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Evicted in the Central Valley: The Avoidable Crisis and Systemic Injustice of Housing Displacement

Amber R. Crowell and Janine Nkosi

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.[1] 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.[2] 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[3], 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.[4] 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.[5] More alarmingly, Central Valley counties, where approximately 45 percent of households are renters, experience far higher rates of evictions than anywhere else in California.[6] 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: 

  1. 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; 
  2. 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;
  3. 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).[7] 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.[8] 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. 

Figure 1. Median household income in Fresno County, census block groups, 2016.
Figure 2. Percent in poverty in Fresno County, census block groups, 2016.
Figure 3. Median home values in Fresno County, census block groups, 2016.
Figure 4. Percent Non-Hispanic White in Fresno County, census block groups, 2016.

These boundaries are in part historical, tracing back to the days of racial covenants[9], and later redlining, which prompted further public and private disinvestment in neighborhoods where families of color resided[10] 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.[11] 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.[12] 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.[13] 

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.[14] 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.[15]

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[16], 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.[17] 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.”[18] 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.[19] 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.[20] 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.[21] 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[22], 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[23] 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[24] 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.[25]  

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[26], and the repeated fees attached to each rental application (up to $35 per application[27]). 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.[28] 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).[29] 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.[30] 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. 

Figure 5. Eviction filings by month in Fresno County, 2016.

The spatial dynamics of these trends again must be considered. Sociologists Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, in their influential work American Apartheid[31], 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.[32] 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[33], through housing loan discrimination[34], 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).[35] 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. 

Figure 6. Eviction rates in Fresno County, census block groups, 2016.

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[36], 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[37], 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).[38]  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. 

Figure 7. Where renters say they are likely to go if evicted, by level of rent burden (i.e. percent of household income claimed by monthly housing expenses).

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.[39]

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[40] instated any renter protections. San Joaquin[41] and Stanislaus[42] 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[43], fell far short of providing needed protection for renters.[44] 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[45], 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.[46] 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[47], 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[48], 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.[49] 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[50], 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[51] 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.[52] 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.[53] 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.[54] 

Similarly, the Sargent Shriver Civil Counsel Act (AB 590)[55], 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.[56] 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.

Notes

[1] California Housing Partnership, “Fresno County’s Housing Emergency and Proposed Solutions,” April 2018, https://1p08d91kd0c03rlxhmhtydpr-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Fresno-HNR-2018.pdf

[2] Jill Cowan and Robert Gebeloff, “As Rents Outrun Pay, California Families Live On a Knife’s Edge,” New York Times, November 21, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/21/us/california-housing-crisis-rent.html

[3] Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (New York: Crown Publishing, 2016)

[4] Ibid.

[5] California Housing Partnership (2018)

[6] “Eviction Lab”, 2016, http://evictionlab.org

[7] American Community Survey 5-year estimates (2016)

[8] Manuela Tobias, “Clovis is Mostly White and That’s No Accident, Says Group Suing the City Over Housing,” Fresno Bee (Fresno, CA), October 23, 2019,  https://www.fresnobee.com/news/local/article236544733.html

[9] Ramon D. Chacón, “The Beginning of Racial Segregation: The Chinese in West Fresno and Chinatown’s Role as Red Light District, 1870s-1920s,” Southern California Quarterly 70, no. 4 (1988)

[10] Robert K. Nelson, LaDale Winling, Richard Marciano, Nathan Connolly, et al., “Mapping Inequality,” American Panorama, Accessed April 20, 2020, https://dsl.richmond.edu/panorama/redlining/

[11] Naomi Cytron, “The Enduring Challenge of Concentrated Poverty in America: Case Study of Fresno, California,” April 2009, https://www.frbsf.org/community-development/files/fresno_case_study.pdf

[12] Douglas Massey, “American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass,” American Journal of Sociology 96, no. 2 (1990)

[13] Richard Shearer, John Ng, Alan Berube, and Alec Friedhoff, “Metro Monitor 2016: Tracking Growth, Prosperity, and Inclusion in the 100 Largest U.S. Metropolitan Areas,” January 2016, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/MetroMonitor.pdf

[14] Eviction Lab (2016)

[15] Desmond (2016)

[16] Janine Nkosi, Amber R. Crowell, Patience Milrod, Veronica Garibay, and Ashley Werner, “Evicted in Fresno: Facts for Housing Advocates,” (2019), https://faithinthevalley.org/evicted-fresno/ ; Janine Nkosi, Amber R. Crowell, Veronica Garibay, and Ashley Werner, “Evicted in San Joaquin: Facts for Housing Advocates,” (2020), https://faithinthevalley.org/evicted-san-joaquin/

[17] Eviction Lab (2016)

[18] Manuela Tobias, “30 Tenants Received Eviction Notices in Madera Ahead of New California Law. Here’s Why,” Fresno Bee (Fresno, CA), November 19, 2019, https://www.fresnobee.com/news/local/article237339549.html

[19] Nkosi et al. (2019)

[20] Aimee Inglis and Dean Preston, “California Evictions are Fast and Frequent,” May 2018, http://boomcalifornia.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/cf71b-ca_evictions_are_fast_and_frequent.pdf 

[21] Tenants Together, “List of Rent Control Ordinances by City,” Accessed April 18, 2020, http://www.tenantstogether.org/resources/list-rent-control-ordinances-city

[22] 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)

[23] Western Center on Law and Poverty, “AB 1482 – California Rent Cap & Just Cause For Eviction Resources,” February 20, 2020, https://wclp.org/eviction-resources-in-response-to-ab-1482/

[24] Kyle Nelson, “The Microfoundations of Bureaucratic Outcomes: Causes and Consequences of Interpretive Disjuncture in Eviction Cases,” Social Problems, doi: 10.1093/socpro/spz050, (2019)

[25] The Judicial Branch of California, “Paying the Judgment,” Accessed April 21, 2020, https://www.courts.ca.gov/1327.htm?rdeLocaleAttr=en

[26] Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado, “On the Verge of Homelessness, Fresno Motels Are Last-chance Housing. City Eyes Reform,” Fresno Bee (Fresno, CA), January 15, 2020,  https://www.fresnobee.com/news/local/article237853109.html

[27] Janet Portman, “California Law on Tenant Application Screening Fees and Credit Reports,” Nolo, Accessed April 27, 2020, https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/california-law-tenant-application-screening-fees-credit-reports.html

[28] Matthew Desmond, Weihua An, Richelle Winkler, and Thomas Ferriss, “Evicting Children,” Social Forces 92, no. 1, (2013)

[29] Fresno County Superior Court (2016)

[30] Heather Sandstrom and Sandra Huerta, “The Negative Effects of Instability on Child Development,” September 2013, https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/32706/412899-The-Negative-Effects-of-Instability-on-Child-Development-A-Research-Synthesis.PDF

[31] Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993)

[32] Jessica Trounstine, Segregation by Design: Local Politics and Inequality in American Cities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018)

[33] Margery Austin Turner, Rob Santos, Diane K. Levy, Doug Wissoker, Claudia Aranda, and Rob Pitingolo, “Housing Discrimination Against Racial and Ethnic Minorities 2012: Executive Summary,” June 2013, https://www.huduser.gov/portal/Publications/pdf/HUD-514_HDS2012_execsumm.pdf

[34] Vedika Ahuja and Jason Richardson, “State of Gentrification: Home Lending to Communities of Color in California,” December 6, 2017, https://greenlining.org/publications/2017/state-of-gentrification-lending-to-people-of-color-in-california/

[35] Eviction Lab (2016)

[36] 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)

[37] Bohnia Lee, “These Housing Inspectors Found 4,200 Violations. They Are Investigating 3,700 More,” Fresno Bee (Fresno, CA), January 25, 2018, https://www.fresnobee.com/news/special-reports/housing-blight/article196721299.html

[38] American Housing Survey national estimates (2017)

[39] Emily Peiffer, “Why We Need to Stop Evictions Before They Happen,” July 25, 2018, https://housingmatters.urban.org/feature/why-we-need-stop-evictions-they-happen

[40] 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

[41] San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors, “Adopt a Resolution Exercising the Police Powers of the County of San Joaquin to Impose Substantive Limitation on Residential and Commercial Evictions,” March 24, 2020, http://sanjoaquincountyca.iqm2.com/Citizens/FileOpen.aspx?Type=1&ID=2325&Inline=True

[42] Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors, “Exercise Of The County’s Police Power To Impose Substantive Limitations On Residential And Commercial Evictions,” March 31, 2020, http://www.stancounty.com/bos/agenda/2020/20200331/DIS02.pdf

[43] Office of Governor Gavin Newsom,  “Governor Newsom Issues Executive Order to Protect Renters and Homeowners During COVID-19 Pandemic,” March 16, 2020, https://www.gov.ca.gov/2020/03/16/governor-newsom-issues-executive-order-to-protect-renters-and-homeowners-during-covid-19-pandemic/

[44] City of Fresno, “An Emergency Ordinance of the City of Fresno, California Amending Section 2-514 Of The Fresno Municipal Code Regarding The Covid-19 Pandemic Emergency,” April 23, 2020, https://fresno.legistar.com/View.ashx?M=F&ID=8253540&GUID=A7927080-41BD-4464-AFCC-B3CFB68C3948

[45] Office of Governor Gavin Newsom, “Governor Newsom Takes Executive Action to Establish a Statewide Moratorium on Evictions,” March 27, 2020, https://www.gov.ca.gov/2020/03/27/governor-newsom-takes-executive-action-to-establish-a-statewide-moratorium-on-evictions/

[46] Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, “Press statement: Executive order falls short,” March 27, 2020, https://leadershipcounsel.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Press-statement-Gov-Newsom-Executive-Order_Evictions_Leadership-Counsel-March-27-2020.pdf

[47] Western Center on Law and Poverty, “Summary: California Courts Issue Emergency Rule On Evictions And Foreclosures,” April 13, 2020, https://wclp.org/summary-california-courts-emergency-rule-on-evictions-and-foreclosures/

[48] Eviction Lab, “COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard – California,” Accessed April 20, 2020, https://evictionlab.org/covid-policy-scorecard/ca/

[49] COVID-19 Farmworker Study, “Preliminary Data Brief,” July 27, 2020, http://covid19farmworkerstudy.org/survey/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/EN-COFS-Preliminary-Data-Brief_FINAL.pdf

[50] Desmond (2016)

[51] Ibid.

[52] Nkosi et al. (2019)

[53] Legal Aid Association of California, “A Right to Counsel in Civil Cases: History, Status, and the Latest Happenings,” August 14, 2017, https://www.laaconline.org/training/a-right-to-counsel-in-civil-cases-history-status-and-the-latest-happenings/

[54] Los Angeles Right to Counsel Coalition, “Right to Counsel Initiative: Goals and Framework,” Right to Counsel Working Group and “Stemming the Flow into Homelessness: A Proposal for a Tenants’ Right to Counsel in the City of Los Angeles,” November 1, 2019, http://clkrep.lacity.org/onlinedocs/2018/18-0610_rpt_MAYOR_11-01-2019.pdf

[55] Kelly L. Jarvis, Charlene E. Zil, Timothy Ho, Theresa Herrera Allen, and Lisa M. Lucas, “Evaluation of the Sargent Shriver Civil Counsel Act (AB590) Probate Pilot Project,” July 2017, https://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/Shriver-Probate-2017.pdf

[56] Office of San Francisco Supervisor Dean Preston, “Supervisor Dean Preston Holds Hearing on Implementation for Right to Counsel Law,” February 24, 2020, http://civilrighttocounsel.org/uploaded_files/262/PRESS_RELEASE_-_Supervisor_Dean_Preston_Holds_Hearing_Monday_on_Implementation_for_Right_to_Counsel_Law.pdf

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.

