What makes a space a home? While we often think of it as the site for the nuclear family, home is also the space that communities create. In this sense, cities and neighborhoods evolve in much the same way as singular households. Individuals make a community their own by ensuring that the area reflects the needs and identity of its residents. Yet, as gentrification grows throughout many U.S. cities, marginalized communities are being stripped of the very essence that made these spaces home to its members. The anger over the loss of these spaces takes many people by surprise, even as others view the transition of their communities as a marker of progress. However, one loses the rich history of how these cities and spaces became home to millions of individuals in the face of structural divestment, disinterest, and overall erasure.
Through a historical analysis, Abigail Rosas discusses the ways in which a marginalized community, like South Central, California, became home to the thousands of Black and Latinx residents that have migrated to California since the 1960s. It is a beautifully written narrative of the work that Black and Latinx residents put into a community to make it their home. And it is ultimately a plea against gentrification’s displacement of Black and Brown bodies.
To contextualize and ground the project, one has to remember that the United States is quickly becoming a minority-majority nation. Most research continues to focus on the white population as representative of the average American, while rendering the life and experiences of other groups as marginal. According to a 2015 Census report, more than half of the U.S. population is projected to belong to a minority group by 2060, with Black and non-Black Latinx groups accounting for almost 43% of the population. This is precisely why research that focuses on Black and Latinx communities is not simply a one-off project, but instead represents the future of the United States and is the reason why the importance of South Central is Home extends well beyond the borders of California.
Rosas shapes her historical analysis by grounding the discussion around ideas of place-making, community-building, and race relations in South Central, Los Angeles (or South L.A., as it is now known). From beginning to end, the book eloquently narrates the ways in which African Americans began their place-making journey to South L.A. in the 1960s, against a backdrop of systemic racial oppression and racial covenants that segregated Black communities. In their journey from the U.S. South, Black residents migrated to the Southwest with the hope of starting anew, in a community whose history was not bogged down with the burdens of slavery.
Mexican and Central American immigrants began moving into the predominantly Black South Central neighborhood in the 1980s. Many of these immigrants left for economic and/or political motives in search of a more decent life. However, like African Americans, Central American and Mexican immigrants were relegated to the same “forgotten places” of the city. Rosas contextualizes the environment in which Black and Latin American peoples would come to make South Central their home. More importantly, it provides the historical background in which these residents came together to advocate for their own community and well-being, often against the interests of powerful government entities. As Rosas puts it, “South Central African American and Latina/o residents advocate for investment and care for the community, but an investment that would not leave them behind.” It is through this collaboration that Rosas identifies the power of relational community formation.
The seven chapters in this book can be broken down into three important categories: place-making, investment, and race relations. Impressively, Rosas situates the historical realities of Black and Latina/o/x residents in South Central. Within these historical accounts, Rosas intertwines the ways in which systems of oppression and racialization created the conditions in which these residents were required to maintain and preserve a community that would serve the needs of its members. Even when it comes to government investment initiatives like the Head Start program and healthcare clinics, it was the community members themselves that had to work together to make the programs fit the needs of the people in South Central.
In the chapters dedicated to Head Start and healthcare clinics, Rosas effectively captures how the programs were first rolled out, the difficulties encountered, and the way in which Black and Latina/o/x folks worked together to make both institutions a success. Interestingly, while both the Head Start program and Drew King Hospital were funded through important government initiatives, both instances of investment were often used to racialize the community through the insidious narrative of a culture of poverty. By interacting with and attempting to shape these spaces Black and Latinx residents were forced to interact with each other.
While Rosas demonstrates the power that Black and Latinx communities have when they work together, she also brings up two important points that are not fleshed out in their entirety: the erasure of the Latinx community and negative race relations. As she notes on many occasions, the increased immigrant presence in South Los Angeles has done little to “erode the African American identity and character the people readily associate with the area.” Rosas worries that the Latino and Latinx presence will be erased from the popular image of South L.A.. While I do not think Rosas suggests that the Latino and Latinx experience is more precarious than the Black experience, Rosas could have spent more time explaining the persistent association of South L.A. with African Americans. In other words, thinking about the ways in which understanding South L.A. as a Black community, even if demographic numbers tell us otherwise, is also about the importance of place-making for a community whose history in the United States is founded on the erasure of its people. Rosas’ focus on the positive aspects of Black-Latinx relations is noteworthy. However, understanding why they do not always get along is just as important as highlighting when they do.
South Central is Home will be of interest to sociologists, political scientists, historians, and ethnic studies scholars, among others. As a book that centers race relations in communities of color, this book would be especially useful for undergraduate and graduate students, community organizers, and even political leaders. For young scholars, it provides a model for writing about communities that formed us, communities that we unapologetically love. Many traditional scholars continue to view scholarship that center ones community or family as “me-search”. This critique of course is rarely made of white scholars researching white communities. Lastly, by disentangling the rich history of South Central, Rosas shows us the future of cities across the United States.
Claudia Sandoval is a professor in the Political Science department at Loyola Marymount University where she teaches courses on Race, Immigration, and Black/Latina/o relations. Professor Sandoval is a first-generation Mexican immigrant who grew up in Inglewood, California. Sandoval received her B.A. in political science from UCLA in 2006. She graduated from the University of Chicago with both her master’s and doctorate in political science in 2014.
 Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. “Forgotten Places and the Seeds of Grassroots Planning”. In Engaging Contradictions: Theory, Politics and Methods of Activist Scholarship, edited by Charles R. Hale, 31-61. Berkeley and Los Angeles: UC Press, 2008.
 Rosas, Abigail. South Central is Home: Race and the Power of Community Investment in Los Angeles. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019.
With “Postcards,” creative non-fiction stories grounded in place, we aspire to create a new cartography of California. For us, literature and language are as much about marking and representing space, as they are about storytelling.
March 12, 2006. My second big punk show. The Adicts at the Showcase Theatre in Corona, California. Way the fuck away from my home in La Puente.
I was supposed to see them a week prior, not too far away at the British Invasion festival at the Orange Pavilion in San Bernardino. The show got shut down after I had been there for two or three bands. A skinhead demonstration had led to a stabbing, tear gas, looting, and riot police. I was fourteen.
My dad had been nearby listening to KFWB in his old Datsun, heard about what was going on, and came back and swooped me up. I was extremely disappointed to have missed the Adicts, essentially the only band I came to see, until it was announced that they were playing another show a week later, for half the price. I took a flier with me to school. The older, hippie punks I knew, who had claimed to smash a cop’s windshield that night said, “Oh, it’s at Showcase.” They didn’t seem too surprised, and smiled slightly.
At what? At where? I had only heard of punk shows happening in backyards in the San Gabriel Valley, clubs in Hollywood, and this lame coffee shop in Azusa called Smart City Grinds where Cheap Sex played once. The bell rang and I headed to class while the hippie punks returned to their hacky sack game.
It seemed like all of a sudden the Inland Empire was the place to be, before I even knew of it’s reputation. In my mind, that’s where Mexican and white punks gathered in mass numbers, stood together against fascists, smashed fast food restaurants, and where the Adicts played whenever you wanted to see them.
I pleaded with my father to take me again. This time, he wasn’t just dropping me off. Two tickets it was, and a ride down two freeways I’d never heard of.
We drove out from La Puente on the 91 and the 71 on a school night. My dad excitedly reminisced about visiting his aunt in Corona in the early 60s, riding mini-bikes in empty fields, and eating hamburgers at Hi Spot. It sounded like some redneck shit to me.
We got off on Main Street and arrived to what seemed to me like flat-in-the-middle of fucking nowhere. A Del Taco to our left, a 76 Station to the right. In spite of some charming old buildings and a curving line of trees, the place felt somewhat sad. It was getting dark in downtown Corona.
We went another block or two, past the city library, and then I turned my head to see hundreds of kids surrounding a frumpy brick building next to the 99 Cent Store. It was like they had taken it over.
We parked beside some girls hanging out in a blanketed truck camper, slyly drinking forties. My old man seemed more accustomed to this kind of scene than I was (after all, he saw the Doors in the 70s). As we walked up to the building, he snapped a picture of the building’s cheesy marquee: The Showcase Theatre.
The parking lot was alive with girls and boys with blue and pink hair, spiderweb tattoos, painted leather, and cheetah print everything. They screamed at each other, played grab-ass, while the older ones smoked cigarettes. There were also a few middle aged people there too, just as punk as the rest.
This Corona was redneck shit indeed, and my sheltered Mexican-mom-having adolescent self was about to get his first taste of it. I met a 19 or 20-ish year-old guy who’s name I don’t remember. He had the tallest spiked hair I’d ever seen and the most thrashed, moldy Cramps shirt. It gave those hippies at school a run for their money. He said he lived around the corner. I asked if he came to all the punk shows. I had just become aware of hardcore, metal, and “scene kid” music and eyed it with distrust. He said he came to the Showcase Theater every night, no matter who played, just to fuck around. He made eye contact with the tallest, scariest bouncer and called “Waddup Big Ron?!” Big Ron’s scowl turned into a huge grin.
At seven o’clock sharp, the bouncers snapped into authoritarian mode and shouted us into lines. Everyone mostly complied. When I got to the box office window, ringed with stickers and faded graffiti, a middle-aged blonde woman with Coke bottle glasses and a green cardigan asked me, “Tickets or Will Call?” Not understanding the question, I blinked at her. She sternly repeated herself and then gave a look to a Mexican goodfella in skate clothes standing by the door. He told me to empty my pockets, took my ticket, and sent me inside. He was the club’s talent booker and stage hand, Joe Case.
I felt like Bilbo Baggins entering the back door of the Lonely Mountain under moonlight. There was a dark hallway covered in posters for upcoming shows: UK Subs, The Meteors, Avengers. It was probably only 12 or 15 feet long, but it’s burned into my memory like the slow pan-up at the beginning of a movie that takes place in a Chuck E. Cheese for punks.
Traffic lights and an old bicycle hung from the ceiling. There was a small, round stage, no more than three and a half feet high, flanked by huge speakers, and a little cage next to it for the sound guy. The wooden dance floor in front of it was soaked in years of sweat, and framed by a squared, corral-like rail that separated the pit from the loading ramp, the entrance, and the snack bar with its Christmas lights. The old crust punk tíos and lifers leaned up on the rail with slushies and popcorn while their young ones ran up and down the staircase to check out t-shirts and CDs on the balcony. Underneath the balcony was the chill out – or make out – area. Behind the snack bar, past the world’s loveliest bathroom, was a red naugahyde couch, arcade machines, and a water fountain that never worked.
The show started quickly. My pop and I went up the balcony to watch the opener, the Giggaloops. They were locals, mostly girls, four or five years older than me, and they were playing their last show ever. First song and the kids were already pitting and singing along. I couldn’t believe a band this young had a following and could open for legends like the Adicts. I think one of their moms might have worked in the snack bar. I was enamored with their lead singer’s pin-up style and cool vintage microphone. They thanked Showcase numerous times – that’s what everyone called it, Showcase – and when I got their free CDR later, it had live tracks recorded at the Showcase that actually sounded better than their demo.
The Adicts as I would find out, played the Showcase many times a year. It was where they had made their return from hiatus in 2002, before they moved to California. They’d released several records with a label co-founded by the venue’s owner, Ezzat Soliman. These British legends made Corona their home base, and were huge in So Cal. The tight confines of the club (capacity of 450, I think), gave the perfect conditions for the band to explode confetti and throw out beach balls to a swaying crowd of teenage heathens.
After that first show, I kept making the trip out to Corona any chance I got over the next two years, meeting new friends, eating the pizza next door, and pissing off the 99 Cent Store staff. I saw more and more that the Showcase had its own scene of artists who were making (or trying to make) their careers in music largely off the opportunities that this little place and it’s community afforded. Not only was it the spot to see Vice Squad or TSOL, but there were hordes of young people honing their chops on locals-only bills that were generously provided by Joe Case and Ezzat Soliman.
The stereotypical skeezy Inland Empire element was there. I remember a middle-aged, leather-faced crew called the Runt Punx. They had names like Spit and Weasel, and dressed sorta like GI’s or Gestapo. One of them slapped my best friend Garrett in the titty as we crossed paths in the doorway. Boy was he pissed. The Corona City Bootboys were a skinhead group that came out and busted up a D.I. show. I once saw a methed out guy who looked like Matthew Lillard push a revolver in a fresh cut baby skin’s face and ask him if he wanted to “play with bullets” while the kid pleaded, “I’m not a fuckin’ nazi man, please don’t shoot me, I’m not a nazi man!” This happened about a block south of the club. My sister and I watched with bewilderment from the bushes.
But I met a lot of artists and intellectual types there too: a family with a record label whose kids ran food drives and became train hoppers. A guy from Temecula who printed Patti Smith and other poets on his shirts. All the photographers. Of course, there were all the politically-minded bands and fans spreading messages about police, war, and animal rights. And just a lot of friendly people who loved to dance and didn’t mind getting crashed into.
I’m not totally sure where everyone came out from, and how many people were Corona locals. Many came from Riverside, where the Showcase’s predecessor, Spanky’s, resided in the late 80s. Garrett came out from Rancho Cucamonga. Recently I learned that my cousins, who had moved from Alhambra to Ontario to Mira Loma, had gone to Showcase with their aunt and gotten drunk for the first time in the parking lot. All the while, the IE felt like such a nebulous region to me.
In 2008, the Showcase shut down pretty quickly. I didn’t know what exactly happened – a lot of pressure from Corona City Council apparently – but I had gotten my taste of what punk rock was supposed to be, and spent many more nights in search of it in backyards in the SGV, galleries in Echo Park, and bars in Orange County.
As I ventured further into rock scenes enabled by the bull economy and gentrification of the Obama years, the happy times I spent in the circle pit at the Showcase didn’t feel quite as hip. I drank in some of the high brow, anti-hick, and apolitical sentiments that swirled around some of the more affluent garage rock and art punk shows. Showcase wasn’t a place I brought up anymore, and I’m ashamed to say I even cringed a time or two when my father mentioned it years after.
More recently, I just about completely lost interest in the bulk of what goes on in the LA rock scene, as even the bands who are supposed to be super punk mostly just play in clubs with sideways fences that seem to have been built to serve as backdrops in commercials. Everyone’s gotta make a buck. It’s not to say something isn’t happening somewhere that means something to someone though. In fact, geographically, I started to notice something funny.
Maybe it was just nostalgia that caught my peripheral vision, but I started noticing that old school punk, with all of its trappings, still exists in the boonies like Corona. Marla Ríos-Hernández’s dissertation on punk made the papers. A gigantic fair for punk street vendors was happening yearly in Upland, until Covid. And Alta Loma’s Dr. Strange Records is still going strong 22 years later. I hadn’t seen an honest-to-god punk family walking the street in the SGV in ages, until I went to see Logan Colby’s 2019 documentary “If These Walls Could Sing” at the Concert Lounge in Riverside. It was a rowdy and emotional evening. The audience cheered younger versions of themselves jumping off the stage, as the Soliman family sat tearing up in the back row.
Now, 12 years since the Showcase shut down, the Inland Empire has taken on a clearer identity in my head. It’s a place without pretense, where people do what they have to to survive and thrive. The IE, and Corona, are punk.
Chris Greenspon is a radio journalist from La Puente, California, and the host of the public affairs podcast SGV Weekly. His work has been heard on KPCC, KCRW, Latino USA, and Marketplace. Listen to a radio version of this story here.
There is a growing concern with the relationship between private philanthropy and nonprofit regional organizing and development efforts to address economic inequality and racial injustice. As shown in the groundbreaking book The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Nonprofit Industrial Complex (INCITE! 2007) and a growing body of ethnographic and historical research, private philanthropy has influenced patterns of nonprofit professionalization and introduced individualistic and racialized market logics that limit and contain grassroots efforts to address structural inequality. Unlike the also important journalistic and philosophical texts on the power of philanthropy that tend towards broad claims about foundations and the wealthy elite, this body of empirical research grounds philanthropy in the power-laden relationships between funders, transnational actors, nonprofit institutions and staff, and local communities – echoing long standing concerns of nonprofit practitioners and movement leaders.
Recently, development and philanthropy scholars critique the “philanthrocapitalist” turn where charitable institutions seek new profits through private-sector investments in major social policy arenas including global health, agriculture, education, workforce development, and disaster relief that create new markets of wealth production that in turn produce or maintain inequality. A striking example of the philanthrocapitalist model provides a challenge to recent claims that philanthropic efforts in post-Katrina New Orleans represent a new model for social justice giving. Vincanne Adams’ book Markets of Sorrow and John Arena’s book Driven from New Orleans provide detailed accounts of how, instead of delivering justice to displaced residents, philanthropic partnerships in post-Katrina New Orleans paved the way for private housing development and new debt structures that generated profit for private industry while making it extremely difficult for displaced homeowners and residents to stay or return.
These trends are not new. Just as the Ford Foundation was heralded as a civil rights advocate in the 1960s, it was later critiqued for watering down the Black Power movement and the more radical wings of the United States War on Poverty community action programs. In co-author Erica Kohl-Arenas’ study of funder investments in the California Farmworker Movement, the Field Foundation and the Rosenberg Foundation were valuable allies in the early days of the movement but were unwilling to fund union organizing, strikes, boycotts, or legal representation of farmworkers when the movement heated up in the fields of California’s Central Valley in the late 1960s. Today, we see widespread congratulations for donors and nationally-scaled nonprofit organizations that support movements against the exploitation of poor people, women, immigrants, and communities of color. While these resources and professional forms of community organizing are desperately needed, do all strategies of nonprofit and philanthropic organizing matter equally? We propose that it is necessary, especially during times of crisis, to investigate how well-funded nonprofit organizing campaigns intersect with, sometimes support and catalyze, and yet sometimes overshadow or contain local struggles.
The case study featured in this essay shows how private and publicly funded domestic worker organizing projects that aim to empower women can weaken and redirect efforts away from building a broad-based worker and immigrant-owned movement and towards the needs of market owners. However, as we will also see in the featured case, the power of privately funded professionalized nonprofit organizing is not always represented in clear-cut capitalist agendas. Instead, professionals negotiate and adapt program strategies to align with the interests of partners with power and resources, in the end making poor people responsible for alleviating their own suffering while excluding questions of how structural inequality is produced and maintained.
The study takes on the difficult task of interrogating the risks involved in professionally organizing some of the most marginalized people in this country –undocumented immigrant women who clean homes for a living. While we believe that this organizing is urgently needed, we also found that incentivized volunteerism, required participation in national domestic worker efforts, and privately-funded media campaigns can run counter to building a strong movement of, by, and for immigrant women. Strategies to counter political, economic, and racial oppression are of utmost importance today. It is also important to pay attention to how organizing strategies that aim to also align with the interests of employers in rapidly gentrifying regions, may contain contradictions that risk compromising movements for social, economic, racial, gender, and political justice over the long haul. Central to these contradictions is the dilemma endemic to community organizing in the advanced nonprofit sector where movements that claim to embrace localized grassroots organizing, are often organized around “upward accountability” to professional staff, funding structures, and regional employers – not to the communities they aim to empower and mobilize. This professionalized approach to organizing is not inherently bad. However, institutional arrangements and strategies are often disconnected from the daily struggles, critical analyses, and strategic engagement of those most impacted in the issues a movement seeks to address.
Based on the findings of co-author Erika Grajeda’s ethnographic research at an immigrant worker center in San Francisco, California, we make three specific claims about the problems presented by privately funded, nationally connected, nonprofit institutional worker organizing. First, we found that asking one of the most precarious workforces, predominantly undocumented immigrant women who clean homes, to participate in volunteer organizational maintenance activities replicates an increasingly common form of unpaid labor required of women who seek support through poverty alleviation programs throughout the global South. In other words, economic opportunities extended to immigrant household workers were contingent upon unpaid nonprofit organizational care, duty, and labor. A second finding discussed in this paper involves the ways in which women participants themselves become a strategic site of intervention rather than the structural arrangements of domestic labor within the regional and national economy. Similar to transnational poverty eradication programs targeting girls/women, women workers are engaged as a malleable economic resource and investment. Finally, through public communications campaigns associated with the worker center’s funded programming, we found that by privileging employer audiences, largely imagined as middle-class Bay Area residents and tech workers, domestic workers emerged as selfless and industrious individuals while workplace challenges and regional structures of inequality experienced by domestic workers were made invisible.
In the following pages, we show how specifically gendered program frameworks, narrative tropes, and forms of nonprofit governance hold undocumented immigrant women responsible for solving problems produced by broader structures of inequality. Through privately-funded programmatic logics, they are at once told to evaluate their own self-worth based on volunteer labor and caring, and that worker organizing is about incentives, rewards, and communication campaigns alongside agreeable regional employers. We first provide a historical and geographic context for worker center organizing in the San Francisco Bay Area. The following sections share our findings around the three central themes of gendered and incentivized participation in nonprofit worker organizing, the project of making women responsible for their own suffering, and finally the politics of “win-win” public media narratives that aim to both empower women workers and make employers feel comfortable and charitable hiring immigrant domestic workers. We conclude by returning to the complicated question of the purpose and risks associated with critiquing one or the most important organizing agendas within a historical context of political oppression and urgency in the U.S.
The Worker Power Center
Scholars have long documented how the adversities faced by undocumented immigrants vary considerably across geographic regions in the U.S. California, emerging in recent years as a champion of “immigrant rights,” has supported a host of policies intended to help undocumented immigrants. Under threat of possible retaliation by the Trump administration, then Governor Jerry Brown signed landmark sanctuary state legislation vowing to protect “hardworking families” while continuing to target “dangerous criminals.” Within the state, cities such as San Francisco have upheld longstanding sanctuary policies or related law enforcement orders. Considered “as good as it gets” for undocumented immigrants, the San Francisco Bay Area is lauded as a racially heterogeneous and progressive setting that is accommodating and charitable to noncitizens. This façade of tolerance and inclusivity, however, overstates the city’s ability to provide refuge and safety to undocumented populations, particularly in the post-9/11 era with the ascendancy of what some refer to as the Homeland Security State. Importantly today, it also overshadows the Silicon Valley tech boom-induced housing and affordability crisis that has led to a rapid increase in homelessness and flight of working-class Black and Latino residents from the city.
Alongside these trends, a migrant civil society has flourished to deal with the crisis of social reproduction confronting low-wage, immigrant workers in the Bay Area. Worker centers have been at the forefront, seeking to counter the process of labor subordination by helping immigrant workers navigate the landscape of substandard work. As “informal unions,” these mediating organizations are tasked with supporting immigrant workers through a combination of advocacy, organizing, and service provision. Through their efforts to contest informal work practices, they not only aim to alter the terms of labor relations, but also create additional income-generating activities as alternatives to low-wage jobs. Worker centers are thus considered important agents for economic equity. Contributing to a twenty-first century pro-labor moral economy which draws attention to the plight of low-wage immigrant workers, the nonprofit worker center model has emerged as a promising development that is reenergizing labor and immigrant social movements in the U.S.
The Worker Power Center (WPC) is a city-sponsored program that focuses on strengthening the individual well-being and collective power of low-wage immigrant workers in San Francisco. Previously part of La Raza Centro Legal, a community-based legal organization, the WPC currently falls under the fiscal sponsorship of Dolores Street Community Services, a nonprofit that was created in the 1980s to provide shelter and sanctuary to Central American refugees. With their institutional support, the WPC oversees two worker collectives, the Day Labor Program (DLP) and the Women’s Collective (WC). The DLP, which originated in the early 1990s as an outgrowth of a burgeoning immigrant rights movement across California, extended job development and social services to mostly undocumented and homeless men. The program is currently located in the historically Latino neighborhood of the Mission, near a corridor where immigrant workers have long gathered to solicit employment. The worker center, in a display of converging interests of local authorities, neighborhood groups, and migrant justice activists over the growth of informal hiring sites and immigrant dispossession, emerged as a ‘win-win’ solution for the problems posed by informal day labor markets amidst rapid gentrification. Aiming to provide “support, structure, and resources” to both day laborers and their employers, it hoped to ensure a steady supply of “low cost, seasonal, [and] temporary” labor while simultaneously preserving the “dignity” of workers. Today, the worker center model is heralded as the best possible solution to the “crisis” facing many local governments over the growth of informal labor markets. 
In the early 2000s, the WPC created the “feminist wing” of the organization, the Women’s Collective (WC), to provide immigrant women laboring in household industries with an independent organizing space. As a standalone program with its own membership structure and decision-making procedures, the WC currently represents more than a third of the WPC membership base. In addition to extending job opportunities to a mostly Latin American, immigrant and female workforce, the WC offers members opportunities “to learn, work and participate” in local and national social movements. By providing Latina migrants with more than just “dignified employment,” the WC is a pioneer among worker centers which have traditionally been male-dominated spaces catering to industries such as construction. Today, the WC is considered an incubator for immigrant household workers to hone their leadership and entrepreneurial skills, self-esteem, and political consciousness.
As founding members and leaders in the worker center movement that includes umbrella organizations such as the National Day Labor Organizing Network (NDLON) and the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), both programs share a social justice orientation intended to incite collective mobilization. At the organizational level, however, a more disjointed picture unfolds as day laborers and domestic workers, through their respective programs, are treated as two distinct populations endowed with varying levels of political agency and potential. As we will illustrate in greater detail below, day laborers and domestic workers are incorporated into the organization through different membership and participation requirements. These differences, we argue, reflect and reinforce distinct funding imperatives, political agendas, and gendered expectations. We find, for instance, that while the WC is concerned with promoting immigrant women’s civic engagement and leadership, encouraging greater visibility in migrant justice movements, the DLP prioritizes men’s labor market integration and “community embeddedness.” DLP members are encouraged to await work indoors, venturing out collectively mostly to participate in community cleanup and volunteering efforts aimed at making a positive impression on neighboring communities. Women, however, take on a more visible and political role due to their distinct participation requirements. This means that while the worker center aims to function as an “organizing hub” for WC members, inciting personal transformation and empowerment, it often serves as a day shelter for immigrant men looking to secure work through the DLP.
Funding streams for the WC and DLP also differ. The DLP receives roughly $250,000 per fiscal year from public grants offered by the City and County of San Francisco’s Office of Civic Engagement & Immigrant Affairs (OCEIA). According to the 2014 OCEIA’s Request for Proposal, the purpose of such grants is to provide “structure, job training, and support” to the informal day labor industry as well as to address community concerns over safety. These grants emphasize the dual goal of providing day laborers with a “structured” work environment to ensure their economic self-sufficiency, and securing a stable supply of low cost, on-demand labor for local industries and employers. The DLP then is tasked with ensuring a reliable supply of flexible labor while promoting immigrant integration and public safety. Alternatively, the WC receives funding from private foundations such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Benton Foundation, and the Zellerbach Family Foundation, which according to staff, is largely directed toward the “social justice” side of their operations. As an affiliate and founding member of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and the California Domestic Workers Coalition (CDWC), the WC receives additional funding to attend national retreats and participate in outreach and advocacy campaigns. While OCEIA grants for the day labor program emphasize economic self-sufficiency, safety, and greater oversight of informal economies, funding for the WC largely focuses on promoting civic engagement and leadership development. Both foundation funding and OCEIA grants, however, look to these community-based organizations to address the challenges experienced by and ensure the reproduction of low-wage immigrant workers in a gentrified and increasingly unaffordable city.
In 2016, the Worker Power Center celebrated its 25th anniversary with a relaunch and rebranding campaign. Envisioning itself as a full-service organization seeking to “unite, empower, and organize” low-wage immigrant workers in San Francisco, the Worker Power Center (WPC) has increasingly embraced marketplace solutions. These have included employing marketing strategies and media campaigns to create what they perceive to be a more sustainable and scalable organizational model. This new approach has also entailed expanding their employer base, particularly those in the tech industry, embracing innovative technologies such as apps to combat wage theft and expedite the hiring process, as well as experimenting with public-private partnerships. With this relaunch, the WPC seeks to enhance the individual lives of low-wage immigrant workers by providing them with greater employment prospects through professionalization and vocational training. They also seek to extend more opportunities for leadership development and civic engagement in migrant justice and labor movements.
