Tag: History

Excerpts

Oil Beach: How Toxic Infrastructure Threatens Life in the Ports of Los Angeles and Beyond

By: Christina Dunbar-Hester

Oil Beach: How Toxic Infrastructure Threatens Life in the Ports of Los Angeles and Beyond by Christina Dunbar-Hester, published by The University of Chicago Press. © 2023 by Christina Dunbar-Hester. All rights reserved.

Coastal Translocations: Watery Life in Captivity

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 

The RMS Queen Mary ocean liner with Spruce Goose dome. Long Beach, 2011. Photo by David Jones, CC- BY 2.0 license.

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 

Chloe the otter standing up, reaching toward her handler. Aquarium of the Pacific Virtual Otter Encounter, 2020. Screenshot by the author.

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. 

Photo by Christina Dunbar-Hester, September 2019

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 

Truck delivering Catalina Water Company seawater (“Real Ocean Water”) to laboratory at California State University, Northridge, 2016. Courtesy Mike Kaiser.

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


FOOTNOTES

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.

47) Henson, “American Zoos,” 66; Braverman, Zooland.

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.”

58) Segura, “Long Beach Aquarium’s Beloved Otter Dies.”

59) Field notes, September 2019.

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.”


SOURCES

Addison, Brian. “Long Beach Lost: The Dramatic Tale of the Disney Theme Park in Downtown.” Long Beach Post, December 4, 2018.

Aquarium of the Pacific. “Aquarium Animal Care.” Accessed December 5, 2020. https://www.aquariumofpacific.org/exhibits/animalcarecenter/animal_care.
—. “Molina Animal Care Center.” Accessed December 23, 2020.
https://www.aquariumofpacific.org/ exhibits/animalcarecenter.
—. “Sea Otter Conservation.” Accessed December 5, 2020.
https://www.aquariumofpacific.org/exhibits/otters/sea_otter_conservation.
—. “Sea Otter Habitat.” Accessed March 11, 2022.
https://www.aquariumofpacific.org/exhibits/otters/
—. “Southern Sea Otter.” Accessed December 5, 2020.
https://www.aquariumofpacific.org/exhibits/otters/southern _sea_otter.

Braverman, Irus. Wild Life: The Institution of Nature. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015.
—. Zooland: The Institution of Captivity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012.

Brunner, Bernd. The Ocean at Home. London: Reaktion Books, 2011.
—. “Th rough a Glass Sadly.” Aeon, November 30, 2015. https://aeon.co/essays/why-it-s-time-to-put-an-end-to-the-cult-of-the-aquarium.

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.

Interviews

Kinship and Cultural Resistance to Environmental Racism in Avocado Heights, California 

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 all the way 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 

Text from United States v. Stringfellow, 661 F. Supp. 1053, 1061, 17 ELR 21134 (C.D. Cal. 1987), 11

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. 

Video of Quemetco: Courtesy of Avocado Heights Vaquer@s

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.  


Boom 

Can you tell us a bit about Avocado Heights and what makes it unique? 

AHV 

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.  

Kelly, Howard D, “Avocado Heights, 4th Avenue and 3rd Avenue, looking northeast,” 1955, Los Angeles Public Library

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.  

Boom  

Can you explain further what it means to be an equestrian district in Avocado Heights? 

AHV 

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)

Boom  

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? 

AHV 

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. 

Boom 

Considering that you participate in several local coalitions, what do you think defines Avocado Heights Vaquer@s, differentiates it from these other groups? 

AHV 

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.  

Courtesy of Avocado Heights Vaquer@s

Boom  

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? 

AHV 

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.  

Boom  

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?  

AHV 

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. 

Boom  

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? 

AHV 

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. 


SOURCES

1) South Coast AQMD, “Quemetco,” date accessed January 18, 2023,
http://www.aqmd.gov/home/news-events/community-investigations/quemetco

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

10) Ibid

11) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Lead in Drinking Water,”
https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/prevention/sources/water.htm#:~:text=EPA%20has%20set%20th
e%20maximum,in%20the%20body%20over%20time, accessed January 18, 2023

12) South Coast AQMD, “Quemetco,” date accessed January 18, 2023,
http://www.aqmd.gov/home/news-events/community-investigations/quemetco

13) Cal. Dep’t of Toxic Substances Control v. NL Indus., 2:20-11293-SVW (JPR) (C.D. Cal. Jan.
31, 2022)

14) mark! Lopez of East Yards Communities for Environmental Justice in a talk given to local
organizers in San Gabriel Valley, February 2012

15) Ecobat, “Our Business,” Ecobat.com, https://ecobat.com/our-business/, accessed January 18,
2023

16) Fuhrmann, Quemetco’s Lead, January 27, 2021

[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.] 

Excerpts

Evolution of a Movement

Kettleman City: Case Study of Community Activism in Changing Times

Excerpted from Evolution of a Movement: Four Decades of California Environmental Justice Activism by Tracy Perkins, published by the University of California Press. © 2022 by Tracy Perkins. 

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.[1]

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.[2] 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.[3]

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.[4] 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.

Rey Leon (with megaphone), Linda McKay (with sign, in front), and other activists marching with Kettleman City residents protesting a birth defect cluster and planned expansion of the Chemical Waste Management hazardous waste landfill, Kettleman City, July 18, 2009. Photo by author.

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.)[5] 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.[6]

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.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9]

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.[10]

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.[11] 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.[12]

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.[13]

Kettleman City street signs, July 18, 2009. General Petroleum Avenue and Standard Oil Avenue are two of the main roads running through the residential part of Kettleman City.  Photo by author.

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.”[14]

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.[15]

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).

Maricela Mares Alatorre and thirteen-year old son Miguel Alatorre at a protest in front of the Chemical Waste Management hazardous waste landfill, Kettleman City, November 16, 2007. Photo by author.

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.[16] 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.


Footnotes

[1] 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.

[2] 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).

[3] Cole and Foster, From the Ground Up; and Bullard, Confronting Environmental Racism.

[4] 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.”

[5] Pellow, “Environmental Inequality Formation”; and Gould, Schnaiberg, and Weinberg, Local Environmental Struggles.

[6] Baptista and Perovich, U.S. Municipal Solid Waste Incinerators; Costner and Thornton, Playing with Fire; and White, “Hazardous Waste Incineration and Minority Communities.”

[7] Cole and Foster, From the Ground Up.

[8] 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.”

[9] Perkins, “Voices.”

[10] Perkins, “Multiple People of Color Origins of the US Environmental Justice Movement”; and Perkins, “Women’s Pathways into Activism.”

[11] Cole, “Environmental Justice Litigation.”

[12] Cole and Foster, From the Ground Up.

[12] Cole and Foster, From the Ground Up.

[14] Cole and Foster, From the Ground Up.

[15] Perkins, “Voices.”

[16] Cole and Foster, From the Ground Up.


Sources

Baptista, Ana Isabel, and Adrienne Perovich. U.S. Municipal Solid Waste Incinerators: An Industry in Decline. New York: Tishman Environment and Design Center at the New School, 2019.

Bullard, Robert D., ed. Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots. Boston: South End Press, 1993.

Cole, Luke W., and Sheila Foster. From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

Costner, Pat, and Joe Thornton. Playing with Fire: Hazardous Waste Incineration. Washington, DC: Greenpeace USA, 1990.

Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice and Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. “Incinerators in Disguise: Case Studies of Gasification, Pyrolysis, and Plasma in Europe, Asia, and the United States.” June 2006. http://www.no-burn.org/incinerators-in-disguise-case-studies-of-gasification-pyrolysis-and-plasma-in-europe-asia-and-the-united states/.

Gould, Kenneth, Allan Schnaiberg, and Adam Weinberg. Local Environmental Struggles: Citizen Activism in the Treadmill of Production. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Pellow, David N. “Environmental Inequality Formation: Toward a Theory of Environmental Injustice.” American Behavioral Scientist 43, no. 4 (2000): 581–601. https://doi.org/10.1177/0002764200043004004.

Perkins, Tracy. “Voices.” Voices from the Valley: Environmental Justice in California’s San Joaquin Valley, 2008. http://www.voicesfromthevalley.org/voices/.

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.

Rosengren, Cole. “After Its First WTE Closes, California Down to 2.” Waste-dive, August 2, 2018. http://www.wastedive.com/news/california-first-wte-facility-closes/529164/.

US Bureau of the Census. “ACS Demographic and Housing Estimates.” 2009–2013 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, 2013. http://factfinder.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml.

US Bureau of the Census. “Selected Economic Characteristics.” 2009–2013 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, 2013. http://factfinder.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml.

US Bureau of the Census. “Educational Attainment.” 2009–2013 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, 2013. http://factfinder.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml.

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.



Tracy Perkins 
is an Assistant Professor in the School for Social Transformation at Arizona State University.

Articles

Roadside Art in the “Salad Bowl of the World:” How Agricultural Ideology Obscures Racial Capitalism and Inhibits Labor Reform

Tracy Perkins

            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.

Image 1: Billboard mural of “field man” Bob Lyman holding sliced head of lettuce. Vernon Morris provides scale. Photo by Tracy Perkins. Mural by John Cerney.

            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.

Image 2: Farmers and their artichokes. Photo by Tracy Perkins. Mural artist unknown.

            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.

Image 3: Owner of R.C. Farms, which sells to Dole, poses next to a packed box of lettuce. Photograph by Tracy Perkins. Mural artist unknown.

            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).

Image 4: Billboard mural of the owners of Swank Farms. Photo by Tracy Perkins. Mural by Dong Sun Kim

           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]

Image 5: Billboard mural visible from highway 68 when entering Salinas from the south. Photo by Tracy Perkins. Mural by John Cerney.

            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.

Image 6: Billboard mural of worker bending over to trim iceberg lettuce. Photo by Tracy Perkins. Mural by John Cerney

            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.

Image 7: Billboard mural of woman weeding and thinning early crops. Photo by Tracy Perkins. Mural by John Cerney.

            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.

Image 8: Roadside mural features a wagon of oversized artichokes, one of the region’s specialties, being pulled by a 1940s-era tractor. Photo by Tracy Perkins. Mural artist unknown.

           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.

Acknowledgements

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.

References

Adamkiewicz, Ewa. 2016. “White Nostalgia: The Absence of Slavery and the Commodification of White Plantation Nostalgia.” As\peers 9:13–31. 

Alkon, Alison Hope, and Christie Grace McCullen. 2011. “Whiteness and Farmers Markets: Performances, Perpetuations… Contestations?” Antipode 43(4):937–59. doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8330.2010.00818.x 

Althusser, Louis. 1971. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation).” Pp. 142–47 in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. New York, NY: Monthly Review Press. 

Anon. 2006. “John Cerney: Cut-Out Mural Artist.” September 1. Retrieved August 25, 2021 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-Ixvt7l8Kw). 

Anon. 2017. “John Cerney – YourTown TV – Host M. D. Baer.” September 2. Retrieved August 27, 2021 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8epPPJvb5ms). 

Anon. n.d.-a. “Meet the Swanks.” SwankFarms.com. Retrieved October 1, 2021 (https://www.swankfarms.com/meet-the-farmers). 

Anon. n.d.-b. “Our Story.” Oceanmist.com. Retrieved August 30, 2021 (https://www.oceanmist.com/our-story). 

Anon. n.d.-c. “Sculptures.” The Farm. Retrieved December 14, 2020 (http://thefarm-salinasvalley.com/our-farm/sculptures/). 

Baptist, Edward E. 2014. The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. New York: Basic Books. 

Besky, Sarah. 2014. The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India. Berkeley: University of California Press. 

Du Bois, W. E. B. 1999. “The Souls of White Folk.” Pp. 17–29 in Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc. 

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2014. Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America. 4th ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. 

Brown, Sandy, and Christy Getz. 2011. “Farmworker Food Insecurity and the Production of Hunger in California.” Pp. 121–46 in Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class and Sustainability, edited by A. H. Alkon and J. Agymen. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 

Buttel, Frederick H., and William L. Flinn. 1975. “Sources and Consequences of Agrarian Values in American Society.” Rural Sociology 40(2):134–51. 

Caprara, Dennis. 2010. “Caprara, Dennis.” Letter to Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, March 25. Retrieved December 17, 2020 (https://www.waterboards.ca.gov/centralcoast/water_issues/programs/ag_waivers/docs/StayHearingAttachments-Part3rev.pdf). 

Carney, Judith Ann. 2002. Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

Cerney, John. n.d. “Projects.” John Cerney Murals. Retrieved December 14, 2020 (https://www.johncerneymurals.com/projects.html). 

Chatfield, Michael. 2018. “Outstanding in His Field.” Carmel Magazine, Spring/Summer. Retrieved June 11, 2021 (https://carmelmagazine.com/archive/outstanding-in-his-field). 

Daniel, Cletus E. 1981. Bitter Harvest: A History of California Farmworkers 1870-1941. Berkeley: University of California Press. 

Daniel, Pete. 2007. “African American Farmers and Civil Rights.” The Journal of Southern History 73(1):3–38. 

Farhang, Sean, and Ira Katznelson. 2005. “The Southern Imposition: Congress and Labor in the New Deal and Fair Deal.” Studies in American Political Development 19(1):1–30. doi.org/10.1017/S0898588X05000015

Flores, Lori A. 2016. Grounds for Dreaming: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the California Farmworker Movement. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 

Frank Bardacke. 2011. Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers. New York: Verso. 

Garcia, Ivan. 2017. “Salinas Artist John Cerney Is Known for Larger-than-Life Plywood People.” Monterey County Weekly, April 27. 

Getz, Christy, Sandy Brown, and Aimee Shreck. 2008. “Class Politics and Agricultural Exceptionalism in California’s Organic Agriculture Movement.” Politics & Society 36(4):478-507. doi.org/10.1177/0032329208324709

Gunderson, Christopher. 2021. Personal communication. June 8. 

Guthman, Julie. 2014. Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press. 

Ha, Anthony. 2007. “Swank Farms’ Fresh Billboard Gets Attention.” SanBenito.Com, June 28. Retrieved December 14, 2020 (https://sanbenito.com/swank-farms-fresh-billboard-gets-attention/

Holmes, Seth M. 2013. Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press. 

Hutchison, Sharla. 2013. “Recoding Consumer Culture: Ester Hernádez, Helena María Viramontes, and the Farmworker Cause.” 46(5):973–90. 

Isenberg, Nancy. 2016. White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. New York: Penguin Books. 

Jefferson, Thomas. 1982. Notes on the State of Virginia. Edited by W. Pedeu. New York: Norton and Company. 

Jett, Terri R. 2020. Fighting for Farming Justice: Diversity, Food Access and the USDA. New York: Routledge. 

Johnson, Walter. 2013. River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

Jourdane, Maurice. 2004. The Struggle for the Health and Legal Protections of Farm Workers: El Cortito. Houston, TX: Arte Público Press. 

Klein, Shana. 2020. The Fruits of Empire: Art, Food, and the Politics of Race in the Age of American Expansion. Oakland: University of California Press. 

De León, Jason. 2015. The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail. Oakland: University of California Press. 

Lopez, Ann Aurelia. 2007. The Farmworkers’ Journey. Berkeley: University of California Press. 

Loza, Mireya. 2016. Defiant Braceros: How Migrant Workers Fought for Racial, Sexual, and Political Freedom. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 

Maldonado, Marta Maria. 2009. “‘It is Their Nature to Do Menial Labour’: The Racialization of ‘Latino/a Workers’ by Agricultural Employers.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 32(6):1017–36. doi.org/10.1080/01419870902802254

Maly, Michael, Heather Dalmage, and Nancy Michaels. 2013. “The End of an Idyllic World: Nostalgia Narratives, Race, and the Construction of White Powerlessness.” Critical Sociology 39(5):757–79. doi.org/10.1177/0896920512448941

Mann, Geoff. 2008. “Why Does Country Music Sound White? Race and the Voice of Nostalgia.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 31(1):73–100. doi.org/10.1080/01419870701538893

Matsumoto, Valerie J. 1993. Farming the Home Place: A Japanese American Community in California 1919-1982. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. 

