Tag: Immigration

Reviews

‘Vivitos y Coleando’: The Cultural Politics of the Paisa Periphery

Adrián Félix

When Gustavo Arellano of the Los Angeles Times interviewed me earlier this summer about the cultural politics of our paisano José Huizar’s corruption scandal, I had this to say about the disgraced city councilmember: “How did I feel when José invoked our patron saint the Santo Niño de Atocha before he was arrested by the FBI? The same way I felt whenever I saw him wear a mariachi suit in Boyle Heights or a charro suit in our hometown of Jerez: just another politico reverting to cultural politics to curry favor with his paisanos in gestures that felt hallow.” In many ways, Huizar’s shameful downfall was a textbook case of political charrismo, the Mexican euphemism for corrupt political bossism. I was introduced to the historiography behind this term through the work of a graduate school comrade—one of the imprescindibles to emerge from the University of Southern California (USC), Alex Aviña and his powerful book Specters of Revolution: Peasant Guerrillas in the Cold War Mexican Countryside—where I learned that the phrase came from a twentieth-century corrupt union boss who was partial to wearing charro suits. I forever cursed this despicable figure out of the long cast of corrupt Mexican elites for betraying rank-and-file workers and for giving charros a bad name.

Now, thanks to the pathbreaking work of another luminary to emerge from our graduate school years at USC, we have the first full-length academic study of charros and charrería (Mexican cowboys and rodeo) in the United States: Dr. Laura Barraclough’s Charros: How Mexican Cowboys are Remapping Race and American Identity (UC Press). Dr. Barraclough, now at Yale University, grew up in a white equestrian community in the Northeast San Fernando Valley, where she first encountered Mexican charros. “My friends and I”, writes Barraclough in the introduction, “riding bareback and barefoot in our cutoff denim shorts, had no idea what to make of these men” (26). I, on the other hand, came of age riding with those very men on the Mexican side of the Northeast San Fernando Valley, born into an extended charro clan with ancestral origins in the migrant-sending Mexican state of Zacatecas and a world apart from the sphere of those white horse-owners. Our corner of the Northeast San Fernando Valley was what I call, often tongue-in-cheek, the “paisa periphery” (short for paisano periphery)—those peripheral spaces inhabited by Mexican migrant networks in the shadows of any migrant metropolis like Los Angeles, that are marginalized but nevertheless vitally linked to it and which represent deep reserves of cultural values and pockets of political potential. As someone born into cross-border charrería and reared in California’s paisano periphery, I was eager to get my hands on Dr. Barraclough’s book and am honored to have the opportunity to review it.         

As the “first history of charros in the United States”, the scope of this project is ambitious, wide-ranging and far-reaching, as it offers a “historical and cultural geography of charros and charrería in the U.S. southwest” and, notably, across state and international borders (3). In doing so Barraclough brings into the foreground the “prehistories of charrería” and into sharp focus its protagonists; in the process, rewriting the historiography of Mexican migrants, Mexican Americans and Chicanos, where “charros often lurk in the background” (5) as shadow figures that are portrayed as either empty ethnic signifiers or fetishized cultural caricatures. By its very subject matter, this trailblazing text engages and contributes to an impressive array of emerging and established scholarly fields: Chicanx/Latinx geographies; studies of the Mexican middle class; sports studies; heritage studies; and animal studies. Here, I want to underscore the first of these fields, Chicanx and Latinx geographies, which, as Barraclaough sums up, “explores how the social production of space and place shapes Latinx identity, the location of Latinx people within structures of inequality, and the form and content of their resistance to the spatial conditions of their lives” (19). Attempting to depict charros with some complexity and nuance, Barraclough states in the introduction, “the charro associations have never had a monopoly on the meaning or the political utility of the charro, who circulates in popular culture and politics as much as in the lienzo (the distinctive keyhole-shaped arena used for charreadas)” or charro competitions (4). Yet, in narrating the history of charros in the U.S., the book tends to skew toward a Mexican subjectivity that is “middle class, masculine, and aligned with Spanish-Mexican histories of colonialism and aspirations to whiteness” (4). This is partly the result of Barraclough’s methodological choice to provide a historical account by “Taking the long view” (true to her training) and preemptively stating that the “book is not an ethnographic account” (26). This is yet another way in which our trajectories overlap but diverge, as I write this review from the vantage point of a historically informed ethnographer of migrant political life and death whose locus of enunciation is the paisano periphery.      

Chapter one, “Claiming State Power in Mid-Twentieth-Century Los Angeles”, unearths the history of charros in the gateway City of Angels, that quintessential Mexican migrant metropolis. In doing so, Barraclough retraces the well-treaded history of the sediments of coloniality in Los Angeles, walking us through the city’s periods under Spanish, Mexican and U.S. colonialism. While Barraclough invokes a comparative ethnic history—acknowledging Los Angeles’ Native, Asian and Black communities—the chapter’s focus is on “how diverse ethnic Mexicans used the figure of the charro to access sate powers in mid-twentieth-century Los Angeles” (42). It argues that “At a time when the city was gripped by state and mob violence targeting working-class ethnic Mexicans, the charros’ work was essential in allowing both middle-class and elite ethnic Mexicans to assert their respectability, their law-abiding nature, and their capacity for citizenship” (43). In doing so, Barraclough contributes to the imperative task of transnationalizing Chicano historiography, however, at times privileging elite transnational ties and figures in charro lore. While Barraclough literally rewrites charros into key moments of Chicano history, she nevertheless corrals them between the dated conceptual frameworks of cultural citizenship on the one hand and Mexican nationalism on the other. To cite one illustrative example, she states the following about the figure of the charro: “Staked out in opposition to the zoot suit, their trajes de charro represented a decidedly different sensibility—one that emphasized respectability, social conservatism, and moderate institutional reform, as well as their embrace of Mexican cultural nationalism” (54). Part of this unduly narrow take stems from Barraclough’s choice to foreground institutional actors like Sherriff Eugene Biscailuz, who established the Sheriff’s Mounted Posse in 1933 and was propped up as “the official first caballero of Los Angeles”. Barraclough documents how “Biscailuz and other civic leaders embraced the charro as a symbol of civic and transnational unity” and argues that “civic leaders had begun to position the charro as a figure with the potential to bridge tensions and cultivate unity among city residents, in part through invocation of a ranching past associated with the Mexican elite” (51).      

Before going too far down this line of argumentation, however, Barraclough reins in the chapter reminding us once again that “elites like Biscailuz did not have a monopoly on the meaning or strategic use of the charro” (52). Indeed, as the veteran California chronicler Sam Quinones argues in his coverage of charro subculture in Southern California (which unfortunately did not make it into Barraclough’s bibliography), charrería in the U.S. for many rank-and-file migrants was the realization of a dream deferred stretching back to rural México.[i] One early organization that is unearthed in this chapter that speaks to this bottom-up perspective on charro culture is a pioneering group known as the Charros de Los Angeles. Barraclough turns to an impressive array of primary sources to excavate the history of this group, including historical census records, photographs and filmic texts. She notes of the group’s makeup: “Of the twenty original members of the organization, most were from the states of Jalisco, Michoacán, and Zacatecas” (56). Importantly, “In 1962…the Charros de Los Angeles became the very first charro association in in the United States to be formally recognized by the FMCH” México’s official federation of charrería (66). Toward the end of the chapter, tucked away in an endnote, Barraclough cites a post on the Charros de Los Angeles’ Facebook page, raising the possibility of ethnographic interviews or oral histories, which the author completely passes on for the sake of sticking to the “long view”, a missed opportunity that haunts the remainder of the book.  

In Paso de la muerte or death leap, a contestant leaps from his horse onto the bare back of a wild mare. Photo courtesy of Al Rendon, used with permission.

Chapter two, “Building San Antonio’s Postwar Tourist Economy”, narrates the transnational tale of charros in Texas and their struggles around place-making and spatiality “At the crossroads of the American south and Mexican North” (72). Barraclough opens by rehearsing the history of displacement, dispossession and racial violence against Mexicans in Texas, a torturous tale that Monica Muñoz Martinez documents in her groundbreaking tome The Injustice Never Leaves You, which painstakingly pays homage to the intimate trace of Mexicano claims of belonging, down to the level of a family branding iron (a potent ranchero and charro symbol if there ever was one), while at the same time leveling a critique of masculinist historiography and its tendency to romanticize mounted and armed Mexican masculinity (depicted in full detail on Barraclough’s book cover). Barraclough’s stake in this chapter is centered more decisively on cultural politics and particularly on how charros in Texas confronted white imperialist nostalgia and violent settler narratives of the cowboy, in the process demonstrating how charros were part of the storied Mexican American generation and, indeed, the history of the West. As Barraclough states, “In San Antonio, as in other southwestern and border cities, the materials of the old West include not just cowboys and Indians, but also charros” (73). Herein lies the second monumental move that Barraclough makes in this book—inverting the historical record and exploding white settler frontier mythology by situating Mexican charros as the “original cowboys.” She also refers to these charros as what Chris Zepeda-Millán calls “border brokers”, highlighting their “anchoring and bridging roles” (86) across diverse constituencies and communities. “As binational, bilingual actors committed to a growth agenda” Barraclough writes, “charros were especially well positioned to cultivate networks with elite businessmen from Northern Mexico, tying together a borderlands economy” (87). Cross-border visits and charro competitions were held throughout the 1950s in Texas enabling what Barraclough aptly describes as “the constant fertilization of networks” (87). Yet the networks Barraclough focuses on bank on mestizo privilege: “They did so by drawing on the charro’s symbolic power as a representation of skilled, landowning, and dignified Mexican masculinity, and by using collaboration, negotiations, and persuasion to nurture relationships with the elite business classes of both San Antonio and northern Mexico” (96).

In Chapter three, “Creating Multicultural Public Institutions in Denver and Pueblo”, Barraclough takes these elite transnational ties to an unexpected geography: the “Hispano homeland” of rural New Mexico and Colorado. The “Hispano homeland” is defined as “an interconnected web of rural villages…established during the first push of Spanish colonial settlement” which “remained both spatially and culturally isolated from Mexico” and where “Hispanos were more likely to identify with Spanish histories of settlement and baroque forms of Spanish culture than anything related to Mexican nationalism” (98-99). Illustrating the degree to which charros were part of the Mexican migrant, Mexican American, Chicano and Hispano historical experiences, Barraclough argues: “Hispano and Mexican leaders turned to the charro as a vehicle for forging a shared racial identity, with the goal of building a more inclusive and responsive urban public sphere” (100). Barraclough unequivocally makes this point about one of the charro organizations she chronicles in this chapter, stating summarily: “The Pueblo Charro Association was an indisputably Hispano organization” (102). She charts charros’ struggles for political inclusion and cultural recognition in multiple civic spaces, ranging from education to local government. Barraclough carefully analyzes the work of Lena Archuleta, a member of the Denver Charro Association and Hispana educator, whose “curriculum guide centered Hispano’s and Mexicans’ historical contributions to the making of southwestern ranch culture as the basis for a shared racial and cultural identity through which children could experience an empowering education” (113). In the realm of urban politics, the president of the Pueblo city council “formally proclaimed the first week of November 1974 to be ‘International Charro Week’ in Pueblo because ‘the Charro has contributed greatly to the socio-economic and cultural development of the Southwest’ and because ‘the friendship of the United States of America and the United States of Mexico is of great significance to the Western hemisphere’” (121). Returning to Archuleta, Barraclough state’s that her pedagogy “embraced the Mexican ranching past and its diverse cast of characters, especially the charro, which she saw as a unifying symbol for Hispano, Chicano, and Mexican immigrant children in southwestern schools…her guide recuperates the agency of workers and indigenous people in the making of ranch cultures and economies” (111). Such efforts had the effect of “Inserting the charro into whitewashed histories of cowboys, ranching, and rural life in Colorado.” Still, the cross-border charro networks that Barraclough uncovers between Colorado and México were enmeshed in transnational elite alliances. “One of the lessons they surely learned was that charrería in Mexico was an extravagant affair associated with the Mexican political and economic elite” she states of one of the Colorado charros’ visits to México. “On their first day in Guadalajara, the Pueblo delegates listened to a speech by Jalisco governor Alberto Orozco Romero. There were multiple luxurious banquets, dances, and award ceremonies” (122). With the eventual decline of this vibrant charro circuit in Colorado, Barraclough states toward the end of the chapter: “Not until the early 2000s, when Mexican migration to Colorado expanded, would charrería experience resurgence in the state” (131).  While she once again turns to social media and internet sites in the endnotes to this chapter, such as LinkedIn and the contemporary web page for the Unión de Asociaciones de Charros de Colorado, Barraclough does not see these as a possible entrée into ethnography or deeper oral histories with charros past or present. 

Many charreadas include the escaramuza, a women’s mounted drill team. Photo courtesy of Al Rendon, used with permission.

The narrative structure of the book follows this spatial-temporal flow, chronologically tracing charros’ claims of belonging, galloping across the Southwest, from California to Texas to Colorado and back again. In Chapter four, “Claiming Suburban Public Space and Transforming L.A.’s Racial Geographies”, we are squarely back in California’s paisano periphery. While the chapter takes as its stage suburbia as contested racial terrain, it uncovers all of the hallmarks of the paisano periphery, which is mired in segregation, racialized poverty and disenfranchisement. A fuller explanation of the historical formation of the paisano periphery is found in the third endnote to this chapter and is worth quoting at length. “Though East L.A. became the largest and most well-known urban barrio, proto-suburban Mexican communities remained in the form of agricultural colonias (worker colonies). Located close to the fields and packinghouses and marked by dilapidated housing, insufficient infrastructure, and civic neglect, these suburban communities were barrios in their own right. Though small in population relative to the expanding urban barrios of the Southwest’s largest cities, they marked a consistent ethnic Mexican suburban presence” (231). One of the critical contributions of this chapter is to show the making of suburbia as white settler space. White residents of the San Fernando Valley “participated in community planning processes that rejected multi-family, industrial, or commercial zoning. The result was to embed Anglo-American histories of ranching and whitewashed histories of cowboys in the American West in the suburban landscape via municipal zoning and planning codes” thus producing “whitewashed renditions of the cowboy and the frontier” (139). Yet ethnic Mexicans fought to carve out their cultural spaces in the paisano periphery, in the process erecting charro citadels from the San Fernando Valley to Pico Rivera. These projects “allowed for the collective invocation of Mexican histories of ranch land and labor, while reterritorializing those histories in the suburban present.” In doing so, “they challenged dominant ideas about American suburbia, especially how people of color and immigrants should behave, and reclaimed a Mexican presence on the outskirts of Los Angeles” (143). This chapter thus further drives home the transnational argument about charros as the original cowboys, who, through their efforts, “recast the origins of ranching beyond America to the Américas, simultaneously refuting the U.S. nationalism undergirding the cowboy as white American hero and reclaiming Latin American horsemen, including the charro, in the making of hemispheric ranch cultures” (146). Methodologically, while the chapter makes ingenious use of primary documents (e.g. financial ledgers from charreadas in the 1970s), oral histories are virtually nonexistent (drawing on one telephonic interview with charro pioneer Julian Nava).  