In the remaining sections, we turn to our findings that complicate how these benefits are delivered to WPC members under the nonprofit organizational model. We highlight the three central themes of gendered and incentivized participation in nonprofit worker organizing, the project of making women responsible for curing their own “trauma,” and finally, the politics of “win-win” media narratives that aim to both empower members and compel employers to support immigrant workers. We conclude with a discussion about the practice of embracing nationally scaled and market-based solutions to address enduring labor challenges, particularly the extent to which privately funded nonprofit institutions are engaging workers in developing organizing strategies that hold employers and industries accountable to change. Gendered and incentivized participation in nonprofit worker organizing
Membership in the Worker Power Center (WPC) is considered a “privilege” that is not automatic but must be earned. While some worker centers offer multiple membership tiers with different levels of rights, obligations, and decision-making privileges, membership structures are generally devised with the goal of empowering members to serve as their own advocates of change. At the WPC, prospective members have to fill out an application form, attend an orientation meeting, and pay monthly dues. Once established, membership extends job dispatching privileges to workers, which is one of the most important services the center provides. Although membership provides job allocation privileges to both day laborers and domestic workers, only for the latter is “active participation” a requirement for securing household employment through the Women’s Collective (WC). Day laborers, for instance, are allocated jobs using a rotating sign-in system, which requires that they be physically present at the center to be eligible for work on any given day. After every job placement, the Day Labor Program (DLP) requires that workers volunteer either by cleaning the facilities or distributing flyers throughout the city advertising their services. While encouraged, members of the DLP are not required to attend weekly member meetings.
For domestic workers in the WC, a point system is used to codify, track, and reward optimal levels of participation. While its exact origin is not known by current staff or WC members, household workers earn the “right” to jobs through the collective by what organizers refer to as “active participation.” Through an intricate point system, WC members earn a point for every activity or event they attend on a weekly basis. These can include flyering or advertising their services throughout the city, but also attending marches, protests, self-help meetings, theater group rehearsals and performances, making legislative visits, and at times, engaging in acts of civil disobedience. Women also engage in other “volunteering” activities, including organizational maintenance work such as cleaning and cooking for members during communal events. While expected, this type of gendered community care work—often attributed to a culturally-specific ethos of cooperation and conviviality—is not accounted for or tabulated into the point system. Staff acknowledge that the point system is the source of much internal conflict, resentment, and surveillance among WC members—as well as a considerable amount of administrative work on their end. Still, the point system is considered a “necessary incentive” that serves to maximize women’s participation and more importantly, to develop their political consciousness.
Job allocation, which staff describe as a referral service linking prospective employers with job seekers, is considered secondary to the organization’s larger political goals, which is to “empower” immigrant Latinas. This message is delivered to women during an initial orientation meeting where prospective members learn about the WC’s “mission and vision,” but also at weekly mandatory meetings and events. Ana, a senior member of the WC, reinforced this point to a prospective member during an orientation meeting: “One can’t just show up and take up space.” After becoming a WC member, this woman explained that she understood that to secure jobs through the collective she would “have to work hard.” As part of the WC’s mission and vision then, immigrant women were being called to “join the fight” instead of remaining on the sidelines as spectators. Josefina, a cofounder of the Women’s Collective and a former domestic worker herself, elaborated on this point at a general member meeting:
“The women who are truly committed don’t just show up to earn points. They participate because they are truly concerned with what is going on in their communities, in the legislature, in D.C. They aren’t just a warm body on a chair. It is not greed or selfishness that motivates them but the belief that as immigrant women we all have to fight for what we want . . . it is not fair that some of us put in the time and effort to attend all of these events, participate, march, protest, share our stories, talk to politicians and journalists, while others simply get to sit back and enjoy the fruits of our labor.”
As the above quote suggests, “active participation” entails more than being a “warm body.” To secure household jobs through the collective, members are expected to “participate, march, [and] protest.” They also have to be willing to put their bodies on the line, at times quite literally, by engaging in acts of civil disobedience, risking arrest and even deportation, in their efforts to secure employment through the collective. When members have questioned or challenged the intrinsic value of participation, they are reminded that membership is a “privilege” and that the benefits extended include the “opportunity” to be part of a social movement in the U.S. As Victoria, a WC committee noted, members are often reminded that the opportunity to participate and acquire valuable leadership skills should be payment enough. However, as Victoria retorted, “We’re the ones out on the front lines,” adding that while the WC encourages women to fight for immigrant rights, members are not encouraged to apply those values internally, or to make changes to the collective’s organizational structure. Ultimately, she shares, “the compañeras give and give [and] not out of the goodness of their heart but out of necessity because they need jobs.”
Healing immigrant women
Providing members with ample opportunities to be politically engaged is part of the WC’s approach to empowerment. That is, domestic workers are incentivized to march, protest, fast, meet with public officials and in some cases, engage in contentious-style politics. Empowerment, however, also requires personal transformation. To that end, WC members are encouraged to “work on themselves” by engaging in transformative activities aimed at restoring and revitalizing their “body and soul.” These personal transformations are made possible through their incentivized participation in self-help groups, theater, retreats, and other activities that emphasize psychic and somatic healing. This emphasis on personal transformation and healing is inspired by the National Domestic Workers Alliance’s (NDWA) Strategy, Organizing, Leadership (SOL) initiative program. According to this initiative, skilled organizing requires a “centered, open and connected” individual who understands not only her own trauma and healing, but also the current and historical sociopolitical context. As a program that aims to build resilient grassroots leaders who can “lead with skill and love,” SOL encourages worker leaders to tackle lingering traumas and other pathologies that can generate individualist and antisocial tendencies. Left unresolved, these pathologies are seen as potentially stifling political participation and community power. As such, healing the “body and soul’” of household workers is deemed imperative for building robust social movements and grassroots organizations.
At the WC, women’s inability (or unwillingness) to be active in the local nonprofit organization and the nationally-scaled domestic worker movement is often attributed to moral and individual shortcomings. According to a WC cofounder and staff member, nonparticipation is rooted in low self-esteem, trauma and culturally-rooted pathologies that ultimately stifle collective action and create divisions within movements. Defining individuals through their assumed trauma – as victims of structural, physical and sexual violence – allows for interventions into their lives to be justified as a political obligation. Instrumentally, addressing these pathologies and lingering traumas is seen as integral for building robust social movement organizations and leaders. Here, again, is Josefina describing the collective’s “healing” mission:
“Many of the women that walk through that door are broken. They come from countries where women have no rights, no voice, and no way of providing for their children. They have been beaten, exploited, even raped, and so they come to the WC looking for someone to extend a helping hand. That is what we do here, we provide them the tools they need to reach their full potential as women, to expand their possibilities so that they can aspire to more in life than just cleaning houses, which is hard work . . . They come here broken and leave as heroínas.”
To ensure that WC members reach their “full potential” as entrepreneurs and social movement participants, the collective cannot thus merely “assist” them in securing household work. Instead, through a discourse of empowerment – borrowed from feminist thought and praxis – the WC aims to provide immigrant Latinas with the tools they need to “aspire to more in life than just cleaning houses.” To cultivate empowered subjectivities, these assumed to be “broken” women must “work on themselves” by participating in self-help activities aimed at “restoring the body and soul.” This emphasis on psychic and somatic healing, borrowed from the National Domestic Workers Alliance’s (NDWA) Strategy, Organizing, Leadership (SOL) initiative, receives generous financial support from the Angell Foundation, Hidden Leaf Foundation, Open Society Foundations, Alexander Soros Foundation, Oak Foundation, Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, NoVo Foundation, and Seasons Fund for Social Transformation. As a holistic and transformative organizing model, SOL approaches personal healing as a political necessity.
To that end, WC members and staff receive financial support to attend the National Domestic Workers Alliance’s (NDWA) Strategy, Organizing, Leadership (SOL) retreats, where domestic worker organizers and leaders learn about the importance of both personal and social transformation. By developing the concept of “transformative organizing,” the SOL initiative aims to address the human needs of household workers by promoting embodied transformations, mindfulness, and developing healing and caring responses to ensure longevity and active participation. On a weekly basis, WC members also participate in a SOL inspired self-help group, Grupo SOL, which is designed to boost members’ self-esteem and develop peer group solidarity. In Grupo SOL, intimate disclosures are not only considered integral to personal healing and transformation but also to nurturing a more empowered sense of citizenship. While these types of disclosures can be potentially liberating, connecting the personal to the political in strategic and powerful ways, many of the women interviewed expressed feeling that they are deprived of an intimate or private sphere in their quest to secure employment through the collective. This emphasis on healing and self-help thus reveals a contradictory problematic. Whereas the women are asked to reveal the true nature of their own suffering, the foundation funded and professionally run program sessions were organized around the presumption that the root of women’s struggles is a lack of confidence, self-esteem, and voice and not the broader structural challenges such as seeking a living wage, affordable housing, or safety from immigration policing. Here we see a model that again is not “bad” in and of itself: healing from trauma is important and personal empowerment pedagogy has a long-standing movement history. However, it did not “land well” or as intended by virtue of being required within the context of an incentivized participation scheme and designed and delivered by remote nonprofit professionals. For WC members, tending to their “body and soul” is yet more labor they are expected to perform for community uplift.
Win-Win Organizing: public narrative and the politics of care
Unlike day laborers, domestic workers dedicate a significant amount of time and labor to the organization and to self-help. Their distinct participation requirements and funding streams incentivize optimum levels of engagement among women, alongside a gendered improvement program aimed at healing “broken” immigrant Latinas. We argue that the way women members are differently incorporated into the organization produce highly dependable and active members that are compelled to take on multiple roles as caregivers, entrepreneurs, and activists. Emerging as the best hope for a revitalized labor and immigrant movement, these women are continually called upon to “work on themselves,” thereby redirecting the responsibility for managing social risks such as unemployment, poverty, and “illegality” on individual immigrant Latinas. Domestic workers have also been central figures in recent advocacy campaigns that aim to address “injustices of recognition.” As others have documented, nonprofit worker organizations such as the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance have increasingly focused on the promotion of dignity and visibility of domestic workers through positive representational modes such as storytelling and legal advocacy. These efforts seek to remedy the legal exclusion of an entire industry while also to addressing the historical devaluation of household work and its gendered and racialized workforce.
The WC has paralleled these national efforts by seeking to situate immigrant household workers within the framework of recovery and redress through media marketing campaigns. In 2012, for instance, the WC launched the Domestic Worker Safety & Dignity Project, a three-year collaboration that included UC Berkeley’s Labor Occupational Health Program (LOHP) and Underground Advertising. With financial support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s national grantmaking program, New Routes to Community Health, the team designed a marketing and media campaign to promote dignity and health awareness among domestic workers and their employers. The campaign not only addressed occupational safety and health considerations associated with the reliance on toxic cleaning products. It also tackled the public devaluation of household work and its racialized workforce through storytelling strategies that emphasize pride, bravery, and respect. Their goal was twofold: to enhance household working conditions while simultaneously altering the perception of this industry from undervalued women’s work to a “respectable contribution” to the economy.
To promote the WC’s unique brand as a “conscientious cleaning service on a mission,” the team commissioned a photographer to shoot glamorous portrait photography that would be featured on billboards, buses, and other outdoor media in San Francisco. These images would also be featured on their website and printed on flyers to advertise their services. The messages accompanying the images of immigrant household workers referred to WC members as “angels,” “fairy godmothers,” and the “keepers” of their employers’ sanity. In mobilizing these gendered tropes, which focus on benevolence, resourcefulness, and magical qualities, the campaign not only reinforced stereotypical gendered views of domesticity and affect, but also portrayed these workers as a source of gentle reassurance for employers. That is, by presenting immigrant household workers as benign and selfless figures endowed with magical powers, these motifs glamorize marginalized women workers in subservient positions. Moreover, in depicting WC members as instrumental to their employers’ emancipation from the drudgery of household tasks, the campaign not only privileged the needs of employers but also projected an idealized image of this racialized and gendered workforce: industrious, resourceful, and most importantly, ephemeral.
In addition to glamorous photography and strategic messaging evoking the image of the self-sacrificing and magical doméstica, the campaign included an exhibit, “Profiles in Strength & Dignity”, which showcased “moving” autobiographical narratives of WC members. These curated autobiographical accounts offered potential employers “a glimpse” into the workers’ lives and the many roles they take on—as wives, mothers, domestic workers, and now, as activists fighting for “rights and representation.” “Profiles in Strength & Dignity” also reinforces the organization’s political and rehabilitative mission. Their autobiographical accounts highlight, for instance, how the WC provides recent immigrants with a ready-made community in addition to vast opportunities for political activism. For instance, Lorena, who worked as a nanny when she arrived to the U.S., contends that: “Before I came to La Colectiva, I felt like a scared little bunny rabbit—I was frightened of everything.” In these curated accounts, the WC is presented as providing Latinas with stewardship, protection, and care to ensure that they become self-sufficient, confident, and respectable. Domestic workers, portrayed as frightened and defenseless upon arriving to the collective (and the U.S.), are treated as redeemable and ripe with potential, which can be cultivated through proper guidance and care.
Featured on the collective’s website,“Profiles in Strength & Dignity” also promotes the notion of the potential “win-win” or shared prosperity for both workers and employers:
“When the women of La Colectiva pick up the broom and dustpan, they aren’t just clearing away dust—they’re clearing a path to respect and pride for domestic workers everywhere. It’s a win-win: employers get the peace of mind that comes from having a clean house, and the women get dignified work in a healthy workplace. But La Colectiva isn’t just a place to find work. It’s a community for recent immigrants, often separated from their families in a strange new environment. It’s an opportunity for civic engagement and activism towards social justice. And it’s a step towards a better life.”
As the passage suggests, what makes the WC different from its competitors—their distinct “brand”—is that they represent a “conscientious cleaning service on a mission.” Unlike for-profit agencies, the WC provides immigrant Latinas with the opportunity for empowerment through entrepreneurship and political engagement. Presenting “organized labor for an organized home” as a win-win scenario, beneficial for both workers and employers, parallels recent domestic worker organizing efforts at the national level. This is particularly the case with the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and its focus on forging strategic alliances with employers and other institutional actors. This “win-win” approach positions employers and workers on an equal footing through a presumed shared vulnerability (and prosperity), presenting their distinct goals and aspirations as perfectly compatible. It also appeals to employers’ moral sensibilities through the strategic mobilization of compelling personal narratives that renders their “conscientious cleaning service” as an “opportunity” for helping immigrant domestics to help themselves. This strategic branding constructs WC members as a worthy social investment, in their futurity as citizens, entrepreneurs, and pillars of the community. Employers, on the other hand, are viewed as conscientious consumers driven by compassion and social responsibility, without concern about the structures that generate such deep class divisions and categories of exploitable labor.
In this paper, we explored the central problematics presented by privately funded, regionally focused and nationally scaled, nonprofit worker organizing. First, we found that asking undocumented immigrant women to participate in volunteer organizational maintenance activities unintentionally promotes an increasingly common form of unpaid labor required of women in global poverty alleviation programs. WC members were required to execute time intensive volunteer duties in exchange for jobs. In other words, economic opportunities in the domestic work economy were presented as contingent upon unpaid nonprofit organizational care and labor. In addition to institutional maintenance requirements, women were incentivized to participate in professionally orchestrated national domestic worker campaign actions, also in exchange for job referrals. This privately funded and professionally staffed institutional approach to mobilization presents a limited range of opportunities for women workers to define and lead organizing agendas on their own terms. It also puts women under additional pressure as they are asked to take a publicly visible stand which for some puts their immigration status at risk, and for others requires additional resources towards childcare and family support during hours of program participation.
Second, we showed how foundation funded program imperatives that make workers themselves the most important site of intervention fail to address the structural arrangements of domestic labor within the regional and national economy. For male participants, day labor centers function as a kind of shelter, or in the words of a staff member at a day labor center, “a homeless campsite.”  Considering the parallels between worker centers and non-profit poverty management institutions, these sites often serve as repositories for containing and making invisible “surplus” populations within gentrifying urban neighborhoods. As in the structural arrangement of 21st century racial capitalism, a pattern of urban “banishment” is performed as poverty programs intersect with real estate development and speculation, clearing streets to protect the view (and the opportunities) of middle class and wealthy residents concerned with urban “blight” and value.
Whereas men are contained or managed within these spaces, women are disciplined as traumatized individuals in need of healing and care. When “fixed,” these once “broken” women are seen by funders, and thus by program managers, as holding great untapped potential as an entrepreneurial agent of development. Similar to transnational poverty eradication schemes targeting girls/women, women workers are engaged as a malleable economic resource. International development campaigns like #thefutureisfemale, or the Nike Foundation’s “The Girl Effect”are illustrative of gender-specific forms of holding women as responsible for unleashing new markets in the broader project of global economic development. Programs designed to empower women have also become prominent in migrant justice and labor movements—at once providing critical leadership opportunities for immigrant women and re-inscribing racialized and gendered relationships of community responsibility and care.
Finally, the funded public communications campaigns that claim to provide a “win-win” outcome for both workers and employers, privilege the perspectives of employers and middle-class Bay Area residents while avoiding the more challenging employment relationships domestic workers experience. The “win-win” oriented campaign, designed to both empower workers and make employers feel “safe” and “good” about hiring empowered immigrant women, ends up promoting essentialist narratives and racialized gendered tropes about the helpful, non-confrontational domestic worker who is proudly improving her own life while also improving the home life of her employer. Not unlike co-author Kohl-Arenas’ study of farmworker-grower philanthropic initiatives in California’s Central Valley “win-win” projects that aim to serve the interests of people with greatly unequal power often end up marginalizing or hiding the concerns of the weaker party. An increasingly popular form of consensus politics is wielded by mass media campaigns that claim to improve the well-being of poor and marginalized communities, but often hide conflict, struggle, and the structural conditions that produce and maintain poverty and inequality. Often promising “mutual prosperity” for both worker and employer, simplified narratives of self-help and empowerment seldom put pressure on the employer or address regional patterns of inequality such as access to affordable housing and living wage jobs, presenting a limited range of organizing opportunities.
Ultimately, privately funded, institutionally managed, nationally scaled community organizing increasingly forgoes the hard work of long-haul person-to-person movement building. With program frameworks and outcomes mapped by donors, fewer resources are devoted to the daily work of convening community members to inform concrete strategies against the dominant economic structure and towards more equitable futures. Central to the contradictions presented in these stories is the specific arrangement of the advanced nonprofit sector where funders embrace the language of community organizing but are not prepared to take on the broader economic and power arrangements that make philanthropic wealth possible. Professionalized and mandated program participation, incentivized volunteerism, public-private market based partnerships, and self-help program frameworks are all familiar tropes of the advanced “Nonprofit Industrial Complex” (INCITE 2009). In today’s political context, this incentivized organizing presents additional complications and risks for immigrant activists who are increasingly targeted and incarcerated. At the same time, the increasing lack of trust, fear, isolation, seclusion and “hiding out” among previously active immigrant rights organizers does remind us that today all immigrant organizing tactics perhaps do matter.
We simultaneously conclude that, with organizations like the National Domestic Worker Alliance (NDWA) receiving record levels of funding from private foundations such as the Irvine Foundation, W.K. Kellogg, NoVo and Ford Foundation, and a practice of embracing nationally scaled and market based solutions to address enduring labor challenges, it is important to ask how privately funded nonprofit institutions are negotiating relationships with funders on behalf of their constituents. When do institutional negotiations and large-scale initiatives result in increased resources for labor organizing and when do they result in compromised agendas that fail to change the structures of inequality produced by industries and markets? Yet, should we critique nonprofit and philanthropic efforts to support immigrant and worker rights during a time of political resurgence among right-wing, conservative, anti-state politics and white supremacist movements? Not to mention the difficulty of doing grassroots community organizing during a global pandemic, with disproportionate impacts on Black and brown communities. Our answer is yes, and no. No, there is no point in critiquing mainstream philanthropy when we need every penny and every ally to stand up against anti-immigrant hate, racism, and fear-mongering politics. On the other hand, yes, we must pay attention to the role of philanthropy in creating common-sense narratives that contribute to individualist solutions to collective structural problems. It is clear that philanthropy plays a prominent role in promoting narratives that muddy regional organizing strategies, in the end failing to reveal systems of power or align with the struggles of oppressed people.
In this context, critical philanthropy and nonprofit studies are more important than ever. Ethnographic research, such as the work featured in this article, reveals the complicated partial narratives, fragmented organizing strategies, and limited frameworks private donors present when engaging movements for economic equality and racial justice. The urgency of our moment calls for us to hold private funders and nonprofit organizers accountable to the people who increasingly struggle with political violence, economic insecurity, precarity, and banishment from social, economic, political and civic life.
Erika Denisse Grajeda is the Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Southwestern University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology. Her research on intimate labor and immigrant social movements in the U.S. focuses on emergent forms of social control mobilized by state and non-state actors to manage illegalized migrants, and fashion idealized forms of employment and political participation. She is currently working on anarchist feminist collectives in Mexico City.
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As the condition of our climate continues to deteriorate, national and state policies beholden to special interests often play an exacerbating role in worsening effects on working-class communities, especially communities of color. Lack of adequate urban planning and underfunded public projects that can improve quality of life and reduce pollution are often ignored in the larger conversations around climate justice. Dedicated public servant David Diaz is the Executive Director of Active San Gabriel Valley, a local nonprofit organization that focuses on mobility, climate, and health and wellness in underserved communities. He joins Boom California to discuss the connections between public policy and environmental equality, and how we can take an active role in combating climate change in our own neighborhoods.
Boom: Hi David. We’re interested in knowing what the climate crisis looks like for a majority-minority city, one populated by migrants and children of migrants. Can you tell us a little bit about how it is that you, as a child of migrants, arrived to an understanding of environmental justice and the climate crisis.
David Diaz: Yeah, it’s a nice place to start. I was born in Mexico, as you know in Baja, California, and at six months old my parents brought me over and we landed in the city of El Monte. We’re right on the border of the city of El Monte and South El Monte. So, for me growing up as a latchkey kid, my parents had to work multiple jobs to make it work. We lived in this house that was subdivided internally. So, we had what was the front of the house. And then, in addition, there were two other units that were in the back. As a latchkey kid, I grew up on frozen food. My parents, due to a lack of economic opportunities, they had to work, so they couldn’t cook fresh meals. We ate a lot of McDonalds; we had a lot of frozen food. As a result, I became an obese kid growing up. Similarly, a lot of family members, extended family members, had diabetes, heart disease, coronary related diseases. I went to a lot of funerals due to strokes. When I was probably 18, 19 years old I was at about 260 pounds. I went on this trip of Muay Thai kickboxing mixed martial arts and nutrition education, learning about how I could be a healthier individual and so through that process I ended up losing about 110 pounds. And when I was going through this process, I was also going to Rio Hondo Community College and learning about culture, the erasure of culture, displacement, all the things that were not taught at the high school level. That really impacted me deeply. I ended up going to college at Arizona State to study psychology and social health and what I looked at was how systems play a role in determining the outcomes of people’s well-being and quality of life.
When you look at the communities that I grew up in, El Monte and South El Monte, some of the realities that emerge liken it to a concrete jungle. When I say concrete jungle, what does that mean? It means the absence of canopy, urban canopy, trees, vegetation, greenery in our communities. The national average for urban canopies is about 22%, so this means the percentage of publicly owned trees. In the city of El Monte, that’s about 5%.We’re not lacking fast food or liquor stores or tobacco, you can find one of those pretty easily. We’re also a super park poor community. The national average is approximately six acres per one thousand residents, and for the cities of El Monte and South El Monte, it’s about 0.41 acres per one thousand residents. And just to give a perspective: one acre is roughly the size of a soccer field, so we’re talking about cramming one thousand people in less than half the size of a soccer field.
And so, that coupled with questions like: what were the outcomes in the community I grew up in? Severe pollution burden, high childhood and adult obesity rates, low educational attainment, high unemployment. You start looking at the connections in the system and not just pointing them to personal responsibility, but understanding that all this stuff was done intentionally. So that really motivated me to take the opportunities that were provided for me and come back into my community to be part of that change. I ended up going to Claremont Graduate University to get my Master’s of Public Health. Simultaneously, I was interning at the city of Pomona’s Manager’s Office. I was also working for a startup in south Los Angeles on this concept of dealing with the whole health of an individual. Through these experiences I was able to connect with like-minded folks and organizations that were doing work that I was interested in. One of those organizations was Day One, which was based out of Pasadena, and they actually had this position that had recently opened, and it was titled El Monte Nutrition Education and Obesity Prevention Coordinator. And when I read it, I remember thinking: that’s what I want to do! Like it’s in the title, what I want to do. So, I ended up applying and I got the job. And then that put me into this kick of working in El Monte and South El Monte on various initiatives.
Boom:One of the things that you just outlined for us is the different ways in which residents in El Monte, and other majority-minority cities, experience what we might call if not climate change, at least, environmental injustice. Lack of access to parks and green space, lack of urban canopy, easy access to fast food and liquor stores. Are there any other things that you think are ways that people experience climate crisis or environmental injustice in El Monte and South El Monte that you haven’t mentioned?
David Diaz: When I jumped into the work, it was about nutrition education and obesity prevention for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. So, it’s called SNAP for short, food stamps or food assistance program. Providing them with physical activity and nutrition education is great. However, folks would tell me things like I love to eat healthy meals, I just have to work 14 hours and my schedule is variable. And I’m also worried about my housing insecurity and also I don’t have a car. And I would love to walk in my community, but I just don’t feel safe going outside and walking, because there’s no infrastructure for people to feel safe while walking. Those include simple things like the presence of sidewalks. In El Monte, more than 35% of the sidewalk network is missing. I quickly realized that we can’t just focus on direct services. We need to continue to address the systems that are in place. Poor urban planning has led to a number of things. Harm from freeways has been documented. They’ve displaced thousands of people and mitigated generational wealth from families. The car industry in general, is problematic. So, for example, if you’re a person that’s in El Monte and you want to get to a place within the city of El Monte, pretty much your options are limited to whether you have a car. And what does that create? Car dependency, which creates dependency on oil and gas because you need that. Poor urban planning has contributed greatly to the environmental inequities that we see today. And again, those things aren’t by accident, they’re by design.
Boom: I think one of the things that you’re teasing out is the ways in which there are individual actions and choices that one can make. But in some ways, depending on one’s class, one’s neighborhoods, folks are limited by these larger structural factors. How does Active SGV work to address personal choice and structural conditions?
David Diaz: At Active SGV our mission is to create a more sustainable, equitable, and livable San Gabriel Valley. Active SGV started off as a Facebook page in 2010 by a group of concerned residents from the San Gabriel Valley. They were a multiracial group that lives in different parts of the San Gabriel Valley, from West SGV to East SGV, all concerned about the lack of public transit and active transportation opportunities available for folks. When I say active transportation, that’s everything that’s human powered: walking, biking, skating, scooting. The Facebook page grew into an official organization. They were a chapter of Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, the Western Gabriel Bicycle Coalition, and then they ended up being called Bike San Gabriel Valley.One of the first things that they did was identify these things called master plans, like a bicycle master plan or active transportation master plan and what the gaps were for cities. There’s 31 cities and four large unincorporated areas in SGV. About 2 million residents. They audited which of these cities have done any planning or thinking about active transportation or bicycle master plans.
Since 2012, Active SGV has worked on 12 masterplan processes for 12 individual cities and counting. What that looks like is that we’ve coordinated regional efforts so that there’s regional connectivity in the San Gabriel Valley. Because it’s not enough to just create one bike lane and then see it end at the city boundary, after which you no longer have anywhere to go. For Active SGV, it’s really been about doing the work around identifying where the gaps are and then providing some of the programming ourselves. So, our focus is really on mobility, climate, and health and wellness. Those are the kind of broad categories in which we’re trying to tackle this climate crisis because we know that you need a combination of the above strategy. We need to do the engineering. We need to have actual projects or infrastructure built in the ground.
For Active SGV our communities of concern are really the ones that are most pollution burdened, impacted by pollution, park poor, low income, so that’s what we’ve focused on. The West Puente Valley, El Monte, South El Monte, La Puente, Baldwin Park, parts of Monterey Park, parts of Alhambra. We’re working in Azusa and northwest Pasadena right now, which are really impacted. We’re trying to do this multifocal approach to address some of the region’s most pressing needs. And over the last few years that’s looked like coordinating one of the longest Open Streets programs in the United States. It was 17-plus miles long, from South Pasadena, all the way up to Azusa. Open Streets provides an opportunity to take our biggest public asset, meaning the thing we have most of—roads, which are a fully funded asset—and temporarily transforming them into parks.
We are also working with UCLA and the Energy Coalition to do an indoor air quality study. There are a lot of different appliances that people use that rely on gas. El Monte and South El Monte are in the top five worst pollution burdened sites in California. And that puts us around the top 10 in the entire United States because the county has one of the worst air quality indexes in the United States. If you look at it from that frame and then you look at peoples’ indoor air quality, it’s about five to seven times worse than their outdoor air quality.