Mihesuah, Devon A., and Elizabeth Hoover, eds. 2019. Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the United States: Restoring Cultural Knowledge, Protecting Environments and Regaining Health. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. 

Mines, Richard, Sandra Nichols and David Runsten. 2010. California’s Indigenous Farmworkers: Final Report of the Indigenous Farmworker Study (IFS) to the California Endowment. California Rural Legal Assistance. Retrieved June 25, 2022 (http://www.indigenousfarmworkers.org/es/IFS%20Full%20Report%20_Jan2010.pdf

Minkoff-Zern, Laura Anne, and Sea Sloat. 2017. “A New Era of Civil Rights? Latino Immigrant Farmers and Exclusion at the United States Department of Agriculture.” Agriculture and Human Values 34(3):631–43. doi.org/10.1007/s10460-016-9756-6. 

Minkoff-Zern, Laura-Anne. 2019. The New American Farmer: Immigration, Race, and the Struggle for Sustainability. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 

Mitchell, Don. 1996. The Lie of the Land: Migrant Workers and the California Landscape. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 

Mitchell, Don. 2012. They Saved the Crops: Labor, Landscape, and the Struggle over Industrial Farming in Bracero-Era California. Athens: The University of Georgia Press. 

Neubeurger, Bruce. 2013. Lettuce Wars: Ten Years of Work and Struggle in the Fields of California. New York: Monthly Review Press. 

Ng, Wendy. 2002. Japanese American Internment during World War II: A History and Reference Guide. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. 

Nordstrand, Dave. 2014. “John Cerney, Where Art Thou?” The Salinas Californian, July 24. Retrieved June 11, 2021 (https://www.thecalifornian.com/story/news/local/2014/07/24/john-cerney-art-thou/13018795/). 

Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. 2015. Racial Formation in the United States. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge. 

Paris, Barbara. 1999. “Bigger than Life: Salinas Painter John Cerney’s Art Makes Reality Look Small.” Monterey County Weekly, May 20. Retrieved December 13 , 2020 (https://www.montereycountyweekly.com/news/local_news/salinas-painter-john-cerneys-art-makes-reality-look-small/article_dc127435-11e7-5f2f-a339-4da6c161919c.html

Pogash, Carol. 2005. “Bumper Crops for the Eye.” The New York Times, February 2. Retrieved December 13, 2020 (https://www.nytimes.com/2005/02/02/arts/design/bumper-crops-for-the-eye.html

Preston, Michael. 2016. “Mixed Green (Cards): Agriculture and Immigration’s Strained Relationship.” University of Colorado Boulder News Corps, May 9. Retrieved December 17, 2020 (https://www.colorado.edu/initiative/newscorps/2016/05/09/mixed-green-cards-agriculture-and-immigrations-strained-relationship

Pulido, Laura. 1996. Environmentalism and Economic Justice: Two Chicano Struggles in the Southwest. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. 

Rampell, Ed. 2017. “Wendell Berry as a 21st Century Apostle of Jeffersonian Democracy.” Earth Island Journal. Retrieved December 8, 2020 (https://www.earthisland.org/journal/index.php/articles/entry/wendell_berry_as_a_21st_century_apostle_of_jeffersonian_democracy/). 

Roberts, L. W., and R. A. Clifton. 1990. “Multiculturalism in Canada: A Sociological Perspective.” Pp. 120-147 in Race and Ethnic Relations in Canada, edited by Peter. S. Li. Toronto, ON: Oxford University Press. 

Robinson, Cedric. 2005. Black Marxism. 2nd ed. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press. 

Robinson, Rebecca. 2012. “The Invisible Michelangelo: Dong Sun Kim’s Murals Quietly Capture the Beauty of His Adopted Country.” Monterey County Weekly, January 12. Retrieved August 30, 2021 (https://www.montereycountyweekly.com/news/831_tales/dong-sun-kim-s-murals-quietly-capture-the-beauty-of-his-adopted-country/article_c02c4bf9-e15c-5a75-b59f-89909a9c515e.html). 

Roth, Anna. 2013. “The Land of Giants: An Artist’s Roadside Attractions Call Attention to History.” SF Weekly, July 31. Retrieved December 13, 2020 (https://www.sfweekly.com/news/the-land-of-giants-an-artists-roadside-attractions-call-attention-to-history/). 

Sackman, Douglas Cazaux. 2005. Orange Empire: California and the Fruits of Eden. Berkeley: University of California Press. 

Saxton, Dvera I. 2015. “Strawberry Fields as Extreme Environments: The Ecobiopolitics of Farmworker Health.” Medical Anthropology: Cross Cultural Studies in Health and Illness 34(2):166–83. doi.org/10.1080/01459740.2014.959167

Street, Richard Steven. 2004. Beasts of the Field: A Narrative History of California Farmworkers, 1769-1913. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press. 

Tamayo, William R. 2000. “The Role of the EEOC in Protecting the Civil Rights of Farm Workers.” UC Davis Law Review 33:1075–86. 

U.S. Department of Labor. n.d. “Table 13: Hired Crop Worker Demographics, California Estimates, Six Time Periods.” National Agricultural Workers Survey. Retrieved February 21, 2020 (https://www.doleta.gov/naws/research/data-tables/). 

USDA Economic Research Service. n.d. “Cash Receipts by Commodity, State Ranking, 2019 Nominal (Current Dollars).” Retrieved December 13, 2020 (https://data.ers.usda.gov/reports.aspx?ID=17844). 

Valdés, Dionicio Nodín. 2011. Organized Agriculture and the Labor Movement Before the UFW: Puerto Rico, Hawai’i, California. Austin: University of Texas Press. 

Wald, Sarah D. 2011. “Visible Farmers/Invisible Workers: Locating Immigrant Labor in Food Studies.” Food, Culture and Society 14(4):567–86. doi.org/10.2752/175174411X13046092851479

Wald, Sarah D. 2016. The Nature of California: Race, Citizenship, and Farming since the Dust Bowl. Seattle: University of Washington Press. 

Walker, Richard A. 2004. The Conquest of Bread: 150 Years of Agribusiness in California. New York: The New Press. 

Waugh, Irma Morales. 2010. “Examining the Sexual Harassment Experiences of Mexican Immigrant Farmworking Women.” Violence Against Women 16(3):237–61. doi.org/10.1177/1077801209360857

Wells, Miriam, and Don Villarejo. 2004. “State Structures and Social Movement Strategies: The Shaping of Farm Labor Protections in California.” Politics & Society 32(3):291–326. 

White, Monica. 2018. Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. 

Wirth, Cathy, Ron Strochlic, and Christy Getz. 2007. Hunger in the Fields: Food Insecurity among Farmworkers in Fresno County. California Institute for Rural Studies. Davis, CA. 

Yeng, Bernice, and Grace Rubenstein. 2013. “Female Workers Face Rape, Harassment in U.S. Agriculture Industry.” Frontline, June 25. Retrieved February 21, 2020 (https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/female-workers-face-rape-harassment-in-u-s-agriculture-industry/). 


[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.

ArticlesPhotography/Art

Indigenous Oaxacan Visibility

Brenda Nicolas

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).[1] 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.[2] In the San Joaquín Valley, Ñuu Savi (Mixtecos) from Oaxaca and Triquis make up most of the Indigenous Mexican diaspora.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6]

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.

Tlacolulokos, (Ruiz Gallery, Arte Américas) — Photo by Samuel Contreras

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.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10] 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.

Narsiso Martínez, Always Fresh, 2018, Ink, Charcoal, Gouache, Gold Leaf, and Collage on Reclaimed Produce Boxes, Compound LB. © 2018, Narsiso Martinez. Photo by Roger Gonzalez.

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.[11] 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.

Tlacolulokos, Guerreros de la Calle, 2021, acrylic paint on cotton canvas, Arte Américas. Commissioned for Boom Oaxaca with a grant from The McClatchy Fresno Arts Endowment of The James B. McClatchy Foundation. © 2021, Tlacolulokos. Photo by Roger Gonzalez.
Tlacolulokos, Low Rider, 2021, acrylic paint on cotton canvas, Arte Américas. Commissioned for Boom Oaxaca with a grant from The McClatchy Fresno Arts Endowment of The James B. McClatchy Foundation. © 2021, Tlacolulokos. Photo by Yadani 
Tlacolulokos, Hazlo tu Mismo, 2021, acrylic paint on cotton canvas, Arte Américas. Commissioned for Boom Oaxaca with a grant from The McClatchy Fresno Arts Endowment of The James B. McClatchy Foundation. © 2021, Tlacolulokos. Photo by Yadani 

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.[12] 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).


Notes:

[1] Also spelled Abya Yala.

[2] Census 2020

[3] Fox and Rivera-Salgado 2004; Holmes 2013

[4] Andrews 2018

[5] Hernández-Díaz 2019

[6] Cornelius 1990; Durand, Massey, and Zenteno 2001

[7] Odilia Romero, Los Angeles Times, 2021.

[8] Kearny 1991, 1995; Rivera-Salgado 2014; Stephen 2014

[9] Ramírez 2007

[10] Blackwell, Boj Lopez, and Urrieta, 2017.

[11] For more on the “No Me Llames Oaxaquita” campaign see, Nicolas, “Reclamando lo que es nuestro: Identity Formation Among Zapoteco Youth in Oaxaca and Los Angeles” (2012); Marco Werman, “Oxnard Group Trying  to Make ‘Oaxaquita’ Epithet Illegal,” The World: Public Radio International, May 31, 2012, https://www.pri.org/stories/2012-05-31/oxnard-group-trying-make-oaxaquita-epithet-illegal.

[12] Nix et al. 2017.

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.

Excerpts

Fútbol in the Park: Immigrants, Soccer, and the Creation of Social Ties

David Trouille

Working Connections

One afternoon about two years into my research at Mar Vista, I joined a group of men sitting at picnic tables by the soccer field. Most of them had just finished playing soccer in the midday games. As I walked over, Mi Chavo hopped in Moncho’s truck. As I suspected, he was off to buy beer, which Polo revealed by accusing me of timing my arrival to avoid contributing money. I smiled and responded that he could count on “mis dos pesitos” (my two dollars) for the next beer run. Polo shook his head and replied, “Otro güey que no trabaja.” (Another guy who doesn’t work.)

Even two years after the economic recession of 2008, good employment opportunities remained scarce for many of the men. That afternoon, Polo was complaining about an overbearing supervisor and claimed he was prepared to quit if he persisted with his “mamadas” (bullshit). When someone questioned his seriousness, Polo replied that he could find work at another restaurant “en dos toques” (in the blink of an eye). Araña told Polo he should be thankful he had a job, as it had been over a month since he himself had laid tile. Valderrama, a general handyman, commented that there was plenty of work in construction so long as you were willing to work “por pesos” (for cheap). Barba challenged these familiar gripes: “Hay jale [there is work], but Araña doesn’t want to work. He prefers to drink for free in the park.” Araña fired back by pointing out the precariousness of Barba’s own situation, who—despite working full-time at a supermarket— was sleeping in his “pinche combi” (fucking van).

As the men talked, Titi remained unusually silent and morose. I knew from previous conversations that he had been struggling to find steady work as a painter. He was trying to set out on his own, rather than work for his brother or other contractors. However, going solo was proving more difficult than he had imagined, despite his years of experience. His expression warmed with the buzzing of his cell phone resting expectantly on the concrete table. He seemed even more pleased when he recognized the number of the incoming call.

Titi stood up and answered the phone in English: “Hello.” With one hand on the picnic table, he listened to the voice on the other line and replied: “No problem! Yes, yes. Okay, goodbye.” As soon as he hung up, he motioned to Mi Chavo and spoke in his native Spanish: “Let’s go, I’ve got to see un cliente.” Polo interjected: “Don’t go, Mi Chavo! He was just talking to his vieja [old lady],” implying that his exaggerated talk in English was a ruse to impress the men. Titi ignored Polo’s jab, but when Araña asked him where he was headed, he told him to mind his own business. Titi added that he didn’t want any “drunks” on his crew, which everyone understood to be a clear crack at Araña, who was always looking for work as a hired hand. As the two men walked toward Titi’s van stocked ready with painting supplies, Araña yelled out: “Cuidado [careful], Mi Chavo”—a face-saving and not-so-subtle warning for the “ayudante” (helper). Polo interjected with his own jibe at the departing duo: “Come back with beer!” On cue, Titi shot back: “Busquen trabajo, culeros.” (Look for work, assholes.)

Kathy and Zurdo

*

The world of work was never far removed from the park. Even though many men claimed to come there to escape their workaday lives, intersections between work and play abounded. Work was a frequent topic of conversation, during which the men often complained about problems with bosses or clients and about a general lack of opportunities. Yet as they socialized, they also talked shop and vaunted their achievements and adventures at work. The steady flow of people to and from jobs and phone calls from employers made work feel ever present, especially since cell phones allowed the men to remain “on call” while at the park. Men arriving in clothing stained with dirt and paint as well as vehicles stocked with tools and supplies identified them as workers, as did nicknames like Carwash, Locksmith, Mata Rata (exterminator), and Pisa Muerto (morgue attendant) and iconic park insults like “go heat up the soup” or “go paint toilets.” In any case, most of the men were familiar with their peers’ employment schedules that kept them on the move. Fixing cars or equipment in the parking lot and planning projects at the picnic tables were other ways the workplace flowed into the park. Moreover, as many of the men worked nearby, the park provided a convenient pit stop or respectable waiting post between jobs. But long stretches in the park could signal a lack of employment—a humiliation exacerbated by the recurring taunt to “look for work.”

However, these indicators of employment (or lack thereof) only dimly reflect the close interconnections between park life and the men’s work lives. What the men created and sustained in the park facilitated the development of relationships and reputations that spilled over into the men’s labor. They came to play and unwind, but found that the park provided a vital space to network and generate employment opportunities. Many of the men who met in the park worked together, referred each other for jobs, and exchanged work-related information and resources. Most of these concerned low-paying jobs in restaurants, construction, gardening, and cleaning—positions filled with fellow Latino immigrants. The park also became a place for many of the men to combat the isolation and drudgery of their work, giving them a unique space to construct and revel in meaningful interactions and rewarding relationships.

This chapter explores the men’s work lives and their connections to the park and beyond. I focus primarily on labor in private homes, in which I was able to participate and observe projects firsthand, in contrast to other employment sectors (such as restaurant work) that tended to be off-limits and knowable only through interviews. By shadowing the men at work, I saw how social relationships and informal arrangements organized their labor. I also grew to appreciate how an increasingly vital sector of the contemporary economy was filled by immigrant labor in private homes, where—in contrast to the park—the men and other workers like them were welcomed and depended upon.

Immigrant Labor

In Los Angeles and many other parts of the country, certain tasks historically carried out by middle-class and some wealthier homeowners—tasks such as painting, housecleaning, gardening, and childcare—are increasingly done by hired help. Immigrants commonly do this work and are often employed “off the books.” Today private homes, rather than factories, serve as major economic points of entry for new immigrants.

This shift in hiring practices is well documented in the research on domestic workers. Less well understood are the types of paid services provided by the men from the park, such as small-scale construction, painting, and gardening jobs. Yet, as with nannies, their work is critical in keeping the culture and economy of Los Angeles afloat. Indeed, in many communities, immigrant labor has become indispensable to the maintenance of smoothly running households and affluent lifestyles. Today’s “hourglass economy” generates—and depends on—low-paying jobs, including in restaurants, another major source of employment at the park.

