Tag: Food

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Deeply Rooted: Immigrants and the Hidden Histories of California’s Wine Industry

Julia Ornelas-Higdon

California’s contemporary wine industry has the allure of an exclusive product created by and for privileged populations. Mediterranean-inspired wineries and gentle rolling hills covered with lush vineyards dot landscapes across the state. California boasts varied wine regions extending from Napa and Sonoma, to the Central Coast, to Temecula, and to the Central Valley and beyond. Often portrayed as the purview of Italian-Americans, the state’s twentieth-century wine industry rose to prominence in the post-WWII decades and made some of California’s most storied wine houses, such as Mondavi, Gallo, and Sebastiani, household names. Further, the industry’s focus on its postwar development has built a romantic veneer around California wine that obscures its diverse, working-class roots. By looking backwards to the origins of the California wine industry, historians can claim a space for the racialized groups who built the industry and who have been rendered invisible in its most recent iterations. This history also destabilizes race and class boundaries, ultimately questioning and redefining what it means to belong in the contemporary wine industry.  

In the last twenty years, prominent Mexican-American wineries have emerged to challenge stereotypes about who represents the “typical” California winemaker. Media coverage about Robledo, Mi Sueño, Mario Bazan Cellar, Maldonado Vineyards, and Ceja in Napa and Sonoma has celebrated the growth of these wineries, which collaborated to organize the Mexican-American Vintners Association (MAVA) in 2010.[1] Many of the MAVA member wineries were founded and directed by working-class Mexican immigrants and their Mexican-American children.[2] They developed from their respective families’ Mexican immigrant roots as well as from decades of expertise as vineyard workers. As L. Stephen Velasquez has argued, “The transnational migrants’ sense of cultural identity and the traditions they brought from various regions in Mexico helped build Napa-Sonoma wineries and enabled these families to move from vineyard workers to winemakers and vineyard owners. The stories of these families’ migration, hard work, and success illustrate the American dream….” In doing so, Mexican-American winemakers have used their work to achieve “economic and social inclusion.” [3] Despite this, their histories are relatively limited within the literature on the contemporary wine industry, with the exception of scholars like Velasquez who have begun to explore this work.[4]

Mexican-American winemakers also have been featured in recent cultural productions.The 2019 documentary, “Harvest Season” profiled Mexican-American winemakers and migrant workers within the California wine industry. The Smithsonian National Museum of American History highlighted the contributions of Mexican-Americans to the wine industry in its exhibit, “Food: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000.”[5] The Smithsonian exhibition of “La Familia Robledo” displayed items from the Robledo Family Winery, including family patriarch Reynaldo Robledo’s hat, tools, and a wine label from their 2004 vintage of Los Braceros. This red wine honors the Mexican migrant workers who labored in the Bracero program in the 1950s and 1960s. Significantly, Los Braceros puts vineyard workers—who are usually relegated to the background and rendered invisible to the consumer—prominently on display and implicitly recognizes their contributions in creating the finished product, wine. Los Braceros challenges contemporary stereotypes about California wines by highlighting the reality of who is working behind the scenes to produce the beverage in that bottle. (And yes, I have personally sampled Los Braceros—for research purposes, of course—and it is sublime.)

Despite the success of Mexican-American wineries like Robledo, and their families’ long histories in Napa and Sonoma, they are still portrayed as novelties and atypical wineries. And, wine labels similar to that of Los Braceros thatpresent farmworkers as the public face of the industry remain the exception. The continued success of Robledo and other MAVA wineries challenges dominant, white-only narratives about the wine industry in the twenty-first century. Their visibility within the industry helps assert the right of Mexican immigrants, especially agricultural workers, to be in the United States during a period where these rights are continually violated and challenged.

Los Braceros Wine Label

By ignoring the industry’s history before the twentieth century, we obscure the multiethnic, working-class roots of California’s historic wine industry that reframe the novelty of Mexican-American family wineries as part of a more complex and varied legacy. If we look to the origins of winegrowing in California during the eighteenth-century Spanish colonization of Alta California and move forward into the wine industry’s commercialization in the nineteenth century, it becomes apparent that California’s wine industry was born out of the labor of multiracial, working-class immigrants. These included California Indians and Mexican-Californios, as well as EuroAmerican, Chinese, and German migrants. Between the 1780s and the 1880s, these laborers and winegrowers transformed regional landscapes by importing foreign grape varietals, planting new vineyards, and producing California’s first vintages. Along with Native Californians, these racialized immigrant groups were fundamental in building the nascent wine industry all while they were largely excluded from citizenship in California. As such, the wine industry emerged as part of a larger system of race-making and citizenship formation at play in nineteenth-century California.  

This article reveals the importance of these groups, and not just Italian-Americans, in establishing one of California’s most storied agricultural industries. Although popular books about the twentieth-century wine industry predominate in comparison to scholarship about the  pre-World War II wine industry, historians have begun to explore the complex roots of winegrowing in California.[6] This article builds on this existing literature by examining the wine industry’s varied immigrant and working-class growers and laborers, and by claiming a place for California Indians, who are often left out of contemporary conversations about the region’s history. Although Italian-Americans certainly were instrumental in shaping the wine industry we know today, they did not actually enter the scene in large numbers until the late nineteenth century, roughly one hundred years after winegrowing was first established in California. More importantly, their successes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries grew out of the foundation built by the laborers and winemakers who preceded them. Thus, while wineries founded by immigrant laborers and their children might seem like a novelty in the twenty-first century wine industry, in actuality, they are far from anomalous when situated within the broader scope of its historic origins. I argue that exploring its nineteenth-century roots reveals a complex wine industry. This hidden history challenges elite, white-only narratives that predominate within the contemporary California wine industry and highlights the historical erasure of Native Californians and other ethnic agricultural workers.

Mission Origins, Immigrant Roots: Historical overview of the California Wine Industry

As with many other agricultural ventures in California, the roots of viticulture and winemaking lie in the mission system. Under the leadership of Junípero Serra, the Franciscans constructed mission outposts up and down the coast of Alta California beginning with San Diego Alcala in 1769. After the construction of mission churches, the Franciscans’ key priority was to establish formal agricultural cultivation. First, instructing Indians in the agricultural arts were part of the process of Hispanicization, which furthered the Spanish conquest and colonization of Alta California.[7] Second, doing so would secure a regular supply of food that could sustain the missions. Still, scarcity plagued the missions throughout the 1770s. In his frequent letters to government officials and church leaders in Mexico City, Junípero Serra frequently pleaded for materials, especially religious and liturgical goods to furnish the new missions and allow for further expansion.[8] Without fundamental religious items—such as candles, crucifixes, and  eucharistic hosts—the Franciscans could not carry out their primary objective, to convert and baptize Indian neophytes. These shortages included sacramental wine, which was of paramount importance to the Franciscans. They could not say the mass without access to a regular supply of wine, which had to be shipped from Mexico; this threatened to hamper their evangelization.[9] To remedy these shortages, the Franciscans directed mission Indians to begin planting the region’s first vineyards in the late 1770s at San Juan Capistrano and San Gabriel, with the first mission wines produced in the mid-1780s.[10]

The success of mission vineyards relied on the migration of plants, ideas, and, most significantly, of people. Because native California grape varietals are not suitable for wine, the Franciscans imported vitis vinifera grape vines from the Iberian Peninsula via Mexico.[11] More importantly, the Franciscans relied heavily on the expertise and labor of Indians from Baja California, who migrated north with the Franciscans.[12] These campesinos serve as liaisons between the Franciscans and local Indians, teaching and supervising their labor in constructing mission buildings and in clearing fields, planting, irrigating, and harvesting crops.

At its core, winegrowing was established for the sole purpose of furthering the conquest and colonization of Alta California. Wine was not simply a beverage, but rather was a tool of conquest. The Franciscans used viticulture to Hispanicize California Indians, and they used wine produced from mission grapes to convert them to Christianity. Indian laborers planted vineyards, brought in the harvest, and crushed the grapes. In doing so, mission Indians literally sowed the seeds of viticulture and wine in California. Because the Franciscans used agricultural labor to further conquest, they often eschewed modern farming methods that had the potential to make vineyard labor easier on Indian farmworkers. For example, they implemented recommendations from an antiquated Spanish agricultural manual, which meant that Indians pruned grape vines using the “head-pruning” method, essentially training vines to grow into low bushes instead of along wires, trellises, and posts.[13] This did lessen the labor initially required to plant vineyards, but the bending required to prune and harvest the grapes was especially strenuous. This was in keeping with labor across the missions, which consisted of backbreaking stoop labor and other farm work that was not mechanized until the 1820s, long after mechanized cultivation reached other regions of North America.[14]

During the Franciscans’ fifty-year tenure in Alta California, winegrowing remained a largely non-commercial venture. Although there was limited trade of wine between the missions, presidios, and pueblos of Alta California, and evidence of illicit alcohol sales (particularly to Indians, who were prohibited by law from enjoying the fruits of their labors outside of the mass), Spanish colonial laws restricted the wine trade. Winegrowing took a commercial turn following a series of political events that dramatically altered California. First, Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1822 opened California to foreign traders. Second, the Mexican government passed the Colonization Act of 1824 to entice colonists to its northwestern frontier.[15] Finally, in 1833 the secularization of the missions opened up vast tracts of land originally intended for Indians, but which ended up in the hands of large-scale land owners.[16]

Together, these legal changes directly led to the expansion of viticulture around the southern missions and the Pueblos of Los Angeles.[17] Plentiful lands were available on which newcomers could plant vineyards, as were markets to trade in wines and aguardiente.[18] The vineyardists and vintners driving this commercial turn included Mexican-Californios of the elite ranchero class and immigrants from Europe and the United States. In addition to their work as cattle ranchers, Californios Tomás Yorba and Vicenta Sepúlveda Yorba produced wine and aguardiente from their vineyards at Rancho Cañon de Santa Ana. They traded their ranch goods, including hides, tallow, wine, and aguardiente, with Americans like William Heath Davis.[19] Likewise, French immigrant Jean Louis Vignes arrived in Los Angeles in 1833. He purchased one hundred acres in the center of the Pueblo of Los Angeles near the river, naming his land El Aliso and renaming himself Don Luis Vignes to assimilate into Mexican-Californio culture. While his previous ventures in France and the Sandwich Islands have failed, in California he found success. Vignes planted extensive vineyards and orange orchards and built a winery and brandy distillery. Vignes likely produced his first vintage in 1837; by the early 1840s, he was shipping his wines across California.[20]

One aspect of winegrowing that did not change after secularization was that former mission Indians continued to labor in vineyards and wineries on lands previously belonging to the missions, but that were now owned by Californios and other immigrant landowners. In short, these two groups benefited from the continued racialization and exclusion of Indians outside the parameters of citizenship and landownership in Mexican California. At Rancho Cañon de Santa Ana, Tomás Yorba and Vicenta Sepúlveda Yorba relied on former Mission Indians who had previously lived at San Gabriel and San Juan Capistrano.[21] By mid-1830s, they employed nearly seventy Indians across their ranch.[22] Likewise, Don Luis Vignes hired Gabreliño Indians from the nearby San Gabriel Mission to tend his orchards and vineyards. Although Indians continued to work in a state of servitude on newly expanded vineyards, their lives were not as regimented as they had been in the missions. Landowners did not force Indians to live according to prescribed religious programs, nor did they control every aspect of Indians’ lives.[23] As with Spanish law, Mexican laws ostensibly prohibited Indians from legally purchasing alcohol, but this did not prevent winemakers from selling wine and aguardiente to Indians. Thus, this second generation of Mexican-Californio and immigrant winegrowers was responsible for forging California’s first commercialized wine industry, which continued to be driven by Indian labor. Yet, they found ways to categorize Indians as second-class citizens, including their continued exclusion from the privilege of enjoying wine, the product of their labor.  

The wine industry evolved yet again between the 1850s and 1880s following the American conquest of California. Scholars have demonstrated how American legal and economic systems, the racial exclusion of former Mexican citizens, and violence all functioned to reorganize the power and wealth in California, ultimately dispossessing Mexican-Californios of their land and property rights.[24] A new influx of EuroAmerican immigrant vineyardists and winemakers were part of this group of new landowners that emerged in the decades following the Mexican-American War. They further commercialized and professionalized the industry by organizing trade groups and lobbying for government assistance.[25] As they did so, these American newcomers helped to redefine the boundaries whiteness and citizenship away from their previous understandings in Spanish and Mexican California. Beginning in the 1860s, German immigrants emerged as a group of influential winegrowers in the Los Angeles area, which continued as the state’s hub of winegrowing. In 1854, German musicians John Frohling and Charles Kohler left San Francisco to become winegrowers in Los Angeles.[26] There, they purchased a vineyard and founded Kohler & Frohling Winery. By 1858, their wines were earning prizes at state agricultural fairs.[27] The winery was so successful that the firm collaborated with George Hansen, a Los Angeles surveyor, to establish a vineyard colony, which could sell grapes to their winery and allow for increased production.[28] Incorporated in 1857, the Los Angeles Vineyard Society was formed as a joint-stock company by a group of German immigrants from San Francisco. The company purchased land along the Santa Ana River, planted vineyards, and built a town, Anaheim.[29]  Within ten years, Anaheim’s winegrowers claimed that their vineyards were producing six hundred thousand gallons of wine annually; although this was likely an overestimation, Anaheim’s growers were recognized among the most productive in the state.[30] Likewise, German immigrant Leonard J. Rose arrived in Los Angeles in the early 1860s. He settled in the San Gabriel Valley on a ranch he called Sunny Slope and soon established himself as a vineyardist and horse breeder. By the 1880s, his winery was producing four hundred thousand gallons of wine and one hundred thousand gallons of brandy annually.[31]

This period also witnessed the continued influence of other European immigrants. Mathew Keller, an Irish immigrant, established a productive vineyard in Los Angeles.[32] Pierre and Jean-Louis Sansevain (nephews of Jean Louis Vignes) had purchased their uncle’s vineyard and winery, El Aliso, in the early 1850s. They expanded production, built new wine cellars, and were known for their award-winning, unadulterated wines.[33] A Hungarian immigrant with a colorful past, Agoston Haraszthy was a well-known winegrower in Sonoma.[34] Haraszthy emerged as a vocal leader within agricultural trade groups, even traveling to Europe on behalf of the California State Agricultural Society to gather grape varietals and learn about best practices from the continent’s best wine regions.[35]

