Taken at LBC College childcare center when Oakley was president. He’d visit students and ask them what they wanted to be.
Eloy Ortiz Oakley
Growing up in the Florence-Firestone area of South Los Angeles in the mid-1970s and early 1980s, I didn’t hear a lot of talk about Dreamers or undocumented students. In a community that was 86 percent Latino and 13 percent African-American, and where less than 2.5 percent of residents had earned a bachelor’s degree, most of the focus was on running from Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies, la Migra, or a gang fight. Everyone just did their best to survive. There was talk about who had a green card or who was a “wetback,” but no one really cared. Everyone was family, except, of course, the Sheriff or la Migra. My family was typical. My dad was a U.S. citizen from Texas who was schooled in Mexico, and my mom immigrated from Mexico with her three sisters. I had uncles and family friends who ran the gamut when it came to immigration status. The one thing that everyone had in common, in addition looking for any excuse to hold a barbeque, was that they all came to California to make a better life for their children and loved ones. Although the Florence-Firestone neighborhood was hardly Mayberry, it was better than what everyone had left behind. It was California.
It wasn’t until the days of Governor Pete Wilson that I ever felt uncomfortable about being a Mexican-American, or growing up with family and friends who were suddenly considered “aliens” bad for California. It was a confusing time, and it forced many children of immigrants like myself to reconcile what it meant to be the son of an immigrant with being a native Californian. Ironically, as a member of the University of California Board of Regents, I visit that past every time I walk into a board meeting and think about how one former regent who served in the 1990s helped shape a negative attitude toward students who shared my heritage. That past, in fact, shapes my service as a Regent today.
Although California survived that period, there remains haunting shadows of that past which are clearly visible in this new Trump era, an era in which a growing number of anti-immigration sentiment, much of which is based not on facts but on emotion, is taking hold. Sadly, such sentiment ignores the facts—that our undocumented immigrants are critical to our economy, are serving in our military to protect our freedoms, and are working hard to become our future leaders. They are hardly a drain on society. In California alone, the state’s estimated 2.7 million undocumented immigrants are paying an estimated $3 billion in taxes each year, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.
According to the Libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, those who have been accepted into the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program are an average age of 22 and are employed. Most are still in school. Nearly 1 in 5 are seeking an advanced degree. And in California, the number of DACA recipients enrolled in colleges and universities stands at more than 72,000, which means that nearly one-third of all DACA recipients in the state are in the process of earning a college degree or certificate.
What’s more, because they are better educated and are among our most productive workers, deporting the estimated 750,000 DACA recipients nationwide would cost the federal government $60 billion, along with $280 billion in losses to the U.S. economy over 10 years.
The memories of my experiences with anti-immigrant rhetoric remind me every day of the importance to make clear to the undocumented students in the California Community Colleges system that they are welcomed and valued. They need to know that just as California survived Propositions 187 and 209, they will survive the nonsense of “the wall.” The Dreamers in our colleges today are hungry to give back, to make our state even greater, and to raise their families in the light of the California Dream. Our colleges give first, second, and third chances to all Californians, and because of the struggles of all our students, including Dreamers, our communities are better places to live.
Human potential is everywhere throughout our state. Potential does not recognize residency or legal status. For many, coming to California was not a choice they themselves made. And capturing their potential is key to our future. Within our communities resides the next scientist who will find a cure for cancer, the next transformational artist, the next Steve Jobs, or the next governor of California. Why wouldn’t we educate and cultivate the potential of every resident in California?
I am privileged to serve in a system of higher education that believes in this potential and that proudly proclaims that we serve the top 100 percent of students in California regardless or immigration status, skin color, religion, or how or whom they love. California community colleges are the gateway to a higher education for the majority of people in our state and serve as the state’s engine of economic mobility. That is why our colleges are so important to the future of all Californians and why the future of California is so closely tied to our ability to capture the potential of all our students.
Eloy Ortiz Oakley has served as Chancellor for the California Community Colleges since 19 December 2016. Before this, he served as the Superintendent-President of the Long Beach Community College District from 2007, where he led one of the most diverse community colleges in the nation and provided statewide and national leadership on the issue of improving the education outcomes of historically underrepresented students. For his efforts, the James Irvine Foundation recognized him with their 2014 Leadership Award. In 2014, Governor Brown appointed Oakley to the University of California Board of Regents and in November 2016, President Obama recognized him as a White House Champion of Change for his work promoting and supporting the national college promise movement.
Immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, are unquestionably members of our communities across the United States. Currently, roughly eleven million undocumented immigrants live and work in this country. Employers demand their labor, and immigrants want the work. Nonetheless, the people of United States have long been ambivalent about immigrants. Even in California, now viewed as a pro-immigrant bastion, more attention historically was given to reduce the immigrant population rather than to facilitate the integration of immigrants into American social life.
Consider one stunning example. California voters in 1994 by a 2-1 margin passed an immigration milestone, Proposition 187, known by its supporters as the “Save our State” initiative. The initiative would have banned undocumented students from public schools, required police to report undocumented immigrants to federal authorities, and denied undocumented immigrants access to nearly every state public benefit programs. The California legislature subsequently passed a series of laws of the same ilk, including a particularly noxious one that prohibited the issuance of driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants (even though there was no evidence of any safety or security problems with the state’s long history of licensing—and safety-testing—undocumented drivers).
With its widely publicized Proposition 187, California unfortunately proved to be a trendsetter for the nation. Following the initiative’s lead, Congress’ 1996 welfare reform legislation stripped many legal immigrants of federal public benefits. More than a decade later, a number of other states, including Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, and South Carolina, passed tough immigration enforcement laws that were, in important respects, similar to Proposition 187.
As Bob Dylan famously said: the times, they are a changing’. Indeed, we are witnessing nothing less than a sea change in state and local policy directed at immigrants in the United States and California again is at the forefront. However, the current trajectory in sub-federal immigration policy—pro-immigrant integration, not pro-immigration enforcement—is dramatically different than it was in the heyday of Proposition 187. Ironically enough, the nation has President Donald Trump, an immigration hawk like no other, to thank.
California’s Changed Responses to Immigrants
Responding to Trump: California Seeks to Promote Immigrant Integration
As promised in the 2016 campaign, President Trump from his first days in office pursued aggressive immigration enforcement measures, ranging from executive orders banning travel from predominantly Muslim nations to mass deportations to announcing steps toward building a wall along the U.S./Mexico border and threats of even greater enforcement efforts. Those steps provoked an immediate and inspired response from many state and local governments—and especially from California. Governor Jerry Brown, Attorney General Xavier Becerra, and Senate President pro Tem Kevin de Leon, led the opposition to the Trump administration’s call for ever-greater immigration enforcement. The resistance has been fueled in no small part by the growing awareness among California lawmakers of the need for increased legal protections for immigrants, among the state’s most vulnerable residents, from the Trump immigration onslaught. The reaction is rooted in notions of fundamental fairness and the firm belief that the aggressive immigration enforcement agenda embraced by the Trump administration threatens to tear families apart, harm communities, and sow widespread human misery, all in the name of “enforcing the law.”
The reaction is rooted in notions of fundamental fairness and the firm belief that the aggressive immigration enforcement agenda embraced by the Trump administration threatens to tear families apart, harm communities, and sow widespread human misery, all in the name of “enforcing the law.”
Abandoning the punitive approach toward immigrants exemplified by Proposition 187, California for more than a decade has been at the forefront of taking steps to more fully integrate undocumented immigrant residents into the social fabric. Consider just a few contemporary examples. In 2001, the California legislature passed Assembly Bill (AB) 540, a path-breaking law that allows undocumented immigrants to pay in-state fees at California community colleges and universities. This law, which represents a meaningful step toward greater educational access for all residents, commenced a trend among the states. Several years later, the legislature went further and passed the California DREAM Act, which made undocumented college students eligible for state scholarships to help them pay for their education.
Not limiting its efforts to higher education, the California legislature took a number of other steps to promote the integration of the state’s immigrant population. Seeking to facilitate the trust of immigrants in local police officers (who, in turn, need the cooperation of immigrants, and all members of the community, to most effectively protect the public safety), the legislature in 2013 passed the TRUST Act, which restricts state and local cooperation with federal immigration enforcement authorities. Among other things, it prohibits the detention of immigrants longer than required by law so that federal officers can, if they so desire, take the noncitizens into custody. The TRUST Act represented a response to the U.S. government’s hyper-aggressive Secure Communities program, which greatly expanded the criminal justice removal pipeline for immigrants who had minor (as well serious) brushes with the law and directly resulted in the deportation of hundreds of thousands of people a year. In addition, after considerable debate and years of grassroots activism, the California legislature restored driver’s license eligibility for undocumented immigrants, a significant practical step toward allowing undocumented immigrants to participate more fully in economic and social life, reducing fears of removal due to something as mundane and ordinary as operating a motor vehicle. Showing just how far the state had come from the dark days of Proposition 187, the California Supreme Court in 2014 ruled that a California law allowed undocumented immigrants to be licensed to practice law.
In response to the Trump administration’s strident immigration enforcement agenda, the California legislature is active about taking steps to restrict state and local cooperation with federal immigration enforcement. Indeed, the legislature sought nothing less than to declare California to be a “sanctuary state,” a bill (SB 54) that Governor Jerry Brown signed 5 October 2017, which takes effect January 2018.
Other state and local efforts to facilitate the integration of immigrants into civil society, which are wholly consistent with federal law, might include, but are not limited to the following:
Pursuing additional policies that encourage the cooperation of immigrants with criminal law enforcement authorities;
Ensuring adequate access to English-as-second-language programs so that immigrants are better able to acquire English language skills and better assimilate into U.S. society;
Providing that immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, are generally eligible for state and local licenses necessary to engage in certain professions and occupations (from building contractors to hair dressers) and more fully participate in the American economy; and
Making noncitizens eligible for public benefits programs that are part of the economic safety net for other residents.
Recent years have seen the emergence of tensions between the federal, state, and local governments about immigration enforcement and immigration policy. While state and local governments increasingly seek to protect their immigrant residents, President Trump has disparaged many of those state and local efforts as “sanctuary” policies that undermine the enforcement of U.S. immigration law. His administration has gone so far as to threaten to eliminate federal funding to “sanctuary cities.”
We should not forget that state and local governments play important roles in ensuring the inclusion of all residents, including immigrants. Such efforts include steps by state and local governments to promote immigrant integration. State and local measures that move us toward a society in which immigrants are full members of the community, not marginalized peoples living in the shadows, deserve support and encouragement. The Trump administration unfortunately attacks, disparages, and derides those laws and policies.
Why California’s Immigration Turnaround?—The Response to Proposition 187
One might wonder on the issue of immigration policy from 1994 to 2017 what explains the stark political turnaround in California. The short answer is that Proposition 187 changed everything.
First of all, passage of the anti-immigrant milestone spurred a generation of engaged political activism. In Proposition 187’s wake, naturalization rates for immigrants spiked and hundreds of thousands of immigrants became newly-minted U.S. citizens (and part of the electorate). In turn, increasing numbers of Latina/o citizens voted, including recently naturalized ones. Not surprisingly, the number of Latina/o elected to the California legislature grew significantly and Republican legislators slowly but surely dwindled in numbers. The legislature’s racial and political composition changed with the election of increasing numbers of Latina/os and Democrats came to dominate the legislature. In fact, California Pete Wilson, who won re-election largely due to his ardent support for Proposition 187, was later effectively exiled, as it were, from California politics, having forever alienated the growing Latina/o electorate.
When all was said and done Proposition 187 dramatically changed the trajectory of California law and policy toward immigrants, as well as the state’s entire political landscape. One can only wonder whether President Trump’s immigration enforcement priorities might ultimately result in a similar political reaction on a national scale.
Providing Counsel to Immigrants Facing Removal
The specter of greatly increased removal efforts by the Trump administration has provoked great fear in immigrant communities. The “Trump effect” has led states and local governments to adopt laws and policies that protect immigrant members of communities and promote their integration. Some state and local governments have looked to provide the most fundamental protection for immigrants resisting removal—ensuring access to legal representation.
Having campaigned on a platform that included tough immigration enforcement, Donald Trump did not surprise most Americans when soon after his inauguration he announced aggressive immigration enforcement measures, including four executive orders on immigration in his first three months in office. States have taken a number of measures intended to moderate the adverse impacts of those tough policies. More are under consideration, including proposals to provide greater access to counsel to immigrants facing removal from the United States.
Unlike the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of counsel to criminal defendants, the U.S immigration laws fail to ensure that immigrants, legal and undocumented, have an attorney in removal proceedings, which are classified as civil in nature. Similar to the movement in the twentieth century to ensure that indigent criminal defendants are provided with attorneys, an organized movement has emerged to ensure legal representation for all immigrants facing removal from the United States.
Guaranteed representation for immigrants facing removal is only fair. As the Supreme Court has emphasized, a deportation hearing can “result in the loss of all that makes life worth living.” That alone suggests the great need for guaranteed representation for immigrants facing deportation. Moreover, the nature of the U.S. immigration laws, which are rivaled for complexity only by the Internal Revenue Code, makes an attorney essential. In addition, the vast majority of immigrants, due to language and culture differences, cannot reasonably be expected to fully comprehend the many nuances, legal and otherwise, of the removal process.
The bottom line is that, absent legal representation, an immigrant facing removal faces nearly insurmountable odds in staving off deportation. Not surprisingly, the available evidence in fact demonstrates that represented immigrants successfully resist removal at much higher rates than unrepresented immigrants.
Scholars for years have argued for guaranteeing counsel to immigrants facing removal from the United States. In direct response to the Trump administration’s tough immigration stances, state and local governments in growing numbers are beginning to allocate funds for attorneys to represent immigrants facing removal. For example, the California budget approved in 2017 provides $15 million to help secure counsel for immigrants facing deportation.
One Model: The University of California’s Immigrant Legal Services Center
For several years running, the Obama administration set records by removing some 400,000 immigrants a year. Young undocumented immigrants were among the immigrants caught in the crossfire.
To begin addressing pressing immigrant student needs, the University of California (UC) in 2015 created a form of student services never before seen in higher education. In establishing the UC Undocumented Legal Services Center (later renamed the UC Immigrant Legal Services Center), the University demonstrated how it can serve all students—including immigrants—and the greater community of the state of California.
Created by UC President Janet Napolitano, former Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security who was responsible for enforcement of the U.S. immigration laws, the Immigrant Legal Services Center serves the unique legal needs of undocumented students and their parents. Housed at the UC Davis School of Law, home of a well-established Immigration Law Clinic as well as a group of influential immigration law scholars, the Center provides legal services to undocumented students and their families on the UC campuses at Irvine, Merced, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and Santa Cruz. (The only other UC campus, UC Berkeley, has its own legal assistance program for immigrants.)
One critically important feature of the center’s representation warrants explanation. The idea behind extending services to the parents of undocumented UC students involves a well-researched common sense phenomenon: students are in a significantly better position to succeed academically if they do not fear that their parents are at risk of removal.
The Center has plenty of potential clients, with more coming in with every new entering class. Several hundred undocumented students are enrolled at each of the campuses of the University of California system. Many of them are from Mexico or Central America. However, the University has undocumented students literally from around the world, including Asia, Africa, and Europe.
The efforts of the UC Immigrant Legal Services Center immeasurably benefit undocumented students and their families. Many of the students are eligible for relief under the U.S. immigration laws that stabilize their daily lives and, as a result, help to improve their academic success.
At the time that the Center was founded, attorneys expected to focus on assisting students with applications for relief under the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which was originally created in 2012 and dismantled by President Trump in 2017. However, the legal work proved to be much more varied than initially anticipated. Some students and their family members are eligible for immigrant visas as well as citizenship. They need legal help to identify the potential ways of regularizing their immigration status and to navigate the complex, and often lengthy, bureaucratic process. Many students understandably want to regularize their immigration status so they are able to come and go from the United States and thus can participate in study abroad programs just like many other college students do. Some students are eligible for various forms of relief from removal under the U.S. immigration laws but need legal assistance to identify and collect the information necessary to make their case.
The Quest for Justice for All (Including Immigrants)
As with the efforts to provide legal representation, state and local governments must focus on how to best address the needs of all residents, including immigrants, and strive to ensure that immigrants are treated as full members of society. One important way to do so is provide attorneys to represent immigrants facing removal from the United States. As has been discussed, state and local governments are making efforts to do so. California has been at the forefront of the movement but the state of New York and many cities, including Austin, Baltimore, Chicago, New York City, and Washington D.C., as well as Sacramento, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, have already taken steps to assisting immigrant residents secure representation.
