With “Postcards,” creative non-fiction stories grounded in place, we aspire to create a new cartography of California. For us, literature and language are as much about marking and representing space, as they are about storytelling.
Original art by Fernando Mendez Corona
The woman at the reception desk gave us a map and told us exactly where to go.
“Park by the utility shed near the Whittier Boulevard entrance here, in front of 579,” she said, drawing our route with a highlighter pen. “Go four rows up and over to the right. You should find her here,” circling the spot on the map, way in the corner.
We knew Calvary Cemetery well. We had visited the graves of other long-gone Calzadas, relatives in my mother’s maternal line. But today, we were nervous newbies. We were looking for a special Calzada, the one from the old newspaper clippings my Auntie sent us in an email over ten years ago.
My mom, sister, and I dutifully followed the receptionist’s directions. We found the shed, parked, and walked over gingerly, not just because of my mom’s bum knee. I think we all had butterflies, anticipating something profound after years of talking with our mom’s extended family and grandmother’s relatives about our newfound Chumash roots. We stepped lightly, with quiet reverence, reading names out loud until we found hers.
CALZADA Querida Madre y Abuela Maria Antonia G. Jun. 13 1863 – Nov. 11 1952
The three of us looked down at our ancestor’s grave for the first time. Tears, smiles, laughs, hugs. My mom, sister, and I took turns saying hello, saying how happy we were that we found her. Our voices overlapped as we wondered things out loud, like who was Cipriano, the “Querido Hermano y Tio” she was buried with, and would Maria Antonia even know who we are. “I’m sure she does, m’ija,” my mom assured. But I felt the need to clarify, more for myself than for our ancestor. I needed to connect the dots, draw the Chumash family line that began in San Luis Obispo and ended right here in East L.A.
“Hola, Maria Antonia,” I said in a voice like I’m in church. “We are your granddaughter Petra’s family,” I said. I shivered with goosebumps. “We are your descendants.”
Back in March 2010, I received an email from my Auntie, who also sent it to my mom and their seven other siblings. The subject heading announced, “we are chumash!!” Five mysterious PDF attachments accompanied her brief message. They were all labelled “Maria Antonia Calzada” and numbered one through five.
I had first heard of these “Chumash papers” two years before, when my Auntie and mom told me about their cousin in Ventura who used some of these documents to get her kids some kind of Chumash Indian scholarship. At that point, I emailed my mom’s cousin to ask for more information, and she wrote back. She answered my questions but did not immediately send the documents. It would take almost two years for those “papers” to reach my Auntie in 2010, when she passed them on and my mom, her other siblings, and I would see them for the first time.
My Auntie sent them to me thinking that I, too, could use them to get money for school. I was deep into dissertation mode at the time, one year from becoming the first Ph.D. on both sides of my big Mexican American family. I was also deep in grad school debt and always in need of financial aid or just plain cash. I could almost hear Auntie telling me, ‘Hey m’ija, check it out, you never know, our cousin did it, see if you can get a scholarship or something to help you out, doctora-to-be.’ Chicana Chumash power, que no?
Cashing in on a tenuous Chumash bloodline so I can finish my dissertation was one thing, and I felt a little guilty even entertaining the idea. Plus, as a Chicana, by definition I knew I already had “native blood” of the indigenous peoples throughout the land we know today as California, Arizona, Texas, Chihuahua, and Michoacán. My one direct ancestor, who by now probably had double the 268 descendants she left in 1952, I felt, was not necessarily going to qualify me for Chumash scholarships or anything of monetary value. That was fine.
But I did recognize these documents’ historical value, and not just for my mother’s large extended Calzada family. I knew what these five files meant to me as a California-born scholar of Chicana/o/x cultural histories and cultures, as a writer, and as a teacher in our public universities. One by one, I opened the “Maria Antonia” PDFs numbered 1 through 5. Up popped news clippings about our ancestor, maps, photocopied pages from a library book, and a family crest. It was like a DIY version of “Finding Your Roots” with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Together, these five scanned pages represented a small but mighty archival batch of Calzada family stories and histories that place my mother’s maternal family line in California before the Spaniards invaded this land to build their missions, before Mexico ‘won’ this territory post- independence, and before any Anglo Americans showed up to dig gold from land that was not theirs. For us colonized Mexican Americans in the 2010s, these papers also raised a lot of other questions about ancestral indigeneity, land, borders, and the meaning of claiming “Native Californian Chumash blood” via our ancestor born in 1863.
Of the five attachments my Auntie emailed to us years ago, one page stands out. “Maria Antonia Calzada” PDF 1 shows three documents photocopied together, arranged for context and correctness. At the top, a Spanish-language church bulletin from Nuestra Señora de La Soledad announces the funeral mass for “Sra. Maria Antonia Calzada, a la edad de 89 años,” who passed away in Los Angeles, California, on “Noviembre 11 de 1952.” Under the funeral notice, two old newspaper clippings from undated and unidentified Los Angeles area newspapers, placed side by side, report the death of one “Maria Antonia Calcada.” They couldn’t even get her name right.
One headline shouts, NATIVE CALIFORNIAN, 96, DIES IN EAST L.A. HOME.
Another one simply says, Belvedere Woman Dies at 96; Leaves 268 Living Descendants.
The articles contradicted the church bulletin. Was she 96 or 89? Which dates were correct? Which newspapers are these articles from? And why was the death of Maria Antonia Calzada, my mother’s great-grandmother, newsworthy in 1952 Los Angeles?
My mom, Auntie, their cousins and their aunts confirm that “the Church is right,” that our ancestor, the “Native Californian” Maria Antonia Calzada (not Calcada) was 89 (not 96) when she died at the house on Zaring Street in East L.A. She was born in San Luis Obispo, California, in 1863, not in 1856 as the newspapers claimed.
The papers did get other things right about Maria Antonia. She married Pedro (my grandmother’s grandfather and her namesake) in 1880 at the Old Plaza (La Placita) Catholic Church, across from today’s Olvera Street, although it was not clear when and why they left San Luis Obispo for Los Angeles. She had thirteen children, twelve survived. Her husband died in 1935 during one of their frequent trips “below the border” to Altar, Sonora, Mexico, where the couple owned a small plot of land. Maria Antonia’s parents, Francisco and Maria Guerrero, were also born in San Luis Obispo, most likely “Mexicanized Indians” who became U.S. citizens under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, twenty-five years after the end of the Spanish mission period.
I never saw the word “Chumash” in either of the news articles, nor do they identify the name of Maria Antonia’s “Native California” tribe or membership. PDFs 3, 4, and 5 included a few pages of Kroeber’s 1925 Map of Native Tribes, Groups, Dialects, and Families in California in 1770, photocopied by our Ventura cousin. They showed maps with lists that enumerated eight bands of Chumash tribes whose villages stretched from San Luis Obispo to Malibu. One map showed numbered parceled plots in and around San Luis Obispo. PDF 2 was a copy of the Calzada family name history and crest explained the following: “The Spanish surname Calzada is of local or locative origin, derived from the place where man once lived or where he once owned land.”
Where he (or she?) once owned land. Were we always Calzadas?
I went back to the email I kept from the Ventura cousin who did the research at Ventura College Library and Mormon Church archives (“they keep really good records”) to verify our ancestral line. And now I had the maps she previously described. According to records, at least three generations of Calzadas were born in San Luis Obispo between the 1820s and 1890s before they migrated south to East Los Angeles. According to our cousin, the land Maria Antonia, her parents, and later, her children (including Juan, my grandmother’s father) were born on, corresponds to area “14a” on the Kroeber map. “We located the parcel that we were pushed off of during the treaty ,” our cousin wrote. “It turns out that our land was what has now become known as Pismo Beach…and yes, we are CHUMASH.”
Where we once owned land. The border did more than cross us, I thought.
July 2019. My mom, sister, and I kneel at our ancestor’s grave, just a few steps away from Whittier Boulevard and a mile from where she died on Zaring Street, in a house that no longer exists because it was razed by CalTrans in the sixties to build the 60 freeway. We pull weeds, dust off dirt, polish the marble with spit and shirt sleeves. We brush ants away, a futile effort. Let them crawl.
“Imagine if we still had our land in San Luis Obispo, in Pismo Beach. Or in Santa Ynez or Los Alamos,” I say to my mom and sister. I hear their murmurs, their agreement. “Yes, imagine, m’ija,” and I do. What if the Calzadas were not pushed off Pismo Beach in the 1840s? Then other, colossal “What ifs” flood my head. What if the pinche Spaniards never came and built their damn churches, what if there was never any Mexico or United States of America or militarized national borders or broken treaties, and Maria Antonia Guerrero and her parents, husband, children and their children got to keep their land, their homes, their lives, their birthright, in their native California?
Who would we be? Who were we, before we were “Mexican,” “American”?
At the end of her memoir, Native Country of the Heart (2019), Chicana writer Cherríe Moraga reflects on her mother’s lineage and ancestral ties to the land of the San Gabriel Valley. Moraga’s research revealed that her mother’s Moraga family could be traced back to the “first recorded baptism of ‘un indio’ en la Misión de San Gabriel,” and that the baptismal register was signed by none other than Fray Junipero Serra in “the nearby Tongva village of Juyuvit” in November 1778. As Moraga writes, “This matters to me somehow: the proximity of Serra’s ethnocidal signature, my maternal family name, and the indigenous words for places I once knew as home. It is my own personal record that testifies to a complex system of mixed-blood misnomered historical erasure.”
Like Moraga, I am drawn to my mother’s side and the indelible paper trail of our Chumash line that cannot be erased. I seek proof of our existence before we were misnamed, reborn as Spanish, as Mexican, as American. It means something to be able to draw a bold, magic marker line between me and the woman whose grave we finally found, to connect these particular dots. Who needs DNA tests when we got PDFs?
The Chumash part of my maternal grandmother’s side represents but one branch of my proverbial family tree. “Your Nana Cruz was Yaqui,” my Auntie reminds me, “And your grandfather was from Michoacán,” evidence at least of some kind of “Mexican Indian” ancestry. There is the mythical Nana Josefa, who they say was Russian and the reason why my sister and some of the aunties have light eyes, hair, and skin. This is just my mother’s side. My father’s El Paso/Chihuahua side—his mother’s Cepedas can be traced all the way to 1520s Spain, as one tío did in the 1980s and 1990s before the internet made it easy—is a whole other story.
“Today, there isn’t a single full-blooded Chumash left, according to scholars.”
My sisters, our partners, and I often visit Solvang, Los Olivos, Santa Ynez, Los Alamos, towns in Santa Barbara county not too far from the Chumash reservation and casino. We celebrate birthdays, enjoy long teachers’ weekends off, and mark important life moments together in those parts. My youngest sister even got married in Los Alamos, a testament to the power of the land and the meaning of our own ancestral connection to it. We feel it.
Chumash land calls us twice, maybe three times or more a year. Even though we grew up in the concrete suburbs east of East L.A., the rolling hills and valley oaks and wine country roads up there feel like home to us because maybe, as Chumash descendants, it was once. It still is. Our spirits know that is our land, even if it is not ours in the colonial-Western-moneyed-private-property-real-estate sense.
At the grave, my mind drifts back to my Auntie’s email and the “Native Californian” in the newspaper clippings. When Maria Antonia Guerrero Calzada died in my grandmother’s tía’s house in East L.A. in 1952, so, apparently, did the last ‘full-blooded’ California Chumash Indian on record. That’s why her death was newsworthy. (What is blood quantum anyway but a metaphor, another colonizing tool?) Whether or not she was the last one, my great-great-grandmother Maria Antonia Calzada remains my ancestral connection to our Chumash line.
See Rubén G. Mendoza, “Indigenous Landscapes: Mexicanized Indians and the Archaeology of Social Networks in Alta California,” in Indigenous Landscapes and Spanish Missions: New Perspectives from Archaeology and Ethnohistory, eds. Lee Panich, et al. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2014. p.114-132. Mendoza describes the “Mexicanization of Indians” in Alta California “as a process of cultural rationalization by which the derivative trappings of the primary tradition are absorbed as local indigenous reformulations of elements that compose the presumptive or apparent ethnic source. Like mestizaje, Mexicanization constitutes a wholly new hybrid and, thereby, an amalgamation of local and introduced cultural forms adaptively recapitulated and captured so as to facilitate the survival, albeit attenuated persistence, of local indigenous traditions and lifeways.” (Mendoza 118-9)
 “Calzada Family Name History,” The Historical Research CenterTM(1973-1980).
 Email communication with Monica Valenzuela, my mom’s/aunt’s cousin in Ventura, on September 23, 2008. Valenzuela conducted the research and provided the documents to my aunt, who would send them to me on March 23, 2010.
 “He claimed Chumash ancestry and raised millions. But experts say he’s not Chumash.” Los Angeles Times 23 December 2019.
 See “Myth 1: All the Real Indians Died Off” and “Myth 10: The Only Real Indians Are Full-Bloods, and They Are Dying Off” in Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker, “All the Real Indians Died Off” and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans (Boston: Beacon Press, 2016).
Melissa Mora Hidalgo holds a Ph. D. in Literature from UC San Diego. She has taught classes in literature, ethnic studies, and women’s/gender/sexuality studies at UC and CSU campuses around Southern California. Hidalgo is a recent Fulbright Scholar at the University of Limerick, the author of Mozlandia: Morrissey Fans in the Borderlands (2016), and a senior culture writer at L.A. Taco.
A drive through contemporary Los Angeles reveals American empire embedded throughout its urban landscape. “Imperial capital” likely conjures visions of eighteenth or nineteenth century European cities—London, Paris, Madrid—rather than twenty-first century Southern California. However, from Lisbon to London to Los Angeles, we encounter empire in the architecture, monuments, and even suburban gardens of these imperial centers. In Los Angeles, nineteenth-century Mexican resources, extracted through imperial schemes, are fixed in the city’s iconic sprawl. This wealth, extracted through imperial plans and regimes in Mexico over the past century and a half, became manifest in the Los Angeles landscape. As explored in my recent book, Imperial Metropolis: Los Angeles, Mexico, and the Borderlands of American Empire, 1865-1941, white investors and settlers in Los Angeles believed that for their newly acquired western city to grow, they needed an expansive hinterland or empire. Los Angeles would boom, they argued, if it took in “tributary territories,” from Southern California, to Nevada, to Arizona, and, notably, to Mexico. Angeleno investors who sought opportunity in Mexico also bequeathed the city with tangible remembrances of their wealth.
Before turning to the city’s imperial landscapes, how did early Anglo migrants to Los Angeles envision the role of their new city in the world at the end of the nineteenth century and dawn of the twentieth? Take, for example, Harrison Gray Otis, publisher of the Los Angeles Times and enthusiastic investor in Mexico. With his son-in-law Harry Chandler and a small group of other investors, he owned almost a million acres of agricultural land in Mexico at the turn of the century and counted Mexican President Porfirio Díaz a close personal friend. In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, Otis and his newspaper also served as some of the staunchest and most vocal proponents of regional growth, north and south of the border. As he built a newspaper and real estate empire, Otis imagined a spectacular and distinctly imperial future for Los Angeles. In his words, the city would become “a mightier Pacific empire, with a population numbering millions where now we see only thousands, and possessing a measure of wealth, civilization and power now inconceivable.”
In keeping with this belief, Otis embraced American empire and its corollary racial hierarchy, in which Anglo American purveyors of empire argued it was their burden to govern and “uplift” nonwhite peoples. From Los Angeles, he requested an army appointment immediately after the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898 and won his military ranking of brigadier general during his tour in the Philippines, where he helped oversee a bloody repression of Philippine nationalists and vocally declared his distaste for the territory’s nonwhite population. Bellicose editorials penned by Otis and his staff supported the expansion of American commercial interests and political control into Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Panama. During his time in the Philippines, Otis declared to readers of his newspaper that the archipelago “must remain absolutely under American control…some of them [are] still in a state of savagery.”
Otis exported a portion of this imperial vision to Mexico, where he bought a substantial investment property in 1904. With a syndicate of other Los Angeles investors, he purchased the Colorado River Land Company (CRLC), directly south of the California-Baja California border. Otis also leveraged support from the Mexican federal government through his friendship with Díaz, who welcomed American investment dollars in Mexico during his tenure, between 1876 and 1910. They corresponded regularly about the advantages of U.S. investments in Mexico and shared a perspective on the strict control of labor. Both were staunchly anti-union. After observing Diaz’s brutal suppression of several strikes in Mexico, Otis suggested utilizing Díaz’s union busting tactics in California and the West. Otis also regularly welcomed high ranking officials in the Díaz administration to his home, which he dubbed the “Bivouac,” in reference to his days in the military.
Image of Otis’s home just after its completion in 1898. The house was completed at the same time Otis was serving in the Philippines and he dubbed the home the “Bivouac” or military encampment. Image 000100, Los Angeles Times Company Records, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.
Otis imbued his imperial outlook into the buildings he constructed in his hometown. In military parlance, “bivouac” refers to a temporary camp constructed by soldiers. Although his home was a solid and permanent structure in the then-fashionable MacArthur Park neighborhood, Otis imagined it as his military encampment. In it he created a “war room” where he proudly displayed weapons and memorabilia collected during his time in the military, including rifles, knives, swords, a pith helmet, and a large framed photo of himself in uniform. The architecture of the “Bivouac” also bears significance. The façade is distinctly mission revival, an early example of the architectural style that would sweep across Southern California and allow Anglos to link “Spanish architecture, the suburban good life, and racial hierarchy.” In the naming of his newspaper headquarters, Otis also inscribed his imperial and militaristic worldview on the Los Angeles landscape. The Los Angeles Times building, from which he vociferously advocated for an American and Los Angeles empire, he dubbed the “Fortress.” Otis ruled his economic and publishing empire from this building, reinforced with granite against an attack he was sure lurked outside its walls. In case of conflict with labor unions, Otis stored fifty rifles in a tower room and a case of loaded shotguns next the managing editor’s desk. He also conducted military drills in Times offices.