Despite the ubiquity of immigrant labor in Los Angeles, prospective workers and their clients face many challenges in this informal economy. Like any client, homeowners seek to maximize quality and minimize costs, both economic and social. Whereas companies in the formal economy— like painting firms, for example—are publicly accessible and provide institutionalized credibility and legal recourse, they are often much more expensive than off-the-record workers due to greater overhead, licensing fees, insurance costs, and mandated wages and benefits. These requirements also make them less flexible and less adaptable to shifting economic conditions and to the evolving needs of clients.

Anonymous day laborers present different challenges. While usually cheaper, they offer few safeguards to clients if the work goes badly. Moreover, the prospect of selecting workers at a formal or informal hiring center and bringing them in and around one’s home can prove daunting for even the most adventurous homeowner. Like day laborers themselves, clients face fears and uncertainties interacting with strangers in an unregulated labor market, be it over theft, negligence, or other forms of abuse. In fact, studies of day-labor sites show how workers and employers try to transcend the competition and anonymity of these sites by establishing more familiar and permanent employment relationships.

While formal companies and day laborers can and do meet homeowner needs, the men served a more intermediary position in the labor market: workers who neither work in the formal economy nor deal with clients as complete strangers. They avoided the heavy costs of regulated companies, as well as the risks of anonymity. However, these work arrangements did not develop automatically or without effort. For in contrast to friendships formed in the park, the relationships between these workers and employers involved people separated by considerable social distance played out within the physical proximity and private spaces of clients’ homes. The site of production was also the place of consumption, raising the stakes and providing leverage for both parties.

The Work

During the final three years of my primary fieldwork, I observed fourteen men from the park at work. On roughly half of these jobs, “ayudantes” (paid helpers) from the park assisted. In total, I observed thirty-four jobs over a three-year period. In twenty-five of these projects, a range of new tasks or “extras” were added to the original labor agreement as the work progressed. Several of these expanded jobs lasted over a month, although most projects were completed in under two weeks.

The work primarily involved maintenance and home-improvement jobs, including construction, painting, cleaning, gardening, and renovation projects. The size and format ranged from small-scale or repeat tasks (such as fixing a fence or repainting a bedroom) to long-term arrangements (such as weekly gardening or pool maintenance) to large-scale projects (like remodeling a kitchen or repainting an entire home). In many cases, the men had worked for clients for several years, even decades, although I observed initial and onetime encounters as well. Work relationships often began with small, short-term tasks, but then developed over time into more substantial, long-term arrangements.

I primarily shadowed the men at work in West Los Angeles. Occasionally, they serviced multimillion-dollar homes in the most exclusive sections, such as Beverly Hills, Brentwood, and Malibu. But more typically they worked for middle- and upper-middle-class white homeowners in and around Santa Monica, Venice, Pacific Palisades, and Culver City. As I drove around with the men, this area became a monument of sorts to their professional careers as they pointed out various homes they had worked in over the years—some within a few blocks of the park.

In addition to location, the jobs shared several other characteristics, notably the fact that the men generally worked directly for the homeowner, rather than for a third party, such as a contractor or property manager. The men described this job arrangement as “por mi cuenta” (on my own). Many of the men had experience working for compañías or as ayudantes but preferred working independently. Although this work could be sporadic and uncertain, they found it more lucrative and enjoyed the freedom and flexibility that came with being self-employed. However, working on their own did require them to constantly look for new jobs—what sociologist Mary Romero referred to as “finding casas” in her study of domestic workers. Unlike their friends employed in restaurants, they did not work for a salary on a regular schedule.

Chango’s career arc followed a familiar path from apprentice to entrepreneur. He started painting with his father, who taught Chango the trade over weekends and summers. Seeking greater independence and new experiences after finishing high school, Chango began working for other contractors and spent over a year with a commercial painting firm. But by his late twenties and with a growing family at home, he was anxious to set out on his own. Feeling confident in his skills and start-up funds, he embarked on this new chapter in his professional life. By the time I met him in his early thirties, Chango was well established as an independent painter, moving from one casa to the next.

Like other independent contractors, Chango sometimes needed to hire additional workers. These ayudantes were almost always people he knew, rather than anonymous workers encountered on the street. The contractors I met at the park often employed the same helpers, most of whom they knew from Mar Vista. Seven ayudantes from the park accompanied the men on jobs I observed, and two helpers not associated with the park were hired as well. Like Chango, most men had begun their careers as ayudantes, working as apprentices under a more seasoned professional. Occasionally, men who typically worked on their own would work as helpers. The vast majority of these shifting arrangements and relationships were tied to the park.

The work was generally “informal” in that it was not regulated by or reported to the government. Usually the parties relied on verbal agreements and cash payments, although contracts were sometimes produced and services paid with personal checks. Although federal and state regulations do apply to this type of work, I never sensed that either party was aware of or concerned with these guidelines. Neither party secured permits for any of the projects I observed, although the men acknowledged that some jobs did require formal approval. In some cases, they took special efforts to avoid inspection; in other cases, they claimed to have lost out on jobs because they were unable to secure a permit or to meet other licensing or insurance requirements. I never observed any clients openly inquiring about the men’s legal status when negotiating the fee or scope of work.

How the men secured work varied, but these jobs almost always involved some sort of referral or recommendation either from a client or a fellow worker. Few of the men actively solicited work from strangers through business cards, advertisements, or employment agencies. The helpers generally worked for someone they knew as well, rather than seeking work at day-laborer centers. Clients, in turn, typically hired someone they knew or recommended either by friends, neighbors, or colleagues or by people they had employed for other jobs.

Friends and Family

Taking Titi as a paradigmatic case, we see how a variety of personal ties could generate work opportunities. It was his mother-in-law’s recommendation that led to the phone call he received in the opening vignette. She recommended Titi to paint the inside of a condominium apartment she had cleaned for over twenty years. Another referral came to Titi through a former soccer teammate, who recommended him for a job painting two bedrooms in a home where he was installing new windows. And Motor— another friend from the park—urged his client to hire Titi to paint a kitchen he was in the process of remodeling. In all three cases, the recommendations led to Titi securing the job.

Titi’s work history reveals the value of ties to people who work in private homes. Indeed, the more people the men knew with such clients, the greater the potential for referrals. As working-class Latino immigrants, their social circle tended to include people who did similar “brown-collar” work, although not all networks were of equal value. Although the men drew referrals from other parts of their lives, the park became a key networking site, especially because it brought together men who did similar work.

Chances for referrals were also high because of the various jobs that unfold in the life of a home, as well as the need for regular maintenance. Along with shifting cultural expectations, the pressures of a competitive real-estate market produce a steady supply of work as well. Upper-class clients regularly asked their working-class hires for recommendations for maintaining their homes. As the clients suspected, the men almost always knew someone who could do the work, if they did not offer themselves as candidates for the job. Moreover, they could usually count on the work being done well at low cost, which is what drew them to this intermediary sector of the labor market in the first place.

For example, as Titi was painting a wall above a fireplace, his client asked him if he knew someone who could install a new gas fixture, adding that she was tired of not having a working fireplace. Titi replied that he did, although he admitted to me that at the time he wasn’t sure who could do the job. But the following week, he returned with Raul, a plumber he knew from the park, and the two men installed a new unit, splitting the earnings in half. The client later explained that she asked Titi about the fireplace because she was worried that a “company” would be too expensive. She added that she didn’t want to deal with “all the hassle” of finding someone and negotiating the terms by herself. In fact, she told Titi to “take care of it” and did not ask him how much it would cost. To her relief, Titi knew someone who could do the job at an affordable rate.

Referrals were usually made in response to client requests, but were also offered in anticipation of their service needs. Workers often made suggestions—and subsequent referrals—for work that might be less notice- able to the client. For example, Valderrama mentioned that his brother- in-law, a gardener, frequently brought issues (such as a rotting fence or a cracked wall) to the attention of his clients. Similarly, when Titi noticed that a client’s gutter was leaking, he told him he knew someone who could repair it. Talking with me later, the homeowner expressed gratitude for having had the problem identified and fixed. When I asked him what he would have done without the recommendation, he explained: “I’m sure I would have found someone to take care of it, but it would have been a pain and taken a while.” He later joked: “I probably wouldn’t even have noticed it, like a lot of things around this house.” Indeed, I often saw men working on a job recommend a friend or relative to fix problems the homeowner had put off handling or hadn’t even noticed.

However, a referral did not guarantee employment. I observed several men who missed out on jobs, despite having received a strong recommendation, usually due to scheduling conflicts or disagreements over fees. The referral merely opened up the possibility of work by bringing the two parties together. Yet hiring through word of mouth offered the advantage of lessening the uncertainty that came with anonymity and the men’s unregulated status. Not only do people tend to trust people they know—which is why they ask for recommendations in the first place—they also recognize that the recommender’s reputation is on the line, which is especially important if future work is at stake. The stakes of the referral became apparent when clients talked fondly of the recommender when negotiating a new hire. For example, meeting Titi for the first time, his client gushed about how much she loved his mother-in-law, Gladys, who cleaned for her, and how happy she was to help out her family. The client later told me in confidence that she trusted Gladys’s judgment, but also knew she would “keep an eye on” her son-in-law. After the job was completed to her satisfaction, she presumably expected Titi—who by then had earned her trust—to serve the same role in supervising Raul on the fireplace project. As in other workplaces, the referral was leveraged as a source both of information and control.15

*

Referrals were rarely made strictly for benevolent reasons. The men making the referral expected to be compensated, although the form of compensation varied. In some cases, a cash payment was offered. For example, Locksmith usually gave around ten dollars to doormen he knew at several Santa Monica high-rises when they referred him to residents locked out of their apartments. In another case, Pow Wow gave Barba fifty dollars for a job he helped him win. When I asked Barba what would have happened if Pow Wow had not paid him, he replied: “Nothing, I just wouldn’t have recommended him anymore.” As Barba was a sociable man who mingled in different social circles, Pow Wow would have lost a valuable contact. In this way, Barba underlined the importance of maintaining relationships with well-connected people.

Reciprocity was more typically achieved through subsequent referrals rather than through cash payments. The prospect of future employment was what most motivated the men to recommend others: “Hoy por ti, mañana por mí.” (Today for you, tomorrow for me.) Valderrama explained his decision to refer fellow workers in these terms: “If I help someone [get jobs], they’ll help me out later with work.” This form of exchange was most common among those whose work lent itself to helping others. For example, Beto (a carpenter), Chicas (an electrician), and Caballo (a plumber)—all friends from the park—frequently referred each other to clients, either in the course of doing a job or when contacted by a client. Like the exchanges and associated obligations built around beer drinking at the park, the trading of job referrals indebted the men to each other and deepened their relationships. Generally, there was a double bonus in these exchanges since the referral benefited their friends and employers, thereby increasing their status and future prospects with both parties. Understandably, the men were excited when their friends obtained work as it could lead to opportunities for them. For example, when I told Martín that Titi had been contacted for a new painting project, he replied: “Ojalá [hopefully] he gets it,” knowing this could mean work for him as a helper.

Caballo and Son

Referrals did not go smoothly every time. There was always a delicate balance between helping out a friend and making sure that person would do a good job; indeed, even a skilled worker could behave inappropriately, showing up late or offending the homeowner in other ways. A bad referral could have disastrous consequences for everyone involved, as illustrated by a falling out between Titi and Motor over a job gone sour:

As Titi was repainting a home, the client asked him if he knew someone who could install new kitchen cabinets. Titi recommended Motor, having worked with him before on a similar job. Recently, the two men had been socializing more often after Titi had begun playing for the soccer team Motor coached. Motor agreed to take on the job, happy to have found work after a brief stretch of inactivity.

The client purchased the cabinets, and Motor went to work installing them. The two men rarely interacted because instructions were passed through Titi. When Motor finished, the client said his wife was unhappy with how they looked. She wanted them positioned differently. He claimed that Motor had not followed his instructions and that he would not pay him until the cabinets were moved. Titi relayed the news to Motor, who was already growing anxious about being paid for three days of work. Motor pushed back, arguing that he did exactly what Titi said the client had requested. He refused to move the cabinets until he was paid for the work he had already done. In the meantime, unbeknownst to Titi, the client found someone else to do the job, and Motor was never paid.

Despite making this “bad” referral, Titi was nevertheless fortunate to avoid the worst-case scenario in which both workers were fired. Instead, as more typically happened in these cases, the client continued to hire the first one for work—as he had already proven himself—but no longer asked for his suggestions.

Consequently, with fewer opportunities to recommend people, Titi’s own chances of receiving referrals declined. As the men depended on the exchange of referrals, it was therefore in their best interest to offer reliable recommendations to their clients, at least to those with whom they wished to remain in good standing. Similarly, those referred were under pressure to perform well if they hoped to be recommended again for jobs in the future. Like their clients, the men used the prospect of future referrals as a means to motivate their protégés and to keep them in line. For example, Titi told Motor that there would likely be much more work with the client to whom he was recommending him “si termina bien” (if it ends well). Yet the job, as we learned, did not go well, after which Titi chided Motor: “You lost a lot of work with that guy!”

At the same time, there was sometimes trepidation about introducing a potential competitor to a client. Indeed, many of the men were adept at different home-improvement tasks or at least professed to be. For example, Titi (a painter) preferred to recommend Motor for carpentry jobs, rather than Valderrama, because the latter was also a skilled painter. By contrast, Titi claimed that Chango no longer employed him on his painting crew because he was worried Titi would “steal his clients.” Chango laughed when I asked him if this was really the case, but he did not dispute Titi’s allegation. While these two men remained friends, I knew of several relationships that soured due to pilfered work. So it was hardly surprising that the men were very careful in choosing whom they recommended to their clients.

Valderrama and Barba

Building Reputations at the Park

The park represented a key social setting for the men to sort out many of these concerns. As the opening vignette shows, the men often talked about their work as they socialized. Through these stories, the men learned about each other as workers—information they later used to make decisions about whom to hire or recommend. As expected, tales of referrals or hiring arrangements gone bad garnered special attention. For example, it took several years for Coloccini to restore his reputation after Barba told everyone at the park he bungled a job he had helped him secure. Barba later told me he was angry with Coloccini because the client—who owned several apartment buildings—no longer asked him to recommend workers, thereby depriving him of fees for referrals and also reducing opportunities for recommendations for himself from those he might otherwise have recommended. Similarly, after Secada was caught by a client taking a shower in her home, Araña, who had hired him, was immediately fired. Subsequently, many men refused to employ Secada as a helper. But culpability was not always clear or uncontested. For example, Secada claimed that Araña made up the shower story to avoid paying him. Similarly, following the kitchen cabinet debacle, outsiders disagreed over who was at fault; some felt that Titi was responsible for the miscommunications with the client and therefore should have paid Motor out of pocket for his work.

As these cases suggest, workers’ reputations were an important and guarded source of currency at the park. In lieu of firsthand knowledge, the men’s performance and behavior on the job were the grounds on which referrals or hires were based. It is therefore hardly surprising that the men aggressively promoted and protected their standing as workers. This meant making sure others knew they were working, which was always in doubt when they were at the park. The men communicated this verbally, but also by arriving in vehicles stocked with supplies and in clothing stained with dirt or paint. When possible, the men also took their breaks at the park. Phone calls with clients, especially when conducted in English, were another way to signal active work lives. Although these moves were not necessarily deliberate, their implication was brought into focus when others joked that these phone calls were only simulations of the real thing, as Polo did when mocking Titi’s phone conversation recounted at the opening of the chapter.

