Tag: Culture


My Father’s Charreria, My Rodeo

by Romeo Guzmán

From Boom Spring 2014, Vol. 4, No. 1

A paisa journey.

Ramón Ayala and Los Bravos del Norte opened their set at Arena nightclub in Hollywood with “Que me lleve el diablo” on that night in 2004.¹ As the heartwrenching lyrics and Ayala’s melodic accordion reached every corner of the club, Adrián Félix, at the time my roommate at UCLA, motioned with his eyebrows and index finger to two young women sitting at a table across the dance floor. Before we had even asked them to dance, sweat accumulated on my palms and a pool of moisture formed in my lower back. I knew how to dance about as well as many newly arrived Mexican immigrants are able to speak English. Instead of striking a beautiful balance of smooth, graceful, and intentional movement, I awkwardly jerked my partner forward, back, and to the side, occasionally bumping into other dancers. To make matters worse, the boots I borrowed from Adrián were one size too large. The double socks that I wore to rectify the situation only added to my tenuous footing. My pants for the night, also his, were the tightest I had ever worn, and the black Stetson hat and long-sleeve button-down shirt were just a little too big. The only thing that was mine, by way of my father, was a shiny nickel and brass belt buckle.

My first attempt to crossover into the regional Mexican music scene was about a decade before my days at UCLA. I grew up in Pomona, California, a predominately working-class neighborhood composed of African Americans and migrants from Mexico, Central America, the Philippines, Cambodia, and Vietnam. At school I played soccer on the playground, after school in the streets and our backyard, and on Sundays on worn, hole-filled soccer fields. I hung out with children of Mexican migrants like me, who mainly spoke Spanish as well as those who preferred to speak English like I did. At home, I listened to my older brother’s music: Green Day, Nirvana, and Stone Temple Pilots, as well as classic bands like The Velvet Underground. It wasn’t until I entered junior high, in the early 1990s, that I actively sought out music and dances.

Like many second-generation Mexicans in Southern California at the time, I fell into banda music’s raucous embrace. Futboleros, rockeros, Morrissey aficionados, and even rappers like Akwid, donned paisa outfits and attended bailes.² Both young men and women wore tight pants, cowboy boots, cintos piteados, and leather vests adorned with regional hometown or home state identification as well as paisa imagery—a cockfight, bull riders, horses. Usually silk crema de seda shirts, often intricate Versace knock-offs that incorporated paisa designs, were worn solely by young men. To complete the outfit, young people hung a correa, a miniature leather horsewhip, from their belt loops. Lacking money from a part-time job, I used all of my available resources to put together a passable outfit. In my father’s closet, I found solid-colored silk shirts and more stylized ones that clearly dated themselves to the 1980s, though they lacked paisa motifs. Aside from being made of silk, they had very little in common with the crema de seda shirts. From the corner of my father’s sock and underwear drawer, I dug out a shiny belt buckle featuring a man astride a bucking bull. I was out of luck in the shoe department: my normally cool-looking Adidas Sambas stuck out pretty badly on the dance floor. I attended a few backyard parties and quinceañeras, but ultimately felt too awkward in my pseudo-paisa outfits. In high school, I continued to listen to Banda El Recodo, Banda El Limon, and the norteño band Los Tigres del Norte, but at dances sported soccer jerseys and T-shirts, always with the classic black-and-white Adidas Sambas.

In both of these two periods and outfits, however, my father’s belt buckle remained at the center of my clumsy and piecemeal efforts to enter the Los Angeles banda and norteño scenes. My father told me it was a gift. A friend had given it to him after he rode his first bull. But that was about all I knew. For many years, I imagined him learning to ride bulls on a small ranch in Jalisco or in La Ceja, Zacatecas, where he grew up, under the mentorship of a wise old viejito, a charro guru. Maybe I, as his son, with the belt buckle as my center of gravity, could conquer dancing, and through this movement claim for myself a direct connection to the Mexican countryside and thus Mexicaness.

In 2007, as I prepared to leave California for graduate school, I asked my father more about the belt buckle. I was surprised to find out that he learned to ride bulls in Santa Barbara in the 1980s. A white man named Tom taught him. Tom, as a gesture of friendship, gave him the belt buckle after he rode his first bull. The buckle, like Tom, is American. I placed the belt buckle in my suitcase and didn’t think much more about its history.

When my father passed away on 13 August 2013, the buckle became the most significant object linking me to my father, to his past. I was consumed with a desire to know more about it and my father. I pored over photo albums in the garage, watched American rodeo competitions on television, asked my mother about my father’s bull-riding days, and read about American rodeos and charrería. I came to appreciate that the belt buckle’s narrative, including my own imagined one, is a quintessentially migrant, Mexican, and Californian story. Let us start at the beginning: before the United States–Mexico border was erected, before the rise of the US and Mexican nation-states.

Nicholas Guzmán, shown here in his blue goalie’s jersey, with his soccer team.

Rodeo’s roots go back to the Spanish conquest. Scholars aptly describe the conquest as an encounter between two distinct civilizations, noting the arrival of new diseases, technology, and animals to the Americas. John Lockhart, Caterina Pizzigoni, and other historians document the movement of ideas and practices between Spaniards and indigenous populations.³

They highlight the transformation of language, the changing layout of indigenous homes, and perhaps most emblematically, the forging of a new Catholicism. These new practices, of course, took place within a strict racial hierarchy and rigid monitoring of social practices, where Spanish priests often prohibited indigenous populations from practicing their own religion.

The collective practices known as charrería, notes Mary Lou Compte, are a product of this complicated and nuanced dynamic, with the fiesta as its main source. Colonial society celebrated “anniversaries of saints, local traditions, pagan gods, special fairs and markets, and patriotic holidays” by dancing, listening to music, gambling, drinking, engaging in sport, praying, and attending mass.4

In the sixteenth century, sporting activities included fighting on horseback with lances as well as grabbing bulls by the tail and throwing them to the ground.5

The growth of ranching during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries contributed to the evolution of charreria. As rules prohibiting non-Spaniards from riding horses eased up and more and more indigenous and mestizos began working on haciendas, a “uniquely Mexican sport” emerged: charreada or charrería, events that showcased the skills of charros, the horsemen.6

Nicholas Guzmán riding a bull, date unknown.

Nueva España, a colony of Spain, extended well into the present day US Southwest, with ranching reaching California by the mid-eighteenth century. As late as the 1860s, the culture of the charros maintained a strong presence throughout California. In Santa Barbara, the pastoral economy connected classes and helped create community identity and cohesion, argues historian Albert Camarillo.7

The Mexican-American War of 1848, dubbed La invasión norteamericana by Mexicans, brought many changes, among them an influx of white Americans. As Mexicans and white Americans worked together on cattle ranches, the latter adopted many of the skills and techniques of Mexican charros or vaqueros. It was during this period that white Americans began to host events that “featured most of the very same contests that continued to be part of the traditional Hispanic celebrations,” writes Compte, “including bull fights, bull riding, corer al gallo, sortijas, picking up objects, steer roping, team roping, and bronc riding.”8

The American cowboy was on the horizon, but the charro was still the main man in the arena.

From 1883 to 1916, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows toured throughout the United States and presented Americans with a romantic and gloried image of the American cowboy. At the same time that the cowboy became ingrained in the American imagination, the political, social, and economic decline of the Mexican community in Santa Barbara was solidified. During the 1860s and 1870s, the local pastoral economy slowly lost out to the capitalist economy, which produced new jobs in tourisms, construction, and commercial agriculture. By the 1890s it was not uncommon to find entire Mexican families working in fruit canneries, in the almond industry, and harvesting walnuts. Along with these changes came a loss of political power and the creation of Mexican barrios. By the end of the century, 90 percent of the Mexican population lived in a seven-block radius between Vine and State Street, known as Pueblo Viejo. These changes, writes Camarillo, established the social, political, and economic conditions of the twentieth century. With the onset of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, and especially World War I, newly arrived Mexicans entered a segmented labor system and helped form a second barrio on the lower eastside, between Milpas, Ortega, and State Street.9

As the Santa Barbara that we would recognize today took form, the American rodeo moved away from its Mexican past and into the realm of sport. In 1922, the first World’s Championship Cowboy Contest took place at Madison Square Garden in New York. By 1936, practices now associated with rodeo were organized into a single sport and, according to Compte “promoted the myth that their sport came directly from informal contests among Anglo cowboys, ignoring the Hispanic influence along with the theatrical.”10

South of the US-Mexico border a similar consolidation took place. After the Mexican Revolution, there was an effort by the state, intellectuals, and citizens to define Mexico’s past and present as well as to make Indians, peasants, and other corporate groups into “good Mexican citizens.”11

In 1933, the same year as the founding of the Federación Mexicana de Charros, President Abelardo L. Rodríguez declared charrería Mexico’s national sport.12

As the century progressed, the image of the American cowboy and Mexican charro grew in strength while they grew apart, ensuring the divorce of American rodeo from its Mexican influence and past. By the 1990s, when I was in high school, Clint Eastwood was an all-American cowboy and Vicente Fernandez was Mexico’s favorite charro—and they had next to nothing in common in my mind.

Nicolás Guzmán was born on a small ranch called Los Pozitos in La Ceja, García de la Cadena, Zacatecas, in 1958. He was the third child of José María Guzmán Castañeda and María Arellano Prieto de Guzmán. The family worked a small plot of land and subsisted by planting corn, beans, and other vegetables. Like many other Zacatecano families, they migrated south, to the developing state of Jalisco.

The Guzmán family in 1982 with Nicholas wearing the belt buckle.

In 1966 José María, his wife María, and their three children Santos, Manuel, and Nicolás settled in the Colonia Santa Margarita, a poor working-class neighborhood near the city of Guadalajara. During this time, José María supported his expanding family by working in the United States for a few months at a time. My grandmother recalls that he first migrated in 1958, as a contracted bracero. Like other men, he overstayed his contract and found other work. But even with the dollars he sent south, his family struggled economically. Led by Manuel, the oldest son, they did their best to scrap together a living. Manuel sold insurance; the younger boys sold gum on city buses and shined shoes just outside of Guadalajara’s Cathedral. María took in other people’s laundry and, along with the girls, maintained a tidy home.

