Latino Interchanges: Greater East Los Angeles in the Freeway Era
By: Gilbert Estrada and Jerry González
Why Eastside Los Angeles?
With a lack of Eastside financial capital, a dearth of political representation followed. Freeway planning can be an obscure top-down process, but freeway planning is also part of American democracy. After World War II, racism, gerrymandering, and voter suppression left Mexican Americans the most underrepresented group in L.A.17 Equitable political representation could have changed L.A.’s freeway landscape if local elected officials voted against freeways, which did occur in other Southland cities. California freeways were built by the state Division of Highways. The state needed approval from city governments in order to build freeways by signing a “freeway agreement” in order to close local streets, demolish or relocate properties, and construct freeways.18
With insufficient political representation, there was little or no political recourse Mexican Eastsiders could take, especially in the early years of freeway planning. For example, the Eastside Belvedere area was divided into three assembly districts and three congressional districts, ensuring that although Mexicans were the highest percentage of residents, they remained the lowest percentage within their voting district. During the two decades after World War II, the peak years of freeway construction, only one Mexican American, Edward Roybal, served on the Los Angeles Council; before his election, the last Mexican to serve on the council did so in 1881.19
With the Eastside facing freeway construction and because some folks had leveraged military service and wartime labor during World War II, many Eastside Latinos quietly joined their Jewish neighbors in saying goodbye to the neighborhood. One indicator of this outmigration of middle-class Latina/os is that they created wrinkles in suburban consumer markets as potential homebuyers and as retail spenders. In an unincorporated section of Los Angeles County near Whittier, three residential subdivisions opened by 1950 and specifically marketed to Mexican American war veterans.20 And in the San Gabriel Valley, merchants reportedly employed Mexican American associates in order to establish friendly consumer relations with prospective Latino/a clients.21 The sub- urban explosion over the next decade and a half included a burgeoning Latino/a homeowner class that exercised power in local communities outside of the Eastside while civic leaders decided how best to divide it.22 In East Los Angeles, the San Bernardino I-10 (1943), the Santa Ana I-5 (1944), and the Golden State Freeways (1955) were all designed to keep construction costs low. A key feature that governed the Division of Highways decisions centered on purchasing low-cost properties through the government mechanism of eminent domain while avoiding high-priced industrial-zoned properties. Heinz Heckeroth, who served as lead engineer in the East L.A. Interchange design and whose career spanned thirty-three years, noted his cost-effective approach. “I looked for the most expensive buildings and I said we can’t afford to buy them. If you begin to look in location from a right-of-way cost standpoint and you identify right-of-way controls, then you begin to pattern places in geometric locations which you can’t hit.” A Southwest Builder Contractor author also acknowledged, “State Highway engineers located the [free- way] route with very little disturbance to existing industrial properties.” A short list of industrial sites missed in East Los Angeles is the Times Mirror Catalog Warehouse (which sat untouched in the middle of the ELAI), the L.A. Union Stock Yard Railroad, the Sears Roebuck & Company building, and the Union Pacific Company Warehouse.23
In order to build this network of freeways, some 21,011 people were displaced in East Los Angeles, probably the largest per capita displacement in California history.24 Freeway displacements were not limited to households specifically in the path of the proposed freeways. The imposition of new roadways and its ancillary effects on quality of life spurred a migration out of the Eastside into surrounding suburbs. The years associated with highway and freeway expansion coincided with the development of myriad planned communities and commercial nodes. In the period Becky Nicolaides calls the era of the “Sitcom Suburb,” from 1940 to 1970, 75 percent of the housing structures in Los Angeles County were erected.25 However common suburbanization became, the sense of loss associated with being forced out by freeway development speaks to the deep communal ties to the neighborhoods forged by generations of multiracial and multiethnic place making. Whereas city planners viewed the city as a landscape for profit, community members placed intangible value on the belonging associated with their neighborhoods.
As careful as developers were to avoid major disruptions to commercial and industrial properties, they were equally detailed in their determinations about which houses to preserve and which to tear asunder. The Division of Highways instead cleared what they labeled as “sub- standard” East L.A. housing.26 Boyle Heights residents were accustomed to technocratic social control measures. City engineers had been operating in the area since before the Great Depression as they shaped the infrastructure and roads of the neighborhood. One engineer, Rex Thompson, even assumed leadership over the county welfare department, which would oversee Mexican repatriation efforts in the 1930s. Civic leaders viewed the local residents as disposable.27
Metropolitan Growth and the East L.A. Interchange
By 1950, Los Angeles was at the leading edge of suburban development as it grew in expanse and population more rapidly than did any other metropolitan region.28 Indeed, between 1940 and 1950 the county population almost doubled, from 2.78 to 4.15 million residents.29 Con- currently, the Latino population in the county grew from 61,248 to 249,173.30 Increased birth rate, immigration, and a significant interstate migration contributed to this boom. The Eastside became too small to contain this growing population. Freeway construction and over- crowding pushed Mexican Americans out of Eastside barrios and into expanding suburbs. And by 1960, Los Angeles reached a population of 2.5 million residents, with a metropolitan-wide population that had surpassed 6 million inhabitants.31 Also in that decade, the number of Latinos in Los Angeles County more than doubled to 582,309.32 A collective push into Montebello, Alhambra, San Gabriel, Pico Rivera, Whittier, Santa Fe Springs, Downey, West Covina, Baldwin Park, Lake- wood, and South Gate began to remake the racial geography of the region.
Where the I-10, I-5, US 101, and CA 60 all meet at the East Los Angeles Interchange, February 24, 2017. (Photo Credit: formulaone)
With an expanding, automobile-dependent populace, local and state governments made vital interventions that hastened freeway and high- way expansion in the postwar period: The Collier–Burns Act of 1947 in California allowed for special tax assessments on gasoline and other transportation services, and the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 authorized the construction of 41,000 miles of Interstate highways, ostensibly for defense purposes.33 The centerpiece of the entire Los Angeles freeway system resides in Boyle Heights. First opened in 1961 as part of John F. Kennedy’s National Highway Week, the East Los Angeles Interchange remains one of the largest and busiest interchanges in the world. Originally designed as a simple “Y” interchange, it was increased in size threefold by the Division of Highways.34 It’s so large, the ELAI could actually be three separate interchanges and is several stories high, according to Heinz Heckeroth, who also conveyed the importance of the East L.A. Interchange: “During the time, [that] was it, [the East L.A. Interchange] was the enchilada, the whole thing.” In 1958, the Division of Highways claimed that the interchange’s widest point was twenty-seven lanes.35 But according to modern satellite imaging, at least thirty automotive traffic lanes exist; including emergency lanes, there are forty-eight lanes at its widest point.36 The East L.A. Interchange is also the nexus between L.A.’s downtown civic center and the suburbs. The interchange is the start of the Hollywood 101 Freeway. It is the transition point for the Golden State Freeway and Santa Ana 5 Free- way and the place where the Santa Monica Freeway becomes the San Bernardino 10 Freeway. The interchange also is the beginning of the Pomona 60 Freeway. These words scarcely describe the impact felt by the community. Satellite imaging and living in the community provide a better understanding of what six freeways, interconnecting lanes, on- ramps, off-ramps, emergency lanes, freeway lighting, walls, shrubbery, and noise and exhaust have created for Boyle Heights residents.
During the planning of the ELAI, two central transportation goals arose: enable transportation to eastern suburbs and facilitate transportation to downtown Los Angeles, specifically retail and corporate offices. The freeway was intended partially to ensure downtown capitalism; L.A. freeways were intensely lobbied for by corporate interests. “If the central [business center] is to survive, they must replace some of the business lost. The new highway networks are helping to make this possible,” noted the American Automobile Association in a 1961 article republished by the Division of Highways in their bimonthly magazine, California Highway and Public Works. The 16-page report published by the state planning agency touted billion-dollar corporations and the millions they invested in downtown L.A., and it stressed the downtown business community’s demand for freeways. To downtown corporations, freeways represented a direct route to their new offices and also meant customers. Eric Avila has also explored the influence of the Downtown Businessmen’s Association and its pursuit of freeways to serve the city’s downtown. The association’s lobbying proved so successful, planners and business leaders raved over the “critical key” the East Los Angeles Interchange provided. Not all civic leaders shared the elation over freeway plans. Congressional representative Edward Roybal recalled that the State Highway Commis- sion approved construction of the Golden State 5 Freeway despite the community’s protest against it.37
Of course, the value that people placed on a home imbued with love, struggle, pain, and poetry did not align with developers’ understanding of value, which privileged the investment market. Although they were paltry remuneration given the importance most people placed on their home and community, the state buyout checks that replaced the homes seized for development enabled some families to combine the cash with GI Bill benefits and savings in order to reestablish themselves in nearby suburbs such as Pico Rivera and Montebello. Many of the people who made this move were influenced by the proximity to their Eastside com- munities and access to the very freeways that displaced them, making work commutes easier.
Many ELAIs: The Case of Jimtown
The East L.A. Interchange provided a model for how other Los Ange- les–area neighborhoods experienced eminent domain, displacement, and freeway construction. The introduction of the freeway system to rural San Gabriel Valley remade it into a suburban appendage to Los Angeles’s burgeoning economic opportunities; at the same time, it sub- urbanized the uneven costs for vulnerable communities.38 In 1954, the California Highway Commission announced plans for a San Gabriel River Freeway to run north and south from Lakewood to a junction with the San Bernardino Freeway between El Monte and Covina. The proposed freeway aimed to reduce congestion on north–south city and county highways and link with freeway flows to Santa Ana and down- town Los Angeles. Scattered resistance to the freeway originated from White homeowners, while suburban municipalities worked to rezone areas adjacent to the right of way.39 The proposed route straddled the San Gabriel River and cut through a network of colonias, Flood Ranch in Santa Fe Springs, and Jimtown in an unincorporated neighborhood between Whittier and Pico.40 Jimtown’s fate might have been influenced by preceding technocratic measures. The HOLC redlined Jim- town in similar yet distinct terms from Boyle Heights. Whereas Boyle Heights’s multiracial and multicultural diversity induced HOLC surveyors to stamp it with a hazardous grade, the federal agency specifically cited Jimtown’s Mexican residents in its assessment that “the area is generously accorded a ‘low red’ grade.”41 On the 1939 neighborhood appraisal, the area is described as San Gabriel Wash & Whittier Way, which described its location between the frequently flooding plain for the San Gabriel River and State Route 72, Whittier Boulevard. Of the finer points that led to its debilitating HOLC evaluation, the appraiser noted that the community was comprised of Mexicans, “many American born—impossible to differentiate.” Moreover, the “shacks and hovels” that housed these families invited the “infiltration of goats, rabbits, and dark-skinned babies.” The spatial racial analysis labeled Jimtown “an extremely old Mexican shack district” with “no pride of ancestry or hope of posterity.” In the eyes of the surveyor, it amounted to nothing more than a “typical semi tropical countryside slum.” Yet despite the vivid demarcation outside the bounds of modern Los Angeles, the evaluator noted that a bus line on Whittier Boulevard connected Jimtown residents to a rapidly sprawling labor market.42
Metropolitan development surrounding Jimtown introduced staggered processes of displacement and subsequent investment and dis- investment. The introduction of the railroad lines along the western edge of the neighborhood in 1940 brought noise pollution and deadly encounters with the trains. In July 1940, a train struck and killed sixty- five-year-old Juan Garavito as he collected firewood to warm the home he shared with his mother. In 1955, as county leaders ramped up efforts to clear the community to make way for the freeway, renters and community homeowners attempted to save their community by complying with mandates to self-improve houses and infrastructure.43 Despite the promises to preserve residences by county leaders, more than half of the community was razed so that the 605 San Gabriel Freeway could connect suburbs to the city.
A reunion of displaced Jimtown residents in 1982 attested to the strength of community bonds established over decades. Although the freeway reduced the former community to fifty homes on an island accessible by one street in and out of the neighborhood, the family ties ran deep. Contrary to the claims made by the HOLC surveyor, the com- munity did have pride and posterity. Despite the discursive treatment of Jimtown as impoverished and crime-ridden, it marks a significant place in the history of Latino suburban struggles for inclusion and persists to this day at the northbound Whittier Boulevard exit off the 605 Freeway. Many of the displaced residents joined the suburban migration like their counterparts on the Eastside. Given their proximity to communities in Whittier, El Monte, Norwalk, Pico Rivera, and, after the construction of the freeway, to the entire metropolis, folks dispersed in search of new places to call home.44
LA District Map VII, January 1, 1959. (Photo Credit: California Highways and Public Roads)
Going Home Again
The Eastside lacked spectacular revolts against freeway expansion and therefore did not witness dramatic successes of other communities that fought freeway development, such as the ongoing resistance to the expansion of the 710 Freeway to connect with the 210 Freeway in Pasadena.45 Instead, the resistance played out silently, and perhaps more artistically, as Eastside residents adopted the freeway system as their own canvas and made it part of their local identities.46 Famed artist and muralist Judith Baca painted a bright and powerful rejoinder to the freeway devastation
of the Eastside in her Great Wall of Los Angeles, a sweeping mural of local histories of dispossession and community resistance. Johana Londoño notes that Chicana/o political muralists sought to tell the stories of their barrios in brightly colored imagery in an effort to reclaim control of their narrative and exercise a modicum of control over a landscape that was so thoroughly imbued with colonial expressions.47
When freeway construction ended in the early 1970s with a county population around 7 million, seven freeways criss-crossed the Mexican American Eastside. The small community is also home to one of the busiest diesel truck corridors in the state, the I-710 Long Beach Freeway, and six interchanges, including one of the busiest interchanges in the world, the ELAI, which facilitates at least 1.78 million vehicles a day. The traffic total for the Eastside Interchange is approximately 5 mil- lion vehicles a day.48 This extended network of freeways and highways served the population that L.A. county and city leaders had planned for decades. Perhaps an unintended byproduct of freeway planning, the di- versification of suburban Los Angeles yielded communities that harked back to Boyle Heights’s wonderfully cosmopolitan community.
In September 1979, Keith Takahashi, a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, published an article celebrating the diversity of Montebello, an independent suburb 10 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. By declaring the town a “melting pot” worthy of the title “U.N. of Southeast [Los Angeles County],” Takahashi signaled that the booming diversity of Los Angeles’s suburbs marked a transition point in American racial and ethnic democracy, one that figured to deliver the promise of equality to the residential landscape that had come to be associated so markedly with structural racism and exclusion.49 Freeway displacement did in fact create racialized distinctions between Whites and people of color in every major metropolitan area across the United States; however, in Los Angeles the process was not so linear, nor so complete. As urban renewal projects displaced Latina/os from the Eastside, many of them moved
further east into the increasingly Brown suburbs. Thus, it was not only White folks who flew unconsciously over the freeways past the once-be-loved communities. Many Latinos did so as well, but most continued to visit the communities to which they once belonged, repeatedly renewing their ties to place. And even though some of the barrios that housed Mexican Americans for generations were bulldozed and gone, the memories of those places persist and remain symbolic homes for Angelenos who never saw those neighborhoods with their own eyes or touched their feet to the pavement that meant so much to prior generations.
17. Rodolfo F. Acuña, A Community under Siege: A Chronicle of Chicanos East of the Los Angeles River, 1945–1975 (Los Angeles: Chicano Studies Research Center Publications, 1984), 103–6.
18. Heinz Heckeroth, interviewed by Gilbert Estrada, July 2001, Sacramento, California; “Planning,” California Highway and Public Works (November–December 1962): 45; Ralph W. Keith, et al., Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. John A. Volpe, et al., United States District Court, Ninth Circuit, February 16, 1972, California State Archives. For example, twenty-seven freeway agreements were needed to build the 105 Century Freeway. See also “Freeway Agreements and Route Matters,” https://dot.ca.gov/programs/design/freeway-agreements-route-matters. The Division of Highways was changed to CALTRANS in 1973.
19. Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, “Cultural Needs Assessment: Metro Red Line East Side Extension,” 1995, iv–7; Leonard Pitt and Dale Pitt, Los Angeles A to Z: An Encyclopedia of the City and County (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997), 251, 281, 442. Edward Roybal was elected to the Los Angeles Council in 1949. No Mexican American served on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors until 1991.
20. “Throngs Inspect New Development in South Whittier,” Los Angeles Times, September 10, 1950, E2.
21. “Se Habla Espanol,” Vida News, 13 November 1963, vol. 1, no. 4, pg. 2, in Box 20, Folder 2, Eduardo Quevedo Papers, M0349, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.
22. See Jerry González, In Search of the Mexican Beverly Hills: Latino Suburbanization in Postwar Los Angeles (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2017), chapters 2 and 3.
23. “Freeway Procedure,” California Highway and Public Works (May–June 1948): 14–16; A. N. George, “Work on New Santa Ana Freeway in Los Angeles Is Well Under Way,” California Highway and Public Works (March– April 1946): 25–26; “New Freeway,” California Highway and Public Works (July–August 1948): 1, 14–18; “Santa Ana Freeway Paving Starts Oct.: Two Overcrossings Scheduled in Project,” Southwest Builder Contractor, July 12, 1946.
24. Los Angeles Department of City Planning, Boyle Heights Community Plan Background Report (Los Angeles: City of Los Angeles, 1974), 47; Barrio Planners, Inc., “Nuestro Ambiente: East Los Angeles Visual Survey and Analysis” (Los Angeles, 1973), 50; Los Angeles Department of City Planning, Boyle Heights Community Plan: A Part of the General Plan of the City of Los Angeles (Los Angeles, adopted 1979), 4; City of Los Angeles Department of City Planning, ARC GIS data, email from Public Relations Specialist, January 2022.
25. Becky Nicolaides, “Suburban Landscapes of Los Angeles,” in Wim De Wit and Christopher James Alexander, eds., Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940–1990 (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2013), 128.
26. “Freeway Procedure,” 14–16; George, “Work on New Santa Ana Freeway in Los Angeles Is Well Under Way,” 25–26; “New Freeway,” 1, 14–18; “Santa Ana Freeway Paving Starts Oct.”
27. George J. Sánchez, “Disposable People, Expendable Neighborhoods,” in Greg Hise and William Deverell, eds., Blackwell Companion to Los Angeles (New York: Wiley, 2010), 132.
28. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier, 238–39.
29. Becky Nicolaides, My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working-Class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920–1965 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 219.
30. Philip J. Ethington, William H. Frey, and Dowell Myers, “The Racial Resegregation of Los Angeles County, 1940–2000,” Race Contours 2000 Study, Public Research Report no. 2001-04 (Los Angeles: School of Policy, Planning, and Development, University of Southern California, May 12, 2001), 10.
31. Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), 26.
32. Ethington et al., “The Racial Resegregation of Los Angeles County,” 10.
33. Ryan Reft, “The Future Fulfilled?: Modernism’s Effect on the California We Know Today,” KCET, November 6, 2019, https://www.kcet.org /shows/lost-la/the-future-fulfilled-modernisms-effect-on-the-california-we-know-today.
34. “Design of Interchange Was a Team Effort,” California Highway and Public Works (November–December 1958): 20–22; Heinz Heckeroth, interviewed by Gilbert Estrada, July 2001, Sacramento, California; Liam Dillon and Ben Poston, “Freeways Force Out Residents in Communities of Color—Again,” Los Angeles Times (November 11, 2021).
35. Heinz Heckeroth, interviewed by the Gilbert Estrada, July 2001, Sacramento, California; “Design of Interchange Was a Team Effort,” 20–22; “Model of New Freeway Interchange Displayed,” Los Angeles Times, September 3, 1958.
36. Talk by E. T. Telford, assistant state highway engineer, presented before ASCE Convention in Phoenix, Arizona, April 13, 1961, “The East Los Angeles Interchange”; “Design of Interchange Was a Team Effort,” 20–22; “National Highway Week Observed,” California Highway and Public Works (May–June 1961): 1; “Huge East Los Angeles Interchange Dedicated,” Los Angeles Times, May 24, 1961. The Interchange is at least 135 acres.
37. “Mexican American Study Project; Community Advisory Committee Meeting, Statler Hilton Hotel,” September 26, 1964, Eduardo Quevedo Papers, M0349, box 4, folder 6, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.
38. Ryan Reft, “Transportational El Monte: From the Red Car to the Freeway,” in Romeo Guzmán et al., eds., East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2020), 197–98.
39. “San Gabriel River Freeway Route Proposed,” Los Angeles Times, November 19, 1954, A2; “Homeowners Form Freeway Committee,” Los Angeles Times, June 19, 1955, SC3; “Council to Buy Parkway Land in Pico Rivera,” Los Angeles Times, October 22, 1959, E11.
40. Florentino Aguirre recalled that people in the colonias surrounding Pico Rivera in East L.A., Whittier, Los Nietos, Downey, Montebello, San Gabriel, Azusa, El Monte, and Hayes regularly came together for Mexican Independence and other celebrations in Streamland Park, a small amusement park and green space on the edge of Pico Rivera near Jimtown. See Florentino Aguirre interview by Vince Ponce and Maggie McNamara, in Personal Stories from the Pio Pico Neighborhood (Whittier, CA: Rio Hondo College, 1978), 12.
41. HOLC appraisal of “San Gabriel Wash & Whittier Way” area of Los Angeles County, Los Angeles City Survey Files, Area Descriptions, Home Owner’s Loan Corporation, Record Group 195, National Archives, Washington DC, 1939, Doc # D-57. See also Becky Nicolaides and Andrew Wiese, eds., The Suburb Reader (New York: Routledge, 2006), 243 and chapter 8; and González, In Search of the Mexican Beverly Hills, 20–1.
43. “Wood Gleaner Killed by Train; Supported Mother, Aged 105,” Los Angeles Times, July 12, 1940, A3; “Annexation Vote for Jimtown Set at Whittier,” Los Angeles Times, October 11, 1951, A6; Charles Gould, “Sleepy Jimtown Responds to ‘Clean Up or Else’ Order,” Los Angeles Times, March 13, 1955, F1.
44. Lynn Simross, “Digging Up Roots of a Former Mexican Barrio: Former Residents of Jimtown Gather for First Reunion,” Los Angeles Times, October 29, 1984, OC_C1.
We talked with Char Miller about his new book, Natural Consequences: Intimate Essays for a Planet in Perilto gain insight into the evolution of environmental history and the importance of centering place and story. The conversation takes on the advances in environmental justice, the inclusion of indigenous knowledge into Western science and environmentalism, and the art and purpose of storytelling.
Our conversation concludes with his analysis and critique of California’s historical abuse of the natural environment, continuing the practice of extraction of the natural environment in favor of developmentalism, and what COVID taught us about the inequities of illness.
Ultimately, Miller guides us to find hope in justice work done in localized, situated communities by students, civilians, activists, and other stewards of culture and nature.
Where or when did you develop an interest in environmental history?
I think partly my interest in environmental history is biographical, as it is for anybody when they think about their career and why they make certain choices. I grew up in New England where it was, in retrospect, obvious that the places I loved had some deep kind of history—a history that I only could scratch the surface of as a kid. But I was aware of it, right? This history was in the names of buildings, streets, and landscapes that we would distinguish now as either settler or indigenous names. Obviously, in time, I went, “Oh, yeah! That’s important.”
But it’s also probably even more important that in 1981 I moved to San Antonio—a city that I had only previously traveled through—and put down roots there for twenty-six years. And time matters a lot. You sit in a place for a period of time and that place becomes important if you’re trying to figure out your relationship to it.
I was very fortunate that I came with a particular eye to a city that I really did not understand. I grew up around New York City, so I understood how those kinds of cities worked and San Antonio didn’t work that way at all. It was every bit segregated. It was every bit as complex. It just didn’t look like it. So during this time I was becoming and being observant about the place I lived in.
What started to come together in San Antonio was that I began to think like a watershed. See, I lived close to one of the city’s watersheds and I passed it all the time—driving through it at some inopportune times when it was not smart to do (Miller laughs). I suddenly realized, “Wait for a second, these things are actually kind of dangerous.” If you live in flood zones, you need to be thinking about this. Literally, I started looking around and realized that that particular city, which flooded all the time, had been making efforts to try to not flood all the time. The analogy for those of us in California is we’re watching fires burn everywhere. We’re trying to figure out why we live in fire zones in the ways that people in San Antonio tried to figure out why they lived in a house that could flood. That didn’t make a lot of sense. So, it was the watershed concept that made me realize that once you start to think like a watershed or like a fire, you begin to reorient how you understand the landscape and your relationship to it. That’s a policy question. It’s a personal question. It’s a political question.
The longer I lived in San Antonio, it became clear that it was highly segregated around watersheds. Some watersheds had flood control. Some watersheds didn’t. Why was that? I started digging in archives and walking the streets trying to figure it out. It wasn’t that hard. It was very clear that from the nineteenth century onward the whiter you were the more likely it was you lived on higher ground. The darker your skin the more likely it was you were living closer to creeks and or rivers. One group was in the position to save themselves because they were able, and the other couldn’t and didn’t.
You know, that’s sort of a brief description of environmental injustice, but for me, it was really living in San Antonio where I learned the concept of waterways and applied it in a lot of different ways and in a lot of different places.
California Water Map
I like this watershed concept as a departure, as a way of introducing ecological thinking, interpretation, or understanding. To me, this concept ties us to your working position in environmental analysis and history at Pomona University. It reflects the recognition of interdisciplinarity in environmental discourse. Subfields, like environmental history, have emerged as subject-focused disciplines in recent years, but this hasn’t always been the case in academia—especially, for older disciplines like history. I’m wondering if you could discuss or elaborate on environmental history’s evolution into an interdisciplinary field and practice.