At the same these time new immigrants replaced Mexican-Californio winegrowers and landowners, the decline of California Indians in the 1860s brought different groups of racialized workers to the state’s vineyards and wineries—groups whose race and class status continued to render them ineligible for citizenship in American California.Many growers hired working-class Mexicans and Indians from other parts of the southwest. For a period, Anaheim’s vineyardists employed Yaqui Indians from Arizona and northern Mexico who had fled the Sonoran borderlands to escape war with the Mexican government.[36] Leonard J. Rose regularly hired crews of “Mexican peons” from the nearby rancheria to work in his vineyards at Sunny Slope.[37] Chinese immigrants also worked in vineyards, particularly as they came off working on the transcontinental railroad in the 1870s. Even in the wake of growing anti-Chinese sentiment in California during the 1870s, and with the rise of federal Chinese exclusion in 1882, winegrowers sought out crews of Chinese vineyard workers.[38] Between the 1850s and 1870s, the colonists at Anaheim sent for Chinese workers from San Francisco several times and eventually established a segregated Chinatown in town. [39] For Anaheim’s growers, the Chinese “proved to be good farmers, were industrious, sober, clean, peaceful and in every way a welcome contrast to the Indians.”[40] At Sunny Slope, Leonard J. Rose employed Chinese workers because they were “absolutely dependable and honest, rarely losing a day and seldom quitting their jobs.”[41] Agoston Haraszthy hired crews of Chinese workers to clear land and plant over seventy thousand vines at Buena Vista Vineyard.[42] Using their experience with dynamite from the railroads, they dug hundred feet of tunnels to construct wine cellars at Buena Vista.[43] Leland Stanford also relied on Chinese laborers to tend his vineyards at Vina Ranch in the Sierra Nevada foothills and faced angry pushback from anti-Chinese nativists in the surrounding areas.[44]Growers favored the Chinese because they stereotyped them as being more docile than other populations, and because they could pay them lower wages.[45] Indeed, these presumed characteristics which excluded the Chinese from access to landownership and citizenship rights made them ideal workers from the perspective of vineyard owners.

At its core, these first iterations of the California wine industry emerged from the labor of diverse groups. This historic wine industry drew from the various populations of immigrants—Chinese, German, and Irish, among others—pouring into nineteenth-century California, and put them side-by-side with California Indians and Mexican-Californios. From landowners to vineyard workers, vineyards and wineries were unique spaces where diverse groups interacted and worked together. Most importantly, racialized vineyard and winery workers built the industry.They cleared land for vineyards, planted grape vines, harvested the grapes, and crushed them with their feet. At the same time they engaged in this important work, racialized Indian, Mexican, and Chinese laborers were largely excluded from the boundaries of citizenship in nineteenth-century California. As such, their contributions to building the wine industry have been largely forgotten and ignored.

In the late nineteenth century, a series of environmental and economic catastrophes nearly crippled the California wine industry, marking another pivot in the business.[46] At this juncture, a group of enterprising Italian-Americans based in San Francisco reorganized and modernized the wine industry, helping to save it from demise. Within the complex racial hierarchies of California, immigrant winemakers and entrepreneurs from northern Italy were able to capitalize on their ambiguous racial status in ways that Chinese and working-class Mexicans in California, and even southern Italian immigrants working in the eastern industries were not.[47] As Simone Cinotto has argued, these immigrant winemakers had access to “rights from which Asian immigrants were legally deprived, such as naturalization and landowning, and that were de facto denied to Mexicans by virtue of their colonized status,” which, in in turn, allowed Italian immigrants to “envision a path of mobility to independent occupations as farmers and winemakers—a social condition so deeply entrenched with the notions of freedom and whiteness in the United States.”[48] Ultimately, these northern Italian immigrants occupied a racial “middle-ground” that provided access to the privileges associated with whiteness in California, such as landownership and capital, that enabled them to pursue wine cultivation not as wage workers, but as vineyardists and wine entrepreneurs.

The Italian-Swiss Colony was founded by prominent Italian-American merchants in San Francisco under the leadership of Andrea Sbarboro, who spearheaded the purchase of their land, Asti, in Sonoma County. Although the company struggled in its early years, it took off in the late 1880s when Pietro Carlo Rossi took over management of the company. Rossi implemented modern winemaking techniques that enabled the Italian-Swiss Colony to standardize bulk production of wine and ship its product to national and international markets.[49] In 1894, Sbarboro and Rossi also helped found the California Wine-Makers’ Corporation, a syndicate of winemakers who organized to compete with the California Wine Association monopoly of the wine markets.[50] The CWA and the CWMC subsequently engaged in a “wine war” over market control. Eventually, the CWA absorbed the CWMC, with Rossi becoming a director within the CWA.

California Wine Association Headquarters before 1906 earthquake

Similarly, Secondo Guasti founded the Italian Vineyard Company in 1900, planting vineyards on a former Mexican ranch in Cucamonga. His proximity to the new Southern Pacific Railroad afforded Guasti easy access to distant markets. At the turn of the twentieth century, Italian-American winemakers helped to inaugurate a modern wine industry—more corporate and funded by investors, like the Bank of Italy—built on the foundation established by the diverse growers who preceded them. Unlike their predecessors, these growers preferred to hire Italian-American workers, and not racialized vineyard laborers, as had their predecessors. Guasti occasionally hired temporary Japanese workers, but Sbarboro went so far as to ban Asians.[51] Guasti and Sbarboro’s antipathy towards Asian workers was not unique given the context of the period. They were operating in the decades after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 amid growing public outrage against Asian farmers that would, ultimately, lead to California Alien Land Law of 1913 targeting Japanese immigrants. However, their exclusion of non-Italian-American farmworkers was uncommon. Consequently, over time the wine industry became less diverse. These winegrowers flourished for the next twenty years, but Prohibition coupled with the Great Depression ultimately weakened California’s wine industry until its renaissance in the post-war period

The Contemporary California Wine Industry

Moving forward to the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, winegrowing has expanded to occupy an outsized role in California agriculture. Currently, wine grapes and wine occupy an important role in the state and national agricultural economies. Wine grape acreage in California grew steadily from just over 100,000 acres in 1960 to nearly 600,000 acres in the most recent statistics, with considerable spikes in production during the 1970s and 1990s.[52] More recently, the number of bearing acres of wine grapes increased by 70,000 acres between 2008 and 2017.[53] Casual observers across the state can note these changes in land use as orchards along Interstate-5 in the Central Valley have been replaced with vineyards. Within the state agricultural economy, over 590,000 acres of vineyards were harvested in 2018, producing over 4,285,000 tons of grapes with a total value of over $4.3 billion.[54] In 2018, California wine was a top export commodity for the United States, ranking fourth among all agricultural products.[55] Nationally, California wines made up over 91% of US exports of wine, with a value of nearly $1.5 billion in 2018.[56] California wines ship all over the world, with top-receiving countries in the European Union, Canada, Japan, and China. Wine drives trade, and it serves as a cultural ambassador for California, drawing tourism dollars in wine regions across the state.

Clearly, the wine industry occupies an important place in contemporary American society and for California itself. The story California wine does not conform to the mythology of Thomas Jefferson’s yeoman farmer, nor is it solely Italian-American. It is a uniquely American story in that the industry was built on the model of commercial, large-scale growers who relied on racialized wageworkers. But, why should we care about the historic origins of the wine industry, particularly since there is not a linear history between its birth in the missions and contemporary industry?

By historicizing the wine industry’s deep immigrant roots and racial diversity, we can challenge contemporary narratives about the wine industry as an exclusive and predominately white space. First, wine cultivation in California grew from the labor of mission Indians, California’s first farm workers. This history claims a space for California Indians within this lauded industry. Second, this history also challenges contemporary arguments about immigration, belonging, and citizenship by unveiling the California wine industry’s deep immigrant roots. These hidden histories contests the erasure of racialized groups from the wine industry. In doing so, this article underscores the longevity and historical significance of immigrant agricultural laborers, who are largely ostracized outside of the body politic as outsiders or temporary sojourners across the United States. There is no linear line connecting nineteenth-century winemakers and vineyard laborers to contemporary Mexican-American vintners and agricultural workers. However, by putting these groups in conversation with each other and framing them within the historical trajectory of the wine industry, we begin to challenge and disrupt exclusionary racial and class stereotypes about the contemporary California wine industry.This hidden history challenges the erasure of these groups from contemporary narratives about California wine, and about the immigrants who built the wine industry. In the twenty-first century, immigrants and their descendants continue their legacy, reshaping this industry and challenging what it means to belong in the contemporary United States at a moment when immigrants are facing historic levels of nativism, exclusion, and detainment across the country. Exploring the roots of the wine industry makes a space for Mexican-American winemakers and vineyard workers to claim their stake in the rich valleys of Napa, Sonoma, and beyond.

Notes

[1] “Our Rich History,” MAVA, accessed 8/8/19, http://nsmava.org/about/.

[2] Henry Lutz, “Napa Valley’s Mexican-American Vintners have a Story to Tell,” Napa Valley Register, August 21, 2018, https://napavalleyregister.com/news/local/napa-valley-s-mexican-american-vintners-have-a-story-to/article_9845ea3e-1df1-56f9-8680-b3faa1549244.html.

[3] L. Stephen Velasquez, “Doing it with ‘Ganas’: Mexicans and Mexican Americans Shaping the California Wine Industry,” Southern California Quarterly 100: 2 (Summer 2018): 217-218.

[4] For example, see Frances Mollno, Deep Roots and Immigrant Dreams: A Social History of Viticulture in Southern California, 1769-1960 (PhD Diss., Claremont Graduate University, 2008) and L. Stephen Velasquez, “Doing it with ‘Ganas’: Mexicans and Mexican Americans Shaping the California Wine Industry.”

[5] The exhibit, which opened in 2012, documents American winemaking in the post-WWII period. For discussion of the Robledo Family winery, see https://americanhistory.si.edu/food/wine-table/la-familia-robledo. Accessed August 6, 2019.

[6] For discussion of the wine industry’s early history, see Erica Hannickel’s Empire of Vines: Wine Culture in America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), which demonstrates how nineteenth-century viticulturists across the United States shaped continental expansion, empire, as well as ideas about race and miscegenation. Similarly, Linda Frances Mollno, Deep Roots and Immigrant Dreams: A Social History of Viticulture in Southern California, 1769-1960 (PhD Diss., Claremont Graduate University, 2008), Thomas Pinney’s History of Wine in America Volume I: From Beginnings to Prohibition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007),Victor W. Geraci’s “Fermenting a Twenty-First-Century California Wine Industry,” Agricultural History 78, no. 4 (October 1, 2004), 438–65, and Vincent P. Carosso’s The California Wine Industry: A Study of the Formative Years (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951) have documented the evolution of California’s historic wine industry.

[7] For further discussion of the Hispanicizing goals of the Franciscan missionaries, see Steven W Hackel, Children of Coyote, Missionaries of Saint Francis: Indian-Spanish Relations in Colonial California, 1769-1850 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 280-287; David Sweet, “The Ibero-Aerican Frontier Mission in Native American History,” in The New Latin American Mission History, ed. Erick Langer and Robert H. Jackson (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), 4; Robert H. Jackson, “The Formation of Frontier Indigenous Communities: Missions in California and Texas,” in New Views of Borderlands History, ed. Robert H. Jackson (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998), 134.

[8] Junípero Serra, Writings of Junipero Serra, Volume I, ed. Antoinin Tiber, O.F.M. (Washington, D.C.: Academy of American Franciscan History, 1955), 62-63, 221.

[9] Junípero Serra to Father Francisco Palou, written at Monterey, June 21, 1771, Writings of Juniper Serra, Volume I, ed. Antonine Tiber, O.F.M. (Washington, D.C.: Academy of American Franciscan History, 1955), 243.

[10] Some scholars date the first Mission vintage between 1781 and 1784 at San Juan Capistrano, but likely the first wines were produced a few years later. Thomas Pinney, History of Wine in America, 238.

[11] Later generations of growers named this the Mission grape. See Thomas Pinney, “The Early Days in Southern California,” in The University of California/Sotheby Book of California Wine, ed.  Doris Muscatine, et al. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 4.

[12] Richard Steven Street, Beasts of the Field: A Narrative History of California Farmworkers, 1769-1913 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 19.

[13] Alonso de Herrera, Agricultura General (Madrid: Don Antonio de Sancha), 1777. Originally published in the 16th century, this treatise underwent multiple revisions by various authors well into the 19th century. Several missions, including Santa Bárbara and Santa Clara, owned copies of the reference book. See Mission Santa Clara (Mission Santa Clara Archives, R.G. 1, Series V: Secularization and the Formation of California’s First Diocese, 1833-1851, Box 17, Folder 14: Mission Santa Clara Inventory of 1851 (Reproduction, Transcription, and Translation), 1851; Thomas Pinney, “The Early Days in Southern California,” in The University of California/Sotheby Book of California Wine, 2.

[14] Richard Steven Street, Beasts of the Fields, 28.

[15] Doyce B. Nunis, Jr. “Alta California’s Trojan Horse: Foreign Immigration,” in Contested Eden: California before the Gold Rush, ed. Ramón A. Gutiérrez, and Richard J. Orsi (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 305; Douglas Monroy, “The Creation and Re-creation of Californio Society,” in Contested Eden, 180-181.

[16] After 1833, large land grants were redistributed to Californios at a rapid pace. Relatively few Indians received title to land, and those who did got small plots of land. See Steven W. Hackel, 388-389; Miroslava Chávez-García, Negotiating Conquest: Gender and Power in California, 1770s to 1880s (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2004), 62.

[17] Los Angeles was the winegrowing hub of California until the 1880s. 

[18] Aguardiente was distilled grape brandy. It was the most common distilled alcohol in California before the Gold Rush. Pinney, A History of Wine in America, 238.

[19] William Heath Davis, Seventy-five Years in California (San Francisco: J. Howell, 1929), 222.