Articles

Feudal-Aristocratic Drag: Neo-Liberal Erotic Imaginaries of California as Counterrevolutionary Heterotopia in The Mask of Zorro

LJ Frazier and Deborah Cohen

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.[1] 

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.[2]

 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. [3] 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.

Map of the Kingdom of California. Rafael (Stuart Wilson) and his fellow noblemen aim to buy California from Mexico with Mexico’s own gold. Courtesy of Zorro Productions.

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).[4] 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.

Treasure map of California mine and surrounding territory. Courtesy of Zorro Productions.

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).[5]

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).[6] 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.

De la Vega estate. Courtesy of Zorro Productions.

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.

J.M. Turner, Pope’s Villa at Twickenham. Oil on canvas, 1808.

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.

Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo, Il quarto stato (The Fourth Estate). Oil on poplar, 1901.

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.

Alejandro and Elena leading the “slaves” out of the mine. Courtesy of Zorro Productions.

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).

Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) at the estate house. Courtesy of Zorro Productions.

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.

Edmund Blaire Leighton, Stitching the Standard. Oil on canvas, 1911.

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.

Esperanza (Julietta Rosen) in front of the De la Vega manor house. Courtesy of Zorro Productions.

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).


[1]  “Neoliberal” references justifications for dismantling the New Deal state (roughly 1933-1989, reorienting state priorities toward the global Market.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] Leonard Pitt, cited in Lie.

[5] For more on romance and Latin Americanism, see Adrián Pérez Melgosa, “Cinematic Contact Zones.”

[6] This, though many Zorro movies are either non-Hollywood products or Hollywood collaborations with overseas studios.

Work cited:

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1991).

Douglas Brinkley, The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America (New York: Harper Perennial, reprint 2010).

Christophe Bruchansky, “The Heterotopia of Disney World,” Philosophy Now 77: Sept/Oct 2012; http://philosophynow.org/issues/77/The_Heterotopia_of_Disney_World (accessed Sept 27, 2012).

Jodi Dean Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009).

Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias” (1967); http://foucault.info/documents/heteroTopia/foucault.heteroTopia.en.html (accessed Oct 9, 2010).

Dagmar Herzog Sex in Crisis: The New Sexual Revolution and the Future of American Politics (New York: Basic Books, 2008).

Dorothy B. Jones “Hollywood War Films, 1942-1944,” Hollywood Quarterly 1: 1945: 1-19.

Nadia Lie, “Free trade in images? Zorro as cultural signifier in the contemporary global/local systemNepantla: Views from South 2001: 2: 3: 489-508.

Karl Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (New York: Wildside Press, 2008).

Adrián Pérez Melgosa, “Cinematic Contact Zones: Hemispheric Romances in Film and the Construction and Reconstruction of Latin Americanism,” Social Text  28: 3: 104: 2010: 119-150.

Adrián Pérez Melgosa “Opening the Cabaret America Allegory: Hemispheric Politics, Performance, and Utopia in Flying Down to Rio,” American Quarterly 64: 2: June 2012: 249-275.

Lina Y. Newton, “Why Some Latinos Supported Proposition 187: Testing Economic Threat and Cultural Identity Hypotheses,” Social Science Quarterly 81: 1: 2000: 180-193. 

Jacques Ranciere, The Future of the Image tr. Gregory Elliot (London: Verso Press, 2007).

Jacques Rancière, The Hatred of Democracy, trans. Steve Corcoran (London: Verso, 2006).

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.

Notes

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.

Reviews

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

Adrián Félix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

ArticlesExcerpts

Los Angeles, The Automobile, and Mexican American Life

Eric Avila
Genevieve Carpio

losangelesfreeway

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.[1]

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.”[2] 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.

WorkersAndTheirCars

Workers and their Cars.

WashingCar

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.”[3]

LAPD1958ClassicCruiser

LAPD Classic Cruiser, 1958.

WattsRiot1

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.[4] 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.[5] 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.

OldsmobileAdLowriders


The Automobile in Mexican Immigrant and Mexican American Life (Genevieve Carpio)[6]

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.”[7] 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.[8]

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.[9]

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.[10]

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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.”[11] 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.[12] 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.[13]

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.[14] Business leaders along the busy Highway 66 corridor often became community leaders and their businesses popular sites of community organization and place making.[15]

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.[16]

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.[17] 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.”[18] 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.

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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.[19] 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.[20]

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.)[21]

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.[22]

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.”[23] 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.[24] 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.

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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.[25] 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.[26] 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.[27]

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.[28]

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.

BookCover

Notes

 * This article, with introduction by Eric Avila, is an adapted excerpt from Genevieve Carpio, Collisions at the Crossroads: How Place and Mobility Make Race (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019).

[1] 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).

[2] Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, 2d ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 18.

[3] Genevieve Carpio, Collisions at the Crossroads: How Place and Mobility Make Race (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019), 75.

[4] Inclusive of Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino counties.

[5] 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).

[6] 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.

[7] 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.

[8] 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).

[9] 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.

[10] Panunzio and the Heller Committee, “Cost of Living Studies v. How Mexicans Earn and Live”; Mexican Fact-Finding Committee, “Mexicans in California.”

[11] Howard Herrera interviewed by Robert Gonzalez, transcript, 13 April 1994, Inland Mexican Heritage, Redlands.

[12] 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.

[13] 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).

[14] 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.

[15] 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.

[16] Author has worked in consultation on various IMH projects since 2004.

[17] A selection of these photographs can be found in Antonio González Vazquez and Genevieve Carpio, Mexican Americans in Redlands (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2012).

[18] Phil Deloria, Indians in Unexpected Places (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2004), 138.

[19] 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.

[20] Manuel Gamio, Mexican Immigration to the United States (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1930).

[21] Translated by author. Original printed in Gamio, Mexican Immigration to the United States.

[22] 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).

[23] “You go around showing off in your big automobile.” Translated by author. Original printed in Gamio, Mexican Immigration to the United States, 93.

[24] 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.

[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.

[26] Ricardo Romo,“Work and Restlessness: Occupational and Spatial Mobility among Mexicanos in Los Angeles,” Pacific Historical Review 46 (1977): 176.

[27] 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.

[28] 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).


Eric Avila
is an urban cultural historian, studying the intersections of racial identity, urban space, and cultural representation in twentieth century America. He is author of Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004) and The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City (University of Minnesota Press, 2014).

Genevieve Carpio is Assistant Professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of Collisions at the Crossroads: How Place and Mobility Make Race (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019).
Copyright: © 2019 Eric Avila and Genevieve Carpio. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Articles

Greetings from Bakersfield!

Shawn Schwaller

“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.[1] 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.[2] 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.

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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.[3] 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.[4] 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.”[5]

 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.”[6]

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.[7] 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.”[8] 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.”[9]

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.”[10] 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.[11] 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.”[12] August and Penny pled guilty to federal drugs charges, and received three years of probation and 250 hours of community service.

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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.[13] 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.[14] 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.[15] 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.[16] 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.[17]

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.

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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.” [18] “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.”[19] 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.”[20] 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.”[21] 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!”[22] 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.[23]

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.”[24] 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.[25]

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.[26] “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.”[27] 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.”[28] 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.[29] 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.[30] “To me, if you can’t speak English, why be here? Go back to where you come from,” continued Robison.[31] 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.”[32] 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.”

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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!”[33] 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.[34] 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.

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Notes

[1] Conor Friedersdorf, “Police Officers Killed over 610 People in 6 Years,” The Atlantic, 5 October 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/10/police-in-california-killed-more-than-610-people-over-6-years/407326/ (accessed 1 June 2017).

[2] Conor Friedersdorf, “The Deadliest County for Police Killings in America,” The Atlantic, 2 December 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/12/the-deadliest-county-for-police-killings-in-america/418359/ (accessed 1 June 2017).

[3] Richard Winton, “Kern County Pays $3.4 Million to Settle a Wrongful Death Suit Against Sheriff’s Department,” Los Angeles Times, 5 May 2016, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-kern-county-wrongful-death-20160505-story.html (accessed 1 June 2017)

[4] Jon Swaine and Oliver Laughland, “The County: The Story of America’s Deadliest Police,” The Guardian, 1 December 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/dec/01/the-county-kern-county-deadliest-police-killings (accessed 2 June 2017)

[5] Steve Mayer and Lauren Foreman, “Police Shooting of Unarmed Man Draws Hundreds to Site,” The Bakersfield Californian, 14 November 2014, http://www.bakersfield.com/news/police-shooting-of-unarmed-man-draws-hundreds-to-site/article_e31835d8-213a-5405-9c5f-c06bda4bdbad.html (accessed 5 June 2017).

[6] Swaine and Laughland, “The County: The Story of America’s Deadliest Police,” The Guardian, 1 December 2015.

[7] Kristin Price, “17 News Investigation: Secret Settlements,” KGET 17, 25 July 2017, http://www.kerngoldenempire.com/news/local-news/17-news-investigation-secret-settlements/772970029 (accessed, 26 July 2017).

[8] AJ Willingham, “Tape shows CA sheriff saying it’s ‘better financially’ to kill suspects than to ‘cripple’ them,” CNN, 10 April 2016, https://edition.cnn.com/2018/04/10/us/donny-youngblood-kern-county-california-trnd/index.html (accessed 25 August 2018).

[9] Joseph Luiz, “Young poised to retain Kern County sheriff seat,” Bakersfield.com, 5 June 2018, https://www.bakersfield.com/news/youngblood-poised-to-retain-kern-county-sheriff-seat/article_6071837a-693c-11e8-8851-6f98043f8dcd.html (accessed, 25 August 2018).

[10] Jason Kotowski, “Officer Arrested on Suspicion of Engaging in Sex Acts With Prostitutes,” Bakersfield Californian, 11 February 2011, http://www.bakersfield.com/news/officer-arrested-on-suspicion-of-engaging-in-sex-acts-with/article_0f5840f9-e0e0-551d-900f-ee3eebd9353c.html (accessed, 6 June 2017).

[11] Swaine and Laughland, “The County: The Story of America’s Deadliest Police,” The Guardian, 1 December 2015.

[12] Veronica Rocha, “’I am despicable’: Kern County lawman convicted in drug plot blames Satan,” 6 May 2017, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-kern-deputy-drug-plot-satan-playing-games-20170516-story.html (accessed 25 August 2018).

[13] Friedersdorf, “The Deadliest County for Police Killings in America,” The Atlantic, 2 December 2015.

[14] Associated Press, “Deadly Shootings Prompt State Civil Rights Probe of Kern County, Bakersfield Policing” Los Angeles Times, 22 December 2016, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-policing-review-20161222-story.html (accessed 1 June 2017).

[15] Scott Ehlers, Vincent Schiraldi, and Eric Lotke, “An Examination of the Impact of California’s Three Strikes Law on African-Americans and Latinos,” Justice Policy Institute, October 2004, http://www.justicepolicy.org/uploads/justicepolicy/documents/04-10_tac_caracialdivide_ac-rd.pdf (accessed 5 June 2017).

[16] Jane Meredith Adams, “Settlement in Kern discrimination lawsuit calls for new school discipline policies,” EdSource, 24 July 2017, https://edsource.org/2017/settlement-in-kern-discrimination-lawsuit-calls-for-new-school-discipline-policies/585212 (accessed 28 July 2017).

[17] Christopher Ingraham, “The states that spend more money on prisons than college students,” The Washington Post, 7 July 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/07/07/the-states-that-spend-more-money-on-prisoners-than-college-students/?utm_term=.c5ac2e0e6ef2 (accessed 28 July 2017).

