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Navigating Anti-Black Racism in the Concert Hall: Timpanist Elayne Jones and the Challenge of Inclusion

Grace Wang

In a hand-written letter addressed to the personnel manager of San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in January 1972, Elayne Jones expressed interest in auditioning for the orchestra’s upcoming timpani opening. She was confident in her talent and ability, noting how her sterling musical reputation had established her as “first call for just about every freelance job which requires tympani.”[1] “This fact,” as she wrote, “is considered quite remarkable given that I am neither a male or white” in a field overwhelmingly dominated by both. Indeed, as an African American woman navigating a field of culture perceived and elevated through segregationist practices as “white man’s music,” she defied assumptions about who should play Western classical music; moreover, she played timpani, an orchestral percussion instrument typically understood in her profession as “male.” Jones was accustomed to performing under extraordinary scrutiny and skepticism — to being the only and often the first in the orchestral spaces she entered. Still, she had no interest in pursuing an audition in vain. And thus, she inquired: “Would there be any point to my coming out to audition? … I’m aware this is not the type of question to ask point blank, but at the same time it isn’t fair to travel so far and prepare for this with hopeful expectations if there is really no chance.”

In posing this question, Jones alluded to the history of racism that left nearly “no chance” for African American musicians to secure professional symphony orchestra positions, regardless of their training and ability. Orchestra auditions had long been inequitable, governed by the whims and outsized influence of autocratic conductors, favored principal players, and management, which failed to advertise openings publicly. While such practices could feel opaque and undemocratic to all musicians, for Jones, they emblematized the institutional racism of a musical culture that actively excluded her. She, alongside other African American musicians, had spent years advocating for fairer audition procedures. They organized, among other things, for “blind” auditions — auditions held behind a screen so the player’s identity would remain obscured.[2] Given the long history of segregation and racism both in and beyond the orchestral field, many Black musicians believed that only an anonymous audition process would allow for an impartial assessment of musical ability. By 1972, some orchestras, including SFS, had begun conducting preliminary rounds behind a screen. Recounting how she eventually won the position with SFS, Jones credits the screen for her success: “I wouldn’t have gotten the job if the screen wasn’t in play. I’m the recipient [laughing] of a thing that I worked on.”[3]

There is a burgeoning movement in Western classical music to upend traditional hierarchies and to reimagine this traditionally exclusive cultural field. These efforts have intensified in the post-George-Floyd era, as the classical music field grapples with its own complicity in anti-Black racism and white supremacy.[4] Jones, a 93-year-old classical musician, socialist, and self-proclaimed “stealth bomber” is a key figure whose life work of linking musical advocacy with social justice prefigures this current moment. In what follows, I ask what her struggles in San Francisco allow us to understand about the systemic racism embedded in the classical music field. Jones often despairs at the unchanged landscape of orchestras, lamenting that “to this day, you still have maybe one percent of Black musicians in all of the orchestras in the world.”[5] The barriers she faced in her career help us understand how this situation persists while also inserting into the historical record the efforts of working musicians like herself “who were willing to flare up and be an issue.”

Jones at the timpani in her home at Rossmoor, 2019. Photo by author.

I first met Jones years ago after attending a friend’s violin recital at Rossmoor, an active senior community located in the upscale suburban community of Walnut Creek in Northern California. An anomaly in the homogeneous whiteness of Rossmoor, I had already noticed Jones in the audience when she approached me after the concert, curious about my own presence. Gregarious and highly social, Jones quickly launched into a series of questions: “Had I heard of the San Francisco Symphony? Juilliard? Tanglewood?” As I later came to realize, Jones often introduces herself this way, highlighting these elite music institutions as a way to invite discussions into her past. Having researched the politics of race in classical music for Asian/Asian American musicians, I was intrigued by the fragments of her life she shared. I began visiting her for long conversations over meals. I knew Jones was engaged in a decades-long project of writing a memoir. This process led her to be introspective about her life and its meaning. But as her health began faltering, I began recording more formal oral interviews. Here, I focus on Jones’s musical experiences in San Francisco, a city that looms large in her own life narrative. When she arrived in San Francisco, the local press heralded her position with the orchestra as evidence of the city’s progressiveness. But Jones soon encountered significant backlash, including a well-publicized tenure denial. Drawing on her self-published memoir and extensive oral interviews, I highlight both the radical imagination that guides her life and the accumulated costs of pursuing artistic excellence in the face of persistent racial and gender exclusions.

Jones at the timpani, 1972. Photo by Don Jones, Courtesy of San Francisco Symphony Archives.

San Francisco and the Battle for Tenure

A Harlem native, Jones planned to stay in New York for her entire career, viewing the city as the epicenter for both her racial advocacy and musical ambitions. But San Francisco sparkled with its reputation as a progressive cultural and activist oasis. She had never visited the “fabled city on the Bay” before auditioning for SFS but quickly fell in love, enraptured by the scent of eucalyptus leaves in Golden Gate Park, the ease of mild winters, and the colorful architecture that seemed to exude optimism and promise. She believed San Francisco represented a place less entrenched in racism. She left New York fully expecting to remain with SFS until her retirement.

Given the paucity of non-white musicians in any major symphony during the 1970s, Jones’s presence at SFS served as validation of the city’s progressiveness and difference. The symphony’s young Japanese conductor, Seiji Ozawa, already burnished this image. A coveted star on the rise when SFS hired him in 1970, Ozawa embodied a sense of newness and excitement. As Larry Rothe recounts in his history of the orchestra, music critics hailed Ozawa as the “Now Generation Conductor,” captivated by his youth, the novelty of his ethnicity, and his generally “hip” style: turtlenecks, Nehru jackets, long shaggy mane, medallions, and love beads. Jones fit seamlessly into this marketing of San Francisco and its symphony orchestra as a “break with the past” and part of the “now.”[6] Together, Jones and Ozawa heralded a new era; they projected a forward looking vision of classical music.

San Francisco Symphony Music Director Seiji Ozawa and members of the orchestra outside airplane on 1973 European/USSR Tour. Photograph by J.C. Watts and Partners Commercial Photographers, Courtesy of San Francisco Symphony Archives.

Jones’s orchestral debut in San Francisco began auspiciously with a glowing review in the San Francisco Chronicle, where the music critic Heuwell Tircuit proclaimed: “Major event — one not listed on the program — was the local debut performance of the Symphony’s new timpanist, Elayne Jones. Sensational! Absolutely sensational … Clean articulation, fine intonation, and technical savvy — a particularly fine roll, smooth as butter — rich tonal sensibility, and what was really mind blowing, she phrases.”[7] Jones included an excerpt of the review in the “Peace Day” holiday greeting sent to family and friends that year.

When I came across this holiday greeting nestled amongst the abundance of documents and ephemera accumulated in her home over the decades, it struck me in its promise and anticipation of a rosy future. Today, it remains a lingering snapshot of what could have been. Looking at it, I am reminded of William Cheng’s writing on loving music, how that love can be weaponized to dehumanize others, and the resulting “pain of unrequited love.”[8] Jones loved playing in a symphony orchestra. She reveled in the sounds of instruments coming together and creating palettes of such wondrous beauty. She maintained this love, even when its doors remained closed to her. Finally, Jones believed that her dedication to craft and musical excellence would be recognized and returned if not by love, than with tenure and membership in one of the nation’s most celebrated orchestras.

1972 “Peace Day” holiday greeting. Courtesy of Jones.

As is standard, Jones joined SFS on a two-year probationary period, after which she would be eligible for tenure. She knew that as an African American woman, the standard of excellence placed on her would exceed that of her white, male peers. She committed herself fully to the position. At the same time, she refused the additional labor of performing gratitude and subservience to her colleagues. If Jones’s family holiday greeting reflects exuberance and excitement for her family’s beautiful new adventure, the card she gave to her fellow SFS players centered her blackness. This interrupted the supposed racelessness of the orchestral space. As she recalls, her colleagues perceived the card to be political and intrusive: 

“When I got into the San Francisco Symphony that first year, people were giving out cards and everything. And I looked at all these cards and all these white angels and I thought, ‘White angels? Some angels must be Black.’ And that was when I discovered Marcus bookstore in San Francisco.[9]… Anyhow, so I got these cards with all these white angels. And I thought, ‘Why should I give my kids any cards with white angels? Well, if my kids can have white angels, their kids can have Black angels.’ So I went to Marcus and they had some Black Madonnas and I made some cards and I gave ‘em out. Well, you know, they protested that I’m imposing my beliefs on them. ‘Well, you’re imposing yours on me. Why do my children have to see white angels and your kids can’t see Black angels?’ Well, that may have been the downfall of myself – why I didn’t do too well with the orchestra. I should have just gone in and kept my mouth shut and not rocked the boat or made waves. And I guess this is why they had to get rid of me.”

“They had to get rid of me” — the tenure committee, SFS, the classical music establishment, and the white status quo most broadly. Decades later, Jones still chokes up discussing her tenure case, a trauma that loops in her mind, litigated repetitively to the same result.

In 1974, SFS evaluated eight players for tenure. Only the two non-white players, Jones and Japanese bassoonist Ryohei Nakagawa, received negative votes from the Player’s committee (the 7-person committee that votes on tenure). For Jones, losing her battle for tenure at SFS marked the symbolic end to her music career, extinguishing years of striving and ambition. Her years with San Francisco Opera Orchestra, where she earned tenure and worked for over 25 years, barely merits any mention in her memoir. This should not suggest that Jones does not have fond memories of her years with San Francisco Opera. By all accounts, she held some epic parties and made lifelong friends. But pit orchestras, tucked in the shadows under the stage (with the percussion section far back in its recesses) do not provide a visible platform. The singers on stage occupy the spotlight, while the orchestral musicians remain largely unseen, behind a perpetual screen of sorts. This may speak to why Jones found the most steady work in pit orchestras, where the concealment of her body allowed for some greater measure of inclusion. Prior to SF Opera, she played with New York City Opera for 12 years, where she was the first African American and female musician hired by that orchestra. As a musician quoted in a 1976 Los Angeles Times article about the absence of African Americans in symphony orchestras suggested, talented Black musicians, knowing how unwelcome they are in symphony orchestras, gravitate elsewhere, including “pit orchestras where our color won’t disturb sensitive souls who can’t believe that Afro-Americans can understand the great music of Western civilization.”[10]

What does inclusion look, feel, and sound like when the erasure of one’s body is part of the precondition for considering one’s admittance? In its most literal form, screened auditions distill music making to its aural element, redacting the body to create a blank slate for listening. Racial fantasies, projections, and stereotypes have long filled the gap between a musician’s body and their performance, a process that can unwittingly serve as self-fulfilling prophecies of racialized beliefs.[11] The screen interrupts these imaginations, anonymizing the body through a large black apparatus. But the screen is a mechanism designed to engender impartiality. It functions in the service of meritocracy rather than a commitment to diversity or racial justice.[12] And meritocracy’s relentless focus on individual effort and ability does little to address the systemic racism, discrimination, and history of segregation that sustain inequities in the orchestral field.

Popular media often extols the use of screens in orchestra auditions, pointing to the near 50% increase in the representation of women since its implementation and encouraging other industries to use similar anonymizing strategies to tackle implicit bias in hiring.[13] What is clear, however, is that the use of screens has done little to increase the representation of African American musicians in U.S. symphony orchestras. And in Jones’s case, the screen did little to change the conditions that precipitated its existence in the first place. As a Black woman occupying a principal position in SFS, an orchestra with no other African Americans and only 22 women (out of approximately 100 players) when she joined in 1972, Jones was, as she puts it: “treading on the toes of the white male, and that was really a bit too much for most of these people to deal with.”[14] 

Jones’s negative tenure vote and lawsuit made national news, spurred local protests, a letter writing campaign, and threats to withhold the symphony’s funding. She filed a lawsuit charging racial and sexual discrimination, which she dropped after receiving an additional provisional year and vote on tenure.[15] But when the second tenure vote came back negative, Jones filed another lawsuit. In 1977, her tenure battle ended when the courts dismissed the case.

The details of Jones’s tenure case involve skirmishes of power between multiple parties — unions, orchestral players, management, and Ozawa. Rather than relitigate the specific merits of the case, I focus, instead, on what the case reveals about the institutional history and culture of symphony orchestras. Part of the difficulty Jones encountered proving racism stemmed from long standing beliefs separating politics from the distilled performance of “the music itself” and understandings of the whiteness of symphony orchestras as incidental rather than instrumental to the assessment of musical excellence.

Jones spent decades repeatedly proving her ability and musical worth. When she learned of the shockingly low scores she received for her tenure, they felt like a personal assault to diminish and demean. For her first tenure vote, she received 177 out of a possible 700 points. Two tenure committee members gave her an insulting score of 1 out of 100. The vote the following year came in even lower. As a point of contrast, in the final round of Jones’s audition for SFS, she received 920 points out of a possible 1000 from the audition committee.[16]

In my interviews, Jones’s speech uncharacteristically sputters and pauses as she recalls the reasons used to justify her tenure denial:

“How all of a sudden could I be so bad? And these guys said…well, I…well, what was the thing with the trumpet player?…well, there was…he made a statement…What was?…there’s something silly they said I didn’t do…I try to block them out. That’s why I have difficulties remembering. … Gosh. Well. I mean it boils down to the fact, so I have to be perfect but nobody else around me is perfect?”

For Jones, the moving target of perfection placed on her felt unbearable. The criticism levied about her playing proved equally damaging to her psyche. She considered leaving the profession for good. “I’m a perfectionist,” she continues to muse, “so I will still think, was it my playing?” But perfection, while aspirational, is both elusive and subjective. This is particularly true for musicians playing at her high level of musicianship.

In the first public statement issued by the SFS Players’ Committee (the tenure committee) in September 1974 about Jones’s tenure denial, it concluded by referencing the hallowed space occupied by a symphony orchestra:

“A symphony orchestra is a rare and special thing. It is the unique product of our Western Musical Tradition, a tradition centuries old. It is made up of members who each embody decades of training and experience. It is not a work-force or an assembly line. It is a living thing, a musical and social organism. And like any living thing, it should be treated with care for its health, and respect for its accomplishments.”[17]

This language is, on the one hand, unsurprising in its description of a symphony orchestra as a “special thing” for a select few. Unlike other workplaces, a symphony orchestra exceeded such mundanities of labor and production. It represented both an enduring testament to centuries of European tradition and a delicately balanced living organism, whose inheritors stewarded its continued maintenance and care. On the other hand, such evocations of a symphony orchestra contained a clear message. Like the purported racelessness of meritocracy and the symphony orchestra, the players’ invocation of our “Western Musical Tradition” functioned as a proxy for whiteness and its continued preservation.

Would the outcome of Jones’s tenure vote have differed if she had muted her “zippy, boat-rocking personality,” acquiesced to claiming less space, and accommodated more to the status quo?[18] As she wrote in a letter to the supporters of her tenure: “Someone I trust confided to me that I was disliked because I didn’t conform to the subservient image of a black woman — and had stood up for my rights instead, with pride, and not with the soft humility some considered more befitting.” Rather than subservience, Jones embodied its mirror in her defiance and anger. At the same time, Nakagawa, by all accounts a “soft-spoken” and mild-mannered principal bassoonist who accepted his negative tenure vote without challenge, did not fare any better.[19] It is unsurprising how closely descriptions attached to Jones and Nakagawa’s outward personalities hew to the racial and gendered scripts placed on Asians and African Americans. In the end, the similar fates of Nagakawa and Jones speak to the bind that musicians of color face gaining inclusion and holding leadership positions in spaces of white supremacy. 

When Jones discusses racism, she often adds that white people do not understand what racism entails, viewing it as a matter of etiquette and hurtful comments rather than a system of acquiring and maintaining power. She, like Nakagawa, was a principal player — a first chair position, which represents a leadership position in the orchestra. This translated into greater pay and power than other section players in their workplace, not a special living thing. Their presence disturbed the “natural” order of the organism:

“I was a principal player, the person who is the head of a section and always paid above the rest of the section, first ever for an African American. I was experienced and I was competent; conductors and audiences acknowledged that. … This situation was compounded by the fact that the orchestra had a conductor and another principal player, who like me, were not of European origin. Having these three non-Europeans in the orchestra in leading positions was a little more than their egos could handle.”[20]

In Jones’s view, their collective visibility in positions of power precipitated their downfall. Nakagawa returned to Japan. And while Ozawa did not attribute his resignation from SFS in 1975 to the tenure disputes, he left as well, continuing his post with Boston Symphony Orchestra full time.

It is impossible to know how the fragility of white egos might have entered into the Players’ Committee’s vote on tenure. But an 8-page, typed document in the SFS archives, written in 1992 by a member of Jones’s second tenure committee, provides some clues. It is unclear why or to whom this treatise titled “the Elayne Jones Affair” was written. When I inquired, the archivist at SFS could offer no additional details. But as a defense of the symphony and the committee’s commitment to objectivity, it contains a litany of highly charged personal claims. The accusations levied against Jones included: the “distorted view” she had of her music ability and her tendency to blame career disappointments on racism (or sexism) rather than her own shortcomings; insinuations that affairs with music critics led to all of her positive newspaper reviews; and the multiple “cards in her deck” that Jones held due to her race and gender, effectively rendering SFS “impotent.” The document closes with the musician’s continued discomfort encountering Jones periodically in his everyday life — on the tennis courts in San Francisco and as a colleague at music festivals. As he writes: “she is the only person who has ever publicly charged me with being racist or sexist.” In the end, being accused of racism and sexism proved this musician’s most enduring slight.

Conclusion

For Jones, at 93, mulling over the events in her life can become a form of rehearsal. In our conversations, certain moments loop and rewind, an attempt to move past the racialized trauma of her tenure denial, only to return again to well-tread tales: playing with conductor Leopold Stokowski; her political advocacy; encountering segregation in St. Louis and Chicago; winning the position with SFS. The record skips and repeats, landing again and again on her tenure denial where the narrative inevitably stops. As she wrote to the supporters of her tenure battle: “I don’t know why I’ve worked so hard to climb up so far, because the long fall is so painful.”

In a roundtable discussion centered on the experiences of African Americans in classical music, Anthony McGill, principal clarinetist with the New York Philharmonic (and the only African American musician currently in that orchestra), eschewed the “exceptional talent” narrative for what it elides. Refusing to allow his own success story to serve as an acquittal of the field, he asserted: “I think it’s actually very important to highlight everybody else …[those] who are blocked from having that path. It’s important to look from that perspective as well.”[21]

How do we highlight this perspective in the institutional history of symphony orchestras? This is an archive of absence and of what could have been — aspirations thwarted, talents obstructed, careers re-routed, and spirits incalculably destroyed. But it is also, as Jones’s life shows us, an archive of defiance and refusal. Her life offers new insights into the past — a way to rethink the history and culture of American symphony orchestras through her visionary perspective. Tina Campt speaks of black feminist futurity as “a performance of a future that hasn’t yet happened but must.”[22] Making music and occupying space in sites where African American women have and continue to be excluded, Jones’ life compels us to grapple with the segregated histories that structure how we listen and see. “If my life matters,” Jones told me recently, “it’s because I have to make you think it matters.” Here I offer space to understand how her life matters for what it allows us to envision — new worlds and modes of imagining the orchestral field, music making, and the structures of power that sustain them.


[1] Letter to Verne Sellin from Elayne Jones. San Francisco Symphony archives

[2] For an incisive critique of the ableism contained in the term “blind” auditions, see William Cheng, Loving Music Till it Hurts (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 63-64.

[3] Unless otherwise cited, all quotes from Jones come from interviews and conversations with the author.

[4] See, for example, Michael Andor Brodeur, “That sound you’re hearing is the classical music’s long overdue reckoning with racism,” Washington Post, July 16, 2020, Zachary Woolfe and Joshua Barone (interviewers), “Black Artists on How to Change Classical Music,” New York Times, July 16, 2020, James Bennett, “On Taking Lip [Service], WQXR blog, June 2, 2020, Aaron Flagg, Anti-Black Discrimination in American Orchestras, Symphony, Summer 2020.

[5] This statistic has remained relatively constant. A survey conducted in 1974 revealed African Americans to make up less than 1% of orchestras in the U.S. “Symphony Orchestras: A Bad Scene,” The Crisis, January 1975. In a 2014 survey by the League of American Orchestras, the figure had risen to just 1.8%.

[6] Rothe, Music for a City, Music for the World, 156-57.

[7] Heuwell Tircuit, “Show of Symphony Pride,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 6, 1972.

[8] Cheng, Loving Music Till it Hurts, 104.

[9] Marcus Books (named after Marcus Garvey), currently located in Oakland, is the oldest independent Black bookstore in the United States.

[10] Dorothy Samachson, “Orchestras in the U.S. — Where are the Blacks?” Los Angeles Times, October 10, 1976.

[11] For more on racialized listening practices see, for example, Nina Sun Eidsheim, The Race of Sound (Durham: Duke UP, 2019); Jennifer Lynn Stoever, The Sonic Color Line (New York: NYU Press, 2016); Kira Thurman, “Performing Lieder, Hearing Race,” Journal of the American Musicological Society, vol. 72, Number 3, 825-865; Grace Wang, Soundtracks of Asian America (Durham: Duke UP, 2015).

[12] See Anthony Tommasini, “To Make Orchestras More Diverse, End Blind Auditions,” New York Times, July 16, 2020 and Cheng’s discussion of anonymous audition processes and meritocracy in Loving Music Till It Hurts, 63-104.

[13] Malcolm Gladwell writing on “blind auditions” in Blink, New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2005 helped popularize the findings of the widely-cited article by Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse, “Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of ‘Blind’ Auditions on Female Musicians,” American Economic Review, vol. 90, no. 4, September 2000, 715-741.