Otis even incorporated his imperial and martial mentality into his home decor. Pictured here is the war memorabilia room at the “Bivouac.” Image 000092, Los Angeles Times Company Records, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.
Image of the Los Angeles Times building just after it was bombed by trade unionists in 1910. Otis dubbed the headquarters of his newspaper “The Fortress.” C. C. Pierce Collection of Photographs, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.
Unfortunately, neither Otis’ home nor the original Times building still stands. Labor activists bombed the Times building in 1910, hoping to undermine Otis and the city’s rabidly anti-union newspaper. Union activists sought, through dynamite and fire, to literally blow the Times building out of the city’s topography. The ties of empire, labor, and dissent are also intricate here—Job Harriman, the defense lawyer for the Times bombers, would also defend Mexican revolutionaries Enrique and Ricardo Flores Magón. Credited as the intellectual spark for the Mexican Revolution, the Flores Magón brothers critiqued American investment in Mexico generally and Harrison Gray Otis directly and were arrested and imprisoned in Los Angeles at the urging of the Times owner. The other building, the Bivouac, Otis donated to Los Angeles County with the stipulation that it be used in perpetuity to “promote the arts.” The county founded the Otis Art Institute in the general’s former home but eventually tore down the building to construct a bigger facility in the 1950s.
The street corner in front of Otis’ former home, however, still bears witness to his martial mentality and imperial aspirations. Shortly after his death in 1916, son-in-law Harry Chandler organized a group of friends to raise $50,000 to hire an artist (and Russian prince) to immortalize Otis in a statue, placed just steps from the “Bivouac.” Cast in bronze, Otis wears his military uniform and, reminiscent of conquistadors and adventurers who preceded him, points vigorously at landscapes beyond his street corner.
Statue of Otis, center, dressed in his military uniform. The statue stands across the street from the location of his former home in MacArthur Park. California Historical Society Collection, University of Southern California Libraries.
Other figures in Los Angeles history also staked out commercial empires in Mexico and then marked their imperial exploits on the city’s landscape, including oil titan Edward Doheny. Doheny was at one point the largest oil producer in the world, one of the world’s wealthiest men, and was one of the first to drill for oil in Mexico. By 1894, Doheny controlled the largest portion of Los Angeles’ emerging oil industry. Due in large part to his efforts, in the first two decades of the twentieth century the Los Angeles region became one of the world’s most important oil producers. Wells sprinkled across Southern California produced 20% of the world’s supply by World War I. 
Eager to apply his petroleum knowledge in other locales and to reap further fortunes, Doheny looked eagerly to extend his corporate empire beyond the environs of Southern California. In fact, it was Doheny who first exported the oil expertise developed in Southern California’s oil industry to Mexico. In 1900, Doheny took his first trip to Mexico to prospect for oil near Tampico in the State of Tamaulipas on the Gulf of Mexico. In his first decade in Mexico, Doheny produced 85 percent of the oil extracted in the nation and emerged as the largest independent oil producer in the world.
He also held that pulling the fuel of the modern era out of the earth was an endeavor that would propel Mexico towards modernity and civilization. Like many American empire builders, he saw his investment in Mexico and dealings with Mexican workers as both a civilizing force and a way to enrich himself. His job, as he saw it, was to make a fortune while simultaneously “uplifting” the non-white workers he employed in Mexico. As he testified to congress regarding his treatment of his Mexican employees: “We must be patient with the ignorance and the lack of initiative in the Mexican peon. They do not learn by instruction but must be taught by example…the greatest thing we can do in Mexico is the example which our workmen present to the Mexican of how to work, how to live, and how to progress.”
Doheny brought the bulk of his fortune back to Los Angeles and became integral to its development. He had already sparked the city’s oil boom and helped establish one of the region’s most lucrative industries. He helped to develop the City of Beverly Hills. He gave generously to the University of Southern California, located just a few blocks south of his lush complex of mansions at Chester Place, the city’s first gated community. A devout Catholic, Doheny also gave millions of his oil dollars to various Catholic churches and causes in Southern California—as much as $100 million over the course of his life in Los Angeles.
His home, particularly the structure of the greenhouse, was a brick-and-mortar paean to his oil empire. Life at his lavish estate in Chester Place included a private bowling alley, a small private zoo, and this greenhouse featuring an indoor pool large enough to float a canoe. Doheny filled the greenhouse with Mexican plant specimens, carefully moving plant samples from Mexico’s oil regions on his private rail car that ran regularly between Los Angeles and Mexico’s eastern coast. Some historians call this practice—transplanting plant specimens from a colony to an imperial center—“botanical imperialism.” In other words, it was not a simply an interest in gardening that led Doheny to transplant botanical specimens from the Tampico oil region to Los Angeles. During the age of empire, cultivating plants from colonial outposts was intimately bound up in processes of conquest, acquisition, power, and ultimately, display.
The greenhouse and pool, including the canoe and Mexican plant specimens, in Doheny’s Los Angeles home. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.
The Spanish-language press in Los Angeles did not miss the fact that Mexican resources paid for his opulent presence in the built environment of Los Angeles. In a scathing critique of Doheny published by La Prensa (a Los Angeles-based Spanish language paper), an anonymous author observed in 1919: “Where did his colossal fortune come from? Simply from Mexico…the whole fortune accumulated by the ‘parvenu’ Doheny has come from Mexico without the least benefitting the country. On the contrary, every dollar coming from the Tampico Oil Fields is invested in the United States and especially in Los Angeles where he has a palatial mansion which attracts attention through a lavish display of oriental luxury.” Mexican Americans in Los Angeles were well aware that Doheny’s exploitation of Mexican mineral resources and labor had translated into astonishing displays of wealth north of the border.
Doheny’s Mexican fortune also constructed the library, in Spanish colonial style, at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, just north of Los Angeles. In addition to the building’s Spanish colonial architecture, the library’s facade is based on the Metropolitan Cathedral, the church located in Mexico City’s central plaza and the largest cathedral in the Americas. This mirroring of Mexico in Los Angeles, paid for by Mexican resources, is more than just symbolic. Los Angeles is a twenty-first global metropolis because its early promoters and investors oriented the city towards Mexico, the borderlands, and empire at the end of the nineteenth century. That a replica of a Mexican cathedral stands in Southern California, built with wealth wrought from Mexican oil, is the result of imperial design, not chance. It demonstrates the power of changing the landscape as part of strategies of empire—the Spanish built the original cathedral literally on the center of the Aztec empire. Doheny’s fortune replicated it in the seat of his power—Los Angeles.
St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, California, just north of Los Angeles. The building’s architecture is Spanish colonial and the façade to the right is based on the Catedral Metropolitana in Mexico City. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.
The Catedral Metropolitana in Mexico City, the largest church in Latin America. The smaller chapel on the right served as the model for the library at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, California. The Doheny family provided the funds for the construction of the library. “Catedral Metropolitana Mexico City (1)” by Carl Campbell is licensed under Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0
While empire is embedded across the greater Los Angeles landscape, we can also find resistance to American imperial projects built into the city’s infrastructure. Take for example, a public art, and in many ways a public history, controversy over Los Angeles and empire that erupted in 1932. Los Angeles city leaders, notably white, had just finished an overhaul of the city’s historic core, known as “Olvera Street.” Chandler, now owner of the Los Angeles Times, and Los Angeles promoter Christine Sterling spearheaded the effort. They remade the oldest part of Los Angeles (a historically Mexican and Asian neighborhood and what they described as a “slum”) into a bucolic and entirely fabricated Mexican village.
Over the course of his life in Los Angeles, Chandler aggressively promoted the region, calculating that a growing city would benefit both his newspaper and his extensive real estate investments. Promoting the city paid—toward the end of his life in the 1940s, the Times estimated that he was the eleventh richest man in the world. Part of his portfolio included holding on to the million acres of property that he and his father-in-law purchased at the turn of the century for almost forty years.
Part of the renovation of Olvera Street, begun in the 1920s, included inviting the famed Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros to paint an 80-foot mural on the side of the neighborhood’s Italian Hall. A veteran of the Mexican Revolution, Siqueiros had worked with Diego Rivera on mural campaigns in Mexico City and considered art a political tool and vehicle of revolutionary thought. Siqueiros also believed that revolutionary art should be truly “public” and had just developed a new type of paint and painting technique that would allow murals to be done outdoors and on the sides of buildings, where anyone could see and appreciate them. Chandler and Olvera Street renovators expected Siqueiros to paint something “exotic and picturesque,” in keeping with the recently revamped neighborhood.
Instead, Siqueiros chose the history of European and American imperialism in Mexico as the dramatic subject for his mural, América Tropical. Through images of toppled pyramids, he gestured to the violent Spanish destruction of indigenous culture and society. A bald eagle, symbolizing the United States, hovers over the crucifixion of an Indigenous man. To the right, revolutionary soldiers crouch, training their rifles on the eagle. Significantly, the mural faced Los Angeles city hall. Aimed at the seat of power in the city, the mural embodied a scathing critique of not just American imperialism in Mexico and Latin America, but a critique leveled at the city itself and its role in promoting the interests of American investors in Mexico.
Siqueiros’ América Tropical shortly after its completion in 1932. Los Angeles Examiner Photographs Collection, University of Southern California Libraries.
Chandler, Sterling, and their partners in the Olvera Street renovation, including municipal leaders, immediately had the mural whitewashed. Critiques of empire had no place in their bucolic reimagining of Mexico in Los Angeles’ historic core. Less than six months after it was unveiled in 1932, the entire mural was covered in a thick coat of white paint. Calls for restoration began in the 1960s with the rise of the Chicano Movement but it was not until the 2000s that restoration work began in earnest. The Getty Foundation (endowed by the oil fortune of the Getty family) funded one third of the project with the City of Los Angeles covering the remainder. Ironies abound here—major funding for the restoration came from just the type of capitalist enterprise that Siquieros, a committed communist, could not stand. And city government, key in having the original covered in 1932, paid for the bulk of the restoration during the early 2000s.
Ultimately, finding empire and anti-imperialism embedded in Los Angeles’ infrastructure is more than simply a reflection of some historical or economic and imperial trends. Instead, the examples explored here advanced certain ideologies and narratives about the past and the present. Public space and urban landscapes became a place of conversation and dialogue and sometimes even violence about urban growth and the advance of American empire and capitalism from the U.S. west and into Mexico. There were military and martial components of this ideology—as seen in Otis’s impact on the Los Angeles built environment. As he and Doheny also asserted through their infrastructure, this advance was racialized. They maintained that empire could unfold from the U.S. West and into Mexico and the Pacific precisely because whites where superior to nonwhites. Finally, labor activists, artists and critics of these imperial projects used or attempted to use public space and urban landscapes to push back against more dominant narratives. The bombing of a building or the south-facing brick wall and a new type of mural paint served as the tools to call the historical and contemporary narratives about a Los Angeles deserving of imperial reach into Mexico into question.
Empire continues to shape Los Angeles landscapes. Take for example that the neighborhood surrounding Harrison Gray Otis’s home and the statue of him is now a center of the Mexican and Central American immigrant community in Los Angeles. It was precisely the type of imperial and commercial ventures that he promoted that resulted in economic displacement of Mexicans and Central Americans over the last century and caused them to seek refuge in the United States. If we consider the history and topography of the MacArthur Park neighborhood, past and present, we unravel the history of empire and its consequences over a century, all within a block. An empire builder and advocate of extracting resources in Mexican and Latin America, stands in the midst of a neighborhood of migrants, many displaced by that history but also creating something new—a vibrant immigrant community in a space suffering from decline and disinvestment since the 1960s.
As Dolores Hayden called for in her pathbreaking book, The Power of Place, it is imperative to “read” or analyze urban landscapes as historical texts, situating ourselves deeply in urban regions and neighborhoods, analyzing urban space as the result of human history and human struggles on particular landscapes. In other words, we must ask questions about how relationships of power or categories and identities of race, class, and gender shape how cities are designed, constructed, occupied, appropriated, desecrated, and admired. In short, social and economic history and urban landscapes are intertwined.
In a moment of intense public debate over historical monuments, historians are interrogating the narratives we tell—or fail to tell—in American landscapes. As in the vigorous recent debate over Confederate statues, historians of California and the West are reconsidering how western monuments and landscapes can tell a fuller and more nuanced story about social conflict and inequality, particularly those rooted in race, ethnicity, conquest, and empire. The remnants of these stories in Los Angeles are all around us—just look up.
 Felix Driver and David Gilbert, eds., Imperial Cities: Landscape, Display, and Identity (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999). See also Philip J. Ethington, “The Global Spaces of Los Angeles, 1920s-1930s,” in Gyan Prakash and Kevin M. Kruse, eds., The Spaces of the Modern City: Imaginaries, Politics, and Everyday Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).
 Jessica Kim, Imperial Metropolis: Los Angeles, Mexico, and the Borderlands of American Empire, 1865-1941 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019).
 Robert Gottlieb and Irene Wolt, Thinking Big: The Story of the Los Angeles Times, Its Publishers, and Their Influence on Southern California (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1977).
 “Interview on the Philippines,” Los Angeles Times, October 9, 1902.
 “General Otis Pleased with His Trip to Mexico,” Los Angeles Times, October 16, 1902; Letter from Harrison Gray Otis to Porfirio Díaz, December 19, 1903, document 000430, legajo XXIX, Coleccíon Porfirio Díaz, Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City.
 Phoebe S. Kropp, California Vieja: Culture and Memory in a Modern American Place (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006). See also William Deverell, Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of its Mexican Past (Berkeley: University of Southern California Press, 2004).
 Errol Wayne Stevens, “Two Radicals and Their Los Angeles: Harrison Gray Otis and Job Harriman,” California History 84, no. 3 (2009) 44-70.
 Martin Ansell, Oil Baron of the Southwest: Edward L. Doheny and the Development of the Petroleum Industry in California and Mexico (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1998); Margaret Leslie Davis, Dark Side of Fortune: Triumph and Scandal in the Life of Oil Tycoon Edward L. Doheny (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001); Dan La Botz, Edward L. Doheny: Petroleum, Power, and Politics in the United States and Mexico (New York: Praeger, 1991); Myrna Santiago, The Ecology of Oil: Environment, Labor, and the Mexican Revolution, 1900-1928 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
 Rebecca Preston, “‘The Scenery of the Torrid Zone’: Imagined Travels and the Culture of Exotics in Nineteenth-Century British Gardens,” in Imperial Cities, edited by Felix Driver and David Gilbert, 194-214 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999).
 Translation of article published La Prensa, Los Angeles, April 12, 1919, box 34, Bergman Collection, Huntington Library.
 William Estrada, The Los Angeles Plaza: Sacred and Contested Space (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008); Kropp, California Vieja.
 Emily MacDonald-Korth and Leslie Rainer, “The Getty Conservation Institute Project to Conserve David Alfaro Siqueiros’s Mural América Tropical,” Getty Research Journal, no. 6 (2014) 103-114.
Jessica Kim is an associate professor of history at California State University, Northridge and the author of Imperial Metropolis: Los Angeles, Mexico, and the Borderlands of American Empire, 1865-1941 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019).
It starts in October with a whisper of smoke and silver tintinnabulations, with sequins flashing winter sun and glass beads tinkling with each delicate step of the approaching fairy parade. Ching-ching-ching!
It begins with the sharp bitterness of charred coriander, roasted lemongrass, and pork on the spit—fat spitting and sizzling onto hot charcoal—and the plangent beating of wooden pestles pounding shredded papaya within heavy-footed earthenware mortars. Tok-tok-tok!
It announces itself from the north with autumn’s first copper rust, from Oroville and Chico, then sweeps southward down California’s 450-mile spine—the great Central Valley—through Yuba City, Marysville, Sacramento, Stockton, Merced, until, finally, landing in Fresno for a weeklong celebration at the Fresno Fairgrounds, culminating with a cornucopia of sweet-and-savory treats, talent competitions, cultural exhibits and concerts as everyone wishes one another Nyob zoo xyoo tshiab!
The Hmong New Year Festival in Fresno is the largest annual gathering of overseas Hmong in the United States, attracting over 120,000 attendees and 200 vendors from around the world. Today, over 101,000 Hmong Americans call California home—more than any other state in the U.S., according to the 2017 American Community Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau. Fresno’s annual Hmong New Year Festival is a continuing testament to the resourcefulness, adaptability, and resilience of overseas Hmong to sustain a unified sense of identity through clan and kinship ties despite resettlement policies that purposely scattered Hmong refugees around the globe.
My parents and grandparents—as well as the 1.5 generation who were born and raised in Ban Vinai—still remember those stateless years waiting for sponsorship and fearing repatriation back into the maw of the newly-installed Pathet Lao state across the Mekong River. The Secret War disrupted the patrilineage that formed the foundation of Hmong cultural identity and its clans: nearly 25% of Hmong men and boys, or an estimated 30,000–40,000 Hmong soldiers, were killed in action; and up to 3,000 named missing in action. This did not include the innumerable amount of civilian deaths during and after the Secret War. Survivors bonded in Ban Vinai refugee camp through shared trauma and proximity, forming tight kinship networks between friends and neighbors, each next of kin tearfully vowing to reunite someday. These promises would manifest as letters, phone calls, whisper networks, and audio-video recordings sent in the mail after safely resettling in their new respective host countries. I remember being fascinated by the colorful stamps from Thailand, China, French Guiana, France, and Germany that suddenly appeared in our mailbox each November. We listened to the voices of distant relations narrating their new lives and daily routines on cassette tape, and my parents cried hearing their songs rife with loneliness and longing for family. We watched VHS tapes of cousins hunting bushmeat in the Amazon Rainforest with their indigenous spouses and mixed-race children, who were even darker-skinned than us. My fair cousins from France mailed us perfumed letters with photographs of Le Jardin des Tuileries and L’Arc de Triomphe, and they looked stylish in their striped sweaters and tight jeans.
