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.
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. 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 and a seventeen-year-old Honduran boy, are extremely harrowing. Thus far, Micheline has conducted twenty-two interviews with unaccompanied minor refugees, offering them the forum to tell their stories.
Monica, 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, 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.
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, 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 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?”
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.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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.” 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. 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. 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.”
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.
Migration and movement is endemic to competitive soccer and players often have to relocate or commute long hours to take advantage of playing opportunities. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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. 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. 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.
Aurelio’s son Juan Sánchez. Anaheim Splash of Continental Indoor Soccer League (CISL).
* 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.
 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).
 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).
 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).
 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.”
 Joseph L. Arbena, “Sport, Development, and Mexican Nationalism, 1920-1970,” Journal of Sport History 18 (1991): 350-64.
 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).
 Aurelio Sánchez, interviewed by Romeo Guzmán, 10 August 2017, California State University, Fresno, “Valley Public History: Preserving our Stories.”
 Pierre Lanfranchi and Matthew Taylor, Moving with the Ball: The Migration of Professional Footballers (New York: Berg, 2001).
 The distance between La Piedad and La Experiencia is approximately 105 miles. Today’s commute by car is about two hours.
 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.
 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.
 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).
 Alfonso Arias, “Recordando a los impulsores del futbol en Los Angeles,” La Opinion, 16 September 1976.
 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).
 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.
In the middle of a series of fascinating interviews with Latin American Los Angeles session musicians, the editor of this volume, Josh Kun, puts a series of questions to the great Brazilian percussionist Paulinho da Costa. In the midst of these, he lets his thesis slip. “You can tell musical history through the artist,” he says. “But you can also tell it from the back end, from the perspective of the session player. How does that change musical history? Suddenly Brazilian music is no longer this marginal exotic sound but at the center of virtually everything people are listening to.”
Finding a new center, or a new listening point, for the history of popular music is at the heart of The Tide Was Always High. Kun’s wide-ranging introductory essay and the more particular contributions from a variety of writers display just what a substantial and ambitious task this book is to undertake. In order to pull it off, Kun asks us to rethink not only what is Latin American about Los Angeles culture, but also what is truly “Los Angeles” about the work of Latin American musicians? In order to make the argument, he is willing to rethink how hierarchies of taste and value are established and revised. In arguing for the pervasiveness of the Latin influence on American music, he is less interested in pitting genres against one another, or even determining critical value within a genre, than he is in showing connections among them all. Los Angeles session musicians like da Costa, whom some in the music press over the years have held in a sort of mild contempt as slick guns-for-hire, provide the intellectual model for Kun’s project. They treat each session, no matter the artist nor the context—whether commercial jingle, Hollywood soundtrack, jazz, pop—as an opportunity to make an important and distinctive cultural contribution, one rooted in their own ethnic backgrounds but functioning as anchor points for someone else’s music. In doing so, Kun argues, they essentially are remaking American cultural expression with a Latin American cast.
But The Tide Was Always High does far more than send music geeks who actually read session credits (this reviewer included) back to their record collections to be reminded of just what da Costa, Alex Acuña, and their compatriots have been doing in Los Angeles studios over the past several decades. John Koegel takes a deep dive into the history of Mexican musical theater in pre-1930 Los Angeles. Walter Aaron Clark’s study of Carmen Miranda and Carol Ann Hess’s on Disney’s Saludos Amigos reveals the ways Hollywood has played with concepts of ethnic or folk authenticity. We learn of Latin music at the high end of the musicians’ union schedule (Agustin Gurza on the Hollywood Bowl) and also at the low end, and begin to understand the very short cultural distance between the two (Daniel F. Garcia on the Paramount Ballroom in Boyle Heights).
The question of what is real and what is not is, of course, fundamental to modern entertainment, from Barnum and coon shows to lip-synched pop concerts. One of the great values of this volume is the ways it reveals the layers of Latin American music in Los Angeles, from the personae of performers—Portuguese-born Carmen Miranda as a representative of exotic Brazil and Latin America in general; Yma Sumac’s Inca princess character defining the Peruvian—to the very permutations of the music and the mixing of audiences for various styles of Latin American sounds. What might be considered the ersatz seems to matter as much as the real thing, if for no other reason than that such categories are made moot by the eclecticism of the musicians themselves, with bandleader and composer-for-all-seasons Esquivel! as a prime example—Hans Ulrich Obrist’s interview with the effervescent pianist, Juan García Esquivel, is especially valuable for this reason alone.
Kun and his talented colleagues—poets, musicians, and journalists are every bit as welcome as scholars here—document a time of racial segregation when musical borrowings and syntheses seemed to be less problematic. The boundaries of cultural territory seem to have been less closely policed in the twentieth-century decades covered by this volume, even as reckonings with racism kept getting pushed into the future. Years ago, Eric Lott published Love and Theft, a book on minstrelsy. The book’s title came to stand for an entire history of white appropriation of black cultural forms. Kun not only comes to celebrate the various pop manifestations of this in relation to Latin American music, but he also names the book after one of the highest-charting examples: Blondie’s “The Tide Is High.” (I don’t hold it against Kun at all that it has now become my earworm of several weeks’ standing.)
The catholicity expressed by Kun, the seeming lack of interest in aesthetic judgment that has, for better or worse, determined the character of popular music history, is perhaps appropriate in uncovering a Latin American Los Angeles not dominated by blues-based African American styles. You cannot read the history of music in New Orleans or Chicago or New York without large helpings of African American influence and performance, almost always with the assumption that there are hierarchies of quality and authenticity involved that are almost as clear as Du Bois’s color line. That model, whatever its merits and shortcomings, is a suit that does not fit well on Los Angeles, and Kun is an open enough thinker to find a new way of examining ethnicity in popular music made in Los Angeles by editing a volume where jazz and rock orthodoxies are absent (and Los Lobos, perhaps pointedly, is not mentioned). It is in fact the latest iteration in a long-running reimagining of the place of music in American culture going back at least as far as Kun’s Audiotopia (2006).