Work histories took on a more forceful and strategic tone in the men’s storytelling. As they socialized, they were quick to publicize successful jobs and wealthy clients—a strategy evident in the following exchange:

It was late afternoon on a Tuesday when Valderrama pulled into the parking lot. Manuel, his regular helper, was sitting in the passenger’s seat. Valderrama hopped out of his truck and walked straight over to the group of men I was sitting with by the picnic tables. He was wearing jeans, boots, and a flannel shirt, all of which looked dusty from a hard day’s work. Valderrama said hello and exchanged handshakes with most of the men. He then sat down and exhaled deeply as he stretched out his arms and legs. He seemed relieved to be sitting down.

After surveying the scene, Valderrama blurted out to no one in particular: “What a day!” Filling the silence, he reached out to Martín, a fellow construction worker: “Hey, Martín, remember that job in Brentwood by the school? I’m working over there. We’re fixing a stone wall by the entrance.” Sensing he had Martín’s attention, he continued: “Puros millonarios [nothing but millionaires] over there. They have a pool, security guard, de todo [everything]! But the owner wants it exact. He’s European.” Gaining momentum, he turned to another colleague in the business: “Motor, you should see the wall, pura calidad [top quality].” Martín and Motor nodded their heads in approval, but the latter then cautioned: “Don’t forget to finish it,” alluding to a well-known situation from a few years earlier when Valderrama failed to complete a job he was working on with Motor. Valderrama laughed and responded: “We’re almost done. We could have finished today, but there’s no rush. Hopefully there’s more work.”

As with Valderrama, the stories the men shared about their work tended to involve bigger jobs and more affluent clients. Like their friends who worked in restaurants, the men felt better about serving important people, so they had a personal interest in elevating the status of the people for whom they worked. They tried to gain status by association, not only to boost their self-worth, but also as a way to promote their skills. In borrowing prestige from their clients, they built themselves up as prestigious workers and therefore as worthy of being recommended by their peers.

But like much that was said at the park, these statements tended to be met with scrutiny and suspicion. For example, several men questioned Titi’s claims about the new job mentioned in the opening section and joked that he had actually been hired to have sex with the elderly client. Workers relied on their powers of persuasion, but also called on companions to corroborate their statements. With most of the men working alone or in pairs in isolated homes, stories were a key way to publicize their work experience in order to increase their chance of being hired or recommended for other jobs. As Valderrama did with Manuel, the men often engaged me in conversation about their work when socializing with the other men, asking me to tell the others about the fanciness of the home or the particularities of a client. I suspect that one of the reasons the men were willing to take me along to their jobs was in order to use me as a more neutral source of corroboration.

*

In addition to stories about the men’s work, park life—as we’ve learned— provided ample opportunity to evaluate their character in ways that affected the men’s hiring practices and referrals. For example, Beavis felt that he was denied work as an ayudante because “I get into too many fights.” Several men told me that they did not hire or recommend one man for jobs because they had seen or heard about him stealing at the park. Several men were excluded from employment deals because of their heavy drinking, for fears that they would show up drunk or not at all. Others were shunned because of their failure to adequately reciprocate in dealings with their peers. For example, when I asked Pachanga why he refused to work for a notorious freeloader at the park, he replied: “How am I going to work for him? He never puts in money for beer!” Sensing that I did not understand the connection, he clarified: “If he doesn’t pay here, he’s not going to pay there!” Park interactions also put pressure on workers to behave on the job, as Robert explained when questioning rumors claiming that a park regular failed to pay his assistants: “How are you not going to pay someone you see at the park every day?”

By contrast, men who handled themselves well at the park—whether on the soccer field or drinking beer together—were more likely to be considered for jobs. For although they came to have fun, they recognized the opportunities that could arise from interactions with a large group of men in similar lines of work. Most men also preferred to work with friends since this helped pass the time, despite the occasional complications. Like an invitation to drink a beer together, hiring or recommending someone for a job solidified and deepened relationships at the park. For example, when I commented to Roberto during a return visit to L.A. that Polo and Motor seemed to be spending a lot more time together at the park, he responded: “It’s because Polo’s working with Motor now,” the former having decided to take a break from decades in the restaurant industry. As in this case and many others, bonds built at the park and on the job became mutually reinforcing and facilitated a range of employment opportunities.

Referrals from Clients and Their Circle of Friends and Neighbors

Referrals also came from the men’s existing clients, who represented another key means of networking. Often these recommendations were requested by clients’ friends or neighbors who needed people to service their home, but had yet to find qualified and trustworthy workers to do the job. For example, several clients explained to me that their friends were always looking for “good help.” In the crowded and largely unregulated informal labor market, finding “good help” could be difficult, which is what made recommendations so valuable. A referral based on firsthand experience offered them assurances that the job would be done well. It also provided information about cost, another source of uncertainty. Moreover, in contrast to recommendations for restaurants or movies, the stakes were high, as one client emphasized as she negotiated with a prospective hire: “This is my home. I live here and need the work to be done correctly.” A referral from a trusted adviser helped allay these concerns.

All fourteen of the men I followed said they received work through client referrals. For example, the painting job Titi secured through his mother-in-law resulted in the client referring him to three of her friends, two of whom ended up hiring him. She even invited friends to her home to meet Titi and to see his work. Months later, one of these new clients told me that she was “so happy” to have met Titi because “he’s done such a good job” painting her apartment. I observed a similar development with Chango. A client invited two of his friends to meet him and to inspect the finished job. Chango ended up painting their homes, which expanded his clientele and earnings.

Several of the men pointed to a particular client who had been especially helpful in introducing them to new clients. For example, Chango attributed his heavy workload to referrals from a longtime client who owned a paint store and who recommended him to many of her customers. Similarly, Motor secured a series of jobs in an apartment complex after doing work for someone he met playing soccer at the park who recommended him to his neighbors. A particularly striking example of networking through clients concerns Araña, who obtained a number of jobs through members of an extended family he had worked for over the previous two decades. The depth of his connections to that family became clear when I observed him installing kitchen tiles in the home of a man Araña had known as a child when he was working for his parents.

The men’s affluent, primarily White clients dwelt in very different social circles from them and consequently had access to a wider range of people outside the men’s networks. By putting the men in contact with other homeowners, these “weak ties” expanded the men’s opportunities. This was especially true of the better-connected and more motivated clients. These links were crucial, given that these clients had only so much work to do and money to invest in their own homes.

The men also told me stories about clients trying to poach them when they were working as ayudantes, just as their colleagues suspected. For example, Pasmado told me about a client who surreptitiously asked for his phone number as he discussed a future job. The men believed clients did this because they assumed that so-called helpers would be less expensive than their bosses. They also had the comfort of having seen the men at work in their home. Notwithstanding the potential for greater earnings and autonomy, the men said they were careful about sharing their contact information because allegations of job poaching could tarnish their relationships and reputation, as previously explained. Despite these risks, several men told me that they developed more independent relationships with clients after initially meeting them as hired hands. Like Valderrama, most of the men got their start as ayudantes, and this was one way to strike out on their own. Clients’ underhanded moves also show the lengths to which they would go to secure cheap and dependable labor for themselves and their friends. Yet at the same time, they expanded the men’s reach into untapped networks.

*

The visibility of the men and their work proved to be another valuable source of referrals. The fact that the homeowners’ friends and neighbors saw the men on the job gave prospective clients an opportunity to observe and interact with them. As with referrals from employees and friends, these interactions lessened some of the costs and uncertainties involved in the hiring process. Instead of choosing a stranger through advertisements or at a day-laborer center, the chance to talk with the men and observe them at work gave a prospective client confidence that the job would be done well for a reasonable price.

Over the course of my research, I observed sixteen neighbors approach the men about potential jobs in their homes. Clients usually spoke directly about the work, but sometimes began with small talk, without making specific reference to a job. The men quickly realized that the neighbors were “feeling them out,” which explains why they never ignored or dismissed these onlookers, no matter how distracting or strange these encounters may have seemed. Here’s an example of one such encounter:

As Güero—a gardener—was packing up his equipment, a white man in his mid-forties walked by with his dog. The man stopped and stared at Güero for a bit and then blurted out: “Muy caliente” (very hot) in accented Spanish. Güero smiled and replied, “Sí,” as he returned to his work under the scorching sun. The man then asked Güero in English if he had just worked at the home in front of which he was parked. Güero answered yes and set down the hedge trimmer he was in the process of repairing. The man took this opening to explain that he was looking for someone to do his yardwork. Güero nodded and responded, “Okay.” Güero went into his truck for a piece of paper to write down his given name (Francisco) and phone number. He handed it over to the man, who was being pulled away by his dog. As he departed, he shouted out: “We’ll talk later.”

While prospective clients usually approached the men on the edges of the work site, it was not uncommon for people to enter their neighbor’s home to observe the work firsthand and speak with the men, even when the homeowner was not around. As with encounters on the street, the men did not appear startled or at all bothered by these intrusions, perhaps be- cause the intruders were generally White and appeared to live in the area.

All the men I followed said that they had independently secured work with a client’s neighbor or with someone simply passing by the client’s home. They admitted that not all conversations led to work; but, well aware of the rewards their visibility could bring, they appreciated the potential of these interactions. As Güero explained, “My work is my best advertisement.” It was therefore not surprising that the men seemed to spend considerable time and energy perfecting sections of their work visible to passersby, especially in walkable neighborhoods. For example, when I asked Motor why he was redoing a part of a fence the client would not be able to see, he replied with a wink: “Para los vecinos” (for the neighbors), which he later confirmed was in the hope of attracting new business. For the same reason, the men rarely changed out of work clothes stained with paint or dirt, as they recognized this as another way of advertising their skills. Thus, rather than lower the visibility associated with their status as immigrant workers, the men tried to heighten it by lingering near the job site and calling attention to the quality of their work.

Not all jobs provided the same visibility or opportunities. Those whose work kept them more hidden from public view engaged in other strategic forms of self-promotion in the hope of publicizing their work. For example, Enrique made a point of leaving supplies and equipment in and around his truck to identify himself as a pool cleaner, which was harder to see since he worked in backyards. This became apparent when I noticed him speaking with a client’s neighbor. When I asked Enrique how the neighbor knew he cleaned pools, he responded, “You see that net? I always leave one sticking out the back window.” In this case, the neighbor explained that he had just moved into the neighborhood and was looking for someone to clean his pool. Enrique gave the man his phone number and, several weeks later—having “caught” the client with his net—added the home to his route.

When I asked Enrique why he did not post a sign and phone number on his truck—which seemed a more straightforward way to share his information—he replied: “Porque no vale la pena.” (Because it’s not worth it.) Like Enrique, few of the other men had business cards or any identifying information on their trucks or their work clothes. Some claimed to have advertised this way in the past, but had not found that it attracted much business. In any case, these more formal signs of organization might have made them appear more expensive and regulated. There was a certain benefit for their business to appear informal, small scale, and presumably undocumented in the eyes of their clients, as when Titi’s client asked for help from one of his “friends” to fix her fireplace. Publicizing a company name and phone number on one’s truck or work clothes would have disrupted this image. Moreover, clients and workers alike appreciated the value of referrals—rather than more indirect methods—to initiate work arrangements. In fact, some clients later confided to me that they had not seriously considered initiating a project until they saw the men at work, which suggests that the prospect of finding someone to do a competent job represented a barrier overcome by the visibility of the men.

That these men secured work through referrals should be of little surprise, especially to migration scholars who repeatedly show the significance of social networks in employment outcomes. Indeed, a common theme in migration studies is the mobilization of interpersonal ties by immigrants to further their material interests. The men secured work through multiple sources, which together formed a dynamic web of relations that expanded with every successful project. However, as we shall see, the most noteworthy and illuminating aspect of the men’s work proved to be the consequences of networking on the job.

Zapata and Enrique sharing a laugh

Networking on the Job

Referrals figured prominently in workplace dynamics, both in terms of how the men viewed and carried out their work and how clients attempted to motivate and control their labor. For example, the men claimed to take on projects and even lower their fee in the hope of securing future work. For reasons that often escaped my attention, they looked beyond the require- ments of any one task when deciding which projects to pursue, how much to charge, and how to conduct themselves on the job.

The prospect of further employment and greater earnings was always on the men’s minds as they negotiated with clients and completed a given project. For example, as Titi painted the interior of the condominium apartment referred to in the opening vignette, he repeatedly told me that he expected to paint the exterior of the building, which he pointed out needed a fresh coat. In fact, it became a running joke between us every time we went outside for him to tell me: “I’m going to paint this build- ing.” He later told me that he was motivated to take the inside job in the hope of securing the more lucrative outside job. Although it turned out that the residents were not ready to repaint the exterior, Titi eventually won a job painting several rooms in another unit, thanks to the client’s recommendation.

For a different client, Titi agreed to do a small-scale painting job in the expectation of getting hired for additional work he felt was necessary, given the condition of the home. As he anticipated, the initial $500 job to paint the front porch led to the much larger $9,000 contract to paint the entire home’s interior. Like Titi, the men were eager to secure employ- ment in homes that appeared to require substantial work, even if meant beginning with smaller, less profitable projects. The wealth and aspirations of clients were also taken into account. For example, when pursuing the initial porch project, Titi told me with a big smile that the client “tiene mucha plata” (has a lot of money). Similarly, Valderrama explained his interest in a potential job because he had heard that the client bought and sold houses. By contrast, some clients were found to be stingy or short on funds and thus not worth cultivating.

The prospect of more lucrative jobs affected not only the men’s choice of projects, but also the quality of their work. For example, when I asked Titi why he was being especially diligent repainting a closet, he replied: “She’ll see me doing a good job and recommend me to her friends.” As mentioned earlier, Motor explained that he took extra care installing the fence around a multi-unit condominium, knowing that both the client and other residents would be watching. Based on his past experiences, he believed that once the client’s neighbors saw the quality of his work, they would consider him for their own projects. Sure enough, a second resident hired him to fix a bedroom door, and a third hired him to install a shelving unit. The last time we spoke, he had completed three more jobs in the same twelve-unit complex as he further established himself as a skillful and dependable handyman.

The quality of the men’s work, however, was not always clear to the client. Often they were not able to perceive or appreciate the effort and skill involved. Consequently, the men took pains to draw the client’s attention to less conspicuous aspects of their labor in order to highlight their diligence and expertise. They made the quality of their work more visible to earn approval for the job at hand, but also with an eye toward the future. For example, when painting the condo, Titi regularly called the client over to show her various problems he was fixing or challenges he was facing in executing the job. In one instance, he asked her to stand on his ladder to inspect a small crack in the ceiling that he was in the process of filling. “A lot of painters come and just paint without looking,” he explained to her. “I take my time and do it right.” This interaction served not only to highlight the quality of his work, but also to assuage the client’s growing concerns over how long the job was taking.

Like Titi, the men often asked clients to inspect their work and compared themselves favorably to less skilled or less careful workers in order to tout their services and justify what they charged. And, like Titi, they also employed a range of other tactics to showcase their talents, including more indirect strategies, such as making elaborate gestures to cover and protect furniture or leaving expensive materials in full view for clients to see, even if they didn’t actually use them on the job. Similarly, several painters told clients they bought materials from an upscale shop in Santa Monica, when they really bought cheaper alternatives from Home Depot. Above all, they were always careful to maintain clean and tidy job sites. At times, the men employed more duplicitous strategies to impress their clients, such as taking shortcuts without informing them, concealing problems, or taking longer on tasks to make the work seem more involved in order to increase their fee. For example, Motor surreptitiously removed part of a railing to maintain a level fence, and Pow Wow concealed a scratch on a floor using a colored marker and putty. In one of the more extreme cases, a man I shadowed filled a garbage bag with dirt from outside, which he then claimed to the homeowner to have cleaned off the window frames and blinds. As Güero explained, it was important to “mantener” (care for and cultivate) the client, and there were a variety of ways to do this, some more underhanded than others.

