Tag: Culture


Seeing Orange County

Tom Zoellner
Elaine Lewinnek

Editor’s Note: This Boom conversation brings together an English literature scholar and an urbanist American Studies professor to reflect on Orange County’s role in the California imaginary. Beginning with reflections on literature and geography, the particular and surprising stories come to life within the diverse landscape that breaks through the common clichés of one of the Golden State’s most important places defining both California’s present and future.

Orange County and the Written Word (Tom Zoellner)

I teach a class at Chapman University on the literature of Orange County that covers the historic poems, stories, and nonfiction portraits, which give this newish megalopolis a sense of place and continuity. Since the class is listed as a creative writing class, I also ask undergraduate students to write their own interpretations of what they see around them.

“Uniformity” is a constant theme: the perceived sameness of the physical landscape, as well as the nagging sense that the region—despite its documented levels of racial and economic diversity—works too hard to promote the image of a palm-sculpted and surgically-aided paradise for affluent Anglos, reminiscent of the “California dream” marketed nationwide in the 1950s.

But just as often, students write about themes of “uncertainty” when it comes to Orange County—a sense of bewilderment about what the region is supposed to mean for them as either a temporary address for their education or as a possible place to start a career, a family, and a meaningful life. For young adults about to join what sociologist Richard Florida described as the “creative class,” the tract-home-and-freeway vocabulary of Orange County does not immediately seem to offer the accouterments that have attracted artists, actors, designers, and small business entrepreneurs to cities with more dense clusters of older architecture and walkable public spaces with interesting street-level retail. One of my students described the county as a “string of contradictions” as puzzling as the interconnected and similar looking municipal groupings that were, as he put it, “moonlighting” as a real city.

The syntax of our built environment, which tended to fall on the geometry of square-mile farm roads and fallen orchard subdivisions, is attractive to retired couples and young families, and generally not those who hunger for unorthodox methods of expression.

One recent set of events here in the City of Orange is illustrative of how geography and culture conspire against the forces that make places interesting. Weary of loud parties and of historic homes chopped up into multi-unit dwellings, the city council made it easier to police to levy stiff fines for both: an action that many perceived as taking direct aim at Chapman’s student culture and of Old Town Orange for welcoming anybody but established families of high income.

When you add in the previous worries about uniformity and uncertainty, it makes for an ominous diagnosis: expensive, yet uncool

“This is a conservative town,” Mayor Tita Smith said when the ordinance passed, and she meant that descriptor to go beyond the usual binary political definition. Orange was a place that embraced the status quo, resisted the influx of young people, preserved existing neighborhoods to the point of inaccessibility and stagnation and clung to its identity as a nineteenth century railroad village surrounded by a postwar ranch-house grid spread out in all other directions.

This may not be a formula to build cultural capital in the twenty-first century. Orange County’s cities risk the impression of tastelessness—in the bland sense, not the rude sense—if they wholeheartedly embrace the idea of freezing the 1950s or the 1980s in a snow globe. Demographers believe that half of the county’s millennials do not plan to stay here beyond their early adulthoods, mainly because of the lack of quality affordable housing and the flight of jobs from the high-technology sector. When you add in the previous worries about uniformity and uncertainty, it makes for an ominous diagnosis: expensive, yet uncool.

The high housing costs not tethered to an “interesting” local narrative is a deadening factor when it comes to recruiting new companies that bring in creative workers, as well as artistic entrepreneurs looking for funky cheap spaces. Economic data from this university’s former president Jim Doti, also a distinguished economist, indicates that Orange County lost 16.3 percent of its high-tech jobs since the beginning of a 2008 recession. This happened even as the region suffered a decline in the growth of its population with university degrees. A report called, “OC Model: A Vision for Orange County’s Future” from Chapman’s Center for Demographics & Policy ends on a note that would sound at home in a Dickens novel, predicting the current economic winds might leave the county “like some aging but still attractive dowager, into long-term stagnation and eventual decline.”[1]

Economic lassitude, and a lock on the door to the fresh and the cool, can create a cultural lacuna. In the opinion of Marshall Toplansky and Joel Kotkin, the authors of the OC Model report, the traditional prescriptions of New Urbanists—spending big money on mass transit, dense apartment blocks and walkable downtowns—may have some beneficial effects on legacy cities with nineteenth century street patterns, but would have little salvific effect on a multi-polar geography like Orange County. Competitive comparable cities with a strong local narrative and recognizable iconography—Boulder, Austin, Raleigh, even Detroit—at least have a “sense of place” that invites new residents to participate. Orange County has an obvious and immortal beach culture as an attractive signifier. But is there anything else here that tells us who we are?


Countering the oncoming cultural malaise may not require building something new, in the way that “The Block at Orange” or “Downtown Orange County” were physical attempts at slapping a band-aid on our self-inflicted wound. When it comes to literature, the point is to engage in a rediscovery process of what already exists—“shopping your own closet,” to borrow a retail clothing term. Because despite the perception of a bland homescape free of any history except Mission Revival architecture and a railroad, Orange County has a robust literary tradition that remains all-too underappreciated.

The textbook in my Southern California literature class has the title, Orange County: A Literary Field Guide, which some might consider a joke if they look only at the surface. But there is a rich sense of literary place and continuity here that may elude the casual observer. Literature can provide both a portal and a foundation for uncracking the seeming randomness of where we happen to have taken a new job, or bought real estate, or moved to retire in the sunshine, or even have been fated to be born.

This anthology—published last year by Berkeley’s Heyday Books—was edited by the married couple Lisa Alvarez and Andrew Tonkovich is a much-needed statement that Orange County has an intricate soul and that beauty can be found in its unexpected places. Some of the literature within functions as a retort and a rebuke to those would write off Orange County too quickly as a place too new to have an indigenous literary tradition, or even anything worth writing poetry about. In fact, the utilitarian core of the county’s visual aesthetic is a rich vein to be mined. Just as Edward Hopper tapped into to the darkness on the margin of cities as a powerful animating force in his paintings, Orange County writers make ample use of the plainspoken California sunshine and repetitive housing vocabulary as a source of narrative energy in their writings.

The poet Grant Hier, whose poem “Untended Garden” is included in the anthology, writes of running down a concrete-clad river, its walls “rising on either side like wings.” The author Victoria Patterson—who spent a turbulent adolescence in Newport Beach—uses the Fashion Island shopping mall like Charles Dickens used London: it is a spiritual center and locus of action for her novel, This Vacant Paradise. In the Orange County anthology, she writes of the San Onofre nuclear plant (now decommissioned but still an inescapable sight for anyone driving The 5 down to San Diego). Patterson writes of the “breast-like” domes covered in bird dung “like frosting on cupcakes”—a startling image. “At the tip of each dome,” she writes, “there was a red light blinking slowly—like the bell buoys—not in unison, and never completely off: barely red, and then all lit up red.”

Literature will not save the county. But it will enrich the perception and the experience of those who live here and choose to engage in a personal process of dialogue with their environment.

Another unexpected lovely set of images appears in the poem “Santa Ana of Grocery Carts” by Aracelis Girmay. “Santa Ana of AquaNet,” she writes, “altars, the glitter & shine of 99 cent stores, taco trocas, churches, of bells, hallelujahs & center fields, aprons, of winds, collard greens, & lemon cake  in Ms. Davenport’s kitchen, sweat, sweat over the stove.” This takes the banal and forces it into fresh new light.

I was asked to contribute an essay to this anthology and chose to focus on a subject that I wanted to learn more about—the influence of the citrus business in shaping the enduring culture of Orange County, even though the orange orchards are long gone. As a result of reading old newspaper clippings and the reminiscences of the old fruit-packing lords, I now see the physical environment differently and perceive the lurking ghosts of the megaranch archipelago that we used to be.

Literature will not save the county. But it will enrich the perception and the experience of those who live here and choose to engage in a personal process of dialogue with their environment. We “make” the places where we live based on a sense of history and narrative, both of which can be supplied by the animating force of literature. In the concluding lines of his book, The Geography of Nowhere, the social critic James Howard Kunstler writes that we are all on a lifelong journey towards an unknown destination and that along the way, we yearn to experience an environment that means something and has intrinsic significance[2]. He was speaking about the need to enrich public spaces, but the exhortation also applies to the interior life of the mind, which experiences the world as an unfolding story. Lifting up an Orange County literary tradition and a habit of “belonging through words” is not necessarily going to summon high-wage jobs or instantaneous high culture. But we can mine the record for old words, and create new words, which gives some distinction and texture to the streetscape. We have more than we know.

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The Orange Holy Land
[3] (Elaine Lewinnek)

It is worth remembering that Orange County’s residents are not just the folks who want manicured suburban lawns, but also those who want to work as landscapers of those lawns. People come here from across the Pacific Rim and beyond the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, filling Orange County with the diversity that makes it interesting and with the workers that make it possible. As Tom Zoellner pointed out, this county flourished during the Cold War because of military-industrial jobs but also international refugees. Now that the Cold War has ended and some of those military-industrial and high-tech jobs have evaporated, I believe there is still a strong economy, including banking and mortgage-lending, real-estate development, higher education, service-workers in the tourist economy, and vibrant religions.

Although Tom’s students perceive the risk of tastelessness in this expensive yet uncool space, I wonder whether Orange County cares about their departures. For every “creative class” person who finds this space unhip, others keep pouring in. Property-values do not suffer here; I am not sure this space is declining. There is, in fact, now an “Orange County” gated community outside of Beijing and another “Orange County” pair of luxury resorts in India: our reputation as a name brand is that appealing, transnationally.

Some of my students do share Tom Zoellner’s disappointment in the lack of public space and paucity of community here. Yet, maybe because I’m in an American Studies department and not an English department, my students look for more than literature to anchor themselves here. For them, family stories, subgroup’s stories, and cultural history stories help provide a sense of place. Let me mention a few of my favorite Orange County stories that I have discovered while conducting research for the forthcoming, A People’s Guide to Orange County.

If you are black in Orange County, there are very few places you can get your hair done. The Cut & Curl at 4th and Bristol Streets in Santa Ana was one of those places. In the early 1960s, Dorothey Mulkey was getting her hair done and chatting about the challenge she faced finding a decent apartment to rent. The hairdressing customer next to her happened to work for the NAACP, and encouraged Mulkey to bring her case to court. In 1967, in Reitman v Mulkey, California’s supreme court overturned Proposition 14, California’s anti-fair-housing bill, the first time the supreme court had overturned a voter-approved initiative. It is the basis for our fair housing laws today—and it is thanks to one Navy veteran, Dorothey Mulkey, and one conversation at a Santa Ana barbershop.[4] Stories like that are worth remembering.

It is neither a simple dream nor absolute nightmare, but a more complex vernacular worth getting to know.

It is too easy to drive past the parking lot of the former Hunt/ConAgra/Val Vita packing factory without knowing that in 1943 the Latina women who worked there successfully fought for onsite childcare because before that time they had to lock their children in their cars during their 8-hour shifts. Knowing that story, a vacant parking lot suddenly has resonant depth.

Orange County has also led the way in privatization. We have the first modern gated community in Rossmoor, Seal Beach; first age-segregated community in Leisure World; first modern Home Owners Association in Huntington Beach (quickly followed across this county and nation); and first toll road in California. Yet we also have resistance to those forces, from the nineteenth-century utopian experiments such as the Placentia “Grass Eaters,” Societas Fraternas, to the seminal school desegregation case Mendez v Westminster, to the recent defeat of a toll road proposed for Trestles Beach. That proposed toll road was defeated by a coalition of surfers, environmentalists, and some indigenous activists concerned with protecting Panhe—but Panhe is a story that very few people know.

Panhe is a 9,000-year-old village mentioned in the baptismal registry of Mission San Juan Capistrano. Whenever a developer’s bulldozer unearths a skeleton that is many centuries old, in most of America, this brings a halt to construction. We have rules against building atop indigenous graves elsewhere, but not in Orange County. Here, many of the coastal and canyon spaces where the Acjahmen/Juaneno people lived are incredibly valuable real estate. Since the 1970s, Orange County’s developers have worked with Acjahmen people to ceremonially rebury any skeletons found across the county, placing them at Panhe. You can see Panhe from The 5 freeway if you know where to look, near Camp Pendleton, the closed nuclear reactors, and the immigration checkpoint—but all there is to see is a chain link fence. Without knowing the story, you might drive right by.

Just up the road from Panhe is the former TRW/Northrop Grumman test facility, a military-industrial research site which a 1988 forest fire exposed as the secret location of Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars Initiative lasers. That, to me, is the story of Orange County. The Acjahmen activists who regularly gather at Panhe do so in the shadow of the Star Wars missiles. Our county may look like the Geography of Nowhere, and indeed the hypercapitalistism, attenuated community, and amnesiac history that James Kunstler describes is here—but it is also the site of deeply fascinating history with a wonderfully mind-spinning diversity.

From the quotidian Fullerton apartment made famous in The Adolescent’s 1979 punk song, “Kids of the Black Hole,” to the easily-overlooked Placentia river channel whose flooding killed forty people, forgotten for a long time except for a 1939 corrido—we have a history remembered in songs, murals, and some family stories, if not in widely-recognized literature.

In her seminal, Suburban Warriors,[5] Lisa McGirr writes that, perhaps because the built environment is not designed to foster community, Orange County’s postwar newcomers sought community in evangelical Protestant megachurches, which aimed to moor themselves with conservative ideas of tradition, even as they also used cutting-edge technologies. She may be right, but others of my students find community in the underground music scenes here, or in traditional Mexican dance troupes, or niche sports, or other subgroups that do not make it into the mass-cultural representation of this space.


We are not just the county that developed Taco Bell and Botox, as Tom Zoellner mentioned. We also developed the science-fiction genre of steampunk—appropriate to this alienating, high-tech landscape—and the Vietnamese diaspora’s musical revue extravaganza videos. There is much to be proud of, and a deep heterogeneity lurking beneath a surface that can appear homogeneous.

Orange County is full of the kinds of spaces that D. J. Waldie has called the “sacred ordinary”: flawed, human, commonplace, often overlooked, and, arguably, even holy.[6] It is neither a simple dream nor absolute nightmare, but a more complex vernacular worth getting to know. As Waldie wrote in the 2005 afterword to his memoir, Holy Land—set just over the border from Orange County, in Lakewood—“Too many accounts of a suburban life fall into the trap of sentimentality or contempt. I have no desire to romanticize my past or set fire to it. This suburb hasn’t any barriers to tragedy. It’s a place that’s just as mortal as me.”[7] It is mortal, not a perfect paradise nor a despicable hell, but a very human middle ground.

The idea of the “sacred ordinary” brings us back to Eritrean-American poet Aracelis Girmay, whom my students embrace as much as Tom’s students do, especially her description of her childhood home, Orange County’s capital city of Santa Ana:

Santa Ana of grocery carts, truckers,
eggs in the kitchen at 4 am, nurses, cleaning ladies,
the saints of ironing, the saints
of tortillas. Santa Ana of cross-guards, tomato pickers,
bakeries of bread in pinks & yellows, sugars.
Santa Ana of Cambodia, Viet Nam, Aztlán….
Patron saint of kitchens, asphalt, banana trees,
bless us if you are capable of blessing.[8]

We need more literature about this space, as Tom Zoellner suggests. We need more understanding of the sacred ordinary—if only because it is, often, extraordinary.


[1] Joel Kotkin and Marshall Toplansky, “OC Model: A Vision for Orange County’s Future,” 43.

[2] James Howard Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993).

[3] The term “Holy Land” draws from D. J. Waldie’s magnificent memoir, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005).

[4] Dorothy Mulkey, interview with Santa Ana Oral History Project, 13 December 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YoaFdCfyAkg&list=PLuXEcCp7eWwnWOwbiqc-pSIJ0eFhgSUea.

[5] Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

[6] See Waldie, Holy Land; and also his “What Does It Mean to Become Californian?” Boom California, 28 March 2017, https://boomcalifornia.com/2017/03/28/what-does-it-mean-to-become-californian/.

[7] Waldie, Holy Land, 182.