Befitting a companion volume to an exhibition, Kun provides numerous album covers and other vibrant visual ephemera that are still stirring up curiosity about the sounds under discussion. There is probably more to say about the imagery associated with Latin American recorded music, but that could easily become another project entirely. Kun’s willingness to listen—to listen deeply not only to music but to musicians—results in a rethinking of his subject and a jumping-off point for new conversations not just about Los Angeles and its cultural history, but about the assumptions and goals of such conversations that encompass implications that go well beyond California.
 Josh Kun, ed., The Tide Was Always High: The Music of Latin America in Los Angeles (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017), 186.
Benjamin Cawthra, Professor of History and Associate Director, Lawrence de Graaf Center for Oral and Public History, California State University, Fullerton, is the author of Blue Notes in Black and White: Photography and Jazz. He teaches cultural, public, and visual history and has written on Duke Ellington and Miles Davis.
an agent suspects of her
suspects of him suspects of me
suspects himself and above all suspects the baby
his work to suspect suspicious
everything about you is suspect: your glasses are suspicious
your books are suspicious
your car is suspicious
the cloudy day is suspicious
the picture on your ID is suspicious
your last name is suspicious
your ears are particularly suspicious
above all are very suspicious
she carries a newborn
he looks at the IDs
there’s no picture that’s true to a baby
there’s no ID that can assure
that you are you at 10 days after arriving to the party
every father or mother suspects
during the first 10 days
where that baby came from
suspicion is part of the cog
that churns when the world moves
a suspicious customs officer
suspects asks her to pull out her breast
she suspects he suspects her breasts
asks her to breast-feed
if that child is hers there will be milk
if not the suspicion will be certain
she does it
he asks her to do it again
during the first attempt the amount of milk
was suspiciously small
she does it again
he allows her to cross
and the line of suspects moves on.
Translated by by Jose Antonio Villarán.
Omar Pimienta is a Tijuana-based artist and writer, and Ph.D. candidate at in Literature at UC San Diego. His work examines questions of identity, migration, citizenship, emergency poetics, landscape, and memory, and his work is currently on display as part of the unDocumenta exhibition at the Oceanside Museum of Art. He has published four books of poetry in México and Spain, and his newest book, The Album of Fences, with translations by Jose Antonio Villarán, is forthcoming with Cardboard House Press.
It’s probably no exaggeration to say that the U.S. has just been through its Prop 187 moment.
Like today, the turmoil California experienced in 1994 was triggered by broad demographic change, with a special target placed on the backs of “illegal immigrants.” It was accompanied by a broad sense of economic anxiety—nearly half of the nation’s net job losses in the early 1990s were experienced in the Golden State as cutbacks in defense spending shredded our manufacturing sector. The simmering social and economic unease was exacerbated by a politician running behind in the polls and looking for a way to make his mark.
While it may all sound familiar, the point is not to rerun the tape and point to historical precedents. More useful is asking where California is nearly twenty-five years later, and how it got there. After all, the state that once sought to deny unauthorized immigrants access to a broad range of services—including non-emergency health care and even education for children—has figured out how to extend drivers’ licenses to those without legal status and provide state-financed health care to all undocumented youth.
The story of the state’s changing attitudes and policies has a lot to do with the vibrant immigrant rights’ advocacy that changed the state’s political calculus—reflected in part in the accession of Kevin De León (an organizer who cut his teeth organizing against Prop 187) to the leadership of the state Senate. Having written about that advocacy elsewhere, my focus here is on some structural factors: the passage of time, the changing nature of the undocumented community, and the increasing “normality” of unauthorized immigrants in multiple aspects of California life.
Indeed, part of what has happened in California is the sheer ubiquity of a population once considered a bit exotic and different. While numbers are hard to come by—people don’t generally offer up their status, particularly with a presidential administration hell-bent on deportation—most estimates put the number of those without legal status in California at somewhere under 3 million. That’s about a fourth of all the undocumented individuals in the nation and about seven percent of the total state population.
It may be easy to think of that sizeable population in a way more in tune to the past—that is, when the immigration flows from Mexico and Central American were surging in the 1980s and 1990s. In that era, the vast majority of the undocumented were border-crossers fleeing economic crises and civil wars. The largest share were single males who soon showed up as workers in the fields, operatives working in factories, and day laborers posted in front of the local hardware store.
But a lot has happened since a massive uptick in unauthorized migration prompted the furor that resulted in Proposition 187.
Most important is that the era of mass migration from Mexico is probably over. The reason is partly demographic: fertility rates have fallen dramatically in what has traditionally been the largest sending country to the U.S., and this is now echoing generationally in a way that has reduced a key factor pushing people northward. Meanwhile, the disruptions caused by Mexico’s embrace of free trade in the 1990s have mostly worked their way through the system and the nation’s economic growth. While not stellar by, say, Chinese standards, this has been sufficient to cause would-be migrants to rethink the opportunity structure they face.
While advocates are less likely to acknowledge this, increased border enforcement and more effective workplace verification in recent years has also played a role: it’s simply more difficult and expensive to cross and increasingly harder to secure employment once here. And while Central American migration remains a key factor—now driven partly by the gang violence that immigrants brought back from their stays in urban California—net migration from Mexico is negative and has been for several years.
As a result, several characteristics of the population have shifted. First, the undocumented population in the U.S. has declined since its peak in 2007 and has been stable since about 2009. Second, it is now likely that the bulk of the new undocumented are people who overstayed visas rather than scrambled across the Rio Grande. Third, and perhaps most significant: while about sixty percent of undocumented immigrants had been in the country for less than ten years in the mid-2000s, almost two-thirds now have lived in the U.S. for more than a decade.
