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Eating Thirty in Fresno: Finding Home at Hmong New Year

Lisa Lee Herrick

It starts in October with a whisper of smoke and silver tintinnabulations, with sequins flashing winter sun and glass beads tinkling with each delicate step of the approaching fairy parade. Ching-ching-ching!

It begins with the sharp bitterness of charred coriander, roasted lemongrass, and pork on the spit—fat spitting and sizzling onto hot charcoal—and the plangent beating of wooden pestles pounding shredded papaya within heavy-footed earthenware mortars. Tok-tok-tok!

It announces itself from the north with autumn’s first copper rust, from Oroville and Chico, then sweeps southward down California’s 450-mile spine—the great Central Valley—through Yuba City, Marysville, Sacramento, Stockton, Merced, until, finally, landing in Fresno for a weeklong celebration at the Fresno Fairgrounds, culminating with a cornucopia of sweet-and-savory treats, talent competitions, cultural exhibits and concerts as everyone wishes one another Nyob zoo xyoo tshiab!

The Hmong New Year Festival in Fresno is the largest annual gathering of overseas Hmong in the United States, attracting over 120,000 attendees and 200 vendors from around the world.[1] Today, over 101,000 Hmong Americans call California home—more than any other state in the U.S., according to the 2017 American Community Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau.[2] Fresno’s annual Hmong New Year Festival is a continuing testament to the resourcefulness, adaptability, and resilience of overseas Hmong to sustain a unified sense of identity through clan and kinship ties despite resettlement policies that purposely scattered Hmong refugees around the globe.

My parents and grandparents—as well as the 1.5 generation who were born and raised in Ban Vinai—still remember those stateless years waiting for sponsorship and fearing repatriation back into the maw of the newly-installed Pathet Lao state across the Mekong River. The Secret War disrupted the patrilineage that formed the foundation of Hmong cultural identity and its clans: nearly 25% of Hmong men and boys, or an estimated 30,000–40,000 Hmong soldiers, were killed in action; and up to 3,000 named missing in action.[3] This did not include the innumerable amount of civilian deaths during and after the Secret War. Survivors bonded in Ban Vinai refugee camp through shared trauma and proximity, forming tight kinship networks between friends and neighbors, each next of kin tearfully vowing to reunite someday. These promises would manifest as letters, phone calls, whisper networks, and audio-video recordings sent in the mail after safely resettling in their new respective host countries. I remember being fascinated by the colorful stamps from Thailand, China, French Guiana, France, and Germany that suddenly appeared in our mailbox each November. We listened to the voices of distant relations narrating their new lives and daily routines on cassette tape, and my parents cried hearing their songs rife with loneliness and longing for family. We watched VHS tapes of cousins hunting bushmeat in the Amazon Rainforest with their indigenous spouses and mixed-race children, who were even darker-skinned than us. My fair cousins from France mailed us perfumed letters with photographs of Le Jardin des Tuileries and L’Arc de Triomphe, and they looked stylish in their striped sweaters and tight jeans.

Starting in the 1980s, first- and second-wave Hmong refugees began settling in public housing projects in the southeast side of Fresno, California’s fifth-largest city, and established a uniquely Hmong enclave nicknamed “Ban Vinai Village,” after the eponymous refugee camp in Thailand where nearly all Hmong refugees were processed prior to its closure in 1992 by the Thai government. It was these first-wave Hmong refugees along with cultural leaders living in the metropolitan area that fostered the establishment of stable ethnic enclaves which, in turn, sponsored and financed subsequent waves of Hmong refugee resettlement. In 1977, there was only one Hmong refugee family recorded in Fresno, but by 1990, the Hmong population had exploded to 18,321 people.[4] In 2010, there were 31,771 Hmong living in Fresno.[5] In her book, The Hmong Refugee Experience in the United States: Crossing The River, Ines M. Miyares attributes the high concentration of clan leaders living in Fresno, including General Vang Pao, the de facto military and cultural leader for overseas Hmong, for this massive secondary migration: “[He] perceived the Valley to be a good location for the Hmong since the agricultural component of the region would decrease the stress of social and economic adjustment to American culture.” It was this pattern of secondary migration that established Fresno’s Hmong enclave despite official federal “scatter” policies from the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which were specifically designed to prevent the formation of such Southeast Asian ethnic communities.[6]

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Lisa Lee Herrick and her mother in their Merced apartment, 1986

I remember the day my parents announced that we were moving to Fresno, the urban epicenter of the San Joaquin Valley, because my mother wanted to be closer to her adult siblings and my father wanted to grow his home business. Like us, many Hmong refugee families had initially moved to Merced in the early 1980s when it was rumored that General Vang Pao planned to purchase a 3,500-acre farm to build a self-sufficient Hmong commune. When the utopian dream dissolved, clan leaders left Merced and Hmong families followed suit. We packed up our things in the middle of the school year in 1992, waved goodbye to our friends, and drove fifty miles down south on Highway 99 in search of “Ban Vinai Village.” In Fresno, my mother wore rubber flip-flops everywhere and grew herbs in tall plastic buckets clustered together in the backyard. She haggled with shopkeepers inside Asian Village Mall in Southeast Fresno over the price of imported fabrics and the potency of wild-foraged medicinal roots, much as she had experienced during her youth in the open-air markets of Xieng Khouang Province, Laos. To the casual observer, my mother’s life may have seemed poor, but the victorious grin on her face always betrayed her true feelings: here was a city that sounded, smelled, tasted, and felt like home.

Fresno imbued me with new perspectives and sensibilities about what it meant to be part of America’s long-standing immigrant narrative. My siblings and I formed hybrid identities as second-generation Americans from adjacent ethnic communities, and we adopted the nuances of our Mexican-American friends, neighbors, classmates, and co-workers—experimenting with cholo, chicano punk, bubble-gum, and emo-goth culture alike—plucking our eyebrows thin and sagging our jeans with our newfound tribes, and questioning cultural values and gender roles. However, one stalwart family tradition remained: every December after Christmas, we trekked toward downtown Fresno. We took the Ventura Avenue exit and followed it eastbound until it turned into Kings Canyon Boulevard, until the billboards, neon signs, and painted business names switched from English to Spanish and every language in between, until we reached the Fresno Fairgrounds and double-parked the family van in a lot filled with loose gravel. After the Hmong New Year Festival ended at sunset, we slurped phở at the cash-only cafes nearby then scanned street corners for the rainbow-striped umbrellas of the local fruit cart vendors for rose-cut mango con chile y limón.

This, too, was home.


When I was a teenager, the last thing I wanted to do during my winter break from high school was to dress up for Hmong New Year in my mother’s heavy, musty, hand-embroidered hemp clothing from her trousseau. I was a milk-fed American girl who ate cheeseburgers and fries nearly every weekday for lunch so, at sixteen, I was already wider and thicker than my mother, who was petite and fine-boned at five-foot-four and shrinking. Dressing up for the Hmong New Year was a multi-step process that can only be described as attempting to put on all of your formalwear at once while pinning the money from your wallet to every square-inch of fabric available—a must for good Hmong daughters to prove to potential suitors (and mother-in-laws) at Hmong New Year that you were wife material.

First, there was the black velvet jacket worn over a white, collared, button-down shirt, which was then wrapped around the waist using two thin cords. The seams of my hand-stitched jacket bulged and groaned against my widening back with each passing year, and I felt the pins and needles in my fingertips as the peacock blue cuffs coiled tighter and tighter around my meaty forearms.

“Why are your breasts so big!” my mother sighed, smacking my chest. “Are you wearing a bra or not?”

Mom!” I whined.

Next, came the heavy pleated hemp skirt. My paternal grandmother’s was dyed black with white trim, and cross-stitched with bright pink, orange, green, and turquoise threads symbolizing the Hmong’s journey over valleys and mountains to reach Laos because she was a member of the Green Hmong Tribe. My mother’s skirt was plain and white, because she was a member of the White Hmong Tribe, and she wrapped this around my hips with two long sashes. The skirt flared open in front like a hospital gown worn backwards, and my mother sucked at her teeth.

Aiyoh! Your butt’s too big for Hmong clothes,” she said. “If I had known that you girls would grow as big as cows in America, I would have bought more fabric. What? Why are you making that ugly face?”

The velvet and embroidered apron was essential for unmarried White Hmong Tribe girls, because it was worn over the front and the back of the pleated skirt for modesty. My mother instructed me to raise my elbows and spin slowly as she wound the long pink and green sashes around my waist and tied them tightly in the back. Then came the long belts with embroidery and silver piastres sewn directly into the fabric. After that, two purses were strapped across my chest so that each embroidered bag bounced on either side of my hips with their jingling coins. Once everything was adjusted, my mother piled up my long hair into a tight topknot, then wrapped an infinite roll of indigo fabric around my temples into a gravity-defying turban, binding my head so tightly that I felt my entire face lift up half-an-inch. A thin strip of black-and-white striped fabric was carefully draped over the turban and tucked to the nape of my neck with sharp bobby pins. The final touches were the heirloom jewelry: dainty silver earrings shaped like nippled bosoms, silver cuff bracelets painted with bright enamel triangles, rings, and the heavy silver yoke shackled around the neck. When completed, the costume weighed about twenty pounds—and added it, too.

“Can’t I just stay home?” I muttered. “This is so embarrassing.

“What’s so embarrassing?” my mother said. “This is your culture.”

“Exactly,” I said. Another smack.

The truth was that I didn’t enjoy going to Hmong New Year at the Fresno Fairgrounds because of the blatant staring. I had grown up in the barrio before moving to Fresno, which meant dipping pink conchas in black tea, chorizo with jasmine rice, lollipops rolled in Lucas Chamoy Polvo, and fish sauce in the pico de gallo. It meant long summer days in the strawberry fields every weekend, the skin on the back of your neck toasted warm brown like the color of cinnamon bark and stray dogs. It meant thick and ropey muscles from carrying five-gallon homer buckets full of fruit from sun-up to sundown so that your parents could make rent this month and next, and sometimes saying si pero while thinking out loud. At my school, I looked like everyone else. At Hmong New Year, I didn’t look like anyone else, and I glared at any flirtatious man who came too close to inspect me. This is how I stopped looking Hmong—how I already knew the words before they fell out of the old grandmothers’ wrinkled lips, the same words nested inside the false smiles of bemused aunties and their gawking husbands.

“Oh, this is your daughter? I thought she was a Mexican lady!”

Immediately followed by, “If only she wasn’t so big and dark, she could be Miss Hmong.” Cue me rolling my eyes, and another well-timed smack from my mother.

I found ways to silently rebel: I started dying my hair bright red and aggressively lined my eyes in black. One year, I wore my denim jacket over the costume. It was scrawled with anarchy signs and my favorite bands in permanent ink, and dotted with safety pins. Eventually, we called a truce when my little sister ran for Miss Hmong and I was no longer asked to dress up for the Hmong New Year, which suited me just fine. The torch had been passed.


The contemporary Hmong New Year Festival varies greatly from its predecessors in Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and China, which were rooted in clan leadership and the natural seasons of the Hmong’s agrarian lifestyle. Traditionally known as noj peb caug, or “eat thirty,” the celebration marked the end of the rice and maize harvest season. It was a time of rest when families could reunite after a long year of toiling in the fields and feast for thirty days; when lovers could court potential wives and husbands; when entire villages gorged on red meat instead of meager meals of boiled rice and vegetables; when wealthy Hmong could display their money shamelessly with heavy, silver jewelry; where women could advertise their artistry and wifely skills through hand-embroidered clothing; where men could play the queej to demonstrate their fitness and finesse. Ball-tossing, games, and animal fights entertained all audiences. The very first celebration of the modern Hmong New Year Festival was held December 1975 in Minnesota[7] shortly after the first wave of sponsored Hmong refugees arrived, but each subsequent year’s festival reflected shifting kinship ties as Hmong refugees assimilated into American culture and became less dependent on clan leadership for individual identity formation and collective decision-making.

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Hmong B-boys at Battle of the New Years 3, Courtesy of Gary Yang

The leaders of the nineteen family clans were wary of losing influence as Hmong families moved and clustered together along the Pacific Northwest and California. They transitioned their military experience into business protocols, transforming the Hmong New Year Festival from a regional cultural event into a global enterprise by aggressively recruiting corporate sponsors and vendors, fundraising, holding co-ed board elections, and lobbying the U.S. government to publicly acknowledge the contributions of Hmong military service members as United States veterans. Money flowed, and the Hmong New Year Festival became big business. Bloody bullfights and cockfights were replaced by friendly soccer matches and talent shows. Attendees still flirted by playing pov pob, ball-tossing games, but more and more people wore casual Western fashions rather than the intricate, handmade heirlooms handed down from their mothers. Those who chose to wear Hmong costumes remixed their fashions with folk costumes from Hmong in Vietnam, Thailand, and China, and they traded in expensive hand-stitched embroideries for cheaper mass-produced designs screen-printed on polyester instead. Neon yellow rubber tennis balls replaced the soft fabric-wrapped bundles, and rows of couples playing pov pob quickly turned into competitive handball games. In later years, with the rise of online video and affordable genetic testing, overseas Hmong began to reconnect to their family roots in China’s southern provinces, to Miao identity, which is a common misnomer for Chinese Hmong identity. A tree-topped pole modeled after the Miao Flower Mountain Festival (苗族花山节) has been recently erected atop a stage in the center of the main concourse, and academic researchers like Zhang Xiao, Director of the Center for Ethnic and Women Development Studies at Guizhou University, have also taken an interest in documenting the cross-cultural interchange. As the Hmong New Year Festival beefed up with growing global academic and commercial interests in overseas Hmong, accelerated expansion effected growing pains.

In August 2016, Hmong Americans watched apprehensively as U.S. President Barack Obama became the first American president to visit Laos and meet face-to-face with President Bounhang Vorachith. Many first-generation Hmong Americans distrusted the intentions of this meeting while second- and third-generation Hmong Americans, who had no recollection of the Secret War, expressed cautious optimism about reconciliation and new economic markets.[8] A few months later, the national narrative on refugees and the status of naturalized U.S. citizens changed drastically with presidential election results, and rumors surfaced that infighting within Hmong New Year Festival organizers over money would result in a three-way divorce with each group angling to poach the others’ attendance and sponsors. Today, Fresno’s Hmong New Year Festival(s) are managed by three separate community organizations: The Hmong International New Year Foundation, Inc., the Hmong Cultural New Year Celebration, Inc., and The United Hmong Council.


Lisa Lee Herrick_Hmong New Year 04_dancers

Despite the infighting and turf wars over the Hmong New Year Festival in Fresno, the cultural centerpiece and crowd-favorite remains the annual crowning of the ntxhais nkauj ntsuab, the Miss Hmong beauty queen, which was a program originally introduced in 1968 at Long Cheng military air base to boost Hmong soldiers’ morale following their resounding defeat at The Battle of Phou Pha Thi.[9] And, in the mix of all of this upheaval, I was appointed as a judge for the Miss Hmong USA beauty pageant in December 2017.

According to Gee Xiong’s 2013 Fresno State masters thesis, “Ntxhais Nkauj Ntsuab: A Study on the Miss Hmong Pageants in America,” Miss Hmong beauty pageants in America serve “entertainment purposes to supplement the urbanized glamour of Long Cheng; however, and notably, the pageant reflected the evolving atmosphere of the Hmong community in Long Cheng.” Xiong wrote that “[t]he contestants would walk on a stage in front of the judges, who were high ranking military officials, and nuv or essentially greet the judges in a polite fashion,” and that “the winner was expected to accompany the military officials to various New Year celebrations.”

In Claiming Place: On the Agency of Hmong Women, a seminal work examining Hmong American women at the intersections of gender and power, authors Chia Youyee Vang, Faith Nibbs, and Ma Vang connected this military narrative with broader notions on the role of women in twenty-first century Hmong culture:

“For contemporary Hmong women, a combination of subordinations imposed by those with different interests—such as Hmong experiences with French colonialism in Southeast Asia, Hmong struggles against the Lao state, U.S. military violence, refugee and diasporic experiences, and institutional inequities—produces their convoluted subjectivities. This complexity is often ignored in favor of centering analyses of power relations on their more easily targetable patriarchal social organization. Thus, we problematize this premise that the Hmong woman stands in for traditional culture.”[10]

In other words, Miss Hmong beauty pageants were designed to glorify the military narrative of the Secret War while embodying outdated Hmong gender roles assigned to women, i.e. to be subservient, polite, meek, agreeable, and fiercely loyal to one’s patrilineal clan.

And, in other words, everything that I am not.

As a staunch feminist and reformed hippie-punk artist with infrequently neon hair and frequently loud opinions, I sat stoically in my chair in front of the main stage at the inaugural Hmong Cultural New Year Celebration. I wondered if I was now part of a new vanguard of second- and third-generation cultural brokers, signifying that the Hmong American community was ready for new leadership. Did this mean that I was no longer the black sheep of the family? Was my appointment as a Miss Hmong USA beauty queen judge was purely ironic?

What did I really know about what an ideal Hmong woman was supposed to look, act, and sound like? I had eschewed my mother’s nightly paj ndaub lessons, preferring instead to run wild with the neighborhood boys in the woods and listen to Grandfather’s war stories. While the other Hmong girls from my parents’ church had married young and helped on the family farm or lived at home while taking classes at community college, I had enrolled at the furthest school possible and only returned on holidays to debate politics, justice reform, public policy, and queer rights with my uncles over their beers. My hair changed with my moods from pink to red to purple and blue, and I left rainbows smears all over my mother’s white pillows and towels that refused to wash out. I still enjoyed arm wrestling my male cousins. Did my appointment to influence the results of this year’s beauty pageant reflect a sea change in gender norms for Hmong American women, or could I wag the dog in some minute capacity?

When I showed my mother my official VIP badge and told her that I had been selected to serve on the judging panel, she doubled-over laughing on the couch until breathless. She couldn’t believe it.


Lisa Lee Herrick_Hmong New Year 02_studio photos

As it turned out, a lot had changed at the Hmong New Year Festival while I was away from Fresno.

During intermission, I walked around the Fresno Fairgrounds counting booths and absorbing the raucous din coming from each stall. Tinny, metallic music blasted over crackling speakers. Aggressive hawkers shouted into megaphones, their staccato syllables like rapid gunfire, corrosive and deafening. Little boys ran around shooting orange-tipped toy machine guns at one another while their mothers fingered primary-colored polyester outfits with ironed-on sequin stickers. A regal-looking Chinese Miao man sat silently on a reed stool, and seemed lost. Movie studios screened their latest action and horror films on competing widescreen TV monitors, the stories forgettable with wooden acting, stilted dialogue, and laughable special effects. Elderly crooners mewled whining love songs over electric keyboards while younger musicians passed out free posters advertising their latest self-produced album. One starlet wore skimpy lingerie and tight jeans, and she posed blandly for adoring (male) fans.

There was the crush of food vendors ghettoed against the north fence, each promoting such similar menus that they were nearly indistinguishable from the other:  sticky rice plates with your choice of American or Hmong sausage, steamed tilapia with cilantro and ginger, roasted chickens, strips of roasted pork belly, and Lao-style papaya salad. One vendor’s papaya salad was cloyingly sweet while another’s spectacular chili-sauce temporarily revived an otherwise lifeless selection of entrees. Each person had their own irrational loyalties. Everyone was ready to argue who had the best Hmong sausages in the row and why. New to this mall in recent years were spiral-cut potatoes on skewers, coated in mayonnaise and parmesan cheese. Cart vendors sold cinnamon sugar-dusted churros and giant deli pickles. There was Korean barbecue, Chinese fast-food noodles, boba tea, and mango con chile. It was a food court; a culinary free-for-all. If you closed your eyes, it smelled like any other festival or county fair, save for the light chiming of Hmong women in costume walking by. Although it was a thrill to have so many food options, I wondered if increased non-specific options meant straddling the edge of inauthentic cultural experiences in the name of big profits.

On my walk back to the judging tables, I passed by a table with discrete rainbow flag buttons. It was an information booth for a political group of college-educated Hmong young adults advocating for women’s rights, LGBTQ awareness, voter registration, and civil discussion. Although many people walked in a wide arc around the table or steered clear of it, the very fact of their undisturbed presence at the Hmong New Year Festival signaled to me that the sociopolitical undercurrents were already swirling, gathering quiet momentum. I noticed booths featuring tech startups, social media platforms, podcasts productions, graphic designers, and creative agencies founded and marketed by Hmong American entrepreneurs. A pair of brothers owned a distillery and legally-brewed Hmong rice wine for commercial consumption. By all accounts, you could say that Hmong Americans had finally arrived after forty years. It had been a slow and subterranean crawl, but here we were at last . . . but would the beauty pageant be able to keep up with this cultural shift?