That’s a great question. I actually learned this process in San Antonio when I was teaching at Trinity University. I began to teach environmental history in addition to history in the urban studies program. There, it was highly interdisciplinary: politics, policy, history, anthropology, and archeology. Then, there was this whole cluster of folks doing economics. I went, “Oh, this is how you do it! Right?”
And a light bulb went off. I applied what we did there to what we have now done here within the 5C (Five Claremont Colleges) Environmental Analysis program. We draw from faculty in all disciplines. And I am a sponge and absorb stuff from all sides and am willing to ask the dumbest questions in order to learn different perspectives, intellectual histories, and theoretical tools. I would say I am surely not the smartest person in the room when I get together with my colleagues but I will do the work it takes to reorient, recenter myself, and be guided by what is provided in the room.
It has been an extraordinary experience that is largely counter to the way environmental history as a subfield appeared in the late sixties, and early seventies when as a subfield it emerged from essentially two streams. One was that almost everybody was an activist. They were academics, but also activists in their orientation. The orientation tended to be framed as the activism was back then. The second was… let’s call it preservationist. It was a kind of John Muir-like approach to landscapes where what one was trying to do was to protect the wild, however, you defined it. And it almost always was out there, somewhere—whether it be in the San Gabriel Mountains or the Rockies or the Sierra, wherever. But it was someplace removed from where we all lived. The notion that wilderness was a place where people weren’t, utterly erased indigenous knowledge and present-day indigenous presence. In that regard, it was quite a settler-colonial way of thinking about landscapes that we now have the language to describe. But one could have argued that it was imperialistic, right? That we as settlers just declared this place to be empty. And, to do that you’ve got to really do the hard heavy lifting of colonialism and imperialism—the material/physical attempt at eradicating whole populations of people. Just to assume that the Miwok are not in Yosemite and that the Paiute are not in the Eastern Sierra, basin and range region, means someone really got out their erasers and started doing exactly that.
The erasures in the last fifteen, maybe even twenty years, have really changed markedly as people began to recognize that the very institutions like the Forest Service, Park Service, and then their state analogs that were there to protect and preserve, were handmaidens to the hard and heavy colonial erasure as part of the process. It wasn’t just: you’re protecting the wild. It was you’re protecting it for certain kinds of people to recreate their own space through creating laws not to hunt, not to fish, and not to recover ritual objects in the light.
And god forbid you should have a fire! Got to put that out real fast! Suppressing fire is also part of a racist structure that was designed by the Spanish, for goodness sakes, in the eighteenth century. It’s a way in which you destroy indigenous life practices.
So, we’ve gotten a lot savvier, a lot more aware. Environmental historians and other academics are largely driven by young people, not unlike yourself, who have come into the world seeing things in different ways and articulating them through different lenses and frameworks. When I go to environmental history sessions now or go to the Western Historical Association Conference, it is a completely different ballgame. I was at the WHA in San Antonio this fall, and the number of borderland sessions and the sessions about environmental injustices astounded me. I was chatting with younger students there and they take this now as the norm. I said, “No, no, no… Let me tell you… I could have walked these halls fifteen years ago and there wouldn’t have been one of these conversations going on; let alone any students of color here.” It’s a totally different game. This is great because it means that the field and the practices within it, and the perspectives that drive the work that people are doing, have done this incredible, revolutionary transformation. It’s extremely exciting! Plus, I get to bring this into a classroom, with undergraduate and graduate students who are every bit as diverse as the state.
It went from being one kind of thing to another. In part because we’re looking at urban environments and in part because we’re looking at environmental injustices, which are often urban in their orientation. We’re thinking about indigenous sovereignty at so many different levels. But the land is centered in that question, which suddenly decenters the role of Euro/white/western interpretation and management of nature and the environment–the world that I was trained to gather knowledge and interpret reality as a graduate student. Things are blossoming in ways that I could never have imagined forty plus years ago. I think it’s made me a much better historian.
So, you know, as it’s a California-based journal, perhaps we can touch on some California-specific subjects. With your research and insight on fire, water, and public lands, what do you think are some of the more urgent environmental issues in California today?
Well, let’s start with the key issues. Let’s use Los Angeles and the Bay Area as examples. Here are these behemoth metropolitan areas that are confronted with different kinds of issues—although, in many cases, fire and the smoke that those fires produce are similar for both, despite the differences between north and south. But among the challenges they face, they are working to make the metropolitan as resilient as possible given the climatological changes that we’re seeing already. Fire is an example of that. These intense storms that blew in this month (January 2023) are directly related at some level to the increased moisture in the air, as a consequence of higher sea levels for example. The coastal damage is just mind-boggling because of the power of these tremendous atmospheric rivers and the damage that they can do.
So, we need to make these places more resilient. How do we do it? Traditionally, what we have done in a very settler approach is to build more walls, reroute rivers, armor beaches—and just concretize. Just like how the LA River has been concretized, and every other river virtually in the state that has been dammed and channeled to be diverted in one way or another. That’s one way of approaching it, but it’s also a highly brittle solution to what is a very fluid problem in every respect. Some of this is recognizing that if we’re really going talk about resilience one of the things we need to do is to ask whether we need to be building in high fire severity zones, even though we’ve got a housing problem. I would argue no. What kind of policy is it that says, “We need housing, so let’s put housing in a floodplain?” So, then you flood. Or, let’s put housing in a fire zone because we need housing and if it burns, it becomes not a wildfire, but a structure fire.
Okay? So that’s one problem. If that’s the problem, the solution is to step away from those places. That’s what we should be thinking in terms of policy. That’s as true in San Diego on those houses that overlook the eroding cliffs, as it is in Santa Barbara, where those cliffs are also tumbling into the ocean, as it is in Cambria and places like Half Moon Bay. Pull back for goodness’ sake! It’s a hard thing for us to do because our settler instinct is, “Screw nature, we’re going master this thing.” Well, we know we don’t master it. Let’s get over that
I think for California, it isn’t just recognizing that there are a lot of conversions that are taking place: land conversion, oceanic conversion, and other things. All of that is going on, but our policy needs to be flexible, and as thoughtful as it has been inflexible and unthoughtful before. That requires a recognition that the tools that we have can be better managed and better used to produce better results than the normal course of events would suggest. And we’re talking since the Gold Rush. If we look at the intense settlement of this state, the goal has always been build a levy, create a channel, put a house wherever you want to put a house, lay it right on top of the fault lines. Who cares? That’s just such bad thinking and we know better. That’s the piece that really bothers me. We know better, and yet we still make the same decisions and choices.
Natural Consequences was designed, at least in part, to raise the question about the choices that we make so that we can make different choices that will allow us to live here in ways that we would like to do by the end of the century. This is where I think history can speak to the present. I mean, it hasn’t gone away. The past is sticky. It’s right next to us. It’s in us. But if we start to rethink how we write history, then one of the things that the rewriting of history can help us do is to change our present practices and the future choices that the present might develop.
Speaking of history, what do you think were some of the more critical or impactful moments in California’s environmental history?
Wow. Okay. Let’s use Los Angeles because it’s here and has been studied a lot. I think the way to center this is on a set of decisions that are built in various ways that changed life in Los Angeles and changed life elsewhere because of these decisions. So, the obvious place to go is water, and the way the power brokers of this city in the early part of the twentieth century decided that if Metropolitan LA was actually to become one of the great cities of the planet, then it needed a much better water system than it currently had. They had a problem, which is the LA River, unchanneled, went wherever the LA River wanted to go, from Santa Monica down to Long Beach.
We looked at that and thought, “Huh, that’s pretty good.” It was a cool river when it flowed but, you know, floods are damaging. And so, you are going do one thing to local water supplies—you’re going channel it to flush it out to the ocean. But in doing so you’ve just disrupted the geological process whereby that water percolated into your aquifer, so you don’t have enough water for 500,000 people. The current population of LA County is 10 million. So, you go get other people’s water. First, you tap Owens River Valley and sluice that water through the LA Aqueduct. Then, you move up to Mono Lake and get that water as well. So that’s one set of exploitations that has a far-reaching effect on the life that could have been lived by the Paiute and white settlers up in the Eastern Sierra.
But we’ve just circumscribed that, which is problem number two. Now you go get the Colorado River and make your pitch for that water. We’re still fighting over that water with all the other states that have rights to its flow.
Problem number three is, well then let’s go get Northern California snow melt that will drop behind the Oroville Dam and Shasta Dam and others, and then sluice through the valley for agriculture and then get down to Los Angeles. Brilliant engineering, I don’t disagree with that. The technology that they produced is kind of amazing. It generated electricity that furthered this city’s power and its population growth, but it comes with problems not only for places whose water was siphoned off in various directions but also in systems, that depending on what the climate gives us, may not work the way that we thought might be possible. The Colorado River’s deep loss of water over this past drought and these major rains aren’t going to do much, at least in the long term, to solve that problem. It is a smoke signal.
This is a dilemma that we must face because 40 million people use that water. So, we’ve got to reorient that process. For Los Angeles, it’s also this extraordinary outward thrust of its population that is now filling in the Mojave—let alone what had already filled in all the way up to Santa Clarita, and the big housing developments at Taho Ranch Centennial and other things that are being planned in San Diego. All of these are consistent with the suburbanization of this region that began in the twenties, framed around the first street cars and railroads and now automobiles. This is utterly unsustainable—completely unsustainable.
The impulse to pull people towards the center as opposed to moving people to the periphery is a dilemma of huge proportions, but it’s the thing that’s going to make these places more resilient. They will use less water because urbanites use less water than those who water their lawns. Again, no one’s really surprised by that. It means that the desert might stay a desert, which would be a healthy thing for those habitats. Yet because we have the water, we can move it around the way we want to, but I don’t think that’s going to be a sustainable solution by the end of this century. I don’t think it’s sustainable at this moment.
The third piece is about transportation and movement and how we get around this terrain. It was the rail lines and streetcar lines, which really created the thrust of suburbanization in the twenties, thirties, and forties. Then the car expanded this exponentially. We’re suddenly realizing rail lines make sense, but that historic pattern of car transportation systems is the one we’re trying to recreate now at billions of dollars to retrofit this system. Because in fact, the very use of fossil fuels for driving is one major source of the very climate change that’s driving the fires, driving the storms, and making this place drier and hotter. Meaning it’s a lot more difficult to live with it.
I can see the ways in which these systems were emerging over time that I think are central to the way in which we need to rebuild these communities, so that in fact, future cohorts, future generations can still live in this place. I don’t think it’s going to happen fast enough. So, what’s interesting for me in thinking about the larger Southwest, which I’ve lived in for more than forty years, from San Antonio to California, is that those populations exploded after World War II and became exponentially larger. I mean, Phoenix was like 60,000 people and it’s now three-to-four million in the Valley of the Sun. El Paso, Tucson, Albuquerque, you name the place, it’s gotten huge because they had access to water and cheap energy. Well, water is now expensive. Energy is expensive. One of the things that’s starting to happen is that after the grandparents who left Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit and maybe even Duluth to find places that were warmer, wetter, and also cheaper–now their grandchildren or great-grandchildren are already going back to the Great Lakes where twenty-percent of the world’s freshwater supplies are located. So, I think movement is actually going to be in the demographics at the end of this century because I don’t think we can move quickly enough to protect LA or San Francisco or Portland or Seattle.
The final piece I would point to is the ecological challenges that we face. We have wiped out so many habitats and species that it’s beyond counting at this point. We have charismatic species like salmon as an example. The steelhead trout that used to run in the LA River and every river in this region now haven’t in maybe eight years. But if we could recover them, it would mean we’d have to change the way in which these rivers function, in order to make them function in a way more closely aligned to the world that they existed in before the concrete got thrown around. I think that’s a worthy goal to think about: These species are always indicators of the biological health of a region. That includes birds, bees, butterflies, and everything else, but it also includes aquatic species. The irony is we’ve done a pretty good job with the seals, elephant seals, and sea lions and they have started to recover. But it’s the species on which they feed that have tended to be overlooked and have not so much recovered. They have to make those transitions. We’ve got to be highly sentient, which we claim we are, but we don’t act that way very much.
So again, Natural Consequences is partly designed to reflect on my own complicity in the systems that I decry. It is to call the question on myself because it’s easier to do than to say to somebody else, “Oh man, you know, you don’t see yourself. You’re implicated in all of this.” But the goal is really to both acknowledge my implications and to acknowledge that even if we are implicated, we can argue for a different kind of system, and in fact, we must.
How has the inclusion of indigenous knowledge shaped, corrected, or unlearned perhaps some of the less positive approaches of environmental history?
Wow. Yeah, I mean, that’s a great question and it’s huge. So let me try to give you a set of responses. The first is that indigenous scholars, and those sensitive to the work that they are doing, are completely rewriting the textbook version that we all have gone through at one point or another—whether it was in high school or in college. The textbook begins on the east coast and moves West. It’s a rare textbook and a very sophisticated one that says, “Wait, wait, wait… the Spanish move north, the Comanche (or Nʉmʉnʉʉ) are moving south. These other people that are coming east, west… they’re like a sideshow, for a very long time.” And so, literally, the construct of what US History looked like has changed because Andrés Reséndez and other people he studied with really went, “Wait, no, no… that’s not how this works.”
The geography of knowledge has shifted and the orientation that one might have had has shifted. Partly for me, that was moving to San Antonio and realizing that its history, particularly its colonial history, was nothing like Massachusetts. It is this clash of Indigenous and invader that I needed to recognize, and it totally changed how I taught US History. I mean, I literally took the book and threw it out. I no longer used the various textbooks I had back in the day because they just didn’t work. And for me, that was remarkable because I had grown up in New England and all that history was from that vantage point. Now the narrative of history has altered. And I think the centering and decentering of various voices and perspectives, and landscapes in the case of environmental history, have also changed.
Also, I think pragmatically about it, being a writer. In recognizing these transformations, we put different voices in the text, partly because you can and partly because you must. Natural Consequences, like Westside Rising, its predecessor, are not linked in any way except in this one. I couldn’t write about a devastating flood in San Antonio and simply use the normal sources—which were white newspapers. I had to find other sources and I was lucky that some of them had been digitized. The Spanish-language newspapers were great resources I could pull into the text. And given who I am, I had to do that work, right? I could not just replicate the old story framed around the same resources because one, people have told the story well and two, it has always been from one vantage point.
I’ve got an obligation to be something different than that. So, Natural Consequences also plays this out in the introduction which refers to Charles Sepulveda’s essay, “Sacred Waters about the Santa Ana River.” I have taught this essay now for maybe five years and I just taught it yesterday with my students because it’s a key text inside the environmental analysis curriculum. I really loved the way in which he talked about a river, which is right outside our doorway here. We don’t tend to think about it (speaking of watersheds) but a lot of our water in Claremont flows into Santa Ana. But it’s not recentering Charles because Charles doesn’t need me to do that. It’s getting my students and myself to recognize that, as he says, “There’s a host and we’re guests.”
That’s the responsibility—what kind of guest am I going to be? We already know what bad guests do. They extract. They erase. They exploit. And it’s like, “Okay, we can’t do that. Fine.” So, what’s a good guest? Or simply, what does just a better guest do? And part of that questioning has forced me, and many in the profession, to think about different resources or sources and voices. Because different voices in the text decenters you as an author to narrate in a way that is designed, not only to do the academic rigor piece that we all appreciate and admire but also to speak to audiences that are not us. We’ve learned to write in a voice that is much more accessible, which is what I think Sepulveda has also done. It is to reach out to people who look like me and say, “Look, here’s a different way to think about the world you and I occupy, that you and I have privilege in, that you and I have not thought through as carefully as we might, and to use his framing as a way to get at that and also to use ecological notions of place.” Because place really, really matters and places are different.
We need to be thinking about those differences, not just as we so often do in history. You know, you write a book about say, San Antonio or Claremont for that matter, and somebody goes, “Well what’s it related to? What’s it like? Is it like New York? Is it like Chicago? Is it like Boston?” That’s that same mentality: That the only things that are important are those big behemoths back east. But we live in a different kind of landscape. You’ve got to claim an ecological notion that site matters, whether a habitat or a community and do that work because that is what we’re obliged to do.
The final piece of this is to recognize that in adding ecological and indigenous sources of knowledge, which are much more complementary than they were ever perceived to be back in the day, is to acknowledge that Western science does not know all. It was the belief that Western science could answer all our questions. As it turns out it didn’t, and it doesn’t. Fire has been really important in this regard because the Indigenous people in this state have long known that they used fire and still use fire to manage the landscapes, to produce the goods and services, the cultural objects that they need.
I think it is the better guest model that uses that knowledge from the beginning, which helps shape the way I might write about a subject like fire, water, or watersheds. The model’s various reorientations I think have made me a much stronger historian. I think I’m almost there—at decentering myself from the narrative, not entirely because it is my fingers on the keyboard—but nonetheless that’s the goal.
California fire zones map
While decentering perhaps your narrative becomes necessary in your writing and thinking, one thing I’ve found compelling in Natural Consequences was your personal account. You already were talking about public engagement and understanding, but can you speak more about the role of storytelling?
Yeah, that’s a great question. And I think I’ve been very lucky, in part, because editors have kicked my ass for years to sort of open the language. And beginning in the mid-1980s when I started to write for the two major dailies in San Antonio, I would write these essays, these commentaries, and they would come back shredded. And you know, some of that’s just the ease of the newspaper, right? You do the inverted paragraph idea of a pyramid: where you give everything at the front and then get down into the nitty gritty. This was good to learn but and made it clear that it was about the story.
I did not know I did this in high school, but when I went back for a high school reunion they had all the newspapers out and I started reading some of the sports articles I wrote. And I saw that I was telling stories. I was talking about a moment in a game where somebody did something, or my good friends who didn’t do something that I thought they should have done because I’m sitting up in the stands and just sort of kibitzing. So it was the story that I started with and then went from there. I did not know I had that interest when I was a junior in high school, but I know now.
I think some of it is that we are storytellers. That is, I think, an important part of the work that we do. I had some genius storytellers in graduate school, like Willie Lee Rose, a Southern historian. She wrote a book called Rehearsal for Reconstruction, the opening of which put you on a boat for the first union coming up into the Sea Islands in Georgia in early 62′. I mean, you were on the boat. You were listening. You were smelling. You were getting this whole sensibility. I had never read anything like that. And I went, “Oh, I need to study with this person because it just blew my mind.”
The way we can tell stories and history, that’s part of it. It’s an old tradition to be in. It’s an oral culture made written. That’s one of the things I work with my students on: tell me the story. Narrate it in a way that’s a story. I say, “You all tell stories all the time, so give it to me that way and then we can start to work on an essay based off of a personal experience that goes in one direction or another.”
But I do like that process of being in a place, seeing what I think to be are some key issues. I like the process of trying to find a story that helps open that up, whether I’m talking or somebody else is talking about something. Flesh that out so that the story has a human being and a voice the reader can connect with. Then you can do, you know, what we might think of as the heavier work—like theorizing without theorizing. It’s there. It’s just not being said as such. Which I think is important because you’re trying to help people also understand how you are thinking without necessarily putting in footnotes. I love the fact that Natural Consequences doesn’t have a single footnote. I’ve done that a couple of times and any time it’s going get reviewed in a history journal, it’s going get the crap knocked out of it because there are no footnotes. But if you read the text, you know what I’m reading, okay? I’ll slip in various authors of one form or another just to say, “I know what you’re thinking and here it is.”
To go back to your point, this oral tradition of sharing knowledge, we’ve just made it into a written form. I think the works that I really admire the most are those that recognize that duality and play with it in a way that is exciting to read. Part of the excitement is, “Oh, look at how they wrote that sentence. Look at how that sort of carries into the next concept.”
You know, I’ve been very fortunate because I get to work with really sharp kids here and in San Antonio. I would break down some of our readings and say, look at what they’re doing here. Go write that piece. And that’s been fun.
You know, when we talk about environmental crisis or climate crisis, there’s generally a fatalism around it. What are things we can do as professionals or regular people to remain positive, and active and find joy in this line of environmental work and in an environmentally conscious lifestyle as well?
I think some of it is woven into the DNA of environmental history. Because that’s partly how it grew, from activist moments and then people going, “Oh wait, what’s the history here?” From there they started doing that kind of work. For me, if you think about ecological and environmental focus on specific places and sites that are different from other places, you’ve just gotten an answer for what in fact we can do as activists. We can and should focus on the places we know and live within because that’s where social change happens. It happens at the grassroots level. So, you don’t need to look very far in greater Los Angeles or across the state to find activist groups that are woven into watersheds, that are part of an effort to create resilient and regenerative ecological niches of one form or another.
And you look at them, you go, “Oh, they’ve taken that creek. They’re thinking about that space because that’s where you can make some of these changes pretty effectively.” And then you can collaborate with the state because it’s got money to do that kind of work. If you think about the city of Pomona as a place that has had enormous environmental injustices, then activists there have already shown us what it’s possible to do. In East LA there are all sorts of groups that are functioning in and around that area for open space and for air pollution controls because they affect that community. The activists are there.
For those whom doomsday is such an easy sell in the classroom, it’s too simple. We’re working with young people. I can’t walk into a classroom and go, “Kids, it’s all over.” It’s easy to do that, but really what you want to do is to say, “Look, here’s where I would locate hope.” Hope lies in the ability to think through the changes that are necessary and then enact them or try to enact them. We’re never going to get there always. Maybe not even often. But it’s not the victory so much that’s crucial, although that would be nice. It’s the effort that’s required.
Here again, environmental justice as a conception and as a practice is critical to this process. At least in the communities that I’ve lived in. That’s a language that appeals to both the academic and the activist on the one hand, but also you can do a lot with a city council or a planning commission and say, “Wait, wait, wait… look at the privileging that this does and the discrimination that it produces. Don’t go there!” Right?
You can intervene in those conversations in part because now we have the language of dispossession and exploitation, or exclusion. We live in a state where those words are not loaded. They are powerful. I mean, they are loaded, but they’re also powerful tools politically. And I think that’s been true across time.
I’m deeply impressed with former students who have gone on in the world and have gone way beyond anything I ever thought of. They are having that kind of impact because they’ve got the theory. It’s wedded in their brains and they’re now applying it in a way that sort of tests that theory against the political realities. It shows that reality a little bit and maybe just enough to start changing the way we live and imagine what’s possible.
As an environmental historian and analyst, I’m curious about your interpretation, or experience of COVID.
So, here’s a perfect example of two things. One of which is we did not know what we were doing. The politics of COVID just drove me crazy because we did not know what we were doing. One group was absolutely convinced they knew those who were sort of thinking scientifically said, “Uh, we don’t have the data yet. We got to get the data. Let’s get the data first before we start having these brawls over whether a mask is useful or not.”
At the very moment of this process, we were reminded that illness is not simply illness. It’s different in terms of whose lungs and whose lives it impacts. We saw that in Los Angeles. We’ve seen that everywhere across the globe. If you could insulate and isolate yourself, you would be in a better position. That often broke down along class lines. This economic segregation showed through the resources that one had at one’s disposal. We saw all the inequities that we knew were already there, but now the illness highlighted them in a different way. It was highlighted in a more vivid way.
In many respects, we could say that we’re all suffering COVID. But were we really? From a historian’s point of view, that’s the marker. It isn’t that COVID was universal. It was that COVID was not universally applied. Certain lives were more disrupted, by age, race, by class. These are the kind of distinctions that a historian needs to be sensitive to because that’s when you get the complexity. Complexity is our best friend. So is context and so is contingency. Everything is in some contingent relationship with something else. And as you know, that’s one of the ways in which we sort through a historical moment. It is where we can start to see how people organized their lives. Because in the process of organizing their lives, they may have disorganized someone else’s. I think it is in that interplay that COVID has been, again, for all of us, an extraordinarily important teacher.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I really appreciate you giving me a chance to talk about these things. I would say that that one point I try to convey in talks about this book is that there’s nothing magical about what I’m doing. It is in some cases walking, looking, thinking about what I’m seeing, then going back and scribbling notes to myself, or leaving myself voicemails because I don’t trust my brain to hold anything longer than two minutes if I’m lucky. So, for me as a teacher, but also as a scholar, it’s the kind of work that I had no idea was going to become part of my historian’s practice. I love going into archives. I totally adore them. But then my eyes start straying. It’s like, “Well, what’s out there? There might be something out there I could look at.” I think learning how to look is a real key to learning how to write in a different way. Being able to therefore speak in, I hope, more compelling ways—again, because I’m a storyteller. I love that role. I won’t claim I’m a great one, but I love the role of thinking about looking, seeing, observing, and writing and then writing in a way that’s a form of speech. Because if we can speak in a language that others hear, we’re going to be much more effective at our work and probably much happier in it.
Char Miller is the Director of Environmental Analysis and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis and History at Pomona College.
Indeed I live in the dark ages! A guileless word is an absurdity. A smooth forehead betokens A hard heart. He who laughs Has not yet heard The terrible tidings.
Ah, what an age it is When to speak of trees is almost a crime For it is a kind of silence about injustice! And he who walks calmly across the street, Is he not out of reach of his friends In trouble?
Bertolt Brecht, On Posterity
September 2022, Claremont, CA
All through the blistering heatwave that has held Southern California in a vice, I’ve been thinking about Mike. Mike Davis is dying. Esophageal cancer that won’t go away. Last month he opted for palliative care; the end can’t be too far off. The heatwave has another three days to run. Here, in Claremont, it has been around 78 degrees at dawn, climbing to a long hot afternoon plateau as high as 110. I could drive, air-con blazing, to other air-conditioned spaces, but even the short walks across searing hot car parks are unpleasant. Not so much the heat itself, but the deep sense it communicates, that something is very wrong.
I feel it, I think, somewhere deeper than the conscious mind, somewhere buried in the ancient brain stem that stores our trauma and turns it into networks of toxic neurons. So, teaching and food shopping aside, I’m just bunkering down in Professor Davina’s place with its clattering vintage air-con: yoga twice a day, a lot of stillness, just breathing, being in my creaky body… and thinking about Mike.