[20] Scott Macconnell, “Jean-Louis Vignes: California’s Forgotten Winemaker,” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture 11, no. 1 (April 2011): 90-91; Vincent P. Carosso, 8.

[21] Wayne Dell Gibson, Tomas Yorba’s Santa Ana Viejo, 1769-1847 (Santa Ana, CA: Santa Ana College Foundation Press and Rancho Santiago Community College District, 1976), 79; Testimony of Jose Dolores Sepulveda, The Anaheim Water Company, et. Al., Plaintiffs and Respondents vs. The Semi-Tropic Water Company, et al., Defendants and Appellants, Transcript on Appeal in the Superior Court of Los Angeles, State of California, Quoted in George Harwood Phillips, Vineyards & Vaqueros: Indian Labor and the Economic Expansion of Southern California, 1771-1877 (Norman: Arthur H. Clark Co., 2010), 162.

[22] Terry E. Stephenson, Don Bernardo Yorba (Los Angeles: G. Dawson, 1941), 32-33.

[23] Steven W. Hackel, 369.

[24] For further discussion of American conquest in California, see Linda Heidenreich, “This Land Was Mexican Once:” Histories of Resistance from Northern California, (University of Texas Press, 2007); John Mack Faragher, Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015); Tomás Almaguer, Racial Fault Lines: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994); Lisbeth Haas, Conquests and Historical Identities in California, 1769–1936 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995); Chávez-García, Miroslava, Negotiating Conquest Gender and Power in California, 1770s to

1800s (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2004.

[25] Between the 1850s and 1870s, newly organized trade groups lobbied the state legislature to support research, education, and the distribution of plants and materials among viticulturists throughout the region. For example, see M.G. Gillette, Report of Special Committee on the Culture of the Grape-Vine in California: Introduced by Mr. Morrison Under Resolution of Mr. Gillette, to Examine into, and Report Upon, the Growth, Culture, and Improvement, of the Grape-Vine in California (Sacramento: Charles T. Botts, State Printer, 1861), 3-10.

[26] “An Account of the Wine Business in California, from Materials Furnished by Charles Kohler,” MSS C-D 111, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

[27] “Native Wines,” Los Angeles Star, October 23, 1858.

[28] Leo J. Friis, Campo Aleman: The First Ten Years of Anaheim (Santa Ana: Friis-Pioneer Press, 1983), 15.

[29] Dorothea Jean Paule, “The German Settlement at Anaheim” (Master’s Thesis, University of Southern California, 1952), 10, 175; Leo J. Friis, 15-17

[30] Anaheim Wine Growers’ Association, Anaheim: its People and Products, 1869, 3.

[31] L. J Rose, Jr., L. J. Rose of Sunny Slope, 1827-1899: California Pioneer, fruit Grower, Wine Maker, Horse Breeder (San Marino: Huntington Library Press, 1959).

[32] California State Agricultural Society, Third Annual Fair, Cattle Show, and Industrial Exhibition, Held at San Jose, October 7th to 10th, 1856 (San Francisco, California Farmer Office, 1856), 21.

[33] “Report of the Visiting Committee,” in Transactions of the California Agricultural Society During the Year 1858 (Sacramento:C.T. Botts, State Printer, 1859), 286.

[34] AHungarian who claimed a dubious noble heritage, Haraszthy had already left his mark on Wisconsin, San Diego, and San Francisco where he was charged with fraud in his management of the U.S. mint. Possibly to rebuild his reputation, Haraszthy abandoned his business and moved to Sonoma to take up winegrowing in 1857. For further discussion see Thomas Pinney, A History of Wine in America, 273.

[35] Agoston Haraszthy, “Report on Grapes and Wine of California,” in Transactions of the California State Agricultural Society During the Year 1858, 313; “California Commission on the Culture of the Grape-Vine” in Report of Commissioners on the Culture of the Grape-Vine in California, (Sacramento: Benj. P. Avery State Printer, 1861), 7. 

[36] Nicole Marie Guidotti-Hernández discusses the violence against Yaqui Indians along the US-Mexico border in Unspeakable Violence: Remapping U.S. and Mexican National Imaginaries (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

[37] Leonard John Rose Papers, MSSHM 70724: Box 1, 25, Huntington Library, San Marino.

[38] For discussion of anti-Chinese public discourse and laws, see Sucheng Chan, This Bittersweet Soil: The Chinese in California Agriculture, 1860-1910 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 370 and Natalia Molina, Fit to be Citizens? Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879-1939, (University of California Press, 2006), 12.

[39] Minutes of the Los Angeles Vineyard Society, September 20, 1857, Los Angeles Vineyard Society Vertical File, Anaheim Public Library; Mildred Yorba MacArthur, Anaheim: The Mother Colony (Los Angeles: The Ward Ritchie Press, 1959), 30.

[40] Lucile Dickson, “The Founding and Early History of Anaheim, California,” Annual Publications, Historical Society of Southern California (XI, 1919), 30-31.

[41] L. J Rose, Jr., L. J. Rose of Sunny Slope, 1827-1899: California Pioneer, Fruit Grower, Wine Maker, Horse Breeder (San Marino: Huntington Library, 1959), 81-82.

[42] Sucheng Chan, 242.

[43] Agoston Haraszthy, The Father of California Wine (Santa Barbara: Capra Press, 1979),28.

[44] “Chinese Argonauts,” Bulletin of the Chinese Historical Society of America, VII, No. 4 (April 1972), 7.

[45] For example, see comparison of wages paid to L.J. Rose’s workers according to their race. Leonard J. Rose, Jr., L. J. Rose of Sunny Slope, 1827-1899: California Pioneer, fruit Grower, Wine Maker, Horse Breeder (San Marino: Huntington Library, 1959), 107.

[46] The phylloxera epidemic of the 1880s and the overproduction of grapes in California destabilized the grape and wine markets. For further discussion, see Erica Hannickel, 161-167; Thomas Pinney, A History of Wine in America, 343-355.

[47] Simone Cinotto, Soft Soil, Black Grapes: The Birth of Italian Winemaking in California, (New York: NYU Press, 2012), 23.

[48] Simone Cinotto, 15.

[49] Simone Cinotto, 25-28, 157-158.  

[50] The CWA would control the California wine market until Prohibition. For further discussion see Ernest P. Peninou and Gail G. Unzelman, The California Wine Association and its Member Wineries, 1894-1920, (Santa Rosa, CA: Nomis Press, 2000), 72-80; Thomas Pinney, A History of Wine in America, 358-363.

[51] Simone Cinotto, 3, 139, 143

[52] J.M. Alston, J.T, Lapsley, and O. Sambucci, “Grape and Wine Production in California,” in California Agriculture: Dimensions and Issues ed. R. Goodhue, P. Martin, and B. Wright, (Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics, Berkeley, CA, 2018), 4-5, https://s.giannini.ucop.edu/uploads/giannini_public/a1/1e/a11eb90f-af2a-4deb- ae58-9af60ce6aa40/grape_and_wine_production.pdf.

[53] California Department of Food and Agriculture, “California Agricultural Statistics Review, 2017-2018,” 63, accessed July 25, 2019, www.cdfa.ca.gov/statistics.

[54] California Department of Food and Agriculture, “California Agricultural Statistics Review, 2018-2019,” 68, accessed July 27, 2020, https://www.cdfa.ca.gov/statistics/PDFs/AgExports2018-2019.pdf.

[55] California Department of Agriculture, “California Agricultural Exports 2018-2019,”4, accessed July 27, 2020, “California Agricultural Statistics Review, 2018-2019,” 8,12, accessed June 24, 2020, https://www.cdfa.ca.gov/statistics/PDFs/AgExports2018-2019.pdf.

[56] “California Agricultural Statistics Review, 2018-2019,” 114.

Julia Ornelas-Higdon is an Assistant Professor of History at California State University, Channel Islands. Her research and teaching focuses on the intersections of race, agriculture, and labor histories. She received a Faculty Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities for the 2018-2019 academic year. Her forthcoming book, The Grapes of Conquest: Race, Labor, and the Industrialization of California Wine, 1769-1920, explores California’s 19th century wine industry as a site of conquest and racialization.

Postcards Series

To eat a fig is to swallow ghosts: A postcard for Little Tokyo

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

Kenji C. Liu

zuihitsu*

*

A fig fruit is composed of hundreds, sometimes thousands of tiny flowers, florets, hidden inside a fleshy covering.

This inside-out world is why we never see fig flowers.

*

Some might think of oranges when quizzed about Southern California fruit, but oranges originate in China.

*

In science fiction, a Dyson sphere is a massive shell built to completely enclose a star in order to capture its total energy output. By containing the star, the sphere completely blocks all outgoing visible light, altering the way it appears to outside observers.

This hidden, inside-out world is why we might never be able to see advanced extraterrestrial civilizations.

*

Without the knowledge and experience of immigrant Chinese agricultural workers, California’s orange industry would have died quickly.

*

Los Ángeles has been the site of many science fiction stories, most notably Blade Runner. It is notable for how thoroughly it enacts an orientalist fantasy of a 2019 where “Asian-ness” has saturated society, but without any actual Asian people. We are an implied threat, but without us there is no future.

*

There’s an orchid (ophrys apifera) that looks like a certain female bee in order to attract certain male bees. But the bee is extinct. The orchid continues to testify to a bee that no longer exists. The bee is implied.

*

Some fig trees require a special female wasp to pollinate its flowers and grow fruit. In return, the fig offers the wasp a place to lay its eggs and reproduce.

*

Spanish missionaries introduced figs to California. But the fig wasp hadn’t been brought to the colonization, and the fig kept waiting for her. The Mission fig (ficus caricia) was bred to produce fruit without the wasp. The wasp is missing in our Blade Runner future.

*

The fig is the third tree to be mentioned in the Bible. Adam and Eve used its leaves to cover their nakedness after Eve supposedly messed things up for them.

*

It’s just like a colonizer to think he should cut female fig wasps out of the picture.

*

The self-pollinating fig is the ghost of conquest. It’s a memory of colonization. Does it remember the wasp? It might not, colonization is like that.

But when we eat a Mission fig, we eat the fruit of conquest.

*

In the fig community, there are different family arrangements. Some types of fig trees are monoecious which means they grow both “male” and “female” flowers. Others are dioecious in which some trees offer “male” and “female” flowers and other trees only have “female” flowers. All need special “female” wasps to facilitate pollination. Nature is naturally queer.

*

There’s a giant Moreton Bay fig tree (ficus macrophylla) in the heart of Little Tokyo, planted around 1920 by Reverend Shutai Aoyama of the Koyasan Buddhist congregation in front of its temple many years ago. The temple has moved, but the tree remains, watching over the block.

*

In some Buddhist traditions, contemplating the impermanence of the body is a way to develop equanimity and compassion for self and others. A person is basically a fig, thousands of flowers inside a fleshy covering, growing, opening, closing, passing away.

*

Close the eyes, turn inward. Notice the weight of our bodies on the earth. Watch the breath enter and leave the body. Watch feelings, thoughts, and sensations flower and pass.

*

It is hard to see what’s happening inside a person, just as it is with a fig or a Dyson sphere.

*

The Japanese word for fig tree, 無花果, is composed of the kanji for “no” (無)―a particle of negation—“flower” (花), and “fruit” (果). This refers to a tree that bears fruit without flowering. The ancient pictogram for 無 was a person holding something in both hands, but since then it has come to denote not having.

*

無 can be read as “mu,” which means nothingness, or a response to a Zen koan that has neither a yes or no answer. Rather than divide into a binary, “mu” refutes the question.

*

The problem with a Dyson sphere is it has a huge surface area, which makes it vulnerable to comets and meteorites. A meteor impact could throw the whole thing off-center, or burst through to the interior. An alternate vision is a tight network of stations weaving around the sun.

*

The ancient root of the word “wasp” is possibly related to “weave.” Weave can refer to interlacing a material together, but also to devising.

*

A strangler fig grows and envelops a host tree. Once the host tree dies and decomposes, it leaves a long hollow inside the fig tree.

*

Early Spanish missionary colonization established itself near Native American towns and villages, tried to envelop and strangle them.

*

The Aoyama fig tree is located in a parking lot, it grows straight up from asphalt and concrete. It is one of the only direct connections to the actual dirt below. It is also a strangler fig. What lives in its center? An entrance and exit for ghosts.

*

The fig’s response: 無 (mu).

*

If the star inside a Dyson sphere was to die and vanish, what would be left?

*

The Buddha was enlightened after sitting in meditation under a fig tree (ficus religiosa) for many days in Bodh Gaya, India. Though the original tree was destroyed and replaced, a branch from the original was rooted elsewhere, in Sri Lanka.

*

The problem with people is that we are vulnerable to everything. Almost anything can throw us off center.

*

The Buddhist insight of anatta or no-self reminds us that although we may have an experience of the self as continuous, when you get down to it, we are constantly changing, without a solid center. Empty of a true self.

*

The adjective “empty” evolved from the Old English word for “leisure.” The modern Greek word for “empty” evolved from a word meaning “freedom from fear.”

*

In Shinto, giant trees are often sites for local gods. Properly embued with sacred ropes and paper streamers, they become indistinguishable from gods.

*

There is an infamous black and white photo of the corner of First and Central, a block south of the Aoyama fig tree. It shows MPs forcing Japanese Americans onto buses headed to horse stalls at Santa Anita racetrack, then concentration camps.

*

Only a few more blocks away, next to the historic founding site of Los Ángeles, is where an 1871 race riot took place in which dozens of Chinese people were shot and hanged by a mob of hundreds.

*

Los Ángeles without Asians seems speculative, but they already tried to make it happen.

*

Gods, too, are implied by the empty spaces present in the everyday, leaving us wondering what or who could possibly have created this world.

*

The adjective “hollow” is said to originate in an ancient Proto-Indo-European root word meaning, “to cover, conceal, save.”

*

A Dyson sphere would only be possible because of extremely advanced technologies, which for us would probably be indistinguishable from magic or deities.

*

Next to the site of the 1871 massacre of dozens of Chinese is a park dedicated to Father Junipero Serra, who oversaw the system of California missions. Under the missions, Native Americans were decimated by disease, torture, forced labor, and starvation.