Through measures to help ensure counsel for all immigrants facing deportation, we see public support for a more procedurally fair and legitimate system—and one consistent with the ideal of “justice for all.” Through providing legal representation and taking other measures to protect immigrant residents, state and local governments are pursuing their proper role of facilitating the integration of immigrants into civil society. In the past, popular immigration enforcement laws, such as Proposition 187 and Arizona’s infamous SB 1070 that the Supreme Court invalidated in large part, which made state and local police central to immigrant enforcement, had the opposite effect. Far from promoting immigrant integration, these laws have de-stabilized immigrant communities and marginalized, not integrated, significant numbers of state and local residents.
Through measures to help ensure counsel for all immigrants facing deportation, we see public support for a more procedurally fair and legitimate system—and one consistent with the ideal of “justice for all.”
Lawyers unquestionably can help to protect the rights of immigrants. Other state and local immigrant integration measures can as well. In pursuing such measures, California hopefully can provide guidance to the nation and encourage other state and local governments to pursue immigrant integration strategies.
In the long run, however, state and local governments can only do so much to reduce the harsh impacts of the U.S. immigration laws on immigrants. Fundamental change to those laws is necessary to bring full justice to immigrants. To that end, Congress at some point must overhaul the antiquated Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, which was forged at the height of the Cold War and is not well-suited to addressing the nation’s 21st century immigration needs. In such comprehensive reform efforts, the labor needs of the United States and the precarious status of undocumented immigrants living here will need to be addressed.
 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, Pub. L. No. 104-193, 110 Stat. 2105.
 The immigration enforcement laws of these other states suffered the same fate as Proposition 187: the courts struck them down. See, for example Arizona v. United States, 567 U.S. 387 (2012); United States v. South Carolina, 720 F.3d 518 (4th Cir. 2013); United States v. Alabama, 691 F.3d 1269 (11th Cir. 2012); Georgia Latino Alliance v. Human Rights v. Deal, 691 F.3d 1250 (11th Cir. 2012).
 California Assembly Bill 540, Cal. Legis. 2000-01 (codified at Cal. Ed. Code § 68130.5).
 California Assembly Bills 130, 131, Cal. Legis. 2010-11.
 California Assembly Bill 4, 2013 Cal. Stat 4650 (codified at Cal. Gov’t Code §§ 7282-7282.5).
 Due to state and local resistance to the impacts of Secure Communities, President Obama discontinued that program in November 2014; President Trump, however, reactivated it in January 2017. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Secure Communities, available http://www.ice.gov/secure-communities.
 Immigration and Nationality Act § 292, 8 U.S.C. § 1362 (providing that noncitizens can be represented in removal proceedings “at no expense to the Government”).
 Bridges v. Wixon, 326 U.S. 135, 147 (1945) (citation omitted) (emphasis added).
 Ingrid V. Eagly and Steven Shafer, “A National Study of Access to Counsel in Immigration Court,” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 164 (2015): 1.
 See, for example, Kevin R. Johnson, “An Immigration Gideon for Lawful Permanent Residents,” Yale Law Journal 122 (2013): 2394; Mark Nofieri, “Cascading Constitutional Deprivation: The Right to Be Appointed Counsel for Mandatorily Detained Immigrants Pending Removal Proceedings,” Michigan Journal of Race and Law 18 (2012): 63
 Jennifer M. Chacón, “Privatized Immigration Enforcement,” Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review 52 (2017): 1, 6 (noting that “some states and localities with large numbers of noncitizen residents have begun to provide funding for immigrant representation”).
 For a discussion of the creation of the clinic and its pedagogical and social justice goals, see Kevin R. Johnson and Amagda Pérez, “Clinical Legal Education and the U.C. Davis Immigration Law Clinic: Putting Theory into Practice and Practice into Theory,” SMU Law Review 51(1998): 1423.
 Arizona v. United States, 567 U.S. 387 (2012).
Kevin R. Johnson is Dean and Mabie-Apallas Professor of Public Interest, Law and Chicana/o Studies at the University of California, Davis School of Law. Quoted regularly by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and other national and international news outlets, he studied at Harvard Law School where he served as an editor of the Harvard Law Review. His book, Immigration Law and the US-Mexico Border (2011), received the Latino Literacy Now’s International Latino Book Awards award for Best Reference Book, and he blogs at ImmigrationProf and as a regular contributor on immigration on SCOTUSblog.
We were all undocumented once, if you like to think of things this way. With no paper, none to be possessed, owned, or laid claim to so as to build upon, capitalist-style. Of course, this erstwhile situation assumes that agency (the stuff giving evidence that one has a will), cognition, and personal resolve have something to do with the matter of being documented or not; yet they don’t really, or they didn’t then, once upon a time.
The powerful forces operating on us were bigger than us, than our parents, than any state government. Our once undocumented state, however, once suggested something about the integrity of our humanity and life; like it is now, our lives were contingent, derivative by nature—life from life, and sometimes from love, even though we had no papers. But in today’s debate, life, especially the barest kind, doesn’t factor into the conversation, nor does love. The humanity doesn’t matter, nor do the stories, nor the lives. Just proper documents.
What is a document? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the English term comes from a combination of Old French document, denoting “lesson, written evidence” from the 12th–13th c., and the Latin noun documentum, meaning “lesson, proof, instance, specimen,” or else a written instrument, a charter, or an official paper in medieval Latin. The Latin verb docēre, meaning “to teach,” suggests something of a didactic function inherent in the term, whatever relationship the term might have to a similar-sounding dokimazō from the ancient Greek, or perhaps even dikaioō, suggesting a legal cause of doing or showing justice, related to a favorable verdict or vindication.
In the English usage, which has come down largely into the U.S. consciousness today, the term ‘document’ signifies teaching, instruction, warning, or else, “An instruction, a piece of instruction, a lesson; an admonition, a warning.” These definitions give way to a use with no less commanding function, but with an increasingly penal potential: “That which serves to show, point out, or prove something; evidence, proof,” often taking the subordinate clause—a document of birth, a document of citizenship, of acceptance, etc. without which one simply cannot show, point out, or otherwise prove what might be needed to support his/her status for personal well-being.
The noun is also used for “Something written, inscribed, etc., which furnishes evidence or information upon any subject, as a manuscript, title-deed, tomb-stone, coin, picture, etc., and specifically, “The bill of lading and policy of insurance handed over as collateral security for a foreign bill of exchange.” The definition in English increasingly points out transaction and property, and thus with regard to persons: propertied people, or people as property, belonging somewhat and in some way to whatever entity issued a person their essential documents.
Again, once upon a time it was not so—there were no documents of this kind to be spoken of in the ancient world. The rhythms and ordered systems of reality were different. The inception of these things, like writing in the history of civilization, came in sometime around 3,200 B.C. with the Sumerian society, which had increased to such size that a new methods of accounting appeared to better dictate relationships in the ancient world, organizing what sociologists today would call class or estate. Rulers in the early states were seen as ‘parents’ of their subjects, and this practice of writing or documenting things “emerged first as a way of accounting and power.” Knowledge of things could be stored more accurately than with earlier forms of oral transmission, in turn giving way to writing systems. The first of these to emerge in Mesoamerica (c. 600 B.C.) came from Southern Mexico. Bureaucracy mounted through the process, especially as the divide of social classes increased with the scribal and ruling elite at the top and everyone else at the bottom—i.e., those who owed things. Yet before this, once upon a time, there was no state agency’s orderly account of things denoting with some finality what was owed or given, nor a written debt to someone or something. The earliest writing arose with this, though, on documents that established code or law.
If the above notion were all there were, then everyone is both documented and undocumented in various ways. We owe things, and are all owed things in this complicated bureaucratic system of states and state-governed bodies. But the state is not only comprised of people collectively as a body politic; the systems are also created by the people and, perhaps in our wildest dreams, even somehow for the people. Moreover, in a fundamental sense, the state simply is people and a way of people existing together.
But the state is not only comprised of people collectively as a body politic; the systems are also created by the people and, perhaps in our wildest dreams, even somehow for the people.
On a basic level, then, there are always things that we don’t belong to: particular clubs, or institutions, or organizations, or parties; sometimes this is designated by individual agency and choice, other times these things are chosen for individuals who have little to no choice in the matter. Everyone doesn’t have every particular document, and are thus left excluded from certain things, generally reflecting class and segregation, as well as religion and race. Documents are an important way of denoting this, which can also be imprisoning, excluding, or else including in different categories.
But when do humans become ‘illegal’ or ‘outlawed’? It depends.
These things really are a moving target that we’re trying to highlight with the intellectual underpinnings of what we’re trying to discuss in addressing the issue of “Undocumented California,” and the manifold arbitrary inconsistencies that our government and culture use to legitimate dominant ideologies and institutions.
The Library of Congress has continued to use the term “illegal aliens” and “alien detention centers.” The term “illegal aliens” is also used by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, especially in the recent statement from acting director Tom Homan in response to California’s SB54, declaring California a sanctuary state. But to declare individuals here illegally is not a matter that California’s governing authorities are quick to choose. Labeling and name-calling is something we’d rather leave to what our parents gave us. Immigration of any kind is always a great risk, taken with great hope, and great dreams—dreams that Californians value deeply as part of their identity. Illegal, then, is not a term we will use for Californians who choose to make their lives here.
Who would we be, should we create a kind of second-class citizen for a human being who is present in all astonishing wonder and humanness? Who would we be to create the underclass, and be happy with it, reinforcing the notion with media that underpins our identity (legal?) even if it disregards that of others?
The Associated Press recently gave a glimpse of a possible change in tone in a piece they published referring to, “undocumented citizens,” a designation fitting enough for those committed to contributing to our shared society and common good. The term used, however, was rescinded the very next day. The matter seemed to have not been entirely different from a hyper-sensitivity that the previous executive administration had together with Congress for very carefully enacting things like DACA in 2012, the cessation of which was announced by the Trump administration 5 October 2017. Both moves, however, in two different ways (from Trump and Obama administrations) showcase state power over residential subjects. Yet amid all changes that keep things consistently governmentally-controlled, with provisions doled out arbitrarily from year to year, this does not mean that cultural revolution and change cannot happen to renew our outlook.
None of this minimizes the potential existential crisis manifested in fear, destruction, loss, and seizure. One without proper documentation at any point today may be tossed swiftly to the margins, disrupting scores of lives. This is all part of the design and part of the larger story, none of which can be understood apart from the law, which in turn cannot be understood apart from worldview (or, suggestively, operative theology).
America the beautiful, the chosen, the exceptional—this vision fuels what we do with the different subjects of the U.S., most of whom will be punished at some point and in one way or another. The U.S. issues papers throughout this process to those con papeles as opposed to those sin papeles. This, too, is about power. The U.S. is not the only democracy that does this. But in this case, continuing capitalist style, the world’s elite can come anytime, especially to the coveted California: pay cash for a house, immigrate anytime. Their money will secure the documents needed.
But for those embodying any sense of the Statue of Liberty’s unfulfilled calling: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”—these aren’t really in with making America great again. But if they aren’t, then nothing is. And even yet, if America is that place of “an established culture painfully adapting itself to a new environment, and being constantly checked, confused, challenged, and overcome by new immigrations,” then in California, America’s America, to the Statue of Liberty’s call our motto is not merely “yes” and “amen”; but is always “only more so.”
We cannot pretend that this in extremis version of America that California has embodied hasn’t involved the penal documentation of the ‘other,’ which also has always been part of our narrative. The carceral undocumented are trapped in county systems, or banished to the penitentiary, or vanished into Adelanto, our private immigration detention center. For the carceral undocumented, punishment inflicted suggests the need of discipline, whatever the half-hearted determination might be from the official verdict of whether or not they truly belong. In Spanish, the rendering of Michel Foucault’s Serveiller et punir is given as not “discipline” and “punishment” as his chosen term for the English translation, but rather as Vigilar (“keep an eye on”) y castigar.
When surveilled or punished, it’s not as though forms of documentation are not involved. We document everything. While great political figures receive exile, especially the white collared ones, the less significant players are swiftly discarded. In the vigilant, punitive surveillance of the carceral state, humans were written-out with documents of exclusion, but not without punishment for having the wrong kind of documents or else none at all, relegating them for banishment. To where, it didn’t much matter, so much of which is arbitrary, affirming again ultimate state power and control, and stability for the state and its shareholders, which can be both symbolically and psychologically reinforced with a stronger, ever increasing, larger, higher, bigger border wall.
That’s not how the truest Californians roll, though. We chart a different course, collecting and affirming the world, open to far more possibilities than the world has yet seen.
How do we reenvision our California selves then, both with the undocumented, and also simultaneously as the undocumented? And what is ‘undocumented’ in the contemporary moment? This is difficult to discern. We know California’s response has not been shy to these questions, but neither are we univocal with a position. Largely in opposition to the Washington administration, our Legislature, institutional, and civic leaders have uttered many words to the effect of protection and affirmation. Have they? Will they? These things in the contemporary moment should be understood as noble, ambitious, but still aspirational, part of a dream. But dreams are worth living into, and developing, especially when looking honestly and discovering the troubling reality that the world is indeed quite troubled. For those with some modest means, will, and desire to do something about it, dreaming may be essential for survival.
The term ‘undocumented’ is quite possibly a cheap concession that, while humbly admitting “need” (need for proper documents?), also concedes: “We don’t have documents needed to remain, to abide, to be/exist.” But this is a declaration humans must not be able to make of humans. To unwrite a person, to erase, negate, subtract, to deny life—this ought not be done. It happens, and may be something, but is certainly not of California—a state of mind as much as anything—where the dreamers remain, belong, until the end of time.
It happens, and may be something, but is certainly not of California—a state of mind as much as anything—where the dreamers remain, belong, until the end of time.
Our overall position only makes sense in light of what’s possible, or at least plausible, and what we have done before to build ourselves up amid great challenges. There’s nothing new under the sun. And dreaming does not mean aspiring to a utopian society. California is surely not that, nor will it ever be. [Perhaps in fifty years Mexico may beat California to this.] But California can be a place of solidarity, mutuality, respect, dignity, and healing. We can work together, believe in each other, and re-recognize our shared humanity of wealthy and poor, and the poor in spirit—blessed as they are. And are those who mourn, and the meek, and those who hunger and thirst to be righteous (to have papers), who are merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and persecuted.
Californians—we hope, we believe, we assert, we confront, and we fight—but we don’t fear, even if disinherited. We’re not going to fall for rhetoric that divides families, disrupts classrooms, invades workspaces. And we can take the nation’s undocumented, the poor, the disinherited. Deport them to California, Joe Mathews argues. And more so.
Californians, we ourselves often forget our stories, and those of others around us—we know that more of the point is found looking to the future. Amnesia is often tacitly prescribed upon arrival. But we have memory, identity, presence, and know what it means to be human, documented or not. We know, or at least we’re trying to find time to breathe and reorient ourselves to figure out what it means in this moment to do justly, to love mercy, and walk humbly.
Perhaps the undocumented are the greatest examples of humility, and the very best of what the American (and Californian) disposition could dream to be. Maybe perceived as hiding in the shadows, laying low in order to not be found out, deported, sometimes self-deported, or else going underground, under the radar, opting not to remain in an official governmental capacity. Yet they are also activists—they are mothers, fathers, children—they are like us, but of course are second or perhaps third or fourth class citizens. But whenever did one’s official status constitute what’s real? What’s prescribed as ‘official’ does not constitute how life, culture, and love is ever made—the true, enriching stuff that makes life worth living. That stuff is hard to document in any proper sense, however we might try; but that’s what matters most, and is most needed right now.
With gratitude to Miroslava Chávez-García, Susan Straight, and Abel Fernando Vallejo Galindo, an undocumented Californian, for comments on an earlier draft of this essay.
 Luke Bretherton refers to this as “life excluded from participation in and the protection of the rule of law,” Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship, and the Politics of a Common Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 220. See also Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005).
 Meaning, “to make a critical examination of something to determine genuineness, put to the test, examine”; or “to draw a conclusion about worth on the basis of testing, prove, approve.” William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 255.
 Robert Tignor, Jeremy Adelman, Peter Brown, et al., Worlds Together, Worlds Apart, Vol. 1: Beginnings through the Fifteenth Century (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2014), 55.
 Kevin Starr identified this as a perpetual tension in California life, historically and into the present, noting particular operative racial, ethnic, and religious covenants of exclusion, as well as the long-seated enmities that various immigrant groups to California held against each other, highlighting especially the American dilemma of race as equally a California problem, although perhaps even more so. Kevin Starr, California: A History (New York: Random House, 2005), 308.