Charros winds down with a final substantive chapter that rethinks the animal rights debate as it relates to the sport and expands the book’s geographic scope beyond the Southwest. This chapter casts the animal welfare movement in relation to charrería in a critical light, arguing that charros perceived it as a thinly-veiled assault on the public display of their rural mexicanidad in the U.S. Barraclough rightly points out that “the ‘horse-tripping’ laws have often been passed by the very same state legislatures that adopted anti-immigrant laws” and mange to “discursively construct charros and those who participate in their events as criminal, barbarian, and threatening subjects” (166). One of the local lawmakers to endorse such a bill was Joe Baca, a Latino assemblyman from San Bernardino in Southern California’s Inland Empire, an emblematic community of the paisano periphery if there ever was one. AB 1809 “would make it a misdemeanor to intentionally trip or fell an equine by the legs for entertainment or sport” (169). To make matters worse, iconic Mexican American organizations supported this legislation, including Mexican American Political Association, Mexican American Chambers of Commerce and the United Farm Workers, leading charros to see this as “a cumulative attack on their livelihoods and cultures” (173). This is especially the case considering that American (read: white) rodeo activities where explicitly protected in some of these bills, including “jumping or steeplechase events, racing, training, branding…calf or steer roping events, bulldogging or steer wrestling events…barrel racing, bareback or saddled bronc riding or other similar activities or events” (185). Yet, Barraclough sticks to her argument about the increased political sophistication of charros, insisting that they were “careful to register themselves as modern, rational political subjects, rather than ethnic radicals or political extremists” (182). This historical argument stands in sharp contrast to a charro clan from the San Fernando Valley today, who proudly proclaimed themselves “Charros for Bernie”[ii]. While the chapter again makes impressive use of primary documents, ranging from constituency correspondence to transcripts of state legislature hearings in California and Nevada among others, the oral history material is thin, citing one email communication from Toby de la Torre, another charro precursor.  

Octavio Paz once wrote about the zacatecano poet Ramón López Velarde that “irony is his rein and the adjective his spur.” Not so for Barraclough, who is more of a straight shooter; her writing is neither flowery nor poetic, careful not to over-stretch charro metaphors in her prose. However, my main critique of this book is not in its form but rather in its method. True to her formation as a geographer, Barraclough opens the conclusion by stating: “Hover over virtually any city in the U.S. West using the satellite view of a web mapping service, and you will almost certainly spot the distinctive keyhole shape of at least one lienzo charro” (196). Her argument about “place-making”, “vernacular spaces” and “ranchero landscapes” on the “metropolitan fringe” is an important one, as “lienzos offer an important space for cultural affirmation and transnational collectivity” (196) and an “invocation of a shared rural Mexican ranching past left behind” (197). As is the central argument that positions charros as the “original cowboys”: “Asserting the historic presence of ethnic Mexican ranchers and vaqueros as the ‘original cowboys’ in the region that became the U.S. Southwest, they have transformed core narratives of American identity centered on the cowboy, ranching, and the rodeo” (200). Yet for all her focus on “scalar dynamics” and “scaling up”, it would behoove Barraclough to descend from the bird’s eye view, and the historic “long view”, and scale down. It is the task of the ethnographer to, as charros put it, “entrarle al ruedo” (“enter the rodeo ring”), with all of the political ethics that implies, plunging into the depths of the paisano periphery. This, however, would require oral histories and deep ethnography, something Barraclough entirely avoids. Those who are up to the task will find charros not as long-gone historical figures but as living, breathing, flesh-and-bone denizens of the paisano periphery, with all of our contradictions, as the charro adage goes, vivitos y coleando. Alive and bull-tailing.

Notes

[1] https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2004-sep-04-me-rodeo4-story.html

[2] https://laopinion.com/2019/06/13/familia-de-charros-se-involucra-en-la-politica/

Adrián Félix is Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Riverside and is the author of the award-winning book Specters of Belonging: The Political Life Cycle of Mexican Migrants (Oxford 2019).

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

Interviews

Rise Against the Machine: Interview with Adam Goodman

The rampant spread of coronavirus throughout the United States has illuminated undocumented migrants’ role as essential workers as well as their precarious position in this country. Indeed, Trump’s administration continues to find novel measures to expel undocumented migrants and asylum seekers. In The Deportation Machine: America’s Long History of Expelling Immigrants, Adam Goodman traces the United States’ efforts to expel and terrorize migrants as well as people’s efforts to stop the deportation machine. Historian Elliott Young spoke with Goodman about his new book and this long history. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Elliott Young (EY): What led you to this particular book project and how do you think it responds to the present immigration crisis?

Adam Goodman (AG): My interest in immigration started to deepen when I was living and teaching high school on the U.S.-Mexico border in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas. Seeing the ways that migration policies shaped both the region and the lives of my students and their families piqued my interest in learning more about migration history. When I got to graduate school, the historiography and the literature really captured my imagination. That was at the start of Obama’s first term, when there was a lot of attention on his immigration enforcement actions. The issues that have dominated news headlines in recent years are not unique to Trump and they didn’t start with Barack Obama, George W. Bush, or Bill Clinton either; the origins of the deportation machine date back to the late nineteenth century.

EY: One of the big arguments you make in your book is that we need to consider all forms of deportation. That term deportation is used colloquially, but as you show the immigration bureaucracy divides these up into what are “voluntary returns” and so-called self-deportations where conditions are such that people are pushed out, along with formal removals that are done through a legal process. What kinds of insights does this more holistic view of these forms of deportation provide?

AG: Having this broader understanding of deportation sheds light on expulsion’s importance throughout the twentieth century, the fashioning of state power, and how deportation—or the possibility of being deported—shapes people’s lives. It also shifts the chronology. Deportation isn’t something that just emerges after the Immigration Act of 1996, which led to a spike in formal deportations, or after 9/11. There are a tremendous number of people who have been removed through formal deportations—8 million or so throughout US history. (The vast majority during the past 25 years.) But there are 48 million people who have been deported via voluntary departure, and an uncountable number of others who have left in response to self-deportation campaigns. So, if we want to understand the history of deportation, we need to expand our time frame and look at how 85-90% of the expulsions throughout U.S. history have happened. Which, in turn, reveals that Mexicans have been even more disproportionately targeted than we thought.

EY: Given that so many scholars start by looking at formal deportations to make the argument that everything changes in the 1980s and beyond, what do you think the qualitative differences are between the informal or voluntary returns versus the formal and legal deportations?

AG: It’s important to distinguish and delineate the different types of expulsion. I argue that we shouldn’t conflate them, but should instead understand how they work in conjunction with one another, because that’s how the deportation machine functions. Formal deportations, historically, have carried more severe penalties and consequences, including bans on re-entry of five, ten or twenty years, or sometimes even lifetime bans. You also might have to spend an extended or indefinite period of time in detention. Many people recognized that’s not a very appealing option and immigration authorities used the threat of bans on re-entry and of indefinite detention to coerce people into accepting administrative removals via voluntary departure. In the book, I equate this to the role plea bargains play in the criminal justice system. If officials threaten someone with 25 years in prison, they might take a plea for four years to mitigate the risk. It’s somewhat similar as to why someone would accept voluntary departure. I recognize the important difference between types of expulsion, while also arguing that voluntary departures have been punitive in nature. They weren’t simply part of a nod-and-wink system in which immigration authorities let people come and go in a pattern of circular migration while employers were able to maintain a cheap exploitable supply of workers. The stereotype of Mexicans as “illegal aliens” has been created, in part, through repeated apprehension and deportation via voluntary departure.

EY: Why does the government turn to the tactic of voluntary removal in the early twentieth century?

AG: Immigration officials never had the resources they needed to carry out the enforcement actions that Congress charged them with implementing. At different moments officials wanted to apprehend and deport more people, but they didn’t have the resources to do so. Congress wasn’t willing to provide them, and perhaps the United States public didn’t have the stomach for such actions either. This led to voluntary departures and informal means to deport people, which depended on giving discretion to low level immigration authorities who, within the system as a whole, had very little power, but had complete or near total power over any one individual migrant. That’s largely still the same today.

Goodman_DM_JJM

Activist and organizer José Jacques Medina speaks to a crowd of more than 200 people at the Embassy Auditorium in Los Angeles, March 1977, Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

EY: You show in the book how the well-publicized workplace raids and other kinds of raids that happened in the 1930s, 1950s, and 1970s are calculated campaigns that sowed fear and terror in immigrant communities to provoke them to “self-deport.” Do you think the workplace raids in recent years are done for the same purpose? In other words, are these principally propaganda campaigns to instill fear in immigrant communities?

AG: This administration has ratcheted up the fear campaigns and is doing everything it can to instill fear in immigrant communities. That’s happening through public proclamations by officials; it’s happening by leaking things to the press and carefully placing stories; it’s happening by relying on an extensive network of restrictionist think tanks and policy groups that promote an anti-immigrant agenda within Washington in hopes of making it more mainstream. I should point out here that in spite of such self-deportations campaigns, the majority of people have stayed. When Trump took office there were an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. Most of those people are still here. It’s important to recognize the way pervasive fear campaigns not only lead to self-deportation, but also affect and shape the lives of people who remain in the country.

EY: In one of your chapters, you describe the resistance by a group of shoe factory workers in South El Monte, right outside of Los Angeles. They refused to answer immigration agents’ questions and thereby blocked deportation efforts. This led to a lawsuit that in 1992 resulted in the recognition that immigrants are protected by certain elements of the Constitution and that immigration agents have to make immigrants aware of such rights when they’re being arrested. So, it’s a kind of success story in your book. But following that success story is a tremendous rise in the numbers of immigrants deported. I’m wondering whether legal strategies have been successful in protecting immigrants.

goodman_dm_casa-1

Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

AG: I’m interested in how people have endured, adapted, and fought against the machine. The chapter you’re referring to looks at the 1970s, in particular, what I call the dawn of the age of mass expulsion, when we see the number of deportations rise exponentially and reach 900,000-plus people per year (which continues until the end of the century). This was a different era. Building on the Chicano/a and civil rights movements, they took to the streets. They also took their fight to the courts, and the case of the shoe factory workers is an inspiring story because of how people organized. That was one of the key takeaways: It wasn’t individuals engaging in random acts of resistance, it was the joint efforts of immigrant workers, labor organizers, activists, and lawyers that threatened to bring the deportation machine to a halt.  The deportation machine was vulnerable and it remains so today. Part of the job of undocumented immigrants and their allies is to identify how the machine works and where its points of vulnerability are, and to press on them.

EY: Is the trend we see since 2000 positive, in that we have a decreasing number of total deportations even though formal removals have increased significantly, reaching their height under President Obama? How do you interpret the last two decades of deportation history?

AG:  How many people are deported each year matters, of course, but what also matters is how people are expelled and how the consequences of being deported have changed over time. What we see is that deportation has become more punitive and separation more permanent, because of the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, the explosion in enforcement funding, and the rise in formal deportations. I’m interested in the experiences of deportees and understanding things from their perspective. Simply looking at the number of expulsions and stopping there isn’t sufficient.

EY: I want to bring you to the point where historians never want to go, which is thinking about policy. You’ve talked about how deportations have been a bipartisan policy for more than a century. And, you argue that no particular party or president is responsible for the creation of this deportation machine, something I would definitely agree with. That being said, what kinds of immigration policies would you advocate?  And do either the major political parties offer a way to turn the United States into a nation of immigrants, rather than a deportation nation as you described in your epilogue?

AG: The Trump administration has made immigration policy more partisan. Whereas Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, and Republicans and Democrats in Congress supported policies ramping up enforcement, today we see Democrats trying to stake out a different position. I’m a little skeptical about whether that will lead to real change; I’ll defer judgment. That being said, there are reforms that would solve a lot of the problems related to immigration policy. So much now is focused on national security and the needs of the nation, without reckoning with the fact that the migrants—the people these policies affect most—are very much a part of this nation. Allowing people to reunite with families, allowing people to come fill the country’s labor demands, creating more visa slots for Mexicans and doing away with the one-size-fits-all 20,000-person-per-year country quota are just some common sense proposals. Many people in the United States face real economic hardship, there’s no denying that. But scapegoating migrants is not the answer.

EY: The idea of prison abolition has been a powerful political way of conceptualizing the campaign against mass incarceration. I’m wondering if you think there should be a similar campaign to abolish immigration detention and deportation?

AG: Yes, and people are doing this work already. Groups like Organized Communities Against Deportations (OCAD) here in Chicago, the Detention Watch Network, and many others. A lot of community-based, grassroots organizations across the country are advocating bold policy reforms and their voices need to be heard; those possibilities need to be on the table. Whether or not we see such radical change in our lifetime is up in the air. But one thing history teaches us is that sometimes, when we’re least expecting it, transformative change happens, and it usually isn’t by luck—it’s through organizing and through sustained struggle.

Goodman_Deportation.Machine_Jacket_FINAL (with border)

Adam Goodman teaches in the Latin American and Latino Studies Program and in the Department of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His writing on immigration history and policy has appeared in outlets such as the Washington PostThe Nation, and the Journal of American History. Goodman is a faculty advisor to UIC’s Fearless Undocumented Alliance, a co-convener of the Newberry Library’s Borderlands and Latino/a Studies seminar, and a co-organizer of the #ImmigrationSyllabus public history project. The Deportation Machine: America’s Long History of Expelling Immigrants (Princeton University Press, 2020) is his first book.

Elliott Young is Professor in the History Department at Lewis and Clark College. Professor Young is the author of Alien Nation: Chinese Migration in the Americas from the Coolie Era through WWIICatarino Garza’s Revolution on the Texas-Mexico Border, and co-editor of Continental Crossroads: Remapping US-Mexico Borderlands History, and a forthcoming book “Forever Prisoners: How the United States Built the Largest Immigrant Detention System in the World.” He is co-founder of the Tepoztlán Institute for Transnational History of the Americas. He has also provided expert witness testimony for over 250 asylum cases.

