Tag: Literature


Welcoming Boom’s New Editorial Team

Curating California’s rich culture is a task held exclusively by no individual. Amid California’s many wonders and challenges, we learn much from its great luminaries, from creative writers and editors, and from other stewards who challenge us to think differently about this remarkable, sacred place. But we also learn from stories underrepresented and often untold, and from what D.J. Waldie calls “the sacred ordinary.”

Boom California plays a critical part in all of this. Inching toward the completion of its first decade on the California scene, Boom California is relocating its primary operations to Fresno State University. After three years as Editor, Jason Sexton is transitioning to a new role at UCLA and becoming Boom’s Editor-at-Large. And we could not be more thrilled to announce a new editorial team suitable to embody Boom’s vision for hosting some of California’s most interesting conversations, in both scholarly and public-facing ways.

We are pleased to announce that the new editors are Dr. Romeo Guzmán and Carribean Fragoza. This new editorial team brings an exciting attention to place, along with a decade worth of public-facing humanities work, and an extensive network of intellectuals, artists and journalists throughout the state.


An award-winning public historian, Dr. Guzmán holds a Ph.D. in Latin American history from Columbia University and is the founding director of Fresno State’s Valley Public History Initiative. From the San Gabriel Valley to the San Joaquin Valley, Guzmán’s projects revolutionize the historical process by transforming how archives are built, how knowledge is produced, and how community members experience history. He has published on migration, archives, popular culture, and politics in both academic and popular outlets. Guzmán has also served as an editor at Tropics of Meta, one of the very first academic blogs. For Boom, he has written on the long history of charreria/rodeo in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands and on Mexico’s influence on American and California soccer. For more on his work visit romeoguzman.com.

A graduate of CalArts’s MFA program, Carribean Fragoza is a well-known journalist, artist, and fiction writer. A native of South El Monte, Fragoza is dedicated to thinking deeply about place and working with underrepresented communities. As a former managing editor of KCET’s Departures, she built exciting and innovative editorial projects about Greater Los Angeles. Her short story collection is forthcoming with City Lights Publisher and you can find her writings in  outlets such as Aperture, the American Prospect, Artbound, LA Weekly, as well as BOMB Magazine, Huizache, and Palabra Literary Magazine. For more on her work visit carribeanfragoza.com.

Carribean.Fragoza.Photo Credit Vicent Ramos

Photo Credit Vincent Ramos

Together, Dr. Guzmán and Fragoza founded the South El Monte Arts Posse, an interdisciplinary arts collective dedicated to using the arts to foster critical conversations about place. Their forthcoming manuscript East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte (Rutgers Press: 2020) traces the experience of a California community over three centuries, from eighteenth-century Spanish colonization to twenty-first century globalization.

With new plans on the horizon, we trust Boom will continue to serve our wide-range of readers online, from policy-makers and workers to students and scholars, and everything in between. And we look forward to having you with us, faithful reader, as we hope to encourage and inspire you to see afresh this wonderful place so that we all might live more meaningfully here in our great state.



Tracing L.A.’s Cruising Culture

Alex Espinoza

In Queer Space: Architecture and Same Sex Desire, Aaron Betsky writes, “The queerest space of all is the void, and AIDS has made us live in that emptiness, that absence, that loss…. It is not a queer space any of us would want to inhabit, but many have been forced to make it their own.”[1] In many ways, Danny Jauregui’s work goes beyond just inhabiting the void, that queer space separate from society. It is about identifying it, reclaiming it, and giving it a permanent spatial location in the decades following the crisis.  People cruised within communities, within neighborhoods, at local parks, bars, and shops. A single location can be so many places at once.

“I wanted to show that these locations once existed here,” he says.

The photos used in the artist Danny Jauregui’s project document a history that generations of young gay men might not be familiar with. Chronicling these sites then became a way for Jauregui to recover and graft the memory of gay cruising into the larger sphere of American identity and assemblage. The images are a stark reminder of the transient nature of cruising, allowing for a uniquely queer identity to integrate itself into the very tapestry of the history of Los Angeles.

I wanted to show that these locations once existed here.

I met Jauregui on an overcast mid-May morning at La Monarca Bakery on Cesar Chavez Boulevard in Boyle Heights. Danny is a charming and affable man almost a decade younger than me. He’s made a name for himself as an artist whose work encompasses many different media including photography, drawing, and sculpture. The son of immigrants from the state of Jalisco, Mexico, he grew up in South Central L.A. before his family moved to Whittier. Like me, Danny is an artist and academic; he teaches art and photography at Whittier College. Like me, he’s Latino. Like me, he is gay and in a long and stable relationship with a partner. Like me, he spent the past academic year chairing his department. Over sips of piping hot coffee, we commiserate over the challenges—and, yes, the rewards—of serving as heads of our respective units. We share a great deal in common, and I find it comforting to be sitting down and having an enlightening conversation about art and activism and the pressures of academic life with someone so similar to me.

“My brother was a trouble maker when we were growing up,” he says. “My parents decided to pour all their energies into making sure I wasn’t. They indulged my curiosity. If I was into something, they got it for me. When I was interested in art, my father went out and bought me colored pencils and a sketchbook.”

Danny’s work first came to my attention when I ran across an article featuring him and a project he had undertaken to map the cruising sites and locations around the city using Bob Damron’s Address Book as guidepost. When I ask what led him to put the two together, he smiles.

“I was living in Silverlake with my partner during the whole Proposition 8 battle,” he explains.

“Prop 8,” as it was more commonly known, was a statewide ballot aimed at eliminating same-sex marriage in California. The measure eventually passed, with 52.3%[2] of the population voting not to protect the rights of gay couples to marry. The “No on 8” campaign had rented out a building where a local gay bathhouse once stood. When Danny discovered this, it became the impetus for his work. It was such an ironic thing, he recalls, that the headquarters of a grassroots effort to secure the right for same-sex couples to marry had its office in what was once a place where men flocked to meet and have sex in public. In the 70s we’d gained our sexual liberation. We were free to have sex with whomever, whenever, and (pretty much) wherever we wanted. But 80s and 90s brought AIDS, cutting short the party, forcing so many to rethink such “hedonistic” lifestyle choices. Now, in the aftermath of so much loss, many who remained craved marriage and monogamy—grand symbols of heteronormativity.  For his part, Danny also embarked on a project that resulted in a map-based documentary of Damron’s Address Book. In doing so, Danny’s work investigated the spatial memory of gay cruising sites, of connection and intimacy that once played out in these locations—spaces no longer in use for that purpose, but also not completely erased either. They exist as reminders of an era of sexual liberation both before and during the AIDS crisis.

Danny explained that his work aims to preserve and document these sites as places of community building, where gay men once upon a time forged bonds and created a sense of shared belonging through the most intimate and secretive of acts. “I’m interested to know then if cruising is the result of a closeted culture?” he says. “Or another means of maintaining the integrity of a subculture that is uniquely our own.”


A good friend once told me that the only time he ever felt truly alive was when he was out cruising. At the time he carried what he jokingly called a “roadside hazard kit” in his car that contained towels, condoms, bottles of lube, poppers, and a few worn out porno magazines (back before porn could be streamed on a smartphone).

“I’d spend hours driving around in my car,” he recalled, with a reverence that was almost spiritual. “I’d get lost in the whole ritual of it.”

Once he watched as cops arrested a man in a park bathroom. But that never stopped him. It worked to heighten the arousal, he said. It provided a thrill that he felt was otherwise missing in his life. His preferred spot to cruise was Griffith Park.

Author John Rechy situates Griffith Park in several of his novels like City of Night and Numbers. In the latter, handsome and charismatic Johnny Rio has come to Los Angeles after years in Texas. Faced with the certain reality that his age is catching up to him, Johnny returns to his former haunt, a place of past conquests, for ten days of sex before his beauty and looks fade away forever. Upon reaching the park, Rechy writes: “[It] is much vaster than Johnny expected. It sprawls over several thousand acres—threatening to spill out into Los Angeles, Hollywood, Glendale, invading even the sky; its various roads spiral up hills high above the city.”[3]

Here, the space of cruising sprawls, opens up, invades, and ruptures the larger environs. It interrupts the space contained by artificial impediments. The writer, like singer George Michael, arrested in a Beverly Hills park bathroom, brazenly calls attention to the location as a site of sexual exchanges that exist within the larger mesh of American culture. But this is a site that operates outside the boundary, a site that challenges greater notions of exchange and connection. He writes, “The branches of so many trees droop so thickly here that the sun filters through only in tiny shifting sequin points and jagged patches.

Perhaps Johnny’s fading good looks, his various exploits, and his frenzied attempts to recapture the glory days of his cruising jaunts could be seen as a commentary on the threats posed on this rare and little-known ecosystem. And like many delicate ecosystems, perhaps Rechy is making a commentary on the fading phenomenon surrounding such places as married couples with kids and dogs push in and the vast clearings that pocket the park, canopied by trees, go from being prime cruising spots to places for cyclists and joggers.

A 1997 L.A. Times article titled “Neighbors Tackle Gay Cruising” tells of neighbors, both newly arrived and longstanding, getting sick and tired of the cruising scene in the areas around Griffith Park. “In the enduring subculture of men cruising for sex with other men, a few pleasant residential blocks of Griffith Park Boulevard had become hot. A nearby sex club had drawn crowds, as did the boulevard’s mention in gay guides”[4] the article reported. The crackdown led to undercover police stings and road signs that read





Back in 2011 the Los Angeles city council unanimously voted to have the signs removed claiming them to be pointless and offensive. And though this might initially seem like a progressive and bold step on behalf of residents, one that looks to embrace the long history of homosexuality and gay cruising in the community, it’s actually not. The establishments that once attracted such activities have all packed up, replaced by pressed juice bars and yoga studios. “Today, residents say those type of clubs have closed and the neighborhood has changed. They believe the signs ‘stigmatize’ and embarrass the neighborhood,”[5] one website stated.


Begun by visual artist Carlos Motta and writer and dramaturge Joshua Lubin-Levy, Petit Mort: Recollections of a Queer Public is a visual art project that charts the experiences of gay men cruising around New York City. Each account presents detailed drawings by men and brief accounts of their experiences. Deeply personal and culturally significant, these accounts draw strong links between gay subculture and public spaces. Extending beyond the engaged sexual encounters, their project reinforced the idea of cruising as not just a frivolous act, but one with deep political roots, recognizing the foundation of resistant and sexual liberation in the gay community by giving permanence and legitimacy to these spaces in their art. The culture of gay cruising is threatened by gentrification, laws that limit such behaviors, and an overall stigma associated with sex in public. As the makeup of neighborhoods change, the secret cruising goldmines that once existed are slowly being converted or threatened with extinction.

In Los Angeles, Pershing Square was the central locus of gay cruising and hustling in the decades prior to the crisis. A central location in what was known as “The Run” from the 1920s to the 1960s, Pershing Square was the anchor around which gay men could cruise and visit friendly locales like the bathrooms at the Central Library and the Subway Terminal Building, and bars like the one in the Biltmore Hotel.[6]

Many of these places have since vanished and, though remnants of the physical locations might remain—the restroom of a local park, a building that once housed one of the most popular sex clubs in Silverlake, a seedy adult bookstore now fallen into disrepair over the years—they are but subtle traces of what used to be. Finding new cruising hotspots is a little easier now with smartphones equipped with geolocation features, websites, and apps. As these new modes of communication become more ubiquitous, the line between privacy and intimacy also blurs. And given the rise of gentrification in certain regions of Los Angeles as well as other metropolitan cities, the factors that threaten the subculture of cruising come not only from AIDS and other STDs, but also from a long string of new pressures.



[1] Aaron Betsky, Queer Space: Architecture and Same Sex Desire (New York: William Morrow, 1997), 182.

[2] Chris Cillizza and Sean Sullivan, “How Proposition 8 passed in California — and why it wouldn’t today,” Washington Post, 26 March 2013, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2013/03/26/how-proposition-8-passed-in-california-and-why-it-wouldnt-today/?utm_term=.8173a8b9956a.

[3] John Rechy, Numbers (New York: Grove Press, 1994), 111.

[4] Bettina Boxall, “Neighbors Tackle Gay Cruising,” Los Angeles Times,, 27 August 1997, http://articles.latimes.com/1997/aug/27/news/ls-26163.

[5] Mekahlo Medina, “No More Gay Cruising Signs in Silver Lake,” NBC Los Angeles, 9 September 2011, https://www.nbclosangeles.com/news/local/No-More-Gay-Cruising-Signs-in-Silver-Lake-129528048.html.

[6] Bianca Barragan, “Mapping Los Angeles’s groundbreaking role in LGBT history,” Curbed Los Angeles, 9 February 2017, https://la.curbed.com/maps/mapping-los-angeless-groundbreaking-role-in-lgbt-history.


Alex Espinoza earned his MFA in Fiction from UC Irvine and holds the Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair in Creative Writing at UC Riverside. He’s the author of the novels Still Water Saints and The Five Acts of Diego León, both from Random House. His newest book is Cruising: An Intimate History of a Radical Pastime (Unnamed Press, June 2019). He has written for the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times Magazine, Virginia Quarterly Review, and NPR’s All Things Considered. The recipient of a fellowship in prose from the NEA and an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, he lives and teaches in Los Angeles and is completing a new novel. www.alexespinoza.com

Copyright: © 2019 Unnamed Media. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.


Our Ramona



Julia Sizek

Though largely forgotten by contemporary Californians, Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1884 Ramona was the most important novel about California of the nineteenth century.[1] Ramona follows its heroine, a mestiza, as she leaves the rancho of her adopted Californio family to live in the San Jacinto foothills with her love Alessandro, an Indian. Though the historical novel follows Victorian stylistic conventions, Jackson intended it to be a social commentary on the early days of California statehood. She hoped that Ramona would inspire social critique, making American settlers question their treatment of Native Americans and Mexican-Americans in Southern California when California became a state, causing the dispossession of both Native Americans and Californios.