Mike Davis is one of my guiding stars. I’ve read everything he has ever written, much of it twice. When in 1991, as a grad student in England, I picked up City of Quartz, his polycentric history of Los Angeles, and I couldn’t put it down. I was captivated by its account of the city’s illusions and mythologies, alongside the realities of its racist policing and its fortified architecture. I couldn’t believe sociology or history or theory (it intuitively shape-shifts) could be so smart and sassy, so sharp and stylish, saying it like it is, but wow, saying it like Raymond Chandler. Turns out Mike hates Chandler, for his misogyny, his racism, his small-minded individualism and his amoral fatalistic fascism, but he also can’t stop reading him. I can’t stop reading Mike, and though I’ve never met him, I have at least walked in his footsteps. Back in the 1990s, during one his many periods of financial difficulty and professional limbo, he came and taught at Pitzer college. And I have done much the same. In over a decade of living in and exploring Los Angeles he has been my constant guide and made this strange but extraordinary metropolis at least comprehensible.
A lot of writers might have just left it there. Whole academic careers have been sustained on slighter contributions than City of Quartz, but Mike was a late starter. A meat cutter, trucker and trade union activist in his late teens and twenties, he didn’t show up at UCLA for his degree until he was 30. Impressive as the book was, it was mere prelude, the curtain raiser to two decades of superhuman scholarship and activism. Magical Urbanism surveys the Latino transformation of the American city and its progressive political and aesthetic potential. Planet of Slums, by contrast, was a cadastral survey of the informal settlements that house more than three billion people, in the mega cities of the twenty-first century. Buda’s Wagon was a short and brilliant history of the car bomb and asymmetrical warfare, from Italian-American anarchists to al-Qaeda. Mid Victorian Holocausts is a masterpiece of environmental history, explaining the origins of the global south at the intersection of Victorian imperialism and the El Nino weather events of the era that generated famines, deaths and environmental degradation of such a scale that the gap between North and South became a chasm. In The Monster to Come, a short essay on coronaviruses, avian flu and epidemiology in an era of globalization, published in 2009, he accurately predicted the emergence and course of the COVID pandemic. I could go on…..and on.
His third book, Ecology of Fear sits on my desk. I feel right now like I’m not reading it but living it. So, I’m lucky that Professor Davina’s house, where miraculously I have landed, is a good antidote. Born in the rural Philippines in the 1920’s she arrived in California in her forties and lived here for nearly half a century. For thirty years she was the first Filipina professor of theology in California, teaching at Chaffey Community College. I drink my tea out of a college mug saying “we’re here to help”. The last couple of decades she was retired and mainly alone; three kids who had moved on and a second husband, Milt, who died fifteen years ago. Professor Davina died last year, and her daughter Dodi just didn’t have it in her to sort and clear the house: grief, Covid, losing her own partner just three months after her mother, and then breast cancer and surgery. So, the house has sat empty until I arrived, part caretaker, part tenant.
There are still a few reminders of Davina’s last couple of years—walkers gathering dust, mobility aids in her bathroom—but it’s the rest of her long life that is really present. Dodi told me she had tried to clear some away, but the house is crammed with ecumenical knick- knacks: a seder plate on the wall above the kitchen table, inspirational quotes from a Native American shaman on grubby fridge magnets, statuettes of Confucius and the Buddha, a chopping board from the United Methodists Church, Hindu figurines, Islamic banners. In her office and the living room a lifetime of study, encyclopedias of comparative religion, bibles, Korans, torahs….
One pleasing quirk of the house is the absence of plastic. Dodi said, “She was an environmentalist before her time. She hated plastic.” Look around, the house is full of wood and ceramics, textiles and glass, bamboo, rattan and metal, but literally no plastic. She preferred bone handled knives and wicker basket bins, and all in shades of white and beige and brown and bronze. Clingfilm was allowed, as a cupboard of maybe a dozen huge rolls testifies, but only as an alternative to using Tupperware. Sure, her computer kit and TV are plastic, but I sense they were not much loved. On the shelves in her office there are, carefully organized and catalogued, the products of old analogue technologies—cameras in leather cases, teaching slides in cardboard boxes dozens of photo albums, and half dozen metal rolodexes. On the inside of the food cupboard is an old, typed list, probably from the 1980s, of small environmental actions that we might take—use what you buy, write on both sides of your note paper, choose the lesser of two evils. Its tone is humble and practical, and although the advice feels hopelessly inadequate, it’s a better voice to listen to than my own sense of creeping doom.
It helps make the house a good place to hide from the heat through the long afternoons. Conscious of the antiquity of the air conditioning system—and the impossibility of getting it repaired right now—I try and nurse it, keeping the thermostat at 71 degrees, but as the sun passes from the front of the house over the roof and into the back garden it can’t keep up. The internal temperature climbs and climbs and I find myself dozing uneasily on the sofa, unable to move. Yesterday my siesta was broken by a series of noisy, unignorable urgent sounds from my British and American cell phones. It’s a text from California’s energy agencies letting us now that the level of demand for electricity is reaching break point. If, for the next few hours, we don’t all turn off everything short of the AC then we are looking at rolling outages and blackouts. I turn out the lights, leave my washing and cooking to later, light a few of the professor’s devotional candles and get back to Mike and Ecology of Fear.
The book’s basic premise is that to build a metropolis of near fifteen million people in a desert is not sustainable. Make it exclusively dependent on the private motor car, and you are really in trouble. Add the fire hazards on the wooded slopes of Los Angeles’ hills and mountains, and the insatiable demand for water that simply isn’t there and disaster looms. Now factor in another two decades of climate change since the book was written and the city, right now, is close to unlivable and only so at the price of more massive carbon emissions.
Then there is the San Andreas fault, the geological atom bomb that runs through the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area. Tremors are a dime a dozen here, though as I know from my own quivering disbelief on experiencing one, no less unnerving for that. The last time the fault really bared its teeth was the Northridge Earthquake in 1994. It is, by historic standards, due to do so again, sometime soon. Professor Davina had been making preparations. In the garage, beneath a dusty bunch of yellow plastic roses, I find the remnants of a basic earthquake stash—eight big plastic bottles of water, torches, batteries, first aid kit. I’m not sure any of it will be much use when the big one comes and make a mental note to assemble my own.
I sit inside nearly all day. After about 1:00 pm the sun has passed over the front of the house, and outside the front door there is a small pool of hot shade. The small park opposite is entirely empty. For a couple of hours after dawn there is a smattering of dog walkers and determined joggers, but then there is no one until dusk. Huge SUVs, sparkling white and black and silver, occasionally glide past. I listen to the rumble of the 210 freeway, just a hundred meters north of us, the hum of my neighbor’s air conditioner, watch the vapor trails of planes heading to and from LAX.
Only as the sun is going down do I make my way to the back garden. It’s still fearsomely hot, but at least I can look at the smog rainbow sunset and the San Gabriel Mountains. In past summers there still would have been a sprinkling of snow on the high peaks, but they are brown and bare. The smog is still with us. I can see that once the garden was a beautiful space with pomegranate, cherry and apricot trees and dozens of fabulous huge succulents. Since Professor Davina died the drip hoses and sprinklers have broken and there has been no watering at all. Southern California is in the midst of an unprecedented three-year long drought, so there hasn’t been much help from the weather. Now the apricot and cherry trees are dead, their few remaining leaves are crisped to a dark brown. The succulents, still just hanging on, have shrunk, and shriveled and shed what leaves they have held onto to survive. But they are a sorry sight—desiccated mutant versions of themselves. The pomegranate has, amazingly, hung on, and is even bearing fruit. I can’t bear to pick them. It seems, after such herculean botanical efforts, too cruel to take it. Dodi has arranged for landscapers to take out the dead, put in new drips and drought resistant plants, maybe save the pomegranate and the succulents. I tend and water my little collection of newly potted tomatoes and basil. They are surviving.
It doesn’t take much to join the dots here. But as the news from home, where the government is arresting people demanding that the country’s aging housing be fitted with better insulation suggests, the economic and political elites of this world are willfully refusing to do so. I’m reading Mike again, in what will probably be his last interview, and, as ever, he condenses my thoughts, and finds words to pierce my heart.
“Our ruling classes everywhere have no rational analysis or explanation for the immediate future. A small group of people have more concentrated power over the human future than ever before in human history, and they have no vision, no strategy, no plan.”
So, what to do? On one of the many occasional tables scattered around Professor Davina’s house, alongside a carved wooden cockerel from the Philippines and a dusty menorah, lies a small, cardboard oval. It is threaded with old string for hanging on a wall, but it has been left on the table. I didn’t notice it for the first week I was here. Then, for no reason at all, I stopped and looked at it. In thick embossed silver script it says “hope”. Its kitsch and its corny, but right now I’ll take corny.
Last week in a press conference PSG star Kilian Mbappe and coach Christophe Galtier were asked why the team took a private jet from Paris to Nantes, just a few hundred kilometers away and accessible by TGV. They both laughed. Galtier quipped, “This morning we talked about it with the company which organizes our trips and we’re looking into traveling on sand yachts.” I showed it my students. It was electric. For the next forty minutes we explored how sports is connected to the climate crisis and what it might do about it. The power and responsibilities of athletic celebrity, the inequality of carbon emissions and climate impacts, football in Africa in a heating world, how climate change affected their own play (lots them are on the college soccer team), and a dozen other things. They were a mix of amazed, curious, angry—and ignited. For all the detail what was really going on was the sound of hundreds of pennies dropping; the slot machine of education hitting the jackpot.
Afterwards, thinking about Mbappe laughing and his smooth ephebic forehead, I made the connection back to Brecht. Of course, it was Mike, whose breadth of reading has never ceased to amaze and please me, that got me back to On Posterity. In the time left to him he says he’s doing a lot of family time, watching Scandinavian noir and reading Brecht. He said:
“I’ve always been influenced by the poems Brecht wrote in the late 30s, during the Second World War, after everything had been incinerated, all the dreams and values of an entire generation destroyed, and Brecht said, ‘Well, it’s a new dark ages….how do people resist in the dark ages?'”
Brecht, in the end offers pretty thin gruel. He knows it and asks us, “Do not judge us too harshly.” I need more than that. Mike Davis, for me, just nails it, “Despair is useless.”
What keeps us going, ultimately, is our love for each other, and our refusal to bow our heads, to accept the verdict, however all-powerful it seems. It’s what ordinary people have to do. You have to love each other. You have to defend each other. You have to fight.
So, I’m writing this and sending it to you because I love you (and Mike Davis, and Professor Davina, and my Pitzer college students), and I’m trying not to bow my head, and to find my way to be a part of our mutual defiance, for what I’m worth. If you want to fight, I’m all ears, but love is also allowed, and if you want to go read some Mike Davis, then that’s good too.
Mike Davis left us in late October. The heatwave gave way to a long hot autumn, and then the cataclysmic storm and rains of late December 2022 and early January 2023. Professor Davina’s house held up and Dodi and I have made a start on sifting and sorting it.
David Goldblatt is a sports writer, broadcaster, sociologist, journalist, author, and visiting professor of sociology at Pitzer College.
However polite its title, the 1891 “Petition to the Senators and Representatives of the Congress of the United States in the Behalf of the Remnants of the former Tribes of the Yosemite Indians Praying for Aid and Assistance” was anything but deferential.
The petition offered a blunt critique of the mostly white gold miners’ brutal incursion into the Yosemite region in the late 1840s. It sharply criticized the state-sanctioned violence that California unleashed in the 1850s on the Indigenous Peoples of the Central Sierra, and astutely recognized that elite tourists—and the amenities they required to cushion their late nineteenth-century visits to the rugged landscape—were also responsible for cultural disruption and physical dispossession. The petition reported that the previous half century of exploitation had turned the Ahwahneechii and Monos into “poorly-clad paupers and unwelcome guests, silently the objects of curiosity or contemptuous pity to the throngs of strangers who yearly gather in this our own land and heritage.”
The once fertile and sustaining terrain of the Indigenous Peoples had been torn apart. “The gradual destruction of its trees, the occupancy of every foot of its territory by bands of grazing horses and cattle, the decimation of the fish in the river, the destruction of every means of support for ourselves and families by the rapacious acts of the whites,” the petition asserted, would “shortly result in the total exclusion of the remaining remnants of our tribes from this our beloved valley, which has been ours from time beyond our faintest traditions, and which we still claim.”
The US government did not respond to this appeal for the return of tribal lands, an ironclad treaty that would protect their inheritance, and compensation for their decades of immiseration. Instead, the petition, to which forty-three survivors put their names, was buried in the 1891 report of Yosemite’s acting park superintendent. But its bureaucratic fate doesn’t diminish its importance any more than does the probability that the document’s amanuensis was a Euro-American fluent in English. The oral histories on which the petition depends, and, as anthropologist Ed Castillo observed, the “incredible description” it provides of the “political, military, and ecological factors driving remaining tribesmen from their valley could only have as their source local Indigenous knowledge.”
That knowledge, and the distressing catalogue of injustices it contains, is an important challenge to settler-colonial justifications for How the West Was Won. One facet of that master narrative also centers on Yosemite National Park— by the time tourists arrived to “ooh and ahhh” over its iconic waterfalls, steep granite walls, and staggering vistas, the land was “empty.” Its putative emptiness, the result of violent dispossession, set the stage for an early twentieth-century, decade-long battle over whether to build a dam in the park’s Hetch Hetchy Valley. The dam’s proponents, including federal officials, as well as citizens and politicians in San Francisco eager to secure a stable water supply following the 1906 earthquake that devastated the city, believed the dam was emblematic of Progressive Era reforms that provided essential—and publicly owned—resources to a rapidly urbanizing society. John Muir, founding president of the Sierra Club, which was established in 1892, was among those who pushed back, arguing that the dam’s construction would inundate the wild Hetch Hetchy Valley. “Dam Hetch Hetchy!” he thundered, “as well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated for the heart of man.”
What neither side admitted was that their respective arguments depended on a shared perception that no one lived in the Hetch Hetchy Valley., or that no had ever lived there. Its emptiness enabled dam supporters to conclude that the site would be perfect for a reservoir. Its emptiness, for those like Muir who pressed for the valley’s preservation, was a mark of its higher utility as pristine nature. Yet to conceive of this valley as devoid of people required two forms of erasure of the history and contemporary status of the Indigenous Peoples that their 1891 petition so brilliantly evoked.
The first erasure occurred in the mid-nineteenth century, when California and the United States governments sanctioned the violent expulsion of the Indigenous Peoples from the Sierras’s flanking valleys and foothills. The dispossession of the Miwok, Paiute, Shoshone, and others from their ancestral territories was an act of genocide, historian Benjamin Madley argues in American Genocide. He writes: the “pressures of demographics (the migration of hundreds of thousands of immigrants), economics (the largest gold rush in US history), and profound racial hatred all made the genocide possible, it took sustained political will—at both the federal and state levels—to create the laws, policies, and well-funded killing machine that carried it out and ensured its continuation over decades.”
The second erasure is embedded in the continuing and disquieting silence over the interlocking connection between the ruthless uprooting of Indigenous Peoples from the Yosemite region, the establishment of the national park, and the subsequent Hetch Hetchy controversy. Until that silence is broken, our understanding of the ongoing debate about the dam and reservoir will remain incomplete. This accounting is especially necessary because scholars and activists assert that the formative battle over the Hetch Hetchy dam marked the birth of the modern environmental movement in the United States. The assertion reveals a troubling and complicated story.
Muir was integral to each of these erasures. Consider his reflections that he jotted down in his journal after a hike up what he called Bloody Canyon in Mono County and then revised for publication in his book The Mountains of California 1894). Entering the pass, the “huge rocks began to close around in all their wild, mysterious impressiveness,” Muir wrote, “when suddenly, as I gazed eagerly about me, a drove of gray, hairy beings came into sight., lumbering toward with a kind of boneless, wallowing motion like bears.” Anxious about “so grim a company,” and suppressing his fears, he realized “that although hairy as bears and as crooked as summit pines, the strange creatures were sufficiently erect to belong to our own species.” He was hiking up a trail that the Mono and other Indigenous Peoples had worn smooth over the millennia, transiting between the Mono and Owens basins and Yosemite and the valleys below. His disdain for these men and women shows throughout his descriptions, such as, “the dirt on their faces was fairly stratified and seemed so ancient and so undisturbed it might almost possess a geological significance.” To Muir they belonged to a distant time, and befouled his wilderness. “Somehow they seemed to have no right place in the landscape, and I was glad to see them fading out of sight down the pass.”
The larger settler-colonial culture adopted his perspective and, whether Indigenous Peoples were forced out of Yosemite by force of arms or the scratch of a pen, a key consequence was that this “empty” terrain was ripe for commercial exploitation. Tourism to the region, enabled by a growing cross-continental transportation grid, and the growth of San Francisco and Los Angeles, was fueled by artists and photographers who visited the region a decade or more before Muir’s arrival there in 1868. James Mason Hutchings, who hired Muir to work at his Yosemite hotel, was a relentless promoter. He drew a swelling number of artists, scientists, and tourists to make the arduous journey to the remote location through his publication of tour guides, lithographs, and magazine articles about Yosemite’s wonders and curiosities. Many of these visitors recounted their experiences in the rough and wild space, some published, others not. However manifest, these documents reinforced the cultural conversation about what they perceived to be Yosemite’s prime value—a beneficent refuge in an industrializing world, where you could escape civilization, and yet have its amenities.
The sanctuary status was one of the key arguments that Muir and others developed in the early twentieth century against the city of San Francisco and its political allies who laid claim to the Hetch Hetchy Valley inside what became Yosemite National Park. The thrust and counterthrust manifested in a series of congressional hearings, in the pages of many of the nation’s leading magazines and newspapers, and in oft angry speeches. The fierce debate testifies to the centrality of a valley that few Americans had ever visited. Even though San Francisco’s interests prevailed, and the O’Shaughnessy Dam and its steep-walled reservoir that funnels potable water to the Bay Area was built, the controversy continues to simmer. Beginning in the 1980s, an odd coalition of Republican state and national politicians and the Sierra Club and its allies periodically call into question San Francisco’s reliance on the reservoir and urge the federal government to tear down the dam and restore the long-submerged valley.
Yet any resolution of this enduring latest struggle to define the future of Hetch Hetchy, and by extension Yosemite, must start by prioritizing what hitherto has been ignored. Novelist, historian, and activist David Treuer writes, “America’s national parks comprise only a small fraction of the land stolen from Native Americans, but they loom large in the broader story of our dispossession.” His pithy conclusion—”the American West began with war but concluded with parks”—is mirrored in the Yosemite Indigenous Peoples’ claims asserted in the 1891 petition: “We say this valley was not given to us by our fathers for a day, or a year, but for all time.”
Char Miller is the W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis and History at Pomona College and the director of the Claremont Colleges‘ environmental analysis program.
Adapted from The Unnaming of Kroeber Hall: Language, Memory, and Indigenous California, by Andrew Garrett, published by The MIT Press (to appear in 2023).
It rained for ten days in late February and early March 1911. “Enough Water to Last All Summer” was the Sacramento Bee headline. Juan Dolores was stuck inside, unable to do the work that had brought him to the state capital. Instead, he spent 14 hours a day writing out a story in O’odham, the Indigenous language of his childhood, family, and people in southern Arizona and northern Sonora, Mexico. Writing all 2,873 words took him seven days; a precise English translation took two more. He finished at 11 pm, went to bed, and dreamed about translating O’odham.
Dolores described his dream in a letter: “I saw words appearing on the wall, like [a] moving picture show. First a word would go clear across the wall and then automatically arrange itself into two or three words. Sometimes there would be only one letter and under it, would be two or three English words. When I awoke, I said this is no dream. It is the correct way of writing the Indian language.” He emphasized the semantic complexity of O’odham: “I have to write t[w]o or three English words for one Indian word.”
The story Juan Dolores finished writing in March 1911 was one of dozens that he wrote and rewrote in a lifetime devoted to documenting the O’odham language. When he died in 1948, he left thousands of manuscript pages and over 60 sound recordings of his own voice and the voices of elders he recorded. Dolores was “the first writer of his people’s legends,” to quote a later romanticized formulation, and he did write many creation stories (“legends”). He also transcribed oratory, vocabulary, the autobiographies of elders, the words of songs and what they signify, and a memoir of his Arizona childhood in the 1880s and 1890s. For four decades from 1909 to 1948, he did most of this language work as a University of California researcher and museum employee.
The University of California does not memorialize such details, but Dolores may have been its first Indigenous employee. He was almost certainly its first Indigenous researcher. Yet though he is well known to O’odham people in Arizona, in Berkeley he is almost forgotten. His career and life reveal the challenges facing an Indigenous scholar and writer within the academy in the first half of the twentieth century, as well as his profound achievements in the face of such challenges.
Dolores was born about 1880 on the Mexican side of the border dividing a transnational O’odham community. His parents moved the family to the US, where Dolores enrolled in government schools in Arizona and Colorado. In 1898, he entered the Hampton Institute, a primarily Black college in Virginia, graduating in 1901 and continuing for a year in a postgraduate course. In his last student years, Dolores showed his aptitude as a writer, publishing a short creation story (a “legend”) in TheIndian Advance and a valedictory perspective, “As an Indian Sees It,” in the Hampton Institute’s monthly magazine.
In 1901, Dolores spoke at the Nineteenth Lake Mohonk Conference of Friends of the Indian, a meeting of white philanthropists who thought they knew what was best for Indigenous people. His speech recounted the words of an O’odham elder who had asked: “What is that thought so great and so sacred that cannot be expressed in our own language, that we should seek to use the white man’s words?” Credited to an elder rather than in his own persona, this was a polite rebuke of his hosts, who favored the assimilation of Indigenous people into Euro-American culture and the elimination of tribal authority. It was also a repudiation of language practices that brutalized children throughout the US, at schools whose students were taught Euro-American ways and severely disciplined if they spoke their languages.
Dolores had been one of those students. He did not know English when he first entered the Tucson Indian School. If students were overheard speaking an Indigenous language, he later wrote in his O’odham-language memoir, the teachers “would punish us with the mule whip, or would give us extra work, or would lock us up in the dark house.” But he channeled his linguistic commitment into subversive play. If a teacher happened to say an English word that sounded like O’odham, Dolores would whisper that to the other students. Ita tcitcivitak hepay ha’itcu sta’a’askima o’otamkatc, he wrote: “this was very funny in O’odham.” Sometimes one of the others “could not control herself and she would just burst out laughing. I was delighted. I was constantly listening for words that would sound funny in O’odham.”
Dolores headed back west after his school years. Seasonal work as a teamster and skilled laborer took him to Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, and California. It was in San Francisco that he met the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber in 1909. The two men — one in his early thirties, the other a few years younger — had very different backgrounds but converging goals.
Kroeber, born in 1876 to a middle-class German-American family in New York, had come to the University of California in 1901 after finishing a Columbia University anthropology PhD. His central research mission was recording Indigenous languages and stories. Many aspects of culture interested him, but he had shifted to anthropology from literature and once said that his “actual work will always be literature.” His main legacy a century later is the documentation of languages, speech, stories, and songs that Indigenous people in California and elsewhere shared in their work with him, his students, and his colleagues.
Like most contemporary Euro-Americans, Kroeber believed mistakenly that Native American cultures and languages were “dying” or even “extinct.” Recording them whenever possible was seen as urgent by some anthropologists and many Indigenous people themselves. Their purposes were not the same. Researchers like Kroeber thought Native languages and stories could make world culture more ecumenical and culturally tolerant, while Indigenous people understood that they were making records for their own communities.
Indigenous cultures did not die out, of course. Some languages remain vital, too, despite policies of language oppression in government schools. Others are in peril, with just a few elders who grew up with language in the home; or dormant, without speakers but with people who want to learn. Throughout California in 2023, as communities reclaim their languages and stories from archives, what prescient ancestors shared and wrote down a hundred years ago is given new life every day.
Kroeber knew that Indigenous people themselves, with the proper tools, could transcribe their own languages better than outsiders like himself. So part of his work included teaching Indigenous people how to write their languages — in Dolores’s case, the O’odham language he had been whipped for speaking in school. Together, Dolores and Kroeber worked out a quasi-phonetic spelling system for O’odham. With this, Dolores began what would be his life’s work.
Dolores’s employment was itinerant for many years. The University of California hired him for O’odham language work with Kroeber in 1909 and 1911-13. According to UC records, he was first a regular “employee” (rather than a consultant or contractor) in April 1912. Until 1916 he worked for the UC anthropology museum in San Francisco, where his duties included public lectures on O’odham culture. In 1918-19, he held a UC research fellowship to engage in linguistic fieldwork, recording O’odham elders in Arizona.
In 1926, Dolores returned permanently to university work. He had worked outside academia since 1919, but he had health problems as well as a strong desire to resume O’odham linguistic research. Toward the end of 1925, he was hospitalized in Los Angeles with chest pain and an infected foot. He used a cane after he left the hospital. “My speed is about that of a snail,” Dolores wrote with his usual dark humor. “A continuous strain through these five months has now deprived me of my good looks and all that is left of me is courage.” Bruce Bryan, an archaeologist at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum, told Dolores in February that he might be able to hire him in a month or so. Meanwhile, Dolores reported, “the pain inside of me got worse” and he used crutches for a while. He told Kroeber that he wanted to continue “that work I started with you some years ago” and that an O’odham dictionary “will give me something to do for a long time.” Otherwise, he lamented, “I shall have to sell shoestrings and chewing-gum for my living.”