[8] Aracelis Girmay, “Santa Ana of Grocery Carts,” in Teeth (Evanston, IL: Curbstone Books, 2007), http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/07202007/girmay3.html.

Tom Zoellner is a journalist, Associate Professor in the English Dept. at Chapman University, and Politics editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He has written five nonfiction books, including Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World–from the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief (Penguin, 2014), and his book Uranium won the 2011 Science Writing Award from the American Institute of Physics. His portion of this essay was adapted from a white paper delivered at a conference on the future of Orange County at Chapman University on 23 February 2017.

Elaine Lewinnek is professor in the department of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton. She is the author of The Working Man’s Reward: Chicago’s Early Suburbs and the Roots of American Sprawl (Oxford, 2015), and is currently working on a bottom-up history of Orange County with Gustavo Arellano and Thúy Võ Đặng, titled A People’s Guide to Orange County (UC Press, forthcoming).

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


The Latin American Aesthetic of L.A. Music Culture


Benjamin Cawthra

In the middle of a series of fascinating interviews with Latin American Los Angeles session musicians, the editor of this volume, Josh Kun, puts a series of questions to the great Brazilian percussionist Paulinho da Costa. In the midst of these, he lets his thesis slip. “You can tell musical history through the artist,” he says. “But you can also tell it from the back end, from the perspective of the session player. How does that change musical history? Suddenly Brazilian music is no longer this marginal exotic sound but at the center of virtually everything people are listening to.”[1]

Finding a new center, or a new listening point, for the history of popular music is at the heart of The Tide Was Always High. Kun’s wide-ranging introductory essay and the more particular contributions from a variety of writers display just what a substantial and ambitious task this book is to undertake. In order to pull it off, Kun asks us to rethink not only what is Latin American about Los Angeles culture, but also what is truly “Los Angeles” about the work of Latin American musicians? In order to make the argument, he is willing to rethink how hierarchies of taste and value are established and revised. In arguing for the pervasiveness of the Latin influence on American music, he is less interested in pitting genres against one another, or even determining critical value within a genre, than he is in showing connections among them all. Los Angeles session musicians like da Costa, whom some in the music press over the years have held in a sort of mild contempt as slick guns-for-hire, provide the intellectual model for Kun’s project. They treat each session, no matter the artist nor the context—whether commercial jingle, Hollywood soundtrack, jazz, pop—as an opportunity to make an important and distinctive cultural contribution, one rooted in their own ethnic backgrounds but functioning as anchor points for someone else’s music. In doing so, Kun argues, they essentially are remaking American cultural expression with a Latin American cast.

But The Tide Was Always High does far more than send music geeks who actually read session credits (this reviewer included) back to their record collections to be reminded of just what da Costa, Alex Acuña, and their compatriots have been doing in Los Angeles studios over the past several decades. John Koegel takes a deep dive into the history of Mexican musical theater in pre-1930 Los Angeles. Walter Aaron Clark’s study of Carmen Miranda and Carol Ann Hess’s on Disney’s Saludos Amigos reveals the ways Hollywood has played with concepts of ethnic or folk authenticity. We learn of Latin music at the high end of the musicians’ union schedule (Agustin Gurza on the Hollywood Bowl) and also at the low end, and begin to understand the very short cultural distance between the two (Daniel F. Garcia on the Paramount Ballroom in Boyle Heights).


The question of what is real and what is not is, of course, fundamental to modern entertainment, from Barnum and coon shows to lip-synched pop concerts. One of the great values of this volume is the ways it reveals the layers of Latin American music in Los Angeles, from the personae of performers—Portuguese-born Carmen Miranda as a representative of exotic Brazil and Latin America in general; Yma Sumac’s Inca princess character defining the Peruvian—to the very permutations of the music and the mixing of audiences for various styles of Latin American sounds. What might be considered the ersatz seems to matter as much as the real thing, if for no other reason than that such categories are made moot by the eclecticism of the musicians themselves, with bandleader and composer-for-all-seasons Esquivel! as a prime example—Hans Ulrich Obrist’s interview with the effervescent pianist, Juan García Esquivel, is especially valuable for this reason alone.

Kun and his talented colleagues—poets, musicians, and journalists are every bit as welcome as scholars here—document a time of racial segregation when musical borrowings and syntheses seemed to be less problematic. The boundaries of cultural territory seem to have been less closely policed in the twentieth-century decades covered by this volume, even as reckonings with racism kept getting pushed into the future. Years ago, Eric Lott published Love and Theft, a book on minstrelsy. The book’s title came to stand for an entire history of white appropriation of black cultural forms. Kun not only comes to celebrate the various pop manifestations of this in relation to Latin American music, but he also names the book after one of the highest-charting examples: Blondie’s “The Tide Is High.” (I don’t hold it against Kun at all that it has now become my earworm of several weeks’ standing.)

The catholicity expressed by Kun, the seeming lack of interest in aesthetic judgment that has, for better or worse, determined the character of popular music history, is perhaps appropriate in uncovering a Latin American Los Angeles not dominated by blues-based African American styles. You cannot read the history of music in New Orleans or Chicago or New York without large helpings of African American influence and performance, almost always with the assumption that there are hierarchies of quality and authenticity involved that are almost as clear as Du Bois’s color line. That model, whatever its merits and shortcomings, is a suit that does not fit well on Los Angeles, and Kun is an open enough thinker to find a new way of examining ethnicity in popular music made in Los Angeles by editing a volume where jazz and rock orthodoxies are absent (and Los Lobos, perhaps pointedly, is not mentioned). It is in fact the latest iteration in a long-running reimagining of the place of music in American culture going back at least as far as Kun’s Audiotopia (2006).

Befitting a companion volume to an exhibition, Kun provides numerous album covers and other vibrant visual ephemera that are still stirring up curiosity about the sounds under discussion. There is probably more to say about the imagery associated with Latin American recorded music, but that could easily become another project entirely. Kun’s willingness to listen—to listen deeply not only to music but to musicians—results in a rethinking of his subject and a jumping-off point for new conversations not just about Los Angeles and its cultural history, but about the assumptions and goals of such conversations that encompass implications that go well beyond California.




[1] Josh Kun, ed., The Tide Was Always High: The Music of Latin America in Los Angeles (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017), 186.


Benjamin Cawthra, Professor of History and Associate Director, Lawrence de Graaf Center for Oral and Public History, California State University, Fullerton, is the author of Blue Notes in Black and White: Photography and Jazz. He teaches cultural, public, and visual history and has written on Duke Ellington and Miles Davis.

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



Shouldn’t You Be in California?

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela

Wellness. In 2018, it’s at once omnipresent and misunderstood—a buzzword from campus health centers to high-end real estate to pet food to preschool marketing. In a culture otherwise riven by stark divides of ideology and sensibility, wellness enjoys weirdly wide appeal. Who doesn’t aspire to “more than the absence of sickness,” as it’s commonly described, even if particular wellness totems, from organic kale to healing crystals, can seem annoyingly bourgeois or suspiciously woo-woo? Notably, the otherwise polar opposite online worlds of the upscale “curated” lifestyle (e.g., Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop) or right-wing conspiracy theory (e.g., Alex Jones’s Infowars) peddle surprisingly similar wellness products.

The few holdouts that most strenuously resist wellness are disproportionately concentrated among social critics and my fellow academics. In growing chorus, they smartly if at times snarkily point out limits of a vision that emphasizes individual wellbeing over collective action and they snub science. They also illuminate inequality, noting that processed food is cheaper than the greenmarket, making time to hit the gym is harder when you work an unpredictable shift job, and a sage-scented home is indulgent if not outright luxurious.

However valid these critiques may appear to be, they have mostly forestalled an exploration of the specific spaces in which wellness culture originated. Postwar California, ever the American frontier, was hugely important. There emerged a wellness culture defined by the at-times contradictory liberation, celebration, and beautification of the body: At countercultural retreats in places like Big Sur’s Esalen, the feminist self-care clinics increasingly dotting university campuses and ethnic neighborhoods, and Southern California’s multiplying gyms. From countercultural yogis to Bay Area love-your-body feminists and San Diego Jazzercisers, wellness has become so ubiquitous by uniting an unlikely range of players in the embrace of once-marginal mind-body holism and self-care as the basis of the good life. The wellness culture they forged has spread far beyond California the place but remains bound up with California the idea. Reflecting broader social and economic inequalities, wellness culture is not necessarily an engine of such malaise, contra many of its critics, but a potentially powerful counterweight to them. History uncovers these counter-narratives easily obscured in 2017.

What is Wellness?

“Wellness, there’s a word you don’t hear every day,” ran as the opening sentence of a 1979 60 Minutes feature on Marin County’s Wellness Resource Center (WRC). Host Dan Rather offered a glimpse as to how “wellness” became the household term it is today.[1] Hardly so accepted in Rather’s day, “wellness” was a fledgling movement that earned skepticism as a “middle-class cult.” The thirty or so mostly white enthusiasts who appeared on national television imparted a common experience that had led them to wellness—suffering caused by ailment that had stumped western doctors. Often desperate by the time they arrived to WRC, they found there a refreshing new set of assumptions: that mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing were interconnected; and that regardless of their expertise, they were uniquely qualified to lead their own healing processes, often through preventative measures. To skeptics, these premises conjured the vacuousness of what Christopher Lasch lambasted that same year as a creeping “culture of narcissism.”[2]

Expansive economic, political, and cultural changes keenly felt in postwar California gave rise to this phenomenon. Increased, if unevenly enjoyed, affluence inspired an appreciation of therapeutic interventions that elevated “emotional balance,” and later “healthy narcissism” and “self-esteem” as social goals, a distinct break from a public health discourse that had emphasized staving from polio, depression-era privation, and wartime venereal disease.[3] Cold War warriors like John F. Kennedy celebrated a corporeally and intellectually agile citizen as the paragon of civic virtue. California public school curricula—from quaint 1950s filmstrips about proper “attitudes and health” to the famed 1960s La Sierra High School physical education curriculum now the subject of a nostalgic 2017 documentary and the 1980s self-esteem commission that appeared on Oprah and are chronicled in the 2017 book Selfie—revealed this sustained new focus on holistic wellness, and anxiety about achieving it, gaining national attention then and now.

The privileges of increased affluence enjoyed mostly by whites were hardly the only impulse galvanizing the pursuit of wellness. Women, racial, and sexual minorities incorporated the cultivation of their own holistic health as a form of political resistance. Historian Alondra Nelson has charted how the Black Panthers established community-run East Bay medical facilities to foster wellbeing, “body and soul.”[4] Unwittingly, in this endeavor, this radical African-American group subscribed to an emergent worldview resonant with that in physically near, but culturally and socioeconomically distant, Marin, as well as growing communities statewide. This essay will consider three of these.


The Retreat

Established in Big Sur in 1962 by two Stanford graduates whose studies of Eastern religion and culture had left them disenchanted with American attitudes toward religion and mental health, the expansive Esalen Institute cultivated countercultural approaches to wellbeing ranging from the spiritual to the psychedelic.[5] As it became a national attraction, Esalen’s pedagogy exceeded the religious abstractions to focus on the body as a vehicle for transcendence. Nude “encounter sessions,” cultivation and consumption of organic foods, and yoga all juxtaposed the “natural” body and earth with the materialistic, technocratic, corrupt realm beyond its gates. Unabashed nudity and non-procreative sex, sustenance unspoiled by laboratory intervention, and “being in your body” were sufficiently subversive to be explored in secluded enclaves. Yet these sensibilities were going mainstream. Esalen’s founding yoga instructor, Pamela Rainbear Portugal, tellingly recounted one purpose of this elevated self-awareness: Enduring bourgeois domesticity. “Punch a punching bag instead of secretly—even to you—sniping at your mate,” she advised. “Otherwise you might someday ‘accidentally’ run the family Buick over him.”[6]

Integral to the Esalen mission was the pursuit of “self-actualization, creativity, and human potentiality,” and one way this mind-body ethos found expression was through yoga.[7] In keeping with the institute’s philosophy, development of a strong sense of self was the goal of embodied asana: “As long as you use your senses, you can do whatever YOU WANT,” Portugal wrote.[8] This actualized self was unapologetically corporeal but liberated from conventional beauty standards in a way that feels astonishing given the airbrushed aesthetic of today’s commercial yoga imagery. Line drawings depicted a woman whose ample figure, unkempt hair, and bulbous nose figured almost as conspicuously as the poses she modeled. Portugal also openly extolled the “release” of regularly vacating one’s bowels.[9]

Similarly, historian Sam Binkley relates the establishment in 1973 of Esalen’s sports center in which the customary goal of vanquishing an opponent was supplanted with “non-competitive organized play and deeper experiences of self-exploration, spiritual community, and transcendence.” A staff member remarked that this program was especially effective in implementing Esalen’s core principle “that the body and mind are so closely related.” A reporter agreed, musing that the “the clout generated by Esalen” might effect “a change in sports” as dramatic as “the storming of the Bastille.”[10]

Such innovations both reflected and shaped broader politics. In 1972, MAD magazine featured a grid portraying defining characteristics of “Liberals”: taking up yoga, feeding one’s pets organic foods, “walking around nude in front of the children,” and “making it a habit to call Negroes ‘blacks’” all made the list.[11] Holistic wellness, this mockery illuminates, was perceived as a liberal fascination. Meanwhile, in suburbs like San Mateo, Anaheim, and the Sacramento environs, burgeoning right-wingers simultaneously articulated an opposing sensibility that invested the body with reactionary political significance: Massive resistance to sex education, pornography, and the sexual revolutions ensued.[12] Lasch reflected in the New York Review of Books on these twin movements born in seemingly distant universes of the suburban subdivision and the spiritual retreat: “A growing despair of changing society has generated on the one hand a revival of old-time religion, on the other a cult of expanded consciousness, health, and personal ‘growth.’”[13]

If this historical moment spawned these divergent sensibilities, the ubiquity of twenty-first-century wellness culture relies on their peculiar convergence: The National Wellness Institute (1977) enjoys the support of both Mike Huckabee and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. A Republican lawmaker cheered the defeat of a bill regulating yoga studios by taking crow pose atop his desk; and wellness luminaries are at the same time progressives, like recent congressional aspirant the Los Angeles-based spiritual leader Marianne Williamson, or libertarians, like Lululemon Athletica founder Chip Wilson. This broad appeal at times signifies co-optation—which movements like Decolonizing Yoga have emerged to combat—but it also highlights how the previously marginalized, from the elderly to disabled, to fat, to queer, to Christian communities, now make claims to wellness culture and its benefits.


The Feminist Health Clinic

Reluctantly, Dan Rather’s interviewees skeptically embraced wellness as a last resort for mundane ailments like strained wrists and chronic back pain. Esalen’s patrons were drawn to its potential for spiritual emancipation, though as Betty Friedan commented after visiting, the retreat didn’t always challenge entrenched attitudes and hierarchies that lionized “macho mountain men.” Still, Esalen maintained a strong commitment to the thorny task of defining personal growth and political liberation as inextricably intertwined, welcoming Black Panthers, dissident intellectuals, and political figures alike to Big Sur.

Echoing this blend of politics and practicality, feminist health advocates also celebrated self-care and mind-body holism. Interweaving structural analysis with self-help, they blamed a male-dominated medical industry for limiting access to contraception and for dehumanizing women. In 1971, Belita Cowan of the Los Angeles Feminist Women’s Health Center taught herself how to use a plastic speculum, flashlight, and mirror to perform an examination on her cervix—which she then turned into a public teach-in inside of a feminist bookstore. In promoting unembarrassed physical self-knowledge and connecting female nudity to empowerment rather than objectification, Cowan inspired similar demonstrations all over the country. Such political spectacle could inspire sustained activism: In 1975 Cowan co-founded the National Women’s Health Network that laid bare the complicity of the medical industry and the Food and Drug Administration in concealing the harmful impact of many drugs on women’s health.[14]

These clinics cultivated a coherent notion of wellness, even as they provided different services based on community need. Facilities sponsored by the Office of Economic Opportunity (1965) offered otherwise financially prohibitive services such as basic exams and safe abortions in rural and inner-city communities. Like clinics run by the Young Lords and Black Panthers, these sites also offered an environment that challenged the “white coat” of the (often white, male) doctor to welcome communities long marginalized by mainstream medicine.[15] Inspired by women’s liberation on campus, colleges often operated clinics or recommended community centers. In 1972, the Stanford Women’s Center’s “A Guide for Stanford Women” listed female-staffed clinics that “provide good, low-cost care… to women and minorities.” The pamphlet’s emphasis on birth control and “menstrual extraction,” a measure that terminates pregnancy before detectable, suggested its focus on the needs of sexually active college women.