[14] Charles Burrell, a double bassist, the first African American musician hired by SFS, performed with the orchestra from 1959-64. Jones’s lawyer claimed that Burrell was forced out, a narrative that differs from the official history of SFS, which recounts how earthquakes in the region prompted the bassist to return to more stable ground in Colorado. Larry Rothe, Music for a City, Music for the World, San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2011, 134-35.

[15] The extent to which the courts did not consider race and gender discrimation as intersectional created further obstacles for Jones. In his sworn affidavit, Jerry Spain, President of Musician’s Union Local 6 offered the statistics on gender at SFS, noting that the orchestra employed more women musicians than any other major symphony. This fact was used to buttress the orchestra’s claim that it did not discriminate on the basis of sex. This defense recalls Kimberle Crenshaw’s argument that separating gender and race discrimination leaves no place for Black women. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum (1989): 139-67

[16] For tenure during this period at SFS, a Players Committee (composed of 7 musicians) and the music director award points, with each side able to override or deny tenure. Musicians needed to receive a total of 351 votes to have the conductor’s vote added to their tally. As such, the low scores effectively sidelined Ozawa. The members of the audition and tenure committee were different, so do not represent a direct contrast (although the tenure committee is supposed to represent the collective view of the orchestra).

[17] Report to the 1974 ICSOM Convention from the San Francisco Symphony Players’ Committee. San Francisco Symphony archives.

[18] Quote from Arthur Bloomfield, “The Story That Won’t Go Away,” San Francisco Examiner, Sept 2, 1975.

[19] The narrative around Nakagawa’s tenure denial in the press and within SFS also suggested (falsely) that he was Ozawa’s former roommate in Japan and enjoyed a closeness to the conductor given their shared ethnicity. This narrative implied cronyism in his hiring. See Paul Hertelendy, “Jones: ‘How Good Do You Have To Be?’”Oakland Tribune, August 31, 1975. Although Nakagawa did not challenge his tenure denial, following Jones’s lawsuit he, too, was given a second vote.

[20] Jones, Little Lady wIth a Big Drum, 303.

[21]Learning to Listen” June 10, 2020.

[22] Tina Campt, Listening to Images (Durham: Duke UP, 2017), 17.

Grace Wang is Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of California, Davis. She is the author of Soundtracks of Asian America: Navigating Race through Musical Performance (Duke UP) and is currently collaborating with filmmaker Julie Wyman on a documentary film about Elayne Jones’s life in politics and music.

Poetry

After I’m Gone

Illustration by Fernando Mendez Corona

Michael Torres

I’ve written this poem before. I left Miguel here last
time, sitting in the front row of the church, near
the aisle. He must be asleep by now, his head against
the end of a pew. Maybe he’s dreaming of us alive
and young, walking into an AM/PM. He used to
grab two burgers from the food warmer, slip one
into the bag of another burger. I was a great
lookout. If he went up the aisle with the candy
and grabbed a pack of Twizzlers I knew he was
ready to go. If he took a cup and filled it with Icee,
I had to ask the cashier for a key to the bathroom.
If he ran, I ran, and I’d go left toward the field
past factories. He went right, cut thru the lot of that
church for ex-gang members who every other Sunday
asked God to look upon them again. It must be
the morning after my funeral, Miguel waking up
to his sore feet in those black dress shoes. His tie
loosened. Everyone else gone or never arrived.

*

After death, when it’s just me
with my slick soul, my see-thru
self, I imagine my eyes as two
brown balloons tied together that
a child has let slip from her fingers
and now must watch as they lift
further into a sky she could not have
imagined going on for so long. All that
blue, and I am only the balloons
no one believes in. I am barely out
of sight, looking back down at earth
one last time, watching the town where
I grew up and decided to leave when
I’d felt it shrink around me. I didn’t want
to say it like that, but that’s how it happens
sometimes. The same town I wanted,
nevertheless, to be buried in, I realized
when I was maybe sixteen, standing
in the cemetery for a funeral, burying
a friend of a friend, who did not end up
like his father, though his father was
there, handcuffed and dressed in orange.
His jumpsuit stinging the morning. An officer
at each side. I’d kept that image with me,
of the father, all my life, and would
wonder, from time to time, why the police
had not let him wear a suit to the burial.
I came to the conclusion that they could not
recognize him as a father. They found every
other word to define him. They fit those
handcuffs and felt good about their work.
The rest of the mourners had the freedom
of multiplicity. That morning, everyone’s words
tangled in a rain not so different from the storm

*

I once picked up Miguel in. He was still in love
with a woman who didn’t know what she wanted
except some time to think. It was a Saturday
afternoon when I found him walking in the rain.
Would you even call it afternoon, in a storm
like that? He said thanks after shutting the door.
Maybe both of us laughed for no reason
other than to start conversation, though neither
of us brought up what had happened. I’m a good
lookout. I can say that about myself. I drove on
and he put his face in his hands. I said nothing.
He wore a baseball cap. Deep blue. The radio was
playing low a commercial where someone didn’t
have auto insurance, and their friend asked them
why not. It’s a dumb thing to remember now, but
I can’t separate it from that moment. The wipers kept
smearing the glass. The rain returned. Again. I pressed
the gas and tried to catch up with the hour. I heard his
belt buckle click into place after a moment.


Michael Torres was born and brought up in Pomona, California where he spent his adolescence as a graffiti artist. His debut collection of poems, An Incomplete List of Names (Beacon Press, 2020) was selected by Raquel Salas Rivera for the National Poetry Series and named one of NPR’s Best Books of 2020. His honors include awards and support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the McKnight Foundation, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, CantoMundo, VONA Voices, the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Jerome Foundation, the Camargo Foundation, and the Loft Literary Center. Currently he’s an Assistant Professor in the MFA program at Minnesota State University, Mankato, and a teaching artist with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. Visit him at: michaeltorreswriter.com

Articles

The Other Southland: Missions, Monuments, and Memory in Tovaangar

Catherine S. Ramírez

I come from the other Southland. Not the Southland of Lynyrd Skynyrd, plantations, Scarlett O’Hara, and monuments to Stonewall Jackson, but the Southland of The Beach Boys, missions, Ramona, and monuments to Junípero Serra. I’m from Southern California. Notwithstanding the historical, political, demographic, and cultural differences between the South and Greater Los Angeles, both are sites of struggle over how or whether to remember white supremacy and the peoples subjected to it. Both are also sites of settler colonialism and indigenous dispossession and survival.

Figure 1: Mission San Gabriel, San Gabriel, California. Photo by the author.

I also come from the other valley. Not The Valley of movie studios and Valley girls, but the San Gabriel Valley, a constellation of 47 cities and unincorporated areas that stretches some 200 miles from East LA in the west to the Pomona Valley in the east and from the San Gabriel Mountains in the north to Puente Hills in the south. Just as the San Fernando Valley takes its name from the mission that Spanish priests established there in 1797, my valley is home to Mission San Gabriel Arcángel (Figure 1). The fourth of California’s twenty-one missions, Mission San Gabriel was founded by Serra in 1771, ten years before the establishment of el Pueblo de Nuestra Señora de la Reina de los Ángeles. Also known as Tovaangar, the LA Basin, of which the San Gabriel Valley is part, is the ancestral and enduring home of the Tongva, the Native people the Spaniards called gabrieleños. In the twenty-first century, LA County has the largest indigenous population of any urban area in the US. While some of the peaks in the San Gabriel Mountains were named after white supremacists, the SGV, as the San Gabriel Valley is affectionately known, is now one of the least white places in the United States; the majority of its 1.4 million residents are Latinx and Asian. Masses at Mission San Gabriel are offered in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese.[1]

As a child in the 1970s and early ‘80s, I attended masses in Spanish in honor of the Virgin Mary at Mission San Gabriel. My family called these masses ofrecering, a Spanglish word that we invented for offering. Unlike the masses we attended every Sunday at St. Thomas More, our parish church in nearby Alhambra, ofrecering was a special occasion. St. Thomas More was housed in a mundane glass and concrete block dating back to what was then the proximate 1960s. In contrast, Mission San Gabriel was a simultaneously rustic and resplendent two-hundred-year-old historical landmark made by Tongva laborers of brick, stone, and adobe. Like some of the other California missions, it boasts a campanario, a wall with openings for bells. San Gabriel’s holds six bells, the oldest of which dates back to 1795. Yet what makes the mission architecturally distinctive is its strong Moorish style, a testament, in all likelihood, to the Andalusian origin of its designer, Father Antonio Cruzado. Cruzado hailed from Córdoba and the ten capped buttresses along the mission’s imposing, thirty-foot-tall south wall resemble those atop Córdoba’s famous cathedral, a mosque until 1236.[2]

Figure 2: The author (first on left) and her sisters outside Mission San Gabriel, early 1970s. Original photo by the author’s father.

Ofrecering mandated special attire. Not even our Sunday best was good enough. Girls, including my sisters and I, wore white dresses and veils (Figure 2). If my outfit was especially on point, I rocked a pair of white patent leather shoes as well. Boys wore shirts, jackets, and ties. Dressed like miniature brides and grooms, we children paraded up the chapel’s center aisle bearing flowers for the Virgin Mary. Ofrecering was both solemn and sensory. I marched to the altar and left my flowers at the base of a porcelain statue of the Virgin as I watched the light of the candles flicker on the mission’s walls, listened to the choir sing, and took in the scent of incense and fresh-cut roses and calla lilies.

Figure 3: The author in her San Gabriel Mission High School uniform, September 1983. Original photo by the author’s father

In 1983, I returned to Mission San Gabriel for a more prosaic reason: high school. In addition to an elementary school, the mission houses a girls’ high school. Instead of dressing like a bride, I was required to wear black-and-white saddle shoes, a white oxford shirt, a green or navy vest or cardigan, and a green, blue, white, and yellow plaid skirt as a student at San Gabriel Mission High School (Figure 3). Even though there were few students of Scottish descent — the vast majority were Mexican American — our uniform looked a lot like the Gordon Dress tartan, as registered in the Scottish Register of Tartans. Since the school’s founding in 1949, its mascot has been the Pioneer (Figure 4). What this mascot looks like is anyone’s guess. According to the school’s 2019 Official Branding Document, “No images should be used with the name ‘Pioneer’ as there is no official image chosen by the school in its history.”  

Figure 4: San Gabriel Mission High School, San Gabriel, California, August 2020. Photo by the author

Growing up in California, I learned in school that there were three peoples who’d inhabited my state: the Indians, who, I was told, had vanished eons ago; the Spanish explorers, padres, and soldiers, who, I presumed, had also gone away; and the white (sometimes called Anglo) pioneers who’d stayed and given us the present we inhabited. It’s unclear if San Gabriel Mission High School’s Pioneer is Spanish or Anglo. Notwithstanding this ambiguity, the true founders of modern California, I was taught, were white, whether they were from Spain or Scotland. Where, if at all, people of Mexican origin fit into the master narrative of California history was unclear. Until I got to college, I learned nothing about California’s Mexican period (1821-1848). And while I didn’t encounter the word Tovaangar until I was well into my 40s, I learned where Mallorca, Serra’s birthplace, was when I was in the fourth grade.

*          *          *

Figure 5: The author working on her model of Mission San Carlos Borroméo de Carmelo, 1979. Original photo by the author’s father

In California schools, state history is taught in the fourth grade. For generations, the mission project has been a hallmark of the fourth-grade curriculum.[3] Using two quart-size milk cartons for bell towers, homemade yogurt as plaster, and Fisher-Price Little People, my parents and I built a model of Mission San Carlos Borroméo de Carmelo (Figure 5). Like Mission San Gabriel, Mission Carmel was founded by Serra. Of the twenty-one missions, Carmel was reputed to be his “personal favorite.” With its tall, thick walls and high, narrow windows, Mission San Gabriel, the site of multiple uprisings by Native Americans, has the air of a fortress.[4] Carmel, in contrast, is the apotheosis of California’s Spanish fantasy. Its lush courtyard and blue tile fountain belie its role in the enslavement, starvation, torture, and decimation of the indigenous Ohlone and Esselen peoples.  

The Spanish fantasy, a conceit identified and named by journalist, author, and lawyer Carey McWilliams in 1946, is “a fictionalized past exploited by Los Angeles ‘Boosters’ bent on transforming the region into the cultural and economic capital of the West.”[5] In that fantasy, “the Indians were devoted to the Franciscans…their true friends,” while the lay colonizers, genteel dons and pretty señoritas, “lived out days of beautiful indolence.”[6] Poet Caroline Randall Williams reminds us that the South’s “prosperity and sense of romance and nostalgia were built upon the grievous exploitation of black life.” Likewise, the Spanish fantasy obscures and distorts the violence of indigenous and Mexican dispossession in California.

Figure 6: Gateway Plaza Monument, Alhambra, California, August 2020. Photo by the author.
Figure 7: Alhambra High School, Alhambra, California, August 2020. Photo by author.

While the missions have long been associated with the Spanish fantasy, they aren’t its only avatars. The Spanish fantasy permeates the very geography of the San Gabriel Valley. Alhambra, a municipality on the western edge of the SGV, offers a uniquely orientalist take on that fantasy. In 1874, Benjamin “Don Benito” Wilson, a white trapper and trader originally from Tennessee who’d married into a prominent Californio family, bought 275 acres of land about three miles southwest of Mission San Gabriel. He named his purchase Alhambra, after the storied Islamic fortress-palace in Granada, Spain. According to the city of Alhambra website, he chose this name not because of the nearby mission’s Moorish architecture, but simply because his daughter happened to be reading Washington Irving’s 1832 book Tales of the Alhambra. Today, the Gateway Plaza Monument (Figure 6), a replica of the eleventh-century Puerta de Elvira in Granada, sits near the corner of Fremont Avenue and Valley Boulevard.[7] The Gateway Plaza Monument also figures prominently in the Alhambra city logo. Alhambra High School’s mascot is the Moor (Figure 7). I learned to swim in the public pool at Granada Park and I attended quinceañeras, wedding receptions, memorial services and a concert by the ‘80s disco group Tapps at Almansor Court (Figure 8), a banquet hall in Almansor Park. (Almansor, a variation of Almanzor and al-Mansur, was the ruler of Islamic Iberia in the late tenth century.)   

Figure 8: Almansor Court, Alhambra, California, August 2020. Photo by the author.

In addition to erasing Native Californians, the Spanish fantasy erases Mexicans.[8] It replaces both groups with exotic and distant Moors or sanitized and proximate (vis-à-vis other Europeans) Spaniards. Thus, it should come as no surprise that some Mexican Americans have tried to insert Mexicans into the Spanish fantasy as a means of claiming a part of California’s past. Writing about conflicts in the 1960s and ‘70s over California’s fourth-grade mission curriculum, historian Zevi Gutfreund observes that accommodationist Mexican Americans “believed that teaching missions tied their heritage to state history in a powerful way….They believed that accepting the mission myth forged ties to white privilege.”[9] To further solidify the ties between eighteenth-century Spanish colonizers and twenty-first century Latinxs, Pope Francis declared Serra “special patron of the Hispanic people” when he canonized the Franciscan missionary in 2015. What’s more, the pope upheld Serra as “one of the founding fathers of the United States,” thereby rendering Mexicans and other Latinxs “worthy of inclusion as true Americans.”[10] Once again, the pioneer — a settler colonial, in other words — is cast as the true American. When displaced by the white pioneer, Mexicans are victims of settler colonialism. When we become the pioneer, we are agents of it.

*          *          *

Serra’s canonization and the reckoning over monuments that the Black Lives Matter movement has compelled have brought renewed scrutiny to the missionary and his likeness. On September 27, 2015, four days after his canonization, a person or group of people broke into Mission Carmel, where Serra died and is buried. The bronze statue of Serra in the courtyard was toppled and “Saint of Genocide” was scrawled across a stone. Statues of Serra have also been defaced or torn down at the missions in San Fernando, Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Rafael, in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, in Capitol Park in Sacramento, and in Father Serra Park in downtown LA.[11]

Figure 9: The author’s parents and children at Mission San Gabriel, June 2020. Photo by the author.

On June 20, 2020, the day that indigenous activists felled the statue in Father Serra Park, I happened to take my elderly parents and teenage children to Mission San Gabriel. I’m not religious, but I have fond memories of the mission. Moreover, after three months cooped up at home because of the coronavirus pandemic, we were simply desperate to go somewhere. Unaware of what was happening at Father Serra Park, I wagered that driving past the mission was a relatively low-risk activity. The mission was closed, but I was able to take a photo of my family with the Serra statue near the chapel’s main entrance (Figure 9). Although my parents and kids are wearing masks, it’s evident that no one is smiling. Shortly after I snapped that photo, mission authorities moved the statue to an interior garden, away from public view. Then, in the pre-dawn hours of July 11, 2020, a day after $200,000 in renovations had been completed, a fire erupted at Mission San Gabriel. The fire damaged much of the chapel’s interior and destroyed its roof. After a nine-month investigation, the LA County District Attorney charged a man with arson and other counts. No motive for the fire was given.

When I first heard about the fire, I thought I felt ambivalent about it. I shared the outrage and triumph of the protestors in Bristol, England, who, in June of 2020, tore down and pounced on that city’s late-nineteenth-century bronze statue of the seventeenth-century slaver Edward Colston before hurling said statue into Bristol Harbor. Similarly, when I saw over the summer of 2020 how protestors in Richmond, Virginia, had transformed the late-nineteenth-century bronze Robert E. Lee Monument by covering it with images and “names of victims of police violence, protest chants, calls for compassion, revolutionary symbols and anti-police slogans in dozens of colors,” I felt a wrong had been righted, even if only for a moment. Then I admitted to myself that, irrespective of the cause of the fire at the mission, I felt more sadness and loss than ambivalence about it. Undeniably, Mission San Gabriel testifies to the violent past and present of settler colonialism and indigenous dispossession and displacement. So, too, do the White House, the Statue of Liberty, Alhambra’s Gateway Plaza Monument, and the post-World War II tract home in which I grew up. At the same time, Mission San Gabriel, not unlike these aforementioned sites, holds memories and meaning for many.

Above all, Tongva labor, artistry, and survival are manifest at Mission San Gabriel. As art historian Yve Chavez has pointed out,

My Tongva ancestors lived and died at Mission San Gabriel….A visitor unfamiliar with the true history of the missions…may not recognize the Native labor that made this church and other mission buildings….These structures are not just about Spanish colonization…they also reflect the accommodations that Native peoples made under very difficult circumstances: they learned new skills to construct buildings that were not adapted to California’s earthquake-prone environment; they attended mass in the churches either against their will or maybe reluctantly; and they also made these spaces their own. 

Chavez has identified mission museums in particular as troves of “archival materials….made by our ancestors” and has called for increased access to those collections for Native scholars. In September 2020, she noted that “only one of the twenty-one missions has a Native curator.” “The recent fire at Mission San Gabriel,” she stressed, “…is a reminder of the fragility of the historic churches and other buildings that remain at these sites….The missions need Native scholars.” The fire at Mission San Gabriel wrecked not only a living place of worship — of baptisms, quinceañeras, weddings, funerals, and ofrecering — but an irreplaceable primary source and a living connection to the past.

If, as the folks at Monument Lab remind us, a monument is a statement of power and presence in public, then the missions were and are monuments. The Spaniards forced Native Californians to build them, accommodationist Mexican Americans have embraced them, and protestors target them precisely because these structures were and remain statements of power and presence in public. Yet Chavez’s call to “indigenize mission narratives” underscores the need to rethink our, including and especially Chicanxs’, relationship to monuments.

Like lots of people of Mexican origin, I’m of indigenous North American and Iberian descent. While I’m a beneficiary of settler colonialism and indigenous dispossession — I write these words in my house in Santa Cruz, unceded territory of the Awaswas-speaking Uypi Tribe — I reject monuments of Serra and other colonizers, such as Juan de Oñate and Christopher Columbus. These men, problematic in their own time and today, aren’t my heroes. Inviting or compelling me, other Latinxs, and immigrants to identify with and to celebrate them lays bare the violence of assimilation and settler colonial erasure. Rather than reproduce that violence, I seek new ways of remembering and new relationships among past, present, and future.   

*          *          *

Figure 10: Rendering of the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial’s Meditative Sitting areas. Illustration used with the permission of Sandra de la Loza and Arturo Romo.

With the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial, artists Sandra de la Loza and Arturo Romo offer a new vision of the matrix of history, society, and environment. They also offer a new way to link past, present, and future. At the time of this writing (July 2021), funding for the construction of the memorial hasn’t yet been secured, so it’s unclear if it will ever be built. Still, the time is nigh for a new kind of monument in the United States. Because we are, as journalist Mychal Denzel Smith reminds us, Americans “through force, choice, or happenstance,” we need monuments that confront the complex and contradictory roles we play as displacers and displaced.[12] We need monuments that grapple with what critical Latinx indigeneities scholar Maylei Blackwell calls “layers of coloniality,” such as Spanish, Mexican, and U.S. colonialities.[13] We need monuments that rethink power and presence, including indigenous presence. And we need monuments that allow us to heal without forgetting.

