Tag: Labor

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Field of Dreams

Soccer-1

Romeo Guzmán

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Aurelio Sánchez, goalie. Atlas, 1967.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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From the Green of Vietnam to Toes Painted with Nirvana

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Photograph by Doug McCulloh.

Susan Straight

They came here because of war, though people might not think of it that way when sitting down in the massage chair to have Anna Nguyen or Ly Ngo bend gracefully over their fingertips and sit with curved back over their feet. But from the years of brutal conflict in Vietnam, the farmlands and jungles and colonial-era streets of Saigon, men who fought alongside Americans were sent to reeducation camps, tortured and starved, and their wives and children had to fend for themselves in the ruined land.

Now nail salons anchor nearly every strip mall and upscale shopping plaza. Excellent Nails, Star Nails, Hot Nails—thousands of doors out of which float the sharp smells of acetone and the lilting voices of women who paint delicate flower petals onto toenails, with a flick of the fingers and concentration.

At Nail Spa Boutique in Riverside, Kim Ngo sits on a low stool where she spends her eight-to-ten-hour days, tonight trimming excess cuticle from Charlie Freeman’s toenails, then rubbing off dead skin with a pumice tool, then rinsing the feet, and then massaging lotion into Freeman’s calves. Freeman, a realtor, comes here once a month, and so do her husband, daughter, son, and her seven-year-old granddaughter. She considers pedicures a necessary part of life, saying with laughter, “Red makes my toes look better.” Ngo finally strokes on the color. Twenty toes—Too Red.

Kim Ngo came to Riverside twenty-two years ago from Saigon. She murmurs in Vietnamese that she doesn’t miss Saigon so much because she makes a lot more money here, but there is wistfulness in her voice. Her husband was in a reeducation camp after the war. I saw Ngo last week in Target, and she gave me a hug. We stood in line together, her cart holding only bottled water and French-style baguettes for lunch at the salon; she glanced at other full shopping carts and said softly to me, “Americans all so tall—they have so much food. Look how short—I never had food in Vietnam.”

“Mani-pedi” is now a part of American lexicon because of women like Ngo, who left home. Minh Pham is here at Nail Spa today, translating. His sister-in-law Nga Pham is working on a manicure at the table near the door. Minh’s mother, age sixty-one, worked for twenty years at Nail Tyme in Corona and now works at Nail Soleil there.

Minh Pham:

My father was in reeducation camp for ten years for fighting alongside the Americans during the Vietnam War and for trying to flee the country by boat. He saw many of his comrades die from starvation, illness, and being overworked. My father was forced to go into a land-mine-filled forest and clear trees and till the land to grow fruits and vegetables. Once a day, he was fed a small bowl of rice and a tablespoon of saltwater. While working, he would pick wild mushrooms and vegetation from the forest to eat. To keep him alive, my mother quit college to sell cigarettes and used clothes in the streets of Saigon to buy my father medicine and dried fish to eat.

My mother had to find work less than a month after coming to America in order to keep our family from becoming homeless. Working in the nail shop was the best fit because she was not required to know English and she knew family friends who owned Nail Tyme. She liked working in the nail shop because the tips helped her pay for food and she could learn English from talking to her customers. But over time, she developed asthma from breathing in the fumes. Her only dreams were for her two sons to graduate from college and to visit her seven siblings still living in Vietnam.

The chairs are all filled on a Friday night just before Memorial Day. Ten women work at Nail Spa in a Target shopping plaza, opened fifteen years ago. My daughters came here for prom manicures, once or twice a year, and then for their brows. No one does my daughter Rosette’s brows like Kim Dang, who was always so kind, so patient, and when she asked about my family, I realized I knew little about hers. Her husband was also in a reeducation camp, and she came here twenty-two years ago from the Vietnamese city of Cuu Long.

The culture of Vietnamese-owned nail salons began in 1975, when twenty women refugees arrived at a tent city called Hope Village near Sacramento. The actress Tippi Hedren, famous for Hitchcock films, visited the refugee camp, and the women were fascinated with her painted nails. She arranged for them to attend beauty school, and an industry was born. Now, more than 80 percent of California nail salons are owned by Vietnamese-born or Vietnamese Americans, an estimated 50 percent of all American nail technicians are Vietnamese, and Orange County is the capital of the technology. From Florida to New York to Los Angeles, Vietnamese women dominate the business in salons that also offer eyebrow waxing, facials, and hair services. But sometimes customers forget how physically hard the technicians work, or that they’ve spent their own savings on technician training and licensing and the equipment of a salon, where specialized chairs cost $5,000 to $10,000. Now and then, customers berate technicians for a smudge, complain about a fill, make fun of their language, or accuse them of talking about customers in Vietnamese. Nail technicians say sadly that their work isn’t always appreciated, but men seem to love the pampering. Minh’s cousin’s favorite customer in Corona is an African American construction worker who comes for a mani-pedi twice a month, leaves big tips, and smiles.

Tonight, fifty to sixty women will relax in the big chairs, and ten women will pull up stools and sit and bend and stand and stretch, with the tiny bottles of vivid paint beside them like totems, like the big Buddha who graces the altar. Every salon has a Buddha surrounded by flowers and incense and fruit—offerings for a good day.

Ming Ming finishes Devan Benter’s toes with a hot pink called New York Summer. Ming came here in 2000 from Saigon, because her husband’s family was already in Riverside. Nearby, Sylvia Villa’s toenails are painted in the milky brown shade of Nirvana (reminding me of the color of the Mekong River), with an overcoat of Big Money, and she smiles.

Ly Ngo came here twenty-two years ago from Saigon, and now is the manager of Nail Spa. She works at the opaque Lucite table near the front, doing French tip manicures, keeping an eye on the sign-in sheet and the money, helping a customer into the ubiquitous flat-plastic sandals to wear while the polish dries. She listens patiently to a regular customer speak about her family, her work. Ngo and the others overhear cell phone arguments with boyfriends, sad stories of love lost. Do they whisper to each other about the past, about the foods or cousins they miss in Vietnam? Their customers will likely never know.

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Photographs from the Pham wedding.

In a 1970s television commercial for detergent, Madge the manicurist would listen sympathetically to a story about a woman with dishpan hands, and Madge would say, “Try Palmolive; you’re soaking in it!” Back then, my girlfriends and I painted our own fingernails, inexpertly, with polish we bought from Kmart. I had never met a manicurist in my life. Manicures cost $70 or more and were the province of the wealthy.

But during that same time, on that same television, images of America’s war in Vietnam terrified those watching as napalm fires raged to the sky and children ran away, as soldiers were airlifted in helicopters and fleeing Vietnamese civilians were huddled in those same helicopters, leaving their country behind.

Minh Pham:

The boat people left during the late 1970s. A lot of the people who escaped had to stay in the refugee camps until a country allowed them to enter. If they were not allowed to enter, then they were shipped back to Vietnam. Boat people landed everywhere: Southeast Asian countries (Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines). They waited to enter European countries and the U.S.

In the late 1980s to early 1990s, under Humanitarian Operation, families of Southern Vietnamese soldiers who suffered persecution from the Communists were allowed to come to America. Our family came under HO in 1994. My mother was studying literature and law in Vietnam before the Viet Cong invaded Saigon. My parents chose to come to America so my brother and I could go to college. My mother told me that if I stayed in Vietnam, I would be selling lottery tickets on the streets or making carpenter nails in a factory. My eighth aunt and her daughter, my female cousin, actually worked in a factory hammering nails until about two years ago. My other aunts helped their sister get a job selling clothes in the outdoor market.

Minh Pham graduated in 2013 with a Master of Fine Arts degree from University of California, Riverside, where he worked for three years on a book of essays and poetry about his parents. For him, his mother has bent over thousands of feet every year, and his father has worked hundreds of hours in a Chinese buffet restaurant. After twenty-two years, his mother has asthma, joint pain, and some trouble breathing. But she still works six days a week, brushing onto nails, ten at a time, the small strokes of color that will dry under her breath.

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Photograph by Doug McCulloh.

Susan Straight is an award-winning novelist and essayist from Riverside, California. Her work has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Lannan Prize, and the Kirsch Award for Lifetime Achievement from The Los Angeles Times.

Articles

Water, Space, and Placemaking

Dorie Dakin Perez

Like many so-called “boomerang” millennials, I found myself returning to the Central Valley to set down roots after living away for a decade. Looking at my hometown with new eyes and a burgeoning career as an urban anthropologist, the subject of change in insular Fresno and its spatial politics can be hard to swallow. More so, crisis conditions from the statewide drought had been an alarming yet helpful framing mechanism in which to visualize the physical and communal stratification of Valley life.

Water, or more specifically its absence, has helped shape the built environment of urbanization in Fresno. Such deficit thinking has continued to be a driving force in setting policy and placemaking practices[1] in the City of Fresno, even as the city currently pursues an effort to revitalize its aging infrastructure to meet twenty-first century economic demands. Most interestingly, the production of an imagined future by groups of non-state actors eager to stake their claim on the community is where memory and planning intersect, sometimes painfully.

As much as the Central Valley’s agricultural interests have long positioned themselves as the major economic base for the region, the drought has revealed the lingering dispossession caused by such uneven concentrations of wealth. Regional concerns echo those claims of dispossession, highlighted in the media coverage of dry, unincorporated areas feeling the worst effects of the drought. A 2015 example of this was in the especially hard hit region of rural East Tulare County, where a humanitarian crisis occurred due to major water shortages and a lack of stable infrastructure. Yet it is the City of Fresno and the process of urbanization where such discourses of cultural deficit meet an engaged social placemaking through practices of memory and a general rethinking of the politics of space.

My ethnographic scholarship uses the recent five year drought, and the inequality it has made visible across different cultural platforms of space and place, to understand the Central Valley as a culture of historic extraction, be it natural resources, labor or public space. This social memory of dispossession[2] is exemplified  in the ways that nonstate actors in the City of Fresno, and the greater Central Valley, seek to revise social-spatial projects. Specifically, the push to stake a grassroots claim in the revitalization of the inner urban core of downtown Fresno, as well as the reimagining of space in and around the city, is part of this new project of place that small-scale community organizations are using to highlight the sunshine and noir of urban change. My use of the term “urban,” in a region known for its rural life and agricultural economy, is deliberate; “The urban is not a unit, but a process of transformation unfolding in diverse sites, territories and landscapes.”[3]

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The subject of water is never far behind when discussing land use policy and the Central Valley’s built environment. Changes in the conceptualization of these two resources—water and space—are the mechanisms of new social projects happening in Fresno. Through the application of a theoretical framework borrowed from urban geography, Henri Lefebvre’s idea of the “right to the city,” the twin issues of water and space are helpful for their potential to assist in making these projects of social construction manifested.

The right to the city is, therefore, far more than a right of individual access to the resources that the city embodies: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city more after our heart’s desire. It is, moreover, a collective rather than an individual right since changing the city inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power over the processes of urbanization.[4]

Urban development and water resource management by competing interests seek different ends to their work, and yet together shape the social and physical landscape of the Central Valley. Two key case studies are the focus of my analysis that convene the spatial politics of place with the histories of dispossession that have become part of the collective social landscape.

Urban development and water resource management by competing interests seek different ends to their work, and yet together shape the social and physical landscape of the Central Valley.

Water and its infrastructure needs in the Central Valley were made material in the dry fountains along the Fulton Mall in downtown Fresno. From initial private investment to haphazard public enjoyment, the fountains once stood as beacons of modernity, offering shoppers a spot to linger as they returned to the revamped “cool” of 1960s urbanism chic. The fountains, all twenty-two of them, were in Fall 2015 mostly dried up and filled with trash or repurposed as planters. Refilled and drained at random, their visible deterioration echoed the nearly empty space of the Mall’s decaying Mid-Century Modern infrastructure.  “Emptiness” remains a relative term. In the perception of the mainstream shopping public of Fresno, a lack of middle class shoppers present reads as evidence of emptiness, as ‘empty’ despite the “hundreds of people, mostly of color and of lower socioeconomic status, who walked the Mall each day.”[5] Illegibility, of both a new kind of patron, who is not the white middle-class consumer benefiting and partaking in gentrification processes, and the natural resources like fountains and trees through which water flows on the Mall is inscribed in its initial problematization.

The Fulton Mall’s fountains, part of the initiative to find local artists who could help curate the space for a 1960s consumer base, and their removal as not representing the natural conditions of the Valley environment exemplify the different conceptualizations of public goods and a changing vision for the future. This decline, tracked for decades by The Fresno Bee daily newspaper and local business community newsletters, is part of the contestation of space and place that is underscored by the recent drought conditions that made water a necessary but insufficient condition for change in the Central Valley imaginary.

Blackstone Avenue is another dispirited infrastructural legacy, once the “center of town” where commercial interests were centered below Shaw Avenue away from the civic institutions of the city’s downtown. Similar to how rural space in the Valley has been divided up and intensified throughout the twentieth century, the commercial space on Blackstone has transitioned from retail to a concentration of auto and auto-service related enterprises, owned by non-residents who are seen by many within the transitioning neighborhoods around the central artery as the cause of urban blight that bleeds southward towards the neglected downtown. Both the Mall and Blackstone Avenue are the foci of revitalization efforts by government functionaries led by former Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s “I Believe in Downtown”[6] campaign and community nonprofits who seek to tie physical revitalization with social transformation through engaged electoral participation and economic investment. The phantom force of water—its accessibility, disappearance, ties to nature as key to physical improvement and regulation as part of the broader technologies of power overlapping in downtown—is always present as part of a larger discussion of resources that have helped reproduce histories of dispossession and extraction that leave “ordinary cities”[7] like Fresno a contested social terrain.