Such particular interventions were undergirded in a philosophy considered so new that a separate section called “MIND AND BODY” spelled out: Women are fundamentally different from men in their physical and psychological health needs; mental and physical health are inextricably intertwined; and “self-help,” inspired by the pioneering Los Angeles Feminist Women’s Health Center, seeks to “change women’s consciousness about their own bodies,” and “provide them with skills to maintain and improve their own health.”[16] The communities such clinics cultivated cast a wide net in promoting preventative health: One San Francisco outfit advertised consciousness-raising, another in Palo Alto was “a place to just go read a book.” By the 1980s, historian Jennifer Nelson describes an Atlanta clinic’s “Healthy Love” celebrations that framed women’s health as worthy of a party rather than pathologizing.[17]

Perhaps the strongest evidence of how effectively feminist health advocates promoted wellness as key to female self-determination was in its ready commodification. In one case, an Orange County used-car salesman-cum-abortion-provider, opened “Women Helping Women” in 1974. Devoted to helping “women [with their] special needs, special problems,” the clinic engaged in questionable practices such as compensating employees with breast enlargement surgeries, prompting denunciations by both anti-abortion picketers and the director of Santa Ana’s Feminist Women’s Health Center.[18] The clinic was “jammed” with prospective clients, reported the Los Angeles Times, intimating that a considerable segment of women were more interested in how “affordable care for women” translated into cut-rate plastic surgery than with the incongruity of such marketing with the feminist politics that birthed such clinics. As “wellness” became more broadly defined in the 1970s, it was marketed in ways that obscure its radical, communitarian origins.

The Gym

It was in the gym where notions of bodily transcendence and self-determination converged with beauty culture in an earnest embrace that remains passionate today. With little of the political or spiritual purpose of the retreat or health clinic, gyms also promoted mind-body holism and self-care, often wrapped in an unapologetic pursuit of beauty.

Working out was considered a bizarre, even suspicious, undertaking until the 1960s and ’70s.[19] In 1936, when exercise enthusiast Jack LaLanne opened his first gym in Oakland, the resistance he encountered foreshadowed the attitudes that would so irk feminist health advocates: “People thought I was a charlatan and a nut,” he remembered. “The doctors were against me—they said that working out with weights would give people everything from heart attacks to hemorrhoids; that women would look like men.”[20] On his television show, which ran for over three decades until 1985, LaLanne reassured the homemakers who comprised most of his viewers that physical training would not “ruin their figures with exercise” but would improve every aspect of their lives, from the emotional to the aesthetic.

Brick-and-mortar fitness clubs built by LaLanne and other Venice Beach entrepreneurs established arenas where exercise became about more than physical culture. [21] By the 1980s, such health clubs were multiplying, and were not necessarily temples of transcendence. A 1983 Rolling Stone cover story and the feature film it inspired, Perfect (1985), likened these gleaming successors of “sweaty dungeons” to “the wailing wall of West Coast fitness religion,” but they also resembled a somewhat seedy, spandex-swathed annex of the “sex-charged” L.A. dating scene.[22] A former patron agreed, remembering that the multi-level Sports Connection—where Perfect was filmed—was better known as “the Sports Erection.”[23] Training one’s body had not only somatic, but increasingly social payoffs.

But it was California’s peculiar postwar context that blended experimentation, political self-determination, and body-consciousness into a distinct culture and ideology.

Women like dancer Judi Sheppard Missett and Hollywood star Jane Fonda, however, launched fitness studios in the 1970s and ’80s out of frustration with the assumptions about women’s abilities that shaped the emergent fitness scene. In the late 1960s, Missett had been confused by the results of a physical fitness test administered at her local YMCA; she was matter-of-factly explained that the exam was geared to male physiology. Disturbed by this exchange, by low participation in her technically sophisticated dance classes, and by her sense that “mothers believed they should sit on the side watching their daughters rather than dance,” in 1969 Missett founded the inclusive dance-exercise format that evolved into Jazzercise.

A recent transplant to San Diego, Missett papered supermarket bulletin boards with flyers advertising her classes, in which women of all ages gathered to exercise free of the usual intimidation of the mirror, which she pointedly removed. When the devoted military wives who attended Missett’s classes inevitably faced relocation, these students became instructors themselves rather than abandon the exercise rituals some described as “life-affirming.” Missett and her acolytes actively linked physical exercise to fulfillment (and a global franchise), if not to overtly feminist politics, which had little currency in conservative San Diego County.[24]

Meanwhile, in Hollywood Jane Fonda built a fitness business that reflected the city’s more progressive sensibility.[25] Early profits of her Robertson Boulevard studio (opened in 1979) funded her activist husband Tom Hayden’s antipoverty nonprofit, California’s Campaign for Economic Democracy. Yet in 1969, the same year Missett launched Jazzercise, Fonda was flummoxed by a feminist who pointed out how the erotic film Barbarella objectified her: “I did not even know I had been. The burgeoning new women’s consciousness had not yet found its way into my mind and heart.”[26] Exercise was ultimately an important avenue for the development of Fonda’s feminist consciousness. The dance-aerobics she popularized in her three freestanding California studios and wildly popular VHS tapes and books inspired her to “create more realistic, less anxiety-ridden standards” for women—from “women judges to women janitors,” as her second book declared—also struggling with body image and sexual exploitation.[27]

Were Missett and Fonda deliberately endorsing wellness? In 2015, Missett told me, “the main focus here is continuing to help women understand that they can take possession of their lives by being healthy and fit” and “cultivating joy through music.” She targeted suburban women likely “intimidated” by swanky, “big-city” clubs like Sports Connection. Thousands of notes from students revealed that Jazzercisers gained more than physical benefits, relaying personal accounts of achieving the confidence to “get married or divorced or go on a safari or climb a mountain.” Fonda also recalled that women socialized to eschew exercise flouted conventions to do her videotapes; as far away as in “mud huts in Guatemala” working out galvanized female self-actualization. Indeed, in the United States countless women recalled that Fonda’s prominence made it acceptable “to sweat in public.” And increasingly, to find community therein: Gloria Steinem wrote in Ms. in 1982 that the “Family of Woman” engendered by the intimacy of the locker room at her women’s gym made “great beauties seem less distant and even mastectomies seem less terrifying.”

The same year that Steinem published that elegiac essay, titled “In Praise of Women’s Bodies,” Missett taught a Jazzercise class at the University of California’s San Diego campus as part of the fitness program for Wellness Week, so declared by Governor Jerry Brown. Not until the early 1990s, however, did Missett remember using the word wellness to market her own classes; she described herself as “tuned in” and influenced by the mind-body practices such as yoga and Pilates since the 1960s, but “it wasn’t marketable” until three decades later. In the 1982 follow-up to her 1981 bestseller, Fonda was more open about her grand ambitions for exercise. This close-range regional history of contemporary wellness illuminates a far more variegated landscape than most critiques permit. If wellness culture has created new arenas for the twin forces of narcissism and neoliberalism to flourish, so too have its arenas—yoga studios, gyms, farmers’ markets—cultivated resistance to the individualizing, stratifying dynamics that have come to structure our political economy, culture, and identities.

California of course had no monopoly on the varied spaces that birthed American wellness culture. In the era this essay spans, we might consider the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York (1977), the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective in Cambridge, Massachusetts (1969), the Lotte Berk Brownstone on Manhattan’s Upper East Side (1970), or the tens of New Jersey rec rooms where Jacki Sorensen launched Aerobic Dancing (1969). But it was California’s peculiar postwar context that blended experimentation, political self-determination, and body-consciousness into a distinct culture and ideology of wellness so regionally specific but nationally resonant that when I told a curious patron in a Long Island coffee shop that I was writing about the history of wellness, he quipped: “Shouldn’t you be out in California?”




 [1] “Wellness Resource Center with Dan Rather,” 60 Minutes, 1979, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LAorj2U7PR4.

[2] Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York: Norton, 1979).

[3] Avner Offer, The Challenge of Affluence: Self-Control and Well-Being in the United States and Britain Since 1950 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Eva Moskowitz, In Therapy We Trust: America’s Obsession with Self-Fulfillment (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008); Elizabeth Lunbeck, The Americanization of Narcissism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014); Coronet Instructional Films, “Emotional Balance: Snap Out of It,” 1951, accessed via Archives.org: https://archive.org/details/SnapOuto1951.

[4] Alondra Nelson, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).

[5] Jeffrey Kripal, Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

[6] Pamela Rainbear Portugal, A Place for Human Beings, 2d ed. (San Francisco: Homegrown Books, 1978), 95.

[7] Kripal, Esalen, 105-106.

[8] Portugal, A Place for Human Beings, 73.

[9] Portugal, 38-39.

[10] Sam Binkley, Getting Loose: Lifestyle Consumption in the 1970s (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 230-31.

[11] Frank Jacobs and George Woodbridge, “The Mad Guide to Political Types,” MAD, October 1972.

[12] Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015); Clayton Howard, The Closet and the Cul de Sac (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, forthcoming); Neil J. Young, We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Rise of Interfaith Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[13] Christopher Lasch, “The Narcissist Society,” New York Review of Books, 30 September 1976.

[14] Sandra Morgen, Into Our Own Hands: The Women’s Health Movement in the United States, 1969-1990 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002), 15; Marlene Cimons, “Women’s Group to Sue Maker of Contraceptive,” Los Angeles Times, 11 January 1983.

[15] Nelson, Body and Soul, 84.

[16] Stanford Women’s Center, “A Guide for Stanford Women, 1972,” Marjorie L. Shuer Papers, Box 1, Folder 11, Stanford University Special Collections.

[17] Jennifer Nelson, More Than Medicine: A History of the Women’s Health Movement (New York: New York University Press, 2015).

[18] Shearlean Duke, “Clinic for Women Only Surrounded by Controversy,” Los Angeles Times, 15 September 1974.

[19] Daniel Kunitz, Lift (New York: Harper Collins, 2016).

[20] Bill Morem, “Fitness Guru Jack Lalanne, 96, dies at Morro Bay home,” San Luis Obispo Tribune, 23 January 2011.

[21] Shelly McKenzie, Getting Physical: The Rise of Fitness Culture in America (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2013); Jonathan Black, Making the American Body: The Remarkable Saga of the Men and Women whose Feuds, Feats, and Passions Shaped Fitness History (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013).

[22] Aaron Latham, “Looking for Mister Goodbody,” Rolling Stone, June 1983; Neil Karlam, “Jamie Lee Curtis Gets Serious,” Rolling Stone, 18 July 1985.

[23] Oral history interview with Leslie Kaminoff, 2016.

[24] Oral history interview with Judith Sheppard Missett, 2015; Michael Schroeder, “Looking for a Bigger Slice,” The Detroit News, 20 September 1985.

[25] Black, Making the American Body, 85; Nikki Finke, “Aerobics Videos Get Some People All Worked Up,” Los Angeles Times, 12 November 1987, http://articles.latimes.com/1987-11-12/news/vw-20528_1_aerobics-videos.

[26] Jane Fonda, Jane Fonda’s Workout Book (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981), 18.

[27] James Spada, Fonda: Her Life in Pictures (New York: Doubleday, 1985); Alan Citron, “No Sweat: Jane Fonda Closes Her Beverly Hills Aerobics Studio,” Los Angeles Times, 3 April 1991; Femmy DeLyser, Jane Fonda’s Workout Book for Pregnancy, Birth, and Recovery (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982), 19, 164; Spada, Fonda, 194.


Natalia Mehlman Petrzela is an associate professor of history at The New School. She is the author of Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture (Oxford, 2015) and working on a book about fitness culture. She is a co-host of the Past Present podcast. Follow her on twitter @nataliapetrzela or through her website www.nataliapetrzela.com.

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








Best of Boom 2017

Looking back on the year that’s been, with the countless number of untold stories of resistance and life made meaningful, especially in California, we remain grateful especially to our readers! For a quick outro to the year, then, we wanted to gather some of the best of what they found to be the most interesting reflections on California culture from some of the most-read interviews and articles in Boom California for 2017. Thanks for reading—see you in the new year!

Year end list v3

Most read interviews:

A Boom Interview: Kevin Starr

The late, great chronicler of California gives one of his last interviews with Boom editor, Jason Sexton, reflecting on religion, life, and his changing views about California.


Michel Foucault in Death Valley: A Boom interview with Simeon Wade

Heather Dundas sits down with the (now) late Simeon Wade, gathering his reflections on the 1975 Death Valley experience with Michel Foucault, which the philosopher called “a great experience, one of the most important in my life,” and sat as the backdrop to his thinking about California.


Photo by Simeon Wade.


Most read articles:
Gary Reger, “The Deserts of Los Angeles: Two Topologies”

This sweeping long-read demonstrates the problematic with sustained literary attempts to mythologize Los Angeles as a desert out there or underneath it all.


Photo by Matt Gush.


D. J. Waldie, “What Does It Mean to Become Californian?”

The great historian and essayist of L.A. suburbia gathers together memory, imagination, and experience in a meditation on what the California dream means for the ordinary and every other possible kind of Californian.


Photo by Matt Gush.


Richard L. Hindle, “California’s Legacy of Swamplands”

Surveying the early patent technology that enabled California to develop the area around the California Delta once known as swampland, and all the challenges that remain with this way of rendering the environment.



Lynell George, “State of Being: Envisioning California”

Flashing from an erstwhile Los Angeles to an erstwhile San Francisco to today and back again, Lynell George accounts for trying to hold onto these distinct California places in their ever-shifting phantasmagoria.


Photo by Lynell George.


Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris, “What is a River in California?”

Drawing from Syracuse University’s Water Gold Soil project, Sayler and Morris offer Heideggerian reflections on the danger of utilizing technologies for the fantastic making of modern California, its rivers, and their consequences.



Lori A. Flores, “Seeing Through Murals: The Future of Latino San Francisco”

As San Francisco evolves in the hands of the technocrats, displacing Latino families in the Mission and effecting a “cultural eviction,” Lori Flores wonders what role to Latino murals play in this narrative?



Manuel Pastor, “Undocumented Californians and the Future of the Golden State”

Kicking off our Undocumented California series with sociologist Manuel Pastor reflecting on California’s constantly changing attitudes toward undocumented immigrants, and the role they may yet play in California’s future.



Undocumented Emotional Intelligence

Rosas Figure 1

Ana Elizabeth Rosas

Adelaida Gutierrez wrote “The Eternal Wait” during the Spring 2016 semester. She wrote it to capture the people and moments that framed her immigration history.[1] She identified and described the anxiety she felt over her mother’s U.S. immigration status as an underestimated undocumented experience in the state of California. Gutierrez is among the undergraduate students enrolled in my courses at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) who have developed and applied informed and meaningful dimensions of emotional intelligence as an intellectual priority. She is also among the students at our campus that, irrespective of whether they are U.S. citizens, have met with me to untangle, write, and learn from their own emotive immigration histories. She and her fellow students’ investment in an emotional intelligence that does not underestimate the transformative potential of emotive immigration history has proven to be intellectually generative. For the purpose of this essay, an emotive immigration history is being referred to as a person’s historical account of the underestimated emotional configuration and consequences of navigating particular boundaries—including governmental border enforcement measures and programs—as an immigrant person or a person with an emotional connection to an immigrant person across a diversity of contexts and relationships, and over a range of space and time.

