997): 520–46 at 540; Richard Steven Street, Beasts of the Field: A Narrative History of California Farmworkers, 1769–1913 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004), chaps. 6, 7; Michael Magliari, “Free Soil, Unfree Labor,” Pacific Historical Review 73, no. 3 (August 2004): 349–50, 352–53; Michael Magliari, “Free State Slavery: Bound Indian Labor and Slave Trafficking in California’s Sacramento Valley, 1850–1864,” Pacific Historical Review 81, no. 2 (May 2012): 157; Brendan C. Lindsay, Murder State: California’s Native American Genocide, 1846–1873 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012), chap. 5; Kornel Chang, Pacific Connections: The Making of the U. S.-Canadian Borderlands (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 12; Stacey L. Smith, Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 23–24; Hurtado, “California’s Indian Labor Force,” 219, 220, 222; Kwee Hui Kian, “Chinese Economic Dominance in Southeast Asia: A Longue Duree Perspective,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 55, no. 1 (2013): 21–22; Mei, “Socioeconomic Origins of Emigration,” 488–89; David Chang, The World and All the Things upon It: Native Hawaiian Geographies of Exploration (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 163–84.

[6] Rev. A. W. Loomis, “The Chinese Six Companies,” Overland Monthly 1, no. 3 (September 1868): 221–27 at 222–23; William Hoy, The Chinese Six Companies (San Francisco: Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, 1942); Him Mark Lai, Becoming Chinese American: A History of Communities and Institutions (New York: Alta Mira Press, 2004), 46, 58–59; Mei, “Socioeconomic Origins of Emigration,” 499–500; Kian, “Chinese Economic Dominance,” 8, 16–19; Mae Ngai, “Chinese Gold Miners and the ‘Chinese Question’ in Nineteenth-Century California and Victoria,” Journal of American History 101, no. 4 (2015): 1096.

[7] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 1976), 317. “. . . it is the wear and tear, the loss of value which they suffer as a result of continuous use over a period of time, which reappears as an element of value in the commodities which they produce”: Hilferding, Finance Capital, 245; Sucheng Chan, This Bittersweet Soil: The Chinese in California Agriculture, 1860–1910 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 347; Day, Alien Capital, 44; Vijay Prashad, The Karma of Brown Folk (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 90–91; Street, Beasts of the Field, chap. 12; Mae Ngai, The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010), 30, 74; Report of the Joint Special Committee to Investigate Chinese Immigration, 44th Congress (New York: Arno Press, 1978), Charles Crocker testimony, p. 675.

[8] Biographical Sketch of Edwin Bryant Crocker (manuscript). Judges played a central role in the California “apprenticeship “   system, which amounted to a trade in indigenous children to wealthy landowners. Magliari, “Free Soil, Unfree Labor,” 357.

[9] Charles Crocker testimony, Committee to Investigate Chinese Immigration, 674, 723–28; Chang, Pacific Connections, 30; Jung, Coolies and Cane, 61.

[10] Proceedings of the California State Convention of Colored Citizens, 1865, 92; Central Pacific Railroad Company, Report of the President, 1866, p. 33; Alexander Saxton, “The Army of Canton in the High Sierra,” in Chinese on the American Frontier, ed. Arif Dirlik (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), 29; William Thomas, The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011), 181–82.

[11] Hopkins to Huntington, May 31, 1865, Huntington Papers.

[12] Sacramento Daily Union, June 18, 1866.

[13] Sacramento Daily Union, December 18, 1866; Sacramento Daily Union, December 19, 1866. Archaeological research from a Chinese community in 1880s Truckee, California, found evidence that residents carried firearms for self-defense; R. Scott Baxter, “The Response of California’s Chinese Populations in the Anti- Chinese Movement,” Historical  Archaeology 42, no. 3 (2008): 33–34. Evidence from bodies of Chinese workers disinterred in Carlin, Nevada, suggest distinct patterns of cranial and facial trauma; Ryan P. Harrod, Jennifer L. Thompson, and Debra L. Martin, “Hard Labor and Hostile Encounters: What Human Remains Reveal about Institutional Violence and Chinese Immigrants Living in Carlin, Nevada (1885–1923),” Historical Archaeology 46, no. 4 (2012): 98, 100.

[14] Mark Hopkins to Collis Huntington, January 2, 1867, Huntington Papers; San Francisco Evening Bulletin, January 2, 1867; Cynthia Wu, Chang and Eng Reconnected: The Original Siamese Twins in American Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012).

[15] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, January 10, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[16] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, January 14, 1867, Huntington Papers; Day, Alien Capital, 44, 47.

[17] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, January 31, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[18] Charles Nordhoff, California: For Health, Pleasure, and Residence—A Book for Travellers and Settlers (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 1973; original 1873), 189–90; Ngai, “Chinese Gold Miners,” 1089; Day, Alien Capital, chap. 1.

[19] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, February 12, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[20] Chen, “Internal Origins of Chinese Emigration,” 118–21; Chang, Pacific Connections, 31. On the queer domesticity of urban Chinese life in California during these decades, see Nayan Shah, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown (Berkeley: University of California Press), chap. 3; Hobson wrote of Chinese workers, who were “introduced into the Transvaal as mere economic machines, not as colonists to aid the industrial and social development of a new country. Their presence is regarded as a social danger”: Hobson, Imperialism, 276.

[21] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, February 15, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[22] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, February 17, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[23] Mark Hopkins to Collis Huntington, February 15, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[24] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, May 22, 1867; E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, May 27, 1867; E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, June 4, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[25] Mark Hopkins to Collis Huntington, June 26, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[26] Sacramento Daily Union, July 1, 1867.

[27] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, June 27, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[28] Mark Hopkins to Collis Huntington, June 28, 1867, Huntington Papers; Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 569.

[29] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, June 28, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[30] Mark Hopkins to Collis Huntington, July 1, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[31] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, July 2, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[32] Sacramento Daily Union, July 2, 1867. Whipping was standard practice in the management of Indigenous labor in California. Magliari, “Free Soil, Unfree Labor,” 374.

[33] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, July 6, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[34] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, July 23, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[35] E. B. Cocker to Collis Huntington, July 30, 1867, Huntington Papers.

 

Manu Karuka  is an Assistant Professor of American Studies, and affiliated faculty with Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies at Barnard College, where he has taught since 2014. His work centers a critique of imperialism, with a particular focus on anti-racism and Indigenous decolonization. He teaches courses on the political economy of racism, U.S. imperialism and radical internationalism, Indigenous critiques of political economy, and liberation. He is the author of Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad (University of California Press, 2019). With Juliana Hu Pegues and Alyosha Goldstein he co-edited a special issue of Theory & Event, “On Colonial Unknowing,” (Vol. 19, No. 4, 2016) and with Vivek Bald, Miabi Chatterji, and Sujani Reddy, he co-edited The Sun Never Sets: South Asian Migrants in an Age of U.S. Power (NYU Press, 2013).

Copyright: © 2020 Manu Karuka. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

 

Poetry

City Terrace Postcard

City Terrace. Fernando Corona

Original art by Fernando Mendez Corona

Sesshu Foster

Sybil Brand Women’s Jail sits empty, used occasionally for filming they say, at the end of City Terrace Drive. The gate is locked, as a young white couple walks a dog on the median under the trees, beneath the jail’s high brick wall. Last year, a house on this block sold for $650,000. The new owner parks a Mercedes behind a black steel gate. I walk uphill to my 94-year-old mom’s house, going uphill with angels on my shoulders, fierce Japanese nio temple guardians —my brother Paul on one side, my dad on the other (they both died within a few years of each other, still not talking to each other). They’re with me on a smoggy afternoon. Almost there, a car brakes alongside. The driver yells, “Foster! You don’t remember me?” Wraparound black sunglasses, shaved head and full beard gone whiskery gray, slim dude, grabs my hand for a shake, rings on every finger. “Raul Rios! Damn! I’m glad to see you! Still alive!” The last time we talked, after he’d gotten out of jail, was more than thirty years ago. We grew up together, his parents’ house nearby; when he was young he was bearded, bear-like and wild, a man on fire. How did he survive? “I’m sixty-one!” He’s shouting, “I wanna live to retire, at least to about sixty-eight!” I laugh, “What are you doin’?” “I am IBEW, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, working on the power lines.” I say, “I am United Teachers Los Angeles, we’re getting ready for a strike, like in January!” “Shit, I heard some bullshit about you’re a professor at Cal State L.A.” “Yeah, I do that sometimes too. You don’t live there?” I point two doors down. “Nah, that’s my mother’s house, she still lives there. You remember where Sixto lived?” (He died in 1987.) Yeah, sure! “I live right across the street from Sixto’s place.” Sober, so thin he seems almost shrunken, but a tougher, wiser man than the kid we knew. His own man, he roars off into the smoggy afternoon. Raul Rios lives! I told the spirits, pushing through my mother’s gate. Raul Rios lives!

 

Sesshu Foster has taught composition and literature in East L.A. for 35 years. He is currently collaborating with artist Arturo Romo on the website, www.ELAguide.org, as well as on the novel,, ELADATL, a History of the East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines, to be published by City Lights Books in 2020. His novel, Atomik Aztex, won a 2006 Believer Magazine Annual Book Prize and his hybrid text, World Ball Notebook won a 2010 American Book Award. His most recent book, City of the Future, won a CLMP Firecracker Award.

Copyright: © 2020 Sesshu Foster. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Articles

LA Oil Noir: Genre, Activism, and Spatial Justice in a City Made by Fossil Fuels

Miranda Trimmier

Sometimes it’s hard to see the shape of the story you’re being told. As I understood it, the plot points laid out by my then-lover Bill went like this:

The earthquake itself wasn’t scary. It was strong enough to wake him up and send a wheeled chair skittering across his bedroom floor. The windows rattled in their panes. The neighbor’s dog howled. A few seconds later the whole thing was over and Bill went back to sleep.

But by the next day, the story had morphed into something sinister. Something was off, Bill complained over the phone. It hadn’t even been earthquake weather beforehand. Listening from a grey morning in New York, my brain snagged on the claim. Southern Californians swore that a sunny, queasy-still air preceded earthquakes, but the phenomenon wasn’t real. Unsure of what it meant to say a not-real phenomenon hadn’t happened, I steered Bill to another subject. How was work? His nurse’s union was in the middle of an anti-fracking campaign, calling out the public health risks of the Los Angeles metro area’s more than 5,000 oil wells.[1] I had never lived somewhere where oil was drilled, but it was 2015, and climate change demanded that I pay more attention to fossil fuels. And so Bill provided an entry point into a political conversation I was trying to join for myself. I followed the ups and downs of my lover’s work as though they were my own.

The campaign was also key to Bill’s earthquake story, though it took some more clues to figure that out. I bumped into them while browsing LA oil news. In the past year, there had been a lot. First came the articles that wondered whether three earthquakes were connected with the fracking residents swore was happening at Inglewood Oil Field. Though seismologists said no, the plot points read uncertainly enough. The cracked curbs and building foundations in adjacent neighborhoods. The much-hyped new study linking fracking with earthquakes in Oklahoma. The oil company’s claim that they hadn’t “recently” fracked the field, plus the fact that, at the time, they weren’t legally required to disclose jobs. One resident said she wanted answers but didn’t “know who[se] to trust.” I guessed that the oil company-sponsored report, which certified fracking safe at Inglewood and blamed nearby damage to slope instability caused by rainfall,[2] wasn’t especially comforting.

And then there was the 10,000-gallon oil spill in the middle of the night in Atwater near Griffith Park. Videos shot creeping close-ups of the oil as it blanketed the concrete, and reports lingered on an evacuated strip club in a way that suggested something archetypically sullied was going on.[3] Other news stories adopted the same tone as strange happenings unfolded around town. In oil-producing neighborhoods, children suffered chronic nosebleeds, adults were plagued by migraines, and garden plants withered and died. At Redondo, Manhattan, and Hermosa beaches, armies of sticky tar balls washed up on the sand, so many the city closed them down for clean-up. Though an observer might guess tar balls are the result of the more than 100,000-gallon oil spill about 100 miles up the coast in Santa Barbara a couple weeks earlier, a Department of Fish and Wildlife rep urged calm. The public should reserve judgment until tests could trace the oil’s “fingerprints.”[4]

With a bit of research, in other words, the scattered stories began to feel less scattered. Eventually an arc of sorts emerged, a narrative chain linking Bill’s earthquake to “natural slope instability” and bloody noses and oily fingerprints. The narrative sounded paranoid and shadowy, like a noir, and Angelenos seemed to be voicing it without especially meaning to. As I began to connect fossil fuel politics to my everyday life, I felt pulled in, too. What did it mean to tell an LA oil noir? What could a New Yorker, observing from three thousand miles away, bring to the plot? I’d see how it all played out.

**

Los_Angeles_CA_-__An_Oil_Well_in_Every_Yard_(NBY_432173)

“Los Angeles CA — An Oil Well in Every Yard,” unknown date 1900-1909, DPC7775, Detroit Publishing Company Collections, Newberry Library, Chicago, Illinois.