People are literally living in toxic conditions because of some behaviors, gas, not having proper installation, or the type of dwelling they’re living in. It’s a number of variables. So, what we’re hoping to do with the outcomes of this study is to inform future building codes for the State of California. Like moving to electrification.
One of the examples that is good for our health and wellness efforts is that we’re currently funded to address food insecurity in the San Gabriel Valley. What we’re doing is coordinating a number of up to 160 – 190 nutrition education and/or physical activity classes with communities that are considered SNAP eligible.
Those are just a few examples of the work that Active SGV is doing, but our frame is always investment where it’s most needed. Doing the work alongside the communities that are most in need and then thinking about multiple benefits. We know that food insecurity doesn’t exist by itself. There’s a lot of complexity that creates food insecurity. Same with absent infrastructure for people walking and biking. It just doesn’t exist by itself.
Boom: One of the images that I got when I was listening to you talk is the El Monte airport. El Monte residents don’t own the planes and they don’t get to go on the planes. It’s almost like there’s literally another freeway. What are your thoughts about the El Monte airport?
David Diaz: The airport for me is like a visualization of the inequity that occurs. Neighboring communities used to have these airports too, that were from way back when, like WWII or something like that. I’m so puzzled as to why we still have this airport that is for leisure activities of the people who have, and it comes at the expense of people who don’t have, which is the people that live in the city El Monte, including myself. I would love for there to be some type of mixed-use development at that site that includes parks and addresses the housing need and has opportunities for economic development for small business owners, entrepreneurs and people from the community. Instead of what it is right now, which is a parking lot for rich people. If I had a wish list, I would love to get rid of that airport. I don’t see the value that it brings to the city of El Monte. It doesn’t generate revenue for them, they’re not getting significant taxes from them. We’re just getting all the pollution, and all of the carbon. So, I would love to see it become something else.
Boom:There’s this term that I read in an LA Times article recently “solastaglia.” It’s a term coined by Glenn Albrecht to describe nostalgia for a place that is no longer the same place. And it’s not that place anymore because of environmental degradation, because of climate change, because it’s been transformed. This really hit me. As you know, Greater El Monte used to be surrounded by water, now it’s surrounded by freeways. We grew up with it surrounded by freeways. I imagine, some generations miss Marrano Beach and being surrounded by water. You have a baby, I have a baby. What do you think we’re going to be nostalgic for in 20 years if we keep headed in the direction we are headed?
David Diaz: As someone who’s involved in the climate world, people are pretty much of two frames of mind. One is resilience. We need to build resilience, and another way to say resilience is that we need to create adaptive strategies. Climate adaptive strategies. What that signals to me is that we pretty much have passed the point of no return. It’s like it’s coming. It’s going to happen. Therefore, let’s just try and adapt to the best of our ability. I think that right now people take for granted being able to go outside. Something as simple as that. You and I are going to miss the days where it was just as simple as, hey let’s go outside today. Because the wildfires that are happening right now aren’t a thing of this moment. They’re going to be a thing of this moment, tomorrow, next month, next year. They’re going to continue to happen and more major human made disaster events are going to continue to happen. And so when I think about it, it really comes down to things as simple as, we’re going to miss being able to go outside. You’re going to have these clean air days and not clean air days determining when you can actually go outside if we continue on the path that we are on right now without an aggressive or bold redirection somewhere else. I think it’s as simple as that. And I know that back in the smog days, people couldn’t go outside because of smog days or limit your physical activity outside because of smog. But moving forward, UCLA scientists right now are saying that the number of days by 2050, the number of days above 95 degrees are going to climb from 32 to 74 by 2050. That’s what UCLA scientists are predicting right now. Today, you and I are having this discussion and it’s currently 101 according to my watch.
Boom: Let’s end with one last question. We’ll try to end on a positive note: how can folks get involved with Active SGV? How can folks make small and big decisions that will help us move in a better direction?
David Diaz: Good question. I think in general one of the things I would offer to folks is to engage with Active SGV at activesgv.org and find our volunteer internship opportunities. We’re trying to do a much better job of building local capacity at the local level. One of the things that you mentioned right now is, how can at the individual level, people do better? One is educating themselves and we can work with folks to help them work through that education of what’s going on. I think that for me I’ve been learning as I’ve been going. What are best practices? What do we need to do? What’s the latest research? And working alongside folks to discover best strategies.
I think that one of the things that we’ve been doing a whole lot, while we still want to do a whole lot more, is build local capacity so that it could be advocacy at the local and state level. Because ultimately, one of the things is that the climate has been politicized. We can’t agree on whether it’s real or how progressive it is, the whole electoral process, you know, from the local level to the state and national level, special interest has a lot of grip on politicians.
One of the immediate ways to engage with us is to help do some of this advocacy around some of the legislation that’s being introduced. Particularly here at the local level, as we know that our assembly members and Senate members both take a lot of oil and gas money. They voted, and you can see it, in favor of oil. They wouldn’t even agree to vote against like a 2,500 foot setback from oil drilling sites and where homes should be located. I think that’s one way. I think in general a solution that needs to be considered at the statewide level or even at the more regional level, is how we build more regenerative economies and really focus on how we can not only create – but it’s also been this battle of jobs vs climate. Either we have climate or we have jobs, and I don’t see it as that black and white. We need to be able to find ways can do it all. It’s not just investing in climate infrastructure, but it’s also investing in people; moving them onto green jobs and divestment from fossil fuels.
Divestment strategies are very important. Sign up with a credit union or public banks because private banks fund a lot of fossil fuel interest. If you currently have a pension or 401k, 403b, look at how your profits are coming back from oil and gas. What stocks are you investing in if you have that? I think that we need to build this economy where it’s inclusive of everyone. And we talk about things like a just transition. A just transition and that really gets to having a more regenerative economy that includes building good economic opportunities for folks addressing the most climate pressing needs, focusing on base frameworks, including racial justice so that we can live in the community that we’d like to. One of the things that I love about this organization that works in the southeast LA area and also Long Beach, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, that one of their hashtags is #WeAreJustTryingtoBreathe. And while that sounds simple, it’s a reality: we are just trying to breathe. We are literally just trying to breathe. And so, I would love for us to get to a point where we talk more about regenerative strategies versus resilient or adaptive ones.
David Diaz serves as the Executive Director of Active San Gabriel Valley, a local nonprofit organization, focusing on mobility, climate, and health and wellness in underserved communities. He’s a dedicated public servant and advocate with project management, coalition building experience who has successfully worked with youth, schools, businesses, nonprofit organizations and cities to advance sustainability, equity and public health. David is also a member of the El Monte Union High School District, Investing in Place Board Member, member of the San Gabriel Valley Service Council, Chair of the Measure A Oversight Committee, and Vice Chair of the Upper San Gabriel River Watershed Area Steering Committee. He holds a Masters of Public Health degree and lives in the City of El Monte.
With “Postcards,” creative non-fiction stories grounded in place, we aspire to create a new cartography of California. For us, literature and language are as much about marking and representing space, as they are about storytelling.
We never ate salads. World-class mechanics drive lemons, world-class musicians pawn instruments. Know-it-all scholars would come to our store because the university was close by. All the math was done on a Scribe notebook, quietly, as a swamp cooler rocked you to sleep. Tripping out, because there is no other way to spend time in a fruit stand after morning setup duties. Art was there, always, always, always. In the way you stacked tomatoes. In the rotation of the avocados. In the Dutch angle tamarind candy. In the handcrafted, misspelled signage with the price collaged on neon bright fluorescent colored paper.
There’s a science and technique to opening costales. Just like there is to cleaning and bagging cacahuates. Or stacking bags of carbon. In the Malverde merchandise room, chaos was art, as Jesús’s bust would watch over you trying to make sense of the merchandise rearrangement. A framed print of San Martin Caballero hung in the lobby open to the public where we played the nice señora ballads. Malverde was in the back where the radios blared to a different beat, punk and norteño music. If you were a wiseass, you’d oversleep to stay in the air conditioner in the house next door where my grandparents lived. But the smell of garlic was too alluring. The chile pico de pájaro halo that adorned our day-to-day is something I miss every day. Many years later, the smells of dried chile california and chile pasilla still jump-start those memories.
I did some of my growing up in a fruit stand in Mexicali. Frutería Alejandrina. An establishment full of disaster, poor judgment and reflections of a teenage memory. The funniest, most beautiful place to roll out the red carpet on being a peacock. Toda la pinche vida carposa.
My grandparents had a fruit stand in the northern border of a super, super nice part of town. Where governors lived and the houses looked like marble mansions. Safe as houses even if that hood had a big ole graveyard, with gangs like “Los Panteons” referencing it. Colonia Libertad, the freedom neighborhood. A place where detached, lived-in people from the hood or posh intellectual fucks on their mistress dates would come by and purchase the bare essentials. It wasn’t as tough as my neighborhood, which was two blocks away from the physical U.S.-Mexico border, but it was poor neighboring the richest part of town. Everything seemed more ironic. And those memories are crisper, because you don’t have fear or crime clouding your overall existence and sadness. There were cute girls coming into the shop. Rocker girls. With money. The cruising strip was not too far away from there in the rich part of town. My barrio was amber alert. My grandpa’s barrio was divine. We were a border frutería in a border city, an assertion that you needed us, it was love amidst class war.
And once every week or so, Frutería Alejandrina had to restock. So, we would drive back near my hood to downtown Mexicali, to a place full of wonder and smells and culture and a taste of all of México nicknamed “La Yarda.” A double entendre poem in motion. Mercado Braulio Maldonado is known to all the locals as “La Yarda.” A place frozen in time. Founded by working people and their offspring for generations to come. It was hot. It was absurd. It was full of lament and fast-paced driving decisions. It was millimetric. It was colorful. It was full of smiles and laughter. And sun. You had a stake in it. The United States were not far off. But the tale was everybody’s. We had possession, we were awake. It was always day in “La Yarda.” If you saw it by night you were a bit of a tourist.
Named after what was by all accounts a brutal and repressive governor, Mercado Braulio Maldonado is referred to as “La Yarda” for reasons unbeknownst to many. Local unofficial historians even claim it’s a pochismo, a bastardization of the language, as the border always does, signifying “The Yard,” due to all the loading and unloading docks filled with truckloads of fruit and vegetables lining the immense real estate. La Yarda, like any beautifully chaotic memory, is fiercely contested geographically. “Where does it start?” “Who started it where?” “Were you so and so’s neighbors back in 1962?”
But this is a postcard. A postcard to my grandfather, a mi Tata. Reverse psychology souls. We were both heavy breathing alcohol. Drinking ourselves away like little devils in a graveyard.
The kiosk where the mariachis and taka takas would wait for gigs was our parking departure. My cousin and my uncle would reiterate that I wasn’t shit as they blew up their grandeur driving the van or crowded pickup truck, even when I didn’t want their Yarda canonization or holiness. My grandma hated all of it, the restock. There was no love in that affair for her unfortunately. Just separation. But I found peace there. Peace from social classes, genres of youth roleplay, it was all mixed up together. Beautifully. Low blows n’ all. An oasis for the shrink wrapped battalions of drunks and nihilists dreaming of luxurious starlets at the magazine stand. The audience at the cockfight dishing out fables, day drinking. Euphoria.
My grandfather’s journey as a merchant began in Culiacan, Sinaloa. His father married and remarried but always took his first-born son along with him. Teaching him the trade, being the owner of a wholesale distributor that supplied its clients with fruits and vegetables from all over Mexico. Once he was of age, my grandfather’s dad set him up with a fruit stand in Culiacan’s Mercado Garmendia, where he met my grandmother, a client who would come in and ask the price of items individually to see how much her handful of coins could afford her. My grandmother had been left behind by her widowed mother who migrated to the border town of Mexicali and formed a new family of her own in the border city. After my grandmother’s grandma passed away, she was left to the care of an abusive aunt who would take a big bulk of her profits doing home-to-home manicures and pedicures. Out of desperation, she asked my grandfather if she could live with him, who in turn left his girlfriend, and they moved in with consent from both families, later starting a family of their own.
Years later, my grandmother’s mother would come back to Culiacan from Mexicali on a trip to reconnect with her daughter and her family, and that established constant travel between both cities. My mother would be taken to Mexicali at the age of five to practically be raised by her aunt and grandma, but when they wanted to adopt her at the age of 13, my grandmother refused, and back to Sinaloa she went. My mom would eventually move to Mexicali as a young adult, having grown tired of not being allowed to study or work where she wanted. Taking advantage of a vacation to the border city, she found independence and did not return. Some of her sisters and brother would follow the promise of borderland employment. My grandmother would later follow her children and her mother to the border city, reuniting three different generations of family affected by distance. My grandfather, after a series of poor financial decisions and now nearly alone in Culiacan, moved to Mexicali to rejoin his family with very little money and no business connections.
My grandfather would have a humble reinvention in Mexicali as a birria taco vendor with a cart outside the city’s railroad station, as passenger trains arrived and departed. One day, he caught the eye of a couple of young men who used to be kids when he owned fruit stands in Culiacan, guys that couldn’t believe he wasn’t owning his own business as he did back in their home state. They offered to give him a loan to start up a new business in Mexicali, supplying him with all the merchandise needed to commence what my grandfather would graciously call Frutería Alejandrina, in honor of the young men’s business of the same name. Years later, with no more credit to pay and the property ownership under his belt, my grandfather had built what we all considered our home away from home, that beloved frutería forever etched in our memory.
There’d be rich people that would roll into Frutería Alejandrina, asking what it took to make a yummy guacamole. They all have that same face of discovery. La Yarda was no different. It even had a local bus station by the mariachi kiosk that picked up and dropped off people, one farm at a time, to restock, next to world class vehicles and air-conditioned wine and cheese connoisseurs. But it was also a party. A playing field in a police state for migrants. Where self-made people unmount towards commerce. Where you could build a party from scratch, get different styles and sizes of piñatas, the ultimate Mexican dulces, theme-party candy bags… It was a place where you could see humans connected with nature, disconnect from it and package it. Signmaker commissions highlighted storefronts, restaurants, worker bars & gay bars, barber shops, banda music for hire bass drums, and mariachi & norteño groups’ vans.
Nowadays it’s a fascist state battle between wannabe gentrifiers “rehabilitating downtown”, police harassing immigrants, divide and conquer Christians, and no end to justify the means. It’s a place of constant relocation anyway. The tacos from El Jefe were better when he was down in the pit and outdoors, not his brick and mortar three blocks up, years later. Food at a marketplace tastes better when eaten standing up. These are facts.
If one business was struggling, others could relieve it. There was store-to-store credit. Grin and bear, it was La Yarda’s mission statement. If you were young and thought you were enlightened nobody cared. You still had to arrange the wooden crates along the wall. My cousin and I would wake up at night to drink, that was our dawn. Dawn was our afternoon, we would be so hungover. Everything was an interminable binge and a hangover. And on the street there was always a scam, always a story. Men that cry to take your money. Professional actors. Cons. “Let me tell you something…” Weird caressing holds from grimy sausage fingers. All downtowns are beset by ghosts.
At Frutería Alejandrina, my grandfather and I could go days together working and hanging out without talking much, just reading El Libro Vaquero or watching classic movies from Mexico’s Golden Age on the De Pelicula channel. When we’d visit La Yarda we could both sense the status differences amidst businesses. The cold-storage room owners had personalized gold rings on several fingers, the daughters of the wholesalers wore designer jeans and ordered workers around, one could only imagine the lavish parties where they did the same. The rehab center fugitives wore rope around their waists, their hair flailing around looking for the “ghostbusters van” to take them back to internment one last time. From the back of our van and in honor of all this chaos, we drank beers from the ice chest, between loading up, in between sugar wafer and Hot Cheeto bites, observing.
It was through this lens that my grandfather and I built our history together. We’d drink till all the perishables would become unsafe for consumption. If we were really hungover, we’d stop in at the birrieria and ask for coffee. I remember the first time I went, I said “Grandpa, I don’t like coffee.” “Shut up, just drink it. It’s before 10.” I’d get a coffee cup full of foamy ice-cold beer prior to alcohol sale permits, then he’d order birria the right way. His background as a birria vendor informing his purchases, he only permitted us to to go to this one birria spot. Where it was birria de chivo, none of that lamb or beef shit. With machito and costilla, cebolla y cilantro, limones and salsa, all the different textures and flavors necessary to make it an experience. Then we’d get pretty faded ordering more caguamas, drinking them while sipping on our consomé with warm handmade corn tortillas. One time I remember he ordered the birria goat head, and I ate the eye by mistake, but the meat would come off the warm tortilla scoop like butter.
If it was after a Yarda restock, we’d get drunk with all the merchandise in the blazing heat, the chicken would thaw and go bad, and he’d invite his girlfriend over. We’d have to ask the restaurant owners to take away all of the beer bottles, coffee and consomé cups, belonging to my cousin, my uncle, my grandpa, his lover, and her daughter all having a dandy ol’ time. We’d be greeted back at Alejandrina by a well-thumbed hose spray and disciplinary actions, one time I saw him get a whole bucket. It was sad but I would just escape to the cruising strip. And keep drinking. One time my uncle and I got stoned and drunk while taking my grandpa to restock. Since it was the first restock of the year, my grandpa wanted to go to the downtown cathedral. He wouldn’t go to church regularly, much less to confession, but he’d still cruise up and go get the host. Walked into a church full of police officers because it was their annual mass, several of those cops knew us, especially my uncle. Never a bigger smile. Wasted. Watching my tipsy grandpa take communion, the only person not in blue. We left as soon as the host dissolved in his fiery breath.
When my grandpa would get very drunk, he’d start singing the lyrics to this one song: “Angelitos Negros.” After claiming for years he wrote it, we discovered Javier Solis had sung it. So had Pedro Infante, famously. I only recently found out that Roberta Flack and Eartha Kitt did it too.
Pintor nacido en mi tierra Con el pincel extranjero Pintor que sigues el rumbo De tantos pintores viejos
Aunque la virgen sea blanca Píntale angelitos negros Que también se van al cielo Todos los negritos buenos
Pintor si pintas con amor ¿Por qué desprecias su color? Si sabes que en el cielo También los quiere Dios
Pintor de santos y alcobas Si tienes alma en el cuerpo ¿Por qué al pintar en tus cuadros Te olvidaste de los negros?
Siempre que pintas iglesias Pintas angelitos bellos Pero nunca te acordaste De pintar un ángel negro
It was grounding.
He would yell it! That feeling when he sang it. And I remember thinking I’ll carry that underappreciated sentiment with me everywhere I’m headed.
There is a court of appeals that succeeds when we remember our blurry selves; those intoxicating, enamored, simpler versions of ourselves. Like a greatest hits album. Not remembering the times we’ve been racist, idiotic, suicidal, sexist, apathetic, or truly, truly helplessly sad. Such are oral histories. There are landmarks that serve as living documents, testaments to when you and I were unstable and precarious, we’ve all driven past them after years of public transport to fall back in love with ourselves.
My tata’s frutería was one of those chaotic commerce places that you could say was such without having to face your own mess at home.
There’s one like it in your town.
Dedicado a mi tío Efraín. (1952-2020)
Marco Vera is a documentary filmmaker and full-time editor residing in Los Angeles, California. Originally from the oldest neighborhood in the border city of Mexicali, he was the founder and director of Mexicali Rose Media/Arts Center, a grass roots communitarian organization dedicated to providing free access to artistic media for community youth.
Virtually nowhere in the metropolitan United States could rent be called affordable for the average family, and there are certainly no places where a family on poverty wages could pay rent without assistance. In California, a family must report a household income of roughly $100,000 to make the median rent in the state. These numbers vary widely depending on region, reaching their most extreme levels in the Bay Area cities. However, even in Fresno, the largest urban center of the Central Valley, a family needs to earn nearly $20 per hour to afford the median rent in the area while the current state minimum wage is only $12 per hour. These gaps are not static over time but are growing as rent increases outpace wage increases, a point recently explored by The New York Times.The fallout from this feature of the affordable housing crisis is the subject of so many other stories that characterize California – homelessness, substandard housing, population decline, and displacement.
Matthew Desmond’s Pulitzer-prize winning book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, directed the affordable housing crisis conversation toward one particularly devastating consequence that ultimately links the unaffordability of housing to homelessness: evictions. Often, evictions happen because the tenant failed to pay their rent. Other times, evictions occur with no fault on the part of the tenant – because of a foreclosure, habitability issues, or, egregiously, because of retaliation against the tenant by the landlord. In addition to formal, court-ordered evictions, Desmond estimates from survey data in Milwaukee that informal evictions may as much as double the total amount of evictions that take place. These are evictions that occur outside of the judicial process and reflect the vulnerable position of the tenant, who vacates the premises prior to the court filing out of fear of entering the court process or because they cannot afford the court process. Evicted forced researchers, reporters, advocates, and policymakers to realize that the process of evicting a family from their home is a key culprit in exacerbating family poverty, unemployment, and neighborhood instability. More importantly, Desmond’s work illuminated the harsh reality of a court system that is designed not to protect families from entering a downward spiral into poverty and homelessness, but to protect property.
Often, the conversations about the affordable housing crisis and its consequences focus on the major metropolitan areas of California in the Bay Area and Southern California. In a database search on scholarly articles, graduate level theses, and newspaper articles over the past 20 years using the key phrases “housing crisis” and “California”, we found 1109 results for “Bay Area,” 3081 results for “San Francisco,” 1586 results for “Southern California,” and 3525 results for “Los Angeles.” In contrast, over the same period with the same key phrases, we only found 288 results for “Central Valley” and 250 results for “Fresno.” This demonstrates that both the scholarly and popular attention has been largely focused on the housing crisis in the southern and northern metropolitan areas of California, with far less given to the Central Valley.
Yet, in Fresno alone the California Housing Partnership Corporation reported a nearly 35,000 unit shortfall in affordable housing, and the National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates a 41,000 unit shortfall for the county overall. More alarmingly, Central Valley counties, where approximately 45 percent of households are renters, experience far higher rates of evictions than anywhere else in California. The typical renter in the Central Valley is rent-burdened, which is defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as a household that spends 30 percent or more of its income on housing costs. Fully a quarter of those households are severely rent-burdened, defined as a household that spends half or more of its income on housing costs. For this and other reasons, including higher rates of poverty, the virtual non-existence of tenant protection programs and laws at local levels, and increased migration from Southern and Northern California metropolitan areas into the Central Valley in search of lower housing costs, the affordable housing crisis conversation must include the Central Valley.
In this piece, we examine evictions and displacement in the Central Valley. This work developed through our research and experiences as scholar-activists and housing justice advocates in the Central Valley. We focus primarily on Fresno County, a sprawling, diverse metropolitan area comprising both urban and rural settlement in the heart of the Central Valley, but also include some findings from San Joaquin and Kern Counties, which are located in the northern and southern regions of the San Joaquin Valley, respectively. We draw on data from eviction court filings, observations in eviction court, and stories from tenants in Fresno County to answer the question: What accounts for the high eviction rates observed in the Central Valley? In answering this question, we develop three main points:
The affordable housing crisis conversation in California must include the Central Valley, where stark social inequalities are intricately tied with housing and neighborhood inequality. This means that scholarly work must consider the complexities of the housing crisis in California from the high-cost, high-income urban areas outside of the Central Valley to the lower-cost, lower-income urban and rural areas within the Central Valley. Housing activists as well must include the population and the needs of the Central Valley in their advocacy work and support the activism taking place within the Central Valley;
Evictions happen at a higher rate in the Central Valley than anywhere else in California. They are a devastating outcome of the affordable housing crisis and are an effective tool of the court system used to prioritize the protection of property and property-owners over poor families and families of color, and;
Immediate action could be taken by policymakers in the Central Valley at the local level that would bring balance to the relationship between tenants and property-owners and prevent further displacement, systemic social inequality, and neighborhood instability, which is particularly urgent in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impact.
Background: The Central Valley
The Central Valley is a vibrant, dynamic region known for its representation of over a hundred cultures, nationalities, and racial and ethnic identities, according to 2018 American Community Survey estimates. But it is also an area known for its high levels of social inequality by a multitude of metrics – income and wealth inequality, residential segregation, health disparities, and opportunity gaps in labor and education. The nature of social inequality in the Central Valley is so complex that it would be impossible to identify any one cause or solution. However, it becomes very clear through a spatial lens that many of the inequalities observed in the Central Valley are tied to neighborhoods and housing. When we map median income, median home values, percent in poverty, and percent nonwhite by census tract in the urban center of Fresno County, we see an indisputable overlap (Figures 1-4). To the east is the city of Clovis, a predominately White, wealthy suburb where the availability of affordable housing is so inadequate that it prompted a lawsuit by a local legal aid organization. Yet even within the more racially and socioeconomically diverse city of Fresno, it is apparent that there are distinct boundaries drawn which prevent low-income families of color from entering certain neighborhoods and in turn concentrate these families in identifiable areas of the city.
These boundaries are in part historical, tracing back to the days of racial covenants, and later redlining, which prompted further public and private disinvestment in neighborhoods where families of color resided while resources and opportunities were diverted to Whiter, wealthier neighborhoods. In addition, public housing, which shifted to become a resource for families of color neglected by the federal government, was primarily built in racially segregated neighborhoods where Black and Latinx families resided. This history is an important piece in understanding housing insecurity and inequality in Fresno because it led to widely disparate home values between neighborhoods.
Because families of color saw their neighborhoods forced to depreciate due to the actions of federal and local government, wealth and class inequality are now almost inseparable from racial inequality in Fresno. In White, affluent neighborhoods, housing values appreciated by directly benefiting from the inequities created by racist and classist housing policy. White families have enjoyed both wealth accumulation and racial exclusivity because the unaffordability of housing in these areas for low-income families has mostly meant that it is unaffordable for families of color as well. In Clovis specifically, experts argue that the deliberate choice to not zone low-income affordable housing is precisely why it is a predominately White community. These neighborhood-based inequalities created a setting where larger economic forces, in particular rising housing costs combined with depressed wages, would lead to a far more troubling human crisis: displacement and homelessness.
Evicted in the Central Valley
Given that financial hardship is responsible for both the triggering of an eviction and the vulnerability of the tenant, poverty is part of this story, but focusing on individual poverty does not capture the full effect of what changing economic conditions can do. Douglas Massey demonstrated in a compelling simulation how segregation can create a scenario where economic downturns are heavily absorbed by areas of concentrated poverty. When race and class segregation are interrelated, this specifically means that poor communities of color shoulder a heavier economic burden. In the context of an ongoing housing crisis in an area that was hit particularly hard by the housing bust, the pattern of segregation in Fresno County created an uneven distribution of evictions and displacement, with families of color seeing the most precipitous drops in housing value and poor families of color experiencing evictions at a higher rate than anybody else.
The eviction rate in 2016 in Fresno County was 2.16 percent, meaning that just over 2 percent of renters were formally evicted that year. While this seems like a negligible percentage, 2 percent amounts to over 3,000 families displaced from their homes in a single year. The volume of evictions physically manifests in the form of standing room-only crowds within the courtroom. In relative terms, the eviction rate in Fresno County is substantially higher than in both San Francisco County (0.25 percent) and Los Angeles County (0.58 percent), as well as in the state of California overall (0.83 percent). In addition, we have reason to believe that the number of families evicted each year in Fresno is perhaps thousands more when informal evictions, or evictions that happen outside of the court system, are considered.
Families who are informally evicted often vacate before the formal eviction process begins in order to avoid court action, which could incur fees and tarnish their record as a tenant. These are more likely to be impoverished families who cannot afford the added costs of responding to a court Summons and Complaint. In Fresno and surrounding rural communities, where there is also a large population of undocumented and mixed-status families in addition to families in poverty, we suspect that the number of informal evictions is even higher because of families who fear court action due to their immigration status. Even without data on informal evictions however, the number of formal evictions alone is shockingly high. Our research suggests some possible explanations for why evictions occur at such a significantly higher rate in the Central Valley than in areas with more notorious affordable housing issues.
In our previous report, we found that in 80-90 percent of eviction cases, the reason for the eviction was unpaid rent. In the majority of these cases, the amount of rent owed was less than two months’ worth. Here, then, is the first clue: rent burden. Rent burden is defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as the percentage of household income that is spent on rent. A family that spends more than 30 percent of their household income on rent is considered “rent-burdened.” The number is somewhat arbitrary, but it captures families who have less of a financial cushion when something goes wrong – an unforeseen medical incident, an accident, a sudden job loss or drop in income. In San Francisco County, where rents are among the highest in the country, rent burden is 27.5 percent, which means the typical family spends just over a quarter of their income on rent. In contrast, in Fresno County rent burden is 34.7 percent. Rental costs may be higher in the Bay Area, but costs relative to income matter. In Fresno County, the typical renter household is rent-burdened. In areas characterized by high levels of poverty, the typical family is severely rent-burdened. To reiterate, a severely rent-burdened household is defined by HUD as a household that spends half or more of its household income on rent.
