Tag: Environment

Excerpts

Chicana-Chicano Agonists

Frank P. Barajas 

Raised in a community culture of collective resistance, youth of the Chicana- Chicano generation—ranging from children old enough to recall earlier events to men and women in their early to mid-twenties—observed, if not participated in, the insurgencies of outfits such as the Community Service Organization (cso), Farm Worker Organizing Project, and United Farm Workers throughout the 1960s to mid-1970. Such groups role-modeled struggle, often militant, largely to realize just work conditions. With this community memory Chicana-Chicano agonists made their presence known on school and college campuses as news spread of student walkouts and protests throughout the Southwest. They also heeded the direct actions of peers in organizations such as the Students for a Democratic Society (sds) and the Black Student Union (bsu). This compelled many of the Chicana-Chicano generation to ask, “What are we doing?” As a result they embarked upon gutsy actions of their own. This chapter argues, in this regard, that the Chicana-Chicano generation of Ventura County exerted its collective agency on campuses and in their communities to mobilize campaigns of self-determination with a moxie all their own.

The World of the Chicana-Chicano Generation

Like their Mexican American generation predecessors, many Chicanas-Chicanos dreaded school, where in their early lives they suffered or witnessed violent punishments, both physical and psychological, at the hands of callous educators for using the language of their Spanish-speaking parents—an experience that destroyed their ability to excel. Such was the case for Yvonne De Los Santos from the unincorporated Ventura County community of Saticoy. Injured by such assaults, and the associated slings of poverty, the self-esteem of Del Los Santos and many of her peers deteriorated with each school day.1 The school system instantiated the inferiority of ethnic Mexicans with the curricular erasure of their historical presence in the nation as well as by systematically tracking them away from pathways to college to vocational shop classes for boys and home economics for girls.2

While ethnic Mexicans lived in rural citrus communities such as Fillmore, Rancho Sespe, and Saticoy, their experience also encompassed the suburban and urban. At Ventura County’s northeastern edge, the metropolis of Los Angeles was less than an hour’s drive away. Families traveled regularly to the big city and were visited by kin from places such as Boyle Heights, Compton, and the San Fernando Valley. So not all Ventura County Chicanas-Chicanos were yokels, at least completely. Having a rurban consciousness of the town and city, many of the Chicana-Chicano generation understood the spectrum of material deprivations of working-class people, having often accompanied family and neighbors to harvest chabacanos (apricots), nueces (walnuts), fresas (strawberries), ciruelas (plums), and other specialty crops up and down the state. While on the migrant circuit, they lived in varied accommodations from the standard to the inhumane—for example, cashiered Quonset huts, barns, stables, and leaky tents.3

Ironically, the poverty of ethnic Mexican families was underscored when family breadwinners—both men and women—obtained often unionized or public-sector jobs that provided not only adequate wages to cover food, shelter, and clothing but also unemployment, pension, health, and vacation benefits. When these heads of household were so employed, Chicana-Chicano children experienced the smell and feel of new clothes, shoes, and toys. Such work also made possible enrichment opportunities in organized sports and the performing arts. Indeed, De Los Santos recalled how her family enjoyed such comforts when her father had the good fortune to obtain a job as a unionized construction worker. As a result of the incremental elevation in their quality of life, Yvonne’s mother made sure her husband stayed current in his union dues, even when no work was to be had.4

Elders relayed to youth historical acts of collective resistance as children eavesdropped on the conversation of their parents and relatives. Unionism that organized all people provided ethnic Mexicans and their families with a system of recourse to challenge arbitrary dismissals, wage theft, and oppressive work conditions, as well as to fight for the prized benefits of health and unemployment insurance, vacation, and retirement. From these stories Chicanas-Chicanos internalized a sense of group dignity.5 Other families who may not have been directly connected to organized labor were involved in service organizations such as the Unión Patriótica Benéfica Mexicana Independiente, Las Guardianes de la Colonia, and CSO. Therefore, when Chicana and Chicano youth refused to tolerate injustice, they consciously or unconsciously referenced examples of the collective action of prior generations.6

Storms Brewing

The righteous indignation of Chicana-Chicano student clubs in Ventura County—which ranged and fluctuated in membership from ten to seventy students—stemmed from the overall subordination of the ethnic Mexican community. The diversity of club labels signified the pursuit of students to define themselves not only in terms of their ethnic identity but also in relation to their citizenship and political temperament. For example, before the creation of El Plan de Santa Barbara in the spring of 1969, many ethnic Mexican student clubs in Southern California named themselves, commensurate with the mentalité of the generation before them, United Mexican American Students (UMAS), as was the case at Oxnard High School. At Ventura High a similar club was labeled La Alianza Latino Mexicano (the Latino Mexican Alliance), which alluded to the organization’s pan-Latino outreach, with the simultaneous recognition that the ethnic Mexican student population was its core constituency. In the northeast plain of Oxnard, Rio Mesa High School formed the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO) while Moorpark High formed the Mexican American Youth Club. Many group’s cognomens fluctuated as members weighed and debated labels based on their mission, member disposition, and the way they wished to be understood by people from the outside.7

No matter how student clubs of Ventura County identified themselves (although many ultimately adopted the MEChA epithet, the acronym for El Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán), they shared a commitment to support peers and those that followed them in the K–12 system. The evangelic promotion of education by Chicana-Chicano student clubs signifies the failure, if not the refusal, of educators to communicate high academic expectations for ethnic Mexican students or to support their aspirations. Chicana-Chicano youth also questioned their societal status as they defined their identity. To counter racist assumptions, Chicana-Chicano students embraced and publicly promoted their Mexican heritage as an iteration of Americanism. To bridge intraethnic differences, some clubs sought to support teachers with monolingual Spanish-speaking students.8

Indeed, the right to express themselves in the language of their community unimpeded served as a means by which Chicana-Chicano students asserted their amour propre, given that educators for decades prohibited ethnic Mexican students from speaking Spanish. This proscription entailed violence, to use Chicano studies professor Roberto D. Hernández’s definition, that entailed being forced to wear dunce hats as well as having their hands struck with rulers and their mouths washed out with soap.9 To resist these assaults, which were grounded in settler colonial notions of white supremacy, in the spring semester of 1969 UMAS at Channel Islands High School in South Oxnard, with a membership of about seventy-five, drafted a constitution that restricted, irrespective of race and ethnicity, its membership to Spanish-speaking students. This bold attempt to centralize their ethnic Mexican heritage, however, disqualified the club from school recognition, as the state’s education code mandated that clubs be open to all students. This compelled a faction of UMAS students and their supporters totaling about forty to picket the campus administration building in February 1969. UMAS protesters also sought redress in relation to instructor racism and the lack of ethnic Mexican teachers.10

In 1970 Oxnard High School (OHS) students protested racist practices on the part of teachers and the absence of support services. Part of the conflict involved the refusal of students to accept advisors from within the district, since they found the faculty and staff unsympathetic to their interests. To quell the controversy, officials of the Oxnard Union High School District (OUHSD) reached out to the Association of Mexican American Educators (AMAE) to appoint a volunteer advisor from the community. The issue of racism in the schools on the Oxnard Plain reemerged the next year when chairman of the Oxnard Community Relations Commission Wallace Taylor reported that one OUHSD teacher allegedly had been asked to resign or face dismissal for calling students “n—” and “dumb Mexicans.” Fellow commissioner William Terry announced that this was an example of the hostility that students faced. Terry also referenced how campuses restricted UMAS from becoming an official club and suspended students who wore such buttons.11

On September 16, 1971, Mexican Independence Day, OHS Mechistas joined farmworkers of the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC) in protesting working conditions. Familiar with the staff at the UFW Office in La Colonia off Cooper Road, MECha president Peter Martínez suggested that the protestors march around the school site. When they did so, he and other Mechistas yelled to their peers on campus and in class, “Walk out! Walk out! Walk out!” And many did. High school administrators subsequently punished 40 student participants with detentions and suspensions. The next week half of OHS’s 2,100 students blew out. As this took place, Black and brown students fought white peers. After the initial outbreak, other brawls flared later that afternoon. Pent-up frustrations united those who walked out. The situation then escalated to the point that campus officials shut down the school at 1 p.m. on Thursday, September 23. Later that evening a free-for-all erupted at a football game between Channel Islands High School and Simi High. Consistent with other instances of social unrest that involved disaffection with white-dominated institutions, Principal Clifford Powell told the press that he was clueless as to the cause of the uprising.12

In early October 1971 a contingent of Black and Chicana-Chicano students of La Colonia barrio formed the Minority Affairs Committee (MAC) to address grievances of racism in the schools and the lack of teachers, staff, and administrators who were reflective of their community. Their demands also included the institution of Black and Chicano studies in the curriculum. mac met at the Juanita Elementary and protested the establishment of a district committee of students, teachers, district administrators, and community representatives that did not include them. They viewed the involvement of Oxnard City councilperson Salvatore Sánchez as an accommodationist who undermined the interests of minority constituents.13 Sánchez responded to mac’s opposition to his inclusion on the OUHSD committee by stating, “I consider it an honor to be considered a threat to the real enemies of our community I feel these people are not only hurting the image of the Mexican-American but are bringing disgrace to those who are truly trying to become a part of our mainstream.”14

A month after the conflicts at ohs, the campus administration office was firebombed on the evening of Saturday, October 30, 1971. The persons responsible marked the walls with “Racist Pigs” and “We Declar [sic] this a racist school,” initialed with “CLF,” assumed to stand for the Chicano Liberation Front.15 On November 2, 1971, the Oxnard Press-Courier published an editorial on the arson attack. In a tone of condescension, the newspaper faulted district officials for the adoption of a “rap-session approach” to address tension within its schools.16 In this dialogue, however, participants aired their grievances on topics of racist teachers throughout the district, arbitrary and unequal discipline meted out to minority students in comparison to their white counterparts, and the lack of minority faculty and administrators.17

Go to School, Stay in School

Chicana-Chicano students, however, did not limit their agency solely to the redress of grievances. In 1973 Channel Islands High’s MEChA—composed of 140 members, the largest campus club in the district—sponsored service activities in the community such as a clothing drive for the needy in Mexico’s border city of Tijuana. It also held car washes for the recreation center of La Colonia. To raise additional funds, the organization sponsored a semiformal tardeada and jamaica (a late afternoon social and charity sale, respectively). To fill the vacuum of a culturally relevant curriculum, the club produced a literary magazine titled Nuestra Raza that advanced ethnic pride by way of the arts.18 In the course of these activities, MEChA organizations networked with each other across the district. That same year MEChA at Rio Mesa High School launched its third annual tutorial program at El Rio Elementary and sponsored an annual Christmas food drive.19

Many students of these high schools graduated to continue their activism at universities and community colleges in and out of Southern California. In numerous instances the pipeline of barrio students to academic institutions involved an advance guard of students. Once on campus a consciousness of ethnic Mexican scarcity hit them hard. Indeed, when Diana Borrego Martínez of Santa Paula spotted Chicana-Chicano students at San Fernando Valley State College (sfvsc) in the late 1960s, she waited in front of their classes to introduce herself. In other instances, first-generation college students from the barrios and colonias of Southern California as well as afar congressed at de facto sanctuary spaces near student unions and cafeterias. Once Chicana- Chicano students discovered each other, often via restorative organizations such as UMAS and MEChA, they embarked upon recruitment drives in their home communities to cajole—if not shanghai—friends into college; such was their mission. Yvonne De Los Santos credited students active in Moorpark College’s MEChA for her matriculation. Once on campus, De Los Santos enjoyed the organization’s esprit de corps. Alienated, even traumatized, by the K–12 educational system, MEChA and Chicano studies courses cultivated a rich awareness of the worlds from which they came. Prior to the widespread institutionalization of Educational Opportunity Programs in California col- leges and universities, such organizations also served as the support structure for the recruitment, retention, transfer, and graduation of students.20

As a Vietnam veteran wounded by a land mine while on patrol, Jess Gutiérrez returned to Oxnard and found employment as a salesperson at a local car dealership. High school classmate and fellow veteran Armando López visited him one day at his work to recruit him for Moorpark College. At first Gutiérrez rebuffed the idea: he was older than most college students and had a family to support. But López was persistent, and he eventually convinced Gutiérrez to enroll after explaining that he could receive more income as a full-time student with his veteran benefits and other financial aid than at his current job.21

A snowball effect of matriculation resulted. Once politicized, Chicana- Chicano college students recruited friends in and out of Ventura County. Many that enrolled did not survive academically for a number of reasons: some (especially men) due to a severe lack of preparation, confidence, finances, and the inability to envision the rewards of a higher education. However, success stories did emerge. The first wave of Chicana-Chicano students ultimately turned the corner scholastically with the committed support of not only their peers but also empathetic faculty and staff mentors from all backgrounds who were sensitive to the debilitating harm of interlocked white supremacist systems of education, labor, and politics. Students considered by many to be academic throwaways went on to become public and private sector professionals, which afforded them and their progeny improved life chances in terms of health, superannuation, the accumulation of assets, and the life of the mind.22

The Community College Connection

In the fall of 1967, Moorpark College opened its doors. To promote enrollment, officials of the Ventura County Community College District contracted a vendor to transport students from the communities of Fillmore, Piru, Santa Paula, and Oxnard to both Moorpark College and Ventura College. Chicana- Chicano students from Oxnard nicknamed the service the “barrio bus.” A cohort of youthful and politically liberal faculty at the new campus—many of them recent graduates of the University of California, Los Angeles (ucla), to the south, and the University of California, Santa Barbara (ucsb), to the north—embraced all students, especially the historically underserved.23 Once out of their provincial environs, Chicana-Chicano community college students interacted to an extended degree with peers from a spectrum of ethnicities and economic backgrounds.

By the start of 1968, Oxnard Brown Berets López and Roberto Soria, the brother of Oxnard school desegregation advocate and community leader John Soria and father of the principal plaintiffs of the desegregation case, engaged peers in the formation of culturally relevant programs at Moorpark College. The Berets and Mechistas invited ucsb professor of economics and Democratic candidate for Congress Stanley Sheinbaum to speak on campus.24 In October 1968 the Berets attended a conference on poverty hosted at Ventura College. López, as the group’s prime minister of education, organized a peace- ful demonstration to protest neglect on the part of county social workers in relation to the needs of ethnic Mexican communities. As López spoke, fellow Brown Berets held placards that read “Less Talk and More Action” and “Viva la Raza.” The Berets also presented a slideshow complemented by music and narration that detailed the Chicano perspective on poverty in Ventura County.25 As one of its main goals, high school and college MEChA organizations promoted as well as reinforced a sense of ethnic Mexican pride to extirpate any stigma internalized in some of its members by way of settler colonial perspectives in schools and a popular culture that not only erased the historical presence of ethnic Mexicans but also portrayed them in the present as outsiders, and often criminal at that. The provenance of self-negation, moreover, stemmed from decades of institutionalized racism and violence. Mechistas bolstered the promotion of amour propre with community-building programs in and outside their campuses. Toward this objective, Ventura County MEChAs embarked upon tutorial programs to serve grade school students. In an interview with Moorpark College’s student newspaper, the Raiders Reporter, López described MEChA’s goal as “to develop the child’s self-concept and identity.” Soria, in turn, asserted the importance of bilingual education to maintain and reinstate pride in young ethnic Mexican students.26

Raising consciousness of the challenges historically faced by ethnic Mexican communities served as another goal of MEChAs in Ventura County.27 In November 1969 the Raiders Reporter spotlighted the student activism of Soria, who had suffered the loss of a brother in the Vietnam War, experienced economic deprivations associated with migrant life, and who dropped out of high school to work in the fields to support his family.28 Soria’s life lessons, coupled with his activism, ballasted a constructive indignation and motivation to challenge societal injustices. Given that Moorpark College was a startup campus that supported curricular innovation with few-to-no faculty with academic training in the Mexican American experience, the administration afforded Soria, López, and other students opportunities to formally teach classes and deliver lectures to their peers on the history, culture, and politics of the Chicano community.29

Be One, Bring More than One

El Plan de Santa Barbara (drafted by students, faculty, and staff from different institutions at ucsb in the spring of 1969) served as the manifesto for Chicanas- Chicanos of all ages, as it delineated the goals and objectives of MEChA

. A central tenet of El Plan guided all in academe with the advancement of education in the community. Ventura County Chicanas-Chicanos actualized this mandate by visits to elementary schools to volunteer their time as tutors. For example, Oxnard Brown Berets Francisco DeLeon, Roberto Flores, Andrés and Fermín Herrera, and Armando López visited the elementary schools of Juanita and Ramona, in the heart of La Colonia, to conduct culturally relevant puppet shows. The Brown Berets of Oxnard also implemented a tutorial program in the district. The Berets then worked with the administration of Moorpark College to establish a program of recruitment and support services. In an era of a white, middle class–focused curriculum that featured “Janet and Mark” and “Dick and Jane” narratives, the Berets created curricula that spotlighted the ethnic Mexican experience.30

Even before the creation of El Plan in 1969, Chicana-Chicano students at the colleges and universities of Moorpark and Ventura, sfvsc, ucla, and ucsb also went back to the barrios and colonias from which they came to encourage family and friends to become activists and obtain a higher education—not only for the sake of their own edification and empowerment, but that of their communities. In February 1969 López, while a student at Moorpark College, spoke at Rio Mesa High School to share with students the goals and objec- tives of the Brown Berets, an agenda that consisted of social change by way of the promotion of Mexican American studies, the establishment of a citizens’ police review board, and the promotion of better communication with the community. In relation to direct action, López stressed the organization’s commitment to a nonviolent philosophy.31

Later in November 1969, ucsb Mechistas Daniel Castro, Castulo de la Rocha, and Javier Escobar drove forty-five minutes south to meet with the members of Ventura College MEChA to discuss, among other challenges, the state’s high school dropout rate among ethnic Mexicans. The three guest speakers also noted that of those that managed to graduate, many were academically ill prepared, particularly in comparison to their Black and white counterparts. The next year Tim Vásquez of UCSB’s MEChA visited Ventura College to recruit Mechistas to join him in Coachella Valley to assist the United Farm Workers in stopping scabs from picking grapes during the strike. Vásquez also urged the Mechistas to participate in the moratorium march to be conducted in Santa Barbara that May.32

To motivate Chicana-Chicano students to stay in school and ultimately obtain degrees from the systems of the California State College and the Uni- versity of California, Flores, as an Oxnard Brown Beret and ucla premed student, worked with a newly established Educational Opportunity Program (eop) to create in 1968 a nonprofit work-study project titled the University Study Center (usc). Based in Oxnard, usc placed approximately thirty high school and college students within public agencies. This had two functions: first, to provide students with incomes while they obtained on-the-job training in professional environs, and, second, to introduce students to white-collar careers that required college degrees. In some cases Chicana-Chicano activists virtually ushered family and friends off barrio streets to enroll them in such programs. eop slots had opened up at universities and colleges as a result of protests such as the walkouts in East Los Angeles that year; it was now incumbent upon activists who demanded this inclusion to fill them. A number of the individuals who had no plans of going to college due to a multitude of challenges (e.g., school tracking, preparation, maturity, economics, family obligations) failed to succeed, while others initially struggled to survive and then flourished as they created social networks of support on campus.33

But the USC project was not just for the college-bound. It also served professionals who sought to enhance cultural competencies to effectively serve the ethnic Mexican community. For example, UCSB offered an extension course in the summer of 1969 titled Mexican-American: Past, Present, and Future, conducted at the Juanita school by Brown Beret members Fermín Herrera, Flores, and López along with Professor Rodolfo F. Acuña of SFVSC.34

A Space for Chicano Studies

In April 1969 MEChA, with a membership of approximately forty, met with Moorpark College president John Collins to propose the implementation of a curriculum relevant to the experience of ethnic Mexicans as well as recruit- ing and admitting more students from their communities. To retain students MEChA called for the college’s employment of ethnic Mexican faculty, staff, and administrators. Students would endorse the appointment of candidates and recommend their termination if they failed to serve students.35 President Collins supported MEChA’s proposals. His actions contrasted with that of campus presidents at Ventura College, California State College Los Angeles, California State College at Fresno, and San Diego State College who rejected Chicano studies. Many campus presidents labeled this new field as ideologically particular in scope as opposed to universal and therefore not a legitimate academic course of study, due to its perceived Marxist radical politics.36

Nonetheless, in the fall of 1969, Moorpark College recruited its first director of the Mexican American Studies (MAS) Program: Amado Reynoso, who held degrees from San Diego State and San Francisco State.37 Moorpark College Mechistas and Reynoso, as their faculty advisor, wasted no time making its mark within El Movimiento in Southern California. In November 1969 they organized a one-day conference of workshops and lectures. People from other community colleges, private and public four-year institutions, and high schools attended. In addition to establishing a support network, conference organizers strategized how to cultivate Mexican American studies while increasing the matriculation and graduation of ethnic Mexicans in high schools and colleges.38 President Collins, with his newly appointed MAS director, opened the program with a welcome to attendees and an introduction of the conference schedule. Jesus Chavarria of UCSB and Dr. Acuña spoke on the relevancy of Chicano studies. Raquel Montenegro of the Association of Bilingual Educators made an address on “The Broken Promises of the American Dream.” After the first round of speeches, workshops addressed topics regarding the recruitment of ethnic Mexican staff and students, financial aid, support services, and curriculum development.39

The event, however, did not escape controversy. Campus food services erred in their catering by including table grapes at a time when César Chávez’s National Farm Workers Union imposed an international boycott of the product to pressure growers for a collective bargaining agreement. Students from Los Angeles rebuked Moorpark Mechistas for the gaffe. Later, East Los Angeles College MEChA wrote a scathing open letter to President Collins expressing the offense taken. The letter pointed to the failure of “white society” to join the effort of pro- test of the time. Instead, the letter continued, “white society” issued an insult.40

Despite the table grape goof, Moorpark College MEChA pulled off a successful conference, and the succor that President Collins extended did not go unrecognized. In April 1970 the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA) of Ventura County saluted President Collins at its annual awards banquet for doing more for the Chicano than anyone else. This was a well- deserved honor, as President Collins, judging from the reports in the Raider Reporter, consistently supported the advancement of Mexican American studies and the hiring of faculty and staff of Mexican origin and was sensitive to the needs of students.41

¡Despierta! (Wake Up!)