These were challenging times for the family, but the boys, my uncles, have fond memories of their youth. There was little that Manuel, Nicolás, and the two younger brothers, Lupe and Ismael, loved more that playing and watching soccer. They cheered for America, a Mexican national club team from Mexico City, and the bitter rivals of Guadalajara’s Chivas. Indeed, their love for the game has transcended time and space, and imparted the new generation with a poetic appreciation of the game and some skills to play it. In our most-recent small-sided game, Maylo (short for Ismael) told us why my father decided to become a goalie. During a hard-fought match at Estadio Jalisco, America’s goalie Prudencio Cortes made numerous saves, including a set of three consecutive shots on goal from close range. Nicolas was hooked.

His first goalie jersey was an American high school letterman sweater that his father bought at a second hand store in the United States. The goals he defended were all on hard dirt fields with rocks scattered throughout the pitch. At only 5 feet, 7 inches and 130 pounds, Nicolás was not the strongest nor most athletic youngster. Luckily, in the goal, measuring and calculating one’s position is as important as one’s athletic ability. The difference between a save and a goal is often contingent on shuffling one’s feet no more than a foot or two before the opposing player takes a shot and then, of course, the actual dive. By diving at a slight forward angle the goalie can meet the ball early on in its trajectory, cutting it off before it moves farther and farther away from one’s body and hands. My father imparted these insights to me during drills and penalty kicks in our backyard, directly in front of a makeshift soccer goal that we constructed using white PVC pipes. By his own admission he never mastered diving at a slight forward angle. Yet the careful observation and meticulous calculations required of a goalie fit well with Nicolás’s appreciation of math and his often neurotic tendencies. Untied shoelaces, unmade beds, and carelessly scattered toys troubled his sense of, and need for, order. I suspect this is why he enjoyed the responsibility of being the last man and having a type of horizontal bird’s eye perspective of the field. From the goal, one can see all the offensive plays develop and more importantly, can yell out instructions to one’s fellow players. And of course, he also enjoyed the acrobatics of being goalie. He loved that whether he was diving up to block a shot near the top of the cross bar or down to the ground, he had to consistently fight and defy gravity, all while ensuring a safe and soft landing.

At home in Pomona many years later, Nicholas Guzmán wearing the belt buckle.

During the week, Nicolás spent his days and evenings working at Música Lemus, a record store in downtown, Guadalajara. This provided him access to all the latest music and a future playlist for his car, truck, and home stereo: English giants like the Beatles, French divas like Francoise Hardy, the international and trilingual star Jannette, Dan Fogelberg, Don McLean, John Denver, and others. Nicolás did not know French or English, but this did not matter; like others of his generation, he sang along, making up the meaning of each word, refrain, and chorus. His pants, like his hair were long, flowing out at their ends.

This modern urban sensibility was coupled with a romantic idealism for the countryside. From his childhood, Nicolás retained memories of large open spaces and a rugged simplicity. These visions of Zacatecas were layered with portraits of the American West from films, particularly those of his favorite cowboy, Clint Eastwood, whom he preferred over John Wayne. Nicolás didn’t buy Wayne’s portrayal of cowboy life, finding it inauthentic and Wayne himself a few pounds too heavy to be a “real cowboy.” In both the American West and rural Mexico, Nicolás found simplicity, dignity, and directness. One of his most common expressions, often evoked as a demand for clarity, was “vamos al grano.” The English translation for grano is grain or bean, and the expression vamos al grano is understood to mean “let’s get to the point,” or “let’s get to root of it.”

Romeo Guzmán in 2013.

In the summer of 1977, Nicolás met Francisca. She was born and raised in Guadalajara, but had moved to Mexicali and then later to South El Monte in the San Gabriel Valley near Los Angeles, where she completed the last two years of high school. That summer, she, along with her siblings, lived in the Colonia Santa Margarita, just a few blocks from the Guzmán household. After only two weeks of going out and very much al grano, Nicolás confessed to Francisca that he wanted to marry her. After that summer, they sent dozens of postcards and letters and visited each other in Guadalajara and South El Monte as often as possible. A year later, they got married in Guadalajara and a year after that migrated to Los Angeles.

Desperate for work and without much luck in Los Angeles, Nicolás reached out to his father. At the time, José María was working for a landscaping company in Santa Barbara pruning trees and living near Milpas Street, in the historic Mexican barrio of Santa Barbara. José María found Nicolás a job working as a field hand on a ranch in Montecito, a wealthy city near Santa Barbara. Nicolás worked alongside several white Americans, including Tom. It was with these white American men and not a Mexican vaquero that he learned to ride bulls.

The key to a successful ride lies in careful attention to detail, split-second decision-making, and purposeful and graceful movement as much as strength—much like guarding the goal in soccer. Great bull riders make this all look easy, but the various factors to consider are pretty daunting. Bulls use their speed, power, and movement to throw off a bull rider. They can change direction, buck and kick their legs in numerous directions, and drop the front of their body. To stay on, bull riders use their inner thigh muscles and legs to embrace the body of the bull, move their groin and upper body in response to the bull’s movement, and try to maintain a center of gravity. Hitting the ground, of course, is inevitable for every bull rider. As the cowboy saying goes, “There was never a horse that couldn’t be rode; there never was a man that couldn’t be throwed.”13

Tom taught Nick, as they affectionately called him, the basics on small bulls in the open range and gave him the belt buckle after he successfully rode his first bull. Nick wore it to formal and informal bull-riding events throughout Santa Barbara County. On one occasion, with José María in the audience, he successfully rode a bull for eight seconds, scoring the highest points and taking home a small pot of money. Nick rode bulls from 1979 to 1981, leaving bull riding when he took his wife and three children, including me, back to Guadalajara.

Although he never returned to bull riding, the belt buckle remained a mainstay in his wardrobe. He wore it with regular T-shirts, polo shirts, and long-sleeve dress shirts. For Nicolás, the buckle was a point of pride, as it is for many rodeo riders. The history of rodeo buckles is relatively recent, and tied to the recent history of rodeo. In the late nineteenth century, cowboys wore suspenders instead of belts. With the rise of organized rodeo competitions, belt buckles were awarded as trophies. As the twentieth century progressed, it became easier to mass-produce belt buckles, increasing their popularity and use.14

Today, buckles continue to be awarded as prizes at rodeo competitions and worn inside and outside of formal events.

Approximately 2 inches in circumference and made of nickel giving it some heft, my father’s belt buckle has at its center, in brass relief, a man on top of a bucking bull, the man’s right hand waving in the air. It can pass for Mexican, but more because of the great diversity of Mexican belt buckles than for its own intrinsic qualities. Mexican belts and buckles vary in size, material, and imagery. One of the most common belts is the cinto piteado. Pita, a fiber found in the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, is stitched into leather to form floral, charrería, prehispanic patterns and imagery, and individuals’ initials and hometown. This artisanal practice has its roots in Spanish leather handcraft, with noticeable Arab influences. Interestingly, the mecca for cintos piteados is Colotlán, a small town at the northern tip of the state of Jalisco.15

Due the state of Jalisco’s strange configuration, Colotlán, is 75 miles north of my father’s birthplace, García de la Cadena, Zacatecas, and about 125 miles north of the city of his youth, Guadalajara. In addition to the cinto piteado, there are large, oval, buckles, made from a variety of metals and sometimes the horn of a bull.

The narrative I have now constructed about the origins of my father’s belt buckle, particularly where and how he learned to ride bulls, fits well within what we know about Mexican migrants and migration. Yet, Nicolás’s story also illustrates how much the lines between rural and urban and Mexican and American blur into and layer on top of each other. More importantly, my father and I, just like other migrants and children of migrants of our respective generations, used available resources—like the rodeo buckle—to connect with Mexico and identify as Mexican. I believe that bull riding was an expression of both my father’s romantic and idealist vision of American cowboy culture and his place of birth, La Ceja, Zacatecas. His vision of both these places was mediated through his experience as a young man in the urban city of Guadalajara. Some of the skills that bull riding required were fostered in the goal on dirt soccer fields. That he learned to ride a bull from a white American, speaks to the movement of people, popular culture, and everyday practices across the US-Mexico border. The belt buckle contains and represents this complex and nuanced narrative. This is why my father cherished it so much and why it has served me as a type of amulet. It came with me when I left California to attend Columbia University, in New York City, for doctoral studies in History. I wore it to my first graduate seminar, to the first lecture I gave on migration, and to my discussion sections with undergraduates. And, I wear it now, as I sit in a Mexico City coffee shop, writing out its history.


All images courtesy of Romeo Guzmán.

1 The literal translation is “may the devil take me.”

2 Josh Kun, “California Sueños,” Boom: A Journal of California 1 (Spring 2011): no 1, 62.

3 James Lockhart, The Nahuas After the Conquest: A Social and Cultural History of the Indians of Central Mexico, Sixteenth Through Eighteenth Century (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994). Caterina Pizzigoni. The Life Within: Local Indigenous Society in Mexico’s Toluca Valley, 1650–1800. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013).

4 Mary Lou LeCompte, “The Hispanic Influence on the History of Rodeo, 1823–1922,” Journal of Sport History 12 (Spring 1985): no.1, 22.

5 Compte. “The Hispanic Influence.”

6 Compte. “The Hispanic Influence.”

7 Albert Camarillo, Chicanos in a Changing Society: From Mexican Pueblos to American Barrios in Santa Barbara and Southern California, 1848–1930 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979).

8 Compte, “The Hispanic Influence,” 33.

9 Camarillo, Chicanos in a Changing Society.

10 Compte, “The Hispanic Influence,” 21.

11 For an introduction to Mexican nation-building after the revolution, see Gilbert M. Joseph and Daniel Nugent, eds., Everyday Forms of State Formation (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994) and Mary Kay Vaughan, and Stephen E. Lewis, eds., The Eagle and the Virgin (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006). For case studies, see Christopher Boyer, Becoming Campesinos: Politics, Identity, and Agrarian Struggle in Postrevolutionary Michoacán (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003) and Alexander Dawson, Indian and the Nation in Revolutionary Mexico (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2004).

12 See Autry Museum’s online text for the exhibit “Art of the Charreria: A Mexican Tradition,” http://theautry.org/explore/exhibits/charreria.html.

13 Quoted in Mody C. Boatright, “The American Rodeo,” American Quarterly 16 (Summer 1964): no. 2, part 1, 195–202.

14 Lauren Halley, “A Short History of Cowboy Buckles,” American Cowboy, http://www.americancowboy.com/gear/short-history-cowboy-buckles.

15 See Autry Museum’s online text for the exhibit “Art of the Charreria: A Mexican Tradition,” http://theautry.org/explore/exhibits/charreria.html.