As usual, these national trends are reflected strongly in the Golden State. After all, California has the nation’s most settled immigrant population in general—and it also has the highest share of state residents without legal status. Given high rates of labor force participation (and the fact that the undocumented are overwhelmingly adults), that share swells to about nine percent of the labor force. These workers are deeply embedded in key parts of the labor market, comprising a vital workforce for agriculture, retail, and low-skill service industries.
Another matter of great significance is the fact of mixed-status families: fully eight percent of all Californians live with a family member that is not documented, the highest figure for the nation. Even more dramatic: roughly seventeen to eighteen percent of children in the state have at least one undocumented parent. In Los Angeles County, adding up the undocumented and their immediate family members amounts to about a fifth of the total county population.
Put it all together—length of time in the country, key roles in the economy, the share of the state’s children, and the percent of the population touched directly and indirectly by the precarious nature of immigration status—and a simple conclusion is inescapable: these are not illegal immigrants but undocumented Californians.
Undocumented Californians are our neighbors, relatives, friends, classmates, and co-workers. They help to grow our food and take care of our elders and our kids—and they are also our class valedictorians and future professionals. And because they are increasingly unlikely to go anywhere, the state’s future depends on their progress and the progress of their children.
As a result, the state’s central task is now immigrant integration and that includes those who lack legal status. There are many reasons why this is true, including the size and stability of the population, but one of them is political: while comprehensive immigration reform seems a long way off in the era of Trump, reform with a path to legalization is all but inevitable.
After all, demography continues to march forward, something that will be recorded by the 2020 Census and reflected in the elections of that year as well. It is those 2020 elections—which will be a presidential contest in which minorities, immigrants, and the young are more likely to participate—that will, along with the Census, determine the shape of electoral boundaries for the decade to come.
So just like the Tea Party uprising of 2010 helped to shift the nation to the right (partly because of the gerrymandering it made possible), 2020 could set the nation in a different direction. And a Congress elected in those circumstances is much more likely to finally accept the basic principles of the 2013 Senate bill: tighter enforcement, higher future flows, and a path to citizenship.
Given that, the choice for California is clear: preparing our population for that future or squandering the opportunity to be ready. The state has been taking the right steps in terms of key policies, like extending in-state tuition to undocumented students, granting the right to drivers’ licenses, and generally refusing to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Political scientists Karthik Ramakrishnan and Allan Colbern have described this as a sort of “California package” that provided de facto state citizenship.
The state has been taking the right steps in terms of key policies, like extending in-state tuition to undocumented students, granting the right to drivers’ licenses, and generally refusing to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
It’s a start, but investing in the future—particularly with an eye toward future legalization—will require stepping up California’s game. Determining new ways to cultivate the habits of citizenship—perhaps by allowing non-citizen to vote in local school elections—could be important. Expanding job opportunities to stabilize parental income—perhaps by dramatically increasing English classes and providing community-based skill building that would be open to all—could be productive. Creating new avenues to earn a living without being formal employees—such as worker individual entrepreneurs and even worker collectives organized as limited liability corporations—is another part of a more innovative approach.
A defensive reaction is also in order. Because of the ways in which undocumented Californians are deeply rooted in the state’s social and economic fabric, any deportation or threatened revocation of DACA status is far more likely than in years past to disrupt a family, damage a business, or scar a community. The good news: California’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, seems eager to go after federal overreach, suing to prevent the administration from denying funds to so-called “sanctuary cities.” The better news: the State Assembly and Senate passed a bill called the “California Values Act” that has further codified the state’s decision to limit cooperation with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.
It is incumbent on California to get this right. Just as we presaged the nation with our collective melt-down about immigrants, we can hopefully show the good that happens when we combine head and heart, joining fact-based reason about the new realities of immigration with a compassionate attitude to our fellow Californians. If the demographers are right—in this case, about immigrants fanning out from the traditional gateways—what the state offers up in the way of reaction, resistance, and reform will set the tone for a country that will soon need a new and more welcoming approach.
 Manuel Pastor, State of Resistance: What California’s Dizzying Descent and Remarkable Resurgence Mean for America’s Future (New York: The New Press, 2018).
Jonathan Gold and Oliver Wang at the Autry in Los Angeles
Food and Ethnicity: A Conversation about L.A. Tuesday, September 5th 7:00 p.m. Dinner
7:30 p.m. Program Begins
Join us in L.A. for our first Fall event! In partnership with the Autry Museum of the American West and their Works in Progress series, enjoy a night of food and conversation as LA Times food critic Jonathan Gold and Cal State Long Beach sociologist Oliver Wang workshop some ideas on L.A. food and ethnicity, which will be published in Boom California later this year. The discussion will be moderated by Boom’s editor, Jason Sexton.
This will be the first in an ongoing partnership between the Autry and Boom.
Undocumented California: An Evening of Readings and Music Thursday, October 5th 7:00 – 9:00 p.m.
Gather with us in Tijuana at Cine Tonalá for an evening of friendship, readings, and music, entering the complex realities brought to us by the California border. Co-sponsored together with the California Historical Society, we’ll reflect on California border ecology, highlighting our shared identity as Californians, bridge-builders, open to the world.
Come grab a drink, meet Boom writers like Ana Rosas, Tanya Golash-Boza, Zulema Valdez, Ronald Rael, Jemima Pierre, Laura Enriquez, Josh Kun, David Kipen, and others sharing new readings for this Fall’s Boom series on Undocumented California, making a statement together of our collective values as Californians. We’ll close the night with a special set by Tijuana-raised Ceci Bastida who will debut a new collaboration with Haitian refugees living in the city.
Venue: Cine Tonalá, Avenida Revolución 1317, Zona Centro, 22000 Tijuana, BC, Mexico
Many years ago, I rode on a team bus through the agricultural heart of California. Up far too late for a school night, we didn’t get on the road until past 10 p.m., and weren’t getting back to Los Angeles before 2 a.m.