The recognition of a gracious campus president such as Collins was of particular import, as Chicana-Chicano students did not enjoy such help at the sister campus of Ventura College with Ray E. Loehr as president. Moreover, the direct actions of Black students awakened many students unaware of, or initially unconcerned with, broader national currents of protests. At the Area IX Junior College Student Association Conference in October 1968, for example, Black students accused the association of failing to address unnamed problems important to their minority peers, then stormed out in protest. Two months later Black students presented President Loehr with a petition bearing 280 student signatures that demanded the recruitment of Black faculty. A meeting resulted after a rumor circulated that Black students planned to stage a protest at the college’s homecoming football game if their demands were not met.42

In the following spring of 1970, BSU spokesperson Larry Ellis presented President Loehr with a list of demands that not only called for the hiring of Black professors but also instituting an independent Black studies department with a curriculum transferable to four-year colleges and universities. As part of the campus’s overall infrastructure, the students called for a Black studies section in the campus library. And, to support the success of students, the BSU listed the need for Black counselors, financial aid administrators, and staff employees.43 The next year at Moorpark College, in October 1971, thirty Black students cleared the library’s bookshelves in protest of the campus’s refusal to hire a Black secretary for an open position. Like Chicana-Chicano students at Moorpark College earlier that March, the BSU held an on-campus conference with the goal “to create a black awareness within the community while encouraging young blacks toward higher education.” Oxnard resident, activist, and founding member of the cultural organization Harambee Uhuru (Swahili for Freedom Fights), William Terry was one of the several speakers at the conference.44 As the BSU took direct action, Chicana-Chicano students endorsed their demands. Witnesses of broader protest movements in support of farmworkers and against the war in Vietnam, as well as of the student blowouts in East Los Angeles, Ventura County Chicanas-Chicanos reflected upon the needs within their communities. Like the Ventura County CSO and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People earlier, the BSU and MEChA exerted independent, yet parallel, pressure upon the administration of Ventura College to meet the needs of their students. This resulted in the appointments of Isaiah “Bubba” Brown and Ray Reyes as counselors at the Minority Student Center (MSC) in the winter of 1971.45

Networks in the Southern California region tethered together the activism of Chicanas and Chicanos at various high schools, colleges, and universities. Young men and women traveled roads and freeways to visit campuses, cruised lowrider cars on main streets, socialized at parks, and dated love interests in other communities. They voraciously read alternative newspapers and magazines that spoke to their experience: Con Safos, El Chicano, La Causa, El Gallo, El Grito, El Malcriado, and La Raza Magazine, to name a few. These publications, and others similar to them, established translocal, shared experiences.46

Other students participated in landmark protests and conferences such as East Los Angeles’s Chicano Moratorium, La Marcha de la Reconquista, the Santa Barbara Conference of El Plan that was named after it, the protest marches of the United Farm Workers, and the Denver Youth Conferences. As Chicana- Chicano students listened to the speeches of anti–Vietnam War protestors such as sfvsc student Gilbert Cano, César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzalez, and others, they were inspired by the defiant messages that contextualized their sense of history, mythology, and status. People who participated in or observed these events found their own experiences with racist systems of oppression affirmed; in other words, they discovered that their grievances were not imagined or individualized. This in turn inspired them to invite iconic figures of El Movimiento to their own campuses. And if they could not attract big-name movement people, Mechistas at Moorpark and Ventura College brought in local academics and activists to interpret and comment on the events of their time.

In oral history interviews, Manuela Aparicio Twitchell of Fillmore, Yvonne De Los Santos of Saticoy, and Roberto Flores and Jess Gutiérrez, both from Oxnard, expressed with pride the work they had performed in programming Cinco de Mayo and Mexican Independence Day celebrations. Collectively, organizers developed their leadership skills, which entailed the formal submis- sion of proposals for campus authorization and funds as well as the logistical navigation of bureaucratic systems. In the process Mechistas developed cross-cultural alliances with other students to support peers on Associated Students boards for the sponsorship of their events. And, on the day of a program, Mechistas enhanced their talents at public speaking by serving as emcees and, at times, filled in for no-show guests.

For the campus’s Cinco de Mayo Celebration of 1971, Moorpark College MEChA hosted Reies López Tijerina Jr. (the son of the land grant activist in New Mexico) and Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales. The pair were part of a two-day program of speeches and performances that included Chicano poet Alurista, guitarist-folklorist Suni Paz, and Mariachi Uclatlan from ucla. An evening concert featured the music of the Thee Midniters and Dark Corner.47 The next year MEChA successfully booked Reis López Tijerina himself. But, that time, the organizers would add a twist to the celebration. Instead of a two-day program, the event took place over three days. And, in the spirit of El Plan de Santa Barbara, of bringing barrio communities to colleges and universities and vice versa, Moorpark College MEChA scheduled events on campus and in the communities of Oxnard and Santa Paula. The program entailed talks by, again, Alurista, and movement leaders of the Mexican American generation such as labor and immigrant rights activist Bert Corona, Armando Morales of ucla and author of the book on police violence Ando sangrando, as well as Sal Castro, who mentored student leaders in the East Los Angeles blowouts. Teatro Aztlán of SFVSC and the college’s own Teatro Quetzalcoatl performed actos, or short plays.48

It was at Moorpark College that Gutiérrez became further politicized, both by the zeitgeist and the knowledge he learned. Coupled with the counterhegemonic perspectives espoused by movement speakers and that of his peers, the inchoate body of Chicano studies literature expanded his worldview. And although Moorpark College did not have a Chicano studies degree, MEChA served as the focal point of support for first-generation college students.49 Gutiérrez had been so inspired by his involvement in Moorpark College’s MEChA that he ran for a seat on the politically conservative OUHSD Board of Trustees.50

Minority Student Center

Once matriculated on college campuses, Chicanas-Chicanos noticed BSU’s demand for the curricular inclusion of their own experience and support ser- vices. This prompted them to develop similar petitions. At Ventura College, for example, both Black and Chicana-Chicano students made one demand in a parallel manner, for a minority students center. Their call converged in a meeting with the college’s administration in May 1970. BSU and MEChA also pushed simultaneously, yet separately, for tutorial services to advance the retention of first-generation college students.51

Starting in 1972 the two organizations also collaborated each year in a Christmas charity fashion show. The proceeds from the event went toward the distribution of food baskets for the needy. Once the campus established its Minority Student Center, the two clubs jointly planned other programs. In one case they sponsored a weeklong series to educate the campus about the history and culture of their respective heritages. Spokespersons from each club articu- lated two outcomes. For example, in relation to space, counselor and MEChA faculty advisor Reyes stated, “We will convert the [patio] area into a Mexican marketplace in an effort to reproduce the festival that is held in Huachemango (a Mexican city) each year at this time.” And in relation to the analogous experi- ences of Blacks and Chicanas-Chicanos, Larry Ellis stated, “The black and brown peoples are deprived culturally and educationally here and this is our chance to do our own thing and we want people to know what we are and can do.”52

But the existence of the Minority Student Center unsettled Louis Zitnik, who felt that it segregated people and compromised notions of racial equality. For Zitnik inequities among racial groups were financial. As a result he called for unity among the economically disadvantaged, as race, he thought, only served to disunite people with common interest.53 Vietnam veteran and student Arnulfo Casillas offered a response that complicated the notion of people of color being a minority in Ventura County, pointing out that several communities did not have white-majority populations: for instance, Moorpark, with 60 percent of its residents of Mexican origin, and both Fillmore and Santa Paula, with 50 percent of its residents as such. To appreciate the true character of segregation, Casillas referenced the spatial isolation that ethnic Mexicans experienced in the barrios of La Colonia in Oxnard, the Avenue in Ventura, Grant Avenue in Santa Paula, El Campo of Saticoy, and El Campito of Fillmore. It was in such places that people failed to enjoy the services they paid in taxes that white-dominant communities enjoyed. Casillas highlighted that this contributed to Chicana- Chicano students not graduating from or dropping out of high school at a rate of 50 percent. This exclusion also evidenced itself in the Vietnam War, where Chicano military servicemen consisted of 20 percent of the casualties when they only made up 5 percent of the population in the Southwest.54

The Minority Student Center gained greater visibility when MEChA, with the support of the Associated Students, convinced President Loehr to permit the installation of a mural on the building in the spring of 1973 in time for the campus’s annual Cinco de Mayo celebration. Created by Blas Menchaca, the mural consisted of a gendered mosaic of tiles with images of patriarchal icons of Mexican history Joaquin Murrieta, Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, Benito Juárez, Jose María Morelos, Cuauhtéhmoc, Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, and Che Guevara below the rain god Tlaloc.55

Veni, Vidi, Vici Chicana-Chicano Style

Once a critical mass of Chicana-Chicano students found their way to college, they struggled to create a conducive campus culture. Ultimately, with the guid- ance of Mexican American generation mentors such as Reynoso and Reyes, they accomplished this. One objective entailed the promotion of Mexican culture on campuses. Another sought to create additional structures of support like the Minority Student Center, as many Chicana-Chicano students did not have the scholastic preparation and financial means to sustain their retention on campus. Then there were students that did not understand the connection of a higher education with improved life chances in employment, housing, health care, as well as the intergenerational transfer of social capital. This being the case, it was critical for Chicana-Chicano students—with the support of faculty, staff, and administrators who, in effect, served in loco parentis—to create systems that holistically developed students.

On March 19, 1969, the Raiders Reporter published an unsigned essay titled “Chicano Speaks: The Mexican Fiesta—a Chance to ‘Discharge the Soul.’” The anonymous writer (or collective) described cultural events as the expression of the community’s soul in an oppressive society that sought the eradication of the ethnic Mexican presence. The essay went on to proclaim, profoundly, that “the fiesta is a revolt, a revolution    The fiesta unites everything: good and evil, day and night and the sacred and profane.”56 Therefore, music, theater, and lectures promoted by MEChA in Ventura County middle schools, high schools, and colleges enabled Chicana-Chicano students to declare a restorative cultural pride. This often occasioned the blare of trumpets and the strum of string instruments (violins, el guitarrón, and vihuela) as mariachi sang the songs of Mexico in the heart of campuses during the midday, when students walked to and from class. Within a hegemonic context in which all that was Mexican was subordinated—if not at best considered mediocre compared to the standards of European culture—the open-air reverence for Mexican traditions by ethnic Mexican students born or raised in the United States was, as the unsigned Raider-Reporter letter of March 19 proclaimed, a revolutionary act.

At Ventura College music professor Frank A. Salazar and his Spanish faculty colleague Francis X. Maggipinto worked with Chicana-Chicano students in 1968 to develop a Mexican-style Christmas program that would, in the words of Salazar, “totally immerse” the campus in the traditions of Mexico. The Mexican American generation professors and students invited children from the Ventura barrio of the Avenue and Santa Paula to instill in them not only a unique sense of Chicana-Chicano culture but also to sow semillas (seeds) on the importance of a college education.57

The promotion of música mexicana included songs of the 1950s. This finessed the inclusion of intergenerational ethnic Mexican cohorts of migrant prove- nance. It also integrated others equally influenced by the sounds of Motown and r&b. Raves encompassed all students attracted to this genre of music, as the mellifluous Brown sounds demanded attention. As this took place, Mechistas recruited members and won over intergroup supporters. Mechistas of Ventura College took this one step further when they obtained an hour of weekly airtime on kacy radio, hosted by Bernardo Larios, titled La Hora del Chicano. By way of the sponsorship of such programing, Mechistas not only developed culturally responsive environs, but also advanced the goodwill of their institutions in the barrios and colonias from which they came, making their schools truly “community” colleges.58

The promotion of Mexican cultural expressions also served as a praxis of restoration. Celebrations of El Diez y Seis de Septiembre (Mexican Indepen- dence Day), Cinco de Mayo, and Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), for example, contested the dominant cultural view that depicted ethnic Mexicans as perpetual “aliens.” In the spring of 1973, Casillas expressed this perspective when he stated, “When we go into the celebration of Cinco de Mayo, may we remember that this is not a foreign culture, but one that is very much a part of all that we have seen and experience during our lifetime, in our history.”59 Renascent celebrations in Ventura County schools and colleges elevated the profile of ethnic Mexican students, particularly those active in MEChA. This not only attracted a steady cycle of new members but also inspired Mechistas

to pursue campus leadership opportunities. Two such instances involved the election of representatives. The first consisted of the campus election of homecoming queens at Moorpark and Ventura College; the second entailed the election of Associated Students (as) board members at both campuses. In 1969 Manuela Aparicio ran for homecoming queen at Moorpark College and was voted the runner-up. When Chicana-Chicano peers asked why she entered the competition, she answered why not. In the fall of 1970, Jeanette Velasco represented MEChA as a candidate for homecoming queen at Moorpark College. She ran against Luedora Wallace. Interestingly, the newspaper was silent on who won this race. Two years later Aurelia Aparicio, Manuela’s sister, won the title of homecoming queen. At Ventura College, in the fall of 1969, MEChA successfully campaigned for Betty Luna to be homecoming queen. The next year Jayne Lopez of Santa Paula was one of three elected by the students as finalists. The other two were BSU candidate Debbie Shelton and Maureen Cooney, sponsored by the Associated Men’s Student club. The football team made the final decision, and, again, the campus newspaper was silent on who the team chose.60 But the actual outcome of who won was secondary to the candidacies of Chicanas and Black women to run for elected positions—putatively the privilege, if not the right, of white contestants.

In 1969 MEChA member Richard Hernandez served as president of Moor- park College’s ASB. At the end of his term, he endorsed the candidacy of fellow Mechista Angel Luevano, who won, as his successor. In 1972 Zeke Ruelas was elected speaker of parliament at Moorpark College.61 But the most pronounced expression of the actualization of power by Chicana-Chicano students took place at Ventura College. At the behest of their Mexican American generation advisor, Ray Reyes, who mentored them to be a politically active and savvy organization that administered budgets, as opposed to just being a social club, Ventura College MEChA students held tremendous influence over the as board for much of the 1970s. But in 1975 it achieved its zenith as the school newspaper focused on MEChA’s representative majority on the as board. A Crystal City moment, however, occurred that spring semester, when MEChA members and MEChA-endorsed candidates swept the as election. In addition, nine other nonexecutive posts were held by MEChA members. Graciela Casillas, the younger sister of Arnulfo, won the position of ASB president. Pleased by the result, Casillas graciously expressed her appreciation for MEChA’s support and promised to represent the interests of all students. But fellow Mechista and Casillas’s predecessor as the outgoing ASB chair, Manuel Razo, was not so politic; he brazenly stated to the school reporter, “Just put ‘MEChA wins, honkies lose.’ . . . It’s only obvious that MEChA is the strongest organization on campus. We are the power structure of the college.” Similarly, Jesus Hernández proclaimed after winning the seat of ASB vice-president, “My number one priority is MEChA members needs Mi raza primero. We came, we saw and we conquered.” Like Casillas, though, Lupe Razo, who won the post as ASB secretary, more inclusively expressed her appreciation for MEChA’s support and vowed to work on the behalf of not only Chicanos but also all women.62 In response to the subsequent backlash, MEChA embarked upon political damage control. In March 1975 it held a weekend conference. In an interview with reporter for the Pirate Press, Jaime Casillas, the brother of Graciela and Arnulfo, stated that the purpose of the event was to recruit new members and to address false ideas about MEChA, since the remarks of Razo and Hernán- dez confirmed in the eyes of many their view of the organization as exclusive, aggressively militant, and resolute in the reconquista of the Southwest. For the most part, however, the goals and objectives of the organization were moderate, inclusive of all people, regardless of ethnicity and race. Most of all the organization was reformist in character, in terms of its pursuit of progressive change within extant institutions.63

But the braggadocio of two of its members made MEChA politically vulnerable. Ventura College’s Alpha Gama Sigma (AGS) ran a slate of candidates of its own in the spring 1975 election for the executive posts of the as board. In previous elections incumbents often ran unopposed. But this cycle was different; AGS ran against Mechistas to diminish, if not demolish, the organization’s power. As the campaign commenced, both AGS and MEChA candidates denied that their election would result in their favoritism of one group of students over others.64 Michael C. Dill, AGS candidate for the Office of Finance, who ran against Mechista Tony Valenzuela, wrote a letter to the editor right before the election. He commended MEChA for the organization’s engagement in campus affairs and how its activism inspired him to run for the as board to break its political domination. The goal was not to eliminate completely MEChA’s presence on the as board, but he desired more balanced representation.65 In the end, however, the Mechistas lost all seats on the board of student government.66

A Contretemps of Identities

In addition to collective actions of self-determination on campuses and in their communities, Chicana-Chicano youth asserted their new identity in a more individualistic fashion in print distinctive from their elder counterparts with Mexican American or Mexicanist identities. Combined, local movements and the propaganda of the larger movimiento influenced the ways in which young men and women viewed themselves as a people. The term “propaganda” in U.S. culture connotes a certain stigma of bias and rhetoric; in the tradition of Mexican culture, however, propaganda involves public relations in the dissemination of values. In this regard Chicana-Chicano youth challenged those who questioned the identity they espoused. This debate, often heated, emerged in the letters to the editor within campus and community newspapers.

An extended conversation commenced on the label “Chicano” when the Oxnard Press-Courier reported in January 1970 California State College Hay- ward’s implementation of a Chicano studies program. This raised the ire of city of Ventura resident R. De Leon, who emphasized the pejorative provenance of the moniker. De Leon argued that people who identified themselves as Chicano desired attention and held a “chip on their shoulders.” Although De Leon respected the right of individuals to identify themselves as they wished, he challenged the newspaper’s use of the label to describe the Mexican American community, since individuals like himself rejected it. The next month Jerry R. Rosalez, like De Leon, opposed the daily’s identification of ethnic Mexicans as Chicano; this, in his opinion, referenced a group of impostors.67 In the same edition of the newspaper that printed Rosalez’s letter, however, Faye Villa, a resident of Ventura County’s city of Camarillo, challenged De Leon’s perspective. She asked rhetorically if he had taken a poll to determine that most ethnic Mexicans disliked the label “Chicano.” Villa went on to contend that the Anglo use of the label “Spanish” was a euphemism and rebutted the notion that ethnic Mexicans were not different than “anyone else.” In fact, Villa held, ethnic Mexicans suffered racism in the United States due to their appearance; she concluded her letter by stating that he should “accept it [being of a distinct ethnicity] and live with it—happily.”68

Daniel E. Contreras did exactly this. The next day the Oxnard Press-Courier published a letter that defined his sense of the “Chicano” soubriquet. Contreras referenced the infamous opinion of Judge Gerald S. Chargin, who espoused a racist characterization of a Chicano youth convicted of raping his sister. Contreras mentioned three ways in which the Chicano, as a community, was “exercising his shoulders.” One was by an unnamed Chicano lawyer working to have Chargin removed from the bench. The second entailed the recruitment of Chicanos to go onto college. Third, Contreras concluded, “in essence, to be a Chicano is to believe and live as one. One is born a Mexican but one becomes a Chicano by choice.  I don’t relish encounters with people with chips on their shoulders, but it’s just as bad, if not worse, dealing with people with no shoulders at all.”69 Under the pseudonym “Nomas Milando” (roughly translated to “just observing”), a writer in the Voice of the People section, published on February 7, responded to the contribution of Rosalez. He contextualized the label in relation to the need for ethnic Mexicans to be prideful of their heritage within an “Anglo society” that denigrated every aspect of their being. Furthermore, to compel self-erasure, society forced ethnic Mexicans to identify with the moniker of “Spanish American.” But what was important was that people determine their own identity. In fact, Nomas Milando contended, an internalized white supremacy grounded Rosalez’s objection to the word “Chicano.” This entailed the portrayal of ethnic Mexicans as criminally inclined, if not in fact criminal, and lazy. He also referenced a statement made by deceased senator Dennis Chávez of New Mexico that when Mexican Americans won a congressional medal of honor for valor, they were labeled “Latin American”; when they won political office they were “Spanish American”; and, when unemployed, society tagged them as “Mexican.” Nomas Milando concluded, “So with this in mind, Mr. Rosalez, please do not lose sight of the ‘real’ problem. Direct your energies to stamp out the existing cancer [i.e., racism] of our society and do not waste your time bickering over an idiomatic term.”70

As part of the ongoing contretemps, the Oxnard Press-Courier published an essay by Contreras in late February titled “Chicano Power Defined.” Contre- ras referenced the song “Chicano Power” by the East Los Angeles band Thee Midniters to argue that the epithet encompassed all ethnic Mexicans with a U.S. life experience—at least with persons who identified as Mexican in the first place. “Chicano Power” signified the centrality of an education for the well-being and advancement of the ethnic Mexican community; a relevant curriculum would instill a positive self-concept and, in the process, challenge negative stereotypes perpetuated by a white, ethnocentric media. Contreras credited the Brown Berets for their promotion of cultural pride, like the Black Panthers. For him the Brown Berets were “tough-minded individuals” who struggled by way of direct action for positive social change.71

The initial letter of R. De Leon that protested the Oxnard Press-Courier’s use of the “Chicano” appellation predated by two weeks an op-ed by former Los Angeles Times reporter Ruben Salazar titled “Who Is a Chicano? And What Is It the Chicanos Want?” on February 6, 1970. In this piece Salazar discussed the nuances of the label as expressing a social consciousness of resistance. Conversely, the label “Mexican American” held an inverse connotation less critical of the subordination of ethnic Mexicans. In the words of Salazar, “Chicanos, then, are merely fighting to become ‘Americans.’ Yes, but with a Chicano outlook.”72

Takeaway

An enthusiasm for actualizing positive change and achieving greater representation in society’s institutions with élan inspired the young and old. Since Chicana-Chicano youth existed at all levels of education, campuses served as the grounds for dreaming (to borrow the concept from historian Lori Flores’s work) an enriched condition for ethnic Mexican students in terms of the curricular inclusion of their experiences, support services, and greater representation in faculty and staff. These students, with the guidance of mentors from the Mexican American generation, learned, gained confidence, and worked collaboratively with others to achieve positive changes. Chicana-Chicano students of Ventura County, therefore, fought similar struggles as their counterparts in different parts of the nation, but with a rurban chic all their own.


Frank P. Barajas is a professor of history at California State University Channel Islands. He is the author of Curious Unions: Mexican American Workers and Resistance in Oxnard, California, 1898–1961 (Nebraska, 2012).