Postcards From the Future

by Kristin Miller

From Boom Winter 2013, Vol. 3, No. 4

Utopian north, dystopian south

Touring around California you could be forgiven for thinking you’re living in the future, and not just because of the Silicon Valley wizardry that surrounds us all. We also have to thank Hollywood’s movie magic, which has turned the state into a backdrop for countless science fiction films presenting futures both terrible and wondrous. It’s not just that so many are filmed here—writers and filmmakers have been exploring the future through California sets for decades.

In the early days of big-budget sci-fi, New York often embodied the worst fears about society, urban living, and technology: Soylent Green (1972), Escape from New York (1981), and others capitalized on New York’s bankrupt and crime-ridden nadir—a genre that Miriam Greenberg refers to as “New York Exploitation.”¹ With the city’s campaign to reposition itself in the 1990s, Los Angeles became the symbol of urban blight, perfectly demonstrated by John Carpenter’s relocation of his Snake Plissken sequel, Escape from L.A. (1996). While dystopian sci-fi also has a home in the United Kingdom (thanks, George Orwell) and has been used for self-reflection by most of the world’s filmmaking cultures, there is something about the frequency with which California and “the future” are used synonymously.

In sci-fi movies and the books that serve as their inspiration, the future of the Golden State goes something like this: 10 to 150 years from the present, California has succumbed to natural disaster/economic and governmental collapse/a pandemic, which leaves Southern California a corporate-fascist-military state with gross financial and racial inequality and urban squalor—while Northern California rips up its pavement, learns permaculture, gets spiritual, and models better living through technology and communitarian diversity.

This binary began in the 1940s with Earth Abides (1949), a book about a scientist starting over in Berkeley after a global pandemic, while in Aldous Huxley’s Ape and Essence (1948) Los Angeles slouches toward the apocalypse. The movies Planet of the Apes, The Terminator, Escape from L.A., Star Trek, and the books Ecotopia, The Fifth Sacred Thing (soon to be a feature film), and Snowcrash all play variations on this theme. Collapse and division is almost a foregone conclusion at this point—not just a future that might happen, but one many almost expect and therefore accept.

“Every American city boasts an official insignia and slogan. Some have municipal mascots, colors, songs, birds, trees, even rocks. But Los Angeles alone has adopted an official nightmare,” writes Mike Davis in Ecology of Fear.² Hollywood has perpetuated this dystopian vision of its own home in the southland. From the Planet of the Apes series (1968–1973) on, future LA has been routinely trashed by nuclear, technological, and automotive catastrophe, police brutality, pollution, and crime. A Malthusian nightmare, the city is dark, filthy, and collapsing under the weight of its immigrant population, or barely held in check by totalitarian government and structural inequality—what Mike Davis called LA’s “spatial apartheid.”³

Downtown Los Angeles in 2154 in Elysium, TriStar Pictures, 2013.

Davis notes that this was so accepted as a likely trajectory for the city, that it was written into an LA redevelopment plan as a warning of what could happen were the plan not adopted. The plan, LA 2000: A City for the Future, calls this “the Blade Runner scenario: the fusion of individual cultures into a demotic polyglotism ominous with unresolved hostilities.”4  While it might be tempting to dismiss this as the fever dream of the bad old days, before hipster gentrification, smart growth, and downtown redevelopment, Southland Tales (2006), In Time (2011), and Elysium (2013) have done little to alter its imagery.

Northern California-as-utopia, on the other hand, is strongly linked to the countercultural movement of the sixties, with its guides for technologically advanced back-to-the-land living. One can read Ernest Callenbach’s influential novel Ecotopia (1975) as the possible future seeded by Whole Earth Catalog. Ecotopia is a fictional “field study” of a future Pacific Northwest society that has split from an apocalyptic United States and is governed according to ecological principles. While much technology has been abandoned, the Ecotopians have selectively retained public transit, electric cars, networked computers, and improved recycling (Callenbach was a longtime resident of Berkeley). Ecotopia‘s themes were later picked up and elaborated in the eco-feminist tales of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home (1985), a cultural anthropology of latter-day Napa Valley-ites who have returned to indigenous ways; Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing (1993) about a pagan, nonviolent San Francisco threatened by southern biological warfare; and Octavia Butler’s Parable books (1993, 1998) where refugees from the LA wasteland grow a new eco-religion, Earthseed, in the forests of Mendocino.

These texts depict Northern California as central to both speculative and practical visions of sustainable survival. While Bay Area research parks, universities, and experiments in urban living serve as laboratories for near-term development, the region is also a visual and narrative shorthand for distant, alternative, and ideal futures. The twin giants of popular sci-fi, Star Trek and Star Wars, both used Northern California as a location—for the headquarters of the United Federation of Planets in the Star Trek universe, and as site of the water and forest planets (Naboo and Endor) of Star Wars‘ “galaxy far, far away.” Wired published a paean to San Francisco upon the release of the latest Star Trek film, explaining why there couldn’t be a more perfect location for its technologically idyllic future:

“What sets Star Trek apart is the attention it pays to one little city, barely seven miles across, when the other points on its journey are not cities or countries, but planets and star systems…And it’s a city whose culture of curiosity, craftsmanship and tolerance have left an indelible mark on one of the world’s most successful sci-fi franchises.”5

In the frontier myth of American history, California represents the completion of a manifestly destined expansion across the continent. It’s easy to see Utopian San Francisco and “Hell A” as twin land’s-ends for idealists and cynics. In the north, beyond the Golden Gate there lies only “space, the final frontier.”6 Conversely, in Richard Kelly’s apocalyptic Southland Tales (2006), the Santa Monica pier is where the world ends “not with a whimper, but with a bang” taking LA’s palimpsest of corrupt politicians, soulless celebs, activist porn stars, and deranged cops with it.7

A third, smaller, but consistent vein of sci-fi unites both utopian and dystopian futures without mapping them onto a Nor Cal–So Cal binary, and dispenses with the quasi-biblical tales of Sodom and Eden. More importantly, it allows the possibility of multiple futures for rethinking the present. A number of films depict the north as a dystopia-within-utopia: Gattaca (1997) set in a near future where genetic modification is cheaply available, and earlier films such as THX 1138 (1971) and Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), in which developments that promised well-being and peace surveil and threaten human civilization, speak to an unease with the promise of information technology. Similarly, the rebooted Planet of the Apes films have replaced fortress LA with the sleek research complexes of Silicon Valley. In William Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, San Francisco suffers the noir-ish malaise of Blade Runner LA; this time due to free-agent capitalism run amok, with a community of squatters inhabiting the rusting hulk of the Bay Bridge, and bike messengers, data pattern analysts, and a rogue pop idol with artificial intelligence in the lead roles. In the south, Kim Stanely Robinson’s Three Californias trilogy (1984–1990) posits three possible directions for Orange County: The Wild Shore follows nuclear apocalypse, The Gold Coast extrapolates a 2027 “autopia” from 1980s suburbia and hyperconsumption, and Pacific Edge allows that even the OC might have access to a sustainable future, as communities reclaim the coast from cars and concrete.

The sci-fi imagination has a strong link (one might even call it a feedback loop) to the tech and entertainment industries that drive California’s economy, and therefore, its very real, near-term growth. Sci-fi narratives are, after all, allegories for the times in which they are created, but they also generate a nostalgia for past images of the future, which shape communities’ actions as they build and plan—and as those communities experience their lived environments. Some critics have made much of the fact that Ridley Scott originally planned to film Blade Runner in New York and the studio requested a location change. But this is largely irrelevant, as the movie’s imagery and subject matter have resonated with audiences, and played a huge role in how LA is viewed and how the city has imagined itself over the past few decades. On the day I visited to photograph the atrium of the Bradbury Building, the only other people present were fans of the movie looking for traces of that elegantly distressed future. Repetition of the tropes of urban decay versus ecotopia might become self-reinforcing in a way that precludes thinking differently about the present, or even seeing that the future that we’ve come to expect might not be the one we’re likely to get.

Fredric Jameson argues that the value of utopian/dystopian sci-fi is not that it delivers images of possible futures, but instead is its ability to “defamiliarize and restructure our own present.”8 The photographs in the slideshow above show how filmmakers have taken familiar California locations from downtown Los Angeles to Berkeley to do just that.

Download the embed code to share Kristin Miller’s slideshow on your website.


Image at top: San Francisco in 2259 in Star Trek: Into Darkness, Paramount Pictures, 2013.

1 Miriam Greenberg, Branding New York: How a City in Crisis was Sold to the World (New York: Routledge, 2008), 157.

2 Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear (New York: Picador, 1999), 359.

3 Mike Davis, City of Quartz (New York: Verso, 2006), 230.

4 As quoted in Ecology of Fear, 359.

5 Ted Trautman, “Why Star Trek Made San Francisco the Center of Its Futuristic Utopia,” Wired, 21 May 2013. Accessed online: http://www.wired.com/underwire/2013/05/star-trek-san-francisco/? cid=8173514.

6 Carl Abbott, “Falling into History: The Imagined Wests of Kim Stanley Robinson,” Western Historical Quarterly 34 (Spring 2003): 29.

7 Richard Kelly, Southland Tales, 2006.

8 Frederick Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future (New York: Verso, 2005), 286.


Future of the University

We asked Alessandro Duranti, author and distinguished professor of anthropology and dean of social sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles, how universities will intersect with society in 2050.

Boom: Do you think that many of the disciplines that we inherited from the nineteenth century will still be around, and will they look the same in the future?

Alessandro Duranti: When I started doing this work as a dean, my first idea was: Why don’t we just forget the departments? Why don’t we just think: Who do you want to play with? Who do you want to be with? That should be where you go. And then let’s see what happens in the twenty-first century. But that’s a really hard thing to do. And I didn’t want to be Gorbachev. I didn’t want to destroy the whole thing before we figure out where to go. So my solution has been to say, well, OK, let’s create a parallel universe inside the university that is much more flexible. Let’s play with that and let’s leave the old structure the way it is. That’s the idea behind our innovation lab—to take examples of collaboration and innovation that work and say: Let’s do that. That will be our play place. And let’s find money to do that. And donors are very excited about that. They like this idea of interdisciplinary collaborations.

Boom: Innovation is not a new mantra in some parts of the university, but in others it really is. How do you see bringing the spirit and practices of innovation into disciplines that have been analytical and contemplative?