Eviction Court and the Prioritization of Property
With the typical family spending over 30 percent of their income on rent, it is not a surprise that many families fail to pay rent, triggering an eviction filing almost as soon as rent is past due. From the perspective of property-owners and the court, this is reason enough to abruptly order a family out of their home. In eviction court, this process is quick and brutal. We have seen families appear for their court date unaware that their story of impending homelessness, catastrophic financial loss, and emotional and mental trauma would hold no bearing in a setting where the main priority is to protect the property and the financial interests of the landlord. Eviction court is a sphere dominated by attorneys who have made a career out of representing landlords, the same handful of predominately men appearing every week with an attitude towards the whole affair as something routine, each judgment seeming to be a foregone conclusion in favor of the landlord. The gender and racial disparities are apparent, with women of color overrepresented among tenants who appear in eviction court and White men overrepresented among the attorneys. As one tenant, a single Black mother in Fresno County, remarked on the power imbalance in the tenant-landlord attorney dynamic, “It was a lawyer against a little Black girl.” This mother was ultimately evicted with her young son after a confusing court process that left her with no option to fight her case.
In our previous study of evictions filed in 2016 in Fresno County, we found that 73 percent of the landlords in our sample had legal representation compared to only 1 percent of tenants. Not once, after months of observation, did we witness a judgment in favor of a tenant. Most families who we observed or spoke to appeared in court without any realization that they were entering partway through an ongoing process of filed paperwork, evidence-gathering, and legal consultation on the plaintiff’s (i.e. landlord’s) side. In many cases, tenants were not aware that they had missed their opportunity to file an answer, which must happen typically within five days of receiving the eviction notice, or that to have their side of the story heard they would need to have a trial separate from the unlawful detainer hearing. These trials usually occur the same day, catching tenants by surprise and without the needed evidence or witnesses to defend their case. This gives tenants little time to seek legal advice and gather documents. Oftentimes, we witnessed trials occurring within an hour of the hearing. And here, in seeking to understand why evictions happen at a higher rate in Fresno County than in other areas, is our second explanation for why evictions are so frequent: a woefully imbalanced justice system with few protections in place for tenants.
While some court processes, such as small and large claims cases, are slow and cases can carry on for months, eviction cases, known in legal terms as unlawful detainer cases, are moved through the system with astounding speed. In Fresno County, we found that most cases end in default or they are resolved and renters are evicted within a month of the initial court filing. The emphasis on property and the prioritization of the needs of property-owners is a key reason why this is so. Judges often frame their decisions as prioritizing the return of the property back to the property-owner. When talking about the property itself, judges use terms such as “expedite” and “urgent.” In contrast, there is little concern in the legal process for the tenant and their far more urgent need to stay housed. In the rare instance that tenants are truly able to confidently present their case to the judge, tenants openly express anxiety over not knowing where to go once they are locked out. Pleas are often met with expressions of sympathy from the judge but nonetheless cold resolution from the ruling, which holds that they must vacate the property or be forced out. Evictions are whiplash-fast and are considered a concluded matter almost as soon as the tenant is served with a notice. Ultimately the law is designed to put the needs of the property-owner over the needs of the tenant, who has no claim to ownership. Thus the matter of returning the property to the property-owners is often handled very quickly and decisions almost always fall in favor of the landlord. As evidence to this point, Eviction Lab data reports that of the 3,058 eviction court filings in Fresno County in 2016, 3,036 resulted in evictions – 99.3 percent. Meanwhile, the remaining issue of determining money damages that the tenant may be responsible for can be placed on a different, slower timeline.
Other actors in the eviction process, including the attorneys and law enforcement, also demonstrate the prioritization of property over humanity. In our survey research and advocacy work, tenants have described sometimes overly forceful behavior from authorities, such as sheriff’s deputies kicking down the front door while children were home alone. The overall motivation of landlord attorneys is to win cases and to collect fees that renters are typically ordered to pay, leading them to ruthlessly confuse and mislead tenants. Tenants are called to meet with landlord attorneys, without attorneys of their own, in the hallway or in small conference rooms in the courthouse. As the attorneys interact with tenants, it becomes clear whose interests they represent. We observed on numerous occasions landlord attorneys frame the situation in ways that discredit tenants’ statements and evidence, invoking anxiety and fear in the tenant, which only adds to an already stressful and confusing situation. Some of the tactics that we observed include presenting ledgers that do not include all of the payments that the tenants have made and muddling timelines so that the tenant can no longer recall dates or the order in which events occurred. Even though tenants bring their own evidence of money orders purchased and rent checks cashed, they soon begin to doubt their own account or worry that the evidence will be insufficient to win their case. Landlord attorneys make matters worse by explaining to tenants what the cost will be if they lose their case rather than settling for an agreement with the landlord.
Tenants have everything to lose, and within minutes they are forced to make a decision that is far from their original objective when they arrived at court, which was to keep their home. Now, after feeling intimidated and confused, their objective becomes: escape the court process with as little long-term consequence as possible. The property and the interests of the property-owner are the primary concern of the court, and while there are mediators to facilitate negotiations between landlords and tenants, nobody stands up for the tenant in the courtroom. The roles of advocates and activists could make a significant difference here, a factor that we discuss further in our conclusions.
Finally, the third explanation is the lack of local policies that protect renters. In California, there are jurisdictions where renter protections are well-established. However, they are very few in number: according to Tenants Together, only 23 out of 482 cities in California have rent control and/or “just cause” policies in place. Rent control effectively caps increases on rent to keep housing costs more affordable, while “just cause” requires landlords to justify their reason for issuing an eviction. Tenant protection laws are not without their controversy, but regardless of what other effects they may have, we found that in cities where these laws are in place, evictions are far more likely to be on the decline in tandem with an improving post-recession economy. In an analysis of eviction rates from 2006 to 2016 in California, we found that 70 percent of the neighborhoods located in cities with tenant protection laws in place saw eviction rates decline over the ten-year period. In comparison, only 46 percent of the neighborhoods located in cities without tenant protection laws experienced a decline in evictions. Notably, none of the twenty-three cities with local tenant protection laws are located in the Central Valley.
The recent enactment of the Tenant Protection Act of 2019 in California, which among other things makes “just cause” evictions the law across the state and caps rent increases, may improve matters in this regard. But the Central Valley continues to be notoriously lacking in local protections for tenants, a fact that is not well-understood but certainly observable in most jurisdictions, and this is reflected in the court system where tenants have little power to defend their rights by law due to a lack of legal representation and an unjustly opaque legal process that leaves many of them in a losing position over a failure to follow procedure. Recently, Nelson highlighted the discordance between how the tenant perceives the legal process of eviction and the process itself. Oftentimes, tenants misunderstand their relationship with the landlord and do not expect the swiftness of court action. Community advocates and grassroots organizations who fight for housing justice are carrying much of the critical work of educating tenants through “Know Your Rights” workshops, flyers, and resources. With local tenant unions in the Central Valley, outreach and organizing efforts could go even further.
Evictions as a Tool of the Social Divides
We have up to this point written in very general terms about eviction trends and procedures in the Central Valley and more specifically in Fresno, but our discussion about the historically established class and race divides in Fresno is important to bear in mind, because these determine who is more likely to face eviction. According to national estimates from the 2017 American Housing Survey, 3.3 percent of Black renters reported receiving a threat of eviction compared to only 1.3 percent of White renters. For those who identify as American Indian or Alaska Native, the disparity is even more staggering, with 4.4 percent reporting an eviction threat. Poverty and rent-burden are also factors, reflecting the relationship between housing insecurity and financial insecurity. Of those who are severely rent-burdened, 2.6 percent reported receiving a threat of eviction compared to 1.4 percent of those whose housing costs relative to income are moderate. Of renters who live below the poverty line, 3.2 percent reported receiving an eviction threat compared to only 1 percent of those whose income is 200 percent of the poverty threshold.
The obvious consequence of evictions is that families who are evicted find themselves suddenly severely housing insecure. But the fallout of an eviction is even more widespread and far-reaching than its effect on housing options. In our analysis of eviction court records in Fresno County, we calculated a measure that we call “compounded burden.” As we described above, most tenants are evicted over failure to pay rent. But the final money judgment includes the original amount owed plus other costs: holdover damages (i.e. the money that the landlord has lost in unpaid rent since the eviction) and attorney and court fees. The compounded burden is the factor by which the initial amount owed is multiplied when the final money judgment is made.
On average, tenants end up having to pay four times what they initially owed. The average tenant in our study owed approximately $1000 at the time of eviction. Based on the average compounded burden, the average tenant will find herself owing $4000 when the final judgment is made. If this amount goes unpaid, the State of California permits a 10% annual interest rate on the amount owed. Each year that the amount goes unpaid, this hypothetical average tenant who no doubt struggles with a multitude of financial hardships will owe another $400. Indeed, from our observations in eviction court it was not unusual to hear of a money judgment that would include nearly $1000 in attorney and court fees alone along with holdover damages that would amount to 1-2 more months’ rent in addition to the initial amount owed. Another factor associated with compounded burden is the prolonged period of time that vulnerable tenants are forced to carry debt. For example, a tenant and landlord enter into a stipulation (agreement between two parties approved by the judge) in the amount of $4,300, which includes past due rent, holdover damages, and court and attorney fees. The tenant, who makes a minimum wage, can only afford to pay $35 per month and is now carrying this debt for 10 years. Evictions alone may not affect a tenant’s credit score. However, if a tenant is ordered to pay money damages and fails to pay, they can be sent to collections. A credit reporting agency then places derogatory information on their credit report. Evictions with money damages are a twofold blow. Threefold, if you include the fact that a judgment accrues interest.
And this measure of compounded burden does not account for all of the other costs incurred from a sudden displacement – moving costs, storage fees, hours missed at work, extra transportation costs to handle legal obligations, search for a new place, and drive children to schools in neighborhoods that they no longer live in, the exorbitant cost of taking up temporary shelter in a motel, which many families do in Fresno, and the repeated fees attached to each rental application (up to $35 per application). It becomes apparent that an eviction, triggered by financial hardship, begets even greater financial hardship. When one considers that the families who are more likely to face an eviction are families of color, have children, and live in poverty, we can understand how so many social disparities can persist.
Consider, for example, the impact that an eviction has on a child – after all, children are one of the most likely populations to experience eviction. The social lives of children are anchored in multiple ways – their families, but also their neighborhoods and especially their schools. When a family is evicted, they are not likely to stay in the same neighborhood. This disruption removes a child from their neighborhood and may eventually force them to enroll in a new school, breaking critical social ties with teachers, classmates, and neighborhood friends. When we examined the frequency of evictions by month in Fresno County, we found that evictions happen at a high rate every month out of the year, which means that hundreds of families are evicted in the middle of the school year as well as during summer and winter breaks (Figure 5). Even if a child is able to stay in the same school, school attendance becomes difficult to maintain while the family is displaced and the parents are managing the situation. An eviction event can be traumatic for a child despite a parent’s best efforts to protect them, particularly when the eviction is carried out by law enforcement. Children coping with instability in their lives are more likely to face challenges when it comes to mental health and development. With conscious support from educators, this sudden disruption can be mitigated in its impact on the child’s social, emotional, and academic outcomes. However, while school districts track an overlapping population of students who are homeless, they do not specifically track students who have experienced an eviction.
The spatial dynamics of these trends again must be considered. Sociologists Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, in their influential work American Apartheid, drew out how segregation works as an effective mechanism for reinforcing inequality and oppression. When segregation is in place, it becomes very easy for the dominant group – wealthy Whites – to hoard resources and opportunities even while living in the same metropolitan area as other groups. In a metropolitan area, this can happen through municipal boundaries, with Whites moving to suburbs with exclusionary zoning and cutting off Black and Latinx families from their tax base and resources. As mentioned previously, this is the story that is told about the city of Clovis. In a single city, however, where all residents to a limited degree have access to the same tax base, more covert tactics must be used to maintain race and class boundaries and restrict access to the higher investments and newer development of White neighborhoods. The favored tactic in this scenario is housing discrimination.
There are many ways that housing discrimination can occur: for example, through steering, whereby realtors and property managers selectively show properties to families on the basis of their race and/or income, through housing loan discrimination, or through screening out prospective tenants who have Section 8 vouchers, (i.e. housing assistance). In California, all of these tactics are now outlawed under federal and state laws (e.g. Fair Housing Act of 1968 and SB 329). While this does not stop these forms of discrimination from occurring and enforcement is weak at best, it certainly reduces their frequency. But there is one extremely powerful, legal way to screen out low-income applicants, which in a city like Fresno can also effectively block many Black and Latinx households: deny them housing on the basis of an eviction record. When a tenant is evicted by the court, the eviction appears on their tenant record for seven years. Evicted tenants are placed on what is essentially a tenant blacklist with little chance of finding rental housing outside of areas of high poverty. In talking about the eviction on her record, one tenant said, “I’ve got seven years,” as if it were a prison sentence. In a way, an eviction on record likely does have a similar impact as a felony conviction when it comes to finding housing, especially in an area with an enormous deficit in affordable housing. Another tenant, a single mother with her daughter, expressed fear of losing her Section 8 housing following an eviction judgment. The loss of public housing assistance is an enormous blow, given that the waitlist for public housing assistance is closed in Fresno County and families on the list wait years to receive assistance.
The financial and emotional destruction that an eviction can create for a family is so immense that it is difficult to overstate, but evictions also contribute to instability in neighborhoods. If there were no geographic pattern to evictions, we would speak only of the effect on the family. But evictions are not geographically random and they happen in certain areas with remarkable frequency. In Fresno, specific parts of the county and especially in the city of Fresno experience higher rates of eviction than others (Figure 6). In neighborhoods of concentrated poverty where the population is predominately Black, Latinx, or Southeast Asian, and the typical family is spending over half of their income on rent, the eviction rates reach as high as 10 percent, which means that nearly 1 in 10 families are evicted every year in these neighborhoods. This, again, does not account for the informal evictions that are also occurring in these areas.
With such a high rate of turnover, neighborhood cohesion and solidarity is very difficult to establish, which makes it challenging for residents to build safe and healthy communities and, importantly, mobilize and wield political power. This particular consequence of evictions is two-sided: while poor communities with high instability have difficulty developing political capital, wealthier stable communities are able to lobby on their own behalf and claim more of the city’s resources and investment. The blame for this imbalance is often directed towards the poor communities, with local agencies such as the police department referring to them as “broken” neighborhoods and letting others assume that it is the residents themselves who did the breaking. But the instability of these neighborhoods is largely affected by external mechanisms of destabilization, including evictions.
Given that evictions happen at a higher rate in neighborhoods where poor, Black, and Latinx families live, segregation is reinforced. Because these families now have an eviction on their record as a tenant, they find themselves barred from entering wealthier, Whiter neighborhoods where families enjoy better-funded schools, maintained roads, more parks and greenspace, and newer housing stock. They not only become stuck in neighborhoods marred by disinvestment, they actually sink deeper into these areas as they must now find housing where landlords are willing to overlook their eviction record. In a city like Fresno where slum housing is numerous, these families have a higher likelihood of finding themselves in the clutches of slumlords, living in substandard housing with an even higher risk of eviction.
Many more evicted tenants may end up homeless, but the likelihood of homelessness following an eviction is not equal for all tenants. National estimates from the 2017 American Housing Survey reveal that among renters, White households, households above the poverty line, and households who are not rent-burdened are more likely to say that they can find a new home if they are evicted. Black householders, severely rent-burdened households, and households living below the poverty line are more likely to say that they will go to a shelter following an eviction (Figure 7). In our ongoing eviction court study, we have yet to survey a tenant who knows where they will live after being evicted from their current home, with some expressing only the possibility that they could move in with a family member and others telling us that they have moved into a motel room.
Beyond the communities that suffer the direct consequences of housing insecurity and evictions, the jurisdiction also pays a price for not doing more to keep families in stable housing. The cost of evicting a family who could not afford rent and certainly cannot afford the added fees accrued through the court eviction process is borne by local governments. Counties must deal with the cost of processing thousands of evictions a year, and both cities and counties must devote more funding to public programs to support a growing homeless population who not only lack shelter but may also have more complicated healthcare needs.
After the Pandemic
When we first began researching and writing on this topic, the COVID-19 virus was not a part of the conversation. But now we are in the middle of a pandemic and what appears to be a massive societal shift as we rapidly adjust our entire way of life to prevent the spread of a highly infectious disease. Social scientists and social advocates fear that this shift will follow the well-worn paths carved out by centuries of systemic oppression and resulting social inequalities. As unemployment surges in the immediate economic fallout of a nation under siege, we have every reason to expect a widening of the chasm between those with wealth and those without.
In the weeks after the COVID-19 pandemic truly began to hit home in the United States, housing advocates raised the alarm based on what we already knew about the precariousness of being a renter. In the Central Valley, where the majority of renters experience unsustainable levels of rent burden, we knew that the public health safety measures put in place which resulted in cutting wage-labor hours, layoffs, and school closures would leave low-income renters unable to make next month’s rent. Some local jurisdictions in California acted quickly to protect renters, but none in the Central Valley led the way. In Kern County, only the City of Delano instated any renter protections. San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties adopted emergency resolutions with language revoking commercial and residential landlord authority to evict tenants for nonpayment of rent due to COVID-19. However, both resolutions offer zero guidelines on what tenants can or should do if they are served with a notice. The City of Stockton was the first in the Central Valley to enact emergency measures temporarily halting some evictions, but they are inadequate for providing much-needed protections for the most vulnerable renters.
In the City of Fresno, the reaction was lethargic and the final policy decision, which came only after Governor Gavin Newsom issued Executive Order N-28-20 authorizing local jurisdictions to take emergency action on evictions, fell far short of providing needed protection for renters. Fresno City Council, like other local governments, passed a policy that placed the burden of protection squarely on renters. Renters needed to be aware of the ordinance and then notify their landlord in writing of their inability to pay rent due to COVID-19 and provide documentation within 10 days of notifying their landlords. Evictions for reasons other than nonpayment were excluded from the order (e.g. unauthorized occupants to care for a loved one or shelter in place with family). This left many renters still at risk of eviction.
Ultimately, only around 10 percent of the jurisdictions across California chose to instate any sort of emergency ordinance for renters during peak months of unemployment. Most of the orders adopted a similar approach, helping renters establish a legal defense against eviction for nonpayment of rent due to COVID-19. Under the emergency ordinances put in place by local jurisdictions and another executive order by Governor Newsom, some tenants were given the opportunity to document their inability to pay rent due to COVID-19 so that, upon receiving an eviction notice, they could respond to the complaint in court with evidence that their failure to pay rent was due to loss of income or health issues related to the pandemic. This policy is fundamentally different from an eviction moratorium, which legal experts describe as a comprehensive ban on eviction filings. The only example of a moratorium in California was in Oakland where landlords are able to bring a small claims suit for past due rent but cannot file an eviction lawsuit.
But still, there is reason to hope. While the decisions by local and state policymakers to address eviction still inherently privilege the landlord over the tenant, many policymakers made it clear that they are not ignorant of the calls from housing advocates. In early April 2020, the Judicial Council of California, which is responsible for making rules for courts in the state of California, did what other government entities would not and halted the processing of all eviction filings (with some public safety exceptions) for the duration of the pandemic emergency, temporarily, but comprehensively, addressing the gap in protections put in place by the Governor’s executive order and local emergency orders. The ruling was lifted on September 1 but was followed by the passage of AB 3088 in the California legislature, which protects tenants from eviction due to nonpayment of rent through February 2021. Immediately after the passage of AB 3088, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a nationwide moratorium on evictions in the name of public health.
These are signs of progress. The recognition that many renters are housing insecure and vulnerable to crises positions our society to make long-lasting structural changes. However, the will to shift the balance of power between owners and tenants is still anemic in the Central Valley, with few jurisdictions signaling that they are considering the aftereffects of the pandemic on renters when the emergency ordinances are lifted and the business of evictions can return to full operation. This means that once the emergency orders are lifted, if tenants are served with a notice, they must still go through the court process of responding to an eviction lawsuit and gathering their own evidence to defend their case. Tenants must still be prepared to navigate the legal system to retain their housing, almost always without legal assistance or representation. Therefore, the systemic problems that we identified as contributing to the high eviction rates observed in the Central Valley prior to this pandemic, such as the lack of legal representation for tenants, are likely to remain in place and allow this current state of emergency to exacerbate the eviction crisis in the region. Indeed, California scored only a 0.9 out of 5 on the Eviction Lab’s COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard, a policy analysis tool designed to evaluate the extent to which state governments are protecting tenants from displacement during and after the pandemic, because statewide orders do little to truly prevent a surge in evictions. They choose only to defer rather than halt evictions.
We can also assume that informal evictions, which operate outside of the law and therefore are unlikely to be affected by policy changes aimed at formal evictions, will carry on. These evictions primarily impact undocumented or mixed-status immigrant households and extremely financially precarious households – the same households that are at a higher risk of COVID-19 infection due to a reliance on essential worker jobs in the agriculture, manufacturing, and service industries. To be protected by the COVID-19 emergency policies, one must be privileged by the law in the first place. Based on Desmond’s work, the implication is that undocumented families, extremely poor families, and families impacted by mass incarceration are less likely to find protection from displacement during the pandemic, especially if they are renting from slumlords.
We cannot say with certainty what our society will look like when we come out on the other side of this global crisis, but we can formulate some predictions regarding evictions based on the existing evidence. Without taking action to instate long-term protections for renters, we expect to return to a standing-room only eviction court when society is restored to something akin to normal. Tenants are placed at an institutional disadvantage by a society that has always privileged the needs and interests of those who own property over those who do not. This truth is reflected even in the COVID-19 emergency ordinances, which only extend protection from evictions while the state of emergency is ongoing. Once the public health crisis is over and the danger is no longer imminent, there is no obvious plan to protect renters from the full force of eviction proceedings throughout the Central Valley, which means that the emergency ordinances are not about making radical changes to reduce the financial and social vulnerability of renters.
Conclusion: What Should Be Done?
The skeptic who asks whether the goal should be to reduce evictions may now understand that the consequences of eviction are multilayered and far-reaching, exacerbating deep family poverty, uprooting children from their schools and communities, and destabilizing neighborhoods. Anybody who believes in the importance of a functioning society ought to agree that these issues, especially when they are systemic, are signs of societal dysfunction. In the Central Valley, with high levels of poverty and a worsening housing crisis, we argue that we are witnessing dysfunction. We also argue that stable housing is critical for giving families opportunities and ensuring their health and well-being. Housing may not solve every issue, but it certainly, as Desmond so vividly demonstrated in his work, gives families stable ground to stand on and address other issues.
Tens of thousands of eviction lawsuits are filed annually throughout the Central Valley and even greater numbers of informal evictions occur outside of the legal realm. The narrative that displacement is a problem in the Bay Area and Southern California and rents are affordable in the Central Valley is false and harmful. Affordability is relative to wages, cost of living, the supply of affordable housing, and strong public policies that protect tenants and landlords. This false narrative must be challenged because it serves to exacerbate the existing housing crisis in the Central Valley as residents from Southern California and the Bay Area are pushed out of their communities and spill over into the Central Valley. The Central Valley has the highest rate of evictions in California and the majority of cases end in a Clerk Default Judgment. This means that tenants automatically lose, by default, before they ever have a chance to share their side of the story. Too many tenants cannot access or navigate the complicated court system within the very narrow window permitted. This leads us to conclude that the court system is designed to operate as a debt collector or legally sanctioned displacement instrument for landlords. The bottom line: the system prioritizes the protection of private property and property-owners over poor families and families of color.
Our previous analysis of court records in addition to our observations and survey data from eviction court have led us to some possible solutions. In our research, we found that most tenants (83%) owed less than two months’ rent and half of these tenants owed only one month plus late fees, meaning that often tenants are issued a notice almost as soon as their rent is late. We found that the property owners with the largest portfolios only accounted for just over 2 percent of all evictions in Fresno County. This leads us to conclude that the majority of evictors are landlords who own few properties and in many cases may only own one other property which they are financing and renting out, perhaps as a strategy for building personal wealth. We say this with the understanding that slumlords with large portfolios use multiple LLCs to obscure the size of their holdings. But the ‘mom and pop’ landlords, understandably, cannot afford for their tenants to miss rent. Local emergency rent funds could prevent a majority of evictions from occurring, ultimately helping the tenant family stay in their home until a long-term solution is reached and protecting the landlord from sudden financial difficulties. Fully-funded local rental assistance programs are crucial to combat the eviction crisis in the Central Valley. Emergency rent (or relocation) assistance is a proactive measure that will help stabilize housing for tens of thousands of Central Valley renters. Over the span of the COVID-19 pandemic, following pressure from housing advocates, major Central Valley cities like Fresno, Bakersfield, and Stockton passed emergency rent assistance programs. However, these programs are COVID-19 focused and largely funded with CARES Act funds – the first major COVID-19 stimulus bill passed by Congress – and thus there is no indication that these rental assistance programs will remain in place or stay funded when the state of emergency ends.
Further, John Pollock, Coordinator for the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel argues that providing vulnerable tenants access to legal representation in eviction cases is critical to prevent displacement. A growing number of jurisdictions across the nation (San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Newark, and New York) agree and findings that assess the impact of these programs on reducing evictions are promising. New York City, the first city to implement a Right to Counsel for eviction, experienced a 14% decrease in eviction filings in the first year and a significant number of families (84%) who were served with an unlawful detainer lawsuit remained in their homes.
Similarly, the Sargent Shriver Civil Counsel Act (AB 590), which launched housing pilot projects in six California counties (Kern, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Yolo) led to positive outcomes for tenants. Tenants received either full-scope legal representation (i.e. having an attorney file pleadings, and represent the tenant in court, etc.) or access to court services such as legal advice and/or were provided assistance filling out and filing court documents. With greater access to legal representation tenants were able to successfully navigate the court process, negotiate a fair settlement (70%), have their case heard by a judge and secure a favorable outcome. Major findings from the first-year evaluation of San Francisco’s universal right to counsel program found a 10% reduction in eviction lawsuit filings from 2018 to 2019, an increase in housing stability among tenants (67% of those receiving full legal representation were able to remain in their homes), with an even higher rate of success (80%) for African American tenants. Although the program does not restrict access on the basis of household income, 85% of recipients were extremely low or low income. The cards are stacked against tenants who are poor, and among economically vulnerable Black and Latinx tenants in particular. A civil right to counsel is only one tool, but it is proving effective in leveling the playing field for tenants in eviction court. As policymakers search for solutions to address the eviction crisis, especially as a means to combat long-standing racial inequities, a civil right to counsel that includes proactive rent assistance shows promise in addressing economic and racial inequities in housing. In addition, while most housing advocacy groups cannot give legal advice, they have increasingly carried some of the work of legal aid organizations by organizing workshops, creating toolkits, appearing at hearings, and sharing information through social media networks to help tenants prepare for eviction court and defend themselves from illegal landlord activity. These efforts should be more fully supported with public funding and resources.
Housing advocates have been regularly attending city council and board of supervisor meetings across the Central Valley to give public comment, in addition to holding research meetings with local elected officials and state representatives, to inform elected leaders of the eviction crisis, pressure them to take action, and bring concrete policy solutions to the table. We believe that when elected leaders are presented with evidence of a crisis impacting thousands of people in their community annually with no end in sight, they have a moral, ethical, and legal duty to act and act quickly. Some have risen to their duty under the urgency of the COVID-19 crisis by enacting temporary restrictions on evictions and rent relief programs, but the actions taken fall woefully short of instating long-term stabilizing protections. We have outlined the multitude of problems associated with the eviction crisis, the longstanding inequities that lock poor families and families of color out of safe, decent, and affordable housing opportunities, and demonstrated how the eviction court process disadvantages renters. We provided evidence-based solutions that elected leaders can enact immediately to combat the eviction crisis in the Central Valley. We have demonstrated that the Central Valley must be included in the conversations about housing justice. We are now, in the middle of a pandemic, certainly in an unprecedented time but crises have a way of bringing to the surface longstanding injustices which create the opportunity for systemic change. We can reimagine a new normal where every human lives in a safe and affordable home in a thriving neighborhood.