At the time of its publication, Ramona’s immense popularity and social message earned it comparisons to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the only novel more popular than Ramona in the nineteenth century.[2] Like Stowe’s novel, Ramona was controversial upon its publication. White settlers accused Jackson of defaming them in their new home. Conversely, the book inspired a proliferation of tourism in Southern California that glorified Spanish history, as white settlers glorified dispossessed Californios and Native Americans in a performance of imperialist nostalgia. Ramona outgrew its origin as a novel intended to protest the treatment of Native Americans and Mexican-Americans in California, becoming the romanticized and fictional basis for interpreting California as a place for Euroamerican settlers, Mexican-Americans, and Native Americans.

In its many adaptations, translations, and transformations, Ramona is a story about belonging and dispossession. It is the story of three Californias belonging to the Native Americans, Californios, and Americanos. In its many versions, the story tends to follow the contours of the novel. It begins with Ramona’s life as a teenager at the rancho with her adopted family. Her adopted mother, a Californio named Señora Moreno, is the widow of a Spanish-Mexican man who had fought against the Americans. She is bitter at the Americans who killed her husband and shrunk her rancho after taking control under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Only her sickly son, Felipe, remains to help the Señora at the rancho. During the sheep-shearing season, Ramona falls in love with a hired Native American hand, Alessandro. In a fight with Señora Moreno, the Señora reveals Ramona’s true heritage as both Scottish and Native American. Ramona then decides to leave the rancho to elope with Alessandro, the son of the chief of the Luiseño tribe, based in Temecula village.

The couple travels across Southern California, seeking both work and places to live, made difficult by an influx of American homesteaders settling on Native lands. They have a daughter, Eyes of the Sky, who dies of a fever because they could not convince a doctor to come to their homestead. Their second child, named after her mother, is also born during this time. Unable to withstand the loss of Native lands and constant humiliation at the hands of the Americanos, Alessandro becomes unstable and is killed by a local vigilante after a misunderstanding. After Alessandro’s death, Ramona returns to the rancho (now missing Señora Moreno, who died in the interim). Eventually she marries her adopted brother Felipe and moves to Mexico City, the romantic dream of California proven to be no more than tragedy.


Helen Hunt Jackson intended Ramona to be a protest novel against the mistreatment of Native Americans in the United States.[3] She wrote the historical novel in a feverish three months, drawing from her travels through Indian country in Southern California, as well as her research for, A Century of Dishonor, her nonfiction account of the abuse and neglect of Native Americans at the hands of the federal government.

The novel failed as a reform effort because her white readers did not see the story as a tragic telling of the fallout of California statehood.[4] Instead readers saw it as a romance, an emplotment in which the main character overcomes oppression to become saved or emancipated. Ramona’s commercial success came from readers understanding it as a love story and a regional novel of Southern California. After being published serially it was still a best-seller, selling 21,000 copies in 1885.[5] It has never gone out of print. Though Ramona failed to create political change, it succeeded in popularizing a California myth from the historical facts Jackson had collected.

This new myth of California followed on the Romantic tradition rather than a tragic one, celebrating California multiculturalism in a way that today we would understand through anthropologist Renato Rosaldo’s concept of “imperialist nostalgia,” a problematic longing and valorization of the Native Americans and Californios, which Americans pushed out years prior.[6] Ramona brought new tourists to California, aided by the “See America First” patriotic tourism campaign and low railroad fares. Due to demand, proprietors had shifted their already-existing tourist sites to accommodate Ramona-themed tourism by the mid-1920s.

What began as tourist sightseeing became a veritable Ramona industry as guidebooks to the region appeared (the most enduring by George Wharton James in 1908). Towns and businesses adopted Ramona themes: you could also visit locations like the Ramona Highway or Ramona Pharmacy. The book was translated into many languages, adapted into five films and a telenovela in the U.S. and Mexico, and made into no less than eight plays, the most famous of which is the annual Ramona Pageant in Hemet, dating back to 1923.[7]

Tourists searched for the ‘real’ Ramona promised to them in tourist literature, though they were often met by many seeking to make a quick buck on the myth.[8] Perhaps the most ‘real’ of the Ramonas was a Cahuilla woman by the name Ramona Lubo, who Jackson had read about while writing her novel.[9] Like the fictional Alessandro, Lubo’s husband Juan Diego had mistaken the horse of a white man for his, and a vigilante band subsequently shot him in front of his wife and children. Lubo never received justice for her husband’s death. As a woman and an Indian, she had no legal standing as a citizen at the trial and was not invited to testify.

Lubo tried to benefit from the popularity of Ramona, charging small fees for tourists to take pictures of her with their new Kodak cameras, or for entrepreneurs to take pictures of her to reproduce in postcards (she certainly did not receive royalties for the latter). Newspapers denounced her opportunism, a charge they didn’t level at white and Latino Ramona entrepreneurs.[10]

Though Lubo sustained her livelihood in part from Ramona, she probably died from it too. While on exhibit as Ramona at a fair in San Bernardino in 1922, she contracted a respiratory illness from which she never recovered. Her grave became another in the long list of Ramona sites, suffering from unscrupulous tourists who chipped off souvenir pieces of headstones in the graveyard. The Cahuilla tribe closed that cemetery in 1973, taking Lubo back from the tourists who had defined her in life and death.


Ramona Lubo

The best site to understand contemporary Ramona tourism is the Ramona Pageant in Hemet. Inspired in part by the pageant Tahquitz in Palm Springs, the Hemet-San Jacinto Chamber of Commerce hired Garnet Holme (who later became pageant master for the National Park Service) to write a dramatization of Ramona.[11] Like other pageants of the era, the Ramona Pageant was played predominantly by amateurs who recounted scenes of local history with spectacular crowd scenes, music, and choreography. Theater historians disagree as to whether the Ramona Pageant is more of a pageant, a melodrama, or a hybrid of the two, but both sides agree that Ramona can’t simply be viewed as an “ideologically innocent expression of tradition.”[12]

Pageants were one of the most important art forms of the early twentieth century. They created historical stories that were sedimented in the public imagination and drew in heritage tourism. A prominent example was The Mission Play, which ran from 1912 through the mid-1930s in San Gabriel. The Mission Play articulated tropes of Southern California into a clear and self-evident story: The Spanish period was one of European civilization and the following Mexican period was one of decadence and degeneration.[13] Degeneration theory justified American expansion into California as a civilizing force against Californios and Native Americans. Like the Native American village in Yosemite, these tourist attractions romanticized Native Americans and legitimized their dispossession under the new American government.[14] These myths—forms of imperialist nostalgia—gave a way for tourists and settlers to understand their history through the narrative conventions of drama.

Even though the Pageant was originally marketed to motor tourists in the 1920s and 1930s, the play has always served a large role in community life as a ‘rite of spring.’ Many of the Pageant volunteers return yearly for the event, defining the seasons of their lives by Pageant-time. Barb Matson, an ethnographer of the Pageant in the 1990s, argues that the Pageant is a ritual in which both participants and audience-goers emerge as transformed converts to the Ramona story and its multicultural values.[15]  In Hemet, where today forty percent of the population is Latino, the play attempts to reflect the diversity of the community through its Pageantry. Many trained ballet folklórico dancers perform, as do Native American tribal members. Former Ramona Pageant historian Phil Brigandi notes that participants include all socioeconomic classes in the San Jacinto Valley, noting that   “some of the most prominent and wealthy families in the region perform alongside people on welfare.”[16]

A longstanding goal of the Pageant has been multiculturalism and intercultural understanding, if not social critique of the actions of Americanos in California after 1848. One of the first big changes to the play was the introduction of Spanish language into the script, but arguably the largest transformation has been the increased representation of Native American tribes. While prominent Native families had always participated, students from Sherman Indian School (the local boarding school) were invited to participate by performing tribal dances in the Pageant in the 1930s.[17] In the 1980s, a Native American Advisory Council was formed to improve the Elder Blessing Scene, which had only been allotted four and a half minutes in earlier iterations of the play.[18] Today, this portion of the play almost equals the length of the fiesta scene at the rancho, including Bird Singing (a southern California Native American singing tradition) and a Native soloist, Hoop Dancers, and the Red Tail Spirit Dancers, together representing California and Southwestern Native American traditions.


Hoop Dancers at Pageant

Native participation in the play is made visible through the performers themselves, but it’s also clear from the program. The Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians, San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, and the Soboba Foundation (of the Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians) provided financial support for the 2018 season of the Pageant. A local participant in the Ramona Pageant noted that “the Pageant may have gone belly-up” without the help of tribes today.[19]

Today’s Native American sponsorship of the Ramona Pageant inverts the historical relationship between tribes in the Pageant. In 1927, Condino Hopkins, the son of Ramona Lubo, wrote a letter to the San Jacinto-Hemet Chamber of Commerce accusing them of profiting from retelling the tragedy of Native dispossession. “Although the pageant is supposed to be in honor of the Indian woman who was immortalized in Mrs. Jackson’s famous story, it is well-known that it is primarily a publicity scheme on the part of the real estate interests in your locality…. In view of the fact that her name is thus commercialized, with the proceeds of this exhibition netting thousands of dollars each season, it would seem to me that it would be no more than right and proper for her heirs to share in such receipts.”[20] Though Hopkins’s point that the play was meant to honor an individual is incorrect, his critique of the Pageant reveals that the benefits of the Pageant largely went to the European settlers in the form of community growth and development,[21] not to the tribes who lost so much from Euroamerican settlement. Though the Pageant is one of the few representations of Native history that could be used to ask hard questions of settlers, has it been used both to reveal how California Native Americans were treated by European settlers and to critique it? A Native American former pageanteer told me that he still hasn’t decided whether the Pageant can bring awareness to Native issues or be a viable social critique, even after a lifetime of attending the event and seven years participating as a Bird Singer. [22]

Though the Pageant is a community building exercise, former Pageant historians places the value of the Pageant in the story: “The message is the story and the story is the message.” Garnet Holme’s dramatization of the play hewed closely to the book in order to have theatergoers identify with Californios and Native American tribes, an identification made possible by the understanding that both groups are tragically doomed. This identification manifests itself in one of the longstanding traditions of the play, when the crowd boos Americano cowboys as they ride away after threatening Ramona.[23] Jackson hoped that strong identification with Native American and Californios would make contemporary Americanos question their role as settlers in a land that was not originally theirs.

The novel highlights this with the final tragedy that befalls Ramona and Alessandro. After Alessandro’s wrongful death at the hands of a greedy Americano, Ramona moves back to the rancho. Life in California becomes more and more difficult, and Ramona and Felipe choose to move to Mexico—a homeland yet unseen—rather than endure the Americans. On the boat, Felipe asks Ramona to marry him and she agrees, deciding that it would be selfish to refuse. He accepts her reluctant hand, realizing that he will never have all of Ramona, as part of her will always be with Alessandro. They have a prosperous life and many children together in Mexico City. Of the children, the most beautiful and loved is “Ramona, daughter of Alessandro the Indian,” the words with which the novel ends.[24]


Ramona and Alessandro, Hemet Pageant

Scholars of Ramona disagree as to the meaning of this ending. Some have argued that Ramona is not miserable enough at the conclusion to make the novel a searing social critique, but other readings suggest that the ending is tragic, since Ramona can never live in Alta California because of discrimination against Native Americans, nor will she ever love Felipe as she had Alessandro.[25] Through the allegorical deaths of Señora Moreno and Padre Salvierdierra, the Spanish aristocracy and Mission system of California become deceased too, making California alien to Ramona and Felipe. Alessandro’s death also dooms California Indians, creating tragedy for remaining Californios and Native Americans.

Garnet Holme’s original script for the Ramona Pageant maintains the sense of injustice by ending with a speech by the ranch manager Juan Canito, in which he begs God to send the Indians justice and return to them the land that was theirs before the Americanos stepped in. The emphatic plea for justice furthers the invocation of tragedy.

In 2015, the Ramona Pageant Board of Directors commissioned an Idyllwild local, Steven Savage, to write a new version of the play. Unlike the Garnet Holme version and Jackson’s book, this version keeps Ramona—and Felipe—in California, at the rancho that they both love. Rather than recognize the changing times and the tragedy that has befallen them both, Ramona seems to overcome tragedy, making the play into a narrative romance. She ends the play with the following words: “My home, California, where everyone can receive justice.”

The newer version papers over the injustices Ramona has suffered with a quick song and speech, rendering anew the question of what Ramona has become today, and the kind of parable it does—and should—offer to its audience. In his compelling reading of C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins, anthropologist David Scott demonstrates how historical metanarratives structure possibilities for future thought; that is, how understanding history as tragedy or romance has implications for our understandings of present politics.[26]

As a novel and story that has been told of California and its history, Ramona has been read as both a romance—in which a hero can overcome present conditions to emerge victorious—and a tragedy—which “sets before us the image of a man or woman obliged to act in a world in which values are unstable and ambiguous.”[27] In a moment where it is obvious that a multicultural democracy is not a “done deal,” perhaps Ramona should not be understood as a romance, but rather as a tragic cautionary tale. This tale is one in which Americanos are the ‘bad’ guys and Ramona is trapped in an unstable and unforgiving world that cannot be resolved by a single song.


Ramona Lubo posing at a grave


[1] Dydia DeLyser, Ramona Memories: Tourism and the Shaping of Southern California (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005); Lawrence Clark Powell, California Classics: The Creative Literature of the Golden State (Los Angeles: Ward Ritchie Press, 1971).

[2] Blake Allmendinger, A History of California Literature (London: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 46.

[3] Valerie Sherer Mathes, “Friends of the California Mission Indians: Helen Hunt Jackson and Her Legacy,” unpublished PhD dissertation (Tempe: Arizona State University, 1988), iv.

[4] Although the political message of Ramona was missed in the United States, Cuban writer José Martí felt compelled to translate the novel as soon as he recognized the critique of American expansion into Mexico inherent in the tragic work. This is a pan-American (not North American) story, he argues in his introduction to his 1888 translation of the novel, despite being written by a gringa. See Ana-Maria Kerekes, Poder y belleza de la Palabra: Análysis de la traducción martiana de la novela Ramona de Helen Hunt Jackson,” unpublished Master’s thesis (Montreal: Concordia University, 2009), 21-22, and José Martí, José Martí: Obras Completas 24 (La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1991), 204.