 See Hiroshi Motomura, Immigration Outside the Law (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 4-5 on complexity of terms and significance of understanding these things in relation to law. See also pp. 19-55.
 See Marc Morjé Howard, Unusually Cruel: Prisons, Punishment, and the Real American Exceptionalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).
 Jen Hofer, “Under the Radar and Off the Charts: Undocumentation in Los Angeles,” in Patricia Wakida, ed., Latitudes: An Angeleno’s Atlas (Berkeley: Heyday Books), 161.
 Wallace Stegner, “California: The Experimental Story,” Saturday Review, 23 September 1967, 28.
 Some native indigenous Californians were documented somewhat with names for tribes that became common, or with new names for captured individuals or those baptized or brought into missions. But early accounts of the turbulent and chaotic years of genocidal violence against Californian Indians left poor documentation not only as to name but also to tribal identity. See Benjamin Madley, An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873 (Newhaven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), 15. And for details listing the numbers of how many were murdered during this time period, see Appendices 1-6, pp. 363-550.
 See reasons why unauthorized migration benefits the U.S. government, Motomura, Immigration Outside the Law, 52-55.
Jason S. Sexton is visiting fellow at UC Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Religion, and visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Law and Society. He teaches at California State University, Fullerton, where he serves as Pollak Library Faculty Fellow. He is the Editor of Boom California. For more information, please visit www.jasonssexton.com.
It’s probably no exaggeration to say that the U.S. has just been through its Prop 187 moment.
Like today, the turmoil California experienced in 1994 was triggered by broad demographic change, with a special target placed on the backs of “illegal immigrants.” It was accompanied by a broad sense of economic anxiety—nearly half of the nation’s net job losses in the early 1990s were experienced in the Golden State as cutbacks in defense spending shredded our manufacturing sector. The simmering social and economic unease was exacerbated by a politician running behind in the polls and looking for a way to make his mark.
While it may all sound familiar, the point is not to rerun the tape and point to historical precedents. More useful is asking where California is nearly twenty-five years later, and how it got there. After all, the state that once sought to deny unauthorized immigrants access to a broad range of services—including non-emergency health care and even education for children—has figured out how to extend drivers’ licenses to those without legal status and provide state-financed health care to all undocumented youth.
The story of the state’s changing attitudes and policies has a lot to do with the vibrant immigrant rights’ advocacy that changed the state’s political calculus—reflected in part in the accession of Kevin De León (an organizer who cut his teeth organizing against Prop 187) to the leadership of the state Senate. Having written about that advocacy elsewhere, my focus here is on some structural factors: the passage of time, the changing nature of the undocumented community, and the increasing “normality” of unauthorized immigrants in multiple aspects of California life.
Indeed, part of what has happened in California is the sheer ubiquity of a population once considered a bit exotic and different. While numbers are hard to come by—people don’t generally offer up their status, particularly with a presidential administration hell-bent on deportation—most estimates put the number of those without legal status in California at somewhere under 3 million. That’s about a fourth of all the undocumented individuals in the nation and about seven percent of the total state population.
It may be easy to think of that sizeable population in a way more in tune to the past—that is, when the immigration flows from Mexico and Central American were surging in the 1980s and 1990s. In that era, the vast majority of the undocumented were border-crossers fleeing economic crises and civil wars. The largest share were single males who soon showed up as workers in the fields, operatives working in factories, and day laborers posted in front of the local hardware store.
But a lot has happened since a massive uptick in unauthorized migration prompted the furor that resulted in Proposition 187.
Most important is that the era of mass migration from Mexico is probably over. The reason is partly demographic: fertility rates have fallen dramatically in what has traditionally been the largest sending country to the U.S., and this is now echoing generationally in a way that has reduced a key factor pushing people northward. Meanwhile, the disruptions caused by Mexico’s embrace of free trade in the 1990s have mostly worked their way through the system and the nation’s economic growth. While not stellar by, say, Chinese standards, this has been sufficient to cause would-be migrants to rethink the opportunity structure they face.
While advocates are less likely to acknowledge this, increased border enforcement and more effective workplace verification in recent years has also played a role: it’s simply more difficult and expensive to cross and increasingly harder to secure employment once here. And while Central American migration remains a key factor—now driven partly by the gang violence that immigrants brought back from their stays in urban California—net migration from Mexico is negative and has been for several years.
As a result, several characteristics of the population have shifted. First, the undocumented population in the U.S. has declined since its peak in 2007 and has been stable since about 2009. Second, it is now likely that the bulk of the new undocumented are people who overstayed visas rather than scrambled across the Rio Grande. Third, and perhaps most significant: while about sixty percent of undocumented immigrants had been in the country for less than ten years in the mid-2000s, almost two-thirds now have lived in the U.S. for more than a decade.
As usual, these national trends are reflected strongly in the Golden State. After all, California has the nation’s most settled immigrant population in general—and it also has the highest share of state residents without legal status. Given high rates of labor force participation (and the fact that the undocumented are overwhelmingly adults), that share swells to about nine percent of the labor force. These workers are deeply embedded in key parts of the labor market, comprising a vital workforce for agriculture, retail, and low-skill service industries.
Another matter of great significance is the fact of mixed-status families: fully eight percent of all Californians live with a family member that is not documented, the highest figure for the nation. Even more dramatic: roughly seventeen to eighteen percent of children in the state have at least one undocumented parent. In Los Angeles County, adding up the undocumented and their immediate family members amounts to about a fifth of the total county population.
Put it all together—length of time in the country, key roles in the economy, the share of the state’s children, and the percent of the population touched directly and indirectly by the precarious nature of immigration status—and a simple conclusion is inescapable: these are not illegal immigrants but undocumented Californians.
Undocumented Californians are our neighbors, relatives, friends, classmates, and co-workers. They help to grow our food and take care of our elders and our kids—and they are also our class valedictorians and future professionals. And because they are increasingly unlikely to go anywhere, the state’s future depends on their progress and the progress of their children.
As a result, the state’s central task is now immigrant integration and that includes those who lack legal status. There are many reasons why this is true, including the size and stability of the population, but one of them is political: while comprehensive immigration reform seems a long way off in the era of Trump, reform with a path to legalization is all but inevitable.
After all, demography continues to march forward, something that will be recorded by the 2020 Census and reflected in the elections of that year as well. It is those 2020 elections—which will be a presidential contest in which minorities, immigrants, and the young are more likely to participate—that will, along with the Census, determine the shape of electoral boundaries for the decade to come.
So just like the Tea Party uprising of 2010 helped to shift the nation to the right (partly because of the gerrymandering it made possible), 2020 could set the nation in a different direction. And a Congress elected in those circumstances is much more likely to finally accept the basic principles of the 2013 Senate bill: tighter enforcement, higher future flows, and a path to citizenship.
Given that, the choice for California is clear: preparing our population for that future or squandering the opportunity to be ready. The state has been taking the right steps in terms of key policies, like extending in-state tuition to undocumented students, granting the right to drivers’ licenses, and generally refusing to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Political scientists Karthik Ramakrishnan and Allan Colbern have described this as a sort of “California package” that provided de facto state citizenship.
The state has been taking the right steps in terms of key policies, like extending in-state tuition to undocumented students, granting the right to drivers’ licenses, and generally refusing to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
It’s a start, but investing in the future—particularly with an eye toward future legalization—will require stepping up California’s game. Determining new ways to cultivate the habits of citizenship—perhaps by allowing non-citizen to vote in local school elections—could be important. Expanding job opportunities to stabilize parental income—perhaps by dramatically increasing English classes and providing community-based skill building that would be open to all—could be productive. Creating new avenues to earn a living without being formal employees—such as worker individual entrepreneurs and even worker collectives organized as limited liability corporations—is another part of a more innovative approach.
A defensive reaction is also in order. Because of the ways in which undocumented Californians are deeply rooted in the state’s social and economic fabric, any deportation or threatened revocation of DACA status is far more likely than in years past to disrupt a family, damage a business, or scar a community. The good news: California’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, seems eager to go after federal overreach, suing to prevent the administration from denying funds to so-called “sanctuary cities.” The better news: the State Assembly and Senate passed a bill called the “California Values Act” that has further codified the state’s decision to limit cooperation with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.
It is incumbent on California to get this right. Just as we presaged the nation with our collective melt-down about immigrants, we can hopefully show the good that happens when we combine head and heart, joining fact-based reason about the new realities of immigration with a compassionate attitude to our fellow Californians. If the demographers are right—in this case, about immigrants fanning out from the traditional gateways—what the state offers up in the way of reaction, resistance, and reform will set the tone for a country that will soon need a new and more welcoming approach.
 Manuel Pastor, State of Resistance: What California’s Dizzying Descent and Remarkable Resurgence Mean for America’s Future (New York: The New Press, 2018).
History is written in retrospect. Patterns are sought among seemingly unrelated events at the time of their occurrence. There is never just one historical narrative. Historians make choices about what events to represent and from which perspective, often to the disadvantage of people on the losing end—for example, the colonized or enslaved. Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas provides a space-time continuum for reimagining the past from the perspective of the “alienated” and the “other,” from the peoples marginalized by the powerful. The exhibition includes over thirty contemporary artists who explore interactions of science fiction and the visual arts in Latin America, the U.S., and the intergalactic beyond; collectively laying out a provocative view of arts in the Americas told in the present but with an eye toward future, alternate Americas.
Mundos Alternos is an 11,000-square-foot exhibition, with an accompanying book of the same title, presented at University of California, Riverside’s downtown UCR ARTSblock, which includes two adjacent venues: the California Museum of Photography; and the Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts. Myself and the two other co-curators, Robb Hernández and Joanna Szupinska-Myers, have brought together works from across the Americas that use science fiction to imagine new realities and alternate worlds, utopian and dystopian. The exhibition is part of The Getty’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative, which is an exploration of the global intersections of Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Southern California, with many of its seventy-plus exhibitions opening Fall 2017.
ARTSblock’s project was inspired by two facts: UCR Library’s Special Collections and Archives possesses the Eaton Science Fiction and Fantasy Collection, one of the world’s largest archive of its kind; and UCR is designated as a Hispanic-serving institution (HSI), defined by 25% or more of its student body falling within that demographic. The power of nomenclature is an important aspect of the Mundos Alternos title. The use of the word “Americas” in its subtitle was significant in order to point to a hemispheric approach in which the exhibition’s original location, the United States, is realized in a broader milieu of cross cultural connections including Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and South America.
In the exhibition, artists employ science fiction tropes in their works, most created in the last two decades, such as alternate history and time travel, organized under themes such as “Post-Industrial Americas” and “Indigenous Futurism,” suggesting diverse modes of existence and representing “alienating” ways of being in other worlds. Latin American, Latina/o, and Chicana/o science fiction is a burgeoning area of study that has gained momentum within the past ten years, with an emphasis mostly in literature and film. In light of this, our curatorial team selected artists from across the Americas (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, El Salvador, Mexico and Puerto Rico, as well as California, Florida, New Mexico, New York, Virginia, and Texas) who have created artworks that point to mundos alternos (“alternate worlds”), where self-determination and autonomy can occur in a present that is quickly becoming a past pointing to a future.
Considering that dystopia and utopia are often two polarities of a single, metaphorical world, the artists in Mundos Alternos explore equally multi-faceted issues around immigration, queer futurism, indigenous futurism, information control, the border, and so on. An underlying concept is the “alienated alien,” or the “other,” and how they reimagine themselves in a world in which they are not marginalized anymore.
Simón Vega (La Libertad, El Salvador), Tropical Mercury Capsula, 2010/ 2014, Sculptural installation (wood, aluminum, tin roofing sheets, cardboard, plastic, TV, fan, icebox, boombox, found materials; 67 x 129 inches (capsule), 118 x 236 inches (total floor installation area). Collection of the Pérez Art Museum Miama, Gift of Mario Cader-Frech and Robert Wennett.
The Eaton Collection of Science Fiction & Fantasy, UC Riverside
Before I rewrite the history of my own writing, I would like to loop back around to a major source of inspiration for Mundos Alternos and a significant resource in California for science fiction studies scholars: The Eaton Collection of Science Fiction & Fantasy.
It is one of the largest publicly accessible collections of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and utopian literature in the world, and is housed in the UC Riverside Library’s Special Collections & University Archives in the Tomás Rivera Library on the main campus. It features more than 300,000 holdings that include over 100,000 hardback and paperback books; full runs of pulp magazines; nearly 100,000 fanzines; film and visual material, including 500 shooting scripts from science fiction films; comic books, anime, and manga; and collectible ephemera and regalia, including cards, posters, pins and action figures. The Collection contains several manuscript collections of essential Southern California-based speculative fiction writers, including papers of UC Irvine physicist and science fiction writer Gregory Benford’s, and those of David Brin who wrote Uplift War and Sundiver.
Another major science fiction collection is held at the University Archives & Special Collections of California State University, Fullerton’s Pollak Library, which includes original science fiction manuscripts, books and related materials of several U.S. authors including Philip K. Dick, Frank Herbert, and Ray Bradbury. As a side note, Dick died in nearby Santa Ana, and I once made a trek to his last known address. It is the site where he supposedly received the pink beam of light from God that revealed that the Roman Empire had never ended. Additionally, The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino holds the papers of Octavia E. Butler, author of Kindred (1979), and arguably the most prominent African-American woman in the field of science fiction.
Over the years there have been periodic academic conferences of science fiction studies held in Riverside, sometimes connected directly to the Eaton Collection and other times organized by faculty like Sherryl Vint, a professor in UCR’s Media and Cultural Studies Department, who specializes in technoculture and science fiction film history.
These conferences are usually less for the fan and more for the scholar of science fiction and fantasy. Without the exuberance of Comic-Con or the World Science Fiction Convention that has been going strong for seven decades, no one dresses as their favorite Star Wars or anime character; rather, unkempt clothes and mussed hair are the scholarly fashion. Additionally, it is not a gathering spot for Hollywood’s film industry, which is one aspect of Comic-Con’s metamorphosis. Instead, it is the serious underbelly to the glitz, and a place for the absorption of true cutting-edge ideas and writing in the field of science fiction, or speculative fiction, studies.
The most recent conference at UC Riverside in 2016 was sponsored by the Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA). Its overarching theme, “Unknown Pasts/Unseen Futures,” was meant to stimulate reflection on the future of scholarship of marginalized authors and subjects. It also reflected upon how science fiction studies at UCR are challenging the genre’s canons. This is exemplified with panel papers that included titles like Cole Jack Pittman’s “Crip (Community) Futurism: Science Fiction as a Method for Analyzing Disabled Community Building, Networking, and Resource Sharing”; Joshua Odam’s “Fear of a Black Universe: Afrofuturism, Speculative Fiction, and the Black Liberatory Imagination”; Joan Haran’s “California Dreaming: Dystopian and Utopian Calls to Action in Parable of the Sower and The Fifth Sacred Thing”; and Kathryn Page-Lippsmeyer’s “Excessive Cyborging: Using Techno-Orientalism to consider Oshii Mamoru’s Ghost in the Shell: Innocence.” Additionally, the conference’s keynote speaker was author Nnedi Okorafor, writer of fantasy, science fiction, and speculative fiction, who is perhaps best known for her Binti series that entwines African culture into a future imaginary. Okorafor’s work can also be couched historically under Afrofuturism, which underpins Mundos Alternos.
Sun Ra in California and Afrofuturism
Afrofuturism uses science fiction and cyberculture in a speculative manner, just as cyber-feminism does. It is an escape from the externally imposed definition of what it means to be black (or exotically African) in Western culture, and it is a cultural rebellion drawing on techno-culture, turntables and remixes as technological and instrumental forms. By placing black man in space, out of the reach of racist stereotypes, Afrofuturism allows for a critique of both the history of the West and its techno-cultures.
The tenets of Afrofuturism became a foundation on which notions of Mundos Alternos have been built. Coined in 1994 by Mark Dery in his essay, “Black to the Future,” Afrofuturism refers to a creative and intellectual genre that emerged as a strategy to explore science fiction, fantasy, magical realism, and Pan-Africanism, perhaps best exemplified by African-American musicians such as Sun Ra and George Clinton, and writers like Ishmael Reed, Amiri Baraka, Steven Barnes, Octavia Butler, and Samuel Delany.
Space Is the Place, organized in 2016 by New York City-based Independent Curator’s International, traveled the U.S. as a group exhibition with artists’ work inspired by nostalgia and speculation about outer space. The title was taken from a 1974 science fiction film of the same name that featured Sun Ra and his Arkestra.