 Rebecca Diamond, Tim McQuade, and Franklin Qian, “The Effects of Rent Control Expansion on Tenants, Landlords, and Inequality: Evidence from San Francisco,” American Economic Review 109, no. 9, (2019)
 Michael C. Lens, Kyle Nelson, Ashley Gromis, and Yiwen Kuai, “The Neighborhood Context of Eviction in Southern California,” City & Community, https://doi.org/10.111.12487 (2020); Nkosi et al. (2019)
 City of Delano, “An Urgency Ordinance Of The City Council Of The City Of Delano Temporarily Prohibiting Evictions Of Residential Tenants Arising From Income Loss Or Substantial Medical Expenses Related To The Covid- 19 Pandemic,” March 26, 2020, https://www.cityofdelano.org/ArchiveCenter/ViewFile/Item/2465
Amber R. Crowell is Assistant Professor of Sociology at California State University, Fresno. Her research focuses on residential segregation, housing, social inequality, and race. She has published research on the spatial demography and driving factors behind racial residential segregation patterns. She is also a community advocate for tenants’ rights in the Central Valley, working to reduce evictions and establish a right to housing for all. She currently serves as Regional Housing Coordinator for the grassroots community organization Faith in the Valley and is an appointed member of the City of Fresno Anti-Displacement Task Force.
Janine Nkosi is a dedicated and passionate sociologist, activist-educator, and community-based researcher. She is firmly committed to helping folks develop and deepen their sociological imagination through critical community-based research and organizing to address some of the most pressing issues in the community. Dr. Nkosi is a lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Fresno State and teaches full-time at Merritt College in Oakland, CA. She is the Regional Advisor for Faith in the Valley a grassroots community organization dedicated to working alongside residents to advance racial justice across the Central Valley. One of the campaigns Janine is involved in is the Healthy Housing Campaign, which is rooted in a belief that housing is a fundamental human right, and everyone deserves a safe, healthy, and deeply affordable place to call home. Janine’s teaching, research, and organizing philosophy are rooted in critical race methodologies, critical pedagogy, relational organizing, asset-based perspectives, and lived experience.
Flirtatious repartee and sensuous swish of swords: gliding to and fro on soft horse stable hay, the upstart peasant, now-masked swordsman, adroitly slices away the feisty noble-maiden’s chemise. Featured in trailers, this became an iconic scene from The Mask of Zorro (Martin Campbell, 1998, Steven Spielberg executive producer). Sizzling cross-class desire inflames aspirations for wealth, nobility, and power in a California of great estates, contested political control, and servile commoners.
California began the nineteenth century on the periphery of the Spanish Empire; in 1821, it was incorporated into a newly independent, but politically unstable Mexico, vacillating between monarchy and republic; and, then, in 1848, sold to the United States in the aftermath of a war of territorial conquest. This is the setting for The Mask of Zorro. One of many revisions of Mark of Zorro (1920, one of the first United Artists films), Mask foregrounds the intergenerational dynamics underlying the Zorro theme of rivalry between nobleman-turned-bandit and corrupt officials. The main protagonists in this rivalry are: the elder Zorro, landed gentleman Diego de la Vega, who avenges his own twenty-year imprisonment, shooting of wife Esperanza, and kidnapping of daughter Elena; don Rafael Montero, former Spanish governor, who carried out these acts, now aided by young U.S. southern mercenary, Captain Harrison Love; and Alejandro Murrieta, young orphaned thief of ambiguous ethnic parentage, whom Diego transforms into a gentleman-avenger to inherit the role of Zorro. This is a tale of aspirational nobility, dynastic power. Such aspirations set in California-between-empires fantastically epitomize the ideological space of the neoliberal 1990s: a cradle for a patronizing elite caste unfettered by state oversight.
To see this filmic neoliberal space in Mask, we recall Michel Foucault’s “heterotopias” –actual spaces that exist apart from, but always in relation to, the “real space of Society.” To illustrate: the horse stable (above) is a special kind of space within the class demarcations of the great-estate–unlike, say, a chicken coop or milk barn—wherein refined equestrian skills permit both an elite woman and a lower-class man to interact, triangulated via sensuous animals, in ways not sanctioned in other estate spaces, say, the dining hall. This is further illustrated in another stable scene wherein Elena (unknowingly) meets her long-lost father (Diego) posing as a servant. Moreover, while scholars have argued that film is intrinsically heterotopic; this particular film evokes quintessential Hollywood tropes to constitute California itself as a heterotopia, epitomizing late 20th century neoliberalism.
Mask’s visually-resplendent heterotopia presents something of a puzzle with respect to Jacques Ranciere’s assertion that representational politics impact possibilities for democratic spaces, namely, a plentitude of forms that correlates with plurality: what, then, are the representational practices of the unraveling of democratic formations under the guise of noblesse oblige? Historicizing its 1990s lens, we see Mask’s explicit counterrevolutionary politics.
Mapping Kingly Enterprise as Counterrevolutionary Heterotopia
Mask overlays three instantiations of heterotopia: first, within the storyline, we have visually-constituted heterotopias—specifically, maps and painterly images from a prop portrait to shots that themselves index particular nineteenth-century European/American genres and iconic paintings; second, the use of cinematic clichés to index classic films and genres that points to the ways that film as a medium is a heterotopia and this film as a synecdoche for Hollywood; and third, in ideological content, Mask offers a political imaginary of a stateless transnational California under the domain of a benevolent, racialized creole elite. Clintonian neoliberalism required such feudal fantasies which draw on elements of nineteenth-century California, what Foucault calls “slices of time,” and other available California tropes in a racialized erotic economy of images extolling counterrevolutionary transformation.
The counterrevolutionary heft of the film comes from its layering of heterotopias: neoliberal California as heterotopia, film itself as heterotopia, and particular aspects within the film as heterotopias. The counterrevolutionary lens refracts through nineteenth-century revolutions; the very shift from Empire to Nation that destabilized elite alliances and left unsettled the political form that new polities would take: republican or monarchical. We extrapolate the dimensions of gender and sexuality in Benedict Anderson’s insights about the cultural work involved in political struggles of the nineteenth century, to understand what was at stake during the 1990s heyday of neoliberalism.
Shot during the apex of neoliberalism–and President Clinton’s rhetoric of shared prosperity in unsustainable and lopsided economic growth—Mask’s heterotopia is a space of capitalist “feudal-aristocratic drag” (Anderson, 153): bucolic landed estates where creole (of European descent) settler-elite employ and protect dark-skinned subordinates, largely coded as indigenous and mestizo through language and dress. The story and the cinematic language through which it is told might be cliché. Nonetheless—indeed, because of these clichés—it maps the collective desires of those who prospered handsomely and those who aspired to wealth in the 1990s economic boom.
While Foucault suggests that some heterotopias may preserve transformative possibilities, our reading of Mask posits a counterrevolutionary transformation.  It disarms its viewer through tongue-in-check humor, mobilizing cinematic formulas that reference prior Zorro films (especially but not only the sword-fighting), action films (Campbell, having directed a Bond film, here offers Bond-esque closing credits: billowing plumes of slow-motion flame set to a pop song), and Westerns (for example, Shane, in the use of the young Alejandro and Joaquin’s witnessing of Zorro’s heroics at the outset of the film, and broadly, in the use of desert landscapes). This filmic indexing underscores the cinematic work of the film as a heterotopia. That is, although this retelling of the Zorro legend is fantastical and enjoyable, it is not merely escapist pleasure. Rather, the film reflects and contributes to a counterrevolutionary neoliberal project: dismantling a state nominally proactive in its defense of the (albeit limited) redistribution (away from the wealthy) of resources necessary for basic conditions of daily life; unregulated minimally-taxed private economic schemes; and the accumulation of wealth and conspicuous consumption by a small class of people whose incomes exceeded thousand-fold those of the majority of workers.
Within the film, neoliberal heterotopia is rendered visually in maps as props that overtly configure polity spatially, as well as through the staging of painterly images—in particular, landscapes, portraits, and counterrevolutionary framings of revolutionary iconography. Whereas political philosopher Jacque Ranciere connects representationally-heterogeneous and political-liberatory spaces, the visually-rich range of images here indexes a political economy increasingly oriented around the rent-seeking interests of capitalist elites and others aspiring to wealth and power. Indeed, the heterotopias visually reference economic and political maneuvers since the 1970s, that made possible President Reagan’s rolling back of the Keynesian state and gains made by anticolonial and antiracist movements, the groundwork for Clintonian neoliberalism. These 1990s counterrevolutionary maneuvers required counterrevolutionary heterotopias to shape a hospitable terrain for such drastic re-makings.
Two key maps establish heterotopic California. One is a gigantic rendering of pre-U.S.-Alta California (today’s California, marked in reddish brown), Baja California and the rest of Mexico (in green), and the United States (in yellow); labeled Mapa Reino California (map of the Kingdom of California), this cloth map of an ostensibly-empty capacious space covers an entire wall in the courtyard of don Rafael’s hacienda. The other is a portable topographical map; hand-drawn on leather, it designates the built environment, with road and waterways, local haciendas (with Spanish names), mountain ranges, with a compass indicating directions; also clearly marked is El Dorado, the gold mine shown in the film; hence its role as a treasure map of Alta California’s riches.
These maps appear in two critical sequences. In the first, the viewer is introduced to the wall map; in the second, a long set of scenes, both maps are used. The large map situates the nation as open and available, disconnected from a state political project; while the smaller treasure map designates riches rife for elite taking. California is made a terrain of conquest in service not of state-building, but of transnational market desires.
The first map scene is set in don Rafael’s courtyard. Various dons, dressed in their finest attire, are shown seated around a large King Arthur-style roundtable, their eyes trained on Rafael; Alejandro, who has just gained entrance to this group, stands apart. After some musings over why he has gathered them together, Montero announces, “I give you the Republic of California.” He motions to one of his henchmen, who releases a large cloth covering the courtyard wall, revealing the map. Montero tells the dons of his plan to buy California from Mexican president Santa Anna, who is then preoccupied with defending the country from an encroaching United States. When the dons suggest the infeasibility of such a plan—that they do not possess enough money to buy all of California—Montero informs them that this is no preposterous idea. They are to buy it, he tells them, with gold from Santa Anna’s own mine. One of the dons derides, “You are living in a dream, Montero.” And Rafael responds, “Then why don’t we all live in the same dream together?” Bars of gold are presented for the dons to see. They are stamped not with the Mexican seal, the actual owner of the mine, but with the seal of the Spanish crown. The camera then pans over to re-frame Rafael squarely in the center of the map. The discourse of the dream here culminates Alejandro’s successful effort earlier in this sequence of scenes to ingratiate himself (unbeknownst to Rafael, as a spy) into Rafael’s camp saying, “I am a man in search of a vision.” In prominently scripting this language of dream and vision (an imaginary world apart but in relation to), the film, in effect, testifies to the importance of heterotopias for political projects.
In this space of contending nation-states, the United States and Mexico, Montero seeks to privatize California; it is to become a commodity bought with its own flesh (gold garnered from the depths of the earth). Thus, this gold constitutes a key to mapping neoliberal heterotopia: consistent with the logic of finance capitalism, gold is perversely the ultimate fetish as currency, capital, and capitalist rent “naturally” available for exploitation.
This scene works because it invokes an imagined-real California past. Foucault notes that heterotopias often entail a sense of a slice of time. Indeed, here we find the use of a past not to make a historical claim, nor to create a nostalgic sense of the good old days, but rather to enrich a sense of a fantasy parallel possibility (not unlike and partaking in the Fantasy genre of Arthurian tales). Set in a California prior to the Gold Rush (1849), the U.S.-Mexico War (1846-48), and the post-war purchase by the United States of nearly a third of northern Mexico (including California) for the bargain basement price of fifteen million dollars, the map-as-prop constitutes this place as largely open, unpopulated, and culturally Spanish with a significant indigenous population coded in the film through the presence of non-Spanish speaking people, such as Elena’s nursemaid, wearing indigenous clothing and a small mestizo population who we see mostly as grunt soldiers (Lie, 492). In this sense, the concept of heterotopias is particularly useful for understanding the ideological work of the film’s setting: to conjure not an ideal past to which we should return, but rather an allegory of where neo-liberalism can take us.
Not surprisingly, the historical context invoked is more complex, a complexity which impacted the very political debates of 1990s California into which the film implicitly enters. In addition to the eleven Spanish families who in 1781 established Los Angeles, Spaniards founded missions throughout the region (1769-1820): seats of local power established to convert indigenous people to Catholicism, while protecting the already converted from attacks by groups unwilling to submit to Spanish dominance. While Mexico’s 1821 independence ousted the Spanish, war left now-Mexican California at the periphery of a state weak, fractious, and distant. Mexico’s state changed in form, from part of a colonial/imperial state to (theoretically) sovereign nation-state. Benedict Anderson attributes the work of this transformation to “creole pioneers,” who differed from those of Mother country’s original settlers not by race or ethnicity or language, but by place of birth. He sees in the Americas the great historical shift that made the nation-state the paradigm for political formation—a weakened empire. This weakened empire, he argues, enabled these so-called pioneers to seize the political opening and create both the political form of the nation and the very political philosophical justification—Liberalism (laissez-faire governance, market-facilitating infrastructure)—that would best accommodate emerging industrial capitalism. The role of creole-settlers of the Spanish post-colonial world (of which California was a part) in establishing the form-philosophy duo is confirmed in Doris Sommers’ analysis of nineteenth-century novels as “family romance.” According to Sommer, these pioneers ideologically married the interests of the landed gentry (represented in these novels by the plantation owner’s daughter) with those of the emerging financial- and trade-oriented elite (often represented as an upstart, self-made suitor).
Also left in Spain’s wake was a particular racial hierarchy that situated indigenous peasants on the bottom, Spanish and creole-settlers (those of Spanish descent born in the Americas) at the top, and mestizos (the progeny of Spanish and Indian pairings) in the middle. Indians were largely dismissed, while mestizos would later have the possibility of tenuous incorporation into the post-revolutionary Mexican nation. With the U.S.-Mexico War and the subsequent integration of California into the United States, this social hierarchy would come into conflict with a U.S. white (free)/black (slave)/Indian (past) racial system. This happened, especially, during the Gold Rush, when Native Americans, Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and people from the eastern United States as well as Russia, Chile, and China flooded the region, changing San Francisco into a boomtown; other towns were rapidly chartered and California’s first constitutional convention soon held. By the late 1840s, then, the region catapulted from agrarian backwater to international economic hotbed, destination of mass migration, and the ultimate site of U.S. Manifest Destiny.
When Mask was produced (late 1990s), California, once again, found itself at the center of profound economic and social reconfigurations, this time critical to the constellation of the neoliberal state: sustained and increasing immigration, especially from Latin America and the global south; outmigration of capital and capitalists; and attacks on—and the unraveling of—the former model government bureaucracy and the educational system. Some reconfigurations were exacerbated by the federal government’s reorientation toward supposedly free trade and personal responsibility, announced in the passage in 1994 of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and welfare reform. The latter removed thousands of U.S. citizens from the welfare rolls, made support contingent on certain behaviors, and funneled these former welfare-supported (majority) women into low wage jobs (with an attendant and broader downward wage pressure). NAFTA devastated factory workers and professionals in the United States; it also ravaged small farmers in Mexico, making migration to the United States, and California specifically, the logical option. In turn, California reacted to this mass influx of immigrants and disruptive economic landscape by passing Proposition 187, turning teachers, police officers, healthcare workers, and clergy into unofficial arms of a state, to find and criminalize unauthorized immigrants. Proposition 187 was eventually found unconstitutional, and California is today the nation’s most ethnically diverse state and around 40 percent Latinx. These changes led to the re-emergence of an assimilationist nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment—some U.S.-born Latinxs, like their non-Latinx compatriots, favored harsh sanctions (Newton 2000). Unfolding at the highpoint of Clintonian neoliberalism, these virulent anti-immigrant movements occurred in relation to a successful sexual counterrevolution (Herzog 2008). We see in this convergence the alliance between sexual counterrevolution and the neoliberal political economy’s increasing investment in a multiculturalism where particular, eroticized incarnations of ethnic difference took on market currency. Tapping into an imagined past understood as real and connecting it to an imagined present enables Mask to work as an allegory for neoliberalism and neoliberal relations, and California to constitute a heterotopia.
Re-making this imagined past real relies on sounds and images of “the West,” ones borrowed from Hollywood Westerns and swashbucklers: the crisp sound of drums and guitars of flamenco music, the sound of boots across a wooden floor, the swoosh of the sword, the quick repeated taps of a flamenco dancer; the long shot of a crowd of peasants as they stand awaiting the execution of those pulled randomly from the crowd, tight shots of tussles between soldiers and peasants struggling against this arbitrary power, the close-ups of peasants shouting for the captives’ freedom, the Spanish flag being ripped from its pole, dirt kicked up as men on horseback ride in, an aerial view of the blindfolded peasants roped to poles, and don Rafael standing on the balcony looking down monarchically at the yelling crowd. Mask’s introductory captions, opening scenes of struggle and discord, and panoramic views confirm California as territorially expansive, open, and ruled by an illegitimate leader, don Rafael Montero, who governs through violence and arbitrary power. Gestured through the cinematic use of “the West,” California is made an available uninhabited space—a frontier, of sorts—full of dust, small shacks, mountains, open stretches of land, and blue slightly clouded skies. This West, like the Westerns it references, is peopled with dark, mestizo peasants, largely poor, humble, and leaderless. They tread lightly on a landscape where local strongmen or soldiers arbitrarily interfere on behalf of a faraway power. That is, these people and this place were open, virgin, and un-stated at the start. Spielberg relies on these quick shots to mark California as both without a legitimate leader and in need of a benevolent patriarch; it becomes recognizable as “the West”—that is, the United States—while the movie still marks it as Mexican territory.
In a second, long set of scenes, the climax of the film, both map-props –the treasure map of El Dorado and the political map of California– figure prominently. The sequence opens with Alejandro’s return to don Rafael’s hacienda, this time dressed as Zorro; he comes in search of the treasure map to the gold mine to which the dons and he, then blindfolded, had earlier been escorted. Hidden from view on the ceiling, Alejandro extends his sword to spear the treasure map from Rafael’s desk as he and his American henchman Capitan Love turn their backs in worried discussion of Zorro’s intentions. Alejandro then presents himself as Zorro and fends off Love, Montero, and Montero’s soldiers, as the fighting moves from the corridor to the courtyard. At one point in this swordfight sequence, he jumps up on Montero’s roundtable for a fighting advantage. Culminating the duel, Alejandro cuts loose the large map of California, releasing it from its mounts on the wall with flicks of his sword. The giant map floats down, enveloping the attacking soldiers and Montero, allowing Alejandro to escape. Maps, as images of (un)marked landscapes, figure as neoliberal heterotopias—they are indications of the nation under conquest, productively disconnected from any state political project.
Kingship, here condensed in the figure of Rafael Montero, lends itself to a heterotopic political imaginary because the elision of the noble body and the territory constitutes a place protected from historical temporality and everyday political contests: “The king is dead, long live the king.” Containing Rafael’s and Love’s ambitions under the giant map while Alejandro eluded capture, suggests a defanged nobility disciplined for the renewed monarchical market project—the nation is only the body of the king; no state interference needed, even as the new benevolent patriarch, now embodied by Alejandro as Zorro (whitened and gentrified in his training process) is ready to take his place. In this neoliberal heterotopia, the monarchical fantasy is not in question, only who has rightful claim to that throne and its privatized territory.
No industry glorified this fantasy of accumulation (or worried about the concomitant radical injustices it wrought) more than Hollywood. Indeed, in the “fantasy of free trade” (Dean 2009), Clintonian neoliberal “communicative capitalism” found particularly fertile soil in California’s entertainment industry. The free-trade expansionary moment brought about a revision in the Hollywood enterprise. While studios had historically marketed to other places films created for U.S. audiences, industry moguls now understood the need to make movies not just or even primarily for domestic consumption. To do this, films needed to incorporate themes and characters attractive to the rapidly expanding global markets (Jones, 13). This market re-envisioning grew out of a recognition that neoliberal policies had created a new transnational elite with the ready cash to consume their products. Not only did this elite lavishly enjoy the boom, they could now imagine themselves as and be transnational jetsetters. Moreover; elites reveled in seeing themselves reflected in the admiring, envious gaze of the wider populace (think Paris Hilton), the chimera of upward mobility through get-rich-quick schemes (think lotteries and casinos), television makeovers and celebrity benevolence (think Oprah and reality-TV stars), real estate, and other financial houses-of-cards (think Madoff).
Appealing to growing overseas audiences, in particular Latin America, necessitated re-conceiving race in movies. The Mask was part of a Hollywood neoliberal enterprise to refigure Hispanicity by promoting a market multiculturalism that whitens the category of Latino (Lie 2001). With Europeans cast elite Hispanic Californians, promotional interviews remade Spanish Antonio Banderas into a (white) Latino subject. In the 1990s, the U.S. government debuted demographic categories of “white Hispanic” and “non-Hispanic” white; creeping into U.S. popular culture at the same moment was the use of Latino as a designation for all Latin Americans (even in Latin America). Thus, for those seen as “white,” “Latino” offered an ethnic, as opposed to racial marker. This compounded the racialized erotics of promoting Banderas as a “Latin lover,” a long established designation for the (usually Anglo) men who played Zorro.
The Zorro franchise is very closely identified with Hollywood and its history—not only was The Mark of Zorro the fourth film made by United Artists, but the Zorro franchise has served as a century-long vehicle for romantic male stars (Williamson, 4). In addition, Hollywood has often served as a synecdoche for California: massive highway system, housing and technology expansion, and huge influx of immigrants from Latin America identify it as both the future of the United States and the emblem, positive and negative, of neoliberalism. The map-props used in Mask re-instantiate an imagined Spanish California as a vast place of harmonious relations, even as they tie this imaginary to a neoliberal project.
Maps, as Benedict Anderson asserts, “profoundly shaped the way that the colonial state imagined its dominion—the nature of the human beings it ruled, the geography of its domain, and the legitimacy of its ancestry” as “institutions of power” upon which post-colonial nationalisms modeled themselves (64). Nationalist “dreams of racism” had their roots in class distinctions:, “[c]olonial racism was a major element in that conception of ‘Empire’ which attempted to weld dynastic legitimacy and national community” (150). Our reading of Mask suggests what happens when a postcolonial society embraces neoliberalism’s globalizations that require, like colonialism did before it, transnational elite class allegiances: neoliberal market-oriented mappings of heterotopias rely on a racialized visual grammar to instantiate the national demography, geography, and the legitimacy of the ruler.
Neoliberal Fantasy and Images of Counterrevolutionary Heterotopia
To further specify the political imaginary through which Zorro’s California served as a heterotopia for 1990s neoliberalism, we turn here to Anderson’s insights on the colonial genealogy of nationalism: in migrating to the colonies, Europeans of many levels could refashion themselves and approximate aristocratic lifestyles. This approximation—or the putting-on of a class disguise—creates a “tropical Gothic” where capitalism became a “feudal-aristocratic drag” with “dreams of rac[ial]” certainty of superiority vis-à-vis locals that allowed a fondness for patria. In patriotic love of Empire or Nation, “what the eye is to the lover,” language is to a patriot (154). Anderson’s drag does not imply camp in the sense of a self-referential excessive costuming, but rather a kind of costuming to transform identity. The dubbing of this feudal styling underscores the artifice of newly elite colonials applying the style of an earlier era widely seen as the precursor of European capitalist imperialism. Refashioning themselves as, in their minds, quintessential aristocrats—that is, feudal lords—cemented elite allegiance to Empire and, later, to Nation. In emulating a by-then-nostalgic vision of European feudal lords and landscapes, colonial elites asserted an imperial and later transnational ideal-type of racialized class mode.
Capitalism’s “feudal-aristocratic” (i.e.class) “drag” thrived in the 1990s, a moment when, ideologically-speaking, Free-Marketers subordinated the needs of Nation to those of Market. This class drag is not camp, but one positing the possibility of class transformation. Indeed, the gleeful camp of Zorro’s costume—mask, close-fitting black clothes, whip, sword, and all—might distract from earnest work of feudal-aristocratic drag, which required a thoroughly visual erotics in imagining neoliberal heterotopias. This visual language nostalgically evokes a creolized European nineteenth-century high-art-aesthetic: a set of inter-related movements in painting, mimetic or realist in approach, romantic in themes, and experimental with techniques maximizing optical perception and luminosity. This aesthetic was, perhaps, less Anderson’s “tropical gothic” than one celebrating the foundation of bucolic estates, noble lineages, and a feudal social order under the oversight of benevolent nobility. Indeed, Clintonian neoliberalism broke from its Reagan/Bush-1 predecessor by insisting that the economic expansion of the 1990s should expand prosperity for new, previously marginalized sectors.
Exploring visual aesthetics of heterotopias—implied but not elaborated in Foucault’s garden and mirror examples —we offer three key moments (among several) in the film where viewers are offered a painterly image: First, a bucolic landscape of Liberal/Neoliberal California under the care of a fiercely protective creole nobility; Second, a scene constituting the focus of all erotic drives, whose dynastic quality in its mode of feudal-aristocratic drag; and, third, one that transcends historical temporality. This fantasy content is aptly paralleled in mass media nostalgia for a (high art) media whose heyday was pre-cinematic. Neoliberal feudal fantasies are rendered through shots cinematically recreating classic painterly images and genres. Examining each moment reveals that together these painterly images instantiate feudal-aristocratic heterotopia as an aesthetic overlay for the film’s action.
The first image occurs in the opening action sequence, where the elder Zorro (Diego de la Vega) disrupts execution in the densely-packed plaza of several peasants and penetrates the governor’s palace to thwart his nemesis’ attempt to abscond with California treasure; it then moves to the scene of don Diego’s private life as landed gentleman. The transition between the masked public hero and the private patriarch/nobleman is marked with a wide-frame shot sustained for several frames. The pink and coral evening light lends an intensely colorful luminescence to a landscape scene that centers the de la Vega estate. To the left, the manor house overlooks a bay with ships and to the right, outbuildings and a vineyard cradled in a half-circle of coastal mountains; directly to the bottom half of the screen are a waterfall and lush forests. The waterfall is a classic Zorro-film characteristic as the masked bandit often hides in a cave just behind it, a lair connected by a stairway to the mansion above. The significance of the cave is cued by the only two motions in this sequence: the falling water and the downward arch of a crying seagull. The seagull’s call punctuates the scoring of strings sustaining a high C sharp. The style of the image is much like that of early JM Turner nineteenth-century romantic landscapes of estates with intense colors and shimmering light (for example, Pope’s Villa at Twickenham, oil on canvas, 1808). While these commissioned bucolic pieces lack the narrative drama and concern with cruelty and injustice of his stormy shipwreck paintings, they share the use of light to generate particular kinds of atmosphere. Similarly, in Mask, both the image (of Diego’s estate) and a later one of barracks at sunset just before Alejandro creates havoc by stealing a spectacular horse evening light suggests a kind of temporary visual calm.
In many romantic landscape paintings of large estates, both labor and politics are absented. Geographer Don Mitchell traces the history of California landscapes depicting paternalist protection of the bucolic to contain the dangers of non-elites: rural smallholders and workers, industrial workers, native communities; erasure produces California as modern yet idyllic natural space, because, for this to happen, all signs of the state’s literal production—that is, its non-natural condition—must be hidden. Douglas Brinkley also examines this production of place, exploring Teddy Roosevelt’s creation of a national park system at height of immigration and industrialization in the name of democratic liberty materialized in pristine nature even as, according to Karl Jacoby, the creation of parks curtailed food-ways of rural populations. Projects, state and national in scope, mobilized landscape as an ideological frame that demanded containment of non-elites. Nineteenth-century U.S. painters, such as Albert Bierstadt, favored panoramas to evidence the truth of Manifest Destiny, the resonant 1820s idea that the United States should bridge coasts. Zorro’s idyllic California of this opening sequence captures these costly political formations between empire and nation-state.
If California landscape has worked through dispossession, the cinematic use of a painterly invoking of romantic capitalism suggests a politics of representation in which privileging of the oil painting’s flatness, to borrow Ranciere’s insight, suggests a timeless aesthetic ideal. Feudal-aristocratic drag thrives in nostalgic visual aesthetics.