Strange things happen when you qualify for the California state volleyball playoffs. In California, athletic regions are larger than most states. I was an assistant coach at my alma mater. I didn’t have to attend the match, but I enjoy a good road trip.
We took State Route 145 southbound, an empty a two-lane through cotton fields and almond groves to get to I-5. Amid the dark and quiet—the kind of quiet that you only hear after a team’s season has ended—one of our more whimsical players bolted upright and asked of the entire bus, “Is that the real moon?”
She can be forgiven for her incredulity. The moon rising ahead of us that November night was a reddish freak of refraction known only to the flattest of landscapes. It looked nothing like the modest disk she’d seen over west Los Angeles a million times before. As far as the players and I were concerned, we were traveling through a foreign land—California’s own version of flyover country. For all we knew, maybe it did have its own moon.
Doug Walters @dougwalters via Unsplash.
Back then, Donald Trump was just an inflated real estate developer. Even so, the town of Kerman probably would have voted for him back then. A typical farm town of 8,500 at the time, 20 miles west of Fresno, Kerman floats amid the politically red ocean surrounding America’s archipelago of blue. It is precisely the type of place in which urbane city-dwellers are unfamiliar just as cities are unfamiliar to many people in places like Kerman.
For all of Kerman’s Red State inclinations, the facts suggest that politically we were, if not in friendly territory, at least in territory that wasn’t hostile. In 2000, 53 percent of Fresno County favored George W. Bush over Al Gore. In the 2016 election, Fresno County favored Hillary Clinton 49 percent to 43 percent. Of the four precincts within Kerman’s city limits, only one favored Trump. In neighboring precincts, that number reached 82 percent.
Though Kerman superficially resembles many of the places where Donald Trump dominated—beating Hillary two- and three-fold—it was actually one of the few places in California that was relatively evenly split. Kerman actually teeters on the edge of Red and Blue, making it, paradoxically, an electoral microcosm of the country. And yet, with polarization and geographic sorting, it is near unique among American places.
Kerman’s brand of rural America differs from that in places like Oklahoma or Nebraska. As in communities in those states, many jobs—24 percent in Kerman’s case—are in agriculture. With a median family income of just over $34,000, it’s poor. But it looks different from its Heartland America counterparts. One explanation for Kerman’s political allegiance with urban America lies in demographics. Today, Kerman has 13,500 residents and is 71 percent Hispanic, up from 65 percent in 2000. How its volleyball team reflected its demographics, I honestly can’t recall.
Kelly Sikema @kelsikkema via Unsplash.
Until 9 November, I hadn’t thought about Kerman for a very long time. Come to think of it, Donald Trump probably never paid it, or its thousands of counterparts, much mind either. There’s not much of a market for skyscrapers on the prairie. And yet in the course of his campaign Trump saw his own moonrise the moment he left his tower and met with adoration in the unlikeliest of places. Hillary Clinton didn’t figure it out until the moment he won Michigan.
As I think about the way Trump’s America views my America, I can’t help but think about what Kerman thought of us or what we thought of Kerman. Some of our players probably didn’t think of Kerman at all—it was a team and a gym, and nothing more. Some may have been enchanted by the idea of a small town, so dissimilar from our metropolis. Some may have been less charitable.
And our opponents, the Lions of Kerman High? I hope they didn’t think of us at all. If they had, they might have been appalled. My school embodied every private school stereotype: wealthy, worldly, fashionable, probably a little spoiled. The children of what came to be known, soon thereafter, of the 1 percent. The girl so perplexed by the moon? She was the daughter of a celebrity, a rock star known in part for Vietnam-era protest songs. How awful must we have seemed to them. How backwards must they have seemed to us.
We’ve all developed notions of the noble struggles of the Heartland, the Rust Belt, Coal Country, and the rest. But until 9 November I think few of us realized just how badly the fuzziness of these notions could hurt us. What has become abundantly clear is that the hurt goes both ways: rural America, no matter how it votes, feels isolated from and therefore threatened by the cosmopolitan America of the cities and coasts. Cosmopolitan America does not recognize these threats and therefore ignores them. It probably believed that rural areas appreciated the urbanity and economic, intellectual, culturally-creative power of cities—looking to them admiringly.
I understand the Trump phenomenon better when I consider what his rallies must have meant to people in towns like Kerman—and in towns far more isolated and far more desperate. In those places, a volleyball playoff game might be the highlight of the year. A win in the state playoffs over a fancy private school might be the highlight of the decade. A Trump visit— one of those rallies where he pledged his allegiance to them and pledged inexplicably to stick it to the “elites”—might have been the highlight of a lifetime.
The beauty and tragedy of athletic contests is that they take place on the court. There’s a handshake and a coin toss and then the game comes into being. It is bounded by rules. Schools become teams. People become players. Places become venues. Participants relate to each other through the prism of the game. Then one of us goes home.
Los Angeles from Griffith Observatory by KimonBerlin via Flickr.
I wish we’d done more than just play volleyball that night. We could have gotten to know each other. Coaches could have chatted with coaches. Players could have made friends with their opponents. We could have had dinner beforehand or gone for ice cream afterwards. We could have gotten to know their names and found of what their lives were like. They could have done the same.
This is the type of encounter that, multiplied millions of times, may have prevented our national fracture. It’s the type that may be required for national healing. Gentle conversations, free of accusations and bitterness, may lead to empathy on both sides. That’s one school of thought, simplistic though it may be. The other school holds that the time for reconciliation is past and that the left must battle like never before. Of course, the right will do the same.
