Tag: Food

Articles

“Know the hands that feed you”: Gentrification and labor migration in West Marin

Jessica Lage

Gentrification and dual migration

One day in fall of 2019, my family and I made one of our frequent trips along the winding pastoral roads of West Marin to spend a day hiking to the beach. The early morning air was cool, the California Buckeye had lost their leaves and the Big Leaf maple were turning shades of orange, red, and yellow. We passed several pelotons of bicyclists, cohorts of motorcycles enjoying the curves, and then a string of fifteen bright-colored Lamborghinis raced by. When we arrived in Point Reyes Station, the town bustled with people drifting from the bookstore to the bakery to the specialty food stores. As on most weekends, groups of cyclists in Lycra and bikers in leather collected on the sidewalk to enjoy a fresh scone and a coffee, and Porsches outnumbered pickups.

West Marin—the northwestern corner of Marin County—is only an hour from San Francisco and East Bay cities.[1] Despite its proximity to the urban metropolis, it feels remote, and two-lane coastal or country roads are the only access routes.[2] It is rural in appearance—mostly ranchlands and small towns whose physical landscape gives few clues of a gentrified population—but it is no longer the relatively isolated agricultural area it once was. West Marin is experiencing profound socioeconomic changes that are reflective of the landscape of growing wealth and expanding poverty across the Bay Area.

Rising global inequality, the global housing crisis, and the epidemic of foreclosures put the spotlight on gentrification in cities around the world.[3] Gentrification is often thought of as an urban phenomenon, yet in Northern California, what’s happening in rural Marin County—where there is gaping income inequality and a severe housing squeeze—is an essential part of the bigger picture of gentrification in the San Francisco Bay Area as a whole. It illuminates the complex interrelationships between urban and rural areas—and how they give rise to and are intertwined with each other.

Over several decades, as the technology industry has transformed the Bay Area, the influx of people and capital into urban areas has played an important role in shaping rural West Marin: recreation and agricultural tourism, both in part initiated and cultivated by urbanites, draw tourists from surrounding areas; second-home owners and short-term rentals have driven housing prices up and removed rental units from the housing market. But while stories about gentrification often disproportionately focus on the in-migration of wealth and the displacement of working class communities, in doing so, they overlook another critical aspect of gentrification: dual migration, or the in-migration of workers who come to meet the needs of the service economy. Several streams of in-migrants have made West Marin what it is today, but the Mexican immigrants and their Mexican American families who began to arrive in the 1960s are those who sustain the agricultural and tourist economies of gentrifying West Marin.

Migration to West Marin

Before European explorers and Mexican settlers arrived in West Marin, Coast Miwok people lived in the area for thousands of years. Shellmounds date the history of Coast Miwok people in Marin to 5,000 years ago, while oral histories date the lineage as twice as long.[4] More than 100 villages, some with several hundred inhabitants, dotted the point’s sloping mesas, the shores of Drakes Estero, and the hills across Tomales Bay.

The earliest non indigenous settlers in Marin County were known as Californios, families who had received land grants from Spain and Mexico in the late 1700s and early 1800s. In the mid-1800s, immigrants from all over the world flooded to California during the Gold Rush; many who came to make their fortune from gold discovered that ranching would be more profitable than mining, as demand for local products grew with the great influx of forty-niners to San Francisco. Irish, Swiss-Italian, and Portuguese immigrants found their way to West Marin, where they ran dairy ranches. Chinese laborers also ended up in West Marin, building the narrow-gauge railroad that would run between Sausalito and Sonoma County, up the east shore of Tomales Bay; many Chinese settled and worked on potato and dairy ranches and as cowboys or fishermen.[5] Later, in the early 1900s, Japanese families started farms on the peninsula, until they were interned in prison camps in the 1940s.

In the nineteenth century, West Marin’s year-round grasses and cool maritime temperatures made it the most productive dairy land in California. By the late 1800s, it was a center of agricultural production for San Francisco, which, as a result of the Gold Rush, had become a financial hub of the state. Wealthy families from the city retreated to summer residences in West Marin, beginning a tradition of second homes in the small coastal towns. In the 1920s, some urbanites began to commute from West Marin to jobs in the city. By the 1950s, some summer people had retired to their vacation homes and lived there year-round. West Marin towns also appealed to artists, who were drawn by the scenery as well as the quiet lifestyle and still relatively cheap land. Socially and politically, West Marin was a conservative area, comprised mostly of ranchers and others involved in agriculture, along with a smattering of artists, retirees, and summer residents.

In 1962, Point Reyes National Seashore was established and began to attract visitors from the nearby urban centers of the Bay Area. Over time, a small tourist industry around outdoor recreation took hold. Also beginning in the 1960s, back-to-the-land hippies began to arrive, fundamentally changing West Marin and bringing the social and political flavor associated with West Marin today. “It was the people who came in the 1960s and ‘70s who made it liberal,” one long-time resident told me.[6] The members of the 1960s counterculture did more than bring different politics and professions; they also founded some of the essential community institutions, including the community center, the health clinic, and the radio station.

Another stream of migrants began to arrive around the same time as the counterculture, with as significant an influence, though less visible: Mexican immigrants who first came to work on the dairy ranches. In the decade after the seashore was protected, surrounding agricultural land was also protected, through a county zoning mandate and—a few years later—a successful agricultural land trust. As a result, unlike in many rural gentrifying areas, agriculture maintained its hold in West Marin. In order to compete with industrial agriculture in the rest of California, Marin’s small family ranches found ways to connect to the growing foodie culture of the Bay Area. Beginning in the early 2000s, an agricultural-based tourist economy flourished; West Marin increasingly became a destination for tourists and second-home owners, not only because of its natural beauty and protected seashore, but also because of its local food economy and agricultural attractions.

Camilo Hermosillo is said to have been the first Mexican immigrant to settle in West Marin. He came to the United States with the Bracero program in 1952, but later returned to Mexico. In 1964, he made his way to the Marin/Sonoma border, where he found work on a dairy ranch. Hermosillo was from Jalostotitlán (Jalos), a town in the Mexican state of Jalisco. Others from Jalos soon followed him and found work on the dairy ranches as milkers. Point Reyes became the primary destination for the Mexican immigrants from Jalostotitlán,[7] and an extended network of migrants from Jalos and surrounding villages began to settle in West Marin.[8]

The local newspaper estimated that in the early 1970s, the Spanish-speaking population in West Marin was 300 and that by the early 1980s, it had tripled.[9] One immigrant who arrived in the 1980s told me that when she came, “only the people who worked on the farms were Latino. So it was very hard to see any Latinos working at the Palace Market [local grocery store] or at hotels.”[10] Over time, two things changed: the young men who immigrated from Mexico began to bring their wives and girlfriends and start families in West Marin; and the need for more service workers grew as visitors to the area increased and the tourist economy expanded.

Over the next few decades, immigrants from Mexico continued to come for jobs on the dairies. Others found work on oyster farms in Tomales Bay. Family members found work in West Marin towns—in restaurants, lodging, stores, housekeeping, and landscaping. As the children of Mexican immigrants have grown up in West Marin, fluent in English and with the opportunity to go to school and continue with higher education, second- and third-generation Mexican Americans have gone on to find jobs with the National Park Service, in schools and banks, pharmacies, and other professions. “Now you will see Latinos working in every corner of this area.”[11]

Mexicans and their Mexican American families have been critical to sustaining the agricultural and tourist economies. They have also transformed West Marin—in workforce, school population, and community presence—yet they face difficulties that are accentuated by gentrification, including lack of housing, food insecurity, invisibility in the workplace and misunderstanding on the part of the Anglo community.

Cows grazing in a West Marin pasture.

“Invisible labor”

In West Marin, gentrification—in-migration of upper-income residents, displacement of workers, and the increasing gap between housing prices and wages—has gone hand-in-hand with the preservation of agriculture, and agriculture itself has become gentrified. The productive landscape and its products are principal amenities, drawing visitors and amenity migrants who romanticize and consume them as much as the scenic vistas, beaches, kayaking, and hiking opportunities in the national seashore.

But agricultural labor, mostly done by Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans, is largely invisible to the tourists who come for ranch and farm tours, and to others who consume the specialty cheeses and grass-fed meats produced in West Marin. Publicity for ranches and farms, local foodie tours, and websites about local farming and culinary attractions all praise the hard work of ranching families and farmer-owners, but wage laborers are rarely, if ever, mentioned. One website written by a self-described “passionate advocate for sustainable agriculture, artisan food producers, and craft beverage makers” posts recipes, articles about heirloom vegetables and local farmers markets, and stories about local ranchers and artisan cheese- and cidermakers. She describes the people she writes about as: “…farmers [who] are passionate and committed in everything they do. Many come from families that have worked the land for generations; others have left traditional careers in search of a simpler, more authentic existence. All of them feel a connection to the earth that threads to their core.”[12]

Similarly, publicity for a local food and farm tour company quotes a rancher and cheesemaker as describing her favorite part of her “job” as “working in the cheese room, especially in the early morning while the ewes are being milked next door in the parlor.”[13] When I spoke with the rancher, I asked her to tell me about her employees who do the milking and cheesemaking. She described to me her first employee, a Mexican immigrant who lives in a manufactured home on the ranch with his wife and two adult sons—one who works in a restaurant in Olema and another who works at the Marshall store. “We learned [our animals] together,” she told me, indicating how important this worker is to her operation. She later hired another full-time employee, an undocumented Mexican man who lived in a low-rent apartment in Petaluma with other day laborers. She described him as an “awesome worker”—he worked six days a week for four years, never missed a day and never arrived a minute late. He drove 30 minutes each way and sometimes worked a split shift.[14] Employees like these, and their work, are not mentioned in the glossy spreads that idealize the work of the family rancher.

Workers are also often left out of community conversations about local agriculture. I spoke with one resident who described to me a series of conversations, over the course of a year, about agricultural sustainability. He recounted his attempts to convince the steering committee that workers should be included in the conversation, and the committee’s response that it would be too controversial. “It was very frustrating. We all say Marin is the most progressive place in the world, but sustainability is on the back of the workers.”[15]

Similarly, in 2009 a local bookstore made “farming and the rural life” the focus of the “Geography of Hope” conference, an annual event that “gathers leading writers and activists together for a feast of readings, discussions, and activities to inspire and deepen an understanding of the relationships between people and place.”[16] Though the theme was agriculture, labor was not one of the topics. Before the symposium, someone anonymously put posters all over the town of Point Reyes Station calling into question the sustainability of West Marin farms and ranches. The posters were titled, “Whose Geography of Hope” and asked, “what about farm labor?” It publicized that some agricultural laborers “live in broken down trailers with moldy walls, old wiring, and cesspools,” and that “nearly half the families coming to the Point Reyes Food Pantry are Latinos who work and live on local organic farms and dairies.” The poster went on to say:

“Know the Hands That Feed You” the advertising goes… Those hands are brown. They are the hands of campesinos …who dig the soil; birth, feed, and milk the cows; …make the local artisan cheeses; and seed, harvest, shuck, and pack the shellfish for your gourmet feasts. These men, women, and children are not on the promotional posters. They are nowhere to be seen on the farm tours…[17]

A good deal of recent literature exposes the dark side of local and organic agriculture, including food insecurity among agricultural workers and the exploitation of workers who produce supposedly safer and healthier food. It makes clear the link between worker exploitation and their existence “in the shadows.”[18]

A social worker in West Marin said to me, “When workers are invisible, you can do anything you want with them.”[19] Removing workers from the public face of gentrified agriculture makes hiding working conditions easier: housing, long commutes, complicated worker-employer relations, and difficult access to food are all “invisible” parts of the of the idyllic pastoral scenes and delicious local food that draw tourists and second-home owners to West Marin.

A flyer for a tenant’s rights workshop, in Spanish and English

Affordable housing in West Marin (a detour)

Resistance to development is ubiquitous in affluent suburbs throughout the Bay Area and across the nation, but Marin County residents are particularly fierce in their opposition, especially to multi-unit and affordable housing.[20] Every seven years, the state of California calculates a Regional Housing Need Allocation (RHNA) based on projected population growth. For the 2007 to 2014 cycle, the Bay Area issued permits for only 57 percent of the 214,500 units the state mandated. Marin County issued permits for only 32 percent of the units required by the RHNA, lower than all other Bay Area counties.[21] In recent years, Marin residents have rejected several proposals for projects that would have provided low-income housing in the county, citing concerns about traffic,[22] water supply, impacts on schools, loss of open space, and “community character.”[23] While developing more housing units is complicated by institutional and infrastructure factors, for the most part, these concerns are smokescreens for simple racism and classism.

All of these things come into play in unincorporated West Marin, where the housing crisis is felt even more acutely than in the rest of the county. Institutional factors (zoning, Coastal Commission regulations, costs imposed by the county) and geographic and infrastructure factors (septic systems, water availability, and transportation limitations) create obstacles that are real limitations to development. In addition, land conservation has not only reduced available acreage, but even more importantly, has made West Marin a desirable place to visit and to live, which both raises prices and directs supply toward short-term rentals. It has also given rise to a community with a strong vision of what the physical and demographic landscape should look like, a community that aims to influence development in both formal (e.g., county development regulations) and informal (e.g., community pressure) ways.