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

 

Articles

Yemeni Farm Workers and the Politics of Arab Nationalism in the UFW

Neama Alamri

Growing up in the Central Valley, the history of the United Farm Workers (UFW) and Cesar Chavez loomed large. When teachers in school incorporated him into our history lessons, many of the students were already familiar with the impact he and the farm worker movement had on the lives of farm workers in California. Yet, despite being born and raised in the Central Valley, as a Yemeni American, I didn’t always identify with the history of the UFW which primarily focused on the experiences of Mexican and Filipino laborers. It was not until my father shared with me that he attended Chavez’s rallies during his time picking grapes near Delano in the 1970s, that I began to discover the role Yemenis played in the UFW. My father’s stories unlocked for me an entire history of Yemenis in the Central Valley and their experiences in the farm worker movement.

The UFW and the farm worker movement led by Cesar Chavez has been well documented and has allowed historians to explore the successes and failures of perhaps the most well-known labor movement in United States history.[1] There has been an effort from both scholars and public institutions such as the National Parks Services to improve public history on the UFW and address many of the misunderstandings within this history by engaging in public storytelling through academic scholarship, historical landmarks, and even children’s literature.[2] Following in the path of this work, this article begins with my father’s stories in order to explore the history of Yemeni farm workers in the Central Valley and their involvement in the UFW throughout the 1970s. For those familiar with the farm worker movement, the inclusion of Yemenis is limited to the death of Nagi Daifallah, a young Yemeni immigrant and UFW organizer killed by a deputy sheriff in Lamont, California. Not often discussed, however, is the fact that during Nagi’s funeral march in August of 1973, Yemenis decided to carry a portrait of the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, a leader of anti-colonial Arab nationalism. Based on an oral history with my father as well as archival material that has been largely ignored, including Nagi Daifallah’s papers, this article contextualizes why Yemenis turned to Arab nationalism and the impact it had on the UFW’s social justice platform. By exploring the life of Nagi and other Yemeni farm workers, this article looks at this understudied chapter in the UFW’s history to argue that because of their Arab and Muslim identities as well as invocation of anticolonial Arab nationalism, Yemenis had a complicated relationship with the union that disrupts the narrative of a multicultural movement.

My father, Mohamed Alamri, immigrated to the United States from Yemen in the summer of 1975. He first arrived in Dearborn, Michigan where there existed a large Yemeni community, thousands of whom were working in Detroit’s booming auto industry for companies like Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler. Less prominent in numbers, yet growing each year, was the community of Yemenis in California, which everyone in Dearborn told Mohamed was where you can find the “real money.” Driven by the motivation to find a job that could provide the most for his parents and siblings back in Yemen, Mohamed hopped a plane to California. The first job he landed was in Poplar, a small town 70 miles south of Fresno, picking grapes. Mohamed recalled how the other Yemenis at the labor camp laughed when he arrived dressed in a tie, button-down shirt, and slacks. Growing up in Yemen and hearing of America’s wealth and luxury, he wanted to look his best. Yet, after a long day toiling under the summer heat, Mohamed quickly learned that working in the fields of Central Valley was not very different than village life in Yemen.[3] 

Mohamed photo

Mohamed, right, after a day’s work in Poplar, CA. Courtesy of author

 Mohamed joined thousands of Yemeni farm workers who found work in the fields from the late 1960s to the end of the 1970s. Due to lack of official records, it is unclear exactly how many Yemeni farm workers there were during this period, but estimates range from a few hundred to over five thousand.[4] Yemenis migrated within three major agricultural regions within California: the Sacramento Valley, the San Joaquin Valley and the Imperial Valley. [5]   Migration cycles began with the April asparagus harvest in Stockton, and then moved to the southern end of the valley in the Delano-Porterville-Bakersfield area for the grape harvest until the end of November. Then, many Yemenis moved to Arvin or Coachella where the grapevine-pruning season began. They eventually returned to the Delano-Porterville area to complete more grapevine pruning and remained in that area until the next migration cycle.[6] Like other farm workers, Yemenis faced several obstacles from low wages, language barriers, and limited access to health care and social services. They were, however, seen as desirable by employers. As growers were faced with the increasing resistance and union organizing amongst Mexican and Filipino workers, many were eager to employ Yemenis whom they believed were docile and “easier to control.”[7] The growers did not anticipate the fact that not only would Yemenis organize alongside the UFW, but were also equipped with radical politics inspired by events in Yemen as well as their Muslim and Arab identities, differentiating them from their Mexican and Filipino counterparts.

For my father and many other Yemenis who grew up in the context of decolonization and revolution in Yemen, the UFW’s emphasis on social justice was both identifiable and appealing. The 1960s and 1970s were a time of tumultuous political changes in former North and South Yemen. With the spread of Arab nationalism inspired by Arab leaders, such as Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, as well as anti-colonial movements throughout the world, North and South Yemenis were inspired to challenge systems of power. In 1963, the National Liberation Front was established in South Yemen in order to decolonize the British Protectorate of Aden.[8] Meanwhile, in North Yemen, military rebels fought to overthrow the ruling monarchy at the time and establish a republic. In 1967, South Yemen successfully decolonized Aden, ending over a hundred years of British imperial presence in the region, and became a Marxist regime known as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. A year later in 1968, North Yemen overthrew the monarchy and established the Republic of Yemen.  The wars in South and North Yemen as well as the end of British colonization in Aden, led to a deterioration of Yemen’s economy. With many families facing poverty, Yemen’s largest economic export became its labor force, consisting primarily of men. Although Yemenis had been migrating for work beginning in the late 19th and early 20th century, the 1960s and 1970s saw large scale labor migration of Yemenis to other parts of the world, including Britain, Southeast Asia, East Africa, and the United States. The 1965 Immigration Act, which ended restrictive immigration policies, increased Yemeni immigration to the United States.  By the 1970s, many of the Yemenis arriving in the United States worked in automobile factories in Detroit, Michigan, steel plants in Buffalo, New York, and agricultural farms across California. The experiences of Yemeni immigrants in California were reflective of many of the experiences of Arab immigrants who arrived post-1965. Yet, unlike other Arab immigrants, primarily from Lebanon and Syria, who arrived in the early twentieth century, Yemenis who came to the U.S. in the late 1960s and 1970s were predominantly working-class and Muslim.[9]  While many Arabs in the U.S. prior to the 1960s had been racialized as white, the intersection of class and religion racialized Yemeni immigrants as non-white, “other” minorities.

Alongside increased employment by growers, there are several reasons why Yemenis came to California. Many came to the U.S. with agricultural experience in Yemen already, as families usually owned a few acres in which they grew and harvested their own food. Following the wars in Yemen, however, a decline in national resources and limited economic opportunities pushed most families to rely on foreign imports. Another strategy included sending relatives, usually young men, to other countries for work in order to earn money for the entire family. In the mid-twentieth century, the booming California agricultural industry offered immediate employment opportunities to many young Yemeni men who came to the U.S. with some agricultural experience in hopes of supporting their families back home. Another channel by which Yemenis came to California was a credit system established by Trans World Airlines (TWA). The system was allegedly backed by growers to help expedite travel for immigrants, predominantly young men from Yemen. Although not Mohamed’s experience, based on testimonies from UFW volunteers and the few secondary sources available, there are speculations that growers themselves funded the travel to bring groups of young men from Yemen to work.[10] Through this system, a relative or friend residing in California paid a $100 deposit with a cosigner in Yemen for a plane ticket from the TWA costing $800 with the condition that upon arrival the worker would pay the beneficiary back. While providing loans to help travel from Yemen was common between Yemenis, the involvement of the TWA in facilitating this communal practice was unusual. Yemenis who came in through the TWA credit system arrived in the dozens and essentially went straight from the airport to the hiring halls. A spokesman representing a group of workers would initiate applications for social security numbers so the workers could begin working as soon as possible.[11] There are several discrepancies between the numbers provided by the Immigration and Naturalization Service records which reports 380 alien Yemenis registered in 1974 as opposed to the numbers given by the TWA office in Los Angeles which reports 100,000 in the decade leading up to 1974.[12] This discrepancy indicates the possibility that the number reported by TWA were of undocumented Yemenis.

Yemeni farm workers faced several obstacles from low wages, language barriers, and limited access to health care and social services. Similar to other farm workers, the conditions for Yemenis were inextricably linked to the exploitive system established by the growers. Faced with the precarities of being a low-wage laborer and immigrant, it was no surprise, then, that the UFW appealed to Yemenis. Beginning in the late 1960s, there were at least 500 Yemeni UFW members, although the numbers were likely higher.[13] The UFW offered Yemenis a platform to advocate, assert their presence, and gain resources. Amongst many things, the UFW worked to provide Arabic translators for Yemeni workers, halal food in the labor camps, as well as access to health care. While health issues such as tuberculosis and respiratory infections were common among farm workers, many Yemenis suffered from schistosomiasis, an intestinal infection caused by contact of parasites in water endemic in Yemen. The UFW tested and treated hundreds of Yemenis.[14]

While the UFW was accommodating to needs of Yemeni workers by providing them with services, the invocation of Arab nationalism also threatened the UFW’s platform and reputation amongst supporters. Throughout the first half of the 1970s, the peak of Yemeni immigration to California, Yemeni farm workers were present for some of the most successful as well as contentious years of the UFW.[15] As the UFW fought to sustain their success following the 1970 historic grape contracts, Yemenis were a strategic group to mobilize.  The UFW hired several Yemeni organizers in order to reach out to the Yemeni community, many of whom only spoke Arabic.[16] Some of these organizers included: Saeed Mohammed Al-Alas, Ahmed Shaibi, and Nagi Daifallah. Saeed Mohamed Al-Alas a UFW organizer from Aden, the capital of former South Yemen, organized with the UFW in the early 1970s and was the lead organizer for a funeral march in Porterville honoring the life of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.[17] Ahmed Shaibi who was also South Yemeni was hired by the UFW in 1977 and served for the union for several years before opening the first local chapter of the Anti-Arab Discrimination Committee in Delano in 1982. Lastly Nagi Daifallah, whose untimely death profoundly impacted the trajectory of the union, was also a union organizer.[18]

Like Saeed Mohammed Al-Alas, Ahmed Shaibi, and Nagi Daifallah, those with a background in social justice activism in Yemen, including anti-colonial and Arab nationalist ideologies, became involved as organizers the UFW. While these ideologies had origins in the context of political changes in Yemen and the Middle East, they were not mutually exclusive from the issues Yemeni farm workers faced in the Central Valley. Yemenis invoked these political identities as a way to assert themselves as immigrants in California, as well as, define their involvement in the farm worker movement. One example of this was a funeral march for Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, an ardent leader of Arab nationalism, that was organized by Yemeni farm workers in Porterville.  On October 1, 1970, after Gamal Abdel Nasser died of a heart attack, local Yemenis planned a funeral march in his honor. Nearly one thousand Yemeni farm workers in Porterville attended a funeral march to mourn the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Led by a drummer, marchers carried an American flag alongside the United Arab Republic flag and a portrait of the late President Nasser covered in a black veil.[19] In an article of the union’s newsletter, El Malcriado, documenting the event, Yemeni UFW organizer Saeed Mohammed Al-Alas stated, “Nasser has been a father to us. He was the only great leader we had. He brought all the Arabs together, began economic programs, and threw the British out of Egypt. He was really interested in the people.”[20] Mohammed Al-Alas’ statement on Nasser discussed three political projects: Arab unity, economic justice and lastly anti-colonialism. All of these things contextualized Mohammed Al-Alas’ involvement in fighting for farm worker justice in California. When asked why he remains in the Central Valley he replied, “Where else could I do as much for my countrymen?”[21] Evident in Mohammed Al-Alas’ statement, and for many other Yemenis, politics rooted in Arab nationalism and decolonization were not separate from their identities as UFW supporters and immigrants in the Central Valley. Highlighted in the union’s newsletter, the inclusion of  Yemenis in the movement in the early 1970s helped boost the union’s reputation for multicultural social justice, particularly at a time when Filipino farm workers became disillusioned with Chavez’s leadership.[22] Yet, the turn to anti-colonial Arab nationalism radicalized Yemenis in a way that was illegible to the UFW’s mission.

0770_236500001

Chavez, center, marching with Yemeni activists, Delano, CA, 1973. Courtesy of Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries

Three years later, in August of 1973, the portrait of Nasser would be carried once more, this time to mourn the death of Nagi Daifallah. Nagi’s death occurred in the midst of combative union politics between the UFW and the Teamsters, police violence against workers, as well as police and grower collaboration. On July 29, 1970, the UFW signed what would come to be known as the historic grape contracts, ending the five-year-long grape strike and boycott that began in Delano and marked the first collective bargaining agreement for farm workers in California. The UFW’s fight for farm worker justice did not end there, of course. In the summer of 1973, as the UFW’s three-year grape contracts came up for renewal, strikes took place again after growers signed sweetheart contracts with the Teamsters union without an election. Thousands of strikers were arrested, and hundreds suffered injuries at the hands of law enforcement.[23] On the evening of August 13, 1973, a group of farm workers and UFW volunteers and organizers stood outside a café in Lamont, California. Deputy Sheriff Gilbert Cooper arrived on the scene to arrest picket captain Frank Quintana on charges of disturbing the peace. Several workers began to protest Quintana’s arrest; among them was a 24-year-old farm worker from Yemen, Nagi Daifallah.[24] Upon protest of Quintana’s arrest, Sheriff Cooper began harassing Nagi. As Nagi attempted to run away, Cooper swung a metal flashlight at his head causing severe injuries to his spinal cord.[25] Nagi was left to die on the pavement. While harassment by police was a common reality faced by strikers, workers, and UFW organizers, the death of Nagi sent shock waves through the union and deeply impacted the trajectory of the farm worker movement. On August 17, 1973 over 7,000 Yemeni, Mexican, and Filipino mourners gathered at the Forty Acres union field office in Delano, the “cradle” of the farm worker movement to attend Nagi’s funeral march.[26] Yemeni farm workers, UFW volunteers, organizers, and Cesar Chavez himself, marched in silence alongside Nagi’s casket in solidarity against the violence and systemic oppression perpetuated by agribusiness. Chavez spoke very highly of Nagi who was an organizer for the union and was deemed a martyr for the movement.