The men also explained that they adjusted their pricing in relation to what the job might bring. For example, Titi claimed that he could have charged $7,000 for the condo painting job. But hoping a lower fee would lead to additional jobs in the building and worried about being outpriced by someone else, he decided to charge only $5,000. By contrast, Titi confided to me that he inflated his price on a different job because he did not expect it to lead to subsequent work. Similarly, Motor offered a relatively low price on the fence job because it was his first project at the site, correctly anticipating that it would lead to other work, provided he did a good job.

The men also considered the long-term prospects of a particular client. For example, Valderrama agreed to charge one client a low rate because, as the owner of several apartment buildings, he had provided a steady supply of work for him over the previous fifteen years. These jobs became especially important as Valderrama struggled to find work with other clients during the economic downturn that began in 2008. In fact, whenever we discussed his work history and prospects, Valderrama quipped, but only half-jokingly, that this key employer “better not die!” When dealing with their regular clients, the men offered special treatment in addition to inexpensive rates. For example, Chango served regularly as a handyman for one family, and Motor did frequent work for the owner of a dozen rental homes. In both cases, the work was not always lucrative and could interfere with other projects, but the men always gave them priority. At first, I was perplexed to see them leave a job or the park to attend to their clients’ needs—sometimes for something as small as a blown fuse or burned-out lightbulb. However, I grew to appreciate how important these clients were to the men because of the steady work they had provided over the years. In cases such as these, seemingly trivial tasks were understood as part of larger endeavors.

*

For the most part, the men’s approach to their work coincided with clients’ interests. Clients wanted quality work at a reasonable price, which explains why they initially hired the men and subsequently rehired or referred them to others. That many of the men were skilled in a variety of trades—or usually knew someone who could do the work they could not—was crucial for securing the various jobs that unfolded in the life of a home. Chango’s work for a key client over twelve months illustrated this diversity and consistency of ventures: at this client’s home, he repainted two bedrooms, rewired a bathroom, delivered and installed a large bookcase, and removed a small tree from the backyard.

The alignment between the men’s skill and affordability, on the one hand, and the clients’ needs, on the other, was hardly surprising. More surprising were the ways clients deliberately exploited the possibility of future work as a source of leverage and control. For example, when negotiating costs with Titi, the client repeatedly mentioned: “I know people with money.” When installing the fence, the client tried to lower the price by suggesting to Motor that the other condominium residents would want his services, especially with his recommendation. One of Güero’s prospective clients made a similar point as they were negotiating a bimonthly gardening contract: “Everyone knows me here. I’ll help you out.”

Clients also used the prospect of future jobs to motivate the men to do their best work. They understood that the workers had longer-term interests and tried to leverage their best performance by tapping into their ambitions. It was a game of persuasion played by both parties, but with different goals and resources. For example, as one of Titi’s clients was inspecting his work, she reiterated that if he did a good job, she would be sure to refer him to her “rich friends.” She then added: “Trust me, they know I’m picky,” implying that her recommendation carried weight. Similarly, after a decorator helped Chango secure a painting job with one of her wealthy clients, she told him in front of the homeowners: “This is good for you. Make sure you do a good job.” We see a similar approach used by the client who hired Motor for the fence project discussed earlier. After inspecting Motor’s handiwork, the client joked that he would soon be working all over the neighborhood—a prediction he then fulfilled by introducing Motor to a neighbor who needed a broken window frame fixed. This, as we saw, led to several other projects in the same building. In the case of longtime clients, the prospect of future work could go unspoken, but nevertheless motivated the men to do their best. For example, when I asked Valderrama why he was redoing a section of a wall for one of his main clients, he replied, “He would eventually see [the problem], and then I’d be in trouble.” Valderrama and the others knew the risks of losing a valued client.

Extracting “Extras”

While referrals opened up the possibility for future work, “extras” were often a sure way for the men to increase their earnings. By “extras”—a term used by the men—I refer to work added to the initial job agreement. In most cases, the men were financially compensated for this additional work, although clients were adept at extracting free labor as well.

Given the nature of the home and workplace, the possibilities for supplemental work were ever present. Most homeowners had a long list of home-improvement needs apart from what they actually hired the men to do. Some predated the men’s arrival; others emerged over the course of a project. Motivated by the men’s presence and know-how, clients regularly asked them to take on additional tasks. These tasks were generally small and seemingly minor. For example, one of Titi’s clients asked him to do a variety of chores as he painted her condominium, a job that took approximately three weeks to complete. Over the course of two consecutive days, she asked him to change a lightbulb, hang a picture frame, water a plant, empty the trash, watch her dog, retrieve boxes from storage, and help her unload groceries from her car. The client prefaced each request with some version of “since you’re here.” Some of these tasks she certainly could have done herself, but others—like changing a hard-to-reach light bulb and hanging a heavy picture frame—would have been too difficult for her to do. But for Titi, these were relatively simple undertakings, especially with the help of a tall ladder and a strong coworker. Hiring someone for these menial jobs, however, would have seemed outlandish.

As I observed with Titi and several other of the men, clients often asked workers to do unpaid jobs around the home unrelated to the project for which they were hired. For example, as Motor was removing an old fence around an apartment complex, one of the residents asked him if he could remove a dozen wood planks from her back porch. This request was more substantial than most, taking us around twenty minutes to remove and dispose of the rotting wood. The client’s visible relief suggested that she felt unable to remove the rotting wood herself. Yet for Motor and his helper, moving the wood was relatively easy; moreover, he had his truck to haul it away. In this case, as in many others, the men possessed the strength, skill, and equipment to take on tasks their clients could not. Motor agreed to the work without any mention of pay, but after we finished, he told the resident that she should call him if she needed any additional assistance. Later that day, she asked Motor if he could fix an uneven door. In this case, she paid him $100 for two hours of work.

I was repeatedly struck by how frequently and nonchalantly clients asked the men to do work beyond what they were initially hired to do. They seemed to believe that hiring workers for one job entitled them to complimentary assistance on other household tasks, some of which they could have done themselves. The men’s informal status was key, in contrast to formal companies, where everything had a contractual rate and protocol. Differences in race, class, and citizenship might also have emboldened clients to make these requests, as did dangling the prospect of future work and recommendations to other potential clients.

The men generally attended to their clients’ wishes, although in private they sometimes expressed frustration over these intrusions. For example, after a series of interruptions, Titi’s helper exclaimed: “I wish she’d leave us alone.” He found her frequent requests invasive and sometimes draining; but most of all, they interrupted the work they had been paid to do and kept them from moving onto other paid projects. But Titi told his helper not to worry because “it keeps her happy” and because he was counting on her recommendation to her “rich friends.” Like Titi, most of the men were willing to take on minor—often easy—unpaid tasks in order to ingratiate themselves with their clients in the hope of gaining additional paid work.

While clients were more likely to initiate side jobs, the men themselves sometimes volunteered to take care of tasks separate from what they were hired to do. This work was usually minor as well, as when Valderrama asked a client if he needed help moving garbage bags to the alley or when Titi offered to repair the latch on a door. In cases like these, the men capitalized on their superior knowledge and capability, as well as cultural expectations about their subservient position, in order to curry favor with their clients. Most of the men’s clients took for granted free labor of this kind. Yet always with their eyes fixed on the future, the men viewed these unpaid tasks and their subordinate position within a broader and potentially more lucrative frame of exchanges. Like their clients, they exploited their informal status, which gave them the flexibility to execute their work and fees on a case-by-case basis. By doing these favors, they transformed the relationship, creating an expectation of reciprocity in the future.

*

Taking on extra work was not simply a way to keep clients happy. Extras also regularly surfaced as a key source of additional revenue. But in contrast to unpaid labor, most of these paid projects were anticipated and initiated by the workers. They also grew out of the work the men were hired to do, in contrast to the more disparate tasks described above. By altering the home, whether in small or substantial ways, new possibilities for payment often emerged. Some men even lowered their bids or agreed to smaller projects in expectation of expanding the scope of work and making more money as the job progressed.

The mutability of the scope of work was evident in many jobs I observed or heard about from the men. For example, Chango was hired to paint adjoining living and dining rooms. He encouraged the client to add crown molding, but she declined. She felt it was unnecessary and was worried about the added costs and complications. However, after the client saw the bare walls and rooms emptied of furniture—a requirement agreed upon for the job—she agreed that crown molding would look better and consented to the higher price. Chango later explained that he had not initially pushed for the more expensive project because he was confident she would agree to it once he emptied the room. I asked him if this often happened, and he responded with a sigh: “¡Siempre es lo mismo!” (It’s always the same!)

On some projects, unexpected complications emerged that also increased the costs. For example, Chicas was hired to install a new light and heat- ing fixture in a bathroom. The job seemed relatively straightforward, and Chicas negotiated a price of $100 plus materials. However, in the course of removing the old unit, Chicas identified a problem that required fixing. He explained to the client that the wires needed to be replaced and recommended installation of a separate breaker for the unit. The client agreed to the expanded work, which increased the cost to $300.

As with Chicas, clients sometimes had to take workers at their word when agreeing to additional work and pay. In such cases, the men depended on their reputation and powers of persuasion to convince the client, who at first might have been hesitant and distressed at the thought of increased costs. The average client’s ignorance and lack of skills also worked to the men’s advantage, since skilled homeowners might choose to do the work themselves. Regarding the bathroom job mentioned earlier, Chicas told the client that he had installed a similar breaker and wiring system in his own home. Similarly, to convince a hesitant homeowner to add crown molding in her living and dining rooms, Chango claimed that this was a standard feature in the homes of many of his clients. More typically, the problem was more or less self-evident, especially when pointed out and explained by the workers. For example, when Chino Julio removed the carpeting in a client’s house in order to refinish the wood floor underneath, he discov- ered damaged floorboards throughout the small home. When he called to explain the problem, the client asked him if he could simply repair the wood or fill in the gaps with putty. Chino Julio replied that this was not feasible and urged the client to come see for himself. After seeing all the damage, the client consented to the additional work. As he left to return to work, he yelled out: “Just let me know how much more it’s going to cost!”

New tasks often emerged due to the very nature of home-improvement projects. Once work began, clients tended to see their homes in a new light, which sometimes convinced them to agree to additional work they had initially declined or not even contemplated. As we have seen, empty rooms and torn-out carpeting presented new possibilities. The intrusive quality of renovation projects encouraged additional work, particularly those that required significant construction. Once clients saw holes in the wall and their furniture displaced, they often consented to expanded projects. They realized that doing additional work separately would have been much more expensive and disruptive. I frequently heard clients utter a version of the comment “since you’ve started” to explain their decision to consent to additional work and increased costs. Comments like these seemed to echo the logic behind that other common refrain “since you’re here” that motivated clients to request uncompensated side jobs.

As these different examples show, most of the men anticipated the possibility of extras, which motivated them to take on jobs that may initially have appeared small scale and low paying. In some cases, they doubled or tripled their earnings through additional work. Expanded projects also solidified their reputations as capable workers and led to future work and referrals. They were investing in their future, since the job they had in hand was not the one they needed to worry about.

Extras were the only way some workers could substantially increase their pay. Unlike their bigger competitors, independent contractors in this informal economy could not take advantage of economies of scale, relying instead on more intermittent gains. For example, Güero and Enrique supplemented their regular work for companies with side jobs. Güero charged around $200 a month for weekly gardening jobs, Enrique a bit less for cleaning and servicing pools. Yet both men supplemented these monthly paychecks thanks to the occasional extras that emerged. For example, Güero added annual and biannual upgrades to his weekly assignments (such as cleaning gutters, planting flowers, or trimming trees) that earned him additional money. Similarly, Enrique augmented his earnings through more periodic tasks, such as emptying pools for deeper cleanings, repairing broken tiles, or fixing filtration systems. However, in order to obtain these extras, the two men needed to hold on to the weekly jobs, which they claimed were not very lucrative on their own. Not surprisingly, they were frustrated by the clients who never went beyond the primary agreement.

Although additional tasks often increased the overall costs of projects, clients did not hesitate to exploit workplace conditions to advance their interests. In addition to receiving free labor for relatively minor tasks, they expected and generally received a discounted rate for more substantial extras—an arrangement that lowered the cost in comparison to what they would have paid to hire someone separately. A case in point is when Titi identified a leak in the kitchen ceiling of a client who asked him to check all the accessible pipes. With the kitchen walls and ceiling already opened up, this was a relatively simple task, so Titi agreed to check the pipes at no charge. To the client’s great relief, Titi’s brother found and fixed the source of the leak in another section of the house. Thanks to him, the client received a free inspection of his pipes—and peace of mind. Hiring a plumber to do this job from scratch would have meant much higher costs, not to mention all the inconvenience. Had Titi and his brother found additional leaks, they presumably would have earned additional money to fix the problems.

As in Titi’s case, I frequently observed the clients taking advantage of work in progress to attend to issues not included in the original scope of the project. Some requests were related to the task at hand; others were less connected but made possible by the work. For example, as Valderrama was digging holes to build a backyard wall, the client asked him to lay plastic tubes for a sprinkler system he eventually planned to set up. Valderrama agreed to do the work free of charge, even though it required digging several additional holes. On a different job, Motor was asked to run wiring along a fence he was installing. Like Valderrama, Motor did the work at no additional cost, hoping to impress his new clients. Attaching the wire was not difficult, and the clients were pleased to have outdoor lighting without having to find someone else to install it and pay for their services. As Valderrama, Motor, and the others knew well, work in private homes was an evolving and negotiated endeavor, and they were adept at dealing with clients’ changing needs.

Working Connections

On balance, this chapter presents an optimistic account of the men’s world of work. It highlights their autonomy and capacity for negotiation, as well as the freedom with which they made themselves and their work visible in public. The men had something to offer that their customers lacked: namely, know-how that might not require formal schooling but that generally entailed a certain level of competence and certainly more skill than their clients possessed or were prepared to acquire.

The more I learned about the men’s work, the more I came to appreciate the significance of the phone call described at the beginning of the chapter. For Titi and other men at the park—especially those involved in home-maintenance and home-improvement work—employment opportunities were structured by their social relations. In a world that prioritized personal connections and referrals, Titi’s excitement over the incoming call was understandable. This could be his big break, which is why his mother-in-law—despite their differences—had recommended him for the job. With these high stakes in play, Titi’s face brightened at the voice on the other line, and he agreed to meet with the client right away to discuss the project. His enthusiasm proved prescient. After establishing himself as a capable and trustworthy painter, the client recommended him to several of her friends and neighbors, some of whom hired him for their own painting projects. And, as we have seen, Titi ended up doing a range of additional jobs in their homes as well—some paid for, others done for free.

*

The work experiences recounted in this chapter stand in sharp contrast to other, more common depictions of low-wage immigrant workers. For example, immigrants working as babysitters, housekeepers, or for cleaning services are usually more or less interchangeable with parents, relatives, or non-immigrant caretakers. By contrast, because the upper-middle-class lifestyles or aspirations of the men’s clients have often committed them to investments requiring long-term maintenance, their relationship to the men tends to be ongoing and not one-off as it would be had they hired a day laborer. This mutual interdependence helps explain why the economic recession of 2008 was not totally disastrous for the men.