The large low-wage workforce necessary to maintain the economy in West Marin accentuates the need for affordable housing, and second-home owners and short-term rentals dominate the housing rental market and capture the supply. Adding to the lack of housing is the imbalance in wages and housing costs. Earnings in the agricultural and service sectors are not sufficient to pay for housing in West Marin.  Within Marin County (which is a notoriously high earning county),[24] West Marin has some of the lowest median personal earnings.[25] The census tract that encompasses Point Reyes Station, Nicasio, Tomales, and Dillon Beach has a median income of $32,280. Nearby Bolinas and Stinson Beach were slightly lower, at $31,766, and Olema and Inverness slightly higher, at $33,037. The median personal income in all of West Marin in 2012 was $32,000. Other Marin County towns are at the other end of the spectrum: the median personal income in Tiburon is $80,595; in Mill Valley it is $75,808, Ross is $64,378. When broken down by race, Latino earnings countywide average just under $23,800, whereas the median personal income for whites countywide is $51,000.[26]

One woman who works in social services in West Marin told me that even though workers generally earn more than minimum wage, it’s not enough. “I don’t think anyone pays minimum wage in the area… , I have to be honest. They pay above. But people are making $12 an hour.” An income of about $3000 a month or less is normal for a Latino family of two wage earners in West Marin, but for a family of four, rents are about $3000. “No one can afford the rents compared to the incomes—it’s a huge gap.”[27]

Housing for agricultural workers

For agricultural workers, housing has been precarious for several decades. In the 1980s, Mark Dowie, West Marin resident and investigative journalist, wrote an exposé for the San Francisco Examiner Magazine on the miserable conditions of ranch worker housing in West Marin. “On many, although not all the ranches, housing quality was pretty terrible…trailers mostly, some hooked up to water via a garden hose and with inadequate sewage disposal.”[28] It was common to see raw sewage around the houses. At that time, unlike on the dairy ranches today, workers were charged rent for their housing, although they were paid minimum wage—about $3 per hour at that time. In addition, workers had little recourse to improve conditions; ranchers had agreed among themselves not to hire workers away from each other, making workers essentially indentured laborers.[29]

Since then, many ranches have made improvements. However, over three decades later, housing for ranch workers continues to be difficult to obtain, is often in poor conditions, and puts workers in a vulnerable position. The problem is multifaceted—related to the high cost of housing in West Marin and the lack of availability, and inadequate housing conditions, and compounded by the fact that many workers are undocumented—making them more vulnerable.

Most dairies provide on-site housing because ranches tend to be far from other housing options and milking hours are demanding: milkers usually have two shifts, one beginning at three or four a.m. and another beginning midday. Many ranch workers prefer to live on the ranches where they work rather than commute long distances to work. But too often, despite the improvements, ranch housing means overcrowded, unpermitted units, and substandard conditions.[30] Many units are “under the radar”—in garages, barns, commercial spaces, or recreational vehicles.[31] In addition, ranch housing is important not just for the workers who are essential to the agricultural economy of West Marin, but also for family members who are indispensable to other sectors of the economy, as they may work in restaurants, markets, bakeries, landscaping companies, and other jobs in towns throughout West Marin. Often families squeeze into on-ranch housing so as not to separate the family, or because rents are so high for other units. Despite its problems, ranch housing is one of the few affordable options in West Marin.[xxxii]

Ranches that are on national seashore land add another element to the housing crunch for workers in West Marin. When Point Reyes National Seashore was created, it became the first national park to allow agriculture within its boundaries—still a controversial decision. Ranching families continued operations under a special permit called “Reservation of Use and Occupancy” (RUO). Many RUOs have now expired and have become “lease permits,” which still allow ranching, but do not allow ranchers to provide housing to people who are not working for their ranch.[33] From the community’s perspective, it’s a “slap in the face” when the park cracks down on ranches that provide housing.[34]

Many people feel that the housing crisis in West Marin has been aggravated by the loss of housing on NPS land in recent years.[35] Dairy rancher Albert Straus (his ranch is in Marshall, not on NPS land), has been active in speaking out about the lack of housing for ranch and other local workers, and the repercussions for the community. With the help of local historian Dewey Livingston, Straus documented the housing units lost on NPS and state park properties in the last 50 years—far beyond loss of housing on ranches due to permit changes. They tallied about 135 structures that had served as homes that the park service either removed or abandoned beyond repair. Because creating new housing in West Marin is so difficult, making better use of existing housing is often the best chance for increasing the housing stock, but by doing away with park housing, the NPS is removing existing housing. The loss of housing on ranches affects not just ranch workers, but also often other local workers, and often means displacement for a whole family.

With housing so difficult to find, many residents don’t complain about substandard conditions or report them to the authorities, for fear of finding themselves with no housing at all. Agricultural workers, many of whose housing is tied to their work, and who may be undocumented, can be even more reticent to complain, as they could find themselves without housing or work.[36] People often end up feeling grateful that they have housing, a social worker told me, since they aren’t paying out-of-pocket—even though it may be in terrible condition. But the housing isn’t “free,” she points out. The cost of housing is reflected in the reduced salary of the workers.[37]

Workplace housing can generate not only a sense of unwarranted gratefulness, but also tangible worker vulnerability: if ranch workers lose their job, they lose their whole community. Several interviewees described having to leave West Marin because of a disagreement or dispute with a boss or co-worker in an on-site housing situation. Undocumented workers are especially vulnerable, and many agricultural workers in West Marin are undocumented immigrants or have family members who are undocumented. Even families who have been here many years are sometimes undocumented. One person told me: “I can tell you that there are families who have been living here twenty years and don’t have their papers, and I think that ranches take advantage of those employees. Not all ranches. There are a few that are better, provide a decent place to live.”[38]

Selection of local cheeses at a West Marin market

Food insecurity

Low-income workers in West Marin not only struggle with housing more than others in the community, but also with access to healthy and affordable food. In 2015 the Marin Food Policy Council explored equitable access to food in the county and identified West Marin as a top priority for where to focus their food security efforts. The size of West Marin (over 50 percent of the county in land mass) and the sparseness of the population make getting to the grocery store difficult because of travel time and the cost of gas. Low-income families have to shop less frequently (once a month), which means that they have to purchase mostly packaged food. But offerings in West Marin are limited. Local markets (including a small supermarket in Point Reyes Station, and several small markets in Inverness, Inverness Park, and other nearby towns) stock food that is not well matched to the needs or incomes of families in West Marin: they carry few staples—and those that they do stock are expensive, because of the stores’ own costs. The council also found that the food sold in Point Reyes Station, Marshall, Inverness, and other West Marin towns, rather than serving locals, caters to a bifurcated tourist market: either people who are recreating in the area, usually camping or traveling along the coast in an RV, and looking for lower-priced, easy-to-prepare meals; or travelers or second-home owners who are looking for high-end foodie-type foods, like locally produced artisan cheeses, specialty crackers, cured meats, and fruit preserves. The council also found an overabundance of alcohol, tobacco, and junk food in West Marin stores.

Another barrier to eating well for low-income families in West Marin is that many stores do not accept (or are not even aware of) food assistance programs. The council found that not all grocery stores in West Marin accept CalFresh (California’s version of SNAP, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).[39] At the time of the study, no stores in West Marin accepted WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) (though several thought they did). Many low-income families rely on WIC and not being able to use it at any West Marin grocery stores also means longer drives to buy food.[40]

The barriers to access to healthy food in West Marin mean that ranch and farm workers are not able to eat or feed to their families the food that they produce. It is particularly striking—though not unusual—in an area celebrated for quality ingredients, boutique artisanal production, and sustainable agriculture that the workers not only can’t afford to eat what they produce, but also have difficultly accessing healthy and affordable food. While this difference between low-income and high-income residents reflects the particulars of gentrification in West Marin, it is a widespread phenomenon among agricultural workers in locations all over the United States.[41]

The wall of an abandoned building in Point Reyes Station displays posters for CLAM, the Community Land Trust of West Marin, and Coast Guard Housing. One of CLAM’s most important projects has been converting the former Coast Guard housing site in Point Reyes Station to a neighborhood of affordable homes. The photo also shows that gentrification in West Marin is often not immediately visible in the built environment.

Tensions in the community

Several people I talked to in West Marin described the community as made up of three primary segments: ranchers, newer arrivals (hippies, ex-hippies, second-home owners, and others), and Latinos. A Mexican immigrant who has worked with the community since the 1980s told me: “I see three groups here: the ranchers, who are fairly conservative; the newcomers—hippies, and those who bought property after; and the Latinos. Among the Latinos, there are two groups: one that works on the ranches and another that works in the hotels and food services.”[42] She described her sense of the relations between ranchers and Latinos and newcomers and Latinos: “The ranchers, normally, don’t participate in any event—or haven’t until now participated in any of the community events that I’ve coordinated or that I’ve seen. Not one rancher.” She described their sense of power as the boss, the employer, as pervading relationships and impeding social interactions and went on to say that “with the community of newcomers and the hippie community, they accept more the [Latino] community” and support attempts to bring together Anglos and Latinos. “And then there are others who have been here for a long time…in Inverness or Point Reyes and they are the ones who support the most the Latino movement. Definitely, they are the most involved, or at least they are working so that there is more friendliness.”[43] Other community members commented on how segregated the community is. One non-Latino who moved from California’s Central Valley, where there is a large Latino population and agricultural sector, observed that compared to her experience there, “this place is surprisingly segregated in its white and Latino life.”[44]

Tensions over class and ethnic background are not explicitly stated, but often pervade interactions among community members. A recent criticism from the Anglo establishment demonstrated the gulf between the communities. Ostensibly with the intention of being inclusive, many began to complain that Latinos do not participate as members of the Board of Directors for the numerous non-profits in West Marin.[45] To the Latinos I spoke with, this demonstrates a myopic view of what integrating Latinos into the community might mean and is an unrealistic starting point for doing so. Many Latinos are commuting long distances or are working more than one job to afford a rental in West Marin. Many have children. Many, because of their level of education and facility with English, are not comfortable with the idea of being on a board with highly educated Anglos. Even Latinos who were born and grew up here, one interviewee told me, are often reticent to participate in the community. “They’ve gone to school here… And you wouldn’t believe it, but there’s an idea that ‘I don’t speak well.’” The sense of insecurity, she believes, is rooted in cultural and linguistic differences. “It’s not that they don’t speak well… Our Latino community uses a lot of Spanglish, our Anglo community doesn’t. So that’s the difference.”[46]

Another Latino resident from Puerto Rico, who has been active in the Anglo and Latino communities and has served on many boards, told me that his experience has been different from most Mexican immigrants in part because he hasn’t had the difficulties of citizenship and documentation. Apart from most Latinos having other more immediate concerns, he told me, if people cared about Latinos, they would not want to put them in situations in which they wouldn’t be comfortable.[47]

Prejudices emerge in other ways as well. One woman I spoke with told me that she is surprised how patronizing toward the Latino community the board members of an affordable housing group have been.[48] Their comments reveal at best unfamiliarity with the Latino community, and in many cases, deeper discrimination and often defensiveness. In interviews, several non-Latinos expressed ignorance about the Latino community and little idea of how to overcome what they see as a cultural gulf. One non-Latino told me that it’s difficult to know who to approach within the Latino community and how to approach them. She said that it wasn’t for lack of trying that the two communities remain separate, “but there is a gulf there and people are unsure of how to reach across cultures.” For her, the Latino community is hard to reach, especially since she doesn’t speak Spanish. “The Latino community can be opaque,” she said. “I feel pretty unprepared. I often feel like it’s not even my place to try to reach across [the gulf] and work with an entire community who has a different background.” She went on to say, “A weeklong bootcamp on how to talk to people in other cultures would be good,” as a precursor to making an overture to the Latino community.[49] Another non-Latino I interviewed noted that “Hispanics are such a tight community,” organized around “nuts and bolts issues” like food and medical care. “They feel like they already have community and don’t need ours.” Anglos are seeking community, he said, but don’t have the same cohesion as the Latino community in West Marin.[50]

A Mexican woman who has worked in West Marin for over 30 years told me that she feels that the white community has little understanding of the Latino community and is quick to criticize cultural differences. On holidays like Mexican Independence Day (September 16), or other celebrations, she says, “I’ve heard complaints about ‘a lot of noise.’ And that is true… But they are cultural differences.” And while she says that a lack of understanding about Mexican history and Mexican culture is at the root of their complaints, she also wonders why they can’t, in the meantime, enjoy the celebration or even simply say, “OK, it’s one day, and I’m going to cover my ears—tolerance.”[51]