So it was that Dolores resumed full-time UC museum work for ten years beginning in 1926; in 1931, the anthropology museum moved from San Francisco to Berkeley. In 1936 and 1937, Dolores managed a government-funded research project at the University of Chicago, focusing on the lives of Mexican immigrants. He returned again to Berkeley and his museum job late in 1937, eventually retiring as a “senior preparator” a few weeks before his death in 1948.
The presence of an Indigenous scholar in conventionally white spaces fascinated newspapers and presumbly their readers. In 1911, the Dolores-Kroeber collaboration occasioned a San Francisco Examiner article steeped in dehumanizing language ideologies. “Gestures are a part of [Dolores’s] speech,” the writer opined. “If he broke his arm he could not talk.” The O’odham language was said to express “common English thoughts” with comically long words. Only a month later, ironically, Dolores would recount his dream showing that two or three English words may correspond to one short O’odham word — precisely inverting the Examiner trope.
In 1927, a reporter found it newsworthy that an Indigenous person worked in a university museum. Why, Dolores was asked, had he chosen the job? His answer demonstrates how effectively US acculturation policies had trapped many Indigenous people:
Indian life and customs as I knew them when a boy are more faithfully represented here in showcases than they are on the reservation. Nothing would suit me better than to live as my fathers lived, hunting and fishing and gathering fruit and berries. There is plenty of time for one to think then. But if I were to try to live that way now, I would be arrested for trespass or something.
American practices had removed Indigenous cultural heritage to museums, and kept Native people from living on their own land. Even those who had adopted new ways were subject to Euro-American whims:
I might possibly go back to Arizona and work on a piece of land I have fenced in there — my grandfather was one of the first men in our tribe to raise cattle under his own brand — but I have seen so many of my friends work for years on land and then be evicted by some court order or entanglement in titles, that I wouldn’t dare improve my piece for fear some white man would decide it was worth having.
These comments were quite candid for a medium that often celebrated white benevolence.
Even in 1935, it was national news when Dolores married Sylva Beyer, a UC anthropology graduate student. It made the front page in Oakland (“U.C. Co-ed and Indian Marry”) and Tucson (“Indian and White Woman Marry”). The story ran in Minnesota, and the Oakland Tribune even published a follow-up. Kroeber was the witness at a civil ceremony that was of broader interest only because it challenged assumptions about who belonged in elite spaces.
Dolores published four academic papers on his language. Two presented information about nouns and verbs, respectively; in another, for a volume in honor of Kroeber, he wrote about nicknames. A fourth paper, co-authored with University of California anthropologist Lila O’Neale, was a novel study of O’odham color terminology, showing how it is embedded in its cultural and environmental contexts. As a person’s hair turns white, they wrote, there is a stage when “the head looks … like ground [saguaro] cactus seeds … The kernel is white, but the bits of crushed black shell in the mixture give the whole an appearance of gray, or skaima’ki” (in Dolores’s O’odham spelling). This was two decades before cross-cultural differences in color naming became a prominent object of anthropological and linguistic study.
Dolores also tried to publish the O’odham stories he assembled over many years. Kroeber said his “new way of writing stories” in English might attract general interest, different as it was from the style of academics and “literary people” alike. “I will try to get them placed for you as a book under your own name,” he told Dolores in 1927. He sent some to New York publishers, but nothing came of the attempt.
By 1947, Dolores had prepared a large set of O’odham stories and translations to submit as a scholarly monograph. He was concerned to include all his stories and “not let the little ones get left behind.” He sent the manuscript to the series editor, Charles Voegelin of Indiana University, and continued to work on issues related to spelling. It was not until the month of Dolores’s death in 1948 that Voegelin finally decided not to publish the volume; apparently it was not academically rigorous enough for him. Dolores had returned to Arizona and never found out.
Dolores also did not live to see the publication of an O’odham grammar based on his work. This was written by the linguist J. Alden Mason and published under Mason’s name. While acknowledged in the introduction, Dolores was not named as a co-author even though the book was almost entirely based on Dolores’s own collection of stories, shared with Mason in 1919. It was Dolores, too, who introduced Mason to O’odham people during the linguist’s only Arizona fieldwork, a trip of “a few weeks … to get some impression of the phonetics.” It was common at the time for the intellectual labor of Indigenous collaborators to be deprecated as service or mere data production.
Mason never learned to speak or understand O’odham; he analyzed it through Dolores’s writing alone, as one might study Latin. Dolores had little respect for the man who was writing what they both assumed would be a major reference. “How does anybody know how to write a word unless he knows how that word is pronounced?” he asked in 1919. Kroeber promised “to try to see to it that you get a crack at everything he does before publication.”
Dolores also disagreed with Mason’s linguistic choices. The 1911 dream that showed Dolores “the correct way of writing” O’odham expressed a sense that its sentences had many small words. These include grammatical particles and pronouns that Mason chose to treat as parts of complex words. Partial English parallels are I’ll and wouldn’t’ve. Mason might have called each a single word; Dolores might have said they are two (I + ’ll) or three (would + n’t + ’ve). “Dr. Mason takes a whole phrase and calls it a word,” Dolores complained in 1920, “because he can’t understand why any part of an unpronounceable collection of syllables should have any special meaning.”
Most of all, Dolores was upset by Mason’s long delay in finishing the grammar. It was not a high priority to Mason amid other professional obligations, but to Dolores it was absolutely essential to see it completed. His letters to Kroeber reiterate his impatience as he waited for the indirect fruit of his own intellectual labor. Whatever Mason has done, he wrote in 1921, “I am sure is good enough to all who don’t know the [O’odham] language … I wish him good luck but more speed, so I can see the work finished before I depart to some other sphere.”
A year later, he echoed this sentiment with characteristic irony: “My health is good, but my teeth are getting bad, and I suppose when I can’t eat, I can’t live. I must be nearing the time when I shall have to take a trip to some other planet, so hurry up Dr Mason, I want to see his work before I go.” Tragically, it was not until 1950, two years after Dolores died, that the grammar based on his work saw the light of day. He never held it in his hands.
The whimsy in Dolores’s language dream and imagined interplanetary voyage was an enduring feature of his writing. In a May 1911 letter from Sacramento, he speculated about a Berkeley linguist formulating grammatical “rules” for O’odham:
Whoever makes the rules for the [O’odham] language, he or she must take into consideration the great difference in the climate of southern Ariz. and Berkeley. You see, I was thinking that many things which grow in Berkeley could not grow in southern Ariz. The climate I think could make anything grow in Berkeley, I believe, I grew some the time I was there. The hot weather has taken me back to about 150 lbs now. For this reason I am compelled to think very seriously, whether the rules now growing on the college grounds (there among the beautiful grass, trees, and flowers, and the nice sea breeze blowing over them every day) could not be too tender, and when exposed to that hot and dry climate of Ariz., get sun burned, change its color, [d]ry up, lose its flexibility, it[s] elasticity and break.
Dolores’s fanciful comments about environment and grammar anticipated his disapproval of Mason’s knowledge of O’odham from writing alone, as well as his collaoration with O’Neale on the ecological context of O’odham color terms. To understand the language, it would be best to learn to speak it in the place it truly lived.
Later that year, Ishi walked into Oroville, California. Publicity surrounded a man who was luridly called a “wild Indian.” Kroeber and his colleague T. T. Waterman both said the US should grant him land in his ancestral territory; newspapers predicted a treaty. Dolores saw this and said he should hide in the mountains so white people could “find” him too. Then, he wrote, “tell [President] Taft or somebody, that they have to make a treaty with me. I think that will be the only way I can get some good place to stay the rest of my life.”Whimsy could not mask the need so many Indigenous people had for their land back.
Wherever he found himself, Dolores was linguistically aware. In 1914, he and his brother were working in Los Angeles together with two young O’odham men. “We have a tent by ourselves,” he told Kroeber, “and in the evenings we tell to one another the funny things our people used to do, and what they used to say.” One of the young men spoke the Akimel O’odham dialect, called “Pima” at the time. “When the Pima boy speaks,” Dolores wrote, “I nearly always laugh at him; not because he always tells a funny story, but I laugh at the way he expresses himself. I have not heard the Pima language for a long time, and it sounds funny to me.” The pleasure that Dolores’s language gave him is a recurring theme in his writing.
Dolores returned to his own land with university support during his research fellowship year, 1918-19, recording the speech (and songs) of O’odham elders. Even then, his correspondence highlights the clash between his employers’ assumptions and Indigenous realities. To reimburse a researcher for expenses incurred, university procedures (then and now) require receipts. The acting museum head asked, “Will it not be possible for you to obtain the receipt for the $3.00 you paid for the two stories, and for the $1.50 for the saddle?” In a letter from November 1918, Dolores explained how inappropriate this would be:
The people who came through San Xavier are some relations to me, and they let me have the saddle horse to Tucson. They charged me nothing, but I gave them the $1.50. I thought that this was right; I might need their help again out in the desert. … I did not ask anybody to sign a voucher, because by that act the thing freely given becomes a different thing altogether. The $1.50 which I gave is not the value of the service to me. It only shows to my friends that I am as willing to give any help that I can. I might go on and make a longer explanation which I think will not do me any good; so charge the $1.50 to me.
People who insist on signatures may be “looked upon now,” he added, “as we look upon a German spy.” More generally, a Euro-American assumption (then and, all too often, now) was that research in Native communities is transactional — money for knowledge. Dolores knew better. Indigenous community-based research is relational, and succeeds only in the context of healthy, mutually supportive relationships.
Writing to Kroeber in 1920, Dolores spun out a fantasy of O’odham language collaboration under the stars:
Some day when we are all well, I’ll build a house and then I’ll send you that invitation. I am in no hurry about building that house, and if you want to come out next summer I’ll find somebody to board us, and we’ll sleep in the open, look at the stars, and talk [O’odham] until your tongue gets tired flying up and down trying to make that t [sound] … In day times, when you are not working on the [O’odham] language, it will be a good exercise to go out and help me chop trees, dig stumps, or if it rains we’ll plant corn, beans and do all kinds of stunts you never done before. While doing the above named exercises, we will at the same time puzzle out the meanings of [O’odham] phrases.
The first sentence alludes to long-term health problems. These included tooth pain; and Dolores’s 1925 hospitalization was mentioned above. In 1940, a workplace fall damaged a shoulder and caused permanent loss of vision in one eye. Worse still, in November 1947, the elderly Dolores was beaten up, robbed, and left unconscious outside his Oakland apartment. Doctors suspected traumatic brain injury, though Dolores “seemed cheerful.” From this assault he never fully recovered.
After Kroeber married Theodora Kracaw Brown in 1926, Dolores grew close to their whole family. He had a weekly dinner invitation at their Berkeley home and spent his vacation every year with them at their summer house. Their daughter, the writer Ursula K. Le Guin, recalled that “Juan — a killer croquet player — always got there in time for his birthday” at the end of June.Dolores gave Christmas presents to the children, like a bow and arrows to four-year-old Karl in 1930. “I hope he’ll not be trying to shoot his play mates,” Dolores wrote. “The arrows have no points but I imagine Carl will not be hunting mountain lions and the arrows will be good enough to play with.”
Le Guin also remembered Dolores’s first vacation with her family, in 1931, “the summer I learned to walk.” She would “stagger” over to him and ask him to walk with her:
And whatever he was doing, writing or reading or talking or working, Juan would excuse himself and gravely accompany me across the yard and up the driveway on a great journey of a hundred yards or so, I holding on to him by one finger. . . . I know which finger it was, the first of his left hand, a strong, thick, dark finger that entirely and warmly filled my hand.
Those who knew Dolores well were aware of how important his relationship with Kroeber was. At the end of Dolores’s short marriage to Silva Beyer, who lived with him in Chicago in 1935-37, she told Kroeber that “you . . . are far more significant to him than I had become.” And Dolores’s niece Rosaria Vavages wrote Kroeber in April 1947 that her uncle “has told me a lot about you and your family [and] how he feels that your family is his family too.”
Juan Dolores died on July 19, 1948, in Vamori, Arizona in the Tohono O’odham Nation. He had left Berkeley for the last time when he retired at the end of June. He reached Tucson “a very sick man,” his niece said. He hardly ate, but every day he “dragged himself to the park,” which was cooler than the house and his room (“just like an oven”).  He would not let her call a doctor, insisting instead that he be taken to Vamori, where he could be buried near his brother and sister. Dolores had lived almost all his life away from O’odham land, but wanted to be home with his family. He asked his niece to tell his Berkeley colleagues that she should receive his pension, and to send Kroeber all the manuscripts he had brought with him in retirement.
Dolores’s O’odham manuscripts record language, stories, and songs. He added many details about language and the contexts and meaning of what he recorded. One 60-page story is followed by six pages of notes like this: “The race track is that open space, under the mountain, on the west side. There are no trees on this land, and [it] is level. The distance is about 50 mi[les] or more.” A song transcript comments that a word meaning “Come along” is used “only in baby language.” In the song, the earth doctor is “speaking to the earth as if it is his child, holding it by the hand [as] he pull[s] it along, saying Come along.” Dolores’s writing includes histories and speeches, biography and geography. As a whole, it comprises an O’odham cultural atlas from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Dolores’s manuscripts have been scattered over the decades and are now housed in archives in Berkeley, Tucson, and Philadelphia. His memoir has appeared under his name; many of his stories are in a volume assembled by others who acknowledged his contributions but did not credit him as an author. While some of his writing has been brought home, much awaits the reclamation he surely desired. Almost five decades passed from his student essays to his last work, but Juan Dolores, the “gentle, intellectual man, living in exile and poverty” that Le Guin saw in memory, never lost sight of how land and language would strengthen his people.
 “Enough Water to Last All Summer,” Sacramento Bee, March 2, 1911: 3.
 Dolores to Alfred Kroeber, March 16, 1911, Records of the Department of Anthropology, CU-23, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, Box 11.
 Like others at the time, Dolores always called his language “Papago” in English. This term is now often seen as a slur, so I have replaced it throughout with “O’odham.”
 For the quotation see Dean Saxton and Lucille Saxton, O’othham Hoho’ok A’agitha: Legends and Lore of the Papago and Pima Indians (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1973), iii.
 Before the Hampton Institute, Dolores spent four years at the Teller Institute in Grand Junction, Colorado: Dolores to Kroeber, December 22, 1925, Records (n. 2 above), Box 49. For brief accounts of Dolores’s life, see A. L. Kroeber, “Juan Dolores, 1880-1948,” American Anthropologist 51 (1949): 96-97, and Juan Dolores and Madeleine Mathiot, “The Reminiscences of Juan Dolores, an Early O’odham linguist,” Anthropological Linguistics 33 (1991): 233-35.
 J. M. Lolorias, “The Last Great War,” The Indian Advance 2/8 (April 1, 1901): 4; John Miguel Lolorias, “As an Indian Sees It,” The Southern Workman 31/9 (1902) 476-80. “Lolorias” was an Anglicization of the O’odham pronunciation of “Dolores.”
 John Lolorias, “Address,” Proceedings of the Nineteenth Annual Meeting of the Mohonk Conference of Friends of the Indian, 1901, ed. Isabel C. Barrows (New York: Lake Mohonk Conference, 1902), 76-77.
 Dolores and Mathiot, “The Reminiscences of Juan Dolores” (n. 5 above): 294, 309, 312-13.
 Letter to Edward Sapir, November 4, 1917, in Victor Golla, ed., The Sapir-Kroeber Correspondence: Letters Between Edward Sapir and A. L. Kroeber, 1905 – 1925 (Berkeley: Survey of California and Other Indian Languages, University of California, Berkeley), 260.
 Documents relating to Dolores’s university employment are in Records (n. 2 above), Box 16.
 “Indian to Lecture Here,” San Francisco Examiner, November 21, 1911: 2.
 Dolores to Kroeber, December 22, 1925, Records (n. 2 above), Box 49.
 Dolores to Kroeber, February 25, 1926, Records (n. 2 above), Box 49.
 “Juan, Indian, Defies Alphabet,” San Francisco Examiner, February 3, 1911: 3.
 “Indian Guards U.C. Relics of Fathers,” The Ripon Record, May 6, 1927: 5.
 “U.C. Co-ed and Indian Marry,” Oakland Tribune, November 20, 1935: 1; “Papago Indian and White Woman Marry,” Arizona Daily Star, November 21, 1935: 1.
 “Indian’s Bride to Teach at Chicago,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, November 26, 1935, p. 10; “Indian’s Bride to Help Him Write Book,” Oakland Tribune, November 21, 1935: 21.
 Juan Dolores, “Papago Verb Stems,” University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 10 (1913): 241-63; Juan Dolores, “Papago Nominal Stems,” University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 20 (1923): 19-31; Juan Dolores, “Papago Nicknames,” in Essays in Anthropology in Honor of A. L. Kroeber in Celebration of his Sixtieth Birthday, June 11, 1936, ed. Robert H. Lowie (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1936), 45-47.
 Lila M. O’Neale and Juan Dolores, “Notes on Papago Color Designations,” American Anthropologist 45 (1943): 394.
 Kroeber to Dolores, April 16, 1927, Records (n. 2 above), Box 49.
 Dolores to Kroeber, July 26, 1947, A. L. Kroeber Papers, BANC MSS C-B 925, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, Box 13:15.
 Voegelin to Kroeber, July 9, 1948, Ethnological Documents of the Department and Museum of Anthropology, BANC FILM 2216, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley, 134.8.1.
 J. Alden Mason, The Language of the Papago of Arizona (Philadelphia: University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, 1950), 3.
 Dolores to Kroeber, December 26, 1919, Records (n. 2 above), Box 49.
 Kroeber to Dolores, March 9, 1920, Records (n. 2 above), Box 49.
 Dolores to Kroeber, August 23, 1921, Records (n. 2 above), Box 49.
 Dolores to Kroeber, October 31, 1922, Records (n. 2 above), Box 49.
 Dolores to Kroeber, May 10, 1911, Records (n. 2 above), Box 11.
 On Ishi, see chapter 7 of Garrett, Unnaming of Kroeber Hall (first note above), and references cited there.
 “First Train Ride for Nogi Indian,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 5, 1911: 3; “President and Senate to Make Treaty with Aborigine,” Oroville Daily Register, September 4, 1911: 1.
 Dolores to Kroeber, September 10, 1911, Records (n. 2 above), Box 11.
 Dolores to Kroeber, January 4, 1914, Records (n. 2 above), Box 16.
 E. W. Gifford to Dolores, October 30, 1918, Records (n. 2 above), Box 16.
 Dolores to Gifford, November 3, 1918, Records (n. 2 above), Box 16.
 Dolores to Kroeber, August 2, 1920, Records (n. 2 above), Box 16.
 Theodore Kroeber to Alfred Kroeber, November 15, 1947, Theodora Kroeber Quinn Papers, AA-15, Arizona State Museum Library, University of Arizona.
 This and subsequent quotations from Ursula K. Le Guin are to The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination (Boston: Shambala, 2004), 14-17.
 Dolores to Kroeber, December 22, 1930, Records (n. 2 above), Box 49.
 Beyer to Kroeber, June 15, 1937, Kroeber Papers (n. 21 above), Box 13:16.
 Vavages to Kroeber, April 16, 1947, Kroeber Quinn Papers (n. 36 above).
 Vavages to Kroeber, July 22, 1948, Kroeber Quinn Papers (n. 36 above).
 Ethnological Documents (n. 22 above), 134.1.15, p. 62.
 Ethnological Documents (n. 22 above), 134.4E.
 In Berkeley, they are in the Ethnological Documents (n. 22 above); in Tucson, they are in the Kroeber Quinn Papers (n. 36 above); in Philadelphia, they are in the John Alden Mason Papers, Mss.B.M384, American Philosophical Society Library.
 Dolores and Mathiot, “The Reminiscences of Juan Dolores” (n. 5 above); Saxton and Saxton, O’othham Hoho’ok A’agitha (n. 4 above).
Andrew Garrett is a professor of linguistics and the Nadine M. Tang and Bruce L. Smith Professor of Cross-Cultural Social Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, where he is also director of the California Language Archive.
The Aquarium of the Pacific was founded in the 1990s during a period of questions about what to do with Long Beach’s harbor area. Much of the coast in San Pedro Bay is devoted to industrial use, and the entire shoreline is manipulated. On the far side of the port complex, near the border with Orange County, is a recreational beach. But the waterfront area right between the beach and the port, nearest to downtown Long Beach, had been subject to “ups, downs, and an identity crisis,” in the words of a New York Times reporter writing in 2000.35 In the very early twentieth century, the waterfront hosted the Pike, a Coney-Island-esque bathing area, boardwalk, and amusement park featuring rides and games, concessions, an elaborate hand-carved carousel, and, in a later era, tattoo shops (the buildup to World War II brought the navy to the harbor, and sailors brought demand for tattoos).36
In 1979, the Pike was formally shuttered, though it was well off its heyday before then. The area retained some tourist attractions, notably the docked RMS Queen Mary ocean liner, Howard Hughes’s massive wooden plane, the Spruce Goose (encased in a custom-built geodesic dome), and an annual Grand Prix motor race, begun in 1975.37 But the area was underutilized by urban development standards, and the city considered how to update it. The Disney Corporation managed both the Spruce Goose and the Queen Mary starting in 1988.38 Around then, Disney expressed interest in siting a massive ocean-related theme park in the Long Beach harbor, to be called DisneySea; the entire complex was to include a research center and resort, and to be collectively called Port Disney.39 Fantastical artistic renderings of the complex resembled the contemporary Biosphere 2 artificial environment, with a glistening science-fiction sheen evocative of the space age. But these plans were short-lived; the park was never built.40 The harbor nonetheless contained glimpses of futuristic fancy: a 1967 artist’s rendering of an oil island at night rivals the Disney imaginary; and the Queen Mary and dome, although divested by Disney in the 1990s, still remain today.
Fantastical harbor flourishes aside, the 1990s hit Long Beach hard economically. The navy consolidated its Southern California presence in San Diego, closing a naval station and hospital as well as shuttering a shipyard in the Long Beach harbor. In turn, aviation manufacturing plants reliant on military contracts also closed. It was in this context that the city looked to cultivate tourist attractions, with or without Disney’s involvement. (Simultaneously, the region pursued port development as an economic strategy.) It secured municipal financing to build an aquarium—albeit a more modest, far less spectacular one than the facility Disney had planned—and develop the harbor with a shopping center and refurbished convention center.41 The aquarium was paid for through government funding and philanthropic contributions, although indirectly the municipal funds were tied to the city’s oil revenues.42 The city owns the aquarium, which is managed and operated by a nonprofit organization.43
Public institutions for the display of animals emerged in larger Euro-American cities in the nineteenth century, often with funding from scientific societies.44 Projects of taxonomy and empire, displaying unfamiliar animals from other locales, zoos and aquariums both satisfied and stoked public interest in animal life. Some early American zoos also bore the influence of the urban parks movement, emphasizing conservation of native species. Zoos often resembled amusement parks, offering children rides on ponies and Galápagos tortoises, transporting visitors around the parks on buses and trains, and dramatically exhibiting trained seals and chimpanzees to enthralled audiences, according to historian Pamela Henson. Not unlike circus sideshows, they emphasized the novelty and exoticism of their offerings, and they competed with other zoos, even to the point of keeping animal care regimens secret.45 By the middle of the twentieth century, conservation emerged as a more consistent concern, and zoos were coming under fire for animal exploitation and poor conditions.46 By the late twentieth century, zoos had brought conservation fully into their remit, including cooperating to serve as genetic reservoirs for endangered species, sharing information and resources, and addressing conservation in exhibits and mission statements.47
Both the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Aquarium of the Pacific’s work with otters is in line with these trends. Zoos and aquariums conduct conservation work both in situ and ex situ, in field sites.48 But aquariums, unlike zoos, often work closely with local wildlife officials too.49 The aquariums’ otter work involves housing a native (sub)species whose numbers have dwindled in the wild with the goals of educating the public and expanding the population, within the parameters of their own institutional mandates and constraints.50
As noted above, MBA has had ambitious otter conservation programs central to its mission since its inception. The Aquarium of the Pacific has also hosted otters since its earliest days. When it was founded in 1998, otters were not local to the immediate Southern California coastal area near Long Beach, due to the otter-free zone, though of course they were ecologically native to the area. The Aquarium of the Pacific immediately worked closely with MBA to host otters, offering housing and care for otters that could not live in the wild; this allowed the two institutions working together to care for more animals than MBA could alone. The Aquarium of the Pacific declared its first full summer in operation, 1999, to be “Sea Otter Summer,” with a full public relations blitz. Its charismatic otters were Monterey Bay transplants, young animals who were not suitable candidates for release into the wild and instead resided in the Aquarium of the Pacific’s Northern Pacific habitat (here Northern Pacific means essentially California and north, that is, the cooler water zone north of the warm-cold mixing in the ecotone that is the Southern California Bight). At least two of the otters were orphaned during El Niño storms in 1997 (rough water and wind can cause pups to get separated from mothers, and storms are a common cause of pup stranding).51 Given the timing, these young animals would not have been candidates for surrogacy, which did not begin until 2001.