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California, as a product and site of cultural production, is an outward-facing entity that valorizes a mythic, encrypted self-narrative of opportunity envisioned by generations of booster elites[8] eager to develop the American West. California’s “sunniness” is coupled with its inherent noir,[9] a hidden power phenomena that keeps its less desirable yet essential parts in shadow. The Central Valley is where those dual forces of noir and sunshine intersect, where the issues of urbanization and historical patterns of rural settlement coexist uncomfortably within the California project. An area east of the Coastal Range that includes the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys, from Bakersfield to Chico, the Valley has always been socially embattled when not ignored as a political backwater. “Not much about California, on its own preferred terms, has encouraged its children to see themselves as connected to one another. The separation, of north from south, and even more acutely of west from east, from urban coast from the agricultural valleys… was profound, fueled by the rancor of water wars and by less tangible but even more rancorous differences in attitude and culture.”[10] As Gerry Haslam has argued, the Central Valley serves as a liminal cultural space, the “Other California,” left out of a Southern California-centered focus on economic opportunity and cultural production:

I began to look more closely at the physical environment and saw things I should have noticed before. Just north of where I had grown up, I realized, lay a maimed environment, the bed of the largest freshwater lake in the West, now dried, plowed and irrigated: What had happened?[11]

This naturally-occurring ecological event has intensified to unheard-of costs to human development. The statewide drought was deemed a disaster in 2014 by Gov. Jerry Brown and subject to federal intervention by 2015. The drought’s slow burn into the collective consciousness of those not in the business of agriculture[12]  has helped unearth some of the more human disasters and longstanding internal contradictions that make explicit the social constructions of place that re-emphasize the Valley’s history as a land of physical and social dispossession and struggle for cultural significance. The research agenda that informs this work is part of a broader focus on the anthropology of Fresno’s downtown redevelopment that informs my preliminary dissertation research on the cultural construction of urban space. Over the course of the last two years, I attended public meetings at the state, city and regional levels (Fresno City Council Meeting, 4 and 27 February, 2014; State Workshop on Water, January 2015; Kings River Irrigation District Board Meeting, August 2015) on urban redevelopment and water policy, as well as conducted unstructured and semi-structured interviews with informants working on these two issues within the city. One key part of this preliminary ethnographic analysis has been the data collected through fieldnotes from participant-observation efforts. I worked on projects, went to meetings and attended special events with various community organizations working outside the confines of political campaigns or government office.

Central Valley farmers have long fought against the movement of water from Northern California to the southern part of the state, using “L.A.” as a euphemism for waste, entitlement and bad planning policies.

The theoretical framework of Lefebvre’s “right to the city” can be used to understand California’s historical spatialization and put the recent water crisis into socio-political context. Henri Lefebvre, the primary member of the Marxist revival in mid-twentieth century cultural geography scholarship,[13] argued that the city’s inherent benefits—social, political, and economic—were made possible by the diversity of people, opportunity and intensification of space and development. These social and economic resources found in cities should not be hindered by privatization as a phenomenon in a city available for public benefit, including the surrounding areas. This call for keeping some things, like economic markets and open urban space, public and publicly-administered was positioned squarely against the creeping privatization and divestment of public resource management that cities sought to systemize in the latter half of the twentieth century.[14] Public goods, Lefebvre argued, were the only things not made into commodities for exchange by the economically-privileged few who gained the most from capitalism’s structural inequities. This idea was part of his more general discussion of the social production of space[15] as something categorized and made into physical and representation modes for the organization and stratification of human development. Thus the built environment, and policies of land use and production, are part of this codification and reinscription of capitalistic social organization, where space makes some welcome and bars others from its production.

City/farm, urban/rural—the dispossession of space and the extraction of resources for a global market is a process that the Central Valley has always taken part in despite competing concerns over growing urbanization and the political economy and industrial concerns of agriculture. A recent focus on water is one of many historical cycles of political attention and eventual obfuscation. Central Valley farmers have long fought against the movement of water from Northern California to the southern part of the state, using “L.A.” as a euphemism for waste, entitlement and bad planning policies. For the last decade, signs along Highway 99 shout slogans like “Food Grows Where Water Flows,” vilifying the names of those legislators who vote for more environmental protections that limit industrial water use. This geographic division of resources and power are part of the political project of the state’s dualism; a shiny attractive Coast and a shadowed hinterland in complete symbiosis, the city’s “contado” that Gary Brechin wrote, “feeds the people,”[16] yet remains unknowable.

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Decades of benign neglect of water in the form of a lack of regulatory processes across the Central Valley has led to the depletion of groundwater from local water tables. Water meters that measure and charge for home water use are recent additions to the utility bills of Central Valley residents, a factor that historically increased the illegibility of its importance in the daily lives of residents. This lack of attention, given that other urban areas have for decades worked on multiple levels of governance to limit and control water use, poses questions about water’s centrality and value in Valley life. Was there a simplistic feeling of material abundance in the landscape, or rather, did power elites controlling the development of the Valley landscape see little need to quantify the use of water even as urban areas like Fresno started to compete with industrial agricultural operations for finite material resources? These type of questions about the relationship between the material conditions of Valley life ask questions that efforts like urban revitalization and placemaking seem to want to answer, the social response to physical and natural droughts.

This water crisis, similar to the “urban crisis” of the 1960s in its self-creation mythology,[17] has afforded the social space in which different alternative imaginings of place and the politics of belonging can be articulated. Several groups have taken up the charge of not letting a crisis go to waste, using different but significant points of entry to discuss dispossession in urban form. The role of activism around issues of equity and resource distribution, the special relationship between space and water, development and history, has been ripe for discussion. At a regional level, dry wells in East Tulare County, south of Fresno, have highlighted the lack of infrastructure and muted governmental response to the physical needs of a largely poor community of Latinos. This inattention has spurred efforts by local organizations and non-state actors like the Valley Water Center and California Rural Legal Assistance to organize a disadvantaged community and link their concerns for the continuation of life in a culturally cohesive yet politically unincorporated part of the county to larger variables about representation and engagement in the formal political process. “All local residents should participate for, although corporate boards elsewhere may control the deeds to much land here, they do not know the call of a dove or the chill of river water slicing from the Sierra Nevada or the dawn smell of a freshly mown alfalfa field.”[18] Countering the power of a decentralized planning regime and decades of developmental policy that are exclusive by their very nature is used as the mechanism by which the historiography of the Central Valley organizes its major themes.

The contestation over the revitalization of the Fresno Fulton Mall is where urban space and its complicated place in the cultural imaginings of place are centered in this analysis. An aging twentieth century pedestrian center in the heart of downtown Fresno, the history and cultural narrative of the Fresno Fulton Mall is contentious. Recent efforts to revitalize the three-block area as part of a national post-recession movement to gentrify deindustrialized urban areas, as well as a nod to the market demands of cities’ endless search for tax revenue, have frayed the tempers of longtime denizens who seek to preserve the space according to its ethos of Mid-Century Modern aesthetics.

This project is personal to me, challenging the division between emic and etic approaches to anthropological study. As one born in Fresno and gone for over a decade, the place-memory of home still retains meaning for me, especially in the older areas like the Fulton Mall that are untouched by urban redevelopment. Marx Arax understands this as part of returning home: “The stakes always seemed higher [in Fresno] than when I was writing about L.A. The reasons were obvious in one respect—it was my home—and yet I sensed a deeper explanation that had to do with how we as a society related to place…. It has been a messy affair, but I am still here, trying to put my finger on this place.”[19] As the world urbanizes and the process of urbanization takes varied forms that go beyond the simplistic dichotomies of rural vs. urban, suburban vs. urban,[20] the Mall has become meaningful to me and a new generation of citizen artists, activists, and planners.

Built to much fanfare in the early 1960s, the Mall became one of the first open-air pedestrian malls at the beginning of the suburban mall era. Anchored by J.C. Penny and other major department stores, the mall was the first major site of concentrated consumerism in Fresno, and attracted shoppers with its park-like setting. The choice to redevelop an already urban space was deliberate—planners including the nationally-recognized planner Victor Gruen and landscape architect Garrett Eckbo[21] wanted to bring the suburban shopping experience to downtown Fresno, already in decline as citizens moved northward. Its success at the time of its opening in 1964 was quickly overshadowed by the creation of newer enclosed malls like Manchester Center in 1969 and Fashion Fair Mall on Shaw Avenue in the 1970s.[22] As fewer shoppers came downtown, the Fulton Mall became a place where community events were held in Mariposa Plaza, the largest of the open areas in the three block mall setting, and a free speech stage was created as a commemoration of the site of a labor protest in the 1920s.

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The turn from the Mall’s original plan as a place middle-class residents shop into de facto parkland for the urban poor was due to unimpeded and steady decline, as the vast majority of the major department stores left in the 1980s. The Mall’s genesis speaks to a planning ideology of another era, and contemporary proposals that seek to either crystallize its history or revamp it altogether manifest the competing pressures of real estate and community memory that counter each other within the sphere of Fresno planning politics. As it stands today, the Mall is under construction to be transformed into Fulton Street, reopening late 2017. The approved proposal to open the pedestrian mall to vehicular traffic and add over a one hundred parking spaces was stymied by a lawsuit filed by supports of the Downtown Fresno Coalition (DFC), which sought to keep the Mall a pedestrian-friendly place and thus were behind the unsuccessful push to get the site registered as a California Historic Landmark. As such efforts indicate, the mall serves as a place of nostalgia and distinction for many Fresnans despite its diminished state. The DFC utilizes the ideas of walkability, the need for the preservation of democratic public space, as well as green space in an urbanizing world, as the emotional pleas of an underdog argument bent on mobilizing the affective nature of place attachment.[23]  The death of several trees by lack of water oft-rumored to be a coordinated effort by the city to encourage blight and make its case for redevelopment stronger, echoing a similar fight over changes in a historic Central American urban space discussed by anthropologist Setha Low:

The sense of loss in these stories is not with the place itself, but with the decoration and social participants, yet the stories communicate a sense of place attachment that has been disrupted physically, but not in memory, by ongoing social change.[24]

The emotionality and use of memory in the argument for preservation touch on issues of aesthetics, in the access to public art and environmentalism, representing the interests of the denizen-activists of the DFC. Decidedly white, upper-middle class and college-educated, very few members live near Downtown and the Mall and most don’t visit its businesses and services. The Mall, to them, is understood as parkland and a place where public art can be enjoyed.  The cost and prestige of the public art, led by some of the artists themselves, are often highlighted in the materials produced by the group. The transition from mainstream consumer sites like J.C. Penny to smaller, local retailers as well as the administrative offices of county agencies that cater to a largely Latino audience has been an uncomfortable one. The racial politics of space are deliberately softened by the social memory of postwar prosperity that centers on white consumers. As part of a series of events to mark its fiftieth anniversary of operations in 2014, a local filmmaker created a film that made the Mall its main subject. “We certainly don’t need more botanicas,” one woman commented during a Q&A session after viewing the documentary. Screenings and a series of walking tours were hosted in 2015 and 2016. This was also a response to the walking tours that are offered by a competing business association centering the Mall in a discussion of urban blight, focusing on future development plans in 2017 for the space that include private real estate.

Another significant project of place where space and water play a central developmental role is the A Better Blackstone neighborhood redevelopment project, northward in Fresno’s central core area. Blackstone Avenue serves as Fresno’s High Street, its central North-South conduit that shuttles people into and out of downtown, paralleling the main Highway 41 that intersects with Highway 99, the Valley’s main site of passage. Its demise has been well-documented, echoing concerns for a better investment of place:

No place with even a modicum of self-worth would allow such a disgrace, much less right down its spine. I venture it’s more complicated than that—and more simple. I doubt that anyone in City Hall actually planned on disfiguring Fresno this way. The Boulevard more or less developed, downtown to river, a century of progress, without any countervailing force ever saying “no.” In the process, its belief only got replicated.[25]

A programmatic arm of a local nonprofit giant, A Better Blackstone is a multiyear project that is both ideational and outcome-specific. “We have come together to imagine what it would look like for Blackstone to thrive once again.”[26]  In its first months of work, the program sought to collect data on every business on the avenue itself as well as initiate direct contact with residents of the surrounding neighborhoods, no small feat.

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At a community event called “Imagine Blackstone,” Summer 2015, local residents were asked to participate in this reimagining, both the possibilities of place in the central district and the realism of its current state of neglect. A photovoice project led by staff was displayed, and viewers were asked to stop and get their event pass stamped along a curated path of projects related to city services, civic education and spatial imagery. A fully stamped event pass meant free tacos and drinks on the hot August tarmac of Susan B. Anthony Elementary School. Pop-up parklets, like those trumpeted by urban civic leaders as solutions to the limited public space of gentrifying cities, were created using rolled up Astrotrurf and DIY park benches.  Asked to take the lead on this exhibit display twenty minutes before the gate opened, I gamely tried my hand at curation and was assigned a twelve year old assistant who worked the scotch tape. There was a clear agenda of engagement that was being asked of participants by A Better Blackstone staffers: we as volunteers were tasked to stimulate conversation by asking how Blackstone is popularly and individually conceptualized (“bad” and “ugly” were common answers), and what, if any, factors could improve the thoroughfare (“Trees!”).

Methodologically and logistically, these conversations were happening on several fronts: Participants at the event wanted to know what photovoice as a method was, and second, why did all these photos matter to the redevelopment of their neighborhood? An ethnographic research methodology[27] used by visual anthropologists, photovoice is both empirically sophisticated and immediately accessible. A photovoice project is typically a carefully administered elicitation of visual data collection through initial discussions of themes about a certain phenomenon, then cameras given to those involved as subjects. The ensuing photos and captions are pulled together to gain understanding of one’s emic view of the world-made material by the photographs, and narratives captured that expand discussion on the community-developed central theme in the user’s own voice. Here, local students and their parents were asked to take photos of their neighborhood around Blackstone Avenue that they deemed were either positive or negative depictions of local life, and then asked to write down why they chose those photos, describing them in their own words. Central Valley water, as ever, was omnipresent as a thematic core of the project yet hidden behind an understanding of issues that made it seem only tangential to the goals of placemaking and revitalization. Dead trees, stagnant canals and broken curbs were the problems of infrastructure cited by many participants in their commentary. A lack of water, and lack of nature, or rather, its re-envisionment as pop-up spaces of temporary comfort on the hot summer tarmac of Susan B. Anthony Elementary were evidence of the creativity that such spatial deficits could engender.

Water’s role as the unacknowledged shaper of events, even in its absence, is correlated with the reproduction of a deficit-centric cultural discourse found here in the tactics of Fresno interest groups.

The activism and organizational engagement of A Better Blackstone on issues of space are central to what Michel De Certeau understands as tactics used to make sense of urban planning regimes by residents looking to exert spatial agency in a complex spatial arrangement,[28] and to a larger extent, is “tactical urbanism” in action.  The bottom up, self-directed work of A Better Blackstone functions in a liminal space—quasi-governmental due to its close relationship with regional arms of government and public orientation as part of a forty year-old nonprofit, yet privately-funded by larger state and national foundation grants for goals that center on social justice and the promotion of public health.

Imagined landscapes were the goal of “walking audits” of the corridor during the hot summer months. Strollers were pushed by volunteers up and down the street in an effort to collect data and physically embody the imagination of what could be. Infrastructure needs were documented in great detail; wheels stuck in concrete cracks were photographed as evidence of infrastructural neglect. The search for shade in 100 degree temperatures was a constant reminder that nature had been categorically eliminated on Blackstone Avenue. A 10 a.m. walk in August 2015 found two groups of mothers directed in both Spanish and English by A Better Blackstone staffers, upon whom seeing the ten feet of shade found near a bus stop north of Olive Avenue broke out into happy exaltations. Apparently shade is a historic vestige in vehicle-centered planning. Open irrigation canals that crossed the city were noted for being concentrated in older, now poorer parts of town, brimming with dark fast-moving water that seemed to tempt in the summer heat.