The housing crisis is another situation pervaded by underlying prejudices. One non-Latino resident, a renter who has had to move numerous times, expressed a deep-seated feeling of difference between herself and Latinos who also struggle to find and maintain affordable housing. She commented that Latino workers are most affected by high housing costs, but tried to justify the differential access to housing. She told me about three Latino men she works with who commute to their jobs in Point Reyes Station. Two come from San Rafael (about 40 minutes each way) and one from Tomales (about 30 minutes each way). They work hard and they need to feed their families, she said, but still, to her they seem different: “They’re just in a different realm. It’s just evident that there is a hierarchy,” she said.[52]

She linked belonging in the community, and perhaps also right to housing, to “rootedness.” Her grandparents bought a house in Inverness and retired there in 1962, and she spent her childhood summers there. She explained that she considers being rooted in place essential. When I asked her what that means for workers, who need to live in a place for practical reasons—like a reasonable commute to their job—but may or may not have generational ties, she responded vaguely that housing for workers is “complex because it has to do with race and class,” and that that most people in West Marin don’t want to have a conversation about race and class.[53]

Discussions and community meetings about housing are largely segregated as well, presented as either ranchworker housing for Latino families or housing for seniors or for long-time residents who can’t afford to stay. One housing activist told me, “It’s rare out here to have a meeting where you feel like you’re in it together.”[54] A member of a group that addresses the problem of short-term rentals acknowledged to me that the group has not interacted with the Latino community. She was defensive about my inquiry, adding that the group was “not designed to solve the cultural problems of West Marin.”[55]

The discourse among non-Latinos suggests that they view the housing issue for Latinos as different from that for “locals.” Locals is a vague term but is mostly used to mean non-Latino residents who have lived in West Marin for many years. People make false distinctions when they talk about housing for those “who grew up here” who have been displaced and for Latino families—often most affected by the housing crisis—as though they could not be the same. Yet, as one woman emphasized to me, many of the Latino families who are displaced grew up in West Marin too, the second- or third-generation families of Mexicans who immigrated in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, and they are as much locals as anyone else. The assumption that the “locals” and “the kids who grew up here who can’t afford to stay” are only white, are mistaken. The local kids who can’t afford to stay are as likely to be second or third generation families of Mexicans, “but in terms of the way people talk, you will hear that distinction.”[56] 

The conversations about housing may be separate for other reasons as well. Evening meetings are difficult to attend for Latino families who may have long commutes (to Petaluma or Santa Rosa), or who work two jobs or a job that doesn’t have a nine-to-five schedule, or who have young children who need care. Language may also be a barrier, as well as the separation that permeates the community in general. As one housing activist told me, the problem of housing for the two communities is often treated separately, “because we’re already thinking in a bifurcated way.”[57]

Displacement and exclusionary displacement

We rely so much for everything now on the Hispanic population. All the people who work in the stores are Hispanics and all the people who we rely on for services, and yet there’s a commute into West Marin on Petaluma-Point Reyes Road every morning.[58]

In many cases, working-class migrations in gentrified places become daily in- and out-migrations of workers who can’t afford to live near their jobs.[59] If a worker loses existing housing, the chances of finding something affordable in West Marin are slim. Loss of housing can occur because of a lease change on a ranch within the national seashore, as I describe above, or because a ranch downsized operations when it shifted to organic production and reduced the number of workers as well as the herd size.[60] Other families have been evicted from ranches because of substandard housing conditions. Not just agricultural workers are affected when ranch housing is lost. When a popular oyster farm went out of business, for example, five or six housing units were removed, but the closure affected many more people than just their workers. Family members had jobs in nearby towns and their children went to the local schools. Sometimes a worker or family may lose housing because their rental unit is sold to new owners who want to keep the home as a weekend retreat for themselves or turn it into a short-term rental.

As rents increase, “what I have seen is more people having to move out of the area.”[61] In neighboring Sonoma County, in 2015 a two-bedroom apartment went for about $1,800 to $2,100 per month, but there was nothing available in that price range in the Point Reyes area. One Latina testified at a Marin County Board of Supervisors meeting about the housing crisis: “You find housing but they are $3,500 or $4,000 a month and we cannot afford them.”[62] Another spoke to say that she has lived in Point Reyes Station for nineteen years, “but I live with the stress that one month I can pay the rent, but I never know if I will make it for the next month.”[63]

Some workers who came several decades ago for jobs on the dairy ranches eventually sought better housing opportunities or retired outside of West Marin. “Most [Latinos] who were here in the ‘80s and ‘90s have moved,” one immigrant told me.[64] Families have dispersed to towns in Sonoma County—Rohnert Park, Petaluma, and Santa Rosa—and as far as Modesto in order to find affordable housing, but in many cases, they commute back—30 minutes, one hour, or more—to West Marin, for jobs, school, church, or simply to be with their community at events or gatherings.[65]

In places like West Marin, displacement, which is central to process of gentrification, exists alongside what is called exclusionary displacement—when workers who are the foundation of the economy, both in the agricultural and service sectors, haven’t been able to move to West Marin because of housing costs. There are more jobs in West Marin than there are homes, and incomes are far below what one would need to afford West Marin rents. These workers commute long distances to work in West Marin, as the tourist economy expands.

Conclusion

Recreation- and agriculture-based tourism and a housing market dominated by second-home owners have not only changed West Marin’s economy, but also its communities. As tourists and amenity-seekers move to West Marin, so too do low-wage service workers, especially Mexicans and Mexican Americans, whose labor has been critical to sustaining the agricultural and tourist economies. Worker migrations are not always residential migrations—rather, they may mean daily in- and out-migrations, because wages for service workers are far below those necessary to afford the rents and home prices in West Marin. Workers either are displaced as the tourist economy creates possibilities for higher rents or can’t move to West Marin from elsewhere to be close to their job.

Dual migration and exclusionary displacement are another manifestation of the ripple effect of wealth and people from urban core to hinterlands that gentrification causes. These migrations highlight that gentrification, while its visible effects may be local, is a regional phenomenon, produced through regional processes like housing and job-market shifts and community displacement. Gentrification in West Marin is also a product of regional relationships that have developed over decades: from land conservation and land-use regulations, to tech wealth, to the market for locally sourced and organic food that urban gentrification, West Marin is itself a largely a product of the urban core.


[i] The research area was a portion of West Marin that includes Point Reyes National Seashore, and the towns surrounding Tomales Bay— Inverness, Olema, Point Reyes Station, Marshall, and Tomales.

[ii] The Countywide Plan and the Local Coastal Program only allow road improvement projects that will enhance safety, but not increase the capacity of the roads.

[iii] Lees, L., T. Slater, and E. Wyly. 2008. Gentrification. New York: Routledge.

[iv] Coast Miwok Tribal Council. http://www.coastmiwokofmarin.org/our-history.html

[v]Haworth, E. 2021. “Honoring the Asian American Legacy in West Marin” Point Reyes Light. May 5.  https://www.ptreyeslight.com/features/honoring-asian-american-legacy-west-marin/. Avery, Christy. Tomales Bay Environmental History and Historic Resource Study. Point Reyes National Seashore. San Francisco, CA: National Park Service, Department of the Interior, 2009.

[vi] Holland, Wade. Interview with author. February 4, 2015

[vii] Bolinas, just south of Point Reyes, has a community of Mexicans from Sinaloa.

[viii] Anonymous. Interview with author. June 24, 2014.

[ix] The Light on the Coast. 1986. Point Reyes Station.

[x] Anonymous. Interview with author. September 25, 2015

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Pavone, K. Farmista’s feast. https://farministasfeast.com.

[xiii] Hill, E. 2018. Flavors of West Marin book. Food and Farm blog.

[xiv] This rancher also described at least three other employees to me, full- and part-time. Anonymous. Interview with author. October 20, 2016.

[xv] Porrata, Carlos. Interview with author. March 24, 2016

[xvi] Quoted in Fairfax, S., L.N. Dyble, G. Tor Guthey, L. Gwin, M. Moore, and J. Sokolove. 2012. California cuisine and just food. Boston: MIT Press: 160.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Gray, M. 2014. Labor and the locavore: The making of a comprehensive food ethic. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

[xix] Anonymous. Interview with author. February 2, 2016.

[xx] An employee of the planning department described to me community response to development as “vitriolic” (Anonymous. Interview with author. October 25, 2015).

[xxi] The numbers are not in for the current cycle, 2015-2023. Interestingly, for the 2007-2014 cycle, Marin was not ranked last in the Bay Area for permits issued for “very low” and “low” income housing. In fact, it far surpassed most other Bay Area counties in those areas, but other counties came closer to meeting goals for “moderate” and “above-moderate” housing. ABAG (Association of Bay Area Governments) 2014. San Francisco Bay Area progress in meeting 2007-2014 Regional housing need allocation (RHNA). https://abag.ca.gov/files/RHNAProgress2007_2014_082815.pdf

[xxii] The Housing Element does not explore why this concern, though widespread, does not hold weight; the bulk of the traffic in Marin is due to commuters, who, if they were able to live closer to their jobs, would not take up so much space on the roadways.

[xxiii] Community Development Agency. 2015. Marin County Housing Element 2015-2023. www.marincounty.org/HousingElement

[xxiv] Even so, 38 percent of Marin households are categorized as “extremely low,” “very low,” or “low income.”

[xxv] The wealth in the housing market comes from outside of the community.

[xxvi] Burd-Sharps, S. and K. Lewis. 2012. A portrait of Marin: Marin County human development report 2012. American Human Development Project of the Social Science Research Council. http://www.measureofamerica.org/docs/APOM_Final-SinglePages_12.14.11.pdf

[xxvii] Anonymous. Interview with author. September 25, 2015.

[xxviii] Mark Dowie emphasizes that “then and now there were and are exemplary ranchers who provide good housing and pay decent wages to their workers.” Email message to author. May 4, 2016.

[xxix] Dowie, Mark. Email message to author. May 4, 2016.

[xxx] California Human Development Corporation. 2008. Evaluation of the need for ranch worker housing in Marin County, California. Prepared for the Marin County Community Development Agency. July 2008: 6; Community Development Agency. 2015. Marin County Housing Element 2015-2023. www.marincounty.org/HousingElement.

[xxxi] California Human Development Corporation. 2008. Evaluation of the need for ranch worker housing in Marin County, California. Prepared for the Marin County Community Development Agency. July 2008: 10.

[xxxii] In some cases, mobile homes on a ranch are rented to directly non-ranch workers, because the lack of housing is so severe for those in the Latino community.

[xxxiii] Lease permits have a more complicated history than I go into here. Laura Watt details it in her 2017 book, The paradox of preservation: Wilderness and working landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.)

[xxxiv] Anonymous. Interview with author. June 14, 2016.

[xxxv] Relationships between individual ranches and the park vary, and many ranchers describe a good relationship with the park.

[xxxvi] Anonymous. Interview with author. February 2, 2016; Bach, T. 2012. Farm worker housing: 200 units planned. Point Reyes Light, February 2. http://www.ptreyeslight.com/article/farm-worker-housing-200-units-planned.

[xxxvii] Anonymous. Interview with author. February 2, 2016.

[xxxviii] Anonymous. Interview with author. September 25, 2015.

[xxxix] In many cases, storeowners said they accept CalFresh, but on further questioning they didn’t actually know what it was or the machine was broken and they could not accept it.

[xl] Anonymous. Interview with author. March 10, 2016; Marin Food Policy Council. 2015. Equitable access to healthy and local food in Marin County: Preliminary report on policy priorities to the Board of Supervisors, October. http://ucanr.edu/sites/MarinFoodPolicyCouncil/files/223505.pdf.

[xli] Brown, S. and C. Getz. 2011. Farmworker food insecurity and the production of hunger in California. In A.H. Alkon and J. Aygeman (eds.). Cultivating food justice: Race, class, and sustainability. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

[xlii] Anonymous. Interview with author. September 25, 2015.

[xliii] Ibid.

[xliv] Thompson, K. Interview with author. March 20, 2015.

[xlv] Anonymous. Interview with author. February 2, 2016; Porrata, C. Interview with author.  March 24, 2016.

[xlvi] Anonymous. Interview with author. September 25, 2015.

[xlvii] Porrata, C. Interview with author. March 24, 2016.

[xlviii] Thompson, K. Interview with author. March 20, 2015.

[xlix] Anonymous. Interview with author. March 15, 2016.

[l] Anonymous. Interview with author. December 14, 2015.

[li] Anonymous. Interview with author. September 25, 2015.

[lii] Anonymous. Interview with author. April 13, 2016.

[liii] Ibid.

[liv] Anonymous. Interview with author. December 14, 2015.

[lv] Anonymous. Interview with author. March 15, 2016.

[lvi] Thompson, K. Interview with author. March 20, 2015.

[lvii] She did go on to say that since many Latino work on ranches and live in on-site housing, housing for the Latino community is to some extent a separate issue.

[lviii]  Holland, W. Interview with author. February 24, 2015.