The Sleepy Lagoon incident took place in the early morning hours of August 2, 1942, about eight miles southeast of downtown LA, near the intersection of what are now South Atlantic and Bandini Boulevards. The incident involved a couple of fights between groups of Mexicans and Mexican Americans: the first at Sleepy Lagoon, a quarry pit that doubled as a swimming hole, and the second at a party at nearby Williams Ranch. José Díaz, a twenty-two-year-old Mexican immigrant, attended that party. After his bloody and battered body was found outside the hosts’ house, police rounded up hundreds of Mexican American youths as suspects in his murder. Twenty-two young men from the nearby 38th Street neighborhood, all but one of whom were of Mexican descent, were tried and convicted of conspiracy to murder. Ten girls and young women ranging in age from thirteen to twenty-one were held as witnesses in what came to be known as the Sleepy Lagoon case. At least five of those girls and young women were incarcerated at the Ventura School for Girls, while their male counterparts entered the California prison system. Teachers, cops, academics, social workers, the mainstream Angeleno press, and the judge and district attorney in the Sleepy Lagoon case branded Mexican American youths gang members. The zoot look, a style of dress popular among not only some of the participants in the Sleepy Lagoon incident, but among young, working-class Americans in general, was declared the uniform of the Mexican American delinquent.[14]

The Sleepy Lagoon incident catapulted the figure of the Mexican American gangster into the American imaginary. It also foreshadowed the Zoot Suit Riots, clashes in LA between white servicemen and people of color over the first two weeks of June 1943. During the so-called riots, white servicemen attacked Mexican American zooters and people of color in general. The police did nothing or they arrested the servicemen’s victims.  

The Sleepy Lagoon incident and its aftermath exemplify state-sanctioned violence against people of color. In these events, we see elements of the carceral state, such as racial profiling, stop and frisk, and the gang injunction. We see heightened xenophobia and jingoism, the destructive power of yellow journalism, and bitter contests over public space in a city rapidly morphing into an industrial, highly segregated metropolis. And in the zoot suit, we see a syncretic, interracial, urban youth culture with roots in African American jazz. The Sleepy Lagoon incident, Zoot Suit Riots, and World War II-era zoot subculture loom large in Chicanx cultural production. They’re also a part of many family histories, including my own. My uncles and aunts, for example, wore variations of the zoot look, such as baggy trousers and high bouffants, and my father remembers the Sleepy Lagoon case and the Zoot Suit Riots. However, there are no markers in LA (or anywhere else) commemorating Sleepy Lagoon, the Zoot Suit Riots, or the zoot subculture. As Los Angeles Times reporter Carolina A. Miranda has observed, these “oversights…speak volumes about the histories our city considers worth honoring and those it has chosen to overlook.”

The Sleepy Lagoon Memorial would help remedy these oversights. However, as de la Loza informed me, it wouldn’t “exalt” a particular individual or “a singular event.”[15] Instead, it rethinks the very idea of the monument. Spanning approximately 150 yards in Riverfront Park in the city of Maywood, the memorial would consist of multiple parts, including a path; a swale containing native plants, such as California Sagebrush, milkweed, and prickly pear cactus; works of art, such as concrete sculptures and designs on the ground; and seated elements, such as a bench and sculptures in the form of tree stumps (Figure 10). In homage to the Tongva and “current indigenous diasporic communities in Bell, Maywood and surrounding communities,” the tree stump seats would be modeled after trees “native to one of the many cultures that have inhabited Southeast Los Angeles, past and present.” For example, some would be modeled after the California Oak and the Ceiba of Mexico and Central America. Similarly, signage would be in English, Spanish, Tongva, Nahuatl, and Mayan.[16]

To design the memorial, de la Loza and Romo consulted archives, community members, plant experts, historians, and Tongva cultural leaders. They also collaborated with DakeLuna, a landscape architecture firm focusing on “local and regional conservation and watershed issues,” and East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, an organization that works toward “a safe and healthy environment for communities that are disproportionately suffering the negative impacts of industrial pollution” in East LA, Southeast LA, and Long Beach.[17] The city of Bell and the San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy, a branch of the California Resources Agency, underwrote the cost of the design.[18] 

Riverfront Park is located on the western edge of the Los Angeles River, about two miles southwest from where Sleepy Lagoon and Williams Ranch used to be. The 7.3-acre park opened in 2008 as part of the LA River Master Plan, a vision of “shared public open space and parks, stewardship of precious water resources, improved ecosystem function, and continued flood management” along the river from the San Fernando Valley to Long Beach. Riverfront Park was selected as the site for the memorial because, as Romo explained, “People wanted a monument that they could visit in a place that was accessible already.”[19] Warehouses, parking lots, and the 710 freeway occupy what used to be Sleepy Lagoon and Williams Ranch. Not unlike Dodger Stadium, former site of the vibrant Mexican American neighborhood of Chavez Ravine, these structures concretize historical erasure.  

In addition to undoing that erasure, the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial would offer “ecological remediation.”[20] The area where Sleepy Lagoon and Williams Ranch used to be was once somewhat rural. Today, it’s one of the most densely populated and polluted corners of LA County. Riverfront Park is roughly three miles from Exide Technologies, the source of one of the worst environmental and public health disasters in California and a textbook example of environmental racism. From 1922 until its closure in 2014, the smelter and battery recycling plant at Exide spewed lead, arsenic, and other toxins known to cause cancer, respiratory problems, and learning disabilities into the communities of Bell, Boyle Heights, Commerce, East LA, Huntington Park, Maywood, and Vernon. These communities are predominantly Latinx and about one-third of their residents live in poverty.[21] In October 2020, a federal judge approved Exide’s bankruptcy plan, effectively punting the cost of cleaning up its former facility and its environs to taxpayers.   

Figure 11: Rendering of the mural on the back of the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial’s Whispering Wall and Bench. Illustration used with permission of Sandra de la Loza and Arturo Romo.

Intertwining past, present, and future and the social and ecological, the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial reckons with the violence committed against the peoples, plants, and animals in and around what used to be Sleepy Lagoon. The memorial also celebrates the persistence and resilience of human and non-human life. Parts of the memorial resemble what de la Loza described as “more formal” monuments.[22] For example, the bas-relief mural on the back of the Whispering Wall and Bench (Figure 11) features images of pachucas and pachucos. Meanwhile, the swale that the bench overlooks evokes Sleepy Lagoon, the “gravel pit” that Mexican American youths transformed into a swimming hole because they were often denied access to segregated public pools.[23] The native plants filling the swale were selected not only in honor of “the ecologies that have been displaced through development,” but also because they help with stormwater filtration and soil remediation.[24]

Like the missions and statues of Serra, the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial would be a statement of power and presence in public. Yet rather than projecting white supremacy and inspiring terror, the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial sets out to heal historical, social, and physical wounds. It remedies the omission of Latinxs from dominant narratives of Angeleno history while acknowledging LA’s past and present indigenous peoples. It reminds us of the ongoing need to address profound social problems, such as police violence against communities of color and struggles over space, especially between poor, racialized communities and more powerful forces. And it beckons all of us to pay attention to the health of our planet, beginning with a corner of a park in a brown and working-class neighborhood.    

About a year after I photographed my family in front of a shuttered Mission San Gabriel, my parents and I visited Riverfront Park. The scene couldn’t have been more different from the stillness, solitude, and severity of the previous year. People were enjoying the Saturday-afternoon sun and one another’s company. Children scampered in the playground and on the basketball court, men hurled balls against the walls of the handball courts with the intensity of Olympians, and friends and families picnicked under the pavilions and on the grass. Some picnickers napped in hammocks they’d hung beneath the pavilions and between trees. A paletero competed with an ice cream truck playing “Turkey in the Straw” over and over and an occasional light breeze carried the scent of weed. As we strolled along the park’s path, my father told me about living in Maywood as a small boy in the 1920s. He and his family moved there from Arizona because his father got a job with Standard Oil. My father wasn’t sure what his dad did for Standard Oil. However, in all likelihood, my grandfather, a hardscrabble Mexican immigrant, found work after the Huntington Beach Oil Field, a string of oil pools stretching from Orange County to Santa Barbara, was tapped in 1920. Although I grew up in the SGV, I learned during our visit to Riverfront Park that I, too, am connected to Southeast LA’s braided histories of displacement, extractivisim, migration, exploitation, survival, and resilience.  


Figure 12: Rendering of the path and bridge in the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial. Illustration used with the permission of Sandra de la Loza and Arturo Romo.
Figure 13: Rendering of the front of the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial’s Whispering Wall and Bench, with a tree stump seat in the foreground. Illustration used with the permission of Sandra de la Loza and Arturo Romo.

Traditional monuments, like those of Serra, Oñate, Columbus, Colston, and Lee, are objects. In contrast, the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial would be an ecosystem, a system in which all parts are connected. Above all, it would be an alternative ecosystem to those of el Camino Real, the Spanish fantasy, and toxic capitalism. With its path and scattered seated elements, the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial brings together motion and stillness. The path (Figure 12) is an invitation to enter and to move through the memorial. Indeed, the life-size foot patterns on the bridge crossing the swale – a reference to jazz and the zoot-suiter’s dancing feet — instruct us to “move there” (“MUEVELE ALLI”). Meanwhile, the memorial’s seated elements are an invitation to stay. That the Whispering Wall, the memorial’s most monument-ish component, doubles as a bench is significant (Figure 13). A bench is a resting place. It gives us the opportunity to be still. In addition to transferring “the cultural and environmental knowledge and history of the area,” the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial seeks “to provide space for reflection and regeneration for present and future generations.”[25] Put another way, this expansive, dynamic, and living memorial invites us to stroll, to shake a leg, and then to sit down, to learn about what went down in and near where we’re seated, and to marvel at the living beings that have made and continue to make Tovaangar their home.

Acknowledgements
I thank Sandra de la Loza and Arturo Romo for sharing information and materials about the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial with me; my colleagues, Chris Benner, George Bunch, Ernesto Chavez, Yve Chavez, Sylvanna Falcón, Dana Frank, Dan Guevara, Rebecca Hernandez, Kate Jones, and Veronica Terriquez, for our conversations about missions, monuments, and the SGV; and Carribean Fragoza and Romeo Guzmán for their keen editorial skills. All errors and oversights in this essay are my own. 


Notes

[1] Wendy Cheng, The Changs Next Door to the Díazes: Remapping Race in Suburban California (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013). East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte, ed. Romeo Guzmán, Caribbean Fragoza, Alex Sayf Cummings, and Ryan Reft (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2020).

[2] Hubert Howe Bancroft, The Works of Hubert Howe Bancroft, Volume XIX: History of California, Vol. II, 1801-1824 (San Francisco: The History Company, 1886), 113.

[3] Zevi Gutfreund, “Standing Up to Sugar Cubes: The Contest over Ethnic Identity in California’s Fourth-Grade Mission Curriculum,” Southern California Quarterly 92, no. 2 (2010): 161-197.

[4] As early as 1771, the Tongva resisted the Spaniards’ incursions and abuses. As the Catholic News Agency has put it, “At the time [1771], Spanish soldiers in the area were occasionally provoking serious conflicts with the indigenous Tongva population. On one occasion, a Spanish solider raped two indigenous women….The indigenous community, angered by the soldiers’ abuses, at one point confronted the mission.” John Dietler, Heather Gibson, and Benjamin Vargas add, “At Mission San Gabriel, five major uprisings were documented through trial transcripts and missionary correspondence.” Perhaps the most celebrated revolt was the one planned and led in 1785 by Nicolás José, a neophyte, and Toypurina, a medicine woman. See Jonah McKeown, “Our Lady of Sorrows Painting Recovered from Burned California Mission Church,” Catholic News Agency, October 15, 2020, https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/our-lady-of-sorrows-painting-recovered-from-burned-california-mission-church-55051. John Dietler, Heather Gibson, and Benjamin Vargas, “’A Mourning Dirge Was Sung’: Community and Remembrance at Mission San Gabriel,” in Forging Communities in Alta California, ed. Kathleen L. Hull and John G. Douglass (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2018), 69; Steven W. Hackel, “Sources of Rebellion: Indian Testimony and the Mission San Gabriel Uprising of 1785,” Ethnohistory 50, no. 4 (2003): 643-669; and Cecilia Rasmussen, “Shaman and Freedom-Fighter Led Indians’ Mission Revolt,” Los Angeles Times, June 10, 2001, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2001-jun-10-me-8853-story.html.

[5] Rosa-Linda Fregoso, MeXicana Encounters: The Making of Social Identities on the Borderlands (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 103.

[6] Carey McWilliams, Southern California Country: An Island on the Land (New York: Duell, Sloane & Pearce, 1946), 22.

[7] Thanks to Ernie Chavez for pointing out the Gateway Plaza Monument’s resemblance to Puerta de Elvira.

[8] William Deverell, Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past (Berkeley: University of California, 2004). Phoebe Kropp, California Vieja: Culture and Memory in a Modern American Place (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

[9] Gutfreund 180-181.

[10] Baron L. Pineda, “’First Hispanic Pope, First Hispanic Saint’: Whiteness, Founding Fathers, and the Canonization of Friar Junípero Serra,” Latino Studies 16 (2018): 287.

[11] Carolina A. Miranda, “Father Serra’s Fall from Grace: The Toppling of the Sainted Friar’s Statue in L.A. Signals Hope for a Reframed State History,” Los Angeles Times, June 22, 2020: E1.

[12] Mychal Denzel Smith, Stakes Is High: Life after the American Dream (New York: Bold Type Books, 2020), 37.

[13] Maylei Blackwell, “Indigeneity,” in Keywords for Latina/o Studies, ed. Deborah R. Vargas, Nancy Raquel Mirabal, and Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes (New York: New York University Press, 2017), 100.

[14] Catherine S. Ramírez, The Woman in the Zoot Suit: Gender, Nationalism, and the Cultural Politics of Memory (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009). Elizabeth R. Escobedo, From Coveralls to Zoot Suits: The Lives of Mexican American Women on the World War II Home Front (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

[15] Author’s interview with Sandra de la Loza and Arturo Romo, December 3, 2020 (in author’s possession). I base my descriptions of the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial on this interview and on the design materials the artists generously shared with me.

[16] Arturo Romo and Sandra de la Loza, “Final Concept Design Narrative: Sleepy Lagoon Memorial,” June 25, 2020 (in possession of author).

[17] Carolina A. Miranda, “Goodbye, Guy on a Horse: A New Wave of Monument Design Is Changing How We Honor History,” Los Angeles Times, July 23, 2020, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2020-07-23/momument-debate-honor-history-new-design-goodbye-guy-on-a-horse

[18] Author’s interview with de la Loza and Romo.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] According to 2019 Census data, 98.4% of the residents of Maywood, for example, are Latinx.

[22] Author’s interview with de la Loza and Romo.

[23] Carey McWilliams, North from Mexico: The Spanish-Speaking People of the United States, 2nd Edition (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1990), 207.

[24] Romo and de la Loza, “Final Concept Design Narrative.”

[25] Ibid.

Catherine S. Ramírez, chair of the Latin American and Latino Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is a scholar of Mexican American history; race, migration, and citizenship; Latinx literature and visual culture; comparative ethnic studies; gender studies; and speculative fiction. She is the author of Assimilation: An Alternative History and The Woman in the Zoot Suit: Gender, Nationalism, and the Cultural Politics of Memory and she is a co-editor of Precarity and Belonging: Labor, Migration, and Noncitizenship. She has also written for the New York TimesThe Atlantic, and Public Books

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/.

Articles

Following the Moniker Trail: Hobo Graffiti and the Strange Tale of Jack London, Skysail, and A-No. 1

Susan Phillips

Figure 1.

Railroad shed on the Southern Pacific Line, Red Bluff, California. Photograph by Robert Ranberg, 1969. Courtesy of the Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society.

In his book The Road, Jack London describes his experiences living as a hobo. From hopping trains, begging, and doing time to writing graffiti, London’s book recounts his experiences traveling across North America in the 1890s. During this period, London was known by several monikers, including Frisco Kid, Sailor Kid, and Sailor Jack due to his work on ships and his home in the Bay Area of California, near San Francisco. Based on London’s 1894 diary and experiences, The Road describes encounters with fellow hobos, wanderers, gypsies, lawmen, and trainmen, as well as his adventures with Kelly’s Industrial Army, a migratory group protesting unemployment and labor issues in the United States. Within this rich backdrop, London writes about the importance of tramp communication. While London’s writings about the Klondike and other topics put him on the literary map, his hobo writings remain lesser known.[1]

Hoboing or tramping was rooted in post-Civil War infrastructural, railroad, and urban development.[2] Distinct traditions of cultural expression emerged among both hobos and railroad workers in the mid-to-late 19th century that followed the wake of railroad construction. References to hobo graffiti from this period are well known in literature, but less is known about works documented in photography, or carvings that survive at various sites around the United States. After finding a wall of intact hobo writing in Los Angeles in 2000 dated 1914-1921, I began research into the topic across a broader geographical range and during an earlier time period.

Figure 2

Oakland Red in Los Angeles, California, 1914-1921. Oakland Red utilized a negative lettering style that would have been customarily rendered in hobo carvings and is still used in contemporary graffiti today. The letter “W” below his name may indicate his westward direction of travel.

Analysis of hobo graffiti—or any graffiti for that matter—necessitates an embrace of the tension between conjecture and empiricism. Graffiti can be tricky analytical ground. The self-sequestering nature of hobo populations has led to everything from academic erasure to a surrounding literature that toggles between meticulous observation and extreme lack of rigor. In his writing about hobos, for example, musicologist Graham Raulerson says that, in part due to their Wobbly philosophies, hobos tend to mistrust linear notions of history in favor of a “more spontaneous, place-bound view of time…partly because of the centrality of boredom and waiting in the hobo lifestyle.”[3]

Enter graffiti—craft of boredom and icon of lives temporally and physically in between. Graffiti is a singularly well-suited device for analyzing hobo and other fringe groups. It’s a self-produced medium of expression defined by absent authors, idle time, and encoded evasions. For these reasons, graffiti remains a neglected but particularly useful form of primary source data that can be analyzed across multiple historic circumstances.

In the 20th century United States, urban graffiti has been one manifestation of what it means to claim space on the part of fringe populations. Taking over city-space is often less overtly political than it is a key ingredient in what I think of as “soul survival.” By this I mean that graffiti is not only used in functional ways that insure the physical survival of marginalized people. Writing graffiti also does something bigger: it feeds the internal self on a steady diet of insider status, special knowledge, and the communal joy in one another’s company. The importance of that usually outweighs whatever direct benefits come from the messages themselves.

Figure 3

Surviving hobo carvings at Medford, Oregon’s Medford Railroad Park. Original photograph by Tony Johnson taken before the building’s restoration. Note the initials “CCC” which may have stood for the Civilian Conservation Corps, part of Roosevelt’s New Deal programming.

Even before the 1890s and well past the 1920s, hobo graffiti was the equivalent of what more common graffiti tagging is today—the main kind of subcultural writing inscribed in public locations other than on bathroom walls. From the mid-nineteenth century onward, hobos had created styles of writing directed at one another that were placed in or near rail yards, on wooden sheds or water tanks, under bridges, on sewer trestles, or sometimes on residential dwellings, fences, or other structures. For hobos, writing or carving monikers was a way for a transient population to remain connected despite the unpredictability of clandestine railroad travel, a lack of telecommunications, and frequent incarceration. Carved or written traces stayed in place, acting as clues for other hobos as to the past and future locations of the writer. That was the functional part. The messages also meant that people were connected, that they had a place, and that they were part of something, even when they had been rejected from everything else. Soul survival.

Popular understandings of the “hobo code” fixed most prominently in the American imagination are largely limited to unsubstantiated, self-referencing accounts of an intricate system of communication across the hobo ranks, most commonly associated with the depression era. Comparatively little attention has been paid to the more prolific, simpler, and corroborated forms of writing on the part of hobos at the turn of the century. In his work on hobos and Jack London, John Lennon argues that it is not enough to consider what London “wrote” but what London “did.” I wish to take this impulse one step further by analyzing hobo graffiti not only through literary texts on the subject, as has been the case in the past, but through the actual marks that hobos themselves created. So far, no treatment of this phenomenon has looked to actual graffiti marks in order to analyze this subject. And while surviving hobo graffiti is rare, pockets of it remain around the United States, along with photographic documentation of writings that no longer survive.[4]

Using graffiti to analyze hobo practices does not eliminate the tension between conjecture and empiricism. However, graffiti provides a productive nexus between the two that can drive more informed lines of questioning, empirically grounded research trajectories, links to specific archival and historical materials and, ultimately, the creation of more reliable forms of knowledge. Graffiti, and what I think of metaphorically as “following the moniker trail,” tells us where to look and the sorts of questions we might ask. As with many kinds of folkloric materials, graffiti is a playful form of evidence due to its illicit nature and absent authors. Jeff Ferrell writes that traditional methodologies are inadequate to the task of studying fringe, transient populations as whole. Hobo history, he argues, is a case study in “ambiguity and absence” and requires methods that match the ethos of insider communities. [5] The grounding graffiti provides is invaluable for a topic that has been plagued by assumptions, misinformation, and romanticized mythologizing.

Contemporaneous with London, Leon Ray Livingston, better known as “A-No. 1,” claimed to be the most famous hobo in the United States by the beginning of the twentieth century. He had travelled across the world, purportedly logging over 500,000 miles on just $7.61.[6]  He recounted his journeys in over a dozen books. A-No. 1 was a hobo tagger extraordinaire. He had carved his moniker all over the United States: in boxcars, on walls, on water tanks, on fences. He once served a five-month sentence in a San Francisco jail for carving his moniker into the wood of fancy hotels and bars. A lifelong rambler, he is credited with consolidating the entire system of hobo communication through his publications. Despite his romantic writings on the subject, he urged kids on the road to avoid the tramp life and often paid their return fares home. Dozens of newspaper accounts detail his graffiti-related escapades. Despite his notoriety in the early twentieth century, Leon Ray Livingston is today a relatively unknown figure.

Figure 4

Cover of From Coast to Coast with Jack London showing a photograph of Leon Ray Livingston and Jack London. A-No. 1 Publishing Co., 1917.