One of the Aquarium of the Pacific’s otters, a young female aptly named Summer, featured in a heartbreaking and frankly bizarre Los Angeles Times article that accompanied the exhibition:
A little girl named Summer arrived in Long Beach last month with what sounds like a Hollywood crisis: a lousy fur coat, a weight problem and a dependency issue. Summer, an 11-month-old sea otter at the Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific, also would be distressed to know she’s missing her spot in the limelight. This Saturday the aquarium will launch Sea Otter Summer, but the budding diva will be in rehab.52
Distressing anthropomorphism and peculiar pathologizing aside, the article paints a vivid picture of the struggles stranded otters and their human caregivers can face. When rescued by MBA, Summer’s caregivers hoped to rehabilitate her for release into the wild, but over time, she failed to thrive: her coat did not come in with sufficient thickness to keep her afloat and warm, which was evident when human handlers took her on daily ocean swims as part of rehabilitation efforts. (Otters’ coats are dense, and pups’ fur actually helps them float because of how it traps air, which saves their bodies energy. The drive to commodify this lustrous fur is what led otters to be hunted to near extinction.53) Summer did not gain sufficient weight, probably because of being chilled. And her “addiction” to suckling towels was an unfortunate effect of her separation from her mother when she was only one week old.54
Aquarium curators laid out a comprehensive plan of care for Summer. Her towel suckling appeared to be a core cause of her failure to thrive. Without otters to care for pups, human handlers gave otter pups towels to suckle, cuddle, and groom themselves with, “a replacement for their moms.” Handlers suspected the enthusiasm with which Summer took to snuggling and suckling towels was actually damaging her fur; according to laboratory analysis of her pelt, the fibers were twisted and damaged. So in addition to continuing to trying to get her weight up through attentive feeding, caregivers weaned the pup off towels: she went from one per hour to two per day, with the goal of being able to comfortably give them up entirely. Her handler said: “The rewards of the job are similar to those of parenting[.] I enjoy the satisfaction of seeing the otters hit certain milestones. I also think it’s a responsible act. Summer couldn’t survive in the ocean, but she’s healthy. Why not give her a good life, while educating the public and us about how otters live so we can use the knowledge to help the environment?”55
Summer lived another eleven years at the Aquarium of the Pacific, though she never fully recovered from the health issues she experienced as a pup. Aquarium staff tried to diagnose and cure Summer, unsuccessfully; veterinary dermapathologists suspected her fur and thermoregulation issues perhaps ultimately derived from an immune-mediated condition, similar to an autoimmune disease in humans.56 The causes of autoimmune disease are complex, but exposures to toxins are strong possibilities; effects of chemical violence are not necessarily immediate, even leading to epigenetic harms.57 In spite of Summer’s health problems, aquarium officials stated that she had led a “relatively healthy and apparently happy” life with her exhibit-mates at the Aquarium of the Pacific, until reaching a more advanced age when her health declined again, leading to compromised organ function. They determined that euthanasia was the most humane course, but Summer died on her own hours before the planned procedure, in September 2010.58 Twelve years is a somewhat shorter lifespan than might be expected for a female otter in captivity, though not dramatically so. Her loss was mourned by aquarium staff and caregivers, many of whom had known her since her arrival.
Around the time of Summer’s death in 2010, the Aquarium of the Pacific opened a new animal care facility. The 14,000-square-foot facility was unusual in one main regard: it included a large room for veterinary exams open to the public (through a pane of glass). On most days, aquarium staff perform veterinary exams and medical procedures on aquarium animals, in public view, with either a staff interpreter out in front of the window or one inside who explains what staff are doing over a public address system for viewers outside. Simulations of veterinary procedures are on display even when the aquarium is closed.
One day in September 2019, two otter dental procedures were listed on a whiteboard: a root canal for Betty, age seven, and a tooth extraction for Maggie, age seventeen.59 A curator said that there is treatment activity on public view at least a couple of days per week, and that the facility conducts nearly every procedure in public view (exceptions might be if no interpretive staff were available to narrate, or in case of a high-stakes procedure where the patient might be in danger of “crashing,” in which case blinds would be drawn). An adult sea otter would get at least one exam per year, including blood draws, x-rays, and an ultrasound, all during regular business hours in full public view.60 The aquarium holds around 11,000 animals (fish, reptiles, mammals, birds), so there is a lot of opportunity for routine exams that can double as public programming.61 While the Aquarium of the Pacific’s public viewing facility was novel at the time it was introduced, more and more facilities like it are being built; it is a trend that promotes public understanding of and transparency about the institution’s activities.62 (Though the curator did not spell this out, it also helps communicate to the public the expense associated with so much care for so many animals.) At the same time, the procedures with the aquarium’s actual living animals, and especially the use of plush children’s toys to stand in for wildlife, arguably domesticate these creatures, blurring boundaries. These spectacles also normalize “nature” in human care, or even on life support. Though managers act in pursuit of “autonomy” for wild animals, this state is “deferred and impossible to achieve,” requiring dependence (especially in the case of highly managed creatures at the edge of extinction).63 This has potential implications for how the aquarium’s audience relates to these animals in the aquarium as well as outside of it.
As of 2020, the Aquarium of the Pacific could house up to six adult otters comfortably, but it was expanding its capacity in order to implement a surrogacy program. The agreement the Aquarium of the Pacific formalized with MBA in early 2020 solidified a commitment to create the conditions to be able to add as many as five adult females who could nurture and socialize pups. As many as ten to fifteen stranded southern sea otter pups are discovered annually in California, so this would add significant capacity for otter care. Like Summer, all stranded pups will first go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium for around eight weeks, and then some will move to Long Beach for longer-term rearing (six to seven months), learning to groom and feed and act like “regular” sea otters.64 If a pup does well with its surrogate mother in the Aquarium of the Pacific, it will return to MBA for another month or two to socialize with peers, and then, assuming it is deemed fit, it will be released into the wild. Released young adults will be radiotagged with VHF transmitters and trackable for up to three years; scientists will no longer be able to track the otters once the transmitters’ batteries die, though the tracking devices will remain in the animals for the rest of their lives.
Sea otters come ashore rarely and can perform all essential life functions at sea, including sleeping and giving birth. Charismatic representations of them often feature a mother and pup afloat in a kelp bed.65 The otters of the Aquarium of the Pacific, as well as many other creatures, live in marine water that approximates their oceanic habitats. The aquarium’s water supply therefore is a life-sustaining consideration of major consequence for the institution and its residents. It is sourced from the harbor just outside the aquarium’s door, processed by a company that also supplies water to other aquariums and marine science facilities throughout the western United States and for which the Aquarium of the Pacific is a major customer.
Founded in 1988, Catalina Water Company commodifies a naturally occurring substance, ocean water.66 In claiming water as a resource, processing it, and selling it, the company provides an environment to sustain ocean life in circumstances where it would not be found otherwise: in conditions of captivity and often in geographic locales far from the species’ native environments. Tropical fish in home or institutional aquariums, otters in conservation programs, jellyfish in veterinary care, and mollusks in neuroscience research settings may all find themselves swimming in this water (or, in the case of mollusks, anchored in it). Commodification of ocean water is driven by the commercial trade of tropical fish: “The aquarium hobby could never have become what it is today without the business interests that were, and still are, involved.”67 Recent estimates are that 25–30 million animals from more than 2,000 species are traded annually, including fish and corals; animals are imported from the Philippines, Indonesia, the Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Australia, Fiji, the Maldives, and Palau, especially richly biodiverse reef ecologies; and domestic fish outnumber pet cats and dogs in both the United States and United Kingdom.68 Most collectible animals are taken from the wild, and many marine species’ needs for breeding in captivity are poorly understood.69 Of course, this practice of removing animals from oceans for global hobbyist trade has ecological implications in their sites of origin. These accumulating environmental injuries are not the main focus here but bear notice as a significant effect of the commodification of marine life and seawater.70
Unsurprisingly, supplying conditions for marine life, let alone healthy marine life, is challenging. The Aquarium of the Pacific’s water comes from the Pacific Ocean via Catalina Water Company, but another option for coastal aquariums is building a water intake system with pipes going out into the sea to take in and discharge water. (A curator at the Aquarium of the Pacific speculated that this would be hard to gain approval for in California’s present-day regulatory environment.71) Facilities that are not coastally located are more likely to manufacture their water, mixing salt and fresh water. Catalina Water Company touts its product by stating, “All synthetic salt mixtures have one thing in common. They are attempting to duplicate real saltwater. Catalina Water Company provides real ocean salt- water, not a synthetic substitute. Synthetic Saltwater, while being basically sound, simply can not provide all the subtle chemical benefits of true saltwater.” The volume of water that the company sells for simulated ocean environments is at least ten million gallons per year.72 The Aquarium of the Pacific is a major client and takes several deliveries per week; its biggest tank, as of 2012, was a 56,000-gallon quarantine tank, part of the Molina Care Center, a holding tank for large animals that need to be kept separately.73 Deliveries of fresh ocean water at the scale needed by aquariums are delivered via truck in food-grade stainless steel tankers. Catalina Water Company also sells packaged seawater for home aquarium use through the PetCo pet store chain.74
The quarantine tank leads toward a further consideration of the water itself. To become commodified, seawater must be processed. Catalina Water Company notes on its website that it “starts with natural ocean sea- water which is filtered, (fiber, sand, and charcoal) ozonated, and protein skimmed.”75 Before using the water for its marine life, the Aquarium of the Pacific also runs its own tests to make sure it is safe for the animals, and filters it again.76 The 1999 Los Angeles Times article about Summer the pup also offers details about how seriously the Aquarium of the Pacific takes its marine environment: “Before he climbs the metal ladder to the access door of Summer’s tank, [Summer’s handler] steps in two bins of liquid, one containing water and one a disinfectant. He’ll step in them again when he leaves. ‘We’re fussy about quarantine here,’ he explains. ‘I don’t want to take any germs into her habitat or out to the rest of the aquarium.’”77 Of course, extra precautions are indeed necessary for public health in congregate settings (as the COVID-19 pandemic recently showed when the virus cut a tragic, lethal, and preventable path through prisons and elder care facilities).
But this attention to hygiene, water filtration, and monitoring in the aquarium setting exposes an irony. Otters and other life-forms under custodial care of the aquarium are provided cleaner and safer water than their counterparts in the wild. As noted at the outset of this chapter, worries of otter annihilation in the wake of an oil discharge prompted conservation efforts in the 1980s, leading to, among other developments, the otter relocation to San Nicolas Island. The rationale was not only to prompt the settlement of a new territory but to have a population reservoir in a more protected locale, less vulnerable to spills than the near-coastal area the otters inhabited. And spilled oil is not the only source of chemical harm for otters: industrial agricultural fertilizers and other contaminants wash into the ocean from land, bringing toxins that can sicken and even kill marine otters.78 Toxins should thus not be understood as mere “wayward molecules”: they are substances whose patterned presences in land, water, and bodies are indicative of particular political and economic relations.79
35) Sterngold, “Long Beach.” His statement is about Long Beach generally but it fits the waterfront area well.
36) As of 2020, parts of the carousel and vestigial Pike games are on display at Looff ’ Lite- A- Line on Long Beach Boulevard.
37) The Queen Mary docked permanently in Long Beach in 1967. Th e Spruce Goose was housed there only from 1980– 92, but its dome remains and is currently used as Carnival Cruise Lines’ dockside cruise terminal.
38) Kopetman, “Spruce Goose to Be Moved.”
39) Addison, “Long Beach Lost.”
40) Various factors were responsible. Disney requested things the City of Long Beach was unable to deliver single- handedly, like highway modifi cations. Addison, “Long Beach Lost,” notes that Long Beach was hard to build in both politically and financially since local, state, and federal approvals were all required; Disney instead reinvested in and expanded its Anaheim (Orange County) operations.
41) Sterngold, “Long Beach.”
42) Johnson, “Long Beach, Calif., Gets a Boost.” Th e “tidelands grant” the state issued the city to develop the harbor stipulated that revenue from oil profi ts drilled from the Wilmington and Long Beach oil fi elds, located in the tidelands, be reinvested in the tidelands area (and overseen by the state).
43) Kingsley, “Aquarium of the Pacific Turns 20 Today.”
44) Young, “Zoos and Aquariums.”
45) Henson, “American Zoos,” 65, 70, 66.
46) Young, “Zoos and Aquariums”; Henson, “American Zoos,” 72.
48) Henson writes, “as ‘natural environments’ become more stressed through development and climate change, the line has become blurred between ex situ, orzoo- and aquarium-based, research and conservation and in situ, or field-based, biological research and conservation practice” (“American Zoos,” 66); see especially Braverman, Wild Life, for more on this troubled boundary.
49) Muka, “Conservation Constellations.”
50) The California or southern sea otter is classified as a subspecies of an otter whose range used to be the entire Pacific coast from Baja California to Alaska. It is now only found from about Point Conception, just north and west of Santa Barbara, to San Francisco; in other words, just north of the Southern California Bight into which San Pedro Bay is nestled.
51) Morris, “Long Beach Aquarium.”
52) Jameson, “She’s One Happy Pup.”
53) Further north in the Pacific Northwest, Russian traders established a sea otter fur trade with China in the mid- eighteenth century (Gibson, Otter Skins, Boston Ships, and China Goods). Otter hunting in fact drew Russians eastward fromSiberia. Spanish colonists in California did not initially recognize the value of otter pelts in “their” territories but soon also entered the otter fur trade with China, and these otters were members of the southern or California sea otter subspecies.
In both cases, Indigenous people also participated in these markets as hunters, though they oft en were resistant to hunting on the scale desired by merchants (Ogden, California Sea Otter Trade, 1784–1848, 43). Overhunting of otters is part of what pushed American maritime traders toward beavers in the nineteenth century (Gibson, Otter Skins, Boston Ships, and China Goods).
54) Jameson, “She’s One Happy Pup.”
55) Jameson. Th e journalist noted that the handler was himself a father of two, tying his parental duties with the otter to those with his human young.
56) Segura, “Long Beach Aquarium’s Beloved Otter Dies.” In humans, poisons like PCBs and dioxin have been detected in blood, breast milk, and urine (Murphy, “Alterlife,” 495).
57) Murphy invokes a stencil by Métis artist and activist Erin Marie Konsmo depicting lungs filled with transformer towers connecting to underground fracking, accompanied by the statement “Violence from Fracking [and Pipelines] is Violence on Our Bodies” (“Alterlife,” 500– 501). Though the image depicts human lungs, the statement fits animal bodies as well—though chemical violence is not limited to fossil fuels, of course. See also Fiske, “Naked in the Face of Contamination”; Tuana, “Viscous Porosity.”
60) Aquarium of the Pacific curator, interview, December 7, 2020.
61) Aquarium of the Pacific, “Aquarium Animal Care.”
62) Aquarium of the Pacific curator, interview, December 7, 2020.
63) Parreñas, Decolonizing Extinction, 155; van Dooren, Flight Ways.
64) Aquarium of the Pacific curator, interview, December 7, 2020.
65) Mothers will even wrap pups in kelp to hold them in place and keep them afloat while they go off to forage (e.g. Kranking, “Floating through Life”).
66) The company is presumably named for the island that Spanish settlers dubbed Santa Catalina, one of the Channel Islands, just off shore from Los Angeles and Long Beach. It hosts tourism and marine research, and its rock is the source material for many modifications in San Pedro Bay.
67) Brunner, Ocean at Home, 140– 41.
68) Brunner, “Through a Glass Sadly.”
69) Brunner, Ocean at Home, 141. This is probably less a function of breeding being impossible to do and more that there is little profit motive to attempt it.
70) Brunner notes that only one in ten fi sh caught for aquarium trade survives the shipping and trade process and ends up in a hobby tank (“Through a Glass Sadly”). Toxic injury is also relevant here: Brunner adds that poisons are sometimes used in the water to numb or stun fish and make them easier to capture, and excess poison remains in the water after stunned fish are captured. The habitat effects call to mind Nixon’s description of “delayed destruction” (Slow Violence, 2; see also Neimanis, “‘Chemists’ War’”)
71) Aquarium of the Pacific curator, interview, December 7, 2020. The curator added that Monterey Bay Aquarium, built in the 1980s, has such a system.
72) Catalina Water Company, homepage.
73) Aquarium of the Pacific curator, interview, December 7, 2020; Aquarium of the Pacific, “Molina Animal Care Center.”
74) Catalina Water Company, homepage.
75) Catalina Water Company, homepage. Punctuation per original.
76) Aquarium of the Pacific curator, interview, December 7, 2020.
77) Jameson, “She’s One Happy Pup.”
78) Aquarium of the Pacific, “Sea Otter Conservation.” Parasites can also wash out from land.
79) Liboiron, Pollution Is Colonialism, 82; Murphy, “Alterlife.”
Addison, Brian. “Long Beach Lost: The Dramatic Tale of the Disney Theme Park in Downtown.” Long Beach Post, December 4, 2018.
Henson, Pamela M. “American Zoos: A Shift ing Balance between Recreation and Conservation.” In Th e Ark and Beyond: Th e Evolution of Zoo and Aquarium Conservation, ed. Ben Minteer, Jane Maienschein, and James P. Collins, 65–76. Chicago, University of Chicago Press: 2018.
Jameson, Marnell. “She’s One Happy Pup: A Young Otter Name [sic] Summer Once Faced Certain Death, but Today Is Safe, Warm and Getting a Good, if Soggy, Education.” Los Angeles Times, June 17, 1999.
Kingsley, Barbara. “Aquarium of the Pacific Turns 20 Today, Hopes to Make a Splash When Pacific Visions Opens in 2019.” Daily Breeze, June 15, 2018.
Kopetman, Roxana. “Spruce Goose to Be Moved to Oregon.” Los Angeles Times, July 10, 1992.
Morris, Asia. “Long Beach Aquarium Mourns the Loss of Brook the Sea Otter.” Long Beach Post, January 30, 2019.
Muka, Samantha. “Conservation Constellations: Aquariums in Aquatic Conservation Networks.” In The Ark and Beyond: The Evolution of Zoo and Aquarium Conservation, ed. Ben Minteer, Jane Maienschein, and James P. Collins, 90– 103. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018.
Sterngold, James. “Long Beach, in Los Angeles’ Shadow, Strives for a Spotlight.” New York Times, July 27, 2000, A14.
Christina Dunbar-Hester is a science and technology studies scholar and associate professor in the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication. She is the author of Low Power to the People: Pirates, Protest, and Politics in FM Radio Activism and Hacking Diversity: The Politics of Inclusion in Open Technology Cultures.
Kinship and Cultural Resistance to Environmental Racism in Avocado Heights, California
On December 13, 2022, Quemetco, Inc. (also known as Ecobat), a battery smelter in City of Industry, California, agreed to pay $2.3 million in a civil settlement litigation brought on by the Department of Toxic and Substances Control (DTSC). Along with committing to infrastructural corrective measures and an acknowledgement of violations, Quemetco will distribute $1.5 million to DTSC in civil penalties and $575,000, split between two local environmental justice projects. While this is the largest settlement yet for Quemetco, it has a long history of neglect and contamination in San Gabriel Valley, California, and even globally.
Quemetco, operating at this location since 1959 as Western Lead Producers, recovers lead from automobile batteries and other miscellaneous lead scrap materials. Currently processing over a million pounds of batteries per day (600 tons), it operates seven days per week, 24 hours per day, though the furnaces “may” operate 16-20 hours per day.1 Their chief pollutants are arsenic, lead, benzene, 1,3-butadiene, and nitrogen oxides (NOx); arsenic being the highest contributor to the health, degradation, and risk of the community.2
Quemetco traces to previous and infamous environmental disasters such as The Stringfellow Acid Pits.3 This toxic waste dump located in Jurupa Valley, California became the center of national news coverage in the early 1980s, when it was considered one of the most polluted sites in California and one of the origin cases in environmental justice discourse.4 During Stringfellow’s 16 years of operation, 34 million gallons (about 128703940 L) plus of liquid waste was deposited in evaporation ponds and between 1969 and 1980 poor weather and management resulted in several spills and intentional releases of toxic chemicals into local creeks and storm channels. It was found that Quemetco dumped the tenth largest volume of toxic waste at these acid pits. From 1956-72, under the name Western Lead Producers, Quemetco dumped one million gallons of toxic waste.5
For decades, ambient lead measurements in neighborhoods near Quemetco reflect levels far above the National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) with the maximum individual cancer risks modeled at 33.4 ppm. Reports by the DTSC in 1992 and 2006, along with an independent CAC (Clean Air Coalition) and USC Department of Environmental Health surveys conducted in 2016 show on average that most residential houses within a two-mile radius harbor around 117 ppm.6 The highest concentration in Avocado Heights was 2,427 ppm.7
Since 1991, Quemetco and state regulatory agencies knew 8 However, no cleanup was conducted as a result. DTSC “excoriated Quemetco in a 2014 memorandum,” writing how “more often than not, Quemetco is not in compliance with the provisions in their General Permit.”9 A serial violator, Quemetco has also been issued with multiple violations over the years, for problems such as illegally storing hazardous waste and delaying rebuilds of eroding (corroding) infrastructure.
Quemetco failed to comply with various conditions including a 2005 general permit.10 Since their 2013 draft report, DTSC has not approved of the plans to monitor gas, liquid, and surface water discharge. Reporter Daniel Ross in an article on Truthout writes, “The Department of Toxic Substances Control has fallen down badly on its job of protecting the public from toxic harm.” In 2014, DTSC representatives wrote, “Quemetco appears to have been consistently discharging elevated levels of lead” into the San Jose Creek, which runs contiguous with the plant. The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board issued letters in 2010 and 2015 stating they were “exceeding the benchmark values for lead, zinc, pH and specific conductance.” While soil and air pollution are serious matters, water is another level. The “EPA has set the maximum contaminant level goal for lead in drinking water at zero,” thus any violation concerning water poses an immediate and dire risk for public and environmental health.11
Over the years, while the lead leakage diminished, emissions are regular. Arsenic, benzene, 1,3-butadiene, remain a constant. In fact, 1,3-butadiene appears to be increasing.12 Mitigation means little when it comes to contamination. With the arsenic plume of 2013 and all the other carcinogenic metals leaching into the soil, plants, animals, water, and air over the years, the damage is done. Arsenic and lead, among so many toxic metals, stay in the soil for thousands of years.
Quemetco was also linked to the transportation of waste material to Exide in Vernon, California before its closure. Exide Technologies was one of two west coast battery smelters before it went bankrupt in 2020 due to the resistance efforts of East Yards Communities for Environmental Justice. Quemetco consistently denies affiliation with Exide, but a DTSC 2020 lawsuit reveals an irrefutable working relationship between Quemetco and Exide over at least twenty-seven years.13 Quemetco has a history of negligent and reckless behavior in arranging and transporting caustic material with lack of regard or concern for neighborhood residents. Coincidentally, Quemetco was in favor of Exide’s closure so that it could eliminate any competition.14
Quemetco’s footprint not only affects local communities but has state, national, and global reach. All these batteries, despite Quemetco’s claims, arrive from local as well as international sources.15 Ecobat, their parent company, has extraction operations in South Africa and South America, with distribution centers and smelters in Europe. It is important to remember that the lead is made into ingots to be sold again. Quemetco is not a public service offering responsible recycling options for batteries. It is a multinational extraction-based business designed for profit.
After three years of relative quiet, in 2022, Quemetco emerged with an application to expand their facility by 25 percent (from 600 tons to 750 tons of lead-material per day).16 In a neighboring unincorporated town, Avocado Heights, California, a group called Avocado Heights Vaquer@s (AHV) are fighting back. Avocado Heights, with 80 percent of the population from Mexico—most from Jalisco or Zacatecas—is a unique equestrian district in San Gabriel Valley with a community of parcels between a half-acre to an acre, containing lots large enough to have seven horses each and run small agricultural business. Until recently, Avocado Heights was working class, however, given the scarcity of large parcels within Los Angeles County they are constantly at war with developers hoping to flip properties, in combination with warehouses and manufacturing developments that are zealous to convert zoning ordinances. Yet even more horrifying, due to Avocado Height’s proximity to the City of Industry, environmental degradation, pollution, and contamination has adverse effects on the community as private and public surveys prove a higher frequency of respiratory problems such as asthma and rare cancer.
(Red indicates 90-100 percentile [highest score], orange indicates 80-90 percentile, and yellow indicates 70-80 percentile. Click on a census tract to learn more about the CalEnviroScreen scores. CalEnviroScreen scores are calculated by the scores of Pollution Burden and Population Characteristics. CalEnviroScreen provides a report with detailed description of indicators and methodology and downloadable results available at CalEnviroScreen 4.0 website.)
Founded in January of 2022, AHV became a serious force within the region, not only fostering support and fighting the expansion of Quemetco, but joining regional coalitions to protect communities of color. Following the legacies of activists in the area who shut down the Exide battery recycling plant and the La Puente Landfill, AHV, “works towards the remediation, preservation, and expansion of air, waterway, and wildlife corridors that will serve our community and future generations as a network of vibrant uninterrupted ecosystems we can access and care for as environmental stewards.” They are organizers who believe that natural environmental spaces can coexist and thrive alongside equestrians, hikers, and cyclists, as educational community spaces for recreation. They are also members of the CAC and participate in other regional coalitions who are dedicated to shutting down Quemetco and fighting developers that want to convert agricultural and equestrian zoned parcels into manufacturing warehouses, reclamation facilities, and industries.
One of the founding members of AHV joins Boom California to discuss the connections between cultural sovereignty, environmental racism, and activism. As with many disruptive environmental justice efforts across California, AHV members face serious legal and personal threats, thus the interviewee will remain anonymous.
Can you tell us a bit about Avocado Heights and what makes it unique?
What makes Avocado Heights unique is its rural aspect, and that it has an equestrian culture. It is past East LA, in the San Gabriel Valley, not too far from Los Angeles, in a suburban and industrial area. Even though we’re surrounded by lots of factories, the neighborhood is small and feels tightknit. You’ll walk your dog or go on a stroll and see people on horses, people walking ponies, or training little foals. There are even goats and chickens and roosters here. It’s beautiful, in that sense.
Close ties between neighbors and friends make this the closest thing to a pueblo I’ve experienced. Each day I am reminded why spaces like this are important. These are spaces reminiscent of the rancherias in rural Mexico where a freshly groomed horse and polished leather saddle still carry cachet among locals–where a rag tag group of teens on borrowed horses meander aimlessly stringing along stories to keep entertained.