Facing a shared oppression by law enforcement and agribusiness, Nagi’s death brought together Yemeni, Mexican, and Filipino communities in solidarity, if only for a moment. His death provided an opportunity for the UFW to emphasize that the movement was for all immigrants and people of color. In his eulogy statement for Nagi Chavez highlighted his immigrant identity stating that “Nagi had come to this country from his native Yemen looking for a better life” and “gave himself to the grape strike and the struggle for justice for all farm workers.” Yet, the picture of Nagi painted by Chavez and the UFW portrayed him as simply a passive victim of his circumstances. In his eulogy, Chavez stated how Yemeni workers were, “the latest group of people to come to California to be exploited by the California growers” and that “most of them, like Nagi, were young men in their early twenties, they were unusually shy, of slight frame, Moslem, spoke no English, and live in barren labor camps.” [27] By characterizing the movement for all immigrants and people of color, Chavez answered to critics at the time who accused the UFW for being ethnocentric by prioritizing Mexican workers as well as being too Catholic-based. It also addressed critiques that the UFW was too dependent on white, middle class volunteers and advisors.[28]

However, the characterization of Nagi as “unusually shy,” portrayed him as a passive victim as opposed to the political activist he was. Beyond the dominant narrative which focuses solely on Nagi’s death, the writings and letters he left behind for his father offer a look into his experiences working in the fields and being involved with the UFW.  In actuality, when Nagi became a UFW organizer he already had experience in political activism back in Yemen. Nagi, originally from North Yemen, became politically involved at a young age. While going to school in Aden (South Yemen) during British occupation, Nagi publicly stood against the British as well as the North Yemeni government, which resulted in his imprisonment for some time. As a young man, Nagi was arrested for pulling down both the British flag and the North Yemen flag in an act of protest while attending a college in Aden.[29]  Furthermore, based on letters he wrote to his father, it was evident that rather than being shy and inexperienced, Nagi  had a keen understanding of how power and exploitation was operating within agribusiness. In a letter to his father, Nagi wrote:

Dearest father, you will be amazed at this which I am writing to you in this letter about the prisons for workers in American, and (when I) tell you how much an agriculture worker suffers and endures in terms of severe ill-will from the landlords of ranches. These workers live in encampments that resemble military barracks, surrounded by barbed wire and a massive barrier of governmental agents, who forbid anyone from contacting the workers, or even conversing with their friends, except by signals, or when they are completely outside the camp, where they are far from the police. The landowners do not permit the workers to work in agriculture, except under laws the ranch-owners impose on them, with less than legal wages and insufficient safety precautions for the workers.[30]

He vividly paints a picture about the life farm workers, comparing the labor camps to prisons and war camps. He discusses grower exploitation of workers through, not only controlling their wages, but also by limiting access to services and communication and purposely putting them in unsafe conditions.[31] Nagi, like other Yemeni workers, also understood his oppression in both local and global ways, comparing his experiences in the Central Valley to those of living under an oppressive regime in Yemen.

125_73DF_6530001raw

Funeral ceremony for martyr Nagi Daifullah. Courtesy of Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

The inclusion of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s portrait during Nagi’s funeral march represented this understanding that politics in the Central Valley were inseparable from global politics, like Arab nationalism. Alongside Nasser’s portrait, Yemeni workers carried flags representing the United States, Yemen, and the UFW, but it was Nasser’s image that would prove to be the most controversial. After Daifallah’s funeral, Chavez received several letters from supporters who were extremely disappointed to see Nasser, whom they viewed as an extremist and anti-Semitic, associated with the UFW and the movement.  One example was a letter dated September 17, 1973 from Nate Bodin, President of the Local 800, American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO, of which the UFW was an independent affiliate.[32] Bodin wrote to Chavez expressing disapproval at the inclusion of Nasser’s image, a man he compared to “Hitler or Porfirio Diaz [sic].”[33] Bodin attached the image from the funeral march with Nasser’s portrait, which was published in The Los Angeles Times. He first pointed out how Local 800 has financially supported the UFW and then requested the UFW produce a statement regarding the Nasser portrait:

We know you to be a man of great courage and honesty. We know that unity among people of good-will is crucial. We applaud your efforts and wish you well with all the resources we can muster. However, we would like to have a statement from you regarding the above matter. We would like to know how you stand regarding the use of the representative of a people (Nasser) who have been in our opinion, misguided. We think the choice of ‘hero’ was a poor one for this sad occasion.[34]

These letters demonstrated that the portrait of Nasser, a leader of Arab nationalism and Palestinian liberation threatened the UFW’s relationship with the AFL-CIO, an organization that boosted the union’s platform nationally. The decision to include Nasser spoke politically to the connections Yemeni workers made between social injustices abroad with the injustices they faced as farm workers in the U.S. However, it put Chavez and the UFW in a very tough situation and threatened the union’s support from pro-Israeli organizations as well as Jewish American religious leaders. Based on a social justice platform rooted in American civil rights discourse, the UFW was not prepared to take on global politics of Arab nationalism nor the question of Palestine.[35]  It became clear that the presence of Yemenis alongside the portrait of Nasser, was not only illegible to this platform, but challenged the very possibility of a truly multicultural movement.

In response to Bodin’s letter as well as letters from other disappointed supporters, Chavez and his assistants wrote back attempting to diffuse the situation. In these letters, Chavez invoked Nagi’s victimhood and martyrdom in order to depoliticize the presence of Nasser’s portrait and continue positive relations with the angry supporters.[36] In one of these letters Chavez wrote:

Nagi’s death and his funeral procession were deeply personal events for thousands of our members. As a movement, we were both mourning his loss and standing in solidarity with his family. If you can place yourself in that very personal context I think you will understand why no one in the farm workers union can, in retrospect, cast negative reflections on what happened during the Nagi’s funeral march.[37]

It is evident that while Yemeni farm workers chose to march with the image of Nasser in expression of their political identities as Arabs and the UFW did not object to this, Chavez and his leadership, on the other hand, were not prepared to be associated with a pro-Palestine Arab leader. The controversy over Nasser’s portrait demonstrated the ways in which the UFW navigated between communities and conflicting definitions of social justice in order to uphold the portrayal of an inclusive, multiethnic farm worker movement. When Daifallah was killed and deemed a martyr of the movement, the UFW opened its arms to the Yemeni community. With the Yemeni community now on Chavez’s side, however, the UFW’s position on global issues such as the question of Palestine, suddenly mattered. While the death of Nagi Daifallah brought together Yemeni, Mexican, and Filipino communities on the basis of a shared oppression by law enforcement and agribusiness, it also highlighted the ways in which solidarities can be complicated and difficult to maintain. The visibility of Yemenis at Daifallah’s funeral and the controversy surrounding Nasser’s portrait revealed the complicated space Yemenis occupied within the movement.  My own father’s experience demonstrates this as well. [38]

My father, Mohamed, proudly recalled attending Chavez’s rallies and being a UFW member. He told me that after all these years, he even saved his union card. After scrimmaging through some old boxes to find the card, we discovered he was actually a Teamsters member, a rival union to the UFW notorious for implementing scare tactics and even physical violence against workers.[39] Although Mohamed aligned with the UFW ideologically, he remembered that in order to keep his job he had to join the Teamsters, which was the case for many workers.  My father’s memory of the union card is in many ways symbolic of the complicated relationship Yemenis had with the UFW. The notion that Yemenis had a place in a union of other immigrants of color seemed ideologically sound but often lacked substance. In reality, the presence of Yemenis highlighted the complicated, sometimes tense, interactions between ethnic groups, both outside and inside the UFW. This is not to say that solidarities never existed between Yemeni, Mexican, and Filipino workers in the UFW, but rather that a celebratory or simplistic narrative obscures this complicated history.

The history of Yemeni farm workers expands the farm worker movement’s narrative and uncovers the role that Yemeni American activists had in U.S. labor movements. However, we must avoid simple additive history in which marginalized groups are just added into narratives. A few years back, I attended a UFW event and was approached by a woman with a rather confused look her face that asked: “So what do you have to do with all of this?” I knew exactly what she had meant, she was curious as to what a Muslim, Arab American woman possible had to do with the histories of the UFW. I explained to her that my father when he first immigrated to the U.S. from Yemen had worked as a farm worker and that I am now researching the history of Yemeni involvement in the UFW – but, I felt this explanation was simply not enough. There is the sort of obvious connection Yemenis have with this movement like having been present, attending Chavez’s rallies, and engaging in organizing.  Simply put, they were there. But beyond simply inserting Yemenis in this history, we must interrogate the broader historical significance of these narratives. This includes asking why Yemenis have been marginalized within this history. Part of the answer is that numerically speaking, there simply were not as many Yemeni farm workers during that time compared to the majority Mexican and Filipino laborers. However, the other reason why Yemenis have been overlooked has to do with how their engagement with Arab nationalism disrupted the UFW’s mission.

By 1982, there were no Yemeni UFW organizers. In that same year, Ahmed Shaibi, who had formerly organized with the UFW, established the Delano chapter of the American Anti-Arab Discrimination Committee (ADC). Shaibi saw a dire need for an organization that focused on the specific needs of the Yemeni community. Shaibi estimated that Arabs inhabited nearly 90 percent of labor camps in Delano and yet, there was nowhere they could go for social services. This was particularly challenging due to language barriers Yemeni workers faced and the lack of translators who spoke Arabic. However, the promise that the ADC had for Yemenis in the Central Valley never reached its full potential. By 1985, the same year that Palestinian American Alex Odeh, the West Coast regional director of the ADC, was murdered by a bomb planted in his Santa Ana office the ADC in Delano was defunct.[40] The closing of the Delano ADC was most likely a direct reaction of Odeh’s murder, as many Yemeni and Arab American activists feared the consequences of political activism.

During the same time the ADC closed, the majority of Yemenis who worked as agricultural laborers left the fields for other jobs.  Many of them found occupations in major California cities such as San Francisco as janitors, opened grocery stores, or returned to Yemen. Today, many Yemenis own small businesses in the same cities that they originally worked in as farm workers. Asking my father about his initial years in the U.S. as a farm worker unraveled an entire history of Yemenis in the UFW that I otherwise would not have known because it is not recognized in the official narrative or visibly present in the archives. This signifies the importance of building new archives as marginalized stories live on through the people around us, sometimes those closest to us.

The experiences of Yemenis in the UFW is an important chapter in the history of the Central Valley’s Yemeni community, a population that has significantly grown in numbers in the past few years. These stories contribute to the historiography of rural California and multiracial communities in the Central Valley. Alongside the history of other immigrant groups in the Central Valley including Mexican, Filipino, and Punjabi laborers, the experiences of Yemenis underscore how the local is deeply intertwined with global politics like Arab nationalism. The history of the Yemeni American community matters now more than ever. As Yemeni Americans face increasing restrictive immigration legislation and xenophobic rhetoric, this history is a reminder that Yemenis have long been a part of U.S. history, despite not always being recognized.

Notes

[1] See: Laura Araiza, To March for Others: The Black Freedom Struggle and the United Farm Workers, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014); Frank Bardacke, Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers, (London: Verso, 2011); Matthew Garcia, From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press,2012); Ana Raquel Minian, “‘Indiscriminate and Shameless Sex’: The Strategic Use of Sexuality by the United Farm Workers.” American Quarterly (2013, Volume, 65.1): 63–90.  2013; Miriam Pawel, The Crusades of Cesar Chavez: A Biography, (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2014).

[2] Cesar Chavez Special Resource Study and Environmental Assessment,” National Park Services U.S. Department of the Interior, (Fall 2013).; Dawn Bohulano Mabalon and Gayle Romasanta, Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong, (Bridge and Delta Publishing, 2018); Ray Rast, Cesar Chavez Special Resource Study and Environmental Assessment, with multiple co-authors. San Francisco: National Park Service, Pacific West Region, 2012.

[3] Mohamed Alamri interview by Neama Alamri, April 5, 2015.

[4] Ron Kelley, “Yemeni Farmworkers in California,” in Sojourners and Settlers: The Yemeni Immigrant Experience, ed. Jonathan Friedlander (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1988); Mohamed Alamri interview by Neama Alamri, April 5, 2015.;”Voices from the Heartland: Young Yemeni Americans Speak,” Middle Eastern Resources Online.  http://www.mearo.org/yemeni-americans/san-joaquin-valley.php

[5] Mary Bisharat, “Yemeni Migrant Workers in California,” in Arabs in America: Myths and Realities, (Wilmette: Medina University Press International, 1975), 208.

[6] Juan J. Sanchez and Solache Saul, “Yemeni Agricultural Workers in California: Migration Impact,” Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund Records, Bulk 1968-1995, box 18, folder 14, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University, Stanford CA.

[7] Mary Bisharat, “Yemeni Migrant Workers in California,” in Arabs in America: Myths and Realities, (Wilmette: Medina University Press International, 1975), 208.

[8] Robert Stookey, South Yemen: A Marxist Republic in Arabia, (Boulder: Westview Press, 1982).

[9] Gregory Orfalea, The Arab Americans: A History, (Northampton: Olive Branch Press, 2006), 153

[10] Marcia Aronson, “My Involvement in the United Farm Workers of America 1973-1978,” Farm Worker Documentation Project

[11] Mary Bisharat, “Yemeni Migrant Workers in California,” in Arabs in America: Myths and Realities, (Wilmette: Medina University Press International, 1975), 206-207.

[12] Mary Bisharat, “Yemeni Migrant Workers in California,” 208.

[13] Ron Kelley, “Yemeni Farmworkers in California.”

[14] Clinic Program for Arab Members,” 9 March 1973, El Malcriado, Farm Worker Documentation Project, UC San Diego.

[15] Matthew Garcia, 15.

[16] “UFWOC: A Strong Union for the Arab Farm Worker.” El Malcriado. Nov. 1, 1970. Farm Worker Documentation Project. UC San Diego Library.

[17] Ibid.

[18] “UFWOC: A Strong Union for the Arab Farm Worker.” El Malcriado. Nov. 1, 1970. Farm Worker Documentation Project. UC San Diego Library.; Ron Kelley, “Yemeni Farmworkers in California,” in Sojourners and Settlers: The Yemeni Immigrant Experience, ed. Jonathan Friedlander (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1988); Philip Diehl, “Arab advocate bridges gap between cultures,” 7 Dec. 1982, Delano Record, Delano Record Archives.

[19] “Morning March Here For Nasser,” 30 Sept. 1970, Porterville Recorder, Porterville Public Library; “Nasser Buried, Mideast Sad,” 1 Oct. 1970, Porterville Recorder.

[20] “UFWOC: A Strong Union for the Arab Farm Worker,” 1 Nov. 1970, El Malcriado, Farm Worker Documentation Project. UC San Diego Library.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Matthew Garcia, 103-105.