[18] Joe Hagan, “The Long, Lawless Ride of Sheriff Joe Arpaio,” Rolling Stone, 2 August 2012, http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/the-long-lawless-ride-of-sheriff-joe-arpaio-20120802 (accessed 24 June 2017).

[19] Hagan, “The Long, Lawless Ride of Sheriff Joe Arpaio,” Rolling Stone, 2 August 2012.

[20] Brittny Mejia, “Conservative Oildale Could Be A Bellwether of How Trump’s Message Translates in California,” Los Angeles Times, April 4, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-adv-trump-bakersfield-20160404-story.html (accessed 5 June 2017).

[21] James Loewen, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, “Oildale,” http://sundown.tougaloo.edu/sundowntownsshow.php?id=1058 (accessed 25 July 2017)

[22] Michael Essinger, “Kern County: California’s Deep South,” 2011 essay delivered at the “Critical Ethnic Studies and the Future of Genocide: Settler Colonialism/Heteropatriarchy/White Supremacy” conference at the University of California, Riverside, http://www.academia.edu/1519415/Kern_County_Californias_Deep_South (accessed 13 July 2017).

[23] Essinger, “Kern County: California’s Deep South.”

[24] Mark Evans, “Kern County Town Struggling to Overcome Its Racist Image,” Los Angeles Times, 9 August 1992, http://articles.latimes.com/1992-08-09/local/me-5918_1_kern-county (accessed 20 July 2017).

[25] Evans, “Kern County Town Struggling to Overcome Its Racist Image,” Los Angeles Times, 9 August 1992.

[26] Evans, “Kern County Town Struggling to Overcome Its Racist Image” Los Angeles Times, 9 August 1992.

[27] Evans, “Kern County Town Struggling to Overcome Its Racist Image” Los Angeles Times, 9 August 1992.

[28] Evans, “Kern County Town Struggling to Overcome Its Racist Image” Los Angeles Times, 9 August 1992.

[29] Edward Humes, Mean Justice: A Town’s Terror, A Prosecutors Power, A Betrayal of Innocence (Simon and Schuster: New York, 1999), 24.

[30] Mejia, “Conservative Oildale Could Be A Bellwether of How Trump’s Message Translates in California,” Los Angeles Times, 4 April 2016.

[31] Mejia, “Conservative Oildale Could Be A Bellwether of How Trump’s Message Translates in California,” Los Angeles Times, 4 April 2016.

[32] Steven Mayer, “Hart Park Seeing Hate Crime Spree,” Bakersfield Californian, 18 June 2009, http://www.bakersfield.com/news/hart-park-seeing-hate-crime-spree/article_417a7502-06be-5a4e-ad6b-878749facfc3.html (accessed 11 June 2017).

[33] Diana Marcum, “Man Says He Cut Virgin Mary tree,” Fresno Bee, 10 September 2002, http://www.religionnewsblog.com/758/man-says-he-cut-virgin-mary-tree (accessed 29 June 2017).

[34] Bill Morlin, “Skinhead Who Fired Shotgun in Racial Assault Gets Prison,” Southern Poverty Law Center, April 12, 2017, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2017/04/12/skinhead-who-fired-shotgun-racial-assaults-gets-prison (accessed 29 June 2017).

 

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.

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

Articles

Policing an Internal Border

Max Felker-Kantor

While deportations of undocumented immigrants declined slightly in the final years of the Obama administration after a decade of record-high removals, recent federal initiatives have aimed to crack down on unauthorized immigration and expand the authority of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).[1] Zero tolerance policies targeting immigrants and refugees seeking asylum on the U.S.-Mexico border have resulted in high rates of removal and family separation.[2] U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has also demanded the cooperation of municipal police departments in arresting and turning over undocumented immigrants to ICE for detention and deportation. Yet, a number of cities and police departments, including the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), have said they will not cooperate with ICE.[3] Such opposition to federal directives has raised significant questions about the role of local police departments and officers in the enforcement of federal immigration law. However, these debates are not new. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, in fact, the LAPD both cooperated with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to target undocumented immigrants and also resisted enforcing federal immigration law. In the process, police officers often played an important role in the policing of immigrants, the construction of racialized categories of illegality, and in defining the boundaries of citizenship.

During the post-War period, LAPD officers often arrested undocumented immigrants for unauthorized entry and transferred them to the INS. The rise of unauthorized immigration in the 1970s, pressure on local police budgets from a growing population, and demands from Mexican Americans fearful of being targeted as “illegal,” however, challenged the LAPD’s cooperative relationship with the INS and willingness to enforce federal immigration laws. While police officials viewed undocumented immigrants as a source of rising crime rates in the 1970s, they also recognized that enforcement of immigration status violations made immigrants who were witnesses or victims of crime wary of reporting crime or cooperating with the police out of fear they would be handed over to INS for deportation. In turn, police officials attempted to incorporate immigrants into the war on crime by revising department policy to make arrests based solely on immigration status outside the purview of officers. Department officials also established programs to encourage immigrants who were victims of crime to report such incidents to the police. In short, hopes that immigrants and Latinx residents would support the police and report crime required limiting the discretion of officers to make arrests based solely on immigration status and reducing cooperation with INS agents. The LAPD, in other words, took a step back from policing immigration status violations and cooperating with the INS when such efforts became too financially burdensome or else undermined the department’s crime-fighting mission.

Although LAPD officials nominally accepted limits placed upon officers’ authority to police immigration status violations, in practice the department followed two strategies to sidestep such self-imposed restrictions on officer discretion that blurred the lines between the INS and LAPD. First, the department often sent officers to the scene of INS raids, and by their very presence LAPD officers lent police authority to the federal agents. The presence of uniformed LAPD during these raids demonstrated that the police—and by extension the city of Los Angeles—approved of and legitimized INS raids, and, at times, were active participants. Second, the department did not abandon its assumption that undocumented immigrants were a source of crime. Rather, officers circumvented policies limiting their discretion by creating a new category of criminality called the “criminal alien,” which is separate from the generally non-criminal undocumented population. Using the “harm principle,” which justified policing of those activities that physically or materially potentially threatened to harm others, the police framed the “criminal alien” as a potential threat to both law-abiding citizens and the social order more generally, while at the same time hoping to ensure non-criminal immigrants would continue to trust and cooperate with the police. In doing so, officers maintained substantial discretion to cooperate with the INS and to target and arrest individuals who were suspected of being in the country without proper authorization.

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Police and 18 undocumented residents with hands tied outside raided house. Although the LAPD had committed to the nonenforcement of immigration law in order to ensure trust in the police, they found means of extending the police power and authority into new areas of social life. Los Angeles Times Photographic Archives (Collection 1429). Courtesy of Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

The LAPD, then, was certainly motivated by a belief that immigrants (especially the undocumented) represented a significant crime threat. Yet, the efforts to circumvent restrictions on officer discretion also rested heavily on the desire to retain the police power to enforce order in the city. Rooted in theories of prevention and security, the police power of the state granted the police (as this institution of local government) discretion to pacify threats to the social order. Broad discretionary authority allowed officers to define what types of activities (in this case unauthorized immigration) constituted disorderly, improper, or criminal behavior. This police power, in short, enabled the LAPD to aggressively discipline perceived threats to social order, in this case both documented and undocumented immigrants. In the process, the police produced and enforced a hierarchical racial order.[4]

Indeed, the police often portrayed this criminal alien as an undocumented Mexican immigrant. The racialized construction of categories of illegality and exclusion led to violations of the rights of immigrants and such discriminatory treatment of Mexican migrants and Mexican-American citizens as labeled potentially “illegal” and criminal. Aggressive immigration enforcement thereby treated all Mexican-American residents as perpetual foreigners. By constructing a racialized category of the “alien criminal” as any ethnic Mexican in need of supervision, the LAPD simultaneously avoided violating its own policy of non-enforcement of immigration status and expanded its authority to enforce order and define exclusionary boundaries of citizenship.[5]

After the 1960s, the growing number of immigrants arriving in Los Angeles threatened the LAPD’s interpretational vision of social order. Capitalizing on fears among residents and policymakers that immigrants contributed to a drain on public resources and rising crime rates, the LAPD carved out new areas of police authority within the framework of non-enforcement of federal immigration law during the 1970s and 1980s. By the early 1990s, the LAPD’s approach to the enforcement of immigration law brought the police and punitive policy into the daily lives of the city’s immigrant population. In doing so, the LAPD policed an internal border delineating access to the benefits of full social membership in American society.


A Multiracial Metropolis and the Immigration Crisis

Following the 1965 Hart-Cellar Immigration Act, Los Angeles experienced profound demographic changes. Mexican immigrants came in large numbers between 1970s and 1990s due to demands for cheap labor in the city’s burgeoning service economy as well as to vast economic pressures in Mexico. While Mexican immigrants represented the largest migrant stream, the 1965 act’s removal of discriminatory national origins quotas opened up new sources of immigration that contributed to an increasingly diverse metropolitan region. Los Angeles experienced rapid growth during the 1980s with immigrants from Central and South America and Asia, particularly China and Korea. In 1980, whites accounted for 68 percent of the county population, African Americans represented 12.6 percent, Latinos 27.6 percent, and Asian and Pacific Islanders represented 5.8 percent. By 1990, whites represented 56.8 percent of the population in the county, while blacks represented 11.2, Latinos 37.8, and Asian and Pacific Islanders represented 10.8 percent. Los Angeles had quickly become a world city.[6]

Local officials and law enforcement doubled down on fears of immigrant invasion, often describing undocumented Mexican immigrants as a drain on the region’s social services and a strain on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime; thus, expanding the ability of the police to target migrants.

Growth in immigration coincided with a series of economic crises during the 1970s. Recession and unemployment followed the 1973 oil crisis, and the Los Angeles region’s manufacturing base experienced a significant decline upon losing tens of thousands of jobs over the decade. Despite global economic forces and U.S.-backed counterinsurgency wars in Latin- America that forced Mexicans and Central Americans to flee to American cities where they faced low-wage and exploitative labor conditions where local and national media blamed immigrants for the economic crisis. The Los Angeles Times fanned such fears and attributed local budget woes on immigrants and even published negative stories like one with this headline: “Aliens Reportedly Get $100 Million in Welfare.” Local officials and law enforcement doubled down on fears of immigrant invasion, often describing undocumented Mexican immigrants as a drain on the region’s social services and a strain on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime; thus, expanding the ability of the police to target migrants.[7] Rather than an accurate reflection of the immigrants who came to Los Angeles due to economic dislocation or fleeing violent conflict, the police viewed them as potential criminals and a threat to social order. In the process, the policies established by the LAPD to manage the growing immigrant population between the 1970s and 1990s linked immigrants with criminality.