Even lesser known is the relationship between Jack London and A-No. 1. In his book From Coast to Coast with Jack London, Livingston described a series of farfetched adventures with London as a young man. In the book, Livingston hopes to return London home to the Bay Area, to cure him of a life of wandering. From Coast to Coast was published just one year after Jack London’s death with the permission of London’s widow, Charmian London. A-No. 1’s account, though entirely fictitious, was later made into a 1973 film, Emperor of the North, which starred Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine. [7] Both the book and film cemented the false impression that the two had hoboed together, but archival evidence definitively refutes this notion. They did eventually meet and maintain a relationship until London’s death, but this was long after either of them was on the road. While A-No. 1’s accounts are full of exaggeration, his stories communicate a passion for the road and its problems and abuses.

London’s and Livingston’s accounts of the system of graffiti communication are in close alignment, and their core descriptions of this practice are supported by ample photographic documentation of hobo writing from this same period. Before introducing a key site of California-based hobo graffiti, I want to position that work within the broader history of trail and town marking in the United States and Europe to contextualize the pre-cursors of hobo graffiti, including vagabond marking, frontier identity, and colonial expansion.

Pioneers, “Gypsies,” Beggars, and Thieves

Several forms of what might be called “trail marking” pre-date the culture of hobo writing that developed in the nineteenth century. First is the practice of carving out the west as a frontier landscape by marking trails beginning in the seventeenth century on the part of pioneers and colonizers.[8] Individuals with Anglo and Spanish surnames left names, dates, and messages in places now named for the graffiti on them, such as Pioneer Register in Utah, Signature Rock in Wyoming, Inscription Loop at El Morro National Monument in New Mexico, and Register Cliff or Independence Rock on the Oregon Trail. These “pioneers” following westbound or northbound routes carved either on pristine desert rock or next to the in-situ rock art of indigenous populations as a form of claiming or communion. In addition to carved letters, early pioneers sometimes left trail markings in tar—axle grease from their wagon wheels. Pioneer graffiti is aberrant in its association with what would become a dominant population but very much in line with people using graffiti to mark waypoints on a journey. The project of westward expansion and trail marking continued into the twentieth century and is carried forward today by contemporary hikers following some of the same routes.

A second example of trail marking that acts as a precursor to hobo graffiti is the polar opposite of the pioneer graffiti above. These are the sometimes-mythologized codes in the US and Europe associated with fringe populations that were not tied to property, and that were connected to work in a way that was like the people at stake—itinerant. The history of this type of code writing is linked to wandering and labor, and to how vagabonds, tramps, “gypsies,” or travelers, and what were called “the roving unemployed” created interconnections despite their continual movement. [9] Early accounts of this practice exist among Romani people in Europe, for example, and scholars of the subject describe the way Romani would scatter grass or leaves, or arrange sticks in certain ways that gave meaning to the raw landscape. Romani also marked houses with so-called “chine” codes that judged the inhabitants and their habits to note where opportunities might be profitable or work welcome. Paola Toninato argues that

Nature supplies the Roma with a ‘semantic space’ onto which they can symbolically ‘inscribe’ the ephemeral messages conveyed via their non-alphabetic graphic practices. This semantic relationship with nature enables the Roma to survive among the non-Roma by providing them with a separate communication system and thereby a means of distinguishing themselves from the non-Roma.

Toninato pulls from various sources, including ethnographic accounts from the mid nineteenth century.[10]

A type of coding similar to the Roma chine codes was also utilized among non-Roma English and Scottish beggars and thieves. For example, John Camden Hotten’s 1865 The Slang Dictionary includes a chapter entitled “The Account of the Hieroglyphics Used by Vagabonds.” Hotten details the manner in which English tramps would not only mark doorsteps or other areas with signals, but also affix paper maps to tramp lodging house interiors in order to provide neighborhood, street, and house determinations regarding these areas or their inhabitants. Hotten includes a reproduction of one such map along with an explanatory key (see Fig 5). He notes that the widespread “English practice of marking everything, and scratching names on public property, extends itself to the tribe of vagabonds.”[11] In other words, Hotten describes a generic graffiti tradition at that time in England, which makes the contents and placement of the writing, rather than the generic practice of writing, an insider as opposed to outsider practice.

Figure 5

Cadger’s Map with an “Explanation of the Hieroglyphics.” From John Camden Hotten’s Slang Dictionary, 1885.

In the cases above, the notion of migration or movement is key, wherein people use graffiti to claim space for different reasons, to leave messages for one another, and use writing to anchor themselves temporarily in place. In the first case, graffiti associated with pioneers and colonizers helped to create a vision of the west as a blank slate. In the second case, the unknowns of towns for wandering populations inspired marking traditions that were both functional and that signaled reciprocity within disempowered populations. Because all of the above people were in motion, these examples of graffiti practices counter the ephemerality of movement and outsider status with concrete symbolic productions.

 Hobo Culture

Hoboing was initially a post-Civil War phenomenon. The Civil War had helped to develop railroad lines to carry troops, and the post-War era accompanied the shift from an agrarian to an industrialized economy. So-called “tramping” transformed from a largely foot-based, walking endeavor with the development of the railroad, which expanded opportunities for long-range travel. The Civil War had both absorbed the ranks of existing wanderers and created many more by simply shoving people post-war into a world that had undergone significant transformation. This shift caused a generation of individuals to take to the road—people who could no longer find their place economically or socially, and who sought out opportunities where the newly built railroads could carry them. They soon developed a culture of the road shared among fellow travelers. Much of the travel was structured around itinerant work opportunities, and a network of so-called “jungles,” or hobo camps, soon developed across the U.S. and Canada. The boom in the tramping population aided the building of roads, bridges, railroads, houses, buildings, water infrastructure, and sewer lines. Hobos partially made up the labor for these endeavors, and had on again off again relationships to municipalities and law enforcement.[12]

Several excellent scholarly accounts depict hobo social groups this period, including Nels Anderson’s 1923 sociological-practitioner classic The Hobo, Todd DePastino’s Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America, Tim Cresswell’s The Tramp in America, and John Lennon’s Boxcar Politics. [13] Analyzing everything from the road to hobo sexual practices, this scholarship is rich in aspects of the culture and includes some references to carvings and monikers. Complimenting this work are many first-hand accounts of hobo life, including most notably the writings of Jim Tully and Josiah Flynt, as well as A-No. 1 (Leon Ray Livingston) and Jack London.[14] Among these, A-No. 1’s works are as questionable as they are prolific. While Nels Anderson, for example, discounts the writings of A-No. 1 as exaggerated and unpopular among an insider hobo readership, he also bases his entire discussion of nicknaming on A-No. 1’s work.

Little is known about hobo practices of marking towns and cities other than the “fake folklore” versions of the mythologized hobo code one can find on the Internet.[15] The most simplified versions of this use some of the same symbols as did the cadger’s code or Romani Chine codes above, and for the same purpose. In an early text from the United States, detective, spy, and author Allan Pinkerton describes a hobo code that he indicates is derived directly from these earlier traditions—and that was popular among multi-generational begging families with roots in “the old country.”[16]

Pinkerton is a complicated figure in American history. He was a spy during the Civil War and a slave abolitionist whose house was a stop on the Underground Railroad. He also engaged in union busting, particularly by exposing union corruption among the railroads. His writing exhibits a street-worthy judgment of tramping and its life of hard knocks, but he is unexpectedly sympathetic to the cause of tramps due to his own experiences tramping as a youth. He approaches the culture as someone who wishes to rectify the misunderstandings surrounding it. In his 1878 book Strikers, Communists, Tramps, and Detectives, Pinkerton describes what he calls “mendicant freemasonry” on the part of tramps to help them find a pathway, to rely on one another not to start from scratch, and to get the lay of the land before entering a new town. Pinkerton writes that:

Among this class every possible art and device is resorted to. Charts of the country, showing the best routes for travel, and of cities, designating the most benevolent neighborhoods, are common. This same class have a regular system of operation. In the cities they beg during the winter, and when summer comes, one of a party will start out in advance and “work a route” as a peddler or tinker. In this way, as he stops at nearly every house on a designated route, he will have learned the character of the inmates, whether they are benevolent or rude, and he seldom takes his departure without leaving some pre-arranged sign to indicate to him who follows after, just where, and where not, to make application. These scamps become such keen and correct judges of people and surroundings that they scarcely ever commit an error; and if one could read the hieroglyphics upon door, steps, gate, fence, or tree, which is usually laid to the chalk or jackknife of the bad boy of the neighborhood, they could ascertain just what opinion was had of them by the tramps who have passed that way.[17]

Pinkerton stops short of deciphering specific codes utilized in this practice, saying that “deciphering these symbols is simply impossible.”[18] Groups would routinely change the signs in order for others not to take advantage of their labor. Without providing specific descriptions, Pinkerton describes only a generic tradition linked to earlier European practices that communicate about conditions on the road and the temper of towns where police were on the prowl or where inhabitants might trade labor for food or a place to sleep. Like Hotten’s example before him, Pinkerton’s account is difficult to substantiate as a singular source of unverifiable information.

It is almost certain that tramps in the United States left some sort of signage on fences, signposts, post boxes, and so forth in towns and urban centers—and the contents of the simplified codes in European and U.S. cases are startlingly similar. There are simply too many stories and nostalgic remembrances to discount it entirely. But little direct evidence exists of this practice aside from the kind of unsubstantiated writing in which Pinkerton engages, some newspaper accounts, references in literature, and the memories of people who grew up seeing such marks.

As with many hobo practices, this sort of signage has been most subject to fabrication. Graham Raulerson writes that in general, since World War II, “the concept of the hobo has trended toward mythology.”[19] In his exploration of hobo graffiti, John Lennon argues that he has never found convincing evidence of an advanced symbolic system among hobos, but rather a strong tradition of names, dates, and directions: “Although it seems reasonable that some hobos could have used common symbols – especially in populated urban centers – to communicate certain information, my research has shown that hobo graffiti is comprised of much more basic materials: monikers, dates, and logos.” Giving examples from Jack London, writer and hobo Jim Tully, and hobo composer Harry Partch, Lennon discusses the need to “remove hobo graffiti from a pedestal of a sophisticated language system that supposedly revealed a secret coded history of hobos. Instead, these writers’ examples place hobo graffiti within the larger overall history of graffiti, where wall markings are about illegally emplacing a name on property, symbolically stating their presence as a member of minority subculture.”[20]

As Lennon observes, hobo graffiti has been subject to uncritical circulation, especially via the Internet, but comparatively little grounded research. I have never seen a firsthand photograph or example featuring any symbols said to be part of the hobo code.[21] Each time I have been introduced to a new site with surviving hobo writing or its documentation, I wonder whether it might contain evidence of this practice, but so far I have encountered nothing remotely similar to it. A skeptic’s view of this phenomenon is supported due to the amount of surviving hobo graffiti whose contents are not linked to such practices. Seen another way, however, the places and media that hobos would have used to create coded markings—such as fences or sign posts marked in chalk or charcoal—were less likely to survive than the carving they produced on wooden sheds or fences.

Hobo Graffiti

As argued above, the mystique of the hobo codes has eclipsed the well-documented, prolific writing practices in which hobos engaged at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During this period, hobo graffiti was the equivalent of what more common graffiti tagging is today—the main kind of subcultural writing inscribed in public locations other than on bathroom walls. Carved nicknames, or monikers (sometimes written as “monicas”), were based on personal characteristics and places of origin, and hobo writers often included dates with arrows and letters (N, S, E, or W) indicating the direction of travel. They placed these writings in or near rail yards, on wooden sheds or water tanks, or sometimes in hobo jungles under the shelter of bridges or in other locations near the railroad. The basic hobo equation of a nickname, a direction signified by an arrow and sometimes place name, and the date would become a foundational graffiti tradition in the United States in the twentieth century.

Figure 6

Earliest documented hobo carving by Montana Slim, dated 1875, from Red Bluff, CA. Montana Slim indicates that he is bound north on April 11, 1875. There is a discrepancy between this graffiti and the official recording of the building’s construction in 1880.

For hobos, writing or carving monikers was a way for a transient population to remain connected despite the unpredictability of clandestine railroad travel, a lack of telecommunication, and frequent incarceration. Carved or written traces stayed in place, acting as clues for other hobos as to the past and future locations of the writers. Hobos created a society of insiders through nicknames and special knowledge that included a tradition of clandestine writing as well as distinctive forms of dress, song writing and storytelling traditions, and other forms of carving, such as potato or wood carving, that might earn a modest income.[22] Hobos also created a unique community of practice with intimate knowledge of train schedules, methods of hopping and riding the rails, tricks to avoid police or railroad “bulls,” and the uncanny ability to earn the sympathy of kind-hearted housewives. “Sit down” dinners, handouts, or care packages acted as counterweights to police brutality and targeted incarceration that were frequent companions to hobo life.

Montana Slim’s carving in the image above hosts a discrepancy between the carved date 1875 and the recorded date of this building’s construction in 1880. The graffiti casts doubt upon the officially recorded date not just because of the presence of the 1875 carving, but because of one key piece of contextual information: The Southern Pacific Line to Red Bluff was completed in December 1871.[23] This date of completion makes Montana Slim’s northbound journey in April of 1875 possible, and it provides a potential new construction date for the building that would support a place to query the veracity of official documents. Graffiti and official records are equally reliable and equally full of error. To render these two forms of recording equivalent flips power hierarchies on their heads by questioning information entered into official records and by considering in the same breath what is carved by the hands of fringe populations.[24]

Following the Moniker Trail

Jack London first tried hoboing in the summer of 1892 at sixteen years of age.[25] After getting his feet wet with mostly local trips, he began a cross continental journey in 1894 when he was eighteen. During these periods, he first went by the monikers Frisco Kid, Sailor Kid, and, in 1894, Sailor Jack. London wrote of the moniker tradition in his 1907 memoir The Road, which recounted his travels in 1894:

Water-tanks are tramp directories. Not all in idle wantonness do tramps carve their monicas, dates, and courses. Often and often have I met hoboes earnestly inquiring if I had seen anywhere such and such a “stiff” or his monica. And more than once I have been able to give the monica of recent date, the water-tank, and the direction in which he was then bound…I have met hoboes who, in trying to catch a pal, had pursued clear across the continent and back again, and were still going.[26]

Both Jack London and Leon Ray Livingston wrote of “following the moniker trail” of people with whom they sought to connect. A-No. 1 recounts two stories of chasing missing boys across the country by following out their monikers. Jack London wrote of his desire to link up with a man named Skysail Jack. London had heard that Skysail shared his own Bay Area origin and had worked in the harbor—hence the distinctive appellation so similar to London’s own. London imagined they would get on famously together:  “I was a ‘comet’ and ‘tramp-royal, so was Skysail Jack; and it was up to my pride and reputation to catch up with him. I ‘railroaded’ day and night, and I passed him; then turn about he passed me.”[27] In his treatment of the hobo in U.S. culture and literature, John Lennon describes London’s tale “as a hyper-masculine competition where there were neither prizes nor even rules—just who could get farther ahead of the other”—all “marked by a trail of graffiti left in each other’s wake.”[28] To me, London’s pursuit of Skysail always reads as full of longing—he recounts a series of missed opportunities, all signaled by carvings, that ultimately indicate the loss of potential male communion as opposed to competition. For London, Skysail’s carvings were simply not a good enough stand in for the real person: “Skysail Jack and Sailor Jack – gee! if we’d ever got together.”[29]

My own version of following the moniker trail began inadvertently in 2000. I was with a group of friends in 2000 looking for historic graffiti in Los Angeles. Tommy Maron, artist Chaz Bojórquez, Ben Higa and I had formed a team whose quest was to find older graffiti in the city. One day, we hit pay dirt, finding an intact wall of hobo graffiti under a bridge just above the confluence of the L.A. River and the Arroyo Seco. The wall included names such as Kid Bill, Chito the Tuscon Kid, Harden, Kid Smith, and Oakland Red, with dates from August 1914, July 1919, or 1921. Over a decade later, I realized that the wall included one notable name: A-No. 1. I had thought the name was Spanish, for Año, and had thus read over it for many years without realizing its significance. After I gave a presentation at the Autry Museum of the American West on behalf of the L.A. History & Metro Studies Group of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, the news of A-No. 1’s name and the hobo wall in general generated national and international media attention. It all came as a bit of a surprise, especially so many years after the initial find.

The news coverage put me in touch with people who wanted to recount childhood memories or who wanted to tell me about places they knew of that might have similar markings. One of those people was Joel Reinhard of Red Bluff, California. Reading the news coverage about A-No.1, Reinhard contacted me regarding a photo archive of hobo carvings that had been documented by amateur photographer Robert Ranberg in 1969. Upon Ranberg’s death, Reinhard had recognized the importance of these images along with a 16mm film of hobo carvings. He literally plucked them from the trash heap and then turned them over to the Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society, where they remained in storage for several years. I travelled to Red Bluff to meet with Reinhard, eager to see the collection. Upon viewing slides and film, I was surprised to recognize some of the names carved onto the walls—including several monikers Jack London refers to in The Road. These included Buck Kid, Midget Kid, Skysail himself, the date 1894, and one of London’s own monikers, Frisco Kid. I eventually helped to digitize these materials for the Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society and spent a great deal of time analyzing the photographs and film and their contents.

Figure 7

Kid Wing plus initials. Photograph by Robert Ranberg. Courtesy of the Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society.

A great deal of beautiful lettering appears on the wall—the word “Portland” carved in Old English font, creative letterforms, various monikers and hometowns, and two carved birds. The most prolific carver was Kid Wing, who also wrote his full name, Wing Foey. Wing Foey was related to an original Chinese family in Red Bluff. The Foeys still make their home there, including Bill Foey, a prolific author and artist who was interested to find out more about his Uncle Wing. I was able to meet with Bill after a presentation for the Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society in summer 2018. Because Bill’s father and grandfather had children at older ages, Bill is just the third generation beyond the founding members of the Red Bluff Foeys. At one point Kid Wing carved “Import Tokay” next to his name, referencing the cheap wine in which hobos might partake. Broken bottles of Tokay wine appear in the final cuts of Ranberg’s film, and Bill Foey believed that his Uncle Wing may have struggled with substance abuse. Kid Wing’s story, recounted here in only a cursory manner, hints at a more complete picture of hobo life during the latter 1800s and early 1900s.

Figure 8

“Frisco Kid.” Film still taken from 16mm film by Robert Ranberg, 1969. Courtesy of the Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society.

Other keystone carvings bring the tale back to the somewhat complex relationship between London, Skysail, and A-No. 1. In 1892, 1894, and 1905, respectively, each of these individuals seems to have carved their monikers into a wall off the sheds along Red Bluff’s Southern Pacific Line. Prolific hobo graffiti writer Tex-KT (Tex King of Tramps) carved his name there too, probably much later, making it a veritable wall of hobo graffiti superstars. One of London’s road-kid names appears as well: “Frisco Kid” was a moniker he used in the summer of 1892 when he was taking baby steps in freight hopping. There is no way to attribute this mark to him definitively.[30]  But the other writing on the wall does settle one minor discrepancy associated with London’s work. While recounting his pursuit of Skysail in The Road, London confused the dates, writing that Skysail carved his initials on 9-15-94. But London transcribed that as being October 15, 1894 instead of September of that year. Richard Etulain notes that this is a mistake on London’s part, but he doesn’t tell us how he knows this.[31] One piece of evidence in favor of that interpretation comes from the walls themselves.

In October 1894, a crew of hobo notables passed through Red Bluff, leaving their names together on the wall. One of them was Skysail, who appears along with carver Den. Brook. (Den. is for Denver; I am unsure why a period appears after Brook), Midgit Kid (whose name appears in the image above as Miget Kid), Scoty Sho. (meaning unknown), Colo. Slim (for Colorado Slim), Det. Kid (for Detroit Kid) and Sailor YT (YT is occasionally used in hobo writing but I have been unable to determine the meaning). This carving indicates that the crew was southbound by the depiction of a large letter S, along with the date 10/16/94. This date makes it impossible for Skysail to be in Canada pursued by Jack London just one day earlier, and lends credibility to the interpretation that London’s Canadian pursuit of Skysail took place in September. It’s a small example of the way that graffiti can both complicate temporalities and settle them through an altogether different kind of evidence, constructed by hobos themselves.

The year 1894 was the same year as London’s journey, and the year of Kelly’s Army/Coxey’s Army, in which London participated and about which he wrote. The October date would have been after the army disbanded in August of that year after their months of organizing and the march on Washington as labor protest.[32] The October 1894 date works well temporally and geographically based on London’s pursuit of Skysail through Canada that he recounts as taking place that September, a few weeks earlier.

Figure 9

“Skysail” and friends, 10/16/94. Red Bluff, California. Film still taken from 16mm film by Robert Ranberg, 1969. Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society.

Graffiti invites conjecture, which begs the question about how to distinguish the suggestive from the empirical. One can hint at connections that remain unsubstantiated—such as Jack London as the Frisco Kid on the wall in Red Bluff. But the best graffiti analysis blends conjectural statements with more definitive ones—such as a group of hobo monikers appearing on a wall and whose “noms-de-rail” Jack London subsequently writes of, including Buck Kid, Midget Kid, and Skysail himself.

After his return from tramping in 1894, London wrote about a hobo youngster in a series of stories entitled “The Frisco Kid” and “The Frisco Kid Comes Back” in which he captured some of the linguistic parlance of hobo road kids of the time. He penned these stories while still in high school and utilized the appellation that he himself had taken on in his early travels. While it is impossible to definitively link the carving of Frisco Kid to London’s own hand, the dates, geographic location, and proximity to other characters of which London writes add veracity to this interpretation. In this case, the tension between empiricism and conjecture is productive as opposed to mythologizing. The questioning that emerges from it is connected to historical events and archival data as opposed to guesses that lead to further speculation or self-referencing conclusions.