Notes:

Excerpt taken from Mexican Americans with Moxie: A Transgenerational History of El Movimiento Chicano in Ventura County, California, 1945–1975 (University of Nebraska Press, 2021)

  1. Yvonne De Los Santos and Roberto Flores, interview by Frank P. Barajas, February 1, 2013.
  2. Roberto Flores, interview by Frank P. Barajas, April 14, 2006; Helen Galindo Casillas, interview by Frank P. Barajas, June 9, 2006; Armando López, interview by Frank P. Barajas, June 21, 2010; Rachel Murguia Wong, interview by Frank P. Barajas, May 30, 2010.
  3. De Los Santos and Flores interview, 2013; Roberto Flores, interview by Frank
    P. Barajas, April 14, 2006; Galindo Casillas interview, 2006; Frank H. Barajas, interview by Frank P. Barajas, May 16, 2020.
  4. De Los Santos and Flores interview, 2013.
  5. Juan Lagunas Soria, interview by Frank Bardacke, January 25, 1996; Flores inter- view, 2006.
  6. De Los Santos and Flores interview, 2013; Laura Espinosa, interview by Frank P. Barajas, May 30, 2012; Galindo Casillas interview, 2006; Moses Mora, interview by Frank P. Barajas, June 1, 2016; Ray and Teresa Tejada, interview by Frank P. Barajas, June 26, 2012.
  7. Eva Barbara Brown, “New High School Clubs Rising to Meet Challenge of Ethnic Awakening,” Ventura County Star-Free Press, February 1, 1970.
  8. Brown, “New High School Clubs Rising.”
  9. Roberto Hernández, Coloniality of the U.S./Mexico Border, 24–27.
  10. “Protesting ci Students Face Suspensions, Principal Says,” Oxnard Press-Courier, February 27, 1969.
  11. “Chicano Educators’ Aid to Be Requested,” Oxnard Press-Courier, November 19, 1970; “naacp Charges Elks Discriminate,” Oxnard Press-Courier, February 23, 1971.
  12. “Farm Workers Return to Jobs After ‘Holiday,’” Oxnard Press-Courier, September 17, 1971; “Fighting Disrupts Oxnard School,” Los Angeles Times, September 24, 1971; “Oxnard Grid Game Canceled; Beatings Cut School Attendance,” Oxnard Press-Courier, September 24, 1971; John Willson, “Oxnard High Violence Forces Closure,” Ventura County Star-Free Press, September 24, 1971; “Oxnard Football Opener Canceled,” Oxnard Press-Courier, September 25, 1971; “Monday Reopen- ing: Oxnard High Seeking Calm,” Ventura County Star-Free Press, September 26, 1971; Peter Martínez, interview by Frank P. Barajas, June 23, 2020.
  13. “Minority Committee to Meet,” Oxnard Press-Courier, October 3, 1971; “Smith’s Resignation Offer Favored by Oxnard Board,” Oxnard Press-Courier, November 12, 1971.
  14. Art Kuhn, “Black Offered Job: Smith’s Resignation Offer Favored by Oxnard Board,” Oxnard Press-Courier, November 12, 1971.
  15. Rick Nielsen, “Oxnard High School Firebombed,” Oxnard Press-Courier, October 31, 1971; “U.S. Enters Oxnard High Probe,” Oxnard Press-Courier, November 1, 1971.
  16. “Editorials: Firebombing Act of Desperation?,” Oxnard Press-Courier, November 2, 1971.
  17. “ohs to Get New Principal Shortly,” Oxnard Press-Courier, December 9, 1971.
  18. Cindy Garcia, “Channel Islands mecha Conducts Clothes Drive for Tijuana Needy,” Oxnard Press-Courier, December 2, 1973.
  19. Karly Eichner, “Candy Sale Contest Starts at Rio Mesa,” December 2, 1973; “mecha
    Sponsored Event Draws 100 Parents,” Oxnard Press-Courier, November 12, 1972.
  20. Diana Borrego Martínez, interview by Frank P. Barajas, July 9, 2012; De Los Santos and Flores interview, 2013.
  21. Jess Gutiérrez, interview by Frank P. Barajas, June 28, 2010.
  22. Borrego Martínez interview, 2012; De Los Santos and Flores interview, 2013; Acuña, Making of Chicana/o Studies, 95, 96.
  23. Jess Gutiérrez lecture, csuci, April 2014; Manuela Aparicio-Twitchell, interview by Frank P. Barajas, July 22, 2014; “mc Opens to 1200 Day Students,” Moorpark College Reporter 1, no. 1, September 29, 1967; “Campus News: Oxnard Repeats Bus Service to College,” Pirate Press, September 19, 1969; “Commuter Bus Routes Approved,” Oxnard Press-Courier, July 14, 1971.
  24. “Berets Present Sheinbaum Today,” Raiders Reporter 2, no. 3, October 4, 1968.
  25. “Moorpark Students Engage in Peaceful Protest at Poverty Conf.,” Raiders Reporter
    2, no. 5, October 23, 1968.
  26. “Of Campus Organizations: Berets Build ‘Community Pride,’” Raiders Reporter
    2, no. 5, October 23, 1968.
  27. “Berets Build ‘Community Pride.’”
  28. Bill Bader, “Of Personalities: ‘I’m Here to Educate You’–Soria,” Raiders Reporter
    2, no. 8, November 13, 1968.
  29. Bader, “I’m Here to Educate You”; López interview, 2010.
  30. “Unity Group Planned for Oxnard,” Oxnard Press-Courier, December 29, 1968; Flores interview, 2006; “Voice of the People: Berets Give Service,” Oxnard Press- Courier, February 3, 1969.
  31. Fbi File, February 5, 1969, courtesy of Milo Alvarez.
  32. Reynaldo Rivera, “Chicanos Suffer in This Country,” Pirate Press, December 12, 1969; “mecha Group Nominates Officers, Representatives,” by Michel Wolf, Pirate Press, May 22, 1970.
  33. Robert Flores, interview by Frank P. Barajas, June 10, 2010; De Los Santos and Flores interview, 2013; Borrego Martínez interview, 2012; Gutiérrez interview, 2010; Ismael “Mayo” de la Rocha, interview by Frank P. Barajas, May 15 and 22, 2014; Fermín Herrera, interview by Frank P. Barajas, August 14, 2019; “Editorials: Study Project Deserves a Chance,” Oxnard Press-Courier, July 5, 1969; Acuña, Making of Chicana/o Studies, 52–54.
  34. “Mexican-America ucsb Course Topic,” Oxnard Press-Courier, August 18, 1969.
  35. Over thirty-five students belonged to Moorpark College mecha; see Steve Horton, “mecha Proposes mc Chicano Study Program: Confrontation with Administration Has Harmonious Start,” Raiders Reporter 2, no. 25, April 23, 1969.
  36. “Mexican Flag Flies at mc in Independence Day Fete,” Raiders Reporter 3 no. 1, September 17, 1969; Muñoz, Youth, Identity, Power, 189–90.
  37. Professor Reynoso was the brother of Cruz Reynoso, who would be appointed to the California Supreme Court in 1981 by governor Jerry Brown; see “New, Yet Familiar: mas Head Reynoso Finds mc ‘Exciting,’” Raiders Reporter 3, no. 4, October 8, 1969.
  38. “Mas Conference Planned at mc,” Raider Reporter 3, no. 9, November 12, 1969.
  39. “Mas Conference Planned at mc”; “Chicano Studies Conference Slated at Moor- park College,” Oxnard Pres-Courier, November 17, 1969.
  40. Bill Sanchez et al., “To the Editor: Open Letter,” La Voz del Pueblo, November 21, 1969.
  41. “Julian Nava,” Raiders Reporter 3, no. 24, April 15, 1970, 4. After his tenure at Moorpark College, Collins went on to continue his support of Chicano studies as president of Bakersfield college; see Rosales, “Mississippi West,” 172–73.
  42. Raoul Contreras, “Raoul Reacts: Black Power,” Pirate Press, November 15, 1968; Borrego Martínez interview, 2012; Mayo de la Rocha, interview by Frank P. Barajas, May 15 and 22, 2014; “Meet Features sb Walk-Out,” Pirate Press, October 1, 1968; Raoul Contreras, “Black Students, Officials Confront Problem Areas,” Pirate Press, December 6, 1968.
  43. Duane Warren, “Larry Ellis, Black Activities Head, Expounds upon bsu’s Eight Demands,” Pirate Press, January 9, 1970.
  44. “Mc Library Fuss Penalties Pressed,” Oxnard Press-Courier, October 6, 1971; “Moorpark bsu Slates Black Events,” Oxnard Press-Courier, March 3, 1971.
  45. Emilia Alaniz, “Two Counselors Hired to Aid Disadvantaged,” Pirate Press, Decem- ber 4, 1970; “Minority Centers Form New Programs, Goals,” Pirate Press, February 26, 1971.
  46. Blackwell, ¡Chicana Power!, 135; Montejano, Quixote’s Soldiers, 126–27.
  47. Jill Patrick, “4-Day Cinco de Mayo Event Begins Tues,” Raiders Reporter 4, no. 28, April 28, 1971.
  48. “mc Commemorates Cinco De Mayo,” Raider Reporter 5, no. 29, May 3, 1972.
  49. De Los Santos and Flores interview, 2013; Gutiérrez interview, 2010.
  50. Dick Cooper, “People’s Choice,” Oxnard Press-Courier, April 15, 1973.
  51. Michael Kremer, “mecha Outlines Seven Proposals: Dr. Glenn Announces Steps to Implement Minority Plans,” Pirate Press, May 15, 1970; “Minority Students’ Informational Center Opens for Business on vc Campus,” Pirate Press, October 2, 1970; “Campus News: mecha, bsu Organize Tutoring for Disadvantaged,” Pirate Press, October 23, 1970.
  52. “Bsu, mecha Present Show,” Pirate Press, December 8, 1972; Dennis McCarthy, “Minority Center Plans Festivities,” Pirate Press, May 7, 1971.
  53. Louis Zitnik, “Letters to the Editor: Minorities,” Pirate Press, March 30, 1973.
  54. Arnulfo Casillas, “Writer Differs with Letter to Editor,” Pirate Press, April 13, 1973.
  55. “Mecha Mounts Mural,” Pirate Press, May 4, 1973; “Chicano Celebration Con- tinues,” Pirate Press, May 4, 1973.
  56. “Chicano Speaks: The Mexican Fiesta—a Chance to ‘Discharge the Soul,’” Raiders Reporter 2, no. 21, March 19, 1969.
  57. Raoul Contreras, “Mexican Students Propose Festive Christmas Season,” Pirate Press, November 8, 1968; “Mexicans Prepare Holiday Festivities,” Pirate Press, December 6, 1968.
  58. Silvia Monica Robledo, “Letters to the Editor: Chicana Reader Explains, Defends Movimiento, Challenges Campos to Meaningful Participation,” Pirate Press, May 24, 1974.
  59. Arnulfo Casillas, “Cinco de Mayo Explained,” Pirate Press, April 27, 1973. For the study of the usages of history to situate the power of collectives in the Chicana- Chicano community, see Bebout, Mythohistorical Imaginations.
  60. Aparicio-Twitchell interview, 2014; “Jeanette Valasco mecha and Luedora Wallace bsu for Homecoming Queen,” Raiders Reporter 4, no. 9, November 12, 1970; “Aure- lia Aparicio mc Homecoming Queen,” Raider Reporter, November 22, 1972; “Betty Luna Reigns as Homecoming Queen,” Pirate Press, November 7, 1969; “Pirates’ Roy- alty for Homecoming Crowned Today,” Pirate Press, November 20, 1970.
  61. “Hernández Endorses Luevano for Top Post,” Raiders Reporter 2, no. 27, May 7, 1969; Becky Merrell, “New Winds of Activism: mas Program Expanding Understanding,” Raider Reporter 3, no. 14, December 17, 1969; “Rueles Elected as New Speaker of Parliament,” Raider Reporter 5, no. 21, March 1, 1972.
  62. Jenaro Valdez, interview by Frank P. Barajas, June 19, 2019. Tom Richter, “Seven Vie for Four Positions on A.S. Board Tuesday,” Pirate Press, January 10, 1975; Tom Rich- ter, “3 Percent Vote: mecha Sweeps A.S. Elections,” Pirate Press, January 17, 1975.
  63. “Mechistas Hear Platform, Purposes,” Pirate Press, March 7, 1975; Manuel Razo, “Let- ters to the Editor: So What Is mecha All About?,” Pirate Press, October 4, 1974.
  64. Jill Boardmand, “Alpha Gamma Challenges mecha: as Election Set for Next Week,” Pirate Press, May 23, 1975; Jill Boardman and Tom Richter, “Fall as Board Candidates Fight for Leadership Positions,” Pirate Press, May 30, 1975.
  65. Michael C. Dill, “Letters to the Editor: Grouch Runs for Treasurer,” Pirate Press, May 30, 1975.
  66. Leigh Ann Dewey, “as Board: Election Controversy Erupts,” Pirate Press, June 6, 1976; Tom Richter, “ags Wins as Election; Voting Number Doubles,” Pirate Press, June 6, 1975.
  67. R. De Leon, “Voice of the People: Objects to ‘Chicano,’” Oxnard Press-Courier, January 21, 1970; Jerry R. Rosalez, “Voice of the People: ‘Chicano’ Opposed,” Oxnard Press-Courier, February 2, 1970.
  68. Faye Villa, “Voice of the People: ‘Chicanos’ Challenge,” Oxnard Press-Courier, February 2, 1970.
  69. Dan E. Contreras, “Voice of the People: Chicano Spokesman,” Oxnard Press- Courier, February 3, 1970.
  70. Nomas Milando, “Voice of the People: More on ‘Chicano,’” Oxnard Press-Courier, February 7, 1970.
  71. Daniel Eugenio Contreras, “Voice of the People: Chicano Power Defined,” Oxnard Press-Courier, February 23, 1970.
  72. Ruben Salazar, “Who Is a Chicano? What Is It the Chicanos Want?,” Los Angeles Times, February 6, 1970.

© 2021 by Frank P. Barajas.; used with permission by University of Nebraska Press. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Articles

Before Amazon: Land, Labor, and Logistics in the Inland Empire of WWII

Brinda Sarathy

On August 25, 2015, the Moreno Valley City Council in Riverside County, California green lit the World Logistics Center (WLC) in a contentious 3-2 vote. Slated to be the largest inland port in the USA, the WLC envisions more than 40 million square feet of warehouses built atop 2,610 acres of now open fields on the city’s far-east side, south of the 60 Freeway. Once completed, the massive complex will span the equivalent of 700 football fields and is estimated to generate 68,712 vehicle trips daily, of which 14,006 will be made by majority diesel trucks.[1] For those less familiar with this area of the Golden State— often referred to as the “Inland Empire”—picture once largely citrus-growing and Kaiser steel-producing Counties of Riverside and San Bernardino as now ground zero for the nation’s goods-movement industry. Over the past two decades, Inland Valley politicians and developers have pushed an aggressive growth agenda which has seen the construction of over 159 million square feet of industrial warehouse space in Riverside and San Bernardino Counties between 2000 and 2008,[2] and a dramatic increase in truck and rail transportation of goods from the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles to the rest of the country.[3] As warehouses carpet vast alluvial valley floors and high deserts alike, the Santa Ana, San Bernardino, and San Jacinto Mountains trap the fumes of economic “progress” generated by diesel transport. This is the 21st century terrain wrought by e-commerce giants such as Amazon, FedEx, and UPS, who have set up shop in the Inland Empire, to make good on everyday consumers’ desires for one-click and same day delivery services.

Aerial of World Logistics Center site, Moreno Valley, California

According to Iddo Benzeevi, the developer in charge of the mammoth WLC undertaking and, not incidentally, a key donor behind the successful races of several Moreno Valley City Council members, the project will be a boon to the region and result in 20,000 permanent jobs, 13,00 construction jobs, and $2.5 billion a year in economic activity.[4] Such promotion of the WLC as a solution for regional employment is not new. As the region’s demographic and political makeup have shifted over the past two decades—from an older white and Republican population to predominantly working-class Latinx immigrants—local economic boosters have promoted warehouse construction and employment in the logistics industry as the main path for their modestly educated populations to achieve the middle-class.[5]

Racial Composition of Workforce in Inland Empire, UCR CSI, p. 3

Between 2013 and 2016, Amazon alone invested $4.6 billion in San Bernardino and Riverside Counties, and built a total of 15 fulfillment and distribution centers in the predominantly Latinx communities of San Bernardino, Riverside, Rialto, Moreno Valley, and Eastvale. Moreover, of the over 15.1million square feet of warehouse space currently occupied by Amazon in four counties of the Southland, fifty percent is located in San Bernardino County, with another forty-four percent in Riverside County.[6] When asked why the IE was such a “great place to have so many Amazon fulfillment networks,” a company spokesperson noted that “It’s a perfect mix of valuable things — an exceptional workforce, thoughtful partners, great locations and strong customer support.”[7]

Square feet of Warehouse Space by City and County, Flaming and Burns, 2019. p. 25.

Scholar Juan De Lara, by contrast, has compellingly argued in his recent book Inland Shift, that the region as a hub for logistics is, instead, about the “territorialization of race” and frictions between labor and capital from the 1970s onward.[8] As a fundamentally spatial process, territorialization in the Inland Empire has involved the “fixing” of racialized groups in particular places and within certain occupations. De Lara expertly chronicles how labor was made flexible through differences in race, gender, and immigration status; the dismantling of defunct industrial plants; specific practices that facilitate just-in-time production; and the ongoing discursive formations that make such transformations possible in a post-Keynesian world. His analysis, moreover, undergirds long-standing contentions on the part of environmental justice activists that the WLC and similar warehouse complexes present not a boon, but rather an economic, ecological and public health boondoggle. Organizers and researchers have long raised serious concerns about the impacts of worsening air quality on public health and disproportionate burden on low-income communities of color who live along diesel thoroughfares and warehouse fence lines elsewhere in the Inland region.[9] In 2001, for example, the South Coast Air Quality Management District found that Mira Loma Village, a low-income Latinx community of 101 homes in what was then an unincorporated part of Riverside County, had the highest levels of particulate pollution in the nation.[10] Now part of the City of Jurupa Valley, the Mira Loma community essentially constitutes a residential island afloat among an ocean of warehouses and with more than 800 trucks passing by the Mira Loma Village each hour.  Similarly, in 2008, the California Air Resources Board ranked the San Bernardino Rail facility among the top five most polluting rail yards in California and “first in terms of community health risk due to the large population living in the immediate vicinity.”[11] Coupled with already existing air pollution blowing eastwards from Central Los Angeles, and the natural inversion effect created by the San Bernardino, San Jacinto, and Santa Ana mountain ranges, it is no wonder that Riverside and San Bernardino Counties have among the worst air quality and highest rates of asthma in the nation.[12]

Aerial of Mira Loma Village surrounded by warehouses, Jurupa Valley, California. Google Maps.

Finally, activists and scholars have questioned developer assertions about warehouses being a panacea for employment. Indeed, the WLC made a similar claim during its first phase of construction which saw the creation of a 1.8 million square foot Sketchers distribution center in Moreno Valley. Yet, that project resulted in a net zero job gain for the community and actually led to the loss of some 200 jobs when the facility moved from its original location in Ontario, California.[13] More recently, precarious labor conditions and the rise of automation within warehouse work itself have dampened claims that these facilities are a meaningful solution to address underemployment in the region.[14] In this context, the World Logistics Center is only the most recent and perhaps most egregious example of unfettered support for warehouse growth in the face of potential harm to people and the environment. 

Whether and when the WLC will come to fruition remains an open question. A coalition of land conservation and environmental justice groups have been working to challenge the project in court and, in August 2019, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the development was not exempt from state environmental regulations.[15] California’s Attorney General Xavier Becerra and the California Air Resources Board also filed an amicus brief with the Fourth Circuit, challenging the WLC for disregarding the California Environmental Quality Act and failing to accurately capture the greenhouse gas emissions from the development. Most recently, in April 2021, litigating parties and the developer reached a $47 million settlement to help fund the electrification of trucks, on-site vehicles, and charging infrastructure. Iddo Benzeevi has spun the legal settlement as a “significant achievement of making the World Logistics Center the first net-zero (greenhouse gas) project in the nation and setting a new precedent for sustainable development.”[16] Yet, the legal challenges keep coming as other conservation organizations and environmental justice advocates fight the rising tide of warehouse development in Moreno Valley and elsewhere in the region.[17]

What all parties seem to agree upon, however, is a shared narrative of warehouse development and logistics in the Inland Empire as a relatively recent phenomenon, one dating back to the early 2000s. While the rapid rise of warehousing as a regional economic development phenomenon is certainly a post-2000 story, I argue that warehousing and logistics in themselves are not new to the inland region. Over the remainder of this essay, I extend Juan De Lara’s conceptualization of the “territorialization of race” even farther back in time to trace the production of the Inland Empire’s logistics industry to the development of military installations, differentially incarcerated Italian prisoners of war and Japanese American internees, and racialized warehouse work during World War II. In so doing, my aim is to understand the production of the inland region through various flows, both material and metaphoric, and how particular racialized groups have been partly sedimented in particular places and occupations.

Warehousing People and Provisions: Japanese American Internment

In the early 1940s, six decades before the 101 homes of Mira Loma Village in western Riverside County became infamous among public health practitioners and environmental justice activists for their veritable terrestrial containment by warehouses and exposure to high levels of fine particulate matter, this area comprised a bucolic landscape of open ranch lands growing grapes, barley, and pasture for horses and dairy herds. Twenty odd miles away, it was the City of San Bernardino which gave rise to the first mass storage facilities in the region when, on January, 16, 1942, the U.S. Quartermaster General (a branch of the U.S. Army) established the San Bernardino Depot. The establishment of this facility would soon impact land use in Mira Loma as well and can be viewed as constitutive of a larger logistics landscape shaped by warfare.

Also known as “Camp Ono,” the San Bernardino Depot was part and parcel of World War II mobilization efforts on the West Coast and addressed the need for space to house various military units including the Signal Corps, Corps of Engineers, Medical Corps, and the Chemical Warfare Corps. In 1942, the Depot operated 11 warehouses comprising approximately 100,00 square feet of floor space dispersed over an area of “approximately six miles in diameter” between Colton and San Bernardino.[18]  In addition to carrying out the supply functions for troops in the Southern California Sector— which included Armored Forces Troops that had assembled at the Desert Training Center near Indio, California— Camp Ono soon became central to the provisioning of Japanese American concentration camps between April and October 1942, and charged with supplying 60,000 “Japanese aliens” at its peak.[19] The storage and movement of goods for U.S. troops stationed in inland Southern California during World War II, and the transport and provisioning of Japanese American internees thus became the first seeds to germinate warehouse development in the region.