From Immigrant Crime Victims to Criminal Aliens

Tension between the LAPD and both Mexican-American residents and Mexican immigrants increased during the early 1970s, significantly due to a pattern of police harassment and abuse. Police and city officials feared that immigrants would lose trust in the police and become reluctant to report crime. If officer discretion to enforce immigration law was limited, officials reasoned that immigrants would be willing to approach the police when they were victims of crime. Recognizing the problem, Chief Ed Davis issued Memorandum Number 9 in 1970, which made it so that “arrests for illegal entry [to the United States] shall be considered subordinate to police activities directly related to the interests of the people of Los Angeles.”  Such language, however, left officers with significant discretion. Two years later, Davis strengthened the limits on officers with Special Order 68, stating that “officers shall not initiate police action where the primary objective is directed toward discovering the alien status of a person.” But the policy still allowed officers to contact INS to determine the status of a person involved in criminal investigations. It also did not prevent officers from making arrests based on status. It merely emphasized that “arrests for illegal entry should be considered less important than other police activities.” While narrowing discretion, the reforms aimed to soften the image of the police in immigrant neighborhoods and incorporate residents into the fight against crime.[8]

However, in the mid-1970s, the LAPD and city officials worried that an element within the undocumented population was responsible for a rise in crime. A survey conducted by the Hollenbeck Area commanding officer used police data to examine the connection between “illegal” immigrants and “alien criminals.” It specified that “a high percentage of crimes in Hollenbeck Area are being committed by members of the illegal entry faction.”[9] While recognizing that many undocumented immigrants were hard-working and industrious, motivated to make a better life for themselves and their families, the report also framed the “illegal alien” as a criminal threat. LAPD and city officials pointed to a department study of three immigrant neighborhoods (Hollenbeck, Harbor, and Rampart) after INS sweeps to support claims that undocumented immigrants were responsible for rising crime rates.[10] Deputy Mayor Grace Davis reported the following: “During the sweep, repressible crimes fell 32 percent in Hollenbeck, 17.4 percent in Harbor, and 18 percent in Rampart.” Essentially, “Although there were a number of variables involved in these statistics, they do tend to indicate a correlation between the sweep of undocumented aliens and the decrease in crime.”[11]

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Many law enforcement personnel and city officials advocated for greater cooperation with the INS to contain undocumented immigrants. “In view of the severity of the social and economic problems generated by the illegal alien element in our society,” an LAPD report explained, “the recommendation was made that the Department actively cooperate with the Immigration and Naturalization Service by arresting illegal aliens solely for their unlawful status and releasing them to the Immigration Service for immediate deportation if these individuals were not involved in criminal activity.” Despite pressure to broaden officer discretion, the report concluded that Special Order 68 should remain policy because police cooperation with the INS threatened the department’s crime-fighting mission, which relied on the support and trust of the Mexican community.[12]

Fears of the impact of growing numbers of immigrants on crime rates and police resources influenced the LAPD’s stance on immigration law enforcement. Although recent studies have shown a negative relationship between immigration and crime, the LAPD often linked immigrants and crime and even drug trafficking in particular.[13] Chief Davis reported to Attorney General Edward H. Levi in 1976 that illegal aliens brought a surge of crime and “added to the dope problem” in Southern California.[14] When taking into consideration the potential growth of the immigrant population, the police estimated (from a speculative survey of officer opinions) that undocumented residents would account for 18.7 percent of crimes committed in the city. The department’s Illegal Alien Committee argued, “Whether this crime level extrapolation is higher or lower than the actual is not as significant as the fact that any crime committed by an illegal alien should not be occurring in the City of Los Angeles.” In other words, undocumented immigrants were a criminal threat that the LAPD was increasingly unable to contain. As the committee summarized, “there are increasing reports of illegal alien involvement in crime, including street gang activities, narcotics trafficking and usage and organized criminal activities.”[15]

The LAPD employed statistics to mobilize fears that undocumented immigrants would have a detrimental impact on the department’s resources and ability to fight crime. A 1977 LAPD Illegal Alien Committee report warned of a wave of undocumented immigrants predicted to reach over one million by 1981. The LAPD used the number of “illegal aliens” to reinforce the claim that the department was underfunded and understaffed, especially in relation to other departments across the country. Based on per capita expenditures, the LAPD reported that the cost of providing police services to illegal aliens was $37 million annually. The department lamented how the ratio of officers to residents (“‘thin blue line’ of police coverage”) was 18.6 percent less than “commonly accepted” in terms of accounting for undocumented aliens in the said population. If fully counted, the number of undocumented immigrants in the city would reduce the officers per 1,000 people from 2.63 to 2.14. To make up for the difference in ratio, the city would have to hire 1,703 officers at an annual cost of nearly $60 million. The committee warned that an already woefully understaffed police force was even more weakened and under-resourced than previously thought. As Deputy Mayor Grace Davis concluded in testifying to Congress, “the undocumented aliens do cause a substantial drain on police resources.”[16]

The burden of immigration enforcement on police resources led the LAPD to push for a federal crackdown on undocumented immigration. Chief Davis called for a shift in national policy away from “benign neglect” wherein federal law enforcement did not interfere in state or local immigration enforcement, to a more rigorous federal enforcement of border laws and efforts to reduce the incentive for immigrants to come to the United States. The LAPD’s Illegal Alien Committee also recommended intensified enforcement of immigration laws when undocumented immigrants were suspected of criminal activity. “In special problem areas of the City where illegal aliens are inordinately contributing to the crime rate, vice or gang activities,” the committee further explained: “intensified enforcement by Immigration and Naturalization personnel should be requested for the purpose of removing deportable alien criminals.”[17]

Demands for more federal resources to combat immigration did mean that the LAPD’s Illegal Alien Committee recommended removing the department from policing immigrants altogether. The Committee also made recommendations to expand the department’s ability to contain immigrant crime and broaden officer discretion. Alongside requests for the hiring of more officers to contain the illegal alien crime surge, the committee proposed a surveillance project to monitor undocumented immigrants involved in criminal activity. They believed that maintaining a database of file cards on known criminal aliens would allow easy identification of deported aliens who “upon their reentry, [can] be arrested for a felony violation of the U.S. immigration laws.” The creation of an “alien criminal” category fueled a surge of public fears on the topic of undocumented immigrants as the source of rising crime and enhanced the department’s discretionary authority of exclusion to control and contain undocumented immigrants within the framework of non-enforcement of immigration law.[18]


Police Discretion and Limits on Immigration Enforcement

For all the efforts to limit local enforcement of immigration laws in order to gain the trust and cooperation of the city’s immigrant population, the LAPD continued to carve out discretionary authority to target “criminal aliens” and to collaborate with INS agents as part of its crime-control and order-maintenance prerogative. As Chief Davis reported to Mayor Tom Bradley in 1976, INS officials “agreed to assist the Police Department in deporting career criminal illegal aliens who are identified by this Department.” In return, the LAPD could “assist his Department [INS] by publicly calling attention to the illegal alien problem.”[19] Department officials planned joint actions with the INS. Over the course of three days in September 1974, for instance, the LAPD and INS conducted a Joint Crime Suppression Task Force in Rampart Division. Officers justified their participation (which resulted in 428 arrests) based on evidence that “arrest after arrest has repetitively demonstrated that many illegal aliens are members of the criminal element within the City of Los Angeles.” The LAPD claimed that officers targeted only vice and narcotics violations while the INS agents enforced immigration laws.[20] Such collaboration with the INS represented police enforcement of immigration status by another means.

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When immigrant rights activists claimed that the department routinely violated its policy related to the non-enforcement of immigration status violations, Chief Davis responded that the LAPD neither targeted undocumented immigrants nor cooperated with the INS. Davis asserted that when he became chief in 1969, nearly 25 percent of felony arrests were for illegal entry but, “I said, ‘Let John Mitchell (then U.S. Attorney General) enforce these laws.’ We have no obligation to enforce federal laws.” Davis acknowledged that his officers observed INS raids to ensure public safety and made sure that they did not assist INS officers in making arrests.[21]

Police presence during INS raids was not only common, but also suggested that the LAPD approved (and at times participated) in enforcing immigration law. Testimony at hearings held by the Los Angeles County Bar Association in 1974 on the Deportation and Removal of Aliens highlighted police collaboration with INS and enforcement of immigration status violations. For example, one individual recounted a 1974 raid in which uniformed police officers accompanied plainclothes INS agents to raid a bar on 7th and Wilshire. The predominantly Latinx clientele was made to exit the bar one-by-one and show legitimate proof of legal status to INS agents as LAPD officers stood by. Based on such testimony, the Bar concluded that the LAPD’s cooperation with the INS was widespread, intentional, and created a climate of fear in the Spanish-speaking community.[22]

When INS residential raids ramped up in 1979, city officials criticized the racialized assumptions of the arrests and demanded clarification of the limits of local enforcement of immigration law. In response, the Board of Police Commissioners adopted a formal policy instructing officers that immigration status alone was not a basis for arrest. Newly-appointed Chief Daryl Gates claimed the reform signified a change from an era “when our officers engaged in wholesale arrests of illegals, merely for their immigration status.”[23] Gates, recognizing the continued need for immigrant cooperation with the police to fight crime, established a nationally significant policy in 1979 that further officer discretion in the realm of policing immigration status, which came to be known as Special Order 40. “It is,” Special Order 40 affirmed, “the policy of the Los Angeles Police Department that undocumented alien status in itself is not a matter for police action.” Under Special Order 40, officers were directed to enforce the law in an equal manner regardless of “alien status” because of the need for immigrants to report crime and cooperate with the police. While the policy operated to protect the immigrant crime victim, it left the ability to arrest the “criminal alien” intact.[24]

The use of these categories reinforced boundaries of citizenship based on racialized assumptions of illegality and criminality that would be hardened as the LAPD associated Latinx immigrants with the rise of drug crime and gang violence in the 1980s.

By the early 1980s, city officials believed Special Order 40 effectively limited police power to ensure cooperation from the city’s growing immigrant communities. A briefing memo to mayor Bradley, for example, praised LAPD policy in relation to undocumented immigrants. “The L.A.P.D. is progressive with respect to our policy regarding the local enforcement of U.S. immigration laws,” the memo stated. “This policy is sensitive to the principle that effective law enforcement depends on a high degree of cooperation between the department and the public it serves.”[25] Yet Special Order 40 divided immigrants into the law-abiding and the criminal. The use of these categories reinforced boundaries of citizenship based on racialized assumptions of illegality and criminality that would be hardened as the LAPD associated Latinx immigrants with the rise of drug crime and gang violence in the 1980s.


Policing a City of Immigrants Amid the War on Gangs and Drugs

During the 1980s, law enforcement officials emphasized the problem of the criminal alien as a law-and-order threat to reassert officer discretion and to expand police authority to enforce immigration law. In order to demonstrate compliance with Special Order 40, LAPD officers portrayed undocumented immigrants as the source of rising crime, especially narcotics and gang activity.[26] The Rampart Division Narcotics Task Force, for example, found that out of more than two thousand drug-related arrests in 1986, 78 percent were undocumented immigrants and, at the time, “much of the crime involving undocumented aliens is gang related.”[27] Police argued that since gang crime and drug violence represented a threat to law-abiding residents, officers required greater discretion to arrest and remove the criminal alien element.

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Despite reassurances that the department adhered to Special Order 40, during the mid-1980s, the INS district office cooperated with local agencies to identify and remove undocumented immigrants involved in drug and gang activity. Gang activities section commander Robert Ruchoft launched a program in conjunction with the INS to deport undocumented immigrant gang members. Accompanied by a four-man INS team, specialized anti-gang CRASH units also circumvented Special Order 40 by focusing on immigrants involved in gang violence. “We don’t arrest people for being illegal aliens,” a department spokesperson stated, “but it is a pilot program in our campaign to obliterate violence by gangs.” The INS agents made arrests while on patrol with LAPD officers because, according to Ruchoft, “we know who they are, and where they are, and the criminal activities in which they are taking part.”[28]

Joint LAPD-INS efforts to deport criminal aliens suspected of being involved in gang activity often relied on the use of immigration status to justify arrests. Blurring the lines between crime control and immigration control enabled officers to legitimize arrests that may have violated Special Order 40. Deportation, for example, often occurred even if LAPD officers were unable to charge the individual with a crime. “If a gang member is out on the street and the police can’t make a charge,” assistant district director for the INS John Brechtel explained, “we will go out and deport them for being here illegally if they fit that criteria.” Deputy Chief Bernard Parks praised the task force because using deportations allowed “our officers to concentrate on gang members in another fashion.” Police, according to Parks, could remove undocumented gang members from the streets without having to bring criminal charges against them.[29] In effect, the LAPD used the war on gangs and drugs to reassert their authority to police immigrants within the specialized framework of Special Order 40.