In the case of A-No. 1, his own fictitious representation of the association between him and Jack London has muddied the analytical waters surrounding their relationship for nearly a century. After London’s 1907 publication of The Road, A-No. 1 had admired the famous author from afar and eventually penned a ten-page letter to him. A-No. 1’s reason for writing was his concern for the plight of tramps in the convict lease system—a practice he compared to slavery that targeted northern tramps and tramps of African American origin in the Southern United States. Livingston attempted to enlist the help of London, whom he considered had the ear of the public and could possibly galvanize change around this issue. While convict leasing may have been the stated reason for the correspondence, my guess is that A-No. 1 simply wanted to connect to London, whose work wound up inspiring Livingston’s own literary career. He wrote: “Perhaps you have heard of me many a time while ‘rambling’ up and down ‘lines’ and across lots. I am known everywhere under the ‘monika’ of ‘A-No. 1.” This letter began their relationship long after their hobo years had ended. They did meet in person eventually and maintained a relationship until London’s death. The archival information related to their story evidences somewhat of an uneven relationship between the two, and a bit of a wet-blanket reception regarding the idea of a piece on convict leasing on London’s part. But A-No. 1 continued to correspond with Jack and then with Charmian London after Jack’s death. He eventually gained permission from the widow to write From Coast to Coast.

A-No. 1 accidentally got on Charmian London’s bad side after Jack’s death. In a letter to her, A-No. 1 described his publication plans in From Coast to Coast that seemed to include a mention of alcohol in conjunction with Jack’s name. Then, in attempted praise for Mrs. London, A-No. 1 suggested that she, Charmian, might have had a hand in some of Jack’s writing.[33] Charmian did not take kindly to either suggestion. On June 10, 1917, she wrote: “My dear Mr. Livingston (A-No. 1): I am going to give you a scolding, and I am sure that you will feel that I am justified.” She admonished him never, ever to write about Jack in association with alcohol, to change the electrotype of his forthcoming book at any cost, and never to insinuate that anyone penned Jack’s works but Jack himself. After this tirade, Charmian threatened A-No. 1 in a post-script: “be careful of what you say about JL now.” If she were “nasty,” she might choose to give up the entire story about him and Jack not actually being companions on the road. A-No. 1 must have had that kicked-in-the-gut feeling we’ve all had from time to time. He plead misunderstanding and begged forgiveness via telegram from Erie, Pennsylvania to Glen Ellen, California.[34]

Figure 10

A-No. 1, 1905. Red Bluff, Photograph by Robert Ranberg, 1969. Courtesy of the Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society.

As complex as life can be, the walls offer a welcome simplicity. For all the drama of A-No.1’s relationship with Jack and Charmian, for all the unrequited longing between Skysail and Sailor Jack, graffiti cuts life down to its bare essentials. Complex stories are always behind the statement “I was here.” In this case, the “here” turned out to be Red Bluff.  In 1905, A-No. 1 came through town, leaving a trail of carvings in his wake.[35] While London, Skysail, and A-No. 1 were never on the road together in the conventional sense, they actually did wind up together, on this one wall, on this one shed, off the Southern Pacific Line in Red Bluff, California. London, Skysail, and A-No. 1 were connected in place but disconnected in time. The walls held convergence nonetheless.

The buildings where these carvings resided burned down in 1969, shortly after Robert Ranberg filmed and photographed them. Ranberg’s documentary work puts the unassuming Northern California town of Red Bluff on the map as one of the most significant sites of hobo writing in the United States.

Figure 11

In between the two sheds in Red Bluff. Photograph by Robert Ranberg, 1969. Courtesy of the Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society.

Hobo Legacies in Contemporary Graffiti

Hobo writing is often given a nod in compendia that attempt to chart the history of graffiti in the United States, but the specifics of its impact are seldom elaborated.[36] Turn-of-the-century hobo graffiti directly influenced at least two contemporary graffiti genres: gang graffiti and freight train moniker writing. Below, I review hobo influences on gang writing in Los Angeles (the example I know best), spend some time with the widespread and wildly popular genre of freight train graffiti known as moniker writing. I then touch upon hobo connections to contemporary New York style graffiti that has now spread across the United States and globally.

Gangs and hobos occupied similar social spaces in their day. They were subject to hostile news media treatments, police brutality, mass incarceration, and public ostracism. Turn-of-the-century hobo associations with Wobbly labor groups linked hobos to paranoid discourses regarding anarchism and socialism, which further vilified their forms of sociality, political potential, and collective living. Similarly, gang youth in Los Angeles in the 1940s were subject to a paranoid gaze due to their social groups and distinctive clothing. They were said to be ripe for Axis exploitation and reminiscent of bloodthirsty Aztecs or wolves hunting in packs. They constructed neighborhood space differently, and they were legally penalized as collectivities rather than as individuals.[37]

Figure 12

Examples of negative lettering in hobo carving (Jule Kid and EW) from Red Bluff (c. 1890s); by Harpys gang in Los Angeles, 1990s; by graffiti crew LOD (non-gang), 2019.

In Los Angeles, gang members co-generated graffiti stylistic conventions alongside hobos in the early twentieth century. From the turn of the century through the 1940s, connections to hobos on the part of Latino and other youth occurred in the environs of the Los Angeles River and other waterways, where gang members had direct connections with hobos and visual access to their graffiti as well as materials for writing: railroad tar, railroad spikes, and occasional flares. Gang members in the late 1940s frequently wrote in tar, which had been a common hobo medium, and before that a pioneer writing medium. Gang members also adopted several hobo stylistic elements, such as arrows, pluses, quotations, or sometimes scrolls to surround their compositions. As with hobos, gang members took on monikers—nicknames—as part of marking out elements of landscape. And like the hobo term “moniker,” the name gang members used for nicknames—the placa—meant both the name itself and the graffiti form of the name.[38] Some hobo practices – such as drawing arrows, the backward “N,” the use of negative lettering, and even use of the term “Crip” – remain in use in gang graffiti and contemporary graffiti forms today. And my sense is that at least some of the angularity of early gang writing must have been inspired by hobo graffiti that was initially carved. Hobos had a stylistic influence on gangs in cities like Los Angeles that seems to have carried forward through today.

Another contemporary graffiti tradition directly influenced by hobo writing is freight train moniker writing, which has its initial history in the graffiti of railroad workers. Hobos and trainmen were both produced by the same factors: the Civil War, the shift to an industrialized society, urban development, the expansion of the frontier, and, of course, the construction of the North American railroad. Within this context, twin and opposite brotherhoods developed—like a Cain and Abel, though it was hard to tell who was the evil one and who was the good one at times. Hobos could be seen as either hard-luck cases or parasitic opportunists, and trainmen as either hardworking souls or sadistic bullies. Much of the time, they were both. Tramps and trainmen were subject to similar kinds of media paranoia. Union membership was contentious in its early days because of the way that it undermined capital accumulation. Railroad fraternities held the trappings of secret societies and union labor was fundamentally in opposition to bootstrapping or rugged individualism—ideologies hobo lifestyles also violated. At the same time trainmen, hobos, and the railroad itself symbolized other core American principles of freedom, movement, frontier, and the value of hard work. Even as opposites, both groups were simultaneously reviled and revered.

For both railroad workers and for hobos, waiting was part of the primum mobile of graffiti production. For railroad workers, waiting came in the yards. There would be a flurry of work, and then nothing. This fallow period became a creative nexus. Workers had the medium at hand, a sequestered place to write, and the time to do it. Railroaders were prolific writers, creating what they called “chalk marking,” “writing,” or “boxcar art.” They didn’t use the word moniker—even though the rail tradition that gave birth to what we know now as the moniker tradition. Moniker was a hobo word. The chalk markings of railroaders helped to express other aspects of the world of labor—getting a nickname, jockeying for position, dealing with subordination, being tied to the drudgery of the job, navigating union politics. Railroaders through time wrote a great deal on various surfaces, as well as on the trains themselves. In so doing, they created the inversion of what happened with hobos. Switchmen or car knockers who performed inspections with chalk in hand would stay in the yard and write on train cars. The marks they produced would then travel without them, while hobos frequently left graffiti near railroad locations as they themselves travelled.

At some point in the latter part of the twentieth century, these two opposed brotherhoods of hobos and trainmen gave birth to a third brotherhood, that is sometimes called the “folklore brotherhood.” In this contemporary brotherhood, freight hoppers (would-be contemporary hobos), railroad workers, and other people interested in trains or art are engaged in co-producing this tradition. In his book, Mostly True, Bill Daniel writes that: “The rail tag was born the bastard child of two warring parents; the working stiff and the shiftless wanderer. […] This duality is manifested in the astonishingly elegant and modest drawing modality that tramps and rail workers have spent the last 100 years co-evolving.”[39]

Figure 13

Moniker’d 11-17 by Anarchy Cat. Photograph by the artist, with permission from the artist.

Contemporary moniker writing consists of an insignia written in paint stick usually with a saying of some kind, the date, and select additional information. Moniker writing today was carried through from the turn of the century to today by a few key railroaders, including Bozo Texino, Herbie, JB King, and Colossus of Roads (some of these names represented more than one individual writer).[40] Their work developed into a recognizable rail-based graffiti art form with national and international devotees and a robust following on digital platforms such as Instagram. So-called “benchers”—people addicted to freight train writing of all kinds—document these marks as they roll by on lumbering freights. As documentarians rather than producers, benchers create zines and digital video compilations, and at least some of them use analogue means to circulate their productions to those with like-minded interests. Today, moniker writing mostly involves people who choose to be part of it rather than those who are using the markings as a creative outlet based on their labor or social position.

Javier Abarca writes that many accounts of contemporary moniker writing ideologically link this practice to 1930s depression-era hobos, while ignoring “the phenomenal hobo roaming and graffiti culture that developed in the late nineteenth century.”[41] Despite changes within the culture, the moniker practice remains based in its original context and continues to be practiced by graffiti-writing communities, which in this case continues to include both tramps and trainmen whose traditional graffiti practices are rooted in deeper history.

In all its guises, graffiti counters the tension between ephemerality and permanence. This tension is a fundamental aspect of what it means to be part of graffiti-producing communities. That liminality of the in-between drives carving in place while wandering, or writing on trains that are moving while workers stayed put.

In the United States, major graffiti traditions have emerged during times of significant economic transformation. Hobo culture and the hobo writing system developed during the transition from an agrarian society to an industrialized society in the nineteenth century. In case of contemporary writers, the emergence of graffiti that began on New York subways in the 1970s bridged the shift from an industrial to a post-industrial society. Javier Abarca further traces the linkages between the New York style contemporary graffiti and hobo writing. Both, he says, are based in the subversion of an alienating capitalist environment, both make use of nicknames and networks of communication based on the graffitied name, and both incorporate the ethos of going “all city,” of getting one’s name up in a way that can stand apart from the person. Linkages to the hobo tradition included intimate understanding of transportation systems and urban infrastructure, knowledge of which is still relevant among contemporary graffiti writers regardless of their city of origin. Writes Abarca, “as a carrier of names and as a carrier of people, the giant and alienating train detourned into a vehicle for fantastic, free mobility is at the core of both moniker writing and New York graffiti.”[42]  As with “moniker” and “placa,” the “tag” represents both the nickname and the graffitied version of the name.

Though much of the above treatment remains preliminary, ample evidence supports the role of hobo graffiti as a keystone graffiti genre with ongoing influences in graffiti practices today.

Conclusion

In writing graffiti, people through time have carved out pathways for survival through economic changes, created alternate forms of livelihood and sociality, and nurtured the camaraderie that has seen writers through the physical and emotional challenges of the road, of poverty, or of neighborhood life in places whose violence stems as much from law enforcement as from internal sources. Soul survival. As with most graffiti–centered subcultures, hobo groups directed their messages toward themselves. In the process they created rich genres of expression with aesthetic and grammatical sensibilities that that influenced subsequent graffiti traditions.

In California, hobos provided the link between traditional American folk culture and contemporary street culture. During the so-called “tramp era” at the turn of the twentieth century, hobos took on monikers and developed a form of written communication that shared information about identity, location, and travel. The basic hobo equation of a nickname, a direction signified by an arrow and sometimes place name, and the date would become the foundational graffiti tradition in the United States in the early twentieth century.  In cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Sacramento, this culture of the American road directly informed nascent traditions of gang writing. California cities with hobo influences and emergent gangs helped to incubate some of the earliest forms of street culture in the United States.

In his books, A-No. 1 writes about the “lure” of the tramp life. To some degree, his musing on the subject holds true today. People in the United States and abroad feel a visceral sense of connection to the hobo mystique. That lure has accompanied widespread circulation of ungrounded stories and mythical understandings regarding hobo life. At the same time, a well-elaborated practice of hobo writing connected to firsthand documentation and literary references provides fodder for heretofore under-examined aspects of hobo life in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Graffiti is an untapped form of primary source data that brings further clarity to several aspects of hobo culture, including the lives of notable individuals such as Jack London or A-No. 1. It also offers scope and purpose to hobo written communication. Analysis of hobo graffiti also opens further lines of questioning and necessitates deep cushioning within archival, historical, infrastructural, and narrative contexts. As examined above in the case of Red Bluff, California, hobo carvings give shape to the kinds of questions to which scholars can seek answers in order to extend reliable flows of information. Due to its absent authors and ephemeral nature, graffiti is never a wholesale solution to speculative problems—in fact the opposite is true. A degree of ambiguity is one of the delightful things about graffiti research and an important reminder of the tentative nature of knowledge production in general. But the ambiguity in this case is generative. It invites further inferences but in a manner that is both informed and fabled. In the cases above, graffiti provides a unique lens into an obscure practice by helping to ground questions as well as caution answers.

Notes

[1] With thanks to: Javier Abarca, Thomas Chambers, Owen Clayton, Bill Daniel, Bill Foey, Devon Hanofski, Tony Johnson and the Medford Railroad Park, Carol Mieske and the Tehama County Genealogical and Historical Society, Becky Nicolaides and the USC-Huntington Metro Studies Group, Robert Ranberg, Joel Reinhard, and Charles Wray. Jack London, The Road (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1907); Richard W. Etulain, Jack London on the Road: The Tramp Diary and Other Hobo Writings (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1979). Some segments of this material were previously published in Susan Phillips, Javier Abarca, and Thomas Chambers. Tramp Directories, Noms-de-Road, and Unwritten Codes: A Souvenir of Hobo Graffiti (Madrid: Urbanario, 2017).

[2]Tim Cresswell, The Tramp in America (London: Reaktion Books, 2001); Todd DePastino, Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003); Mark Wyman, Hoboes: Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps, and the Harvesting of the West (New York: Hill and Wang, 2011).

[3] Graham Raulerson, “A Fountainhead of Pure Musical Americana: Hobo Philosophy in Harry Partch’s Bitter Music,” Journal of the Society for American Music 11/4 (2017): 454.

[4] John Lennon, “Trains, Railroad Workers and Illegal Riders.” In Jeffrey Ian Ross (ed.) Routledge Handbook of Graffiti and Street Art (2016), 27-35; John Lennon, “Can a Hobo Share a Box-Car? Jack London, the Industrial Army, and the Politics of (In)visibility” American Studies (2007 48/4): 7. Charles and Michael Wray and Devon Hanofski have (separately) conducted the most thorough investigations of hobo sites in the United States, and they have identified and documented multiple sites across numerous states.

[5] Jeff Ferrell, Drift: Illicit Mobility and Uncertain Knowledge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018), 73.

[6] Leon Ray Livingston, Life and Adventures of A-No. 1, America’s Most Celebrated Tramp (Erie, Penn.: The A-No. 1 Publishing Company, 1910).

[7] Leon Ray Livingston, From Coast to Coast with Jack London. (Erie, Penn.: The A-No. 1 Publishing Company, 1917). The Robert Aldrich film is Emperor of the North Pole (20th Century Fox 1973).

[8] Stephen Benz, “A Grave on the High Plains.” River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative (2017 17/1):135-141; Stanley B. Kimball, Stanley B. 1988. Historic Sites and Markers along the Mormon and Other Great Western Trails. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988; Timothy Rostov Urbaniak, Historic Inscriptions of the Northern Plains: Identity and Influence in the Residual Communication Record (University of Montana, Ph.D. Dissertation, 2014).

[9] Eric Monkkonen, (ed.) 1984. Walking to Work: Tramps in America, 1790-1935. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984): 2.

[10] George Borrow, The Zincali: An Account of the Gypsies of Spain. London: Murray 1841); Paola Toninato, Romani Writing: Literacy, Literature and Identity Politics. London: Routledge, 2014), 59.

[11] John Camden Hotten, The Slang Dictionary (London: Piccadilly, 1865), 29.

[12] Monkkonen, Walking to Work; Kelly Lytle Hernández, Kelly Lytle, City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771–1965 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

[13] Nels Anderson, The Hobo: The Sociology of the Homeless Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1923); Cresswell, The Tramp in America; DePastino, Citizen Hobo. John Lennon, Boxcar Politics: The Hobo in U.S. Culture and Literature, 1869-1956 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014).

[14] Josiah Flynt, 1891, “The American Tramp,” Contemporary Review (60/August 1891); Jim Tully, Beggars of Life (New York: A. & C. Boni, 1924); Livingston, Life and Adventures of A-No. 1; London, The Road.

[15] Richard M. Dorson, Folklore and Fakelore: Essays Toward a Discipline of Folk Studies (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1976); Alan Dundes, “Nationalistic Inferiority Complexes and the Fabrication of Fakelore: A Reconsideration of Ossian, the ‘Kinder-und Hausmärchen’, the ‘Kalevala’, and Paul Bunyan,” Journal of Folklore Research (22/1, 1985): 5-18.

[16] Allan Pinkerton, Strikers, Communists, Tramps, and Detectives (New York: Carleton and Co. Publishers, 1878), 57.

[17] Pinkerton, Strikers, Communists, Tramps: 57-58.

[18] Ibid, 58.

[19] Raulerson, Graham. 2011. The Hobo in American Musical Culture, x.

[20] Lennon, “Trains, Railroad Workers, and Illegal Riders,” 34. Several authors note the confusion between genres of hobo graffiti and railroad moniker art produced by railway workers. Mistaken impressions about authorship abound in the history of graffiti.

[21] Charles Wray and Devon Hanofski, mentioned in footnote 5 above, have similarly indicated to me that they have never encountered first-hand evidence of such markings in their explorations of hobo sites in the United States. Personal communication via email, April 3, 2019 (Hanofski). Personal communication via telephone, April 4, 2019 (Charles Wray).

[22] Laura M. Addison, ed. No Idle Hands: The Myths & Meanings of Tramp Art. (Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2017).

[23] Erle Heath, Seventy-Five Years of Progress: An Historical Sketch of the Southern Pacific: 1869-1944 (2014). Accessed on April 2, 2019 at http://www.cprr.org/Museum/SP_1869-1944/

[24] In my work on Hollywood sound stages, I have encountered similar temporal discrepancies between graffiti and recorded dates of construction and concluded that the graffiti were the more reliable source that created a more nuanced history of the site in question.

[25] Etulain, Jack London on the Road. Earle Labor, Earle. Jack London: An American Life (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013);

[26] London, The Road, 68.

[27] Ibid, 123.

[28] Lennon, Boxcar Politics, 33.

[29] London, The Road, 68.

[30] I emailed Earle Labor about the find and Labor said, despite there being no way to know for sure, that the mark was “highly likely” to be London’s. Personal communication via email, August 22, 2017.

[31] Etulain (1978) includes a map with specific dates but doesn’t cite where his knowledge of the dates comes from. Because they are not included in London’s tramp diaries, which end in April, this leaves the mistake open to interpretation. Thanks to Owen Clayton for pointing out this discrepancy.

[32] Carlos A. Schwantes, Coxey’s Army: An American Odyssey (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985).

[33] Letter from Livingston to Charmian London, Utah State University Jack and Charmian London Collection.

[34] These materials are housed at Utah State University’s Jack and Charmian London Collection at the University Libraries.

[35] A-No. 1’s visit is corroborated by a 1910 newspaper article about him, which references his previous 1905 visit to town. “World’s Greatest Tramp Was in Town,” The Red Bluff News, August 25, 1910.

[36] See for example Caleb Neelon and Roger Gastman, History of American Graffiti (New York: HarperCollins, 2011).

[37] Mauricio Mazón, The Zoot-Suit Riots: The Psychology of Symbolic Annihilation (University of Texas Press, 2010).

[38] Bill Daniel first pointed this similarity out to me regarding hobo monikers.

[39] Bill Daniel, Mostly True, second edition (Microcosm Publishing, 2012), 1.

[40] See Bill Daniel’s film Who Is Bozo Texino? The Secret History of Hobo Graffiti (2005) for the best treatment of this genre of moniker writing.

[41] Javier Abarca, “Foreword.” In Susan Phillips, et al Tramp Directories, 8.

[42] Abarca, Foreword, 10.

Susan A. Phillips has studied graffiti, gangs and the U.S. prison system since 1990. She has published two books: Wallbangin: Graffiti and Gangs in L.A. (Chicago, 1999) and Operation Fly Trap: L.A. Gangs, Drugs, and the Law (Chicago, 2012), and co-authored a small volume on hobo graffiti in 2017. Phillips was named a Soros Justice Media Fellow in 2008 and received a Harry Frank Guggenheim research grant in 2005. She has been in residence twice at the Getty Research Institute—most recently in 2016. Her new book, The City Beneath: A Century of Los Angeles Graffiti, will be published by Yale University Press in fall 2019. Phillips received her PhD in anthropology from UCLA in 1998 and is currently a Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pitzer College in Claremont.