The role volunteer groups, political organizations and nonprofit service agencies play in the discussion of urbanization has proved the singular counterweight in the face of the capitalist political economy of city leadership forced to play an unending game of growth liberalism. Whether the aims of the ten year A Better Blackstone project will be fulfilled is an ongoing question, but the actions taken by its leadership and that of the Downtown Fresno Coalition to fight perceived threats of spatial inequality are indicators of deep place attachment[29] by historically overlooked groups. The attachment reproduced by socially-ascribed memory implicitly ties place as the physical bearer of culture within the production of space.[30] Water’s role as the unacknowledged shaper of events, even in its absence, is correlated with the reproduction of a deficit-centric cultural discourse found here in the tactics of Fresno interest groups.

Water is the phantom subject of interest that spurs political movement on space and place in Fresno and throughout the broader Central Valley. The planning regime that produced the Fulton Mall, and the modern effort to revitalize it amidst calls to preserve its significance as a site of history and social memory for many city residents are cyclical development projects that further the production of space, as all states must be productive in the highly privatized spatial project that is the Central Valley. Yet it is this same planning regime that has created the blighted Blackstone Avenue, where water’s disappearance in the form of trees and urban nature are also felt. Understanding the social response to urban physical intervention is my ongoing effort to capture ethnographically the process of change and renewal that stem from these issues of place attachment, and from within a historical framework of deficit that has subsumed conceptions of the Valley for so long. Through the distribution and rethinking of water as a central resource, a human right rather than a commodity, a naturally-occurring resource to be redistributed by humans, its role in reshaping Fresno as a political project and cultural production makes visible the fault lines across which denizens and their institutions must negotiate. For me, it is the price of coming home.

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Notes

  • All photos taken by Sydney Santana.

[1] James Holston, Insurgent Citizenship (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).

[2] Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

[3] Neil Brenner and C. Schmid, “The ‘Urban Age’ in Question,” International Journal Urban and Regional Research 38 (2014): 731–55.

[4] David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (London: Verso Press, 2012).

[5] Henry Delcore, “Pedestrian Survey,” Institute of Public Anthropology, California State University, Fresno (2010).

[6] Downtown Fresno Partnership, “Do You Believe in Downtown?” video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mpX02x91OiE, 14 March 2013.

[7] Jennifer Robinson, Ordinary Cities: Between Modernity and Development (New York: Routledge, 2007).

[8] Robert Self, American Babylon: Race and Struggle for Postwar Oakland (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003).

[9] Mike Davis, City of Quartz (London: Verso Books, 1990).

[10] Joan Didion, Where I Was From (New York: Knopf, 2012), 64.

[11] Gerald Haslam, The Other California (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2000), xv.

[12] Mark Grossi and Marc Benjamin, “In San Joaquin Valley, Drought Fight Has Landed In the City,” The Fresno Bee, 22 August 2015, http://www.fresnobee.com/news/local/article31823472.html.

[13] Michael Dear, “The Los Angeles School of Urbanism: An Intellectual History,” Urban Geography, 24 (2013): 493-509.

[14] Matthew Gandy, Concrete and Clay (Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2012).

[15] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991).

[16] Gary Brechin, Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

[17] Thomas J. Sugrue, Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996).

[18] Gerald Haslam, Haslam’s Valley (Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2005), 206.

[19] Marx Arax, West of the West: Dreamers, Believers, Builders and Killers in the Golden State (New York: Public Affairs Books, 2009), 27.

[20] Neil Brenner, “Globalization as Reterritorialization: The Rescaling of Urban Governance in the European Union,” Urban Studies, 36 (1999): 431.

[21] Marc Treib and Dorothée Imbert, Garrett Eckbo: Modern Landscapes for Living. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

[22] Elliott Balch and Joe Moore, “The (Broken) Heart of Our City: A Downtown Timeline” (City of Fresno, 2012), https://www.fresno.gov/mayor/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2016/10/FultonMallTimeline.pdf.

[23] Irwin Altman and Setha Low, Place Attachment: A Conceptual Inquiry (New York: Plenum Press, 1992), 23.

[24] Setha Low, On the Plaza (San Antonio: University of Texas Press, 2000).

[25] Mark Arax, “Blackstone is the Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” The Fresno Bee, 13 December 2014, http://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/article19528338.html.

[26] A Better Blackstone Association brochure, 2015, http://www.betterblackstone.com/.

[27] Aline Gubrium and Krista Harper, Participatory Visual and Digital Research in Action (New York: Routledge, 2015).

[28] Michel De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).

[29] Irwin Altman and Setha Low, Place Attachment: A Conceptual Inquiry (New York: Plenum Press, 1992), 23.

[30] Yi Fu Tuan, Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1974).

 

 Dorie Dakin Perez is doctoral candidate in political anthropology and urban history at the University of California, Merced. Her research focuses on the cultural meaning-making of urban space and public policy as cultural change. Previously, she worked for the State Legislature and the Google X Self-Driving Car project. Her work can be found at www.dorieperez.org.

Copyright: © 2017 Dorie Dakin Perez. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Articles

The Sinatras of Capitalism

Julia Ingalls

On the porch that evening in August 2004, still wearing his plastic ID bracelet from the ER, my father laughed. The mental blowout, which doctors diagnosed as transient global amnesia, was his memorable way of retiring. I couldn’t blame him. He’d clocked sixty years on earth, most of it spent dodging shrapnel of one kind or another. As an infant, he sustained second degree burns when the windows of his house blew out from an explosion at Hercules’ powder factory, knocking over a pot of boiling water onto his high-chair. As an adult, he stayed inside his military-issue roadgrader to avoid being picked off by the Viet Cong. He’d been married twice, raised two kids, and been involved in enough lawsuits to have estranged his sister and chastened his cheating former business partner. He’d had enough of the unceasing flood of methheads and manipulators and emotionally retarded that made up our customer base.

Maybe there was a time when it made sense for the next generation to carry forward the old processes, but I didn’t perceive a future in this. With its dipping tanks and fin-pressing machines and toxic chemicals, my family’s automotive aftermarket company seemed less like a living entity and more like one of those historical recreation villages populated by actors with child-garnishments and prison records. However, as the newly appointed twenty-four year old operational manager of our family business, this was now officially my problem. My parents had been running this business for eleven years. Neither one wanted to continue doing so, but the mechanism for not running it while still making a living had yet to manifest. It didn’t matter if manufacturing in the U.S. was waning, or if globalization had skyrocketed the price of raw materials we used regularly like sheets of copper and brass; my family’s well-being depended on me figuring out how to make this business profitable again. A dopey business broker had been bringing potential buyers to the office like a hawk wrangler, giving them a hasty glance at our financials before urging them to fly free. And they kept flying free.

As a recent college graduate who wanted to be a writer, the world of business was not my first choice. I loved studying people for their humanity, not for how they could benefit the bottom line. But that was a position of privilege; the new reality of managing a company for the sake of my family would require me to put aside my love of literature and use my powers of observation to study some very ugly business indeed.

• • •

Over New Year’s Eve weekend in December 2016, my friend Paul, an architect, his boyfriend Jose, a buyer for a major retailer, and I, an essayist, were lounging poolside in a rented house in Palm Springs. The thing I’ve always loved about Paul is that while he is capable of clearly interpreting reality, he does so without judgment: he relates to each person he meets as if that person has value, even if that value isn’t necessarily one he shares. He understands, for example, that without a brick-layer, brick will not be laid. If the brick-layer is having a problem, Paul needs to understand how to solve it, not simply blow it off as being a menial labor concern.

We were trying to enjoy ourselves in the waning weeks of the Obama administration, before the swearing-in of reality TV fascism. The result of the election, which was being blamed on working class voters, seemed simplified to me. Or rather, it seemed to be the result of exploiting an invisible class breakdown between those who preferred to work with their hands versus those who preferred to work with their minds. As we switched from mimosas to wine, Paul spoke about relating to different sets of people he encountered in his work; everyone from the clients to government officials to on-site construction workers.

I met Paul in 2007 when we were both working for Frank Gehry. I had started work at the architect’s office shortly after successfully restructuring the pricing architecture of my parents’ business. Initially, to save money at the business, I had laid off the most recent hire, a phlegmatic receptionist. It wasn’t her fault that she had to be let go, but she was the most expendable of an already tight crew of ten. I offered to write her the best recommendation letter known to humanity, and then I took on her job of answering the phone in addition to what I was already doing, which included the books, handling HR issues, managing sales and production, and negotiating pricing with vendors. The business needed to turn a profit. But how? All the fat had been cut.

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I had learned, after some intensive late nights of studying our manufacturing process in detail, just how vital each member of the crew was. Every person had a highly specialized skill, and it had taken years for them to learn how to do things like bend metal beautifully, or solder without leaving embarrassing stains and spurts all over the finished product. As much as a novel is heavily dependent upon its characters more than some abstract notion of plot, the business depended on its workforce more than some corporate formula for success. Although technically people could be replaced, the time and energy spent in retraining someone else would simply be money out of pocket. I was not a slash and burn operator; I had to find a way to keep the essential staff while making the company make more money.

Finally, I realized the problem was the solution. As I discovered later, it went against a primary principle taught at Harvard Business School, which was that businesses needed to offer a high volume loss-leader product that would draw in a larger customer base to the core business, but here’s why it worked: we were selling a luxury product. Nobody needs a handcrafted radiator for their 1912 Model T the way they need a pair of pants or a bottle of milk. We were selling a tangible item, but we were also selling an experience, a taste of the good life. By definition, luxury isn’t cheap.

And yet wealth, despite what rich people tell you, has very little to do with money. Wealth is a state of mind; money is the intoxicant that often makes reaching this state possible. But true wealth, in its varying forms, is not about Scrooge McDucking your way through an unending vault of officially-stamped lucre. To be wealthy is to be infallible: and for this reason, it is bound less with numbers and more with perception.

As an example, you can be wealthy on a street corner in Southern California, simply because it is Southern California. Pay a hefty Malibu mortgage or squat in some unpermitted lean-to in a Culver City backyard and you’re still waking up to daily splendor. The ocean lolls around like an untapped 401(k); the palm trees languidly bend like house cats. It’s a perpetual waking dream, a sun-dappled sanctuary 500 square miles in size. Why bother with unpleasant emotions when every available surface is bursting with beauty? This is the lazy wealth of abundant natural resources, and it used to extend in slightly less photogenic form across the whole of the United States.

This lazy wealth was a kind of ignorance that stemmed from a hard-won luck, which is to say we economically excelled in World War II and felt like we would collectively never have to work again. We would become the operational managers of the world, occasionally ordering the clean-up of a spill of communism in some third-world aisle.

It helped that during the twentieth century, China was doing its somnambulist empire thing: it would twitch occasionally in its sleep, but for the most part it kept everyone in the world entertained with its communist mumblings and dream-logic insistence on One Time Zone. Now and then, it also ran over dissidents with tanks. However, during the first decade of the twenty-first century, China finally stirred awake and began to heavily invest in industry. They partnered with a variety of European and American firms, intent on providing manufactured goods at a much cheaper price. The deal was, they would give us the cheap goods as long as we provided the instructions on how to make them. Raw materials like copper, zinc, and steel correspondingly shot up in price as China began manufacturing everything in the world.

Which meant if you were a soup-to-nuts manufacturer who had never had to compete with the demand for supplies of a billion-person workforce, your pricing architecture was quietly experiencing massive dry-rot.

For this reason, my family’s business model, the one that had paid mortgages and helped send children to school and funded a lifestyle that could be described as upper middle class, was no longer working. It wasn’t because of shitty management or untrustworthy employees or even the pressures of the newly environmentally regulatory government. It was simply a casualty of the times, a charming but outmoded curmudgeon in the reality of a fiercely competitive globalized economy.

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With all that in mind, I decided to increase the end user price of our basic radiators from $425 to $850 with a mass-mailed letter and the knuckle-whitened hand of a Russian roulette player. There was a gasp, there were a few phone calls, and then… the number of orders stayed about the same, but our bottom line slipped effortlessly from the red into the black.

By December 2005, there was that sense of renewal that comes after the end of a long illness. By February 2006, the dopey business broker was gone, replaced by an ad on Craigslist and a sharp-eyed former food executive who was tired of drinking expensive sake with corporate fools and their hookers in Tokyo bars. He was looking for a nice, quiet business in scenic San Luis Obispo county where he could bring his dog to work. And, after replacing all the insulation of the pricing infrastructure, I delivered this ex-exec exactly what he was looking for: a small but genuinely profitable business that overlooked a cow pasture.

• • •

When I moved to L.A. to pursue writing and needed a job to support myself, winding up at Frank Gehry’s was an unexpected delight. FOGA even had Bagel Fridays, a luxury my parents could never afford at their business. Yet other than the fact that Bono and Jeremy Irons were in the Outlook contacts, the vibe was the same. Management (of which I was frequently exposed to by virtue of being an executive assistant) and labor (who I hung out with after work at various bars and cramped Venice apartments) didn’t trust each other. Each felt the other had a superior deal. From management’s perspective, they were providing a guaranteed paycheck to a bunch of whining, candy-assed employees who only had to do their jobs. To labor, the dictates of their bosses seemed to drop out of the sky with a randomness and ferocity that was alienating.

Both parties had a point. But what surprised me was that nobody on either side ever felt comfortable airing their true grievances to each other. Privately, it reinforced my childhood dream to become a writer, where I was neither the evil overlord of an aftermarket automotive company nor on the bottom rung on the Pritzker Prize ladder. But this essential divide still troubles me. Nearly a decade later, after publishing dozens of pieces I’m proud of and many that now simply bemuse me, I wonder that we are so quick to adapt to these roles, the notion of employee/employer. What would it take to recognize each other as being equally valuable, to stop seeing each other as being so starkly divided in the workplace?

I suppose the strong memory of my parent’s business persists because I’ve reached a level in my profession where I regularly encounter V.S. Naipaul knock-offs (that is, the writers who after four years of their degree, from Oxford or wherever, can start to write and needed no other profession) and it took me a long time to stop feeling a little dirty around them, as if my need to figure out how to support my entire family and a staff of 10 was somehow shameful. There are brilliant people out there who have never worked at an assembly line and never will, and I admire their talent, even if many of them came with trust-funds or connections.