Since the 2015-2016 academic year, UCI undergraduate students have grown in their commitment to recollect, document, write, value, share, and learn from their undocumented emotive immigration histories under my faculty advisement, which has been something they have done together as a critical intellectual response to the tumult of the contemporary moment.[2] Our collective investment in appreciating the relevance and potential of our emotive immigration histories together has emerged as a restorative intellectual investment at our campus because it has laid the foundation for an intellectual imaginary that refuses to settle for emotionally unintelligent approaches to U.S. border enforcement measures and programs.

Learning about their undocumented emotive immigration histories together and having an emotive immigration history in place to turn to when pursuing their undergraduate study has been helpful at UCI. And so had the support provided to each other, with increased importance as students have benefited from the federal government’s administration of the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program. In 2012, President Barack Obama created this program to grant temporary immigration status to an estimated 742,000 people (about one in three living in California), permitting them legally to work, pursue an education, and continue openly contributing to U.S. society.[3] Every two years, successful DACA program applicants were expected to renew their program participation through their continued fulfillment of program requirements. More than 800,000 immigrants have DACA program temporary status and permits.[4]

It is important to not overlook that DACA recipients are young. In 2014, the largest age group of DACA recipients were individuals younger than 19 years of age.[5] Upon writing this article, an estimated 4,000 students attending University of California campuses are DACA program recipients, and an unrecorded number of students are in the process of applying to this program or else know a student, friend, loved one, or family member pursuing education, employment, marriage, caring for their family, conducting civic engagement and political activism as recipients of this program.[6] Taken collectively this makes President Trump’s 5 September 2017 decision to rescind DACA a devastating social reality for students and faculty like myself who work closely with students participating in this program and who are interested in the future of students at our campus. We worry that if Congress does not pass legislation protecting DACA recipients, an estimated 404,909 of them will have temporary status revoked from permits expiring in 2018.[7] This means that immigrant students, among other undocumented immigrant peoples, would be subject to deportation from the United States.

Such deep-seated concern has inspired UCI students to invest in taking careful inventory of their and their fellow students’ emotive immigration histories to remind themselves of the positive results that occur when they don’t let questions about personal relationships, daily routine, and outlook on their academic, emotional, and financial future intensify or reproduce anxiety and exhaustion over immigration, immigration status, and the future of the DACA program and other border enforcement scenarios. Engaging with fellow students at our campus without intensifying the emotional weight of the many ways that border enforcement measures and programs influence their emotional relationships, wellbeing, and lives became a widely shared (and often undocumented) goal among students at our campus.

Engaging with fellow students at our campus without intensifying the emotional weight of the many ways that border enforcement measures and programs influence their emotional relationships, wellbeing, and lives became a widely shared (and often undocumented) goal among students at our campus.

By focusing on the undocumented and emotionally intelligent intellectual imaginaries, productivity, and community, in response to the uncertainty of our contemporary immigration policy as an instructive undocumented experience, UCI students have forged, developed,  informed, and engaged humane forms of emotional intelligence alongside other undergraduate students. This has been integral to the pursuit of thriving as a community of learners that cares about the emotive consequences and future of U.S. border enforcement measures and programs. Learning from the writing, documentation, and collaborations that UCI students have undertaken as proactive and emotionally intelligent students enrolled in my courses and workshops on immigration history and Chicana/o-Latina/o Studies throughout the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 academic years is integral to enriching a form of scholarship on the intellectual investments and collaborations of students who have prioritized learning from undocumented social realities, emotive relationships, and intellectual choices they have made as undergraduate students facing the uncertainty of immigration policy while being part of the University of California.[8] The present essay aims to showcase that the intellectual act of recollecting, documenting, and learning from undocumented emotive immigration histories together with humanity and with rigorous critical reflection provides a revealing and promising approach to the emotional expanse and consequences of undocumented immigration and immigration policy within and beyond our University of California classrooms. 

Writing Emotive Immigration History

For UCI students investing in the writing of their emotive immigration history was a way of recognizing and learning from the entirety of their family history without underestimating the weight of their feelings. In “The Eternal Wait,” Gutierrez recognized that throughout her childhood her mother’s pursuit of a legalized U.S. immigration status had been formative to her developing an emotional intelligence that would discourage her from underestimating the emotional accountability of being supportive of undocumented immigrant parental figures as they pursued the legalization of their immigration status. She shared the worry that would overcome her whenever she and her older brother accompanied their mother to U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) offices to complete forms and conduct interviews. This solidified her support for fellow students and friends applying and benefiting from an immigration status that protects them against deportation from the United States. And this act made it possible for her to confront the silence that sets in when pursuing the legalization of one’s immigration status in the United States.

Elaborating, Gutierrez noted that she was expected to

remain quiet after my mother was called behind the monochromatic cubicles. I anxiously sat in my chair and took in my surroundings. There wasn’t a hint of color to feast my eyes upon, just the decaying noxious spectrum of browns and weird faded yellows.  It was hard to distract my mind from the catastrophic thoughts racing through my head. At our age waiting for my mom to reappear felt like an eternity.[9]

She explained that being “expected to sit still and behave was impossible.”[10] How could she be still? The likelihood of her mother’s INS interview resulting in the permanent separation of their family was real. The emotional weight of waiting was not new for Gutierrez, and she feared that students and friends applying or renewing their DACA program permits to varying degrees and on an everyday basis shouldered the weight of waiting in silence.

Writing about the emotive continuities between her recollections of her emotive immigration history and the feelings students acknowledged and shared as part of our discussions of these histories moved Gutierrez to identify the enduring emotional challenge of being an immigrant and/or a member of a mixed-status immigrant family in the United States. Writing her emotive immigration history fueled her resolve to appropriate an informed emotional intelligence so that she did not risk underestimating the emotional labor and silence that INS forms and interactions entailed. Recollecting her emotive immigration history during this challenging moment in U.S. immigration history informed her acknowledgement of the feelings and silence with which students and friends pursue an undergraduate education, making ends meet, and caring for themselves and their immigrant family relatives and friends.

Writing and sharing their emotive immigration histories with each other also inspired UCI students to recognize the influence of formative people and moments that framed their understanding of the emotive configuration and impact of U.S. border enforcement measures and programs. Allocating time from their packed schedules to write on the emotional conditions, relationships, and weight that informs their understanding of border enforcement led these students to identify their recollecting, writing, and learning from their emotive immigration histories together as an invaluable learning experience, which had been rarely afforded to them (especially in the university), if at all. Embracing an emotive approach together resonated as decisive for many of these students towards their finally acknowledging their personal connection to the emotional intelligence they sought to enhance as an informed and humane response to the emotional grip of U.S. government border enforcement measures and programs.

Throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, UCI students continued to write and share emotive immigration histories that also centered on the destinations and people that most longed for the legal right to pursue an education, and to enjoy employment and a family. These rights were determined for countless immigrant students by the U.S. government. These students’ willingness to forge an emotional intelligence that valued the restorative potential of the diversity of destinations for framing people’s emotive immigration histories together encouraged students to write about their feelings of transnational longing and loss. Mariana Rodriguez was among the students who wrote an emotive immigration history steeped in her longing for Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico. In “Gorditas de Nata,” (Patties made out of Cream) she explained the following:

Three weeks ago, when I had gorditas de nata again after 11 years, they tasted like everything that had been snatched away from me. In a few bites, I was reminded of all the memories that could have been mine, but were not. I was reminded that I could not be there for the warmth that vibrated through the music, tight hugs, and fireworks that set the sky on fire. More regrettably, I was not able to hold my uncle’s hand before he passed away.[11]

Rodriguez’s recollections of Tijuana as integral to her emotive immigration history made it possible for she and fellow students to discuss the revealing potential of yearning when developing a capacious emotional intelligence together. Her writing about her yearning for the food, sounds, feelings, celebration, and people that made Tijuana a uniquely invaluable connection to experiences and people that she is unable to enjoy in the U.S. alerted students to the reality of other students and friends shouldering intense transnational longing as part of their maturing into adulthood and navigating the rigors of U.S. border enforcement measures and programs on a daily basis. Rodriguez expanding on what is not possible in the U.S. resonated with students as an important intellectual move toward developing a kind of emotional intelligence that prioritizes recognizing that students cherish, miss, and worry about experiences and people who are not physically in the United States. Her transnational emotive immigration history presented students with the often undocumented social reality that young adults at our campus hold and care about a diversity of destinations, experiences, and people when coming to terms with their emotive immigration history and its influence on their response to U.S. border enforcement operatives.

Diego Hernandez was also among the students who wrote about his emotive ties to people beyond the U.S. when writing his emotive immigration history. Hernandez elaborated on the emotional impact of the transnational absence of his grandmother. In “Memories We Did Not Leave at the Border,” Hernandez focused on his devotion and undying love for her. He shared that upon separating from her in Guatemala to journey to the United States as an undocumented immigrant child in the mid-1990s, he clung to his emotional bond to her to weather his migration and settlement in the U.S. Hernandez identified memories of her love as most influential when implementing an emotional intelligence to face her absence and the social rejection, racial discrimination, and gender violence stemming from punitive and restrictive border enforcement measures. He wrote that his grandmother

was a stern woman, but her love for me melted like paletas de hielo con sabor de tamarindo (tamarind popsicles) in the sun. The sugary extract of her love made us inseparable. She was my first love, and until today at the age of 28, I long to return to her embrace. I long to return to those young days when the softness and creases of her aging skin enveloped me with care and tenderness.[12]

Hernandez also explained that upon separating from his grandmother, he clearly remembers,

That morning we left behind a woman whose love could never be taken from my heart, even by a border wall that separates us. In my recollection of her eyes I found love, and in her laughter I found the comfort of a child’s lullaby.[13]

The intellectual investment in developing a personally meaningful emotional intelligence as a shared priority encouraged Hernandez and fellow students to share emotive immigration histories inclusive of ongoing transnational emotional challenges.

Revisiting Revealing Relationships

By the 2016-2017 academic year, UCI students expanded the writing of their emotive immigration histories to include documentation that captured the influence of formative people and their recollections of their immigration histories developed from conversations, material culture items, and documents that influential family relatives shared with them. Stephanie Palomares excelled as a most committed student when writing her emotive immigration history. She visited her grandmother, Delfina Palomares, five times as she weathered a severe cold and flu to collect and learn from the material of the emotive immigration history they shared.[14]

During her visits Palomares learned that Delfina had been born and raised in Rancho el Rodeo, Jalisco, Mexico. As a young girl, she lived a middle-class lifestyle with loving parents. Enthusiastic in her approach to life, she enjoyed music and dancing; in fact, she met her husband, Efren Palomares, at a dance party in nearby Talpa de Allende, Jalisco. Shortly after having met, they married in 1962 and moved to the village of Yano Grande, Jalisco, to be closer to Efren’s workplace. Upon beginning their life together, Delfina transitioned into a financially precarious family situation. Ten years later (1972), and after the birth of their five children, Delfina and Efren’s employment conditions compelled them to raise their family in the United States.

In 1973, Efren followed Delfina’s advice and departed to the United States to earn the wages necessary for their family to live together. In 1976, Delfina and their children reunited with Efren in Orange County. They worked hard together, and endured the hardships of immigration patiently. Over the years, they dedicated themselves to raising their family in Santa Ana. In 1981, the couple bought their first home in Anaheim, cementing their personal investment in documenting the love and moments—the emotive immigration history—that connected their family together.

Among the material culture items that Palomares’ grandmother shared with her was a gold medallion of the Virgin Mary. Delfina had worn and derived much peace from the religious protection and spiritual energy that this medallion bestowed upon her. Delfina recollected holding on to this medallion tightly while praying in silence for spiritual courage and protection as she shouldered much uncertainty. Photographs of Delfina alongside her five sons, daughter, and Efren as they celebrated her birthday and successful battle with cancer were also part of the documentation that she shared with Stephanie to convey the significant moments that bound them together. Delfina explained to Palomares the importance for the undocumented to personally document meaningful relationships through taking and preserving photographs that bring to life the moments in which being together was a fruitful emotional investment. She insisted on sharing that it was important to create and inherit an emotive history that prioritized documenting the act of living together, smiling together, and reveling in the power of having endured together. These were not to be treated as one of many moments but rather as important moments in the trajectory of their family’s emotive immigration history. Delfina’s words infused into our class’s collective consideration of this history the value of documenting elderly immigrant relatives’ places when confronted with worrisome U.S. governmental approaches and further outlooks on undocumented immigration.

The power of documentation was also evident in Esmeralda Hic’s emotive immigration history. She prioritized sharing how her mother, Juanita Magdalena Garza’s documentation of her coming of age through photographs of her Quinceañera had been formative to her upbringing .[15] Juanita used photographs of this celebration to not lose sight of her life being comprised of moments where she enjoyed herself alongside childhood friends and with a heart full of hope for the future. She explained that this is why forty years later on 27 April 2013 she had persevered to finance the documentation and celebration of Esmeralda’s Quinceañera in a similar fashion. Like her parents, she had invested herself in making sure that Esmeralda had an archive of moments she could turn to as a source from which to derive inner strength when confronted with difficult situations at whatever age and wherever she found herself. The preservation and recollection of the milestones achieved and documented by these women allowed students to travel back and forth through time.

Similarly, by the end of the 2016-2017 academic year the interest of my students and myself led us to encourage as many other UCI students as possible to consider the productive qualities of developing an emotional intelligence as an intellectual priority together. This resulted in a workshop collaboration at our campus, called “Revisiting Immigration History.” This workshop served as a productive intellectual space and community from which to learn from each other as a community of learners. Our forging an emotional intelligence together through this workshop made it easier for students to understand and cope with their feelings on undocumented immigration and immigration history.

Each student participating in the workshop submitted a photograph that captured an undocumented emotive dimension of immigration history and/or the undocumented immigrant experience that they welcomed discussing as part of this workshop. This approach to coming together allowed students to use their presentation of their photograph submission as a way of introducing themselves and their intellectual imaginaries to students that they were often meeting for the first time without augmenting their emotional exhaustion. The presentation of these photographs allowed students to consider undocumented immigration as an expansive, continuous, and diverse process and experience. Developing and applying this intellectual sensibility together made it accessible for reflecting on how we each are impacted by and invested in the future of undocumented immigration with documentation that students generated on their own and for the sake of us learning from each other and together with our humanity front and center. This workshop experience resulted in a careful consideration of the modalities that came into focus and grew in value because of the influential absence or decline in emotional intelligence evident in the U.S. government’s attitude towards immigration, undocumented immigrants, and immigration policy in the form of U.S. border enforcement measures and programs.

Participating in this workshop energized Andres Oceguera Pinedo to share a family photograph that his mother, Mercedes Pinedo, had shared with him.[16] Oceguera Pinedo explained that in the midst of fellow students working tirelessly to contribute to the emotional and financial welfare of their mixed status immigrant families, as they pursued their undergraduate education at our campus, his mother’s rationale for taking and sharing this photograph with him resonated differently. He explained that his mother’s photograph featured her surrounded by his older sisters. It was taken by a family friend, so that his mother documented being able to labor and care for his sisters during the summer of 1975 as an agricultural laborer at the John Pryor Farms in Soledad. His mother shared that this photograph captured what people in our contemporary moment rarely dare to acknowledge or document with care: the emotional intelligence of immigrants. Ocegueda Pinedo elaborated that his mother cherished this photograph, because it did not allow her to forget the hard earned privilege of being in one place together and as a family as she labored to ensure that they had the right to do so as an immigrant family in the United States. Like herself, Andres’s mother wanted him to understand and appreciate their family photograph as her documentation of the undocumented value immigrants place on doing everything possible to derive strength from simply being still and together after a hard week’s work. Such words and documentation and discussing them together paved the way for students to learn from Ocegueda Pinedo the importance of pausing regularly to take inventory and to document in ways that we deem comforting and humane—the hard earned privilege and value of being still and alongside those we care about and love.