Would there be a year when a mixed-race Hmong woman would walk the stage? Or a darker-skinned contestant—or someone plus-sized, with visible tattoos and piercings—or openly queer be accepted? Would the Hmong community be ready to question whether a transitioning woman was enough to qualify? Gazing at each of the fair-skinned, heavily rouged and powdered, and conventionally attractive contestants—each sporting the same set of heavy, black glued-on lashes—the only certainty was that it wasn’t going to be this year’s presentation.

At the end of the festival, the winner of the Miss Hmong USA beauty pageant was announced. Some people griped about how many of the contestants could barely speak Hmong or, when they did, they sounded robotic and rehearsed. (The Hmong language requirement was removed for the following year.) Many women complained bitterly that it made no sense to hold a bikini competition in the middle of winter. (The organizers revisited this comment.). A few clans feuded, each insulting the other over competing contestants. (The organizers decided that, next year, contestants would only state their first names and not their surnames.). One contestant staged an elaborately choreographed dance performance complete with sets and costume changes, visually narrating the story of the Hmong’s life before, during, and after the Secret War. She started with a traditional Hmong folk costume and ended in the army fatigues and machine gun of a Long Cheng soldier. (She didn’t win.) A video of one contestant’s off-key singing during the competition went viral and she was ridiculed online, but she returned the following year to compete regardless. (Organizers debated whether or not contestants were required to know how to sing.) Only some people wondered out loud whether a Miss Hmong beauty pageant was still culturally relevant if contestants did not need to know the language, were not allowed to state their clan affiliation, know how to sing, or display any deep knowledge of Hmong culture and history.

I wondered all of this myself, and realized that my answer was irrelevant because, for the first time, Hmong Americans were truly trying to define themselves independent of clan leaders and military narratives. If this meant researching and remixing fragments of Hmong identity to create a wholly new sense of self, then so be it. It was still an interpretation of Hmong culture and identity examined through the lens of personal experience. There was no such thing as a panacea or the ideal utopian Hmong society.

After the audience disbanded, I walked behind the stage to thank the organizers for inviting me to participate, and thanked each of the contestants for their preparation and effort. They looked more relieved that it was over than I did, and I understood then that their ambivalence reflected mine. It was born from the recognition of a generation of new Americans in flux, at the cusp of something quite new and entirely experimental. Our mutual uncertainty and trepidation was centered on predicting the future, whether we—the inheritors of our families’ shared traumas and struggles—could get the facts straight enough to tell the story right and move forward with a renewed sense of purpose into the new year.

Will Fresno remain the Hmong cultural capital of America in the following years, or bow out to the growing population of sociopolitically-aware and upwardly-mobile Hmong from the Twin Cities? It’s hard to say. For now, I can say for sure that hundreds of thousands of overseas Hmong will continue to gather here annually, regardless of who produces the Hmong New Year Festival, as long as Fresno continues to feel like home—as long as Fresno sustains venues where Hmong can explore and test their shifting cultural values against traditions.

WORKS CITED:

  1. “Hmong New Year Celebration Bringing People From Around The World to Fresno.” Vanessa Vasconcelos. ABC30.com. December 26, 2017. Link: https://abc30.com/amp/community-events/hmong-new-year-celebration-bringing-people-from-around-the-world-to-fresno/2824871/
  2. American Community Survey. U.S. Census Bureau, 2017. Link: https://www.hmongstudiesjournal.org/uploads/4/5/8/7/4587788/hmongca_acs_17_1yr.pdf
  3. Hmong Timeline. Minnesota Historical Society. Link: https://www.mnhs.org/hmong/hmong-timeline
  4. Ines M. Miyares. The Hmong Refugee Experience in the United States: Crossing The River. ed. Franklin Ng. New York: Routledge, 1998. pp. 3-38.
  5. AAPI Data. “The State of the Hmong American Community 2013.” p. 14. Link: https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=http://aapidata.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/State-of-the-Hmong-American-Community-2013.pdf&ved=2ahUKEwi72u3K1prlAhWYHTQIHekKAnsQFjASegQIBxAB&usg=AOvVaw3V9ycQNZ0Ni7e79vhQWBnO
  6. Miyares, p. 3-12: Although the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metropolitan area, Minnesota, has a higher Hmong population than Fresno, the latter is colloquially considered the unofficial Hmong capital of the United States thanks to concentrated clusters of cultural governing bodies such as Hmong military veteran associations and privately-operated social welfare & religious organizations headquartered in city limits that provided new arrivals with direct referrals for public aid, housing, medical care, employment, legal representation, higher education, financial aid and other resources.
  7. “Largest Hmong New Year Celebration Kicks Off in California.” Wang, Frances Kai-Hwa. NBC News (December 26, 2016). Link: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/largest-u-s-hmong-new-year-celebration-kicks-california-n700316
  8. “Laotian, Hmong Americans Cautiously Optimistic Ahead of Obama’s Laos Visit.” Wang, Frances Kai-Hwa. NBC News (August 30, 2016). Link: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/laotian-hmong-americans-cautiously-optimistic-ahead-obama-s-laos-visit-n640346
  9. Gee Xiong. “Ntxhais Nkauj Ntsuab: A Study on the Miss Hmong Pageants in America.” Fresno State University, 2013. Link: https://books.google.com/books/about/Ntxhais_Nkauj_Ntsuab.html?id=wxIcoAEACAAJ
  10. Vang, Chia Youyee, Faith G. Nibbs, and Ma Vang. Claiming Place: On the Agency of Hmong Women. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016. p. ix.

 

Lisa Lee Herrick is a second-generation Hmong American writer, artist, and media specialist who helped produce the film, The Hmong and The Secret War, now available at PBS.org. She is a former television executive and award-nominated news journalist, and a founding member of the LitHop literary festival. Her essays and illustrations have been featured on or are forthcoming from The Rumpus, Food52, The Bold Italic, The Normal School, and others. She is writing a family memoir about the inheritance and aftermath of trauma, a cookbook, and two graphic novels.

Copyright: © 2019 Lisa Lee Herrick. 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/.

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Welcoming Boom’s New Editorial Team

Curating California’s rich culture is a task held exclusively by no individual. Amid California’s many wonders and challenges, we learn much from its great luminaries, from creative writers and editors, and from other stewards who challenge us to think differently about this remarkable, sacred place. But we also learn from stories underrepresented and often untold, and from what D.J. Waldie calls “the sacred ordinary.”

Boom California plays a critical part in all of this. Inching toward the completion of its first decade on the California scene, Boom California is relocating its primary operations to Fresno State University. After three years as Editor, Jason Sexton is transitioning to a new role at UCLA and becoming Boom’s Editor-at-Large. And we could not be more thrilled to announce a new editorial team suitable to embody Boom’s vision for hosting some of California’s most interesting conversations, in both scholarly and public-facing ways.

We are pleased to announce that the new editors are Dr. Romeo Guzmán and Carribean Fragoza. This new editorial team brings an exciting attention to place, along with a decade worth of public-facing humanities work, and an extensive network of intellectuals, artists and journalists throughout the state.

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An award-winning public historian, Dr. Guzmán holds a Ph.D. in Latin American history from Columbia University and is the founding director of Fresno State’s Valley Public History Initiative. From the San Gabriel Valley to the San Joaquin Valley, Guzmán’s projects revolutionize the historical process by transforming how archives are built, how knowledge is produced, and how community members experience history. He has published on migration, archives, popular culture, and politics in both academic and popular outlets. Guzmán has also served as an editor at Tropics of Meta, one of the very first academic blogs. For Boom, he has written on the long history of charreria/rodeo in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands and on Mexico’s influence on American and California soccer. For more on his work visit romeoguzman.com.

A graduate of CalArts’s MFA program, Carribean Fragoza is a well-known journalist, artist, and fiction writer. A native of South El Monte, Fragoza is dedicated to thinking deeply about place and working with underrepresented communities. As a former managing editor of KCET’s Departures, she built exciting and innovative editorial projects about Greater Los Angeles. Her short story collection is forthcoming with City Lights Publisher and you can find her writings in  outlets such as Aperture, the American Prospect, Artbound, LA Weekly, as well as BOMB Magazine, Huizache, and Palabra Literary Magazine. For more on her work visit carribeanfragoza.com.

Carribean.Fragoza.Photo Credit Vicent Ramos

Photo Credit Vincent Ramos

Together, Dr. Guzmán and Fragoza founded the South El Monte Arts Posse, an interdisciplinary arts collective dedicated to using the arts to foster critical conversations about place. Their forthcoming manuscript East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte (Rutgers Press: 2020) traces the experience of a California community over three centuries, from eighteenth-century Spanish colonization to twenty-first century globalization.

With new plans on the horizon, we trust Boom will continue to serve our wide-range of readers online, from policy-makers and workers to students and scholars, and everything in between. And we look forward to having you with us, faithful reader, as we hope to encourage and inspire you to see afresh this wonderful place so that we all might live more meaningfully here in our great state.

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Reviews

American Fruit

California Citrus State Historic Park Visitor's Center, Riverside

California Citrus State Historic Park Visitor’s Center, Riverside

Elisabet Barrios Mateo

I grew up surrounded by a vast agricultural landscape in California. I never questioned the orchards’ beauty, or the sweetness of the apricots and cherries it bore. In Collisions at the Crossroads: How Place and Mobility Make Race, Genevieve Carpio peels back the history of the “Citrus Belt” in Southern California to reveal its unsettling past.

Reading Collisions at the Crossroads is like holding a hundred-dollar bill to a light and seeing its racial watermarks with a naked-eye. Through a deep analysis of literature, newspaper articles, maps, and legal and congressional records, Carpio exposes the many symbols of white supremacy embedded within these artifacts. She unapologetically argues that racial logics have been used to produce inequality via laws, regional policies, and cultural narratives in the United States.

With this book, readers will come to comprehend a dynamic portrait of how World War I and II, Dust Bowl migration, and the emergence of the automobile industry replicated the same racial hierarchies that nourished the Citrus Belt. It is a captivating read that weaves together athleticism, Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, and Route 66 in eye-opening ways. Her argument of spatial mobility as a human right, powerfully contributes to the debate on whether or not race produces inequality beyond economic stratifications. The first two chapters come to expose how land rights favored white settlers, and how they leveraged citizenship and belonging through historical myths. The middle three chapters transition to uncover how economic and cultural disadvantages were produced through immigration laws, policing, and housing segregation that targeted racial minorities. The final chapter concludes by connecting to past and present debates on U.S. identity and belonging.

Carpio uses racial triangulation throughout her book to unpack race as a relative construct. Like Natalia Molina in How Race is Made in America: Immigration, Citizenship and the Historical Power of Racial Scripts, Carpio argues that racial narratives are relational. Covering a longer time-period, she examines how Indigenous, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Puerto Rican, and Mexican communities were hierarchically positioned and selectively framed over the twentieth- century. White farmers entered the national debate on the Immigration Bill of 1924 to juxtapose Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Filipino workers to serve their economic interests while strategically framing people from all three groups as supposed threats to the Anglo racial landscape.

Carpio makes a resounding argument of mobility as a human right that cannot be divorced from the educational, residential, and economic outcomes that social scientists examine. She connects us to the past by drawing and expanding on old academic boundaries, while charting a new path for contemporary scholars and political leaders. Her book is a liberating piece that sheds light on the mechanisms through which non-white Americans have been excluded from full citizenship and belonging. It demonstrates the power of lies, storytelling, and the potential for reclaiming space through a collective narrative.

To varying degrees, each chapter provides evidence that communities of color have fought mobility constraints, which leads her to focus on resistance within legal and social institutions. Unfortunately, this leaves informal avenues of resistance unexamined. And yet we know that from common practices today, these informal avenues were likely also engaging spaces of resistance. For instance, contemporary undocumented immigrant communities use real-time communication chains to organize around police checkpoints and immigration raids. What might such informal strategies have looked like during the period Carpio examines? These could be crucial to understanding how non-white communities shift boundaries around physical and social spaces throughout everyday life.

Carpio’s book is a noteworthy contribution to our historical and present-day understanding of how racial hierarchies are used to curtail the rights and privileges of communities of color. She invites readers to learn about their not-so-distant past, while provoking them to reflect on the lies readers have imbibed and internalized. Reading a bit like a local version of Howard Zinn’s, A People’s History of the United States, her writing poetically uncovers racial inequalities in the legal system, while simultaneously portraying a dynamic human experience. By the end of the book, the reader can hear echoes of the narratives used to forge the Citrus Belt in the political discourse under the Trump administration.

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Elisabet Barrios Mateo
is a doctoral student in Sociology at the University of California, Irvine. Her research focuses on the ways federal law and state policy shape the sense of belonging for young immigrants in United States. She also writes poetry about social justice, the immigrant experience, and love.

Copyright: © 2019 Elisabet Barrios Mateo. 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/.

 

 

ArticlesExcerpts

Los Angeles, The Automobile, and Mexican American Life

Eric Avila
Genevieve Carpio

losangelesfreeway

Essential Los Angeles: Revisiting the Automobile (Eric Avila)

Just when we thought we knew everything about Los Angeles and the automobile, Genevieve Carpio delivers Collisions at the Crossroads, not just a model of rigorous, empirically-driven, theoretically sophisticated scholarship, but a critical intervention into a canonical body of knowledge that explains the enduring love affair between Angelenos and their automobiles. The story is familiar: Los Angeles grew up with the automobile. Its vast expanse of flat arid land—partitioned by mountains, arroyos, and rivers—provided an ideal setting for the mass adoption of the automobile during the early decades of the twentieth century. Even in the depths of the Great Depression, southern Californians purchased automobiles in record numbers, creating an impetus for the construction of new streets, boulevards, and highways. These arteries and the cars they served fattened the coffers of oil, rubber, glass, steel, trucking, and construction companies, and furthered the sprawling, decentralized pattern of urban development that typified a broader pattern of ‘sunbelt’ urbanism.[1]

This history became the basis of a full-blown myth about Los Angeles as ‘Autopia,’ penned by a British expat who roamed the L.A. grid in a convertible Mustang in the swinging Sixties. First published in 1971, Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies generated a new appreciation of Los Angeles, furthering a broader ‘postmodern’ sensibility that drew inspiration from the commercial landscapes of a car-oriented, hyper-consumer society. Much in the same vein as contemporary artists working in the Pop aesthetic (think Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha, and David Hockney, another British expat in L.A.), Banham recognized the centrality of the automobile in a new suburban way of life unfolding in southern California. To him, the automobile symbolized mobility, autonomy, convenience, and free choice—the attributes of a consumer society and the underlying values of a new model of democratic urbanism. Banham thought little of recent conflagrations like Watts, which he dismissed as a “fashionable venue for confrontations.” Instead, he saluted the automobile and its role in making a city where “all parts are equal and equally accessible from all other parts at once,” concluding that “freedom of movement is the prime symbolic attribute of the Angel City.”[2] Yet in challenging these accounts of L.A.’s autopia that assert a universal mobile subject, Carpio reminds us of the divergent claims to mobility by diverse groups who navigated the metropolitan landscape and their racial positions within it.

Banham and his predecessors had important insights about the automobile and its impact upon Los Angeles’s development. Their narrative makes important contributions to understanding why Los Angeles is the way it is and why the city “bleeds” (as Carpio evocatively puts it) into its hinterlands. Her book Collision at the Crossroads tells a different story about the automobile, and about spatial movement more broadly, reminding us that the old story is dated for its failure to address issues of inequality, immobility, and injustice—issues that L.A. historians can no longer ignore.

WorkersAndTheirCars

Workers and their Cars.

WashingCar

Washing a Car.

In the two centuries of its relatively brief existence, Los Angeles sustains (thanks to a recent generation of historians who align with social justice movements) a not-so-hidden history of violence, oppression, and injustice, but also of resilience, struggle, accommodation, hybridity, and mestizaje or mixed-races. The city’s track record of mob violence and racial uprisings, not to mention its history of mass incarceration and police brutality, forces a need to rethink both the city and the technology that made it, including the car, but also emergent forms of police enforcement, public policies aimed at diverse movers, innovative strategies to navigate metropolitan space by the aggrieved, and claims to the right to mobility. In Collisions at the Crossroads, Carpio tells this story from the vantage point of inland southern California, where claims to mobility have been complex and always contestable. The automobile made Greater Los Angeles, as did streetcars and railroads in their day, but its arrival and accommodation benefitted some groups of people at the expense of others.

As with many technological advancements, white men usurp the privileges they afford themselves and deny those same benefits to everyone else (with some brilliant exceptions). This includes the automobile, one of the most consequential inventions in human history. Not just the automobile as object, but especially its meaning as a symbol: the promise of unfettered mobility, autonomous movement, and mastery over time and space at high speeds on the open highway. Reyner Banham exalted these qualities and rightly expressed their seemingly universal appeal (at least in his time). So many of us love the automobile: we wash their bodies, clean their engines, quench their thirst for oil, air, water, and gasoline, polish their glass and chrome, register their possession with state authorities, insure them against damage and destruction—we eat, drink, argue, bond, and think thoughts in automobiles. We love these damn things so much that those of us written out of autopia’s dominant scripts—women, people of color, immigrants—forget that we often relinquish our autonomy, will, even safety, by surrendering to the automobile’s allure.

What Banham and other apologists for the automobile also ignore is a counterstory of how the automobile became a powerful tool of state surveillance and discipline. As demonstrated in the larger chapter from which the excerpt to follow draws, the car’s pleasures are accorded selectively by a repressive police force that incorporated the automobile into its arsenal, enabling new forms of enforcement in which they could “invoke the eyes of fellow police cruisers over the radio, track car owners through vehicle registration, and erect traffic checkpoints to distinguish criminals from the law-abiding mobile public.”[3]

LAPD1958ClassicCruiser

LAPD Classic Cruiser, 1958.

WattsRiot1

Watts Riots, 1965.

Carpio’s work provides early insights into emerging forms of state surveillance that would mature into the postwar period. During the 1950s and under the leadership of Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker, local law enforcement invented the squad car, equipped with short-band radios, sirens, rifles, shotguns, spotlights, and powerful engines. Parker revolutionized law enforcement in an age of mass suburbanization, effecting greater control over disparate working class Black and Latino communities that took shape throughout the five-county urban region.[4] The police arrest of Marquette Frye, who was pulled over on a hot summer day in early August 1965, illustrated the lethal consequences of ‘driving while black.’ His arrest sparked the Watts Riots, the most violent episode of urban racial violence during the mid-1960s, resulting in thirty-four deaths and hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage.

Chief Parker realized the automobile’s potential on a new highway system that took shape during his tenure. During the 1950s and 1960s, federal money poured into the construction of a massive highway system, linking disparate suburban communities to the historic core of Los Angeles. Orange County now linked to the San Fernando Valley, and they had new links to the inland communities of Claremont, Pomona, and Ontario. This sprawling network of freeways converged just east of the downtown core, in the neighborhood of Boyle Heights, which bore the brunt of state and federal highway construction projects. Today, Boyle Heights stands at the center of L.A.’s expansive freeway system, quarantined from the rest of the city by massive highway interchanges built in conjunction with slum clearance efforts. A redlined neighborhood since the 1930s, Boyle Heights earned the official distinction of being “hopelessly heterogeneous” by the Homeowners’ Loan Corporation, identified as “an ideal site for a massive slum clearance project” which turned out to be two massive highway interchanges, built less than two miles apart from each other in the late 1950s.

In this deracinated landscape, ravaged by white flight and highway construction; in the shadows and din of new freeway interchanges, a new ‘Chicano’ culture took shape, a hybrid mix of Mexican cultural traditions, shaped by the cosmopolitan influences of a polyglot, glamorous, and dangerous society. Zoot Suits came from Boyle Heights, murals too, and lowriders, which fashioned an alternative car culture that had nothing to do with the very qualities of speed and mobility that Banham celebrated. They embraced ‘low and slow’ as their aesthetic, indulging in a new suburban pleasure that drew upon urban traditions of showmanship and technological mastery, and gave a big middle finger to the ideals of efficiency, speed, mobility, and productivity built into the object and symbol of the automobile itself. Lowriders were not 9-to-5 commuters and they re-fashioned these machines for their own sensory and aesthetic pleasure. Their spatial claims evoked strong responses from the viewing public and local authorities, contests that Carpio argues have continued to play out over symbolic landscapes like Route 66. Lowriders chose boulevards over freeways as the primary venue for their motorized brand of chrome-polish swagger, and enthralled sidewalk spectators who marveled at these machines.[5] Are lowriders the victims of a ‘false consciousness’ sponsored by a corporate-consumer car culture? Or are they subversive agents of a technological counterculture? Drawing on the history of contested claims to mobility appearing across the twentieth century, Collisions at the Crossroads suggests the latter.