Running the business wasn’t exactly art, I admit, although it was highly conceptual. The demands of having to become analytical at the expense of my emotions fractured a part of me I didn’t know could be broken until it was. It took nearly every damn minute in between then and now to become whole again, to become a person who could value pure feeling the way artists are supposed to value feeling. But the thing I can’t stand in those who have never had to sacrifice themselves for others is their lack of compassion.

As Paul, surrounded by the foaming waters of the hot tub, spoke about understanding how to relate to a variety of people in order to accomplish a goal, I felt sadness that the country, and the larger world, had become so immune to compassion. We were going to allow a small cabal of oligarchs to divide us because we were too angry to admit that we all needed each other, that each service we provided was valuable in its own way. Superiority in work, like superiority in life, almost always causes more problems than it solves. But the worst sin is insularity; refusing to reach out to others, to not consider someone else’s life as having as much meaning and worth as your own, is ultimately the downfall of every single civilization. In a way, we knew at the end of 2016 that the country had hired someone to be its Hater in Chief. And why? Because a certain segment of the population wanted their jobs back?

I don’t think it’s as much about the literal jobs as it is about the sense of collective purpose. Telling any group of people that they just have to suck it up and abandon their existence is never going to be a hot sell. But appreciating their skills—in this case, the willingness to do hard, manual work, day in and day out—and understanding how to apply those skills to a newly engineered economic model is. We need to invest in new infrastructure in our cities, and there’s no reason why we can’t pay people a living wage to do it. Everyone benefits from this model, and everyone’s skills are used. It’s about remaking America into a collective vision, not a nation of wounded halves.

I mourn this jilted wedding of economy and ecology on a daily basis. Once the world’s biggest company and the center of American manufacturing, General Motors spent the final decades of the 20th century withering away into obsolescence. Their leadership had refused to acknowledge that competing on a global scale required a complete shift in thinking. Instead of manufacturing gas-guzzling behemoths, we should have been producing electric cars to reflect the consumer desire for energy-efficient, environmentally-friendly vehicles. In 2007, this old way of thinking would finally hit the wall when GM and most of the major American financial institutions finally had to declare bankruptcy or go out of business. But like the Sinatras of capitalism, they did it their way, right up until the end.

A decade later California leads the globally-burgeoning electric car business.[1] The state stands against its own national government on the U.S.’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, while elected officials in cities like Los Angeles attempt to protect the rights of all of their citizens, whether documented or not. California’s ongoing tabula rasa approach to challenges, made literal by the periodic earthquakes that scrape away the unreinforced leavings of history, has made it an important player in a world of constant harmonic shifts and tempo changes. California’s ideas and products tour the world while many elsewhere in this country remain isolated in a shrinking bubble.

Which is why the United States of America must always exist primarily in myth: It was a kind of rough-hewn utopia that never really was as great as it claimed, but never as far-fetched as others accused. Americans felt invincible, powerful, and acted like the leaders of the free world. And then seemingly overnight, our lazy wealth had gone.

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Notes

  • All photos taken by Sydney Santana.

[1] Michael J. Dunne, “Chinese Electric Vehicle Makers Swarm Into California, Chasing Tesla,” Forbes, 5 May 2016, https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaeldunne/2016/05/05/inspired-by-teslas-triumphs-chinas-electric-vehicle-makers-swarm-into-california/#f6edfe1b0e03.

 

Julia Ingalls is primarily an essayist. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Salon, Dwell, Guernica, Los Angeles Review of Books, L.A. Weekly, among other publications.

Copyright: © 2017 Julia Ingalls. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

 

Reviews

The Other “Other” California

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July sky at Bahia de Los Angeles, Baja California, Mexico, courtesy of Bill Gracey via Flickr.

Gerald W. Haslam

Growing up in an oilfield community at the southern end of the Great Central Valley, I for many years believed California ended where the Tehachapi Mountains met the Temblor Range. Southern California seemed to be a continent away. Then my parents transferred me to a Catholic middle/high school in Bakersfield, and I encountered many Latino students, some of whom spoke of a mysterious place—perhaps part of California, perhaps not—called simply “Baja” or sometimes “la frontera.”

Few, I recall, claimed to have visited there. Rather it existed for us as a dangerous (but tempting) idea, a no-holds-barred locale that produced “Tijuana bibles” and tire-tread huaraches, and that housed a fabled red-light district. In our imaginations, that frontera was a remnant of the wild west, the sin capital of the west.

The actual place, as Verónica Castillo-Muñoz reveals in The Other California: Land, Identity, and Politics on the Mexican Borderlands, was culturally and economically far more complex than we had imagined. It slipped in and out of the grasp of Yankee capitalists (principally in the guise of the Colorado River Land Company and the International Mexican Company) in the late nineteenth century. Those companies “transformed Baja California from a Mexican backwater territory to one of the most prosperous cotton-producing centers along the U.S.-Mexico border.”

Castillo-Muñoz presents a detailed outline of how Baja California, a region of northern Mexico, was for a time an economic pawn to Mexican politicians, was a Pacific entry for Chinese and Japanese immigrants to the Americas, and was treated as an outlier (it didn’t gain statehood in Mexico until 1952). It was slowly built by hard-working people who came to largely ignore static gender roles and varying racial barriers, thus enriching the cultural landscape of western Mexico. The book traces no utopian society, but rather reveals “how ethnicity and racially diverse communities of laborers changed the social landscape of Baja California,” and does a good job of that.

Social stability and economic viability were by no means quickly achieved. The society detailed by Castillo-Muñoz’s book churned and boiled. Part of that was due to the self-serving influence of absentee owners, especially Yankees. But locals were capable of shooting themselves in the foot, too. For instance,

Chinese and Japanese earned an average of 40 centavos per day, while mestizo and indigenous workers earned average of 1.25 pesos. It was only a matter of time before Chinese and Japanese workers discovered the wage disparity, and they held strikes against the company [Compagnie du Boleo] several times.

Despite discrimination, “By 1920 the Baja California peninsula stood out as one of the most diverse communities in northern Mexico, with a growing population that spoke nineteen languages.”

Although women in Mexico did not get the vote nationally until 1953, their activism played a steady role in the social and economic development of Baja. “Ejido [communal land grant] distribution shaped gender relations and campesino [farm worker] identity in the Mexicali Valley where women saw their role on the ejido equally important to that of men.” World War II solidified that.

In 1942, Mexico entered the war on the side of the Allies. That little-discussed fact (in the USA, at least) led to the Bracero contract that sent male Mexican workers between the ages of seventeen and forty to “fill jobs in the farming and railroad sectors caused by the US labor shortage.”  That, in turn, opened jobs in Mexico for women, “Thus both ejido farmers and private farmers in the Mexicali Valley came to rely on women’s labor for the cultivation and picking of cotton.” In 1944, President Manuel Avila Camacho smoothed the path toward gender equality when he “endorsed a campaign for women to join the workforce in northern Mexico to offset the shortage of labor caused by the Bracero Program.”

Castillo-Muñoz’s slim book (113 page text) is literally packed with such information, and is supplemented by 30 pages of valuable notes, a detailed bibliography and an index. For better or worse, the author shows, Baja California reflects many of the same issues that have plagued us here in Alta California—think of water, for instance, or racial tensions or gender discrimination. The Other California’s academic tone might be off-putting to some, but the text is so rich in information that this reader hardly noticed. It is an excellent intro to California’s southern namesake.

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Notes

Gerald W. Haslam, an Oildale native, is professor emeritus at Sonoma State University, and the author of, among other books, The Other California: The Great Central Valley in Life and Letters (University of Nevada Press, 1994).

Copyright: © 2017 Gerald W. Haslam. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

ArticlesReviews

Migracious Stories: Organize or Die

Fred B. Glass

A review essay of Gabriel Thompson, America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century. Oakland: University of California Press, 2016.

“An organizer is a leader who does not lead; he gets behind the people and pushes.” —Fred Ross

I doubt Fred Ross would have been the subject of a book length biography had he not recruited United Farm Workers founder and civil rights leader Cesar Chavez to the organizer’s trade. Yet the reasons why a full portrait of Ross’s life is both timely and useful extend far beyond his star pupil.

Gabriel Thompson’s America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century reveals a driven, singularly focused man, who sacrificed family and personal comfort to devote himself to organizing poor people for collective action on their own behalf. Thompson documents the deep positive impact Ross had on working class communities, and on the practices of two generations of organizers. These pages also unveil, often painfully, the personal damage to his loved ones that his priorities inflicted on them.

Ross shunned the limelight, believing an organizer’s role was to find leaders, help them to develop, and get out of their way. He found a lot of them, including Chavez, but others too—bighearted, ambitious, or both—who went on to important roles in the labor movement and electoral politics. Ross developed garden-variety activists as well, training thousands over the course of a forty-year career. But he was also ruthless in assessing and discarding individuals he deemed insufficiently dedicated to the difficult, tedious, mundane, and time-consuming chores—the checklists, the follow-up phone calls, the endless meetings—involved in creating social change.

I share this with Cesar Chavez: both of us were recruited to organizing work by Fred Ross. My initiation occurred during a warm spring afternoon in 1974, underneath a tree next to Campbell Hall at UCLA. My leftist English professor had asked a few politically interested students if they would like to hear about the United Farm Workers from one of the union’s organizers.

I was a senior, contemplating without too much urgency my post-graduation prospects. Ross sat with us on the grass in a circle. He was old (by which I mean exactly the same age I am now) but animated with a quiet assurance about the importance of the work he described. I don’t remember his words but they were effective. After an hour or so my friend Wayne Baron had decided to become a full-time organizer for the UFW boycott effort. I had other priorities—eventually, graduate school—but with the war in Vietnam winding down, I was casting about for another volunteer political activity, and knew I had found it. For the next year and a half I sat behind a table on Bruin Walk piled with UFW literature, buttons, and bumper stickers and accepted donations for the cause. I organized house meetings and film screenings. I stood outside supermarkets and asked shoppers to not buy grapes and lettuce. I caravanned to Delano in the Central Valley to join demonstrations.

Eventually I moved to San Francisco for graduate school. Wayne had gone there before me, and now ran the city’s boycott effort out of a former church dormitory. He was extremely proud of the article written about his work by an undercover John Birch Society reporter that began, “Where nuns once prayed and slept, now filthy mattresses lie four abreast, supporting communist subversion.” He pinned it to the bulletin board next to his office and showed it to everyone who visited.

I continued to volunteer a few hours a week for la causa after starting school, plugging into Wayne’s impressive boycott operation. Few stores carried non-union grapes or lettuce, and the ones that did faced lively picket lines each weekend. On the other hand, many storefront windows sported the black and red UFW eagle, pledging fealty to the boycott. And wherever I walked with Wayne, we could not go more than a few hundred feet without being stopped by someone—store owners, union members, community activists, students—who knew him through his indefatigable UFW boycott organizing.

Multiply this situation in San Francisco by scores around the country in major urban centers—there were four hundred full-time organizers on staff, receiving $5 a week plus room and board—and you have an idea of the reach and effectiveness of the boycott in the mid-70s. Polls showed that 10–12% of the American population had stopped eating grapes and lettuce in sympathy with the struggle of California farm workers for a better life.

I didn’t connect the dots at the time, but much of this was ultimately traceable back to Fred Ross, through a combination of the serendipity of his meeting and resulting relationship with Chavez, and the unbelievably hard work Ross devoted to organizing on the way to that meeting, creating the conditions for it to occur, and afterward, nurturing conditions for the movement to flourish.

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Thompson’s book begins, fittingly, with the well-known story of Ross visiting Chavez’s house in the barrio of East San Jose, Sal Si Puedes, in late spring 1952. Although a full treatment of Ross’s life had to wait for Thompson’s book, the UFW itself is the most well documented labor movement in United States history; within that literature the meeting at Chavez’s house with Ross remains the stuff of legend. Outside that moment, though, many of the now aging cohort of activists who came up through the farmworker movement knew relatively little of Ross’s pre-Chavez life. In extending our knowledge about the master organizer, Thompson’s book holds his subject beneath an unblinking wide angled lens, and what we learn, not entirely pretty, explains a lot about both men.

Fred Ross was born in Los Angeles in 1910, product of the unhappy marriage of Frederick Ross and Daisy Crowell. Ross’s later political development was not nurtured in his early home environment. Frederick Ross worked in newspaper advertising and later for the National Association of Manufacturers—a trajectory his employer at the Los Angeles Times, the virulently anti-union Harrison Gray Otis, would have found commendable. Thompson notes that young Fred’s parents shared racist attitudes, and referred to poor people as “trash.” Daisy was incensed when the school district boundaries near their Echo Park neighborhood home changed and she found her son going to school with black children. She raised such a stink he was allowed to transfer back to his former school.

Ross the senior probably cheated on Daisy, according to Thompson, precipitating their divorce when Fred was ten and his brother six. Her job as a secretary barely paid the bills, even with child support payments. Eventually Daisy couldn’t handle Fred’s continuous bad behavior. Her parents, who owned a modest hotel in San Pedro, took Fred in on the weekends and gave him the attention Daisy could not. They also provided him with a structured religious upbringing, schooling him in the Bible so deeply he was anointed junior pastor in their Methodist church.

Ross did less well in actual school, disinterested in academic achievement or classroom decorum. His wild antics (example: setting off fireworks at his elementary graduation rehearsal) led Daisy, at considerable expense, to send him to a military school in San Diego, but after getting sick he returned home and finished high school with a C average.

After a few years enduring low paying jobs and taking some classes at Los Angeles Junior College, Ross enrolled at University of Southern California, subsidized by Daisy’s lover, a judge. Here things began to change. His friendship with fellow student Eugene Wolman, a Jewish Communist from New York, opened Ross’s eyes to the Great Depression and its impact on the working class. He became active in student political organizing, took a class from a socialist professor that made a deep impression on his intellectual development, and allowed himself to be recruited to lead the campus chapter of the Communist Party-inspired National Student League.

After graduation Ross remained at USC for another semester to get a teaching credential, while Wolman went to work in a nearby factory, hoping to organize a CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) union. He invited Ross to come to the first organizing meeting, at which but one worker showed up. Thompson notes, “For Ross, it wasn’t the most inspiring introduction to organizing. But it did offer a useful lesson: to organize, you needed energy and passion, which Wolman had in abundance, but you also need a solid plan.”

Wolman went on to fight and die in the Spanish Civil War. This, too, had a big impact on Ross, according to Thompson, “an example of how, no matter what sacrifices he might make as an organizer—the long hours, the low pay, the constant travel—others had sacrificed much more.”