Duranti: All the young people who have made millions of dollars—and come to give talks to the students who participate in our Startup UCLA— tell these stories about failure. It’s a mantra. You’ve got to fail before you learn how to do the thing you’re trying to do. We don’t have this model. We have the idea that you do the thing, and it should be good, and then you stay there forever and ever. The community that’s interesting to me is one that is much more flexible, that reacts in a shorter time, that is well funded. Faculty come together; they invent something new. It could be they invent a new method, a new model, a new way of working together, a new way of teaching, a new way of collaborating with people outside of the academy. It will be that kind of space that will allow something that builds on what you know but that is different.

Boom: How is thinking of ourselves as engaged in constructing a future together with business, government, nonprofits, society, or communities changing what we do?

Duranti: Hanging out with business people, which these days I do more than I ever did before in my life, one of the most interesting things I’ve found is that they’re interested in people who are creative—that means that the humanities is very important for them —but they are also interested in people who can work together with other people in teams. So much of scholarly work traditionally is Lone Ranger kind of thing. The model of the lab in the sciences is very useful to think with and to use in the humanities and social sciences. And we have a few good examples of that in the social sciences, but that’s not the usual way of doing research and solving problems. So that’s why when I think about the future, I think about these other models, these other ways of doing things that are built on collaborations that might have been unthinkable ten or twenty years ago.

Boom: You’ve recently written a manifesto of sorts about how your discipline of anthropology should change to meet the challenges of the present and the future while recognizing that from the beginning it has been dependent on being engaged with the world outside academia, from donors who supported the first anthropologists at the University of California to employers who hire graduates today.

Duranti: We have always been engaged to some extent. And engagement with people who are outside of academia—and people who are not the state or the federal government—means that we actually need to be able to talk to the public at large. When you convince a potential donor to give you some money, you have to explain why it’s a good idea. And that actually makes you think, what is a good idea? What is it good for? Is it good for society? Do we really improve the human condition? Do we do something useful for people? So there’s that side of fundraising, for example, that has all kinds of implications about the relevance of our work for people outside of academia, which is something that often gets forgotten, not only in the social sciences, but everywhere in the university. Faculty need to be able to publish where they’re going to be recognized as scholars by their peers; that’s very important. But at the same time, we also need to write in a way that the public at large can understand. We have to be good at telling stories. And do it in a way that people outside academia hear the story and see the pictures and understand what it is that we do, because then they can see themselves.

Boom: What would you include in a time capsule for 2050?

Duranti: It would be interesting to look at the students coming to campus in the morning. What is that they carry in their backpacks? Will people still be carrying things in 2050? That’s an interesting question. We know now that they carry their phones and they look at them all the time. That we hadn’t seen before. They also carry some books, which we had a long time ago. But in 2050, what will they be carrying, if anything at all?


Image at top: The contents of a backpack belonging to a third-year, double-major UC student, 2013. PHOTOGRAPH BY JILLIAN KERN.


Speculative Infrastructures

by Michael Ziser

From Boom Winter 2013, Vol. 3, No. 4

Reading our present dilemmas in science fiction’s past.

Science fiction is often charged with naïve technological optimism and historical amnesia. But for present-day Californians struggling with a wide range of environmental and social problems, science fiction might just provide the perspective we need to successfully pivot from the boom times of the twentieth century to the messy prospect of the century ahead. It won’t be the techno-futurist elements of science fiction—miraculously clean energy sources, flying cars, off-planet factories—that are going to save us, though. The classic works of science fiction have a different, more fatalistic side that speaks more usefully to our current condition, awash as we are in the environmental and social consequences of the Golden State’s postwar boom.

Even as they lived through and contributed to an era of unbridled technological optimism, the giants of postwar science fiction in California brooded not simply over the negative consequences of technology—a common anxiety in the Atomic Age—but also over deeper philosophical questions about what it means to be dependent on and even determined by the technologies that made life in postwar California possible. In the works of three postwar California writers in particular—Ray Bradbury (1940s and 1950s), Robert Heinlein (1950s and 1960s), and Philip K. Dick (1960s and 1970s)—we can watch the rapid development of dams, aqueducts, interstate highways systems, suburban sprawl, and their consequences as they are digested in the speculative cultural form of science fiction. Bradbury dramatizes the personal difficulty of adjusting to the radical novelty of West Coast civilizations carved out of the desert. Heinlein is less haunted by the loss of tradition and more interested in the new political and economic possibilities created by the very artificiality of the postwar environment. And Dick—perhaps the most useful guide to our present—gives full expression to the uncanny sense of being lashed to the decrepit infrastructure of the past. It is this complex exposition of how it feels to be a creature of civic infrastructure—and not teleporters, psionic readers, and hyperdrives—that turns out to be the most prescient vision of California science fiction.

Postwar science fiction is to a surprising degree a phenomenon of the western United States. With a few notable exceptions, the major figures in the development of the genre’s Golden Age and New Wave eras (together covering the late 1930s through the 1970s) all had significant biographical connections to the West—and this at a time when the western states accounted for a small fraction of the total US population (around 10 percent in 1930, rising to 17 percent in 1970). A.E. Van Vogt, Theodore Sturgeon, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Kim Stanley Robinson are but the most celebrated of the hundreds of significant science fiction writers to live and work in California and the far West during this period.

As the producers of Golden Age sci-fi were lured to the region by the new economic opportunities available to writers in the pulp, television, and film industries of Southern California, they were also drawn into an imaginative relationship with California’s physical novelty as a place sprung de novo from the plans of hydraulic engineers, road builders, and tract housing developers. Many of the major themes of science fiction in this period—the experience of living in an arid Martian colony, the palpable sense of depending in a very direct way on large technological systems, unease with the scope and direction of the military and aeronautics industries, the navigation of new social rules around gender and race—can be read as barely veiled references to everyday life in California. For sci-fi writers, teasing out the implications of an era in which entire new civilizations could be conjured almost from nothing through astonishing feats of engineering and capital was a form of realism. They were writing an eyewitness account of what was the most radical landscape-scale engineering project in the history of the world.

By the 1940s, Ray Bradbury’s set of collected stories, The Martian Chronicles, signaled definitively that science fiction had largely moved on from its prewar fixation on interplanetary romance and gee-whiz gizmo stories. While Bradbury drew on an extensive tradition of Mars fiction, the stories have almost nothing in common with Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom novels of the previous generation. They are better understood as explorations of postwar suburbia: John Cheever rocketed to the deep-space exurbs—or rather the dusty precincts of southern California. Instead of playing heroic roles in traditional planetary romances through the conquest or liberation of alien civilizations, Bradbury’s colonists get entangled in far more mundane passions. The first violence arises not from a clash of civilizations but from the jealousy of a Martian husband whose lonely wife dreams of being rescued from her constricted domestic sphere by a space-helmeted courtier from Earth in Bradbury’s “Ylla.” In “The Earth Men,” when human beings first arrive on the red planet in small numbers, they are greeted not by a phalanx of alien troops but rather by the Martian psychiatric bureaucracy, whose flummoxed doctors finally decide that the only way to deal with the peculiar, untreatable aliens who show up claiming to be visitors from another planet is to euthanize them. A subsequent wave of colonists succumbs to a fatal form of mass nostalgic delusion that causes them to mistake the precincts of an alien landscape for their own Midwestern American childhood homes in “The Third Expedition.”

The persistent evocation of arid suburbia is one of the first clues that Bradbury is writing about something more historically specific than a lost prewar America. Although his stories sometimes recapitulate the broad terms of North American colonization—the plague that decimates the native Martian population, the travails of pioneer women on an agricultural frontier, the wholesale emigration of African Americans relieved to be free of the racial hierarchies of the South—they all point toward the western culmination of that colonization along the shores of the Pacific. The stories with the greatest detail reflect the infrastructural and environmental dimensions of the postwar colonization of California. “The Green Morning,” a brief sketch about a Johnny Appleseed figure who successfully converts the arid landscape of Mars into a lush forest, is easily read as an allusion to the irrigation and conversion to agriculture of the desert Southwest, in particular the orange groves of Southern California. A later tale, “Locusts,” follows up this fable of the blooming desert by describing the rapid population of the newly verdant landscape by colonists who arrive, like new Californians stepping off of Santa Fe and Southern Pacific passenger trains, to reshape the landscape into a replica of their Midwestern hometowns. No writer of the period takes as many pains as Bradbury in detailing the material and psychological consequences of the explosion of residential construction in California after World War II.

The nascent environmental misgivings expressed throughout The Martian Chronicles are particularly salient. In the stories “—And the Moon Be Still as Bright” and “The Settlers,” which are sometimes combined into a single tale; the most sympathetic figure, Jeff Spender, bemoans the reckless destruction of the Martian environment, especially the pollution of its scarce water resources, and foresees further degradation by future waves of colonists. “We Earth men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things,” he says, before attempting to kill his fellow colonists to prevent the destruction. The most powerful evocations of environmental unease, however, come not in these flashes of direct preservationism, but in the persistently developed motif of unsettling artificiality in the Martian colonies.

“There Will Come Soft Rains” moves the setting back to Earth (specifically Allendale, California, situated along a significant irrigation canal) and to the modern marvel of the automated home that was the promise of the postwar suburb. The catch is that all of this automation is being carried out in the absence of the intended human inhabitants—a nuclear family—because they have been incinerated in a nuclear holocaust. This story calls attention to the degree to which the terraformed civilization of the postwar West is at once minutely tailored to the material needs of its human residents and at the same time utterly indifferent, if not inimical, to the broader terms of their existence. Modern Californian civilization is but shallowly rooted and easily erased even if its infrastructure persists. The mystifying title of the story—”There Will Come Soft Rains”—connects this existential critique to an environmental one. It is drawn from a World War I–era poem of the same title by Sara Teasdale, which imagines the indifference of nature to mankind’s self-induced extinction. “Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree, / If mankind perished utterly,” the poem reads.

Bradbury’s use of this sentiment complicates it, however. The indifferent cycles of nature that Teasdale invokes are refigured by Bradbury in the automated household, as if all of the technological achievements that were intended to insulate human beings from the environment have become just another implacable form of indifference to human well-being. In this story, long a staple in high school classrooms, Bradbury gives voice to a feeling, which appears again and again in postwar science fiction, that by massively transforming their physical environment, Californians traded exposure to the cycles of “first nature”—the natural world—for a more profound dependency on an equally demanding infrastructural “second nature” made by human beings.