[23] Matthew Garcia, From the Jaws of Victory, 100

[24]15,000 farm workers honor fallen strikers,” El Malcriado, September 21, 1973, Farm Worker Documentation Project, UC San Diego Library, San Diego, CA.

[25] 15,000 farm workers honor fallen strikers,” El Malcriado, September 21, 1973, Farm Worker Documentation Project, UC San Diego Library, San Diego, CA. ; Nadine Naber, “The Yemeni UFW Martyr,” Middle East Research and Information Project, vol. 44 (Winter 2014).

[26] 15,000 farm workers honor fallen strikers,” El Malcriado, September 21, 1973, Farm Worker Documentation Project, UC San Diego Library, San Diego, CA. ; Matt. Garcia. From The Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 62.

[27] “UFW Martyrs: Nagi Daifallah,” United Farm Workers,  www.UFW.org.

[28] Matthew Garcia, From the Jaws of Victory, (University of California Press, 2014), 127

[29] United Farm Workers Administration Collection, Box 114, Folder 3, “Martyr Nagi Mohsin Daifallah Handad, 17 June 1980,” Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

[30] Chris Hartmire Personal Papers, Retrieved from Miriam Pawel; Arabic version is from United Farm Workers Administration Collection, Box 114, Folder 3, “Martyr Nagi Mohsin Daifallah Handad, 17 June 1980,” Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

[31] Ibid.

[32] In 1972, the UFW was officially affiliated with the AFL-CIO and created a national executive board. This was also when they changed their name from United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC) to United Farm Workers of America, known simply by their acronym, “UFW.” The affiliation with the AFL-CIO boosted the political platform of the UFW nationally. See Matthew Garcia, “Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Movement,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. https://oxfordre.com/americanhistory/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.001.0001/acrefore-9780199329175-e-217

[33] UFW Work Department, Box 3, File 1, Daifullah, Nagi, 1973,” Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

[34] UFW Work Department, Box 3, File 1, Daifullah, Nagi, 1973,” Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

[35] In my dissertation, I explore Nagi’s funeral march as well as the 1973 October War with more depth. Chavez, for example, received many requests to take a stance in support of the state of Israel and eventually decided to issue a statement of support which received criticism from many UFW members and supporters. The UFW’s support of Israel also hurt their relationship with the Black Panther Party which had been Pro-Palestine from their founding. See Laura Araiza, To March for Others: The Black Freedom Struggle and the United Farm Workers, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), 163.

[36] UFW Work Department Collection, Box 3, Folder 1, “Daifullah, Nagi 1973,” “Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

[37] UFW Work Department Collection, Box 3, Folder 1, “Daifullah, Nagi 1973,” “Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

[38] Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries

[39] Matt. Garcia. From The Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 99.

[40] Philip Diehl, “Arab advocate bridges gap between cultures,” 7 Dec. 1982, Delano Record, Delano Record Archives.; Delinda C. Hanley. “Arab Americans Demand Answers in 1985 Slaying of Alex Odeh,” The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Vol. 32.9, Dec. 2013

 

Neama Alamri is completing her PhD in Interdisciplinary Humanities at UC Merced and will be finished by May 2020. She will continue to work on her book project, “Long Live the Arab Worker: A Transnational History of Labor Activism in the Yemeni Diaspora,” which examines how Yemeni workers and activists, throughout the 20th century highlighted the connections between local challenges in the diaspora with global politics of empire.

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

Reviews

The Politics of Living and Dying

Rachel Grace Newman

Lupe Gómez migrated to California from a small town in Zacatecas, Mexico when he was very young. It might seem that he chose to make his life north of the border, where he went to college, became a U.S. citizen, and established a business (86). But as he took these steps to settle in the United States, he was also building connections to Mexico. He became active in hometown associations (HTAs), migrant organizations that raise funds to make improvements in the communities they left behind. In 2009, as a migrant candidate, he ran for a congressional seat in Zacatecas’ state legislature. Affiliated with Mexico’s right-wing Partido Acción Nacional, his campaign focused on “education and development,” promising to create jobs to reduce the need for people in his state to emigrate (87). Gómez described himself as an anti-establishment figure: in his words, he was “a humble ranchero who left Zacatecas a long time ago and now has returned to do things better than today’s politicians” (89). His opponents argued that Gómez’s long absence from his home state had eroded his identity as a Zacatecano and left him “out of touch” with everyday politics (90). Gómez lost the election, which was widely criticized for corruption and irregularities, but he promised to continue to seek office in Mexico (91). As recently as 2018, he was running for a federal deputy position, again as a migrant candidate, with the newer political party Movimiento Ciudadano.[1]

Though Lupe Gómez is not a household name, his story has periodically appeared in California and Mexican media over the past twenty years. In 2000, the Los Angeles Times ran a profile of Gómez with the title “Expatriates are True Patriots in Mexico.” [2] The phrasing catches the reader’s attention because it inverts a commonplace that migrants leave the homeland behind and betray their country of origin in doing so. But in Adrián Félix’s portrayal of Gómez in Specters of Belonging: The Political Life Cycle of Mexican Migrants (Oxford University Press, 2018), the Zacatecano features not as a surprising or strange case but as an example of a broader phenomenon that Félix calls “the thickening of transnational citizenship.” Mexican migrants, he argues, “simultaneously cultivate cross-border citizenship claims” both in the country where they were born and raised and in the United States, where they work and raise the next generation (3). Transnational citizenship can “thicken” over the course of migrants’ lives, especially in our current context. In the past generation, institutional and legal changes have made it increasingly possible for Mexicans in the United States to be civically and politically active on both sides of the border. Naturalizing as a U.S. citizen no longer requires Mexicans to renounce their status in Mexico. It is now legal, though practically difficult, for Mexicans abroad to vote in Mexican elections. And there are new laws in Mexico that seem to embrace the transnationality of Mexican citizens outside the national territory: there are government programs that match funds raised by migrant HTAs, as well as recent provisions for electing special migrant candidates such as Lupe Gómez. Félix focuses his work on the subjectivity of the transnational citizen living in this age of institutional transformations. He asks how Mexican migrants today make choices that thicken their web of formal and sentimental ties and expand the scope of their political struggle beyond national boundaries. More specifically, he considers how migrants’ political choices are made in the context of violent, racist hostility in the United States and exclusionary apathy in Mexico. How do they imagine and struggle for their vision of the future in this unforgiving transnational setting?

9780190879372 (1)

The book is organized around three stages in what Félix calls the “migrant political life cycle,” with chapters documenting the process of naturalizing as a U.S. citizen, the campaign strategies and policy objectives of migrants seeking political office in Mexico, and the bureaucratic and emotional intricacies of repatriating the bodies of deceased migrants for burial in their hometowns. The life cycle is an evocative metaphor to capture the changing nature of migrant politics over the course of individual trajectories. In each process examined in the book, migrants come into contact with Mexican or U.S. state institutions, but the author’s focus is on the ways that migrants experience and talk about these encounters. Félix’s relationships with his informants were built over years of his involvement in migrant political activism and as a teacher in citizenship classes (5-6).

Although migrant political activism has long garnered scholarly interest, Félix offers a novel approach by expanding the focus beyond HTAs and U.S.-focused migrants’ rights struggles. This book shows that naturalization and postmortem repatriation, clearly not instances of organized, grassroots activism, are nonetheless sites of where citizenship is “enunciated” and “embodied.” Migrant candidates supported by clientelistic political parties in Mexico, such as Lupe Gómez, expose what Félix calls “the contradictions of transnational citizenship”: while their visibility as political candidates engages progressive or leftist observers, their platforms and affiliations can be unappealing (86). He asks readers to reconsider rigid understandings of national citizenship that assume that migrants’ political engagement in Mexico is a sign of disengagement in the United States, and vice versa. In terms of concrete practices of citizenship and more abstract expressions of belonging and identity, Félix finds simultaneity and complexity.

In the chapter on U.S. naturalization, he argues that this moment of “political baptism” does not indicate a migrant’s assimilation to U.S. dominant culture or renunciation of Mexico. Migrants instead articulate the desire for the practical benefits of U.S. citizenship for themselves and their families. Félix emphasizes the context of xenophobia and racism in which migrants make choices about seeking a new political status. U.S. citizenship can shield them from deportation (although the certainty of citizenship has eroded since Félix’s book went to press), but naturalized citizens are not protected from perennial assumptions of foreignness and illegality on the part of the white supremacist state (and a sizeable part of the U.S. public). Given this, many Mexican migrants express their loyalties as did one of Félix’s informants: “When I see the American flag, I feel joy, but I don’t feel the same way as when I see the Mexican flag. I think that even if you become a [U.S.] citizen, you will never stop being Mexican. No matter what you say in the oath” (48-49).

IMG_0376

The humble monument to the migrant in Jerez, Zacatecas, erected in 2002 by the mayor’s office. Courtesy of Adrián Félix

Félix then turns to a group of Mexican migrants who seek political office in the country of their birth. These politicians are virtually all naturalized U.S. citizens and registered Democrats, with prior experience in migrant civic and political organizations, who are also affiliated with Mexican political parties across the ideological spectrum. There is a paradox, for Félix, in this form of transnational citizenship: though U.S.-based migrant activism is broadly progressive and often radical, when activists become candidates, they become cogs in a political machinery that is “notoriously corporatist” (57). Félix suggests that the leftwing Mexican parties that could coherently adopt a radical pro-migrant agenda cannot actually deliver the votes to elect a migrant candidate. Instead, the elected migrant officials he interviewed belonged to the establishment parties, particularly the rightwing Partido Acción Nacional. A follow-up study could show how things have changed since a newer “antisystem” party (Morena) has taken over the political establishment, having ascended to power with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in 2018 (7).

By definition, life cycles conclude with death, and Félix pays attention to the choices migrants make around end-of-life rituals in a chapter on postmortem repatriation. Those choices are spiritual and personal, but they are also deeply political. “At least for a considerable subset of migrants, who very well may have been settled in the United States for decades, cross-border loyalties live on and often materialize after death,” he writes (133). The desire to be buried in one’s native land is hardly unique to Mexican migrants, but Félix shows that this particular wish is widespread and culturally significant in the diasporic Mexican community. He recounts stories told in conversations with rural Zacatecanos about their transnational maneuvers to bring family members back to their hometowns for burial. Community members contribute to the expense of postmortem repatriation. This commitment to a smooth farewell means that the dead do not always travel alone. In one story, a young migrant murdered in Colorado was returned to his rancho by a co-worker, and in another, no fewer than 52 family members, filling an airplane, accompanied the body of a migrant going back home (127). Migrants’ desires for a posthumous return are tepidly supported by the Mexican state, but resources are distributed as a form of humanitarian aid that is inconsistently allocated (122). The migrant family network and transnational community are the most important support systems for postmortem repatriation.

As Félix concludes, “Mexican migrants are tenaciously transnational, defying the border in life and death” (141). After three decades of scholars documenting evidence of migrant transnationalism, Félix’s finding might seem unsurprising at first. But by calling attention to migrant tenacity, he draws readers’ attention to the many barriers to acting or feeling transnationally that migrants struggle against and shows how they do so at an intimate scale. The bureaucratic hurdles of naturalization demean Mexican nationals even as they are formally admitted to the citizenry. Yet migrants overcome those hurdles to obtain a legal status that can produce tangible improvements in their lives. The Mexican state has its own ways of including migrants only to show that they do not and cannot really belong, as migrant candidates have discovered as they seek to effect change from within, navigating mainstream Mexican party politics. To be a politically active migrant requires determination, and his revelations about U.S. and Mexican institutional mechanisms of exclusion indict political elites on both sides of the border.

In telling these stories, Félix also opens up new avenues for additional studies of migrant politics. Félix makes clear that his informants are not meant to be statistically representative of the diverse population of Mexican citizens in the United States: most people we meet in the narrative hail from Zacatecas, are “mestizo” (of mixed indigenous and European heritage), and are legal permanent residents or naturalized U.S. citizens. Mexican migrants to the United States are a highly diverse group that today includes members of indigenous communities and people coming from states whose migration histories do not stretch back as far as that of Zacatecas; these migrants are far less likely to have a path to legal status of any kind. These differences matter a great deal when looking at cross-border mobility: as Félix recounts, undocumented family members of deceased migrants in the United States cannot go to Mexico to accompany the body or attend the funeral (127). Though women appear periodically in the narrative, Félix notes that the exercise of transnational citizenship is always gendered. Félix is careful not to generalize from male migrant experiences. While many migrant women naturalize as U.S. citizens, migrant political candidates in Mexico are overwhelmingly male. Among migrant bodies repatriated to Mexico, women’s cadavers are underrepresented (111-112). His brief vignette about a young Mexican woman, based in Las Vegas, who sought political office in Mexico only to be targeted by misogynistic vitriol, suggests that there are many more migrant experiences to document to render the full repertoire of transnational citizenship. Félix’s book will be an important touchstone for the scholars who take up that work.

Notes

[1] http://pulsodelsur.com/noticias/quiero-ser-la-voz-de-millones-de-migrantes-radicados-en-estados-unidos/

[2] https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2000-jul-01-me-46794-story.html

 

Rachel Grace Newman is a Lecturer in the History of the Global South at Smith College. She earned a Ph.D. in International and Global History at Columbia University. She writes about education, inequality, and migration in twentieth-century Mexican history. Her website is rachelgnewman.com.

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

Articles

Eating Thirty in Fresno: Finding Home at Hmong New Year

Lisa Lee Herrick

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] In 2010, there were 31,771 Hmong living in Fresno.[5] 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.[6]

23D5B63E-C0CC-4BC8-8E4A-E89CC3EC9E1F.png

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[7] 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.

80307887_986700665021383_8568218610286198784_n

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.[8] 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.


Lisa Lee Herrick_Hmong New Year 04_dancers

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.[9] 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.”[10]

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.


Lisa Lee Herrick_Hmong New Year 02_studio photos

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.