Despite their ingenuity and hard work, the men confronted challenges and setbacks working in the home-improvement sector of the economy. They faced stiff competition from other workers, which tended to drive down wages.The pressure to find work and maintain equipment proved burdensome as well—a main reason why some men preferred working for companies or in restaurants. An unregulated work environment and social differences with their clients could also be marginalizing and lead to the men’s exploitation. They were hired for their willingness to work, which sometimes forced them to accept unfair working conditions, including from clients who believed they were purchasing the right to have the men perform whatever tasks they stipulated. The men also found themselves barred from more lucrative projects because they lacked the necessary permits, licenses, and insurance policies, which confined them to smaller-scale work where these qualifications and credentials were not required. In this way, their marginal status was a double-edged sword that both facilitated and constrained their opportunities. Imperfect English also ruled them out from jobs that required more prolonged or complex communication. Thus, while pleased to be working on their own—and no longer as ayudantes—the men faced numerous roadblocks in their efforts to climb the socioeconomic ladder.

Perhaps most importantly, not all networks were created equal, nor were they permanent. Just as social connections could expand and in- crease opportunities, networks could also be unreliable and transitory.For example, while Motor boasted that “people call me now” to explain his heavy workload, Martín lamented that his contacts had retired, died, or moved away. And, as Titi’s case revealed, it takes time, perseverance, and lucky breaks to start out on one’s own. Despite these challenges, the men adapted in creative ways to create greater demand for their services. Most notably, they negotiated referrals and extras on the job to survive in a competitive, often precarious labor market.

Workers as People

When following the men at work, my thoughts inevitably returned to the park. This was due in part to the men themselves, as they often talked about goings-on at the park as we worked together or as we strategized ways to return in time for the midday soccer games or post-match beer drinking. I was constantly reminded how these worlds of work and play were intertwined. In ways I heard about but later confirmed firsthand, the park served as a place to build the relationships and reputations that helped many of the men secure employment. Others relied on the park as an arena to find hired hands they could count on, often on short notice. While this chapter focuses on work in private homes, I learned of similar network-based hiring practices in restaurants, another primary source of employment at the park. With many of the workers limited by their credentials and immigration status—as well as by a competitive labor market and isolated work environment—the park emerged as a key networking site and source of stability in the men’s lives.So, in contrast, to the men’s oft-repeated lament “el parque no paga” (the park doesn’t pay), time there could indeed pay off.

As we have seen, few of the men held traditional nine-to-five jobs. Their employment situations tended to be precarious, requiring them to be “on call” for phone calls that might or might not come. The park solved the problem of what to do while they waited by allowing them to pass the time in a meaningful way. Like other precariously employed individuals who seek refuge in coffee shops or libraries, playing soccer and socializing at the park helped fill the time between jobs, while also providing connections that helped the men find work.

But for the Mar Vista soccer cohort, the park represented much more than simply a convenient pit stop and useful networking site for immigrant workers. More importantly, it became a place for the men to enrich their lives. Here they could be someone in ways they couldn’t necessarily be at work. At the park, they participated in a social world where they were viewed as people valued for their history and for achievements beyond their abilities to wash dishes, lay tile, or mow lawns. My visits with the men on the job gave them an opportunity to share this world with their employers, who seemed to wonder how I knew them. Polo revealed the significance of these exchanges when I ate at the restaurant where he worked. He came over to my table with several waitresses and encouraged me to tell them about his soccer-playing exploits. In return, he touted my prowess on the field and my studies at UCLA. Like Polo, many of the men I accompanied on the job made a point of explaining to their employers that we knew each other from playing soccer together at the park. I sensed the employers’ curiosity and the men’s satisfaction as they relayed this information in ways suggesting that this was the first time they had communicated an identity beyond work to them.

*

Not surprisingly, the relationship between the men’s work and what they had created at the park was entirely absent from debates about the soccer field recounted in the concluding chapter. While some local residents were sympathetic to the men’s need for recreation, many others felt that their presence was bringing disorder and disrepute to the park and surround- ing area. But neither side in the debate seemed to appreciate how park life enriched the men’s work opportunities, in ways comparable to White men networking on the golf course, over drinks at a bar, or at a professional luncheon. Even the men’s family members failed to appreciate the importance of socializing at the park, including Valderrama’s brother, who refused to hire “los borrachos del parque” (the park drunks), as well as several spouses who urged me to avoid the park and spoke disparagingly of it to my wife.

Yet I always suspected there was a deeper, more sinister reason for outsiders’ aversion to the men’s presence and activities at the park. To put it bluntly, the working-class Latino immigrant men were seen as “out of place” at the park during “normal” working hours because they were expected to be working. It was not only the men’s foreignness that provoked this backlash, but what was perceived as their idleness. In fact, I often heard field critics question why the men were not working, as when one local resident wrote over email: “Don’t these guys have jobs?”Police officers posed similar questions when interrogating the men at the park.

The hostility the men faced for “playing” in the park contrasted sharply with the warm welcome they received as workers in people’s homes— including by homeowners living only a few miles from the park. As workers in people’s homes, their presence and activities were not only embraced, but actively sought after and relied on for all the reasons explained in this chapter. In fact, most homeowners seemed to have a marked preference for foreign-born Latino workers, which my presence appeared to disrupt—and hence their apparent relief when they learned I was not a “real” worker. Yet despite the substantial social and cultural differences separating the men from their clients, these relationships depended on trust and involved close interactions behind closed doors. Workers saw their clients at their most vulnerable and in their most private domestic spaces. Clients, for their part, spoke fondly of the men, even in familial terms, and occasionally offered them “gifts,” usually household items and clothing they no longer had use for. And even if colored by their social differences and the constraints of employer-employee relations, over time these relationships often developed a degree of comfort and familiarity, as conversations about work led to questions about the worker’s family and country of birth.

The men did not receive the same welcome at the park, where their foreignness and working-class status were perceived as threatening, rather than as reassuring and appealing. There, they became “bad hombres.” At the park, the men interacted with local residents from a distance, becoming visible and menacing in ways they were not when they were working in people’s homes. In fact, the stigma associated with “brown-collar occupations” seemed to accentuate differences that made them unwelcome in the park but approachable on the job. By contrast, I never sensed that Latina immigrant nannies faced resentment of this kind when they came to the park with their charges from the neighborhood; parkgoers and neighbors seemed to understand that they were there simply doing their job.31 This disjuncture between the worlds of work and leisure points to the enduring dilemma faced by immigrant workers. As Swiss playwright Max Frisch famously noted in an essay about foreign workers’ feelings of alienation, “We asked for workers, but people came.” Immigrants are desired for their labor, not for their social presence, and the men I studied broke that bargain by socializing as people in the park.


Dr. David Trouille is Assistant Professor of Sociology at James Madison University

Notes:

Excerpt taken from Fútbol in the Park: Immigrants, Soccer, and the Creation of Social Ties (The University of Chicago Press, 2021)

Reviews

Notes on our hemispheric inheritance: A Review of Angel Dominguez’s “Desgraciado: The Collected Letters”

José Felipe Alvergue

“This Brown body in repose is never quite in repose, always in question of who will see it, and will they be a threat—do I die today, like this?—this body full of colonization-dystrophy with its instinct to feed upon the flesh of my oppressor? How are you supposed to politely reject your suffering? Genocide is not a matter of opinion.” (27)

There is a haptic, generalized consumption to dystrophy. An appetite that can be insightful and critical, precise, and terminological. It’s also characterized as a wasting away, a concerning health condition. When I read Angel Dominguez’s Desgraciado: The Collected Letters I am invited into a reflection of my own processes of making sense of hemispheric subjectivization, both as a member of a diaspora community as well as someone who grew up on the Tijuana River Valley. I learned there that despite the prehistorically shaped ridge connecting Tijuana to Playas before bowing to meet the Pacific, and the rusted incision of the ‘wall’ itself, la frontera remains an atmospheric experience of exchanges, and relationships. Which is to say, it is a landscape where change and cycle occurs over the event of an origination, ecological and political. The “colonization-dystrophy” of it all is rather dynamic, but not without moments and pains that can and should be named. Dominguez makes a study of this: “Tato’s mother calls it ‘colonial sickness’, the latent radiation poisoning of colonization”; or, it is a “colonial atrophy,” wherein one “can almost feel the atoms falling” away (86). These are the bounds of a vatic attention to the material evidence of a trauma that has become, also, through an entangled archival system of literally manifesting events each time critique inches itself toward a light, a form of expenditure.

“Live from the mystery itself, writing love letters to keep myself alive” (86). 

The moments that shake me from over-theorizing are those where Dominguez concludes on “love.” What comes before and what follows that notion I piece together as an intimacy that is without resolve. It is rather the full expenditure into something. Something like a relationship, or an imagination. An expenditure we might consider in the lost time and history burned in piles during colonial conversions, and the public displays that would accompany its project inquisition.

“What are you going to do about it? Diego, what are we going to do about it? I want all the artifacts back. Museums are a fucking lie. I want my language back. I want to reconcile the many afterlives of colonization that keep raging inside of me; I want to know a love like the burn of belts and chanclas, the RNA memories handed down from flogging and being flogged by our ancestors. I want to know the love of forgiveness. Like how do you put down a dog that attacked you? How do I put you to bed while pulling you back into my blood?

Like a reverse exorcism, I’m calling you into my body. Stay with me.” (43)

But before going on I want to pause and offer some careful thoughts. Maybe they’re not thoughts, in fact, but wisdom from José Estaban Muñoz: “Brown, it is important to mention, is not strictly the shared experience of harm between people and things; it is also the potential for the refusal and resistance to that often-systemic harm. Brownness is a kind of uncanny persistence in the face of distressed conditions of possibility.”[1] When I consider the various ways I’ve come across someone else, someone often Brown, taking the dystrophy Dominguez captures here above, and putting it on the page, giving it a color or texture, associating to it a sound, a movement of the body in space, and so on, I am struck by the condition of supremacy today. It is the marketing pressure to somehow “heal” from the inescapable condition/s it itself maintains from its own lack of communication.

Yet Dominguez’s is a strategy against the spectacularization of the dystrophic condition, which is the objective of supremacy. Supremacy seeks to spectacularize one mode of feeling blunt force by numbing or dismembering the victim from methods of communicating it back, and thereby legitimating (fantasizing) its own power by disenfranchising the relationship power’s violence needs to survive. To write it, is to thus refuse to be afraid of the difference caused by the disjunctive, dissociating world-making that arises from experiencing both harm and life in the persistent manner Muñoz identifies above. To write and name the paradox befuddles the knowledge systems that textualize us. In their epistolary project Dominguez works through the labor of compiling a record of a process and work which have been thought lost to a 500-year-old fire.

“Whereas the psychotherapeutic literature concludes that Latinos suffer anxiety and depression more than any other group,” Muñoz underscores, “the epidemiological literature concludes that they possess better physical health than any other group and live longer than would be expected,” an “uncanny physical persistence” that “has been enshrined within the term ‘epidemiological paradox’ invented to name it.”[2] Or as Dominguez writes, “We are resilient insofar as we are feeling” (80). To find closure, as I understand it, would be to close the loop on feeling, as something that destabilizes the epistemological networks that hold and betray us. It would be the disavowal of a poetics, which others would seek to subsume into theoretical frameworks devoid of feeling but engorged by the self-applause of an advertisement. And I say poetics because of the temporal reconsideration of the dystrophic as a communication-disruption that emerges in colonial contact and is disfigured by the public act of burning language systems and archives during indigenous conversion. There is a poetics that recaptures the vatic temporality of event while creating the very space for the processing of the implicit intimacy it asks.

Desgraciado is a process. “You forced death down the throats of so many,” they write to “Diego,” and “now I have white people to tell me about it. To tell me all about everything it is I lack” (19). The paradigm shift of work like this, at least one aspect of this shift, is recasting the role and animation of “feeling,” especially as it pertains to existence, both intrapersonal and public. Fray Diego de Landa’s notoriety is often furnished by depictions[3] of the auto-de-fé, wherein in 1562 de Landa ordered the destruction of the Mayan codices and over 5,000 devotional images and idols. They were all burned publicly in Mani, Yucatán. Though we might learn about the auto-de-fé in the purely religious context of conversion, the spectacular lesson of a public burning evokes a purposefully and strategically aligned internalization of corregimiento. In a purely aesthetic sense, a sensible sense, I am speaking maybe of depictions of de Landa’s atrocity, where the faces of the burning statuettes plead through color and brushstroke in an unmistakably human manner.

But what I actually mean is that the public burning, as a spectacularization of the power to correct, becomes an intergenerational reality that lives on through the enactment of new violent actions that originate as an attempt to confront and overcome the latent fear that arises when your life is threatened by a power more extensive than any direct, inter-personal encounter with a recognizable other. You end up writing letters to it because the totality of this one-way act is your world, your love, your worries, your partner-in-crime, your lens. You are given it by those in your life, and are above you in a line of inheritance, and they lash out against the fear as if on trial themselves, in an inquisition of themselves via the object (of intimacy) that is you and them, and everything else. “[M]ade to feel a constant estrangement to my truth,” writes Dominguez when reflecting on the abuse from their “then-father” and his “machismo-addled-brain,” which is to say, without absolving his homophobia and violence, the externalized unprocessed damage expressed, powerfully, as burning. One forcibly brought forth as a witnessed event by the inclusion of the abused. “[U]n angel,” as Dominguez signs off (78-79).

Yet there is that other critique, and it’s one I cannot stop thinking about as an immigrant border subject. Which is a rewriting of angelicity itself in the context of hemispheric identity, of Walter Benjamin’s heroic melancholia in regard to historicity. And maybe it takes a sight of a material piece of evidence, like a border, in both the windshield and the rear-view, back and forth, back and forth to understand this looping intimacy. And so, though Dominguez es un angel, they also claim Chaac, the Mayan god of rain. With a lightning bolt in one hand, and literally the power to transform a landscape into the ashen mud of a new form. The most beautiful of days, the most lasting of impressions from being in the midst of the estuary that is the Tijuana River Valley, for me, were those overcast days where a heavy moisture watched over us all in a gently laid weight pressing down on us through the physics of a pulsing gray matter––the immediate experience of an atmosphere felt from below, from being bound to our humanness. I imagine those days as Chaac’s.

The colonizers did one thing meticulously, aside from murder, and that was keep notes. The archives we have of their actions and intentions is impressive. But they don’t speak, so to speak. Dominguez’s decision on the epistle is captivating for the way it speaks to what refuses to respond, and does so in a deluge of writing, which is the reflection of a thinking-feeling-writing-reading. The subject meant to recede into a violent blaze of corrected silence is the one with an abundance of language on the matter of their intimacy. The “collection” is a totality invoked but not recorded by the same system of conversion and erasure. The disruption to the inherent temporality of the letter (the record) functions both on reflection and vatic projection, in that their reception is always already a past, which in its moment was an interval past even that moment of their own event, but thrown into a new authority as the record which will exist in the moment of its intelligibility.

As the collection advances the reader is enveloped in a process.

“…I can’t make a fire. I’m trying to yield more than I advance. I am learning that not all words are always heard or spoken, though in this moment I hope every dictionary snaps its spine into a deafening ocean… A colonizer on every corner. I wonder what they would have called me if your language never came. Between you and me, I really prefer the name Chaac.

Love,

Rain.”  (3)

What I received from the book, and for me the review is maybe about this because of the strength with which I felt it, is permission to unlearn that shame of being burned in public. The disavowal of language that is de Landa’s auto-de-fé is his own, and is a site of reanimated poetics towards the neocolonial burnings and attempted corregimientos. I have no illness to heal from, and though it’s not about absolution, the sheer collection of process here reveals a culminating position within its intimacy, its love, that is also the culmination of (a) work. Our work does not absolve the ghosts of colonialism either, those which carry-on in the flesh-troping obsessions with spectacle, and silence, with new kinds of burning and policymaking, all the violence of today’s supremacy. Angel Dominguez has given us a weapon, a codex with which to fortify and record a new communication.