Marleni Flores was also among the students who shared that the current uncertainty undocumented immigrant families face in the United States had deepened the appreciation of her mother, Jesuita Sanchez, for a family photograph taken of her alongside her family in 1974 by a fellow town resident as they came of age and enjoyed town life in Tzicatlan, Puebla together.[17] Flores described this family photograph featuring her mother’s cousin, siblings, and herself as among the few times in their lives in which they were able to enjoy time together as a family, in the same location, and in a situation in which they could afford to take a photograph.  Preserving this trace of a moment in which they were not pressured to migrate within and beyond Mexico continuously or worry about U.S. border enforcement measures had proven emotionally helpful to both her mother and Flores. She shared that it had prevented her mother from losing sight of the entirety of her family’s history, most specifically unforgettably joyful moments.

Upon concluding this workshop, students shared that it had been restorative to consider and discuss how the people we care about have preserved and discussed their emotive immigration histories. It resonated as a generative approach to considering the undocumented dimensions of immigration, the immigrant experience, and immigration history together and at our campus. Our focusing on the documentation and rationales behind emotive immigration histories resonated as productive vantage points towards identifying how a diversity of generations of immigrants with varying immigration statuses and perspectives on immigration have responded to the US government’s enforcement of its borders. Discussing the forethought, care, and resourcefulness with which their own immigrant family relatives and friends had invested in documenting and learning from their emotional intelligence for their and their family’s sake allowed students to not lose sight of the attentiveness and dedication with which older generations of immigrants had faced the pressures of US border enforcement measures and programs. Such sensibility deepened students’ appreciation for having invested in enriching their emotional intelligence together via this workshop. Moreover, I hope that it serves as an example of what we can achieve and share when we embrace emotive immigration history as a seminal pathway towards facing our feelings concerning immigration, most especially US border enforcement measures and programs within and beyond California together.


[1] Writing assignment submitted to the author by Adelaida Gutierrez, University of California, Irvine, June 2016. “Adelaida Gutierrez” is a pseudonym I gave the student to protect she and her family’s confidentiality.

[2] The author will reflect on student course assignments and discussions undertaken in her course offerings, exhibition project, and workshop on immigration history and the Chicana/o-Latina/o experience at UC Irvine during the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 academic years.

[3]  Priya Krishnakumar, Joe Fox, and Ally Levine, “What’s next for DACA and the nearly 800,000 people protected by it,” Los Angeles Times, 6 September 2017, http://www.latimes.com/projects/la-na-pol-daca-future/.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Teresa Watanabe, “UC President Janet Napolitano blasts Trump’s DACA decision,” Los Angeles Times, 5 September 2017, http://www.latimes.com/local/education/la-essential-education-updates-southern-uc-president-napolitano-blasts-trump-s-1504627146-htmlstory.html.

[7] Krishnakumar, Fox, and Levine, “What’s Next for DACA.”

[8] This article is informed by and attempts to build on the scholarship of Roberto G. Gonzalez, Lives in Limbo: Undocumented and Coming of Age in America (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017).

[9] Adelaida Gutierrez.

[10] Ibid.

[11] This quote is a part of “Gorditas de Nata,” a writing assignment submitted to the author by Mariana Rodriguez, University of California, Irvine, June 2016. “Mariana Rodriguez” is a pseudonym I gave the student to protect the student and her family’s confidentiality.

[12] This quote is a part of “Memories We Did Not Leave at the Border,” a writing assignment submitted to the author by Diego Hernandez, at the University of California, Irvine, June 2016. “Diego Hernandez” is a pseudonym I gave the student to protect the student and his family’s confidentiality.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Information about Delfina Palomares’ emotive immigration history and thoughts about the promise of The Material of Memory were collected and provided as part of conversations with and a course assignment submitted to the author by Stephanie Palomares, University of California, Irvine, December 2016.

[15] Information about Juanita Magdalena Garza’s emotive immigration history and thoughts about the promise of The Material of Memory were collected and provided as part of conversations with and a course assignment submitted to the author by Esmeralda Hic, University of California, Irvine, December 2016.

[16] Information about Mercedes Pinedo’s emotive immigration history were submitted and provided as part of the Revisiting Immigration History workshop group by Andres Oceguera Pinedo to the author, University of California, Irvine, March 2017.

[17] Information about Jesuita Sanchez emotive immigration history were submitted and provided as part of the Revisiting Immigration History workshop group by Marleni Flores to the author, University of California, Irvine, March 2017.


Ana Elizabeth Rosas is an associate professor of history and Chicano/Latino Studies at UC Irvine. She is the author of Abrazando El Espiritu: Bracero Families Confront the US-Mexico Border (UC Press, 2014), which received the Immigration and Ethnic History Society’s Theodore Soloutos Memorial Book Award for the best book on immigration history.


Copyright: © 2017 Ana Marie Rosas. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/


Heating Up: California Spotted Owls and Wildfire

Maya Khosla

For several years, television and computer screens showcase California fire footage, especially during summer months. Flames burn miles of wildland while firefighters battle the advancing front. Aircrafts spew great plumes of orange retardant that descend on the rising smoke. Red and crimson-gold flames light up the night. The news is part of an ancient story. For over 350 million years, wildfires have been shaping and rejuvenating forests, grasslands, and shrublands.[1] New science indicates that imperiled wildlife such as the California spotted owl can greatly benefit from large, natural, wildfires.[2]

The American West experienced about 30-40 million acres of wildfires each year through the drought years of the 1920s and 1930s.[3] That is well over the 10 million acres that burned in 2015, the over 8 million acres that burned in 2017, our biggest fire-years in recent decades.[4] Scientists are discussing predictions about the potential for the increasing size of wildfires due to climate change, while the new science is throwing light on a crucial question: how can we protect the forests that are California’s legacy?

While most scientists agree that fires provide multiple ecological benefits, scientists debate the high value of natural wildfire as opposed to prescribed wildfires. The emerging science shows that prescribed burns, typically designed to burn the forest understory outside the fire season, cannot provide the suite of ecological benefits provided by natural wildfires.[5]

In Spring 2015, I followed a team of scientists through one ‘burn’ after another. The 2013 Rim Fire had burned through the path ahead, and affected over a quarter of a million acres of forest, conifer plantation, scrubland, and meadow—most of them within Stanislaus National Forest. Some 80,000 acres of Yosemite National Park also burned.

The DEIS declared that “thousands of acres of critical habitat,” had been lost to imperiled wildlife, including California spotted owls and northern goshawks.

The Rim Fire was initially declared to be the largest fire on record for the Sierra Nevada, described as “a catastrophe.” By May 2014, the Forest Service drafted an Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), proposing logging operations to clear-cut over 40,000 acres across parts of Stanislaus that were now dominated by blackened, dead trees called ‘snags.’ The DEIS declared that “thousands of acres of critical habitat,” had been lost to imperiled wildlife, including California spotted owls and northern goshawks. Written soon after the fire, the DEIS also documented little plant regeneration in the burned soil. The plan was to remove the snags and then spray a cocktail of herbicides to inhibit the growth of natural shrubs, and install conifer plantations. Operations were to begin in the summer of 2015.[6]

In June 2015, the scientists on the path ahead of me were Dr. Derek Lee and Monica Bond—a husband and wife team with an abiding interest in the fate of spotted owls after wildfire. We hiked through the soon-to-be-removed burn areas west of the Highway 120 entrance into Yosemite National Park. Much of what looked dead was really alive. Overhead, ponderosa pine branches were roasted to the color of dark toast—looking otherworldly in the bright blue morning glow. Dr. Chad Hanson, leader of our walk, pointed out new pine needles, emerald-greens peeping out through the layers of burnt brown. Like the tree overhead, thousands of mature, charred pines were in the throes of ‘flushing,’ bursting with new growth.[7] New oak leaves were rising from the ground where their parent tree once stood. We had to watch our steps. The forest floor was alive with seedlings of pine, fir, cedar, lupines, saffron-bright wallflowers, and, in more remote patches, Clarkia australis, farewell-to-spring flowers, among the rarest of ‘fire followers’ in Stanislaus.[8]

Just after the Rim Fire DEIS was released in 2014, a friend offered to fly me there in his Cessna. Below, Stanislaus National Forest looked like a rolling patchwork quilt—bright green expanses, great swaths featuring a blend of green and brown, and patches of darker, more severely burned forest. For the first time, I could see variations within the burn.

Large wildfires that burn through unlogged forests burn with a natural mix of low, moderate, and high severities, levels I could distinguish from the aircraft. Low severity burns through the forest’s understory, leaving over three quarters of the treetops green. Tree trunks are scorched around their base, and over 75% of all the trees remain alive. Moderate severity burns more intensely—with anywhere between one and three quarters of all the trees surviving the fire. High severity burns hottest; flames torch the tree crowns. Over 75% of all the trees burn into ‘snags,’ or standing dead trees—scientists call these areas ‘snag forests.’ High severity may range between 15% and 40% of the total area burned, and can be higher in areas that have been previously logged and turned into plantations.

Stills - Evergreen Lodge Spotted Owl

Evergreen Lodge California Spotted Owl sitting in a part of Stanislaus National Forest that burned with low-severity during the 2013 Rim Fire. A few minutes after the photograph was taken, the owl flew to a snag within a high severity area, and foraged there until well after dusk.

Photographs taken immediately after a wildfire can be misleading. Following the Rim Fire, the Forest Service estimated a record 35% high severity fire in the burned parts of Stanislaus National Forest, since most of the trees looked dead. One year after the fire, a second survey brought the high severity number down to 19.9%, less than half of the earlier estimate, and well within the range of high severity observed in historic wildfires within mixed-conifer forests of the American West.[9] Given a year, many trees were showing signs of life, new greens mixed in with the browns and blacks.

While I was flying over the Rim Fire in 2014, dedicated Forest Service field biologists were deep in the throes of surveys for California spotted owls across the post-fire forests below. The owls are recognized as sensitive species by the Forest Service. The biologists detected a record thirty-three pairs occupying historical owl territories. Most were living close to patches that had burned with high severity. Their surveys marked the beginning of a groundbreaking study.[10]

Spotted owls are known to favor old growth forests, remaining faithful to territories they use for nesting and roosting year after year. They are growing increasingly rare across the state.[11] I had assumed they would be long gone from the burn. But Bond had a different story. In the late 1990s, she joined a demographic study of spotted owls that had begun in the mid-eighties. Bond used fifteen years of data to see if owls were inclined to return and breed in their old stomping grounds after a wildfire had swept through. The study included four sites in New Mexico, Arizona, and northern California.

“I discovered to my surprise that the Forest Service typically did not survey for spotted owls in heavily burned areas,” Bond said. “So we actually had very little data from forests outside our demography study sites. There was an assumption, ‘of course, the owls aren’t going to be there.’”[12]

Bond and her colleagues conducted long-term spotted owl research in post-fire forests that had recently burned one or more well-established spotted owl territories. The study included the three subspecies: northern spotted owls (listed under the Endangered Species Act), based in the forests of northwestern California, California spotted owls in San Bernardino National Forest, Southern California, and Mexican spotted owls in New Mexico and Arizona.

Once the records were compiled, the team was in for a second surprise. All across the burned forests, they found the owls “fared well after wildfire.” The year after each fire, most returned to the same, now burned, territories they had occupied before, remained with the same mates, and reproduced with remarkable success—comparable to their lives before each burn.[13] Essentially, the raptors were thriving in undisturbed burned forests.

“That first study got my creative juices flowing,” Bond admitted with a chuckle.[14]

News about the results hurled a big question at managers and at the public, essential owners of our national forests and national parks. Do burned forests have value? The question is heavily burdened with a fact of our time. Severely burned forests are routinely clear-cut in “salvage logging” operations.

2016 Regen 3 Solitaire Nest

2016 Regen 3 Solitaire Nest where a snag and sprigs of new growth, pines, cedars, and firs frame the ground nest created by a pair of Townsend’s solitaires.

A decade after Bond’s first study, she and Lee teamed up with other scientists for a second, spanning eleven years, this time focusing on California spotted owls being surveyed by Forest Service biologists.[15] By this point, and after scrutiny from conservation groups, the agency had begun surveying heavily burned areas for owls prior to salvage operations. The research team compared burned and unburned habitats up and down the state, from Lassen National Forest in the southern part of the Cascades Mountain Range to Sequoia National Forest in the southern Sierras. Their results told a similar story: spotted owls were continuing to occupy burned territories at the same rates as unburned territories, thriving in burned forests after wildfire. Subsequent studies revealed that the most productive, higher-quality territories were still occupied even when the owls’ entire core area burned at high severity.[16] Post-fire ‘salvage logging’ caused the owls to leave in what scientists call “territory extinction.”[17]

The abundance of growth springing up after fire attracts all manner of squirrels, voles, shrews, mice, and gophers—all high quality food for raptors like the owl. Witnessing the prolific growth of the burned forests she studied, coupled with the vibrant small mammal life Bond was no longer surprised at the quick return of California spotted owls she and her colleagues found. Wildfire brings the forest’s own fertilizers back in contact with soils, and the rapid pace of natural regeneration draws in the animals.

“As long as there are trees still standing for the owls to swoop down from, they can use these burned areas for foraging,” she told me.[18]

Walking through the Rim Fire areas of Stanislaus National Forest, Bond and Lee asked themselves similar questions about the fate of resident California spotted owls. It was a hot spring and the mosquitoes too were evidently doing well. Once we were quiet and watchful, the air grew full of bird sounds. Woodpeckers drummed on bark. Lazuli buntings, seed-eating birds the size of sparrows, chittered as they eyed me from a blackened snag. Lazulis are on a long list of ‘fire birds,’ developed by Dr. Richard Hutto, a distinguished ornithologist.[19] At the top of his list are black-backed woodpeckers, another bird rare to California.

Early morning Sunday, 14 June 2015, biologist Tonja Chi woke me up. “Follow me.”

Half an hour later we were driving through Stanislaus National Forest along a road southeast of the Highway 120 entrance into Yosemite. We parked and crunched into an adjacent forest that had burned with low severity, immediately adjacent to a high severity part of the burn. Tonja walked with her eyes pinned to the ground. Not twenty minutes later, I discovered the logic. She was eyeing splotches of ‘white-wash,’ chalky white raptor scat under a large cedar tree. Looking up from the scat, she pointed to a limb high in a fir tree that was charred to about knee level, and alive. Two pairs of wide eyes were trained on us. Backlit by the rising sun, the fledgling California spotted owls looked haloed with fiery down feathers. The larger of the two fledglings stood about seventeen inches tall, the height of an adult. They moved their heads in circles, curious. Tonja found the male parent less than a hundred feet away, nodding off to sleep after a night of hunting and feeding his young.

By 2016, two independent teams had reported California spotted owls reacting to wildfires in completely different ways—one negatively, and the other positively. Gavin Jones and his colleagues reported dramatic declines in owls one year after a ‘megafire,’ the 2014 King Fire, which burned over 98,000 acres in Eldorado National Forest.[20] Meanwhile, Lee and Bond had worked with Forest Service data from Stanislaus National Forest, and found the owls were making a good living for themselves in the burn one year after the Rim Fire.[21] Their discoveries pointed in the direction of the earlier work.[22] Within the forty-five historical owl sites in the Rim Fire forests, the probability of a site being occupied by owls was 92%. These were the highest California spotted owl occupancy levels ever found anywhere in the Sierra Nevada, counting landscapes that had not experienced recent fire. Spotted owls were even settling down close to high severity burn areas.

Because the Jones study in Eldorado National Forest pointed in the opposite direction of most previously published work, it piqued much interest. Bond and Lee examined the trends and realized the California spotted owl population in Eldorado had been steadily declining for decades before the King Fire, partly due to intense logging and forest-thinning efforts on both public and private land. The trend of the population decline lined up perfectly with the lower number of owls after the fire, indicating that the fire itself was an unlikely cause.

2016 King Fire

2016 image showing clear-cuts in Eldorado National Forest that burned in the 2014 King Fire. Shortly after the clear-cutting, these areas were sprayed with herbicides to inhibit the growth of shrubs.