A second key painterly shot is not a still transition, but rather, culminates the climatic sequence of the film. It is a filmic rendition of Italian painter Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s famous (1901, oil on poplar) neo-impressionist painting, “Il quarto stato,” (the fourth estate, or, the proletariat); this image was famously used during the opening credits of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 (1976 Italy/France/Germany), an important film in collectivist socialist cinema. In the painting, striking workers, men and women, are advancing forward (from assumed darkness) into the light, with two male farmers and a woman with baby in the forefront with clearly delineated and interacting figures following. Not the nuclear family, this is a revolutionary collectivity united in class cohesion and struggle. Like in Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, where he states that history happens twice, the first time as tragedy and the second as farce, Mask perversely appropriates this revolutionarily socialist image to anoint a neoliberal monarchical counterrevolutionary allegory. The image, restaged a la 1990s, shows a mass of inarticulate brown people—the film calls them “slaves”—just freed from captivity in an illicit gold mine, being led out of the dust from the exploding mine not by fellow workers, but by the new Zorro, Alejandro, and the creole (“princess”) Elena, both fiercely benevolent patrons rescuing children from a certain explosive entombment. Since the previous shot showed Elena and Alejandro breaking open the “slaves” cells, this subsequent scene does not need to do the work of advancing the plot, but rather securely encapsulated the counterrevolutionary framing of these events. As the aesthetic resolution of the capitalist greed instantiated in the treasure map-prop, this neoliberal scene shows a responsible elite protecting those in their care. No mention is made of seizing the means of production–the gold mine–for public good; all we understand is that crude exploitation for personal greed has been foiled.
As the people faintly emerge from the plumes of smoke and dust, we hear composer James Horner’s symphonic score of low strings; then as the figures take shape, the strings make an extended crescendo and are then echoed in brass. These bars make it clear that this is an epic moment. This long shot takes its time in developing from opaque white smoke to Alejandro carrying a child and Elena guiding another; they move into depth of field with the mass of bodies following behind still slightly out of focus. Interestingly, this is a 2-shot within a group shot since only Alejandro’s and Elena’s faces can be seen; and even the children’s faces are averted, visually delimiting the protagonists of the scene. The new creole nuclear family is featured both through these shots, camera focus, and costuming. The tones of the costume and the dusty backdrop are all creams, browns, and blacks, giving the overall shot a sepia, vintage tint. Alejandro stands out in his black Zorro outfit and Elena is the most visually striking with her white v-neck blouse showing plenty of pale neck and chest skin. The faces of the so-called slaves, children and adults, cannot be distinguished not because they are just out of focus but also because of the narrow palette of the scene. In no uncertain terms, the film visually produces phenotypic difference, a racialized social order of a white benevolent elite leading brown humble, even abject, masses.
Curiously enough, by the end of the sequence of frames, the exception to imperceptibility through this visually-produced racial-class difference is an indigenous-marked woman standing to the left of Elena. Both her face and stocky build are discernible compared to the rest of the freed “slaves.” She represents, quite possibly, the biological mother of the escorted children, reassuring the audience that a racialized social order will be secured not through the rupturing of stratification, but through its benevolent reform. Any threat of cross-class revolution leading to a miscegenated family is further neutralized both by foregrounding intra-elite warring (for sexual access to the creole princess and for access to non-elite labor and allegiance) and in the film’s subsequent resolution. The 4th estate scene ends with a blinding-white iris and bleeds into a once-again all-white screen, where the dying Diego joins Elena’s and Alejandro’s hands and commands that there must always be a Zorro. In this sequence of scenes, proper, racially-contained reproduction—the productive comingling of Elena and a now whitened and elite Alejandro—is assured as the native, non-elite subjects are absented in favor of the white, creole (birthed on California soil) baby—a prince—born into a legitimate patriarchal noble family. The ongoing mass appeal of this feudal-aristocratic drag marks the success of the neoliberal counterrevolution, a nuanced counterrevolutionary project savvy in building heterotopic spaces to imagine and enact its political revision.
The final painterly shot that interests us is one at the end of the film. The shot forms a portrait of Elena posed in the doorway of the nursery, watching now-husband Alejandro tell chivalrous Zorro tales to baby Joaquín. She is silhouetted by the arches of the hacienda’s outdoor hallway, through which we glimpse their lush estate, a now fully patriarchal redux of the opening estate landscape shot. In this medium shot, Elena is on the left of the screen and the audience is looking at her from over Alejandro’s shoulder on the lower right; out of the depth of frame, the upper right of the screen is filled by the parallel arches of the exterior manor corridor leading off to estate gardens, a sunset shown in the distance. Elena’s costume exactly mirrors the colors of the sky, with orange embroidery on sheer beige shoulders and sleeves, and a deep blue bodice and skirt. Her sleeves and Alejandro’s shirt are the same colors as the stone walls lit by the orange fire of torches. The audience’s perspective overlaps that of the baby prince, the lord and lady of the manor are thus organically part of the built and natural environment. In this two-shot, we are visually assured that this is a long-term, procreative union as the sunset comes to them. Indeed, this redoing of the opening scene is not unusual. As Simmon claims for Westerns, “the narratives seek to reestablish the tableau idyll of the first shot by the time they arrive at their last shot” as they carry “further [an] aura of loss and melancholy.” This, then, is how they enact their “allegorical imperative” (Simmon, 18).
The score further asserts that this is a quintessentially domestic scene. Harmonious in melody carried by wind instruments, the music still pulses with percussive flamenco guitar rhythm suggesting ongoing libidinal drive echoed in subsequent spoken dialogue whereby they declare their love for one another. When Elena states that she’ll “dream” of Zorro, we are reminded of the tension in these layered heterotopias: between feudal-aristocratic drag, Alejandro’s class transformation and securing of the dynastic lineage; and camp, the playful donning of the Zorro gear and pursuit of further adventures. These adventures do not require enactment in other forms of political space; the monarchy is the political body.
This portrait is very much like English pre-Raphaelite paintings–for example, Stitching the Standard (oil on canvas, 1911) among other historic genre oil paintings by Edmund Blair Leighton–in which he poses medieval women against stone buildings and elaborate gardens. The noblewoman’s domestic duty is also one of militant loyalty as she leans against a stone parapet overlooking the estate’s fields at sunset. Pre-Raphaelites often nostalgically mobilized such medieval themes depicted mimetically. A most iconic image of this school of painting further layers this nostalgia by harkening back to medieval imaginings of the Arthurian dark ages, as in William Morris’ The Defense of Guenevere (oil on canvas, 1858), where the heroine is presented as the archetypical pre-Raphaelite women: long dark hair, slender, long-limbed, and pensive. Such maidens grace Fantasy films since the 1980s from Excalibur to The Lord of the Rings. Thus, as with the previous image, this one nostalgically indexes both high European art and prior appropriations of painterly images as cinematic clichés.
This end of film vision of Elena in the estate is bookended by a quite similar image early in the film of her mother, Esperanza, seated in front of their manor house, awaiting her husband’s return from Zorro adventures. Akin to shot of Elena, in the first frame, we view the bay at sunset over her shoulder, then the camera switches its angle to center her in front of the manor house; her body constitutes the link between the panoramic California landscape and feudal estate as the legitimate instantiation of power. These bookending mother-daughter shots use dusk lighting to intensify the color palette; both merge the body of the wife with that of the patrimonial estate, in part, by extending the colors of the landscape lighting to the costuming: dusk, in Esperanza’s golden dress, and sunset, in the pinkish orange embroidery and deep blue of Elena’s gown.
The use of romantic portraiture links patriarchy and patrimony, the feudal landscape and the body of the wife, a linking made all the more apparent by a key film prop: the portrait of Esperanza. This portrait first brings the viewer intimately into Zorro’s private life as don Diego, and next into Rafael’s hacienda, this time misrepresented to daughter Elena as Rafael’s lost wife. Painterly images capture the idealized white creole-settler woman whose body, as the font of feudal patrimony, is the libidinal focus; these thoroughly domesticated images of nobility derive further erotic appeal from their connection to passionate scenes.
The channeling of creole erotic desire into dynastic reproduction restores the pastoral to an aristocratic landscape now populated with dynastic fruits. Moreover, attention to this channeling of desire restores the pastoral to the visual dimensions of heterotopic erotics, reminding us that these erotics are racialized through representational practices. Thus, painterly images visually punctuate the narrative with neoliberal heterotopias that exceed the drives of narrative to appeal to a feudal-aristocratic aesthetic enduring beyond, outside, despite, and instead of actual history.
In The Mask of Zorro, we see that heterotopias both generate and resonate with eroticized visual economies, beginning with the relationship between heterotopias and everyday spaces; that is, heterotopias are a priori eroticized, racialized through particular representational practices. As we have argued here, this Hollywood blockbuster constitutes a neoliberal heterotopia in and of itself. This heterotopic effect is magnified both by the self-referentialism of this Zorro (re)interpretation as an iconic film—indeed, the film is replete with references to prior Zorro renditions —and by its setting in California, connecting a mythologized past of an open western frontier directly to this (post)modern neoliberal space cast as the U.S. future. The film overlays a (fantastical) California origin moment with the neoliberal context, thus re-imagining both past and present through heterotopias within the heterotopias: the narrative role played by depictions of political spaces, namely, maps as key props, and the use of lush (European-esque) painterly shots to punctuate the narrative arc with a nostalgic aesthetics.
Heterotopic aesthetics undergird the narrative’s counterrevolutionary political thrust: California of the early nineteenth century (best) epitomizes the ideal late twentieth-century neoliberal space: a site of white (creole) oligarchic socio-economic privilege and libidinal gratification unfettered by the state. Transnational capitalists, too, eschew the fetters of acting within the confines of any particular political space. If Ranciere’s heterotopy implies that representationally-rich spaces might signal emancipatory potentiality, then our foray into questions around this Hollywood blockbuster’s multiple and erotic aesthetics of political heterotopias that mark the giddy culmination of the neoliberal counterrevolution forces us to think carefully about equating representational heterogeneity with liberatory political spaces (45).
 “Neoliberal” references justifications for dismantling the New Deal state (roughly 1933-1989, reorienting state priorities toward the global Market.
 Adrián Pérez Melgosa, “Opening the Cabaret America Gallery,” contends that film is a heterotopia and shows how a film can reflect and negotiate political conundrums, in his case the workings of race and intra-American hemispheric politics at the beginning of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy.
 Foucault’s post-sixties theorization of place, space, and politics counters classic theorizations of a revolutionary utopia—an ideal future place—with heterotopias–actually existing places that stand in contrast to ‘real’ ones, that reflect, alter, and comment upon so-called real spaces. See Christophe Bruchansky’s incisive analysis of Disney as heterotopia. By way of an example, he offers the honeymoon trip, suggesting more broadly that spaces of sexual initiation often are heterotopias, for they are marked as apart from, but condense, real domestic space. Film (industrial commodity and cultural imaginary), is arguably the quintessential heterotopic space; like Foucault’s example of the mirror, it exists, even as it is understood to have an attenuated relationship to non-filmic places. The political impact of a heterotopia depends on its embodiment of alternative power formations (Surin). Historicizing variations in heterotopias, then, is critical to seeing the contours of political geographies of place within heterotopic filmic spaces, including the status of counterrevolutionary transformation.
Scott Simmon, The Invention of the Western Film (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
Doris Sommer, Foundational Fictions, The National Romances of Latin America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).
Kenneth Surin, Freedom Not Yet: Liberation and the Next World Order (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009).Catherine Williamson “‘Draped Crusaders’: Disrobing Gender in The Mark of Zorro,” Cinema Journal 36: 2: Winter 1997: 3-16.
LJ Frazier works on political cultures of the Americas and Europe through transnational and global analytics. Trained in Anthropology and History, her interest in the intersection of cultural studies theories of power, subjectivity, and ideology with questions of political economy has resulted in publications on gender and sexuality, nation-state formation, and empire, human rights, mental health policies, memory, activism, and feminist ethnography: authoring Desired States: Gender, Sexuality & Political Culture(Rutgers), Salt in the Sand: Memory, Violence and the Nation-State (Duke) and co-editing Gender’s Place: Feminist Anthropologies of Latin America (Palgrave) and (with D. Cohen) Gender and Sexuality in 1968 (Palgrave).
Deborah Cohen, Associate Professor of History/Director of Latina/Latino Studies at University of Missouri-St. Louis, brings questions of race, gender, imperialism, and labor to bear on nation-state formation and other political projects. Her first book, Braceros(University of North Carolina, 2011; paperback, 2013) reveals the paradoxes of modernist political economies and the predicaments of transnational subjects in the United States and Mexico; whereas her new project, “Loyalty and Betrayal,” examines how transnational migration reshaped the pressures and pleasures of affective ties of family, race, ethnicity, and people-ness. She and Frazier are co-authoring three books: on ’68 in Mexico; a global ’68 history; and one that uses Zorro films to map shifting imaginaries of political projects, economic orders, and notions of social justice.
When Gustavo Arellano of the Los Angeles Times interviewed me earlier this summer about the cultural politics of our paisano José Huizar’s corruption scandal, I had this to say about the disgraced city councilmember: “How did I feel when José invoked our patron saint the Santo Niño de Atocha before he was arrested by the FBI? The same way I felt whenever I saw him wear a mariachi suit in Boyle Heights or a charro suit in our hometown of Jerez: just another politico reverting to cultural politics to curry favor with his paisanos in gestures that felt hallow.” In many ways, Huizar’s shameful downfall was a textbook case of political charrismo, the Mexican euphemism for corrupt political bossism. I was introduced to the historiography behind this term through the work of a graduate school comrade—one of the imprescindibles to emerge from the University of Southern California (USC), Alex Aviña and his powerful book Specters of Revolution: Peasant Guerrillas in the Cold War Mexican Countryside—where I learned that the phrase came from a twentieth-century corrupt union boss who was partial to wearing charro suits. I forever cursed this despicable figure out of the long cast of corrupt Mexican elites for betraying rank-and-file workers and for giving charros a bad name.
Now, thanks to the pathbreaking work of another luminary to emerge from our graduate school years at USC, we have the first full-length academic study of charros and charrería (Mexican cowboys and rodeo) in the United States: Dr. Laura Barraclough’s Charros: How Mexican Cowboys are Remapping Race and American Identity (UC Press). Dr. Barraclough, now at Yale University, grew up in a white equestrian community in the Northeast San Fernando Valley, where she first encountered Mexican charros. “My friends and I”, writes Barraclough in the introduction, “riding bareback and barefoot in our cutoff denim shorts, had no idea what to make of these men” (26). I, on the other hand, came of age riding with those very men on the Mexican side of the Northeast San Fernando Valley, born into an extended charro clan with ancestral origins in the migrant-sending Mexican state of Zacatecas and a world apart from the sphere of those white horse-owners. Our corner of the Northeast San Fernando Valley was what I call, often tongue-in-cheek, the “paisa periphery” (short for paisano periphery)—those peripheral spaces inhabited by Mexican migrant networks in the shadows of any migrant metropolis like Los Angeles, that are marginalized but nevertheless vitally linked to it and which represent deep reserves of cultural values and pockets of political potential. As someone born into cross-border charrería and reared in California’s paisano periphery, I was eager to get my hands on Dr. Barraclough’s book and am honored to have the opportunity to review it.
As the “first history of charros in the United States”, the scope of this project is ambitious, wide-ranging and far-reaching, as it offers a “historical and cultural geography of charros and charrería in the U.S. southwest” and, notably, across state and international borders (3). In doing so Barraclough brings into the foreground the “prehistories of charrería” and into sharp focus its protagonists; in the process, rewriting the historiography of Mexican migrants, Mexican Americans and Chicanos, where “charros often lurk in the background” (5) as shadow figures that are portrayed as either empty ethnic signifiers or fetishized cultural caricatures. By its very subject matter, this trailblazing text engages and contributes to an impressive array of emerging and established scholarly fields: Chicanx/Latinx geographies; studies of the Mexican middle class; sports studies; heritage studies; and animal studies. Here, I want to underscore the first of these fields, Chicanx and Latinx geographies, which, as Barraclaough sums up, “explores how the social production of space and place shapes Latinx identity, the location of Latinx people within structures of inequality, and the form and content of their resistance to the spatial conditions of their lives” (19). Attempting to depict charros with some complexity and nuance, Barraclough states in the introduction, “the charro associations have never had a monopoly on the meaning or the political utility of the charro, who circulates in popular culture and politics as much as in the lienzo (the distinctive keyhole-shaped arena used for charreadas)” or charro competitions (4). Yet, in narrating the history of charros in the U.S., the book tends to skew toward a Mexican subjectivity that is “middle class, masculine, and aligned with Spanish-Mexican histories of colonialism and aspirations to whiteness” (4). This is partly the result of Barraclough’s methodological choice to provide a historical account by “Taking the long view” (true to her training) and preemptively stating that the “book is not an ethnographic account” (26). This is yet another way in which our trajectories overlap but diverge, as I write this review from the vantage point of a historically informed ethnographer of migrant political life and death whose locus of enunciation is the paisano periphery.
Chapter one, “Claiming State Power in Mid-Twentieth-Century Los Angeles”, unearths the history of charros in the gateway City of Angels, that quintessential Mexican migrant metropolis. In doing so, Barraclough retraces the well-treaded history of the sediments of coloniality in Los Angeles, walking us through the city’s periods under Spanish, Mexican and U.S. colonialism. While Barraclough invokes a comparative ethnic history—acknowledging Los Angeles’ Native, Asian and Black communities—the chapter’s focus is on “how diverse ethnic Mexicans used the figure of the charro to access sate powers in mid-twentieth-century Los Angeles” (42). It argues that “At a time when the city was gripped by state and mob violence targeting working-class ethnic Mexicans, the charros’ work was essential in allowing both middle-class and elite ethnic Mexicans to assert their respectability, their law-abiding nature, and their capacity for citizenship” (43). In doing so, Barraclough contributes to the imperative task of transnationalizing Chicano historiography, however, at times privileging elite transnational ties and figures in charro lore. While Barraclough literally rewrites charros into key moments of Chicano history, she nevertheless corrals them between the dated conceptual frameworks of cultural citizenship on the one hand and Mexican nationalism on the other. To cite one illustrative example, she states the following about the figure of the charro: “Staked out in opposition to the zoot suit, their trajes de charro represented a decidedly different sensibility—one that emphasized respectability, social conservatism, and moderate institutional reform, as well as their embrace of Mexican cultural nationalism” (54). Part of this unduly narrow take stems from Barraclough’s choice to foreground institutional actors like Sherriff Eugene Biscailuz, who established the Sheriff’s Mounted Posse in 1933 and was propped up as “the official first caballero of Los Angeles”. Barraclough documents how “Biscailuz and other civic leaders embraced the charro as a symbol of civic and transnational unity” and argues that “civic leaders had begun to position the charro as a figure with the potential to bridge tensions and cultivate unity among city residents, in part through invocation of a ranching past associated with the Mexican elite” (51).
Before going too far down this line of argumentation, however, Barraclough reins in the chapter reminding us once again that “elites like Biscailuz did not have a monopoly on the meaning or strategic use of the charro” (52). Indeed, as the veteran California chronicler Sam Quinones argues in his coverage of charro subculture in Southern California (which unfortunately did not make it into Barraclough’s bibliography), charrería in the U.S. for many rank-and-file migrants was the realization of a dream deferred stretching back to rural México.[i] One early organization that is unearthed in this chapter that speaks to this bottom-up perspective on charro culture is a pioneering group known as the Charros de Los Angeles. Barraclough turns to an impressive array of primary sources to excavate the history of this group, including historical census records, photographs and filmic texts. She notes of the group’s makeup: “Of the twenty original members of the organization, most were from the states of Jalisco, Michoacán, and Zacatecas” (56). Importantly, “In 1962…the Charros de Los Angeles became the very first charro association in in the United States to be formally recognized by the FMCH” México’s official federation of charrería (66). Toward the end of the chapter, tucked away in an endnote, Barraclough cites a post on the Charros de Los Angeles’ Facebook page, raising the possibility of ethnographic interviews or oral histories, which the author completely passes on for the sake of sticking to the “long view”, a missed opportunity that haunts the remainder of the book.
Chapter two, “Building San Antonio’s Postwar Tourist Economy”, narrates the transnational tale of charros in Texas and their struggles around place-making and spatiality “At the crossroads of the American south and Mexican North” (72). Barraclough opens by rehearsing the history of displacement, dispossession and racial violence against Mexicans in Texas, a torturous tale that Monica Muñoz Martinez documents in her groundbreaking tome The Injustice Never Leaves You, which painstakingly pays homage to the intimate trace of Mexicano claims of belonging, down to the level of a family branding iron (a potent ranchero and charro symbol if there ever was one), while at the same time leveling a critique of masculinist historiography and its tendency to romanticize mounted and armed Mexican masculinity (depicted in full detail on Barraclough’s book cover). Barraclough’s stake in this chapter is centered more decisively on cultural politics and particularly on how charros in Texas confronted white imperialist nostalgia and violent settler narratives of the cowboy, in the process demonstrating how charros were part of the storied Mexican American generation and, indeed, the history of the West. As Barraclough states, “In San Antonio, as in other southwestern and border cities, the materials of the old West include not just cowboys and Indians, but also charros” (73). Herein lies the second monumental move that Barraclough makes in this book—inverting the historical record and exploding white settler frontier mythology by situating Mexican charros as the “original cowboys.” She also refers to these charros as what Chris Zepeda-Millán calls “border brokers”, highlighting their “anchoring and bridging roles” (86) across diverse constituencies and communities. “As binational, bilingual actors committed to a growth agenda” Barraclough writes, “charros were especially well positioned to cultivate networks with elite businessmen from Northern Mexico, tying together a borderlands economy” (87). Cross-border visits and charro competitions were held throughout the 1950s in Texas enabling what Barraclough aptly describes as “the constant fertilization of networks” (87). Yet the networks Barraclough focuses on bank on mestizo privilege: “They did so by drawing on the charro’s symbolic power as a representation of skilled, landowning, and dignified Mexican masculinity, and by using collaboration, negotiations, and persuasion to nurture relationships with the elite business classes of both San Antonio and northern Mexico” (96).
In Chapter three, “Creating Multicultural Public Institutions in Denver and Pueblo”, Barraclough takes these elite transnational ties to an unexpected geography: the “Hispano homeland” of rural New Mexico and Colorado. The “Hispano homeland” is defined as “an interconnected web of rural villages…established during the first push of Spanish colonial settlement” which “remained both spatially and culturally isolated from Mexico” and where “Hispanos were more likely to identify with Spanish histories of settlement and baroque forms of Spanish culture than anything related to Mexican nationalism” (98-99). Illustrating the degree to which charros were part of the Mexican migrant, Mexican American, Chicano and Hispano historical experiences, Barraclough argues: “Hispano and Mexican leaders turned to the charro as a vehicle for forging a shared racial identity, with the goal of building a more inclusive and responsive urban public sphere” (100). Barraclough unequivocally makes this point about one of the charro organizations she chronicles in this chapter, stating summarily: “The Pueblo Charro Association was an indisputably Hispano organization” (102). She charts charros’ struggles for political inclusion and cultural recognition in multiple civic spaces, ranging from education to local government. Barraclough carefully analyzes the work of Lena Archuleta, a member of the Denver Charro Association and Hispana educator, whose “curriculum guide centered Hispano’s and Mexicans’ historical contributions to the making of southwestern ranch culture as the basis for a shared racial and cultural identity through which children could experience an empowering education” (113). In the realm of urban politics, the president of the Pueblo city council “formally proclaimed the first week of November 1974 to be ‘International Charro Week’ in Pueblo because ‘the Charro has contributed greatly to the socio-economic and cultural development of the Southwest’ and because ‘the friendship of the United States of America and the United States of Mexico is of great significance to the Western hemisphere’” (121). Returning to Archuleta, Barraclough state’s that her pedagogy “embraced the Mexican ranching past and its diverse cast of characters, especially the charro, which she saw as a unifying symbol for Hispano, Chicano, and Mexican immigrant children in southwestern schools…her guide recuperates the agency of workers and indigenous people in the making of ranch cultures and economies” (111). Such efforts had the effect of “Inserting the charro into whitewashed histories of cowboys, ranching, and rural life in Colorado.” Still, the cross-border charro networks that Barraclough uncovers between Colorado and México were enmeshed in transnational elite alliances. “One of the lessons they surely learned was that charrería in Mexico was an extravagant affair associated with the Mexican political and economic elite” she states of one of the Colorado charros’ visits to México. “On their first day in Guadalajara, the Pueblo delegates listened to a speech by Jalisco governor Alberto Orozco Romero. There were multiple luxurious banquets, dances, and award ceremonies” (122). With the eventual decline of this vibrant charro circuit in Colorado, Barraclough states toward the end of the chapter: “Not until the early 2000s, when Mexican migration to Colorado expanded, would charrería experience resurgence in the state” (131). While she once again turns to social media and internet sites in the endnotes to this chapter, such as LinkedIn and the contemporary web page for the Unión de Asociaciones de Charros de Colorado, Barraclough does not see these as a possible entrée into ethnography or deeper oral histories with charros past or present.
The narrative structure of the book follows this spatial-temporal flow, chronologically tracing charros’ claims of belonging, galloping across the Southwest, from California to Texas to Colorado and back again. In Chapter four, “Claiming Suburban Public Space and Transforming L.A.’s Racial Geographies”, we are squarely back in California’s paisano periphery. While the chapter takes as its stage suburbia as contested racial terrain, it uncovers all of the hallmarks of the paisano periphery, which is mired in segregation, racialized poverty and disenfranchisement. A fuller explanation of the historical formation of the paisano periphery is found in the third endnote to this chapter and is worth quoting at length. “Though East L.A. became the largest and most well-known urban barrio, proto-suburban Mexican communities remained in the form of agricultural colonias (worker colonies). Located close to the fields and packinghouses and marked by dilapidated housing, insufficient infrastructure, and civic neglect, these suburban communities were barrios in their own right. Though small in population relative to the expanding urban barrios of the Southwest’s largest cities, they marked a consistent ethnic Mexican suburban presence” (231). One of the critical contributions of this chapter is to show the making of suburbia as white settler space. White residents of the San Fernando Valley “participated in community planning processes that rejected multi-family, industrial, or commercial zoning. The result was to embed Anglo-American histories of ranching and whitewashed histories of cowboys in the American West in the suburban landscape via municipal zoning and planning codes” thus producing “whitewashed renditions of the cowboy and the frontier” (139). Yet ethnic Mexicans fought to carve out their cultural spaces in the paisano periphery, in the process erecting charro citadels from the San Fernando Valley to Pico Rivera. These projects “allowed for the collective invocation of Mexican histories of ranch land and labor, while reterritorializing those histories in the suburban present.” In doing so, “they challenged dominant ideas about American suburbia, especially how people of color and immigrants should behave, and reclaimed a Mexican presence on the outskirts of Los Angeles” (143). This chapter thus further drives home the transnational argument about charros as the original cowboys, who, through their efforts, “recast the origins of ranching beyond America to the Américas, simultaneously refuting the U.S. nationalism undergirding the cowboy as white American hero and reclaiming Latin American horsemen, including the charro, in the making of hemispheric ranch cultures” (146). Methodologically, while the chapter makes ingenious use of primary documents (e.g. financial ledgers from charreadas in the 1970s), oral histories are virtually nonexistent (drawing on one telephonic interview with charro pioneer Julian Nava).
Charros winds down with a final substantive chapter that rethinks the animal rights debate as it relates to the sport and expands the book’s geographic scope beyond the Southwest. This chapter casts the animal welfare movement in relation to charrería in a critical light, arguing that charros perceived it as a thinly-veiled assault on the public display of their rural mexicanidad in the U.S. Barraclough rightly points out that “the ‘horse-tripping’ laws have often been passed by the very same state legislatures that adopted anti-immigrant laws” and mange to “discursively construct charros and those who participate in their events as criminal, barbarian, and threatening subjects” (166). One of the local lawmakers to endorse such a bill was Joe Baca, a Latino assemblyman from San Bernardino in Southern California’s Inland Empire, an emblematic community of the paisano periphery if there ever was one. AB 1809 “would make it a misdemeanor to intentionally trip or fell an equine by the legs for entertainment or sport” (169). To make matters worse, iconic Mexican American organizations supported this legislation, including Mexican American Political Association, Mexican American Chambers of Commerce and the United Farm Workers, leading charros to see this as “a cumulative attack on their livelihoods and cultures” (173). This is especially the case considering that American (read: white) rodeo activities where explicitly protected in some of these bills, including “jumping or steeplechase events, racing, training, branding…calf or steer roping events, bulldogging or steer wrestling events…barrel racing, bareback or saddled bronc riding or other similar activities or events” (185). Yet, Barraclough sticks to her argument about the increased political sophistication of charros, insisting that they were “careful to register themselves as modern, rational political subjects, rather than ethnic radicals or political extremists” (182). This historical argument stands in sharp contrast to a charro clan from the San Fernando Valley today, who proudly proclaimed themselves “Charros for Bernie”[ii]. While the chapter again makes impressive use of primary documents, ranging from constituency correspondence to transcripts of state legislature hearings in California and Nevada among others, the oral history material is thin, citing one email communication from Toby de la Torre, another charro precursor.