Starting in the 1980s, first- and second-wave Hmong refugees began settling in public housing projects in the southeast side of Fresno, California’s fifth-largest city, and established a uniquely Hmong enclave nicknamed “Ban Vinai Village,” after the eponymous refugee camp in Thailand where nearly all Hmong refugees were processed prior to its closure in 1992 by the Thai government. It was these first-wave Hmong refugees along with cultural leaders living in the metropolitan area that fostered the establishment of stable ethnic enclaves which, in turn, sponsored and financed subsequent waves of Hmong refugee resettlement. In 1977, there was only one Hmong refugee family recorded in Fresno, but by 1990, the Hmong population had exploded to 18,321 people. In 2010, there were 31,771 Hmong living in Fresno. In her book, The Hmong Refugee Experience in the United States: Crossing The River, Ines M. Miyares attributes the high concentration of clan leaders living in Fresno, including General Vang Pao, the de facto military and cultural leader for overseas Hmong, for this massive secondary migration: “[He] perceived the Valley to be a good location for the Hmong since the agricultural component of the region would decrease the stress of social and economic adjustment to American culture.” It was this pattern of secondary migration that established Fresno’s Hmong enclave despite official federal “scatter” policies from the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which were specifically designed to prevent the formation of such Southeast Asian ethnic communities.
Lisa Lee Herrick and her mother in their Merced apartment, 1986
I remember the day my parents announced that we were moving to Fresno, the urban epicenter of the San Joaquin Valley, because my mother wanted to be closer to her adult siblings and my father wanted to grow his home business. Like us, many Hmong refugee families had initially moved to Merced in the early 1980s when it was rumored that General Vang Pao planned to purchase a 3,500-acre farm to build a self-sufficient Hmong commune. When the utopian dream dissolved, clan leaders left Merced and Hmong families followed suit. We packed up our things in the middle of the school year in 1992, waved goodbye to our friends, and drove fifty miles down south on Highway 99 in search of “Ban Vinai Village.” In Fresno, my mother wore rubber flip-flops everywhere and grew herbs in tall plastic buckets clustered together in the backyard. She haggled with shopkeepers inside Asian Village Mall in Southeast Fresno over the price of imported fabrics and the potency of wild-foraged medicinal roots, much as she had experienced during her youth in the open-air markets of Xieng Khouang Province, Laos. To the casual observer, my mother’s life may have seemed poor, but the victorious grin on her face always betrayed her true feelings: here was a city that sounded, smelled, tasted, and felt like home.
Fresno imbued me with new perspectives and sensibilities about what it meant to be part of America’s long-standing immigrant narrative. My siblings and I formed hybrid identities as second-generation Americans from adjacent ethnic communities, and we adopted the nuances of our Mexican-American friends, neighbors, classmates, and co-workers—experimenting with cholo, chicano punk, bubble-gum, and emo-goth culture alike—plucking our eyebrows thin and sagging our jeans with our newfound tribes, and questioning cultural values and gender roles. However, one stalwart family tradition remained: every December after Christmas, we trekked toward downtown Fresno. We took the Ventura Avenue exit and followed it eastbound until it turned into Kings Canyon Boulevard, until the billboards, neon signs, and painted business names switched from English to Spanish and every language in between, until we reached the Fresno Fairgrounds and double-parked the family van in a lot filled with loose gravel. After the Hmong New Year Festival ended at sunset, we slurped phở at the cash-only cafes nearby then scanned street corners for the rainbow-striped umbrellas of the local fruit cart vendors for rose-cut mango con chile y limón.
This, too, was home.
When I was a teenager, the last thing I wanted to do during my winter break from high school was to dress up for Hmong New Year in my mother’s heavy, musty, hand-embroidered hemp clothing from her trousseau. I was a milk-fed American girl who ate cheeseburgers and fries nearly every weekday for lunch so, at sixteen, I was already wider and thicker than my mother, who was petite and fine-boned at five-foot-four and shrinking. Dressing up for the Hmong New Year was a multi-step process that can only be described as attempting to put on all of your formalwear at once while pinning the money from your wallet to every square-inch of fabric available—a must for good Hmong daughters to prove to potential suitors (and mother-in-laws) at Hmong New Year that you were wife material.
First, there was the black velvet jacket worn over a white, collared, button-down shirt, which was then wrapped around the waist using two thin cords. The seams of my hand-stitched jacket bulged and groaned against my widening back with each passing year, and I felt the pins and needles in my fingertips as the peacock blue cuffs coiled tighter and tighter around my meaty forearms.
“Why are your breasts so big!” my mother sighed, smacking my chest. “Are you wearing a bra or not?”
“Mom!” I whined.
Next, came the heavy pleated hemp skirt. My paternal grandmother’s was dyed black with white trim, and cross-stitched with bright pink, orange, green, and turquoise threads symbolizing the Hmong’s journey over valleys and mountains to reach Laos because she was a member of the Green Hmong Tribe. My mother’s skirt was plain and white, because she was a member of the White Hmong Tribe, and she wrapped this around my hips with two long sashes. The skirt flared open in front like a hospital gown worn backwards, and my mother sucked at her teeth.
“Aiyoh! Your butt’s too big for Hmong clothes,” she said. “If I had known that you girls would grow as big as cows in America, I would have bought more fabric. What? Why are you making that ugly face?”
The velvet and embroidered apron was essential for unmarried White Hmong Tribe girls, because it was worn over the front and the back of the pleated skirt for modesty. My mother instructed me to raise my elbows and spin slowly as she wound the long pink and green sashes around my waist and tied them tightly in the back. Then came the long belts with embroidery and silver piastres sewn directly into the fabric. After that, two purses were strapped across my chest so that each embroidered bag bounced on either side of my hips with their jingling coins. Once everything was adjusted, my mother piled up my long hair into a tight topknot, then wrapped an infinite roll of indigo fabric around my temples into a gravity-defying turban, binding my head so tightly that I felt my entire face lift up half-an-inch. A thin strip of black-and-white striped fabric was carefully draped over the turban and tucked to the nape of my neck with sharp bobby pins. The final touches were the heirloom jewelry: dainty silver earrings shaped like nippled bosoms, silver cuff bracelets painted with bright enamel triangles, rings, and the heavy silver yoke shackled around the neck. When completed, the costume weighed about twenty pounds—and added it, too.
“Can’t I just stay home?” I muttered. “This is so embarrassing. ”
“What’s so embarrassing?” my mother said. “This is your culture.”
“Exactly,” I said. Another smack.
The truth was that I didn’t enjoy going to Hmong New Year at the Fresno Fairgrounds because of the blatant staring. I had grown up in the barrio before moving to Fresno, which meant dipping pink conchas in black tea, chorizo with jasmine rice, lollipops rolled in Lucas Chamoy Polvo, and fish sauce in the pico de gallo. It meant long summer days in the strawberry fields every weekend, the skin on the back of your neck toasted warm brown like the color of cinnamon bark and stray dogs. It meant thick and ropey muscles from carrying five-gallon homer buckets full of fruit from sun-up to sundown so that your parents could make rent this month and next, and sometimes saying si pero while thinking out loud. At my school, I looked like everyone else. At Hmong New Year, I didn’t look like anyone else, and I glared at any flirtatious man who came too close to inspect me. This is how I stopped looking Hmong—how I already knew the words before they fell out of the old grandmothers’ wrinkled lips, the same words nested inside the false smiles of bemused aunties and their gawking husbands.
“Oh, this is your daughter? I thought she was a Mexican lady!”
Immediately followed by, “If only she wasn’t so big and dark, she could be Miss Hmong.” Cue me rolling my eyes, and another well-timed smack from my mother.
I found ways to silently rebel: I started dying my hair bright red and aggressively lined my eyes in black. One year, I wore my denim jacket over the costume. It was scrawled with anarchy signs and my favorite bands in permanent ink, and dotted with safety pins. Eventually, we called a truce when my little sister ran for Miss Hmong and I was no longer asked to dress up for the Hmong New Year, which suited me just fine. The torch had been passed.
The contemporary Hmong New Year Festival varies greatly from its predecessors in Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and China, which were rooted in clan leadership and the natural seasons of the Hmong’s agrarian lifestyle. Traditionally known as noj peb caug, or “eat thirty,” the celebration marked the end of the rice and maize harvest season. It was a time of rest when families could reunite after a long year of toiling in the fields and feast for thirty days; when lovers could court potential wives and husbands; when entire villages gorged on red meat instead of meager meals of boiled rice and vegetables; when wealthy Hmong could display their money shamelessly with heavy, silver jewelry; where women could advertise their artistry and wifely skills through hand-embroidered clothing; where men could play the queej to demonstrate their fitness and finesse. Ball-tossing, games, and animal fights entertained all audiences. The very first celebration of the modern Hmong New Year Festival was held December 1975 in Minnesota shortly after the first wave of sponsored Hmong refugees arrived, but each subsequent year’s festival reflected shifting kinship ties as Hmong refugees assimilated into American culture and became less dependent on clan leadership for individual identity formation and collective decision-making.
Hmong B-boys at Battle of the New Years 3, Courtesy of Gary Yang
The leaders of the nineteen family clans were wary of losing influence as Hmong families moved and clustered together along the Pacific Northwest and California. They transitioned their military experience into business protocols, transforming the Hmong New Year Festival from a regional cultural event into a global enterprise by aggressively recruiting corporate sponsors and vendors, fundraising, holding co-ed board elections, and lobbying the U.S. government to publicly acknowledge the contributions of Hmong military service members as United States veterans. Money flowed, and the Hmong New Year Festival became big business. Bloody bullfights and cockfights were replaced by friendly soccer matches and talent shows. Attendees still flirted by playing pov pob, ball-tossing games, but more and more people wore casual Western fashions rather than the intricate, handmade heirlooms handed down from their mothers. Those who chose to wear Hmong costumes remixed their fashions with folk costumes from Hmong in Vietnam, Thailand, and China, and they traded in expensive hand-stitched embroideries for cheaper mass-produced designs screen-printed on polyester instead. Neon yellow rubber tennis balls replaced the soft fabric-wrapped bundles, and rows of couples playing pov pob quickly turned into competitive handball games. In later years, with the rise of online video and affordable genetic testing, overseas Hmong began to reconnect to their family roots in China’s southern provinces, to Miao identity, which is a common misnomer for Chinese Hmong identity. A tree-topped pole modeled after the Miao Flower Mountain Festival (苗族花山节) has been recently erected atop a stage in the center of the main concourse, and academic researchers like Zhang Xiao, Director of the Center for Ethnic and Women Development Studies at Guizhou University, have also taken an interest in documenting the cross-cultural interchange. As the Hmong New Year Festival beefed up with growing global academic and commercial interests in overseas Hmong, accelerated expansion effected growing pains.
In August 2016, Hmong Americans watched apprehensively as U.S. President Barack Obama became the first American president to visit Laos and meet face-to-face with President Bounhang Vorachith. Many first-generation Hmong Americans distrusted the intentions of this meeting while second- and third-generation Hmong Americans, who had no recollection of the Secret War, expressed cautious optimism about reconciliation and new economic markets. A few months later, the national narrative on refugees and the status of naturalized U.S. citizens changed drastically with presidential election results, and rumors surfaced that infighting within Hmong New Year Festival organizers over money would result in a three-way divorce with each group angling to poach the others’ attendance and sponsors. Today, Fresno’s Hmong New Year Festival(s) are managed by three separate community organizations: The Hmong International New Year Foundation, Inc., the Hmong Cultural New Year Celebration, Inc., and The United Hmong Council.
Despite the infighting and turf wars over the Hmong New Year Festival in Fresno, the cultural centerpiece and crowd-favorite remains the annual crowning of the ntxhais nkauj ntsuab, the Miss Hmong beauty queen, which was a program originally introduced in 1968 at Long Cheng military air base to boost Hmong soldiers’ morale following their resounding defeat at The Battle of Phou Pha Thi. And, in the mix of all of this upheaval, I was appointed as a judge for the Miss Hmong USA beauty pageant in December 2017.
According to Gee Xiong’s 2013 Fresno State masters thesis, “Ntxhais Nkauj Ntsuab: A Study on the Miss Hmong Pageants in America,” Miss Hmong beauty pageants in America serve “entertainment purposes to supplement the urbanized glamour of Long Cheng; however, and notably, the pageant reflected the evolving atmosphere of the Hmong community in Long Cheng.” Xiong wrote that “[t]he contestants would walk on a stage in front of the judges, who were high ranking military officials, and nuv or essentially greet the judges in a polite fashion,” and that “the winner was expected to accompany the military officials to various New Year celebrations.”
In Claiming Place: On the Agency of Hmong Women, a seminal work examining Hmong American women at the intersections of gender and power, authors Chia Youyee Vang, Faith Nibbs, and Ma Vang connected this military narrative with broader notions on the role of women in twenty-first century Hmong culture:
“For contemporary Hmong women, a combination of subordinations imposed by those with different interests—such as Hmong experiences with French colonialism in Southeast Asia, Hmong struggles against the Lao state, U.S. military violence, refugee and diasporic experiences, and institutional inequities—produces their convoluted subjectivities. This complexity is often ignored in favor of centering analyses of power relations on their more easily targetable patriarchal social organization. Thus, we problematize this premise that the Hmong woman stands in for traditional culture.”
In other words, Miss Hmong beauty pageants were designed to glorify the military narrative of the Secret War while embodying outdated Hmong gender roles assigned to women, i.e. to be subservient, polite, meek, agreeable, and fiercely loyal to one’s patrilineal clan.
And, in other words, everything that I am not.
As a staunch feminist and reformed hippie-punk artist with infrequently neon hair and frequently loud opinions, I sat stoically in my chair in front of the main stage at the inaugural Hmong Cultural New Year Celebration. I wondered if I was now part of a new vanguard of second- and third-generation cultural brokers, signifying that the Hmong American community was ready for new leadership. Did this mean that I was no longer the black sheep of the family? Was my appointment as a Miss Hmong USA beauty queen judge was purely ironic?
What did I really know about what an ideal Hmong woman was supposed to look, act, and sound like? I had eschewed my mother’s nightly paj ndaub lessons, preferring instead to run wild with the neighborhood boys in the woods and listen to Grandfather’s war stories. While the other Hmong girls from my parents’ church had married young and helped on the family farm or lived at home while taking classes at community college, I had enrolled at the furthest school possible and only returned on holidays to debate politics, justice reform, public policy, and queer rights with my uncles over their beers. My hair changed with my moods from pink to red to purple and blue, and I left rainbows smears all over my mother’s white pillows and towels that refused to wash out. I still enjoyed arm wrestling my male cousins. Did my appointment to influence the results of this year’s beauty pageant reflect a sea change in gender norms for Hmong American women, or could I wag the dog in some minute capacity?
When I showed my mother my official VIP badge and told her that I had been selected to serve on the judging panel, she doubled-over laughing on the couch until breathless. She couldn’t believe it.
As it turned out, a lot had changed at the Hmong New Year Festival while I was away from Fresno.
During intermission, I walked around the Fresno Fairgrounds counting booths and absorbing the raucous din coming from each stall. Tinny, metallic music blasted over crackling speakers. Aggressive hawkers shouted into megaphones, their staccato syllables like rapid gunfire, corrosive and deafening. Little boys ran around shooting orange-tipped toy machine guns at one another while their mothers fingered primary-colored polyester outfits with ironed-on sequin stickers. A regal-looking Chinese Miao man sat silently on a reed stool, and seemed lost. Movie studios screened their latest action and horror films on competing widescreen TV monitors, the stories forgettable with wooden acting, stilted dialogue, and laughable special effects. Elderly crooners mewled whining love songs over electric keyboards while younger musicians passed out free posters advertising their latest self-produced album. One starlet wore skimpy lingerie and tight jeans, and she posed blandly for adoring (male) fans.
There was the crush of food vendors ghettoed against the north fence, each promoting such similar menus that they were nearly indistinguishable from the other: sticky rice plates with your choice of American or Hmong sausage, steamed tilapia with cilantro and ginger, roasted chickens, strips of roasted pork belly, and Lao-style papaya salad. One vendor’s papaya salad was cloyingly sweet while another’s spectacular chili-sauce temporarily revived an otherwise lifeless selection of entrees. Each person had their own irrational loyalties. Everyone was ready to argue who had the best Hmong sausages in the row and why. New to this mall in recent years were spiral-cut potatoes on skewers, coated in mayonnaise and parmesan cheese. Cart vendors sold cinnamon sugar-dusted churros and giant deli pickles. There was Korean barbecue, Chinese fast-food noodles, boba tea, and mango con chile. It was a food court; a culinary free-for-all. If you closed your eyes, it smelled like any other festival or county fair, save for the light chiming of Hmong women in costume walking by. Although it was a thrill to have so many food options, I wondered if increased non-specific options meant straddling the edge of inauthentic cultural experiences in the name of big profits.