[5] Mathes, “Friends of the California Mission Indians,’ 201, Allmendinger, A History, 46. John M. Gonzalez, “The Warp of Whiteness: Domesticity and Empire in Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona,” American Literary History 16 (2004): 437-65.

[6] Renato Rosaldo, “Imperialist Nostalgia,” Representations 26 (1989): 107-22.

[7] Vincent Brook, Land of Smoke and Mirrors: A Cultural History of Los Angeles (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2013): 52. Dydia DeLyser, “Ramona Memories: Fiction, Tourist Practices, and Placing the Past in Southern California,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 93 (2003): 886-908. George Wharton James, Through Ramona’s Country (New York: Little, Brown, 1908).

[8] For example, see D. A. Hufford, The Real Ramona of Helen Hunt Jackson’s Famous Novel (Los Angeles: D. A. Hufford & Co., 1900) and Carlyle Channing Davis and William A. Alderson, The True Story of ‘Ramona’: Its Facts and Fictions, Inspiration and Purpose (New York: Dodge Pub. Co., 1914).

[9] Mathes, “Friends of the California Mission Indians,” 197.

[10] DeLyser, “Ramona Memories,” 127-129.

[11] Phil Brigandi, Garnet Holme: California’s Pageant Master (Hemet: Ramona Pageant Association, 1991).

[12] Shilarna Stokes, “Playing the Crowd: Mass Pageantry in Europe and the United States, 1905-1935,” unpublished PhD dissertation (New York: Columbia University, 2013). See also Barb Matson, “Performing Identity, Staging Injustice: California’s Ramona festival as Ritual,” unpublished PhD dissertation (Boulder: University of Colorado, 2006).

[13] Chelsea K. Vaughn, “The Joining of Historical Pageantry and the Spanish Fantasy Past: The Meeting of Señora Josefa Yorba and Lucretia del Valle,” Journal of San Diego History 57 (2011): 213-235.

[14] Mark David Spence, Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks (New York : Oxford University Press, 1999).

[15] Matson, “Performing Identity,” 431.

[16] Phone interview with Phil Brigandi, 29 May 2018.

[17] Although this was a good faith effort on the part of Pageant organizers, Sherman (like most Indian Boarding Schools) has a much darker history as places where students were prohibited from speaking in their Native languages and forcibly removed from their family for assimilation. See Clifford E. Trafzer, Jean A. Keller, and Lorene Sisquoc, Boarding School Blues: Revisiting American Indian Educational Experiences (Norman: University of Nebraska Press, 2006).

[18] Matson, “Performing Identity,” 466.

[19] Phone interview, 31 May 2018.

[20] Hopkins quoted in DeLyser, Ramona Memories, 135.

[21] A 1972 study tried to tracked some of the economic impacts of the Ramona Pageant, and found that around 7.5 percent of San Jacinto Valley residents had moved to the area after being introduced through the play. This points to the impact of the play as being both an economic change to the community and a social shift to growth in the region based on Ramona tourism. See Robert M. McLaughlin, “A Descriptive Study of the Interrelationships Between the City of Hemet and the Ramona Pageant,” unpublished Master’s thesis (Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles, 1972).

[22] Phone interview, 31 May 2018.

[23] Matson, “Performing Identity,” 50.

[24] Helen Hunt Jackson, Ramona: A Story (New York: Avon Press: 1970 [1884]), 349.

[25] Matson, “Performing Identity.” See also Allan Nevins, “Helen Hunt Jackson: Sentimentalist v. Realist,” American Scholar 10 (1941): 280; Kate Phillips, Helen Hunt Jackson: A Literary Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 259; Rosemary Whitaker, “Helen Hunt Jackson,” Boise State University Western Writers Series 78 (Boise: Boise State University, 1987), 37.

[26] David Scott, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).

[27] Ibid.

Julia Sizek
is a Ph.D. Candidate in Anthropology at UC Berkeley and Associate Scholar for the Native American Land Conservancy. Her doctoral research focuses on contemporary land use problems in California’s Mojave Desert. Support for research in this article was provided by NSF Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant (#BCS- 1756340) and Wenner-Gren dissertation fieldwork grant (#9561).

Copyright: © 2019 Julia Sizek. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.


Dream Interrupted


Peter Richardson

With his book series, “Americans and the California Dream,” Kevin Starr did as much as any single author to frame the way we think about California history. Published between 1973 and 2009, the eight-volume series was monumental in its scope and ambition, yet organized by a single trope. Like most dreams, the California one resisted precise definition. But Starr skillfully deployed this metaphor to shape and direct his sweeping account. Over time, his approach became the default way to conceptualize California culture.

Although popular, Starr’s series was not immediately embraced in academic circles. “By the time my second volume appeared,” he noted in 2007, “the New Historians had made their appearance, and I was on the verge of being out of favor…. I stayed out of favor for approximately a decade and a half.”[1] As academics shifted their sights to issues of race, class, gender, and environmental despoliation, Starr’s narrative risked the charge of Whig history, with its inexorable march toward progress and enlightenment. But as Forrest G. Robinson has argued, Starr’s historiography was “profoundly religious,” more baroque than Victorian. Far from denying California’s legacy of violence and iniquity, he presented it as a story of sin, atonement, and redemption. The possibility of redemption, in turn, kept the dream alive and underwrote Starr’s durable optimism.[2]

At first, Starr’s series unfolded in chronological order, with most volumes focusing on a decade or so of the state’s history. That pattern was disrupted after the 2002 publication of Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940-1950. Instead of proceeding to the 1950s, Starr jumped ahead to Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990-2003, the only volume not published by Oxford University Press. He returned to form with Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-63, the final volume in the series. Although he continued to write books, he left a gap of almost three decades in the middle of his signature series. He passed over the late 1960s in silence. Likewise, he wrote nothing about the 1970s and 1980s, which author David Talbot later called San Francisco’s “season of the witch.”[3]

When asked about the gap, Starr had a stock reply: Whoever wrote the book about the 1960s should call it Smoking the Dream.[4] When pressed for a serious answer, he mentioned his distance from that era’s major themes. “I am currently finishing the final volume of my ‘Americans and the California Dream’ series,” he said in 2007.

It covers the period 1950 to 1963. The very fact that I am ending what has been my life’s work as an historian with this date speaks for itself. Intellectually, psychologically, socially, even politically, I was formed by the 1950s.… I will leave it to future historians to deal with the mid- and late-1960s, the 1970s, even the 1980s.[5]


Starr’s decision, however, does not quite speak for itself. Historians usually write about periods that have not shaped them personally. In the same interview, Starr speaks at length about his own formation and predilections but never quite explains his reason for avoiding almost a quarter century of eventful California history. His indirection suggests another reason for the omission in what he calls his life’s work as a historian.

Yet if the temporal gap in Starr’s series seems mysterious, we need not speculate about his views of that period. In fact, he wrote copiously about those decades—not as a historian, but as a columnist for The San Francisco Examiner. Churning out more than 5,000 words per week between 1976 and 1983, Starr made it perfectly clear where he stood on the issues of the day, especially in San Francisco. Indeed, his articles hint at, but do not definitively establish, his reason for avoiding that period in his series.

Starr’s path to the Examiner was unusual. He grew up in San Francisco, living from age ten to fifteen in the Potrero Hill Housing Project. He attended St. Boniface School in the Tenderloin and, for one year, Saint Ignatius High School. After majoring in English at the University of San Francisco and serving in the U.S. Army, he earned a Ph.D. in English and American Literature at Harvard University, which he recalled as “a magical and nurturing place.”[6] Widener Library’s vast California collection inspired him to write about his native state. “I thought, ‘There’s all kinds of wonderful books on California, but they don’t seem to have the point of view we’re encouraged to look at—the social drama of the imagination,’” he later told the Los Angeles Times.[7] In 1973, Oxford University Press published his critically acclaimed dissertation book, Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915.

Instead of pursuing an academic career, Starr returned to San Francisco, wrote speeches for mayor Joseph Alioto, and was appointed city librarian in 1974. His decision to work for Alioto was consequential. The wealthy Catholic lawyer was a Democrat, but members of the so-called Burton machine—most notably Phillip and John Burton, Willie Brown and George Moscone—considered Alioto a threat to their progressive coalition. When the ILWU, the radical longshoremen’s union, endorsed Alioto’s 1967 mayoral bid, an angry Phil Burton threw his support behind Jack Morrison, Alioto’s opponent. “We’re going to shove Jack Morrison’s bald head up Alioto’s ass,” Burton told an ILWU representative.[8] In fact, Alioto sailed to victory and was reelected in 1971. He ran for governor in 1974, but lost to Jerry Brown in the Democratic Party primary. When Moscone edged out conservative supervisor John Barbagelata in the 1975 mayoral race, the Burton machine finally captured City Hall. By that time, the coalition included gay and environmental activists as well as labor unionists, racial and ethnic minorities, and white progressives.


Shortly after Moscone’s victory, Starr began writing for the Examiner, which had served as the Hearst Corporation’s flagship publication for decades.The Monarch of the Dailies” was still a political force in the city, but its influence was shrinking along with its market share. In 1965, it signed a joint operating agreement with the more popular San Francisco Chronicle, whose executive editor, Scott Newhall, had regarded the Hearst newspapers as “something evil” designed to stupefy the masses. Newhall wanted to produce a very different kind of publication:I figured the Chronicle had to be successful, and the city had to have a paper that would amuse, entertain and inform, and save people from the perdition of Hearstian ignorance.”[9] When it came to hard news, however, the Examiner considered itself the scrappy underdog. “We were the No. 2 paper in town with declining circulation,” recalled former editor Steve Cook. “But the spirit on the staff was sort of impressive—we actually thought of ourselves as the better paper in town, we thought we could show our morning rivals how to cover the news.”[10]

Soon Starr was writing six columns per week, including a Saturday article devoted to religion. Most of his columns featured the city’s cultural activities and personages, but Starr also took the opportunity to shape his public profile. He presented himself as a conservative Catholic intellectual, a San Francisco version of William F. Buckley Jr., whom he frequently praised. In one column, he described himself as “a conservative neo-Thomist Roman Catholic with Platonist leanings and occasional temptations towards anarchy.”[11] He also wrote about the challenges of that identity in San Francisco:

It’s not easy to be a conservative. It’s often lonely to be a thinking conservative. And to be a thinking conservative in San Francisco can frequently be an even more difficult and isolated condition…. Here in San Francisco such left-liberal opinions have coalesced into a rigid inquisitorial orthodoxy—an orthodoxy now reinforced by political power—that brooks no opposition whatsoever.[12]

The “political power” Starr had in mind was likely the Burton machine. With Moscone in City Hall, Willie Brown in the Assembly, and the Burton brothers in Congress, that machine was shifting into overdrive. Yet Starr clearly thought that San Francisco was moving in the wrong direction.


Proposition T, which voters approved in 1976, reinforced Starr’s misgivings. By substituting district elections for citywide races, that measure reduced the power of downtown business interests and boosted the electoral prospects of neighborhood activists. Months before the first district elections occurred, Starr suspected that the new arrangement could usher in “a large number of alienated, left-wing nuts, hostile to the private sector, determined to dismantle anything in San Francisco that doesn’t conform to their pseudo-proletarian, paranoid world-view.”[13] He might have been channeling Alioto, who championed downtown interests, but the intensity of his anti-left rhetoric was notable. In the end, the switch to district elections benefited Harvey Milk and Dan White, who became supervisors in January 1978. Milk won in District 5, which was centered in the gay Castro neighborhood, while White represented District 8, which included the white, Catholic, and decidedly unhip neighborhoods on the city’s southern border.

Starr weighed in on other issues as well. In an interview with Moscone, another former Saint Ignatius student, he asked, “Don’t you feel you’ve been too partisan as mayor, firing all the Alioto commissioners and appointing only people from the left-liberal spectrum?” Moscone replied, “Like a lot of people from old-time San Francisco stock, you’re a little paranoid over changes in this city.” Starr also defended Proposition 13, the 1978 initiative that capped increases in property tax rates. Later, he bemoaned the predictable cuts to the arts and library budgets that followed its passage. He called the city’s refusal to restrict pornography to certain neighborhoods “a form of sexual molestation.” The hippie movement, he claimed, peaked in 1967 with the Human Be-In. The Love Generation “had nothing and no one to love—love truly, that is, in a spirit of ecstatic self-surrender and ardent sacrifice.” In another column, he noted that the city had grown slack and facile: “We are feeding ourselves on the stale husks of Aquarius when we should be nourishing ourselves on the good bread of moral renewal and social realism.”[14]

In May 1978, Starr produced a series of articles on left-wing political violence, which he equated with terrorism. It was all the more surprising, then, when he argued that Patricia Hearst, whose family owned the Examiner, should be pardoned for the bank robberies she committed with the Symbionese Liberation Army after they abducted her. Hearst, who was defended by an expensive legal team, had avoided murder charges by testifying against her abductors and former comrades. Many observers regarded her trial and its aftermath as an example of preferential treatment for wealthy defendants, but Starr turned that notion on its head. For him, the media heiress was nothing less than a political prisoner, and his argument appealed directly to his audience’s class and racial resentments:

If she were born poor, or born to minority parents, she would be free today—free to reassemble the shattered fragments of her life. Patricia Hearst is a political prisoner. She is a prisoner to the envy of those who do not like her class, her race, her family. She is the victim of a dark, obscure ritual that reveals something hideous in the collective American psyche—something that ignores justice in a headlong rush to indulge base envy. Patricia Hearst is a political prisoner of the politics of class resentment.[15]

Following a coordinated campaign on Patricia Heart’s behalf, President Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence in 1979. Two decades later, President Clinton pardoned her despite the strong objection of Robert S. Mueller, III, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California, who noted that Hearst had expressed no remorse for her crimes.


Most of Starr’s columns were anodyne, but he was capable of full-throated moral outrage. In one column, “Sodom-by-the-Sea,” he decried what he called San Francisco’s “hedonism touched by malevolence.”