Bradbury’s use of the interlinked story form points to another significant development in the history of science fiction: the shift away from magazine publication toward long-form fiction marketed as novels. Though this was driven by a variety of economic and cultural factors, it dovetailed well with the need for a broader fictional canvas to accommodate the infrastructural ambitions of writers in the 1950s and 1960s. Such longer forms allowed for more thorough evocations of place and deeper critical development of the consequences of speculative infrastructures in the western United States.

Robert Heinlein’s arguably best novel, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, published in 1966, uses the extra space of a long-form novel to craft a story ostensibly about the struggle waged for political self-determination by Loonies, the residents of the moon, which has been turned into a penal colony. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress can be read as a brief for a form of libertarianism (called “rational anarchism” by the chief ideologue in the book) tinctured with the frontier ideology of the nineteenth century American West. But Heinlein is equally alive to the ways in which individual initiative is supported and constrained by technology. The plot to free Luna, as the moon is called, from its earthbound overlords hinges on the sympathies of a self-aware supercomputer nicknamed Mike that can accomplish what the human plotters can only dream about. When the war of independence heats up, it is Mike’s manipulation of the freight catapults that ultimately wins the day. Independence from earthly political and moral authority—the loosening of marital strictures is one major social component of the lunar society—turns out to be deeply dependent on specific infrastructures of transport, communication, and computation. Where Bradbury concentrated on how humans might lag behind in an era of rapid change, Heinlein’s novels depict the slow processes by which cultural practices adapt in response to their transformed material technological conditions.

What is most remarkable about Heinlein’s fictional universes is that his novel technologies are allowed to have shifting histories and contingent futures. Instead of indulging in the engineer’s fantasy of a design that fulfills its specifications to perfection, Heinlein’s worlds are filled with technologies that always produce some form of deficiency or excess that can be turned to unforeseen further use by the processes of history. It was an accident of accounting and computer science that allowed the supercomputer Mike to develop a consciousness that enabled “him” (the gender is actually the subject of some debate in the novel) to evaluate the political status quo for fairness and thus become subject to political persuasion by the human revolutionaries Manny, Wyoh, and Professor de la Paz. And the existence of a mothballed and forgotten wheat-catapult provides the means for the lunar rebellion to escape military suppression. Even the triumphal moment of lunar independence is no stable event: its architects (Mike and Professor de la Paz) die or disappear immediately, and the erosive forces of history immediately start gnawing away at the new state. At the end of the novel, we are left wondering from what corner of the technical zone the next chapter in lunar history will evolve.

Heinlein’s novels on the whole reflect the basic optimism of his era about the potential to remake human civilization by creative reuse and development of technological infrastructure, reflecting a moment in western US history when large state investments were as likely to be seen as liberating new social forms as they were to induce fears of oppression. But they also betray unease about the degree to which the future is determined by technological factors that are nearly impossible to predict or even rationally assess.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress may well have been inspired by a lunar rebellion novel from another California science fiction novel, Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint, published in 1959. While Heinlein rarely allowed his doubts about the knowability of the future effects of technology to derail his certitudes about the politics of daily life, Dick carved out his distinctive niche among sci-fi authors precisely by bodysurfing the new waves of socio-technical innovation as they crashed into the politics of daily life in California. Dick’s short stories from the 1950s register in a direct way the prevailing geopolitical concerns of his time: the war of ideologically opposed factions; the threat of autonomously escalating military conflict, often culminating in complete nuclear annihilation of the Earth’s surface; time travel as a means of confirming, preventing, and sometimes triggering apocalypse; and Mars colonization. But after a great burst of short story production in the early 1950s, Dick returned to many of these materials in a cooler and more metaphysical mode. He focused not just on the threat of cataclysmic violence but on the way the disintegration of modern civilization’s fantasy about itself possesses its own form of productive power. The whiff of atomic panic and red scares that wafted through the stories of so many of his peers remains in Dick’s work, but he places new emphasis on the ideological and material infrastructure that invisibly determines the imaginative horizons of his characters—hence the stories of suburbia that emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s in his non-science-fiction work and the relentless attention to colonization in his major sci-fi novels of the 1960s.

A key harbinger of this turn is the brief but powerful early story, “Survey Team,” which features a crew driven by the nuclear annihilation of Earth to attempt a desperate colonization of Mars. As the story opens, the main character reflects on the despoliation of his home in terms that recall the wistful reminiscences of Californians coping with the rapid development of their state:

“It was a lot different from the way he remembered it when he was a kid in California. He could remember the valley country, grape orchards and walnuts and lemons. Smudge pots under the orange trees. Green mountains and sky the color of a woman’s eyes. And the fresh smell of the soil…. That was all gone now. Nothing remained but gray ash pulverized with the white stones of buildings. Once a city had been in this spot. He could see the yawning cavities of cellars, filled now with slag, dried rivers of rust that had once been buildings. Rubble strewn everywhere, aimlessly….”

As they explore the planet, the crew finds no useful resources for human life but plenty of evidence of an ancient Martian civilization that is surprisingly similar to the wreckage they left behind: “Ruin, heaps of rusting metal. Bales of wire and building material. Parts of uncompleted equipment. Half-buried construction sections sticking up from the sand.”

It slowly dawns on them that the Martians deliberately abandoned the planet after despoiling it 600,000 years before, evacuating all of the useful resources with them. An examination of the ruins reveals that their target planetary colony was Earth itself. Thus, the Martian-cum-human species was responsible for the destruction of two hospitable planets. “A closed circle,” one crewmember observes. “We’re back where we started. Back to reap the crop our ancestors sowed.”

This story marks the shift in Dick’s work from the fixation on the extrinsic nuclear threat to the internally generated infrastructural and environmental threat, and it begins the major phase of his career in which a doubled focus on space colonies as representations of western American developments gives Dick’s major novels the hallmark, uncanny Californian dimension that has made them favorites of Hollywood.

The twin culminations of this theme in Dick’s work come in his novels of 1964 and 1965, Martian Time-Slip and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. A dramatization of the self-enclosure of the American West, the novels explore the interrelation of imagination and materialism. Martian Time-Slip in particular is packed with references to the landscapes of the postwar boom in California and the Southwest. Grand plans for the building of a Martian canal system to enable food production and residential development echo Pat Brown’s California Aqueduct, begun in 1963, right down to an allusion to the aqueduct bikeway that follows the maintenance roads alongside the canal. The plotting for control of land where a huge retirement community will be built to house elderly colonists from Earth recalls the meteoric rise of Del Webb, whose Sun City development was built in 1960 atop a ghost town near Phoenix, Arizona. A subplot about the education of an autistic boy details a university system much like the one established in California under the Donohoe Act of 1960. (The school’s faculty of robotic historical figures eerily anticipates the educational-automation debates of the present.) From air conditioning to anti-immigration sentiment, the world of Martian Time-Slip is a thinly veiled portrait of 1960s California. To the extent that its byzantine plot can be boiled down to a single message, it is carried by the figure of Manfred Steiner, an autistic boy who finally carves out a place for himself in the way all Californians must: by going native—befriending the native Martian Bleekmen—and by adopting a set of life-giving technological supports to make existence possible.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, a considerably bleaker novel from the same period, provides the deepest allegorical portrait of California’s predicament. The first of Dick’s theological novels, its eponymous main character is less a human figure than a force of nature that takes various historical shapes in order to survive and grow. One of Eldritch’s main gambits in forcing the colonization of deep space is the use of infrastructural fantasies called “Perky Pat layouts”—miniaturized civilizations, board games that denizens of the outer colonies can purchase, customize to their liking, and then psychically enter and enjoy through the use of a hallucinogen called “Can-D.” Part Barbie and Ken playset, part Pat Brown–era three-dimensional planning tool, part dystopian nightmare, the Perky Pat layouts offer an image of a California in which fantasy, civil engineering, and the real environmental conditions of existence in a dry colony have become a single story with an ending as yet unwritten. Philip K. Dick’s trademark interest in the ways that humans become trapped in the real consequences of their fantasy lives plays out not simply as a puzzle about virtual versus actual reality but as an analysis of the feedback loop between imagination, infrastructure, and daily life.

It may be worth pausing for a last moment here to consider that our present condition is, in fact, the result of the shared infrastructural hallucinations of previous generations, and that California’s future depends on accepting the constraints, intended and unintended, that resulted from those realized dreams. And we might consider trading in less effective forms of California dreaming in favor of speculatively rearranging the state’s material layout and getting on with the next phase of the shared delusion that will be twenty-first-century California. A little science fiction might just help.



PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF THE J. PAUL GETTY MUSEUM, LOS ANGELES. ESTATE OF WILLIAM A. GARNETT. Grading, Lakewood, California, 1950; Trenching, Lakewood, California, 1950; Foundations and Slabs, Lakewood, California, 1950; Framing, Lakewood, California, 1950; Plaster and Roofing, Lakewood, California, 1950; Finished Housing, Lakewood, California, 1950.


The Future of Futurism

by Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft

From Boom Winter 2013, Vol. 3, No. 4

A view from the garden, looking to the stars.

“In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line.” Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Once California was, in the eyes of invaders arriving by ship, horseback or wagon, something like pure future into which they carried their past. I’m not standing on some Marin County promontory overlooking the Pacific as I think these thoughts, gazing out at the horizon line the ocean forms with the sky. I’m sitting in a place remade at great cost to resemble the past of other places: the Japanese and Chinese gardens at the Huntington Library outside Los Angeles. The brilliant green stands of bamboo glimpsed through an imported Japanese gate remind me of all the world history that money and immigration have brought here over the years, all the works of art and architecture, all the music and languages, all the traditions, as if Californians have been desperately trying to keep up with the past at the same time as their eyes were supposedly fixed on the future.

In previous generations, California served as a geographic focus of “Go West!” optimism, and California currently enjoys what we might call a “futures boom,” offering opportunities to thinkers and dreamers who imagine decades and centuries ahead. The new devices of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs set off instant reverberations throughout our networked world even before they are real. Their visions of the future are praised or, just as often, mocked by a public that’s struggling to deal with a present infused with an insistent future. But sitting here in the garden at the Huntington, I want to take a deep breath and think through this frantic futurism, for the key to understanding and coming to terms with this rush to the future, I believe, lies in the past, in the history of futurism. This “futures boom,” after all, has been going on for decades now in California and is now merely taking on new forms.