Today, we stand at another crossroad. Like most every aspect of technological modernity, the automobile is a blessing and a curse. It remains the dominant mode of transportation in the southland, yet its false premise of unfettered, autonomous mobility seems to have hit a wall of its own making. We Angelenos suffer from a chronic addiction to oil and gasoline. Too many people, too many cars: the concept of rush hour is obsolete. Every hour is rush hour; traffic is at a standstill on most freeway arteries, at most times of the day. Although new systems of mass transit are providing alternatives to the automobile and the freeway, there is little relief from the congestion and pollution that cars inflict upon our daily lives. Like red meat, our insatiable appetite for oil accelerates global warming, sparking what will become a desperate search for new alternatives to fossil fuels. Whether or not the automobile will remain the dominant mode of transportation in the region depends upon a clear-eyed assessment of its costs and benefits. Carpio implicates that machine in a broader history of racial and class inequality that now poses an existential threat to the survival of the species.

OldsmobileAdLowriders


The Automobile in Mexican Immigrant and Mexican American Life (Genevieve Carpio)[6]

By World War I, the automobile was already an integral part of life for Mexican agricultural workers in Southern California. Prominent citrus ranchers provided laborers garages alongside bathrooms, running water, electricity, and other utilities they deemed fundamental to worker housing. As described by Archibald Shamel, a USDA scientist who wrote extensively on Mexican citrus workers, “[the automobile is] an essential part of the household equipment.”[7] Local cooperative associations occasionally provided vehicles for their workers, but more often than not individual pickers and their families purchased their own. Like the Japanese bicyclists who preceded them, Mexican motorists used vehicles to maximize their work opportunities, and for fashioning themselves as modern citizens. Although at the national level cars at that time were largely owned by the white middle class, for use in leisure activities like tourism and cross-country travel, in the Mexican communities of Southern California automobiles were a working class item used to traverse uncertain economic and social landscapes.[8]

Disrupting national trends that linked whiteness and driving, period sources suggest that ethnic Mexicans owned automobiles at far higher rates than the Southern California population as a whole. A 1933 Heller Committee cost of living study, by the University of California, sheds light on patterns of automotive proprietorship, expense, and usage. In a survey of a hundred Mexican-descent families living in San Diego, the Heller Committee found twenty-six percent of households owned and operated their own automobile. A similar survey taken in San Fernando, about thirty miles north of Los Angeles, found that nearly forty percent of families residing in the “Mexican district” owned a vehicle. These figures are particularly significant when we consider that the automobile ownership rate in California as a whole was only seventeen percent, about half of the rate for the Mexican communities of San Diego and San Fernando.[9]

Far from elite toys of the rich, automobiles were regularly a necessity for Mexican laborers. Only two percent of the vehicles counted in the Heller study had been purchased new. Rather, families typically bought their cars and trucks secondhand, often as an essential expense. Purchasing a vehicle was a financial hardship that required cutting back elsewhere, sometimes even on food. Nevertheless, for their drivers, automobiles’ economic and cultural value exceeded their costs. Mexican respondents reported they used their vehicles for a variety of functions, including searching for work in surrounding towns, informal outings, and travel to family events.[10]

UncleJoe

Joe Hernandez (third from left) and crew on work truck, 1938. Courtesy of Inland Mexican Heritage.

Car and truck ownership often translated into direct economic gains for Citrus Belt workers. Groves were spread throughout the region and laborers commonly lived in towns adjacent to large farms, moving among them as the crops matured. Families who owned automobiles could leverage this location gap between housing and the groves to earn extra income. Former citrus worker Howard Herrera remembered, “In those days you had to pay for your ride. Sometimes the house would pay it. If the house would hire a truck to take the crew to work they’d pay the driver for all the heads that would drive and arrive in the truck.”[11] By transporting their neighbors to the fields, truck owners not only solved the problem of spatial dissonance, but also identified workers for the citrus cooperative in exchange for pay. In these roles, they served as recruiters, translators, and transporters. Women were often key in the relative success of these efforts. The son of one citrus foreman recalls that his mother provided warm lunches for riders as extra incentive to choose his father’s crew over others.[12] For these services, Mexican families were financially rewarded, receiving a small payment for each rider or a portion of the profits from the harvest.

If Mexican motorists could increase their wages by providing a vital service to ranchers, their automobility could also be used to challenge employers’ control over workers’ livelihoods. Mobility enabled Mexican-descent workers to determine which employment opportunities—agricultural or otherwise—offered the most competitive wages. Those with access to private vehicles identified opportunities at a range much larger than previously possible, aided by a growing network of roads, their ability to carry multiple passengers, and the incentive of hauling cargo for additional payment. While vehicles widened the geographic scale and types of employment available to Mexican drivers, vehicles were also beneficial in times of collective action. Even if primarily used for daily transportation, a truck could moonlight as a mobile picket line, stage for mobile theater, or emergency shelter. During times of direct action, vehicles helped to galvanize workers and prolonged their ability to strike. In this sense, automobility could quite directly contribute to the collective’s economic mobility.[13]

Automotive culture permeated not only the lives of those who moved, but also those in the communities that were passed. The largely Mexican Westside of San Bernardino is exemplary of this synergism. Later designated as Route 66, Mount Vernon Avenue provided residents with entrepreneurial opportunities to offer services to long distance travelers, such as managing motels, bars, gas stations, and restaurants. Consider Mitla Café. In 1927, its owners, Lucia and Salvador Rodríguez, migrated to California, and soon after this Lucia opened a small taco stand. The side business grew into a local landmark where the Rodríguez family catered to Mount Vernon residents, including workers from the nearby Santa Fe railroad repair shop, and passing motorists looking for something warm and affordable to eat. A combination of its location on Highway 66, its homey atmosphere, and foremost its Cal-Mex cuisine even earned Mitla Café a mention in the popular Duncan Hines travel culinary guide, Adventures in Good Eating.[14] Business leaders along the busy Highway 66 corridor often became community leaders and their businesses popular sites of community organization and place making.[15]

In addition to their economic value, vehicles held an important symbolic role for their drivers. Analysis of photographs collected by grassroots recovery efforts, such as Inland Mexican Heritage (IMH), further sheds light on the cultural significance of vehicles in Mexican agricultural communities. Looking to these personal family records adds a new perspective to those of the period’s social worker reports, which erroneously equated Mexican automotive practice with those of white middle class families. In public events held by IMH throughout the 1990s and 2000s, residents of former citrus communities near San Bernardino were invited to contribute family photographs and oral histories as part of a recovery project focused on Mexican American communities. Among cherished images of weddings, returning veterans, and family gatherings, residents frequently submitted family portraits in which cars and trucks figured as prominent features of the image.[16]

Unlike government or professional photographs from this period, examining the function of automobiles within these self-selected compositions helps reveal the ways Mexican American people themselves positioned vehicles in their everyday lives. While members of the family and their friends occupy the focal point, they were often staged in the photographs sitting or standing on vehicles. On the one hand, this positioning points towards the frequent presence of automobiles in Mexican American life, which were conveniently present during both special family events and mundane daily passings. On the other, the frequent appearance of cars as a central part of the photographs’ compositions underscores the subjects’ desires to craft particular self-identities.[17] Automobiles represented more than vehicles for travel. Rather, they held distinct social significance for those involved at the moment of a photograph’s creation. Where a group of youth dressed in their best outfits and standing in front of a car might represent the subjects’ identity as a modern subject immersed in leisure culture, workers posing with a truck filled with boxes of oranges could emphasize a strong work ethic, upward mobility, or traditional links between masculinity and labor. Historian Phil Deloria has examined the ways images of both American Indians and automobiles have been used by non-Indians to signify important elements in American culture. When brought together, these signifiers have conjured a “palpable disconnection between the high-tech automotive world and the primitivism that so often clings to the figure of the Indian.”[18] Where automobiles seemed anachronistic or unmerited when driven by nonwhites, photographs produced by Mexican American drivers were all the more powerful for the ways they disrupted normative expectations and bolstered self-representation in complex ways.

CoupleOnCar

Jessie Ortiz and friend posing on fender of car near San Timoteo Canyon, 1928. Courtesy of Inland Mexican Heritage.

Where photographic records help to uncover symbolic systems attached to vehicles by multigenerational Mexican American populations, songs emerge as an archive of the meanings produced by Mexican immigrants. Corridos—poetry set to music—are cultural artifacts that archive artistic expressions of daily life.[19] In these songs, vehicles held an important symbolic role in conveying immigrants’ experiences in the United States. As described by Mexican anthropologist Manuel Gamio, Mexican rates of vehicle ownership grew markedly among immigrants who had worked for a period in the United States. A close reading of popular corridos collected by Gamio and reprinted by the Social Science Research Council in the 1920s uncovers an ambivalent attitude among Mexican immigrants towards cars—and by extension, an ambivalent attitude towards U.S. life in general.[20]

A consistent note among corridos was nostalgia for life in Mexico, and the internal tensions generated among immigrants when pursuing American economic mobility. The lyrics of “El Dónde Yo Nací,” for example, use the car to signify dissatisfaction with U.S. consumer culture. The protagonist sings:

No me gusta coche ni autómovil
como al estilo de por aquí.
A mi me gusta carreta de bueyes
como en el rancho dónde yo nací.

(I do not care for the cars or the automobiles
like those found around here.
I prefer the oxcart
like on the ranch where I was born.)[21]

In this instance, the singer rejects the extravagant automobiles he views in the United States in favor of an old oxcart he owned in rural Mexico. At a literal level, his dissatisfaction indicates the singer’s longing for the ranch where he was born, land owned by his family and free from the empty consumerism he observes in the United States. Seemingly nationalistic, the singer’s nostalgia may also be read as a critique of political changes in Mexico, where privatization drastically transformed the countryside and large agricultural operations displaced many of the migrants. Dispossession pushed them to seek work in the United States.[22]

In a variation of this critique, another corrido titled “El Renegado” focused its criticism on Mexican immigrants seduced by U.S. markers of social status. The automobile in this corrido signals an immigrant who, upon gaining some profit, looks down upon his fellow countrymen who have not adopted a U.S. lifestyle. The ballad disapproves of the renegade’s “dandy” attire and his conceit when driving a flashy car, “andas por hay luciendo gran autómovil.”[23] Where the driver seeks attention by wielding control over the ultimate symbol of social mobility, the singer critiques this ostentatious display of wealth. The song discredits those immigrants who would negate their homeland and working class origins.[24] In both “El Dónde Yo Nací” and “El Renegado,” the automobile represents a U.S. lifestyle that stands in opposition to a Mexico envisioned as rural, homeland, and anticapitalistic.

FamilyPortrait

Roque Family and their car, 1930s. Courtesy of Inland Mexican Heritage.

Looking to these creative expressions of Mexican immigrant life helps reveal illicit uses of automobiles unaccounted for in most oral histories. Further, they recast as autonomous subjects the drivers who might otherwise be considered deviant. For instance, the car is often described with fondness for the freedom it offers its driver. “El Fotingo,” which can be loosely translated as “The Jalopy,” is one such example.[25] Although the jalopy is worn down and without seats, doors, or even lights, the song’s lyrics recall moonlit nights when the driver’s speeding Ford could be mistaken for a Willys-Overland. Where the old Ford represented economy and utility, the Overland had relatively more luxurious associations. By playing with the symbolic systems attached to the two models, the driver himself seems transformed in the moonlight from a worn-down laborer to a playboy bootlegger. The singer proudly describes flirting with women, smoking marijuana, and evading U.S. custom’s officers while smuggling liquor across the border. The mobility enabled by his vehicle is a fitting metaphor for the intersections between Mexican and American life, particularly as the increasing ease of automobility blurred the boundaries between the two, just as migrating bodies and smuggled booze could disrupt the apparent solidity of national boundaries.

Rising automobile registration rates in Mexico rose with Mexican American and Mexican immigrant vehicle ownership in the United States. Before 1910, there were no more than 3,000 vehicles registered across the Mexican nation. This quickly changed when Francisco Madero replaced Porfirio Díaz as president of Mexico in 1911. Fifteen years after abolishing a prohibitive tax on automobile ownership, registration increased from half a million to 17.5 million.[26] A continuing rise in vehicle registration was fostered by the arrival of the Ford Motor Company in Mexico City in 1925 and the construction of a vast new factory in 1932.[27]

Migration between the United States and Mexico further contributed to the growth of automotive ownership among ethnic Mexicans on both sides of the border. In December 1926, Mexico exempted repatriates from paying duty on U.S. items, including vehicles. Upon their return, thirty-eight percent of all repatriates owned an automobile. The widespread resale economy in Mexican border towns may have further boosted Mexican Americans’ ability to purchase low-cost Fords, creating a synergy between automotive manufacturing and policies in Mexico as well as Mexican Americans’ automobility in the United States.[28]

Surveys, oral histories, photographs, and corridos each provide insight into the internal significance of automobiles for Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants living in the United States. Vehicles were significant for increasing one’s economic mobility, and served as important social symbols used in self-fashioning as well as lyrical devices used to describe immigrant life in Mexican America. Focusing on reports by social scientists and others begins to reveal more of the external values placed on Mexican mobility at the economic crossroads of the 1920s and the Great Depression—an important background for understanding how we got where we are today with the Automobile and Mexican American life.

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Notes

 * This article, with introduction by Eric Avila, is an adapted excerpt from Genevieve Carpio, Collisions at the Crossroads: How Place and Mobility Make Race (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019).

[1] Scott L. Bottles, Los Angeles and the Automobile: The Making of the Modern City (Berkeley: University of California Press,1987); Richard Longstreth, City Center to Regional Mall: Architecture, the Automobile, and Retailing in Los Angeles, 1920-1950 (Boston: MIT Press, 1997); Jeremiah Axelrod, Inventing Autopia: Envisioning the Modern Metropolis in Jazz Age Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009); David Brodsly, L.A. Freeway: An Appreciative Essay (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).

[2] Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, 2d ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 18.

[3] Genevieve Carpio, Collisions at the Crossroads: How Place and Mobility Make Race (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019), 75.

[4] Inclusive of Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino counties.

[5] Brenda Jo Bright and Liza Bakewell, Looking High and Low: Art and Cultural Identity (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1995); Denise Sandoval, “Bajito y Suavecito/Low and Slow: Cruising Through Lowrider Culture,” unpublished Ph.D. diss. (Claremont Graduate University, 2003); Ben Chappel, Lowrider Space: Aesthetics and Politics of Modern Custom Cars (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012).

[6] This section excerpted from Genevieve Carpio, “‘An Essential Part of the Household Equipment’: The Automobile in Mexican Immigrant and Mexican American Life,” in Collisions at the Crossroads: How Place and Mobility Make Race (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019): 144-150.

[7] Archibald Shamel, “Housing Conditions of the Employe[e]s of California Citrus Ranches,” typescript, undated, p. 4, Archibald Shamel Papers, Tomás Rivera Library, University of California Riverside.

[8] On automotive cultures in this period, see Thomas Weiss, “Tourism in America before World War II,” Journal of Economic History 64 (2004); Marguerite S. Shaffer, See America First: Tourism and National Identity, 1880-1940 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian, 2001); Virginia Scharff, Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1992).

[9] Constantine Panunzio and the Heller Committee for Research in Social Economics of the University of California, “Cost of Living Studies V. How Mexicans Earn and Live: A Study of the Incomes and Expenditures of One Hundred Mexican Families in San Diego, California,” University of California Publications in Economics, 13 (1933). In their report, the Mexican Fact-Finding Committee cites the San Fernando figure from an unpublished report by the Los Angeles County Health Department. See Mexican Fact-Finding Committee, “Mexicans in California,” 178. See also Scott L. Bottles, Los Angeles and the Automobile: The Making of the Modern City (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987). Statewide statistics for Mexican American motorists are unavailable.

[10] Panunzio and the Heller Committee, “Cost of Living Studies v. How Mexicans Earn and Live”; Mexican Fact-Finding Committee, “Mexicans in California.”

[11] Howard Herrera interviewed by Robert Gonzalez, transcript, 13 April 1994, Inland Mexican Heritage, Redlands.

[12] In an interview conducted with my paternal grandfather, Vincent Carpio Sr., he recounted his experience as a foreman and the bonus he received for identifying and transporting workers to the fields surrounding Pomona in the 1940s. He described the effective role of “incentives,” such as warm food prepared by my grandmother Consuelo Carpio and cold beer on payday, in retaining workers. Vincent Carpio interviewed by Genevieve Carpio, Spring 2001, Pomona, CA.

[13] On the connection of migrant workers, automobiles, and collective action see Don Mitchell, The Lie of the Land: Migrant Workers and the California Landscape (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996).

[14] Rick Martinez, “Co-Founder of Mitla Lucia Rodriguez Dies,” San Bernardino County Sun, 13 January 1981; Route 66 Special,” Access Rewind [film], IE Media Group, 2011.

[15] For more on Latina/o restaurant owners as place-makers, see Natalia Molina, “The Importance of Place and Place-Makers in the Life of a Los Angeles Community: What Gentrification Erases from Echo Park,” Southern California Quarterly 97 (2015): 69-111.

[16] Author has worked in consultation on various IMH projects since 2004.

[17] A selection of these photographs can be found in Antonio González Vazquez and Genevieve Carpio, Mexican Americans in Redlands (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2012).

[18] Phil Deloria, Indians in Unexpected Places (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2004), 138.

[19] For the continuing significance of the corridor in Los Angeles, see “The Corrido of LA,” an exhibition by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2010, http://www.lacma.org/art/installation/corrido-la; for sound recordings, see the Strachwitz Frontera Collection of Mexican and Mexican American Recordings, UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center and UCLA Digital Library, http:// frontera.library.ucla.edu.

[20] Manuel Gamio, Mexican Immigration to the United States (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1930).

[21] Translated by author. Original printed in Gamio, Mexican Immigration to the United States.

[22] Veronica Castillo-Muñoz, “Historical Roots of Rural Migration: Land Reform, Corn Credit, and the Displacement of Rural Farmers in Nayarit Mexico, 1900-1952,” Mexican Studies/ Estudios Mexicanos 29 (2013).

[23] “You go around showing off in your big automobile.” Translated by author. Original printed in Gamio, Mexican Immigration to the United States, 93.

[24] Rita Urquijo-Ruiz writes that El Renegade was a character in a popular comedy routine in teatro de carpa, or traveling tent theater, used to poke fun at assimilated Mexicans. See Rita Urquijo-Ruiz, Wild Tongues: Transnational Mexican Popular Culture (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012), 23-25.

[25] Original printed in Gamio, Mexican Immigration to the United States, 31; the term “fotingo” was often synonymous with Ford motor cars, which Mexican farm laborers frequently owned due to their affordability.

[26] Ricardo Romo,“Work and Restlessness: Occupational and Spatial Mobility among Mexicanos in Los Angeles,” Pacific Historical Review 46 (1977): 176.

[27] See digital archive of Ford’s Mexico City plant at “Ford Mexico City Plant Photographs,” The Henry Ford, Dearborn, MI, accessed July 2018, https://www .thehenryford.org/collections-and-research/digital-collections/sets/11598/. See also Ford Motor Company, “Historia de Ford de Mexico,” accessed 29 March 2013, http://media.ford.com/article_display.cfm?article_id = 4166.

[28] Indeed, the vast majority were Ford cars and trucks, at twenty-seven percent of all automotive objects (a category including automobile types and auto parts) brought to Mexico by repatriates. See Gamio, Mexican Immigration to the United States, esp. Appendix 5, 224-225; for more accounts of Ford automobiles moving back and forth across the U.S.-Mexico border, see Alice Evans Cruz, “The Romanzas Train Señora Nurse,” The Survey 60 (1928): 468-469, 488; Cara Finnegan, Picturing Poverty: Print Culture and FSA Photographs (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2003).


Eric Avila
is an urban cultural historian, studying the intersections of racial identity, urban space, and cultural representation in twentieth century America. He is author of Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004) and The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City (University of Minnesota Press, 2014).