On weekends the Lear jets swoop into the airports of the Bay Area, disgorging groups of affluent thrill-seekers. They cruise the town in Roll-Royces, here for weekends of unusual sex. Men, women, boys, girls, S & M, B & D, whatever—they quicken their jaded appetites through the sheer virtuosity of their excess, consuming bodies, cocaine, booze, in an onrush of perverted exuberance.[16]

In Starr’s view, this perversion led to even worse outcomes: “Violence is always lurking in the underlife of Sodom and Gomorrah; for when the consumption of bodies exhausts itself and still there is no satisfaction, then comes the killing rage.” Even worse, local politicians encouraged that descent into vice.

Assemblyman Willie Brown, Jr. recently put out an open invitation for the gays of America to flock to San Francisco. Supervisor Harvey Milk reiterated the invitation recently on national television. I understand these gentlemen’s political motivation. More gays means more votes. But I abhor the idea of turning San Francisco into one big bathhouse, gay or straight.

Starr also claimed that “the excesses of sexual exploitation and murder” were “beginning to give San Francisco the sinister ambiance of Berlin during the waning years of the Weimar Republic.” In another column, Starr criticized “the outer fringe of the gay community” for “appropriating the ordeal of European Jewry as the image of themselves.” He added, “There were no bars or bathhouses or Coors beer at Dachau. There were no drag-queen contests at Buchenwald…. In any event, the spiritual successors of the holocaust Jews are not the boys on Castro Street.”[17]

These barbs were not lost on Harvey Milk. In his most famous speech, delivered at the 1978 San Francisco Gay Freedom Parade, he rebuked Starr by name: “And here, in so-called liberal San Francisco, we have a columnist for The San Francisco Examiner, a columnist called Kevin Starr, who has printed a number of columns containing distortions and lies about gays. He is getting away with it.”[18] Later in the speech, Milk referred to Starr as a bigot and grouped him with anti-gay activist Anita Bryant and State Senator John Briggs, who sought to prevent gays from working in public schools.

Starr’s coverage of conservative politicians was more favorable. His profile of John Barbagelata appeared five days after the Jonestown tragedy in November 1978. Barbagelata had warned his colleagues about Peoples Temple pastor Jim Jones, who was responsible for the deaths of more than 900 persons, including Congressman Leo Ryan, in Guyana. But after Jones mobilized his congregation to aid the Moscone campaign, he was embraced by the Burton machine and appointed to the San Francisco Housing Authority Commission.[19] The Jonestown incident furnished a golden opportunity to lambast Moscone, but Starr also had played a role in the Peoples Temple saga. As editor of New West, a Rupert Murdoch-owned magazine launched in 1976, Starr killed a story about Jones after a church delegation persuaded him that the piece would harm their humanitarian work. The revised story ran in New West only after Starr was replaced.[20]

In his Examiner column, Starr only hinted at the Jonestown atrocity. He imagined how Barbagelata, who had suffered a stroke, felt as Moscone “was being feted in the Fairmont Hotel by the people willing and able to pay $500 per plate.”

I wonder if John Barbagelata felt bitter as he lay in his hospital room, his health broken by all those arduous years on the Board of Supervisors, trying to save San Francisco from fiscal prodigality, from ideological politics, from the takeover of city government by self-righteous special interest groups.[21]

In the same column, Starr sympathized with Dan White, who had recently resigned from the Board of Supervisors.

Supervisor Dan White feels so neglected, so unaware of the value of what he was bringing to San Francisco through his responsible presence on the Board, that he resigns in a fit of fatigue, the combat infantryman paratrooper from Vietnam, discovering that San Francisco politics can be an even more fierce battleground than the Mekong Delta.


Five days later, that “responsible presence” turned lethal. After White assassinated Moscone and Milk at City Hall, Starr did not suggest that White or the institutions that shaped him—the Catholic Church, U.S. Army, San Francisco Police Department, and the San Francisco Fire Department—might somehow be at fault. Rather, he argued that the entire city needed to atone for its sins.

San Francisco is such a cursed city. Some deep disorder of the soul holds the spirit of San Francisco in thrall, like the loathsome embrace of an evil spirit.… Like the peoples of old, we should take off our vestments of luxury. Wearing sackcloth and ashes, we should anoint our faces with the bloodstained earth that lies beneath us, and, collectively, we should implore the intercession of God, or the gods, or whatever values and ideals we hold sacred. We should beg forgiveness for our sins—sins against the light, sins against each other.[22]

When White was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, not murder, Starr criticized liberals for objecting to the verdict; after all, weren’t they responsible for the diminished capacity defense that White deployed?[23] He also assailed the gay community, which had suffered for decades at the hands of the San Francisco Police Department, for the White Night riots that followed the verdict. Moreover, Starr wondered how the police must have felt during those riots: “What feeling of betrayal must have surged through the rank and file as they stood on line, defenseless against an angry mob!”[24]

Starr did not always toe the conservative line. The death of radical author and journalist Carey McWilliams prompted an appreciative article in 1980; later, Starr described McWilliams as “the state’s most astute political observer” and “the single finest nonfiction writer on California—ever.” After attacking Governor Jerry Brown in a column called, “Grow Up, Jerry Brown,” Starr finally admitted his fondness for the former Jesuit seminarian and Saint Ignatius alumnus. He endorsed Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Dennis McNally’s biography of Jack Kerouac. In 1981, he commended the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence for their presence and work in San Francisco. He also urged compassion for illegal immigrants, whom he described as “dreamers in the desert.” Those who died trying to enter the United States, he wrote, “had better American dreams than most of us have. They know what we have forgotten—that America is worth everything, if it is worth anything at all.”[25]

In 1984, one year after leaving the Examiner, Starr ran for supervisor. He received endorsements from Alioto, former mayor George Christopher, and Leo McCarthy, the state legislative leader and Burton rival. Starr was also endorsed by the Chronicle and Examiner, which cast him as a centrist. “People do not want to live in a city where there is constant conflict,” he told the Examiner. “Elected officials have the duty to harmonize, but lately they have pitted left against right, the neighborhoods against downtown, and labor against management.”[26]


By that time, San Francisco had reverted to citywide elections, and the Board of Supervisors had six open seats. Starr finished a distant seventh. One of his campaign volunteers, Michael Bernick, later identified Starr’s aversion to identity politics and class conflict as a key factor in his defeat.

Throughout his campaign, Starr was both mystified and angered by what he considered to be a pandering attempt to divide the city by race, gender, or economic status. When the various Democratic clubs sent out questionnaires asking for support for their advocacy or projects, campaign volunteers would urge Starr to play ball. But Starr always refused to tell these groups what they wanted to hear. He saw San Francisco through the lens of a “civic culture” by which race, gender, and economic status were secondary to San Francisco as a greater entity.[27]

Much later, Starr wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times with a similar message. Newly elected governor Arnold Schwarzenegger should not run an ideological or fiercely partisan Republication administration, Starr argued. “The core principle of the Party of California is that the state—its history and heritage, its environment, its economy, and above all the well-being of its people—is worth imagining, worth struggling for; California represents a collective ideal connected to individual and social fulfillment.”[28] Schwarzenegger sent the article to his senior staff with his approval.[29]

After the failed 1984 campaign, Starr began to refashion himself, California style. Inventing the Dream, the second volume in what his publisher was already billing as a series, appeared in 1985. Four years later, he became a visiting professor at the School of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Southern California. Five years after that, Republican governor Pete Wilson appointed him California State Librarian, a position he held for a decade. During that time, he encouraged countless projects devoted to California history, including my biography of Carey McWilliams, for which he also wrote a blurb. In 1998, Starr was promoted to University Professor and Professor of History at USC. Over the next twelve years, he produced the final five volumes of his series, a brief history of California, and a short book on the Golden Gate Bridge. Among his many awards was the National Humanities Medal, which President George W. Bush presented to him in 2006.

As Starr’s profile rose, the Examiner columns faded from view. One wonders how he squared that body of work with the dream series. Did his criticisms of Harvey Milk and George Moscone, his sympathy for Dan White, his arguments on behalf of Patricia Hearst, or his role in the Peoples Temple tragedy dissuade him from treating those topics in his books? Perhaps, but the evidence is more suggestive than dispositive. Certainly the tone and temper of his work evolved in concert with his new professional duties. As the dream series unfolded, it began to reflect his sponsorial role at the state library and his emergent academic persona. The result was a new and more expansive authorial self, one that appealed to the state’s aspirations rather than to partisanship or moral reaction. Despite this evolution, or perhaps because of it, Starr declined to revisit the years immediately before, during, and immediately after his stint at the Examiner.

Although Starr didn’t parlay his early journalism into a political career, it groomed him for the work to come, much as his experience at Harvard did. It seasoned him, taught him how to write on deadline for general audiences, and introduced him to public figures and issues he wouldn’t have encountered had he accepted an academic position straight out of graduate school. But there was nothing inevitable about Starr’s achievement. To become California’s foremost historian, he had to overcome setbacks and adapt to changing circumstances. Only by shedding his journalistic persona and adopting a new model of authorship could he become the ardent but politically tempered chronicler of California civilization.




[1] Forrest G. Robinson, “An Interview with Kevin Starr,” Rethinking History 11 (2007): 28

[2] Forrest G. Robinson, “Spiritual Radiance, Expressive Delight: The Baroque Historiography of Kevin Starr,” California History 78 (1999/2000): 274.

[3] David Talbot, Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love (New York: Free Press, 2012).

[4] See, for example, Patt Morrison, “Kevin Starr: Making History,” Los Angeles Times, 9 July 2009. http://www.latimes.com/la-oe-morrison11-2009jul11-column.html

[5] Robinson, “An Interview with Kevin Starr,” 23-24.

[6] Ibid., 25.

[7] David Zahniser and Matt Hamilton, “Kevin Starr, Author of California Histories and Former State Librarian, Dies at 76,” Los Angeles Times, 15 January 2017. http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-kevin-starr-obit-20170115-story.html.

[8] John Jacobs, A Rage for Justice: The Passion and Politics of Phillip Burton (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 173.

[9] Scott Newhall, “A Newspaperman’s Voyage Across San Francisco Bay: San Francisco Chronicle, 1935-1971, and Other Adventures,” Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1990.

[10] Dan Schreiber, “For the Past 150 Years, the Examiner Has Recorded Life in The City,” San Francisco Examiner, 11 June 2005, https://archives.sfexaminer.com/sanfrancisco/for-the-past-150-years-the-examiner-has-recorded-life-in-the-city/Content?oid=2932866

[11] Kevin Starr, “Class and Contradiction,” San Francisco Examiner, 11 May 1977.

[12] Kevin Starr, “Right Thinking,” San Francisco Examiner, 12 September 1977.

[13] Kevin Starr, “To T or Not to T?” San Francisco Examiner, 6 April 1977.

[14] For the Moscone interview, see Kevin Starr, “Have You Been a Good Mayor?” San Francisco Examiner, 30 April 1977. For his positions on Proposition 13, see his columns on 23 March 1978; 9 May 1978; 20 June 1978; and 24 June 1978. On budget cuts, see “Where Are Our Priorities?” 30 April 1982. On pornography, see “Putting Porn in Its Place,” 19 February 1977. On the Love Generation, see “Beginning of the End,” 2 January 1979. On the city’s moral fiber, see his column on 15 January 1977.

[15] Kevin Starr, “Class Action,” San Francisco Examiner, 16 August 1978.

[16] Kevin Starr, “Sodom-by-the-Sea,” San Francisco Examiner, 26 April 1978

[17] Kevin Starr, “A Lesson in History,” San Francisco Examiner, 6 May 1978. The Coors beer reference alludes to a boycott organized in the Castro by Harvey Milk and organized labor.

[18] Randy Shilts, The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk (New York: Macmillan, 2008), 365.

[19] Michael Taylor, “Jones Captivated S.F.’s Liberal Elite,” San Francisco Chronicle, 12 November 1998. https://www.sfgate.com/politics/article/Jones-Captivated-S-F-s-Liberal-Elite-They-were-2979186.php.

[20] Tim Reiterman, Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People (New York: Penguin, 2008), 325.

[21] Kevin Starr, “Public Service,” San Francisco Examiner, 22 November 1978.

[22] Kevin Starr, “Liturgy,” San Francisco Examiner, 29 November 1978.

[23] Kevin Starr, “The Dan White Verdict,” San Francisco Examiner, 30 May 1979.

[24] Kevin Starr, “The Men in Blue,” San Francisco Examiner, 5 June 1979.

[25] For the McWilliams column, see “An Historical Legacy,” 14 July 1980; Starr’s other compliments to McWilliams appear in Embattled Dreams, pp. 257 and 103. “Grow Up, Jerry Brown” ran in the Examiner on 17 August 1980. Starr touted Apocalypse Now on 24 September 1979; “Walking the Beat,” his review of McNally’s Desolate Angel, ran on 16 August 1979. Melissa M. Wilcox notes his approach to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and the negative response from the Catholic Church in Queer Nuns: Religion, Activism, and Serious Parody (New York: New York University Press, 2018), 44. He expressed compassion for unauthorized immigrants in “Dreamers in the Desert,” which appeared on 13 July 1980.

[26] Bruce Pettit, “Why Starr Seeks S.F. Seat,” San Francisco Examiner, 4 January 1984.

[27] Bernick, “Why California’s Greatest Historian Couldn’t Get Elected in San Francisco,” Zocalo Public Square, 25 July 2017, http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2017/07/25/californias-greatest-historian-couldnt-get-elected-san-francisco/ideas/nexus/.

[28] Kevin Starr, “Fuse It—Or Lose It,” Los Angeles Times, 16 November 2003.

[29] Miriam Pawel, The Browns of California: The Family Dynasty That Transformed a State and Shaped a Nation (New York: Bloomsbury, 2018), 359.


Peter Richardson teaches humanities at San Francisco State University, where he also coordinates the American Studies and California Studies programs. His books include No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead (2015); A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America (2009); and American Prophet: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams, which the University of California Press published in paperback in 2019.

Copyright: © 2019 Peter Richardson. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.


There and Back Again

Cu Chi Tunnels Tour

Cu Chi Tunnels, Ho Chi Minh City, via Flickr user David McKelvey.