A little friendliness might not have saved the world. But I can’t help thinking of the power of small gestures of communion. Those kids grew up four hours from Los Angeles and four hours from the Bay Area. And yet, there’s a chance that none of them ever visited either or even met anyone from either. Their impressions would have been rightfully left to their own imaginations. Even a single encounter is memorable if it’s distinctive enough. We both could have come away with warm feelings rather than with the coldness of our assumptions. We could have reminded each other that we all live in the same state, in the same country, under the same moon. Maybe, seventeen years later, we’d have thought about each other, if only briefly, when we went to the polls.
To their credit, Kerman fielded a hell of a team. They whupped us fair and square. That’s one reason why that bus ride was so somber, celestial oddities notwithstanding. But, still, it was just a volleyball game. I wish all losses were so easy to take.
Josh Stephens is a journalist covering cities, and is contributing editor to the California Planning & Development Report, the state’s foremost independent publication dedicated to urban planning. He is also contributing editor to Planetizen.com and conducts its “Planners Across America” interview series. His work has also appeared in a wide-range fora including Planning Magazine, The Architect’s Newspaper, Los Angeles Magazine, Sierra Magazine, Grist.org, Los Angeles Review of Books, Volleyball Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, many of which are chronicled at joshrstephens.net.
Angel Sáncez (Captain America) and Antonio Mazas (Hulk) take a break between performances during the annual celebration of the Yalalag community in Los Angeles
Just west of downtown Los Angeles, in a derelict American Craftsman house, a group of Zapotec immigrants from Yalalag, a small town in southern Mexico, rush around the dining room. Here in Los Angeles, they’re getting ready for another performance, requiring attire chosen from a wardrobe of popular and global appeal. Outside in the backyard there is a celebration and a growing audience of more indigenous Mexican immigrants.
Most in attendance are Yalaltecos, and other immigrants from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Like in their Mexican hometown, Yalaltecos gather to celebrate patron saint days. For this particular saint day, they are celebrating a major Catholic figure, Santiago Apostle, the eponymous patron saint of the gathered community, and the religious icon that brings together the Yalalag community in Los Angeles in a similar way that it unites Yalaltecos in their hometown in Mexico.
For Santiago Apostle’s day, the audience has waited a year, and will wait a bit more, as the backyard fills with people under LA’s relentless summer sun. The saint sits on its handcrafted altar, and the audience waits patiently while watching folkloric performances produced as replicas of the acts from the Mexican community of origin. This is the annual feast, a celebration that reconnects the community as a people despite being immigrants of foreign soil. This year’s celebration, however, finds the attending DJ announcing a forthcoming surprise: “There will be a special dance in this year’s celebration… in a few minutes!”
Antonio Mazas (Hulk) and Angel Sanchez (Captain America), stand guard to the St. Santiago Apostle during the annual celebration of the Yalalag community in Los Angeles.
Hurriedly, the men dig into backpacks and plastic bags. Amid the haste, pieces of outfits are scattered around the floor and the dining room instantly becomes a messy wardrobe. As the men look for new garments, the traditional wooden masks are set to rest and new ones come out to play. On the dining table a range of faces emerge as masks look up emptily at the ceiling, expecting coming conjurers.
Sharing the same table, the masks exhibit different origins. Some were homemade in Los Angeles, while others were mass-produced, likely in China. The first are imported replicas of traditional models and show largely exaggerated facial expressions: brightly colored inflated cheeks, protruding lips, and swollen eyeballs. The second are more conventional, modeled on popular American comic book characters—plastic façades recognized the world around for their heroic and superhuman qualities: unmeasured anger, strength, and infinite power as it is for Hulk, Captain America, and Thor.
For the wooden masks, at an average cost of $40 each, a communal endeavor of cultural reproduction was required. Dancers, their wives, parents, and children shared funds and know-how, either to import paraphernalia or produce the masks at home for a dance now being reenacted on foreign U.S. soil, and by a new generation. For this particular performance, the traditional wooden masks were brought to Los Angeles by relatives who migrate back and forth between Mexico and the U.S. These masks, like other mass-produced ones, came to the performance at the annual celebration of Saint Santiago Apostle in Los Angeles via global circulation. At the event, the masks, like the religious figure, are images of limitless reproducibility, of invaluable unifying potential, and thus stand in as cohesive devices for all in attendance.
Bernardo Velasco (Ninja Turtle) and Antonio Mazas, members of Familia Zapoteca, get ready to perform at the annual celebration of St. Santiago Apostle in Los Angeles.
Unity grounded on Catholicism, however, rarely demands a specific day when the point is to feel at home, far from home. It could be any day, any saint in Los Angeles. Or so it is for Luis Delgado, the Zapotec immigrant from Yalalag, Oaxaca, who arranged the performance at the Saint Santiago Apostle celebration on this particular day.
When Delgado came to Los Angeles over a decade earlier, he found a group of men enacting the traditional ‘danzas’ of his hometown. In time, he joined the group that became: Grupo de Danza Familia Zapoteca.
Familia Zapoteca, now going through a second generation of dancers, is a combination of migrants and U.S. citizens who despite the status difference don’t mind dancing to the same tune. And because the dance group unites different generations, Delgado decided a couple of years ago to assemble a performance that would appeal to the current dancers and attract a younger crowd of U.S.-born Yalaltecos. He thus began outfitting one of the group’s choreographies in American popular characters.
To put idea into action, he instructed the dancers to turn into characters they always wanted to be: Captain America, Batman, Superman, Deadpool, Thor, Ninja Turtles, Hulk, Wolverine… and of course, Chapulín Colorado, the only visible sign of real pop Mexican heroism.
Eulogio Ríos (Thor), Seferino Ignacio (Chapulín), and Luis Delgado (Wolverine), members of Familia Zapoteca, prepare to perform at the annual celebration of St. Santiago Apostle in Los Angeles.
Once Familia Zapoteca turns into this set of makeshift characters, they become “Los Superhéroes,” an assortment of comic book expressions that line up behind a brass band. They sync immediately to the band’s quick tempo and take the stage of communal gatherings, often held on backyards’ flat concrete patios.