*

In the Bible, Jesus curses a fig tree for having no fruit for him. He goes on to Jerusalem where he drives out capitalists from the temple. The next day, they pass the same fig tree, which has withered. Some scholars say this symbolizes his fight against a lack of righteousness. Others say this is an example of a miracle wasted in service to a bad temper.

*

The fig’s response: 無 (mu).

*

Freeman Dyson, who came up with what’s now called a Dyson sphere, was a climate change skeptic who served on an advisory board for a conservative climate change think tank.

*

Figs and wasps have been helping each other out for about 65 million years, since dinosaurs were thumping around Los Angeles.

*

In Los Ángeles 2020, indigenous activists toppled the statue of Junipero Serra. In the social media video, someone can be heard yelling, “this is for our ancestors!”

*

Some fig wasps live up to two months, others only live one to two days. Research indicates that an increase of 3 degrees in global temperatures would dramatically decrease the lifespan of fig wasps.

*

Climate change skepticism rings hollow in the face of actual weather.

*

Things a female fig wasp probably hates:

  • Burrowing into a fig and finding another wasp already there.
  • Male wasps not acknowledging the immense amount of labor involved in pollinating and laying eggs.
  • When another wasp comes calling in the middle of the night and overstays their welcome in the morning.
  • Figs who act superior because they don’t need a pollinator.
  • Dying inside the wrong fig.

*

Some female figs can pretend to be male figs in order to seduce the female wasp. The wasp enters and pollinates, but cannot lay her eggs. She dies, and the fig digests her. Her ghost gives life to the fig.

*

Wasps and trees don’t actually give a fig about gender.

*

In Los Ángeles, there are a lot of fig trees, though you have to know what they look like. Usually, they aren’t just out in the open, waving their figs around. But they haunt the city’s corners, occasionally you meet one.

*

I hadn’t tasted a fresh fig before moving to California. I did really like Fig Newtons.

*

When eating a fig, we are also eating the ghost of a female wasp.

*

If fig wasps went extinct, could the remaining fig trees testify to the memory of its insect partner?

*

The old saying, I don’t give a fig, implies that figs are of low value.

*

The fig’s response: 無 (mu).


*A zuihitsu is a Japanese contemplative literary form characterized by loosely associated fragments of text.

Kenji C. Liu is author of Monsters I Have Been (Alice James Books, 2019), finalist for the California and Maine book awards, and Map of an Onion, national winner of the 2015 Hillary Gravendyk Poetry Prize (Inlandia Institute). His poetry is in numerous journals, anthologies, magazines, and two chapbooks, Craters: A Field Guide (2017) and You Left Without Your Shoes (2009). An alumnus of Kundiman, the Djerassi Resident Artist Program, and the Community of Writers, he lives in Los Ángeles.

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
Postcards Series

Memories of my Tata’s Frutería

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

Marco Vera

We never ate salads. World-class mechanics drive lemons, world-class musicians pawn instruments. Know-it-all scholars would come to our store because the university was close by. All the math was done on a Scribe notebook, quietly, as a swamp cooler rocked you to sleep. Tripping out, because there is no other way to spend time in a fruit stand after morning setup duties. Art was there, always, always, always. In the way you stacked tomatoes. In the rotation of the avocados. In the Dutch angle tamarind candy. In the handcrafted, misspelled signage with the price collaged on neon bright fluorescent colored paper.

There’s a science and technique to opening costales. Just like there is to cleaning and bagging cacahuates. Or stacking bags of carbon. In the Malverde merchandise room, chaos was art, as Jesús’s bust would watch over you trying to make sense of the merchandise rearrangement. A framed print of San Martin Caballero hung in the lobby open to the public where we played the nice señora ballads. Malverde was in the back where the radios blared to a different beat, punk and norteño music. If you were a wiseass, you’d oversleep to stay in the air conditioner in the house next door where my grandparents lived. But the smell of garlic was too alluring. The chile pico de pájaro halo that adorned our day-to-day is something I miss every day. Many years later, the smells of dried chile california and chile pasilla still jump-start those memories.

I did some of my growing up in a fruit stand in Mexicali. Frutería Alejandrina. An establishment full of disaster, poor judgment and reflections of a teenage memory. The funniest, most beautiful place to roll out the red carpet on being a peacock. Toda la pinche vida carposa.

My grandparents had a fruit stand in the northern border of a super, super nice part of town. Where governors lived and the houses looked like marble mansions. Safe as houses even if that hood had a big ole graveyard, with gangs like “Los Panteons” referencing it. Colonia Libertad, the freedom neighborhood. A place where detached, lived-in people from the hood or posh intellectual fucks on their mistress dates would come by and purchase the bare essentials. It wasn’t as tough as my neighborhood, which was two blocks away from the physical U.S.-Mexico border, but it was poor neighboring the richest part of town. Everything seemed more ironic. And those memories are crisper, because you don’t have fear or crime clouding your overall existence and sadness. There were cute girls coming into the shop. Rocker girls. With money. The cruising strip was not too far away from there in the rich part of town. My barrio was amber alert. My grandpa’s barrio was divine. We were a border frutería in a border city, an assertion that you needed us, it was love amidst class war.

Photo Courtesy of Marco Vera

And once every week or so, Frutería Alejandrina had to restock. So, we would drive back near my hood to downtown Mexicali, to a place full of wonder and smells and culture and a taste of all of México nicknamed “La Yarda.” A double entendre poem in motion. Mercado Braulio Maldonado is known to all the locals as “La Yarda.” A place frozen in time. Founded by working people and their offspring for generations to come. It was hot. It was absurd. It was full of lament and fast-paced driving decisions. It was millimetric. It was colorful. It was full of smiles and laughter. And sun. You had a stake in it. The United States were not far off. But the tale was everybody’s. We had possession, we were awake. It was always day in “La Yarda.” If you saw it by night you were a bit of a tourist.

Named after what was by all accounts a brutal and repressive governor, Mercado Braulio Maldonado is referred to as “La Yarda” for reasons unbeknownst to many. Local unofficial historians even claim it’s a pochismo, a bastardization of the language, as the border always does, signifying “The Yard,” due to all the loading and unloading docks filled with truckloads of fruit and vegetables lining the immense real estate. La Yarda, like any beautifully chaotic memory, is fiercely contested geographically. “Where does it start?” “Who started it where?” “Were you so and so’s neighbors back in 1962?”

But this is a postcard. A postcard to my grandfather, a mi Tata. Reverse psychology souls. We were both heavy breathing alcohol. Drinking ourselves away like little devils in a graveyard.

The kiosk where the mariachis and taka takas would wait for gigs was our parking departure. My cousin and my uncle would reiterate that I wasn’t shit as they blew up their grandeur driving the van or crowded pickup truck, even when I didn’t want their Yarda canonization or holiness. My grandma hated all of it, the restock. There was no love in that affair for her unfortunately. Just separation. But I found peace there. Peace from social classes, genres of youth roleplay, it was all mixed up together. Beautifully. Low blows n’ all. An oasis for the shrink wrapped battalions of drunks and nihilists dreaming of luxurious starlets at the magazine stand. The audience at the cockfight dishing out fables, day drinking. Euphoria.

My grandfather’s journey as a merchant began in Culiacan, Sinaloa. His father married and remarried but always took his first-born son along with him. Teaching him the trade, being the owner of a wholesale distributor that supplied its clients with fruits and vegetables from all over Mexico. Once he was of age, my grandfather’s dad set him up with a fruit stand in Culiacan’s Mercado Garmendia, where he met my grandmother, a client who would come in and ask the price of items individually to see how much her handful of coins could afford her. My grandmother had been left behind by her widowed mother who migrated to the border town of Mexicali and formed a new family of her own in the border city. After my grandmother’s grandma passed away, she was left to the care of an abusive aunt who would take a big bulk of her profits doing home-to-home manicures and pedicures. Out of desperation, she asked my grandfather if she could live with him, who in turn left his girlfriend, and they moved in with consent from both families, later starting a family of their own.

Photo Courtesy of Marco Vera

Years later, my grandmother’s mother would come back to Culiacan from Mexicali on a trip to reconnect with her daughter and her family, and that established constant travel between both cities. My mother would be taken to Mexicali at the age of five to practically be raised by her aunt and grandma, but when they wanted to adopt her at the age of 13, my grandmother refused, and back to Sinaloa she went. My mom would eventually move to Mexicali as a young adult, having grown tired of not being allowed to study or work where she wanted. Taking advantage of a vacation to the border city, she found independence and did not return. Some of her sisters and brother would follow the promise of borderland employment. My grandmother would later follow her children and her mother to the border city, reuniting three different generations of family affected by distance. My grandfather, after a series of poor financial decisions and now nearly alone in Culiacan, moved to Mexicali to rejoin his family with very little money and no business connections.

My grandfather would have a humble reinvention in Mexicali as a birria taco vendor with a cart outside the city’s railroad station, as passenger trains arrived and departed. One day, he caught the eye of a couple of young men who used to be kids when he owned fruit stands in Culiacan, guys that couldn’t believe he wasn’t owning his own business as he did back in their home state. They offered to give him a loan to start up a new business in Mexicali, supplying him with all the merchandise needed to commence what my grandfather would graciously call Frutería Alejandrina, in honor of the young men’s business of the same name. Years later, with no more credit to pay and the property ownership under his belt, my grandfather had built what we all considered our home away from home, that beloved frutería forever etched in our memory.

Courtesy of Marco Vera

There’d be rich people that would roll into Frutería Alejandrina, asking what it took to make a yummy guacamole. They all have that same face of discovery. La Yarda was no different. It even had a local bus station by the mariachi kiosk that picked up and dropped off people, one farm at a time, to restock, next to world class vehicles and air-conditioned wine and cheese connoisseurs. But it was also a party. A playing field in a police state for migrants. Where self-made people unmount towards commerce. Where you could build a party from scratch, get different styles and sizes of piñatas, the ultimate Mexican dulces, theme-party candy bags… It was a place where you could see humans connected with nature, disconnect from it and package it. Signmaker commissions highlighted storefronts, restaurants, worker bars & gay bars, barber shops, banda music for hire bass drums, and mariachi & norteño groups’ vans.  

Nowadays it’s a fascist state battle between wannabe gentrifiers “rehabilitating downtown”, police harassing immigrants, divide and conquer Christians, and no end to justify the means. It’s a place of constant relocation anyway. The tacos from El Jefe were better when he was down in the pit and outdoors, not his brick and mortar three blocks up, years later. Food at a marketplace tastes better when eaten standing up. These are facts.

If one business was struggling, others could relieve it. There was store-to-store credit. Grin and bear, it was La Yarda’s mission statement. If you were young and thought you were enlightened nobody cared. You still had to arrange the wooden crates along the wall. My cousin and I would wake up at night to drink, that was our dawn. Dawn was our afternoon, we would be so hungover. Everything was an interminable binge and a hangover. And on the street there was always a scam, always a story. Men that cry to take your money. Professional actors. Cons. “Let me tell you something…” Weird caressing holds from grimy sausage fingers. All downtowns are beset by ghosts.

At Frutería Alejandrina, my grandfather and I could go days together working and hanging out without talking much, just reading El Libro Vaquero or watching classic movies from Mexico’s Golden Age on the De Pelicula channel. When we’d visit La Yarda we could both sense the status differences amidst businesses. The cold-storage room owners had personalized gold rings on several fingers, the daughters of the wholesalers wore designer jeans and ordered workers around, one could only imagine the lavish parties where they did the same. The rehab center fugitives wore rope around their waists, their hair flailing around looking for the “ghostbusters van” to take them back to internment one last time. From the back of our van and in honor of all this chaos, we drank beers from the ice chest, between loading up, in between sugar wafer and Hot Cheeto bites, observing.

It was through this lens that my grandfather and I built our history together. We’d drink till all the perishables would become unsafe for consumption. If we were really hungover, we’d stop in at the birrieria and ask for coffee. I remember the first time I went, I said “Grandpa, I don’t like coffee.” “Shut up, just drink it. It’s before 10.” I’d get a coffee cup full of foamy ice-cold beer prior to alcohol sale permits, then he’d order birria the right way. His background as a birria vendor informing his purchases, he only permitted us to to go to this one birria spot. Where it was birria de chivo, none of that lamb or beef shit. With machito and costilla, cebolla y cilantro, limones and salsa, all the different textures and flavors necessary to make it an experience. Then we’d get pretty faded ordering more caguamas, drinking them while sipping on our consomé with warm handmade corn tortillas. One time I remember he ordered the birria goat head, and I ate the eye by mistake, but the meat would come off the warm tortilla scoop like butter.

If it was after a Yarda restock, we’d get drunk with all the merchandise in the blazing heat, the chicken would thaw and go bad, and he’d invite his girlfriend over. We’d have to ask the restaurant owners to take away all of the beer bottles, coffee and consomé cups, belonging to my cousin, my uncle, my grandpa, his lover, and her daughter all having a dandy ol’ time. We’d be greeted back at Alejandrina by a well-thumbed hose spray and disciplinary actions, one time I saw him get a whole bucket. It was sad but I would just escape to the cruising strip. And keep drinking. One time my uncle and I got stoned and drunk while taking my grandpa to restock. Since it was the first restock of the year, my grandpa wanted to go to the downtown cathedral. He wouldn’t go to church regularly, much less to confession, but he’d still cruise up and go get the host. Walked into a church full of police officers because it was their annual mass, several of those cops knew us, especially my uncle. Never a bigger smile. Wasted. Watching my tipsy grandpa take communion, the only person not in blue. We left as soon as the host dissolved in his fiery breath.

Photo Courtesy of Marco Vera

When my grandpa would get very drunk, he’d start singing the lyrics to this one song: “Angelitos Negros.” After claiming for years he wrote it, we discovered Javier Solis had sung it. So had Pedro Infante, famously. I only recently found out that Roberta Flack and Eartha Kitt did it too.