On my walk back to the judging tables, I passed by a table with discrete rainbow flag buttons. It was an information booth for a political group of college-educated Hmong young adults advocating for women’s rights, LGBTQ awareness, voter registration, and civil discussion. Although many people walked in a wide arc around the table or steered clear of it, the very fact of their undisturbed presence at the Hmong New Year Festival signaled to me that the sociopolitical undercurrents were already swirling, gathering quiet momentum. I noticed booths featuring tech startups, social media platforms, podcasts productions, graphic designers, and creative agencies founded and marketed by Hmong American entrepreneurs. A pair of brothers owned a distillery and legally-brewed Hmong rice wine for commercial consumption. By all accounts, you could say that Hmong Americans had finally arrived after forty years. It had been a slow and subterranean crawl, but here we were at last . . . but would the beauty pageant be able to keep up with this cultural shift?
Would there be a year when a mixed-race Hmong woman would walk the stage? Or a darker-skinned contestant—or someone plus-sized, with visible tattoos and piercings—or openly queer be accepted? Would the Hmong community be ready to question whether a transitioning woman was enough to qualify? Gazing at each of the fair-skinned, heavily rouged and powdered, and conventionally attractive contestants—each sporting the same set of heavy, black glued-on lashes—the only certainty was that it wasn’t going to be this year’s presentation.
At the end of the festival, the winner of the Miss Hmong USA beauty pageant was announced. Some people griped about how many of the contestants could barely speak Hmong or, when they did, they sounded robotic and rehearsed. (The Hmong language requirement was removed for the following year.) Many women complained bitterly that it made no sense to hold a bikini competition in the middle of winter. (The organizers revisited this comment.). A few clans feuded, each insulting the other over competing contestants. (The organizers decided that, next year, contestants would only state their first names and not their surnames.). One contestant staged an elaborately choreographed dance performance complete with sets and costume changes, visually narrating the story of the Hmong’s life before, during, and after the Secret War. She started with a traditional Hmong folk costume and ended in the army fatigues and machine gun of a Long Cheng soldier. (She didn’t win.) A video of one contestant’s off-key singing during the competition went viral and she was ridiculed online, but she returned the following year to compete regardless. (Organizers debated whether or not contestants were required to know how to sing.) Only some people wondered out loud whether a Miss Hmong beauty pageant was still culturally relevant if contestants did not need to know the language, were not allowed to state their clan affiliation, know how to sing, or display any deep knowledge of Hmong culture and history.
I wondered all of this myself, and realized that my answer was irrelevant because, for the first time, Hmong Americans were truly trying to define themselves independent of clan leaders and military narratives. If this meant researching and remixing fragments of Hmong identity to create a wholly new sense of self, then so be it. It was still an interpretation of Hmong culture and identity examined through the lens of personal experience. There was no such thing as a panacea or the ideal utopian Hmong society.
After the audience disbanded, I walked behind the stage to thank the organizers for inviting me to participate, and thanked each of the contestants for their preparation and effort. They looked more relieved that it was over than I did, and I understood then that their ambivalence reflected mine. It was born from the recognition of a generation of new Americans in flux, at the cusp of something quite new and entirely experimental. Our mutual uncertainty and trepidation was centered on predicting the future, whether we—the inheritors of our families’ shared traumas and struggles—could get the facts straight enough to tell the story right and move forward with a renewed sense of purpose into the new year.
Will Fresno remain the Hmong cultural capital of America in the following years, or bow out to the growing population of sociopolitically-aware and upwardly-mobile Hmong from the Twin Cities? It’s hard to say. For now, I can say for sure that hundreds of thousands of overseas Hmong will continue to gather here annually, regardless of who produces the Hmong New Year Festival, as long as Fresno continues to feel like home—as long as Fresno sustains venues where Hmong can explore and test their shifting cultural values against traditions.
Miyares, p. 3-12: Although the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metropolitan area, Minnesota, has a higher Hmong population than Fresno, the latter is colloquially considered the unofficial Hmong capital of the United States thanks to concentrated clusters of cultural governing bodies such as Hmong military veteran associations and privately-operated social welfare & religious organizations headquartered in city limits that provided new arrivals with direct referrals for public aid, housing, medical care, employment, legal representation, higher education, financial aid and other resources.
Vang, Chia Youyee, Faith G. Nibbs, and Ma Vang. Claiming Place: On the Agency of Hmong Women. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016. p. ix.
Lisa Lee Herrick is a second-generation Hmong American writer, artist, and media specialist who helped produce the film, The Hmong and The Secret War, now available at PBS.org. She is a former television executive and award-nominated news journalist, and a founding member of the LitHop literary festival. Her essays and illustrations have been featured on or are forthcoming from The Rumpus, Food52, The Bold Italic, The Normal School, and others. She is writing a family memoir about the inheritance and aftermath of trauma, a cookbook, and two graphic novels.
In the opening line of her memoir’s prologue, Native Country of the Heart: A Memoir (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2019), California native and Chicana writer Cherríe Moraga introduces her mother, the central figure with very little fanfare: “Elvira Isabel Moraga was not the stuff of literature” (3). And yet, “the stuff of literature” she does become. Elvira serves as a medium from which Moraga explores what appears to be lifelong questions regarding belonging and homeland(s). One can look back at Moraga’s prolific and scholarly work within the fields of Chicana literature and Performance and Queer Studies, to find that similar questions regarding what is home: who has the right and power to claim a home, and which home claims us in return. For example, in her seminal essay “Queer Aztlán: the Re-formation of Chicano Tribe” (1993) she and a friend reflect on the alienation they felt within the Chicano Movement. Her friend concludes that what is needed is a “Queer Aztlán,” to which Moraga responds, “Of course. A Chicano homeland that could embrace all its people, including its jotería” (147). The memoir works to provide potential answers to this search.
If Moraga has had a lifelong quest to find and identify home, then her very first home, her mother is an organic starting point. Early in her writing career Moraga identified Elvira as home, one that fills up the senses, very much like an aroma that instantly transports us to a long-forgotten childhood memory or location. “There was something I knew at that eight-year old moment that I vowed never to forget—the smell of a woman who is life and home to me at once. The woman in whose arms I am uplifted and sustained. Since then, it is as if I have spent the rest of my years driven by this scent toward la mujer” (86). But what happens when that home is ephemeral and can no longer identify and claim you as their own? The memoir lets its readers know early on that Elvira’s own memory will lapse due to Alzheimer’s, forcing Moraga to ask herself a painful question on what is left when your first home no longer recognizes you: “If we forget ourselves, who will be left to remember us?” (6). What prospects does the writer have in finding home when “there is no one there to assure me against the prospect of my oblivion: my life without a Mexican mother” (132).
The memoir’s incorporation of this mother-daughter lens to tell a particular history, while not necessarily unique, goes beyond the stereotypical relationship dynamics, as recent literary research has demonstrated. In her study, Contemporary Chicana Literature: (Re)writing the Maternal Script (2014), literary scholar Cristina Herrera asserts how the mother-voice filters via the Chicana daughter narrator. Highlighting that “Chicana writers’ efforts to rewrite the script of maternity outside existing discourses, which present Chicana mothers as passive and servile and the subsequent mother-daughter relationship as a source of tension, frustration, and angst” (7). If Moraga’s memoir serves as a rewrite to the Mexican/Mexican-American mother-daughter script, then the rewrite also performs a kind of mapping, where the writer is plotting points, keeping track of the steps she has taken in order to find her home. Her mother’s physical and spiritual presence permeates the memoir, and the writer simultaneously works out her own quest.
Moraga’s memoir deftly moves between various time periods along with two Californias: Alta and Baja. Beginning with Elvira’s early life as a young border-dwelling child working the cotton fields in the Imperial Valley of California, into the last stages of her life, where she resided in a different valley, an ethnoburb at the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. We see Elvira the young cigarette and hat-check girl, working during the height of Tijuana’s casino-hotel industry during the 1930s in order to ensure her family’s survival. We also witness Elvira, the Huntington Beach hotel owner and manager, working to near death while raising her three children without any assistance. There is also Elvira in the Mexican capital, where Moraga almost disbelieves how much at home her mother appears to be in la Ciudad de México. In one of their intimate mother-daughter moments, their Spanish flows much like Elvira’s memories of her mexicanidad, expressing her añoranza, a yearning for the life she had left many years ago in the streets of Tijuana. Ironically, Mexico does not provide that same comfort for Moraga as a second generation Mexican-American. She later recalls a later trip to the “homeland” without her mother, the isolation and homelessness she felt is magnified:
“I was a long way from home. México reminded me, in a Spanish I struggled to perfect; masked in a light-skinned face that betrayed my loyalties to a country of which I longed membership but held no right to. How I wanted to blend in as one of them. But I was not one of them and I was not gringa, but something/someone other than either. This is what brought the fever to the surface of my skin: the trepidation that who I was would never find home again” (98).
Moraga’s words bring about a familiar sting, especially for those of us who identify as Mexican-American/Chicanx and have searched within Mexico the embrace saved for prodigal children, only to find out we will not be claimed as such. And so, we return, “I knew I had to get back home to California; not to her, but through her” (99).
After one of Elvira’s hospitalizations, Moraga returns to her empty childhood home, a place to which she admits as the origin site of her breaking away from her family in order to find her own freedom. Reflecting upon what her mother has been able to do with this small, suburban space, the writer recognizes it as her mother’s country, a place where she has been able to be the reina supreme. What becomes of this place without Elvira? “Are these the small plots of lot and land what is left of memory as Mexicans in the United States? Is this how ancestral memory returns to us, indifferent to the generation and geography of borders?” (163).
One of the most significant chapters in Native Country of the Heart comes in the form of “Sibangna,” the Tongva name for present-day city of San Gabriel, where Cherríe Moraga digs through the California archives to excavate her possible roots in this occupied land. As a formerly educated Catholic school girl whose classrooms were on the grounds of the San Gabriel Mission, the experience of having been educated where ethnocide and colonization occurred in the name of religion weighs on her, prompting Moraga to examine: “Ostensibly in search of my mother’s history, it was my own buried remains I sought. But how do you dig up amnesia?” (174). In her search for home, she returns to the ancestral history of Alta California, acknowledging that this land belonged to the Gabrieleño-Tongva people, whose dead reside in the grounds of the Catholic mission. With Elvira no longer able to contain a home for Moraga due to her illness and eventual passing, the writer turns to another site of origin, that of California indigeneity. She contemplates on the original name for the place her mother called home, Sibangna and its possible connection to her family history. She pointedly states, “I kept suffering the question of ‘home’ and whether I was truly up to the tasks of this queer and makeshift familia, reconstructed from broken promises and spurned hopes” (214). By performing figurative and literal digging into San Gabriel’s historical archives, Moraga is able to veer towards an arrival to home. The memoir challenges historical amnesia superimposed through acts of conquest and settler colonialism. Through her own research, the writer finds her mother’s family name as part of the historical records of indigenous people who were forced into Catholic baptisms. Moraga posits, “We were not supposed to remember” (238), and yet, through her own constructions of indigenous memories and a corporeal return to her mother’s “country”, the small piece of land nestled in the San Gabriel Valley foothills, she encounters an additional home “…it came to me that we are as much of a place as we are of a people; that we return to places because our hands served as tender shovels in that earth” (236-237). What better act to honor the memory of her mother, Elvira Isabel Moraga, and the many lives lived than to confirm that Elvira had been right in choosing her final home among the gardens she had planted in the former Tongva village of Sibangna.
 Moraga, Cherríe. The Last Generation: Prose and Poetry. Boston: South End Press, 1993.
 From the essay, “A Long Line of Vendidas” in Loving in the War Years: Lo que nunca pasó por sus labios. Cambridge: South End Press, 2000. Print.
Sandra Ruiz is an educator and scholar of Mexican and U.S. Chicanx/Latinx literatures, cultures, and histories as well as Spanish heritage and second-language acquisition. She was born and raised in Los Angeles, is a UCLA alumna, and resides in South East L.A. She is an Assistant Professor of Spanish and Vice Chair of Modern Languages at West Los Angeles College where she is collaborating and working to establish the campus’ Chicanx Studies and Social Justice Studies transfer degree programs. She is currently working on a book manuscript about Mexican and Chicana feminist crime writers.
A few months after Who Are the People? closed, I ran into keyboardist Bob Harris as I was leaving a phone booth that doubled as my office on Fountain in Silver Lake. I knew him from the days when we hung out with John Beck, lead singer with the Leaves, while he was in a relationship with folk singer/songwriter Judee Sill. We talked about what we were doing and I told him about the musical I’d just staged. He had just returned from touring with Zappa, I think it was the Billy the Mountain tour. I told him I’d met Frank a few years earlier, and he suggested we pay him a visit, since Frank and I both seemed to be on a rock theater kick.
As we drove up Laurel Canyon I had flashbacks of working at Chicken Delight back in ’66. We passed the notorious Log Cabin where Zappa and his clan once lived along with the GTOs (Girls Together Outrageously, about whom I’ll say more later). I don’t know how I survived speeding around those curves, stoned and in the rain, delivering boxes of chicken. But hey, it meant at least a couple bucks tip if you got the chicken there hot. So now, just a few years later, I’m on my way to see the wild wizard of rock. Life’s a stone trip, all right.
We got to his tree-shrouded home, and surprisingly he answered the door himself. “We met a few years ago at the Shrine for the Cruising with Ruben & the Jets album release show,” I said. “Yeah, I remember you. You’re Rubén.” “Right. Sorry I never took you up on your offer to drop off some demos, but I went back to college. I wanna write music for films.” He didn’t say anything, just “Come on in.” We walked into his studio, which burst with guitars and sound equipment.
“So, you used to sing a little R & B, huh?” “Yeah in high school in the ’50s, then I put together a trio, the Apollo Brothers. We cut a single in ’61, sang around town, and did a little TV. We played the Legion once.” “The El Monte American Legion Stadium?” “Yeah, with Richard Berry, and the Olympics too.”
That led to an all-night session of listening to his collection of R & B oldies. Here we were, a couple of grown men tripping on old records like we were teenagers. That was the beginning of our bond: our love of L.A. rhythm and blues.
Then we talked about my discovering modern music composers at LACC, Bartók and Stravinsky in particular. We talked about how they weaved ethnic folk music into new musical and theatrical forms, which was how I interpreted his Ruben & the Jets garage doo-wop band. I saw it as Mexican American rock-theater, though in a very primitive form, which was cool with me.
I took a copy of Billboard with me that had reviews of Who Are the People? and his recent collaboration with the L.A. Philharmonic at UCLA next to it. That got his attention. As the sun was coming up he made a proposal: “How would you like to stage a real Ruben & the Jets? I’ll produce the album, and you can tour with the Mothers as an opening band to promote it.” I told him, “Thanks, man, that’s a damn groovy offer, but I’m not interested in going back to rock ’n’ roll. I don’t want to move backwards, and besides, too many detours.” He stared at me for a few long seconds with those dark eyes, then said, “Take what you know and build your own roads.”
I said I’d think about it and get back to him. It sounded cool, but still, the question kept coming up: could I trust rock musicians to pull off this great opportunity? Could I even work with flaky rockers again after working with serious classical cats? Then again, it wasn’t like I’d be starting from scratch. There was already an audience for Zappa’s Ruben & the Jets. To have an album produced by him and a spot on a tour sounded too good to resist. And I’d be creating a rock-theater piece right in line with my new direction. However, another burning question kept coming up: Was I honoring my sister’s memory with this project? Was I keeping my word to create art as a spiritually educating experience? Could I use it as a launching pad that would take me closer to my promises? My conclusion: Fuck, yeah! Give it a try.
I called m’ man “Flash,” who had just returned from Vietnam. “Hey, man, get your boogie-woogie fingers warmed up. We’re gonna audition for a once-in-a-lifetime shot!” We went into his bedroom at his parents’ home and rehearsed on the old upright piano that we’d used when we started the Apollo Brothers in high school.
The session with Frank started out a little bumpy. At one point “Flash” stopped playing, and Frank said, “Come on, Flash, this ain’t Carnegie Hall.” “It is for me,” he replied, then nodded that he was ready to play again. That time, we got into it and nailed it. Frank smiled, nodding his head up and down. He asked me to put a band together. I said, “I can have a band together in a few weeks.”
Courtesy of Rubén Funkahuatl Guevara
So I called bass player and vocalist Bill Wild of the Du-Vals, who had backed up the Apollo Brothers at Pandora’s Box and my Shindig! audition. I was reluctant to hire him, what with his history of drugs and booze, but he could play a funky bass and had a soulful voice that I needed for the harmonies. For the sax section I contacted former LACC classmate Clarence Matsui, a Japanese American alto sax cat from Boyle Heights. I also recruited another classmate, tenor sax player Bob “Buffalo” Roberts, and Frank suggested Jim “Motorhead” Sherwood, a former Mother, for the baritone sax parts.
Clarence had been playing with a band from East L.A. that he highly recommended, so I went to hear them play. I was impressed and invited them to come to the audition. They included vocalist and Hammond B-3 player John Martinez, probably the best all-around singer ever to come out of East L.A. Not only could he sing bass and falsetto parts, but he was also a killer lead singer. Then there was vocalist–rhythm guitarist–songwriter Robert “Frog” Camarena and vocalist–lead guitarist–songwriter Tony Duran, formerly of East L.A. ’60s greats the Premiers (“Farmer John”). Drummer Bobby Zamora was called in at the last minute. The band sounded great, and Frank dug it.
Zappa was in a wheelchair during this time with a broken leg and other injuries from being pushed off the stage at a concert in London by a jealous fan. This gave him plenty of time to work with the band.
It was my understanding that the members of the band would be signed as “sidemen” and that I would be the leader, sole composer, and lead singer on all material. The band members could be replaced at my discretion. It was also agreed that the project would be a collaboration between Frank and me that would feature original L.A.-style rhythm and blues/doo-wop, jump blues, along with straight-ahead rock ’n’ roll and blues—a kind of musical history and repository of Black and Brown L.A. music all wrapped in Mexican American rock-theater. The band didn’t get the theater part, though, as I would later discover.