DESGRACIADO: (the collected letters) by Angel Dominguez © 2022 by Nightboat Books. Used by permission of the publisher. Link to title

José Felipe Alvergue is the author of three books of poetry, most recently scenery, which was selected for Fordham University Press’s Poets Out Loud Editor’s Prize. He is a Senior Poetry Editor for Tupelo Quarterly, and his published scholarship engages with poetics, transnationalism, performance, and democratism. He lives and works in Wisconsin.


Notes

[1] José Esteban Muñoz, The Sense of Brown, 2020, p.4.

[2] Muñoz, 5.

[3] See for example Fernando Castro Pacheco’s mural, “The Spanish bishop Diego de Landa is burning figures of Mayan deities,” Palacio del Gobierno, Mérida, MX.  

José Felipe Alvergue is the author of three books of poetry, most recently scenery, which was selected for Fordham University Press’s Poets Out Loud Editor’s Prize. He is a Senior Poetry Editor for Tupelo Quarterly, and his published scholarship engages with poetics, transnationalism, performance, and democratism. He lives and works in Wisconsin.

Articles

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

Kimberly D. Nettles-Barcelón

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Beginnings…

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

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

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

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

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

Faces of Farm to Fork Sactown Magazine August/September 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

********

From “Their” Hands to “Ours”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farm-to-Fork in Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food Literacy Center Newsletter (March 24, 2021)

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

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

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

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


Notes:

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

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

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

[4] Jhally 2015, page 247.

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

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

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

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

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

[10] Green, 11/1/2012

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

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

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

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

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

[16] Page 89, bold added by author.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[42] http://goharvest.org/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excerpts

A People’s Guide to Orange County

Elaine Lewinnek, Gustavo Arellano, and Thuy Vo Dang

Home to Disneyland, beautiful beaches, neo-Nazis, decadent housewives, and the modern-day Republican Party: this is Orange County, California, in the American popular imagination. Home to civil rights heroes, LGBTQ victories, Indigenous persistence, labor movements, and an electorate that has recently turned blue: this is the Orange County, California, that lies beneath the pop cultural representation, too little examined even by locals.                  

First advertised on orange crate labels as a golden space of labor-free abundance, then promoted through the reassuring leisure of the Happiest Place on Earth, and most recently showcased in television portraits of the area’s hypercapitalism, Orange County also contains a surprisingly diverse and dis- cordant past that has consequences for the present. Alongside its paved-over orange groves, amusement parks, and malls, it is a place where people have resisted segregation, struggled for public spaces, created vibrant youth cultures, and launched long-lasting movements for environmental justice and against police brutality.

Memorably, Ronald Reagan called Orange County the place “where all the good Republicans go to die,” but it is also a space where many working-class immigrants have come to live and work in its agricultural, military-industrial, and tourist service economies. While it is widely recognized for incubating national conservative politics during the Cold War, recently the legacy of Cold War global migrations has helped this county tilt Democratic, in a shift that has national consequences. It is a county whose complexities are worth paying attention to.

Every day, thousands of people drive past Panhe at the southern Orange County border without knowing that it is there. A village thousands of years old, where the Acjachemem Nation of Indigenous people still gather regularly, Panhe is visible from the 5 freeway if you know where to look. Nearby, a few miles inland from Panhe, is the Capistrano Test Site, where President Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” program of laser missiles was secretly developed in the 1980s until its weapons of mass destruction were exposed by a brush fire. Both sites are reminders of the long, varied, and little-known history of Orange County, from an Indigenous village to a military-industrial laboratory. Our book, A People’s Guide to Orange County, aims to reveal that diverse range of Orange County’s past and present, exposing stories that are too often forgotten.

Orange County is the fifth-most-populous county in the United States. If it were a city, it would be the nation’s third-largest. If it were a state, its population would make it larger than twenty other states, larger than Iowa or Nevada, larger than New Hampshire and Montana combined. Political scientist Karl Lamb declared in his 1976 book of the same name that “As Orange Goes,” so goes the nation, but it was not quite clear where Orange County was going in 1976 or, indeed, where it is going today. As queer studies theorist Karen Tongson explains: “Orange County is at once a conservative hotbed, an immigration hot zone, and a sub- urban fantasyland of modern amusement… a site of oscillation [between] provincialism and cosmopolitanism,” veering also between frontier nostalgia and postmodern sunbelt sprawl. Its Cold War growth, its supposed exceptionalism, and its separation from Los Angeles County have all earned it the descriptor of being “behind the Orange Curtain,” but Tongson argues that looking and listening beyond the Orange Curtain reveal a “mess and cacophony” that would shock Walt Disney, with his famed commit- ment to orderly control. It is the tangled stories and unlikely alliances that make Orange County such an intriguing and pivotal place, and those stories are the focus of our book.

Annually, forty-two million tourists visit here, but Orange County tends to be a chapter or two squeezed into guidebooks centered on Los Angeles. Mainstream guides direct tourists to Orange County’s amuse- ment parks and wealthy coastal communities, with side trips to palatial shopping malls—the same landscapes that have long dominated popular knowledge of the region. If you have three days here, spend two of them at Disneyland and the third visiting shops, spas, or Knott’s Berry Farm, according to the Lonely Planet’s Los Angeles, San Diego, and Southern California guide. Careful readers may notice that some guide-books also note the presence of Little Saigon, the shuttered conservative megachurch Crystal Cathedral, the quaint revivalism of Old Towne Orange, and the sentimentalized nostalgia of Mission San Juan Capistrano, but even in the longest guidebook, Insider’s Guide to Orange County, one must search for sites to visit away from Orange County’s predominantly wealthy, largely white coast. It is only The Insider’s Guide chapter on “Relocations” that mentions that those who cannot afford to spend millions on housing might need to live in the inland portions of this county. Of the guides for tourists, only the Lonely Planet recommends any sites in the half of the county north of the 5 freeway, and then only two: the Richard Nixon Library in Yorba Linda and Glen Ivy Hot Springs, a popular Southern California resort that is, oddly, across a mountain range and in another county entirely.

Tourists who rely on these guidebooks do not get to see Orange County’s most heterogeneous half, the northern and inland spaces where, in the county’s first half century, the vast majority of oranges were grown alongside oil derricks, herds of sheep, and groves of loquats and lemons. Now many of the wealthy suburbanites of southern Orange County depend on service sector workers who live in northern Orange County or beyond, often forced into long commutes by the high costs of housing closer to the coast. Orange County is not simply the wealthy “California Riviera” that Fodor’s Los Angeles with Disneyland claims it is—and even the Riviera requires workers who merit attention.                                      

Geographically, Orange County is a wide basin, stretching from the mountains at its eastern edge to the ocean at its west, situated between the powerful metropolitan regions of Los Angeles to the north and San Diego to the south. Many popular tourist guidebooks do not even name Orange County in their titles, instead referring to Los Angeles, San Diego, and Disneyland. The county’s boundaries are two creeks—Coyote Creek to the north, which feeds into the San Gabriel River, and San Mateo Creek to the south—and Orange County itself centers on the broad floodplain of the Santa Ana River. Current-day residents may forget about these waterways as they drive along freeway overpasses above the concrete basins that contain intermittent water. Southern California is famous for forgetting its own past, but it also holds the archival records and memories to correct that widespread cultural amnesia, and the landscape itself still has stories to tell.

Although existing guidebooks minimize it, Orange County has a deep history. Human habitation of Southern California began more than nine thousand years ago, when Indigenous people thrived along Orange County’s coast and rivers, foothills and mountains, as well as the Channel Islands nearby. The county is now full of sites associated with Native American people as well as ongoing, contemporary Indigenous activism. The Tongva people, whom Spanish missionaries called Gabrieliño, inhabited northern parts of present-day Orange County. The Acjachemem people, whom Spanish missionaries later referred to as Juaneño, were centered on San Juan Capistrano. Their tribal networks reached far: both the Tongva and Acjachemem languages are part of the Uto-Aztecan family, which stretches from current-day Utah to Texas to central Mexico.

During the Spanish colonial era of 1769–1821, Indigenous people were dispossessed of much of their land, especially along the coastal plain, and the Spanish crown granted large tracts of land to Spanish settlers. The largest Spanish land grant in all of California, Rancho los Nietos, stretched from Whittier in Los Angeles County across Orange County to the Santa Ana River, covering a territory of three hundred thousand acres (today eighteen different towns), all presented to retired Spanish soldier Manuel Nieto. This grant was so vast that the San Gabriel Mission in Los Angeles contested its terms, claiming it encroached on mission land. Colonial courts did not mention that it also encroached on Indigenous land. In 1810, the Spanish king gifted another retired soldier, Jose Antonio Yorba, with Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana, stretching twenty-five miles along the southern side of the Santa Ana River, where Yorba had already been grazing cattle with his father-in-law. Those rancho cattle disrupted the environmental resources that the Acjachemem and Tongva people had relied on, increasingly pressuring Native people into coreced, unpaid labor in the missions. The enormous Spanish land grants and the colonial system of forced labor also set the stage for later rounds of land transfer and dispossession, shaping Orange County’s ongoing disparities between rich and poor, owners and workers.        

When Mexico gained its independence from Spain, after 1821, Rancho Los Nietos was broken into six smaller ranchos, and mission property was redistributed, with ongoing controversies over Indigenous land claims. Some Mexican settlers were given land in the northern foothills of present-day Orange County, slightly more modest grants the size of present-day cities. Larger ranches in southern Orange County were granted to the Sepulveda, Serrano, and Pico families and were also sold to newly arrived Anglo merchants like John Forster, Abel Stearns, and William Wolfskill, who became Mexican citizens in order to legally own land here. While Orange County contains the largest land grant in California, Rancho los Nietos, it also has the smallest, the Rios Adobe: a house lot of 7.7 acres in San Juan Capistrano, presented in 1843 to the Rios family, members of the Acjachemem Nation, who still live in the home their ancestors first built there in 1794.

US conquest in 1848 brought new land commission policies challenging the terms of Spanish and Mexican land grants, forcing the ranchos’ owners to defend their land titles in expensive court cases. Anglo squatters, new taxes, lack of access to capital, and droughts all combined to force most of the earlier owners to sell their land. During the devastating droughts of 1862 and especially 1864, wheat crops wilted and thousands of starving cattle were driven in mercy killings off the cliffs into the ocean. Most of Orange County’s land passed from Indigenous and Mexican American owners to Anglo ones. James Irvine, Lewis Moulton, Richard O’Neill, and Dwight Whiting consolidated some of the earlier ranchos into their own vast landholdings for the next century.

In between the ranches, in the swampier areas around the Santa Ana River as well as the foothills, Orange County also gave birth to utopian communities that challenged class hierarchies. Before it became a center of twentieth-century conservatism, many of Orange County’s nineteenth-century European settlers were actually radicals taking advantage of cheap land that had been expropriated from Indigenous people and then Mexicans, where the Europeans could experiment with new societies. A cooperative colony of German wine makers founded Anaheim in 1857, relying on Chinese laborers. Polish artists also attempted a utopian society in Anaheim before moving in 1888 to Modjeska Canyon near Santiago Peak. So many Mormons and Methodists settled in the floodplain of the Santa Ana River, in present-day Garden Grove, Santa Ana, and Fountain Valley, that it was known as Gospel Swamp. Vegetarian spiritualists lived in Placentia from 1876 to 1923, near Quakers in Yorba Linda. Other Quakers settled in El Modena, while free-love socialists from the Oneida community established a colony in Santa Ana in the 1880s, gaining enough respectability to serve as the county’s first judges. Few remember those early experimenters, but they were here.

The completion of transcontinental railway connections to Los Angeles in the 1880s helped connect Orange County agricultural products to national markets and encouraged a speculative land boom. Rising land prices here increased political power among Orange County’s landowners, who probably bribed the state legislature to allow them to secede from Los Angeles County in 1889. This county could have been called Grape, Celery, Walnut, or Lima Bean County, since those were the area’s major crops at the time of secession, but boosters decided that the luxurious, exotic image of oranges would sell the most real estate. Eventually, the citrus industry grew so that Orange County did live up to its name. In 1893, citrus growers organized the Southern California Fruit Exchange, later renamed Sunkist, an oligarchical corporate organization that consolidated power across Southern California. Employing Native American, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Mexican American, Dust Bowl, and Jamaican workers, the Sunkist corporation exercised tight managerial control over the diverse people who planted and harvested the orange groves. The conditions of labor were justified by growing ideas about racialization. As Japanese American farmer Abiko Kyutaro observed in the early twentieth century, California was “A wasted grassland / Turned to fertile fields by sweat / Of cultivation: / But I, made dry and fallow / By tolerating insults.”

Pressel Grove in Anaheim, one of the last remaining orange orchards in Orange County, and also a site that set off the 1936 Citrus Wars when police battled with striking naranjeros. Photo courtesy of Paula Beckman.

While Orange County’s agribusinesses created a racialized workforce, they also marketed a vision of this state as a nearly labor-free paradise of abundantly productive land. Huntington Beach farmer Luther Henry Winters designed much of the California exhibit at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, bringing Orange County products to a wide audience. Fullerton’s Charles Chapman pioneered the use of orange-crate labels to market both oranges and Southern California. Few people of color ever appeared on these orange-crate labels, and when they did, it was either as servants, cast members in California’s Spanish-fantasy past, or signifiers of nature. Enormously popular and widely circulated, orange-crate labels did not picture most of the transnational workers; nor did they show the oil derricks, the cyanide sprayers, the heavily patrolled fields, the vibrant cultural communities of “picker villages,” or the labor protests that also emerged from Orange County’s agribusiness.

World War II was a turning point for Orange County, as for much of California. Its strategic location, open space, fair weather, and political influence drew the Santa Ana Army Air Base, the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station, and Marine Corps air stations in Tustin and El Toro, as well as Camp Pendleton just over the border in San Diego County, which brought in military personnel as well as defense-related industries. The military presence here enabled new employment opportunities, especially for Orange County’s Indigenous people and African American people.         

After 1945, Cold War federal defense spending led to sprawling growth centered on a military-industrial and service economy, in a pattern of expansion repeated across the Sunbelt South and West. The U.S. Department of Defense budget ballooned in the 1950s to $228 billion, including $50 billion to California alone, more than any other state, and most of that sum went to Orange County and its neighboring counties. By 1960, the county contained thirty-one thousand workers in defense-related industries, includ- ing Hughes Aircraft, American Electronics, and Beckman Instruments in Fullerton, Autonetics and Nortronics in Anaheim, Collins Defense Communications / Rockwell International in Santa Ana, Lockheed Martin in Irvine, and Ford Aeronutronics in Newport Beach. Related industries, from fast food to real estate development, followed. Construction of the I-5 freeway, connecting Los Angeles to Santa Ana to San Diego in the 1950s, further spurred business and residential growth. The county’s population increased nearly fourfold from 113,760 in 1940 to 703,925 in 1960, then doubled again to 1.5 million by 1970 and doubled again to more than 3 million today.

That disorienting, sudden growth and the lack of traditional town centers in postwar suburbia converged with the individualist philosophies of earlier ranch owners and right-wing local media, so that many of Orange County’s Cold War migrants eventually found ideals of community and tradition within new megachurches and a new strain of conservative politics that took root in Orange County’s postwar tract housing. Suspicious of federal power even though dependent on it, a grassroots cadre of mostly female Orange County conservative activists spread their political message at coffees and backyard barbecues, organized “Freedom Forum” bookstores, served on local school boards, and pressured the local Republican Party in ways that eventually reoriented conservatism in America as they advocated for the elections of Goldwater, Nixon, and Reagan.