Now Bond and Lee joined Hanson to pore over the field-based data with care. They realized the study had considered approximately half the King Fire area. Within that half, five spotted owl territories had been reported as “extinct” due to the King Fire, when in fact those pairs had disappeared by 2011 or earlier—well before the King Fire began to burn. A single owl and another pair were reported as gone when they had in fact moved a few hundred meters away, within their existing territories. Two other pairs of owls that were present in post-fire areas went unreported. When the results were considered along with all the data that had been excluded from the study, the owls showed an overall trend of preferring undisturbed post-fire habitat rather than avoiding it – which was consistent with all the previous long-term studies. Puzzled, the team alerted the authors, the editor of Frontiers in Ecology, and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, with a package of ground-truthed data.[23]

But their alerts came in on the heels of major logging efforts. Assuming the snag forest patches within the King Fire area of Eldorado National Forest were of no use to the spotted owls, or other wildlife, the Forest Service systematically removed those patches in the spring and summer of 2016. Working on similar assumptions, managers in Stanislaus National Forest followed their original plans and began clear-cutting snag forests within the Rim Fire area, citing the Jones study as part of their justification.[24]

Snag patches within the King Fire areas of Eldorado National Forest are largely gone, and they continue to be removed from the Rim Fire areas of Stanislaus. Thousands of conifer seedlings per acre, which were sprouting up from the fire-enriched soils, have been squashed under equipment within the clear-cutting footprint—along with the native wildflowers, morel mushrooms and other native fungi. Snags that served as homes for woodpeckers and other wildlife have disappeared from Eldorado and from much of Stanislaus.

The husband and wife team and others could no longer explore longer-term effects of the Rim Fire on owls in Stanislaus National Forest. “The old paradigm—a lot of what we once thought—isn’t right,” Monica reflected. “Our spotted owl studies showed us: species that rely on old growth forests can also thrive in severely burned forests.”[25]

Scientists standing along the new frontier of knowledge agree that natural wildfires are the ancient agents of change, with high severity fire being a key component. Fire typically chars the outermost layers of trees, and leaves the interior intact, valuable. Hanson calculated the economic losses and gains from logging efforts across post-fire habitats. The revenue gained from selling burned wood ranges between $15 to $20 million per year. A conservative estimate of costs to taxpayers ranges between $50 million to $100 million. And there are inestimable costs to the wild.[26]

Attempting to work with fire, agencies like the National Park Service have routinely set low severity fires that primarily burn the forest understory. An increasing number of studies indicate that natural wildfires, with their distinct blend of low, moderate and high severity, offer greater ecological benefits.[27] Well over a hundred peer-reviewed papers have spoken volumes about the benefits of wildfire, the high biodiversity of post-fire forests, and their history in the American West and other parts of the world.[28] A growing number agree that post-fire ’salvage logging’ has disastrous consequences.

“The overwhelming diversity and superabundance of native plants and animals in severe burned forests tells us that this kind of fire is natural,” Bond says. “Not only is it natural, it’s necessary for western forest ecosystems.”[29]

Fire science is still relatively new, and the current management practices are geared towards fire suppression in the wild. Modern fire suppression efforts began in earnest in the mid-1930s. Smokey the Bear came into being in 1944, warning against forest fires. By the mid-nineties, Bill Clinton agreed to a ‘salvage logging rider.’ The rider trotted in on the back of an anti-terrorism bill, and was passed into law—allowing for massive logging and related post-fire operations across burned forests. In addition, many fuels reduction projects began thinning the forests in attempts to decrease their potential for high severity wildfires. Recent studies suggest that most fuels reduction projects within forests selectively remove mature trees and do little to decrease high-severity wildfire.[30] Current level of fire suppression efforts need to be more focused.

During 2016, Chi and I revisited the area where she had found the young owls in 2015. Just a few hundred meters away, swaths of post-fire habitat were gone. We could not find the owls. May 2017, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development approved a $70 million grant to the State of California—to remove most of the remaining snag forests within the Rim Fire Area of Stanislaus National Forest. The wood is to be burned by the biomass industry, to produce energy and pollute the air above Yosemite with emissions, a process which Congress is hoping to define as renewable, though burning biomass emits more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than burning coal. And yet there is hope—as forests and wildlife continue to thrive with the natural wildfires that shaped their evolution—that the management of our public forests will someday catch up with the science.

Yosemite Highway 120 Entrance 2, Autumn colors appear in a part of Yosemite that burned with moderate severity during the 2013 Rim Fire. The burned pines above now thrive.


[1] S. H. Doerr and C. Santin, “Global trends in wildfire and its impacts: perceptions versus realities in a changing world,” Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 371 (2016): 0345.

[2] M. L. Bond, R. J. Gutierrez, A. B. Franklin, et al., “Short-term effects of wildfires on Spotted Owl survival, site fidelity, mate fidelity, and reproductive success,” Wildlife Society Bulletin 30 (2002):1022-1028.

[3] Douglas S. Powell, Joanne L. Faulkner, David R. Darr, et al., “Forest Resources of the United States,” General Technical Report RM-234 (Fort Collings, CO: United States Department of Agriculture, 1992).

[4] In California, the fire season extends through the summer and fall seasons.

[5] Richard L. Hutto, Robert E. Keane, Rosemary L. Sherriff, at al., “Toward a more ecologically informed view of severe forest fires,” Ecosphere (2016): 1-13; T.  Schoennagel, Penny Morgan, Jennifer Balch, et al., “Insights from wildfire science: A resource for fire policy discussions” (2016), http://headwaterseconomics.org/wphw/wp-content/uploads/wildfire-insights-authors.pdf.

[6] US Forest Service, “Rim Fire Recovery (43033): Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS),” Stanislaus National Forest, R5 MB-270, May 2014.

[7] Chad T. Hanson and Malcolm P. North, “Post-fire survival and flushing in three Sierra Nevada conifers with high initial crown scorch,” International Journal of Wildland Fire 18 (2009): 857-864.

[8] Roy Buck, personal communication, 30 May 2017.

[9] Center for Biological Diversity and the John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute, “Letter to the Forest Service,” 11 January 2016.

[10] Derek E. Lee and Monica L. Bond, “Occupancy of California Spotted Owl sites following a large fire in the Sierra Nevada, California.” The Condor: Ornithological Applications 117 (2015): 228-236.

[11] M. E. Seamans and R. J. Gutierrez, “Habitat selection in a changing environment: The relationship between habitat alteration and Spotted Owl territory occupancy and breeding dispersal,” The Condor: Ornithological Applications 109 (2007): 566-576. United States Fish and Wildlife Service, “U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Announces Findings on Petitions to List Species in California and Nevada” 17 September 2015.

[12] Interview with Monica Bond, 20 May 2016, Stanislaus National Forest.

[13] Bond, M. L., R. J. Gutierrez, A. B. Franklin, at al., “Short-term effects of wildfires on Spotted Owl survival, site fidelity, mate fidelity, and reproductive success,” Wildlife Society Bulletin 30 (2002): 1022-1028.

[14] Interview with Monica Bond, 20 May 2016, Stanislaus National Forest.

[15] M. L. Bond, D. E. Lee, R. B. Siegel, and J. P. Ward, “Habitat use and selection by California Spotted Owls in a postfire landscape,” Journal of Wildlife Management 73 (2009): 1116-1124.

[16] D. E. Lee and M. L. Bond, “Previous year’s reproductive state affects spotted owl site occupancy and reproduction responses to natural and anthropogenic disturbances,” The Condor: Ornithological Applications 117 (2015): 307-319.

[17] D. L. Lee, M. L. Bond, M. I. Borchert, and R. Tanner, “Influence of fire and salvage logging on site occupancy of Spotted Owls in the San Bernardino and San Jacinto mountains of southern California,” Journal of Wildlife Management 77 (2013): 1327-1341.

[18] Interview with Monica Bond, 20 May 2016, Stanislaus National Forest.

[19] Collard B. Sneed, Fire Birds: Valuing Natural Wildfires and Burned Forests (Missoula, MT: Mountain Press, 2014).

[20] Gavin M. Jones, R. J. Gutiérrez, Douglas J. Tempel, at al. “Megafires: an emerging threat to old-forest species,” Frontiers in Ecology (2016): 301-306.

[21] Derek E. Lee and Monica L. Bond, “Occupancy of California Spotted Owl sites following a large fire in the Sierra Nevada, California,” The Condor: Ornithological Applications 117 (2015): 228-236..

[22] M. L. Bond, D. E. Lee, R. B. Siegel, and J. P. Ward, “Habitat use and selection by California Spotted Owls in a postfire landscape,” The Condor: Ornithological Applications 119 (2017): 375-388.

[23] John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute and Wild Nature Institute, “Letter to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service,” 29 August 2016. Center for Biological Diversity and the John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute, and Wild Nature Institute, “Letter to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service,” April 2017.

[24] United States Forest Service, “Rim Fire Project Decision,” August 2016.

[25] Interview with Monica Bond, 20 May 2016, Stanislaus National Forest.

[26] Interview with Dr. Chad Hanson, 11 August 2016, Big Bear City.

[27] Richard L. Hutto, Robert E. Keane, Rosemary L. Sherriff, et al. “Toward a more ecologically informed view of severe forest fires,” Ecosphere 7 (2016): e01255.

[28] Morgan W. Tingley, Viviana Ruiz-Gutiérrez, Robert L. Wilkerson, et al., “Pyrodiversity promotes avian diversity over the decade following forest fire,” Proc. R. Soc. B 283 (2016): 1703. Dominick A. DellaSala and Chad T. Hanson, eds. The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix (The Netherlands: Elsevier, 2015).

[29] Interview with Monica Bond, 20 May 2016, Stanislaus National Forest.

[30] Curtis M. Bradley, Chad T. Hanson, and Dominick A. DellaSala, “Does increased forest protection correspond to higher fire severity in frequent- fire forests of the western United States?” Ecosphere 7 (2016): 1-13.

Maya Khosla is a Wildlife Ecologist with Ecological Studies and has written in Flyway, Yes Magazine, Humans and Nature, and other journals. Her work has been collected in Keel Bone (Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize) and Web of Water: Life in Redwood Creek (non-fiction). Her new book of poems is forthcoming from Sixteen Rivers Press. Searching for the Gold Spot is her new film.

Copyright: © 2017 Maya Khosla. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/


Ayahuasca-naut: A Zen Student’s Experiment with Shamanic Medicine


Nick Shindo Street

A hallucinogenic brew called ayahuasca is having a heyday in the United States. Rolling Stone, Fusion, VICE and other trend-spotting news outlets have posted stories about spiritual adventurers tripping on the stuff during private rituals in hipster outposts like Brooklyn and Berkeley as well as remote jungle settings in Central and South America.

The thick, earthy tea is concocted from a complementary pair of plants that grow in the rain forests of the Western Hemisphere. Depending on whom you ask, ayahuasca—called “the mother” by devotees—opens the doors of perception, provides a window onto the soul, lures naïve Westerners into the heart of darkness or crams a decade of psychotherapy into a few hours.

The legal status of ayahuasca is ambiguous in the United States, though it has been used in shamanic rituals for centuries.

Why is this ayahuasca’s moment? A recent piece in The New Yorker[1] framed the popularity of ayahuasca as yet another wellness fetish in the current “Age of Kale.” That breezily dismissive conclusion doesn’t account for the uptick in ritual use of the brew among people who aren’t chasing the latest Burning Man-inspired fad. For example, in a segment of its special digital series on mental health care, CBS News[2] examined the buzz—and controversy—around Veterans for Entheogenic Therapy (VET). VET organizes retreats where ayahuasca is used to treat service members suffering from depression, addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder.

That focus on physical and emotional experience, particularly the experience of trauma and the search for healing, highlights an important but underreported trend: Though millions of Americans, particularly young adults in big coastal cities, are dropping out of organized religion, many of those dropouts are still looking for experiences of self-transcendence. That can mean volunteering at a homeless shelter, learning meditation or simply cultivating a sense of “something bigger than myself.” For some religious “nones”—those who check “none of the above” on religious identification surveys—self-transcendence also entails the ritual use of ayahuasca. And nowhere are these broad developments more apparent than California, which for decades has served as an engine for both counterculture and religious disaffiliation in the United States.

A “none” whom I’ll call Brianna unexpectedly introduced me to one of California’s ayahuasca subcultures during an interview about Brianna’s involvement with a secularized form of Buddhist meditation.

Brianna and I agreed to meet on a shady patio outside a coffee shop at the Farmers Market on Fairfax—it was midafternoon on a warm weekday in Los Angeles. Brianna, a financial consultant, had told me she would be coming from a workout, and that I should look for a woman in her late 20s with long, auburn hair wearing a gray tank-top and running tights.

I was instantly envious of Brianna’s arms. She had the guns of someone who manages a handstand with aplomb, who can lob a medicine ball into next Tuesday.

Not surprisingly, self-discipline and a no-nonsense approach to life quickly emerged as two of Brianna’s strongest character traits.

“I started out very skeptical,” Brianna said of her initial experience with a university-based research center that has become a leader in teaching meditation practices that have been stripped of their religious trappings. “It’s kind of like, you know, this is for hippies, and I’m not a hippie.”

Brianna said that as she deepened her level of participation in the mindfulness program and cultivated her own regular meditation practice, she noticed changes in herself that she liked.

“It’s definitely an effective tool,” she said. “Being able to distance yourself in a healthy way from emotions or experiences, you don’t have to rationalize everything. You just experience it and move on.”

Brianna, a Southern California native, grew up nominally Catholic and still believes in what she calls “a higher power.” But rather than identifying that power as the God of traditional Christianity, she said she equates it with the sense of awe she feels when she is in nature or when she contemplates the infinite vastness of the night sky.

As we began to wrap things up, I asked Brianna whether there was anything important about her story that we’d not covered. “Yes,” she replied. Then she told me that over the past year and a half, she had participated in three ayahuasca rituals.

“I was super skeptical about that too,” she said. “But now I’m a believer.”

Unlike members of the 1960s counterculture who used psychedelics to “tune in and drop out,” many of today’s religious “nones” are both squarely in the mainstream of American professional life and willing to experiment with spiritual technologies that are more typically associated with the cultural fringe. Erik Davis, a scholar of contemporary American esoteric spirituality and author of Visionary State: A Journey Through California’s Spiritual Landscapes,[3] has observed this paradoxical trend first-hand: “In my work,” Davis said, “I’ve encountered people from a science background or secular background who are concerned about losing their reason, but who are also happy to see that there’s a way to engage the weird stuff,” like psychedelics.

Davis added that the willingness of more-or-less secular seekers like Brianna to scratch their spiritual itches by using ayahuasca “blows my mind.”

“Even in the psychedelic world,” Davis said, “ayahuasca is fucking hardcore. Its visionary dimension is robust and bizarre. But psychedelics are very plastic, and your intention helps to shape the experience.”

In keeping with her pragmatic approach to both mindfulness and shamanic medicine, Brianna said that while all three ayahuasca rituals were useful for her, her most recent experience was life altering: “It was one of the best experiences in my entire life. Perhaps the best.”

She described lying on a meditation mat in a state between consciousness and unconsciousness while the shaman chanted, drummed and made his way around the room to administer healings to Brianna and the other participants. During the last ritual she attended, she said experienced “pure joy” for several hours.

I asked Brianna whether she thought ayahuasca was compatible with the discipline and insights she’s developed through her meditation.

“They’re definitely complementary,” she said. “The idea is that ayahuasca, the plant, she gives you what you need at the time. She can be harsh sometimes or she can be very loving. I’ve only had good experiences so far.”


On a Wednesday night a few weeks later, I sat on a small pallet of bedding that I’d made for myself and swayed gently as the shaman’s chanting shifted into a languid, sweetly melancholy register.

The room was dimly lit—the only sources of illumination were a small candle and cool, silver-white streetlight seeping through sheets of creamy parchment that our host had used to cover the big windows in the living room of his house on L.A.’s Westside. There were eight other participants, along with the shaman and his attendant. The shaman—about six feet tall with short, shaggily cropped dark hair—was a Frenchman who had traveled to the Peruvian Amazon to find a cure for his heroin addiction. He spent the next ten years in the jungle as an apprentice to an indigenous medicine man.