Octavio Paz once wrote about the zacatecano poet Ramón López Velarde that “irony is his rein and the adjective his spur.” Not so for Barraclough, who is more of a straight shooter; her writing is neither flowery nor poetic, careful not to over-stretch charro metaphors in her prose. However, my main critique of this book is not in its form but rather in its method. True to her formation as a geographer, Barraclough opens the conclusion by stating: “Hover over virtually any city in the U.S. West using the satellite view of a web mapping service, and you will almost certainly spot the distinctive keyhole shape of at least one lienzo charro” (196). Her argument about “place-making”, “vernacular spaces” and “ranchero landscapes” on the “metropolitan fringe” is an important one, as “lienzos offer an important space for cultural affirmation and transnational collectivity” (196) and an “invocation of a shared rural Mexican ranching past left behind” (197). As is the central argument that positions charros as the “original cowboys”: “Asserting the historic presence of ethnic Mexican ranchers and vaqueros as the ‘original cowboys’ in the region that became the U.S. Southwest, they have transformed core narratives of American identity centered on the cowboy, ranching, and the rodeo” (200). Yet for all her focus on “scalar dynamics” and “scaling up”, it would behoove Barraclough to descend from the bird’s eye view, and the historic “long view”, and scale down. It is the task of the ethnographer to, as charros put it, “entrarle al ruedo” (“enter the rodeo ring”), with all of the political ethics that implies, plunging into the depths of the paisano periphery. This, however, would require oral histories and deep ethnography, something Barraclough entirely avoids. Those who are up to the task will find charros not as long-gone historical figures but as living, breathing, flesh-and-bone denizens of the paisano periphery, with all of our contradictions, as the charro adage goes, vivitos y coleando. Alive and bull-tailing.
Adrián Félix is Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Riverside and is the author of the award-winning book Specters of Belonging: The Political Life Cycle of Mexican Migrants (Oxford 2019).
Essential Los Angeles: Revisiting the Automobile (Eric Avila)
Just when we thought we knew everything about Los Angeles and the automobile, Genevieve Carpio delivers Collisions at the Crossroads, not just a model of rigorous, empirically-driven, theoretically sophisticated scholarship, but a critical intervention into a canonical body of knowledge that explains the enduring love affair between Angelenos and their automobiles. The story is familiar: Los Angeles grew up with the automobile. Its vast expanse of flat arid land—partitioned by mountains, arroyos, and rivers—provided an ideal setting for the mass adoption of the automobile during the early decades of the twentieth century. Even in the depths of the Great Depression, southern Californians purchased automobiles in record numbers, creating an impetus for the construction of new streets, boulevards, and highways. These arteries and the cars they served fattened the coffers of oil, rubber, glass, steel, trucking, and construction companies, and furthered the sprawling, decentralized pattern of urban development that typified a broader pattern of ‘sunbelt’ urbanism.
This history became the basis of a full-blown myth about Los Angeles as ‘Autopia,’ penned by a British expat who roamed the L.A. grid in a convertible Mustang in the swinging Sixties. First published in 1971, Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies generated a new appreciation of Los Angeles, furthering a broader ‘postmodern’ sensibility that drew inspiration from the commercial landscapes of a car-oriented, hyper-consumer society. Much in the same vein as contemporary artists working in the Pop aesthetic (think Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha, and David Hockney, another British expat in L.A.), Banham recognized the centrality of the automobile in a new suburban way of life unfolding in southern California. To him, the automobile symbolized mobility, autonomy, convenience, and free choice—the attributes of a consumer society and the underlying values of a new model of democratic urbanism. Banham thought little of recent conflagrations like Watts, which he dismissed as a “fashionable venue for confrontations.” Instead, he saluted the automobile and its role in making a city where “all parts are equal and equally accessible from all other parts at once,” concluding that “freedom of movement is the prime symbolic attribute of the Angel City.” Yet in challenging these accounts of L.A.’s autopia that assert a universal mobile subject, Carpio reminds us of the divergent claims to mobility by diverse groups who navigated the metropolitan landscape and their racial positions within it.
Banham and his predecessors had important insights about the automobile and its impact upon Los Angeles’s development. Their narrative makes important contributions to understanding why Los Angeles is the way it is and why the city “bleeds” (as Carpio evocatively puts it) into its hinterlands. Her book Collision at the Crossroads tells a different story about the automobile, and about spatial movement more broadly, reminding us that the old story is dated for its failure to address issues of inequality, immobility, and injustice—issues that L.A. historians can no longer ignore.
Workers and their Cars.
Washing a Car.
In the two centuries of its relatively brief existence, Los Angeles sustains (thanks to a recent generation of historians who align with social justice movements) a not-so-hidden history of violence, oppression, and injustice, but also of resilience, struggle, accommodation, hybridity, and mestizaje or mixed-races. The city’s track record of mob violence and racial uprisings, not to mention its history of mass incarceration and police brutality, forces a need to rethink both the city and the technology that made it, including the car, but also emergent forms of police enforcement, public policies aimed at diverse movers, innovative strategies to navigate metropolitan space by the aggrieved, and claims to the right to mobility. In Collisions at the Crossroads, Carpio tells this story from the vantage point of inland southern California, where claims to mobility have been complex and always contestable. The automobile made Greater Los Angeles, as did streetcars and railroads in their day, but its arrival and accommodation benefitted some groups of people at the expense of others.
As with many technological advancements, white men usurp the privileges they afford themselves and deny those same benefits to everyone else (with some brilliant exceptions). This includes the automobile, one of the most consequential inventions in human history. Not just the automobile as object, but especially its meaning as a symbol: the promise of unfettered mobility, autonomous movement, and mastery over time and space at high speeds on the open highway. Reyner Banham exalted these qualities and rightly expressed their seemingly universal appeal (at least in his time). So many of us love the automobile: we wash their bodies, clean their engines, quench their thirst for oil, air, water, and gasoline, polish their glass and chrome, register their possession with state authorities, insure them against damage and destruction—we eat, drink, argue, bond, and think thoughts in automobiles. We love these damn things so much that those of us written out of autopia’s dominant scripts—women, people of color, immigrants—forget that we often relinquish our autonomy, will, even safety, by surrendering to the automobile’s allure.
What Banham and other apologists for the automobile also ignore is a counterstory of how the automobile became a powerful tool of state surveillance and discipline. As demonstrated in the larger chapter from which the excerpt to follow draws, the car’s pleasures are accorded selectively by a repressive police force that incorporated the automobile into its arsenal, enabling new forms of enforcement in which they could “invoke the eyes of fellow police cruisers over the radio, track car owners through vehicle registration, and erect traffic checkpoints to distinguish criminals from the law-abiding mobile public.”
LAPD Classic Cruiser, 1958.
Watts Riots, 1965.
Carpio’s work provides early insights into emerging forms of state surveillance that would mature into the postwar period. During the 1950s and under the leadership of Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker, local law enforcement invented the squad car, equipped with short-band radios, sirens, rifles, shotguns, spotlights, and powerful engines. Parker revolutionized law enforcement in an age of mass suburbanization, effecting greater control over disparate working class Black and Latino communities that took shape throughout the five-county urban region. The police arrest of Marquette Frye, who was pulled over on a hot summer day in early August 1965, illustrated the lethal consequences of ‘driving while black.’ His arrest sparked the Watts Riots, the most violent episode of urban racial violence during the mid-1960s, resulting in thirty-four deaths and hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage.
Chief Parker realized the automobile’s potential on a new highway system that took shape during his tenure. During the 1950s and 1960s, federal money poured into the construction of a massive highway system, linking disparate suburban communities to the historic core of Los Angeles. Orange County now linked to the San Fernando Valley, and they had new links to the inland communities of Claremont, Pomona, and Ontario. This sprawling network of freeways converged just east of the downtown core, in the neighborhood of Boyle Heights, which bore the brunt of state and federal highway construction projects. Today, Boyle Heights stands at the center of L.A.’s expansive freeway system, quarantined from the rest of the city by massive highway interchanges built in conjunction with slum clearance efforts. A redlined neighborhood since the 1930s, Boyle Heights earned the official distinction of being “hopelessly heterogeneous” by the Homeowners’ Loan Corporation, identified as “an ideal site for a massive slum clearance project” which turned out to be two massive highway interchanges, built less than two miles apart from each other in the late 1950s.
In this deracinated landscape, ravaged by white flight and highway construction; in the shadows and din of new freeway interchanges, a new ‘Chicano’ culture took shape, a hybrid mix of Mexican cultural traditions, shaped by the cosmopolitan influences of a polyglot, glamorous, and dangerous society. Zoot Suits came from Boyle Heights, murals too, and lowriders, which fashioned an alternative car culture that had nothing to do with the very qualities of speed and mobility that Banham celebrated. They embraced ‘low and slow’ as their aesthetic, indulging in a new suburban pleasure that drew upon urban traditions of showmanship and technological mastery, and gave a big middle finger to the ideals of efficiency, speed, mobility, and productivity built into the object and symbol of the automobile itself. Lowriders were not 9-to-5 commuters and they re-fashioned these machines for their own sensory and aesthetic pleasure. Their spatial claims evoked strong responses from the viewing public and local authorities, contests that Carpio argues have continued to play out over symbolic landscapes like Route 66. Lowriders chose boulevards over freeways as the primary venue for their motorized brand of chrome-polish swagger, and enthralled sidewalk spectators who marveled at these machines. Are lowriders the victims of a ‘false consciousness’ sponsored by a corporate-consumer car culture? Or are they subversive agents of a technological counterculture? Drawing on the history of contested claims to mobility appearing across the twentieth century, Collisions at the Crossroads suggests the latter.
Today, we stand at another crossroad. Like most every aspect of technological modernity, the automobile is a blessing and a curse. It remains the dominant mode of transportation in the southland, yet its false premise of unfettered, autonomous mobility seems to have hit a wall of its own making. We Angelenos suffer from a chronic addiction to oil and gasoline. Too many people, too many cars: the concept of rush hour is obsolete. Every hour is rush hour; traffic is at a standstill on most freeway arteries, at most times of the day. Although new systems of mass transit are providing alternatives to the automobile and the freeway, there is little relief from the congestion and pollution that cars inflict upon our daily lives. Like red meat, our insatiable appetite for oil accelerates global warming, sparking what will become a desperate search for new alternatives to fossil fuels. Whether or not the automobile will remain the dominant mode of transportation in the region depends upon a clear-eyed assessment of its costs and benefits. Carpio implicates that machine in a broader history of racial and class inequality that now poses an existential threat to the survival of the species.
The Automobile in Mexican Immigrant and Mexican American Life (Genevieve Carpio)
By World War I, the automobile was already an integral part of life for Mexican agricultural workers in Southern California. Prominent citrus ranchers provided laborers garages alongside bathrooms, running water, electricity, and other utilities they deemed fundamental to worker housing. As described by Archibald Shamel, a USDA scientist who wrote extensively on Mexican citrus workers, “[the automobile is] an essential part of the household equipment.” Local cooperative associations occasionally provided vehicles for their workers, but more often than not individual pickers and their families purchased their own. Like the Japanese bicyclists who preceded them, Mexican motorists used vehicles to maximize their work opportunities, and for fashioning themselves as modern citizens. Although at the national level cars at that time were largely owned by the white middle class, for use in leisure activities like tourism and cross-country travel, in the Mexican communities of Southern California automobiles were a working class item used to traverse uncertain economic and social landscapes.
Disrupting national trends that linked whiteness and driving, period sources suggest that ethnic Mexicans owned automobiles at far higher rates than the Southern California population as a whole. A 1933 Heller Committee cost of living study, by the University of California, sheds light on patterns of automotive proprietorship, expense, and usage. In a survey of a hundred Mexican-descent families living in San Diego, the Heller Committee found twenty-six percent of households owned and operated their own automobile. A similar survey taken in San Fernando, about thirty miles north of Los Angeles, found that nearly forty percent of families residing in the “Mexican district” owned a vehicle. These figures are particularly significant when we consider that the automobile ownership rate in California as a whole was only seventeen percent, about half of the rate for the Mexican communities of San Diego and San Fernando.
Far from elite toys of the rich, automobiles were regularly a necessity for Mexican laborers. Only two percent of the vehicles counted in the Heller study had been purchased new. Rather, families typically bought their cars and trucks secondhand, often as an essential expense. Purchasing a vehicle was a financial hardship that required cutting back elsewhere, sometimes even on food. Nevertheless, for their drivers, automobiles’ economic and cultural value exceeded their costs. Mexican respondents reported they used their vehicles for a variety of functions, including searching for work in surrounding towns, informal outings, and travel to family events.
Joe Hernandez (third from left) and crew on work truck, 1938. Courtesy of Inland Mexican Heritage.
Car and truck ownership often translated into direct economic gains for Citrus Belt workers. Groves were spread throughout the region and laborers commonly lived in towns adjacent to large farms, moving among them as the crops matured. Families who owned automobiles could leverage this location gap between housing and the groves to earn extra income. Former citrus worker Howard Herrera remembered, “In those days you had to pay for your ride. Sometimes the house would pay it. If the house would hire a truck to take the crew to work they’d pay the driver for all the heads that would drive and arrive in the truck.” By transporting their neighbors to the fields, truck owners not only solved the problem of spatial dissonance, but also identified workers for the citrus cooperative in exchange for pay. In these roles, they served as recruiters, translators, and transporters. Women were often key in the relative success of these efforts. The son of one citrus foreman recalls that his mother provided warm lunches for riders as extra incentive to choose his father’s crew over others. For these services, Mexican families were financially rewarded, receiving a small payment for each rider or a portion of the profits from the harvest.
If Mexican motorists could increase their wages by providing a vital service to ranchers, their automobility could also be used to challenge employers’ control over workers’ livelihoods. Mobility enabled Mexican-descent workers to determine which employment opportunities—agricultural or otherwise—offered the most competitive wages. Those with access to private vehicles identified opportunities at a range much larger than previously possible, aided by a growing network of roads, their ability to carry multiple passengers, and the incentive of hauling cargo for additional payment. While vehicles widened the geographic scale and types of employment available to Mexican drivers, vehicles were also beneficial in times of collective action. Even if primarily used for daily transportation, a truck could moonlight as a mobile picket line, stage for mobile theater, or emergency shelter. During times of direct action, vehicles helped to galvanize workers and prolonged their ability to strike. In this sense, automobility could quite directly contribute to the collective’s economic mobility.
Automotive culture permeated not only the lives of those who moved, but also those in the communities that were passed. The largely Mexican Westside of San Bernardino is exemplary of this synergism. Later designated as Route 66, Mount Vernon Avenue provided residents with entrepreneurial opportunities to offer services to long distance travelers, such as managing motels, bars, gas stations, and restaurants. Consider Mitla Café. In 1927, its owners, Lucia and Salvador Rodríguez, migrated to California, and soon after this Lucia opened a small taco stand. The side business grew into a local landmark where the Rodríguez family catered to Mount Vernon residents, including workers from the nearby Santa Fe railroad repair shop, and passing motorists looking for something warm and affordable to eat. A combination of its location on Highway 66, its homey atmosphere, and foremost its Cal-Mex cuisine even earned Mitla Café a mention in the popular Duncan Hines travel culinary guide, Adventures in Good Eating. Business leaders along the busy Highway 66 corridor often became community leaders and their businesses popular sites of community organization and place making.
In addition to their economic value, vehicles held an important symbolic role for their drivers. Analysis of photographs collected by grassroots recovery efforts, such as Inland Mexican Heritage (IMH), further sheds light on the cultural significance of vehicles in Mexican agricultural communities. Looking to these personal family records adds a new perspective to those of the period’s social worker reports, which erroneously equated Mexican automotive practice with those of white middle class families. In public events held by IMH throughout the 1990s and 2000s, residents of former citrus communities near San Bernardino were invited to contribute family photographs and oral histories as part of a recovery project focused on Mexican American communities. Among cherished images of weddings, returning veterans, and family gatherings, residents frequently submitted family portraits in which cars and trucks figured as prominent features of the image.
Unlike government or professional photographs from this period, examining the function of automobiles within these self-selected compositions helps reveal the ways Mexican American people themselves positioned vehicles in their everyday lives. While members of the family and their friends occupy the focal point, they were often staged in the photographs sitting or standing on vehicles. On the one hand, this positioning points towards the frequent presence of automobiles in Mexican American life, which were conveniently present during both special family events and mundane daily passings. On the other, the frequent appearance of cars as a central part of the photographs’ compositions underscores the subjects’ desires to craft particular self-identities. Automobiles represented more than vehicles for travel. Rather, they held distinct social significance for those involved at the moment of a photograph’s creation. Where a group of youth dressed in their best outfits and standing in front of a car might represent the subjects’ identity as a modern subject immersed in leisure culture, workers posing with a truck filled with boxes of oranges could emphasize a strong work ethic, upward mobility, or traditional links between masculinity and labor. Historian Phil Deloria has examined the ways images of both American Indians and automobiles have been used by non-Indians to signify important elements in American culture. When brought together, these signifiers have conjured a “palpable disconnection between the high-tech automotive world and the primitivism that so often clings to the figure of the Indian.” Where automobiles seemed anachronistic or unmerited when driven by nonwhites, photographs produced by Mexican American drivers were all the more powerful for the ways they disrupted normative expectations and bolstered self-representation in complex ways.
Jessie Ortiz and friend posing on fender of car near San Timoteo Canyon, 1928. Courtesy of Inland Mexican Heritage.
Where photographic records help to uncover symbolic systems attached to vehicles by multigenerational Mexican American populations, songs emerge as an archive of the meanings produced by Mexican immigrants. Corridos—poetry set to music—are cultural artifacts that archive artistic expressions of daily life. In these songs, vehicles held an important symbolic role in conveying immigrants’ experiences in the United States. As described by Mexican anthropologist Manuel Gamio, Mexican rates of vehicle ownership grew markedly among immigrants who had worked for a period in the United States. A close reading of popular corridos collected by Gamio and reprinted by the Social Science Research Council in the 1920s uncovers an ambivalent attitude among Mexican immigrants towards cars—and by extension, an ambivalent attitude towards U.S. life in general.
A consistent note among corridos was nostalgia for life in Mexico, and the internal tensions generated among immigrants when pursuing American economic mobility. The lyrics of “El Dónde Yo Nací,” for example, use the car to signify dissatisfaction with U.S. consumer culture. The protagonist sings:
No me gusta coche ni autómovil
como al estilo de por aquí.
A mi me gusta carreta de bueyes
como en el rancho dónde yo nací.
(I do not care for the cars or the automobiles
like those found around here.
I prefer the oxcart
like on the ranch where I was born.)
In this instance, the singer rejects the extravagant automobiles he views in the United States in favor of an old oxcart he owned in rural Mexico. At a literal level, his dissatisfaction indicates the singer’s longing for the ranch where he was born, land owned by his family and free from the empty consumerism he observes in the United States. Seemingly nationalistic, the singer’s nostalgia may also be read as a critique of political changes in Mexico, where privatization drastically transformed the countryside and large agricultural operations displaced many of the migrants. Dispossession pushed them to seek work in the United States.
In a variation of this critique, another corrido titled “El Renegado” focused its criticism on Mexican immigrants seduced by U.S. markers of social status. The automobile in this corrido signals an immigrant who, upon gaining some profit, looks down upon his fellow countrymen who have not adopted a U.S. lifestyle. The ballad disapproves of the renegade’s “dandy” attire and his conceit when driving a flashy car, “andas por hay luciendo gran autómovil.” Where the driver seeks attention by wielding control over the ultimate symbol of social mobility, the singer critiques this ostentatious display of wealth. The song discredits those immigrants who would negate their homeland and working class origins. In both “El Dónde Yo Nací” and “El Renegado,” the automobile represents a U.S. lifestyle that stands in opposition to a Mexico envisioned as rural, homeland, and anticapitalistic.
Roque Family and their car, 1930s. Courtesy of Inland Mexican Heritage.
Looking to these creative expressions of Mexican immigrant life helps reveal illicit uses of automobiles unaccounted for in most oral histories. Further, they recast as autonomous subjects the drivers who might otherwise be considered deviant. For instance, the car is often described with fondness for the freedom it offers its driver. “El Fotingo,” which can be loosely translated as “The Jalopy,” is one such example. Although the jalopy is worn down and without seats, doors, or even lights, the song’s lyrics recall moonlit nights when the driver’s speeding Ford could be mistaken for a Willys-Overland. Where the old Ford represented economy and utility, the Overland had relatively more luxurious associations. By playing with the symbolic systems attached to the two models, the driver himself seems transformed in the moonlight from a worn-down laborer to a playboy bootlegger. The singer proudly describes flirting with women, smoking marijuana, and evading U.S. custom’s officers while smuggling liquor across the border. The mobility enabled by his vehicle is a fitting metaphor for the intersections between Mexican and American life, particularly as the increasing ease of automobility blurred the boundaries between the two, just as migrating bodies and smuggled booze could disrupt the apparent solidity of national boundaries.
Rising automobile registration rates in Mexico rose with Mexican American and Mexican immigrant vehicle ownership in the United States. Before 1910, there were no more than 3,000 vehicles registered across the Mexican nation. This quickly changed when Francisco Madero replaced Porfirio Díaz as president of Mexico in 1911. Fifteen years after abolishing a prohibitive tax on automobile ownership, registration increased from half a million to 17.5 million. A continuing rise in vehicle registration was fostered by the arrival of the Ford Motor Company in Mexico City in 1925 and the construction of a vast new factory in 1932.
Migration between the United States and Mexico further contributed to the growth of automotive ownership among ethnic Mexicans on both sides of the border. In December 1926, Mexico exempted repatriates from paying duty on U.S. items, including vehicles. Upon their return, thirty-eight percent of all repatriates owned an automobile. The widespread resale economy in Mexican border towns may have further boosted Mexican Americans’ ability to purchase low-cost Fords, creating a synergy between automotive manufacturing and policies in Mexico as well as Mexican Americans’ automobility in the United States.
Surveys, oral histories, photographs, and corridos each provide insight into the internal significance of automobiles for Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants living in the United States. Vehicles were significant for increasing one’s economic mobility, and served as important social symbols used in self-fashioning as well as lyrical devices used to describe immigrant life in Mexican America. Focusing on reports by social scientists and others begins to reveal more of the external values placed on Mexican mobility at the economic crossroads of the 1920s and the Great Depression—an important background for understanding how we got where we are today with the Automobile and Mexican American life.
 Scott L. Bottles, Los Angeles and the Automobile: The Making of the Modern City (Berkeley: University of California Press,1987); Richard Longstreth, City Center to Regional Mall: Architecture, the Automobile, and Retailing in Los Angeles, 1920-1950 (Boston: MIT Press, 1997); Jeremiah Axelrod, Inventing Autopia: Envisioning the Modern Metropolis in Jazz Age Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009); David Brodsly, L.A. Freeway: An Appreciative Essay (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).
 Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, 2d ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 18.
 Genevieve Carpio, Collisions at the Crossroads: How Place and Mobility Make Race (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019), 75.
 Inclusive of Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino counties.
 Brenda Jo Bright and Liza Bakewell, Looking High and Low: Art and Cultural Identity (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1995); Denise Sandoval, “Bajito y Suavecito/Low and Slow: Cruising Through Lowrider Culture,” unpublished Ph.D. diss. (Claremont Graduate University, 2003); Ben Chappel, Lowrider Space: Aesthetics and Politics of Modern Custom Cars (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012).
 This section excerpted from Genevieve Carpio, “‘An Essential Part of the Household Equipment’: The Automobile in Mexican Immigrant and Mexican American Life,” in Collisions at the Crossroads: How Place and Mobility Make Race (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019): 144-150.
 Archibald Shamel, “Housing Conditions of the Employe[e]s of California Citrus Ranches,” typescript, undated, p. 4, Archibald Shamel Papers, Tomás Rivera Library, University of California Riverside.
 On automotive cultures in this period, see Thomas Weiss, “Tourism in America before World War II,” Journal of Economic History 64 (2004); Marguerite S. Shaffer, See America First: Tourism and National Identity, 1880-1940 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian, 2001); Virginia Scharff, Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1992).
 Constantine Panunzio and the Heller Committee for Research in Social Economics of the University of California, “Cost of Living Studies V. How Mexicans Earn and Live: A Study of the Incomes and Expenditures of One Hundred Mexican Families in San Diego, California,” University of California Publications in Economics, 13 (1933). In their report, the Mexican Fact-Finding Committee cites the San Fernando figure from an unpublished report by the Los Angeles County Health Department. See Mexican Fact-Finding Committee, “Mexicans in California,” 178. See also Scott L. Bottles, Los Angeles and the Automobile: The Making of the Modern City (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987). Statewide statistics for Mexican American motorists are unavailable.
 Panunzio and the Heller Committee, “Cost of Living Studies v. How Mexicans Earn and Live”; Mexican Fact-Finding Committee, “Mexicans in California.”
 Howard Herrera interviewed by Robert Gonzalez, transcript, 13 April 1994, Inland Mexican Heritage, Redlands.
 In an interview conducted with my paternal grandfather, Vincent Carpio Sr., he recounted his experience as a foreman and the bonus he received for identifying and transporting workers to the fields surrounding Pomona in the 1940s. He described the effective role of “incentives,” such as warm food prepared by my grandmother Consuelo Carpio and cold beer on payday, in retaining workers. Vincent Carpio interviewed by Genevieve Carpio, Spring 2001, Pomona, CA.
 On the connection of migrant workers, automobiles, and collective action see Don Mitchell, The Lie of the Land: Migrant Workers and the California Landscape (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996).
 Rick Martinez, “Co-Founder of Mitla Lucia Rodriguez Dies,” San Bernardino County Sun, 13 January 1981; “Route 66 Special,” Access Rewind [film], IE Media Group, 2011.
 For more on Latina/o restaurant owners as place-makers, see Natalia Molina, “The Importance of Place and Place-Makers in the Life of a Los Angeles Community: What Gentrification Erases from Echo Park,” Southern California Quarterly 97 (2015): 69-111.
 Author has worked in consultation on various IMH projects since 2004.
 A selection of these photographs can be found in Antonio González Vazquez and Genevieve Carpio, Mexican Americans in Redlands (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2012).
 Phil Deloria, Indians in Unexpected Places (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2004), 138.
 For the continuing significance of the corridor in Los Angeles, see “The Corrido of LA,” an exhibition by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2010, http://www.lacma.org/art/installation/corrido-la; for sound recordings, see the Strachwitz Frontera Collection of Mexican and Mexican American Recordings, UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center and UCLA Digital Library, http:// frontera.library.ucla.edu.
 Manuel Gamio, Mexican Immigration to the United States (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1930).
 Translated by author. Original printed in Gamio, Mexican Immigration to the United States.
 Veronica Castillo-Muñoz, “Historical Roots of Rural Migration: Land Reform, Corn Credit, and the Displacement of Rural Farmers in Nayarit Mexico, 1900-1952,” Mexican Studies/ Estudios Mexicanos 29 (2013).
 “You go around showing off in your big automobile.” Translated by author. Original printed in Gamio, Mexican Immigration to the United States, 93.
 Rita Urquijo-Ruiz writes that El Renegade was a character in a popular comedy routine in teatro de carpa, or traveling tent theater, used to poke fun at assimilated Mexicans. See Rita Urquijo-Ruiz, Wild Tongues: Transnational Mexican Popular Culture (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012), 23-25.
 Original printed in Gamio, Mexican Immigration to the United States, 31; the term “fotingo” was often synonymous with Ford motor cars, which Mexican farm laborers frequently owned due to their affordability.
 Ricardo Romo,“Work and Restlessness: Occupational and Spatial Mobility among Mexicanos in Los Angeles,” Pacific Historical Review 46 (1977): 176.
 See digital archive of Ford’s Mexico City plant at “Ford Mexico City Plant Photographs,” The Henry Ford, Dearborn, MI, accessed July 2018, https://www .thehenryford.org/collections-and-research/digital-collections/sets/11598/. See also Ford Motor Company, “Historia de Ford de Mexico,” accessed 29 March 2013, http://media.ford.com/article_display.cfm?article_id = 4166.
 Indeed, the vast majority were Ford cars and trucks, at twenty-seven percent of all automotive objects (a category including automobile types and auto parts) brought to Mexico by repatriates. See Gamio, Mexican Immigration to the United States, esp. Appendix 5, 224-225; for more accounts of Ford automobiles moving back and forth across the U.S.-Mexico border, see Alice Evans Cruz, “The Romanzas Train Señora Nurse,” The Survey 60 (1928): 468-469, 488; Cara Finnegan, Picturing Poverty: Print Culture and FSA Photographs (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2003).