Pintor nacido en mi tierra
Con el pincel extranjero
Pintor que sigues el rumbo
De tantos pintores viejos

Aunque la virgen sea blanca
Píntale angelitos negros
Que también se van al cielo
Todos los negritos buenos

Pintor si pintas con amor
¿Por qué desprecias su color?
Si sabes que en el cielo
También los quiere Dios

Pintor de santos y alcobas
Si tienes alma en el cuerpo
¿Por qué al pintar en tus cuadros
Te olvidaste de los negros?

Siempre que pintas iglesias
Pintas angelitos bellos
Pero nunca te acordaste
De pintar un ángel negro

It was grounding.

He would yell it! That feeling when he sang it. And I remember thinking I’ll carry that underappreciated sentiment with me everywhere I’m headed.

There is a court of appeals that succeeds when we remember our blurry selves; those intoxicating, enamored, simpler versions of ourselves. Like a greatest hits album. Not remembering the times we’ve been racist, idiotic, suicidal, sexist, apathetic, or truly, truly helplessly sad. Such are oral histories. There are landmarks that serve as living documents, testaments to when you and I were unstable and precarious, we’ve all driven past them after years of public transport to fall back in love with ourselves.

My tata’s frutería was one of those chaotic commerce places that you could say was such without having to face your own mess at home. 

There’s one like it in your town.

**

Dedicado a mi tío Efraín. (1952-2020)

Marco Vera is a documentary filmmaker and full-time editor residing in Los Angeles, California. Originally from the oldest neighborhood in the border city of Mexicali, he was the founder and director of Mexicali Rose Media/Arts Center, a grass roots communitarian organization dedicated to providing free access to artistic media for community youth.

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”

Poetry

Abecedarian Love Song for Street Food

Image

Original art by Fernando Mendez Corona

Lee Herrick

“Street food, I believe, is the salvation of the human race.”

—Anthony Bourdain

All praise for the pozole glistening in midday light
by the grace of the woman near the comal. In southern
California, Raul Martinez unveiled a mobile
downtown goldmine of al pastor by a bar in
East LA for the drunk, the artists, the necessary
future waiting in line. Praise be to the ice cream truck,
glory of the van’s slow roll, so praise the van,
hut, cart, booth, tent, stall, stand, bike, or truck.
I once devoured a tlayuda in Oaxaca City, broke down
just as the sunlight burst through the heart of a woman
kissing her baby’s forehead by the plaza. When I say
love, what I mean to say is I dream of you through disaster,
malady, drought, or this nightmare anxiety pandemic.
Now, even in this late dying, let us praise the 20,000
open-hearted vendors in Bangkok and the glorious
pupusas in San Salvador I ate on a bench near a dove.
Quesadilla. Arepa. Tteokbokki. Hallelujah. The banh mi
right on the outskirts of Hue, the chili pepper, the cilantro
songs, praise the Zocalo saints who brought me
to tears with a taco so full of music I almost wept.
Under the Beijing moonlight, bao zi is made by angels,
vendors with wings if you know where to look. On
West 53rd and 6th Ave, NYC, halal, or in Fresno, no
xenophobe is welcome. Tell me what to eat—
your chuan, your eloté, your mouthful of pure
zen, like savory, surprising flashes of heaven.

 

Lee Herrick is the author of Scar and Flower and two other books of poems, Gardening Secrets of the Dead and This Many Miles from Desire. He is co-editor of The World I Leave You: Asian American Poets on Faith and Spirit (Orison Books). His poems appear widely in literary magazines, textbooks, and anthologies such as One for the Money: The Sentence as Poetic Form; Indivisible: Poems of Social Justice; Here: Poems for the Planet, with an introduction by the Dalai Lama; California Fire and Water; and Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy, among others. Born in Daejeon, Korea and adopted to the United States at ten months, he served as Fresno Poet Laureate from 2015-2017. He lives in Fresno, California and teaches at Fresno City College and the MFA Program at Sierra Nevada University.

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

 

Reviews

Lunch Ladies and the Fight for School Food Justice: A Superhero Origin Story

Christine Tran

Plagued by unsavory stories in American popular culture, the lunch lady has been a mocked and villainized figure for decades. Yet, as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds in real-time, lunch ladies across the country are emerging as unassuming superheroes feeding millions across the United States.

Because of school closures and an economic downturn, school food is assuming a major role in providing emergency meals for their communities. Some are doing so independently and others have partnered with local food banks, faith-based organizations, and the Red Cross. With nearly 75 million children under the age of eighteen across the country,[1] coupled with families losing their incomes at a startling rate, more and more people are in need of food. In the first three weeks of shelter-in-place orders, sixteen million Americans filed for unemployment[2] while in nearly the same three-week period, the Los Angeles Unified School District served five million meals to children and adults.[3]

Arroyo Knights. El Monte.

Arroyo High Schools in El Monte, California

Yet unlike the origin stories of comic book heroes, the history of the lunch lady has been almost entirely erased. Moreover, their collective stories have fallen victim to historical amnesia. As a result, school food, as a sector, is invisible to and undervalued by society. For decades, most lunch ladies held some of the lowest paying jobs in school systems, making hourly wages with little to no benefits—creating a lasting impact on their economic and social worth. This is the underappreciated workforce that the United States now looks to for support.

More than ever, it is important to elevate the origin story of the lunch lady. As comic books have taught us, we can’t undo the past but we can learn from it as we move on to create future narratives, where lunch ladies (and gentlemen, or more gender non-conforming “food folks”) are acknowledged and respected for the essential workers that they are, during and outside of a pandemic. To bring those narratives to light, Jennifer Gaddis gives us their origin story in The Labor of Lunch: Why We Need Real Food and Real Jobs in American Public Schools (UC Press, 2019).

In her book, Gaddis addresses implicit biases the reader may hold about lunch ladies by guiding us through a richly-layered history of school food and labor. Using archival photos and first-hand stories, she connects us with narratives that have been withheld from our collective consciousness. She addresses the inequities of this work head on by laying out the historic role that racial and economic discrimination, capitalism, and patriarchy played in perpetuating stereotypes of school food service workers.

Gaddis sets the stage for the book not in faraway time or even in a cafeteria. She starts the book in 2004 with Lisa, a 48-year-old assistant cook, testifying in front of a local school board: “Good evening, distinguished board members and all in the room who have an ethical obligation to our children. I see some faces whose children I have had the honor of personally feeding. I use the word honor because it is the highest trust a parent can give, letting someone else care and nurture their children” (1). In her own words, Lisa addresses the board as an advocate and labor union member, identities not often associated with lunch ladies.

Gaddis_Fig3

UNITE HERE Local 1 workers gather in protest outside Chicago Public Schools head-quarters in April 2012 as part of a series of actions in their real-food, real-jobs campaigns.Courtesy UNITE HERE

Further so, she aptly titles the first chapter of the book, “The Radical Roots of School Lunch.” This foundational section to the book disaggregates the history you may find on the internet when you search for “school lunch.” Gaddis tells a history of a movement that began half a century before the passing of the 1946 National School Lunch Act, by firmly rooting school food history alongside feminist history, calling it a “product of generations of women’s activism.” In fact, school lunch started out in the 1890s  as a localized “penny lunch” program as part of a “nonprofit school lunch movement.” It was born out of a public necessity to feed extremely poor children, “not as private, gendered responsibility” (18). School lunch, along with kindergarten and public kitchens, were just some approaches advocates used to create new forms of public caregiving to support the changing roles of women during this industrializing era.

A federal policy that paves the way for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) can appear to be a win, but who is actually benefiting from the program? Gaddis examines the systemic racial inequities that excluded many populations of color under the federal school lunch program. In the chapter, “The Fight for Food Justice,” Gaddis discusses the role of the Black Panther Party in organizing local support for poor black communities whose needs were unmet by the government. In 1968, a group of Oakland mothers worked alongside the Panthers to start the very first Free Breakfast for Children Program. This program resulted in a national movement of localized expansion in poor black communities that would feed tens of thousands of poor black children across the country while exposing inequities, and demonstrating to the American public “a working example of how social reproduction could be collectivized at the neighborhood scale in a truly egalitarian fashion” (62).

In addition to social and political movements, the chronology of school food is also heavily influenced by the industrialization of food and rise of the cheap food economy, as well as the government’s role in regulating what goes into school meals. In 1981, the Reagan administration reduced the school food budget by one-third, resulting in the need to cut costs by changing regulations to include cheaper substitutes. A task force was convened to discuss cheaper alternatives to certain meal components: “Suddenly corn chips, pretzels, doughnuts, and pies could all pass as ‘bread’ in the NSLP” (98). Gaddis also describes the shifting labor of school lunch, as more central kitchen models were being constructed and for-profit Big Food factories began receiving more contracts to turn commodity foods like chicken into nuggets. These shifts led to reheating already prepared foods and diminishing a school cafeteria’s capacity to cook from scratch. This period, according to Gaddis, had a stark effect on the school food programming across the country.

Gaddis_Fig1

Workers making prepack sandwiches in a central kitchen facility. Records of the Office of  the Secretary of Agriculture, 1974-ca. 2003, National Archives and Records Administration.

Despite the challenges that exist in school food, Gaddis positions a lofty goal for the school food sector: “Empowering school kitchen and cafeteria workers to cook real food from scratch using locally sourced and school-grown ingredients can transform the entire culture of [NSLP]” (174). Rather than one-off solutions or one-size fits all approaches, Gaddis offers several examples to realize this “real food economy.” One approach is farm-to-school, by which schools can connect and buy directly from local farmers. This type of programming effectively builds relationships with food so that we know where it comes from. This requires coordinated efforts and investments: “Establishing comprehensive farm-to-school programs that combine local food procurement, school gardening, and classroom education takes significant effort that is difficult to sustain without grant funding and personal donations” (196). Identifying and working with local partners is key to making this change. Gaddis reminds us of this shared responsibility: “The NSLP is a public program. And we, the public, can reimagine and ultimately transform it into an engine for positive social and economic change” (214). We must remember that to feed children, we must also employ people to serve, cook, transport, and grow food. In effect, this would stimulate the economy, not take away from it.

Making these sweeping changes to the school food system requires a greater shift in society. Gaddis positions the notion of a real school food system into a new economy of care. How do we care about school food and the labor behind it? Gaddis reminds us that the value of school food and labor is dependent on our collective respect for it: “It’s up to us to change the paradigm. Cheapness is not synonymous with public value.” (228). Now more than ever, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, food service workers across the country need this paradigm shift as they risk their own health to feed millions of children. By valuing their labor and school food we can better support them on the frontlines of this public health crisis.

Notes

[1] https://www.childtrends.org/indicators/number-of-children

[2] https://apnews.com/20a7e14dada836862b250b54a11305dd

[3] https://civileats.com/2020/04/07/with-schools-closed-some-districts-are-feeding-more-people-than-food-banks/

 

Christine Tran is a food and education advocate from South El Monte, California. She is passionate about people, places, food, and stories that connect us all. Her diverse background in education, food justice, communities, and policy has taken her across the country and around the world. As a multimedia storyteller, she aspires to spark dialogues to deepen our understanding of each other, the food we eat, and the world we share. Christine is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington studying Educational Leadership, Policy & Organizations. She obtained her bachelor’s degrees in Asian American Studies and English, as well as a Master of Education from UCLA. She also holds a Master of Arts in sociology from Columbia University in the City of New York.

Copyright: © 2020 Christine Tran. 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

We are our own Multitude: Los Angeles’ Black Panamanian Community

Ilustracion 1 RGB

Courtesy of Fernando Mendez Corona

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.


Jenise Miller

On a Saturday morning in late October, public workers in downtown Los Angeles block off the stretch of Broadway from Olympic Boulevard to Hill Street. Around 10 am, a crowd gathers, donned in blue and red garments, shirts embroidered with mola, white polleras with bright-colored pom-poms, or Panama flags draped across their backs, to celebrate the Annual Panamanian Independence Day Parade. Distant relatives and former neighbors spot each other and greet with air kisses on each cheek. The crowd travels with the parade down Broadway and ends with a battle of Panamanian bands at Pershing Square. By activating spaces like downtown, a small but significant, interconnected community of Black Panamanians made Los Angeles their home.

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The 2018 Senior Queen of the Parade waves at attendees along Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of Ernesto Edwards.

While some have lived in Los Angeles since the 1960s, many Black Panamanian families moved to L.A. from Panama and other states such as New York, to live alongside African-Americans with roots in the American South during the 1970s and 1980s. As they sought housing in areas where other Black Panamanians already lived, a constellation of Black Panamanian families and individuals grew in South Los Angeles, North Long Beach, Watts, and Compton. Decades before they migrated to the United States, their grandparents left countries like Barbados, Jamaica, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and other Caribbean islands for Panama. Like them, they relied on family, friendship, and cultural practices.

Settling into their new city, they moved to affordable homes and several apartment complexes in Compton, including an apartment complex my mother, a canteen cashier at an aerospace company, managed. Known as “The Blvd,”because of its location on Long Beach Boulevard, one of Compton’s major thoroughfares, Black Panamanians came to occupy over half of the complex’s units. Its layout—apartments that faced each other with a communal space in the front and a walkway in the back that led to the next building—encouraged neighbors to interact and kids to play together. On Saturday mornings, music poured from every apartment: Anita Baker, Johnnie Taylor, Ruben Blades or Tabou Combo. The aroma of fried, sweet platanos and collard greens drifted between the apartments. During the summer, one neighbor sold duros, juices frozen in plastic cups, with flavors like tamarindo, ginger-infused jamaica, and, my favorite, coco, made with fresh coconut milk and shredded coconut, sweetened with cinnamon and nutmeg. If someone had a party, we all partied and feasted on delicacies such as saus (pickled pig feet with onions, cucumber, and white vinegar), chicheme (a drink made with sweetened milk, corn, and cinnamon), and Panamanian tamales (a spicy, reddish masa filled with green peas, peppers, a bone-in piece of chicken, and a prune, tripled wrapped, first in a banana leaf, then wax paper, then aluminum foil). For Nochebuena, my mother made pineapple glazed ham for everyone and rang in Navidad with the songs of Ismael Rivera, Oscar D’León, and Ruben Blades. Though the apartment’s location placed us in the cross-hairs of both gang violence and pedestrian-involved car accidents, we created spaces of joy by sharing Black Panamanian and African-American culture and resources.