Articles

Our Ramona

 

Postcards

Julia Sizek

Though largely forgotten by contemporary Californians, Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1884 Ramona was the most important novel about California of the nineteenth century.[1] Ramona follows its heroine, a mestiza, as she leaves the rancho of her adopted Californio family to live in the San Jacinto foothills with her love Alessandro, an Indian. Though the historical novel follows Victorian stylistic conventions, Jackson intended it to be a social commentary on the early days of California statehood. She hoped that Ramona would inspire social critique, making American settlers question their treatment of Native Americans and Mexican-Americans in Southern California when California became a state, causing the dispossession of both Native Americans and Californios.

At the time of its publication, Ramona’s immense popularity and social message earned it comparisons to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the only novel more popular than Ramona in the nineteenth century.[2] Like Stowe’s novel, Ramona was controversial upon its publication. White settlers accused Jackson of defaming them in their new home. Conversely, the book inspired a proliferation of tourism in Southern California that glorified Spanish history, as white settlers glorified dispossessed Californios and Native Americans in a performance of imperialist nostalgia. Ramona outgrew its origin as a novel intended to protest the treatment of Native Americans and Mexican-Americans in California, becoming the romanticized and fictional basis for interpreting California as a place for Euroamerican settlers, Mexican-Americans, and Native Americans.

In its many adaptations, translations, and transformations, Ramona is a story about belonging and dispossession. It is the story of three Californias belonging to the Native Americans, Californios, and Americanos. In its many versions, the story tends to follow the contours of the novel. It begins with Ramona’s life as a teenager at the rancho with her adopted family. Her adopted mother, a Californio named Señora Moreno, is the widow of a Spanish-Mexican man who had fought against the Americans. She is bitter at the Americans who killed her husband and shrunk her rancho after taking control under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Only her sickly son, Felipe, remains to help the Señora at the rancho. During the sheep-shearing season, Ramona falls in love with a hired Native American hand, Alessandro. In a fight with Señora Moreno, the Señora reveals Ramona’s true heritage as both Scottish and Native American. Ramona then decides to leave the rancho to elope with Alessandro, the son of the chief of the Luiseño tribe, based in Temecula village.

The couple travels across Southern California, seeking both work and places to live, made difficult by an influx of American homesteaders settling on Native lands. They have a daughter, Eyes of the Sky, who dies of a fever because they could not convince a doctor to come to their homestead. Their second child, named after her mother, is also born during this time. Unable to withstand the loss of Native lands and constant humiliation at the hands of the Americanos, Alessandro becomes unstable and is killed by a local vigilante after a misunderstanding. After Alessandro’s death, Ramona returns to the rancho (now missing Señora Moreno, who died in the interim). Eventually she marries her adopted brother Felipe and moves to Mexico City, the romantic dream of California proven to be no more than tragedy.

HelenHuntJackson

Helen Hunt Jackson intended Ramona to be a protest novel against the mistreatment of Native Americans in the United States.[3] She wrote the historical novel in a feverish three months, drawing from her travels through Indian country in Southern California, as well as her research for, A Century of Dishonor, her nonfiction account of the abuse and neglect of Native Americans at the hands of the federal government.

The novel failed as a reform effort because her white readers did not see the story as a tragic telling of the fallout of California statehood.[4] Instead readers saw it as a romance, an emplotment in which the main character overcomes oppression to become saved or emancipated. Ramona’s commercial success came from readers understanding it as a love story and a regional novel of Southern California. After being published serially it was still a best-seller, selling 21,000 copies in 1885.[5] It has never gone out of print. Though Ramona failed to create political change, it succeeded in popularizing a California myth from the historical facts Jackson had collected.

This new myth of California followed on the Romantic tradition rather than a tragic one, celebrating California multiculturalism in a way that today we would understand through anthropologist Renato Rosaldo’s concept of “imperialist nostalgia,” a problematic longing and valorization of the Native Americans and Californios, which Americans pushed out years prior.[6] Ramona brought new tourists to California, aided by the “See America First” patriotic tourism campaign and low railroad fares. Due to demand, proprietors had shifted their already-existing tourist sites to accommodate Ramona-themed tourism by the mid-1920s.

What began as tourist sightseeing became a veritable Ramona industry as guidebooks to the region appeared (the most enduring by George Wharton James in 1908). Towns and businesses adopted Ramona themes: you could also visit locations like the Ramona Highway or Ramona Pharmacy. The book was translated into many languages, adapted into five films and a telenovela in the U.S. and Mexico, and made into no less than eight plays, the most famous of which is the annual Ramona Pageant in Hemet, dating back to 1923.[7]

Tourists searched for the ‘real’ Ramona promised to them in tourist literature, though they were often met by many seeking to make a quick buck on the myth.[8] Perhaps the most ‘real’ of the Ramonas was a Cahuilla woman by the name Ramona Lubo, who Jackson had read about while writing her novel.[9] Like the fictional Alessandro, Lubo’s husband Juan Diego had mistaken the horse of a white man for his, and a vigilante band subsequently shot him in front of his wife and children. Lubo never received justice for her husband’s death. As a woman and an Indian, she had no legal standing as a citizen at the trial and was not invited to testify.

Lubo tried to benefit from the popularity of Ramona, charging small fees for tourists to take pictures of her with their new Kodak cameras, or for entrepreneurs to take pictures of her to reproduce in postcards (she certainly did not receive royalties for the latter). Newspapers denounced her opportunism, a charge they didn’t level at white and Latino Ramona entrepreneurs.[10]

Though Lubo sustained her livelihood in part from Ramona, she probably died from it too. While on exhibit as Ramona at a fair in San Bernardino in 1922, she contracted a respiratory illness from which she never recovered. Her grave became another in the long list of Ramona sites, suffering from unscrupulous tourists who chipped off souvenir pieces of headstones in the graveyard. The Cahuilla tribe closed that cemetery in 1973, taking Lubo back from the tourists who had defined her in life and death.

RamonaLubo

Ramona Lubo

The best site to understand contemporary Ramona tourism is the Ramona Pageant in Hemet. Inspired in part by the pageant Tahquitz in Palm Springs, the Hemet-San Jacinto Chamber of Commerce hired Garnet Holme (who later became pageant master for the National Park Service) to write a dramatization of Ramona.[11] Like other pageants of the era, the Ramona Pageant was played predominantly by amateurs who recounted scenes of local history with spectacular crowd scenes, music, and choreography. Theater historians disagree as to whether the Ramona Pageant is more of a pageant, a melodrama, or a hybrid of the two, but both sides agree that Ramona can’t simply be viewed as an “ideologically innocent expression of tradition.”[12]

Pageants were one of the most important art forms of the early twentieth century. They created historical stories that were sedimented in the public imagination and drew in heritage tourism. A prominent example was The Mission Play, which ran from 1912 through the mid-1930s in San Gabriel. The Mission Play articulated tropes of Southern California into a clear and self-evident story: The Spanish period was one of European civilization and the following Mexican period was one of decadence and degeneration.[13] Degeneration theory justified American expansion into California as a civilizing force against Californios and Native Americans. Like the Native American village in Yosemite, these tourist attractions romanticized Native Americans and legitimized their dispossession under the new American government.[14] These myths—forms of imperialist nostalgia—gave a way for tourists and settlers to understand their history through the narrative conventions of drama.

Even though the Pageant was originally marketed to motor tourists in the 1920s and 1930s, the play has always served a large role in community life as a ‘rite of spring.’ Many of the Pageant volunteers return yearly for the event, defining the seasons of their lives by Pageant-time. Barb Matson, an ethnographer of the Pageant in the 1990s, argues that the Pageant is a ritual in which both participants and audience-goers emerge as transformed converts to the Ramona story and its multicultural values.[15]  In Hemet, where today forty percent of the population is Latino, the play attempts to reflect the diversity of the community through its Pageantry. Many trained ballet folklórico dancers perform, as do Native American tribal members. Former Ramona Pageant historian Phil Brigandi notes that participants include all socioeconomic classes in the San Jacinto Valley, noting that   “some of the most prominent and wealthy families in the region perform alongside people on welfare.”[16]

A longstanding goal of the Pageant has been multiculturalism and intercultural understanding, if not social critique of the actions of Americanos in California after 1848. One of the first big changes to the play was the introduction of Spanish language into the script, but arguably the largest transformation has been the increased representation of Native American tribes. While prominent Native families had always participated, students from Sherman Indian School (the local boarding school) were invited to participate by performing tribal dances in the Pageant in the 1930s.[17] In the 1980s, a Native American Advisory Council was formed to improve the Elder Blessing Scene, which had only been allotted four and a half minutes in earlier iterations of the play.[18] Today, this portion of the play almost equals the length of the fiesta scene at the rancho, including Bird Singing (a southern California Native American singing tradition) and a Native soloist, Hoop Dancers, and the Red Tail Spirit Dancers, together representing California and Southwestern Native American traditions.

HoopDancersAtPageant

Hoop Dancers at Pageant

Native participation in the play is made visible through the performers themselves, but it’s also clear from the program. The Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians, San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, and the Soboba Foundation (of the Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians) provided financial support for the 2018 season of the Pageant. A local participant in the Ramona Pageant noted that “the Pageant may have gone belly-up” without the help of tribes today.[19]

Today’s Native American sponsorship of the Ramona Pageant inverts the historical relationship between tribes in the Pageant. In 1927, Condino Hopkins, the son of Ramona Lubo, wrote a letter to the San Jacinto-Hemet Chamber of Commerce accusing them of profiting from retelling the tragedy of Native dispossession. “Although the pageant is supposed to be in honor of the Indian woman who was immortalized in Mrs. Jackson’s famous story, it is well-known that it is primarily a publicity scheme on the part of the real estate interests in your locality…. In view of the fact that her name is thus commercialized, with the proceeds of this exhibition netting thousands of dollars each season, it would seem to me that it would be no more than right and proper for her heirs to share in such receipts.”[20] Though Hopkins’s point that the play was meant to honor an individual is incorrect, his critique of the Pageant reveals that the benefits of the Pageant largely went to the European settlers in the form of community growth and development,[21] not to the tribes who lost so much from Euroamerican settlement. Though the Pageant is one of the few representations of Native history that could be used to ask hard questions of settlers, has it been used both to reveal how California Native Americans were treated by European settlers and to critique it? A Native American former pageanteer told me that he still hasn’t decided whether the Pageant can bring awareness to Native issues or be a viable social critique, even after a lifetime of attending the event and seven years participating as a Bird Singer. [22]

Though the Pageant is a community building exercise, former Pageant historians places the value of the Pageant in the story: “The message is the story and the story is the message.” Garnet Holme’s dramatization of the play hewed closely to the book in order to have theatergoers identify with Californios and Native American tribes, an identification made possible by the understanding that both groups are tragically doomed. This identification manifests itself in one of the longstanding traditions of the play, when the crowd boos Americano cowboys as they ride away after threatening Ramona.[23] Jackson hoped that strong identification with Native American and Californios would make contemporary Americanos question their role as settlers in a land that was not originally theirs.

The novel highlights this with the final tragedy that befalls Ramona and Alessandro. After Alessandro’s wrongful death at the hands of a greedy Americano, Ramona moves back to the rancho. Life in California becomes more and more difficult, and Ramona and Felipe choose to move to Mexico—a homeland yet unseen—rather than endure the Americans. On the boat, Felipe asks Ramona to marry him and she agrees, deciding that it would be selfish to refuse. He accepts her reluctant hand, realizing that he will never have all of Ramona, as part of her will always be with Alessandro. They have a prosperous life and many children together in Mexico City. Of the children, the most beautiful and loved is “Ramona, daughter of Alessandro the Indian,” the words with which the novel ends.[24]

Ramona_and_Alessandro_Hemet_Pageant

Ramona and Alessandro, Hemet Pageant

Scholars of Ramona disagree as to the meaning of this ending. Some have argued that Ramona is not miserable enough at the conclusion to make the novel a searing social critique, but other readings suggest that the ending is tragic, since Ramona can never live in Alta California because of discrimination against Native Americans, nor will she ever love Felipe as she had Alessandro.[25] Through the allegorical deaths of Señora Moreno and Padre Salvierdierra, the Spanish aristocracy and Mission system of California become deceased too, making California alien to Ramona and Felipe. Alessandro’s death also dooms California Indians, creating tragedy for remaining Californios and Native Americans.

Garnet Holme’s original script for the Ramona Pageant maintains the sense of injustice by ending with a speech by the ranch manager Juan Canito, in which he begs God to send the Indians justice and return to them the land that was theirs before the Americanos stepped in. The emphatic plea for justice furthers the invocation of tragedy.

In 2015, the Ramona Pageant Board of Directors commissioned an Idyllwild local, Steven Savage, to write a new version of the play. Unlike the Garnet Holme version and Jackson’s book, this version keeps Ramona—and Felipe—in California, at the rancho that they both love. Rather than recognize the changing times and the tragedy that has befallen them both, Ramona seems to overcome tragedy, making the play into a narrative romance. She ends the play with the following words: “My home, California, where everyone can receive justice.”

The newer version papers over the injustices Ramona has suffered with a quick song and speech, rendering anew the question of what Ramona has become today, and the kind of parable it does—and should—offer to its audience. In his compelling reading of C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins, anthropologist David Scott demonstrates how historical metanarratives structure possibilities for future thought; that is, how understanding history as tragedy or romance has implications for our understandings of present politics.[26]

As a novel and story that has been told of California and its history, Ramona has been read as both a romance—in which a hero can overcome present conditions to emerge victorious—and a tragedy—which “sets before us the image of a man or woman obliged to act in a world in which values are unstable and ambiguous.”[27] In a moment where it is obvious that a multicultural democracy is not a “done deal,” perhaps Ramona should not be understood as a romance, but rather as a tragic cautionary tale. This tale is one in which Americanos are the ‘bad’ guys and Ramona is trapped in an unstable and unforgiving world that cannot be resolved by a single song.

RamonaPosingAtGrave

Ramona Lubo posing at a grave


Notes

[1] Dydia DeLyser, Ramona Memories: Tourism and the Shaping of Southern California (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005); Lawrence Clark Powell, California Classics: The Creative Literature of the Golden State (Los Angeles: Ward Ritchie Press, 1971).

[2] Blake Allmendinger, A History of California Literature (London: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 46.

[3] Valerie Sherer Mathes, “Friends of the California Mission Indians: Helen Hunt Jackson and Her Legacy,” unpublished PhD dissertation (Tempe: Arizona State University, 1988), iv.

[4] Although the political message of Ramona was missed in the United States, Cuban writer José Martí felt compelled to translate the novel as soon as he recognized the critique of American expansion into Mexico inherent in the tragic work. This is a pan-American (not North American) story, he argues in his introduction to his 1888 translation of the novel, despite being written by a gringa. See Ana-Maria Kerekes, Poder y belleza de la Palabra: Análysis de la traducción martiana de la novela Ramona de Helen Hunt Jackson,” unpublished Master’s thesis (Montreal: Concordia University, 2009), 21-22, and José Martí, José Martí: Obras Completas 24 (La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1991), 204.

[5] Mathes, “Friends of the California Mission Indians,’ 201, Allmendinger, A History, 46. John M. Gonzalez, “The Warp of Whiteness: Domesticity and Empire in Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona,” American Literary History 16 (2004): 437-65.

[6] Renato Rosaldo, “Imperialist Nostalgia,” Representations 26 (1989): 107-22.

[7] Vincent Brook, Land of Smoke and Mirrors: A Cultural History of Los Angeles (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2013): 52. Dydia DeLyser, “Ramona Memories: Fiction, Tourist Practices, and Placing the Past in Southern California,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 93 (2003): 886-908. George Wharton James, Through Ramona’s Country (New York: Little, Brown, 1908).

[8] For example, see D. A. Hufford, The Real Ramona of Helen Hunt Jackson’s Famous Novel (Los Angeles: D. A. Hufford & Co., 1900) and Carlyle Channing Davis and William A. Alderson, The True Story of ‘Ramona’: Its Facts and Fictions, Inspiration and Purpose (New York: Dodge Pub. Co., 1914).

[9] Mathes, “Friends of the California Mission Indians,” 197.

[10] DeLyser, “Ramona Memories,” 127-129.

[11] Phil Brigandi, Garnet Holme: California’s Pageant Master (Hemet: Ramona Pageant Association, 1991).

[12] Shilarna Stokes, “Playing the Crowd: Mass Pageantry in Europe and the United States, 1905-1935,” unpublished PhD dissertation (New York: Columbia University, 2013). See also Barb Matson, “Performing Identity, Staging Injustice: California’s Ramona festival as Ritual,” unpublished PhD dissertation (Boulder: University of Colorado, 2006).

[13] Chelsea K. Vaughn, “The Joining of Historical Pageantry and the Spanish Fantasy Past: The Meeting of Señora Josefa Yorba and Lucretia del Valle,” Journal of San Diego History 57 (2011): 213-235.

[14] Mark David Spence, Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks (New York : Oxford University Press, 1999).

[15] Matson, “Performing Identity,” 431.

[16] Phone interview with Phil Brigandi, 29 May 2018.

[17] Although this was a good faith effort on the part of Pageant organizers, Sherman (like most Indian Boarding Schools) has a much darker history as places where students were prohibited from speaking in their Native languages and forcibly removed from their family for assimilation. See Clifford E. Trafzer, Jean A. Keller, and Lorene Sisquoc, Boarding School Blues: Revisiting American Indian Educational Experiences (Norman: University of Nebraska Press, 2006).

[18] Matson, “Performing Identity,” 466.

[19] Phone interview, 31 May 2018.

[20] Hopkins quoted in DeLyser, Ramona Memories, 135.

[21] A 1972 study tried to tracked some of the economic impacts of the Ramona Pageant, and found that around 7.5 percent of San Jacinto Valley residents had moved to the area after being introduced through the play. This points to the impact of the play as being both an economic change to the community and a social shift to growth in the region based on Ramona tourism. See Robert M. McLaughlin, “A Descriptive Study of the Interrelationships Between the City of Hemet and the Ramona Pageant,” unpublished Master’s thesis (Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles, 1972).

[22] Phone interview, 31 May 2018.

[23] Matson, “Performing Identity,” 50.

[24] Helen Hunt Jackson, Ramona: A Story (New York: Avon Press: 1970 [1884]), 349.

[25] Matson, “Performing Identity.” See also Allan Nevins, “Helen Hunt Jackson: Sentimentalist v. Realist,” American Scholar 10 (1941): 280; Kate Phillips, Helen Hunt Jackson: A Literary Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 259; Rosemary Whitaker, “Helen Hunt Jackson,” Boise State University Western Writers Series 78 (Boise: Boise State University, 1987), 37.

[26] David Scott, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).

[27] Ibid.


Julia Sizek
is a Ph.D. Candidate in Anthropology at UC Berkeley and Associate Scholar for the Native American Land Conservancy. Her doctoral research focuses on contemporary land use problems in California’s Mojave Desert. Support for research in this article was provided by NSF Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant (#BCS- 1756340) and Wenner-Gren dissertation fieldwork grant (#9561).

Copyright: © 2019 Julia Sizek. 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

From Heart Mountain, Wyoming, to the Heart of Little Tokyo

Arnab Banerji

Located in the heart of the city’s Little Tokyo Historic District, a visit to Los Angeles’ Japanese American National Museum (JANM) is a humbling experience. JANM exists by active community collaboration.[1] The museum’s exhibits tell the story of a group of people who persevered in their hopes of making America their home even as “white” America pushed back on accommodating and accepting people of Japanese ancestry. Anchoring the museum’s display is a wooden structure. The sparse and rickety edifice is frugally-built and a less sturdy version of the log cabins that one finds in the Great Smoky Mountains in the American South. The wooden structure is one of the few surviving housing structures bought and relocated to the museum from the Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming. It represents one of the most dismal and yet often overlooked chapters of modern American history—the forceful removal, relocation, and imprisonment of over 120,000 Japanese Americans to inland detention facilities from the coasts during World War II.

The wooden structure with its modest interiors greets visitors as the first object of display in the museum’s second floor. Beyond the wooden structure lies an exhibit that includes everyday objects, historic photographs, and useful anecdotes that support the visitor in navigating what is bound to be a fairly new immigrant narrative for most people. The open floor plan that one traverses to explore the first couple of rooms comes to an abrupt halt as visitors make their way past the thick glass doors into the section devoted to the Japanese internment. Although, it might simply have been an architectural choice to separate this section of the exhibit. I couldn’t help but imagine a curatorial intent behind forcing visitors to push open a pair of heavy doors to enter into an area earmarked for exhibits depicting life during a state-sanctioned sequestering of fellow citizens. Like the sudden, swift blow to Japanese American aspirations of realizing their American dreams, the visitor is transported, beyond the glass doors, from the tranquility of everyday Japanese American life to the hostile badlands of middle America.

Little Tokyo, the neighborhood that houses the museum is today a symbol of resistance and resilience. A gateway to Japanese immigrants in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the neighborhood was home to some 30,000 Japanese Americans before it was swept clean during Executive Order 9066 in 1941-42.[2] During the war years, the once burgeoning neighborhood became a ghost town before being populated by large groups of Hispanic and African-American laborers. These workers who had arrived in the city lured by defense manufacturing jobs were unable to find housing because of restrictive housing covenants and occupied the abandoned Little Tokyo structures.[3]

Bronzeville, as the area came to be referred to during World War II, was the site of the Zoot Suit riots between white sailors and Hispanic residents of the area.[4] After the war, Japanese residents gradually started coming back to Little Tokyo. Under the leadership of the Little Tokyo Business Association, the area was rebuilt and revitalized around 1947 and is today a thriving tourist and business destination, even if escalating costs have forced the bulk of the Japanese American residential communities to move to Torrance, Gardena, West Los Angeles, and Arcadia.[5]

The Little Tokyo neighborhood is framed by the JANM on one side and the Aratani Theatre on the other with the Little Tokyo Village plaza, with its convenience stores, confectioneries, and restaurants separating the two pivotal landmarks. The Aratani theatre managed by the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC) has been a point of pride for the Little Tokyo district. Since opening its doors in 1983, they have hosted some of the biggest names in Japanese theatre, music, and the arts.[6]

The East West Players (EWP) is another stalwart of the neighborhood. EWP was founded in 1965 by Asian American actors. Now in its fifty-third year, the company is the longest-running professional theatre of color and is seemingly the largest producing organization of Asian American work.[7] Snehal Desai, who is the EWP’s producing artistic director, explained how the East West Players is located at an interesting intersection of the city in that it is surrounded by the Los Angeles Police Department, City Hall, the erstwhile Los Angeles Times building, and a stone’s throw from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and the Music Center. This puts it squarely in the middle of the multiple loci of power—intellectual, political, and administrative—in the city. And yet the nation’s oldest and largest Asian American company holds on dearly to its diminutive appearance, housed in a former church.[8] It seems the company deliberately stays away from the glitz and glamor of the entertainment world even as it continues to produce and promote high caliber work that celebrates the diversity of the American experience.