Strolls in Avocado Heights become visits, usually there’s an invitation to share a beer and catch up. It’s the place where a lazy Sunday quickly transforms into an impromptu outdoor picnic with friends who might be fully engrossed in a volleyball tournament or karaoke duel. The park is our zocalo (the Jardin minus the kiosk). Our equestrian arena with white picket fence attracts throngs of spectators. Kids battle it out shooting hoops while an elotero takes a moment to rest before making another round past the baseball diamond which also doubles as a soccer field.
Young couples walk towards the edge of the park before lounging for hours on the sloped hill. A group of friends enjoy mariscos from the lonchera fresh off a shift at one of the thousands of warehouses in the City of Industry and ruminate on the adventures that await them. Further off in the distance, admirers narrate which horses they like best and make note of which maneuvers impress them most. Nearby, a washed-up gangster lays flat across the grass and he’s coming off a bender. You recognize him a little, he was someone you went to middle school with.
Sometimes you’ll hear folks refer to this place as North Whittier, Bassett, or La Puente. But for most of us, we prefer Avocado Heights after the massive avocado orchards that were first planted in the 1910’s when this tract was being billed to investors from Los Angeles as a lucrative investment. The area was called la Fortuna Farms, hoping this would generate interest and entice buyers. The land was later acquired by Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, a creditor who acquired the land as collateral after the markets crashed in the 1870s which drove previous landowning family patriarch William Workman to commit suicide.
Can you explain further what it means to be an equestrian district in Avocado Heights?
There are two parks in the community. One gets more use because of the skatepark. But the other park, Avocado Heights Park, is also a central hub, where all the vaqueros and vaqueras congregate. And on the weekends, or around special holidays, you’ll hear music. Hundreds of people will gather. You see people selling various products specific to the region. So, I think the equestrian aspect, it’s important for the community and the environment as well.
The park is especially nice during the subtle chill of pre-Santa Ana winds, where you might find a horse steaming from its sweat as the charros lasso large circles above and around them. They intricately weave ritualistic patterns with the riata while a team of escaramuzas inside the round metal pen gallop diagonally towards each other in a circle before executing a full 180 and dispersing in such quick succession that the floating dust still hangs along the wind.
We’re near the Avocado Heights equestrian trail which connects with the San Jose Creek trail. We could connect on horseback all the way to Azusa, down towards the beach, or hit the Puente Hills and ride towards Chino Hills. A lot of vaqueros and vaqueras will go horse-riding throughout the week, but especially on the weekends, they’ll do the trail rides. It’s so important that we’re mindful and conscious of the environment because it directly impacts everyone in the community. At this juncture, we’re interested in expanding public access to wildlife corridors or greenways, improving multi-use trails in our communities, and shaping development projects to offset adverse environmental impacts and to work towards a more resilient ecological system locally.
(Yellow line indicates LA County DPR Trails. Click on the trail to discover information on trail use and access)
You have illustrated how the story of avocado heights is a story of land. Between today and the evolution of Avocado Heights into Anglo-American settler history, rampant development and the encroachment of manufacturing facilities advanced in the 1970s, a period in which Avocado Heights increasingly faced serious threats to its cultural sovereignty and environment. In 1982, Benjamin Chavis coined the term “environmental racism” to signify the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste facilities. Do you think this is an appropriate term to apply to Avocado Heights and if so, would you elaborate on the scale of the issue?
I think that is an appropriate term. This past winter, a developer was in escrow with a private Christian university that goes by the name: Latin American Bible Institute. They were trying to sell to this developer who was going to build storage units or an industrial manufacturing warehouse. We got activated and we came together. We were loud. We’re like, “No! We will not be okay with this!” It’s something that has affected the community and continues to do so.
Ever since we were children, nearby, there was a the La Puente Landfill. Avocado Heights is really close to City of Industry, La Puente, Bassett and North Whittier, which allowed for established coalitions, like Clean Air Coalition, to help put a stop to the landfill which significantly polluted the environment. People, members of that organization, also fought against the Athens Waste Facility: A big trash processing company near Valley Blvd. Because of them, and the City of Industry, there are a lot of big rigs. There is a lot of traffic and congestion in that area. The City of Industry has a plastic factory and companies like Goya, which you can smell, and which populate the neighborhood with their big rigs. Think of all the carbon and air pollution they emit. Then you consider the ambient, heavy metals they produce. These metals leech into our waterways and bed into our soil. This water is for drinking. Plants and animals depend on this water. The metals remain in the soil for thousands of years. All this industry, and the freeways, grip the borders of our unincorporated town.
But our current and greatest antagonist, in my opinion, is Quemetco, which now goes by Ecobat. Quemetco has been around for decades operating as an extraordinarily reckless toxic battery recycling facility. Quemetco’s contaminating our air, soil, our water, releasing harmful chemicals into our environment, such as lead, arsenic, benzene, cadmium, and other heavy metals. But it’s a powerful multinational corperation with millions, if not billions of dollars, so they’re very good at covering their tracks or paying fees. They’ve made it abundantly clear that they don’t really care about our community. Why would they? They’re profiting, they have their business, and they don’t have our best interests at heart. Aside from a few postcards in the mail, they reach out to other commercial zones, like Hope City, to buffer their optics.
They’re not going to do things like comprehensive soil sampling, which is why we must work hard, even though we’re a small collective. I’d say everyone is really dedicated, and we’re working with other people who are like-minded. We work with Clean Air Coalition or Active SGV or other environmental organizations that care about public health and want to fight against environmental racism.
Considering that you participate in several local coalitions, what do you think defines Avocado Heights Vaquer@s, differentiates it from these other groups?
A few things. Number one, in Avocado Heights, there hadn’t been organizing to the degree in which we do it. There are a lot of environmental and social justice groups in the San Gabriel Valley. There are some in La Puente and even Hacienda Heights. I don’t want to generalize, but some of them are very hierarchical or they’re not focused on meeting the needs of their community. There hadn’t been an organization in Avocado Heights, except the Clean Air Coalition. But that still wasn’t entirely representative of Avocado Heights itself, given that their base was in North Whittier. Their aims, while aligned with ours in many ways, differ.
What makes Avocado Heights Vaquer@s different is the focus on family, or kinship, in our neighborhood. That’s what remains so special about our community. We help each other out. You see a neighbor in need, and you come. I was struggling another day with a horse, freaking out because the horse was stuck, and someone nearby came and helped me out. You see that here. In certain other neighborhoods you don’t. There’s a genuine authenticity, and I think that is part of it too, that cultural aspect where people from small little communities in Mexico bring these common traditions and customs to Avocado Heights. It’s a place where people who are from Mexico can come and feel comfortable. They’re like, “Oh, yeah, hey, this is how we do it in my pueblo!”
Our family helps us out. If we are throwing an event, they’ll be there as much as possible, and they will support us. And I think that’s very special. We’re not a nonprofit. We don’t get money. We don’t have all the resources that a lot of other organizations have.
Do you think there’s some part of the vaquero and vaquera culture that allows you to be unique stewards of the land, one that offers a new approach to environmentalism?
Organizing should also be fun as well as rigorous because otherwise people burn out and can get tired of always having to protest. Aside from that, I think nowadays, because of global warming and activism and social media, there’s this consciousness of: “We got to protect our environment. We got to get involved.”I hate to use the word trendy, it’s not a good word to use to describe caring about the environment, but in a way, it is. Certain people have cared about the environment for many, many generations before it’s become a hashtag.
And part of it starts with our family, starts with your ancestors, starts with your traditions. I know when I go to indigenous spaces such as powwows, there’s an acknowledgment of Mother Earth. When it comes to land, our practice is to not take more than what you need. The honorable harvest: if you take something you give back. You use every single part of the animal because nothing should be wasted. In parts of Mexico, where my mom’s from, it’s that same kind of consciousness. It’s not like the way we think of environmentalism now. We are really paying attention to the stories, anecdotes, and wisdom of my mom’s teaching, or my grandmother’s. They were always mindful of the land. It was natural. That’s how they grew up.
Are there certain goals that AHV are attempting to achieve in the near or distant future, or is it more a processual, reactive type of process?
I think it’s both. Part of it is that we absorb ourselves in projects that really call our attention or that we see commonalities. We consider whether it is an issue that a neighboring community resonates with us. We’ve talked to people who’ve done soil sampling before—such as with East Yards and their fight to shutdown Exide—people who already have this wisdom. And we’ve also worked with the Coalition Against Lennar fighting the developer mentioned before, because it’s about public land. They’re taking away land to build condos.
We are a little reactionary, but in the long term we are just making sure that we protect our community, protect our neighborhood. We want to see more green spaces and spaces that are good for our environment, youth, and animals.
Ultimately, and I know this is going to be hard, but we need to shut down Quemetco. It’s sad that it’s still around and it’s so harmful, and if it’s still there, it’s going to continue polluting our community even if they say, “Oh, we’re adding this filter… or over-monitoring… or a little lead is not that bad…” NO! Any quantity of lead is too much. Our health is in serious jeopardy because of it. But there are other factories involved. It’s all connected. I think Quemetco is a big one that we obviously must address, but there are other factories.
Lastly, is this an open group? If not, what are the ways that people (who are interested or believe in this type of cause or form of justice) within the area can either join, participate, or support the organization?
Yeah, so that’s interesting. It’s something that we reflected on in our last meeting. At first, I think we always saw ourselves as an open group. We don’t want to be exclusive. But we had to reevaluate. Of course, it’s still open in the sense that we want to have support our actions and public-facing events. We need this form of support and solidarity. That’s the crucial thing about doing coalition-building. Through social media networking nowadays or supporting other groups, they’ll turn around and support you.
There’s nothing wrong with just being a little bit smaller, too. We don’t need a lot of people. The agency and identity, and even sovereignty, of our group is important to remember and value as well. The people brought in from the outside can jeopardize the core and spirit of the group. If someone is really interested, of course, we’re not going to turn them away. But I think what’s important is just having people who you can rely on and trust because it’s not a small endeavor going against big companies and companies that have lots of well-paid lawyers. There is also a community, real people, and specific culture at stake. It’s kind of scary because we have to be careful as much as we have to fight.
2) Ibid & Lisa Fuhrmann, Quemetco’s Lead Legacy: A Cycle of Injustice and Contamination in Southern California, EarthJustice, January 27, 2021
3) George Ramos, “Report Urges Firms Be Held Liable for Cleaning Stringfellow Acid Pits,” Los Angeles Times, September 24, 1986
4) Tracy E. Perkins, The Evolution of a Movement: Four Decades of California Environmental Justice Activism, (Oakland, California: UC Press, 2022), 26.
5) United States v. Stringfellow, 661 F. Supp. 1053, 1061, 17 ELR 21134 (C.D. Cal. 1987), 11
6) Jill Johnston, Soil Sampling Data near Quemetco Battery Recycling, City of Industry, CA, USC Department of Preventive Medicine, July 2016
7) Scott M. Lesch, et al, Final Report: Statistical Modeling and Analysis Results for Topsoil Lead Contamination Study (Quemetco Project), University of California Riverside, January 28, 2006 & Nancy L. C. Steele, Off-site Sampling Report in the Vicinity of Quemetco Inc. December 1991 & Jill Johnston, Soil Sampling Data near Quemetco Battery Recycling, City of Industry, CA, USC Department of Preventive Medicine, July 2016
8) Nancy L. C. Steele, Off-site Sampling Report in the Vicinity of Quemetco Inc. December 1991
9) Daniel Ross, “Lax Regulatory Enforcement Leaves Thousands at Risk of Lead Poisoning in California,” Truthout, November 22, 2015
[For full disclosure, previous editors and SEMAP co-directors Romeo Guzmán and Carribean Fragoza as well as graduate editorial assistant Daniel Talamantes have a continuing relationship with AHV and support their efforts as well as attend their events.]
Many Californians who recognize the name “Kettleman City” do so because it is a good place to stop for gas and a snack on the long drive between Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, passing through the Central Valley’s agricultural landscape. But some Californians recognize the name of the tiny town (population 1,439) because it played the David to the Goliath of Waste Management, the country’s largest waste company.
Kettleman City, like so many other poor communities of color, was a prime target for a hazardous waste landfill. The town’s demographics are comparable to many other places that host hazardous waste facilities: 100 percent of the community is Latinx; 57.5 percent of residents over age twenty-five have less than a ninth-grade education; and the average per capita income is $15,656 per year. Kettleman City hosts one of three Class 1 landfills in California (all three are located in or near predominantly Latinx communities), and the community’s opinion was not sought when the landfill was sited. Indeed, residents did not even know about the dump until after it had been permitted and built in 1979. But when a hazardous waste incinerator was proposed on the dump site, the residents made their opposition known, loud and clear. The fight in the late 1980s and early 1990s against the incinerator at the Kettleman City landfill was a paradigmatic early case in the environmental justice movement.
This chapter traces the thirty-plus-year history of environmental justice activism in Kettleman City as a case study within the broader evolution of environmental justice activism. This case study exemplifies the broader trends discussed in chapters 2 and 3 and analyzes how these trends played out on the ground. The Kettleman City story is an early environmental justice success, preventing the construction of a new “locally unwanted land use”—here, an incinerator. These successes added up in town after town; only three of the seventy-five or more new or expanded incinerators proposed since the 1980s were ever built. However, Kettleman City’s example also shows how these successes, as important as they are, could not on their own address existing unwanted land uses or the effect of multiple sources of contamination in one location. And these successes left other problems in their wake: the challenge of sustaining broad levels of local activism after the immediate threat ended made it difficult to address the broader structural conditions of capitalism that disproportionately locate pollution in low-income communities and communities of color and that constrain efforts to change the status quo.
The case of Kettleman City shows the unevenness of the environmental justice movement’s transition from “protest” to “politics.” Many in the environmental justice movement have used the limitations of fighting individual, defensive battles site by site as a reason to scale up into state-wide policy advocacy and collaborative work with state agencies. Others have ventured into efforts to build gardens, parks, and other environmental amenities, some of which pursue a DIY model that eschews state involvement. But in Kettleman City, much environmental justice activism remains true to its roots: focused on local sources of polluting health threats and engaged in continued confrontations with industry and state agencies. Of course, Kettleman City activists are also influenced by the broader trends described in chapters 2 and 3: changing racial politics and industrial public relations efforts, pressure to collaborate with state agencies, the opportunities and challenges of increasingly relying on philanthropically funded nonprofit structures to support activism, and the normalization of risk from the nearby hazardous waste landfill. They also face the challenge of pursuing activism within the context of neoliberal policies under capitalism, which mitigate against increasing environmental enforcement budgets and channel environmental activism toward voluntary and market-based (rather than regulatory) measures to contain industry pollution.
In Kettleman City, we can also see the fissures in the movement caused by the disagreement over tactics. The town hosted the first meeting of the newly formed California Environmental Justice Coalition, which was formed as an alternative to the better-funded, exclusive California Environmental Justice Alliance. Finally, in the face of skepticism about the value of participating on government advisory committees and improving the public’s ability to participate fairly in environmental decision-making, Kettleman City’s difficult history accessing environmental decision-making also shows why activists worked toward these goals in the first place.
The Anti-incinerator Campaign
In the late 1970s, Chemical Waste Management, Inc. (a subsidiary of Waste Management Inc.) built a hazardous waste landfill 3.5 miles away from Kettleman City on land formerly used to store waste mud from nearby oil drilling. As a Class 1 landfill, the facility is authorized to take almost any hazardous substance up to, but excluding, radioactive waste. It is the largest hazardous waste landfill west of the Mississippi. In the 1980s, Chemical Waste began the permitting process to add a hazardous waste incinerator to the existing landfill. The incinerator would burn hazardous waste instead of landfilling it. According to the waste management industry, the push toward incinerators in the 1980s was a response to a national crisis of landfills running out of room for new waste. (However, as David Pellow, Kenneth Gould, and others have written, the “crisis” had other origins, including that the public increasingly did not want to live near them, and industry was blocking or shuttering recycling initiatives.) These incinerators would add dangerous toxins to the air, and the proposed incinerator sites were disproportionately in low-income communities and communities of color, such as Kettleman City.
Many residents of Kettleman City did not even know about the existing hazardous waste landfill just outside of town, where it is not easily visible from the road. Residents did not discover its presence until after it was built—some in 1985, when the dump was fined for operating unauthorized waste ponds, and some not until they learned about the incinerator proposal a few years later. Maricela Mares Alatorre, daughter of activists Mary Lou and Ramon Mares, remembers that her family and neighbors had no idea that the dump existed, or that a hazardous waste incinerator was proposed to be added to it, until Greenpeace organizer Bradley Angel knocked on her door while recruiting residents to attend an upcoming permitting hearing. The hearings, however, were not easy to participate in:
When we started attending these meetings, we noticed that they were never in town, they were usually in the middle of the day, 45 miles away, where they weren’t really accessible to people. And if you could get there, they didn’t translate them into Spanish when most of the town speaks Spanish. And we started finding out that there was a pattern to the way these things happen. We started researching the company. We were informed about the Cerrell Report. It was a 1984 document, which was commissioned by the California Waste Management Board where they said how you should choose a town for these kinds of projects. And we found out that they were going around choosing towns that had a large minority population, where people didn’t speak English, large immigrant populations, low education, and Catholic. That was actually in the report: Catholic. And we were—we were shocked because we really had no idea. I had no idea that environmental racism existed until we were made aware of that document. And it’s like you don’t want to have to go to a meeting. You don’t want to have to, you know, spend all your time in these boring hearings, and sometimes you don’t understand what they’re saying. But it makes you mad when we saw the pattern. And we talked to people from other towns, and we started networking, and we saw how they deliberately chose people like us to do these things to. It makes you mad.
Mares Alatorre’s story is a common one in communities fighting incinerators and other waste facilities in the 1980s and 1990s. As people across the country learned that toxic industries were being located in politically vulnerable communities, residents faced off with local government officials and industry representatives (who appeared to march in lockstep), resorting to disruptive political tactics when their pleas to government officials fell on deaf ears. In Kettleman City, residents, concerned about the threat to their health, formed a grassroots group to tackle the problem: El Pueblo para el Aire y Agua Limpio (People for Clean Air and Water). Mary Lou and Ramon Mares, and Esperanza and Joe Maya, among others, took leadership roles. Some of El Pueblo’s members brought in prior experience with farmworker organizing in the United Farm Workers of America to El Pueblo, while for others El Pueblo was their first experience with organizing.
Like many other groups nationwide, El Pueblo pursued local, direct action and community organizing strategies. However, it was unique in having early access to a lawyer, Luke Cole at California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), who used the case as a test for the use of civil rights law to address pollution in communities of color. The organization also had the support of organizers from the large environmental group Greenpeace, which (unlike many other large national and international environmental organizations) embraced direct-action tactics and at the time, at least on the West Coast, invested in local antitoxics and environmental justice organizing. In addition to their work with Greenpeace and CRLA, activists also attracted support from the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice, Las Madres del Este de Los Angeles, Citizen Action, Rev. Jesse Jackson, a UC Berkeley student group (Nindakin: People of Color for Environmental Justice), and a wide array of others.
One of the most iconic moments in the campaign occurred at a 1988 public hearing about the toxic waste incinerator proposal. By the time this hearing took place, residents had lost faith in both state and industry officials and came prepared to confront them:
So, before this meeting, I’m at my home, and we said, “Well, whenever we don’t like something, we’re going to have to let them know.” All their same lies. So, I made hundreds of copies of this piece of paper with the word “NO” real bold on it. It’s just that, “NO.” I said, when we don’t like something, we’re going to scream “No!” So, we all had those with us.
The circumstances of the hearing underscored how Kettleman City residents were being excluded from the normal process of government decision-making. Like other hearings, this one was not in Kettleman City but in the county seat in Hanford, thirty miles away. Although it was held in the winter, the hearing was not scheduled for one of the comfortable, well-heated spaces available in town such as the high school auditorium. Rather, the hearing was held in the County Fairground building, a building about the size of a football field that was, as one resident told me, “an exhibit barn for arts and crafts, or your animals or whatever. One of those big galvanized buildings made out of sheet metal or something. It’s cold. Cement floor.” The planning commission sat elevated at the front of the room, with portable heaters at their feet and hot coffee on their table. Open space, microphones, and then about fifty rows of seats lay before them, followed by bleachers. Behind the bleachers, there was empty concrete that stretched until the end of the building.
Luke Cole and Sheila Foster describe provisions made for Spanish- speaking residents as follows:
Kettleman City residents showed up at the meeting in force. About 200 people came by bus and carpool from Kettleman City, and, as one of their leaders made clear, “We’re here, we want to testify on this project, and we brought our own translator.” The chair of the Kings County Planning Commission looked down on the crowd and said, “That request has been denied. The translation is taking place in the back of the room and it won’t happen up here.” Residents looked at where the Planning Commissioner was pointing: they looked from the Planning Commission up on their dais, they looked at the open space and the microphones, they looked at all the rows of chairs, and they looked at the bleachers. And then they looked way back behind the bleachers, nearly at the rear of the room, where there was one forlorn man sitting surrounded by a little circle of about twenty-five empty chairs. The Planning Commission chair said again, “Why don’t you go back there? There are monitors back there. We are all in the same room.”
Kettleman City residents had come prepared to press their cause, and this arrangement did not suit them at all. One activist describes what happened at the meeting as follows:
It was supposed to be open all day for people that wanted to go and say whether they’re for [the incinerator], against it, or have questions for the supervisors. And we had a certain time we were supposed to be there. We were bused over there. Some people took their cars, and some people went on their own, but when we got there, they didn’t let us speak ’til about 9:00 or 10:00 that evening. They let other people speak first that should have spoke during the day. They were getting us to be tired so we would just go home, you know, and leave them alone. Then they didn’t have the translators they were supposed to have had. They had some translators. We asked for the translators and then they said, “Well, the translators are going to be in the back of the building. Go to the back.” They told us to go in the back! Go to the back of the room for the translators. And we all went, “No!” You know, “You bring the translators to us when we’re up there speaking!” So we go, “No!” And then we said, “Adelante!” and we all went forward with our “No! No!” “We’re not going to go to the back of the room!” . . . And they were shocked that we did that. Why would they send us to the back of the room? That’s discrimination there in itself. So, they didn’t have translators, and it was just waiting for somebody to do something wrong, to jump on us, to fight with us. You couldn’t even go to the bathroom, ’cause they were waiting for you in there to do something, the Chem Waste employees. It was just really, really bad.
Negative encounters like these, in which state decision-makers and industry representatives blatantly disrespected residents, drew more people into the fight, as this early incinerator opponent describes:
When the people that needed the translation started understanding what they were trying to do to them and how they were being disrespected, that made them more active. So that’s how we got more people to get into the fight for the incinerator.
Another iconic moment of disruption took place later in the campaign, the day before another hearing, when activists blockaded the entryway to the landfill with an old school bus and chained themselves to its axle. An activist who had been part of a successful campaign to oppose the construction of another incinerator in nearby Alpaugh helped out in Kettleman City. Greenpeace stored the bus on her property until it was needed and used her home as a planning area for the demonstration. She describes the opportunity to have supporters from out of town staying with her as a strange but wonderful experience. A Kettleman City resident who also hosted out-of-town supporters had a similar experience:
One time I housed a lot of people from Greenpeace at my house. They were at my house for almost two weeks, and they camped in my backyard. They came to canvas. I didn’t even know what that word meant. But I remember seeing them coming in with money in the evening. I didn’t even know what was going on. We were so green to all this. So I was asked if I could house them and I said, “Yeah.” Well, they all came over to help us and I don’t even know who they were. And I remember that I used to cook for them. They would not eat meat, so I would cook a big pot of pinto beans every day, and they would eat the whole damn pot—[laughter]—of beans and salsa. I always had that, and I don’t know who furnished the pasta, but they always had big bags of pasta and I would cook the pasta. And they stayed at my house for that long. The posters were made in my backyard. The canvas banners were done there. I housed a lot of people throughout the years in my home—strangers, you know? Strangers because I never seen them before, but they came to help. I didn’t even know what the organization Greenpeace was, or who they were, who Bradley [Angel] was, you know? But I learned throughout the years.
During this period, environmental justice activism felt like it was becoming a national mass movement, with Kettleman City as one of many hot spots. In addition to the student activists and others brought by Greenpeace, residents from other affected communities such as San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point, East Los Angeles, and Alpaugh visited Kettleman City to lend their support. One Kettleman City activist remembers those days fondly:
I think all of it was a high point. I was really amazed that people outside Kettleman City actually cared for us, what happened to us. We started networking and all these people came to our aid. Who were they? Why did they care? We couldn’t understand that. Like Bradley [Angel] and his organizations, and Luke Cole with the lawyers. Why did they care? We’re just a poor Hispanic migrant little town, you know? But they knew more of what Chem Waste was doing. We were not the only site in the United States. We found out later that there were other dumpsites, and that they have the same pattern [of locating dumps in politically disadvantaged communities] throughout.
Kettleman City activists returned the favor, giving their support to people elsewhere and strengthening the emerging network of grassroots environmental justice activists. They went to the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., in 1991, which helped bring together people facing similar problems across the country. They traveled to Los Angeles and other California locations, as well as New York, Alabama, and the town of Playas de Rosarito, ten miles south of the US-Mexico border. These visits were not just to provide moral support, but to share tactics and information about their common corporate opponents. The meetings laid bare the lies that Chemical Waste was telling on each side. For example, the residents of Playas de Rosarito had been told that the people of Kettleman City were supportive of the incinerator proposal—a lie that Kettleman City residents quickly debunked when they met. The Mexican residents had wanted to come see the landfill in Kettleman City as they considered their options but were told no by Chemical Waste; at the same time, Chemical Waste was telling Kettleman City residents that they could come see the landfill anytime, because the company had nothing to hide. The Kettleman City activists therefore planned a visit to the dump without mentioning to Chemical Waste that they would be accompanied by several busloads of Mexican residents from Playas de Rosarito and local press. The Mexican visitors returned home and successfully blocked the building of the incinerator proposed for their town.