[lix] Nelson, P.B., L. Nelson, and L. Trautman. 2014. Linked migration and labor market flexibility in rural amenity destinations in the United States. Journal of Rural Studies 36: 121-136.

[lx] Bach, T. 2012. Farm worker housing: 200 units planned. Point Reyes Light, February 2. http://www.ptreyeslight.com/article/farm-worker-housing-200-units-planned

[lxi] Anonymous. Interview with author. September 25, 2015.

[lxii] Gonzalez, F. 2015. Marin County Board of Supervisors meeting. November 27. https://www.marincounty.org/depts/bs/meeting-archive.

[lxiii] Reynoso, M. 2015. Marin County Board of Supervisors meeting. November 27. https://www.marincounty.org/depts/bs/meeting-archive.

[lxiv]  Anonymous. Interview with author. September 25, 2015.

[lxv] Bach, T. 2012. Farm worker housing: 200 units planned. Point Reyes Light, February 2. http://www.ptreyeslight.com/article/farm-worker-housing-200-units-planned; Anonymous. Interview with author, September 25, 2015. Commuting back to where one has been displaced from for work, school, or community is not unusual in gentrifying areas (See Dirks, S. and D. Katayama. 2017. American suburb. Forum. KQED radio, February 8. https://www.kqed.org/forum/2010101858666/kqed-looks-inside-the-changing-bay-area-with-american-suburb).

Jessica Lage received her PhD in Geography from UC Berkeley. She is the author of a guidebook to Point Reyes National Seashore. She works as an independent researcher and writer.

Articles

Whose Farm, Which Fork?: An Assemblage of Critical Observations on Sacramento’s Farm-to-Fork Campaign

Kimberly D. Nettles-Barcelón

In the spring of 2015 while waiting in line at Starbucks Coffeehouse in a Greenhaven, Sacramento strip mall, I picked up an issue of Sacramento Magazine to pass the time.[1]  While thumbing through it the advertisement featuring the Juneteenth Black Chefs Collaborative (IMAGE #1) immediately caught my eye. I was aware of the city’s rebranding as The Farm-to-Fork Capital but I had not seen any images connected with it featuring Black people.[2] The ad piqued my interest and I spent the next several months gathering additional images associated with the campaign.

The five ads I found, that ran from about January 2015 through January 2016, frame the key optics of the campaign and its slogan -“We Are America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital.” In addition to these advertisements, local media – especially magazines – served as an avenue to describe the parameters of the “farm-to-fork”: farmers, vintners, brewers, and other food craft people who make/grow/create products consumed within the restaurants, bars, festivals, and other events associated with the farm-to-fork campaign. At face value, including the ads featuring the Yisrael Family Urban Farm (IMAGE #2) and the Juneteenth Black Chefs Collaborative, lends a certain air of inclusivity to the messaging/branding. However, these images serve not as markers of how broad-based the work of the farm-to-fork campaign is but rather the degree to which there are fissures that resist containment. The ruptures in the seemingly inclusive narrative of “We are America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital” is stark in the two ads featuring Black folks.

In the Juneteenth Black Chefs Collective ad (IMAGE #1), what we see are a group of chefs whose foodwork is not connected with the spaces where they cook nor are there any relationships to farmer(s) who supply their raw food and bespoke artisanal products. The background appears urban and residential. The barred screen door and the wooden stairs and porch indicate a roughened neighborhood. Is this a home or is it a restaurant? The chefs themselves are looking in all sorts of directions, some directly at the camera and two (Pannell and E. Hayles) are looking in the distance. While the title of the Collaborative is visible, it is unclear what that means or how that ties into “farm-to-fork.” In fact, their narratives cannot fit nicely within the campaign.[3] None of these chefs hold the title of Executive Chef in an established restaurant context; cooking instead outside of the domain of standard restaurant organization as private chefs, chefs at women’s centers, caterers, or food truck owners.  They would not be on the map in terms of the connections between and amongst the top restaurateurs in this area and the region’s large scale organic farmers – connections that are central to Sacramento’s farm-to-fork ethos.

Similarly, when we see the members of the Yisrael Family Urban Farm (IMAGE #2) they are photographed in what appears to be a residential yard, holding farm implements, and dressed in earth toned t-shirts with the name of the farm. Again, how their food work resonates with the farm-to-fork campaign is not clear. Are they the farm side of the equation to the Black chefs from the Juneteenth Collaborative? Where do they grow? What is an urban farm? None of this is clear in the advertisement. Indeed, telling the complicated narratives of either group is not possible within the context of advertisements that “fundamentally talk to us as individuals and addresses us about how we can become happy. The answers it provides are all oriented to the marketplace, through the purchase of goods or services.”[4]

Sacramento’s “Farm-to-Fork Capital” campaign is, at its roots, a marketing campaign designed to boost tourism, development, and economic growth within Sacramento.[5]  This campaign attempts to sell us a vision of the “good life” which involves locally grown and produced vegetables, meats, wines, and cheeses – consumed in beautiful restaurants, wineries, farmers’ markets, well-appointed homes and backyards. The romanticized relationship between the local farmer (food or beverage producer) and the consumer is at the center of the “movement.” The uncomfortable, complex, and not-so-pretty bits of the politics of food and eating is deftly pushed to the margins.

In this essay, I consider some of the images associated with the Farm-to-Fork Capital campaign to think about the power of this work to shape public discourse surrounding issues of food, place, and social change in the Sacramento area. I write as both a consumer of this imagery (primarily through attending local “farm-to-fork” events and reading articles about them) and as a scholar and teacher of critical food studies at the university level. My feminist methodology contains both auto-ethnographic and critical media studies within its toolkit – using juxtaposition as my space of inquiry.

Throughout, this essay, I argue that Sacramento’s “Farm-to-Fork Capital” campaign (circa 2012-2020) utilizes advertising, magazine articles, and large public facing events to both define the city and the meanings of farm-to-fork in ways that minimize the racial, ethnic, citizenship, gender, and class inequities undergirding our food systems – locally, nationally, and globally. I also explore the ways that the experiences of folks whose work should be at the center of any endeavor to create a just food system are pushed to the margins of the high-end farm-to-fork marketplace. By critically reading advertisements, magazine content, and my own interactions in the “field” of Sacramento’s Farm-to-Fork Capital campaign, I engage in an embodied and reflexive interpretation of the culture of the so-called movement.

I begin with describing the origins of the campaign in the next section with a focus on the representations of it in local publications. I then think through how the representations of the “other” – Latino farm workers and children of color – shape the public discourse about who gets to participate and how they are engaged within the farm-to-fork ethos. I end the essay with a description of a local urban farmer whose work provides a corrective to the myopic representations of farm-to-fork in the local media. I also explore the ways in which the realities of the Covid-19 pandemic and the racial reckoning of the Black Lives Matter movement have impacted the mainstream approach to farm-to-fork. As such, I end with a renewed sense of possibility as I continue to live in the midst of and critically engage Sacramento’s Farm-to-Fork campaign.

The Beginnings…

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson proclaims Sacramento the Farm‐to‐Fork Capital of America at a press conference held in Cesar Chavez Plaza on Wednesday, October 31, 2012. (Photo by Alyssa Green)

In 2012, Mayor Kevin Johnson dubbed Sacramento the “Farm-to-Fork Capital,” thereby kicking off an intense branding campaign designed to revamp the image of the city (sometimes  referred to with the pejorative “cow-town” designation) and surrounding Central Valley region to take advantage of its deep agricultural and viticulture roots and growing urban foodie culture.[6] Johnson’s efforts to rebrand the Sacramento region has also meant eliminating the “City of Trees” from official signage and brochures.[7]

The proclamation of Sacramento as the “Farm-to-Fork Capital” took place on the Cesar Chavez Plaza in Downtown, Sacramento The above photo is telling in that the platform for the press conference is placed opposite the large Chavez Memorial sculpture depicting the Farmworkers’ Movement  but no mention is made of that history in the short piece accompanying this photograph.[8] Chavez’s work with other UFW activists Dolores Huerta, Gilbert Padilla, and Filipino farm worker movement leader, Larry Itliong to organize and secure union representation for Filipino and Mexican farmworkers in several major agricultural industries in California – tomato, winery, berry, table grapes, and dairy – is work that continues to have relevance in this contemporary moment. [9]

But Mayor Johnson’s focus that day is on amplifying the significance of Sacramento as a natural leader in national farm-to-fork efforts. “This recognition as America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital isn’t something that this region needs to grow into because we’ve been walking this walk for decades.” To buttress that point, the reporter/photographer lists how many Certified Farmers Markets exist in the region and its location in the fertile Central Valley. The piece goes on to state that in conjunction with the Mayor’s announcement, the Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau has planned a weeklong celebration. All of this aimed to support increasing community pride, local farming, and “marketing the region as a culinary tourism destination.”[10]

At the root of the “Farm-to-Fork Capital” campaign are a series of “news stories” and advertisements that identify the key players in the restaurant and beverage industry in the Sacramento region. These are people whose establishments and products turn up at most of the events tied to the campaign.  The caption on the advertisement (masquerading as an editorial feature) below reads: “The Capital City is quickly becoming nationally celebrated for its farm-to-fork ethos. In the following pages, meet some of the top chefs who are leading this movement and making the Sacramento region a hotbed of destination dining.”

Faces of Farm to Fork Sactown Magazine August/September 2014

Many of those surrounding Johnson on the Cesar Chavez Plaza in the fall of 2012 are also featured in this piece from Sactown Magazine (August/September2014). Sactown, like its slightly glossier counterpart Sacramento Magazine, runs stories classified as “lifestyle features.” The monthly magazines consist of interesting, easy-reading stories that attempt to paint Sacramento in a positive light – exploring local travel destinations (e.g., Lake Tahoe), new restaurants and shops, as well as interviews with prominent local businesspersons, athletes, or government players. Sometimes they feature compelling long-form journalism stories that focus on local issues.

What is also true about both magazines is that they often run advertising that is so integrated into the texture of the magazine that the reader is not immediately able to differentiate them. Such is the case with the above image drawn from a 20-page insert nestled between the magazine’s “What’s Cooking” section and the “Bites” restaurant listings section. It blurs the boundaries and reads like a regular feature in the magazine but is produced “[i]n Collaboration with the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau.” There are short write-ups on some of the folks pictured as well as ruminations on why Sacramento deserves its “Farm-to-Fork Capital” moniker. Each of the men (and they all are with one exception) featured are recurring faces in advertising, events, and other media related to the farm-to-fork branding[11]. Moreover, when featured, nonwhite men are usually cooking food one might describe as ethnic. Which is also the case for the one female chef/restauranteur featured—Biba Caggiano’s Italian cuisine[12]. The white male chefs have greater range and are cooking American food with touches of the Southern United States, European, or Latin cuisines. Others of the white males featured are brew masters or wine makers.

The upper-end casual dining scene in Sacramento is shaped by a few big players whose food work is imagined to be creating a chain of interconnected relationships between chefs, farmers, wine makers and brewers. For instance, the Sacramento Magazine’s “The Farmer and the Chef” (August 2015) article describes the symbiotic relationship between chef and farmer the movement mythologizes. The work of the farmer is cast here as expert and collaborator with the chef. The chef, in these portraits, understands his role as an interpreter of the bounty of produce/raw product presented him by the farmer. He does not tell the farmer what to grow, but rather is inspired by what the farmer brings to him.

Imaging Farm-to-Fork—The Farmer and the Chef

In “The Farmer and the Chef” photo essay a lot of the description of the farmer/chef experience hinges on relationships that go beyond the chef simply buying the produce. It is, instead, one where “like minds” come together to create something sensational – the food to be consumed. However, it is not just food consumption, but rather a certain image/idea about what good food is, what it should look like, and how it should taste. Equally germane is the presentation of the farmer:

[Tomato farmer, Heidi Watanabe] personally delivers to restaurants, driving the truck herself and often working until 10 or 1 p.m. Michael Thiemann [Chef/Owner of Mother vegetarian restaurant] loves when she brings her products in through [the] front door and unloads them in front of his diners. “Looks cool, huh?” she once said to Thiemann with a grin.[13]

Food work is performative work. Moreover, the performance resonates differently depending on who is playing which part. In this story, a white female farmer, driving a pick-up truck delivers produce to the popular upscale vegetarian restaurant owned by a white male chef.  The chef, who has learned from the farmer about the realities of growing and using farm product fully, can then be the erudite face of the restaurant. The farmer as white and female means a more edgy representation, but not too dangerous. She is both novelty and seen as the same social standing as the white male chef. The delivery of the produce through the front of the house makes those relations – farmer and chef — seem egalitarian. However, the female farmer/owner and the male restaurant chef/owner are at the top of the social hierarchy and visible. The workers (likely to be primarily people of color – Latino, Asian, and Black – and of all genders) who plant and harvest the produce or cook, serve, and clean at the restaurant are absent from this picture story. 