During the late 1960s and early ’70s, Sun Ra traveled to California and taught a course titled, “The Black Man in the Cosmos,” at UC Berkeley. The film is based, in part, on the lectures he gave there in which he articulated many nuanced views like “I’d rather a black man go to Mars… than to Africa… because it’s easier,” referring to the difficulty of a westernized African-American seeking roots back in Africa. The basic plot is that Sun Ra lands on a new planet in outer space and decides to settle African-Americans there. Seven years later, in 2013, the Studio Museum in Harlem presented The Shadows Took Shape, an interdisciplinary exhibition exploring contemporary art through the lens of Afrofuturist aesthetics. Since then, one of the exhibition’s curators, Naima J. Keith, has become the deputy director for exhibitions and programs at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles. In one of the exhibition catalogue essays, nearly twenty years after Dery, Tegan Bristow updates a definition of Afrofuturism:
Afrofuturism uses science fiction and cyberculture in a speculative manner, just as cyber-feminism does. It is an escape from the externally imposed definition of what it means to be black (or exotically African) in Western culture, and it is a cultural rebellion drawing on techno-culture, turntables and remixes as technological and instrumental forms. By placing black man in space, out of the reach of racist stereotypes, Afrofuturism allows for a critique of both the history of the West and its techno-cultures.
Afrofuturism uses science fiction and cyberculture in a speculative manner, just as cyber-feminism does. It is an escape from the externally imposed definition of what it means to be black (or exotically African) in Western culture, and it is a cultural rebellion drawing on techno-culture, turntables and remixes as technological and instrumental forms. By placing black man in space, out of the reach of racist stereotypes, Afrofuturism allows for a critique of both the history of the West and its techno-cultures.
These examples stretching between 2001 and 2015 indicate how the visual arts have historically looked at race and social difference through a lens of science fiction cultural production. Mundos Alternos proceeds from here.
As one reads the book and peruses the exhibition, we hope viewers feel like their thoughts and experience become part of proto science fiction Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges’ unbounded library, or that inklings of the Aztec empire existing on the Moon are experienced. Or perhaps participants may walk the streets of Los Angeles anew and feel moments of being part of the first Xicano science fiction novel by East L.A. born Ernest Hogan, where in Cortez on Jupiter (1990) Pablo Cortez sprays graffiti across L.A. and paints in zero gravity, all in an effort to make a masterpiece for the universe and his barrio.
Erica Bohm (Buenos Aires, Argentina), 21 works from the “Planet Stories” series, 2013, Instax Fujifilm, 12 x 11 inches each (framed). Courtesy of the artist and THE MISSION, Chicago.
How A Meteorite Inspired Twenty Years of Curating from the Cosmos
I came to the recent realization that a particular news story affected many exhibitions that I organized over the past twenty years, which touched upon outer space themes: it was the possible discovery of fossilized Martian bacterial life in 1996, based on the observation of carbonate globules in a small section of a meteorite called the Allan Hills 84001 (usually abbreviated as ALH 84001). It was found several years earlier in Allan Hills, Antarctica in 1984 by U.S. meteorite hunters, but it was not until much later that careful analysis was applied to it. In September 2017, with the opening of Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the America, I now realize the impact that the meteorite has had on my curatorial endeavors.
My first curatorial venture inspired by the Martian meteorite was Are We Touched, Identities from Outer Space (1997). It coincided with NASA’s first lander on Mars and the 50th anniversary of the reported U.F.O. crash in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. The exhibition featured a range of artists, including those fascinated by the cultural phenomenon of U.F.O.’s but would not label themselves as believers, such as Southern California artists Deborah Aschheim and Connie Samaras, to artists who felt they may have had an unexplained experience that provided inspiration for their work, but would not admit to it openly for fear of rejection. And there were also people who would not call their work “art” but rather a visual representation of an experience that they felt they did occur, like with alien abductee and artist David Huggins.
The pop cultural highlight for me was when Huggins was invited as a guest on a daytime talk show based in Los Angeles, Leeza, which is no longer in production. The artist claimed to have interbred with an extraterrestrial that he named Crescent, as she came to him only when there was a crescent moon, producing upwards of 200-plus hybrid human/extraterrestrial offspring. In 2014, a documentary was released about his alien sexual encounters, Love and Saucers: The Far Out World of David Huggins. Huggins states, “The reason why extra-terrestrials are interested in me is not because of my physical body but what’s inside—my soul.”
Are We Touched was followed by Cyborg Manifesto, or The Joy of Artifice (2001), which featured twenty-six artists who explored changes in a tech-driven age. Theorist Donna Haraway coined the first part of the title, “Cyborg Manifesto.” I found kinship with her viewpoint of the cyborg as a metaphor for discussing hybridity, whether in terms of gender issues, genetics, or cross-cultural encounters. In other words, I was less concerned with thinking of the cyborg as a humanoid robot in which human and machine merged. Rather, I was interested in the impossibility of the notion of purity.
Accordingly, I thought it possible that Martian meteorites landed on an ancient earth and provided an important element to the primordial soup that gave rise to life. So, when looking through a telescope at planet Mars, we actually see an abandoned home. In this way, any human sense of feeling pure dissolves. Once we consider ourselves apart from Earth, we are all aliens and immigrants.
In 2009, I co-organized with artist Rachel Mayeri, Intelligent Design: Interspecies Art. It was a group exhibition of twenty international artists exploring human interaction with animals through a collection of provocative video installations, photographs, paintings, and sculptures. I saw this exhibition having a further development of the desire to make contact with other sentient beings. In this case, ones already present on Earth.
Artists in the exhibition collaborated with cockroaches, pigeons, dogs, cats, ants, bears, baboons, rats, spiders, and trout, which may have been domesticated, imaginary, laboratory, modeled, or wild. Curious about the animal’s point of view, artists designed their projects as a form of conversation or inquiry about the nonhuman world. Their artwork challenged the anthropocentric perspective of the world, placing human perception on par with other animals. Inspired by Darwin, the environmental movement, and species collapse, Intelligent Design envisioned a paradigm shift in which human beings are no longer the center of the Universe.
Rigo 23 (Los Angeles), Autonomous InterGalactic Space Program, 2009—resent (ongoing). Mixed media, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and Anglim Gilbert Gallery, San Francisco.
Another paradigm shift, this time in U.S. policy, that would allow private companies to go into outer space inspired the 2013 exhibition, Free Enterprise: The Art of Citizen Space Exploration, which I co-organized with artist Marko Peljhan. Civilian space travel and space exploration represents a major political and cultural shift away from sponsorship by the federal government and toward a private enterprise model. The possibility of fulfilling the human dream to fly into space has been encouraged by a major political and cultural shift away from state-sponsored space activities, which were controlled by agencies such as NASA in the USA, JAXA in Japan and RKA in Russia, towards a private enterprise model.
Its presentation in 2013 arrived at a time when several private enterprise ventures had come to fruition. They included the successful launch in May 2012 of the Falcon 9 vehicle and the Dragon space capsule by Elon Musk’s Space X company based in Hawthorne, California, which rendezvoused with the International Space Station, the soon-to-be-completed spaceport in New Mexico that will be the launch site for Virgin Galactic’s space tourism program, and the burgeoning efforts of XCOR Aerospace, a Mojave-based company, north of Los Angeles near Edwards Air Force Base.
These developments signal that we are at a dawn of a new radical change in near-Earth space exploration. Engaging artists directly in this discussion at an early stage is extremely important: it is the technology and capital that allow for exploration, but it is the imagination and the spiritual capital that create a new state of mind open to a broader awareness of humanity and other life, both on Earth and beyond.
One of my favorite projects in Free Enterprise was by artist Richard Clar, based in northern California, which links back to my interests developed with Intelligent Design. He turned toward art-in-space in 1982 with a NASA-approved art payload for the U.S. Space Shuttle, Space Flight Dolphin (SFD). Approved by NASA, SFD was an interdisciplinary art-in-space SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project designed to be deployed in low-Earth orbit from the cargo bay of the U.S. Space Shuttle. The dolphin sculpture/satellite would have transmitted a signal modulated by dolphin “voices” that might have been detected or sensed by extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI). As the sculpture/satellite orbited the Earth, the dolphin voices would have been monitored in various museums around the world and on the Internet, providing a link between different peoples and cultures on our own planet. The project suggested that humans might first consider trying to communicate with other very intelligent beings on Earth before considering extraterrestrial communication.
Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas represents the most recent project inspired by the 1996 Martian meteorite bacteria imaginary. Perhaps it is the meteorite’s transcendent materiality—an object likely older than humankind—that has stuck with me. Mundos Alternos focuses on the materiality of being present in artists’ studios and exploring science fiction, not through literature and film, but through the uncanny presence of an art object that seems transcendent too.
Slipstream Islands of Strange Things: Building Mundos Alternos in the Americas
World building is a major element of the science fiction genre. History, geography, economics, demographics, physics, cosmology, transportation, religion, technology, food, and the culture of an imaginary world are elements under consideration by authors, filmmakers, and game makers. The test for a reader, viewer, or participant is to suspend their present-day logic so that they can feel present in a virtual future. The challenge for the maker is to reconsider ongoing tropes, like anything called “Empire” being absolutely evil; an entire world being defined as if it had one purpose, such as the desert world of Arrakis in Frank Herbert’s novel Dune (1965); and then the altogether prevalent, homogenous alien race that may populate an entire planet or galaxy. Embracing diversity is a major underlying theme of Mundos Alternos.
It is hard to say whether there is a particular genre of science-fiction fine art, per se, at least within the context of the international, contemporary art world that the Mundos Alternos artists inhabit. Here, I separate the world of the more familiar cover art, movie posters, comic books, and illustrated stories, arguing that the contemporary art-making endeavor represents a kind of science fictional process that results in a slipstream artifact, or strange thing.
Gyula Kosice, Maquette I, Maquette K, Maquette L, 1965-75, Exhibition prints. Courtesy of Kosice Museum, Buenos Aires.
“Slipstream,” a phrase coined by science fiction author Bruce Sterling and colleague Richard Dorsett in 1989, applied primarily to literature that includes elements of science fiction, also called speculative fiction, in order to create a sense of the uncanny, of weirdness in the world, of dissonance between what one thinks is real and the feeling that other layers exist beyond the senses upon which we rely. More than twenty-five years ago, Sterling wrote in the essay in which he coined the term, “It seems to me that the heart of slipstream is an attitude of peculiar aggression against ‘reality.’ These are fantasies of a kind, but not fantasies which are ‘futuristic’ or ‘beyond the fields we know.’ These books tend to sarcastically tear at the structure of ‘everyday life.’”
A recent and notable Latin American slipstream example is Junot Díaz’s novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007). Its settings range from New Jersey to the Dominican Republic, featuring a science fiction-obsessed boy who eventually dies, though the reasons for the death are ambiguous. The result of a fukú curse? The lingering vestiges of a corrupt society as result of the Dominican Republic’s former dictator, Rafael Trujillo? Or perhaps an inseparable mixture of both family, political scourges, and colonialism as filtered through the allegory of the science fiction genre?
Commenting on his falling for science fiction, Díaz said in a recent interview, “I fell for [the] genre because I desperately needed it—in my personal mythology, [the] genre helped me create an operational self. I suspect I resonated with the world-building in many of these texts because that’s precisely what I was engaged in as a young immigrant.” He then added, “Alien invasions, natives, slavery, colonies, genocide, racial system, savages, technological superiority, forerunner races and the ruins they leave behind, travel between worlds, breeding programs, superpowered whites, mechanized regimes that work humans to death, human/alien hybrids, lost worlds—all have their roots in the traumas of colonialism.”
Beatriz Cortez (Los Angeles). Memory Insertion Capsule, 2017 (in progress). Mixed media, c. 144 x 144 inches, exact dims tbd. Courtesy of the artist.
Contemporary Art as Speculative Technology
For a visual artist, the magic of their own making occurs when a preconceived notion takes a different turn during the process; leading them down a road that they could not have expected without taking the first step of manipulating materials with their hand. It is a method that intertwines haptic, optic, and cognitive processes. In regard to contemporary visual art, an artist’s methodology of process and product are inseparable from one another and therefore slipstream inherently. This slipstream aspect in visual art to which I allude is where the difference lies between it, writing, and filmmaking. There is a physical manifestation of the artist’s idea into the world—that is, it does not remain an imaginary one in a reader’s mind nor an untouchable screen image. Rather, it is a physical object that rests in a world where viewers can interact with it through touch, smell, and sound, or perhaps walk back and forth from it, around it, or through it.
Los Angeles-based art critic Jan Tumlir expressed a similar notion about the relationship between contemporary art and science fiction when he wrote about the Orange County Museum of Art’s 2007 California Biennial. He said, “The young artists on the West Coast are operating in an idiom closely linked to science-fiction.” He goes on to list some of the science fiction tropes with which they are engaged: future and alien civilizations, time travel, colonization, “the redefinition of the idea of the human in response to the other, either alien or handmade,” and so on. More specifically, he wrote that, due to the materiality of visual art, “Intensive concentration on these various artifacts is aimed at somehow ‘breaking through.’”
The emphasis on artist made physical objects, or slipstream, science fictional artifacts, is the major reason for the absence in the exhibition and book of classic visual memorabilia that one associates with the science fiction genre: book cover art, comic books, and movie posters, to name a few. This is as opposed to the unique object generated by visual artists that can exist in only one location; thus, it requires a pilgrimage to the site, such as a gallery, museum, collector’s home, public plaza, or artist studio.
A turn towards re-engagement with materiality, and its place within an increasingly screen-based cultural environment, is underscored by a recent exhibition at the Leopold Museum in Vienna, Austria. The Poetics of the Material (2016) was a group exhibition in which “contemporary art, which can be regarded as being aligned with ‘new materialism,’ attempts to give expression to the interpenetration of material phenomena and immaterial aspects of reality. The latter reveal themselves in the meaning of language or in the influence of cultural narratives on the perception of reality.”
In a sense, I have felt often, throughout the visits with artists for Mundos Alternos, that I have engaged in a type of “retro-labeling,” as described by Rachel Haywood Ferreira in her seminal book, The Emergence of Latin American Science Fiction (2011). She outlined the process towards defining a science fiction genre in Latin American literature in light of the genre’s already prescribed nature in the United States and Europe. Haywood wrote, “Although the genealogy of science fiction has been actively traced in its countries of origin since the moment Gernsback formally baptized the genre, in Latin America this process did not get underway until the late 1960s and continues today.” Initially, her process identified texts in the late 19th and 20th centuries in Latin America, primarily in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Colombia, due to the strength of publishing in those countries, where there were science fictional tendencies. The most immediate and prominent examples of retro-labeled works were the ubiquitous and highly marketed “magic realism” novels and short stories of Argentine Jorges Luis Borges’s A Universal History of Infamy (1935), Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), and Chilean Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits (1982).
In this regard, my two co-curators and I sought contemporary visual artists in Mundos Alternos who employed science fictional or slipstream thinking rather than literal science fiction elements. Driven by the theme of the show, we saw in their work, and through conversations during studio visits, that they demonstrated a commitment and influence from science fiction literature and film. The main theme that occupied them was a consideration of the future, focusing on post-colonization, labor, surveillance, environment, and hemispherical connections, viewed through the lens of art. However, what remains to be the biggest difference, and what I hope to be the contribution of this exhibition and book to the burgeoning scholarship around Latino and Latin American science fiction studies, is the effect of the material nature of visual art whose subject matter is science fictional.
Visual art exists as though a magical or a yet-to-be speculative technology has in fact manifested itself from the future into the present. They are strange objects whose message(s) are ambiguous. It requires work on the part of its viewer, who must be willing to engage with said object in order to receive meaning from it. I am not suggesting that there is a single, hidden meaning to be ascertained, but that its meaning is determined in part through a viewer’s interaction with it, as if a close encounter of the third kind, in which contact is made with alien beings, whose language we not yet know.
Meaning being determined in part by a book’s reader, for example, is a characteristically postmodern notion that accounts for paradox, unreliable narrators, and undermining the authority of the writer through metafiction techniques. However, I employ it here in order to demonstrate that this postmodern methodology can be different when dealing with strange objects versus literature and film.
Fighting for the Future
One difference between Anglo and Latino science fiction is that making it to the future is something that can’t be ignored. The future isn’t a given, it will have to be fought for. And if you don’t fight for it, you might not get there.