Despite his recently acquired teaching credential, history teachers were more plentiful than jobs in 1937, and when Ross was offered a position as a social worker he took it. California had set up the State Relief Agency (SRA) a couple years before, ostensibly to help the unemployed get through hard times. Ross found that in the agricultural counties surrounding Los Angeles its other purpose was to supply cheap labor for growers. It enforced this function by removing its destitute clients from the relief rolls if they refused to go to work at any price.

Here Ross began to develop the work habits he maintained throughout his life, including long hours, careful note taking, and leaving behind his young wife for days—or weeks, or months—at a time. Ross gained some real world details to fill out the incomplete picture his college radicalism had painted of the working class. At first outraged to discover that some of his clients had lied and were actually working in the fields while drawing unemployment compensation—because, as they told him, the piece rates they were being paid could not sustain them, let alone their families, and they needed the extra income—he determined to prove that they must not be working hard enough.

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Ross and family on porch. Photo courtesy of the Ross family.

But his meritocratic ideology taught him something different than what he had expected. Going to work one day in disguise tying carrots, where growers needed workers so badly they were always hiring, he labored twelve hours and emerged bone tired with eighty-four cents. After he was disfraciplined by his supervisor when he described what he had done, Ross quit the SRA and got hired by the federal Farm Security Administration (FSA). Renowned today for the photographs by Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn and others that burned the faces of the Dust Bowl refugees Ross worked with into the nation’s conscience, the agency hired Ross for a job in a warehouse distributing dry goods in the Coachella Valley.

As Thompson records, Ross discovered that “The poor were complicatedly human, as three-dimensional as anyone else; they just happened to have more roadblocks thrown up in their way.” One Okie migrant in particular, a sixty-two year old man who lost his farm, became Ross’s friend. As a result of his storytelling—what one transplanted southwestern woman called their “migracious stories”—he and people like him were no longer “political abstractions, neither the right’s lazy creatures prone to ‘chronic dependency’ nor the left’s flawless victims.”

Early in 1939 Ross accepted more responsibility and stepped into what ultimately became one of the few other well-known—if not entirely accurate—elements of the Ross legend. The FSA had set up nineteen model farm labor camps around California’s central valley. As Thompson points out, these were meant to provide an alternative to the filthy and oppressive conditions found in most camps set up by growers for their low paid labor force: these were clean, relatively well-run, featured laundry facilities, and contained showers in their bathrooms. They also demonstrated that with some encouragement, the campers—mostly migrant Okies—might find some dignity beyond personal hygiene in cultural activities (for example, camp newsletters, dances and concerts, film screenings, theatrical productions, etc.) and participation in camp governance.

Ross served a four month apprenticeship in the Visalia camp, and then became manager of his own, outside the feudal town of Arvin, where Joseph Di Giorgio, pacesetter capitalist in the newly-named “agribusiness” flourishing despite the Great Depression, held sway.

The way I had heard the story from Wayne and other UFW activists, Fred Ross was the inspiration for the kindly government camp director in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, which appeared later that year in 1939. I always thought the timing wasn’t right, and Thompson sets the record straight: it was an earlier director of the same camp, Tom Collins, who had modeled that role for Steinbeck. In any case, Ross didn’t waste the opportunity he had been handed.

In addition to the Okie workers and their families, the Arvin camp served as temporary quarters for left wing troubadour Woody Guthrie, who played and sang for the migrants on numerous occasions, as well as two hard-bitten state organizers for the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packinghouse and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA-CIO). These men, Luke Hinman and Wyman Hicks, took the opening willingly provided by Ross to utilize Arvin Camp as a base for organizing field workers residing there and in the surrounding area.

This was a tough row to hoe, but one in which Ross would make a large contribution himself in later years. At this point he simply watched, learned, and bent the FSA rules to accommodate his guests as they built the will among his campers to go on strike in October, 1939. He also became acquainted at this time with Carey McWilliams.

McWilliams had been appointed by Culbert Olsen, the first Democrat elected California governor in the twentieth century, to oversee agricultural labor as the state commissioner of immigration and housing. His book Factories in the Field, a well-researched non-fiction flip side to The Grapes of Wrath, came out the same year, strengthening the growing public understanding that something was very wrong in the sprawling farm districts of California. Unlike his predecessors at the top of California government agencies dealing with farm labor, McWilliams did what he could to help migrant farmworker families. Ross, as Thompson reports, was still assigning Factories in the Field to his organizer trainees decades later.

In camp Ross did not hide his sympathies. Thompson notes, “His partisanship was so overt that one resident would pen a letter to Ross’s supervisor complaining that the camp was “practically run” by the union, that Ross was a “strong member” of the CIO, and that the camp was no longer a place for “us honest and non-communists to live in.”

The strike, however exhilarating at the start, lasted two weeks before being efficiently and violently crushed by the growers; their weapon, the Associated Farmers, had been described without hyperbole by McWilliams as a fascist organization. The job action, involving thousands of workers in dozens of farms, turned out to be the last hurrah in the fields for the UCAPAWA, heir to communist-led organizing for the previous decade. Rethinking its strategies after the defeat, it retreated to canneries and packing sheds, where its leaders planned to rebuild a structure in the agricultural supply chain that would eventually allow them to return to field organizing.

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Brawley meeting. Photo courtesy of Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries.

That never occurred, as McCarthyism ultimately destroyed UCAPAWA along with a dozen or so other left wing CIO unions by the early 1950s. Ross, moved by his experience during the strike and conversations with Hinman and Hicks, eventually played a major role in a different farmworker organization’s attempt to organize field workers. But first another formative moment awaited him during World War II, when he left the FSA to work for the War Relocation Authority (WRA), with Japanese-Americans interned in concentration camps.

While in some respects the WRA represented continuity for Ross—working with a stigmatized social group in rural America—it also demonstrated conclusively to him the limits of a model of social action emphasizing service to victims. Although he didn’t understand it at the time, it set him inexorably on the path to his calling as an organizer.

Initially believing the government’s justification for relocation—that the Japanese Americans threatened national security—working closely with them changed his mind. Stationed in Minidoka, Idaho, Ross learned that nothing he attempted to do on behalf of the nearly ten thousand detainees would be approved by his superiors. His experience provided him with insight into the deep wellspring of racism in American politics and culture, which suffused the WRA bureaucracy, nearby towns, and, after Ross got transferred to Cleveland to work on relocation efforts, the attitudes of white workers within war industries desperate to hire any workers—except “dirty Japs.”

Ross found that getting Japanese-American workers employed within the still fierce “them and us” hothouse atmosphere of war necessitated building and using a big toolbox of tactics. Besides eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with anger, prejudice and fear, Ross had to establish functional relationships among government agencies, community groups, employers, and unions—including persuading racist southern white workers who had come north for well-paying defense jobs that winning the war on the home front required setting aside ingrained beliefs about others.

Ross gained another perspective on the same set of issues at home. Ross’s second wife Frances (his first wife having divorced him early in the war) got a job in a Cleveland factory, where her efforts helping to integrate African Americans into the plant’s workforce eventually led to a job with Roosevelt’s Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPA), the federal agency responsible for enforcing a modest standard of racial justice in hiring and promotion in war industries. The FEPA was understaffed and limited in its ability to fulfill its mission. Occasionally other authorities stepped up to fill the vacuum.

For instance, after returning to San Francisco at the end of the war, Ross accompanied International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union president Harry Bridges on an expedition to a Petaluma warehouse north of the Golden Gate Bridge, where the radical labor leader, who later married a Nisei, told his members refusing to work alongside a Japanese-American that he would pull their local charter if they did not allow the man to work.

This full immersion program in race and employment relations outside and within his home during and after World War II led Ross in a new direction. Thompson tells us that “Ross the social worker was receding, soon to disappear; the outlines of Ross the campaigner, Ross the organizer, were beginning to take shape.”

The circumstances out of which Ross emerged in his late thirties as a superb organizer have been chronicled elsewhere, notably in Ken Burt’s The Search for a Civic Voice: California Latino Politics. Thompson dives more deeply into the discipline of organizing, using Ross’s experience to demonstrate what Ross felt was necessity for an organizer—full devotion to a cause—but for others could seem like near obsession.

Ross knew how to listen, as he had already shown in his work with the New Deal “alphabet soup” agencies. Despite poor Spanish skills, he began to do that listening in southern California barrios, working first for the American Council on Race Relations and then, crucially, for famed Chicago organizer and author (Reveille for Radicals) Saul Alinsky and what was to become the Community Service Organization (CSO). Prior to their meeting, Ross had spent a couple years bringing together Southern California Mexican American and African American low income communities in coalitions for voter registration drives, successful campaigns to oust racist school board and local city council officials, and efforts to integrate and secure resources for schools and community centers.

These activities had brought him to the attention of the older Alinsky (not to mention the FBI). It was also during these campaigns that Ross realized that the house meeting was the essential building block of community organizing, a method he refined over time with near-scientific precision.

In Thompson’s telling, when Alinsky, founder of the Industrial Areas Foundation based in Chicago, met Ross, he wrote a friend, “I have hired a guy who I think is a natural for our work. It will really be the first time that I have an associate who understands exactly what we are after.” The phrase, ‘what we are after,’ referred to organizing working people in the early years of the Cold War, as anti-communism was corroding longstanding progressive political alliances, poisoning public discourse, and enveloping anyone whose occupation was “organizing,” especially in working class communities of color, within a fog of suspicion.

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Swearing in CSO members. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Daily News, UCLA.

Nowhere did these factors play into the equation more than in the melting pot of Boyle Heights, where immigration combined with radical politics circa 1950 to morph the neighborhood—just east of downtown Los Angeles—from early twentieth-century white working class origins to a diverse international community including Russians, Mexicans, and Japanese. But as Thompson recounts, the area was commonly known as the “lower East Side” of Los Angeles, with a large Jewish working class population, heavily leavened with socialists and communists.

A decade later, fearful working class Anglos fought against and fled integration a few miles away in Watts, other south Los Angeles County neighborhoods, and the downtown. But here, the leftward tilt of this midcentury community was already a couple generations old; Boyle Heights had been a bastion of support for labor organizer Fred Wheeler in the 1910s and 1920s, the first Socialist elected to Los Angeles City Council. Postwar Boyle Heights welcomed a growing Mexican American population and a broader mix of other ethnic groups at the same time as a racist police department and media culture led by The Los Angeles Times promoted social exclusion via employment codes, blacklists, restrictive housing covenants, and the physical repression of non-whites.

The organization Ross built at the intersection of these many currents of politics and culture was the Community Service Organization (CSO). His work with CSO was the best-known part of Ross’s history, yet Thompson contributes new nuggets of information and interpretation. The CSO emerged from the nuts and bolts organizing techniques and experiences that Ross brought to a circle of Latino Boyle Heights activists around Edward Roybal.

Roybal eventually became a successful career politician, the first Latino to be elected to a citywide position since the nineteenth century; later he was elected to Congress. But when Ross met him, he and his circle were trying to regroup after their first effort, a loss. With Ross’s assistance, and based on the model he had developed over the previous couple of years, the group focused on voter registration in the growing but mostly non-voting Mexicano population. The next time around, Roybal got elected to the Los Angeles City Council.

The CSO, under Ross’s guidance, created a template for the most successful form of progressive alliance in the post war United States, replicating the same strengths and weaknesses many times elsewhere. Focusing on achievable goals in poor and working class communities, Ross relied on direct one-on-one organizing to create building blocks of change from house meetings to broad organizational coalitions to voter registration and turnout. Direct action tactics, like those that the nascent civil rights movement was borrowing from the mass union organizing of the previous two decades, were not first resort but were also not unknown in CSO either. But the deceptively simple thing emphasized by Ross was that to be an organizer meant one had to be organized—before, during, and after any moment in an organizing campaign.

Unions, churches, and civil rights organizations were all welcome to participate and support the CSO, and many did with financial contributions and the loan of organizers. Communists and their “front groups” were not officially banned from taking part, and in this way CSO was virtually unique among organizations in the era of, “Are you now or have you ever been….” Ross also urged Roybal not to vote for a proposed Los Angeles city ordinance seeking to force communists to register with the police.

Perhaps it was Ross’s early tutelage by his student friend or association with UCAPAWA organizers in his central valley farm labor camp that gave him the courage to do these things. He knew who communists were, what they stood for and above all the hard work they put into progressive causes.

But he was a pragmatist too, and when push came to shove Ross was not above figuring out the proper parliamentary procedures for denying communists the floor in meetings, or how to maneuver behind the scenes in coalitions to keep the CSO free from the red stain—enough so that progressive Latino political and community organizers closer to the Party like Burt Corona later accused Ross of red-baiting.

Ross organized CSO chapters in nearby southern California cities and then across California. It was in San Jose in 1952 that the meeting with Chavez took place. Of that moment’s impact, Chavez later said, “I learned quite a bit from studying Gandhi, but the first practical steps I learned from the best organizer that I know, Fred Ross. He changed my life.” Ross did the same for Dolores Huerta, the future co-founder of the United Farm Workers union, whom he likewise recruited to the CSO a few years later in the north San Joaquin Valley town of Stockton.

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Dolores Huerta with Fred Glass. Photo courtesy of Fred Glass.

Huerta, who had more formal education than Chavez, soon combined raising children, work for the CSO, and organizing farm workers with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), launched by the AFL-CIO with more resources than any previous effort in the fields. Brimming with energy, but not so good on time management, she needed Ross’s direction to focus her passion for social justice; as Thompson put it, “Huerta had a way of careening through life as if she were a football player covered in pads, running straight into challenges with a complete lack of fear.” Over time Huerta grew disenchanted with AWOC’s organizing model, which focused on signing up labor contractors, who in turn would bring workers into the union as a group, but crucially without a sense of their own agency.

Chavez, meanwhile, moved up to national director of the CSO, and eventually had to face two problems that threatened its viability throughout its growth and decline in the early 1960s: lack of a clear mission and shaky funding. Chavez grew more certain over time that he wanted the organization to move into farm worker organizing; its reluctance to fully commit to that goal eventually drove him to resign in 1962. At that point, penniless, and with eight children, he moved with his wife Helen to Delano.

It was here that he and Huerta divided up the map of the great agricultural valley at Helen’s kitchen table and began to put Ross’s organizing methods to work, finding and recruiting farm workers to their association (it wasn’t to be called a “union” until 1965) one house meeting at a time.

Their timing was good. Against the backdrop of a prosperous economy (at least for non-farm workers), ascendant civil rights movement, and a large and supportive AFL-CIO at the apex of its power, Chavez and Huerta could find allies in powerful places as they attempted to do something no one had before: build a farm worker union that lasted.