On weekends, the Black Panamanian community throughout Los Angeles came together. The physical and social proximity of Compton, Watts, North Long Beach, and South Los Angeles, made it easy to gather in each others’ homes or in local, public spaces. On Saturday afternoons, a group of women, which included my mother, gallivanted to local or cross-town casinos, Compton’s Ramada Inn or Inglewood’s Hollywood Park and Casino, to play bingo. On Sundays, they headed east, out of Los Angeles County, to San Bernardino’s San Manuel Casino. If they didn’t want to drive, they got together in someone’s home, but kept the stakes high and brought their plata. The men played straight dominos in the dining room or backyard or joined the women in the living room, where you could hit on two or three in a row, before winning with the traditional five in a row. Their children commandeered the kids’ room to play video games or listen to hip-hop and dancehall music, growing hungrier as time passed before the evening’s host finished cooking rice and peas (red beans), guandú (also called gandules or gungo peas), or lentils, fried, sweet platanos, stewed chicken, and salad – potato or coleslaw. At times, food inspired the gathering, and someone prepared and sold dinners or fritura, fried finger foods such as hojaldas (a fried bread, also known as hojaldres/dras), empanadas, fried yucca, patacones (twice-fried green plantains), or carimañolas (mashed yucca filled with ground meat then fried). Whatever the occasion, we all ate and ate together.

Outside Shop hanging victor in hat and others

Victor and friends outside the shop. Photo courtesy of Victor

Some Saturdays I accompanied my father to Victor’s Upholstery Shop (known to everyone simply as Victor’s shop); this meant peeking into the shop to say hello then sitting in the car for what felt like hours while my father hung out. Initially located on Washington Boulevard in L.A.’s Arlington Heights, the upholstery shop occupied the corner unit of a large, white brick building, with peeling paint, no windows, and one front metal gate. Named for its proprietor—a slim, brown Panamanian, with a gold tooth and a Caribbean accent (like many Black Panamanians), who often dressed in a natty fit and cap—Victor opened the shop in 1965 and availed his business to the local Panamanian community. For decades, the shop doubled as a communication hub and hang-out spot. If you wanted to confirm information about an event, you called Victor’s shop. If you needed to purchase pre-sale tickets for the upcoming boat cruise or dance, you could buy them at Victor’s shop. When the Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega was ousted in 1989, the local news stations came to Victor’s shop to interview the Panamanian community. The layout of the space itself reflected its many functions. Bolts of fabric lined up like wallpaper on one wall, shelves with binders upon binders of swatches stacked on another wall, and a wide wood work table occupied the center; it sat atop a carpet of wood dust. A dim corner room, across from the work table and behind Victor’s desk, housed a large TV and chairs. The walls were plastered with posters of athletes and bikini-clad women selling alcohol. While the sounds of Victor pounding sofa upsides with a mallet echoed through the shop, the TV room rang with the raucous laughter of men who planted themselves to talk politics and bochinche (gossip) in a mix of Spanish, English, and Patois, drink rum and milk or Cerveza Panama, and watch boxing matches, especially ones that featured Panama’s pride, Roberto “Manos de Piedra” Duran. In exchange, they helped Victor make deliveries. As they aged, they gathered for potlucks and quieter moments.

Across from Victor’s shop was Jucy’s Jamaican restaurant, one of L.A.’s few sit-down Caribbean restaurants, which has operated for over thirty-five years.[1] It serves typical Panamanian cuisine like chicken soup with dumpling, stewed meat dishes, and chicken curry. Sometimes we drove down Crenshaw to indulge in a beef patty from Stone Market. Opened in the 1970s, we first frequented Stone Market because it carried typical food items and brands that local stores did not, such as guandú peas, Malta Hatuey (a sweet, carbonated beverage), and bacalao (salted codfish).[2] Outside, men sat on folding chairs or milk crates, talking and playing dancehall and old school reggae that you could purchase.  Over time, it became a staple in the Black Panamanian community.  Located next to the market is the star of the operation: a take-out, cash only, food kiosk, where dinners, patties, and, the best carrot juice I’ve ever tasted, are prepared and sold. It is a small structure, with just a kitchen and front counter, a floor fan circulating heat and noise, and a dry-erase board that displays the menu of the day. Upon entering, the smell of coconut, butter, and cinnamon from the loaves of Coco bread and bun welcomed you the way the cashier will not. What was written on the board is what they had in stock; if an item was marked out or erased, they ran out of it for the day. If it wasn’t on the board, one shouldn’t ask for it (these were the unspoken rules). When an abuelita or other keepers of the homemade bun recipe went on a cooking hiatus, families settled for purchasing buns for Easter or Christmas from Stone Market.

During summer holidays like the 4th of July, we celebrated at Scherer Park in Long Beach. Nicknamed “Parque Del Amo,” for its location off Del Amo, between Long Beach Boulevard and Atlantic Avenue, some families arrived as early as six am to claim one of the limited numbers of picnic tables, while others brought folding tables, lawn chairs, or blankets. Each family prepared meals at home and brought them to the park: cole slaw, potato salad, rice and peas or guandú, baked barbecue chicken, and even hotdogs and hamburgers. Occasionally, my father set up a fryer and sold patacones and codfish cakes. Children would go from table to table to meet-up with friends. Asking for or accepting a plate from a table other than your own was a faux paus; my mother insisted that doing so constituted begging and set the trap for a good piece of bochinche. Folks might say that your mother did not care for you properly. The Scherer Park gatherings grew in size; at one point, someone hired an official DJ and a Panamanian ballet folklórico group performed on a portable dance floor. As Panamanians began to move to cities within San Bernardino County, festivities like an annual end of the summer picnic, were held east of Los Angeles at Frank Bonelli Park in San Dimas.

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Couples dance close at a Father’s Day Dance at the Shatto Banquet Hall. Photo courtesy of Ernesto Edwards.

Parties worthy of a formal venue took place at Shatto Banquet Hall, a rental hall on Slauson Avenue, which was popular among L.A.’s Louisiana Creole community.[3] We had our own version of formal wear. For men, it consisted of a button-down blouse, silk slacks, and dress shoes with no socks. Women wore glittered or sequined body-hugging dresses, extra-high heels, and a slather of gold – gold bracelets, anklets, earrings, and necklaces with placas (name plates or plates in the shape of the Panama Isthmus) or an Ojo de Venado (a round ball/amulet wrapped in gold letters). No matter the type of jewelry, it had to be gold, as the women deemed anything else chichipatti (cheap). At Shatto Hall, I witnessed my first and only quinceñera, another second-generation Black Panamanian girl, who body rolled down the two lines of Black damas and chambelanes to Raven-Simone’s rap song “That’s What Little Girls are Made of.”

The predominant narrative about the Afro-Latinx community in L.A. claims that we suffers from isolation and are disconnected. However, it is clear that a network of Black Panamanians nurtured and created a strong sense of identity for the next generation, including myself. As an Black Panamanian in Los Angeles, I was not a anomaly. Instead, I was part of a community that held and named me.

Yet, as the places and spaces known to the community changed, so did the community. Panamanians no longer live on “The Blvd.” Encounters with violence[4] and the lack of opportunity due to divestment and the loss of jobs once provided by large industries,  pushed African-American and Black Panamanian families out of Los Angeles. Many followed the out-migration of African-Americans east, to cities like Rialto, Upland, Fontana, and Rancho Cucamonga. Folks no longer gather at Scherer Park. After decades of running his upholstery business out of Washington Boulevard, Victor had to move. This was likely a result of rising commercial rent costs and gentrification. The original location of Victor’s shop is now an art gallery. He retired soon after his shop relocated. Jucy’s and Stone Market have managed to weather the changes and will perhaps benefit from the planned Crenshaw light rail running next to Stone Market. [5]

Outside Shop today 2

The entire building has experienced a transformation, with new tenants replacing old ones

While many families moved out of L.A. County, some families,[6] including my own, remained. We moved from Compton to Long Beach, and finally, to Watts. My family arrived to these places without the community that once enriched us and made these places home. I long for that community –my mother does too. Now, as a mother, I desire for my children to experience the affirmation that I did growing up in a Black Panamanian Los Angeles. Yet, in the face of change, we remain resourceful and look to the past for guidance. As the child of migrants, I am able to do things that my parents were not able to: I can take my children to Panama. I can take them to the annual parade, the place where we still gather, and introduce them to our neighbors from “The Blvd” and our friends like Victor. Those of us who grew up nurtured by this community of Black Panamanians, and those who are just discovering it, know that in any place we gather, we are our own multitude.

Notes

[1] Linda Burum, “Getting Down Home JAMAICAN,” Los Angeles Times. Sep. 10, 1989. Accessed at  https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1989-09-10-ca-2664-story.html

[2] Ibid.

[3] Steve Lopez, As L.A. riots raged, she was shot before she was even born. Now 25, she embodies survival and resolve” Los Angeles Times, Apr. 29, 2017. Accessed at https://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-lopez-king-evers-0430-story.html.

[4] “Natraliart, A Meaty Jamaican Spot in Arlington Heights,” Eater Los Angeles, Jul. 11, 2014. Accessed at  https://la.eater.com/2014/7/11/6188189/natraliart-a-meaty-jamaican-spot-in-arlington-heights.

[5] Lynell George, No Crystal Stair: African-Americans in the City of Angels (San Francisco: Verso, 1992) pp. 239-40.

[6] Steve Lopez, As L.A. riots raged, she was shot before she was even born. Now 25, she embodies survival and resolve” Los Angeles Times, Apr. 29, 2017. Accessed at https://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-lopez-king-evers-0430-story.html.

Jenise Miller is an urban planner and poet. She is the great-granddaughter of Black Panama Canal builders and a native of Compton and Watts. A recent Voices of Our Nations Arts (VONA) fellow, her poems have been featured in The Acentos Review, Dryland Literary Journal, and Cultural Weekly.  She received her M.A. in Urban Planning from UCLA and B.A. in Black Studies and Sociology from UC Santa Barbara. She lives in Compton with her family. You can find her on Twitter @jenisepalante and www.plannerpoet.com.

Copyright: © 2019 Jenise Miller. 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

The Geography of Gold

Oliver Wang

In the summer of 2006, my family and I moved from the Bay Area to Los Angeles. Having grown up in the San Gabriel Valley for most of the 1980s, technically I was moving back to L.A. But like many kids living in the ‘burbs, I had no real sense of “The City.” I knew about the world within my three-mile BMX biking radius, but every other neighborhood was just a name on a Thomas Guide page. Coming back after 16 years meant re-learning Los Angeles from the ground up: Its tempos and temperaments, its tangle of mini-metropoles, its physical and cultural terrains.

I decided to let my stomach lead. I’ll go a long way for good food, so I began to ease myself back into L.A.’s geography by chasing meals in whatever corners I had to. That meant, inevitably, turning to Jonathan Gold.

image1

Gold began writing about Los Angeles restaurants in the mid-1980s (when he wasn’t busy profiling N.W.A), but I had no idea about any of this as a kid.[1] By the time I came across his “Counter Intelligence” columns in that ’06 summer, he had already been writing them for nearly twenty years. No matter: Both in the newspaper and in his 2000 compendium by the same name, his reviews felt like a revelation.

It wasn’t simply that Gold was a gifted writer, though he absolutely was. His Los Angeles Times colleague Carolina Miranda said it best when she wrote that his reviews “were both erudite and joyous—his glee over a good dish was always infectious.”[2] Seriously, tell me this passage from his 2012 guide to Koreatown dishes doesn’t make you want to immediately run out to Vermont Avenue: “hwe dup bap is one of those dishes where each bite is subtly varied in spice, marine savor and green crunch, with the smelt roe crackling under your teeth, the raw fish melting into the hot rice.”[3]

There was always a palpable exuberance in Gold’s attempts to relate the sensory experience of eating a meal. Yet more than just how Gold wrote about food, what made him so important, so indispensable to the city, is where he went looking for it.

He wanted to embrace its complexity and contradictions. Everything that others find off-putting and unruly about the city is where he found kaleidoscopic, resplendent beauty.

One of the stories Gold liked to tell audiences was how in his early twenties, before his days as a food writer, he decided to explore every eatery along Pico Boulevard, beginning at a downtown pupuseria and moving west, intending to end at a Santa Monica burger shack. If you’re not familiar with the thoroughfare, it’s a rather prosaic 14-mile stretch that runs through a dizzying number of neighborhoods, including Pico-Union, Koreatown, Beverlywood, Rancho Park, etc. No one street can possibly contain all the multitudes of the many Los Angeleses out there but if you wanted an inkling of the Southland’s overlapping, distinct, and disparate communities, you could do worse than a Pico perambulation.

Gold never made it all the way to the beach, but he got two-thirds the way there, and more than anything the attempt alone says much about the insatiable curiosity that gripped him when it came to understanding food and place. In 1998, he wrote a Counter Intelligence column recounting, “The Year I Ate Pico Boulevard.”[4] It’s one of his very best pieces—which is saying a lot—and this passage is worth quoting in all its giddy, run-on glory:

Pico is home to Valentino, which specializes in preparing customized Italian food for millionaires, and to Oaxacan restaurants so redolent of the developing world that you half expect to see starved chickens scratching around on the floor; to Billingsley’s, a steak house, which could have been transplanted whole from Crawfordsville, Indiana, and to the Arsenal, a steak house decorated with medieval weaponry; to chain Mexican restaurants, artist-hangout Mexican restaurants and Mexican restaurants of such stunning authenticity that you’re surprised not to stumble outside into a bright Guadalajara sun. Greek and Scandinavian delis still flourish on stretches of Pico that haven’t been Greek or Scandinavian since the Eisenhower administration.[5]

It’s all there: Gold’s gift for deep description, the rhythmic pulse of his writing, and most of all, an earnest ethos of inclusion and exploration. He wasn’t trying to sum up Los Angeles in a tidy turn of phrase. He wanted to embrace its complexity and contradictions. Everything that others find off-putting and unruly about the city is where he found kaleidoscopic, resplendent beauty.[6]

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More than any other part of L.A., though, I always saw Gold as the champion of the San Gabriel Valley, a massive swath of neighborhoods that begin near the L.A. River and sweep eastward towards the Inland Empire. Gold and his family lived in the SGV—Pasadena to be exact—for decades, not far from where I grew up. Back in the 1980s, I don’t recall any of my friends ever bragging about coming from “The SGV” let alone wearing “626” emblazoned on a t-shirt (this was still the 213/818 era at the time).