The artistic inclination to pastiche disparate materials and ideas together generates uncanniness through its physical manifestation. This technique creates a slipstream or science fictional effect of “cognitive estrangement,” to borrow a phrase from science fiction theorist Darko Suvin, where the material and conceptual smashups provide a platform for viewers to look at their immediate society differently. Suvin might suggest that one’s viewpoint could be shifted to the point that there is recognition of one’s oppression and therefore, with a new view of the world, begin to resist, which is the major subtext for Mundos Alternos.
To illustrate further, East L.A. born Ernest Hogan, author of the seminal Chicano science fiction novel, High Aztech (1992), wrote ten years after its publication in his blog on Latino science fiction, La Bloga, “I’ve always been more interested in science fiction as a confrontation with changing reality rather than escapism. And as a Chicano, I’m plugged into cultural influences that most science fiction writers don’t have access to.” Three years later, after participating in “A Day of Latino Science Fiction” symposium at UC Riverside, he wrote in another La Bloga post: “One difference between Anglo and Latino science fiction is that making it to the future is something that can’t be ignored. The future isn’t a given, it will have to be fought for. And if you don’t fight for it, you might not get there.”
I would add that Hogan’s use of the phrase “plugged into” is embodied, literally, by Mundos Alternos with Los Angeles-based artist Alex Rivera’s film, Sleep Dealer (2008), which finds nodes inserted into one’s body to allow Mexican workers to work in the U.S. virtually, and thus the United States get its labor, but doesn’t have to deal with their bodies. It was preceded by Rivera’s more experimental videos that featured what he called, the “cybracero,” which is a clever, techno inflected twist on the bracero program in the U.S. from1942 to 1965 which brought millions of Mexican guest workers to the U.S.
Sherryl Vint, UC Riverside professor of English, science fiction studies scholar, and Mundos Alternos research team members and contributor to this book, invited both Hogan and Rivera to UC Riverside’s campus. As organizer of “A Day of Latino Science Fiction,” she said, “Our event will foster discussion of the specific ways Latino writers negotiate science fiction’s relationship to the colonialist imagination, and its possibilities for imagining more ethnically inclusive futures.”
Rigo 23 (Los Angeles), Autonomous InterGalactic Space Program, 2009—resent (ongoing). Mixed media, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and Anglim Gilbert Gallery, San Francisco.
Accessing Gateways or Las puertas
As curators, and with the visual arts in general, it is necessary to travel in order to see the work. This is a different experience than with film or literature where one can go to the local cinema or read in the comfort of a home where, theoretically, any engaged individual would be reading or viewing the same text or image shared by others. This is not the case in the visual arts where, at least in the context of this show, the materiality of a unique, strange object requires one’s presence. This means that, as a curator, my colleagues and I had to travel to the objects’ location. Rather than being deskbound or screenbound, footwork was involved to access gateways, or las puertas, to mundos alternos.
The future is their inseparability yet, at least for the moment, the artists in this show who focus on their slipstream artworks, present islands of materiality for salvation. For those of us who have not succumbed to screen-culture completely, we may commiserate on these islands throughout the Americas and plan the next world to build where water is free and flows.
Much further south of the border, a more recent revolution in Chiapas, Mexico, was explored by Portuguese-born, Los Angeles-based artist Rigo 23. For several years, he worked with indigenous groups in Chiapas, which aim for equal rights or autonomy from the Mexican government. Rigo 23 chose to extend Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation’s (EZLN) use of poetics through workshops with the Good Government Junta of Morelia, Chiapas.
Through this art making with Rigo 23, they envisioned autonomy as having occurred already. They asked how they would then represent themselves beyond Earth, on an intergalactic level, emphasizing an indigenous, technoculture imaginary, calling their project the Autonomous InterGalactic Space Program (2012). Rigo 23 suggested that to imagine autonomy and to begin to materialize strange objects around this notion puts one on the path towards generating a new vocabulary in the present-time to be used in the future, similar to how indigenous communities in Chiapas might negotiate with the Mexican government.
In this context, Rigo 23’s cornhusk spaceship from the project, which arose from Southern Chiapas, was destined to become an interplanetary traveling vegetable that nurtured recognition of any being, whether on Earth, or elsewhere, as one who deserved freedom, justice, and equality. From an intergalactic sensibility, social justice for the indigenous in Chiapas translates to all Earthlings who become collectively indigenous in the context of encountering other beings beyond our blue dot in the solar system.
In an ART21 interview, Rigo 23 recognized the value of traveling and through his presence becoming a wormhole in which he collapsed geo-political events in order to generate kinship:
I have come to realize that, often, the further one comes from an area of intense conflict, the more likely the locals are to give you the benefit of the doubt. So, as one talks about Leonard Peltier in East Jerusalem, or about going to Palestine in Wounded Knee, links and kinships that are invisible to most manifest themselves in wonderful and affirming ways. There is a mutual recognition that one is globalized in an entirely different way.
In kinship with Rigo 23, Salvadoran-born, Los Angeles-based artist and professor of Central American studies, Beatriz Cortez, created several projects in which she aimed to enunciate a positive, future imaginary for an Indigenous population.
Guillermo Bert (Los Angeles), The Visionary, 2012; Tarn, natural dyes, wood, 82 x 52 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
Cortez’s La máquina de la fortuna or The Fortune Teller Machine (2014) is an interactive sculpture, developed in collaboration with the Guatemalan Kaqchikel Maya collective Kaqjay Moloj, and prints fortune messages in Kaqchikel and in Spanish. When a viewer presses a button, a thermal printer ejects a message from their collective desires that were programmed into the fortuneteller machine. The messages are written in a future perfect verb tense, as if predicting what will become, hopefully, a reality soon. A sample list of possible, future-tense messages that a viewer may receive from this portal to the future include:
Xtik’oje’ jun raxnäq k’aslen Habrá justicia There will be justice
Xtiqetamaj achike ru ma xe kamisäx ri qawinaq Sabremos la verdad We will know the truth
Xtiqaya’ ruq’ij ri kib’anob’al ri qatit qamama’ Estaremos orgullosos de nuestro pasado We will be proud of our past
Xti ak’axäx ri k’ayewal qa chajin Nuestra voz será escuchada Our voice will be heard
Chiqonojel xtiqil ru b’eyal ri qak’aslen Tendremos oportunidades We will have opportunities
Xtik’oje’ jun qak’aslen ri man xkojyax ta pa k’ayewal Seremos libres We will be free
Brought together under the Mundos Alternos moniker, Beatriz Cortez and Rigo 23, the former from El Salvador and the latter from Portugal, demonstrate cross-cultural affinities as they engage technology closely tied to Indigenous communities. This approach is mindful of Indigenous knowledge and expertise with devices, which have often been cast as archaic and unsophisticated within Western colonization. Another Mundos Alternos artist, Guillermo Bert, born in Chile, but living in Los Angeles, has also worked closely with native communities to inform and realize their work. Bert’s Encoded Textiles tapestries were inspired by his observation that Quick Response (QR) code patterns often resemble the textile patterns woven by the Mapuche of Chile. He commissioned the woven works on view, which bear functional QR codes that link to dictums by tribal elders. He marries the encryption technologies of Indigenous woven textiles with contemporary digital ones, achieving the same goals but through different pathways.
Science Fictional Connectedness
From a curatorial perspective, the necessity of travel in cars, trains, planes, and by foot throughout the Americas became an experience in which the circulation of the kind of artwork that we sought became slipstream islands of materiality. Our radars were attuned to artists who viewed their art as platforms for investigating and questioning the immediate culture that surrounded them and the world at large, that is, embodying Suvin’s aforementioned cognitive estrangement.
In this regard, our visits became ones where citizens of alternative worlds found one another and cemented bonds through face-to-face meetings. We were surrounded by the artists’ slipstream artwork in their studios or their galleries, which became las puertas. It was by traveling through these wormholes, found throughout the Americas to islands of materiality (as opposed to “islands in the net,” to coin another phrase from Bruce Sterling’s 1988 novel with the same title), that I found an overall utopian experience of connectedness through material presence, rather than a dystopian one of disembodied connection through the telepresence of texts and screens. In other words, we were in true locations of the future, rather than just sensing, at an untouchable distance, the things to come.
In other words, we were in true locations of the future, rather than just sensing, at an untouchable distance, the things to come.
MundosAlternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas is on view from 16 September 2017 through 4 February 2018. The opening party for Mundos Alternos is 30 September 2017 from 6:00 – 9:00 p.m. at UCR ARTSblock (http://artsblock.ucr.edu). UCR ARTSblock is open Tuesday – Thursday, 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.; Friday– Saturday, 11 a.m. – 7 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. – 4 p.m., and closed Mondays. Open late until 9 p.m. every first Thursday of the month. Admission is $5.
All photography taken by Sydney Santana.
 The Mundos Alternos curatorial team includes Robb Hernández, assistant professor of English at UCR; Tyler Stallings, artistic director of the Culver Center of the Arts at UCR ARTSblock; and Joanna Szupinska-Myers, California Museum of Photography (CMP) senior curator of exhibitions at UCR ARTSblock. Kathryn Poindexter, CMP assistant curator, is the project coordinator; and Sherryl Vint, director of the Speculative Fiction and Cultures of Science program at UCR, curated an accompanying film program and contributed an essay to the book. A heavily illustrated, 160-page book accompanies the exhibition, including original essays by the curators, contributions by Kathryn Poindexter and Rudi Kraeher, with additional essays by Kency Cornejo, Itala Schmelz, Alfredo Suppia, and Sherryl Vint, leading voices in science fiction studies and contemporary art of the Americas.
 Mark Dery, “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose,” in Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, ed. Mark Dery (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994), 180.
 The passages in this section, “Sun Ra in California and Afrofuturism” are excerpted from Robb Hernández and Tyler Stallings, “Introduction” in Robb Hernández and Tyler Stallings, eds. Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas (Riverside, CA: UCR ARTSblock, 2017), 13-14, 18-19.
 Excerpts from Tyler Stallings, “Slipstream Islands of Strange Things: Building Mundos Alternos in the Americas” in Robb Hernández and Tyler Stallings, eds., Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas (Riverside, CA: UCR ARTSblock, 2017), 130-143. An emphasis is placed on artists from California in these excerpts and includes additional text on artist Guillermo Bert that was not in the original published essay, along with a few additional comments that emphasize the California connection.
 “The Good Government Juntas represent both the poetic, populist and the practical nature of the Zapatista struggle to build workable alternatives of autonomy locally, link present politics to traditional ways of organizing [sic] life in indigenous communities, and contrast with the ‘bad government’ of official representational politics in Mexico City.” See Paul Chatterton, “The Zapatista Caracoles and Good Governments: The Long Walk to Autonomy,” State of Nature (2007). http://www.stateofnature.org/?p=6119.
Tyler Stallings is artistic director at the Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts at UCR ARTSblock. He was chief curator at Laguna Art Museum prior to his arrival at UCR in 2006. He received his MFA from California Institute of the Arts. His curatorial projects focus on contemporary art, with a special emphasis on the exploration of identity, technology, photo-based work, and urban culture. For more information see http://tylerstallings.com.
Gather with us Thursday 5 October in Tijuana at Cine Tonalá for an evening of friendship, readings, and music, entering the complex realities brought to us by the California/Mexico border. Co-sponsored together with the California Historical Society, we’ll reflect on California border ecology, highlighting our shared identity as Californians, bridge-builders, open to the world.
Come grab a drink, meet Boom writers like Ana Rosas, Tanya Golash-Boza, Zulema Valdez, Ronald Rael, Jemima Pierre, Laura Enriquez, Josh Kun, David Kipen, Daniel Hernandez, Boom editor Jason Sexton, members of Boom’s editorial team, and others to share new readings for this Fall’s Boom series on Undocumented California, making a statement together of our collective values as Californians. We’ll close the night with a special set by Tijuana-raised Ceci Bastida who will debut a new collaboration with Haitian refugees living in the city.
Undocumented California: An Evening of Readings and Music Thursday, October 5th 7:00 – 9:00 p.m. Cine Tonalá, Avenida Revolución 1317, Zona Centro, 22000 Tijuana, BC, Mexico
Angel Sáncez (Captain America) and Antonio Mazas (Hulk) take a break between performances during the annual celebration of the Yalalag community in Los Angeles
Just west of downtown Los Angeles, in a derelict American Craftsman house, a group of Zapotec immigrants from Yalalag, a small town in southern Mexico, rush around the dining room. Here in Los Angeles, they’re getting ready for another performance, requiring attire chosen from a wardrobe of popular and global appeal. Outside in the backyard there is a celebration and a growing audience of more indigenous Mexican immigrants.
Most in attendance are Yalaltecos, and other immigrants from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Like in their Mexican hometown, Yalaltecos gather to celebrate patron saint days. For this particular saint day, they are celebrating a major Catholic figure, Santiago Apostle, the eponymous patron saint of the gathered community, and the religious icon that brings together the Yalalag community in Los Angeles in a similar way that it unites Yalaltecos in their hometown in Mexico.
For Santiago Apostle’s day, the audience has waited a year, and will wait a bit more, as the backyard fills with people under LA’s relentless summer sun. The saint sits on its handcrafted altar, and the audience waits patiently while watching folkloric performances produced as replicas of the acts from the Mexican community of origin. This is the annual feast, a celebration that reconnects the community as a people despite being immigrants of foreign soil. This year’s celebration, however, finds the attending DJ announcing a forthcoming surprise: “There will be a special dance in this year’s celebration… in a few minutes!”
Antonio Mazas (Hulk) and Angel Sanchez (Captain America), stand guard to the St. Santiago Apostle during the annual celebration of the Yalalag community in Los Angeles.
Hurriedly, the men dig into backpacks and plastic bags. Amid the haste, pieces of outfits are scattered around the floor and the dining room instantly becomes a messy wardrobe. As the men look for new garments, the traditional wooden masks are set to rest and new ones come out to play. On the dining table a range of faces emerge as masks look up emptily at the ceiling, expecting coming conjurers.
Sharing the same table, the masks exhibit different origins. Some were homemade in Los Angeles, while others were mass-produced, likely in China. The first are imported replicas of traditional models and show largely exaggerated facial expressions: brightly colored inflated cheeks, protruding lips, and swollen eyeballs. The second are more conventional, modeled on popular American comic book characters—plastic façades recognized the world around for their heroic and superhuman qualities: unmeasured anger, strength, and infinite power as it is for Hulk, Captain America, and Thor.
For the wooden masks, at an average cost of $40 each, a communal endeavor of cultural reproduction was required. Dancers, their wives, parents, and children shared funds and know-how, either to import paraphernalia or produce the masks at home for a dance now being reenacted on foreign U.S. soil, and by a new generation. For this particular performance, the traditional wooden masks were brought to Los Angeles by relatives who migrate back and forth between Mexico and the U.S. These masks, like other mass-produced ones, came to the performance at the annual celebration of Saint Santiago Apostle in Los Angeles via global circulation. At the event, the masks, like the religious figure, are images of limitless reproducibility, of invaluable unifying potential, and thus stand in as cohesive devices for all in attendance.
Bernardo Velasco (Ninja Turtle) and Antonio Mazas, members of Familia Zapoteca, get ready to perform at the annual celebration of St. Santiago Apostle in Los Angeles.
Unity grounded on Catholicism, however, rarely demands a specific day when the point is to feel at home, far from home. It could be any day, any saint in Los Angeles. Or so it is for Luis Delgado, the Zapotec immigrant from Yalalag, Oaxaca, who arranged the performance at the Saint Santiago Apostle celebration on this particular day.
When Delgado came to Los Angeles over a decade earlier, he found a group of men enacting the traditional ‘danzas’ of his hometown. In time, he joined the group that became: Grupo de Danza Familia Zapoteca.
Familia Zapoteca, now going through a second generation of dancers, is a combination of migrants and U.S. citizens who despite the status difference don’t mind dancing to the same tune. And because the dance group unites different generations, Delgado decided a couple of years ago to assemble a performance that would appeal to the current dancers and attract a younger crowd of U.S.-born Yalaltecos. He thus began outfitting one of the group’s choreographies in American popular characters.
To put idea into action, he instructed the dancers to turn into characters they always wanted to be: Captain America, Batman, Superman, Deadpool, Thor, Ninja Turtles, Hulk, Wolverine… and of course, Chapulín Colorado, the only visible sign of real pop Mexican heroism.
Eulogio Ríos (Thor), Seferino Ignacio (Chapulín), and Luis Delgado (Wolverine), members of Familia Zapoteca, prepare to perform at the annual celebration of St. Santiago Apostle in Los Angeles.