Most people with a professional interest in the future talk about it with care, partly out of fear of being associated with bearded Methuselahs announcing the immanent end of the world. Even in California there has always been something “fringe” about displaying excessive optimism or fear for things to come. But futurism in California has enjoyed increasingly frequent and successful bids for mainstream attention. The rise of organized and professionalized forms of futurism, beginning in the 1960s, was coeval with the rise of the computer and consumer electronics industries. Along with the acceleration of technological progress, we’ve seen a commensurate increase in the volume of tech-talk and futures-talk. Ideas with their roots in technology are deployed to address nontechnological concerns. Consider the terms “hacker” and “to hack”: as recently as the 1990s, they carried associations with the criminal violation of government or corporate computers, but now are thrown around beyond Silicon Valley to conjure cleverness and the ability to solve problems either digital or analog. Entrepreneurs searching for talent hold “hack-a-thons”; activists speak of “hacking” democracy, and they mean opening up new avenues for participation within it, rather than rigging elections. Hacking enjoys a vernacular association with breaking the symbolic “code of the world” and clearing a path toward innovation.

The temporal future itself is “virtual reality” in the most literal of senses, and whether we imagine ourselves rushing toward it or it rushing toward us is an individual matter. In the sense that we all think about our personal futures and the futures of our communities, futurism is everyone’s constant and quotidian practice. But futurism as I use the term in this essay means a professional interest in helping people think creatively about the risks and opportunities ahead. Sometimes this means selling them a particular vision of the future; and sometimes, more laudably, in my view, it means “the liberation of people’s insights.”

There are experts and consultants who offer predictions, forecasts, and scenarios to help us understand where a given financial market, environmental crisis, or technology trend may be headed, and others who make it their job—sometimes, notably by writing science fiction—to imagine entirely different worlds ten, twenty, or a hundred years in the future. While talking about climate change is technically just as much a form of futurism as talking about robots, the term is most conventionally used to mean conversations about technological progress and the way it could reshape society, for good or for ill. This may simply be due to money. Predictions about the future of technology have substantial financial implications; and, indeed, this dimension of futurism resonates with one prominent element in California’s history, the promise of quick wealth by capitalizing on a newly discovered resource. Futurism is many things, but its California variation often plays between the promise of the boom and the fear of the bust (sometimes, a refusal to accept the reality of busts). The anxious desire to be part of the next big thing and not be left behind courses through California futurism.

We can trace many elements of contemporary futurist practice back to the think tanks and consultancies that developed during WWII and grew increasingly important in the decades after. Herman Kahn, perhaps the most important American futurist of the mid-twentieth century, whose persona inspired the titular character in the film Dr. Strangelove, worked at the Santa Monica–based RAND Corporation. There he developed scenario-planning and game theory techniques with direct application to the Cold War. Even more ambitiously, his RAND colleague, the mathematician Olaf Helmer, sought to extend customary planning horizons into “a more distant future.” Helmer, along with other members of RAND, developed a method of forecasting called “Delphi,” which involved the collection and cross-referencing of predictions by experts in a given scientific field. “Convergence of opinion” translated into “accuracy of prediction,” writes historian Jenny Andersson. Despite his invocation of the Oracle at Delphi, Helmer’s goal was to render “fatalism a fatality.” Like many futurists after him, he wanted to eliminate utopianism and dystopianism from the culture of futures thinking while devising an ultimate scientific theory of prediction, a general theory on the model of physics that would be aided by the data-gathering and processing power of computers. He acknowledged the powerful incentive offered by the Cold War, which made American planners wonder how the United States could grow and survive in competition with the planned Soviet economy. The planning-oriented futurists of RAND and other institutions were expected to help contribute to policy recommendations. In his 1972 The Futurists, Alvin Toffler—coauthor with his wife, Heidi, of the most widely read late-twentieth-century futurist text, Future Shock—called for futurists to serve as the newest version of that classic twentieth century figure, the intellectuel engagé or public intellectual. All such ideas about futurist practice and the responsibilities of futurists, of course, were subject to a question: Whose future were they trying to predict? A global future or a national one? An elite or a popular future?

Some say that you simply can’t predict the future and that talk about what might happen is empty. In fact the impossibility of perfect prediction may be the secret of futurism’s appeal. This is its “dark matter” or the binding element that makes futurist work endlessly interesting and worthwhile. Consider the model of the bet, a familiar, everyday sort of forecasting in which we engage without thinking of “the future” writ large. San Francisco’s Long Now Foundation, which is most famous for its efforts to construct a clock that will run for 10,000 years (roughly the length of time our species has been practicing agriculture), maintains a registry of “long bets” about future events. Anyone with an Internet connection can offer predictions, and most are backed by moderate financial commitments. Many of these bets are very short term, when compared with the 10,000-year timescale the Long Now encourages the public to think about. One bet hinges on whether the average number of miles driven by Americans will rise or fall over the next ten years. Another asks whether political parties will hold their traditional conventions in the future or acknowledge that these have become nothing but theatrics. The fantasist in me imagines a world five hundred years from now in which our early twenty-first century longshot bets on the distant future have been passed down from one generation to the next as a matter of sacred trust. But why should they care how we bet on the future, which will be their present?

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All photographs by Jon Christensen.


A Disincorporation Story


by Alex Schmidt

The blacktop of Camino Real is dark and smooth under tire as the wide residential street snakes north from Limonite Avenue, Jurupa Valley’s main drag. Such pleasant driving conditions are new in this northwest corner of Riverside County. Jurupa Valley became California’s newest city less than three years ago and in that time, has spent over $3 million paving streets, some of which had not been paved in decades. But for all it has accomplished, Jurupa Valley may be on the cusp of disincorporating. It’s a move that would signal profound changes for the state going forward.

Riverside County, whose population has doubled since 1990, is home to California’s four newest cities: Menifee, Eastvale, Wildomar, and Jurupa Valley. Each had hoped local control would bring targeted, more responsive government, but all four face an uncertain future thanks to legislation passed that stripped new cities of a vital revenue source: motor vehicle license fees. Passed in 2011 just two days before Jurupa Valley’s cityhood became official, Senate Bill 89 transferred these fees—identified in 2006 to encourage new incorporations—from local authorities to the state. With that, 50 percent of Jurupa Valley’s planned operating budget was wiped out and the prospects for all new cities dimmed considerably.

Why incorporate?

Pull off Limonite onto one of the older residential streets of Jurupa Valley, and roosters cackle while horses graze in dusty yards. Practically every other home has a horse-themed gate or mailbox out front. One telltale marker of newly incorporated cities is that they straddle the fence between rural and urban, and homeowners in Jurupa Valley seem to be declaring their allegiance. Many folks moved here precisely for the rural flavor and didn’t want their unincorporated community to become an officially designated city. The prospect of Jurupa Valley going back to being unincorporated county pleases Jane Reichardt greatly, who was shopping in a strip mall Stater Brothers Supermarket on a sunny day. “We moved out here a long time ago, before any of this was even here. And we moved out here so things would be a little cheaper, a little more country,” she said. I have a horse, I have cats, I have two dogs. I don’t want to be in the city,” she added. “We do just fine without the rules and regulations.”

But others point out that change is here, city or no. The population of Jurupa Valley is now close to 100,000. While folks still ride horses around town, they now do so to get to McDonald’s. And while some areas use wells for water and have no sidewalks, in other parts of town, fancy new tract homes are sprouting like wildflowers —or weeds, depending on your perspective.

“I hate to tell you, three years later, it will never go back to the way it was,” said Kim Jarrell Johnson, chairman of the local nonprofit Save Jurupa Valley. “It was never going to be the way it was, even if we hadn’t become a city.” Johnson and others reason that, in fact, becoming a city is a key tool for self-determination. It can be the best way to determine the precise balance of rural and urban residents may want to preserve, rather than have those decisions made at a county seat dozens of miles away, and allow residents to bring government closer to them to better directly control their destiny.

It’s not just Jurupa Valley feeling the pinch. The grass on the wide sports field of Marna O’Brien Park in Wildomar is crackled and brown. It’s one of three parks in the city, officially five years old though actually much older.

“The community started in 1886,” said City Manager Gary Nordquist, as he looked out over the park through dark sunglasses. “And when it decided to become a city in 2008, it was to better the service levels, not decrease the service levels,” he added. “It’s terrible.”

Recreation and culture have suffered in Wildomar. The city had a vision for maintaining and expanding a vast natural trail system, along with a civic center in the middle of downtown. Those have been put on hold. City Hall hours have been reduced. Law enforcement budgets suffered most in the four Riverside cities—as it was the bulk of their budgets to begin with.

Despite the challenges, Jurupa Valley has been paving streets, cleaning sidewalks (where they exist), and removing graffiti in a timely fashion. City Manager Steve Harding says that if the city does have to disincorporate, “when we turn the keys back over to the county of Riverside, the statement is going to be, ‘We’re giving it back to you better than you gave it to us.’” At its best, this is what becoming a city can do for communities— involve more people in the business of solving problems at the day-to-day, local level.

Reshaping future California

Earlier this year, the state legislature passed on an opportunity to restore funding to new cities. Jurupa Valley’s mayor, Verne Lauritzen, has received calls from officials in two other California communities—Salida, near Modesto and Winchester, near Hemet— which may well be unable to incorporate because the expected motor vehicle fees are no longer available. Lauritzen called the inability to incorporate “taxation without representation.” The measure may get taken up in 2014, but that may be too late for already-struggling areas.

But the situation is injurious for a much broader reason: many of the rural areas looking to incorporate are disadvantaged already. Median income is often lower than in urbanized areas— in Jurupa Valley, for example, 23 of the area’s 24 schools are eligible for the federal SNAP food assistance program. The state is pointedly shooting itself in the foot when it sets back the most disadvantaged regions that also have the greatest ambition to improve their lot. California has set goals for smart growth and development over time, yet, as current legislation stands, fails to recognize that most of these positive changes happen within cities.

The California that develops without cities is a different place from the one that evolves with them. “I think it goes to the heart of economic competitiveness in a state,” said James Brooks, program director at the National League of Cities. “We are a nation of local economic regions. And as each of these local economic regions is strong, and healthy and prosperous and growing, and generating wealth and jobs, the rest of the region is doing well,” he said. “When you begin to inhibit the conditions whereby these areas can create their own economic prosperity by enacting their own local and municipal laws and ordinances that help drive this wealth creation, you are ultimately limiting the prospects of good, strong earning regional economies, and that ultimately affects U.S. global economic competitiveness.” In other words, cities make good business sense.