Camp Ono, San Bernardino, California. Los Angeles Times, Sunday, December 13, 1981. Photos provided by Perry Pugno.
Camp Ono, San Bernardino, California. Los Angeles Times, Sunday, December 13, 1981. Photos provided by Perry Pugno.

In May 1943, James Bennett, the Quartermaster Depot historian captured well the connection between warehouses, supply provisioning, and the internment of Japanese Americans at Camp Manzanar to the east.[20]  Bennett’s records reveal that the U.S. Government approached Japanese American internment as a logistical problem to be solved by military and civilian personnel alike.  While depot officials viewed the feeding and watering of Japanese ‘aliens’ as a “first class headache,”[21] Camp Ono soon became known for the efficiency and frugality of its operations under Commanding Officer, Colonel Chas E. Stafford. The accolades garnered by Camp Ono were primarily framed in terms of the good cheer and cooperation with which American civilians and military personnel endured the hardships posed by the evacuation effort, with nary a perspective into what it might have meant for the U.S. citizens of Japanese descent who were dispossessed and displaced as a result of internment.  In one letter, E.H. Fryer, Regional Director of the War Relocation Authority, lauded Stafford for his “cheerful cooperation, suggestions, and wholehearted interest.”[22] Another officer similarly praised U.S. civilians for their adaptation “to this new phase of work and laboring wholeheartedly to accomplish the end without regard to many hours of hard effort after the normal working day had expired.” [23] At the national level, too, the U.S. Army was hailed for its superb coordination of an involuntary internal mass migration.  None other than Carey McWilliams, then Chief of the Division of Immigration and Housing for the State of California noted: “the evacuation of 100,000 Japanese, men, women and children… has been accomplished on time, without mishap and with virtually no trouble… In effecting this vast movement of people in a brief time, the conduct of the Army has been wholly admirable.”[24]

Los Angeles, California. Evacuees of Japanese ancestry entraining for Manzanar, California, 250 miles away, where they are now housed in a War Relocation Authority center. NARA – 536765.jpg Clem Albers, Photographer (NARA record: 8452194) – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
Santa Anita reception center, Los Angeles, California. The evacuation of Japanese and Japanese-Americans from West Coast areas under U.S. Army war emergency 
order. Registering Japanese-Americans as they arrive, 1942. Photographer: Russell Lee
http://historyinphotos.blogspot.com/2013/08/russell-lee-japanese-internment.html

How to move goods efficiently and on time? While behemoths like Amazon have perfected just-in-time delivery in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, military personnel in the 1940s faced supply chain challenges as they figured out ways to get fresh fruits and vegetables to Japanese American internees. The main supply center was in Los Angeles, which lay 220 miles to the southwest of Camp Manzanar.  Because fast freight was used to supply Army troops, the slow freight that transported goods to internees resulted in considerable spoilage. It was in this context that refrigerated trucks first began to transport perishable foodstuffs to internees, representing one of the earliest iterations of “goods movement” in the inland region.   The use of commercial truck lines reduced transit time and also led to considerable declines in spoilage.[25] 

Certainly, the irony of their situation was not lost on depot officials who noted that “the Japanese [sic] were ordered to abandon their thousands of truck farms—their produce left to wilt, unpicked— yet at the same time…they themselves were herded into camps where food must somehow be found for them.”[26] And Colonel Stafford and his staff were just as quick to hone the Depot’s operations by taking advantage of the plight of Japanese Americans in Los Angeles.  The expedited process of evacuation and internment forced Japanese American wholesalers and retailers to dump large stocks of “noodles, soy sauce, miso sauce, canned fish, dried shrimp and various marine products” to American middlemen at “probably half price.” Stafford aptly noted that the U.S. Army “would undoubtedly have to pay those jobbers the full price” in order to provision internees. To avoid the inflated prices imposed by opportunistic middlemen, Stafford suggested that the Japanese Chamber of Commerce in Los Angeles coordinate the purchase of goods from Japanese American suppliers at a fixed price, “before that food gets into the hands of jobbers.”  These goods were subsequently stored at the Depot and “saved the Government thousands of dollars.”[27]

By late March, the first barracks for Japanese-American internees had been erected at Camp Manzanar and a steady stream of internees from that point on—numbering in the thousands per day— dramatically increased the need for warehouse storage in the region.  Upon visiting the San Bernardino Quartermaster Depot, Colonel W.E. Waldron of the Western Defense Command and Fourth Army, ordered the erection of 50 theater-of-operations pre-fabricated buildings, each capable of being up in about 48-man hours, to alleviate the shortage of storage facilities.  The storage needs of the San Bernardino Depot during this period provide another window into both the sheer scale of evacuation and the basic needs of internees: 10,000 pounds of noodles, 80,000 pounds of rice, and 2000 pounds of tea…hair and bobby pins, baby clothes and diapers, infant bottles and nipples.  According to Bennett, “perhaps the strangest requisition of all was for 1000 of what Americans alternately call chamber pots or thunder mugs. The full quota of this item was procured, after a considerable search, from Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward mail order houses who in turn were forced to hunt at some length in the stacks of obsolete stock.”[28]

The cost cutting measures of the U.S. Army were primarily borne and subsidized by the internees themselves. Even the machinery for making miso sauce and pickled radish at the camps had been bought/taken from imprisoned Nissei (American-born Japanese), who then made miso sauce for the camps. Depot officials also scrutinized substitutions to food supply requests made by internment camp cooks and managers.  Indeed, the latter were viewed as being too extravagant in their orders. One officer, for example, complained: “In addition to the prime meat and 92 score butter, the camp managers were requisitioning quantities of canned pears and canned sliced peaches, and an ‘excess of jam: strawberry, raspberry, blackberry.’ And they were demanding it in small, uneconomical-sized tins. They were asking for whale meat and fancy tinned shrimp. Also, they demanded six to seven tons of pancake flour…Of course, we will see that they (i.e. the evacuees) be given good food, but they shouldn’t be given these extra items regularly—that is, better food than that which our soldiers receive.”[29] Similar tensions arose over public perception over “the siphoning off” of fresh milk to internment camps.  Not surprisingly, Colonel Stafford responded by defending “the Great American Pocketbook against what appeared to him unwarranted extravagance.”[30] Ultimately, this problem was solved by substituting half of the ration of fresh milk for canned or powdered milk.[31]  

Growing Supply Needs: The Birth of Mira Loma Depot

As demands to provision interned Japanese Americans and desert training troops increased, the U.S. Army formally activated the Mira Loma Quartermaster Depot on August 15, 1942. Located approximately 44 miles from the nearest metropolitan center Los Angeles, Mira Loma was considered ideal for the purposes of a military depot.  From a transportation-oriented point of view, it was close to the Union Pacific Railroad tracks, with necessary spurs and sidings, and near two railway division points: San Bernardino for the Santa Fe Railroad, and Colton for the Southern Pacific Lines. Key roadways also bordered the depot, including Mission Boulevard/ U.S. 60— the main truck highway between San Diego, Riverside and Los Angeles— to the south and, paralleling it, three miles to the north, U.S. 99—the Ocean-to-Ocean Highway known locally at the time as the Valley Boulevard. Charged with supplying a Desert Training Force of 67,000 troops with A rations on a daily basis, the Mira Loma Depot was considered “ground zero” for warehouse operations in the Inland region.  It vastly outsized the buildings at Camp Ono—all of which could be placed in one of several warehouses that were constructed at the new site.  In total, Mira Loma Depot constituted 2,162,706 square feet of warehouse and office space[32] and in January 1944 employed 2,646 civilian personnel.[33]

Mira Loma Quarter Master Depot hand drawn map of warehouses and buildings.  Record Group: 92 Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General Agency or Division: Mira Loma Quartermaster Depot Mira Loma, CA Series: Historical Diaries, Journals and Reports 1942-1954. Folder Title: The Storage Division M.L.Q.M.D.  A Historical Study [2/2] Box 9, National Archives at Riverside.

U.S. officials consistently praised the labor of white military and civilian personnel in supplying goods to Camp Manzanar, yet overlooked the ten percent of Mira Loma’s labor force made up of African American and Mexican workers.  Historian James Bennett’s racially fraught views about the depot workforce likely also reflected those of his superiors. Bennett, for example, mused about the forbearance of white managers and workers and viewed their contributions to Mira Loma as both singular and preferable to that of Black and brown labor:

“The officers and the labor foremen, from the very beginning of the Depot, have tried to treat their darker skinned laborers with scrupulous fairness. In fact, there have been an appreciable number of cases of slight unfairness to their white [emphasis in original] laborers, in disputes between white and colored, stemming from this determined bending over backwards attitude.

The white laborers, in fact, have made no objection to working with the colored races, and the work has been performed without resultant friction. In this willingness of the whites, the Mira Loma Depot is, possibly, unique.

The problem posed by the Mexicans is not so much that of racial pride—although that occasionally enters. It is inherent in their whole philosophy of life. They work—hard—make a little money. Then they slack, are absent without cause or actually resign. Their wants are few, and they deplore the American itch to get ahead and keep on working after one’s pocket is full of dollars. And this dolce far niente [emphasis in original] attitude is also held to a somewhat lesser degree by the Negroes. Consequently, from Mira Loma’s point of view, the darker races are none too dependable.”[34]

Overall, white civilians and military personnel in Southern California supply depots territorialized race and racialized labor through a variety of logistical operations that both expanded the social and spatial mobility of whites and restricted the movement of non-white groups. In the Inland Empire of the 1940s, logistics in particular aimed to efficiently manage the movement of incarcerated Japanese Americans, who were dispossessed of their property and herded into a high desert concentration camp at Manzanar.

“Those Were the Three Best Years of My Life:” Italian POWs and White Freedom

In contrast to the ordeal of Japanese Americans in California, Italian Prisoners of War brought to the United States faced distinctly different treatment at the hands of the Army. With Italy’s formal surrender to the Allies in September 1943, General Eisenhower, then Commander in Chief of Allied Forces in the Mediterranean, and Italy’s new, provisional leader Marshall Pietro Badoglio reached an agreement of cooperation. In December 1943, Badoglio issued a statement requesting all Italian prisoners of war held in the United States to assist the Allies in every possible way, excepting in actual combat.

A few weeks later, in January 1944, the War Department’s chief of the Army Special Forces put Badoglio’s call into action by creating Italian Service Units, or ISUs. Over the next several months, Italian POWs brought to and detained in the United States voluntarily enlisted in ISUs, which were structured almost the same as equivalent American units and whose members were paid about twenty-four dollars per month, the same as American GIs. In sharp contrast to the plight of Japanese Americans, ISUs had considerable social and spatial freedoms and the acceptance of local communities in which they labored.[35] Between 1944-46, 499 former Italian POWs turned ISUs were detained in inland Southern California. These soldiers were initially brought to Norfolk, Virginia, and then shipped by train to spend a summer picking cotton in the blazing fields of Florence, Arizona. As elsewhere in the United States, the war had resulted in agricultural labor shortages that were filled by foreign worker primarily through the Bracero Program.[36]

In January of 1944, as part of a deal brokered between the Southern California Farmers’ Association and the U.S. Army, 499 Italian soldiers signed up to go to the Italian American community of Guasti, near what is now Rancho Cucamonga in San Bernardino County. The Farmers Association agreed to house, feed, and compensate the soldiers in exchange for their pruning vineyards and working the fields of the Inland Empire. The Army agreed to provide a few military guards to ensure minimal safety. Again, the treatment of Italian POWs compared with the internment of Japanese Americans highlights the territorialization of race and labor in the Inland region. Of the arrival of Italian prisoners in Guasti, one media account notes:

“Handshakes and kisses were exchanged and inquiries made about relatives back in Italy… By the time the last of the prisoners was off the train and onto the waiting buses the entire group had begun singing Italian folk songs…Out in the fields the prisoners worked side by side with the farmers, many of them Italian, and their families. At noon meals were served by the women. Often there was a bottle of wine passed around.

There was never a shortage of food. Many of the grateful farmers, feeling 80 cents a day was not enough, donated chickens, eggs, vegetables, cheese and the like.”[37]

Italian Service Units sent to Camp Ono received similarly favorable treatment as recounted by a former unit member:

“The POW’s [sic] had many liberties regarding entertainment. In fact, on many weekends they were driven into San Bernardino to see a movie or to have dinner with their girlfriends’ families!

…on Sundays the prisoners were allowed to take walks into the surrounding vineyards, as this was a fond reminder of their homeland. They would casually walk out for hours at a time with no military escorts. Their only identification was a green arm band that each wore with “ITALY” spelled out in white letters.”[38]

Certainly, all 850 Italian Service Units put to work at the Mira Loma Quarter Master Repair Sub Depot on the outskirts of San Bernardino and the Main Quarter Master Depot in Mira Loma were considered a boon by Army officials faced with a “man-power shortage of major proportions.” The Italian units primarily repaired tents, machinery and appliances and were remarked upon by the Depot historian—in contrast to his less savory appraisal of Mexican and Black workers—for their productivity and focus:

“…For the month of January 1945, the Italians contributed 27,000 man-days. Their lost time record is remarkable- less than 1%- and this includes absence due to illness as well as confinement for disciplinary purposes.” [39]

Moreover, and in contrast to Japanese American internees’ experiences, Italian Service Units were generally afforded dignified and humanitarian treatment. They were taught by San Bernardino Junior College teachers of “university-caliber,” offered classes in English, job training, and military functions and operations, and given time for leisure and the upkeep of their spirits. Per depot historian, James Bennett:

In order to keep the moral of the Italians at the present high standard, they have been encouraged to utilize their dramatic talents in a series of plays which members of the Battalion write, direct and perform during off duty hours…

…the Italians are permitted a limited amount of off-duty athletics. Among their activities in this category they have developed an excellent soccer team. Games are scheduled for each Sunday with soccer teams in this area. To date, the Italians have won the major number of their contests.[40]

The Final Years: Weapons and Waste

After WWII, the Mira Loma Quarter Master Depot had a larger classification operation receiving shipments of material from overseas and the deactivation of military installations in the southwest. In addition, in 1947 and 1948, Mira Loma became a Distribution Center of American Graves Registration, participating in the return of remains program. By 1955, as Army operations declined, the Mira Loma Depot was transferred to the Department of the Air Force and became a storing and dismantling ground for 83 retired Titan 1 and Atlas missiles. About 33 of these relics were distributed to museums, parks and schools as static displays while the remaining 50 were scrapped on site in Mira Loma in 1966.[41] Unsurprisingly, such activities would lead to perchlorate contamination of the site. In 1966, approximately 2/3 of the land was sold to a private entity, the Mira Loma Space Center, which re-developed the site as an industrial and commercial office park, embodying the warehouse landscapes so characteristic of the Inland Empire of today.

Titan-I ICBM SM vehicles being destroyed at Mira Loma AFS for the SALT-1 Treaty Date: 2011-11-08. Credit: Leebrandoncremer License: http://www.wikiwand.com/en/HGM-25A_Titan_I
Titan-I ICBM SM vehicles being destroyed at Mira Loma AFS for the SALT-1 Treaty Date: 2011-11-08. Credit: Leebrandoncremer License: http://www.wikiwand.com/en/HGM-25A_Titan_I

The U.S. Army’s warehousing and transportation operations in Southern California during World War II laid the groundwork for cost-effective practices and time-saving measures that have new incarnations in the consumer warehouses of today.  Japanese Americans imprisoned at Camp Manzanar served a critical “proving ground” for such logistical operations in one iteration, and U.S. troops stationed in the desert were another. Finally, the contamination of the Depot’s original site, by perchlorate from dismantled weapons of war, echoes contamination of another kind—that of airborne, fine particulate matter emitted by diesel trucks in the Inland Empire’s contemporary logistics industry.

NOTES


[1] IMRAN GHORI, “Judge Sides with Moreno Valley in Challenge against World Logistics Center,” Press Enterprise, accessed March 13, 2017, http://www.pe.com/articles/environmental-810973-city-state.html.

[2] Martha Matsuoka et al., “Global Trade Impacts: Addressing the Health, Social and Environmental Consequences of Moving International Freight through Our Communities” (Occidental College and University of Southern California, March 2011), 30, http://departments.oxy.edu/uepi/publications/GlobalTrade.pdf.

[3] John Froines, “Exposure to Railyard Emissions in Adjacent Communities.”

[4] GHORI, “Judge Sides with Moreno Valley in Challenge against World Logistics Center.”

[5] Sheheryar Kaoosji and Penny Newman, “World Logistics Center Bad for Air, Won’t Bring High-Quality Jobs: Guest Commentary,” accessed March 13, 2017, http://www.dailybulletin.com/article/LH/20170106/LOCAL1/170109693; “State of Work in the Inland Empire,” Center for Social Innovation, accessed January 16, 2020, https://socialinnovation.ucr.edu/state-work-inland-empire.

[6] Daniel Flaming and Patrick Burns, “Too Big to Govern: Public Balance Sheet for the World’s Largest Store,” Economic Roundtable (Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, November 26, 2019), 25, https://economicrt.org/publication/too-big-to-govern/.

[7] “Amazon Says It Invested $4.7 Billion in the Inland Empire,” Daily Bulletin (blog), April 27, 2018, http://www.dailybulletin.com/amazon-says-it-invested-4-7-billion-in-the-inland-empire.

[8] Juan De Lara, Inland Shift: Race, Space, and Capital in Southern California (Univ of California Press, 2018).

[9] Penny Newman, “Inland Ports of Southern California: Warehouses, Distribution Centers, Intermodal Facilities” (Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, June 28, 2012); Jeremy O’Kelley, “South Coast Air Quality Management District Monitoring and Analysis: Mira Loma PM10 Monitoring,” March 2001.

[10] South Coast Air Quality Management District, “Multiple Air Toxics Exposure Study (MATES-II),” March 2000, http://www.aqmd.gov/matesiidf/es.pdf.

[11] Rhonda Spencer-Hwang et al., “Experiences of a Rail Yard Community: Life Is Hard,” Journal of Environmental Health 77, no. 2 (September 2014): 8–17; Hector Castaneda et al., “Health Risk Assessment for the BNSF San Bernardino Railyard,” n.d., 124.

[12] “Key Findings | State of the Air,” American Lung Association, accessed January 16, 2020, https://www.lung.org/our-initiatives/healthy-air/sota/key-findings/.

[13] Laura Hines, “Moreno Valley: Residents Fear Being Surrounded by Warehouse Complex,” The Press Enterprise, May 6, 2012.

[14] Flaming and Burns, “Too Big to Govern: Public Balance Sheet for the World’s Largest Store”; “State of Work in the Inland Empire.”

[15] Plaintiffs on the lawsuit include the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Coalition for Clean Air, and the San Bernardino Valley Audobon Society.

[16] Beau Yarbrough, “$47 Million Settlement Reached in World Logistics Center Lawsuit,” Press Enterprise, April 29, 2021, https://www.pe.com/2021/04/29/47-million-settlement-reached-in-world-logistics-center-lawsuit/.

[17] “When Your House Is Surrounded by Massive Warehouses,” Los Angeles Times, October 27, 2019, https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2019-10-27/fontana-california-warehouses-inland-empire-pollution; “Environmental Group Sues San Bernardino County, Developer over Warehouse Project in Bloomington,” San Bernardino Sun (blog), October 31, 2018, https://www.sbsun.com/environmental-group-sues-san-bernardino-county-developer-over-warehouse-project-in-bloomington; “Developers Sharing Environmental Findings for Warehouse Proposal in Upland,” Daily Bulletin (blog), January 4, 2020, https://www.dailybulletin.com/developers-sharing-environmental-findings-for-warehouse-proposal-in-upland; Steve Scauzillo, “Judge Requires Environmental Review for Proposed Upland Warehouse Rumored for Amazon,” Daily Bulletin, July 28, 2021, https://www.dailybulletin.com/2021/07/27/judge-requires-environmental-review-for-proposed-upland-warehouse-rumored-for-amazon.

[18] James W. Bennett, “Part A; Early Days” (Mira Loma Quartermaster Depot: Office of the Quartermaster General, July 27, 1943), Record Group 92, Box 7, Folder 1, National Archives at Riverside.

[19] James W. Bennett, “Supplying Forty Thousand Japanese Aliens,” May 25, 1943, Record Group 92, Box 7, National Archives at Riverside.

[20] Bennett’s position represented a conscious decision by the US Army to hire military historians to document their institution’s efforts to address technical and administrative problems in order to serve as a resource for future personnel and situations.  The Army was mindful about recording lessons learned about goods movement during World War II and how these could benefit operations during peacetime as well.  Reflecting on the role of embedded historian’s, the Army noted: “This will provide a significant part of the education and orientation of future officers.  They will know what worked well and what worked badly during this war.  More than that, they will know why. Those officers, in the future must build an enormous supply system from a peace-time basis, will have an appreciable advantage over the men who were called upon to develop the administrative machine during the present conflict.  Obviously, industrial and social conditions will have changed. Officers, however, will know what will work well under a given set of circumstances, and many of these circumstances will be repeated.” Bennett.

[21] Bennett.

[22] Bennett.

[23] Bennett.

[24] Carey McWilliams, “Moving the West-Coast Japanese,” Harper’s Magazine 185 (September 1942): 359–69. While McWilliams admired the logistical execution of the relocation operation in 1942, he also later praised the loyalty of Japanese Americans and opined on the “democratic possibilities” of the relocation program. Carey McWilliams, What about Our Japanese-Americans?, Public Affairs Pamphlets, 91 ([New York]: [Public Affairs Committee, Inc.], 1944).

[25] Bennett, “Supplying Forty Thousand Japanese Aliens”; James W. Bennett, “Part B: The Sons of Dai Nippon Present a Problem” (Mira Loma Quartermaster Depot, July 27, 1943), Record Group 92, Box 7, Folder 1, National Archives at Riverside.

[26] Bennett, “Supplying Forty Thousand Japanese Aliens.”

[27] James W. Bennett, “Transcript of Telephone Communication between Colonel Stafford and Major B.P. Spry, Ninth Service Command, Fort Douglas, Utah.,” March 19, 1942, Record Group 92, Box 7, Folder 1, National Archives at Riverside.

[28] Bennett, “Part B: The Sons of Dai Nippon Present a Problem.”