For most cultural critics, noir begins with German expressionism, detective potboilers, and the Hollywood film set. But that history, while in some respects correct, downplays the local politics that forced the genre to the fore.[5] At the turn of the 20th century, real estate boosters sold Los Angeles as a sunny paradise, a place where everyone might own a home and some land. Sometimes those profits involved oil; prospectors had struck it in Whittier, Montebello, Richfield, Newport Beach, Huntington Beach, Signal Hill, Santa Fe Springs, Torrance, Dominguez, Inglewood, Seal Beach, and Wilmington.[6] For a time Southern California produced 20% of the world’s supply. Real estate ads teased buyers with the promise of instant liquid wealth. Postcards featured derricks against hopeful, rosy skies. A person didn’t even need to own land to get in on the boom. Every day, free chartered buses drove hundreds of Angelenos to an oil field-cum-investment opportunity. Under a big-top tent, they were treated to music and hot dogs and invited to become fabulously rich.[7]

It wasn’t long before the mood began to turn. Oil flowed between property lines, so a legal precedent called “the rule of capture” gave rights to whomever sucked it up first. Prospectors and producers rushed up derricks everywhere, crowding streets, homes, and beaches without thought to the people living nearby. If drill jobs loosed a gusher that slopped crude, shale, and sand on Signal Hill houses, that was the collateral damage of a cutthroat business. Same went for the river of burning oil that blazed for six hours down a Long Beach thoroughfare, the explosion that set 2.25 million barrels aflame and smoked out the sun in Brea, and commonplace accidents that sent oil rushing into the ocean, slicking city harbors with a four-inch layer of crude.[8]

If this devastation didn’t sour people, the corruption did. Many residents had invested in flat-out fraudulent stock. The most infamous scam was run by C. C. Julian, who leveraged new print and radio media to offer “Gold Bonds” to “Mr. Thoroughbreds” smart enough to smell a deal.[9] When the company collapsed, robbing 40,000 LA residents of $150 million, the subsequent investigation uncovered a knot of scandals and touched off a spree of cover-ups and revenge. Scores of prominent bankers and businesspeople had profited, and a grand jury indicted fifty-five of them, but, after bribes to DAs and jurors ruined the first trial, the rest of the charges were dropped. For months, LA residents woke to a daily stream of shady Julian news. A former exec lived a lavish European life while on the run from police. A man lost his left eye in a melee at a company shareholder meeting. And a banker at the center of the pools was shot dead during the fifth trial mounted to hold him accountable for his crimes. The banker, a once-beloved philanthropist, had $63,000 in his pocket at the time of his death.[10]

Enter the noir novel, which deployed what urbanist Mike Davis calls a “transformational grammar”[11] to comment on the state of the Southern California dream. Sunny days became earthquake weather. Single-family homes became claustrophobic prisons. City patriarchs became a criminal overclass, crooked and poisonous and prone to fits of violence. A century later, it’s easy to read the genre as fantasy instead of a stab at realism in a particular time and place. It is easy to forget that every noir is an LA noir, and every LA noir is touched by the seep of oil.

**

In the early days of my investigation, I often felt obtuse: too clumsy to be the detective at the helm of a noir. I was nothing like Philip Marlowe, the protagonist of eight of LA writer Raymond Chandler’s novels. Marlowe has a quick wit and a sharp tongue and drinks to forget the sleaze he’s seen. Chandler developed his own suspicion at Dabney Oil, where he worked for 13 years, first as a junior accountant and then, after catching his boss embezzling, as the department head. Eventually he rose to vice-president. The work fascinated him; it let him study all manner of bad behavior. He learned to spot the abuses of the people passing through his company, and became obsessed with anticipating cheating in other areas of his life.[12] But he never forgot the industry that jaded him first. When Dabney finally fired him for alcoholism, he started working on The Big Sleep, a drama that swirls around the corrupt Sternwood family, who’d made a fortune in oil.

Noir conveys much of its narrators’ wariness through setting and atmospherics. Interior spaces are shabby and cramped, or nauseatingly opulent, or suffused with their inhabitants’ truculent neuroses. Outdoor spaces are ominous no matter the weather. Even the LA sun is a sign of trouble. Early noir writers portrayed it as oppressive, suggested that a fundamental violence simmered beneath. Chandler paid special attention to climate. Earthquake weather and the Santa Ana winds haunted his characters’ days and served as symbol of a city in physical, psychic, and moral decline.[13] In The Big Sleep, oil infrastructure does some of this work. Derricks show up in key scenes at the beginning and end of the book. Chandler describes them as stained and falling apart. They stand near tepid pools of dirty water. They dribble out last dregs of oil or stand stilled amidst a litter of rusted drums.[14] Eventually Marlowe discovers that one of the Sternwoods killed a man and buried him in the family oil fields. The site summed up an entire fallen city. “Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you,” Marlowe says in the book’s final lines. “You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now.”[15]

For disillusioned Angelenos, identifying the nastiness became a favorite narrative stance. After Hollywood popularized noir in the 1930s and 1940s, the genre resurfaced regularly as a way of shooting down buoyant city myths. In the 1960s, Joan Didion processed the Manson murders with an anxious noir slant. In the 1970s, Roman Polanski used the form to explore corrupt water politics. In the 1980s, Bret Easton Ellis brought noir to bear on malls and materialism.[16] The literary theorist Lauren Berlant says genre provides “an expectation of the experience of watching something unfold, whether that thing is in life or in art.”[17] Certainly this was a good way of describing what I saw noir doing in LA. What struck me was the subtlety with which the dynamic surfaced. Bill blipped about earthquake weather, a sidewalk looked buckled, a nose dripped a bit of blood. The story shaded into paranoia, but from one angle, for just a second. Blink and you could miss it.

On one trip to Los Angeles, I almost did. Time had passed and life had changed since my first oil noir. I’d moved from New York to Tucson, and Bill had cut me loose. Still, my friends Andrew and Paige lived in town, too, so I visited and the three of us went tooling around in Andrew’s car, a light-lemon vintage Mercedes with crisp leather seats. The car was a sort that can only exist in Southern California, and I felt the same about our morning. We’d spent it drinking coffee and eating panaderia pastries and watching scrub jays swoop into his winter garden, a space filled with persimmon trees, succulents, and trailing flowered vines. As Andrew put Stevie Wonder in the tape deck and eased onto the freeway, I threw my arm out the window and said what I thought we all had to be thinking: God, the weather was nice.

Hmm, said Andrew, unconvinced. He didn’t know. Sometimes all the sunny weather struck him as oppressive.

 

**

Views_of_oil_fields_around_Los_Angeles_LOC_2006627695

Forncrook, C.S. and E. M. Views of oil fields around Los Angeles, Map, 1922. 2006627695, Library of Congress, Washington DC, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.gmd/g4361h.ct001874

 Early LA was also terrible for labor. Besides open land and oil, boosters touted a cowed workforce as a signature Southern Californian perk. One of the most powerful, Colonel Harrison Grey Otis, used his business connections to lockout and blacklist union members with the help of local police. Otis considered himself at war with the labor movement and waged it on the ideological front, too, filling the L.A. Times, which he owned, with open-shop vitriol. Across Los Angeles, Otis helped set the tone. The city’s workers, branded “rowdies,” “ruffians,” and “pinheads,”[18] were treated like dirt.

LA oil workers got no special relief. They labored at a hazardous job. Men were burned to death by steam lines and fires. Others fell from the tops of derricks, or fainted from fumes and drowned in oil tanks covered by a thin layer of tarpaper. At least one had his arms pulled off when they got caught in a machine.[19] During World War I, California oil workers had won concessions, including better wages, a switch from 12- to 8-hour days, and union negotiating rights. But by the early ‘20s, oil companies hit back, forcing union members to sign yellow-dog contracts or be fired. 8,000 oil workers in Central California went on strike,[20] but the effort failed. Wages dropped drastically across the state, and industry workers didn’t regain a toehold until well into the ‘30s.[21]

Blocked in economic channels, labor leaders poured energy into political organizing. In places like Long Beach, Huntington Beach, and Torrance, union organizers threw events, founded broadsheets, and turned out voters in the push to regulate oil. They also formed coalitions with residents and conservationists, at times gathering under the umbrella of newly formed property owners’ associations.[22] In a Los Angeles disenchanted with oil, the language of property and property values became a major way residents fought back. When one oil company proposed new wells near downtown LA, the Wilshire Community Council called it “inimical to the esthetic development of the city as a home-owners’ haven.”[23] In a noir-ish oil landscape, real estate was becoming central to the complaint.

**

THUMS Island(s) at sunset

Center for Land Use Interpretation, THUMS islands (Island Grissom) at sunset, 2010.

Andrew’s genre slip was apt, because we weren’t only cruising. Earlier that morning, I’d convinced him and Paige to join my investigation, to ride along on a two-building tour. We took the car down the I-10, headed north on La Cienega, and arrived on busy Pico Boulevard to our first site.

The meters in front of the building were all open, so we parked at random and got out for a look. Ivy climbed the windowless stone walls. The door was industrial-looking and locked. From the center of the otherwise low structure rose Cardiff Tower, trimmed elegantly in white. The architects who built it in the late ‘60s hoped people would think it was a synagogue serving the neighborhood’s Orthodox Jews. In this they were somewhat successful. It was hard to imagine that the building hid forty oil wells, at least until we walked around to the side street and read the gold placard warning about carcinogens. And stopped long enough to notice the mechanical humming coming from inside. And caught a whiff of the faint but acrid smell. Paige scrunched her nose and tongued the roof of her mouth in disgust. “Ugh,” she said, “You can taste it.”

A mile and a half down Pico, the Packard Drill Site pretended to be an office building. Inside, a moveable derrick tracked around on a mechanical grid between fifty-one wells.[24] Apparently, it lacked a roof. Before leaving home, Andrew and Paige and I had pulled up satellite photos and gaped into a weird shadowed hole. Once onsite we did as at Cardiff: We circled, stopped, listened, sniffed. Landscaped palms and jade plants described neat swaths in the front and along the sides. The glass-doored entrance revealed a dusty, shuttered public lobby display. In back houses abutted it a cozy 125 feet away.

Some thought Cardiff and Packard a sign of progress. The buildings were examples of an odd class of camouflage architecture that evolved in the mid-twentieth century as LA residents pushed back against oil drilling. Perhaps the strangest of these structures were the Astronaut Islands in Long Beach. Also known as THUMS — for Texaco, Humble, Union Oil, Mobil, and Shell, the oil companies originally partnered there — the Astronauts were made of hundreds of tons of quarried rock and several million cubic yards of dredged harbor mud and sand to serve as offshore drilling sites. After the derricks and pipes and tanks went up, the THUMS planning team brought on Joseph Linesch, who’d helped design Disneyland, to hide the purpose of the place. He opted for palms, decorative towers, a waterfall, and a series of sculpted concrete walls to ring the island. At night, spotlights bathed the walls in brilliant neon hues.

The Astronauts were closed to the public. I knew because I’d trawled the internet trying to figure out how to visit. As a back-up, I packed a pair of binoculars, and, after dropping Paige and Andrew back at home, took them out with my rented car as dusk fell. By the time I reached the Long Beach shoreline, it was dark and had begun to rain. I found a parking lot on the harbor and pointed the binoculars out my windshield at the islands, which glowed a foggy pink and orange. Under the clouded night sky, they reflected a phrase I encountered over and over in my research. In contrast to the spectacular violence of the early 20th century, LA oil production was now hidden in plain sight.

**

 

Los Angeles is a famously fragmented place; as one oft-quoted quip has it, it is “seventy-two suburbs in search of a city.”[25] Early oil development played a central role in making this so. Many neighborhoods and suburbs grew up around drilling or refining sites or as residential communities for workers. Oil revenues allowed some of them to incorporate separately from Los Angeles, while cheap oil gave them further independence in the form of power plants, paved roads, and fuel for cars. I felt it while trying to tour more after THUMS. I started the morning in Beverly Hills, site of a derrick hidden under a shell decorated with children’s art; then watched rusted pumpjacks bob along the fences of the Inglewood Oil Field; then stopped to see rigs looming over houses in West Adams and University Park. In between I took wrong turns, stopped for directions, and inched painfully along in a rush hour that never seemed to end. By the time I was casing the perimeters of the giant refineries in Wilmington, I had passed through five independently incorporated towns, traveled thirty-five miles, and driven away a significant portion of the day.

Homeowners associations helped fragment Los Angeles, too. If early groups helped restrict oil production, many were also obsessed with another agenda: locking Black and Asian residents out of their blocks and streets. Over the course of the ‘20s, homeowner activists helped establish 95% of housing stock within LA city limits as white-only. Mike Davis calls this period the “white-supremacist genealogy” of what would become “[t]he most significant ‘social movement’ in Southern California…[:] affluent homeowners, organized by notional community designations or tract names, engaged in defense of home values and neighborhood exclusivity.”[26] By the middle of the 20th century, that movement had gained incorporation laws and zoning rules to pursue a whole host of demands. At times the new tools were wielded to racist, classist, anti-busing and anti-renter and English-only kinds of ends. At other moments they were used to stand down corporate developers and win environmental regulations. As their political power grew, homeowners expanded their attention to a scattershot list of small-scale NIMBY concerns. They fought against mini malls, diamond highway lanes, a fancy bistro, the shaving of a hill, and, in a campaign that galvanized a thousand activists and left a local councilman branded a “Dog Nazi,” dog owners who let their pets shit in a park.[27]

The jumbled protests shared a tone. It saw threat everywhere and betrayed an often-inflated, noir-ish sense of risk. By the ‘80s, local politicians learned to bow to the homeowners, or at least fake it lest they get kicked out of office, and middle- and upper-class concerns came to dominate LA politics just as state- and federal-level neoliberal policies were hitting working-class communities of color hardest. The results were predictable. Helped along by homeowner noirs, neighborhood-based inequities grew and compounded in risk and resources.