Beyond that, cities are special, unique places that have personalities and identities not only in the eyes of residents, but in the eyes of busy legislators. Kim Jarrell Johnson, of the Save Jurupa Valley Group, said she has received overwhelmingly more attention from her U.S. congressman as well as state senators in the period since Jurupa Valley became a city. As she put it, “A city is just easier to wrap your mind around than unincorporated area.”

Jurupa Valley tried for many decades to incorporate, and finally took the leap when the neighboring city of Eastvale— also recently incorporated— threatened to annex land that both communities perceived as valuable. Why did they find it valuable? Because it was prime territory for building a freeway adjacent “power center” – one of those enormous retail complexes anchored by a huge big box store like Target. Because California cities are so dependent on sales tax vis-à-vis property tax (see: Prop 13), new cities arguably cannot incorporate without one of these power centers. “I do find it rather ironic that California likes to promote itself for being environmentally friendly, but has created a tax structure that creates behaviors that are contrary to that,” said Mike Pagano, Dean of the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

To see what a city formed around a power center looks like going forward, one need look no further than Phoenix, which has been dependent on sales tax for a long time. The incentive is to continue to build sales tax generating centers at the edge of the city, nearer the highway, to capture the consumption of people who live in surrounding areas, and development simply keeps sprawling outward. On the other hand, a property-tax-dependent city has no interest in moving the border of the city. It is interested in increasing the value of land and one way of doing that is having more dense areas, more amenities located in proximity to population.

Smart cities won’t truly thrive without addressing Prop 13, but SB 89 exacerbates the problem. The city of Jurupa Valley incorporated based on the presumption that the one 870,000 square foot power center within its borders would generate around $2 million in sales tax per year. Under current legislation, to make up for the loss of $6.7 million the city was counting on, Jurupa Valley would need two more of these properties to survive.

What’s next for Jurupa Valley

Forget for a moment the idea of touching Prop 13 and the bigger issues surrounding cities. The four newly incorporated cities in Riverside have banded together to try to simply try to gain revenue parity with cities incorporated before 2004, which are unaffected by SB 89. Three times they’ve brought bills to Sacramento, and three times, nothing has happened. Michael Coleman, of the League of California Cities, is befuddled by the lack of attention: “It’s been one of the difficulties in getting this through the legislature, it’s getting the legislators and the governor’s office to understand that this isn’t just some payment that some city lost that’s going to have some minor effect on their budget. No, this means every incorporation that happens in the future.”

And if the governor and state legislators find it difficult to understand, imagine the situation on the ground in Riverside. While city incorporation in Jurupa Valley won by a 9 percent margin, only 6 percent of the overall population voted in the election. Folks in town admit they want better services, like sidewalks and streetlights— they just don’t care where the services come from. Many others do not know that they now live in a city. Such an abstract change takes time to sink in. Even on Camino Real, the street with the newly paved surface, it was difficult to get a homeowner to put his or her weight fully behind cityhood. “Since it became Jurupa, it seems like it’s going for the better, but I’m not sure,” a homeowner named Jesus Piñon said.

“It’s very hard to get the word out,” Kim Jarrell Johnson said. “To me that’s one of the main reasons we need to be a city.” If Jurupa Valley hadn’t been fighting for life since its incorporation, Johnson believes that much more would have been done in the way of outreach and communication. Just because many people don’t know it happened, she said, doesn’t mean the issue does not matter or affect them.

After two-plus years of trying, the cities have hope that the message is finally starting to get through in Sacramento. A bill, SB 56, would fix the problem for good through property tax allocation. It is still in play and may have a chance of being passed in 2014. Jurupa Valley officials have an informal commitment from the governor’s staff that fixing this problem properly is a priority—though they’ve heard similar promises in the past.

In the meantime, the city of Jurupa Valley projects they will run out of money in 2015. On January 16 the City Council passed a resolution to begin the lengthy disincorporation process – it requires a vote and complicated agreements between county commissions. No one knows exactly how long it will take or what precisely the process will look like. There is a window of time during which the disincorporation can be halted. But, after a certain point, the city will be gone, perhaps for good.


All photographs by Alex Schmidt.


The Atlas of California: Mapping the Challenge of a New Era

For decades a global leader, inspiring the hopes and dreams of millions, California has recently faced double-digit unemployment, multi-billion dollar budget deficits and the loss of trillions in home values. This atlas brings together the latest research and statistics in a graphic form that gives shape and meaning to these numbers. It shows a new California in the making, as it maps the economic, social, and political trends of a state struggling to maintain its leadership and to continue to offer its citizens the promise of prosperity.

Among the world’s largest economies, California is the nation’s agricultural powerhouse, high tech crucible and leader in renewable energy. The state is the most populous and most diverse state in the continental U.S. Yet its infrastructure is coming under increasing pressure. Water supply systems are strained, the legendary highways are over capacity, and the celebrated system of public schooling is unable to offer affordable quality education at all levels. Health and welfare services, particularly for the poor, needy, disabled, and seniors, are at great risk.

Richard Walker and Suresh Lodha’s The Atlas of California shows a new California in the making.


David H.  Breaux: Action for Compassion

From Boom Summer 2013, Vol. 3, No. 2

By Ami Sommariva

Since 2009, David H. Breaux has stood for compassion, literally, on the corner of Third and C streets in Davis. This six-foot-two man of color stands there six days a week, up to eight hours a day, holding a notebook and a pen, inviting passersby to write down their thoughts about the concept of compassion. He is known locally as “The Compassion Guy,” a moniker that elicits a smile from his lips simply because it means that people are saying the word “compassion.” Breaux is neither independently wealthy nor a person without the formal education and resources to make a “regular” living. Raised in Duarte, about five miles east of Pasadena, this former screenwriter holds a degree in Urban Studies from Stanford.

What leads a person to take on this sort of vocation, independent of any institution? Some seekers might choose to join a religious order, work with a nonprofit, or pursue a career in the social services sector. David Breaux did not. He chose a strange, perhaps even crazy, thing to do.

As has happened in the lives of many Californians, Breaux’s life hit a pothole. His father died. He and his sister went through the process of selling the family home. A long-term relationship ended. Mired in depression, he viewed Karen Armstrong’s award-winning TED talk on YouTube, in which the renowned scholar of religious history calls for the creation and propagation of a “Charter on Compassion.” Armstrong’s talk inspired Breaux to draft his own definition of compassion. After working on it for a few days, he found that he could not reach a satisfactory conclusion about what the word meant. Taking a notebook and pen, he left his apartment and began to ask people in the Lake Merritt area of Oakland to share their definitions of the word.

“I was discovering a virtue that was unbreakable,” he told me later, “indestructible, incontrovertible. I wanted to do something, but the ideas were only in my head and they needed to be acted on.” After spending a few days working on the street in Oakland, he turned to meditation, waiting to be moved by “something greater than myself.” For three weeks he moved only to use the bathroom, purchase food, and eat. When the something greater came, he divested himself of his possessions, made a vow to spend his life spreading awareness of compassion, and moved to Davis, where he had a friend who would put him up. After initially being asked to leave a few locations where he tried to do his work, David Breaux was welcomed at the corner of Third and C, diagonally across from the Davis Farmer’s Market.

At the corner

Because I live in Sacramento and commute to Davis for work, I pass Breaux on the street less often than residents. At first, in 2009, I thought he was looking for people to sign a petition or give money to a cause, but he never approached to ask for my signature or cash. I asked a colleague if he knew what this guy was doing everyday on the corner. “Isn’t he a homeless person?” he conjectured. “Maybe,” I said, “but he doesn’t have a bunch of stuff with him and he’s always standing in the same place.” I started to wonder if he was some kind of performance artist, and after a few months I got up the courage to approach the stranger.

“You want me to write my definition of compassion in your notebook?” I squinted at him with suspicion, but took the notebook and began to write. Ten minutes later, I was still writing, and then scribbling out what I had just written. Becoming frustrated with my inability to find adequate words, I started flipping through the pages of the notebook. Reading what others had written made me realize how differently people thought about compassion. Lots of the definitions referenced religious figures as icons of compassion. Others talked about wars as evidence of compassion’s absence. Some entries were lengthy treatises and others consisted of a single word. They were variously poetic, academic, ironic, and earnest: “Compassion is the color, sweetness, and fruitfulness of a peach;” “me that is also you;” and “Compassion is a word that contains ass, which I love.” Some I didn’t understand: “Compassion is nothing,” “no taxes,” and “contempt.” It was painful to read: “Compassion is me and my shotgun.” Turning back to my own entry, I settled on something about interdependence and sharing another’s suffering, and then I handed the notebook back. Breaux smiled and wrapped the notebook in his arms, holding it close to his chest. He thanked me and then looked away.

I felt a little unsettled. Some of the definitions I had read disturbed me. I worried about how little compassion there was in the world if so many people seemed to have definitions so different from my own. If compassion meant contempt to someone, did that person have a different word to represent the meaning that I had for compassion, or did that person simply not think of individuals as interdependent or capable of sharing each other’s suffering? The whole significance of compassion began to appear much more complicated and troubling. Years later, I asked Breaux what he thought about people writing that compassion was “me and my shotgun.” Quietly and with an earnest tone he responded, “That’s what compassion is to that person.”

I was also uneasy about the strange conclusion to our interaction. After spending so much time with the notebook, it felt odd for the encounter to end so quickly. I thought, “Is that all? Don’t you want to talk to me or at least look at what I wrote?” The feeling of incompleteness made it difficult for the experience to leave my mind. When I asked Breaux about it recently, he told me that he didn’t want to associate any particular definition with any particular person and that getting people to write was an end in and of itself. It mattered less if the definition was read, though Breaux did self-publish a book containing the first six months of notebook entries. I bought a copy at the nearby café.