WORKS CITED:

  1. “Hmong New Year Celebration Bringing People From Around The World to Fresno.” Vanessa Vasconcelos. ABC30.com. December 26, 2017. Link: https://abc30.com/amp/community-events/hmong-new-year-celebration-bringing-people-from-around-the-world-to-fresno/2824871/
  2. American Community Survey. U.S. Census Bureau, 2017. Link: https://www.hmongstudiesjournal.org/uploads/4/5/8/7/4587788/hmongca_acs_17_1yr.pdf
  3. Hmong Timeline. Minnesota Historical Society. Link: https://www.mnhs.org/hmong/hmong-timeline
  4. Ines M. Miyares. The Hmong Refugee Experience in the United States: Crossing The River. ed. Franklin Ng. New York: Routledge, 1998. pp. 3-38.
  5. AAPI Data. “The State of the Hmong American Community 2013.” p. 14. Link: https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=http://aapidata.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/State-of-the-Hmong-American-Community-2013.pdf&ved=2ahUKEwi72u3K1prlAhWYHTQIHekKAnsQFjASegQIBxAB&usg=AOvVaw3V9ycQNZ0Ni7e79vhQWBnO
  6. 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.
  7. “Largest Hmong New Year Celebration Kicks Off in California.” Wang, Frances Kai-Hwa. NBC News (December 26, 2016). Link: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/largest-u-s-hmong-new-year-celebration-kicks-california-n700316
  8. “Laotian, Hmong Americans Cautiously Optimistic Ahead of Obama’s Laos Visit.” Wang, Frances Kai-Hwa. NBC News (August 30, 2016). Link: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/laotian-hmong-americans-cautiously-optimistic-ahead-obama-s-laos-visit-n640346
  9. Gee Xiong. “Ntxhais Nkauj Ntsuab: A Study on the Miss Hmong Pageants in America.” Fresno State University, 2013. Link: https://books.google.com/books/about/Ntxhais_Nkauj_Ntsuab.html?id=wxIcoAEACAAJ
  10. 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.

Copyright: © 2019 Lisa Lee Herrick. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Reviews

In Search of Home: Cherríe Moraga’s Native Country of the Heart

Sandra Ruiz

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)[1] 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).[2] 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?[3] (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).

Moraga

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)[4], 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.

Notes

[1] Moraga, Cherríe. The Last Generation: Prose and Poetry. Boston: South End Press, 1993.

[2] 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.

[3] Italicized quotes are from the author.

[4] Herrera, Cristina. Contemporary Chicana Literature: (Re)writing the Maternal Script. Amherst: Cambria Press, 2014. 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.

 

Copyright: © 2019 Sandra Ruiz. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Postcards Series

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

Ilustracion 1 RGB

Courtesy of Fernando Mendez Corona

With “Postcards,” creative non-fiction stories grounded in place, we aspire to create a new cartography of California. For us, literature and language are as much about marking and representing space, as they are about storytelling.


Jenise Miller

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

2_Parade_Senior_Queen

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

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

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

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

Outside Shop hanging victor in hat and others

Victor and friends outside the shop. Photo courtesy of Victor

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

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

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

6_Shatto_Hall_Dancers

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

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

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

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

Outside Shop today 2

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

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

Notes

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

[2] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright: © 2019 Jenise Miller. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Articles

Welcome Children

Keenan Norris

In a café like every other Bay Area café—with a charismatic owner, a perfectly sunlit patio, as many expensive chai lattes as one can consume, and Latino laborers doing the dirty work in between and underneath tables and out of sight (though not earshot)—in the alleyway on the other side of a leaf-covered fence where they break down boxes, bail waste and banter in different dialects of Spanish, the novelist Micheline Aharonian Marcom explains why she founded the New American Story Project (NASP). She expounds what exactly the project, and its flagship program, “Welcome Children,” are doing in Oakland and San Francisco.

NASP was inspired by the unacknowledged toil of immigrant laborers. “We live in California, an economy,” she notes, “which is predicated on immigrant labor, much of it undocumented labor. It’s just part of what we are as a state.”

Micheline is laid-back: dressed casually, California-slow in her speech. Traits which belie the intensity and purpose of her work. The grandchild of a refugee from Turkey, Micheline is best known for her trilogy of novels about the Armenian genocide, especially, the series’ first volume, Three Apples Fell from Heaven. When she came to write, The New American—a novel about Guatemalan-American “Dreamer,” Emilio, brought by his parents to America at age two, who, at twenty-two, while studying for a degree at Berkeley, commits a traffic infraction that results in his deportation to a home country he has no memory or knowledge of—Micheline’s research took her deep into the developing crisis on the United States’ southern border: A cauldron of cartel and gang-related violence seethed inside Mexico and the triad of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The New American is about Emilio’s harrowing return from Guatemala to America both on foot and atop cargo trains in the company of four equally desperate Honduran migrants.

We live in California, an economy… predicated on immigrant labor, much of it undocumented labor. It’s just part of what we are as a state.

While The New American is a novel, its fiction is more than matched by reality: The violence in Central America has made life untenable for millions of ordinary citizens. Young boys are often at risk of induction into the transnational gangs or, in more moderate cases, at risk of violent reprisals for failure to join. It is not safe to be a child or a woman there, as there is virtually total impunity from prosecution for crimes of all kinds. Escape north across Mexico and into America is hardly less harrowing. Along the way, Central American migrants face extortion, kidnapping, bodily harm, and rape. “The likelihood of girls and women getting raped while crossing Mexico is somewhere in the eightieth percentile,” Micheline recounts. “So much so that many poor girls and women will take a birth control pill before they leave home as a precaution.”

On top of it all, the journey is expensive. Smugglers charge $8,000 to $10,000 for a migrant seeking passage to America, and that number is rising as smugglers benefit from the recent haste to get across the border as Trump’s restrictions on immigration—both legal and illegal—increase. Yet many stream into the United States each year. Migrant males looking for work, women with children, and children by themselves often appear in the Bay Area. Though unaccompanied minors have immigrated to the United States for decades, in 2009 their numbers rose precipitously. In 2014, the crisis reached a nadir point. Perhaps as many as 68,000 unaccompanied minors were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border as they sought asylum from the violence in their homelands.

11x17Poster-ImmigrantsWelcome-Mama2


The New Americans

Micheline led a creative writing class Spring 2015 for “newcomers” (recent immigrant children) at Fremont High, a public school in the heart of East Oakland. As the crisis on the border reached its apogee, she found that instead of the immigrant Mexican kids who typically were enrolled in the course, twenty-eight of the twenty-nine students hailed from the Central American countries that she had read and written so much about. Oakland, as it happened, had come to host one of the highest concentrations of refugee unaccompanied minors. This happened at the same time that Donald Trump was stoking the fires for a political campaign that would focus its ire upon immigrants and refugees from Latin America, visiting these issues with cartoonish anger that both revolted and riveted American eyes.

The imperative, Micheline figured, was clear. Instead of telling these children’s stories, it was time that the kids themselves be given a platform to tell their own stories. What began in the desperate confusion of a high school classroom weighted over with unspoken terror and tragedy has become the New American Story Project. Micheline and then Mills College graduate student Claire Calderón began interviewing the children and placing their testimonies online at http://www.newamericanstoryproject.org.[1] Micheline has tried to locate the witness bearing that is at the heart of the project outside the narrow parameters of political debate. “I don’t want to present the stories or advertise the stories using political language.” When asked to explain the particulars of the New American Story Project, she typically directs questioners to the words of the child refugees themselves, to their stories: “I just want these stories to be told, to be heard. I don’t know if other people find them moving— I find them moving. I want us to see each other better.”

The stories, such as those of a K’iché-Maya Guatemalan girl[2] and a seventeen-year-old Honduran boy,[3] are extremely harrowing. Thus far, Micheline has conducted twenty-two interviews with unaccompanied minor refugees, offering them the forum to tell their stories.

Monica,[4] a young Honduran woman, tells the story of how she was forced to quit school at the age of twelve after one of her friends was kidnapped from the school grounds by gang members and found dead two hours later. Her sister, too, was forced to quit school. Confined to her family’s home, she saw no future for herself in the country. Eventually, even though she was still a child and knew she would be without her mother, she made the journey north. Monica has been granted asylum and lives in Oakland now.

Carlos,[5] a Jehovah’s Witness whose faith required that he proselytize door-to-door in El Salvador, was repeatedly threatened by cartel hitmen. A fellow Jehovah’s Witness and friend of his, was killed. After that murder, in fear for his own life Carlos sought asylum in the U.S. “There is no safe place in El Salvador,” he states flatly. Re-location within the country only delays the inevitable for those marked for death because they have resisted the reach of the cartels.

CityLights-banners-sml

Art by Micah Bazant.

 

What the children’s autobiographies of displacement could not provide in terms of context for the cartel violence, Micheline found others could: “I began to interview immigration attorneys, law professors, human rights activists, and scholars to understand better what’s going on there, its connectedness to us here, and how laws are in place to protect people like these children seeking asylum in the U.S.”

Among those featured on the website are Professor John H. Carter,[6] who historicizes the rise of Honduran drug cartel activity, chronicling the situation of a nearly failed state where the rule of law is no longer extant. Thomas Boerman[7] is a Central American security specialist, immigration trial consultant, and expert witness who contextualizes the current cartel violence in Central America within the larger sweep of American military intervention in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, leading to the destabilization of each. This contextualizing work is especially important given American attitudes toward history, which typically range from blank indifference to calculated denial of phenomena and consequences. This is no different in California, perhaps with increased forms of amnesia.

Micheline’s interview of Salvadoran journalist Oscar Martínez is a primer on the consequences of American realpolitik. The journalist details how the American government’s intervention into El Salvador’s politics in the 1980s led to an internal war that flushed thousands across the American border into isolated ethnic communities in Los Angeles—where the MS-13 gang came into being and flourished. As gang members racked up criminal charges and were deported back to El Salvador, the strange fruit of American inner-city streets spread its seed in that Central American nation. The war over drug territory and trade routes cut a swath of terror that chased thousands from their homes and eventuated, ironically, in a refugee crisis at the American border in 2014. Where America had deported violent gang members, now children and families escaping that exported violence were doing all they could, in ever increasing numbers, to be allowed into a country that largely associated people of their skin color and immigrant status with squalor, violence, the burden of poverty, and the threat of job competition.

As the debate over what to do about the refugees became just more flotsam in Donald Trump’s rhetorical trash heap, the New American Story Project re-calibrated its approach, taking its work on behalf of America’s Central American refugees to the streets with large format poster installations of refugee and immigrant faces that personalize an all too abstract and degraded discussion.


New American Story Project

“The project has now evolved to be a digital and public arts project,” Micheline explains. “The internet isolates people. I think we need to be together in public spaces. These are our cities. Why not see ourselves reflected, see beauty, see each other in our own neighborhoods? I hope, through this artwork, we can raise awareness about the refugee crisis and humanize a very polarized and mostly misunderstood story.”

The first installation of artwork, created by artist Micah Bazant from documentary photographs by Ed Ntiri and Lori Barra, still hangs at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco.

No refugee’s face has been matched to their name, but each face and each name is real and present. Not simply art for art’s sake, these protest banners strike me as a profound resistance formation both of and not of our political moment. They rise above the moment and the current administration’s imposition of draconian restrictions on legal and illegal immigration to proclaim a humanity that is personal, individual, and compassionate.

“Two years ago,” Micheline remembers,

when I was teaching that newcomer class at Fremont and we were trying to figure out what was happening locally among the advocacy groups in the Bay Area, I went to a gathering of advocacy and immigration rights groups and there was a gentleman there from Catholic charities who was one of the speakers. He came to the podium and he stood there, just stood there and didn’t say anything for a long moment. And the room got quiet. And then he said, “Welcome children.” And that struck me deeply, reminded me: we are speaking of children.

Poise and intensity enters Micheline’s tone:

Most people don’t have any understanding, myself included when I began this work, of what our immigration system is, how it works, what is going on at our southern border, the incredible militarization since 9/11 that has occurred there, how many people Obama deported—and then this man stands up and says simply, “Welcome Children”—reminding me that we are speaking of children. Why wouldn’t America, a country that has long been a beacon of hope for so much of the world, including for my own family, not open its arms to children who are fleeing for their lives? We have to remind people of the moral situation.

Our interview winds to its close. The Spanish of the morning laborers has been replaced by the Americanese of people privileged enough to enjoy an expensive noontime latte on a weekday under the perfect California sun.

Most people don’t have any understanding, myself included when I began this work, of what our immigration system is, how it works, what is going on at our southern border.

“One of my obsessions,” this writer of books who knows that the best stories are on the streets, reflects, “has been to help us see each other better, with more compassion, more understanding…. I don’t know if [NASP] is going to do anything. Maybe people have already made up their minds, but we’re doing this for those who want to know more.”

Micheline’s aim is to let the stories of individual refugee persons be heard. She is humanist, not political— but humanism has become a political choice in 2018. The question she concludes with has resonance beyond the particular identity of the woman whose portrait now adorns shop windows and storefronts across the Bay Area. It is a question that in this time of global upheaval, of displaced populations, of blood and soil nativism, the United States itself must answer.  “Maybe people see the story of the woman who’s on this poster and they wonder about how this happened: Who is she?”

11x17Download-MigrarNoEsUnCrimen-Mama

 

Notes

  • Poster art is by Micah Bazant, photographed by Lori Barra. Posters are hung in the following locations: Fruitvale Station, East Oakland; City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco; Laurel Bookstore, downtown Oakland; B Street commercial district, downtown Hayward, among other locations throughout the Bay Area.

[1] Micheline Aharonian Marcom, “New American Story Project,” last modified 2016, http://www.newamericanstoryproject.org.

[2] Teresa, “The Gangs Coming to Our Village,” http://www.newamericanstoryproject.org/story-4 (20 October 2016).

[3] Miguel Angel, “Journey to the North,” http://www.newamericanstoryproject.org/journey-north (22 October 2016).

[4] Monica, “Monica’s Story,” https://vimeo.com/256649703 (February 2018).

[5] Carlos, “Fleeing the Gangs in El Salvador: Carlos’s Story,” https://vimeo.com/255661180 (April 2018).

[6] John H. Carter, “The Violence of the Free Market,” http://www.newamericanstoryproject.org/the-violence-of-the-free-market (17 October 2016).

[7] Thomas Boerman, “A Completely Disempowered Population Living Within a Fully Criminalized State,” http://www.newamericanstoryproject.org/a-completely-disempowered-population-living-within-a-fully-criminalized-state (18 October 2016).

 

Keenan Norris teaches American Literature and Creative Writing at San Jose State University. His novel Brother and the Dancer won the 2012 James D. Houston Award.

Copyright: © 2018 Keenan Norris. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

 

Articles

Field of Dreams

Soccer-1

Romeo Guzmán

Nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Luisa Mountains, San Luis Obispo feels idyllic. The Salinas and Chumash tribes were likely attracted to the region’s Mediterranean climate, the gentle fog, ocean breeze, and streams from nearby mountain springs. Throughout the centuries, Spaniards, Mexicans, and Americans found this Central Coast region to be an ideal setting for their agricultural exploits. Now, as the Fall settles in, tourists flock to the area to marvel at its seemingly endless rows of grape vines.