For these self-made heroes, audiences wait, as they did at Santiago Apostle’s celebration, and as they frequently do at Oaxacan celebrations in Los Angeles. Invariably, though, whether as superheroes or in any other form, Familia Zapoteca comes as a surprise. Each act, selected from a repertoire of over twenty possible performances, is an opportunity to extemporaneously engage people in the audience; to invite them to relate through the culturally shared elements the characters represent. At least, that was the purpose Luis Delgado had in mind when he organized the performance in 2014.
Now, as performed, Los Superhéroes is no joke. Its performative function is one where Familia Zapoteca breathes new life into a dance tradition that enables them to make sense of being in diaspora.
However, Los Superhéroes was not really Luis Delgado’s idea originally. It came to him from Oaxaca as part of the transnational exchanges that connect Los Angeles-based Oaxacans to their villages in Mexico. For Delgado, this particularly inspiring exchange happened in the form of a homemade DVD that a relative sent him from Yalalag, his own hometown in Oaxaca.
The DVD featured a visual rendition of what could very well be the first satirical enactment of American superheroes in a traditional celebration from Yalalag. The visual rendition thus presented an instance where the dance tradition, through the performance of the superheroes, confronted Yalaltecos from their own town with the specter of their own migrants living in the United States. Upon watching and replaying the DVD in Los Angeles, Delgado set out to replicate what was conveyed through the recording as a process of mimesis, a cultural reenactment that displayed the social and symbolic remittances that migration enables so that a community in diaspora remains interconnected.
Asai Alejo (Deadpool) stands ready to perform as a superhero for members of the San Andrés Yaa community in Los Angeles.
In Yalalag, where the DVD was recorded, when the ‘superheroes’ first appeared, the act was within the parameters of the traditional dances commonly known as ‘danzas chuscas,’ or funny dances. Through such dances, performed mostly by men, the Yalalag community parodies other communities, taking elements of their identity. One well-known example, and perhaps one of the first acts that started the ‘danzas chuscas,’ was when a dance group in Yalalag enacted the ‘danza de los mixes.’ The Mixe region, like Yalalag, is in northern Oaxaca, and the Mixe have been customarily derided for being too traditional, according to nationally recognized Zapotec writer and cultural promoter, Javier Castellanos.
Since the 1980s the danzas chuscas have been directed at immigrants returning home from abroad. For Yalaltecos in Oaxaca, the U.S.-based immigrants embody traces of assimilated American values, which the performances reenact as a form of cultural resistance and social critique with the intention of cultivating self-reflection.
Through parody and tradition, that first time the live performance of the ‘superheroes’ came to Yalalag, it arrived as an unsolicited trade and was welcomed as a reminder of distant members navigating other cultures. There in Oaxaca, Yalaltecos got to see, in a single act, the visual and symbolic dimension of transnational migration. In all its brevity, the performance was a single act of American fictional heroism that assaulted Yalalag from within, disappeared into the lens of a video camera and turned out into a DVD that was then exported to Los Angeles.
For Delgado in Los Angeles, replaying the performance from the imported DVD was more than symbolic and satirical. It was an overdue epiphany. As he blankly stared at the streaming video, he understood that cultural distance had been somewhat bridged. What he once perceived as culturally foreign was now, in fact, his own. For him, Yalaltecos in his hometown had embraced the image of the superheroes as a proper sign, much in the same way he had long ago accepted that same image as part of who he is as an immigrant in the U.S. So, when he decided to recreate the performance, he chose not to do it as a form of social critique, but for more meaningful reasons.
Familia Zapoteca performing the “danza de los payasos” during the celebration of St. Francis of Assisi organized by the San Francisco Yatee community in Los Angeles.
In Delgado’s version, the performance became a way of paying tribute to the audacity of the Yalalag performers, who figured out that beneath American mainstream characters, traditional practices are reproduced. But above all, his Los Angeles version was a way of projecting to the local audience a new sense of self by recognizing that one can be part of the U.S., and especially California, without ceasing to be Zapotec and specifically, Yalalteco.
After a few trial runs, and some minor negative responses from community members, Los Superhéroes became a crowd favorite. The reason is simple: “The dance allows young kids to identify with each character and see how their favorite character connects to their culture and traditions. And that is the dream of any kid,” Delgado said.
Representing the dreams of young children might be just a projection of the dancers’ own desires, but that is not all what Familia Zapoteca enacts. Since the success of Los Superhéroes in 2014, the group continues to enact the performance and has added other singular acts to the repertoire. For instance, “Los cocineros” pays tribute and satirizes the numerous members of their community who work in the food industry. As it specifically relates to men, Los cocineros points to shifting gender roles, and comments on the fact that immigrant men must enter the kitchen setting for economic survival.
Another performance, “Los turistas,” references the modern Hawaiian-shirt tourist that hordes ethnic paradises in the third world. It also, quite possibly, alludes to the returning immigrant who enters the community of origin as a temporal visitor.
In “Los payasos,” the group embodies the popular figure of the clown, as to take to the extreme the satirical nature of their dance tradition. And, in “La danza de Santa Claus,” the yearly act with which the group celebrates and ends a long year of performances, an empty-handed Santa Claus comes in a shopping cart, to make communion with an immigrant Zapotec community celebrating yet another Catholic festivity, this time Christmas.
Members of Familia Zapoteca arrive as Santa Claus at a community Christmas celebration in Los Angeles.
In all, the performances are new only superficially and each is new only momentarily. In due time, just as other performances have become integral acts of Yalaltecos’ dance selection, “Los Superhéroes” will secure a place in that list of possible acts, or at least the current dancers seem to expect this to happen.
Asai Alejo, who performs as Deadpool, likes to think that the superheroes will remain in the Yalalag dance tradition as a reminder of what his generation contributed.