Andrew Lam

Some years ago, I did the touristy thing. I went to see the Cu Chi Tunnel in the Tay Ninh Province of Vietnam and found myself in a van full of American vets. A few of their friends had died while trying to find the headquarters where the Viet Cong operated during the war. For them, it was a powerful moment. At the entrance of the famed tunnel, one of them openly wept.

Dug up two decades after the war ended, the tunnel was initially intended for malnourished Vietnamese guerrilla fighters. It was once a well-hidden, tight crawl space with entrances submerged underwater. The new version, however, was an open cave and widened considerably to accommodate extra large Westerners. The underground headquarters for the National Liberation Front (where guerrilla tactics were planned against the south) had, in peacetime, turned rather capitalistic and kitschy, all for a tourist dollar. The new version came with a shooting range nearby for those who, emerging from the dank and the dark, wished to shoot an AK-47 or an M16 at some target or another. The price was somewhere around a dollar a pop.

The middle-aged vets teared up gazing at an old war wound, but the young tour guide was all smiles when she and I chatted. Like the majority of her countrymen, she had no direct memories of the war. She readily confessed that, for her, the tunnel was a relic about which she knew nothing until she got her job. She reminisced with me about a friend’s son, a third generation San Franciscan who scrambled for history lessons for his summer job as a tour guide of the city’s famed Fisherman’s Wharf, a tourist trap he had long avoided.

“So you live in California?” she whispered, barely containing her excitement. “My dream is to go for a visit. I have friends over there.” The young woman crawled through Cu Chi 2.0 with foreigners on a regular basis to save money for her own adventures.  She rattled off dreamy destinations: Disneyland, Universal Studios, the Golden Gate Bridge, Yosemite. If given the opportunity, she would like to study for an MBA in the United States.

For some the tunnel runs toward the bloody past. For this young woman, it leads toward a cosmopolitan future. The middle-aged men saw war and trauma and senselessness, a bloody memory that bore unfinished grief. This young ambitious woman saw a particular light at the tunnel’s end: The supposed Magic Kingdom.

But for me, where do I stand? I straddle the cave’s mouth as if an indecisive time traveler….

Born in the middle of the war to a military officer who served in the South Vietnamese army, I reached puberty in California a few months after the war ended. I was a refugee boy who quickly transformed into an American teenager. My voice broke that first summer in Daly City, south of San Francisco. I learned English fast enough to start devouring American novels by the second. In time, and with some struggle, I became an American journalist and writer. I traveled the world…

… and it was only then, standing at the far end of the cosmopolitan continuum, that I fully accepted that in the aftermath of the Vietnam war, the two countries are no longer separable for me. The ocean had become a nuisance in my imagination. California (where I spent the bulk of my American life) and Vietnam (my once lost homeland) had both deeply intertwined themselves, fusing, changing, melding, battling for my soul. They offer no final resolution.


Vietnam and the Myth of California

During my first few years in America, I learned many English words. My favorite was that odd, yet open-ended conjunction, “whereas.” I learned it in the eighth grade when I had to write compare and contrast essays.

The Vietnamese take holidays on Emperors’ death dates. I was told on my first school year in Daly City, at the southern end of San Francisco, that students get a day off for Washington’s birthday. Poor Vietnamese were reed thin, whereas poor Americans were hefty and meat eaters. Vietnamese don’t look at you in the eyes unless it is intimate or confrontational, whereas Americans expect eye contact, unless you appear to be untrustworthy. Americans talk about their apparent vision of the future. Vietnamese prayed to their ancestors’ spirits nightly. Americans say, “What do you do?” at cocktail parties, whereas Vietnamese ask, “Are you married?” and “Where is your hometown?”

California was geometrically sound with clean lines for borders, whereas Vietnam was all frills, a convulsed “S” with its messy borders that spoke of aggressions from and losses against China, Laos, Cambodia, and other ancient kingdoms. Vietnam was dirty and damp and its sidewalks were uneven. Its walls mildewed and rooftops curved and caved, its landscape pockmarked and cratered by bombs, whereas California was endless highways and full of concrete and glassy high rises. Its agricultural lands emulated a checkerboard pattern, like math.

Vietnam and California are both long and coastal. They both hug their own continent, framing the Pacific from opposed ends, seeming cursed to serve as one another’s opposed ideas in my child’s mind. If one represented sadness and loss, a country riddled with poverty and warfare, the other offered hopes and dreams—the freedom to remake.

Among the first few American songs I heard living in Vietnam during the war was “California Dreaming,” by the Mamas & The Papas, its cadence full of longing. It slowly dawned on me that even when you are an American living elsewhere, California still represents a dream-like destination. No wonder the Vietnamese had begun to dream the California Dream as the war raged on. In my mother’s “English for Today” textbook, which she studied intensely, she paid special attention to a lesson about San Francisco. My brother, sister, and I pored over her shoulders. She taught us about the gold rush and how it was gold that drew people from around the world. We learned that gold was so abundant that it fell out of pockets of drunken prospectors, and Chinese laundrymen collected gold dust in their jeans when they washed them. The Chinese even called it “Old Gold Mountain.” Gold made the place. I recall the first time crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on my seventh grade field trip. I was sorely disappointed when I was told by my teacher that no, it was not really made of gold.

Vietnam and California are both long and coastal. They both hug their own continent, framing the Pacific from opposed ends, seeming cursed to serve as one another’s opposed ideas in my child’s mind.

Stories told of California during my Vietnamese childhood bordered on the mythic. As a child, I imagined America as a world full of options. I saw it through the “31 Flavors” Baskin Robbins poster brought back by my visiting cousin, who was already living in San Francisco. One colorful scoop stacked on top of another, all on top of a single sugar cone, reaching an impossible height. The salivating child stared in wonder at those painted scoops of ice cream beyond possibility.

The family chauffeur, whom we called Uncle Phuoc, saw California as an open road. “Xứ Cali is so big that you can drive down this freeway,” he would tell us on those humid nights with nothing to do but tell tales. He referred to California as Xứ Cali, which is short hand for the nation of California. He’d never been out of the country, but Uncle Phuoc did business with American GIs on the streets on Saigon, buying and selling American stuff. Plus he saw photos. So for us, he was an expert: “And you can stop and pick an orange from an orchard or an apple to quench your thirst, and no one cares. Such a rich place.”

Whereas Vietnam….

The Vietnamese word for country is Đất nước, a combination of two elements: Earth and water. Put them together and what do you get? Mud, which is to say where rice grows. The paddies for millennia thus held the Vietnamese soul captive—bent back and conical hats and cyclical life, live and die by the land, something both at once essential and sacred. Even to this day, rural folks still bury the umbilical chords of their newborns in the land, a kind of spiritual registration. Ancestor’s graves still dot rural landscapes, even in the backyard of farmers’ homes. An old ethos: Live and die by the land. Vietnamese pray to the dead. We talk to ghosts.


Alas, cyclical life gives easily to fatalism, imbued by a profound understanding that human suffering and loss are as inevitable as a norm. One accepted one’s fate. No happily ever afters, thanks. Children learn it early on: Vietnamese fairy tales often end tragically. The princess dies. The hero fails to marry the princess. The abandoned wife holds her babe in her arms and waits for her husband on a mountaintop nightly until both mother and child, pitied by the heavens, turn into stone.

The dead princess’ heart turns into a red ruby, refusing the cremating fire. The grieving king had it carved into a tea bowl. Whenever tea is poured into it, the image of the lone fisherman on his boat appeared, floating to and fro. He didn’t know. How could she have loved such a lowly commoner simply because of his singing voice? So he came back, too late, of course. But he cried. The fisherman’s tear fell into the bowl and it melted back into blood. It shimmered into nothingness.

Pati ergo sum? We suffer, therefore we exist. Tragedy followed Vietnamese narratives like Grimm, like Greek. To be acknowledged, to have one’s love requited, no matter how modest, how minuscule, a tear in a teacup was enough as a pay off. To be true to oneself was more important. Virtue was measured in term of stoicism, in endurance, which defined one’s characters, and wherein lived the divine. The rest? Up to fate. For a country invaded, steeped in warfare and losses, it was a luxury to think of happy endings.

One perhaps thinks why in the aftermath of that bloody embrace do the Vietnamese quickly shrug off the old fatalism (like the tour guide wanting her magic kingdom), and shift their gaze fixedly toward America. America’s powerful allure was self-evident through the story of progress of those who arrived in earlier waves, like those of my family.

Take my mother for instance. The letters and photos she diligently sent back home to relatives and friends, along with the care packages during the impoverished cold war years in the war’s aftermath, unwittingly became a powerful propaganda for Uncle Sam. They tell a story of wealth, progress, and transformation.

Sister, see my kids, see how they’ve grown!
Aunty, we bought a five-bedroom house with a pool…
Just came back from Paris to see Aunt D. Here we are at the Eiffel Tower.

Those photos and letters were siren songs. Vượt biên—to cross the border, to escape overseas—soon became a powerful verb, upending the Vietnamese sedentary nature. The old narrative faltered: Goodbye water, so long land; no more bent back, blazing sun, mud. A new migratory ethos was born on the back of boat people, with the birth of the Vietnamese Diaspora. What America had offered as possibilities, as opportunities, as dreams, over time became far more potent than any bullets and bombs.

Evolution of places, of movement

A community was born from both memory and ambition. And if I dance at the far end of that migratory story, so many of us now live up and down its streets.

Shh, listen! That man committed cannibalism when he vượt biên. A friend whispered this into my ear while we were eating pho in Orange County’s Little Saigon sometime in the late ’90s. My friend was a local resident. I stole a peek: The man looked just like everybody else in the restaurant, but he was marked. He was on an ill-fated boat stranded on a reef, crowded with people. It was abandoned by an American naval ship. After providing the boat people with some food and water, the American ship left for its mission, promising to pick them up upon its return trip. But it did not. A few days later, the stranded people ran out of food and water. People started dying. The boat’s captain and his squad, out of desperation, started killing the weak. They started eating human flesh and drinking their victims’ blood in order to survive. It’s a story that was featured in a 60 Minutes segment many years ago and later in a powerful documentary called Bolinao 52 by filmmaker Duc Nguyen.[1]

The man, the cannibal, so my friend told me, owned businesses. His children grew up to be tall and smart. They all prospered. That night, going home, and upon rereading an essay by Joan Didion about her California, it got me thinking: These pioneers—the Nguyens and the Trans of our modern time—those who risked death to find new homes, and those who crossed all sorts of boundaries and borders, who is to say that their stories do not rival that of the Donner Party?

Often survivors of a political fallout from another country become builders of another. Refugees and migrants have always helped themselves. It takes a special spirit and resolve, after all, to maneuver across boundaries and borders, risking death to reach the promised land. Given the right opportunity these people transform the world they enter. He walks across desert sands, she sails out to sea with her children, the teenager fleeing violence hops on a train and goes northward with nothing but a small backpack. Eventually in the new country, children are born, businesses prosper, and in time a community begins to form.

It is no exaggeration to say that California, home to the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam, has been radically altered because of the Vietnamese Diaspora. Up and down the coast, Little Saigons bloom, transforming the California landscape.


Just on taste alone: Take a look at my mother’s garden. Back in the ’80s, in her new suburban home at northern edge of Silicon Valley, she creates herbs from seeds and roots she got from friends who came later from Vietnam by boat. Now imagine that little garden spreading throughout California. Refugees and immigrants don’t just leave, they take seeds and roots with them, along with their culinary traditions and taste, and over time Southeast Asian tastes too come to be like the American taste. Go to a farmer’s market these days and see for yourself: Buddha fingers, lemongrass, mountain yam, coriander, bitter melons, mint, amaranth, buffalo spinach; even the air smelled of Southeast Asia.

No wonder the American taste buds demand more nuance, as some liking it hot, and others liking it even hotter.  This is why Iron Chef competitions sometime make Vietnamese the Banh mi sandwich. And why David Tran became a multimillionaire, making a chili sauce from his Saigon memory in Southern California, calling it Sriracha. So popular and ubiquitous now that it inspires copycats around the world, and even threatens to usurp ketchup.

I, for one, do not underestimate the power of immigrants’ nostalgia. In the Golden State, it often has ways of becoming retroactive. Buddhist temples now waft incense into the streets of San Francisco, San Jose, Westminster, Long Beach, Sacramento, and Los Angeles. So much longing for home changes the new landscape.

So here too are the familiar rags to riches theme to go with the Vietnamese Californian narrative: The family that started with one modest Banh Mi sandwich truck in Silicon Valley, hoping to serve Vietnamese Americans working as assembly workers turned the business into an international chain. A man who was a rice farmer in Vietnam discovered that he could start his own company assembling electronic boards and so he started a corporation. A Vietnamese woman who sold used clothes on the street of Saigon married an American who worked in the Foreign Service in Vietnam. In San Francisco, the once used clothing seller on the streets of Saigon helped her husband shepherd in a multibillion-dollar investment fund.

So many stories of transformation overseas indeed ends up transforming the erstwhile Vietnamese sedentary soul.


California in Vietnam

“A brand new country,” a reporter friend from Vietnam recently rattled off to me the other day when we spoke. The once isolated country is fast in becoming the most wired, and the highest user of cell phones. “The hottest market for iPhone sales, far surpassing sales growth in India and China….”

“Facebook entered Vietnam’s market six years ago and at one point it was adding a million signups a month… It is expected to have thirty-six million users this year, that’s out of forty million Vietnamese who even have access to the Internet!”

“The average age of the Vietnamese is below thirty.”

Therefore, it’s a country of amnesia. Three out of four don’t remember the Vietnam War. Its gaze is forward and relentless. A Pew study in 2014 found that of forty-four countries, Vietnamese were the most optimistic about their future. Whereas Vietnam was once a country made up of poverty and isolation, plighted by wars and bloodshed, it is now expressive—a beginning of cultural renaissance.