Courtesy of Rubén Funkahuatl Guevara
I modeled the Jets’ harmonies on those of the Jaguars, a classic L.A. doo-wop group from Fremont High School. The multiracial vocal group of Blacks, an Italian, and a Mexican American epitomized the L.A. doo-wop style for me. Their recording of “Just the Way You Look Tonight” was the template I used to build on.
My recent composition experience writing gospel parts for Who Are the People? and my early work with the Apollo Brothers gave me the chops to arrange the vocal harmonies for the Jets. Since there were songwriters and great singers in the band, I decided to utilize their talents as much as possible, as both a democratic and a practical musical move. I didn’t realize I was also relinquishing my power. Frank wrote two songs for the band, the up-tempo doo-wopper “If I Could Only Be Your Love Again” (with George Duke sitting in on piano for the recording) and a crazy doo-woppish rocker, “The Weenie-Back Wino Walk,” which unfortunately didn’t make it to vinyl.
We rehearsed the material for the album for several months, then tested it out playing at Louis Stevenson Junior High in Boyle Heights, Garfield High School in East L.A., and at the Montebello Bowl. My plan was to create a buzz in East L.A. first, then bring the new fans to the Whisky in Hollywood for the debut.
With “Postcards,” creative non-fiction stories grounded in place, we aspire to create a new cartography of California. For us, literature and language are as much about marking and representing space, as they are about storytelling.
On a Saturday morning in late October, public workers in downtown Los Angeles block off the stretch of Broadway from Olympic Boulevard to Hill Street. Around 10 am, a crowd gathers, donned in blue and red garments, shirts embroidered with mola, white polleras with bright-colored pom-poms, or Panama flags draped across their backs, to celebrate the Annual Panamanian Independence Day Parade. Distant relatives and former neighbors spot each other and greet with air kisses on each cheek. The crowd travels with the parade down Broadway and ends with a battle of Panamanian bands at Pershing Square. By activating spaces like downtown, a small but significant, interconnected community of Black Panamanians made Los Angeles their home.
The 2018 Senior Queen of the Parade waves at attendees along Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of Ernesto Edwards.
While some have lived in Los Angeles since the 1960s, many Black Panamanian families moved to L.A. from Panama and other states such as New York, to live alongside African-Americans with roots in the American South during the 1970s and 1980s. As they sought housing in areas where other Black Panamanians already lived, a constellation of Black Panamanian families and individuals grew in South Los Angeles, North Long Beach, Watts, and Compton. Decades before they migrated to the United States, their grandparents left countries like Barbados, Jamaica, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and other Caribbean islands for Panama. Like them, they relied on family, friendship, and cultural practices.
Settling into their new city, they moved to affordable homes and several apartment complexes in Compton, including an apartment complex my mother, a canteen cashier at an aerospace company, managed. Known as “The Blvd,”because of its location on Long Beach Boulevard, one of Compton’s major thoroughfares, Black Panamanians came to occupy over half of the complex’s units. Its layout—apartments that faced each other with a communal space in the front and a walkway in the back that led to the next building—encouraged neighbors to interact and kids to play together. On Saturday mornings, music poured from every apartment: Anita Baker, Johnnie Taylor, Ruben Blades or Tabou Combo. The aroma of fried, sweet platanos and collard greens drifted between the apartments. During the summer, one neighbor sold duros, juices frozen in plastic cups, with flavors like tamarindo, ginger-infused jamaica, and, my favorite, coco, made with fresh coconut milk and shredded coconut, sweetened with cinnamon and nutmeg. If someone had a party, we all partied and feasted on delicacies such as saus (pickled pig feet with onions, cucumber, and white vinegar), chicheme (a drink made with sweetened milk, corn, and cinnamon), and Panamanian tamales (a spicy, reddish masa filled with green peas, peppers, a bone-in piece of chicken, and a prune, tripled wrapped, first in a banana leaf, then wax paper, then aluminum foil). For Nochebuena, my mother made pineapple glazed ham for everyone and rang in Navidad with the songs of Ismael Rivera, Oscar D’León, and Ruben Blades. Though the apartment’s location placed us in the cross-hairs of both gang violence and pedestrian-involved car accidents, we created spaces of joy by sharing Black Panamanian and African-American culture and resources.
On weekends, the Black Panamanian community throughout Los Angeles came together. The physical and social proximity of Compton, Watts, North Long Beach, and South Los Angeles, made it easy to gather in each others’ homes or in local, public spaces. On Saturday afternoons, a group of women, which included my mother, gallivanted to local or cross-town casinos, Compton’s Ramada Inn or Inglewood’s Hollywood Park and Casino, to play bingo. On Sundays, they headed east, out of Los Angeles County, to San Bernardino’s San Manuel Casino. If they didn’t want to drive, they got together in someone’s home, but kept the stakes high and brought their plata. The men played straight dominos in the dining room or backyard or joined the women in the living room, where you could hit on two or three in a row, before winning with the traditional five in a row. Their children commandeered the kids’ room to play video games or listen to hip-hop and dancehall music, growing hungrier as time passed before the evening’s host finished cooking rice and peas (red beans), guandú (also called gandules or gungo peas), or lentils, fried, sweet platanos, stewed chicken, and salad – potato or coleslaw. At times, food inspired the gathering, and someone prepared and sold dinners or fritura, fried finger foods such as hojaldas (a fried bread, also known as hojaldres/dras), empanadas, fried yucca, patacones (twice-fried green plantains), or carimañolas (mashed yucca filled with ground meat then fried). Whatever the occasion, we all ate and ate together.
Victor and friends outside the shop. Photo courtesy of Victor
Some Saturdays I accompanied my father to Victor’s Upholstery Shop (known to everyone simply as Victor’s shop); this meant peeking into the shop to say hello then sitting in the car for what felt like hours while my father hung out. Initially located on Washington Boulevard in L.A.’s Arlington Heights, the upholstery shop occupied the corner unit of a large, white brick building, with peeling paint, no windows, and one front metal gate. Named for its proprietor—a slim, brown Panamanian, with a gold tooth and a Caribbean accent (like many Black Panamanians), who often dressed in a natty fit and cap—Victor opened the shop in 1965 and availed his business to the local Panamanian community. For decades, the shop doubled as a communication hub and hang-out spot. If you wanted to confirm information about an event, you called Victor’s shop. If you needed to purchase pre-sale tickets for the upcoming boat cruise or dance, you could buy them at Victor’s shop. When the Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega was ousted in 1989, the local news stations came to Victor’s shop to interview the Panamanian community. The layout of the space itself reflected its many functions. Bolts of fabric lined up like wallpaper on one wall, shelves with binders upon binders of swatches stacked on another wall, and a wide wood work table occupied the center; it sat atop a carpet of wood dust. A dim corner room, across from the work table and behind Victor’s desk, housed a large TV and chairs. The walls were plastered with posters of athletes and bikini-clad women selling alcohol. While the sounds of Victor pounding sofa upsides with a mallet echoed through the shop, the TV room rang with the raucous laughter of men who planted themselves to talk politics and bochinche (gossip) in a mix of Spanish, English, and Patois, drink rum and milk or Cerveza Panama, and watch boxing matches, especially ones that featured Panama’s pride, Roberto “Manos de Piedra” Duran. In exchange, they helped Victor make deliveries. As they aged, they gathered for potlucks and quieter moments.
Across from Victor’s shop was Jucy’s Jamaican restaurant, one of L.A.’s few sit-down Caribbean restaurants, which has operated for over thirty-five years. It serves typical Panamanian cuisine like chicken soup with dumpling, stewed meat dishes, and chicken curry. Sometimes we drove down Crenshaw to indulge in a beef patty from Stone Market. Opened in the 1970s, we first frequented Stone Market because it carried typical food items and brands that local stores did not, such as guandú peas, Malta Hatuey (a sweet, carbonated beverage), and bacalao (salted codfish). Outside, men sat on folding chairs or milk crates, talking and playing dancehall and old school reggae that you could purchase. Over time, it became a staple in the Black Panamanian community. Located next to the market is the star of the operation: a take-out, cash only, food kiosk, where dinners, patties, and, the best carrot juice I’ve ever tasted, are prepared and sold. It is a small structure, with just a kitchen and front counter, a floor fan circulating heat and noise, and a dry-erase board that displays the menu of the day. Upon entering, the smell of coconut, butter, and cinnamon from the loaves of Coco bread and bun welcomed you the way the cashier will not. What was written on the board is what they had in stock; if an item was marked out or erased, they ran out of it for the day. If it wasn’t on the board, one shouldn’t ask for it (these were the unspoken rules). When an abuelita or other keepers of the homemade bun recipe went on a cooking hiatus, families settled for purchasing buns for Easter or Christmas from Stone Market.
During summer holidays like the 4th of July, we celebrated at Scherer Park in Long Beach. Nicknamed “Parque Del Amo,” for its location off Del Amo, between Long Beach Boulevard and Atlantic Avenue, some families arrived as early as six am to claim one of the limited numbers of picnic tables, while others brought folding tables, lawn chairs, or blankets. Each family prepared meals at home and brought them to the park: cole slaw, potato salad, rice and peas or guandú, baked barbecue chicken, and even hotdogs and hamburgers. Occasionally, my father set up a fryer and sold patacones and codfish cakes. Children would go from table to table to meet-up with friends. Asking for or accepting a plate from a table other than your own was a faux paus; my mother insisted that doing so constituted begging and set the trap for a good piece of bochinche. Folks might say that your mother did not care for you properly. The Scherer Park gatherings grew in size; at one point, someone hired an official DJ and a Panamanian ballet folklórico group performed on a portable dance floor. As Panamanians began to move to cities within San Bernardino County, festivities like an annual end of the summer picnic, were held east of Los Angeles at Frank Bonelli Park in San Dimas.
Couples dance close at a Father’s Day Dance at the Shatto Banquet Hall. Photo courtesy of Ernesto Edwards.
Parties worthy of a formal venue took place at Shatto Banquet Hall, a rental hall on Slauson Avenue, which was popular among L.A.’s Louisiana Creole community. We had our own version of formal wear. For men, it consisted of a button-down blouse, silk slacks, and dress shoes with no socks. Women wore glittered or sequined body-hugging dresses, extra-high heels, and a slather of gold – gold bracelets, anklets, earrings, and necklaces with placas (name plates or plates in the shape of the Panama Isthmus) or an Ojo de Venado (a round ball/amulet wrapped in gold letters). No matter the type of jewelry, it had to be gold, as the women deemed anything else chichipatti (cheap). At Shatto Hall, I witnessed my first and only quinceñera, another second-generation Black Panamanian girl, who body rolled down the two lines of Black damas and chambelanes to Raven-Simone’s rap song “That’s What Little Girls are Made of.”
The predominant narrative about the Afro-Latinx community in L.A. claims that we suffers from isolation and are disconnected. However, it is clear that a network of Black Panamanians nurtured and created a strong sense of identity for the next generation, including myself. As an Black Panamanian in Los Angeles, I was not a anomaly. Instead, I was part of a community that held and named me.
Yet, as the places and spaces known to the community changed, so did the community. Panamanians no longer live on “The Blvd.” Encounters with violence and the lack of opportunity due to divestment and the loss of jobs once provided by large industries, pushed African-American and Black Panamanian families out of Los Angeles. Many followed the out-migration of African-Americans east, to cities like Rialto, Upland, Fontana, and Rancho Cucamonga. Folks no longer gather at Scherer Park. After decades of running his upholstery business out of Washington Boulevard, Victor had to move. This was likely a result of rising commercial rent costs and gentrification. The original location of Victor’s shop is now an art gallery. He retired soon after his shop relocated. Jucy’s and Stone Market have managed to weather the changes and will perhaps benefit from the planned Crenshaw light rail running next to Stone Market. 
The entire building has experienced a transformation, with new tenants replacing old ones
While many families moved out of L.A. County, some families, including my own, remained. We moved from Compton to Long Beach, and finally, to Watts. My family arrived to these places without the community that once enriched us and made these places home. I long for that community –my mother does too. Now, as a mother, I desire for my children to experience the affirmation that I did growing up in a Black Panamanian Los Angeles. Yet, in the face of change, we remain resourceful and look to the past for guidance. As the child of migrants, I am able to do things that my parents were not able to: I can take my children to Panama. I can take them to the annual parade, the place where we still gather, and introduce them to our neighbors from “The Blvd” and our friends like Victor. Those of us who grew up nurtured by this community of Black Panamanians, and those who are just discovering it, know that in any place we gather, we are our own multitude.
Jenise Miller is an urban planner and poet. She is the great-granddaughter of Black Panama Canal builders and a native of Compton and Watts. A recent Voices of Our Nations Arts (VONA) fellow, her poems have been featured in The Acentos Review, Dryland Literary Journal, and Cultural Weekly. She received her M.A. in Urban Planning from UCLA and B.A. in Black Studies and Sociology from UC Santa Barbara. She lives in Compton with her family. You can find her on Twitter @jenisepalante and www.plannerpoet.com.
California Citrus State Historic Park Visitor’s Center, Riverside
Elisabet Barrios Mateo
I grew up surrounded by a vast agricultural landscape in California. I never questioned the orchards’ beauty, or the sweetness of the apricots and cherries it bore. InCollisions at the Crossroads: How Place and Mobility Make Race, Genevieve Carpio peels back the history of the “Citrus Belt” in Southern California to reveal its unsettling past.
Reading Collisions at the Crossroads is like holding a hundred-dollar bill to a light and seeing its racial watermarks with a naked-eye. Through a deep analysis of literature, newspaper articles, maps, and legal and congressional records, Carpio exposes the many symbols of white supremacy embedded within these artifacts. She unapologetically argues that racial logics have been used to produce inequality via laws, regional policies, and cultural narratives in the United States.
With this book, readers will come to comprehend a dynamic portrait of how World War I and II, Dust Bowl migration, and the emergence of the automobile industry replicated the same racial hierarchies that nourished the Citrus Belt. It is a captivating read that weaves together athleticism, Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, and Route 66 in eye-opening ways. Her argument of spatial mobility as a human right, powerfully contributes to the debate on whether or not race produces inequality beyond economic stratifications. The first two chapters come to expose how land rights favored white settlers, and how they leveraged citizenship and belonging through historical myths. The middle three chapters transition to uncover how economic and cultural disadvantages were produced through immigration laws, policing, and housing segregation that targeted racial minorities. The final chapter concludes by connecting to past and present debates on U.S. identity and belonging.
Carpio uses racial triangulation throughout her book to unpack race as a relative construct. Like Natalia Molina in How Race is Made in America: Immigration, Citizenship and the Historical Power of Racial Scripts, Carpio argues that racial narratives are relational. Covering a longer time-period, she examines how Indigenous, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Puerto Rican, and Mexican communities were hierarchically positioned and selectively framed over the twentieth- century. White farmers entered the national debate on the Immigration Bill of 1924 to juxtapose Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Filipino workers to serve their economic interests while strategically framing people from all three groups as supposed threats to the Anglo racial landscape.
Carpio makes a resounding argument of mobility as a human right that cannot be divorced from the educational, residential, and economic outcomes that social scientists examine. She connects us to the past by drawing and expanding on old academic boundaries, while charting a new path for contemporary scholars and political leaders. Her book is a liberating piece that sheds light on the mechanisms through which non-white Americans have been excluded from full citizenship and belonging. It demonstrates the power of lies, storytelling, and the potential for reclaiming space through a collective narrative.
To varying degrees, each chapter provides evidence that communities of color have fought mobility constraints, which leads her to focus on resistance within legal and social institutions. Unfortunately, this leaves informal avenues of resistance unexamined. And yet we know that from common practices today, these informal avenues were likely also engaging spaces of resistance. For instance, contemporary undocumented immigrant communities use real-time communication chains to organize around police checkpoints and immigration raids. What might such informal strategies have looked like during the period Carpio examines? These could be crucial to understanding how non-white communities shift boundaries around physical and social spaces throughout everyday life.
Carpio’s book is a noteworthy contribution to our historical and present-day understanding of how racial hierarchies are used to curtail the rights and privileges of communities of color. She invites readers to learn about their not-so-distant past, while provoking them to reflect on the lies readers have imbibed and internalized. Reading a bit like a local version of Howard Zinn’s, A People’s History of the United States, her writing poetically uncovers racial inequalities in the legal system, while simultaneously portraying a dynamic human experience. By the end of the book, the reader can hear echoes of the narratives used to forge the Citrus Belt in the political discourse under the Trump administration.
Elisabet Barrios Mateo is a doctoral student in Sociology at the University of California, Irvine. Her research focuses on the ways federal law and state policy shape the sense of belonging for young immigrants in United States. She also writes poetry about social justice, the immigrant experience, and love.
In Queer Space: Architecture and Same Sex Desire, Aaron Betsky writes, “The queerest space of all is the void, and AIDS has made us live in that emptiness, that absence, that loss…. It is not a queer space any of us would want to inhabit, but many have been forced to make it their own.” In many ways, Danny Jauregui’s work goes beyond just inhabiting the void, that queer space separate from society. It is about identifying it, reclaiming it, and giving it a permanent spatial location in the decades following the crisis. People cruised within communities, within neighborhoods, at local parks, bars, and shops. A single location can be so many places at once.
“I wanted to show that these locations once existed here,” he says.
The photos used in the artist Danny Jauregui’s project document a history that generations of young gay men might not be familiar with. Chronicling these sites then became a way for Jauregui to recover and graft the memory of gay cruising into the larger sphere of American identity and assemblage. The images are a stark reminder of the transient nature of cruising, allowing for a uniquely queer identity to integrate itself into the very tapestry of the history of Los Angeles.
I wanted to show that these locations once existed here.