The holy fools

In addition to Karen Armstrong’s TED talk, Breaux takes inspiration from Mildred Norman Ryder. On 1 January 1953, assuming the name Peace Pilgrim, Ryder left Pasadena for a twenty-eight-year walk across the United States and Canada. Like Breaux, she began her work independent of any formal institution. Also like Breaux, she began her work with a vow that may seem romantic until you think about how physically taxing and repetitive it would be. Peace Pilgrim vowed to “remain a wanderer until mankind has learned the way of peace, walking until given shelter and fasting until given food.”1

Again, I wonder what could possibly bring a person to make such a decision. For both Peace Pilgrim and David Breaux, it was a period of psychic conflict and depression. Although she said that the inner conflict of her spiritual development was “about average,” Peace Pilgrim described the journey toward her vow as a series of peaks and valleys. Of her pivotal breakthrough, she said,

I sat high upon a hill overlooking rural New England. The day before I had slipped out of harmony, and the evening before I had thought to God, ‘It seems to me that if I could always remain in harmony I could be of greater—usefulness—for every time I slip out of harmony it impairs my usefulness.’ When I awoke at dawn I was back on the spiritual mountaintop with a wonderful feeling. I knew that I would never need to descend again into the valley. I knew that for me the struggle was over, that finally I had succeeded in giving my life or finding inner peace. 2

Breaux, too, describes his new life as filled with peace and joy. It almost makes me envious, and I wonder if I will ever descend into a valley so wide or deep that climbing out of it would lead me to that sort of enduring happiness. Is it a special kind of horror or heartbreak that calls a person to a vocation of independent, ascetic activism?

One might consider David Breaux, Peace Pilgrim, and others like them to be working within the “holy fool” tradition, which has a history reaching back millennia and spanning cultures across the globe.3

Holy fools are characters that reject the conventional wisdom as part of a commitment to what they view as a higher law. Literary scholar Dana Heller puts it this way, “If the wisdom of the world is but folly to God, and if God’s own foolishness is the one true, divine wisdom, then the worldly must renounce all worldly wisdom in order to become truly wise.”4

Like holy fools of the past, Breaux has rejected key commandments of the society in which he lives, mainly the commandment to earn money. For those of us who do work for money, this can seem like a condemnation of the choices that we have made for ourselves, a sort of judgment rendered upon us by some guy standing at the corner. Or if one’s socialization to capitalism has managed to stay relatively intact (and, for some, why wouldn’t it?), his work may seem completely senseless. What difference does it make to ask people to write a few words about compassion? Realistically, could it reduce the prevalence of violence, whether we mean physical or spiritual violence? And anyway, if a person wants to devote his or her life to promoting compassion, isn’t there a more practical way to do it, or a place in greater need than Davis, California?

His work may seem completely senseless.

From this perspective, it can be particularly vexing to note that Breaux has developed a significant local fan base. Not surprisingly, however, arousing one’s audience this way is, in fact, a generic element of holy foolishness. As literary scholar Svitlana Kobets observes within Russian folklore, the “holy fool’s inherently cryptic discourse is largely rooted in a spectacle…allowing her actions to be witnessed and interpreted by the people.5

Typically, this spectacular rejection of norms results in the holy fool’s social marginality. The degree of marginality characterizing Breaux’s life in Davis, however, is not clear. As “The Compassion Guy,” he has become a hero to many, the subject of local newspaper articles and a short documentary. Yet every so often, naysayers make their way to his corner and attempt to pick fights. Perhaps Breaux seems like a “safe” target to these folks. Perhaps the idea that a person would dedicate his life to promoting compassion is deeply threatening to them. Perhaps compassion is dangerous.

Persons and egos

Last summer, Breaux and I talked in depth about the relationship between compassion and humanity. He quoted Jewish philosopher and theologian Martin Buber, who wrote that “Egos appear by setting themselves apart from other egos. Persons appear by entering into relation to other persons.”6

Breaux paused, letting the meaning sink in a bit. “I want to engage with persons,” he explained. I thought that made a lot of sense, but then I wondered if “The Compassion Guy” could be a person, or if the title framed Breaux as an ego. I asked him how he felt about being described this way.

“I would be happy if people were to see me as a symbol of compassion,” he explained, seemingly surprised by the question.

“But a symbol isn’t a complete person. If people see you as a symbol, even if that is a symbol of the highest ideal, how can they be recognizing you? How can they be treating you with compassion?”

He was silent for a bit. “I hadn’t thought about it that way before,” another pause and then, “but I do feel good if I can be a symbol.”

After more reflection, Breaux observed that the moniker might be troubling from different perspective: “The term ‘Compassion Guy’ does diminish who I am. I think of the era when people of color were called ‘boy’ and during the Civil Rights Movement when men of color wore ‘I am a man’ signs to remind others of their full humanness. I feel the term ‘guy’ lays somewhere between ‘boy’ and ‘man,’ and since I just turned 40 recently, I consider myself a man. I am ok with being referred to as ‘Compassion Man,’ [but] simply being David H. Breaux [is better].”

As one person I know observed, replacing “guy” with “man” seems to transform Breaux into an unlikely comic book superhero, a notion that makes me wince as if I’ve heard an awful pun. But it occurs to me that the more we try to locate Breaux in a succinct descriptive title, the more we are in the practice of distinguishing egos rather than entering into relationships with persons. To know David H. Breaux, to know anyone, you must ask who you are in relation to that person. You must consider the you that is also someone else. In that act of reframing identity, compassion emerges.


Photographs courtesy of the author.

1 Friends of Peace Pilgrim, eds. Peace Pilgrim: Her Life and Work in Her Own Words, http://www.peacepilgrim.org/book/index.htm (accessed 8 February 2013).

2 Friends of Peace Pilgrim.

3 Dana Heller lists the following antecedents to the holy fool, or divine idiot, figure in American literature: “the philosopher fools of ancient Rome; the professional fool tradition, traceable back to the courts of the Egyptian pharaohs and the Mexican Aztecs…the secular fool imagery which developed out of Renaissance Humanism…the natural and/or rural divine idiot of Romanticism, such as that represented by Dostoevski’s Prince Myshkin in ‘The Idiot’ and Wordsworth’s ‘Idiot Boy’; and the folkloric and oral narratives of African American tradition and Native American tribal cultures (for example, the coyote or ‘trickster’ figure who bears a resemblance to the holy fool).” Dana Heller and Elena Volkova, “The Holy Fool in Russian and American Culture: A Dialogue,” American Studies International, vol. 41, no. 1/2, Post Soviet American Studies (February 2003): 152–178.

4 Dana Heller and Elena Volkova, “The Holy Fool in Russian and American Culture: A Dialogue,” American Studies International, vol. 41, no. 1/2, Post Soviet American Studies (February 2003): 152–178.

5 Svitlana Kobets, “From Fool to Mother to Savior: The Poetics of Russian Orthodox Christianity and Folklore in Svetlana Vasilenko’s Novel-Vita ‘Little Fool (Durochka),’” The Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 51, no. 1 (Spring 2007): 87–110.

6 Martin Buber, I and Thou. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1937.; reprint Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004


Salsa Rules

Salsa Crossings: Dancing Latinidad in Los Angeles, by Cindy Garcia (Duke; 208 pages; $79.95)
Reviewed by Robert Smith

It takes two to tango, but LA-style salsa demands much more: at least one well-heeled pair of dancers and an admiring audience. For in Los Angeles, salsa dancing is a real production governed by unwritten rules that are nonetheless quite visible to the salsa cognoscenti. Apparently what amateur Angelenos do while twirling each other round their living rooms after watching Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights doesn’t cut it, according to Cindy Garcia, a professor of theater and dance whose Salsa Crossings: Dancing Latinidad in Los Angeles delineates the dizzying turns salsa takes on and off the dance floor — twists that most casual spectators might not appreciate.

The world of LA-style salsa that Garcia reveals is a select meritocracy that won’t admit dancers with the wrong clothes, the wrong shoes, and, especially, the wrong moves. Serious salseros and salseras must submit their bodies and movements to pedantic correction, for they must not betray markings of certain class or national origins. Particularly, the LA-salsa style that Garcia classifies as a “sequined” latinidad distinguishes itself from clothing that is easily identifiable with “la limpieza,” the cleaning industry, or other thankless, low-paying, service sector labor. Beyond the cultivation of an acceptable look, comportment on the dance floor is of utmost importance. To pass muster salsa technique should be specific to LA, for, unfortunately, among Los Angeles-salsa connoisseurs, “dancing like a Mexican” (or, more generally, “like an immigrant”) has become the most pejorative simile.

Those exceptionally adept at LA-style salsa have, even if only superficially, established the most distance between their nightclub identities and some of the most troubled history behind their choreography: the effects of racism, income disparity, gender politics, and anti-immigrant vitriol. Yet, as Garcia shows, salsa’s dance-floor revolutions aren’t just escapist fantasy—the most competitive dancers circulate upwards in a “salsa hierarchy” that rewards the paradoxical combination of conformity and innovation. In several clubs around Los Angeles, Garcia observed dancers attempting to better themselves and best each other in performing a conspicuously LA-style salsa. Salsa Crossings offers an insightful guide to reading these dancers who might look like they’re just having fun.

Photo courtesy of Gabriel Madrigal Photography.


The World in the Curl

Peter Westwick and Peter Neushul, The World in the Curl: An Unconventional History of Surfing (Crown Publishers, 416pp, $26)

Reviewed by Sara V. Torres

Surfers will be stoked to read The World in the Curl: An Unconventional History of Surfing—as will anyone who has, at some point, felt the allure of the sport, if only from the shore. The authors, both surfers and professors of history in southern California, offer a wide-ranging study of the sport, which “shows how surfing, at every point in its history, reflected—and shaped—the world around it.”

The story they tell is ambitious and compelling: a narrative of world history recounted through the lens of surfing’s own evolution. The authors capture the inherent paradoxes of the sport: the tensions between its global appeal and fierce history of localism, between its iconic image as a “natural” pursuit and its institutional history of environmental apathy (or worse, exploitation), and between its cultivated image as a nonconformist counterculture and its perennial trendsetting status in mainstream marketing. The World in the Curl challenges its readers to appreciate the fine points of the sport’s development at the same time that it holds a mirror up to its seedy and even violent historical moments and its deeply-suspect history (in Western manifestations of the sport) of ingrained racism and sexism.

The book is at its best when it conveys the voices of those individuals whose stories intersect with that of the sport itself as they pioneered its growth and development. Some of the most compelling of these voices emerge from the margins of the narrative, and none more so than those of women surfers who faced obstacles more daunting than the crest of a high wave for a place of their own in the lineup. In its final chapters, the story moves deeper and deeper into the postwar twentieth century, becoming dense with the details of military technology and chemical manufacturing, until it is entirely drawn into the whirlpool vortex of contemporary corporate culture. As climate change continues to affect our oceans’ coastlines, the intertwined histories of surfing, environmentalism, and social change, which the authors so deftly tease apart in their early chapters, will only become more powerfully important in the future of the sport.

Postcard courtesy of Boston Public Library.