His attendant was a fifty-something psychotherapist whose pale shawl and shoulder-length gray-blonde hair gave her a ghostly appearance as she moved around the room to check on us and administer healings.

Our little nests of blankets and pillows outlined the perimeter of the space, creating a semicircle in front of the darkly patterned rugs and tapestries that demarked the shaman’s altar. Close at hand, the shaman had a large green bottle of ayahuasca, a small octagonal drum, a wooden whistle and a feather-duster-sized bundle of papery leaves that evoked the sound of birds flapping through a forest when he shook it.

Smoke from mapacho, the Amazonian tobacco that often grows near the ayahuasca vine, hung in the air.

At the start of the ritual, the shaman told us that his singing—a combination of North and South American indigenous languages as well as a shamanic version of speaking in tongues—was meant to shape the flow of energy in the room rather than convey any sort of meaning. While he was explaining this, I was clinging to a small plastic bucket. Ayahuasca often causes intense vomiting, and in a few minutes I was retching with such gusto that, at one point, the shaman stopped chanting and said, “Nick, you need to get control of your mind.”

After the purging came the visions. In the kind of half-conscious state that Brianna had described in recounting her experience, I became vividly aware of the toxic mixture of shame and self-loathing that I’d marinated in as a closeted gay kid growing up in Alabama during the 1970s and ’80s. At one point I even glimpsed myself as a fetus, absorbing metaphysical poison through the umbilicus while I was still in my mother’s womb.

“Fuck that,” I said, banishing dark, smoky tentacles of shame that were trying to wrap themselves around me.

Dramatic insights like that are common during long meditation retreats. I’ve been a Zen practitioner for fifteen years, ordained as a priest in 2007 and soon thereafter moved into a small Buddhist temple.

Zazen (Zen meditation) and the shamanic use of ayahuasca are both spiritual technologies designed to help seekers cultivate a state of awareness freed from the distortions of reality caused by tightly held beliefs, concepts, and other habits of mind.

Carefully managed rituals traditionally surround both practices. These lattices of sound, spectacle, and movement act as a psychological container for the powerful emotional energies—awe, wonder, fear and anger, for example—that are often uncorked in the process.

A couple of times over the course of the ayahuasca ritual, the visions and physical sensations I was experiencing became almost too much to bear—for example, at one point I watched my body become transparent. At another, I felt myself melting into a liquid form. Seeing the sweater at the foot of my bed writhe like an earthworm was also disconcerting. Some prior instructions from my Zen teacher (“no matter what happens, just relax and float downstream”) helped me navigate most of those intense experiences and waves of feeling.

Toward the end of the ritual, a bout of paranoia sent me crawling (I couldn’t walk) out of the circle and onto a poolside patio. After several veteran ayahuasca-nauts failed to coax me back inside—their voices seemed out of sync with their mouths when they spoke, which didn’t help my anxiety—the shaman himself intervened: “You’re safe here,” he said as he held me by the shoulders, “and everyone here loves you.”

That did the trick. I was embarrassed by the group’s exuberance when I finally rejoined the circle. The room was suffused with golden light, and I wept in response to the intense love that I felt as the ritual reached a crescendo and began to wind down.“You have to remember that you’re always looking into your own mind,” my Zen teacher told me when I recounted my experiences to him the next day. “It’s your fear or your joy. And fear and joy are just more thinking. Don’t grab onto them and just go back to your practice—that’s staying in the circle!”

These insights into psyche and the numinous are by no means unique to Zen or the ritual use of ayahuasca. In my work as a journalist covering religion, I’ve interviewed many people who have had similar experiences during Pentecostal prayer, yogic breathing, and other spiritual practices.

Some of these paths intersect or even overlap. For example, there’s a connection between the kind of spiritual yearning that often attracts people to Zen as well as ayahuasca—specifically, the desire to see reality as it is, not filtered or refracted through the lenses of belief and cultural conditioning.

That’s why ayahuasca is the spiritual doorway of choice for many seekers in the age of religious “nones.” While some young adults are leaving organized religion to pursue decidedly unspiritual materialistic goals, many other “nones” are looking for firsthand experiences of absolute reality, which they feel the doctrines of traditional religion have obscured.

In the case of Brianna and other religious “nones,” the intention that guides their spiritual seeking is to connect with the sublime or divine in a purely experiential way that casts aside rigid ethical formulas and speculative theologies.

“I know that there’s some higher power,” Brianna said. “But do I think we have to follow any specific rules, and is there an afterlife? Like, no.”

Brianna added that the goal of life is the happiness that comes from being a good person—someone who works to create productive lives for herself and others. That hopeful formulation impressed me as good medicine for heartsick times.

“I suspect this kind of seeking is happening everywhere,” Erik Davis said, “even if California is the most obvious example. Through technology and media, we’re all kind of California now.”


  • Special thanks to Alex and Allyson Grey of the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors (http://cosm.org/) for the kind use of their art, and also to Mark McCloud.

[1] Ariel Levy, “The Drug of Choice for the Age of Kale,” The New Yorker, 12 September 2016.

[2] Roman Feeser, “State of Mind Episode 2: Hidden Battles,” CBS News, 10 May 2017.

[3] Erik Davis, The Visionary State: A Journey Through California’s Spiritual Landscape (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2006).


Nick Shindo Street is the senior writer with the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California. His reporting on religious movements, politics, sexuality, popular culture and news media has appeared in Religion & Politics, Nieman Reports, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, Al Jazeera America, Global Post, Religion Dispatches, The Jewish Journal and Patheos.

Copyright: © 2017 Nick Shindo Street. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/



A Missed Lesson in the Heart of California

Josh Stephens

Many years ago, I rode on a team bus through the agricultural heart of California. Up far too late for a school night, we didn’t get on the road until past 10 p.m., and weren’t getting back to Los Angeles before 2 a.m.

Strange things happen when you qualify for the California state volleyball playoffs. In California, athletic regions are larger than most states. I was an assistant coach at my alma mater. I didn’t have to attend the match, but I enjoy a good road trip.

We took State Route 145 southbound, an empty a two-lane through cotton fields and almond groves to get to I-5. Amid the dark and quiet—the kind of quiet that you only hear after a team’s season has ended—one of our more whimsical players bolted upright and asked of the entire bus, “Is that the real moon?”

She can be forgiven for her incredulity. The moon rising ahead of us that November night was a reddish freak of refraction known only to the flattest of landscapes. It looked nothing like the modest disk she’d seen over west Los Angeles a million times before. As far as the players and I were concerned, we were traveling through a foreign land—California’s own version of flyover country. For all we knew, maybe it did have its own moon.

doug-walters-36628 @dougwalters via Unsplash

Doug Walters @dougwalters via Unsplash.

Back then, Donald Trump was just an inflated real estate developer. Even so, the town of Kerman probably would have voted for him back then. A typical farm town of 8,500 at the time, 20 miles west of Fresno, Kerman floats amid the politically red ocean surrounding America’s archipelago of blue. It is precisely the type of place in which urbane city-dwellers are unfamiliar just as cities are unfamiliar to many people in places like Kerman.

For all of Kerman’s Red State inclinations, the facts suggest that politically we were, if not in friendly territory, at least in territory that wasn’t hostile. In 2000, 53 percent of Fresno County favored George W. Bush over Al Gore. In the 2016 election, Fresno County favored Hillary Clinton 49 percent to 43 percent. Of the four precincts within Kerman’s city limits, only one favored Trump. In neighboring precincts, that number reached 82 percent.[1]

Though Kerman superficially resembles many of the places where Donald Trump dominated—beating Hillary two- and three-fold—it was actually one of the few places in California that was relatively evenly split. Kerman actually teeters on the edge of Red and Blue, making it, paradoxically, an electoral microcosm of the country. And yet, with polarization and geographic sorting, it is near unique among American places.

Kerman’s brand of rural America differs from that in places like Oklahoma or Nebraska. As in communities in those states, many jobs—24 percent in Kerman’s case—are in agriculture. With a median family income of just over $34,000, it’s poor. But it looks different from its Heartland America counterparts. One explanation for Kerman’s political allegiance with urban America lies in demographics. Today, Kerman has 13,500 residents and is 71 percent Hispanic, up from 65 percent in 2000.[2] How its volleyball team reflected its demographics, I honestly can’t recall.

kelly-sikkema-189822 @kelsikkema via Unsplash

Kelly Sikema @kelsikkema via Unsplash.

Until 9 November, I hadn’t thought about Kerman for a very long time. Come to think of it, Donald Trump probably never paid it, or its thousands of counterparts, much mind either. There’s not much of a market for skyscrapers on the prairie. And yet in the course of his campaign Trump saw his own moonrise the moment he left his tower and met with adoration in the unlikeliest of places. Hillary Clinton didn’t figure it out until the moment he won Michigan.

As I think about the way Trump’s America views my America, I can’t help but think about what Kerman thought of us or what we thought of Kerman. Some of our players probably didn’t think of Kerman at all—it was a team and a gym, and nothing more. Some may have been enchanted by the idea of a small town, so dissimilar from our metropolis. Some may have been less charitable.

And our opponents, the Lions of Kerman High? I hope they didn’t think of us at all. If they had, they might have been appalled. My school embodied every private school stereotype: wealthy, worldly, fashionable, probably a little spoiled. The children of what came to be known, soon thereafter, of the 1 percent. The girl so perplexed by the moon? She was the daughter of a celebrity, a rock star known in part for Vietnam-era protest songs. How awful must we have seemed to them. How backwards must they have seemed to us.

We’ve all developed notions of the noble struggles of the Heartland, the Rust Belt, Coal Country, and the rest. But until 9 November I think few of us realized just how badly the fuzziness of these notions could hurt us. What has become abundantly clear is that the hurt goes both ways: rural America, no matter how it votes, feels isolated from and therefore threatened by the cosmopolitan America of the cities and coasts. Cosmopolitan America does not recognize these threats and therefore ignores them. It probably believed that rural areas appreciated the urbanity and economic, intellectual, culturally-creative power of cities—looking to them admiringly.

I understand the Trump phenomenon better when I consider what his rallies must have meant to people in towns like Kerman—and in towns far more isolated and far more desperate. In those places, a volleyball playoff game might be the highlight of the year. A win in the state playoffs over a fancy private school might be the highlight of the decade. A Trump visit— one of those rallies where he pledged his allegiance to them and pledged inexplicably to stick it to the “elites”—might have been the highlight of a lifetime.

The beauty and tragedy of athletic contests is that they take place on the court. There’s a handshake and a coin toss and then the game comes into being. It is bounded by rules. Schools become teams. People become players. Places become venues. Participants relate to each other through the prism of the game. Then one of us goes home.

Los_Angeles_from_Griffith_Observatory_(5434943823)_By KimonBerlin (httpswww.flickr.comphotoskimon5434943823) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (httpcreativecommons.orglice

Los Angeles from Griffith Observatory by KimonBerlin via Flickr.

I wish we’d done more than just play volleyball that night. We could have gotten to know each other. Coaches could have chatted with coaches. Players could have made friends with their opponents. We could have had dinner beforehand or gone for ice cream afterwards. We could have gotten to know their names and found of what their lives were like. They could have done the same.

This is the type of encounter that, multiplied millions of times, may have prevented our national fracture. It’s the type that may be required for national healing. Gentle conversations, free of accusations and bitterness, may lead to empathy on both sides. That’s one school of thought, simplistic though it may be. The other school holds that the time for reconciliation is past and that the left must battle like never before. Of course, the right will do the same.

A little friendliness might not have saved the world. But I can’t help thinking of the power of small gestures of communion. Those kids grew up four hours from Los Angeles and four hours from the Bay Area. And yet, there’s a chance that none of them ever visited either or even met anyone from either. Their impressions would have been rightfully left to their own imaginations. Even a single encounter is memorable if it’s distinctive enough. We both could have come away with warm feelings rather than with the coldness of our assumptions. We could have reminded each other that we all live in the same state, in the same country, under the same moon.  Maybe, seventeen years later, we’d have thought about each other, if only briefly, when we went to the polls.

To their credit, Kerman fielded a hell of a team. They whupped us fair and square. That’s one reason why that bus ride was so somber, celestial oddities notwithstanding. But, still, it was just a volleyball game. I wish all losses were so easy to take.

The Cool Kids High School. Project. Constantino Endara via Flickr

The Cool Kids High School Project. Constantino Endara (http://cargocollective.com/constantinoendara/portfolio-1) via Flickr, used by permission.


[1] For 2000 election details, see http://uselectionatlas.org/RESULTS/statesub.php?year=2000&fips=6019&f=0&off=0&elect=0; for the recent election see http://www.latimes.com/projects/la-pol-ca-california-neighborhood-election-results/.

[2] http://censusviewer.com/city/CA/Kerman.


Josh Stephens is a journalist covering cities, and is contributing editor to the California Planning & Development Report, the state’s foremost independent publication dedicated to urban planning. He is also contributing editor to Planetizen.com and conducts its “Planners Across America” interview series. His work has also appeared in a wide-range fora including Planning Magazine, The Architect’s Newspaper, Los Angeles MagazineSierra Magazine, Grist.org, Los Angeles Review of Books, Volleyball Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, many of which are chronicled at joshrstephens.net.


Copyright: © 2017 Josh Stephens. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/



Danza de Los Superhéroes: Zapotec Immigrant Tradition in Transnational Transfer

LPeña_Familia Zapoteca-1739

Angel Sáncez (Captain America) and Antonio Mazas (Hulk) take a break between performances during the annual celebration of the Yalalag community in Los Angeles

Leopoldo Peña

Just west of downtown Los Angeles, in a derelict American Craftsman house, a group of Zapotec immigrants from Yalalag, a small town in southern Mexico, rush around the dining room.[1] Here in Los Angeles, they’re getting ready for another performance, requiring attire chosen from a wardrobe of popular and global appeal. Outside in the backyard there is a celebration and a growing audience of more indigenous Mexican immigrants.

Most in attendance are Yalaltecos,[2] and other immigrants from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Like in their Mexican hometown, Yalaltecos gather to celebrate patron saint days. For this particular saint day, they are celebrating a major Catholic figure, Santiago Apostle, the eponymous patron saint of the gathered community, and the religious icon that brings together the Yalalag community in Los Angeles in a similar way that it unites Yalaltecos in their hometown in Mexico.

For Santiago Apostle’s day, the audience has waited a year, and will wait a bit more, as the backyard fills with people under LA’s relentless summer sun. The saint sits on its handcrafted altar, and the audience waits patiently while watching folkloric performances produced as replicas of the acts from the Mexican community of origin. This is the annual feast, a celebration that reconnects the community as a people despite being immigrants of foreign soil. This year’s celebration, however, finds the attending DJ announcing a forthcoming surprise: “There will be a special dance in this year’s celebration… in a few minutes!”

LPeña_Familia Zapoteca-1809

Antonio Mazas (Hulk) and Angel Sanchez (Captain America), stand guard to the St. Santiago Apostle during the annual celebration of the Yalalag community in Los Angeles.

Hurriedly, the men dig into backpacks and plastic bags. Amid the haste, pieces of outfits are scattered around the floor and the dining room instantly becomes a messy wardrobe. As the men look for new garments, the traditional wooden masks are set to rest and new ones come out to play. On the dining table a range of faces emerge as masks look up emptily at the ceiling, expecting coming conjurers.

Sharing the same table, the masks exhibit different origins. Some were homemade in Los Angeles, while others were mass-produced, likely in China. The first are imported replicas of traditional models and show largely exaggerated facial expressions: brightly colored inflated cheeks, protruding lips, and swollen eyeballs. The second are more conventional, modeled on popular American comic book characters—plastic façades recognized the world around for their heroic and superhuman qualities: unmeasured anger, strength, and infinite power as it is for Hulk, Captain America, and Thor.