As Kettleman City residents met activists from elsewhere, many developed broader political critiques about waste infrastructure writ large, broadening their opposition beyond the early “not in my back- yard” beliefs. Mary Lou Mares shared the following:
We started going to statewide conferences and meeting other people who were fighting other terrible stuff. There was Stormy Williams, she was fighting in the Mojave Desert. Everybody says, “Why can’t you put this incinerator in the desert or somewhere where people don’t . . . ?” And she would get up and say, “Wait a minute, I live in the desert!” [Laughter] At first, you are so ignorant that it’s easy to say, “Put it in the desert,” but you start meeting people and you start understanding that there is no place to put an incinerator because the air belongs to everybody and it has currents and it goes around and comes around. You just cannot put anything into the air.
Despite the efforts by Kettleman City residents and allies, the Kings County Planning Commission nevertheless voted to approve the incinerator construction. Kettleman City is an unincorporated community, which means the people have no local governance structure of their own but rather are governed from a distance by a county board of supervisors, located forty miles away in the whiter and more affluent county seat of Hanford (where the public hearings took place). At that time, Kettleman City had little representation on the Planning Commission, which was mostly made up of people who did not live near the dump. The county stood to increase its revenues through taxing the landfill operators (although, as Kettleman City residents complained, precious few of those resources were reinvested in Kettleman City itself—an example of how racial capitalism functions at the county level).
El Pueblo appealed the decision to the Kings County Board of Supervisors, who upheld the incinerator approval. El Pueblo and its legal supporters at CRLA filed a class-action lawsuit against Kings County in 1991. In 1992, a superior court judge overturned the Kings County approval of the incinerator, ruling that it was based on an inadequate environmental impact report and that the public permitting process had failed to meaningfully involve the local population, since residents in the predominantly Spanish-speaking town had received the relevant documents only in English. Chemical Waste Management filed an appeal, but then withdrew the incinerator application in 1993. One activist describes the immense relief she and her friend felt after winning the protracted campaign:
[My friend] and I just cried and cried the day we got the announcement. The reporter came first to my house, saying, “Tell us what you’re doing, what’s your next this and that, your next strategy,” and then along came the general manager of Chem Waste and he comes up to us and he says, “It’s over. The lawsuit, it’s over. We’re withdrawing the plan to put in the incinerator.” I said, “What?!” He said that they are not doing the incinerator. “Oh, I gotta go see [my friend]!” And I go to [my friend’s house] and we just hugged and cried and cried. It was [many] years of struggle, you know, it was great. It was so good.
Kettleman City’s fight against the incinerator was often framed as an epic David versus Goliath battle between the largest waste management company in the country and a tiny, low-income Latinx community in a largely forgotten part of California. The activists’ victory became a symbol of the movement’s vitality and potential. It also inspired environmental justice activists across the country. The Kettleman City residents’ visits to and from other communities confronting similar problems helped activists see the bigger picture, that this was not a local but a systemic problem. This campaign thus helped nurture the broader environmental justice movement, both in California and the nation.
End of excerpt from chapter four. For the rest of this chapter, see the complete book, available at University of California Press and elsewhere.
 The landfill is managed by Chemical Waste Management, Inc., a subsidiary of Waste Management. Speakers use variations of both names (Chemical Waste, Chem Waste, and Waste Management), usually to refer to the local managers of the landfill.
 US Bureau of the Census, “ACS Demographic and Housing Estimates (Latinx population); US Bureau of the Census, “Educational Attainment” (education); and US Bureau of the Census, “Selected Economic Characteristics” (income).
 Cole and Foster, From the Ground Up; and Bullard, Confronting Environmental Racism.
 Two of these three were still in operation in 2021. Rosengren, “After It First WTE Facility Closes.” These numbers come from personal communications with Mike Ewall, executive director of Energy Justice Network, September 3 2018, and Bradley Angel, executive director of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, March 26, 2021. Although no new commercial municipal waste incinerators have been built in the time indicated, several incinerators have been retrofitted, expanded, or built on the same site as existing incinerators since 1995. In addition, in 2017 a small, noncommercial-scale gasification incinerator was built at Army Garrison Fort Hunter Liggett in Monterey County, California. There are also two medical waste incinerators operating in California, in Paramount and Hesperian. Here I follow the activist convention of calling these modern facilities incinerators, whereas the waste industry calls them waste-to-energy facilities that “superheat” waste rather than burn it. Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice and Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, “Incinerators in Disguise.”
 Pellow, “Environmental Inequality Formation”; and Gould, Schnaiberg, and Weinberg, Local Environmental Struggles.
 Baptista and Perovich, U.S. Municipal Solid Waste Incinerators; Costner and Thornton, Playing with Fire; and White, “Hazardous Waste Incineration and Minority Communities.”
 The Cerrell Report itself does not specify race as a category by which locations for incinerators should be chosen, but many of the proposed locations were nonetheless in communities of color. Powell, “Political Difficulties Facing Waste-to-Energy Conversion Plant Siting.”
Perkins, Tracy. “The Multiple People of Color Origins of the US Environmental Justice Movement: Social Movement Spillover and Regional Racial Projects in California.” Environmental Sociology 7, no. 2 (2021): 147–59. https://doi.org/10.1080/23251042.2020.1848502.
Perkins, Tracy. “Women’s Pathways into Activism: Rethinking the Women’s Environmental Justice Narrative in California’s San Joaquin Valley.” Organization & Environment 25, no. 1 (2012): 76–94. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10 .1177/1086026612445390.
White, Harvey. “Hazardous Waste Incineration and Minority Communities.” In Race and the Incidence of Environmental Hazards: A Time for Discourse, edited by Bunyan Bryant and Paul Mohai, 126–39. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992.
Drivers passing through the Salinas Valley from the San Francisco Bay Area to San Louis Obispo, Santa Barbara and points further south see a visually beautiful landscape. Strawberries, lettuce or artichokes stretch in neat rows to the base of steep hills blanketed with grasses that, depending on season, are colored alternately emerald green or golden. If the drivers notice workers in the fields, they will likely be small, distant figures who are quickly passed. In the place of actual workers, however, drivers may see one of the many attractive, larger-than-life cutout billboard murals of farmers and farmworkers.
The farm fields that form the paintings’ backdrops make up the “salad bowl of the world,” so-named for the region’s export-intensive cool weather crops. The people depicted look happy with their work. They are painted in bright, sunny colors, and stand alone or in groups of two or three. Press coverage of the billboard art describes it as celebrating the region’s agricultural economy and its people (Pogash 2005; Roth 2013). But there is more to these images, and to California agricultural history, than first meets the eye. By alternately obscuring the existence of farmworkers or suggesting to the broader population that farmworkers are happy and well-treated, this art draws on long-standing agricultural ideologies to sustain racial capitalism and inhibit organizing, ultimately rendering agriculture’s reform more difficult.
Most of the cut-out billboard murals are painted by Salinas based artists John Cerney and Dong Sun Kim. Their murals often depict specific people, either current or past owners or workers at the farms where the billboards are displayed. Cerney grew up in the Salinas Valley, where he worked in the post-harvest lettuce industry before getting a college degree in art. He has been painting giant cutout billboard people since the 1990s, and estimates that he has completed about 300 in his career, 30-40 of which are scattered around Monterey County, where the Salinas Valley is located (Chatfield 2018; Roth 2013). Most of his work is commissioned by business owners, organizations and sometimes individuals, but as his career has matured he has also begun creating murals of his own design that he donates to towns around the country (Chatfield 2018).
There is little information available in the public sphere about Kim. He is a self-taught artist who emigrated to the Salinas Valley from Seol, Korea. His youthful art depicted nature scenes, but as he got older, he developed an interest in “all things American.” (Indeed, much of Cerney and Kim’s work fits into the larger category of Americana). Kim fed this interest by reading US history books and watching cowboy movies (Robinson 2012). After his emigration, he collaborated with Cerney for a time on Cerney’s cut-out billboard murals, and now paints these and other murals on his own.
The Salinas Valley billboard people draw on familiar visual themes. For example, Image 2 shows two happy, friendly older white men. One has one arm casually around the other man, while his other hand, wedding ring visible, rests on the sign behind which they are placed. The other man holds three plump artichokes. Both wear old-fashioned glasses and coveralls with the “Ocean Mist” logo sewn onto the breasts. The billboard is painted in an Americana style reminiscent of the 1950s that evoke values of honesty, hard work, and thrift. The men’s weathered, smiling faces tap into agrarian tropes that suggest pride in work done well and according to the season’s changing patterns, and life in tight-knit rural communities in which people are both independent and yet also supportive of their neighbors when trouble strikes.
As a single image, this mural could be simply a historical representation of the two men in question. But images never stand alone. This mural is in the company of other such agricultural imagery in the Salinas Valley, across the nation, and indeed in food products at grocery stores seemingly everywhere. The regularity with which such happy, white, old-timey farmers appear in agricultural imagery is what signals that something larger than individual artistry is at work. In this case, that “something larger” is ideology (Althusser 1971). More specifically, it is the ideology of Jeffersonian agrarianism combined with a more recent and overlapping form of white nostalgia.
Ideologies are systems of ideas that either support or contest the way the world works. Dominant, or ruling ideologies combine with what Althusser calls repressive state apparatuses (i.e. the police, courts, prisons) to support existing economic structures (capitalism) and the multiple forms of exploitation that uphold it (1971). The ideology of Jeffersonian agrarianism is foundational to the widespread tendency in the US to associate farmers with positive moral values. Thomas Jefferson saw small-scale farmers as particularly virtuous members of society. He promoted an economy based on small-scale farming combined with a weak federal government as the best foundation for a healthy democracy (Jefferson 1982). However, Jefferson’s vision was meant for free white farmers who labored on land that they owned. It excluded enslaved Africans and those who worked land owned by others. These exclusions from the category of virtuousness and democracy, were necessary to support Jefferson’s own lifestyle. Jefferson owned 13,700 acres of land and at least 187 enslaved people at the time of the US Revolutionary War (Isenberg 2016). As a “founding father” of the nation, Jefferson’s agricultural ideology also had larger significance beyond his own household, directing attention away from the enslaved Africans and African Americans whose labor provided the foundation of much US agriculture and wealth (Baptist 2014; Carney 2002; Johnson 2013). Jeffersonian agrarianism thus upheld white supremacy.
Jefferson’s agrarian vision persists (Buttel and Flinn 1975; Wald 2011). Now, it is most explicitly called on by white advocates of small-scale, family farming (Rampell 2017). But even though Jefferson attributed unique worth to the small-scale, pre-industrial, white, land-owning farmer who supplies most labor needs with family members, his vision has also been bent to the purposes of large scale, industrialized agribusinesses owned by whites who employ vast numbers of largely non-white, non-family labor.
The idealization of white rural life embedded in Jeffersonian agrarianism strengthened after the Civil War ended legal slavery; as the US population changed from predominantly rural to predominantly urban in the 20th century; and again in the post-Civil Rights era. In each of these moments white nostalgia informed agrarian ideologies, and racial ideologies in general. White nostalgia functions, for whites, to cast in a warm glow of memory all-white spaces of the past, or racially mixed spaces in which whites were unquestioningly at the top of racial hierarchies. As Maly, Dalmage and Michaels write, “Nostalgia is a special type of memory, one that elevates pleasurable experiences… while scrubbing away stories that are unpleasant and even shameful” (2013:758–59), such as the horrific treatment of enslaved Africans, Black sharecroppers, and, more recently, Mexican farmworkers. As a result, the valorization of white farmers and erasure of workers of color has persisted across time in art, advertising, literature and politics (Alkon and McCullen 2011; Mitchell 1996; Sackman 2005; Wald 2011, 2016). When they are not simply erased, slaves and workers of color are typically portrayed as servile, simple, happy and/or exotic in ways that serve dominant economic interests (Adamkiewicz 2016; Besky 2014; Klein 2020).
Many of these nostalgic visions now paint dreamy visions of white life in the 1950s which, not coincidentally, was the last decade before the bulk of the legal victories of the civil rights movement took place in the 1960s. Indeed, many of the Salinas Valley’s agricultural billboards depict aesthetics and agricultural technologies from the 1950s and earlier. These revered pasts took place before the disruption of (limited) racial integration in the 1960s, and, for the white lower middle classes, the economic erosion of the 1970s and beyond.
Romanticized depictions of white rural life and agriculture hide the foundational role of Latinx farmworkers in California; 90 percent of today’s crop-workers in California are foreign born, with only 3% self-reporting as neither Hispanic nor Latino (U.S. Department of Labor n.d.). For example, Image 3 shows a presumably white man holding a head of lettuce while kneeling next to a packed lettuce box and his trusty dog. The box of lettuce is labeled with the Dole logo. This depiction intimately associates the man in question with the packing of the lettuce. However, the man depicted was the real-life owner of an agribusiness that farmed 10,700 acres of vegetable crops in California’s Salinas and San Joaquin Valleys as well as Arizona; one of his customers was the multinational corporation Dole Food Company (Caprara 2010; Preston 2016). It is highly unlikely that business owners who are responsible for farming on this scale spend much time packing produce. And even if they did, the vast majority of the labor would still be done by the Latinx who overwhelmingly make up the California agricultural labor force.
Ocean Mist Farms, as depicted in Image 2, is also a large enterprise: they are the largest single grower of artichokes in the US, and grow in Arizona, Mexico, and four other regions of California in addition to the Salinas Valley (Anon n.d.-b). As such, they surely rely on Latinx farmworkers, despite the two kindly-looking white men featured on their billboard, and despite whatever their labor force may have looked like in the company’s early history.
Large scale, industrial farms are not the only agricultural enterprises that regularly depict white farmers while relying substantially on Latinx labor. Smaller farms, and especially organic ones, are often associated with white family farmers and/or fair labor conditions for workers. Image 4, painted by Dong Sun Kim, shows two white people surrounded by bountiful produce (Ha 2007). The billboard depicts a man and a woman standing closely together, the man pointing the way to the farm, and the woman leaning into the man. The image suggests a couple, and therefore a family farm. At their feet, the name of a farm is printed on the side of a box full of diverse produce. A quick internet search confirms that the people depicted are indeed a couple and the real-life owners of the farm in question. They are the third generation of their family to live on the property, they farm organically, and have farmed a relatively small 50-100 acres (Anon n.d.-a).
Like this couple, whites in the Salinas Valley billboards are usually painted in ways suggestive of a status as farmers or farm owners by being positioned standing, with farm branding, and/or without hand-tools – see also Images 2 and 3. Latinx are typically depicted actively laboring on the land, and are less likely to appear with farm branding unless they are painted doing the work of packing branded boxes – see Images 5, 6 and 7. This representation of farmers/farm owners as white and farm workers as Latinx fairly accurately represents reality. Although there are important exceptions to this trend (Jett 2020; Mihesuah and Hoover 2019; Minkoff-Zern 2019; White 2018), across the US farm owners are largely and disproportionately white and farmworkers are largely and disproportionately Latinx. This racialized distinction between farmers and farmworkers depends in part on systems put in place across history to use people racialized as “other” than white as the foundation of agricultural labor. But it also depends on other systems that prevented people of color from owning land themselves, or that disappropriated or discriminated against those who did (Daniel 2007; Jett 2020; Matsumoto 1993; Minkoff-Zern and Sloat 2017; Ng 2002).
Still, the billboard depicted in Image 4 constructs a white understanding of farming that belies the state’s largely Latinx labor force on not just conventional but also most organic farms. In addition to the makeup of the workforce, there are also the working conditions to consider. Although consumers often assume organic farms treat their workers better, organic farms cannot be assumed to have better labor practices than conventional farms; some do, but plenty of others do not (Getz, Brown, and Shreck 2008; Guthman 2014).
In obscuring the labor of Latinx workers, much of the Salinas Valley roadside agricultural art also does something more: it hides the larger economic context of racial capitalism. This concept draws attention to racism’s important role in American capitalism, which both produces and profits from racism as it has been enacted in wages, working conditions, immigration policy and labor protections, or the lack thereof (Baptist 2014; Du Bois 1999; Robinson 2005).
A vast array of different racialized groups provided the labor on which the agricultural economy depended across California history. Indigenous peoples formed the primary agricultural labor force from colonization until the mid 1850s; first those brought from what is now the Mexican state of Baja California, and after too many of them died en route, later from what is now California. Catholic missionaries were a leading edge of colonialism, and indigenous people were not allowed to leave the missions without permission. Those who fled were often tracked down and returned by soldiers, and sometimes whipped and jailed. They were neither paid for their work, nor could they typically own personal property, marry of their own accord, move about at night, or raise their own children. The status of Indigenous farmworkers changed little after Mexican Independence, when modern day California changed hands from Spain to Mexico in 1821, nor after it changed hands again to the United States in 1846 (Street 2004). Disease and genocide decimated Indigenous populations, and survivors fled farm work.
The Salinas Valley’s roadside agricultural art evokes the feel of small, mom-and-pop farm businesses. But the size of California agricultural enterprises was enormous almost from the start, set into place by Spanish and Mexican land policies that granted huge tracts of land to favored colonial elites (Daniel 1981). Farmworkers, not family members, provided the labor on the majority of California’s vast farms – California was one of the few places outside of the slave south in which farming was not largely a family effort (Street 2004). California agriculture was also firmly capitalist by the time it joined the United States, with few of the subsistence or semi-subsistence farms more prevalent elsewhere.
Workers from many other groups assumed the positions of the early indigenous farmworkers over time, including those from Asia (China, Japan, Korea, India, and the Philippines), Europe (Ireland, Germany, Britain, Italy, Portugal) and Latin America (Chile, Mexico, Central America), as well as Black workers from the US South and other American-born people (Daniel 1981; Street 2004; Walker 2004). To counter the organizing of existing workers, foreign born workers were brought in whenever possible in order to create an oversupply of labor that helped maintain low wages. Many were recruited from parts of the world suffering economic and social upheavals, and were often misled about the nature of the opportunities that would be available to them in California. Conditions of travel and life upon arrival were often harsh. Chinese workers were subject to mob violence and individual assaults by whites, some of whom were organized in parallel to the Ku Klux Klan through the Order of Caucasians (Street 2004).
Widespread Depression-era labor unrest ultimately extracted new labor protections from the federal government, but key reforms that created a national minimum wage and protected the right to unionize were denied to agricultural workers. This national carve-out was a result of a political deal made to appease Southern Democrats intent on preserving Jim Crow by blocking any possibility of improving the circumstances of the region’s mostly Black agricultural workers (Farhang and Katznelson 2005). Then, from 1942 to 1964, the Bracero program formalized the pattern of supplying plentiful foreign-born laborers at low wages – this time from Mexico. Close to five million people were issued short-term worker permits during the lifetime of the program, and others came without official paperwork (Mitchell 2012). The industrialization of agriculture also intensified during this period – poisons were increasingly applied to crops to control pests, and workers suffered the consequences (Walker 2004).
Ever since the Bracero era, California agricultural workers have remained predominantly Mexican. The latest wave of workers to occupy the bottom rungs of the agricultural work force are indigenous Mexicans whose numbers began to grow in the 1990s. Some speak neither Spanish nor English and are thus particularly vulnerable to abuse. Indigenous farmers are especially concentrated in Coastal California, of which the Salinas Valley is part (Mines, Nichols, and Runsten 2010).
Across all of this time, whites racialized agricultural workers to justify their exploitation, arguing that people of color were less susceptible to disease, and that particular racialized groups, which changed over time, were “naturally suited” to backbreaking agricultural work (Holmes 2013; Maldonado 2009; Omi and Winant 2015; Street 2004). White farm owners and politicians also racialized agricultural workers to build up social barriers between groups in order to make cross-racial organizing more difficult (Valdés 2011). As a result, since colonization farmworkers have worked under changing legal circumstances that have had them work without wages or have kept those wages low. These systems have been extraordinarily effective. In 2019, the state earned over $50 billion in cash receipts from agriculture, making it the leading agricultural state in the nation (USDA Economic Research Service n.d.). The devaluation of agricultural workers of color that many white farmers both benefited from and helped create enabled white agricultural capitalists to pay lower wages and provide worse working conditions than they might have otherwise, thus generating more profits. In other words, racial capitalism provided a foundation for California agriculture from its origins to the present day, even though at certain moments of history poor whites also formed significant parts of the exploited class of farmworkers.
The tendency for white farmers to be valorized and for people of color farmers and farmworkers to be obscured is deep and long-standing. But while most of the agriculturally themed Salinas Valley cut-out billboard murals depict white-presenting people, what makes the collection more interesting are the murals that call attention to Latinx farmworkers. The paintings of them are dignified and show them as contributors not only to the local economy, but also the global food supply. For example, in Image 5, a Latino worker carries a long length of irrigation pipe on one shoulder in front of text that reads, “Salinas Valley: Feeding Our Nation.” The mural connects Latinx agricultural labor to masculinity, pride of place and pride in farmworker contributions to the global food supply. These images uniquely stretch the Jeffersonian valorization of white farmers to include Latinx farmworkers as well. This is significant in light of the systemic erasure of farmworkers from the public imagination of agriculture (Alkon and McCullen 2011).
Returning to Althusser’s theory of ideology is useful here. In his accounts, ruling ideologies that support the status quo coexist with challenger ideologies that contest the status quo. But, ruling ideologies often incorporate parts of these challenger ideologies in ways that blunt their impact. As a result, ruling ideologies change over time, responding to changing political conditions in ways that sustain capitalism. Indeed, dominant agricultural ideologies in the US have changed over time in ways that parallel broader ideological change: from Jeffersonian agrarianism (Jefferson 1982), to white nostalgia (Adamkiewicz 2016; Maly et al. 2013; Mann 2008), to, most recently, symbolic multiculturalism (Gunderson 2021).[i]
Multiculturalism potentially functions as a challenger ideology, but, when reduced largely to symbolism, becomes another facet of ruling ideologies. The Latinx workers depicted in the Salinas Valley billboard art can be read as examples of symbolic multiculturalism, which showcases people of color without fundamentally challenging their (collectively) subordinate place in the economy. Symbolic multiculturalism can do more than simply fail to make things better – in depicting people of color as happy and empowered, it can actively undercut efforts to reduce racism by promoting the idea that racism no longer exists.[ii]
These outcomes can occur even when they are not the intention of the artist nor of the person commissioning the art. The first billboard cut-out people that artist Cerney created were commissioned by the owner of a local produce company to honor his workers, many of whom are Latinx, and to draw attention to their contributions to the food supply (Pogash 2005). As the farm owner says, “I was tired of people bad-mouthing agriculture… thinking everything comes out of a bag or carton. I was trying to show the community it takes a lot of people to grow food, that farming is a good occupation and that people work in the fields to produce good food for us” (Paris 1999). The figures were modeled on employees, and one was even painted to honor a specific worker who had been with the company for over fifty years on the occasion of his 80th birthday (see Image 1) (Cerney n.d.). The website of the company that commissioned and displays the 18-foot-tall murals describes the labor that each of the billboard people are conducting: thinning, harvesting, packing, and weighing boxes of harvested lettuce, as well as overseeing the irrigation and the farm as a whole. The billboards and website together educate the public about the specific, diverse skills need to accomplish the tasks required of farmworkers and farm managers (Anon n.d.-c).
Commentators quoted in press coverage of the billboard murals respond with enthusiastic endorsements, from the president of Salinas Valley Chamber of Commerce to a dean at nearby Hartnell College to a spokesperson for Salinas’s National Steinbeck Center (Garcia 2017; Paris 1999; Pogash 2005; Roth 2013). The latter says that the billboard murals “do what public art is supposed to do, it enriches the landscape visually and emotionally” (Pogash 2005). Journalists call the work empowering and heroic (Garcia 2017; Pogash 2005), or comment on the likeness between Cerney’s work and that of famed local author John Steinbeck, writing, “In a certain light, Cerney’s plywood figures are an extension of Steinbeck’s lifelong passion for giving voice to the voiceless” (Roth 2013). The only slightly sour note is sounded by the chair of the Visual and Public Arts Department at nearby California State University Monterey Bay, who notes that the murals do not show, “poor working conditions, illnesses from pesticides and bad housing,” which is “a whole other story that’s never told” (Pogash 2005). However, she is quoted as saying that this is because the farmer who commissioned the farmworker billboards is “positive and fair with his workers.”
Herein lies the crux of interpreting the Salinas Valley agricultural billboard art, and other images like it. The intent of the artist and the person who commissions the art matters, as do the labor practices of the farm owners who commission the work and the experiences of the workers depicted. But what is more significant is, first, the way the art will be read by the general public, who know little to nothing of these individual level details, and second, the structural conditions that continue to leave most farmworkers vulnerable to violence and abuse. Even if the farm owners who commission images of farmworkers are all fair-minded employers who go above and beyond existing labor law, the structurally vulnerable position of most farmworkers remains. This vulnerability is not accidental. It has been reproduced at great cost to farmworkers over and over across California history, via, in part, racial capitalism and the ideologies that support it. In sustaining exploitative agricultural economies, these ideologies work in tandem with Althusser’s repressive state apparatuses (1971): the Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcements, and the courts.