“Children love the dance… and I hope that the dance will remain as part of the other acts we perform because it is something we have accomplished. And I hope it can continue for many years to come,” Alejo said.
Alejo speaks with self-assurance and without a hint of satirical intent. He is hopeful and confident because he knows that behind the paper-plate shield of Captain America, deep beneath the backpacks bulging out Santa Claus’s belly, and the countless folded garments that shape up the characters, there lays the fundamental grain of a tradition that allows the dancers to sustain a dance that incorporates what is foreign into their own. For that reason, the dancers rehearse each step arduously.
At weekly practices, dancers line up face to face in two parallel rows. As the music begins, each dancer steps forward then strides side-to-side, and the rows move in opposite directions. At each step, they pace gleefully and rotate around each other. As if forming couples, they raise arms high and faces look jauntily into the horizon beyond the backyard of the American Craftsman house, where Familia Zapoteca earnestly practices for upcoming performances.
Familia Zapoteca rehearsing for a performance. The group was founded by Zapotec immigrants from the Yalalag community in Oaxaca, Mexico.
All photos taken by Leopoldo Peña.
 Zapotecs are one of the largest indigenous people in southern Mexico. The Zapotecs, like other Mexican Indigenous groups, began migrating to the United States in the 1980s.
 Yalalteco/a is the Spanish term for natives of Yalalag.
 Another feature of the transnational aspect of the performance is the importation of music scores. For these, the dancers share the expenses for having a musician in their hometown produce a score sheet that a Los Angeles-based band plays for the performances. For details on how transnationally plays out in indigenous Mexican migrant communities see Jonathan Fox and Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, Indigenous Mexican Migrants in the United States, Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, UCSD/Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, 2004, and Lynn Stephen, Transborder Lives: Indigenous Oaxacans in Mexico, California, and Oregon (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).
 Funny is a literal translation of “chusca/o”; however, within the semantics of the performance, “chusca/o” contains a stronger element of parody, satire and intent to caricature.
 Personal interview, 3 August 2016, Los Angeles.
 For a discussion of how “danzas chuscas” engages questions of gender and class differences, see Adriana Cruz-Manjarrez, “‘Danzas Chuscas’ Performing Migration in a Zapotec Community,” Dance Research Journal 40 (2008): 2-33.
 Performances, even funerals, in Los Angeles are also recorded and these recordings are sent to Oaxaca as well.
 Personal interview, 24 June 2016, Los Angeles.
 Personal interview, 24 June 2016, Los Angeles.
Leopoldo Peña is a Mexican-immigrant, photographer, and Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at UC Irvine. His dissertation focuses on photography in early twentieth century Mexico, and maintains interest in Zapotec literary production.
Orange County flag design, 1968, courtesy of Orange County Archives via Flickr.
Naming a literary depiction of Orange County is no easy task. One or two sitcoms that describe the place may come to mind, along with movies depicting decadent capitalism or theme parks of overly-controlled leisure. Some may know the songs that offer resistance to that glossy, shallow image of Orange County. But novels or poetry? Those seeking literary guides to Southern California have had David Ulin’s magisterial Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology (Library of America, 2002), but now those seeking the literature of Orange County have their own guide: Lisa Alvarez’s and Andrew Tonkovich’s anthology, Orange County: A Literary Field Guide (Heyday, 2017). Drawing from community-college literary magazines as well as literary luminaries, this is a work of impressive research and discovery. Arranged geographically and then, within each region, chronologically, this book portrays an Orange County of consummate surprise.
There are no Stepford wives here. While Michael Chabon’s short story “Ocean Avenue” features a beautiful woman of leisure buying coffee in exercise clothes, she is neither one-dimensional nor docile; she’s unforgettable. And she is not alone. Her neighbor, in this anthology, might be a large Gullah-speaking mother of two football stars, displaced from home and determinedly seeking public space in her red tile roof and white stucco walled condo development, depicted in Susan Straight’s I Been in Sorrow’s Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots. Beekeepers, bicyclists, day laborers, artists, fishermen, surfers aggressively protecting their turf, Vietnamese immigrants protesting each other, Iranian teenagers desperate to fit in to a gated community painted endless shades of white, a lonely teenager who keeps giving her phone number to undocumented immigrants, the ghosts of an agrarian past, and a nervous young man serving an eviction notice at the beach mansion of his aging rock hero: this is a complex, divided, fractious, and deep depiction of Orange County. It is, in Aracelis Gormay’s poetry:
Santa Ana of grocery carts, truckers,
eggs in the kitchen at 4 am, nurses, cleaning ladies
the saints of ironing, the saints
of tortillas. Santa Ana of cross-guards, tomato pickers,
bakeries of bread in pinks & yellows, sugars.
Santa Ana of Cambodia, Viet Nam, Aztlán
The Orange County in view is a fictional one that many locals will recognize as true. It is also, in Lorene Delany-Ullman’s prose poetry, a space of “wetlands and weapons.” Violence, racism, and “the meeting of boom and loss,” in Tom Vanderbilt’s penetrating expression—all are here, in complicated histories bursting out beneath tidy suburban surfaces, like weeds pushing through sidewalk cracks.
In a region famous for its history of forgetting, to borrow Norman Klein’s title, a place of “willful amnesia” where “a sales pitch… has always been substituted for history,” in D. J. Waldie’s depiction, this is a book startlingly full of what the editors call, in their introduction to Lisa Alvarez’s poetry, “the contentious, unresolved history of Orange County’s suburban milieu, which is never far below the surface—if it’s below it at all.” Too literarily clear-eyed to be called nostalgic, there is still something close to nostalgia here as character after character laments the effects of development on beloved pieces of nature, while story after story faces paved-over land and dreams. In this book’s Orange County, a sense of place comes with a sense of history.