They almost succeeded. Ross’s contributions were considerable, including overseeing critical early union representation elections, serving as organizing director from 1966 to 1968 and putting in place protocols for the consumer grape boycott. The union organized tens of thousands of workers in several of the most important crops of California’s multi-billion dollar agribusiness empire. Collective bargaining, backed up by strikes and the boycott, forced growers to pay more attention, and higher wages, to farm workers than ever before.

For a decade and a half the union, despite the uneven playing field, contested seriously with the growers for power in the fields and public opinion. At that point, however, the union hit a wall. Much of the problem was not of the union’s making—the receding of the mass social movements of the 1960s and 70s, the ascension of anti-union, small government forces to the highest elected offices in California and the United States, and the long slide of union power and density. The UFW was a clever small fish swimming with larger protectors. When its supporters in labor and politics were assailed with troubles of their own, the small fish found itself facing its predators alone. And it did not survive.

Given the power of California agribusiness, it may well not have mattered what decisions Chavez and the UFW leadership made. Alinsky astutely aphorized the difficulties involved in farm worker organizing: “It’s like fighting on a constantly disintegrating bed of sand.”

Nonetheless, the other part of the problem was indeed the fault of the union leadership: it stopped organizing. Like a revolution, a union movement either organizes and moves forward, or else retreats. The union’s decision in the late 1970s to pull back from the fields to farm worker “advocacy” was compounded by Chavez’s increasingly autocratic and erratic behavior. His unfortunate choice to travel to the Philippines to accept an award from dictator Ferdinand Marcos shocked the UFW’s Filipino members, triggering the resignation of UFW vice-president Philip Vera Cruz. (Chavez’s choice eventuated in another, less historic, but personally significant consequence: I too ended my UFW volunteer activities.)

Thompson efficiently glosses recent revisionist history of the UFW’s decline—a story told at some length by Frank Bardacke and Miriam Pawel, and more succinctly by Marshall Ganz—while injecting his protagonist into the proceedings in order to ask, in essence, the question, “Why did Fred Ross, arguably the only person who Chavez might have listened to, not intervene?”

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Ross giving training. Photo courtesy of Ross family.

In the book’s penultimate chapter, “Blind Spot,” Thompson attempts to account for Ross’s failure to confront Chavez’s bad decisions and the union’s retreat from organizing. Apparently only one ugly instance, in which Chavez reportedly orchestrated an anti-Semitic smear against two long-time union leaders challenging his authority, roused Ross to call Chavez on the phone and protest. Numerous purges of union stalwarts who were perceived by Chavez as threats were abetted or ignored by Ross.

Ross’s son, Fred Ross, Jr., an accomplished organizer himself who provided Thompson with extensive access to his father’s documents, told his father at the time, “Dad, this is fucking wrong. You know it’s wrong.” But, he explained, “My dad had a hard time going there. His fallback position was that no one had made the sacrifices that Cesar had made. Except for the anti-Semitism, I don’t think my father ever challenged Cesar.”

Ross’s other blind spot related to similarly disastrous circumstances, but within the personal sphere of his family. Two wrecked marriages and alienated children represent just the headline over numerous ‘are you kidding me?’ stories recorded by Thompson, the result of Ross’s choice, nearly every time, of work over family life. One instance will suffice to paint the picture. Frances, pregnant, and suffering from polio, was in the hospital for three months. On the day she was to finally return home, Ross failed to show up at the appointed time, because he was at an organizing meeting.

Ross had some insight, albeit limited, into the damage caused by his prioritizing organizing over all else. He later admitted, “When you start organizing, that’s it. You’re not working any nine to five job anymore. You’re not working just six days a week. That’s the end of family life. I didn’t know that. Not that that would have stopped me.”

Thompson’s assessment of Ross’s legacy is astute, concise, and mostly accurate. In addition to closing a gap in UFW historiography, America’s Social Arsonist is a compact synthetic history of the social justice movements in which Ross played an important part. And Ross certainly deserves the credit Thompson gives him for pulling together key elements—especially putting house meetings at the center—during the early post-World War II fights to create an effective modern organizing playbook.

The book is not without a few questionable calls. Were house meetings as an organizing tool invented by Ross? It’s probably best to call this a reinvention. CIO unions utilized the tactic, especially in company towns where the public sphere as well as the workplaces were dominated by powerful employers. Due partly to a substantial presence of Communist Party members on staff and in leadership of a number of these unions, house meetings, like cell meetings, were traceable to underground organizing in Czarist Russia, clandestine meetings linked one to another away from the eyes of the hated government or company spies.

Beyond this, the occasional errant factoid mars Thompson’s otherwise scrupulously accurate narrative—e.g., the Ludlow Massacre of 1913 occurred in a Colorado mining town where John, not his son David Rockefeller (who wasn’t yet born) employed the miners. It might have also been useful to at least refer to the work of Ernesto Galarza. Although Thompson mentions the pioneering National Farm Labor Union staffer briefly, his contributions to the anti-Bracero fight and stubborn attempts to organize California farm workers in the 1950s were unfolding at the same time that Ross and Chavez were building the model in CSO that ultimately succeeded, for a time, in doing what Galarza could not.

In the historical moment following the recent Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, which managed to propel the concept “socialism” back into mainstream political discourse, the question facing the thousands of young people (and older ones) inspired by his vision of a “political revolution” is, what next? If they are to sustain a mass movement for social justice into the Trump era, amid its effort to roll back social justice to the nineteenth century, effective organizing will have to anchor the otherwise ephemeral passions of the moment.

Organizing has also clearly moved into the digital age. It is data driven (although it actually always has been; as Ross said, “If you can’t count it, it doesn’t exist”—we just have better ways to count now). Social media can spread the word for a meeting or demonstration faster than it seemed possible in years past. Beyond these superficial differences between the past and present of organizing, however, Thompson’s book provides a clue about what’s next: people talking with people, taking the inspiration and data and doing the hard work of using the tools, old and new, to organize. There are no short cuts. Fred Ross’s life provides an example—with both positive and negative lessons for organizers—pointing toward what is to be done.

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders rally at Cubberly Community Center in Palo Alto, California, 1 June, 2016. Photo courtesy of Dawn Endico via Flickr.

Fred B. Glass is the author of From Mission to Microchip: A History of the California Labor Movement (Oakland: University of California Press, 2016), recently reviewed in Boom California. He serves as Communications Director for the California Federation of Teachers and Instructor of Labor and Community Studies at City College of San Francisco. He wrote and directed Golden Lands, Working Hands, a ten-part documentary video series on California labor history.

Copyright: © 2017 Fred B. Glass. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Reviews

California from a Different Angle

Mike Miller

 A review of Fred B. Glass, From Mission to Microchip: A History of the California Labor Movement. Oakland: University of California Press, 2016.

In this comprehensive look at California workers—their job experiences and living conditions, antagonisms among them and with the powers that be, their leaders and the rank and file, politicians who claimed to speak for them and some who actually did, their unions and allies, and much more—Fred Glass does for this history what Taylor Branch did in his trilogy account of major portions of the civil rights movement, The King Years. From Mission to Microchip is filled with stories, analysis, history and data. It is a good and important story, well told.

In Glass’s telling, the Franciscan Fathers, often portrayed by others as benign protectors of California’s Native Americans, are anything but. Shepherded into the string of California Missions along the state’s coast, Indians were exposed to diseases to which they were not immune, removed from their villages, forced to work long days at tasks foreign to them and their way of life, denied the right to practice their beliefs, and exploited in many other ways. Their numbers quickly dwindled to a shadow of their pre-colonization presence. When the Fathers were not directly the exploiters, they provided the direct abusers with the rationalization for treating “heathens” as less than human.

The Gold Rush is a similar tale of woe for many. Contrary to the myths, most of those who rushed to the mountains to pan its streams and rivers for riches ended up working for others, and receiving a pittance for their labors.

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Glass takes us through other major moments in the state’s labor history: the struggle for the 8-hour day; the Workingmen’s Party, which briefly governed San Francisco and then rapidly declined in corruption; the growth of the Los Angeles labor movement, and its demise as a result of the bombing of The Los Angeles Times building by labor union activist James B. McNamara who confessed to the event that killed two dozen people; the 1930s farm labor organizing history; the growth of the Hollywood unions, and the anti-Communist campaign that dramatically weakened them; the San Francisco and Oakland general strikes; the growth of public employee unions; the revolt of women workers, the development of “equal pay for equal work” campaigns, and the formulation of “comparable worth” as a strategic idea for organizing women at work; the decline of industrial work and unions in the state; the dramatic SEIU “Justice for Janitors” campaign… and more.

Throughout most of this history, ethnic and racial antagonism divided California’s working class and made it easy for employers to play one group against another. Among the contending groups: Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, Irish, “Okies,” African-Americans, Filipinos. Glass emphasizes how destructive these divisions were for organizing.

There are moments when racial and ethnic rivalry and hostility are overcome, largely as a result of visionary labor organizers and leaders who persuade workers that they will not win justice without solidarity. Among the examples: the International Longshoremen’s & Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) and the United Farm Workers of America (UFW). Glass provides rich stories and analysis on how these moments of unity, sometimes stretching into years, were achieved.

Like the Taylor Branch trilogy, this book has its weaknesses. No book attempting to cover such a span of history can do so without omissions, exaggerations, errors and other problems. I found some of these particularly in the areas where I have the greatest expertise and direct experience. A significant bibliography directs those wanting to delve more deeply into particular pieces of this history.

Although Glass does mention the religious factor, the book exhibits a strange tone-deafness to the role religion plays and played in California (and other) labor history.

For example, during World War II, it was Catholic leadership in ILWU Local 10 that led efforts to maintain earlier won and contractually agreed upon workplace rule gains. There is no mention of Fr. Andrew Boss and the Jesuit University of San Francisco’s Labor-Management School. Ditto for the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists’ ILWU member James Kearney who won ten single year terms as president of Local 10 (by constitutional rule, elected officials can hold full-time office for only two consecutive years before returning to waterfront work). The ironically named Boss challenged Harry Bridges and other leadership close to the Communist Party, and kept that leadership on its toes in the protection of workplace gains by offering a rival center of leadership training.

Missing in Glass’s ILWU account is the fact that the International supported urban renewal (known as “Negro removal”) in San Francisco’s Western Addition, and that a rank-and-file Local 10 vote overcame Bridges post-World War II recommendation against accepting temporary African-American workers into “A-Book” (first class) union membership. (Bridges feared major post-war layoffs.)

In the case of the United Farm Workers, the problem is greater. There is no mention of the Protestant California Migrant Ministry, and the roles played in UFW by Reverends Chris Hartmire, Jim Drake (who led the union’s boycott division), Gene Boutillier (who was, for a period, the union’s legislative lobbyist) and other of its staff members who were important full-time workers for the union. Nor is there mention of Marshall Ganz as UFW’s director of organizing and his rootedness in the Jewish social justice tradition and faith.

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Flags at César Chávez National Monument: U.S, California, UFW, and a César Chávez banner. Jim Galvin via Flickr.

The controversy caused within UFW by Chavez accepting an award from Philippines’ dictator Ferdinand Marcos is acknowledged, but its devastating impact on church support for UFW is not. (It also alienated Chavez from key Filipino leaders and other rank-and-file union members, as well as from many of the student volunteers.)

The meaning for Chavez of “the march” from Delano to Sacramento is also misunderstood in its portrayal by Glass. It was an important factor in the passage of state collective bargaining legislation for farm workers. However, “Peregrinación” (pilgrimage) and “Penitencia” (penitence for sins) were intended for exactly what the words mean. It was secular people who called it a “march.”

Frank Bardacke’s book, Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers, is central to understanding the union. Bardacke explains why: “What many of the liberals and radicals on the staff of the union could never understand was that all the fasts, the long marches and the insistence on personal sacrifice…were not publicity gimmicks, they were essential Chavez.”

Chavez emerged from the Community Service Organization (CSO), where he started as a rank-and-file member and became Executive Director. CSO, Glass tells us, “was supported by the Catholic Church….”  The conservative Los Angeles Archdiocese, whose Archbishop was characterized by Saul Alinsky as a “pre-historic muttonhead,” was anything but supportive. However, local priests, religious women and lay leaders were. That distinction is central to understanding Chavez’s training.

Alinsky’s central role in all this history is only tangentially mentioned by Glass. In addition to hiring Fred Ross and funding CSO, Alinsky’s training was the underpinning of the Migrant Ministry’s support for the union. And other bishops did support Chavez. Unfortunately, Bardacke’s book doesn’t help much in clarifying Alinsky’s role either.

Recognizing the impossibility of gaining official church sanction for CSO, and having had an earlier negative experience with a “coalition” organization, Alinsky-staffer Fred Ross developed an “individual membership” organization, rather than Alinsky’s usual “organization of organizations.” It was the discipline of one-to-one conversations, followed by house meetings, then a large membership meeting that taught Chavez how to build the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA)—predecessor to the UFW.

Glass is in good company. There are small, and some large, errors in the aforementioned King years trilogy by Taylor Branch. No single writer of broad histories like this can master all the facts. No matter. Both Glass and Branch make major contributions. And from these rich resources, those interested in particular aspects of the histories can dig more deeply into various periods, organizations, campaigns, and histories.

Thank you, Fred Glass, for this important book.

Note

Mike Miller directs ORGANIZE! Training Center (OTC). His organizing background includes almost five years as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and directing a Saul Alinsky organizing project. In 1972, he started OTC. He has taught organizing within the University of California, at Stanford, San Francisco State University, Lone Mountain, Notre Dame, and University of Wisconsin (Milwaukee). He writes and lectures in the field. His books include, The People Fight Back: Building a Tenant Union, A Community Organizer’s Tale: People and Power in San Francisco, Community Organizing: A Brief Introduction, and the co-edited People Power:  The Community Organizing Tradition of Saul Alinsky.

Copyright: © 2017 The Author(s). This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Articles

Hanging Out with Cyclists

Noam Shoked

Editor’s Note: In 2014, architecture Professor Margaret Crawford and Associate Professor of Art Practice Anne Walsh taught the first University of California, Berkeley, Global Urban Humanities Initiative research studio course, called No Cruising: Mobility and Identity in Los Angeles. Then a Ph.D. student, Noam Shoked traveled to LA as part of the class to study bicycling communities there.

When we asked Crawford to tell us a little bit about the class, she wrote that “while preparing for the course, we spotted a photograph of a roadside ‘No Cruising’ sign, which opened our minds to the possibility of an ambiguous and open-ended understanding of mobility in LA and aided our investigation. Urban Dictionary’s two definitions of cruising both emphasized nonproductive mobility: first, ‘just driving around with no clear destination’; second, ‘trying to pick up someone for anonymous gay male sex.’ We added the subtitle ‘Mobile Identity and Urban Life’ to underline mobility as a social and human condition rather than a traffic problem to be solved.