For the wooden masks, at an average cost of $40 each, a communal endeavor of cultural reproduction was required. Dancers, their wives, parents, and children shared funds and know-how, either to import paraphernalia or produce the masks at home for a dance now being reenacted on foreign U.S. soil, and by a new generation. For this particular performance, the traditional wooden masks were brought to Los Angeles by relatives who migrate back and forth between Mexico and the U.S. These masks, like other mass-produced ones, came to the performance at the annual celebration of Saint Santiago Apostle in Los Angeles via global circulation. At the event, the masks, like the religious figure, are images of limitless reproducibility, of invaluable unifying potential, and thus stand in as cohesive devices for all in attendance.

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Bernardo Velasco (Ninja Turtle) and Antonio Mazas, members of Familia Zapoteca, get ready to perform at the annual celebration of St. Santiago Apostle in Los Angeles.

Unity grounded on Catholicism, however, rarely demands a specific day when the point is to feel at home, far from home. It could be any day, any saint in Los Angeles. Or so it is for Luis Delgado, the Zapotec immigrant from Yalalag, Oaxaca, who arranged the performance at the Saint Santiago Apostle celebration on this particular day.

When Delgado came to Los Angeles over a decade earlier, he found a group of men enacting the traditional ‘danzas’ of his hometown. In time, he joined the group that became: Grupo de Danza Familia Zapoteca.[3]

Familia Zapoteca, now going through a second generation of dancers, is a combination of migrants and U.S. citizens who despite the status difference don’t mind dancing to the same tune. And because the dance group unites different generations, Delgado decided a couple of years ago to assemble a performance that would appeal to the current dancers and attract a younger crowd of U.S.-born Yalaltecos. He thus began outfitting one of the group’s choreographies in American popular characters.

To put idea into action, he instructed the dancers to turn into characters they always wanted to be: Captain America, Batman, Superman, Deadpool, Thor, Ninja Turtles, Hulk, Wolverine… and of course, Chapulín Colorado, the only visible sign of real pop Mexican heroism.

LPeña_Familia Zapoteca-1743

Eulogio Ríos (Thor), Seferino Ignacio (Chapulín), and Luis Delgado (Wolverine), members of Familia Zapoteca, prepare to perform at the annual celebration of St. Santiago Apostle in Los Angeles.

Once Familia Zapoteca turns into this set of makeshift characters, they become “Los Superhéroes,” an assortment of comic book expressions that line up behind a brass band. They sync immediately to the band’s quick tempo and take the stage of communal gatherings, often held on backyards’ flat concrete patios.

For these self-made heroes, audiences wait, as they did at Santiago Apostle’s celebration, and as they frequently do at Oaxacan celebrations in Los Angeles. Invariably, though, whether as superheroes or in any other form, Familia Zapoteca comes as a surprise. Each act, selected from a repertoire of over twenty possible performances, is an opportunity to extemporaneously engage people in the audience; to invite them to relate through the culturally shared elements the characters represent. At least, that was the purpose Luis Delgado had in mind when he organized the performance in 2014.

Now, as performed, Los Superhéroes is no joke. Its performative function is one where Familia Zapoteca breathes new life into a dance tradition that enables them to make sense of being in diaspora.

However, Los Superhéroes was not really Luis Delgado’s idea originally. It came to him from Oaxaca as part of the transnational exchanges that connect Los Angeles-based Oaxacans to their villages in Mexico.[4] For Delgado, this particularly inspiring exchange happened in the form of a homemade DVD that a relative sent him from Yalalag, his own hometown in Oaxaca.

The DVD featured a visual rendition of what could very well be the first satirical enactment of American superheroes in a traditional celebration from Yalalag. The visual rendition thus presented an instance where the dance tradition, through the performance of the superheroes, confronted Yalaltecos from their own town with the specter of their own migrants living in the United States. Upon watching and replaying the DVD in Los Angeles, Delgado set out to replicate what was conveyed through the recording as a process of mimesis, a cultural reenactment that displayed the social and symbolic remittances that migration enables so that a community in diaspora remains interconnected.

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Asai Alejo (Deadpool) stands ready to perform as a superhero for members of the San Andrés Yaa community in Los Angeles.

In Yalalag, where the DVD was recorded, when the ‘superheroes’ first appeared, the act was within the parameters of the traditional dances commonly known as ‘danzas chuscas,’ or funny dances.[5] Through such dances, performed mostly by men, the Yalalag community parodies other communities, taking elements of their identity. One well-known example, and perhaps one of the first acts that started the ‘danzas chuscas,’ was when a dance group in Yalalag enacted the ‘danza de los mixes.’ The Mixe region, like Yalalag, is in northern Oaxaca, and the Mixe have been customarily derided for being too traditional, according to nationally recognized Zapotec writer and cultural promoter, Javier Castellanos.[6]

Since the 1980s the danzas chuscas have been directed at immigrants returning home from abroad. For Yalaltecos in Oaxaca, the U.S.-based immigrants embody traces of assimilated American values, which the performances reenact as a form of cultural resistance and social critique with the intention of cultivating self-reflection.[7]

Through parody and tradition, that first time the live performance of the ‘superheroes’ came to Yalalag, it arrived as an unsolicited trade and was welcomed as a reminder of distant members navigating other cultures. There in Oaxaca, Yalaltecos got to see, in a single act, the visual and symbolic dimension of transnational migration. In all its brevity, the performance was a single act of American fictional heroism that assaulted Yalalag from within, disappeared into the lens of a video camera and turned out into a DVD that was then exported to Los Angeles.[8]

For Delgado in Los Angeles, replaying the performance from the imported DVD was more than symbolic and satirical. It was an overdue epiphany. As he blankly stared at the streaming video, he understood that cultural distance had been somewhat bridged. What he once perceived as culturally foreign was now, in fact, his own. For him, Yalaltecos in his hometown had embraced the image of the superheroes as a proper sign, much in the same way he had long ago accepted that same image as part of who he is as an immigrant in the U.S. So, when he decided to recreate the performance, he chose not to do it as a form of social critique, but for more meaningful reasons.

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Familia Zapoteca performing the “danza de los payasos” during the celebration of St. Francis of Assisi organized by the San Francisco Yatee community in Los Angeles.

In Delgado’s version, the performance became a way of paying tribute to the audacity of the Yalalag performers, who figured out that beneath American mainstream characters, traditional practices are reproduced. But above all, his Los Angeles version was a way of projecting to the local audience a new sense of self by recognizing that one can be part of the U.S., and especially California, without ceasing to be Zapotec and specifically, Yalalteco.

After a few trial runs, and some minor negative responses from community members, Los Superhéroes became a crowd favorite. The reason is simple: “The dance allows young kids to identify with each character and see how their favorite character connects to their culture and traditions. And that is the dream of any kid,” Delgado said.[9]

Representing the dreams of young children might be just a projection of the dancers’ own desires, but that is not all what Familia Zapoteca enacts. Since the success of Los Superhéroes in 2014, the group continues to enact the performance and has added other singular acts to the repertoire. For instance, “Los cocineros” pays tribute and satirizes the numerous members of their community who work in the food industry. As it specifically relates to men, Los cocineros points to shifting gender roles, and comments on the fact that immigrant men must enter the kitchen setting for economic survival.

Another performance, “Los turistas,” references the modern Hawaiian-shirt tourist that hordes ethnic paradises in the third world. It also, quite possibly, alludes to the returning immigrant who enters the community of origin as a temporal visitor.

In “Los payasos,” the group embodies the popular figure of the clown, as to take to the extreme the satirical nature of their dance tradition. And, in “La danza de Santa Claus,” the yearly act with which the group celebrates and ends a long year of performances, an empty-handed Santa Claus comes in a shopping cart, to make communion with an immigrant Zapotec community celebrating yet another Catholic festivity, this time Christmas.

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Members of Familia Zapoteca arrive as Santa Claus at a community Christmas celebration in Los Angeles.

In all, the performances are new only superficially and each is new only momentarily. In due time, just as other performances have become integral acts of Yalaltecos’ dance selection, “Los Superhéroes” will secure a place in that list of possible acts, or at least the current dancers seem to expect this to happen.

Asai Alejo, who performs as Deadpool, likes to think that the superheroes will remain in the Yalalag dance tradition as a reminder of what his generation contributed.

“Children love the dance… and I hope that the dance will remain as part of the other acts we perform because it is something we have accomplished. And I hope it can continue for many years to come,” Alejo said.[10]

Alejo speaks with self-assurance and without a hint of satirical intent. He is hopeful and confident because he knows that behind the paper-plate shield of Captain America, deep beneath the backpacks bulging out Santa Claus’s belly, and the countless folded garments that shape up the characters, there lays the fundamental grain of a tradition that allows the dancers to sustain a dance that incorporates what is foreign into their own. For that reason, the dancers rehearse each step arduously.

At weekly practices, dancers line up face to face in two parallel rows. As the music begins, each dancer steps forward then strides side-to-side, and the rows move in opposite directions. At each step, they pace gleefully and rotate around each other. As if forming couples, they raise arms high and faces look jauntily into the horizon beyond the backyard of the American Craftsman house, where Familia Zapoteca earnestly practices for upcoming performances.

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Familia Zapoteca rehearsing for a performance. The group was founded by Zapotec immigrants from the Yalalag community in Oaxaca, Mexico.


  • All photos taken by Leopoldo Peña.

[1] Zapotecs are one of the largest indigenous people in southern Mexico. The Zapotecs, like other Mexican Indigenous groups, began migrating to the United States in the 1980s.

[2] Yalalteco/a is the Spanish term for natives of Yalalag.

[3] Translated, “Zapotec Family Dance Group.”

[4] Another feature of the transnational aspect of the performance is the importation of music scores. For these, the dancers share the expenses for having a musician in their hometown produce a score sheet that a Los Angeles-based band plays for the performances. For details on how transnationally plays out in indigenous Mexican migrant communities see Jonathan Fox and Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, Indigenous Mexican Migrants in the United States, Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, UCSD/Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, 2004, and Lynn Stephen, Transborder Lives: Indigenous Oaxacans in Mexico, California, and Oregon (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).

[5] Funny is a literal translation of “chusca/o”; however, within the semantics of the performance, “chusca/o” contains a stronger element of parody, satire and intent to caricature.

[6] Personal interview, 3 August 2016, Los Angeles.

[7] For a discussion of how “danzas chuscas” engages questions of gender and class differences, see Adriana Cruz-Manjarrez, “‘Danzas Chuscas’ Performing Migration in a Zapotec Community,” Dance Research Journal 40 (2008): 2-33.

[8] Performances, even funerals, in Los Angeles are also recorded and these recordings are sent to Oaxaca as well.

[9] Personal interview, 24 June 2016, Los Angeles.

[10] Personal interview, 24 June 2016, Los Angeles.


Leopoldo Peña is a Mexican-immigrant, photographer, and Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at UC Irvine. His dissertation focuses on photography in early twentieth century Mexico, and maintains interest in Zapotec literary production.

Copyright: © 2017 Leopoldo Peña. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/


Writing Orange County

Orange County flag design, 1968

Orange County flag design, 1968, courtesy of Orange County Archives via Flickr.

Elaine Lewinnek

Naming a literary depiction of Orange County is no easy task. One or two sitcoms that describe the place may come to mind, along with movies depicting decadent capitalism or theme parks of overly-controlled leisure. Some may know the songs that offer resistance to that glossy, shallow image of Orange County. But novels or poetry? Those seeking literary guides to Southern California have had David Ulin’s magisterial Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology (Library of America, 2002), but now those seeking the literature of Orange County have their own guide: Lisa Alvarez’s and Andrew Tonkovich’s anthology, Orange County: A Literary Field Guide (Heyday, 2017). Drawing from community-college literary magazines as well as literary luminaries, this is a work of impressive research and discovery. Arranged geographically and then, within each region, chronologically, this book portrays an Orange County of consummate surprise.

There are no Stepford wives here. While Michael Chabon’s short story “Ocean Avenue” features a beautiful woman of leisure buying coffee in exercise clothes, she is neither one-dimensional nor docile; she’s unforgettable. And she is not alone. Her neighbor, in this anthology, might be a large Gullah-speaking mother of two football stars, displaced from home and determinedly seeking public space in her red tile roof and white stucco walled condo development, depicted in Susan Straight’s I Been in Sorrow’s Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots. Beekeepers, bicyclists, day laborers, artists, fishermen, surfers aggressively protecting their turf, Vietnamese immigrants protesting each other, Iranian teenagers desperate to fit in to a gated community painted endless shades of white, a lonely teenager who keeps giving her phone number to undocumented immigrants, the ghosts of an agrarian past, and a nervous young man serving an eviction notice at the beach mansion of his aging rock hero: this is a complex, divided, fractious, and deep depiction of Orange County. It is, in Aracelis Gormay’s poetry:

Santa Ana of grocery carts, truckers,
eggs in the kitchen at 4 am, nurses, cleaning ladies
the saints of ironing, the saints
of tortillas. Santa Ana of cross-guards, tomato pickers,
bakeries of bread in pinks & yellows, sugars.
Santa Ana of Cambodia, Viet Nam, Aztlán

The Orange County in view is a fictional one that many locals will recognize as true. It is also, in Lorene Delany-Ullman’s prose poetry, a space of “wetlands and weapons.” Violence, racism, and “the meeting of boom and loss,” in Tom Vanderbilt’s penetrating expression—all are here, in complicated histories bursting out beneath tidy suburban surfaces, like weeds pushing through sidewalk cracks.

In a region famous for its history of forgetting, to borrow Norman Klein’s title,[1] a place of “willful amnesia” where “a sales pitch… has always been substituted for history,” in D. J. Waldie’s depiction,[2] this is a book startlingly full of what the editors call, in their introduction to Lisa Alvarez’s poetry, “the contentious, unresolved history of Orange County’s suburban milieu, which is never far below the surface—if it’s below it at all.” Too literarily clear-eyed to be called nostalgic, there is still something close to nostalgia here as character after character laments the effects of development on beloved pieces of nature, while story after story faces paved-over land and dreams. In this book’s Orange County, a sense of place comes with a sense of history.

While good, this anthology is not perfect. The editors call the foothills area “the flatlands.” The excerpted stories by Christopher Isherwood and a few others end a bit abruptly. But like any anthology, this one serves up appetizers that may lead readers to investigate the fuller works of authors like James Blaylock, Martin Smith, Kem Nunn, or Anh Chi Pham. Gustavo Arellano’s “Foreword” mistakenly regrets the omission of Tom Vanderbilt’s Baffler piece about the Crystal Cathedral, which actually is included. Orange County’s oral histories, corridos, and church-newsletter literature also might have been included. But there is already so much in this volume that it seems churlish to state that it is unclear why the literature of Richard Henry Dana, Carey McWilliams, and Viet Thanh Nguyen are absent.

This book is for readers who relish knowing that LSD tablets were once dropped from an airplane to a crowd of hippies gathered in Laguna Beach, and that the unobstructed Santa Ana winds were once so strong they wore grooves in the floorboards of Jessamyn West’s house in Yorba Linda by repeatedly pushing the beds across the room. It is for those wanting to know “what’s been lost,” in Edward Humes phrase, or anyone who wants to name the history of what Tom Zoellner calls, in an essay written specifically for this anthology, “The Orange Industrial Complex.” The collection is for residents, students, teachers, tourists, and all who wish to understand America’s complicated suburbia.

This book, filled with empathy and environmentalism, is poetic critical geography. It is wonderful.



[1] Norman M. Klein, The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory, new and updated ed. (New York: Penguin Random House, 2008).

[2] Carolina A. Miranda, “How to look at Los Angeles: A conversation with D.J. Waldie, Lynell George and Josh Kun,” Los Angeles Times, 24 July 2015, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/miranda/la-et-cam-how-to-see-los-angeles-dj-waldie-lynell-george-and-josh-kun-20150721-column.html.

Elaine Lewinnek is professor in the department of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton. She is the author of The Working Man’s Reward: Chicago’s Early Suburbs and the Roots of American Sprawl (Oxford, 2015), and is currently working on a bottom-up history of Orange County with Gustavo Arellano, Thuy Vo Dang, and Michael Steiner, titled A People’s Guide to Orange County (UC Press, forthcoming).

Copyright: © 2017 Elaine Lewinnek. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/