Genevieve Carpio is Assistant Professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of Collisions at the Crossroads: How Place and Mobility Make Race (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019).
Copyright: © 2019 Eric Avila and Genevieve Carpio. 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

Dream Interrupted

Kevin_Starr

Peter Richardson

With his book series, “Americans and the California Dream,” Kevin Starr did as much as any single author to frame the way we think about California history. Published between 1973 and 2009, the eight-volume series was monumental in its scope and ambition, yet organized by a single trope. Like most dreams, the California one resisted precise definition. But Starr skillfully deployed this metaphor to shape and direct his sweeping account. Over time, his approach became the default way to conceptualize California culture.

Although popular, Starr’s series was not immediately embraced in academic circles. “By the time my second volume appeared,” he noted in 2007, “the New Historians had made their appearance, and I was on the verge of being out of favor…. I stayed out of favor for approximately a decade and a half.”[1] As academics shifted their sights to issues of race, class, gender, and environmental despoliation, Starr’s narrative risked the charge of Whig history, with its inexorable march toward progress and enlightenment. But as Forrest G. Robinson has argued, Starr’s historiography was “profoundly religious,” more baroque than Victorian. Far from denying California’s legacy of violence and iniquity, he presented it as a story of sin, atonement, and redemption. The possibility of redemption, in turn, kept the dream alive and underwrote Starr’s durable optimism.[2]

At first, Starr’s series unfolded in chronological order, with most volumes focusing on a decade or so of the state’s history. That pattern was disrupted after the 2002 publication of Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940-1950. Instead of proceeding to the 1950s, Starr jumped ahead to Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990-2003, the only volume not published by Oxford University Press. He returned to form with Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-63, the final volume in the series. Although he continued to write books, he left a gap of almost three decades in the middle of his signature series. He passed over the late 1960s in silence. Likewise, he wrote nothing about the 1970s and 1980s, which author David Talbot later called San Francisco’s “season of the witch.”[3]

When asked about the gap, Starr had a stock reply: Whoever wrote the book about the 1960s should call it Smoking the Dream.[4] When pressed for a serious answer, he mentioned his distance from that era’s major themes. “I am currently finishing the final volume of my ‘Americans and the California Dream’ series,” he said in 2007.

It covers the period 1950 to 1963. The very fact that I am ending what has been my life’s work as an historian with this date speaks for itself. Intellectually, psychologically, socially, even politically, I was formed by the 1950s.… I will leave it to future historians to deal with the mid- and late-1960s, the 1970s, even the 1980s.[5]

BookSkyline

Starr’s decision, however, does not quite speak for itself. Historians usually write about periods that have not shaped them personally. In the same interview, Starr speaks at length about his own formation and predilections but never quite explains his reason for avoiding almost a quarter century of eventful California history. His indirection suggests another reason for the omission in what he calls his life’s work as a historian.

Yet if the temporal gap in Starr’s series seems mysterious, we need not speculate about his views of that period. In fact, he wrote copiously about those decades—not as a historian, but as a columnist for The San Francisco Examiner. Churning out more than 5,000 words per week between 1976 and 1983, Starr made it perfectly clear where he stood on the issues of the day, especially in San Francisco. Indeed, his articles hint at, but do not definitively establish, his reason for avoiding that period in his series.

Starr’s path to the Examiner was unusual. He grew up in San Francisco, living from age ten to fifteen in the Potrero Hill Housing Project. He attended St. Boniface School in the Tenderloin and, for one year, Saint Ignatius High School. After majoring in English at the University of San Francisco and serving in the U.S. Army, he earned a Ph.D. in English and American Literature at Harvard University, which he recalled as “a magical and nurturing place.”[6] Widener Library’s vast California collection inspired him to write about his native state. “I thought, ‘There’s all kinds of wonderful books on California, but they don’t seem to have the point of view we’re encouraged to look at—the social drama of the imagination,’” he later told the Los Angeles Times.[7] In 1973, Oxford University Press published his critically acclaimed dissertation book, Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915.

Instead of pursuing an academic career, Starr returned to San Francisco, wrote speeches for mayor Joseph Alioto, and was appointed city librarian in 1974. His decision to work for Alioto was consequential. The wealthy Catholic lawyer was a Democrat, but members of the so-called Burton machine—most notably Phillip and John Burton, Willie Brown and George Moscone—considered Alioto a threat to their progressive coalition. When the ILWU, the radical longshoremen’s union, endorsed Alioto’s 1967 mayoral bid, an angry Phil Burton threw his support behind Jack Morrison, Alioto’s opponent. “We’re going to shove Jack Morrison’s bald head up Alioto’s ass,” Burton told an ILWU representative.[8] In fact, Alioto sailed to victory and was reelected in 1971. He ran for governor in 1974, but lost to Jerry Brown in the Democratic Party primary. When Moscone edged out conservative supervisor John Barbagelata in the 1975 mayoral race, the Burton machine finally captured City Hall. By that time, the coalition included gay and environmental activists as well as labor unionists, racial and ethnic minorities, and white progressives.

StreetView

Shortly after Moscone’s victory, Starr began writing for the Examiner, which had served as the Hearst Corporation’s flagship publication for decades.The Monarch of the Dailies” was still a political force in the city, but its influence was shrinking along with its market share. In 1965, it signed a joint operating agreement with the more popular San Francisco Chronicle, whose executive editor, Scott Newhall, had regarded the Hearst newspapers as “something evil” designed to stupefy the masses. Newhall wanted to produce a very different kind of publication:I figured the Chronicle had to be successful, and the city had to have a paper that would amuse, entertain and inform, and save people from the perdition of Hearstian ignorance.”[9] When it came to hard news, however, the Examiner considered itself the scrappy underdog. “We were the No. 2 paper in town with declining circulation,” recalled former editor Steve Cook. “But the spirit on the staff was sort of impressive—we actually thought of ourselves as the better paper in town, we thought we could show our morning rivals how to cover the news.”[10]

Soon Starr was writing six columns per week, including a Saturday article devoted to religion. Most of his columns featured the city’s cultural activities and personages, but Starr also took the opportunity to shape his public profile. He presented himself as a conservative Catholic intellectual, a San Francisco version of William F. Buckley Jr., whom he frequently praised. In one column, he described himself as “a conservative neo-Thomist Roman Catholic with Platonist leanings and occasional temptations towards anarchy.”[11] He also wrote about the challenges of that identity in San Francisco:

It’s not easy to be a conservative. It’s often lonely to be a thinking conservative. And to be a thinking conservative in San Francisco can frequently be an even more difficult and isolated condition…. Here in San Francisco such left-liberal opinions have coalesced into a rigid inquisitorial orthodoxy—an orthodoxy now reinforced by political power—that brooks no opposition whatsoever.[12]

The “political power” Starr had in mind was likely the Burton machine. With Moscone in City Hall, Willie Brown in the Assembly, and the Burton brothers in Congress, that machine was shifting into overdrive. Yet Starr clearly thought that San Francisco was moving in the wrong direction.

PhilBurton

Proposition T, which voters approved in 1976, reinforced Starr’s misgivings. By substituting district elections for citywide races, that measure reduced the power of downtown business interests and boosted the electoral prospects of neighborhood activists. Months before the first district elections occurred, Starr suspected that the new arrangement could usher in “a large number of alienated, left-wing nuts, hostile to the private sector, determined to dismantle anything in San Francisco that doesn’t conform to their pseudo-proletarian, paranoid world-view.”[13] He might have been channeling Alioto, who championed downtown interests, but the intensity of his anti-left rhetoric was notable. In the end, the switch to district elections benefited Harvey Milk and Dan White, who became supervisors in January 1978. Milk won in District 5, which was centered in the gay Castro neighborhood, while White represented District 8, which included the white, Catholic, and decidedly unhip neighborhoods on the city’s southern border.

Starr weighed in on other issues as well. In an interview with Moscone, another former Saint Ignatius student, he asked, “Don’t you feel you’ve been too partisan as mayor, firing all the Alioto commissioners and appointing only people from the left-liberal spectrum?” Moscone replied, “Like a lot of people from old-time San Francisco stock, you’re a little paranoid over changes in this city.” Starr also defended Proposition 13, the 1978 initiative that capped increases in property tax rates. Later, he bemoaned the predictable cuts to the arts and library budgets that followed its passage. He called the city’s refusal to restrict pornography to certain neighborhoods “a form of sexual molestation.” The hippie movement, he claimed, peaked in 1967 with the Human Be-In. The Love Generation “had nothing and no one to love—love truly, that is, in a spirit of ecstatic self-surrender and ardent sacrifice.” In another column, he noted that the city had grown slack and facile: “We are feeding ourselves on the stale husks of Aquarius when we should be nourishing ourselves on the good bread of moral renewal and social realism.”[14]

In May 1978, Starr produced a series of articles on left-wing political violence, which he equated with terrorism. It was all the more surprising, then, when he argued that Patricia Hearst, whose family owned the Examiner, should be pardoned for the bank robberies she committed with the Symbionese Liberation Army after they abducted her. Hearst, who was defended by an expensive legal team, had avoided murder charges by testifying against her abductors and former comrades. Many observers regarded her trial and its aftermath as an example of preferential treatment for wealthy defendants, but Starr turned that notion on its head. For him, the media heiress was nothing less than a political prisoner, and his argument appealed directly to his audience’s class and racial resentments:

If she were born poor, or born to minority parents, she would be free today—free to reassemble the shattered fragments of her life. Patricia Hearst is a political prisoner. She is a prisoner to the envy of those who do not like her class, her race, her family. She is the victim of a dark, obscure ritual that reveals something hideous in the collective American psyche—something that ignores justice in a headlong rush to indulge base envy. Patricia Hearst is a political prisoner of the politics of class resentment.[15]

Following a coordinated campaign on Patricia Heart’s behalf, President Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence in 1979. Two decades later, President Clinton pardoned her despite the strong objection of Robert S. Mueller, III, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California, who noted that Hearst had expressed no remorse for her crimes.

PattyHearst

Most of Starr’s columns were anodyne, but he was capable of full-throated moral outrage. In one column, “Sodom-by-the-Sea,” he decried what he called San Francisco’s “hedonism touched by malevolence.”

On weekends the Lear jets swoop into the airports of the Bay Area, disgorging groups of affluent thrill-seekers. They cruise the town in Roll-Royces, here for weekends of unusual sex. Men, women, boys, girls, S & M, B & D, whatever—they quicken their jaded appetites through the sheer virtuosity of their excess, consuming bodies, cocaine, booze, in an onrush of perverted exuberance.[16]

In Starr’s view, this perversion led to even worse outcomes: “Violence is always lurking in the underlife of Sodom and Gomorrah; for when the consumption of bodies exhausts itself and still there is no satisfaction, then comes the killing rage.” Even worse, local politicians encouraged that descent into vice.

Assemblyman Willie Brown, Jr. recently put out an open invitation for the gays of America to flock to San Francisco. Supervisor Harvey Milk reiterated the invitation recently on national television. I understand these gentlemen’s political motivation. More gays means more votes. But I abhor the idea of turning San Francisco into one big bathhouse, gay or straight.

Starr also claimed that “the excesses of sexual exploitation and murder” were “beginning to give San Francisco the sinister ambiance of Berlin during the waning years of the Weimar Republic.” In another column, Starr criticized “the outer fringe of the gay community” for “appropriating the ordeal of European Jewry as the image of themselves.” He added, “There were no bars or bathhouses or Coors beer at Dachau. There were no drag-queen contests at Buchenwald…. In any event, the spiritual successors of the holocaust Jews are not the boys on Castro Street.”[17]

These barbs were not lost on Harvey Milk. In his most famous speech, delivered at the 1978 San Francisco Gay Freedom Parade, he rebuked Starr by name: “And here, in so-called liberal San Francisco, we have a columnist for The San Francisco Examiner, a columnist called Kevin Starr, who has printed a number of columns containing distortions and lies about gays. He is getting away with it.”[18] Later in the speech, Milk referred to Starr as a bigot and grouped him with anti-gay activist Anita Bryant and State Senator John Briggs, who sought to prevent gays from working in public schools.

Starr’s coverage of conservative politicians was more favorable. His profile of John Barbagelata appeared five days after the Jonestown tragedy in November 1978. Barbagelata had warned his colleagues about Peoples Temple pastor Jim Jones, who was responsible for the deaths of more than 900 persons, including Congressman Leo Ryan, in Guyana. But after Jones mobilized his congregation to aid the Moscone campaign, he was embraced by the Burton machine and appointed to the San Francisco Housing Authority Commission.[19] The Jonestown incident furnished a golden opportunity to lambast Moscone, but Starr also had played a role in the Peoples Temple saga. As editor of New West, a Rupert Murdoch-owned magazine launched in 1976, Starr killed a story about Jones after a church delegation persuaded him that the piece would harm their humanitarian work. The revised story ran in New West only after Starr was replaced.[20]

In his Examiner column, Starr only hinted at the Jonestown atrocity. He imagined how Barbagelata, who had suffered a stroke, felt as Moscone “was being feted in the Fairmont Hotel by the people willing and able to pay $500 per plate.”

I wonder if John Barbagelata felt bitter as he lay in his hospital room, his health broken by all those arduous years on the Board of Supervisors, trying to save San Francisco from fiscal prodigality, from ideological politics, from the takeover of city government by self-righteous special interest groups.[21]

In the same column, Starr sympathized with Dan White, who had recently resigned from the Board of Supervisors.

Supervisor Dan White feels so neglected, so unaware of the value of what he was bringing to San Francisco through his responsible presence on the Board, that he resigns in a fit of fatigue, the combat infantryman paratrooper from Vietnam, discovering that San Francisco politics can be an even more fierce battleground than the Mekong Delta.

ChronicleMosconeMilkMurders

Five days later, that “responsible presence” turned lethal. After White assassinated Moscone and Milk at City Hall, Starr did not suggest that White or the institutions that shaped him—the Catholic Church, U.S. Army, San Francisco Police Department, and the San Francisco Fire Department—might somehow be at fault. Rather, he argued that the entire city needed to atone for its sins.

San Francisco is such a cursed city. Some deep disorder of the soul holds the spirit of San Francisco in thrall, like the loathsome embrace of an evil spirit.… Like the peoples of old, we should take off our vestments of luxury. Wearing sackcloth and ashes, we should anoint our faces with the bloodstained earth that lies beneath us, and, collectively, we should implore the intercession of God, or the gods, or whatever values and ideals we hold sacred. We should beg forgiveness for our sins—sins against the light, sins against each other.[22]

When White was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, not murder, Starr criticized liberals for objecting to the verdict; after all, weren’t they responsible for the diminished capacity defense that White deployed?[23] He also assailed the gay community, which had suffered for decades at the hands of the San Francisco Police Department, for the White Night riots that followed the verdict. Moreover, Starr wondered how the police must have felt during those riots: “What feeling of betrayal must have surged through the rank and file as they stood on line, defenseless against an angry mob!”[24]

Starr did not always toe the conservative line. The death of radical author and journalist Carey McWilliams prompted an appreciative article in 1980; later, Starr described McWilliams as “the state’s most astute political observer” and “the single finest nonfiction writer on California—ever.” After attacking Governor Jerry Brown in a column called, “Grow Up, Jerry Brown,” Starr finally admitted his fondness for the former Jesuit seminarian and Saint Ignatius alumnus. He endorsed Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Dennis McNally’s biography of Jack Kerouac. In 1981, he commended the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence for their presence and work in San Francisco. He also urged compassion for illegal immigrants, whom he described as “dreamers in the desert.” Those who died trying to enter the United States, he wrote, “had better American dreams than most of us have. They know what we have forgotten—that America is worth everything, if it is worth anything at all.”[25]

In 1984, one year after leaving the Examiner, Starr ran for supervisor. He received endorsements from Alioto, former mayor George Christopher, and Leo McCarthy, the state legislative leader and Burton rival. Starr was also endorsed by the Chronicle and Examiner, which cast him as a centrist. “People do not want to live in a city where there is constant conflict,” he told the Examiner. “Elected officials have the duty to harmonize, but lately they have pitted left against right, the neighborhoods against downtown, and labor against management.”[26]

SF_Bridge_50s

By that time, San Francisco had reverted to citywide elections, and the Board of Supervisors had six open seats. Starr finished a distant seventh. One of his campaign volunteers, Michael Bernick, later identified Starr’s aversion to identity politics and class conflict as a key factor in his defeat.

Throughout his campaign, Starr was both mystified and angered by what he considered to be a pandering attempt to divide the city by race, gender, or economic status. When the various Democratic clubs sent out questionnaires asking for support for their advocacy or projects, campaign volunteers would urge Starr to play ball. But Starr always refused to tell these groups what they wanted to hear. He saw San Francisco through the lens of a “civic culture” by which race, gender, and economic status were secondary to San Francisco as a greater entity.[27]

Much later, Starr wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times with a similar message. Newly elected governor Arnold Schwarzenegger should not run an ideological or fiercely partisan Republication administration, Starr argued. “The core principle of the Party of California is that the state—its history and heritage, its environment, its economy, and above all the well-being of its people—is worth imagining, worth struggling for; California represents a collective ideal connected to individual and social fulfillment.”[28] Schwarzenegger sent the article to his senior staff with his approval.[29]

After the failed 1984 campaign, Starr began to refashion himself, California style. Inventing the Dream, the second volume in what his publisher was already billing as a series, appeared in 1985. Four years later, he became a visiting professor at the School of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Southern California. Five years after that, Republican governor Pete Wilson appointed him California State Librarian, a position he held for a decade. During that time, he encouraged countless projects devoted to California history, including my biography of Carey McWilliams, for which he also wrote a blurb. In 1998, Starr was promoted to University Professor and Professor of History at USC. Over the next twelve years, he produced the final five volumes of his series, a brief history of California, and a short book on the Golden Gate Bridge. Among his many awards was the National Humanities Medal, which President George W. Bush presented to him in 2006.

As Starr’s profile rose, the Examiner columns faded from view. One wonders how he squared that body of work with the dream series. Did his criticisms of Harvey Milk and George Moscone, his sympathy for Dan White, his arguments on behalf of Patricia Hearst, or his role in the Peoples Temple tragedy dissuade him from treating those topics in his books? Perhaps, but the evidence is more suggestive than dispositive. Certainly the tone and temper of his work evolved in concert with his new professional duties. As the dream series unfolded, it began to reflect his sponsorial role at the state library and his emergent academic persona. The result was a new and more expansive authorial self, one that appealed to the state’s aspirations rather than to partisanship or moral reaction. Despite this evolution, or perhaps because of it, Starr declined to revisit the years immediately before, during, and immediately after his stint at the Examiner.

Although Starr didn’t parlay his early journalism into a political career, it groomed him for the work to come, much as his experience at Harvard did. It seasoned him, taught him how to write on deadline for general audiences, and introduced him to public figures and issues he wouldn’t have encountered had he accepted an academic position straight out of graduate school. But there was nothing inevitable about Starr’s achievement. To become California’s foremost historian, he had to overcome setbacks and adapt to changing circumstances. Only by shedding his journalistic persona and adopting a new model of authorship could he become the ardent but politically tempered chronicler of California civilization.

 

 

Notes

[1] Forrest G. Robinson, “An Interview with Kevin Starr,” Rethinking History 11 (2007): 28

[2] Forrest G. Robinson, “Spiritual Radiance, Expressive Delight: The Baroque Historiography of Kevin Starr,” California History 78 (1999/2000): 274.

[3] David Talbot, Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love (New York: Free Press, 2012).

[4] See, for example, Patt Morrison, “Kevin Starr: Making History,” Los Angeles Times, 9 July 2009. http://www.latimes.com/la-oe-morrison11-2009jul11-column.html

[5] Robinson, “An Interview with Kevin Starr,” 23-24.

[6] Ibid., 25.

[7] David Zahniser and Matt Hamilton, “Kevin Starr, Author of California Histories and Former State Librarian, Dies at 76,” Los Angeles Times, 15 January 2017. http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-kevin-starr-obit-20170115-story.html.

[8] John Jacobs, A Rage for Justice: The Passion and Politics of Phillip Burton (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 173.

[9] Scott Newhall, “A Newspaperman’s Voyage Across San Francisco Bay: San Francisco Chronicle, 1935-1971, and Other Adventures,” Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1990.

[10] Dan Schreiber, “For the Past 150 Years, the Examiner Has Recorded Life in The City,” San Francisco Examiner, 11 June 2005, https://archives.sfexaminer.com/sanfrancisco/for-the-past-150-years-the-examiner-has-recorded-life-in-the-city/Content?oid=2932866

[11] Kevin Starr, “Class and Contradiction,” San Francisco Examiner, 11 May 1977.