The hypervisibility of privilege is also on the stage in the “news photos” featuring the annual Farm-to-Fork Gala dinner on the Tower Bridge – which spans the Sacramento River between Old Sacramento (on the east) and West Sacramento (on the west). Closed to traffic, the bridge becomes the location fora white tablecloth dinner. Months in advance the chefs selected to prepare the meal begin planning the menu. The menu, held in the strictest of confidence until the week or so leading-up to the dinner, is “released” to great fanfare. Tickets for the dinner cost in the $175 range (per person, including alcohol) and sell-out quickly. The last few years there has been a lottery system used to distribute “fairly” the chance to purchase a ticket.[14] In the two-page spread from Sactown Magazine, we see many of the familiar faces of chefs (e.g., Randall Selland of Selland’s Family Restaurants and Kurt Spataro, Executive Chef of the Paragary Restaurant Group), winemakers, political notables (e.g., West Sacramento Mayor Cabaldon and Congresswoman Doris Matsui), and business leaders (e.g., Five Star Bank President & CEO James Beckwith). The Tower Bridge Dinner happens days after longhorn steers are driven[15] across the Tower Bridge kicking off the Farm-to-Fork Week. The day following the dinner, the Farm-to-Fork festival is set-up on the main street leading from the Tower Bridge to the Capital building. The festival is open more broadly to the public and includes live music, prepared foods and fresh produce, lectures on various topics related to food, and other typical festival activities. The festival is free and has had up to 55,000 people in attendance. The reach and the impact of these events have been successful in bringing attention to the robust nature of Sacramento and the Central Valley’s roles in growing and producing food in California.

********

From “Their” Hands to “Ours”

This farm-to-fork “movement” crosses boundaries between commerce, boosterism, and social change in contradictory/uncomfortable ways. For instance, the issue of Sactown which included the above photo spread on the Tower Bridge Dinner also featured a story by Max Whittaker titled, “The Fruits of Their Labor,” which purports to shine light on the often overlooked farm laborers who pick “our” fruits and vegetables. This image of the “Farm-to-Fork Capital” in these pics is about crafting and showcasing a narrative which leaves out all the uncomfortable elements of food work.  While the author hopes to bring attention to farmworkers, the language used in the photo essay is patronizing, condescending, and ignorant of questions of ownership (who is the “our” the author identifies throughout the story) or histories of farmworker labor struggles.  

“Our newfound civic conversation about the ‘farm-to-fork’ movement has trained a well-deserved spotlight on our region’s chefs and farmers. But one essential link in that food chain gets overlooked in the public eye – the unsung efforts of our region’s farmworkers who, with quiet dedication and uncommon discipline, toil under the relentless sun to hand-pick our tomatoes, irrigate our fields and harvest our grapes. Herein lies a glimpse into the world of the hardworking men and women who are harvesting our heritage.[16]  

The essay opens with a full two-page photo of tomato vines and a man kneeling down to pick them. The man (identified as Raul Cordova) is a wearing a blue baseball cap, striped button-down work shirt, and blue jeans. He has heavy gloves on and shown intently looking at tomatoes. Raul Cordova works at Full Belly Farm[17] in Yolo County … harvesting produce to sell at a farmer’s market or included in one of the boxes delivered through their popular CSA program – Farm Fresh To You.[18]

The story also contains photos from the Terra d’Oro Burke Ranch[19] in Plymouth where the farm workers are harvesting grapes to become one of their signature wines. This worker’s got a messy job – standing directly in the stream of juicy bunches of grapes as they fly toward him off the conveyor belt – but he seems to be loving it. 

Whittaker describes how grapes are one of the last crops of the season picked by hand. Picking “fast and furiously”, Whittaker writes that workers can fill on “average about 90-125 [buckets] in four to five hours.” At $1.00 per bucket, these workers can earn roughly $18.00 to $25.00 an hour. More than the minimum wage, to be sure, but not a living wage in California.[20]  

On the next page of the photo essay, Whittaker follows an all-female crew working in Yuba City.  In the author’s description, the foreman (Mario Perez) acts as a middleman between the farmworkers and the labor contractor. He locates the workers, picks them up, and drives them to wherever they have been assigned to work. In this particular story, the farmworkers are actually picking up leftover irrigation piping to clear the field for planting. Whittaker writes: “…[I] could tell that picking up trash all day in a giant tomato field was definitely not their favorite task. It’s {sic} difficult work, bending over and over again. My back hurt just watching them.” Then when describing another team’s labor laying irrigation, Whittaker writes: “These guys made irrigation seem like an art form learned over multiple seasons” (91). While Whittaker recognizes the depths of their work, imagining them as a combination of laborers and artists absolves the author from reckoning with that labor as grueling, repetitive, not well paid, and precarious. In fact, the most egregious example of this narrative turn is in Whittaker’s description of farm worker Alma Perales:

Alma Perales is pouring a bucket of cherry tomatoes straight into their retail packaging. It kind of blew my mind that Alma would be the only person ever to touch these tomatoes before they got sold. To me, that really sums up the concept of ‘farm-to-fork.’ There’s not some long, crazy logistical chain between Alma’s hand and my plate – just a short truck drive to a farmers’ market. (93)

Whittaker’s photo essay is a powerful example of well-intentioned middle-class neoliberalism where exploitative market relations are cast as virtuous enterprises.[21]  For instance, he sums up the article by saying: “I was amazed at the level of dedication that I saw in all the farmworkers I met over the past year. I’ve done manual labor before and found it to be incredibly challenging. Raul and his fellow farm-workers had a Zen-like focus that I envy and admire.” Whittaker makes no mention of the way in which the labor wreaks havoc on their bodies and, as contract day laborers, they have few or no medical benefits to help them if they are injured. Indeed, the author misunderstands that the labor is grueling and is done not out of some space of desire, but most likely out of necessity. Admiring their “Zen-like focus” implies that their work equates to an exercise in mindfulness; rather than demanding physical labor that they perform every day.

These two stories (the top chefs and the farm workers) offer food work – being a chef and being a farm worker – as engaging and creative tasks. However, while the Chefs get to speak and define the community of workers they engage, the farm workers do not. An outsider who romanticizes their labor practices and rather than illuminate the inequalities built into the food system tells the farm workers’ stories, in pictures and in words.  The imagined connections between the production (farm) and consumption (fork), is in reality deeply hierarchical where the products cannot be consumed by laborers in the rarefied venues and events associated with the campaign. Alma Perales’ earnings picking and sorting tomatoes in an eight-hour day would barely purchase one ticket to the fancy fundraiser dinner on the Tower Bridge. In fact, Alma Perales’ income and working conditions are likely to render her and her family food insecure within this bountiful agricultural region.[22] Interestingly the 2021 promotional materials for the Tower Bridge Dinner included mention that some of the money raised supports the College Assistance Migrant Program at California State University in Sacramento. [23] This is an ironic sort of “award” for children of agricultural workers like Alma Perales and Raul Cordova, who have sacrificed their health and well-being in service to industrial agricultural complex.

Farm-to-Fork in Action

Just as Latino farmworkers are imagined as noble laborers, other people of color (and sometimes the children of the farm laborers) are often portrayed as the needy recipients of the information connected to Sacramento’s “Farm-to-Fork Capital”” campaign.[24] I have witnessed this sort of imagining on the ground in the work of the Food Literacy Center – whose mission is “to inspire kids to eat their vegetables.”[25] They “teach children in low-income elementary schools cooking, nutrition, gardening, and active play to improve our health, environment, and economy.”  As one of the critical cultural workers in Sacramento’s mainstream farm-to-fork movement, the Food Literacy Center hosts an annual Food Film Festival as a fundraiser for the nonprofit[26] and as part of its public facing work. In the spring of 2017, my then 9-year-old, daughter and I attended a screening of the film Sustainable[27] (2016). The screening took place in the Central Library Galleria space overlooking Cesar Chavez Park in Downtown Sacramento. The audience was, at first glance, quite diverse[28]. I was encouraged to see Chanowk Yisrael of Yisrael Family Urban Farm in the room, sitting near to the stage. The farm was featured in the 2015 ad campaign and in 2018 the Farmer’s Guild and the Community Alliance with Family Farms named them Farm Advocates of the Year.[29] Chanowk is also Slow Food Sacramento’s farm representative and board member at the non-profit’s global conference in Italy.[30] I was eager to hear and participate in a discussion of the film from various angles. However, as the evening progressed, I realized that the narrative running throughout the event was tied to a particular understanding of food politics.

For instance, in the lead up to the screening Amber Stott invited to the stage some “student chefs” who were participants in the Food Literacy Center’s school-based program. There were three of them: 13-year-old Matthew (White or Latino), 8-year-old Olivia (maybe Latina), and 7-year-old Jackie (Black). Each of the “student chefs” spoke about their experience with the Food Literacy Center and named their favorite vegetable. These young people were super cute and very earnest. However, their participation felt scripted and manipulative. I was dismayed with Stott’s use of the little brown kids as “demonstrations” of the effectiveness of the Food Literacy Center and as representatives of the “problem” made right. Indeed, much of the imaging associated with The Food Literacy Center features black and brown, smiling children happily eating carrots, broccoli, etc. [See IMAGES #14-16]

In that vein, before the screening began my daughter and I were walking around looking at the various booths and tables. We stopped at the Whole Foods Market table and I considered purchasing their “bag of local goodies” which was $25 and included beautifully packaged items like extra-virgin olive oil, a chocolate bar, Bloody Mary Mix, some heirloom flower seeds.  As I stood there pondering this, one of the Food Literacy women came up to us – a young woman, perhaps Latina, with short dark hair. She asks my daughter if she is one of the “student chefs.” Already bristling, I jumped in and said, “Nope. But she is a chef in our house.” The young woman says, “Oh, really?!” and then asks my daughter, “What’s your favorite thing to cook?” She responds that she loves to bake bread. The young woman was visibly surprised; perhaps it was not the answer she expected to hear. Nevertheless, without too much hesitation, she reaches into the basket of local goodies and comes up with a small root vegetable. She asks my daughter, “Do you know what this is?” My then 8-year old daughter, who is usually not shy, said in a low voice, “a radish.” The young woman on point in her script, belted out without really hearing her answer, and says, “It’s a radish!” My daughter just shakes her head in the affirmative. Then I interject, “Do y’all grow radishes in your school garden?” My daughter shakes her head “no,” looking embarrassed by the woman’s query and my obvious displeasure with the exchange. However, The FLC advocate does not pick-up on the fact that my daughter already knew about radishes, has experienced growing stuff, and does not need to be “educated” about eating her veggies. The Food Literacy Center advocate simply launches into a bunch of “fun facts” about radishes.

Moving beyond my personal irritation with this scenario, I understand it as part of a system of racial coding. The subtle and invasive assumption that Black people (and Black food) are somehow already deficient or abject.[31] Stott’s work with the Food Literacy Center has been quite successful and she, as Founder & Chief Food Genius, has played a central role in crafting the images of the “needy” side of the farm-to-fork.  Stott has also been instrumental in defining “farm-to-fork” in a variety of local events and publications (Edible Sacramento, Sacramento Magazine, and Sactown Magazine, TEDx Sacramento, Sacramento Food Film Festival), as well as regionally and beyond the U.S.  She opines: “No matter where I go or who I speak with, the question of farm to fork boils down to two important elements beyond the obvious ‘buy local’ mantra: education and intentionality.”[32] For Stott it is simple: know where your food comes from and commit to eating locally and seasonally.

She traces the roots of Sacramento’s contemporary efforts to the U.S. “back-to-the-land movement” of the 1970s and Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California; arguing that it is both a lifestyle and a movement. And it is actually in that designation – both movement and lifestyle – where she and others posit their work as advocates for social change through educating others to lead (and desire to lead) a particular sort of lifestyle. The classist and racist dimensions of the project of educating some of those others (needy, “food desert” inhabitants) becomes one of the platforms through which the “farm-to-fork” lifestyle gets funded and authenticated by well-heeled donors, federal, state and local government funding for nonprofits, etc.

As a political force in the local terrain, Stott has had the power to shape the discourse around sustainability, food, and hunger.[33] However, the narrative (and imagery) she and others elevate continues to hinge on poor folks (Black and brown, but not always) as recipients and middle- and upper-class folks (white, but not always) in the roles of leaders, pioneers, risk-takers, food geniuses, etc.  The Food Literacy Center operates within this political spectrum by de-fanging the possibilities of collective social movement around the need for systemic changes in our food system.[34] They do so by focusing on such things as lifestyle, personal/individual choice, and specific prescriptions for what constitutes good eating rather than exploring the multiple and contradictory politics of food in our society. As Julie Guthman writes:

[I]t may well be that the focus of activism should shift away from the particularities of food and towards the injustices that underlie disparities in food access. Activists might pay more attention to projects considered much more difficult in the current political climate: eliminating redlining, investing in urban renewal [not gentrification], expanding entitlement programs, obtaining living wages, along with eliminating toxins from and improving the quality of the mainstream food supply. The question, then, is what kind of cultural politics might facilitate this shift.[35]

Unfortunately, opportunities to engage in dialogue and debate across different expressions within a much broader food justice movement have not been evident in Sacramento’s mainstream Farm-to-Fork Capital efforts.