However, sweeps aimed at finding and deporting undocumented drug dealers and gang members relied on dragnet policing that reaffirmed racialized views of illegality. For example, during a three-month operation in the summer of 1985 called Retake the Streets, the LAPD arrested more than 1,700 people in an anti-drug sweep. Deputy Chief Clyde Cronkhite reported that 63 percent of those arrested were “illegal aliens,” mostly originating from Mexico and El Salvador. Cronkhite suggested that such widespread policing of undocumented immigrants whom, he believed, were at the center of a growing drug trade, “will continue until they get the message, ‘You come to Los Angeles to sell drugs, and you’ll be in big trouble.’” The anti-drug sweep relied on close cooperation between LAPD officials and INS agents who met with residents in the target area to address fears of blanket arrests based on race or ethnicity.[30]

As the police used their authority to target “criminal aliens” as the source of gang violence and drug trafficking, they reaffirmed a connection between racial identity and illegality.

Joint operations blurred the line between legitimate police raids based on evidence of criminal activity and immigration raids focused on apprehending unauthorized immigrants. “But when the INS and Police Department conduct joint raids, the operations necessarily become immigration raids,” the Latino Community Justice Center’s (LCJC) Antonio Rodriguez stated in response to a 1989 raid. “They may apprehend some criminals, but they target and capture in their net many innocent persons who are taken prisoner by INS agents if they are undocumented.”[31] As the police used their authority to target “criminal aliens” as the source of gang violence and drug trafficking, they reaffirmed a connection between racial identity and illegality. In effect, local law enforcement policed the boundaries of citizenship. Responding to the growing number of immigrants during the 1980s, the LAPD operated on racialized assumptions of illegality and created new avenues of supervisory discretion and criminal categories to circumvent policy restricting enforcement of immigration status.


The War on Crime as Immigration Control

When the families of some twenty-six undocumented immigrants were held hostage for $1,000 each by smugglers in a South Central “drop house” contacted the Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) in June 1990, they reignited debates about the proper limits to the LAPD’s cooperation with INS. Later, CARECEN reported the hostage situation to the LAPD and within hours eight LAPD officers rescued the hostages. While the smugglers escaped, the immigrants’ ordeal continued. In the name of helping those victimized by smugglers, the LAPD turned them over to INS for deportation.[32] Chief Gates, engaging in misdirection to shift attention from the consequences of the raid on the undocumented immigrants to the smugglers, claimed the department was engaged in rooting out illegal smuggling operations. “This department makes absolutely no effort to seek out undocumenteds in responding to calls for service and otherwise protecting people in Los Angeles,” Gates argued. “But, when we are confronted by serious criminal actions involving feloniously conspiring to violate the laws of the United States, kidnapping, hostage taking, threats of great bodily harm, extortion and bondage, we cannot look the other way.”[33]

If the LAPD hoped cooperating with the INS would help stop smuggling operations, their actions undermined the immigrant community’s faith in the police. The Board of Police Commissioner’s Hispanic Advisory Council criticized the department, calling the actions a “flagrant violation of policies” for handling undocumented immigrants and could lead to a potential deterioration of the “positive relationship” with the Latinx community. One Los Angeles Times editorial entitled, “How to Make Allies Into Enemies,” suggested that in order to maintain the trust of the immigrant community police officers had to ensure that immigrants recognize the difference between the LAPD and INS. But the LAPD’s actions did little to allay the fears of the Latinx community.[34] “The feeling in the immigrant community,” stated Madeline Janis, executive director of CARECEN, “is that the police and the INS are the same thing and that they have no recourse if they’re victims of a crime.”[35]

Cooperation between the LAPD and INS allowed the police to circumvent both the spirit and letter of Special Order 40. Protest from immigrant rights groups, such as CARECEN and the Coalition for Human Immigration Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), demanded an end to police cooperation with INS.[36] The publicity led to city council hearings on the department’s immigration policy. Councilman Michael Woo responded to the department’s actions with a proposal that the LAPD should not “assist or cooperate with any Immigration and Naturalization Service investigation, detention, or arrest procedures.” Woo was concerned that the actions of officers in the June raid threatened the status of Los Angeles as a “city of refuge.”[37] Councilman Richard Alatorre and Woo proposed new guidelines because, “Those crimes [against immigrants] go unreported for one simple reason: people are afraid of being turned over to the INS.”[38]

Chief Gates opposed the new restrictions. He claimed the regulations “would seriously endanger our ability to ensure public safety in the city.” While the chief expressed understanding of the concerns raised in the council motion, which would have barred police cooperation with an INS investigation, detention, or arrest except in service of a search warrant or arrest, he defended the expansive discretionary authority of the LAPD: “I believe all residents of Los Angeles are best served,” Gates explained, “when its Police Department is able to work cooperatively with all segments of government to provide for the public’s safety.”[39]

Framing immigration control as crime control enabled extensive cooperation between police and INS. As the council’s Public Safety Committee learned, the LAPD’s cooperation with INS agents was widespread and included handing children, victims of crime, and people arrested for minor misdemeanors over to INS.[40] The Council approved a motion recommending the department clarify the limits of Special Order 40 and the police department’s relationship with the INS. The recommendations centered on ensuring narrow discretion by leaving “little room for interpretation by individual officers.” Yet the changes were not meant to “prevent the LAPD from upholding its responsibilities to enforce the law.” The proposals reiterated that arrests should not be made based solely on alien status and the police should not turn arrestees over to the INS “EXCEPT for felony, drug or gang (STEP Act) Misdemeanors.”[41] The recommended clarifications to LAPD policy, in other words, continued to recognize the “criminal alien” category, which ensured the police authority to target immigrants and cooperate with the INS.

Concern for the ability of the police to ensure safety by arresting and detaining undocumented immigrants outweighed demands aimed at limiting police power and discretion. Although, the motion meant to clarify and update departmental policy to limit officer discretion surrounding arrests based on “alien status,” it did not remove the police from questions related to immigration status. Even after the efforts of CARECEN and liberal city council members to limit the actions of the police in the realm of immigration law, suspected undocumented immigrants were routinely arrested and turned over to the INS.[42]

image3


Policing Race and Citizenship Today

The LAPD’s policing of immigrants and cooperation with INS during the 1980s and early-1990s contributed to distrust between immigrant communities and the police. Programs aimed at enhancing collaborative efforts between the LAPD and undocumented immigrants who had been victims of crime worked at cross purposes with the department’s reliance on racialized categories of illegality and criminality to target immigrants for arrest and deportation during the war on drugs and gangs. Community relations programs and initiatives to provide equitable police services to Latinx communities required narrowing officer discretion on the street in order to enhance the LAPD’s ability to work with communities to combat crime. But the department’s construction of the “criminal alien” category developed an alternative means for the police to expand its authority by enforcing immigration status violations during an era of rapidly changing demographics.

Although the LAPD remains committed to Special Order 40 and the non-enforcement of immigration status, the history of the LAPD’s policies regarding immigrants is instructive during an era of intensified ICE raids and requests for the help of local law enforcement agencies.[43] Even as LAPD policy narrowed officer discretion to police immigration status and nominally refused to collaborate with the INS during the 1980s and 1990s, department officials turned to areas where they retained authority to contain the perceived threat that the rapidly growing immigrant population posed to the city’s social and racial hierarchy. The police attempted to square their ability to work with immigrant crime victims to combat crime with efforts to expand their authority by targeting the criminal alien. In the process, the police contributed to the construction and enforcement of racialized categories of citizenship that even today continues to delineate who has access to the full benefits of political and social membership in American life.


Notes

[1] Ana Gonzalez-Barrera and Mark Hugo Lopez, “U.S. Immigrant Deportations Fall to Lowest Level since 2007,” Pew Research Center, 16 December 2016, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/12/16/u-s-immigrant-deportations-fall-to-lowest-level-since-2007/.

[2] Miriam Valverde, “What You Need to Know about the Trump Administration’s Zero-Tolerance Immigration Policy,” Politifact, 6 June 2018. https://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2018/jun/06/what-you-need-know-about-trump-administrations-zer/; The Editorial Board, “Trump Keeps Implementing Incompetent Zero-Tolerance Immigration Policies. He Also Keeps Losing in Court,” Los Angeles Times, 11 July 2018. http://www.latimes.com/opinion/editorials/la-ed-trump-child-separation-20180711-story.html.

[3] The question of cooperation between ICE and local police departments is complicated. Public statements of refusal to cooperate with ICE are often contradicted by the policies stated in operating manuals. Joel Rubin and Ruben Vives, “Immigration Arrests in L.A. Spark Fear, Outrage, but Officials Say They Are Routine,” Los Angeles Times, 10 February 2017; James Queally, “Police Departments Say They Don’t Enforce Immigration Laws. But Their Manuals Say Something Different,” Los Angeles Times, 12 April 2017.

[4] Mark Neocleous, The Fabrication of Social Order: A Critical Theory of Police Power (London: Pluto Press, 2000); Nikhil Pal Singh, Race and America’s Long War (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2017).

[5] Natalia Molina, How Race Is Made in America: Immigration, Citizenship, and the Historical Power of Racial Scripts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013); Doris Marie Provine and Roxanne Lynn Doty, “The Criminalization of Immigrants as a Racial Project.” Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 27 (2011): 261-277; Christopher Lowen Agee, The Streets of San Francisco: Policing and the Creation of a Cosmopolitan Liberal Politics, 1950-1972 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

[6] U.S. Census, 1980; U.S. Census, 1990; Phil J. Ethington, W.H. Frey, and D. Myers, “The Racial Resegregation of Los Angeles County, 1940–2000,” Race Contours 2000 Study (University of Southern California and University of Michigan, 2001); Mae M. Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 227-239.

[7] On economic crisis see Jordan T. Camp, Incarcerating the Crisis: Freedom Struggles and the Rise of the Neoliberal State (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2016), 104-5; James C. Hankla letter to Each Supervisor, “Impact of Undocumented Aliens on Los Angeles County,” 23 December 1985, folder 4, box 980, Papers of Edmund D. Edelman, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California (hereafter EDE); Ruben Castaneda, “Studies Paint Confusing Picture of Illegal Aliens,” Los Angeles Herald Examiner, 12 January 1986, folder 4, box 980, EDE; CJM letter to Ed Edelman, “Comments about Illegal Alien Costs to County and Revenues Generated,” 23 January 1986, folder 4, box 331, EDE; “Aliens Reportedly Get $100 Million in Welfare,” LA Times, 27 January 1973, sec. Part I; Roger Waldinger, “Not the Promised City: Los Angeles and Its Immigrants,” Pacific Historical Review 68 (1999): 253-272.

[8] Edward Davis, “Special Order No. 68: Illegal Entry Arrests,” 24 November 1972, folder 18, box 29, Frank Del Olmo Collection, California State University, Northridge, Urban Archives Collections, Northridge, California (hereafter FDOC).

[9] E.M. Davis, “Pertinent Matters of Interest in Police Affairs,” 31 March 1974, folder Mayor’s Report 272 through 279, box B-2272, LAPD Bureau of Special Investigations, Los Angeles City Archives, Los Angeles, California. See also Joint Crime Suppression Task Force, “Los Angeles Police Study of Impact of Illegal Aliens on Crime in L.A.—Ramparts Division Case Study,” 3 September 1974, HV 7595.L71j, Vertical Files, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Library (hereafter USCIS).

[10] Community Relations Section Office of the Chief of Police, “Illegal Aliens: Composite Profile,” January 1975, folder 19, box 29, FDOC.