[29] James W. Bennett, “Transcript of Telephone Conversation between Captain Emery D.K. Jackson at the San Bernardino Depot and Colonel E.A. Evans, G-4 Office, the Presidio of San Francisco.,” April 24, 1942, Record Group 92, Box 7, Folder 1, National Archives at Riverside.

[30] James W. Bennett, “Transcript of Telephone Conversation,” October 30, 1942, Record Group 92, Box 7, Folder 1, National Archives at Riverside.(82-83) (Oct. 31, 1942 phone conversation)

[31] James W. Bennett, “Summary of Phone Conversation between Colonel Stafford and Colonel Webster.,” October 31, 1942, Record Group 92, Box 7, Folder 1, National Archives at Riverside.

[32] The new Depot comprised several large warehouses, an administration building, a training building, infirmary, garage, officer’s quarters, sewage disposal plant, engine house, oil pump house, motor repair shop, paint shop, post restaurant, oil storage building, water storage building, and various sheds. James W. Bennett, “Part Three: An Engineering Feat” (Mira Loma Quartermaster Depot, August 28, 1943), Record Group 92, Box 7, Folder 1, National Archives at Riverside.

[33] By continuing improvement of methods, by June in 1945, the personnel was at 1,691 although the freight tonnage handled at this time was increased 40% over that handled in 1944. “History (of Mira Loma Depot),” n.d., Record Group 92, Box 7, Folder: Depot History 1950-51-52, National Archives at Riverside.

[34] James W. Bennett, “Labor at the Mira Loma Depot (an Interim Report), Part A: History and Problems” (Mira Loma Quartermaster Depot, n.d.), Record Group 92, Box 7, Folder: 314.7 Labor at the Mira Loma Depot (An Interim Report) by the Depot Historian, National Archives at Riverside.

[35] Jack Hamann, On American Soil: How Justice Became a Casualty of World War II, 1st pbk. ed (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2007).

[36] Nicholas, R. Cataldo, “City of San Bernardino – POW’s in San Bernardino,” City of San Bernardino, California, accessed March 18, 2018, http://www.ci.san-bernardino.ca.us/about/history/pows_in_san_bernardino.asp.

[37] T.A. Sunderland, “From Italian POWs to Citizens of the United States,” Los Angeles Times, December 13, 1981, sec. VIEW, http://www.ci.san-bernardino.ca.us/about/history/camp_ono_story___la_times.asp.

[38] Nicholas, R. Cataldo, “City of San Bernardino – POW’s in San Bernardino.”

[39] James W. Bennett, “Report on Italian Service Units” (Mira Loma Quartermaster Depot, 1945), Record Group 92, Box 7, Folder: Historical Items 1945, National Archives at Riverside.

[40] Bennett.

[41] “Mira Loma Quartermaster Depot (Mira Loma Air Force Station, Prisoner of War Camp),” accessed January 20, 2020, http://www.militarymuseum.org/MiraLomaQMD.html.

Dr. Brinda Sarathy joined the University of Washington Bothell as professor and dean of the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences in July 2021. Sarathy’s scholarly expertise includes U.S. environmental policy, California water politics, natural resource management, and environmental justice. Her books include Partnerships for Empowerment: Participatory Research for Community-Based Natural Resource Management (2008), Pineros: Latino Labour and the Changing Face of Forestry in the Pacific Northwest (2012), and Inevitably Toxic: Historic Cases of Contamination, Exposure and Expertise (2018). Her articles have appeared in a number of peer-reviewed venues including the Journal of Forestry, Society and Natural Resources, Policy Sciences, Race Gender & Class, and Local Environment. Sarathy’s current research examines the environmental history of the first Superfund site in California, the Stringfellow Acid Pits.

Articles

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

Catherine S. Ramírez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*          *          *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*          *          *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*          *          *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[9] Gutfreund 180-181.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

[25] Ibid.

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

Postcards Series

In Rancho Santa Fe, We Were Orientals

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


Courtesy of Fernando Mendez Corona

Wendy Cheng

In 1986, when I was nine and my brother was ten, my parents moved us to a place I have never claimed; a place that has never claimed me. Rancho Santa Fe, California: former land of the Santa Fe Railroad, whose twisted experiments created 100-foot tall stands of rare eucalyptus across the wealthy community. Lilian Rice’s Spanish fantasy utopia. A golf course and a tennis club. The place I spent the better part of my youth; the place I first saw a ghost; the place my father died. The place where we were aliens, and alienated. And yet: it was home.

In Rancho Santa Fe, houses were full of pastels and light and high, arched entryways; they were pristine and cool as tombs. Dirt trails flanked the two-lane asphalt roads, and there were no sidewalks, mailboxes, or streetlights. The trails were made for people on horseback, an element in the landscape that might have made it feel rural, except that they led to the nearby, members-only golf course. Residents were proud of the rural fiction, though, and liked to refer to the town as “The Ranch.”

In 1986, my mother and her business partners (a trio of Taiwanese immigrants) sold their first biotech company, and there was money to move up in the world. The house we bought was modest for the area: a four-bedroom ranch house built in the 1950s decorated with old linoleum; faded, pastel-striped wallpaper; and mustard-and-brown-colored tiles in the room that would be mine. The only thing I remember from when we went to look at the house is the earthy smell of ground beef frying in a pan, a smell that to me was exotic and slightly nauseating in its plainness – devoid of the sweet pungency of sizzling garlic, ginger, and soy sauce that infused most of the meat cooked in our house.

When our parents-to-be left Taiwan for graduate school in Detroit, Michigan and Madison, Wisconsin – taking the only pathway available to them out of an island under martial law – they severed their future children’s connection to land, to our relatives, to our ancestors; to culture, customs, and language. We were born, my brother and I, as stunted blank slates, both over- and under-determined by the racial and cultural identities we would never be able to fully grasp, while those were all most other people could see.

We lost the daily fish and vegetable and fruit market in Lotung, where my mother’s mother went since she was a child in the 1930s, where everyone knew her and the fishmonger knew exactly which fish she would want; where she could walk and speak with ease.

We lost the cracked land in Pingtung, where my father’s father was an architect, and whose streets my father could traverse without a map even decades later, when he himself was an old man. (Watching him eat slices of sticky honeyed yams with a toothpick in the warm glow of the nightmarket stalls at the age of 60, I saw him become a child again.)

All my brother and I had was what we could see in front of us, every day: the graduate student family apartment at the University of Wisconsin with the red carpet and creaking metal swing set outside where we were each born and took our first steps. The small house with the brick fireplace in the Clairemont neighborhood of San Diego. The slightly larger house in Del Mar, where we became best friends with our neighbors’ friendly freckled children, who ran barefoot with dirty feet. And then the ranch house on the big land in Rancho Santa Fe.

Courtesy of the author.

In Rancho Santa Fe, even though by then it was already 1986, we were Orientals. We were Orientals because there were so few of us at first: just ___ ___, in my brother’s grade, whose family was so ridiculously rich they owned a pet monkey, and ___ ___, in my grade, whose father was white and wore a toupee. We were Orientals because my brother’s big white athletic friends decided it would be fun to call him “Yang” (this was not our last name). We were Orientals because I was afraid to invite friends to eat dinner at our house, because they were grossed out and said so about things like squid ink on rice. We were Orientals because our parents never made friends with our friends’ parents, not really, but only other Taiwanese people, who usually lived at least a half-hour drive away. We were Orientals because the local security patrol would slow down and tail my father when he was out walking by himself, and because my grandfather – who did not speak English and whose face was brown – was always assumed to be the gardener.

I didn’t find out until much later that one of the reasons there were so few of “us” was because up until the 1970s, people of color were prohibited from living in Rancho Santa Fe unless they were servants.

“Rancho Santa Fe an unusual undertaking: New Colonization Project,” La Times, March 4, 1923

As in so many places, the land tells the history. But we couldn’t see – didn’t know – the Native people, the colonizers, the proselytizers, the developers, and workers who had made it so: The Kumeyaay-Ipai, who knew and stewarded every plant, animal, and season. The first exploratory incursions by the Spanish. The brutal mission period, which irrevocably transformed the land and decimated its peoples. The relatively brief Mexican rancho period, before Anglo settlers insinuated themselves into the landholding Californio families and reduced them to relics of a romanticized past. And then the coming of the railroad conglomerates and Anglo developers, who cloaked their proprietary violence with romantic fantasies of “gentleman” farming and the Spanish past.[1] The Santa Fe Land Improvement Company (SFLIC). Developer Ed Fletcher. SFLIC vice president William Hodges. They imprinted their names on the landscape: Rancho Santa Fe (the “town” in which we lived). Fletcher Cove (the beach we went to most often). Lake Hodges (the lake 10 miles inland where we once tried and failed to catch fish; where, as a teenager, I went with friends to try to see shooting stars; and where, in 2010, a 17-year-old female jogger was raped and murdered).

In the early 1900s, the SFLIC found the alien eucalyptus wood they had planted all over the former Osuna ranch too soft for railroad tracks. By the 1920s, they had decided to convert the land into an exclusive housing development; an embodiment of the Spanish fantasy past. They consulted with Ed Fletcher, who would later be instrumental in developing neighboring, racially exclusive Solana Beach, and ended up working with architect Lilian Rice of the firm Requa and Jackson. Rice traveled to Spain and modeled the architecture of Rancho Santa Fe’s “town” after rural villages in Spain. Instead of a village well, though, there was a gas station designed to look like a well. Instead of peasants, Rancho Santa Fe’s developers sought to recruit wealthy, white, “family” and leisure-oriented residents.

Ed Fletcher also leased some of the land to Chinese and Japanese farmers “and directed them to prove the effectiveness of the land for cultivating fruits and vegetables” (a trick that would repeated twenty-some years later by the U.S. government when it strategically incarcerated skilled Japanese American farmers on sparsely populated lands they wished to develop for agriculture). In 1923, the farmers’ leases expired, and California’s recently passed alien land laws made it difficult for them to renew.[2] The citrus groves Asian American farmers were forced to abandon later became a hallmark of Rancho Santa Fe’s brand of luxurious country living. (“Such plans did not include Asian farmers.”[3]) Mexican and Native American workers contributed their expertise, too, and did the heavy lifting. But they – we – couldn’t live there unless they (we) served a white person.

Cheng’s parents. Courtesy of the author.

While the house was plain, its grounds were not: the backyard featured a long, rectangular pool accompanied by a floral-tiled fountain that spewed water from the cement mouth of a satyr. In front of the house, along the curved, gravel driveway, was a citrus grove with fifty fruit-bearing trees, a remnant of the SFLIC’s hubristic experiments on the land.

Our parents bought the house because of the orange trees, or at least that’s what they told us. The fifty citrus trees included Valencias, Navels, Tangelos, Satsuma tangerines, Meyer lemons, and limes. (Another benefit, my father said, was that we could not see our neighbors and they could not see us.)

To the roses and palm trees, our parents added pomelo trees, guava trees, night-blooming cereus (smuggled on an airplane from Taiwan by family friends), camellias. Formosan azaleas. In the garden area, they planted yam leaves, garlic chives, and later, kale and chard. Kyoho grapevines wound across the trellis of the front entrance, shading low bushes of Formosa azaleas. When my grandparents came to stay with us, my grandmother spent long hours in the garden while my grandfather tended the orange grove.

We put crawfish, captured from the golf course creek, in the fountain. We drove to the beach and caught grunion during their nighttime mating runs, when the beach became alive with wriggling silver life.

Once, my grandfather killed a four-foot-long snake slithering close to the house with a shovel to the head; my brother kept its heavy coiled body, still twitching, in a plastic bag in his room overnight. Coyotes left their scat on the front walkway and in the backyard, and great horned owls hooted and swooped at twilight from the hundred-foot stand of eucalyptus trees that loomed over our backyard. Another time, I found a dead bunny on the driveway, probably hit by a car but looking entirely pristine. Within minutes, though, its luminous black eyes were picked out by crows.

After my brother and I left for college, one after the other, I didn’t come back with any regularity for twenty years to this house, to this land, to my parents (and my brother never really did). For me to come home, it took my father becoming terminally ill, learning how to be present during his slow decline and subsequent death; and then after that, a renewed and transformed relationship with my mother, which grew with strength and beauty and joy through our shared love of my young child. Through him, she took care of me once again; and finally, I began to take care of her, too.

During the long months of the covid-19 pandemic, the house and land brought us peace and renewal. Isolation became safety, room to breathe. The luxury to breathe, when so many could not, and still cannot, amidst this time of immeasurable suffering and murderous neglect.

Now, my mother has decided to sell the house and with it, the land. It is time. It’s all too big for just her, and my brother and I can’t – won’t – move back with our families. We will leave some of my dad here – under the camellias, in the orange grove. The places he loved the most. The trees that nourished us with their fruit and beauty for more than thirty years might be bulldozed by the next owner. The perfume of the lemons, the tart sweetness of the Satsumas – these trees that have borne witness to four generations of our family – gone in an afternoon.

A couple is very interested. They write a letter. The husband owns a business. The wife is an expert equestrian and looks forward to bringing her horse to The Ranch. (I instantly see the orange grove uprooted for a horse stable.) The husband wants to be close to the golf course. They have two young sons. (“I worked so hard to make this house perfect for a family,” my mother says.) They love The Ranch. I know they will fit in instantly, in a way we never did.

What is land when it is property?

We buy it (if we are among the fortunate). We sell it. We leave parts of ourselves in it. We move on and start all over again, until we are gone, too. And yet the land endures.


Notes

[1] In 1946, Carey McWilliams described the “Spanish fantasy heritage” as a key fiction upon which Anglo Americans settlers in California based their claims of rightful succession to a European past (Carey McWilliams, Southern California: An Island on the Land (Kaysville, UT: Gibbs Smith, 1946; 1980).

[2] Information on the Asian American farmers is from Phoebe Kropp, California Vieja: Culture and Memory in a Modern American Place (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008),p. 162.

[3] Kropp, p. 163.

Wendy Cheng is an associate professor of American Studies at Scripps College. She is the author of The Changs Next Door to the Díazes: Remapping Race in Suburban California (University of Minnesota Press, 2013) and coauthor of A People’s Guide to Los Angeles (University of California Press, 2012). Her creative nonfiction essays have been published in Tropics of Meta and the Cincinnati Review.

Postcard Series

  1. Jenise Miller, “We are our own Multitude: Los Angeles’ Black Panamanian Community”
  2. Toni Mirosevich, “Who I Used To Be”
  3. Myriam Gurba, “El Corrido del Copete”
  4. Jennifer Carr, “The Tides that Erase: Automation and the Los Angeles Waterfront”
  5. Melissa Hidalgo, “A Chumash Line: How an old email and five PDFs revealed my Native Californian Roots” 
  6. Brynn Saito with Photographs by Dave Lehl, “Acts of Grace: Memory Journeys Through the San Joaquin Valley”
  7. Nicolas Belardes, “South Bakersfield’s Confederate Remains”
  8. Ruth Nolan, “Cima Dome, East Mojave National Preserve”
  9. Marco Vera, “My Tata’s Frutería”
  10. George B. Sánchez-Tello, “Oh Salinas! Song, Story and Punk Rock Behind the Lettuce Curtain
  11. Kenji C. Liu, “To eat a fig is to swallow ghosts”
Excerpts

We Are the Land: A History of Native California

Damon B. Akins and William J. Bauer Jr.

In May of 1928, Congress passed an enabling act to allow the “Indians of California” to sue the federal government for the land lost because of the eighteen unratified treaties signed in 1851 and 1852. To limit the scope of the action and consolidate lawsuits, the act provided the first legal definition of the Indians of California: “all Indians who were residing in the State of California on June 1, 1852, and their descendants now living in said state.” Lawmakers hoped this would prevent a flood of lawsuits parcel by parcel, rancheria by rancheria, village by village, tribe by tribe. The act authorized the lawsuit, which became known as the California Indian Claims Case, often referred to by its docket number: K-344. The case wound its way through the courts until a 1944 decision.

There have always been Indians in California, and despite their distinctiveness, the conditions they faced often shared important characteristics. But the idea of a category, much less a legal category encompassing all of the state’s far-flung and various Indigenous Peoples, was a new and contested notion. The “Indians of California” resulted from decades of activism and various networks of education and mutual support in response to attacks on their existence and livelihood in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Indians of California increasingly pressed their collective issues through the courts, laws, at state fairs, and the state capital, and in defense of the land itself. The category did not subsume individual, village, rancheria, reservation, or tribal identities. Instead, the name provided yet another aggregate conceptual category to organize and strengthen local activism.

Mrs. Ruby Snyder, Chemehuevi Indian, Poston, Arizona. Created by Clem Albers. Photo courtesy Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

In the middle of the twentieth century, the various people that the federal government subsumed under the moniker “Indians of California” responded to and shaped the ebbs and flows of federal Indian policy. Across the state, officials clamored to dam rivers and flood reservation lands in the name of urban development. During the Great Depression, the federal government initiated what it considered a new phase of federal Indian policy—the Indian Reorganization Act. The government promised the new act ensured the independence of California Indians and other Indigenous People in North America. In Southern California, Indigenous People questioned those beliefs. Finally, in the 1950s, policies swung back toward those of the 1920s, attempting to absorb Indigenous lands and sovereignty through the ominously titled “termination” policies. Throughout the era, California Indians charted their own path to secure land and sovereignty.

Indigenous People were bound up in California’s image of itself, which was one of the state’s most valuable export commodities in the 1920s and 1930s. The region’s Mediterranean climate, landscape, and architecture, as well as its increasing prominence in the global economy, contributed to the production of the “Spanish fantasy past.” Business, culture, and political leaders highlighted California’s imaginary Spanish past to promote their vision of nostalgia for a vaguely European heritage and the tourism it supported. That story also helped to erase the diverse present by relocating people of color to the past. The gauzy stories of happy and orderly early California featured prominently at inter- national expositions held around the region. These expositions announced California’s promising future, yoked to an imaginary past. The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 in San Francisco and the Panama-California Exposition of 1915–16 in San Diego celebrated California’s growth, especially because of the increased maritime trade brought about by the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914. Both expositions presented to the world a highly idealized version of California as paradise, with its Indians an important part of that past, not the present. Later expositions and fairs, such as the Long Beach Pacific Southwest Exposition of 1928 and San Diego’s California-Pacific International Exposition of 1935–36, continued this theme.

Indians from around the state and region found work at the fairs and expositions, building the Painted Desert exhibit in San Diego in 1914–15 and performing as “show Indians” in the pageants recounting California’s history. They also produced items for display and sale. In the 1910s and 1920s, the market for California Indian baskets changed. As the collector’s craze for baskets declined, Wiyot-Hupa Louise Hickox and Washoe Lena Dick led the way to finding retail outlets to sell their baskets and to promote their work at fairs and expositions. Hickox learned weaving from her mother, Elizabeth, and her grandmother, Polly Conrad Steve, who survived the notorious Indian Island massacre in 1860, when she was twelve years old.

Pomo-Patwin Mabel McKay appeared at the California State Fair and at various times at the California State Indian Museum, where she displayed her exquisite work. At the state fair in 1929, fair officials forced her to wear a skimpy beaded and fringed buckskin dress. After McKay reluctantly put it on, she asked wryly, “Do I look like an Indian yet?” In 1934, she appeared in the Sacramento Union, again dressed in a stereotypical Indian costume that bore no resemblance to Pomo culture. McKay displayed some of her well-known laconic wit when asked, what, besides basket weaving, the Pomos do. “Just live,” she answered.

In McKay’s case, tensions between “traditional” and “market” considerations revealed themselves. McKay was a Dreamer and a sucking doctor in the Bole Maru religion. Her great uncle, Richard Taylor, led the revivalist religious movement that became Bole Maru in the nineteenth century. While McKay grew up around very accomplished basket makers, including her aunt Laura Somersal, she learned weaving in her dreams. Baskets served a critical function in her healing practice, and McKay steadfastly refused to sell those baskets. At the same time, she often took commissions at demonstrations such as the 1929 State Fair.

Indians saw attending the fair as work—perhaps unsavory at times but work that had value. Margaret Harrie, a Karuk basket maker, single mother, and pikváhaan (storyteller), wrote to Grace Nicholson:

I send you this little red basket just for [a] present. . . . My little girl made it. . . . I sell my baskets to you very cheap. [T]hat black basket cost very high [b]ut I send it to you very cheap [b]ecause I think you are my friend. . . . We do not get our straw to fix the basket with up here. We get our straw down the Klamath River they do not grow up here so we have a hard work in get- ting them I have a hard living Because I have childrens to take care of all by myself. P.S. I forgot to tell you that my baskets were all $28.75 worth.

Harrie established a trade relationship with Nicholson for very practical economic reasons and pointed out the importance of site-specific har- vesting. She pursued a similar strategy later when the anthropologists began to show interest. Around 1930, Harrie worked with Hans Uldall, a Danish linguist, reciting the story of “Coyote and Old Woman Bull- head.” Whether it was baskets or stories, Harrie recognized the value of her culture, to herself and to others.

California Indian baskets are ecologically sensitive and site specific. While weavers have adapted new plants and forbs into their baskets, the sedge, redbud, willow, and other materials that formed the core of the craft were susceptible to environmental change. Urbanization pushed increasingly complex water projects farther into the state’s interior. California’s map is dotted with sites where urban, industrial, or agricultural demand for water came at the expense of Indian communities: Hetch Hetchy Valley was flooded to provide water to the city of San Francisco; Owens Lake was drained to provide water to the city of Los Angeles; Capitan Grande was flooded to enable the city of San Diego to grow.

California Indians sat at the center of some of the most well-known histories of water disputes in the state, but they are commonly sidelined in the narratives constructed about them. For example, long a staple case study in environmental history, the story of the flooding of the Hetch Hetchy Valley is often depicted as a victory of conservationists over preservationists and an important step in the beginning of the modern environmental movement. The valley, however, was also Miwok land. Both the Ahwahnechee and the Tuolumne Bands of Sierra Miwok claimed the valley in summer and fall. John Muir praised the valley’s “natural” beauty, calling it an “acorn orchard.” Orchards are not natural, and neither was the valley’s landscape, which Ahwahnechee and Tuolumne managed through controlled burns to increase seed output and fern growth. In addition to increasing the deer population, regular burning also reduced underbrush and contributed to the growth of the black oak trees, whose acorns formed a critical component of the Miwok diet.