As the sun begins its slow descent, seventy-three-year-old Aurelio Sánchez looks down upon a perfectly trimmed bed of green. This field has been watered and cared for by human hands. But Aurelio is not here to care for the lawn. He drove up from his home in Southern California to watch his grandson, Alex Sánchez, play soccer. He is joined by his wife Berenice, his son Juan, and Juan’s wife and children. They are surrounded by incoming California Polytechnic State University students. Wearing green-and-yellow t-shirts, the freshmen look casually at the pitch. A few of them might recognize the head coach, Steve Sampson, and understand his impact on U.S. soccer at the collegiate, professional, and international levels. Sampson, they might remember, was an assistant coach for the U.S. Men’s 1994 World Cup team and head coach for the team during the 1998 World Cup in France. They won’t recognize Aurelio Sánchez or give much thought to the Mexicans in the stands or on the pitch. This is understandable. If Mexican migrants’ contributions to the U.S. economy, to its cultural richness, and to its values are continually ignored, why should their impact on sport be any different?

However, the growth of soccer in the United States since the 1960s has been deeply intertwined and connected with the history of soccer in Mexico. After the founding of professional soccer in Mexico in 1943, the game slowly became the nation’s favorite pastime and began to spread throughout the country. Aurelio, like other migrant futboleros of his generation, brought their love of the game to the United States and helped alter its sporting landscape, particularly in Southern California. The game helped to foster unique soccer communities in Mexico and the United States, and was instrumental in facilitating migration between those two countries. By following Aurelio Sánchez, we can trace futbol’s arrival in Mexico in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, its growth and popularity in the mid-twentieth century, and the rise of futbol community-making in Southern California from the 1960s to the present.

Despite Mexicans’ unconditional and (at times) unrequited love for futbol, the game is not native to Mexico. It is a transplant. European companies and workers brought the game to Latin America and Mexico in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In Mexico, workers employed in industries managed by British companies organized teams and leagues in cities like Pachuca, Mexico City, Puebla, and Orizaba. British clubs founded the Liga Mexicana de Football Amateur Association where they established the first formal competition in 1902. Slowly, French, German, and Spanish migrants formed teams and competed against these British footballers. In 1912, Mexican-born players joined the league with their squad Club México.[1]

In 1918, the game arrived to La Experiencia, a small town on the outskirts of cosmopolitan Guadalajara and Aurelio’s place of birth. One single street connected the entire town. The street brought people in and guided them out. Resembling a neatly organized grid, streets ran north, south, east, and west, both above and below La Experiencia’s main corridor. Just outside the city’s gates, residents used their hands to till and organize the land and to turn cotton into textiles. The Spanish owners of the textile factory Compañia Industrial de Guadalajara and local farmers found the close proximity to a river gorge and open space to be favorable and productive.

It was here, on vacant land, that workers from the factory tried to play this new game.[2] Rather than having a level playing field for the ball to roll, these new athletes had to contend with small mounds of land. The goalies were charged with guarding and protecting a simple line on the ground. The conditions of the field matched the workers’ lack of skill and knowledge of the game. To move the ball up the field and towards the opposing goal, players used their entire bodies to physically hit others who were in their path. It was from these humble origins that La Experiencia gave birth to Club Imperio, one of Guadalajara’s first and most competitive amateur adult teams.

Soccer-5

Aurelio Sánchez, goalie. Atlas, 1967.

In the following two decades, factory owners and community members dedicated their financial resources, time, and energy to Club Imperio. The Spanish owners of this factory provided the club with invaluable material support and resources. The factory paid for the first team’s uniforms, furnished impressive facilities, including showers and dressing rooms for both home and away teams, and provided team players with a monthly salary. The company also used its position as an employer in creative ways. In the 1932-33 season, Club Imperio returned to primera fuerza (the highest division) after a few years’ hiatus. In an effort to put forth a strong showing, the starting eleven players were permitted to leave work early every Tuesday and Friday. For their part, players and community members provided both intellectual and material resources. In 1919, Antonio Santacruz Chávez, who played for Club Colón before arriving to Club Imperio, brought a new level of commitment and experience to La Experiencia. He provided players with knowledge of the game, as well as the official logo and colors for Club Imperio, which he borrowed from Centenario, a club that no longer existed. Retired players and aficionados donated their time and knowledge by coaching not just the first team, but also Club Imperio’s youth teams.

Larger macro historical processes aided these local efforts. After the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), the state embarked on an ambitious project to educate peasants, workers, indigenous groups, and other popular classes.[3] For the state, sport was a vehicle to reduce alcoholism and other social ills, to foment and sponsor nationalism, and to promote the physical, moral and intellectual growth of its citizens. “It’s a primordial way,” claimed one Mexican official, “to create a nation of healthy, sane, and enthusiastic men…. Sport is a panacea for vice and mischief and a creator of good character and strength of a community.”[4] The state worked diligently to promote and disseminate sport. In 1923, the state created a department within the Secretary of Public Education to oversee sports.[5] During President Lázaro Cárdenas’s administration (1934-40), the state succeeded in adding numerous physical activities to both primary and secondary education. In 1941, the nation’s Juegos Deportivos Nacionales de la Revolución attested to the growing importance of sport as well as futbol.[6] Between 7 and 17 November, twenty-two teams from twenty-two different states all played as they tried to put the ball in the back of the net.

It is within this local and national context that Club Imperio impressively grew in many ways. From 1924 until the founding of the Federación Mexicana de Futbol (FeMexFut) in 1943, the club consistently fielded competitive teams to play in Guadalajara’s highest amateur division. For example, in their first year in the second division (1927-28) they came in first place and earned the right to move up to “primera fuerza” and play against powerhouses like Guadalajara and Atlas. While they did not join these two teams in FeMexFut, they continued to play against them in the name of friendly games well into the 1960s. The club also succeeded in expanding their player pool. In 1935, the club fielded teams in six different divisions, including a youth team in the “junior” category. By 1946, the club had enough children to create their own five-team youth league.

The simultaneous growth of the game nationally and locally is best captured in the town’s annual holidays and quotidian rhythm. National celebrations such as Día de la Independencia and Cinco de Mayo included a futbol game. In fact, patriotic activities like parades and plays were structured to support and highlight the forthcoming match. Throughout the year, players and workers gathered at the local pulqueria and barbershops to discuss their team’s performance. They carefully analyzed their team’s victories, as well as their defeats and ruminated on their favorite player’s skills.

Futbol was implanted deeply into the community, spreading to both formal and informal spaces. Aurelio’s introduction to Club Imperio occurred in the space between labor and leisure and during the community’s most important markers of time. Like other families, the Sánchez family housed their cows and agricultural field just outside the city gates, near Club Imperio’s dirt pitch. To harvest the maize, Aurelio’s father cut down his field and neatly stacked the stalk in the form of a pyramid. A young five-year-old Aurelio climbed to the top of this stalk pyramid. From above, he witnessed Club Imperio’s first team engage in “unos partidazos” (amazing games). As he sat there watching Club Imperio represent La Experiencia, he said to himself, “One day I am going to play there.”[7]

As he sat there watching Club Imperio represent La Experiencia, he said to himself, “One day I am going to play there.”

There was just one problem. While Aurelio loved soccer, he was not comfortable with the ball at his feet. “I wanted to pass the ball,” he reflected during our oral history. “But I couldn’t do it; my feet would get stuck.” A casual encounter forever changed Aurelio’s relationship with the ball and with the game itself. As a five-year old, Aurelio walked down La Experiencia’s cobbled streets with a soccer ball, where an elderly resident of the neighborhood gestured for it. As soon as the ball hit the man’s foot, he pushed it forward and yelled, “here it comes” before taking a shot at Aurelio and the imaginary goal, a common pastime for urban and suburban players. Ignoring the cobbled street and its unforgiving hardness, a young Aurelio dove and stopped the shot. The man took another shot and again Aurelio dove. After this brief exchange, the man was convinced that Aurelio’s place was between the goal posts. He told Aurelio, “You are a goalie.” He then proceeded to take him to the nearby field for a pick-up game to test his newfound theory.

Aurelio played for Club Imperio throughout his childhood. When he was a young teenager, however, he had been hired to drive a bus throughout Guadalajara and joined his new employer’s futbol team. Yet his absence from Club Imperio did not last long. In order to mitigate an opponent’s home-field advantage, teams regularly held games at a neutral playing site. Teams even negotiated who would referee the game. In one case, they played a tough team and used Club Imperio’s pitch as the neutral site. Aurelio played particularly well in a hard-fought 3-1 victory and drew the attention of Club Imperio’s coaches. He returned to the fields of his childhood and to Club Imperio, helping them win three championships in the early 1960s. His success with Club Imperio drew the attention of the coaches at Selección Jalisco, an all-state team that competed against other state teams. With this new team a young Aurelio traveled to play in places like Mexico City.

Soccer-3

Migration and movement is endemic to competitive soccer and players often have to relocate or commute long hours to take advantage of playing opportunities.[8] This was the case with Aurelio. After a few successful seasons with Club Imperio and Selección Jalisco, Aurelio was offered a contract to play with a second division team named La Piedad, in Morelia, Michoacán. While excited to play professionally, this entailed perseverance and sacrifice. It took Aurelio four hours to get to practices and home games.[9] The salary didn’t make things that much easier. After paying for transportation to the city of Morelia, Aurelio was often left with just two pesos to cover the rest of his daily expenses. To make the most of his budget, Aurelio and Reyes Torres (the team’s central defender and a native of La Experiencia) ate lunch by the river, where local merchants sold vegetable broth for 50 cents. Aurelio’s struggle paid off. In 1967, after a few years of grinding at La Piedad, Aurelio was picked up by Atlas.

Not only was Atlas located near Aurelio’s home, in Guadalajara, but its roster was also filled with players from La Experiencia. Between the first team and the reserves, there were a total of eleven players from the small llanero community on the outskirts of Zapopan. During his time at Atlas, Aurelio was the first-string goalie for the reserve team and found his way into the starting line-up for the first team on five occasions. Despite his best effort, his first season ended with an unfortunate outcome. Management let go of its three goalkeepers: the first-string goalie, along with Aurelio, and Javier Quintero.

After Atlas, Aurelio was presented with two promising opportunities, both of which required him to leave Guadalajara. Ignacio “Gallo” Jáuregui, Monterrey’s coach, came to La Experiencia and invited Aurelio to play on his squad. Aurelio enthusiastically agreed, but told Jáuregui that he needed to check in with his family about migrating to Monterrey. Rather than excitement, Aurelio’s mother felt disheartened and distraught by the possibility of her son leaving their home. Under these conditions, he felt obliged to stay. Instead of Aurelio, the Monterrey coach signed Javier Quintero, another native of La Experiencia. Quintero, known as “El Loco,” went onto to have a spectacular career with Monterrey. In another instance, it was his mom’s health that prevented a return to the professional ranks. After a successful training stint with club Morelia, the team offered Aurelio a contract. The team was scheduled to play the following Thursday and Saturday, and asked Aurelio to present himself on Tuesday to sign paperwork to make his place on the team official. Aurelio took advantage of the long weekend break to go home to Guadalajara. As the sun rose that Monday morning, Aurelio neatly packed his clothes and cleats and headed to the bus station. He boarded the bus and inched closer to returning to the professional ranks of Mexican futbol, only to be notified by a resident from La Experiencia that his mother was not well. She had a heart attack, from which she never recovered and died shortly thereafter. Aurelio lost his mom and his opportunity to play for Morelia.  

Aurelio only played one season with a first division team, but it was through professional soccer that Aurelio met his wife Berenice and migrated to the United States. By the 1960s, La Experiencia and Club Imperio produced many professional futbolistas which led to the formation of an intimate community of professional, amateur, and retired players. Jesus “El Chita” Aldrete is perhaps one of La Experiencia’s most beloved players. He came up through Club Imperio’s youth ranks and became a central fixture in Atlas’s squad. During the 1950-51 season, he helped Atlas win their only Liga MX championship. In 1967, when Aurelio was playing for Atlas, the Aldrete family honored their daughter Berenice’s fifteenth birthday with a quinceñera, a young woman’s traditional coming-of-age party. When they returned from their game in Toluca, several players attended the party. Aurelio decided to go straight home. However, a few days after the party, Aurelio and one of Berenice’s cousins were lounging outside the Sánchez’s home when they saw Berenice walking down the street with freshly cooked tortillas. “Look, Aurelio, look! Don’t you like my cousin Berenice?” Without looking at her, Aurelio disapprovingly shrugged and noted that Berenice was too young. “No, look at her,” the cousin insisted. Aurelio did. In response to this attention, Berenice tripped and her carefully wrapped tortillas hit the floor. Aurelio and the cousin wanted to help her up, but she left before they could cross the street. A few days later, Aurelio ran into Berenice and expressed his desire to be her boyfriend. She responded with hesitation. Rather than insisting, Aurelio told Berenice that he had a game in Guatemala and that she could give him an answer when he returned from his trip.

Berenice welcomed Aurelio back to Guadalajara with good news. Aurelio’s excitement was quickly met with the anxiety of asking Berenice’s father for permission, a tradition and near-obligatory act in small towns throughout Mexico. Jesus “El Chita” Aldrete was more intimidating than most fathers. He was respected and loved throughout Jalisco, but especially in La Experiencia. As a central defender in his futbolero days, Aldrete made a career out of thwarting the opposing team’s advances and unequivocally stamping out any and all threats. For the suiter, the defender’s appearance was as formidable as his skills on the pitch. Jesus Aldrete, according to Aurelio, “had big eyebrows, like the devil.” Aurelio decided to follow Aldrete. He sat next to the former central defender, but at a distance in case Aldrete decided to kick him. “Your daughter and I like each other and we want to ask you for permission to be boyfriend and girlfriend,” Aurelio uttered. “Yes, okay,” the central defender responded and then proceeded to give the following instruction: “You can talk on the corner, in front of the house, or at the door of the house.” Fall 1970, just after Mexico hosted the World Cup, Aurelio and Berenice were wed in La Experiencia’s church. A year after they were married, Berenice gave birth to Juan Carlos, their first of three boys.

Atlas later facilitated Aurelio’s migration to the United States. When the club let Aurelio go after the 1967 season, they handed him his remaining salary, some paperwork, and one particularly important piece of paper. During his time with Atlas, the club scheduled a game in San Francisco, California and acquired Visas for all its players, including their second-string goalie. Atlas, perhaps in a gesture of gratitude and solidarity, asked Aurelio if he wanted his Visa.[10] Aurelio never imagined he’d migrate to the United States, but he took the Visa and saved it until 1971 when he left Guadalajara for Southern California.