“The adaptation and appropriation of words and concepts used to define ‘mobility’ opened doors to additional varied and unexpected interpretations as ten students majoring in art practice, art history, architecture, and performance studies, each selected a dimension of mobility they sought to identify on our field trips to LA. One goal of these field trips, or research studios, was to get students out of their comfort zones to explore new approaches and methods. We encouraged students to draw on each others’ disciplines, so art students undertook archival research while architectural history students, like Noam Shoked, used interviews and photography to investigate contemporary conditions.”

Los Angeles, known for its uncompromising car culture and unending urban sprawl has in the past year added more than one hundred miles of bike lanes, and intends to add forty miles more this year. In addition, with more than 100,000 participants, the car-free biking event CicLAvia takes place three times a year and is the country’s largest event of its kind. These initiatives are supported by multiple nonprofit organizations and bike co-ops such as the Bicycle Kitchen, Bikerowave, and the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition.

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I made my first visit to Los Angeles to study this emerging culture in the context of the global urban bicycling movement, including that of my home country of Israel. I met with activists young and old, as well as officials dedicated to transforming much of the city by promoting a multimodal model, if not a car-free one. I was ready to leave the city and start analyzing the data I gathered, but on my way out of town, waiting at a gas station on Spring Street in the downtown area, I noticed someone riding slowly on the sidewalk. In heavy clothes and an old hat, he didn’t look like the young cyclists in spandex shorts and glossy helmets that I’d been interviewing. His bike was not as fancy as theirs and carried storage baskets on both sides. A few seconds later, I noticed another cyclist. Like the first, he was also riding on the sidewalk and wore a large hat that made it near impossible to see his face. It didn’t take long before I noticed that the sidewalks were crowded with cyclists. Most of them seemed like they were in their forties, maybe even fifties. All were men. Their lived experience of biking in the city was so different from what my research had led me to understand was the norm in Los Angeles. I had to learn more.

By the end of my second trip, my research project, my assumptions, and my view of bicycles in the city were turned inside out by a series of conversations with bicyclists who were part of no particular movement or organization, but who depended for their livelihood on their two-wheeled vehicles.

On my second visit to Los Angeles, I went to the area where I last saw these men and stumbled upon the Instituto de Educacion Popular del Sur de California (IDEPSCA) Downtown Community Job Center on Main Street, a facility that helped day laborers find work. Many bikes were tied to the bars by the entrance, and I assumed the men who came to the center looking for work rode their bikes from home each day. Inside I met José, a short man, probably in his forties. José was born in El Salvador and moved to Los Angeles a few years ago. His bike was in good shape—painted red and blue, and on one of his wheels there was a light refractor. He told me that when he was a kid in El Salvador, he also rode a bike.

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José said he got to the day labor center by bike, insisting that he rides only on the sidewalk. He explained he was afraid of getting hit and complained about the merciless car drivers in the city. Accidents, he told me, can also happen on the sidewalk, and so he rides very slowly. I asked José if he used to ride on the sidewalk in El Salvador. José was amused. He said it was simply impossible in El Salvador, where the sidewalks were narrow and too crowded with people, vendors, and other obstacles.

Trying to understand his regular commute to the day labor center, I asked José where he lived. He wouldn’t tell me. At that moment, another worker, Miguel, intervened and announced, “He is homeless!” José seemed uneasy with Miguel’s comment and explained to me that he owns a cart and a bike, and stays near the intersection of Spring Street and Cesar Chavez. He even invited me over and said he would love to show me his place. By any standard definition, José was homeless, but not according to him. According to him, he owned some property—a bike and a cart—and had his own spot on Cesar Chavez Avenue. The bicyclists I met last time I was in Los Angeles saw bikes as a matter of mobility, but for José, his bike was the opposite. It gave him a sense of belonging, a way to put down roots.

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I was curious to learn more about why it was important for him to declare that he owns a bike and a cart. José pulled a receipt from his pocket and explained that he usually doesn’t get jobs through the day labor center. Instead, riding his bike, he collects cans and bottles, and sells them to the Downtown Metals & Recycling Center on Alameda Street. José’s receipt indicated he received $11.23 from the recycling center. He said he rides his bike to different areas of the city on different days of the week. He usually goes to the area around Temple and Glendale on Wednesdays, and to Skid Row on Saturdays and Sundays. Sometimes, he makes a big loop from Cesar Chavez, south to Washington Boulevard by way of MacArthur Park, and then back up Alameda to the recycling center, where he gets paid for his haul. Mobility, then, for José, was also a matter of inserting himself into the city’s economy.

Through José, I met Diego, who was younger and seemed rather stylish. Four years ago he moved here from Colima, a small city south of Guadalajara. Diego explained that he lives on Third and Los Angeles streets. It wasn’t clear to me whether Diego actually had an apartment there. I wondered if perhaps, like José, he was also homeless. By now I realized such designations were irrelevant to those at the day laborer center, and I worried about imposing my own norms on Diego or, worse, causing him discomfort, and so I didn’t ask him to clarify this point. A more definitive study might have required such information, but I was after something else. I wanted to learn about the city through Diego’s terms. Diego then told me that in order to get to the day labor center, where we met, he rides on Third Street and then takes a left turn onto Broadway. Sometimes he goes from the center to the main branch of the Los Angeles Public Library on Fifth Street.

Like José, Diego also collects recyclable material across the city, though he has his own route. He starts near his home and bikes eastward on Third Street. Along his route, Diego passes by the jewelry and wholesale stores downtown, a Buddhist temple in Little Tokyo, as well as the art galleries and lofts in the Arts District right before going up on the bridge and crossing the LA River. Along this route his attention is divided between looking down at the sidewalk and up to the urban landscape. Once on the east side of the river, Diego stops at Hollenbeck Park where he can rest and relax for a short while. Then, cycling westward, back toward downtown, he stops sometimes by Mariachi Plaza before crossing the bridge again. From here, he turns to Alameda Street and goes straight to the recycling center at 1000 North Main Street.

Diego’s route traverses multiple landscapes and social scenes in six different neighborhoods. Riding on his bike, he sees difference, not sameness. While on his bike, even though inequality is not erased altogether, urban segregation is diminished. His freedom is limited only by how far his legs and two wheels can take him.

And they can take him far. He prefers riding even longer distances just for fun, and he belongs to a cyclists’ group with whom he goes on long rides once a month, usually from Montebello to Whittier and around Rose Hills Memorial Park—a twenty-seven-mile ride. He rides for necessity, but not unlike those young men whom I talked with on my first visit, he also biked for the love of it.

Before leaving the day laborer center, I also met Pablo, an undocumented immigrant who was born in El Salvador and moved to the United States seven years ago. He first lived in Las Vegas, where he worked for a furniture company; but early in 2016, he lost his job and moved to Los Angeles with the hope of finding another. For the time being, he registers every morning at the day labor center on Main Street.

Pablo told me he lives in Boyle Heights, not far from Mariachi Plaza. In order to get to the center, he rides his bike on First Street, crosses the LA River, and then turns onto San Pedro Street. When he gets a job through the center, he can ride his bike to almost any location in the city where there is work. One time, Pablo recalled, he biked all the way to La Cienega Boulevard. At another time, he even made it to Santa Monica. On his bike, Pablo covered an expansive geography.

At one point, while we were talking about the city and how different it was from Las Vegas, I asked Pablo what would he change in the design of the streets of LA, if he could. After a few seconds of silence, Pablo replied saying, “Not to have bicycles on the streets.” After a few more minutes of talking, I learned Pablo didn’t really want to eliminate all bicycles from the city. It was bike lanes he didn’t like. He didn’t want the visibility that came with riding on city streets. When riding on the sidewalk, he felt invisible to most passersby. When riding on the newly painted bright green bike lanes, he was just too visible. I am accustomed to thinking that visibility is a source of political power. For Pablo, invisibility is a tactic, or a means through which he can insert himself into the social fabric of the city without attracting the notice of anyone who might not want him there.

Before our interview ended, I asked Pablo about his income: How much money was he making every month? Was he getting a lot of jobs through the center? Or, was he relying on other sources of income like José and Diego? Pablo, who, unlike José and Diego, did not collect recyclable materials, explained to me that the day labor center to which he biked every day was not a source of reliable income. Instead, it was an institution that provided him with care, a form of compassion and friendship. Away from his family and home, the center was important for his emotional well-being.

On my way back to Berkeley I realized how much my understanding of biking culture had changed over the course of these two visits to LA. If, originally, I intended to learn more about an obvious problem—the lack of bike lanes—I was now faced with a completely different set of problems. Biking was not just a healthy and green mobility alternative in Los Angeles. It was also a matter of social mobility, citizenship, and visibility. In addition, while the biking activists I intended to study had a straightforward outcome in mind, the cyclists I ended up documenting resisted neat solutions.

And instead of finding a solution, through listening to these few cyclists, I found an alternative landscape. This landscape of cycling paths, economic activities, and squatting spots seems to exist almost secretly, despite taking place out in the open, right on the city’s sidewalks.

Note
Photographs by Noam Shoked.

Noam Shoked is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, and an Israel Institute Doctoral Fellow. Before coming to Berkeley, he worked as an architect in New York and Tel Aviv.

Articles

The Tomato Harvester

by Carolyn de la Peña

From Boom Spring 2013, Vol. 3, No. 1

If you’ve driven the highways and back roads of the Central and Sacramento Valleys in the summer, when the tomatoes are at their ripest, you may have seen them. And maybe like me, the first time you saw them you had to stop and watch for a while. It’s difficult not to be mesmerized by the strangeness of a tomato harvesting machine. “Factories in the field” is what some scholars have called them, and it’s easy to see why.

The most visible component of the harvester is the men and women on its sorting crew, who work on each side of the machine, almost as if they’re on a stationary assembly line. Yet the machine itself is constantly moving. Up and down the rows of tomato plants it travels, pulling with its giant blade whole tomato plants into its body, shaking them to free fruit from vine, tossing the vine back out into the field while pushing the fruit up onto conveyor belts, where human hands and machine processes merge as the sorters quickly separate bad fruit (along with the occasional snake or mouse) from good fruit, allowing only the good to move into waiting bins that will eventually be transported to processing plants.

The individual elements of the harvester seem incongruous. The object, as a whole, appears unstable. And yet, somehow, it achieves something that is difficult to imagine. It pulls ripe tomato plants from the earth, subjects them to blades, shakers, conveyor belts, and metal bins, and, at the end of this violent process, delivers not field-made gazpacho—but piles of ripe, intact, harvested tomatoes.

There are many stories we could tell about the harvester and its impact on California agriculture, California eating habits, and California’s farm labor. One of them would explain how it displaced thousands of mostly Mexican-American farm laborers in the 1960s, and then became the subject of a major lawsuit against the University of California, ultimately resulting in a new ethos of worker-impact-centered agricultural research on our campuses. Another would illuminate the lightning-fast implementation of the machines and the rapid changes they brought to farming and consumer practices.

In 1963 about one percent of California’s industrial tomato harvest was picked by about 60 machines. By 1968, there were over 1,450 machines across the state delivering 95 percent. Almost as quickly, tomato growing shifted geographies, moving from the small fields of the Sacramento Delta and the Davis/Woodland/Sacramento region to towns around Fresno, in order to find the flat land and consistent irrigation possibilities required by the machine.

With its price tag reaching $200,000, the farmer using the harvester needed higher tomato acreages. Small side-line tomato farmers were pushed out and mega-farms moved in. Farmers in search of higher yields layered on new pesticides, beefed up irrigation, and eliminated competing crops. The proliferation of tomatoes for processing enabled food companies to produce cheap sauces, catsups, and pastes. These things, in turn, fueled the ever-expanding industry of fast and convenience foods.

Still, watching a harvester in motion, it’s difficult to avoid pondering the machine itself. And this is good. We should spend time thinking about the machines that have industrialized our food supply and displaced field labor in California. Thanks to the work of scholars like Deborah Fitzgerald, Julie Guthman, and Michael Pollan, we understand that industrialized agriculture has had negative environmental, human, and health consequences. Matt Garcia and William Friedland explore in depth the devastation mechanization brought to farm worker families across the state. These are important stories of consequences. Still they do not fully illuminate the human motivations that created the objects—like the harvester—which enabled our agricultural systems in the first place. This can more easily come into view if we study the machines. If we want to create a better agricultural system we need not only to advocate for what we want; we need to also understand the human motivations that delivered what we have to us. Tomatoes, it turns out, have not been the only things made in these fields.

Building the Machine and the Tomato

When UC Davis seed specialist Jack Hanna began to work with aeronautical engineer Coby Lorenzen in 1949 to create a machine that could pick and sort tomatoes, no one seems to have thought they would succeed. As one professor who worked with them during those years put it, the two men were “kind of the laughing stock around here” for nearly a decade.1

The main problem was the tomato. While varieties could be easily manipulated through seed selection and cross-breeding, no tomato existed that could withstand the violence of mechanized cutting, separating, sorting, and loading. Hanna, a vegetable crops researcher with previous experience in asparagus crops, spent years traveling the US, exploring variations on tomato seeds, creating new hybrids, and raising the seeds to plants, only to fail time and time again when the fruits came into contact with Lorenzen’s prototype harvesting machines. Some tomatoes were too soft, and squished on contact with the cutting blades that detached the stalks from the ground just below the soil. Others were too fixed on the vine, and refused to separate when pulled into the machine’s internal shaker, turning to sauce instead. Even when a tomato could make it through those rigors, it failed to move regularly up the conveyor belt, or its skin thickness wasn’t quite sufficient to withstand the eventual hurl off the harvester into the tight compression of waiting bins. Well into the 1950s, few people took their efforts seriously. They had limited funds, no research assistance, and an industry that in spite of rumblings about the end of the Bracero Program, did not yet prioritize a push to develop tools for automation. For colleagues at UC Davis, the repeated attempts and failures continued to be “highly amusing.” 2

It’s hard to know exactly what kept Hanna and Lorenzen working through these apparently insurmountable problems. One thing we do know is that both of them were fascinated by the requirement that they think about tomatoes through the machine.Historical evidence lets us imagine what the two might have experienced on one of their typical annual road trips to El Centro to test the latest model harvester in a field of experimental tomatoes. The date might have been 1956. Hanna, after six months of hybrid seed development and months of waiting for the plants to mature, has just watched the latest prototype fail with each of the varieties. Some tomatoes refused to separate from the stem. Others smashed on contact. Others made it through the process, only to collapse under the weight of their fellow fruit in the bins. Lorenzen, an aeronautical engineer by training, has just watched his machine, perhaps his eighth or ninth prototype, liquify the fruit. It’s a long drive back to Davis. Nevertheless, Hanna remembered years later, that these drives—with hours on the road and nothing to distract them—was when their most fruitful collaborative thinking took place. They’d analyze the problem, reconsider the plants and the machine process, and come up with their next set of modifications. Gradually, as the years passed, Hanna knew nearly as much about the machine as Lorenzen did. He understood the limits of what the machine could do in the field, and, with this machine perspective, set about finding the fruit that could succeed. The key was a change in perspective. Instead of looking for flavor, texture, or even color or appearance, as he would have otherwise, he had in this project to learn to “look at a plant mechanically.” Flavor, liquid content, shape, and appearance were secondary to finding the properties that could be run successfully through the harvester. For Lorenzen, who in 1949 knew “nothing about tomatoes,” exchanges with Hanna, and years of watching tomatoes, allowed him to build machines that bent ever closer to the specifications of nature. In 1959 the team at last discovered, in tandem, a tomato whose thicker skin and oval shape could survive an automated harvest and a machine that could pick it. Called the vf-145 (sometimes referred to as the “square tomato”), this valuable seed proved that an unlikely and imperfect collaboration had finally blossomed.