The pattern was obvious in the metro landscape I’d been investigating. Though a full third of LA-area residents lived within a mile of a drilling site, more protections were won, and safety standards more strictly enforced, in affluent and majority-white neighborhoods than in working-class neighborhoods of color. The faux buildings at Cardiff and Packard — elaborate compared to the beige walls that hid oil operations elsewhere— were one example of the accommodations wealthy residents had won. Others included limited drilling hours, restrictions on trucking, lower-polluting electric drills, weekly emissions tests, 24-7 noise monitoring, and dedicated community liaisons.[28]

Contrast that with University Park in South LA, whose residents are mostly working-class and of color; in 2010, when the AllenCo oil site began emitting dense, obvious fumes, it took them years to get heard. Sometimes the air smelled like petroleum, other times like fruity chemicals. People got nosebleeds, migraines, and stomachaches. Then Monic Uriarte was out taking photos for a photography class with her daughter Nalleli and found the gate to the beige-walled compound ajar. Uriarte hadn’t known anything about what was behind the walls; now a worker showed them around, touring past oil pipes and oil tanks and signs for toxic gas. The worker gave Nalleli a baby food jar filled with water and a heavy, sinking layer of crude. Oil and water don’t mix, he said: She should take it to school to show the other kids the site was safe.

And so the University Park investigation had begun. Uriarte talked to neighbors, and they talked to more, and soon they’d hooked up with Esperanza Community Housing and launched a campaign. Residents flooded the regional air quality complaint line with messages while Esperanza researched AllenCo and interviewed people about their symptoms. Together they dropped banners, held protests and press conferences, and, because AllenCo leased their land from the Catholic archdiocese, sent a video starring Nalleli to the Pope. They dug up record of hundreds of environmental violations and learned that AllenCo had upped production 400% around the time the fumes showed up. Still it took three years before an L.A. Times exposé and a visit by then-Senator Barbara Boxer forced the city to act. They shut the site down, but the damage was done. A set of more long-terms threats had been seeded. Though their nosebleeds and stomachaches were gone, University Park residents had a heightened risk of cancer, reproductive anomalies, and other illnesses. Chemical exposure had left Uriarte, for one, without a sense a smell.[29]

Many critics have called out the history of the noir protagonist, how most have been middle-class and white. That fact is not abstract. It trails consequences for everyday space and behavior; it is tangled in the inequalities of mundane, material LA. An oil executive, speaking to West Adams activist Richard Parks about their local drilling site, illustrated the reality with terrible, careless ease. West Adams residents are also predominantly working-class and of color, and when the activist relayed his neighbors’ complaints, including a day where the site rained a mist of oil on the entire surrounding block, the oil exec shrugged. “Look, this isn’t exactly Laguna Niguel,” he said, meaning a well-off beach community.[30] In the landscape of the Los Angeles oil noir, West Adams didn’t register in the plot.

**

Like the University Park activists, I didn’t stay clumsy. In time, I became my own Marlowe, ready with a meticulous mental map of policies, perps, and case studies. But my competence only mattered so much. However good one gets at reading noir, the story is always fragmented, its through line hard to grasp. Information in a Marlowe novel is imparted, in the words of cultural theorist Frederic Jameson, like “glimpses through a window” and “noises from the back of a store.”[31] This quality was heightened by the secretive realities of oil production. Industry reps stonewalled and gaslit. In Beverly Hills, where a camouflaged derrick pumps oil next to Beverly Hills High School, Venoco loosed a sharky legal team on a thousand-some graduates who’d developed rare cancers, discrediting their class-action lawsuit.[32] In Porter Ranch, which sits beside an oil field and giant gas storage facilities, SoCal Gas downplayed the size of a massive gas leak and said science hadn’t “definitively” found gas dangerous.[33] In Wilmington, whose toxic concentration of oil refineries have led to abysmal health outcomes for residents, Warren E&P gave out gas gift cards as a paltry gesture of remuneration.[34]

Porter Ranch Protest

Porter Ranch Protest, photo by Elijah Hurwitz. Courtesy of Hurwitz

Changing production techniques muddied the informational waters, too. Los Angeles’ oil fields are old and over-pumped. To stay profitable, companies fracked and acidized, shooting sand and chemicals into wells to force the dregs out. A quarter of wells used some enhanced technique, and the government agencies tasked with overseeing them showed neither the will nor the ability to keep up.[35] Residents had little help if they wanted to know what was going on. In West Adams in 2015, a church group called Redeemer Community Partnership filmed volunteer Niki Wong staked out beside the beige wall of the local oil site. “It’s like 6:35am,” Wong said to the camera quietly, crouching, as birds chirped the morning awake. “We got a tip that they’re going to be doing an acidizing maintenance job.” Two to four tankers, each filled with five thousand gallons of chemicals, would soon be driving through the neighborhood. By law Freeport McMoRan, the site owners, had to give neighbors just a day’s notice for the job, but Wong had kept tabs and organized a group to rapid-respond. When the tankers rolled towards the site, they planned to mass up into a blockade. In the video, Wong pointed above her head to a surveillance camera she’d been ducking, then looked down to catch a text on her phone. “Oh, shoot,” she frowned. Freeport had cancelled the job.[36]

There were still other layers of obfuscation at work. When a site stopped serving oil companies, they could simply sell their land and whatever responsibility it might entail. At Inglewood Oil Field, site of the earthquake rumors that made Bill paranoid, owners PXP Oil funded their study showing fracking to be safe and soon after, perhaps tired of answering to resident concerns, sold their holdings to Freeport McMoRan. For their part, Freeport McMoRan held the fields for a stint before palming them off to Sentinel Peak Resources, which had been buying up sites around LA.[37]

15226111610_d265f89d1f_k

Allenco Oil site. Photo by Sarah Craig. Courtesy of Craig

And that was just the fate of active wells. Responsibility could be an even murkier question for the metro area’s thousands of abandoned wells. Near downtown, the Edward Roybal Learning Center, a high school, was built on top of nineteen old wells and surrounded by hundreds more. Many were capped before the ‘50s, when government agencies first created rules for doing so, and workers stopped them with anything they could find: garbage, rocks, telephone poles. School construction took two decades, and even costly remediation didn’t fix the site’s problems. Around the school grounds, imitation lampposts vented the methane that kept belching from the wells. But some days fumes still filled campus, and some days students and teachers still got headache-y and sick.[38]

These were the sorts of rabbit holes one fell into when sleuthing around the oil industry. Eventually, even dedicated detectives were likely to get lost. It had happened to me, but the real story lay with longtime LA residents. “We never know what is going on,” Lillian Marenco, who’d lived in West Adams for thirty years, explained through a megaphone to a gathered crowd. Though Wong’s stakeout hadn’t worked, the protest went on as planned. A few dozen people marched and carried signs and sang a call-and-response song. Staaand together — Against neighborhood drilling! Staaand together — Against neighborhood drilling! Then they gathered for a press conference. “If they just come to get the money and leave us with all the nuisance,” Marenco asked her neighbors and the press, “Then what is the benefit of my community? I wonder.”[39]

**

Back home in Tucson, I kept poking around online. The 2015-2016 Porter Ranch gas leak was especially easy to learn about; for the four months from the moment the leak was discovered to when it was plugged, the story had gotten tons of coverage. Many stories cited a video taken looking down into the foothills where the leak had been found. Taken by the activist group Earthworks,[40]  the video deploys a straightforward transformational grammar. At first it’s a regular LA day: just sun, hills, cars. Five seconds later, the camera switches into infrared view and you are watching a thick cloud of — something billowing over the exact same spot. The film toggles between the two frames in chunky cuts. Sunny day. Thick cloud. Sunny day. Thick cloud. Even without context — knowledge of the size of the leak and the methane and benzene and other toxic compounds billowing everywhere — the image is unnerving. With context, it is a precise and succinct depiction of the mystery of living next door to the oil industry. How that cloud might be invisibly menacing you. The video struck me as an ingenuous oil noir.

But, whatever its strengths, the genre hadn’t yet lived up to its more radical political promise. This was true of the noir of books and films as well as the noir that filtered into oil activist storytelling. Historically speaking, its stars had been too white and middle-class, its sense of injury too stuck on property and other individually minded dreams, its understanding of power too piecemeal and vague. Historically speaking, it had fashioned a politics from eerie atmospherics and an impoverished sense of what geographer Edward Soja called spatial justice. In my online wanderings I found a GIS map[41] that captured it well. The map uses black dots to represent active oil wells in the LA metro area, to unsettling result. As I scrolled around, zooming in and out, the city looked riddled with bullet holes. Some well-off neighborhoods were shot up, in danger, making a lie of the kind of activism that treats oil production like a quality-of-life annoyance. On a map shaped by that activism, these endangered neighborhoods sat beside poorer neighborhoods that were under full-on siege, buried under and erased by wells.

DOGGR LA Co Oil Well Map

Well Finder, Screenshot, California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM), formerly Department of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR). https://maps.conservation.ca.gov/doggr/wellfinder/#openModal/-118.03211/33.98398/12

That tension echoed in Porter Ranch, which became a flashpoint for local environmental justice advocates tracking disparities in oil industry protections. The neighborhood’s affluent residents garnered local and national attention and secured concessions other neighborhoods hadn’t gotten, including relocation to hotels on SoCal’s dime.[42] At times their public testimonies reflected the homeowner-activist playbook and its class-bound complaints. People fretted about property values. They lamented disrupted Christmas plans and the expense of nannies hired when parents got migraines.[43] In the face of a giant, dangerous leak, some residents dramatized the real injustice of their situation as that of lost middle-class normalcy.   

Still, there seemed no reason noir couldn’t be more politically astute. Chester Himes used it to express the nightmarishness of being a Black longshoreman in the 1945 novel If He Hollers Let Him Go. The sometimes-Communist writers of early noir films smuggled in the occasional systemic critique. And I was sure that other examples lurked in literary and filmic back catalogues. But it seemed less important to unearth those than to hear the new noir insights brought forth by those battling LA oil today. They could be found everywhere, including in Porter Ranch, where neighborhood activists in noir-ish gas masks carried signs that amended an early slogan, Shut It Down, to the more spatially capacious Shut It ALL Down. A protester named Matt Pakucko pushed the thesis further, called out the lopsided attention trained on his neighborhood: “There’s other communities with probably worse problems than us, for decades longer …. Do they get relocated? No. Because it’s a poor neighborhood.”[44]

Further insight came from STAND-LA, a coalition formed to agitate for citywide drilling standards. Esperanza Community Housing was a member and brought its experience in University Park, which it read through the lens of economic and health justice. In an interview about the campaign, Esperanza director Nancy Halpern Ibrahim complicated the point. Though they’d suspected the company was fracking, they didn’t know the technical specifics and were sure it would take forever to find out. And so, though the specter of fracking drove oil rumors across the city, they took AllenCo’s deception as baseline, didn’t fixate on the injustice of being lied to, and kept health at the center of a simpler message on traditional drilling.[45] To these new noir suggestions — transforming stories about property into stories about collectivity, treating corporate dishonesty not as shocking betrayal but as systemic truism — the West Adams video added one more. After Niki Wong’s stakeout dramatized Freeport McMoRan’s secrecy, it noted that most of the information that had been discovered came from resident photos and reports. Here was an edit to one of noir’s most beloved premises: There was no such thing as a solo detective; there were only many.

Another update peeked out during a 2015 strike at the Tesoro Refinery in Wilmington. A worker named Melissa Bailey told a journalist that she’d just worked twelve to fourteen hours nineteen days in a row.[46] For another article, colleagues explained how they survived such grueling schedules: with coffee, energy drinks, and sugary snacks.[47] That plus fatigue left them dazed and drunk and led to injuries, which workers often hid so as not to miss out on safety bonuses. The practice was called, viscerally, “bloody pockets,” conjuring a sinister work atmosphere while offering a reminder that fields and refineries and storage plants didn’t just have neighbors. They were also populated with workers.

A final noir revision surfaced in Culver City, a small town incorporated in the middle of Los Angeles. Culver City sits beside the Inglewood Oil Field and is part of a Community Standard District, a special zoning designation whose drilling regulations were celebrated as the region’s most stringent. The 2008 planning text that brought the district into being opens with a legalistic preamble that defines fifty-eight words whose meanings Inglewood owners might dispute. The words include “drilling,” “fluid,” “derrick,” “well,” “gas,” and “oil.”[48] The anticipation of a doublespeak so fundamental begged a conclusion that in the end took ten years to gel. In 2018, Culver City launched a study to figure out they could legally shut their portion of the oil field down. The town’s vice-mayor cited a long history of damage at the field, then said it sat atop a fault that was due a big earthquake any day.[49] In the unequal landscape oil had made of the Los Angeles metro region, Culver City had been a privileged squeaky wheel. But if a more radical approach to land use could surge up around it, the logic of their gambit would be powerful. Zoning isn’t enough to limit harm to residents’ health, that logic says. The drilling would have to stop.

**

“We are invested not only in talking about what we don’t want but also in making the case for a meaningful, just transition,” Nancy Halpern Ibrahim told me over the phone. I’d called to hear a about Esperanza and STAND-LA’s work moving forward, and, though I felt silly relating the flimsy anecdote that had propelled me to her work in University Park, Ibrahim wasn’t fazed. After an hour of her own rambling — “I don’t speak in sound bites,” she said, appealingly not sorry — we’d reached what seemed the conversation’s upshot. She and coalition colleagues had convinced the mayor’s office to form a Climate Emergency Mobilization Department, which opened in 2019; given its oil history, they thought, Los Angeles had nationally relevant ideas on how to transition away from oil. What would become of the department remained to be seen, but we’d scaled out to an essential question: not just how Los Angeles could overcome its spatial injustices, but what that fight had to do with those elsewhere.