Vietnam finally emerged out of the old war to be deeply wired, running on high gear toward cosmopolitan life. Vietnam cleaned up and repaved its broken sidewalks, like their wealthy Chinese and Japanese counterparts, beginning to travel overseas—no, not to vượt biên, but to shop. And to study and invest. Meanwhile high rises spring up virtually overnight in Saigon and Hanoi and Danang. A few months ago in my newsroom in San Francisco, an intern fresh from Vietnam came to improve her English and learn American ways of doing business so that she could get into an MBA program and start her own media firm back home. She seemed to capture that world wariness of the new generation when she commented that, “At first I was impressed with San Francisco, but a few weeks here and it feels, well, nothing special. Just the same as Saigon.”

Just the same as Saigon…

Once upon a time the ocean was treacherous and leaving Vietnam once meant a risk of death, or starvation, or drowning, or falling into pirate hands. Once it took three to six months to send a care package home, and with a government officer reading the letter before it is distributed to the addressee. Today, coming to America for many is a matter of purchasing a ticket on an airplane, and instead of marveling at its grandeur, the wary traveler begins to see America, as the intern sees it: “not that big of a deal.”

An inverse effect is taking place. San Francisco has more pedicab drivers than Saigon, which had gotten rid of them, and so a juxtaposition can be seen along the Embarcadero: Young, strong white people pedal tourists up and down the sidewalk—many of them from Asia. San Francisco has more homeless than its sister city, Saigon, which has cleaned up its streets. The poor/rich gap in the Bay Area is staggeringly third world and the cost of living is stratospheric. One out of three residents here ponder departure.[2]

“You just have to realize that to vượt biên these days—the crossing of borders—doesn’t have to be outside of Vietnam,” a friend commented as he and I sat and drank artisan coffee in my hometown, Dalat, a few years back. Increasingly the dream can also be had at home. These days even middle class Vietnamese fly overseas to shop.


Whereas once Vietnam stood in contrast to America, to California, today it is running on parallel tracks, with its multi-strata and multi-class society. The once old echoed ’90s phrase, “Vietnam is a country not a war,” has now become an old cliché. Vietnam hasn’t been a war for many years, but it’s more than a country. It’s becoming a global entity, a major exporter of rice and coffee and seafood products, a major tourist destination.

Vietnam is a country, but it has taken on various shades of California. Vietnam wants to become the opposite of its former self—it wants to be globally connected, cosmopolitan. It has run fast and furious from war to peace and so like bamboo shoots spring up after the rain, cityscapes in Vietnam looks more and more like SOMA here in San Francisco. Vietnamese cities exist in a new world dotted with Starbucks and McDonalds. Remember those wondrous scoops of Baskin-Robbins? They too have made their way to Vietnam. In his wildest dreams uncle Phuoc could never imagine freeways being built with overpasses in Vietnam, and high rises that radically change Saigon’s city scape.

So be warned: The more you long for California, the more it comes to you. Turn on the TV and see what I mean. A rural teenager appears; she’s nervous, full of self-doubt. But when she sings, a golden voice. Judges swoon. The audience tears up. Soon, a month or so, she has been transformed, grows in confidence and beauty. The awkwardness replaced by the studied gestures of shyness and elegance. She gives a flawless performance. The audience roars with approval. A new princess is born. In the back stage, her yokel mother hugs herself and weeps.

Welcome to Vietnam Idol. Or Vietnam The Voice (The Voice of Vietnam). Or Vietnam’s Got Talent. Regardless of which reality show it is, a golden thread of optimism runs unmistakably through. The new “happily ever after” motif has eroded old world fatalism, and shifted the collective psyche. The Emcee of Vietnam Idol seems to say it all: “We will transform your dream into reality!”

The Return

Why was it that I ran so far and so fast from the parochial, the sadness? For some years after the war, after migrating to America, I failed to speak Vietnamese. I failed to form Vietnamese sentences that would shock my younger self, the chatty kid who talked endlessly in his schoolyard in Saigon among his classmates. The child sang the South Vietnamese national anthem with fervor each morning. But the teenager fled from his Vietnam memories, and even changed his name along with his preferred tongue, and read so voraciously that he even began to dream in English.

Only in adulthood did I come to realize that the English language was not one to be used to escape; but instead, to fully claim wholeness, English needs to be applied to commemorate and to grieve. I began to write. I now tell stories about my lost childhood, the lost country, and about the painful exodus out of Vietnam. I began to travel. And I began to go back.

As so did many others.

Victor Luu, who fled Vietnam a day before Saigon fell to Communist tanks on 30 April, 1975, has become a successful software engineer who participated in several start-ups in California’s Silicon Valley. In 2006, he returned to his hometown and founded Siglaz, a software company with more than fifty employees. In his new office in a tall building in an electronic corridor area near the airport called E-Town, where many Vietnamese American expats open their high tech businesses, Luu could see, when he turned around from his desk, the runway from which his plane full of panicked refugees took off decades years ago. “I fully believe in Vietnam,” he added. “The future is here. And I want to help it happen.”

Diep Vuong, a cum laude graduate of Harvard University with a degree in economics, left Vietnam as a boat person in 1979, but came back a decade ago to help fight human trafficking in An Giang, her home province in the Mekong Delta. “I always remember once we came to America my mother saying to my sisters and I that we were born Vietnamese for a reason, and it is up to us to figure out what that reason is,” Giang said. Hers is that she can protect at-risk young women being sold into slavery. “Increasingly, Vietnamese Americans are playing central roles in the philanthropy sector,” she said. “As for me, I can’t just sit and do nothing. Any of those girls being sold to Cambodia or China could be a cousin or a child of an old friend.”


A San Jose born Vietnamese American, known as Giay Giay, went back and married a local boy in Dalat. “Whenever I hear a chicken crow in the morning I get nostalgic for California. My mother raised chickens in the suburb.” Vietnam’s culture has moved toward an open sexuality, she told me, a new sexual revolution. Little Saigon continues to practice its conservative values left over from the time of the war. “The young here don’t care about history, about the past,” she said, “whereas I come back and I am obsessed with it. I want to know where my mother came from, the way she lived.”

The refugee becomes immigrant and then, it seems with opportunities, he, in the twenty-first century, turns into a cosmopolitan—someone who participates in multiple spheres and languages and cultural-geographical affiliations. It’s inevitable, too, for many Vietnamese abroad to take the journey home at some point.

In truth the Diaspora has always played an important role in Vietnam’s economic life, long before the Cold War ended, long before the return trip was possible. But over time, as borders became porous, as the forces of globalization swept over Vietnam after the Berlin Wall fell and the USSR unraveled, the Diaspora began to—individually, collectively—reach back to its homeland, investing, providing technological know how, sharing cultural knowledge, sponsoring others to come, repatriating, and performing philanthropic work, all forming a complex transnational network, becoming a bona fide global tribe.

In middle age, I too long to return. But each time I go to Vietnam I have to contend myself with several versions of my homeland.

There’s the visceral—that long lost country at war time, a world of clanship, intimate connections, of smallness, of a charmed and quiet provincial life of walled villas and servants, a childhood of slow rhythm in the tropical world, and romantic music Joe Dassin, Françoise Hardy, Silvie Vartan, Johnny Halladay, Christophe… and of little school kids in uniform streaming into the old lycée, and the distant echoes of bombs in those quiet Saigon nights after the rain. Even now, typing these words, I still yearn for all that—a world long gone, the fear and the wonders, and retrievable only in the recalling.

One refuses the singular narrative, marrying instead ideas and languages, living with many reference points. To return, one goes forward.

Then there’s that raging river called Vietnam, and it’s full of young, ambitious people wanting to transform the country and improve their lives. It’s consumerist. It’s hardworking. It’s highly wired and growing in sophistication. It’s a world of go-getters. It’s a long-dormant nation waking up, rejuvenating, it roars with sounds of millions of motorcycles toward an unknown future.

Do not get me wrong. Injustice remains. Human trafficking is a scourge. The rich/poor gap widened. But I also wish to tell you that it is a country made up of ambitions and an increasingly globalized landscape. And it’s an unknown country.

And here’s the third home—a landscape made of one’s invention and many points of connections. The only way back is therefore in going forward. One cannot go home again, not to relive the long lost world, or capture the past, but one can take up mantle in that familiar, yet entirely new country. One learns to see the many dimensions of the world simultaneously. One refuses the singular narrative, marrying instead ideas and languages, living with many reference points. To return, one goes forward. One marries opposed ideas and creates points of synthesis. One hears a new symphony over the cacophony. One commits all to memories. One is open to the flux, to change.

Last year in Saigon, not far from where I used to live, I went to a karaoke party with some friends. Not much of a singer, I nevertheless was, after a few beers, coaxed to sing. I selected “Feeling Good” by Nina Simone, which I know by heart. As friends watched in astonishment, I belted its lyrics out with gusto, especially this verse:

And this old world is a new world
And a bold world 
For me
For me… 

Because, well, that’s how I felt about new Vietnam, and it does feel good.



[1] “52” refers to the number of those remaining from the one hundred ten people who survived their saga in a boat on the high seas before being rescued by Filipino fishermen from the seaside town of Bolinao, the Philippines.

[2] Peter Fimrite, “One-third ponder leaving Bay Area amid costs, congestion,” SF Gate, 2 May 2016, http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Cost-of-living-traffic-have-a-third-of-Bay-Area-7386717.php.


Andrew Lam is the author of two books of essays, Perfume Dreams, Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres, and a collection of short stories, Birds of Paradise Lost. He is a recipient of Creative Work Fund to write a series of stories exploring the relationship between Vietnam and California.

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





Boom Spring Southern California Event: Vietnamese California

Please join us Wednesday, March 7th, 7-9 p.m. in Orange County’s Little Saigon for a discussion with best-selling authors Thi Bui and Andrew Lam, today’s chroniclers of Vietnamese California. Bill Gates called Thi Bui’s memoir, The Best We Could Do, one of 2017’s top-ten books; and frequent contributor to NPR’s All Things Considered, Andrew Lam’s book on the Vietnamese diaspora, Perfume Dreams, won the PEN/Beyond Margins Award, and Birds of Paradise Lost was a finalist for the California Book Award. Ahead of an upcoming Boom series on “Vietnamese California,” these leading writers will be joined in a conversation by Boom ​editor Jason Sexton and by scholars of the Vietnamese experience:

The event will be held at in the heart of Orange County’s LITTLE SAIGON, at Viet Bao News, 14841 Moran St., Westminster, 92683. Come along early to enjoy some of the world’s best Vietnamese food at any number of nearby restaurants. Books will also be available for sale and signing.

Please RSVP since space is limited. Hope to see you there!



Seeing Orange County

Tom Zoellner
Elaine Lewinnek

Editor’s Note: This Boom conversation brings together an English literature scholar and an urbanist American Studies professor to reflect on Orange County’s role in the California imaginary. Beginning with reflections on literature and geography, the particular and surprising stories come to life within the diverse landscape that breaks through the common clichés of one of the Golden State’s most important places defining both California’s present and future.

Orange County and the Written Word (Tom Zoellner)

I teach a class at Chapman University on the literature of Orange County that covers the historic poems, stories, and nonfiction portraits, which give this newish megalopolis a sense of place and continuity. Since the class is listed as a creative writing class, I also ask undergraduate students to write their own interpretations of what they see around them.

“Uniformity” is a constant theme: the perceived sameness of the physical landscape, as well as the nagging sense that the region—despite its documented levels of racial and economic diversity—works too hard to promote the image of a palm-sculpted and surgically-aided paradise for affluent Anglos, reminiscent of the “California dream” marketed nationwide in the 1950s.

But just as often, students write about themes of “uncertainty” when it comes to Orange County—a sense of bewilderment about what the region is supposed to mean for them as either a temporary address for their education or as a possible place to start a career, a family, and a meaningful life. For young adults about to join what sociologist Richard Florida described as the “creative class,” the tract-home-and-freeway vocabulary of Orange County does not immediately seem to offer the accouterments that have attracted artists, actors, designers, and small business entrepreneurs to cities with more dense clusters of older architecture and walkable public spaces with interesting street-level retail. One of my students described the county as a “string of contradictions” as puzzling as the interconnected and similar looking municipal groupings that were, as he put it, “moonlighting” as a real city.

The syntax of our built environment, which tended to fall on the geometry of square-mile farm roads and fallen orchard subdivisions, is attractive to retired couples and young families, and generally not those who hunger for unorthodox methods of expression.

One recent set of events here in the City of Orange is illustrative of how geography and culture conspire against the forces that make places interesting. Weary of loud parties and of historic homes chopped up into multi-unit dwellings, the city council made it easier to police to levy stiff fines for both: an action that many perceived as taking direct aim at Chapman’s student culture and of Old Town Orange for welcoming anybody but established families of high income.

When you add in the previous worries about uniformity and uncertainty, it makes for an ominous diagnosis: expensive, yet uncool

“This is a conservative town,” Mayor Tita Smith said when the ordinance passed, and she meant that descriptor to go beyond the usual binary political definition. Orange was a place that embraced the status quo, resisted the influx of young people, preserved existing neighborhoods to the point of inaccessibility and stagnation and clung to its identity as a nineteenth century railroad village surrounded by a postwar ranch-house grid spread out in all other directions.

This may not be a formula to build cultural capital in the twenty-first century. Orange County’s cities risk the impression of tastelessness—in the bland sense, not the rude sense—if they wholeheartedly embrace the idea of freezing the 1950s or the 1980s in a snow globe. Demographers believe that half of the county’s millennials do not plan to stay here beyond their early adulthoods, mainly because of the lack of quality affordable housing and the flight of jobs from the high-technology sector. When you add in the previous worries about uniformity and uncertainty, it makes for an ominous diagnosis: expensive, yet uncool.