And, despite the above assertion that the farmworker murals give “voice to the voiceless,” this is not actually true. While the murals draw attention to the often-unacknowledged labor of farmworkers, they are painted by artists at the request of farm owners, not farm workers. The results depict a uniformly positive experience of farmwork, despite many farmworkers’ actual claims of difficult working conditions, low pay and abuse, and efforts to have their children enter occupations other than farmwork. None of the press coverage I found included any quotes from farmworkers. Rather, press coverage “gives voice” to the artists, the commissioning farm owners, and at times an array of other local business, cultural and educational leaders. In only one case were the opinions of farmworkers even tangentially referenced. Below, artist Cerney describes a conversation with the farmowner who first commissioned billboards depicting workers, showing how Cerney came to use real farmworkers as the models:
On his first commission, [the farmowner] said, “use your own people [as models].” I said “well, it’ll be more intimate, and you’ll get more of a kick out of it, if you use your own people.” So he relented and I used some of his farmworkers, and now, boy I hear stories of one of these guys who comes out here and cleans it off every couple of weeks, and they’re all proud of it, and it turns out to be a good thing. (Anon 2006)
Of all the existing coverage of the art that I found, this story told by the artist, as told to him by, presumably, the farmowner, is the closest thing to providing insight into farmworker reception of the art. Although the story could have been distorted as it was passed along from farmowner, to artist, to audience, there likely are indeed farmworkers who are pleased to be commemorated in art, or pleased to see images of other farmworkers so commemorated. But such a reception does not affect the billboards’ broader ideological impacts. Despite showcasing the role of Latinx farmworkers in the regional economy and the global food supply, the Salinas Valley agricultural murals also obscure the actual conditions in which much of this labor takes place.
What the images show is as important as what they do not show: sexual violence, hunger, injury, exposure to poisons, wage theft, labor regimes that profit from racial hierarchies which leave farmworkers vulnerable by design, and the threat of deportation imposed by a nation that cannot stomach their presence and yet cannot do without their labor. In Fresno County, the most agriculturally productive county in the country with $3.7 billion dollars of annual farm sales, nearly half of farmworkers go hungry (Brown and Getz 2011; Wirth, Strochlic, and Getz 2007). Farmworkers also suffer from multiple, layered health problems that evolve over time in response to pesticide exposure, stoop labor, injuries, violence, and inadequate health care (Holmes 2013; Saxton 2015). Many are part of binational families and remain separated from loved ones for long stretches of time; their opportunities to visit home involve dangerous crossings of the US border that risk their lives (Holmes 2013; De León 2015; Lopez 2007). Women, who make up 29% of California farmworkers (U.S. Department of Labor n.d.), are particularly at risk of sexual violence at work (Waugh 2010; Yeng and Rubenstein 2013). One Salinas Valley field is known among workers as the “field de calzón,” or “field of panties,” because of how many rapes take place there (Tamayo 2000). But the Salinas Valley billboards do not show these grim realities. Instead, the billboard workers often look happy, as in the smiling lettuce worker in Image 6 who is bent over in the form of stoop labor that has long debilitated farmworkers. Crucially, what also is not shown is farmworkers’ long history of collective organizing against these abuses. Rather, the billboard murals depict individual farmworkers contentedly going about their daily labor in the fields in ones, twos and threes, as in Image 7.
Though you would not know it from looking at the roadside agricultural imagery of the Salinas Valley, farmworkers consistently found ways to organize for improved working and living conditions across Spanish, Mexican and US rule. In the first 13 years of the 1900s alone, Japanese farmworkers created successful labor associations, Japanese and Mexican sugar beet workers struck in Oxnard, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or Wobblies) organized farmworkers known as bindlemen, and hop pickers staged the largest strike of farmworkers in California history at that time (it became known as known as “Bloody Sunday” or the Wheatland hop riot) (Street 2004). The Communist Party, Congress of Industrial Organizations, and the American Federation of Labor also all organized agricultural workers through the 1930s. California was a hot-spot: half of the more than 275 agricultural strikes of the 1930s took place there (Valdés 2011:6).
Although Braceros were brought to the US under conditions designed to limit their ability to organize for improved working conditions, they too undertook such efforts (Loza 2016). Mexican workers organized strikes starting in the very first year of the Bracero Program, 1942. Farmworkers kept striking through, among others, the DiGiorgio farm strike of 1947-1950, the Imperial Valley lettuce strike 1961, and the Delano grape strike of 1965. The latter led to the creation of the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), launching the farmworkers movement (Mitchell 2012; Valdés 2011). During the 1960s and 1970s, farmworkers increased their wages, improved working conditions, signed union contracts with employers that banned the use of highly toxic pesticides, strengthened pesticides regulation and helped legalize collective bargaining (Pulido 1996; Wells and Villarejo 2004). Other victories included banning the use of the short handled hoe, called el cortito, which required its users to damage their bodies by staying bent over as they used it, hour after hour, day in and day out (Jourdane 2004). However, many of these gains were later eroded as growers fought against their victories, as Republicans newly voted into public office in 1982 undermined their legislative victories, and as the UFW moved away from its early strategy of on-the-ground organizing (Wells and Villarejo 2004). Knowing this history is vital to developing the ability to see the ‘work’ that ideology does to deflect attention away from the long history of racial capitalism in agriculture, and the long history of resistance to it.
Although all ideology has a relationship to the economic order of the day, the Salinas Valley agricultural billboards have a particularly close relationship to the local economy. While the billboard murals are regularly described in the press as public art, they are also commercial. Many of the images advertise the businesses in question. In some cases this is explicit, as in Image 8, which uses nostalgic, old-timey imagery featuring a 1940’s era tractor and oversized artichokes, a regional specialty, to draw people into a roadside store. Indeed, several of the agricultural billboard murals, such as Image 4, have run into problems with the government resulting from conflicting opinions about whether the images were advertisements, which have size and location restrictions, or art (Anon 2006, Ha 2007; Chatfield 2018). In other cases, the billboards themselves are objects of interest. For example, Images 1, 6 and 7 are listed as attractions at the demonstration farm and visitor center where they are located. Indeed, several of the farms that display the murals run agritourism projects on their properties (corn mazes, pumpkin patches, etc.), and thus need to find ways to encourage visitors (see Image 4). Many of the murals sell an image of agriculture that benefits the farms in question by tapping into nostalgia for purportedly better, simpler times to generate visitors and sales.
Although Cerney says money is not that important to him and that he leads a simple lifestyle (Anon 2006), the practicalities of making a living as an artist still require finding a way to financially support the art. Cerney says, ruefully, “When I can do exactly what I want to do without anyone telling me, that’s what I really love to do. I wish money wasn’t a factor. I would do nothing but my own work, place it in the field, and if my bills were paid I would do nothing but that” (Anon 2017). Instead, as he says elsewhere, “I do a lot of farm stuff because I live here and people ask me to do that” (Paris 1999). Roth makes the connection between Cerney’s art and the regional economy more explicit: “Farm life holds no special appeal for [Cerney], but given that his plywood people are placed in fields and he’s based in one of California’s most profitable farming regions, farm paintings are the ones that bring him the most attention” (2013). Cerney speaks further to the impact of the commission process on subjects of his art, saying that early murals he did on the side of barns,
led to, eventually, people seeing your work and calling you, commercial businesses, “What can you do for me.” Because my work was realism. It was easy for the average person to take in and understand. My thought process, my way of working, was a little Norman Rockwellish, with a little sense of humor. Which everybody got, and everybody understood. So it was easy to sell to make a living doing that. So I got on that treadmill and started doing that. (Anon 2017)
Cerney’s explanations of the financial constraints on his art, and the commercial interests that have led to the creation of much of his agriculturally themed work, underscores the relationship between ruling ideologies and the economic systems in which they are enmeshed. Indeed, the murals are commissioned by people who can both afford the fee and either own or rent property on which to display the billboards, both of which tilt the art away from representing the ideas of poor people such as farmworkers. And given the long-established hostility of many farm owners to organized labor in the region (Flores 2016; Frank Bardacke 2011; Neubeurger 2013), depictions of farmworker organizing would not only not be commissioned by most farm owners, but to many would be unwelcome additions to the regional landscape.
Imagine, for example, artist Ester Hernández’s 1982 redesign of the famous “Sun Maid” raisin advertisement. The original advertisement features a young white woman wearing a red bonnet and holding a basket of grapes, referencing an Edenic agricultural environment, abundance, purity, and femininity. However, Hernández’s version features the harm experienced by grape workers. She replaces the fresh-faced girl with a skeleton that wears the same red bonnet and holds the same basket of grapes. Hernández’s text tells viewers that “Sun Mad” raisins are “unnaturally grown” with insecticides, miticides, herbicides and fungicides (Hutchison 2013). A subsequent image made in 2008, titled “Sun Raid,” recasts the original advertisement again, this time to critique workplace raids and the deportation of Mexican workers.
Or, consider Octavio Ocampo’s work, “Cesar Chavez: Portrait of La Causa,” which superimposes UFW leader Chavez over a landscape that could well be the Salinas Valley. An airplane sprays pesticides over skulls on one side of the valley, and crosses float above the mountains at the top of the image. The skulls and crosses represent harm and death to farmworkers, while on the other side of the valley, and showing through Chavez’s translucent face and body, are masses of farmworkers holding banners and signs, representing the farmworker movement. Such artistic representations underscore how far removed the Salinas Valley billboard art is from any critique of the agricultural industry. It is no accident that Hernandez and Ocampo’s paintings are displayed in museums rather than on the properties of commercial farming enterprises.
The Salinas Valley’s roadside agricultural imagery offers lessons bigger than their local impact. Some of them show that Jeffersonian agrarianism and white nostalgia continue to frame much of the public view of agriculture. Others show that even when these narratives are pierced with depictions of the nation’s Latinx agricultural workforce, just inserting into the public consciousness people whose contributions to society have been systematically minimized is not enough. American history is full of examples of workers who, when they are not erased, are depicted as happy in their circumstances or romanticized in other ways (think, for example, of the “happy slave” tropes present in so many depictions of plantation agriculture (2020)). Such depictions contribute to the continuation of exploitative labor regimes by associating the status quo with warm, happy feelings. As one admirer writes, “Every time I cruise by one of Cerney’s pieces, I think of the thousands of drivers and passengers locked in their cars. Suddenly, a purple and orange cow appears on a roadside field. Moods improve. Life seems simpler and easier. Even if it’s just for a moment. That, to my way of thinking, is the highest form of public art in public places” (Nordstrand 2014). This writer references a quirky mural of a multicolored cow as an example, but their comments also apply to the murals depicting the human components of agriculture – the farmers and farmworkers that make it all happen. But what is needed is not public art that reassures, but art that unsettles. Art that reifies old, romantic tropes of agricultural labor serves the ideological and commercial interests that have exploited farmworkers for centuries. What is needed is art that challenges ruling ideologies by centering workers’ interests rather than those of their employers.
Christopher Gunderson’s generous suggestions provided much of the theoretical framework of this paper. The author would also like to thank for their comments Ruben Espinoza, Rodney Green, Vernon Morris, Manuel Vallée, Lauren Richter, Christie McCullen, and participants in the fall 2019 “Currents: Humanities Work Now” series at the University of Maryland Baltimore County’s Dresher Center for the Humanities, at which an early version of this work was presented.
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[i] Christopher Gunderson provided this term as I have used it here. I have since found that there is also limited, overlapping use of the term in the published literature, used primarily to describe Canadian politics (Roberts and Clifton 1990).
[ii] Symbolic multiculturalism thus overlaps significantly with what other scholars have called color-blind racism, racism without racists, and multiracial white supremacy (Bonilla-Silva 2014; Omi and Winant 2015). All of these respond to claims of racism with surface-level improvements that allow some few people of color to rise to elevated social and economic positions without fundamentally challenging racism at its roots, thus sustaining overall racial inequality.
Tracy Perkins is an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University. She specializes in social inequality, social movements, the environment, agriculture and the politics of knowledge, and produces traditional written academic output as well as photography and digital humanities websites. Her book Evolution of a Movement: Four Decades of California Environmental Justice Activism (University of California Press, 2022) examines the political evolution of the California environmental justice movement from the 1980s to the mid 2010s. Dr. Perkins has degrees from UC Berkeley, UC Davis, and UC Santa Cruz, and previously worked as an Assistant Professor at Howard University. See more of her work at tracyperkins.org.
The following article references the exhibition and programming series Boom Oaxaca. Presented by Arte Américas and the Centro Binacional para el Desarollo Indígena Oaxaqueño, “Boom Oaxaca: Conversaciones de Campo a Campo” is an invitation to participate in local and transnational conversations around food sovereignty and Indigenous sovereignty as issues that uniquely converge in the Central Valley’s Oaxaqueño community. Boom Oaxaca is guided by the work of Narsiso Martinez and Tlacolulokos, who use self-representation and visibility as an act of political rebellion, and as an autonomous approach to an ownership of culture. Grounded in the context of both Oaxaca and California, these artists create images of often invisibilized spaces, and in turn demand attention and humanize the experiences of their community.The exhibit is open until August 14th, 2022 at Arte Américas, Fresno California. For more information visit: https://boomoaxaca.com/
To talk about Latinidad, migration, or invisibility, requires us to examine Indigenous migration from Abiayala (Latin America). When we consider Indigenous diasporas from Abiayala and across the Pacific, in addition to American Indians in the United States, California is one of three states with the largest Indigenous population. In the San Joaquín Valley, Ñuu Savi (Mixtecos) from Oaxaca and Triquis make up most of the Indigenous Mexican diaspora. Their migration and settlement patterns are due to Mexico opening to US foreign markets (1960s–1980s) that instituted agricultural reforms to seize communally owned lands throughout Oaxaca, largely ending self-sufficient farming. The restructuring of the market caused pricing of corn and other main crops to drastically fall, which then prevented small farmers and families in rural Mexico to compete with large-scale companies. As Indigenous Oaxacans were forced to migrate, large-scale farmers subsequently benefitted from agricultural reforms and sought cheap and skilled labor from those fleeing the Mixteca region, including Triquis and Zapotecs mostly from the Sierra Norte, to be hired in Veracruz, northern Mexico, such as Sinaloa, San Quintin, and other Baja California areas, and eventually the United States. With NAFTA, however, US contract recruiters sought Oaxacans as new immigrant cheap labor to supplant traditional migrant-sending rural communities from states like Michoacán, Jalisco, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosí, and Zacatecas who are largely non-Indigenous mestizos.
As the “Boom Oaxaca” exhibition seeks to make visible, Oaxacan migrants are predominantly Indigenous peoples who have settled in San Diego, Los Angeles County, Oxnard, Santa María, Bakersfield, Fresno, Madera, Watsonville, and Hollister. The US racialization process towards migrants from south of the border, unfortunately obscures their unique identity and culture. We are Indigenous peoples, not Latina/o or Hispanics. As Native peoples to the “Americas” relationship to land is tied to Indigenous world views, practices, and mutual existence that shapes how Indigenous Oaxacan diasporas make meaning to the lands we are guests/visitors on. Therefore, to talk about Indigenous Oaxacans in the United States requires us to rethink how we have historically been racialized in this country, how our racialization affects us, and how it benefits colonial structures who force us out of our Native land, while extracting natural “resources” that give life to all beings. Ñuu Savi, Triqui, Zapotec, Chinantecs, and other Indigenous Oaxacan generations throughout California, continue to organize across the US and Mexico border.
From grassroots efforts built in response to racial violence (“bullying”), labor injustices in the fields, living conditions in the US, to state repression in Oaxaca—particularly the horrific tortures, murders, and disappearances of teachers and allies during the 2006 uprising, and other unlivable conditions perpetrated and allowed under settler colonial governments—Oaxacans throughout California and in Mexico have never stopped organizing nor demanding justice. Grassroots cross-border organizations like the Frente Indígena de Organizaciones Binacionales (FIOB) have left their footprints for newer generations, and nonprofits like the Centro Binacional Para el Desarrollo Indígena Oaxaqueño (CBDIO), and the Mixtec Indígena Community Organizing Project (MICOP) have also enabled our visibility and our voice as Indigenous peoples by speaking against racial, cultural, and linguistic homogenization that affects both our self-determination and rights to existence as Indigenous peoples. Children of migrants who were brought as children or who were born in the United States are maintaining and constructing new ways in which as Indigenous Oaxacans we say, “still here,” “we do exist” and we continue to be Indigenous despite thousands of miles away from our ancestral homelands. From the FIOB youth to the Oaxacan Youth Encuentro (OYE), the Tequio Youth Group in Oxnard, Los Autónomos in the Central Valley, the OaxaCal student group at UC Berkeley, other youth-led Oaxacan collectives, cooperatives, including Oaxacans with a large social media presence, demonstrate how Indigeneity is neither static nor is it detached from homeland or collective existence. Being Ñuu Savi, Triqui, Zapotec is a complex interplay between land, memory, survival, and relational being.
This space (not a place) that Oaxacans refer to as Oaxacalifornia, a term coined by anthropologist Michael Kearney, takes many shapes and reflects both the violent and nonviolent experiences Oaxacans generations have confronted. As younger generations come of age, however, they increasingly reflect how their unique position as Indigenous guests on Native land informs their interactions with the Native people whose lands they are guest on. In her work with relocated American Indians and Indigenous Oaxacans in Silicon Valley, Renya K. Ramírez (Winnebago/Ojibwe), refers to this coexistence as “Native Hub.” For Ramírez “Native Hub” is a collective network of support relocated American Indians and Indigenous Oaxacan migrants create using their knowledge, cultural, social, and political processes to build intracommunity belonging away from home. As a growing field of study, Critical Latinx Indigeneities (CLI) privileges Indigenous diasporas from “Latin America” in scholarly work by considering social, political, cultural, religious, and other forms of collective Indigenous practices in the US. Since its formation in 2013, Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars—long dedicated with Indigenous migrants—take on a critical analysis that considers Indigenous diasporas’ unique position as guests on Native land and settler colonial interventions across Abiayala. In doing so, CLI scholars have added to the complexities of Latinidad, Chicanidad, and mestizaje.
The art presented by Zapotec artists Narsiso Martínez and the Tlacolulokos bring together diverse Indigenous Oaxacan experiences in the San Joaquín Valley of California. Based on self and community representation, they portray a plurality of Oaxacan migrant experiences spanning the Central Valley and Los Angeles County. Martínez, who was born in Oaxaca and migrated to California at the age of twenty, represents the hard labor of Oaxacan migrants working in the fields. Unique to his style is the use of produce boxes, rather than canvas, which he gathers himself from local grocery stores. With the use of these recycled boxes, he gives greater meaning not only to those who help produce what they hold, but to everyday consumers who seldom think of the people exposed more than eight hours a day to scorching heat waves and pesticides. As a former farmworker himself, Martínez began working in the fields as a young kid. During college, he returned to work in the fields to pay for his tuition. His story, however, is not his alone—many Oaxacan children raised in the Central Valley have had similar experiences, including some of the organizers and contributors to this exhibition and those they grew up with, such as members of the CBDIO and FIOB Fresno.
Young Oaxacans in the fields and at school face endless anti-Indigenous discrimination by the larger non-Indigenous Mexican community they grew up alongside. This discrimination, at times being physical violence, frequently targets Oaxacans who speak their Native language in public, have darker skin and other bodily stereotypical features, and simply for “looking Indigenous.” For example, take the 2012 campaign, “No Me Llames Oaxaquita” (“Don’t Call Me Little Oaxacan”), where Indigenous Oaxacans organized to demand the Ventura County School District ban the derogatory term “Oaxaquita” and “Indito” (little Indian) from their schools after incessant ridicule and bullying. Yet this case, which received international news, is not new—it has been happening since the first wave of Oaxacan children, many of whom are now in their late forties and fifties in Los Angeles. Through his art, Martínez demonstrates his own experience as a former field worker, which is often the experience of many other Oaxacan youth in the US.
Similarly, Dario Canul and Cosijoesa Cernas, two Zapotec men from the Tlacolula-based art collective known as the Tlacolulokos, show a multitude of Oaxacan urban experiences in their murals. Particularly, they capture the experiences and emotions between different urban landscapes that Oaxacan migrants cross (Los Angeles and now Fresno) and those they leave behind (mostly the Central Valleys of Oaxaca and more recently the Sierra Juárez). Like Martínez, the portraits they draw have names, are living, and not made up. They express sadness, longing, happiness, rebellion, thoughtfulness, firmness, and seriousness. More than a simple mixture in art, they bring the nostalgia and impact on traditions that migration has had on Oaxacans by displaying the portraits with tattoos, piercings, baggy jeans, blue LA Dodger baseball caps, white T-shirts, and Nike Cortes, while merging them with the traditional clothes and hairdos of the pueblos, alongside a wind instrument like a trumpet.
Although Cernas and Canul have never migrated to California, through conversations they record on both sides of the border, they are able to understand the difficulty migrants express of living and working hard in the US to barely get by, while attempting to send remittances to their loved ones. Meanwhile, those who stay in the pueblos feel the everyday pain of having their child, husband, parent, or sibling del otro lado (on the other side) wondering when, and if at all, they will see each other due to their immigration status. One of their mural panel displays from their 2017 exhibition, “Visualizing Language: Oaxaca in Los Angeles,” states, “Donde quiera que vayas” (wherever you may go), which makes homage of all generations in diaspora that we have not forgotten where we come from, even if we were not born there. Their identity and love for their pueblos is ours too—we continue to be communally invested in and with our pueblos and relatives back in the hometown. In other words, we live, embody, and in multiple ways continue our traditional practices with our pueblos.
These multiple forms of practices are rooted in Indigenous ways of being described as comunalidad, according to Ayuujk intellectual, Floriberto Díaz Gómez (1951–1995) from Tlahuitoltepec Mixe, and Zapotec intellectual, Jaime Martínez Luna (b. 1951) from Guelatao in the Sierra Juárez. Comunalidad are practices rooted in the community’s collective wellbeing. They are run by, for, and with the community. These communal practices happen through dances, playing in the Oaxacan brass bands, harvesting, and taking on a cargo (position) in our usos y costumbres (Indigenous customary law)municipalities and its agencies, especially for pueblos of the Sierra and Mixteca region that still practice multiple communal ways of life, and do not have electoral politics or political parties.
As Indigenous peoples in the United States, our comunalidad practices and beliefs of “doing for the good of the people” have also been used in demanding that our rights be respected. Most recently, the killing of Zapotec youth, Gerardo Martínez Chávez, by the Salinas (Monterey County) police has sparked outrage among the community. The ongoing murders and brutality by the police against Brown and Black unarmed men for crimes they did not commit. However, Indigenous men, mostly from Latin America, like that of Mr. Martínez Chávez and Maya Ki’che’ day laborer Manuel Jamines Xum, shot and killed by the LAPD in 2012, have made it all too clear that Indigenous peoples continue to be invisible beyond the countries they came from. Both men’s language was their Native Zapotec and Maya, respectively, and therefore community organizers and other human rights advocates argue that they did not understand the English or Spanish commands of the officers nor were they offered a translator. Under federal law, any public agency receiving federal money, like a hospital, clinic, or police station, is required to have a translator available for the person in question, regardless of legal status. Organizations throughout California, like that of the Centro Binacional Para el Desarrollo Indígena Oaxaqueño, the Frente Indígena de Organizaciones Binacionales, the Mixteco Indígena Community Organizing Project, and the Comunidades Indígenas en Liderazgo have begun to provide interpreting services for Indigenous Oaxacan migrants, and others as well, throughout the country.
As a space in which multiple Indigenous Oaxacan voices come together with allies, “Boom Oaxaca” attempts to make visible distinctive and common ground experiences as Ñuu Savi, Triqui, Zapotec, and other Indigenous Oaxacans. Like the artists themselves, the portraits, Indigenous organizations and sponsors of the exhibition, and academics who are Zapotec, we say invisible no more! We continue to exist and be Indigenous! To intentionally map ourselves in these spaces is to resist settler colonial erasure inside and outside Latinidad, Chicanidad and mestizaje. Like Indigeneity, Oaxacans are diverse, have held fluid identities to survive elimination, and have complex realities that cannot be singly defined, but do require the creation of “comfortable spaces to have uncomfortable conversations” about Indigeneity, nationalism, racial violence, even if others may not want to listen or brings up critiques of Indigenous appropriation. As Indigenous peoples, responsibility and respect are a comunalidad process among each other as pueblos originarios (original pueblos/peoples). Many Oaxacan generations in diaspora are still closely related to our respective pueblos. These same Indigenous communal values of respect for the land and its peoples are now part of our relationship building with the Native peoples on whose land we are guests throughout California. To our Indigenous Oaxacan communities and relations, we give thanks—Yoshxleno!
~ A Zapoteca mother & scholar, Brenda Nicolas (Sierra Norte).
Dr. Brenda Nicolas (Bene Xhiin, Zapotec) is Assistant Professor in Global Studies at UC Irvine where her work looks at the transborder communal experiences of Zapotec diasporas in Los Angeles. Dr. Nicolas received her PhD in Chicana/o and Central American Studies (UCLA). She has an M.A. in Chicana/o Studies (UCLA) and an M.A. in Latin American Studies from UC San Diego. She holds a B.A in Sociology and Latin American Studies from UC Riverside. She lives in LA and enjoys spending time outdoors with her son and husband.
La Dra. Brenda Nicolás (Bene xhiin, zapoteca) es Profesora Asistente en la facultad de Estudios de Globalidad en UC Irvine donde su trabajo analiza las experiencias comunitarias transfronterizas de las diásporas zapotecas en Los Ángeles. La Dra. Nicolás recibió su doctorado en Chicana/o y Estudios Centroamericanos (UCLA) donde también completó una Maestría. Tiene una Maestría en Estudios Latinoamericanos de UC San Diego y recibió una licenciatura en Sociología y Estudios Latinoamericanos de UC Riverside. Vive en Los Ángeles y le gusta pasar tiempo en las afueras con su hijo y esposo.