[11] “Testimony of the City of Los Angeles before the House Subcommittee on State, Justice, Commerce and The Judiciary of the Appropriations Committee,” 24 February 1978, folder 10 box 115, Grace Montanez Davis Papers, 39, UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, University of California, Los Angeles (hereafter GMDP).

[12] Community Relations Section Office of the Chief of Police, “Illegal Aliens: Composite Profile.”

[13] Graham C. Ousey, and Charis E. Kubrin, “Immigration and Crime: Assessing a Contentious Issue,” Annual Review of Criminology 1 (2018): 63-84.

[14] “Crime Surging Over Mexican Border into U.S., Chief Davis Says,” Los Angeles Times, 24 October 1976, sec. PART ONE.

[15] The Illegal Alien Committee, “The Illegal Alien Problem and Its Impact on Los Angeles Police Department Resources: Briefing Paper Prepared for Staff Officers’ Mini-Retreat,” January 1977, folder 1, box 36, Urban Policy Research Institute Records, Southern California Library, Los Angeles, California (hereafter UPRI).

[16] The Illegal Alien Committee, “The Illegal Alien Problem and Its Impact on Los Angeles Police Department Resources”; John Kendall, “L.A. to Have Million ‘Illegals’ by ’81 at Present Rate: Police Study Calls Peaceful Image False L.A. May Have 1 Million Illegal Aliens by 1981,” Los Angeles Times, 30 January 1977, sec. PART II; House Subcommittee on Appropriations, Undocumented Aliens: Hearings before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations, 1978, 276; Peter J. Pitchess, “The Impact of Illegal Aliens on Los Angeles County A Compendium Compiled by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department,” April 1977, Vertical Files: California Illegal Aliens California, USCIS; Grace Davis, “Testimony of the City of Los Angeles before the House Subcommittee on State, Justice, Commerce and The Judiciary of the Appropriations Committee,” 24 February 1978, folder 10, box 115, GMDP.

[17] The Illegal Alien Committee, “The Illegal Alien Problem and Its Impact on Los Angeles Police Department Resources.”

[18] “The Illegal Alien Problem and Its Impact on Los Angeles Police Department Resources”; Patt Morrison, “Illegal Aliens Blamed for Increasing Crimes: Officers Compile Data on Gangs of Transient Burglars RISE IN ILLEGAL ALIEN CRIME,” Los Angeles Times, 30 January 1977, sec. PART II.

[19] Edward M. Davis, “Pertinent Matters of Interest in Police Affairs, Attachment 1, Part 1,” 25 July 1976, Notebook #1, box 2276, Police Department Records/82, Los Angeles City Archives, Los Angeles, California.

[20] Joint Crime Suppression Task Force, “Los Angeles Police Study of Impact of Illegal Aliens on Crime in L.A.-Ramparts Division Case Study,” 3 September 1974, HV 7595.L71j, USCIS.

[21] Immigration Coalition, “Plight of Undocumented Immigrants in America,” 7 February 1977, folder 8, box 23, Herman Baca Collection, MSS 649, University of California, San Diego, The Library, San Diego, California; Kenneth Reich, “LAPD Doesn’t Go After Illegal Aliens, Davis Says,” Los Angeles Times, 27 November 1975, folder 18, box 29, FDOC.

[22] Ad Hoc Committee of the Los Angeles County Bar Association, “Public Hearings on the Deportation and Removal of Aliens,” 18 December 1974, folder 12, box 123, GMDP; Los Angeles Bar Association, “Report on the Deportation and Removal of Aliens,” 1976, folder 19, box 115, GMDP.

[23] Evan Maxwell, “LAPD Eases Policy Toward Illegal Aliens: Officers Won’t Question Status Except in Serious Crimes,” Los Angeles Times, 21 March 1979, sec. PART II.

[24] Daryl F. Gates, “Special Order No. 40: Undocumented Aliens”, 27 November 1979, folder 17, box 29, FDOC.

[25] Rose Ochi letter to Tom Bradley, “Attached Briefing Memo. Also Attached for Background – Immigration,” 16 April 1981, folder 10, box 2175, Mayor Tom Bradley Administration Papers, University of California, Los Angeles Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA, Los Angeles, California (hereafter MTBAP).

[26] United States General Accounting Office, “Criminal Aliens: INS’ Enforcement Activities – Report to the Chairman, Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and International Law, Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives,” GAO, November 1987.

[27] Los Angeles City Task Force on Immigration, “Interim Report of the Los Angeles City Task Force on Immigration,” April 1987, folder 13, box 1172, MTBAP.

[28] Jerry Belcher, “Police Launch Program Against Illegal Aliens: L.A. Seeking to Deport Gang Members,” Los Angeles Times, 5 September 1986, sec. Part II; Richard B. Dixon letter to Each Supervisor, “Projects to Identify Alien Drug Offenders,” 15 May 1987, folder 13, box 331, EDE; United States General Accounting Office, “Criminal Aliens: INS’ Enforcement Activities – Report to the Chairman, Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and International Law, Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives,” GAO, November 1987.

[29] Stephen Braun, “U.S.-L.A. Task Force Deports 175 With Ties to Drug, Gang Activity” Los Angeles Times, 12 April 1989, A3.

[30] Leonard Greenwood, “1,700 Arrested in LAPD Anti-Drug Sweep,” Los Angeles Times, 14 August 1985, sec. Part II; United States General Accounting Office, “Criminal Aliens: INS’ Enforcement Activities–Report to the Chairman, Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and International Law, Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives.” GAO, November 1987.

[31] Antonio H. Rodriguez, “L.A. Police and La Migra—an Overbearing Partnership,” Los Angeles Times, 18 July 1989.

[32] Hector Tobar, “27 Hostages Turned Over to INS After Police Rescue,” Los Angeles Times, 16 June 1990, sec. Metro; CARECEN, “What Is CARECEN?,” 1990, folder 2, box 1164, MTBAP.

[33] Daryl F. Gates, “Statement by Chief Daryl F. Gates Re: Undocumented Being Held Hostage,” 19 July 1990, folder 8, box 1170, MTBAP.

[34] Hispanic Advisory Council, “Newsletter,” December 1990, folder 7, box 1169, MTBAP; “How to Make Allies Into Enemies,” Los Angeles Times, 15 August 1990, folder 9, box 1170, MTBAP.

[35] Hector Tobar, “27 Hostages Turned Over to INS After Police Rescue,” Los Angeles Times, 16 June 1990, sec. Metro.

[36] CHIRLA, “Stop the Cooperation Between the Police and the INS,” 16 October 1990, folder 9, box 1170, MTBAP.

[37] The Los Angeles City Council passed a limited sanctuary policy in 1985 in response to the growing number of refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala. Hector Tobar, “Woo Seeks Curbs on INS Cooperation: Law Enforcement: His Proposal Follows Incident in Which L.A. Police Rescued 27 Illegal-Alien Hostages and Turned Them over to Federal Agents,” Los Angeles Times, 21 June 1990, sec. Metro News.

[38] Hector Tobar, “Proposed Curbs on LAPD Fought,” Los Angeles Times, 31 July 1990, p. B1, folder 18, box 29, FDOC; Richard Alatorre and Michael Woo, “Motion,” 20 June 1990, folder 8, box 1170, MTBAP.

[39] Hector Tobar, “Proposed Curbs on LAPD Fought,” Los Angeles Times, 31 July 1990, p. B1, folder 18, box 29, FDOC; Hector Tobar, “Gates Opposes Bar to Police, INS Cooperation,” Los Angeles Times, 22 June 1990, sec. Metro News.

[40] Public Safety Committee letter to Los Angeles City Council, “INS-LAPD Memo,” 13 November 1990, folder 8, box 1170, MTBAP.

[41] Los Angeles City Council, “Motion Adopted Relative to Modification of Los Angeles Police Department’s Cooperation Policy with Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in Its Treatment of Undocumented Persons,” 15 November 1990, folder 8, box 1170, MTBAP; Public Safety Committee letter to Los Angeles City Council, “INS-LAPD Memo,” 13 November 1990, folder 8, box 1170, MTBAP; “Fact Sheet – Background on the Los Angeles Police Department’s Relationship and Collaboration with the Immigration & Naturalization Service,” 1990, folder INS-Police Cooperation Declarations & Testimony, Carton 1681, RG #5, Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund Records, Stanford Green Library, Special Collections, Stanford, California.

[42] Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Governmental Affairs, Criminal Aliens in the United States (Washington: 1993), 22-23; Edward J. Boyer, “Immigrants Sent to INS by Police, Suit Alleges,” Los Angeles Times, 8 May 1991, sec. Valley.

[43] Southern California Public Radio, “LAPD Chief Beck: ‘Immigration Is Not the Job of Local Law Enforcement,’” Southern California Public Radio, 16 November 2016, http://www.scpr.org/programs/airtalk/2016/11/16/53089/lapd-chief-on-policing-immigration-policy-trump-pr/.

  • This essay is adapted from the forthcoming Max Felker-Kantor, Policing Los Angeles: Race, Resistance, and the Rise of the LAPD (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

 

Max Felker-Kantor is an American historian specializing in areas of race, politics, and the carceral state. He is the author of Policing Los Angeles: Race, Resistance, and the Rise of the LAPD (University of North Carolina Press, 2018), and currently teaches American and African American history at Ball State University.

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

ArticlesPhotography/Art

Seeing California’s Missions Today

Indigenous Oaxacan Folklorico dancers perform outside of the San Gabriel Mission during a community festival.

Matthew Gush
Robert M. Senkewicz*

When I left my native New York City to begin graduate school in California almost five decades ago, many things about my new home region struck me as strange. It seemed odd, for instance, that a local Safeway supermarket had the same kind of tiled roof as I could see on Mission Santa Clara, a scant three blocks away. And it seemed unbearably grandiose to call a local street, whose defining characteristics appeared to be used car lots, gas stations, and strip malls, El Camino Real, which I soon discovered meant the Royal Road. But I eventually realized that missions and Spain were apparently crucial parts of California’s popular identity. Combined with another never-far-from-the-surface part of that identity, the Gold Rush, my new home seemed to be constantly trumpeting a kind of California exceptionalism. Things happened here, everything seemed to say, that never happened anywhere else in the U.S. California is different—and by “different,” what’s clearly meant is “better.”

A visitor to the northern most outpost Spanish Mission San Francisco Solano observes the reed and adobe construction of the awning.

I began to wonder about that exceptionalism, but the doubts really came into focus when I was writing my dissertation on gold rush San Francisco. It seemed that the social processes alive in that 1850s instant city were quite similar to developments and tensions that were simultaneously occurring in places like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. The vigilantism that wracked the city twice (in 1851 and 1856) during this era seemed to have more in common with Eastern violence than with “we’re going to have to take the law into our own hands” vigilantism in places like Montana or other frontier venues.

After I finished with gold rush San Francisco, like a good historian, I went back in time. I ended up focusing on California and the Southwest before the U.S. takeover. And here I saw California exceptionalism strongly at work. Even some scholarly work seemed to be written with scant regard to the origins and foundations of Spanish California. Those origins stretched back over three centuries, but you would never know it by learning that San Diego had been founded in 1769 by a party led by two individuals who seemed to materialized out of nowhere, Gaspar de Portolá and Junípero Serra. And the fact that California had once been part of Mexico was apparently quite embarrassing. This embarrassment was solved in textbooks by focusing almost exclusively on Anglo-Americans who began to arrive in California in the 1820s and began to bring culture and civilization to this benighted region.

Popular understanding of California’s pre-U.S. past still suffers from two crucial absences: the absence of context and the absence of people.