[12] Kevin Starr, “Right Thinking,” San Francisco Examiner, 12 September 1977.

[13] Kevin Starr, “To T or Not to T?” San Francisco Examiner, 6 April 1977.

[14] For the Moscone interview, see Kevin Starr, “Have You Been a Good Mayor?” San Francisco Examiner, 30 April 1977. For his positions on Proposition 13, see his columns on 23 March 1978; 9 May 1978; 20 June 1978; and 24 June 1978. On budget cuts, see “Where Are Our Priorities?” 30 April 1982. On pornography, see “Putting Porn in Its Place,” 19 February 1977. On the Love Generation, see “Beginning of the End,” 2 January 1979. On the city’s moral fiber, see his column on 15 January 1977.

[15] Kevin Starr, “Class Action,” San Francisco Examiner, 16 August 1978.

[16] Kevin Starr, “Sodom-by-the-Sea,” San Francisco Examiner, 26 April 1978

[17] Kevin Starr, “A Lesson in History,” San Francisco Examiner, 6 May 1978. The Coors beer reference alludes to a boycott organized in the Castro by Harvey Milk and organized labor.

[18] Randy Shilts, The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk (New York: Macmillan, 2008), 365.

[19] Michael Taylor, “Jones Captivated S.F.’s Liberal Elite,” San Francisco Chronicle, 12 November 1998. https://www.sfgate.com/politics/article/Jones-Captivated-S-F-s-Liberal-Elite-They-were-2979186.php.

[20] Tim Reiterman, Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People (New York: Penguin, 2008), 325.

[21] Kevin Starr, “Public Service,” San Francisco Examiner, 22 November 1978.

[22] Kevin Starr, “Liturgy,” San Francisco Examiner, 29 November 1978.

[23] Kevin Starr, “The Dan White Verdict,” San Francisco Examiner, 30 May 1979.

[24] Kevin Starr, “The Men in Blue,” San Francisco Examiner, 5 June 1979.

[25] For the McWilliams column, see “An Historical Legacy,” 14 July 1980; Starr’s other compliments to McWilliams appear in Embattled Dreams, pp. 257 and 103. “Grow Up, Jerry Brown” ran in the Examiner on 17 August 1980. Starr touted Apocalypse Now on 24 September 1979; “Walking the Beat,” his review of McNally’s Desolate Angel, ran on 16 August 1979. Melissa M. Wilcox notes his approach to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and the negative response from the Catholic Church in Queer Nuns: Religion, Activism, and Serious Parody (New York: New York University Press, 2018), 44. He expressed compassion for unauthorized immigrants in “Dreamers in the Desert,” which appeared on 13 July 1980.

[26] Bruce Pettit, “Why Starr Seeks S.F. Seat,” San Francisco Examiner, 4 January 1984.

[27] Bernick, “Why California’s Greatest Historian Couldn’t Get Elected in San Francisco,” Zocalo Public Square, 25 July 2017, http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2017/07/25/californias-greatest-historian-couldnt-get-elected-san-francisco/ideas/nexus/.

[28] Kevin Starr, “Fuse It—Or Lose It,” Los Angeles Times, 16 November 2003.

[29] Miriam Pawel, The Browns of California: The Family Dynasty That Transformed a State and Shaped a Nation (New York: Bloomsbury, 2018), 359.

 

Peter Richardson teaches humanities at San Francisco State University, where he also coordinates the American Studies and California Studies programs. His books include No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead (2015); A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America (2009); and American Prophet: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams, which the University of California Press published in paperback in 2019.

Copyright: © 2019 Peter Richardson. 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/.

Interviews

A Boom Conversation at the Edge of the World

image1

Denise Sullivan

Editorial Introduction: Something I heard in Kim Shuck’s poems and read in Lynell George’s writings indicated both California women not only understood and shared a passion for our place, but could also deliver a deeper understanding for the rest of us through discussion of what it means to be a committed Californian. While their modes of expression are different—Shuck a poet and beadworker, George an essayist and photographer, and their roots are in different parts of the state, with ancestral ties from outside of it—their experiences as women of color and their unique expressions are similarly compelling. I became convinced they had to meet.

Shuck, San Francisco’s seventh poet laureate, is also an educator, mentored by some of the great women artists and activists of the twentieth century, from sculptor, educator, and Japanese internment survivor Ruth Asawa, to poet and Native American cultural affairs educator, Carol Lee Sanchez. With a heritage that is part Oklahoma Cherokee and part Polish, Shuck has followed in the footsteps of artist/activists, while tutoring children in the arts and math, teaching poetry and Native studies at the collegiate level, and generally pitching in where needed in her community, whether supporting independent bookstores and public libraries or eradicating everyday racism in our town square. A many times published and awarded poet, her most recent project to create fifty-five poems in fifty-five days was inspired by the reactivated thirty-year effort to remove the colonialist/settler statue, Early Days, from San Francisco’s Civic Center. The takedown of the bronze occurred in September and the poems and dialogue surrounding it caught the attention of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, which with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture continues concerted efforts to remove racist statues and logos from the public sphere. Shuck’s new poetry book, Exile Hearts, publishes in December with the American Indian/Indigenous press, That Painted Horse, while her reading series and appearances as poet laureate continue unabated, within and outside the Bay Area.

George is beloved in the Southland from her years as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly. Her family came West from New Orleans, a journey she chronicled in her first book, No Crystal Stair: African Americans in the City of Angels (Verso), and she has spent her share of time reporting from there as well in San Francisco’s North Beach, her homes away from home. George’s latest, After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame, for LA-based Angel City Press, combines her photography with her writings about the changing cityscape and the people who contribute to making LA the de facto capital of the West Coast. The stories combine the best of what people bring with them, the already considerable gifts of our native, majestic desert-mountain-seascape, and George’s own experiences as a close observer. Earlier this year, she won a Grammy Award for her liner notes about Otis Redding’s historic performances, Live At The Whisky A Go Go: The Complete Recordings; she also spent a chunk of time with the Huntington Library-housed archives of original Afro-Futurist, science fiction writer Octavia Butler. George can be found giving talks at cultural institutions from Loyola Marymount and the University of California to Union Station, or about town, writing and photographing her LA, the place she knows and loves best.

While their modes of expression are different—Shuck a poet and beadworker, George an essayist and photographer, and their roots are in different parts of the state, with ancestral ties from outside of it—their experiences as women of color and their unique expressions are similarly compelling.

And so they met, at the fifty-year-old literary landmark, Beyond Baroque, in Venice, where I organized a reading with the expressed purpose of joining the pair to read from Your Golden Sun Still Shines, the San Francisco story anthology I edited, and to discuss matters of north versus south, and specifically the changes we’ve lived through as women still committed to California dreaming and doing. While that conversation between California cultural herstorians, poets and artists, journalists and photographers (accompanied by songwriter Peter Case) was indeed lively, it was our talk prior to the public one, where Boom editor Jason Sexton and Shuck’s partner Doug Salin were also present, where we got down to parsing the rougher business of our state, from its wild nature and riotous flora to the problems of racial and economic inequality that have been with us since the origins of statehood. We join that conservation as Shuck and George recollect their experiences growing up as students in California classrooms.


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Photo of Shuck, George, Sullivan, and Sexton by Doug Salin.

Lynell George: When we moved from our home in the Crenshaw District to Culver City, immediately I was put in a low reading group without testing. I confronted the teacher and said, “You know I actually already read these books.” and I could see that she was not paying attention to me and it wasn’t just that it wasn’t sinking in. Not that she wasn’t absorbing it; she just didn’t believe it.

I went home to talk to my mother about it and she had just come home she was taking her shoes and her hose off and was listening to me talk and all of a sudden, she’s getting dressed again, and we were heading down to the school to talk to the principal and the teacher. Because my mother was an English teacher, she was able to tell them, “You give her this test, this test, and this test.” But what if she wasn’t able to do that? What if she didn’t know? And so the teacher had to correct it and then, of course, was angry with me for the rest of the year because she was embarrassed in such a public way. That was early on. I was eleven, ten, something like that.

Kim Shuck: I went to public school and then to high school at a private school because dad was working in Silicon Valley at that time and suddenly he was making money. Both my parents had been working class and they went, “Oh it’s gonna be good for her if we put her in this private school….” And essentially, I had a lot of trouble, but after the one time my father got called in from work—you did not call Indian men in from work—it was not well received and dad was so angry. He drives up from Mountain View back to San Francisco and he doesn’t understand how frightening people find him—a six foot plus, dark-skinned man with jet black hair—looks like if a darker-skinned Elvis had never gotten fat and had been career military, and  he walks like that. His lips are disappeared and he is talking to the guy in the office about this thing. And after that I really had no problem with anyone because nobody wanted my father coming back to school.

They almost expelled me for doing a creative writing project that they didn’t like. They threatened me with expulsion and then I said, “Well let’s just call my parents.” I didn’t want to be yelled at by these people anymore. And everybody in the office kind of went hmm… and did the math and thought, “That means that big man will come back: Let’s not have him back.”  When I got named laureate of San Francisco, they called up and asked, “What do you remember about going to our school?” I remember the poetry teacher telling me my work would never go anywhere because it was too self-referential.

They almost expelled me for doing a creative writing project that they didn’t like.

George: What lit the fire in me as a reporter was, I wanted to tell the stories of the neighborhoods that I knew really well, but didn’t see their stories told with richness and in their voices. There was a negative feeling about the Los Angeles Times when I started there in the ’90s: People felt it didn’t tell the story of their community. So, here I was an African American reporter, and do you trust what I can do with your story? Then over time, people got to know my byline and my reputation, but I had to earn it and I knew I had to earn it. I didn’t walk in expecting, like, some of the other reporters often said, “Your quotes are going to be in the L.A. Times.” I was like, “Please, contribute to the story. I want to hear your side.” That was the important part and I was able to create lifelong relationships with people all over the city because of that. It didn’t so much happen with The Weekly, like if I was going to do interviews in South L.A. or East L.A. Back then, they didn’t distribute the papers in those communities, so a lot of people didn’t know what that was: “And what is that paper?” “Who are you with?” But, by talking to them, connecting with them, finding whatever the common ground was, they trusted me to take back that story.

Shuck: You get them to tell you stories. You have to earn their trust. The poem about the mother and child or the parent and child cycle poem that I do, there is a line in there:

The boy showed me the mark of the scorpion on his leg
and I showed him the mark of the spider on mine

That happened. I work with brand new immigrant kids from Mexico and this student had walked across the border by himself…. It’s a long story. It’s not mine to tell, but boy, is it a good story and as he was telling me that story, he pulls his pant leg up and he goes, “That’s a scar from the scorpion sting.” So I showed him where on my leg, there is a spot where there is just skin over a hole because I got bit by a fiddleback spider. I said, “That’s a spider bite.” He went, “Wow. That’s cool.” And suddenly I had all of this street cred. You find the common ground, you know? Tell me where it hurts. Maybe I can help, maybe I can’t, but I will witness for you.

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George: Once I sat in a classroom at San Francisco State, and had to turn in a story for the class. I was writing about L.A. When the discussion opened up, the first question was “Can she do this?” And I’m like… “Can she do this? Why are they asking about me? I’m sitting right here.” And instead of the professor trying to shift the conversation, she starts saying, “Well, I don’t know. I’m not sure. If she sent this story into XYZ magazine….” And finally I said, “I’m not sure what you are talking about.” And it was clear that they didn’t understand what race the characters were in my piece. The characters were multiracial because it was a story about Los Angeles in a multiracial environment, but they were looking for something that identified the character as African American. Nobody would really come out and say that right away.

This is a different conversation than one that happened in the memoir class; this was a fiction class. Either way, I was screwed. I’m writing true life and I’m writing fiction and whatever I do or say, as in, “I’m reflecting the environment around me,” would prompt, “Can she do that?” I said, “Men write women. White men write all kinds of….”

Shuck: Anybody they feel like.

George: Anybody. So why can’t I? And then the instructor said, “Well, I’m sure, if they saw….” I think she said something about a picture, a photograph of you. “What difference does it make?” And she couldn’t answer. But, it stopped everything cold and at that point, yeah, I kind of shut down. Why would I share my work with this group?

Shuck: Right. Well the thing is you grow out of them and that’s kind of the fun part. You keep going. So when we went into the hearings for the removal of the Early Days statue, I started in the mode, “Okay. I’m listening. What do you have to say?” And it was so unreasonable. They kept speaking as if we weren’t there. It’s complicated for me. I can fact-find in plain sight, if I don’t have a relative with me. The first guess people make isn’t, “That’s a Native woman.” But finally, that behavior is like an icepick over and over at very shallow depths increasing over time. People call this microaggression, but it’s not. One of my good friends broke a tooth clenching her jaw over something like that. I mean, these are not micro at all. Finally I just went “Ahhhh”  and I went off. And the stuff came out and I feel like if you read all fifty-five of the poems back-to-back, you’d see me de-comp-ing over time. The things I don’t deal with right away get really complicated on the page, so it makes for crap poetry—passionate—and I call them rants when I write like that. I mean, at my best, I’m not calling people idiots and racists.

George: Right. Sometimes it’s necessary.

Shuck: Sometimes it’s just so true that you have to. Somebody’s got to say it. In the hearings this guy was saying, “I know art because my family has funded a lot of art museums.” I got up and said, “I know art because I am an artist and I have two degrees in art and I teach it, and on the days when I am not teaching it, I am making it.” My family built the buildings, those museums…. We didn’t own them, but I do feel a certain ownership of them. And if this was just a conversation about art, we could sit down over a coffee or a brandy and have it as a really polite conversation, but that’s not what we’re talking about. We are talking about privilege and that’s going be more painful. People get their scabs torn off in this conversation: “There will be blood.” I kind of ranted at them for a few minutes and then I did that sort of Columbo thing and went, “You do know that you’re on the wrong side of this argument, right? You do know that eventually this statue is coming down and that history will look ill upon the fact that you have made it take longer? You get that right?”

George: It’s funny, when I moved to San Francisco and I would meet people and they would ask me where I was from and very often someone would say some version of, “Oh. How lucky for you to have left L.A. You made a good choice being up here. Because L.A. is such a pit.” And I’m like, “No. It really isn’t. And you should come and spend time down here and I would take you on a tour. I really would.” I would take you on a tour that would blow your mind because it would burst through every misconception and preconceived notion you have. And I actually did do that with a couple of friends and they’ve gone back and told people, “It’s not what you think.”

The idea that all of the sudden sitting in traffic or I’m at the market, trying to get to my car, I look up and I see the mountains and there’s snow on them: And you can actually see them, which in the seventies, you could not always see the mountains. In the eighties, you could not always see the mountains. You can see them now. And there is something for me still, about sitting in my house with all of the windows open and hearing all my neighbors playing their music….

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Shuck: And the slight breeze changes, and it’s a whole different setting.

George: Exactly.

Shuck: I feel like what I see that still happens here that sort of has stopped happening in San Francisco is that you can see people kind of hanging out with one another outside.  When I was a kid in San Francisco on our block we had installed these sorts of bulkhead things that acted as benches and at night, on warm nights, we’d go hang out and like there’d be fifty adults and a whole bunch of kids riding bikes and skating up and down the sidewalk and we occupied that space and occupied it as our own. And as time has gone on, there is less and less and less of that. I love it when I come down here and I see, it’s after dark and we’re driving through wherever, and there’s this group of folks outside, sitting there talking and that is a useful thing to remember and something to try to resurrect a bit.

When I was a kid in San Francisco on our block we had installed these sorts of bulkhead things that acted as benches and at night, on warm nights, we’d go hang out and like there’d be fifty adults and a whole bunch of kids riding bikes and skating up and down the sidewalk and we occupied that space and occupied it as our own.

George: That’s a good point. I moved up there without a car because I didn’t need a car. It was exciting to learn a city on foot, learn a bus system and be in the BART system or on MUNI and learn how to read a map and get myself around places. That stayed with me as I traveled other places, but when we finally were able to get a rail here, and I’m on it a lot—I know it’s because of San Francisco.

I’m watching this younger generation of Angelenos: It used to be this rite of passage for us to get a set of keys so we could drive everywhere and be independent. I’m noticing there are kids so much younger who know the city in ways that my generation will never know because they went out and they pushed into different neighborhoods. They have friends, they have places they meet, and they’re independent at a younger age and they think about the city’s grid in a different way than we did. It’s very exciting to watch that, and I see it through my San Francisco eyes.

Shuck: Yeah. I don’t know about here, but in San Francisco, everything’s gentrification grey.

George: Yes. Here it’s starting to be that way.

Shuck: With entitlement orange trim.

George: Yes! Yes! Yes!  You get the chartreuse doors too.

Shuck: Yes! I just saw my first one of those on Valencia. And Guerrero had one, as well. I just want to say, there are all these eviction arsons in San Francisco. Houses with small apartments that have a lot of long-term residents. So this one place down in the Mission actually bolted charred boards, which I know is a traditional Japanese aesthetic thing, but it’s so tone deaf: It was built on the site of a house that had burnt down.

George: Oh my god. Oh no.

Shuck: I loved that the first graffiti that went up was “Are you fucking kidding me?” It wasn’t even a tag. It was just exasperated.

George: Do better. Just do better. It pains me to look and see it because part of the richness for me of being here has always felt like the world comes here. And if we are open enough to have conversations, we get closer and closer and closer. And that was the thing, like I could dip into a Haitian community here, a Brazilian community, Salvadorean community. I had friends from so many places—Cuba, Costa Rica—and that also is, I think, one of the things that turned me into a journalist. The big ache in my heart is from that flattening of place and things looking the same, getting the same kind of food, the same buildings and missing the colors people use to paint them, and the flowers that they plant in their yard. I like that riot of color and the difference.

It depends on where you are in the city, but there are certain things that are going away.

The big ache in my heart is from that flattening of place and things looking the same, getting the same kind of food, the same buildings and missing the colors people use to paint them, and the flowers that they plant in their yard.

Shuck: I have a lot of lines about this because it really irritates me and, as I said, [snaps fingers] “Fast switch sarcasm.” Understand this: If we have a good earthquake, half of those guys are going back where they came from. Wherever that is.

George: Oh yeah. That’s very true. That happened here too.

Shuck:  The people who have moved here by volition. Because the acquisitional people who moved in for a paycheck are not committed. There are other kinds of neighbors who move in and make themselves part of a neighborhood and participate in things, and that’s a big difference. It’s a cycle. It was kind of getting better through our generation and it’s getting worse now, but nature will resolve this.

When the building at 22nd and Mission burned down, one of my students lost his father.

It’s been so interesting to watch the pushback. The city got involved, so they haven’t yet rebuilt the forty-story, you know, ice cube tray for techy rats.

George: The ice cube tray. That’s so excellent. I had not heard that before, but that’s so right.

Shuck: But if you notice, the buckeye butterflies are back. There was a night cloak there the other night, as well. We have very few night cloak butterflies in San Francisco and they used to be all over the place. And the buckeyes we haven’t really seen in any numbers for a long time, but the minute you bring their food back, shockingly they come back and start eating it.

George: Oh, that’s beautiful

Shuck: In San Francisco, Native San Franciscans keep being called unicorns, as though we’re mythological and rare. I’ve been trying to make the point lately at readings to ask, “Who was born and raised here?” And there’s always a lot of us. I’m not going anywhere.

We’re still here and I’m not going, you know? And Doug’s not going. And my kids are there. And their father was also born in San Francisco, by the way, so they’re native San Francisco on both sides. We’re here. We’re around, you know?

I want you to think about what oxalis does. if you put a pot with just dirt in it out on your porch in San Francisco within six months, it will have an oxalis plant or a nasturtium in it. One or the other. Seriously. And oxalis reseeds itself like four different ways. It’s got roots under the ground, it’s got seeds, if you chop it up, the little bits of it will grow a new one. They’re pretty resilient and I feel we’re that way too. So, I just don’t think it can keep happening. This direction is not endless. It’ll pop back, you know? It will, but I think we need to stop talking about ourselves as though we’re all going away.

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George: You hear that about L.A. too, that it’s rare. I remember being at some event with a bunch of Brazilians and they were going around the table asking the question and I said, “No I’m a native of Los Angeles,” and a woman kept asking me.

Shuck: No, but where?