I met Jauregui on an overcast mid-May morning at La Monarca Bakery on Cesar Chavez Boulevard in Boyle Heights. Danny is a charming and affable man almost a decade younger than me. He’s made a name for himself as an artist whose work encompasses many different media including photography, drawing, and sculpture. The son of immigrants from the state of Jalisco, Mexico, he grew up in South Central L.A. before his family moved to Whittier. Like me, Danny is an artist and academic; he teaches art and photography at Whittier College. Like me, he’s Latino. Like me, he is gay and in a long and stable relationship with a partner. Like me, he spent the past academic year chairing his department. Over sips of piping hot coffee, we commiserate over the challenges—and, yes, the rewards—of serving as heads of our respective units. We share a great deal in common, and I find it comforting to be sitting down and having an enlightening conversation about art and activism and the pressures of academic life with someone so similar to me.
“My brother was a trouble maker when we were growing up,” he says. “My parents decided to pour all their energies into making sure I wasn’t. They indulged my curiosity. If I was into something, they got it for me. When I was interested in art, my father went out and bought me colored pencils and a sketchbook.”
Danny’s work first came to my attention when I ran across an article featuring him and a project he had undertaken to map the cruising sites and locations around the city using Bob Damron’s Address Book as guidepost. When I ask what led him to put the two together, he smiles.
“I was living in Silverlake with my partner during the whole Proposition 8 battle,” he explains.
“Prop 8,” as it was more commonly known, was a statewide ballot aimed at eliminating same-sex marriage in California. The measure eventually passed, with 52.3% of the population voting not to protect the rights of gay couples to marry. The “No on 8” campaign had rented out a building where a local gay bathhouse once stood. When Danny discovered this, it became the impetus for his work. It was such an ironic thing, he recalls, that the headquarters of a grassroots effort to secure the right for same-sex couples to marry had its office in what was once a place where men flocked to meet and have sex in public. In the 70s we’d gained our sexual liberation. We were free to have sex with whomever, whenever, and (pretty much) wherever we wanted. But 80s and 90s brought AIDS, cutting short the party, forcing so many to rethink such “hedonistic” lifestyle choices. Now, in the aftermath of so much loss, many who remained craved marriage and monogamy—grand symbols of heteronormativity. For his part, Danny also embarked on a project that resulted in a map-based documentary of Damron’s Address Book. In doing so, Danny’s work investigated the spatial memory of gay cruising sites, of connection and intimacy that once played out in these locations—spaces no longer in use for that purpose, but also not completely erased either. They exist as reminders of an era of sexual liberation both before and during the AIDS crisis.
Danny explained that his work aims to preserve and document these sites as places of community building, where gay men once upon a time forged bonds and created a sense of shared belonging through the most intimate and secretive of acts. “I’m interested to know then if cruising is the result of a closeted culture?” he says. “Or another means of maintaining the integrity of a subculture that is uniquely our own.”
A good friend once told me that the only time he ever felt truly alive was when he was out cruising. At the time he carried what he jokingly called a “roadside hazard kit” in his car that contained towels, condoms, bottles of lube, poppers, and a few worn out porno magazines (back before porn could be streamed on a smartphone).
“I’d spend hours driving around in my car,” he recalled, with a reverence that was almost spiritual. “I’d get lost in the whole ritual of it.”
Once he watched as cops arrested a man in a park bathroom. But that never stopped him. It worked to heighten the arousal, he said. It provided a thrill that he felt was otherwise missing in his life. His preferred spot to cruise was Griffith Park.
Author John Rechy situates Griffith Park in several of his novels like City of Night and Numbers. In the latter, handsome and charismatic Johnny Rio has come to Los Angeles after years in Texas. Faced with the certain reality that his age is catching up to him, Johnny returns to his former haunt, a place of past conquests, for ten days of sex before his beauty and looks fade away forever. Upon reaching the park, Rechy writes: “[It] is much vaster than Johnny expected. It sprawls over several thousand acres—threatening to spill out into Los Angeles, Hollywood, Glendale, invading even the sky; its various roads spiral up hills high above the city.”
Here, the space of cruising sprawls, opens up, invades, and ruptures the larger environs. It interrupts the space contained by artificial impediments. The writer, like singer George Michael, arrested in a Beverly Hills park bathroom, brazenly calls attention to the location as a site of sexual exchanges that exist within the larger mesh of American culture. But this is a site that operates outside the boundary, a site that challenges greater notions of exchange and connection. He writes, “The branches of so many trees droop so thickly here that the sun filters through only in tiny shifting sequin points and jagged patches.
Perhaps Johnny’s fading good looks, his various exploits, and his frenzied attempts to recapture the glory days of his cruising jaunts could be seen as a commentary on the threats posed on this rare and little-known ecosystem. And like many delicate ecosystems, perhaps Rechy is making a commentary on the fading phenomenon surrounding such places as married couples with kids and dogs push in and the vast clearings that pocket the park, canopied by trees, go from being prime cruising spots to places for cyclists and joggers.
A 1997 L.A. Times article titled “Neighbors Tackle Gay Cruising” tells of neighbors, both newly arrived and longstanding, getting sick and tired of the cruising scene in the areas around Griffith Park. “In the enduring subculture of men cruising for sex with other men, a few pleasant residential blocks of Griffith Park Boulevard had become hot. A nearby sex club had drawn crowds, as did the boulevard’s mention in gay guides” the article reported. The crackdown led to undercover police stings and road signs that read
TWO TIMES PAST SAME
POINT WITHIN 6 HOURS
Back in 2011 the Los Angeles city council unanimously voted to have the signs removed claiming them to be pointless and offensive. And though this might initially seem like a progressive and bold step on behalf of residents, one that looks to embrace the long history of homosexuality and gay cruising in the community, it’s actually not. The establishments that once attracted such activities have all packed up, replaced by pressed juice bars and yoga studios. “Today, residents say those type of clubs have closed and the neighborhood has changed. They believe the signs ‘stigmatize’ and embarrass the neighborhood,” one website stated.
Begun by visual artist Carlos Motta and writer and dramaturge Joshua Lubin-Levy, Petit Mort: Recollections of a Queer Public is a visual art project that charts the experiences of gay men cruising around New York City. Each account presents detailed drawings by men and brief accounts of their experiences. Deeply personal and culturally significant, these accounts draw strong links between gay subculture and public spaces. Extending beyond the engaged sexual encounters, their project reinforced the idea of cruising as not just a frivolous act, but one with deep political roots, recognizing the foundation of resistant and sexual liberation in the gay community by giving permanence and legitimacy to these spaces in their art. The culture of gay cruising is threatened by gentrification, laws that limit such behaviors, and an overall stigma associated with sex in public. As the makeup of neighborhoods change, the secret cruising goldmines that once existed are slowly being converted or threatened with extinction.
In Los Angeles, Pershing Square was the central locus of gay cruising and hustling in the decades prior to the crisis. A central location in what was known as “The Run” from the 1920s to the 1960s, Pershing Square was the anchor around which gay men could cruise and visit friendly locales like the bathrooms at the Central Library and the Subway Terminal Building, and bars like the one in the Biltmore Hotel.
Many of these places have since vanished and, though remnants of the physical locations might remain—the restroom of a local park, a building that once housed one of the most popular sex clubs in Silverlake, a seedy adult bookstore now fallen into disrepair over the years—they are but subtle traces of what used to be. Finding new cruising hotspots is a little easier now with smartphones equipped with geolocation features, websites, and apps. As these new modes of communication become more ubiquitous, the line between privacy and intimacy also blurs. And given the rise of gentrification in certain regions of Los Angeles as well as other metropolitan cities, the factors that threaten the subculture of cruising come not only from AIDS and other STDs, but also from a long string of new pressures.
Alex Espinoza earned his MFA in Fiction from UC Irvine and holds the Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair in Creative Writing at UC Riverside. He’s the author of the novels Still Water Saints and The Five Acts of Diego León, both from Random House. His newest book is Cruising: An Intimate History of a Radical Pastime (Unnamed Press, June 2019). He has written for the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times Magazine, Virginia Quarterly Review, and NPR’s All Things Considered. The recipient of a fellowship in prose from the NEA and an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, he lives and teaches in Los Angeles and is completing a new novel. www.alexespinoza.com
Essential Los Angeles: Revisiting the Automobile (Eric Avila)
Just when we thought we knew everything about Los Angeles and the automobile, Genevieve Carpio delivers Collisions at the Crossroads, not just a model of rigorous, empirically-driven, theoretically sophisticated scholarship, but a critical intervention into a canonical body of knowledge that explains the enduring love affair between Angelenos and their automobiles. The story is familiar: Los Angeles grew up with the automobile. Its vast expanse of flat arid land—partitioned by mountains, arroyos, and rivers—provided an ideal setting for the mass adoption of the automobile during the early decades of the twentieth century. Even in the depths of the Great Depression, southern Californians purchased automobiles in record numbers, creating an impetus for the construction of new streets, boulevards, and highways. These arteries and the cars they served fattened the coffers of oil, rubber, glass, steel, trucking, and construction companies, and furthered the sprawling, decentralized pattern of urban development that typified a broader pattern of ‘sunbelt’ urbanism.
This history became the basis of a full-blown myth about Los Angeles as ‘Autopia,’ penned by a British expat who roamed the L.A. grid in a convertible Mustang in the swinging Sixties. First published in 1971, Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies generated a new appreciation of Los Angeles, furthering a broader ‘postmodern’ sensibility that drew inspiration from the commercial landscapes of a car-oriented, hyper-consumer society. Much in the same vein as contemporary artists working in the Pop aesthetic (think Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha, and David Hockney, another British expat in L.A.), Banham recognized the centrality of the automobile in a new suburban way of life unfolding in southern California. To him, the automobile symbolized mobility, autonomy, convenience, and free choice—the attributes of a consumer society and the underlying values of a new model of democratic urbanism. Banham thought little of recent conflagrations like Watts, which he dismissed as a “fashionable venue for confrontations.” Instead, he saluted the automobile and its role in making a city where “all parts are equal and equally accessible from all other parts at once,” concluding that “freedom of movement is the prime symbolic attribute of the Angel City.” Yet in challenging these accounts of L.A.’s autopia that assert a universal mobile subject, Carpio reminds us of the divergent claims to mobility by diverse groups who navigated the metropolitan landscape and their racial positions within it.
Banham and his predecessors had important insights about the automobile and its impact upon Los Angeles’s development. Their narrative makes important contributions to understanding why Los Angeles is the way it is and why the city “bleeds” (as Carpio evocatively puts it) into its hinterlands. Her book Collision at the Crossroads tells a different story about the automobile, and about spatial movement more broadly, reminding us that the old story is dated for its failure to address issues of inequality, immobility, and injustice—issues that L.A. historians can no longer ignore.
Workers and their Cars.
Washing a Car.
In the two centuries of its relatively brief existence, Los Angeles sustains (thanks to a recent generation of historians who align with social justice movements) a not-so-hidden history of violence, oppression, and injustice, but also of resilience, struggle, accommodation, hybridity, and mestizaje or mixed-races. The city’s track record of mob violence and racial uprisings, not to mention its history of mass incarceration and police brutality, forces a need to rethink both the city and the technology that made it, including the car, but also emergent forms of police enforcement, public policies aimed at diverse movers, innovative strategies to navigate metropolitan space by the aggrieved, and claims to the right to mobility. In Collisions at the Crossroads, Carpio tells this story from the vantage point of inland southern California, where claims to mobility have been complex and always contestable. The automobile made Greater Los Angeles, as did streetcars and railroads in their day, but its arrival and accommodation benefitted some groups of people at the expense of others.
As with many technological advancements, white men usurp the privileges they afford themselves and deny those same benefits to everyone else (with some brilliant exceptions). This includes the automobile, one of the most consequential inventions in human history. Not just the automobile as object, but especially its meaning as a symbol: the promise of unfettered mobility, autonomous movement, and mastery over time and space at high speeds on the open highway. Reyner Banham exalted these qualities and rightly expressed their seemingly universal appeal (at least in his time). So many of us love the automobile: we wash their bodies, clean their engines, quench their thirst for oil, air, water, and gasoline, polish their glass and chrome, register their possession with state authorities, insure them against damage and destruction—we eat, drink, argue, bond, and think thoughts in automobiles. We love these damn things so much that those of us written out of autopia’s dominant scripts—women, people of color, immigrants—forget that we often relinquish our autonomy, will, even safety, by surrendering to the automobile’s allure.
What Banham and other apologists for the automobile also ignore is a counterstory of how the automobile became a powerful tool of state surveillance and discipline. As demonstrated in the larger chapter from which the excerpt to follow draws, the car’s pleasures are accorded selectively by a repressive police force that incorporated the automobile into its arsenal, enabling new forms of enforcement in which they could “invoke the eyes of fellow police cruisers over the radio, track car owners through vehicle registration, and erect traffic checkpoints to distinguish criminals from the law-abiding mobile public.”
LAPD Classic Cruiser, 1958.
Watts Riots, 1965.
Carpio’s work provides early insights into emerging forms of state surveillance that would mature into the postwar period. During the 1950s and under the leadership of Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker, local law enforcement invented the squad car, equipped with short-band radios, sirens, rifles, shotguns, spotlights, and powerful engines. Parker revolutionized law enforcement in an age of mass suburbanization, effecting greater control over disparate working class Black and Latino communities that took shape throughout the five-county urban region. The police arrest of Marquette Frye, who was pulled over on a hot summer day in early August 1965, illustrated the lethal consequences of ‘driving while black.’ His arrest sparked the Watts Riots, the most violent episode of urban racial violence during the mid-1960s, resulting in thirty-four deaths and hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage.
Chief Parker realized the automobile’s potential on a new highway system that took shape during his tenure. During the 1950s and 1960s, federal money poured into the construction of a massive highway system, linking disparate suburban communities to the historic core of Los Angeles. Orange County now linked to the San Fernando Valley, and they had new links to the inland communities of Claremont, Pomona, and Ontario. This sprawling network of freeways converged just east of the downtown core, in the neighborhood of Boyle Heights, which bore the brunt of state and federal highway construction projects. Today, Boyle Heights stands at the center of L.A.’s expansive freeway system, quarantined from the rest of the city by massive highway interchanges built in conjunction with slum clearance efforts. A redlined neighborhood since the 1930s, Boyle Heights earned the official distinction of being “hopelessly heterogeneous” by the Homeowners’ Loan Corporation, identified as “an ideal site for a massive slum clearance project” which turned out to be two massive highway interchanges, built less than two miles apart from each other in the late 1950s.
In this deracinated landscape, ravaged by white flight and highway construction; in the shadows and din of new freeway interchanges, a new ‘Chicano’ culture took shape, a hybrid mix of Mexican cultural traditions, shaped by the cosmopolitan influences of a polyglot, glamorous, and dangerous society. Zoot Suits came from Boyle Heights, murals too, and lowriders, which fashioned an alternative car culture that had nothing to do with the very qualities of speed and mobility that Banham celebrated. They embraced ‘low and slow’ as their aesthetic, indulging in a new suburban pleasure that drew upon urban traditions of showmanship and technological mastery, and gave a big middle finger to the ideals of efficiency, speed, mobility, and productivity built into the object and symbol of the automobile itself. Lowriders were not 9-to-5 commuters and they re-fashioned these machines for their own sensory and aesthetic pleasure. Their spatial claims evoked strong responses from the viewing public and local authorities, contests that Carpio argues have continued to play out over symbolic landscapes like Route 66. Lowriders chose boulevards over freeways as the primary venue for their motorized brand of chrome-polish swagger, and enthralled sidewalk spectators who marveled at these machines. Are lowriders the victims of a ‘false consciousness’ sponsored by a corporate-consumer car culture? Or are they subversive agents of a technological counterculture? Drawing on the history of contested claims to mobility appearing across the twentieth century, Collisions at the Crossroads suggests the latter.
Today, we stand at another crossroad. Like most every aspect of technological modernity, the automobile is a blessing and a curse. It remains the dominant mode of transportation in the southland, yet its false premise of unfettered, autonomous mobility seems to have hit a wall of its own making. We Angelenos suffer from a chronic addiction to oil and gasoline. Too many people, too many cars: the concept of rush hour is obsolete. Every hour is rush hour; traffic is at a standstill on most freeway arteries, at most times of the day. Although new systems of mass transit are providing alternatives to the automobile and the freeway, there is little relief from the congestion and pollution that cars inflict upon our daily lives. Like red meat, our insatiable appetite for oil accelerates global warming, sparking what will become a desperate search for new alternatives to fossil fuels. Whether or not the automobile will remain the dominant mode of transportation in the region depends upon a clear-eyed assessment of its costs and benefits. Carpio implicates that machine in a broader history of racial and class inequality that now poses an existential threat to the survival of the species.
The Automobile in Mexican Immigrant and Mexican American Life (Genevieve Carpio)
By World War I, the automobile was already an integral part of life for Mexican agricultural workers in Southern California. Prominent citrus ranchers provided laborers garages alongside bathrooms, running water, electricity, and other utilities they deemed fundamental to worker housing. As described by Archibald Shamel, a USDA scientist who wrote extensively on Mexican citrus workers, “[the automobile is] an essential part of the household equipment.” Local cooperative associations occasionally provided vehicles for their workers, but more often than not individual pickers and their families purchased their own. Like the Japanese bicyclists who preceded them, Mexican motorists used vehicles to maximize their work opportunities, and for fashioning themselves as modern citizens. Although at the national level cars at that time were largely owned by the white middle class, for use in leisure activities like tourism and cross-country travel, in the Mexican communities of Southern California automobiles were a working class item used to traverse uncertain economic and social landscapes.