For instance, when we walked into the Sustainable screening and I noticed Chanowk Yisrael of Yisrael Family Urban Farm, I assumed that he would be on the panel discussing the film and/or the implications for urban farmers in Sacramento. However, he was not on the stage during the discussion and, in fact, left before the screening was complete. I do not know the circumstances surrounding his departure, but I felt keenly the missed opportunity to hear him speak about local food matters from a wholly different perspective. The farm-to-fork messaging (visually through advertisements or narratively in the magazine stories) is geared toward a particular audience and not articulated as connected to critical explorations of small-scale urban farming or home gardens in low-income or working class communities, food insecurity, poverty, farm workers’ plight, or other socio-economic issues. Attempts to foster public conversations across these ideas does not happen.

This was also evident at the 2017 Farm-to-Fork Festival where demos/presentations put on by the Food Literacy Center (Amber Stott) and the Juneteenth Chefs Collaborative (Chef Andrea O’Neal) occurred back-to-back on the same stage, but no conversation between the women was brokered.[36]  For Stott’s presentation, she did what she described as a “simple” recipe while delivering her usual script about the 40% obesity rate in Sacramento.[37] During her demo of Grilled Corn with Chili and Lime, Stott talked about what her organization does and how they have attempted to tackle the problem of obesity in low-income neighborhoods/schools. She also talked about how eating fresh corn reminds her of growing up in the Midwest where corn was very plentiful in the summer months.  Yet, she made no mention of how this particular recipe draws quite obviously from the well-known elote or Mexican Street Corn that is prevalent within Latino communities throughout Sacramento. At one point during her presentation, her mentor and Food Literacy Center Board Member, Elise Bauer, was invited to the stage by the reporter emcee to assist. Once on stage, Bauer and Stott talked more about making “simple recipes” that are accessible for families (especially moms) to use daily.[38] After Stott and Bauer leave the stage, Chef Andrea O’Neal one of the chefs featured in the Farm-to-Fork Capital ad campaign (see IMAGE #1), takes the stage. [39]  There is no discussion or communication between O’Neal and the Stott-Bauer team, almost as if they did not know each other.

Chef O’Neal’s work speaks of an approach to food work that invokes food as a catalyst for change rather than a destination. She described how, in the past eight years she has worked in various capacities with food. Chef Andrea has cooked at My Sister’s Café[40]and My Sister’s House[41], as well as offering cooking classes through the Juneteenth Chefs Collaborative in Elk Grove (a suburb of Sacramento).[42] At the time of this presentation, she was Cooking Chef at UC Davis Health System’s Institute for Population Health Improvement.[43] Chef Andrea prepared Coho salmon with a homemade blueberry ketchup while offering tidbits about her own journey through food work and the work of the Juneteenth Chefs Collaborative. She gave tips about food and health – e.g., that canola oil is not as healthy as we think – but also talked about the kinds of advocacy work she does and encourages others to get involved. She tells us …

My Sister’s Café opened about four years ago.  It is specific for women of Asian descent.  It helps get them back into job mode; their children back into schooling; women who have been abused, sex trafficked, drug addicted―It’s just a really good program. I was their Chef for about 4 years before opening up the restaurant and then another 2 years after that. It is a good program, if you guys [sic] have time to volunteer there, please do so.[44]

In reflecting on the two presentations, it would have been engaging and informative if there had been some interaction between Amber Stott and Chef Andrea O’Neal … perhaps giving them a platform to draw connections between their work with food and “at-risk” populations.[45]

Chef Andrea talked about empowerment of the women they work with via My Sister’s House emphasizing that the goal is to get the women on their feet. For her, food (especially entrepreneurial food work) is a tool toward stability/empowerment amongst some of the most vulnerable peoples there are – immigrant women and women of color escaping entrapment, sexual and physical violence. My Sister’s Café serves as a funding source for My Sister’s House and a space where women can gain skills they might use to seek employment. In comparison, Stott harkened back to her days growing up in the Midwest and her understanding of what constitutes a “good” and “healthy” relationship with food. What Stott’s narrative misses completely is that her experience with food is likely from a place not shaped by racism, poverty, or trauma. Nevertheless, Stott’s privilege and social capital have afforded her the opportunity to grow a non-profit that taps into the middle and upper-middle class foodie’s desire to do good works. [See IMAGES #14-16]

The work of the farm-to-fork advertisements and related events is about celebrating the bounty of the region and the innovative ways that chefs, vintners, brew masters, organic farmers and others are collaborating to create spaces and events that engage those who have means to do so. As Stott writes, “We are the lucky ones who live closest to [the agricultural bounty], who have the strongest ability to intentionally implement a farm-to-fork lifestyle, and hopefully, educate ourselves deeply on what a truly sustainable food system looks like not just in restaurants and on farms, but in school cafeterias, food banks and at home in our own backyards.”[46] I argue, however, that the Food Literacy Center’s inclusion within the imagery connected to Sacramento’s Farm-to-Fork Capital campaign is just as problematic as the shadowy inclusion of The Juneteenth Black Chefs Collaborative and the Yisrael Family Urban Farm.  Restaurants, school cafeterias, food banks, and “our” homes and backyards may all be connected to and/or resistive of the industrial agricultural food system, but equally yoked within that system we are not.

For instance, the Food Literacy Center’s efforts to counter the “obesity crisis” amongst low-income children in Sacramento with a two-pronged approach of teaching children to love eating vegetables like broccoli and remaking the school lunch program by building a centralized kitchen where healthful foods are prepared and disseminated to 80 schools within the district, feels like a step forward.[47] Who would not want freshly prepared meals to replace reliance on industrialized and processed foods for children, particularly those most vulnerable to hunger and food insecurity? However, this sort of intervention continues historical efforts to shape bodies to fit within mainstream ideals of the good citizen.[48] The Food Literacy Center and the new Central Kitchen are manifestations of biopower – “forms of power aimed at controlling life itself through the management and administration of a populations’ health.”[49]

The US school food system has undergone significant transformations since its inception at the beginning of the twentieth century. Its development over time clearly illustrates biopower mechanisms in action. In the school luunch program, truth discourses promoted by experts, social reformers, and child advocates justify collective interventions into the eating practices of children. Through the school lunch program, children are taught self-discipline by emulating lunchroom eating norms and social practices in the space of the school.[50] 

The “truth discourses” embedded in the Sacramento Farm-to-Fork Campaign about the benefits of eating locally, seasonally, and with intention permeate the language of the Food Literacy Center. The development of the Central Kitchen is part of the “collective intervention” which will imbed knowledge about how and what to eat in the minds of the schoolchildren. Those “truth discourses” say nothing about the inequalities within school, work, and in communities grappling with the impacts of historical disinvestment and contemporary gentrification. Moreover, until recently, they did not address cultural relevant foods or historically different foodways.

Conclusions: Where do we go from here?: Our Farm, Our Fork, Our Community[51]

 At the same time that images of Sacramento’s Farm-to-Fork Campaign appeared, Chanowk and Judith Yisrael and their urban farm were featured in less glossy publications like the Sacramento News & Review,  INSIDE, and Edible Sacramento, as well as the local business magazine Comstock’s: Business Insight for the Capital Region.[52] The images and stories of the Yisrael Family Urban Farm in these publications reveal layered reasons behind the farm’s beginning. [53] Shaped by personal and familial struggles with cancer and other health ailments, coupled with the realities of supporting a large family while working and commuting long distances to corporate jobs each day, Chanowk and Judith took what was a large residential lot with fruit trees and a small garden and grew it into a total farming enterprise.           

The Yisrael Family Urban Farm’s motto, “Transforming the HOOD for G.O.O.D (Growing Our Own Destiny),” makes clear that their mission includes but goes beyond addressing health/diet-related illness. They seek to use “urban agriculture as a tool for community engagement, empowerment and employment.”[54] In this way, their work extends from that of Fannie Lou Hamer’s Freedom Farm Cooperative (circa 1967) and its critical intervention in the struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi.[55] We might also understand Chanowk and Judith’s farm as a contemporary manifestation of the work of the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast Program.[56]  As Judith Yisrael says:

I care about changing the food system because it’s a way to confront and change the inequities which have been present in the United States since its inception.[57]

Since breaking ground on the farm in 2008 and then leaving their corporate jobs several years later, Chanowk and Judith have been focused on creating a space centered on sustainability. Sustainability of self, family, the land and community as interconnected entities.

With 40 fruit trees, 11 free-range chickens, a stocked greenhouse, a busy honeybee hive and endless varieties of fruits and vegetables, Chanowk dares visitors to name what the family doesn’t grow—because the possibilities on this farm are endless. […] If there is one family that embodies the farm-to-fork lifestyle in Sacramento, it’s [sic] the Yisraels. Farming is their everyday way of life. It’s [sic] not a clever hashtag or newfound diet. It’s [sic] simply how they eat, how they bond, how they come together: around food.[58]

Their work has ranged from hosting farm-to-fork events on their farm where guests eat home cooked, plant-based meals built on ingredients from their farm; to working with other urban farmers to pass the Sacramento Urban Agriculture Ordinance that allows residents to sell produce grown on their residential plots (vacant or inhabited)[59]; to teaching plant-based cooking classes at the Sacramento Food Bank (located in North Oak Park); to encouraging Black and Brown youth to become a part of the G team. While the significance of their work within the space of Oak Park deserves an in depth documentation and study beyond the scope of this essay, it is clear that in terms of the Sacramento Farm-to-Fork Capital campaign images including the Yisrael Family Urban Farm needed greater context to make them visible to the broader public. Efforts to contextualize HOW their work engages farm-to-fork from a different perspective would allow people not likely to frequent the high end restaurants, Tower Bridge Dinner, or even the Farm-to-Fork Festival to get a glimpse into the issues which undergird experiences of food insecurity, lack of good employment options within urban communities, make connections between the consumption of processed foods and poor health, all within the context of radical self-care.[60] The twin reckonings of 2020 – the Covid-19 pandemic and the increasing visibility of the BLACK LIVES MATTER movement for social justice – illuminate the necessity to understand our fates as interconnected and to lay bare the histories of disenfranchisement that have long roots.

In early June 2020, during the social unrest after the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, Guys on the Grid, took an aerial photograph of the grassy median leading from the Tower Bridge to the Sacramento Capitol building where BLACK LIVES MATTER had been painted in all caps with bold, black paint on the grassy median.[61] This image came across my Facebook feed on June 6, 2020 with a reflection written by Devin Bruce focusing on the politics of the space:  

Do you know that right where “Black Lives Matter” is painted on the dead grass there on Capitol [Blvd] there used to be a vibrant neighborhood of Black (and Japanese) owned homes and businesses known as the ‘West End’? It was a full community of people and included homes, schools, markets and jazz clubs where the likes of Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday would go and perform at after hours when they were in town. But – it was the first thing you saw when crossing the Tower Bridge and entering Sacramento proper and the white people didn’t like that. The white people said that it was ‘blighted’ and needed to be redeveloped – so they forced all of the Black and Japanese people to move as they tore down the buildings and built a ‘grand entrance’ to the city.[…] They relocated everyone to the Southside Park area but then wanted to build Hwy 50 [in that location] […] At this point, redlining was all the rage so they designated Oak Park for the Black people and the Japanese were pushed farther south of the city.[62]

In pre-pandemic and pre-BLM times, this location served as the space for the annual Farm-to-Fork Festival. As I have discussed in this essay, issues of privilege, biopower, or food justice were not a part of the conversation in the mainstream public. My examination of Sacramento’s Farm-to-Fork Capital campaign mirrors the findings of Broad’s study in Los Angeles, about which he writes:

In popular media, the nutritional, environmental, and social problems of the food system were often portrayed as having utterly simple, conflict-free solutions, generally involving nothing more than individual consumer choices and a little bit of ‘growing your own.’ If we could simply get the general public to understand the importance of healthy eating, pop culture advocates suggested, perhaps by having young boys and girls taste a tomato grown in their own school garden or by opening a community farmers’ market, we would all be well on our way toward health and sustainability. […] Unfortunately, missing from the design, deployment, and management of many of the alternative food initiatives I observed was any recognition that inequity in the food system was centrally linked to histories of racial and economic discrimination.  […] Alternative food initiatives tended to benefit mostly white, economically secure, and already healthy consumers. Low-income communities of color, by contrast, were too often treated as subjects to be taught the ‘right way to eat,’ while issues of systematic injustice in the labor force and other barriers to community health were downplayed or ignored.[63]

Perhaps, times are changing. For instance, the racial reckoning of 2020 seems to have made an impression on the Food Literacy Center’s approach to (or at least public narrative about) the food work they do, as evidenced in a March 24, 2021 email with the subject line: “Subject: 🍎 Race, Equity, Inclusion, and Our Kids 🍎” sent to those on their listserve:

Food Literacy Center Newsletter (March 24, 2021)

This “Weekly Update” was the first newsletter I received from the Food Literacy Center that explicitly discussed race, equity and inclusion issues in relation to their mission with this level of depth.[64] I hope that it is a step forward and is not simply a well-crafted statement for this moment of heightened awareness. What I have come to see during the racial reckoning that was 2020 (building on countless years before that) is the hard work of recognizing and undoing white privilege is an ongoing, complicated endeavor that needs everyone to engage – especially those who benefit most from the system of inequities. Perhaps the Food Literacy Center and the mainstream farm, restaurant, food, and beverage industries they engage with are ready to do that work. Especially as the precarity long-experienced by Black and Brown working-class folks has been amplified as the shutdowns of businesses during the Covid-19 pandemic hit the food and restaurant industry particularly hard.