By the mid/late 20-aughts, this had changed as a younger generation were now claiming the SGV like it was Brooklyn or East Oakland. Much of that pride is rooted in the region’s astounding food cultures, a result of decades of Asian and Latinx immigrant communities settling across its dozens of cities.[7] The critical masses of those diasporas meant that restaurants could cater to palates not yet assimilated by anodyne American tastes; that reality is what drew Gold, again and again, to explore the SGV’s myriad offerings.

His columns became completely indispensable for me coming back to what I thought were my old haunts, only to realize I had never really explored the region at all. Through Gold, I ended up in more Valley Blvd. and Garvey Blvd. strip malls than I can remember, chasing Taiwanese beef noodle soup in San Gabriel, Vietnamese bun bo hue in South El Monte, Xinjiang cumin lamb ribs in Rosemead, Guerrero-style lamb barbacoa in Highland Park. The day he passed, I happened to be on Valley for dinner and I knew that if I just strolled around one single block, I could find at least half a dozen restaurants with his review turned into a plaque on their wall.

I also thought about one of my favorite memories of Gold’s influence: my parents, who still live in the SGV house I lived in during high school, invited me and my family out to dinner at one of the newer Sichuan restaurants to recently land in Alhambra. My parents, while they eat out on occasion, have never been on the front lines of trends so I asked them how they heard about the restaurant. As it turns out, my dad’s best friends Peter and Alice had taken them there previously. But that couple lived out in Pacific Palisades, on the other, far side of town. “So,” I asked, “how did they learn about this place?” It turns out they had read a review of it… in the Los Angeles Times. And sure enough, I glanced towards the lobby and there was a framed review with a byline for Jonathan Gold.[8]

“So,” I asked, “how did they learn about this place?” It turns out they had read a review of it… in the Los Angeles Times. And sure enough, I glanced towards the lobby and there was a framed review with a byline for Jonathan Gold.

An easy way to understand the uniqueness of Gold’s culinary geography of Los Angeles is found by comparing his orientations to those of many of his colleagues. Pick up any older, middlebrow guide to “food in Los Angeles,” and it’s as if there is no L.A. south of the 10 or east of the 5. We’re not talking about “pockets” of the region being skipped over. We’re talking about massive geographic and demographic parts of the Southland rendered invisible. Gold was astutely aware of all this. In one of the most oft-quoted parts from the acclaimed 2015 documentary about him, City of Gold, he says, “you’re used to having your city explained to you by people who come in for a couple of weeks, stay at a hotel in Beverly Hills, and take in what they can get to within ten minutes of their rented car.”[9] Perhaps he was too polite to add that those myopic “explainers” also included people from L.A., not just out-of-town Zagat editors. Case in point: I recently picked up the annual “best of” issue of a long-running Los Angeles magazine and in their food section, out of twenty-five primary entries, only one was located in the SGV and absolutely none in either South or Southeast Los Angeles.

It may seem odd to say this about a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic who worked for two of the area’s biggest newspapers but in his thirty-two years of food writing for the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly, Gold created a definitive alternative guide to Southland food culture, one in which East Hollywood mattered as much as West Hollywood, where Huntington Park and Monterey Park carried greater cachet than Hancock Park, and where Koreatown could be more interesting and vibrant than downtown. As Danny Chau wrote for The Ringer, “there is no one true Los Angeles. Perhaps the closest we’ve ever gotten to finding that core is the vision of L.A. through the eyes, ears, and stomach of Jonathan Gold.”[10]

For all these reasons, it’s impossible to deny fellow food critic Gustavo Arellano’s claim that Gold was “one of our greatest and most important literary voices” because “our food in his hands became the prism through which outsiders could finally see the real SoCal.”[11] Gold wasn’t simply a consummate food writer, he was also a quintessential Los Angeles writer, using meals as a way to probe and comment on the city’s innumerable frictions and fantasias. The inevitable—and necessary—Jonathan Gold anthologies and readers that will come are likely to cement what many of us already know: Gold’s writing has shaped a collective idea of Los Angeles to rival those of earlier scribes such as Reyner Banham, Joan Didion, or Mike Davis.

Importantly though, as Chau insists, “the vision of Gold’s true L.A. doesn’t belong to any one person.”[12] It would be, of course, hubristic folly to assume that an individual could replace Gold as a singular figure. But Gold had transformed the entire landscape of food writing here long before his passing. His influence isn’t only reflected in individual writers who work in the same milieu but it’s embedded in the public imagination of how we think and talk about food in the Southland, whether that comes in the form of a high-production documentaries on immigrant restauranteurs in L.A. or random strangers debating soup dumplings on a message board.[13] Jonathan Gold didn’t “discover” a Los Angeles that no one else knew about, but column after column he built us new maps to help navigate it. In his time, too brief it truly was, his lasting gift was to invite us into his city of Gold and so we could find different ways to break bread within it, together.

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Notes

[1] Gold began his career not as a food critic but as a music critic and journalist. His profile of N.W.A, for the LA Weekly is still considered one of the important, early examples of West Coast rap journalism. Jonathan Gold, “NWA: Hard Rap and Hype From the Streets of Compton,” LA Weekly, 5 May 1989, www.laweekly.com/news/jonathan-gold-meets-nwa-2385365.

[2] Carolina Miranda, “To Be a Writer in Los Angeles Is to Contend with the Words of Jonathan Gold,” Los Angeles Times, 22 July 2018, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/miranda/la-et-cam-tribute-jonathan-gold-20180721-story.html.

[3] Jonathan Gold, “Jonathan Gold’s 60 Korean Dishes Every Angeleno Should Know,” LA Weekly, 1 March 2012, www.laweekly.com/restaurants/jonathan-golds-60-korean-dishes-every-angeleno-should-know-2383348.

[4] Jonathan Gold, “The Year I Ate Pico Boulevard,” LA Weekly, 23 September 1998, http://www.laweekly.com/news/the-year-i-ate-pico-boulevard-2129883.

[5] Ibid.

[6] In the 2015 documentary, City of Gold, Gold describes Los Angeles this way: “the thing that people find hard to understand is the magnitude of what’s here. The huge numbers of multiple cultures that live in the city that come together in this beautiful and haphazard fashion. And the fault lines between them are sometimes where you can find the most beautiful things.” City of Gold, directed by Laura Gabbert, 2015.

[7] Wendy Cheng, The Changs next Door to the Diazes: Remapping Race in Suburban California (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).

[8] Jonathan Gold, “The Restaurant Is Called Legendary. But Is It? Jonathan Gold Sits down for Showstopping Sichuan,” Los Angeles Times, 30 December 2016, http://www.latimes.com/food/dailydish/la-fo-gold-legendary-restaurant-review-20161208-story.html.

[9] Gabbert, 2015.

[10] Danny Chau, “The Gateway and the Gatekeeper: In Memory of Jonathan Gold,” The Ringer, 23 July 2018, https://www.theringer.com/2018/7/23/17601794/jonathan-gold-food-critic-la-times-obituary-in-memoriam.

[11] Gustavo Arellano, “We All Live in Jonathan Gold’s Southern California,” Los Angeles Times, 21 July 2018, www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-arellano-jonathan-gold-20180721-story.html.

[12] Chau, 2018.

[13] “The Migrant Kitchen” is a documentary series about food and immigrant communities in Los Angeles. Food Talk Central is a message board with a robust sub-section devoted to Los Angeles restaurants. The Migrant Kitchen, KCET, 2016, Food Talk Central, http://foodtalkcentral.com/c/usa-west/los-angeles.

 

Oliver Wang is a professor of sociology at California State University, Long Beach and co-editor of Journal of Popular Music Studies. He writes about culture, music, and food for KCET, the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books and National Public Radio.

Copyright: © 2018 Oliver Wang. 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

Not Quite in California

sarah_rural2

Sarah G. Grant

Hao’s first trip to the U.S. was not what she expected. After nearly forty-eight hours of travel and two layovers with her young child in tow, she landed in New Orleans for a long drive to St. Landry Parish. She flew in after dark. The swampy physical surroundings she would come to know remained a mystery until days after her jetlag wore off. And while the eighty-five percent relative humidity smacked of Saigon, nothing else reminded her of home.

Her arrival to this relatively rural part of Louisiana marked the first time someone from her family set foot in the U.S. With a working husband, young child and no driver license (nor car) she was generally isolated and deeply homesick. Her vast network of friends and family in Saigon felt even further away since she had no wireless internet, but once she purchased a second-hand unlocked smart phone, conversations with her brothers and mother became part of her daily routine, providing some sense. Hao scheduled everything in her life around GMT +7, the daily time back in Saigon.

But Hao was not living in a Vietnamese diaspora—she was the diaspora in this part of rural Louisiana.

Our conversations in 2013 during her first months in the U.S. were marked by a longing for her family, the ease of motorbike transportation in Vietnam, Vietnamese food, and the vegetables and herbs needed to cook her favorite dishes. This is no surprise, for food and diaspora have long been the subject of inquiries into place-making, identity, and livelihood.[1] But Hao was not living in a Vietnamese diaspora—she was the diaspora in this part of rural Louisiana. Given her transportation limitations and child care obligations, the Vietnamese diaspora in New Orleans might as well have been in Saigon. She was caught between places and communities all at once. Also caught between categories, Hao did not fit neatly into any of them. Her lived experiences in Vietnam, Louisiana, and eventually California all individually shed light on what it means to long for her homeland in Vietnam, but also California—a place that may serve to mitigate her homesickness and uncertainty about life in the U.S.

As Hao acclimated to Louisiana and the southern U.S., she spoke carefully and with intention about Vietnam, but she also pondered a life in California. She often asked me questions about “what it’s like in Cali?” Locating the Vietnamese diaspora in California requires locating California not in one particular place but in multiple places, simultaneously. Hao was formulating California as the nucleus of Vietnamese diaspora—as a place marked by an established Vietnamese speaking community with persistent social, cultural, and economic ties to Vietnam. Although New Orleans, just a few hours away, has a similarly significant Vietnamese diaspora, Hao knew little about the city, its size and diversity, or the community of migrants she may have identified with. As a recent migrant with an American husband and two young children growing up in the U.S., she did not fit neatly into the Vietnamese “refugee” category nor did she have the social and economic capital that some of her distant friends and acquaintances from Vietnam enjoyed as recent migrants. She more so felt disconnected from any sense of local community in Louisiana—living hours from a major city with a Vietnamese market might as well have been a world away.  Yet in drafting a mental map of Vietnamese diasporic culture in California (however real or imagined) she engendered new opportunities for herself and her family.

Yên Lê Espiritu has examined the persistence of the “refugee” category in U.S. scholarship despite the existence of “multiple migrant categories, from political exiles to immigrants to transmigrants, as well as a large number of native-born” Vietnamese.[2] However, over the past decade literature on the Vietnamese American diaspora emerged, which was a and necessary surge in critical refugee studies. This nascent but growing literature on Vietnamese socialist mobilities has opened up new possibilities for understanding the diversity of migrant communities across the spectrum and their respective lived experiences.[3] Hao’s experience might even further an understanding of what it means to occupy multiple migrant categories at once, as well as what it means to construct California as a community despite her physical distance from it. After all, even without familial ties to the U.S., the two regions she was most familiar with prior to her arrival were Orange County and San Jose. Illuminating Hao’s experience helps us understand the complexities of new Vietnamese migrant experiences and how California is constructed as a particularly valued place for some Vietnamese migrants. Furthermore, her experience provides a reminder that despite the amount of uncertainty that encapsulates migrating to the U.S., the possibility of a better quality of life is still real.[4]

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During Hao’s first few months in Louisiana she lived vicariously through my own frequent visits to Little Saigon in Orange County and occasional trips to Vietnam where I spent late nights drinking and eating in a Saigon alleyway with her family. Years later, by the time I visited Hao in Louisiana, she had cultivated a full-fledged Vietnamese culinary garden and perfected her Vietnamese-style Cajun crawfish boil recipe long before she would see a crawfish boil spot every few blocks in Southern California. Without ready access to Vietnamese enclaves elsewhere in the U.S., where food is inextricably linked to homeland, Hao sated her nostalgia and dearth of community relations with Vietnamese herbs and creative southern/Vietnamese fusion.[5] She was ostensibly carving out a new home with her family in Louisiana. Although, Southern California, and all that it seemed to offer by way of Vietnamese community and culture, called to her.

Hao’s perception of Little Saigon was shaped years before she left Vietnam by her working in restaurants in the urban center of Saigon, learning English through western media and later through her American husband, which all worked to produce an image and expectation of life in America. But chatting with cousins and friends who had traveled to Southern California and living next door to me in south-central Vietnam fashioned an idea of Little Saigon that she would endear herself to.

I had first met Hao and her American husband in 2010 while renting a room next door to their small house in highland south-central Vietnam. I shared my ongoing research with her, practiced Vietnamese, and exchanged life histories. We occasionally chatted about the complicated nature of Vietnamese bureaucracy but we mostly talked about regional food diversity spanning the narrow swath of country. She often asked me about California and the Vietnamese community, eventually constructing her own geography of the state with focal points on the weather, Vietnamese grocers and the best place for mì quảng. As the only English speaker in her family and the only family member with a tangible future in the U.S., she carried the precarious weight of expectation and uncertainty through her daily routine. Not long after we met, Hao moved back to a deep network of Saigon alleyways inhabited by her immediate and extended family and by other Mekong Delta migrants. Here, unlike the highlands, she did not have to worry about the chilly air. She celebrated her network of kin and easy access to the rice, vegetables, and noodles that her family brought up from the Delta and sold in the neighborhood.