“Greeting from Bakersfield California” reads an early twentieth century postcard touting the various tourist attractions in the city and greater region. Bakersfield is mostly known as the home of the “Bakersfield Sound,” a style invented by country music legends such as Buck Owens and Merle Haggard in the 1950s and 1960s, and as a destination for migrants who came from places like Oklahoma during the Great Depression’s Dust Bowl. It is located in the southern part of California’s Central Valley, a multibillion-dollar agricultural region that provides a significant portion of the nation’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts. When Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, Bakersfield was on the frontlines of racism and extremism, and a city located in a county where police corruption and law enforcement official-involved deaths ranked among the highest in the country.
Bakersfield, and Kern County as a whole, is the heart of California’s “Deep South” when it comes to race relations, the immigration debate, and the politics of white minoritization. Unlike the Deep South, where African Americans have faced a long legacy of white supremacy, Latinx peoples who are composed of mostly Mexican-Americans, make up over fifty percent of Kern County’s population. Importantly, the Latinx population faces the brunt of white supremacist and neo-Nazi racial violence, corruption in county law enforcement agencies, and a white working- and middle-class public who openly shared their racist view of Mexican-Americans as they boldly pledged support for Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential contest.
In the 2012 presidential election, fifty-seven percent of Kern County’s population voted for Mitt Romney. Four years later, a majority voted for Donald Trump. This is in a state where over sixty-one percent of the population voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the Latinx population in the county increased dramatically. Bakersfield, the urban center of the county, is home to approximately 360,000 residents, of which nearly half are of Latinx. Among California counties, it is home to the state’s fastest growing population and much of this growth is due to the increase in the Latinx population.
Despite the undeniable importance and visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement as the twenty-first century took off, the county with the highest number of the kinds of deaths protested by the movement is Kern County, and the victims tend to be Latinx. Between 2008 and 2014, Kern County law enforcement officials killed 3.54 residents per 100,000 on average each year, the highest number among all counties in the U.S. In 2015 alone, fourteen people were killed by law enforcement officials in the county, equaling 1.5 deaths per 100,000. That’s three times the total in Los Angeles County, which ranked forty-fifth in the U.S. During the same year, New York Police Department officers policing the five boroughs—a population ten times larger than Kern County—killed only ten people. While a vast majority of the victims were Latino, most of the deaths came at the hands of white males who compose approximately seventy-five percent of law enforcement officials in the county.
Although protest and candlelight vigils followed these deaths, the lack of a “Latinx Lives Matter” type of movement, or multiethnic and racial alliance against police brutality on a broader level, illustrates the vulnerable state of the population in red California’s urban center.
The high rate of law enforcement-related deaths garnered a national media spotlight and prompted attention from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). In December 2016, State Attorney General Kamala Harris and the State Department of Justice began a civil rights investigation based on “excessive use of force and other serious misconduct” committed by law enforcement officials employed in the county. The announcement regarding the investigation failed to mention that most of the victims of this possible excessive force and misconduct were Latino males. Although protest and candlelight vigils followed these deaths, the lack of a “Latinx Lives Matter” type of movement, or multiethnic and racial alliance against police brutality on a broader level, illustrates the vulnerable state of the population in red California’s urban center.
In Kern County, the Latinx population is burdened with worry about not only police brutality, but also racist violence from the general public and anti-immigrant sentiments that place the lives of undocumented peoples in danger of incarceration and deportation. The lack of attention paid to the systemic racism and law enforcement related deaths in Kern County faced by the Latinx population also stems from two other issues. One of these is the fact that race relations tends to be viewed in binary terms as a black-and-white problem. This continues to marginalize Latinx peoples from the broader narrative of race and ethnic relations throughout history, and prevents an accurate understanding of the diverse multicultural society that is twenty-first century California. The second issue is the mainstream U.S. American social and cultural notion that Latinx peoples are only recent arrivals. This misconception stretches even further to wrongfully rationalizing that Latinx peoples have no meaningful history or roots in the present-day U.S., and as such make little contributions to society. The presence of a vulnerable undocumented population, as well as flawed notions of race relations and the Latinx-American experience, fuels a collective inability to bring greater oversight to the law enforcement corruption and systemic racism in Kern County.
Within the first few hundred days of his administration in 2017, Donald Trump sent U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials deep into the heart of even the smallest towns in central and northern California to round up undocumented immigrants. Passed in April 2017, Senate Bill 54 classified California as a “sanctuary state” and guaranteed that state resources would not contribute to the detainment and deportation of undocumented immigrants. Elected in 2006, Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood had proposed to go against the California state government and make it a “non-sanctuary county.” However, the Latinx community has faced more dangerous and time-spanning social conditions that have threatened their lives and well-being in Kern County.
Law enforcement-involved deaths of Latinx residents of Kern County was not new in 2015. Between 2005 and 2015, most of the seventy-nine law enforcement-involved killings occurred on the southeast side of Bakersfield, which is an area where Latinx peoples are the majority. On the evening of 7 May 2013, Kern County Sheriff’s deputies approached David Silva as he slept across the street from the Kern County Medical Center waiting to get help for bouts of depression. Upon their approach, Sheriff’s officers attempted to wake him up, then proceeded to handcuff him as he woke up, fearing he was on PCP. As Silva tried to stand up, likely in somewhat of a state of shock after being abruptly awoke by Sheriff’s deputies, the officers unleashed a police dog, which bit him thirty times. Sheriff’s deputies then struck him several times with batons, hog-tied him, and placed a shield on his head. Before leaving the scene, Sheriff’s deputies confiscated phones used by witnesses to record their treatment of Silva. After vomiting throughout the evening in custody of the Sheriff’s Department, the 33-year-old father of four stopped breathing and died just after midnight the next day. In May of 2016, Kern County agreed to pay $3.4 million to settle a suit brought on by Silva’s family.
Another one of the more controversial law enforcement-related killings came in November of 2014 when Bakersfield Police Department officers pursued James Villegas in a high-speed chase. After wrecking his vehicle, the 22-year-old Villegas was fired upon and killed by police officers. According to officers on the scene, he approached them in a confrontational manner and reached for his waistband after exiting the wrecked vehicle.
Witnesses of the incident involving Villegas told a different story. At least two witnesses testified that he put his hands in the air after exiting the wrecked vehicle and was waiting for the officers to approach him as they abruptly fired their weapons at him. As was the case with a majority of law enforcement-related deaths in Kern County that occurred both before and after the Villegas incident, the officers who killed him were cleared of any wrongdoing. A few days after Villegas’s death, 200 community members held a candlelight vigil with signs that read such things as, “Hands Up. Don’t Shoot.” “We just want to raise awareness,” claimed David Silva’s brother Christopher at the vigil. Silva passionately continued with this strong message: “There’s something very wrong in this town.”
Silva passionately continued with this strong message: “There’s something very wrong in this town.”
As if the police-related killings in early twenty-first century Kern County were not enough, the disturbing behavior exhibited by law enforcement officials sheds light on a wide range of social and cultural problems in the region’s law enforcement community. Following the death of James Villegas, veteran officer Aaron Stringer entered the coroner’s office, reached under the sheet covering his deceased body, fondled him, and tickled his toes in front of other officers. He then proceeded to twist Villegas’s neck while joking about the human body in the condition of rigor mortis, while stating, “I love playing with dead bodies.”
In what was at the time not made public, the City of Bakersfield paid the Villegas family $400,000 to settle the case shortly after the incident. The Public Records Act allows city and county law enforcement agencies to keep settlements private, but if a member of the public asks for the records they must be provided. In 2017, after requesting records of settlements stemming from possible police misconduct, Bakersfield area news agencies broke a story that uncovered an expensive history of payouts. Between 2010 and 2017, the police department paid out over $5 million to settle cases involving police while the County Sheriff’s Department paid out $22 million. In April of 2018, Sheriff Youngblood was caught on video stating that it was better, from a financial standpoint, to kill a suspect than “cripple” them, “because if you cripple them you have to take care of them for life, and that cost goes way up.” Similar to the investigation launched by State Attorney General Kamala Harris in 2016, Youngblood’s comments were covered in the national media; but the fact that most victims were Latinx was left out. In June of 2018, Youngblood was re-elected as Kern County Sheriff by over sixty-four percent of the population. “I feel good,” stated the sheriff at his election night party held at the legendary Buck Owens Crystal Palace. “This is exactly what we thought would happen. We’re just going to go back to work and serve this community.”
A few years before the Villegas incident, officer Stringer plead no contest to misdemeanor reckless driving and was able to get charges dropped on a 2010 hit-and-run and driving under the influence charge. Stringer, who retired following the Villegas incident, was not exactly a model citizen himself amongst other law enforcement officials. Unfortunately, he was not alone.
Other local law enforcement officials exhibited similar behavior that certainly does not rest within the bounds of what Donald Trump, and other presidents before him like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan referred to as “law and order.” In 2011, Bakersfield police officer Scott Drewry left the department after he was charged with a misdemeanor for throwing a rock through the window of a local business because of a civil depute the business owner had with one of his family members. In July 2012, Officer Albert Smith received a thirty-day jail sentence and three years of probation after he pled no contest to a misdemeanor charge of engaging in sex with a prostitute. Smith reportedly engaged in sex acts with at least three local prostitutes while on duty in his patrol car, as well as other undisclosed locations. The court dropped six of the seven charges he faced and Smith resigned shortly before the hearing.
“The 357 other men and women that work at the Bakersfield Police Department are here and dedicated to public safety,” claimed Chief Williamson after the Smith conviction, stating also that “they’re dedicated to serving our community” and “they are committed to going out every day, day in and day out, and putting their lives on the line to keep our citizens safe.” Police and sheriff-involved deaths, incarceration rates that exhibited institutional racism, county and city law enforcement payouts, and criminal activities conducted by law enforcement figures, however, told a different story.
In 2013, former Bakersfield police detective Christopher Bowersox began a ten-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to possessing images of child victims of sexual abuse. In May of 2017, Kern County Sheriff’s deputies Logan August and Derrick Penney pled guilty to conspiring to steal and distribute marijuana. August had participated in numerous drug busts with the narcotics division. After stealing, trimming, and bagging confiscated marijuana, he distributed over twenty-five pounds of the drug at a street price of $15,000. In a video issued to Kern County residents, August claimed “I am sorry” and that “I made a decision based on Satan playing games with me.” August and Penny pled guilty to federal drugs charges, and received three years of probation and 250 hours of community service.
August and Penney worked with former Bakersfield police detective Patrick Mara and others to steal marijuana from Kern County Sheriff’s office storage facilities between June and October of 2014. Mara began his five-year prison sentence in October 2014 after pleading guilty to conspiracy to distribute methamphetamines. His former partner Damacio Diaz started a five-year prison sentence two years later on charges that he accepted bribes from a drug trafficker, sold methamphetamine he confiscated and stole from the department, and filed fraudulent tax returns.
In August 2016, Officer Rick Wimbish and his partner responded to a break-in at a Subway restaurant. Upon their arrival they fired on the perpetrator, twenty-nine-year-old Jason Alderman, as he crawled out of the glass front door he had smashed in. Alderman died at the scene after being struck by seven bullets. After an unsuccessful attempt by the Bakersfield Police Department to confiscate the video camera footage and hide it from the public, it was released and a wrongful death lawsuit was filed by Alderman’s family. Alderman’s death was the first officer-involved shooting reviewed by the District Attorney’s office, which prompted State Attorney General Kamala Harris to launch an investigation on law enforcement officials in the county later that year. The most significant difference between Alderman and a majority of the other victims of police-involved deaths is that he was white.
Officer Wimbish, one of the figures who fired on Alderman, was the son of a former Kern County Sheriff and a twenty-five-year veteran of the Bakersfield Police Department. Prior to his encounter with Alderman, he was involved in four fatal shootings in a two-year period, firing with other officers in one instance on an unarmed confidential informant and member of his own department, Jorge Ramirez, during a planned operation. None of these shootings, however, prevented Wimbish from earning a salary and benefits package that totaled $200,000 annually as he continued to work as a police officer, while also instructing other officers and teaching local schoolchildren about the important role performed by law enforcement officials in the community.
In December 2016, Bakersfield police officers fired seven shots at Francisco Serna, an unarmed seventy-three-year-old man with dementia who was taking a walk one evening. They killed him right across the street from his home in southwest Bakersfield. Like the two residents who called 9-1-1 to reports Serna’s supposedly bizarre behavior, police officers mistook a dark colored plastic crucifix he was carrying for a revolver. Following his death, Serna’s family cited that he often took evening walks around the neighborhood to help himself go to sleep. In July 2017, Police Chief Lyle Martin called Serna’s death “unfortunate” and “tragic,” while also stating that the police officer who fired the shots was working within the department’s, as well as state and federal, guidelines. At least six officers approached Serna after he was identified by the neighbors who called 9-1-1 on him, but only one responded to his actions with gunshots.
In addition to the rash of police-involved deaths faced by the Latinx community, incarceration statistics also highlight a broader racist criminal justice system in Kern County. In 2004, Kern County had the highest third strike incarceration rate in the state with 59 per 100,000 residents. Passed by California voters in 1994, Proposition 184 mandated that three nonviolent felony convictions brought a sentence of twenty-five years to life. It was the strictest “three-strike” policy in the country and contributed greatly to the over-population of California prisons, as well as the disproportionate incarceration of Black and Latinx residents. According to a 2004 Justice Policy Institute study, Kern County’s Latinx third strike incarceration rate, at 53.7 per 100,000, was the highest in the state and nearly three times the rate of Los Angeles County. Overall, Latinx incarceration rates in Kern County are nearly double the state rate.
In addition to the systemic racism in the criminal justice system, in July 2017 several civil rights groups including the Dolores Huerta Foundation, reached a settlement with the Kern County High School District regarding a lawsuit which alleged that Black and Latinx students were unfairly targeted for suspension and expulsion. In 2009, the district reported 2,205 expulsions, the highest number in California. This is in a school district where the Latinx population comprised sixty-four percent of the student population. These findings and the lawsuit against the school district illustrate the way in which Black and Latinx students are tracked from the schools to the prisons at a much higher rate than the white community. Between the 1990s and the 2010s, funding for prisons and jails in California rose three times faster than spending on schools, and allotment for higher education in the state remained relatively flat.
Some white county and city residents, like so many other places hard hit by economic changes in the last few decades, expressed belief that a Trump presidency would revive the local economy. At the start of 2016, the unemployment rate in Kern County was over eleven percent more than double that of California as a whole. Likewise, at approximately forty-nine thousand, the median income in the county was nearly twenty thousand dollars less than the state average and one in five families in Bakersfield lived below the poverty line during the 2016 presidential race. Roadways and front yards across the county were lined with Trump’s signature “Make America Great Again” signs.
In October 2016, Joe Arpaio, the former Sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona, headlined one of the largest pro-Trump rallies held in the county. During his speech, Arpaio joked that President Obama didn’t like him because of his incredibly vocal support of the Birther Movement. The sheriff was widely known to encourage racial profiling by law enforcement figures under him during his time in office in Arizona.
At the very moment he addressed the crowd in Bakersfield, Arpaio faced federal charges that he defied a judge’s order to stop targeting Latinx peoples in traffic stops and other activities conducted by the Maricopa County Sherriff’s Department. In addition to the federal lawsuit, Arpaio also refused to allow the Sheriff’s Department to recognize President Obama’s decision to grant temporary immunity to undocumented peoples who came to the U.S. as children. “They hate me, the Hispanic community, because they’re afraid they’re going to be arrested,” Arpaio boasted in a 2009 television interview, “and they’re all leaving town, so I think we’re doing something good.”  “As Arizona has become center stage for the debate over illegal immigration and the civil rights of Latinos,” explained Joe Hagan in an August 2012 edition of Rolling Stone, “Arpaio has sold himself as the symbol of nativist defiance, a modern-day Bull Connor bucking the federal government over immigration policy.” The crowd at the Bakersfield Trump rally numbered in the thousands and was almost exclusively white. President Trump pardoned Arpaio in October of 2017 and in March of 2018, he announced he was running for Senate and vowed to revive the Birther Movement.
Despite the profound level of social divisions in the county and Trump’s highly divisive rhetoric, one Kern County native cited that he would help end social divisions. The same individual argued without providing any examples or context—and without being provoked—that “I cannot stand being called a racist, a bigot. I have nothing against anyone. Don’t tell me what I feel or what I think. I am so sick of that narrative being shoved down my throat.” While many public intellectuals, writers, politicians, and voters pushed the narrative that they voted for Trump because of “economic anxiety,” the talk of ending social divisions did not include people of color in Bakersfield and the rest of the country, just as the slogan “Make American Great Again” struck a particular chord in white identity politics with its implicit embrace of the “good old days” when white male supremacy was even more entrenched in American society than it was in 2016.
Donald Trump’s racist claims that Mexican immigrants were drug dealers, criminals, and rapists during speeches, illustrate that his campaign, as well as the support he received, was based on much more than just “economic anxiety.” Kern County residents expressed sentiments which illuminated the point that their support of Trump went far beyond economic concerns to embrace racist worldviews. Residents in Oildale, a predominantly white and Republican unincorporated suburban community a few miles north of downtown Bakersfield, overwhelmingly supported Trump during his run for office. The community is over 75% white and has a long tradition of racism.
In the 1960s, when African Americans represented a larger portion of the non-white population in the Bakersfield area, white residents hung a sign on the bridge that crosses the Kern River between Bakersfield and Oildale. The sign stated the following: “Nigger, Don’t Let the Sun Set on You in Oildale.” In the mid-1970s, over a dozen black students enrolled at Taft Junior College were escorted out of the southwestern Kern County community by law enforcement officials after they were attacked by a white mob shouting, “Kill the Niggers!” The incident eventually prompted the State Attorney General at the time to launch an investigation regarding the violation of civil rights. This was long before Kamala Harris pushed for the investigation of excessive force and misconduct among law enforcement officials in the county. In Boron, a town east of Bakersfield, three Ku Klux Klan members were arrested in 1981 for burning a cross in the front yard of a black family’s residence and in the 1990s several black motorists were attacked on the streets of Oildale by white residents.
In one instance, the car windshield of a black motorist was smashed by a white woman shouting racist insults. In another, two white residents were charged with federal civil rights convictions for stabbing a black man. Black cab drivers in greater Bakersfield also avoided Oildale in the 1990s, as one reportedly entered a bar to notify a customer of his arrival only to be told, “We don’t like niggers in here.” A watermelon was placed in the front yard of one black family who moved into Oildale and racist literature regularly appeared on doorsteps and in mailboxes throughout the 1990s.
Members of the Chamber of Commerce actively tried to improve the image of Bakersfield in the early 1990s, and many were in denial that places like Oildale were seething with racist hatred. “There’s no more bias here than anywhere else” explained David Brandon of the Chamber of Commerce. “The community is more diverse and more accepting today,” cited North High School principle Bill Bimat, who also explained that “thirty years ago a black couldn’t buy a house, couldn’t work here, and literally would’ve been run out of town.” These civic and business leaders expressed a different reality than the former leader of the Bakersfield chapter of the NAACP in the early 1990s who explained that “if you’re black, you’re always looking over your shoulder,” and also that while there were some good people in Bakersfield, “there are also others who are looking for some hate. For years, it’s been blacks.” While racism against African Americans was prominent in the city in the 1990s despite the level of denial expressed by some white community leaders, from the 1990s onward; the growing Latinx population became the new target.
While racism against African Americans was prominent in the city in the 1990s despite the level of denial expressed by some white community leaders, from the 1990s onward; the growing Latinx population became the new target.
The racist billboards in the 1960s, a cross burning in 1981, and the white supremacist violence of the 1990s, is only the tip of the iceberg. Racism was imported to the region in the late 1800s and early 1900s by whites who migrated to California from the lower Midwest and American South. Klan violence was common on the streets of Bakersfield in the 1920s. Similar to the American South in the early twentieth century, a plethora of local businessmen and politicians counted themselves as members of the racist terrorist organization. The mayor’s office, police departments across Kern County and the County Sheriff’s Office, local judgeships, school districts, and the county board of supervisors were controlled by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Prominent business owners also counted themselves as members of the organization. The power of the Klan in early twentieth century Kern County coincided with a fairly rigid system of public Jim Crow segregation. For example, African Americans could only reside in eastern and southeastern parts of Bakersfield—neighborhoods now home to mostly Latinx peoples—and their children were forced to attend “colored schools.” Working and middle-class white suburban areas, especially those located near the oilfields, were off-limits to people of color, as were oil industry jobs. From the early twentieth century onward, oil companies tended to only hire white employees who lived in segregated all-white communities. Although the industry has gone through cycles of boom and bust, historically speaking these were the best jobs that many white working and middle residents could hope for.
While of course not every Trump supporter during the 2016 election race exhibited xenophobic, misogynistic, and racist tendencies, Oildale was one of those places where Confederate flags flew, and where white nationalist and neo Nazi gangs roamed the streets. White working and middle class residents spoke openly about their racist beliefs.
The population in Bakersfield changed a great deal between the 1960s and the early twenty-first century. Between 1970 and 2010, the Latinx population increased from ten percent to forty-five percent, at the same time as African Americans decreased from thirteen percent to eight percent. Just like the openness in regards to racist beliefs of white residents in earlier decades, some were open about their disliking of the Latinx population while Donald Trump ran for president in 2016. “I don’t like Mexicans. I don’t like them,” cited fifty-eight-year-old Oildale resident Betty Robinson in an April 2016 article in the Los Angeles Times. “To me, if you can’t speak English, why be here? Go back to where you come from,” continued Robison. Robinson’s ignorant comments related directly to, and mirrored in some ways, Trump’s racist comments about Mexican-Americans and spoke to notions of white supremacy in Oildale.
Over the course of just a few weeks in the spring and summer of 2009, three racially motivated incidents occurred in Hart Park, a large public park a few miles east of Oildale. In May of that year, members of the white supremacist group known as the Oildale Peckerwoods pleaded no contest to the charge of violation of civil rights and assault after they attacked a group of Mexican-Americans in the park while yelling racial epithets and white supremacist slogans. The incident resulted in two state prison sentences for assault and violation of civil rights and a misdemeanor assault charge, leaving four people injured. One required fifty stitches. A similar incident took place a few weeks later, leading to two arrests of white supremacists. “Apparently, they’ve picked that park as part of their territory,” claimed Kern County prosecuting attorney Michael Vendrasco, who continued, saying, “they’re not shy about yelling that stuff.” In addition to the three attacks in the summer of 2009, five other race-related hate crimes against Mexican Americans took place in Hart Park between January and June of 2009. It is reasonable to believe that many more went unreported to law enforcement officials.
The content shared on public Facebook profiles of people who identify as Oildale Peckerwoods blatantly illustrate Vendrasco’s statement that members are not shy about sharing their racist beliefs. Specific references to Facebook content, however, were not included in this essay to respect the privacy of peoples concerned, and to prevent any ethical concerns and issues related to authenticity of sources. However, there are concrete examples of white supremacist and neo-Nazi hate in the region’s culture. One example is the acoustic pre-teen folk-pop duo known as Prussian Blue, popular in the early 2000s.
Lamb and Lynx Gaede, the twin sisters that made up Prussian Blue, were homeschooled by a mother who claimed that she was a white nationalist, and that it was her goal to share that part of her life with her daughters. Born and raised in Bakersfield, the duo took the white supremacist and neo-Nazi world by storm in the early 2000s by releasing four albums. Prussian Blue’s lyrical content praised white victory in a racial warfare, white victimhood in a new era of multicultural diversity, and the threat of black violence against white people. In their 2004 song “Aryan Man Awake,” they wax nostalgically about loss of land and wealth among whites that evokes images of the Reconstruction period in American history and the mythical threat of armed black violence ever-present in D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation. “Aryan man Awake,” sing the duo, “How much more will you take, Turn your fear to hate, Aryan man awake.”
In an early 2000s interview on ABC’s Dateline, Lamb and Lynx Gaede explained, “we must secure the existence of our people and our future for white children.” The two girls also referred to nonwhite people as “muds” and Adolf Hitler as an individual who possessed “a lot of great ideas.” The girls also shared with the ABC journalist Cynthia McFadden some of ways in which they had fun. Included in this list was a computer game entitled “Ethnic Cleansing,” a first-person shooter game where the player gets to travel around an urban environment posing as either a neo-Nazi, skinhead, or Klansman. They are then tasked with killing African, Latinx, and Jewish Americans who roam the streets making gorilla-like sounds. The game was created in 2002 by the white supremacist organization known as the National Alliance, which also signed Prussian Blue to its recording company, Resistance Records. The young twins also expressed that they enjoyed a game referred to as “dancing around the swastika,” which they demonstrated on their kitchen floor with a swastika composed of black electrical tape.
David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard who ran on the Republican ticket for president in 1992 and served as a representative in the state of Louisiana in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was one of Prussian Blue’s more prominent and vocal fans. After the group opened for him at one event, Duke said they were “examples of what we really want for our kids.” The musical duo also appeared at events with Tom Metzger, the leader of the Southern California based neo-Nazi and white supremacist organization known as White Aryan Resistance (WAR). In an early 2000s BBC documentary on neo Nazism and white supremacy in the U.S., Lamb and Lynx’s mother April said that “they’ve got to start some time,” when she was asked about why she got her children into racial politics at such a young age. The girls were eleven years old at the time of the filming. April also explained, “I think that Lamb and Lynx’s music and their appeal, especially as they just get a little bit older, they’re going to be an example, and they are going to show… how being, proud of your race is something that would be very appealing to young teenage girls. You know, I mean, what young man, red-blooded American boy, isn’t going to find two blonde twins, sixteen years old, singing about white pride, and pride in your race… very appealing.”
April’s father, Bill Gaede, also appeared in the episode of Dateline. When Prussian Blue was formed and began to perform live and release records, he owned a ramshackle ranch off State Route 180 on Elmwood Road east of Fresno. He had a reputation as someone to avoid, despite the fact that his home was about ten feet from the windy road around which he continually fed and ran pigs and cattle with no regard for the fecal matter they left behind, nor the traffic they backed up. The cattle brand for his ranch, which was adhered to the side of his full-size white Chevrolet truck, included a swastika, as did his favorite belt buckle that he wore around town regularly. Gaede was rumored to park his truck near communities of color just to intimidate residents. In 2002, after a tree burl became popular in the Latinx community because if its resemblance to the Virgin Mary, Gaede chopped the tree down and allegedly shouted “You Catholics! There’s your virgin!” In 2012, he started selling his Swastika Brand Honey. He raised the pop duo’s mother in the same fashion as she raised her children, a clear case of the multigenerational nurturing of white racist hatred in California’s Central Valley.
The threat of white supremacist and neo-Nazi-inspired hatred and violence, however, goes beyond intergenerational nurturing, racist attacks at Hart Park, and Prussian Blue to simple matters of life and death. In April 2017, Justin Cole Whittington, a twenty-five-year-old member of the Oildale Peckerwood gang received a fifteen-year federal prison sentence for firing a sawed-off shotgun at a Latino man in his Oildale front yard. The incident occurred on 19 December 2012. Before firing one round at the victim and driving away, Whittington exited a vehicle near the man’s property and shouted the words “fucking nigger” and “get the fuck out of Oildale.” The pellets did not strike the victim, but he heard them pass by his head. He and his family moved out of the area shortly after the incident. Following this, Whittington fired his shotgun from his vehicle at a convenience store owned by a person of Middle Eastern descent. The perpetrator had a “P” and “W” tattooed on his shin and “23” on his stomach to signify “W” for white power. Before the sentencing, Whittington was convicted of misdemeanor child abuse in 2015 after surveillance footage at a local market caught him punching out his toddler and picking him up by the neck.
Kern County’s history of racism and social injustice was around a century old when Donald Trump was elected to office in 2016. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the county was a hotbed of law enforcement-involved deaths and law enforcement corruption. It was a place where Latinx peoples were incarcerated and killed by law enforcement officials more than anywhere else. Not just in California, but in the country. White residents openly expressed their racist distaste for Latinx peoples, which at times turned violent. A new generation of white supremacists and neo-Nazi millennials embraced the uneducated and ignorant view of their parents’ and grandparents’ generation. Kern County was the southern-most county in California to pledge a majority of votes for Trump and race relations in the region harken back to the Deep South.
Shawn Schwaller received his Ph.D. in history from Claremont Graduate University in 2015, and is currently a lecturer in the Department of History at California State University, Chico. His work engages California history, questions around identity politics, race and ethnic relations, and popular culture.