George: Yeah, “No, but where?” I said, “No. Los Angeles.” She said, “That’s very rare.” No, it’s not. If you took a poll, there would be more people in this room who are native than you think, and I think there’s this perception because of the way people are grouped.

Shuck: We are five native Californians in one room.

George: In one room. Owning that nativeness and talking about it is so important. That’s why when I did this book, After/Image, I wanted to focus on what was still here and who was still here, and what unifies us. When I’ve been doing the readings, I ask people, “What’s your L.A. story?”  Because I want us to share in a group like what matters still about L.A.

Shuck: Otherwise it’s just like being talked around  in those classes—the way that they make us disappear in San Francisco or in L.A.

George: Yes. Absolutely.

Shuck: It’s exactly the same thing. We’re right here.



Shifting the World one Opinion at a Time
(Kim Shuck)[1]

I have come awake
Homesick in my hometown
Tapped sacred songs onto porch wood
Onto pavement squares
Like a child game
Thrown a place holder
To the next foothold
Jumped
Tapped sacred songs onto library walls
Museum walls
City hall walls
The thing we bring here today is not predicted by your security
Coal hot memories
Generational
And a terrifying patience

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Kim Shuck, adapted from photo by Doug Salin.



Flavor
(Lynell George)[2]

If Los Angeles is ever evolving, being an Angeleno must be something that by consequence is too not-fixed, that it is an identity in flux.

What far more interests me is how Los Angeles exists in our own imagination—influenced by that perception—how a sense of place affects and shapes us: TV beams in weekly, scripted scenarios, movies seduce, but so many of us who grew up around narrow narratives of place work against or away from that; we’re not all chasing the round-the-next-bend dream (film industry, real estate, peace of mind), but often we are the fruit of those who came in search of it.

For us, then, the kids who lived in those off-the-radar places on the map—a dead-end street, “below-the-10,” or over the bridge—finding your path, your way, meant finding your terrain, your tribe, and your heart.

We move through a collection of roads that spin us toward some next chapter of understanding. In certain ways, it’s ongoing coalition building: Whom we connect with gifts us another small brick of clarity and compassion—a sense of deeper self-making. And with all this connecting, mixing, and borrowing, if we are lucky, it can produce something as uncanny as indelible.

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Lynell George, adapted from photo by Al Quattrochi.



Notes

[1] Reprinted by permission of Kim Shuck.

[2] Excerpt from After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame (Los Angeles: Angel City Press, 2018), 144.


Denise Sullivan
is a fourth generation San Franciscan who’s lived in Los Angeles and Atlanta. Author of several books of music biography, she’s editor of Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions for independent press Manic D, and co-editor of the 2018 chapbook, The City Is Already Speaking: The Sound of Calle 24. She writes the SF Lives column for The San Francisco Examiner.

Copyright: © 2018 Denise Sullivan. 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/.

Interviews

Curating History in Southern California and Beyond

Editorial Introduction: Midway through volume 100 in its present ordering, Merry Ovnick has overseen tillers of California’s historical terrain as Editor of Southern California Quarterly for fourteen years, curating regional historical scholarship for readers eager to learn the shared history of this remarkable place. Published first in 1884 and running for 134 years as the scholarly publication of the Historical Society of Southern California, SCQ explores “the history of Southern California, California as a whole, and the American West.” Ovnick’s own expertise, though, is Los Angeles; specifically L.A.’s residential architectural history. Boom Editor Jason Sexton and SCQ Book Reviews Editor Allison Varzally sat down with Ovnick earlier this summer in a residential setting on L.A.’s Westside—not far from where Merry grew up—to conduct this interview.

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Boom: It’s always good for Californians to come back to their roots. And having this conversation here is probably special because this is where you grew up, about two blocks from here. What is it like coming back to the old hood?

Ovnick: Well, I don’t come very often, and it was quite different during those days. We started school at Short Avenue Elementary, just around the corner, and we were its pioneer kindergarten class. At the end of this block was all fields—agricultural land, where beans and celery and things like that were farmed. They’d been Japanese farms before the relocation and in my earliest memory they were Mexican farms. This is home.

Boom: This is home, but now you are in the San Fernando Valley both living and teaching. But going back to your growing up years, what was it like growing up in L.A.? Were your parents from Los Angeles?

Ovnick: I don’t know what to compare it with, but it worked out. My parents came from Kansas and migrated during the Depression, and my dad worked at Douglas Aircraft during the war.

Boom: Now you are a historian interested in regional history, and have been editing Southern California Quarterly for fourteen years. When did you begin to think about California as a place? And specifically, to think of Los Angeles as a place?

Ovnick: I don’t think as a kid you think of such things. It’s just home. That’s what you know. You may travel, but then you come home and home is normal. Unless you’re a child whose parents moved around a lot so that you can understand how different a culture or lifestyle might be in different places, I don’t think you think comparatively. At least, I didn’t. We moved to Santa Monica when I was ten, but that was still local. And we did some camping things. Every so often we trekked to Kansas to visit my grandmother. But that was it.

Boom: What were your preferred hobbies or pastimes as a kid? Were you reading a lot? Nonfiction? Were you interested in history from the beginning? Or were you studying space?

Ovnick: Oh yes, I was a terrible bookworm. We went to the Venice Library, which was an Arts and Crafts style building at the time. By fourth grade I had read every book that I could in the children’s section. So the librarian—whose name was Faye—kindly said that I could use adult books as long as she or my mother approved of the books. I would get historical fiction things, and then the main character would snuggle up to somebody (graphically described) and I’d wonder, “Why would they be doing that?” But I knew better than to ask my mother. She would never let me read again. So I had to grow into with this mentality of, “Oh, now I understand the things that I had read.”

Boom: What led you down the career path into becoming a professional historian?

Ovnick: Well, I decided when I was thirteen that when I grew up I wanted to be a history professor. Mainly, in those days, history meant princesses and castles and that sort of thing. But I had understood that history professors got to teach what their favorite subjects are and they got to do research on those subjects and they could just dwell on this world that I had come to enjoy. The “history of what” changed as I grew older and a little more perceptive, outside of the princess mold.

Boom: Did you have inspiring history teachers?

Ovnick: No, it was books. And so public libraries meant a lot.

Boom: So what led you to become, then, not just interested in history but specifically a scholar of Los Angeles?

Ovnick: Well, I have an interest in architecture. I’m not sure exactly how that started, but I’m interested in buildings. The other was that as an undergraduate, at Santa Barbara then at UCLA, my field was Japanese history. That was my interest. I decided that to do graduate work I would need language and would have to go to Japan to do research. So, when I was proposed to I originally said “no,” causing a big flap. Then I said “okay,” but here’s the condition: I would get to do graduate work in Japan. My husband said “yes,” and we got married. Then he said he lied and I could never go. So I had to think about what I wanted to do when I eventually took up graduate studies in the U.S.

Boom: Was there a gap there at all? When you discovered you weren’t able to go to Japan to study where and what you wanted?

Ovnick: It was quite a crisis, and lasted a long time. I’ve now since been to Japan and enjoyed it very much. But at the time I figured California history has the Asian-American component, which was the next best thing.

Boom: Southern California Quarterly is more than Southern California history and more than California history. It includes the Far West, the American West, and the Pacific.

Ovnick: I’ve had articles on Hawaii, and there’s one in our Fall 2018 issue about British Columbia. But that article does mention there’s a parallel with what’s happening further down the coast.

Short Ave Elementary - Merry's School_ed2ex

Boom: But taking you back to 2005, when you took the helm as editor of the journal, why did you volunteer to take it up?

Ovnick: It was because I had done the book review editing at first. Clark Davis had been groomed to be the successor to Doyce Nunis (who was the editor for forty-three years), and started by becoming book review editor. The journal had fallen into trying times, with grammar errors, typos, and other things that the editor had missed. That was painful for Clark, who was quite the diplomat, to work on the book reviews when the journal was in such sorry shape. So we talked about it and I was the intern coordinator for the history program at CSUN. So, I said how about I get interns who are dual English/History majors and set them up under Doyce as copy editors? Doyce, who was missing teaching, would love to have the tutelary role and there would be an extra pair of eyes without Clark having to say something.

So, we did that for a while and that worked out well. He loved handling the interns. He had two interns and they both went on to Ph.D.s later. Then Clark died very suddenly at age thirty-seven—a tragedy for all who knew him. That then left a gap. That’s why I was moved in to be book review editor, and Doyce later retired as editor two years later.

Boom: Among the many exceptional articles you’ve published in SCQ, do you have a favorite?[1]

Ovnick: No—usually the one that is latest is my favorite.

Boom: So you didn’t have any doubts about assuming the editorship? Because it’s one thing to be book review editor, but a much grander responsibility to be the editor. What was the transition like? Can you describe what you see your role as editor being?

Ovnick: I work approximately twenty hours a week on the journal. At first it was very, very difficult and it was also just as I was starting to turn my dissertation into a book. So that got put on the back burner and it never got done because I do this instead.

The role of editor is a dual role and there’s a conflict between the two. One, the editor is the conduit for the author. The author has done the research, the analysis, the writing, and this is how the work gets out to the public. It also builds her CV and helps her survive “publish or perish.” So, the conduit role is one where the editor just helps the author shape things, getting them to publication.

The other role is to serve as the guardian of the history discipline’s standards. You’re the one who decides what the public should read and what kind of integrity it should have. So the conflict is, if you really need articles for the next issue and you have a poor article but you really need an article, do you relax the guardian role? One of the safeguards is the peer review process which we rigorously enforce. But even so, there’s that pressure from the two sides.

Boom: And at certain times has it been harder to secure potential articles?

Ovnick: I’m in one of those situations right now. I have one article that has to be totally revised and the author is incapable of doing so. I’ve worked on him for two years to get this wonderful research into publication shape and he can’t do it. I’m going to just shepherd this along. But that’s only one article out of the three that make up an issue, so I’m in one of those desperate spots.

I have actually had several times where I’ve needed to step in. Doyce admitted that many times he solved this “not having an article ahead” in one of two ways. Either he wrote an article himself and published it and admitted that he had not sent things out for review for several years because he thought he was capable of reviewing everything himself. The other way he solved it was to just not produce that issue. Instead of volume or issue one, two, three, and four for the year, he’d have one and two, then a combined three and four, which he got complaints about from people who were paying for a subscription. They got this type of reaction fairly frequently. During my tenure, though, we’ve never missed an issue, and we’ve never been late in fourteen years.

Boom: Obviously “quarterly” is embedded in the name of the Southern California Quarterly, but have you thought about—given the pressures of producing in such a regular fashion—producing less frequently? Like maybe once a year, or even twice a year?

Ovnick: In the early years of the journal, it was an annual publication in the very beginning. But that hasn’t come up with the historical society. If it does, we could do that. So far it hasn’t.

Boom: And is there significant direction that comes from the historical society?

Ovnick: Well, the money comes from them, and this is their most costly item. So, it’s a crisis for them, they’ve been doing a big fundraising job just to support the journal. We recently received a bequest.

Boom: That’s reassuring. Can you say anything about that?

Ovnick: As a bequest, it’s a will, and becomes active upon the passing of the donor, which is hopefully a long time from now.

Boom: We did spend some time going through the various issues you’ve produced as editor, and noticed a couple of innovations, like “The Historian’s Eye.” Can you tell us about that?

Ovnick: I did a number of those with the help from others. One of them was someone from the Auto Club, and one was from his wife, who is the historian or archivist at City of Hope. They asked to do them, and I have another author who suggested that we do little bio sketches. His first suggestion was Mira Hershey, you know, of Hershey Hall at UCLA, an early feminist who had money.

Boom: One of the images depicted folks getting into a street car and you brought up the theme “chivalry.” How do you choose images? And what are you looking for?

Ovnick: Just something interesting. I have to be careful to ensure it’s not just some image I like. I did this in the classroom, things like that chivalry one when you notice what the ladies are wearing, they have to step up fairly high to get off the dirt street and there’s that white dress dragging on the dirt street. Various little things like that.

Boom: In some decisions you’ve made of what to publish in Southern California Quarterly, what you’re highlighting isn’t your area of research, it’s rather a curatorial area of interest. I’ve noticed that during your tenure. I [Jason] remember the previous editor of Boom, Jon Christensen, with an issue of Boom we were working on where I said I didn’t want to strong-arm things related to my interests and views, to which he responded that I’m allowed to do some of that. But I noticed you haven’t really. You’ve focused mostly on racial, international, socio-political history, and social histories.

Ovnick: Yes, I admit that there’s probably more architectural articles early on because somebody would know me from my architectural interests and submit an article here rather than somewhere else. Likewise then for Japanese-American history, which I’ve probably done more than is quite even-handed. I have another one coming up in the next issue.

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Boom: So, let’s bring us back into the areas you’ve published on, especially in L.A., and California, as these things also reflect some of Boom’s concerns related to the future of California. How do we curate this place and what’s here? From your work on residential architectural history, does Southern California have a best style of architecture, one most fitting for this place?

Ovnick: Well, the Spanish Colonial, which was deemed to be appropriate because of a romanticized version of a Spanish past. But I’ve seen Spanish Colonial houses in Utah and Wyoming where somebody just liked that style I guess and there it was. So that’s one we’ve appropriated.

Also, the California Bungalow, which was my dissertation topic. I have a particular soft spot for that. The Craftsman magazine, which was published in the East, after 1908 had a crisis where they let their entire art department go. There were drawings of ideal interiors that sold their style of furniture, but they had to fire their art department. They then became reliant on people near and far to send them photographs to use as illustrations. A great share of the ones that came during that period came from Los Angeles with photographs of small to large houses in the Arts and Crafts mode. But they were redone for California, with lightweight material, not the winter roofs or snow-shedding roofs or insulated walls. They featured the indoor-outdoor life with sweeping porches and cross-ventilation, and on-site trees intertwined with the house, that were indigenous to California.

It became The Craftsman look because of their lack of an art department. I later tracked down some of those houses and found them by looking through Ancestry.com and finding out where that architect’s address was. There is something about the appropriateness of that style for California.

Boom: Why do you have this kind of affection for the Bungalow style?

Ovnick: It just looks very cozy and comfortable. I wouldn’t mind living in one.

Boom: Does your own house reflect your architectural passions?

Ovnick: No, which of course destroys the entire premise of my first book.[2]

Boom: Your book and one issue of Southern California Quarterly noted the cross-pollination of East and West characteristic of Southern California architecture, which has also been characterized by experimentation and reinvention. Isn’t that a luxury, perhaps one that we’re not going to be able to afford much longer?

Ovnick: Oh yes, and the single-family residence is an albatross.

Boom: Okay, well that brings me to another question. Is a house an investment?

Ovnick: Absolutely. When you look at the early advertisements, they promised that when you buy a tract house in the 1920s it will double in value in a number of years. It is an investment and you could buy the empty lot next door and hold onto it, because the value of that land and that tract is bound to go up.

Boom: We can probably safely conclude that for twenty miles of coastal California, but what about the interior? The Central Valley, the Inland Empire?

Ovnick: Inland Empire has its own background because of the citrus boom and the railroads coming in there and other things. It might be special. For the Central Valley, Bakersfield and Fresno have taken the prize recently of being California’s fastest growing cities. I’m glad though that I don’t live in the Central Valley. It’s hot enough in the San Fernando Valley.

Boom: In some of your research you’ve shown that some developments here have been borrowed from elsewhere, especially from the American East. But have we and could we be developing ideas for residential housing from the Far East more then we have? Like Japan?

Ovnick: Well, the indoor-outdoor house with sliding panels is the Japanese aesthetic of simplicity. Those have influenced our architecture.

Boom: I [Allison] was also wondering how we might incorporate the density of Japanese cities, where they seem to be able to house a lot of people in very little space. I don’t know what that means if you don’t have the single-family home that has defined Los Angeles, but if we move toward that model of densification and more clustered living….

Ovnick: It could be, but you know what works in Japan is partly because of a cultural thing about privacy. You may have people very close together, but you’re very quiet and you don’t air your arguments because it just would not do. There’s a whole cultural thing that has to happen. You can’t just import the buildings from another culture and have any luck.

Boom: Of course, residential architecture relates very much in the title of your ’94 book, somewhat hidden in there is an echo of the California Dream. How that relates to the “working man,” buying a home in the post-war world. But how does the California Dream manifest in Los Angeles residential architecture?

Ovnick: In that case, how do you distinguish the California Dream from the American Dream? Success and being ahead of your parents’ generation was it, and the expectation that each generation would do that. Even if there’s a ceiling now that makes it not so likely. All those people who moved out here weren’t California-bred people to begin with, they came from Iowa or wherever and had an American Dream that they could realize in California.

Boom: I think a single-family detached house was part of that dream, so maybe that dream is changing as it becomes impossible to attain.

Ovnick: It needs to. Otherwise it becomes a disappointment. I think that’s a good thing to discuss in Boom particularly. In the world of Internet and Facebook and other things, that dream may be very real. There are all kinds of savvy people who can expect to make hay while the sun shines. But as a general thing, and when you have a classroom full of elementary school students, do you hold out that dream for them? For everyone, of every color, of every part of town or immigrant background, or in whatever economic situation? There needs to be some readjustments.

I was talking to somebody in Paris about this recently, who was in awe that I came from Los Angeles, and asked, “What is Los Angeles like?” I said, “Well, we have 55,000 homeless that live on the streets,” and he was aghast. He asked what is being done about that? And what can we answer?

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Boom: You’ve written on post-war Los Angeles, a long seventy-year moment that might be coming to a terminus soon, reflective of what we’re discussing. Could you thematize what’s happening in Southern California during those decades?

Ovnick: I think it was a turning point for gender issues, for one thing. Men had gone off to war and being macho was very much a part of it. Women might be Rosie the Riveter and they might have been capable during the war, except when you look at the ads. The Office of War Information monitored advertisement, and I have a small collection of ads from wartime popular magazines; they had the young woman with the stylish hat and her pocket book asking, “I earned it, why can’t I spend it?” Then, the stern response that she ought to save it for the home front and postwar when the boys come back from oversees and make new starts. The patriotic thing to do is to save your money, buy war bonds. There was this sense of women doing their part for the home front as just part of being the little woman helping the man. It reinforced a gender ideal that had been moderated in the ’20s and ’30s that has been reinforced as a macho thing.

The final chapter of my book where I deal with this happens to be my favorite chapter, but because nobody had done primary research on World War II at that time, I had no secondary sources. Everything had to be primary. Looking at the expectations for housing after the war, you know, “When I get home from this war I’m going to build a house and have hot running water and I’m going to have…,” and so on. They spun big dreams during the war about the house that they and Rosie the Riveter were going to move into at the end. Then the building trades and architects and building material suppliers and others were all busy gearing up for postwar, how they were going to change from making war items to making things for a housing boom that fed that dream or would make it come true for people.

There was such uniformity in the news that you also couldn’t show a picture of the coastline because a Japanese submarine might notice that a little notch there, which might lead directly to a war plant. With all those cautionary holds on what could be published, it’s no wonder that my parents and Archie Bunker and many others had such black-and-white, good-and-bad views that fit the Cold War. It was good guys and bad guys, and we were the good guys. It was just so sharp and clear—that generation spent their youth not seeing anything except black-and-white.

Boom: But the ’60s and ’70s started to challenge that.

Ovnick: Absolutely. It was their kids in the ’60s who saw grey and objected to Archie Bunker’s views—generational conflict as of about 1964, when the war babies grew into teenagers.

Boom: And how is that shaping the residential architecture? Thinking of young people living outdoors. Breaking free of their parents’ homes.

Ovnick: They turned their tie dye stuff into boutiques and joined the middle class.

Boom: And after the wave of white Buddhists moving to Japan and coming back….

Ovnick: That’s actually what this upcoming article is about—a person whose last name was Goldwater, who was the second cousin of Barry Goldwater, and who was a Buddhist priest during the war.

Boom: So the religious architecture in Southern California—especially Los Angeles churches, temples, mosques—especially if said communities are moving around a Buddhist temple, for example, how did religious architecture shape Los Angeles during this time, and is it having any influence on residential architecture?

Ovnick: Unfortunately, my book was just on residential architecture. But from the Society of Architectural Historians, which I’m heavily involved with, we do tours of churches and recently toured one by Ernest Coxhead that was where Cesar Chavez first raised the challenge over on the east side of Lincoln Heights. We look at church architecture, but is it a case of L.A. shaping the architecture or is it architecture shaping the people that are in it? For example, the Hompa Hongwanji temple, right across from the Japanese American National Museum (JANM), which has the traditional arch which faces outward and is now owned by JANM; it’s made out of concrete but it echoes the thatch roof of tradition, including echoing the cedar wood graining that a traditional Buddhist church in Japan would have had because it was built during the 1920s by an Anglo architect and some of the touches are neo-Egyptian because it was a stylish thing and the architect worked in theatrical things. I don’t think that’s new or unusual.