Learning to Master the Machine

If the tomato was the puzzle for the engineer and plant hunter to solve, the machine was the puzzle for the grower. In the early years of production, the harvester broke down almost as often as it ran. First, there was the night before its big debut, when journalists and growers from all over the state were invited to see the harvester process the vf-145 on a real farm near Davis. One of the conveyors broke, and no one had a replacement part, and, as one machinist on the scene recalled, “it didn’t matter who you were, you jumped in with a monkey wrench” to get it going again. In the first year of the machine’s mass production, nearly all of them had to be brought back to the machinist for repairs and imperfections.

The first commercial harvesters were produced by Ernst Blackwelder, a local machinist who became one of the project’s later but crucial collaborators. By 1965, when the machines were mass-marketed, their imperfections had been recast as appealing challenges for prospective buyers. Advertisements featured growers like Al Fornaciari, of Roberts Union Island in the Delta, who had harvested an “amazing” 4,290 tons of tomatoes over 36 days without a single breakdown. It was Fornaciari’s skills as a machinist (not as a farmer) that made the difference. Only with “preventative maintenance” could the machine stay in the field. In another ad, Steve Arnaudo looms large in front of his harvester, weeds held authoritatively in his hand, with the statement “weeds didn’t stop my UC-Blackwelder” stamped over the scene in bold. In spite of following extension agents’ recommendations for irrigation, row spacing, and heavy fertilizing for weed control, weeds controlled his field, threatening repeatedly to down the machine. Arnaudo’s skill directing the harvester and navigating the weeds meant the difference between epic failure and his successful “four to five loads a day.” 3

The truth, really, was that no one knew how to grow for the machine or how to run it successfully through the fields once that crop was grown, universally ripe, and in need of immediate picking. At $50,000 to $200,000, each machine was an enormous investment, and risk, for the growers who bought it. To get their money back, growers had to expand their holdings. Many had to move to new fields where irrigation was more constant. All had to learn new pesticide practices and adjust to timetables in seed planting and harvesting so that as many fruits as possible could be picked in a single pass through a field. As one extension agent put it, in the early years of harvester experimenting, “we are all going to have to re-learn how to grow tomatoes.” The “we” here was, not so subtly, the growers, in a trial by fire. By 1967 most farmers who were growing tomatoes in 1960 had been pushed out. Those few who succeeded commanded not only fleets of machines and acreage quadrupling their old holdings, but respect as leaders. Tomatoes had become a crucial industry for the state. For Ernst Blackwelder, the reason other farmers failed is because they just couldn’t get the machine. If you could not “grow for the machine,” he explained, you simply “fell by the wayside.” 4

At each phase of its development, the tomato-harvester project threatened to collapse and to take its human participants down with it unless they learned to think for the machine. In the end, a sufficient number of those humans did just that, thereby turning probable failures into success. They did this because the complexity of the task—the need to alter one’s way of thinking entirely about machines, tomatoes, harvesting, and irrigation—demanded that they tie their personal and professionalidentities to the success of the harvester. Yes, the goal was to make money, keep the tomato crop in California, and address what many believed was a permanent labor deficit because of the end of the Bracero Program. But on the way to those practical goals, farmers, seed specialists, machinists, engineers, plant hunters, and extension agents also enhanced their opinion of themselves as innovators, risk takers, and leaders in California agriculture. This, as much as the industrial tomato, was what was made in the fields.

And maybe this is at least part of what we see when we’re hailed from the road. Watching the tomato harvester at work, marveling at the synchronicity of metal and fruit, and puzzling over how such a thing can be even possible, we become simply the latest in a long line of believers thinking ourselves into this machine.

Notes

*A fuller version of this piece is forthcoming in Food, Culture, and Society, volume 16.3.

1. Interview with Ray Bainer, A.I. Dickman, The Oral History Accounts of the Development of the Mechanization of the Processing Tomato Harvester and of the Breeding of the Machine-Compatible Tomato, Oral History Office, Shields Library, The University of California 1978, 29. See also 38.

2. Interview with Charles Rick, Dickman, 27.

3. For advertisements see The California Tomato Grower(March 1966; November 1966)

4. Interview with Ernst Blackwelder, Dickman, 67.

Articles

Jobs. Good Jobs.

by Wade Collins

From Boom Winter 2011, Vol. 1, No. 4

Nothing’s simple in the vineyard

On some level I knew it wasn’t going to work out when the manager of my new job asked me if I could give her a second emergency contact phone number—someone to call besides my wife, in case the bobcat who had been patiently picking off some of the resident poultry decided to up the ante and go for larger fare, or the orchestrators of the illegal pot-growing operation, recently discovered out beyond the vineyards, decided one day to start taking hostages in exchange for safe passage into Mendocino county.

“Hmm … like my mom?” I asked.

“If you wish,” she responded.

“Sure,” I said, “but you could only call her for minor emergencies—like infected hairs, or a really bad sunburn, that sort of thing—she is eighty-two, you know.”

In most circumstances in my life, this obvious attempt at humor and levity would have, at the very least, met with a polite chuckle—a gracious nod to the effort that one has made to lighten a particular moment, even if that effort had been less than fully realized. Here though, my remark was swept aside as if unspoken and with thinly disguised annoyance, a second request was made for an additional emergency contact phone number.

“This is going to be tough,” I thought to myself, “it really is—for both of us,” suddenly sorry that I would undoubtedly be bombarding this poor soul over the course of our professional working relationship with countless unwanted attempts to make her laugh. This apparent incompatibility, in and of itself, was not enough to sour me on the job, however—after all, I’d met plenty of people in my life who hadn’t thought I was funny. I even dated a few of them (for reasons best left to a pedigreed professional with a spiral notepad and leather couch). In every other way my new manager was seemingly a lovely person—kind, generous to a fault, and accommodating. No, what sealed the fate, so to speak, of my new job were the ATVs.

Photo by Guy Foster

Vineyards are big places. They consist of row after row of neatly manicured and trellised grape vines coursing over the contours of the land, seemingly oblivious to concerns of slope, marching up and down the rises of the Napa Valley foothills like obedient columns from Caesar’s legendary legions. Access to all the far-flung outposts of this empire of wine is provided, by and large, courtesy of the ATV, that boisterous vehicle of teenage restlessness, here domesticated for its predilection for traversing sometimes difficult terrain, quickly and easily. One of the first tasks of my new job was to master the operation of the two resident ATVs the estate owned. Although I was not being hired to work in the vineyard, per se, the ATVs had numerous uses around the gardens, grounds, and orchards, and I would be expected to use them whenever necessary. So, after some embarrassed fumbling of gears, and a period of furtive stopping and starting—akin to an unwelcome case of inebriated hiccupping, until the correct amount of throttle to use was discovered—I was soon on my way, barreling down the graveled, tree-lined, and shade-speckled roads with, if not the boyish aplomb of youth, an ableness nonetheless.

Now, an hour of jostling, bouncing, and jiggling may be, to most, an adrenaline-tinged amusement, but to me it was something quite different. Nearly three years ago, in a remote section of northern New Mexico’s Carson National Forest, while harvesting dead wood for fence posts from a section of forest devastated by the pinyon bark beetle, the top portion of one of the trees broke off—striking me on the head. And I have to say, if you are ever in your lifetime presented with a choice about this, I would strongly advise an unwavering course of action to prevent said tree from hitting said head. Other than the initial amazement that one is, in fact, not dead after such an encounter, there is nothing to recommend it. Once an impact great enough to cause the skull to strike the fragile tissue it encases occurs, there is, like a lost virginity, no going back. Repairs are made, neuronal networks are reorganized, but the brain will never regain the original vigor and elasticity of the pre-concussive state, and will be forever susceptible to further injury.

Dismounting from the ATV, my speech slow to form and slightly slurred, my gait unsure and unsteady, I knew I had crossed the imaginary line that my now fragile brain—with its circuitry pruned, but not for strength and productivity like the vines I had just been whizzing past—was ill-equipped to tolerate. Like myself three years previously, my new job was then and there concussed—and ultimately, there would be no going back to it.

Perhaps it was prescient that during my drive down from Washington state to Napa, I had listened to John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” that epic narrative of forced wandering in which the idea, and the ideal, of California play such a prominent role. The promise of “jobs, good jobs,” pushes the Joads and hundreds of thousands like them westward, driven from their lands by poor soil and greedy bankers. I, too, was in flight, away from two years of unemployment—looking for a job, any job. And in this, I imagine, I was not alone. With a national underemployment rate stuck, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’, at around 16 percent over the past two years, and with home foreclosures at historic highs, I wondered about all the modern-day Joads being created—pushed out of their homes, unable to find work, government assistance running out—where do they go? Where do we go? Toward jobs. In my case, like the Joads, toward California.

By the time the Joads arrived, during the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s, California, the place, was “all bought up” and remains so today. Land here has either already been intensively developed or is in large-scale commercial agricultural production. In Napa, where I was headed, that meant one thing—wine.

Photo by Jens Dahlin

Although Napa arrived a little late to the scene (archeological evidence suggests that the first properly aged wine originated about eight thousand years ago in what is now the modern Republic of Georgia), the combination of a favorable climate and the setting aside of some thirty-eight thousand acres for permanent agricultural use in 1968 have made the area one of the preeminent wine-growing regions of the world. It’s no surprise, then, that wine grapes are big business here. With $5 billion in annual revenue, they are California’s second most-valuable agricultural commodity. In Napa, where the majority of that crop is grown, a ton of grapes can fetch upward of $4,000. Compare that with the going rate for a ton of Fresno grapes—$260—and you start to have an appreciation for the reverential esteem in which Napa Valley grapes are held. But for all the abundance, there is an unease here as well. Bankruptcies and mortgage defaults are at an all-time high—and consolidation of smaller, privately owned vineyards into larger corporate holdings is occurring with startling rapidity. Add to that mix the almost certain dislocation of the delicate Napa Valley climate by global warming, and the patina of unworried affluence begins to show itself for what it is: brittle, and potentially hollow—and perhaps just one more example of the reckless denial that has come to typify our current age.

The most important crop in California, however, in terms of revenue is, by far, marijuana. Statewide, it is a $15 billion a year industry, and growing. Here in Napa, it is second only to grapes in economic significance, bringing in about $350 million annually. But, in spite of its undeniable economic muscle, it still largely exists in the shadows, both legally and geographically—a point which was soon to be brought home to me on my very first day in the state.

Not long before I arrived, on the estate in which I was newly hired to work, a discovery was made in a wooded area just beyond the sun-soaked vineyards. Six lines of irrigation hose leading off in different directions were found emanating from an all but forgotten cistern. Those hoses led to areas being prepared for marijuana cultivation. Since, however, no crop had been started yet, the county sheriffs who had been called to inspect the operation took no actions to confiscate the equipment. Upon receipt of this information, in a sort of informal pre-work orientation with my manager over tea and avocado sandwiches topped with homemade pickled fennel (delicious, by the way), I was, to say the least, surprised. I especially found the live-and-let-live approach to law enforcement in evidence here somewhat peculiar. The officers would, they said, come back to check up on the operation nearer harvest time, but until then, the landowner (and their employees—i.e. us) would be very much on our own.

“Carry a gun,” they advised. “They’ll be armed; it would be better if you were too.”

To the police, it was a fairly common occurrence, vineyards being favored locations for illegal grow operations owing to their proximity to water, the ready availability of irrigation equipment, and the presence of skilled horticultural workers. But I’m not so sure the picture I had of growing Swiss chard and tending fruit trees in what I thought to be a somewhat bucolic Napa included holstered weaponry—in fact, I’m sure it did not. Thankfully, in this my manager and I were of like minds, and so she had, so far, resisted the call to arms. But the hoses were and are still there. And so is the danger. Three people were killed at grow camps the previous year, all growers slain during raids by police as part of the thirty-year long CAMP (Campaign against Marijuana Planting) Program. When next year’s raids start up again in August, there will, undoubtedly, be further violence.

When the raids do happen, though, I will not be there. Seven days into the job, my head still reeling from my stint on the ATVs, I broke the news to my manager that due to the damage to my brain that had occurred, and might in all likelihood recur in the future, I would be resigning. And I can’t tell you how disappointing it is to write these words. Back in December, a week before Christmas, when my wife and I learned that I was going to be offered the position—we cried. It had been a little over two years since I had been laid off from my job. My position as a department head at an organic seed company had been eliminated due to a corporate restructuring. With my ninety-nine weeks of unemployment insurance exhausted, all the future held for us before the offer was made were food stamps and a continued reliance on family for housing. Now, we believed that my two years of unemployment, and along with it our uncertainty, our fear of the future, would be but a memory—that period of our lives that we got through—the bridge that connected one settled bit of security to the next. But instead of signing a lease on a rental house and making a reservation for a moving truck, I was back on the 101, headed north—headed home.

For the Joads, the real California was a place of hardship, regret, and loss—but also a place that tested and deepened their humanity. And while I in no way endured, in my two weeks, the same sort of trials and tribulations that they did, the journey had taken something away from me that I couldn’t get back—the job, obviously, and all that it represented—but something else too. I was forty-five, with a recurring brain injury. I could no longer do the sort of work for which I was trained. Where did that leave me? Adrift, in search of a new identity—disoriented, but also possessing a sort of hard-won sense of opportunity that was no longer contingent upon false hopes. California had taken something away, that’s true, but it had also given me something new—and perhaps that is what California, the place and the idea, does for people. And maybe that’s enough, sometimes.