First, context. The U.S. state of California was one of the last regions to experience settler colonialism in a Spanish Imperial context. That colonialism had a long and varied history. The Spanish presence worked itself out differently in the Valley of Mexico, the highlands of Peru, the sugar islands of the Caribbean, the Southern Cone, and the arid regions of what is now northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. The indigenous cultures the Spanish invaded and disrupted were radically different and the combination of resistance and strategic accommodation varied region to region. Survival often depended on flexible and creative strategic alliances with other groups and, at times, with dissident elements of the invading group. As was the case with British colonialism along the eastern coast of North America, not all colonial officials saw eye to eye, and indigenous leaders attempted to exploit those differences. European maps showed huge regions as controlled by “ Spain,” but this was hardly the case, as large and powerful indigenous peoples from many regions persisted well into the nineteenth century.

California was heir to all of these developments and the Spanish colonialism that took root there was diverse, messy, and at times contradictory. It was anything but a story of Spanish control and indigenous acceptance. The extensive writings of the Franciscan missionaries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries bear eloquent testimony to the fact that, even in long-established mission compounds, missionaries knew that they could never assume that external conformity implied indigenous acceptance of subservient status. This part of the story was completely ignored during the “Spanish revival” era, when self-sacrificing, heroic missionaries and happy, contented Indians dominated the narrative. The assumption that California was exceptional meant that California identity could exist in blissful isolation from the issues and tensions that dominated the rest of the Spanish Empire.

Second, people. One of the most striking things about the photographs and paintings that were created concerning the California missions during the latter part of the nineteenth century by artists like Carlton Watkins and Edwin Deakin, is that they were generally bereft of people. The focus is on the structures, generally in various states of disrepair, but hearkening back to their days of glory and prosperity. In this, these later artists were quite different from artists who portrayed the missions who had had actual experience with them. People like Louis Choris, Ferdinand Deppe, and Edward Vischer always foregrounded indigenous, Spanish, and Mexican people in their portrayal of the missions. They knew what contemporary pastoral ministers will be happy to tell you: The “church” is not the building, but the people.

The logical, and sad, outcome of all of this was the fourth grade project that Matthew Gush describes in his introductory essay that follows this one. The focus of that project for elementary school children was on getting the buildings right, the angles precise, the bell towers in the correct place, that sort of thing. When I first learned of this project many years ago, I was as puzzled as I originally had been when I saw that supermarkets looked like churches. After all, we had never made sugar cube models of the Empire State building or the George Washington Bridge when I was in grammar school in New York. When the nuns at St. Columba on West 25th Street showed us New York pictures, they were always pictures of people—of immigrants crowding onto the deck of a boat and weeping for joy when they first saw the Statue of Liberty, of crowds in Times Square celebrating the end of World War II, or of Lou Gehrig saying goodbye at Yankee Stadium. The message was that New York was its people. That was a quite different message from the one that was contained in the fourth grade exercise, that California was its buildings.

Fortunately, this fourth grade project has been discontinued in California schools. I myself hope that its abandonment will lead to the abandonment of another California cottage industry: Picture books, travel guides, and brochures that are filled with “honey shots” of mission façades set against a pure blue sky, bell towers dominating the landscape, and incredibly lush gardens. These productions, in other words, are filled with images of California’s missions that bear absolutely no resemblance to the actual missions that existed from 1769 into the 1840s. These pictures, just like the fourth grade project, do not offer any indication that the California missions were overwhelmingly indigenous locations. Two priests, a handful of soldiers, and hundreds or thousands of native peoples populated the spaces. These venues were places that were as varied, diverse, and contradictory as the three centuries of Spanish colonialism that gave birth to them had been. They were places of pain and joy, of suffering and hope, of violence and survival, of death and birth. Matthew Gush’s photos, which deliberately focus on these places from unusual angles, invite us to enter these locations from different places of our minds. He includes the people who currently worship in these churches, and whose presence demonstrates that the California missions continue to be re-created anew in each generation. Matthew does not tell us in his essay why he decided to begin photographing these missions, but I for one am very glad that he did.



Notes

  • Photography and image descriptions by Matthew Gush; essay by Robert M. Senkewicz.

This is part one of a diptych on the California missions. For part two, see Matthew Gush, “RE-Present: Seeing California Missions Through A Contemporary Lens.”


Matthew Gush
is the university photographer at California State University, Fullerton, and is the Boom California 2017-2018 Photographer in Residence. For more of his work see https://www.humanexp.co/.

Robert M. Senkewicz is professor of History at Santa Clara University. With Rose Marie Beebe he has written a number of books on pre-U.S. California, including most recently, Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary, and a contribution to Steven W. Hackel, ed., The Worlds of Junipero Serra Historical Contexts and Cultural Representations (UC Press, 2018).

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

Articles

Is Boyle Heights “Worth Saving”?

Image 7

1st and Boyle, the sun sets over the Boyle Hotel at Mariachi Plaza. Photo by Flickr user Salina Canizales.

Alfredo Huante

During the early 1970s in Boyle Heights, decades before the neighborhood came under public limelight for its fight against gentrification, residents pressed city planners to ensure the Mexican barrio was preserved within the Boyle Heights Community Plan. As part of planning director Calvin Hamilton’s citizen-planning efforts, Community Plans were rolled out throughout Los Angeles to reverse the historic top-down planning practices, which in Boyle Heights had led to a significant loss of housing stock. Industrial expansion,[1] followed by intensive freeway construction during the 1940s through the 1960s, rendered countless city blocks repurposed by planners for land uses other than housing.[2] Through his work preparing the Boyle Heights community plan, the city’s first Chicano planner, Raul Escobedo, helped preserve the barrio’s existing stock of inexpensive housing and sought to protect it against expanding downtown redevelopment. This essay examines how discussions over the future of the barrio have persisted over decades among city officials and residents since the 1960s and 1970s.

In urban sites across the postwar U.S., strategies and solutions addressing “blight” gave points of frequent contention between working class residents of color and local civic and business leaders. For the latter group, “blight” entailed a combination of physical, social, and economic conditions that all worked cohesively to inhibit the economic growth or development of an urban area or community.[3] Where some references to blight alluded to substandard housing, dilapidated structures, and depressed property values, others signaled the presence of poverty and “related social problems.”[4] Despite the broad definitions, the remedy of urban renewal aimed to ameliorate social, economic, and physical conditions in these neighborhoods. Over time, as public criticism to urban renewal projects increased, local government strategies to address blight varied. For example, after being labeled as areas reflecting blight, residents of Bishop, Palo Alto, and La Loma (collectively known as Chavez Ravine) and Bunker Hill all experienced removal through the demolition and clearance of “slum” housing. In contrast, despite receiving a similar appraisal by city officials, Boyle Heights was considered eligible for “conservation and rehabilitation” by city planners.[5] While part of the broad power of urban renewal projects, this lesser known component cast Boyle Heights as redeemable without demolition—thus savable from the threat of blight. Yet the question of whom would benefit from the subsequent upgrading of the community remained an ongoing debate.

Image 8

Photo by Flickr user Chris Pickel.


Community Planning in Los Angeles                                                                      

Arriving in L.A. during the early 1960s, Planning Director Calvin Hamilton had been recruited by Mayor Sam Yorty to, for the first time in city history, bring the city’s varying land uses under one coherent, city-wide general plan. However, shortly after he began the massive overhaul of city planning, the 1965 Watts Riots took place and captured the urban imagination. For Hamilton, these events underscored the need to include historically excluded communities of color into citywide planning efforts. Reflecting on the impact of the Watts Riots, one city planning official noted the event had, “[shook] to pieces the image of a gay, carefree Los Angeles… and jolted… Angelenos into an awareness of their city’s urbanhood.”[6] However, planners were not the only group re-conceptualizing the role of marginalized groups in planning. Civic groups such as the Community Relations Conference of Southern California (CRCSC) fought to pressure planning practices to include “racial and ethnic minorities, youth, the elderly, renters, the disabled, health and welfare groups, human relations and housing groups.”[7] Together, these efforts compelled planners to assess the enduring impact of postwar racial segregation and counter it with newfound innovative community planning efforts.

Community plans, then, were developed to break away from conventional top-down planning approaches and include otherwise overlooked Angelenos in the process. Although citizen participation in neighborhood planning was readily encouraged in predominantly white, non-blighted neighborhoods, community plans functioned as the first efforts to solicit and collect barrio residents’ input in city planning processes. In this way, these initial community plans and the background reports they generated began to serve as important records of collective community participation in city-led planning efforts. Moreover, these documents function as important artifacts to evaluate relationships between communities of color and city planners over time. Indeed, this relationship has remained a constant site of tension, directly shaping quality of life for communities of color in Los Angeles.

Image 5

Photo by Flickr user Paul Narvaez.


“Boyle Heights is Worth Saving”

Despite variations in discourse and approaches towards urban blight, addressing blighted places remained a priority for local political and business leaders. Shortly after the construction of Dodger Stadium broke ground on the site where Chavez Ravine once stood,[8] the then councilmember for District 9 (which included Boyle Heights), Edward R. Roybal, observed blight remaining as “one of the most insidious problem[s] confronting the cities of our nation.”[9] Business leaders similarly viewed blighted areas as issues of primary concern for their perceived negative effects on the economy, labeling such locales as “festering sores on the body politic.”[10] In the context of an enduring consensus over the need to relieve blighted areas, the declining popularity of urban renewal by demolition encouraged planners to rethink conventional approaches and thereby consider efforts such as rehabilitation and citizen-oriented planning.

With memories of invasive freeway projects and the razing of neighboring barrios remaining fresh in the minds of many, planners’ citizen-centered approach made for a hard sell for residents of Boyle Heights.

Identified by the L.A. Community Analysis Bureau as one of the most blighted areas in the city, city planners sought to reverse blight in Boyle Heights through competing processes of rehabilitation and community planning.[11] With memories of invasive freeway projects and the razing of neighboring barrios remaining fresh in the minds of many, planners’ citizen-centered approach made for a hard sell for residents of Boyle Heights. As a local resident and Chicano, city planner Raul Escobedo became a cultural broker for the largely white city planning department and their planning endeavors in Boyle Heights. Escobedo’s work on the Boyle Heights community plan utilized his planning expertise, as well as his connection to the cultural and political context of the Chicano movement fifty years ago. One of which was a necessary relationship to include residents’ input for the Boyle Heights Community Plan.

Despite initial mistrust for city planning efforts in their community, Escobedo successfully encouraged barrio residents to participate in significant numbers, in part, by validating their fears of displacement and, simultaneously, providing insight to the citywide planning processes. Residents’ concerns were recorded as part of the community plan prepared by Escobedo and included issues related to protecting Boyle Heights from encroaching downtown development and safeguarding the neighborhood’s inexpensive housing stock for existing and future working class residents. Similarly, Escobedo utilized the legacy of exclusion inherited by Boyle Heights to contextualize Boyle Heights residents’ fears, concerns, and demands to his city planning colleagues. As the Chicano city planner bridged these two distinct worlds, residents also attempted to make sense of new citizen-oriented planning in the context of concurrent projects that sought to transform planning on a citywide basis and, simultaneously, redevelop downtown.

Image 4

Mayor Eric Garcetti launches Volunteer Corps event in Boyle Heights, 25 October 2014, via Flickr.