The actors in the story, as it is normally told, are San Francisco city officials, the secretary of the interior, President Theodore Roosevelt, and John Muir. They all wrestled for control of the valley throughout the first two decades of the twentieth century. Some saw in it a solution to the city’s growing water problem, while others saw it as a place of great natural beauty deserving protection. That distinction pitted a reflective, aesthetic use of the valley for leisure against the “daily comfort and welfare of 99 percent.” The Miwok absence in the story highlights a central tenet of the environmental movement in California—namely, that preservation often, if not always, involved removing Indians from their land or severely reducing their ability to use it. In 1919, construction of the dam began, and within a few years, waters submerged the vast “acorn orchard.”

One of the most dramatic examples of urban infrastructure intervening in the Indigenous landscapes occurred in the Owens Valley in the eastern part of the state. Owens Lake lives on as a vestigial legacy on digital street maps, but it has long since disappeared. The lake dried up in 1926 (see fig. 24). The Owens River flows south through the slender valley, fed from the Sierra Nevada on its west and the White Mountains and Inyo Mountains on the east. Owens Valley Paiutes built a comprehensive irrigation system with lateral aqueducts running off of the east- west flowing creeks to grow seed grasses and edible tubers. As a result, before American settlement, the valley supported a Paiute population of between one thousand and two thousand people.


View of the dry lake bed of Owens Lake, looking north, with cracked pink clay due to high amounts of halophilic archaebacteria. Photo by Vahe Martirosyan, April 2019. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, American settlers, attracted by the valley’s suitability for ranching, encroached on Paiute settlements. In a familiar pattern, settler cattle destroyed grasses and tubers, and ranchers increasingly appropriated the water, without which the valley floor would become a semiarid dustscape. In 1862, tensions exploded into violence when settlers pushed Paiutes to the north end of the valley. Owens Valley Paiutes and Shoshone Bands from the east united under the leadership of Joaquin Jim and pushed the settlers back, reclaiming the valley for a brief time in the spring. By summer, the US Army moved in to starve the Paiutes out. They destroyed grain stores and ditches and forced the Paiutes into the mountains. Fighting continued through a peace treaty, eventually leading to the forced removal of almost one thousand Paiutes from the valley to the Sebastian Indian Reserve near Fort Tejon.

Ultimately, the war cost the lives of more than two hundred Paiutes and around thirty American settlers. The army remained in the valley for more than a decade to defend settler possession. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Paiutes made up around 20 percent of the local population but a majority of the labor force in the valley’s ranching economy. Ranchers depended on Paiute labor and mountain water and therefore resisted efforts to remove Paiutes to reservations farther south or to give them a solid legal claim to control their own resources.

All of this changed when the city of Los Angeles came to the valley. Beginning in 1905, the city, desperate for additional sources of water to accommodate its rapidly growing needs, began to surreptitiously purchase land in the valley to get control of the water rights attached to it. Within a few years, the LA Department of Water and Power (LADWP) began to construct an aqueduct to carry the river water more than two hundred miles south to the growing city. By 1913, the city had fully diverted the river into the aqueduct. As much as settler society dispossessed the Paiute residents of the valley, the LADWP effectively dispossessed the dispossessors, who themselves depended on Paiute labor. By the mid-1920s, resistance by valley residents again turned violent, and they dynamited the aqueduct on several occasions. Nonetheless, by 1926, the lake dried up, leaving a toxic salt flat and layers of animosity and anger. The story, often told as a fight between small farmers and ranchers and the city of Los Angeles, took place on Paiute land and reinscribed the colonial process as it erased the wage labor that enabled Owens Valley Paiutes to retain a tenuous grip on their homeland.

Beginning in 1925, Paiutes who received individual allotments, and were able to sell their land, recognized the value of their water rights as Los Angeles attempted to increase the volume of water it took from the valley. But rather than selling their land and water rights individually, Paiutes banded together and proposed a land exchange. They proposed giving up allotted individual plots of land in return for community tracts. At first, the city of Los Angeles resisted the proposal and attempted to pressure individual owners into selling. Paiutes persisted, and as a result, Los Angeles officials abandoned the plan.

By 1932, the city agreed to the land exchange, and in 1937, Owens Valley Paiutes traded Los Angeles previously allotted land for the land that became the Bishop, Big Pine, and Lone Pine Reservations, allowing Paiutes to retain tribal land in the valley. The land exchange did not include water rights, which Paiutes retained to be negotiated later when the city of Los Angeles secured necessary approval. In the interim, Los Angeles promised to deliver water to the Paiutes. That has yet to hap- pen. As of August of 2020, the Owens Valley Indian Water Commission is still fighting for the rights guaranteed by the 1937 legislation.

A map of reservoirs in California follows the contours of Indigenous land. Nowhere is this clearer than in San Diego County. In 1919, Congress authorized the construction of a dam on the San Diego River through an agreement with the city of San Diego and the BIA. The dam was designed to create a reservoir to store water for the city’s growing needs. The Capitan Grande Indian community opposed the dam. Their resistance prolonged but did not prevent the construction, which began in 1931. Members of the Capitan Grande community split into three groups over their forced removal: approximately 35 percent of the 153 members of the community moved in early 1932 to newly constructed, architect-designed “model” cement block houses with indoor plumbing at Barona. Approximately 15 percent of the community, the shaahook (or “ten”), took their per capita shares in cash and left the reservation. The remaining 50 percent held out, refusing to move or allow officials to relocate their graveyard unless the BIA purchased a nearby ranch for their relocation. With the dam completed in October of 1934, the BIA relented and purchased the land that became the Viejas Reservation. Bureaucratic delays hampered their move. Ventura Paipa complained, “Here it is 1936, winter is upon us, and through unnecessary delay and lack of attention to our planning by the Bureau, we are facing a chance for a POOR CROP next year [with families] still living in barns with little or no protection from the winter snows sure to come.” By 1938, water filled the El Capitan Reservoir, and the former residents of the lake bed relocated to new reservations. Residents at Barona and Viejas successfully pushed to retain control over the portion of their former reservation that remains above water as a nature preserve.

This pattern of flooding Indian lands for the “greater good” of non-Indian peoples repeated itself across California time and time again. Between 1923 and 1961, major dams built on the Colorado, Feather, Merced, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Trinity, and Tuolumne Rivers flooded lands of the Chemehuevi, Hupa, Maidu, Miwok, Paiute, Wintun, Yokuts, and Yuroks, among others. The state left few rivers untouched. Forty of the fifty largest lakes in the state are man-made reservoirs, and every one of them flooded Indigenous land. A hydro- logical map of the state is a map of Indian dispossession. In the 1950s, the Bradbury Dam on the Santa Ynez River created Lake Cachuma. In her poem “Indian Cartography,” Ohlone-Costanoan-Esselen poet Deborah Miranda describes the dam’s effects:

Lake Cachuma, created when they
dammed the Santa Ynez, flooded
a valley, divided
my father’s boyhood: days
he learned to swim the hard way,
and days he walked across the silver scales,
swollen bellies of salmon coming back
to a river that wasn’t there.
The government paid those Indians to move away,
he says; I don’t know where they went.

Most poignantly, Miranda points to the land under the surface of the water, “not drawn on any map.” A map of California highlighting reservoirs is a map outlining theft and erasure of Indian land.

Notes: Excerpt taken from We Are the Land: A History of Native California (UC Press, 2021)

© 2021 by Damon B. Akins and William J. Bauer Jr.; used with permission by University of California Press. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Interviews

“We’re just Trying to Breathe”: An Interview with Active San Gabriel Valley

As the condition of our climate continues to deteriorate, national and state policies beholden to special interests often play an exacerbating role in worsening effects on working-class communities, especially communities of color. Lack of adequate urban planning and underfunded public projects that can improve quality of life and reduce pollution are often ignored in the larger conversations around climate justice. Dedicated public servant David Diaz is the Executive Director of Active San Gabriel Valley, a local nonprofit organization that focuses on mobility, climate, and health and wellness in underserved communities. He joins Boom California to discuss the connections between public policy and environmental equality, and how we can take an active role in combating climate change in our own neighborhoods.

Boom: Hi David. We’re interested in knowing what the climate crisis looks like for a majority-minority city, one populated by migrants and children of migrants. Can you tell us a little bit about how it is that you, as a child of migrants, arrived to an understanding of environmental justice and the climate crisis.

David Diaz: Yeah, it’s a nice place to start. I was born in Mexico, as you know in Baja, California, and at six months old my parents brought me over and we landed in the city of El Monte. We’re right on the border of the city of El Monte and South El Monte. So, for me growing up as a latchkey kid, my parents had to work multiple jobs to make it work. We lived in this house that was subdivided internally. So, we had what was the front of the house. And then, in addition, there were two other units that were in the back. As a latchkey kid, I grew up on frozen food. My parents, due to a lack of economic opportunities, they had to work, so they couldn’t cook fresh meals. We ate a lot of McDonalds; we had a lot of frozen food. As a result, I became an obese kid growing up. Similarly, a lot of family members, extended family members, had diabetes, heart disease, coronary related diseases. I went to a lot of funerals due to strokes. When I was probably 18, 19 years old I was at about 260 pounds. I went on this trip of Muay Thai kickboxing mixed martial arts and nutrition education, learning about how I could be a healthier individual and so through that process I ended up losing about 110 pounds. And when I was going through this process, I was also going to Rio Hondo Community College and learning about culture, the erasure of culture, displacement, all the things that were not taught at the high school level. That really impacted me deeply. I ended up going to college at Arizona State to study psychology and social health and what I looked at was how systems play a role in determining the outcomes of people’s well-being and quality of life.

When you look at the communities that I grew up in, El Monte and South El Monte, some of the realities that emerge liken it to a concrete jungle. When I say concrete jungle, what does that mean? It means the absence of canopy, urban canopy, trees, vegetation, greenery in our communities. The national average for urban canopies is about 22%, so this means the percentage of publicly owned trees. In the city of El Monte, that’s about 5%.We’re not lacking fast food or liquor stores or tobacco, you can find one of those pretty easily. We’re also a super park poor community. The national average is approximately six acres per one thousand residents, and for the cities of El Monte and South El Monte, it’s about 0.41 acres per one thousand residents. And just to give a perspective: one acre is roughly the size of a soccer field, so we’re talking about cramming one thousand people in less than half the size of a soccer field.

And so, that coupled with questions like: what were the outcomes in the community I grew up in? Severe pollution burden, high childhood and adult obesity rates, low educational attainment, high unemployment. You start looking at the connections in the system and not just pointing them to personal responsibility, but understanding that all this stuff was done intentionally. So that really motivated me to take the opportunities that were provided for me and come back into my community to be part of that change. I ended up going to Claremont Graduate University to get my Master’s of Public Health. Simultaneously, I was interning at the city of Pomona’s Manager’s Office. I was also working for a startup in south Los Angeles on this concept of dealing with the whole health of an individual. Through these experiences I was able to connect with like-minded folks and organizations that were doing work that I was interested in. One of those organizations was Day One, which was based out of Pasadena, and they actually had this position that had recently opened, and it was titled El Monte Nutrition Education and Obesity Prevention Coordinator. And when I read it, I remember thinking: that’s what I want to do! Like it’s in the title, what I want to do. So, I ended up applying and I got the job. And then that put me into this kick of working in El Monte and South El Monte on various initiatives.

Courtesy of Active San Gabriel Valley

Boom: One of the things that you just outlined for us is the different ways in which residents in El Monte, and other majority-minority cities, experience what we might call if not climate change, at least, environmental injustice. Lack of access to parks and green space, lack of urban canopy, easy access to fast food and liquor stores. Are there any other things that you think are ways that people experience climate crisis or environmental injustice in El Monte and South El Monte that you haven’t mentioned?

David Diaz: When I jumped into the work, it was about nutrition education and obesity prevention for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. So, it’s called SNAP for short, food stamps or food assistance program. Providing them with physical activity and nutrition education is great. However, folks would tell me things like I love to eat healthy meals, I just have to work 14 hours and my schedule is variable. And I’m also worried about my housing insecurity and also I don’t have a car. And I would love to walk in my community, but I just don’t feel safe going outside and walking, because there’s no infrastructure for people to feel safe while walking. Those include simple things like the presence of sidewalks. In El Monte, more than 35% of the sidewalk network is missing. I quickly realized that we can’t just focus on direct services. We need to continue to address the systems that are in place. Poor urban planning has led to a number of things. Harm from freeways has been documented. They’ve displaced thousands of people and mitigated generational wealth from families. The car industry in general, is problematic. So, for example, if you’re a person that’s in El Monte and you want to get to a place within the city of El Monte, pretty much your options are limited to whether you have a car. And what does that create? Car dependency, which creates dependency on oil and gas because you need that. Poor urban planning has contributed greatly to the environmental inequities that we see today. And again, those things aren’t by accident, they’re by design.

626 Golden Streets, Courtesy of Active San Gabriel Valley
Courtesy of Active San Gabriel Valley

Boom: I think one of the things that you’re teasing out is the ways in which there are individual actions and choices that one can make. But in some ways, depending on one’s class, one’s neighborhoods, folks are limited by these larger structural factors. How does Active SGV work to address personal choice and structural conditions?

David Diaz: At Active SGV our mission is to create a more sustainable, equitable, and livable San Gabriel Valley. Active SGV started off as a Facebook page in 2010 by a group of concerned residents from the San Gabriel Valley. They were a multiracial group that lives in different parts of the San Gabriel Valley, from West SGV to East SGV, all concerned about the lack of public transit and active transportation opportunities available for folks. When I say active transportation, that’s everything that’s human powered: walking, biking, skating, scooting. The Facebook page grew into an official organization. They were a chapter of Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, the Western Gabriel Bicycle Coalition, and then they ended up being called Bike San Gabriel Valley.One of the first things that they did was identify these things called master plans, like a bicycle master plan or active transportation master plan and what the gaps were for cities. There’s 31 cities and four large unincorporated areas in SGV. About 2 million residents. They audited which of these cities have done any planning or thinking about active transportation or bicycle master plans.

Since 2012, Active SGV has worked on 12 masterplan processes for 12 individual cities and counting. What that looks like is that we’ve coordinated regional efforts so that there’s regional connectivity in the San Gabriel Valley. Because it’s not enough to just create one bike lane and then see it end at the city boundary, after which you no longer have anywhere to go. For Active SGV, it’s really been about doing the work around identifying where the gaps are and then providing some of the programming ourselves. So, our focus is really on mobility, climate, and health and wellness. Those are the kind of broad categories in which we’re trying to tackle this climate crisis because we know that you need a combination of the above strategy. We need to do the engineering. We need to have actual projects or infrastructure built in the ground.

For Active SGV our communities of concern are really the ones that are most pollution burdened, impacted by pollution, park poor, low income, so that’s what we’ve focused on. The West Puente Valley, El Monte, South El Monte, La Puente, Baldwin Park, parts of Monterey Park, parts of Alhambra. We’re working in Azusa and northwest Pasadena right now, which are really impacted. We’re trying to do this multifocal approach to address some of the region’s most pressing needs. And over the last few years that’s looked like coordinating one of the longest Open Streets programs in the United States. It was 17-plus miles long, from South Pasadena, all the way up to Azusa. Open Streets provides an opportunity to take our biggest public asset, meaning the thing we have most of—roads, which are a fully funded asset—and temporarily transforming them into parks.

We are also working with UCLA and the Energy Coalition to do an indoor air quality study. There are a lot of different appliances that people use that rely on gas. El Monte and South El Monte are in the top five worst pollution burdened sites in California. And that puts us around the top 10 in the entire United States because the county has one of the worst air quality indexes in the United States. If you look at it from that frame and then you look at peoples’ indoor air quality, it’s about five to seven times worse than their outdoor air quality.

People are literally living in toxic conditions because of some behaviors, gas, not having proper installation, or the type of dwelling they’re living in. It’s a number of variables. So, what we’re hoping to do with the outcomes of this study is to inform future building codes for the State of California. Like moving to electrification.

One of the examples that is good for our health and wellness efforts is that we’re currently funded to address food insecurity in the San Gabriel Valley. What we’re doing is coordinating a number of up to 160 – 190 nutrition education and/or physical activity classes with communities that are considered SNAP eligible.

Those are just a few examples of the work that Active SGV is doing, but our frame is always investment where it’s most needed. Doing the work alongside the communities that are most in need and then thinking about multiple benefits. We know that food insecurity doesn’t exist by itself. There’s a lot of complexity that creates food insecurity. Same with absent infrastructure for people walking and biking. It just doesn’t exist by itself.

Boom: One of the images that I got when I was listening to you talk is the El Monte airport. El Monte residents don’t own the planes and they don’t get to go on the planes. It’s almost like there’s literally another freeway. What are your thoughts about the El Monte airport?

David Diaz: The airport for me is like a visualization of the inequity that occurs. Neighboring communities used to have these airports too, that were from way back when, like WWII or something like that. I’m so puzzled as to why we still have this airport that is for leisure activities of the people who have, and it comes at the expense of people who don’t have, which is the people that live in the city El Monte, including myself. I would love for there to be some type of mixed-use development at that site that includes parks and addresses the housing need and has opportunities for economic development for small business owners, entrepreneurs and people from the community. Instead of what it is right now, which is a parking lot for rich people. If I had a wish list, I would love to get rid of that airport. I don’t see the value that it brings to the city of El Monte. It doesn’t generate revenue for them, they’re not getting significant taxes from them. We’re just getting all the pollution, and all of the carbon. So, I would love to see it become something else.

Boom: There’s this term that I read in an LA Times article recently “solastaglia.” It’s a term coined by Glenn Albrecht to describe nostalgia for a place that is no longer the same place. And it’s not that place anymore because of environmental degradation, because of climate change, because it’s been transformed. This really hit me. As you know, Greater El Monte used to be surrounded by water, now it’s surrounded by freeways. We grew up with it surrounded by freeways. I imagine, some generations miss Marrano Beach and being surrounded by water. You have a baby, I have a baby. What do you think we’re going to be nostalgic for in 20 years if we keep headed in the direction we are headed?

David Diaz: As someone who’s involved in the climate world, people are pretty much of two frames of mind. One is resilience. We need to build resilience, and another way to say resilience is that we need to create adaptive strategies. Climate adaptive strategies. What that signals to me is that we pretty much have passed the point of no return. It’s like it’s coming. It’s going to happen. Therefore, let’s just try and adapt to the best of our ability. I think that right now people take for granted being able to go outside. Something as simple as that. You and I are going to miss the days where it was just as simple as, hey let’s go outside today. Because the wildfires that are happening right now aren’t a thing of this moment. They’re going to be a thing of this moment, tomorrow, next month, next year. They’re going to continue to happen and more major human made disaster events are going to continue to happen. And so when I think about it, it really comes down to things as simple as, we’re going to miss being able to go outside. You’re going to have these clean air days and not clean air days determining when you can actually go outside if we continue on the path that we are on right now without an aggressive or bold redirection somewhere else. I think it’s as simple as that. And I know that back in the smog days, people couldn’t go outside because of smog days or limit your physical activity outside because of smog. But moving forward, UCLA scientists right now are saying that the number of days by 2050, the number of days above 95 degrees are going to climb from 32 to 74 by 2050. That’s what UCLA scientists are predicting right now. Today, you and I are having this discussion and it’s currently 101 according to my watch.

Boom: Let’s end with one last question. We’ll try to end on a positive note: how can folks get involved with Active SGV? How can folks make small and big decisions that will help us move in a better direction?

David Diaz: Good question. I think in general one of the things I would offer to folks is to engage with Active SGV at activesgv.org and find our volunteer internship opportunities. We’re trying to do a much better job of building local capacity at the local level. One of the things that you mentioned right now is, how can at the individual level, people do better? One is educating themselves and we can work with folks to help them work through that education of what’s going on. I think that for me I’ve been learning as I’ve been going. What are best practices? What do we need to do? What’s the latest research? And working alongside folks to discover best strategies.

I think that one of the things that we’ve been doing a whole lot, while we still want to do a whole lot more, is build local capacity so that it could be advocacy at the local and state level. Because ultimately, one of the things is that the climate has been politicized.  We can’t agree on whether it’s real or how progressive it is, the whole electoral process, you know, from the local level to the state and national level, special interest has a lot of grip on politicians.

One of the immediate ways to engage with us is to help do some of this advocacy around some of the legislation that’s being introduced. Particularly here at the local level, as we know that our assembly members and Senate members both take a lot of oil and gas money. They voted, and you can see it, in favor of oil. They wouldn’t even agree to vote against like a 2,500 foot setback from oil drilling sites and where homes should be located. I think that’s one way. I think in general a solution that needs to be considered at the statewide level or even at the more regional level, is how we build more regenerative economies and really focus on how we can not only create – but it’s also been this battle of jobs vs climate. Either we have climate or we have jobs, and I don’t see it as that black and white. We need to be able to find ways can do it all. It’s not just investing in climate infrastructure, but it’s also investing in people; moving them onto green jobs and divestment from fossil fuels.

Divestment strategies are very important. Sign up with a credit union or public banks because private banks fund a lot of fossil fuel interest. If you currently have a pension or 401k, 403b, look at how your profits are coming back from oil and gas. What stocks are you investing in if you have that? I think that we need to build this economy where it’s inclusive of everyone. And we talk about things like a just transition. A just transition and that really gets to having a more regenerative economy that includes building good economic opportunities for folks addressing the most climate pressing needs, focusing on base frameworks, including racial justice so that we can live in the community that we’d like to. One of the things that I love about this organization that works in the southeast LA area and also Long Beach, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, that one of their hashtags is #WeAreJustTryingtoBreathe. And while that sounds simple, it’s a reality: we are just trying to breathe. We are literally just trying to breathe. And so, I would love for us to get to a point where we talk more about regenerative strategies versus resilient or adaptive ones.

David Diaz serves as the Executive Director of Active San Gabriel Valley, a local nonprofit organization, focusing on mobility, climate, and health and wellness in underserved communities. He’s a dedicated public servant and advocate with project management, coalition building experience who has successfully worked with youth, schools, businesses, nonprofit organizations and cities to advance sustainability, equity and public health. David is also a member of the El Monte Union High School District, Investing in Place Board Member, member of the San Gabriel Valley Service Council, Chair of the Measure A Oversight Committee, and Vice Chair of the Upper San Gabriel River Watershed Area Steering Committee. He holds a Masters of Public Health degree and lives in the City of El Monte.

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

Postcards Series

Cima Dome, East Mojave National Preserve

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


Courtesy of Fernando Mendez Corona

Ruth Nolan

–After the Dome Fire, August 2020

It’s a hot, late September Day, and I’m driving alone into the East Mojave Preserve from the south, following Kelso Road off of Interstate 40.