I wondered about that, too. For the moment, my encounter with Inglewood and West Adams and Porter Ranch seemed to be wrapping up, and the task seemed to be to turn towards the rest of the maps I shared with others. I thought of my dad’s family in Texas, where the oil stories to be reckoned with had less to do with noir than the lure of the rich oilman as hero and villain. In North Dakota’s Bakken Shale, where some friends had been spending time, the myths of the Western frontier lived on. And though it was less obvious which genres bound fossil fuel politics in New York and Tucson, I knew I didn’t have to dig alone. As in LA, my two homes were surely peopled by activists who might help teach me the plot.

Notes

Author’s note: Thanks go to Morgan Adamson, Aaron Bady, Stefano Bloch, Bill Gallagher, Raquel Gutiérrez, Nancy Halpern Ibrahim, Andrew Knighton, Ava Kofman, Ruth Nervig, Paige Sweet, and workshop participants in UA’s creative nonfiction program. 

[1]            James Sadd and Bhavna Shamasunder. “Oil extraction in Los Angeles: Health, Land Use and Environmental Justice Consequences” Drilling Down: The Community Consequences of Expanded Oil Development in Los Angeles. (Los Angeles, Liberty Hill Foundation, 2015.)

[2]           Zahira Torres and Laura Nelson. “Baldwin Hills-area quakes not linked to oil operations, experts say,” LA Times. 3 May 2015. See also Carlos Granda, “Baldwin Hills resident concerned fracking may be causing earthquakes,” ABC7 News. 4 May 2015; “3.5 earthquake rattles Los Angeles,” LA Times. 12 April 2015.

[3]           “Raw Footage: 10-K Gallon Oil Spill in Atwater Village,” NBC Southern California, 15 May 2014; Ashley Soley-Cerro, 10,000-Gallon Crude Oil Spill Prompts Evacuation of L.A. Strip Club,“ KTLA 5, 15 May 2014; Jason Wells. “10,000-gallon crude oil spill in Atwater Village looked ‘like a lake,’” LA Times. 15 May 2014.Village

[4]           Carly Dryden. “South Bay beaches remain closed as officials investigate source of apparent oil spill,” The Daily Breeze, 28 May 2015. See also Kelly Goff and Gadi Schwartz. “Beaches Closed Due to Mysterious Petroleum Globs,” NBC Southern California, 27 May 2015; Veronica Rocha. “Tar balls in South Bay: Beaches closed until further notice,” LA Times, 29 May 2015.

[5]           Mike Davis. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. (New York: Verso, 1990), 36-7.

[6]           Nancy Quam-Wickham. “An ‘Oleaginous Civilization’: Oil in Southern California,” Southern California Quarterly, Vol. 97, No. 3, p 285; “Fred Viehe. “Black Gold Suburbs: The Influence of the Extractive Industry on the Suburbanization of Los Angeles, 1890-1930.” Journal of Urban History, Vol. 8 No. 1 (November 1981), p 6.

[7]           Jules Tygiel. The Great Los Angeles Swindle: Oils, Stocks, and Scandal during the Roaring 20s. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 37-9.

[8]           Nancy Quam-Wickham. “‘Cities Sacrificed on the Altar of Oil’: Popular Opposition to Oil Development in 1920s Los Angeles.” Environmental History, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Apr. 1998), 192.

[9]           Tom Hiney. Raymond Chandler: A Biography. (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997), 58; Jules Tygiel, The Great Los Angeles Swindle, 40.

[10]         Jules Tygiel. The Great Los Angeles Swindle, 213-257.

[11]         Mike Davis, City of Quartz, 38.

[12]         Tom Hiney, Raymond Chandler, 51-7.

[13]         Mike Davis, City of Quartz, 38.

[14]         “The Oil Pumps in The Big Sleep,” https://www.shmoop.com/big-sleep/oil-pumps-symbol.html.

[15]         Quoted in Tom Hiney, Raymond Chandler, 69.

[16]         Mike Davis, City of Quartz, 44-5.

[17]         Lauren Berlant. Cruel Optimism. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 6.

[18]         Dennis MacDougal, Privileged Son: Otis Chandler And The Rise And Fall Of The L.A. Times Dynasty. (New York: Hachette Books, 2009), 46.

[19]         Nancy Quam-Wickham. “An ‘Oleaginous Civilization,’” 287.

[20]         John Laslett. Sunshine Was Never Enough: Los Angeles Workers, 1880–2010. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 98-9.

[21]         John Laslett. Sunshine Was Never Enough, 99.

[22]         Nancy Quam-Wickham. “‘Cities Sacrificed on the Altar of Oil,’” 197-202.

[23]         Sarah Elkind. “Oil in the City: The Fall and Rise of Oil Drilling in Los Angeles.” The Journal of American History, Vol. 82 (June 2012), p 86.

[24]         This visit took place in 2017; Google Maps now lists the site as closed, though I found no news stories to confirm or give detail.

[25]         This quote is often attributed to Dorothy Parker; it is actually a distortion of Aldous Huxley, who called LA “nineteen suburbs in search of a metropolis” in his 1925 book Americana. Adrienne Crew, “Misquoting Dorothy Parker,” LA Observed. 22 August 2013. http://www.laobserved.com/intell/2013/08/misquoting_dorothy_parker.php

[26]         Mike Davis, City of Quartz, 153.

[27]         Mike Davis, City of Quartz, 184-204.

[28]         Community Health Councils. “Oil Drilling in Los Angeles: A Story of Unequal Protections,” (Los Angeles, 2015). http://www.climateaccess.org/sites/default/files/CHC-Issue-Brief-Oil-Drilling-In-Los-Angeles.pdf

[29]         Nancy Halpern Ibrahim. Personal interview, 11 October 2019; Barbara Osborn, “When Regulators Fail,” Drilling Down: The Community Consequences of Expanded Oil Development in Los Angeles. (Los Angeles, Liberty Hill Foundation, 2015.)

[30]         Barbara Osborn, “‘How are these Chemicals being used?’” Drilling Down, 18.

[31]         Quoted in Cornelius Fitz. “disclosing being – on raymond chandler: the detections of totality by fredric jameson,” 3am Magazine. 6 December 2016. http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/disclosing-raymond-chandler-detections-totality-fredric-jameson/

[32]         Joy Horowitz. Parts Per Million: The Poisoning of Beverly Hills High School. (New York: Penguin Books, 2008)

[33]         Jane Yamamoto. “Outrage Builds in Porter Ranch Over Gas Leak,” NBC Southern California. 12 December 2015.

[34]         “Warren E&P, Wilmington.” Stand-LA. https://www.stand.la/wilmington.html

[35]         Molly Peterson. “Oil and gas regulators admit to massive oversight failures in new report,” KPCC. 8 October 2015. https://www.scpr.org/news/2015/10/08/54934/oil-and-gas-regulators-admit-to-massive-oversight/

[36]         Redeemer Community Partnership. “The Jefferson Drill Documentary,” 2015. https://vimeo.com/133806931

[37]         Kaitlin Parker. “Concerns arise as Inglewood Oil Field plans for increased activity,” Intersections South LA, 4 January 2012; Susan Taylor, “Freeport-McMoRan Sells Inglewood Oil Field to Sentinel Peak,” Culver City Crossroads via Reuters. 14 October 2014.

[38]         “Echo Park Wells,” Stand-LA. https://www.stand.la/echo-park-wells.html

[39]         Redeemer Community Partnership. “The Jefferson Drill Documentary”; Susan Abram. “How These Neighbors Took On The Oil Company In Their Backyard And Won,” Huffington Post. 27 July 2019. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/oil-drill-site-protest-california_n_5d3911a0e4b004b6adbab9c6

[40]         Pete Dronkers. “SoCalGas Aliso Canyon, CA,” https://earthworks.org/blog/what_i_saw_in_porter_ranch/

[41]         DOGGR Well Finder. https://maps.conservation.ca.gov/doggr/wellfinder/#openModal/-118.03211/33.98384/12

[42]         Laura Bliss. “L.A.’s Slow-Moving Oil and Gas Disaster,” City Lab. 3 February 2016. https://www.citylab.com/equity/2016/02/california-porter-ranch-gas-leak-oil-environmental-justice/425052/

[43]         Elijah Hurwitz, “Poison Ranch: The Porter Ranch Gas Blowout,” Pacific Standard. 5 May 2016. https://psmag.com/news/poison-ranch-the-porter-ranch-gas-blowout

[44]         Sarah Parvini and Tony Barboza. “No relief in sight for Porter Ranch residents,” LA Times, 3 December 2015. Proquest. https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy2.library.arizona.edu/docview/1738673342?accountid=8360&rfr_id=info%3Axri%2Fsid%3Aprimo

[45]         Nancy Halpern Ibrahim. Personal interview, 11 October 2019.

[46]         Haya El Nasser. “Striking California oil refinery workers demand better safety, wages,” Al Jazeera America, 4 February 2015. http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/2/4/workers-strike-at-california-oil-refinery.html

[47]         Tiffany Hsu. “At L.A. oil refinery, striking workers vent about long hours and stress,” LA Times. 26 February 2015. https://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-refinery-strike-20150227-story.html

[48]         Los Angeles County Department of Planning. “Baldwin Hills Community Standards District” p 8. http://planning.lacounty.gov/assets/upl/project/bh_title22.pdf

[49]         Christian May-Suzuki. “City Council meets to continue discussion on Inglewood Oil Field,” Culver City News. 18 July 2019. https://www.culvercitynews.org/city-council-meets-to-continue-discussion-on-inglewood-oil-field/

 

Miranda Trimmier is from Milwaukee, lives in Tucson, and writes about land-use politics. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Arizona and has published with Places JournalThe New InquiryTerrain, and other outlets.

Copyright: © 2020 Miranda Trimmier. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Poetry

Los Angeles County Jail Sonnets #13

Yago Cura

Don’t talk about commissary on commissary day,
or the Liege of Hot Water will snatch that privilege
due to dues you have not yet paid with the makeshift bridge
of comfort afforded by municipal strangers scrubbing trays

in Waterworld, or emptying pod bins in the trash barracks,
buffing sparkle paste into the loam of county corridors trill
with linoleum hinges of time-served, suspended sentences or recognizance
released into the streets like a dirty, old tryant of schillings.

When you write your man, don’t write another dime’s name.
Watch out if your bunky tends to hide, she could be cooking Pruno
or assaulting another female in there when you at class, on your dayroom-game.

Read your book with one eye on the rec room, read the space
like a text, like a cipher armed with ominous nuance, like scratch-ticket loot
spent on roses, graduation bears, gas-station sunglasses, lipstick-tazers.

 

 

Yago Cura is an Argentine-American librarian, poet, pedagogue, and freelance simultaneous interpreter. He has been a public librarian for Los Angeles Public Library since 2015, and is currently the President of the Los Angeles chapter of REFORMA. He edits the online literary magazine, Hinchas de Poesia.

Copyright: © 2020 Yago Cura. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Postcards Series

A Chumash Line: How an old email and five PDFs revealed my Native Californian Roots

With “Postcards,” creative non-fiction stories grounded in place, we aspire to create a new cartography of California. For us, literature and language are as much about marking and representing space, as they are about storytelling.


PHOTO-2020-02-18-11-14-24

Original art by Fernando Mendez Corona

Melissa Hidalgo

I.

The woman at the reception desk gave us a map and told us exactly where to go.

“Park by the utility shed near the Whittier Boulevard entrance here, in front of 579,” she said, drawing our route with a highlighter pen. “Go four rows up and over to the right. You should find her here,” circling the spot on the map, way in the corner.

We knew Calvary Cemetery well. We had visited the graves of other long-gone Calzadas, relatives in my mother’s maternal line. But today, we were nervous newbies. We were looking for a special Calzada, the one from the old newspaper clippings my Auntie sent us in an email over ten years ago.

My mom, sister, and I dutifully followed the receptionist’s directions. We found the shed, parked, and walked over gingerly, not just because of my mom’s bum knee. I think we all had butterflies, anticipating something profound after years of talking with our mom’s extended family and grandmother’s relatives about our newfound Chumash roots. We stepped lightly, with quiet reverence, reading names out loud until we found hers.

CALZADA                                                                                                                                    Querida Madre y Abuela                                                                                                            Maria Antonia G.                                                                                                                             Jun. 13 1863 – Nov. 11 1952

The three of us looked down at our ancestor’s grave for the first time. Tears, smiles, laughs, hugs. My mom, sister, and I took turns saying hello, saying how happy we were that we found her. Our voices overlapped as we wondered things out loud, like who was Cipriano, the “Querido Hermano y Tio” she was buried with, and would Maria Antonia even know who we are. “I’m sure she does, m’ija,” my mom assured. But I felt the need to clarify, more for myself than for our ancestor. I needed to connect the dots, draw the Chumash family line that began in San Luis Obispo and ended right here in East L.A.

“Hola, Maria Antonia,” I said in a voice like I’m in church. “We are your granddaughter Petra’s family,” I said. I shivered with goosebumps. “We are your descendants.”

II.

Back in March 2010, I received an email from my Auntie, who also sent it to my mom and their seven other siblings. The subject heading announced, “we are chumash!!” Five mysterious PDF attachments accompanied her brief message. They were all labelled “Maria Antonia Calzada” and numbered one through five.