In 1973, residents like Rosalio Muñoz noted that “both the City and County of Los Angeles are presently completing new [plans] which call for further development of this new cosmopolitan center [including] plans to redevelop the surrounding neighborhoods to accommodate projected workers and shoppers for the [downtown area].”[12] For Eastside residents like Muñoz the development of downtown and the surrounding areas threatened existing barrio land uses, as he expressed, stating that “all of this [planned] development has been and is projected to be right on top of what is already the most ideal urban setting for the Chicano.”[13] Such responses to city planning were common in the political imagination of residents who held fast to memories of Federal bulldozers of urban renewal that had disappeared neighboring Mexican barrios. A year after Munõz shared his perspective on citywide planning, Francisco Mendoza argued that the community plan offered “a way of preparing [Boyle Heights] for the outright attack and displacement of thousands of people.”[14]

Despite this hesitancy, efforts by Raul Escobedo and Boyle Heights residents succeed in composing and introducing a community plan reflective of community members. The final community plan allowed veteran city planners to recognize the barrio’s significance as “the only viable economic alternative as to where [families of limited income] can afford to live.”[15] Moreover, Escobedo’s efforts convinced his senior planning colleagues to alter plans to demolish old housing stock and, instead,  preserve it. To ensure the character of the community into the foreseeable future, Escobedo recommended residential areas be rezoned to the lowest residential density. Affirming these recommendations, the planning director concluded that “the continued involvement by community residents proved, indeed, that Boyle Heights is worth saving.” In a sense, this conclusion not only expressed the value of saving Boyle Heights from blight, but also saving it from downtown redevelopment.

However, by the time the Boyle Heights Community Plan was adopted in the late 1970s, downtown redevelopment took precedence as the Federal government moved away from investing in cities and neoliberalism took hold within the urban political economy. In 1975, Bradley had warned Angelenos that in the absence of intense redevelopment the downtown core would fall victim to the “urban cancer” of blight.[16] In the 1980s, Bradley followed through on his promise of revitalizing the area and the planning department followed suit by prioritizing its redevelopment, and by abandoning staff and resources to develop community plans and similar citizen-driven projects. For barrio working class and residents of color of Eastside who were often renters and immigrants, the Tom Bradley administration’s move away from community plans re-instilled concerns over future displacement.

Image 2

Photo by Flickr user Paul Narvaez.


Defending Boyle Heights

Since downtown development became the priority over community planning, city planning had remained out of sync with local residents’ concerns. Community members continued to fight for safe streets, improved schools, and adequate city services, even as political leaders advanced policies that regarded Eastside barrios as blighted and populated by politically apathetic residents. Examples of this would be the selection of East Los Angeles as an appropriate site for a prison and Vernon as a suitable location for a hazardous waste incinerator. Viewed as having direct negative effects on the quality of life in their respective neighborhoods as well as Boyle Heights, these two projects were subject to community protests. Led by Mothers of East Los Angeles (MELA) and religion-based community allies, the ensuing social movement that took place during the mid to late 1980s challenged city and private developers’ policies and practices, which continued to link communities of color with land uses detrimental to residents’ health and safety.[17] In 1996, this grassroots type of activism continued through the organizing efforts by residents of the Pico Gardens and Aliso Village public housing projects. Here, women demanded the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) promise the provision of low-cost housing units for displaced residents who wished to remain in the housing community.[18] While organizing efforts secured a higher number of affordable housing units that would have otherwise been constructed by HACLA, the demolition of the Pico-Aliso public housing community resulted in a net loss of low-cost housing units. Both MELA and the women of Pico Gardens and Aliso Village housing project transformed conventional narratives of their neighborhoods from “blighted” to dignified residential areas populated by citizens who were on a mission to secure a healthy environment for all families.

Although community plans have been dismissed as powerless planning documents they represented, in the case of Boyle Heights, the opportunity to reverse the historic tide of top-down planning and bring historically excluded communities into the city planning fold presented itself for the first time. Community plans also expanded planning processes to engage community residents by hiring culturally and politically informed planners to help connect to the community residents—in this case, Chicano Planner Raul Escobedo. As a result, residents interpreted community plans as an occasion to achieve political inclusion. In doing so, residents maintained a commitment to a multitude of strategies that would ensure community-wide improvements in the quality of life. In a local weekly, local resident Francisco Mendoza argued, “This [community] plan is only one thing that we have to defeat or change for the benefit of not the rich, but for the working people in our community. Those are only some of the reasons for uniting against the attacks and the exploitation of our community, and of all the working people which produce this country’s wealth.”[19]

Image 1.jpg

Mariachi Plaza, Boyle Heights, via Flickr user Paul Narvaez.

Presently, as community plans throughout Los Angeles undergo their scheduled updates, the history between these planning projects and their relationship to marginalized communities provides beneficial insights for politicians, planners, and residents alike.

First, the historical context underscores how local histories remain ever-present in the political and social landscape in which residents live their daily lives— an awareness quickly lost in public debates regarding the future of the neighborhood. Second, foregrounding this history acts as a temporal touchstone for barrio residents across generations to assess how contemporary needs in the barrio have changed or remained the same over time and how they have rearticulated strategies for inclusion. For example, inexpensive housing options, and affordable rents in particular, are increasingly scarce in today’s housing market—an issue identified in city planning documents since the early 1970s and one that has progressively worsened. In evaluating the community plan processes, it also illustrates how activism and community involvement in local politics was part of a protracted struggle for the complete cultural and political inclusion of Latinx communities since fifty years ago—and one that continues to the present. Finally, considering the Boyle Heights Community Plan in relation to the long history of political disenfranchisement in Los Angeles barrios reveals the enduring power relations, which inform contemporary discussions of neighborhood change, even if these power relations go unacknowledged or at times denied.

Presently, the barrio remains a largely renter-oriented neighborhood at seventy-five percent since the community plan was adopted, rendering a majority of the population vulnerable to rising rents and real estate speculation often complementing gentrification.

Current debates[20] regarding gentrification in Boyle Heights, then, bring barrio residents’ longstanding concerns over displacement into the present day. Boyle Heights’ history of providing inexpensive housing for working class (often immigrant) residents continues to be targeted, presently by gentrification and an ever-tightening housing market. In a post-Great Recession context, renters disproportionately share the cost-burden of rising housing costs across the nation.[21] In Los Angeles, the lowest-income renters are severely cost burdened, paying up to seventy percent of their income for rent.[22] Presently, the barrio remains a largely renter-oriented neighborhood at seventy-five percent since the community plan was adopted, rendering a majority of the population vulnerable to rising rents and real estate speculation often complementing gentrification.

City-led efforts to save affordable housing and the working class character of Boyle Heights in the face of downtown redevelopment has continued for so many decades that contemporary activists are picking up the “anti-displacement-baton” with local groups such as Defend Boyle Heights. Planners and activists seeking to curb the influence of downtown development on Boyle Heights and similar working class barrios could benefit from revisiting the history of activism in the barrio and its legacy within and outside traditional avenues of political participation. In 1974, when Mendoza shared his trepidation over community plans and their limits, he nevertheless called on his neighbors to defend Boyle Heights. Doing so, he argued, the following: “every man and woman, working or not, [needs] to come to the aid of [the] community, we need the young, the old, the owner, the renters, we need to unite.”[23]

Taking into consideration the history of planning approaches in communities of color thrown into relief, the protracted fight for economically-accessibly housing in Boyle Heights continues to bespeak its importance to its deeply passionate residents. Early in the post-Civil Rights era, city planning in Los Angeles gestured towards inclusionary policies and practices to meaningfully include marginalized citizens into the planning process, yet overarching policies of exclusionary land uses prevailed even if political inclusion improved. With downtown redevelopment jumping the L.A. River into Boyle Heights, ongoing discussions and framing over anti-displacement movements are better understood within this history of dispossession.

Image 3

Photo by Flickr user TravelingMan.

 

Notes

[1] Rodolfo Acuña, A Community Under Siege: A Chronicle of Chicanos, East of the Los Angeles River, 1945-1972, Chicano Studies Research Center Publications (Los Angeles: UCLA, 1984), 101.

[2] Gilbert Estrada, “If You Build It, They Will Move: The Los Angeles Freeway System and the Displacement of Mexican East Los Angeles, 1944-1972,” Southern California Quarterly 87 (2005): 287-315.

[3] David F. Beatty, Redevelopment in California (Point Arena: Solano Press Books, 2004), 97.

[4] Calvin Hamilton, “Urban Renewal,” speech, Junior Chamber International Community Development Conference, 28 October 1966.

[5] Los Angeles Regional Planning Commission, “Environmental Development Guide,” October 1970.

[6] Anne V. Howell, “Oikoumene—Los Angeles Style,” Los Angeles Planning Department, 2 December1968.

[7] Irv Burleigh, “Fight Brews Over Who Should Take Part in City Planning,” Los Angeles Times, 6 December 1973.

[8] Thomas S. Hines, “Housing, Baseball, and Creeping Socialism: The Battle of Chavez Ravine, Los Angeles, 1949-1959,” Journal of Urban History 8 (1982): 123-143.

[9] Edward R. Roybal, “Report on the Urban Renewal Seminar in New Haven Connecticut,” 7 August 1959.

[10] Southern California Research Council, Migration and the Southern California Economy (Los Angeles, 1964), 70.

[11] Strategy for City Survival, Los Angeles, 1970. For an overview of the Community Analysis Bureau see Mark Vallianatos, “Uncovering the Early History of ‘Big Data’ and the ‘Smart City’ in Los Angeles,” Boom California, 16 June 2015, https://boomcalifornia.com/2015/06/16/uncovering-the-early-history-of-big-data-and-the-smart-city-in-la/.

[12] Rosalio Muñoz, “Save the barrio now,” Eastside Sun, March 1973.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Francisco Mendoza, “Boyle Heights Plan Given Airing at All Nations Tonight,” Eastside Sun, September 1974.

[15] Los Angeles City Planning Department, “Boyle Heights Community Plan Adopted,” News Release, 14 August 1979.

[16] Tom Bradley, “Blight is the Only Other Alternative,” Los Angeles Times , 12 October 1975.

[17] Mary Pardo, Mexican American Women Activists: Identity and Resistance in Two Los Angeles Communities (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998).

[18] “The Women of Pico Aliso: 20 Years of Housing Activism,” Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (blog), 25 May 2018, http://alianzacontraartwashing.org/en/coalition-statements/the-women-of-pico-aliso-20-years-of-housing-activism; Hector Becerra, “Building Confidence in a New Project,” Los Angeles Times, 23 August 1988.

[19] Francisco Mendoza, “Boyle Heights Plan Given Airing at All Nations Tonight,” Eastside Sun, September 1974.

[20] Times Editorial Board, “Boyle Heights anti-gentrification activists hurt their cause by making it about race, rather than economics,” Los Angeles Times,.20 July 2017, http://www.latimes.com/opinion/editorials/la-ed-gentrification-boyle-heights-race-20170721-story.html.

[21] “The State of the Nation’s Housing 2017,” Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, 16 June 2017, http://www.jchs.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/harvard_jchs_state_of_the_nations_housing_2017_0.pdf.

[22] “Los Angeles County Renters in Crisis: A Call for Action,” California Housing Partnership, May 2017.

[23] Francisco Mendoza, “Boyle Heights Plan Given Airing at All Nations Tonight,” Eastside Sun, September 1974.

 

Alfredo Huante is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the University of Southern California. He earned his Master’s in Urban Planning at the University of California, Los Angeles. His work engages racial inequality, racial formation, and land use, particularly related to gentrification.

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

 

Articles

Welcome Children

Keenan Norris

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

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

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

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

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

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

11x17Poster-ImmigrantsWelcome-Mama2


The New Americans

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

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

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

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

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

CityLights-banners-sml

Art by Micah Bazant.

 

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

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

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

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


New American Story Project

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

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

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

“Two years ago,” Micheline remembers,

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

Poise and intensity enters Micheline’s tone:

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

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

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

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

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

11x17Download-MigrarNoEsUnCrimen-Mama

 

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Articles

Field of Dreams

Soccer-1

Romeo Guzmán

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Aurelio Sánchez, goalie. Atlas, 1967.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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