Soccer-2

Migration to “el norte” was nothing new, as a brief historical sketch of the twentieth century demonstrates. The Mexican Revolution, economic opportunities created during World War I, and the absence of farm labor after the passage of the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, created the “push” and “pull” factor. This wave of Mexican migration was augmented by the temporary worker program known as the Bracero Program (1948-64). Grower’s demand and disdain for adhering to labor laws outlined in the bi-national agreement helped foster undocumented migration. Historians estimate that 4.6 million workers migrated to the United States during this period. However, the end of the Bracero Program did not end the desire to migrate to the United States. Indeed, the post-1965 era saw an increase in illegal migration. The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 (also known as the Hart-Celler Act) sought to eradicate xenophobia and racism from immigration policy by establishing quotas for the Western hemisphere. However, these quotas dramatically reduced the legal avenues “to accommodate the long-established flows,” and had the unintended consequences of increasing undocumented migration. For example, in 1981, approximately 101,268 migrants entered legally compared to 357,788 undocumented crossings.[11] With the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) in 1986, close to three million residents gained legal status. In short, by 1990, close to 22.4 million Mexicans were living in the United States.[12]

This former professional soccer player joined hundreds of thousands of Mexicans who migrated to the United States during the Bracero Program and the passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965. Aurelio’s generation was born as futbol was successfully battling baseball and boxing for the coveted position of Mexico’s favorite sport. Because he was born just one year after the founding of Mexico’s professional league, Aurelio and those born in the preceding decade had the opportunity to imagine and fill Mexico’s professional ranks. His generation also enthusiastically packed Guadalajara’s Estadio Jalisco when it was constructed in the 1960s and welcomed the world’s best players, including Pele, to Mexico for the 1970 World Cup.

By the 1960s, Mexicans had spent decades migrating to the United States and returning to Mexico for brief visits, for a season or two, permanently, or for their retirement. In the process, they created networks across the U.S.-Mexico Border. Children from La Experiencia were born into a community with a rich and deep history of soccer. It was these futbol roots and their networks that provided them the opportunity to imagine new futures across Mexico, as well as the United States, and the world. When Aurelio’s generation crossed the U.S.-Mexico Border and arrived to new lands, they found solace on the pitch and used the game to form new communities.[13]

Indeed, migrant futboleros created a robust soccer community, one that was a result of communal ties. The formation of new leagues across Southern California and divisions within those leagues attested to the growth of soccer in Southern California during the 1960s and 1970s. In an article for La Opinion in 1976, the Mexican-born sports writer Alfonso Arias explained that José Capuccetti founded La Liga California (The California League) because officials and referees of La Gran Liga discriminated against Mexican teams and players. In its inaugural year, the California League had seven teams and was composed almost exclusively of Mexican born and Mexican origin players (ninety-eight percent). By 1976 the league had five divisions—mayor (senior), primera (first), segunda (second), reservas (reserves), and juvenile (youth)—and more than one hundred teams. Moreover, Mexican and Latino leagues spread throughout Southern California.[14]

For Aurelio (as well as other migrant futboleros), his identity as player and migrant was complementary. The game structured leisure time and provided moneymaking opportunities both on and off the field. When he arrived to the San Gabriel Valley in 1971, the owner of the amateur team Tecolotlán (which was named after the town in Jalisco) paid him $1,000 to guard his team’s goal posts for the season. The team’s center defender worked as a foreman at a potato chip factory and provided Aurelio with a job. For many migrants, soccer enabled them to explore and map their neighborhood, parks, schools, and even cities.

As these male migrants became more settled, they brought their wives and children from Mexico and had children here in the United States. Aurelio, for example, brought Berenice and Juan from Mexico after a few months of living in the United States; and Berenice gave birth to two more boys here: Cesar and Hugo. Migrant futbolistas affectionately transmitted their love for the game to their children. Under the best of circumstances, these Mexican and U.S.-born children inherited their parents’ playing skills. These Mexican-American children formed part of the new and emerging cohort of soccer players. During the 1970s and 1980s, soccer caught fire across white suburbs and gave birth to the now colloquial and ubiquitous noun “soccer mom.” These migrant and American soccer universes rarely collided. Competitive and elite soccer, whether in the form of club teams for youth players or college for young adults, was restrictive and exclusionary. However, Aurelio and his son Juan found a way to navigate this American terrain with some fortune. After playing in Whittier Narrows Park in the California League’s youth league, Juan played for Club Santos, a travel team based in the affluent suburb of Walnut. The club team waved the fees, but the Sánchez family still had to cover expenses related with travel, such as hotel accommodations. By playing club soccer, he learned that there was “something outside of high school, outside of Pomona.”

Under the best of circumstances, these Mexican and U.S.-born children inherited their parents’ playing skills. These Mexican-American children formed part of the new and emerging cohort of soccer players.

From this new horizon Juan envisioned attending college and playing soccer there. After graduating from Garey High School in 1989, he played at California State University, Los Angeles for Leonardo Cuellar, the former Mexican National Team player and Pumas standout. Cuellar himself migrated to the United States as a professional athlete when he was signed by the San Diego Sockers of the North American Soccer League in 1979. After a successful collegiate experience, Juan went on to play professionally in Mexico and the United States, before becoming the men’s head coach at Mount San Antonio Community College. As a community college coach, he created pathways for first-generation college students and migrant children who would otherwise not attend college. His team naturally succeeded on the field as well. By recruiting and developing local talent (predominately players of Mexican heritage), he has become one of California’s most dominant community college soccer coaches. For the last fifteen years, Juan Sánchez and his coaching staff have led players to ten final four appearances and five state championships.

Mexicans’ preference for baseball, basketball, and boxing during the first half of the twentieth century have reflected the popularity of these sports in Mexico, as well as their popularity in the United States. As Chicano/a scholars have argued, American educators, religious leaders, and other reformers, saw sport (especially baseball and basketball) as a vehicle to Americanize Mexican children and youth. In his pioneering work on soccer in the Midwest, Juan Javier Pescador shows how Mexicans formed teams as early as the 1940s. However, because there were not many Mexican teams, they played in leagues formed and dominated by European migrants. Moreover, these first teams were predominately composed of Mexican migrants and not Mexican-Americans.[15] That slowly began to change at the beginning of the 1960s. Coverage of the sport in La Opinion, a Spanish-language Los Angeles-based newspaper, reflects these changes. During the 1940s and 1950s the paper’s cursory coverage of futbol tended to focus on international competitions, such as professional leagues in Mexico, Latin America, Europe, and the Copa del Mundo. The majority of ink in U.S. papers was dedicated to American football, baseball, and boxing, yet in the 1960s they started writing about the soccer leagues in Southern California, as well as listing games and reporting scores between teams with names like Tepatitlán, Michoacán, Marte, Imperio, Oro, Atlas, and San Bernardino.[16] By 1976, it not only reflected on the history of these leagues and their contribution to California culture, but lauded the efforts and achievements of migrant futboleros and U.S.-born Mexicans who made it onto Southern California’s college teams and into the professional ranks of U.S. soccer.

As the California Polytechnic State University students shuffled in their seats during that evening, Fall 2017, Aurelio sat quietly and intently looking down onto the field. His eyes carefully observed each team’s movements and formations, as well as his grandson’s vital place within this intricate system. As I sat next to Aurelio and his family, I thought of a young Aurelio sitting on top of a maize pyramid watching Mexican players do battle on a dirt pitch. I tried to imagine La Experiencia’s soccer pitch in the 1940s, the Estadio Jalisco during the 1970 World Cup, the humble fields of the San Gabriel Valley during the 1970s, and those of Whitter Narrows of the 1980s. Like other migrant futboleros of his generation, Aurelio formed part of a transnational soccer community that connected the history of the game in Mexico to its growth in the United States. They form a vital, if often ignored, part of the United States’s soccer history and roots. As the world prepares for the 2018 World Cup, it would behoove us to think about how we might celebrate and integrate the United States’s migrant soccer communities into U.S. soccer.

Soccer-4

Aurelio’s son Juan Sánchez. Anaheim Splash of Continental Indoor Soccer League (CISL).


Notes

 * An earlier version of this paper was presented at Harvard and Simon’s College’s conference, “Reinforcing, Crossing, and Transcending Borders: Soccer in a Globalized World,” Athens, Greece, 4-7 September 2017. The author would like to thank José Alamillo and the anonymous reviewer for their feedback and suggestions and the Sánchez family for sharing their personal archive.

[1] For a more detailed history of futbol in Mexico see Javier Bañuelos Rentería, Cronicas del futbol mexicano, vol. 1 Balón a tierra (1896-1932) (Mexico City: Editorial Clio, 1998); Joshua H. Nadel, Fútbol! Why Soccer Matters in Latin America (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2017); Juan Javier Pescador, “Los Heroes del Domingo: Soccer, Borders, and Social Spaces in Great Lakes Mexican Communities, 1940-1970,” in Mexican Americans and Sports: A Reader on Athletics and Barrio Life, ed. Jorge Iber and Samuel O. Regalado (College Station:  Texas A&M University Press, 2007).

[2] To reconstruct the history of Club Imperio I use two main sources: An oral history with Aurelio Sánchez conducted on 10 August 2017; and the following book: Enrique Francisco Camarena, Club Imperio: Treinta años de deporte en la Experiencia, Jalisco, México, Tomo II: Historia General de la vida religiosa, social, artistica y deportiva del lugar (Guadalajara, Jalisco: Talleres Grafica, 1948).

[3] Robust literature exists on Mexican nation-state formation. Gilbert M. Joseph and Daniel Nugent, eds, Everyday Forms of State Formation: Revolution and Negotiation of Rule in Modern Mexico (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994); Gilbert M. Joseph, Anne Rubenstein, and Eric Zolov, eds, Fragments of a Golden Age: The Politics of Culture in Mexico Since 1940 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001); Mary Kay Vaughan and Stephen E. Lewis, eds, The Eagle and the Virgin: Nation and Cultural Revolution in Mexico, 1920-1940 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006).

[4] Translation by author. Cited in Dafne Cruz Porchini’s “Formando el cuerpo de la nación: el imaginario del deporte en el México posrevolucionarios (1920-1940),” in El Deporte en el México Posrevolucionario (1920-1940): Formando el cuerpo de una nación, ed. María Monserrat Sánchez Soler (México: Consejo nacional para la cultura, Instituto nacional de bellas artes, Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo, 2012) “un element primordial para formar una patria integrada por hombres sanos, viriles y entusiastas…. Se alcanzará sin duda alguna encarnar el arquetipo del hombre del porvernir, fuerte de músculos y sano de espíritu. El deportee s una religion salvadora de los tentáculos del vicio y la maldad, y creadora del carácter y fortaleza de un pueblo.”

[5] Joseph L. Arbena, “Sport, Development, and Mexican Nationalism, 1920-1970,” Journal of Sport History 18 (1991): 350-64.

[6] The National Revolutionary Games included approximately twenty-three different athletic competitions. This included basketball, baseball, boxing, charreria, tennis, golf, polo, volleyball, swimming, futbol, and more. See Memoria de los juegos deportivos nacionales de la revolucion (México: Secretaria de Educación Pública, Oficina de Prensa la Dirección Nacional de Educación Física).

[7] Aurelio Sánchez, interviewed by Romeo Guzmán, 10 August 2017, California State University, Fresno, “Valley Public History: Preserving our Stories.”

[8] Pierre Lanfranchi and Matthew Taylor, Moving with the Ball: The Migration of Professional Footballers (New York: Berg, 2001).

[9] The distance between La Piedad and La Experiencia is approximately 105 miles. Today’s commute by car is about two hours.

[10] I am not sure what type of Visa Atlas, as a sports club, was able to obtain. It might have been a H-1 Visa. Before 1990 foreign athletes applied for the H-1 Visa with “no intention of abandoning residence in their native countries” and required to be of “distinguished merit and ability” and performing a job for which no qualified American was available. See Amy Worden, “Gaining Entry: The New O and P Categories for Nonimmigrant Alien Athletes,” Marquette Sports Law Review 9 (1999): 467-94.

[11] Douglas Massey and Karen A. Pren, “Unitended Consequences of US Immigration Policy: Explaining the Post-1965 Surge from Latin America,” Population and Development Review 38 (2012): 1-29.

[12] Betsy Guzmán. “The Hispanic Population,” Census 2000 Brief, May 2000 (U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration), https://www.census.gov/prod/2001pubs/c2kbr01-3.pdf.

[13] Ethnographic studies on Mexican and Latino/a soccer clubs, illustrate how sport becomes a “third space.” See Marie Price and Courtney Withworth, “Soccer and Latino Cultural Space: Metropolitan Washington Fútbol Leagues,” in Hispanic spaces, Latino places: Community and Cultural Diversity in Contemporary America, ed. Daniel D. Arreola (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004).

[14] Alfonso Arias, “Recordando a los impulsores del futbol en Los Angeles,” La Opinion, 16 September 1976.

[15] See Juan Javier Pescador, “Los Heroes del Domingo: Soccer, Borders, and Social Spaces in Great Lakes Mexican Communities, 1940-1970,” in Mexican Americans and Sports: A Reader on Atheltics and Barrio Life, ed. Jorge Iber and Samuel O. Regalado (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2007).

[16] For more on Mexicans and Latino/as impact on soccer in the United States see Ingrid Kummels, “Adiós soccer, here comes fútbol!: La transnacionalización de comunidades deportivas mexicanas en los Estados Unidos,” Iberoamericana, Nueva época 7 (September 2007): 101-116; David Trouille, “Association Football to Fútbol: ethnic succession and the history of Chicago-area soccer since 1920,” Soccer & Society 10 (November 2009): 795-822; Leonard Melchor, “Mexicans in Four Images: Cinema, Self and Soccer in the Creation of Real and Imagined Mexicans,” unpublished PhD dissertation (Los Angeles: UCLA, 2014).

 

Romeo Guzmán is an assistant professor in U.S. and Public History at Fresno State, where he directs the Valley Public History Initiative. He received his Ph.D. in Latin American history from Columbia University. Guzmán is the co-director of the South El Monte Arts Posse. For more please visit romeoguzman.com.

Copyright: © 2018 Romeo Guzmán. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Articles

Not Quite in California

sarah_rural2

Sarah G. Grant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah_departure

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Copyright: © 2018 Sarah G. Grant. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.