I had first heard of these “Chumash papers” two years before, when my Auntie and mom told me about their cousin in Ventura who used some of these documents to get her kids some kind of Chumash Indian scholarship. At that point, I emailed my mom’s cousin to ask for more information, and she wrote back. She answered my questions but did not immediately send the documents. It would take almost two years for those “papers” to reach my Auntie in 2010, when she passed them on and my mom, her other siblings, and I would see them for the first time.

My Auntie sent them to me thinking that I, too, could use them to get money for school. I was deep into dissertation mode at the time, one year from becoming the first Ph.D. on both sides of my big Mexican American family. I was also deep in grad school debt and always in need of financial aid or just plain cash. I could almost hear Auntie telling me, ‘Hey m’ija, check it out, you never know, our cousin did it, see if you can get a scholarship or something to help you out, doctora-to-be.’ Chicana Chumash power, que no?

Cashing in on a tenuous Chumash bloodline so I can finish my dissertation was one thing, and I felt a little guilty even entertaining the idea. Plus, as a Chicana, by definition I knew I already had “native blood” of the indigenous peoples throughout the land we know today as California, Arizona, Texas, Chihuahua, and Michoacán. My one direct ancestor, who by now probably had double the 268 descendants she left in 1952, I felt, was not necessarily going to qualify me for Chumash scholarships or anything of monetary value. That was fine.

But I did recognize these documents’ historical value, and not just for my mother’s large extended Calzada family. I knew what these five files meant to me as a California-born scholar of Chicana/o/x cultural histories and cultures, as a writer, and as a teacher in our public universities. One by one, I opened the “Maria Antonia” PDFs numbered 1 through 5. Up popped news clippings about our ancestor, maps, photocopied pages from a library book, and a family crest. It was like a DIY version of “Finding Your Roots” with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Together, these five scanned pages represented a small but mighty archival batch of Calzada family stories and histories that place my mother’s maternal family line in California before the Spaniards invaded this land to build their missions, before Mexico ‘won’ this territory post- independence, and before any Anglo Americans showed up to dig gold from land that was not theirs. For us colonized Mexican Americans in the 2010s, these papers also raised a lot of other questions about ancestral indigeneity, land, borders, and the meaning of claiming “Native Californian Chumash blood” via our ancestor born in 1863.

III.

Of the five attachments my Auntie emailed to us years ago, one page stands out. “Maria Antonia Calzada” PDF 1 shows three documents photocopied together, arranged for context and correctness. At the top, a Spanish-language church bulletin from Nuestra Señora de La Soledad announces the funeral mass for “Sra. Maria Antonia Calzada, a la edad de 89 años,” who passed away in Los Angeles, California, on “Noviembre 11 de 1952.” Under the funeral notice, two old newspaper clippings from undated and unidentified Los Angeles area newspapers, placed side by side, report the death of one “Maria Antonia Calcada.” They couldn’t even get her name right.

One headline shouts, NATIVE CALIFORNIAN, 96, DIES IN EAST L.A. HOME.

Another one simply says, Belvedere Woman Dies at 96; Leaves 268 Living Descendants.

Calzada funeral announcement and newspaper clips

The articles contradicted the church bulletin. Was she 96 or 89? Which dates were correct? Which newspapers are these articles from? And why was the death of Maria Antonia Calzada, my mother’s great-grandmother, newsworthy in 1952 Los Angeles?

My mom, Auntie, their cousins and their aunts confirm that “the Church is right,” that our ancestor, the “Native Californian” Maria Antonia Calzada (not Calcada) was 89 (not 96) when she died at the house on Zaring Street in East L.A. She was born in San Luis Obispo, California, in 1863, not in 1856 as the newspapers claimed.

The papers did get other things right about Maria Antonia. She married Pedro (my grandmother’s grandfather and her namesake) in 1880 at the Old Plaza (La Placita) Catholic Church, across from today’s Olvera Street, although it was not clear when and why they left San Luis Obispo for Los Angeles. She had thirteen children, twelve survived. Her husband died in 1935 during one of their frequent trips “below the border” to Altar, Sonora, Mexico, where the couple owned a small plot of land. Maria Antonia’s parents, Francisco and Maria Guerrero, were also born in San Luis Obispo, most likely “Mexicanized Indians”[1] who became U.S. citizens under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, twenty-five years after the end of the Spanish mission period.

I never saw the word “Chumash” in either of the news articles, nor do they identify the name of Maria Antonia’s “Native California” tribe or membership. PDFs 3, 4, and 5 included a few pages of Kroeber’s 1925 Map of Native Tribes, Groups, Dialects, and Families in California in 1770, photocopied by our Ventura cousin. They showed maps with lists that enumerated eight bands of Chumash tribes whose villages stretched from San Luis Obispo to Malibu. One map showed numbered parceled plots in and around San Luis Obispo. PDF 2 was a copy of the Calzada family name history and crest explained the following: “The Spanish surname Calzada is of local or locative origin, derived from the place where man once lived or where he once owned land.”[2]

Where he (or she?) once owned land. Were we always Calzadas?

I went back to the email I kept from the Ventura cousin who did the research at Ventura College Library and Mormon Church archives (“they keep really good records”) to verify our ancestral line. And now I had the maps she previously described. According to records, at least three generations of Calzadas were born in San Luis Obispo between the 1820s and 1890s before they migrated south to East Los Angeles. According to our cousin, the land Maria Antonia, her parents, and later, her children (including Juan, my grandmother’s father) were born on, corresponds to area “14a” on the Kroeber map. “We located the parcel that we were pushed off of during the treaty [1848],” our cousin wrote. “It turns out that our land was what has now become known as Pismo Beach…and yes, we are CHUMASH.”[3]

Where we once owned land. The border did more than cross us, I thought.

Chumash Land Los Alamos CA

IV.

July 2019. My mom, sister, and I kneel at our ancestor’s grave, just a few steps away from Whittier Boulevard and a mile from where she died on Zaring Street, in a house that no longer exists because it was razed by CalTrans in the sixties to build the 60 freeway. We pull weeds, dust off dirt, polish the marble with spit and shirt sleeves. We brush ants away, a futile effort. Let them crawl.

“Imagine if we still had our land in San Luis Obispo, in Pismo Beach. Or in Santa Ynez or Los Alamos,” I say to my mom and sister. I hear their murmurs, their agreement. “Yes, imagine, m’ija,” and I do. What if the Calzadas were not pushed off Pismo Beach in the 1840s? Then other, colossal “What ifs” flood my head. What if the pinche Spaniards never came and built their damn churches, what if there was never any Mexico or United States of America or militarized national borders or broken treaties, and Maria Antonia Guerrero and her parents, husband, children and their children got to keep their land, their homes, their lives, their birthright, in their native California?

Who would we be? Who were we, before we were “Mexican,” “American”?

At the end of her memoir, Native Country of the Heart (2019), Chicana writer Cherríe Moraga reflects on her mother’s lineage and ancestral ties to the land of the San Gabriel Valley. Moraga’s research revealed that her mother’s Moraga family could be traced back to the “first recorded baptism of ‘un indio’ en la Misión de San Gabriel,” and that the baptismal register was signed by none other than Fray Junipero Serra in “the nearby Tongva village of Juyuvit” in November 1778. As Moraga writes, “This matters to me somehow: the proximity of Serra’s ethnocidal signature, my maternal family name, and the indigenous words for places I once knew as home. It is my own personal record that testifies to a complex system of mixed-blood misnomered historical erasure.”[4]

Like Moraga, I am drawn to my mother’s side and the indelible paper trail of our Chumash line that cannot be erased. I seek proof of our existence before we were misnamed, reborn as Spanish, as Mexican, as American. It means something to be able to draw a bold, magic marker line between me and the woman whose grave we finally found, to connect these particular dots. Who needs DNA tests when we got PDFs?

The Chumash part of my maternal grandmother’s side represents but one branch of my proverbial family tree. “Your Nana Cruz was Yaqui,” my Auntie reminds me, “And your grandfather was from Michoacán,” evidence at least of some kind of “Mexican Indian” ancestry. There is the mythical Nana Josefa, who they say was Russian and the reason why my sister and some of the aunties have light eyes, hair, and skin. This is just my mother’s side. My father’s El Paso/Chihuahua side—his mother’s Cepedas can be traced all the way to 1520s Spain, as one tío did in the 1980s and 1990s before the internet made it easy—is a whole other story.

“Today, there isn’t a single full-blooded Chumash left, according to scholars.”[5]

My sisters, our partners, and I often visit Solvang, Los Olivos, Santa Ynez, Los Alamos, towns in Santa Barbara county not too far from the Chumash reservation and casino. We celebrate birthdays, enjoy long teachers’ weekends off, and mark important life moments together in those parts. My youngest sister even got married in Los Alamos, a testament to the power of the land and the meaning of our own ancestral connection to it. We feel it.

Chumash land calls us twice, maybe three times or more a year. Even though we grew up in the concrete suburbs east of East L.A., the rolling hills and valley oaks and wine country roads up there feel like home to us because maybe, as Chumash descendants, it was once. It still is. Our spirits know that is our land, even if it is not ours in the colonial-Western-moneyed-private-property-real-estate sense.

At the grave, my mind drifts back to my Auntie’s email and the “Native Californian” in the newspaper clippings. When Maria Antonia Guerrero Calzada died in my grandmother’s tía’s house in East L.A. in 1952, so, apparently, did the last ‘full-blooded’ California Chumash Indian on record. That’s why her death was newsworthy. (What is blood quantum anyway but a metaphor, another colonizing tool?)[6] Whether or not she was the last one, my great-great-grandmother Maria Antonia Calzada remains my ancestral connection to our Chumash line.

 Notes

[1]See Rubén G. Mendoza, “Indigenous Landscapes: Mexicanized Indians and the Archaeology of Social Networks in Alta California,” in Indigenous Landscapes and Spanish Missions: New Perspectives from Archaeology and Ethnohistory, eds. Lee Panich, et al. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2014. p.114-132. Mendoza describes the “Mexicanization of Indians” in Alta California “as a process of cultural rationalization by which the derivative trappings of the primary tradition are absorbed as local indigenous reformulations of elements that compose the presumptive or apparent ethnic source. Like mestizaje, Mexicanization constitutes a wholly new hybrid and, thereby, an amalgamation of local and introduced cultural forms adaptively recapitulated and captured so as to facilitate the survival, albeit attenuated persistence, of local indigenous traditions and lifeways.” (Mendoza 118-9)

[2] “Calzada Family Name History,” The Historical Research CenterTM (1973-1980).

[3] Email communication with Monica Valenzuela, my mom’s/aunt’s cousin in Ventura, on September 23, 2008. Valenzuela conducted the research and provided the documents to my aunt, who would send them to me on March 23, 2010.

[4] Moraga, p. 236.

[5] “He claimed Chumash ancestry and raised millions. But experts say he’s not Chumash.” Los Angeles Times 23 December 2019.

[6] See “Myth 1: All the Real Indians Died Off” and “Myth 10: The Only Real Indians Are Full-Bloods, and They Are Dying Off” in Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker, “All the Real Indians Died Off” and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans (Boston: Beacon Press, 2016).

Melissa Mora Hidalgo holds a Ph. D. in Literature from UC San Diego. She has taught classes in literature, ethnic studies, and women’s/gender/sexuality studies at UC and CSU campuses around Southern California. Hidalgo is a recent Fulbright Scholar at the University of Limerick, the author of Mozlandia: Morrissey Fans in the Borderlands (2016), and a senior culture writer at L.A. Taco.

Copyright: © 2020 Melissa Mora Hidalgo. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Postcard Series:

  1. Jenise Miller, “We are our own Multitude: Los Angeles’ Black Panamanian Community”
  2. Toni Mirosevich, “Who I Used To Be”
  3. Myriam Gurba, “El Corrido del Copete”
Articles

Yemeni Farm Workers and the Politics of Arab Nationalism in the UFW

Neama Alamri

Growing up in the Central Valley, the history of the United Farm Workers (UFW) and Cesar Chavez loomed large. When teachers in school incorporated him into our history lessons, many of the students were already familiar with the impact he and the farm worker movement had on the lives of farm workers in California. Yet, despite being born and raised in the Central Valley, as a Yemeni American, I didn’t always identify with the history of the UFW which primarily focused on the experiences of Mexican and Filipino laborers. It was not until my father shared with me that he attended Chavez’s rallies during his time picking grapes near Delano in the 1970s, that I began to discover the role Yemenis played in the UFW. My father’s stories unlocked for me an entire history of Yemenis in the Central Valley and their experiences in the farm worker movement.

The UFW and the farm worker movement led by Cesar Chavez has been well documented and has allowed historians to explore the successes and failures of perhaps the most well-known labor movement in United States history.[1] There has been an effort from both scholars and public institutions such as the National Parks Services to improve public history on the UFW and address many of the misunderstandings within this history by engaging in public storytelling through academic scholarship, historical landmarks, and even children’s literature.[2] Following in the path of this work, this article begins with my father’s stories in order to explore the history of Yemeni farm workers in the Central Valley and their involvement in the UFW throughout the 1970s. For those familiar with the farm worker movement, the inclusion of Yemenis is limited to the death of Nagi Daifallah, a young Yemeni immigrant and UFW organizer killed by a deputy sheriff in Lamont, California. Not often discussed, however, is the fact that during Nagi’s funeral march in August of 1973, Yemenis decided to carry a portrait of the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, a leader of anti-colonial Arab nationalism. Based on an oral history with my father as well as archival material that has been largely ignored, including Nagi Daifallah’s papers, this article contextualizes why Yemenis turned to Arab nationalism and the impact it had on the UFW’s social justice platform. By exploring the life of Nagi and other Yemeni farm workers, this article looks at this understudied chapter in the UFW’s history to argue that because of their Arab and Muslim identities as well as invocation of anticolonial Arab nationalism, Yemenis had a complicated relationship with the union that disrupts the narrative of a multicultural movement.