In Savannah, Georgia, there’s a Jewish synagogue that was built in the 1840s in Gothic Revival style. You know Gothic, with that window that’s split into two smaller Gothic arches, symbolizing the Trinity. The rose window with the twelve leaves to represent the twelve disciples. Those have iconographic meanings, but this was a Jewish synagogue and it was built in neo-Gothic because that was the stylish church-like architecture, and this was an affluent membership who were movers and shakers in their community and they particularly wanted a Jewish “church” that would fit in with other churches. They didn’t want to look strange. So, whether a time and a culture shape the building, or the building then shapes the culture—I mean, I doubt many people who went to that “church” thought about the nativity and the twelve disciples.

Boom: So, they like the style and don’t necessarily care where it came from.

Ovnick: I wrote and published in California History on motion pictures and how motion picture-making affected architecture in the 1920s, in the silent era. Without sound, the actors and cinematographers had to do other things—if the story was about a princess and a castle, the very first scene had to show the young lady, probably with a coronet on her head and crenellations on the top of a wall behind her, and maybe a moat. Then movie-goers would realize this was about a princess and didn’t have to have a big discussion. Things like style references that make a setting were exaggerated and clear to read in the silent film era. In the 1920s we get the little castles and Tudor houses and the Spanish Colonial. All these easy to read make-believe backgrounds. Then, likewise, cinematographers used heavily rusticated surfaces so light and shadow would play off them so they wouldn’t look too flat in the kind of film and lighting they had at the time. We had those exteriors with what they called jazzed stucco, the troweled-on stucco that were supposed to look like adobe houses (that never had such a rough looking job) because light and shadow worked. Other parts of the house like columns or door arches or whatever had to be projected in a certain depth, so they cast light and shadow.

Our culture changes, and of course movies are shown nationwide. So you see make-believe architecture in Utah and Wyoming, and you see that heavy use of shadow and texture on buildings—it “took” across the country. It took especially hard here because this is where movies are made. So many people are in the industry, and in fact many of the set designers in Hollywood were also doing residential architecture on the side.

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Boom: There’s a great chapter in Day of the Locusts that talks about the crazy diversity of architectural styles that come back in the movies. And we keep telling ourselves stories, projecting. The last line of your book captures this, where you conclude that Los Angeles is “a durable dream.” A beautiful line. But in light of things like the current enormous homeless crisis, do you still believe that Los Angeles is a durable dream?

Ovnick: As a matter of fact, I wrote that book so long ago that I’d forgotten all about that last line. In 1994, who could predict the Northridge earthquake, which hadn’t happened when I wrote that.

Boom: But it’s interesting how just a couple years after major riots that make people doubt whether this region is sustainable.

Ovnick: That’s not maybe just this region. Polar ice caps are melting and other things. People in Venice are doing these elaborate mega-houses on these tiny lots. Society of Architectural Historians was showing one of these houses and the architect was telling us that one of the things she had done was to look at the underground water flow, because it was basically on marshland, and at the topography. So, she built hers in a part of Venice that was several feet higher and away from those underground stream flows, which are ancient stream flows. She wanted to build a one hundred-year house, so it would be there for her kids.

Boom: Forward-thinking. And do these kinds of questions shape your work as editor of SCQ?

Ovnick: You never know what the next article is going to bring, and it’s going to be on some topic you’ve never addressed before hopefully because if it’s something you’ve done already you don’t want it. Each piece needs to contribute something, and every one is a learning experience from an editor’s point of view. I learn things every time, and if I didn’t, then there’s probably something wrong with the article. So how significant is it? What kind of insights does it give on things like homelessness and earthquakes and all those other things, or perhaps on a path that can be constructed? We look at things with a more empathetic eye because of a particular historian’s work, and that has an impact on our current times. It’s not that history repeats itself, it’s just that we open up our mind when we read history, which is a human subject. We’re gaining a wider understanding of our fellow men and women.

Being an editor, then, is like having your finger on a pulse of what’s out there being done and what its possibilities are when it reaches a reading audience. I think that was one of my biggest accomplishments was to get SCQ online. At the beginning, before there was a regime change at the Southern California Historical Society, there used to be a board that I spoke to on multiple occasions about the importance of going online, and their eyes would just glaze over since they were absolutely uninterested, didn’t want to think about it, and didn’t want to know the mechanics of how this could be done or who could do it. It was like talking to the wall.

As the board eventually changed and got some newer members, it happened. I think an all-print journal is not a viable entry. I’m old, so I like reading things in print, and I like having the covers, and enjoy working on the covers. But I know that print things are a dying breed. Whether you can reach an audience, the right audience or a big enough audience with what you put online, that’s a concern.

I think one of the solutions is a journal like ours that has multiple subjects. Every issue has a real diversity of topics that are there, even when they’re a set. But even as a set, each article expresses different viewpoints. A person who’s reading something they got online and sees the title of the article above and below might be intrigued and might read things they wouldn’t otherwise. But if it’s not in that very journal issue as something that might be important to them, are they going to go back and look at past ones? So, one of the concerns of the marketing people at UC Press is how to keep reminding people of good stuff that’s in the past issues. Doing special online issues introduce readers to something covered back in 1920 or 1942 that might be of interest work to send people looking backwards.

Boom: Deeper into the archives, and the online archives.

Ovnick: That’s a possibility, and I hope it works. The current president of the HSSC reached out to four grad students at three different institutions and got them to do bibliographic essays on subjects like Native Americans. They looked through back issues of SCQ and put together a bibliography of articles that have been done on a particular subject. They did one on the mission, noting the articles on the mission era back in the 1920s were romanticizing the padres and the adoring Indians. Then in the 50s they were doing thus and so, which leaves a track that they’ve analyzed. How we change how we view the past, missions being a particularly good example, puts us in mind not to just think in black-and-white, but enables us to think critically about what is the “historical truth.” Twenty years later, something else was the “historical truth.” I think that’s broadening, and it will hopefully work to send others to past issues of SCQ.

Boom: I think that’s something that is hard for undergraduates to grasp, the idea of historiography. That the interpretations change by what you’re reading.

Ovnick: And why does it change? It’s very important. The journal is a form—both SCQ and Boom—of public history. Because they reach out not just to the profession, but to a wider public. And I think that’s very important.

PORTRAITed

Notes

[1] Out of an extensive list of well-written articles, reflecting good research, and worthy contributions to their fields of history, there are a handful that stand out for their ground-breaking discoveries, exceptional research depth, and insightful analysis. Dr. Ovnick is especially proud to have had a hand in bringing these to publication in the Southern California Quarterly during her tenure (2005-2018; volumes 87-100):

Scott Zesch, “Chinese Los Angeles in 1870-1871: The Makings of a Massacre,” SCQ 90.2 (2008).

Kelly J. Sisson, “Bound for California: Chilean Contract Laborers and ‘Patrones’ in the California Gold Rush, 1848-1852,” SCQ 90.3 (2008).

David Igler, “Captive-Taking and Conventions of Encounters on the Northwest Coast, 1789-1810,” SCQ 91.1 (2009).

Emily Bills, “Connecting Lines: L.A.’s Telephone History and the Binding of the Region,” SCQ 91.1 (2009).

Kim Hernandez, “The ‘Bungalow Boom’: The Working-Class Housing Industry and the Development and Promotion of Early Twentieth-Century Los Angeles” SCQ 92.4 (2010).

Hillary Jenks, “Bronzeville, Little Tokyo, and the Unstable Geography of Race in Post-World War II Los Angeles,” SCQ 93.2 (2011).

Patty R. Colman, “John Ballard and the African American Community in Los Angeles, 1850-1905,” SCQ 94.2 (2012).

Mary C. Greenfield, “Benevolent Desires and Dark Dominations: The Pacific Mail Steamship Company’s City of Peking and the United States in the Pacific, 1874-1910,” SCQ 94.4 (2012).

James Tejani, “Dredging the Future: The Destruction of Coastal Estuaries and the Creation of Metropolitan Los Angeles, 1858-1913,” SCQ 96.1 (2014).

Andrea Geiger, “Reframing Race and Place: Locating Japanese Immigrants in Relation to Indigenous Peoples in the North American West,” SCQ 96.3 (2014).

Erica J. Peters, “A Path to Acceptance: Promoting Chinese Restaurants in San Francisco, 1849-1919,” SCQ 97.1 (2015).

Benjamin Cawthra, “Duke Ellington’s Jump for Joy and the Fight for Equality in Wartime Los Angeles,” SCQ 98.1 (2016).

Barry Read [3-part set], “Building Mulholland Highway: The Road to Mulholland Drive. Part I: The Campaign; Part II: Construction; Part III: After the Celebration,” SCQ 99.1-3 (2017).

[2] Merry Ovnick, Los Angeles: The End of The Rainbow (Los Angeles: Balcony Press, 1994).

Copyright: © 2018 Merry Ovnick, Allison Varzally, and Jason 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/.

Articles

Howard Thurman and the Arc of History in San Francisco

Paul Harvey

The theologian, mystic, and minister Howard Thurman visited San Francisco for the first time in the late 1920s, according to an account he later gave to a friend. In his published reminiscences, he recalled attending staff meetings of the national YWCA held in Asilomar, California in the mid-1930s. One summer, he remembered, “when I disembarked from the Oakland ferry and walked down Market Street, I had a sense of coming home that I never felt any place else in the world.”[1]

I once had almost exactly that same experience, and feeling, admittedly after disembarking from a VW van rather than the Oakland ferry. But the same sense of “coming home” for the first time was there.

Last year, I decided I might be interested in writing a biography of Howard Thurman, someone who long has interested me. When I read this sentence in his autobiography, I suddenly felt “called” to do so, using the language of the Baptist tradition in which both Thurman and I grew up. “It was a cold, foggy day in July when Sue and I shivered into San Francisco,” he remembered of moving there in July 1944, “but the city loomed before us as the loveliest sight we had ever seen.” He felt that he and his wife Sue Bailey Thurman “shared a sudden awareness that destiny rode with us right into the city.”[2]

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Image of Thurman courtesy of Noah Griffin; modified, Jacquelyn Campaña.

He was a private man and an intellectual. He saw spiritual cultivation as a necessary accompaniment to social activism. And he tested out his ideas in San Francisco… where he risked everything to pursue his central idea—a religious community beyond race.

Thurman was not an activist, as Martin Luther King was, nor one to take up specific social and political causes to transform a country. He was a private man and an intellectual. He saw spiritual cultivation as a necessary accompaniment to social activism. And he tested out his ideas in San Francisco from 1944 to 1953, a key period in his life where he risked everything to pursue his central idea—a religious community beyond race.

Thurman moved to San Francisco to pursue what he considered one of the great adventures of his life: to establish an interracial congregation that would defy the conventions by which the great majority of American churches operated. He came during an era of rapid transition. San Francisco was a city of some 630,000 just before World War Two; of those, only about 5,000 were African American. By the end of the war, thanks to a migration westward, approximately 32,000 African Americans lived in the city, and a distinct black neighborhood had developed. Many lived in areas with small rooms and apartments recently vacated by Japanese Americans; about 5,000 Japanese Americans from San Francisco ended up in internment camps. One local NAACP leader in San Francisco noted that “Caucasian San Francisco turned to the machinery already at hand for the subjugation of the Oriental and applied it to the Negro,” referring to residential segregation and unequal treatment in nearly all areas of municipal life.[3]

The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, originally located in the Filmore and thus identified as a congregation in a black neighborhood, eventually found its home at 2041 Larkin Street in San Francisco, where it still exists today. It lives now in a very different city than the one Thurman came to towards the end of World War Two. Those stories, that of Thurman in the 1940s and the eventual results of his great experiment, suggest much about what Thurman did and did not accomplish with his dream of a cosmopolitan American Christianity. His venture in San Francisco did not have the long-term results he hoped for; but his life’s work, including his congregation in San Francisco, proved influential in the broader movements of American religion after World War Two.

Born in 1899 in West Palm Beach, Florida, Thurman lost his father when he was seven years old and spent a somewhat lonely childhood communing more with nature than with people. His mother and grandmother were major influences, and he grew up in a Baptist church. But he was somewhat wary of it given that a local Baptist minister initially had refused to give his father, a somewhat-outspoken agnostic, a proper burial. Through hard work and years of struggle and malnourishment, Thurman made his way to a black Baptist high school in Jacksonville, where he was the valedictorian. Early on in his life, he staked his success on books—academic success. His success led him to his early affiliations with the YMCA, and to Morehouse College, which he attended from 1919-1923.

After receiving theological training in Rochester, New York, he served as a nationally prominent minister and educator at Howard University in the 1930s and 1940s. From his post there, he crisscrossed the country on speaking engagements, began some of his first significant writing endeavors, and struggled to balance his thoughts on both the potentialities as well as the limitations of Christianity. He also investigated the dilemmas of the universal message of Christianity and the particular expressions of it within the American racial hierarchy.

During these years, Thurman gradually developed his ideas about nonviolence and religion, and how Christian nonviolence could be part of the Christian solution to the race problem. He pondered how to counter the everyday racial violence endemic in the South. And during this time he developed ideas about what it meant to hate, and the costs of hatred on both sides. For blacks, fighting hatred posed the danger that it was possible to “hate people so bitterly that one becomes like them.”[4]

One focal point in Thurman’s life came in 1935-36, when he traveled to India for six months. He went there with his wife Sue Bailey Thurman as part of a four member “Negro delegation” of the American Christian Student Movement. Initially, he was reluctant. He did not want to be put in the position of defending indefensible practices in American Christianity. Once persuaded, he sought out audiences with prominent Indian thinkers and writers, including Rabinandanth Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi.

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The India trip was the turning point, with its two key moments. The first came at the law school of the University of Ceylon, where the principal took him aside after an address and asked him what he was doing there. The principal concluded, according to the account provided in Thurman’s book, Footprints of a Dream, “I am a Hindu. I do not understand. Here you are in my country, standing deep within the Christian faith and tradition. I do not wish to seem rude to you, but sir, I think you are a traitor to all the darker peoples of the earth. I am wondering what you, an intelligent man, can say in defense of your position.” In other cities, people queried him—“why is the church powerless before the color bar? … From a 10,000-mile perspective, this monumental betrayal of the Christian ethic loomed large and forbidding.” [5]

When Thurman finally met Gandhi, February 1936, much of the conversation hinged on the meaning of the word “nonviolence,” originally Ahimsa in the Sanskrit. Gandhi explained how the word did not come across fully in English, with the negative non- at the beginning. In reality, nonviolence was a metaphysical force, a truth that underlay the seemingly endless violence of human life. Always given to a love for the mystical, Thurman was fascinated. Sue Thurman, however, pushed Gandhi on how to apply these ideas in a context where black Americans faced lynching. By some accounts, at the end of the talk, Gandhi mused that “if it comes true it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of non-violence will be delivered to the world.” By Thurman’s account, Gandhi ended the meeting by pointing out that the greatest enemy of Jesus in the United States was Christianity itself. Leaders at the founding meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference two decades later remembered it; they understood themselves to be carrying out Gandhian principles of social struggle.[6]

By some accounts, at the end of the talk, Gandhi mused that “if it comes true it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of non-violence will be delivered to the world.”

During the same trip, Thurman traveled along the Khyber Pass, and while looking into Afghanistan and trains of camels bringing good along the roadways used by ancient conquerors, he noted the following:

All that we had seen and felt in India seemed to be brought miraculously into focus. We saw clearly what we must do somehow when we returned to America. We knew that we must test whether a religious fellowship could be developed in America that was capable of cutting across all racial barriers, with a carry-over into the common life, a fellowship that would alter the behavior patterns of those involved. It became imperative now to find out if experiences of spiritual unity among people could be more compelling than the experiences which divided them.[7]

By the early 1940s, Thurman was growing restless in his post of Dean of the Chapel at Howard University. In mid-1940s, he staked his life and future on a risky endeavor: the creation of an experimental interracial congregation in San Francisco. He later said, “There was kindling in my mind the possibility that this may be the opportunity toward which my life had been moving.”[8] He thought the vision he had at Khyber Pass might be coming to pass.

In 1943, the Reverend Alfred G. Fisk, a Presbyterian minister and college professor at San Francisco State University, contacted Thurman about finding a part-time divinity student who might be interested in participating in an experiment together to form an interracial congregation in San Francisco. He had been put in contact with Thurman by A. J. Muste, a doyen of peace and pacifist groups. At first, Thurman later said, he did not see a connection between himself and the church, but later realized this was the right time and place, especially in San Francisco, “with its varied nationalities, its rich intercultural heritages, and its face resolutely fixed toward the Orient.” San Francisco was the “ideal center” for his religio-racial experiment.[9]

image 5

Together with Fisk, Thurman helped to plan what soon came to be called the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples. It was one of the first self-consciously multi-racial congregations in American history. There were predecessors from the nineteenth century, including Tremont Temple in Boston, and more recently there had been a variety of interracial religious experiments in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and other cities. But Thurman had something more permanent in mind. Just before his arrival, Thurman wrote to Fisk that “we must keep in mind constantly that the kind of church that we are building has never been built in the United States before. We must not hamper the creative form that the spirit of God may inspire, by clinging to the patterns with which we are ordinarily familiar.”[10]

His work with the Fellowship Church seemed to embody his thoughts in “The meaning of Commitment,” wherein he wrote the following:

Commitment means that it is possible for a man to yield the nerve center of his consent to a purpose or cause, a movement or an ideal, which may be more important to him than whether he lives or dies. The commitment is a self-conscious act of will by which he affirms his dentification with that he is committed to. The character of this commitment is determined by that to which the center or core of his consent is given.[11]

He got the itch to “establish empirical validation for what to me is a profound religious and ethnical insight concerning the genius of the church as a religious fellowship.” He further wanted to “find out for myself whether or not it is true that experiences of spiritual unity and fellowship are more compelling than the fears and dogmas and prejudices that separate men.” He believed that if every community had such a venture as this congregation, “the Church itself would once again set in motion those spiritual processes which gave to it its original impetus and power.” [12]

The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples had a rocky start. Originally connected with, and heavily subsidized by, the Presbyterian Church, Thurman quickly pushed it towards a different vision. The last thing he wanted was a mission church, and even less so a “neighborhood church” when it was clear that racial segregation defined American neighborhoods. If the church remained in the Fillmore district of San Francisco (where it originally was located), he realized, it would quickly become a black church, and non-black congregants would disappear, defeating the entire purpose of the enterprise. In any event, the church soon outgrew its original location, and it became necessary to move simply for practical reasons of space. He continued resisting being made the object of “charity and condescension” by Presbyterians, however well-meaning they might be, because in that case

the crippling disease that has dogged the vitality and the health of the Christian enterprise would have overtaken us—the deadly disease of condescension. Very quickly we would have become a dumping ground for uplifters and the challenge of the development of an integrated religious fellowship would have bounced off the conscience and hearts of the people. For herein lies the great temptation: If a man can feel sorry for you, he can very easily absolve himself from dealing with you in any sense as an equal.[13]

Eventually, Thurman moved the church out of the orbit of the Presbyterians. It became an independent congregation, subsidized in part by a national group of supporters (including Eleanor Roosevelt) and also by fees from Thurman’s near-constant speaking engagements. Thurman lived on trains as much as he lived in the city itself. His star was in its ascendancy.