I’m on my way to view the impacts of the recent, devastating 43,000-acre Dome Fire, which ripped through the Cima Dome area, formerly home to one of the world’s healthiest and most stunning Joshua tree woodlands.

I’m not intimidated by these vastly remote spaces of the Mojave Desert. In fact, I feel quite at home. Every mile I drive, past granite outcrops, ragged rock peaks, the massive Kelso Sand Dunes brings me closer to the heart of memory and home.

This is where I worked on many wildfires during the late 1980s, based at the Bureau of Land Management California Desert District Apple Valley Fire Station a 2-hour drive to the south. I worked one season on Engine Crew 6365, and a second season as a Helicopter 554 helitack/hotshot crew member.

As the miles melt into one another on this lonely, two-lane road, I’m embraced with memories that are both reassuring and unsettling as I remember firefighting moments and memories from time spent and shared with family and friends in the subsequent years.

“Joshua Tree woodlands at Cima Dome, 2017” by Ruth Nolan, from Fire On the Mojave: Stories from the Deserts and Mountains of Inland Southern California.

“Ruth Nolan with Flight Crew 554, Bureau of Land Management Apple Valley Fire Station, 1987” photo courtesy of Ruth Nolan.

This is where I fell in love with my daughter’s father, who I met and worked with on the engine crew, another fire crew member. This is where we battled several vehicle fires, and stopped the spread of any adjacent brush fires, using water hoses from our fire engine and the occasional shovel and chainsaw.

This is where I flew many times during the summer of 1987 on Helicopter 554, dropped off with six other crew members, high up in the Granite Mountains to control a lightning-torched blaze in a pinyon pine forest and spent a surprisingly cold night to make sure the fire was completely out.

Every desert fire, past and present, especially ones I worked on and even now, feels deeply personal to me. As I watched media coverage of the Dome Fire play out online, I reacted as I usually do during every major desert fire event over the years. I was frustrated and felt displaced to not be there in person, doing something to help with fire suppression operations – shovel work cutting fireline, perhaps, or helping with helicopter operations at the makeshift helicopter operations base.

The East Mojave Preserve – a large part of my firefighter turf for two fire seasons – in particular, feels like home to me. My memories and lingering physical presence are seared into the landscape itself. With every new fire, I have felt a familiar rush of adrenaline, a huge responsibility to be there, participating in the teamwork and makeshift firefighter community to help mitigate the damage from the burn. Many of my former desert wildland firefighter friends tell me they feel the same way.

There’s the ruts of the Old Mojave Road heading west towards a harsh area known as the Devil’s Playground, route for many 19th century pioneers heading west to the Promised Land of California citrus and sunshine, layered over a centuries old trail established and used by indigenous people traveling across the Mojave from one rare and precious water source to the next: places such as Marl and ZZYZX Springs, often up to thirty miles apart. My daughter – now a young adult raising a family of her own in Minneapolis – and I explored out here in my Jeep years ago to search for and photograph 30 different species of desert wildflowers for her high school biology class project.

“Joshua Tree woodlands at Cima Dome, 2017” by Ruth Nolan, from Fire On the Mojave: Stories from the Deserts and Mountains of Inland Southern California.

I drive past the Kelso Depot, an historic train station that’s been recently refurbished to its early 20th century glory, and head north towards Cima Road. Slowly, to the west, I begin to see the massive bulge of Cima Dome, a part of the area out here known as the Cinder Cones National Natural Landmark. The remains of eroding granite that formed under the earth’s surface millions of years ago, it rises 1,500 feet (460 m) above the volcanic plain and covers 70 square miles.

It is the color of charcoal today. The size of the Dome Fire slowly reveals itself, and the searing impacts of its black wrath are obvious. Teutonia Peak, once covered with part of one of the world’s most expansive Joshua tree forests, has taken on the tones and look of a cinder cone.

As I slow the car down and pull into the small dirt parking area at the trailhead to Teutonia Peak, I look up: a red-tail hawk circles above, riding on a fit of ash-strewn wind that is spinning into a dark dust devil.

I put the car into park, turn off the ignition. Complete silence. I’m in a desert graveyard, and the most obvious dead appear to be the ghosts of charred Joshua trees.

My mind goes into a sort of firefighter mode as I begin to walk through the ashy remains, grateful I wore my oldest hiking boots, which area already getting charred. I imagine how this fire played out, what it would have been like to have worked on the Dome Fire.

I was, and still am, often asked why I, as a woman, would “do that kind of work.” And to me, it’s always been simple: it is work that I felt incredibly at home with, at one with a working family, and a job that allowed me to express my love and need to nurture and care for the land that I deeply loved. By tending to wildfire, and its immediate and enduring impacts on the land.

First and foremost is a feeling of performing a job that is layered in domestic terminology and structure. The firefighting community is as tightly knit and mutually interdependent as a family unit. Crew members, whose lives depended on the vigilance and support of one another, and who typically

Even many of the terms in the firefighter’s lexicon are domestic: there’s the endless chore known as “mopping up,” which involves spending many slow and tedious hours walking through areas that have burned and stirring and cooling layers of hot ash. There are the times we’d spend “babysitting a fire,” usually at night, when many fires tended to slow down, or “laid itself down,” where fire crews would spread themselves 10 or 20 feet apart along a fireline at the edge of the burn to prevent spot fires from starting up in the green vegetation. And, the activities that include “putting a fire to bed:” wrapping up a wildfire event with a fire under control and operations winding down. There are also the “widow makers,” trees that have partially burned or whose roots are smoldering that occasionally fall down without warning as crews work below, sometimes lethally.

“15 years after the 2005 Hackberry Complex Fire, just south of Cima Dome” by Ruth Nolan, from The Deserts and Mountains of Inland Southern California.

Even though I wasn’t a mother yet then, I operated in a mama bear mode, ready to protect life and limb of my beloved desert and western wildlands, as well as human lives and homes, without hesitation.

We were firmly guided by critical principles, such as the 10 Basic Firefighter Rules, that are imprinted into my brain to this day and often serve as a guiding survival template in day to day living and have informed my work as a parent and educator in many ways.

For example: Be alert, keep calm, think clearly, act decisively. Know your escape route at all times. Give clear instructions and ensure they are understood. Fight fire aggressively, having provided for safety first.

I’ll never forget the scorching summer day working on a desert fire when a crew member, a friend to this day, turned and yelled, “Rattlesnake!” just as I was about to step on a huge Mojave Green.

I learned, through vivid and immediate experience, that sometimes, fires are mostly out of firefighters’ control. That things don’t always turn out the way we would have expected them to. And that we have to learn to live with that. We can’t save everything. And firefighters sometimes get injured. Some even die.

As I and walk along the edge of the ragged, hastily-cut fireline at the edge of the burn zone, I search for what firefighters may have left behind: boot prints in the ashes, not erased by away by rain; fragments of charred fire hose; perhaps a broken boot lace or someone’s crumpled bandana. I can almost hear the whine of Helicopter 554’s rotors and feel the wash of wind and sting of dirt kicking up in my face as I guide it to land for another water bucket refill, a gritty taste in my mouth.

The jagged caw-caw of a raven perched atop a black bristle of burnt Joshua tree pulls me out of my reverie. I look to the sky, which is slowly turning into a hazy brown as smoke from multiple other wildfire events across California and the Western U.S. works its way across the Mojave Desert.

As I survey the hulking charred ruins of the Joshua tree forests stretching beyond me farther than I can see, I can’t help but wonder, like a fretful parent soothing their little one’s feverish brow while trying to work out how their child has gotten seriously ill, what happened out here? Why and how did this desert fire get so big? Why was did it take four days for helicopter support?

“Joshua Tree woodlands after the Dome Fire, 2020” by Laura Cunningham

It’s a tragedy that the Dome Fire grew to the size that it did. It’s inexplicable to me that H554 didn’t get out here as an initial attack crew and get this fire under control immediately. I know it was possible, had resources been available on August 12 when a lightning strike started this blaze. Then again, there were so many things out of anyone’s control that day. Fire resources were already stretched thin as multiple major fires played out across California, an unfortunate situation worsened by the sharp reduction of available inmate firefighter crews due to the coronavirus pandemic.

I’m reminded, as I look for signs of life, and recovery, and don’t see any yet, that many expectations in my personal life haven’t turned out the way I thought they would.

It wasn’t long after my time working on fires out here that my daughter’s father began his lifelong stints in prison – first working for Susanville fire camp, and later, as his crimes became more serious, time in maximum prison. I haven’t communicated with him in years.

My boyfriend, ten years ago, dying by suicide not long after we took our beauty-love drive through here and added to the stories. My friend I collected soil samples with and bonded over our appreciation for the nuances of how to get unstuck from deep sand, died several years ago in a terrible highway accident.

And so it is that I stand alone out here, embraced in a collective grief that is not mine alone. I also share it with many friends and desert lovers who also express their dismay at the Joshua tree loss on social media.

It’s awkward that the trees are still here, they still stand, and many will soon tumble to the ground, their limbs strewn across a suddenly emptied land space like human bones, and the recovery in this arid land will evolve slowly, as slow as the movements of a desert tortoise, as all ecologies in the desert do. And fire regimes – long-term burn and recovery impacts and adaptations/regrowth in Mojave Desert ecologies are still not entirely known.

But standing in loss is not enough. What will I tell my grandchildren when I bring them here?

Wildfire, one of the four basic elements, even at its most terrible, works its magic in the desert in ways we do not understand. I have enough knowledge from experience to know that fire on the land is both a blessing and a bane, and I’m nourished by my growing understanding, layered atop my firefighting work and my ongoing research for my humanities project, Fire on the Mojave: Stories from the Deserts and Mountains of Inland Southern California, that beauty and restoration will come.

So many desert stories, mine, and those who passed through here before me, those I worked alongside on fire crews. Today, I’m bound to honor these stories, and keep their visages alive, just as the Joshua trees have not simply disappeared – they have been transformed, even if it’s not what I want to see.

I refuse to resign myself to the circulating, apocalyptic idea that climate change has destroyed this place forever. That at the whim of a lightning strike and a resulting massive fire fueled by climate change alone, this cherished and well-tended place, turned into an eternal place of death.

I’ll bring my little grandchildren here next spring, and as with other Mojave Desert wildfire remains, we’ll look for places on this altered landscape that may have been obscured before the fire. Perhaps we’ll find sleeping circles, or petroglyphs on the rocks at one of the area’s springs, now revealed after the underbrush around them has been burned away. We may even discern, and follow, the faint traces of forgotten trails, where so many of our ancestors have walked before us.  

And if we come at the right time, we’ll surely see wildflowers carpeting the burn zone, with or without adequate winter rain, purple, yellow, white and orange, as a direct result of the fire – as occurred in the site of the nearby 2005 Hackberry Fire – as well as the resprouting of other native shrubs. We may even see the tiniest of resprouts of some of the Joshua trees, needling their way towards the sun, one slow and sure inch at a time.

And I’ll bring a stack of makeshift fire tools – small, foldable shovels – and teach the kids how to cut a small fireline, how to stir the ashes and make sure the hot coals are completely out, and how to work as a team. We will learn how to tend the land by fighting fire, even it’s a make believe one for them, and how to care for our desert land, together, as a family. Together, we will build relationships with wildfire and the long-established fire ecologies here in the Mojave Desert, where fires will always, inevitably burn, as part of the natural processes of lightning and flame and transformation spelled out upon the land.

Ruth Nolan grew up in California’s Mojave Desert and worked as a wildland firefighter for the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service during the 1980s. Her California-desert based writing has been published in LA Fiction: Southland Writing by Southland Writers (Red Hen Press;) Women Studies Quarterly; Rattling Wall; Desert Oracle; Sierra Club Desert Report; the Desert Sun/USA Today; News from Native California; New California Writing/Heyday; KCET Artbound L.A. and KCET Tending Nature. Her fiction has been nominated for a PEN Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers and received an honorable mention award in Sequestrum’s editor reprint contest. She is curator of the ongoing humanities project Fire on the Mojave: Stories from the Deserts and Mountains of Inland Southern California. Ruth is coeditor of Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California (Scarlet Tanager), which placed as a finalist in the 2018 Eric Hoffer Independent Book Awards, and editor of the critically-acclaimed No Place for a Puritan:  the Literature of California’s Deserts (Heyday.)She is also the author of the poetry book Ruby Mountain (Finishing Line.) She is the recipient of grants from the California Arts Council; Bread Loaf Writers Conference; Phi Kappa Phi and the California Writers Residency/1888 Center program. Ruth isProfessor of English and creative writing at College of the Desert.

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

Postcard Series:

  1. Jenise Miller, “We are our own Multitude: Los Angeles’ Black Panamanian Community”
  2. Toni Mirosevich, “Who I Used To Be”
  3. Myriam Gurba, “El Corrido del Copete”
  4. Jennifer Carr, “The Tides that Erase: Automation and the Los Angeles Waterfront”
  5. Melissa Hidalgo, “A Chumash Line: How an old email and five PDFs revealed my Native Californian Roots” 
  6. Brynn Saito with Photographs by Dave Lehl, “Acts of Grace: Memory Journeys Through the San Joaquin Valley”
  7. Nicolas Belardes, “South Bakersfield’s Confederate Remains”
Articles

Power Lines Around Los Angeles: Isolation, Interconnection, and Aesthetics

Daniel Wuebben

Historically, California’s overhead electric lines have been pushed to the margins of the built environment and, when possible, physically buried out of sight; now, the webs over our heads are central artifacts in the broader struggle to avoid climate catastrophe and enact climate justice.

Power lines are sites of tension. They have simultaneously proliferated electric currents across California and faded in popularity for over a century. In 1913, when Southern California Edison opened the Big Creek Power House No. 1 and sent hydroelectric power at an unprecedented potential of 150,000 volts across 241-miles to the Eagle Rock substation, the Los Angeles Times envisioned “a hand robed with lightning” stretched “across the gulf of valleys and mountains to the doors of this city.” Contemporaries may have viewed the new, soaring steel transmission towers that began in the Sierras, crossed the Tejon Pass, the Newhall Pass, and then descended into the valley as hands, “robed with lightning,” but by the second half of the twentieth century, most Angelinos associated overhead power lines with industrial blight. Wires, poles, and lattice steel towers made aesthetic intrusions on otherwise beautiful California landscapes. In recent years, another negative inflection has been laced onto the lines. Long, energized wires are potential tinder boxes. Instead of hands robed with lighting, the unpredictable arcing of energized lines swaying in the wind and warmed by climate change has unwittingly ignited dry vegetation and sent waves of fire across mountains and valleys to the doors of Los Angeles.

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Big Creek, 1913. The first power lines in the United States to use all lattice steel towers. “Stringing wires on the 243-mile long Big Creek to Los Angeles 150,00-volt transmission line,” 1913, Bishop G. Haven, Southern California Edison Archive, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California

However, California’s electric infrastructure will, for the foreseeable future, remain fire hazards and lynchpins of climate justice. Efforts to decarbonize and bring more renewable energy sources online requires wires. Indeed, along with wind turbines and solar fields, long-distance, high voltage transmission lines must be built to “”unlock a renewable energy bounty.”[1] The clean energy transition demands transmission. However, gaining public approval for new transmission projects is difficult, especially as the tightrope of electric transmission spans a physical and political landscape charred by wildfires and threatened by blackouts. What can the history of California’s transmission lines offer during this pivotal moment of energy transitions and climate activism?

One can hope that policy makers and affluent communities fighting for clean energy will not shift the burdens of transmission infrastructure into sensitive ecosystems or onto communities already poised to bear the brunt of climate change. The history of infrastructure in California dampens such hopes, but overhead lines have long evoked ambiguous responses. Select lines have been viewed as safe, controlled “lightning”; however, the majority are unruly and sprawling. Some lines have been framed as beacons of progress, others as icons of blight. The lines in our landscape may be viewed as revolutionary links of a technological wonderland or banal webs choking life from the environment.

The following considers some of the historical forces and visual associations of electric lines around Los Angeles. I am not a power lines apologist and am not certain what might incite utilities to repair the thousands of miles of existing lines or the public to accept the new transmission that might be built. Here, I frame specific lines as emblematic of the isolation, interconnection, and aesthetic conflicts in the broader power network. These lines also happen to be on the route between Santa Barbara, where I lived from 2011 to 2015, and the Huntington Library in San Marino, where I completed research for Power-lined: Electricity, Landscape, and the American Mind.

I recently returned to the area and retraced my regular route. It begins and ends with the 101 and a series of smooth, seaside curves that mirror the silky bottom turns surfers make on breaking waves beyond the rumble strips at Rincon Point. After Ventura, one may continue southeast on the 101, over the Conejo Pass and through Thousand Oaks; or, take the longer route east from Ventura and through the Santa Clara River Valley, the self-claimed “Citrus Capital of the World.” Here, I turn east, make a detour towards Ojai, and then continue towards Pasadena and San Marino. I head back on the 101 through Hollywood and then north to Santa Barbara to complete the circuit.

Isolation: Telegraph Road and the Thomas Fire

In 1853, the first telegraph line on the Pacific Coast was strung across the branches of living pine trees. The single wire spanned 23 miles between the northern mining towns of Nevada, Grass Valley, and Auburn.[2]  San Francisco was connected to Los Angeles in 1860, less than a year before the transcontinental telegraph line linked California with the East.[3] The line strengthened coast-to-coast correspondence, but, for most of the nineteenth century, California’s geographically isolated mining outfits, ranch towns, and agricultural settlements sometimes hung together by a mere telegraph thread. Despite growing inter-state communication between San Francisco and other Western cities in the 1850s, the intra-state network remained sparse. In the 1860s that telegraph finally began to spread south in California, reaching Los Angeles in 1860 and San Diego in 1870. James Schwoch’s excellent history, Wired into Nature (2018), considers these environmental pressures. He explains how gold mining and the Civil War spurred the need for telegraph lines in California while difficult terrain and snowstorms in the Sierras hindered this spread.[4] Another challenge was the fact that, even for a state teeming with timber, it was difficult to obtain relatively cheap and easy to move telegraph poles. In the 1860s, groves of Blue Gum Eucalyptus, a species imported from Australia, provided poles for telegraph lines.[5]

California’s relative lack of telegraph lines during the period of late-nineteenth-century occupation and development may be why, in 2020, it appears to have more streets, avenues, and roads with the name “telegraph” than any other state.[6] Over a century ago, a single telegraph line was a noteworthy feature in the middle landscape between wilderness and civilization. Compared to the glut of wires on the Eastern seaboard, a telegraph line in California seemed significant. The lines did not intersect multiple streets of neighboring towns or even connect every district in the cities; rather, the telegraph line was often erected alongside an existing thoroughfare, such as “Telegraph Road” in Los Angeles, which runs diagonally from Beth Israel Cemetery at Olympic Boulevard to Imperial Highway in La Mirada. Collectively, “telegraph” street names may be considered holdovers from an age when new (or at least newly named) dirt roads, stagecoach trails, train tracks, and telegraph wires made collective imprints on the California landscape.

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Telegraph Road in Fillmore, CA. Various sections of Telegraph Road connect Castaic Junction to Ventura.  Photograph by author.

Twenty minutes after I veer off the 101 and onto Route 126, I reach Santa Paula where West Telegraph Road, turns into East Telegraph Road and then continues as Old Telegraph Road. As it appears and disappears, Telegraph Road splits through orchards and nurseries, sometimes overlapping with 126 to arrive in downtown Fillmore. Here, the Fillmore and Western Railway declares itself “Home of Movie Trains” for film and television productions.[7] The telegraph and railroad arrived here in tandem in the late nineteenth century. Film and television crews from Los Angeles still use the railway’s collection of historic train cars and depot scenes to create the illusion of the past. Of course, real telegraph lines and poles are nowhere to be found, but telegraph poles and wires have been a crucial backdrop and narrative device for the Western genre.

In the first decades of the twentieth century, as Los Angeles was wired for power and the lights of the American movie industry flickered to life, director D.W. Griffith used telegraph lines—and telegraph cutting—to signal a sudden isolation of protagonists in two of his more famous short films, The Lonedale Operator (1911) and The Girl and Her Trust (1912). Wire cutting heightens the tension of a pending attack as the characters can no longer send for help. The trope was repeated in the opening scenes of Stagecoach (1939) as well as Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). In the Western, focusing on the single telegraph pole or wire, which the viewer knows can and probably will be broken, evokes the terror of isolation. Wire cutting, loss of telegraphic communication, and the fear felt by the fictional Western characters seems quaint in comparison to the sudden, widespread, and sometimes deadly loss of electric power that has accompanied some of the state’s recent wildfires.

Instead of continuing on Telegraph, I turn up 150, or North Ojai Road. This two-lane road is flanked by wooden utility poles, ranch style homes, and a blend of fan palms and eucalyptus. The valley widens. Goldenrod and chaparral pour down the hills. Soon, I arrive at my destination—Anlauf Canyon Road. On Monday, December 4, 2017, at approximately 6:14pm, the cables which stretch from the poles lining 150 towards a family ranch in Anlauf Canyon swayed and then struck one another resulting in “line slapping.” According to the Ventura Fire Department Report, “phase to phase contact on several spans of [these] power lines” caused “molten aluminum particles to fall to the ground,” which then ignited sagebrush in the dry streambed.[8]

California is crisscrossed by thousands of miles of power lines. Many intersect difficult terrain, pushed away from parks, schools, family homes and sensitive habitats.  For various reasons, electrified lines start thousands of small fires each year. Some rural lines are poorly maintained, some crowded by overgrowth, and some susceptible to being jostled out of position by the warmer, faster winds incited by climate change.[9] In recent years, vulnerable or faulty equipment have ignited California’s most catastrophic blazes.

When an iron hook holding up a 115,000-volt line owned by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) snapped on the morning of November 8, 2018, it ignited what was later named the Camp Fire, the deadliest fire in California’s history. An investigation revealed that PG&E “knew for years that hundreds of miles of high-voltage power lines could fail and spark fires, yet it repeatedly failed to perform the necessary upgrades.”[10] In October of 2019, after PG&E preemptively shut off power across the northern part of the state, a broken jumper wire started the Kincade Fire. These utility’s culpability for these faulty and exposed lines is part of ongoing lawsuits. To insulate itself, PG&E has filed for bankruptcy. Meanwhile, Southern California Edison—who owns and controls the lines running through this bucolic canyon near Ojai—is fighting its own legal battles regarding the Thomas Fire and the Montecito Mudslides.