My father, Mohamed Alamri, immigrated to the United States from Yemen in the summer of 1975. He first arrived in Dearborn, Michigan where there existed a large Yemeni community, thousands of whom were working in Detroit’s booming auto industry for companies like Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler. Less prominent in numbers, yet growing each year, was the community of Yemenis in California, which everyone in Dearborn told Mohamed was where you can find the “real money.” Driven by the motivation to find a job that could provide the most for his parents and siblings back in Yemen, Mohamed hopped a plane to California. The first job he landed was in Poplar, a small town 70 miles south of Fresno, picking grapes. Mohamed recalled how the other Yemenis at the labor camp laughed when he arrived dressed in a tie, button-down shirt, and slacks. Growing up in Yemen and hearing of America’s wealth and luxury, he wanted to look his best. Yet, after a long day toiling under the summer heat, Mohamed quickly learned that working in the fields of Central Valley was not very different than village life in Yemen.[3] 

Mohamed photo

Mohamed, right, after a day’s work in Poplar, CA. Courtesy of author

 Mohamed joined thousands of Yemeni farm workers who found work in the fields from the late 1960s to the end of the 1970s. Due to lack of official records, it is unclear exactly how many Yemeni farm workers there were during this period, but estimates range from a few hundred to over five thousand.[4] Yemenis migrated within three major agricultural regions within California: the Sacramento Valley, the San Joaquin Valley and the Imperial Valley. [5]   Migration cycles began with the April asparagus harvest in Stockton, and then moved to the southern end of the valley in the Delano-Porterville-Bakersfield area for the grape harvest until the end of November. Then, many Yemenis moved to Arvin or Coachella where the grapevine-pruning season began. They eventually returned to the Delano-Porterville area to complete more grapevine pruning and remained in that area until the next migration cycle.[6] Like other farm workers, Yemenis faced several obstacles from low wages, language barriers, and limited access to health care and social services. They were, however, seen as desirable by employers. As growers were faced with the increasing resistance and union organizing amongst Mexican and Filipino workers, many were eager to employ Yemenis whom they believed were docile and “easier to control.”[7] The growers did not anticipate the fact that not only would Yemenis organize alongside the UFW, but were also equipped with radical politics inspired by events in Yemen as well as their Muslim and Arab identities, differentiating them from their Mexican and Filipino counterparts.

For my father and many other Yemenis who grew up in the context of decolonization and revolution in Yemen, the UFW’s emphasis on social justice was both identifiable and appealing. The 1960s and 1970s were a time of tumultuous political changes in former North and South Yemen. With the spread of Arab nationalism inspired by Arab leaders, such as Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, as well as anti-colonial movements throughout the world, North and South Yemenis were inspired to challenge systems of power. In 1963, the National Liberation Front was established in South Yemen in order to decolonize the British Protectorate of Aden.[8] Meanwhile, in North Yemen, military rebels fought to overthrow the ruling monarchy at the time and establish a republic. In 1967, South Yemen successfully decolonized Aden, ending over a hundred years of British imperial presence in the region, and became a Marxist regime known as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. A year later in 1968, North Yemen overthrew the monarchy and established the Republic of Yemen.  The wars in South and North Yemen as well as the end of British colonization in Aden, led to a deterioration of Yemen’s economy. With many families facing poverty, Yemen’s largest economic export became its labor force, consisting primarily of men. Although Yemenis had been migrating for work beginning in the late 19th and early 20th century, the 1960s and 1970s saw large scale labor migration of Yemenis to other parts of the world, including Britain, Southeast Asia, East Africa, and the United States. The 1965 Immigration Act, which ended restrictive immigration policies, increased Yemeni immigration to the United States.  By the 1970s, many of the Yemenis arriving in the United States worked in automobile factories in Detroit, Michigan, steel plants in Buffalo, New York, and agricultural farms across California. The experiences of Yemeni immigrants in California were reflective of many of the experiences of Arab immigrants who arrived post-1965. Yet, unlike other Arab immigrants, primarily from Lebanon and Syria, who arrived in the early twentieth century, Yemenis who came to the U.S. in the late 1960s and 1970s were predominantly working-class and Muslim.[9]  While many Arabs in the U.S. prior to the 1960s had been racialized as white, the intersection of class and religion racialized Yemeni immigrants as non-white, “other” minorities.

Alongside increased employment by growers, there are several reasons why Yemenis came to California. Many came to the U.S. with agricultural experience in Yemen already, as families usually owned a few acres in which they grew and harvested their own food. Following the wars in Yemen, however, a decline in national resources and limited economic opportunities pushed most families to rely on foreign imports. Another strategy included sending relatives, usually young men, to other countries for work in order to earn money for the entire family. In the mid-twentieth century, the booming California agricultural industry offered immediate employment opportunities to many young Yemeni men who came to the U.S. with some agricultural experience in hopes of supporting their families back home. Another channel by which Yemenis came to California was a credit system established by Trans World Airlines (TWA). The system was allegedly backed by growers to help expedite travel for immigrants, predominantly young men from Yemen. Although not Mohamed’s experience, based on testimonies from UFW volunteers and the few secondary sources available, there are speculations that growers themselves funded the travel to bring groups of young men from Yemen to work.[10] Through this system, a relative or friend residing in California paid a $100 deposit with a cosigner in Yemen for a plane ticket from the TWA costing $800 with the condition that upon arrival the worker would pay the beneficiary back. While providing loans to help travel from Yemen was common between Yemenis, the involvement of the TWA in facilitating this communal practice was unusual. Yemenis who came in through the TWA credit system arrived in the dozens and essentially went straight from the airport to the hiring halls. A spokesman representing a group of workers would initiate applications for social security numbers so the workers could begin working as soon as possible.[11] There are several discrepancies between the numbers provided by the Immigration and Naturalization Service records which reports 380 alien Yemenis registered in 1974 as opposed to the numbers given by the TWA office in Los Angeles which reports 100,000 in the decade leading up to 1974.[12] This discrepancy indicates the possibility that the number reported by TWA were of undocumented Yemenis.

Yemeni farm workers faced several obstacles from low wages, language barriers, and limited access to health care and social services. Similar to other farm workers, the conditions for Yemenis were inextricably linked to the exploitive system established by the growers. Faced with the precarities of being a low-wage laborer and immigrant, it was no surprise, then, that the UFW appealed to Yemenis. Beginning in the late 1960s, there were at least 500 Yemeni UFW members, although the numbers were likely higher.[13] The UFW offered Yemenis a platform to advocate, assert their presence, and gain resources. Amongst many things, the UFW worked to provide Arabic translators for Yemeni workers, halal food in the labor camps, as well as access to health care. While health issues such as tuberculosis and respiratory infections were common among farm workers, many Yemenis suffered from schistosomiasis, an intestinal infection caused by contact of parasites in water endemic in Yemen. The UFW tested and treated hundreds of Yemenis.[14]

While the UFW was accommodating to needs of Yemeni workers by providing them with services, the invocation of Arab nationalism also threatened the UFW’s platform and reputation amongst supporters. Throughout the first half of the 1970s, the peak of Yemeni immigration to California, Yemeni farm workers were present for some of the most successful as well as contentious years of the UFW.[15] As the UFW fought to sustain their success following the 1970 historic grape contracts, Yemenis were a strategic group to mobilize.  The UFW hired several Yemeni organizers in order to reach out to the Yemeni community, many of whom only spoke Arabic.[16] Some of these organizers included: Saeed Mohammed Al-Alas, Ahmed Shaibi, and Nagi Daifallah. Saeed Mohamed Al-Alas a UFW organizer from Aden, the capital of former South Yemen, organized with the UFW in the early 1970s and was the lead organizer for a funeral march in Porterville honoring the life of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.[17] Ahmed Shaibi who was also South Yemeni was hired by the UFW in 1977 and served for the union for several years before opening the first local chapter of the Anti-Arab Discrimination Committee in Delano in 1982. Lastly Nagi Daifallah, whose untimely death profoundly impacted the trajectory of the union, was also a union organizer.[18]

Like Saeed Mohammed Al-Alas, Ahmed Shaibi, and Nagi Daifallah, those with a background in social justice activism in Yemen, including anti-colonial and Arab nationalist ideologies, became involved as organizers the UFW. While these ideologies had origins in the context of political changes in Yemen and the Middle East, they were not mutually exclusive from the issues Yemeni farm workers faced in the Central Valley. Yemenis invoked these political identities as a way to assert themselves as immigrants in California, as well as, define their involvement in the farm worker movement. One example of this was a funeral march for Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, an ardent leader of Arab nationalism, that was organized by Yemeni farm workers in Porterville.  On October 1, 1970, after Gamal Abdel Nasser died of a heart attack, local Yemenis planned a funeral march in his honor. Nearly one thousand Yemeni farm workers in Porterville attended a funeral march to mourn the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Led by a drummer, marchers carried an American flag alongside the United Arab Republic flag and a portrait of the late President Nasser covered in a black veil.[19] In an article of the union’s newsletter, El Malcriado, documenting the event, Yemeni UFW organizer Saeed Mohammed Al-Alas stated, “Nasser has been a father to us. He was the only great leader we had. He brought all the Arabs together, began economic programs, and threw the British out of Egypt. He was really interested in the people.”[20] Mohammed Al-Alas’ statement on Nasser discussed three political projects: Arab unity, economic justice and lastly anti-colonialism. All of these things contextualized Mohammed Al-Alas’ involvement in fighting for farm worker justice in California. When asked why he remains in the Central Valley he replied, “Where else could I do as much for my countrymen?”[21] Evident in Mohammed Al-Alas’ statement, and for many other Yemenis, politics rooted in Arab nationalism and decolonization were not separate from their identities as UFW supporters and immigrants in the Central Valley. Highlighted in the union’s newsletter, the inclusion of  Yemenis in the movement in the early 1970s helped boost the union’s reputation for multicultural social justice, particularly at a time when Filipino farm workers became disillusioned with Chavez’s leadership.[22] Yet, the turn to anti-colonial Arab nationalism radicalized Yemenis in a way that was illegible to the UFW’s mission.

0770_236500001

Chavez, center, marching with Yemeni activists, Delano, CA, 1973. Courtesy of Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries

Three years later, in August of 1973, the portrait of Nasser would be carried once more, this time to mourn the death of Nagi Daifallah. Nagi’s death occurred in the midst of combative union politics between the UFW and the Teamsters, police violence against workers, as well as police and grower collaboration. On July 29, 1970, the UFW signed what would come to be known as the historic grape contracts, ending the five-year-long grape strike and boycott that began in Delano and marked the first collective bargaining agreement for farm workers in California. The UFW’s fight for farm worker justice did not end there, of course. In the summer of 1973, as the UFW’s three-year grape contracts came up for renewal, strikes took place again after growers signed sweetheart contracts with the Teamsters union without an election. Thousands of strikers were arrested, and hundreds suffered injuries at the hands of law enforcement.[23] On the evening of August 13, 1973, a group of farm workers and UFW volunteers and organizers stood outside a café in Lamont, California. Deputy Sheriff Gilbert Cooper arrived on the scene to arrest picket captain Frank Quintana on charges of disturbing the peace. Several workers began to protest Quintana’s arrest; among them was a 24-year-old farm worker from Yemen, Nagi Daifallah.[24] Upon protest of Quintana’s arrest, Sheriff Cooper began harassing Nagi. As Nagi attempted to run away, Cooper swung a metal flashlight at his head causing severe injuries to his spinal cord.[25] Nagi was left to die on the pavement. While harassment by police was a common reality faced by strikers, workers, and UFW organizers, the death of Nagi sent shock waves through the union and deeply impacted the trajectory of the farm worker movement. On August 17, 1973 over 7,000 Yemeni, Mexican, and Filipino mourners gathered at the Forty Acres union field office in Delano, the “cradle” of the farm worker movement to attend Nagi’s funeral march.[26] Yemeni farm workers, UFW volunteers, organizers, and Cesar Chavez himself, marched in silence alongside Nagi’s casket in solidarity against the violence and systemic oppression perpetuated by agribusiness. Chavez spoke very highly of Nagi who was an organizer for the union and was deemed a martyr for the movement.