Disrupting national trends that linked whiteness and driving, period sources suggest that ethnic Mexicans owned automobiles at far higher rates than the Southern California population as a whole. A 1933 Heller Committee cost of living study, by the University of California, sheds light on patterns of automotive proprietorship, expense, and usage. In a survey of a hundred Mexican-descent families living in San Diego, the Heller Committee found twenty-six percent of households owned and operated their own automobile. A similar survey taken in San Fernando, about thirty miles north of Los Angeles, found that nearly forty percent of families residing in the “Mexican district” owned a vehicle. These figures are particularly significant when we consider that the automobile ownership rate in California as a whole was only seventeen percent, about half of the rate for the Mexican communities of San Diego and San Fernando.
Far from elite toys of the rich, automobiles were regularly a necessity for Mexican laborers. Only two percent of the vehicles counted in the Heller study had been purchased new. Rather, families typically bought their cars and trucks secondhand, often as an essential expense. Purchasing a vehicle was a financial hardship that required cutting back elsewhere, sometimes even on food. Nevertheless, for their drivers, automobiles’ economic and cultural value exceeded their costs. Mexican respondents reported they used their vehicles for a variety of functions, including searching for work in surrounding towns, informal outings, and travel to family events.
Joe Hernandez (third from left) and crew on work truck, 1938. Courtesy of Inland Mexican Heritage.
Car and truck ownership often translated into direct economic gains for Citrus Belt workers. Groves were spread throughout the region and laborers commonly lived in towns adjacent to large farms, moving among them as the crops matured. Families who owned automobiles could leverage this location gap between housing and the groves to earn extra income. Former citrus worker Howard Herrera remembered, “In those days you had to pay for your ride. Sometimes the house would pay it. If the house would hire a truck to take the crew to work they’d pay the driver for all the heads that would drive and arrive in the truck.” By transporting their neighbors to the fields, truck owners not only solved the problem of spatial dissonance, but also identified workers for the citrus cooperative in exchange for pay. In these roles, they served as recruiters, translators, and transporters. Women were often key in the relative success of these efforts. The son of one citrus foreman recalls that his mother provided warm lunches for riders as extra incentive to choose his father’s crew over others. For these services, Mexican families were financially rewarded, receiving a small payment for each rider or a portion of the profits from the harvest.
If Mexican motorists could increase their wages by providing a vital service to ranchers, their automobility could also be used to challenge employers’ control over workers’ livelihoods. Mobility enabled Mexican-descent workers to determine which employment opportunities—agricultural or otherwise—offered the most competitive wages. Those with access to private vehicles identified opportunities at a range much larger than previously possible, aided by a growing network of roads, their ability to carry multiple passengers, and the incentive of hauling cargo for additional payment. While vehicles widened the geographic scale and types of employment available to Mexican drivers, vehicles were also beneficial in times of collective action. Even if primarily used for daily transportation, a truck could moonlight as a mobile picket line, stage for mobile theater, or emergency shelter. During times of direct action, vehicles helped to galvanize workers and prolonged their ability to strike. In this sense, automobility could quite directly contribute to the collective’s economic mobility.
Automotive culture permeated not only the lives of those who moved, but also those in the communities that were passed. The largely Mexican Westside of San Bernardino is exemplary of this synergism. Later designated as Route 66, Mount Vernon Avenue provided residents with entrepreneurial opportunities to offer services to long distance travelers, such as managing motels, bars, gas stations, and restaurants. Consider Mitla Café. In 1927, its owners, Lucia and Salvador Rodríguez, migrated to California, and soon after this Lucia opened a small taco stand. The side business grew into a local landmark where the Rodríguez family catered to Mount Vernon residents, including workers from the nearby Santa Fe railroad repair shop, and passing motorists looking for something warm and affordable to eat. A combination of its location on Highway 66, its homey atmosphere, and foremost its Cal-Mex cuisine even earned Mitla Café a mention in the popular Duncan Hines travel culinary guide, Adventures in Good Eating. Business leaders along the busy Highway 66 corridor often became community leaders and their businesses popular sites of community organization and place making.
In addition to their economic value, vehicles held an important symbolic role for their drivers. Analysis of photographs collected by grassroots recovery efforts, such as Inland Mexican Heritage (IMH), further sheds light on the cultural significance of vehicles in Mexican agricultural communities. Looking to these personal family records adds a new perspective to those of the period’s social worker reports, which erroneously equated Mexican automotive practice with those of white middle class families. In public events held by IMH throughout the 1990s and 2000s, residents of former citrus communities near San Bernardino were invited to contribute family photographs and oral histories as part of a recovery project focused on Mexican American communities. Among cherished images of weddings, returning veterans, and family gatherings, residents frequently submitted family portraits in which cars and trucks figured as prominent features of the image.
Unlike government or professional photographs from this period, examining the function of automobiles within these self-selected compositions helps reveal the ways Mexican American people themselves positioned vehicles in their everyday lives. While members of the family and their friends occupy the focal point, they were often staged in the photographs sitting or standing on vehicles. On the one hand, this positioning points towards the frequent presence of automobiles in Mexican American life, which were conveniently present during both special family events and mundane daily passings. On the other, the frequent appearance of cars as a central part of the photographs’ compositions underscores the subjects’ desires to craft particular self-identities. Automobiles represented more than vehicles for travel. Rather, they held distinct social significance for those involved at the moment of a photograph’s creation. Where a group of youth dressed in their best outfits and standing in front of a car might represent the subjects’ identity as a modern subject immersed in leisure culture, workers posing with a truck filled with boxes of oranges could emphasize a strong work ethic, upward mobility, or traditional links between masculinity and labor. Historian Phil Deloria has examined the ways images of both American Indians and automobiles have been used by non-Indians to signify important elements in American culture. When brought together, these signifiers have conjured a “palpable disconnection between the high-tech automotive world and the primitivism that so often clings to the figure of the Indian.” Where automobiles seemed anachronistic or unmerited when driven by nonwhites, photographs produced by Mexican American drivers were all the more powerful for the ways they disrupted normative expectations and bolstered self-representation in complex ways.
Jessie Ortiz and friend posing on fender of car near San Timoteo Canyon, 1928. Courtesy of Inland Mexican Heritage.
Where photographic records help to uncover symbolic systems attached to vehicles by multigenerational Mexican American populations, songs emerge as an archive of the meanings produced by Mexican immigrants. Corridos—poetry set to music—are cultural artifacts that archive artistic expressions of daily life. In these songs, vehicles held an important symbolic role in conveying immigrants’ experiences in the United States. As described by Mexican anthropologist Manuel Gamio, Mexican rates of vehicle ownership grew markedly among immigrants who had worked for a period in the United States. A close reading of popular corridos collected by Gamio and reprinted by the Social Science Research Council in the 1920s uncovers an ambivalent attitude among Mexican immigrants towards cars—and by extension, an ambivalent attitude towards U.S. life in general.
A consistent note among corridos was nostalgia for life in Mexico, and the internal tensions generated among immigrants when pursuing American economic mobility. The lyrics of “El Dónde Yo Nací,” for example, use the car to signify dissatisfaction with U.S. consumer culture. The protagonist sings:
No me gusta coche ni autómovil
como al estilo de por aquí.
A mi me gusta carreta de bueyes
como en el rancho dónde yo nací.
(I do not care for the cars or the automobiles
like those found around here.
I prefer the oxcart
like on the ranch where I was born.)
In this instance, the singer rejects the extravagant automobiles he views in the United States in favor of an old oxcart he owned in rural Mexico. At a literal level, his dissatisfaction indicates the singer’s longing for the ranch where he was born, land owned by his family and free from the empty consumerism he observes in the United States. Seemingly nationalistic, the singer’s nostalgia may also be read as a critique of political changes in Mexico, where privatization drastically transformed the countryside and large agricultural operations displaced many of the migrants. Dispossession pushed them to seek work in the United States.
In a variation of this critique, another corrido titled “El Renegado” focused its criticism on Mexican immigrants seduced by U.S. markers of social status. The automobile in this corrido signals an immigrant who, upon gaining some profit, looks down upon his fellow countrymen who have not adopted a U.S. lifestyle. The ballad disapproves of the renegade’s “dandy” attire and his conceit when driving a flashy car, “andas por hay luciendo gran autómovil.” Where the driver seeks attention by wielding control over the ultimate symbol of social mobility, the singer critiques this ostentatious display of wealth. The song discredits those immigrants who would negate their homeland and working class origins. In both “El Dónde Yo Nací” and “El Renegado,” the automobile represents a U.S. lifestyle that stands in opposition to a Mexico envisioned as rural, homeland, and anticapitalistic.
Roque Family and their car, 1930s. Courtesy of Inland Mexican Heritage.
Looking to these creative expressions of Mexican immigrant life helps reveal illicit uses of automobiles unaccounted for in most oral histories. Further, they recast as autonomous subjects the drivers who might otherwise be considered deviant. For instance, the car is often described with fondness for the freedom it offers its driver. “El Fotingo,” which can be loosely translated as “The Jalopy,” is one such example. Although the jalopy is worn down and without seats, doors, or even lights, the song’s lyrics recall moonlit nights when the driver’s speeding Ford could be mistaken for a Willys-Overland. Where the old Ford represented economy and utility, the Overland had relatively more luxurious associations. By playing with the symbolic systems attached to the two models, the driver himself seems transformed in the moonlight from a worn-down laborer to a playboy bootlegger. The singer proudly describes flirting with women, smoking marijuana, and evading U.S. custom’s officers while smuggling liquor across the border. The mobility enabled by his vehicle is a fitting metaphor for the intersections between Mexican and American life, particularly as the increasing ease of automobility blurred the boundaries between the two, just as migrating bodies and smuggled booze could disrupt the apparent solidity of national boundaries.
Rising automobile registration rates in Mexico rose with Mexican American and Mexican immigrant vehicle ownership in the United States. Before 1910, there were no more than 3,000 vehicles registered across the Mexican nation. This quickly changed when Francisco Madero replaced Porfirio Díaz as president of Mexico in 1911. Fifteen years after abolishing a prohibitive tax on automobile ownership, registration increased from half a million to 17.5 million. A continuing rise in vehicle registration was fostered by the arrival of the Ford Motor Company in Mexico City in 1925 and the construction of a vast new factory in 1932.
Migration between the United States and Mexico further contributed to the growth of automotive ownership among ethnic Mexicans on both sides of the border. In December 1926, Mexico exempted repatriates from paying duty on U.S. items, including vehicles. Upon their return, thirty-eight percent of all repatriates owned an automobile. The widespread resale economy in Mexican border towns may have further boosted Mexican Americans’ ability to purchase low-cost Fords, creating a synergy between automotive manufacturing and policies in Mexico as well as Mexican Americans’ automobility in the United States.
Surveys, oral histories, photographs, and corridos each provide insight into the internal significance of automobiles for Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants living in the United States. Vehicles were significant for increasing one’s economic mobility, and served as important social symbols used in self-fashioning as well as lyrical devices used to describe immigrant life in Mexican America. Focusing on reports by social scientists and others begins to reveal more of the external values placed on Mexican mobility at the economic crossroads of the 1920s and the Great Depression—an important background for understanding how we got where we are today with the Automobile and Mexican American life.
 Scott L. Bottles, Los Angeles and the Automobile: The Making of the Modern City (Berkeley: University of California Press,1987); Richard Longstreth, City Center to Regional Mall: Architecture, the Automobile, and Retailing in Los Angeles, 1920-1950 (Boston: MIT Press, 1997); Jeremiah Axelrod, Inventing Autopia: Envisioning the Modern Metropolis in Jazz Age Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009); David Brodsly, L.A. Freeway: An Appreciative Essay (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).
 Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, 2d ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 18.
 Genevieve Carpio, Collisions at the Crossroads: How Place and Mobility Make Race (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019), 75.
 Inclusive of Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino counties.
 Brenda Jo Bright and Liza Bakewell, Looking High and Low: Art and Cultural Identity (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1995); Denise Sandoval, “Bajito y Suavecito/Low and Slow: Cruising Through Lowrider Culture,” unpublished Ph.D. diss. (Claremont Graduate University, 2003); Ben Chappel, Lowrider Space: Aesthetics and Politics of Modern Custom Cars (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012).
 This section excerpted from Genevieve Carpio, “‘An Essential Part of the Household Equipment’: The Automobile in Mexican Immigrant and Mexican American Life,” in Collisions at the Crossroads: How Place and Mobility Make Race (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019): 144-150.
 Archibald Shamel, “Housing Conditions of the Employe[e]s of California Citrus Ranches,” typescript, undated, p. 4, Archibald Shamel Papers, Tomás Rivera Library, University of California Riverside.
 On automotive cultures in this period, see Thomas Weiss, “Tourism in America before World War II,” Journal of Economic History 64 (2004); Marguerite S. Shaffer, See America First: Tourism and National Identity, 1880-1940 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian, 2001); Virginia Scharff, Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1992).
 Constantine Panunzio and the Heller Committee for Research in Social Economics of the University of California, “Cost of Living Studies V. How Mexicans Earn and Live: A Study of the Incomes and Expenditures of One Hundred Mexican Families in San Diego, California,” University of California Publications in Economics, 13 (1933). In their report, the Mexican Fact-Finding Committee cites the San Fernando figure from an unpublished report by the Los Angeles County Health Department. See Mexican Fact-Finding Committee, “Mexicans in California,” 178. See also Scott L. Bottles, Los Angeles and the Automobile: The Making of the Modern City (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987). Statewide statistics for Mexican American motorists are unavailable.
 Panunzio and the Heller Committee, “Cost of Living Studies v. How Mexicans Earn and Live”; Mexican Fact-Finding Committee, “Mexicans in California.”
 Howard Herrera interviewed by Robert Gonzalez, transcript, 13 April 1994, Inland Mexican Heritage, Redlands.
 In an interview conducted with my paternal grandfather, Vincent Carpio Sr., he recounted his experience as a foreman and the bonus he received for identifying and transporting workers to the fields surrounding Pomona in the 1940s. He described the effective role of “incentives,” such as warm food prepared by my grandmother Consuelo Carpio and cold beer on payday, in retaining workers. Vincent Carpio interviewed by Genevieve Carpio, Spring 2001, Pomona, CA.
 On the connection of migrant workers, automobiles, and collective action see Don Mitchell, The Lie of the Land: Migrant Workers and the California Landscape (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996).
 Rick Martinez, “Co-Founder of Mitla Lucia Rodriguez Dies,” San Bernardino County Sun, 13 January 1981; “Route 66 Special,” Access Rewind [film], IE Media Group, 2011.
 For more on Latina/o restaurant owners as place-makers, see Natalia Molina, “The Importance of Place and Place-Makers in the Life of a Los Angeles Community: What Gentrification Erases from Echo Park,” Southern California Quarterly 97 (2015): 69-111.
 Author has worked in consultation on various IMH projects since 2004.
 A selection of these photographs can be found in Antonio González Vazquez and Genevieve Carpio, Mexican Americans in Redlands (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2012).
 Phil Deloria, Indians in Unexpected Places (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2004), 138.
 For the continuing significance of the corridor in Los Angeles, see “The Corrido of LA,” an exhibition by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2010, http://www.lacma.org/art/installation/corrido-la; for sound recordings, see the Strachwitz Frontera Collection of Mexican and Mexican American Recordings, UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center and UCLA Digital Library, http:// frontera.library.ucla.edu.
 Manuel Gamio, Mexican Immigration to the United States (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1930).
 Translated by author. Original printed in Gamio, Mexican Immigration to the United States.
 Veronica Castillo-Muñoz, “Historical Roots of Rural Migration: Land Reform, Corn Credit, and the Displacement of Rural Farmers in Nayarit Mexico, 1900-1952,” Mexican Studies/ Estudios Mexicanos 29 (2013).
 “You go around showing off in your big automobile.” Translated by author. Original printed in Gamio, Mexican Immigration to the United States, 93.
 Rita Urquijo-Ruiz writes that El Renegade was a character in a popular comedy routine in teatro de carpa, or traveling tent theater, used to poke fun at assimilated Mexicans. See Rita Urquijo-Ruiz, Wild Tongues: Transnational Mexican Popular Culture (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012), 23-25.
 Original printed in Gamio, Mexican Immigration to the United States, 31; the term “fotingo” was often synonymous with Ford motor cars, which Mexican farm laborers frequently owned due to their affordability.
 Ricardo Romo,“Work and Restlessness: Occupational and Spatial Mobility among Mexicanos in Los Angeles,” Pacific Historical Review 46 (1977): 176.
 See digital archive of Ford’s Mexico City plant at “Ford Mexico City Plant Photographs,” The Henry Ford, Dearborn, MI, accessed July 2018, https://www .thehenryford.org/collections-and-research/digital-collections/sets/11598/. See also Ford Motor Company, “Historia de Ford de Mexico,” accessed 29 March 2013, http://media.ford.com/article_display.cfm?article_id = 4166.
 Indeed, the vast majority were Ford cars and trucks, at twenty-seven percent of all automotive objects (a category including automobile types and auto parts) brought to Mexico by repatriates. See Gamio, Mexican Immigration to the United States, esp. Appendix 5, 224-225; for more accounts of Ford automobiles moving back and forth across the U.S.-Mexico border, see Alice Evans Cruz, “The Romanzas Train Señora Nurse,” The Survey 60 (1928): 468-469, 488; Cara Finnegan, Picturing Poverty: Print Culture and FSA Photographs (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2003).
Though largely forgotten by contemporary Californians, Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1884 Ramona was the most important novel about California of the nineteenth century.Ramona follows its heroine, a mestiza, as she leaves the rancho of her adopted Californio family to live in the San Jacinto foothills with her love Alessandro, an Indian. Though the historical novel follows Victorian stylistic conventions, Jackson intended it to be a social commentary on the early days of California statehood. She hoped that Ramona would inspire social critique, making American settlers question their treatment of Native Americans and Mexican-Americans in Southern California when California became a state, causing the dispossession of both Native Americans and Californios.