Thurman consistently resisted several models he had seen in the past: the mission church, which invariably became an object of condescension; the social mission or activist institutional church, which could easily lose its spiritual moorings; and the church with no connection to social life, which could easily lose its ethical imperative. His vision was of a church with strong spiritual grounding that would prepare, strengthen, and fill with God’s love those who would carry on a struggle for justice in the social world. The church had a social mission, but not one that was direct; it was not the job of the church to organize protests, to become social service agencies, or to directly involve themselves in political life. Rather, as Thurman saw it, individuals in the thick of the struggle should have a place to “be able to find renewal and fresh courage in the spiritual resources of the church. … The true genius of the church was revealed by what it symbolized as a beachhead in society in terms of community, and as an inspiration to the solitary individual to put his weight on the side of a society in which no person need be afraid.”[14]

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By 1949, the church numbered about 285 members, with whites about sixty percent of the total; a few years later, whites made up about half, and blacks about forty percent, of its 345 members. Some congregants envisioned the church as a center for social activism and protest, more so than was ever the case with Thurman. After an initial period of co-pastoring with Alfred Fisk, the church became Thurman’s own, a kind of trial project for his ideas. The initial commitment spoke of congregants seeking “after a vital interpretation of God as revealed in Jesus of Nazareth whose fellowship with God was the foundation of his fellowship with men,” and of people desiring “to have a part in the unfolding of the ideal of Christian fellowship through the union of men and women of varying national, cultural, racial, or creedal heritage in church communion.” The Declaration of the Church called it a

creative venture in interracial, intercultural, and interdenominational communion. In faith and genius it is Christian. While it derives its inspiration primarily from the source of Hebrew-Christian thought and life, it affirms the validity of spiritual insight wherever found and seeks to recognize, understand, and appreciate every aspect of truth whatever the channel through which it comes. It believes that human dignity is inherent in man as a creature of God, and it interprets the meaning of human life as essentially spiritual.

Over the first few years, several versions of “the commitment” evolved, at first more Christian oriented, and then less so over time, reflecting in part Thurman’s own move away from the Christianity of his youth and towards a more universal vision of cosmopolitan spirituality, humanitarianism, and what he called “sensitiveness”—what we might call a kind of mindfulness oriented towards social action.[15]

Thurman also used the church as a venue for experimentation in worship aesthetics, especially music and dance. With the help of noted musician and arranger Corrine Williams, Thurman developed a music program at the church, later to be led by Raymond Fong. Thurman took pride in the choir as evidence of his ideas about worship as “the highest act of celebration of the human spirit,” in which the “worshiper sees himself as being in the presence of God. In His presence, the worshiper is neither male nor female, black nor white, Protestant nor Catholic nor Buddhist nor Hindu, but a human spirit laid bare, stripped to whatever there is that is literal and irreducible.” The key to the church was not the mixture of peoples but rather the “duality of the individual’s religious experience achieved through worship and the effect of that experience on daily behavior.” He saw Sunday morning as a time that “for each person present” was “a moment which becomes his moment in the presence of God.” This was consistent with Thurman’s larger vision of churches as centers of spiritual nourishment, from which people could then be empowered to pursue social transformation.[16]

“As I moved more and more into the center of the process at the church I began feeling the urge to put into written form some of the things that were stirring within me,” he later wrote in his account of the church, Footprints of a Dream. One of those things stirring was the “weekly meditation written out of the heart of my own spiritual struggle,” which appeared in the weekly church calendar. Soon people demanded them for wider distribution, and his written words became a “means for a wider participation in the fundamental idea and an ideal upon which we had set our course.”[17]

In the long-since-gentrified milieu of contemporary San Francisco, it stands more as a symbol of an honored past than as a beacon into any future.

In part through the venue of his church, Thurman was becoming a national celebrity. He and the church were featured in Life magazine, and in 1953 he would be listed as one of the twelve most influential preachers in the country (at a time when such a list still had currency, still mattered). By that time also, he had become known for his book Jesus and the Disinherited, his most powerful work, and one that influenced the thought of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ironically, it was precisely that growing national prominence that made him the object of a number of tempting offers, including the one from Boston. Thurman’s church project over the years tended in the direction of becoming a majority black congregation, something he decidedly did not have in mind. In the long-since-gentrified milieu of contemporary San Francisco, it stands more as a symbol of an honored past than as a beacon into any future.

In 1953, the president of Boston University wooed him away to become the first African American to serve as Dean of Marsh Chapel at BU. By that time, Thurman sensed his major work in San Francisco was at a point of transition, and he sought the opportunity to work again with students. He remained at BU until 1965, and then retired from public life. He lived out his days in San Francisco until 1981, writing his last books, creating the Howard Thurman Educational Trust, and compiling his papers, recordings, and addresses into an archive that is now available online and at the Howard Thurman Papers at Boston University.[18]

Thurman always attempted to balance his mysticism with activism, his reveries toward God with an emphasis on what should happen in this world because of that connection to God. For Thurman, the “true purpose” of spiritual discipline was to “clear away whatever may block our awareness of that which is God in us. The aim is to get rid of whatever may so distract the mind and encumber the life that we function without this awareness, or as if it were not possible.”[19] As well, he emphasized the importance of the “moral essence of vital religious experience” in preparing “those most engaged in sustaining democracy.” Love of God and working to him would strengthen congregants to understand others; they would become “apostles of sensitiveness.” As he told the Christian Century in 1973, “I didn’t have to wait for the revolution. I have never been in search for identity, and I think that [all] I’ve ever felt and worked on and believed in was founded in a kind of private, almost unconscious autonomy that did not seek vindication in my environment because it was in me.”[20]

One of the ironies of Thurman’s work is that his universalist cosmopolitanism ended up exercising its greatest influence on those who came specifically from the tradition of the African American Church, and whose internally focused and ethnically-based churches then empowered the civil rights movement. And this happened in spite of the fact that Thurman was not well known then, and is even less known now, by a large number of African American religious leaders. His influence came from his deep well of intellectual thought, personal mentorship, and quiet prodding, far more than from any public role. Thurman’s universalist vision eventually came to pass in the civil rights years in religious institutions that preached an idiomatic black American theology, and in ways that the leaders of those institutions often did not recognize. One of the aims of the Howard Thurman Papers Project and its corresponding institutions and research facility (also housed at Boston University), in fact, has been to make his work accessible to a generation who did not have personal contact with him, and in many cases would not have studied him in universities or seminaries.

And yet ultimately Thurman moved history. He did so less through his creation of interracial visions such as the Church of the Fellowship of All Peoples, but more through his translation of universalist ideas to an American religious idiom. Thurman was a “seeker” before we had such a term, and paved the way for contemporary ideas of religious pluralism. In that sense, he really was (and is) America’s pastor, as much if not more so than Billy Graham. That is because American religious ideals, Trump evangelicals notably excepted, look more like Thurman’s than Graham’s. Thurman labored under anonymity, but ultimately the arc of history is bending his way. His years in California helped to bend them that way.

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Notes

[1] Howard Thurman, With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Jovanovich, 1981), 98-9.

[2] Ibid., 141-42.

[3] “Biographical Essay,” in The Papers of Howard Washington Thurman, vol. III, The Bold Adventure, September 1943—May 1949, eds. Walter Fluker et al. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Pres, 2015), xxiii.

[4] Howard Thurman, “Relaxation and Race Conflict,” from 1929, reprinted in The Papers of Howard Washington Thurman, ed. Walter Fluker, et al., vol. I, My People Need Me (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2009), 145.

[5] Howard Thurman, Footprints of a Dream: The Story of the Church of the Fellowship of All Peoples (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1959), 24.

[6] For a fuller account, see Quinton Dixie and Peter Eisenstadt, Visions of a Better World: Howard Thurman’s Pilgrimage to India and the Origins of African American Nonviolence (Boston: Beacon Press, 2011).

[7] Thurman, Footprints of a Dream, 24.

[8]  Dixie and Eisenstadt, Visions of a Better World, 167.

[9] Thurman, Footprints of a Dream, 31.

[10] Thurman to Alfred G. Fisk, 19 May 1944, in The Papers of Howard Washington Thurman, vol. III, The Bold Adventure, September 1943—May 1949 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2015): 64.

[11] Howard Thurman, “Commitment,” in For the Inward Journey: The Writings of Howard Thurman, ed. Anne Spencer Thurman (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), 13.

[12] Inward Journey, 13, 21; Thurman, “The Fellowship Church of All Peoples,” Common Ground 5 (Springs 1945): 29-31, reprinted in The Papers of Howard Washington Thurman, III: 125-27.

[13] Thurman, Footprints of a Dream, 44-45, 47.

[14] Thurman, With Head and Heart, 160-61.

[15] Thurman, Footprints of a Dream, 52.

[16] Thurman, Footprints of a Dream, 70.

[17] Footprints of a Dream, 97.

[18] See the Howard Thurman Listening Room at http://archives.bu.edu/web/howard-thurman/virtual-listening-room.

[19] From Inward Journey, 280.

[20] “Racial Roots and Religion: An Interview with Howard Thurman,” The Christian Century 90 (9 May 1973): 533-35.

 

Paul Harvey received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1992, and since 1996 has taught history of the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. He is presently writing a biography of Howard Thurman for the Eerdmans Library of Religious Biography series. For more, see www.paulharvey.org/about.

Copyright: © 2018 Paul Harvey. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Reviews

Black Bruin Stories

2

Jackie Robinson, 1940. Photo courtesy of ASUCLA Photography.

Nickolas Hardy

James W. Johnson’s The Black Bruins maps the rise of five former Bruins’ athletes who not only helped further the integration of college sport, but each became trailblazers in their own right. While the legacies of Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, and Jackie Robinson rest with the integration of professional sports, Ray Bartlett’s and Tom Bradley’s reside with public service in a racially hostile environment.[1] Simply put, The Black Bruins notes the overcoming of racial roadblocks of the times, while presenting each man’s narrative as a non-monolithic experience. It illustrates how each man capitalized on his talents and opportunities, showing five separate works of art all displayed on the same canvas, and leaving with six unique perspectives—the whole and its parts. That is to say, conveying the breadth of multiple narratives in a few brush strokes.

For starters, the prologue transports the reader back in time by framing the socio-historical landscape of the 1930s American West—Los Angeles, in particular. This section showcases the significance of the first Great Migration shaping an optimism for many African Americans flocking to LA in the hopes of bettering their lives outside of the constraints of the Jim Crow South. Johnson emphasizes this point in addressing both the large African-American population of LA at the time and the White flight occurring from the South as well.[2] The idea of African Americans fleeing the oppression of the South, while White Southerners are also relocating to LA juxtaposes the idealism of the highway to progress with the reality of obstruction waiting at the next rest stop. Both Jackie Robinson (from Georgia) and Tom Bradley (from Texas) were children of the South, as their families were part of this African American migratory group.[3] Contrary to Robinson and Bradley, Bartlett, Strode, and Washington were born and raised in Los Angeles—not versed in the culture of de jure racism, but aptly familiar with de facto racism. However, common experiences do not always render common responses. This is key, as each man’s response to the times is distinct.

The five men were track and field teammates at one point, with Washington, Strode, Bartlett, and Robinson also playing football together. Additionally, Robinson played basketball and baseball for UCLA. Despite this, Johnson takes great care to ensure that the other narratives are given their due and weaves a larger tapestry for the reader to appreciate. Jackie Robinson’s rise from Pasadena City College to UCLA and finally the integration of professional baseball carries some prominence in the narrative. Yet, Kenny Washington’s and Woody Strode’s integration into professional football by signing with the LA Rams is one of the books’ several gems, and, Strode also became a moderately successful actor. Another gem is the coverage of Tom Bradley’s climb to become Los Angeles’ first African American mayor, serving the community for twenty years.[4] Although, Ray Bartlett’s star did not shine as bright as did those of his teammates, his legacy of public service is significant.

By interconnecting the narratives, Johnson creates an enjoyable web of “six degrees of separation” in a who’s who and who else of important people that contributed to the rise of the “Black Bruins” along the way. The Black Bruins succeeds in articulating the significance of UCLA’s often overlooked role in integrating college sports during a time when many universities (including USC) were either reluctant to recruit more than a few African American athletes, opposed to start African American athletes or simply observed the “Gentleman’s Agreement.” This is not to say that the roadblocks were minimal. Johnson enumerates multiple instances in which Strode, Washington, Robinson, Bradley, and Bartlett were subject to racism both home and abroad. Those familiar with the history of the era will note this as par for the course. It provides a legacy today that UCLA and other UCs can and must build upon, especially as the UC campuses maintain a significant underrepresentation of African American students.

The book presents a bit of a paradox. Johnson articulates five remarkable biographies, but the story still feels like it is told too quickly, a legacy still not adequately appropriated. Overall, The Black Bruins is a home-run for those unfamiliar with both UCLA’s modest—yet significant—contribution in integrating college sports in the late 1930s and the five former teammates who helped put UCLA on the map. The book also reminds readers that narratives are not singular, but intersect with others. Perhaps an existential take-away from The Black Bruins is one that compels us not only to consider more carefully how to appropriate and build upon such legacies, but also to better see how our own diverse and distinct California narratives connect to each other.

Johnson-Black Bruins.indd

Notes

[1] Kenny Washington and Woody Strode re-integrate the NFL in 1946. Jackie Robinson integrates Major League Baseball in 1947. Ray Bartlett was a Pasadena Police Officer (one of the first and few African-American police officers). Tom Bradley becomes the first African-American mayor of Los Angeles, serving twenty years.

[2] Both Southern African Americans and Southern Whites were leaving the South seeking opportunity during the early Great Depression Era. James W. Johnson, The Black Bruins: Remarkable Lives of UCLA’S Jackie Robinson, Woody Strode, Tom Bradley, Kenny Washington, and Ray Bartlett (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018), 3.

[3] Johnson discusses Jackie Robinson’s “Black Belt” Georgia background (p. 7) and Tom Bradley’s Texas roots (pp. 18-19).

[4] Johnson articulates Tom Bradley’s transformative impact on Los Angeles that is significant in both his tenure and the city’s response (p. 211).

 

Nickolas Hardy is a retired U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) veteran and lecturer at Cal Poly Pomona.  His studies in Kinesiology include Socio-Cultural Perspectives in Sport, History of Sport, and Philosophy of Sport.  He is an avid researcher in the dynamic intersections between sport and society, emphasizing on the African-American experience.

Copyright: © 2018 Nickolas Hardy. 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

Seeing California’s Missions Today

Indigenous Oaxacan Folklorico dancers perform outside of the San Gabriel Mission during a community festival.

Matthew Gush
Robert M. Senkewicz*

When I left my native New York City to begin graduate school in California almost five decades ago, many things about my new home region struck me as strange. It seemed odd, for instance, that a local Safeway supermarket had the same kind of tiled roof as I could see on Mission Santa Clara, a scant three blocks away. And it seemed unbearably grandiose to call a local street, whose defining characteristics appeared to be used car lots, gas stations, and strip malls, El Camino Real, which I soon discovered meant the Royal Road. But I eventually realized that missions and Spain were apparently crucial parts of California’s popular identity. Combined with another never-far-from-the-surface part of that identity, the Gold Rush, my new home seemed to be constantly trumpeting a kind of California exceptionalism. Things happened here, everything seemed to say, that never happened anywhere else in the U.S. California is different—and by “different,” what’s clearly meant is “better.”

A visitor to the northern most outpost Spanish Mission San Francisco Solano observes the reed and adobe construction of the awning.

I began to wonder about that exceptionalism, but the doubts really came into focus when I was writing my dissertation on gold rush San Francisco. It seemed that the social processes alive in that 1850s instant city were quite similar to developments and tensions that were simultaneously occurring in places like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. The vigilantism that wracked the city twice (in 1851 and 1856) during this era seemed to have more in common with Eastern violence than with “we’re going to have to take the law into our own hands” vigilantism in places like Montana or other frontier venues.

After I finished with gold rush San Francisco, like a good historian, I went back in time. I ended up focusing on California and the Southwest before the U.S. takeover. And here I saw California exceptionalism strongly at work. Even some scholarly work seemed to be written with scant regard to the origins and foundations of Spanish California. Those origins stretched back over three centuries, but you would never know it by learning that San Diego had been founded in 1769 by a party led by two individuals who seemed to materialized out of nowhere, Gaspar de Portolá and Junípero Serra. And the fact that California had once been part of Mexico was apparently quite embarrassing. This embarrassment was solved in textbooks by focusing almost exclusively on Anglo-Americans who began to arrive in California in the 1820s and began to bring culture and civilization to this benighted region.

Popular understanding of California’s pre-U.S. past still suffers from two crucial absences: the absence of context and the absence of people.

First, context. The U.S. state of California was one of the last regions to experience settler colonialism in a Spanish Imperial context. That colonialism had a long and varied history. The Spanish presence worked itself out differently in the Valley of Mexico, the highlands of Peru, the sugar islands of the Caribbean, the Southern Cone, and the arid regions of what is now northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. The indigenous cultures the Spanish invaded and disrupted were radically different and the combination of resistance and strategic accommodation varied region to region. Survival often depended on flexible and creative strategic alliances with other groups and, at times, with dissident elements of the invading group. As was the case with British colonialism along the eastern coast of North America, not all colonial officials saw eye to eye, and indigenous leaders attempted to exploit those differences. European maps showed huge regions as controlled by “ Spain,” but this was hardly the case, as large and powerful indigenous peoples from many regions persisted well into the nineteenth century.

California was heir to all of these developments and the Spanish colonialism that took root there was diverse, messy, and at times contradictory. It was anything but a story of Spanish control and indigenous acceptance. The extensive writings of the Franciscan missionaries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries bear eloquent testimony to the fact that, even in long-established mission compounds, missionaries knew that they could never assume that external conformity implied indigenous acceptance of subservient status. This part of the story was completely ignored during the “Spanish revival” era, when self-sacrificing, heroic missionaries and happy, contented Indians dominated the narrative. The assumption that California was exceptional meant that California identity could exist in blissful isolation from the issues and tensions that dominated the rest of the Spanish Empire.

Second, people. One of the most striking things about the photographs and paintings that were created concerning the California missions during the latter part of the nineteenth century by artists like Carlton Watkins and Edwin Deakin, is that they were generally bereft of people. The focus is on the structures, generally in various states of disrepair, but hearkening back to their days of glory and prosperity. In this, these later artists were quite different from artists who portrayed the missions who had had actual experience with them. People like Louis Choris, Ferdinand Deppe, and Edward Vischer always foregrounded indigenous, Spanish, and Mexican people in their portrayal of the missions. They knew what contemporary pastoral ministers will be happy to tell you: The “church” is not the building, but the people.

The logical, and sad, outcome of all of this was the fourth grade project that Matthew Gush describes in his introductory essay that follows this one. The focus of that project for elementary school children was on getting the buildings right, the angles precise, the bell towers in the correct place, that sort of thing. When I first learned of this project many years ago, I was as puzzled as I originally had been when I saw that supermarkets looked like churches. After all, we had never made sugar cube models of the Empire State building or the George Washington Bridge when I was in grammar school in New York. When the nuns at St. Columba on West 25th Street showed us New York pictures, they were always pictures of people—of immigrants crowding onto the deck of a boat and weeping for joy when they first saw the Statue of Liberty, of crowds in Times Square celebrating the end of World War II, or of Lou Gehrig saying goodbye at Yankee Stadium. The message was that New York was its people. That was a quite different message from the one that was contained in the fourth grade exercise, that California was its buildings.

Fortunately, this fourth grade project has been discontinued in California schools. I myself hope that its abandonment will lead to the abandonment of another California cottage industry: Picture books, travel guides, and brochures that are filled with “honey shots” of mission façades set against a pure blue sky, bell towers dominating the landscape, and incredibly lush gardens. These productions, in other words, are filled with images of California’s missions that bear absolutely no resemblance to the actual missions that existed from 1769 into the 1840s. These pictures, just like the fourth grade project, do not offer any indication that the California missions were overwhelmingly indigenous locations. Two priests, a handful of soldiers, and hundreds or thousands of native peoples populated the spaces. These venues were places that were as varied, diverse, and contradictory as the three centuries of Spanish colonialism that gave birth to them had been. They were places of pain and joy, of suffering and hope, of violence and survival, of death and birth. Matthew Gush’s photos, which deliberately focus on these places from unusual angles, invite us to enter these locations from different places of our minds. He includes the people who currently worship in these churches, and whose presence demonstrates that the California missions continue to be re-created anew in each generation. Matthew does not tell us in his essay why he decided to begin photographing these missions, but I for one am very glad that he did.



Notes

  • Photography and image descriptions by Matthew Gush; essay by Robert M. Senkewicz.

This is part one of a diptych on the California missions. For part two, see Matthew Gush, “RE-Present: Seeing California Missions Through A Contemporary Lens.”


Matthew Gush
is the university photographer at California State University, Fullerton, and is the Boom California 2017-2018 Photographer in Residence. For more of his work see https://www.humanexp.co/.

Robert M. Senkewicz is professor of History at Santa Clara University. With Rose Marie Beebe he has written a number of books on pre-U.S. California, including most recently, Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary, and a contribution to Steven W. Hackel, ed., The Worlds of Junipero Serra Historical Contexts and Cultural Representations (UC Press, 2018).

Copyright: © 2018 Matthew Gush and Robert M. Senkewicz. 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/.