Facing a shared oppression by law enforcement and agribusiness, Nagi’s death brought together Yemeni, Mexican, and Filipino communities in solidarity, if only for a moment. His death provided an opportunity for the UFW to emphasize that the movement was for all immigrants and people of color. In his eulogy statement for Nagi Chavez highlighted his immigrant identity stating that “Nagi had come to this country from his native Yemen looking for a better life” and “gave himself to the grape strike and the struggle for justice for all farm workers.” Yet, the picture of Nagi painted by Chavez and the UFW portrayed him as simply a passive victim of his circumstances. In his eulogy, Chavez stated how Yemeni workers were, “the latest group of people to come to California to be exploited by the California growers” and that “most of them, like Nagi, were young men in their early twenties, they were unusually shy, of slight frame, Moslem, spoke no English, and live in barren labor camps.” [27] By characterizing the movement for all immigrants and people of color, Chavez answered to critics at the time who accused the UFW for being ethnocentric by prioritizing Mexican workers as well as being too Catholic-based. It also addressed critiques that the UFW was too dependent on white, middle class volunteers and advisors.[28]

However, the characterization of Nagi as “unusually shy,” portrayed him as a passive victim as opposed to the political activist he was. Beyond the dominant narrative which focuses solely on Nagi’s death, the writings and letters he left behind for his father offer a look into his experiences working in the fields and being involved with the UFW.  In actuality, when Nagi became a UFW organizer he already had experience in political activism back in Yemen. Nagi, originally from North Yemen, became politically involved at a young age. While going to school in Aden (South Yemen) during British occupation, Nagi publicly stood against the British as well as the North Yemeni government, which resulted in his imprisonment for some time. As a young man, Nagi was arrested for pulling down both the British flag and the North Yemen flag in an act of protest while attending a college in Aden.[29]  Furthermore, based on letters he wrote to his father, it was evident that rather than being shy and inexperienced, Nagi  had a keen understanding of how power and exploitation was operating within agribusiness. In a letter to his father, Nagi wrote:

Dearest father, you will be amazed at this which I am writing to you in this letter about the prisons for workers in American, and (when I) tell you how much an agriculture worker suffers and endures in terms of severe ill-will from the landlords of ranches. These workers live in encampments that resemble military barracks, surrounded by barbed wire and a massive barrier of governmental agents, who forbid anyone from contacting the workers, or even conversing with their friends, except by signals, or when they are completely outside the camp, where they are far from the police. The landowners do not permit the workers to work in agriculture, except under laws the ranch-owners impose on them, with less than legal wages and insufficient safety precautions for the workers.[30]

He vividly paints a picture about the life farm workers, comparing the labor camps to prisons and war camps. He discusses grower exploitation of workers through, not only controlling their wages, but also by limiting access to services and communication and purposely putting them in unsafe conditions.[31] Nagi, like other Yemeni workers, also understood his oppression in both local and global ways, comparing his experiences in the Central Valley to those of living under an oppressive regime in Yemen.

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Funeral ceremony for martyr Nagi Daifullah. Courtesy of Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

The inclusion of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s portrait during Nagi’s funeral march represented this understanding that politics in the Central Valley were inseparable from global politics, like Arab nationalism. Alongside Nasser’s portrait, Yemeni workers carried flags representing the United States, Yemen, and the UFW, but it was Nasser’s image that would prove to be the most controversial. After Daifallah’s funeral, Chavez received several letters from supporters who were extremely disappointed to see Nasser, whom they viewed as an extremist and anti-Semitic, associated with the UFW and the movement.  One example was a letter dated September 17, 1973 from Nate Bodin, President of the Local 800, American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO, of which the UFW was an independent affiliate.[32] Bodin wrote to Chavez expressing disapproval at the inclusion of Nasser’s image, a man he compared to “Hitler or Porfirio Diaz [sic].”[33] Bodin attached the image from the funeral march with Nasser’s portrait, which was published in The Los Angeles Times. He first pointed out how Local 800 has financially supported the UFW and then requested the UFW produce a statement regarding the Nasser portrait:

We know you to be a man of great courage and honesty. We know that unity among people of good-will is crucial. We applaud your efforts and wish you well with all the resources we can muster. However, we would like to have a statement from you regarding the above matter. We would like to know how you stand regarding the use of the representative of a people (Nasser) who have been in our opinion, misguided. We think the choice of ‘hero’ was a poor one for this sad occasion.[34]

These letters demonstrated that the portrait of Nasser, a leader of Arab nationalism and Palestinian liberation threatened the UFW’s relationship with the AFL-CIO, an organization that boosted the union’s platform nationally. The decision to include Nasser spoke politically to the connections Yemeni workers made between social injustices abroad with the injustices they faced as farm workers in the U.S. However, it put Chavez and the UFW in a very tough situation and threatened the union’s support from pro-Israeli organizations as well as Jewish American religious leaders. Based on a social justice platform rooted in American civil rights discourse, the UFW was not prepared to take on global politics of Arab nationalism nor the question of Palestine.[35]  It became clear that the presence of Yemenis alongside the portrait of Nasser, was not only illegible to this platform, but challenged the very possibility of a truly multicultural movement.

In response to Bodin’s letter as well as letters from other disappointed supporters, Chavez and his assistants wrote back attempting to diffuse the situation. In these letters, Chavez invoked Nagi’s victimhood and martyrdom in order to depoliticize the presence of Nasser’s portrait and continue positive relations with the angry supporters.[36] In one of these letters Chavez wrote:

Nagi’s death and his funeral procession were deeply personal events for thousands of our members. As a movement, we were both mourning his loss and standing in solidarity with his family. If you can place yourself in that very personal context I think you will understand why no one in the farm workers union can, in retrospect, cast negative reflections on what happened during the Nagi’s funeral march.[37]

It is evident that while Yemeni farm workers chose to march with the image of Nasser in expression of their political identities as Arabs and the UFW did not object to this, Chavez and his leadership, on the other hand, were not prepared to be associated with a pro-Palestine Arab leader. The controversy over Nasser’s portrait demonstrated the ways in which the UFW navigated between communities and conflicting definitions of social justice in order to uphold the portrayal of an inclusive, multiethnic farm worker movement. When Daifallah was killed and deemed a martyr of the movement, the UFW opened its arms to the Yemeni community. With the Yemeni community now on Chavez’s side, however, the UFW’s position on global issues such as the question of Palestine, suddenly mattered. While the death of Nagi Daifallah brought together Yemeni, Mexican, and Filipino communities on the basis of a shared oppression by law enforcement and agribusiness, it also highlighted the ways in which solidarities can be complicated and difficult to maintain. The visibility of Yemenis at Daifallah’s funeral and the controversy surrounding Nasser’s portrait revealed the complicated space Yemenis occupied within the movement.  My own father’s experience demonstrates this as well. [38]

My father, Mohamed, proudly recalled attending Chavez’s rallies and being a UFW member. He told me that after all these years, he even saved his union card. After scrimmaging through some old boxes to find the card, we discovered he was actually a Teamsters member, a rival union to the UFW notorious for implementing scare tactics and even physical violence against workers.[39] Although Mohamed aligned with the UFW ideologically, he remembered that in order to keep his job he had to join the Teamsters, which was the case for many workers.  My father’s memory of the union card is in many ways symbolic of the complicated relationship Yemenis had with the UFW. The notion that Yemenis had a place in a union of other immigrants of color seemed ideologically sound but often lacked substance. In reality, the presence of Yemenis highlighted the complicated, sometimes tense, interactions between ethnic groups, both outside and inside the UFW. This is not to say that solidarities never existed between Yemeni, Mexican, and Filipino workers in the UFW, but rather that a celebratory or simplistic narrative obscures this complicated history.

The history of Yemeni farm workers expands the farm worker movement’s narrative and uncovers the role that Yemeni American activists had in U.S. labor movements. However, we must avoid simple additive history in which marginalized groups are just added into narratives. A few years back, I attended a UFW event and was approached by a woman with a rather confused look her face that asked: “So what do you have to do with all of this?” I knew exactly what she had meant, she was curious as to what a Muslim, Arab American woman possible had to do with the histories of the UFW. I explained to her that my father when he first immigrated to the U.S. from Yemen had worked as a farm worker and that I am now researching the history of Yemeni involvement in the UFW – but, I felt this explanation was simply not enough. There is the sort of obvious connection Yemenis have with this movement like having been present, attending Chavez’s rallies, and engaging in organizing.  Simply put, they were there. But beyond simply inserting Yemenis in this history, we must interrogate the broader historical significance of these narratives. This includes asking why Yemenis have been marginalized within this history. Part of the answer is that numerically speaking, there simply were not as many Yemeni farm workers during that time compared to the majority Mexican and Filipino laborers. However, the other reason why Yemenis have been overlooked has to do with how their engagement with Arab nationalism disrupted the UFW’s mission.

By 1982, there were no Yemeni UFW organizers. In that same year, Ahmed Shaibi, who had formerly organized with the UFW, established the Delano chapter of the American Anti-Arab Discrimination Committee (ADC). Shaibi saw a dire need for an organization that focused on the specific needs of the Yemeni community. Shaibi estimated that Arabs inhabited nearly 90 percent of labor camps in Delano and yet, there was nowhere they could go for social services. This was particularly challenging due to language barriers Yemeni workers faced and the lack of translators who spoke Arabic. However, the promise that the ADC had for Yemenis in the Central Valley never reached its full potential. By 1985, the same year that Palestinian American Alex Odeh, the West Coast regional director of the ADC, was murdered by a bomb planted in his Santa Ana office the ADC in Delano was defunct.[40] The closing of the Delano ADC was most likely a direct reaction of Odeh’s murder, as many Yemeni and Arab American activists feared the consequences of political activism.

During the same time the ADC closed, the majority of Yemenis who worked as agricultural laborers left the fields for other jobs.  Many of them found occupations in major California cities such as San Francisco as janitors, opened grocery stores, or returned to Yemen. Today, many Yemenis own small businesses in the same cities that they originally worked in as farm workers. Asking my father about his initial years in the U.S. as a farm worker unraveled an entire history of Yemenis in the UFW that I otherwise would not have known because it is not recognized in the official narrative or visibly present in the archives. This signifies the importance of building new archives as marginalized stories live on through the people around us, sometimes those closest to us.

The experiences of Yemenis in the UFW is an important chapter in the history of the Central Valley’s Yemeni community, a population that has significantly grown in numbers in the past few years. These stories contribute to the historiography of rural California and multiracial communities in the Central Valley. Alongside the history of other immigrant groups in the Central Valley including Mexican, Filipino, and Punjabi laborers, the experiences of Yemenis underscore how the local is deeply intertwined with global politics like Arab nationalism. The history of the Yemeni American community matters now more than ever. As Yemeni Americans face increasing restrictive immigration legislation and xenophobic rhetoric, this history is a reminder that Yemenis have long been a part of U.S. history, despite not always being recognized.

Notes

[1] See: Laura Araiza, To March for Others: The Black Freedom Struggle and the United Farm Workers, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014); Frank Bardacke, Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers, (London: Verso, 2011); Matthew Garcia, From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press,2012); Ana Raquel Minian, “‘Indiscriminate and Shameless Sex’: The Strategic Use of Sexuality by the United Farm Workers.” American Quarterly (2013, Volume, 65.1): 63–90.  2013; Miriam Pawel, The Crusades of Cesar Chavez: A Biography, (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2014).

[2] Cesar Chavez Special Resource Study and Environmental Assessment,” National Park Services U.S. Department of the Interior, (Fall 2013).; Dawn Bohulano Mabalon and Gayle Romasanta, Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong, (Bridge and Delta Publishing, 2018); Ray Rast, Cesar Chavez Special Resource Study and Environmental Assessment, with multiple co-authors. San Francisco: National Park Service, Pacific West Region, 2012.

[3] Mohamed Alamri interview by Neama Alamri, April 5, 2015.

[4] Ron Kelley, “Yemeni Farmworkers in California,” in Sojourners and Settlers: The Yemeni Immigrant Experience, ed. Jonathan Friedlander (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1988); Mohamed Alamri interview by Neama Alamri, April 5, 2015.;”Voices from the Heartland: Young Yemeni Americans Speak,” Middle Eastern Resources Online.  http://www.mearo.org/yemeni-americans/san-joaquin-valley.php

[5] Mary Bisharat, “Yemeni Migrant Workers in California,” in Arabs in America: Myths and Realities, (Wilmette: Medina University Press International, 1975), 208.

[6] Juan J. Sanchez and Solache Saul, “Yemeni Agricultural Workers in California: Migration Impact,” Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund Records, Bulk 1968-1995, box 18, folder 14, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University, Stanford CA.

[7] Mary Bisharat, “Yemeni Migrant Workers in California,” in Arabs in America: Myths and Realities, (Wilmette: Medina University Press International, 1975), 208.

[8] Robert Stookey, South Yemen: A Marxist Republic in Arabia, (Boulder: Westview Press, 1982).

[9] Gregory Orfalea, The Arab Americans: A History, (Northampton: Olive Branch Press, 2006), 153

[10] Marcia Aronson, “My Involvement in the United Farm Workers of America 1973-1978,” Farm Worker Documentation Project

[11] Mary Bisharat, “Yemeni Migrant Workers in California,” in Arabs in America: Myths and Realities, (Wilmette: Medina University Press International, 1975), 206-207.

[12] Mary Bisharat, “Yemeni Migrant Workers in California,” 208.

[13] Ron Kelley, “Yemeni Farmworkers in California.”

[14] Clinic Program for Arab Members,” 9 March 1973, El Malcriado, Farm Worker Documentation Project, UC San Diego.

[15] Matthew Garcia, 15.

[16] “UFWOC: A Strong Union for the Arab Farm Worker.” El Malcriado. Nov. 1, 1970. Farm Worker Documentation Project. UC San Diego Library.

[17] Ibid.

[18] “UFWOC: A Strong Union for the Arab Farm Worker.” El Malcriado. Nov. 1, 1970. Farm Worker Documentation Project. UC San Diego Library.; Ron Kelley, “Yemeni Farmworkers in California,” in Sojourners and Settlers: The Yemeni Immigrant Experience, ed. Jonathan Friedlander (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1988); Philip Diehl, “Arab advocate bridges gap between cultures,” 7 Dec. 1982, Delano Record, Delano Record Archives.

[19] “Morning March Here For Nasser,” 30 Sept. 1970, Porterville Recorder, Porterville Public Library; “Nasser Buried, Mideast Sad,” 1 Oct. 1970, Porterville Recorder.