When the possibility of moving to the U.S. materialized, she asked me about Louisiana as a residential possibility. All I could come up with was an analogy about Vietnamese regional accents, speculation that she might enjoy the food culture of the U.S. South, and mistakenly mentioned her proximity to a thriving Vietnamese community.[6] Although she knew that the Vietnamese diaspora I often spoke of (Little Saigon) would not become her new home, it remained a place of pure fascination and attraction. My attempts at explaining California and its complicated strata, politics, diverse landscape, and ever-evolving food culture seemed to perpetually pique her interest, even after she joined her husband in Louisiana.

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Hao first brought up the possibility of visiting California in the context of a potential job training opportunity in Little Saigon and asked if I would be willing to host her. After years living in the rural South, it was obvious that a break from Louisiana was an underlying motivation for her overall visit. Given my own recent relocation back to Southern California, it was clear that experiencing Little Saigon was paramount. Even without family ties in the U.S., Hao knew of Little Saigon and Orange County with stark detail. When I picked her up from LAX weeks later, she barely spoke as we drove south, past the port, the charbroiled hamburger and teriyaki bowl stands, fighting traffic even after midnight. When she did speak it was only to remark on how many people were out (in their cars). I narrated our journey through the South Bay and marked various arbitrary landmarks. For no particular reason I assumed she would be interested in In-N-Out and so I pointed out one and then two more from our vantage point on the 405. As we crossed the Los Angeles River and the threshold to my neighborhood, I noticed my local phở restaurant flashing “closed” in yellow neon. Hao had never really eaten phở in Saigon. I could not picture her eating it once; she opted for hủ tiếu, cơm tấm, ốc, bánh khọt, bánh mì, mực (dried and grilled), anything from the complex network of alleyways in her neighborhood and just about everything but phở. She still seemed pleased to see a Vietnamese restaurant around the corner and asked if it was any good.

But it really didn’t matter if it was any good or not.

The critical mass of restaurants with chữ Quốc ngữ was exactly what Hao expected from southern California. And her week-long visit was somehow quintessentially Southern California —a drive along the coast, walks on the beach, traffic—but also quintessentially Saigon in its own right. She spent a majority of her time in Little Saigon speaking Vietnamese and grocery shopping for our meals at home. California became the Vietnamese diasporic experience of her imagination. She managed to connect with a childhood friend who had recently moved to Little Saigon to be with extended family. He joined us for much of the week and explained what life is like in Little Saigon. We grilled ribs, okra, and squid while speaking Vietnamese and tallying empty beer bottles in a crate. These moments almost gave the illusion that we were back in her family’s alleyway in Saigon. She had been in the U.S. for a couple of years by then, but California seemed to be a sort of a bridge between her life in Louisiana and her family and friends in Saigon.

As we neared Hao’s departure back to Louisiana, we took one final trip to Little Saigon for a last-minute meal and shopping trip. She packed her bag full of her favorite brand of rice paper, tea, headache relief oil, and dried seafood, along with a separate bag for me to deliver to her family in Saigon that summer. It was not lost on me that she was purchasing made-in-Vietnam goods in a Westminster strip mall for her family in Saigon. Hao finally had the opportunity to show her family that she could potentially call the U.S. home and experience the Vietnamese community she did not yet have in Louisiana. Her family knew that commercially produced chocolate candies and toiletries were available everywhere in the U.S. but “Dầu Gió Đỏ” medicated oil came from a Vietnamese community. A proxy delivery of Hao’s California purchased Vietnamese material goods to Vietnam carried the symbolic significance of finding community, marking her wellness, and assuring herself and her family that California was everything she wanted and needed it to be. It could be a home. In our subsequent conversations, California still existed as an object of desire—a place Hao wanted to return to. Despite the limitations that come with being a recent migrant, California remains accessible. There still exists the possibility of bridging the distant space between the rural southern U.S. and Vietnam through a visit to Little Saigon.

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Notes

[1] See Sidney Mintz, “Food and Diaspora,” Food, Culture, and Society 11.4 (2008): 509-523; Krishnendu Ray, The Migrant’s Table: Meals and Memories in Bengali-American Households (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004).

[2] Yen Le Espiritu, “Toward a Critical Refugee Study: The Vietnamese Refugee Subject in US Scholarship,” Journal of Vietnamese Studies 1/1-2 (February/August 2006): 411.

[3] See Christina Schwenkel, “Socialist Mobilities: Crossing New Terrains in Vietnamese Migration Histories,” Central and Eastern European Migration Review (2015): 1-13; see also http://criticalrefugeestudies.com.

[4] For more on transnational migration, aspirations, and the unknown see Ivan V. Small, “‘Over There’ Imaginative Displacements in Vietnamese Remittance Gift Economies, Journal of Vietnamese Studies 7.4 (2012): 157-183. Small’s argument that “for aspiring migrants, life overseas may offer a comparatively uncertain future, but it is one that has already been tested by others who have gone ahead and, therefore, imaginatively invested with optimistic promises of social transformation” sheds light on why the uncertainty of migration holds such promise and opportunity for Hao as the first migrant in her family.

[5] On the importance of the migrant food culture and the relationship between food and migrant communities, see Parvathi Raman, “Me in Place, and the Place in Me: A Migrant’s Tale of Food, Home and Belonging,” Food, Culture, and Society 14.2 (2011): 165-180; see also Daniela Fargione, “Food and Imagination: An Interview with Monique Truong,” Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies 16.4 (2016): 1-8 for more on the intersections between food, loss, identity, and change.

[6] Hao actually would find herself hours from the nearest Vietnamese diaspora in Louisiana. The Southern Foodways Alliance has since produced a number of short films, oral histories, and podcasts on Vietnamese in the U.S. South. For example see: https://www.southernfoodways.org/okracast-sue-nguyen-of-le-bakery-in-biloxi-ms/. See also Vy Thuc Dao, “From the Ground Up: A Qualitative Analysis of Gulf Coast Vietnamese Community-Based Organizations and Community (Re)building in Post-disaster Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Tulane University, 2015.

 

Sarah G. Grant is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at California State University, Fullerton. Her ongoing multi-sited ethnographic research investigates the cultural, economic, and environmental politics of Vietnam’s commodity and specialty coffee industries.

Copyright: © 2018 Sarah G. Grant. 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/.

Uncategorized

Boom Fall Events

Jonathan Gold and Oliver Wang at the Autry in Los Angeles

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Food and Ethnicity: A Conversation about L.A.
Tuesday, September 5th
7:00 p.m. Dinner
7:30 p.m.
Program Begins

Join us in L.A. for our first Fall event! In partnership with the Autry Museum of the American West and their Works in Progress series, enjoy a night of food and conversation as LA Times food critic Jonathan Gold and Cal State Long Beach sociologist Oliver Wang workshop some ideas on L.A. food and ethnicity, which will be published in Boom California later this year. The discussion will be moderated by Boom’s editor, Jason Sexton.

This will be the first in an ongoing partnership between the Autry and Boom.

RSVPs are required and space is limited, so please reserve your spot and receive additional details by e-mailing Belinda Nakasato Suarez at bnakasato@theautry.org. The Autry Museum of the American West is located in Griffith Park.


TJ_night_Mark via Flickr

Tijuana by Mark via Flickr.

Gathering across the Border in Tijuana

Undocumented California: An Evening of Readings and Music
Thursday, October 5th
7:00 – 9:00 p.m.

Gather with us in Tijuana at Cine Tonalá for an evening of friendship, readings, and music, entering the complex realities brought to us by the California border. Co-sponsored together with the California Historical Society, we’ll reflect on California border ecology, highlighting our shared identity as Californians, bridge-builders, open to the world.

Come grab a drink, meet Boom writers like Ana Rosas, Tanya Golash-Boza, Zulema Valdez, Ronald Rael, Jemima Pierre, Laura Enriquez, Josh Kun, David Kipen, and others sharing new readings for this Fall’s Boom series on Undocumented California, making a statement together of our collective values as Californians. We’ll close the night with a special set by Tijuana-raised Ceci Bastida who will debut a new collaboration with Haitian refugees living in the city.

Venue: Cine Tonalá, Avenida Revolución 1317, Zona Centro, 22000 Tijuana, BC, Mexico

Looking forward to seeing you this Fall!

Excerpts

New Missionaries

by Marc Flacks

In the olive groves of the Golden State

From Boom Winter 2014, Vol 4, No 4

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of Marc Flacks’s essay “New Missionaries” from our Winter 2014 issue. 

The production of olive oil in California has deep roots. Generations of Californians have been seduced by olive trees and their promise of a liquid bonanza. California is now reported to be in the midst of an olive oil boom or a “liquid gold rush,” but in fact, the state is witnessing its third or fourth effort to establish a viable olive oil industry. The Spanish missionaries began producing olive oil in California around 1803. After that, Italian immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century started producing olive oil when their Gold Rush dreams failed to pan out, and in the twentieth century, entrepreneurs tried to compete against the dominant European olive oil industry.

As this Mission olive tree on the State Capitol grounds grew over the past century, the tags bent and were embedded in its trunk.

Even though California olive oil represents only a tiny fraction of today’s world market, the state may be poised to become a major global player because of the creative efforts of family-run agribusinesses, legislation aimed at defining high quality, “extra virgin” oil, and the implementation of a relatively new high-density growing method imported from Spain. Every new attempt to cultivate this industry in the Golden State has been accompanied by new myths about olive trees and the natural suitability of California for producing the golden oil. As something of an insider to the industry and an academic researcher, and therefore something of an outsider too, I’ve been curious about the people at the forefront of this potential boom and the new myths they are creating.

My own olive oil journey began by accident in Santa Barbara, where I grew up. When I rode my bike or moped down Olive Street on my way to Santa Barbara High School, my tires would slide perilously when braking, and I would wonder why the city allowed all the fruit from the olive trees lining the road to drop and grease the street, instead of harvesting them and putting them to good use. Then, when I moved to the Sacramento area in 2007 to begin teaching sociology at Yuba College, I read in the Sacramento Bee that University of California, Davis, having settled too many suits filed by bicyclists injured in accidents caused by oil from fallen olives, decided to harvest their trees and ultimately establish the UC Davis Olive Center, transforming a liability into an asset. Yuba College, it turns out, sits on the site of an old olive grove and, when I noticed a feral grove near campus, I obtained permission to hold a volunteer community olive harvest there and began establishing 49er Olive Oil, a nonprofit olive oil venture.

My self-appointed olive oil mission has been not only to get 49er Olive Oil up and running, but to immerse myself in the world of California olive oil and to try to grasp its significance in sociological, historical, geographical, and mythical terms. Traversing a California divided into familiar binaries such as Northern/Southern, coastal/inland, organic/conventional, liberal/conservative, urban/rural, government/industry, profit/nonprofit, etc. I’ve talked with many of today’s olive oil missionaries to better understand the ideals, goals, and strategies they hope this time will avoid the industry busts of the past.

Santa Barbara’s Old Missions

Because my curiosity about California olive oil began in Santa Barbara, I started my exploration there.

There is an old myth that California’s first olive tree was planted by Father Junipero Serra in 1769, the year that the governor of Baja and Alta California, Gaspar de Portolá, led an expedition to San Diego to establish the first of California’s twenty-one missions. Aside from shade and food, Spanish missionaries needed olive oil for sacramental purposes. Although the actual historical record of olive propagation and Spanish conquest diverges from myth—there is no reliable evidence that Serra planted the first tree—the evidence that olive trees and their fruit were central to the lives and work of Spanish missionaries is still visible up and down the state.

In partnership with the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, Santa Barbara’s Old Mission has planted a new olive grove called Stations of the Cross Olive Garden Path. The grove is meant to serve multiple purposes, including providing revenue to the mission and the trust through olive oil sales, providing shade, connecting visitors to biblical history, and simply providing a place for quiet contemplation.

The trust has also partnered with Mission Santa Inés to grow olive trees and involve citizen volunteers in helping to produce nonprofit olive oil. They are hoping to gain state park status for a historic grist and mill, and they are creating new opportunities for visitors to gain hands-on understanding of California history.

Olivos Del Mar

Sample products from the Makela family’s Olivos Del Mar company.

Over the coastal range from Santa Ynez, near Refugio Canyon, is the Makela family spread. The Makelas trace their heritage back to the original Spanish settlers in Santa Barbara and acknowledge that, while planting avocados would probably be more profitable, they consider olives to be their family tradition and legacy. A sign hanging above the entrance to their offices reads, “100 years and 9 generations of Santa Barbara tradition in every product.”

The Makela family’s work blends historical preservation and innovation. Craig Makela, past president of the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, led the planting of olive trees at the Old Missions in Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez. He also has helped plant olive trees to support the nonprofit mission of the Young America Foundation, which now operates the Ronald Reagan ranch, situated in Refugio Canyon in the mountains overlooking the Makelas’ olive ranch.

Aside from the “social entrepreneurship” of planting olive trees to help nonprofit organizations, though, the Makelas are energetic businesspeople. They recently received a patent for Oleavicin, a lip balm made from olive leaves.

Rancho Olivos

Shannon Casey and John Copeland operate all aspects of their olive venture, Rancho Olivos, from planting the trees to selling the oil—and with it, a promise of a Californian lifestyle.

Their mission goes beyond earning money and includes protecting the environment. In planting their orchard, they were careful to plant around existing oak trees, even dead ones. They also see their work as connecting to their community’s history. Antique items are repurposed—for example, an old carriage that was once used for house calls by the country doctor of Los Olivos and is now a sign holder at their farm stand.

Los Olivos, in the Santa Ynez Valley in North Santa Barbara County, was once heavily planted with olive groves, but today there are only a handful of small operations, hoping to capitalize on the winery “agritourism” that has thrived in that region at least since the release of the movie Sideways. As a product, olive oil promises a whiff of the Mediterranean dolce vita that blends labor with leisure. Casey and Copeland are particularly proud of their oil infused with Meyer lemons. They live, work, and play at their olive ranch, and they sell visitors an entire California lifestyle with every bottle of olive oil.

The cemetery at Mission Santa Inés is shaded by historic Mission Olive trees.

Dan Flynn and Selina Wang in the Olive Center’s lab at UC Davis.

The grove at Rancho Olivos is planted around old oak trees.

On the California Olive Ranch bottling line.

CEO of California Olive Ranch Greg Kelley.

Note

All photographs by the author.