The high housing costs not tethered to an “interesting” local narrative is a deadening factor when it comes to recruiting new companies that bring in creative workers, as well as artistic entrepreneurs looking for funky cheap spaces. Economic data from this university’s former president Jim Doti, also a distinguished economist, indicates that Orange County lost 16.3 percent of its high-tech jobs since the beginning of a 2008 recession. This happened even as the region suffered a decline in the growth of its population with university degrees. A report called, “OC Model: A Vision for Orange County’s Future” from Chapman’s Center for Demographics & Policy ends on a note that would sound at home in a Dickens novel, predicting the current economic winds might leave the county “like some aging but still attractive dowager, into long-term stagnation and eventual decline.”[1]

Economic lassitude, and a lock on the door to the fresh and the cool, can create a cultural lacuna. In the opinion of Marshall Toplansky and Joel Kotkin, the authors of the OC Model report, the traditional prescriptions of New Urbanists—spending big money on mass transit, dense apartment blocks and walkable downtowns—may have some beneficial effects on legacy cities with nineteenth century street patterns, but would have little salvific effect on a multi-polar geography like Orange County. Competitive comparable cities with a strong local narrative and recognizable iconography—Boulder, Austin, Raleigh, even Detroit—at least have a “sense of place” that invites new residents to participate. Orange County has an obvious and immortal beach culture as an attractive signifier. But is there anything else here that tells us who we are?


Countering the oncoming cultural malaise may not require building something new, in the way that “The Block at Orange” or “Downtown Orange County” were physical attempts at slapping a band-aid on our self-inflicted wound. When it comes to literature, the point is to engage in a rediscovery process of what already exists—“shopping your own closet,” to borrow a retail clothing term. Because despite the perception of a bland homescape free of any history except Mission Revival architecture and a railroad, Orange County has a robust literary tradition that remains all-too underappreciated.

The textbook in my Southern California literature class has the title, Orange County: A Literary Field Guide, which some might consider a joke if they look only at the surface. But there is a rich sense of literary place and continuity here that may elude the casual observer. Literature can provide both a portal and a foundation for uncracking the seeming randomness of where we happen to have taken a new job, or bought real estate, or moved to retire in the sunshine, or even have been fated to be born.

This anthology—published last year by Berkeley’s Heyday Books—was edited by the married couple Lisa Alvarez and Andrew Tonkovich is a much-needed statement that Orange County has an intricate soul and that beauty can be found in its unexpected places. Some of the literature within functions as a retort and a rebuke to those would write off Orange County too quickly as a place too new to have an indigenous literary tradition, or even anything worth writing poetry about. In fact, the utilitarian core of the county’s visual aesthetic is a rich vein to be mined. Just as Edward Hopper tapped into to the darkness on the margin of cities as a powerful animating force in his paintings, Orange County writers make ample use of the plainspoken California sunshine and repetitive housing vocabulary as a source of narrative energy in their writings.

The poet Grant Hier, whose poem “Untended Garden” is included in the anthology, writes of running down a concrete-clad river, its walls “rising on either side like wings.” The author Victoria Patterson—who spent a turbulent adolescence in Newport Beach—uses the Fashion Island shopping mall like Charles Dickens used London: it is a spiritual center and locus of action for her novel, This Vacant Paradise. In the Orange County anthology, she writes of the San Onofre nuclear plant (now decommissioned but still an inescapable sight for anyone driving The 5 down to San Diego). Patterson writes of the “breast-like” domes covered in bird dung “like frosting on cupcakes”—a startling image. “At the tip of each dome,” she writes, “there was a red light blinking slowly—like the bell buoys—not in unison, and never completely off: barely red, and then all lit up red.”

Literature will not save the county. But it will enrich the perception and the experience of those who live here and choose to engage in a personal process of dialogue with their environment.

Another unexpected lovely set of images appears in the poem “Santa Ana of Grocery Carts” by Aracelis Girmay. “Santa Ana of AquaNet,” she writes, “altars, the glitter & shine of 99 cent stores, taco trocas, churches, of bells, hallelujahs & center fields, aprons, of winds, collard greens, & lemon cake  in Ms. Davenport’s kitchen, sweat, sweat over the stove.” This takes the banal and forces it into fresh new light.

I was asked to contribute an essay to this anthology and chose to focus on a subject that I wanted to learn more about—the influence of the citrus business in shaping the enduring culture of Orange County, even though the orange orchards are long gone. As a result of reading old newspaper clippings and the reminiscences of the old fruit-packing lords, I now see the physical environment differently and perceive the lurking ghosts of the megaranch archipelago that we used to be.

Literature will not save the county. But it will enrich the perception and the experience of those who live here and choose to engage in a personal process of dialogue with their environment. We “make” the places where we live based on a sense of history and narrative, both of which can be supplied by the animating force of literature. In the concluding lines of his book, The Geography of Nowhere, the social critic James Howard Kunstler writes that we are all on a lifelong journey towards an unknown destination and that along the way, we yearn to experience an environment that means something and has intrinsic significance[2]. He was speaking about the need to enrich public spaces, but the exhortation also applies to the interior life of the mind, which experiences the world as an unfolding story. Lifting up an Orange County literary tradition and a habit of “belonging through words” is not necessarily going to summon high-wage jobs or instantaneous high culture. But we can mine the record for old words, and create new words, which gives some distinction and texture to the streetscape. We have more than we know.

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The Orange Holy Land
[3] (Elaine Lewinnek)

It is worth remembering that Orange County’s residents are not just the folks who want manicured suburban lawns, but also those who want to work as landscapers of those lawns. People come here from across the Pacific Rim and beyond the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, filling Orange County with the diversity that makes it interesting and with the workers that make it possible. As Tom Zoellner pointed out, this county flourished during the Cold War because of military-industrial jobs but also international refugees. Now that the Cold War has ended and some of those military-industrial and high-tech jobs have evaporated, I believe there is still a strong economy, including banking and mortgage-lending, real-estate development, higher education, service-workers in the tourist economy, and vibrant religions.

Although Tom’s students perceive the risk of tastelessness in this expensive yet uncool space, I wonder whether Orange County cares about their departures. For every “creative class” person who finds this space unhip, others keep pouring in. Property-values do not suffer here; I am not sure this space is declining. There is, in fact, now an “Orange County” gated community outside of Beijing and another “Orange County” pair of luxury resorts in India: our reputation as a name brand is that appealing, transnationally.

Some of my students do share Tom Zoellner’s disappointment in the lack of public space and paucity of community here. Yet, maybe because I’m in an American Studies department and not an English department, my students look for more than literature to anchor themselves here. For them, family stories, subgroup’s stories, and cultural history stories help provide a sense of place. Let me mention a few of my favorite Orange County stories that I have discovered while conducting research for the forthcoming, A People’s Guide to Orange County.

If you are black in Orange County, there are very few places you can get your hair done. The Cut & Curl at 4th and Bristol Streets in Santa Ana was one of those places. In the early 1960s, Dorothey Mulkey was getting her hair done and chatting about the challenge she faced finding a decent apartment to rent. The hairdressing customer next to her happened to work for the NAACP, and encouraged Mulkey to bring her case to court. In 1967, in Reitman v Mulkey, California’s supreme court overturned Proposition 14, California’s anti-fair-housing bill, the first time the supreme court had overturned a voter-approved initiative. It is the basis for our fair housing laws today—and it is thanks to one Navy veteran, Dorothey Mulkey, and one conversation at a Santa Ana barbershop.[4] Stories like that are worth remembering.

It is neither a simple dream nor absolute nightmare, but a more complex vernacular worth getting to know.

It is too easy to drive past the parking lot of the former Hunt/ConAgra/Val Vita packing factory without knowing that in 1943 the Latina women who worked there successfully fought for onsite childcare because before that time they had to lock their children in their cars during their 8-hour shifts. Knowing that story, a vacant parking lot suddenly has resonant depth.

Orange County has also led the way in privatization. We have the first modern gated community in Rossmoor, Seal Beach; first age-segregated community in Leisure World; first modern Home Owners Association in Huntington Beach (quickly followed across this county and nation); and first toll road in California. Yet we also have resistance to those forces, from the nineteenth-century utopian experiments such as the Placentia “Grass Eaters,” Societas Fraternas, to the seminal school desegregation case Mendez v Westminster, to the recent defeat of a toll road proposed for Trestles Beach. That proposed toll road was defeated by a coalition of surfers, environmentalists, and some indigenous activists concerned with protecting Panhe—but Panhe is a story that very few people know.

Panhe is a 9,000-year-old village mentioned in the baptismal registry of Mission San Juan Capistrano. Whenever a developer’s bulldozer unearths a skeleton that is many centuries old, in most of America, this brings a halt to construction. We have rules against building atop indigenous graves elsewhere, but not in Orange County. Here, many of the coastal and canyon spaces where the Acjahmen/Juaneno people lived are incredibly valuable real estate. Since the 1970s, Orange County’s developers have worked with Acjahmen people to ceremonially rebury any skeletons found across the county, placing them at Panhe. You can see Panhe from The 5 freeway if you know where to look, near Camp Pendleton, the closed nuclear reactors, and the immigration checkpoint—but all there is to see is a chain link fence. Without knowing the story, you might drive right by.

Just up the road from Panhe is the former TRW/Northrop Grumman test facility, a military-industrial research site which a 1988 forest fire exposed as the secret location of Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars Initiative lasers. That, to me, is the story of Orange County. The Acjahmen activists who regularly gather at Panhe do so in the shadow of the Star Wars missiles. Our county may look like the Geography of Nowhere, and indeed the hypercapitalistism, attenuated community, and amnesiac history that James Kunstler describes is here—but it is also the site of deeply fascinating history with a wonderfully mind-spinning diversity.

From the quotidian Fullerton apartment made famous in The Adolescent’s 1979 punk song, “Kids of the Black Hole,” to the easily-overlooked Placentia river channel whose flooding killed forty people, forgotten for a long time except for a 1939 corrido—we have a history remembered in songs, murals, and some family stories, if not in widely-recognized literature.

In her seminal, Suburban Warriors,[5] Lisa McGirr writes that, perhaps because the built environment is not designed to foster community, Orange County’s postwar newcomers sought community in evangelical Protestant megachurches, which aimed to moor themselves with conservative ideas of tradition, even as they also used cutting-edge technologies. She may be right, but others of my students find community in the underground music scenes here, or in traditional Mexican dance troupes, or niche sports, or other subgroups that do not make it into the mass-cultural representation of this space.


We are not just the county that developed Taco Bell and Botox, as Tom Zoellner mentioned. We also developed the science-fiction genre of steampunk—appropriate to this alienating, high-tech landscape—and the Vietnamese diaspora’s musical revue extravaganza videos. There is much to be proud of, and a deep heterogeneity lurking beneath a surface that can appear homogeneous.

Orange County is full of the kinds of spaces that D. J. Waldie has called the “sacred ordinary”: flawed, human, commonplace, often overlooked, and, arguably, even holy.[6] It is neither a simple dream nor absolute nightmare, but a more complex vernacular worth getting to know. As Waldie wrote in the 2005 afterword to his memoir, Holy Land—set just over the border from Orange County, in Lakewood—“Too many accounts of a suburban life fall into the trap of sentimentality or contempt. I have no desire to romanticize my past or set fire to it. This suburb hasn’t any barriers to tragedy. It’s a place that’s just as mortal as me.”[7] It is mortal, not a perfect paradise nor a despicable hell, but a very human middle ground.

The idea of the “sacred ordinary” brings us back to Eritrean-American poet Aracelis Girmay, whom my students embrace as much as Tom’s students do, especially her description of her childhood home, Orange County’s capital city of Santa Ana:

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….
Patron saint of kitchens, asphalt, banana trees,
bless us if you are capable of blessing.[8]

We need more literature about this space, as Tom Zoellner suggests. We need more understanding of the sacred ordinary—if only because it is, often, extraordinary.


[1] Joel Kotkin and Marshall Toplansky, “OC Model: A Vision for Orange County’s Future,” 43.

[2] James Howard Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993).

[3] The term “Holy Land” draws from D. J. Waldie’s magnificent memoir, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005).

[4] Dorothy Mulkey, interview with Santa Ana Oral History Project, 13 December 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YoaFdCfyAkg&list=PLuXEcCp7eWwnWOwbiqc-pSIJ0eFhgSUea.

[5] Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

[6] See Waldie, Holy Land; and also his “What Does It Mean to Become Californian?” Boom California, 28 March 2017, https://boomcalifornia.com/2017/03/28/what-does-it-mean-to-become-californian/.

[7] Waldie, Holy Land, 182.

[8] Aracelis Girmay, “Santa Ana of Grocery Carts,” in Teeth (Evanston, IL: Curbstone Books, 2007), http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/07202007/girmay3.html.

Tom Zoellner is a journalist, Associate Professor in the English Dept. at Chapman University, and Politics editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He has written five nonfiction books, including Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World–from the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief (Penguin, 2014), and his book Uranium won the 2011 Science Writing Award from the American Institute of Physics. His portion of this essay was adapted from a white paper delivered at a conference on the future of Orange County at Chapman University on 23 February 2017.

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 and Thúy Võ Đặng, titled A People’s Guide to Orange County (UC Press, forthcoming).

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


The Big Siesta


Blake Allmendinger

In Playing In the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), Toni Morrison studies the impact of African slaves and their descendants on “canonical American literature,” primarily produced by white male writers. This “black presence” is often absent in works that celebrate the United States as a nation of free and equal citizens. The myth of America as the New World can only be sustained by the refusal to acknowledge people who were brought to this country against their will and as enslaved individuals more than four hundred years ago. By enforcing the ideal of “invisibility through silence,” writers create ghostly lacunas, allowing “the black body a shadowless participation in the dominant cultural body.”[1]

Hispanics have posed a similar problem in the U.S. West, where people of Spanish and Mexican descent are sometimes referred to as “undocumented workers” or “illegal aliens.” The politicians and voters who use these terms imagine immigrants sneaking into the country and disappearing into ethnic neighborhoods and communities, undetected by legal residents and law enforcement agencies. The Hispanic presence is also depicted as a menacing absence in regional western literature. One such case is Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939), a classic example of American noir that features a Mexican American family living in Los Angeles during the Great Depression.

Chandler portrays the city as a place where desperate people do anything to ensure their personal and economic survival. While working for his client, General Sternwood, private investigator Philip Marlowe discovers that nothing is what it seems to be. A rare book store is actually a front for a pornographic lending library. A dilapidated mansion houses an illegal gambling den. A seemingly innocent woman is really a dangerous femme fatale. Wherever Marlowe goes, he encounters serpents in the Garden of Eden.