Once Familia Zapoteca turns into this set of makeshift characters, they become “Los Superhéroes,” an assortment of comic book expressions that line up behind a brass band. They sync immediately to the band’s quick tempo and take the stage of communal gatherings, often held on backyards’ flat concrete patios.
For these self-made heroes, audiences wait, as they did at Santiago Apostle’s celebration, and as they frequently do at Oaxacan celebrations in Los Angeles. Invariably, though, whether as superheroes or in any other form, Familia Zapoteca comes as a surprise. Each act, selected from a repertoire of over twenty possible performances, is an opportunity to extemporaneously engage people in the audience; to invite them to relate through the culturally shared elements the characters represent. At least, that was the purpose Luis Delgado had in mind when he organized the performance in 2014.
Now, as performed, Los Superhéroes is no joke. Its performative function is one where Familia Zapoteca breathes new life into a dance tradition that enables them to make sense of being in diaspora.
However, Los Superhéroes was not really Luis Delgado’s idea originally. It came to him from Oaxaca as part of the transnational exchanges that connect Los Angeles-based Oaxacans to their villages in Mexico. For Delgado, this particularly inspiring exchange happened in the form of a homemade DVD that a relative sent him from Yalalag, his own hometown in Oaxaca.
The DVD featured a visual rendition of what could very well be the first satirical enactment of American superheroes in a traditional celebration from Yalalag. The visual rendition thus presented an instance where the dance tradition, through the performance of the superheroes, confronted Yalaltecos from their own town with the specter of their own migrants living in the United States. Upon watching and replaying the DVD in Los Angeles, Delgado set out to replicate what was conveyed through the recording as a process of mimesis, a cultural reenactment that displayed the social and symbolic remittances that migration enables so that a community in diaspora remains interconnected.
Asai Alejo (Deadpool) stands ready to perform as a superhero for members of the San Andrés Yaa community in Los Angeles.
In Yalalag, where the DVD was recorded, when the ‘superheroes’ first appeared, the act was within the parameters of the traditional dances commonly known as ‘danzas chuscas,’ or funny dances. Through such dances, performed mostly by men, the Yalalag community parodies other communities, taking elements of their identity. One well-known example, and perhaps one of the first acts that started the ‘danzas chuscas,’ was when a dance group in Yalalag enacted the ‘danza de los mixes.’ The Mixe region, like Yalalag, is in northern Oaxaca, and the Mixe have been customarily derided for being too traditional, according to nationally recognized Zapotec writer and cultural promoter, Javier Castellanos.
Since the 1980s the danzas chuscas have been directed at immigrants returning home from abroad. For Yalaltecos in Oaxaca, the U.S.-based immigrants embody traces of assimilated American values, which the performances reenact as a form of cultural resistance and social critique with the intention of cultivating self-reflection.
Through parody and tradition, that first time the live performance of the ‘superheroes’ came to Yalalag, it arrived as an unsolicited trade and was welcomed as a reminder of distant members navigating other cultures. There in Oaxaca, Yalaltecos got to see, in a single act, the visual and symbolic dimension of transnational migration. In all its brevity, the performance was a single act of American fictional heroism that assaulted Yalalag from within, disappeared into the lens of a video camera and turned out into a DVD that was then exported to Los Angeles.
For Delgado in Los Angeles, replaying the performance from the imported DVD was more than symbolic and satirical. It was an overdue epiphany. As he blankly stared at the streaming video, he understood that cultural distance had been somewhat bridged. What he once perceived as culturally foreign was now, in fact, his own. For him, Yalaltecos in his hometown had embraced the image of the superheroes as a proper sign, much in the same way he had long ago accepted that same image as part of who he is as an immigrant in the U.S. So, when he decided to recreate the performance, he chose not to do it as a form of social critique, but for more meaningful reasons.
Familia Zapoteca performing the “danza de los payasos” during the celebration of St. Francis of Assisi organized by the San Francisco Yatee community in Los Angeles.
In Delgado’s version, the performance became a way of paying tribute to the audacity of the Yalalag performers, who figured out that beneath American mainstream characters, traditional practices are reproduced. But above all, his Los Angeles version was a way of projecting to the local audience a new sense of self by recognizing that one can be part of the U.S., and especially California, without ceasing to be Zapotec and specifically, Yalalteco.
After a few trial runs, and some minor negative responses from community members, Los Superhéroes became a crowd favorite. The reason is simple: “The dance allows young kids to identify with each character and see how their favorite character connects to their culture and traditions. And that is the dream of any kid,” Delgado said.
Representing the dreams of young children might be just a projection of the dancers’ own desires, but that is not all what Familia Zapoteca enacts. Since the success of Los Superhéroes in 2014, the group continues to enact the performance and has added other singular acts to the repertoire. For instance, “Los cocineros” pays tribute and satirizes the numerous members of their community who work in the food industry. As it specifically relates to men, Los cocineros points to shifting gender roles, and comments on the fact that immigrant men must enter the kitchen setting for economic survival.
Another performance, “Los turistas,” references the modern Hawaiian-shirt tourist that hordes ethnic paradises in the third world. It also, quite possibly, alludes to the returning immigrant who enters the community of origin as a temporal visitor.
In “Los payasos,” the group embodies the popular figure of the clown, as to take to the extreme the satirical nature of their dance tradition. And, in “La danza de Santa Claus,” the yearly act with which the group celebrates and ends a long year of performances, an empty-handed Santa Claus comes in a shopping cart, to make communion with an immigrant Zapotec community celebrating yet another Catholic festivity, this time Christmas.
Members of Familia Zapoteca arrive as Santa Claus at a community Christmas celebration in Los Angeles.
In all, the performances are new only superficially and each is new only momentarily. In due time, just as other performances have become integral acts of Yalaltecos’ dance selection, “Los Superhéroes” will secure a place in that list of possible acts, or at least the current dancers seem to expect this to happen.
Asai Alejo, who performs as Deadpool, likes to think that the superheroes will remain in the Yalalag dance tradition as a reminder of what his generation contributed.
“Children love the dance… and I hope that the dance will remain as part of the other acts we perform because it is something we have accomplished. And I hope it can continue for many years to come,” Alejo said.
Alejo speaks with self-assurance and without a hint of satirical intent. He is hopeful and confident because he knows that behind the paper-plate shield of Captain America, deep beneath the backpacks bulging out Santa Claus’s belly, and the countless folded garments that shape up the characters, there lays the fundamental grain of a tradition that allows the dancers to sustain a dance that incorporates what is foreign into their own. For that reason, the dancers rehearse each step arduously.
At weekly practices, dancers line up face to face in two parallel rows. As the music begins, each dancer steps forward then strides side-to-side, and the rows move in opposite directions. At each step, they pace gleefully and rotate around each other. As if forming couples, they raise arms high and faces look jauntily into the horizon beyond the backyard of the American Craftsman house, where Familia Zapoteca earnestly practices for upcoming performances.
Familia Zapoteca rehearsing for a performance. The group was founded by Zapotec immigrants from the Yalalag community in Oaxaca, Mexico.
All photos taken by Leopoldo Peña.
 Zapotecs are one of the largest indigenous people in southern Mexico. The Zapotecs, like other Mexican Indigenous groups, began migrating to the United States in the 1980s.
 Yalalteco/a is the Spanish term for natives of Yalalag.
 Another feature of the transnational aspect of the performance is the importation of music scores. For these, the dancers share the expenses for having a musician in their hometown produce a score sheet that a Los Angeles-based band plays for the performances. For details on how transnationally plays out in indigenous Mexican migrant communities see Jonathan Fox and Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, Indigenous Mexican Migrants in the United States, Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, UCSD/Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, 2004, and Lynn Stephen, Transborder Lives: Indigenous Oaxacans in Mexico, California, and Oregon (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).
 Funny is a literal translation of “chusca/o”; however, within the semantics of the performance, “chusca/o” contains a stronger element of parody, satire and intent to caricature.
 Personal interview, 3 August 2016, Los Angeles.
 For a discussion of how “danzas chuscas” engages questions of gender and class differences, see Adriana Cruz-Manjarrez, “‘Danzas Chuscas’ Performing Migration in a Zapotec Community,” Dance Research Journal 40 (2008): 2-33.
 Performances, even funerals, in Los Angeles are also recorded and these recordings are sent to Oaxaca as well.
 Personal interview, 24 June 2016, Los Angeles.
 Personal interview, 24 June 2016, Los Angeles.
Leopoldo Peña is a Mexican-immigrant, photographer, and Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at UC Irvine. His dissertation focuses on photography in early twentieth century Mexico, and maintains interest in Zapotec literary production.
In 1964, British sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term “gentrification” in her study of young creative professionals moving into the working-class, largely West Indian neighborhood of Islington, London. She explained, “Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.”1 The late twentieth- and twenty-first-century tech-boom-related gentrification of San Francisco has undeniably changed the city’s character and its accessibility to the diverse groups—writers, artists, activists, the working class, queer people, and people of color—who have made it such a unique city in California and the world. In contrast to poet George Sterling who called San Francisco a “cool grey city of love” in 1920, writer Rebecca Solnit now deems it a “cold gray city of greed” as the incursion of new wealth has rapidly and violently displaced longtime residents.2
The predominantly Latino neighborhood of the Mission District has been particularly affected. In the longer historical view, San Francisco’s Latino demographic is highly distinctive because it has been strong and variegated since the nineteenth century. Central Americans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and Latin Americans of other nationalities moved there beginning in the Gold Rush era; the only other city to have such a diverse Latino population so early on was New York City (which claimed more of a Caribbean demographic), to be followed much later by cities like Los Angeles and Miami. The Mission District has been San Francisco’s “Latin” neighborhood since the 1940s, but now many fear it will lose that label as thousands of its Latino residents are evicted to make room for tech titans and their employees. While some may characterize this moment of gentrification as more economically than racially consequential, the data on tech industry hiring points to the contrary. A whopping 94 percent of Facebook’s employees are white or Asian while only 3 percent are Latino, 2 percent are mixed race, and 1 percent are black. Meanwhile, blacks and Latinos together comprise only 6 percent of Twitter’s workforce and 5 percent of Google’s.3 With little overlap between the Latino and techie demographics, the threatened dilution or disappearance of Latino San Francisco is very real.
The Virgin of Guadalupe shares space in the Mission District with a sign of the sharing economy. “La Virgen De Guadalupe” by Francisco “Twick” Aquino, 2007.
A long-defining characteristic of the Mission District has been its public murals, which first appeared in the 1970s in response to various local and global events as well as new city funding for public artwork. Located mostly in Balmy and Clarion Alleys, the murals infuse the neighborhood with color, creativity, and visual interest. Ironically, the cultural vibrancy that newcomer techies, investors, and young professionals value so highly in their choice to move to the Mission is exactly what will be eliminated over time with continued evictions, takeovers, and buildup. This essay offers a brief history of Latino San Francisco, using the murals of the Mission as the lens from which to examine Latinos’ historical presence in the city and to interrogate what part they will play in its future.
Historically, Latino artists in San Francisco and elsewhere have used murals as vehicles for, and symbols of, their social and political activism. They have articulated their stances on local and global issues—civil rights at home, civil wars abroad, racism, policing, and now gentrification—with paintbrushes and spray cans, and in the process have helped to cultivate a sense of Latinidad, or cultural interconnectedness between Latinos that surmounts differences in nationality and citizenship status.4 This essay showcases older and newer change of Mission murals, both of which comment on the simultaneous persistence and precarity of Latino artistic production on San Francisco’s streets. Many early murals have disappeared either through a lack of restoration funding or new property owners’ decisions to whitewash them. What does the erasure of some murals, and the survival or appearance of others, help reveal about the future of Latinos in the city? A few years ago, journalists and demographers questioned the future of black San Francisco (and now African Americans comprise only 6 percent of the city’s population).5 As one of the first big “Latino” cities of the US West, San Francisco is becoming so economically inhospitable that it is in danger of losing that historical title. With the exodus of Latinos to suburban and rural Northern California, we may be witnessing a shift back to pre-World War II demographics in that region, as well as the creation of a marginalized commuter class of Latino workers who will continue to serve an influential city but no longer be able to call it home. Do murals and the fight for their preservation have the potential to mobilize a diverse population of Latinos who want to push back against being pushed out?
• • •
Living in San Francisco even before it became San Francisco, Spanish-Mexican (Californio) rancho-owning families established deep roots in the area near the present-day Mission District. After the end of the US-Mexican War in 1848, however, these families lost their land grants to white squatters and even their own lawyers.6 The next year, the Gold Rush attracted migrants from all over the world and anti-Latino violence spiked. “Whether from California, Chile, Peru, or Mexico…all Spanish-speaking people were lumped together as interlopers and greasers,” and Latinos were either chased away from the gold fields by white miners or lynched by vigilante groups.7 In response to these attacks, Latinos turned inward and formed community with each other, constructing a Spanish-language Catholic church in the “Latin Quarter” of North Beach in 1875. When San Francisco became a leading processer of Central American coffee, Central American migrants added to the community’s diversity, as did Mexicans fleeing the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s and Puerto Ricans transitioning from jobs on Hawaiian plantations during the 1920s.8
After World War II, increasing rents in North Beach and urban development pushed Latinos to the South of Market Street Area (SoMA) and the Mission. The German, Irish, and Italian residents who had been living there began moving to newer housing in San Francisco’s western neighborhoods, which facilitated Latino settlement in the Mission along with small numbers of African Americans, Native Americans, American Samoans, and Filipino and Chinese-origin peoples.9 The first significant cluster of Latino restaurants, bakeries, and specialty shops soon appeared along 16th Street, and the neighborhood absorbed more newcomers, including Mexican farmworkers escaping the Bracero Program, Puerto Ricans who jumped ship instead of becoming Hawaiian sugar workers, and Nicaraguans and Salvadorans recruited by shipyards and wartime industries. By 1950, San Francisco’s Latino population totaled approximately 24,000 people, with almost a quarter of them living in the Mission.10
As San Franciscans heard more Spanish spoken on Mission streets, the perception of the neighborhood as a “poverty area” solidified.11 If one looked closer, however, multiple Latino political and social organizations had been founded by the 1950s, and a Latino-centric economy of small businesses, restaurants, grocery stores, record shops, and bookstores was thriving. When the 1960s ushered in War on Poverty initiatives and urban redevelopment, many Mission Latinos resisted the plan to build two Bay Area Rapid Transportation (BART) stops in the neighborhood. In city authorities’ eyes, BART would ostensibly revitalize and sanitize a district “well on its way to becoming a slum,” but residents rightly predicted that this infrastructure building meant displacement from several homes and businesses.12 As new waves of Cold War–era migrants—mainly Asian and Latin American refugees fleeing invasions and civil wars—moved into San Francisco, they increased the Mission’s percentage of Latinos to 44.6 percent and its foreign-born residents to 33.5 percent by 1970.13
Details from the mural “Mission Makeover” (2012) by Lucia Ippolito and Tirso Araiza.
A concurrent influx of internal migrants, including Puerto Ricans and Mexican American farmworkers leaving California’s San Joaquin and Salinas Valleys, boosted the 1970 citywide Latino population to over 101,000.14 Still attractive for its affordability and proximity to industrial and service jobs, the Mission cost residents an average monthly rent of $105.15
Two major phenomena of the 1970s that kickstarted mural production in the Mission were the Chicano civil rights movement and the multiple civil wars taking place in Latin America. In 1970, local artists active in the Chicano Movement founded La Galería de la Raza, a nonprofit community arts organization intended to foster public awareness and appreciation of Chicano/Latino art. When the city of San Francisco began commissioning murals in the 1970s that depicted events, people, and images associated with Latino communities, Galería-affiliated artists and others painted at least fifty major murals in the Mission by 1985. Inspired by Chicano Movement graphic art as well as older Mexican artists like Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros, muralists paid tribute to a wide array of subjects including the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexican cinema stars, farmworkers, zoot suiters, and Vietnam veterans. A great number of the Mission’s early murals were painted by a group of Latinas called Las Mujeres Muralistas who fought for their place in the male-dominated world of mural-making and pointedly included women and children in their pieces. Their 1974 piece Latinoamérica intentionally strayed from the style of Mexican master muralists and paid homage to Peruvian, Venezuelan, Bolivian, and other Latin American cultures, as well as US-born Latinos, in an effort to affirm the Mission’s pan-Latino identity.17
Often the product of several artists’ work, murals are collaborative and collective art pieces that can function as an empowering mode of social bonding and an assertion of a community’s presence in a certain space. In requiring people to gather and decide what kind of art they want to live with, murals work to—as Cary Cordova argues—“solidify local and transnational communities.”18 Indeed, murals are landmarks of belonging and texts to be read for their expressed social values, political stances, or emotional responses to certain events. During the 1980s, some Mission murals commented on the farmworker movement in California. Juana Alicia’s Las Lechugueras/The Women Lettuce Workers depicted a group of women harvesters, including a pregnant worker, being sprayed with pesticides. Meanwhile in Balmy Alley, artists painted twenty-seven murals that addressed the United States’ intervention in the Nicaraguan, Guatemalan, and Salvadoran civil wars and communicated the trauma and violence experienced by these Central Americans.19 The pieces Culture Contains the Seed of Resistance and A Past That Still Lives feature ominous military police, critique economic disparities between the United States and Latin America, and express a hope for sanctuary.