While good, this anthology is not perfect. The editors call the foothills area “the flatlands.” The excerpted stories by Christopher Isherwood and a few others end a bit abruptly. But like any anthology, this one serves up appetizers that may lead readers to investigate the fuller works of authors like James Blaylock, Martin Smith, Kem Nunn, or Anh Chi Pham. Gustavo Arellano’s “Foreword” mistakenly regrets the omission of Tom Vanderbilt’s Baffler piece about the Crystal Cathedral, which actually is included. Orange County’s oral histories, corridos, and church-newsletter literature also might have been included. But there is already so much in this volume that it seems churlish to state that it is unclear why the literature of Richard Henry Dana, Carey McWilliams, and Viet Thanh Nguyen are absent.
This book is for readers who relish knowing that LSD tablets were once dropped from an airplane to a crowd of hippies gathered in Laguna Beach, and that the unobstructed Santa Ana winds were once so strong they wore grooves in the floorboards of Jessamyn West’s house in Yorba Linda by repeatedly pushing the beds across the room. It is for those wanting to know “what’s been lost,” in Edward Humes phrase, or anyone who wants to name the history of what Tom Zoellner calls, in an essay written specifically for this anthology, “The Orange Industrial Complex.” The collection is for residents, students, teachers, tourists, and all who wish to understand America’s complicated suburbia.
This book, filled with empathy and environmentalism, is poetic critical geography. It is wonderful.
 Norman M. Klein, The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory, new and updated ed. (New York: Penguin Random House, 2008).
Elaine Lewinnek is professor in the department of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton. She is the author of The Working Man’s Reward: Chicago’s Early Suburbs and the Roots of American Sprawl (Oxford, 2015), and is currently working on a bottom-up history of Orange County with Gustavo Arellano, Thuy Vo Dang, and Michael Steiner, titled A People’s Guide to Orange County (UC Press, forthcoming).
July sky at Bahia de Los Angeles, Baja California, Mexico, courtesy of Bill Gracey via Flickr.
Gerald W. Haslam
Growing up in an oilfield community at the southern end of the Great Central Valley, I for many years believed California ended where the Tehachapi Mountains met the Temblor Range. Southern California seemed to be a continent away. Then my parents transferred me to a Catholic middle/high school in Bakersfield, and I encountered many Latino students, some of whom spoke of a mysterious place—perhaps part of California, perhaps not—called simply “Baja” or sometimes “la frontera.”
Few, I recall, claimed to have visited there. Rather it existed for us as a dangerous (but tempting) idea, a no-holds-barred locale that produced “Tijuana bibles” and tire-tread huaraches, and that housed a fabled red-light district. In our imaginations, that frontera was a remnant of the wild west, the sin capital of the west.
The actual place, as Verónica Castillo-Muñoz reveals in The Other California: Land, Identity, and Politics on the Mexican Borderlands, was culturally and economically far more complex than we had imagined. It slipped in and out of the grasp of Yankee capitalists (principally in the guise of the Colorado River Land Company and the International Mexican Company) in the late nineteenth century. Those companies “transformed Baja California from a Mexican backwater territory to one of the most prosperous cotton-producing centers along the U.S.-Mexico border.”
Castillo-Muñoz presents a detailed outline of how Baja California, a region of northern Mexico, was for a time an economic pawn to Mexican politicians, was a Pacific entry for Chinese and Japanese immigrants to the Americas, and was treated as an outlier (it didn’t gain statehood in Mexico until 1952). It was slowly built by hard-working people who came to largely ignore static gender roles and varying racial barriers, thus enriching the cultural landscape of western Mexico. The book traces no utopian society, but rather reveals “how ethnicity and racially diverse communities of laborers changed the social landscape of Baja California,” and does a good job of that.
Social stability and economic viability were by no means quickly achieved. The society detailed by Castillo-Muñoz’s book churned and boiled. Part of that was due to the self-serving influence of absentee owners, especially Yankees. But locals were capable of shooting themselves in the foot, too. For instance,
Chinese and Japanese earned an average of 40 centavos per day, while mestizo and indigenous workers earned average of 1.25 pesos. It was only a matter of time before Chinese and Japanese workers discovered the wage disparity, and they held strikes against the company [Compagnie du Boleo] several times.
Despite discrimination, “By 1920 the Baja California peninsula stood out as one of the most diverse communities in northern Mexico, with a growing population that spoke nineteen languages.”
Although women in Mexico did not get the vote nationally until 1953, their activism played a steady role in the social and economic development of Baja. “Ejido [communal land grant] distribution shaped gender relations and campesino [farm worker] identity in the Mexicali Valley where women saw their role on the ejido equally important to that of men.” World War II solidified that.
In 1942, Mexico entered the war on the side of the Allies. That little-discussed fact (in the USA, at least) led to the Bracero contract that sent male Mexican workers between the ages of seventeen and forty to “fill jobs in the farming and railroad sectors caused by the US labor shortage.” That, in turn, opened jobs in Mexico for women, “Thus both ejido farmers and private farmers in the Mexicali Valley came to rely on women’s labor for the cultivation and picking of cotton.” In 1944, President Manuel Avila Camacho smoothed the path toward gender equality when he “endorsed a campaign for women to join the workforce in northern Mexico to offset the shortage of labor caused by the Bracero Program.”
Castillo-Muñoz’s slim book (113 page text) is literally packed with such information, and is supplemented by 30 pages of valuable notes, a detailed bibliography and an index. For better or worse, the author shows, Baja California reflects many of the same issues that have plagued us here in Alta California—think of water, for instance, or racial tensions or gender discrimination. The Other California’s academic tone might be off-putting to some, but the text is so rich in information that this reader hardly noticed. It is an excellent intro to California’s southern namesake.
Gerald W. Haslam, an Oildale native, is professor emeritus at Sonoma State University, and the author of, among other books, The Other California: The Great Central Valley in Life and Letters (University of Nevada Press, 1994).