The Sternwood family gives truth to the saying that behind every great fortune lies a great crime. The General is an oil baron who lives in a modern-day castle, symbolizing his wealth and social respectability. His daughter Carmen is a drug addict being blackmailed by a man with a glass eye. Meanwhile, his other daughter, Vivian, is cheating on her husband. The estate is designed in the faux Spanish style—with tile floors and wrought-iron railings[2]—referencing the European empire that once ruled California. It also resembles Greystone Mansion, built by real-life oil tycoon Edward Doheny (Greystone/Sternwood). The property later became notorious as the site where Ned Doheny, Jr. and his male secretary (as well as rumored lover) died in an alleged murder-suicide pact.[3]

The Big Sleep exposes the guilty deeds and sordid histories of the city’s so-called upper-class. Yet one mystery still remains unsolved: the origin of the Sternwood family. The first clue appears in the opening chapter when Marlowe arrives at the Sternwood estate, and a butler ushers him into the main hallway. The detective notices a large oil painting hanging below “two bullet-torn or moth-eaten cavalry pennants crossed in a glass frame.” The picture features a man posing in a military uniform. Marlowe identifies the subject as someone who fought during “the Mexican war. The officer had a neat black imperial, black mustachios [and] coal-black eyes…. I thought this might be General Sternwood’s grandfather” (4).

Caucasian writers have been fantasizing about the elimination of the Hispanic presence since the conclusion of the Mexican-American War.

The black eyes and swarthy appearance indicate that the officer is a non-Caucasian. Mexican cavalry commanders often remained in California after the war, marrying wealthy white women in order to maintain their economic standing and social status. This theory explains another unanswered question of why the current General has given one daughter the Anglo-Saxon name Vivian and the other one the Hispanic name Carmen.[4] The painting is also a subtle reminder that Catholic missionaries and military leaders used religious iconography and visual symbols of authority to convert and subdue non-Spanish-speaking natives when they first arrived in California.[5]

Unions between high-ranking Mexican military officers and daughters of prosperous American families created “ethnic alliances,”[6] allowing whites to gain access to Mexican wealth, while enabling the newly defeated Mexican aristocracy to become absorbed within the expanding white power structure.[7] One historian views these matrimonial mergers from a noir perspective, suggesting that women were essentially trafficked “between the old and the emerging ruling classes,”[8] or even sold into sexual slavery.


This model of interethnic relations is consistent with Chandler’s portrayal of California as a site of contested space where races and empires have battled for centuries to control the region’s people and natural resources. The Spanish colonization of Native America was followed by Mexico’s brief period of rule, its secularization of Catholic missions, and the enrichment of its landed gentry. The Mexican-American War ended with whites and rancheros continuing to struggle for economic and political dominance. The subsequent Gold Rush led to a new form of environmental exploitation. It was succeeded by the discovery of oil in the late nineteenth century. By the time Chandler published The Big Sleep that industry had begun to decline.

Evidence in the novel suggests that the original General married his daughter to a white man named Sternwood to secure the fortunes of the newly dispossessed Mexican gentry. The couple had a son (Marlowe’s employer) who at some point in the past married for money. In the first chapter, the reader learns that Sternwood got married in his fifties to a younger woman, who bore him two children and later died (13). Chandler never explains what caused the wife’s premature demise, thus creating another unsolved mystery. But he indicates that the wife had money of her own, which she bequeathed to her daughters in her will (14). The General is unable to access this money, though he may have invested part of her remaining fortune in the oil business. The Sternwood derricks appear in the background throughout the novel, uneasily coexisting with the palm trees and Southern California foothills.

The Spanish colonization of the region “conferred upon Mexicans a ‘white’ racial status.” Thus, anti-miscegenation laws, which prohibited marriage between Caucasians and blacks or Asian Americans, wouldn’t have applied to the Sternwoods.[9] Indeed, Chandler had written an earlier short story entitled “Spanish Blood” (1935), featuring Los Angeles policeman Sam Delaguerre. The protagonist is proud of his grandfather, deeming him “one of the best sheriffs this county ever had.” He is equivalently proud of his European lineage, claiming, “My blood is Spanish, pure Spanish. Not nigger-Mex and not Yaqui-Mex.”[10]

Some Americans questioned the purity of the Mexican gentry, who identified as white Europeans.[11] Chandler portrays Delaguerre as one of the good guys—a prototype for Marlowe, “who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”[12] But he also describes the character as “very brown” (22). Delaguerre pursues a Filipino man called the Caliente Kid, a Spanish-speaking criminal who is dark like the hero (44, 46). The similarity between the “spig” and the “flip” (53, 46) blurs the distinction between Spaniards and Filipinos. Chandler also portrays General Sternwood and his daughters as if they were the products of miscegenation, with the alleged mental and physical defects sometimes attributed to mixed-race people. Confined to a wheelchair, Marlowe’s employer blames his poor health on a life of debauchery (9). Unlike Vivian, his Spanish-named daughter, Carmen, has certain abnormalities, including pointed incisor teeth and thumbs that lack the prehensile ability to grasp objects, a quality found in the most evolved species of mammals. Members of the Mexican ranchero elite were referred to as gente de razon (people of reason), suggesting that they were more refined and intelligent than mestizos and working-class peons.[13] However, Carmen is intellectually stunted, as well as subject to seizures (220), indicating that she is either epileptic or mentally “abnormal” (223, 229).

Chandler was an admitted Anglophile and the non-white characters who appear in his fiction are usually associated with deviance, decadence, and moral corruption.

Westward expansion seemed to confirm that the U.S. had a divine right to the land stretching from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Coast. However, one historian has argued that “the desperate effort of the vanquished to maintain their birthright even in defeat [explains] the central meaning of Manifest Destiny.”[14] That effort appears to be doomed by the end of The Big Sleep. The oil wells are “no longer pumping” (218), suggesting that the general’s fortune has been depleted. His daughters are childless, and have failed to make matrimonial alliances that would secure the fortunes of the next generation.

A Protestant, Chandler once admitted that he “grew up with a terrible contempt for Catholics.”[15] But noir has more in common with the Catholic notion of eternal sin than with the Protestant belief in the improvability of the human race and Manifest Destiny’s triumphal narrative of predestination. As a side note, the title for the Spanish version of the novel, El Sueño Eterno, equates death with eternal oblivion. In The Big Sleep, California is a postlapsarian Eden, inhabited by people who are deeply flawed. “Vivian” alludes to the Lady of the Lake, an enchantress who ruled the mythical kingdom of Avalon. Ironically, “Carmen” means “garden” in Spanish. The novel is a contemporary urban version of the medieval romance. Marlowe is the knight who has been hired to rescue the general’s daughters, and Los Angeles is the corrupt Arthurian realm in which these seductresses masquerade as damsels in distress.

This Anglo-Saxon myth also has its counterpart in Spanish renaissance literature. The name “California” was first used to refer to the region by Garci Rodriguez Ordóñez de Montalvo in his sixteenth-century medieval romance, Las sergas de esplandián (The Exploits of Esplandián).[16] Fittingly, the novel’s climactic scene occurs in an abandoned oil field, which appears “lonely as a churchyard” (218). The Catholic missions have been replaced by Sternwood’s derricks, and at the bottom of one of the wells lays the body of a white man whom Carmen has killed.

The foreshadowed extinction of the Sternwood family may be a form of white wish-fulfillment. Caucasian writers have been fantasizing about the elimination of the Hispanic presence since the conclusion of the Mexican-American War. Morrison suggests that the alleged savagery of African slaves, and later African American men and women, made it necessary to erase their existence in literary and artistic works that depicted idealized versions of American civilization. White authors who wrote about California and the U.S. West were faced with the opposite problem. Many of the Spaniards and Mexicans who had earlier resided in the region—the Catholic clergy and military elite, the wealthy rancheros and other landed gentry—were more “civilized” than poor whites who immigrated there in the late 1840s and afterward, squatting on property they didn’t own and plundering the area’s mineral resources. Writers had to ignore this historical fact, or reimagine Mexicans after the war as being members of a supposed inferior race.

Chandler was an admitted Anglophile[17] and the non-white characters who appear in his fiction are usually associated with deviance, decadence, and moral corruption. In addition to the Hispanic presence, there are numerous references to the Orient, which contributes to The Big Sleep’s sinister atmosphere. However, most of the characters in Chandler’s novels are white, and they commit the majority of violent acts and criminal misdeeds. The hard-boiled detective novel can be read as the second chapter in frontier history, indicating how the land-grabbers, cattle rustlers, and gunslingers in the early U.S. West moved to cities such as Los Angeles, where they evolved into the blackmailers, bootleggers, and gangsters of the 1930s and ’40s.

In part, Chandler blames members of the degenerating Sternwood clan for the evils in society, pitting the characters against a white private eye and police department in a racial conflict that has continued since the end of the Mexican-American War. Frequently, noir examines issues about “national belonging” and racial dispossession. As a nation with competing claims to the region in The Big Sleep, Mexico serves as a “spatial other to the United States.” It is “American noir’s geopolitical unconscious,” its dark double; an invisible threat to the nation—not only in Chandler’s fiction, but in our current culture as well.[18]



[1] Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 4-5, 10.

[2] Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep, 1939; (reprint, New York: Vintage, 1988), 4. Subsequent references to this edition appear within the text of the essay.

[3] Chandler worked for a California oil company from 1922 to 1932. He was fascinated by the Doheny murder case, which Marlowe alludes to in The High Window (1942). See Robert F. Moss, ed., Raymond Chandler: A Literary Reference (New York: Carroll and Graf, 2003), 88-98.

[4] Despite her name, Vivian also has dark and wiry hair, as well as the same “hot black eyes of the portrait in the hall” (17).

[5] Lisbeth Haas, “Indigenous Peoples Under Colonial Rule,” in Blake Allmendinger, ed., A History of California Literature (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 37.

[6] Leonard Pitt, The Decline of the Californios: A Social History of the Spanish-Speaking Californians, 1846-1890 (Berkeley: UC Press, 1966; reprint, 1998), 124-25.

[7] Tomás Almaguer, Racial Fault Lines: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy in California (Berkeley: UC Press, 1994), 58. William Deverell also suggests that these unions were seldom based on mutual affection. “Many of the genteel Californios… displayed unusual, though largely unspoken, hostility toward Americans. It was rumored that they washed their hands after touching American money.” See Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past (Berkeley: UC Press, 2004), 15.

[8] Ibid., 59.

[9] Ibid., 4, 58.

[10] Raymond Chandler, “Spanish Blood,” 1935; reprint. in The Simple Art of Murder (New York: Vintage), 40. Subsequent references to this edition appear parenthetically within the text of the essay.

[11] Almaguer, Racial Fault Lines, 4.

[12] Raymond Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder,” in The Simple Art of Murder, 18.

[13] Miroslava Chávez-García, Negotiating Conquest: Gender and Power in California, 1770s to 1880s (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2004), xiv; and Almaguer, Racial Fault Lines 46.

[14] Pitt, The Decline of the Californios, xiii.

[15] Raymond Chandler, in a letter to Charles Morton, dated 1 January 1945. As cited in Moss, Raymond Chandler, 15.

[16] Vincent Pérez, “Spanish and Mexican Literature,” in Allmendinger, ed., A History of California Literature, 43.

[17] See Frank McShane, The Life of Raymond Chandler (New York: Dutton,1976); William Marling, Raymond Chandler (Boston: Twayne, 1986); and Judith Freeman, The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved (New York: Pantheon, 2007).

[18] Jonathan Auerbach, Dark Borders: Film Noir and American Citizenship (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 15, 24, 123.


Blake Allmendinger is professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he specializes in western American literature. His books include The Cowboy (Oxford, 1992), Ten Most Wanted (Routledge, 1998), Inventing the African American West (Nebraska, 2005), The Melon Capital of the World: A Memoir (Nebraska, 2015), and A History of California Literature (Cambridge, 2016).

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



Jie Tian

“The moment when a feeling enters the body is political.” -Adrienne Rich

Feelings well up in the Women’s March
Feeling mauve, Santa Ana, I grieve for the broken river bank
        the homeless  an ancient rage
        —the thirst to kill  the drive to war

Feeling angry at the deceit in the inauguration address—
        power to the people
        a masquerade disrupting the symphony and California air

Feeling ashamed of our unscrupulous race and pursuits
Feeling dis-eased
       there are lies, lies, lies in the human mouth

Feeling an ache for asking again
        when shall we ever learn

Feeling wanting to tell the truth, mouth cracked
Feeling opened & tender
        longing for green rain   wisteria   sustenance

Feeling partially irresponsible for preferring to retreat to Mount Baldy
        comforted by friendly snow      intelligent pine
        the swirled knots of kindness

Feeling pulled to the streets of Santa Ana
        the energy field of feelings    the humanly love and struggle

Feeling the intensely worried brown eyes of a handsome young father
        the older child sleeping in his arms   the infant strapped to his shoulder
        clearly feeling an uncertain future

Feeling unrest and agitation
        feelings of crisis criss-cross   faces   signs    and hearts
Feeling respect for the devotion to order and peace

Feeling reassured women who marched in the sixties rejoin the march today
        in vivid colored clothes and lipsticks and beliefs
Feeling we come from a long history of making public our feelings

Feeling a flash of recognition of a kindred spirit
        as a winged couple pass through—
        Hope is the thing with feathers

Feeling innocent and trusting again     seeing a girl’s smile
        and her sign   with the bold pink words   close to her heart—

        BUILD      KINDNESS               NOT    WALLS

Feeling humbled by the clear vision of the young
Feeling a secret conviction that our words can heal our warring worlds

Feeling into dreaming
Feeling into believing
Feeling into dancing

Feeling warmth now    in January    in genuine California sun and light
Feeling awe—           our bodies still blaze like the many colors of dawn
                —how we come together    how we will go on


Jie Tian is a poet, librarian, ecological artist, and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from UC Riverside. Her work appears in Spillway, Solo Novo, Sentence: A Journal of Prose Poetics, Asian American Short Story Writers, and Asian American Playwrights. She is completing her poetry manuscript, Migration, and learning book arts.

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


An Agent Suspects of Her

Omar Pimienta

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
       your fingerprints
       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.

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