As much as the 1980s witnessed intra-Latino mixing in the Mission, they also witnessed intra-Latino tensions. Central American and Mexican day laborers jostled each other figuratively and literally as they competed for work. Branches of the Sureño, Norteño, and MS-13 gangs staked out territory and engaged in open violence. The Mission’s reputation as an increasingly dangerous neighborhood resulted in heightened police surveillance. This, however, did not diminish the area’s real estate value. After the 1989 earthquake, white and Asian residents unable to buy property elsewhere in the city flocked to the Mission, where they beat out Latinos (who made a median annual income of $11,400 compared to $26,222 for whites) for housing. By 1990, Latinos accounted for 51.9 percent of the Mission’s population, while whites comprised 30 percent and Asians 13.1 percent.20 The later 1990s ushered in the dot-com boom, and as housing prices continued to soar, entrepreneurs erected high-end restaurants and boutiques next door to taquerias and thrift shops. Taking advantage of the fact that the Mission had the highest concentration of renters in the city (70 percent), landlords raised rents, evicted tenants through owner move-in evictions (OMIs) or the Ellis Act, chopped up buildings into multiple units, and converted warehouses into live/work lofts coveted by tech startups.21 In a land grab reminiscent of the post–US-Mexican War era, many Latinos were displaced and those who remained struggled to meet the median rent of $1,600 a month for a two-bedroom apartment (a price that only about 38 percent of all San Francisco households at the time could afford). “People who have been the heart and soul of this city for decades—artists, writers, musicians, senior citizens living on pensions, blue-collar workers, students, people on welfare and disability, and service-sector employees—are increasingly in danger of becoming an endangered species,” journalist Daniel Zoll wrote.22
Details from the mural “Mission Makeover” (2012) by Lucia Ippolito and Tirso Araiza.
This endangerment was reflected in a particular episode involving a beloved Mission mural. On 25 July 1998, the colorful four-story piece Lilli Ann by Jesus “Chuy” Campusano (commissioned by the city in 1986 for $40,000) was whitewashed after the building was sold to the Robert J. Cort Family Trust. A major real estate investor, the Trust wanted to provide ad space for its new tenants’ multimedia game company. According to the federal Visual Artists’ Rights Act (VARA), the mural’s copyright holders (Campusano’s children and fellow muralist Elias Rocha) were entitled to ninety days’ notice before any alteration. They ultimately sued the Trust for $500,000 and won their case, but the mural had already been lost with no planned replacement. This destruction of a Latino-produced mural came to symbolize the whitewashing of a larger Latino presence and culture in the Mission, or what scholar Nancy Raquel Mirabal has termed “culture deletion.”23 With one stroke of a delete key in the digital gold rush, the many strokes of a Latino artist’s paintbrush were rendered invisible.
Detail from Josue’ Rojas’s 2014 mural “Dedicated to the Migrants of the Mission,” which depicts a young Honduran boy crossing into the U.S. where he is met by a welcoming embrace to San Francisco.
By 2000, the Mission was making headlines for the tensions erupting between the new Silicon Valley digerati and older residents who were organizing themselves into anti-gentrification and anti-displacement coalitions. Accusing newcomers of taking advantage of the Mission’s low-income renters of color (in 2000, the neighborhood was 62 percent Latino and 83 percent renter, with a per capita income of $20,112 versus $32,441 citywide), activists added that many Mission residents were undocumented or could not speak English, making them more vulnerable to intimidation and being pushed out of their homes.24
Furthermore, on a national scale, Latinos had been deemed “the furthest behind in the race to become connected to the Internet,” and therefore lacked desirable cultural capital in the digital era.25 By the year 2000, more than one thousand Latino families had been displaced from the Mission; and between 2000 and 2005, the Latino population of San Francisco decreased from 109,504 to 98,891, making it the only major city in the United States to experience a loss in its Latino population.26
The national media continued to discuss, but not always with informed nuance, the Mission as a space of Latinidad. In a 2008 travel article on San Francisco, The New York Times praised the “wonderful mishmash” of the neighborhood. “Where else can you find epicurean vegan cafes, feisty nonprofits, and a Central American butcher shop?” the author asked, disregarding the community tensions keeping these nonprofits “feisty.”27 Along the same vein, a 2016 USA Today contributor living in the Mission sentimentalized her “discovery” of her local Mexican restaurant:
I had burritos delivered from Pancho Villa twice before I ever stepped in the well-known staple in my Mexican-influenced neighborhood.…I felt the energy of the staff wrapping perfectly cylindrical burritos at light speed and heard each order called out in Spanish and English. The burrito tasted better when I could appreciate the soul that went into making it.28
Essentializing Latinos as soulful workers who rapidly met her needs with a comforting bilingualism, the author extolled her choice to personally interact with this Latino business rather than rely on a food delivery app. This ability of newcomers to choose whether to interact with residents closely or distantly through technology is what many Mission Latinos decry as an uncomfortable and even hostile social environment.
In response, La Galería de la Raza and Precita Eyes Mural Center artists have produced powerful anti-gentrification pieces. The 2012 mural Mission Makeover hits upon the gentrification-related consequences of racially-targeted policing and price gouging. As young Latino and African American boys are detained and arrested by police, eviction notices and For Sale signs hang in windows while coffee shops fill to the brim with laptops and expensive lattes. Looming riot police don helmets with Facebook and Google logos; a Mexicana Airlines airplane flies overhead (presumably taking San Francisco–weary people back to Mexico); a blonde woman holds a Dia de los Muertos mask in a sign of cultural appropriation; and a faceless figure in the center symbolizing the Latino working-class majority proclaims, “Aquí estamos y no nos vamos! (Here we stay and will not leave!).” The directional landmarks in the mural—street signs reading Uan Wey and Otro Wey (wey meaning “dude” or “dummy” in Spanish)—communicate a frustration and hopelessness with what the neighborhood has become.
This explicitly anti-gentrification mural, and others like it in the Mission, works to counterbalance the disappearance of the older, historically significant Latino murals that came before it.29 Community action around mural preservation has increasingly become the way for Latinos in the Mission to keep their voices heard. In 2013, when the owner of a new wine bar decided to paint over the building’s large murals that depicted scenes from Latin American history, he incited vociferous protest. In the summer of 2015, hundreds of people rallied outside La Galería in support of Por Vida, a digital mural depicting two Latino same-sex couples and a transgender man that had been repeatedly defaced. Defending murals has become shorthand for defending Latinos’ presence, diversity, and deep history in the Mission. Murals have marked Latinos’ past and present in San Francisco, and therefore efforts to protect them stand as acts of community cohesion and persistence in the face of what feels like cultural warfare or erasure. With such a heterogeneous population of Latinos living in the Mission, no one civic, social, or political organization can represent them all. Yet, arguably, murals have helped to create a more tangible sense of Latinidad through their creation and subject matter.
By that token, if murals have played a key historical role in the making of Latinidad, do they hold the potential to mobilize and preserve San Francisco’s Latino community? By virtue of being visually provocative or beautiful, murals may be easier magnets for community support and thereby effective political tools. Nicaraguan immigrant and longtime San Francisco resident Erick Arguello has recently convinced the city to create the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District because of the number of murals in the area. If city authorities proceed to grant Twenty-Fourth Street special-use district status, local residents would have more say in decisions concerning further residential and commercial development.30 By tying the murals’ survival in the city to their own, Latinos could use historical preservation arguments to maintain the landscape they created as well as their place within it. While numerous cultural districts and street art conservation programs exist in the United States from Los Angeles to Harlem, to date Calle 24 seems to be unique in its fight to preserve not only particular works of art, but the right of a particular ethnic community to keep living among them.
• • •
Because the Mission District was not always a Latino neighborhood, some might argue, it should make sense that it will not always be one. People move in, people move out, and environments change. In 2015, studio apartments in the Mission were renting for $2,700 a month, and the neighborhood was more popular than any other area of San Francisco on Airbnb.31 As San Francisco city budget authorities predict that the Mission will lose 8,000 Latino residents by 2025, Latino organizations like the Mission Economic Development Agency are holding free computer and coding camps in the hopes of giving Latino youth a better foothold in the tech world.32 Local architect Evan Rose has argued that the Mission’s transformation simply reflects “the nature of a city. Cities grow and respond to growth pressures.”33 Mission artist and evictee Tony Breaux opines, however, that once tech monoculture takes over, “you are dealing with a dead city, creatively.”34 If city authorities give only certain groups the opportunity to grow and be creative, other groups—in this case artists, working-class people, immigrants, and people of color—will not be included in the future of San Francisco. In fact, they will be rendered as even more foreign and powerless outsiders.
Writ large, Latinos crisscross all of these vulnerable positionalities. If they will no longer be able to reside in the city unless they possess a certain amount of wealth, what will result—and what has already begun to emerge—is a large Latino commuter underclass living on the periphery of San Francisco. Latinos and blacks have already moved to suburbs like Richmond, Vallejo, Sacramento, Antioch, Tracy, and Stockton. Though superficially cheaper, these new homes result in more expensive work commutes and profound disconnection from old places, people, and routines. This shift in San Francisco will no doubt shape the future of California as more people of color move to suburban or agricultural communities that may or may not be accustomed to their presence. In some cases, Latino families with farmworker heritage that worked their way out of the fields in the post–World War II era are returning to places like the San Joaquin and Salinas Valleys out of economic necessity, a move which likely provokes anxieties about re-experiencing racial and social marginalization and downward mobility.
San Francisco has rebuilt itself several times after natural and economic disasters— this time, is it doing so without imagining Latino residents in the picture? Or, as some believe, are intentional disasters being created to erase this population? After BART’s establishment in the Mission in the 1960s, 133 fires erupted within a three-block radius of the Sixteenth Street station, eliminating low-income properties and paving the way for redevelopment. In an eerie echo of the past, mysterious Mission fires over the past few years have displaced hundreds of people.35 Latinos’ historic contribution to San Francisco’s social diversity and cultural production is profound, yet the threat of their (as artist Rene Yañez terms it) “cultural eviction” looms large.36 Murals have given Mission residents access to beauty, creative work, and cultural pride amidst the local and international political turbulence of the past fifty years. This current moment of turbulence is about who can claim access and belonging to this influential California city. By painting and pointing to murals, Latinos are engaging in a type of community cartography, fighting to map themselves onto the past, present, and future of a changing San Francisco.
Detail from Josue’ Rojas’s 2014 mural “Dedicated to the Migrants of the Mission,” which depicts a young Honduran boy crossing into the U.S. on La Bestia, the infamously dangerous train used by undocumented immigrants where he is met by a protective angel on the journey.
The author gratefully acknowledges Francisco Aquino, Lucia Ippolito, Tirso Araiza, and Josué Rojas—the artists whose work is featured in this essay—along with Tatiana Reinoza…along with Tatiana Reinoza, Susannah Aquilina, and an anonymous reader for their feedback and suggestions.
1 Ruth Glass, London: Aspects of Change (London: MacKibbon and Kee, 1964), xiii–xlii.
2 George Sterling, “Cool Grey City of Love,” The San Francisco Bulletin 133/31 (11 December 1920), 1; Rebecca Solnit, various Facebook posts—for example, 7 May 2016.
4 For more on Latinidad in San Francisco, see Tomas Summers Sandoval, Latinos at the Golden Gate: Creating Community & Identity in San Francisco (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).
6 Brian Godfrey, “Ethnic Identities and Ethnic Enclaves: The Morphogenesis of San Francisco’s Hispanic ‘Barrio,’” Yearbook: Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers 11 (1985): 48.
7 Abraham P. Nasatir, “Chileans in California during the Gold Rush Period and the Establishment of the Chilean Consulate,” California Historical Quarterly 53/1 (Spring 1974): 62.
8 Godfrey, “Ethnic Identities,” 46; Cecilia Menjivar, “Immigrant Kinship Networks and the Impact of the Receiving Context: Salvadorans in San Francisco in the Early 1990s,” Social Problems 44/19 (February 1997): 111.
9 Eduardo Contreras, “The Politics of Community Development: Latinos, Their Neighbors, and the State in San Francisco, 1960s and 1970s,” unpublished Ph.D. diss. (University of Chicago, 2008), 6.
10 Menjivar, “Immigrant Kinship Networks,” 111; Godfrey, “Ethnic Identities,” 46, 50; Contreras, “The Politics of Community Development,” 6.
11 Godfrey, “Ethnic Identities,” 50.
12 Contreras, “The Politics of Community Development,” 32.
13 Godfrey, “Ethnic Identities,” 49.
14 Contreras, “The Politics of Community Development,” 6; Godfrey, “Ethnic Identities,” 46. This is likely a conservative and low number because there were many undocumented Latinos working in San Francisco’s underground, informal, and cash economies.
15 Contreras, “The Politics of Community Development,” 7; Godfrey, “Ethnic Identities,” 52.
18 Cary Cordova, “Hombres y Mujeres Muralistas On a Mission: Painting Latino Identities in 1970s San Francisco,” Latino Studies 4/4 (2006): 356.
19 Timothy W. Drescher, “Street Subversion: The Political Geography of Murals and Graffiti,” Reclaiming San Francisco: History, Politics, Culture (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1998), 235.
20 Menjivar, “Immigrant Kinship Networks,” 110–111. Again, because the Census has historically undercounted Latinos due to the population’s undocumented immigrant element, 51.9 percent is a conservative number. African Americans (4.5%), Native Americans (0.3%), and Other (0.3%) comprised the remainder of the neighborhood’s population in 1990. Simon Velasquez Alejandrino, “Gentrification in San Francisco’s Mission District: Indicators and Policy Recommendations,” Mission Economic Development Association Report (Summer 2000), 18.
21 Nancy Raquel Mirabal, “Geographies of Displacement: Latina/os, Oral History, and the Politics of Gentrification in San Francisco’s Mission District,” The Public Historian 31/2 (Spring 2009): 13–15.
22 Daniel Zoll, “The Economic Cleansing of San Francisco: Is San Francisco Becoming the First Fully Gentrified City in America?” San Francisco Bay Guardian, 7 October 1998, 17.
25 John Jota Leaños, “The (Postcolonial) Rules of Engagement: Advertising Zones, Cultural Activism, and Xicana/o Digital Muralism,” Street Art San Francisco: Mission Muralismo, Annice Jacoby, ed. (New York: Harry Abrams, 2009), 205.
Details from the mural “Mission Makeover” (2012) by Lucia Ippolito and Tirso Araiza.
Lori A. Flores is an assistant professor of history at Stony Brook University specializing in the histories of US Latinos, immigration, labor, and the US-Mexico borderlands. She is the author of Grounds for Dreaming: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the California Farmworker Movement (Yale), which was named Best History Book by the International Latino Book Awards. Her scholarship engages the public through advocacy for underrepresented groups in higher education and immigrants and farmworkers in the United States.
Cyclist cutouts heightening awareness in Boyle Heights. Mockup by Jeannette Mundy.
“Much of urban history research has sought to pair or categorize cities on the basis of complementarity of existing source material. But these categorizations should be disrupted by a creative use of sources, and increasing inclination to fuse different sources and the adoption of original methods emerging from different interdisciplinary scholarship.” 1
Since time indeterminate, narratives have constructed distant cities for readers—from ancient Pausaneas’s portrayals of second-century Athens, to Baudelaire’s and Benjamin’s accounts of a changing nineteenth-century Paris, to Steinbeck’s depictions of industrial landscapes in early twentieth-century Monterey, to Kerouac’s background of gritty alleys, bars, and flop houses in mid-century San Francisco. Such intriguing urban environments have dominated the imagination of historians, geographers, novelists, and poets. The accounts, often written by outsiders traveling through or living for some time in a city, take the form of urban biography—single-site case studies that examined the relationship between space and society at a distinct point in time.