EWP was founded in 1965 by Asian American actors. Now in its 53rd year the company is the longest-running professional theatre of color and the largest producing organization of Asian American work.

With Little Tokyo as its setting, the memories enshrined in the Japanese American National Museum as reminders, East West Players and the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center as partners, and the Aratani Theatre as its venue, Allegiance: A New Musical Inspired by a True Story made its Los Angeles premiere in March 2018. Before it arrived at Aratani, the George Takei starrer had had its world premiere at San Diego’s Old Globe and a brief Broadway run at New York City’s Longacre Theatre. The musical had been in the works since 2008 when Takei and his husband Brad initiated a conversation with its creators, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione, about creating a musical that would embrace and put the experience of Takei and several thousands like him who survived the Japanese internment during the Second World War into a stage performance. The conversation started in the aftermath of two back to back chance meetings between Takei and Brad, and Kuo and Thione while attending shows in New York City. Takei was particularly moved by the song “Inutil” during a performance of In the Heights, which the four attended together. And the conversation that ensued convinced Kuo and Thione that Takei’s family experience would produce a moving show.[9]

The George Takei story itself is a celebration of the Asian-American version of the American Dream. Born Hosato Takei in 1937 in Los Angeles to an Issei (first-generation) father and a Nissei (second-generation) mother, Takei was christened “George” after the British monarch of the same name. In 1942 Takei and his family were forcefully relocated first to Santa Anita, then to Rohwer, Arkansas, and finally to the Tule Lake War Relocation Center, Northern California as part of the Japanese-American internment during the Second World War.[10] After the war and the release of the former internees, Takei and his family moved back to Los Angeles where his father took up a petty job to support his family. The world war not only claimed a part of Takei’s childhood, but it also took away an aunt and a young cousin who were found dead in a ditch in Hiroshima in the aftermath of the U.S. atomic attack on the Japanese cities.[11] Takei originated the role of Hikaru Sulu in Star Trek and went on to achieve both critical and popular fame for this iconic television role. Since Star Trek, Takei has appeared in numerous films and television shows. Starting in the late 2000s, he embraced various social media platforms and became a social media celebrity with millions of followers across Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Takei also recently launched a YouTube series called It Takeis Two with his husband Brad. Using his iconic status first as a popular and beloved television star and more recently as a social media phenomenon, Takei has been vocal about pressing social issues, most notably LGBTQ advocacy and rights. Takei says, “Raising awareness of the JA internment has been my life mission,” and with Allegiance Takei has opened up a national conversation on Japanese internment while simultaneously touching on its overall national shame as much as it is a personal history for the veteran actor.[12]

The most recent Los Angeles avatar of the play opens with a celebration in the Kimura household in Salinas, California where the family are shown to be artichoke farmers. Sammy (Ethan Le Phong), the young son of the family is portrayed to have just returned from college where he has been elected as class president. His father Tatsuo (Scott Watanabe) is quietly proud of his son, but still manages to push him to do better. This mentality rings true for most Asian parent stereotypes in that they seem impossible to satisfy. Kei (Elena Wang), Sammy’s sister and Ojii-chan (George Takei) make up the rest of the family. The celebration is short-lived as the family receives the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Sammy is eager to prove his allegiance by enlisting, but the family instead is forced to join other dazed and confused families as they make their way to Heart Mountain, Wyoming, “where their multifamily barrack is meager protection from choking dust and bitter cold.”[13]

The Japanese internment in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attacks was one of the darker episodes in the modern history of the United States. Responding to the anti-Japanese sentiment sweeping through the country after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt issued the infamous Executive Order 9066. This executive order gave sweeping authority to the Secretary of War and his military personnel to designate restricted areas and exclude certain members of the population from these prohibited military areas.[14] Under the aegis of the executive order and under the sweeping authority granted by it, the Western Defense Command announced that all people of Japanese ancestry would be relocated from the West Coast.[15] Notices began to appear in Japanese communities in April 1942 instructing families of Japanese ancestry to make preparations and report to designated areas for relocation. Defiance of the order could lead to arrest and imprisonment.

Several Japanese Americans expressed shock at the turn of events. Miné Okubo, an artist from Oakland writes, “To think this could happen in the United States. We were citizens. We did nothing. It was only because of our race. They did nothing to the Italians and the Germans. It was something that didn’t have to happen. Imagine mass evacuating little children, mothers, and old people!”[16] Evacuees were instructed to pack two suitcases and a duffle bag each and were warned that the relocation centers were pioneer communities without adequate infrastructure. 120,000 Japanese Americans, several of them American born citizens left their homes, businesses, farms, and possessions behind as they embarked on a new adventure inland, unsure about their imminent futures.

Not unlike their real-life counterparts, the play’s characters find themselves in a hostile environment and under brutal suppression once at the camp. Throughout the longer first half of the play, however, we see the internees reconciling with their fate and negotiating with the inimical situation, making it work. In the camp, Tatsuo Kimura, the proud Japanese patriarch of the Kimura household refuses to disavow his Japanese identity when he is asked to fill out an insulting questionnaire designed to test the allegiance of interred citizens. This form, reminiscent of several contemporary visa application forms where applicants are asked if they have ever endorsed terrorism or terrorist organizations, is seen as an affront by Tatsuo to the honest life that he has led while pursuing his American dream.

The play ends with an older Sam Kimura portrayed by George Takei, getting ready for yet another Pearl Harbor commemoration. A visitor, who he doesn’t know has brought a big brown envelope. In it we find a copy of Time magazine, with a young Sammy on its cover, memorabilia that Tatsuo had held on to till his last day, and a purple heart. Sam learns that the messenger is Hanako, the daughter of Kei and Suzuki, named after the slain nurse from the Heart Mountain camp—Hannah, the girl who Sammy had dared to love knowing fully well that their relationship would be considered illegal before law. Reminded of the past, and all that he had missed during the years that he stayed out of touch with his family, Sam Kimura breaks down as he welcomes his niece back into his life in a beautifully touching moment of familial reconciliation.

Allegiance 6

The cast performing “Wishes on the Wind” in the Los Angeles premiere of Allegiance starring George Takei at the Aratani Theatre, co-produced by East West Players and Japanese American Cultural & Community Center. Photo by Michael Lamont.

Director Snehal Desai says that this play has always had a Los Angeles connection, with Takei being from the city, the first reading of the play taking place in the Japanese American National Museum, and with Los Angeles being home to the nation’s largest Japanese American population. The director, who also heads the East West Players as artistic director was therefore excited to bring the musical back to its spiritual if not actual home. George Takei offered a more nuanced take on Los Angeles’ relationship to the play in an email interview. The octogenarian writes, “In many ways, the City of Los Angeles is the epicenter of the work we have done to keep alive the memory, history and education about the Japanese American internment.”[17] He points to institutions of socio-cultural significance that call the area home to further his point, “With things like the JANM and the Go For Broke Monument, not to mention the JACCC and the support of venerable institutions such as East West Players, Los Angeles has resources that no other city has to integrate our show’s message and story with the rich tapestry of the community today.”[18] But extant resources aside, the history of the neighborhood cements its ties further with the story that the play shares. Takei walked me through the history of this neighborhood highlighting pivotal existing landmarks that are reminiscent of this recent painful history: “Both the JANM’s first ‘building’ and East West Players’ original Union Church building are historic landmarks of the internment of Japanese Americans. The JANM’s first home was the former Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, which was first built in 1927 and served as the headquarters of the Shin sect of the JA Buddhist community until the evacuation order.”[19] Takei continued, “Union Church was founded by JA Christians and was built to contrast with the traditional Buddhist ceremonial entrance of the Buddhist Temple on the east side of the same block. With the evacuation order coming down, JA Christians were gathered in front of the Christian Union Church and from there, they too were bused to Santa Anita Race Track.”[20]

And if the historical past was not reason enough for the city to have a unique stake in the Allegiance story, Takei points out that, “Allegiance still lives here in LA” with the “JACCC, the Isamu Noguchi sculpture in the plaza, the Go For Broke Memorial Monument and in a cozy side plaza beside the JACCC, the Memorial Honor Court of War Veterans are all stirring reminders of the sacrifice, anguish as well as the resilience and indeed the true patriotism expressed in so many countless ways by JAs during the war years. One cannot not be aware of our history in Little Tokyo today.”[21] Hillary Jenks has studied Little Tokyo as a lieu de mémoire.[22] The place of memory serving as places that “not only recall the past but also represent lost alternate futures, making them constant reminders of the social and political consequences of previous choices rather than depoliticized diversions.”[23] Takei’s deft recalling of the various nooks and crannies of this “ethnic” enclave in downtown Los Angeles, the presence of historically significant landmarks, and the inspiration that they lent to the creators of Allegiance to formulate and share the story signifies the importance of this neighborhood as a continued determinant of Japanese American identity even when gentrification rapidly changes the demographic makeup of the area surrounding this neighborhood. However, the changes effecting the community today won’t be the first time that this stretch between City Hall and the Los Angeles river have had to forcefully undergo a change of character to accommodate rapid social changes.

JACCC, the Isamu Noguchi sculpture in the plaza, the Go For Broke Memorial Monument and in a cozy side plaza beside the JACCC, the Memorial Honor Court of War Veterans are all stirring reminders of the sacrifice, anguish as well as the resilience and indeed the true patriotism expressed in so many countless ways by JAs during the war years. One cannot not be aware of our history in Little Tokyo today.

The forceful Japanese American relocation under Executive Order 9066 opened up a vacuum that was quickly filled by other minority communities—especially African Americans and Hispanic Americans. The Bronzeville period of this neighborhood was a result of the rapid westward migration of African American populations during the war. Segregated housing laws did not allow this new population to find reasonable accommodation resulting in the city’s newest residents squatting in houses and structures abandoned by the Japanese Americans. Takei reminds us how Little Tokyo landmarks, like the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, were opened up to welcome the new African American Baptist congregation in order to hold Sunday services. Takei imagines that “during the war, this Buddhist Temple rocked with the foot stamping, hand clapping ‘Hallelujahs’ of Southern Baptist Sunday services” in the Providence Baptist Church.[24] The same holds true for Union Church which also “welcomed African American congregants until the return of the JAs after the war.”[25] The African American settlers in the Japanese enclave were hopeful of turning the struggling neighborhood around, but popular perception of the area as “the city’s most notorious problem neighborhood quickly overshadowed Bronzeville boosterism.”[26] The neighborhood struggled under the pressure of the sudden growth in population driven by Los Angeles’ racist and restrictive housing laws. The California Eagle aptly summarized the situation, “With 95 percent of our town locked, bolted, and barred against us the Negro is bound into a ghetto as fast as any which binds the Jewish people in Germany today.”[27]

The pressure on the already strained resources increased with the return of the Japanese American internees back to Los Angeles from their encampments. Takei recalls relocating back to Little Tokyo after he and his family were finally released from the camps. By then Bronzeville was a shadow of its confident resilient former self and was “skid row.” In Takei’s words, “It was a place for the poorest of the poor, and it was to be honest a harrowing experience—dirty, crowded, and crime-ridden.”[28] The relocation was horrific enough for Takei’s sister to wish that they were back home to the camps, which Takei suggests were “at least clean even for a prison camp.”[29] The African American residents of Bronzeville and the Japanese American stakeholders of the erstwhile Little Tokyo tried finding common ground to resist the racist segregationist policies and practices of the Los Angeles city council and the War Relocation Authority (WRA) respectively. In spite of concerted efforts from community leaders and some positive movement in reconciling the differences that separated the two communities and their efforts to achieve financial and social recognition in white America, “the events of the war had set in motion a divergence of experience between Black and Japanese American[s] that would … prove too wide to reconcile.”[30] The shrinking landscape of the symbolic Little Tokyo “became a target for Civic Center expansion in the in the 1950s.”[31] The development forcefully replacing residents with parking structures and the new police headquarters. The bureaucratic encroachment of the city into Little Tokyo was resisted by the Little Tokyo Redevelopment Authority or LTRA which was created in 1963 to prevent “external land grabbing.”[32] In the 1970s, the LTRA development plan joined forces with the Community Redevelopment Authority (CRA) and Little Tokyo subsequently began its transformation. It thus was turning into a commercial area bearing the kitschy signs of Japanese-ness that would attract a tourist population often at the expense of the ubiquitous Japanese American features that it had celebrated since it was settled in the late nineteenth century.[33]

Weller_Court Wikimedia

The forceful “Japanization” of the area was also resisted by second generation Nissei Japanese Americans who spearheaded efforts to locate within the boundaries of Little Tokyo memory artifacts and promoted ethnic, historical, and cultural venues in the neighborhood. As the child of an Issei father, and a Nissei mother, George Takei seemed to have been at the hub of the Little Tokyo redevelopment. Looking back at the 1980s effort to stop “Japanization,” Takei recalls how

In the late ’80s, actress Beulah Quo and I spearheaded the fundraising drive to adaptively reuse the old Union Church as the new home of the EWP. Just before the turn of the century, in the late 90s, the EWP staged its gala opening with a new artistic director, Tim Dang, a new 250 seat theater and a spectacular production of Sondheim’s “Pacific Overtures.” When EWP presents stories of the internment, it is told in a building that resonates with the heartbeat of the people who were gathered right in front of those four Ionic columns. Union Church today is a living landmark that tells the story that happened in and around its walls.[34]

Jenks’ refers to the 90s effort to resist the touristic commercialization as a “suffocating pilling-on” of cultural memorabilia. The urge to pile on memory seemed to have stemmed from the need of the community to retain Little Tokyo as a lieu de mémoire (a place of memory). A location like this is peppered with landmarks that serve to remind the community of their Japanese roots. Fundamentally, the “internment demands they remember.”[35] It is no surprise, then, that Takei celebrates the current avatar of his former neighborhood as a “vibrant JA community that welcomes all people to enjoy, discover and learn from the cuisine, the performances and our cultural heritage. It is not simply a ‘commercial’ district. It is a healthy, living and lively community with a unique cultural and historic heritage.”[36] Locating Allegiance in this part of town which is so integrally connected to the story that the play shares therefore becomes as much of a political decision as it is a logistical necessity.

Allegiance, the musical is a reclamation of a history and curating it for retelling strictly from the victim’s perspective. The creative team at the helm of the show chose to soften the critical and historical blow by not creating a scathing drama, but rather a mellifluous musical that, barring its occasional highhandedness, holds its act very firmly together. And in the process the play weaves a musical journey that is reminiscent of the classic American musical. It is interesting that both Allegiance and David Henry Hwang’s Soft Power, (which held its world premiere barely a month after Allegiance closed) both use music that is not fiercely original but somewhat of a throwback to the greatest among the showtunes. Much of mainstream criticism of these new works have therefore criticized the music for not being original. It seems a deliberate choice on the part of the creators to critique erroneous representations of Asia and Asian-ness in much of mainstream musicals. It is also a quick draw for the crowds who are then introduced to a history, this new perspective, or even a story that they would have been hitherto clueless about. However, the musical as a form still has its ways of encompassing expressions that are beyond what has been used as definitive examples. Takei explained that every evening he witnessed audiences celebrating the work of the team both during the Broadway run of the show and beyond. And this popular reception seemed to have carried more weight for him and the others in the Allegiance creative team over the not always favorable critical responses that the team garnered. Audience enthusiasm and support continue to be the mainstay for musicals like Allegiance and Soft Power, which may quite possibly only continue to be unfavorably reviewed by mainstream critics who judge these works on the same parameters as most mainstream musicals, and without the nuance of the historical lacuna that the musicals aim to address.

East West Players’ artistic director and the director for the Los Angeles edition of Allegiance, Snehal Desai, mapped out the journey that led to the musical’s eventual coming to Los Angeles during an informal afternoon chat in the EWP premises in downtown Los Angeles. After the Broadway opening, the EWP felicitated members of the Broadway company at the EWP annual gala. George Takei himself continues to serve as a co-chair with his husband Brad of the EWP council of governors and has nurtured and nourished the company for the entirety of its existence. It was therefore only natural that the EWP were involved in conversations regarding the musical’s future after the Broadway run. And after plans for a national tour were shelved EWP teamed up with JACCC and the production team to bring the musical home to Los Angeles.

Desai decided to don the director’s hat himself because he wanted someone who hadn’t seen the musical to reimagine this edition. Even though he was in close proximity to the musical when it was developing from an idea to a fully realized musical, he had neither seen nor personally heard it.  The decision to direct the musical was further motivated by his keen interest in politics, which was something that Desai cultivated during his college days as a political science major while simultaneously pursuing theatre. I quizzed Desai on EWP taking up the challenge of not only producing a play that had struggled to make a mark on Broadway, but also committing to a six-week run in an eight hundred seat theatre. Desai’s nuanced response downplayed the significance of Broadway as the benchmark for great theatre. He went on to say that a few decades ago, Broadway was thought of as the place where new voices and new works were to be seen but that has stopped being the case now when Disney is at the helm of several theatres and the entertainment on offer caters to a tourist crowd who watch plays to check off a bucket list item. And therefore, EWP did not balk from the lukewarm response to Allegiance on Broadway. They went instead with the fact that the show was one of the biggest successes at the Old Globe in San Diego. And Angelenos came out in large numbers to support the play. The overwhelming support that the show enjoyed in Los Angeles potentially could have stemmed from the politics of locating the play within the lieu de mémoire of Little Tokyo and the attempt of the neighborhood to strike a balance between touristy marketing and community engagement. Desai’s refuting of Broadway as a commercial rather than a critical benchmark for contemporary American theatre certainly hints at that direction as well.

The play temporarily enters the urban space of the neighborhood to offer a performed portrayal of not only the community’s reaffirmation of its distinct ethnic identity but also its relationship and resistance to literal and figurative encroachments of bureaucratic and economic forces.

Desai recollects that the Los Angeles edition of the musical came about at what was becoming an increasingly difficult political climate with regards to immigration. The exclusionary rhetoric employed by the current presidential administration towards citizens, citizens-in-waiting, and immigrants finds echoes in this shameful episode from fairly recent American history. An episode that some Americans are painfully unaware of to this day. Takei took me back to an even earlier political moment that the veteran actor heralded his team into during the 2015 Broadway run of the show. Takei says that the show’s creators could never imagine that the play would have such contemporary relevance even though he remembers that the warning signs were already visible. And so in, “2015, as then-candidate Donald Trump questioned whether the Japanese American internment was really such a bad thing, that he would have ‘had to have been there.’ We then invited him to see the show and reserved a special seat for him every night, so that he could ‘be there’ and learn this history.”[37] The candidate never took the company up on the offer. Based on his recent experience of visiting the Texan border towns of Brownsville and McAllen, Takei reminded me of the ongoing vilification of immigrant communities and his memory of the internment, that “JAs cannot help but be reminded of our unjust incarceration and [so have] galvanized anew to fight for justice for others.”[38] In Los Angeles particularly, the location of Allegiance near the various loci of power and the Metropolitan Detention Center (albeit not an ICE facility) is a powerful statement when seen in conjunction with Jenks’ characterization of the Little Tokyo district as a lieu de mémoire. The play temporarily enters the urban space of the neighborhood to offer a performed portrayal of not only the community’s reaffirmation of its distinct ethnic identity, but also its relationship and resistance to literal and figurative encroachments of bureaucratic and economic forces.   

Allegiance 1

It was difficult to find tickets to the performance. The search was so difficult that I had to wait until the closing week to finally manage to scalp a ticket. Desai confirmed that the performance played to near capacity during most of its run, reaching roughly 200,000 folks over its course. Desai also talked about the Wednesday matinees which were for high school students. The company was really excited at the immersive day that the students would be having if they came for the play including a conversation with George, a survivor from the camps, the Go For Broke Monument, which celebrates and commemorates Japanese American soldiers who fought in 442nd Regimental Combat Team. And then visit JANM for a more hands on interaction with the history that they had just seen performed. Desai was thrilled at the way the community came out to support the telling of this important story and at the ways in which various people were able to relate to it on different levels—personal and historical. The company had anticipated some of this response and therefore as Desai confirmed they did their due diligence in terms of their historical homework. It is wise, however as Desai reminded me, to remember that this was the dramatization of a historical moment—a musical based on a true story, rather than a true story as it really was.