[20] “UFWOC: A Strong Union for the Arab Farm Worker,” 1 Nov. 1970, El Malcriado, Farm Worker Documentation Project. UC San Diego Library.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Matthew Garcia, 103-105.

[23] Matthew Garcia, From the Jaws of Victory, 100

[24]15,000 farm workers honor fallen strikers,” El Malcriado, September 21, 1973, Farm Worker Documentation Project, UC San Diego Library, San Diego, CA.

[25] 15,000 farm workers honor fallen strikers,” El Malcriado, September 21, 1973, Farm Worker Documentation Project, UC San Diego Library, San Diego, CA. ; Nadine Naber, “The Yemeni UFW Martyr,” Middle East Research and Information Project, vol. 44 (Winter 2014).

[26] 15,000 farm workers honor fallen strikers,” El Malcriado, September 21, 1973, Farm Worker Documentation Project, UC San Diego Library, San Diego, CA. ; Matt. Garcia. From The Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 62.

[27] “UFW Martyrs: Nagi Daifallah,” United Farm Workers,  www.UFW.org.

[28] Matthew Garcia, From the Jaws of Victory, (University of California Press, 2014), 127

[29] United Farm Workers Administration Collection, Box 114, Folder 3, “Martyr Nagi Mohsin Daifallah Handad, 17 June 1980,” Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

[30] Chris Hartmire Personal Papers, Retrieved from Miriam Pawel; Arabic version is from United Farm Workers Administration Collection, Box 114, Folder 3, “Martyr Nagi Mohsin Daifallah Handad, 17 June 1980,” Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

[31] Ibid.

[32] In 1972, the UFW was officially affiliated with the AFL-CIO and created a national executive board. This was also when they changed their name from United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC) to United Farm Workers of America, known simply by their acronym, “UFW.” The affiliation with the AFL-CIO boosted the political platform of the UFW nationally. See Matthew Garcia, “Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Movement,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. https://oxfordre.com/americanhistory/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.001.0001/acrefore-9780199329175-e-217

[33] UFW Work Department, Box 3, File 1, Daifullah, Nagi, 1973,” Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

[34] UFW Work Department, Box 3, File 1, Daifullah, Nagi, 1973,” Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

[35] In my dissertation, I explore Nagi’s funeral march as well as the 1973 October War with more depth. Chavez, for example, received many requests to take a stance in support of the state of Israel and eventually decided to issue a statement of support which received criticism from many UFW members and supporters. The UFW’s support of Israel also hurt their relationship with the Black Panther Party which had been Pro-Palestine from their founding. See Laura Araiza, To March for Others: The Black Freedom Struggle and the United Farm Workers, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), 163.

[36] UFW Work Department Collection, Box 3, Folder 1, “Daifullah, Nagi 1973,” “Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

[37] UFW Work Department Collection, Box 3, Folder 1, “Daifullah, Nagi 1973,” “Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

[38] Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries

[39] Matt. Garcia. From The Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 99.

[40] Philip Diehl, “Arab advocate bridges gap between cultures,” 7 Dec. 1982, Delano Record, Delano Record Archives.; Delinda C. Hanley. “Arab Americans Demand Answers in 1985 Slaying of Alex Odeh,” The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Vol. 32.9, Dec. 2013

 

Neama Alamri is completing her PhD in Interdisciplinary Humanities at UC Merced and will be finished by May 2020. She will continue to work on her book project, “Long Live the Arab Worker: A Transnational History of Labor Activism in the Yemeni Diaspora,” which examines how Yemeni workers and activists, throughout the 20th century highlighted the connections between local challenges in the diaspora with global politics of empire.

Copyright: © 2020 Neama Alamri. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Reviews

The Politics of Living and Dying

Rachel Grace Newman

Lupe Gómez migrated to California from a small town in Zacatecas, Mexico when he was very young. It might seem that he chose to make his life north of the border, where he went to college, became a U.S. citizen, and established a business (86). But as he took these steps to settle in the United States, he was also building connections to Mexico. He became active in hometown associations (HTAs), migrant organizations that raise funds to make improvements in the communities they left behind. In 2009, as a migrant candidate, he ran for a congressional seat in Zacatecas’ state legislature. Affiliated with Mexico’s right-wing Partido Acción Nacional, his campaign focused on “education and development,” promising to create jobs to reduce the need for people in his state to emigrate (87). Gómez described himself as an anti-establishment figure: in his words, he was “a humble ranchero who left Zacatecas a long time ago and now has returned to do things better than today’s politicians” (89). His opponents argued that Gómez’s long absence from his home state had eroded his identity as a Zacatecano and left him “out of touch” with everyday politics (90). Gómez lost the election, which was widely criticized for corruption and irregularities, but he promised to continue to seek office in Mexico (91). As recently as 2018, he was running for a federal deputy position, again as a migrant candidate, with the newer political party Movimiento Ciudadano.[1]

Though Lupe Gómez is not a household name, his story has periodically appeared in California and Mexican media over the past twenty years. In 2000, the Los Angeles Times ran a profile of Gómez with the title “Expatriates are True Patriots in Mexico.” [2] The phrasing catches the reader’s attention because it inverts a commonplace that migrants leave the homeland behind and betray their country of origin in doing so. But in Adrián Félix’s portrayal of Gómez in Specters of Belonging: The Political Life Cycle of Mexican Migrants (Oxford University Press, 2018), the Zacatecano features not as a surprising or strange case but as an example of a broader phenomenon that Félix calls “the thickening of transnational citizenship.” Mexican migrants, he argues, “simultaneously cultivate cross-border citizenship claims” both in the country where they were born and raised and in the United States, where they work and raise the next generation (3). Transnational citizenship can “thicken” over the course of migrants’ lives, especially in our current context. In the past generation, institutional and legal changes have made it increasingly possible for Mexicans in the United States to be civically and politically active on both sides of the border. Naturalizing as a U.S. citizen no longer requires Mexicans to renounce their status in Mexico. It is now legal, though practically difficult, for Mexicans abroad to vote in Mexican elections. And there are new laws in Mexico that seem to embrace the transnationality of Mexican citizens outside the national territory: there are government programs that match funds raised by migrant HTAs, as well as recent provisions for electing special migrant candidates such as Lupe Gómez. Félix focuses his work on the subjectivity of the transnational citizen living in this age of institutional transformations. He asks how Mexican migrants today make choices that thicken their web of formal and sentimental ties and expand the scope of their political struggle beyond national boundaries. More specifically, he considers how migrants’ political choices are made in the context of violent, racist hostility in the United States and exclusionary apathy in Mexico. How do they imagine and struggle for their vision of the future in this unforgiving transnational setting?

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The book is organized around three stages in what Félix calls the “migrant political life cycle,” with chapters documenting the process of naturalizing as a U.S. citizen, the campaign strategies and policy objectives of migrants seeking political office in Mexico, and the bureaucratic and emotional intricacies of repatriating the bodies of deceased migrants for burial in their hometowns. The life cycle is an evocative metaphor to capture the changing nature of migrant politics over the course of individual trajectories. In each process examined in the book, migrants come into contact with Mexican or U.S. state institutions, but the author’s focus is on the ways that migrants experience and talk about these encounters. Félix’s relationships with his informants were built over years of his involvement in migrant political activism and as a teacher in citizenship classes (5-6).

Although migrant political activism has long garnered scholarly interest, Félix offers a novel approach by expanding the focus beyond HTAs and U.S.-focused migrants’ rights struggles. This book shows that naturalization and postmortem repatriation, clearly not instances of organized, grassroots activism, are nonetheless sites of where citizenship is “enunciated” and “embodied.” Migrant candidates supported by clientelistic political parties in Mexico, such as Lupe Gómez, expose what Félix calls “the contradictions of transnational citizenship”: while their visibility as political candidates engages progressive or leftist observers, their platforms and affiliations can be unappealing (86). He asks readers to reconsider rigid understandings of national citizenship that assume that migrants’ political engagement in Mexico is a sign of disengagement in the United States, and vice versa. In terms of concrete practices of citizenship and more abstract expressions of belonging and identity, Félix finds simultaneity and complexity.

In the chapter on U.S. naturalization, he argues that this moment of “political baptism” does not indicate a migrant’s assimilation to U.S. dominant culture or renunciation of Mexico. Migrants instead articulate the desire for the practical benefits of U.S. citizenship for themselves and their families. Félix emphasizes the context of xenophobia and racism in which migrants make choices about seeking a new political status. U.S. citizenship can shield them from deportation (although the certainty of citizenship has eroded since Félix’s book went to press), but naturalized citizens are not protected from perennial assumptions of foreignness and illegality on the part of the white supremacist state (and a sizeable part of the U.S. public). Given this, many Mexican migrants express their loyalties as did one of Félix’s informants: “When I see the American flag, I feel joy, but I don’t feel the same way as when I see the Mexican flag. I think that even if you become a [U.S.] citizen, you will never stop being Mexican. No matter what you say in the oath” (48-49).

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The humble monument to the migrant in Jerez, Zacatecas, erected in 2002 by the mayor’s office. Courtesy of Adrián Félix

Félix then turns to a group of Mexican migrants who seek political office in the country of their birth. These politicians are virtually all naturalized U.S. citizens and registered Democrats, with prior experience in migrant civic and political organizations, who are also affiliated with Mexican political parties across the ideological spectrum. There is a paradox, for Félix, in this form of transnational citizenship: though U.S.-based migrant activism is broadly progressive and often radical, when activists become candidates, they become cogs in a political machinery that is “notoriously corporatist” (57). Félix suggests that the leftwing Mexican parties that could coherently adopt a radical pro-migrant agenda cannot actually deliver the votes to elect a migrant candidate. Instead, the elected migrant officials he interviewed belonged to the establishment parties, particularly the rightwing Partido Acción Nacional. A follow-up study could show how things have changed since a newer “antisystem” party (Morena) has taken over the political establishment, having ascended to power with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in 2018 (7).

By definition, life cycles conclude with death, and Félix pays attention to the choices migrants make around end-of-life rituals in a chapter on postmortem repatriation. Those choices are spiritual and personal, but they are also deeply political. “At least for a considerable subset of migrants, who very well may have been settled in the United States for decades, cross-border loyalties live on and often materialize after death,” he writes (133). The desire to be buried in one’s native land is hardly unique to Mexican migrants, but Félix shows that this particular wish is widespread and culturally significant in the diasporic Mexican community. He recounts stories told in conversations with rural Zacatecanos about their transnational maneuvers to bring family members back to their hometowns for burial. Community members contribute to the expense of postmortem repatriation. This commitment to a smooth farewell means that the dead do not always travel alone. In one story, a young migrant murdered in Colorado was returned to his rancho by a co-worker, and in another, no fewer than 52 family members, filling an airplane, accompanied the body of a migrant going back home (127). Migrants’ desires for a posthumous return are tepidly supported by the Mexican state, but resources are distributed as a form of humanitarian aid that is inconsistently allocated (122). The migrant family network and transnational community are the most important support systems for postmortem repatriation.

As Félix concludes, “Mexican migrants are tenaciously transnational, defying the border in life and death” (141). After three decades of scholars documenting evidence of migrant transnationalism, Félix’s finding might seem unsurprising at first. But by calling attention to migrant tenacity, he draws readers’ attention to the many barriers to acting or feeling transnationally that migrants struggle against and shows how they do so at an intimate scale. The bureaucratic hurdles of naturalization demean Mexican nationals even as they are formally admitted to the citizenry. Yet migrants overcome those hurdles to obtain a legal status that can produce tangible improvements in their lives. The Mexican state has its own ways of including migrants only to show that they do not and cannot really belong, as migrant candidates have discovered as they seek to effect change from within, navigating mainstream Mexican party politics. To be a politically active migrant requires determination, and his revelations about U.S. and Mexican institutional mechanisms of exclusion indict political elites on both sides of the border.

In telling these stories, Félix also opens up new avenues for additional studies of migrant politics. Félix makes clear that his informants are not meant to be statistically representative of the diverse population of Mexican citizens in the United States: most people we meet in the narrative hail from Zacatecas, are “mestizo” (of mixed indigenous and European heritage), and are legal permanent residents or naturalized U.S. citizens. Mexican migrants to the United States are a highly diverse group that today includes members of indigenous communities and people coming from states whose migration histories do not stretch back as far as that of Zacatecas; these migrants are far less likely to have a path to legal status of any kind. These differences matter a great deal when looking at cross-border mobility: as Félix recounts, undocumented family members of deceased migrants in the United States cannot go to Mexico to accompany the body or attend the funeral (127). Though women appear periodically in the narrative, Félix notes that the exercise of transnational citizenship is always gendered. Félix is careful not to generalize from male migrant experiences. While many migrant women naturalize as U.S. citizens, migrant political candidates in Mexico are overwhelmingly male. Among migrant bodies repatriated to Mexico, women’s cadavers are underrepresented (111-112). His brief vignette about a young Mexican woman, based in Las Vegas, who sought political office in Mexico only to be targeted by misogynistic vitriol, suggests that there are many more migrant experiences to document to render the full repertoire of transnational citizenship. Félix’s book will be an important touchstone for the scholars who take up that work.

Notes

[1] http://pulsodelsur.com/noticias/quiero-ser-la-voz-de-millones-de-migrantes-radicados-en-estados-unidos/

[2] https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2000-jul-01-me-46794-story.html

 

Rachel Grace Newman is a Lecturer in the History of the Global South at Smith College. She earned a Ph.D. in International and Global History at Columbia University. She writes about education, inequality, and migration in twentieth-century Mexican history. Her website is rachelgnewman.com.

Copyright: © 2020 Rachel Grace Newman. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/