Urban biographies described cities, their everyday situations, and their architecture according to their uniqueness and distinct features. They include humanist and historically specific works like Walter Benjamin’s Moscow Diary from 1927, which begins with a two-page reflection about how he really got to know his hometown Berlin only after visiting the Russian city.2 Benjamin’s characterizations of Moscow, as well as Naples, acknowledge his own Northern European frame of reference and demonstrate that the understanding of one city never stands in isolation.
If sole-city narrative implicitly depends on comparative urban “other,” how should we think about similarity and difference? What constitutes a fruitful pairing? Fundamentally, urban comparisons rest on a construction of two independent objects viewed in relation to one another, even though cities are difficult to objectify and their similarities as well as differences are boundless. These are issues that scholars, including ourselves, have struggled with in order to better understand the settings of metropolitan life.
Early twentieth-century versions of comparative urbanism generally spanned vastly different cities by relying on the cotemporaneous theories of modernity and development.3 Urban anthropology, history, geography, ecology, and sociology were born from their parent disciplines to conceptualize and even promulgate a more modern, progressive, cosmopolitanism. With the rise of urban studies in the twentieth century, theories about cities—rather than the cities themselves—framed relationships among them so that the American sociologist Robert Park could discuss London, San Francisco, Osaka, and Bombay in a single sentence.4 In this instance, Park’s notion of a “world-city” served as an abstract structure or theory to scrutinize any individual metropolis.
However, in an era of globalization, transnational flows, and cross-border relationships and influences, this single-site focus became increasingly unsatisfying. Scholars who considered it “parochial” and “ethnocentric”5 questioned its utility and argued that “the day of the individually posed idiosyncratic study of a town that has no particular analytical purpose…is now on the wane.”6 In the wake of this, over the last four decades, comparative urbanism has flourished, triggered by a desire to identify, compare, contrast, or juxtapose parallel phenomena that happen in multiple socio-spatial contexts and likely influence one another. Starting in the 1970s, a number of scholars began touting the need for comparative urban research that opens the eyes to broader urban phenomena that can be compared across municipal boundaries and national borders.7 Underlying comparative approaches is the notion that urban imaginaries—this is, cities as they are imagined, contemplated, and written about—are “‘sites of encounters with other cities’ mediated through travel, migration and the circulation of images, goods, and ideas.”8
Children reclaiming the street for play in Mexico City. Photograph by Ryan Hernandez.
Comparative studies require identification of similarities and differences of at least two entities and use the city or the nation-state as their unit of analysis. But they are also criticized as overly constrained by fixed entities and arbitrary divisions such as municipal or national boundaries. In reality, urban networks and influences are dynamic, diverse, and transcend such boundaries.9 The emphasis on comparison may also bring along the danger of homogenizing differences and disregarding local particularities in favor of extracting universal lessons to urban issues and problems.10
The flaws of comparative studies have been further exposed by postcolonial theorists critical of studies of nonwestern cities and their residents by scholars from the west, which they argue led to culturally inaccurate, even exoticized, representations and understandings of those regions.11 They criticize the kind of patronizing view, for example, that may see Shanghai as the image of Los Angeles’s future, which in turn points the way for the even more “undeveloped” Mexico City. Geographer Jennifer Robinson argues that urban models of both difference and similarity are inadequate: “The persistent incommensurability of different kinds of cities within the field of urban theory is out of step with the experiences of globalization, and the ambitions of postcolonialism suggest that simply universalizing western accounts of cities is inappropriate.”12 Contemporary urbanists cannot and should not imagine that global cities are converging to become more alike, nor exoticize their differences. This conundrum has not slowed the production of comparative urban research.
In more recent years, a transnational perspective has gained favor in urban studies. This arose in response to criticism that comparative urbanism suffers from a static perception of the urban.13 In contrast, transnational approaches focus on interdependencies, movements, and flows across borders in regions and subregions.14 The goal of such approaches is to understand urban settings and experiences, as composed by multiple regional, ethnic or institutional identities and forces.15 In other words, transnational urban studies wish to take down arbitrary divisions between entities so that both their interconnections as well as collisions become more apparent.
For transnational studies to build on the work of previous generations of scholars, urban data and ethnographic evidence that was collected and limited by administrative borders must be reexamined so that “transnational forms and processes are revealed.”16 This requires employing multiple methodological lenses and traditional and nontraditional units of analysis to study the metropolis that may derive from different disciplinary fields. This is where Urban Humanities enters, with its blended trajectories and influences from urban planning, architecture, and the humanities.
If theories of globalization rest on constructs of the state, networks, economic flows, and data, transnationalism emphasizes human connections and their socio-spatial impacts, including migration, immigration, border crossings, political refugees, practices of economic exchange, as well as multicultural artistic influences and hybrid urban landscapes. Rather than flows and networks, urban humanities considers interweavings, intimacies, conflicts, collectivities, and engagement among different people and their socio-spatial contexts. If comparative urban studies lead, in the simplest sense, to ideas of same and different, a transnational urban humanities helps to better understand past and presently linked practices between urban settings and culture.
There are three interrelated ways that urban humanities go beyond conventional comparative urban studies and contribute to our understanding of the urban. The first concerns fused practices of scholarship by which we explore the human dimension of transnationalism. This fusing of different data sources and methodologies from fields of study such as film, mapping, spatial and social ethnography, and public arts interventions helps enrich the description and understanding of the urban (see for example the ideas of Banfill, Presner, and Zubiaurre in this issue of Boom). The second contribution can be described as the projective imperative of urban humanities—that is, the obligation of urban scholarship to open up possibilities and envision alternative and better futures. This is distinct from the modern project’s interest in globalization and innovation, and from the development model’s particular focus on improvement through policy for those deemed deserving. For urban humanities, the emphasis on possibility rests on comprehending a complex past in relation to an intricate present, in order to construct a potential future that is neither obvious nor shared without immersive debate. The latter is part of engaged scholarship, the third quality of an urban humanist approach. Urban humanities scholars working in cities uphold their own agency along with that of others, as intrinsically political, ethical, and positional. To some extent, the projective and engaged character of urban humanities expands upon those very qualities of architectural design practices. A focus on thick methods, open possibility, and engaged scholarship builds upon Benjamin’s thinking about cities by resisting conventional objects of comparison like nation or state. Instead, critically framed questions and more nuanced understandings of the connectivity and influences among urban places are favored.
Photographs of participants at a Boyle Heights bicycle advocacy event. Photograph by Lucy Seena K Lin.
To flesh out this perspective, consider two studies, one in Mexico City and the other in Los Angeles. Both cities erode notions of “here” and “there” that underlie conventional comparative urban studies, because like other polyvalent locales they comprise multiplicities on nearly every dimension of analysis. Their intimate interconnections extend through centuries, connections made literal through conquests, immigration, environmental issues, and economies, to name a few. That connective tissue sets the context for two activist studies of spatial justice in specific urban streets: research in Mexico City about reclaiming neighborhood streets for children’s play, and in Los Angeles, about heightening awareness of bike commuters of necessity, for workers whose primary means of transportation is biking.
From the Mexican governmental organization Laboratorio para la Ciudad, the construct of “legible policy” was adopted to create new urban imaginaries in which streets dominated by automobile traffic could be opened to new uses by neighborhood children and other residents and bike commuters. Families living in a Mexico City neighborhood called “Doctores” joined in a series of street closures in which playing children took the place of the regular automobile traffic, exposing connections between shop and garage owners, multigenerational residents, and street vendors. The temporary closures were consistently marked in the city with signage, banners, and chalk drawings covering the pavement to make legible to neighbors the policy that streets were safe for play.
In the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, Mexican American artists and cyclists allied to make visible their advocacy of safer streets. In collaboration with the local organizations Self Help Graphics and Multicultural Communities for Mobility, UCLA’s urban humanists proposed life-size portraits of individual bicycle commuters be installed along commonly used roads. The portraits could be collaged together with maps, personal narratives, and traffic data to make legible the need for policy to create safe bike paths and increase awareness about a marginalized group of Angelenos.
Urban humanities scholars partnered in both undertakings, deploying traditional research strategies such as data gathering and analysis, alongside critical cartography, spatial ethnography, and creative urban interventions such as street closures to create play space. Lessons flowed in both directions, from Mexico City to Los Angeles and back again, as graduating students returned to project sites to continue their work during the summer. Each project offered activists and residents a glimpse of a new possible future in their neighborhood. The Doctores experience temporarily demonstrated that the unexpected was possible: children could take control of the street. In Boyle Heights, an inventive study made a vulnerable population visible for political urban action and in so doing startled a possible future into view.
Urban humanities attempts to sidestep pitfalls that urban studies has long been prone to: essentialism, homogenization, and the erasure of differences between cities. It also does not seek to become an exercise in futurism. For this reason, it employs engaged scholarship and community input and action to mold its proposals. It deploys a range of thick methods to understand and create possibilities for everyday metropolitan life. Rather than holding cities up as objects for comparison, our efforts link cities through practices that rely on extended engagement. That is, urban humanities seeks deep understanding through the shared actions of scholars and citizens moving within and between cities. Rather than urban solutions per se, the projects are offered as public propositions that will evolve through iterations that may lead to more permanent change. If the urban humanities evolve into a bona fide field of study, they may disrupt not only urban studies but current academic structures as they produce not only transformative urban ideas but also new forms of scholarship that could enrich the study of cities.
N. Kenny and R. Madgin, “‘Every Time I Describe a City’: Urban History as Comparative and Transnational Practice,” Cities Beyond Boarders: Comparative and Transnational Approaches to Urban History, N. Kenny and R. Madgin, eds. (London: Routledge, 2015), 14.
Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street and Other Writings, Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter, trans. (London: NLB, 1979), 177–78.
Jennifer Robinson, “In the Tracks of Comparative Urbanism: Difference, Urban Modernity and the Primitive,” Urban Geography 25.8 (2004): 709–23.
Robert E. Park, Human Communities: The City and Human Ecology (New York: The Free Press, 1952), 133.
J. Walton, and L.H. Masotti, eds. The City in Comparative Perspective: Cross-National Research and New Directions in Theory (New York: Sage, 1976).
H.J. Dyos, “Editorial,” The Urban History Yearbook (Leicester: Leicester Unversity Press, 1974), 3.
R. Madgin, Heritage, Culture, and Conservation: Managing the Urban Renaissance (Saarbrucken: VDM Verlag, 2009).
E. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979).
Robinson, “In the Tracks of Comparative Urbanism,” 709–723.
D. Cohen and M. O’Connor, “Introduction: Comparative History, Cross-National History, Transnational History—Definitions,” Comparison and History: Europe in Cross-National Perspective (New York: Routledge, 2004), ix–xxiii.
C.A. Bayly, S. Beckert, M. Connelly, et al. “AHR Conversation: on Transnational History,” American Historical Review 111.5 (2016): 1440–64.
S. Khagram and P. Levitt, “Constructing Transnational Studies,” The Transnational Studies Reader: Intersections and Innovations (New York: Routledge, 2008).
Dana Cuff is a professor, author, and scholar in architecture and urbanism at University of California, Los Angeles, where she is also the founding director of cityLAB, a think tank that explores design innovations in the emerging metropolis.
Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris is the associate dean of academic affairs and urban planning professor at University of California, Los Angeles. Her research focuses on the public environment of the city, its physical representation, aesthetics, social meaning, and impact on the urban resident.
Not long ago, I found myself on the beach in Tijuana, among picnicking families, popsicle vendors, and roving minstrels. The beach looked like many in Southern California, except for one surreal detail: a tall, metal fence—the border fence—running across the sand, over the tideline, and straight into the plunging surf. Several people gazed through gaps in the fence toward the shimmering high rises of San Diego. But nobody on the US side appeared to be looking back. The scene reminded me of an observation writer Richard Rodriguez made years ago about the area: “San Diego faces west, looks resolutely out to sea. Tijuana stares north, as toward the future.”
That idea—that Mexicans look northward to a world that’s indifferent to them at best, and hostile at worst—is reinforced by the towering border fence, the ultimate symbol of divisiveness. Yet those of us who love the border region and believe its diversity is more of an asset than a liability are always looking for new symbols of interconnectedness—and of changing times.
Photograph by V. T. Polywoda, via Flickr.
We may have one in an innovative new development less than ten miles inland. A sleek, new pedestrian bridge opened in December 2015, linking the United States with the Tijuana International Airport. Called the Cross Border Xpress, the facility allows American travelers who are flying out of Tijuana to park on US soil, check in for their flights, and walk directly over the border fence and into the Tijuana terminal. Conversely, travelers flying into Tijuana International can enter the United States via the bridge, avoiding potentially hours-long waits at other border crossings. The cost to cross each way is $12.
Built by private investors for $120 million, the bridge is staffed by US Customs and Border Protection personnel who maintain the same security levels as other US airports and international crossings. The crossing is open only to travelers who are carrying a boarding pass for a flight that departs within twenty-four hours. The facility includes airline check-in desks, an arrivals area served by taxis and Uber, and a duty-free store. A sports bar is due to open in late 2016 or early 2017. In other words, Cross Border Xpress is a lot like other US airports, except the runway is in Mexico.
Photograph by David Harrison.
San Diego officials have been looking to expand the city’s airport capacity for years. The bridge helps, giving travelers in San Diego unprecedented access to dozens of destinations served by Tijuana’s airport—thirty-three Mexican cities in all, as well as Shanghai, which is served by three flights weekly. In fact, developers estimate that eventually more than 2 million air travelers will use the bridge annually.
The 390-foot metallic-purple bridge and the adjacent structures—designed by Stantec and the late Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta—are clean and modern but unlikely to inspire awe. Arriving travelers will find a courtyard, reflecting pool, and a smattering of palm trees and agave. Two spacious halls—one for arrivals, the other for departures—feature high, white ceilings; big, recessed orange lights; and Mexican onyx used decoratively on windows, lights, and globes.
Aesthetics aside, something more important is going on. The bridge just might represent a shift in perceptions. Rather than looking resolutely west, San Diego may be turning toward the south, however guardedly. Sure, many US citizens remain leery of Tijuana. Border security, crime, and undocumented migrant crossings are ever-present concerns. “But in San Diego, there are now subpopulations that care a whole lot about Tijuana,” says Everard Meade, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. For starters, economic ties between the two cities are on the rise. San Diego’s biotech industry is booming, and Mexican pharmaceutical production plays a critical role. In addition, half of all deported Mexicans land in Mexicali or Tijuana and many choose to stay there, leading friends and family in the United States to visit more often. And American foodies are flocking south with newfound zeal to sample celebrated Tijuana restaurants such as Misión 19 and wines produced in the Guadalupe Valley.
Photograph by David Harrison.
Attitudes south of the border are changing, too. While many in Tijuana still gaze north, others see a compelling future in Tijuana itself. One reason: wages in the city are higher than in much of Mexico. “Tijuana is booming,” Meade says. What’s more, middle-class Mexicans with tourist visas can cross into the United States as they please. At San Diego’s Fashion Valley Mall, home to Bloomingdale’s and other high-end shops, “half the people there on a Sunday are from Tijuana,” says Meade.
The bridge might even draw a few American travelers to Tijuana who wouldn’t otherwise make the trip south. “If people who’ve never crossed to Tijuana before now cross to get a flight to Cancún, maybe they’ll be a little more likely to think that crossing the border isn’t such a big deal,” says Melissa Floca, interim director of the Center for US-Mexico Studies at the University of California, San Diego. “Three months later, they might decide to go get tacos or watch a soccer match.” Tijuana’s Xolos soccer team is red hot and enjoys a devout following in San Diego.
The bridge itself could spur additional development, reshaping the border region, says John Kasarda, coauthor of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next. “There may be business people who wish to reside only in the US but who have quite a bit of business throughout Mexico, and this bridge gives them quick access,” he says. “And it could draw some businesses that for some reason don’t want to be located in Mexico but want to deliver their products through Mexico or Latin America. It’s all about accessibility.”
Derrik Chinn, an American who founded the Tijuana tour company Turista Libre to give outsiders a fresh view of the area, believes the bridge is an apt symbol of increased openness. “Whether it’s the new interest in the gastronomic scene, the soccer team, or simply a general shift in attitudes, people are discovering Tijuana with a new mindset,” he says. Indeed, on a recent afternoon, Cross Border Xpress was buzzing. The bridge gleamed under blue skies, and travelers were lining up at check-in counters preparing to cross into Tijuana. They were heading south, over a fortified border fence, toward a more interconnected future.