Japanese American critics vehemently have critiqued what they have termed as outlandish portrayals of camp life and the associated violence that comes with it. They all coherently contend that the “camp was degrading. It was dehumanizing.”[39] Others have questioned how Frankie Suzuki’s resistance movement has been portrayed in the musical or how life in the camp was not as brutal as the musical would have us believe.[40] Takei offers a nuanced take on the way this painful history was recreated for the stage. He acknowledges that the company was tasked with a “difficult job of creating a story that told many facets of all of our story, with respect to all of the camps in one location. This obviously meant that in some cases what we depicted might seem harsher than what some people remember at their own camps.”[41] Based his own experience first at the Rohwer camp in Arkansas and later at the Tule Lake camp for the “‘disloyals’ in the community,” Takei recalls the harsh reality that “camp was brutal. There were beatings. There was enforced solitary confinement.”[42] Historical fact is significant. An exception can perhaps be made under exceptional circumstances like in the case of Allegiance. The musical succeeds in instigating conversations about an issue that a vast majority of the American people are either ignorant about or would rather forget. And the success of the musical in this regard makes Takei’s confident assertion, “I’m proud of the story we told, and am not bothered by those who wanted a different one,” sound like a celebration for a just cause rather than a casual disregard for history.[43]

Allegiance is a bold retelling of an episode that is often ignored in contemporary American history. And it is especially important that we revisit this historical period today when America faces several immigration challenges. Snehal Desai drew my attention to the parallels in language used to discuss and describe the Japanese in 1941-42 to the rhetoric from the top-down while discussing Muslims, Central Americans, non-white immigrants, and refugees today. The Los Angeles edition came about at what was becoming an increasingly difficult political climate especially with regard to immigration and immigrants. The exclusionary rhetoric employed by the current presidential administration towards citizens, citizens-in-waiting, and immigrants finds echoes in this shameful episode from fairly recent American history—something that a large number of Americans are painfully unaware of today. There seems to be more uncanny parallels between the time that we are living through in 2019 and the time when trucks rolled up in downtown Los Angeles more than seven decades ago to take citizens away from everything they had worked their entire lives for. The proposed amendments to the census forms, increased surveillance on non-citizens and their social media presence, and the erosion of civic discourse all seem eerily similar to the period that Allegiance puts squarely under scrutiny within its musical framework. More than anything else, this is perhaps the reason why it is such an important piece of work worthy of critical engagement. In several ways, this play is a metaphor for the city of Los Angeles—quietly significant, sprawling in its scope and possibilities, and irritatingly tedious at times. If so, then it is no wonder why it hit the mark here rather than in New York where many interpreted it simply to be this “singing history lesson” by someone who would rather be entertained while remaining oblivious to history.[44]

And on a final point about George Takei, the headliner of Allegiance and an Angeleno by birth: I would be lying if I said that I went to watch the musical drawn by its story. I went to the Aratani to see Hikari Sulu in flesh and blood. I came away inspired, intrigued, and in awe of this octogenarian who has worked tirelessly over the greater part of the last decade to share a story that is at once extremely personal and yet universal in its ramifications. And, as if to counter the observation made by Kelvin Yu character Brian in A Master of None about Takei being busy with “gay stuff,” the social media phenomenon is a gentle presence on stage, essaying Ojii-chan as an affable grandfather who never ceases to lose his sense of humor and spirit. The older Sam Kimura, similarly bears the burden of family separation, witnesses war, and yet remained resolute as a soldier.[45] Throughout the performance, Takei frequently takes himself to the background and makes room for an excellent group of young Asian-American actors to perform characters beyond caricatures and stereotypes. In the end, Allegiance celebrates inclusion like very few musicals are able to and, in the process, hopefully inaugurates a new kind of musical entertainment that is not intent on promoting superficiality when embarking on such relevant themes, but even more so informs and challenges the range of thematic possibilities.

George Takei by Matthew Murphy

George Takei as Sam Kimura in the original Broadway production of Allegiance. Photo by Matthew Murphy.


Notes

[1] “About JANM,” About the Museum, Japanese American National Museum, accessed on 20 July 2018, http://www.janm.org/about/.

[2] “131 Years of History,” About LTBA, accessed 15 July 2018, http://www.visitlittletokyo.com/About-LTBA.html.

[3] Ibid.

[4] See Roger Bruns, Zoot Suit Riots (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2014) for a detailed study on the infamous riots instigated by US Servicemen against Mexican-American and African-American residents of downtown Los Angeles.

[5] See Jonathan H. X. Lee, Japanese Americans: The History and Culture of a People (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2017) for a detailed study of the history of the community.

[6] Alison M. De La Cruz, “The Aratani Theatre: A Meditation on Impermanence,” Performances, March 2018, P10.

[7] “About,” East West Players, http://www.eastwestplayers.org/about-us/.

[8] Snehal Desai, Personal conversation with author, 22 June 2018.

[9] James Herbert, “’Allegiance’ pledges to make it to Broadway,” San Diego Union Tribune, 18 July 2010, http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/sdut-allegiance-pledges-to-make-it-to-broadway-2010jul18-story.html.

[10] George Takei, email interview with author, 31 January 2019.

[11] Landress Kearns, “George Takei Reminds Donald Trump Of the Past Horrors of Nuclear Weapons,” Huffington Post, 22 December 2016, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/george-takei-nuclear-weapons-trump_us_585c5511e4b0de3a08f4ccae?.

[12] George Takei, email interview with author.

[13] Daryl H. Miller, “George Takei & Co. pledge an ‘Allegiance’ to teaching WWII history,” Los Angeles Times, 1 March 2018, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-et-cm-allegiance-east-west-players-theater-review-20180302-story.html.

[14] Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Transcript of Executive Order 9066: Resulting in the Relocation of Japanese (1942),” 19 February 1942, ourdocuments.gov, U.S. National Archives & Records Administration, accessed 23 July 2018, https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?doc=74&page=transcript.

[15] Peggy Daniels Becker, Japanese American Internment during World War II (Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2013), 32.

[16] Becker, Japanese American Internment, 34.

[17] George Takei, email interview with author, 31 January 2019.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Hillary Jenks, “Urban Space, ethnic community, and national belonging: the political landscape of memory in Little Tokyo,” GeoJournal Vol. 73, no. 3 (2008): 231-244.

[23] Ibid., 235.

[24] George Takei, email interview with author corroborated by Scott Kurashige, “Bronzeville and Little Tokyo,” in The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 160.

[25] George Takei, email interview with author.

[26] Kurashige, “Bronzeville,” 160.

[27] Ibid., 161.

[28] George Takei, email interview with author.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Kurashige, “Bronzeville,”185.

[31] Hillary Jenks, “The Politics of Preservation: Power, Memory, and Identity in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo,” in Cultural Landscapes: Balancing Nature and Heritage in Preservation Practice, ed. Richard Longstreth (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), 39.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid., 35.

[34] George Takei, email interview with author.

[35] Jenks, “Politics of Preservation,” 50.

[36] George Takei, email interview with author.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Frank Abe, “Allegiance Uplifts by Doctoring Japanese American History,” Resisters.com-John Okada/Conscience and the Constitution, 27 October 2015, http://resisters.com/2015/10/27/allegiance-preview/.

[40] Brian Niiya, “Allegiance: See the Film, but Watch for these Historical Inaccuracies,” Densho Blog, 10 February 2017, https://densho.org/allegiance-see-film-watch-historical-inaccuracies/.

[41] George Takei, email conversation with author.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Charles Isherwood, “‘Allegiance,’ a Musical History Lesson About Interned Japanese-Americans,” New York Times, 8 November 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/09/theater/review-allegiance-a-musical-history-lesson-about-interned-japanese-americans.html.

[45] Master of None, Season 1 Episode 4, written by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, directed by Eric Wareheim, released on 6 November 2015, Netflix.


Arnab Banerji
is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Loyola Marymount University where he teaches courses on Theatre History, Indian Performance, and Diaspora performance. His research focuses on Asian American theatre, contemporary Indian theatre, and theatre translation. His articles and reviews have appeared in Asian Theatre Journal, Theatre Journal, TDR, Theatre Symposium, South Eastern Review of Asian Studies, among others.

Copyright: © 2019 Arnab Banerji. 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

Viet Weekends

Thi Bui

Note: The following are reconstructed memories, based on a conversation I had with my friend Christine Pham, who grew up in San Jose in the 1990s. Christine went to Viet school while I did not. Her Vietnamese language skills are far better than mine, but that’s not the only thing.

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VietWeekends2

VietWeekends3

VietWeekends4


Thi Bui was born in Vietnam three months before the end of the Vietnam War, and came to the United States in 1978 as part of the “boat people” wave of refugees from Southeast Asia. Her debut graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do, has been selected as both an Indies Introduce and Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers title. She is the illustrator of A Different Pond, a children’s book by Bao Phi. Thi was a founding teacher of Oakland International High School, the first public high school in California for recent immigrants and English learners. She currently teaches in the MFA in Comics program at the California College of the Arts. Visit her website at https://www.thibui.com/.

Copyright: © Thi Bui 2018.

Articles

Our Lady of La Vang

Thien-Huong T. Ninh

Every two years, more than 200,000 pilgrims make their way to La Vang, a poor farming village in central Vietnam. They come from the around the world to pay homage to the Virgin Mary, whose apparition visited the village in 1798 and gave comfort to persecuted Catholics. From Vietnamese American Catholics to Thai Buddhists, they come seeking her blessings, solace, and comfort.

“She is not just the mother of Catholics in Vietnam but also anyone who comes and prays to her,” an Indonesian Protestant once told me during a visit to La Vang. His comment echoed the feelings of many who made the long, arduous journey to the Minor Basilica of Our Lady of La Vang. Although the Vatican has not recognized the historical apparition, Our Lady of La Vang has become a global religious and spiritual symbol.

Over the course of a few days, pilgrims pray to a large statue of Our Lady of La Vang holding a figure of the baby Jesus. She stands under three large banyan trees, adjacent to an old church building, wearing traditional Vietnamese attire composed of an áo dài and a crescent-shaped headpiece. With her black hair, dark eyes, and porcelain skin, she reflects an ideal image of beauty in Vietnamese society.

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This Vietnamese representation of Our Lady of La Vang can now be found wherever Vietnamese people have emigrated, including: Japan, Taiwan, Canada, France, Australia, and the United States. This Vietnamization of the Virgin is a recent development. Until 1998, statues of Our Lady of La Vang were modeled on French representations of another Virgin Mary figure, Our Lady of Victories. But the new Our Lady of La Vang did not come from Vietnam. She came from Orange County, California.

Vietnamese Americans represent the largest Asian American Catholic group in Orange County. In 2010, there were nearly 70,000 Vietnamese Catholics in the region, according to the secretary of the Bishop of Orange. They constitute the largest Asian Catholic group in Orange County. The community has been growing since the fall of Saigon in 1975, when the first large wave of 125,000 Vietnamese refugees arrived in the United States.[1] Many Vietnamese chose to resettle in Orange County due to its warmer climate, employment opportunities, and close proximity to Camp Pendleton, where many Vietnamese refugees first arrived.

As Vietnamese Catholics struggled to rebuild their lives in the United States, many sought comfort from the Virgin Mary. In 1978, more than 1,500 Vietnamese Catholics across the country attended the largest Feast of Assumption celebration in Carthage, Missouri, during a blazing hot August.[2] The multiday pilgrimage became known as “Marian Day,” attracting mostly Vietnamese of different religious backgrounds from throughout the world. In Carthage, pilgrims worshipped a statue of Our Lady of Fatima and one of Our Lady of Peace (Đức Mẹ Nữ Vương Hòa Bình). For many Vietnamese Catholics, the statues symbolize miracles but also have strong anticommunist connotations.

Like the original Our Lady of La Vang, the statues of Our Lady of Fatima and Our Lady of Peace depicted the Virgin Mary with European features. European images of the Virgin Mary had long been the norm in Vietnamese Catholicism.

Then in the 1990s, when multiculturalism was being promoted by the Catholic Church in the United States, the bishop of Orange County permitted Vietnamese Americans to create a Vietnamese statue of the Virgin Mary. In 1994, this image, known as Our Lady of Vietnam, was completed and placed at the entrance to the Vietnamese Catholic Center in Santa Ana. Our Lady of Vietnam joined a growing collection of ethnic representations of the Virgin Mary in Orange County, including Our Lady of Guadalupe, a Korean Virgin Mary, and Our Lady of Czestochowa from Poland.

Created by sculptor Van Nhan, the white statue represents the Virgin Mary dressed in the Vietnamese national costume. She holds the baby Jesus in front of her with both hands, “as if she wants to hand her most beloved child to Vietnamese people in order to save them and their race,” according to the Vietnamese Catholic Center. She represents the “peace and tranquility” that Vietnamese American faithful seek as they adapt to life in a new country.

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Our Lady of Vietnam also reflects Vietnamese American Catholics’ connections to coreligionists in Vietnam during a time in which the country was isolated from the United States after the Vietnam War. She stands on a grotto in the shape of an S that depicts Vietnam and its mountainous ridges. The Vietnamese Catholic Center explains that this representation of the Virgin Mary “guides the spirit of Vietnamese people to return to their homeland roots” and to pray for their coreligionists who are suffering under communism. This is another reason she is referred to as Our Lady of Peace.

In 1995—three years before the two-hundredth anniversary of the apparition of Our Lady of La Vang—the United States reestablished diplomatic ties with Vietnam. This timing helped to revive interests among Vietnamese American Catholics to reconnect to their homeland. In an article published in 1996, Vietnamese Americans were urged to visit the Our Lady of La Vang in Vietnam: “Now is the time for overseas Vietnamese Catholics to be spiritually united and connected with the Catholic Church in the homeland. This is our affirmation that, despite being far away from the homeland, we will never forget our spirituality as a Vietnamese faithful and a citizen of a country and a peoplehood.”[3]

Our Lady of La Vang became Vietnamized through collaborations and agreements that reached across the Pacific. Clergy from Vietnam had seen the Our Lady of Vietnam statue during a visit to Orange County following the US-Vietnam normalization. They were impressed by Vietnamese Americans’ commitment to the well-being of Catholics in Vietnam, and their commitment to the preservation of Vietnamese Catholic culture and history despite decades of separation from their homeland. As a result of the trip, the visiting Vietnamese clergy commissioned Nhan Van, creator of Our Lady of Vietnam, to create another Our Lady of La Vang for the anniversary of her apparition.

Pope John Paul II blessed this Vietnamese Our Lady of La Vang statue in Rome on 1 July 1998. He also proclaimed Our Lady of La Vang the patroness of the Catholic Church of Vietnam. Although this religious honor did not officially recognize the apparition of Our Lady of La Vang, it was a source of inspiration for Vietnamese Catholics throughout the world. For the first time in history, a Vietnamese icon of the Catholic faith was officially introduced to the global Catholic community. On 13 August 1998, two hundred years after the apparition, more than 200,000 attendees gathered in La Vang to worship Our Lady of La Vang as represented by a Vietnamese woman.

Since her transformation, there have been several visual reinterpretations of Our Lady of La Vang to represent the unique faith and experiences of Vietnamese Catholics. In La Vang, in 2002, the Vietnamese Our Lady of La Vang was replaced with a new version wearing a headdress decorated with twelve stars. Although some believe that the stars are an allusion to the twelve apostles of Jesus, Vietnamese Catholics abroad have interpreted them as the stars that Vietnamese refugees used to guide themselves to their new homes. In the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Vang in Washington, D.C., completed in 2005, stars are used as a decorative motif throughout the sanctuary as reminders of the Vietnamese diaspora.

Today, statues of the Vietnamese Our Lady of La Vang are popular diplomatic gifts often exchanged between Vietnamese Catholic communities in different countries. In 2002, Pope John Paul II blessed six statues of Our Lady of La Vang in Rome and gave them to Catholics in Orange County, who were responsible for distributing them to representatives of six different continents. Through the Vietnamese representation of Our Lady of La Vang, Vietnamese Catholics throughout the world have become reconnected to each other and have transformed the face of the Catholic Church in their image. In 2010, a stone engraved with the phrase Cộng Đồng Hải Ngoại (Overseas Diocese) was placed at the Our Lady of La Vang Pilgrimage Center during the start of the Holy Year. It recognizes the Vietnamese Catholic diaspora as the twenty-seventh diocese of the Catholic Church in Vietnam.

The growing global popularity of Our Lady of La Vang has spurred the construction of a number of parishes named after her outside of Vietnam, including two in California. These transnational ties are not simply nostalgia for the homeland but an effort among Vietnamese Catholics to heal the wounds of war and displacement. The Vietnamese Our Lady of La Vang represents re-connection among Vietnamese Catholics in the diaspora and the homeland after decades of separation.

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Notes

[1] Min Zhou and Carl I. Bankston, Growing Up American (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1998), 29.

[2] Peter Phan, “Mary in Vietnamese Piety and Theology: A Contemporary Perspective,” Ephemerides Mariologicae 51 (2005): 457–472.

[3] Van G. Bui, “Huong Ve La Vang” [Toward La Vang], Ky Niem 12 Nam Thanh Lap Cong Doan La Vang [12 Year Anniversary of the Establishment of the La Vang Community] (Orange County, CA), 13.


Thien-Huong T. Ninh
is an assistant sociology professor at Consumnes River College and a scholar with research interests in race, gender, religion, and in immigration, particularly forced displacement as in the case of refugees. She is the author of Race, Gender, and Religion in the Diaspora: Ethnic Vietnamese in the U.S. and Cambodia (Palgrave Macmilllan).

Copyright: © 2018 Thien-Huong T. Ninh. 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/.

ArticlesPhotography/Art

Tattoo

NHM Tattoo-Pano 1

Sydney Santana
Jason S. Sexton

Californians need to find ways to mark their identity. This stands true for newcomers and longtime residents, in spite of the amnesia that often befalls ordinary California life. When lines traced from the past prove insufficient for cultivating this, Californians sketch the way forward with the tools available. Very few of these tools are from here, and yet they readily find their way in the regular use of Californians who aim to be themselves, charting new courses, transmogrifying into new narratives they start to see.

This is the story of tattoos in California, and the roles they’ve played in the lives of many. They didn’t start here, but originated with Oceanic and Asianic cultures, especially the Japanese, gamely reaching the California shores from the Pacific world. Various world cultures have long marked bodies with scarring, piercings, and other features meant to enhance the skin’s rich historical and cultural context.[1] From the ancient world to today, tattoos canvassed the body with information: denoting rank, status, meaning, replacing the natural with new data, displaying and communicating an ongoing openness to fresh, transformative possibilities. Artists ink this information onto bodies, like painting on a canvas, or a mural.

The mid-twentieth century saw a cultural development in California during and after World War II and the Korean War, where the relaxed “California lifestyle” provided a fitting environment for what would soon emerge. It was carried by figures like Sailor Jerry, Ed Hardy, Cliff Raven, and Freddy Negrete.[2] Perhaps the only place capable of integrating, nurturing, and disseminating the phenomena so quickly, California was “the global center of the Tattoo Renaissance.”[3]

It makes sense, then, for our reflections to finally be grounded in Los Angeles, where cultural objects and modalities are “rife with contradiction, conflating artificiality and authenticity.”[4] We leave to our readers and those who interact with and experience the Natural History Museum’s exhibition, “Tattoo,” to determine which bits of this new tattoo culture—especially in California but also beyond—reflect the artificial projection or the genuine reality, the stories of the past and future to live into, both of the artists and those inked. Marking identity in California has never been a simple task, but with the power to make bodies into new texts in a moment, tattoo culture remains one of the truest California things happening.

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“Early in the 20th century Chinese tattoos imitated American, European, and Japanese designs. More recently, Chinese and Taiwanese tattoos are integrating traditional Chinese imagery—the Buddha, lion, and dragon, which are all important cultural symbols.”

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Left: Charlie Wagner, from the series “Homage to Tattooing Icons,” Switzerland, 1990, Acrylic paint on canvas, Artist: Titine K-Leu (b. 1968). Right: Anna “Artoria Gibbons, from the series, “Homage to Tattooing Icons,” Switzerland, 1990, Acrylic paint on canvas, Artist: Titine K-Leu (b. 1968).

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“Before there were shops offering black-and-gray tattoos, many tattooers in East L.A. worked out of their kitchens and garages. A homemade tattoo machine, some batteries wrapped in white paper, stencils, black Higgins ink, cigarettes, artistic ability, and a willing friend was often all it took to get started.”

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Left: Clay Jar, Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, Mexico, 1200-1450 CE, Ceramic. Right: Clay Figurine (possibly Mayan), Mexico, Date unknown, Terracotta.

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Left: Flash sheet (eagle and serpent), Long Beach, California, USA, Circa 1950, Reproduction of color drawing, Artist: Lee Roy Minugh (b. unknown). Right: Flash sheet (roses), Long Beach, California, USA, Circa 1950, Reproduction of color drawing, Artist: Lee Roy Minugh (b. unknown).

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Smile now, Cry later, Los Angeles, California, USA, Late 20th c., Drawing on paper, Artist: Freddy Negrete (b. 1956).

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Shamrock Social Club, Sunset Blvd, West Hollywood.

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Freddy Negrete, Shamrock Social Club.

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Isaiah Negrete, Shamrock Social Club.

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Freddy Negrete, Shamrock Social Club.

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Isaiah Negrete, Shamrock Social Club.

 

Notes

[1] See Nina G. Jablonski, Skin: A Natural History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).

[2] See Jason S. Sexton, “Black-and-Gray Realism,” Los Angeles Review of Books, 20 July, 2017, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/black-and-gray-realism/.

[3] Arnold Rubin, “The Tattoo Renaissance, in Marks of Civilization: Artistic Transformations of the Human Body, ed.  Arnold Rubin (Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History, UCLA), 236-41. See also,

[4] David L. Ulin, Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015), 83.

Tattoo is an exhibition on display at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County until 15 April 2018. With ongoing special events related to the exhibit, the exhibit may be seen daily from 9:30 a.m. – 5 p.m.

 

Sydney Santana is Photographer in Residence (2018-2019) at Boom California. Follow her on Instagram @sydney_santana or on her website, http://www.sydney-santana.com/.

Jason S. Sexton is the Editor of Boom.

Copyright: © 2018 Sydney Santana and Jason S. Sexton. 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/.