In fact, just as the language of the Food Literacy Center has shifted, so too has the advertising leading up to the 2021 Tower Bridge Dinner. The dinner was not held in 2020 due to the pandemic and, as we know, many restaurants have struggled to remain open. Restaurant workers have seen their jobs vanish overnight. Others, who maintained their jobs, were categorized as essential workers and thus engaged in public facing work before vaccinations became available. Thereby putting themselves and their families at risk of infection. The Farm-to-Fork Capital website now includes short videos of tearful restaurant owners thanking the public for continuing to patronize their establishments through the pandemic. In addition, others talk of the importance of continuing the ethos of the Tower Bridge Dinner as a socially-distant event where folks could pick-up farm-to-table inspired meals at select restaurants. There was not, of course, the big Farm-to-Fork Festival on Capital Avenue between the Tower Bridge and the Capital Building.

In 2021, the Tower Bridge Dinner happened (tickets sold out), but the chefs at the center of the event were not just the key, high-end restaurateurs of years past but a team of chefs of color (Latino and Asian) and women working in a variety of food spaces – led by UC Davis Health System’s Executive Chef Santana Diaz.[65] On August 10, 2021, it was announced that Visit Sacramento, the entity that oversees all of the Farm-to-Fork Capital events has created a new position – Chief of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and moved its chief marketing officer, African American Sonya Bradley, into the position.

While all of the developments are potentially positive. Perhaps they are part of a process of critically thinking about what the Farm-to-Fork Capitol might do to make an impact on the food system locally, within California, nationally, and perhaps globally. My exploration in this essay points to the necessity of building or engaging a collective of folks whose work is about creating the spaces of dialogue needed to uncover the biases and misinformation presented as truth. We must foreground the need to call our leaders (self-proclaimed, selected, and elected) to a greater sense of accountability – not to capitalistic notions of progress – but to the people whose lives are deeply impacted everyday by the issues glibly presented in various media outlets. As Stuart Hall spent his life’s work unpacking and exploring the “politics of representation,” we continue to be in a struggle over meaning.[66]


Notes:

[1] The Pocket-Greenhaven area of Sacramento is located south of the downtown core, east of the Sacramento River. It is a largely middle and upper-middle class community with significant numbers of residents of African American (approximately 18%) and Asian American (approximately 21%) descent.

[2] “Known as the nation’s farm-to-fork capital, the Sacramento area is home to nearly 8,000 acres of boutique farmland and boasts the largest certified farmers market in California” (https://www.visitcalifornia.com/attraction/farm-fork-capital#:~:text=Top%20Sacramento%20Restaurants,-Spotlight%3A%20Sacramento&text=Known%20as%20the%20nation’s%20farm,certified%20farmers%20market%20in%20California.) Last accessed 6/8/2020

[3] My search details are included in the parenthesis after their names.

[4] Jhally 2015, page 247.

[5] “As a division of Visit Sacramento, a 501(c)(6), the Farm-to-Fork program is guided by Visit Sacramento’s dedicated volunteer board. The board represents all aspects of the tourism and hospitality industries’ most important stakeholders, including lodging, meeting facilities, attractions, restaurants, arts and culture, government, retail, sports and transportation.” Source: https://www.farmtofork.com/. Last Accessed 6/16/20. See also: https://ca.meetingsmags.com/sacramento-elevates-its-profile-farm-fork-campaign. Last Accessed 8/28/21.

[6] In 2000, the Los Angeles Lakers’ Head Coach Phil Jackson dubbed Sacramento a “cow town” when the Sacramento Kings advanced to the NBA Playoffs Western Finals and the team’s fans often rang cowbells during the games. “Jackson called Sacramento a “cow town” and said Kings fans were “semi-civilized” and “maybe redneck in some form or fashion.”” (David Dupree, “California dreamin’ for Western final” USA Today, May 17, 2002.)

[7] “Visit Sacramento, the tourism organization that sponsors the wildly successful farm-to-fork events in September says there are many cities that claim to be the “City of Trees” around the world and even locally. But Sacramento is now known around the world for popularizing a new food concept.” See: Lonnie Wong, “Water Tower No Longer Reads ‘Welcome to Sacramento, City of Trees’” Fox 40 Local News, March 9, 2017. https://fox40.com/news/local-news/water-tower-no-longer-reads-welcome-to-sacramento-city-of-trees/ Last accessed: 7/7/2021.

[8] The artist who sculpted the piece, Lisa Reinertson, said “Many of the people in the sculpture are based on actual people who were involved in the Farmworkers’ Movement. For example, there is a depiction of Dolores Huerta holding a “Huelga” sign. Cesar Chavez’s brother and daughter are also depicted on the “mural” side, as is Robert Kennedy, breaking fast with Cesar. I also visited La Paz (UFW Headquarters) in the process of doing research for the sculpture, so the side that has the marchers has many people that were either on the March from Delano to Sacramento, or I may have used photos I took of people at La Paz that would have been the right age at that time. (For example, one of Cesar Chavez’ daughter-in-law and grandsons.) I had a few people pose for me that asked to remain unnamed, but who also had been connected to the UFW. Also, grape strike leader Larry ltliong, is depicted in the march with another Filipino woman who was on the march. Some of the people are from photographs from the era of the UFW movement. My own mother was on the organizing end of the march in Sacramento. She was both a Civil Rights and Peace activist. She and her friend volunteered to find accommodations for the marchers as they arrived in the city. Our family joined in on some of the march, walking up Hwy 99, and the final march to the State Capitol. I was only 11 at the time but was very moved by the experience. I was able to witness Cesar Chavez speak, both at a local church the night before the march on the Capitol and also at the Capitol. The injustice of the plight of the farmworkers struck me deeply, and being able to leave a visible legacy and reminder of the struggles and successes of the Farmworkers’ Movement felt very important to me, and was an honor to be able to do as a sculptor.” Personal correspondence May, 12, 2017.

[9] In 1962 Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Gilbert Padilla (and others) began the United Farmworkers of America and eventually successfully unionized several industries (ufw.org/about-us/our-vision). On the plaza opposite where Mayor Johnson made the announcement, is a statue representing the UFW movement featuring images of Chavez, Huerta, and Padilla along with Larry Itliong, the leader of the Filipino farmworkers’ movement. Itliong had urged Chavez years before the formation of UFW, to join him and his constituency to push for worker protections within the table grape growing industry. See Jill Cowan, “A leader of Farmworkers and Filipino Place in American History” New York Times October 21, 2019 and Lisa Morehouse, “Grapes of Wrath: The Forgotten Filipinos Who Led a Farm Worker Revolution” NPR The Salt, September 19, 2015.; Matthew Garcia, From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement. UC Press, 2014.

[10] Green, 11/1/2012

[11] Erica Maria Cheung’s “Dudes of Food.” MA Thesis, UC Irvine, 2016.

[12] Biba Caggiano passed away in August 2019, See: https://www.sacbee.com/news/local/obituaries/article232620167.html.

[13] Bizjack, page 83; Mother restaurant abruptly closed its doors in January 2020. See:  https://sacramento.cbslocal.com/2020/01/02/mother-restaurant-sacramento-closes/

[14] After a hiatus in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, The Tower Bridge Gala returned in 2021 featuring a lineup of local chefs with both Latina/o and Asian representation. https://www.farmtofork.com/events/the-tower-bridge-dinner/. During the pandemic year, there was an alternative “Tower Bridge Dinner to Go” which offered foods directly to customers. This alternative was also offered in 2021. https://www.farmtofork.com/tower-bridge-dinner-to-go/.

[15] https://fox40.com/news/farm-to-fork-kicks-off-with-tower-bridge-cattle-drive/.

[16] Page 89, bold added by author.

[17] http://fullbellyfarm.com/. Full Belly Farm has 80 different crops that require to picking by hand – to preserve the fruit/nuts, etc. at their peak of ripeness – a premium in the farm-to-fork marketplace (page 92).

[18] https://www.farmfreshtoyou.com/

[19] https://www.terradorowinery.com/index.cfm? Located in the wildly popular Amador County wine region.

[20] https://livingwage.mit.edu/states/06

[21] George Monbiot, “Neoliberalism—the ideology at the root of all our problems” The Guardian [Economics], April 15-2016. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/15/neoliberalism-ideology-problem-george-monbiot

[22] See: Sandy Brown and Christy Getz, “Farmworker Food Insecurity and the Production of Hunger in California” Chapter 6 in Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability edited by Alison Hope Alkon and Julian Agyeman (The MIT Press, 2011). One of the epitaphs on the Cesar Chavez Memorial: “Capital and labor together produce the fruits of the land, but what really counts is labor. The human beings who torture their bodies, sacrifice their youth and numb their spirits to produce this great agricultural wealth. A wealth so vast that it feeds all of America and much of the world. And yet the men, women and children who are the flesh and blood of this production often do not have enough to feed themselves.” Cesar Chavez, 1979, Eulogy for slain lettuce strikers in the Imperial Valley.

[23] https://www.sacbee.com/food-drink/article164667337.html. Last Accessed: 8/28/21

[24] Most of the farmworkers in California are Mexican or of Mexican descent, many (65%) are without documents and 1/3 are women. See https://farmworkerfamily.org/information. Last Accessed 8/31/21.

[25] https://www.foodliteracycenter.org/. During the uprisings of 2020, the practice of companies posting statements of solidarity around Black Lives Matter – FLC posted the following on their website: “When we commit to protecting kids’ health with vegetables, we also stand up for their lives. Black lives matter. We stand with our Black community members to call out injustice and to take action. Food literacy is food justice.” Last accessed June 30, 2020.

[26] Stott opened the event (after the Friends of the Library spokesperson spoke) and spent a good deal of time talking about the work of the Food Literacy Center. In general, I was taken with how she talked about the Food Literacy Center using language that I would consider that of a for profit enterprise – specifically, that their model was “scalable” and “gets results.” It was unclear to me what the results were – 1) a reduction in the prevalence of childhood obesity? Or 2) the growth of the Food Literacy Center, servicing one school in its beginnings in 2012 and now in nine schools in 2017? In 2021, the Food Literacy Center is leading the opening of a Central Kitchen to serve the Sacramento City’s public schools hot lunches.

[27] See sustainablefoodfilm.com and foodliteracycenter.org/film-festival-event/sold-out-sustainable-0  

[28] The folks who were at the screening, primarily white and older, but with smatterings of others represented: young millennials (tattooed), young families (with infants), a few older Black folks; a fair number of folks who looked Asian (mostly young). 

[29] https://m.facebook.com/yisraelfarm/photos/every-year-the-the-farmers-guild-gives-food-and-farm-related-awards-in-7-categor/1646392858749213/

[30] https://www.slowfoodsacramento.org/board-members; https://www.comstocksmag.com/qa/chanowk-yisrael-talks-about-changing-hood-good

[31] See Psyche Williams-Forson’s forthcoming Eating While Black: Food Shaming and Race in America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, August 16, 2022). See also: Vivian Nun Halloran’s, “Eating in Public: As Performance of Assimilation, Diaspora, or Ethnic Belonging in her The Immigrant Kitchen: Food, Ethnicity, and Diaspora (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2016); pages 41-63.

[32] Stott, “Farm-to-Fork Defined”, Edible Sacramento[32], September/October 2015, page 10)

[33] Amber K. Stott is the Founding Executive Director of the California Food Literacy Center and has been named a Food Revolution Hero by the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation. Stott was instrumental in getting legislation passed to designate September as Food Literacy Month in California. (http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=201120120ACR161. Recently, Stott’s work has also been instrumental in developing a Central Kitchen within the Sacramento Unified School District. The kitchen, slated to open and begin providing meals to schools in fall 2020. See: https://www.scusd.edu/central-kitchen and https://sacramento.cbslocal.com/2017/06/06/sacramento-schools-farm-to-fork/.