At the time of its publication, Ramona’s immense popularity and social message earned it comparisons to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the only novel more popular than Ramona in the nineteenth century. Like Stowe’s novel, Ramona was controversial upon its publication. White settlers accused Jackson of defaming them in their new home. Conversely, the book inspired a proliferation of tourism in Southern California that glorified Spanish history, as white settlers glorified dispossessed Californios and Native Americans in a performance of imperialist nostalgia. Ramona outgrew its origin as a novel intended to protest the treatment of Native Americans and Mexican-Americans in California, becoming the romanticized and fictional basis for interpreting California as a place for Euroamerican settlers, Mexican-Americans, and Native Americans.
In its many adaptations, translations, and transformations, Ramona is a story about belonging and dispossession. It is the story of three Californias belonging to the Native Americans, Californios, and Americanos. In its many versions, the story tends to follow the contours of the novel. It begins with Ramona’s life as a teenager at the rancho with her adopted family. Her adopted mother, a Californio named Señora Moreno, is the widow of a Spanish-Mexican man who had fought against the Americans. She is bitter at the Americans who killed her husband and shrunk her rancho after taking control under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Only her sickly son, Felipe, remains to help the Señora at the rancho. During the sheep-shearing season, Ramona falls in love with a hired Native American hand, Alessandro. In a fight with Señora Moreno, the Señora reveals Ramona’s true heritage as both Scottish and Native American. Ramona then decides to leave the rancho to elope with Alessandro, the son of the chief of the Luiseño tribe, based in Temecula village.
The couple travels across Southern California, seeking both work and places to live, made difficult by an influx of American homesteaders settling on Native lands. They have a daughter, Eyes of the Sky, who dies of a fever because they could not convince a doctor to come to their homestead. Their second child, named after her mother, is also born during this time. Unable to withstand the loss of Native lands and constant humiliation at the hands of the Americanos, Alessandro becomes unstable and is killed by a local vigilante after a misunderstanding. After Alessandro’s death, Ramona returns to the rancho (now missing Señora Moreno, who died in the interim). Eventually she marries her adopted brother Felipe and moves to Mexico City, the romantic dream of California proven to be no more than tragedy.
Helen Hunt Jackson intended Ramona to be a protest novel against the mistreatment of Native Americans in the United States. She wrote the historical novel in a feverish three months, drawing from her travels through Indian country in Southern California, as well as her research for, ACentury of Dishonor, her nonfiction account of the abuse and neglect of Native Americans at the hands of the federal government.
The novel failed as a reform effort because her white readers did not see the story as a tragic telling of the fallout of California statehood. Instead readers saw it as a romance, an emplotment in which the main character overcomes oppression to become saved or emancipated. Ramona’s commercial success came from readers understanding it as a love story and a regional novel of Southern California. After being published serially it was still a best-seller, selling 21,000 copies in 1885. It has never gone out of print. Though Ramona failed to create political change, it succeeded in popularizing a California myth from the historical facts Jackson had collected.
This new myth of California followed on the Romantic tradition rather than a tragic one, celebrating California multiculturalism in a way that today we would understand through anthropologist Renato Rosaldo’s concept of “imperialist nostalgia,” a problematic longing and valorization of the Native Americans and Californios, which Americans pushed out years prior.Ramona brought new tourists to California, aided by the “See America First” patriotic tourism campaign and low railroad fares. Due to demand, proprietors had shifted their already-existing tourist sites to accommodate Ramona-themed tourism by the mid-1920s.
What began as tourist sightseeing became a veritable Ramona industry as guidebooks to the region appeared (the most enduring by George Wharton James in 1908). Towns and businesses adopted Ramona themes: you could also visit locations like the Ramona Highway or Ramona Pharmacy. The book was translated into many languages, adapted into five films and a telenovela in the U.S. and Mexico, and made into no less than eight plays, the most famous of which is the annual Ramona Pageant in Hemet, dating back to 1923.
Tourists searched for the ‘real’ Ramona promised to them in tourist literature, though they were often met by many seeking to make a quick buck on the myth. Perhaps the most ‘real’ of the Ramonas was a Cahuilla woman by the name Ramona Lubo, who Jackson had read about while writing her novel. Like the fictional Alessandro, Lubo’s husband Juan Diego had mistaken the horse of a white man for his, and a vigilante band subsequently shot him in front of his wife and children. Lubo never received justice for her husband’s death. As a woman and an Indian, she had no legal standing as a citizen at the trial and was not invited to testify.
Lubo tried to benefit from the popularity of Ramona, charging small fees for tourists to take pictures of her with their new Kodak cameras, or for entrepreneurs to take pictures of her to reproduce in postcards (she certainly did not receive royalties for the latter). Newspapers denounced her opportunism, a charge they didn’t level at white and Latino Ramona entrepreneurs.
Though Lubo sustained her livelihood in part from Ramona, she probably died from it too. While on exhibit as Ramona at a fair in San Bernardino in 1922, she contracted a respiratory illness from which she never recovered. Her grave became another in the long list of Ramona sites, suffering from unscrupulous tourists who chipped off souvenir pieces of headstones in the graveyard. The Cahuilla tribe closed that cemetery in 1973, taking Lubo back from the tourists who had defined her in life and death.
The best site to understand contemporary Ramona tourism is the Ramona Pageant in Hemet. Inspired in part by the pageant Tahquitz in Palm Springs, the Hemet-San Jacinto Chamber of Commerce hired Garnet Holme (who later became pageant master for the National Park Service) to write a dramatization of Ramona. Like other pageants of the era, the Ramona Pageant was played predominantly by amateurs who recounted scenes of local history with spectacular crowd scenes, music, and choreography. Theater historians disagree as to whether the Ramona Pageant is more of a pageant, a melodrama, or a hybrid of the two, but both sides agree that Ramona can’t simply be viewed as an “ideologically innocent expression of tradition.”
Pageants were one of the most important art forms of the early twentieth century. They created historical stories that were sedimented in the public imagination and drew in heritage tourism. A prominent example was The Mission Play, which ran from 1912 through the mid-1930s in San Gabriel. The Mission Play articulated tropes of Southern California into a clear and self-evident story: The Spanish period was one of European civilization and the following Mexican period was one of decadence and degeneration. Degeneration theory justified American expansion into California as a civilizing force against Californios and Native Americans. Like the Native American village in Yosemite, these tourist attractions romanticized Native Americans and legitimized their dispossession under the new American government. These myths—forms of imperialist nostalgia—gave a way for tourists and settlers to understand their history through the narrative conventions of drama.
Even though the Pageant was originally marketed to motor tourists in the 1920s and 1930s, the play has always served a large role in community life as a ‘rite of spring.’ Many of the Pageant volunteers return yearly for the event, defining the seasons of their lives by Pageant-time. Barb Matson, an ethnographer of the Pageant in the 1990s, argues that the Pageant is a ritual in which both participants and audience-goers emerge as transformed converts to the Ramona story and its multicultural values. In Hemet, where today forty percent of the population is Latino, the play attempts to reflect the diversity of the community through its Pageantry. Many trained ballet folklórico dancers perform, as do Native American tribal members. Former Ramona Pageant historian Phil Brigandi notes that participants include all socioeconomic classes in the San Jacinto Valley, noting that “some of the most prominent and wealthy families in the region perform alongside people on welfare.”
A longstanding goal of the Pageant has been multiculturalism and intercultural understanding, if not social critique of the actions of Americanos in California after 1848. One of the first big changes to the play was the introduction of Spanish language into the script, but arguably the largest transformation has been the increased representation of Native American tribes. While prominent Native families had always participated, students from Sherman Indian School (the local boarding school) were invited to participate by performing tribal dances in the Pageant in the 1930s. In the 1980s, a Native American Advisory Council was formed to improve the Elder Blessing Scene, which had only been allotted four and a half minutes in earlier iterations of the play. Today, this portion of the play almost equals the length of the fiesta scene at the rancho, including Bird Singing (a southern California Native American singing tradition) and a Native soloist, Hoop Dancers, and the Red Tail Spirit Dancers, together representing California and Southwestern Native American traditions.
Hoop Dancers at Pageant
Native participation in the play is made visible through the performers themselves, but it’s also clear from the program. The Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians, San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, and the Soboba Foundation (of the Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians) provided financial support for the 2018 season of the Pageant. A local participant in the Ramona Pageant noted that “the Pageant may have gone belly-up” without the help of tribes today.
Today’s Native American sponsorship of the Ramona Pageant inverts the historical relationship between tribes in the Pageant. In 1927, Condino Hopkins, the son of Ramona Lubo, wrote a letter to the San Jacinto-Hemet Chamber of Commerce accusing them of profiting from retelling the tragedy of Native dispossession. “Although the pageant is supposed to be in honor of the Indian woman who was immortalized in Mrs. Jackson’s famous story, it is well-known that it is primarily a publicity scheme on the part of the real estate interests in your locality…. In view of the fact that her name is thus commercialized, with the proceeds of this exhibition netting thousands of dollars each season, it would seem to me that it would be no more than right and proper for her heirs to share in such receipts.” Though Hopkins’s point that the play was meant to honor an individual is incorrect, his critique of the Pageant reveals that the benefits of the Pageant largely went to the European settlers in the form of community growth and development, not to the tribes who lost so much from Euroamerican settlement. Though the Pageant is one of the few representations of Native history that could be used to ask hard questions of settlers, has it been used both to reveal how California Native Americans were treated by European settlers and to critique it? A Native American former pageanteer told me that he still hasn’t decided whether the Pageant can bring awareness to Native issues or be a viable social critique, even after a lifetime of attending the event and seven years participating as a Bird Singer. 
Though the Pageant is a community building exercise, former Pageant historians places the value of the Pageant in the story: “The message is the story and the story is the message.” Garnet Holme’s dramatization of the play hewed closely to the book in order to have theatergoers identify with Californios and Native American tribes, an identification made possible by the understanding that both groups are tragically doomed. This identification manifests itself in one of the longstanding traditions of the play, when the crowd boos Americano cowboys as they ride away after threatening Ramona. Jackson hoped that strong identification with Native American and Californios would make contemporary Americanos question their role as settlers in a land that was not originally theirs.
The novel highlights this with the final tragedy that befalls Ramona and Alessandro. After Alessandro’s wrongful death at the hands of a greedy Americano, Ramona moves back to the rancho. Life in California becomes more and more difficult, and Ramona and Felipe choose to move to Mexico—a homeland yet unseen—rather than endure the Americans. On the boat, Felipe asks Ramona to marry him and she agrees, deciding that it would be selfish to refuse. He accepts her reluctant hand, realizing that he will never have all of Ramona, as part of her will always be with Alessandro. They have a prosperous life and many children together in Mexico City. Of the children, the most beautiful and loved is “Ramona, daughter of Alessandro the Indian,” the words with which the novel ends.
Ramona and Alessandro, Hemet Pageant
Scholars of Ramona disagree as to the meaning of this ending. Some have argued that Ramona is not miserable enough at the conclusion to make the novel a searing social critique, but other readings suggest that the ending is tragic, since Ramona can never live in Alta California because of discrimination against Native Americans, nor will she ever love Felipe as she had Alessandro. Through the allegorical deaths of Señora Moreno and Padre Salvierdierra, the Spanish aristocracy and Mission system of California become deceased too, making California alien to Ramona and Felipe. Alessandro’s death also dooms California Indians, creating tragedy for remaining Californios and Native Americans.
Garnet Holme’s original script for the Ramona Pageant maintains the sense of injustice by ending with a speech by the ranch manager Juan Canito, in which he begs God to send the Indians justice and return to them the land that was theirs before the Americanos stepped in. The emphatic plea for justice furthers the invocation of tragedy.
In 2015, the Ramona Pageant Board of Directors commissioned an Idyllwild local, Steven Savage, to write a new version of the play. Unlike the Garnet Holme version and Jackson’s book, this version keeps Ramona—and Felipe—in California, at the rancho that they both love. Rather than recognize the changing times and the tragedy that has befallen them both, Ramona seems to overcome tragedy, making the play into a narrative romance. She ends the play with the following words: “My home, California, where everyone can receive justice.”
The newer version papers over the injustices Ramona has suffered with a quick song and speech, rendering anew the question of what Ramona has become today, and the kind of parable it does—and should—offer to its audience. In his compelling reading of C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins, anthropologist David Scott demonstrates how historical metanarratives structure possibilities for future thought; that is, how understanding history as tragedy or romance has implications for our understandings of present politics.
As a novel and story that has been told of California and its history, Ramona has been read as both a romance—in which a hero can overcome present conditions to emerge victorious—and a tragedy—which “sets before us the image of a man or woman obliged to act in a world in which values are unstable and ambiguous.” In a moment where it is obvious that a multicultural democracy is not a “done deal,” perhaps Ramona should not be understood as a romance, but rather as a tragic cautionary tale. This tale is one in which Americanos are the ‘bad’ guys and Ramona is trapped in an unstable and unforgiving world that cannot be resolved by a single song.
Ramona Lubo posing at a grave
 Dydia DeLyser, Ramona Memories: Tourism and the Shaping of Southern California (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005); Lawrence Clark Powell, California Classics: The Creative Literature of the Golden State (Los Angeles: Ward Ritchie Press, 1971).
 Blake Allmendinger, A History of California Literature (London: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 46.
 Valerie Sherer Mathes, “Friends of the California Mission Indians: Helen Hunt Jackson and Her Legacy,” unpublished PhD dissertation (Tempe: Arizona State University, 1988), iv.
 Although the political message of Ramona was missed in the United States, Cuban writer José Martí felt compelled to translate the novel as soon as he recognized the critique of American expansion into Mexico inherent in the tragic work. This is a pan-American (not North American) story, he argues in his introduction to his 1888 translation of the novel, despite being written by a gringa. See Ana-Maria Kerekes, Poder y belleza de la Palabra: Análysis de la traducción martiana de la novela Ramona de Helen Hunt Jackson,” unpublished Master’s thesis (Montreal: Concordia University, 2009), 21-22, and José Martí, José Martí: Obras Completas 24 (La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1991), 204.
 Mathes, “Friends of the California Mission Indians,’ 201, Allmendinger, A History, 46. John M. Gonzalez, “The Warp of Whiteness: Domesticity and Empire in Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona,” American Literary History 16 (2004): 437-65.
 Vincent Brook, Land of Smoke and Mirrors: A Cultural History of Los Angeles (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2013): 52. Dydia DeLyser, “Ramona Memories: Fiction, Tourist Practices, and Placing the Past in Southern California,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 93 (2003): 886-908. George Wharton James, Through Ramona’s Country (New York: Little, Brown, 1908).
 For example, see D. A. Hufford, The Real Ramona of Helen Hunt Jackson’s Famous Novel (Los Angeles: D. A. Hufford & Co., 1900) and Carlyle Channing Davis and William A. Alderson, The True Story of ‘Ramona’: Its Facts and Fictions, Inspiration and Purpose (New York: Dodge Pub. Co., 1914).
 Mathes, “Friends of the California Mission Indians,” 197.
 Shilarna Stokes, “Playing the Crowd: Mass Pageantry in Europe and the United States, 1905-1935,” unpublished PhD dissertation (New York: Columbia University, 2013). See also Barb Matson, “Performing Identity, Staging Injustice: California’s Ramona festival as Ritual,” unpublished PhD dissertation (Boulder: University of Colorado, 2006).
 Chelsea K. Vaughn, “The Joining of Historical Pageantry and the Spanish Fantasy Past: The Meeting of Señora Josefa Yorba and Lucretia del Valle,” Journal of San Diego History 57 (2011): 213-235.
 Mark David Spence, Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks (New York : Oxford University Press, 1999).
 Phone interview with Phil Brigandi, 29 May 2018.
 Although this was a good faith effort on the part of Pageant organizers, Sherman (like most Indian Boarding Schools) has a much darker history as places where students were prohibited from speaking in their Native languages and forcibly removed from their family for assimilation. See Clifford E. Trafzer, Jean A. Keller, and Lorene Sisquoc, Boarding School Blues: Revisiting American Indian Educational Experiences (Norman: University of Nebraska Press, 2006).
 Hopkins quoted in DeLyser, Ramona Memories, 135.
 A 1972 study tried to tracked some of the economic impacts of the Ramona Pageant, and found that around 7.5 percent of San Jacinto Valley residents had moved to the area after being introduced through the play. This points to the impact of the play as being both an economic change to the community and a social shift to growth in the region based on Ramona tourism. See Robert M. McLaughlin, “A Descriptive Study of the Interrelationships Between the City of Hemet and the Ramona Pageant,” unpublished Master’s thesis (Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles, 1972).
 Helen Hunt Jackson, Ramona: A Story (New York: Avon Press: 1970 ), 349.
 Matson, “Performing Identity.” See also Allan Nevins, “Helen Hunt Jackson: Sentimentalist v. Realist,” American Scholar 10 (1941): 280; Kate Phillips, Helen Hunt Jackson: A Literary Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 259; Rosemary Whitaker, “Helen Hunt Jackson,” Boise State University Western Writers Series 78 (Boise: Boise State University, 1987), 37.
 David Scott, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).
Julia Sizek is a Ph.D. Candidate in Anthropology at UC Berkeley and Associate Scholar for the Native American Land Conservancy. Her doctoral research focuses on contemporary land use problems in California’s Mojave Desert. Support for research in this article was provided by NSF Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant (#BCS- 1756340) and Wenner-Gren dissertation fieldwork grant (#9561).