What started with this seemingly simple line spread, scorched 282,000 acres over forty days. The fires directly caused two deaths and destroyed hundreds of structures. The tragic catastrophe and heroic effort to fight the fire has been explored, both in gripping journalism and stunning multimodal photoblogs.[11] Meanwhile, locals on the outer edges of the fire footprint are planning a memorial to the many victims and heroic first responders to the mudslides that ripped through Montecito on January 9, 2018.

Two years after the fire and mudslides, I stand on edge of 150 and look East over Steckel Park towards Anlauf Canyon. No sign or memorial will be placed here. I hear the creek gurgling below, see rich and verdant shrubs, and watch the waxy leaves of the Cottonwoods flickering like an organic strobe. This quiet canyon seems like the scene for a Western, a garden seemingly detached from the sprawling metropolis to the south or the devastation wrought in the rich hamlet to the northeast. I know the isolation is illusory. The sensation of being “cut off” from the beautiful vistas of the 101 and the bustle of Los Angeles can be almost instantly collapsed by a loose cable, especially in this age of dryer winters and warmer winds. Decades of damage has exposed our networks to nature’s wrath.

AnlaufCanyon1

Charred tree on Highway 150, or North Ojai road.  Photograph by author.

From the shoulder, I photograph some of the visible remnants of the fire, including charred poles, some of which are spray painted with an X. It’s unclear if they have simply not yet been replaced or will continue to be ignored. A series of scorched tree stumps line the opposite side of the road and above, I can see the cables with a hint of green, clearly shiny and new. I imagine most of the drivers that zip past me on 150 do not differentiate between the replacement poles and wires and the original, broken infrastructure. When the fires are controlled and the power returns, how do we notice the lines that ignited it? Why should the technological source of our tragedy be replaced? Why not let them hang there like obsolete telegraph poles alongside train tracks? For me, the electric lines, visible and disappeared, are salient. Maybe the locals see them too. Maybe the experience of the Thomas Fire has led them to see overhead wires as threats, as reminders of how easily the landscape around them could ignite and leave each tiny ranch or small town an island isolated by a sea of flames.

AnlaufCanyon2

These wooden poles, insulators, and cables that run towards the Anlauf Canyon site where, December 4, 2017, power lines swaying in high winds cause sparks to fly and ignited the Thomas Fires. Photograph by author.

Intensification at Newhall Pass

Twenty-five miles east of the Fillmore, California Highway 126 reaches Castaic Junction and U.S. Interstate 5. This north-south interstate parallels the Pacific coast from the Mexico-U.S. border at San Diego to the Canadian border in Washington State. In the rocky landscape around Castaic, the 8-lane artery of I-5 is crossed by distinct packs of overhead cables and flanked by soaring transmission towers. To the north, I-5 rises through the Tejon Pass and continues into the Central Valley. In the span of sixty miles, the interstate is crossed by six major sets of 345 kv lines and three sets of 500 kv lines. The 500 kv lines are part of the Path 26 electric power transmission corridor, which runs from the Vincent Substation in Palmdale towards Midway station near Bakersfield. Midway, an industrial plot surrounded by vineyards and almond orchards, connects Path 26 to Path 15. Midway station is a node in the Pacific Intertie, a gigantic infrastructure that, like Interstate 5, stretches thousands of miles across the entire backbone of the continent. Few Californians likely know anything about the Pacific Intertie, but everyone, it seems, has had an experience with the I-5. One can physically engage the I-5, drive from Mexico to Canada on a border-to-border cannonball run in just about 21 hours or, be stuck in rush hour traffic for what feels like days. Meanwhile, no person travels the Pacific Intertie; instead, electrons move border to border in a matter of seconds.

KernRiver_Towers

“Men changing insulators on tower in Kern River Canyon,” 1916, Photographed by Haven G. Bishop, Southern California Edison Photographs and Negatives, Huntington Digital Library, San Marino California

I turn on I-5 south towards Los Angeles. Transmission towers dissect the hills dotted with oak and chaparral. Near the exit for Magic Mountain Parkway, three side-by-side sets of lattice steel towers and two of the “portal” designs carry a cluster of twenty-seven dense cables overhead. Lines and poles repeatedly flicker into view between the palm trees and strip malls that flank the interstate. Two miles behind the Wal-Mart at exit 168 are the remains of the Pico Canyon Oil Field, site of the first commercially drilled oil wells in California and longest operating well in the world, having been tapped in 1876 and capped 114 years later, in 1990. Nearby marks one of California’s first oil refineries and pipelines.[12]

To appreciate the approach to my final destination, I turn east, cut through Santa Clarita, and park at the end of Newhall Avenue near Whitney Canyon Park. The pamphlet for this 442-acre open space boasts “outstanding examples of coastal sage scrub, oak woodland, chaparral and riparian corridor vegetation, with year-round springs and at least ten sensitive species.”[13] While the ecosystem deserves praise, the parks’ hills are visually dominated by lattice steel towers and swooping cables. I ascend the path and stand next to one of these massive specimens. A hawk circles, too close to the lines, I think, and then glides towards the summit.

In fact, wildlife—not wildfires—used to be the cause of California’s power outages. In a fascinating article on the confluence of electrical engineering and ornithology, Etienne Benson tells the story of how, in the 1920s, Southern California Edison employees traced the sudden short circuiting of certain power lines in this area to the streams of feces that hawks released as they launched from their perch on lattice steel towers. The engineers used pans, poles, and shields to break the conductive “streamers” of bird excrement before they draped across the energized lines and caused a flashover.[14]

NewHall-Pass_Line_Arc_Farmer_Comments

Note on the negative reads: “There is no evidence of any burning. Farmer has never seen or heard of any arc.” This may have been part of an investigation regarding an outage. In the 1920s, when the line was upgraded to 220kv, a series of unexplained flashovers were eventually linked to bird feces which splayed across lines, causing them to arc and often incinerating any evidence of the effluent. February 23, 1915. Southern California Edison Archive, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

The hawk above me does not release—or at least onto me. It continues in an ungeometric gyre. I listen to corona discharge dissipate in the breeze. I remember that the electrons charging these lines were likely generated by falling water in the Sierras and arrived only to dissipate here, in this lush corridor between the Santa Susana and San Gabriel ranges.

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Whitney Canyon Variety, Photograph by author

If there were such a thing as a park dedicated to the viewing of power lines around Los Angeles, this could be it. The dirt trails curve up and around small canyons and copses to different perspectives on unique tower designs, some L-5s 500 kv, others with more slender frames, fewer arms, lower voltages. The few mountain bikers, hikers, and families I pass do not seem to mind the towers, but I wonder what other purposes, beyond their function, these forms might serve? I am reminded of Leah Glaser’s claim:  transmission towers can be “valuable cultural resources with a crucial story about the impact of long-distance power.”[15] Unsurprisingly, the pamphlet does not tell that story.

The story of these towers would, in my mind, be the story of the “white coal” captured in the Sierras and extended to Los Angeles. Here, in 1906, the world’s first lattice steel transmission towers were used to transmit high voltage power. 1,140 lattice steel towers ranging from 30 to 60 feet tall carried what was at that time a record line with 75,000-volt potential from Kern River No. 1 across 118 miles to Los Angeles. As transmission voltages increased, taller and wider steel structures would replace wooden poles and H-frame structures across the United States and the rest of the world. In fact, California engineers initiated many global advances in power technology during the first decades of the twentieth century. As James C. Williams explains in Energy and the Making of Modern California: “By 1914, their success resulted in California having more long-distance, high tension transmission system that any other region in the world.”[16] Of course, the power systems stretched across the great expanse of the Sierra range, but the bulk of them funneled into San Francisco and Los Angeles. With its natural barriers to the north, lines coming into Los Angeles narrowed into bottlenecks. Nowhere is this more evident than at Newhall Pass.

Newhall Pass was the final gateway on the long journey from the eastern United States to Los Angeles. In 1854, Phineas Banning cut down an existing trail through these mountains by 30 feet to allow wagons the ability to more safely descend. In 1862, Edward Beale acquired a toll road franchise and made another 60-feet gash that was known as “Beale’s Cut.” The Newhall railroad tunnel went beneath the pass in 1876. The new tunnel provided Southern Pacific a direct line to Los Angeles and, with the ensuing and nearby oil boom, Newhall Pass became an inflection point for Los Angeles’s movements of oil, freight, water, and power.


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Los Angeles Aqueduct Cascades, 1913, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

I return to my car, drive through the corridor, and in seconds I am on the other side of the ridge. The geography is similar, but it feels like a different world. Here, packed into just over one square mile on the northern edge of Los Angeles county are the remnants or active features of the Ridge Route, the Sierra Highway, Interstate 5, the Antelope Valley Freeway and dozens of off ramps, flyovers, and interchanges. These concrete bands overlay two railroad tunnels and pass beside the first and second iteration of the Los Angeles Aqueduct Cascades. When this notable conduit first opened in 1913, 40,000 people gathered to hear William Mulholland dedicate the engineering feat and to release the flow of water with the famous words, “There it is. Take it!”

Flanking these overlapping tunnels, roads, pipes and chutes are sweeping packs of power lines. I follow the lines as they sweep over a hundred or so brand-new condos which have cardboard and plastic packaging hanging from their flawless garages. Besides one of these sparkling new homes, I notice a half acre burnt patch of recently planted sod grass. Here too, nature has reclaimed parts of the plastic buffer. I exit my rental car, climb up beneath a lattice steel transmission tower, and watch the hypnotic gush of the cascade.

From this vantage point near Newhall Pass, one might behold the latest iteration of what Christopher F. Jones calls “landscapes of intensification” which he defines as “material transformations of the natural environment that unlocked a world of ever-increasing energy flows delivered at ever-decreasing prices.”[17] The transport of energy across this intensified landscape includes transmission lines, which transport electrons. A further level of intensification occurs where these lines intersect other infrastructures.

If Whitney Park is a place from which to view power lines that rise and reach across mountains, Newhall Pass and Sylmar—with its substations, pipelines, aqueducts, warehouses, trucking yards, new homes, and array of industrial glut—may be the site to view the consolidation of material and financial power as its siphoned to and from Los Angeles.

The Portals

After revisiting materials in the Huntington Library stacks, I race through Pasadena towards Hollywood hoping to get beyond the 405-101 interchange before the yellow lines on my map app turn to the thick red of traffic. Like the crowds of isolated drivers around me, I pass countless lines, insulators, poles, and towers. Most are easily ignored and difficult to remember. In fact, in the 1970s, artist R. Crumb created a photo album filled with pictures of California’s street lights, poles, and other overhead infrastructure because, as he explained, “People don’t draw it, all this crap, people don’t focus attention on it because it’s ugly, it’s bleak, it’s depressing…The stuff is not created to be visually pleasing and you can’t remember exactly what it looks like. But, this is the world we live in; I wanted my work to reflect that, the background reality of urban life.”[18]

Amidst the “background reality” of Los Angeles, one series of transmission lines and distribution poles are not as bleak and they do stand out—the Dreyfuss designs.[19] In the late 1960s, in response to consumer outcries against the negative visual impact of power lines, Edison Electric Institute and Southern California Edison pioneered an industry-wide effort to improve the aesthetics of tower designs, to sway public opinions, and to avoid the astronomical costs of undergrounding. They commissioned Henry Dreyfuss, the “father of industrial design” to create a series of aesthetic models to merge the function of high voltage transmission with sleek, modernistic forms. The results initially took the form of a book, Electric Transmission Structures and a short film, Towers of Tomorrow. Both book and film showcase Dreyfuss’s 26 designs for poles and towers. In his introduction, Dreyfuss dreams: “When transmission towers are given the same purity of expression given great bridges, they, too, may be acclaimed as a Twentieth Century art form.” Dreyfuss also narrates Towers of Tomorrow, which features photographs of models against the backdrop of various projected landscapes. Dreyfuss guides viewers with comments related to the innovative features of the new towers such as, “The curve elements are important as they contribute strength as well as well as visual grace.”[20] Overall, the models show Dreyfuss’s preference for “robustness and seamlessness” and structures which would be “sturdy and unified-looking in contrast to their spindly predecessors.”[21]

Dreyfuss and Southern California Edison tried to convince the public that these “esthetic” towers made positive impacts on the visual landscape, but the campaign was not entirely successful.  One recent review notes, “[Dreyfuss’s] work was to be the first and the last cooperative attempt by industry to create new aesthetic structure designs.”[22]

While not exactly new, three distinct types of Dreyfuss power lines remain visible in Los Angeles. The “Starburst” for 69 kv poles features six cantilevered insulators spread out like a starfish. Their most famous placement is along Hollywood Boulevard. The “Sunburst” is a more remarkable design and is used for higher-voltage transmission. The “Sunburst” is a sleeker, more streamlined version of the typical lattice steel transmission tower. Two prototypes were erected near El Segundo in 1967 and thirteen more were put into place the following year. These remain the most exemplary of all Dreyfuss’s transmission line designs, although the dull brown variation is more common.

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“Sunburst” 66kV double-circuit pole design, Photographed by Art Adams, Southern California Edison Photographs and Negatives, Huntington Digital Library

Today, I visit the third of the Dreyfuss designs that remain in the area; the “portal.” In 1972, Southern California Edison described the portals as having “bold, simple silhouette” which is “very impressive at close-up viewing as well as at a distance. Its vee-string insulators are always orderly, even under minor side loads.”[23] One such example is visible above the Conejo Pass.

The Conejo Pass provides a fitting exit for my discussion of Los Angeles’s wired landscapes. Southbound on the iconic Highway 101 from Ventura, trucks lug up the right lanes of the 7% grade while more nimble vehicles whip by on the left. Older cars, I know from experience, are prone to overheat during this steady, 3-mile ascent. Northbound from Los Angeles, semi-truck drivers must have their brakes inspected before descending. Next to the brake checkpoint, just beyond the peak of this steep pass, two formidable pairs of brown concrete pylons are stamped into a rock outcropping like indestructible carpet staples. Twelve cables span the 1400-foot gap carrying 220 kV over the banking traffic. To the east, the lines extend towards to the Los Angeles suburb of Moorpark. To the southwest, they are crossed under by Edison Road, a dirt path that snakes beneath the lines and allows crews to access these pylons and the subsequent lattice steel towers. The portals help to transmit electricity through the mountains and then slope towards the Ormond Beach natural gas power plant on the edge of the Pacific. With its 1,516 megawatt capacity, Ormond Beach is the third largest power plant in California. Due to its age, and newer energy regulations regarding the use of ocean water, Ormand Beach was supposed to shut down in 2020. However, because of concerns about grid reliability, it may remain open for one to three more years.

I leave the car at a dead end in Newbury Park and take the trail I found online and which was posted by rock climbers who come here to scale the Conejo boulders.[24] After a short hike, I’m standing next to the portals, looking down at the 101.

These structures do more than provide physical support for invisible currents. In addition to their aesthetic posture, the specific context for these portals is also fitting, as they strike at the etymological roots of “pylon.” The word “pylon” comes from the Greek word for “gate,” and French archeologists originally used pylon to describe the monumental, side-by-side gateways placed near Egyptian pyramids and temples. For millennia, massive pylons have flanked and decorated prominent entrances, pathways, bridges, and ports. Presently, “pylon” also connotes smaller markers (e.g. “traffic pylon” and “end zone pylon”), tall poles used by airplanes or ships for navigational guidance, and, especially in the United Kingdom, electric transmission towers.

The pylons above Conejo Pass transmit electricity and mediate a visible exchange with landscape. They are portals. They are thresholds. They are visible tokens of the millions of miles of electric lines that, over the course of a century, helped transform this relatively rustic, arid, inhospitable area into one of the most powerful, diverse, and iconic regions on the planet.

Power lines are sites of tension, physically and culturally. While my interest in the history of technology attracts me to different lines like these, these portals have also come to signal my own entrances and exits, flights and perchings in the state of California. I wonder if others might feel the same. Just before I returned to make this tour, the LA Times published an opinion piece urging the California Public Utilities commission, PG&E, and SCE to come up with a plan for the “immediate inspection of all the power lines in the state, starting with those in the high-fire risk areas.”[25]

This has been more like a strange tour compared to the inspections required to keep residents safe during the next fire season. In addition, convincing the public to accept the transmission lines (and corresponding costs) or new transmission will be difficult. For now, viewing unique single slivers in the vast and complex power systems reminds me of the interplays between California’s history and future of electric power, engineering and environmentalism.

Notes

[1] Jeff St. John, “7 Transmission Projects That Could Unlock A Renewable Energy Bounty,” GreenTechMedia, 9 April 2020, https://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/9-transmission-projects-laying-the-paths-for-cross-country-clean-energy

[2] James D. Reid, The Telegraph in America:Its Founders, Promoters, and Noted Men (New York: Derby Brothers, 1879), 498.

[3] Alice Bates, “History of the Telegraph in California,” The Historical Society of Southern California Vol. 9.3 (1914), 181-187.

[4] James Schwoch, Wired Into Nature: The Telegraph and the North American Frontier (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2018).

[5] James C. Williams, Energy and the Making of Modern California (Akron, University of Akron Press, 1997), 42.

[6] Some of the most well-known “Telegraph” streets in California are “Telegraph Road” which crosses greater Los Angeles from La Mirada to East Los Angeles and “Telegraph Avenue” which passes from downtown Oakland to the campus of University of California Berkeley. Lesser-frequented telegraph paths are the “Telegraph Road” in a remote stretch of mountains in Midpines, “Telegraph Hill” in El Dorado Hill, “Telegraph Blvd” in Marina, “Telegraph Ave” in Folsom, “Telegraph Place” in San Francisco, and “Telegraph Drive” in San Jose. There are also Telegraph Canyon, Telegraph Peak, Telegraph Hill, Telegraph Ridge, and Telegraph City, named for its location on the line 33 miles east of Stockton and 30 miles west of Sonora.

[7] Richard Verrier, “In Hollywood, All Trains Lead to Fillmore,” LA Times, 20 July 2010 http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/entertainmentnewsbuzz/2010/07/in-hollywood-all-trains-lead-to-fillmore.html

[8] Joseph Serna, “Southern California Edison Power Lines Sparked Deadly Thomas Fire, Investigators Find,” LA Times, 13 March 2019. Ventura County Fire Department Report,  https://vcfd.org/images/news/Thomas-Fire-Investigation-Report_Redacted_3-14-19.pdf

[9] Alejandro Borunda, “Climate Change is Contributing to California’s WildFires” 25 Oct 2019, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2019/10/climate-change-california-power-outage/

[10] Katherine Blunt and Russell Gold, “PG&E Knew for Years Its Lines Could Spark Wildfires, and Didn’t Fix Them” Wall Street Journal 10 July 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/pg-e-knew-for-years-its-lines-could-spark-wildfires-and-didnt-fix-them-11562768885

[11] American Wildfire Experience, “Thomas Fire,” Accessed at https://www.mysteryranch.com/thomas-fire

[12] Stan Walker, “Brief History of Oil Development in Pico Canyon,” http://www.elsmerecanyon.com/picocanyon/history/history.htm

[13] Mountain Recreation and Conservation Authority. “Whitney Canyon Park.” CA.gov, https://mrca.ca.gov/parks/park-listing/whitney-canyon/

[14] Etienne Benson. “Generating Infrastructural Invisibility: Insulation, Interconnection, and Avian Excrement in the Southern California Power Grid.” Environmental Humanities Vol. 6.1 (2015), 103-130.

[15] Leah Glaser, “Nice Towers, eh? Evaluation a Transmission Line in Arizona,” Cultural Resource Management, U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Vol. 20.14 (1997), 23-24.

[16] James C. Williams, Energy and the Making of Modern California, 187.

[17] Christopher F. Jones, “Landscapes of Intensification: Transport and Energy in the U.S. Mid-Atlantic, 1820–1930” The Journal of Transport History, Vol. 35, No. 2 (Dec 2014).

[18] Reznik, Eugene. “R. Crumb’s Snapshots: Source Material of the Legendary Comic Artist.” TIME, 30 Sept 2013. http://time.com/3802766/r-crumbs-snapshots-source-material-of-the-legendary-comic-artist/

[19] Levy, Eugene. “The Aesthetics of Power: High-Voltage Transmission Systems and the American Landscape.” Technology and Culture Vol. 38 No. 3 (July 1997), 575-607.

[20] Towers of Tomorrow. 15 min. New York: Jack Brady Productions, 1968.

[21]  Russell Flinchum, Henry Dreyfuss, Industrial Designer: The Man in the Brown Suit (New York: Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and Rizzoli, 1997), 174.

[22] Tikalsky, Susan M. and C.J. Willyward. “Aesthetics and Public Perceptions of Transmission Structures: A Brief History of the Research.” Right of Way (Electric Power Research Institute, March-April 2007), 28-32.

[23] Southern California Edison, “Design Guide: Aesthetic Guidelines for Electric Transmission Lines,” Southern California Edison, Rosemead, CA, 1972.

[24] “Conejo Boulders Climbing,” MountainProject.com, https://www.mountainproject.com/area/105850674/conejo-mountain

[25] “Power Lines Are Still Starting California Wildfires” LA Times, Opinion, 29 Nov. 2019, https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2019-11-29/fix-california-wildfires-utlities-and-fire-starting-power-lines

Daniel Wuebben Ph.D. is the author of Power-Lined: Electricity, Landscape, and the American Mind (University of Nebraska Press, 2019). His research on floral codes, viral literacy, and surfing has been published in academic journals such as Victorian Literature and CultureComputers and Composition, and Symplokē. He lives in Segovia, Spain, and in July 2020 he will begin a two-year Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship with the Ciberimaginario Group at the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos. His project on “grid literacy” engages electric rhetoric and transmission’s role in the energy transition.

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

Excerpts

Chinese Workers and the Transcontinental Railroad

Manu Karuka

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

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

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

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

The Price of a Ticket

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reproducing Racial Control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Articles

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

Miranda Trimmier

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

Los_Angeles_CA_-__An_Oil_Well_in_Every_Yard_(NBY_432173)

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

 

**

Views_of_oil_fields_around_Los_Angeles_LOC_2006627695

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

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

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

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

**

THUMS Island(s) at sunset

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

Porter Ranch Protest

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

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

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

15226111610_d265f89d1f_k

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

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

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

**

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

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

DOGGR LA Co Oil Well Map

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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