Philip K. Dick found postwar Orange County an ideal space from which to write dystopian science fiction, including his classic Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, later filmed as Blade Runner. Dick describes this space memorably in A Scanner Darkly (1977) when his disillusioned narrator observes: “Life in Anaheim, California, was a commercial for itself, endlessly replayed. Nothing changed; it just spread out farther and farther in the form of neon ooze. What there was always more of had been congealed into permanence long ago, as if the automatic factory that cranked out these objects had jammed in the on position. How the land became plastic.” Despite that vivid and often-apt description, the tract homes and mini-malls of Orange County do change and are also contested.                  

In the decades after 1945, Orange County became a leader of privatization, developing the nation’s first planned gated community, one of the first age-segregated retirement communities, the first homeowners’ associations, and the first privatized toll road. Along with the enclosure of newly privatized residential communities and roads went increasing construction of carceral spaces, from local jails to a military brig and an international border checkpoint. Yet conservative politics, privatization, and enclosure are not the only stories here. Environmental and Indigenous activists waged decades-long movements, eventually achieving the preservation of Bolsa Chica Wetlands in 1989, the shuttering of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in 2013, and the defeat of a proposed privatized toll road at Trestles surf spot in 2016.       

Mark Faegre and Melissa Shattuck protesting at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in 1979. In a startlingly long social movement, protests at San Onofre began in 1963, as soon as the nuclear generating station was planned, eventually led to its shutting down in 2013, and continue to ask questions about long-term storage of nuclear waste there. Photo courtesy of Douglas Miller.

Even before those environmentalist successes, local people of color allied with civil rights organizations to bring pathbreaking lawsuits here: housing covenant case Doss v. Bernal (1942), school desegregation case Mendez et al. v. Westminster (1946), and housing desegregation case Reitman v. Mulkey (1967). That resistance came at a steep cost: too many of this county’s midcentury radicals died young from stress-related illnesses. Nevertheless, their achievements belie the county’s well-earned reputation for conservative politics, which grew from the prominence of the extremist John Birch Society in the 1960s through the antigay Briggs Initiative of 1978 and the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 campaign that originated here in the 1990s.

Many of the stories in our book are contrapuntal ones, as this county often contains the seeds of its own oppositional movements. This area that boosters advertised as a white rancher’s paradise relied on transnational workers on Indigenous land claimed by successive waves of colonizers: Spain, Mexico, and then the United States. The Sunkist corporation promoted strict capitalism for workers but a sort of socialism for owners, as they pooled their resources collectively. The postwar military-industrial complex here fueled much of the county’s conservatism, but it was those same large aerospace and electronic corporations that first employed minority workers here in anything other than menial or agricultural jobs, partly to meet federal antidiscrimination requirements. Orange County’s mega-churches led some of its conservative activism, but faith-based organizations have also made this a center for international refugees who have brought their own wide range of politics. The military presence here encouraged some of Orange County’s conservatism, but it was also military personnel who desegregated much of this county and created openings for LGBTQ individuals to express themselves.                              

Academic observers debate whether Orange County’s thirty-four cities are an enormous suburb or a multinucleated post-suburban space, where housing is interspersed with extensive retail and light industry, while some agriculture and military uses remain alongside neighborhoods that range from working class to ultraelite. Orange County is both its suburban image and the cracks in its own veneer.

In coastal South County, Laguna Beach’s art scene attracted famous gay bars and enabled the first openly gay mayor in California, but it was in North County, in a space that had recently held small dairy farms and strawberry patches, that even more gay bars flourished, as community entrepreneurs found opportunities in an overlooked space with affordable rents. Eventually, international refugees also settled in pockets of cheaper land that others had not wanted in Westminster and its modest neighboring communities, establishing Little Saigon, Little Arabia, Koreatown, and enclaves of Filipinos, Armenians, Cambodians, and Romanians in Orange County.  

In 2004, the US Census Bureau announced that Orange County had become majority minority: more than 50 percent of its residents were people of color, a trend that has continued its upward trajectory so that in 2019, 60 percent of the county was not white. The county’s steadily increasing racial diversity is a legacy of its role in the Cold War as well as a result of its location near the US-Mexico border and its role as an important hub in the Asian-Pacific economy. Orange County holds the largest Vietnamese community outside Vietnam and for years contained the largest city in the United States with an all-Latinx city council.

The Orange County Visitors Association advertises this county as a space for “family-friendly fun . . . a taste of the good life” and “the real California dream.” That pervasive image of California leisure has a global appeal, inspiring an “Orange County” gated community outside Beijing, as well as two “Orange County” luxury resorts in India. Orange County’s image is global because Orange County itself is global. In the 1980s, Newport Beach was the first place in the US outside Washington, D.C., to have an export- licensing office. The county’s seat, Santa Ana, is overwhelmingly Latinx, while other cities across the county, from La Palma to Irvine, are majority or near-majority Asian. It may be one of the few counties in the United States where most Starbucks baristas can correctly spell and pronounce the name of one of our coauthors, Thuy. It is also the county where the coauthor whose family has been here the longest, Gustavo, is the one most often mislabeled as an immigrant. It is a varied and contradictory place of multicultural borderlands and economic struggles rooted in geography, history, and politics.         

Lucy Gortarez at the June, 1972 student walkouts at El Salvador Park, Santa Ana, when middle- and high-school students called for more ethnic studies, more Spanish-speaking school staff, and an end to mass suspensions. Their demands were met with more suspensions but today, all California high school students will have ethnic studies classes, where we hope they will learn about forebears like Lucy Gortarez. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Times.

Genevieve Carpio, Wendy Cheng, Juan de Lara, Romeo Guzman, and Carribean Fragoza have all recently published thoughtful works recentering the margins of Southern California studies. As Carpio observes, an “Anglo fantasy past” has suffused much heritage tourism in Southern California, showcasing Anglo pioneers while obscuring the nonwhites who have also been here all along. Indigenous, Asian, and Latinx people have been part of Orange County since its beginnings as a county. During the early years of European settlement, it was people of color who constructed the irrigation canals, planted the fields, built the railways, and picked and packed the crops. They also faced widespread dispossession, from Tongva and Acjachemem territories, to the nineteenth-century Chinatowns in Anaheim and Santa Ana, to the early twentieth-century Mexican American citrus worker colonias. Working-class people of color have been pushed off the land and out of public memories in two related dispossessions, one geographic and one discursive. Our book is an effort to address that erasure.                                              

This means refocusing on overlooked peoples and questioning who gets to lay claim to the image of Orange County. It also means refocusing on the vernacular landscape, the ordinary, seemingly unremarkable spaces that often contain extraordinary stories. Take the county seat, Santa Ana. A shuttered barbershop there was central to the civil rights movement and national fair housing laws. Nearby is a parking lot that used to be Santa Ana’s Chinatown before authorities deliberately burned it down in 1906. Groups of Asian Americans began moving back to Santa Ana in the 1970s, and in 2016 two Orange County activists founded Taco Trucks at Every Mosque at a Cambodian Muslim mosque in Santa Ana. Palestinian American activist Rida Hamida explains that this is a movement to get to know her many Latinx neighbors while breaking the Ramadan fast and mocking the Republican strategist who worried about a taco truck on every corner. That activism growing from Middle Eastern, Asian, and Latinx communities living side by side is an Orange County story worth knowing, but it is not the Orange County many people think they know.

Geographers recognize that landscapes are often constructed in ways that obscure the conditions of their own production. Vernacular landscapes in particular can appear to be so ordinary as to be easily overlooked. Our book aims to refocus attention on the sometimes plain-looking landscapes of Orange County: the parking lots like Santa Ana’s Chinatown and vacant-seeming areas like Capistrano Test Site, as well as the gated communities, office parks, suburban houses, university buildings, and other ordinary spaces that actually contain extraordinary stories. Powerful wealthy interests, persistent grassroots activists, desires for an affordable labor force, the natural flow of water, and numerous debates over how to best use the land have all shaped this contested space.

While many landscapes may appear ordinary and unproduced, places have a remarkable ability to intervene in collective memory. Once you know where a lynching tree is, it can be hard to forget the forces that gathered at that spot. As cultural geographers from Dolores Hayden to our colleagues in the People’s Guide series have pointed out, there is a power of place to contain public memories, especially when scholars expose the less noticed peoples’ histories there and connect those stories to larger structural forces. Palm-studded ocean vistas that once included affordable housing, tracts of seemingly endless beige walls in neighborhoods where most of the signage is in languages other than English, traffic jams, open space, the very classrooms where some of our readers may sit, and the buried nuclear waste here are all rooted in long-running debates over how Orange County’s people should use this land and who counts as Orange County’s people at all.                                

In Orange County, examining the diverse past can be frowned upon or actively repressed by those invested in selling Orange County in the style of its booster Anglo settlers from 150 years ago. Our book tells the diverse political history beyond the bucolic imagery of orange-crate labels. We hope it will inspire readers to further explore Orange County and reflect on even more sites that could be included in the ordinary, extraordinary landscape here.


Dr. Elaine Lewinnek is professor of American Studies and chair of the Environmental Studies program at California State University, Fullerton. She has a Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale University and is the author of The Working Man’s Reward: Chicago’s Early Suburbs and the Roots of American Sprawl.

Gustavo Arellano is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, covering Southern California everything and a bunch of the West and beyond. He is author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered AmericaOrange County: A Personal History, and Ask a Mexican.

Dr. Thuy Vo Dang is Curator for the University of California, Irvine Libraries Southeast Asian Archive and Research Librarian for Asian American studies. She has a Ph.D. in ethnic studies from UC San Diego and is co-author of the book, Vietnamese in Orange County. Thuy serves on the board of directors for Arts OC and the Vietnamese American Arts & Letters Association.

Notes:

Excerpt taken from A People’s Guide to Orange County (UC Press, 2022)

Reviews

Haunted by a Prison that Never Was: A review of The Shadow of El Centro: A History of Migrant Incarceration and Solidarity

Daniel Morales

In June 2019, U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez described Donald Trump’s detention centers, especially those holding separated children, as concentration camps. Her accusation created a controversy in the media over the use of the term “concentration camps” to describe immigration detention centers. Some pundits argued that the use of the term was an exaggeration that drew an equivalence between migrant detention centers and Nazi concentration camps and the holocaust. Activists and scholars have countered that concentration camps had a long history of use around the world that included: Native American wars, the Philippine-American War, and the Boar War among many uses. Into this conversation steps Jessica Ordaz and her timely new book, The Shadow of El Centro. Ordaz, assistant professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, deftly shows the extent to which detention, control, and violence have come to dominate America’s response to undocumented immigration through a history of one of America’s oldest detention facilities, El Centro, in the city of El Centro in the Imperial Valley of California.

The El Centro Immigration Detention Center operated from 1945 to 2014, encompassing seven decades of changes in the way the U.S. detains undocumented migrants, not for the better. Ordaz shows just how different notions of what is “normal” operated across most of the twentieth century and twenty first century. She follows the detention of German merchants taken during World War II who were allowed incredible freedoms by later standards. That facility came to house Japanese detainees and after the war, under the INS, became El Centro. Ordaz makes it clear that the primary difference in how people were seen and treated was race; placing the detention of people of color in the long history of settler colonialism, conquest, slavery, and forced labor. In this context the term concentration camp was used casually at the time to describe various forced camps in the 19th and early 20th century, including WWII camps. The name of camps’ location itself carries these historical echoes; the Imperial Valley of California was named for the agricultural company that promoted literal colonial imperialism and dispossession from the local native people.

The way El Centro’s officials detained Mexicans and Central Americans reflected and created racialized hierarchies. Just as white farmers viewed Mexicans as racially fit to stoop labor, so did INS officials who saw no issue with forcing detainees to labor in hundred plus degree heat. The forced labor system that the INS ran for decades is then one of the central components of control over the agricultural labor economy of the Imperial Valley, along with its sibling, the bracero processing center, and ports of entry. Migrants are seen as dangerous and criminal, subject to control by all these entities. Their bodies are seen as potential vectors of disease, so they are stripped and doused with dangerous chemicals. As the story moves from the 1940s to the 1970s and 1980s, migrants, especially Central Americans, come to be seen as potential subversives in the Cold War, subject to imprisonment and removal from the country.

The book uses the metaphor of haunting to think about how the past keeps on shaping the present. Ordaz answers Giorgio Agamben’s call to “investigate carefully the juridical procedures and deployments of power by which human beings could be so completely deprived of rights and prerogatives that no act committed against them could appear any longer a crime.” As Ordaz reminds readers, migrants in these camps are “detainees” not prisoners, the camps are “detention centers” not prisons. El Centro was never a prison in the legal sense. This is because the inmates have not been convicted of anything, they are usually not even facing criminal prosecution. Violating immigration law is an administrative offense, not a criminal one. However, they are treated as if they are inherently criminal, with all the trappings of the industrial prison complex. They are subject to forced labor, arbitrary rules like a requirement to wear hats at all times, a lack of rights, solitary confinement, and a shocking degree of routine violence. The legal fiction of administrative law places much of the migration detention and deportation system beyond the reach of judicial review, meaning that migrants do not have the constitutional protections criminal defendants have.

Yet, from inside of El Centro and similar facilities, migrants have found ways to resist their circumstances. Unlike many scholars who focus on migrant policies, legislation, and law, Ordaz looks at how these policies worked on the ground. She shows a culture of abuse, where racialized violence is rendered normal. Guards beat migrants with impunity and cease to see them as fellow humans. In response migrants find ways to resist, by escaping, sometimes across the nearby border into Mexico. In the 1970s Mexican activists protested conditions and sought asylum. In 1985 a group of Central Americans staged the largest hunger strike in El Centro’s history and filed a series of lawsuits. The lawsuits Ordaz explores provide a counterpoint to INS manuals and reports in illustrating individual stories of abuse and death and attempts to push back.

While immigration ports of entry like Ellis Island are accorded a large place in public imagination, commemoration, and scholarship, places of detention like El Centro are largely unknown. Angel Island occupies something of a middle ground, a port of entry that was also a detention center, mostly of Asians, for which there is increasing public awareness. Most detention centers on the other hand are anonymous, places on rural landscapes far from urban centers, not known outside their local communities. Few exist beyond a decade or two, which makes the story of El Centro unique. The El Centro Immigration Detention Center and the stories of those who resisted detention deserve to be better known and memorialized in the landscape.

At El Centro, the use of forced labor, regularized violence, and solitary confinement on civilians who have not been convicted of anything were so normalized the guards did not call them into question. And the law provided impunity. The way the law was structured made it nearly impossible to hold people and institutions accountable, giving license to abuse. Ordaz argues that this was not an anomaly, but central to how detention and deportation function in America. This is what activists in the 1940s, 1960s, 1980s, and today were calling attention to by deploying the term ‘concentration camp.’ Ordaz is part of the wave of scholarship that criticizes the prison industrial complex, the migration detention system, and the racialization of Latin American migrants in the United States. She builds on them by showing what these policies engender in facilities and on too many migrant lives. Ultimately, her account asks us: would it not be better if all detention centers were abolished?

The Shadow of El Centro: A History of Migrant Incarceration and Solidarity by Jessica Ordaz. Copyright © 2021 by University of North Carolina Press Chapel Hill Used by permission of the publisher. Link to title

Daniel Morales is an assistant professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University specializing in Latinx history, immigration, and public history. He is from Azusa California and earned his Ph.D. in history from Columbia University in 2016, and B.A. at the University of Chicago in 2008. His research focuses on the social and economic history of migration between Latin America and the United States. His upcoming book Entre Aquí y Allá: The Political Economy of Transnational Mexican Migration, examines the creation of transnational migratory networks across Mexico and the United States in the twentieth century.