[34] See: Dylan Rodríguez, “Navigating Neoliberalism in the Academy, Nonprofits, and Beyond: The Political Logic of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex.” The Scholar & Feminist Online Issue 13.2 | Spring 2016 (https://sfonline.barnard.edu/navigating-neoliberalism-in-the-academy-nonprofits-and-beyond/paul-kivel-social-service-or-social-change/) and Sidra Morgan-Montoya, “Nonprofit Industrial Complex 101: A primer on how it upholds inequity and flattens resistance.”  Community Centric Fundraising, August 10, 2020 (https://communitycentricfundraising.org/2020/08/10/nonprofit-industrial-complex-101-a-primer-on-how-it-upholds-inequity-and-flattens-resistance/).

[35]“Bringing good food to others: investigating the subjects of alternative food practice.” Cultural Geographies, Volume 15, 2008; 431-457.

[36] They were on the Visit Sacramento Demo Stage at 2:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. respectively.

[37] The Food Literacy Center uses compelling photos of “at risk” risk kids and narratives of need to substantiate its mission. The 40% obesity rate in Sacramento is a statistic that has a certain purchase and is used liberally. See: https://www.foodliteracycenter.org/broccoli-beet-year/holiday-fund-school-drive

[38] As far as I have been able to ascertain, neither Stott nor Bauer have children of her own. Their food work is shaped by their memories of cooking and eating in their own families, as Stott mentions in the grilled corn demonstration and as Bauer describes on her website. See: http://www.simplyrecipes.com. Last Accessed 6/17/2020.

[39] https://www.facebook.com/chefamor.alwaysfresh

[40] http://www.mysisterscafe.org/

[41] http://www.my-sisters-house.org/

[42] http://goharvest.org/

[43] The Institute for Population Health Improvement (IPHI) was founded in 2011 and engaged in partnerships/collaborations with various government entities and nonprofits to work toward better health outcomes (and reduced health costs). See: Kenneth W. Kizer, “Improving Population Health through Clinical-Community Collaboration: A Case Study of a Collaboration between State Government and an Academic Health System,” Chapter 9 in Public Health Leadership: Strategies for Innovations in Population Health and Social Determinants, edited by Richard F. Callahan and Dru Bhattacharya (Routledge, 2017). The IPHI ceased to exist when in 2019, the founding director Dr. Kenneth Kizer, left UC Davis to join Atlas Research as Chief Healthcare Transformation Officer and Senior Executive Vice President (https://www.atlasresearch.us/news/leading-health-care-reformer-dr-ken-kizer-joins-atlas-research).

[44] Both Stott and O’Neal’s sessions were audio recorded and then transcribed.

[45] At the 2015 Festival, there was a panel discussion (“The Mission of the Farm-to-Fork”) that featured folks associated with Food Literacy Center, Soil Born Farms, and the Center for Land-Based Learning. I wondered then why there were no representatives from the Juneteenth Black Chefs Collaborative, R. Kelley Farms, or the Yisrael Family Urban Farm on the panel.  

[46] Stott, “Farm-to-Fork Defined” page 41.

[47] https://thecentralkitchen.org/. Last accessed: 8/31/21. When my daughter was a student in a public charter school connected to Sacramento Unified School District, a few parents met to organize a “take back our school lunch” effort. Our school site, built in the 1950s, had a full kitchen that had been used to prepare lunches for the students who attended that school. During our time at the school, the lunches were brought in and heated up in industrial microwaves (bypassing the industrial ranges and ovens). Some fresh produce was available on the salad bar (which was decked out with beautiful “farm-to-fork” signage), but my daughter informed me that it mostly consisted of wilted salad greens, carrots, broccoli and food service sized ranch dressing. Our school also had a school garden that was a popular after school activity. However, the produce was not grown in sufficient quantity to supplement the cafeteria salad bar and there were restrictions around utilizing it in that way. We gave up on our efforts and more parents decided to forego hot lunch and pack lunches. When I approached the Food Literacy Center table at one of the Farm-To-Fork Festivals, I was told that because our school was not located in a low-income community and did not service a population with a significant number on the free-and-reduced lunch program, we were not eligible to become a Food Literacy Center site.

[48] See Sarah E. Dempsey and Kristina E. Gibson’s “Food, Biopower, and the Child’s Body as a Scale of Intervention,” Chapter 14 in Food & Place: A Critical Exploration edited by Pascale Joassart-Marcelli and Fernando J. Bosco (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018).

[49] Dempsey and Gibson, page 255. These authors are utilizing Foucault’s theory of biopower as a tool for understanding how “the child’s body functions as a highly contested scale of intervention into food and eating practices.”

[50] Dempsey and Gibson, page 257. See also Nun Halloran, note #31.

[51] Martin Luther King, Where Do We Go From Here?: Chaos or Community. Beacon Press, 2010.

[52] The first two publications are newspapers that are freely available in kiosks located around the city. Edible Sacramento is a free magazine often available at the Natural Foods Co-op while COMSTOCK’s is a magazine available for purchase at local newsstands and grocery stores.

[53] Sena Christian, “Grow Your Own Way.” COMSTOCK’S, Volume 29, Number 9 (September 2017), pages 40-51; Amber Stott, “Emerging Food Leaders: 5 People to Watch” Edible Sacramento, March/April 2016, pages 11-15; Janelle Bitker, “No Lawn. No Pool. Hello, Urban Farm: Sacramento Agriculturalists Turn Their Yards Into Gardens to Feed the City,” Sacramento News & Review Volume 27, Issue 23, 9/24/2015, pages 17-19; Gwen Schoen, “Urban Farmer: He Grows Both Food and Community in South Oak Park” Inside: Pocket, Greenhaven, South Pocket, Little Pocket June 2015, pages 30-31; Natasha Von Kaenel, “Cultivating Urban Ag in Sacramento County,” Sacramento News & Review March 10, 2016, page 24.

[54] https://www.yisraelfamilyfarm.net/

[55] See Monica M. White, “A Pig and a Garden: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Freedom Farm Collective” in her Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement (UNC Press, 2018), pages 65-87.

[56] See Raj Patel, “Survival Pending Revolution: What the Black Panthers Can Teach the U.S. Food Movement.” Chapter 7 in Food Movements Unit! Strategies to Transform Our Food Systems edited by Eric Holtz-Giménez (Oakland, CA: Food First Books, 2011). See also Monica White, “Black Farmers, Agriculture, and Resistance,” in her Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement (UNC Press, 2018); Analena Hope Hassberg, “Nurturing the Revolution: The Black Panther Party and the Early Seeds of the Food Justice Movement,” in Black Food Matters: Racial Justice in the Wake of Food Justice edited by Hanna Garth and Ashanté M. Reese(University of Minnesota Press, 2020); and Vivian Nun Halloran, “After Forty Acres: Food Security, Urban Agriculture, and Black Food Citizenship” in Dethroning the Deceitful Pork Chop: Rethinking African American Foodways from Slavery to Obama edited by Jennifer Jensen Wallach (The University of Arkansas Press, 2015).

[57] Amber Stott’s article, “Emerging  Food Leaders: 5 People to Watch” (Edible Sacramento March/April 2016, pages 11-15) features Elaine Lander (Program Officer, Food Literacy Center), Matt Read (Lawyer & Community Activist), Judith Yisrael (Co-Founder, The Yisrael Family Urban Farm), Rubie Simonsen (Program Officer, WAYUP Sacramento), and Sara Bernal (West Sacramento Urban Farm Program Coordinator, Center for Land-Based Learning).

[58] Steph Rodriguez, “Growing Prospects on the Yisrael Family Farm,” Edible Sacramento, March/April 2016, page 29.

[59] Although outside of the scope of this essay, it is important to note that repurposing empty lots into urban farms in communities seen as “blighted” often aids in the processes of gentrification and displacement of long-time lower-income residents from urban communities. White led urban gardens can unintentionally play a role in creating “white food spaces” that do not engage local residents of color. See: Pascale Joassart-Marcelli and Fernando J. Bosco, “Food and Gentrification: How Foodies are Transforming Urban Neighborhoods” Chapter 8 in their edited volume Food & Place: A Critical Exploration (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018) and Margaret Marietta Ramírez, “The Elusive Inclusive: Black Food Geographies and Racialized Food Spaces” Antipode Volume 47, Number 3, 2015: pages 748-769.

[60] I am referencing here Audre Lorde’s notion of radical self-care in her collection of essays, A Burst of Light: and Other Essays (New York: Firebrand Books, 1988), written while she was battling an aggressive form of breast cancer. Lorde understood self-care as an integral part of care of Black community in the face of white supremacy, not the individualized (and monetized) form of self-care popularly touted today. See: Kathleen Newman-Bremang “Reclaiming Audre Lorde’s Radical Self Care” Refinery 29 May 28, 2021 (https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2021/05/10493153/reclaiming-self-care-audre-lorde-black-women-community-care); Sarah Taylor, “Self-Care, Audre Lorde and Black Radical Activism” Dissolving Margins July 13, 2020 (https://www.dissolvingmargins.co/post/self-care-audre-lorde-and-black-radical-activism). Last accessed 9/6/2021

[61] See also: Leticia Ordaz, “Meet the man behind Sacramento’s Black Lives Matter mural near Capitol” KCRA, June 10, 2020. https://www.kcra.com/article/meet-the-man-behind-sacramentos-black-lives-matter-mural-capitol/32824444#. Last accessed: 9/8/2021.

[62]https://www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=10158312374154561&set=a.285667839560&__cft__[0]=AZVnnN8TrmK780Y9YUsspBs_U-9sU5YGrfvhoCNulYYdfxkL-VLOaMdp6Y5FLAlgf855v4qMcYvcwSDcyCyESuJj3uF-M6s-laWjVm6DZgFXEMvhZAueNmbtl8qmMV6mWWisfI0vTcn46sZj7CHp4MBjCTqpp7Y0-ADhLySi65VWKA&__tn__=EH-y-R. See also: Ananda Rochita, “How Sacramento’s West End revitalization left thousands without homes and jobs” ABC 10 June 23, 2020  (https://www.abc10.com/article/news/local/sacramento/sacramento-west-end-revitalization/103-98291e2c-371e-4891-aa59-d415768522d0) and the PBS Documentary: Replacing the Past—Sacramento’s Redevelopment History  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UEUNt6_oYtI&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR0U5_gSdbKUIDiOQFT5eCs2V2FbOohA033pv6wLeRK5j_IhQZHDfp2HfP8) Last Accessed June 10, 2020.

[63] See Garrett M. Broad, More Than Just Food: Food Justice and Community Change (University of California Press, 2015), page 6.

[64] Since 2019, I have been the inaugural Faculty Director of the Center for the Advancement of Multicultural Perspectives in the Social Science, Arts and Humanities with our newly established Diversity, Equity and Inclusion office. In that capacity, I have engaged in a deep dive into the language of diversity, equity, and inclusion. One of my concerns as a long-time faculty member whose research, writing and teaching has always engaged these issues is that we don’t treat DEI as performative – but rather see it as an elemental effort that has been done (often without recognition) by marginalized faculty and staff within the university. As I read the FLC’s diversity statement, I could see the evidence of DEI trainings and coaching to help them articulate their work within this framework. It has not been evident in their public facing work prior to 2020 – which has relied more on a welfare-oriented narrative deeply imbedded in the non-profit industrial complex. What Stott and FLC have is a platform to do the work of DEI through food provisioning on a larger scale than can be accomplished by smaller, community-based organizations that have always existed and have likely always been underfunded. I hope they use their power well.

[65] Diaz oversees one of the largest production kitchens in the region – serving more than 6,500 meals a day – and has transformed standard hospital food into sustainable, healthy eating for patients, employees, and the shared community (https://www.farmtofork.com/chefs/santana-diaz/).  See also: https://health.ucdavis.edu/health-news/newsroom/executive-chef-santana-diaz-to-lead-2021-tower-bridge-dinner/2021/06

[66] Stuart Hall, “Introduction: The Spectacle of the ‘Other’,” Chapter Four in his edited volume Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices (London: SAGE Publications w/ The Open University, 2007/1997), page 277.

Kimberly D. Nettles-Barcelón is an Associate Professor in the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies program at UC Davis. She has degrees in Broadcast Journalism/Study of Women & Men in Society (B.A., University of Southern California), Sociology (M.A. and Ph.D., UCLA), and a Professional Baking Certificate (Tanté Marie Cooking School, San Francisco). Her research and writing interests are in Black women’s resistance throughout the African Diaspora. She has published an auto-ethnography of her travels to gather the life-history narratives of Guyanese women activists in her Guyana Diaries: Women’s Lives Across Difference (Left Coast Press, 2008). She is also a scholar of critical food studies with a particular focus on race and gendered representations of Black women and food in popular culture. Nettles-Barcelón also serves as a Book Review Editor for Food and Foodwaysand is the founding Faculty Director of the Center for the Advancement of Multicultural Perspectives in the Social Sciences, Arts & Humanities within the office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at UC Davis.

Articles

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.

2_Parade_Senior_Queen

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.

6_Shatto_Hall_Dancers

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]

image2

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.

 feature2

 

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]

Sarah_longing
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.

sarah_food
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.

Sarah_departure

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/.